Thicker Than Blood

Chapter 12

Kakashi was tired.

It had been a very demanding week, and he just wanted to go to his apartment, take a shower and sleep for a few hours. But first, he had to report his findings to the Hokage, as dictated in the mission perimeters.

As was usual when dealing with things like this, they had found nothing outright incriminating, but there were small clues and hints allowing those who knew what to look for to come to certain conclusions. It didn't look too promising, either.

With a small, almost imperceptible sigh, Kakashi flared his chakra as a means of identification and then slipped into the Hokage's office through the open window.

"Hokage-sama." He gave the old man a shallow, tired bow.

"Ah, Kakashi-kun." Hiruzen smiled. "Welcome back. Where's the rest of your team?"

"I dismissed them in favour of some well-deserved rest." Kakashi said in his usual monotone.

"You have something of interest to report then I take it?" Hiruzen put down the brush he had been using, giving the Jounin his full attention.

Kakashi nodded. "We used the information Inoichi-san was able to glean from Hideo's mind and looked around for any relevant information in the area of Hideo's last mission at the time of the first suggestions for the new batch of Genin teams, where he was suggested as Naruto's teacher." He began, taking out a thick scroll from his breast pocket. "It's all described in detail in my report." He placed it on the Hokage's desk, but the old man made no move towards it.

"Give me a quick overview." Hiruzen ordered. It would be faster that way, and would make the actual report easier to read later on.

Kakashi nodded, not surprised in the least by the request. "At first, there was nothing obvious to look into, but once we managed to mingle successfully with the civilian population, we picked up a few disconcerting rumours. Itachi-san managed to find a woman who knew about several disappearances in the vicinity some months ago, and that lead us to an area a few kilometres north of the village." He hesitated here.

"Continue." Hiruzen said. It was remarkable how much you could use gossip and rumours to your advantage, even as a shinobi. Especially as a shinobi, Hiruzen mentally amended.

The order was enough to snap him out of whatever contemplative thoughts Kakashi had fallen into.

"We found what looked like an abandoned facility of some sort. It was very well hidden, and we would probably have missed it if my dog's hadn't picked up a faint trail." Kakashi said, gaze fixed stiffly on the wall behind the Hokage. "Some further investigation made us come to the conclusion that it was one of Orochimaru's old labs."

Hiruzen closed his eyes, let out a weary breath and mentioned for Kakashi to continue.

"We found some signs of resent activity, but they were months old. It is my belief that the facility was used simply as a meeting place, or temporary base of operations." Kakashi concluded.

"So you think Orochimaru was behind the seal on Hideo?" He asked, feeling every bit his age.

Kakashi considered his response before he spoke. "He was at least involved, from what we could find."

"But you're not excluding other -outside- influences either." Hiruzen concluded with a nod. His lips twisted into a sardonic smile. "It does sound like something Orochimaru would do." He admitted. "I don't know how I couldn't see it back when I named Minato my successor." He sighed. "He was always resentful after that, and Naruto offers an easy target, I suppose." He breathed, leaning back. "And God knows that Minato made a lot of enemies in the last war."

"They were very thorough in erasing any signs of their presence." Kakashi finished his observation, opting not to comment on the Hokage's words.

They were silent for some time, while Hiruzen sorted through his thoughts and the information Kakashi had given him.

"Orochimaru is unfortunately aware of Naruto's true identity." Hiruzen began softly. "It would be an easy thing for him to approach either Iwa or Kumo and strike up a deal." He mused. "With one move, he gains something from another village, get's revenge on the man that took the Hokage seat from under his nose, and rids Konoha of one of its' most formidable weapons." He sighed again. "It would have been a very heavy blow to weather, not taking any personal grief into consideration." He rubbed his fingers over his eyes, exhausted by the mere thought. It seemed his old student had made it his mission to make Hiruzen's life as difficult as possible.

Kakashi remained silent, but found the Hokage's words to ring true.

"And we haven't found out any more about the damn seal either." Hiruzen frowned slightly. "I even convinced Jiraiya to come by Konoha to take a look at it, and he managed to remove it without causing too much damage, but not figure out how it was applied. Tanaka-san will be reinstated as a Jounin once T&I are certain the last effects of the damn thing are completely gone from his system." He paused. "He will be stuck on duty within the village indefinitely, of course." While they had told Naruto and Sasuke that Hideo had been placed under a Genjutsu, they hadn't outright lied, but it was unfortunately more complicated than that. In fact, Inoichi had found a seal placed inside the man's mind, affecting him just like a Genjutsu would, but was much more difficult to get rid of. Hiruzen could admit that it was something Orochimaru easily could have invented and applied on a Konoha shinobi.

The man was strong and devious enough to pull it off, too, even against an experienced Jounin. The fact that the seal couldn't be removed by the person subjected to it really gave Hideo little choice in the matter.

He still wouldn't be let anywhere near Genin, or sensitive information anytime soon, though. The fact remained; the man had been compromised.

"Well, your students will no doubt be pleased to hear that you are back." Hiruzen pushed the dark thoughts back, smiling at the grey-haired man standing in front of his desk. "They were worried when I told them you had been delayed."

Kakashi blinked, unsure how to respond.

He was spared of having to answer when, as if they had been summoned by the Hokage's words, two chakra signatures darted towards the Hokage tower, flaring momentarily before two blurs entered the same way Kakashi had.

They flared their chakra again -making the grey-haired Jounin relax and move his hand away from his kunai holster when he recognized them as non-threats- and then Kakashi found himself in an odd predicament. He blinked and slowly looked down at the mop of blond hair belonging to the child that was clinging to him like some kind of baby monkey. Even Sasuke stood close beside him, hand fisted in his trousers, looking like he wouldn't move anytime soon.

"Don't ever leave us behind again!" Naruto declared, voice muffled from where his face was pressed against Kakashi's flakvest.

Sasuke nodded his fervent agreement, staring up at Kakashi as if he could will the Jounin to take their words to heart.

Internally flabbergasted, and at something of a loss, Kakashi slowly turned back to the Hokage, who seemed to be fighting to keep himself from bursting into unrestrained laughter.

"What did you have them do?" He asked, wondering what kind of work the old man had assigned them in his absence for them to become like this.

"I had them help Umino Iruka in the Academy." Hiruzen grinned, thoroughly amused by the situation.

Both of his Genin shuddered at the mention of the place.

"Don't make us go back." Came Sasuke's low voice, a desperate glint in his dark eyes.

"There're children everywhere!" Naruto exclaimed frantically. "They won't leave me alone!" He clung tighter to Kakashi, determined not to let him get away.

Hesitantly, Kakashi raised a hand and patted Naruto awkwardly on the head. He guessed this wasn't so different from comforting his dogs... maybe.

"You seem to have mentally scarred my students, Hokage-sama." Kakashi pinned the old man with a half-lidded, apathetic gaze that unnerved most men. The Hokage just smiled.

"Nonsense!" Hiruzen chuckled. "It's healthy for them to spent time with their peers."

"One of the boys fell and scraped his knee." Sasuke began. "He started crying." The Uchiha boy looked confused, incredulous and as close to hysterical as Kakashi had ever seen him.

"At least they were scared of you!" Naruto exclaimed, a wild, almost panicked quality to his voice. "I'm not going back there!"

Sasuke nodded in acknowledgement. When he had gone to the Academy the first time around, he would have given almost anything to be left alone. Now, however, when he didn't really care anymore, the kids ended up terrified of him. And he didn't know why!

In contrast, Naruto had become very popular; had even gotten a few budding fans of his own. And Sasuke might have teased him about it, if he didn't know what it was like himself, or the fact that neither of them really knew how to handle all the brats. That they wore the faces of their friends just complicated things further.

It was ironic how they had ended up almost in each others' shoes, this time around. But then again, Naruto hadn't really spent much time at the Academy, so parents hadn't told their children to keep away from him. And Sasuke's people-skills hadn't exactly thrived during his years as a nuke-nin and then the following war on top of that... All in all, neither of them had much experience with children, in any form.

The silence in the office was broken a moment later by Kakashi, who gave the two a curious glance.

"How did you know I was back?" He hadn't even been back in the village for two hours.

"I met Nii-san." Sasuke said simply, still staring up at him beseechingly. He had met Itachi when he had exited the compound, having been home for lunch. "It was either here or the Mission room." He'd naturally fetched Naruto, and told him the news.

"We figured we'd check here first, and then we felt your chakra." Naruto added in a muffled voice.

Kakashi gave a shallow nod. He stared at the blond a moment longer and then turned to the Hokage for some much-needed advice.

Hiruzen, realising that Kakashi was at his wit's end, cleared his throat.

"Naruto-kun, Sasuke-kun." Both Genin turned to glance at him. "Your sensei has had a hectic week and is in need of some rest."

It was silent for a few seconds, and then Naruto slowly, reluctantly, relinquished his grip on Kakashi's vest, dropping to the floor.

"Sorry." He muttered, crossing his arms in front of his chest, but not moving far from Kakashi.

"Sasuke-kun, shouldn't you two be with Iruka-kun right now?" Hiruzen asked calmly, giving the raven-haired boy a pointed look, making sure to include Naruto in the silent reprimand, as well.

Both boys twitched. "But sensei is back now." Naruto glared at the old man. He was doing this for fun, he just knew it!

"Naruto," Hiruzen sighed, "You can't just leave Iruka on his own. You have a duty to fulfill." He gave the Genin a stern look. "Or do you want me to order you to assist Iruka for another week?"

"NO!" Both Naruto and Sasuke exclaimed immediately, looking harried at the mere thought. In unison, they turned to stare up at Kakashi, as if demanding that he defend them against the Hokage.

"Maa," Kakashi wondered what he was supposed to say in a situation like this. "we'll meet first thing tomorrow."

Naruto looked resigned, while Sasuke's face became perfectly blank.

"Fine." Naruto growled, taking a firm hold of Sasuke's arm. "But you owe us for this, sensei!" And with that, the two headed towards the window, climbed out and ran back across the village towards the Academy and it's cursed students.

Kakashi and Hiruzen watched them go, Kakashi watching with a bemused expression underneath his mask.

As if reading his mind, the Hokage chuckled mutedly. "They were worried."

"Why?" Kakashi tilted his head, a slight frown marring his face.

"Your mission was delayed." Hiruzen said, picking up Kakashi's mission report and placing it in a drawer for safe-keeping. "It could just as easily have been because of unexpected hostilities and injury. They don't know what your mission was." He pointed out in a dry voice, rifling through a stack of files on his desk for the one he needed. Silence overtook the office again, until the Hokage let out a bemused sigh. "Go get some sleep, Kakashi. I'm sure Naruto and Sasuke will survive another afternoon with the children."

"Of course, Hokage-sama." Kakashi murmured, sketching a shallow bow and then left the office with a shunshin.

Hiruzen shook his head and flipped the file open, returning to his task of attempting to steer the Village away from ruin from behind his desk.

. o . O . o .

Naruto and Sasuke were trudging through Konoha, not enthusiastic in the least to reach their goal.

"I love them all to bits, but I think I'll give them a few years to... mature." Naruto muttered.

Sasuke scoffed, but nodded. "Just a few more hours." He said, trying not to sound too bitter.

That first day hadn't been too bad, effectively lulling them into a false sense of security and hope. But the exciting aspect of having teachers the same age as them had quickly worn off, and Sasuke and Naruto had both found themselves in the midst of a horde of impatient, bored and accident-prone children. Target practice generally reduced the two Genin into a twitching mess, having to watch the botched attempts at marksmanship and somehow prevent accidental murder.

Then there was the fights. Kiba had quickly realised that he was taller than both Naruto and Sasuke, and had somehow deemed this sufficient proof that he must be stronger than them, and thus also deserved to be promoted to Genin. Something he figured he should prove to Iruka by beating either -preferably both- of them in a taijutsu spar.

Sasuke had almost impaled the boy when he had tried to stage a 'surprise attack' in the middle of a taijutsu lesson when Sasuke had been helping Sakura with a kick she couldn't quite execute perfectly. It had been chaos.

But after that, Kiba at least focused his attention on Naruto, who offered an 'easier target'.

It had almost made Sasuke burst out laughing when Kiba had shouted out his reasoning for the world to hear. Even Iruka had adopted a half-pinched, long-suffering expression. Naruto had just stared at the boy as if he couldn't believe what he was hearing; being a Jinchuuriki and all, it had been a very long time since people had brushed him off as easily as that. The fact that Kiba was just a kid was irrelevant.

"You've got my back, right?" Naruto pulled him out of his thoughts, sounding slightly nervous and on edge.

"Of course." Sasuke nodded, automatically drawing nearer to his friend. Naruto had developed something of an aversion to prepubescent girls in the last week, unable to withstand their overflowing enthusiasm, need for personal contact and shrill voices. It was just too much, and all his reflexes and instincts were screaming at him to get away from the offending people, or simply dispatch the threat. He didn't think either of those alternatives would be received too well, all things considered.

"Let's just get this over with." The blonde gritted out, unconsciously fingering his weapons pouch, as if readying himself for battle.

They might as well, Sasuke thought darkly.

. o . O . o .

Kakashi eyed his two students who seemed to emanate a feeling of weary relief.

"Good morning." He greeted after a heartbeat, feeling well enough after a nights well-deserved rest.

"Morning, Sensei!" Naruto grinned up at him, cheerful despite the faint shadows under his eyes.

Sasuke gave him a nod and a small, relieved smile. "Morning."

"Have you warmed up?" Kakashi asked. At their nods, he continued. "Very well, then." He raised his hands and flashed through a series of seals, a kage bunshin puffing into existence beside him. "Sasuke, with my bunshin. Naruto," He studied the blonde, "with me here. Any questions?"

He nodded when they remained silent, and then dispatched them with a silent hand sign, making Sasuke race after his clone, which had run off into the woods.

"Taijutsu only, switching to ninjutsu on my signal." Kakashi stated, pleased when Naruto immediately widened the distance between them, falling into a ready stance. He knew his students well enough to know they hadn't neglected their training while he had been gone, but that didn't stop him from evaluating them.

When he had taken in Naruto's stance and made sure he wouldn't rush a stronger opponent foolishly, Kakashi attacked. He hadn't stated the 'circumstances' of this fight, after all, and was pleased by Naruto's caution.

He prodded for weaknesses in Naruto's defence with sharp jabs towards fatal spots on his small body, throwing in kicks and sweeps when it looked like Naruto would least expect it. He pressed him to go as fast as he could, drawing out every last bit of skill and speed Naruto could muster.

Meanwhile, Sasuke was travelling through Konoha's thick forest, on high alert. Kakashi's clone had informed him that he would be subjected to an exercise in stealth -which Naruto and Sasuke had quickly dubbed 'ambush-training' when Kakashi had first introduced them to the concept- while Naruto and their sensei sparred. The clone had given him an empty scroll and told him to deliver it to a marked spot five hundred meters into the forest.

So, Sasuke was slipping through the vegetation as quietly as he possibly could, sticking to the shadows as much as he could while he strained his senses to pick up any clue as to where Kakashi was hiding. The worst part was that he knew the damn clone could pop up anytime, anywhere. It was making him edgy and paranoid.

Which was no doubt intentional.

Sasuke paused on a branch that was thick enough to support him, but far too feeble to bear the weight of a grown man; taking full advantage of his small size.

He took a couple of deeps breaths, trying to calm down and think. Kakashi's sense of smell was far superior to his own, and the man had been part of ANBU, which meant he could suppress his chakra until it was close to nonexistent. Finding the man was out of the question. That left travelling blind, possibly walking straight into a trap. Sasuke grimaced at the prospect.

Why did Kakashi have to be so sadistic? Hadn't they endured enough torture the last couple of days? But then again, given the choice, he would choose this form of torture over the Academy any time. At least this was productive.

A slight shift in the breeze snapped him out of his thoughts. Silently berating himself for his lack of focus, Sasuke hurried on, determined to find his target and deal with any ambush Kakashi decided to spring on him along the way.

Three minutes later, Sasuke dove out of the way of a volley of well-aimed shuriken, which sunk into the branch he would have landed on before he had dodged; having detected the slight whistling noise the weapons emitted when moving through the air. The sound of metal sinking into wood seemed to echo in the otherwise peaceful forest.

Letting out a soft curse, Sasuke scanned his surroundings, spotting too many probable hiding-places to be able to focus on any one. Kunai in hand, he activated his sharingan and then took off, determined to reach his destination and complete the mock-mission Kakashi had assigned him.

It didn't take many seconds for Kakashi to realise that Sasuke wouldn't fight, and gave chase, honing in on the pocket with the scroll.

Feeling like a hunted animal, Sasuke ran through the forest as quickly as he could, ignoring any taunts or offered weaknesses, easily recognizing them for the baits they were.

He was just a few meters from the large boulder Kakashi had told him about and marked, well within sight, when Kakashi appeared in front of him, seemingly out of thin air, forcing Sasuke to draw his sword.

Sharingan flaring back to life, he charged Kakashi, hoping to somehow rush him.

The sleek blade of his sword shone in the muted light beneath the trees, sweeping towards his sensei's vulnerable throat. His enhanced sight took in every detail; every leaf catching the sun, every insect, every fleck of moss around them and the elegantly carved kanji on his blade, catching the light as he weaved around Kakashi's counter-attack. Trust; reminding him so much of Naruto's presence in his life and the unbreakable bond between them. And Sasuke ought to know; he had tried for years to tear the bond apart, but Naruto had refused to allow it.

His mind quickly blanked into the simple state of reacting to the fight and hard-earned muscle-memory when Kakashi increased his effort to press him in his tries to get past the Jounin.

Kakashi hadn't set a time limit, and Sasuke was soon breathing heavily, muscles aching against the continuous strain. It irked him immensely that he hadn't gotten even an inch closer to his target, but instead had been forced further away from it.

He parried a stab towards his abdomen and threw a kunai at Kakashi in the same movement, turning away from a kick aimed at his thigh. He was tired of this; it was getting him nowhere.

Sasuke clenched his jaw, sheathed his sword and flashed through a series of hand seal, pleased when he saw Kakashi eye him with a minute sense of curious trepidation. Or was that just expectation?

.

Naruto was lying in a heap in the middle of the training field, gasping for air. Kakashi was sitting a small distance away, perfectly unruffled, sharpening the kunai he had used during the spar.

The field was littered by water puddles and gouge-marks, left by the futon and suiton techniques Naruto had used. He was just about to struggle into a seated position when the ground trembled in an enormous explosion, causing both of them to turn and stare in the direction Sasuke and Kakashi's clone had disappeared in.

"Did you press him into using his explosion tags?" Naruto asked casually, between heavy breaths.

Kakashi hummed. "This is why he needs the stealth training." He sighed, putting the last of the kunai away, as sharp and deadly as they had been this morning. "He gets frustrated when things don't go his way." He eyed the tree-line with sharp, calculating eyes. Struck by an idea, Kakashi got to his feet and walked over to the blonde. "Alright, you've rested enough. Get up."

Naruto gave him an incredulous look, but obliged, ignoring the way his body protested.

"What is it?"

"Prepare a nice trap for when Sasuke returns." Kakashi told him blandly.

Naruto blinked, staring up at Kakashi, waiting for an explanation. "Why?" He asked when it was obvious Kakashi didn't plan to give one without prompting.

"Preparation for an ambush situation in the field." Kakashi said, making it sound almost normal. "You should hurry; from the sound of it, they're almost done."

Naruto rolled his eyes and began to dig through his pockets to take stock of what he had to work with. "Fine."

Kakashi retreated up in a tree that stood off to the side, curious to see what he would do. Would he go easy on his friend, taking into consideration that Sasuke no doubt was as tired as him and not expecting to walk into a trap when he was aiming to join the rest of his team?

He was pleased to see that Naruto was very thorough in his execution of the trap, using his imagination and affinity for pranks to its full capacity.

He nodded to himself; never underestimate the enemy, no matter who it was. And you couldn't relax on a mission and assume you were safe; you'd get yourself and others killed.

Kakashi was teaching the two how to take advantage of their size and harmless appearance, but that didn't mean a one-on-one fight wouldn't be difficult for them. Especially if their opponent was a full-grown shinobi.

They simply didn't have the muscle-mass and weight behind the blows that even other Genin had, and thus, he had beaten stealth, sensing and speed into their skulls. If they couldn't overwhelm their opponent, they should run circles around him instead.

Another explosion tore the peaceful atmosphere to shreds, accompanied by the sounds of splintering wood and falling trees.

It seemed Sasuke was still at it.

Naruto didn't pay the explosion any mind except to take note of how far off it was, and how much time he was likely to have left before Sasuke returned.

He was currently using the last of his steel wire, making the trigger for the trap he had made. Quite impressive, if he dared say so himself, especially considering he had thought it up on the fly.

Once he was done, Naruto retreated to a safe distance, sat down and took out his water bottle. He was exhausted.

. o . O . o .

Once again, Kakashi stood in front of his students, both looking decidedly worse for wear. Naruto was dirty, caked in mud and blood from a few cuts he had recieved during his own stealth exercise, looking almost like he had rolled around in a puddle of mud and then been dragged through a forest. Not too far off what had actually happened, really.

Sasuke wasn't as dirty as Naruto, but looked slightly singed, with soot smeared across one cheek and marks from ninja wire here and there -courtesy Naruto's trap. His clothes hadn't fared any better, and were torn in places, to match the burns. The young Uchiha's spar with Kakashi had gone much like Naruto's, if only without the generous use of ninjutsu; Sasuke had already drained himself of chakra, a mistake he committed a tad too often for Kakashi's taste.

Kakashi caught himself, and considered his words carefully before speaking.

"You did well." He began. "Not many Genin would've lasted as long as the two of you. Good work." He had read that praise was very important to children's development. Books were generally right.

Naruto snorted, but smiled tiredly nonetheless. Kakashi had worked them harder than usual, pressing them as far as he could, testing the very limits of their stamina, reflexes and ability to think on the spot.

Sasuke seemed to have similar thoughts, because he simply raised an eyebrow, managing to look impatient and strangely dignified despite his appearance.

With a soft sigh, Kakashi crouched down in front of them, bringing them almost eye to eye. "I have a mission for us." He said. "A C-rank." He specified before they could ask, well aware that they were about as impressed by the infernal D-ranks as he was.

"Yay!" Naruto exclaimed happily, throwing his arms in the air. Admittedly, a far cry from his usual exuberant self, but considering the situation, it was still impressive he had enough energy left for such a display.

Sasuke gave his friend a disgruntled glare. Some things in life simply weren't fair. "What kind of mission, sensei?" He asked, ignoring the blonde.

Kakashi hummed, looking from Sasuke to Naruto and back again. He took out the scroll he had received this morning and held it up for the two to see. "We'll have a temporary addition to our team." He said instead of answering.

"Who?" Naruto asked, curiosity spiked. They hadn't really worked together with anyone else since they had been assigned Kakashi, the last week with Iruka notwithstanding.

"A clansman of yours, Sasuke. I believe you're fairly familiar with him." Kakashi blinked slowly. "Uchiha Shisui."

"We'll be going on a mission with Shisui-nii?" Naruto asked confusedly. As much as he liked Shisui, he didn't understand the reasoning behind this.

"Considering you last C-rank, the Council thought it prudent to-"

"My father arranged this." Sasuke interrupted, glaring at the scroll as if it had personally offended him.

Kakashi sighed, but didn't dispute the statement. He mulled over what to say and then proceeded with a shrug. "It is not meant as a slight to the two of you." He began in a monotone. "I have never been responsible for children before, and the Uchiha seem to be concerned about your well-being under my care."

Naruto blinked and then scowled, insulted on behalf of his sensei.

"And the mission?" Sasuke asked, just as irritated as Naruto by what they had just been told; Kakashi was one of the best Jounin the village had to offer!

Kakashi eyed their reactions with carefully masked curiosity. "Intel has received reports of a group of criminals terrorizing a town south of Tanzaku Gai; they kidnap local children and then demands ransom from their families in exchange for their release. The town mayor contacted Konoha to hire a team to take care of them." He paused. "There have been no indications that there is any shinobi involvement. In addition to that, you two are the village's youngest Genin, making you seem like easier targets."

"They want to use us as bait?" Naruto couldn't help the incredulous tinge to his voice.

Kakashi nodded. "Basically, yes."

"Since there are no shinobi involved, we will easily be able to escape and defend ourselves should anything happen." Sasuke mused. "But why send us? Shouldn't it be easier to just dispose of the bandits?"

Again, Kakashi nodded. He was pleased by their initial analyze. "It probably would, but the criminals have gathered quite a few children which they have not yet returned, despite the fact that their families have paid the price demanded of them."

"So you'll use me and Sasuke to find them, free the children and return them without injury to their families." Naruto concluded with a nod.

"It would be an easy thing to go in a neutralize the group, but one of them could just as easily harm and/or kill the children before it is over. The mayor has stressed that the children's safety is our first priority, the criminals' elimination coming second."

"And you and Shisui will be our back-up and insurance if anything goes wrong?" Sasuke frowned, thinking it all through.

"Shisui will act as your older brother, I believe, travelling openly as a civilian with the two of you. I will remain hidden, ensuring there really is no shinobi involvement, and investigate possible connections this criminal group have with other organizations." He was pleased to see it seemed his little Genin were following his explanation with ease. "As such, I will follow you to their camp, and keep an eye on things while Shisui works the village end of things. Understood?"

"Understood, sensei." The two chorused.

"When are we leaving?" Naruto asked next.

"Tomorrow." Kakashi stood to his feet casting a quick look around the training field. "For all intents and purposes, you'll be travelling like civilians. Pack accordingly." And with that, he had dismissed his students.

Naruto and Sasuke exchanged a look and then left; they had things to discuss.

Kakashi, on the other hand, stood motionless for a minute before he moved to repair the damage they -mostly Naruto- had caused during the spars. It was all fixed easily with a basic doton, soothing over the bruised and scarred earth. There wasn't much he could do about the trees Sasuke had destroyed with his liberal use of explosive tags, though, and executed a quick shunshin, leaving for his apartment. The administrative ninja weren't bold enough to complain to him, either way.

. o . O . o .

"We'll be gone for a while, possibly weeks." Sasuke pointed out, brows drawn together in worry.

"Yes." Naruto readily agreed, having come to the same conclusion.

"Naruto," Sasuke began, "we won't be in the village." It might sound like he was pointing out the obvious, but he knew Naruto would understand what he meant. "We won't be here."

"I know." Unlike Sasuke, Naruto had been thinking about this problem since Kakashi had told them they'd finally be taking C-rank missions after his return. He had had a week to mull over their possibilities already.

"What if they move on the Coup when we're not here?" Sasuke hissed in a near-silent voice.

Naruto was silent for a while, settling down next to Sasuke on the floor, leaning his back against his bed. They had quickly retreated to his apartment, changing their clothes and cleaning themselves up after their training session.

"I have a suggestion." Naruto eventually admitted, sending Sasuke and pensive glance.

"Yes?" Sasuke didn't look surprised by the statement, but rather relieved and expectant.

"They are relying on Itachi and Shisui to relay information to the Hokage and his Council." He began calmly. Sasuke's reaction to this could go either way. "We know nothing will happen when both of them aren't here." At least, they could be fairly certain.

Sasuke stayed silent, beginning to see where Naruto was heading. "You want us to tell Itachi?"

Naruto nodded. "It's a risk, but one that should be worth it if we play our cards right." They had gotten to know Itachi rather well these past years. The Uchiha could be an incredible asset in the strife the future held for the Elemental Countries, and Konoha in particular. Madara wanted them gone for a reason, after all, and Naruto would be damned if he let the old relic get his will without a fight. Not to mention all the innocent people whose lives would be spared if they succeeded.

Sasuke looked thoughtful. "What if you leave clones behind that can warn us?" He speculated, not wanting to rush into anything and willing to discuss alternatives.

Naruto frowned. "As you said; we could be gone for weeks on end. Maintaining clones that long, and completing missions at the same time? That would be stretching my chakra too thin. In addition to that, I would have to dispel the clones when I come back; the rush of memories would be like a sledgehammer to the head." He quirked a humorless smile, suppressing a shudder. "And what if a clone actually dispels while we're on a mission, Sasuke? We can't just leave for Konoha in the middle of it; Kakashi would have kittens. He'd never allow it unless we had a valid reason, and you didn't feel we should tell him yet. On top of that, there'd be serious repercussions for abandoning the mission." He took a deep breath, realising he had dumped quite a bit of information on Sasuke all at once.

Sasuke slowly nodded. Naruto had a valid point; it would be too taxing on top of missions -missions that could go wrong and force them to fight for their lives.

"So we tell him?" He asked, trying not to sounds too hopeful.

Naruto nodded. "Yes. I think it's our best bet to be successful at this."

"And what about Shisui?" Was Sasuke's next question. He knew that Naruto and Shisui had grown very close, and regarded each other almost as brothers.

Naruto grimaced and then adopted a pensive expression while he thought about it. "I don't want Itachi to have to kill him this time." His voice was barely more than a murmur. He was silently thinking it over, several minutes ticking by. "Aright, how about we do it like this." He turned to look Sasuke in the eyes. "We tell Itachi before we leave, preferably tonight. He'll know what's going on, and can keep an eye on things. Then we'll tell Shisui once we come back from this mission; I don't want him distracted while in the field."

Sasuke nodded slowly. It sounded like a good plan. He only had one concern. "Itachi will have a quite bit of time to think about this while we're gone." He pointed out. "He could decide to go to the Hokage, or act individually."

"He could." Naruto agreed. "But do you really think so? Itachi told me himself that Shisui had inherited the Will of Fire." He gave a small smile. "And Itachi valued that more than anything, trying to live up to that ideal. He wants peace."

Sasuke considered his friend's words carefully. "As you said; it'll be a gamble, but there's too much to be gained to ignore." Either way, things would never be the same. Anxiousness clutched at his insides, now that they had come to something of a decision.

"We'll do this, Sasuke. You won't have to lie to Itachi after this." He sent his brother-in-all-but-blood a warm smile, understanding the kind of thoughts swirling through Sasuke's mind.

"Tonight." Sasuke nodded, tens and nervous.

"Tonight." Naruto agreed, nudging him gently with a shoulder, pretending he couldn't feel the fear, hope and anticipation twist his own insides. This would be a major step to change the future they had come from; the first, really.

. o . O . o .