"All agreed?"





"It's fine."

Shikamaru nodded quietly as he looked at each of us in turn. "Alright, then we will recruit Lee first."

"Great! I'll go and-"

"Hold on, Naruto," he interrupted quickly. "I think we should go ahead and settle who the other two recruits will be."

I slowly settled back into my chair, pouting slightly as I looked around the kitchen to take in everyone else's reactions.

Sasuke perked up slightly from where he was leaning on the counter next to Hanabi, a slight gleam in his eye and a smirk on his face as he crossed his arms. Hanabi, once more sitting on top of the counter with her legs crossed, leaning forward with her elbows on her knees and her chin propped on her hands, only looked vaguely interested.

Most of Chouji's attention was focused on Shikamaru, and he had a slight frown on his face - why, I wasn't really sure. Hinata was smiling, and seemed to be sitting up straighter in her chair than before.

Shikamaru was watching all of us, his eyes sharp. His gaze lingered on me longer than the others, and on Sasuke most of all. He drew in a deep breath, his eyes closing for a moment before he spoke.

"Once Lee has been brought into this, Naruto will be able to recruit two more people. Each of us has named different people we would like to see recruited, each for our own reasons. We all agreed that we liked Lee personally, that we could work with him on missions, and that he would be a powerful asset to our group moving forward. I would like us to reach a similar agreement about the others before we leave here today."

He turned to look at me. "Does that sound good?" he asked, his voice pitched so that he was speaking to everyone even as he maintained eye contact.

"Yeah," I replied, nodding, quickly followed by the others.

"Alright. Of the people mentioned, I think we can eliminate one of them now... does anyone here think that they can work with Neji's personality, or that he provides abilities or skills that we sorely need?"

No one said anything; even Sasuke, who had brought him up in the first place, remained silent.

Shika nodded again. "So Neji is out. That leaves Shino, Sakura, Ino and Tenten. Naruto and Sasuke have already debated Sakura's strengths and weaknesses at length, so let's move on to Tenten.

"She has a year of experience over everyone here, is skilled in several weapons, and favors a long-range attack style. She is on a team with Lee, which would make including both of them in our planning easier and allows us to build on their existing teamwork rather than starting completely from scratch. She, along with Lee, also represents a connection to other segments of Konoha, since they have had time to get to know other ninja that we haven't been exposed to yet.

"Ino, as troublesome as she can be, is a good kunoichi in her own right, even if she can't quite match up to Tenten yet. She also has access to the Yamanaka clan techniques, which could be a powerful asset in our efforts - especially if there is an ability set that supplements them, like with my shadow techniques or Naruto's clones. She's also on the same team as Chouji and I, which would give us a full team recruited into this. The logistics of assigning missions hasn't been an issue so far, however, so that may not actually gain us anything in and of itself.

"Which leaves us with Shino, who was recommended by Hinata. He's very quiet and unassuming, and even knowing intellectually how well he did in the Academy I am guilty of overlooking him myself. However, I've thought it over and have to agree that he would be a great addition to our group. He scored in the upper ranks across the board in the Academy, and his clan techniques using the kikaichuu are very flexible. Hearing Hinata's assessment based on their time in Team Kurenai, those skills have translated into the real world as well."

He finished his speech and leaned back in his chair, scanning the gathered group once again. "Thoughts?" he asked finally.

"You brought up unique skills," Sasuke said immediately, uncrossing his arms and stepping away from the counter as he motioned to each of us in turn, "We have taijutsu more than covered - you are the only one who doesn't have a good chunk invested in hand-to-hand. You have ninjutsu, with Naruto, Chouji, and myself. Since kenjutsu apparently counts as a separate skill, that definitely means Tenten will have all of us beat in that area. What about fuinjutsu or genjutsu?"

"Didn't Tenten use those scroll things when she was fighting Temari?" I asked. "Isn't that like fuinjutsu?"

"It's not like fuinjutsu," Hanabi scoffed. "That is fuinjutsu. Storage scrolls are about as basic as fuinjutsu gets, but even they take real skill not to screw up completely. The Hyuuga only have four members who are good enough to make sealing scrolls reliably, and Father never lets all of them go out on missions at the same time."

Sasuke grunted, crossing his arms again. "What about genjutsu then?"

"K-Kurenai-sensei is one of the b-best genjutsu users in the village," Hinata spoke up. "No one on our t-team specializes in it, but she still taught us a lot a-about how it works."

"We need somebody our age who can use it, though, right?" Chouji asked. "I don't remember anybody from the Academy who was really good at genjutsu..."

The rest of the group was silent, and I kept racking my brain trying to come up with anybody who I'd seen actually use genjutsu for real. Heck, even in the Academy they had to get somebody to come in just for that class - Kura-something or other, I think his name was.

"I don't believe that we'll find anyone we can recruit who already has significant skill in genjutsu," Shika said after a few seconds of silence. "We'd have heard something about them by now if there was someone with unusually high skill in genjutsu in our age group."

"So we'll have to find someone who can specialize in it from now on, then," Sasuke noted.

Shika eyes narrowed slightly as he stared at Sasuke, and I saw that Chouji was frowning again. I looked back and forth, trying to figure out what the deal was, but Shika just shrugged after a moment and looked away.

"Any other thoughts?" he asked, once more looking around the group.

I leaned back in my chair, thinking about all the stuff that Shika had said. I wanted Sakura to be one of the two picked, of course, but I didn't have any real problems with the rest of them, even if Ino was kind of annoying when she started arguing with Sakura about Sasuke.

I grimaced, recalling some of their louder arguments on that topic. I could definitely do without more of that. Maybe Tenten or Shino would be a better choice. Tenten hadn't even looked twice at Sasuke, and Shino was... well, he was quiet, that was for sure.

"Alright," Shika said when nobody spoke up, "the fairest way I can think of to do this is to just vote, assuming no one has any other ideas." Everyone shook their heads, and he pulled out one of my notepads and a pencil and started writing quickly, filling out names and drawing lines. "I'll go around to each of you in turn, and you just name the two people you want to recruit. If one person gets a majority of the votes, they're in. We'll keep going until we've got two people, or we get stuck... in which case we'll figure something out.

"Ok, first up, Hinata."

"Shino and Tenten," she declared firmly, her gaze fixed on the sheet of paper in front of Shika. He nodded, making two marks on the paper.

"Hanabi," he said next, glancing over to where the girl was sitting on the counter.

"Shino and Tenten," she replied, shrugging.


"Tenten and Sakura," he said. I looked up at him, grinning widely. Obviously you could beat some sense into that stupid head of his after all!

Shika took a little longer to write down those two votes. "Chouji."

"Ino and Tenten."


"Sakura and..." I trailed off, still uncertain as to whether I should vote for Tenten or Shino. Shika looked up, mouth opening as if to say something before he snapped it shut with a small grimace. I thought back over what had been said earlier, and what I had seen personally. My Kunai Kage Bunshin had come in really handy several times now, and Tenten could do something similar. Shino had helped out during the attack and all, but I hadn't really seen him do anything that other people couldn't do just as easily. Tenten was the only one who had anything close to that besides me.

"Tenten, I guess," I said after a moment.

Shika sighed to himself as he made two more marks on the paper. He studied it for a moment before making two more marks and saying, "Tenten and Ino."

I started to count up the votes in my head, trying to remember who had said what, but Shika continued before I'd gotten it all added up. "Tenten has six votes, so she's in. Shino, Sakura, and Ino all have two votes, so we'll have to do another round with all of them. We each only get one vote this time."

He marked off another section of the paper and filled in names before looking up at Hinata.

"Shino," Hinata said again. Shika nodded and marked down her vote.







He didn't call the next name immediately, instead looking over at Chouji. They stared at each for several seconds, their faces subtly shifting before Shika cocked his head slightly and Chouji sighed and nodded.

"Shino," Chouji called out finally.

"And I vote for Shino as well," Shika said next, making two marks on the paper. "Which gives Shino four votes and Sakura two. Which means Shino gets the last spot," Shika said, slouching forward in his chair and letting his head rest on the table.

I started to nod before my head jerked up. "But that means that Sakura-chan isn't-" I yelled, jumping to my feet.

Shika looked up, his expression faintly apologetic. "We only had two slots, and the group as a whole voted on who to invite. I'm sure she'll make it in the next time."

"But-" I faltered, looking around the room. Sasuke looked annoyed that Sakura didn't make it, but nobody else seemed all that upset. Hanabi was just watching me curiously, Hinata was staring at her hands.

"Ino didn't make it either, Naruto," Chouji pointed out sympathetically.

"Well, yeah, but..." But there wasn't really anything I could say to that, I guess.

This sucked.

"Now that we've decided who to recruit," Shika said, pulling the room's attention back, "I think we should get our newest team members as soon as possible, then figure out what we're going to do from there." He pushed himself to his feet and moved towards the hallway, his hands shoved into his pockets.

Hanabi hopped off the counter and fell into step with Hinata as they made their way out of the apartment. Chouji moved next to Shika, a thoughtful expression on his face. Sasuke let out a low grunt as he stepped away from the counter, stopping next to my chair for a moment. His eyes flickered to Shika, and he grunted again before stalking out of the room.

"You coming, Naruto?" Shika asked.

"Yeah, I'm comin'," I grumbled, climbing to my feet.

~ Scene Break ~

It took most of the walk to the hospital to shake off the bad news. Even if Sakura-chan wasn't going to get recruited right away, that didn't mean she couldn't get in next time, after all. All I had to do was make it to jounin - which I was totally going to kick ass at, no question - and then there'd be another spot and there was no way Sakura-chan wouldn't make it next time! Believe it!

I threw open the door to Lee's room, feeling much better.

"Lee!" I called out, grinning widely. "Great- erk."

I jerked to a halt, causing Sasuke to walk into me and then bounce back into the person behind him. I teetered on the edge of falling over for a moment before I got my balance again and looked back at the reason I had stopped in the first place.

Tsunade-baa-chan stood next to Lee's bed, a dark scowl on her face and her hands glowing green as she swept them over Lee's body. Bushy Brow the Elder hovered nearby, a broad grin on his face as he kept shooting a thumbs up to Lee. Shizune was across from Tsunade, rapidly taking notes and keeping up a fast conversation with Tsunade that I could barely understand a word of.

"Naruto-kun!" Lee cheered, craning his head to look past the two kunoichi hovering over him and waving at me energetically. "I was just explaining to Hokage-sama how the most youthful Hinata-chan had used her technique to heal me!"

Tsunade's head jerked up, her eyes sweeping through the group before focusing over my shoulder. "Hinata Hyuuga!" she growled, causing Hinata to let out a small, frightened squeak. "Front and center!"

"Hey!" I yelled back, moving to stand between the Hokage and Hinata. "She didn't do anything wro-"

"I," Tsunade snapped, pinning me to the floor with a glare and causing the words to stick in my throat, "am not talking to you. Be silent." She kept up the glare for a moment as she stalked around the bed, then shifted her gaze back to Hinata.

"Hinata Hyuuga. Get over here. Now." She jabbed her finger to point at the floor directly in front of her.

Hinata was trembling as she moved around me to stand before the Hokage. Tsunade's eyes narrowed as she studied her for several seconds, her arms hanging at her sides and her hands curled into loose fists.

"I performed the surgery on Lee personally," Tsunade began, her voice low and menacing, "and have followed his recovery closely to make sure there were no complications or unexpected side effects. I had his recovery mapped out to the hour. So imagine my surprise when one of my nurses sends a message telling me my patient is running around and exerting himself against my direct orders.

"I came down here ready to beat some sense into an overactive genin's head," she growled, jerking her thumb over her shoulder at Lee, "only to see that he had recovered far, far more than he should have and hear an incredible story about a genin making up for weeks of recovery time in a matter of minutes. A genin who used an unknown, unproven technique on one of my patients."

She shifted her stance, looming over Hinata as she barked her last words.

"Well? What do you have to say for yourself?"

I could see Hinata's entire body shaking and her mouth working, but she couldn't choke out a single word.

"I don't approve of my ninja experimenting on one another, Hyuuga. That kind of reckless disregard for safety and morality is something I would expect from Orochimaru, not an upstanding kunoichi of my village. Just because you didn't care if he lived or died is no excuse to-"

"No!" Hinata finally yelped. "I didn't- I would never! I knew it would work! I just- I just wanted to help!"

Tsunade's eyes narrowed even further, studying Hinata's form intensely as everyone in the room held their breath. Finally, she slowly relaxed, her scowl softening and the oppressive aura in the room easing considerably.

"I believe you," she said at last. "Which is good for you, since we would be having a very different discussion if I did not. It's also good for you that I can't find anything wrong with Lee - whatever you used did its job well."

She grinned then, clapping her hands sharply as an eager look appeared on her face. "Which is why you and I are going to have a nice, long talk about exactly what it was you did, and how."

Hinata sagged in relief, drawing in a shaky breath while Tsunade turned back to Lee and Gai. "Lee, I expect you to return every day for the next week for a checkup. If I find you've managed to hurt yourself again, I will shove you right back in that bed personally."

Lee's eyes widened. "You mean...?"

"Yeah, yeah, you're free to go," Tsunade said, waving off his gratitude.

"Lee!" Gai called out.

"Gai-sensei!" Lee cried.



"As for the rest of you...," Tsunade muttered, turning her back on the two ninja and looking over the rest of us, "the Hyuuga is coming with me. The rest of you can do whatever it was you were doing before," she added dismissively.

That said, she half-dragged Hinata out of the room, Shizune trailing behind and looking every bit as eager as the Hokage.

I watched them disappear down the hall, Hinata shooting a harried look back in our direction before she vanished out of sight.

"Is Nee-chan going to be alright?" Hanabi asked uncertainly.

"Hn," Sasuke scoffed. "The Hokage was just testing her. She seemed a lot more interested in how Hinata's First Aid worked than anything else."

"I thought so, too," Shika agreed thoughtfully. "We'll have to ask Hinata how that went once she gets back. In the meantime...," he said, turning to look at me.

What was he looking at me for...? Oh! Right.

"Lee!" I called out again, turning to look inside the room.

"... and if I can't do that, I will climb the Hokage Monument with both hands tied behind my back one hundred times! And if I can't do that..."

"Lee!" I tried again, finally catching his attention.

"Naruto-kun! Did you hear the news! Hokage-sama finally let me out of the hospital!"

"Yep!" I nodded, grinning widely at his enthusiasm. "In fact, now that you're out, how would you like to help us out with a few things?"

"Yosh!" Lee cheered, punching one hand into the air. "Anything for my most youthful friends!"

Lee Rock has been recruited! (Two recruitment slots remaining.)

Achievement Unlocked: Yosh! (20)

~ Scene Break ~

"Tenten!" Lee shouted as he broke away from the group and charged into the training ground.

The girl in question let out a yelp and jumped in the air, whirling around with the kunai she had been practicing with raised to throw. She only just stopped herself from launching the weapon at her teammate as she recognized him.

"Lee?" she gasped, her face a mixture of shock and confusion.

"Tenten!" Lee called out again, nearly tackling her as he wrapped his arms around her and twirled her around in the air much like he had the rest of the group earlier.

"At least it wasn't just us," I muttered, getting murmurs of agreement from the others.

"Lee! What- I thought you were still in the hospital!"

"No more, my most youthful teammate! Hinata-chan greatly sped up my recovery, and the Hokage herself has given me approval to resume training!"

"That's... that's great!" Tenten said after she absorbed the news. She returned Lee's hug, squeezing him tightly before stepping back to take a better look at him. "You're really all better now?"

"Better than ever, Tenten-chan!" Lee replied, pumping his fist in the air. "In fact, Naruto-kun and his friends have even arranged a new training regimen to push the Flames of our Youth to new heights!"

I stumbled slightly as I was making my way over to them, shaking my head at how Lee had phrased that. He hadn't gotten all the details about what exactly he had gotten into just yet, but... well, I guess "training regimen" wasn't that far off.

"Yosh!" Gai called out, grinning widely. "When I realized that Naruto-kun's training was what had allowed Hinata-san to learn the techniques that healed Lee, I couldn't help but give it my full support!" he announced. He sniffed then, wiping one arm over his eyes theatrically. "Indeed, I am envious of my precious student, that he can take part where I cannot!"

"Gai-sensei!" Lee cried, looking at his teacher with wide eyes. "I swear I will train enough for the both of us, and be prepared to share the knowledge I gain!"

"Lee!" Gai cried. "Truly, the Flames of your Youth burn brightly!"



I turned away as the two of them got caught up in their competing shouts and turned to look at Tenten, who was watching them while half smiling and half cringing.

"I didn't realize just how much I missed the quiet until just now," she commented, turning to look at the rest of us. "Still, it's really great that Lee is up and about. He tried to hide it, but he was really scared there for awhile," Tenten admitted, relieved. "And even with... that," she added, motioning to Lee and Gai, "it's good to see Lee back to his old self."

I grinned, nodding. "Yeah, it's just not Bushy Brow if he's not bouncing around yelling about something. You heard him mention that whole training regimen thing, right?" I asked then, growing a little more serious.

Tenten nodded, looking at us curiously. "Yeah. What's that all about, anyway?"

"Well, it's more than just training, really. It's sort of a, uh, special group within Konoha. We, uh," I trailed off, trying to come up with a way to explain what was going on without coming right out and saying it.

"We are part of a trial team and mission allocation system using an experimental command structure and member composition," Shika supplied.

"Yeah, that!" I said, pointing at him. "What he said!"

Tenten's eyebrows shot up as she scanned the group, lingering on Hanabi for a moment. She looked a little skeptical, but also interested. "Gai-sensei has already said it's ok or Lee wouldn't have done it," she noted. "Tell me more."

Tenten Higurashi has been recruited! (One recruitment slot remaining.)

Achievement Unlocked: DakkaDakkaDakkaDakka (20)

~ Scene Break ~

"It's not like I don't like Lee, or Shino, or Tenten, but what's wrong with Sakura, huh?" I proclaimed, gesturing wildly with my chopsticks.

"Has he been drinking?" I heard Teuchi-jiji ask Ayame, but I ignored that.

"I mean, sure, Lee is better at taijutsu than anybody I've ever seen, and Tenten had that really awesome trick with all the weapons, and Shino kicked butt during the Chuunin Exams! They're all great!

"But so is Sakura, dammit! She really kicked ass while we were training with Crazy Sna- I mean, Anko-sama," I hastily corrected myself, glancing around nervously to make sure she hadn't managed to sneak up on me again before continuing, "and she totally took out Chouji without breaking a sweat! Even Sasuke finally got his head out of his butt about her when it came time to vote!"

I paused for a moment, slurping down the last bit of ramen in my current bowl and placing it back down on the counter with a loud sigh of contentment. Ayame wordlessly slid another bowl in front of me, and I smiled at her in thanks.

Recruiting Lee and Tenten had gone without a hitch, but Shino was another matter. It turned out that he wasn't at home or at the training grounds where his team normally practiced and, without Hinata there, no one knew where else to look for him. We'd eventually decided to split up and check all over Konoha to try and track him down. They'd even had me send out some shadow clones while I stayed put at Ichiraku's so that everyone knew where to find me if they did track down Shino.

Take part in the search and get to eat ramen? Just another reason why shadow clones were the best jutsu ever, as far as I was concerned.

On the other hand, without something to focus on, my mind was drawn back to the fact that Sakura wasn't going to get recruited right away. I mean, yeah, I knew that eventually I'd get the chance, but it had dawned on me that I had no idea how long it would be. I mean, it took forever to get to chuunin! Jounin had to be at least as tough as that, and there were all those missions and stuff I had to do first.

It could be, like, months!

I was lost in thought as I focused on my ramen for a bit, so I was startled when Ayame finally spoke up.

"I'm not really sure about everything that goes on with ninja and all that," she began, "but have you considered asking everyone else why they didn't, uh, vote for Sakura?"

Teuchi-jiji nodded in agreement, absently cleaning the bowl he held in his hands. "You should also keep in mind, Naruto, that it may not have been anything against Sakura personally, either. I know she's your teammate, but the other kids who got votes are on somebody else's team, right?"

I frowned and slowly nodded. "Well, Shino is, yeah. And Lee and Tenten are on the same team, too."

"There ya go, then," Teuchi-jiji said, nodding. "Like Ayame said, the best thing to do is just be upfront and ask about it, but you already know at least one good reason why they might have voted for someone other than Sakura."

"I guess..." I sighed, poking at the ramen for a moment before continuing to eat.

"So what was the vote all about, anyway?" Ayame asked.

"Oh! We were, uh..." I scrambled for a moment before settling on an explanation that would make sense and still be at least kinda true. "We've got this, uh, training group going. I kinda started it and I've been inviting people to join, but we can only have so many people before we hit the limit of the... uh, the group," I finished lamely.

"Oh, and everyone in the group gets to vote on who else to add when a spot opens up?"

"Yeah," I nodded.

"Well, I hope next time a spot opens up that Sakura makes it in," Ayame offered, leaning across the counter to pat my shoulder comfortingly. "Still, that sounds like a lot of fun. It's great to see friends hanging out and having a good time. I'm a little jealous, actually," she admitted as she placed another bowl in front of me.

"Jealous?" I asked.

She looked uncomfortable for a moment, then nodded. "Yeah, what with work and school and everything I don't have a lot of time to just hang out with friends. It'd be nice to have a group like that to do things with."

"Hey, if you were a ninja I'd definitely vote for you, Ayame-nee-chan!" I declared, trying to cheer her up.

She smiled and laughed. "And if I were a ninja, I'd definitely join," she told me.

The Ichirakus have been recruited! New items are now available!

Achievement Unlocked: The Essentials (10)

Achievement Unlocked: Networking 101 (10)

I choked on the ramen, coughing and spluttering while Ayame looked at me in confusion and Teuchi juggled the bowls he'd been cleaning, almost dropping them.

"What was that?" she asked, concerned.


"Naruto...," I heard Sasuke growl from behind me, and swiveled in my seat to find my teammate standing there with Shino beside him. "I swear, if you just managed to burn our last recruitment slot on a ramen chef, I will drag you to the training ground for a spar and-"

"Hey!" I shot back indignantly. "I didn't mean to! I just said if she was a ninja that I would totally vote for her! I didn't know she even could be recruited! She's not a ninja or anything!"

Sasuke took a step forward, glowering at me. I met his glare with one of my own before something occurred to me.

"Hey! It didn't say anything about the recruiting slots this time!" I said.

Sasuke paused, some of the anger fading from his face as he thought that over. "You're right," he grudgingly admitted. "It didn't." He turned to Shino, who was watching us both calmly, his eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses, his collar covering the lower half of his face, and his hands stuffed in the pockets of his large trenchcoat.

"Is this the purpose for which you have brought me here, Sasuke-san?" Shino asked idly, his head turning slightly back and forth as he studied us.

"No," Sasuke answered shortly. "Like I said before, we've got a special group starting up that we thought you would like to join. It just happens that all the recruitment has to go through Naruto here, for whatever reason."

"I see," Shino said, nodding. "Well then, Naruto-san, for what reason do you wish me to join this group, and why should I accept?"

"Wait, does this mean that I just joined that group too?" Ayame asked, confusion clear in her voice. "I thought this was a ninja thing? And what was with that thing before, that said that we were recruited? Was that one of those ninja illusion things?"

I looked back and forth for a moment, then turned to Ayame first. "Uh, Ayame-nee-chan, I'm not exactly sure what's going on, but I promise I'll explain it as best I can. First I need to talk to Shino, though, to see if he's going to join us too."

Ayame-nee-chan frowned for a moment, then shrugged. "Fine, go ahead. I can wait til you explain everything to both of us, I guess."

"Thanks!" I said, grinning at her for a moment before turning back to Shino.

"Alright. Your name came up because Hinata-chan recommended you for the group. She said you were really good and came up with a lot of good plans and so on, and thought that you could help out the group a lot. I also remember how you helped us out when we were tracking down Gaara during the Chuunin Exams, by dealing with Kankuro so we could keep moving."

Sasuke blinked at that, then turned to look at Shino again, a speculative look in his eyes.

"I see," Shino said, nodding. "It is good to hear that my teammate has a positive opinion of my skills and abilities. However, I still don't understand the purpose of this group."

"Oh, that. Well, we're an, uh, experimental thingy that uh, is structured...," I tried to repeat whatever it was that Shika had rattled off, but couldn't remember how he had phrased it. "Look, it's a group of us that trains together, and are learning all kinds of new and powerful abilities, and we can sort of pick our own missions that we want to go on. We've even gone on missions directly from the Hokage, and kicked ass at it, too!"

Shino remained silent, studying me and looking over at Sasuke who had a smug grin on his face as he nodded in agreement.

"This is the mission that Hinata-san was part of? The one that took her out of the village?"

"Yep! She totally kicked ass, too!" I told him.

"I had wondered why Kurenai-sensei had agreed to such a large deviation from standard operating procedure. This information sheds new light on her decision."

"Right!" I agreed quickly. "So, uh... will you join?"

Shino remained silent for a few seconds, then nodded. "I have observed Hinata-san's growth in strength and skill over the last few weeks. I believe this will also serve to push my own skills forward. I will join."

Shino Aburame has been recruited!

Maximum Ninja Recruitment reached! To recruit more ninja characters, you must first advance in rank!

Shino's head cocked slightly to the side. "That was an unusual sensation. What was the purpose of that?"

"You guys felt that, too?" Ayame asked. "Thank goodness. I was worried that I was the only one."

"I felt it, too," Teuchi-jiji added. "Whatever that was."

"It did say ninja recruits," Sasuke observed thoughtfully, "and they aren't ninja."

"No, seriously," Tenten's voice floated into the ramen stand. "What the hell is that? That is like no genjutsu I've ever heard of!"

"I know not, Tenten-chan!" Lee yelled. "I am certain it will soon be explained, however!"

"We've got everyone together, now," Shikamaru told them as he led them into the stand. Hanabi and Chouji were with them as well, so everyone but Hinata was present. "Although it sounds like Naruto has stumbled across something he needs to share with us as well..."

I laughed nervously as I looked around. Their expressions ranged from annoyed to confused to curious, but all of them were focused on me.

"Right," I said, setting down the ramen bowl and clearing my throat. "It started back during the Chuunin Exams when I got ambushed and woke up here..."

~ Scene Break ~

"Hinata-chan!" I called out as I spotted her ahead of us. The rest of the group, which now included Teuchi-jiji and Ayame-nee-chan, looked over towards her as well as Hanabi ran ahead to meet her.

"Nee-chan, what did Hokage-sama want with you?" she asked quickly, looking over her sister and sounding concerned.

I was a little worried myself, actually. Hinata's hair was plastered to her forehead from where she had been sweating heavily, and she looked a little worn out as she walked down the side of the road.

"Hey, Hanabi-chan," she said distractedly, raising her hand in greeting as she looked over the rest of the group.

Hanabi frowned when Hinata didn't immediately answer. "Nee-chan, is everything ok? Are you in trouble?"

Hinata blinked, looking at Hanabi in confusion for a moment before she shook her head and seemed to wake up a little. "Oh, it's fine, Hanabi-chan. I'm not in trouble. Tsunade-sama just asked me a lot of questions about what I had done to help Lee, then made me demonstrate all the medical techniques I knew. I couldn't actually use First Aid anymore, though, so I had to use Battlefield Surgery instead."

"And then what happened?" Shika asked intently.

"She... well, she got all quiet and sent me away, actually," Hinata admitted, looking a little confused.

"Figures," I muttered while Shika's shoulders drooped.

"But," Hinata added quickly, "she also told me to come back tomorrow for something. I don't know what she wants from me, though..."

"Hold on a second," Tenten said, holding up her hand and staring at Hinata. "Why were you meeting with Tsunade-sama in the first place?"

"Ah, Tenten-chan!" Lee cried, grinning widely. "The most youthful Hinata-chan was the one who healed my injuries and allowed me to return to my training much earlier than expected!"

"Impressive, Hinata-san," Shino said, nodding his head in her direction. It was hard to tell with his collar in the way, but it felt like he was smiling.

"Yeah, she was awesome!" I added.

Hinata smiled and ducked her head, her face turning slightly red as she nodded.

"And Tsunade-sama was asking you about that?" Tenten pressed.

"Y-yes. She wanted to know how my technique worked and h-how I came up with it."

"I see," she said slowly. "Well, it's really great that you helped Lee! Thank you," she finished, bowing slightly.

"O-of course," Hinata replied, reflexively bowing back.

We resumed our trek to my apartment after that and ended up piling into my kitchen. We'd already run out of places to sit with just six of us - with five more, there was barely even room to stand.

"Alright!" I said, standing in front of my fridge and looking around at everyone. "Here's the best proof we've got for all that stuff I was telling you guys before! Well, other than doing a checkpoint thing, I guess, but that would- anyway! Characters!"

As always when I said one of the options listed in the menus, the world turned still and gray and words got shoved into our heads.

Chouji Akimichi

Hanabi Hyuuga

Hinata Hyuuga

Lee Rock

Naruto Uzumaki

Sasuke Uchiha

Shikamaru Nara

Shino Aburame

Tenten Higurashi

"That's a little creepy, honestly," Ayame muttered, causing Tenten to nod in agreement.

"Oh, oh! This is amazing, Naruto-kun!" Lee cheered, spinning around rapidly as he tried to look in every direction at once.

Not that there was anything interesting to see in my kitchen, but whatever.

"It gets better!" I told him, grinning as I anticipated his reaction to what was coming next. "Lee Rock."

Lee Rock – Genin

Level: 15 (12)

Rating: B

Experience Points: 7,491/13,000

Teacher: None


Power: 14 (21)

Precision: 4

Toughness: 7 (18)

Vitality: 9


Fuinjutsu: 1/1

Genjutsu: N/A

Kenjutsu: 1/1

Ninjutsu: N/A

Taijutsu: 182/188 (150)


*Flames Of Youth! (5)

Harder (1)

Overpower (5)

*Reckless Fury (5)


Float Like A Butterfly

Genjutsu Disabled

Iron Fist


Ninjutsu Disabled

Sting Like A Bee

Taijutsu Affinity

Taijutsu Specialization

Sasuke froze, his glass slipping from his limp fingers and shattering on the floor.

Hanabi spluttered incoherently, her eyes huge as she gaped at Lee.

Shikamaru's eyes were wide and his jaw clenched as he swallowed thickly.

Chouji's hand had paused halfway to his mouth, hanging motionless in midair.

Hinata let out a small squeak, her face pale.

Shino's head titled as he observed the rest of the room.

"Yosh! Truly my Flames Of Youth burn brightly indeed, to appear even in this strange place!"

"What? What is it? Is something wrong?" Tenten asked worriedly, her eyes darting around the kitchen.

"O-One..." Hanabi choked out before trailing off.

"There is something unusual about his... character listing?" Shino asked slowly, studying the reactions around him.

Ayame-nee-chan and Teuchi-jii-san stood back in the far corner of my very crowded kitchen, watching silently with curious looks on their faces.

"O-One..." Hanabi began again.

Sasuke started laughing to himself, a low, dark chuckle that caused several people to send him wary looks.

"One hundred eighty eight?" Hanabi finally screeched, leaping off of the counter to stalk up to Lee. "What the hell is that? How could you have possibly gotten that much skill already?"

"So... that's a good number, then?" Tenten asked while Lee looked at Hanabi in confusion.

"Very," Shika said flatly, his eyes narrowing as he began thinking rapidly.

"What about mine, then?" Tenten asked, a bit of excitement in her voice.

"Tenten," I muttered dully, still staring at Lee in shock.

Tenten Higurashi – Genin

Level: 15 (12)

Rating: C

Experience Points: 7,491/13,000

Teacher: None


Power: 9 (11)

Precision: 13 (17)

Toughness: 4

Vitality: 8


Fuinjutsu: 17/17 (14)

Genjutsu: 1/1

Kenjutsu: 69/69 (55)

Ninjutsu: 1/1

Taijutsu: 30/34 (28)


*Backstab (5)

*Blending In (5)

*Careful Aim (5)

Overpower (1)


Control Thy Enemy

Control Thyself

Fuinjutsu Affinity

Hidden Blade

Kenjutsu Affinity


Taijutsu Affinity

"Oh," Tenten muttered dully. "I... I guess one hundred eighty eight is really good then, yeah."

"You still have more total skill than any of us do," Shika pointed out. "And quite a few traits on top of that."

"What of my listing?" Shino said then, his curiosity clear.

Shino Aburame – Genin

Level: 12

Rating: C

Experience Points: 7,491/13,000

Teacher: None


Power: 7 (9)

Precision: 12 (13)

Toughness: 4

Vitality: 8 (9)


Fuinjutsu: 1/1

Genjutsu: 25/37

Kenjutsu: 1/1

Ninjutsu: 53/54

Taijutsu: 13/13


Greater Injection (2)

* Injection (5)

* Mark (5)


Aburame (Bloodline)

Ninjutsu Affinity

Power Creep

"What are these trait things?" Tenten asked after we had absorbed Shino's stats, kicking off another long discussion. Fortunately Shika led that one, since I didn't think I'd do all that great a job explaining it myself.

It probably took a solid hour before Tenten and Shino stopped coming up with other questions to ask. Unfortunately, that was the point where Sasuke decided to be a bastard again.

"Why don't you show your character listing, Naruto?" he asked pointedly. "After seeing what Lee and Tenten and Shino have, I have to wonder what it looks like for the person who has been here the longest."

"Uh..." I stuttered, frozen as the others looked on with interest or nodded in agreement. I really didn't want to do that, since my traits would be listed out just like everyone else's, and 'Jinchuuriki' would be sitting right there in the middle of the list for everyone to see. It had turned out alright with Shika, but I still got a sick twisty feeling in my gut whenever I thought about anyone finding out.

"We can deal with that later," Shika said quickly, causing relief to flood through my body. "We have more immediate issues that we need to deal with."

"Like what?" Sasuke asked, his eyes narrowed as he studied Shika.

"Like the fact that Naruto somehow recruited civilians, but they don't show up as characters like ninja do. Or that 'new items' are available, even though we have no idea what they are, what they do, or where to get them."

"I would like to know that myself," Teuchi-jii-san chimed in, his kind voice unusually serious. "I'm happy to help out Naruto-kun and his friends anytime, but I really don't see how I can. Except for making delicious ramen, of course!" he added with a laugh, winking at me.

There was a loud thump that startled me, and I whipped around to find Shika with his forehead resting on the table. He lifted his head for a moment only to let it drop back with another thump. He repeated this several times before he finally looked up at me with an annoyed expression.

"Your inventory," he groaned.

I stared at him in confusion for a moment before I realized what he was asking me to do. "Inventory," I repeated.

Chouji Akimichi

Hanabi Hyuuga

Hinata Hyuuga

Lee Rock

Naruto Uzumaki

Sasuke Uchiha

Shikamaru Nara

Shino Aburame

Tenten Higurashi

"Why are we bothering with this?" Sasuke asked. "It's the most useless part of this entire thing! Who cares what we're currently wearing?"

"Naruto," I said, ignoring Sasuke's whining.

Naruto Uzumaki currently has:

Ryo: 13,790

Black Shirt

Cup Ramen x99

Kunai Pouch x2

Orange Jacket

Orange Pants

Key Item: Chuunin Flak Vest

Key Item: Konoha Headband

"Ninety-nine ramen cups? Really, Naruto?" Sasuke scoffed, shaking his head.

I was going to answer when Shika started banging his head on the table again.

"What? What is it?"

"Cup ramen, details," he muttered.

"Why would I... will that even work?" I asked. He just slouched over and stared at me expectantly, so I shrugged. "Cup ramen, details."

The most basic ramen imaginable. Despite the filthy lies printed on the label, this ramen is far from instant - a full three minutes plus prep time. With minimal nutritional value, this is best consumed only when no other option is available.

"Sounds about right," I nodded to myself, mentally translating that to 'when no other ramen is available.'

May only be used outside of combat.

The entire room fell silent as they absorbed the implications of that, the quiet only broken by the sound of Shika's head impacting the table again and again.

"You have got to be kidding me," Sasuke burst out. "They were seriously recruited so they could make him better ramen?"

"That's awesome!" I cheered, grinning widely. Everyone else, even Ayame-nee-chan and Teuchi-jii-san, stared at me following my outburst.

"I mean..." I floundered for a moment before I shook my head. "No, I was right. That's awesome!"

[Part I - Novice - End]

~ Scene Break ~

~ Interlude - Sasuke ~

"Itachi!" he screamed, feeling as if every moment of anger and rage he had endured since that horrible night were pouring out of his throat and threatening to set the air aflame.

The murderer didn't even bother to look in his direction.

He shot forward, the Chidori in his hand crackling wildly. His blood sang in anticipation, each step bringing him closer to avenging his family, his parents, and finally ending the nightmare that had been his life since-

Itachi's hand drifted out from beneath his cloak, moving with the inevitability of an avalanche tumbling down a mountain side, and latched onto his wrist. A slight tug pulled him off balance, and he tipped forward, his hand plunging into the side of the building and triggering the release of the Chidori. The stored energy of the technique lashed out uselessly as it carved a gouge out of the wall. The murderer's hand squeezed like a vice, grinding the bones in his wrist together painfully, but Sasuke shoved it aside to focus all of his attention on the murderer himself.

Itachi finally turned to look at him, the pattern in his eyes not the three tomoe of a fully matured Sharingan but instead a strange shuriken shape.

They stared at each other in silence for a few moments. The murderer's face had the same blank, disinterested expression it always did. Sasuke used to think that it was amazing how his brother always looked calm and in control no matter the situation.

Now it just reminded him of the night his world fell apart.

"You, little brother," the murderer said, his voice bland and monotone, "are not yet worth my time."

The scene warped, and he was no longer standing on the side of a building, but instead in the middle of the street in a deserted, bloodstained district.

"Why?" he screamed, sobbing. "Why?"

"... when you have the same eyes as I do... come to me."

"Itachi!" Sasuke roared. He drew himself up, ready to lash out with all of his power, only to find the world tilting under him. His flailed wildly for a moment before his foot caught the bottom of the table, jostling the books and scrolls that covered its surface. He teetered for a moment, the chair he was sitting in almost tipping over before he regained his balance.

The chair settled back onto the floor with a dull thump, and he spent a moment gathering himself as he shook off the remnants of his nightmare. He'd been having that nightmare nearly every night lately, but despite how often he saw it it never failed to get his heart pounding and his hands shaking. Of course, his recent research probably wasn't helping in that regard...

He stood up, twisting and turning as he worked the kinks out of his stiff muscles. After getting a particularly loud and satisfying pop out of his spine, he shook himself and began cleaning up the books scattered on top of the desk.

He had delved deep into the Uchiha Library, pulling out the oldest and most secret journals and scrolls as he sought to understand the secrets of the Mangekyou Sharingan. All of the references were heavily veiled and hidden deep in metaphor. Many spoke of "the terrible price", "the cursed power", or "the blessings of the gods," but it was the sole reference to the "power that set brother against brother" that had haunted his nightmares.

There was no doubt that Itachi wanted him to acquire the Mangekyou Sharingan, just as he himself apparently had, but why? What did that bastard have to gain from giving him more power? Or was that too one of the many secrets the "ultimate form" of the Sharingan held?

Glancing over at the clock, he noted it was already morning and let out a small grunt of annoyance. He would prefer to keep researching, but his team - his, he repeated mentally, the sense of satisfaction at that still fresh and warm - was going out on another mission today and he wasn't about to miss a chance to gain more experience - literally, in this case.

He let a small grin grow on his face as he considered the situation he and the others found themselves in. Despite the many absurdities - not least of which was the fact that Naruto of all people was somehow in a position of authority - he honestly couldn't say it was a bad thing overall. He enjoyed the freedom of his new rank and no longer being under Kakashi's direct command, of course, but the best part was the chance to literally measure his progress as he grew stronger.

He felt a small burst of joy every time a "level up" occurred and he savored the moment he tested himself and found he had grown noticeably stronger. The ability to compare his own skills and growth to those of the others was also very useful, though seeing the fact that a small girl several years younger and barely half his size was over twice as skilled in taijutsu laid out in plain numbers was still galling.

And Lee was just...

Only Naruto didn't have some skill where he was better. Not that Sasuke had actually found out exactly what Naruto's skills were - the blond had managed to avoid listing his own skills and abilities when Sasuke was present, but he was certain that Naruto wouldn't have missed an opportunity to rub that sort of thing in his face the first moment he could. Since he hadn't, he was obviously embarrassed about just how bad his skills actually were.

And as fun as putting the idiot in his place might have been in the past, he had to admit that Naruto was making progress in leaps and bounds now. He'd had who knows how long by himself in this mess... alone... with no one to help...

He shook off his thoughts, grimacing. No, he had to admit that Naruto wasn't really the dobe any longer, not that he'd ever say that out loud. Not that it stopped Naruto from being the single most annoying person he'd ever met, either. He'd just managed to apply his own particular brand of annoying and stubborn and make something reliably useful out of it.

Sasuke even found himself looking forward to his discussions with Shikamaru about ways to utilize their abilities and skills to the utmost. He never would have thought that the lazy slacker who slept through most of their Academy classes would be as sharp or as observant as he had shown himself to be.

It was galling at times to realize that the Nara was actually smarter than he was, but also comforting in an odd way. He didn't feel like it was up to him and only him to come up with all the answers and watch everyone's backs constantly when Shika was around. They could bounce ideas off of each other, find the holes in each others plans, even discuss some of the more unusual applications of the skills they'd picked up in the Academy. If Sakura, on paper the most intelligent student in the Academy, had showed even half the effectiveness of Shikamaru, then- but no, she'd rather spend her time trying to impress him rather than doing anything that actually would impress him.

His grin grew wider as he thought about the brief errand he would be taking care of before meeting his team for their next mission. If he had learned anything from Shikamaru so far, it was the benefits of playing the long game. Sakura wanted to impress him. Sakura was obsessed with becoming his "ideal" girl, never mind that even he didn't know what his ideal girl would be. Sakura, even though she never bothered to show it, was intelligent.

And he? He needed someone to start gaining skill in genjutsu.

~ Scene Break ~

"... and Kakashi-sensei has been teaching me all kinds of tricks he's picked up over the years! He says that I'm doing great, and is even talking about letting me take the lead on our next mission!" She faltered for a moment, her beaming smile fading slightly. "I mean, only if you guys aren't back by then. It's been a while since our team took a mission together, and seeing you around the village just isn't the same."

Her hands clasped behind her back and her head lowered bashfully.

Sasuke suppressed his annoyance reflexively. Years of experience with exactly this sort of behavior - from Sakura, from Ino, and from far too many others who thought he was "cool" or "mysterious" and refused to do the one thing he actually wanted and leave him alone - meant he could have said her next words along with her.

"I've really missed seeing you lately. Maybe... do you think we could go get lunch or something? There's this great restaurant that opened up over at-"

"I've got a mission to get to," he interrupted her, barely remembering to soften the harshness of his tone. He made a show of looking over at the clock displayed in a nearby window, adding, "Actually, I should probably be heading out now."

"O-oh, ok," she replied, the disappointment clear on her face.

"I'll see you when we get back," he told her, nodding and beginning to turn away. He paused, then, looking thoughtful before looking back at her.

"Could you do me a favor, though?" he asked.

She immediately perked up and smiled brightly. "Of course! What do you need?"

"I've been doing a little research into genjutsu. It's one of the few arts that the Uchiha don't have extensive records on, and I've come across some conflicting information. Do you remember Kurenai Yuuhi? The instructor for the team that Shino, Kiba, and Hinata are on?"

Sakura nodded, her expression souring slightly.

"Apparently she's widely regarded as a master of genjutsu techniques, one of the best in the village, if not the best. It's an amazing feat, especially given how young she is and how difficult genjutsu can be."

Her expression soured further.

"I had a list of questions I was going to ask her," he said, pulling a small scroll out of his pocket, "but then this mission came up. Do you think you could find her and get the answers for me?"

Sakura was wearing the expression she usually had just before she and Ino got into yet another of their ridiculous fights. She didn't answer immediately, instead glaring into the distance. Suddenly, her face brightened and she smiled widely at him as she plucked the scroll from his hand.

"I'll make sure you get your answers, Sasuke-kun! Just leave it to me!"

He gave her a small smile.

"Thanks, Sakura. I knew I could count on you."

~ Scene Break ~

Sasuke paused outside the hospital room, listening. He could hear the surprisingly girlish giggle that meant Hanabi was genuinely amused at something along with another girl's boisterous laugh.

"And, and the look on his face was just..." Hanabi gasped out before falling into another fit. The other girl continued laughing as well, and the sound of their mixed laughter brought a small grin to his face.

"You're so lucky," the other girl said as they both got themselves under control. "I wish I could graduate early. Without you around it's going to be boring as hell."

"Hey! Luck had nothing to do with it!" Hanabi interrupted indignantly.

"Yeah, yeah, I know. Still, I bet you pushed to graduate 'cause you're scared to face me again," the voice said teasingly.

Even out in the hallway, Sasuke could feel the uncomfortable silence that descended on the room.

"Hey," the voice continued softly. "I didn't mean it like that. I know it was an accident."

"I- I just..." Hanabi's voice was small and faint, and he had to strain to pick it out.

Sasuke knocked sharply on the door as he stepped into view. Hanabi was seated in one of the uncomfortable plastic chairs next to the occupied bed, wearing what passed for informal attire among the Hyuuga clan - an aggressively clean white robe, perfectly tailored and worn with every fold and crease precisely formed. She was rubbing at her eyes as she looked up, startled. He frowned slightly when he noticed her eyes were watering.

The other girl was sitting cross-legged on the bed, both of her hands wrapped around one of Hanabi's as she leaned over. She had slightly curly light brown hair that hung down to her shoulders. She was dressed in a short-sleeved light blue shirt and had thrown back the covers to reveal bare feet and shorts that came down to her knees. Her comforting expression shifted into surprise and confusion as she looked up at him.

"Yeah?" the girl asked, her eyes narrowing as if trying to place him.

"I'm here for Hanabi," Sasuke said, nodding in her direction.

Hanabi drew in a deep breath, standing up and releasing the other girl's hand as she recovered her composure. "Is it time already?"

"Yeah, just need to pick up Tenten before we head out."

"Oh! You must be the chuunin on Hanabi-chan's team!" the other girl said, grinning and waving at him. "I'm Ayane!"

"Good to meet you," Sasuke nodded. "I'm-"

"Sasuke, right? Hanabi's been telling me all about you!"

Sasuke eyed Hanabi warily. Given his experience with Sakura and the other girls at the Academy, he really hoped she hadn't developed a-

"Hey! Did Hanabi really run circles around you when you were sparring?"

His jaw clenched and he felt his eye beginning to twitch. His frustration only grew when he realized that what Ayane was talking about was technically true. Her and that ridiculous Fleet of Foot ability...

"That's not- there were special circumstances-"

"You mean she did?" Ayane crowed, falling back onto the bed and clutching at her gut as laughter bubbled out of her mouth. "Oh man, that's awesome! I thought she was just making that up!"

He glared at Hanabi, who just smirked back at him with her arms crossed. There was no sign of her previous discomfort in that smug expression.

"Oh! Does that mean that thing where she beat you five to none happened too?" Ayane pressed.

Hanabi's grin grew wider as she cocked her head slightly, daring him to deny it.

"We're going to be late for our mission," he ground out, turning on his heel and stalking out of the room.

Ayane fought to get her laughter under control as she exchanged farewells with Hanabi. "I should be out of here by the time you get back," she said, excitement clear in her voice. "You have got to show me some of the stuff you've been learning!"

"Of course," Hanabi replied. "I'll see you as soon as I get back."

"Awesome! Later, Hanabi-chan! Later, Slowsuke!"

Sasuke froze, then let out a low growl of annoyance before stomping away down the hallway, Hanabi's giggles and Ayane's laughter following him.

~ Scene Break ~

"You know," Tenten called out, startling Sasuke and Hanabi into halting just as they stepped foot into the training ground, "this isn't quite what I expected when I agreed to this 'experimental training group'."

Hanabi let out a small, amused scoff, nodding her head in agreement. Sasuke remained silent, curious as to where Tenten was going with this as he activated his Sharingan and studied her movements.

"I figured I'd squeeze in another hour or two of training and sparring, something useful, something to push my limits without killing myself trying to keep up with Lee and Gai-sensei."

Tenten paused for a moment, standing on one leg with her other foot drawn up flat against her thigh, the long blade she held in her hand rock steady as she pointed it at some imaginary foe. She let out a slow breath then flowed across the ground, her blade sweeping in slow, elegant arcs. A flick of her wrist and a quick pivot of her feet followed by a lunge had the blade quivering in the air nearly ten feet from where it had been a moment before. She held the position for several seconds before drawing her foot back and coming to a rest in another guarding stance.

"I even figured," she continued, her breathing still calm and even, "that I would get some experience fighting against other combat styles. Neji and Lee are both focused on taijutsu, so I don't get a lot of exposure to ninjutsu and even less to genjutsu in my normal training."

Sasuke and Hanabi continued to watch silently as Tenten danced across the field in a series of rapid, flowing moments that had her blade humming through the air. Her tempo built, faster and faster until it was difficult to see the blade at all.

"And then I find out what I've really gotten myself into."

She whirled suddenly, her arm whipping out and sending the long, thin blade spinning end over end to embed itself point first into the middle of a target halfway across the clearing. A rapid series of thunks followed moments later as kunai stabbed into the target and formed a perfect circle around the quivering sword.

"Did you know," Tenten growled, stalking towards them with a fierce expression on her face, "that aside from the civilians who have somehow gotten mixed up in all of this, that I'm the oldest person in our group? I'm fourteen! I shouldn't be the oldest anything!" she yelled, throwing her hands up in the air as she drew to a stop next to them.

"So?" Hanabi asked, crossing her arms. "I"m the youngest and you don't see me complaining about it!"

"It doesn't bother you that we're apparently directly responsible for the fate of Konoha when Lee and I are the most experienced members of the group and we have less than two years in the field?"

"Should it?" Sasuke challenged her, frowning. "Kakashi was already a jounin by this point, and the Third was two years from becoming Hokage. If anything, we're behind."

"You are, maybe," Hanabi added smugly. "I'm two missions away from making chuunin before I turn nine."

"So that's the plan? We just keep taking missions and racking up skill points and whatever else turns up until... what? Until Naruto dies again and we start all over?" Tenten threw her hands in the air again. "I can't even believe I just said that!"

"Yes, that's the plan," Sasuke said fiercely. "Every mission I take, every level I gain makes me that much stronger, gives me that much more power at my disposal. I'll keep doing this as long as it takes until I can kill that man. After that? I'll worry about that later."

Tenten paused, focusing her attention on Sasuke. "I'm not going to stop you, Sasuke. The reason I even wanted to be a ninja in the first place was because robbers killed my mom while she was traveling with a merchant caravan when I was just a kid. I know the ones who actually did it probably died in a ditch somewhere long ago, but that doesn't stop me from enjoying the bandit clearing missions that little bit more.

"It's not exactly the same, I know, but I do get where you're coming from," she continued, looking him in the eye. After a moment, he nodded quickly and looked away. "Even so, what are we actually going to do about Konoha as a whole? It's fine for Shikamaru to get everybody focused on the same short-term goals, but I get the feeling there's something a lot bigger coming our way. What are we going to do about that?"

Sasuke remained silent for a moment, and even Hanabi grew more solemn as she recognized how seriously Tenten was taking this.

"One of the first lessons Father ever taught me as heiress," Hanabi said quietly, not looking directly at either Sasuke or Tenten, "is that there's always another threat waiting in the wings. No matter how safe you think you are, no matter how secure in your power, you must never grow complacent. The moment you lower your guard, your enemies will strike hard and fast and without remorse.

"Peace is an opportunity to prepare for the next threat to arrive, and it is the responsibility of all ninja to use that opportunity to the fullest," she finished, her voice making it clear she was quoting her father's words verbatim.

Sasuke studied her for a moment, then let out a low grunt as he turned back to Tenten. "If you're right - and I get the feeling that you are," he admitted, "then how is gaining strength going to hurt us? Whatever else we do to prepare, the stronger we are, the more likely we are to win."

Tenten nodded slowly, looking back and forth between Hanabi and Sasuke.

"You have a point there," she said after a moment. "Gai-sensei wouldn't put it exactly like that, but he would approve of growing stronger to protect the village and yourself." She fell silent for a moment, then looked up with a sour expression. "Are we sure we can't recruit him? Or any of the teachers? Or Tsunade-sama?"

Sasuke shook his head immediately. "Naruto's tried several times, but something always happens and it's like they just forget everything he's told them. We'll keep trying, but for now it's all on us."

"Great," Tenten huffed, crossing her arms. She shook her head after a moment and clapped her hands to her face rapidly before settling into a determined expression.

"Alright, Mr. Chuunin," she declared, fixing her gaze on Sasuke, "how are we going to grow stronger and prepare for whatever is coming?"

Sasuke smirked, glancing over at Hanabi. "Take as many missions as we can as fast as we can. I figure with the three of us on the same team we can do at least as many as Naruto and Shikamaru's teams combined."

Tenten groaned. "Please tell me you aren't going to make this a contest?"

"You do know," Hanabi pointed out to Tenten, "that the experience point stuff we get for completing missions is shared by everybody, right? So the more missions Naruto and Shika's teams finish, the faster we get stronger, too."

Sasuke nodded, his smirk growing. "And with Naruto and Lee on the same team, there's no way they won't do everything they can to complete more missions than we do. And while Shikamaru can be lazy, he's also very efficient when he puts his mind to it."

"I swear," Tenten said seriously, "if you so much as mention flames of youth I will turn you into a pincushion." Sasuke let out a small snort while Hanabi just grinned. "Still, I can see that working... and after being on a team with Gai and Lee for so long, it would feel strange not to be pushing that hard..."

She nodded sharply then grinned at them, her expression fierce. "Let's go kick some ass."

[Part II - Journeyman - Start]

~ End Chapter ~

A/N: As always, thanks for reading and thanks for all the reviews!

Many thanks to the folks on the SB forums for providing feedback and criticism!

With the conclusion of Part I, Ramen Days will be on hiatus until a solid chunk of Part II has been written. I will be working on other projects (including finishing The Empty Cage and an original project which will be my highest priority) as well, so it will be half a year minimum before the first chapter of Part II will be posted.