Motivation Chapter Nine

by Brian Randall

Disclaimer: Naruto is the property of Masashi Kishimoto; these are his paints. Some tinting is borrowed from Rumiko Takahashi. The easel is mine, but that is all. No disrespect is intended with the posting of this story.

The ANBU with the bear mask gave a motion that may have been a shrug before vanishing via shunshin. Kakashi frowned at the scroll with the Hokage's mark on it.

"Well?" Anko prompted unhappily from his side.

He sighed and shook his head, breaking the seal with a swift motion and unrolling it to scan through. "I- I have an assignment?" Kakashi said, almost in disbelief. "But I'm responsible for training..."

After he trailed off with a frown, Anko prowled impatiently around him, sorely tempted to try and read the message herself ... but it was from the Hokage, and she knew better than to overstep that bound. Following Kakashi around and sniping at him verbally was one thing, but that wasn't actually breaking any rules.

Any serious rules, at least.

"Well?" she prompted again, once he heaved a small sigh and rolled the scroll up.

"I'm being sent on a mission nearby, probably for a day or two," he mused, shaking his head.

"Assassination?" Anko wondered. "Nuke-nin gettin' too close to the village, and they want some special ex-ANBU to take it down?"

Kakashi hesitated, turning his eye toward her thoughtfully, then shrugging broadly. "They want me to try and bring Tsunade back to Konoha. She's supposedly a day or two of travel away, drifting from bar to casino, and then back."

Anko could only stare, unmoving.

"This has to be related to whatever happened in the tower," Kakashi added in belated realization.

"Ah, yeah. So ... what about the kids, then?" Anko wondered.

"I'm not sure," the one-eyed ninja admitted, cocking his head to one side thoughtfully. "I wonder if, since it's such short notice, you can fill in for me?"

"Yeah, right," Anko snorted. "Anyway, you just spilled a secret to me you shouldn't have."

She tried to ignore the way her heart beat when he looked genuinely surprised - and a little bit ... hurt? - at that, even behind his mask.

Her lips curving into a smile, she added, "Only way to keep me quiet's going to be to drag me with you - and anyway, I'm not allowed near the kids officially. Isn't your friend Gai in town?"

"Well, if nothing else, that will let me retain my reputation as the 'bastard-sensei'," Kakashi mused with a cough, his uncovered eye swiftly turning away from meeting hers. "Alright - fine. I'll see if I can find Gai. Let Asuma and Kurenai know what's going on, and I'll meet you at the western gate in fifteen minutes."

It went pretty much without saying that Asuma and Kurenai were likely to be together, so Anko nodded. A heartbeat later, neither of the jounin were there, leaving only a swirl of leaves to drift down to the floor of the special jounin's apartment.

Kiba was actually pretty proud of the training and practice he'd gotten in with the other boys- Admittedly, his sister (and her dogs) had still overpowered all the other genin, but she'd needed to put real effort into it. That was pretty good, right there! Akamaru was getting better at staying in place in intense fights, and had yipped a few warnings to Kiba, which let him dodge some hits.

Naruto seemed to be working on his evasion, too, which surprised Kiba - he'd always thought the blond would be more focused on blocking than avoidance. What had happened to change that?

Well, he still blocked, too, but he seemed to have gotten a better sense to move out of the way of attacks that he couldn't block easily, which was a huge improvement. Choji was his usual self, landing no hits and getting thrown around like a very heavy rag doll - but he never stayed down for a single moment, just climbing back to his feet with grim determination and charging back in to provide cover for his allies.

If it weren't for him, Kiba would not have been able to land the few retaliatory strikes he did pull off! Shino and Sasuke did a bit better than that, even if they didn't hit as hard, and Naruto... Well, if he were using bunshin, he probably would have been better, but Hana had vetoed that the first time he'd done it, after wearing herself down using Gatsuga to clear them out. Surprisingly enough, Naruto just shrugged and left about a half-dozen clones lingering at the edges of the dojo - and then the practice grounds, once Hana managed to launch all of them through the doorway.

He had mentioned something about remembering what his bunshin saw, so Kiba guessed they were looking for holes in his defenses.

Well, it had been a good practice anyway. Even Sasuke seemed to be trying to fit in!

The really great part, though, was the fact that Kiba had gotten the other two from his current team - Choji and Naruto - to practice together before meeting up with Bastard-sensei. No way would Kakashi get them this time! Now they would be prepared!

...or so he had thought.

When the three of them reached the bridge - early, to prepare for Kakashi's arrival - Naruto immediately dispatched a few bunshin, all using henge to look like random park visitors. Choji took up a stance near the center of the bridge against the upstream rail, ready to move. Kiba took a point on the railing opposite Choji.

And then... Then a jounin in a strange gray outfit beneath his vest, his hair in a bowl cut, and with the bushiest eyebrows Kiba had ever seen showed up, grinning like some sort of ninja maniac. "Good morning, my youthful students!" he boomed out, fists on his hips.

Choji turned to stare, his jaw falling slightly slack. Naruto also stared, cocking his head to one side.

Kiba blinked and turned to look around for other genin that might have been addressed instead of ... well ... them.

"Do- Do you mean us?" he yelped, eyes widening in confusion and alarm.

"That's right!" the jounin proclaimed cheerfully. "Kakashi, my most youthful rival, has been sent on a mission of some urgency! Having no one else to turn to in his time of need, he asked me, Maito Gai, to fill in for him!" This introduction was accompanied by a pose that made every single disguised bunshin break cover by staring in awestruck horror.

"'re our teacher for today?" Naruto asked, shaking his head in surprise.

"Indeed! At the moment, my own students are recovering from their last assignment!" the jounin practically bellowed. "While Tenten and Neiji are in still in good condition, Lee is healing from an injury taken from an enten-hari!" He bowed his head dramatically. "It is unfortunate - but Lee's blazing youth will let him heal in almost no time!"

"An enten- What?" Kiba managed.

"It's an exploding-tag propelled senbon," Naruto offered, not looking away from Gai. "Those things are supposed to be pretty nasty - is he going to be alright?"

"Oh?" Gai responded, dropping his pose and looking genuinely impressed. "I see my hip rival has trained his students exceedingly well if you know what that is! Lee will be just fine, in a few days - and then we will train even harder! In the meantime, students of my youthful rival, are you prepared?"

"I... I don't know," Choji admitted, scratching the back of his head. "Usually Kakashi's thrown an exploding tag at us by this point." Kiba and Naruto warily surveyed their surroundings for an incoming tag, while Choji shifted, surprisingly light on his feet. "What, uh, did you have in mind?"

"First, a warm-up lap around the wall of Konoha!" the unfamiliar jounin boomed, before flowing smoothly into a swift jog. "Now, follow me!"

"A...around the entire city?" Kiba yelped, even as he broke into a run to keep up with the crazed jounin.

"That's right!" Gai cheered.

Trust Kakashi to find a bigger bastard to fill in for him when he couldn't be bothered to show up himself!

If it weren't for the fact that Shikamaru had shown genuine interest - and appreciation - for the work that Sakura had put into developing a cipher, she was certain that training with Kurenai would have made her scream in frustration. Bad enough that Ino and Hinata were both better at detecting Kakashi the previous day...

Kurenai directing them to focus should have left Sakura feeling like she was ahead of Ino. Instead, the blonde seemed to be catching up to her in terms of ability - and Hinata's blood limit gave her an edge that neither of them could really compete with.

So they wore themselves out practicing water walking to the point of exhaustion, and then Kurenai lectured them on the finer points as she handed out the handmade lunch she traditionally prepared for her students. None of them tried to complain about the portion size, after Asuma's lecture. In fact, after burning through that much chakra, Sakura was a bit surprised to find herself able to finish it off without any special effort.

The lecture wasn't anything particularly new, given what Kakashi had taught them before, but her delivery was undoubtedly superior in every way. "Well, what can we even do for training now that we're completely worn out of chakra?" Ino complained, after Kurenai gathered the empty lunch boxes and wrapped them up.

"Sakura seems to have this idea that it should be study," Kurenai remarked, which made the pink-haired girl sit upright.

"Information is power!" she declared.

"It is! And there are skills that you can practice that don't rely on chakra, as well," Kurenai agreed. "As members of a team, if you aren't a front-line fighter, what sorts of skills is it positive to develop?"

"Support skills?" Hinata guessed, her brow furrowing.

"Well, between your blood limit and my family jutsu, we've got that covered," Ino declared.

"Without chakra," Kurenai gently reprimanded. "That's intelligence gathering, among other things - but I was thinking something more specific."

"What's that?" Ino wondered, frowning.

"Medical training, naturally," Kurenai said brightly. "Even without chakra, first aid can save a companion's life in the field!"

"We all know basic first aid, though," Sakura objected. "They cover that much in the academy!"

"Then, why not study more advanced first aid?" Kurenai countered. "You are kunoichi, after all. If you aren't always allowed to fight on the front lines because your allies need your intelligence, perception, or other abilities elsewhere, then being able to help them when they're hurt is a tremendous asset, isn't it?"

Thinking of the time she had removed the senbon from Naruto - as simple as that actually was - Sakura nodded without hesitation. She was a quick study - that was something she could pick up easily! "I'm interested!" she declared. Then, deciding to show up her companions, she added, "Being a medical-nin is something that requires years of training, and very, very fine chakra control. If it were to take years, why not study the basics now? It'd still be some help, even if I didn't take that approach!"

"That's exactly-"

"I'll learn, too!" Hinata added without hesitation. "I want to help N- My allies however I can!"

"I'll do it, too- But do all kunoichi get pushed toward learning medicine?" Ino wondered. "Or is it just something that happens because kunoichi tend to have better control?"

"Ah ... the latter," Kurenai said, looking slightly off balance. "Hmm, I didn't think all three of you would be interested in medicine. There isn't much call for three medics on a single team, really."

Sakura snorted. "And how often do you see more than one kunoichi on a team?" she countered. "Anyway - I dare you to ask any of the boys if they are up for medical roles! Naruto's control is so sloppy that'd just be a joke, for him!" Now ... Sasuke, on the other hand...

"So it seems..." Kurenai said slowly, frowning. "Regardless - for the rest of today's training, let us discuss first aid techniques. I shall use genjutsu to simulate some common injuries, and you can practice the best approach to treating them."

Sakura's eyebrows rose. Well, if Ino was studying, too, she'd be sure to surpass her - if Sasuke were injured and needed someone to look after him, she'd see that at least one of them was capable of taking care of him!

Asuma continued to be Shikamaru's favorite teacher. An entire day of doing almost nothing but thinking? That was pretty much his favorite activity, if sleeping weren't an option.

The topic had shifted to 'meditation and mindfulness in duress'. For Shikamaru, an inverted lotus was second nature - and so were most of the other contortions that Asuma had suggested. Shino and Sasuke were both stiffer and had to work much harder to maintain the various poses that Asuma demanded. Still, meditating while being aware of your surroundings wasn't hard.

Shino had a great advantage insofar as even if he closed his eyes, his kikaichu were wary, which put Sasuke behind them, surprisingly.

Then again, Sasuke was fiercely competitive, and had caught up with Shikamaru by the end of the session - though his sour expression suggested irritation over things anyway. Once Asuma finally released them for the day, they regrouped at Senzo's.

They were the first to arrive, and Shikamaru was mildly concerned to see that the old man had actually put a small sign up at their traditional table noting that it was reserved. The elderly proprietor grinned at the genin and showed them to the table anyway, prompting Shikamaru to realize how ingrained the habit had become - Senzo expected them and held a table, just for the genin group.

Shino and Sasuke observed silently, and Shikamaru shook his head, taking the third seat from one end of their traditional row - likely, the groups would all sit together, and he wanted to leave space for Hinata to sit next to Naruto if possible. Shino had already discovered the hazards of being between them once. Shino and Sasuke took the other seats to his right, the Uchiha heir not hesitating to grab the seat that would prevent any blonde or pink-haired genin from grabbing an adjacent seat.

The next trio to enter was the kunoichi ensemble, and as anticipated, Ino and Sakura both eyed Sasuke's placement before Sakura sighed and dropped to the seat next to Shikamaru. "Did you want to go over the cipher again tonight?" Sakura wondered.

Ino took the next seat, and Hinata hesitated, but ultimately took the next over, biting her lip and eyeing the nearby vacant seat hopefully.

"It's usually family training night," Shikamaru replied, shaking his head slightly. "I think my father's busy with something, but I wanted to discuss another training exercise with Naruto-kun and Shino-kun. You're doing a great job on those ciphers, though."

Ino snorted, scowling- Then blinking as Naruto, Choji, Naruto, Kiba, and Naruto finally straggled in.

"B...brutal," Kiba panted, gasping for breath, leaning on Naruto for support. The pair of bunshin helping Choji stay upright nodded in agreement, guiding the larger boy to one of the three free seats and letting him collapse in his chair. He slumped forward, arms on the table before him to keep him upright as one of the Naruto vanished into a puff of chakra, and the other slumped into the seat next to Hinata.

The remaining bunshin helped Kiba get to the final seat on the end, before he too puffed into smoke.

"What- What happened?" Hinata asked in agitation, looking over Naruto closely, the veins around her eyes pulsing faintly as she activated her blood limit. "He seemed to go easier on us yesterday!"

"Bastard-sensei didn't even show up," Kiba panted, still struggling to catch his breath.

"Instead..." Choji groaned, turning his head to one side, but too worn out to continue further.

Shikamaru turned and stared as well - an unfamiliar jounin in an unflattering green one-piece, sporting a gigantic glinting smile, strode through the door. "Hello, my youthful students!" he announced gleefully.

"I, Maito Gai am filling in for your teacher - my hip and cool rival - Hatake Kakashi! I believe tomorrow I have the honor of practicing with a Shikamaru-kun, Shino-kun, and a youthful protege of Hatake Kakashi himself, Sasuke-kun! We will meet in your normal spot, and I will be prepared as the sun rises - so join me when you can!"

"I- What?" Shikamaru managed to sputter, staring. He'd heard stories of Maito Gai from his father, and they were terrifying. His supposed rivalry with Kakashi was something that prompted Shikaku to shudder faintly and grumble, 'Better him than me.' And he was supposed to be taking over for Kakashi?

"Your youthful friends managed to complete their laps around the village, adding an additional leaf for the leaf concentration exercise per lap!" Gai exclaimed gleefully. "Surely you can match their dozen laps, can't you?"

"Twelve laps," Sasuke mused, looking at Naruto in consternation. It didn't seem to be an angry stare this time, but it was focused on the blond unwaveringly. "I will match that, at least."

"That is the spirit, young Uchiha! I look forward to seeing the three of you tomorrow morning!"

"Oh, joy," Shikamaru managed, before Gai gave another one of those creepy grins - was he using a genjutsu or something? - and vanished. "Well, it looks like we have to compete against the stamina monsters of the nine of us - so there's that to look forward to."

As if in response, Choji's arms slipped off the table and his face slammed into the same surface - he stayed there, unmoving, as Kiba wobbled, staring off into space.

"I'm still not fully recovered," Naruto groused, shaking his head.

"I ... am so dog-damned tired," Kiba wheezed, still wobbling. "I think I could sleep through taijutsu practice today."

"Ah," Hinata allowed, very quietly, looking dismayed.

"I'll be up to our usual practice after getting something to eat," Naruto declared, nodding.

...aaand there went any chance of trying to talk Gai into going easier on them.

"Weren't- Weren't you supposed to focus on fine control or something?" Ino asked, blinking. "I mean, we had to work on chakra strength, and I thought..."

"Yeah," Naruto sighed. "But he was all, 'why not exercise your bodies at the same time?'"

Kiba whimpered.

"And then someone said, 'Oh, that's easy!', and we all started running while maintaining the leaf meditation exercise... I'm not sure if that's better than exploding tags or worse, yet," Naruto mused.

"Worse," Kiba declared flatly, simultaneous from a mumbled groan from Choji.

"Wait - if he's filling in for Kakashi, where did he go?" Sakura wondered. "He mentioned an assignment?"

"Who knows?" Ino asked, shrugging. "And what does it matter? It looks like we dodged an exploding tag!"

Rubbing his forehead and thinking of the shell-game practice he'd wanted to get in with Shino and Naruto, Shikamaru realized he should conserve his energy. "On second thought," he said, shaking his head, "I think we might want to go over ciphers tonight after all, Sakura."

"Eh? Ah - yeah, alright," the pink-haired girl agreed, nodding. "After tonight it should be done - there's no point to making it so complex that no one can learn how to use it."

Shikamaru nodded absently. He still had yet to launch that plan to find out about Naruto's blood limit - if there was one. The first day they actually ran D-rank missions was probably going to be their best bet, but if he was wiped out by an even more zealous instructor than Kakashi...

Choza moved his jaw to one size and then cracked his neck before shifting from foot to foot to work out some stiffness. As grueling as the last days had been, he was glad for the chance to take a break. At a glance, Shikaku and Inoichi had similar thoughts.

Though they were spared anything nearly as scary as using the Hokage as a puppet to make him look healthier than he was again, uncovering what they had didn't help in the slightest. It wasn't holding a man down while Ibiki cut his tongue out that bothered him. He'd had to do worse than that in his time.

What was alarming was the same thing that had put the still-recovering Hokage so much on edge...

After his initial pronouncement of who was responsible for the seal placed on the ANBU medical-nin's tongue, and Ibiki's grimly efficient surgery - true to his word, the medic-nin did not bleed out from the operation - Inoichi had wasted no time delving into his mind.

"Unfortunately," he said in his mental voice, as deep as he'd gone, "I can glean nothing he cannot recall or was unable to perceive."

"Who placed the seal on him?" Shikaku asked aloud, glancing to the Hokage thoughtfully.

Sarutobi nodded his own grim confirmation of the question.

Inoichi spent a long minute staring at his unflinching subject, who stared back. Neither of them spared a glance for Ibiki, sealing the tongue into a containment scroll for later analysis after copying the mark, or Choza, still holding the ANBU medic-nin in one over-sized fist.

When it came, Inoichi's response was ... wearied. "His memories are not clear. Upon his initiation into ANBU, he was taken to an unfamiliar place by two senior ANBU. There, he was restrained - the images that remain are a single sharingan eye and the phrase ... 'for the village'."

Shikaku rocked back on his heels, eyebrows rising as he glanced back to the Hokage. The elder ninja slumped back in his chair and gestured the jounin commander to continue questioning, so Shikaku unhesitatingly asked, "Any recall of what the seal did to him?"

"It's undoubtedly tied to keeping whoever placed it from being recovered," Inoichi explained slowly. "I believe that the damage I can perceive here was caused by the removal of the tongue. As the seal was removed from his body, it also excised any clear memory of the one who placed it."

Ibiki grimaced, lowering his gaze to the scroll now containing that same tongue. "Damn," he grumbled.

"It may not have been pointless," Shikaku countered. "So - this man was of questionable loyalty because of a seal placed on him. We removed that seal. So now...?"

"His loyalty has waned somewhat, but as a ninja of Konoha, the cost of a tongue is less than some which must be paid," Inoichi offered, still not speaking aloud. "He is not pleased about this, but is unlikely to betray us."

Sarutobi grunted and nodded faintly at that. "Understandable," he creaked out. "The point being..."

"We can trust him, but his missing knowledge alone could betray him through behavior," Shikaku surmised. "Well - identities of the ANBU that took him to get that seal placed? We have to find out just how deeply Konoha has been infiltrated ... and we can't afford to tip our hand, either."

"They were masked," Inoichi answered.

"First things first," Shikaku sighed, shaking his head. "What do we do with this guy? For all we know about the seal, the one who placed it-"

"Orochimaru," Sarutobi interrupted. "Or some cronie he sent out ... but that's... A sharingan eye? I don't think he would let it go to anyone else, if he could take it on his own."

Shikaku nodded. "The seal's maker could be notified about some sort of activation, given the effect it already had on his memories," he agreed. "Thoughts?"

"Urgent assignment," Choza grunted. "Hokage's orders are highest, after all."

"Right," Shikaku agreed, looking to the Hokage for confirmation. "We play it straight. We'll anticipate that the seal's maker knows, but do our best to monopolize on the idea that he might not. So we send this guy somewhere out of sight under a few trusted watchers to keep an eye on him and make sure we can intercept anyone who tries to contact him."

"Keep him close," Sarutobi insisted, shaking his head slightly as one palm slapped the surface of his desk for emphasis.

Shikaku grimaced, but nodded. Glancing at the medic-nin, he asked, "Suggestions?"

Inoichi relayed, "He's still a medic-nin, even if he was ANBU. He'd like to keep doing that much. ANBU doesn't typically have much to do with the hospital, in any case, so any other contacts or compromised ANBU agents would stand out more."

"We can trust him?" Ibiki wondered, finishing up cleaning and stowing his tools.

Shikaku rubbed his beard thoughtfully, giving a slow nod. "If Ino-kun says so, then I will believe it," he pronounced. "Alright - say we sent him out on an assignment to find Tsunade, like Kakashi. Just covering a different area of the country. It's a solo assignment, should be zero risk. We come up with a story for why he's lost his tongue, then assign him to her as bodyguard. If it is... Well, if it's who you suspect, Hokage-sama, Tsunade would probably be one of the best people to try and keep an eye on him."

"If we can get her to come," Inoichi remarked, finally settling into using his voice, his hands rising to rub his temples wearily. At Shikaku's faint nod, Choza released the jutsu he had held for so long, his hand unclenching from around the medic-nin and then reassuming its more natural shape and size.

Bringing himself back to the present moment, Choza shook his head. One hand rubbed the other, one thumb working the pad of the opposite palm as he looked back. The medic-nin had actually been placed in a cell under Ibiki's watchful eye, with records officially indicating that he had been dispatched on the same mission as Kakashi.

The rest of the time since then - other than a few hastily grabbed hours of sleep - had largely centered around Shikaku formulating strategies to deal with the worst-case scenarios. Namely, a large portion of ANBU being compromised by a certain rogue ninja - and one of the Hokage's own students, at that.

The jounin commander sighed, leaning back in his seat. "I really like when we can all be lazy, more," he grumbled.

Choza grunted his own agreement, nodding, while Inoichi sipped at his tea. "Well," the blond man said abruptly, looking at his companions, free from the concern of prying eyes or ears in Shikaku's own study, "what next?"

"Not much else we can do until we get more information," the jounin commander grumbled. "Hopefully, Kakashi can bring Tsunade back - I'm worried about the Hokage's health after that."

It went without saying that Jiraya would return once summoned. Choza could only nod at that. He'd never known her well, but from her reputation...

"Which reminds me... I meant to set this up before the recent distraction - our children will be having some free time soon, and I have a strong suspicion of what they're going to be doing - my son has asked for permission to check the vault of land ownership records. Choza-kun, there is a specific sealed document I would like to you leave in the adjacent sealed vault."

Choza frowned at that. What vault was adjacent? Death records? Of course, anything truly critical was kept in a more secret vault, but it was possible a record could be misplaced from the one archive to the other. He certainly had access to those records, and if Shikaku ordered it, it was no problem at all. "What's this about?" he wondered.

"I want our children to have allies they can trust and work together without concern," the jounin clarified, when Inoichi regarded him curiously as well. "And they are digging into a certain genin's past. I'm sure you remember Mizuki's betrayal well enough..."

"We can't afford to risk breaking the Hokage's order," Inoichi countered, frowning sharply. "Revealing the name of-"

Shikaku raised a hand and shook his head. "I'm not about to break any trust on that front," he said easily. "And, anyway ... he doesn't share a name with his son, in any case. However, there is one person who holds the same last name. If they are going to dig, I think it's better to let them find something that won't turn them against one of their own. The boy needs allies, after all, and this gives them some basic information without needing to dig and discover ... a certain secret, or something that could get back to a certain genin and raise uncomfortable questions about the treatment of the child of a village hero."

Choza nodded, before realizing he didn't know for certain who Shikaku was referring to 'boy'. Naruto? His own son?

It was probably just as true for any of them as Choji, in any case.

"So, her record, left somewhere in the death records vault, which can then be found and read," Choza surmised.

"It should give enough of an explanation into his background to keep them from digging further until ... someone decides to reveal more himself," Shikaku agreed.

Stretching his arms, Choza nodded his understanding. That was more than reasonable enough anyway. "I'll do it," he agreed.

What harm could come from revealing the name of Naruto's mother, anyway?

Kakashi's replacement was more exhausting to train under Kakashi himself - though he didn't throw any real surprises at the genin training beneath him. He also didn't eliminate a bulk of kikaichu with a single fire jutsu, or really use any jutsu at all. He seemed to live like a mayfly, as though he expected his life to be snuffed out suddenly at a moment's notice, though his endurance and enthusiasm exceeded that by orders of magnitude.

Shikamaru was the one who had collapsed first, which Shino had expected would be the end of it - instead, without batting an eyelash, the jounin had just tossed the prone boy over his shoulders, prompting Shikamaru to groan, "Just let me die in peace..."

"You can still benefit from the youthful memories!" Gai boomed unflinchingly, not even remotely slowed by the boy's weight. "Onward!"

That was on lap ten, a grueling distance that Shino had not realized he could manage until he'd had to. He felt himself starting to wear to the point of collapsing himself near the end of that lap, but Sasuke just grit his teeth and growled, "Twelve," with adamant ferocity.

Shino saw Naruto as another member of the colony, not a rival; if Naruto surpassed him in some way, then so be it. He'd just find other strengths to make their combined whole more complete. Still...

So he firmed his resolve, gritting his teeth, feeling the kikaichu within his body respond to his increased core temperature as they fanned out - smoothing the flow of chakra to his limbs.

Gai somehow saw that, and cheerfully approved, "That's the spirit!"

Sasuke's gaze flicked briefly to Shino's, and then the pair of them focused grimly on the path before them. By the end of lap eleven, their gaits had slowed, despite Gai's encouragement. Shikamaru's still-ragged and plaintive, "Are we done yet?" just spurred both of them back on.

By the end of it, Shino was barely able to run straight, stumbling to a walking pace just past the conclusion of their dozenth lap. His lungs burned as though kikaichu had been trapped there, and were trying to dig their way out; his side ached as though two queens were battling for dominance.

Of course, that wasn't actually happening - but after another half-dozen paces, Shino dropped to his knees, heaving for breath. Shikamaru was set down, having recovered a little, thanks to the jounin. Even being carried, he'd kept his leaves in place.

Sasuke glared at nothing in particular, walking in an unsteady circle to prevent his joints from cramping up. Shino had to have kikaichu tend to that, and with Shikamaru's help managed to flop onto his back, great sawing breaths of air biting into his lungs.

"Twelve," Sasuke gasped out fixedly, finally gripping the trunk of a nearby tree for support.

"Well done!" Gai boomed, grinning. "And now you've earned what my rival has explained are your orders for tomorrow!"

Sasuke's gaze rose, and Shino wondered if he were starting at Gai, or just as close as he could manage. "What?" Shikamaru asked for the three of them.

"You've earned a day to relax and rest!" Gai declared hands on his hips, a faint sheen of sweat on his forehead - the only concession the monstrous jounin made toward being tired. "I must thank you for this exciting distraction! I miss my own students, but you shall always be precious to me!"

"Cool," Shikamaru groaned, leaning down and grabbing Shino's wrist, laboriously hauling the bug-user to his feet. Shino did his level best to help, but the bulk of the work was his friend's. Even once he was standing, without being steadied, he would have collapsed. For a moment, the shadow-user raised his free hand, as though contemplating his clan's signature jutsu...

But he hadn't recovered enough, so had to settle for letting Shino lean on him instead of animating him via shadow. Just as well, Shino thought; better to save that trick for when it was more needed. After giving them a salute and flashing that same grin at the genin, Gai bounded away as though a dozen laps around Konoha was just a warm-up.

The three of them staggered to Senzo's, and Shino was not particularly surprised to see they were the last to arrive. Ino and Sakura cried out in alarm and charged toward Sasuke, clamoring over his exhaustion. He only grimaced in response, trying to push through them to claim a seat.

"Are you okay, Sasuke-kun?" Ino asked anxiously.

"Do you want some medicine?" Sakura offered, already fumbling through her belt pouch.

Ignoring both of them, Sasuke managed to stagger to Naruto's side and declared, "Twelve laps."

Kiba and Choji both grimaced at the reminder, while the blond's eyebrows rose. "Brutal, huh?" he offered sympathetically.

Glancing back at Shikamaru and Shino, who were just straggling to their seats, Sasuke said, "Next time, we'll do thirteen."

Naruto's eyebrows furrowed, but after a moment, he nodded. "Next time," he agreed.

"Well count me out!" Kiba declared, to Choji's agreement. After Shino collapsed into a seat at the end of the row, Shikamaru studied the Uchiha heir thoughtfully, then gave a small nod to himself, leaving a single space between himself and Shino.

Before the Aburame boy could wonder what it signified, Sasuke had turned back and spotted it - then nearly collapsed into it, leaving no room for Ino and Sakura. The pair glared at the shadow-user briefly, and he gave them an unimpressed, cool gaze in return.

"Well, since you're supposed to be in charge," Ino groused, "what's the plan for tomorrow? Asuma-sensei said we have the day off - so you and Sasuke-kun are doing another training exercise, right?"

"Yeah, something like that," Shikamaru sighed. "Well... First of all, you have to learn the cipher that Sakura came up with."

"Don't we all?" Hinata wondered.

"Naruto gets a pass for tomorrow," Shikamaru allowed, nodding at Senzo when the old man came around and set a cup of tea before each of the new arrivals. "He's playing the role of all of the bad guys, so not knowing the cipher works to our advantage, doesn't it?"

"N...Naruto-kun is going to be our opponent again?" Hinata ventured uncertainly.

"Not like anyone else can give us a whole army to practice against," Kiba agreed, shrugging.

Naruto grinned at that. "That sounds fun!" he cheered. "When are we going to start?"

"After today, I am sleeping in tomorrow," Shikamaru groaned. "And I need to go do some really boring paperwork and figure out how much space we have to practice."

"Can't we just go to a training ground and use it until someone kicks us out?" Choji wondered, frowning.

"Or we could use my family's land," Shikamaru countered. "Then no one will kick us out, because I've got my father's permission."

Sasuke grunted and nodded at that.

"Oh," Choji said, more quietly.

"Anyway ... we can meet up at Kurenai's normal meeting spot after lunch," Shikamaru declared. "Naruto, we can meet up a bit earlier to discuss strategy, alright?"

"T...then the rest of us should meet with Sakura to learn the cipher?" Hinata asked nervously.

Shikamaru hesitated. He was still worn out from the run, and even with a chance to sit still and drink tea, Shino was exhausted as well.

"That's no problem!" the pink-haired girl exclaimed happily.

Of course ... for what they were planning, they needed Hinata's help - and to somehow keep Naruto in the dark on this. Well, given what Shikamaru had already said, Shino offered, "It would be more efficient if someone else were to handle the paperwork while you and Naruto prepared for the day's exercise."

Shikamaru nodded. "Right," he agreed. "In that case, Hinata, how about you and Shino-kun handle that, while Naruto-kun and I prepare? Everyone else can get started with Sakura."

"Ah ... okay," Hinata agreed, nodding.

Everything seemed to be ready, then... Shino could hardly wait to finish eating and crawl home. There he could burrow beneath the covers of his bed and recuperate until the next day - training was nothing compared to what they were planning, after all.

Not for the first time, Jiraya wondered what the future held for him. He wasn't precisely old, but he wasn't young, either. He knew from watching his own sensei how age made its mark on ninja - wore down all but the truly great. S-rank techniques were faster than the inevitable march of time, but jutsu at least could be evaded or countered.

He was probably lucky that he didn't suffer worse than some minor aching in his joints on occasion, but that was something that would undoubtedly change. Time was still wearing on, after all; it wore down all, bit by bit. Sarutobi was still 'the Professor', but the last time Jiraya had talked to him in person ... after the death of Jiraya's own best student...

Perhaps it was just that night in particular, but he'd felt they'd all aged, taken critical blows from time that would have been better avoided. Then there were questions, why should the old men live, while such a promising rising star in the ninja world be extinguished?

Except, realistically ... the Toad Sage already knew the answer to that. It was because S-rank jutsu or even less flashy but more sure assassination techniques were faster.

He sighed moodily, shifting slightly in the steaming hot-spring.

A nearby hum and splash drew his attention to another of time's victims - an old friend Jiraya traveled with long ago. The older man had once been a guardian ninja, long since retired, but contemplated the floating game-board resting in the spring between them.

Their surroundings were a fairly high-class hot-spring not that far from Konoha, one that Jiraya particularly liked - their specific rented spring was deserted except the pair of them, and being situated on top of a hill, didn't have privacy barriers. Instead, the spring ran right to a reinforced - but very low - stone wall on the edge of the hill, where it abruptly sloped down, almost in a cliff.

"It is just a bonus that there are pretty girls in the pool below," the other man mused, eyes twinkling as he fished a piece from his side of the board.

Well, he was right, but this time of day there wasn't much of a view to enjoy.

Sitting up, Jiraya took a tall cup from the floating tray. Jasmine tea wasn't his favorite, but he could humor a longtime friend.

"Your move, Jiraya," the other man announced.

Grunting, the Toad Sage adjusted his towel and sat up to study the board more closely. While the former guardian ninja was clever, and a good - if not master - strategist, he had a fondness for using the same strategy every time.

"White lotus again?" he chuckled softly. "Alright, Iroh, let's see," he mused, rummaging through the pile on his own side of the board before both of them stopped, looking up.

"A friend for you," Iroh sighed, settling back and stroking his beard.

Jiraya frowned and nodded, turning to where he had senses another presence. "Who is it?" he asked.

"A pretty girl?" Iroh wondered.

In response, an unfamiliar Konoha ANBU stepped from between a passing streamer of steam and the leaves of the one tree lining the hot-spring. The figure strode unhesitatingly across the top of the hot-spring, and then bent low, holding out a scroll marked with the Hokage's seal.

The former guardian ninja busily pretended not to notice, studying the board intently, while Jiraya scowled, taking the scroll.

The ANBU - bear mask - dissipated into chakra... Shadow clone? Didn't matter, though.

If the approach were that blatant, either it was someone who recognized Iroh and judged him to be trustworthy, or the message was truly desperate. Cracking the seal open, mindful of dropping the scroll into the water, the Toad Sage skimmed through it. He doubted it was about his godson - that he would know about ... or at least, he liked to think he would. He was overdue for an update on the kid's progress anyway, but-

"Shit," he groaned.

"Something more severe than tea can assist with?" Iroh sighed sympathetically.

Jiraya nodded, dunking the scroll in the spring briefly - the paper was treated, and so dissolved almost instantly, taking the message with it. "Our greatest enemy is on the march," he explained.

"Time does have that habit of never truly stopping," Iroh mused. "Well, we must meet again, Jiraya - good luck on your travels."

Grinning, Jiraya rose, nodding at his friend. "We'll see if I can't actually win a few rounds of pai sho next time," he chuckled, before heading to the changing room. "Take care, Iroh! Send that nephew of yours my regards."

"Glad to!" the older man agreed with a hearty laugh. "He is a hot-head, but I expect he will do quite well!"

The Toad Sage's smile didn't last, once his friend was out of sight.

"Hang on, Sensei," he whispered, changing into his normal outfit and biting his thumb to draw blood. Of course, the message wasn't just about Sarutobi. It also involved one particular bastard that Jiraya would loved to have strangled - slowly, if it weren't for the fact that the faster he died, the better.

...he had a strange thought, and hoped for Tsunade's sake that she was having a better time of it than he was.

"Aaand ... player wins!" the dealer declared, after flipping over her last card. He was a relatively handsome man, she supposed. He was smiling at her like he expected it to carry some sort of extra weight behind it, or really impress her, at least. That probably should have meant something.

Instead of continuing to stare at him, her eyes dropped to the felt-covered table where her cards lay - queen, two, nine. To one side was her pile of chips, built up a little after the unexpected string of wins. Her accounts would see that she got another lump sum in a week or two, but she rarely won. She could keep betting until she did lose it all, she supposed, but what was the point in that?

She sighed, shaking her head. "Might as well quit while I'm ahead," she judged.

Half-turning to the woman who attended her as always, clutching her pig to her chest, Tsunade wryly asked, "You want to try your luck? Or should we just call it a day?"

"No, Tsunade-sama," Shizune returned, looking - if anything - relieved that the blonde's interest in further gambling at the moment was waning.

"In that case, I'm out," she allowed, turning back to the dealer, who had swept her cards up and begun to reshuffle them.

His eyebrows rose, and he gave a smile that was probably supposed to be inviting. She tuned him out as Shizune swept up the remaining chips. Scanning around, Tsunade briefly entertained the thought of trying another game - the casino certainly had enough of them.

There were really less patrons than hosts at the current hour, but still enough to keep the entire room faintly hazed with smoke, and a constant but muted buzz of conversation. She laced her fingers together and put her hands behind her head, stretching as she ambled slowly toward the entrance. The manager was still smiling at her - probably would keep doing that until she had to borrow some money, or a debt collector warned him how much she owed elsewhere.

She managed a grunt and an absent nod as she passed him on the way out, the pair of burly door guards - fragile, charming little things, considering they weren't even ninja - also bowing politely. Them she largely ignored, though Shizune politely bowed back.

In the street, she raised her arms over her head, letting her fingers unlace as she stretched a bit further, finally popping an annoying kink - splenius cervicus muscle; she needed to actually get around to spending some time limbering up in the mornings again - before sighing and scanning the street. It was dusty and dry, but that didn't stop the peddlers and various workers from bustling about importantly.

It was almost enough to prompt her to turn around and go back into the casino.

Instead, she rummaged through her pocket, producing a small pouch of coins. Shizune looked briefly annoyed - she'd probably end up managing to get a hold of it before it was completely emptied. She almost always did.

"Let's rest at the inn, see if we can't find a hot-spring," she mused.

"Certainly," Shizune agreed.

She didn't bother mentioning the part about sake, but before she could complete that particular thought, she felt a shift in chakra and stopped, staring forward dully. Shizune caught it too, looking cautious but not on-guard. A Konoha ninja strode down the center of the street - a pair of them actually.

It took her a moment to place the man - he was supposed to be a fairly famous and skilled shinobi, followed by a pretty little thing who... Something about her seemed familiar, but she pushed it to the side, crossing her arms over her chest and staring at him expectantly.

He stopped a few paces before her and gave a disarming smile, even behind that stupid mask. One of his eyes was covered with his hitai-ate, but she knew how that procedure worked - medial rectus and lateral rectus reattachment with foreign chakra; tricky. A steady hand alone wouldn't be enough for that; it'd take a skilled or reckless medical-nin to do it. Of course, it wasn't without precedent, but-

"What do you want?" she asked sourly, furrowing her brow. Kakashi - that was his name. Hatake Kakashi.

"Tsunade-sama," he said in a friendly voice, one hand rising to scratch the back of his head in feigned schoolboy nervousness. "Well ... it seems that the Hokage has asked for your help, and-"

"Fuck off," she overrode him without hesitation, uncrossing her arms and stepping around him, resuming her march down the street.

Shizune winced, ducking her head before scurrying to catch up. The shinobi's wince and hesitant, "Is that ... so?" were expected. The kunoichi's snort of laughter was not, and Tsunade found herself glancing at her again-

Blank pupils. Blood limit? She didn't know of a kekai genkai that matched; those weren't Hyuuga eyes. Some other blood limit, perhaps? Tsunade doubted she cared, but something about that woman...

"Is there anything in particular you'd like passed onto the Hokage?" Kakashi tried, which prompted the kunoichi with him to snort.

"I hope the old fart's doing well," she tossed over her shoulder.

"That's it?" the woman at Kakashi's side wondered.

Tsunade turned to glare at her - but her attention was on Kakashi, not the sannin. Shizune looked anxious, glancing between Tsunade and the Konoha-nin uncertainly. Kakashi looked away. "Guess so," he allowed wearily. Realizing Tsunade was still regarding them, Kakashi offered another faked nervous smile and bowed. "Sorry for bothering you," he said, more brightly. "But if there's nothing else, I suppose I should hurry back to my students!"

The onetime sannin grunted in response, frowning. Why would Konoha send a teacher after her... And why the pair of them?

"Wait," Tsunade allowed, irritated that she was letting herself get as distracted as she had. "Why did they send both of you?"

"I just tagged along for the hell of it," the woman supplied, before Kakashi could answer.

Tsunade stared at her blankly.

"You know, fill out my collection of sannin I'd met? I'll give you points over Orochimaru, at least," she added, shrugging her shoulders.

A flinch there; subtle, but evident. An old tear or scarring of the trapezius muscle. Something, though ... not a real injury, but a remembered one? Tied to that name?

"You?" she asked doubtfully, raising her eyebrows. "How do you know him, anyway?"

"What, were you and my old teacher close?" she asked.

Tsunade recognized those cues of posture. Defensive; old scars, few of them physical. Orochimaru? And a living student, still an active Konoha-nin?

"Must be a real bitch working for Konoha with that kind of background," Tsunade drawled thoughtfully. "What'd he do to your neck, anyway?"

That flinch would have been caught by a civilian, and Tsunade resisted a smirk of triumph. "T...Tsunade-sama," Shizune mumbled ineffectually.

The woman hesitated, seemingly torn between retorting and actually responding before shrugging and stepping closer to Tsunade, not at all hesitant to pull out the collar of her outfit and show off the seal.

Seals weren't really her thing - that was Jiraya, and he'd gotten into it much more after... "Huh," she allowed. It didn't look good, in any case. "More than skin deep, huh?"

It was Orochimaru's work, so who knew how devious it could ultimately be? Something in the blood? A mark on the chakra? The soul itself? Seals could do crap like that.

"Yeah," the kunoichi answered quietly. She let the collar snap back over the curse seal. "But what do you care, anyway?"

"Better question is why you still care about Konoha - they probably give you crap and can't help you - so why stick with 'em?" Tsunade retorted.

Behind her, Kakashi sighed, glancing to one side as a trio of brutes rounded the corner, led by a gaunt man with a satchel. Shit ... debt collectors already. Like she didn't have enough problems.

"I can dislocate every joint in my body, but I'm still not quite flexible enough to actually crawl into the bottle," she replied. "What's your secret?"

Shizune heaved her own sigh, one hand rising to cover her eyes. "Tsunade-sama," she whimpered, her other arm clutching her piglet tighter - the damn thing made her look like a petulant child with a favorite stuffed toy!

"More bitterness and loss," Tsunade snapped, her temper rising. "So sorry your sensei turned out to be the biggest asshole this side of Hanzo - it must be terrible having to go through life without him!"

Something flashed in those blank eyes, but the ninja grit her teeth and adopted a smile more blatant than Kakashi's mask.

"Lovely weather today," Kakashi remarked to Shizune. "Isn't it?"

" would be hard to ask for nicer," Shizune moaned, not as capable of pretending to be oblivious and enjoy the scene.

"Well, since Anko and Tsunade-sama seem to be having such a ... pleasant discussion ... how about you and I have a little chat of our own with that group?" Kakashi posed, inclining his head toward the irate debt collector.

"Sounds ... wonderful," Shizune managed, looking like she'd rather do anything else - except continue waiting within earshot.

"Somehow, I get by, and manage not to run away from my problems, either," Anko mused.

Tsunade really wanted a counter for that, but the debt collectors alone pretty much foiled any meaningful retorts on that count.

"Let me give it to you straight, little girl," the sannin ground out. "I could kick your ass so soundly you'd never know what hit you - only the fact that you've had to put up with some shit on your own gives you any sympathy. Don't give me crap about turning my back on a village that's done absolutely nothing for me."

"Yeah? Because funding your nation-wide binge doesn't count for anything?" Anko retorted. "Just because I got fucked over didn't mean that I decided to pass the blame on- Even if the dreams I had as a little girl were shattered, that doesn't mean I can't have a new dream."

"One involving twisting knives, no doubt."

"That doesn't even scratch the surface - but it's still something," Anko snapped. "What have you got, other than running away from your problems?"

"It's not like anything is going to change-" She cut off as Shizune hurried over, eyes wide. "Can't you see we're having a moment, here?" Tsunade snapped. And why did Kakashi look so pleased with himself?

In the background, the debt collector stood with crossed arms, glaring as though he somehow had power over the situation... Well, even if she could just snap him in half with the flick of a finger, it would only cause more trouble than it was worth, so in a way, as much as it pissed her off ... he was right. Damn it all!

The day had started off so much better than this!

"Tsunade-sama, these men ... have agreed to a deal," Shizune offered hesitantly. "Um, that is ... in exchange for a favor..." She trailed off for a moment.

Tsunade felt one eyebrow twitch. What kind of 'favor'? Shizune would know better than to pass on a request for 'ninja' work. Even medical aid was something she only rarely consented to actually do ... but that usually wasn't for money, and ... well, these days couldn't even involve blood, or else Shizune would have to do the work herself. Anything else, Tsunade would probably make an exception and actually follow through on hitting the smug little bastard.

"What?" she growled. "And make it quick - I want to get a drink, already."

"By coincidence, I happen to have some money saved up," Kakashi mused absently, as though it was something that would just casually be mentioned. "If you could find it within yourself to visit with the Hokage, just for a moment, then I suppose for the sake of completing my mission, it wouldn't be so great a price to pay to cover those debts, would it?"

Tsunade's lip curled in disgust, and Shizune's eyes dimmed- Anko stared at Kakashi in something halfway between disdain and admiration - like she wasn't sure which way to go. The sannin bit back her rebuke, more out of sympathy for Shizune than anything else.

She had racked up quite a debt. A reset on that, and all it cost was a visit to the Hokage? A two day detour before restarting her travels with a cleaner slate... She was running low on casinos to hit up that weren't demanding she pay up on her losses. "Just for a moment?" she asked, glaring at the far-too-smug copy ninja. "And I don't have to do anything?"

"Just listen to him for a few minutes," Kakashi said, as though he were agreeing instead of correcting her.

Shizune fidgeted uncomfortably, looking anxiously between Kakashi and Tsunade, squeezing Tonton so tightly that the sannin expected him to squeal in protest any moment.

...fuck it. Why not?

"Alright - let's just get this over with," Tsunade sighed, shaking her head. As much as she wanted to wipe the smug look from the debt collector's face when Kakashi turned and gave him a nod, she restrained herself, glowering at Anko. "The sooner I've seen the last of you, the better."

Hinata would much rather have been with Naruto than his other friends - she didn't dislike them, it was just ... that she liked Naruto better. Of course, she had gotten to enjoy breakfast with him, not every day, but frequently. And that wasn't bad at all - the last time, he'd even had one of his bunshin cook for her!

Well ... he'd burnt it a bit, but that was fine; he'd agreed to let her show him how to do it properly next time. She still hadn't gotten to teaching him shunshin yet, so getting to teach him something else would be nice.

In the meantime, while Shikamaru was meeting with Naruto, and the other genin in their group were working with Sakura's cipher, she had met Shino at the assigned location - both of them arriving exactly at time.

"Um, g...good morning," she greeted him, glancing around the largely empty area where they usually met with Kakashi.

"Indeed," he returned, his expression unchanging. She could see straight through him if she activated her byakugan, but she couldn't really read his face at all. Still ... he seemed to be a good ally of Naruto. "For this next step, I will assume Shikamaru-kun's guise," he explained.

She nodded uncertainly as he - without even making seals - unleashed a swarm of kikaichu from beneath his heavy coat. They had quickly enveloped him, and then in a shimmering wave of chakra, vanished, leaving him looking like Shikamaru.

She could still see through the genjutsu, but even to her eye it was exceedingly well done. Shino shifted his shoulders, adjusting his stance and sighing heavily. "Troublesome," he remarked to her. "Alright - let's check out those documents so we know where we're training."

Hinata hesitantly followed him, frowning. Shino absently laced his fingers together and placed both hands behind his head, walking at a leisurely pace toward the Hokage's tower. "Um, Shino-kun," she tried hesitantly, "why... Why are we doing this, instead of learning the cipher?"

"We do need to know the bounds of my family property correctly," he answered, shrugging. After glancing around, he added in a lower voice, "Though, you seem to have figured out there's more to it than that, hmm?"

"W...what's that?" she asked anxiously.

"There's no sense in hiding it from you, since it relies on your ability anyway," Shino answered softly, sounding much more like himself than Shikamaru - even if the appearance and mannerisms were well done. He was keeping a close watch on their surroundings, so she decided to do the same.

She caught a glimpse of Kurenai in a nearby alley, shaking her head at something as she turned away, down the street. Hinata frowned. "What do you mean?" she pressed.

"Naruto-kun doesn't know of any blood limit he possesses, but it seems that there may be something to him that we do not know," Shino explained quickly. "While we are on the surface looking for something simple, we wish to discover the nature of Naruto's parents from the death records vault, which is adjacent to the land ownership vault."

"I- Why not tell Naruto-kun?" she asked sharply, narrowing her eyes. She didn't like the idea of going behind his back at all!

"Simply, because he is a friend, and I would feel bad if there were nothing to be discovered, but we had gotten his hopes up," Shino answered without hesitation.

Hinata wasn't sure she liked that, still. On the other hand ... even if the line felt rehearsed, it felt like the truth, too. Shino and Shikamaru were the ones who had stuck with Naruto after he was blamed for what happened to Iruka. "We don't have permission to go into the death records vault, though," she said quietly. "So really ... you mean for me to do it?"

Shino nodded in response.

That meant that she would be the one who knew what - if anything - there was about Naruto. Did he really have a blood limit? She supposed if he did, it'd be something else he could try and train ... maybe something tied to that seal on his chest? "A...alright," she reluctantly agreed. "I'll do it ... for Naruto-kun."

The records hall was through one of the side-entrances to the Hokage's tower, and the pair of them marched through it. The room before the doorway leading to the actual record vaults held a desk, where an irate-looking jounin sat, pushing his dark glasses up and giving the pair a sharp glare.

"And what are you doing here?" he asked suspiciously.

"We came to double-check the actual limits of the family plot," Shino answered lazily, his expression capturing Shinosuke's typical relaxed indifferent. "Oh, yeah, I have a note from my father," he added, pulling a slip of paper from one pocket.

The jounin took the paper warily, giving it a close study. "Very well," he said, nodding. "You may go in - the door on the right, and be quick about it. Before either of them could take an extra step toward the doorway, he pointed at Hinata and added, "The note says nothing about you, so wait here, Hyuuga-san."

Hinata blinked, alarmed. There were seals on the walls that blocked her sight from where they stood - she'd have to get at least through the doorway to try and peer through those walls. "Ah," she managed, frowning. "Um..."

Shino, too, looked stymied. "You mean I gotta try and find the documentation by myself?" he groaned.

"It's neatly organized; it'll take a minute at best. Now hurry up before-"

"Oh, yeah," another ninja said, sauntering out of the hallway. He was a very large man, his body marked with the same seals as Choji's - with more, actually. "Sorry, Ebi-chan, I was rearranging some things in another vault - knocked over the shelving for the land ownership records."

"What!?" 'Ebi-chan' screeched, turning in his seat to stare indignantly. "That was painstaking! How could you possibly-"

"Eh, charge me for the D-rank mission to get it sorted back up, Ebisu - I'm sorry," Choza said placatingly, putting his hands up. "In the meantime, these kids are going to be training with my son, too, today - so as a favor to me, let the girl help find the scroll, alright?"

"It's irresponsible to let a pair of genin dawdle in a record vault," Ebisu complained, scowling. "If I'm assigned this thankless duty, I intend to do it properly!"

"Okay, okay," Choza sighed, shaking his head. His eyes went to Shino, lingering for a while before moving back to Ebisu. "Since it's my fault, I'll take responsibility and watch over them while they find the proper scroll. I'm sure that with the three of us searching, we'll be out of your hair soon enough."

"Very well," Ebisu allowed, calming. "But please be more careful with the scroll cases in the future! And if anything is out of place or damaged..."

"If the racks had enough space for a ninja to move between them properly, this wouldn't be an issue, you know," Choza countered, shaking his head. Beckoning the genin to follow him, he added, "Anyway... Good to see you again, Shikamaru-kun. Let's find that record, shall we?"

"Er... Uh, yeah," Shino agreed, a little surprised. "Thanks."

"Tell your father I sent my regards," Choza added, as the pair followed him into the room. Hinata lowered her byakugan to step through the seal, and then immediately began to bring it back up. Doing so without seals took a bit longer, but...

Once she entered the room, she blinked at how many scrolls there actually were. The walls were lined with racks to hold them, and more racks were freestanding - though, one had been knocked over, and spilled a great deal of them onto the floor.

Choza righted it and sighed. "I'm sure it's one of these," he said apologetically.

Shino hesitated a moment, then shook his head. "Let's start looking for it," he said with a shrug. Hinata realized he had been planning on using his kikaichu to search, but couldn't while Choza was watching. But then...

"Um... Is it ... okay if I use my byakugan to search?" Hinata asked hesitantly.

"Oh, that's probably fine," the large jounin agreed, one hand going to the rack of scrolls near the wall adjacent to the death records. "Should make this much faster. These aren't particularly classified anyway."

Hinata nodded, putting more chakra into her technique, no longer worried about the telltale signs. There were seals around some specific rooms - but not the one she was looking into. Technically, most of those vaults required chunin rank and filling out forms to access, but...

So many scrolls to try and scan through! The flood of characters momentarily overwhelmed her when she tried to take in the death records, but she quickly narrowed her focus. All she needed was to find Naruto's family name. She started her search on the space just behind Choza's hand - and almost immediately found what she was looking for.

The name of a woman ... Uzumaki Kushina? There was a nickname, too - she had been killed when the kyubei had attacked Konoha, all those years ago. A note explained that she was Naruto's mother, as well, but no father was listed at all. There was something else about a special ability - a blood limit, after all? Something about 'chakra chains'.

She could have looked further, seen if there were any others with that name, but she was doing something dangerous as it was, and that scroll already explained that Kushina was Naruto's mother. Since Choza was still watching her and Shino expectantly, she committed that single scroll to memory to consider later, and then turned her attention to the scrolls on the floor, looking for Shikamaru's family name instead.

"Ah, um ... here," she declared, finding the scroll they were supposed to be looking for.

Well ... she'd found something to tell Naruto... What did it all really mean, though?

Sasuke didn't really consider any of the other genin he was teamed up with as friends - but then, he didn't have to. They were still his team. While it would be convenient to not need a team, just ignoring them wasn't a real option. But as Kakashi had pointed out ... he could still benefit from them.

He could also berate them for weak spots that would get them killed and slow them down.

Shikamaru was probably someone that Sasuke could take down easily, if he had to. While Naruto had beaten Sasuke in their last fight, the young Uchiha thought he could probably take him down, now, too.

With the pair of them working together, throwing out hordes of clones following the lazy boy's plans, Sasuke felt pressured - that he was working harder than he had to against anyone except for Bastard-sensei.

If he was being challenged, then he was learning where and how he could improve. As much as he might have enjoyed training by himself, he found he really did have to coordinate with the others.

It wasn't much, but Ino was getting halfway decent at knowing when a horde of Naruto's clones were going to burst out from the bushes. Not perfect, but when she focused, there was enough warning for her to get behind him, while Choji covered their rear.

Sakura's code-phrases weren't hard to learn, and Ino, despite her resentment of the other girl, had picked them up quickly enough. Choji seemed to have followed them, as well - which was good. The theme of this particular exercise was fighting their way to a house that Shikamaru's family owned in the middle of a densely wooded area.

This left plenty of cover, but they needed to try and keep any of the bunshin from notifying one-another that they'd had contact with the enemy.

So far, Sasuke was confident that they'd managed to take out all of the clones before they could notify anyone else. Of course, from what Sasuke knew about the technique, that meant that Naruto himself knew what was going on.

Not that he had a lot of time to contemplate that, as every encounter meant that the bunshin they were fighting were using Naruto's improving taijutsu and throwing skills. Sasuke was still better at both, but that didn't help when three or four bunshin were all focusing on him.

One or two would-be lethal strikes thinned the number of clones out, and Choji picked up any stragglers that could catch Ino while she was trying to keep a sense of where any incoming bunshin might be coming from. It worked, and he had to admit, his plan of pairing up with the two who seemed weakest had worked out much better than anticipated.

He'd expected to do the lion's share of the work himself, but those two were able to carry their weight after all.

He expected that the groups of Kiba and Hinata, and Sakura and Shino would likewise be doing fine. Kiba was decent at taijutsu, and the pair of them wouldn't be surprised between Akamaru's nose and Hinata's eyes. Shino and Sakura might have a tougher time of it, but Shino didn't have any glaring weaknesses (even if he didn't seem to have any spectacular strengths, either), and Sakura...

Well, she was weak, but she was smart. She was probably the weakest link, but if she'd come up with the cipher she had, he suspected that she'd come up with another plan, as well.

The story of their 'mission' was simple. Just like the last time, they had to find their way to the enemy base, and rescue a princess. Naruto had evidently made a bunshin for the role this time, as Kiba kept Akamaru with him. Also just like last time, they had to avoid letting the 'enemy' know they were coming or else there would be more guards.

Choji was not the world's stealthiest ninja, but Sasuke didn't particularly mind. That just gave him an excuse to fight more of Naruto's bunshin, since stealth wasn't usually an option. Even if the overall training goal weren't to get in a lot of fights, if he could get more of that practice in, he wasn't going to complain.

"S...sorry," Choji said, bowing his head, after clearing the last round of attackers. He was scratched on one arm from a thrown kunai; Sasuke couldn't fault him. His own shirt was torn in at least three places, even though he'd avoided actually getting injured. Ino was unscathed, thanks to the cover they were providing her - but she was paying off in terms of detection.

So Sasuke just grunted and gave a mild shrug, indifferent to the apology, and not seeing a reason to go into it. "Anyone else nearby?" he asked Ino intently, before turning to scan himself.

"I ... don't think so," she whispered, before jerking upright, and turning to stare behind them.

Sasuke leaped to a nearby tree branch in a crouch, kunai at the ready as Choji turned, covering Ino defensively with his own kunai drawn.

Melting into visibility from the leaves, Shino lit on a branch at Sasuke's height, while Sakura slipped out from behind a shrub.

"Hn," Sasuke grunted, looking back over his shoulder. The clearing could just be made out through the trees from their current position, so he dropped down to the ground. He didn't need the position for attack, and it increased visibility. "What are you two doing here?" he asked doubtfully.

"We have examined the perimeter," Shino announced, adjusting his spectacles.

Sasuke furrowed his brow. He'd expected his own group would have made the best time, since they were heading out in a straight line. There was the possibility that they were actually Naruto's bunshin under henge, he supposed ... but if that were the case, then Naruto had to have known where they were already.

It was easy enough to test. "No sign of bastardry?" Choji asked, mildly surprising Sasuke by invoking one of Sakura's code phrases - a simple one.

Sakura smiled, puffing up slightly with pride at her code being used, and returned, "Naruto doesn't have exploding tags, so of course not."

"How did you get here and check things out so quickly?" Sasuke pressed.

"We just snuck past everyone," Sakura answered.

Sasuke scowled internally. He'd lost that much time fighting?

"Ultimately, the house is defended by patrolling guard groups," Shino said. "So we made good time, but had to fall back rather than risk discovery. The forest is largely irrelevant; the true challenge is getting past the guards."

Nodding, the Uchiha rocked back on his heels and contemplated. "How many groups? And how many in them?" he probed.

"Eight groups of varying size," Sakura answered. "The smallest is two, and the biggest is four."

Choji frowned, while Ino put her hands on her hips. "Well, what's the trick to it, then?" she asked in irritation. "Shikamaru and Naruto just came up with something we can't beat?"

Sakura rolled her eyes at that, looking ready to chide the other boy. Since an argument would draw unwanted attention from the patrolling guards, Sasuke interrupted, "Any idea where Hinata and Kiba are?"

Shino gave a curt nod. "I do," he answered.

"Let's meet up with them," Sasuke determined.

Shino nodded again, and then the whole group of them slunk along until Shino indicated a pair of low shrubs, which one of Naruto's patrols had just passed - a trio of guards. They could take them out easily, but that particular group kept ducking in and out of the forest; their absence would be noticed quickly.

Kiba popped out from the underbrush and eyed the others suspiciously. "What?" he asked, though he kept his voice low. "Stuck on getting through?"

"I have a plan, but it needs all of us to pull it off," Sasuke countered.

"Alright, what's your dog-damned stroke of genius?" Kiba sighed, crossing his arms over his chest.

Sasuke explained, "That group that's going in and out of the woods? The next time their route comes through here, all of us jump them as quietly as we can; Kiba, myself, and Choji will do the take-down. While we're doing that, Shino, Hinata, and Sakura henge into them and take over their patrol."

Everyone blinked at this, Ino still pouting.

"Ino will keep an eye out for any other incoming enemy," he continued. "Then we wait for a full lap of the patrol; Sakura will switch out with Ino when they get back. We pool our info and figure out the best approach based on the patrol pattern from there."

Kiba scratched his chin. "And then what?" he pressed, shaking his head. "We take down some guys and then pretend to be them - and just watch and wait?"

"Yes," Shino agreed, before Sasuke could even answer. "Like real ninja."

That prompted the Inuzuke to bite back his next retort and roll his shoulders in a shrug, though everyone paused to look around them for incoming explosive tags. "'s only half a plan if it's just 'get more info.'"

"You have something better in mind?" Choji asked sympathetically. "Because I don't."

"Fine!" he whined petulantly, kicking the ground with one foot. "Let's just get into position and do this."

Sasuke nodded tightly as everyone prepared for the patrol's return.

As someone who was more of a follower than a leader, Choji didn't mind following Sasuke's plan. If he could keep Kiba from starting a fight over it and keep the plan running smoothly, so much the better. It was short work for the group for Choji, Sasuke, and Kiba to take them out. Shino, Hinata, and Sakura used their henge to take on the guard's appearances before resuming their patrols.

After a period of tense waiting, they circled back around, evidently unnoticed, and Sakura switched with Ino, breathlessly relating everything that she'd observed.

Sasuke explained, "There are two guards in one of the smaller patrols - there's a window where they line up right to only be in sight of the group we've replaced. Sakura, you and I will henge as them, and during that window, we'll use kawarimi - Choji, Kiba, take them out as soon as they get here. Once that's done, the next rotation that they line up, we can rush into the opening and use the house for cover; we won't have much time, so Choji and Kiba, you two grab Ino and go after the enemy bosses.

"Before that, when Hinata comes back here, she needs to find out where the princess is; we have to reach her as close to the same time we confront the enemy 'warlord' as possible. Sakura, you'll be in charge of handling that once the time comes - you, and Hinata, work together on that. Understood?"

"Yes!" Sakura said excitedly, nodding quickly.

"What about you?" Kiba whined. "You're just sitting back?"

Sasuke snorted, shaking his head. "Shino and I will be going around and engaging the rest of the patrols to keep them off your back - and from reaching the house," he answered. "Now, we have to work together to get the plan to everyone - let's go."

Sakura and Sasuke were both good enough at kawarimi to do the replacement with the unwitting guards. The first was tackled by Kiba, silenced almost instantly with a kunai across the throat, leaving only a puff of chakra smoke behind.

The other guard leaped to one side, dropping his spear and fumbling for something else before Choji's grasp captured him.

Then it was just a matter of squeezing - first the breath out of the clone, and one good shake caused it to fumble and drop the whistle it had been reaching for. Then ... Choji guessed Naruto's bunshin chose to dispel, recognizing defeat, rather than wait for enough damage to be done. Choji was secretly grateful for that; he didn't like the idea of Naruto remembering him trying to kill the excitable boy.

They had been good friends, and Choji couldn't see any reason they wouldn't be again.

Repeated memories of being crushed or pummeled into oblivion could be one such reason, though. This wasn't like their frequent sparring sessions, after all.

Akamaru trotted back proudly from where he had landed in Kiba's brief combat, a dropped kunai held in his teeth.

"Good boy!" Kiba exclaimed, still keeping his voice low, grinning fiercely at his furry partner as he knelt, so the dog could jump back to his usual perch.

Only once he was comfortable on Kiba's head did he drop the kunai, which Kiba caught and pocketed absently.

"Uh ... nice work," Choji said belatedly.

"You, too," Kiba allowed with a grudging nod. "Ticks me off that it's always Sasuke or Shikamaru barkin' out orders ... but I guess it's a plan."

"I think we might win, this time," the Akimichi added hopefully.

As nerve-wracking as the entire thing was, Sakura was practically glowing - once Sasuke's plan let them gather more information, the rest of the group had managed their roles well. Not exactly flawlessly, but well enough - Hinata's byakugan was able to pinpoint the hostage before the executioners reached her. That was accounted for in Sasuke's plan, though, so no surprise there!

For whatever reason, Naruto himself was merely disguised as the 'princess'. Actually, considering how dangerous he was encouraging the others to be, that made sense; though she hadn't seen it, she guessed that Choji and Kiba would probably easily disperse that bunshin, and possibly actually hurt Naruto.

A disturbingly pretty and feminine Naruto batted her eyelashes at her 'rescuers', praising, "My heroes!" and glomping Hinata and Sakura in a hug, after the last 'executioner' dispersed.

"S-stop that!" Sakura complained, pushing Naruto off her. Hinata, of course, didn't seem to mind at all.

Naruto pouted at Sakura briefly, then grinned, shrugging as the rest of the genin looked into the room of Shikamaru's - evidently spare - home. It must be nice to be from an established clan, Sakura thought.

Seemingly not noticing Hinata still hanging onto her, Naruto cheered, "Good job rescuing me, everyone! I'm totally safe, now!"

Something about that... "Where's Shikamaru?" Sakura asked, frowning.

"O-oh, he's-" Hinata started before cutting off with an alarmed squeak - Naruto's hug kept Hinata's arms at her side as Shikamaru rolled out from under the bed and to his feet in a single fluid motion, and then smoothly tapped the back of Naruto's head with the grip of his kunai.

"Ack!" Naruto exclaimed over-dramatically, collapsing in Hinata's arms. "I am slain!"

Kiba slapped his forehead with his palm. "But- But we won!" he protested. "That's- That's just cheap!"

Sasuke snorted. "Didn't you see him?" he asked the Hyuuga girl.

"I- I thought he was just staying out of harm's way!" she protested, shaking her head. "I didn't..."

"Relax," Shikamaru drawled. "The point isn't about 'winning' or 'losing'. It's about learning how to deal with enemies. So, yeah, we used a dirty trick at the end - the point is-"

"-that it won't happen again," Sasuke completed.

"Right," Shikamaru agreed, nodding as Naruto came back from the dead and released his henge.

"That was so lame!" Ino protested. "I mean-"

"I think that Bastard-sensei would be even less kind," Shino noted. "The exercise was educational. Through coordination and teamwork, we have all fared much better than we have last time. Note that our foes improved their own efforts and coordination as well."

Sasuke's arms crossed over his chest as he stared wordlessly. Sakura frowned. "But, if Hinata didn't think you were just hiding so you didn't get hurt when we fought your bunshin, you wouldn't have gotten past her," she remarked. "Is that really fair?"

"Probably not," Shikamaru answered, shrugging. "Exactly how often do you expect your enemies to be 'fair', though? Even Naruto giving you a hug was part of it - a civilian target won't always work in their best interests. They don't know better."

"But we're really done, now, so you can let go of me, Hinata-chan," Naruto added with a smile.

"A-ah," she managed, letting go of him and stepping back, cheeks red. "S-sorry..."

Shino and Shikamaru exchanged a glance at that, before both shook their heads. Before anyone else could comment, Sasuke commented, "Naruto, your taijutsu has gotten better. Those guards were more of a challenge than last time."

"I am pretty awesome," the blonde agreed, grinning hugely and putting his arms up behind his head, like Shikamaru frequently did. "You're getting sneakier, too!"

Sasuke grunted at that, waving a hand to dismiss the comment. "I want to duel you again," he stated flatly.

Sakura couldn't help herself; along with the other genin, she sucked in a breath, looking between the two anxiously.

Naruto's expression had darkened, going from his somewhat goofy grin to a scowl as he stared intently into the Uchiha's glower. "Alright," he agreed abruptly, uncrossing his arms-

"Time-out," Shikamaru insisted adamantly, putting a hand on Naruto's shoulder. "You two - out of the house. Take this to the training area - we put the house at enough risk for this exercise anyway."

"Ah, right," Naruto realized belatedly, while Sasuke gave a curt nod.

It didn't take long to get to the small collection of posts that was maintained for training by ... well, it had to be some member of Shikamaru's family. Possibly the boy himself.

Sakura shook her head. "Don't be too rough with him, Sasuke-kun!" she encouraged. As much as she wanted to root for Sasuke, and Naruto could withstand a thrashing ... somehow it was a lot harder to want to see him beaten up, regardless of what she'd said when she found out about Iruka.

"You can do it, Sasuke-kun!" Ino echoed.

Kiba crossed his arms over his chest and shook his head as the pair took up positions, facing one-another. "What's the point of this?" he scoffed. "Naruto beat Sasuke last time!"

Naruto puffed up faintly at that, as Hinata hesitantly called, "Y-you can do it, Naruto-kun!"

"With a dirty trick!" Sakura couldn't help herself from countering.

She bit her tongue as Shikamaru gave her a look that seemed to ask if she remembered the point of the 'princess' being assassinated when they had thought she mission was a success.

Ino looked about ready to spit something similar out before instead sniffing and turning her attention to Sasuke.

There wasn't any signal, that Sakura could see. Naruto raised his hands to form seals at the same time as Sasuke. In an explosion of chakra, Naruto was surrounded by a team of his clones, and Sasuke was surrounded by his own illusionary counterparts. A storm of shuriken and kunai flew between them, eradicating half of the dozen clones Naruto had summoned before they clashed.

Just as they would have met, Sasuke raised his hands again - Sakura gasped, eyebrows rising. She'd caught it just before Sasuke barreled into one of Naruto's bunshin, but the Uchiha had used henge to turn into Naruto.

Shino gave an abbreviated shake of his head as Shikamaru clicked his tongue before sighing. Very shortly what had seemed like it was going to be a spectacular battle turned into what looked like a mindless brawl between Naruto and a swarm of himself.

This was nowhere near as clever as when Naruto had henged into Ino and Sakura. That was impressive. This...

Still, bunshin couldn't take much damage, so in short order, the area was obscured with chakra smoke from the mass dispelling. Sakura put her hands on her hips, then turned to regard Hinata, who was staring intently not at the battlefield, but to the woods behind the training posts. Why would she...

Sakura realized what had really happened as the smoke cleared - revealing nothing at all. Well, Naruto not actually being in his crowd of mindless clones, that was fairly smart for him. But trust Sasuke to see through it and substitute himself out into the woods to hunt the real Naruto down after instigating a brawl!

Sure enough, by following the line of Hinata's gaze, Sakura was just in time to see Naruto fall from a tree-branch, tangled in wire and cursing fiercely. The Uchiha was poised above him, falling in time and holding the other ends of the wire in one hand, a kunai in the other. Naruto slammed to the earth loudly, hard enough that Choji winced, and Kiba's eyebrows rose.

Sasuke landed softly on his toes, smoothly sinking to his knees, the point of his kunai freezing abruptly above Naruto's throat, a small smile of victory on his lips.

"I knew you could do it!" Sakura cheered, thrusting one fist into the air.

"Go, Sasuke-kun!" Ino echoed, hopping up and down, clapping her hands.

Naruto's cursing cut off, through he continued to glower at Sasuke.

"Wait," Kiba started, staring in surprise. "So- That... They..."

Hinata frowned sharply, saying nothing, but intent on Naruto.

"Well, that was brief," Shikamaru remarked.

Standing, Sasuke released the wire and stowed his kunai. A casual wave of his hand untangled the wire, and Naruto popped to his feet, expression unchanged. "Not bad," Sasuke judged, before the blond could say anything.

"Sasuke-kun, let's practice together!" Ino called out, before Sakura could. "Teach me how to do that!"

Sakura protested, "No- Sasuke-kun, teach me!"

Naruto grimaced. "Whatever," he grumbled, stiffly marching toward Shikamaru and Shino.

"I'd rather practice with Naruto," Sasuke said, eying Ino and Sakura in turn. "You two aren't close to that level yet."

"I- Hey!" the pair protested in tandem.

"Practice with you?" Naruto asked.

Sasuke nodded. "Your wire work is still poor. Your throwing is getting better, but you've got a long way to go," he added.

"...alright," Naruto grudgingly agreed, nodding in return.

Ino pouted. "Give me another bunshin," she insisted. "I'm going to keep training on sensing!"

"Sure!" Naruto agreed a bit more brightly. "Anyone else?"

"Alright - who's up for taijutsu practice at my place?" Kiba asked.

"I'm going to pass," Shikamaru said with a shake of his head. "I wanted to ask Shino and Hinata about something."

"What's that?" Naruto asked. "Ah - I'll send a bunshin-"

Hinata's expression brightened at that, but Shino interrupted, "No need. You have an opportunity, and should take full advantage of it. Your focus will be rewarded."

The Hyuuga girl looked at Shino sharply. "But-"

"We can all meet up at Senzo's this evening," Shikamaru added.

Sakura pursed her lips as Naruto nodded. "Okay!" he said. Turning to Sasuke, he warned, "I'm going to use all my bunshin to focus on your throwing techniques!"

"I expect you to get better," Sasuke agreed, thrusting his hands into his pockets. "Come on."

The two walked off as Ino shook her head, dragging Naruto's bunshin with her and muttering to herself. "Better come up with something to keep yourself busy, forehead!" she called before stepping onto the path back to Konoha.

Oh, she'd come up with something, alright.

Kiba and Choji were already in discussion about their own upcoming practice as they followed. Sakura nodded, turning to regard Shikamaru, who was watching her expectantly.

"Well?" he prompted.

Seeing little point to being subtle, she bluntly asked, "What are you hiding from Naruto?"