My friend must be a bird,

Because it flies!

Mortal my friend must be,

Because it dies!

Barbs has it, like a bee.

Ah, curious friend,

Thou puzzlest me!

-Emily Dickenson

May 12, 10:00 a.m.

Naruto, having already been a ninja for quite some time—albeit a black-ops member only—knew enough about the horrors of Genin-hood so that he wasn't surprised at the "missions" they were required to take for the first few months. Of course, that didn't mean he wasn't annoyed, anyway.

So far, they'd painted fences, picked up trash, cleaned out a dusty attic, mowed a lawn, cleaned out a koi pond, walked and washed a few dogs, cleaned the Nara clan's personal library, sanitized the Inuzuka clan's kennels, caught a vicious cat (three times in one day), and (Naruto's all-time favorite) taste-tested a few of the Akimichi clan's new recipes.

Where was the action? Where was the adventure? Where was the killing? Alright, so there was a little action when chasing down Tora, and perhaps there was a little bit of adventure and risk of dying when tasting new recipes, but really! They were ninja! Academy students should have been assigned such duties!

He stated just as much when they'd finally caught Tora for the last time and handed the beast to the Fire Lord's wife.

Sarutobi smirked. "Actually, Naruto, academy students are assigned missions like that."

Sakura nodded. "I remember cleaning a house for extra credit a couple years ago."

"I babysat," Sasuke supplied helpfully.

Naruto blinked. "Seriously? But...last I heard..."

"We changed the curriculum not too long ago, Naruto. You never attended, so you couldn't have known, but students can now receive extra credit or make up a missed school day by volunteering for a D-ranked mission. We also assign a few as punishments for misbehavior." His eye gleamed for a moment. "If you had pulled off one of your pranks in the academy, you could've been made to clean all the toilets in the Hokage Tower."

The blonde's heart leapt in fear at that prospect. The tower had a lot of bathrooms...

But it was Kakashi who at last came to the rescue. "Eh, Hokage-sama, I think they're probably ready for a higher-ranked mission."

Sandaime was not convinced, if the look on his face were any indication. "I do not doubt their skills, Kakashi. What I'm interested in is their teamwork."

The Jounin nodded. "It's better, but it'll never become great with them just doing random chores. They have progressed through the drills adequately and now it's time to use what they've learned."

"Hmm...we'll see." The Third made a lightening-fast gesture and a ninja with a needle in his mouth appeared. "Bring in Tazuna," the old man said before turning back to Kakashi. "This man is requesting an escort as he returns to his home in the Land of Waves, as well as a guard until his bridge is completed. Think they can handle it?" There was a strange tone in the Hokage's voice that made Naruto's ears tingle.

Their sensei's eyes—er, eye opened slightly wider. "Absolutely. And we can use Naruto's Shadow Clones to speed up the building a bit."

"And his other...skills?"

"Will they be needed?" This time, his one eye narrowed.

Hiruzen smirked slightly. "Perhaps. The reports I receive cover a wide range of subject matter."

"Ah." The Jounin nodded to show he understood.

He wasn't the only one; Naruto got that code pretty easily, too, but before he could ask the Old Man what he was getting them into, a vile stench hit his nose and he gagged. "Mprhrr!" was all he could get out before he rushed over to the nearest wastebasket and emptied his stomach. And since he'd eaten at Ichiraku's just that morning, there was a lot to empty. A random blur from out of nowhere replaced the already filled wastebasket with a clean one, and he kept going without even acknowledging the poor ANBU who'd sacrificed a lot of dignity doing that.

When Naruto had finished being ill and turned back around, he blinked at what he saw.

Every eye was on him, and each face looked distinctly green...and not with envy.

" we know where he puts it all..." Kakashi muttered.

An old man the boy didn't recognize spoke next, but only after he'd taken a sip of what had to be some very hard liquor. "Thish're da brashts that're gonna wash ov'r me?" he slurred.

The smell of his breath almost made Naruto run back to the trashcan.

"I assure you," the Sandaime said, "that this team is perfectly capable of completing the mission for which you hired us...and more, Mr. Tazuna."

Tazuna gulped visibly and seemed to instantly sober up. "I-I as-assure you, Hokage-sama, I-"

The Hokage held up a hand with an amused smile. "Enough. I can see I've already convinced you of their worth." He turned to the Jounin. "Kakashi, I'd like for your team to leave today before noon."

"Yes, sir." The silver-haired man turned towards his students with what passed for a grin. "Run along now, little children."

They glared at him, of course, but didn't dare disobey.

Except for Naruto. He lingered a moment and stared Kakashi directly in the eye. "So," he began with a smirk, "how's getting that dye out coming along?"

The older man growled and Naruto quickly dodged the kunai sent his way and left the room, closing the door behind him. As he turned back around, however, he bumped nose-first into a green vest—Jounin, he immediately noted, and a chain-smoker, he had to guess, going by the smell.

"Oof!" the blonde said as leaned back slightly to get a look at the older man.

"Watch where you're going," an irritable voice growled out.

"Er, sorry, mister," Naruto replied, "but you were the one standing right outside the door. Who wouldn't have bumped into you?"

The man—a brunette, the blonde noticed now that they'd gotten some distance between each other—muttered something rather cross underneath his breath.

"Huh?" the twelve-year-old wondered out loud.

"Never mind," he snapped and then stepped around the boy and left abruptly.

Naruto blinked uncertainly. Hadn't he been going to see the Old Man? And there was something vaguely familiar about that guy, too...something about the beard and goatee, the way his eyes slanted, his face...something about those things nagged at the back of his mind. Where had he seen that guy before?

After thinking about it for a minute, the former ANBU decided he had more important things to do and left to pack. A simple Body Flicker later, he was in his room facing a wall. He did not notice Idate in his bed, nor did Idate notice him, as he was far too distracted.

"Let's see," the Genin muttered to himself, "we'll probably be there a few weeks, so it'd be best to use a scroll..." Naruto trailed off as a sound, a low moaning, made itself known to his ears. A shiver worked its way up his spine and he closed his eyes and turned around slowly to face his brother.


The moans got louder.


They reached a crescendo.

"Idate, if you're doing what I think you are, I'll turn every pair of socks and all the underwear you own pink!" It was remarkably similar to the recent prank he'd pulled on Kakashi.

The...noises abruptly stopped, and Naruto hazarded squeezing his eyes open, to his eternal regret.

"Oh, geez, I so did not need to see that!" And he squeezed his eyes shut again.

A sheepish voice answered him. "Sorry, Naruto. I, uh, didn't see you there..."

He sighed. "Is it safe to look now?"

Cloth rustled for a moment before Idate answered. "Um, yeah. Yeah, it's safe."

Naruto opened his bright blue eyes once more and saw, to his immense relief, that his older brother had stopped picking his nose. "Really, 'Date, what is it with you and those boogers?"

The brown-haired boy shrugged. "My nose itches right now, and there's really only one way to scratch a nose on the inside."

"But do you have to be so...vocal about it? You make it sound like something perverted!"

"Well, it really itched! Still does, in fact..."

"Don't you DARE!" the blonde snapped as he pointed. All of a sudden, Naruto couldn't wait to get out of the village for a couple of weeks and hurried to put his pack together.

To his immense relief, he arrived at the village gates thirty minutes later. No one else was there, so he decided to take the time to relax and brought out a book the Old Man had given to him for making Genin. So far, he'd found Seals: Defying the Laws of Nature to be extremely interesting. (Not that he read it, exactly; mostly, he read brief descriptions, looked at the pictures, and figured it out from there.)

Paralysis Tags—anyone with enough medical knowledge or a nifty lightening jutsu can paralyze an opponent, but the effects are typically short-term or even nonexistent (if the target is wind-natured, for example, it is more likely for it to be canceled out). Seals, however, can easily override a contrary chakra nature or any attempts to heal oneself. With the correct knowledge, the paralysis can vary in intensity, from a single digit being incapacitated to the target's entire system, and last for days or even weeks. Making and using a paralysis tag requires Level Three anatomy comprehension and Level Two seal mastery-

"Yeah, yeah. Blah, blah, blah," Naruto thought as he skipped past the rest of the long-winded description. He'd been interrogating people for years; one didn't do that without a good education regarding anatomy, such as pressure points and what-bleeds-the-most. He was at Level Seven. And in seals...well, he kept skipping those little tests at the end of the chapters, so where he was at was really anyone's guess. "So...looks like a containment seal that's been modified, but how? What does it—oh! I see. It holds a set amount of the user's chakra to prolong the paralysis., that's not right..." Naruto scratched his head. He was confused. "Is that a release valve? And on the other side, is that...? Yes! I've got it! That thing's what the author called the Gate. Chakra enters through it, travels to the converter, and exists once the containment seal opens up. Looks like both voltage and time delay are adjustable, meaning the effects are, as well. Nice!"

"What'cha lookin' at, Bro?" a loud, annoying voice let out right next to his left ear.

Naruto, having been rather distracted, had not noticed the young boy dressed in a blue shirt with khaki shorts sneaking up on him (the child had a fine gift, that he did) and let out a rather undignified and girly shriek as he leapt into the air. Once he landed back on the ground (on his feet, even), he whipped his head around and glared. "Konohamaru! How many times have I told you not to do that!"

Konohamaru smirked unrepentantly. "Once or twice."

Naruto snorted. "More like a hundred," he corrected.

The brunette pouted. "Oh, c'mon, Bro! I'm just using what ya taught me!"

"Yeah, so you could prank Kakashi, not scare me half to death!"

The boy smiled darkly. "Oh, you don't have to worry about that. I get him plenty, and Mom, too."

Now it was Naruto's turn to smirk. "That's my little protege," he said with as much pride in his voice as he could muster. "Tell me how your latest mission went." He didn't mean a ninja mission, either.

"No sweat, Boss. It was easy. I just waited till he and mom were doing those weird exercises in their room before I made my move."

The blonde shivered. 'Exercises, my foot.' He was surprised Ko was still so innocent, considering what perverts his parents were. Even with a little brother on the way, the Third's grandson honestly had no idea what Kakashi and Rin got up to at nights. "Well? Do you have it?"

Konohamaru dug into his back pocket and pulled out a rare, first-edition, autographed, and personally illustrated Icha Icha straight from Jiraiya himself. "Here it is, Boss! What'd ya want with this thing, anyway?" he asked as he handed it over.

Naruto, whose grin was positively evil, cackled as he held it aloft.

"Uh, Boss?"


"Why'd you want it?"

The former ANBU turned the orange monstrosity around and showed his little brother the back. "You see this?"


"What do you think it is?"

"I dunno," he shrugged. "Some weird drawing, I guess."

Naruto shook his head. "Nope. It's a seal array."

Konohamaru was shocked. "That thing's a seal? Cool!" Then, "What's it do?"

"Well, supposedly, this and the other two just like it had seals put on them by the author himself in order to keep the books in perfect condition for all of eternity."

"Whoa! Really?"

"Yeah, but I have my suspicions now that I know a little more about seals," he replied as he studied it carefully. "No doubt it does keep this thing mint, but the array's much too complex for that to be all it does."

Ko blinked. "Then, what?"

"That's what I'm gonna find out." He took a moment to look at the sun's position before sitting underneath a green, leafy tree. "You'd better get going now, though. Kakashi and my teammates are going to be here soon."


And with that, the little boy scampered off to find and torture his friends. He was already a promising tracker, as Naruto had been teaching him personally and no one was better at it than he was. Though the Hokage's grandson wasn't a natural-born sensor, he'd still trained himself to the point where he could pick up particularly strong signatures, as well as get around them. At nine years old, Konohamaru could scare the fire out of most ANBU, as Naruto himself knew firsthand. He would one day make a fine ninja, though he'd wisely chosen to take his time getting there.

Not having taken his time was something Naruto regretted the most. Undoubtedly, he'd done a lot of good since joining ANBU, but his childhood was irrevocably shot. Naturally, he hadn't minded at the time. What a little fool he'd been.

"We're all fools when we're children, and as we grow, we only become more sophisticated in our foolishness. Never assume yourself to be wise," Kakashi had once said to him, the words sounding suspiciously similar to Ibiki's father's many sayings.

Hopefully, his little brother would not make the same mistakes, but going by the younger boy's insistence on becoming Hokage, Naruto doubted it.

And speaking of becoming Hokage, the blonde had started noticing a certain reluctance coming up more and more whenever he spoke to the Sandaime about it. Not that he hated the thought of taking the position—it was his life's goal, after all—but Naruto also realized that maybe he wanted to wait a little longer before doing so. Old Man, however, wanted him to take the position in a matter of years, not decades.

"What do you think about taking this hat from me by your eighteenth birthday?" Sandaime had asked him just a few days ago.

A month before, Naruto would've started dancing around in excitement. Now, though...something had changed. He had friends—well, teammates, actually, but they were becoming friends. What would happen with all that when he became Godaime? The twelve-year-old got the strange feeling that he'd...miss them. Maybe it would be better if he didn't become Hokage so soon, but it wasn't fair to leave the Old Man in the position he should've already been retired from.

It was all very confusing.

A voice coming from the tree he was sitting under interrupted his thoughts.

"Hmm..." the voice spoke, "aren't you a little young for porn, Naruto?"

"Tenzou? Where'd you come from?" There was no sign of the man, but all the blonde had to do was use his sensor ability to know the older man was right above his head. "And what do you mean by that?"

The older nin laughed. "You do realize what you're holding in your hands, correct?" he responded, completely ignoring the first question.

Naruto blinked and looked down. "This?" He'd forgotten all about that thing.

"Yes, Naruto, that's porn," Tenzou replied with just a hint of amusement. "Surely you aren't emulating Kakashi's bad habits after everything we talked about, are you?"

"Huh? No!"

"Then, what are you doing with his...literature?"

Naruto glared. His ANBU partner—well, former partner—could be rather irritating at times. "Checking out the seal on the back, of course!"

At those words, the masked man jumped down to stand over the twelve-year-old. "What seal?"

"The one Jiraiya himself put on three of his first-edition books. It's supposed to preserve them, but there's no way that's all it does."

Tenzou tilted his head—a rather creepy thing with his ANBU mask on—and hummed. "Interesting. You'll have to tell me about it later."

Naruto scrunched his face up in confusion before his sensor abilities kicked in and he sensed the forms of his two teammates coming closer. "Right," he said as he carefully tucked the book away. "Guess I'll see you later, then."

The ANBU nodded and turned to leave, but just before he walked away, he looked over his shoulder at his comrade. "Naruto."


"I look forward to working with you in the future as an equal." With that, the older man walked seemingly straight into a tree and vanished.

Naruto couldn't help the smile on his face. Words like that from an ANBU to a mere Genin were considered high praise. But more importantly than that, Tenzou especially was sparse in his compliments. The most common was, "Right," or a hum and a nod. It felt...nice.

"What are you smiling about, loser?" a somewhat rude person—Sasuke—said behind him.

Naruto turned to face his teammate. "Heya, bastard!" he said, still grinning ear-to-ear.

Sakura shot a glare at him but didn't protest the nickname, choosing to attempt to burn him to death with her eyes as he and the Uchiha kept throwing insults back and forth with gigantic smirks on their faces.

It was all very amusing to the former ANBU. Yes, he was definitely liking his team.


Sasuke was more than a little disgusted the moment the bridge builder entered the Hokage's office, but he, unlike Naruto, at least managed to keep his food in his stomach...barely. He found no desire to eat before leaving the village, though, and instead headed over to the hospital for a visit.

The receptionist at the desk didn't even look up as he silently passed her, which was how he liked it. Sasuke hated for anyone to fawn over him, since it implied a measure of disrespect on their parts as well as dishonesty. Some of his "fans" were overprotective—did they think he was weak? What an insult!—to the point of smothering, and it was only to gain favor with the future clan head, so it was doubly insulting and sickening to listen to their prattle. If that female receptionist had seen him pass by, she would have immediately started hounding and pestering him, which would have then alerted all his other "fans" in the area.

He hated the fawning so much that he had grinned happily at many funerals—not because of their deaths but because of the silence and the fact that the dead couldn't bother him ever again. How many restraining orders did he have to issue before the people understood he just wanted to be left alone to care for the family members he had left?

And speaking of that...he was in room 317, in the Long-Term Care section of the hospital. Sasuke's genjutsu allowed him to pass by completely unseen by all as he entered the room with its lone patient, a thin man with long, dark hair and deep tracks under his eyes.

"Itachi..." he whispered, "when are you gonna wake up?"

The young ninja—still a teenager, really—had shown up out of the blue about six months ago, badly injured, bleeding, and barely able to stand, but the power he'd radiated even then had brought ANBU running from all corners of the village to the Uchiha heir's old bedroom (of all places for him to appear) in order to stop the "threat." Upon seeing and recognizing him, the ANBU had immediately rushed Itachi to the hospital, where the head doctor had done his best to treat him.

It hadn't worked. The disease they'd found ruining his body could not be cured by Dr. Yakushi's hands, so they'd used the only option left available to them: they'd put his body in stasis, something only possible because the extremely rare disease was in its earliest stage. Itachi would neither age nor change, even if a thousand years went by, just as long as the seals were kept intact.

'It's just until they cure him,' Sasuke had to remind himself daily. 'Then...then, I'll have my brother back again.'

But it still left questions lingering in the Genin's mind. For example, where had Itachi been that night? In fact, where had he been since that night? How had he gotten sick, and when? And those injuries—they were nothing to scoff at, so who had hurt him so badly?

But the most pressing question, the one that he simply couldn't find a single logical explanation for, was this: How come he hadn't aged a day? Itachi Uchiha was still thirteen years old, and no one knew why. The stasis seal had only been placed on him months, not years, ago.

And Sasuke still hadn't told the children. They knew something had happened, but not what. After all, what if Itachi didn't get better? Losing their parents had been bad enough—poisoned water, the Sandaime had said, though no one knew how or why and there were a few inconsistencies in the story—and the last thing the clan's remnants needed was one more blow, just one more reminder that stability did not exist for them.

Not that he could've told the rest of his family, anyway. Itachi's situation was an A-ranked secret, and, though Sasuke couldn't sense them, he knew there were at least half a dozen ANBU watching his every move. Being the next clan head had a few advantages, but not that many.

And no matter how many hours he waited by his big brother's bed, the older Uchiha wouldn't wake up. Not until his disease was cured, at least, and there was little enough hope of that. No, in order to cure him, they'd need to find a medic on par with the great Tsunade, at least, but she hadn't been seen in the village since Orochimaru had left. So, there was no hope, though Sasuke kept hoping and the doctors kept trying, anyway.

He sighed and stood up. Whether he liked it or not, it was time to go and pack for his team's new mission.

At the Uchiha compound's gates, as always, he found Hiro, the second oldest survivor and therefore technically his second-in-command. The boy would turn eight in just one more month, and how he always knew when his leader was coming home was yet one more mystery in the heir's life.

"Sasuke," the child greeted with a slight bow, "how has your day been?"

The twelve-year-old smiled. "It has been well so far. My team just received a C-rank mission to the Land of Waves."

Hiro grinned. "One more C-rank and fifteen more Ds and you'll be qualified to enter the Chuunin Exams in six months, right?"

"Yes, but you'll be in charge while I'm gone, which will likely be a minimum of two weeks."

Hiro fell silent at that.

"I know it's stressful, so I'm going to request an ANBU team to help out, alright?" Sasuke saw no reason to inform his cousin that there was always at least one on standby so that he didn't actually have to request anything.

"Alright," he muttered, "but I don't like it."

"You're young; you're not supposed to have this much responsibility."

The boy jerked his head around to stare at his superior. "Neither are you, Sasuke. How do you handle it?"

Without a shred of dishonesty in his voice, the ninja replied, "With the help of the ANBU, of course."

"Ah. The world's best babysitters," Hiro deadpanned.

Sasuke smirked, knowing perfectly well there were at least four ANBU watching them at all times and that they'd probably overheard that comment. "You have no idea."

Hiro rolled his eyes.

"Seriously. Who do you think watches after the Hokage's family while he's away? And how about the nobles and kids of famous ninja?"

Now the seven-year-old's green eyes widened. "Really?"



Hook, line, and sinker. Now the ANBU would have no choice but to help out his little cousin; no one could resist Hiro's puppy dog eyes full of hero worship. But Sasuke made a mental note to include a nice bonus in their payments, regardless. A very tiny pebble hitting him in the back of his head let him know that their conversation had indeed been overheard.

Sasuke smirked wider and just kept walking.

Along the way, he passed Mai and Sano, the two youngest remaining members of the Uchiha clan at five years old and betrothed to each other since birth, playing a game of tag with a few older cousins in the streets. Mai, Sasuke noted, was far more agile than Sano and should be placed in the academy soon in order to further develop her talents. The boy, on the other hand, possessed a downright brilliant mind and yet lacked any and all grace essential to shinobi. He'd have a private tutor teach the five-year-old tactics until he was sure Sano would not injure himself with taijutsu lessons.

But the real star, the one with the most untapped potential the Uchiha clan had to offer, was Hiro's half-sister Mikoto, lovingly named after Sasuke's own mother...before their clan's unfortunate demise, of course. Miko's green eyes and light, almost blonde hair all but screamed to the world that she was the result of an affair with a man outside their clan (after the woman's husband's death, thankfully), but that mattered little to the future clan leader. The Yamanaka had no clue they had an extra family member, and the biological father was dead, so there was nothing to worry about. Dark brown contacts and hair dye whenever she left the compound took care of the non clan members' suspicions, and the ANBU, Sasuke had found, were very discreet. (They had better be, for the price he was paying them to keep the little ones safe twenty-four hours a day.)

But whom should he betroth her to? Not that he'd hold her to the arranged marriage if she truly objected, of course; he just wanted the girl to have some options readily available to her. Perhaps it should be someone from outside the clan, even. The Sharingan was recessive, so it was doubtful she'd be able to pass it on, anyway. But even without the bloodline, she was clearly very, very talented. No doubt the six-year-old would pass her class's next Genin exam...if he let her take it. Sasuke was still rather undecided on that option.

He shrugged and continued on. There would be time for such thoughts later.

It didn't take long for him to get home—which was actually a mansion where all the children lived. With so many children and so few to watch them, it had made sense to keep them all in one area. Besides, many of the homes and shops had long since fallen into disrepair or even burned to the ground. Where else could they live?

Sasuke had fought tooth and nail to keep his own family home from the same fate, and he often found himself standing in front of his parents' room for a reason he just couldn't put his finger on. Then, he'd quietly clean and sweep up all the dust that had accumulated since his last visit—usually a day or two before. Sometimes, a whole week went by before he found himself visiting again.

There were days when Sasuke wished with all his heart that he could be a carefree child again. When the stresses of raising well over a dozen cousins began getting to him, he found himself standing inside his childhood home more often.

But today he had no time for such thoughts. He was going on his first C-ranked mission, a huge step towards his goal of becoming clan head and protecting what was left of his family. Special Jounin—he could practically feel it getting close enough to touch. That brought a sense of both excitement and dread.

As clan head, he'd be expected to immediately marry.

While he rummaged through his various clothes—his current shirt was dark enough to sneak around in; he'd be sure to pack it, but the white shorts would have to go—he idly wondered if he could afford to marry for love. Not that he was in love at the moment, of course, but who knew what the future would bring? A wimp was out of the question, so perhaps an older woman would be better than choosing anyone his own age.

Except for Hinata, but that would be nothing short of disastrous.

'What about one of the ANBU? Yes, perhaps I could pay one to provide me with a few children. I'll make it a paid mission, and then I won't have to deal with an annoying wife. We can go our separate ways as soon as the kids are born. I won't even have to have sex with her; I can just donate or something.'

With that hope-filled, yet naïve, thought, Sasuke finished his packing—at the last second, he chose outfits without the Uchiha insignia as a safety precaution—and headed out the door.

Along the way, he ran into Sakura, much to her excitement and his annoyance.

"Hi, Sasuke!" she if he hadn't immediately seen her pink hair and turned around fast.

He stopped. Irritating or not, it was his job as future clan leader to be at least civil to each person he met. But it was such an effort sometimes! "Hello, Sakura," he replied tiredly.

"Do you like my new dress? I got it just for this mission! Well, actually, I got it and three others, just in case they get dirty, you know."

The Uchiha took in the red, Chinese-style dress and blinked. "Isn't that the exact same dress you always wear?"

Sakura gasped, clearly offended. "It is NOT! For your information, it's a darker red, just in case we run across bandits and need to hide!"

Darker? By, what, half a shade? It looked the same to him, but he let that fact pass. "And the white circle on the back helps, because...?"

Her jaw dropped. "''s my clan's symbol! I have to wear it with every outfit!"

He blinked again. "Why?"

She stuttered out something about proper protocol for a moment before stating that he wore his clan symbol all the time, so he wasn't one to talk.

Sasuke barely restrained himself from rolling his eyes. "I'm not wearing it."


"It's not safe; enemies wouldn't think twice about kidnapping me for my bloodline or killing me for the same reason. Uchihas are kind of endangered, you know."

She just gaped.

"But I didn't know you were part of a clan." That meant he'd have to be extra polite, depending on her family's political clout. Drat.

"Um, not exactly."

Sasuke felt his heart leap in joy.

"We—my grandfather, that is—came from Uzushiogakure before it fell. It was just him and his three sons, and I'm not quite sure why they left, but they registered as a clan when they arrived. My father said it was the only way to make sure they didn't split everyone up." She shrugged. "They called themselves the Haruno clan after that, but I'm the only one left now, aside from my mother. I guess I wear it to remember them..."

Now the future clan head felt like crap. Sure, it was great that she didn't have the slightest bit of political clout, but still! He hated feeling guilty. Sasuke sighed and began walking forward again. "What was your family's name before they migrated?" he asked, just to be polite.

"I don't know, but they traveled with a girl named Kushina."

He stopped dead in his tracks at that. Kushina, the woman his mother had always said was her best friend, had been from Whirlpool. "Sakura..."

"Yes?" she asked with hope lighting her eyes.

"This Kushina...what do you know about her?"

"Well...her last name was Uzumaki and she had hair the color of tomatoes."

"Uzumaki?" He hadn't known that. "Like Naruto?"

Sakura blinked. "I guess so. Strange..."

The Uchiha had to laugh at that.

The girl put her hands on her hips and glared a bit. "What's so funny?"

"Sakura," he managed through his laughter, "Naruto's probably your cousin!"

Her flabbergasted expression kept his spirits up for the rest of the day.


Kakashi sighed. He hated leaving on missions while Rin was in such a condition, but it really was to the betterment of the village and his little brother. She'd give birth to Kazuko soon, and the last thing he wanted was to miss it.

That, and he'd miss other things. Rin was a wonderful cook, conversationalist, ninja, friend, and she was literally glowing in her seventh month. If nothing else, he absolutely loved just sitting and looking at her for hours each day. Once she'd given birth, he'd have to get her pregnant again as soon as possible. Nothing could be better than watching her body become even more beautiful and perfect than it had been. Nothing could compare to seeing their child grow inside of her.

The Copy-nin literally had to drag himself away from her lips in order to get out the door in time. "" he said in between kisses.

She giggled and pushed him outside. "Go on before you're late, mister. The boys and I will be fine."

Kakashi smiled. He'd made sure of that with a team of ANBU keeping an eye on them, but his wife didn't need to know that. "Right. I'll be back as soon as I can."

Her eyes darkened with an emotion that immediately had Kakashi running back to her.

"I can be a few hours late," he whispered into her ear. "They won't mind."

With laughter in her voice, she told him he'd have to wait till he and his team came back. "It'll be something to look forward to."

The Jounin decided then and there that this C-rank had better be easy, or their client was going to get it. He wanted to get home quickly, darn it!

May 13, 3:15 p.m.

'This is not a C-rank,' Naruto mused as he dodged a gauntlet dripping with poison. 'At least these two aren't particularly strong. Chuunin, I'd guess, and specifically meant for assassinations, not direct combat.'

It was a relief, as it meant he and Kakashi had a better chance of protecting their teammates.

Except that Kakashi was playing hide-and-freak-the-newbies-out. Sasuke and he were handling it, instead.

The Uchiha was attacking the...taller one with fire—which impressed Naruto, as the boy hadn't even called out the jutsu—and doing his best to dodge the various kunai and shuriken sent flying his way, while Sakura was, surprisingly, standing strong (or strong-ish, at least) in front of their client. He'd expected her to run and hide behind a tree.

Naruto, of course, was barely finding the fight a challenge. Their attackers were the Gaki Brothers. Or was it the Gatling Brothers? Heck, maybe it was Catnip. Naruto couldn't remember for the life of him, and his eyes glazed over as he tried to remember.

The missing-nin noticed this and cursed. "Fight me! Take me seriously!" He swung his clawed hand towards the boy's face.

The twelve-year-old lazily moved his head out of the way and blinked. "Huh?"

He cursed again. "You...! I'll show you!"

With those words, Naruto's opponent attempted to do something that supposedly was noteworthy, but a quick chop to the back of his neck stopped it at once. "You Catnip Brothers really aren't much to speak of, are you?" he muttered. Then, he looked over at Sasuke and saw that he had also finished off his opponent...only a bit more permanently.

The ANBU whistled. The second half of the Gaki Brothers was burnt to a crisp and definitely dead—no, wait... "Whoa, is that guy still breathing?"

"Yeah," Sasuke panted as he leaned on his knees. "He pulled some stunt and put a water clone in front of him at the last minute. Didn't do much good, but I guess it kept him alive." The Uchiha straightened up and stared straight at his friend. "By the way, I knew you were good, but not that good. What are you, really? A demoted Jounin?"

"Y-you think I'm a demoted Jounin?"

Sasuke and even Sakura, he noted from the corner of his eye, nodded. "I actually thought Chuunin," she added helpfully, "or a contract ninja."

That was a depressing thought. A contract-nin was essentially a wandering ninja who accepted the occasional freelance mission from a village that didn't want the deed traced back to it. They weren't quite mercenaries, as they typically served only one village for life and were almost always either retired ninja or academy dropouts. Sometimes, they were even the children of ninja and had simply never joined the academy but were exceedingly strong, anyway. To put it simply, contract-nin were essentially ninja who had the skills but not the credentials.

They were highly romanticized in women's novels, too, and because of that fact, Naruto was irritated to realize that the description fit him a little too well.

He sighed. "Never thought of myself that way, to be honest."

"What way?" Sasuke asked.

"As a contract-nin, but I guess that's what I was before."

"Really?" an excited Sakura asked.

Clearly, she'd read some of those books.

"Yeah, sort of."

"Naruto never went to the academy, true, but he's not exactly a contract-nin," Kakashi announced as he suddenly popped back in to check on things. "Hmm. You three did a good job," he muttered as he nudged the burned enemy. "Getting back to the matter at hand, his credentials were given to him straight from the Sandaime himself. He was never assigned a rank because he never worked out in the open."

"'Never worked out in the open'?" Sakura muttered. "Then, does that mean that..."

"He's ANBU!" the dark-haired boy exclaimed.

Kakashi yawned and began tying up their enemies.

"Was ANBU," Naruto corrected. "Now I'm just a freakin' Genin." He was still mourning the loss, too.

"Meizu and Gozu...what are they doing here?" their Jounin instructor muttered to himself.

'I wonder whom they were after. It could've been Kakashi, but I doubt it. They only wanted him out of the way. It also could've been Sasuke, but once again, they just wanted him out of the way, too. Sakura is definitely not at risk, and neither am I, seeing as how no one knows me. That flow of logic leads us to...the drunk. Whose pop-tarts did he pee on?'

"But a member of the black -ops! Why are you a Genin?" their lone kunoichi wondered.

"Because no one knows me," he answered vaguely as he watched one of the Gatling Brothers—the less crispy one—try to roll over and escape. (Kakashi tapped a pressure point in the back of the man's head and took care of that.)

"...What does that have to do with anything?" Sakura asked.

"Can't become Hokage without a little fame." 'I wonder what level this is going to make the mission. It's gotta be at least a B, perhaps even an A if we get more attacks.'

"Wait a were serious about that?"

"About what?" the Uchiha demanded.

"About the Hokage making Naruto his successor."

They both turned to him while Kakashi idly flipped through one of his many Icha Icha books. Their lone Jounin giggled, letting them know he wasn't about to get in the middle of their conversation...although he would be listening in on it.

Naruto was still thinking and therefore only halfway paying attention. 'These two aren't ready for a mission of this level. Kakashi and I would be fine, but they should be sent back.' He wondered vaguely whether his brother was thinking the same thing. The perverse laughter hinted at the word "no."


'I mean, sure, Sakura is at least taking things seriously now, but she's still a wimp.' But really, she had improved and could honestly call herself a Genin. It just wasn't enough to handle a mission of this caliber.


'And as for Sasuke, if he isn't a target yet, as soon as they get a good look at those eyes of his, he will be. That would be a huge disaster.' However, the Uchiha actually stood a decent chance of surviving a B- or A-rank. If it weren't for the possible kidnapping...

"Hey! Blondie, wake up!"

'And then there's my brother. He's got a fully-matured Sharingan in his head; there isn't a nation on this planet, ally or not, that wouldn't kill him to get it. Maybe I should handle this by myself, instead.' Not that the last Hatake would allow such a thing, of course. The man was notoriously protective of his teammates. It tended to get rather annoying, actually. Naruto could clearly remember his own first mission when he'd been sent out to assassinate a bandit leader as some sort of test and a way to get his first kill over and done with. The mere thought of the man stalking him still made his hands clench in irritation.

"Naruto Uzumaki!"

"WHAT!" he shouted back without thinking.

The road got eerily silent.

As did the surrounding forest for around half a mile.

Everyone just stared.


"Er, sorry," Naruto said as he sheepishly rubbed the back of his head.

The others just blinked.

"Care to explain that?" Sasuke requested.

Actually, he very much would prefer it if Kakashi explained the situation. But that looked rather doubtful. Naruto was on his own. "Oh. Um, should I put this?"

"You could try just spitting it out. That usually helps," their lone kunoichi blandly stated.

"In that case, I guess I should just go ahead and say that this mission is not C-ranked."




"We kinda already figured that part out."

"We-e-e-ell, did you figure out the part that you're not ready for that rank yet?"

"Yeeeess..." Their voices were questioning, wondering just what the heck he was talking about.

Perhaps he'd overestimated their intelligence if they couldn't understand what he was trying to tell them. He'd have to use a more...blunt approach. "Kakashi and I have handled things like this before, but you guys should probably...headbacktothevillage," he finished in a rush, hoping that they hadn't quite understood him.

They had, and growled at his suggestion.

Kakashi laughed. "And I'd thought the Demon Brothers were entertaining."

The Demon Brothers? Oh. So that was their name. He'd been way off.


Several hours had passed since the Demon Brothers' attack, and the sun was just beginning to set. However, to his eternal amusement, Naruto was still silently and subtly fuming. So were Sakura and Sasuke, though not nearly so quietly. (The word "bastard" had come up more than once after having heard Tazuna's story.) And as for Kakashi, he was doing what he did best: reading.

It was the third time Junko had visited the village, and each time he had done so with a different disguise, the other two having failed to obtain his objective. This time, it was that of a five-year-old boy with dark red hair, bright blue eyes, and the cutest, most soul-searching, innocent face he could imagine. He was, after all, ferreting out a child prostitution ring and had to look like the perfect target. As such, the boy was also an orphan begging on the street.

"Please, sir," Junko called to a passerby, "can you spare any food or loose change?"

The balding man roughly shoved him aside and walked away.

However, the lady behind him yelled, "Father! How could you? He's just a child!"

Junko looked at her and saw a tall woman with a head of dark purple hair cascading down her back in loose, perfect waves, and her face was exotically beautiful. But her most surprising features were her eyes; they were the exact color of gold.

"We've got enough mouths to feed as it is!" the stranger yelled at his daughter. "The last thing we need is one more useless straggler to take up space!"

Junko didn't fail to notice the man's expensive clothing and jewelry; he could easily have purchased half the city with what he was wearing alone. The woman was dressed more modestly at first glance, but the longer he stared, the more he was sure her clothing had been made to only look less expensive.

The young woman huffed. "Oh, please! Like we don't have enough money! Besides, all those 'mouths to feed' are-"

"Fine! Bring the little brat, but he'd better not cause any trouble!"

Something in his senses told the undercover ninja that this was just the break he'd been looking for.

Kakashi literally jumped in glee and excitement at the plot developments in his favorite literature. Sure, he'd read this particular volume around fifty times, but that last line always got to him.

Luckily for him, his leaping about helped him dodge a kunai, thrown by an irritated blonde who had grown tired of his brother's giggling, of course. With that, everyone stopped moving in order to stare at the two males.

"Now, now, Naruto. I'll let you read this when you're a little older. No need to be so greedy."

"Kakashi!" the blonde snapped. "Pay attention!"

"Are you referring to the Jounin thirty-seven degrees to the right or the other Jounin a dozen yards behind the first?"

Of course he'd noticed; he was Kakashi-freakin'-Hatake, the world-renowned Copy-nin. He was no slouch.

But he did acknowledge (to himself) that he'd been just a wee bit distracted by his book and hadn't sensed them until Naruto had thrown a weapon at him. Oops.

Naruto's eyes narrowed in blatant suspicion. "Unseal me," he demanded.

"Hm. No."

"Why not?" he said through clenched teeth.

"You'll never let me put it back on." The Jounin paused to glance at his book. It was just getting to the best part, and he could hardly wait! "And you'll try to kill me," he added nonchalantly. Really, couldn't they let him finish just one more paragraph?

"You can't beat two Jounin on your own!" the boy insisted.

"Eh. We'll see."


"Yes, Naru-chan?"

"Stop being so difficult!"

Kakashi put a hand to his chest in mock hurt. "Me? Being difficult? I would never!"

Naruto readied another kunai and growled.

"Excuse me," a quiet, polite voice interrupted before the growling could form any intelligible words, "but what are you two saying?" Sakura looked very confused.

Kakashi put his book away and smiled. "Why, little Naru-chan-"

Another growl, this time somewhat more feral.

"-and I," he continued as though nothing were wrong, "were discussing our different preferences in literature through a code we developed as a learning exercise when he was eight and this small." He held his hand above the ground to demonstrate.

Coincidentally (of course), it was very close to Naruto's present height.

"...but that's about how tall he is now," his pink-haired student pointed out.

"Well, he's been due for a growth spurt for some time. We're hoping he shows some improvement soon," Kakashi pointed out vaguely as he casually moved his head out of the range of another projectile, courtesy of the boy he'd just called a midget.

"O...kay," Sakura muttered, unsure of what to make of the argument, both unspoken and coded.

Sasuke was just ignoring them at that point as he slyly scanned their surroundings.

The twelve-year-old had to have sensed something. That fact surprised the Jounin. Most Genin would've been completely oblivious. All it did was confirm to Kakashi that he'd made the right decision in letting the two inexperienced children remain on the mission.

"Can't you boys ever be normal? I mean, just one day where nothing crazy happens—that's all I ask for!"

'Well, maybe not in Sakura's case just yet.'

All the same, he wasn't worried about fighting whomever their opponents were. Unknown to Naruto or even Ibiki, Kakashi was far better than he had been five years ago and had made certain improvements to both his physique and jutus repertoire, most of which were now completely sealess. Also, he had his father's old weapon, blade restored to perfection, contained in one of his vest's scrolls. They'd be perfectly fine.

And as he'd pointed out to the blonde, there was no way he'd be taking that seal off Naruto's forehead (covered by his headband to preserve what was left of his dignity). He had specific orders from the Hokage and others that the boy had to learn, and he refused to make Urashima's mistake (1). Things were just as they needed to be.

So, all Kakashi did was grin, pull his book back out, and walk straight into the trap he knew was waiting for them. In the meantime, he noticed Naruto had replaced Tazuna with a transformed shadow clone. 'Very wise. He'll definitely make Chuunin in these next exams.' He wasn't particularly worried about their attackers noticing, since Naruto was known for being very subtle with the Basic Three, a talent the boy had developed after the Uchiha Disaster.

His blonde student glared at his back (which was very highly entertaining, as always) as the group wandered into a deep mist just before they reached a river containing a small, rarely-used dock surrounded by trees. Supposedly, there'd be a boat waiting to transport them to Wave, but...Kakashi very much doubted the old man's friend was still alive.

'The Demon Brothers defected from Mist, so it's likely their partners up ahead are from Mist, as well, but two missing-nin of this level rarely work together. Perhaps only the one using this jutsu is from that village. If that's the case, I should be wary; the other nin's abilities are a complete mystery.'

"Kashi!" Naruto suddenly yelled as he threw a handful of shuriken at an innocent-looking tree.

However, if the blonde powerhouse and sensor had attacked it, there was no way it was innocent.

Kakashi figured it was time to put away his book.


Naruto was on the verge of panic. Sure, he'd gotten their client out of the way, but what about Sasuke and Sakura? He was at half strength! What was he supposed to do?

A tiny flicker to the left told him someone had just Body Flickered there, and a closer "look" showed that the person was readying some sort of water-based jutsu and aiming it at Kakashi. "Kashi!" he yelled in warning as he let loose a barrage of weapons. However, the enemy simply dodged and Flickered to a tree a few more yards away. 'This is not my day, this is not my day, this is not my day!'

His grey-haired brother, he noted, merely put his book away with calm efficiency that had the blonde ANBU wanting to strangle him. " might as well come out, you know. We've already got your positions pinpointed."

Naruto growled. He had the enemies' positions pinpointed; Kakashi just wanted to sound all-knowing. "Bastard," he muttered.

"Well, well," a deep voice spoke from the mist, "what do we have here?" The figure moved closer, his footsteps absolutely silent as he walked. "It looks like...a Jounin with his three little Genin brats. Isn't that cute?" He finished stepping out of the mist to reveal a tall, shirtless man with dark, spiky hair and bandages covering the bottom half of his face.

"Zabuza!" he exclaimed before he could help himself.

Zabuza's head whipped around to stare directly at him. "And who are you, little boy? Didn't your mommy ever teach you not to address your betters without their permission?"

Kakashi was also watching Naruto with a bit of surprise.

Naruto snorted. "Didn't your mommy ever teach you how to dress yourself in the morning?"

Team Seven's sensei choked and one of his teammates whimpered.

The missing-nin growled. "If you intend to keep your head, boy, you'll learn to keep your mouth shut!"

"Er, Naruto-"

But the Genin just smirked. "No matter how high the mist, the falcon can always fly above it."

After a moment, Zabuza's eyes widened, and his sword was out and pointed in the blonde's direction in a flash. "Care to explain your little words, child?"

A smirk blossomed on Naruto's face at that, and he had only one thing to say: "You owe me."

"Huh?" a chorus of confused voices sounded out.

Zabuza's eyes twitched and he growled out, "Owe you, do I? We'll see about that!"

With those words, the tension in the air increased threefold and Sasuke and Sakura started breathing harshly in fear. Kakashi readied his chakra for some kind of lightening-based attack and lifted up his headband to show his Sharingan.

But Naruto did not move or even blink, and after a few moments, the gigantic sword lowered and the mist lightened as the man sighed. "This had better be worth my time."

"Oh, it is. Trust me."


"You know, I didn't recognize your chakra signatures—I guess the other one's Haku. Does that mean you managed to alter it like you'd said you would?"

The missing-nin snorted. "No, you just have a bad memory, you little runt. It's impossible to alter your signature."

Naruto huffed. "Then why'd you say that you were going to?" he demanded as he crossed his arms.

Zabuza rolled his eyes and leaned against his giant weapon. "To mess with your head. Needless to say, it wasn't exactly hard to do."

"What are you—hey! That's just plain mean!"

Haku leapt down to join his master as the older man huffed. "Welcome to real life. And it took you long enough to join us, Haku."

The feminine boy (Naruto still had his doubts about that gender) bowed. "I am sorry, Master. I was-"

"I know. It's fine, boy," the Demon of the Mist said as he held up a hand. "Naruto here has a proposition for us."

The blonde rolled his eyes and got straight to the point. "How much is Gato paying you?"

"For killing the old man or taking down the Copy-nin?"

Naruto blinked. "...both...?"

Zabuza smirked. "About 70,000 in cash. Why? Think you can match it, little kid?"

Naruto thought about it for a moment. Could he...? Probably. He had quite a bit saved up from various high-level missions. Still, that was pretty pricy. Missing-nin were notoriously expensive, but the jobs they took on weren't exactly government-approved, either. He himself made perhaps a tenth of what the Demon of the Mist was getting paid for one A-rank. "Actually, I probably could-"

Kakashi and his teammates choked and sputtered. "N-Naruto-"

The blonde ignored them. "-but that's not what I had in mind."

"Then, what?"

A smirk formed on the twelve-year-old's face. "I thought you'd never ask. But first, let's catch up a bit. It's long since we last saw each other?"

"Three glorious years," Zabuza deadpanned.

"...I'd forgotten just how rude you can be."

"With your IQ, I wouldn't be surprised if you'd forgotten your own birthday."

"Cruel, you old shark-face. Very cruel."

"'Shark-face'?" a bewildered Kakashi asked.

Naruto didn't even glance out of the corner of his eye. "Yeah. You'll understand if you ever see his teeth."

"Brat!" the missing-nin snapped.


"...this is gonna be a long night, isn't it?" Sasuke sighed as he turned to their Jounin sensei.

Kakashi shook his head. "Probably."


It didn't take a genius to figure out the two had met on one of Naruto's ANBU missions, which Sakura was still reeling over. Naruto, an ANBU? It was bewildering to think that the black-loving preteen was considered powerful enough to be among the elite—and he was their age!

(Good lord, what had she been doing all these years?)

But it was even more astounding to realize he was apparently acquainted with a missing-nin like the Demon of the Hidden Mist, once called the Bloody Mist before Zabuza had come along and murdered a whole class of students. (Sakura did have to hand it to the man, though; it was only because of him that those "exams" had ceased. Perhaps, in the long run, he'd saved more lives than he'd taken.)

She watched in badly-hidden awe as her teammate and the deadly man conversed in something resembling a civilized manner as they all sat around a small fire in a semicircle and stared at each other warily. Really, they seemed to trade insults and barely-hidden contempt back and forth, as though each were a step away from tearing the other's throat out. Even Zabuza's partner winced more than once at the exchanges and kept his hands close to his weapons at all times. The fog may have dissipated, but the tension in the air kept anyone from being comfortable.

Sakura was forced to come to the conclusion that the two didn't like one all.

So, what was up with the whole "you owe me" thing? They weren't friends, were barely less than enemies, and was certainly odd. Had Naruto saved Zabuza's life or something? It seemed to be the most likely scenario. But...

"How'd you meet Mr. Momochi, Naruto?" she asked.

"That's...well, that one's a bit classified. I will tell you, however, that some demons aren't what they seem to be at first glance."

"So...he's not a freaky-looking mass-murderer?" she ventured hesitantly. 'Did Kakashi just snicker?'

"Oh, no, he's definitely that. I just meant he's not entirely heartless."

"Oh. Um, ok..." Sakura really didn't know what else to say to that, except to ask, "What exactly does he owe you?"

Naruto positively smirked but didn't answer.

The freaky-looking mass-murderer, however, did. "That's between the two of us, pipsqueak, so keep your nose out of it."

She shuddered. "Got it." The girl had no doubt he could force her to "keep her nose out of it" if he so chose.

But someone came to her defense. "Hey, lighten up, butt-wipe!" Naruto snapped at Zabuza.

"What did you call me?" the large man snarled.

"What, are you deaf and senile?"

Sakura's green eyes widened, and there was only one thing going through her mind: 'Oh, shi-'

"Want me to carve a hole in that throat of yours?"

"Bring it, butt-wipe!"

"Why, you-"

It was, indeed, a sleepless night even long after the two strangers had left.

Maybe they should've gone back to the village, after all.


(1) Urashima Taro—a young fisherman who took a trip with a tortoise to visit the Sea King's Palace, married the princess, and was said to have had a very gentle heart. His one mistake, ironically enough, was opening a box against orders, at which point he immediately became an aged and decrepit man and lost his wife. Kakashi's suggesting he will not be nearly so foolish. (By the way, if this is an inaccurate representation of this legend, keep in mind that I'm not Japanese nor an expert in their customs, cultures, or legends. I read it in a book. Shoot the book.)

Yes, it's the Wave Arc. It's one of the foundational events in Naruto's life, according to both manga and anime. It's not going anywhere. End of discussion.

Anyway, yes, this chapter has been rather delayed. Here's why: I got promoted (which gave more hours, more responsibilities, and more work for slightly higher pay), I temporarily moved into an apartment without internet access (where I'm still at until I can move into the brand-new house I just bought), and I seem to gravitate towards friends with more drama than politicians have mistresses (don't let that whole Democrats-versus-Republicans thing fool you; they've both got their own versions of slime). Needless to say, such issues have seriously cut into my time for writing, let alone all those mundane things, such as eating, sleeping, sneezing, etc. And they already want to promote me again. (If it weren't for the fact that many of the others considered for the same promotion suck, I'd think I was doing something right. As it is, I think they see me as some sort of last resort. Lovely.)

Now you know why I don't have an updating schedule. Just be glad the chapter's up.

P.S. Keep in mind the narrative's perspectives. Each character has a different way of seeing things and of thinking. Just because one of them believes something doesn't make it true.