A/N: So there was a request to skip the actual genin test. I assumed the reviewer meant Team 7's test. In any case, for those who want the details of that test, it's posted in TT Outtakes, Chp 6. There's a little more that went on in the test than what I have described in this chapter.

Warning: There's a reference to suicide at the second to last scene in this chapter. It's fairly mild in my opinion, but I just wanted to put the trigger warning up.


Chapter Fifteen

Farewells and Introductions


He swallowed and barely managed to clench his fingers in time to prevent himself from dropping the keys. Still, the keys jangled.

"Mizuki?"

Hurriedly, he crumpled the slip of paper he'd retrieved from the ground and hid it behind his back as Tsubaki came into the hallway, "I'm home."

He pasted on a smile and walked forward into her arms, greeting her with a quick kiss to the forehead, before pulling away, "I'm sorry, I can't stay for long – some of the guys wanted to go over the team formations again."

As he walked toward the bathroom, he could hear the pout in her voice, "Again? Is this really necessary?"

Ducking into the bathroom, he closed the door, and threw the crumpled piece of paper in the toilet. Inserting a tone of resigned amusement into his voice, "There're a lot of clan heirs this year. People are nervous."

To forestall further conversation, he relieved himself, flushed, and washed his hands. Nevertheless, as he was checking his appearance in the mirror, her voice drifted in again, "It's just…"

He paused in the middle of combing back his hair with his fingers and let his arms hang down. Walking over to the closed door, he found himself placing a hand at the center of the wooden paneling. Eyes tracing a knot in the wood, he could hear his girlfriend breathing on the other side of the door.

"You've been so stressed lately."

He opened his mouth.

"I thought things were getting better, but this past year…"

Why'd she have to choose now to talk about his? Closing his eyes, he stamped down his impatience and took a slow breath in, careful not to make a sound. As he exhaled, he opened his eyes. But before he could speak, he heard the shift of cloth outside the door.

"You know what, never mind. I'm sorry if I made you uncomfortable. Listen I – I'll see you tomorrow ok? I have patrol duty tonight. Just promise me you'll take some time to enjoy the new weather."

Guilt flooded him momentarily and he pressed his forehead into the wood, "Tsubaki, I-"

But again, he was interrupted. This time the voice came from a distance, "Love you!"

A door slammed and he was left with silence.

Clenching his fist, he snarled and made to punch the door, only to swing himself around at the last second so that he could slide down with his back against the door. He hit the back of his head against the door.

What had he done wrong?

Blinking rapidly, he tried desperately to stamp down the budding hysteria.

How could that bastard sannin expect him to steal the Scroll of Seals? Sure, he had a year, but it was the Scroll of Seals. He let out a shaky breath.

-0-

Age 12.

"Well, it's been a pleasure."

Sasuke huffed impatiently, causing Noa to look even more awkward. The three of them stood at the main entrance to the compound, with Kazuki and Sasuke shoulder to shoulder, facing their now former caretaker.

Kazuki watched as Noa visibly resisted the urge to roll her eyes, biting her lip before forcing another smile on her lips, "It was an experience."

Before Kazuki could nudge his brother, Sasuke dipped his head in a light bow, just deep enough to be polite and responded flatly, "Thanks for your care. Bye."

With that, he spun around and walked off. Kazuki sagged. Seriously?

Turning his attention back to Noa, he noted the reluctant smile on the girl's face as she watched Sasuke shuffle off. Raising his brows in surprise, he was caught off-guard when the girl turned her smile to him, "Kazuki."

"Ah?"

Now that she had his attention, she faltered, "I…"

Scratching the back of his head, he ducked his head quickly to look behind him. His brother was still sauntering off without even a backwards look. Asshat. He didn't quite care for manners himself, but…

Uncomfortable, Kazuki looked back up at Noa. For all her flaws, he had to admit that she had done her best with all the best intentions in mind, "Look, I know we weren't the easiest to look after, but thanks for trying."

Seeing that she was visibly taken aback by his words, he hurriedly added with the intent of ending their conversation, "I'll see you around."

Dipping his head, he turned only to cringe as she called his name, "Kazuki."

Turning around slowly, he looked back up to see her looking at him with a serious expression.

"Just… be careful ok?"

He blinked.

"Don't be afraid to trust in your teacher – and teammates."

He gave her an uncertain nod.

"If things go well, which I'm sure they will, you'll be spending most of your days – and nights – with your team. It'll be difficult to conceal your secrets then. And I know you like to play down your smarts, but, well… I'm sure you've considered the dangers of them knowing, but have you thought about them not knowing?" She finally took a breath and seemed to realize that she'd sped up toward the end. Embarrassed, she tugged at her shirt, smoothing out unseen wrinkles, "I mean, everybody has secrets, but well some can be shared, alright? They might be able to help."

Kazuki furrowed his brows and gave her a quizzical look. From her demeanor, he didn't think that she knew about his "memories".

Seeing his confused look, she gave him the familiar flat impatient glare that she'd started to develop toward the end of her first year with them, "I know you have nightmares."

He looked to the side, somewhat relieved, "Ah." Still, she had a point.

Out of words now, Noa shifted from side to side, "Look, I have to go now and do… stuff."

Kazuki looked back and nodded, starting to turn himself.

"Just take care of yourself and Sasuke, alright?" With that said, she fled.

Somewhat nonplussed, Kazuki shook his head and made his way down the opposite end of the road at his usual pace, so he was slightly surprised that he caught up to Sasuke a few minutes later.

"What'd she want?"

Kazuki shrugged, "Say her goodbyes, I dunno."

Sasuke twisted his mouth to one side, dissatisfied, but suddenly spun away to his right, just in time to dodge an orange blur.

Naruto, who'd clearly been planning on interrupting the conversation with a flying kick, hurriedly whipped around and brought his arms in a cross to block Sasuke's return kick with a wide grin, "Morning, buttface."

Sasuke returned the greeting with a roundhouse kick, "Idiot."

Instead of trying to block that kick, Naruto instead grabbed it, which Sasuke then used to lever himself higher, aiming to kick Naruto with his other leg instead.

Accustomed to these antics, Kazuki gave them a wide berth and continued to trudge along the path by himself. They'd notice his absence sooner or later.

Sure enough, less than a minute later (which, given the girls' absence, had to be a new record), the two bounded back up the path, chasing each other with punches and kicks until they had effectively stopped his progress by circling around him as they continued to fight. Before either of them could pull out their more destructive techniques (and seriously, it sometimes seemed like there was a feedback loop between the two of them designed to amplify their creative abilities in mayhem), Kazuki sighed, "We're approaching the shops."

Naruto attempted one last punch, which was ducked, before sticking out his tongue.

Sasuke smirked, right before he was tackled by Ino.

How did he not see that coming?

Before his twin could shrug the blonde off, Sakura walked by and casually grabbed Ino's ponytail as she walked, "Morning guys."

Ino shrieked as she was pulled off balance before grabbing Sakura's wrist and attempting a throw.

Heaving another sigh as Naruto's pointed laugh was cut off by both Sasuke and Sakura, Kazuki scratched his head and looked up at the sky, which was sadly cloudless. A familiar sound of plastic wrinkling had him turning around in time to see Chouji walk up, "Hey Kazuki."

"Chouji."

Quirking a smile in amusement at the blatant relief in his friend's voice, Chouji offered the open bag of dried fruits to Kazuki.

With a smile, Kazuki snagged a piece, while watching Chouji take in the scene behind him.

"Wanna see how long it takes for them to notice we're gone?"

Chouji knew him too well. With a mischievous grin, Kazuki nodded, and the two of them inched away, darting off with a laugh once they were past the first set of shops and out of earshot of the quarreling foursome.

-0-

"… you all will be in groups of three, where you will complete missions under a Jounin-sensei."

Despite himself, Kazuki couldn't help but tense at Iruka's announcement. Quickly, he rested his head on one arm and sprawled out over the table top, avoiding Sasuke's gaze.

"We've arranged the groups such that overall abilities are equivalent, which I'll now announce."

He loved his brother- he really did. But he really didn't want to be on the same team as Sasuke and Naruto. Initially, when he had first considered the problem of team assignments, he had thought that it would bring him more peace of mind to be on the same team as those two. But, the more he thought about it, the more he became convinced that ignorance was the best peace of mind when it came to them.

Plus, they had Kakashi.

There were other reasons behind his reluctance to join Team 7, but the one that he knew he couldn't help weigh the most was his own yearning to see Team Ten again. With a start, he realized that he had been fingering his wooden shogi pendant.

Letting out a slow breath, he desperately hoped that Shikaku had been able to confirm his team placement.

"Next, group seven."

Clenching a fist over his pendant, he held his breath.

"Uzumaki Naruto."

Behind him, he heard the blond boy sit up, quivering with visible excitement.

"Haruno Sakura."

In front of him, he spotted the girl in question straighten her back as well.

"Uchiha Sasuke."

Naruto released a loud cheer, while Sakura looked back with a triumphant smirk at Ino, who sat to his right. Predicting what was going to happen, he leaned towards Ino just in time to avoid getting grazed by Naruto's flying tackle into his twin.

"Gerroff, what are you doing?!"

Undeterred by the hand in the center of his face, Naruto screamed right into Sasuke's face, "WAHOOOO!"

Beside him, Ino muttered into her hand, "So unfair. Why does she get all the fun people?"

Ignoring the titters in the classroom and the scuffling that had broken out between Naruto and Sasuke, Iruka continued, "Next, the eighth group. Hyuuga Hinata. Inuzuka Kiba. Aburame Shino."

Just then, the door opened, causing half the room to turn around to see Mizuki entering the room. Kazuki watched as Mizuki mouth something about being late with an apologetic smile.

He turned his head to see Iruka shake his head before continuing with a louder voice, "Team Nine."

About to lay his head down, he started when he heard the next name.

"Yamanaka Ino."

Wait, what? Distantly, he was aware of Ino muttering to herself underneath her breath.

"Akimichi Chouji."

He didn't know what to think.

"Uchiha Kazuki."

Realizing that he'd been holding his breath, he let it out in relief and let his head fall straight to the table.

"Heey, don't look so disappointed!"

With a wince, he shrunk away from Ino's loud voice in his ear, "I wasn't-"

"I don't care what you say, but we're not going to lose to Sakura's team!"

He stared at her and blinked even as she turned around to point at Chouji in the back row behind her, "We're gonna win or I'll confiscate all your snacks!"

Chouji stared at her and clutched the bag of chips protectively, "Win what?"

"Win everything. I don't care," she hissed back just as Iruka finished the list. With a triumphant air, she turned around and crossed her arms. Seeing Chouji's questioning look, Kazuki gave him a dumbfounded shrug, before turning around to face the front as well.

"Mizuki will be introducing the jounin senseis this afternoon. Disperse!"

-0-

"Once everyone's chosen, feel free to request additional information from Mizuki or Iruka. Kurenai, since you're new to our rosters this year, would you like first pick?"

Asuma met his father's eyes over the woman's shoulder for a brief moment before looking away.

'It'll be up to you to pass the team. But I would like for you to choose them, as a favor to me.'

What had that been about?

'I'll explain more once the Commander returns. Of course, that might not be necessary if they don't pass your test.'

Stepping forward, Kurenai replied, "Team Eight. As people have mentioned, I think I'd be the best match for the Hyuuga."

After pausing a moment to confirm that there were no dissenting opinions, the Hokage gave a short nod and gestured at Iruka, who stepped forwards to deliver the official documentation on her team and a copy of the registration forms that would be need to be filled regardless of whether her students would pass her test.

Receiving the scrolls with both hands, she delivered a short bow and returned back to the crowd of jounins that surrounded the hokage's table.

"Tekuno."

Asuma studied the cracks in the floorboard as the jounin that had been called made his request. As the process was repeated several more times, he noted that his father was calling the jounin that everyone knew were reluctant about taking on another team, and would undoubtedly choose to assess the student teams that the Academy instructors had tagged less likely to succeed.

As the last of those teams were selected, he raised his head and looked for the tell-tale mess of grey hair out of the corner of his eye. If he was correct, then the next name that his dad would call would be…

"Kakashi."

He hid a grin at the way the other jounin in the room shifted their weight. The first time Kakashi had been slotted for a team, the man had selected one of the tagged teams – which had been understandable, especially after the long away mission that the man had just returned from. (No one really counted Gai and the fact that he took on a team, because that man just couldn't be used as a standard for comparison).

Several months later, the traditional wave of new shinobi from neighboring villages looking to join Konoha's ranks meant Kakashi was once again called. The influx of foreign candidates always followed the public portion of the Chuunin Exams, attracted to Konoha's strength. The requisite security screenings also doubled as team placement assessments. They were generally known to be not as effective as the placements designed by Academy instructors, so nobody was too surprised when Kakashi failed the first team he'd been asked to assess.

However, the second team, drawn from the rare second wave of applicants, had seemed much more promising on paper. When they failed, people started looking at Kakashi's report more carefully.

While no one could argue with Kakashi's decision (because they weren't that kind of a village and while mission-focused shinobi were appreciated, they could also be dangerous if they couldn't consider the spirit of the mission), few could also say that they themselves would have passed Kakashi's test when they had been starting out.

The man was an expert at applying psychological pressure.

Consequently, many had suspected that the man had designed the test so as to avoid taking on a new team. He imagined that the majority in the room had expected and hoped that the Hokage would essentially pigeonhole Kakashi into taking the team with the jinchuriki. That hope didn't exactly stem out of enmity towards the vessel, so much as the belief that the man would be the most qualified to determine when it would be necessary to eliminate a threat, before it arose.

Despite Kakashi's eccentricities, rumors of his ruthlessness during his time in the ANBU had never faded. Moreover, the man had made a legend out of himself while he had been away.

(Guiltily, and somewhat embarrassedly, Asuma had been relieved –and proud- to discover that the bounty on his head was still higher – at least as of a year ago.

It was all about the people you pissed off.)

Still, he suspected that his colleagues had no reason to be concerned. Because at the end of it all, Kakashi was nothing if not loyal.

"Team Seven."

And there was no way the man wasn't going to take the chance to speak with his former sensei's son.

As Kakashi stepped forward to receive the scroll, Asuma spotted the relieved demeanors of several faces in the room. As the man stepped back, Asuma found himself meeting his father's eyes again.

He knew what was coming next.

"Asuma."

He felt a brief spike of irritation as he stepped forward.

When he was younger, he'd chafed at his father's influence, if not control, over his life. There were so many unstated expectations that came with being the son of the Hokage that it always felt like he was stepping onto a minefield every time he left home. No choice of his was ever considered a matter of personal preference; there were always strings attached, implications that he could never seem to anticipate.

All of it made him want to explode.

And, he did.

He rebelled, fought, panicked, and fought again. He left the village and joined the Guardians. He found perspective and patience, and made friends out of enemies, and enemies out of friends. And he'd returned, pressed by the narrow success of foiling an assassination plot against his father and his friends' counsel, and found that his rebellion had unexpectedly given him more space to breathe upon his return.

He was the Hokage's recalcitrant son.

His father had seemed older than he'd expected, reminding him, unpleasantly, that he'd left not so soon after his mother's death. So he'd stayed – longer than he had initially intended. Reconciliation was slow, but not as difficult as he'd expected. Guilt and time had lent understanding to both sides. So when his father had made his request, he'd been taken aback.

It was only the fact that it had been a clear request, and not an order, that kept him from refusing out of principle. His old man had stated that there was a reason behind the request (and clearly it had something to do with the fact that they were blood related, because why else would his father have made the request to him?). And while he'd grown to understand many of his father's decisions, he still had disagreed with a good number of them. The only question was, would he agree with the reasoning behind this latest request.

Behind him, he heard the unsubtle shifting of cloth. Clearly, his peers were growing impatient. The Hokage stared patiently back.

He let out a soft sigh, "Team Nine."

He wasn't the most superstitious, but he couldn't help but frown at his team's number. Nine – homophone for bitterness and suffering and bad luck in general.

His father smiled.

Stepping forward, he received his scroll with both hands. Inadvertently, his eyes were drawn to the crystal ball on the table as he stepped back.

The globe was still cycling between scenes of the various students that were now breaking for lunch.

He blinked as he recognized a flash of his nephew's distinctive scarf before another set of students was shown.

Why was Konohamaru playing with Academy students?

-0-

"You don't hit kids!" Sakura ranted and ended her shout with a punch to Naruto's shoulder.

Yelping, Naruto backed away with a pout, ""Just cuz he's the old man's grandson-"

'He's a kid," Sakura hissed.

Naruto crossed his arms and stubbornly replied, "He said he's training to be a ninja, and it's not like I actually hit him that hard. I'm not stoo-pid."

That's debatable. Peering over his folded arms, Kazuki watched Naruto's continued efforts at defending himself. If the dork would just apologize and admit his wrongdoings, he'd avoid all of this trouble. That strategy had always worked with Ino.

Then again, that idiot never did know when to quit.

With a creeping smile as he noticed his brother's growing slouch, Kazuki supposed that bull-headed stubbornness was part of Naruto's charm.

He watched as Sasuke, shifting farther and farther away from his bickering teammates, turned around slowly to glare at him.

Even though Sasuke hadn't spoken, Kazuki could almost hear the complaint, 'Why am I placed with these two loudmouths?!'

Without lifting his head from where it was perched, Kazuki shrugged, somewhat glad that his arms were hiding his smile. You're just as bad as them, was what he wanted to say.

"We're going to get in trouble before we even meet our sensei!"

Slumping at his shrug, Sasuke turned around just in time as the classroom noticeably grew quiet as the door slid open to reveal Mizuki.

Biting his lip, Kazuki found himself once more holding his pendant through the fabric of his shirt.

Stepping to the center, between the two chalkboards, Mizuki waited until the room was silent. Uncharitably, Kazuki wondered at the stiffness of the instructor's smile when it was clear that the man was enjoying drawing out the suspense for the children.

Finally, the man spoke, "Alright, a few of your instructors will be arriving late." There was a shift in the shadows near the entranceway to the classroom and a few whispers broke out. Speaking over the noise, Mizuki continued, "In the meantime, if you hear your team number, please come up to the front of the room."

Just then, an older man wearing a flak jacket with blue chin guard stepped into the room. Whispers became audible voices, and the clamor in the classroom rose even as a second adult stepped into the room.

Unfazed, Mizuki spoke over the noise, "Teams two and six. Please step forward."

To everyone's disappointment, the students were simply directed to follow their assigned teacher by Mizuki's pointed hand and were led out of the room.

"Ahhh? That's it?" Ino whined and stretched her arms over the edge of her desk, resting her chin on the surface in disappointment.

The sentiment was repeated around them and chatter soon resumed in the classroom. Over the next hour, a few more adults trickled through the room with everything proceeding much as it had before. By the time their team name was announced, the noise level in the classroom didn't even dip.

"Team Nine."

Ino leapt up and stuck her tongue out at Sakura, "Hah! Take that!"

Sakura pulled a face in response, "Big deal." Still, her disgruntlement at their tardy sensei was fairly obvious.

As Ino finally began moving out into the aisle way toward the classroom steps, Kazuki forced himself to stand up as well and look down towards the front of the classroom.

For the briefest of moments, he wasn't sure if he was in a dream. Asuma, the stranger, looked just like he had dreamed. The man stood at the front of the room with Mizuki in a relaxed stance, scanning over the rest of the classroom as he talked – presumably for them, for his team.

Kazuki looked down, using his peripheral vision to maintain a step behind Ino, and studied the fabric of his long sleeves.

Dark blue.

He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting.

Shaking off his disorientation, he hopped off the final step and brought up the rear just as he felt Mizuki's hand press against his shoulder.

With a clipboard in his other hand, Mizuki ushered them forward, "Team Nine, this is your sensei. Please follow him out."

Asuma gave them a lazy waggle of the fingers before walking out the door. He caught the nervous look Chouji sent him right before Ino darted around and started pushing the both of them out the door, with one hand on each of their backs, "Let's go! We don't want to lose him."

There were a few close calls during their chase after him, with Ino darting full speed ahead. He purposefully slowed his pace, making sure that Chouji could still see him as he followed behind Ino. Roughly half an hour later, he skidded to a stop beside Ino in one of the training grounds west of the Academy.

Asuma stood at the center of the small clearing, clearly waiting with a lit cigarette, and made a gesture at a bench. They were moving to sit when Chouji came into view, gasping and coughing before making a beeline straight toward them.

As Chouji caught his breath, Asuma began, "I'm Sarutobi Asuma – in charge of team nine starting today. I'll be strict on you guys, so be prepared!"

Of course, the wind happened to change directions during the man's introduction, blowing his smoke straight into their faces. For Kazuki, the scent of it was jarringly familiar, bringing up memories that had never been, causing him to blink his eyes rapidly.

Beside him, Ino sniffed.

Despite his sudden mess of emotions, Kazuki almost smiled at the way Asuma leaned forward with a hesitant frown, "Don't start crying. All I said was that I'm going to be strict on you guys."

Ino protested, "The smoke's getting into our eyes!"

While that wasn't strictly true for him, because for some reason, he didn't find the smoke to be as much of an eye-irritant, Kazuki nodded alongside Chouji.

"Ah." Asuma grimaced and removed the cigarette from his mouth. He extinguished it with a quick wave of his hand and tucked it behind his ear, "Well, anyway, here's your first assignment." He removed his other hand from his vest pocket, and flicked a coin towards the three of them.

Kazuki reflexively reached out to catch it, and as his teammates leaned in to see what had been tossed, Asuma continued, "There are five hundred of these tokens hidden around the village. Collect them all and show them to Izumi-san at the fruit market for a prize. Bring the prize here tomorrow morning at eight."

Kazuki sagged, almost at the same time as Chouji, but unlike his friend, he was sagging in relief. It was just like last time.

Ino on the other hand sat up straighter, "Five hundred?! Through the whole village?"

Asuma chuckled with a nod, "Be careful. Some are hidden in some tricky areas."

Ino looked horrified as Chouji finally spoke, "Wh-what if we can't get the prize?"

Asuma gave them a shrug, "Then don't bother showing up tomorrow."

Kazuki narrowed his eyes, uneasy. Had Asuma acted this…indifferent before? He had been stern, but...

Ino frowned, "What do you mean?"

Asuma widened his eyes as he tilted his head to the side, "No one told you?"

Kazuki kept silent as he watched Ino question Asuma, "Told us what?"

"You've passed your Academy instructors' tests, but they're not the ones teaching you now. Maybe you all do qualify to become genin, but you'll have to prove it to me first. Consider it an entrance exam."

This time, Ino was quiet, but Kazuki could almost hear her simmering away beside him. He didn't envy Ino's dad in the slightest bit. The man was going to be in for an earful for not warning her.

When no one said anything, Asuma started to walk backwards, "Anyway, I'm sure you guys will do fine." As he turned, his eyes met Kazuki's, "Oh, and make sure to bring all five hundred tokens too."

With that said, their instructor turned around and sauntered off.

Dammit.

Last time around, they'd gone straight to Izumi and tricked the man into giving them the prize, which they couldn't do this time around. He had no doubt that Asuma would be able to spot a counterfeit. Moreover, there was no guarantee that these tokens were completely identical.

Had he not looked concerned enough? Why had the man added that last requirement?

Five hundred tokens. Three teammates. Less than eighteen hours if they didn't sleep. Roughly seven minutes to find a coin if they split up the task.

He still remembered the surprise on the man's face when they had showed up the first time around, well-rested for their baseline assessments.

It was ridiculous to feel jealous of his other self. He sighed again, just as Ino finally poked him, hard, in the shoulder.

"Well?!"

He shrunk back with a yelp, "Ow, what was that for?"

"What's the plan?"

He blinked at her, before quickly darting a look at Chouji to see if he knew what she was talking about only to see his friend looking at him expectantly as well.

Arms akimbo, Ino stared at him intently, "Do you have a plan or not? How do you want to divide up the village? Do we wanna do check-ins? Don't you dare try to slack off; there's no way Sakura's team is going to beat us – you understand? "

He made a face and scratched his head, before shrugging. The test was undoubtedly about dedication and perseverance; no doubt the man had received the reports about their truancy records. Idly, he wondered what would be in store for his brother's team.

He stood up and stretched his back, before quickly ducking Ino's swipe as she lost her patience, "Alright, quit it! I got it."

Spinning around to face his teammates, he smirked.

They didn't have the seamless teamwork that they had in his memories just yet, but they did have years of playing mock battles with devious friends. While he couldn't allow himself or his team to slack off as much this time around, not with what he knew was coming, Asuma would still learn to never underestimate their combined talent for finding shortcuts.

"Let's head back to the Academy."

Ino shot up and lunged for him, "WHAT?! NO! We can't give up! Do you know what Sakura's going to say?"

Dancing out of her way, he started jogging back toward Chouji, who had shrugged and started walking the moment he heard Kazuki's suggestion. Raising both hands placatingly, Kazuki elaborated, "We're not giving up. It's barely been an hour. With any luck, Naruto will still be there. He never said we couldn't ask for help."

He slowed his pace to a walk as Ino stopped and widened her eyes, "His clones!" Smile widening, she tackled Kazuki in a hug, "You're a genius!"

She released him only to next pounce on Chouji, pushing his back with both hands as she started to run, "Let's go!"

When they finally careened around the last corner, Ino was the first to grab the door handle and slam the doors to the side, only to stare.

Naruto, who had leapt up with clear excitement when the door slammed open, was sitting back down in a sulk, "Oh… it's you guys."

Chouji ducked his head under Ino's arm, "Where is everyone?"

Sakura, with her head propped on a hand, grumbled, "Gone. We're the only ones left, even Mizuki left early."

Ino frowned, "Is this your test?"

This time, Sakura actually tilted her head to give Ino a suspicious glare, "What test?"

Ino dropped her arms from the door and entered the room with a whine, "There's another test that we have to pass to become genin."

Both Naruto and Sakura leapt up at the news, "WHAT?!"

Following idly behind Ino, Kazuki dropped into a seat next to Chouji on the instructors' desk, and watched as Ino ranted.

When she finished, Sasuke darted a glance at Kazuki, "So why are you guys here?"

Sakura gasped, "Did you guys fail?"

Hurriedly, before they could get anymore off topic, Kazuki stood, "No, actually, we were wondering if you guys would be willing to help."

Sakura blinked, "But even with our help, I don't think we'd find all five hundred before our sensei showed up. We could help afterwards, but…"

Kazuki nodded, "Right, but if Naruto makes his clones, we could post a few around the Academy-"

"-to alert us if we need to start heading back," Sasuke finished.

Naruto hopped to the front of the room, "ALRIGHT! Let's do it!"

Widening his eyes in alarm, Kazuki outstretched a hand, "Naruto, wait-"

Too late.

"KAGE BUNSHIN NO JUTSU!"

It almost sounded like a slight echo and in the next moment, the room was packed.

Lamely, he finished his shout in a sigh, "Not in the classroom."

As one, his clones brought their hands up and scratched the back of their heads in embarrassment, "Ehheh, sorry."

Still, looking around, Kazuki estimated that there were at least a hundred clones, which meant that Naruto had casted the technique seven times in under a second – or had Naruto already adapted it so that he could more than just one clone at a time?

There was a thump, and he looked up in time to see Sasuke jump on a table, "Let's get started."

-0-

Two hours later.

With a sigh, Kakashi dog-eared the page and closed the book. Tucking it away in his back pocket, he turned the corner. No doubt his students-to-be would be cranky by now.

At least he wasn't six hours late. Those parents hadn't been happy.

As he approached the classroom, he noted how the door was just slightly ajar. Would it be the classic chalk eraser prank? How unoriginal.

Still, it wouldn't hurt to indulge his children, especially considering what he had planned for them. He almost wanted to giggle. There were many differences between seasoned shinobi and shinobi just starting out. One of them was that seasoned shinobi knew when they were acting stupid and immature. Those just starting out usually didn't. It was always a treat to enlighten those innocent idiots – more or less anyway.

Placing one hand on the door, he glanced up again.

Huh, no board eraser.

With a mental shrug, he ducked his head into the room, only to see it empty.

He frowned, before sliding the door the rest of the way open.

No, their chakra signatures were present. Entering the room, there was a small groan. Hopping on to a table, he crouched and peered down. There, on the staircase, was his team and Asuma's team in a pile of limbs and slumbering faces.

It almost reminded him of his ninken.

From the ruffled and sweaty hair, it was clear that they were exhausted. What had they been doing?

He glanced around the room, warily, half expecting some sort of projectile to come flying out of the air, but nothing happened. To his right, however, stacked in small piles in the corner, were some very familiar looking coins. They looked just like some of the coins Asuma had asked him to hide during their lunch break.

He looked back down. Maybe he wouldn't be disappointed this time around?

He didn't care what anyone else said. He wasn't going to change his test. If his clusterfuck of a team had passed, then it wasn't impossible. His additions to the original test were minor.

"Guys." This time, what he had assumed was a sleepy groan was louder. He focused his eyes on the slightly chubby child that had spoken, half buried as a pillow for half of the kids there. The boy was eyeing him nervously as he attempted to poke the kids further from him with a stick.

"Guys," he hissed. This time, Sasuke who was sprawled on his brother jerked, but not before Naruto sprang up with a yelp at a particularly hard jab of the stick, "Wha-!"

-0-

Perched on the guard rail, Kakashi observed his three sleepy students.

He had been slightly surprised that he hadn't been assigned both Uchihas, but he supposed that would have made his team even more irresistible to attack. Still, with two above average students and the rookie of the year sitting before him, he wondered how their grades would be reflected in his test.

Leaning back, he affected an unamused tone, "Let's see, why don't you all introduce yourselves?"

The girl, at least, had seemed embarrassed at being caught asleep. The two boys, on the other hand, had only seemed to stare either blankly or crankily up at him before mumbling goodbyes to the other team in unison.

The girl's embarrassment seemed to have faded however, she squinted at him and raised a sleepy hand, "My name's Haruno Sakura."

The blond flopped both hands up with loopy enthusiasm, "I'm Uzumaki Naruto!" He then cut himself off by yawning.

Next to him, the Uchiha peered up through his bangs in an owlish glare, "Uchiha Sasuke."

They were like toddlers who hadn't had their naptime.

How cute. Closing his eye, he grinned and baited, "Ahh? That's it? What about your likes, dislikes, - dreams?"

Sasuke, the grump, sent him another glare from behind folded hands, "We don't even know your name."

Ah, that was right wasn't it? Unable to resist, he pointed a finger at himself and widened his eye innocently.

The Uchiha's brows drew down even further, while the girl stared back unimpressed. The blond on the other hand was peering at him with disbelief.

Heh. This could be a fun team.

Looking skyward, he mumbled, "Me? Saaa." Sucking in a breath as if he was in deep thought, he looked back down, "I'm Hatake Kakashi. I have no intention of telling you my likes and dislikes, and as for my dream…"

Did he have a dream? Hmm. He had a good feeling about this team. Ah, right, he hadn't finished his sentence.

With a shrug, he ended, "I have a few hobbies." With a satisfied nod to himself, he blinked at his students expectantly, "Your turn."

Clearly impatient now, the Uchiha rolled his eyes and grumbled, "Why don't you just tell us what the test is? It's not like-"

He watched with some amusement as the girl lunged across Naruto to slap a hand over Sasuke's mouth, before elbowing the blond none too subtly.

Wide eyed, Naruto scrambled to slap away her arm before staring at Kakashi, "Uh, I – oww! I mean, I like ramen, I hate waiting for it to cook, and I uh wannabeHOKAGE!"

Just then, Sasuke finally managed to shrug her off, but before he could talk, Sakura scrambled over Naruto and replied almost as quickly as her teammate, "I like birds, not pigs, my dream's to beat Ino-pig. Please don't give us a hard test."

Kakashi was torn between the urge to laugh and pout as he watched Sakura flush at her own hasty answer. The girl then turned to shoot Sasuke a pleading look followed by an indecipherable motion of the hand that made the boy grimace. Almost as if that was a cue, Naruto jumped in front of Sasuke, "He likes tomatoes and hates idiots. His dream's to be a big giant tomato-OWW!"

"Idiot." With a scowl, Sasuke yanked the back of Naruto's shirt, forcing the kid to sit back down on the steps.

Hmm, no doubt Asuma's kids had spoiled part of the surprise. This time, he didn't bother holding back a cackle. There was no way they had been told all the fun details.

The look on their faces was priceless.

Wait for it…

The girl broke first. With another wary look, she asked "What's so funny, sensei?"

Leaning just the slightest bit forward, he dipped his head slightly, "So, you've heard about the test?"

They nodded, almost as one.

"Well, did you know, that out of the 27 graduates, only nine are going to become genins? The other eighteen are sent back to the Academy."

Inserting as much glee into his voice as possible, Kakashi lowered his voice, "In other words, this test has a dropout rate of 66%."

Settling back, he waited for the inevitable freak out.

Instead however, he merely received another narrowed eye glare from Sasuke. The other two were looking back at the boy, almost as if for confirmation of his words.

They didn't believe him?

Finally, when the Uchiha did nothing, the two of them looked back at him with clear trepidation.

Well, that was less of a reaction that he had expected. Slightly putout, Kakashi continued, "Anyway, I'm going to determine whether you guys will pass at the east training grounds tomorrow. Bring your equipment and meet me at five AM."

Hopping off the rail, he gave them a final onceover, "Now then, meeting's over. Oh, and don't eat breakfast. You'll throw up if you do."

Feeling more satisfied at their horrified faces, he body flickered himself away with a gust of leaves.

-0-

Soggy cigarettes and the acrid taste of ash in the rain.

Kazuki sat up in a lurch, gasping and blinking for a moment before registering the familiar surroundings. Letting a groan as he realized it had been just a simple nightmare, a normal nightmare, he slapped a hand over his face and fell back onto his bed.

With his heartbeat just slowing down however, he had a strong suspicion that he wasn't going to sleep anytime soon. The room was still dark, though he could manage to pick out most of the objects in his room. What time was it?

Rolling over, he checked the time and realized that he could hear the faucet running.

4:45.

Right, his brother had that test and so did he. With a sigh, he rolled over again to bury his face in the pillow and groaned, before finally rolling himself out of the bed. Dropping to the floor with a thud, he shamelessly whined at the impact before half-swimming and half-tugging himself out of his sheets.

Rubbing his eyes, he crawled over to his slippers before toeing them on and heading downstairs to prepare breakfast. If Sasuke was still in the bathroom, then he was probably running late.

He'd drowsily made three riceballs by the time he heard Sasuke come down the stairs. About to call out, he jumped at the sound of a familiar voice shout, "OY! SASUKE! I'M LEAVING!"

The door slammed.

He blinked at the entrance, just as he heard Sasuke curse before appearing in the doorway, "Sorry did he wake you?"

He shrugged, "Naruto spent the night?"

Sasuke rubbed his face, "Yeah, we were planning. Anyway, I should go."

Kazuki frowned, "You're not eating?"

Sasuke paused and looked back, "We were told not to."

At Kazuki's continued look, Sasuke elaborated, "Said we'd throw up."

Kazuki nodded and turned around with a simple order, "Wait."

Sasuke sighed, "I'm going to be late."

"How late was your sensei yesterday?"

Sasuke huffed.

Turning around, Kazuki tossed the haphazardly wrapped package, "Here."

At his brother's furrowed brows, Kazuki added, "Give some to your team."

Knowing those idiots, they probably hadn't eaten either.

"I just said – "

It was too early to deal with this. Turning around, he reached for a cup and retorted, "Eat it slow and maybe you'll throw up less, but at least you'll have energy for the test."

There was a brief silence, before he heard a mumbled "Thanks."

He waved a hand, brushing it off, before turning around with the cup and realizing that his brother was still there, "What?"

"Why are you up so early? Wasn't your meeting at eight?"

Kazuki shrugged and reached for the kettle.

"Did you have another nightmare?"

Rolling his eyes, Kazuki reminded him, "You're going to be late." There was an audible huff followed by footsteps.

"Good luck!"

Kazuki paused in the midst of staring blearily at his tea and shouted back, "Yeah, you too."

The door slammed.

With another sigh, Kazuki let his head drop to the dining table.

-0-

Sasuke sighed.

Kazuki had been right again.

After the first ten minutes, with everyone nodding off, they'd settled back to back, on the off chance of spotting their sensei's approach earlier. Soon, the discomfort of someone invading his personal space wasn't enough to keep him awake and he wasn't the only one. He'd taken out Kazuki's package and distributed among team with the hope that the act of chewing would keep them awake.

Despite eating slowly, so that the food would digest sooner and have a smaller chance of coming back up, they still finished without any sign of their instructor.

Now, the dew was dry and everyone was grumpily awake with the sun shining overhead.

Test or no test, if the man didn't show up in the next hour, he was going to convince his team to set up the worst sort of minefield anyone could experience.

If they were careful enough, maybe that'd be a convincing enough presentation of their skill.

-0-

"…and then he showed up with an excuse about crossing a black cat."

Black cat? There was the niggling inkling that something about the statement was important, but Kazuki couldn't pin it down. Letting it go, he passed the bowl of white rice to his left to Chouji.

Ino giggled helplessly at the look of affronted rage on Sakura's face, "So what happened next?" The two teams sat on the floor, crowded around stools that had been pushed together to form a makeshift table. They had stumbled into one another that afternoon, and after hearing that Naruto had invited himself and Sakura over to their place for a celebratory dinner, Ino had promptly done the same for her and Chouji.

Kazuki looked over to see Naruto bounce in his seat, "Oh, Sakura-chan came up with this awesome plan. I henge'd myself, and then Sasuke went and totally obliterated him, and we totally tricked him cuz I made all these bells, and he was so impressed that he like passed us!"

Chouji blinked, before reaching across with his chopsticks only to have his hand slapped down by Ino, "Not everyone's gotten their rice yet!"

As Chouji sighed, Ino turned around to face Naruto and said in her blandest voice, "Also, what?"

Conveniently, Sasuke chose that time to set down his tea and coughed, once. The cough sounded a lot like, "Idiot."

As Naruto turned with a suspicious squint, Sakura laughed, and waved a hand, "Kakashi was testing our teamwork. He told us that there were only two bells for the three of us and that we had to retrieve it from him or else we'd fail."

Ino frowned and interrupted, "Wait, two?"

Sakura smiled again, even as Naruto grumbled, "Our sensei's a bastard."

"So how'd you all pass?"

Before she could answer, Chouji, who'd been watching the rice bowl finally return back around to Sasuke, shouted, "Itedakimasu!"

Over Ino's groan, the rest of them chimed in and soon chopsticks were flying over their makeshift table.

Swallowing, Sakura explained, "We bluffed him. Naruto henge'd his clones into bells and asked Kakashi-sensei, which one was fake."

At the same time Ino asked, "That worked?" Kazuki probed, "Who held the fake one?"

Sakura gave an uneasy laugh as Sasuke replied, "They were all fake."

Naruto laughed as Ino gaped. Sasuke cut in with a smirk, "We changed the alarm for the test so that he gave the actual bells to prove that there was a difference between the actual bells and our fakes."

Speaking around a mouthful of rice, Kazuki questioned, "Before the actual time was up?"

Sasuke nodded.

Swallowing the rest of her food, Sakura set down her bowl and turned to Ino, "So what'd you guys do today?"

While the only sign of nervousness from Ino was the way that she clenched her fist under the table, Chouji was a little less surreptitious, and darted a look at Kazuki before burying his face back into his bowl.

Although no one commented as Ino leapt into her narration, Kazuki didn't miss Sasuke's slight frown. Quickly, he shrugged and reached out for the fried pork, "Yesterday's task was pretty much it, but he wanted to know what everyone could do."

Ino nudged him in the side, before leaning into the table conspiratorially, "You're missing the best part! You should have seen the look on his face when he realized that we finished the task in an hour."

Sakura arched a brow, "With our help."

Ino giggled and leaned closer, "He heard we had your help from your teacher, but he still didn't think that we'd get them all in an hour."

Sensing an opportunity, Naruto pointed an index finger at her, "That means I get a bowl of ramen, right?"

Ino stared blandly at him for a moment, and Kazuki could just see Naruto start to fidget when she broke in a mischievous smile, "Fine, one. Cause I'm generous like that."

Sakura snorted. But before Ino could glare at her, Naruto moaned, "Aaah, I should have asked for two bowls."

Nonchalantly, Sasuke reached out with his chopsticks and asked over the laughter, "He gave you more tests then?"

Kazuki cleaned his bowl, while nudging at Chouji with his knee. He'd need to teach his friend how to maintain more of a poker face. Setting the bowl down, he rested his chopsticks on the rim and replied, "Just asked for some demonstrations on the Academy basics and then whatever clan jutsus we might know."

At that, Ino shot him a glance that Sakura caught.

Letting his exasperation show, he rested an elbow on his knee and leaned forward, "Ok, so we're supposed to keep this a secret ok?"

He quickly shot Ino a look, meeting her wide eyes before shaking his head just the slightest bit.

She closed her mouth.

Meanwhile, the rest of the table had leaned in with curiosity.

"What secret?" Naruto demanded.

"Normally, jounin instructors are supposed to stick with teaching the teams they're assigned, so there's less chance of clan secrets leaking. But since Kakashi has the sharingan, there might be a chance that we'll share instructors. If Kakashi says anything, pretend you guys never knew about it."

As Naruto and Sakura nodded fervently, Sasuke frowned, "Kakashi has the sharingan?"

Gathering his dishes, Kazuki stood with a shrug, "Apparently. But I don't think there's a plan for him to train me anytime soon."

He was grateful as Ino did her best to divert attention away from him, "You can't tell people ok? Oh, and did I tell you how surprised Asuma was that Chouji could already do a clan technique?"

Curious as ever, Naruto perked up, "Really? What kind?"

Climbing over the furniture, Kazuki placed his dishes in the sink and headed to the back courtyard. Stepping into his outdoor slippers, he found himself wandering past the gate that led toward the Uchiha training ground.

He still remembered the astonishment in Asuma's eyes.

After they had explained and discussed the actions and decisions for the test from the day before, Asuma paired them up for sparring, occasionally flicking a genjutsu over their fights to test their resistance to the technique.

Following that, he'd ended the day with a request for either a verbal accounting or direct demonstration of clan techniques that they wanted him to know about.

Ino had gone first, followed by Chouji, and Asuma had seemed suitably impressed with both of them. Then it was his turn to go. He had stood with a glance at Chouji and explained that Yoshino may have taught him a few tricks that he'd appreciate if no one would tell.

Asuma's expression had been unreadable.

He'd consciously chosen to use Kage Nui to catch and return a flung kunai, because the technique was one of the more advanced forms of the shadow techniques, which he was certain that Asuma knew. Then, before the man could question him, he'd reiterated his request for secrecy and activated his sharingan.

Chouji had just shrugged, while Ino had shrieked in surprise – more because of the fact that his eyes were red, than the part about him having the sharingan.

Asuma had stared before slapping a hand over his face and grumbling something under his breath, too low to be understood. He then proceeded to relight his cigarette, much to the dismay of Kazuki's teammates.

Kazuki crouched down at the side of the path, and stared up at the sky.

He probably shouldn't wander off too far. No doubt, his friends would come looking for him if was gone for too long.

His instructor had recovered relatively quickly and muttered about knowing how he'd have to coordinate with Kakashi, but not this soon dammit.

Of course then he felt compelled to point out that he had already been trained – by his mother.

At this point, Asuma had asked how early he'd had the sharingan, and he didn't know why he hadn't been surprised that Asuma would know about the conditions necessary to activate a sharingan, but he'd simply shrugged.

Technically, he didn't lie. He really wasn't sure when he'd activated his sharingan. Still, he wasn't about to tell Asuma that it had been sometime before he was four.

Asuma had given him another considering look before agreeing to keep it quiet.

With a sigh, he ambled back up the path. He hoped he hadn't made the wrong decision, but he didn't want his team making bad choices simply because he hadn't told them of all that he could do – almost everything anyway.

He stared at the gate and sighed when he noticed a shadow flicker from inside the gate. Narrowing his eyes, he darted forward in time to see a somewhat familiar black cat streak across his path and over the fence.

He frowned. It'd been awhile since he'd seen any cats around the property. In fact, the last time he'd seen the cat was after he'd been released from the hospital.

He stared absently at where the cat had climbed over the fence.

The sense that he was missing something was pressing frustratingly at him, but he just couldn't seem to grasp it. Maybe it was time to pay a visit to Neko-baa. Perhaps that old woman would have some insight.

-0-

He needed to leave. With the last set of students graduating, his request for another position would hopefully buy him some time.

Picking up the pace, Mizuki dropped down from the rooftop and slid down a drainage pipe to Tsubaki's apartment.

He'd honestly tried every trick and deception under his belt, but all his test runs had been foiled – some of them even by that vile grandson Konoha-something-or-the-other. He shouldn't have waited for so long before attempting to steal the scroll. But still, Orochimaru had never really set a hard deadline, at least not one passed on by Tori.

Turning the corner, he noted the open window and felt a sudden spark of irritation beneath his growing impatience. Diving through the narrow crack, he made a note to himself to remind Tsubaki again of how security seals were futile if she was just going to leave the windows open for just anyone to-

Copper.

As soon as that thought registered, he pressed himself against the cabinets. The stink of copper was heavy in the apartment, which was silent aside from the sound of a leaky faucet. Swallowing his dread, he drew a kunai and eyed the entrance to the kitchen.

Heart thudding in his ears, he whipped around the corner, kunai in hand to find the hallway empty.

The bedroom light was on, flooding into the corridor in a fan of soft yellow light. He edged closer and noted the scent of plums.

Tsubaki didn't use any plum-scented soaps.

It was too silent.

If someone were to attack, they would have attacked by now. Moving faster, with dread at the back of his throat, he strode into the bedroom and stopped. She was too white.

Tsubaki.

.

He wasn't sure how long he stared before falling to his knees at her side and reaching out with unsteady hands to close sightless eyes. Slowly, he lifted the pale wrist that hung loosely over the edge of the bed and tucked it back under the covers.

Distantly, he noted the broken skin that had been beneath his fingertips. There had been a long cut that ran straight down the length of her arm. From the weight of the covers, he suspected her other arm bore a mirroring cut.

He buried his face into the sheets at her side and trembled silently for a moment, when he heard the crinkling of paper. Lifting the covers, he found the note.

Poison's more my taste, but I'm reluctant to leave my signature so soon.

After all, you never presented me with the scroll.

Don't fret like Tori, but if you insist, I have an autograph ready as well.

The choice is yours. Cycle with the moon.

The paper crumpled in his hand as he clenched his fingers tighter. He wanted to scream, but the howl caught in his throat.

"This really isn't my style."

Snarling, Mizuki whipped around and flung a kunai that missed by a full meter.

Next to the desk, holding another slip of paper was Orochimaru. The man wasn't even looking at him.

"'I'm sorry, but I can't take it anymore?'" Orochimaru scoffed and carelessly let the paper slide back onto the desk.

Mizuki twitched as the sound of a window slamming echoed from beyond the doorway. Who else was here? He already stood no chance.

In between breaths, a laugh burbled up.

He had no chance.

But that didn't mean the monster could just stand there.

With a shout, he drew a handful of shuriken and hurled them as he stepped forward into a charge – or at least that was what he meant to do.

Instead, his arm became limp mid-throw and as he stepped, his leg crumpled from underneath him, sending him sprawling to the ground. He managed to twist himself so that he landed on his side, but that was all he managed.

What was this?

He gasped, "How…?"

What did it matter? Rage had long overcome his fear, and he knew that grief had completely muddled his faculties.

Heh. He didn't realize he'd even cared for her that much. Maybe it was the principle of the matter.

He forced himself to swallow, to wet his lip, and croak, "Why? I did everything you asked!"

Orochimaru stepped closer and Mizuki fought to keep his gaze up and meet that yellow gaze. The Sannin hadn't even bothered to lift a finger. A hysterical giggle escaped him and he blinked away the tears that obscured his vision with frustration.

He'd been a pawn. No, less than a pawn.

Despite Mizuki's efforts, his lids were becoming too heavy to maintain eye contact. With each blink, he had been less and less able to lift his gaze upwards. Soon, he stared absently at the floor directly before him.

The scent of plums grew stronger as the sannin crouched down and leaned forward – studying him with visibly detached curiosity, like he was an unusual specimen pinned up on the wall for casual perusal.

Fear had long been extinguished. Fear would have meant that he still had some hope of escaping. No, all that was left was the urge to tear into that face, to make those eyes blink just once in surprise… to be something more than useless.

"Danzo underestimated you, didn't he?"

Danzo?

All he could manage was a low grunt.

"Or had he overestimated you?"

Whatever the sannin saw in his face made the man move away with a scoff, "You had no clue." He the sandaled feet pivot; the man was looking at the bed, at Tsubaki.

"What use would I have for staging a suicide?"

It felt like someone had seized control of his lungs, pulling on his diaphragm in steady tugs such that he couldn't even speed up his breathing.

What was this? Did the man love mind games that much? He didn't even merit a straight answer?

A low creak in the floorboards had those sandals to pivot again.

Another voice spoke, "All traces of Tori have been removed."

This time he managed a low whine, much to his frustrated embarrassment.

The same new voice spoke again, "Oh? Is this our Mizuki-sensei?"

He hated the playfulness in both voices.

Orochimaru hummed, "So it would seem."

A new set of feet crossed his vision and he heard the sound of paper being lifted, "Did he actually fall for this?"

There was a brief silence, before the same voice released a short laugh of understanding.

This time, the foot stepped towards him and a light kick to his shoulder turned his body over, lifting the angle of his sight just slightly.

Now in view, Orochimaru smirked down at him, "I'm just returning a favor, you see. Tori was my agent, which Danzo seems to have not understood. I figured, if Danzo expected me to share, then it'd only be fair for me to play in his playground of plans."

The sannin then lifted his gaze and quirked an eyebrow. Whatever he saw had him shaking his head and smiling before spinning around and leaving.

He heard footsteps approach his body and then the sound of cloth shifting. Someone was crouching directly over him, just out of view, "Out of curiosity, how did you think Orochimaru-sama would benefit from you handicapping Academy students? And did you really believe that he doesn't already know the techniques in the Forbidden Scroll?" Let alone believe that you of all people could successfully steal it?

The voice was saturated with condescension.

"Saa, you can't answer anyway. How foolish of me."

He felt a hand pat him on the chest, "Well, no worries. We've alerted the authorities. You won't be lonely for too long."

Finally he saw the foot enter his view as the speaker stepped over his body and moved toward the door. As the man moved down the hall, and the back of his full profile came into view, Mizuki realized that the second intruder was most likely still a teenager. However in the fading light of the hallway that contrasted sharply with the light in the bedroom, he couldn't distinguish more beyond that.

He didn't understand.

-0-

"… sample of the new paralytic was sent to the labs."

Danzo frowned.

So they thought Mizuki had stumbled into a botched murder attempt? It would be inconvenient to toss that plan aside. Unveiling the fumbling chuunin's background and the ease with which he had entered the Academy and crippled the children's education would have made it much easier to suggest new revisions to the current curriculum. Still, it wouldn't be a huge loss. Moreover, he had more pressing concerns to address.

Lifting his hood, Danzo twisted to face his subordinate, "Good. Have we identified the person making the illegal copies?"

The brief hesitation made Danzo turn his body fully around to glare down at the crouched body.

At the movement, the crouched figure ducked his head deeper, "Yes. It's the Jounin Commander.

…Nara Shikaku."

So his suspicions were right. This was unfortunate.


A/N Cont: Ahahahaha, who watched episode 351? I have to say, I don't feel as bad about my portrayal of Danzo anymore.

Anyway, loving how you guys are pointing out the stuff I might have missed. Catching the errors earlier on means I have a better chance of fixing it. If possible, please don't be embarrassed to point out the mistakes in reviews as opposed to PMs; it's easier for me to remember to thank people since I review the last chapter's reviews every time before I post a new chapter.

Conception Notes:
Grades & Teams: It just seemed to make the most sense to keep things the same. As a former teaching assistant/TA, one of my roles was to help determine team assignments, and we definitely did not rely solely on grades. We had a personal stake since the students in the class were also our classmates in other classes. If these teams had issues with their projects, we'd also have to deal with the fallout or drama, so we wanted everyone to succeed and that meant factoring in their working styles, personalities, rumored conflicts, learning styles, and academic background. I feel like the Academy instructors would do the same, and stating grades as the reason why would be the easiest way to avoid being accused of bias (since everything else does involve some sort of personal 'judgement' on the part of the instructors). (One thing I never got about fics that had teachers sabotage Naruto, is that these teachers would only have to continue dealing with the boy if he failed. If he passed and was ill-equipped, then he'd die all the more faster...right?)
Team 9/10: I struggled with this decision for a while, especially after Bonnie pointed out how much sentiment is attached with the name Team Ten. I realize my decision may not be popular, but keeping it the same just felt 'wrong', and while the name change also seemed 'wrong', I think the dissonance of the name change works better for the story (i.e. for representing the glaring absence of a Nara in the 'traditional' alliance of Yamanakas, Sarutobis, and Akimichis - and also the closer grouping of the rookies. kinda.) X/.
Genin Graduation: In my head canon, given that the chuunin exams are every half year, I figure that the genin exams also occur every half year, but staggered. Kakashi was originally slotted to return a year before he did, but the transitions worked better if he returned the winter before Kazuki's graduation. So yes, he probably failed less teams than he had in canon.
Mizuki. Based on manga and wiki notes, there were 3 teachers for 90 students until Mizuki joined Iruka's class. Considering the suspicion Mizuki was under, it seems strange for him to have joined the class full of clan heirs. I couldn't figure out why Shika would know about the whole Mizuki incident based on the reactions in the anime/manga. I also needed some more elements for two other arcs. Coupled with the reviews and my own interest in seeing something different from canon… you guys got this.
Kakashi's reaction to Team 7: Re-watching that scene, it reminded me a little of how seniors react to freshmen in both college and high school. One of the common complaints seemed to be that the younger kids were immature brats who thought they knew it all, so that was my main inspiration.


Special thanks to my beta Bonnie Mizuhara for putting up with another major dump of words and my frantic ramblings :D. Also special thanks to those taking the time to discuss stuff/point out mistakes or ideas I might have missed.

To my silent readers – wanna send me links to pretty pics? I love inspiration ;). Okay, anyway, thanks to: skewedchoice, Oplindenfep, PyrothTenka, Windninja1000, Cute Kirby, 10th Squad 3rd Seat,Silvanon of the Orchard, Ryu Kitsune Bard84, animagirl, ksecc1, Viridian, phoebe turner Ser Serendipity, Hektols, Nyght elf, sionnachsSkulk, ITACHIROCKS, hentai18ancilla, #1 Guest, AnonymousFern, Uzushiogakure9, urs-v, Elemental64,saint21, Alumi, #43 Guest, Vaughn Tyler, amethystfirechik, The One Who Reads Too Much, lesbianmagari, SakiXX1, Rhavaniel15, Bobboky, Xellos No Himitsu, LokiHatake, Lock on Lockon,herondalefan, evening's shore, Lily Evans Potter Black Lupin, AvocadoMango, Elise, serialkeller, Almost Ninja, ruby2360, Katio, Me again,Early Owl, MythologyGirl, laelruin, Winterfield, stephanie, Sethera, SnowTime, littlemelonatplay