AN: The song of this chapter is "Layer Cake" from Persona 5. I figured, heck, I already used a slow, dramatic song for OSF from the same soundtrack, so I might as well use a bouncier one for this.


"Give it your best shot, Sasuke-kun!" Aiko called out, settling into a taijutsu stance that was half-Strong Fist and probably half-boxing. While she was perfectly capable of doing the usual flips and airborne maneuvers as any ninja, she preferred to dodge by sliding from side to side when her feet were on the ground. It was just that, to a more extreme extent than most uncannily tough shinobi, she preferred taking direct hits and blocking instead of dodging where practical.

Sasuke eyed her warily. "You first."

Covered in dust and dirt after their initial exchange of blows, because even Aiko's lighter hits could send a lighter shinobi skidding, Sasuke edged around her to avoid getting caught within her range. Because Aiko was a little taller, her reach was theoretically better, but she didn't use weapons to capitalize on that advantage. Having felt exactly how much Aiko didn't need so much as a shuriken, he knew better than to rush in.

Again, anyway.

"If you lose initiative, you lose the fight!" Aiko reminded him, before taking a running leap directly for him. "Take this! Bird Kick of Rage!"

Sasuke darted out of the way in time, and thus Aiko ended up stomping a crater in the training ground. From a safe distance, I'd felt her only commit to the blow once she realized her opponent was going to be able to dodge, making her super-strength hits score a bit higher on the intimidation front.

"Joint training days are fun," Roku said mildly, while Aiko picked up a clod of broken earth and hurled it straight at Sasuke's head. With her real strength behind it, the supposedly-soft projectile shot across the training field like a bullet.

He ducked in time, then started making hand seals for one of the many, many Uchiha Fire Release techniques. "Fire Release: Great Fireball Jutsu!"

Unfortunately for Sasuke, Aiko had his number. My blonde student shouted, "Earth Release: Earth Wall!"

The battlefield got a bit hard to see after the fireball hit the earth wall, compressing almost immediately and blasting hot air out in every direction, so the sidelines amused themselves by chatting with each other. Today's benchwarmers were me, Kakashi, Roku, Sakura, Kaito, and Naruto. At least until the gloves-off sparring session was finished and we could rotate participants.

But in the meantime, Kaito put his hands on his hips and demanded, "Okay, seriously. Naruto, you sure you don't need a break?"

"No way!"

Naruto, enterprising kid that he was, had decided on the most difficult possible way to learn how to use handholds and footholds effectively in midair combat. Which was why he was standing on a pair of floating kunai-shaped icicles, above a bed of spikes that looked like something straight out of a jungle warfare movie, and was slowly climbing on free-floating icy rungs to a dubiously-existent invisible ladder. Credit where it was due, because even Kaito had trouble creating that many ice constructs at once and keeping them in midair, but Naruto's idea of a challenging training regimen still oughtn't have involved so much potential frostbite.

Sure, at some point he'd master the ability to use those icicles like stepping stones, but why on earth did he want a spike pit? No one knew.

Stubbornness, probably. He'd have an easier time throwing himself around in the air via Shadow Clones.

Sakura, on the other hand, had teamed up with Roku. Since Roku's preferred medium was iron sand and not something below freezing temperatures, Sakura was having a much easier time of the acrobatics. As she leapt from one disc-shaped collection of iron scraps to the next, she said, "I think I'm getting it, Roku-senpai!"

"Better you than me," Roku responded, though Sakura knew better than to take that kind of remark personally. Like Kaito, he'd gotten out of more than one untenable scrape by using his bloodline-granted medium and just running across gaps in terrain that his enemies couldn't. That didn't mean he liked to, though.

"Is it better or worse than climbing trees?" Kaito asked, as his Icy Stalagmites of Doom started to melt. He wasn't putting nearly as much chakra into them as before because Naruto was high enough that the fall alone was a risk, and the ice collapsed in the mid-afternoon sun. And from the backwash of Sasuke and Aiko's ongoing firefight.

"They don't move in the wind," Sakura said, as she jogged a circuit over our heads, "so it's like I'm compensating for what's not happening instead of what is. It's weird, but it's a good kind of weird."

"In that case, try something a bit more extreme. I'll catch you if you need it," Roku said, already working his way through his hand seals.

Sakura planted a hand in one of the iron sand discs, then did a one-handed back handspring into open air. Before she'd fallen more than a meter, Roku had already made an entire blanket of Iron Sand to cushion her trip to the ground. Sakura got her feet under her, and thus the sand parted in time for her to stick a gymnastics landing.

"Nicely done," Roku told her, as the sand whirled out of the air and back into the rice bag he stored most of it in. The storage seal he used to lighten the load was sitting right underneath it, ready for use whenever.

And Kakashi was napping with a novel over his face, so he'd missed seeing the little performance. Then again, that little bow-and-twist, arms in the air as though to receive applause? I recognized that as one of Kakashi's little flairs when he felt like showing off. Seemed like his kids were picking things up quickly. Even if he'd handed off the reins of today's training session to me and my students, he knew what he was doing. Compared to his crisis of "oh my god what am I doing" the day before assembling Team Seven for the first time, it was a nice change.

Speaking of changes, Team Seven had a much more unified skill level this time around. While Sakura was still the one most devoted to the art of being a bookworm, and had correspondingly devoted her time to passing the written tests in the Academy with flying colors, Naruto and Sasuke were both well-rounded. Naruto was far better at academics than his other self had been, because many of the skills involved in test-taking and fūinjutsu overlapped, and he had an actual taijutsu style that relied heavily on his flexibility and countering his enemies' movements, sort of like his dad's. Sasuke, on the other hand, was the group weapon expert and the best at his clan's nature transformation, as well as being the fastest member of the team.

And then there was my team. They were still genin, which was primarily my fault, but if anything, they were overqualified for chūnin by leaps and bounds.

Aiko was fifteen, petite, and basically a tiny blonde Gai. She had a braid on one side that was styled the same way as the one she'd put in Sakura's long hair to control it. While she hadn't gone so far as to wear the green jumpsuit and the orange legwarmers like Gai and Lee did, her clothing style featured fashionable bandages on her limbs and a pair of gloves complete with knuckledusters for good measure. Spandex—in blue, not green—was the name of the day otherwise. If she wasn't still small enough that Kakashi's genin were a single growth spurt from overtaking her, she'd have cut an intimidating figure like her aunt and mother had before her.

Kaito, meanwhile, was marginally taller than Aiko and still wearing his hair nearly the same way I did. At some point, he'd added much longer open-toed boots to his shoe collection instead of sandals most people wore, and he wore mesh instead of bandages or sleeves over his arms. Now, if only he ever made use of the hood attached to his jacket, and all of his outfit would be function-first.

And there was Roku, eye-obscuring hairstyle and all, and he dressed like he'd wandered off the set of a kung fu movie where the only colors were neutral tones. He was also taller than I was by a tiny margin, with long sleeves he tended to use to store weapons, and gloves like Kaito's. A bit more fashion than function on his end, though. Since he was almost nineteen, I supposed it made sense. There were more options for him.

Kaito cupped his gloved hands around his mouth and said, "Keep going and you'll be able to see the Hokage Monument from here," to Naruto, who was indeed still climbing the world's most hostile ladder. "Let me know if you're getting sick of being hit by low-flying birds!"

"I'm fine, Kaito! Quit nagging," Naruto responded, looking down on reflex. Then he went still for a second, except for a faint swaying as he kept his balance through sheer force of habit. "…Okay, this is kind of high. Hey, Roku, do we have a safety net?"

"Are you a ninja or not?" Kaito challenged him, trying to wave Roku's assistance off.

Roku fixed his wayward brother in place with the sharpest glare he'd used all day. Given his perpetually sleepy expression and the Magnet Release-marked eyelids that made him look like a panda, it wasn't much of a feat. "Can we not commit involuntary manslaughter today?"

Kaito rolled his eyes, but he kept making ice-handholds for Naruto to continue climbing, even as Roku wove his metallic net.

"Fire Release: Phoenix Flower Jutsu!"

"Earth Release: Earth Dragon Bullet!"

From my spot on a nearby bluff, it looked like things were going well. Team Seven and Team Kei got along like a house on fire. Now, if they could just avoid committing arson before they were done training today…

Luckily, perhaps, Sasuke slumped down onto his knees after that last exchange of jutsu, narrowly missing Aiko's Earth Release jutsu hurling mud the other way at high speed. While one of the bigger shots hit a tree, and blasted a handful of branches off, it looked like Sasuke was no worse for wear. Aside from being out of chakra for a while.

Still, I got to my feet just as Naruto plummeted out of the sky, landing safely in Roku's iron net. Once he bounced to his feet again, he pointed straight at Kaito's nose and declared, "My turn now, Kaito!"

"Yeah, yeah, go check on your friend first," Kaito said in a dismissive tone.

With the next match order decided, Naruto and Sakura darted toward their teammate, skidding to a stop on her knees. "Sasuke-kun, are you okay?"

Sasuke sat back on his feet, in an exhausted imitation of a seiza pose. "Fine." Sasuke staggered to his feet, with only minimal help from Sakura's concerned hands. "You didn't use Fire Release at all during our match, Aiko."

"I'm not gonna fight fire with fire," Aiko replied, once he was steady on his feet. "Even if it is cooler than Earth Release."

"Hey," Roku chastised Aiko, though he clearly wasn't serious about it.

Oh, figurative language, how silly you can get,I thought, allowing myself an internal sigh. Still, it seemed like the kids were mostly managing themselves. I could afford to space out.

As though you have any room to talk. You twist words in circles if you have half a chance.

Hey, it's fun.

"When was the last time you even used plain Earth Release?" Kaito asked, peering at Roku suspiciously.

Roku shrugged. When not speaking sufficed to communicate his point, Roku tended to keep silent.

"Regardless, it's time for you to swap. Sasuke, Aiko, you're going to go over the match you just had and talk about what you did," I said, clapping my hands to get their attention. "Aiko, you're our expert on Fire Release, so maybe if you had any pointers for Sasuke…?"

"Sure thing, Kei-sensei!" Aiko said, and escorted him toward the sidelines. ''Sorry about not showing you this earlier, but…"

"It's fine. You can just do it now," Sasuke replied, and before long they were out of immediate earshot.

"Naruto, Kaito, the field is yours. Don't break anything important," I advised them, but both boys were already making tracks toward the impact crater Aiko had left earlier. I still shouted after them, "Including each other!" just to be on the safe side.

"Kei-sensei," Roku prompted me. "What about Sakura-san and me?"

Well, since Sakura hadn't been doing much in terms of chakra expenditure… "How do you feel about spotting her for a few chakra exercises? Kaito and Naruto won't last too long, so you'll still be ready to go after they finish with the field. It'll be a good warmup."

Sakura glanced between us, probably checking my logic and finding it wanting, but only said, "All right, Kei-sensei!"

Unfortunately, an explosion from Naruto and Kaito's direction cut off Roku's reply, but I assumed it was also an affirmative. While the two of them headed for the nearby stream, I strode directly into the cheap seats of the genin fight and parked myself where I could easily intervene. Pairing Naruto and Kaito kept two competitive kids with high chakra capacities focused on each other, but it did have risks.

"Mass Shadow Clone Jutsu!"

"Ice Release: Mass Ice Kunai Clones!"

Like that. I tilted my head to one side and one of Kaito's misfires slammed into the tree behind me, splintering bark. A quick glance confirmed that the construct was well-made, but of glittering clear ice. I could have sworn I'd once told him to add wood shavings or sawdust if possible, but it was just a sparring match.

"Cheap shot," Naruto complained, after his clones had fully dispersed.

"It's not a cheap shot if any shinobi could do it," Kaito argued.

"You have Ice Release!"

"Like I couldn't do the same with regular kunai! And you use Shadow Clones like they're nothing!"

"I-It's just something I can do, okay?!"

After he'd invented his own hand seal for it, sure. Naruto hadn't been able to make the three-seal sequence fast enough for his purposes, at least until a thought or two about hand seals had boomeranged back into his head and inspired the creation of the cross seal he'd used thereafter.

Still, I sighed inwardly. Wonderful.

Inevitable, Isobu remarked.

"Naruto, Kaito, you're allowed to use your unique advantages in a fight. Both of you." Once I was sure I had their attention, I went on, "This may be a sparring match, but you can't expect an enemy to hold back against you in the future. Knowing your friends' strengths is one of the best ways to get stronger together. Don't waste that time by arguing over whether a jutsu is 'fair' or not."

I had the worst lectures. It was probably a side effect of hanging out on the sidelines with a running commentary in my head. But at least the two hottest heads on each team were listening to me.

"Naruto, you don't have iron skin or anything. Don't confront Kaito directly," I suggested. "You've got a prankster's mind, so think your way around him."

Kaito, eying the younger genin, didn't say anything about me giving him advice. This was a lesson Kaito had needed to learn when he was younger, but I'd been much clumsier on the execution. Kaito had about as much leeway with his bloodline limit as his distant cousin Haku did, even if he wasn't as good at precision attacks. And though I had never told Kaito about Yang Kurama, he wasn't going to try and outlast an Uzumaki.

Even though Naruto's favorite multipurpose technique was about as draining as anything short of resurrecting the dead.

"Get ready, Naruto. I won't hold back!" Kaito said, which was of course a blatant lie.

Not that Naruto seemed to care. "Bring it!"

The clash continued, and Kakashi kept sleeping with his favorite novel over his eyes.


Later that week, Shinjitsu cropped up again, as they'd been doing every six months or so since we'd first heard of them. Konoha was still far from their usual stomping grounds, but what information Obito tended to come back with painted more and more of the same, ugly picture. Unlike Otogakure, they had more than one big name involved, but Obito's stealthy approach did leave us without a perspective on how they operated on a general basis in the field. Sure, we knew how much their star players hated our guts, but their field agents were too many and too lightweight to send Obito after them directly.

Kamui was a great weapon in the war of information control, but only when used correctly.

"It may just be something about Amegakure, but I could never have gotten this kind of information without sending Obito to the exact right place," Sensei said in a resigned tone as he stared down at the report on his desk. "And he'd have to steal it."

"Konan got it, didn't she?" I guessed, because nothing happened in or around Amegakure without the Akatsuki's knowledge. Kinda police state-ish, but there were so many outside threats to an upstart village like Ame that I couldn't speak against their approach.

"She wrote this, at least," Sensei replied. "I take it you didn't read it?"

"I was asked not to," I replied. I shifted my weight from foot to foot to avoid fidgeting more noticeably, though I was sure Sensei caught it. "I tried to at least listen to Konan-senpai."

Y'know, because communications between heads of state was supposed to be secure. Sensei probably could have chain-teleported his way to Ame, but hell, it'd been decades since the last time Konoha had really sent the Hokage willy-nilly all over the continent. The death of the Second Hokage had something to do with that, even if staying behind in the wake of the disastrous negotiations and save his guard unit had been his choice. And while Sensei had a very nasty reputation, he was also the Hokage who was good at bureaucracy and paperwork on his own initiative. The village didn't want to lose him to anything short of a Ten-Tails attack.

"It deals primarily with the Land of Iron. And there are a few names in here I never thought we'd see again." Sensei spun the report around on the desk so I wouldn't need to read it upside-down—not that I would—and said, "Here. See for yourself."

Speaking of the Ten-Tails and the likelihood of running into the damn thing...

I shook my head slowly, because of course there was still something going wrong in a country we couldn't affect, and then continued reading. After another second or two, I paused. "Wait, there's a guy named Yūki Uesugi in this mess?"

Sensei nodded. "I thought the name sounded familiar. The Uesugi clan did have two survivors, didn't it?"

"More than that, I think, but this sounds like it could be the kid Mom rescued back then," I admitted, scratching the back of my neck as I thought. "I mean, it could be a coincidence, but…"

Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Thrice is enemy action.

Not sure we've crossed that threshold yet, but this is the ninja world we're talking about here. While I wasn't all that interested in getting involved with yet another branch of the extended family, dealing with Shinjitsu seemed to demand more attention every time they came up.

Sooner or later, Sensei would find a reason couched in political nonsense to send me in there to cause mass destruction. Probably sooner. After all, one encounter with the Ten Tails—sort of—hadn't ended badly. Perhaps a second wouldn't either.

"I don't know," I finally said, shaking my head. "There's not enough information yet. But if he is… Well. I'd suggest treating him like any other member of Shinjitsu."

I'd never met the guy, so it wasn't as though as I was overflowing with sympathy for a man whose cause might well involve the destruction of the planet. Even if sometimes humans were pretty terrible, most of my friends were human. It didn't take much thought to decide to oppose that kind of villain.

"Most of your friends." Hah, I like that.

Thought you would.

"That's perhaps a bit cold," Sensei remarked, as he drew my attention to a letter left on his desk. I hadn't paid it much attention, because there was such a thing as prying, but I saw it now. "Since he was kind enough to request an A-rank mission that you would be perfect for."

"Think it's a trap?" It was my first thought, at least.

Trap.

Hush.

"It easily could be," Sensei agreed, though he couldn't hear Isobu. He steepled his fingers in front of his face. "Samurai almost never lodge mission requests. It's a point of pride among their forces that they've never needed shinobi for anything. And given that your mother's old clan name isn't public knowledge"—which was, if anything, a gross understatement—"I doubt they know you could be related. It seems more that they simply want to attract a powerful shinobi team… Probably for nefarious purposes."

There was something funny about Sensei using the term "nefarious" without a hint of irony. After all, shinobi were supposed to be the sneaky, backstabbing rogues. And here we were, anticipating being betrayed by "honorable" samurai. Japanese historians would probably have laughed at that incongruity, because a reputation wasn't necessarily a reflection of reality. My mother's family history would have attested to that much.

I sighed inwardly. Oh dear. "Is the village accepting the mission?"

Sensei's response was immediate. "Of course."

Far be it from the Hokage to pass up an opportunity to demolish an enemy force's ability to threaten Konoha, even if there were some risks. I'd been on a mission where the sole goal was to reduce an Otogakure bunker to smoking ruin, and the resulting underground firestorm hadn't cooled to habitable levels for weeks. Yamato's Earth ninjutsu-made clay and mud had taken care of any additional concerns by baking solid. And while that last part hadn't originally been in the plan, no one had minded.

"Tell me, do you think your students will be up to the task?"

"Yes," I replied. Aiko could store kinetic energy for later use, Kaito used ice, and Roku was the village's only Magnet Release specialist. Given how we were going to spend plenty of time on the road, there was time to brush up on their winter combat skills on the way, too.

"It's good that you're confident," Sensei remarked. With a faintly dry tone, he said, "I hope that means you're going to finally enter them in the Chūnin Exams this time."

"Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves," I muttered, a bit embarrassed. Keeping my students out of foreign Exams was almost a running joke at this point, and they'd been patient with me for entirely too long. If only this upcoming Chūnin Exam didn't have an engraved invitation for Orochimaru plastered all over it… "Though if they perform well in this mission, I'll definitely give them the option."

Sensei smiled with perhaps just a bit of exasperation at my attitude. All he said was, "I'm sure they'll leap on the chance."

Like big cats. Or drop bears.

"I'll have the office convert the request into a proper mission scroll, and I'll work out an expense estimate. You'll leave for the Land of Iron with your team as soon as we've finalized the details," Sensei went on briskly, already starting to slip into the bureaucrat mindset. "And I'll tell you how much your team can probably expect to be paid, even if we have to pry the money out. Travel times, expected enemy armaments…maybe if I send…"

While Sensei trailed off, thinking aloud in a mutter, I bowed as a silent request to leave. As soon as I spotted his quick, distracted nod, I disappeared from his office and went to start preparations.

My explosives hadn't been even utilized in our last attempt to destroy the Ten-Tails' mummified form, and likely wouldn't have worked any better than Konan's. But I'd been learning new tricks since then, and planned to eradicate Shinjitsu if given half a chance to do so. They'd been allowed to fester for far too long. This golden opportunity to deal with the organization was probably a trap from the word "go," but I was one of the people Konoha could rely upon—usually—to fight my way out. It was a one-two punch of destructive capability and craptons of chakra to utilize it.

And I really wanted to track down Kakuzu and rip his lungs out. Screw going for a heart when he had five of the damn things. He was about the only person who'd hurt one of the people I loved and gotten away with it thus far, and Orochimaru's bullshit Horcrux strategy didn't count. I'd need a few more shots at him (and perhaps the invention of nitroglycerin) to make it stick.

I went home to prepare my arsenal.


"Are you going to take all of the ration bars?" Hayate asked from the kitchen as I prepared my storage scrolls.

While my team was going to be given expense money for buying food in villages or towns we passed through, I still enjoyed the idea of not needing to use that allowance. Sure, I wasn't going to start packing everything until I knew for sure what the mission parameters would entail, but with the drafts down on paper my students would also be able to pack their own supplies, too. Aiko had the best calligraphy out of my three students, but would appreciate the thought.

"If I can pack them all into a single seal, yeah. Do we still have the box?" I asked, because scrolls and loose items in pocket dimensions did not interact well.

"Yeah, lemme just grab it," Hayate said, and I felt him reach above our fridge for the relevant supplies just as two chakra signatures trooped up to our front door.

Hayate didn't notice until he could hear them.

"Hayate-kun, Kei-chan," Kushina's voice rang out as she—or, more likely, a smaller set of hands that accompanied her—knocked. "Good morning!"

I emerged from under a pile of sealing supplies and loose scrolls, trying to avoid disturbing anything unstable as I picked my way toward the front door. One of the problems of using the living room table instead of the desk in my room to work on seals involved losing track of things. Or possible tripping over them. But I'd wanted to give my poor ink-splattered floor a bit of a break.

I opened the door and was almost immediately latched onto by a tiny redhead. While scooting out of the way for Kushina to more easily carry her huge armload of baskets, sweets, and who knew what else into the apartment, I gave Tatsumaki essentially free reign to hug my waist hard enough that she probably could have only been dislodged with a crowbar. I felt her lock her hands together behind my back for good measure.

"Hello to you, too," I said to the top of Tatsumaki's head. When she responded by looking up and digging her chin into my sternum, I took it as a sign that I'd passed inspection. Her whisker cheek marks stretched a little as she smiled. "Did you help your mother make these?"

"With the mochi. Make sure you eat them right away, otherwise they won't be as good," Tatsumaki reminded me sternly, letting go of my waist. She did it in such a way that, if she'd been a little better at leverage, might've been her setting me back on my feet after an impromptu lifting competition. With gravity, anyway. "Dad said you'd be on the road for-freaking-ever!"

"That sounds about right," Hayate said, as I led Tatsumaki into the apartment to help her mother and my brother unload all the gifts. Or supplies, given how much of this stuff I was bound to take with me. Aiko's sweet tooth was not to be denied.

You say that like you are not in possession of a sweet tooth prominent enough for any two people.

Hush, you. Stop making good points.

You've already taken all the bad ones, so what else is left?

"Here, Maki-chan," Hayate said, after unpacking one of the baskets Kushina had brought. He held out a neatly wrapped pastry from the Uchiha bakery, because the Namikaze family knew where to find the good stuff.

Though the bushy-haired redhead did wait until her mother confirmed that she had permission to eat a part of the gift, she tore into the anpan with all the restraint of Aiko once permission was got. While I hadn't seen Aiko visit the Namikaze household often, I knew my team had a marked tendency to pop by the Academy. Usually with the intent to bring treats to the students. Since Itachi had a fondness for sweets that was a bit of an open secret in their age group, the Academy teachers tended to tolerate their interference perhaps more than they should have. Especially when leftovers ended up in staff lounges for quite unknown reasons.

"Dorayaki?" I asked, as Kushina sat down at the table with us and I poked through the rest of the "eat now" basket. "It's barely noon."

"We went shopping all morning, and Tatsumaki has been very patient," Kushina said, even as she gently adjusted her daughter's fluffy pigtails. If they were a little looser, and if Tatsumaki had tolerated having a center part in her hair, she would have resembled a red-haired miniature Tsunade from the correct angle. "And I wanted to make sure your team left with all the comforts of home in a back pocket."

Once she'd finished devouring her treat and dabbed at her mouth with a napkin, Tatsumaki said, "Kei-sensei, Hayate-sensei, do you pack books for long trips?"

Hayate blinked. Tilting his head to one side, he clearly thought about it, then said, "No, Maki-chan. I mean, I don't want to let anything get destroyed by accident. Besides, most of the missions I've been on involve a lot of running."

Kakashi sure as shit did, though. At least he made sure to only pack the editions of Icha Icha that weren't signed. Sensei hadn't been on a real mission in years, but during diplomatic events (like the many Chūnin Exams I hadn't entered my students in) he tended to either take non-secure paperwork, sealing supplies, or a stack of nonfiction halfway up his shin. Or all of the above, really.

"Not even a field guide?" Tatsumaki pressed, leaning forward. Her elbows were on the table and her face was squished between her hands as she scrutinized my brother's life choices. Oh, the judgement of an Academy student.

"I took a decommissioned Bingo Book once," Hayate said, after some thinking. His eyes shot toward mine across the table, and I figured the rest of what he'd bothered taking along on missions was either imminently burnable or not supposed to be seen by anyone but the recipient. Courier missions were not fun once people started trying to kill over things we hadn't read. "And a guide to local plants while in, uh, a few places I don't want to be caught again."

At least he'd never had to contemplate eating his own shoes, I supposed. Or worse: natto.

"I've brought novels before. Only for missions when I expect to stay in the same place a lot," I said, mostly to rescue my brother. That discounted my long stint of bounty hunting and other miscellaneous filler missions during my year away from home. "As for the rest… Well, your dad brings half a library with him when he goes anywhere. Fūinjutsu is awesome that way. I learned some stuff from him."

"Fūinjutsu is pretty awesome," Tatsumaki agreed. "Someday, I'll make my own big storage seals and carry all my stuff wherever I go. I just need to find a way to make it stop making a mess."

"If you do, please share your secret with your father," Kushina put in, smiling. "He'll love to find a way to take all his work home with him."

"I might, if he lets me teach Gamatatsu and Gamakichi how to make mochi," Tatsumaki declared. "I'm almost good enough that I can work around their slimy hands!"

"I don't think Gamabunta would ever forgive us," I muttered under my breath.

"Anyway, you should bring books," Tatsumaki concluded, folding her hands neatly in her map. In a tone that sounded like she'd heard it all too many times before, "Knowledge is power. And you can learn all the time with books."

And power corrupts, and so on and so forth.

And here I thought you were going to skip the school truisms and move straight to Star Wars and cookies. The Dark Side's got nothing on Uchiha baked goods.

Imagine the devastation they could wreak if they had better chocolates.

I did my best not to smile. The others wouldn't get the joke. Forget the Sharingan—world domination is one bake sale away.

"Maki-chan, did you ever decide if you wanted to learn kenjutsu or not?" Hayate asked, steering the topic away from one where he was clearly not meeting Tatsumaki's standards. He needed to bring more books to strange and unknown places.

"I thought Kei-sensei said your family style isn't complete," Tatsumaki said, frowning slightly. "Or do you just mean the basics?"

"The basics," Hayate confirmed. "Since my sister will be out of town for a while, she'll catch up with you after she comes back. By then, you might have enough of a grasp to work on some of the more advanced stuff."

Tatsumaki stared down at the table for a little while, then said, "Yeah, I think I should do that. Dad and Mom always say it's best to learn things when people offer to teach you. Especially if it's a technique! I'll learn since I like you and kenjutsu would be good to know. Can I have another dorayaki? Or anpan?"

Tatsumaki got a nod from her mom, and selected her next treat with a little more care.

"I wasn't aware the Hokage used kenjutsu," Hayate said to Kushina, after coughing to clear his throat.

"He knows the basics, but it's mainly due to association with Kei-chan and Kakashi-kun," Kushina replied. "Not to mention observing other people in the field. It's just that he is less interested in learning anything except how to counter it."

Given Sensei's sheer speed, that didn't seem like something that had stayed on the Yellow Flash's to-do list for very long. Sensei plus katana would be deadly, but not much more than he already was. Which was already enough to intimidate other countries into ditching battlefields if he showed up.

"If Dad doesn't know it, I should learn it," Tatsumaki said firmly.

Well, if Naruto and Kushina had already decided against learning the art of the sword… Why not? Tatsumaki was tiny, adorable, had whisker-marks, and was a redhead. She was half a degree (and at least one universe) away from being Kenshin Himura. I'd be interested to see if she had a knack for it.

"How about you help me pack, first?" I suggested, because it was something I was sure Tatsumaki already knew how to do. Learning could happen once I was out of town.

"Okay!"

While Tatsumaki and I sat down with Kushina to complete the storage seals—and snacked on whatever wasn't going in them—Hayate dug around his room before retrieving his old training shinai from the depths of his closet. He waited until we three were done with the fūinjutsu before speaking to Tatsumaki quietly about practice and forms and getting used to the weight. While he couldn't guarantee he'd be in town much longer than I was, because missions happened unexpectedly all the time, there were enough shinobi with kenjutsu in their arsenal that Tatsumaki could find experts anywhere she needed them. I'd have picked Raidō, at least if he wasn't rushing off to do more ANBU missions.

"And we're all set on snacks," I announced, once (almost) all the sweets had disappeared into their proper seals. Thanks to that box Hayate had found earlier, it had only taken two seals to pack everything up tight. "Thank you, Kushina, Tatsumaki-chan. You were a great help."

"Oh, I wouldn't be sure about that," Kushina demurred. "You've got a long road ahead of you. I'd be surprised if these last the whole trip."

Given that getting to the Land of Iron seemed to take almost two solid weeks even at the fastest shinobi sustained travel speed, and the utter lack of convenient Flying Thunder God seals along the appropriate path, this was going to take forever.

Hrm. "Kushina, do you think it would be appropriate for me to break protocol a little?"

"Regarding what?" Kushina asked, as Hayate once again distracted her daughter. From the looks of things, our living room had become the site of Tatsumaki's first impromptu kenjutsu lesson.

I told her my basic outline of a plan to save time.

"Well, they are old enough to make that kind of choice," Kushina mused, tucking her arms into a thinking pose. She tapped her cheek once, twice. "You probably have enough time before you leave, too. It won't do any harm to give it a shot."

"I'll run it by Sensei, then. Thanks," I said.

Hayate's voice washed over us as he crouched next to Tatsumaki, who held her shinai a little awkwardly. "And if you keep your hands spaced out like this…"

"Oh, I see," was her response. She swung experimentally, and the bamboo slats slapped together with a loud crack. "That works a lot better!"

"That's the idea, Maki-chan," Hayate said. And so, the lesson continued.


On the morning my team was scheduled to leave, Aiko was nearly late. After poking around the village for about fifteen seconds with my chakra sense, I traveled across town and half-kidnapped her from a meetup with Team Gai (wherein she, Lee, and Gai all said tearful goodbyes while Neji and Tenten mostly pretended not to be involved) and stuck her portion of the supplies in her arms to save time. Her teammates/brothers had already gotten her supplies out of the house and to the village gates, but I couldn't make them carry them forever.

"It's gonna be months before we can do the epic sunset genjutsu thing again," was what Aiko said when I asked about the delay. "I'll miss them."

I flicked her in the forehead anyway, my nails plinking off her headband as she secured her mission pack to her back. "That's no excuse. Now, let's get going."

As it happened, I did not get permission from Sensei to teach my students the Flying Thunder God Formation. While they were trustworthy, some techniques were the explicit and implicit purview of the Hokage's equivalent of the Secret Service and not supposed to be exploited for the sake of saving on travel time. Sensei didn't say most of that, but I caught the subtext just fine. A different set of contextual clues let me theorize that he had his own way of making sure we didn't stay out of contact with Konoha for longer than strictly necessary, even if he hadn't seen fit to explain his reasoning just yet.

Ah, well. C'est la vie.

In fact, it wasn't until my team hunkered down for the night that we found out what Sensei had chosen as an alternative solution.

Vwip! The air in front of our campfire twisted like water going down a drain, only in reverse as it spat up an Uchiha in a Konoha uniform.

"Hi, kids!"

And Sensei's contingency plan happened to be the only other habitual teleporter in the village. Once he'd fully materialized just outside of our little campsite, he raised his right hand and said, "I'll be your handler for this mission."

"What the hell does that mean?" Kaito demanded, peering over his shoulder.

"It means I'm not technically on this mission, but I'll be around if you need me. Also, I'm your quick escape." Obito nodded at me. "Kei said something that let Sensei know it might be a good idea."

"And I assume you're gonna take the opportunity to spy on the Land of Iron while we're there." I steepled my hands in front of my face like Sensei, though I looked less like a savvy politician and more like a crime lord when I did it.

"Well, sure," Obito replied. He sat down next to Roku, who immediately handed him a flame-roasted…thing that was probably a lizard. Even though we hadn't reached the point where we needed to live off the land, Roku liked to stay in practice. "Thanks. And as I was saying, I can also cut your trip shorter by like…weeks. I've been to the Land of Iron before."

And come home with one hell of a stomach bug. He'd learned his lesson, though. At length.

"Sounds good to me," Aiko said. "The less time we spend outside of the Land of Fire, the better."

It was difficult for Aiko to act as a human seismograph when she wasn't in the correct country to get readings. The more warning people had of any activity around Mount Soragami, the better.

Obito shrugged, because he was the type of person who tended to assume that the Kasai clan seals were well beyond him. He was right, but that didn't necessarily mean that it wasn't an item of concern anyway. Instead of dwelling on it, he just said, "Maybe you'll change your mind once we get there. But for now, let's relax a bit! The samurai won't be expecting us for weeks."

"That's at least half a reason not to rush to their gates before they'd even expect a reply," I informed Obito dryly.

Obito did his best to argue with me on that, though. As a teleporter and an infiltrator extraordinaire, it wasn't like he generally had to worry about that kind of consideration. "We could just say we handed off the mission to the closest team."

Which would be a load of shit of the highest order. Every team on the border would've won out over us, because it was hard to be farther from the Land of Iron than Konoha was and still be on the same continent. The Land of Water was the only major shinobi nation without land borders shared with anyone else, as much good as it seemed to do them. That said, the Fourth Mizukage at least pretended to be civil, and according to Obito the last Chūnin Exam there had included a free spa day at a beachfront resort. The Land of Iron's idea of civility was less papered over by shiny things—for the most part, they turtled up and made everyone else leave them alone.

Ahem.

You're better at it than them.

Just so.

"We're not going to skip straight to the Land of Iron," I told Obito firmly. "We're going to get some more experience with their climate, we're going to check in at their border, and we're doing this above-board." When my students and Obito looked at me with perfect skeptical expressions, I added, "At least where people can see us."

We wouldn't be shinobi if we didn't have a few extra cards up our sleeves. Mine mostly exploded when I wanted them to, with a few exceptions.

"Do you think we'll run into any other shinobi there?" Aiko wondered aloud. When the rest of us turned our attention to her, she went on, "I know the geography lessons at the Academy say that the Land of Iron is super far away, and history says shinobi aren't supposed to be there. But there's been a lot of trouble out of Shinjitsu since years ago, and we know some of their members are in the Land of Iron and that they're shinobi. So, what gives?"

"I'm not sure how much the Land of Iron really knows about them, though," Obito said. He crossed his arms, leaning back as he thought. It was a bit ruined by the half-gnawed lizard on a stick in his hands. "See, I got to dig through a lot of their records, and I've actually met members of Shinjitsu before. Most of 'em are missing-nin, and we've sent hunter-nin after people with smaller bounties and bigger targets on their backs before. I don't think Mifune would be happy to know his country's been sheltering people like that."

"So… You're going to tell the general about the creeps in his country?" Kaito asked.

It was more likely that we'd kill the lot of them, torch their base, run for the border, and send Mifune a postcard once we were safely home. Better to ask forgiveness than permission. At the very least, we needed to provide enough leeway for Sensei to deny everything if asked.

My problem-solving skills occasionally left something to be desired.

"I think it'd be better if we took them out first." Obito, in some ways, was entirely too much like me. His powers, likewise, made him a little less than interested in following the proper procedure. "Keeping Mifune out of our hair, you know?"

Or keeping us out of his. Really, since we were the interlopers, we were the ones who'd be scurrying around and rabble-rousing. I was sure everyone involved would have plenty of things to scream at us after the fact. Some of them might even be nice enough to avoid being scrubbed from the reports.

Kaito said, "So, instead, we're gonna have to not-explain the giant smoking crater."

"Shinjitsu already did that, so who cares?" Obito shrugged. "Anyway, do you want to know who's made their roster? Or are you more worried about this Yūki guy?"

Kaito made a face, annoyed. "Let's not call him that. It'll get confusing way too fast."

"Whatever you say," Obito replied.

In the end, we decided to spend at least two days hoofing it. Obito could conserve his uses of Kamui.

It ended up paying off in ways we did not initially expect.

See, when ordinary people take a road trip, they expect the usual hazards. Such as wearing comfortable shoes, or not being able to find the correct turn and ending up in the mountains north of nowhere. Or having to shoot buffalo for food. Shinobi tended to expect many of the same things, minus one or two details related to technology and lack thereof. Characters in a horror movie, on the other hand, tended not to expect the hotel on the side of the road to be run by a serial killer and then died as a result. They'd have been fine if the only danger was poison ivy instead, but ended up in a situation beyond their abilities.

We weren't a normal group.

Thus, when we ran into our obligatory hazard just a day after we passed through the Land of Fire's northeastern land border, the universe was poised on a knife's edge. We could determine our genre via sufficient stabbing.

It was "action-adventure." With a dash of comedy.

Now, Obito and Aiko and I all had sweet teeth that were at least a standard deviation past what was considered "normal." It was one of the traits that had allowed us, and others, to bond over my attempts at both baking and making sweets based around mochi. Roku and Kaito ended up sharing the love for sweets somewhat more reluctantly as they grew up, but on a road trip it was traditional to make a pitstop for snacks when convenient. See, by the time we were a week into our travels, we'd eaten all the refined sugar I had brought from home in all its myriad forms. Which was a lot.

For that reason, we visited at a roadside tea house that served dango.

It also happened to be serving a Jashin cultist named Hidan. Who had, to my later astonishment, not randomly butchered the proprietors and stolen everything. No, instead he was being almost nice. I assumed later it was either because he was looking for a change of pace or because he couldn't cook.

Until he saw our headbands, anyway. As much as I swore daily, I'd hesitate to repeat everything he said to us for being supposed lawful authority. Suffice to say that we stalled fighting long enough to lure him away from possible civilian casualties, with Obito on point because he had five minutes of effective invincibility with which to make a mockery of Hidan. As far as my team was concerned, if he was going to be an ass, then we could return the favor with an eye toward making him harmless. By force.

"Quit running, you one-eyed son of a bitch!" Hidan yowled, which was about as polite as he got.

Obito responded with all the maturity that deserved, spinning around in midair. He pressed his cheeks together with both hands and blew a raspberry.

Hidan's scythe shot directly through Obito's chest and slammed into a tree behind him, to no effect. Hidan shrieked in rage while Obito nonchalantly stepped off the side of the branch and laughed all the way down to the ground.

Obito vanished into solid earth-passing directly through Kaito on the way-and Hidan's scythe stopped dead in midair before it could even approach my youngest student. A faint grayish cloud of sand could slow even Hidan's swings, apparently.

"I will shove you ass-first onto a fucking cactus," Hidan snarled, even as Roku was already letting go of the weapon and letting me move in. Not that he needed to be in stabbing range to piss Hidan off, but he was a little easier to hurt than the primary combatants here.

I stomped on the back end of the scythe to imbed all three blades into the dirt, keeping it in place against even Hidan's unnatural strength by using mine to match his. I wasn't digging into Isobu's chakra just yet, because I didn't feel like being the one to utterly break our group's cover. Whenever I wasn't in immediate view, with my hair flying back from the scar on my face, I could be any random jōnin in Konoha's ranks. And while there were plenty of shinobi with scars, only one had a face-splitter like mine with Isobu's chakra waiting in the wings.

I didn't want anyone to be able to mark our presence on a map. Our progress, rather. Shinjitsu didn't need to know we were even out of Konoha.

"Hands off, you fucking—" Hidan didn't get to finish his sentence, because at that point I removed my foot and Roku's Magnet Release manipulation sent Hidan's scythe springing back up into his grip. Or rather, into his face hard enough to crack a normal man's skull.

"Here we go," said Obito as he shot past me, Wood Release spear already at the ready before he swung it straight into Hidan's left elbow.

Without three extra years of roaming the countryside, as much a serial killer as any missing-nin, Hidan wasn't as strong as he'd been in that old world. Without Kakuzu at his side, correcting his blatant disregard for his own safety by flinging string-animated puppets with hearts for cores into the fray, Hidan wasn't as able to compensate for varied attacks. Without the advantage of surprise, because his powers were alien as all hell, he couldn't rely on his favorite technique—to basically weaponize his sadomasochism.

Obito was as aware of these facts as I was. And together, with only the briefest support from my students—distracting Hidan, flustering him, adjusting the weight and swing of his weapon on the fly—Obito and I took our opponent apart.

"Mark," I called, and Obito whirled away into empty air just before I passed through his former position, carving Hidan's legs open and severing vital tendons in the backs of both his knees.

It was the same principle as disarming a zombie, really. If one's opponent refused to respond to pain, well, there was still the matter of the structural integrity of the human body. Between combat experience and my half-remembered medical training, Hidan's immortality was more an interesting factoid than a cause for concern. Ultimately, a skeleton couldn't move without tendons or muscle, and even Hidan needed to bow to the inevitability of physics.

Obito's hand snaked up from the ground, shoving a wooden stake through Hidan's foot and nailing him to the dirt even as my best friend once again pulled a disappearing act. Sometimes, Obito did a better mole person impression than anyone from Iwagakure ever had. And though Hidan wasn't a vampire, a stake in the heart wouldn't go amiss.

"Iced!" Kaito's voice called, just as Hidan swore horribly again as he put his other foot down, slipping backwards on a patch of ice that certainly hadn't been there before.

Aiko was already scooping her teammate off the ground and ferrying him away before Hidan could even attempt to get up. Once the ice devoured Hidan's scythe in a storm of angry-looking icicles that had clearly been mixed with sawdust for flavor, Hidan was bereft of his favorite weapon even if he hadn't had several ligaments rearranged.

"FUCKING C—" was exactly as far as Hidan got before cutting himself off and trying to bite my fingers after a desperate lunge.

Perhaps it was Isobu's influence or Sensei's, but I had enough reaction speed to both dodge and coat my fingers in an inch-thick V1 chakra cloak, which would have deflected any damage even if I hadn't avoided the attack. My sword was also back in its sheath in preparation for the next round of attacks.

"What the fuck did I ever do to you?" Hidan howled, twisting his torso upright despite any damage we'd done.

Trying to kill the shit out of us with a dango stick in your mouth was a good place to start.

I was going to refer to an occasion when you have befriended someone attempting to kill you, but now that I think of it? I do not believe you ever have.

Guess we can't all be Naruto.

And with that, I drew my katana from its sheath in the Curve of the Moon technique and severed Hidan's left arm at the elbow. Ordinarily, the mass of bone and tendon that made up a hinge joint would have slowed a normal katana. But a sword like mine, wielded by someone who knew how to use Wind Release on top of samurai techniques? I barely felt any resistance on the upswing.

"One down," I said quietly, while blood splashed across my flak jacket.

Hidan's arm pinwheeled across the ground, trailing blood that probably didn't affect its owner much. Before Hidan could do more than swear, again, Roku seized the loose limb with a coil of iron sand and dragged it well out of range. He may have also hurled it down a nearby embankment, but I was a little too busy to check.

And on the downswing, chakra charged enough that the blue glow was visible to the naked eye as well, which made the blood spurting out of the stump that used to be Hidan's right arm appear almost black.

Hidan overbalanced without the weight of his arms to steady himself, still cussing a blue streak as though any of us were listening. And once Obito followed up my attack with a touch of Kamui's paper slicer qualities, Hidan was down to one leg he couldn't quite get enough coordination to hop on. He was still standing, somehow, but that was it. Roku was already gathering up his severed limbs as though collecting firewood, and seeing that was enough to make our favorite Jashin cultist almost foam at the mouth with rage.

None of us were really impressed by that point, but Kaito was the one to put it into words. "Dude, you might wanna quit while you're ahead. Before all you are is 'a head.'"

"Fuck off, you little—"

Aiko cracked her knuckles pointedly. A man who ended a fight with only one remaining kneecap was not one who ought to have been making threats.

"Hey, Roku, gimme those," Obito said and, one by one, sucked each one of Hidan's severed limbs into his Kamui dimension with all the gravity of a juggling act. He even gave a little bow at the end, to no one's applause.

"Give those back," Hidan said, but too late. "You think this'll stop me?! I'll never die as long as Jashin—"

"So fuckin' what?" Kaito wanted to know, wrinkling his nose in disgust. He jabbed a finger at the oozing wounds that made up three of Hidan's once-limbs. "Next thing you're probably gonna say is that this is just a scratch, aren't you?"

That isn't how that reference is supposed to go, I thought idly, as my student continued to argue with the now-harmless cultist. As long as no one got near his teeth, anyway.

Perhaps not. But I doubt you could reenact the scene at all with any other enemy.

That's…true. Thankfully. We were lucky we were the first ones to run into Hidan, not any of the other Konoha teams who didn't routinely travel with powerhouses. For them, an initial encounter with Hidan's powers might've proved fatal. He didn't tend to give people much time to gape at his open wounds before attacking. Lucky us.

"As fun as this's been," Obito said, his voice as dry as he could make it, "this guy's not our priority here. So, Kei, you take the kids and keep going. I'll take this one back to Konoha."

I had flicked almost all the blood from my katana in a single motion, but it wasn't clear just yet. I was in the process of getting out my actual cleaning kit when Obito made his little announcement. "Are you going to find us afterward?"

"Yeah," he said, hauling Hidan up by his shirt collar. "I mean, without me, you're not gonna able to go so far that I can't follow." He grinned. "Isn't that why I came along to begin with?"

"Just get him out of here," Kaito grumbled, while Aiko and Hidan continued to make ghoulish faces at each other. Even without being able to access his power, Hidan was winning on sheer spite.

Obito faked another bow, then the pair of them swirled away in midair.

"Kei-sensei?" asked Roku, once they were gone.

"Hm?"

"Who was that guy, anyway?"

In one lifetime, a serial killer and an S-class missing-nin who might've been able to get the drop on Asuma. Here? I shrugged and said, "Some jerk."

An auspicious start to this murderous field trip.

I'll take it over some of our other options.


AN: Hi, everyone! Sorry for the long delay, but I've been preoccupied by story ideas (which have sidetracked me) and now I'm an official teacher, which means my students get the majority of my energy on most weeks. Doesn't leave a whole lot of time or motivation to write. I hope you understand.