Disclaimer: Everything belongs to Masashi Kishimoto.

Team 7's Ascension

Chapter IX - Water the Seed III

Nagatsukithe long month, the ninth month of the year.

Heavy drops of rain fell from the heavens, pooling slightly in the engravings of his Hitai-ate before continuing their slow travel alongside the red markings on his face. Looking skyward, a nearly inaudible sigh escaped him as he pondered the possible information his upcoming, self-imposed mission would uproot.

It wasn't going to be anything pleasant, his gut feeling told him as much...

No matter how superstitious it might seem, the season of dying leaves had never been his favorite, and over the decades of his violent career the feeling of strong dislike only grew. In fall – they said – the gods finally remembered and wept for those that died before their time had come.

Jiraiya though, found no comfort in such words.

His lips settled into a grim line and he chided himself for falling into the same pattern of thoughts time and time again. The whole world was stuck in an endless cycle of calamity – he certainly wasn't the only ill-starred person – but sometimes he couldn't help but wonder...

… why was it always in fall, when some kind of disaster struck?

The death of his parents, long ago before he even managed to walk. The message of Team Yahiko's early demise that made him leave the battlefields of the second shinōbi war with sorrow and grief clouding his mind. Tsunade's broken heart, coupled with Orochimaru's abominable betrayal... and – in a truly sadistic twist of life – even on the day that could have turned his outlook into something less depressing, death struck once more.

He became a godfather, but lost a son in the process.

A raindrop fell directly into his eye and he blinked a few times. Ah... yes, he was going off on tangents again. Jiraiya lowered his head, letting the rain pour on his shaggy mane of white hair, and wiped the water off his face.

There was a time for remembrance, but it had to come later. He leaped off the branch and landed on the muddy road that led to Chīsana Jūyō-mura, a small village in the eastern parts of Ta no Kuni. It would only take a few more minutes to reach his destination, and already he could see the many paddy fields, staggered against the slowly rising slope that led up to a small mountain range.

Besides... there were spies to recruit, women to be courted and evil plots to be foiled.

He was a busy man after all, and simply didn't have the time for pitying himself any further.

Sitting cross-legged on a large cushion, Jiraiya's eyes were focused on the wisps of smoke his nostrils emitted – a short-lived activity at best, he recognized, as the dulled sound of sake cups being set down on a wooden table reached his ears.

He took another puff on his pipe and nodded in thanks to his host, a plain man in his early thirties with unremarkable black hair and brown eyes. The man – a simple hunter – settled down on a cushion of his own and poured both of them a generous portion of sake before setting the jug aside and leaning forward.

"I didn't expect you to arrive so late into the night, Jiraiya-sama."

The Sannin directed a smile at one of his most trusted sources in Ta no Kuni and took a sip from his cup before replying, "I apologize for the troubles, Kōya-san. I spotted shinōbi with an unfamiliar insignia on my way here and thought it best to wait until nightfall."

Kōya waved the apology aside. "It's no trouble, Jiraiya-sama. I'm surprised my letter reached you, to be honest. Under the current circumstances I wasn't sure it would get to you at all, especially with all these new shinōbi running around."

Jiraiya nodded and tapped with the tip of his index finger on the table, producing a slow but steady rhythm. He took his time before answering, waiting for each small pulse of chakra to return with new information about their surroundings.

After confirming that nobody was listening in, he once again favored his host with his full attention. "It probably wouldn't have, had you not sent it to Tegami-san first; good thinking there."

"The influence that woman has over the border towns is quite frightening," Kōya admitted. "I've only met her two times, but I sure am glad that she's on our side."

"True enough," Jiraiya laughed, comfortably indulging in more sake. "She's a spitfire, that one. Not bad looking either."

Kōya's lips quirked upward as he replied, "I didn't dare looking too closely, Jiraiya-sama. Greater man than I have died for less, and I like my head where it is."

"Ah... perhaps you're the wisest of us all, my friend. But what would life be without a bit of action now and then, eh?"

"Indeed," Kōya muttered and his expression turned somber. "Though I can't say that Ta no Kuni lacked action in these last few months."

Jiraiya leaned back and took another drag on his pipe. "Those unknown shinōbi, I take it? Well, not so much unknown... rather, belonging to a hidden village we know nothing about. Otogakure is the village's name by the way, and we only know that because they applied for the upcoming Chūnin Exams."

"So it is an autonomous shinōbi village? That's surprising," Kōya mused. "I wouldn't have thought that the Daimyo actually supports them."

Jiraiya's eyebrows rose an inch. "Oh? And why not?"

"Beside the fact that Ta no Kuni never needed a hidden village before?" Kōya asked half-rhetorically, half-sarcastic. Then he remembered in whose presence he actually was and quickly recomposed himself.

"The Fuma clan petitioned with the Daimyo in the past to officially acknowledge them as the protectors of Ta no Kuni... it didn't end well," Kōya answered – this time seriously – and poured himself a new cup.

"... and the plot thickens," murmured Jiraiya, tracing the flower design engraved on the empty sake dish with his finger. "I've sneaked past a lot of their patrols since I crossed the border. For a new village, Otogakure has a surprising amount of manpower."

"Not just shinōbi though. They've been heavily recruiting among us civilians as well."

Kōya suppressed the reflex to flinch when the Sannin's eyes suddenly snapped up and bored into him with a frightening intensity. It had been quite a while since he last saw such a grave expression on the man's face – over a decade to be precise.

"Explain," Jiraiya ordered, all traces of geniality had vanished from his person.

"Some of them stop by every few days and ask for able young men who want to earn some coin as mercenaries," Kōya explained hastily. "It's quite bothersome for most of the farmer families too... a lot of their sons actually followed the call of fame and money, leaving the old folks to work alone on the paddy fields."

He sneered a bit toward the end. Having been an orphan himself since he was eight, the concept of simply abandoning family left an ashen taste in his mouth. The Sannin noticed of course, but other matters more important than the feelings of a middle-aged man came up with the latest information his spy had revealed.

Founding a new hidden village, an incredible feat to be sure, was one thing... to actively recruit an army however – and Jiraiya had no doubt that the leader of Otogakure was doing just that – broke several peace treaties that had been made by the various Daimyos after the third shinōbi war.

Even worse, despite the rather obvious recruitment no mention of it had reached Konoha at all. He wouldn't even know about it, hadn't the letter from Kōya arrived.

"Is there anything else?" Jiraiya asked with urgency in his voice. "Anything at all? Think, Kōya-san. The smallest detail could be important."

The man thought for a moment before replying, "I don't know if it's got anything to do with Otogakure, but the woods in western Ta no Kuni have changed somehow."

Jiraiya sat up straighter with an inquiring look on his face, "Changed? How so?"

"I'm not sure how to describe it... it seems as if the forest has become a swamp over night. I've hunted there for years, but I stopped recently when it became impassible for a civilian like me," Kōya explained.

"A swamp you say?" Jiraiya asked, frowning. "I've got a bad feeling about this..."

Kōya watched wide-eyed as the Sannin rose from his seat and crouched down, biting his thumb and speeding through hand seals before slamming his palm onto the floor.

"Ninpō: Kuchiyose no Jutsu – Gamataisatsu!"

Tendrils of black ink expanded from the center of Jiraiya's hand and in a small puff of smoke the tiniest toad Kōya had ever seen suddenly appeared on his floor.

"Listen, Gamatai, I want you to scout out the new swampland in the west – make sure not to be seen and always keep your camouflage Jutsu active. I'm not sure what exactly you'll find there, but it can't be anything good."

Gamatai croaked once – conveying a message that only the Sannin understood, before he departed with a few well-placed jumps, vanishing through the window.

"What are you going to do now, Jiraiya-sama?"

The Sannin scratched his head and grinned at his host – the tenseness had seemingly left him as soon as the toad was sent on its way.

"I had hoped to stay here until those guys come recruiting again... if that's no problem for you."

"It would be my pleasure, Jiraiya-sama," Kōya answered.

Having already watered his plant and eaten, Naruto sat on his bed and looked aimlessly around the room, the finely crafted stem of his wooden pipe hanging loosely between his lips. The room felt empty without his teammates though, and he couldn't help but wonder why Kakashi – the demon instructor in disguise – had given his team the order to rest up for a few days; an order so unlike the man that Naruto still couldn't quite believe it.

He had half-expected an ambush during his dinner, but when even this failed to occur Naruto came to the startling realization that Kakashi had truly meant it. Which – in itself – was quite unusual, at least when it came to the matter of Team 7's training.

Naruto frowned. He didn't even know what to do with so much free time anymore...

The spare futons which had been heavily used by his teammates during their many over-night stays, were now neatly rolled together and stacked up against the wall. With their own homes to take care off after such a long period of time, it was only natural for Sakura and Sasuke not to stay.

He knew. Hell, he could even rationalize it with logical arguments – what wasn't there to understand, after all? Yet, the wish for them to stay – even if not given voice – was there, and he wondered why it couldn't have stayed like before; Team 7 under one roof.

He shook his head, clearing his mind of these unpleasant thoughts. It was only for a few days anyway, and they had already made plans to meet up again. He'd see them soon, he was sure.

Emptiness though – as was natural – brought something else with it, something Naruto had seemingly forgotten how to deal with. It was time – unoccupied at that – which now took his thoughts in directions he didn't dare follow up before, when everything had been so busy and stressful during their missions and constant training.

It felt like years had passed since he graduated, and so much happened in that time, so much changed – if for better or worse, he couldn't really tell. Many of the things he had done in the service of the mighty tree though – as a Genin no less – would have made him vomit just a scantily few months earlier.

Shinōbi, huh?

He let himself fall backward and observed the lazily spinning fan above him, his head resting on an orange pillow that had once upon a time been his favorite. Through the opened window, his ears picked up sounds from the streets below. The people sounded happy, carefree even with the faces of Konoha's greatest guardians watching over them – like some kind of ethereal protection that promised eternal peace if one only believed strong enough.

A certain reality for those who hadn't come into contact with the life shinōbi led, the missions and orders they took. It was sad that he didn't see the same anymore – couldn't see the same – and only felt himself staring at an illusion; a fragile one at that.

His sensei made him into a shinōbi, had helped him to become an efficient killer who could serve his village faithfully – which was both, what he wanted, and what he never expected to be.

… but, wasn't that also the crux of his troubled thoughts?

Not even a year had gone by, and already the blood of dozens clung to his hands like invisible ink-stains which wouldn't come off, no matter how hard he scrubbed. It didn't matter if mercenary or shinōbi... in the end they were dead, and in some way he had facilitated their demise.

He definitely hadn't thought of this back when he signed up for the academy, nor was it what he had expected once he donned his Hitai-ate.

Naruto felt spite warring with gratitude inside of him. He was angry that Kakashi had completely crushed his old view of the world – innocent and naive as it had been – but he also felt like he owed his life to the man, for without the Jōnin's systematic deconstruction of his naivety, he probably wouldn't have survived longer than a few minutes outside of Konoha's walls.

The same could be said about his surrogate grandfather too though, which hurt even more. Naruto was bitter that the man had veiled the truth of what being a shinōbi entailed, until it hit him with the force of a sledgehammer. Yet at the same time he felt grateful, because if the Hokage's prolonged protection of his innocence had ended any sooner, he truly didn't want to know what he could have become.

Feeling such contrasting emotions for one and the same issue was utterly maddening, he found.

Naruto supposed it was the world they lived in. The world he had once been so proud to be a part off... and the black and white colored brushes which the academy instructors had used, only served to increase the loyalty shinōbi felt for their village – he felt for his village, or was it had felt?

It was a sick thing to do – to be sure; a human thing to do though, and a necessary one at that.

Kakashi – as many faults as the man had – never minced words with them, and Naruto had learned quickly that it wouldn't get any better or easier in the higher ranks of his village; only worse. In the end it was the Hokage who had the most blood on his hands when all the dice were cast, and he had a hard time associating the gentle man he knew with the monster a Kage had to be in order for his village to thrive.

All shinōbi villages differed in their methods, but they were all aiming for the same – either to be the strongest, or to remain the strongest. It didn't surprise him that most nukenin weren't the extremely dangerous sort like Uchiha Itachi or Orochimaru, but oftentimes Genin and sometimes Chūnin who simply couldn't stand it anymore and left the village, foolishly believing it would be any better in other parts of the world.

Shinōbi, the ones who made this world a cruel place, but also the only ones who had the power to make it better. He smiled grimly – his eyes still trailing the movements of the fan – as he thought about his life-long dream.

What did it really mean to become the Kage of a shinōbi village, to become the Hokage of Konoha?

Definitely not what he once thought it would, but was the hat truly only a way to make bloodshed happen on a larger scale? Was its only purpose to make sure that the village was better than the equally fierce and vengeful competition?

Naruto put his pipe on the nightstand next to his bed and walked over to the window. Leaning on the sill and overlooking the bustling night-life below, he couldn't help but wonder – would he be able to make the world a better place if he ever made it that far?

A year ago the answer would have been a resounding yes – articulated in the loudest voice he had to offer – but his inner child had long since shriveled to an unidentifiable something; doubt the only thing it left behind.

Then again, shriveled didn't mean dead and a small surge of sudden determination made him pause. The tenseness left his face and the smile that had been grim throughout the day turned into something else – what, he couldn't really say.

Because, although the odds weren't in his favor, Naruto knew he'd never forgive himself if he even betrayed the last remaining principle of his Nindō – to never give up. He would have to work through his doubts and become the Hokage, just with different reasons behind his ambition.

Naruto yawned and closed the window, before discarding his clothes and returning to his bed – this time beneath a large orange blanket.

yes, just with different reasons.

On a rainy afternoon later in the week, Team 7 had just started their planned sparring session when Saskura – the most adept of them at chakra sensing – felt the signatures of two rapidly approaching shinōbi.

"We got company," she wheezed out while jumping over Naruto's attempted leg-sweep and simultaneously deflecting the Uchiha's fist away from her face.

After Naruto's recounting of his short fight with the Iwa shinōbi, they had quickly realized that three-way sparring – while still effective – was completely different than fighting against a team of two with coordinated attacks. Wasting no time, said revelation immediately resulted in a change of their usual sparring matches.

… though Sakura found it hard to stomach that neither Naruto nor Sasuke had as much trouble with the new arrangement as her.

Both boys immediately backed off and she welcomed the inevitable pull of gravity, glad that they had heard her warning. The grass rippled slightly as she landed in a crouch between them, indicating the dispersal of chakra she had used to ease the fall.

Any question her teammates might have asked about the nature of the impromptu visit became redundant, when a small volley of shuriken honed in on their position. Naruto flipped to the side, having anticipated the trajectories, but was surprised when Sasuke sped past him, forcefully dragging him further away.

"Ninpō: Shuriken Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!"

"Fūton: Hassha-tai Nōshuku!"

Blue eyes widened as the five thrown shuriken multiplied and became dozens, digging deep into the ground as a result of the tiny amount of Fūton chakra augmenting each of them. Naruto noticed Sasuke's sharingan spinning at maddening speeds, but even the Uchiha seemed surprised when Sakura suddenly appeared in front of them and slammed her palms on the ground.

"Dotōn: Doroku Gaeshi!"

Explosions rocked the clearing, but when the stone wall Sakura had erected crumbled under the onslaught of kibakufuda, the Genin of Team 7 had vanished.

"What the hell was that?" Naruto whispered harshly, nodding his head toward the crater on the training field. "I didn't even see the notes."

"Genjutsu," Sakura answered, slightly out of breath. The fast-paced dash to her teammates' aid and the Jutsu had put some strain on her. "One of them made some kind of Bunshin who layered it while they combined their attacks."

Naruto's hairs stood on end – he could already feel the thrill of the incoming battle – but then he grit his teeth and saw to his surprise that his teammates had completely understood even this small motion, shaking their heads slightly.

Their enemy was seemingly proficient in Genjutsu, an art that while not his greatest weakness anymore, still made him a deadweight out on the field. He understood that – sadly – and relaxed his tense muscles a bit. He would be his team's long range support – for now.

Three Kawarimi later, they were whisked away from the large branch that got torn apart by an overpowered Fūton technique. Naruto peeked around a tree and finally saw who their attackers were – a shinōbi with brown hair, combed down over one eye and covered by a bandana, and a second one with spiky black hair and a weird strip of cloth spanning over his nose.

He vaguely remembered them from seeing them deliver paperwork to the Sandaime and operating the guardhouse at Konoha's main gate – Izumo and Kotetsu.

Naruto signaled Sasuke and Sakura to follow him. In a fast pace he led them through the woods and explained who their attackers were, while dodging the increasingly dangerous techniques and a plethora of thrown shuriken and kunai; some of them, once again, veiled by Genjutsu.

"This' some kind of test. I'm sure," Naruto said, deflecting three shuriken with his kunai, before flinging it hard at an incoming kibakufuda, forcing the explosive kunai to sail into another direction.

Sasuke looked at him, narrowing his eyes. "Are you sure? Seems a bit too real for a test."

"Whether or not this' a test is irrelevant," Naruto answered. "We'll have to beat them either way."

"They're proficient at Fūton-manipulation, Genjutsu, and supplementary Ninjutsu... but who is using which?" Sakura asked, putting her own thoughts forward.

"We'll have to find out," Naruto replied. "Sakura, engage the one with the spiky hair. Sasuke, you get the bandana-guy. I'll support you the best I can from range and try to figure something out."

He didn't have to wait long for the signs of acceptance from his teammates. Both vanished from the underbrush and Naruto smiled, although it wasn't easy to see in the shadows of the looming trees.

"Now to give them an opening," he whispered to no one in particular, feeling the familiar thrum of energy in his veins.

He might not be able to fight in close-combat – this time – but he would definitely find a way to make himself an annoyance on the battlefield. It was the perfect time for the Jutsu Kakashi had left him instructions on after the mission in Nami no Kuni. He didn't actually know what kind of Jutsu Sasuke and Sakura got, but he was sure it would be exciting as well.

Inhaling as deeply as he could, Naruto gathered all the saliva he could muster at one spot in his mouth and infused it with his chakra. The worst part of the technique was actually holding it in while the energy fused with the spit and enlarged it to some degree – there's been a reason after all why not many shinōbi ever bothered to learn this Jutsu.

"Suitōn: Teppōdama!"

Naruto spat the large glob out with high velocity just as the suffocation of letting it grow in his mouth became nearly unbearable. As quickly as the technique would make its way onto the battlefield though, it still wasn't larger than a common football.

He switched the last hand seal – Tora – and quickly added Saru before ending the changed sequence in Tatsu and holding it there. This was, as Kakashi had explained on the scroll, the necessary change that had to be made if the Jutsu truly was to become a technique for humans.

Naruto watched in satisfaction how his small glob of spit and chakra extended further and further on its flight, going so far as to even increase in its speed. In the end it wasn't a small ball that crashed onto the ground Izumo and Kotetsu had stood on, but a good-sized trashcan of water. He quickly threw some kunai at possible escape routes as well, giving his teammates and himself something to substitute with in a pinch.

It wasn't the most destructive version – definitely not as awesome as the legendary Teppōdama the toads were said to spit out in battle – but it was damaging enough that getting hit by it was a prospect both Chūnin wanted to avoid desperately.

Izumo and Kotetsu jumped away from the impact of Naruto's Jutsu and readied themselves for further engagements.

"Quite impressive for a brat," Kotetsu whispered and grinned. "Especially for him."

Izumo nodded, but his face remained impassive – he had always prided himself on his intelligence and wouldn't let talking get in the way of fighting. His brown eyes widened minutely and he quickly tapped Kotetsu's arm two times before taking off in a sprint – his teammate belatedly noticing the reason for it himself and following him.

"Dotōn: Shinjū Zanshu no Jutsu!"

Again the technique didn't work, and slowly but surely Sakura lost her patience with it. This wasn't the time for criticizing her own work though, and she quickly jumped out of the hole she had dug and substituted herself with a kunai directly in front of Kotetsu – courtesy of Naruto, who definitely hadn't been idle.

A few seconds ago, she had sensed the creation of two Mizu Bunshin, and believed them to hunt for the Genjutsu layering Bunshin while the original supported them from long range.

Sakura had no real idea on how to deal with Kotetsu, who wore a delighted grin as he saw her use the Kawarimi and come into his preferred range all too willingly. He lashed out with a punch to the face, but contrary to the Uchiha in their spar, he didn't let off after the pink-haired girl deflected the first strike.

After one of the punches made it through her guard and landed on her shoulder, her other hand instinctively reached up to the wound. It opened up her whole left side for a counter-attack, but Kotetsu refrained from using the opening – this wouldn't be much of a test if they were defeated in the first minute, after all.

Sakura reached up to her bruised shoulder – very happy that the Chūnin in his misconceptions didn't use the horrible opening she had left him – and her hand slipped under the battledress, grasping the leather handle of a flat knife. In one movement she pulled it out and crouched down, trying to hammer the knife through the Chūnin's foot.

Kotetsu barely managed to get his toes out of harm's way – which was embarrassing in itself – and took a step back, surprise momentarily flitting through his eyes.

That's one tricky kunoichi...

He bared his teeth in a wide grin and quickly stepped back into her range, dodging left to avoid her slash with the knife. The girl, Sakura if he remembered correctly, frowned and he himself noticed that something was amiss. A short glance to his shoulder revealed that his vest had been scratched by her knife, even though he'd been fully out of range.

Then Kotetsu actually concentrated and felt the very subtle advances of foreign chakra in his tenketsu.

Sneaky little...

He effortless broke the Genjutsu and reengaged the slowly but surely despairing girl. It was a neat trick, he supposed. The only opportunity he gave her to cast a Genjutsu, had been when he got surprised by her knife and had to step back. No, the only opportunity she literally forced out of him, he corrected himself.

It was time to end the whole charade, Kotetsu thought. The sudden increase in strength and speed threatened to overwhelm Sakura in the first few seconds of his onslaught, and he was pleased to see that Izumo was slowly herding the Uchiha into his general direction.

To be honest, Kotetsu found it amusing that even from afar he could see the annoyance on the Uchiha's face. He changed his left fist's trajectory and instead of hitting, grabbed the girls wrist to hold it in place and prevent her from any further deflection of his blows.

Sakura couldn't believe how easy the Chūnin had managed to deconstruct her defense, but didn't get the chance to contemplate her predicament further as the guy's right fist crashed into her face, sending her stumbling a few steps backward.

Kotetsu didn't need hand seals for the Kawarimi and quickly substituted himself with one of the kunai Naruto had thrown for his teammates' usage, landing behind the girl who was still reeling from the blow.

"Two can play this game," Kotetsu advised, referring to his own spotless substitution.

The kunoichi didn't even know what was happening to her anymore.

One second the man had hit her, then he vanished, and now she was seeing the cloudy ceiling of the sky as drops of rain continuously hit her face... too late did the realization set in that the man had thrown her in the direction of Sasuke's fight.

Sasuke, who had been countered by the stoic shinōbi with the bandana at every turn of the fight was completely unbalanced when the figure of his female teammate crashed into his back and sent them tumbling over the ground. His sharingan noticed Izumo's seal sequence in advance – not that it could copy the Jutsu just yet – and he knew that they were in trouble.

"Suitōn: Mizuame Nabara!"

In a style very reminiscent of Naruto, the Chūnin spat out a large amount of something, covering them completely in the sticky liquid. Sasuke remembered that Naruto could do vaguely the same with his weakest Jutsu – manipulating the properties of the water – but this was a whole lot stronger, not just the slight inconvenience Naruto's technique provided.

"Fūin: Kai!"

Sasuke couldn't see what it was that the other Chūnin unsealed, but he knew that his rapidly approaching steps didn't mean anything good. Soon, Kotetsu came into view, wielding a large something – a weird cross between a mace and a conch.

"Well, that's it..." Kotetsu looked down at them, lazily leaning against his summoned weapon.

Izumo nodded and smiled genially. "You fought very well," he complimented the Uchiha in particular.

"Same goes for you, Pinky. You've got some slick moves," Kotetsu added.

Sasuke didn't really care for their praise, and although he had no intention of actually feeling the giant conch-mace, he couldn't help but smirk up at them. "Aren't you forgetting something?"

"Oh? You mean your teammate, the blond?" Kotetsu asked with a curious expression. "He's weak against Genjutsu, isn't he? My Tsuchi Bunshin is probably running circles around him."

"Wrong - Suitōn: Teppōdama!"

The large water bullet missed once again, but also managed to separate the Chūnin a second time. Naruto never stopped his seal sequence though and pumped large amounts of chakra through his pathways.

A group of Mizu Bunshin stepped out of the large puddle his Teppōdama had left and engaged the two moderately surprised – if unaffected – shinōbi four at a time. The original quickly landed next to the sticky mass of glue that restrained his teammates and pushed his hands into it.

"What the- Dobe! Now you're stuck just like us!" Sasuke whispered harshly, not believing the stupidity of his teammate.

"Quiet, Bastard. I'm trying to work here..." Naruto retorted with a strained voice, infusing more and more of his Suitōn chakra into the sticky liquid.

Manipulating the properties of another Suitōn user's technique was far above his level, but he had hoped it would be somewhat easier if the original caster wasn't concentrating on keeping the Jutsu active anymore.

… it was indeed easier, but still incredibly taxing and far above his level of expertise.

After what felt like an eternity, the liquid changed a bit, giving Sasuke and Sakura the chance to free themselves.

Battered, bruised, mentally exhausted and with most of their aces already used up, the three barely managed to get into a semi-solid formation – back to back. It happened just in time though as the last of Naruto's Mizu Bunshin fell and both Chūnin walked toward them from different directions, looking as if they hadn't just fought for several minutes.

Sasuke spat a glob of saliva and blood on the ground and eyed Izumo distrustful. If this had been a test, then it was a fucking bloody and hurtful one. Not as demonic as Kakashi's tests – few would ever manage that – but damn exhausting in its own way.

Naruto – who sported a nice shiner, courtesy of Kotetsu's Tsuchi Bunshin – lifted his kunai, rearing to cut the gate guards in two pieces should the test continue. He wouldn't be able to do much – Sakura and Sasuke seemed to be quite immobile and exhausted – but he definitely wouldn't let it end like this.

"Out of curiosity," Kotetsu began, lifting his large conch-mace into the air. "How did you manage to defeat the Tsuchi Bunshin? It's Genjutsu should have taken you out of the fight completely."

"The Bunshin? Please..." Naruto replied mockingly, a few bloody teeth showing in his mouth. "You're Konoha shinōbi, right? Ya seem to forget who our sensei is."

Sakura and Sasuke pieced it together first and couldn't help their grins. True, Genjutsu – or rather dispelling one – wasn't Naruto's strongest suit, and his weakness there could easily become a liability in a battle, but Kakashi wouldn't be Kakashi if he hadn't at least tried to correct the problem.

Sure, Naruto was still the slowest when it came to fighting against illusions, but he was by no means incapable. Sakura's aptitude for the art, Sasuke's sharingan, and Kakashi's deviousness had seen to that. All he needed was time.

Izumo and Kotetsu knew of course who their teacher was, but that didn't really answer their question. The blond though wasn't forthcoming with any further explanation, and to their amusement even his teammates started to smile.

Receiving a nod from Izumo, Kotetsu let his conch-mace smash into the ground and – once again – leaned lazily on it. "Eh... that's good enough for us, I guess. Congratulation, Brats! You're eligible to enter the Chūnin Exams."

For a few seconds silence reigned over the field. It had even stopped to rain for a moment.

"... are you kidding me?" Naruto asked deadpan and then pointed an accusatory finger at them – a motion eerily reminiscent of his pre-shinōbi days. "Kakashi had us filling out every needed form for the exams before he even left the village on his mission! Why's there a test before the test?"

Kotetsu shrugged and referred the question to Izumo. "Ask him..."

Team 7 turned their heads as one and glared at the other Chūnin, who had never stopped smiling.

"We only followed our orders," Izumo explained. "There were some concerns about fresh Genin taking part in the exam, and it was simply our job to test Team 7. Well done, by the way. You held yourself up admirably."

"Anyway, we're done here," Kotetsu grinned. "Exams start next Monday in the academy. Eight in the morning, I think."

The Chūnin didn't give Team 7 any more time to complain or ask questions and simply vanished in a breeze of fluttering leaves.

As soon as Team 7 was sure that their testers had left the training field, they collapsed to the ground and gasped for air. The battle had been short, very intense in its brutality too... and it left none of them happy in the least.

"We lost..." Sasuke muttered, propping himself up on his elbows.

Naruto grimaced. "... and pretty badly at that. They didn't even sweat."

"They were seasoned Chūnin," Sakura rationalized, although she didn't look pleased either. Kotetsu's hit still stung on her face.

For a moment it looked as if Sasuke would accept her reasoning, but then the Uchiha shook his head violently. "We thought we were on the same level as Chūnin, and they were only two!"

"Bastard's right, Sakura," Naruto admitted and a painful expression flickered over his face. "We've got to step it up a few notches, or guys like those two will kill us sooner or later."

In their shared bachelor pad, Kotetsu finally resealed his conch-mace before turning around to Izumo who had already lost the deep green vest, slipping into a more comfortable shirt now that they had done their duty for the day – the red swirl of ANBU blinked up shortly, before it vanished under a layer of gray fabric.

"Why'd you think Hokage-sama wanted us to test them, and not Iruka-san?" Kotetsu asked, replacing his own vest with a dark-red pullover.

Izumo relaxed into the couch and shrugged his shoulders. "Who knows? I can make some guesses, that's all."

"Well, let's hear 'em. I'm kinda curious," Kotetsu admitted.

"Kay, here it goes," Izumo leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially. "As far as I've noticed, they've got a perfect mission record right now – even some B-ranks and hostile shinōbi sprinkled in for more excitement. I'm not sure, but I'd say Hokage-sama was worried that they get big heads... better nib that problem in the bud, you know?"

"Ah! I see, I see. No wonder they didn't send Iruka-san, then."

"Yep," agreed Izumo. "The guy's certainly no slouch, but I get the feeling he would've gone easy on them, not taking it seriously enough. You saw how they fought, they would've ripped him apart at the first sign of hesitation."

"Vicious little Bastards that Kakashi's growing there. The girl nearly took my toes off, the one moment I tried to be nice..."

And indeed, the Hokage's reasoning had been sound in this regard. Izumo and Kotetsu were two of his most loyal ANBU – groomed from an early age – and thus had the strengths to back up their rank. They weren't the strongest ones combat-wise, but they needn't be. No, they were – with only one or two exceptions – the most qualified in Konoha's forces when it came to spying, infiltration and counter-intelligence.

In fact, it was their long-term mission in the Jinmon Butai – the Konoha-intern counter-intelligence department – that made them known as seasoned if simple Chūnin, saddled with the incredibly boring duty of guarding the gate and transporting paperwork from one point to another.

They, more than anyone else, had the trust of, and a good relationship with, nearly every shinōbi in Konoha. Something that helped the Hokage immensely to gauge the mood of his forces and how his actions actually affected his shinōbi's moral.

It was perfect in a way.

Their alleged rank and combat strength showed Team 7 quite nicely how much they still had to train to beat seasoned Chūnin – even though, in reality, they were pretty close already. The establishing of first tentative contact between Team 7 and his both ANBU was a pretty big factor too – now that they knew each other, Izumo and Kotetsu would somehow worm their way into the tight-knit group of the team and report if there were any sudden mood-swings.

With Haruno's daughter, the last loyal Uchiha, and Konoha's Jinchuriki, the team was simply too important to leave unsupervised – the Hokage had lost one team of legends already due to a lack of foresight.

… it wouldn't happen a second time.

Normally he'd trust Kakashi with reporting such things, but the Jōnin had become extremely attached to his charges it seemed, and while that was certainly a good thing, it also meant that the man could potentially withhold information if it was for the good of his team.

Almost lazily setting one foot in front of the other – all the while taking in the village sights around him – Kakashi continued to follow the Suna shinōbi who had been sent to escort him. The latest version of Icha-Icha – a familiar and trusted weight in his vest's breast pocket – would have to wait a few more hours until it finally saw the light of day again.

He itched to read it – the chapter he had stopped at was a particularly interesting one – but the Hokage's ominous warning that he felt a war coming still rang in his ears and stayed his hand. Even if Sunagakure was their ally, shinōbi alliances were notoriously iffy things and got broken more often than not.

He couldn't appear weak or frivolous in front of the Kazekage, lest it made the man think that Konoha was weak.

A group of five shinōbi passed them on the clay huts above as the Jōnin guided him through the marketplace. It was the fourth squad he had noticed already, though his guide didn't know just how far Kakashi's senses actually extended. This group though had been very easy to sense and Kakashi did exactly what was expected of him – he inquired politely about it.

"Ne, Tsuāgaido-san," he piped up behind the Suna Jōnin. "Is there a problem somewhere? This was the second group that sped past us, and as a shinōbi of an allied village it would be my pleasure to help if it was required."

His question was well-calculated. Only asking after one squad would have been seen as snooping – it could have just been a group leaving on a mission – and asking after three or four would have revealed how much Kakashi really knew. Two groups of five though, weren't sent on missions together very often and thus gave him the perfect excuse to actually do some snooping.

Tsuāgaido tensed up minutely, something Kakashi didn't miss even though it was just a miniscule twitch of the man's index finger. Konoha's Fang of Vengeance allowed a satisfied smirk to stretch his lips – not that the Jōnin, or anyone else could see it with the minor Genjutsu he had taken to cast on his mask before every mission of high importance.

A fresh Jōnin, huh?

Kakashi could work with that, although he found it a bit insulting.

It was something like an unspoken shinōbi tradition that they always tried to gather some kind of information when visiting a foreign village – no matter if allied or not. That was the sole reason for sending a guide after all – definitely not to be polite, but to curb the incessant need to spy.

The Kazekage mustn't have a very high opinion of him... something that – although insulting – suited him just fine. It would make his work here much easier to accomplish, and his work was plenty if he read the signs correctly.

So far, while appearing fairly cordial, Tsuāgaido hadn't done anything that warranted suspicion. He was trained to hide such things after all. The villagers and less trained shinōbi they had passed though, were a different matter altogether.

It was subtle, but Kakashi had sensed a few very unfriendly stares – an underlying current of hostility.

Tsuāgaido halted in front of the large balloon-shaped tower that housed the Kazekage's office and smiled genially. "Nothing to worry about, Hatake-san. There have been some sightings of recently escaped prisoners in the desert and we're just rounding them up."

… and there it was, the mistake Kakashi had waited for to confirm his suspicions.

No experienced Jōnin would ever feed him such an unlikely story as it reflected badly on the village itself. That meant though that the Suna shinōbi was lying – badly, but still lying. He would have to investigate further after his meeting with the Kazekage.

AN: … and that's it for the moment. The list of used Japanese words will be a bit more comprehensive this time, as I failed to include them in the last few chapters assuming them to be common knowledge.


Hitai-ate – Forehead protector

Nami no Kuni – Land of Waves

Ta no Kuni – Land of Rice

Chīsana Jūyō-mura – Village of small importance (literally translated)

Kibakufuda – Explosive notes

Tenketsu – The chakra points throughout the body

Jinmon Butai – Counter-intelligence / Torture department concerning matters within Konoha


Ninpō: Kuchiyose no Jutsu – Gamataisatsu (A-Ranked) – Summons a very small spy toad

Ninpō: Shuriken Kage Bunshin no Jutsu (B-ranked) – Multiplies Shuriken/Projectiles

Ninpō: Kawarimi no Jutsu (E-Ranked) – Substitution

Fūton: Hassha-tai Nōshuku (B-Ranked) – Augments projectiles with Wind chakra

Dotōn: Doroku Gaeshi (C-Ranked) – Erects a wall of stone

Suitōn: Teppōdama (C-Ranked) – Spits out a water bullet (ranking depends on size)

Dotōn: Shinjū Zanshu no Jutsu (D-Ranked) – Grabbing/Burying someone from below

Suitōn: Mizu Bunshin (C-Ranked) – Water Clone

Dotōn: Tsuchi Bunshin (B-Ranked) – Earth Clone

Suitōn: Mizuame Nabara (C-Rank) – Field of Liquid Syrup

Fūin: Kai (No Rank) – Unseals something from a storage seal