A/N:As foretold by the prophecy, this is the last regular update for this cycle. While I will try to avoid further almost-a-year-long hiatuses, things are going to be irregular again for an uknown while.

-o-

"Hold it." Naruto pulled Shikamaru into an unused conference room as they left the arena.

"You're not going to let me get my lunch first, are you?" Shikamaru asked with an air of resignation.

"Nope. Now, explain to me how you managed to control that entire battle. You shut down every one of my moves as if you saw it coming, and there is no way that was just good luck."

Shikamaru sat on the edge of the oval table, ignoring the chairs.

"It wasn't anything special. Observation. Speech and body language. Modelling thought patterns. Weighing possibilities against existing knowledge to come up with probabilities."

The last time Naruto had spoken to Shikamaru, in the Forest of Death, Shikamaru had showed off uncanny observational skills, and it had struck Naruto as suspicious even then. Naruto himself was used to watching others – predicting and adjusting to their reactions had been a key part of maintaining his idiot persona. But it wasn't magic. It didn't let you read minds, or compile perfect personality profiles from a few minutes' spying, or see the future. Something else had to be going on.

"You knew exactly how I was going to fight," Naruto insisted. "There's no way watching me told you that much. I wasn't even human-shaped for a lot of the battle."

"It told me more than you think," Shikamaru said. "You can't move exactly like Kin. Kin can't move exactly like you. The real you, or a clone protecting the real you, moves more cautiously than the rest. When you're switching targets, you glance at the new one, then look straight ahead with eyes slightly unfocused as you perform mental simulations. A thousand tiny details."

"That's still not enough. You can't read the body language of dozens of clones at a time. And you can't figure out someone's entire plan from how their eyes move."

"It's actually refreshing to hear someone being so sceptical," Shikamaru told him. "Chōji and Ino have come to think I can do anything, and that makes it harder to teach them to use the same techniques for themselves.

"But there is nothing complicated about what I do. I've spent years training alongside you in the Academy. I've gathered many descriptions of your mission performance. I've watched you during the Chūnin Exam. And you'd be surprised how many of the ninja you defeated were more than eager to share information about your methods when I told them I expected to fight you.

"Using that information isn't complicated either. It's not some mystical lost art. Anyone can do it, it's just that most people haven't been taught to think in the right way.

"I take a base rate from my knowledge of how a typical Genin fights. I modify it a little to account for things that are unique to you, like the difference between their normal clones and your shadow clones. Then I get information about your battles and use it as a test, adjusted for false negatives and false positives. Every time I get more information, I update the probabilities and get closer to predicting how you'll fight."

"Bullshit," Naruto stated flatly. "You did not beat me using a series of educated guesses. I didn't see you make one wrong move during that fight. I used a bunch of tricks no one had ever seen before, and you were ready for every one of them."

"All right, you've got me," Shikamaru admitted. He slid off the edge of the table and into a standing position.

"There's this saying. 'The tactician achieves victory by knowing his enemy's plans. The shinobi achieves victory by writing them.'"

Naruto's eyes narrowed.

"I'm not trying to provoke you this time," Shikamaru went on quickly. "It's just that I know Uchiha Sonshi's The Way of the Ninja off by heart, and it's full of lines like that. Uchiha Itachi once gave my dad a copy as a birthday present.

"You can borrow it if you like."

Naruto had too much on his mind right now to worry about reading material. "So you're saying…"

"I didn't just calculate probabilities and respond to them during that battle. I influenced you in the direction of the ones I was most prepared for. For example, early on, you were faced with the choice to either attack Tenten, or bypass her and target me directly. I had her use the flail, a weapon that limits its user's mobility and response time in exchange for offensive power. That made her seem stronger, and therefore more satisfying to defeat, while at the same time leaving her wide open to attacks that relied on cunning and subtlety. There were several things you were likely to do at that moment, but Tenten using a flail tilted the probabilities the way I wanted. In fact, directing you through Tenten's choice of weapons was very effective, since you always assumed she was just going for whatever gave her the biggest taijutsu advantage."

Naruto felt a chill. A ninja only needs one opening to win…

"Then… the ending. You wanted it to end that way?"

Shikamaru nodded.

"Why?"

"Well, Kin was going to retire after the match anyway, and Tenten would be better off not making it to the Finals."

"What do you mean?"

"Don't tell her I said this, but she'd lose in any Finals matchup except against Sakura. And such a loss wouldn't benefit her, because it would be caused by her tendency to think in straight lines, and I don't think she's ready to understand that yet. Her beating Sakura wouldn't do anyone any good either. Tenten would learn nothing, and would be unhappy about her skills being wasted on such an inferior opponent. Sakura wouldn't have the chance to keep shifting her view of her capabilities, which her other likely matchups will allow her to do."

Naruto stared at Shikamaru, his unease growing.

"How can you do that? How can you decide that you know better than everyone how their lives should go?"

An ironic smile touched the corners of Shikamaru's lips for a brief second. Then his face returned to its usual slightly tired apathy.

"You get better with practice, as with any skill. You keep gathering data. You keep refining probabilities. You keep listening to people joke that they're just here to mess with the teachers, while their body language screams of a need for acceptance and their clothes smell of library dust one day and training wood cedar the next."

The question spilled out of Naruto of its own accord.

"But… if you knew… then why?"

Shikamaru hesitated.

"Because you would not have become who you are," he finally said. "The Nara are taught from birth to live in shadow, so that others do not have to live in theirs."

"Does it make you happy?" Naruto asked in a dizzy mix of horror and fascination, no longer wholly aware of what he was saying. "Reading people like open books? Making their choices for them?"

Shikamaru looked almost wistful.

"On occasion. Mostly, though, I'm too busy juggling moral philosophy, solipsism and predestination.

"Let's leave it there for today," he said with an unusual gentleness in his voice. "There'll be plenty of other opportunities for us to talk if we both survive the Finals."

-o-

"Well done, my dears!" Anko announced. "You are without doubt the loveliest little caterpillars I've seen crawl around the Chūnin Exam for some time. You even managed to surprise me, and believe me, I've seen everything. Everything.

"So here's the good news. In recognition of you not sucking – too much – you now get to spend the next month weaving your cocoons as hard as you can, so that when the Finals come you can finally turn into those beautiful butterflies I promised earlier. Check it out, I even stuck with the same metaphor. That's how much I love you guys!"

The Genin did not seem particularly cheered by this.

"A whole month?" Sasuke asked petulantly.

"A whole month," Anko repeated with what may have been glee. "The Finals are a big deal, and all the bigwigs are going to want front row seats. There will be real live Daimyō, not even the stuffed plushie kind, watching you fight, and getting a Daimyō to do anything fast is like getting the Hokage to sign off on a requisition form for an army-killer war machine – you know deep down he wants to do it, but making him actually get it done is like pulling teeth."

She paused.

"That's a bad metaphor. Pulling teeth is easy when you know how. Ask me sometime if you want tips from an expert."

Sakura raised her hand, unable to resist correcting the teacher.

"Actually, Mitarashi-sensei, it's not about how hard it is, it's about how much it hurts."

Anko beamed as if unexpectedly handed her favourite treat. "That's exactly what I keep telling my lovers.

"Now off you go, my dears. A month isn't very much time, and if you're not training until you bleed, you can bet that your opponent will be."

-o-

Kakashi-sensei was ready to meet them at the Forest of Death's exit.

"Well done, you three!" he (probably) smiled. "I am very proud of you. I can't believe all three of you made it to the Chūnin Exam Finals on your first try."

"If you didn't think we could do it, why'd you recommend us in the first place?" Naruto asked.

"Now," Kakashi-sensei continued, unperturbed, "as you've doubtless been told, you get a month to train before the Finals, and I've given some thought to the best way to do this. But before we get into that, there's something very important I need to talk to you about. Let's go somewhere more private."

Team Seven followed Kakashi into one of the many abandoned buildings littering the area near the Forest of Death (their origins a mystery, since it was clear no one wanted to live or set up shop next door to Leaf's most dangerous training zone).

"I want to remind you of the protocol for reporting interactions with foreign shinobi. Namely, you do it without fail, as soon as possible.

"Naruto, you got lucky with Haku. He was a powerful fighter, Chūnin-level at least, and in constant contact with an experienced Jōnin. If he'd been a little more cold-hearted, he could easily have led you into a devastating trap, and none of your team would ever know what happened to you. By not telling your team leader, you put yourself in danger, and you put your team in danger."

That was, in fact, exactly what had happened with Haku's kiss.

"What you should have done was to tell me as soon as you got back that evening. It would have been even better to send a shadow clone while you were still with Haku, assuming you could do it without him noticing.

"You need to be clear on this, and I am talking to all three of you here. During your missions, you will regularly encounter foreign shinobi. Some may have no interest in your mission. Others may be potential allies. Others still will be enemies, and they may well disguise themselves as one of the other two. Make the wrong call, and you might doom both yourself and the mission.

"But you're not alone. You have the rest of your team to help you decide the correct course of action. Four people are harder to trick than one. That's why you have to report contact with foreign shinobi. Not because it needs to be noted on a form somewhere, not because you've broken a rule and have to confess, but because your team is there to support you, and if you want to survive as a shinobi, you have to let them.

"Do you all understand?"

Everyone nodded, though Naruto, who was used to being self-reliant, and to those in authority making decisions that ended up hurting him, nodded slightly more slowly than Sakura, as did Sasuke, for some reason. But if Kakashi-sensei noticed, he didn't comment.

"Good. Now, to business." Kakashi-sensei's voice lightened.

"Sasuke, you've done very well at applying your Sharingan to taijutsu, but you still don't have a clue how it relates to ninjutsu and genjutsu. As Leaf's Sharingan expert, I am going to personally tutor you in these things with a gruelling training regimen I designed myself.

"Naruto, you have learned how to use your shadow clones in a variety of creative ways, but that technique is all you've got. Sooner or later you'll meet opponents who know how to fight shadow clone users, and they will shut you down hard. So I am sending you to one of Leaf's greatest ninjutsu masters. I'm sure he will have plenty of ideas on how to whip you into shape."

"What about me?" Sakura asked hesitantly.

Kakashi-sensei gave what was probably a very evil smile. "Oh, Sakura, I have special plans for you…"

-o-

It was with a feeling of apprehension that Naruto walked the long, winding road to his destination, and not just because of the name. While he knew the adverts for the popular tourist resort emphasised its outdoor baths, ideally located beneath the shadow of the town's most beautiful trees, there had to have been a better name than "Shady Springs".

No, the apprehension was all to do with the man he was going to meet – Jiraiya of the Leaf Three, the twisted fiend responsible for Kakashi-sensei's creepy novels. There was no telling what someone like that might want to teach him.

Then there was the description Kakashi-sensei gave him (after deciding that the tiny author photo on the back cover of his books didn't do the man justice). Long, stylish white hair. Elegant red haori. Striking traditional clogs and an impressive custom forehead protector with the traditional character for "oil" on it. Oh, and two distinctive lines of red paint going down from his eyes that gave his face additional form and definition. It sounded like Kakashi-sensei had a crush on the guy.

Did Kakashi-sensei have a crush on the guy? Probably not, Naruto decided. After all, he spent all his spare time reading perverted books about heterosexual relationships. Then again, it's not like there were many books about gay ones to be found. As far as the majority of the shinobi world (and indeed the wider civilian one) was concerned, homosexuality was something that happened behind closed doors. It wasn't illegal, and it wasn't technically persecuted, but the court of public opinion was not kind to those who brought their minority inclinations into the open. You could probably get away with it if you were famous (and used to strange rumours about your personal life anyway), or among close friends, but for the most part gay people seemed to believe that it wasn't worth the trouble to spend their lives fighting against the tide when they could instead be enjoying their love in private.

Or so Naruto understood. He'd been trying to pay more attention to these things ever since Haku, but it wasn't easy to get detailed information on things that polite society simply didn't speak about. He couldn't even turn to manga, because while he generally enjoyed dipping into everything from all-out samurai action to slice-of-life, he was not touching that particular genre with a barge pole.

So where did all this leave him? He'd been in love with Sakura. He'd been in love with Haku. He was now, he was increasingly sure, in love with Hinata. Was liking both genders even a thing, or was he just confused? What if this was merely him not having gone through puberty yet? It was supposedly due to happen soon, and what if at that time he found himself attracted to one gender for the rest of his life? Which one would it be?

Even it was both, it might be a moot point anyway. Death was ubiquitous in the shinobi world, but Naruto was strong, and both he and Hinata had the potential to be very strong, and there was every possibility of them being able to spend their whole lives together. Would it matter, then, that part of him wanted to be with men, if he was already in a happy relationship with a woman? Or would he feel like part of himself was trapped, unable to express itself, like his intelligence during those long years at the Academy?

Coming back to manga, which had never yet steered him wrong as a guide to romantic relationships, it sounded like there might be a third option. The love triangle, isosceles or equilateral. Maybe even the harem. It was outrageous. It was something he'd never so much as heard of happening in real life, at least within the village he knew. But people wouldn't keep writing about it if they didn't think it was possible, right?

What would Hinata think of that possibility? It was probably the kind of thing he should ask her about, so he could know in advance in case he ever found himself wanting to make it happen. Except he still hadn't told her about the Wave mission, or the Demon Fox or Haku. One earthshattering revelation at a time, he once again told himself, and he had yet to even begin working through them.

-o-

The gates of the town loomed before him at last. Enough introspection. He had a challenge ahead of him.

Jiraiya had left specific instructions with Kakashi-sensei. If Naruto wanted to prove himself worthy of training, he would have to hunt Jiraiya down like a real ninja. And a real ninja on an infiltration mission never gave the slightest clue that he wasn't an ordinary civilian. In other words, he had to complete this task without using any ninja abilities whatsoever. Other than that, Jiraiya had apparently said, "anything goes".

The perverted writer must not have been back to Leaf for a long time. Everyone in the village knew there were some things you never ever thought of combining, like open flame and explosives, or wild dogs and small children (or anyone else, really). But the worst of the worst, the ultimate alchemy of disaster, was to combine Naruto with carte blanche.

That was one of the man's mistakes. The other was the simple fact of setting Naruto a challenge. And the third was the fact that Naruto had had a long, boring journey, and was in no mood to be made to jump through hoops to get the training Kakashi-sensei had promised him unconditionally.

Slipping into an alleyway, he exchanged his beloved (but unmistakeable) ninja uniform for a pair of shorts, a T-shirt with "I'm a dragon tamer – if you see me running, try to keep up" written on it, and an oversized cap which conveniently concealed his face. Then he headed for the nearest shop.

"Hey mister! Hey! Down here!" Naruto waved at the man at the counter, angling himself to look a little smaller than he was.

"What do you want?"

"Have you seen my uncle?" Naruto asked in his most innocent, hopeful voice.

"Ah, lost, are you?" the man asked sympathetically.

"No, he is," Naruto replied. "Poor Uncle Jirō's been getting on in years, and then there was the accident… and this time he's decided that he's the great ninja Jiraiya, and he's got himself a second-hand costume from the local theatre's charity sale, and now he's running around Shady Springs making trouble and saying he can do ninja magic. My mum and I have been looking everywhere for him before real ninja hear about him and decide he's trying to muscle in on their business.

"So anyway, have you seen him?" Naruto gave the shopkeeper a much less complimentary version of Kakashi's description.

"Sure, boy," the man said. "He was in here earlier, looking for souvenirs. I think he went up thataway. And tell you what, I'll pass the word along for everyone to keep an eye out for the guy. If you still haven't found him tomorrow, I'm sure someone will be able to help you look."

"Thanks, mister!"

Naruto ran off to repeat the questioning and the procedure at Jiraiya's next possible destination.

-o-

Naruto was getting tired. The problem had turned out not to be finding sightings of his target. It seemed like Jiraiya had been everywhere, and time after time Naruto arrived at a place only to be told that the man had just left, and was heading in such-and-such a direction. Hours later, Naruto was back where he'd started with nothing to show for it.

It was apparent that simple pursuit wasn't going to do the job. But nothing in life was random. There had to be a pattern to Jiraiya's movements that would let Naruto predict where he'd be heading next. Naruto pulled out a free tourist map of Shady Springs, put dots at every location where Jiraiya had supposedly been, and then drew lines between them to plot the man's reported route.

Then he looked at the map again, and his jaw dropped.

There, drawn in his own hand, was a perfect sketch of Jiraiya's face sticking its tongue out at him.

-o-

That did it. Naruto stormed off to the first shop. The kid gloves were coming off, and that old man wouldn't know what hit him.

"Hey, mister, so about my uncle–"

"There he is! Grab him, Kobayashi!"

Before he knew it, Naruto had been thoroughly restrained from behind by a heavily-muscled baker's apprentice. To be sure, he could get out of a mere civilian's grip just like that, but he had an unfortunate feeling that this would qualify as taijutsu and therefore make him fail the challenge. Instead, he relaxed and decided to see where this took him, while waiting for an opportunity to escape.

"You little snot," the shopkeeper growled at him. "We're taking you back to where you belong, and here's hoping your uncle takes his time teaching you to respect your elders."

The two men dragged a protesting Naruto off to a nearby inn, past an alarmed receptionist and upstairs to the door of a luxury suite.

A man who could only be Jiraiya cheerfully opened it.

"I see you've found my wayward nephew. That's great work, gentlemen. I knew I could count on you. Here's the reward I promised."

He handed over what looked like two small slips of paper, and beckoned for Naruto to come in. The suddenly overjoyed kidnappers left.

"Not a bad try, kid," Jiraiya commented, "but next time you try to be subtle, maybe don't open with the exploding tags?"

His voice seemed oddly familiar, but Naruto couldn't quite place it.

"All right," he reluctantly asked, "how'd you get me?"

"Simple," Jiraiya said. "I went around telling people that I was with the Inveterate Liars travelling theatre troupe, and that I was practising being in character for the role of Jiraiya in our latest production of The Leaf Three versus the Salamander of Doom. You, my nephew, were going to be our bumbling sidekick, only you decided to run off and play a prank on your dear old uncle. Now, your uncle likes a prank as much as the next big kid, but things have gone too far when it ends up threatening a man's livelihood. So the good folk of Shady Springs were all too happy to catch you for me before you could cause more trouble. Especially when I promised whoever brought you in a free three-course meal at the incredibly fancy Torimi Cafe, whose owner happens to be a big fan of my books."

"But are you really OK with people thinking you're just an actor playing Jiraiya, instead of the real thing?"

Jiraiya snorted. "Oh, now you start worrying about my reputation? Well, don't underestimate the great sage Jiraiya, kid. Once they've had a little time to forget about your prank, I'll start a rumour that the guy going around pretending to be Jiraiya really is Jiraiya in disguise, and then everyone will think they're so clever for seeing through a real ninja's deception."

Naruto began to get the sense that he was in the presence of a master.

"So. Uh. Kakashi-sensei said you were going to help me train for the Finals. How much do you know about me and what I can do?"

"Everything, kid. Absolutely everything, from the thing you've got behind that seal of yours and how it got there, to how you're so narcissistic you try to clone yourself as the solution to every problem, to what you had for lunch this afternoon. Which, by the way, garlic breath? Not the best way to make a first impression.

"But it's getting late, so for tonight we're just going to rest and relax, and have a nice dinner at the sushi place around the corner. Old Kimiko may have quite a temper on her, but she does a mean hosomaki."

Naruto scowled. "But I've only got a month, minus the time it took to get here. Shouldn't I be trying to cram as much training in as I can?"

Jiraiya gave him a thoughtful look. "Say, kid, did Sarutobi-sensei ever get around to telling you any stories about your parents?"

Naruto's eyes went wide.

-o-

"And then Kushina says 'dammit, Minato, if you think you can do a better stir-fry with a half-melted mess kit in the pouring rain, you go ahead and do it!' And Minato looks at her for about three seconds and then says 'why not? Sounds like fun.' So there they are, one mile from the Hidden Rock outpost, in a thunderstorm with gale-force winds, having a no-holds-barred cook-off, and Uchiha Shinji's sitting there feeling sorry for himself and wondering how he got roped into being the judge. And then, wouldn't you know it, there's a lighting strike and all of a sudden –"

Jiraiya paused abruptly.

"What? What?"

Jiraiya yawned and stretched. "Sorry, kid, it's time to go to bed. We've got a long day ahead of us tomorrow. Tell you what, though, impress me during training and I might tell you the rest, and how they ended up taking that outpost with nothing but three kunai, a captured owl, and a farmer's rake with a light on the end."

Grumbling to himself, Naruto turned in for the night.

-o-

"Excuse me. Are you Ebisu-sensei?" Sakura asked the Special Jōnin, looking at the sunglasses and bandana-shaped forehead protector that Kakashi-sensei had listed as his identifying features.

"Yes," the ninja replied proudly. "Yes, I am. Can I help you?"

"My name is Haruno Sakura. Kakashi-sensei says that you are Leaf's best general training instructor," Ebisu-sensei preened slightly at this, "and he's asked that you tutor me for the Chūnin Exam Finals."

"Out of the question." Sakura didn't know how, but she could tell that the Jōnin was looking down his nose at her from behind his sunglasses. "I have been selected to be the personal trainer for the Hokage's grandson, and I couldn't possibly find the time to mentor some random Genin on top of that."

"Kakashi-sensei told me you'd say that," Sakura smiled sweetly. "He said to tell you two things. First, that Konohamaru is an eight-year-old Academy student, and there's nothing he's ready to learn from you that he can't learn from another teacher. And second, that Kakashi-sensei still has those sealed witness statements from the Kannabi Hot Springs Incident."

"Well," Ebisu-sensei's manner changed instantly, "on reflection I'm sure I can rearrange a few things in order to fit you in."

Then he fell silent, and simply stared at Sakura. Even through the glasses, she could sense his gaze slowly travelling over her body. It was creepy as hell. Then, to make it worse, he started slowly walking around her, examining her from all angles. Sakura didn't know how, but she was so going to get Kakashi-sensei back for this.

Just when Sakura began thinking she should make her excuses and flee, Ebisu-sensei stopped in front of her.

"Well, the bad news is that the Academy instructors are as short-sighted and inept as ever. Your body is appallingly conditioned, your reflexes have been allowed to grow numb, and I would bet a year's income that your chakra reserves are underdeveloped as well. I don't even want to think what your ninjutsu must be like."

Sakura cringed, now more sure than ever that coming here had been a bad idea.

"The good news," Ebisu-sensei's voice rose, "is that I have accepted you as my personal student for the next four weeks. I guarantee that by the time I'm finished with you, you will either be dead or Chūnin-level."

Sakura was not entirely reassured.

-o-

He should have expected this from the man who invented the bell test, Sasuke reflected as he fled down the corridors of the region's biggest bandit fortress, pursued by a dozen guards, unarmed, with his hands tied behind his back and dressed only in his underwear.