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True to Myself

Chapter Text

It starts like this: I died. It wasn't an accident, either. In fact, it was rather traumatic. I'd go through more traumatic things in my life—my next life—but at the time I hadn't known that. All I'd known was that I was a normal, in relative terms at least, college student walking home a little drunk from a party. All very stereotypical. Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised with what happened.

Thing was, I was overconfident. I'd never officially trained in self-defense or anything, but I've always been observant. I did notice when I started being followed. The streetlights were dim and the street I was on, which was a bit of a back road way to campus but faster for it, was deserted. So I noticed the sound of someone else coming up behind me. Stupidly, I didn't think anything of it.

So sue me, I was a bit drunk. Hell, I was twenty-one and in my last semester of college. I was allowed to have fun.

I don't know, maybe I'm just making excuses. It had all seemed to simple back then. Finish my degree, get a job, maybe settle down with a family one day. Certainly not the life I live now.

I'm getting ahead of myself.

I was drunk and the heels I was wearing were uncomfortable. I was still half paying attention to the footsteps behind me, but I wasn't worrying about them as I stopped to adjust my pointy shoes. The party I'd come from had been huge, probably the person was a fellow student making their way back to the dorms.

Needless to say, I was caught off guard when the person grabbed me. I spun, panicked and still drunk and I remember thinking I should jerk away, should shout, should do something.

A heavy hand clamped over my mouth. It prevented me from screaming, but it did kick-start my muddled mind. I jabbed up with my knee, hoping for the stereotypical groin shot. Except the person holding me, the man holding me, seemed to have expected it. He grabbed me leg and pulled. I went tumbling to the ground and, with his hand still clamped over my mouth and jaw, had no hope of holding my head up.

My head slammed against the sidewalk with an audible crack and searing pain. My eyes watered. I made a noise, muffled in the hand. The world flashed white and black. Everything muddled. I couldn't think.

The world was hazy for a little while. The man dragged me, or carried me, a little ways. Then we were at the nearby post office, dark and closed at that time of night, and my attacker seemed to know the best place to take me. There was a dark enclave just before where the trucks were parked and he threw me against the wall.

I began to regain my senses then and started trying to fight back. I honestly had no chance. This man, with his short blond hair and grey eyes and stubble, had me pinned before I could do more than slap at the hand still held over my mouth.

He was efficient. Looking back now, I could almost admire that. I could tell from his eyes that he enjoyed how powerless I was. It wasn't about the fight to him. It wasn't about my screams of terror—for he wasn't even letting me do that.

Whenever I had thought about someone attacking me, I had always imagined me fighting them off, digging my heels into their groin or jabbing my fingers into their eyes. I imagined stepping back and scolding them into submission. I imagined the police coming in and telling me I'd done a good job. I imagined my mom crying at what could have happened but being relieved, so relieved, that she'd raised such a strong daughter. I imagined my dad pulling me close, telling me how proud he was of my bravery.

Look, I'm not going to describe it to you. It's hard enough just to say this. I was raped. I was raped by a man years older than me at the side of the post office a couple minutes away from my college campus. I was raped and then, when he'd spent himself and all I could do shiver and cry, he put his huge hands on either side of my face and broke my neck.

I died like that.

I bet you're worried now. My death was traumatic, but I did say I had more traumatic things happen. Maybe I can reassure you from some of those fears. I haven't ever been raped again. This body, the one I'm in now, has never gone through that.

Sometimes I feel like I'm cheating. I never really did the whole thing rape victims usually do, from what I've been told. I never dealt with the police or anyone saying I shouldn't have been wearing a skimpy dress. I never got questioned if I had perhaps led my rapist along. Even more, I never scrubbed myself clean for hours because I felt unclean. I never fell fully into hating myself for what happened. The new body probably helped. Everything else too. I was… distracted from those memories, most of the time.

Anyway, traumatic stuff has happened. I still say the night I died is the worst night I've ever lived. Thing is, that's kind of cheating too, because being raped and killed wasn't the only thing that happened...

When I opened my eyes, I was shocked. I was pretty sure I had just been killed. I remembered feeling my neck pop, though nothing after that.

I sat up and looked around. Everything was red. Why red? I remember asking. There'd been no blood that I can remember. Then I realized it wasn't that I was lying in a puddle of blood or anything. The sky was red.

I lay back down, staring up at the red sky. A couple of theories went through my head. Red was one of the colors of Hell, though I'd never really believed there was a hell. Since no demons popped up to take me to a torture room, I hoped the afterlife was less cliché then that.

Actually, I had always hoped that the afterlife was like in Bleach. Soul Society would be a cool place to live.

Apparently not, I mused as I stared at that cloudy red sky.

No one was around—actually nothing was around. Just a blackened land and a red sky. I had nothing to do but contemplate my death.

At the time, I didn't know how long I sat there thinking about it. Now I know it was probably just under three days. For seventy hours I blamed myself for leaving the party drunk and alone. I blamed my friends for letting me go and for dragging me to the party in the first place. I blamed my family for not forcing me through actually self-defense training. Then I stopped blaming them and started blaming my murderer.

Once I'd run out of blame, until all that was left was exhaustion and wary acceptance, I moved onto grief. Grief that I'd never see my family and friends again, and grief that they would be grieving me. I didn't want my mom to know I'd been raped. Bad enough that I'd been killed. I didn't want my dad to attempt to drown himself in a beer bottle like he'd done when his twin had died. I didn't want my friends to blame themselves, because honestly it really wasn't there fault. It was mine and it was my murderer's. That's what I decided.

About seventy hours, I think now, after I'd woken up under the red sky I decided that I'd spent enough time moping. I've always been pragmatic and efficient. My friends used to say that I went through the world at twice the speed they did. I was good at calculating costs and weighing them and deciding on a course of action. It wasn't always the best course of action, but I used to pride myself on how quickly I'd get things done because I never spent much time deliberating over it.

So I spent seventy hours going through the five stages of grief, or something close to it, and then I got up and started walking. It wasn't that I'd suddenly accepted everything that had happened. Truthfully, I'd gone with the less mentally healthy approach of avoiding thinking about it anymore. I needed a distraction, a goal, something to do. I wanted to see what the afterlife was like.

About an hour later, or thereabouts, I heard crying. I was thankful to find some evidence I wasn't just alone in this empty place, so I picked up the pace.

I began to see buildings. They were distinctly Japanese in style. I slowed down. The sound of crying got stronger.

I was in a housing complex, I realized. I walked down an aisle in the middle of the buildings. There was a huge one just ahead. The crying was coming from inside. I walked up the three wooden steps and opened the screen door.

A kid sat on the ground facing away from me. He had his head buried in his knees. His crying was so loud it reverberated throughout the empty house in bounding echoes.

This was just what I'd been looking for: a chance to put someone else's problems before my own. It didn't hurt that I've always loved kids, even if I've never really known exactly what to do with them.

I approached the boy and knelt down next to him. "Hey," I said. "Want to talk about it?"

The boy looked up, obviously startled. He jumped away from me. I noticed he was shaking, full body shivers not unlike what I'd done earlier that night—and I did consider it the same night because it wasn't like there were actually days in this strange world I was in.

The boy was oddly familiar to me. He had black hair and eyes and pale skin. He wore a black shirt with a high collar and white shorts. A memory tickled in the back of my mind.

Then the boy spoke. His words sounded harsh, though I couldn't understand them. He was speaking Japanese, I realized after a couple sentences.

Now, my knowledge of Japanese in my past life had been limited to very simple sentences picked up from repeated watching of anime. All I knew to say was, "Nani?" which unfortunately only sparked more rapid-fire words from him that went right over my head.

It was then I realized why I had recognized the boy. He looked exactly like what I would imagine Sasuke to—if Sasuke were a real person and not a cartoon.

Shit, I thought then. Cloudy red sky. Person who looked like Sasuke. Japanese.

"It's Tsukuyomi," I said aloud. "You're… are you eight? Holy shit, Sasuke, was your family just killed? Did Itachi just use Tsukuyomi on you?"

Sasuke obviously had no idea what I was saying, but he must have recognized his own name and Itachi's for he went silent.

My heart went out to him. Sasuke had never been my favorite character, but I didn't hate him. And the person he was now, this little boy, was not the person who'd nearly killed Naruto and abandoned Konoha for Orochimaru.

I held out my arms. Sasuke stared at me, but maybe I looked non-threatening or maybe he was just really in need of comfort, because he approached me and slowly hugged me back.

I don't know what would have happened if we hadn't touched. I think about that sometimes.

After all, that night—on March 17th in both worlds—I was both murdered and became a murderer.

The minute Sasuke and I touched, I felt a tugging sensation in my gut. I ignored it at first, intent on giving and receiving the comfort of the hug. But it grew stronger. Very strong. And then painful.

Vaguely, I heard Sasuke whimper. "It's okay," I said, though I wasn't sure it was. "I'll take care of you."

The pain and tugging morphed until it felt like I was on one of those spinning rollercoasters. The red was all around me. I started to feel dizzy and nauseous. I fell forward. The red pressed in all around me. I closed my eyes.

I was probably out for a while.

Sometime later, I opened my eyes and looked up to see that the ceiling was white. I felt relief. No more Tsukuyomi. I hoped Sasuke was okay. I knew he wasn't, not really, but Naruto would be there for him in the end, I was sure. Well, I wasn't actually sure. I'd never actually finished the anime before dying, but I knew Naruto as a character. It'd all work out for Sasuke, he'd make sure.

And apparently, I was onto my next step of the afterlife. I struggled to sit up. My body felt strange. Frowning, I lifted my arms. They were too skinny, and too pale. I had freckles, or at least I should.

The door opened. I looked up. A nurse came in—or at least I thought that's what she was. She was wearing a really strange outfit though: a white dress and hat instead of the usual mint green jumpsuit most nurses wore.

"You're awake!" she said, smiling. "Hold still, let me check you over."

She wasn't speaking English. The words coming out of her mouth were definitely Japanese. And yet… I understood them.

"What?" I asked. But it didn't come out of my mouth in English either.

"Just sit still, Sasuke-san," the nurse said.

"What?" I asked again, scooting away from her.

"Sasuke," she said soothingly, but I was not ready to be soothed.

I looked at my arms again. They were small, like a child's, and pale. Too pale. I reached up and tugged at my hair. I had bangs. I'd never had bangs in my life. I pulled them down so I could see the color. Black.

"No," I said. Vaguely I was aware of the nurse speaking to me but I wasn't paying attention. "No! That's not right."

Another couple people rushed into the room. I stared at them, not actually seeing anything. "Where is he?" I asked, fully panicked now. "Why isn't he here? Why am I here?"

An ANBU appeared next to my bed. "Itachi escaped, Sasuke," he said in a low voice. "I'm sorry."

That wasn't what I was asking. I didn't care about Itachi. I knew what he was doing. I cared about Sasuke. Why were they all calling me him? I wasn't. I was a girl. I was a college student. I was twenty-one years old and I'd just been raped by a man with short blond hair and grey eyes and I wasn't Sasuke.

"No," I kept saying over and over. "This isn't right. This can't be right. Please no."

They knocked me out soon after.

When I woke up again, I spent a while just staring at the ceiling. I didn't have to look down to know I wasn't in my body. I could feel it. My chest was lighter, for one. My legs didn't stretch as far down the bed as they used to.

There was something else too. A kind of energy. If I concentrated, I could feel it running through my body. Chakra, I supposed.

The nurse came in. I guess she wasn't a nurse. Did the Naruto world have nurses? I couldn't remember. Medic, then.

"How are you feeling, Sasuke-san?" she asked softly—probably wary of another freak out.

"Can I have a mirror?" I asked. I had to be sure. I couldn't accept it until I saw.

She seemed startled by the request, but nodded and left. A couple minutes later, she was back with a small mirror. I grabbed it with too-small, too-pale hands. I lifted it up.

Eight-year-old Uchiha Sasuke's face stared back at me. I began to cry, just staring at this body I'd somehow taken over. There was no denying it now. I'd killed Sasuke.

I don't know how. I certainly hadn't meant to.

The nurse took the mirror away from me after a while. I let her. I didn't need it anymore. I knew what I was, what I'd done. I'd killed a little boy with a big future.

I want to say I got up and moved on. I want to say I thought of the positives, all the things I could change. I didn't. I suppose I was in shock. You can't really blame me, can you?

I was in the hospital for a couple weeks. I probably could have left sooner, but I think the medics had me on suicide watch. I didn't actually contemplate it. I was depressed, but I wasn't about to kill the body to go along with the fact that I'd killed the mind and soul of Sasuke.

An ANBU took me back to the Uchiha compound after the hospital finally released me. I hadn't talked since requesting the mirror. The ANBU took me to the main house, which I vaguely remember from my memories of watching Naruto. I stood at the doorway for a moment, staring at the place I knew Sasuke's parents had been killed. I didn't mourn them. I'd never known them.

I did mourn my parents though. Maybe that was enough.

"ANBU-san," I said. My voice sounded strange to my ears. I wasn't used to the fact that I seemed to naturally think and speak in Japanese.

The ANBU knelt down beside me. I looked at their mask. It looked at bit like a dog. I looked at the left eye. It was covered. This was Kakashi, I was almost sure of it. For some reason, that made me nervous.

I didn't have Sasuke's memories. I had no idea where his room was. I didn't know the things he'd known, except apparently how to speak and read Japanese. I was pretty sure Sasuke had been top of his class at the Academy before the massacre. Kakashi would probably notice something was off.

I took a deep breath. No panicking. I had to think rationally. One step at a time. "Do I have to stay here?" I asked.

Kakashi tilted his head just slightly. "The Hokage is willing to get you an apartment, if you wished." His tone made it clear no one would blame me if I didn't want to stay in the compound where all the Uchihas except me and Itachi, and Madara and Obito but I wasn't supposed to know that, had been murdered.

Did I want an apartment? I looked around. Sasuke hadn't. I don't actually know if he'd stayed in the room he'd grown up in, but I was positive he'd stayed in the Uchiha compound. In honor of him, I felt I couldn't leave. I wasn't an Uchiha, but since I'd killed him I had to have some pride in them in his place.

I could do that, I figured. The Uchiha had annoyed me, but they'd once been a really great clan and Itachi was one of the most admirable ninja in the show, if more than a bit messed up mentally.

No, I told myself. Not a show. It was my life now. Itachi was Sasuke's older brother and he'd done a hell of a lot to protect him—however much I disagreed with the way he went about it. And I was Sasuke now. I had to start thinking of myself as Sasuke, even if it made me uncomfortable. I'd killed Sasuke, so I had to revive the Uchiha clan, a better clan, in his place.

"No," I said, more firmly. "But do I have to live here?" I gestured to the main house. Not only had I not wanted to live in the place Sasuke – my parent's had been killed, but I also hadn't known my way around the house. That would've looked really suspicious to Kakashi and any other ANBU that were probably watching us from a distance.

"It is your compound now," Kakashi said, as gently as ANBU could get. "You may do what you wish."

"Is there a small house no one lived in before?" I hadn't known if Sasuke would know that, but I had to take that gamble. Kakashi paused and looked to the left. Another ANBU appeared.

"There are a few, Sasuke-san," the new ANBU, with some kind of bird mask, said. He listed off a couple of locations, using other houses as landmarks. I had no idea where anything was, but I tried to look like I did.

"Can you take me to them?" I said.

The ANBU nodded. I followed behind, noticing as Kakashi disappeared. While we walked, I wondered how the ANBU had known which were empty. I knew there weren't any Uchihas left in Konoha. Oh, except the ANBU had probably had to go through all the houses to clean up the bodies.

Mystery solved, I focused on the compound. It was set up in a couple rows. Some houses were bigger than others, but they all had the same style. The Uchiha clan symbol, the red and white fan, was painted on the side of several of the houses. The first house the ANBU took me to was a couple houses down from the main one where Sasuke–where my family had lived. It was cramped between two larger houses, which I didn't really like, but the inside was clean.

The next one was at the end of one of the rows and next to what looked like a personal training ground. It was a bit bigger than the first, though not by much. The third one was the next row over, again cramped between two other houses. It had a personal backyard, though, complete with a koi pond.

"Those are all, Sasuke-san," the ANBU said. "Every other house was occupied."

I thought about it for a moment, before heading back to the house at the back of the compound. The training area next to it was nothing more than an area of packed dirt with some training dummies and targets, but it was better than nothing. Still, I could use the area regardless of what house I chose. But I liked that house best, because it was farthest from the others.

I walked inside. Like the other two houses we'd looked at, there wasn't any furniture. The front door opened to an empty room. A small kitchen was to the left. A closet was to the right and next to it, a bathroom. Up the stairs, there were two bedrooms and another bathroom. It was a nice place. Certainly nicer than my dorm room had been.

I shook my head and turned to the ANBU. "This one."

The ANBU nodded. "Would you like to buy new furniture, Sasuke-san?"

"We can just take some from the other houses," I said, as practical as I've always been. I walked through the house, pointing at various places. "A kitchen table. Um, maybe a couple other tables in the living room?" I shrugged. "Just basics," I muttered. "I'll get other stuff later."

"Would you like us to furnish your new room with the things from your old one?"

"Yes," I said, starting to feel overwhelmed as I realized the enormity of living in this empty house on my own. It was a good thing I'd learned how to cook, because if I was actually eight years old I'd have no idea. Wait, had Sasuke known that? Would it look weird if I cooked for myself?

I took a calming breath and walked upstairs. One thing at a time. I looked between to the two bedrooms. "Can I make that one into a… library? Study?" I frowned. "With scrolls and books from the other houses?" I had no idea if that was a good thing to do, but the ANBU simply nodded.

I went into the bathroom and sat on the toilet. I was glad this world had real toilets. If I were in a truly feudal Japan setting, I'd probably have had to go to the bathroom outside or something. It had already been weird getting used to the different genitals.

I continued to sit on the toilet, just sitting there, until I felt a little calmer. When I walked back into the hallway, I saw that a couple bookshelves had already been moved into the room I'd pointed as the study. Even as I watched, and ANBU appeared and made a couple hand seals, releasing a desk from a scroll. Efficient moving. I felt bad making ANBU do it for me, but they were faster about it than I would have been by myself, or with a genin team.

I walked into my bedroom. My bed was in the corner, along with a chest. I opened it and saw that it was filled with my clothes. Another smaller chest had some practice shuriken and kunai.

I headed downstairs. The ANBU had put a table in the corner of the living room. A fan, looking just like the Uchiha symbol, was mounted on it. I stepped closer to it. The fan was large and the edge glinted like steel. The red, I realized, was made of some sort of stained metal. The white was cloth, though it seemed reinforced. I could tell this fan held some significance. Perhaps it had been ceremonial.

I left it alone and turned around. There was a very short table in the middle of the living room along with some cushions. Japanese style, right. Luckily, the kitchen table was regular sized, for me anyway, with four chairs set around it. An ANBU, this one with a cat mask, was stocking the kitchen with pots and dishware.

In the other corner of the living room, they'd set up a glass case with a formal tea set. I walked to the closet and opened it, revealing a couple coats. Closing the closet again, I walked back into the center of the living room and waited.

It seemed less than fifteen minutes, before Kakashi knelt in front of me again. "If you need anything else, you are free to call out. An ANBU will be watching over you."

I had hoped not, though it made sense. No one knew if Itachi would come back to finish me off. I knew he wouldn't, of course, but I couldn't exactly say that.

"When do I need to go back to the Academy?" I asked softly. I wasn't ready, I really wasn't ready.

Something of that must have shown on my face, because Kakashi rested a hand on my shoulder. I flinched back before I could help it. The last man who'd touched me had… well… he'd hurt me. All the medics at the hospital had been female, something I appreciated in hindsight even if they probably hadn't done that on purpose.

Kakashi slowly drew his hand back, as if trying not to spook me. "Whenever you're ready. There's no rush."

I almost asked when summer break was, but I managed to stop myself. I had no idea if the Academy here had a summer or winter break. There was no real reason for it. As far as I remember from the anime, the Rookie Nine had been taught by Iruka until they graduated.

Well, if there were, I'd hear about it in advance. I didn't have to worry about that now. I wasn't going back to the Academy until I was sure I knew enough to continue being top of the class. I wouldn't be able to suddenly explain away my lack of knowledge. Maybe I could get away with fighting worse because of the trauma, but there wasn't any long-term amnesia involved with Tsukuyomi that I remembered.

I also didn't think I was ready to face the younger versions of the people I'd thought were just characters before this. Seeing Kakashi, even in ANBU gear, was bad enough.

"Thank you," I said, and then realized it was the first time I'd said that to the ANBU despite how much they'd been helping. Well, Sasuke in canon had always been a rude bastard.

Kakashi nodded and flashed away. I looked at the kitchen, contemplating making myself some food. My stomach rolled at the thought and I turned away.

Up the stairs and to my room, I walked with heavy steps and an even heavier mind. I collapsed on my bed. It was more of a futon, really, with dark blue sheets, but it was comfortable. I was asleep in minutes.

I dreamt of Itachi. He was smiling as he explained to me about how to properly hold a kunai. "I'll be even better than you, aniki!" I exclaimed even as my kunai went way off target.

"I'm sure you will, otōto," he replied.

I woke gasping for breath. "Aniki," I murmured into my pillow. Tears leaked from the corner of my eyes. I'd never had a brother in my other life, but I wasn't that person anymore. I couldn't be that person. That person was weak. She spent her time watching and reading anime and partying. She'd been taken down with little more than a push by a man with short blond hair and grey eyes.

I am Uchiha Sasuke and that day I vowed to be strong. Strong enough to protect myself, so that I would never be hurt like that again. Strong enough to make Itachi, the brother I never had, proud. Strong enough to survive in this world of ninjas—a world I was far from prepared for.

I am Uchiha Sasuke. And this is my story.

Chapter Text

I spent a couple days just familiarizing myself with the Uchiha compound. I didn't go through the houses, except for the main one. There were perhaps two dozen houses throughout the complex. Some, like the main one, had personal backyards. Most shared the green space at the back of the compound. It was all very private. There was a fence around the entire complex with one main gate. Not that the fence would stop ninja, but it was the symbolism of it.

I was alone in a place that had once held maybe a hundred clan members. Even though I'd never known them, it was still lonely.

Inside the main house, I found a couple more books and scrolls to put with the ones the ANBU had collected for me. I hadn't yet started going through those, but I would soon. I looked through the rooms of the house.

In the storage room in back, I found more weapons as well as some clothes with the Uchiha symbol in various sizes. I left them there, though made note for when I outgrew the ones I had in my new house.

There was a vault with the Uchiha fortune, or at least some of it, I wasn't sure. It had a bunch of seals on it. All I knew was that I could get in to collect money whenever I needed to, though I doubted anyone without Uchiha blood would be able to. I took several hundred of the notes to store in my house. They luckily had numbers on them so I could gauge value. I mean, I knew I'd be set with money.

I ended up taking some wall hangings. I wasn't sure exactly what they were, but since they were in the main house they were probably important. One had some really old kanji. So old that I, even with my sudden knowledge of Japanese, had trouble translating it. The other was a painting of two people facing each other with a mountain in the background. If I had to guess, I'd say it was showing the founding of Konoha between the Uchiha and the Senju clans. It was humbling to see. Here was real history.

In some ways, it was proof that this world was real. Thing was, I had only ever been a casual watcher and reader of Naruto. I wasn't even caught up on the manga. Last I read was somewhere during the Kage summit, I think. It'd been a while since I'd even thought of Naruto. I had been busy with my senior thesis and the latest chapters of Bleach and a couple new anime. I kind of wish I'd been a more avid fan now. If I was going to be here, then I needed all the help I could get. Knowing the future, or at least one version of it, would have been helpful.

Was I going to change the future? I guess there wasn't really a question about that. I wasn't Sasuke, or not the one I'd watched in the anime. I wouldn't be able to do what he did. Not even in terms of ability, because I was hoping to be able to learn that stuff, but in terms of personality. I wasn't exactly a social butterfly, but I wasn't a loner. I didn't think I'd be able to survive the upcoming years without friends.

I got back to my house and carefully put up the wall hangings, trying to give them the respect I knew they deserved. I hoped they had a stasis seal, if such a thing existed, on them. They had to, I supposed, to last as long as they must have.

I headed to the study next. The scrolls and books went on the still half-empty bookshelves lining the walls. I ignored them for a moment and grabbed an empty journal and a pen.

I'd already been Uchiha Sasuke for a month. The longer I spent here, the more I knew I'd lose the memories I had of Naruto the anime. I had to write down what I remembered.

I put my pen to the paper and then paused. I couldn't write it in Japanese. I couldn't risk someone picking the journal up and reading it. English then. I wondered if I consciously could write in English anymore. I tried out a sentence.

Property of Uchiha Sasuke, I wrote on the first page. The English letters felt strange to write, but I could do it.

I stared at my name for a moment. So far I'd only seen kanji, but if there was rōmaji here too then any names I put would be recognizable.

Actually… I sat back, thinking. Ninja were masters of code. Would it be enough for me to just write in English? It was a language and therefore followed standard grammar rules. It was possible a ninja could decipher it given enough time. I really couldn't risk that.

With a code then, I decided. Something that would make sense only to me. Maybe not a full out code, but just in sort of vague terms.

Protagonist starts at twelve, I wrote in English. He fails his final. Duck-butt is the top of the class. Pinky did well in test scores but failed gym. Protagonist is told by the Math teacher he could get enough extra credit to pass. I sniggered to myself, imagining Mizuki as an evil math teacher. Moving on, I described how Naruto stole the Principal's laptop and then was told that he has a guardian angel with nine red wings.

He then proceeds to log onto the computer and read about multiplying files which he uses to defeat the Math teacher, though not before the English teacher was stabbed in the back. The English teacher then passes him.

I went on to describe how Protagonist was put on a team with Duck-butt and Pinky. Then how they were given Scarecrow as a teacher. I described the bell test and the D-ranks I could remember—which was really only about the evil cat. Then at some point they were given the mission to the beach. The fisherman they go with is pretty shady. He forgets to mention that the mafia is after him. The team runs into two brothers first who are hiding out in a puddle. I tried to remember the details. I was pretty sure Kakashi had faked his death and Naruto was poisoned or something. I definitely knew that Naruto cut his hand and made some promise.

Moving on, I described what I could remember of the Wave mission and the fights against the dragon man and the pretty boy.

I couldn't actually remember there being any missions after the Wave arc before the Chūnin Exam. I put a question mark for amount of time missing and then described the exam. I finished with how the pedophile manages to convince Duck-butt to go with him.

Wait. There was something before other Sasuke left. I think Naruto went with Jiraiya to get Tsunade first. Then Naruto, Shikamaru, Chōji, Kiba, and Neji went against the Sound Four. Plus the bone dude, Kimimaro. He was super strong, I remembered. Lee showed up at some point to fight him. And Gaara. Had Temari and Kankurō come? I couldn't remember.

"My memory sucks," I muttered. Details were important and I just didn't have them. I hadn't watched that part of anime in so long.

Shaking my head, I moved on. I talked about the time skip and how Naruto traveled with Jiraiya. Then I put what I could remember about Sakura and Sasori's fight, which wasn't as much as I would like. Fuck, I couldn't even remember if there was stuff before that. I remembered that Naruto had run in with Sasuke at some point, but was that before or after Sasori? And had the rest of Team 7 been there? Actually, what about Sai? When had he and Tenzō been introduced?

Growling a bit, I wrote what I could remember of them. Then I wrote about the Akatsuki, calling them the Church group obsessed with guardian angels because I could.

I really didn't know much, I was starting to realize. I didn't know the names of half the jinchūriki or how they'd been captured. I was pretty sure someone had told me about how Tobi was Obito pretending to be Madara and that he'd gone crazy and wanted to destroy the world using the jūbi. And there'd been the Fourth Shinobi War and the Kage Summit. Which the other Sasuke had attacked, because he'd also gone crazy.

The Uchiha Curse of Hatred or something. I remembered that. It was important. Very important. I am an Uchiha. Even if I didn't have revenge desires against Itachi, that didn't mean I wasn't susceptible to anger. Considering the nightmares I'd been waking up from…

I took a deep breath.

I was pretty sure there had been something about using someone else's Sharingan and achieving the Eternal Mangekyō Sharingan. I couldn't do anything about that yet. For one, I'd have to find my brother or Obito or Madara… or steal the eyes back from Danzō. For another, I probably would need to unlock the Sharingan first anyway. Hopefully the effects wouldn't be too strong until I could figure that all out.

I wasn't pleased by how much I actually didn't know about the future. Of course, things would be changed. There was no way in hell I was following Orochimaru. The man creeped me out, and though I didn't yet have any loyalty to Konoha… it was the protagonist's village. I was pretty fond of it from the story simply because Naruto was. I was sure I'd learn to love it in the next few years too.

I set the journal aside. If I remembered anything else, I'd put it in there. Until then, I had to start living my new life.

I looked at the scrolls and books. There was one entitled The Basics of Chakra. It was as good a place to start as any. Hopefully the ANBU watching me wouldn't find it to odd for me to about read something I was probably already supposed to know.

I read for the next few days. The fridge had been stocked by ANBU. I knew that I'd have to go out into Konoha proper once I ran out of food, but until then I read and cooked some simple meals and read some more.

A fair amount of chakra theory was stuff I already knew from the show or could guess. Some of it, though, was new to me. I had never really contemplated the mythical aspect of how chakra could go from blue energy inside a ninja's body to making fire or wind or whatever out of nowhere. It was all pretty interesting stuff. The Harry Potter nerd in me kept giggling about magic, but really there were technical explanations for almost everything. Even the way ninja could move so much faster and jump farther and be stronger—they had chakra in their system that was constantly supplementing the energy needed in muscles.

I'm sure if I'd been a Biology major I could have figured something out about proteins and DNA, but I had been majoring in International Relations, with far off dreams of being an ambassador. I like different cultures and figuring out how they can work together, which was probably the most exciting thing about waking up in this universe.

Actually, I probably had more of a chance of being a political ambassador in Konoha than I ever had in the States. Something to think about, I supposed. I had to become a badass ninja first.

After memorizing the stuff about chakra, I moved onto Konoha history. There were a lot of mentions of my clan. I couldn't help but trace the names of the people who were now my ancestors even as the Naruto fan in me remembered how much I'd always sided with the Senjus in canon.

A couple days of cramming my head with theory, I gathered my courage and headed outside with some kunai and shuriken. My first couple attempts at throwing were abysmal, though I'd made sure to read up on the proper stance and grip.

Growling, I tried again. And again. And again.

I was shocked, later, to realize the sun had set. I really only noticed because it had become hard to see the target. I wasn't sure if it was the boundless energy of being eight again or the chakra in my system that had allowed me to work for hours without needing a break.

I headed inside and made myself dinner. Soon after eating, I felt exhaustion come on belatedly. I fell asleep before my head even hit the pillow.

I woke up to aches. For one terrifying moment, I was back against that post office. I reached down with a shaking hand between my legs.

Instead of what I'd been expecting, dreading, I felt my penis. I touched it for a moment, startled. It was a reminder that I wasn't in that body anymore. This body had never been raped. It didn't even have a vagina for some blond-haired, grey-eyed man to enter into.

I brought my hand back up and rubbed my head. Just because I was a guy now didn't mean I couldn't get raped. Hell, I wasn't even sure Sasuke hadn't in canon. I mean, I jokingly called Orochimaru the pedophile, but I wouldn't have been surprised if he actually was.

"No," I said aloud. I wasn't going to let that creepy bastard, or anyone else, touch me like that without my permission.

I needed to get stronger.

I pulled myself out of my bed. My arms shook weakly. I remembered the amount of throwing I'd done the day before.

Pathetic, I thought. I couldn't even go a couple hours without repercussions. How the hell was I supposed to last in this world? Ninja threw kunai so effortlessly.

I needed to set up a training regimen. Sit ups, push ups, running. I had to get into a pattern and not break it, no matter how tired I got.

Patterns were good. Patterns would help me move on. If I had something I had to do every morning when I woke up, then I'd have a reason to get up.

I put my head to my knees for a moment. I was twenty-one going on nine and despite all my supposed maturity, despite all my knowledge with volunteering at the suicide hotline that one summer, and despite all the talks I had gone through with my best friend in high school after her bastard of a boyfriend had taken advantage of her—despite all of that, the only thing I could think in that moment was how much it all hurt. It felt like I would never be free of the crushing pain in my chest.

All I wanted was for my mom and dad to hug me and hold me tight.

I would never see them again. That was the moment it really hit. I'd lost my entire family. I'd lost my life. Not just physically, but in the sense that I'd lost my world. No more video games with my friends. No more dancing with strangers at dirty college parties. No more hopes of working with the UN. No more Mom and Dad there to welcome me home at the airport with wide smiles and open arms.

That day, I went into mourning. I took an empty journal, a different one, and I wrote messages to my friends and family and my country and my world. I wrote my last words to them, my last bits of advice and all the questions I never got the chance to ask them. I wrote about my favorite landmarks and my precious memories and the places I never got to see.

I wrote until my fingers were too cramped to write anymore. And then I ripped out an empty page and wrote my old name on it. I ripped out another and wrote the names of my parents. On another I wrote the names of my closest friends. On another were the names of my favorite teachers and the other good adult figures in my life. On another I wrote short blond hair and grey eyes.

I stared at those sheets for a moment, then I lit a candle and burned them one by one. I left my rapist's, my murderer's, for last.

I burned him away. He'd rise from the ashes throughout the years to haunt me, but in that moment I burned away the constant rehearsal of that night.

I moved on.

Within the week, I'd set up a program for myself. Every morning, I did as many push ups as I could, and then sit ups. Then I had breakfast, before running around the entire compound. Then I read up to and through lunch. After lunch, I practiced throwing kunai and shuriken until dinnertime.

When I started running out of food, I headed out of the compound and into the village. People stared as I walked. I tried to look like I wasn't heading anywhere specific, because I didn't know my way around and I really needed to memorize what paths I could.

The Hokage Mountain was a good landmark. I stared up at Minato's face for a bit, thinking of Naruto and what he could become. I never even got the chance to see if he ever became the Hokage in the anime.

Now, I told myself, I'd just be able to see it in real life.

I found the main shopping section and bought myself some groceries. People kept staring at me. Whenever I made eye contact, they gave me pitying stares and sympathetic smiles. I stopped making eye contact.

Back at the compound, I threw myself back into training. I pushed myself to the limit, because when I fell asleep exhausted then I had less nightmares.

I realized after another week that I was putting off the inevitable. I had to go back to the Academy. There was just one thing I wanted to do first. I knew Sasuke had learned the Fireball Jutsu from his father.

I searched through the clan scrolls until I found it. The hand seals were simple enough. I practiced them a couple of times, and then attempted to push chakra through my body.

A surge of energy pressed through me. It was like nothing I'd ever felt before. Think of it this way: it's as if you're swimming. You can feel the water around you, lapping gently at your skin. I'd gotten used to that in the first few days. But now, trying to use it, it was as if I'd suddenly been dunked underwater and it was rushing in through my mouth into my body.

I'm not ashamed to say I panicked a little. The chakra drained away, the technique failing halfway through as I stumbled backward.

I stood there for a moment. I tried to calm my suddenly racing heart as I looked up at the sky. It was a clear day. Konoha had nice weather. Fairly similar to the middle of the East Coast, I thought. Not much snow in the winter and not too hot in the summer, at least I was hoping.

After my heartbeat had slowed mostly back to normal, I rallied myself and tried again. "Katon: Gōkakyū no Jutsu," I chanted as I channeled the chakra. It rushed up through my body and then began to burn. It wasn't a painful burn. Actually, going back to the water analogy, it felt a bit like I was suddenly in a bath or hot tub.

Fire spurted out of my mouth. I managed not to jump back again. It wasn't a huge fireball, but it was decent-sized. I guess the body I was in remembered how to do it right, or something, because I was pretty sure I would have failed without some muscle, or was it chakra pathway, memory.

I stopped after that to regain my nerves and went back to throwing kunai and shuriken. I'd gotten better at it. All of my shots hit the target now, though only the rare few actually hit the center.

The next day, I did the jutsu again. I practiced until I could manage a decent-sized fireball. It wasn't as big as I remembered Sasuke's being during the bell test, but I had a couple years.

I started to feel exhausted. Not in my muscles, but the kind of tired you got when you hadn't slept enough. Was this chakra exhaustion? I wondered.

I stumbled back into my house and into bed.

When I woke up, it was already the middle of the day. I winced and made a mental note to work on my chakra control. I dressed and made myself brunch. After eating and washing my dishes, I stood in the middle of my living room.

"ANBU-san?" I called.

There was a flicker at the edge of my vision and an ANBU knelt before me. It was the same one with the bird mask, or at least I thought so. I couldn't be sure it was the same person under the mask, of course. But that was beside the point.

"I think I'm ready to go back to the Academy tomorrow," I said.

The ANBU looked at me for a moment, then nodded. "I will inform Iruka."

"Thank you," I said. Well, that had answered one question. The Academy shouldn't be hard to find. If I remembered correctly, it was an offshoot of the Hokage Tower. Though I had no idea when class was supposed to start. I'd just have to get there early and pretend like I meant to do training outside the school until everyone else started arriving.

I made sure to train hard that day, knowing it would be better if I exhausted myself enough to get a good night's rest. Unfortunately, sleep didn't come easy. I was too nervous about meeting everyone. Was I supposed to know everyone's names? Had Sasuke had any friends? I knew in canon Sasuke had become a loner… but had he brushed anyone off doing so?

I buried my head in my pillow and forced myself to stop agonizing over it and sleep.

The next morning, I could only stomach a light breakfast. I made myself a bigger lunch to take, because I was hoping to be hungry enough by that time. Hopefully taking lunch to school was a thing. I vaguely remembered it being one… though that might have just been in the fanfiction I'd read.

The Hokage Tower, and therefore the Academy was as easy to find as I'd thought it would be. Once again, all the civilians stared at me as I walked. I ignored them as best I could.

"Going back to the Academy, Sasuke-chan?" an older lady asked.

I looked at her for a moment. I knew my expression was probably cold, but I couldn't help it. I hated that patronizing tone. I wasn't going to break if you talked to me like an adult. Even at physically eight, well Sasuke was raised a ninja. He wasn't weak. I wasn't weak. I wasn't allowed to be.

"Yes," I said shortly and kept walking.

"You're nearly an hour early, Sasuke," another lady said.

"I know," I said, though I hadn't. I looked at the sun to make a quick judge of time so I'd know in the future.

A couple other people attempted to give me well wishes. I ignored them as much as I could. Finally, I reached the building I vaguely recognized from the anime. There was someone else outside, practicing kicks against a tree. I approached slowly. The boy had short black hair and wore loose clothes.

"Fifty!" he proclaimed proudly. He jumped up, spinning in a circle—only to stop halfway around as he spotted me.

I saw those bushy eyebrows and knew this could only be one person. Considering I remembered Sasuke in canon having not known Lee until the Chūnin Exam, I reminded myself to keep a neutral expression.

"Ah!" Lee exclaimed. "I thought only I came hours early to practice before class! Surely your arrival means I have found myself a rival?"

I blinked. Obviously Lee had emulated Gai, at least to some extent, before actually having the man as a sensei. He wasn't quite as extravagant about it as he would be in the future. If anything, he looked almost hopeful.

I studied those too big clothes and the bandages around Lee's arms. He was far skinnier than I remembered from when he was, or would be, a genin. I didn't remember seeing anything about Lee's family in the anime. I frowned.

Lee had looked away with my silence. I felt like I'd kicked a puppy.

I considered things for a moment. On one hand, it would be so strange for Uchiha Sasuke to become friends with Rock Lee. On the other hand, I knew that I needed to practice my taijutsu to remain at the top of the class and that would be easier with a partner whom I knew was, or soon would be, also good at it.

And it wasn't like we'd actually have to become friends. Just useful acquaintances.

"Fine," I said finally. "But you have to spar with me."

Lee gaped. It would have been unattractive, if he hadn't been such a cute kid. I pushed those feelings aside as Lee recovered and threw a fist in the air in victory. "Yosh! I have succeeded in gaining a rival like my inspiration!"

That explained things, I thought. Who knew where Lee had learned enough about Gai to know the man considered Kakashi his eternal rival. Actually, knowing Gai he'd probably shouted it from a roof at some point and Lee had overheard.

We started to spar soon after. I frankly had no idea what I was doing, so I copied Lee's stance while making it look like I was just taking my time to get into position. Then again, Uchihas were known to be copiers of everything, so I guess that wouldn't be too weird for someone to observe me dong.

Lee was fast. Even as a nine-year-old he jabbed at me. I would have frozen, except my body apparently did have some muscle memory. I blocked without even thinking and then ducked away. It felt freaking weird, like I had lost control of my limbs for a moment.

"As expected, a simple punch wouldn't take my rival down!" Lee proclaimed. "If I lose, I shall practice one hundred kicks and punches before class!"

"Don't be stupid," I said, because that would probably make him late.

I'd probably get nowhere on defense, so I clumsily punched forward. Lee blocked, but I expected that. I attempted a kick with my left leg. It scraped Lee's thigh. He bounced away and then fell into stance again.

"What is going on here?"

Lee and I both stepped backwards and turned toward the angry voice.

There was Iruka, scar over the nose and brown ponytail and angry glare. I stared for a moment. Iruka had always been one of my favorite characters and here he was in the flesh.

"Explain yourselves," Iruka said, almost visibly fuming.

"We were just sparring, sensei," Lee said, looking at the ground.

I frowned, looking at the fellow boy. Gone was the boisterous kid, in his place a shy nine-year-old looking as if he was about to get slapped at any moment.

"We were both here early and decided to practice our taijutsu. Is that against the rules, Iruka-sensei?" I asked, taking Iruka's attention off Lee.

Iruka opened his mouth, closed it, and then opened it again. "No, it isn't." He shook his head. "You were just sparring?"

Lee and I both nodded.

"Oh." Iruka scratched his nose. "I apologize. I… misunderstood. Remember in the future that it's also better to spar when a teacher is nearby to help in case of an accident. And you shouldn't spar with weapons without supervision."

"Yes, sensei!" Lee exclaimed. I just nodded.

"Very well then, I'm sorry… um…."

"Rock Lee, sensei!"

"Right. I'm sorry Lee-kun, I'm going to have to take Sasuke away for today. Maybe you can finish your spar later?"

I nodded and gave Lee a single wave of my hand in goodbye. I made a note to show up a little early the next day as well.

Iruka walked me to what I assumed was the usual classroom and then knelt down in front of me. People had been doing that a lot, but I honestly didn't mind. I didn't actually like being so short after having been fully-grown. Being able to actually see people's faces was nice.

That was a thought. My female adult body had only been five foot four. This body would probably get taller than that and wouldn't that be cool?

"Sasuke," Iruka began. "I want you to know that you're allowed to leave at any time. If anything starts to be too much, you are free to go home for the day."

I looked away and nodded. I wasn't going to let myself leave in the middle of the day, of course. I needed to keep my place at top of the class. "Is there make up work I need to do from my absence?" I asked in monotone.

"No, of course not. I can get you a packet of things we went over, of course, but you can look them over in your own time."

"Okay, sensei."

"And please come to me if you need help or just want to talk."

I nodded again. The whole thing was starting to make me uncomfortable. I wasn't traumatized by the massacre. I hadn't even actually been there. Their concern, though touching, wasn't for me.

Another student walked in and Iruka stood up. I walked away with another word, sitting in the back. I couldn't stand the thought of all the people at my back, though I knew they were just kids and wouldn't think to hurt me. Beside, from this vantage point I'd be able to observe the Rookie Nine. Or the other eight of them, anyway.

Students continued to file in. I didn't recognize most of them. I supposed they were all future dropouts and Genin Exam failures. They didn't matter.

The first important person to walk in was Hinata. I suppose the Hyūgas probably had rules about punctuality. Hiashi always seemed to me like a worse father even than Sasuke's. My other dad had been… not perfect but still amazing. Regardless, I didn't blame Itachi for killing our father, nor did I blame Neji for hating his uncle.

Hinata sat in the front. She sat up straight, as if she'd been trained to, but her head remained bowed as loud kids filed around her.

I scowled. I had no idea how to break Hinata out of her shell. She probably wouldn't accept anything from me. Well, I knew Naruto would get to her eventually.

Shikamaru came in along with Chōji. Chōji was munching on a bag of chips, content to follow next to his best friend. I didn't exactly dismiss Chōji, since I liked the guy well enough, but Shikamaru definitely held my attention. The Nara had always been one of my absolute favorites, even if his laziness and supposed misogamy had annoyed me at times. I couldn't help it, I found intelligence extremely attractive. Or I had.

Huh. I wondered if I was straight. I had woken up in a guy's body. Did that mean I was gay? Or would Sasuke's biological impulses change that? Hell, was there any canon evidence of Sasuke liking someone romantically?

I pushed the topic aside. It would come up with puberty—no way was I looking forward to that—and it wouldn't do to fret about it until then.

Shikamaru must have seen me watching him, for he glanced up. I met his gaze briefly. Shikamaru's eyes were the most important part of his body. His whole posture screamed at you to underestimate him, but in his eyes I saw that sharp cunning that would eventually defeat Hidan.

Oh, hey, I had never written that in my journal. I tried to remember when exactly Shikamaru did that. It was after Asuma had died. Well, I'd change that if I could. Kurenai didn't deserve to be left alone with a kid.

Shikamaru looked away a second later, slouching down into a seat next to the window. Chōji sat next to him, still eating his chips. I turned away from them. At some point during my distraction, Kiba had come in, talking loudly with someone I didn't recognize. Ino and Sakura came in together.

When had they stopped being friends? I wondered. Shit, if they did it would be over me. I did not want that on my conscious, especially since I didn't even know if I did or would like girls. Not that I honestly would date either one of them. If I had to date one of the females of the Rookie Twelve, it'd be Tenten. She, at least, tried to make something of herself before circumstances would have pushed her to anyway.

Shino walked up the aisle and took a seat a couple down from me. I glanced at him for a moment, trying to repress a shudder. The thought of letting bugs live inside my body just creeped me out.

Iruka tapped his desk to call attention. I looked around again. Team Eight: Shino, Hinata, and Kiba were accounted for. Team Ten: Ino, Shikamaru, and Chōji were there. Sakura was there. Where was Naruto?

Class began. Iruka began to review the week before. Apparently they'd been going over the chakra system in my detail. I let my attention split as I pondered the missing Naruto. Perhaps he was late? Planning a prank?

Or… hadn't he tried to graduate several years early? Maybe he was in a different class, at least until he failed and was forced into our class. That made some sense.

Probably, it was better if he wasn't in my class. I wouldn't have been able to resist the urge to befriend him, even just a little. I was lonely as it was and I knew Naruto had to be too. But I probably shouldn't. If I befriended Naruto, I would help him practice. If I did that, Naruto would potentially not be dead last of the class and therefore not fail the exam and therefore wouldn't be forced by Mizuki's betrayal to learn his precious Shadow Clone Jutsu.

Not only that, but if Naruto didn't graduate last, would I be given any guarantee of him being on my team? I didn't want to split up Team Seven. They were awesome, if a bit hazardous.

Decided, I tuned back into Iruka's lecture. If I wasn't going to change much until graduation, then I had to keep up the loner act for a little while. Not too much. Sparring with Lee would be fine, I hoped. If I found out my actions prevented him from being on Gai's team, I would be more than a little upset. I resolved not to spar with him everyday.

Anyway, I probably didn't have time to spend making friends yet. I would need to study as much as possible to keep myself top of the class.

There was war coming—multiple wars. I was the only one who knew that, expect maybe the ones planning them. Even if I couldn't urge my fellow rookies to practice hard with me yet, that didn't mean I could allow myself to fall behind. Any more than I was, anyway. I hadn't grown up a ninja; I only had some muscle memory instincts and a compound full of scrolls.

It would have to be enough. I didn't want to contemplate a different option.

Chapter Text

I settled into a pattern. Every other school morning, I got to the Academy early enough to spar with Lee. His enthusiasm only grew as we aged, but I learned to just ignore it. I knew the sparring was helping my taijutsu and that was what mattered.

During class, I paid attention to Iruka, even when I thought I knew the subject. In my notebook, I wrote down small details in code that came to me with random prompting. For instance, the day Iruka mentioned the other four great Shinobi Villages, I remembered more about the Mist's Genin Exam. It probably wasn't that important, but I wrote down what I could about how Zabuza had slaughtered hundreds of other kids.

Outside of class, I threw kunai and shuriken and practiced more ninjutsu. By the time we got to henging in class, I'd already learned to do it on my own, which only seemed to cement the mask I was trying to play as a prodigy.

It was definitely cheating. I was a twenty-one year old in a kid's body. My maturity and mental processes were far ahead of my classmates. I was pretty sure Iruka was only a couple years older than me, which was all sorts of strange.

The months passed like that. I turned nine at the end of July. I honestly only knew because Sakura and Ino came up together in class with two homemade bentō boxes during the lunch break.

"Ah," I said, surprised as they both elbowed each other to give me the lunches. "Thank you."

They both giggled, and then glared at each other. "Eat mine first, Sasuke-kun!" Ino said.

"You don't want Ino-pig's! Mine is better," Sakura declared.

Oh dear. This was the start, wasn't it? What to do….

"I already packed my own lunch," I said. I looked around. Several of the other children were watching us as they ate their lunches. A couple were trying to beg food off their friends. Perfect. "Good ninja work together with their comrades. A team is only as strong as their weakest member."

Sakura and Ino looked at each other, confused.

"If anyone forgot a lunch, Ino and Sakura made extra today," I announced. "That way we'll all be able to concentrate on Iruka-sensei's lesson."

There was silence, and then a mad scramble toward the bentō boxes. I ignored Ino and Sakura's horrified faces and I carefully ate my own lunch.

A chair pulled out beside me and Shikamaru sat down. I glanced at him. "Troublesome," he said, gesturing to the pile around the bentōs. I noticed that Chōji was among them. That explained things.

I just shrugged, pulling out some egg with my chopsticks. And wasn't it a good thing that I had been a fan of eating with chopsticks in my old life because it would have been that or eating with my hands, which was probably way too undignified for the Uchiha heir.

"They weren't poisoned," Shikamaru said quietly. I looked at him again, confused.

"Of course not," I said.

Shikamaru looked at me with those sharp eyes. I sat back, wondering what was wrong.

Oh, I thought. Shikamaru thought I'd been nervous about eating a meal prepared for me from someone else. That would have been a very ninja thing to think. Mostly I just hadn't wanted to deal with the girls asking which one's was better. But I didn't feel like explaining that to Shikamaru. He probably could guess both responses.

"You're different," Shikamaru said again as the crowd around the bentō boxes disappeared, the two boxes totally empty.

"Is that so surprising?" I asked, ignoring my sudden nervousness. "What do you want, Nara?" There was a bite to my tone I hadn't meant.

Shikamaru shook his head and returned to his other seat. I watched him go out of the corner of my eye. Eight or nine, but Shikamaru was still damn brilliant.

Iruka started class soon after. I ignored the hurt looks Ino and Sakura sent my way. If I was lucky, they'd decide crushing on me wasn't worth it. I had a feeling it would take more than that. Maybe if they paid attention to my words, my veiled comment about comrades, they'd figure out I would like them better if they didn't break their friendship over me.

It was not to be. By the end of the year, Ino and Sakura stopped sitting next to each other. I found myself glaring at both of them when they did, but they seemed to be in denial about the difference between an interested look and a glare.

Other than the annoyance that was fangirls—of which Sakura and Ino were only two of the ones I started noticing follow me around—everything went pretty well, in some relative manner. I fell into the numbingly usual pattern of school, except this time my homework was self-assigned work with weapons and 'magic'. The actual homework Iruka sometimes assigned was all middle school math, with a focus on geometry over algebra, and sometimes quick reading assignments. It was easy, in comparison to the legal jargon I used to have to read and the ten page research papers I had to write for my college major.

If it weren't for the nightmares and the sometimes crippling loneliness, I'd say I was happy in this new world. As it was, I couldn't say that. I wasn't depressed, I didn't think. Mostly, I was just tired. The coolness factor of learning to be a ninja died after the first few months. Everything else was just the same thing again and again.

But I had a goal and graduation wasn't far off. I needed to be strong enough to fight off Orochimaru when he came for me during the Chūnin Exam. Hell, I'd have to survive Zabuza and Haku first. The only reason canon Sasuke didn't die to Haku was because Haku hadn't actually wanted to kill him. Those senbon would hurt though. I wasn't looking forward to that fight.

The year passed. I turned ten. Ino and Sakura didn't try to give me bentō boxes again, though they both hovered around me all day. I continued to be the top of the class, at least in exam scores. I knew that if Shikamaru actually tried, he'd kick me from that spot. As it was, Shino and Hinata were both not far behind me. I continued to study late into the night.

We started throwing kunai in class. I was pleased to see that my accuracy was far better than most of the other kids. I still wasn't able to hit exactly where I aimed most of the time, but I got better every day.

In terms of natural talent, Sakura was surprisingly good, but I knew she probably didn't practice outside of the times we threw in class so she didn't actually get much better. The other clan kids were the top of the class, like me. They'd probably all been throwing kunai since they were much younger.

Once we started spars, I learned just how much my weekly bouts with Lee had paid off. I was far ahead of everyone. Most of them left huge openings in their defense—openings Lee had learned to cover in the year he was older than them.

Shino was good at defense, but he was barely decent at offense. Kiba fought like the dogs his family worked with, all aggression and no skill. Shikamaru didn't try at all. Chōji was too slow. Ino's punches didn't even sting. Sakura had a stronger hit, but she was too hesitant to be aggressive. Hinata flinched if I so much as moved toward her in a spar.

But… but I knew what to look for. I saw that spark in Sakura's eyes when she got determined, got angry, got powerful. I saw the way Chōji very deliberately ignored the subtle jabs at his weight, because he knew what his clan could do. I saw the anger Hinata had at her own weakness. I saw Kiba's growing bond with Akamaru. I saw Shikamaru's intelligence and Shino's observance and Ino's knowledge.

I couldn't wait to see the shinobi and kunoichi they'd become.

And then we were eleven and twelve and Naruto joined our class.

After the first month of Naruto, I found I couldn't blame the rookies for dismissing the orange-wearing boy. Naruto was not only loud and disruptive, he also earned his distinction of dead last. His taijutsu sucked, though I couldn't help but think it was possibly because none of his earlier teachers had deemed to teach him correctly. Even worse than that, though, was his knowledge base. He just didn't pay attention in class.

I wanted to go up and shake him. I wished I could tell him that if he really wanted to be Hokage, and a good one, then he needed to know things. There was a reason the village had called the Third back after Minato's death and it had to do with his nickname of the Professor. Even if he was too old to be at the same fighting capacity he used to be, there was comfort in how knowledgeable the Third was.

But I also knew that Naruto learned best by doing. The amount of growth he'd gone through during the time skip just proved that. If it took a couple years traveling along with Jiraiya before he actually became Hokage worthy… well I wouldn't be surprised if that happened again regardless of what changes I made.

Still, despite the fact that I wanted to be Naruto's friend… it wasn't hard to push my nose up at his behavior in class.

I just had to remind myself every time I saw him staring longingly as parents came to pick up their kids at the Academy that I couldn't approach him yet. I couldn't be there for him yet.

If the Uchiha compound felt even lonelier than before, well I just reminded myself that graduation wasn't far off. I'd already waited three years.

I barely recognized myself anymore. The person I was would have never been able to shoot fire out of her mouth. She would have been exhausted ten minutes into sparring with Lee, while I went for an hour every other morning. That person had friends to hang with and family to call when she was lonely. Me… well I just learned to train harder instead.

I couldn't say it was a healthy, but it got me through the years. I guess that's what mattered.

Then graduation was upon us.

"Okay, Sasuke," Iruka said when it was my turn to show off my ninjutsu. "Start with a Replacement Jutsu."

I always found the Replacement Jutsu strange, but in a cool way. It felt a bit like what I always imagined portkeys from Harry Potter were like. There was a tugging at the naval which basically pushed me backwards to wherever I'd imagined, replacing me with a log that came from the other space a lot of ninjutsu like this utilize.

After that jutsu, I showed off my perfect henge of Iruka, then one of the Hokage, then one of Naruto. The Naruto one was my favorite to practice with at home because for shinobi that actually sensed chakra—Naruto was very recognizable. Even when he wasn't using the Kyūbi's chakra, he practically radiated energy. It was really no wonder he had a hard time with chakra control. If someone like Sakura only had a glass full of chakra water to control, I had maybe a pot full, but Naruto had basically an entire pond of his own. It was absolutely ridiculous, and somewhat humbling.

Of course, I only knew that about Naruto because I'd spent more than one day of class testing out chakra sensing by studying him. I couldn't help it. He was the main character, the leader, the game changer—even if no one knew it yet. I wanted to know all the things the show had skipped over. I wanted to be closer to him.

I did a couple clones to finish off my graduation test.

"Congratulations, Sasuke," Iruka said. He handed me a forehead protector. "You passed."

I nodded my head in thanks and left the room before they could see what was wrong with my facial expression. As I walked home, I looked at my new Leaf headband.

"I did it," I whispered. Me, once a civilian girl, had become a ninja.

I took the evening off from training to celebrate. I cooked my favorite foods—which had changed. I hadn't expected to like tomatoes, because I'd hated them in my old life. But in canon they'd been Sasuke's favorite so I'd experimented one day and tried them. I'd been surprised to find myself loving them, but upon later consideration it wasn't too shocking. My physical taste buds had changed with the new body, after all.

Anyway, that night I made myself chili, a recipe that I'd never seen in Konoha but that I knew from home: beans, tomatoes, some ground beef, and a bit of hot sauce. As I ate, I listened carefully.

When the alarm went off, with the code I knew was to call all jōnin to action, I relaxed. After all, that meant that Naruto had failed and Mizuki had convinced him to steal the scroll.

As soon as Team Seven was officially announced, I'd be able to start really changing things. That, after all, was what I'd been preparing for since I first accepted the fact that I'd taken over Sasuke's life. Failure was not an option.

The next morning, I changed into the outfit I'd chosen. The other Sasuke had changed clothes to his blue, high-collared shirt when he'd become a genin. Thing was, I actually hated high-collared clothes. I hated the feel of something around my neck. It was a bit strange and definitely all in my head since it had held over despite the new body, but I wasn't in the mood to deal with the uncomfortableness just to keep the exact same outfit as canon. I mean, it wasn't like I was planning on wearing his weird open-chested white shirt in a couple years. I'd been a girl once, the thought of showing off my chest like that just bothered me.

Anyway, I'd gone through the house that had basically doubled as the clan clothes store—and wasn't that just pretentious?—and found a set of black shirts that I rather liked. They had loose sleeves that cut off just above the elbow. The shirt was fairly loose as well, though not baggy. The collar was a very shallow V. The Uchiha fan was prominent on the back. I chose red pants, because white just seemed like a bad idea. Either would have matched the fan, but at least bloodstains wouldn't show as clearly on red.

I did, however, wrap my ankles and wrists in white bandages. I'd learned the wrapping was good for stabilizing the joints and prevents me, or anyone, from overextending them during battle.

I made sure to get black cloth for my forehead protector, which blended with my hair. It made the metal on my forehead stand out. I liked that. I'd wear the Leaf symbol proudly.

Speaking of hair, I'd never make fun of Sasuke for being a duck-butt ever again. Short of growing my hair out and looking like Itachi, there was nothing I could do to prevent the ends from standing up. It was annoying, but overall pointless to worry about.

The morning of team choosing, I looked at myself in the single mirror in my house. I was only twelve, but I had to say I looked good. Sasuke was just naturally very attractive, which was more than I had been able to say for my old body. The shallow neckline of my new shirt didn't even show off the tips of my collarbone, but it did highlight the pale skin on my neck. The red pants looked more threatening than flashy and the headband gleamed.

"My fangirls are going to have nosebleeds," I said aloud.

I was right. As soon as I stepped into the classroom, Sakura, Ino, and several other girls I'd never bothered learning the names of because I knew they would eventually fail out, turned bright red.

I ignored them and headed toward my usual seat in the back. I seem to remember in canon that Sasuke sat somewhere in the middle, because at one point he and Naruto had kissed.

Well, I thought, that wasn't happening. Which was probably a good thing. Puberty was just starting to wreak havoc on my new body and I really couldn't afford kick-starting a crush on the idiot. I had to survive through the Chūnin Exam at least before I would let myself contemplate romance.

Naruto was the last of the class to arrive. Immediately, I saw some of my classmates whisper and glare. Everyone knew Naruto had failed the test, of course. They were shocked to see him there with a shiny new forehead protector on his head.

"What are you doing here, Naruto?" Ino asked. "You failed."

"Nope!" Naruto exclaimed. "I fought off a rogue-nin and got a field promotion!"

I blinked. I certainly didn't remember Naruto phrasing things like that in canon, but I'd just have to deal with the fact that the butterfly effect would change things no matter how much I had tried to not affect anything the past few years. I certainly didn't think sparring with Lee would have changed anything for Naruto, but who knew. The butterfly effect was weird like that.

Iruka shook his head and told Naruto to go sit down, but I could tell it was done fondly. I was a bit surprised to see Iruka up. Hadn't he gotten hit in the back during the fight with Mizuki? I suppose the medic-nins had healed him enough. Hopefully he was taking things easy. I'd grown even more fond of him over the past few years than I had just watching the show. For all his comedic yelling, Iruka was a damn good teacher.

"Okay, settle down," Iruka said. "I'll be announcing the team placement now."

I watched as the first six teams were put together. I knew they'd fail their jōnin sensei's test. I wondered if any of them would give up, or if they'd come back for another year at the Academy.

"Team Seven will be Uzumaki Naruto," Iruka said finally. "Haruno Sakura." Naruto cheered loudly. "And Uchiha Sasuke." Naruto groaned and Sakura squealed. I just sighed, though inwardly I was pleased. I hadn't changed things that much then. "You'll have Hatake Kakashi as your instructor."

I settled back in my chair as Kiba, Hinata, and Shino were placed as Team Eight under Kurenai. Team Nine was another failure team. And then Team Ten was the revised Ino-Shika-Cho group under Asuma.

The jōnin arrived then to take their teams. I waited until everyone had left except me and my new teammates.

Iruka looked at the clock. "I'm sure your sensei will be here soon," he said.

"No worried, Iruka-sensei!" Naruto exclaimed. "You should go home and rest."

Good ol' Naruto, I thought. Iruka hesitated a bit longer, but eventually agreed to leave us after exacting a promise to take Naruto out to ramen later that week.

I knew we'd be waiting a little while for Kakashi, so I stood from my seat and headed down the aisle until I was in the row above the one Sakura and Naruto were sitting on. I sat cross-legged on the desk and looked at them.

"You should tell us about your field promotion," I said. Naruto twisted around to look at me. Sakura had already been watching me.

"You jealous?" Naruto taunted. "I got to show off my skills!"

"Should I be jealous?" I asked coolly.

Naruto needed no more prompting than that to launch into a retelling of how Mizuki had tricked him into going to steal the Forbidden Scroll. Sakura gasped at the declaration, but one look from me had her stay silent as Naruto described how he'd taken out the Hokage with his Sexy Jutsu and taken the scroll to Mizuki, who then had revealed all.

It was pretty much exactly like canon, with the notable exception that Naruto didn't say anything about how Mizuki had revealed the Kyūbi's existence to him. There wasn't even an awkward pause in his retelling. It was impressive. I was forced to reevaluate Naruto's subtlety. I'd always questioned whether or not his over-the-top nature was a mask or not.

Maybe a bit of both, I reasoned as Naruto's voice got quieter as he described how Iruka had been hit and how he'd used his thousand shadow clones to pummel Mizuki into the ground before the ANBU arrived to take care of everything.

I wondered if the ANBU had been there longer and had just waited to see what would happen, or if they'd been searching and had found the area because of the chakra outpour when Naruto had created his shadow clones.

"No," I said once Naruto had finished. "I'm not jealous." Before Naruto could yell, I continued. "A normal shinobi would only be able to create a couple shadow clones a day reasonably before exhausting their chakra. A kunoichi like Sakura with smaller reserves could maybe expect to make one. That's why the Shadow Clone Jutsu is B-rank when the regular Clone Jutsu is only E-rank."

"I… what?" I could tell Naruto had expected to be insulted. I was a bit offended at that. Surely I wasn't as bad as original Sasuke had been? Sure, I'd used sharp words a couple times to try to get Naruto to see that he was being downright rude during class, but I didn't insult him all the time.

"I don't get it either, Sasuke-kun," Sakura said timidly.

I sighed. "Basically, Naruto had really large chakra reserves. That's why control is so hard for him. It's a trade-off. He can make a thousand shadow clones where trying to use that jutsu would have killed you or me, but he'll have a harder time doing weaker jutsus because he can't grab smaller portions of his chakra without more control."

"So you're saying I'm better than you?"

"No," I said, though in many ways Naruto was. "I'm saying I'm not jealous, because if I'd had trouble with E-rank jutsus like you, causing me to fail the exam, then I would have never been able to get field promoted because I wouldn't have been able to use the technique you learned to defeat Mizuki."

"If you'd done better on the written portion, Naruto, not being able to do the ninjutsu wouldn't have made you fail," Sakura pointed out.

Naruto crossed his arms. "Then I wouldn't have learned this awesome jutsu!" he defended, but I could tell that he was actually starting to regret his flippancy with the written test. If I knew Naruto, and I had watched over a hundred episodes about him, then I figured he was probably thinking about how Iruka had been hurt because of him.

The sad thing was, Naruto's defense was pretty close to my reasoning for not preventing Naruto from failing in the first place.

"Whatever," I said, to move on. "We're a team now, so anything one of us knows will help us as a whole. Naruto's shadow clones will probably come in handy. They're much harder to tell apart from people than regular clones, and it's been proven that he doesn't have a problem making a lot of them."

"What do you mean, help us as a whole, Sasuke-kun?" Sakura asked.

I just looked at her for a moment. "You were the top kunoichi in the class, weren't you?" I pointed out. "Why do you think?"

Sakura flushed. I couldn't tell if it was out of happiness for the backhanded compliment, or anger as the insulting nature I said it.

"Because we're going to be doing missions together?" Sakura hedged softly.

"Right." I leaned forward. Naruto and Sakura had moved to sitting on the desk at some point during Naruto's story, both facing me. "We'll be together as a team until we're chūnin, unless one of us dies. I know some teams even stay together after promotion if they've proven to work together well."

"So I'm stuck with you for years?" Naruto groaned. "At least Sakura-chan is here."

"Don't insult Sasuke-kun!" Sakura yelled. "He's the best person on this team."

"The team is only as strong as it's weakest member," I said, copying the words I'd told Sakura years ago. I wondered if she'd remember. "And it doesn't really matter how good I was these past few years anyway. Now that we're genin, we'll be trained totally different from the Academy."

I knew for certain that Naruto would surpass me in a mere couple of years, if not sooner. Hell, he'd passed canon Sasuke, I was pretty sure, and I couldn't be sure I'd ever get anywhere as good as that Sasuke had. I'd spent twenty-one years as a civilian after all. I was so screwed up internally as it was, who knew when I'd plateau?

"There are different kinds of strength," I said, thinking aloud. "Someone with good tactics might be able to defeat someone who relies on strength and powerful jutsu. But someone with the ability to think on their feet in battle is even better for one-on-one or small group conflict." I shrugged as I saw my teammates stare at me. "There are many types of conflict. That's why there are so many ranks, right?"

"Like how the Hokage is the strongest, but doesn't actually go on missions?" Naruto asked.

I blinked and nodded. "Yeah. The Hokage can't just be strong. A good Hokage has to be a good tactician too. But then, the Hokage also has the Jōnin Commander and ANBU Captains to rely on for that. Jōnin are supposed to lead the chūnin and genin forces in battle. ANBU usually focus on assassination, single-target extermination, and infiltration. It'd be weird to see ANBU fighting out in the open, unless someone attacks the person they're guarding."

"So genin teams are preparing us to listen to jōnin commands in battle?" Sakura asked.

"Ah, yes, I guess," I said. I'd never really thought of it that way, but it made sense. "Of course, if we advance past chūnin, then we'd be expected to learn more leadership abilities to take command during missions and of units in open warfare. We wouldn't really be able to stay together as a team then."

"Sometimes teams of really strong ninja are needed though," Naruto said. "And jōnin need to be able to work with other jōnin to fight in bigger units."

I wish I could say I wasn't surprised when Naruto showed his intelligence like that, but I'd fallen into the trap of underestimating him along with everyone else in our class. It'd take me a while before I started looking to him for strategy and sound advice.

"Yeah," I said. "That's why the Chūnin Exam is usually done in genin teams, I guess. So the leadership can measure just how well certain teams work together so they continue to be paired."

"Well reasoned."

I snapped my gaze to the door. I hadn't heard it open, nor had I sensed anyone enter. But then, Kakashi was ex-ANBU.

I wondered how long he'd been listening to us.

"Ah!" Naruto screamed, turning around. "Who are you?"

"Your new sensei," Kakashi said lazily. "Yo."

"You're late," Sakura said, frowning. "How long have you been standing there?"

"Long enough." Kakashi glanced at the clock. I glanced too. Huh, he was actually only half an hour late. That must be a record. "My first impression is... you're interesting. Meet me on the roof." He shunshin'd away.

"Rude," Sakura huffed.

I smiled. She hadn't seen anything yet. "Come on," I said, standing up. I hopped from desk to desk until I reached the door. I could hear my teammates follow. Hopefully they'd learn to be a little quieter in the future, because they were both very obvious in their footsteps.

We walked together up the stairs to the roof. Kakashi was waiting for us, reading one of Jiraiya's novels.

I will admit, the only reason I hadn't given into the temptation to buy one of those yet was because I knew it'd look very strange. Can you blame me? I was curious!

"Introduce yourselves," Kakashi said, not even bothering to put his book away. "Name, likes, dislikes, dreams for the future, hobbies."

"You first, sensei!" Sakura said.

"Hmm. I'm Hatake Kakashi. Things I like and things I hate… I don't feel like telling you that. My dreams for the future… never really thought about it. As for my hobbies… I have a lot of hobbies."

I scoffed. Honestly, that was ridiculous. "I know it's good practice to not give out information, but we're a team. Don't we need to learn to work together?"

Kakashi looked at me and I had to repress a shiver at that powerful one-eyed gaze. Damn, for a moment I'd forgotten just how strong Kakashi was. "Your turn then."

"My name is Uchiha Sasuke," I said, years of practice making me not even hesitate at the start of my name. "I like tomatoes." And the mornings I don't wake up from a nightmare. "I hate people who betray my trust." And being vulnerable. "My dream for the future is to bring pride to the Uchiha clan by serving Konoha as best I can." And to help Naruto save the world. "My hobbies are training and organizing the things I inherited from my clan."

Kakashi continued to look at me for a moment longer. I wonder if it was in surprise.

"My name is Uzumaki Naruto!" Naruto exclaimed. I was relieved when Kakashi's attention shifted from me to the blond. I wondered briefly if Naruto had done that on purpose, but then dismissed the thought. "I like ramen and Iruka-sensei and sometimes Hokage-ojii-san. I don't like the time it takes ramen to boil. My dream for the future is to be Hokage! My hobbies are eating ramen and learning cool jutsu!"

"Um, I'm Haruno Sakura," Sakura said then. "I like…" She looked at me. I raised an eyebrow. "…learning," she finished lamely. Well, it was better than I remember from the show. "I don't like stupid people." She glanced at Naruto with that, but I saw that she didn't keep her eyes fixed on him. I wonder if our conversation earlier had opened her eyes a little. Probably not enough. "My dream for the future is to be a good kunoichi. My biggest hobby is reading."

I let myself smile briefly, then turned back to Kakashi. "Will you go again, sensei?" I challenged.

Kakashi put away his book and rose to his full height. "Don't think you're a team yet. You still have to pass my test."

"What?" Naruto asked. "There's another test?"

"You have to prove yourselves to me," Kakashi stated. "There's a sixty-six percent chance of failure. Twenty seven genin graduated this year, but only nine will go on."

"What's the test?" I asked, wondering if he'll tell us.

"You'll see." Kakashi's one eye crinkled in amusement at our expense. "Tomorrow on Training Ground Seven at six in the morning. Don't eat breakfast, you'll probably just throw it up." He paused, looking at me. "If you pass, I'll tell you about myself." And then he shunshin'd away.

"That's not fair!" Naruto said, kicking at the spot Kakashi had just left. "We already passed! Why do we have to do it again?"

I could tell Naruto was worried. Considering what he had to do last time to pass, I wasn't surprised. "It's a different kind of test," I said. "The Academy graduation was testing our basic knowledge. This one will probably test our ability to work as a team."

"You think, Sasuke-kun?"

I nodded. "We were just talking about it, weren't we? Ninja have to be able to work together. It'd be stupid to pass a ninja based on solo skills only to discover they fail at working with others. They just wouldn't survive in the field. The three teams best at teamwork will pass. Any more would just be dooming them to death."

I looked to see Naruto and Sakura both staring at me. I frowned. Was that too morbid? In only a month or so, we'd be headed to Wave and they'd be faced with death for the first time.

Me… well I'd already experienced it.

I sighed. "We should meet for breakfast tomorrow morning."

"But Kakashi-sensei just said–" Sakura began.

"Scare tactics. If we don't have food in the morning, we'll be lethargic and work less effectively during the test." I frowned. "Hatake Kakashi is well known for being perpetually late to things. I say we pick up breakfast and eat at the training field. That way we'll have something to do while we wait and we'll be ready for the test when he arrives."

"What if he arrives on time and sees us eating?" Naruto asked.

I wasn't worried, but I couldn't tell Naruto that exactly. "Then we'll tell him we're not scared and wanted to talk about our team's strategy over breakfast."

"Okay," Sakura said. "If you think so, Sasuke-kun."

Naruto looked between us, then shrugged. "Sure, I guess." He scratched the back of his head. "I can pick up ramen?"

"Plain ramen," I told him. "I'll get some fish if you get rice, Sakura?"

She nodded. We parted ways soon after with the plan for the morning.

Back at my house, I flopped on my bed and stared at the ceiling. The introductions had gone better than expected, honestly. I didn't fool myself into thinking I could immediately change Sakura's view on both myself and Naruto anytime soon, but I suspected half of her reaction to Naruto in canon was because Sasuke had been so disdainful of him. Naruto too was calmer than I had thought—but maybe faced with a team who wasn't just dismissing him he hadn't felt the same need for attention seeking tactics?

Well, tomorrow would be the real test. Hopefully we'd be able to work together well enough that Kakashi wouldn't have to do the stupid lunch thing. Not that I'd care about sharing my lunch with Naruto, but that seemed like such a copout. Probably, Kakashi had been told he wasn't allowed to fail this team, since the last Uchiha was on it and the village's weapon. Sakura had just lucked out, placement-wise.

No, I wanted to impress Kakashi that he would want to pass us. I wanted to show him what a good team we could be, so maybe he'd actually put effort into training us asa team.

I threw an arm over my eyes. I wanted Naruto and Sakura to be my friends. Friends I could rely on.

I wanted a team.

Chapter Text

The next morning, my team and I met on the training ground. We sat on the grass and passed around the food we'd brought. Naruto kept yawning as we ate.

"Too early?" I asked him, amused.

"I'm f-fine," Naruto said, the word punctured with another yawn.

I finished my ramen and thought about the Bell Test. How to strategize for it without giving away that I knew what the test was…

"What do you think the test will be, Sasuke-kun?" Sakura asked, right on schedule.

"I don't know. Whatever it is, we'll probably have to work together." I leaned back against a tree, keeping one leg stretched out and the other bent. It was a comfortable position, and I bet I'd be in it for a while. If I remembered correctly, Kakashi had been three hours late for the Bell Test. Even if he'd been earlier the day before, it was unlikely he would today. After all, there'd been a time limit on this test.

"We're going to be the best team ever, believe it!" Naruto yelled.

I looked at him for a moment, surprised. "Ah," I said. "If we work hard enough."

"Do you think we'll have time to strategize after Kakashi-sensei announces the test?" Sakura asked.

"Maybe." I thought for a moment. "I have an idea. Naruto, do you think you can keep your shadow clones up for a couple hours?"

"Um, I haven't tried, but I guess?"

"Here's the plan then…"

By the time Kakashi arrived, he saw the three of us sitting together on the ground talking about nothing in particular. In actuality, the three of us were farther back in the woods doing a little light sparring. Well, me and Naruto were sparring, while Sakura watched.

I really wish we'd been able to see Kakashi's surprise when Naruto's three shadow clones, two of them henged to look like me and Sakura, disappeared as soon as he'd finished explaining the Bell Test.

Naruto paused in the middle of the light spar. I stepped back, knowing he was getting his memories from the clones. "Hey, it worked!" he exclaimed, having not fully believed me earlier when I explained that shadow clones, unlike regular clones, would transfer memories to the original when they disappeared.

"So what's the test?" Sakura prompted.

Naruto's face fell. "Sasuke was wrong. Only two of us can pass."

"Explain the test, dobe," I said.

Naruto explained the Bell Test. I nodded along, half to show I was listening and half because it was exactly like in the show.

Surprisingly, it wasn't me that explained it was a trick. It was Sakura.

"What do you mean, Sakura-chan?" Naruto asked.

"Well, it's like Sasuke said yesterday. Genin teams are always in threes, right? Kakashi-sensei wouldn't be allowed to train just two of us."

I nodded. "Good thinking, Sakura," I praised, because she hadn't figured that out in the show. I was happy to see her being more analytical about things. "The test is probably designed to try to make us fight against each other, when really, it's all about teamwork."

"But what if it isn't?" Naruto asked. "What if they're changing the team numbers this year?"

"Then I'll give the two bells to you two," I said. "They're not going to send the last Uchiha back to the Academy." I said it sardonically, because it was true and because it hurt a little bit. I had been a civilian girl—no more likely of actually becoming a ninja than Sakura—but just because of the body I was wearing I was given special treatment. I hated it.

Naruto looked shocked that I was willing to put my graduation on the line like that. I couldn't resist the urge to pat his shoulder. "Don't worry, Naruto," I said. "We'll graduate as a team."

Naruto looked from my face to the hand I had on his shoulder. "Okay," he said softly. I pulled back, confused.

"So what's the plan?" Sakura asked.

I saw that fire in her eyes, the one I'd seen so rarely in the Academy though I'd been looking for it. Good, I thought.

"Kakashi is a jōnin. We wouldn't actually be able to defeat him in a real fight, but he'll probably be holding back." I looked to Naruto. He needed to know we were going to rely on him as a team. He'd been looked over too much. "But we just need to get the bells. We just need to overwhelm him."

Naruto caught on, grinning. "More clones?"

I nodded. "Sakura and I will do some regular clones as well, but you should have some of your clones henge into us. We'll take him over in droves. Naruto, you and me are going to be among the clones. Sakura, I want you to henge into a kunai."

"What?"

"I'm going to throw you at Kakashi's feet. When he's distracted, you're going to come up and grab the bells." There, I thought. I was showing them that I was going to rely on them both. Setting the groundwork for our later missions.

After all, we'd really need our teamwork for Wave.

"Okay," Naruto said. "Let's do this!"

"I… okay," Sakura said, a little more hesitantly. I saw as she bolstered herself. "Okay," she said stronger.

We walked back to the clearing. I wondered if Kakashi had been listening to us plan. Probably, but he'd also probably let the plan happen. I hoped, anyway.

"Kage Bunshin no Jutsu," Naruto chanted. Two dozen shadow clones appeared. Half of them transformed into me and Sakura. I made a couple of my own clones, as did Sakura.

We reached the clearing. I held out my hand. Sakura henged into a kunai and I grabbed the handle.

Kakashi stood in the middle of the clearing reading an orange book. He didn't even look up as we rushed at him from all directions.

"Katon: Gōkakyū no Jutsu," I chanted, slightly ahead of the mass of clones. Kakashi dodged the fireball, though he took his eyes off his book for it. I threw Sakura the kunai. She landed at Kakashi's feet as Naruto, the mass of clones, and I converged on him.

Kakashi barely had to work to start dispelling the clones, but that was fine. I threw more kunai and shuriken to distract him even as Naruto made even more clones.

"Now!" I said, because we wouldn't be able to keep this up much longer.

Naruto, amazing Naruto, pretended the command had been for him and started doing hand seals for something I didn't recognize. Kakashi turned his attention to the blond even as Sakura surged up and grabbed the two bells.

All activity stopped. Naruto dropped his hands, grinning. His clones dispelled in one big poof. "We did it, believe it!"

"My my," Kakashi said. "Well then, Sakura, who are you going to give the other bell to?"

I gestured for her to give it to Naruto, but she shook her head and held both out. "Sasuke and Naruto should have them," she said. There was strength in her voice and determination in her eyes. "They'll work best as a team together. And I… I'm not that good."

Huh. I frowned. That wasn't entirely inaccurate, but I knew Sakura would become a very strong kunoichi. Her lack of confidence was half of what was holding her back.

"Shut up, Sakura," Naruto said. I recognized that serious voice from the show. It was the same voice he used before doing what the fans dubbed his Therapy Jutsu. "You're going to be awesome. You're really smart and you had the easiest time learning henge of anyone in class, didn't you? You just need to keep training, like all of us. We're going to be a super strong team together, aren't we?"

"What Naruto said," I agreed.

Sakura stared and I winced as the noticed the start of tears in her eyes. Oh no.

"Well," Kakashi said, interrupting Sakura's emotional moment. "You all pass. Congratulations."

"Yeah!" Naruto jumped in joy. "You were right, Sakura-chan. It was a trick!"

I saw Kakashi give Sakura a considering look. Maybe he hadn't been listening to us, content with the knowledge he'd be fine holding off whatever we threw at him.

"Will you keep your promise now, Kakashi-sensei?" I asked, crossing my arms.

Kakashi snorted. "Maa, I suppose I'd better. Very well. My name is Hatake Kakashi. My likes are the Icha Icha series and my ninken. My dislikes are people who are trash and worse than trash. My dream for the future is to continue protecting my village. My hobbies are being late and now, I suppose, being the sensei for Team Seven."

"Trash, sensei?" Sakura asked.

"Yes." Kakashi looked at us. "Remember, those who break the rules are trash, but those who abandon their comrades are worse than trash."

I looked away, thinking of the other Sasuke.

"We'll start training tomorrow," Kakashi said. "This will be our training ground from now on unless we need a specialty area. Training will start at eight every morning."

"Which means… ten every morning?" I said, smirking.

"Aah." Kakashi scratched his cheek and then shunshin'd away.

"Hey!" Naruto yelled, but Kakashi was long gone.

"Should we show up at ten, Sasuke-kun?" Sakura asked.

"Nah," I said. "Eight is fine. Even if it takes him a couple hours to get here, we can always train together."

"And you can teach us that awesome fire jutsu you used!" Naruto exclaimed.

"Probably not," I told him. "It's one of my clan's techniques. But we can work on new jutsu together?"

"Oh." I could tell Naruto was a little disappointed. I frowned.

"Don't you have some clan techniques of your own?" I asked. "The Uzumaki clan is pretty old. They hailed from Whirlpool, but surely they brought some scrolls with them when they moved here." I honestly had no idea. The only jutsus I knew Naruto inherited were his dad's, but surely there was more to the Uzumakis then just sealing the Kyūbi.

"I- I don't know." Naruto's wide blue eyes locked on mine. "My parents are dead and Ojii-san never gave me anything."

"Maybe you can ask him?" Sakura suggested. "Maybe he was just waiting for you to become a genin?"

"Worth a shot," I agreed.

"I will." Naruto looked down, and when he looked back up his cheerful face was back. "And then I'll be strong enough to defeat you and lead this team, believe it!"

"Probably," I agreed, and then mentally winced. I probably shouldn't have been flippant about that.

Both Naruto and Sakura stared at me. I cast around for a way to salvage the situation. I couldn't just saw that I knew Naruto would be stronger than basically anybody, come a couple years.

"It's just, you have a serious amount of chakra," I said. "And I already said that wasn't all. Someone with good tactics will be able to work around and find a way to defeat you if all you do is rush into a fight. But you'll probably learn to be more than that. I mean, look at today. You were having your clones fight together in small units, instead of just one mass pile. That's natural strategy right there."

Naruto's mouth was hanging open. Actually, so was Sakura's. I felt my cheeks redden in embarrassment.

"You said I had to be good at tactics to be Hokage," Naruto said after a moment. "The Hokage has to be mega strong and smart—so I'll be both." He grinned and gave us a thumbs up. "Believe it!"

Naruto's stomach took that moment to grumble. I snorted and Sakura giggled. He flushed. "Um, lunch?"

"Sure," I said. "But not ramen. We had that for breakfast."

"You can have ramen for every meal!" Naruto said.

"No you can't," Sakura argued. "That's not healthy, Naruto. Ramen is fattening."

I shook my head. "It's not the fat we have to worry about. We're ninjas, we burn off a lot of calories every day. What we need is a proper balance of protein, fiber, and other nutrients so that we can sustain that pace and grow even stronger. Different types of ramen are fine a couple times a week, but not every day and certainly not multiple times a day."

Sakura spent a moment visibly turning over my words. I wondered if she'd been dieting. Considering how slender she was—lacking both fat and muscle—I wouldn't be surprised. "Um, sushi then?" She suggested.

"Fine by me."

"Okay!" Naruto led the way.

I trailed behind. Sakura fell into step next to me.

"Sasuke-kun," Sakura whispered. "About what you said about Naruto…" I saw Naruto twitch a little. I knew the Kyūbi gave him some advanced senses. Even if Sakura thought we were far enough back, he could probably hear us.

That was fine by me, if I knew where this conversation was going.

"I know he was an idiot at the Academy," I said back, just as quietly. "But Naruto has a lot of potential, if you know to look for it."

Sakura stayed silent for a moment, watching our orange teammate. "He did better than I would have thought, today," she agreed finally. "And his shadow clones. I looked them up last night. They are a really dangerous technique to do with as much frequency as he does, but he doesn't even seem tired."

"His chakra levels are larger than anyone in the village," I said.

"Even the Hokage?"

"Even him. I think it might be a Kekkai Genkai. I've heard the Uzumakis always had a lot of chakra."

"Oh." Sakura clasped her hands together. "So you think he can be Hokage?"

"We're only genin," I pointed out. "But maybe. I'm certainly not going to dismiss him like the others." I grinned. "Come the Chūnin Exam, I think he'll surprise everyone, except us. Because we'll be here, watching him grow."

"You really believe that." There was a hint of wonder in Sakura's voice. "You really want to be a team."

"We're going to stick together, Sakura," I said. "That means that we help train each other. We support each other. And we never betray each other."

We'd gotten back to the village proper now. Naruto was a good meter ahead of us, enough that the villagers felt safe to glare at him without accidentally catching me in the path of it. They were idiots. By the end of the Chūnin Exam, I knew they'd be changing their tune. Or, I hoped so.

"Do you see it, Sakura?" I asked, even softer now.

She looked confused for a moment, but though the glares weren't directed at us we were close enough to see them. Sakura had probably never walked with Naruto for any length of time, never seen just how different the village acted around him.

"Wh-what?" she whispered back. "I know he's a bit annoying, but…"

"Do you know when Naruto's birthday is?" I asked.

Sakura shook her head.

"October 10th," I told her. She was smart, she'd figure it out.

Maybe I was betraying some of Naruto's confidence giving her that hint, but if I knew Sakura, if I knew the kunoichi she'd become, then I knew she'd learn to accept it. And I also knew that as a team we'd need to know.

Naruto was visibly tense now, having heard what I said on top of walking under the glares of the villagers.

I quickened my pace until I was walking just next to him. "You'll show them," I said, glaring back at the civilians. They turned away.

Naruto looked at me for a moment, those sharp blue eyes searching for something on my face. I continued glaring at the villagers.

"Why are you so different?" he asked finally. Sakura had come up on my other side. In the future, I hoped we'd walk with Naruto in the middle, to protect him from the village's distaste, but she wasn't ready for that yet.

I snorted. "I'm not. I just didn't have any teammates in the Academy, did I? Only two other teams passed, so only those other six genin in our year will be some of our comrades fighting for Konoha."

"You didn't know who was worthy of that title yet," Sakura said.

"Right," I said.

Naruto shook his head. "Doesn't matter. Everyone in this village is worth protecting, because the people are what make up Konoha." He looked around, the glares flowing off him like water.

I found my steps faltering at those words. I knew Naruto would eventually see things like that, but had it really started so early?

No, I reasoned. It must have started when he learned the truth about the reason they all hated him. He knew, I realized, that they were just scared. That the Kyūbi's attack had been the worst night of many of these people's lives.

Yeah, I told myself. Naruto was definitely going to be Hokage. I was excited to see it happen.

The next morning, Naruto, Sakura, and I sparred until Kakashi arrived. Naruto's taijutsu style was a mess, but instead of telling him that I just taught by targeting his obvious weak points. He did learn best by doing, after all, and by the end of the hour he'd tightened up his defense considerably.

Sakura, on the other hand, still hesitated too much.

"Come on," I said. "You're not going to kill me."

"But I might hurt you!" Sakura argued. "And you're my teammate. Aren't we supposed to protect each other?"

"Sparring is protecting each other," I argued back. "What will you do if me and Naruto are too injured to fight? You're too weak to protect us right now." I remember the second part of the Chūnin Exam. Sakura would have died if that Sasuke hadn't been overtaken by the Curse Seal to fight against the Sound-nin.

Sakura quivered. I sighed. "If you're so worried, why don't you learn some simple medical jutsu? That way you can heal us if we get injured in sparring, or even on the field."

"Oh." Sakura stepped back. "I can do that, I think."

"Okay. Until then, you can spar against Naruto's shadow clones. That'll help both of you, since Naruto will get those memories and you won't have to worry about injuring Naruto."

Sakura seemed happier with that compromise and I was pleased with the excuse to get her to start learning medical jutsus faster. She'd be a natural at them, I was positive.

Kakashi arrived after Sakura had managed to 'kill' one of Naruto's clones. "Yo," he said.

"Late!" Naruto and Sakura told him.

"It seems you've been busy," he said instead of dignifying that with a response. He had warned us, after all. "Sakura, I can bring you some E and D-rank medical scrolls tomorrow."

"You were listening?" Naruto exclaimed even as Sakura nodded and thanked him.

"Here's the deal," Kakashi said. "Since you guys have already worked out a sparring schedule for the early morning, we'll be working on chakra control until lunch. After lunch, we can go to the mission desk and pick up some D-ranks."

"Real missions!" Naruto yelled. "I can't wait."

"They won't be too exciting, Naruto," I told him. "D-ranks are all chores. Konoha citizens can request for genin to do menial labor for mission pay."

"Oh." Naruto scowled.

Before he could fully complain, I continued. "But we're probably not ready to do any C-ranks yet. We just became a team, after all."

"Sasuke is correct. Now let's go, it's already far too late."

"That's your fault," Sakura complained as Kakashi led us to the edge of the clearing.

Huh, I thought. I knew Kakashi hadn't taught Tree Walking until the Wave mission. Actually, I didn't remember what exactly he taught the team pre that mission. Hell, there may have only been one episode of D-ranks before it started. I wouldn't be surprised.

Maybe he'd taught more taijutsu? But since we'd already been working on that, he'd decided to start Tree Walking early? Either way, I wasn't complaining. I'd tried it a couple times at home, but I hadn't yet been able to walk up a wall.

"One of the first steps to chakra control is learning how to mold chakra at different parts of your body," Kakashi said. "Nearly all jutsu above E-rank require jutsu to be pushed a certain way to work. Sasuke's Fireball Jutsu needs chakra to be pushed to the mouth and out, am I right?"

I nodded.

Kakashi walked up the tree, coming to stand on the lowest branch.

"Cool," Naruto said.

"Ninja are able to push their chakra to the surface of their body, often their feet, to stick to their landscape. It needs to be just the right about. Too much and the object will break under the strain of the chakra. Too little and you'll just fall off."

When Kakashi actually deemed to explain something, he wasn't a bad teacher. I guess he had to be decent at it, considering he'd taught the other Sasuke Chidori in only a month.

He threw three kunai at our feet. "Use that to mark your place." With that, Kakashi jumped down and leaned against a tree farther down. He pulled out his book and began giggling.

I sighed. Well, he certainly wasn't a perfect teacher.

Grabbing the kunai, I walked up to the tree. I put one foot on and tested out pushing chakra into it. It didn't really feel stable, so I pushed some more. The tree cracked slightly and I jumped back. Frowning, I put my foot back and pushed a little less.

I felt a grip. Grinning, I pushed my other leg up, but as I moved I lost control of the chakra in my one foot and fell down.

To my right, I saw that Sakura had already managed to make it a few steps. Naruto, I saw, had managed to create a hole in the tree. I shook my head and kept working.

I was starving by the time I managed to get more than five steps up the tree. Sakura had already managed to make it to the lowest branch. Naruto was only a couple steps behind me.

"That's enough for today," Kakashi announced. "We'll get lunch and then your first mission."

Lunch was ramen, at Naruto's insistence. After, we headed to the mission desk. Iruka was the one handing out missions, which was pretty cool. He congratulated us on passing Kakashi's test and then gave us a mission to help an old man paint his fence.

The painting was easy enough, once I asked Naruto to make a couple shadow clones to help us out. We went back to the desk to get another mission, which was gardening. This time, Naruto didn't even have to be asked to make ten shadow clones.

"I feel like this is cheating," Sakura said as she pulled out another weed. Naruto's shadow clones had already done three-fourths of the garden.

"It's only cheating if we don't work also," I said. "Beside, we're ninja. Shouldn't we use all our skills to complete our missions?"

"True." Sakura wiped her hands off on her dress. "Keep up the good work, Naruto!"

"Okay, Sakura-chan!" Eleven Narutos replied.

I smiled. There was a warmth in my chest I hadn't felt in a long time. I was happy, actually happy doing gardening with my team. Considering how much I actually hated yard work, that was shocking.

We did one more mission, cleaning up some trash in the river, before calling it a day.

"Good work, team," Kakashi said. "Three D-ranks on the first day. That might be a record."

"We're awesome!" Naruto cheered. "Um, dinner?"

"I don't want to go out again," I said. "I can make some, though?"

Sakura shook her head. "My parents will be expecting me." She seemed really disappointed to not get to eat dinner at my house.

"Maa, it's our first day together. I'm sure they'll understand," Kakashi said.

I wonder if he thought I'd retract my offer if the whole team weren't coming. Sure, I hadn't ever invited anyone else to the compound before… well I hadn't, had I? I hadn't had any friends before this.

That was depressing. I don't think I realized that before then.

Sakura agreed and soon enough we were all walking to my house.

Naruto and Sakura stared as we walked through the compound. I suppose it was strange, the empty houses. I'd gotten used to it.

"I like your house, Sasuke-kun," Sakura said once we finally reached it.

"Thanks," I said, heading to the kitchen. "You can just sit wherever."

I saw out of the corner of my eye that Kakashi was studying the ancient scroll on the wall. I left him to it and got out the ingredients to make salmon. My dad, my old dad, had taught me his special honey salmon recipe when I left for college. I hadn't made it yet in this world… but this was a special occasion.

It took about forty minutes for the salmon to bake. The rice took less time, as did the greens. By the time we sat down at the table to eat, Sakura had convinced Naruto to play shogi with her. Naruto sucked at it, but I could tell that he was happy to have Sakura's attention. I wonder if his crush was still raging, or if he was just pleased to have a friend.

"This is delicious, Sasuke-kun," Sakura said when we started eating.

"I've never tasted this recipe before," Kakashi stated. "What is it?"

"Honey and mustard seeds," I said. "I did some experimenting when… I started having to cook my own food." That was the closest I could say to the truth.

"I've never had salmon before," Naruto said around a mouthful of food. "It's good."

"Why not?" Sakura asked, frowning.

Naruto looked suddenly embarrassed.

"It's not that expensive at Asuka's Market," I agreed.

"I can't shop there," Naruto mumbled.

"Why not?" Sakura asked again.

"Not a lot of places let me get food, is all," Naruto said, glaring as if daring us to press the subject. "I'm going to get seconds!"

"Help yourself," I told him. I saw as Kakashi watched Naruto get up with anger and sadness in his one eye. Kakashi flicked his gaze to me. I raised an eyebrow, challenging.

"I'll go with you tomorrow, Naruto," Kakashi said. "You're a shinobi of Konoha now. No one should turn you away."

Naruto didn't look like he believed Kakashi, but he said nothing and the subject was dropped.

Sakura helped me clean up after dinner and then I walked my team to the gates of the compound and said goodbye. That night I fell asleep with a smile on my face.

We fell into a routine the next few days. In the morning, I sparred with the real Naruto while a couple of Naruto's clones sparred with Sakura. Once Kakashi arrived, we worked again on Tree Walking. Sakura was the first to master it, which prompted Kakashi to start her on Water Walking. Naruto and I figured it out a couple days later. Of course, by then Sakura had mastered Water Walking. Kakashi gave her time to practice on medical jutsus as we worked to catch up.

In the afternoons, we did D-rank after D-rank. Even with Naruto's clones, I was sick of them by the end of the week.

Naruto was the first to break, demanding a C-rank mission.

"Come on, Kakashi-sensei!" He said. "We've figured out Water Walking and Sakura can heal bruises now! And we've been sparring every day. Aren't we ready?"

Kakashi agreed and we went to the Hokage for a C-rank. I wondered if every first big mission for a genin team had to go through the Hokage. Usually, C-ranks were fine to be given out at the regular mission desk.

"I do have one," Sarutobi said. "You'll be escorting a bridge building to the Land of Waves so that he can complete his bridge."

And there it was, I thought as Tazuna came in and immediately insulted me, Naruto, and Sakura. I scowled at him, even as Kakashi defended us.

"We'll head out in two hours," Kakashi said. "Gather a mission bag. Pack lightly, but don't forget provisions and sleeping gear."

We'd been taught what to put in a mission pack during the Academy. I hoped Naruto would remember. Actually... "Hey Naruto, have you bought a mission pack yet?"

Naruto shook his head, looking embarrassed. I bet he'd been thrown out of the stores when he'd tried to get one before, especially since he hadn't been a genin then.

"Come on, I've got an extra." I actually had enough for a small army, but that wasn't the point.

A couple hours later, we stood together at the gate of Konoha, ready to head out.

"I'm so excited!" Naruto said. "An escort mission, believe it!"

I watched him bouncing and couldn't help the feeling of dread that pooled in my gut. Were we ready to face the Demon Brothers and Haku and Zabuza?

Would I almost die like the other Sasuke had?

"Ready, Sasuke-kun?" Sakura asked.

"Hn," I murmured and set foot outside.

I had no other choice but to see.

Chapter Text

It was nice weather for an escort mission. There was hardly a cloud in the sky as we walked the trek to the Land of Waves. Tazuna, happily, stopped grumbling about how young we looked after the first night I went out with Sakura to bring us hunted game.

"Not even disgusted by cleaning the guts out, are you girly?" Tazuna noted as he saw Sakura skinning and preparing the doe. There was enough meat on it to last us another couple days even with five eating, which is why we'd hunted it.

"Of course not," Sakura said, looking surprised at the idea. "We started hunting and preparing our own food at the Academy when we were nine."

It was true. I'd been more than a little shocked at the time, but upon reflection is made sense. Desensitization towards killing others had to start early when they trained ninja to be semi-ready at twelve-years-old. Of course, the difference between killing an animal and killing a human was large. I knew that Sakura, for all she was having no trouble with the doe, would still struggle when faced with human death.

I was sure I would too.

I took charge of cooking the meat, while Naruto set up the camp. Kakashi, because he was Kakashi, read his book instead of helping with anything.

We ate in short order and then set up a watch schedule.

"For the first three hours, you'll rotate on watch with me," Kakashi said. "I don't care what they taught you at the Academy, this is a real mission and our client's life could be in danger if you miss something while on watch. So I'm going to teach you the proper way to do it. Sakura will go first, then Naruto, then Sasuke. After that, I'll turn in and Sasuke will continue for two hours. Then, I want you to wake up Sakura. Naruto will get the early morning shift. Clear?"

We nodded.

I rolled out my sleeping bag and set about getting a couple hours of sleep before my turn with Kakashi and then alone. Kakashi moved with Sakura far enough away that his whispering wasn't discernable to my ears. I closed my eyes and drifted.

I woke up gasping. A phantom hand was reaching up my skirt. I kicked forward. "Let go!"

"What?"

I blinked, noticing I'd almost hit Naruto. He stared at me with wide blue eyes. They flickered in the dim firelight.

"Come on," Kakashi said, placing a hand on Naruto's shoulder. "Get some rest, Naruto. Sasuke, you're up."

I controlled my breathing for a moment and untangled myself from my sleeping bag. I paused as I passed Naruto. He was still staring at me. "Sorry," I mumbled.

"Sasuke…" he began.

I shook my head, not ready to hear whatever he wanted to say. I knew Naruto wasn't the type to pity, but I didn't want him to feel sorry for me at all. He'd had a much worse life than me. After all, I'd lived a very comfortable twenty-one years.

Kakashi led me to the edge of the clearing and up a tree with low branches. I sat on the tree branch next to him, looking out into the forest. We sat in silence for several minutes.

"What did you talk to Sakura and Naruto about?" I asked, because I was curious.

"The same I'm going to tell you," Kakashi said easily. "When on watch–"

"Not that. It would have saved you time to instruct us all together on how to keep watch. Since you separated us up, that means you wanted to talk to each of us individually about something without the other two listening in." Kakashi regarded me for a moment. I met his one black eye and then looked away. "I'm just curious," I defended. "You don't have to tell me."

"Maa, I'm just thinking that there might have been some truth to them calling you a genius at the Academy," Kakashi said easily.

I scowled and shook my head. I was no genius. Sure, I've always been smart enough to get decent grades without really having to try and good grades when I did put in the effort, but I wasn't anything close to being an actual genius.

"You don't agree?" Now Kakashi was the curious one.

"When did you become a genin?" I challenged. "And Itachi…"

"It was different then," Kakashi told me, his tone gentle. "I was raised in war and Itachi… he was raised at the tail end of it. That doesn't excuse–"

"I don't want to talk about him," I cut Kakashi off quickly. I should have never brought Itachi up. I wasn't sure if I'd be able to keep from showing that I knew more about what happened that night than I was supposed to.

That wasn't to say I looked up to Itachi. To me, he'd always been the anti-hero—he'd tried to do the right thing but in the end he'd done more harm than good. It was a tragic situation all around. The only good thing about me killing the other Sasuke was that hopefully Itachi would be saved from the worst of what his actions that night would have brought.

"I talked to Sakura about her medical jutsu," Kakashi said after a long moment. "She had some questions about the D-rank ones I brought her."

"And Naruto?" I asked. When Kakashi hesitated, just visibly enough for me to pick up on it, I continued. "Was it about the Kyūbi?"

"When did you figure that out?"

"A while ago," I admitted. "His birthday coincides with the day the Kyūbi was sealed and we were never taught where exactly the demon was put. Add that to how everyone old enough to remember the attack treats him, it wasn't a hard conclusion to make. I'm sure several of my former classmates have figured it out as well." Well, I wasn't sure, but I certainly wouldn't be surprised if Shikamaru, Shino, and perhaps even Hinata already knew or suspected.

"Hmm." Kakashi nodded. "Yes, I talked to Naruto about his guest. It was brought to my attention that in an attempt to give Naruto a normal childhood," and wasn't that a sardonic tone, "he wasn't instructed on his role as a jinchūriki, nor was he given a reason to accept or even learn to be proud of what he'd been chosen for."

Well, that had certainly never happened in canon. At least, I would bet on it. When had Kakashi decided to actually be a good teacher for the other two as well?

"Did you tell him about his parents?" I asked before I could stop myself.

Kakashi stilled. "His parents?"

I quickly realized what a bad idea it would be to admit that I knew that piece of information too. "I mean, I've never heard him talk about them, so I assume he doesn't know. Family is important and the Uzumaki clan used to be really large, right?"

"Ah. You were the one who told him of them hailing from the Land of Whirlpools, I see."

"That's all I know of them, but yeah. I figured he should know."

"Naruto asked me about them. I told him some of his mother."

"His mother?" I was shocked Kakashi had done even that.

"Uzumaki Kushina. The former jinchūriki of the Kyūbi."

"Oh." I looked to where Naruto was sleeping peacefully. "That's good. I'm glad he has that connection now."

"Indeed."

After that, Kakashi taught me how to keep my senses open for any movement while on watch and tricks for silently keeping myself entertained so I'd stay awake.

I wondered what Kakashi had wanted to talk to me alone about, but he didn't bring anything else up before going to bed.

As I kept watch, I thought about the change. Could perhaps something have happened when Kakashi went with Naruto to Asuka's Market? That seemed to be the biggest change so far in terms of Kakashi's relationship with Naruto. Which meant the fact I brought everyone to dinner that night to start that conversation was the thing that hadn't happened in canon.

I shrugged it off. Either way, I was pleased with the changes that were happening.

It was another couple days before the event I was waiting for happened. There was a large puddle on the path. I looked up at the clear sky. I looked at the puddle. I looked around for another puddle. There wasn't one. I looked at that puddle.

Sakura noticed me looking, for she began to study the puddle to. "Um, sensei? Is it normal for there to be standing watch when it hasn't rained in a while?"

"There'll be a lot of water as we approach the Land of Waves," Kakashi said. "It's on an island on the sea to the sound of the Land of Fire."

"And with any big body of water, there will be eddies that come up at low points in the ground," Sakura said. "I see."

"That being said," Kakashi continued. "Puddles are not often saturated with chakra."

The puddle poofed away as the Demon Brothers jumped up. "As expected of the Copy-Nin," the one on the right said.

"Gōzu and Meizu," Kakashi said. "Chūnin-rank missing-nin from Kirigakure in the Land of Mist known as the Demon Brothers."

"The great Hatake Kakashi knows of us!" The one on the left, Meizu probably, said. "We're honored."

"Now, if you'd just step aside, we have some business with the bridge builder," Gōzu continued.

"I'm afraid I can't do that." Kakashi looked bored.

"Yeah! We're going to protect Tazuna, believe it!" Naruto exclaimed.

The Demon Brothers snorted and then both attacked at once. Like in the anime, Kakashi let himself be 'killed'. Sakura screamed. Even I, knowing it was a trick, felt my heart skip in fear. It certainly looked real, for all that it had to be a henge or genjutsu.

"You bastards!" Naruto screamed.

I felt the prickle of it before I saw it. The Kyūbi's chakra began to manifest around Naruto. His eyes turned red and his fingernails elongated into claws. He began to growl.

"W-what?" Gōzu took a step back. "That's not–"

Naruto lunged forward, swiping at Meizu like an animal. His claws ripped at Meizu's unprotected arm, tearing into his skin.

"Sakura!" I called, and then reached forward to pull her in front of Tazuna with me.

"Is that… that's…" Sakura was shocked. So was I. That hadn't happened until the fight with Haku in canon.

"Sakura, I need you to protect Tazuna. I'm going to try to pull Naruto out of it."

"No!" Sakura grabbed my arm. "He might hurt you."

"Naruto might be feeling the fox's chakra and some of his rage right now, but he's still Naruto. He's still our teammate. He just has to learn to control the Kyūbi." I had to be sure of that, because I knew Naruto and the only reason Naruto went all fox-like was when the people he liked were hurt.

Sakura didn't look like she believed me, but I was able to pull away from her and run to Naruto. He'd managed to beat Meizu back, the man kneeling on the ground with his right calf torn partially off the bone, and Gōzu was bleeding heavily from a scrape on his side.

"He's not slowing down from the poison at all," Meizu called weakly to his brother. "We need to retreat."

Gōzu pulled back, grabbing Meizu just as I grabbed Naruto.

Naruto growled, turning to pin me with those bright red eyes. I froze despite myself. The killing intent in the Kyūbi's chakra was insane. I felt like I had that night, that horrible night, totally useless and so terrified.

Naruto blinked and then the red chakra began to fade. I felt suddenly like I could breathe again. His eyes turned back to normal. "Sasuke?"

"Dobe," I said. "You shouldn't have pulled on the fox's chakra that much."

Naruto looked shaken. "I don't… what did I do?"

"You don't remember?"

"Only a little."

"Dobe," I said again, but I was smiling. "You managed to scare of the Demon Brothers. Congrats."

Kakashi took that moment to jump down next to us.

"Kakashi-sensei!" Naruto and Sakura both yelled. "You're not dead!"

"Maa, I wanted to see how the team would do without me. I would have stepped in if you needed me." Kakashi frowned. "I didn't expect you to pull on the demon's chakra like that, Naruto."

Naruto flushed. "I thought you were dead," he defended. "I… I was angry."

"Why didn't you chase after them?" I asked. "They were weakened. You should have prevented them from escaping."

"It was more important to make sure Naruto could pull back from the rage," Kakashi stated.

"He wasn't going to hurt me," I countered.

"Is that right, Naruto?"

Naruto looked between us. "I, yeah, I was angry, but not at Sasuke."

"Still, you need to learn to control yourself in that state," Kakashi said. "You attacked them with mindless anger."

"That can get you killed," I agreed. "Remember all our talk about tactics."

"So I shouldn't use the fox? But Kakashi, the other night you said–"

"Kushina was able to take just a little of his chakra to supplement her own without losing her mind. That's what you need to work toward, Naruto." He paused. "Though, the healing the Kyūbi gives you seems to be even more enhanced when you're in that form. The cuts you received are already gone."

Sakura came forward then, hesitantly running a hand over Naruto's arm where one of the worse cuts had been. "You're right. It's completely healed. And didn't they say something about poison? Do you feel dizzy at all, Naruto?"

"No." Naruto frowned. "I remember the cuts burning, but it didn't last long."

"Demon chakra is enough to burn away even the worst of poisons. It's a huge advantage to have," Kakashi said. "Now," he turned to Tazuna. "Two chūnin a C-rank does not make."

Tazuna gulped.

I focused more on Naruto and Sakura as Tazuna explained about Gatō and how he was draining the Land of Waves dry with his shipping company and how the bridge would change all that.

Sakura didn't seem to notice how close she was standing to Naruto as she listened to Tazuna, but Naruto certainly did if the looks he kept sending her were any indication. The fact that I stood just as close on his other side didn't seem to go unnoticed either.

The cat was out of the bag, so to speak. Naruto had already known I was aware of the demon inside him, but now Sakura knew without a doubt.

I had to think she would have reacted worse had I not already given her a hint to be thinking about it before. If Sakura had figured it out a week ago, then she'd already had time to realize that Naruto wasn't the Kyūbi, just his host. He was still Naruto, loud, blond, hyperactive, and protective of his precious people.

"With chūnin after you, this has become a B-rank mission," Kakashi said. "If we assume Gatō has stronger ninja at his disposal, we may even be looking at A-rank. This was supposed to be my genin's first C-rank mission. We should head back to the village and get you some jōnin instead."

"But Kakashi-sensei! We can't stop now!" Naruto objected. "We're almost there. And besides, we beat off the chūnin no problem."

"You beat off the chūnin no problem, dumbass," Sakura said, hitting Naruto on the back of the head. "Take some credit, sheesh."

Naruto stared as Sakura even as Kakashi nodded. "If you want to continue with this mission, I won't stop you. But everyone has to accept."

"Obviously Naruto does," I said. "I also think we should keep going to. It would be a waste of resources to go all the way back at this point. And you're a jōnin, Kakashi-sensei. If we run into another one, we'll just count on you to not pretend to be dead, right?"

Kakashi laughed nervously. "Right."

"I'm okay with going on," Sakura said. "It'd be silly to give up now. We don't even know if there'll be any more. Maybe those two brothers were all."

"Yay!" Naruto cheered. "We decided, Kakashi-sensei. Come on, let's go!"

I shook my head as I followed behind Naruto on his right, Sakura on his left.

I only hoped letting the Demon Brothers go wouldn't bite us in the ass. It'd be bad if we had to fight them off again on top of Zabuza and Haku.

It only took another day to get to the coast, where we took a small rowboat across the water to the Land of Waves. And by that, I mean Tazuna and Kakashi took the rowboat. Kakashi made Naruto, Sakura, and me run along on the water to help us with Water Walking.

"Sakura, you need to work on your endurance," he said, holding up a finger. "Naruto, you still need to work on your control. And Sasuke." I waited. "You can push the boat easier if you're walking instead of swimming."

I scowled, but I knew I had to work on my upper body strength so I conceded. Naruto kept running circles around the boat, making small splashes every other step while Sakura just walked next to me.

I was very happy to see the shore.

The Land of Waves was a fairly large island and Tazuna said it might be a good half a day's walk to get to his house. We were a couple hours into that half-day when Naruto suddenly threw a kunai at a bush.

A snow rabbit jumped out.

"Naruto!" Sakura reprimanded. "What are you doing scaring that poor rabbit for?"

Naruto apologized, picking the rabbit up and hugging it. I smiled even as I wanted to remind them we'd cooked rabbit for dinner not two nights ago.

Still, I vaguely remembered something about the rabbit. It had sparked something…

"Look out!" Kakashi called even as Zabuza jumped down between my two teammates and me.

Naruto let go of the rabbit and it went bouncing off into the woods. Sakura and I both took out kunai.

Kakashi shunshin'd so that he was standing in front of Zabuza. "Fall back," he ordered. "Protect Tazuna. I'll take this one."

"Scared for the kids, Hatake?" Zabuza asked, grinning. "What makes you think I'd bother with such weaklings."

"Momochi Zabuza, also known as the Demon of Kirigakure because he slaughtered one hundred Academy students during the Genin Exam." Kakashi said. "One of the Seven Ninja Swordsmen of the Mist, wielder of the blade Kubikiribōchō, and an ex-ANBU of Kirigakure, now a missing-nin."

Zabuza laughed. "And you, Hatake Kakashi, are known as the Copy-Nin, copier of a thousand jutsu with the Sharingan you retrieved from your ex-teammate."

"You're well-informed," Kakashi said. He pushed up his headband, revealing his Sharingan.

"Well, it's all in the Bingo Book, isn't it?" Zabuza raised his sword. "Judging from the damage done to Gōzu and Meizu, we won't be playing around. So let's go, Copy-Nin!"

I looked at Naruto, who looked as confused as I felt. Had the Demon Brothers not said it was Naruto who hurt them? Or had they perhaps passed out before being able to?

Still, it wasn't a good thing that they'd made it back to Zabuza to recover. After all, Haku had some skill with healing, or at least using herbs, I remembered. They would probably be recovered enough to try again—that was if we survived this fight with Zabuza.

"Don't worry, team," Kakashi said. "I don't let my comrades die. You protect Tazuna, I'll deal with this missing-nin."

We surrounded Tazuna, Naruto in center with me to the right and Sakura to the left.

"Suiton: Kirigakure no Jutsu," Zabuza intoned. Mist sprung up from all around, covering our surroundings. Zabuza began to taunt Kakashi, wondering aloud where to strike first. It was all scare tactics. I noticed that Naruto and Sakura were both affected by it, though, so I sought for a way to distract them.

"Guys," I whispered. "We need a plan if Zabuza breaks from Kakashi and tries to attack Tazuna."

"Hey, now, don't risk your lives for me!" Tazuna protested. "You're just children."

"Shut up," Sakura said. "You're our client and we're the ninja here."

I smirked at her. I liked feisty Sakura way better than the one in the anime who just stood in front of Tazuna and did nothing.

"Zabuza's sword is huge, which means he has a long reach, but we can't assume that's all he uses," I said. "He's likely deadly in close quarters. He's also much higher ranked than us. If he attacks us, we need the element of surprise." I looked to Naruto, because being surprising was what he excelled at.

Naruto frowned. "What if we do something like what we did during the Bell Test?"

Before he could continue, Zabuza appeared in front of us. I threw a shuriken his way, which he easily batted aside.

And then Kakashi was there, stabbing a kunai into Zabuza's stomach. Zabuza dissolved and appeared behind Kakashi. He sliced Kakashi in half with his sword, only for Kakashi to dissolve into water as well.

"Impressive, you copied my Water Clone Jutsu in such a short period of time," Zabuza said.

Kakashi appeared behind Zabuza. "It's over," he said.

Zabuza grinned and, once again, appeared behind Kakashi. This time, he only grabbed him and threw him onto the lake. "Suiton: Suirō no Jutsu," he chanted.

And just like that, Kakashi was trapped in the Water Prison.

"Team, run!" Kakashi yelled. I could tell that he was slightly panicked. "He can't move while he has me trapped in this, but he can still use his clones. You're no match for him."

"You were the one who told us those who abandon their comrades are worse than trash, sensei!" Naruto yelled back. "We'll save you and protect Tazuna!"

Zabuza's water clone appeared in front of us. "So touching," he said mockingly. "And how will you be able to do that when you're dead?"

"Kage Bunshin no Jutsu," Naruto said. Several dozen shadow clones began to attack Zabuza's water clone.

"Naruto, we need a plan, now," I said. Already Zabuza's water clone had lazily destroyed half of Naruto's shadow clones.

"Henge into shuriken," Naruto ordered. "Both of you." He created several more shadow clones, two of which henged into Sakura and me and took up place in front of Tazuna.

I henged into a shuriken. Naruto picked me up. "Shuriken Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!" he shouted and threw me alongside a dozen other shuriken.

I landed a couple feet from the real Zabuza. It was hard to see while henged into an object, but I heard as Sakura popped up underneath the water clone and took it out. I took that as my cue to pop up and immediately I threw three kunai Zabuza's way.

Zabuza had to step aside to dodge the kunai, releasing Kakashi from the Water Prison. I jumped back, letting them fight.

The shadow clones by Tazuna disappeared as the three of us took our places in front of him again.

"Good planning, Naruto," I said even as I watched Kakashi copy Zabuza's Water Dragon Jutsu.

"Yeah," Sakura agreed. She was grinning. "It was fun to take that creep out, even if it was only his water clone."

Naruto winced. I raised an eyebrow. "How'd you take him out?"

"She hit him right in the groin," Tazuna said, sounding impressed.

The once-girl in me approved.

"I'm just glad it was enough damage to take out the clone," Sakura said. "Some of Naruto's shadow clones can go for a while."

"It depends on how much chakra is put in them," I explained. "Naruto's clones will always be able to go for a long time if they aren't given a direct kill shot. Zabuza probably had to concentrate on the chakra he was channeling into the Water Prison."

"Suiton: Suiryūdan no Jutsu," Zabuza intoned.

Kakashi copied him and their two Water Dragons clashed in the middle. Zabuza went flying back, hitting a tree hard.

Haku, dressed as a Hunter-nin, came soon after and took Zabuza away. And then Kakashi collapsed.

"Sensei!" Sakura cried as she rushed forward. Her hands glowed green with healing chakra as she scanned him. She frowned. "He doesn't have many wounds and I can't sense any poison in his blood."

"He's probably chakra exhausted," I said. "He used a lot of jutsu just now."

Naruto created three shadow clones, one of which henged into a stretcher, and we rolled Kakashi onto it. The two shadow clones carried the stretched and together we went the rest of the way to Tazuna's house.

At Tazuna's house, we met Tazuna's daughter and his grandson, Inari. Inari, like in canon, was downright rude, but we ignored him as we got Kakashi up to a bed.

It took nearly twenty hours before Kakashi awoke. I was relieved to see him up, as I knew my teammates were. We crowded around his bed as he explained that something had been off with the Hunter-Nin.

"So Zabuza's still alive?" Sakura summed up.

"Likely so," Kakashi said. "It will take me about a week to recover, as I assume it will take him. We have that time to prepare."

"Which means?" I asked.

Kakashi smirked. "Training."

We set up a schedule. One of us stayed with Tazuna at all times just in case Zabuza recovered early, or the Demon Brothers came back, or someone else came. Meanwhile, Kakashi trained us on our taijutsu because, he explained, we'd need every second we could delay if Zabuza attacked us directly. We'd won last time because Zabuza had underestimated us. We needed to get stronger.

A couple of days into the training week, we learned the truth about Inari's anger. Naruto ran off after the story to train in the woods before his stint protecting Tazuna. When he came back, he had an odd look on his face.

"What's up?" I asked.

Naruto blinked. "I met someone in the woods. We talked about why I became a ninja."

"And?" Sakura asked. "That's why you're almost half-an-hour late?"

"I am?" Naruto winced. "No, yes, kind of. Anyway, I've decided." He held out his fist. "My nindō is to protect my precious people. I will get stronger, so that none of my precious people will get hurt. When I'm Hokage, I'll be able to protect everyone."

I smiled. It had happened. Naruto had figured it out. With Haku's help, he'd learned the true meaning of being Hokage.

"Oh," Sakura said softly.

"That's a strong nindō to live by, Naruto," Kakashi said. "First step is to keep Tazuna safe."

"Of course!" Naruto ran off to where Tazuna was waiting for him.

"You know," Kakashi said, bringing my and Sakura's attention to him. "I never wanted a genin team, but the Council forced the Third to give me this one. Do you know why?"

"Because of your Sharingan?" Sakura guessed. "For Sasuke?"

Kakashi nodded. "Exactly, Sakura. I was told that I had a duty to teach Sasuke how to use his Sharingan, once he manifests it. I was told, you see, to focus my attentions on the last Uchiha."

I scowled. "It's a three-person team."

"So you see the dilemma, Sasuke. I was told to focus on you, but then what about Naruto and Sakura? Naruto, as you both have realized, was to be deliberately ignored because of how much the Council fears the fox. And Sakura, well a civilian girl whose only apparent skill was being good at written tests wouldn't go far anyway."

"Sensei!" Sakura gasped, outraged.

"No, no, listen to me, Sakura. No one thought you'd amount to anything. They expected Sasuke to be the undisputed leader of this team, who would pull ahead of you and Naruto after the Chūnin Exam and leave you behind."

"What are you saying?" I asked, starting to see Kakashi's point.

"Who is the leader of this team?"

"Other than you, Kakashi-sensei?"

"I won't be there to help you during the Chūnin Exam."

Sakura and I looked at each other. I motioned for Sakura to answer.

"I… I would have said Sasuke," Sakura began. "But, that's not exactly true. It was at the beginning, but even now Sasuke, you always look to Naruto after you say something. I thought at first it was to make sure he understood, because he's so dense. But when we were fighting Zabuza, you told Naruto what you figured out from the situation and then had him make the plan. And it worked."

"He's not quite there yet," I admitted. "He still likes to rush in. But when we remind him to step back and think, then he can do it. Especially in dangerous situations, like with Zabuza. That's Naruto's talent for tactics and strategy. He'll never be able to sit in an office and plan fifty steps in advance, but I think he'll always be able to keep one step ahead of his opponent in battle."

"He might be able to plan in advance," Sakura said, surprising me. "Do you remember all the pranks he used to play? At the time, they were just annoying, but looking back—he was always the best of us when we did traps in class. And some of his pranks were really elaborate and it always took a while for him to get caught."

"Ah." I blinked. "That's true."

"Do you two see my point?" Kakashi asked.

Sakura straightened up. "You're saying we're not like the Council expected."

"They expected me to boss Sakura and Naruto around, before leaving them behind," I added. "Instead, Naruto is our leader, or is getting there. And Sakura has way more talents then just her book smarts. And I won't be leaving them behind."

"We'll be reaching toward the top together," Sakura finished, grinning.

"Good." Kakashi reached forward and patted us both on the head. "Then keep working on it. I want you to show them where they went wrong, and how much better it is that they were."

"Yes, sensei!" We chorused, and got back to training.

Chapter Text

It was finally the day. We'd been at Tazuna's house for a week. Just the other night, Kakashi had explained to Inari how Naruto had grown up an orphan, but how he'd never once seen Naruto cry because of it. Inari had gone to bed with a contemplative look on his face, relieving me. Even knowing that Inari was just a kid, I'd gotten more than a little annoyed with his insistence that there were no heroes.

If I remembered correctly, it was the day after that conversation that the attack had come in the show. Today was that day.

"Oh dear," Tsunami, Inari's mother, said as we were getting ready to leave. "Sakura, sweetheart, your dress…"

We all looked. There was a huge tear along the back of Sakura's dress. It looked like Sakura had attempted to sew it up, but it hadn't helped much. The whole dress was stained and faded and the ends were coming apart at the seams.

"Did you buy that dress at a civilian shop, Sakura?" Kakashi asked.

Sakura, her face flushed red, nodded.

"That's not good, Sakura-chan!" Naruto exclaimed. "Civilian clothes don't last long."

I stared. "You can't tell me that orange monstrosity is from a shinobi shop?"

Naruto shrugged. "I think it's just supposed to be for training, but yeah. It was the only thing I could afford–" Naruto cut himself off, flushing even redder than Sakura. "That doesn't matter," he said quickly. "We have to help Sakura-chan. She can't fight Zabuza in civilian clothes!"

"Naruto is right," Kakashi said. "Shinobi outfitters add extra layers of protection to their clothing. A civilian dress just won't cut it."

If I remembered the show correctly, Sakura didn't do much actual training during this mission. This time, though, Kakashi had been drilling her taijutsu—I suppose it made sense that her dress looked like that.

"You can probably wear one of my extra pair of pants," I offered. "They have a drawstring, so they should fit."

"And I have an extra undershirt!" Naruto added.

"Is it orange?" Sakura asked. The flush was still present on her cheeks, but it faded into disgust at the thought of wearing anything orange.

"Nope." Naruto unzipped his jumpsuit to show them the white undershirt.

"Oh, okay," Sakura said. "Um, thank you."

We headed upstairs to get Sakura the pants and shirt and then left her to change. As we walked out with Tazuna, I heard Tsunami telling Sakura not to worry, as she'd make sure to sew up the ends so the clothes would fit her right.

At the bridge, we saw that mist had spread over everything. For a moment, I had a flashback of California streets and how hard it was to drive when the fog came in from the ocean.

Then I realized the mist wasn't natural. Tazuna's workers were knocked out on the ground. One of them lifted his head and croaked, "It was a demon!"

Despite the seriousness of the situation, I couldn't help but role my eyes. These people wouldn't know a true demon 'til it stared them in the face.

"Protect our client," Kakashi ordered. I pulled out a kunai and got into a defensive position in front of Tazuna. Next to me, Naruto crouched down and began setting something up. I wanted to ask him what he was doing, or look myself, but just then Zabuza revealed himself in front of Kakashi. Kakashi didn't play around, opening up his Sharingan eye immediately.

It was too far away from us to really hear their conversation, anymore than murmurs anyway. I looked around instead, wondering where Haku was.

Naruto popped up a moment later. "Done."

"Done with what?" I asked.

"Protecting Tazuna-ojii-san," Naruto explained. "Ojii-san, you can't move outside the circle, okay?"

I stepped forward and turned around. Naruto had set up a circle of seals around Tazuna. "What are those?" I paused. "Is that the package you wouldn't tell me about when we were packing your mission pack?"

"Yep! I modified some presents from Iruka-sensei," Naruto said. "So long as Tazuna-ojii-san doesn't leave the circle, it'll blow away anyone who tries to touch him."

"Are those explosive tags?" I studied the circle closer. "And that's a storage seal."

Naruto just smiled.

"How'd you think to do this?" I asked.

Naruto shrugged. "When me and Sakura were training the other day, while you were at the bridge, we talked about how I usually set up for my pranks. And it got me thinking, and then I remembered the stuff I packed 'cause I was thinking about pranking Kakashi-sensei, but then we were attacked and so I modified some stuff and I got this." He beamed proudly. "Awesome, right?"

"If it works."

"It will!"

I looked back at Kakashi, only to see that Haku was there as well, still wearing his white mask. Zabuza laughed loud enough for us to here and then Haku sprang forward.

"Let me wear him down first," I told Naruto and jumped to meet Haku. If I could, I would take away the pain of Naruto knowing he'd fought his new friend.

Except, Haku was freaking fast. I stopped thinking and fell into instinct and muscle memory as I dodged left and struck right. I could tell Haku wasn't fighting at his whole capacity, which was aggravating as much as it was relieving. I took a chance as Haku stood there after throwing a few shuriken and made a couple hand signs.

Haku spun as I ducked under and around him. He held up his arms in defense, but it wasn't enough for what I'd planned.

"Katon: Gōkakyū no Jutsu," I said, just before pushing the chakra the rest of the way out of my mouth.

The fireball was easily the entire size of Haku and I'd shot at point-blank range. It had been risky, putting myself that close to him, but I hoped to avoid Haku's kekkei genkai.

"Hijutsu: Makyō Hyōshō," I heard as my fireball died out.

The ice mirrors sprang up all around me and I let out a startled curse. Haku, reflected twenty times over on the crystals, was a bit singed but otherwise no worse for wear.

"You have potential," Haku said, his voice soft. "If given time, you could grow much stronger." He lifted up his right hand, a senbon tucked between two fingers. "But I will not disobey Zabuza-san, and so I must kill you."

Was that regret I heard in Haku's voice? I suppose it had to be. I knew Haku was no older than myself—younger if you counted the age of my last life. He thought himself a tool for Zabuza and truthfully it only took Haku's death before Zabuza thought Haku anything but. It was wrong, so wrong.

And I didn't want to die.

"Hey!" Naruto yelled, jumping through the gap in the ice mirrors. "Twenty on one isn't fair!"

"It's a kekkei genkai, dobe," I told him. "Why did you jump in here? Now you're trapped with me."

"Sakura's back to help Kakashi-sensei, so I had to come help you." Naruto rolled his eyes.

"That's not what I– Naruto!" All around us, I saw Haku raise his senbon and throw them with precision.

There were a couple things I thought of in that moment. I thought of the show, how the other Sasuke jumped in front of Naruto. I thought of my death—blond hair, grey eyesand how much it'd hurt. And I thought of Naruto, and how much I cared about him, and how much more he still had left to do.

I pushed Naruto out of the way. In my panic, my mind felt clearer than it had in years. The world seemed crisper, as if I was taking that moment to memorize this world I'd ended up in before the very real possibility of leaving it.

After all, for all I knew the other Sasuke had survived, it just took one senbon to a large artery for me not to.

The first of the senbon hit me in the thigh. It wasn't a bad pain, no worse than getting my ears pierced in my other life. And then the next three senbon hit my lower back, my side, and my shoulder. Another couple hit my arms, and then one hit the back of my knee and I crashed to the ground.

Vaguely, I heard a roar. Naruto's chakra pricked at the edge of my awareness. It felt hotter than normal. A couple more senbon pierced me, but I hardly felt them. I was focused on that flaming chakra.

The Kyūbi… I struggled to get up. "Naruto," I tried to say, but all that came out was a long groan. The darkness was pulling at me like a friend I was intimately familiar with.

I faded, and then snapped myself awake. "Naruto!"

"Sasuke!" Naruto called back. I looked wildly around. The ice mirrors were gone. How had I missed them disappearing? The darkness was still there at the edge of my vision. I struggled to get up, only to wince as I felt the distinctly uncomfortable sensation of accidentally pushing one of the senbon further into my body.

Haku lay on the ground in front of Naruto, but Naruto was ignoring him. He jumped toward me instead and helped me shakily stand up. "We need to get you to Sakura-chan," Naruto said.

"What about–" I gestured weakly in Haku's direction.

Haku looked at me. "Please, kill me. Your friend refuses to do it, but I cannot go on. I have failed. I am a broken tool. Please, dispose of me."

"Shut up," I growled, and then coughed as I tasted the blood in my mouth. I grimaced, reaching toward the senbon sticking out my neck. I pulled it out and suddenly I could breath a little easier.

"Haku, when I met you, you were gathering stuff to heal Zabuza, right?" Naruto said. "Heal Sasuke! Please! He's one of my precious people, just like we talked about!"

I noticed that the mist was beginning to clear. I saw Tazuna sitting on the ground in the circle of seals Naruto had surrounded him with. Just outside the circle lay a prone figure. On the other side, Sakura stood completely still facing another man. It was Meizu, which meant the guy knocked out on the ground had to be Gōzu.

Farther over on the bridge, Kakashi pushed his Chidori straight for Zabuza.

"Naruto, grab Haku!" I yelled, because any second now Haku would notice and jump in front of the Chidori and be killed. And for all I found I didn't care, Naruto did.

Naruto didn't even hesitate before doing what I asked. Haku struggled, but he was too weak to hold Naruto off and that was all that was needed.

Zabuza just barely managed to get his sword in front of his body before the Chidori blasted into him. He flew backwards, falling over ten meters before hitting the ground with an audible crack.

"Zabuza!" Haku screamed, pushing Naruto away and running over to his mentor.

Before either Kakashi, Naruto, or I could react to that, Meizu suddenly screamed and dropped to his knees. Sakura broke from her frozen stance and began to pant. She wiped her forehead with a shaky hand.

"Otōto," Gōzu cried, struggling to rise. I noticed that he was covered in what looked like paint. There was a serious burn mark on his right cheek and his clothes were nearly completely burned away. A wire was still half wrapped around his legs, tangled so he couldn't rise to his feet. "What did you do? A genin shouldn't be able to break free from that jutsu!"

Meizu was recovering now, rubbing his face. I stumble-walked in Sakura's direction, forcing Naruto to help me along faster.

"Sasuke!" Sakura said, her voice sounding as exhausted as she looked at me and Naruto.

"Careful now," Kakashi said, appearing at our side. "Sasuke, we need to get those senbon out of you."

"Quickly," I said, gritting my teeth. The ache was really setting in now. I hoped I wouldn't develop a fear of needles from this, but I wasn't too optimistic about my chances. The senbon freaking hurt!

Naruto and Sakura worked to pull out all the senbon sticking in me as Kakashi hauled Meizu to his feet and threw him beside Gōzu. Gōzu had managed to cut the ninja wire holding is legs together and now stood protectively in front of his brother, glaring at Kakashi.

Sakura pulled out the last of the senbon and I sighed in relief, even as a commotion took all our attention to the other end of the bridge.

"Gatō!" Tazuna announced as Gatō and about a hundred men raised their weapons.

"Worthless," Gatō said, loud enough for us all to hear. "I hire the Demon of the Mist and his three men and what happens? They lose to one man and a couple of brats."

"Hey!" Naruto exclaimed, but I quickly clamped a hand around his mouth. I was interested in what Gatō was about to say.

"Oh well," the man continued. "It wasn't like I was going to pay you guys anyway." He and his men laughed.

"What?" Shockingly, that was Zabuza. I had been so certain of his death. He sat up with Haku's help and was now glaring at Gatō. "You planned to double-cross me?"

Gatō smirked. "It wouldn't have even been hard, if all it took was a couple of kids to take your cohorts down."

"Boys," Zabuza said then. "I'm too weak to move, but you should be enough to show this damned bastard his miscalculation."

"Yes, Zabuza-san!" the Demon Brothers and Haku chorused. Meizu helped his brother up and together they flickered to Haku's side.

I could tell that none of them were really at full fighting speed, but what they had was enough to take out a couple of civilians.

Gatō, I was pleased to note, promptly pissed his pants.

And then Inari showed up with the villagers. Sakura looked pleased. "While I was there this morning, a couple of Gatō's thugs tried to take Tsunami to use as a hostage and I helped Inari fight them off," she explained. "Inari said after that he was going to stop crying and be a hero… like you, Naruto."

"Me?" Naruto blinked.

I began to laugh. I couldn't help it—it all just caught up with me at once. The citizens of Wave clashed with Gatō's men, fighting for their home, and meanwhile the Demon Brothers and Haku had fallen back to help Zabuza and here I was being healed by Sakura in the too-big shorts she'd borrowed from me and the now-stained white shirt she'd borrowed from Naruto.

It was all too much.

"Sasuke-kun?" Sakura asked. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah," I said. "I'm just glad it all worked out."

Naruto and Sakura exchanged a glance, and then they too were grinning. "Did you see how awesome my trap was, Sakura-chan?" Naruto exclaimed. "It totally took out that Demon Brother, didn't it?"

"It was pretty cool to see," Sakura agreed. "Even if you didn't explain it to me before rushing after Sasuke." She glared.

Naruto scratched the back of his head. "Uh, oops?"

I felt a pressure on my hair and tensed, before realizing it was just Kakashi patting my head. He did the same for Naruto, and then Sakura. "Good work, team," he said.

I looked around and noticed that the rest of Gatō's men had fled. Gatō himself was dead, along with the other half of his men. It was a bloody sight, but that didn't bother me in light of the Wave civilians' relieved faces. Maybe it would later, but I was too exhausted to register the severed limbs with anything more than huh.

Tazuna chortled. "You really did it," he said. There were tears in his eyes.

"We did it," Inari said, bounding up to his grandfather.

"The bridge is complete, Gatō won't be bothering us any longer, and my family is safe." Tazuna shook his head. "How can I ever repay you?"

"Maa, we may need to impede on your hospitality a bit longer," Kakashi said. I saw the weariness in the corner of his eye and figured the only reason he wasn't sagging was because our four ninja opponents were still alive and huddled together on the other end of the bridge.

"I don't have enough skill to heal Sasuke any more than I have, Kakashi-sensei," Sakura protested.

"I'm fine," I said, though my body ached something fierce.

"Haku does!" Naruto remarked, and before we could do anything, he bounded toward the four ex-Mist-nin. Kakashi followed after him.

"That baka," Sakura said.

"He's something else, isn't he?" I agreed.

"He sure is," Tazuna said. "You know, I've just decided what to name the bridge."

"What, grandpa?" Inari asked.

"I think the Great Naruto Bridge is appropriate, isn't it?"

I let out another little laugh. "Yeah," I agreed. My vision was growing dim again. "I'm glad that didn't change."

"What?" I heard Sakura ask, but I was too tired to reply.

I'd just take a little nap…

When I woke up, I was stiff all over. I winced, slowly sitting up. There were bandages wrapped around my body and I was shirtless, though luckily I still had my shorts on—even if there were some bandages under them.

I slowly got out of bed and threw on my shirt. It smelled a little, but not enough for me to care. I was still in Tazuna's house, but I was alone and I couldn't sense any other chakra signatures nearby. Kakashi was good at keeping his covered too much for me to sense, but Naruto was a beacon. I wondered where he was.

I headed downstairs. Tsunami was in the kitchen with Inari while Tazuna sat at the table drinking sake.

"Ah, Sasuke, you're up!" Tsunami said. "You slept for half the day and the whole night."

"Where's my team?" I asked.

"They're out training, I think," she said. "Naruto-kun said something about making sure that Zabuza knew what his friends were worth and ran off right after breakfast. They've been gone for a couple hours now."

I looked at Tazuna's sake glass and raised an eyebrow. It was only a couple hours after breakfast and he was drinking? Tazuna saw me looked and raised the glass with a smirk.

I sniffed and left without another word. It didn't take long to find my team in our usual training spot, along with Zabuza, the Demon Brothers, and Haku.

I stood for a moment, watching them. Zabuza was leaning against a tree. I could tell he was still injured, but he was talking with Kakashi civilly enough. Sakura was unwrapping a bandage around the large burn mark on Gōzu's face as Meizu watched, dare I say, nervously. Naruto was talking excitedly with Haku, who was smiling at the blond.

It was all very peaceful.

"Sasuke!" Sakura was the first to announce my presence, though I was sure the more experienced ninja had noticed me first. "How are you feeling?"

"Fine," I said, walking the rest of the way into the clearing. "What are you doing?"

"Haku-san is just waiting on another ingredient for the burn salve we're going to use for Gōzu-san and Zabuza-san," Sakura said, polite as ever with her honorifics.

"Here it is," Haku said, even as a familiar white rabbit bounded into the clearing. Except, this rabbit wore a little vest like I remember seeing on Kakashi's ninken. It wasn't the same olive green color, it was a dark blue actually, but it had just as many pockets.

The rabbit hopped up to Haku and then settled onto two legs. It reached into one of the pockets with one of its paws and pulled out a bundle of herbs. "Here you go, Haku-dono!" it said in a distinctly feminine voice.

"Ah!" Naruto jumped back. "Your rabbit just talked!"

"That's a nin-animal, Naruto," Kakashi said. "They're far smarter than normal animals and develop human speech as part of the chakra bond created between them and their master."

"Oh, she's so cute!" Sakura squealed. "What's your name?"

"I'm Aisuko, Haku's ninusagi," the rabbit said promptly. "Thank you for not killing my master and my master's friends."

Haku flushed slightly. "Aisuko," he reprimanded. He shook his head. "I'll teach you how to make the salve now, Sakura-san." He took out a pommel and bowel from his kunai pouch.

I walked over to Kakashi as Haku began to explain the ingredients in the burn salve and how inserting chakra as you mixed them activated… blah blah. I already said I wasn't a biologist, nor did I ever consider going into a medical field. I would never be able to stay awake enough to absorb anything from a pre-med lecture.

"Not dead yet, kid?" Zabuza said as I approached him and Kakashi. "You must have really impressed Haku for him to use his kekkei genkai so quickly into your fight."

I shrugged. That hadn't been my intention, but it had all worked out. "How are you still alive?" I asked, curious. "Kakashi-sensei, isn't Chidori your signature move?"

"Read about it in my bingo book?" Kakashi assumed. "Maa, I suppose I should have aimed for his head."

I looked to Zabuza's lap. The broken remains of his sword were spread across it. I winced. "That was one of the Seven Great Swords, right?"

"Kubikiribōchō," Zabuza said, sighing sadly. "I was trying to convince your sensei here to pay for the cost of repairs."

"Isn't it enough that it saved your life?" Kakashi said. "And that I've decided to allow you to continue to live?"

Zabuza huffed and looked away. I wondered what we were going to do with him and the others. Were we going to turn them in for their bounty? They'd probably be executed then. I wanted to say Kakashi wasn't that cruel, but… well Kakashi had been in the ANBU Corps.

"You know, boy, you have the right build for kenjutsu," Zabuza said. "Not a butcher cleave like Kubikiribōchō but perhaps a shorter sword, like a chokutō."

I blinked. Hadn't that been the kind of sword the other Sasuke had used? How had Zabuza known? Well, I supposed he had trained under one of the Seven Great Swordsmen. They surely knew their craft.

"I've considered it," I said honestly. I hadn't really, not in this body, but I'd always wanted to learn swordfighting in my old life. I mean, how cool was that? "But unless Kakashi-sensei has a skillset in kenjutsu I don't know about," I looked at my teacher, who was reading his porn book, "then I'd have to get a different teacher."

"Konoha's a bunch of weaklings," Zabuza said dismissively. "But your village does produce some specialists. The problem you'd run into would be convincing a master to take you on. Can't do that without showing at least a little talent to prove to them that it's worth it."

"What do you suggest?"

Zabuza was silent, looking over my shoulder. I shifted so I could look too. Haku was helping Sakura put the burn salve on Gōzu's face. They rewrapped the bandages around it and then headed our way.

"Pardon us," Haku said as he knelt down on Zabuza's other side and began unwrapping the bandages around Zabuza's torso. I couldn't help but wince as I saw the nasty mark the Chidori had left, even with Zabuza's sword acting as a shield. Zabuza's skin was an angry red and purple, inflamed in places while elsewhere the skin had ripped open.

Sakura came around my other side and took a brush from Haku. Together, they painted the burn salve on the raw skin around Zabuza's more open wounds. After a moment, Sakura set the brush aside and made a couple hand signs. She placed her green-glowing hand over the worst of the wounds. I didn't see a noticeable difference when she'd finished, but Zabuza seemed to relax a bit, so I assume she'd taken some of the pain away.

"Let me check you too, Sasuke," Sakura said. "Haku-san helped me put some salve on you last night. I want to see how much it's helped."

I unwrapped one of the bandages on my arm and held it out for her without a word. Already, I could see the puncture wound was looking much better. Sakura's chakra was a pleasant temperature as it rushed over the wound. It felt like she'd put a hot pad on my arm, though I knew it was just her chakra.

"You should be fine in another day or two," Sakura said, pulling back. "Haku said they won't even scar!"

"I don't care about that," I said, rewrapping my arm.

"And me, girl?" Zabuza asked.

Sakura turned back to the missing-nin. "I'm sorry, Zabuza-san. Your wound is a lot more severe…"

"It may take a fortnight before you are ready to go any long distance," Haku murmured.

Zabuza looked at the sky for a moment, before nodding. "Very well, then. Hatake, if I'm to be stuck here a fortnight then I might as well do something to keep me busy. I'll be stealing your student."

"Oh?" Kakashi asked, his tone deceptively light.

"He wants to learn kenjutsu. Haku ain't got the form for it and Gōzu and Meizu prefer their chains. Might as well pass down some basics before we go."

I was honestly shocked. "I… I'd be honored," I said honestly. To learn kenjutsu, even just the basics, from one of the Seven Swordsmen! I had not seen that coming at all.

"We're staying, Zabuza-san?" Meizu asked. He and his brother had come over to our side of the clearing. Naruto, hugging Aisuko to his chest, joined us.

"Just for a fortnight," Zabuza said.

"Hooray!" Naruto cheered. "Then I can keep talking with Aisuko-chan and Haku!"

"Naruto-kun wants to learn how to get a nin-animal of his own, Haku-dono," Aisuko said.

"Nin-animal are a lot of responsibility, Naruto," Kakashi said.

"I can handle it," Naruto replied, puffing out his cheeks.

"Do you have a nin-animal, Kakashi-sensei?" Sakura asked.

"He fucking pinned me down with them," Zabuza said.

Kakashi smiled. "I have a pack of ninken, yes."

"A whole pack!" Naruto gaped. "Haku, can I get more than one nin-animal?"

"Not exactly, Naruto-kun," Haku said. "If the pack is not already together before the chakra bond, it would not work."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Just like there are some humans born with chakra, some animal are born with it as well," Haku said. "They are smaller than we are and therefore their chakra reserve is not enough to do much, however it provides them many of the physical and mental abilities ninja receive."

"That's why they can talk?" Sakura asked.

"Not exactly," Kakashi said. "Do you three know the Inuzukas?"

"Kiba was in our class," Naruto said.

"But Akamaru doesn't talk," I pointed out. "Wait, don't his mom and sister's ninken talk, though?" I remember finding that strange, why Akamaru didn't talk when the other Inuzuka ninken do and Kakashi's do.

"The Inuzuka raise their ninken from birth. They believe that developing a bond before the actual chakra bond allows them to have a stronger connection with their ninken," Kakashi explained. "Kiba likely hasn't done a full chakra bond with Akamaru yet."

"What's the chakra bond, then?" I asked. "And how is it different from a summons?"

"Summons live in a separate plain of existence and are brought to ours when called," Meizu said. "They're not like nin-animals at all."

"Though they're just as hard to contract with," Gōzu added.

"The chakra bond forms a connection between the ninja and the nin-animal," Haku said. "It gives the nin-animal a chakra boost, allowing them to use chakra to speak like a human. It also allows the ninja master to summon the nin-animal to their side with a simple summoning seal, so long as they are focused on the chakra bond."

"But unlike summons, nin-animals usually stay with their master," Meizu said.

"Where are your ninken, then?" Sakura asked Kakashi.

"They stay at my house unless I call them," Kakashi explained, shrugging. "They're too disruptive to take on missions unless I need them."

"That's what you get for bonding with a whole pack," Zabuza grumbled.

"So how do I get one, then?" Naruto asked.

"You can't just force a chakra bond on any animal, Naruto," Kakashi warned.

Haku nodded. "To do that would kill the animal. You must make sure that the animal has enough chakra to be a nin-animal, and also that their chakra is compatible with yours."

"Oh." Naruto frowned. "How do I tell that?"

"The easiest way is to be observant," Haku said. "Nin-animals compatible with a ninja often follow that ninja around."

"I followed Haku for a year before he stopped trying to hunt me!" Aisuko piped up.

"I was very young and unaware of nin-animals," Haku defended.

"If you notice an animal following you around, let me know and I'll assess the situation. If it all looks fine, I'll teach you guys how to create the chakra bond," Kakashi told us.

Naruto jumped up and began looking in the bushes, as if hoping an animal would pop out of the woods immediately. I, while admitting it would be cool to have a nin-animal, was far less optimistic about the chances of getting one. It was more likely I'd be able to find the summoning contract with the hawks like the other Sasuke had done… since it wasn't likely I'd get the summoning contract with the snakes without going to Orochimaru.

"Are you sure he was the one who set up the trap around the bridge builder?" Gōzu whispered.

I exchanged an exasperated glance with Sakura. Naruto never failed to be the number one most surprising ninja.

"I have a question," Meizu said, looking at Sakura. "What kind of jutsu did you use to break out of my genjutsu trap? I've never seen anything like it."

"What sort of genjutsu trap?" Kakashi asked, sounding suddenly much more dangerous.

Meizu flinched backward and Gōzu glared at Kakashi.

"It's an interrogation technique, though it works for battle too." Meizu said softly.

Sakura shuddered. "It was scary. We were just in an empty room, Meizu-san and I. I couldn't move at all. I knew I was in an genjutsu, but I couldn't release it."

That sounded like Tsukuyomi. I looked at Kakashi. He seemed angry. I wondered if it was a common interrogation jutsu. If so, had it been modeled after the Uchiha ability?

"I just meant to knock her out," Meizu said quickly, wary of Kakashi's leaking Killing Intent. "But then a second one of her appeared and fought me off."

Sakura blushed. "It's my Inner," she explained.

"Your what?" Gōzu asked.

"My Inner. That's what I call her. Look, I know it sounds crazy." Sakura was speaking very fast now. "I have another me in my head. Except she's not me. She's a little more violent and, well, loud. I call her my Inner."

"Sakura," Kakashi said slowly. "Does she talk to you?"

Sakura nodded. "She's helped me before, when I was too nervous or scared to do anything. I thought… well she first appeared when I was younger and I thought maybe she was just my mind's reaction to be bullied but she never went away–"

"Sounds like a kekkei genkai," Zabuza said. "No regular mental delusion would be able to physically beat away an intruder during a genjutsu."

"I'm not from a clan, though," Sakura said.

Zabuza snorted. "How do you think clan kekkei genkai's start, girl? Someone is born with some ability that gets passed down to their children. Whole clans don't just pop out of nowhere."

I remember Sakura using her Inner to push Ino out of her mind, but I don't remember it ever being anything else except comedic relief any other time in the show. "Can she come out of your head?" I asked, thinking aloud.

"What do you mean, Sasuke-kun?"

"Can you make a clone, but put your Inner in it or something?" Everyone stared at me. I shrugged. "A clone is just a mental and physical copy, isn't it? If Sakura has two mind's in her head, then maybe she can learn to pull the other one out."

"That'd be more useful with a shadow clone," Naruto said.

I nearly jumped. Sakura and the Demon Brothers definitely did. None of us had realized Naruto had stopped looking for a nin-animal and had been listening in.

"Naruto's right," Kakashi said. "Let's put that aside for now. What's more useful about this is the possibility of weaponizing it during genjutsu."

Meizu shuddered. "Now that'd be scary," he said. "If you could call your… Inner… out not just during genjutsu that go into your mind, but also area genjutsu, it would be a huge advantage during a time your enemy will expect you to be mostly useless."

"Do you really think it's a kekkei genkai, sensei?" Sakura asked.

"You won't know until you have children," Kakashi said.

Haku cleared his throat. "Speaking of kekkei genkai, congratulations Sasuke-san."

"What?"

Haku blinked. "Are you not aware? I saw your Sharingan just before you, ah…"

"Yeah, Sasuke, your eyes turned red like Kakashi's right before you jumped in front of the senbon for me," Naruto said. "Um, thanks for that, by the way. Even if it was stupid of you to do."

"Shut up, dobe, I acted on instinct," I said, rolling my eyes. Upon retrospect, of course, I could tell myself Naruto would have healed way faster than me, but at the time I had been worried about a stray senbon hitting him in the eye and killing him. Naruto was far more important than I am, even with my somewhat unreliable knowledge of the future.

"You unlocked the Sharingan, huh?" Kakashi scratched his cheek. "I suppose I can take some time out of my reading schedule to teach you a couple things about it."

"I can train with Naruto-kun," Haku offered. "I still have a few more things Sakura-san may be interested in learning about healing balms and salves, but while she is training her genjutsu I would be honored to teach Naruto."

"And what would you be teaching him?" Kakashi asked.

"It came to my attention that Naruto has far more chakra then a normal genin. Would he not benefit from advancing to elemental jutsu so as to focus his chakra output?"

Kakashi seemed to think for a moment, and then he nodded. "Might as well include all of them on the preliminary lessons, but Naruto could spend some time learning more ninjutsu—since he has enough chakra to burn off several techniques in a battle."

"Yes!" Naruto cheered. "Cool jutsu, here I come!"

"Well then, we have a fortnight," Kakashi said, flipping his porn book back out. "Sakura, you'll work with Haku on medicine and with Gōzu and Meizu on genjutsu. Sasuke, when you're not working on the Sharingan with me, you'll be at Zabuza's tender mercy. Naruto, you'll work with Haku on ninjutsu."

I smiled, excited. Of course, I knew the next week would be a lot of work, but it sure sounded like we'd learn a lot.

I was right, on both accounts.

Chapter Text

I focused, pushing chakra to my eyes to activate my Sharingan. My opponent was in front of me, fists covered in red gloves. I drew out my sword. She drew out three shuriken. We waited a breath, and then pushed off the ground at the same time. I lifted my sword, ready to slice her shuriken in half even as she prepared to throw a kunai in their wake.

"Hey guys, we got a letter!" Naruto exclaimed as he ran onto the training ground.

Sakura and I rebounded away from each other. We both glared.

"Naruto, don't interrupt our spar!" Sakura yelled.

Naruto just laughed. "Come on, it's our first letter from our Mist buddies!"

I sighed and sheathed my short sword. It was a basic blade, nothing even requiring a name, but until I found a master and proved to them my worth I wouldn't even think about finding a named sword.

Sakura shook her head, her pink hair neatly tied in a bun on the top of her head. She wore her new clothes, the ones she'd gotten when we returned to Konoha. They consisted of a black dress with sleeves that stopped just below her elbows, red gloves, and red tights that stopped at her ankles, half covered by calf-length black ninja shoes. The whole outfit had been received at a shinobi outfitter, of course, and was chakra enhanced so it wouldn't tear with normal training.

I thought she looked good and had told her so. She had blushed slightly, of course, but hadn't gone off into a fangirl craze like she would have a month ago. It was a great improvement.

"What does it say?" Sakura asked, walking to Naruto. I followed her.

"Haven't opened it yet," Naruto said. He put his finger on the seal and pressed a little chakra into it. "It won't open with just my chakra."

I nodded. That was a good defense against prying eyes. I put my finger next to Naruto's, as did Sakura. We all pushed chakra into the seal.

The scroll unfurled, revealing two smaller scrolls inside it. We read the text on the main scroll first.

Dear Naruto, Sakura, and Sasuke, the scroll said.

I hope this letter finds you. The messenger pigeon we purchased seems uncertain, but the teller assured us they are normally nervous around ninja.

As I write, Gozū and Meizu are returning with food for dinner. They say to tell you hello and that they miss Sasuke's cooking already, and Sakura's witty conversation, and Naruto's pranks.

Zabuza is now threatening them for bringing up the shark prank again. He won't say it, but he is curious about how you are all doing as well. Oh, he is saying to Sasuke that you should continue doing those daily drills, or he'll hunt you down. I have to remind him that it would be unwise for us to break into the Leaf just for that.

Sakura, I hope you have found the right herbs around the Leaf to make that healing balm we went over. It will be very useful in the future, knowing as I do now how fervently your teammates train. Naruto, I feel I should remind you not to try that jutsu I taught you the day before we left unless your sensei is watching. Focus on improving the basic wind one first.

Sasuke and Sakura, I enclosed some scrolls on basic lightning and water jutsu, respectively. I do not wish for you to feel left out. I know you enjoy your fire jutsu, Sasuke, but as that is only your second affinity it would be good of you to learn some lightning jutsu as well. Sakura, one of the water jutsu can be used to help healing and another is a variation of a Mist technique that amplifies genjutsu. I know you will use them well.

I cannot give you an exact location to send a bird to reply to us yet, though I can say Zabuza has taken us to the border of the Land of Mist. I am afraid I cannot tell you what we shall be doing, but I can say that you would approve. Especially you, Naruto. I will send another letter when we have a more permanent setting. Until then, know we all wish you well and good luck during your future missions.

Sincerely,

Haku

I took the small lightning scroll and handed the water one to Sakura. Then I pushed some chakra through my mouth in a mockery of the Great Fireball Jutsu and burned the letter.

"Hey!" Naruto complained. "Why'd you do that?"

"Remember the lecture the Hokage gave us on letting them go? Since they left in the middle of the night with no trace," I reminded him meaningfully. "We can't risk anyone else seeing the letter."

"Oh." Naruto huffed. "I guess you're right." He still looked upset about not being able to keep the letter.

"Ramen?" Sakura offered, knowing like I did at this point that it was the best way to cheer Naruto up—and a happy Naruto was much preferable to an upset Naruto. After all, despite popular belief, Naruto was actually much quieter when actually happy. Sure, he sometimes exclaimed his excitement loudly, but overall he was much louder when he was outraged about something or searching for attention.

"Yeah!" Naruto led the way. I stepped up to his right and Sakura to his left. We headed toward Ichiraku's.

About halfway there, Naruto suddenly turned and pointed. "For the last time, Konohamaru! Rocks do not have eyes!"

I smiled as the rock that had been following us replied. Sakura was giggling behind her hand as Naruto play wrestled with Konohamaru.

I watched him, noticing the way the sun shone on his blond hair. He was smiling down at Konohamaru like an indulgent older brother and, I couldn't help but think, it was extremely attractive.

"Oh," Sakura murmured. I dragged my eyes away from Naruto and glanced at her. She was staring at Naruto with wide eyes.

"We're going to batting the suitors away," I remarked dryly, trying to calm the wild beating of my heart.

Judging by the heat I felt pooling in my gut, I had just answered one of my questions. I had wondered when it would come. I hadn't woken up to stick sheets or any other stereotypical teenage boy thing I'd heard about, but then again I rarely went through the night without a nightmare so that could explain it. I had on several occasions felt my new… member getting hard.

It was the weirdest thing in the world to remember having a vagina and suddenly having a penis. I'd had years to get used to it, but peeing out of it and having it react in sexual situations were two different things entirely.

Regardless, it seemed as though I had concrete evidence now—because it was one thing to get a little turned on by a guy or a girl and an entirely different thing to be imaging dating them, kissing them, having sex with them.

If Naruto asked me out, I wouldn't say no.

"Sasuke?" Sakura asked, more hesitant than I'd heard from her in weeks.

I picked up my pace to follow Naruto as he chased Konohamaru through the streets. "Naruto is special. You know that now, right?"

Sakura nodded. "When you told me, when we first became a team, how you thought he might be able to be Hokage, I didn't believe it. I do now, I think. At least, I want to believe it."

"How long ago was it that you hated him? No, don't take that the wrong way. I mean, it's just part of Naruto's charm, I think. He has this ability to draw people in. As soon as they get close enough, they fall into orbit around him before they can help it."

"Like he's the sun." Sakura smiled and nodded. "Yeah, that sounds about right." She paused. "But about batting suitors away…"

"We're his team. I'm not sure Naruto has much if any experience with people honestly caring about him. We have to be here, to make sure no one takes advantage of his feelings."

Sakura frowned. "But his feelings… I mean toward me, he usually–"

"And if he asks you out, if you don't want to date him, you'd better let him down gently and remind him that you're still his friend and teammate," I told her bluntly. "He won't be mad about an honest rejection. He's Naruto."

Sakura perked up, nodding. "That's true." She looked sideways at me. "And you?"

"And me what?"

"If I asked you out?"

"I'd tell you the same." I scratched the back of my head. "Are you? Because I thought you stopped putting me on some ridiculous pedestal just because my family was murdered."

Sakura flinched. I thought about apologizing for the harshness, but she was already nodding. "No, you're correct. It wasn't right, the way I, and the rest, treated you. I know you're more than your family, Sasuke. You're my teammate too and… maybe I don't have a crush on you anymore but I still care about you."

"I care about you too," I said, because it was true. In the last month, Sakura had gone from being an annoying girl with potential to be more… to be my actual teammate. She was so much more now than she had been at this point in the show and I loved her a little for it.

If she honestly did ask me out, I don't think I'd actually say no. But then, I knew that she wouldn't, not right now. Because the girl she was who would have asked me out was not the girl I would say yes to.

I wasn't crushing on my team, not really, but I was falling a little bit in love with them. They were both so bright, so much brighter than me. I wanted to bask in the warmth they gave off. I wanted to be their teammate for as long as I could, and one of their precious people even after.

And it seemed that I could envision living in romantic bliss with anyone, regardless of gender. Considering what I knew of shinobi, and how most of them were the same—anyone to help relieve the stress of this job—I wasn't disappointed, nor was I really surprised.

"Hey, let him go!"

Sakura and I sped up, turning the corner. I wanted to slap myself on the forehead as I saw the scene we'd walked into. Kankurō was holding Konohamaru up off the ground. Naruto faced them, hands clenched. I knew him, knew by the set of his shoulders that he was calculating how to use a wind jutsu to slice at Kankurō without hurting Konohamaru.

I stepped forward, putting a hand on Naruto's shoulder in a silent message that I had it covered. I straightened. "What are ninja from the Sunagakure doing in the Leaf?"

Temari stepped forward. Where her brother was all sort of strange looking, his painted face and black hoodie making him look like the puppets he wields, she wore more stereotypical shinobi clothes. She was taller than me, and all beautiful strength, but I was focused more on the danger Konohamaru was in than how attractive she was.

"We're here to compete in the Chūnin Exam," she said formally. "I have our papers."

I nodded because though I knew they were there for legitimate reasons—well, ignoring the planned invasion—it would look weird if I dropped the issue then. Temari handed over the papers that had been stamped with approval for Temari, Kankurō, and Gaara of the Sand to participate in the Chūnin Exam under their sensei, Baki. I didn't know what to look for if they were forged, but I knew they weren't.

"Very well then," I said, handing the papers back. "I do have to wonder why the daughter and son of the Kazekage are risking an international incident by attempting to harm the grandson of the Hokage."

Kankurō dropped Konohamaru in a flat second. "Grandson of the Hokage?"

I raised an eyebrow at him even as Konohamaru ran behind Naruto and Sakura. "He is, but then does that truly matter? Why do guests to the village need to know the identity of our children before realizing that picking on them is hardly the decorum expected."

Kankurō flushed, noticeable even under his paint. Temari straightened, but before she could say anything, their other sibling appeared. "Kankurō, I'm disgusted with you," Gaara said in a gravely voice.

It was one thing to see characters on a show shiver at Killing Intent and an entirely different thing to feel the raw rage of the Ichibi rush over you. I had to struggle to hold in my reaction to the chakra—just as prickly as Naruto when he was using the Kyūbi's and with focused Killing Intent on top of that.

"You must be Gaara," I said, inclining my head. "I'm sure that there is an assigned training ground for you and your teammates. There is no reason for you to be in the middle of the village threatening our citizens."

Gaara's sand began to stir dangerously. I nearly bit my tongue.

And then Naruto stepped up. His blue eyes were locked on Gaara. I felt a prickle of the Kyūbi's chakra. Gaara obviously felt it too, for his sand rose up.

"Konoha is my village," Naruto said. I'd never heard his voice sound so threatening before. "Everyone in this village is precious to me. I won't see you hurt them. So pull back that scariness, before I make you."

I would have face-palmed at the word choice, if it weren't for the fact that Naruto had laced his somewhat lackluster threat with the Kyūbi's own Killing Intent.

Gaara took a step back. I saw that Kankurō and Temari were as shocked as I was. All of us were rooted in place, stuck under the combined weight of two demon's Killing Intent and rough chakra output.

And then Gaara clutched him head. I took a step toward Naruto, wary of an explosion of sand. A moment later, Gaara lifted his face and his sand retreated back into the gourd. "Kankurō, Temari, we're leaving." He shunshin'd away without another word. His siblings followed immediately.

"I want to learn the Body Flicker Jutsu," I said aloud.

"Maa, I suppose I can teach you that in a week," Kakashi said. We all spun. Kakashi stood with his hands tucked in his pockets. "Konohamaru, Ebisu is looking for you," he said lazily.

"Darn it," Konohamaru said. "Can we play later, Naruto-nii?"

"Sure," Naruto said cheerily, all of his early threatening nature gone behind a happy-go-lucky smile.

Konohamaru ran off.

"Were you watching the whole time, Kakashi-sensei?" Sakura asked. "That could have gone badly, you know."

"I would have stepped in if I was needed," Kakashi said. "Probably."

"Hey, Kakashi-sensei, what's this about the Chūnin Exam being in Konoha?" Naruto asked. "And what do you mean by a week to teach us shunshin?"

"Related questions! You see, I've entered you into the Exam, my cute little genin."

"YES!" Naruto punched the air. "We're going to be chūnin."

"There's no guarantee we'll pass, dobe," I said.

"Shut up, teme," Naruto said, still smiling. "Don't be a pessimist."

"Boys," Sakura sighed, shaking her head. "Do you really think we're ready, sensei?"

"I do," Kakashi said. "Don't you, Sakura?"

Sakura pondered that for a moment, before nodding. "Yeah," she said. "We've grown a lot." She grinned. "Enough to show everyone what we're made of, like we promised when we first became a team."

"The Chūnin Exam," I agreed. "The time to surprise Konoha and the visiting nations and show them Konoha's next Hokage."

"And his right hands," Sakura added.

Naruto was bright red with embarrassment when we turned to him. "Guys…"

"I thought we were going to get ramen," I said, to save Naruto from whatever was running through his head.

"Right! Let's celebrate going to the Chūnin Exam with RAMEN!" Naruto dashed off.

The rest of the team and I followed at a more sedate pace. "That was well done," Kakashi said. I thought for a moment that he was referring to my distracting Naruto, until he added, "Diplomatic and superior. The Hokage would be proud."

"It's our village," I said. "They had no right to act like that."

"No, you were in the right. With a little more training and you could learn to talk circles around other shinobi."

I glanced a Kakashi briefly. "I've considered trying to become an ambassador," I admitted. I wasn't quite the person I had been in my other life, but I still loved the idea of high-stakes meetings and going back and forth on a treaty. The idea of out-smarting a fellow ambassador, or the leader of another village, gave me a thrill just thinking about it.

would need training though. Regardless of the theory I'd learned in school in my other life, the world of ninja was different and the way they acted was different. In the other world, arrogance like what I'd shown would be detrimental toward good relations, while in this world it was the mark of confidence in my village's strength and my own.

"Once you become a chūnin, I'll see what I can do getting you some training on that front, if that's what you want to do," Kakashi said. "I certainly won't be teaching you that."

"Have you noticed that Kakashi-sensei always seems to push us off to different teachers when it comes to anything more than the bare basics?" Sakura whispered in my direction.

I nodded. "Do you think he's too lazy to actually teach us properly, or that he'd not confident in more than the basics himself?"

"So uncute," Kakashi whined.

At our regular training ground a couple days later, Kakashi clapped his hands. "Okay, team, you've all successfully managed to get the body flicker down."

"No thanks to you," Sakura called. I sighed. Kakashi's training had been more of the 'I'm going to push you off a cliff until you learn to fly' type.

Kakashi let the insult roll off him like water. "We only have a few more days until the exam. If there's one thing that remains constant in all the Chūnin Exams, it's that there is a team portion and an individual fighting portion. I'm confident in your skills in fighting, all of you, but we haven't actually done much in the way of team drills."

"Why am I getting a bad feeling about this?" I asked my teammates. They both gulped.

"You were curious about my ninken when we were in Wave," Kakashi continued. "So now you'll get a chance to meet them up close." He grinned. "We're going to be playing hide and seek. It's your turn to hide first."

"Run," Naruto said, bolting toward the woods.

It didn't help. By the end of the day, we'd been bit, scratched, and slobbered on. And we still hadn't managed to hide from Kakashi's ninken for more than half-an-hour. The only reason we'd even made it that long was because Naruto had gotten creative with traps, but even they weren't enough to stop the whole pack.

We collapsed in the clearing as the sun was setting. Pakkun and the others approached us and I, at least, tensed. They didn't attack us though.

"You kids did good," Pakkun said.

"Yeah, it was fun!" Bisuke added, jumping on top of Naruto and licking his cheek.

Naruto laughed and scratched Bisuke's ears. "Thanks."

I sighed and lay back down. Bull, the only of Kakashi's ninken that hadn't said anything all day, curled up by my side and laid his huge head on my chest. I patted the top of his head briefly. On my left, I saw that Ūhei had jumped into Sakura's lap while Akino had curled up against her back. Urushi and Shiba had joined Bisuke with Naruto, while Pakkun stayed at Kakashi's feet.

"I'm so tired," Sakura groaned. "Hey, Pakkun-chan, can you go get food for us so we don't have to move?"

"I'm not a delivery dog," Pakkun grumped.

"No worries, my cute little genin, I packed bentō," Kakashi said.

I joined my teammates in giving Kakashi a grateful smile. By the time we finished eating, we were all energized enough to at least stumble back home.

The next couple days we went through the same exercise over and over again, until I had learned to hide my chakra signature in my sleep because of how easily the pack had found us sensing out our chakra. Naruto still had the hardest time with that, of course, but he'd learned a trick to it that allowed him to at least pull his signature in when he was concentrating on it. Sakura was proficient enough to pass as a civilian even to the ninken, which was all sorts of impressive.

And then it was the day before the exam and Sakura, Kakashi, and I dragged Naruto over to my house where I'd prepared a huge meal for all of us.

"I don't see why we can't go to Ichiraku's," Naruto whined as we walked through my front door. "Not that your cooking isn't awesome, Sasuke. But ramen…"

"How about a birthday treat?" I asked, pushing Naruto toward the kitchen table.

Naruto gaped at the set up. I'd cooked his second favorite dish—mahi-mahi with lemon sauce—and baked a recipe that I hadn't seen anywhere in this world. It was an angel food cake complete with pineapple slices, strawberries, and homemade whipped cream.

"Happy Birthday!" We all said.

"We know it's a little early," Sakura added. "But since your birthday will probably be in the middle of the Chūnin Exam, we decided to celebrate it with you now instead."

"We might still take you out to ramen on your actual birthday," I added. "If you're good."

Naruto made a couple of gasping sounds and then he turned to us. "You guys are the best," he said sincerely. He threw his arms around me and Sakura and pulled us into a tight hug. "Thank you, thank you, thank you."

"You haven't even opened your presents yet," Sakura said, patting him on the back awkwardly.

This sparked another round of shock and thanks. In the background, I heard a clicking noise and turned to see that Kakashi had taken a picture of us. He pulled the photo out of the old-fashioned polaroid camera—at least old-fashioned in my old world—and vanished it inside his vest.

I gave him a suspicious look, but Kakashi only smiled and shooed me to where Naruto was digging into his food.

It was a happy dinner, and an even happier desert. I got multiple compliments on the cake.

"I've never tasted anything like it," Sakura said. "It's so good!"

"Very light," Kakashi added. "What a fascinating texture."

"Yummy!" Naruto said, digging into his fifth slice.

I ate my own piece slowly, savoring the little taste of my old home. "I'm glad it turned out alright," I said. "I wasn't sure." I didn't exactly have a recipe book for it.

Shaking my head to clear out the sudden longing for my old life, I got up and grabbed my wrapped present for Naruto.

Naruto shoved his plate aside and grabbed the package. "Can I open it now?" he asked like a little kid.

I nodded and Naruto wasted no time ripping open the wrappings to reveal the clothes I'd had designed for him.

"Oh, go try them on!" Sakura exclaimed.

Naruto nodded dumbly and escaped to the bathroom to change. He came back a moment later and raised his arms. "These are so awesome, Sasuke. They fit perfectly!"

"They should, I made sure to get your measurements," I said. I'd henged into Naruto and had the seamstress measure exactly. "There are several replacements in that box over there, along with the receipt of the place I got them. The seamstress has been paid to tailor the clothes as you keep growing for at least the next couple years. I also included a black band for your forehead protector and a pair of black shoes in your size, since the blue won't match."

"They look good on you, Naruto," Sakura said softly.

They did. I hadn't gone for his exact Shippuden outfit, because Sakura and I were both wearing different clothes from the show and I wanted him to as well, at least until he bought his own new clothes.

Naruto now wore black pants with red stripes down the side, because the seamstress didn't have enough orange lining in stock and I thought they looked better anyway. He still had orange on his torso though, in the form of a plain vest with a zipper down the front and two huge pockets. Under the vest was a long-sleeve black shirt. On the back of the vest, I made sure the seamstress had sewn on the Uzumaki clan symbol—the red spiral. It matched in color to the stripes on the pants, which just brought the whole outfit together.

"Now we match," I said. "All of us with black and red."

"You'll look quite unified for the exam tomorrow," Kakashi agreed. "Stand together now."

We complied and Kakashi snapped another picture of us. I wanted to roll my eyes. Who knew Kakashi could act like a parent on their child's prom night?

"Mine next," Sakura said, taking a small package out of her kunai pouch.

Naruto opened it up to reveal two scrolls.

"The smaller one is just a list of what's in the sealing scroll," Sakura explained.

"Ninja trap wire, explosive paint, scent-making seals…" Naruto began to read and then trailed off to look wide-eyed at Sakura. "This is a prank-making kit!"

"No." Sakura scowled. "It's for traps to use during the exam."

"Which is basically playing kind-of-nasty pranks on our opponents." Naruto waved a hand in the air. "Thanks, Sakura-chan!"

"I suppose I'd better do something for you too," Kakashi whined. "Hmm, I have an idea. Just wait a moment." He shunshin'd away.

"Do you think he really forgot to get a gift?" Sakura whispered to me.

I would have been very surprised, but I didn't say that. After all, Kakashi was much more than the show every portrayed him to be. Sure, he was lazy and not the best teacher, but he'd also lifted himself up as an adult figure for us to go to when we needed something. I had to wonder why he'd never obviously done that in canon. Could it be because none of the original Team 7 had sought out help?

But then, had we? I tried to remember the first time I noticed a big change in this Kakashi and the one I knew from the show. Definitely by the time we got to the Wave mission, that night he talked to all of us individually…

Or had it started earlier? When he first met us, when I had prompted Naruto to tell us about stealing the Forbidden Scroll?

Kakashi returned before I could figure out a clear answer and threw three square objects at me and my teammates. I caught it deftly and looked at it. It was a picture frame, the kind that held three pictures in a pyramid-like formation. The one on the top was our official team photo, the one with Kakashi resting his hands on my and Naruto's head and Sakura in the middle. Naruto was smiling in that one, holding up a peace sign, while Sakura had her hands clasped in front of her and I was smirking. I wrinkled my nose. I had a hard time smiling for a camera. I suppose it was better than the Team 7 photo in canon, which had involved Naruto and the other Sasuke glaring at each other.

Below the team photo on the left was one of the photos Kakashi had just taken. Naruto was clutching Sakura and I to his chest in it. Sakura had obviously been caught in the middle of laughing and even I was smiling fondly. I traced Naruto's happy face, and then looked at the last photo. Naruto wore his new clothes, one arm around Sakura's shoulder and the other around mine. We all looked content, happy to be in each other's presence.

"Wow," Sakura said.

"Kakashi-sensei," Naruto began, and then scowled. "Where'd he go?"

I looked up. In our distraction, Kakashi had vanished again. "I'm going to put this in my room," I said.

I set the large picture frame up on my dresser where I would see it every morning and then returned to the living room. Naruto had placed Sakura's scrolls and the frame on top of the box holding his extra clothes. Sakura was still holding hers.

The front door opened and Kakashi stepped in. I raised an eyebrow. Why had he taken the front door when earlier he'd just jumped through the open window?

"Ready for your present, Naruto?" he asked.

"Another one?" Naruto gaped. "You don't have to!"

"Maa, I think you'd be sad if you turned this one away." Kakashi gestured and a small animal slowly walked into the room.

I stared. It was a fox. Its fur was mixed golden, like a sunset just before it turns red, and the end of its tail was burnt orange. It was fairly small, no bigger than Pakkun, but its yellow eyes showed just as much intelligence.

"The pack smelled her out the last few days. She's quite good at hiding. I didn't notice her myself until they pointed her out to me."

"No way," Naruto whispered and dropped to his knees. "Um, hi?"

The fox looked at me and Sakura, and then crept forward to Naruto's outstretched hand.

"Kakashi-sensei, can that fox really be a nin-animal? Like Haku said?" Sakura asked as Naruto began to hesitantly pet the creature.

"I checked her chakra pathways. She has enough even to bond with Naruto," Kakashi said. "She seemed very familiar with Konoha. I wonder how long she's been following Naruto around, but we can't ask her until Naruto performs the chakra bond."

"I'm not surprised," I said. "Of course you'd attract foxes, Naruto. Your chakra is practically laced with the biggest fox there is."

Naruto laughed. "Yeah, I guess you're right." He sat back. "What do you say? You want to be my ninkitsune?"

The fox placed her front legs on Naruto's knee and nodded deliberately.

Kakashi bent down beside Naruto and began to teach him how to create the seal that would connect him and his new nin-animal. I went to the kitchen to clean up, because it felt a bit like a private moment, however much I was curious.

Sakura helped me and together we scrubbed the dishes and the cleaned up the table. Kakashi came in a moment later. I looked at him. "What happens if the fox dies?" I asked softly. "Naruto's chakra is practically feral."

"If she's been following him around as long as I think she has, she'll be able to handle it," Kakashi answered. "Don't worry so much, Sasuke."

I huffed. It was practically my job to worry. No one else on the team seemed to find it necessary.

Naruto came in half-an-hour later. "Hey guys, this is Yoko. Yoko, this is Sakura and Sasuke and Kakashi-sensei."

"Hello," Yoko greeted softly.

"How long have you been following Naruto, Yoko-chan?" Sakura asked.

Yoko wiggled in Naruto's arms, before settling down. "I was just a kit when I started," she admitted. "As was Naruto-dono." She yawned.

"You should take her home to rest," Kakashi said. "There might be a vest and forehead protector for her in your apartment. Maybe. If I remembered to have Pakkun put it there." He tapped his chin. "Maa, who knows?"

"Thanks, Kakashi-sensei. Sakura. Sasuke. This was the best birthday ever." Naruto smiled, like a warm breath of sunlight. "We're going to be awesome tomorrow, right?"

"Right," Sakura agreed.

"Of course," I said.

That night, I lay in my bed and thought about what the exam would bring. Orochimaru, come to place the Curse Seal on me. The invasion. The Third Hokage's death.

I closed my eyes tightly. Of course, I'd told them, but inside I was very nervous.

I only hoped all we'd learned the last month would be enough.

Chapter Text

It was the day of the Chūnin Exam. I met with my team at a fruit stand in the main market square for breakfast. They were both vibrating with nervous energy. If I was being honest, so was I.

"The first test is in the Academy," Sakura mused. "So maybe it's a written exam?"

"Or they're trying to trick us!" Naruto exclaimed. "All Kakashi-sensei said was to meet in room 301. The test might not actually be there."

"That's possible," I said because though I knew the first test was written, Naruto made a good point. "Building on that, whatever the test appears to be, there'll likely be a hidden meaning. We shouldn't take what the instructor says at face value."

I finished my fruit cup and rice last, because Sakura had gotten the slightly smaller order and Naruto always ate fast.

"Ready?" Sakura asked.

I nodded, pushing aside my unease. Nothing would happen until after the written portion. I would have some more time to plan—I hoped. My current plans were sketchy at best. There were so many variables to consider, as well as the uneasy possibility that I was forgetting something.

We headed to the Academy by jumping on the rooftops. Ever since Kakashi had taught us the combination of Body Flicker and Tree Walking required for roof hopping, we'd been using it as a means of transportation. The roof paths were much faster, after all, and it was so cool.

Landing at the base of the Academy, we walked a flight of stairs and reached the second floor only to find a bunch of the prospective chūnin hanging around. Judging by the needling some of them were doing at the chūnin guarding the room that said 301, I guessed the rest were just waiting around for the guards—Kotetsu and Izumo, I remembered—to move. Even if I hadn't remembered that this was a genjutsu, I feel like I would have known because it was only the second floor. The fact that no one else did was ridiculous.

Then again, there weren't that many people waiting in comparison to the number I was sure were going to take the exam. It was possible these were just the dredges who hadn't noticed the genjutsu or who wanted to watch the others make a fool of themselves before moving on.

I looked at Sakura, wondering if she'd noticed the genjutsu. She frowned for a moment at the sign, but seemed soon distracted by the sight of our former classmates.

"Forehead Girl!" Ino shouted, drawing everyone's attention to us.

I shifted so that I was just slightly behind Naruto, though still on his right. Sakura copied me subconsciously on his left. All our teamwork training had paid off, at least in our awareness of each other. I felt as though I would know where Sakura and Naruto were with my eyes closed and my hearing blocked. I just knew where they were in relation to me. Perhaps, I thought, I had just gotten that used to their chakra.

"Ino," Sakura said in a calm, mature tone.

Ino blinked several times. I noticed Shikamaru watching us. He, I knew, was taking our body language and positioning in at a rapid-fire pace. I wondered what conclusions he'd draw.

"You guys look different," Chōji said before taking another handful of chips and munching on them.

"And you guys… don't," Sakura said, looking from Team Ten to Team Eight. Indeed, our classmates looked practically the same from the day they'd gotten their team assignments.

"It's only been a few months," I reminded Sakura.

Sakura shrugged, adjusting the neat bun on her head absentmindedly. "Has it? It feels longer."

I wasn't surprised. Sakura, at least, was a completely different version of herself. In contrast, our classmates hadn't changed much.

"N-na-naruto," Hinata stuttered. "Y-y-you…" She trailed off, her face bright red as she stared at Naruto's new outfit.

"Hi there, Hinata!" Naruto said, smiling brightly.

That was too much for the girl. She fainted straight away. Kiba yelped and began to worriedly check his teammate over even as Shino hovered.

I sighed. She took that crush a little to far, I thought. What kind of ninja fainted because of a boy smiling at her? I wished someone would take the initiative to give her some confidence training. Maybe put her in charge of a couple missions. Kiba, however aggressive sometimes, was a puppy when it came to people he liked so he'd listen and Shino would likely do what his current commander said.

Still, they weren't my team and it would look strange for me to suggest that to Kurenai, probably.

"My youthful, eternal rival!" A very familiar voice shouted, waking Hinata up and startling the other watching genin.

I placed a fleeting hand on Naruto's shoulder to tell him not to worry and then side stepped the kick suddenly aimed at my face. In a flash, I used shunshin to teleport to the other side of the room and then rolled. Pulling my body above my hands, I did a helicopter kick—well it wasn't called that in this society but I couldn't think of it any other way—only to find my forefront foot blocked by a hand. I went flying and twisted like a cat so I'd land on my feet.

Lee grinned at me from the other side of the room. "Truly it is most fun to spar with you, my eternal rival!"

"Hello, Lee," I said with an obvious sigh in my voice. "It's been a few months."

Lee struck his good-guy pose. "Now that my eternal rival is a genin like I, we shall have even more youthful and vigorous fights and challenges!"

"Sasuke?" Sakura asked.

"Do you remember the weird jōnin in green who crashed our practice a week ago and challenged Kakashi-sensei to a hand-walking contest?" I asked.

Naruto and Sakura nodded.

"That was Maito Gai, this guy's sensei," I said, pointing my thumb at Lee. "He considers Kakashi his eternal rival."

"And so, um, Lee considers you his?" Sakura asked.

"Sasuke has been my eternal rival since we were both youthful Academy students!" Lee proclaimed.

"Hm, so this is the weakling you're always going on about, Lee," Neji said then, walking up with Tenten. "The Uchiha."

"I do not need a jealous Hyūga commenting on my strength," I shot back, already annoyed at Neji's attitude. We hadn't even officially met and he was being an arrogant asshole! I couldn't wait for Naruto to kick him down a notch.

That was, if the fights worked the same… which they probably wouldn't. I scowled.

"You guys probably shouldn't be so loud," someone said then. I turned and saw Kabuto, in all his kind-demeanor acting, standing next to us. "It's annoying the others."

We looked around to see the other genin were frowning, some even growling, at us.

I scoffed. If they couldn't handle us talking, then they weren't ready for the Chūnin Exam. Especially not this Chūnin Exam.

"Who are you?" Naruto asked.

I watched Kabuto, searching for any sign that he was playing pretend genin even as he explained his whole thing about failing the exam seven times and having info cards on the current participants.

"Tell us about Team Seven," Ino said. I could tell she was hurting a little from the change in Sakura. Good, I thought a bit viciously. Maybe she'd grow up fast enough to not be harmed in the cruel world we all now lived in.

"Let's see," Kabuto flipped through his cards. "Team Seven, under Hatake Kakashi. My, what an impressive jōnin sensei."

At once, my teammates and I rolled our eyes. Kakashi was impressive, sure, but perhaps not in the ways most people thought when they imagined him.

"The team includes Haruno Sakura, civilian born and top kunoichi in her Academy class. She scored near perfect on all her written tests and has excellent chakra control for E-rank ninjutsu, but her taijutsu and kunai aim are mediocre at best."

I looked at Sakura, who seemed to be holding back the urge to roll her eyes again.

"Next is Uzumaki Naruto. He failed the Genin Exam three times and only passed recently because of an incident with extra credit." Kabuto glanced up. "I'm afraid the rest was classified." Naruto shrugged and grinned. "His E-rank ninjutsu was the worst of the class and his taijutsu and aim are abysmal in comparison to the graduation average. His written test scores were no higher than ten points out of a hundred. He is said to have extraordinary chakra capacity but no outlet for it."

"That's what you get for graduating dead last," I told him. Naruto stuck out his tongue.

"Uchiha Sasuke, last of the loyal Uchihas," Kabuto continued. I stiffened at the subtle way Kabuto drew out loyal. "Top marks for all components of the Genin Exam." Well, I had been an adult taking a test meant for preteens. The only thing I might have had trouble, the early-level ninja stuff, I trained like hell for. "He is also said to have awaken his Sharingan on their latest mission. Together," Kabuto said, finishing off. "They successfully completed twenty-seven C-rank missions and… an A-rank?"

"I still don't understand why it was turned A-rank," Sakura said. "I mean, it wasn't that hard in the end."

"Let's go through it," I said, because I couldn't help but be proud of my team and I wanted to explain to the non-believers around us just what that A-rank had entailed. "First Naruto fought off two chūnin practically by himself because our sensei was being lazy. Then, when our sensei was lazy again and let himself get captured, we fought off a jōnin together. After that, you, Sakura, fought off a chūnin by yourself because the other had been taken out in Naruto's trap while sensei was distracted by the same jōnin and Naruto and I fought off someone at tokubetsu jōnin-level."

"Seriously?" Tenten whispered.

"They probably weren't very strong chūnin or jōnin," Neji said.

Naruto shrugged. "Well they were missing-nin, so it wasn't like they could take anymore exams. Sensei did say the Demon Brothers were probably closer to tokubetsu jōnin-level, but they insisted they'd rather just be known as chūnin. And Zabuza is an S-ranked missing-nin, so him being a jōnin didn't really matter."

"And Haku wasn't ranked at all in Mist before he left," Sakura added. "But he was definitely tokubetsu jōnin for his poisons and senbon alone, even ignoring his kekkei genkai."

I nodded. "He did also successfully pretend to be a Hunter-nin, so we could possibly call him ANBU-level."

Everyone was gaping. I had to reel in my smug smile. Maybe it was a bit stupid of us to have shown off before the exam, since they likely wouldn't underestimate us as much anymore, but we hadn't actually explained any of our abilities and I was too proud of where we'd come as a team to have to wait until the preliminary matches to show off.

"Anyway, we should go to the actual exam room," Sakura said. "We don't want to be late."

"It's no use," Tenten said. "The chūnin won't let us in."

Sakura frowned. "But that's not even the right room. We're only on the second floor, you know."

"Let's go," Naruto said before anyone could reply to Sakura's insight. Sakura and I immediately flanked him.

"Sasuke, Sakura," Shikamaru said suddenly, bringing our attention to him.

"Yeah?" I asked.

Shikamaru didn't look bored, for once. I felt excitement curl through me at the deep intellect in his gaze as he looked between us. "You two were the top shinobi and kunoichi in the class. Which one of you leads the team?"

"Academy position has nothing to do with that, does it?" I asked. "After all, you lead yours, don't you, Shikamaru? And you were too lazy to graduate high in the class." I wondered who led Team Eight. Possibly Kiba, because of his forthrightness, but maybe Shino.

"Still," Sakura continued. "It's not either of us."

"Then, Naruto?"

Naruto grinned at Shikamaru and I could tell it was the more foxy one, the one he always had on right before pulling a spectacular prank. "They're my team." There was no doubt as to the possessiveness in Naruto's voice.

I took a step closer to Naruto's side, as did Sakura. We met gazes behind Naruto's back. Sakura's green eyes shone with pride and excitement and just a little bit of mischievousness. I smirked at her.

"Right then, off we go!" Naruto exclaimed and led us up the stairs to the third floor. He waved at Kotetsu and Izumo as we passed them. They were both gaping openly at us.

We reached the third floor and found a bunch of jōnin instructors hanging around outside the exam room.

"Ah, you three made it," Kakashi said lazily.

"We got held up by the other teams' curiosity," Sakura explained. "And Sasuke's eternal rival."

I shrugged. "Lee's not bad, once you get to know him."

"If you say so," Sakura said.

"Yosh!" Gai said, striking his good-guy pose even as the other genin came up behind us. "Lee, is this perhaps the eternal rival you spoke to me about? You have chosen one on my eternal rival's team!"

"I know, Gai-sensei! Nothing could be more perfect!"

"Lee!"

"Gai-sensei!"

"Lee!"

"Gai-sensei!"

I covered my eyes as they hugged, embarrassed despite myself. Kakashi gave me a commiserating pat on the head. "I had hoped to save you from this fate," he said solemnly.

"Hn," I muttered nonsensically. "Can we go in now?"

Kakashi waved his had. "Good luck, my cute little genin."

"Thanks, sensei!" Sakura said. Naruto laughed as he walked us into the room.

At least half of the seats were already filled with genin. My earlier thought had indeed been correct then.

I took a seat next to my teammates, though I knew we'd be moved soon. Ibiki waited until the rest of the genin came in, and then Kotetsu and Izumo. "That's all, then," Ibiki said roughly. "My name is Morino Ibiki and I'll be your instructor for the first part of the Chūnin Exam."

As Ibiki explained the test, I observed the chūnin lining the walls of the room. The only two I recognized were Kotetsu and Izumo, but then there were certainly a number of ninja in Konoha that hadn't been featured in the show at all.

Ibiki had us get up and move to assigned seats. Naruto reached forward before we could separate and gave both me and Sakura and small hug. I huffed, but hugged him back despite the stares we were getting.

I took my new seat and wondered what I was going to do for the test. The other Sasuke used his Sharingan, I think, but I was much older than him and was curious if I could do the test without cheating. It didn't actually matter what I scored on it, after all.

"Begin."

I turned the test paper over and looked at it curiously. The first question was math-based —trigonometry even. Math had never been my best subject but I'd always been decent enough at it.

Sure, I wouldn't have expected myself to know how to compute the angle needed for the kunai problem as an actual twelve-year-old, but I was twenty-one plus four years in this body and I could figure it out. It was no harder than the Calculus AP I took in high school or the Statistics class I took in college.

Speaking of Stats, the next question was a probability calculation. I did that one too, though I wasn't as positive on the final answer. Then came a theoretical question on ethics. I grinned to myself. I'd certainly taken a lot of those classes in college as a supplementary subject inside my major.

Another six questions (physics, culture, psychology, geometry, biology, and battle strategy) later, I set my paper and risked a glance around. I couldn't look at my teammates since they both sat behind me, but I could see how the others I knew were doing.

Shikamaru was sleeping on his desk, but even as I watched he started awake and began writing down answers. It had to be Ino's Mind Transfer Jutsu. Since I hadn't heard her scream in fear or pain, I supposed Ino had decided not to use it on Sakura—unless my teammate had taken pity on her former best friend and let her. I'd have to ask later.

A flash of orange caught my eye. Curious, I activated my Sharingan to get a better look. The world became crisp like a movie in HD where I had some remote-like ability to slow things down if I wanted. Not too much, the laws of time still worked. It was more like my brain was suddenly able to take in and process everything quicker and with much more accuracy.

I understood how it could be so addictive to use the Sharingan. I'd gotten used to using it in spars until Kakashi had told me, after returning to the Leaf, to spar without it. I had almost panicked by how much slower my comprehension and reaction time were, but I understood Kakashi's point. It was too easy to handicap yourself by getting too used to it.

I returned my attention to the flash of orange. There, by Ibiki's desk, Yoko darted up onto the wood and paused to read something on the paper there, before darting across the room and out of my view. If I hadn't had the Sharingan on, I wouldn't have noticed anything more than that initial flash—easy to play off as a sunbeam or other trick of the light.

Oh Naruto, I thought. He was Konoha's most surprising ninja for a reason.

I ripped off a corner of my test paper and wrote, Naruto, do question nine yourself. After all, it was an interesting scenario about being the leader of a six-man squad on a mission gone wrong. I wanted to know what he thought of it, since we'd spent the last couple months going over basic tactics and strategy. I was no strategist, not like the real commanders, so my own answer was just the textbook idea. Naruto, I figured, would be more original.

I wiggled my fingers in Yoko's direction next time I caught sight of her. She ran under the desks, unnoticed by even the planted chūnin. I showed her the slip of paper, though I had no idea how she'd been relating the information to Naruto without getting caught by speaking aloud.

Yoko scurried away. A minute later, she came back and dropped a small piece of paper in my lap. I glanced at it. Already did, teme, Naruto had written in his messy scrawl.

I gave Yoko a scratch on the head and she ducked away. I deactivated my Sharingan, though kept my eyes on the spot the ninkitsune had last been. Whatever Yoko did totalk to Naruto apparently couldn't be replicated on anyone else. I wondered about her abilities. Had she informed Naruto before hand her ability to be so sneaky—so able to get around undetected?

I guess I had known that, since Kakashi had said himself that he hadn't noticed her following Naruto until his ninken had said. It was all sorts of impressive.

Ibiki called everyone to a halt and announced the tenth question—telling the genin that if they failed they'd in fact be genin for good.

Yoko slipped me another piece of paper even as the genin around me erupted in disarray. The planted chūnin began to 'quit', sparking a wave of leaving.

We gonna do this? Naruto had asked.

We're going to win this, I replied.

Good, came the answer a moment later. Sakura said so too.

A second later, Naruto slammed his fist on the table. "We're ninja here to represent our villages. To quit now is stupid cowardice and shameful to our leaders, our teammates, and the ones we've become ninja to protect."

I twisted in my seat and stared at Naruto. Across the aisle, Sakura caught my gaze and mouthed 'sunshine'. I smiled and nodded.

"So you don't scare me, Growly-ojii-san," Naruto continued. "My team won't quit."

I could tell Ibiki was annoyed by the nickname. "And what do your teammates say to your decision, gaki? Only one of them has to quit for you to be out too."

"We follow our team captain," Sakura stated evely. I knew both of us were actually thinking, we follow our Hokage. Good advisors did no less.

"He speaks for us," I agreed.

Ibiki huffed, but nodded. "Very well then, if no one else will quit…" There was silence. "You all pass!"

I tuned out Ibiki's explanation and tried to see if I could feel Anko about to come through the window. Sensing other chakra was a bit like feeling for different water currents in the river. Some, like Naruto's, were very pronounced and could almost drown out currents beside them. Others were subtler. Kakashi's when he was only doing his subconscious level of pulling in, felt like an icy undercurrent. When he was actively hiding his chakra signature, I still couldn't feel a thing.

There, I caught a glimmer of a sluggish wave. It felt a bit like water clogged with too much debris. I had to repress a shiver even as Anko arrived and announced herself the proctor of the second part of the exam. "I'll be at training field forty-four!" She announced. "See you tomorrow, kids~" And there she went.

I relaxed a bit as Anko's sluggish chakra signature left. That, I knew, was what I had to look forward to if Orochimaru got his hands, and Curse Seal, on me.

Sakura and I converged on Naruto, who was smiling at the red-faced Hinata who'd been sitting next to him. Upon seeing us, Naruto jumped up and raised a fist in the air. "One down, two to go!"

"Yeah," Sakura said. "But… Training Ground Forty-Four?"

We'd stepped outside the room then. Kakashi came meandering up to us. "The Forest of Death," he said, nodding sagely. "That'll be fun."

"If Kakashi-sensei thinks it will be fun…" Sakura began.

"We can still back out," I said, outwardly teasing but inwardly panicking as I realized it was here—Orochimaru was on my horizon.

"You can't actually," Kakashi told us cheerfully. "Not 'til the end of the second, when you're given another chance verbally." He herded us out the Academy and toward a very familiar ramen shop.

"We'll be so awesome, Kakashi-sensei," Naruto said. We sat down at the ramen stand and Naruto turned his attention to telling the ramen chef and his daughter how they'd completed the first stage of the exam.

"Will you be watching the second exam, sensei?" I asked.

"Maa," Kakashi said, shrugging. "Not sure how, if the exam is in the forest, but all the teachers observe the entire exam."

I nodded and accepted my bowl of ramen with a soft word of thanks. I hoped Kakashi would be close enough that I could perhaps get help. I wasn't sure he'd be able to defeat Orochimaru in a one-on-one fight, but he'd at least be able to hold off the S-class missing-nin until back up arrived.

"Who's this, Naruto-kun?" Ayame asked as Yoko jumped up onto the seat next to Naruto.

"This is Yoko-chan, my ninkitsune!" Naruto announced happily. "She says 'nice to meet you'."

"Of course, nice to meet you too, Yoko-chan," Ayame said, her tone that of speaking to a child's imaginary friend.

There was something more to that though. I looked from Naruto to Yoko. Every once and a while Naruto would twitch and then nod at Yoko or smile. Yoko wasn't yipping or making any obvious body communication, though.

"How does Yoko communicate with you, Naruto?" I asked finally.

Naruto tapped his head, his mouth full of ramen noodles.

"What does that mean?" Sakura asked.

Naruto swallowed. "She speaks in my head."

Kakashi leaned forward. I could tell by the subtle cold spike in his chakra that he was interested, and perhaps concerned, by this information. "Clarify."

Naruto blinked at Kakashi's abrupt tone, but did as ordered. "I hear her voice in my head."

Kakashi nodded slowly. "Finish your ramen, then meet me at my house." He shunshin'd away.

"What?" Sakura asked.

I didn't know, but something was obviously wrong. I looked pointedly at the civilian ramen chefs and then set about finishing my ramen. Sakura took the hint and pushed her bowl aside after only another couple of bites. Naruto still looked at Yoko, frowning. Yoko, for her part, was crouched low on the stool as if expecting punishment.

"Don't let her run off, Naruto," I said softly as we paid.

"She's not a danger to me," Naruto replied, but he picked Yoko up and held her close to his chest. She didn't try to escape, just lay her head on Naruto's shoulder mournfully.

We headed to Kakashi's place, which we'd only been to a couple of times before. The door opened just as we were arriving. Bull stood on the other side and nodded to us, before closing the door behind us and leading us to where Kakashi sat in the living room with the rest of his pack.

"Place Yoko down, Naruto," Kakashi ordered.

Naruto hugged her to his chest. "You won't hurt her if she hasn't done anything wrong."

Kakashi just gestured to the ground. Naruto sighed and set the fox down. She shivered slightly as she sat there, surrounded by Kakashi's ninken and the four humans. I would have felt sorry for her, except I had no idea if it was an act. She'd only been Naruto's ninkitsune for a day, after all, and it had been a rushed bonding. I figured Kakashi had wanted Naruto to have the advantage for the exam, but now our sensei was perhaps regretting that.

"My pack will smell if you lie, Yoko," Kakashi said. "I want clear answers. How long, exactly, have you been following Naruto?"

Yoko shivered harder, but answered in a soft voice. "Before he emerged from his mother, Kushina-dono."

"Explain."

"My father used to follow Kushina-dono. He took me from my mother when I was a kit because he said I was like him and my littermates were not. He taught me how to be silent, how to hide myself so that even the great tall ones do not sense me."

"Was your father Kushina's ninkitsune?"

"No. He never revealed himself. He said Kushina-dono did not need him, so he could only watch. I watched Naruto-dono because I was not sure if he needed me."

"I might not need you, but I want you, Yoko-chan," Naruto said.

"Hold on, Naruto," Kakashi said, though I could tell he was a little less anxious than he had been earlier. "How are you able to speak inside Naruto's mind?"

"Though the Great One," Yoko said. "The Great One ruled all of the foxes once, my father said. We can speak to the Great One and through the Great One to his current master."

The iciness was back. "And if the great one, as you say, told you to do something to harm Naruto? Or another in the Leaf?"

"The Great One is not my master, Kakashi-sama," Yoko said, some surprise in her voice. "When the Great One tried to hurt Kushina-dono and Naruto-dono, my father and I aided in fighting him off." She paused and then put her tail over her snout. "No, I did not do much. My father lost his life distracted the Great One so he could be sealed again. I was to gather help but after so long of being unseen, I could not get any shinobi to heed me." She dropped, belly to the ground. "I failed."

"Naruto," Kakashi said, ignoring the dejected fox. "Does the Kyūbi ever talk to you?"

"I've only heard him once," Naruto whispered. "When I drew on his power to fight Haku."

"You did that on purpose?" I asked, surprised. "I thought you'd just gotten overwhelmed with anger, like with the Demon Brothers."

Naruto shook his head. "I knew I needed to use the fox, because I liked Haku and I couldn't do damage with that. And then when he hurt you and I thought…" Naruto swallowed. "I demanded he give me some of his power and he did."

"I don't think Yoko is going to hurt Naruto," Sakura offered. "Or the village, if she listens to what Naruto says to do."

Kakashi nodded and Naruto knelt down at Yoko's side. "Hey, it's okay," he murmured to her. "I don't blame you for my mom's death, okay?"

"I won't fail you again, Naruto-dono," Yoko said back. "I'll be whatever you need."

I felt something clench inside me at those words—words not too dissimilar to what I had thought early on, when I considered what I needed to do. I had already hurt so much, killing the other Sasuke. I've been playing make up for that atrocity from the beginning.

"It's late and you have a test tomorrow," Kakashi said. "You can all bunk in my guest room tonight, if you want."

It was an offer I was more than happy to take up. I hadn't wanted to be apart from my team, not that night. Not when I was already feeling raw, and unsafe on top of that.

Sakura seemed the most hesitant about sleeping in the bed with us, but once she curled up around Yoko she was out like a light. Naruto slept on Yoko's other side. I lay awake in the bed next to Naruto—because I had wanted to give Sakura more space, knowing quite well how uncomfortable it was for a preteen girl to sleep in a bed with boys even if she did know them.

By the half an hour mark, I still hadn't fallen asleep. As silently as I could, I got out of bed and padded to the kitchen in hopes that some tea would calm my racing heart.

Kakashi sat at the kitchen table. His ninken were asleep on the futon in the living room, except Pakkun who sat on the table in front of him. They were talking in lower voices, which stopped as soon as I neared. Pakkun nodded his head to me and jumped off the table to go join his pack in the living room.

"Need something?" Kakashi asked. He sounded so tired, like a huge weight was on him. For just a moment, I felt a glimmer of anger. It wasn't he who knew the future, after all. He didn't have to lie awake with the crushing guilt of knowing there was so much death on the horizon and barely doing anything to prevent it. I was grasping at straws, wondering if I should just take my knowledge to the Hokage and submit to an investigation at T&I… what right did Kakashi have to–

To look like he was reliving the death of his sensei and his sensei's wife all over again.

I felt tears prickle at my eyes and took a step back, intent on turning around and going back to the room where my teammates were sleeping so Kakashi wouldn't see my tears, my weakness.

"Sasuke," Kakashi said, and his tone was different now. "Will you come here?"

My feet took the steps without my conscious decision to allow them. As soon as I was close to Kakashi, he pulled me in for a hug. It was awkward and, for a moment, terrifying. I remembered the last time large male arms had been wrapped around me and almost panicked.

But Kakashi smelled like dogs and like a storm. He felt like an icy current. And he was familiar in a thousand of other ways, from the times I saw him as an ANBU to the months he's been my sensei.

I slowly began to hug him back. He put a hand on my head, holding me in a loose, but comfortable position. I wondered who'd taught him to hug like that. Was it Minato, after Obito's 'death'? Or was it the Third Hokage, after Minato's?

"Whenever you're ready," Kakashi whispered. "I want you to talk to me about why you flinch when men move too quickly in your direction."

I winced, but I was too raw still to be upset. Of all my secrets, that was the one most likely to come out. It was a problem, because I had no explanation, but I couldn't control what my body did when a civilian man with lighter hair color seemed to walk in my direction, or when a ninja strong enough to pin me down moved in the corner of my vision. I stood on a thin wire, threatening to fall into a flashback with each man who reminded me of him.

I took a deep breath. "It wasn't Itachi," I said, because I couldn't have Kakashi, or anyone, thinking that. "It wasn't… he's not alive anymore." And I knew what Kakashi would take from that. Knew he'd think it was someone from the clan, someone Itachi had killed that night.

It wasn't the worst assumption, even if I sometimes longed to say—blond hair, grey eyes, hint of stubble—to say what really happened. Just to get it off my chest.

I had other things to worry about that night. "Tomorrow, sensei," I whispered before Kakashi could reply to my other statement. "I'm worried."

"You're ready," Kakashi said. "I know it seems so quick to throw you guys into this, but you are ready."

"I know we are," I agreed. "I'm not worried about the exam… I don't think. It's just something." I tightened my grip and wondered if this was really the best choice.

The thing was, I had to do something.

"The night before the massacre, I had this same feeling. Like something big was about to happen. It felt like I was about to drown." I pulled back, rubbing my eyes. I had to make this lie convincing, even if it was almost stupid trying to convince anyone I had some sort of foresight into the future, some mystical premonition ability. "Itachi told me it was just a nightmare and…" I touched my forehead then, because I knew Kakashi was probably aware of Itachi's old habit.

I risked a glace at Kakashi's eye. He looked serious, which was good, but I wasn't sure if he believed me.

"It's stupid," I said finally. "It's probably just my nerves–" I rubbed my arms.

"I'll be close by," Kakashi said. He put a hand on my head. "If something happens, you can have Naruto send Yoko to get me."

I swallowed, hardly believing that seemed to work, and nodded. "Yes, sensei," I said. Even if Kakashi was just humoring me, he'd be ready if Yoko came his way. Maybe he'd get there in time to save us.

Kakashi ruffled my hair. "Go to bed now. Your team will expect you to be your best, tomorrow."

"I won't let them down," I promised.

Curling up at Naruto's side, I looked at the sleeping Yoko and wondered what it would mean for her to be sent away in the middle of the battle with Orochimaru, told to find help again. I wondered how it would feel to her to fail, if something changed. The butterfly affect meant I couldn't be sure that battle would be at all the same. I couldn't even be sure Orochimaru hadn't planed on stealing me away in the middle of the night, except I slept here in Kakashi's place—safer than I would have been alone in the Uchiha compound.

But if we ran into each other in the Forest of Death, Orochimaru could easily kill Sakura as the most expendable of our team. He was possibly insane enough to kill Naruto despite the demon fox, despite only sealing Naruto's chakra in the show.

I wouldn't let that happen, I vowed. I wouldn't let that monster touch my teammates—even if it meant getting the Curse Seal. They were more important than I was, both of them. They were the future Hokage and his Chief Advisor. I knew from the show that they didn't need me, they didn't need Sasuke, to become what they were going to be.

But selfishly, I wanted to stay with them. Selfishly, I didn't want another man stronger than me to taint me with something vile. Selfishly... I wanted to be a better teammate than the other Sasuke had been.

I closed my eyes and fell into an uneasy sleep.

Chapter Text

Anko was actually quite comedic, when you realized she was getting her kicks scaring preteens. I had a hard time keeping the amused smirk off my face as I watched her lick Kiba on the cheek. It was all kinds of disturbing, but I could tell she was just teasing in the way a parent might corner their teenager child in my old world to give them a kiss on the cheek despite protests.

I kept a careful eye on the Grass-nin, wondering which one was Orochimaru. I seemed to remember him having taken over the body of the kunoichi, but I couldn’t be sure. One of them was looking at Anko with a sort of creepy fixation, like a frat boy pinpointing a freshman at her first party. Before I could stare at him more openly, Naruto distracted me by pulling Sakura and me to where our designated start position was.

“Who’s going to hold onto this?” Sakura asked, holding up the Earth Scroll.

Naruto tapped his chin and then made the hand signs for his Shadow Clone Jutsu. A second later, two of his shadow clones were henged into identical scrolls. “Here,” Naruto said, handing Sakura and me the fake ones. He tucked the real one into the inside pocket on his orange vest.

“Alright then, Sasuke,” Sakura said just a tad louder. “You get the real one.”

I smirked and nodded. I didn’t think anyone was listening in on us, but you never knew with ninja. Naruto just grinned.

The exam started a moment later and we took off into the forest. The trees were large, like all of the Land of Fire, but ominous in the way most trees weren’t. I noticed many of them radiated just a bit of chakra, which made them feel somehow more alive than other plants. I wondered if that ambient chakra was why the animals of the Forest of Death were so large and aggressive.

We’d decided to walk on the forest ground initially. It made us seem more vulnerable to attack, which would draw a team that hopefully had the scroll we needed to us so we could finish them off and get to the central tower. The faster we finished the exam, the less likely Orochimaru would be able to find us.

I wasn’t hopeful on that front, though. Who knew how long he’d been following Team Seven before attacking them in the show?

Walking around just waiting for a team to find and attack us became boring after a while. Predictably, Naruto was the first to crack.

“Agh! This sucks. Can’t you sense if a team’s nearby, Sasuke?”

“I’m not that good at chakra sensing,” I said honestly. I practiced it as a hobby, but I didn’t have natural talent at it. Karin did, I remembered, but she was Orochimaru’s. That was a thought. Wasn’t she Naruto’s distant cousin or something? I wondered if he’d be able to convince her to join Konoha. With Naruto, anything was possible.

Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a flash of white. It was stark enough next to the brown and green of forest coloring that I was able to track it a few feet before it disappeared. It was small, the white flash, and hugging the ground. Probably not a shinobi… but then what was it?

“Yoko says there’s a really large boar just East of us,” Naruto said.

“Danger level?” I asked.

“Not enough to harm us,” Naruto replied. “Come on, let’s go get some food!”

“Oh dear,” Sakura sighed. “We’d better back him up before he gets himself killed.”

“It would be sad for Konoha’s future Hokage to get killed by a pig,” I agreed.

Of course, by the time we’d caught up with Naruto, he’d already engaged the boar in a fight. And really, it wasn’t just a pig. This thing was huge, with tusks the larger than my whole body. It looked like one of the boar gods from the movie Princess Mononoke.

“Oh dear,” Sakura said again. Just then, the boar threw its head and managed to snag Naruto with one of its tusks, sending him flying into a nearby tree. The tree cracked down the middle, but Naruto got up with a laugh and launched right back at the animal. “I guess I’d better start preparing some bandages and healing balm.”

“Yeah,” I said, unsheathing my sword. “I’ll help the dobe out.”

I flipped my grip so the slanted tip of my short sword was pointed down, and used a burst of chakra through my legs to jump high in the air. “Naruto!” I yelled.

Naruto made a couple hand signs and suddenly there was a horde of clones covering the forest clearing. They piled onto the boar, holding it down even as it thrashed and bellowed. I flipped in the air and began to fall straight toward the boar’s massive head. Bracing myself for the impact, I sent down chakra down my arm and pointed my sword straight for the boar’s left eye.

I hit the eye dead on. My sword slid into it and past into the animal’s brain with a sickening slurp. The boar bellowed once more, nearly throwing me from its head, before collapsing. I stared for a moment at the sight of my sword sticking out of the massive creature’s eye, white goop bubbling up and blood leaking over its brown fur.

Taking a deep breath, I pulled my sword out and wiped it clean on the boar’s forehead. Without a sound, I re-sheathed the weapon and turned to Naruto. He gave me a thumb’s up. “Look, Sasuke, Sakura, lunch!”

“And dinner, and breakfast, and lunch again,” Sakura said, walking up. She began to examine Naruto, hands glowing green with healing chakra. “Looks like your resident’s already taken care of the wounds you got.” She whacked him hard on the back of the head.

“What was that for?” Naruto yelled.

“For rushing in without telling us. For not having a solid plan. For letting yourself get thrown like that. For being stupid enough to think that fight wouldn’t have attracted someone. For believing we’d actually have time to skin, cook, and store all the meat on this thing! We can barely eat a deer by ourselves, let alone a house-sized pig!”

Naruto looked down at the ground.

I sighed and jumped off the boar so I was next to them. “Let’s get to work, then. We can at least take some of it with us. The rest, the other animals will devour soon enough.”

Luckily, with Naruto’s army of clones, it didn’t take too long to strip the boar’s hide down and begin hacking away at the meat. Of course, the sun was already beginning to set by the time we got to making meal-sized slices out of the meat. Sakura started a fire and I began roasting bits of thigh. The meat was actually fairly tender for such a big creature, which was nice.

Naruto had a few clones doing random stuff around the clearing. We’d chosen a place a while away from the main body of the boar, as we hadn’t wanted to be attacked by large cats or something in the middle of the night.

I got the first set of meat cooked and called everyone for dinner. We ate while the next batch was smoking above the fire. Hopefully it would keep the next few days in our packs. I wasn't happy about the extra weight, but it certainly tasted better than ration bars.

Naruto cocked his head to the sound. “Almost,” he mumbled around a mouthful of meat.

“What?” Sakura asked.

Naruto shrugged and scratched his middle whisker mark on his right cheek: the signal we’d come up with that said we were being watched.

Sakura rolled her eyes. “Don’t talk with your mouthful,” she said, and deliberately took a huge bite of her food.

I hn’ed—one of the most useful sounds, I assure you, and I didn’t care if I was just perpetuating an Uchiha stereotype—and casually cast my gaze toward the edge of the clearing. I’d known making a fire would attract teams to us, but since that was the plan anyone I hadn’t worried about it. Now I hoped the person watching us wasn’t…

The flash of white was back. I saw it clearly as a log cracked and the fire flared briefly. It was long, about four feet maybe, but curled up on itself. It has a long white head that was raised slightly as it watched us with one blue and one yellow eye.

A snake. There was a snake watching us.

I tried not to let my sudden anxiety show in my body language, but I could tell Naruto noticed for he shot me a quick glance. I shook my head at him, because I didn’t know how to explain that there was a very good possibility that one of Orochimaru’s summons had found us, had been following us since the beginning, even. Naruto and Sakura didn’t even know who Orochimaru was! Well, Sakura might if she’d ever read any recent history scrolls, but Naruto was totally clueless as the threat that man posed to us, to me.

I noticed suddenly that I was rubbing my neck and stopped. I pushed my food aside, having lost my appetite. The snake was still there, hidden by shadows but now that I knew to look for it I could sense its slightly-more-than-an-average-animal’s chakra.

“Done!” Naruto said, finishing off the last of his food in one large bite.

And then we were attacked.

I jumped to my feet, activating my Sharingan. I waited for the feel of that tainted chakra, sure it’d be more intense than Anko’s, or the creepy shiver of dulled Killing Intent. I waited for my nightmare to jump down next to our fire and smile at me with glowing yellow eyes. I waited for crushing fear.

What I got instead was three Rain-nin just barely older than us screaming as they got caught in Naruto’s traps.

I blinked and let the chakra leave my eyes so my Sharingan would fade. Beside me, Sakura muffled a giggle in her hand. Naruto just laughed. “Take that!” he said.

“What?” one of the shinobi yelled. “When did you set up traps?” He was hanging upside-down by a thin wire, his legs spread between two different tree branches. The other shinobi was unconscious, knocked out by a modified smoke bomb. The kunoichi was glued to a tree by a sparkling orange glob of sticky-paint.

I hadn’t been paying attention, but I could guess Naruto’s clones had laid the traps while they were gathering wood for the fire and carting pieces of meat back and forth. Naruto was surprisingly tricky like that, when he wanted to be.

I blinked and looked at him. I wondered how far back he’d planned this. “Naruto… when did they start following us?”

“Yoko noticed them arguing about fighting that boar,” Naruto said, shrugging.

Sakura reached forward and smacked him again. “Baka! Tell us next time!” She paused. “Nice work.”

I nodded, bumping my shoulder into Naruto’s. It was smart of him to have attacked the boar as a way to catch their attention. I wondered if he’d even pretended to get worn down—and thrown into that tree—so it’d look like we were weakened. Add that to our rookie behavior of making a fire and wasting time preparing meat… yeah, we’d have seen like easy targets for the older team of genin.

“Now then,” Sakura said, stepping forward. “You’re going to tell us which one of you has your scroll and we’ll let you go with minimal injury.”

“You Leaf-nin, always so soft,” the kunoichi said. “Might as well just kill us and search our bodies. We ain’t telling you anything.”

“Oh, there it is,” Naruto said, as Yoko jumped over the body of the unconscious shinobi with a scroll in her mouth. “She says they hid it before attacking us, but she watched them do it so it was fine.”

I sighed. The two Rain-nin gaped at Naruto’s ninkitsune. “Now we’re going to have to move campsites,” I grumbled, though inwardly I was pleased. If we could just get to the tower before Orochimaru’s summon told him where we were…

“Oh, man!” Naruto groaned. “It’s another Earth scroll.”

“Just leave it with us then, if you don’t need it,” the Rain shinobi said.

“As if,” I said. With two kunai thrown backwards, I knocked him and his teammate out. They’d wake up soon enough and get out of the traps, but then I didn’t want them to die in the Forest of Death, just be out of the running.

“Well, that’s one less competitor, at least,” Sakura said. “Come on, let’s keep moving.”

We packed up the campsite. Sakura doused the fire with a quick jutsu and I packaged the smoked meat. Naruto tucked the extra Earth Scroll into his pants’ pocket and slipped his pack on. Yoko yipped at us, before vanishing back into the woods.

I looked toward the bush where our watcher had been earlier. The white snake was gone.

We used Tree Walking to move a few miles before setting up camp, this time without a fire but still protected by Naruto’s ingenious traps, and fell asleep. At dawn, we ate some leftover boar meat and hopped down to the ground to continue walking.

It was a few hours before anything happened. Surprisingly, it wasn’t just me who picked up the chakra of another team. It was all of us.

“What was that?” Sakura asked.

Naruto growled and then shot off in the direction of the huge chakra spike, the edge of it tinted with the same darkness as he sometimes wore.

“No!” I yelled and darted after Naruto. There was only one person that chakra could come from and he was almost as dangerous as Orochimaru, if a more likeable person on the inside.

I managed to grab Naruto by the back of his vest and pull him back just before he would have breached the thick branches around the clearing where a certain trio of Suna ninja were standing in the remains of Gaara’s prey. There was blood splattered across the trees and bits of bone half-buried in sand. Slowly, the grains picked their way back into Gaara’s gourd even as he stared off into the distance.

Temari and Kankurō approached from the clearing edge. Temari frowned at the scene, but Kankurō wasted no time in going through what was left of the team’s supplies. Sakura joined us behind the cover of the trees, placing one hand on Naruto’s shoulder. The blond boy was shivering with repressed energy, but he was no longer trying to jump into the clearing. The scene was a shock for all of us—even me, despite knowing what Gaara was capable of.

“We already have both our scrolls,” Kankurō said as he found an undamaged exam scroll. “Psh, useless,” he threw the scroll to the side, where it bounced once and landed at the edge of a large puddle of blood.

“Let’s go,” Gaara said.

“But shouldn’t we–” Temari began.

“No, we’re leaving.”

“Yes, Gaara,” Kankurō and Temari chorused and followed their younger brother.

I winced as I watched the three Sand siblings leave. They had a really messed up relationship, that was for sure. I hoped that Naruto would still be able to kick some sense into Gaara. He’d be a good Kazekage, but the boy he was now certainly wouldn’t.

“Look, it’s a Heaven Scroll,” Sakura whispered. “Come on–”

But before we could jump down and get it, another familiar team came into the clearing. Their blond kunoichi picked up the scroll, holding it with only two fingers.

“It was lucky enough that they left it,” Ino said with an aggravated sigh as she shook the blood off the scroll. “I suppose it was too much to hope it was the one we needed.”

Now, instead Naruto being the one I should have held back, it was Sakura who jumped into the clearing. I stared for a moment at the spot she had been before letting go of Naruto and jumping down after her. Naruto followed a second later.

“Considering we’re all Konoha ninja,” Sakura began. “It’d be silly of us to fight each other. But since I know my team could kick yours ass, I’ll just ask you to hand over that scroll, Ino-pig. After all, you did just say it’s not the one you need.”

“Forehead-girl?” Ino said. “You think I’m just going to give you this scroll?” She snorted. “As if!”

I sighed and looked at Naruto. “You doing okay?”

“Yeah,” Naruto said. He was uncharacteristically serious, his brows furrowed as he stared off in the direction the Sand siblings, and more specifically Gaara, had gone.

I stepped closer, keeping an eye on the arguing girls and the rest of Team Ten. Chōji was munching on a ration bar as he watched the argument, but Shikamaru had his eyes fixed on us. I turned my head so he wouldn’t be able to read our lips and lowered my voice. “Why does that Sand-nin bother you so much?”

“He’s a jinchūriki, like me,” Naruto said. “But there’s something…” He shook his head. “I don’t know, I can’t explain it. It’s like my stomach hurts when he’s nearby. But it makes me sad most of all, and I don’t know why.”

“Huh,” I said. I had no idea what Naruto was talking about. Was he feeling the tanuki? Or Gaara, underneath all that madness? And when had the blond dobe become perceptive enough to sense all that?

I wanted to hit myself on the head. I really needed to stop underestimating my future Hokage. Just because he hadn’t made those kinds of insights in the canon I’d watched didn’t mean he hadn’t thought them—it just meant he hadn’t trusted anyone in the other universe enough to say them out loud.

Just then, Naruto’s stomach growled loud enough to shut up the arguing girls. Everyone stared at him, including me, and he rubbed the back of his head. “Lunch, anyone?”

“I’m not sharing,” Chōji said, clutching his ration bars to his chest.

“You can have some of the boar we killed yesterday,” Naruto offered instead.

“That’s right, we killed a really large pig yesterday,” Sakura added. She stared at Ino. “I suppose doing away with a little piglet wouldn’t be so hard after that.”

I sighed. “Come on, let’s move away from this mess.” I gestured to the remains of the poor, unnamed genin team who’d faced Gaara’s wrath.

Shikamaru took off into the forest and we all followed him. He stopped by a small brook, collapsing to the ground ungracefully. I could tell at least half of it was an act, though, as he continued to watch Naruto, Sakura, and I with those sharp brown eyes.

“Here,” Naruto said, handing out the meat I’d smoked last night like treats to Team Ten. “How are you guys doing? Had any fun yet?”

“We didn’t even see another team until today,” Chōji said as he happily took the meat. “Then we came across that scene and then you guys popped out.”

“Those were the Kazekage’s children,” Sakura said, folding her legs under her as she accepted a bit of one of the boar’s ribs.

“They are?” Ino gaped. “But the redhead was so…”

“Murderous?” I suggested. “Well, we are ninja.”

“How troublesome,” Shikamaru murmured. “Suna hasn’t been allowed as many years of peace as Konoha has. They’ve been dealing with skirmishes with other Hidden Countries since a diplomatic incident with Iwa twelve years ago. Their genin teams are trained on their borders.”

I blinked, not having known that. “What diplomatic incident?”

Shikamaru shrugged. “Something to do with a teapot.”

“Sounds stupid,” Naruto said.

I nodded, but inside I was trying to remember why Suna having a teapot was so important. I was sure I’d heard something about that before, but I couldn’t place it.

I felt a flicker of chakra I’d attuned myself to. It was the snake from before, I was sure of it. Orochimaru could be watching us right now. Swallowing, I finished off my lunch and leaned forward. “Look,” I said. “From what we overheard, it sounded like your team needs an Earth Scroll to pass. Is that correct?”

Shikamaru studied me for a moment, before nodding once.

“My team needs a Heaven Scroll,” I said, gesturing to the one Ino was still holding. “Luckily, we happen to have an extra Earth Scroll.”

“How did you get that?” Ino asked.

“Off a team from Ame,” Sakura answered. “They were a breeze to take down.”

“Hey, I did all the work!” Naruto said.

“Anyway,” I said. “I propose a trade. Since we’re all Leaf-nin and this is the Chūnin exam where Konoha is expected to win the most, it’d be good not to disappoint our village. We’ll give you our extra Earth scroll in exchange for that Heaven scroll you got there. Then we’ll travel together to the central tower and finish with this stage.”

Shikamaru raised an eyebrow and glanced at Naruto. “And you’re okay with him just offering that, team leader?”

Naruto smiled, unconcerned. “Sasuke knows I like you guys.”

It was true. Shikamaru and Chōji were the closest Naruto came to having friends in the Academy. Them, along with Kiba, would skip school together some days. Of course, Kiba, Shikamaru, and Chōji were from clans that coached them on the subjects of the days they’d skipped, whereas Naruto just lost that information all together, but that was beside the point.

“So,” I said. “Allies?”

Shikamaru looked back at me and smiled, just faintly at the corner of his mouth but there nonetheless. He clasped my hand in his. I couldn’t help but notice how attractive he was like that, standing straight with determination in his gaze. “Fine. Ino, hand over the scroll.”

Naruto pulled out the extra Earth Scroll from his pocket and tossed it Chōji’s way even as Ino grudgingly gave Sakura the Heaven Scroll.

I attempted to pull my hand back from Shikamaru, but he grasped it tighter. I glared at him, wondering what he was doing. He tilted his head. “I think I like you better like this,” he said. “Not as proud.”

“I have enough pride,” I hissed, offended despite myself, and jerked my hand away. A second later, I was surprised as Naruto stepped between us. He wrapped one arm around my shoulders and stared down Shikamaru with a clear blue gaze.

Shikamaru blinked and slouched backward. “Troublesome,” he muttered and turned away.

“Naruto?” I asked.

“Okay, let’s go!” Naruto said, ignoring me. I glanced as Sakura, but she just smiled as if she knew something I didn’t. Next to her, Ino was staring at us with her mouth open. After a moment, she flushed bright red and whispered something to Sakura. Sakura laughed and nodded. I had a feeling I was missing something and scowled.

Naruto cocked his head, like he did when he wanted Sakura and I to know that Yoko was communicating with him, and then nodded. “Okay, the tower is this way. Follow me!”

He set off tree hopping. I was worried for a moment that Team Ten wouldn’t have been taught Tree Walking yet, but it seemed they were able to keep up mostly fine. Then again, I reminded myself, they were all clan kids. They’d probably been taught before even graduating the Academy.

Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw that flash of white follow us. I swallowed dryly and focused my gaze forward. I hoped like hell that when Orochimaru caught up with us, we’d be close enough to the tower that Kakashi would be able to get to us quickly—and the other jōnin because Orochimaru was probably a bit much for Kakashi to fight alone without preparation.

The tower wasn’t actually that far from our position. It was barely dusk by the time we saw it in the distance.

“What do you think? Keep going or sleep and make it there in the morning?” Ino asked.

“Keep going,” I suggested immediately. There was a hammering in my chest that was something like hope that maybe we’d make it before Orochimaru caught up with us. I didn’t remember how long the other Team Seven has spent in the Forest of Death before finishing, but I had to think my team had done it faster. Maybe… maybe Orochimaru was caught up somewhere else in the forest.

The white snake darted from under a shrub to a nearby tree and I clenched my hands into fists.

“Maybe we’ll be the first teams done!” Naruto said.

“Those Sand-nin probably got there before us,” Sakura countered.

We picked up the pace, hopping from tree branch to tree branch, up and down and between leaves as we made our way to the end. The white snake maintained a steady pace behind us and I focused on keeping my breathing steady and my senses sharp.

And then the entrance of the tower was in front of us. Naruto let out a happy cheer and dove right for it. As I watched him, time seemed to slow. I was waiting for something, Orochimaru to jump out of the woods or another team to have laid a trap or for the door to be locked for some stupid reason—something.

But Naruto went through the door without worry and time regained its normal speed. Team Ten all went through next, with Sakura and I.

And then I was inside the tower, staring at concrete walls and bright lights and wondering how the hell we’d made it.

Just before the door closed behind us, the white snake slide inside. It bunched up on itself a moment later, as if realizing there was no place for it to hide. I stared at it for a moment and it stared back.

“What’s that?” Sakura asked, seeing the direction I was looking.

“That snake has been following us for a while,” I said.

Naruto came up, Yoko perched on his head like Akamaru did with Kiba. “Yoko says she’s like her.”

“What?”

“Grammar, Naruto,” Sakura said.

Naruto squinted, trying to understand what he’d said wrong.

I blinked. “Are you saying that this snake is a potential nin-animal? Not… a summon, or something?”

Naruto glanced up at Yoko. “Yeah. She says summons smell different. More charged, or something.”

They had more chakra, I translated. I looked at the snake. It was watching us with those mismatched eyes, blue and gold. What had Yoko said? ‘She’?

“Hi there,” I said, kneeling down. “Are you… did you want to stay with me?”

The snake nodded, tongue lapping out to taste the air between us.

“Oh,” I said.

“Do you guys have any idea what just happened?” Ino asked faintly in the background.

“No clue,” Chōji answered.

“Troublesome,” Shikamaru added.

“A ninhebi, Sasuke?” Sakura asked. “Look at her, she’s so pretty!”

“Now you just need to find a nin-animal too, Sakura!” Naruto declared. “How awesome is this?”

“Pretty awesome,” I agreed and held out my arm for the snake. She glided up to it and then, ever so slowly, began to curl around my forearm until she was clutching me entirely. I stood up, adjusting for the new weight on my arm and shoulder. Her tongue briefly kissed my neck, like a mockery of the master I thought was hers, before she settled down.

“Now let’s open the scrolls,” Naruto said.

Sakura and I took out the Earth Scrolls in our pockets so they could poof away and we combined the Heaven Scroll with the real Earth Scroll to summon, surprise surprise, Iruka. I remembered this scene from the show, at least.

“Well done, you three!” Iruka said. He paused. “Is that a snake around your arm, Sasuke? Wait, is there a fox on your head, Naruto?”

“Yeah!” Naruto said. “You have a lot to catch up on, Iruka-sensei.”

“I see.” Iruka looked a little faint, but he smiled anyway. “Well, you all passed. Your sensei should be waiting upstairs with the suite that’s been set aside for your team. You can’t leave until all the contestants have been accounted for at the end of the stage which means, you guys get a bit of rest.”

“You better take me out to ramen later, Iruka-sensei!” Naruto said, even as Iruka shunshin’d away.

I saw Team Ten getting the same run down from Izumo. Naruto waved goodbye to them and led us up the stairs.

Kakashi was waiting for us on the third floor. He looked visibly relieved to see us. “You three made it.”

“Didn’t you have faith in us, sensei?” Sakura asked.

“Of course, my cute little genin,” Kakashi said, but his tone didn’t match the look in his eye.

I wasn’t the only one to pick up on that, apparently, as Naruto scowled. “Why do you look like that? We passed stage two, didn’t we? Shouldn’t you be happy for us?”

Kakashi scratched his cheek. “Well, I suppose I am glad that you three didn't run into the S-class criminal frolicking through forest right now.”

I had to stifle a laugh at the thought of Orochimaru frolicking, and then the meaning behind those words caught up with me. “What?”

Kakashi nodded. “Your exam proctor, Anko Mitarashi, discovered that a rogue was hiding out among the genin teams. She confronted him, but he escaped.” He looked between us. “I’m telling you this because the man in question has been known to enjoy experimenting with interesting bloodlines and chakra. Sasuke as the last Uchiha, Naruto as a jinchūriki, and Sakura with your possibly budding kekkai genkai… you’ll all be interesting to him, if he find out about you.”

“Who is it?” Sakura asked.

“His name is Orochimaru,” Kakashi said. “The ex-Sannin.”

I swallowed. Kakashi was looking at me as he said that name. I wondered if he was thinking about the warning I gave him the night before the exam.

Still, Kakashi didn't know how much of a bullet I’d dodged by making it here without running into the creep.

“Now,” Kakashi said, tone and body language both shifting abruptly. “Why is there a snake around your arm, Sasuke?”

“She’s been following him since we entered the forest, Kakashi-sensei,” Sakura said. “Yoko says she smells like a nin-animal.”

“Is that so?” Kakashi clapped his hands. “A snake, Sasuke? How interesting.”

I huffed. It seemed I wouldn’t be able to escape the comparison between Orochimaru and I. Then again, Naruto hadn’t gotten a toad for a nin-animal, so maybe we wouldn’t be carbon copies of the previous Sannin. That’d be, you know, nice.

“Well, come on, team. I’ll show you the rooms we’ve got and see if I can teach Sasuke the seals he needs to bond with his ninhebi.” Kakashi herded us down the hall. I couldn’t help but notice that he was more open with his touch than usual, brushing light fingers against my back and messing with Naruto’s hair.

A long hour later, I looked into the eyes of my official ninhebi. It was strange how I’d thought her a threat before, for now her chakra only felt comforting to me. She blinked at me, briefly covering those gorgeous blue and gold eyes of hers.

“I’m going to call you Fubuki,” I said. “Because, like a snowstorm, you were sudden and surprising. And you will be both beautiful and devastating.”

“Very well, Sasuke-dono,” the newly dubbed Fubuki replied with a voice like winter breeze. “As you wish.”

I love you too, I almost said, but I managed to bite it back. That was a reference no one got in this world, after all, and it’d just confuse her. I picked her up and put her on my shoulders before heading from the bathroom where I’d retreated for privacy to the large bedroom we were all sharing. Naruto and Sakura were already curled up on the bed. Kakashi sat on a chair, reading one of Jiraiya’s books.

I stepped up to him. “Was anyone killed?” I asked softly.

“By Orochimaru?”

I nodded.

Kakashi set down his book. “No one you have to worry about.”

I opened my mouth to argue, but Kakashi shook his head and I conceded. “Thanks,” I said instead. “For worrying about us.”

Kakashi sniffed. “Someone has to do it,” he muttered, low enough that I wasn’t sure I was supposed to hear. I turned away and got under the covers next to Naruto. Fubuki slithered off my shoulders and onto the bedframe, draping herself over it like a goddess. I wondered what it meant for me to have a snake like her as a nin-animal, but before I could contemplate it fully I fell asleep.

When next I woke up, exhausted from the sleep I’d lost due to paranoia, it was nearly time for the preliminaries.

Chapter Text

I tried my best to look upset with the announcement that there would have to be preliminary matches before the final exhibition of the third stage of the Chūnin exam. Considering I'd woken up to discover I'd slept nearly an entire twenty-four hours, I was more upset about missing the chance to talk with Kakashi about what happened to Orochimaru. Now that I had a full night's sleep in, I was confused as to what had stopped the creep. Sure, we'd made it through the Forest of Death in just two days—which was pretty amazing all things considered—but Orochimaru was an ex-Sannin.

Like in the show, there was just one too many people (considering there were three genin to a team, I supposed that made some sense) and Kabuto volunteered to leave. I saw Kakashi, standing with the other jōnin instructors by the Hokage, give him a sharp look. I vaguely remembered Kakashi being suspicious of Kabuto in the show, but Kabuto was actually much stronger than anyone had realized at this point so… things were getting complicated and I didn't feel I was in a position to change it. What was I going to do about the invasion? How could I warn everyone? I couldn't just let the Sandaime die when I knew what was coming! Then again, who else currently in Konoha had a chance of forcing Orochimaru to go back into hiding to lick his wounds?

I shook my head to clear it and refocused on Hayate in time to have to move up to the spectator area overlooking the 'arena'. Naruto, Sakura, and I just shunshin'd up, but I noticed that the rest of the rookies walked up the stairs. I wondered if they hadn't been taught that yet.

"By random selection," Hayate said and then began to cough. He waved his hand to the screen above him. I focused on it.

The names began to flash on the screen, cycling through all the contestants. The first one slowly stopped on…

Me.

I sighed as Kakashi ruffled my hair and Naruto gave me a thumbs up. The second name slowly stopped as well and I looked up at who I'd be facing. Please not Gaara, please not Gaara, I begged internally.

The rotation stopped and I stared with no small amount of dread.

It wasn't Gaara. It was, in fact, pretty much the opposite.

I was to fight Hyūga Hinata.

I let out a quiet sound, not quite a huff and not quite a groan. With far more grace than my old body could have ever achieved, I jumped down to the arena floor and looked up to where Team Eight stood. Hinata was being given loud spoken encouragement by Kiba, but it was Shino who put a hand on her shoulder and gently pushed her toward the stairs. I blinked, not remembering Shino touch anyone casually in the show. Then again, the "camera" didn't always focus on the other teams and who knew what they really interacted like in private.

Hinata slowly walked down the stairs. I could tell she was shaking, just little tremors in her legs, but it flashed me back to Communications classes and public presentations and all those years of Speech before I'd learned how to bundle that natural well of anxiety into a tight corner of my brain and not let it control me. I suddenly remembered just how young all my peers were. That, despite being ninja, despite all their training, they were just twelve and thirteen year olds and at that age in my past life I had been crying about bullies and stressing about the approaching years of high school. I had been given a chance to make mistakes in a mostly safe environment, not fighting for my life in a semi-magical society of trained killers.

In the end, Hinata was just a little girl with a lot of expectations on shoulders half-breaking from the pressure. But I knew too that she could become so much more than this meek little thing now standing in front of me.

I vaguely heard Hayate give the rules and then tell us to, "Begin!"

Hinata shifted into the recognizable Hyūga stance. I rocked back on my heels for a moment, wondering. The world around us had faded. I knew that Naruto and Sakura were shouting me on. I knew I was being watched by everyone from Kakashi to the Hokage to Orochimaru's people (if not the man himself, though I tried to ignore that thought). But still all I could focus on was Hinata and the young girl in the background of her, the little girl that used to be me.

If I was here to make change, why not make this one too? Why not be the ally I could be, with the experience I have? Why not give the support that boys and men so rarely realized young girls needed in the sexist society I had lived and still live in?

I activated my Sharingan and brought my hands together in a flash of symbols. I wasn't the best at Genjutsu, despite my Sharingan advantage, but I had enough to do this.

For Hinata and I, the world froze. Hinata continued to stand at the ready, nervously watching me with her bulging white eyes, and then her eyes widened. She glared at me, realizing quickly she was trapped in my genjutsu. She opened her mouth and began to make the hand sign to dispel it.

"Wait," I said, making sure my voice was calm.

Hinata paused. "I c-can see the lines of your gen-genjutsu with my Byakugan, you will- will- will not be able to f-fool me."

"Good," I told her. "Can we just talk for a moment?"

"T-talk?"

I considered Hinata for a moment. She was physically defensive. Of course she was, we were fighting. And I knew that nothing I could say would feel anything other than a trap. This was not the situation to make a new friend—not unless I was Naruto anyway. Well, in that case, there was one thing I knew I could be pretty good at. Outwardly, I sighed. "I hate seeing you like this. You look weak, Hinata. You look like a victim. You stutter and that's fine, it's normal for some people, but you have to be more than that and you know it and it only makes it worse, right?"

Hinata just watched me with wide eyes. I pushed on.

"The Hyūga and Uchiha clans were rivals once. Two of the strongest clans in Konoha and yet here we are. The Hyūga heiress is pathetic and the Uchiha heir is a mess." I gestured to her, then to me. "What does the rest of the ninja world see when they look down at this fight?"

And though Hinata shook, her mind was sharp. "W-what do you want, Sasuke?" she asked, with barely a stutter.

"I want you to fight me," I said. "Because we both know you won't win, so you have no reason to hold back. I won't go easy on you, because you are a Hyūga and I'm an Uchiha. Are you going to shame your clan by not trying to at least hurt me?"

Hinata's shaking was only getting worse and I wondered if I'd taken the wrong path—if I was hurting her more than helping her. I just wanted her to see that she could be a strong kunoichi… I wanted her to focus only on me during the fight and bring out that inner strength I knew she had.

"There's a saying," I added, to try a different tack. I remembered a long-lost quote from one of my favorite actors. "All you have to do is pretend to be who you want to be and one day you'll wake up to realize you are that person, that you don't have to pretend anymore. What frustrates me about you, Hinata, is that you don't even try to pretend to be the Hyūga heiress. Is your clan even worth that much to you?"

Because I had come into the Uchiha clan with nothing emotionally invested and I stood here realizing I'd made myself angry with the thought of shaming those ghosts so blatantly. The Uchihas had their faults, but they had noble roots and a noble purpose when they built Konoha. I hated the thought of disappointing them more than I already had by killing their last hope.

And… and maybe the anger in my words was directed at myself, not at Hinata. Maybe it was time I dropped the genjutsu and just fought the girl.

"Is that what you did, Sasuke-san?" Hinata asked, and I realized she was seeing far more in my face than I wanted her to. "Or are you still pretending to be what your family would want?" She flinched as soon as the words left her mouth, as if only then realizing the innate meanness in them.

But among clan heirs, that kind of social politics was good. No one would expect a Hyūga and an Uchiha to get along. But a sort of rivalry to push each other to be better… that had possibility.

"Yes," I said and then had to look away. "Are you ready to fight me now?"

Hinata nodded. She was still shaking, but it was smaller—more anticipatory instead of fear. She didn't thank me, but I hardly expected her to. Instead, she put her hands together and yelled, "Kai!"

The illusion shattered and we were back in the arena, standing in the same spots we had been. My chakra was already half depleted from having to hold that genjutsu for so long, but it had been worth it and it would give Hinata an even better chance of showing off.

I shifted my stance and unsheathed my short sword. Hinata bent her knees just a little more. I could see the difference in her stance already, could see the determination in her eyes, and I wondered if anyone else could see it.

If not, they would soon enough.

I charged forward and Hinata met me, blow for blow. I cut and slashed and stabbed and with every hit and miss she bruised me and cut off my chakra points.

And in the end, I was out of chakra, panting, with my sword at her throat. She was bleeding mildly from several wounds and I was pretty sure my left wrist was sprained, but the match was over and it had been no where near the massacre some would have expected.

"Winner, Uchiha Sasuke!"

I sheathed my sword and gave Hinata a little bow. She bowed back, utterly formal as expected of two clan heirs. We turned our backs on each other and walked up the parallel stairs to our teams. Though both of us were injured, I was sure Hinata walked straight and proud just as I did. We gave a show as two clan heirs would have and though my adrenaline still rushed from the fight, I was retrospectively stunned and proud for her. This was the person Hinata had tried to be when fighting Neji in the show, and had failed because Neji hadn't given her the chance to prove herself. I was glad I had been able to help her, if only a little.

"Why didn't you use any jutsu, Sasuke?" Sakura asked quietly. "Other than that initial genjutsu, I mean. You could have had her before she cut off your chakra."

"Because I wanted to see what she could do," I said honestly. "We got a lot more training, the three of us, but I think Hinata will get there. Don't you?"

Sakura looked toward Team Eight and then nodded slowly. "Yeah," she said, with just a bit of wonder in her tone. "I think so too."

Naruto bumped his shoulder into mine. "Gonna let Sakura heal you, teme?" he asked.

"No," I said. I carefully didn't look left, past Team Ten, to where Team Eight stood. I knew Hinata didn't have a healer on her team and wouldn't accept one until the matches were over. "I'm going to wait."

Naruto huffed and Sakura rolled her eyes, but they both accepted my words. I realized they'd both already known that's what I would say—since neither of them had moved to help me once I got up the stairs. I wondered for a moment how well my teammates actually knew me. I was still operating on an advantage from my other world knowledge, but that advantage weakened every day. I wondered when I'd realize I was using that knowledge as a crutch. One day, I thought, it might hold me back. I had to take care not to let it. Things had already changed so much, I couldn't assume that my knowledge held any meaning anymore.

The next match-up came on the screen. Rock Lee—I tried to hide my wince, though I knew I wasn't entirely successful. I suddenly remember that this was the fight where Gaara nearly killed Lee… where he crippled him. Lee didn't deserve that. Not the Lee I'd been training with since I first came to this world. Lee was annoying and stupid at times, but he had a good heart and was one of the most loyal ninja in the village.

The opponent's name slowly spun to a stop.

Akadō Yoroi.

I let out a sigh of relief. One of the Leaf ninja from Kabuto's team. I didn't remember him, or what he did specifically, but as long as it wasn't Gaara then Lee would be fine. He was one of the best fighters among Konoha's representatives here. He'd even managed to hurt Gaara, after all.

"Worried about your eternal rival?" Kakashi mused in my ear.

I jumped and turned to glare at Kakashi. "No," I snapped. "Of course not."

When I looked at my teammates, I saw them both laughing at me. I felt my face flush in embarrassment and I crossed my arms. "Hn."

I felt a prickle at the base of my neck and looked left at Team Ten. Shikamaru was studying me, a small smirk on his lips. I frowned at him. Ino turned and saw me looking and then glanced at Shikamaru. For some reason, she turned bright red. I quickly looked away. I hoped she still wasn't holding onto that stupid crush she had on me.

I focused back on the fight below. Lee and Yoroi had exchanged a couple, testing blows. I could tell Lee was barely at a quarter-speed, though to Yoroi I'm sure he looked like above-average quickness.

"Yosh, I was hoping for a youthful fight!" Lee suddenly exclaimed. "I should have sparred with my eternal rival instead."

I raised my eyebrow. I had no idea Lee was into trash-talking his opponents… If that could be considered trash talking, anyway.

Yoroi began to laugh. "Are you an idiot? You should already be feeling the effects."

Lee cocked his head to the side. "I only feel boredom that my opponent is so slow and uninteresting. How can I show off my youth without a youthful opponent?"

I rubbed my temples. Lee was something else.

"You won't be feeling very youthful once you realize that I've sucked your chakra each time we've touched!"

Oh god, I remembered Yoroi now. Despite myself, I began to laugh out loud. It was completely undignified and I tried to stifle it behind my hand but… Lee would never realize his luck. To go from Gaara to a ninja who relied on sucking the opponents chakra out. It was bittersweet and hilarious at the same time.

"I hardly need chakra to beat you," Lee said. And then he stopped slowing himself down.

The fight was a joke after that. My "eternal rival" was easily one of the fastest ninjas in the room. He quickly knocked Yoroi unconscious with a sad little sigh. Like he honestly was disappointed in how easy the fight had been.

"Lee," I called out, because I couldn't help myself. Not with the bomb Lee had missed. "I'll spar with you in preparation for the third exam, how's that?"

Lee lit up like a puppy. "Yosh! If I do not beat my eternal rival, I shall walk around the village five hundred times on my hands."

Gai pumped his own arms up. "If my student does not beat my hip rival, Kakashi's, student I too shall walk around the village five hundred times on my hands!"

"Gai-sensei!"

"Lee!"

"Gai-sensei!"

"Lee!"

"I take it back," I said, but of course they ignored me. I turned to Kakashi for help but he shook his head.

"You brought that on yourself," my sensei said, taking no pains to hide his mirth.

"Sakura, maybe I do need healing," I said. "Maybe Hinata rattled my brain. I'm obviously not thinking straight."

Sakura didn't answer, because just then the next name came up on the screen. Tsurugi Misumi versus… Naruto Uzumaki.

Sakura and I turned to our teammate. He grinned at us. "Cheer me on, guys!"

"Of course," Sakura said.

I nodded once in agreement.

Sakura sidled closer to my side as our team leader walked confidently down the stairs into the arena. I studied Tsurugi Misumi. Kabuto's other teammate. I tried to remember who he'd fought in that other universe. Was it Kankuro? It might have been.

I got distracted trying to list off all the fights in my head that I missed the initial exchange of words. I refocused as Naruto put his hands together and puffed out his usual technique. Nine shadow clones and the original surrounded Misumi in a circle. Nine, I'd noticed a couple weeks ago, had become one of Naruto's favorite and most-used numbers. It made me wonder if he'd talked with Kurama much, or at all.

"Impressive," Misumi said.

I exchanged a glance with Sakura and we both smirked.

Then, quick and dangerous, Misumi lashed forward. His legs elongated to give him reach and his arms wrapped three times around one of the Narutos. It was like Monkey D Luffy or Mrs. Incredible on steroids. He coiled around the Naruto like a snake and squeezed. The clone popped away in a cloud of smoke. The whole move was done in less than a minute.

"Impressive," all eight remaining Narutos said, because he was a little shit sometimes.

Misumi scowled. "I can stretch as far as I need to without using chakra. You think you'll be able to hold me off with shadow clones? Don't make me laugh. Stop hiding and let's fight."

"I'm not hiding," one of the Narutos said, scratching his whiskered cheek.

Misumi struck that one with a kunai and it poofed away.

"I just wanted to see what you'd do," another Naruto said. That was poofed away with a kicked to the nose.

"Are you part snake?" another Naruto asked. It dodged out of the way of a shuriken then grinned as Misumi wrapped his elongated fingers around his neck and twisted. Another puff of smoke filled the arena.

"You're not getting very lucky," another Naruto said. Misumi ignored that one and attacked a different Naruto. It was another clone. "No, seriously, I'm the real one."

Misumi glared and reached for that Naruto.

"Or not," Naruto said and attacked himself with a kunai. He poofed away.

The two remaining Narutos laughed. Misumi let out a short shout of rage and then stepped back. He made a couple quick hand signs that I recognized as the start of a fire jutsu. "Die!" the nin snarled.

Both Narutos went up in fire and smoke. When the blaze cleared, nothing remained on the field. I looked around and saw Naruto hanging out on the railing behind Misumi. He jumped down. "Boo."

Misumi spun and snarled like a wild animal. His body stretched and collided in a wave around Naruto.

"You're squeezing me so hard," Naruto said, his voice high pitched.

"He didn't," Sakura muttered.

"He did," I said, as I watched Misumi notice that the Naruto he was squeezing was a beautiful, naked girl.

Misumi screeched and jumped back. "Stop playing with me!" he squealed.

Naruto dropped the henge and shrugged. "Okay, fine. Fūton: Daitoppa." A huge gust of wind shot up and pushed Misumi into the air and against the far wall. The ninja collapsed in a whimpering heap. After a minute of waiting, the heap went still—Misumi unconscious.

Naruto grinned as he was announced the winner and jumped up to rejoin Sakura and I. "Well, that was fun."

Sakura hit Naruto on the back of the head. "You are terrible, I hope you realize that."

"What Sakura said," I agreed.

"Come on, guys, it was funny, wasn't it?"

"No," I said in tandem with Sakura.

"I thought it was," Kakashi said.

"Shut up," we told him.

The next fight's participants were announced to be Shino and Chōji. I let myself lean into Naruto as I watched. Naruto didn't look it, but he had amazing balance. He stood solid and steady even when at rest. In my old life, I'd been small enough that I'd learned to love leaning on people and have them keep me up. In this life, I was larger, but Naruto took my weight without complaint and as we'd grown closer, I'd grown to enjoy the gesture. I felt I couldn't show a lot of physical affection for my teammates, not in the world we lived in, but leaning on Naruto showed that I trusted him—I trusted him to hold my weight without faltering, and in the ninja world that was heady.

So, I set my upper arm against Naruto's, my shoulder just below his, and let myself lean sideways into him. On Naruto's other side, Sakura looped her arm into his. She'd never leaned on Naruto like I did, but she'd taken to pressing her arms and hands against ours. Not enough to impede our movement in the case of an attack, but a point of contact nonetheless. We were a close team and had no problem showing it off to the people all around us.

I watched Shino's kikaichū circling the stadium. His bugs creeped me out—a holdover from my other life, really—but their ability fascinated me. Because I knew to look for them, I watched to see how many landed on Chōji.

But Chōji was staying back, swatting at the bugs as they got close, and for a moment I wondered how in the world Chōji had known about Shino's kikaichū beforehand. Hadn't this fight been the big reveal of Shino's abilities?

Of course, though, Chōji was a clan kid. He'd probably been raised learning about the kekkai genkai of the other Konoha clans. The Aburame were no secret to the Akimichi, I'm sure.

Still, Chōji had a frown on his face and I realized that even if he knew about the bugs, that didn't mean he had a true way to counter them. Chōji's fighting relied on his body and how his body channeled chakra. It was, in the end, a horrible matchup for Chōji. And I could tell that Shino knew it too.

Chōji sighed loudly. "Aww, man. Nothing for it. I don't really want you to drain my chakra, Shino. I'll just try again next year." He scratched his head. "I'm hungry anyway and this is taking too long. Proctor, I resign."

Shino nodded, showing his respect to Chōji—a proper thing for one clan child to another. It was a boring match, but then the preliminaries weren't about impressing people.

"Why'd he do that?" Naruto asked me. "I didn't ever think of Chōji as a quitter."

"Chōji knew he couldn't win, not when matching up his clan's abilities and Shino's," I whispered to Naruto, making sure my voice wouldn't carry across the hall to the other teams. "He chose to resign before Shino had to reveal the extent of his kekkai genkai, leaving it a mystery for the teams from the other villages. That way Shino will have a better chance against them in the finals, making Konoha look better." I paused. "At least, that's what I would do."

Naruto pouted, still obviously upset with the lack of a good fight, but he still gave Chōji a slap on the back as he passed us on the way back to his team. I gave Chōji a small smile, because I respected his choice, and he graced me with a confused expression. Honestly, I wasn't that mean, was I?

The energy in the room was low as the next names were revealed. Tenten versus Kinuta Dosu—a Sound nin. I winced as Lee began to cheer loudly for his teammate.

I vaguely remembered Dosu as being one of the Sound ninja I actually liked, though I couldn't remember why. I also didn't quite remember who he'd fought in the anime. His bandages looked familiar, but then there were a number of nin who wore bandages around their faces so my mind could just be tricking me. I let myself lean fully into Naruto, resting my entire weight on him, as I pondered the mystery.

Tenten revealed herself as a weapons mistress and began to attack Dosu with a wide array of ranged weapons. Each and every one of them missed.

"Strange," Sakura murmured. "Isn't Tenten supposed to be an excellent markswoman?"

"She is," I said. "I wonder why…" It wasn't like she was up against Temari, with the heavy winds to blow her weapons away.

And then Dosu took pity on Tenten and us audience and explained that his ability was to manipulated sound, specifically targeting his opponent's inner ear.

"I believe that you're a capable kunoichi," he said, "but I don't know many who could compensate for that amount of vertigo when trying to aim even a kunai." He shrugged. "Sorry."

Tenten shook her head, as if trying to clear it, and then launched forward to attack Dosu hand-to-hand. Now, I could easily see how her body was being affected. Even her close combat aim was off, her punches a little wide, her kicks off-center. Dosu easily blocked her moves and jabbed back with simple, deadly accuracy. Tenten retreated after only a handful of hits.

Dosu cocked his head to the side. "You can resign, or I can hurt you until you're forced to. I'll give you the choice."

"You're strangely honorable," Tenten stated. "I like that in a man."

She drew out a shuriken and threw it at him. Dosu didn't even try to dodge. The shuriken went wide by about a foot.

"Is that your decision then?" Dosu asked, taking a step forward.

"Not quite," Tenten answered. Quicker than she'd been thus far, she threw four kunai. Dosu dodged the first three and the third hit him neatly along the corner of the jaw—slicing away his face bandages to reveal a pale face. "Huh, you're pretty cute too."

And then Tenten collapsed to her knees, blood trickling out of her ears. Dosu's eyes were wide, as if he couldn't believe she'd actually hit him—even if it hadn't even drawn blood. I wondered if he'd subconsciously increased his sound chakra output—causing her eardrums to bust.

"I'm done," Tenten told Hayate a second before she collapsed all the way. Her face would have smashed into the ground if Gai hadn't shunshin'd into the arena to catch her. He gave her opponent a subdued smile and then carried her away.

"Poor Tenten," Sakura said. "What a terrible matchup for her."

I hn'd in agreement.

"I wonder who's next," Sakura wondered aloud as the names began to rotate. "So far, the only kunoichi to fight have lost. It'd be nice to get a little more of a strong female showing."

I looked at Sakura, surprised by the statement. I agreed with her, but I hadn't quite realized Sakura had grown aware enough to realize the severe lack of strong female ninja in Konoha. It was almost as if, after Tsunade left the village, there was no longer a super strong kunoichi for young girls to look up to—Sakura was the only civilian-raised girl to graduate from the Academy in the last several years. Tenten didn't quite count because, while her father wasn't a ninja, he was a weaponsmith and she'd been raised inside his store, selling weapons to various kunoichi in the village.

"You get your wish, Sakura-chan!" Naruto said, drawing my attention back to the board. The two names were Sakura's and Tsuchi Kin. "One of you has to win, after all. So I guess we will have a kunoichi in the finals." He grinned.

"Apparently," Sakura said, shaking her head. "Though that wasn't quite what I meant," she muttered just loud enough I could hear as she headed to the stairs.

Kin, I remembered, was the one who'd fought Shikamaru in the anime. I'd enjoyed that fight a lot, because it had been one of the first to show off Shikamaru's true intelligence. However, I also remembered that, while Kin's senbon and bells were tricky, they were hardly the worst Sound had to offer. I believed in Sakura's ability to beat the other kunoichi.

"Going to be honest, I'm not impressed by what I've seen of the Leaf's kunoichi thus far," Kin said as the fight began. "I'd even go as far to say you're all pathetic. Is it true that your teachers instruct you on proper flower arrangements instead of physical training?"

"You never know when having seemingly unnecessary knowledge might save your life," Sakura countered.

"Sure," Kin said, and her drawl reminded me of the students who looked down on the girls in the nursing major—saying they should have just taken the pre-med track. I scowled.

But this was Sakura's fight, not mine, and Sakura was more than capable of showing someone when she disapproved of something. "Shut up," she said, and it was blatant enough that it wiped the sneer of Kin's face. "Here, I'll show you what I mean."

"Wha–" Kin began, but she was interrupted by a flurry of kunai and shuriken Sakura sent her way.

"That was in the pattern of a tulip," Sakura said. "Next is rhododendron."

Kin dodged backwards and Sakura surged after her, laying a five-point kick at her torso. Kin blocked the blows, but nearly fell against the wall before swerving to the side at the last moment.

"Stay back!" Kin warned, and she shot senbon back at Sakura.

But Sakura, I realized, was more than adept at dealing with senbon. After all, we had trained with Haku.

"What's with the bells?" Sakura asked as she caught one of the senbon between her fingers and glanced at the edge of it.

"While you were being taught flowers, I was taught the art of music," Kin replied. "Let me show you which one is better."

And then Kin attacked with a flurry of senbon. I watched as Sakura dodged the first set, then gasp as the second hit her on the right arm and shoulder.

"What?" Sakura mumbled. "But I…" she looked behind her and I took note of the senbon lying on the ground.

That's right, I remembered. The bells were just a distraction.

Sakura shook her head and looked back at Kin. "Two can play at that game," she said, and grabbed her own handful of senbon. "Daffodil!" She shot the scattered needles forward, then followed it up with a set of roundhouse kicks. "Iris!"

"Get ready for my harmony!" Kin yelled back, and the bells began to ring. She shot senbon after senbon and while Sakura dodged many, more began to scraped the sides of her clothes and pierce into her skin.

Sakura stopped and swayed. "I see," she said. "An area genjutsu, created by the sound."

"I guess you are pretty smart, for a flower girl," Kin stated. She grinned and it was just shy of feral. "But just knowing what's happening doesn't mean you can stop it." She drew another set of senbon and I felt Naruto tense under me.

Sakura snorted. "Let me tell you my favorite flower. I'm sure you can guess. It's what I was named after." She tilted her head just slightly to the side and I realized a second before what was about to happen. "Sakura blossoms are so pretty, aren't they?"

And then a second Sakura appeared between the two kunoichi. "Sharanno!" she yelled and charged. Kin let out a soft noise of shock before recovering and shooting that new Sakura with senbon.

But Sakura's Inner wasn't affected by physical blows and I knew Kin had spelled her own demise by creating an area genjutsu.

All it took was for one punch to land and then Kin was out.

"Woo!" Naruto yelled and I nearly fell from the sudden movements of his arms. "Go Sakura-chan! You did it!"

"Not so loud," I complained, rubbing my ears. "Nice," I said then as Sakura shunshin'd up to us.

"Thanks, guys," Sakura said. She was already plucking the senbon out of her skin and casually dropping them to the floor.

"Need a medic?" Kakashi asked lazily, not even looking up from his book.

"No thanks, I'm fine," Sakura replied and a second later her hands glowed green.

I looked around and saw most of the Rookie Nine staring at Sakura in shock. This, I knew, was nothing like what they would have expected out of the flower girl. I was so proud of her.

"Oh, look, another kunoichi fight," Naruto pointed out as Temari and Ino were called to the field.

Ino looked up at us, at Sakura, as she walked down to the arena. I watched and waited—it only took a moment for the surprise and disappointment in her eyes to become determination. If Sakura won her fight against an enemy kunoichi, shouldn't Ino also? I could almost hear her voice saying it, "If Forehead-girl can win, so can I!"

But Ino was up against Temari, who was shockingly strong to still be a genin, and I didn't envy her chances.

Sakura looked up from her healing as the first of Temari's fan gusts sent Ino flying back into the wall and winced. "Oh, Ino-pig," she murmured.

I walked around Naruto so I stood by Sakura's side. "I think," I whispered to her, "that even if it's hard, this is an important lesson for Ino. And better it happen now than in the field, don't you think?"

Sakura looked at me and in her green gaze I saw the weary truth. Sakura had begun to change before our mission to the Land of Waves but she hadn't made the transformation from a child playing at ninja to a true warrior until she'd seen Zabuza—his guts only being held in his abdomen by a bloody hand—slaughter countless of Gazo's men for the slight of Gazo daring to betray his monetary contract.

Naruto had always been a fighter, even since he was a child, because the village had never let him being anything else. At the same time, Naruto was always a kid playing ninja because the village had tried to squish that out of him and he was too damn stubborn to let it. Me, on the other hand… I lost what was left of my childhood the night I lost my life, and the moment I realized I'd taken Sasuke's away too. Sakura had been the last to catch up with us, but she was far beyond even the clan kids of the Rookie Nine now.

And in those green eyes, I saw that same realization. Because, despite Ino's skills, Shikamaru's intelligence, Shino's abilities, Kiba's persistence… despite Chōji's thick skin and Hinata's political unrest… they were all still children that hadn't yet seen the brutality of the ninja world. And it was far better to get that reality check here, in a mostly-friendly match, then out there in a war.

War was coming and I worried more for my classmates than even those I canonically knew died in the invasion. Things had already changed too much and they weren't ready.

So, I watched Temari bat Ino around like a rag doll and I thought, good, keep forcing her down again and again. Because maybe this way Ino won't go out into the streets armed with only a kunai and her clan's mind jutsu and expect to win against an army of invading Sand and Sound nin. Break her gently, with wind strong enough to rip her skin, because maybe she won't hesitate to make her first kill.

Don't make her one of the casualties of the Leaf's gentle training.

I wrapped my arm around Sakura's shoulders as Ino fell to the ground one last time and didn't get up.

"Don't take too long to lick your wounds, Ino-pig," Sakura said, more to herself than anything, as Asuna picked Ino up and walked away with her. "Or you'll never grow the tusks to become a boar."

And then it was Shikamaru's turn. Shikamaru, the last of his team to fight, the only one left to be able to carry the reputation of Ino-Shika-Chō to the finals. Shikamaru hesitated before walking down the stairs, obviously preoccupied with watching Asuna's take Ino to the healers, until Chōji pushed him. Then, he took his hands out of his pockets and marched steadily to where his opponent, Abumi Zaku, waited.