Hey all! I want to start off by giving a very big (or, as big as one can be over the internet) apology. I kinda dropped the ball and haven't updated in way too long, even though I said I'd update last month. There was some personal emergencies that cropped up, but that's hardly an excuse. I didn't do what I said I'd do, and now I feel horrible about it. I'm sorry.

Now, on a happier note, chapter 6 brought this story up to 124 reviews, and 238 favorites. This is huge, because it's the first time I've broken 100 reviews. So, I'd like to thank you all very, very much for your continued support, and continued patience over my absolutely horrible update times. I promise I'll do what I can to get updates in here faster (providing life doesn't screw me over again).

Power Of The Stick Men (Nice name! xD) - You've made quite a few suggestions, and I appreciate 'em! You'll have to wait n' see with Tayuya's progression for just how she turns out! Regarding the stupidity of the Konoha higher-ups, I completely agree. However, in this story, I gave 'em a reason for the secrecy. All will be revealed in time. I also did something with all the clan heads - but again, can't reveal too much! Plots, yay!

Highly Esteemed Guest - I thought about making her an Uzumaki when plotting out this stories' plot. However, I can confirm that she is not an Uzumaki. This is due to the plot, which I'm afraid I cannot reveal (for obvious reasons!) You'll have to wait n' see who the true conspirators are, I cannot tell! As for the Uchiha, as I said, I'm not following canon exactly with this story. I'm taking vague details, and making something new! ...Hopefully. Naruto's advanced learning is also restricted by plot, I'm afraid - but don't worry! He's still gonna be a bad-ass, and Tayuya too!

Fox-sama - A good mystery is never obvious. All will be revealed. :P

warrof - That is my own fault. I started off writing as a role-player on an RPG forum, writing as specific POV's. It has, unfortunately, channeled into my writing in general. I'm going to endeavor to make sure the POV remains focused on the main characters for a scene, so that it isn't as confusing. I apologize if this is a bother!

Okay! Sorry about that! Now, remember, as I said previously, there is a little bit of a time skip to speed things along. Hope ya'll don't mind! Now, get to reading! I mean it!

Disclaimer: I keep tellin' ya'! I! Do! Not! Own! Naruto! Get it through your damn head! Sheesh!

Chapter 7: The First Week

Almost a week had passed since the unusual fainting incident. Little had occurred between then and now, life in the Hokage's Residence slowing to a gentle calm. Finally, since her arrival in Konoha, Tayuya had started to be more accustomed to the differences between here and Iwa. It was only gradual at first, and the first sign noticeable enough to be noteworthy was an observation that she no longer expected to wake up somewhere other than the comfortable bed she slept in. Other changes then worked their way in, such as waking to the sun shining through silky curtains, a delectable scent wafting into her room from the dining room, and the so far inescapable event of Sumi barging through her closed door every morning.

Though her mind was still scarred from her life in Iwa, and still a long way from healing, Tayuya had begun to accept the reality that this wasn't simply a wonderful dream, a visage of her idea of heaven, that was simply waiting to be snuffed out in a moment. This was life. Not all of it enjoyable, but still far more tolerable than the hell she had already experienced. Even Sumi's cheery demeanor had grown familiar, no longer throwing Tayuya off on every occasion, yet still managing to agitate her like nothing else. Going from living on the streets and in alleyways, feeding off what little garbage was provided for her, to now living under the Hokage's roof and eating at his table - that was something that still required some getting used to.

And then there was Naruto, the blond she had seen almost as much as Sumi. He was an interesting one, to be sure, which was, perhaps, the reason Tayuya had found an inclination to follow him. He was cheerful, though not to the overbearing extent of Sumi, and yet also he maintained a sort of sorrow that Tayuya couldn't quite place her finger on. He had, indirectly or not, managed to teach Tayuya just a little bit on how to remain hidden in Konoha. Though his tricks were roughly the same as the ones she used in Iwa, there were still some few key differences that would certainly come in handy. As an example, though there were less rocky outcroppings to hide behind, there were many trees that one could climb to avoid attention.

Why Naruto would want to hide or avoid anybody was, so far, beyond her, but it implied one thing that Tayuya did recognize. The blond was hiding something, that much was certain, though whether or not he knew himself what it was remained to be seen.

Still, having been given a rather detailed tour of everything in Konoha, from the different districts to the different restaurants, to even the minute detail of a certain Ramen stand owned by a father-daughter team. That, had been Naruto's doing. Though he had thus far demonstrated an appetite that matched Tayuya's own, it seemed Ramen was his favorite. She didn't really see what was so good about it - tasty, sure, but not the best. But, to each their own. As long as he wasn't obsessed by it to such an extreme degree that it was practically all he ate, there was no harm. It wasn't like she cared about his health anyways.

Though indeed she had found herself accompanying Naruto, usually to the very same playground she had learned how to swing at, she had yet to admit, to herself or others, that he was a friend. He wasn't, after all. She didn't trust him, or anyone else, enough to consider them friends. No matter how kind they may be, she wasn't ready to drop her guards. Sumi, Naruto, the Hokage... She looked at them all with some measure of suspicion. To be sure that they wouldn't attempt to stab her in the back with a rusty old knife. That was one thing that hadn't changed in the week, and it didn't look to anyone like it would change anytime soon.

Yet, despite now having been taken to quite possibly every corner in the entire village (which were a lot, to be sure), and having fought tooth and nail to erase the burning curiosity to figure out what the hell Naruto was hiding behind those damn eyes, little had actually occurred. It was peaceful, calming. The chaos she had once known was replaced by an uneventful, relaxing existence, that anyone should be thankful to have. The calm after a storm, or the stillness after a late night party. It was so different then her vivid memories of the alleys of Iwa, and both literally and figuratively so far away as well.

It was downright boring.

Tayuya pulled herself from the comforters, a challenging feat due to the morning chill and the bliss of being wrapped in absolute warmth. She had slept in again, though considering she forced herself awake every ten minutes to ensure she wasn't being watched or covertly stabbed to death, it could hardly be considered "sleep". The lime-green drapes were gently pulled aside, granting a wonderful view of the bustling village below. The sun was out of view, casting a shadow over the Hokage's estate from its eastern wall. It was five until noon, and Tayuya wondered why no one had woken her for the breakfast feast.

It had been almost traditional, every morning she had been disturbed - either after she was already awake, or before - by Sumi the Caretaker, and brought to the table area for the prepared meal. It was never after nine in the morn'. But now she had been left alone, in the peace and quiet, not once hearing a peep nor a mutter. On one hand, Tayuya was grateful for the privacy; not once in her entire stay in Konoha had she been given any time for herself. Yet also she was concerned that maybe something had happened that resulted in them momentarily forgetting about her. Internally she fought back the idea that they, too, were preparing to betray her, to kill her.

Her scowl reflected off the clear glass in the window pane, doubtlessly fading into nonexistence by the time it reached the streets below, but still given all the same. Despite her suspicions, Tayuya knew better than to think these people were planning to turn on her. There was no logic behind it; if they had wanted to kill her they would have done so already. It still left Tayuya wondering - what was the reason for Sumi's absence? Should she go looking for her? Tayuya had little concern for doing anything that would be considered bad by this lot, and so if they had some issue with her exploring the building on her own she wouldn't really care.

Resolve flooded over her, as her eyes hardened into determination. She would walk out the door, find Sumi, probably get lost in the process, and then demand that the woman apologize for her inability to perform her job, and fix her breakfast! With a nod, Tayuya turned on her heel, storming over to the door with a stride in her step. As her hand made for the golden knob, it turned sharply as someone on the other side attempted to enter. Tayuya jerked away, blinking once and staring at the door in horror. It opened inward!

She jumped back, uttering a small whimper as she fell and landed straight on her bum on the hard wooden floor, missing the fast opened door by mere inches! "Gooood morning!" Sumi's voice was as cheery as ever, almost singing the words rather than simply saying them. Though at first, as her head poked through the entry, Sumi had been looking at the bed, upon seeing that it was unoccupied glanced down at the now seated Tayuya. "Oh, you're awake."

"No shit!" She glared, now angered for more than the simple reason of not being fed. Now she was not only hungry, but also startled and her butt was stinging. It was an overall unpleasant feeling, and Tayuya blamed Sumi for it entirely. Her anger wasn't misplaced. "Do you ever fucking knock? You could have fucking killed me!" Perhaps it was an over exaggeration, but who in their right mind would disagree with an enraged redhead?

"Nonsense!" As if completely ignoring the surely imminent danger to her well-being, Sumi grinned at the girl with her hands on her hips. "Besides, you're fine. There's nothing to worry about!" She waved Tayuya off, a dramatic display of tossing her hand forward as if throwing a ball. Naturally, an image of that ball bonking Tayuya on the forehead crossed the redhead's mind, but her glare wasn't directed at that. She wasn't all too happy, Sumi brushing off the near collision like she did. And, as always, she felt the need to proclaim her displeasure.

"The fuck's up with that?!" It was fortunate that the time was so much later in the day than usual, as most of the inhabitants of the residence had already risen. It didn't make much of a difference, however - as Tayuya's foul mouth and lack of an "inside-voice" had already granted many an alternative to their alarms during the many mornings she had actually been awake. Perhaps it wasn't the greatest thing to wake up to, but Tayuya hardly cared about something as simple as that. "You almost ran me over with that fucking door! What the fuck is wro-" Her words became silent then, drowned out by the deep, gurgling roar of her stomach demanding sustenance. Suddenly, her priorities had been changed.

"Fuck - I'm hungry!"

The giggling that reached her ears further agitated her, but her hunger took importance beyond anything else. Human nature, perhaps, but she had long known to keep herself from becoming famished. She did the best she could on the streets of Iwa, though not as good as was necessary. As she grew older, it became harder and harder for her to get her hands on any sort of nourishment. Thinking back, Tayuya wondered if it would become so much worse that she wouldn't retrieve any sort of food at all. But then she shook her head of the memories, once more remembering that that was in the past. The future looked at least slightly brighter, at any rate.

"Well, it's late enough that I'd think so!" Tayuya attempted to deliver an angry glare at the woman, an effort to remind her that it was her own fault for not following the dedicated routine. However, as her stomach churned and grumbled, it turned into more of a lop-sided wince than anything. "I thought after finishing seeing the sights last night, you'd be exhausted! I wanted to give you some extra time to rest. I really didn't think you'd sleep this long!"

It was then that Tayuya remembered. So vast was Konoha, that though they had begun the tour on the second day, it had taken another four days to complete the exploration. Perhaps, had she been any other child, she would have sorely wished to lie down and sleep - but Tayuya was no normal child. Truth be told, the tour was barely even tiring; nothing compared to the long, drawn out minutes, which at the time felt more akin to an eternity, of fleeing violent riots. Still, Tayuya would be lying if she said that her new bed wasn't making sleep much more enticing.

The redhead would have answered Sumi, doubtlessly with a raised voice and utilizing profanities. Her stomach once more spoke for her, growling noisily at the continued neglect. She needed food, now. "Okay, okay!" Sumi's reply was directed more at Tayuya's stomach than the redhead herself, and Tayuya glared at her for it. Yet the woman merely rolled her eyes, smirking at the still-sitting Tayuya. "I'll nag the cook for something to eat for ya'!"

Tayuya could feel her brow twitch on its own as she stared at the empty doorway, Sumi having abandoned it to head down the hall. She had forgotten - getting anything similar to an apology or any sort of sympathy from Sumi was impossible. Or, at the very least, so unlikely that it seemed an impossibility. Tayuya was forced to be satisfied with getting sustenance; though Tayuya little appreciated being "forced" to do anything. Still, she huffed, and looked for something to change into from the dresser. Something warm, preferably - she could feel the chill radiating in from the closed window.

After dressing, she re-opened the door - having closed it just moments earlier - and mentally traced her path down the halls. Though, due to the size, it had been difficult, Tayuya had gradually been able to memorize the route to the dining room. Yet though she knew where to go, even after five days it was still like a labyrinth! All the different hallways and doors collided in a literal maze, and if someone didn't know where they were going, they'd get lost very quickly. Tayuya wondered what use the Hokage had for them all. She had seen few others in the building, and those that she did occasionally see were only visiting. Of course, Tayuya had to remember that she wasn't even there for most of the five days, only really there to eat and sleep. It was possible she had simply missed a large crowd of people, that normally lived here.

Sumi couldn't be the Hokage's only servant.

Tayuya glanced back and forth down the way, before making a right from the room. From there, she made a left at the first possible turn, following down the passage for several feet before making another right, sliding down three sets of stairs, hooking a left at the fourth hall - almost knocking a very expensive golden vase down as she did so -, and turning a final right. There the long table still sat in all its grandeur, appearing almost empty with the lack of food normally displayed along its surface. Tayuya was almost disappointed, if she hadn't known more was on the way. Though she highly doubted it would be nearly as much as it had been, when both she and Naruto had been eating.

Thinking of the blond, Tayuya realized he had likely already ate by now - an idea that caused a small amount of rage to build into her system. 'How dare that fucker eat before me!' Tayuya's thoughts rampaged through her noggin', imagining countless ways to pound poor Naruto into oblivion. 'Piece of shit... Bet he's laughing his sorry ass off! I'll kick it extra hard, for good measure - that's what I'll fucking do!' It was only fair. He still needed to get his beatings, due to laughing at her. Somehow, before she could ever get to turning his face into a puffed up ball of ugly, something had always occurred to distract her. Sooner or later, though, he'd get what was coming to him.

Tayuya did wonder, however - where was Naruto, anyways? Ever since the first day, that evening at the park, everywhere Tayuya had gone, so had Naruto. He had essentially followed them around, as if he had nothing better to do with his time. While it annoyed Tayuya that someone was intruding on her personal space - which, considering her "personal space" was anyone who was so much as looking at her, it wasn't something that was especially hard to break -, she was also happy that someone in her age group didn't hate her for whatever reason. The other children in Iwa, regardless of age, seemed to want nothing to do with her. The younger ones were chased away by the older ones. It was a brutal, depressing cycle.

For a while Tayuya waited, seated at the end chair where the Hokage always sat - perhaps as a form of defiance, or perhaps just out of curiosity of what it felt like to sit in the same spot as a ruler. Tayuya wasn't impressed. Then there was a noise, the sound of a door being shoved out of the way and four small wheels rolling after it. Tayuya twisted around as much as she could, eventually rising to sit on her knees with her hands grasping the high backrest, just barely managing to peek over to see who was coming.

First there was a short, fat man dressed in the same sort of getup one would see many chefs or bakers wear, with a red apron falling down to his knees and a tall white chef hat sitting on top of his head - his brown hair desperately trying to push it off but only succeeding in sticking straight out. He held a content smile as he wobbled in, his tinted cheeks painted over by strange, swirled markings, and he carried behind him a rolling table with two plates on top. Behind them was Sumi, who didn't seem bothered at all that Tayuya was using the same chair as that old man. 'Fucking good, too.' Tayuya thought, 'Cause I ain't fucking moving.'

Once more she twisted in the seat, returning to the proper position with her butt straight on the cushion. Chubby, who Tayuya assumed was the cook, placed the meat, vegetable, and goopystuff covered plate in front of Tayuya, and also placed the second plate in front of the chair to Tayuya's left. Lunch for breakfast? Why not. "'Bout fuckin' time!" She said, her voice filled with an equal amount of anticipation and steadily calming agitation. Tayuya didn't bother waiting to start eating, like a termite to wood devouring the meal one large piece at a time. The chef turned to Sumi, eyebrows raised as an amused smile twitched the edge of his lips, and she only shrugged in turn.

If he had been expected a "thank you", or any form of gratification, he would have been sorely disappointed. Tayuya didn't intend to give him any. Truth be told, she hadn't used those words in so long, that she didn't even remember how to use them! Sumi was just a touch more civilized. With a cube of freshly carved meat held just in front of her mouth, she smiled at the large man, saying "Thank you, Chorjin.", then placing the bite on her tongue and chewing. He bowed, taking care to hold onto the long white hat he wore so it wouldn't fall, before grabbing the cart and rolling it out of the room, closing the door behind him as he passed.

Tayuya continued inhaling the food, not letting any go to waste as was her norm, but then she paused. Sumi glanced up with an eyebrow raised, watching as Tayuya looked around the room. It was about lunch time, or close enough. The redhead had thought that Naruto would show once the food was brought out. Not that she actually cared that he wasn't present. Not at all - it mattered nothing. Still, it struck her as odd. He must not have been in the mansion. And if he wasn't in the mansion, then, obviously, he was somewhere else. Somewhere with high-quality swings that worked correctly, no doubt. Tayuya gobbled another large chunk of grub, and then spoke to Sumi with her mouth half-full, food shoved into her cheeks like a chipmunk.

"Sfo mere ef nafufo?" Yes, that's exactly how it sounded. Yet to Tayuya it came out so much more understandable, so much more precise. After all, why on earth would some food in her mouth effect her pronunciation. There was no reason it would effect her at all! So she glared at Sumi when the woman's reply was to look up from her food with a quirked brow and a lopsided smirk. 'The fuck is she smiling at?' Tayuya thought to herself, chomping down on her food angrily. In hindsight, she was lucky she didn't choke.

"You're adorable!" She said with a finger-peck at her own cheek, smiling with her head tilted ever so slightly to the side. "But you talked like you were trying to learn ventriloquism with numb lips! Sthomping lig disth." As she replied, Sumi puffed her own cheeks out in an attempt to apparently imitate Tayuya.

Tayuya's glare deepened, her brows scrunching together so much that any farther and it would be a unibrow. For one thing, Sumi had made fun of the way Tayuya had talked. That was a big no-no, punishable by death via severe pounding. And, on a second note... 'What the fuck is ventriloquism?!' She thought, 'Some kinda fuckin' trick or some shit. Fuckin' ninja thing.' Despite her anger, she made sure to swallow the rest of her food before talking again. She wasn't about to make a fool of herself. Doing something like that in Iwa got you killed. That, and she finally realized the impending risk of swallowing a bite far too large in her flustered state.

"You fucking with me? Fuckin' said, where's Naruto? Dipshit..." She rephrased, throwing in language that wouldn't be making any children books anytime soon. As Tayuya had noted was Sumi's style, she completely ignored the redhead's insults, smiling away as though she wasn't even fazed. Tayuya felt her brow twitch at Sumi's carefree attitude, briefly wondering if the woman was doing it on purpose or if she was like this with everyone. When she remembered the brief visit with the clothing shop girl, Tayuya reached her verdict. Sumi was a troll.

"Ooooh, that's what you said. I'm so sorry! I couldn't hear you over the 'crunch, crunch, crunch'." she replied, taking a sip of water to rinse her palate - something Tayuya thought was rather stupid, considering she would just go back to eating again in a few seconds. The redhead scowled at the woman's joking retort, but wasn't given the opportunity to vocalize her issue when Sumi continued. "He's at the ninja Academy. Had to leave real early to make it on time." For a moment, Tayuya searched through her memory, but couldn't remember ever being told about a "Ninja Academy".

"'Ninja Academy'? The fuck is that, school for ninjas or some shit?" Tayuya asked in turn, chomping down another large bite shortly after. Shinobi, she was well aware of - but a ninja school? The idea made her snicker, to see a bunch of kids her age and younger wearing masks and cowls, and throwing knives and other sharp devices of mass destruction. On a more violent side, she even imagined a few of them killing themselves on accident, and the teachers scrambling to clean up the mess and shoo the children away.

"Yup, pretty much!" Sumi's response earned a classic double-take from Tayuya. At first she even nodded a little. But then as she looked down to eat another bite, almost immediately her head shot back up, and she was paying complete and undivided attention to Sumi. She had just said it. There was a ninja school. Tayuya's vision of grade-schoolers being trained into hardened killers was becoming more and more real by the second. The world was doomed. Still, she could see the sense of it. In her mind, adults were stupid and incapable of learning anything. Her idea wasn't biased at all.

"And... That shit-for-brains blond... Is training to be a ninja?" She asked yet again. Everything she had seen of Naruto indicated a friendly, "couldn't kill a fly" personality. Hell, she had seen him grab a fly from off a spider's web, and put it down someplace safer. Or, well, safer for a fly that would only live for another four hours at most. The point, however, was that Tayuya couldn't really imagine Naruto as a ninja. Ninjas killed people! Like, a lot! How the hell could he, of all people, be a shinobi? It didn't make any sense, at all. But maybe that was it. The secret he was hiding. Maybe he was pretending to be happy to hide the killing machine he really was? Tayuya almost snorted when she realized how much she was digging into it, and dropped it immediately.

"That's right! But don't go knocking him off the wall yet. He's more special than he lets on!" Sumi replied with a wink, then returned to the meal in front of her. For a few moments, Tayuya just stared at the woman, blinking. Then she scowled, tilted her head just a touch to the side, and said...

"So, he's even dumber than he lets on?"

Naruto felt the sudden urge to sneeze. Considering he was in class and doing so would be way more embarrassing than it was worth, he decided to fight against the tingle. He scrunched his nose up, and squeezed and massaged the bridge of his snout - also pressing his tongue against the top of his mouth, for good measure. Not that it would really remove the urge to sneeze, no; but it would give him something else to think about. Finally, the pressure let up, but not without distracting him sufficiently from the lesson to miss an entire section.

On the bright side, it was only on the history of Chakra, specifically the last ten years. Naruto could connect the dots, and arrive at an accurate assessment. ...Hardly anything had happened.

It wasn't really fair, that's how Naruto felt at least. One small slip up and most of the teachers would immediately scold him; effectively putting him in position for taunting by the other students, though there were only a few who actually did. However, though it sometimes felt as though they were targeting him, the teachers weren't punishing him specifically. They treated all the students the same, and in fact the only ones who allowed regular jokes or non-serious interaction were Iruka and Mizuki. All part of the Academy's effort to make unemotional, logically inclined shinobi. Yet, it was also taught that they should keep their morality. It was confusing, to say the least.

The history teacher was older, and also a little kinder in his punishments, but was no less strict to breaking the rules. He was short and stubby, with a chiseled jaw and a gruff expression. Though his hair was gray and his face somewhat wrinkled, he still wore the shinobi vest of Konoha with his chin slightly raised in pride. All of the instructors at the Academy were Chunin or higher, and Naruto idly wondered which he was. Though the thought that he was stuck a Chunin crossed his mind, Naruto stifled the laugh that threatened to rise out his throat. Laughing was worse than sneezing, and had in the past earned him a beating. That particular teacher had been duly replaced by the Hokage himself. But it had scarred him well enough that he wasn't going to do it again anytime soon.

Several more minutes went by, dedicated to explaining how the next few days would be spent learning on (or learning again, in their case) the history of Genjutsu, when a deep knock of wood blasted through the class. Knock, knock, knock. Like a judge slamming their gavel, only on hollow wood and much harder. At its sound, books were closed, pencils returned to their place, and feet stomped upon the wooden steps down to the door. Naruto made a point to slip in to the middle of the group, hoping to avoid reminding the teacher of some until recently forgotten task or punishment for one thing or another.

The sounds of chatter and laughter filled the hallways. School wasn't out yet - not until after Taijutsu class - but that didn't stop the children from enjoying the little bits of free time in-between. There was rarely time during class. Naruto was one of the very few who didn't strike up a conversation, mainly because he hardly knew anyone there, and the few people he did know were elsewhere. Unfortunately, the adults' unfair and unfounded hate for him had spread, in most cases, to their children as well. It made making friends very, very difficult when most of the kids shied away from him, fearing to even speak with him due to whatever lies their parents told them.

There was a boon to their behavior; he rarely had to worry about bullies.

The hall eventually opened up to a field. It was mostly grass, but had a long, hardened dirt track around it, flanked on one side by a metal chain-link fence about 7 feet tall. What its purpose was, Naruto wasn't sure. If it was to keep the students in, it wasn't an effective buffer, as most could easily climb over. And there weren't many who couldn't get in, except maybe animals or small children or cripples. Maybe it was so none of the kids snuck away. The shinobi watching over them would probably notice someone trying to get over the fence. Although after a few months of dedicated, solid training, Naruto doubted any of the kids would have any difficulty at all in getting over, and out.

The instructor in this case was a lot taller than their elderly history teacher, and younger too. A half-goatee, missing the mustache, hid his chin and the hair atop his head spiked all over. He wore a kind expression, though one that hid the roughness with which he instructed the children. Which was less roughness, and more kids complaining about being forced to do physical exercise. He, too, wore the shinobi vest and headband. He stood waiting for them just on the corner of the grass, arms crossed over his chest. Once the rest had gathered, the lesson would begin - as always, with laps around the field.

"Alright, you guys know what to do! Come on, do your laps, move it, move it!" The order was given, just as Naruto and about everyone else had expected, and the group set out like knights on horseback on the trail. With admittedly, and thankfully, less dust. Naruto briefly imagined the amount of choking and gagging that would ensue if they made that much of a mess, and he didn't like it at all. Their run was in haste, yet held no less amount of care, a trained process that didn't exist for the first few weeks. Footsteps were in sync, pacing was aligned, and positions were almost pre-set - like soldiers marching along. With some notable exceptions.

"Nara, Akimichi, get a move on!" Naruto felt a smile creep on his face, as he carefully slowed down to go to the back of the group. Carefully, because he didn't want to disturb the well-established "unity" they had achieved. Because that, while surely entertaining, would be bad. Still, without crashing into any of the others, Naruto got to the very back just in time for the two laggers to catch up. One was skinny, not in an unhealthy way, who had dark brown - almost black - hair; quite literally in the shape of a pineapple, and thin eyebrows. The other was a complete opposite, being rather fat, and had lighter brown, spiky hair, and pudgy cheeks with faint swirls painted on them.

"Troublesome..." Naruto could hear muttered, noting their agitated, and exhausted, expressions. The blond knew both of them well enough; if not for the teacher, they would both be walking, or not moving at all. One was far too lazy, and the other preferred to be eating over anything. Although using food as bait was an excellent way to get him hustling. In all other cases, the Akimichi was as inactive as the lazy Nara, munching on a bag of chips or some other temporarily (and barely) filling sustenance. Yet now they were forced to move, and Naruto could tell that they did not like it. Not one little bit.

"I think he heard that." the blond whispered in reply, seeing the scowl the man was throwing their way. Normally there would be some concern when a highly trained shinobi (who was also the Taijutsu trainer for the Academy) was glaring at you, but experience had shown that their teacher's preferred method of punishment was extra laps, more push ups, and things of that nature. Which wasn't so bad, in Naruto's opinion. However, for most of the other kids, it was a punishment they very much dreaded. Anything to keep them in line, Naruto guessed.

"Why do we have to keep running? I'm getting hungry..." The other whined, earning a roll of the eyes from both Naruto and Shikamaru. If there was one thing they knew about the boy - he was always hungry. If ever there was a time when he wasn't hungry, it would be a sign of the apocalypse. An apocalypse of an extra abundance of food falling from the sky, that would cover every portion of the world, simply because the Akimichi's weren't eating any of it. Naruto internally sighed, his imagination really ran wild sometimes. He glanced back at Choji, smiling mischievously.

"Well, maybe if you weren't fa-" Naruto started, but cut himself short when he saw the sudden fear overtake Shikamaru, in the form of widened eyes and a look that plainly said 'don't finish that sentence'. If that wasn't enough, Choji's glare certainly was. Still, that was Naruto's intent. Something to get Choji riled up and to start running faster. A sort of encouragement, as it was. Still, Naruto wasn't looking forward to having to run from the newly encouraged Choji, so he rephrased what he would say. "-Uh, big-boned, then it wouldn't be so bad?"

A growl from Choji's stomach was all they needed for a reply. Naruto laughed, and Shikamaru chuckled, all the while Choji continued to complain about the absence of food. So much for the encouragement. These two were probably the only friends Naruto had, not counting Kiba and his dog, and were a couple of the very few who didn't run away from him. While on one hand it was encouraging, it was also saddening. Only two. If Naruto knew why the other kids didn't want anything to do with him, it would make things easier. At least, that's what he told himself. After all, no matter how bad the reason could be, at least then he would know.

A few hours later, the group of children sat down in the grassy diamond in the middle of the field. The physical exercises left the students sore, sweaty, and tired. After the laps were finished, they went on to do push ups, sit ups, jumping jacks, balancing upside down on their hands, and all manner of other training routines that had become almost second nature to them by now. Turns out, most things became easier to perform when you did it every single day of every single week. Like riding a horse, or playing an instrument, or hitting the bulls-eye with a kunai. Practice makes perfect, or so the saying went. And practice had allowed most of the kids to memorize the daily routine by heart.

That didn't, however, stop them from complaining. "What. A. Drag." Shikamaru groaned, as he flopped down on the ground, straight on his back, staring up at the white, puffy, drifting clouds with his eyes half-open and arms spread out away from him. Cloud gazing. That was something Naruto had realized was essentially a pass-time for Shikamaru. Naruto and Choji joined him, sitting rather than laying, with Choji's stomach still gurgling and grumbling. Naruto glanced at his apparently starving-to-death friend, quirking his brow at the pained expression on his face. While he was sure Choji was fine, it always gave him some small amount of concern.

"We can eat soon..." He muttered with a sigh, patting his practically empty stomach. Which was practically a personal black hole. Naruto could sympathize, which he acknowledged with a nod, though the blond had yet to get fat. With the training regimen they endured, he doubted he ever could - but Choji did it somehow, so it was possible that one day he could very well find himself... Big-boned. And that would be very bad, considering the weekly mob chases. He briefly imagined himself, hardly being able to run, and being chased by men with pitchforks and blades trying to wound him and, possibly, kill him as well.

The image ended horribly.

"Bye Sasuke!" Several girl's voices screamed in a kind of coordination that wouldn't normally be heard, yet still holding a high screech that left many nearby hoping they'd never hear it again. Naruto chanced a look in its direction, and saw most of the girls crowded together, seeing off a lone boy who was fleeing away from them in utter fear. That, Naruto thought, was unusual. Not the fact that Sasuke was running from them; no, that was pretty common - though he was usually much more "cool" about it. What was odd was that they weren't chasing after him, attempting to strangle him half to death with hugs. Naruto's eyes drifted to where Sasuke was heading, backpack in tow, and then he saw why they weren't in pursuit.

Waiting there, dressed in relatively dark clothing and bearing a small, soft smile, was Itachi Uchiha - Sasuke's brother. Naruto knew him a little. They had met when Naruto was younger, two or threes years before, when Itachi scared off a drunken slob. He was quiet, but made sure Naruto was alright and made sure he got home safely. Similar situations had happened since, each similar, and each further assuring Naruto that Itachi was someone trustworthy. Or, at least, someone who Naruto didn't have to worry about having to run from. He hoped. Because there seemed to be very few of those kinds of people in Konoha, at least when it came to him.

"Brother!" The blond could hear Sasuke greet, possibly the loudest and happiest Naruto had ever witnessed. Sasuke was normally the cool, collected type, never really associating with anyone. It was a tad heartwarming to see the reaction a brother inspired, but Naruto wasn't completely happy for him. He had to fight down the jealousy - the envy - that tried to burst through his mental walls. And the anger that accompanied it. It was a quick battle, though the interaction with his inner-demons left him with a depressing void in his mind. Yet, that was so much easier to hide with a smile - in spite of how much desperately wanted to fill it.

"It appears you have a fan group, Sasuke." Naruto could hear Itachi reply, his voice level yet still with a touch of mischief, wrapping a single arm around Sasuke to return the boy's attempted bear-hug. Attempted, because the younger Uchiha's arms weren't long enough to completely reach around his older brother. Naruto noticed the girls seemed to calm down a great deal when he said it, and some even left the group altogether. For a moment Naruto wondered why that was, but then tossed it up to the simple fact that Itachi was generally dark and mysterious.

Sasuke groaned, an indication of his distaste for their attention, though it served to achieve no reaction out of Itachi other than a knowing smile. Which, wasn't even all that different from the expression he had a little earlier, so it was hard to tell if he had even reacted at all. Itachi guided Sasuke by the shoulder to turn around, and as the two headed away, Naruto could have sworn he saw Itachi look in his direction. Naruto heard a 'hmph', and turned to look at Shikamaru, who spoke up from his resting place on the grassy ground.

"Must be nice, getting picked up like that. My dad always falls asleep on his way, and I get stuck with the troublesome task of finding him." He said, head twisted over off in the direction the Uchiha's were headed, with his hands positioned as a pillow between his hair and the grass. Naruto quietly wondered if Shikamaru realized that the boy would probably do the same. Hell, Naruto had once found him asleep on a park bench; Shikamaru having fallen asleep on his way to class. He was in some pretty big trouble after that. Soon after, the Nara gave a soft exclamation, like he had realized something, before shifting to look at Naruto. "Sorry."

Naruto snorted, closing his eyes an exhaling a breath. "It's okay; I've gone long enough without a family that I can handle a person's whining." He said, followed by a crooked grin. It was the best he could manage with the bombardment of frustration that barraged his brain. Hide it as he may, Shikamaru's complaint had effected him. Did he blame his friend? Certainly not. Still, it only went to show that a brief moment of forgetfulness could hurt. Naruto went to the fallback immediately, hoping that his sadness wasn't breaching his expression too much. "'Sides, maybe I'm lucky to not have parents. You make them sound awful." He said with a smile. It was a lie - he couldn't think of anything that would make him "lucky".

Shikamaru gave an obviously strained smile, while Choji looked between them. The boy's stomach still growled endlessly, grumbling and groaning as it begged for food. Naruto and Shikamaru both turned to stare at Choji when he let out a whine. He clutched his stomach, winced, and practically begged...

"Can we go eat now?"

"How was school today?" Itachi asked the little boy sitting on his shoulders, who had a content smile and subconsciously swayed to and fro. It had been only a short walk from the Academy, and they were now well within the Uchiha Compound. Though it was yet far from passing under the horizon, the sun was far to the west - the day was coming to a close, soon. Those few Uchiha they passed tended to avoid looking in their direction, and among them the handful who acknowledged them were more directed at Sasuke than Itachi. Considering the suspicions of him murdering Shisui, he could hardly blame them.

"Same as ever." Sasuke replied, waving at an elderly clansman they passed. "Iruka-sensei had us training with kunai and targets." Itachi noted a hint of disappointment in Sasuke's voice, one indicative that he wasn't content with the simplified aspects of shinobi training. Itachi remembered his early days in the Academy, and he could sympathize in a way with Sasuke's feelings. He merely chuckled quietly at his brother's frustration, proceeding on down the walkway between a row of brown and red painted houses and the white wall that revealed the outermost border of the Uchiha's territory.

A turn down a pathway took them farther into the compound, past a small rose garden with red and pink and yellow flowers, through an archway held up by two articulate pillars, and finally another turn leading down a paved road flanked on both sides by houses. Eventually they came upon a literal hole-in-the-wall bar, with a dark blue awning covering over four seats across the length of it. It was a sort of clan-exclusive miniature restaurant - and Sasuke loved to go to it when he was younger. The smell of seasoned meats and other foods drifted around it, covering the entire pathway between the two rows of houses with the delectable scent of dinner.

Though there were none occupying the seats on the outside yet, several members of the clan would soon gather around for a feast. While right now there were only the seats under the awning, later that evening a large collection of chairs and tables would be set out to accommodate the clan members who arrived. However, Itachi and Sasuke were there much earlier than the dinner feast (which, incidentally, was when Sasuke liked to visit the place most). As such, not a thing was set up, and the food was only now being prepared.

"Well, look who it is! Itachi and Sasuke, finally coming to see us after... How long as it been?" An old man with the trademark dark hair of the Uchiha said upon their approaching the stand, his voice gruff and mouth twisted in a frown on his wrinkled face. Itachi stared at him for a moment, before glancing over at the woman standing a little bit more inwards. A woman backed away from a pot on the fire, glancing over as well to see the boys. Her hair was grey, and she too had weary, wrinkled skin from years of living in the chaotic world.

"Only a couple of weeks, Sachio. Don't go being so hard on 'em, now. Itachi's always been a busy young man, and little Sasuke's following in his footsteps." She answered, scowling at her husband like a mother would at a disobedient teenager, all the while giving the two a courteous nod in greeting. The man visibly and obviously rolled his eyes, grumbling incoherently to himself - which only made her glare harder.

"Easy, woman, I wasn't harping on them! I wasn't even mad, as a matter of fact." Sachio retorted with a snort, hands on his hips with his head dipped low. "Stop being so judgy. It ain't good for any of us." Her expression deepened to a glare at that, vivid anger overtaking her features. Sasuke huffed from atop Itachi's shoulders, and his brother sighed. These two were always fighting or arguing over one thing or another, and Fugaku himself had uttered under an agitated breath on how they were a disgrace to the image the clan had held of even-minded shinobi. But, despite that, Fugaku had restrained from punishing them. After all, Sachio was his baby brother.

"Aunt Maemi, Uncle Sachio - please, not in front of Sasuke." Itachi pleaded, although his purpose for doing so was well beyond "protecting" Sasuke. In truth, his younger brother had already witnessed far worse between the two, during a drunken conversation turned argument - turned brawl when Fugaku attempted to stop it. Regardless, it managed at least to halt their highly aggressive conversation before it began, which was Itachi's true goal all along.

"Fine, fine. But you're serving your own dinner, bastard." Maemi stated with a sigh, to which Sachio gruffly "hmph'd" in return. Reaching up over his shoulders, Itachi removed Sasuke from his perch and set the boy on one of the stools along the bar, he himself sitting on the one to the right of it. Sachio tossed them both a pair of apples, Sasuke having to grasp his with both hands (though still only just managing to catch it) while Itachi easily caught his without even blinking. Maemi, meanwhile, turned back to the pot on the stove, churning its contents with a wooden spoon.

As Sasuke munched on the crunchy green apple, their uncle leaned on the counter with his forearms holding himself up. "So, Itachi, I heard you returned from a top-secret assignment last week." He broached with an inquisitive eye aimed in the ANBU's direction. Itachi couldn't help but notice his younger brother give an almost dejected sigh, though Sachio didn't seem to notice. Maemi, however, glanced in their direction from her place briefly. She noticed it too.

"I am unable to discuss it, uncle." Itachi replied simply, and Sachio's eyebrows twitched when he said it. The elder Uchiha chuckled and stood straight, crossing his arms over his chest and quirking his head to the side.

"We're family, Itachi! Can't you just give us some tidbits?" he pushed again. Itachi scowled at Sachio, though only barely so the older man wouldn't see it. One would think that when a proven ANBU said "no", it would be final. Itachi once thought that as well. As it turned out, that wasn't the case; not one bit. On one occasion, Itachi had found himself in a relatively one-side conversation of someone practically begging him for information, and him replying with a solid, strict "no" each and every time. It lasted for well over half-an-hour.

"I am forbidden from revealing any information about missions assigned to the ANBU. Even with family. I'm sorry, uncle." Itachi answered again, unwavering in his refusal to answer Sachio's inquiries. Much to Itachi's silent thanks, at that very moment Maemi interrupted, her voice directed at Sasuke instead. He was not looking forward to facing an interrogation by his uncle, not in the slightest. Plus his little brother could have used some attention. Itachi brought him here to get a snack and chat with his uncle and aunt - not for Itachi himself to do the talking.

"What about you, Sasuke? Anything interesting happen lately?" she asked, still unmoving from her spot but still every bit involved with the conversation. It was funny, Itachi thought. Maemi was more of a shinobi than her husband was - and she didn't have any training, or the Sharingan. It just showed how many different people there were in the world. Sasuke perked up, and gave a smile behind yet another chomp of apple. Itachi had yet to touch his (beyond holding it, or catching it).

"Not especially." he replied, hardly masking his joy at finally being noticed. Itachi understood - he could see just how heavy his own shadow was over Sasuke. He wished it wasn't so. "Iruka-sensei, my teacher, he's been having us practice kunai throwing, and making us spend extra time in P.E..."

Sasuke's words faded away from Itachi's mind as his eyes shot over his shoulder, staring off over the building's roof behind them. He keenly scanned and searched over the entire plane, watching for anything out of the ordinary. Yet there was nothing there to be seen. 'Was I imagining it?' He thought, scowling. 'No. It was definitely there.' He had felt it. It was a faint Chakra signature, like a needle, poking at the very outmost edge of his subconscious. It was close, it would have been within seeing distance had he looked at it. Yet, now, it was gone; and so, too, was whatever created it. And yet, something still felt... Off.

He scanned the rooftop for a moment longer, allowing his suspicions to linger just long enough to satisfy his own caution, before returning to the conversation. Much to his surprise, while Sasuke was still chatting happily as ever with Maemi still cooking away, Sachio was eyeing him curiously. Itachi stared at him blankly, expression not once betraying his thoughts to the perceiving eyes of Sachio - if they could be called that. He did have the Sharingan, but it was considered to be weaker than most. Then he blinked, and realized that Sasuke had ceased his story and both he and Maemi had both looking in the direction of the silent staring contest. Seeing that Sasuke was done with his apple, the remains now laying still on the counter, Itachi decided it was time to leave.

"We should get home." His voice was quiet yet calm, but Sasuke could sense the severity of it, and nodded in compliance. They both stood, and Sasuke waved goodbye before they walked away; Maemi returned it with a smile and a bow, but Sachio still watched Itachi like a hawk. Itachi could practically feel his eyes boring into his back as they walked away. Still, it wasn't that which disturbed the Uchiha. That feeling was gone, yet... In a way, it wasn't. The Chakra he felt, it was still there; hidden under a veil that, try as he might, he couldn't lift. Itachi frowned in his own dispassionate way, though still it was apparently too much to avoid notice.

"Itachi-nii? What's wrong?" Sasuke asked, peering up at his older brother with a mix of curiosity and worry. Blinking once, Itachi shook his head with a faint smile, all the while still using every chakra sensing trick he knew without utilizing his Sharingan. Which, was pretty much all of them. Yet still, nothing was popping out as being in any way suspicious. And it remained so until they arrived at the main Uchiha building - Fugaku and his family's house. Itachi took one last glance back before entering, and then entered the building after Sasuke when, once more, he saw nothing there. "We're home!" Sasuke called, though there was no answer.

"They must not be here." Itachi answered when Sasuke looked at him, himself wondering where they had gone. But then his eyes once more drifted to the backpack his little brother had let fall to the floor. 'Wait...' He scowled, walked over, and picked it up by the strap one would wrap around their shoulder for ease of transport. Sasuke watched on as Itachi investigated it, not really knowing what was going on, but immediately assuming it had something to do with shinobi-business. After all, Itachi never really did anything else. Then Itachi looked at the bottom, and his eyes only barely widened as he did so, though Sasuke never noticed.

"What?" The question was asked, directed at the ANBU's sudden interest in the bag, but Itachi didn't immediately answer. First, he wiped a hand along the bottom of the bag, and then gently placed it back on the ground.

"It's nothing." he returned, and, after placing the apple he never really finished (or even started eating) on the kitchen counter, he walked out of the room.

"You've had this coming for a looooooonng fucking time, fucker!" declared an enraged Tayuya to a collapsed Naruto, who was stiffly squeezing his now aching head. After leaving the academy behind, Naruto headed back to the Hokage's residence in relative peace. It seemed, for now, people were more interested in flat-out ignoring him, rather than beating him half-to-death. He preferred the ignoring, it was much less painful. Not wishing to test his good fortune, Naruto immediately rushed off to the safety of his temporary residence - not knowing that, at the moment, it was hardly safe thanks to a certain redhead.

"W-why...?" he whimpered, wincing as pain enveloped his entire brain. That was an exaggeration. Still, he had a bruise about the size of a fist, which wasn't all that pleasant. Tayuya was huffing angrily, standing with her fists tight at her sides, glaring down at Naruto as he struggled back to his feet. She smiled - she had finally managed to punch him. She couldn't believe that it had taken so long to get around to it. But one thing led to another, and for a while, Tayuya realized, she had completely forgotten about it altogether.

"Why do you fuckin' think? You laughed at me, piece of shit!" she said, turning on her heel and walking away before Naruto could say anything further. As Naruto finally managed to fully return to a standing position, he gawked at Tayuya - albeit with a wince, as his head pulsed with pain. She punched him, because he laughed at her? He laughed at her? He didn't even remember that. When did he...

Then it hit him like a ton of bricks, only it didn't help him to understand why she whaled on him. It was so long ago...

"Tha- That was a week ago! Why are you getting angry now?" In any other situation, it would have been a logical question. In hindsight, however, he would realize that it was one of the more stupid things he could've asked. After all, you don't question a pissed off girl (who was violent in the first place, in her somewhat not-pissed-off mode), without expecting some manner of punishment. Naruto was naive enough to think otherwise.

"I don't need a fucking reason to get fuckin' pissed off, or fucking when!" She declared, whirling around and smashing Naruto in the face with a tight fist. Naruto instantly grasped his face and whimpered. There was a broken bone, at least one. He cowered away when she made to punch again, but was saved when a door opened up into the hallway. Tayuya turned to see who it was, and Naruto peeked through clasped hands. "Ah, fuck."

"Aw, a lover's spat! How cute!" Sumi exclaimed with glee. Tayuya glared at the older woman, fiercely so, telepathically threatening her with instantaneous atomization. She wasn't sure what the phrase exactly meant, but she really didn't care. Sumi had interrupted her "rage time", which, as everyone knew, was against the rules. Of course, Sumi barely even registered her, and her mouth quirked up in a smirk. As always, Sumi was bothering her on purpose. And Tayuya hated it.

"Stay the fuck out of this, hag!" She demanded, though it had little influence on the woman. Before Tayuya could even think about turning around to beat the living shit out of Naruto further, Sumi stepped forward, letting the door squeak closed behind her as she did. Her expression was unchanged, save for her smile widening ever so slightly and a momentary giggle rising from her throat.

"So rude! You should cut him some slack, Tayuya!" She advised, and Tayuya continued to glare at her as she spoke. Now she was defending Naruto? What about her?! She was the one who got laughed at! And who did Sumi think she was, telling her what to do? "After all, I'm sure he had a long, hard day at the ninja academy!" Tayuya's expression softened only slightly, which was more a result of her own curiosity than anything else. Sumi had mentioned this earlier. The Academy, a school for shinobi in-the-making. She turned to look at Naruto, when...

"Yeah! It was really bad!" Tayuya almost jumped when she saw him standing next to her, almost perfectly healed save for a small mark on his nose. She stared at him with her eyes wide for a moment, before probably causing some form of hearing damage.

"What the actual fuck?!" She yelled, stepping back a step and staring at Naruto with surprise and shock. "You're supposed to be passed out on the fucking ground! How the fuck are you still up?!" Naruto looked at her with his head tilted a little to the side, eyebrows curled into a small, confused scowl. Yet before he could even answer her question, she pummeled him again! As Naruto collapsed once more, groaning and holding his now aching head, Tayuya ordered "Stay the fuck down!", before kneeling him in the back to keep him there.

Despite her earlier protesting of Tayuya's abuse of the blonde, Sumi laughed. Both children turned their attention to her, one glaring and the other meekly. "You two really are adorable! But really, Naruto, I thought you were a trained shinobi! Surely she's no match for you!" She said with a smirk, one which turned into a cheeky grin when Naruto's eyebrow twitched. Well, that, and he winced at the same time because Tayuya pressed down harder.

"Bull fucking shit. There's no fucking way this shithead's a trained shi-" Tayuya started, though her words were cut short when she was suddenly thrown onto her bottom. At first she didn't even notice what had happened, but looked up to see Naruto standing with his back to her, head turned to reveal a small smile on his face. The bruise on his nose was gone, and the one atop his noggin' was receding too. 'What the fuck?'

"Oh, no, I couldn't be a 'trained shinobi', no ma'am!" he retorted, voice laced with the typical sarcastic 'I don't mean this at all' tone, as he repositioned his feet so he was standing facing Tayuya. Sumi stifled a giggle fit on the side, absolutely loving the interaction between the two from her safe-spot on the side. Now it was Tayuya's turn to push herself back onto her feet, and as she stood Tayuya forced the surprised look to leave her features, suppressing it with the typical angry death glare.

"You're fucking dead!" she shouted, rushing after Naruto - who at that moment decided to whip around and run the opposite direction. Tayuya chased after, determined to beat him once more, thinking the fact that he had just easily forced himself out of her hold was surely dumb luck. Still, the thought remained, that perhaps it wasn't dumb luck after all. 'Shinobi...'

Much later after the confrontation in the mansion, after the sun had set and hid behind the distant hills and allowed the world to be shrouded by the night, a meeting of much greater importance was taking place. As lights began to shut off, allowing families to fall into a blissful sleep, there were some who weren't. The Hokage sat in his chair, looking over the small group that had been assembled in the room. Among them were Kakashi, who was by his usual perch by the window, and Yugao who stood a little to the right of the masked prodigy.

Then there was Shikaku, head of the Nara clan, and Shibi, head of the Aburame clan. Shikaku was sprawled on the couch fast asleep, while Shibi was standing stoically by the doors. And lastly were the three people Hiruzen honestly wished weren't there. Homura, Koharu, and last but certainly not least, Danzo himself. They stood quietly and broodingly in the far corner, which if he was honest was exactly where the Hokage wanted them - if they had to be there at all.

The silence that permeated the room was heavy, so much so that if it weren't highly trained killers that made up the occupants, it would be too much to bear. Yet everyone was still, and no one made a sound, save for Shikaku's ceaseless snoring from the couch. Yet even that had sunken into the background, becoming nothing more than background noise against the deadened room. Perhaps the tension was due to Danzo's presence, as he seemed to inspire that anywhere he went. Or, perhaps it wasn't.

Much to the Hokage's relief, Kakashi decided to break the silence, though it was with a much less light-hearted topic than Hiruzen wished for. "Hokage-sama..." the former ANBU-nin broached, leaning against the window case and staring off into the star-filled sky. "Are you sure it was wise to allow Naruto to return to the Academy so soon?" The Jonin turned to glance at the Hokage, who was staring deeply into the doorway with his elbows resting on the desk and his clasped hands in front of his mouth.

"I did not wish to hold off his training any longer than I already had." The elderly shinobi replied, drumming his fingers against his own knuckles in a slow, methodical manner. Out of the corner of his eyes, he could see the three elders watching him intensely. If he attempted to say it didn't bother him, he'd be lying. They were once his teammates, and he respected each of their decisions, but old age had done something to each of them. Or, perhaps it was war that changed them so. They had all grown just a touch cynical due to the losses witnessed during that chaos. Although Hiruzen took it in stride, the others weren't quite as accepting.

"While I can understand that, there's still the risk of the "friend" mentioned in that letter. We haven't managed to receive any leads on who it might be. It could be one of the instructors." Kakashi countered, referring to the note found several weeks ago. Hiruzen sighed, closing his eyes for a moment before returning his attention to the wooden entrance. Shikaku still snored repetitively, like a clock ticking away - only louder.

"Indeed. It's also possible that it's not, or that whoever it is has already fled. We can't hold Naruto back on the suspicion that there might be a threat in the academy. And if there is, Naruto's presence there might cause whoever it is to take action. I've informed Iruka to keep a sharp eye on the boy. He'll be safe." Kakashi seemed to accept his answer, returning to observing the twinkling stars in the night sky. Only a few seconds later, the window opened, and all eyes were over there in a heartbeat. As if sensing the draft through his sleep, Shikaku had stopped snoring and was peeking lazily with one eye half-open.

"Tsume Inuzuka. Good. Then we can finally get the reason we're all here out of the way." Danzo said dryly, his only real movement was to take one step forward. Hiruzen could see Tsume's lip curl up in a resisted snarl, and he mentally applauded the woman for her rare example of self-control. She sat on the ledge, with the window latched open behind her, and a large canine was passively sticking its head in. It was predominantly black, but had white fur on its belly and under its chin, and it had an eye patch over its right eye. Normally, a giant dog sticking its head through the window would be a bad thing, but Kuromaru was a welcome companion for the old man.

"There ain't nothing to get to." Tsume said with an obvious layer of frustration behind her voice. "We couldn't find jack-shit on the first day, and it's just been harder and harder since. Whoever set off that damn bomb made sure it sent up enough smoke to cover their tracks." Kuromaru briefly dipped his head, as if apologizing for his failure, but Hiruzen knew that no one in the room - well, except maybe those three - blamed either of them for not finding a scent. Hiruzen turned to Shibi, but the Jonin only shook his head.

"Our bugs were unable to find any trace. This is because the fire removed any particles that may have been left behind." he answered the unasked question, voice low and monotone as always. The Hokage continued the rotation, bringing his attention to Kakashi and Yugao, though the angry scowl on Yugao's face told him their story before either had a chance to say it.

"We haven't seen or heard anything on the mob front. Bastards went into hiding pretty damn quick." the purple haired ANBU stated, crossing her arms over her armored chest. Hiruzen sighed, leaning back in his chair and reaching up to massage his temples. Once more a quiet enveloped the room, Shikaku's snoring being replaced by a gentle breeze rolling across the rooftops. But then, it was broken when Shikaku hummed quietly, still laid out on the couch with his hands underneath his head.

"Did our merchant have any friends?" he asked, and instantly after the question left his lips Kakashi's eye widened just a tad, before he zoned in on the floor, his one visible brow furled into a scowl. Then, he looked at the Nara - who himself was observing Kakashi, along with Danzo and the Hokage. It was impossible to tell if Shibi was looking at him too, as he was wearing shades. At night. Apparently the moonlight was too bright, as well.

"You don't think...?" he asked, to which Shikaku slowly exhaled a breath.

"It's possible." Shikaku replied, staring up at the ceiling sleepily. All eyes shifted between the two, waiting for one of them to explain what they were talking about. Yet an example was never given, not even once. Tsume's leg started tapping, something Hiruzen noted was an indication of her annoyance.

"Well, are you just going to sit there or are you going to tell us what the hell you're talking about?" the matriarch of the Inuzuka clan finally asked. Kakashi huffed, and looked at her in his typical indifferent fashion, before a light knock came to the door in three quick taps. Most of the room turned their attention in its direction, with Yugao reaching for her weapon pouch on instinct. Sharing a glance with Kakashi, Hiruzen leaned forward.

"Enter." He commanded, and though a few instants passed the door gradually began to open. As it creaked, a form dressed in a dark cloak stood in the entry, the leaf insignia emblazoned on his forehead protector. His dark eyes scanned the room, and he bowed politely before entering completely and shutting the door behind him. Hiruzen's eyes narrowed, not because he wasn't happy to see who had entered, but because he wasn't really expecting them either. "Itachi, welcome. What brings you here?"

A moment of hesitation - was it hesitation? - was all that separated the Hokage's question with Itachi's answer. He reached into his cloak flap, and pulled out a rectangular, brownish-yellow envelope with a red seal on the front. Then, the Uchiha stepped forward and placed it on the abnormally clear desk, before stepping back once more. The elderly shinobi reached to retrieve the envelope, glancing up at Itachi curiously before breaking the seal with a single, quick tug. The paper he pulled out was folded several times and, like a scroll, unraveled quickly once he pulled it out. And as he read it, he scowled.

Kakashi leaned over, and audibly exhaled after glancing over it. "Same handwriting, same format. Marching orders for whatever group is after Naruto?" he guessed, and Hiruzen nodded his agreement. Then he placed the note back on the desk, and turned to gaze at Itachi. Kakashi, however, was the one to ask the question that was on the Hokage's mind. "Itachi, where did you find this?"

"I didn't." The Uchiha replied quickly, and everyone watched him with expectation. Hiruzen squinted thoughtfully, eyes observing Itachi for any sign of what he was about to say. As always, there was nothing. The young prodigy was as stone-faced as Danzo - some would argue even more so. The Hokage idly wondered if Itachi would cause them to undergo the very same dramatic pause as Kakashi and Shikaku had only moments before. But no one would have to wait long. And afterwards, Hiruzen would wish he never heard what Itachi said.

"It was given to me by my father."

And that makes seven chapters done and dusted! Now, I'm not going to even try to say when I'm going to update next, 'cause last time I didn't meet the deadline and felt really bad! So, I'll settle for saying that I'm going to write up chapter eight as fast as I possibly can! Thank you for your patience.

If you liked this chapter, please say so! Your continued support inspires me to keep writing, regardless of whatever shit's going on in the real world. Seeing your awesome reviews makes me all warm and tingly on the inside (which kinda speaks of a horrible social life, but whatever!). So, please, give me a review with your thoughts, questions, concerns, or any advice you have to offer! I appreciate it all!

See you soon!