I do not own, or receive any benefit from the Naruto properties.

A Teacher's Glory: a Union of Rejects: Chapter 11

By Larry Huss

Naruto wasn't surprised to have received an order to attend the Hokage in his office. He knew from the wording that he was to be on his best ninja manners; when the Old Man wanted to play at being Grandpa Hokage he would suggest they meet for a walk and a luncheon. There had been fewer and fewer of those kinds of summons lately, but the boy still treasured them.

But this was very evidently an official thing, and Naruto was keeping himself tightly behind his newly acquired mask of adulthood and detachment as he entered the office. As was proper; there was the Hokage, seated behind his desk, with his robes and Hat of State on. Somewhere nearby, invisible to most, were the ANBU bodyguards. Leaning against the wall next to a window was a very tall middle-aged man with spiky white hair, oddly cut robes, and a strange metal head protector with horns on it (with the kanji for 'oil' written boldly), and thankfully this time, his pants fully in place for polite company. Naruto didn't give even a twitch of recognition; he bowed deeply in greeting to his lord, and nodded politely to the (visible) stranger in the room. "I am here at your command, Hokage!"

In a voice of genial authority Sarutobi responded: "And promptly, too. Mitarashi has been training you in conduct also, I see. The man behind me is an old pupil of mine, Jiraiya. I have decided that he should give our large crop of promising genin an evaluation, prior to the Chunin Examinations Final. There will probably be Team reassignments, as some are passed and others stay in their present ranks, and I value his judgment on how best to do the remedial organizational adjustments. It will, of course, be necessary for him to see not only the files on our aspiring genin, but also conduct hands-on evaluations of their talents himself. I have picked you to be his first subject, as both or your teammates have a chance of being promoted this time around, and your team is therefore very vulnerable to being broken up."

The boy was silent for a few seconds, then responded. "Jiraiya-sensei, I would be honored for you to examine my skills and talents, and would take any recommendations you make with the utmost seriousness and regard.

"As a side note, I should inform you that I have heard of a man, matching your general description, who has been alleged to have been in an incident doing damage to one of the hot springs bathing establishments in town. I would advise that you work to clear up that misunderstanding, and even have such an imposter apprehended, lest it cause you difficulties while evaluating any of our talented kunoichi. By talented I mean, of course, deadly."

The man straightened up, took a pose that an actor doing an important announcement might make, and responded.

"There is no imposter; none would dare! That was me; Jiraiya the Gallant Toad Sage, Konoha's greatest author, and the Super-Pervert of the Land of Fire! The Sannin, and honored student of the God of Ninjas himself!"

The Hokage shrugged, modestly.

"I, Jiraiya, have joyfully endured the righteous fists and kicks of the beautiful and virtuous fair maidens of Konohagakure in my pursuit of truth to propel my art!"

"The path of wisdom is often over thorny ground," Naruto offered.

"I see that you understand what's going on, kid," the Sannin replied as he grinned. "Tell you what, if I see a hole in your education or techniques, maybe I'll give you some hints on how to fix them up. You remind me of a student I once had; nice kid, I wonder what ever happened to him, sometimes." His eyes flicked for an instant to the Hokage.

"So's how about you and I go out to someplace quiet, and you show me what you can do. And yeah, I know about your little passenger, so don't worry about that secret coming out. I also know a little about seals; so do you mind if I take a look at yours?"

Naruto looked at the Hokage, who gave a friendly nod.

"I would be honored, Jiraiya-sensei. I am totally at your convenience."

Seeing the tall man stride out of the door, Naruto made a deep bow to his Kage, and turned and followed the self-styled 'Super-Pervert.' When they were down at the entrance to the Hokage's Tower Naruto stopped, and made three clones, gave them a nod, and sent them off on their errands. At Jiraiya's inquiring glance, Naruto sighed and gave his usual explanation when someone first saw him doing things like that.

"Yes, I know. Most Jonin-level ninja are lucky to be able to push out three or four Shadow Clones at a time without falling over with chakra exhaustion. I generally have that many just going around town doing things for me. And no, it's not something I can do because of my guest, it's just plain me. I wanted to let my teammates know that I wouldn't be meeting up with them for training or anything today. I figure that after you're done with me I'll be lucky not to be in the hospital, after all!

"I mean… Jiraiya the Sannin! How many people get a chance for someone of that fame to tell them how bad they are? You're like something out of history come to life. You have to tell me how you turned out so great!"

Jiraiya waved his hand, and stopped talking like either a 'Super-Pervert' or a Sannin, but just as a friendly man. "Natural talent, kid. Natural talent. And working at it sixteen hours a day for years didn't hurt any, either."

Gods and Demons, he was so much like Minato at that age! Certainly a little quieter, at least in public, but that smile, those chakra reserves! He'd even been able to understand his new Sensei's little… peculiarities… that would have sent most kids his age into one sort of shock or another. Hey, maybe he knew the name of that incredible blond back at the hot baths that had been the immediate cause of the little… incident?

It was only when they had reached the deserted training area and started their evaluatory testing that Jiraiya began to start to get worried. The kid was good, allowing for his still imperfectly healed arm; a likely Chunin Exam finalist, but there was nothing… special about his skills or abilities. There was nothing of the spark that Minato had shown, even at the start.

"Not terrible, but really, is that all you got? I'd have expected Oro-chan's student to have shown you a bit more. Looks like she really was a disappointment to him."

That was when the boy stopped dead for a moment, the bruise on his cheek from the last exchange not doing its normal almost instantaneous fading. He hunched over, just slightly, and his eyes took on a small squint.

"I haven't gotten to what Anko-sensei has been working on us with, yet."

Jiraiya had to admit the sudden flurry of flash and smoke tags, mixed with one hellacious explosive one, that followed were impressive in both numbers and strength. The way the boy came out of the least likely quadrant of the area that had been obscured indicated tactics had been one of the things 'Anko-sensei' certainly had been covering. That the first two Naruto's that had attacked had been mere diversionary clones was right out of Orochimaru's playbook, though the way the third body in range had been the boy himself indicated that his teammate hadn't been followed in all regards. Jiraiya had no hesitation in knocking the boy right back through the still existing smokescreen with a hard kick smashing into his torso. Naruto had proven that he could take a bit of damage. Avoiding anything hidden in the smokescreen by leaping over it, Jiraiya spotted the prone but moving form of the boy just past a goodly sized crater. It was time to end this, and probably give the boy an apology for disparaging his regular sensei; she had been teaching them excellent tactics, and to be fair Jiraiya knew that she had also shown the kid how to make some exceptionally good offensive chakra tags.

As he bent over the kid to give him a disabling nerve pinch prior to lifting him up by his ear, it was only his still finely-tuned perceptions and reflexes that managed to let him turn to face Naruto as the boy surged out of the crater he had created for that purpose, and attacked with the kodachi he had finally drawn. Something still didn't add up though, so Jiraiya began a quick pivot and arm swing that blocked the stab coming at him from what had been his rear a second ago.

When the blade was knocked aside, Naruto took a step back and thrust. It was well enough done, for something he hadn't had time to properly set himself up for, but Jiraiya could see the 50 cm blade wouldn't be able to reach quite far enough to wound. Until, with the tip shining a good finger's length short of the palm ready to do the next slapping block, Jiraiya saw the back of his hand suddenly bloom with blood, and felt an instant afterwards the familiar pain of an in-and-out wound through his hand. Followed shortly by the feeling of a Shadow Clone kunai, wielded by a Shadow Clone Naruto, cutting into his left calf. Lashing back with a wooden clog Jiraiya dispersed the clone by reflex, and then he spent the next few moments showing Naruto that a few cheap tricks (or even some very good ones, well performed) weren't enough to put down a Sannin. The boy was game to the end, though, and avoiding the of use of lethal force meant Jiraiya had to take more time than he would have originally estimated to bash him into unconsciousness.

Yes, Sarutobi-sensei had been right; Naruto was ready for advanced training. Depending on how much of what he had shown was due to Mitarashi's work it might be worthwhile to give her a looking at also; one of the things Jiraiya had never been completely happy about was the way that after leaving a genin team each ninja had to sort of scrounge for themselves any extra or advance training.

Naruto was very proud inside, when he became conscious. He had managed to give a decent fight to one of the Sannin themselves, and still held off from using either Chakra Flood or Triple Oni on the guy. Not that he would have been likely to actually have landed a hit with them, and Triple Oni was still really in the experimental stages. If he had used Sexy, or especially Bimbo, and won, it wouldn't have been fair. The guy wasn't even a normally perverted man; he was evidently an addicted unfortunate (after all, sex makes you stupid and deaf, right?). Anyway, losing was more likely to serve Naruto's longer term purposes than winning would have. When the Sannin had said that Naruto had reminded him of an old student of his, there had been a significant glance given; there was something worth discovering there, an old secret. Maybe there was nothing currently useful, but the "an old student of mine" was important coming from Jiraiya; he had trained the Fourth, after all.

That evening, Hyuga Hinata missed finding Naruto at his usual favorite spot at Ramen Ichiraku after she was finished for the day working with Uchiha Sasuke. Since a clone messenger had come telling them he would be busy for a day or so she wasn't worried, just a little disappointed. The bandages keeping her nose protected had finally come off that morning, and she almost felt pretty.

The last week had been very instructional to her, and not just in refining her skills. For example: Sasuke. He was very different from the person she remembered from school, and far more pleasant. She suspected it had been all the unwanted attention from the silly schoolgirls that had made him so grouchy back then. She, herself, was a Sakura partisan in the Sasuke Wars. Tamaki was a decent contender, but her diffidence ('learn a lesson there, Hinata girl,' she thought) held her back. When Ino had visited, the blonde had practically done a parody of a geisha (or even someone of a… lesser profession) in her efforts to get his attention. But Ino wasn't a trained geisha, and Sasuke wasn't a drunk and middle aged man trying to pretend he was a romantic young blade. It really was fun to see other people's romantic tangles. Now if she would only have some of her own to amuse them

It had taken enough to get a good three men drunk to finally start Jiraiya talking freely, but it was worth it. The man was a natural-born freeloader, but he was also naturally gregrarious and cheerful. The hitting on every woman who couldn't honestly be called outright hideous was a bit much, but it proved that he really was, as he claimed, the 'Gallant Jiraiya' of legend. It was toward the shank of the evening that he finally lost all discretion, and Naruto felt that losing a good night's sleep was finally paid for.

"He was always so damn cheerful, couldn't hold a grudge in a basket… same hair, same eyes, can't believe it… don't worry, he didn't start going after the ladies until he was older either… he had tons of the stuff, wells of chakra, too… everyone thought he was clumsy at first too, so ya come by it… she was always so pretty, even when I first teased her… Oro-chan, you bastard! I still like him, you know, despite everything. He was always so polished. We thought he was joking when he said things. Instead he was using our love to hide in plain sight… she'll never care again, just too wounded… Minato'd be proud of you…" and on, rambling until dawn was breaking, and Naruto steered him into an early opening Inn and paid for a day's stay with money filched from the Sannin's pocket.

As he walked home Naruto looked up at the Hokage Monument, lit by the rising sun. He made a perfect clone of himself and made it stand just a bit off to the side of the sightline to the carved head of the Fourth. 'You remind me of a student I once had.' How good could a rendering of a face with a fifteen meter long nose be, anyway? It was time to catch a little sleep.

He showed up at the training area Team Seven was using in the early afternoon; knowing how to deal with hangovers was one of the many things he had learned in the years since he had begun wandering on Konoha's, and his own, business. They were all there, plus an addition: Mitarashi, Haruno, the Uchiha, Naruto, and a Hyuga girl. Jiraiya had read the reports on the team, both the sets that were the result of ANBU (and Yakushi's) surveillance, and the ones (far more positive) that Mitarashi had filed about the skills of the genin. From his viewpoint it seemed that the Jonin-sensei had, after all, not been exaggerating her team's basic skills level.

The Uchiha was doing sword sparring against both his sensei and Naruto, and holding up surprisingly well. When the dark-haired boy suddenly shot out a fifteen meter long spike of flame Naruto was able to dodge it in his turn, and tried to slide in under it for knee-cracking slice. Which the Uchiha evaded by a high tumblesault leap, and at the same time also managed to block the snake-quick thrust from his sensei's blade. But by the time he actually landed Naruto was in position, and had half performed a vicious kick to the groin. Which he left uncompleted, getting from the Uchiha a mumbled comment: "Thank you."

"Think nothing of it, I figured you might need 'em someday. Pass it on."

Jiraiya looked over where the two girls were, and hurriedly looked away again. The number of layers of genjutsu that were being spun there on a second by second pace was impossible to keep up with. He could have kept himself clear of any illusions spun by practitioners of their experience, of course, but interrupting kunoichi when they were practicing could easily turn out to be a painful business. He had experience of that. In any case, a moment or so later both girls collapsed, giggling.

Mitarashi had meanwhile approached and introduced herself, and the others there.

"Joining us today is Hyuga Hinata, who has been kind enough to help us train for the upcoming examinations. She herself would have likely been a contestant if her opponent in the preliminary elimination round had not been one of those most likely to have an advantage against her."

The girl, lying half-propped up on her arms and covered with sweat, blushed becomingly, and a small smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. The pink-haired girl next to her gave her a small, encouraging punch on her shoulder.

"I understand that you did an evaluation of Uzumaki Naruto yesterday; perhaps while Haruno Sakura and Miss Hyuga rest for a moment or two you might wish to test Uchiha Sasuke. Since Namiashi Raido has been kind enough to give his some tutoring, Sasuke's kenjutsu has, frankly, reached a level that I can match, but not currently surpass. So to give him a really good workout we tend nowadays to do two or three to one on him, otherwise he gets a swelled head."

At that point Naruto stuck his tongue out at the Uchiha, who smirked back in return.

Jiraiya noticed that there was an odd look to the swords that had been being used a few moments ago, and gestured an obvious, but unvoiced question.

"Jiraiya-sama, during spars, especially so close to the Examination Combat, we have been using wooden blades, loaded with lead inside to a slightly heavier weight than normal, painted silver so that the effect of reflected light will not startle or confuse my students. They are also training with light weights on their limbs for the purpose of increased stamina and speed."

Jiraiya looked at the bandage on his still twinging hand. Wooden swords; he would have used dulled metal, but to each their own. At least she wasn't crazy enough to have had her students use sharp steel for daily practice. So, she wasn't taking all of her training tricks from Oro-chan's playbook.

"I think, in the interests of saving time, so that I can get to see as many of those I'm interested in before the exams, I'll just do my look-see on all of you at once. Hyuga-san included; I'd have to catch up to her later anyway. I've already done Uzumaki, so he should sit out."

Jiraiya noticed a lightning quick flash of anger pass over the boy's face, to disappear without a trace. Well, that told him all he needed to know about team loyalty. Naruto then made a strange undulating hand signal. Seeing it, Haruno went over and whispered something into the Hyuga's ear, getting a nod in response.

"You stay too, to inspire your troops, Mitarashi-san."

The woman looked startled, but complied, going over to stand next to her 'troops.' She caught their eyes, and pointed toward the Uchiha.

"Now!" said the Sannin, and watched as the Jonin-sensei summoned a small clutch of snakes, that immediately disappeared into the ankle-length grass. Then all the humans suddenly turned into the form of Uchiha Sasuke, and running crisscrossing paths spread out in a 180 degree arc around him. As soon as they did that, a half-dozen other Sasukes appeared, and the crisscrossing run started again. Jiraiya realized he should have instituted some more stringent ground rules at the start of this little contest. Now that he remembered it, there had been a note that at the preliminary eliminations Team Seven had shown a notable preference for using clones to confuse and bewilder their opponents. Evidently the Hyuga had picked that idiosyncrasy up herself.

Then he had to start dodging and blocking missile weapons, snakes trying to poison him at the ankle level, and assorted quick in-and-out attacks from wherever his blindside was at any instant. He handled it all, of course, and had started to get an idea of which 'Sasuke' was which 'not-Sasuke,' especially as he was dissipating the clones as almost as fast as they were being made. Then, at a shouted word, everyone became Mitarashi, and he had to start doing the separation all over again. 'Note to self: either specify no disguises if evaluating groups, or just don't be lazy and test the subjects one at a time.'

It had taken a little time, but the Sannin had managed to isolate the real Mitarashi, and using speed he hadn't had to use in a decade, managed to knock her out of the battle. The one who should be the Uchiha was limping by then, but giving himself away by superior sword-work in defense. The two girls were harder to sort out; they had uncanny ability to flow around each other and cover each other's attacks and retreats. Evidently Team Seven was so good at teamwork that they could integrate a new member into their movement patterns in a matter of a week or two. But there was only so much that the genin, now no longer supported by their Jonin-sensei, could do.

He managed to just clip one of the female Mitarashis, and sent her sprawling to the ground on her back. Her disguising henge flickered for a second, than faltered and faded completely. Revealing Her, the blond goddess of the Baths, in all of her naked and hygienically shaved glory. While Jiraiya was pondering this important discovery, a sudden flash of movement distracted him from his vital research. He was almost quick enough to block the sudden flurry of lightning fast touches that closed off all the tenketsu points in his arms, and then stopped his diaphragm. Within the next ten seconds he collapsed, not even taking any satisfaction at the kick that drove his attacker back in a crumpled heap ten meters away.

When he came to Jiraiya looked around at the now varied assortment of faces and forms. Nearby and facing him were Mitarashi, the Uchiha and Naruto. Some distance away, and facing away from the rest, were Haruno and the Hyuga; the later topless, and having her upper torso bandaged. First things first, he decided.

"Now I want to get this completely clear. Hinata-san, you were the Hyuga who lost the preliminary bout, right?"

If a person is fair-skinned enough, it is completely possible for their entire back to blush.

Nara Shikamaru was standing in front of the Hokage, wishing that he was still young enough to break down crying. It was bad enough that he was fighting Gaara of the Sands as his first (and undoubtedly, only) opponent. Of course, things being what they were, another layer of grief was being laid down upon his substrate of terror.

In his most official voice, the Hokage was giving the genin some final instructions: "As we are the closest of allies with Suna, and your opponent is, after all, the youngest child of the Kazekage, it would be very injudicious of you to use new, unexpected and exceptionally violent methods in fighting him. For the good of our diplomatic posture the Kazekage's family must not suffer great injuries at the hands of a Konoha ninja."

"Kage, Uchiha Sasuke knocked the girl from Suna around pretty bad, right there at the end of his fight with her. It wouldn't play well-"

"Shikamaru! You know very well that Sasuke-kun gave a series of love-taps compared to what his abilities are; nothing more than what a kunoichi might expect in a training session. And if I'd had time to brief him properly he'd have been even more circumspect; I understand his diversionary tactics have caused her to develop a decided antipathy to us as it is. Though, to be fair, you just can't please all people.

"After all, you managed to deal with the middle brother without too much fuss, didn't you? A bright boy like you should discover a method of dealing with younger one's… eccentricities… without having to resort to extreme tactics or equipment. Of course, I am sure you also realize that the exhibition must provide some exciting combat; the very idea that the son of Nara Shikaku would cravenly forfeit or dodge his responsibilities is unthinkable. If it appears that the ninja of Konohagakure are not ready to go the final measure in their pursuit of victory, it could be very bad for our reputation among the many potential clients who will be in the stands, cheering for the eventual victors."

For someone of almost legendary laziness, Shikamaru showed surprising energy and persistence in his protests. "Sir, it won't look good for a Konoha ninja to get crushed into a bloody pulp in the first twenty seconds either; it'll make us look like we're weak and not worth hiring. Surely I can at least go all out, with whatever I've got; he will. I saw what he did to Kiba!"

"Alas, duty is heavier than a mountain. You will, of course, not reveal anything, except the name of your opponent, of that which has been said in this office to anyone, even family. And that is a direct order from your Hokage.

"They'd be able to figure out who you will be fighting anyway, by the process of elimination," Sarutobi explained gently.

Shikamaru stood silently. A ninja isn't supposed to break down and cry, a genin can't scream in rage at his Kage; what else could he do? At the dismissing gesture he left the office, looking neither left nor right. All the way down to the entrance to the Hokage's Tower was like he was walking in a tunnel that only led down to Hell, with no turnoffs or ways of escape. In the street outside he avoided running into people without really noticing that they were there at all, and kept on going until he was away from the more built up areas and among the trees that separated each of the training areas from each other.

The day was fine, the air still warm, as autumn hadn't had a chance to really set in yet. There were nice clouds crossing the sky quickly, blown by faster winds up high. He didn't want anyone to disturb him for lying around purposelessly on the ground, looking up at the sky, so he began to climb a still-leafy tree to get out of their line of sight. He found that he somehow couldn't organize his chakra enough to just walk up the trunk, and scrambled up from bough to bough like a little kid. Once high up he found a limb with a view through the tree's canopy, and leaned back against the trunk, and let his empty mind be filled with the calm serenity of the sky.

As the boy left the office, in an unmistakable daze, Sarutobi Hiruzen smiled on the inside. Shikamaru was far too intelligent to think he had any sort of a chance against Gaara of Suna. He'd try to work out a dozen strategies, and find that each of them came up short. It might take him a week, but in the end… he'd just resign the moment he set foot in the Arena. And having resigned he would be denied promotion, just like his teammates, who were ineligible due to having not gotten into the Finals. Sarutobi would then be able to keep them together as a genin team for at least another cycle of the Chunin Exams, and vastly improve the chances that the next time they applied (the likelihood of another Gaara being entered, or an Orochimaru interfering, being slight) they might well be promoted together. Then, the powerful Ino-Shika-Cho team name would be carried on for another generation, striking fear in Konoha's enemies.

There was still light shining on the upper leaves of the taller trees, with their bases already deep in dusk, when Uzumaki Naruto sat down on the same branch as Nara Shikamaru and nodded, looking like he wanted to talk. Shikamaru didn't respond. Naruto sighed, dramatically. It was going to be one of those conversations. It was lucky for him that he had taken an advanced degree in verbal fishing and inarticulate decoding under that master problem, Uchiha Sasuke.

He pondered his options, deciding on an historical lead-in as the best approach.

"You left the Hokage Tower hours ago, looking like someone you really knew well had just been killed. Face white, not even grunting at people who knew you and said hello, the whole thing. You decided to hide vertically, skipped going home or even going to visit Choji. What's up?"

Shikamaru opened his mouth, and then stopped. There were too many things to say, too many things he couldn't say, and his mind for the first time he could remember just wouldn't do anything. His face gave a twitch, and he tilted it back and looked up through the leaves to where the Moon was rising over the Hokage Monument.

"That bad, huh? Tell old Doctor Uzumaki what the problem is... "

The silence grew long.

"Damn it, Shikamaru! Maybe I can't help you, but maybe I can. At least you can cry on my shoulder. I know your mother and father are OK. Choji and Ino are wondering where you are; what the hell is wrong?"

Shikamaru slid off of the branch, landing heavily ten meters below. He was walking away by the time Naruto had realized what was happening and had leaped down and caught up to him.

Over the hours alone he had at least gotten back a smattering of his chakra control, he used his family's signature jutsu, turned toward Naruto, and snared him in a shadow hidden in the night. Then he began to walk backwards, away from the other boy, who mimicked his movements for a moment. Then he stopped. Shikamaru took another unmatched step then shrugged and let the jutsu lapse. Of course. Naruto was insanely charka-strong; he'd shown that in Wave. No matter how much Shikamaru had trained and improved he just didn't have the sheer power to overwhelm people like that. It didn't matter if Gaara's sand defense considered a mere shadow a threat or not, the sheer amount of the stuff that he had been throwing around in the preliminary fight against Kiba had shown he had huge reservoirs of chakra, surely too much for techniques that a genin of six months experience could use. Only one thing to do now.

"Naruto, I'm sorry I did that, it wasn't what a friend should have done. I'm fighting the Suna kid, Gaara, in the Finals, and there is now no way I can survive. I'm just a little disturbed that I've got nine days more to live. I guess I should just go and make up a list of all the things I'm going to never get to do. You know; dating girls, picking up bad habits, seeing Ino get her head out of her ass about Choji. Things like that."

"You could just walk in, and forfeit before this Gaara gets a chance to get to you. I saw him fight; yeah, he's a monster, but Kiba isn't you. You don't have to be the king mutt all the time. You can do that, can't you?"

Shikamaru ground out, "There are… reasons… that I have to 'put on a good show,' it seems… I can't say… "

"Ya' can't win, and you can't fold like a towel. Sounds like you're screwed."

By now both boys were slowly walking in the more developed parts of the town. Shikamaru didn't notice a graceful four legged form that was keeping near them in the dark. Naruto knew about it. After all, it was Hiroshi the ninja-cat that had finally tracked the Nara to his refuge.

"Ya can't win? I thought clans like yours had all sorts of super stuff hidden away for real emergencies. Can't your pop give you a special lesson on something that will be good for a one time shot at it?"

Shikamaru just shook his head. "Things like that take too long to learn for combat use. And they need more power than I have, or will have for years. Which means I need time, which is what I don't have.

"When he got his sand on Kiba, the arena there was small enough for the referee to get there fast and get him to drop dog-boy before he could be totally crushed. The big arena in town… it's not going to happen that way. Besides, I'm sure he's pissed I beat his brother. Not that they seem to get along; but … teammates… brothers on the same team. Hell, if I was on the same team as Sasuke I'd be ticked if someone beat him.

"I'll dodge around as long as I can, and when he finally gets his hands on me, 'goodbye cruel world.' There's no chance to tap out wounded, once he's in contact. He's the sort who goes around muttering 'I'll kill you all!' and meaning it."

Naruto mused on this as they passed a few shops with lit windows. As they were abreast of a coffee/pastry shop he looked in the window, then grabbed Shikamaru's arm.

"We need some caffeine and something for quick energy. Now!"

When he has seated at a counter, with a large mug of heavily sugared coffee and some powdered sugar covered concoction in front of him, Shikamaru realized he was hungry. There was no point in starving to death before he was killed, was there?

Naruto was acting frantic, sipping from the large mug he had ordered, getting seconds and then thirds of various sweet and sticky slices of cake, and twisting his head here and there, and then looking at Shikamaru's face intently for several minutes.

"If you were injured, you think you could throw in the towel and get away with it?"

"Maybe, but with Gaara… you saw it. Wounding and killing are going to be real close together. I've thought about it, and he's not going to stop, even if the ref does manage to get out a decision to end the bout. "

"So, we don't let him be the one to hurt ya'"

"Naruto, I always knew you were my friend. But by now I've got the feeling that the only way I could get out of the fight would be if some little 'training exercise' actually took a leg off. I don't think anything less will do. It's a nice offer, but don't get yourself burned, trying to help me."

The blond laughed.

"Ya' see, this is why you should bring your problems to old Doc Uzumaki. He knows how to make just the right pill to handle your problem."

Shikamaru remembered that Naruto made his own explosive tags, and had been working with other very effective explosive techniques.

"Idiot! I'm not allowed to k…"

A little silence followed.

"So you were at the Hokage Tower where you get the news… and orders?"

Shikamaru slumped down in his seat, defeated.

"Ya' can't say, of course. Don't matter, the Doctor has the answer to your problem. Least I hope I do. You better hope also. And it won't involve anyone getting killed, maybe.

"Shika, what you gotta remember is that we're ninjas, and sneaky is the name of the game. Waiter, can I have a bowl of cream?"

While that order was being brought, Shikamaru's brain began to work again. Naruto, Team Seven, clones, smoke screens, illusions, there was something there, but no path to victory against Gaara that Shikamaru could see.

When it was brought the bowl was put down on the floor, a cat that no one seemed to have noticed coming into the shop sauntered up and began lapping. When the waiter made a motion to shoo the beast away and out of the place, Naruto caught his eye. There was a smile on the boy's face, but he shook his head 'No,' and the waiter desisted. He knew the reputation of the boy as a prankster. While there had never been any trouble when he had been in the coffee house before, it probably wasn't wise to get on the bad side of a pair of ninjas in any case. And the cat wasn't making a nuisance of itself, anyway.

At Shikamaru's glance, Naruto replied, "Always gotta feed the troops." At which the cat looked up and gave a distinct nod.

Finally Shikamaru gave his final conclusion, "I don't see how I can use any deceptions to eke out a victory over Gaara. Not any I can learn in the time I've got left."

"Ya' got it wrong; fooling Gaara isn't your highest priority. It's fooling everybody else. I checked out the Arena a few days ago, and under the conditions you're going to be in, it should be doable."

"And that's how I got my clock cleaned by a bunch of genin and their decent, but by no means exceptional, Jonin-sensei," Jiraiya said with relish.

Sarutobi sighed. That last statement was a sign of exactly what prevented his ex-student from ever really being suitable for the office of Hokage. The boy was cursed with too much good humor, passion, and his huge sense of due proportion. He had no proper regard for the dignity of his title, was not nearly touchy enough about how people acted toward him. Being a far-off and slightly terrifying figure that very occasionally unbent enough to be graciously condescending was part of the mystique of, and power of, the office of Hokage. Being kind to children was an acceptable flaw in the Hokage image; it let people believe that there was enough warmth inside the man under the hat that it was worthwhile throwing themselves at his mercy when they were caught by life's mischances (or detected in their own malfeasances). Instead, Jiraiya was either known as an abstract historical anecdote, or as the author of some well-written books of erotica. His great achievements were undervalued by all, and he would never get the proper level of distant respect that would have allowed him to claim unthinking obedience.

It was true that his pose as a Super-Pervert wandering around and doing research (alas, all too close to reality!) helped him in his intelligence gathering activities. But he was still the same old under-achiever he had been as a (literally) snot-nosed genin. Orochimaru, his ex-sensei had recently learned, was now the founder of his own Hidden Village. Utterly evil and cruel, it was true. But in its own twisted way, it was heartwarming to see an old student go so far. Even Tsunade had a more poignant reputation. Being called the "Legendary Sucker" at least showed that her flaws, as well as her talents, were of greater than human size, while the whispered stories of her lost family and loves, and her carrying the cursed necklace of the Senju, lent an aura of dignity and tragedy to her.

"So, Jiraiya, you do think that Naruto would benefit from being pulled from regular duties and made your student?"

"Yeah, Sensei; he's at a critical point right now. Under Mitarashi he'll become a master of… I won't call them junk, but just normal, low powered, techniques. He has the potential to handle mountain-breaking jutsu. With his teammates likely to be promoted, while he won't, it will be a perfect opportunity to split him off for 'tutoring.' He'd be a pain to work with without a good excuse to take his team apart; the kid's got a real bond with the others. Even his Sensei is more his Big Sister to him than a teacher, at least in his mind.

"And by the way, he might just be a born intuitive seal-master. I checked out his beast-seal. It's working perfectly, but it is definitely not exactly the same as the one Minato had put on him, back then. He swears he hasn't touched it, but it's modified. He must have done it from the inside. The Prisoner is still locked up tight, but the kid said he had decided to give the Nine-Tails a window to look out from. So he did."

The Hokage snorted, "That is quite impossible, and you should know that!"

"I know what I see, and test for. Between what the kid was born with, what he's had to learn how to handle, and what the Nine-Tails has that has to be kept under control, there's more chakra in a small space that anything I've ever heard of, much less seen in person before."

"As the Hokage I would know of something of that magnitude and importance. So don't be impertinent, I can still give you a smack on the ear if you're being stupidly stubborn."

With his most serious tone Jiraiya answered his Master, "You'd know, because you'd be told by your foremost expert in the field. Which you just have been. That hat doesn't give wisdom; it just keeps the sun out of your eyes. The title lets people know who they should turn to for direction; it doesn't make that person a bit more informed than they were before. At least it doesn't do that if they refuse to listen to those who are their resources for specialized information.

"I've been warning you that Oro-chan has been messing about in the Land of Rice Fields, and you don't let me pursue it until you find out he's pulling the strings behind this 'Village Hidden in the Sound' farce. After he's gotten his agents in place, and had a kill-team gunning for the last Uchiha in the Exams. I'm your chief field-agent for External Security, and you've been blowing me off on this for the last three years. If you don't like my work, tell me. Put someone else in charge, and let me go bar-hopping full-time!

"When is the last time you ever really looked at Naruto's seal? Or had someone else do that? "

The impertinence of his former student was irritating the Hokage enough for him to let his carefully held temper slip a little. "You will obey me, and treat me with respect!"

"I always do, Sensei. But that doesn't mean I think you're always right."

"As I am the Hokage, I am always right."

Jiraiya's breaking out in a loud laugh was just another piece of proof that he was unsuitable for the office he was showing disrespect to.

Still… who else was there capable of dealing with Naruto's potentials, now that Hatake was dead? There were talented ninja: Kurenai, Hyuga Hiashi, Guy. There were brilliant ninja: Nara Shikaku came to mind. But to deal with someone of Naruto's potential Hatake Kakashi would have been the best choice. The connection with his own sensei, Minato, alone would have ensured his diligence and enthusiasm. So, by default, Jiraiya it was going to be. At least being under Anko's training had made all of Team Seven obedient and biddable.

Sprawled on the sofa, feet up on the coffee table in Yuhi Kurenai's apartment, the paragon of obedience was trying to get a little help on subverting the existing order of Konoha. Swirling crimson imported grape-wine in a crystal goblet, Kurenai was enjoying the opportunity to be with her best friend, while not have herself being teased about her on-and-off relationship with Sarutobi Asuma. Instead, Anko was giving a spirited paranoid rant.

"You can just about trace the rise of Konoha's latest financial mogul to when his grandmother got on the Council. I mean, you remember him back in Academy, right? Snarky, smart, and always looking out for himself, first and foremost. And then there was that 'Medical Discharge' from active ninja service right after Utatane Koharu gets installed as the Special Financial Overseer for Intestacy Funds. Then when the Uchiha mess came up… and we get the Utatane Investment and Savings Corporation and UC and R suddenly springing up and swinging all sorts of those big construction projects. And you know how the boondoggles related to that have been suppressed.

"Can't you get the 'Living Smokestack' to at least give me a peek at one set of uncooked records? It's not just my kids that are being screwed here, a lot of folks, even civilians, are getting dragged in. I've got Sasuke to start pulling his accounts out of Utatane I and S, and putting the money in a firm with a longer track record, but there's been a notice posted that the laws allowing guardians to dispose of real properties are going to be modified, and the biggest block of real estate that's could be up for grabs is the bulk of the Uchiha Compound."

Kurenai wondered if it was the fact that Anko had grown up in genteel poverty which made her so worried about money. Kurenai herself had the more typical ninja attitude about the stuff; she could always make more, and in any case there was such a vanishingly small chance that she would ever live long enough to actually retire on her hypothetical savings, anyway. Still, no one liked to be played for a sucker, and if she had thought that one of her genin were being abused… it would be her obligation to do whatever she could to fix the problem. And it would give her an excuse to talk with Asuma, and patch up their latest tiff. Anko had this huge thing about asking for favors, except from her closest friends. Probably more results of growing up trying to keep one step ahead of her family's creditors, and too often having to beg for a place to stay for the night, or a meal from one of her better-off schoolmates.

Kurenai had been glad when Anko had been appointed as a Jonin-sensei, even though it meant that with both of them teaching a genin team they hardly had time to get together. When they did get their chance they'd spend an hour trading stories, and would go out like old times to see what the limited nightlife of Konoha had to offer. It really wasn't a big town, not like the Daimyos' capitals in Fire, Earth, or Tea countries. There being a tendency for ninja to have their own circuit of entertainment spots, the opportunities in Konoha were even more limited than the population size suggested.

But what could be done with the situation, Anko (very predictably) did and overdid. And that was how they'd met Asuma. Actually, that was how Kurenai had rescued Asuma from Anko putting on the vamp, and probably leaving him at the end of evening, high, dry, and very frustrated.

The Hokage's son had just come back from his contract as one of the Daimyo's guardians, and was still trying to get used to life in the slow lane, with virtually no entertainment but karaoke in the bars and one movie theater in town. And living under his father's eye again. After the refined atmosphere (and mannered affairs) of the Daimyo's court he had been helpless against Typhoon Anko, until Kurenai had mercy on him. Since then they had been driving each other crazy, and Anko hadn't let up teasing Kurenai that if she had just left well enough alone, Asuma would have just had an incredible one night stand, and not had to try to work himself up to a proposal. The stress, according to Anko, had made the man double his smoking habit, and was ruining his health; Kurenai should just put him out of his misery and accept already!

Well, it would be an act of mercy.

Naruto felt guilty about being so resentful at the Sanin's offer to 'knock off a few of the rough edges' of his skills. It was just that between getting things prepared for Sakura and Sasuke, working out the script for the epic 'The Fall of Nara Shikamaru' with the star, and working on his own stuff, he didn't really have enough hours in his day for something else. Under other circumstances, who wouldn't be eager to work with Jiraiya? Under current circumstances, Naruto felt he just had to go with the flow, and make the best of it.

"Now, the first thing, I'm going to show you how to summon toads," said Jiraiya. "Don't feel bad if you only get a small one at first; everybody does."

"Jiraiya-sama, why toads? I thought summoned creatures were linked to your personality or something? I just don't feel that I'm a toad sort of guy, and anyway… toads? Ravens can fly and give you great spying. Dogs are great trackers. Snakes are tough and full of poison. Toads… eat bugs."

"Toads are awesome, full of skills and wisdom. And they beat Slugs!" For some reason that fact seemed to be of special importance to Jiraiya. The Sannin frowned for a moment, and then nodded his head.

"You'd just freeze up if I showed you one of the big boys, so it'll be Gamachuken for you!"

With that he slammed his hand into the ground, and with a flash a large green and black striped amphibian appeared, with a head inscribed with the kanji "skilled," and a daisho set of swords proportioned to its own size. Naruto estimated it to be a little smaller than one of the White Tigers of the Forest of Death, but scrunched up a bit, to take account of a normal toad-like posture. The swords were a nice touch, though. The short one… maybe 70 centimeters, the long one… say 110 or so?

Naruto immediately created a clone, and tossed it his 'B' bag of tags. It already knew what it was supposed to do, and quickly cleared the area while four more of its 'brothers' popped into existence and scattered around the area as the toad drew its blades and hopped into battle, letting out a vigorous "Hai!"

There was no way Naruto was going to get into a sword fight with that thing. It was obvious that it had the reach on him, and since its first response was to draw both swords and charge in Naruto knew he'd surely be using his Chunin level skill against probably some sort of super-master-level fighter with five hundred years of practice. Too much like a… not even a fair fight, just a stupid one. It was either time to keep his distance and start throwing things (which he did, to have it cut his kunai in half in mid-air with marvelous speed and power), or close to within a half-meter or so and pit his mighty 45 Kilos of mass against its puny two or three hundred or so. From the smirk on Jiraiya's face, the Sannin was enjoying this all too much. It was time to get a little creative.

The toad stopped its strange straddle-legged run when it saw that Naruto wasn't going to come to grips with it, and a disappointed look came over its face. At least that's what it looked like; to the extent that sort of face could have expressions that Naruto could read. Gamachuken evidently knew that while it could sprint as fast as anything, it wasn't a long-distance runner with its particular sort of stride and leg arrangement. So the toad pulled out its mobility ace: it hopped. Ten meters or more at a time; with Naruto dodging left and right, and doing slanting evasive sprints at one angle or another.

Suddenly a sleet of senbon needles came down around the boy, and he was in the midst of a roiling mass of suddenly appearing smoke. Deciding to end the pleasant chase before the ninja tried anything too cute, Gamachuken flipped out its rope-thick tongue with lightning speed to where the boy was seen last, and felt the familiar feel of a solid contact by that sticky body part. It retracted its encircling tongue, to find an irate Jiraiya stuck to it and approaching its face at great speed. The impact produced a loud 'smack,' and the sound of at least five identical laughs was heard around the pair.

By the time Sanin and toad were properly disentangled no Narutos were to be found. Unless Gamachuken listed how many trees and bushes were in the immediate area, and could compare it to how many had been there when he has started the fight, he was going to have a hard time pinpointing the genin he had been summoned to be an object lesson for.

"This isn't really proving anything, you know," Jiraiya yelled out.

The sound of unconcerned birds and cicadas was the only reply.

"You still can't beat him. You're not strong enough, or good enough!"

From half a dozen spots around the Sanin and toad, kunai and senbon came whizzing in, each with a fizzing and sparking fuse on it. Gamachuken, no fool, de-summoned himself, leaving Jiraiya alone to face the inevitable. Reacting with great speed, Jiraiya substituted a suspicious looking shrub for himself, and was safely out of the zone when each of the tags went off, in a dazzling burst of light.

"You don't deserve to have a Toad Contract!" Jiraiya shouted, as a clone moaned out from the center of the ring of flares, "My eyes, my eyes!" before it dispersed itself.

Jiraiya thought to himself, 'Gotta take that kid down a peg or two, or he'll never learn the important stuff.

'Or there is the alternative…'