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Kyuubi had been awake for exactly three days when everything went to hell in a hand-basket. He'd woken in a damp sewer behind the gilded bars of a cage with a massive headache and several years of missing memories. It had taken several hours of hard thought before the last night he could remember came back to him.

Sealed again. And in a kit as well. A little blonde that looked so like the Yondaime that for one terrifying minute he could feel rage well up inside him like some living thing before it petered out and he settled on to his belly in the thin layer of water. He hated humans, so much, but kits were blameless of the sins of their parents. And who knew, perhaps this container would be different from the two previous.

Yeah, he didn't believe that for a second.

Better to withhold judgement for now and then be disappointed later when his new container turned out like everyone else. And so he settled back to watch as best he could. The kit was young, less than decade, less than even half a decade, and he viewed everything through the milky innocence that only toddlers were capable of. From what little he had time to gather, the child was a being raised in one of the newer orphanages in Konoha that had likely popped up after the attack. While no one paid over much attention to him, neither were they cruel or neglectful to him. His needs were seen to, he was taught and comforted and allowed things all the orphans had.

Either no one knew that he was sealed in the kid or the caretakers didn't care and Kyuubi put good money on the first. He couldn't imagine this level of care so soon after the attack if they knew he was here.

The kit himself was easy-going and happy, content to babble and laugh his days away. He was trusting in that way that young ones always are and it was his trusting nature that got them into the mess he was witnessing right now.

They'd come to the playground, a man and a woman with easy smiles and candy and coaxing words. They reeked of deception, of anger and ill intent and Kyuubi wanted nothing more than to lash out with his chakra or shout something to this too young, too stupid child he was sealed in. But the seal was too new, too tight for his chakra to even begin leaking into the kid's system properly beyond the little trickle it currently was, never mind the level he would need to save his container.

The candy was laced, and the kid was out between one lick and the next, tossed over the man's shoulder as they sprinted away from the village and didn't stop until the sun had gone down and the moon was high in the sky, just over the border of Hi no Kuni. Both were muttering about revenge and Kyuubi could only guess they were after the kid because of his father. Whether they knew that the Yondaime was actually the kid's father was up for debate, but they seemed just the side of deranged required to kill a toddler for a mere resemblance to a hated enemy.

Kyuubi saw what was going to happen seconds before the man tossed his container to the floor, knelt down with kunai in hand and slit the boy's throat. Kyuubi's scream of rage and denial shook the very gates of his cage and life and color began to seep out of the sewer because of course, of course, the Yondaime's seal tied their lives together.

Desperately he lashed out with wave after wave of red chakra, over and over again. As life seeped out of his container's body, the seal loosened, allowing more and more chakra an dit swirled out, rushing towards the gaping wound in the toddler's throat. All he could do was reattach all the important veins and arteries and his trachea, but that left the wound open to air and the boy was already in shock. For all that it had taken only perhaps fifteen seconds in the world beyond the rapidly fading plane of the seal, it was almost too much for his little body.

Any other toddler would be long dead but not many other toddlers had massive constructs of chakra sealed in their bellies. Briefly, the thought of letting his container die and escaping had crossed his mind, but their lives were so closely and tightly entwined that he would have been well on his way to death by the time the seals was loose enough to even think of escaping, let alone made a successful one.

But there was still the little matter of his container lying with an open neck wound in the middle of the woods. He had to think quickly, but he wasn't a centuries old being feared by all for nothing. On top of that, he was a fox. He was much smarter than any of his other brothers and sisters, especially his stupid youngest brother, the worthless tanuki.

The seal was still too weak for him to do much, but he could feel the pull on his chakra was already more substantial than just an hour ago and it was feeding into the little star that was his container's own chakra.

His idea came to him with a quick flick of his ears and he settled back down onto his belly, reaching one arm out so that a claw slid past the gates and sunk into the water on the other side. Carefully, carefully, he manipulated his chakra and swaddled the little star of the child and then flexed the tendril cradling the child's chakra, just enough for a pulse of pure chakra to roll out around his container.

A call for help, that this close tot eh border would hopefully be picked up by patrolling friendlies. One pulse, another and then another. Kyuubi was sure his power was fading now. They had maybe a few minutes before they would both slip away to the Pure Plane. Kyuubi only hoped his plan worked.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Han didn't leave the White Woods much any more, preferring the company of his summons where he lived with them in the main warren. Han was not the only person who chose to live among the wolf summons of the White Woods, and so most of his things came from the other resident summoners. Occasionally however the urge to wander struck him or he needed money to get something that the other summoners didn't have access to. And so he found himself on the border of Hi no Kuni, having wrapped up a few easy bounties, the form of his personal summons loping easily beside him when he felt it.

Shiroi's fur rose along his spine not in anger but in terror. The lash of chakra was unmistakably a child's, pure and bright and soaked in desperation, something heady and dark laced through it but it was most definitely a call for help that could not be ignored. They set off through the woods at a dead sprint, Shiroi pressing at him the impression of blood and fear.

Han found the child's crumpled form in the knotted roots of a tree, laid out in a puddle of blood that was his own, neck flayed open for all the world to see. Only Han's many years as a shinobi kept his food in his stomach as he ran forward, hands already flying through the seals for the summoning technique. The child was still obviously alive, if the chakra pulse was anything to go by, and Han had been taught the ways of the Pack and he had a duty to do everything he could.

In a puff of smoke there were three more wolves, two with black pelts shot through with gray and one with fur of white like his own Shiroi. The wolves were quicker on the uptake than Han had hoped and the air filled with warm healing chakra as the white wolf placed a delicate paw on the small chest. One of the black wolves met his gaze with milky emerald eyes.

"Han?" The great creature asked, settling onto his belly and watching the white wolf work, the other black wolf settled next to the little body, another wash of warm chakra filling the air as it pressed its nose to the small leg.

"He was like this when Shiroi and I found him. If his chakra hadn't been pulsing we'd have walked right by him, the wind is so still he was just out of scent range." The wolf sighed heavily and looked towards his companions. The white wolf was shaking her head, looking unhappy in the extreme. She'd managed to heal the gaping wound in his neck, leaving a thick line of ropy scar tissue but beyond that they weren't sure.

"Grandmother?" The aged creature asked and the other black wolf opened her eyes, heaving herself to her feet and looking weary.

"It's not good, Grandfather. Without intervention, he won't make it more than a few more hours, even with Petal's help. Something has kept him alive this long, something tucked into a seal on his stomach, but what exactly it is I can't tell. However, it can't support the boy much longer. The only conceivable way I can see of saving the boy is-"

"You can't mean the Life Bond!" Han choked as Shiroi's gasp cracked through the clearing like lightning. "He's just as likely to die from it as he is his wounds!" The wolf called Grandfather leveled him with a quelling look and Shiroi sank back.

"Better to attempt the bond and give the pup a chance at life. If not, better to snap his neck here as an act of mercy." Shiroi, cowed, settled on his belly at Han's side. The mere thought of taking the life of a child, even in an act of mercy, was antithesis of everything they'd ever been taught.

When no one else raised any objections, Grandfather raised himself to his paws with a sigh. "Then let us depart at once. I have just the wolf in mind."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* Approx. 8 years later, age 10 years, 9 months

"Naruto! Seiji! It's time to come in for the night!" Han leaned out of the cabin's window, Malfuin puttering in the kitchen behind him as she wrapped up dinner's preparation before ducking back in to finish setting up the table and counting with no little amusement to 10 under his breath. Sure enough as he recited the last number the door burst open with the sound of scrabbling claws, deep chuckling and raspy laughter.

Han smiled as Shiroi gave the other room a long suffering sigh as Sakura, Malfuin's companion, smiled indulgently as boy and wolf tumbled over each other in a race to get inside. Naruto had successfully come through the ceremony that tied his life force to one of the wolf summons of the White Woods and had stayed with them since, playing and learning and, perhaps most importantly, healing. While much of the time had been light and happy, the first year or two had been hardest, as Naruto was adjusting to the new home, his new companion, his new biology and the loss of his voice.

Naruto had been a child used to talking, to filling the air with chatter and stories. To have that suddenly taken from him had been hard, and as a toddler he'd had very few faculties for dealing with the loss other than listlessness, rebellion and crying. In the end though, Naruto's bright, indomitable spirit had come through for him and he'd come into his own. Shortly after Naruto's fifth birthday, Seiji had gained the ability to speak as most wolf summons did and through his companion Naruto had regained his own voice. Through their bond Seiji was able to hear his companion and speak for his human and with that returned to him Naruto blossomed.

Speak of the devil. Naruto darted into the room, his raspy laughter ringing as Seiji bounded in after him. Seiji was on the larger side for a summons his age, standing at five and a half foot at the shoulder and seven foot from nose to tail, his timber colored pelt thick and soft. He shared his mismatched amber gold and blue gaze with his human companion.

Naruto, in direct contrast to his wolf, was on the small side for his age, almost alarmingly so and looked more like an eight year old than a boy going on eleven. Even with his training over the last four years he was slim and short and his shinobi pants and long sleeve would have hung on him if they'd not been tailor made for him, bound at the ankles and wrists with white bandages. The high collar of the long sleeve had the bonus of hiding the scar on his neck which, though it had lightened some with age, still stood as a stark reminder of his brush with death as a toddler.

His hair fell in silken blonde strands on his left side, curling just the slightest amount at his chin, while the right side of his head had been shaved close. The whisker marks he'd come to them with were slightly thicker and his teeth gleaming and powerful in his grin while claws adorned his hands and feet as he happily went barefoot.

"Table, you two. Those paws of yours had best be clean, Naruto-kun and Seiji if I see a single burr in your pelt you'll be helping Zekora harvest mouse bile to treat the tick infestation in the east warren." Malfuin's voice came from the kitchen and both boy and wolf shared a bright odd-eyed glance before they were off to the bathroom in a blur of claws and fur.

Sakura sighed and stretched out, her gray streaked tawny pelt glinting in the low lamp light as the sounds of scuffling and playful growling filtered down to them. Of course they'd turned hand washing into a competition, in the way only young boys could. "It's going to be far too quiet when they leave next week." Sakura's voice was creaky with age and Shiroi huffed in unhappy agreement.

Han sighed because it was true. While everyone lived in close proximity and they would never be alone, Han, Malfuin and their companions had grown used to the sounds of young ones constantly about. Grown used to furs and scarves and shinobi shirts scattered all over, the sound of claws clicking on wood and raspy laughter. Naruto had been with them since he was just a bit past three years old, Seiji with him every step of the way.

But in a week, Naruto was returning to Konoha, as per thier agreement with the the Sandaime Hokage. It had taken some negotiation, to convince the the village leader that Naruto was better off being raised by them, among the love and support of the White Woods wolves. The village wouldn't be prepared to teach him how to fight or utilize his bond with Seiji, that they wouldn't know how to handle Naruto's changed biology. The boy was essentially half wolf now, his life and chakra and spirit all tied up with his companion and his companion's with his.

Or, technically, companions. Grandmother had caught on instantly that Naruto had had something sealed in him, even before he was bonded, but it wasn't until Naruto was seven that they figured out what, or in this case, who was sealed in the boy's gut.

The Kyuubi.

It had taken some doing, some dire threats of tightening the seal so much he would never see the light of day ever again before they could hash out an agreement with the massive chakra construct. He could view the outside world and contact his container as he pleased and Naruto would be allowed to train to responsibly utilize the fox's power. So long as Naruto treated him with respect the fox wouldn't unduly influence his vessel in a bid for release. It wasn't necessarily when either party wanted but it was a tolerable compromise.

That had been one hell of a message to send to the old Hokage. They'd gotten a monkey summons back who'd borne an entirely unimpressed look and a scroll detailing why the older man thought that it was horrible idea but also hoped that it worked. Naruto's status as a Jinchuriki was a SSS-class secret in the village, known only to the Hokage and one living Anbu. Not having to worry about the fox vying for control of his vessel would make keeping the secret so much easier.

It had been at that point that Hokage had gotten more insistent that Naruto return to the village to join the ninja forces. Considering Naruto wanted to become a ninja, it wasn't a hardship but the timing had been argued over for months before it was decided that he would return shortly before his eleventh birthday for the year that would've been his final had he attended the academy from the very beginning. This would allow Naruto to integrate with peers his age before he enrolled in the ninja forces.

Naruto, while sad to be leaving the White Woods, was also excited to begin his journey and to meet more, human, kids. He loved the White Woods and its inhabitants dearly and knew he would always be welcome back with open arms, but part of him yearned for human company as well. Seiji was just happy to venturing forth with his human on what he viewed to be a very excellent adventure.

They came clattering to the table and Naruto launched himself into his seat, Seiji taking up his usual position right at his back, his massive head on the small shoulder and they both attempted to look piteous at their empty plates. Han laughed as he started dishing up meat and Malfuin ran a soft hand over thier heads on her way to her own seat.

God they really would miss them.

Chapter Text

Kakashi shifted in the shadows of the guard tower, rolling his shoulders as he waited for his signal. He had no idea why the Sandaime had been so insistent that he be the one to meet this new person at the gate when it was just as easy for any other Anbu to do it. However, let it never be said that the Hokage wasn't prone to his flights of fancy, so here he sat with the sun high in the sky, waiting.

Another half an hour passed when the wind brought him a scent and he straightened up slightly, drawing another breath. Mint, vanilla, woodsmoke and the distinct smell of warm fur. An odd scent impression but not unpleasant in the least. A minute after the scent reached him a form crested the ridge that lead to the gate. The form clarified into a wolf, far larger than any wild specimen, and plodding along beside him was a boy, small and barefoot, dressed in dark gray shinobi wear.

Their heads were turned towards each other, having a silent conversation and the boy was smiling, an excited hop in his step. Now that they were drawing closer to the gate Kakashi got an even better look at them. The wolf was probably five and a half feet at the shoulder and leanly muscled, moving with the deadly grace of a predator despite its huge size. Its fur was a natural timber color and its eyes were mismatched, one amber-gold, one sapphire blue. Across its back was a pair of saddle bags made of leather. Not entirely out of the ordinary, the wolf could be written off as summons or ninanimal.

No, it was the boy who caught his attention, took his breath from throat. He was small and blond. His cheeks were whiskered, three marks on each cheek and his eyes were mirrored by his lupine companion, one sapphire blue the other amber-gold.

Naruto. Gods it was Naruto, Minato-sensei and Kushina-chan's son! The little boy he'd seen for all of five minutes after thier deaths and then been forbidden from seeing again. And then he had up and vanished two weeks after his third birthday. Kakashi had been a part of every search party that had gone out he could physically handle, and some even past that, before they had suddenly been called off with no warning and told that Naruto was safe.

Kakashi had begged for information, just to be sure that he was well and truly safe and looked after, swore not to go looking for him just so long as he knew Naruto was fine but the Sandiame had refused him, told him it wasn't his place and he still wasn't allowed to know anything about Naruto.

It was the first time in a long time Kakashi had actively considered insubordination in that moment. After that he had embroiled himself so deep in Anbu, in every single long haul suicide mission he could get his hands on. He pushed away his friends and his team, to the extent that he could anyway and it wasn't until Genma ended up hauling his burned and nearly dead body back that the Hokage had put a stop to it and shown him one of the update letter from Naruto and his caretakers. The first half of the letter had been an update for the doings of a six year old Naruto for that month and the second half had been the wobbly writings of an enthusiastic child, along with a crude drawing of a young boy and a spindly legged wolf.

And while Kakashi still hadn't been privy to the where or the who of Naruto's childhood, Sarutobi and he had struck a deal. Kakashi would work to pull himself back from the brink and in return the Hokage would let him know that reports were still arriving and he was allowed to read some of them. It wasn't perfect, wasn't what he wanted, but for the time being it was enough. Naruto was alive and judging by the tone of the reports and the boy's add ons in good health and happy wherever he was.

And now he was here, walking towards the gate and looking so much like his parents that Kakashi was frozen in place, fingers gripping his pants in an uncharacteristic loss of control. How was he going to to do this. Even with the hairstyle, the long blonde locks falling into his blue eye was so much like his father but his expression of barely contained excitement and delight was all Kushina.

Darkness rushed up to greet him.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Naruto drew up to the grand gates of Konoha, excitement settling in his gut. He was here at last! He'd meant to summon himself a little closer than he had but he'd gotten the seal slightly wrong and he hadn't been able to tether to it properly and popped out five miles from the village instead of three. As it was he ended up just happily strolling in the late summer heat, gnawing a strip of boar jerky.

The usual one-sided conversation that usually hung around them was absent as they both simply basked in the heat and beauty and excitement of the beginning of their new journey. Hi no Kuni really was quite gorgeous and considering that Naruto had grown up in the almost ephemeral earthy glory of the White Woods for as long as he could remember, that was saying something.

He stopped just long enough to draw up the scroll the Hokage had sent back with one of the messengers a month ago and tossed it from hand to hand. Papers allowing his entry into the village with permission to not be separated from Seiji and an appointment slip to meet the Hokage at two o'clock this afternoon, a couple hours from now. He closed the saddlebag and strode fearlessly up to the gatehouse, making sure his smile hid his teeth. He knew his teeth unnerved civilians but it was a little too hot to wear the woolen face mask Malfuin had made him to cover his more animalistic facial features. He'd have to invest in one made of shinobi materials at the first opportunity.

"Papers, please." The bored gate guard mumbled and Naruto handed the scroll to him, and the shinobi took it easily, unrolling it to read the contents before jostling his partner and showing him the scroll. They nodded and the partner got up and headed out a door in the back of the gate house while the original guard rolled his scroll back up and handed it to him with a small smile. "Everything looks in order. Kotetsu has just gone to get the escort Hokage-Sama has left to accompany you until your appointment."

Seiji sidled up closer and the guard's eyes widened. To be fair on the guard, Seiji was as tall as most men at the shoulder and he fairly towered over Naruto. "An escort? Is that normal?" Obviously the guard hadn't dealt with large talking wolves overly much because his eyes widened and a warm bubble of amusement rose in him and he tucked his head into soft fur to cover his smile. Sakura had often teased him as being incapable of being serious for any length of time.

"Not unusual but also not standard practice. Since you're young and new to the village but shinobi-trained it'll be an Anbu for now. They'll show you to your inn and help you locate anything you need before your appointment." Seiji and Naruto exchanged looks before shrugging. An Anbu tag-along wasn't an issue or anything. It's not like Naruto was here to cause issues or spy.

"Izumo, call another Anbu. Hound is....not feeling well so someone else will have to escort him." Both guards traded glances but before they could go about it there were three blurs and three masked shinobi appeared before them. One wore a white and red boar mask, the second wore a white and green bear mask, but it was the last that got his attention. He was slightly taller than average and built broad, but it was his mask that caught their combined attention. Gold with blue stripes, in the shape of a wolf. The irony, of course, was not lost on Naruto, but he didn't dare move.

Something about the wolf Anbu was dangerous, even more so than the boar and the bear. Even not directed at him the man screamed Alpha and Seiji pressed himself in at Naruto's back, a comforting rumble in his chest. Naruto and Seiji were pack Betas, through and through and more than happy with it. Betas were protectors and providers in the pack in the greater ecosystem of the White Woods. Naruto would lead his own personal pack of summons and precious people as a leader but he would never be an Alpha. He didn't have the drive to kill that personified an Alpha.

Of course, that said, hierarchy in the pack had nothing to do with anything beyond instinctual comfort for certain jobs. Any Alpha, Beta or Omega could do whatever they wanted. No one was going to tell an Omega summons that they couldn't be a fighter or a tracker or tell an Alpha summons that they couldn't heal or or teach pups.

But this guy was more Alpha than Han or Grandfather. Almost as Alpha as Snow, the boss summons. He smelt of clean still water, damp, warm earth, soft wood and ferns. Like a forest after rain in late spring and even just standing there he oozed an easy and deadly grace. It was only Seiji at his back and his own will that kept him from tilting his head in the instinctual greeting of one lower down on the totem pole. It had been something that had taken years to get used to, to have the instincts of a wolf all tied up in the body of a human. Luckily, having it from age three onward had taken a lot of the work out of it.

"Bear, Boar." Wolf looked at his comrades. "Help Hound to medical and then stay with him. He doesn't leave that room until I say he can, through any means necessary." There was a subtle humor to his statement that burst across that back of Naruto's tongue like citrus and he pulled his shields in around him tighter, berating himself. He shouldn't be getting any emotions from anyone but Seiji and Kurama if he was actually holding his shields like he was supposed to. Getting Kurama's ability to sense chakra and emotions was a huge boon to his tracking capabilities and combat effectiveness but they were abilities born of having a bijuu sealed in him, so they were strong if he didn't keep them in check and could easily overwhelm him if he stretched too far or their were too many people.

As the two Anbu turned to do as commanded and the two gate guards returned to their seats, Naruto found himself pinned by the wolf masked man. "As for you, since your original escort is...indisposed, I'll be your escort for the day!" Wolf's voice took on a much brighter tone and Naruto wasn't too proud to admit confusion. His whole body had changed, loosening into an easy slouch, his scent profile shifting to included the sweet scent of lilac. It was like getting slapped in the face with Beta suddenly and the shift threw them both off, Seiji pressing at him an impression of unease and alertness.

Naruto quickly bowed his head in greeting and threaded his fingers in Seiji's pelt, pressing the words at his companion. "That would be awesome, Anbu-san. Sounds like a great way to spend the day!" Seiji's baritone rumble filled the air, syrup sweet sarcasm dripping down his throat and Wolf gave them both a thumbs up, waving them over and either not registering the sarcasm or ignoring it. Naruto moved away from Seiji and the summons crouched down slightly, allowing the small boy to launch himself onto the broad back, sinking fingers into the thick ruff. Settled fully Seiji rose back up and looked towards the escort they'd acquired.

"Lead the way, Anbu-san!"

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Wolf watched his charge with a calm but assessing eye. He'd known all about this boy for the longest time. Now that he was Commander of the Anbu, he was fully aware that the little kid perched on the giant wolf was the Jinchuriki of the Kyuubi no Kitsune. He was also fully aware that he was the container and not the demon and he had stood by the Sandaime's choice to keep that choice under wraps. He could only imagine what would have befallen him had he not. As it was, he still barely made it out of toddlerhood.

It was the boy's disappearance that had led to the...decommissioning of his predecessor. Apparently he'd known that foreign shinobi had been after the boy and had delayed the rescue response because he'd thought to rid the village of a threat that he thought only he knew. Sandaime had made quick work of the man afterwards and Wolf had been given the gold mask and the reins. And while he'd been busy with events over the last couple of years, what with Kumo almost making off with the Hyuuga heiress, the slaughter of the Uchiha clan by one of thier own and the whole mess with Orichimaru, Wolf had been kept up to date by the Sandaime on the boy's progress.

Wolf knew that the boy was a sensor, though to what degree had never been disclosed in the monthly reports. He knew that his life was entwined with his companion and vice versa, and the effects on his physicality. That he was rendered almost completely mute from physical trauma that not even the Kyuubi could heal(and Wolf shuddered to think what trauma was so severe that not even the strongest of the bijuu could heal it). That he would be an excellent striker if paired with another frontline combat teammate and that this style heavily utilized both his companion and other summons.

That's what he knew from the bullet pointed foot notes. From the letters he knew the boy was kind and loved people and took genuine delight in meeting everyone he could. That he liked his tea creamy but bitter and that coffee was a secret vice of his. That although he liked dango and takoyaki if you gave him ramen you were a sage as far as he was concerned. He liked orange and green and everything soft, from silks to fur and everything in between. That he was a budding fuinjutsu specialist, with a frankly terrifying knack for exploding tags and sealing scrolls.

Wolf was excited, honestly. He'd heard horror stories about unbalanced Jinchuriki from other nations, who had issues with their seals or their bijuu or their villages or some combination thereof. He'd heard the stories coming out of Suna, where they were dealing a partial transformation every few months. Had seen just as many orphans turn out awful as good. Whatever trauma that had lead to his mutism and the necessity of the bond between he and his summons had certainly been awful, but the boy had obviously come out stronger for it on the other side.

He shook himself as he turned back towards the village, watching thier reactions. Many of the civilians did double-takes at first glance of the trio but, having lived in a ninja village, were willing to shrug it off as "the usual shinobi nonsense" before greeting them and going on thier merry way. Shinobi nodded or shouted greetings, not even pausing on their way. So far they'd gotten lunch, stopped to get Naruto a mask, which was now pulled up ot the bridge of his nose, covering his whiskers and teeth, and had attracted the attention of at least a dozen separate Inuzuka and thier companions.

That had eventually culminated in Tsume Inuzuka and Kuromaru meeting with them just outside the Administration building. Wolf watched as the two pairs squared off for a moment, gazes solid but muscles languid. Feeling each other out, just like dogs meeting for the first time. He watched with fascination as a few minutes passed before Seiji crouched down before Kuromaru and Naruto bowed to Tsume showing just a hint of his neck to the women, earning him a fierce but contented grin and a hand in his hair.

They shared a few quiet words that not even Wolf's enhanced hearing could pick up and Naruto beamed at her as Seiji heaved himself back up. Tsume scuffled a hand through his hair and waved goodbye before leaving with her partner, leaving Naruto and Seiji to lock eyes. Something bright and easy had settled in Naruto's gaze as he turned towards his escort, indicating he was ready to continue on to his meeting.

Feeling like he'd missed something big happening, and also like he really wasn't meant to understand what had passed between them, Wolf lead the way to the Hokage's office, his charges at his heel.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Hiruzen Sarutobi sat at his desk and sighed, smoke billowing from his pipe as his thoughts raced around in his head. Naruto had just left his office, his ever present companion at his back and Anbu Tiger in accompaniment as they headed towards the inn that Hiruzen had set up for them.

They meeting had been informative, for lack of a better word. Naruto was a sweet boy, just like his father had been at that age, and he was only too happy to answer questions about his time in the White Woods or his training or his desire for his life in Konoha. To settle down and establish a pack, a family he had explained with a smile that was so like Minato's that Hiruzen felt almost sucker punched for a moment, and become strong so he could protect all those precious to him. Honorable goals, and an excellent desire for the life of a child raised as an orphan. Not to mention a better turn around for Konoha's Jinchuriki than Hiruzen had ever hoped.

He'd hoped, by keeping the secret of Naruto's status, only revealing it to the boy after he had passed the true genin exam, that Naruto would love the village enough to be willing to learn to use the fox's power to protect them. And while he didn't love the village, not yet, he was more than willing to form strong and lasting bonds with them and apparently already had a fair grasp on the fox's power.

Setting aside his pipe he unrolled the scroll that Naruto had handed him. It was a letter from Naruto's primary caretaker, Han, mostly detailing his desires for Naruto to be happy, whether that was in the village or in the White Woods, a recounting of belongings Naruto had brought with him or that had been provided for him and a listing of documents sealed in this scroll, meant only for Hiruzen and his most trusted, which included medical records and another, smaller scroll cheekily labeled "The Care, Feeding and Handling of your Half-wolf, Half-man Shinobi", which apparently contained information on the bond, it's effects on Naruto and his partner, and other information that they thought he'd need to best handle having Naruto in his forces.

The more he read the small scroll, the more and more he was reminded of the Inuzuka and of the Hatake of old. Hiruzen had been young when Konoha had first come together, but he could remember the wild Inuzuka and thier companions, which were not just dogs, but wolves and coyotes and every mix in between and that their instincts ran deep. The Hatake had been much the same, wolf touched his uncle had murmured with equal measure of awe and trepidation. Sharp toothed and wild eyed, the Hatake were a terror on the battle field. Sadly, while the Inuzuka blood had bred true and they still retained most of thier feral instincts, the Hatake had fallen, as all the most powerful clans usually did and they were down to one, whose blood had almost none of the power of his ancestors.

That wasn't to say Kakashi wasn't a strong ninja in his own right, and gods and demons knew that Sakumo had fought with a fierceness that spoke of his clan's old blood, but it was nothing like the Inuzuka and certainly nothing like what this scroll was describing. He'd have to think on the implications of this. His original plan had been to give Iruka guardianship of the boy until his graduation but now he was of the mind that an Inuzuka, someone who could understand Naruto's altered instincts and channel them, give him the grounding he would need would be the better way to go. Iruka was a good, kind boy and powerful in his own right, but Hiruzen doubted he would have it in him to follow some of the instructions written in the guide.

While it was unlikely Naruto would live with the Inuzuka, Han had mentioned the wolves and their summoners had sent Naruto with enough money to secure his own permanent lodgings and support him for a good while, he would still need an adult to handle his paperwork and money and serve as a point of contact for him. And if Commander Wolf was to be believed, Naruto had already met several of the Inuzuka today and got on well enough with them. That would bear thinking on and he resolved himself to have the matter settled by the next day.

Rerolling the scrolls and resealing all the documents that had come with them, Hiruzen looked out of his office window, puffing away at his pipe as the sun began it's slow crawl behind the trees. He couldn't help but think that things were about to get so much more interesting with Naruto back in the village.

Chapter Text

Naruto rose with the sun the next morning, slipping into his new singlet with attached mask and his ringmail shirt, forgoing his shinobi gear, opting instead for black shorts and a deep green t-shirt with a white pawprint on the back. After his conversation with the Hokage yesterday, Naruto was excited to get the lay of the village after his daily training. He wouldn't be able to get a start on house hunting until he had a guardian, a stipulation for any ungraduated Academy student in the village, but that didn't mean he couldn't explore. He knew he had an Anbu guard on him, so if he was needed back in the office it would be easy to get a hold of him.

He ran his claws through the side of his hair that was long before smoothing his palm over the short side, settling any wayward spikes from his sleep. Seiji was grooming himself in the corner, his pelt well on its' way to gleaming again as Naruto contented himself with digging in the saddlebags for another scroll, rolling it out to peruse the contents idly. Channeling his chakra to two fingers he pressed them to each seal, the contents popping up in a small cloud of smoke. Two cans of black tea, a wax paper bundle of jerky, a loaf of bread and a jar of cherry preserves. He could wait another hour or two for the restaurants to open but already he could feel his stomach cramping in hunger. Damn his metabolism, which was elevated by both Kurama and the bond. He'd swear half the scrolls he ever carried on him were food.

Gathering up his goods he went to the table and snapped the butcher's twine holding the waxpaper closed. He gathered up half the jerky and half the bread and deposited it on the other side of the table for Seiji and then settled himself down to eat, ignoring the mocking look his companion was leveling at him.

"Jerky for breakfast? Malfuin would kill you, you know that right? Why can't we have something else? Like eggs!" Despite his complaints the wolf sidled up to the table and began eating his portion in quick, neat bites.

"Because if I don't eat now I'll chew your ear off during our spar and eat that instead. Nothing will open up until after we've finished training anyway." The bond prickled with amusement and Naruto grinned at his partner. Breakfast passed in companionable silence and soon they were done. Naruto pulled up his mask and grabbed his thigh holster, set the privacy seals on the saddlebags and scampered out the door and up the wall of the inn to the roof.

"Is there something you need, Uzumaki-san?" Naruto and Seiji turned to see a purple and white rabbit masked Anbu watching them intently. The Anbu's chakra and scent were placid and at ease and Naruto gave them the equivalent of a smile, broadcast with his eyes and brow.

"We're off to find somewhere to train! Know where we should go, Rabbit-san?"

Rabbit watched them a bare second longer before pointing to the east. "Training grounds 10-19 are reserved for Academy students to practice on. At this time of the morning you'll have your pick of them."

Naruto and Seiji shared a grin, bid goodbye to Rabbit, who slunk into the background to follow them at a reasonable distance, and set off over the rooftops. Luckily, roof running was basically the same as tree running and Naruto happily sunk into the thunk-tap-scratch rhythm of their limbs as they ran. Beside him, Seiji was fluid and content, matching Naruto's odd but sinuous four legged sprint. Thunk-tap-scratch. Pads of his hands taking his weight on the landing, pads of his feet settling under him, scrape of his claws as he launched forward. Thunk-tap-scratch.

They weren't going fast, it was warm up, not a sprint, but it still only took five minutes to reach the entrances to the training grounds that had been pointed out to them. They debated a minute, looking at the signs with maps used to describe each training ground's terrain, before settling on Training Ground 12 and set off down the path. Training Ground 12 was a large clearing with the center dominated by a deep pond, which is exactly what Naruto wanted today. While he was decent at water walking he needed to work at water sparring with multiple opponents. Han had told him it wouldn't be considered mastered until he could last thirty minutes against his whole pack, which was seven other opponents.

Content that he had picked a good spot Naruto drew to a stop, pulled down his mask, bit his thumb and flashed through the familiar seals of the summoning and slammed his hand against the ground. Six clouds of smoke and a sea of excited voices heralded the arrival of the rest of his pack and they soon found themselves pressed by a knot of many colored pelts and bright eyes.

Naruto's personal pack was still small and would likely be for some time. Most White Woods summoners' personal packs topped out at around twenty-five wolves that were thier go-to wolves to call upon, but it took years and years to reach that point. Han, who was in his mid-thirties still only had a personal pack of seventeen wolves. Counting Seiji there were eight in Naruto's pack, though he was ahead of the game because they had Willowtail, a healer. Beside Willowtail and Seiji there was Fu, Bolt, Tallpoppy, Koriel, Crag and Echosong. Crag and Seiji were the largest. Echosong and Tallpoppy were twins and Fu was his messenger, as she was the fastest, all long legs and sleek tan fur. All of them were younger wolves, under the age of fifty and Naruto was thier first pack.

They would live with him once he'd acquired a place in Konoha but for now they were forced to live in the White Woods and wait for his call. After all, an inn was no place for eight wolves and a boy. They pressed around him, checking his scent and making sure he was happy and in good health. For all that he was pack leader he was still subject to the wolves' strong protective instincts, perhaps especially so and he greeted them all equally with small hands in fur and brushing cheeks.

Eventually the greetings were finished and they all fell into the normal routine of warm up stretches and exercises as the sun rose higher and higher, eventually breaking the tree lines and giving them enough light to properly spar. Exercises done, they agreed upon the limits of thier spar and headed for the water at a sprint.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Sasuke Uchiha liked to think that he was the most powerful student in his Academy class. To an extent, it was true. He trained far more than any other, day in and day out, driven by his desire to kill That Man and avenge his clan. It had been the driving force behind his advancement for almost five years now, ever since that fateful night when he'd come home to find his entire clan slaughtered.

Every man, woman and child laid slain and Sasuke himself had not come out unscathed, having suffered under That Man's Tsukuyomi. So every day he woke just past dawn, ate a cold breakfast and left his apartment looking over the abandoned Uchiha district before heading for the training grounds reserved for students. Training Ground 11 was his usual choice, as it had reinforced target dummies with seals that could stand up to the various fire jutsu he was working on. Training Ground 11 was also usually quiet until about mid-morning, as no other student usually came to train until well after the sun was up and the village was awake.

So it was his surprise when, upon arriving at the turn off for the student grounds he could hear the sounds of combat. Pitched combat at that, if the sound of jutsu and snarling were anything to go by. It wasn't coming from 11, but rather next to it, in 12 and it was only the thought of a moment that had his feet turning down the path to 12 instead of his usual. Either some Chunin or Jonin had forgotten these grounds were reserved for students or there was someone who he needed to see.

Breaking the tree line he stopped, jaw dropping in astonishment, though he would never admit it. In the very center of the training field, on the surface of the large pond no less, there was a seething roiling mass of fur and fangs and at the very center of it a small boy could just be seen, fingers dug into a tan wolf's face, feet kicking viciously at the wolf's chest until the wolf crashed to the water's surface with a squeal before she scrambled back off the water's surface. The boy sprang away, hands flickering through seals before he jumped up and exhaled a huge gust of wind at the wolves, sending a white, black and peach dapple coated one clear off the pond and into a tree.

Before he could correct a big brown wolf surged up and sank flashing teeth into the boy's leg, throwing him down to the water with a huge splash and a white wolf darted forward. Sasuke watched in horror as the white wolf latched his teeth on the boy's throat as the brown wolf kept a hold on his leg. The air was still and tense for a moment and Sasuke readied a kunai. He may not like most people, but he wasn't about to let some kid get savaged by wolves in the middle of a training ground in the village.

However, before he could dash forward to help the boy reached a hand up and tapped the white wolf's shoulder three times and suddenly everything broke. The wolves released thier holds and the boy sprang up, rubbing the back of his neck in embarrassment even as his leg bled sluggishly and voices filled the clearing because the wolves were talking.

Talking wolves meant summons. He remembered his mother talking about summons when he was younger. If the boy had summons then he must be quite powerful. Most Genin couldn't perform summons and the boy wasn't wearing a forehead protector so he must be a student still. That much power at that age, the boy looked barely eight years old, was staggering, and he needed it.

Striding forward, and this was the second impulsive choice made in such short period of time, the wolves and boy clocked him before he made it more than twenty feet past the tree line but he didn't let their intense gazes deter him. He drew even with the boy, making sure to loom over the shorter, ignoring the big timber wolf at his shoulder.

"Teach me."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Naruto stared at the other boy, keeping his odd-eyed gaze placid and non-confrontational as he took him in. Tall for an Academy student, so almost certainly in his final year, pale skin with dark hair and dark eyes. He smelt of ash, ink, steel and ozone, Building Storm Outside the Armory, and his chakra flickered bright with an almost dizzying combination of anger and determination. But under that there was something else, dull with age and repressed, desperation and fear and loneliness lanced through the otherwise bright chakra like craggy spiderwebs.

"You feel that, Seiji?" Naruto caught his partner's gaze out of the corner of his eye and felt an answering impression of understanding. There was something there, but it wasn't something to be mentioned in passing conversation. So Naruto made a choice in that moment because he'd seen something like this before.

This boy reminded him of Tama.

Tama, who'd been a sweet Omega of fifteen, newly joined with a strong summoner. Tama, who'd been summoned out with the rest of a personal pack. And Tama, the only one of twenty five to come back, the only thing to show for the battle wounds and a missing eye and a faded name on the summoning contract.

Tama, who had gone nearly wild for such a long time, desperate for revenge or an answer to why he was without his summoner and his pack, the only remnant of them his summoner's old headband.

That had been when Naruto was seven, as he was just beginning to gather his own pack. He and Seiji had seen him, freshly reverse summoned to the White Woods, several healers working over him in a desperate effort to save his life. It had taken a long time and a lot of stubborn people but eventually Tama had settled, had folded back into the pack but Naruto knew that his thirst for revenge still simmered low in Tama, even as he moved forward and found a mate and raised pups with a battered Suna headband covering his missing eye.

This boy reminded him of Tama.

"Let's start from the beginning."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Two days later and Naruto lay in the dirt next to a panting Sasuke, the pack laying around them in the early afternoon sun. Sasuke was a lot of fun once he loosened up and felt like he was making any kind of progress. While Sasuke wasn't able to join him on the water just yet Bolt had been teaching him to tree walk and Sasuke was able to join them for spars on solid ground. He'd, at first, been hesitant to spar against the wolves seeing as he didn't have claws like Naruto did but it only took one dunking courtesy of Tallpoppy before he was sold on the idea.

Beside him Seiji pressed at him Forest After Rain in Late Spring and Naruto rolled over just in time for Anbu Wolf to jump down in front of where they were laying. "Uzumaki Naruto, Hokage-sama wishes to see you at once in his office." Naruto nodded to show his assent, rocking up onto his feet and stretching the last of the kinks out of his back.

Message delivered Wolf jumped away again, but Naruto's senses could detect him just a few dozen meters off in the trees. "What could the Hokage want you for?" Sasuke had clamored up as well and was looking at the other boy with sharp dark eyes.

"He's probably settled on our guardian until we graduate. Means we should be able to go house hunting soon and we're gonna be gone for the next week or so. Meet back at 12 next Friday?" Seiji nosed Sasuke as he spoke and despite the boy's desire to keep up the strong facade Naruto could see the barest flicker of pleasure at the contact. Seiji whirled around and nosed Naruto until he hopped up on his back and they set away at a sprint, covering the rooftops in easy loping strides.

The Hokage's secretary let them through as soon as they arrived and They padded into the office. The Hokage was there, sitting behind his desk with his hands clasped looking pleased and Tsume was there was well with Kuromaru, the scent of hot sand, dry wind and warm fur, Predator Laying on Hot Dune, brought a warm shiver as how very Alpha and safe the woman felt wrapped around him. She was like Han in that she was everything an Alpha was described to be. That they had only met her once and yet that she felt as such was merely a testament to her power and abilities. Though, he supposed, one didn't get to lead a clan of wildfolk by being anything less than pure Alpha.

"Hokage-sama." Both Naruto and Seiji bowed before being seated next to the other two and the Hokage leaned back, puffing his pipe absently while he smiled genially. Naruto rather liked the Hokage. He reminded him alot of Grandfather and Leafshadow Ojii-sama, with his calm and poise but with power simmering underneath his skin, like a barely contained wild fire.

The meeting went exactly as Naruto thought it might. The Hokage had a guardian lined up when Naruto had first arrived but after reading the scroll that Naruto knew the older summoners had sent along, decided that the Inuzuka would be better caretakers for him. When the Hokage had brought it up with Tsume, she'd stepped up with no hesitation and offered to take him on, recognizing the kindred spirit in him.

Naruto and Seiji were both well pleased with this turn of events. Being raised in the White Woods meant that, while Han and Malfuin and the other summoners had trained him and spent a fair amount of time with him, he'd been mostly raised by the summons themselves. Han often joked that he was more wolf than boy at this point, regardless of the bond's even split, with all the instincts and desires that came with it. And of course the older summons had regaled him with takes of the Inuzuka of old, who'd once held the wolf contract and passed it down on the family line before it had been lost about a century before the founding of Konoha.

Tsume would see to his care and help him manage his money and locate his own home. What role she would take beyond graduation from the Academy was up to them, but in the meantime she was responsible for him. Eventually the meeting wound down and they left the office, their partners trailing behind them.

"C'mon. Let's get some lunch and talk about getting you settled in." He nodded and bounced after her, content for the moment to frolic like a pup at her side, basking in her presence. Han made him feel like this and Han had been his primary human caretaker for years so it was amazing to have this comfort again, even after only being away from it for a few days.

Eventually they strolled into a BBQ restuaraunt and took one of the booths tucked away to the back and ordered their food. Tsume had to explain how the grill worked, as Naruto had never been to a restaurant like this before but soon they were making way on their order while the canines shared a bowl of beef cuts between them. Eventually the food was done and they were sipping tea when Tsume broached the topic of his plans.

"Do you want to stay at the inn until you find a place or do you want to come stay with us at the compound? I'm sure my boy would be more than pleased to have you around. You'll be in his class at the Academy and there's several others in the clan around your age." Naruto paused and thought it over.

"I'd like to be near pack again but..." The wolf came over and settled his large head on his human's lap, snuffling his hip. Pack would be nice, but as someone new, brought in by the Alpha onto thier territory, accepting him would require a show of submission on his part, to show he wasn't here as a threat. It wasn't that Naruto necessarily minded the shows of submission, there were a thousand and one ways to show submission in a pack and he'd probably done a hundred of them in his time in the White Woods but he didn't know the depths that instinct ran in the current Inuzuka clan. Would a scuffle and pin suffice or would Tsume be required to properly put him in his place? Naruto had gone through that once, an older summon who thought he'd gotten too uppity and had thrashed him across a clearing before setting his teeth in the back of Naruto's neck and a heavy paw between his shoulders, holding him down until he'd been limp and whimpering underneath him.

Not his favorite.

However, there was the fact that Naruto had been raised around pack and he didn't know how long it would take to build his own up from what it was, let alone match it to what he was used to. While Sasuke was a good prospect Naruto didn't know how long it would take to make headway with him, let alone if he would be amiable to joining the pack. Steeling his nerves he met Tsume's gaze as Seiji raised his head to speak.

"We'd like to stay with you. We miss pack. It's...too quiet at the inn, without the others and who knows how long it will take to find a suitable den for us. We'll be useful, we promise! We love pups and cooking and we can lift our fair share if we have-" Tsume cut off thier ramble with a hand on Naruto's head, making sure to drag her claws gently as she ruffled the silken locks.

"I'm sure you'll fit in just fine. And you're still a pup yourself. Help keep the kennels clean and the house in order and we'll be fair."

Naruto smiled.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Naruto stayed two more nights at the inn, waiting for the clan meeting that was meant to happen at the end of the week so his show of submission and Tsume's acceptance thereof could be seen by as many people as possible. However, the days were not spent idle by any stretch of the imagination. Tsume took him to set up a bank account and meet with a ninja real estate Chunin, who took his preferences into account and told them to come back in three days, when he would have options that would fit his criteria that they could go look at.

She also introduced him to Hana and Kiba, her kids. Hana was a Chunin already and was working in the clan's vet clinic, which also served the other nin-animals of the village. She was happy to meet him, complemented Seiji on his shiny coat and welcomed him with a smile. Kiba welcomed him as well, but in that way all young headstrong canids did. By play wrestling. Both boys were Betas and the play fight was mostly a test of strength and to feel each other out rather than an attempt to assert dominance. Eventually Tsume broke them apart with a sharp whistle and a long-suffering but warm grin. Kiba was going to introduce him to others from their Academy class the week after the meeting and Naruto looked forward to that. He desperately wanted to be around others his age. Kiba reminded him what he was missing, in having a companion his own age and one that was human.

Today Tsume was introducing him to a friend of hers, a fellow tokujo named Shiranui Genma, who was well versed in Shinobi Sign Language and had offered to teach Naruto. While Seiji was an effective translator it could be hard to tell who he was talking for sometimes and verbal communication wouldn't always be an option for missions. Most shinobi in the village that were ranked Chunin or higher had at least a conversational familiarity with the signs by necessity and finger spelling was always an option, but Tsume knew that many of the Jonin who were in the sensei lottery for Naruto and Kiba's class were passably fluent.

Naruto got one look at Genma, got slapped in the face with the scent of Spiced Silk Scarf on Misty Fall Morning, the almost overwhelming feeling of Omega and bright gold and green chakra and turned towards Seiji with something fierce and wild in his odd-eyed gaze.

"This one is going to be mine." The surety of his statement blazed down their link just as Genma whirled on Tsume, senbon clenched in his teeth.

"Watch this one Tsume because I'm going to steal him from you."

"Keep you dirty mitts off my new pup, Shiranui! You got three of your own you don't need to go poaching one of mine." Tsume's growl was playful and Naruto didn't bother fighting the bloom of warmth in his chest, both at Tsume's claiming him as one of her own and Genma's reciprocation of posessiveness. The two bickered back and forth for a moment while Seiji poked quiet fun at his human's declaration, playfully reminding him that he couldn't just claim other humans as his own.

Eventually they settled down in the grass under a tree and Genma walked him through the basics of the alphabet of the signs and gave him a book on it to read until their next lesson. Afternoon gone, it was time for the clan meeting and while Tsume held court with the mass of Inuzuka and thier partners in the compound's grassy courtyard, Naruto and Seiji sat tucked away in an alcove to wait for thier turn. Naruto could tell when Tsume announced her guardianship of him because the chakra mass outside shifted.

There was no outright hostility, only a wariness and a curiosity threaded through the air. He knew several of the Inuzuka had met him and his entrance into the village had not gone unremarked so many others knew of him. When Tsume called them out he made sure to keep his head high and eyes clear but his body unaggressive. No words were spoken by anyone as he drew up with Tsume and Seiji with Kuromaru. There was another moment of silence before Kuromaru strode forward and nudged Seiji in the shoulder briskly and the big wolf went down easy, rolling onto his back to show his belly.

With his partner subdued Tsume approached Naruto with the easy confidence of an Alpha on her own territory. She was of average height for an adult but she still towered over him by over a foot as they locked gazes. Finally, she reached forward with a clawed hand and wrapped it around his throat, applying pressure enough that he could feel it but not enough to set off anything like a panic. He let his legs go lax as she bore him to the ground on his back, keeping her grip firm, planting her other hand on his stomach. Two kill shots, if she closed her grip and his response was to let his body go completely lax, crooning in a soft register.

Any tension immediately left the entire clan at the display, thier Alpha's dominance firmly in place and unchallenged and Tsume helped him up with a rumble of praise. Others surged forward to meet him and and he and Seiji found themselves in a whirlwind of fur and happy greetings.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Naruto found his new home two days before the Academy was due to convene for the year and it was Sasuke who ended up helping him. Tucked away behind the Uchiha estates deep in the woods between them and the Inuzuka and the old Hatake estate was a a patch of acreage with several buildings on it in a circle. There was a house in general disrepair, two-storied and open floored, with a connecting short skywalk to another large building which housed a dojo, armory and several other useful rooms. There was a pond and the center was packed earth, perfect for training. The whole thing was surrounded in tall grass that came up a couple feet and all around that was thick trees. It felt good, honestly and the entire pack, once he summoned them, agreed. Secluded enough to give them privacy but near enough to the Inuzuka, who already felt like family, and to Sasuke, who was warming up to him quicker and quicker, and it was large enough that Naruto could comfortably expand his pack, both with two and four legged members.

The property was easy enough to close on, since no one had been interested in a property of that size, and Tsume took him to the tower to secure a few genin teams to handle the repairs and cleaning up, since he was going to be busy at the Academy. The teams would have it habitable in two weeks so Naruto put off shopping for the stuff he would need to furnish and decorate the house. Instead he spent time with Kiba and a few of the other clan heirs and trained with Sasuke, continuing to work on the other boy's tough outer shell.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~ Six Months Later

Sasuke watched as Naruto lounged on one of the large flat rocks around the pond, his fur cloak shifting as he basked in the weak winter sunlight, Seiji laying next to him curled into a ball. While Hi no Kuni didn't receive much in the way of snow, the air still took on a fairly prevalent chill and the wolves and he spent much of their free time on these rocks between training and homework and classes, since they absorbed heat and held it.

For all that Naruto ran warmer than the average human, he hated the cold with a passion.

On the rock beside him, buried under Crag's mass, Sasuke shifted and turned towards his...friend. Friend was probably a good label right? Sasuke spent most of his time here at the Den, even most nights now. He would never admit it, but the Den was a hub of activity from sun up to sun down and it felt good to be surrounded by life and activity after the desolate stillness of the Uchiha compound.

Naruto's pack was always in and out and there were dozens of other visitors on any day, most of them friends or family members of the pack or they were visited by other perspective pack members. The Inuzukas visited often and Genma visited every other day in the evening for Sign lessons while some of their classmates came by as well, meaning they were often only alone during sleeping hours.

Sasuke would never say it aloud, but he wished more people treated him like Naruto and the wolves did. For all that Naruto was wild and energetic and thrived off of physical affection, he seemed to have a natural understanding for Sasuke's emotional boundaries and when he could get away with pushing them and when he needed to back off and give him space. It was a skill very few people had yet to master.

It had been difficult, even infuriating at first, to see how much he improved just by having a training partner instead of training on his own. It was a lot different sparring against another living being than practicing katas or beating up training dummies. Genma, Tsume and other Inuzuka teens were always willing to give them exercises to help with speed or endurance or flexibility or something else. Sasuke had almost forgotten what it was like to have someone looking out for him and he wasn't looking to let go of that feeling any time in the near future.

Steeling himself he channeled his own inner recklessness, what little of it there was all things told, and turned towards his friend.

"Are you looking for a roommate?" Sasuke blurted out then his his face in Crag's chocolate fur, desperate not to meet Naruto's gaze after his out of character question.

Seiji uncurled from his ball and Naruto looked up from under his cloak's hood, thier odd-eyed gaze like a physical presence on Sasuke's back.

"Eh? What do you mean a roommate? You know someone else who's looking for a place to stay? I mean we have plenty of rooms but I-"

"I meant me, idiot!" Wolf and boy huffed at the insult but thier eyes portrayed their confusion with the conversation and Sasuke felt something cold creep up on him as his courage left him. Had he overestimated his welcome? Was Naruto's concern and camaraderie as shallow as everyone else's and he had simply just assigned more meaning to it because he was lonely?

Naruto hefted himself up on his haunches before he leapt nimbly over to the basking rock they were on, Seiji following him over and boxing Sasuke in from the back. Crag changed places with Naruto and Sasuke found himself pinned in place. In that moment he despised Naruto's comfort and complete disregard for appropriate physical boundaries because he was sitting on Sasuke's lap, clawed hands on slim shoulders, his stupid big blue and amber eyes looking sad and confused. With Naruto perched in his lap and Seiji at his back he couldn't leave, couldn't escape without dumping the smaller boy off the rock, so he cast his eyes away, tucking his chin into his own jacket to hide his paler than usual face.

"Sasuke we're confused. Why would you need to ask if we're looking for a roommate? You already live here!" Sasuke whipped his head up, looking between the two of them with wild dark eyes.

"What do you mean?! I don't live with you!"

Naruto huffed and thunked his head on top of Sasuke's, a quiet whine of exasperation rattling in his chest.

"Sasuke we can count on one hand with fingers left over the number of days you've gone back to the Uchiha compound in the last month. We did laundry the other day and found like, six pairs of your boxers. And we know they're yours because all of yours have either cats or tomatoes-" Seiji's rant was cut off at Sasuke's yowl as both boys went tumbling to the ground off the rock, scuffling as Sasuke tried to cut off any more embarrassing information and Naruto laughed, the familiar raspy sound ringing in the clearing of their home.

Eventually they rolled to a stop, Sasuke pinning the smaller boy under him, both glowing contentedly and with a little physical exertion and Sasuke let his head drop onto a small shoulder as Seiji settled onto his belly near them.

"We didn't think we needed to say it, 'cause you're always going on about how smart you are, but I guess we can say it." Naruto turned his head and nipped Sasuke's ear in gentle reproval for his idiocy. "You're pack, Sasuke, and pack stays together. Moron." He tacked on for good measure and Sasuke huffed a laugh, rubbing at one slim wrist with his thumb.

"Idiot."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Unlike Sasuke or Genma or even Kiba, Saukra came to Naruto and Seiji of her own volition one day as spring was creeping back into the village. Seiji was sprawled in the shade of a cherry blossom tree on the cusp of bloom, Sasuke leaned against him eating from a bento while Naruto lay curled against his side with his head on Sasuke's hip, a strip of jerky hanging between sharp teeth as he teetered in and out of awareness.

Sasuke's thigh tensed under him and brought Naruto out of his daze and he grabbed the jerky out of his mouth and heaved himself up, locking gazes with the girl that had cautiously approached them. Sakura was wicked smart, Naruto knew and from sparring he could tell she'd be frighteningly strong if given the proper direction. He also knew that, outside of meeting with Sasuke's fanclub, she was very lonely. He could feel it in her chakra, a sick grey tinge to otherwise bright minty green.

He yawned and gave her a sleepy smile, Seiji not even bothering to lift his head as he puffed out a greeting. "Hello, Sakura. Need anything?" Sakura hovered a few feet away, her own bento clenched in her hand.

"Would you mind if I joined you for lunch?" Sasuke shifted unhappily beside him and Naruto huffed, butting his head against his shoulder under the guise of flopping against the taller boy in his exhaustion. Sasuke disliked his fan club for the same reason he hated many other people, because they treated him as if he were on some strange pedestal, not like he was an actual person with his own wishes.

Naruto however had no compunctions and he could tell she really was just driven by the desire for company, so he patted the ground in front of him and turned to give his friend a telling look. Sasuke rolled his eyes a moment later and threw his free hand up, setting his bento down.

"Fine." He scowled and then knotted his hand in the back of Naruto's long sleeve shirt and pulled him back down to lay with his head on Sasuke's thigh. "Sleep, idiot. If you pass out in class Iruka-sensei will kill you. Tsume will as well, if he tells her." Naruto grumbled good-naturedly before curling up tightly, more than willing to use his friend as a pillow before he was asleep between on breath and the next, Sasuke's familiar scent lulling him into an easy doze.

The quiet was awkward for a few minutes as they both ate silently before Sakura spoke up, setting her can of tea aside. "Is he all right?"

"He's fine. Spent the night fussing over some stupid tokujo instead of sleeping, the idiot." Despite his harsh words the hand that fell onto blonde locks was gentle, rubbing across them as the creases around his dark eyes eased into something softer.

They ate a while longer before Sakura set her bento down with a soft thud, looking at him through narrowed green eyes.

"I don't see it!" She exclaimed, pointing accusingly at Sasuke, though she was considerate enough to keep her voice pitched low enough not to wake Naruto.

"What are you talking about?" He hissed, not appreciating the gesture or her tone.

"I don't see what those girls see in you! Sure I mean you're strong and objectively you're nice to look at but you're too pretty and you're kind of a jerk." Sasuke's hackles raised and he just held himself back from shouting, unwilling to wake Naruto.

"You're like the queen of the fangirls! You can't- I just-" At a rare loss for words he watched as Sakura rolled her eyes and took another sip of her tea.

"Yea, no. I only hang out with them because they're a good source of gossip and it's kind of expected. I mean, do you see what they do to poor Hinata because she doesn't fawn all over you? I don't have time for that." She shook her head in disgust. "They're too easy to trick. A little screeching and some false adoration and they fall over themselves to be around you. If any of them besides Ino and I make genin I'll eat my scrolls."

She grinned, showing far too many teeth and behind them Seiji grumbled in delight at the predatory look. "It makes them underestimate me. All they expect is the weak, useless fangirl, the civilian playing at being a ninja who might make chunin and then disappear into the library or requisitions. They'll never expect it. And, if I do it right, I'll be the last thing they'll ever see." Sasuke fought the thrill of fear and excitement at her tirade and Seiji's tail was a-wag as turned to look at them.

"Naruto is going to love her."

True to Seiji's prediction, Naruto was enamored with Sakura. She was, in turns, reserved and regal and then wild and vicious. She was more open with her physical affection and Sasuke got used to walking into the converted sunroom-turned-Naruto-and-pack's-bedroom to see the two of them curled up in the obscene amount of silk and fur and bedding. She didn't stay over every night, her parents not happy with the idea of her staying unsupervised with two pre-teen boys, but she managed most nights through pure stubbornness. She spent a lot of time with Willowtail, learning healing and herbs and after she learned to imbue her strikes with chakra she was only allowed to spar with the biggest summons or the boys after an incident with Bolt that had left Bolt with a broken tail and Sakura spending days and days apologising.

She even joined Naruto and Sasuke for lessons in Sign and, even though Genma spent her first few lessons playfully complaining about having to teach an extra brat, she quickly became his quickest study. Before long it was like Sakura had always been there. Her scrolls and extra dresses were scattered everywhere in the house, one of the studies in the secondary building had been converted to a library for her and there was floral scented soap in the bathroom on the second floor.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Graduation was a week away and the three of them may or may have been freaking out. Naruto was worried about them being split and what that would mean, Sakura was worried about her physical scores after years of holding herself back and Sasuke, though he would never admit it, was worried about getting a decent teacher instead of someone who was going to fall all over themselves to help the great "Uchiha-sama" and impede all the work they'd done together. And so they trained, running over tactics and the Academy basics and their extra credit jutsu and thier sparring, their practice taking them from the end of class until well after dusk.

Laying in the dying sun next to Sakura, Sasuke watched Naruto ink careful lines for one of his custom tags, tongue poking out of the corner of his mouth. Sasuke shivered. He'd been on the receiving end of some of Naruto's more inventive tags before and he didn't envy whoever was going to end up on the receiving end of those that he was creating now. Sasuke had sat in on one of Naruto's fuinjutsu lessons with Leafshadow Ojii-sama and he'd made it all of thirty minutes before he gave it up as a bad job and left Naruto to it. He'd stick to kenjutsu once he found a teacher.

"Hey Naruto?" The boy looked up, ink smudged through his whiskers and eyes inquisitive as Seiji moved, ready to translate. "Why don't you talk? I mean you like, make noise and stuff but I don't think I've heard you talk once all year." Sakura asked and Sasuke sat up, curious as well. He'd never asked before because he figured it was something sensitive, like the massacre was for him, but Sakura had a way of bulling through thier carefully constructed defenses, even more than Naruto did.

Boy and wolf shared a look before Naruto sighed and set his brush down, heaving himself up to his feet and walking over. As he approached he shed his long sleeve and his leather-backed ringmail, leaving him in his sleeveless singlet with the attached mask. He came to sit in front of them, completing their little circle. He looked tired, older than his years as he sat in front of them, clawed fingers playing with the fabric of his mask before he sighed heavy through his nose.

"When I was three I was kidnapped from the village by Iwa shinobi. I never figured out exactly why. I don't know everything that happened, because they'd knocked my out, but one of my rescuers was able to tell me what happened." He shifted, obviously discontent, but willing to continue. "They took me over the border, into Kawa no Kuni, slit my throat and left me to bleed out in a copse of trees."

Sakura gasped, hands covering her mouth as tears brimmed in her eyes and Sasuke felt bile rise in his throat, color leaving his face Naruto pulled down the mask and neck of his singlet to reveal the ropy scar that covered his neck. Sakura flung herself forward and wrapped around him and Sasuke, for once, refused to let his usual reservation get in the way of assuring himself that one of his few precious people was okay and he pressed in, circling his fingers around a slim wrist to feel the steady pulse.

"Han and Shiroi found me and they were able to summon one of the White Woods' best healers and she saved me from bleeding out but, well, the shock would have killed me if Grandfather and Grandmother hadn't approved the use of an old forbidden technique that tied my life to Seiji. Petal was good but nothing could have completely repaired my throat. She kinda-sorta fixed my voice box, so I can talk a little, but it hurts, a lot, and anything above a certain volume opens old wounds. So Seiji speaks for me and Genma-nii has been teaching me to sign, so I have that as well. And I have you guys!" His eyes were watery as he burrowed into Sakura's neck to hide his tears and Sasuke tucked himself along his back, Seiji curled around thier heads protectively.

They lay there for a while, both stunned by the show of trust Naruto had shown them in telling the story despite the fact that it obviously upset him still, years later. Sasuke girded himself and he tucked his own face into Naruto's locks.

"When I was seven, my brother killed my entire clan. I came home from the Academy to find the entire Uchiha district littered with their bodies." He drew in a shuddery breath. He hadn't spoken of the massacre since it had happened, though he thought of it often. Naruto spun around to bury himself against Sasuke's chest, whimpering low and sad, and Sakura settled a hand in his hair, not moving but grounding him.

"There's a-there's a power that the sharingan has after you reach the second level of the higher power. It's called Tsukuyomi and it traps you in a genjutsu so strong only the caster or a master medic can break it. And he made me watch him kill the entire clan, over and over, for what felt like days, even if it was only seconds." They were all crying now, but no one called attention to it, to afraid to break the spell of their stories in the shimmering heat of early summer.

"He wants me to be angry and chase him and kill him but-" He sucked in a breath. "I don't want to be so angry all the time. I want to avenge my clan, to put their spirits to rest by laying the head of their murderer in front of thier graves but I don't want to go back to the way I was. I like being happy again, even if it's not all the time." The confession was whispered into the still air, cracking with regret and sorrow and old guilt and the dam burst as the rest of the pack came to circle around them in silent support.

Sasuke cried for his lost clan and his lost innocence and the guilt of wanting to move froward while ghost haunted his every step. Naruto cried for his brush with death and the very obvious pain of his pack mate. And Sakura cried for her two boys, too young and with too much on their shoulders and in their pasts and she made a silent vow that they would never be alone again, any of them, so long as she still drew breath.

In the last light of the early summer sun, a vow was made that resonated in three hearts but would be felt throughout the Elemental Nations for years to come.

Chapter Text

The morning of the graduation exam dawned bright, early and loud as the Den came to life in the warm gray light of pre-dawn. They squabbled over who got to shower first and what to have for breakfast, fussing over whether or not everyone had thier weapons and their materials for the extra credit portion and if their clothes were pressed and armor ready. The pack wove in and out and throughout the house, worked into a fever pitch by the combined nerves of the three pre-teens. Eventually though they filed out of the house just past seven in the morning, stomachs full and equipment ready.

Arriving at the Academy they weren't the only ones there early. Kiba, Choji and Ino were already there, deep in coversation and Naruto could feel Shikamaru, Shino and Hinata approaching at a steady clip from the north. In defference to the multi-part test and everyone that needed to take it, the graduation class started earlier than the other classes for the day and by the time the yard was filling with younger students the class was sitting in thier desks, attention turned towards Iruka and Mizuki.

"Good morning class!" Iruka's voice silenced them instantly beyond a returned greeting and he grinned at them warmly. "Today is the day that determines whether or not your hard work pays off and you join the ranks of Konoha's shinobi. I have faith in you all!" Naruto liked Iruka, a lot. "Your test today is in four parts, with an addition fifth optional section after the fact. You will have a theoretical test, a test of your accuracy, a test of your skills in taijutsu and a test of your skills in ninjutsu. You will also have the option to perform up to three additional techniques, which will allow us to better place you on teams and give us a preview of your capabilities, after the ninjutsu portion of the exam. Only those who pass the initial four portions of the test and received thier hitai-ate will be allowed to participate in the fifth portion and the fifth portion is not mandatory after receiving your hitai-ate. Does everyone understand?"

After he received room wide affirmatives he pulled up a sheath of papers, looking down at the top one. "For the theoretical test we will be assigning seats and there are rules to prevent cheating." There was a few grumbles here, mostly from civilians Naruto noted, but Iruka silenced them with a glare. "Any use of doujutsu is strictly forbidden and so with that anyone with an active doujutsu or the potential to use one will be seated up front. Uchiha Sasuke and Hyuuga Hinata, seats one and two please. Aburame Shino, use of your Kikaichu is also strictly prohibited. Please take seat three." There was some shuffling as those seats and the next fifteen were filled. "Use of ninken and other ninanimals is also strictly prohibited. Inuzuka Kiba and Uzumaki Naruto, please send your partners to the front of the room. They may rejoin you after all papers are collected. Kiba you'll be in seat twenty, Naruto you may stay in your current seat."

Kiba looked unhappy as he set Akamaru on the ground and Naruto gave Seiji a rub between the ears and both went down to sit next to Iruka, Akamaru jumping up to sprawl over Seiji's back. Tsume had warned them about the fact that they'd be separated, as in previous years students had used ninanimals to glean answers from neighbors. The last of the students were assigned seats and then Mizuki went around, passing out the test and two pencils each.

"You will have ninety minutes to answer these questions to the best of your abilities and you may only use the writing utensils provided. If you complete the test before the time is up flip your tests over, raise your hands and wait for the test to be collected. Once your paper has been picked up, you may pass the remaining time quietly. Are there any questions? No? Good, you may begin."

Instantly the room was filled with the sound of scratching pencils and shuffling paper. Naruto got stuck mostly on the history questions, as he only had this year's review to go off of but the rest was easy. Han and Malfuin had made sure he knew how to read and write and figure and the questions about logic and tactics were interesting to him. Surprising no one in the trio, Sakura finished first, just over the forty minute mark and Sasuke followed her seven minutes later. Naruto wrapped up just past the hour mark, made sure the test was signed and then flipped it over, raising his hand. Mizuki collected his test and Naruto went into his hip pouch to pull out a fuinjutsu book Leafshadow Ojii-sama wanted him to read so they could move on to next level of barrier seals.

A little while later Iruka clapped his hands together loudly in the room, drawing everyone's attention to him. "Pencils down please! Well done, all of you who have handed in a completed test. If your test is still in front of you please gather your belongings and leave the classroom, as I'm afraid you will not be continuing on with the test for this rotation." Six people were shown out of the classroom, their faces a myriad of expressions ranging from anger to depression and even one of relief.

"For those of you who remain please gather your things and make your way to the target range outside. Kiba, Naruto, you may reunite with your partners." Sakura and Sasuke waited for him at the front next to Seiji and Kiba joined them on their way out. The target range was an array of stations, each with a large log clearly labeled with three rings with points assigned, the center being five, the second largest three and the largest being worth a single point. Each station was occupied by a chunin with a clipboard. Iruka drew up in front of the large knot of students and gave them a grin.

"This is a test of your accuracy. You will be allowed to use any combination of thirty kunai, shuriken and senbon. The score range is 150 points max and minimum thirty points. Landing outside the target awards no points. You must achieve a score of at least 120 to move on to the next portion of the exam. As there are sixty eight of you we will be splitting you into stations. Listen for your name and station and then proceed there. Your proctor will tell you when you may begin."

Naruto and Seiji were assigned with ten civilians to station four and he was first up.

"What'll you be using, Uzumaki?"

'Ten kunai, five shuriken and fifteen senbon.' He signed and the proctor's pen paused before he gave him a grin.

"Good shape on those signs, though watch the hook motion when you sign 'kunai' or you'll end up signing 'attack' instead." Naruto signed his thanks for the correction, as he still had trouble with some signs thanks to his small hands. "Okay, you're good to go."

Naruto fingered his weapons for a moment, took a deep breath to line up, and threw.

"Score 135. Uzumaki Naruto, pass. Back of the group please." Naruto bowed to his proctor and went with Seiji to the back of the grouping of students, flopping down into the sun. A score of 135 was respectable as far as he was concerned and put him in good standing for the house bet that meant dinner for the week was on the line. The accuracy test was over quicker than the theory test and they watched as eleven more hopefuls were failed and escorted away from the group.

"Everyone!" Naruto popped up to give Iruka his attention, Sakura and Sasuke pressed in on either side of him. "We're going to have the taijutsu portion of the exams and then we'll have an hour and a half break for lunch, followed by the ninjutsu and bonus sections. Please, make your way to taijutsu fields behind the Academy."

The southern taijutsu fields were six large circles pressed into the tight packed earth and reserved purely for the graduating classes to practice on as the circles sizes were taijutsu competition regulation. The proctors from their accuracy test were met with six more shinobi wearing Konoha standard uniforms, a few of whom Naruto recognized.

"You will be split into six groups and assigned a circle. You'll be facing off against volunteer tokubetsu jonin, who are here on thier own time to help administer this test today. Please give them your respect." There was a loud moment of the students greeting and thanking the tokujo before Iruka called for their attention again. "To pass this portion of the exam you must last ten minutes in combat against one of the volunteers. You also succeed if you achieve a ring-out, a knockout or a technical knockout. You receive double points if you achieve a submission. Ninjutsu and genjutsu is forbidden, but ninken, ninanimals, doujutsu, weapons, non-leathal poisons grade 3 or lower and any internal-chakra based body modifications, bar active regeneration, are allowed." Beside him Sakura made a quiet noise of delight and Naruto dug clawed toes into the earth in anticipation.

"They're giving us a lot to work with, aren't they?" A civilian murmured beside them and Sakura turned towards them with a grin.

"It's because of who we're facing off against and the time limit." Kiba huffed in agreement behind them.

"Ma says it used to be three minutes of pure taijutsu but a bunch of subpar people kept passing because the time was so low so they made it way longer and against tougher people and gave us abilities to offset it."

"Dad says it also lets them see if there's abilities the students have that aren't showcased in the other portions of the test. Ten minutes against tokujo though? Troublesome." Shikamaru was sprawled on the ground on the other side of Seiji, apparently already worn out by the day's exertion and Naruto rasped a laugh. Shikamaru was another person Naruto had liked from the get go. For all that he was so lazy it almost hurt, he was intelligent to a scary degree and quick on the uptake.

Naruto was called to circle three with Sakura and Hinata as well as three civilians. Thier tokujo was familiar, at least to Sakura and Naruto, and Naruto took in the familiar scent of Well Worn Leather and Ink mixed with the even more familiar scent of Spiced Silk Scarf on Misty Fall Morning and he threw away all sense of propriety, bouncing forward with a wave.

"Raido-senpai!" Seiji's cry was met with a muted grin. Raido was always more reserved with his smiles despite all his easy humor, but his cream colored chakra took on a golden hue of happiness.

"Wolf-brat. Here to get your tail handed to you? Or are you finally going to stop trying to steal Genma from me?" They responded with a playful growl, ducking under Raido's hand that came up to rub at his hair. Raido was always lamenting Genma's propensity for bringing home strays and there was a running joke bet amongst the tokujo on who would succeed in adopting who first.

"Back in line, Wolf-brat. I'll deal with you in a bit. Sakura, it's good to see you." They danced back in line as Sakura waved and smiled at him as Raido turned towards the group. "You all have five minutes to stretch. Your order will be Hamura, Aiko, Haruno, Hyuuga, Uzumaki and Siato. Everyone remember the rules? Good. Your five minutes starts now." Naruto and Sakura immediately dipped into the quick stretch exercises Tsume had taught them months ago and Seiji stretched each of his limbs out and then his back. Once time was called Hamura stepped into the ring and the others crouched around the outside, cheering her on.

Hamura's fight was good and she lasted the whole ten minutes, though it had obviously taken a lot out of her because she came to them panting and sweaty, accepting a bottle of water with a wheezy thanks.

Aiko's fight was, comparatively, embarrassing. Three minutes in and Raido grabbed her ankle and tossed her, a move that should have been easily correctable. Instead she went barreling out of the ring and was disqualified. She refused to meet anyone's gaze as the proctor directed her to leave.

As Sakura sprang to her feet in excitement Naruto gave her a grin and squeezed her hand.

'No mercy.' He signed and she favored him with a smile that was all teeth and he could feel her minty green chakra surging and roiling with determination. Watching Sakura fight was a treat. She was all grounded strength and sharp jabs, aiming to disable, to shatter bones and shake teeth loose. The first time a chakra enhanced strike found it's mark instead of being caught in a block she buried her foot in Raido's kidney and Naruto felt some deep part of him purr with satisfaction at the look of stunned disbelief that flashed across the tokujo's scarred face. She lasted the whole ten minutes, springing back as the proctor called time, flushed with pleasure and exertion and breathing just that little bit harder.

Raido was smiling and panting lightly, rubbing where she'd gotten the kidney shot in as Hinata stepped forward for her turn. As Sakura returned to his side Naruto gave her a high-five, eyes shining with pride and amusement.

'That's my girl, Sakura!' She blushed prettily at the praise and accepted the bottle of water Seiji nudged her shoulder with. It had taken a little while to settle on a name sign for her but Sakura liked "blossom", which she insisted was better than Sasuke's "sword" or, heaven forbid, Genma's "hen" name sign.

In the ring Hinata had forced Raido to the edge of the ring, her taijutsu quick and fierce, even without the addition of the usual chakra emission to close his tenketsu. He pivoted quickly, sliding behind her, and it was only her quick thinking that kept her in the ring after a punishing blow between her shoulder blades. They weaved between each other, fighting back towards the center of the ring and beside him everyone was cheering Hinata on. She was sweet girl, incredibly shy, but she was silk covered steel and he was pleased to see flashes of that as she fought. She would make an excellent kunoichi if she was given some encouragement and attention. Hinata, too, lasted the requisite ten minutes and received much praise as she exited the circle.

And then it was Naruto's turn and he stepped into the ring, settling onto all fours, muscles rippling under his clothes. Seiji settled near the edge of the ring, crouched low, ready to leap at a moment's notice and the proctor called the match to start. They circled, trading a few feints, feeling each other out.

Raido struck first with a nasty strike from the left and Naruto barely dodged it by springing up from his crouch, snagging his claws in Raido's sleeve and using his momentum to kick him in the chest, staggering him. He capitalized on the bigger man's unsteadiness, darting forward to deliver a clawed strike just under the protection of the vest, nose twitching with the barest hint of copper as white claws came away tipped red.

The style of taijutsu Naruto had been taught involved quick brutal strikes, utilizing claws and fangs, usually tipped with chakra, aimed to maim, disable and kill. Claws tipped in lightning chakra into nerve clusters rendered limbs useless while fire tipped fangs opened wounds and left them burned open. Gut, throat, kidneys and limbs. Hit any of them in just the right place and Naruto could shorten or end a fight with just a bit of chakra.

Naruto's pleasure was brought short as the other man drove his elbow into his back, dropping Naruto to the ground and a hand latched into his shirt, tossing him. Seiji intervened, snagging him out of the air and setting him down before the wolf darted forward, his human behind him. Seiji hit Raido like a bullet, three inch fangs sinking into the man's shoulder and his body twisted, dragging the man down under his furry bulk. Just as he was about to land and sink his own teeth into the vest of the other man, he refused to use a throat bite on a comrade, Raido twisted free and rolled away, panting, facing them.

"Got a plan?" Seijij asked and Naruto hummed, pressing the images at his partner before he reached into his hip pouch, pulling out two vials. One he opened and tipped into Seiji's mouth and the other he poured over his fingers, hissing a little.

"Five minutes!" With half time called Seiji shot forward again and Raido sprang up, only to be met with a clawed strike to the back of his calf. It wasn't enough to draw blood, but it was enough to unbalance him so that Seiji could surge up and set his teeth in the man's leg, contorting his body again for another toss. While Raido was able to right himself again he stumbled drunkenly as he landed and his arms shot out to steady himself.

Naruto rumbled his pleasure. Yarrow toxins mixed with a few other things for a fast acting poison that unbalanced and disoriented. Well, at this strength anyway. There were two more strengths available to him and the last would kill his opponents. With their opponent knocked unsteady they came moved forward again as one unit. Naruto kicked out with a clawed foot, talons dragging bloody furrows in Raido's leg and Seiji set his teeth in the man's vest, gave one last heave and tossed the man clear of the ring.

"Time! Winner by ring-out, Uzumaki Naruto and Seiji at seven minutes and 38 seconds." There was cheering from around them as everyone watching the fight, including people from the nearby rings, congratulated them as they padded over to where a medic was running green chakra over the few wounds they'd managed to afflict. Naruto retrieved the antidote from his hip pouch and placed it in Raido's hand.

"Take that with water and give it five minutes. It'll clear up easy." He gave the medic an easy grin as the tokujo grumbled about being bested by "a tiny brat and his overgrown rat" before they rejoined the line. Hinata and Hamura congratulated him and Sakura scooped him into a tight hug. There was a small break as Raido had to wait for the antidote to kick in before he rejoined the ring, looking good as new except for a few rips and tears in his uniform.

Siato managed a good fight and made it the ten minutes, looking like the midway between Hamura and Sakura's matches. Everyone done they were dismissed to lunch and Naruto herded Hinata with them when it looked like she was going to slink off to eat on her own. They were joined by Sasuke, Kiba, Choji and Shikamaru. Shino declined to join them and Ino sat with the other girls, barely picking over her bento.

Lunch consisted of bragging over their matches and hinting at abilities that they were going to use in the bonus section. Sakura and Kiba tried to wheedle out of Naruto the ability he'd been working on in secret for it, but he was smug and tight lipped. He'd been working on it in secret for a reason, though Hana knew what it was as it was a technique that couldn't be practiced alone until it was completed and she was not only willing and able to keep a secret but usually available in the evenings if there was no mission for her to do.

Eventually they made their way back to the classroom they started in and Naruto took a look at how much emptier it was now. Of the seventy four that had come this morning, only forty were left and only thirty in total would pass, for ten teams of three. The taijutsu portion had eliminated seventeen more people, as well as the eleven from the accuracy portion and the six from theory. They were left to sit at seats of thier choosing and Sasuke and Sakura joined him in the back, poring over the grocery list and lamenting Sasuke's win of the dinner bet with an accuracy score of 142, beating Naruto by seven points and Sakura eleven.

"Attention everyone!" It was a different proctor this time, one they recognized as Matsuri-sensei, and he tapped his clipboard with his pen, nodding with a grin. "First, let me congratulate you all for making it this far. You're almost there and within the next few hours, many of you will walk out of here as shinobi of Konoha." No mention of the almost dozen who wouldn't make the cut this time. "Now, in a room across the hall is a panel of five examiners. You'll be called, one by one, into the room to perform the Academy Three. In order to pass you must perform, with a degree of mastery, the kawarimi, the henge, and the bunshin. You may perform a variation of the bunshin if you believe you have the mastery for it. Are there any questions? Would anyone like to withdraw now?" One person withdrew and Naruto recognized him as someone who'd been struggling with the transformation jutsu all year.

They were called randomly, with only about five minutes between names. Naruto was the first of the trio, and he strode into the room with his head high, Seiji pacing regally behind him. The examiners were Iruka and Mizuki, a man Naruto recognized as the headmaster of the Academy and two other chunin he couldn't name off the top of his head.

"Good afternoon, Uzumaki-kun." Said the headmaster.

"Good afternoon headmaster, examiners." Seiji intoned from where he had settled onto his belly at Naruto's heels as Naruto bowed.

"Please begin with the kawarimi. Substitute with chair on the far side of the room and back again." Naruto snapped through the shortened seal sequence and was gone in a puff, the chair clattering in his place before he did it again, settling back in front of the examiners. "Well done, Uzumaki-kun. Now the henge, if you will. Anyone we might recognize from in the village."

Naruto didn't need more than the Ram sign for this one and in a puff of smoke Tsume was standing in his place, hands on her hips and cocky grin on her face. Human based henge were useless to Naruto, as he was still mute, but he was passable at inanimate object henge as well and in this case they were just looking for his proficiency in the ability.

"Very nice." Naruto released the technique. "Last, the bunshin please, or a variation of it. Three should do." Naruto nodded, brought his hands up in the cross seal and reveled in the look of shock on the faces of the examiners as three puffs of smoke appeared next to him, revealing three perfect clones of himself. Kage bunshin had been one of the first techniques that he'd been taught, just after his seventh birthday when he'd started training in earnest. They'd quickly determined that he was pure Uzumaki with his massive chakra reserves which were only enlarged by Kurama's presence, and regular bunshin would be be forever out of his reach. The fact that it was technically a kinjutsu gave Han about three seconds of pause before he went on with it regardless.

"I-I'll say Uzumaki-kun, well done! Three perfect Kage Bunshin is no mean feat, especially given your age. Congratulations, you pass!" The headmaster held out the hitai-ate to him and Naruto took it with a bow, grin splitting his face.

"Do you intend to participate in the bonus section?" A nod. "Alright, head for Training Ground B. Let the proctor know what, if anything, you need for your techniques Congratulations again!" Naruto bowed once more and left the room, pausing long enough to tie the hitai-ate tightly around his neck, the metal plate resting against his scar, before he left the Academy building and headed for Training Ground B, where there were several of the passing students and a few tokujo, Raido included, hanging around to wait for the bonus section.

"Well, looks like you made it after all Wolf-brat! Genma will be so pleased you didn't fail out." Naruto stuck out his tongue, dragging one eyelid down with a clawed fingertip, laughing as Raido's big hand came down to ruffle his hair playfully. "Seriously kid, good job. You got something cooked up for the bonus portion I take it?" Naruto's grin was toothy.

"We do. Need to see if the proctor can get us a volunteer though. It translates better with a living target." Raido puffed a breath.

"A volunteer huh? Guess I could be bothered. You already put me on my ass once today and it's going to be all over the jonin lounge by the morning. What's one more time, eh? Just send me home in one piece for Genma, huh kid?" Naruto scoffed and patted his hand.

"We'll try. Don't want to upset Genma-nii, y'know?" Ignoring Raido's quiet protests Naruto skittered over to the proctor and informed him of Raido acting as his volunteer before he settled in to wait. Kiba passed and he came out howling his triumph and Hinata, Sakura and Ino were close after, quietly pleased. Sakura threw herself over his legs, ignoring his theatrical grunt and instead snatching away one of the melonpan he'd been nibbling, tossing two to Kiba when the other boy made quiet noises of interest.

Sasuke was the last out, face impassive as usual but Naruto could see his blue chakra pulsing with golden happiness. He settled next to them on the ground and wrapped his hand around Naruto's wrist, thumb rubbing over his pulse point. It was the one gesture Sasuke would allow himself in public and Naruto gave him a soft grin, thunking his head on his shoulder because while he refused to initiate contact in public if Naruto or Sakura did it he was content to bask it in while maintaining an air of put upon sufferance. There was a little time before the examiners filed out.

The bonus portion was simple. Exhibit up to three additional techniques to help them be placed on complementary teams. It would take them right up until six, when the graduation ceremony would take place out in the courtyard. Only the clan heirs, Naruto, Sakura and four civilians had stayed to showcase their abilities. Whether that meant the other graduates were playing it close tot eh vest or, more likely, they didn't have extra abilities to showcase, wasn't commented on.

Two of the civilians had genjutsu and a third had a surprisingly powerful Doton technique he'd picked up along the way. Shino showcased two clan techniques, Kiba used the Jūjin Bunshin and the Tsūga and Hinata used the Hakke Sanjūni Shō. Sakura was next and she used the two suiton techniques she'd gleaned from one of Naruto's scrolls, Suiton: Teppōdama and Suiton: Mizurappa, and exhibited a healing technique Willowtail had showed her that was good for basic cuts and bruises. Sasuke went after and dazzled them all with Katon: Gōkakyū no Jutsu and the Kage Shuriken no Jutsu before stepping away from the group to channel Raiton: Jibashi into the unfortunate training dummies. The last civilian had medical jutsu, Shikamaru showed one of his shadow jutsu and Choji grew his body three times his usual size after Ino swapped minds with Iruka-sensei.

And then it was Naruto's turn and he made a joke over the bond about saving the best for last as he came into the center of the clearing, getting Raido to join him before motioning him to the far end of the clearing. He bit his thumb and flashed through the seals for the summoning and the smoke cleared to reveal the pack, bright eyed and eager to be there. This was the first time the others, aside from Sakura, Sasuke and Kiba, had seen anyone other than Seiji and they eyed the pack with interest. Naruto introduced them and then, once he was sure he was ready, he began another seal string.

This one was longer, almost thirty seals in total, and he could feel his chakra roil and spread out across his skin as he did it. By virtue of being mute, any technique Naruto learned took longer to be usable, as he could not use saying the name as an additional focus for the technique like many ninja could. Granted, most ninja above genin in rank had the ability to use the techniques silently by saying them only in their mind. He threw the last seal and was gone in a puff of smoke.

"This is what you've been working on!? No wonder Hana wouldn't stop smiling whenever we asked!" Sakura's voice set his tail to wagging as he turned towards the group. In the place where a small boy had stood a moment before was a large wolf, about three and half feet at the shoulder and five foot from nose to tail, a dark cream color with one white ear and four white socks.

The Ōkami Bunshin was the very first techniques he'd learned, as was tradition for summoners of the wolves, but had been unable to use it properly until recently as before, whenever he used it, he'd materialized with three tails, an indicator of his mastery over three tails of Kurama's chakra. While that was fine for the White Woods, where no one cared about his status as Jinchuriki, it wasn't tenable for the outside world, where anything with multiple tails was to be feared. After a little doing and some help from his demonic tenant he'd managed to gather just enough chakra to make the transformation using only his own chakra, allowing him to materialize a single tail.

At Iruka's request he turned this way and that, allowed another instructor to poke and prod him and even allowed a few nicks in strategic places. The Ōkami Bunshin was a solid transformation to be used in combat and would only release if he let the technique go, he ran out of chakra or if he was knocked unconscious. At last they all stepped back so Naruto could show off his last technique and Crag, Seiji, Bolt and Koriel joined him in a line, all of them staring down Raido.

There was a ripple of chakra as the five wolves sank into the ground, leaving the packed earth of the training field undisturbed and everyone else holding thier breaths. There was a beat, and then a second and just as Raido was about to pose a question the ground under him erupted. Bolt and Koriel latched onto his legs, bodies still half buried in the dirt while Crag and Seiji dug into his arms, immobilizing him. Naruto had latched his teeth into Raido's vest just by his neck instead of in his neck in what would have been a kill shot. Doton: Moguragakure no Jutsu paired into one continuous technique with Doton: Ressenga. Used appropriately it could be used to capture, maim or kill outright. If the wolves had bitten down with full force, they would have shattered the limbs they were attached to, rendering him completely useless and were this a real mission Naruto would have gone for the throat.

They quickly unlatched from their unwitting volunteer and Willowtail stepped primly forward, paws already glowing with healing chakra as she touched on to his shoulder, healing all the bite wounds closed. The group behind them was applauding and Naruto circled around Raido, getting a scratch behind the ear to show there were no hard feelings and he darted off to his friends.

Sakura pet him and made much of him and he preened, ears pricked high and tail wagging and Sasuke smirked at him, tweaking an ear before he rubbed the hurt away in the next instant, running one hand between his shoulders. Kiba was going on and on about how it was so cool but also that the Jūjin Bunshin was just as cool and did Tsume know about the ability yet? Eventually Iruka called a halt and Naruto let the ability go, popping back into his human form in a small cloud of smoke.

He led them out to the main courtyard and Naruto looked at all the people gathered, catching sight of several Inuzuka and Genma standing near the front. He and Kiba waved to them all, pointing out their hitai-ate. Sakura's parents weren't there and Naruto felt indigo sadness creeping into mint green, resignation crawling up his spine like something living. He grabbed her hand and leaned into her side and she seemed to take strength from his presence as they filed into the center of the setup, in front of a stage. The Hokage gave a speech, praising thier hard work but warning them of the trials to come before sending them off to their families.

Naruto made sure to keep a firm grip on his friends as they made thier way towards the Inuzuka gathering, refusing to let them be alone on the night they'd graduated to be full ninja.

"Well done, pups. All four of you have done wonderfully." Tsume grin was full of pride and teeth and Naruto basked in it, glad that Sakura and Sasuke were included as the Inuzuka all made much of them and Genma spared them with one of his rare smiles, the ones that were small and warm and transformed his eyes with their sincerity. There was going to be a party the next day at the compound to celebrate their advancement and Sakura and Sasuke tried to duck out, obviously thinking it was meant for Kiba and Naruto, son and ward of the Inuzuka respectively.

"I mean it's for all of you, pups. All four of you advanced, all four of you get celebrated. That's how it works. So be at the compound at five sharp tomorrow night, and be ready to enjoy yourselves." Sakura beamed and if there were tears in the corners of her eyes no one mentioned it and while Sasuke's face remained unchanged he fairly radiated happiness to anyone who bothered to pay attention. Hugs were exchanged before the trio split off for the Den where the excitement of the day caught up with them. They ate an easy dinner of miso and rice and broiled saury before they all fell into a pile in Naruto's room, reveling in the obscene softness and abundance of bedding Naruto had constructed his nest out of.

At long last, they were shinobi.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Naruto woke just past midnight, something unhappy crawling under his skin, fairly buzzing with agitation. His sleep had been troubled for several hours now, and not even the presence of his pack in his nest had been able to soothe him. In his gut, Kurama grumbled in his cage, tails lashing and hackles raised, equally disturbed and he pried himself out of Sakura and Sasuke's embrace, padding silently out of the sunroom, motioning for the pack to stay. After the bustle of graduation the day before they deserved the sleep, even if his own was disturbed. He'd go for a run on the outer perimeter of the village. That would settle him.

He forwent his ninja equipment and his armor, instead opting to stay in his masked singlet and shorts. A bit dressed down, but the heat was beginning to get oppressive, even at night and some shinobi ran in even less than that. He stepped out of the house and stretched just enough to loosen his muscles. He jogged to the gate, waved at the night guards and traipsed into the forest, before settling into the Ōkami Bunshin, dropping into a steady lope. It was good practice, holding the technique for extended periods of time. While he was running like this or laying about he could hold the transformation for about an hour but in actual combat he was only capable of a third of that.

He ran, directionless, for a while, letting his paws and nose take him where they would and slowly, slowly, the frantic buzz under his skin faded and Kurama settled in his seal, quiet again and he was about to turn his paws for home when the scent hit him.

Blood and terror overlaying the scents of Cool and Deep Places of the Earth and Milky Tea on Old Redwood Table, a deep and heavy malevolent chakra hanging over it all. This close to the gate he wondered how none of the guards had sensed it but, then again, he was an excellent sensor. He stopped his jog and instead dropped into a light walk until he'd crept up to a clearing where the scent was the strongest. He just barely stopped himself from springing forward at the sight that met him.

Iruka was sprawled on the ground, bleeding from several wounds, his gaze hazy as he watch Mizuki tower over him with a kunai in hand which was already dripping blood. Between them lay a large scroll but they were both ignoring it at the moment. Neither was talking but Mizuki was laughing as he dug his kunai into Iruka's shoulder, pressing it in slowly.

Mizuki was torturing Iruka.

It made no sense! Mizuki's chakra had never been anything but warm and inviting and he'd always been so friendly with Iruka and everyone else. But not that it mattered in that moment. Naruto had to act on what he was seeing, had to act to save the life on one sensei from another. He couldn't release his technique, not without the smoke giving away his location, but that was okay.

This form was made for attacking, after all.

He crouched low and gathered his muscles for one leap, holding himself impossibly still, waiting until Mizuki had withdrawn from Iruka enough to make it safe.

He leapt.

His body soared across the gap and hit Mizuki, both tumbling to the ground with a thud and Naruto made sure to snap his teeth in whatever flesh he could feasibly grip, taking three fingers with him, spitting them out as he scrabbled to his feet, snapping and missing as Mizuki kicked him off, making sure to drag the kunai through his skin as went, staining cream fur crimson as a deep jagged wound was opened up.

Naruto posted himself in front of Iruka, snarling deep in his throat, teeth stained red with Mizuki's blood, tail lashing in rage.

"You! What are you doing here?! This doesn't concern you!" Naruto snarled and dashed forward again, unable and unwilling to answer him. He wasn't as used to attacking in this form as his was his human form and took several injuries because it. By the time they'd fought to a standstill he was cut all over, there was a rip in his ear that would surely scar and he was missing a tooth. Several of the wounds were deep and Naruto swore he could see a flash of white from the initial injury on his shoulder. That would take a week or more to heal, even with Kurama's healing factor.

But he'd given as good as he'd gotten and Mizuki was littered in bite marks and wounds from his claws and his left arm hung uselessly where Naruto had torn it out of his socket at the shoulder and the elbow. He was lucky Mizuki hadn't used any jutsu, as the chakra fluctuations would have summoned the guards in an instant and he was obviously trying to keep this hidden, even at the cost of the mission. Naruto was under no such compunctions however and he was flexing his chakra in preparation for something that would hopefully end the fight and allow him and Iruka to get to medical attention, because he had very little time left on the transformation, pure stubbornness and a little of Kurama's chakra the only reason it was still active.

Carefully, carefully, he channeled and held wind chakra into his claws like Bolt had showed him and dashed forward, slashing with one paw. Enhanced with the sharpness of wind and with Mizuki's reflexes dulled just enough, his arm was severed completely and Mizuki fell to the ground with a screaming howl, desperately cauterizing his own wound in a primal drive to survive with a small flame before he sagged, unconscious from pain. He wouldn't die, which was a relief only in that Naruto wouldn't have to account for why T&I didn't have someone to interrogate. Naruto staggered back, pain and blood loss catching up to him and settled heavy on his haunches, panting for breath.

He'd won, barely. Dimly, he was aware that this had been a fight to what could have been death and he'd gotten extremely lucky. He was a freshly minted genin who'd never seen combat outside of sparring and hunting and Mizuki was a chunin in his mid-twenties with far more field experience than him. If he'd been any less concerned with stealth and had fired off even a single jutsu Mizuki could have turned the tide in his favor almost instantly and killed Iruka, Naruto or both.

He let the already wavering transformation drop, leaving him sitting there in the shredded remains of his singlet and shorts. The wounds were just as bad as he'd feared and even as Kurama carefully threaded his chakra through the wounds, halting the bleeding and preventing infection, priming him for healing, he could already see dozens if not hundreds of stitches in his very near future. Tsume and the pack were going to kill him, without a doubt and Sakura was going to wear his skin for managing to get into trouble while out for a run. Pushing that thought aside he flexed his chakra once, twice, and cast it wide in a simple flare, making sure it pinged off the four man Anbu cell to thier east, only withdrawing when he felt them turn off their patrol pattern to head towards them.

He lay down and darkness swamped him.

~*~*~*~*~*

He awoke to movement, the scent of Forest After Rain in Late Spring thick in his nose and his eyes opened to see a mess of black curls.

"You with us, kiddo?" Anbu Wolf's voice was pitched low, soothing and he felt ocean blue chakra sooth over the his own frazzled chakra signature, swathing it and cocooning it. Wolf wasn't quite as calming as Tsume or Han but in this instance it was enough and he grounded himself off the other's chakra, using it as a buffer and blocking out pain-fear-betrayal and shock-anger-annoyance from everyone around him, too weak to hold his own shields.

It took a little doing, but he managed to sign 'Awake, aware' three times into Wolf's shoulder and the man sighed, back going lax under Naruto.

"Good, good. You had us worried, kiddo. I'd heard about new genin adventures but traitor hunting kinda takes the cake." Naruto sighed and buried his face in the curls in front of him, reveling in thier obscene softness. His wounds pulled and stung in a manner that suggested they'd tried, and failed, field medical jutsu, but at least he wasn't bleeding all over Wolf's back.

'I-R-U-K-A safe?' He managed to sign and Wolf nodded, knocking his head against Naruto's with a quiet noise of apology.

"He's fine, he's right behind us. You came just in time to save him. Mizuki lived as well, sadly, but we recovered the scroll. The Hokage is going to meet you at the hospital for a debrief shortly, after they put you back together again." Naruto grumbled his assent and then settled heavy across the Anbu's back. He was fairly certain he didn't remember Wolf's signature among the Anbu he'd summoned or why the man kept appearing around him or why he was so much more emotive and expressive than any of the other Anbu but it was too much to even contemplate right now. Instead he let himself drift as they returned to the village, focusing only on ocean blue chakra and his next few breaths.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Iruka sat in his hospital bed, hands crossed in his lap, staring pensively at the bed next to him, where one of his students slept. He'd almost gotten Naruto killed. Naruto, who was eleven years old and who'd only received his hitai-ate just over twelve hours ago and fought bravely against Iruka's friend-turned-traitor. The boy was a mess of bandages, swamped in a green hospital outfit a size too big for his tiny frame, curled into a tight ball under several hospital blankets. He'd ended up needing something like one hundred and fifteen stitches all told and medical ninjutsu had only been able to heal the bruising and the cut in his ear, leaving him a small triangle scar in the top. The tooth, apparently, would grow back in time and thankfully wasn't one of his important incisors.

(Iruka would like it known that he has seen some things in his time in the field and as Anbu and in intelligence but almost nothing would stand up to the jaw full of long, sharp fangs in the mouth a little boy who was so small Anbu Wolf, who was not a large man, had practically dwarfed him when he picked him up.)

The debriefing with the Hokage, Nara Shikaku, Anbu Commander Wolf and Morino Ibiki had taken several hours and dawn had been creeping up on the hospital by the time both ninja were done telling their stories and everyone had asked all the questions they had. Iruka had received a stern lecture about informing people of such important suspicions and about getting back up in the future but they'd softened the blow by thanking him for his quick actions which had halted Mizuki long enough for another shinobi to arrive.

Naruto, who knew he'd barely escaped with his life and only by sheer luck, had also received a dressing down for taking on an opponent so much stronger than himself though he too received praise for his quick and decisive actions which not only allowed for the return of the scroll but also the capture of a traitor who may have valuable information and the rescue of a fellow shinobi.

Both were receiving commendations and an a successfully completed A rank on thier files, as well as A rank pay. Iruka, for the second time in his storied, and classified, career felt absolutely no pride in his accomplishment. He'd been friends with Mizuki for years, since before even the Kyuubi attack, and yet the man had slipped this by him and it wasn't until he'd cornered him in that clearing that he'd realized how badly he cocked it up, allowing the other to get the jump on him. Had he gone soft, working in the Academy? Or was he just blinded by the bond he shared with the other man?

Not that it would matter now. They would pump Mizuki for information and likely execute him. Death would be a kindness though, considering the damage Naruto had done. One arm gone, the other missing three fingers. He'd never be able to do anything on his own again with only two working fingers, let alone be any use as a shinobi. The village would be on lock down for the next three days, as was protocol, and they would go over Mizuki's life with a fine tooth comb, looking for accomplices.

A knock on the door shook him from his reverie and he turned towards the clock. Five in the morning and nurses generally let themselves in after announcing themselves, which meant they had a visitor. Considering the time it was most likely someone for Naruto, as Genma wouldn't bother with something so mundane as knocking, no matter how hard Raido tried to make him.

"Come in." He called, surprised at the rough quality of his voice. Then again, pain and exhaustion and crying tended to do that to a person.

Sure enough, it was Tsume who let herself in on quiet feet. She was dressed in mission loadout with her ninken at her side, a blue bundle under her arm. She paused to look at him before making a motion with her hand and Kuromaru leapt up onto his bed, laying his not inconsiderable bulk over Iruka carefully.

"Nothing solves problems like puppy piles." Tsume's voice was amused and Iruka blushed lightly, though he buried his hands in Kuromaru's thick fur, reveling in the softness and heat. Tsume went over to Naruto's bed, running soft hands over his head and the boy blinked awake, crooning as he recognized the other woman.

"Idiot pup, getting into trouble the minute I turn my back. What am I going to do with you?" Her voice was light, teasing, but Iruka could see the worry in her. It was in the tightness in the skin around her eyes and the way her hands smoothed over his skin, taking stock of all the bandages wrapped around him. Naruto nuzzled into the touches, not bothering to answer back beyond a few quiet sighs and nods. He felt like he was intruding and he buried his face in the nearest object that was available, which just so happened to be Tsume's partner.

Iruka caught bits and pieces of the conversation without meaning too, though he assimilated the information that was now available to him. The village, was, indeed on lock down and many of the Inuzuka were being called away for the duration so the apparent graduation party was being postponed. Sakura and Sasuke were both apparently now at the Inuzuka compound with the rest of Naruto's summons and the only reason they hadn't followed Tsume to the hospital was the visiting hours, which Tsume was not subject to as Naruto's guardian. Eventually her voice drifted off and there was the rustle of cloth.

Iruka looked up and watched her unravel the bundle, setting a change of clothes on the small table beside his bed and then draping a large blue blanket over him. There was a final goodbye and then Kuromaru was hopping lightly off Iruka's bed. She bid him goodnight and left the room, flicking the lights off after her and Iruka sunk into his bed.

Sleep was a long time in coming.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The day of team of assignments came and the Den was much calmer than graduation had been. Their equipment was set on the ground in the living room, ready to be grabbed and Sakura changed Naruto's bandages while Sasuke took his turn manning the stove to make breakfast.

"I still can't get over your healing factor! It's fascinating. These wounds look weeks old already and that tooth is almost in. If only I could-"

Naruto cut her off with a grunt, rolling his eyes. 'No, you are not allowed to experiment on me Sakura, we've been over this.' Sakura huffed playfully as she pushed his hands down, checking the last bandage as she rose and stretched as Naruto pulled his tops back on, tugging at the straps of his ringmail so it connected to the lower half of his armor.

"I know, I know. Doesn't mean I'm not going to take notes every time you get injured."

"You continue to be terrifying, Sakura." Sasuke's dry voice came from the kitchen and Seiji barked his agreement. "Breakfast is finished, by the way. And yes, there's coffee." The padded into the kitchen and grabbed portions and drinks and sat at the table, making quiet conversation. The lower floor of the house was wide and open, the kitchen and dining area connected to the living room with no walls in between and the whole lower floor was bathed in natural light from the large windows and it warmed the room nicely.

Breakfast wrapped up and they grabbed their equipment, sprinting out the door. While team assignments didn't start for another half hour, they wanted to arrive in plenty of time to be seated. The Academy was empty when they arrived, normal classes having let out for the month long break between rotations, and they made their way through the echoing halls, almost reverently quiet. Never again would they come here as students. They were genin now and the only way was up.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Hatake Kakashi had received a lot of tough missions in his day. Assassinations, hunting traitors, rescue missions, reconnaissance deep in enemy territory. You name it, chances are he'd done it at some point in his career. But this was shaping up to be his most challenging and daunting task yet.

Passing and training a genin team.

Oh the Hokage had been trying to get him to do such a thing for several years now but it had never stuck before. He would pull himself away from Anbu long enough to test and then subsequently fail whatever brats they'd given to him before melting back into the shadows until they tried again, like clockwork every six months.

This time was different though. This time not only was the council playing politics in that he'd been given the last Uchiha but he also had a personal stake in it. He'd been given Uzumaki Naruto, son of his beloved teacher and another person who he'd almost failed.

After his little...episode the day of Naruto's arrival, he'd gone to the Hokage after wriggling away from the Anbu med bay and managed to convince the Hokage to give Naruto to him after the boy had graduated. He'd been pleased with himself until he'd seen the glint in the old man's eyes and realized he'd just agreed to take on a team. The string of words that had left him at that realization were not fit to ever be repeated in company.

He'd tried to get himself assigned to Naruto's guard but had been denied, and instead did what he did best. Bent the rules just enough to get what he wanted. Or tried to anyway. His plan had been to engineer a meeting with him and try to get to know him, so he would have an excuse to spend time with him. Since he couldn't just walk up and say "Hi my name is Hatake Kakashi and your father and mother were my teachers and practically raised me" he tried to run into Naruto in the market or at the training grounds.

Only Naruto trained and lived with the Inuzuka within days of his arrival in the village and then lived and trained on his own land. He couldn't watch from the property line because that was creepy, even for him. So it was with ill humor that he'd waited until the genin exams and then joined the rest of the other perspective jonin sensei to watch the physical components of the exam. By then he knew he'd also be taking on the Uchiha, so he'd made sure to pay attention to him as well.

He was surprised, to say the least. He'd expected the boy to be skilled, yes, but also a ball of angst, for him to spurn his classmates and turn his nose up at teamwork. Instead, while he was still aloof, it wasn't with everyone and he was downright fuzzy with Naruto and another girl, a civilian he didn't know the name of. He carried about him an air that was not quite fully content, but at ease and assured of himself.

Naruto was also shaping up to be interesting in his own ways. Discovering that his teacher's son was mute from physical trauma had been a blow, but Naruto didn't seem overly affected by it. He had his partner wolf summons for translation(and wasn't the presence of the wolves fascinating in and of itself) and he found the boy's use of Sign promising as well. He seemed to have a good grasp of basic ninja skills and his taijutsu would be paired well with anyone who was a slower but more powerful striker, like the pink haired civilian that he and the Uchiha were close to. His Ōkami Bunshin posed some implications for tracking and combat he would have to ponder on later and the move he'd used against Raido was a move he himself utilized with his dogs, but Naruto's wolves were bigger, stronger and therefor the move was far more deadly in his hands.

The night Mizuki turned traitor Kakashi was dragged from his bed but, instead of being sent ot the wall or joining an out of village patrol like he anticipated, the Sandaime had placed him on guard duty over his student and the Academy teacher at the hospital. The sight of Naruto's wounds had angered him and some deep primal part of him wished to go rend Mizuki limb from limb.

(When he discovered, later, that Naruto had done that for himself and torn Mizuki's arm off he'd felt nothing but vicious pride.)

When the day of team assignments had dawned, Kakashi had spent the morning at the Memorial Stone, as he did every day, but he was uncharacteristically talkative, filling the air to cover the nerves he felt. He spoke to Minato and Kushina, telling them what little he knew about their son, and he spoke to Rin and Obito, lamenting about taking on students and his probable shortcomings as a teacher. The meeting was at nine that morning, and he would show up at 10:30. Late enough to be in character but not so late as to garner scorn from his cute new students.

At 9:30 he hopped into a tree outside the classroom and set to watching, making sure to tamp down his chakra. It wasn't enough and Kakashi watched as Naruto's head came up, his sharp amber-gold and blue gaze landing on Kakashi, which drew the attention of the young Uchiha and thier third, the pink haired civilian he couldn't quite remember the name of.

Right, sensor. And a powerful one at that, to see through jonin level chakra suppression.

Giving it up as a bad job he leaned in through the window, taking in the scene they presented. The girl was dressed in dark shinobi pants and dark maroon shirt, her hair drawn back in a severe tail while she held a green scroll in her hands. The Uchiha was dressed in white shorts and a dark blue shirt with a high collar, a small Uchiha fan printed into his shoulder. He was sharpening kunai, a senbon clenched between his teeth as he worked. Naruto was dressed in the summer version of the Konoha uniform in dark gray, the collar of the shirt hanging low enough that Kakashi could make out the top of a set of ringmail and a masked singlet much like his own, the bandages from his wounds still stark white against his tanned skin. There was a brush clutched in his hands, hovering over what looked like, to Kakashi's untrained eye, a partially completed barrier seal and his partner hanging off of his shoulder, looking half asleep.

"My first impression of you guys....I think you could be tolerable. Meet me on the roof." No need to get their hopes up too much and with a burst of chakra he used a shunshin to get to the roof, settling onto one of benches. They came, not through the door like he thought they would but rather up the side of the building, looking at ease with what should have been an advanced chakra control exercise for him to teach them. They settled onto the ground in front of them, Naruto leaning against the wolf, Seiji if his memory served, and Sakura leaned against him, Sasuke sitting contentedly on his other side.

With four pairs of eyes leveled on him he gave them an eye smile and clapped his hands together.

"So! Let's start with introductions. Tell me your name, your likes, dislikes and your dream for the future." They continued to gaze at him placidly before Sakura spoke up, elbow propped on her knee and chin in her hand.

"Why don't you go first, sensei. Show us how it's done." There was something lurking in the depths of her eyes, something that spoke of tightly restrained danger and Kakashi hummed.

"Alright. My name is Hatake Kakashi. I like a lot of different things and dislike a lot of other things. My dreams? Never really thought about them." There was a distinct air of annoyance and they traded unimpressed glances. "Now you guys! How about you first, pinky?" That eyebrow twitch promised pain and suffering.

"Haruno Sakura. The boys know me already." When nothing else was forthcoming he felt sweat bead on his temple and he huffed, turning to Naruto and pointing at him.

'Uzumaki Naruto and Seiji. My pack knows all there is to know.' The boy's hands were sure and the signs came easy, though there was some slurring because of his small fingers. Something like despair came over him as both boy and wolf were silent and he pointed at the last student, though he didn't hold out much hope for this one above the others.

"Hn." Of course. He deserved this. This was every time he ignored Gai, every time he'd spaced Genma or Asuma and every time he called Tenzo his "cute little kohai" come back to bite him in human form. His own sarcasm turned against him in the shape of his new genin.

"Alright, alright. My name is Hatake Kakashi and I like dogs and broiled saury. I hate sweets. My dream is to make good on a promise to someone I failed before." It galled him a bit to give away this much personal information, but it was likely he wouldn't make it far with these three unless there was a little give and take. Of course, all three smiled, the air clearing a bit.

"Haruno Sakura! I enjoy studying medicine and taijutsu and I hate useless fangirls and those who won't stand up for themselves. My dream is to become the best frontline medic around and keep these two alive." Well at least she had enthusiasm.

'I'm Uzumaki Naruto! I like my partner, ramen, soft things and every member of my pack. I hate traitors and those who hurt others just because they can. My dream is to establish a huge pack and grow strong enough to protect them. And to become a career jonin sensei.' A career jonin sensei, huh? Well there were definitely worse paths he could have chosen. Minato and Kushina would have loved it as well.

"I'm Seiji. I like my partner, venison jerky and taking naps on the basking rocks. I hate cats and traitors. My goal is to build a pack with my partner and live until I'm gray in the muzzle and have dozens of pups and grandpups." Ah, that was right. The five and a half foot tall wolf was also part of the team. He'd have to keep that in mind for training.

Sasuke rolled his eyes but huffed after Naruto and Sakura nudged him. "Uchiha Sasuke. I like tomatoes and cats. I hate traitors and my older brother. My goal is to get my revenge against him by living the best life I can despite what happened." He crossed his arms. "Make no mistake. I'll kill him, if I get the chance, but I've been reminded that there's more important things."

Well wasn't that something. Someone had achieved in a year what the Yamanaka therapists had been trying to achieve for the better part of half a decade. Oh sure he still wanted revenge and he still hated his brother but the fact that he was willing to prioritize his life over that was...well he was doing fairly good, all thing considered.

"Very good. Now that that's out of the way, I've got some bad news. You're not quite genin yet." Oh he had thier attention now and he reveled in their shocked expressions. "The Academy exams just tell us who has the capability of being genin. It's up to the jonin to administer tests to see who actually has what it takes to serve as shinobi. So tomorrow we're going to be doing a little survival training. This test has a failure rate of 66% and those who fail must return to the Academy, to try again during the next six month cycle. Tomorrow, meet me at Training ground 3, at 7am."

He rose to his feet lazily and gave them an eye smile. "Oh and, uh, don't eat breakfast. You'll just end up throwing it up and that would be a bad start to the morning, wouldn't it?"

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Sasuke watched as Naruto dozed in the early morning light, sprawled out like a starfish in a sunbeam. They'd been here since 6:30 that morning, stretching and getting ready for whatever test Kakashi-sensei was going to administer. Of course, when the man hadn't shown up by half past seven and Naruto sensed his chakra halfway across the village in the jonin district they'd been annoyed.

Then they'd been inspired.

Some careful seal carving, tag laying and Sasuke's application ninja wire had set most of the field to explode, blind or deafen and Sakura had spent the last little while tipping all of their weapons with mid-level paralytics, humming to herself with a frankly frightening smile on her face. It would only take about a half dozen glancing blows to render even an Anbu useless. Naruto had inked nullification seals carefully on the backs of thier necks, which would protect them from the worst of the various exploding tags scattered around. Honestly Sasuke was still a little amazed with Naruto's skills in seals and how easy the other boy made them seem.

With that done they'd shared some rations out between them and set to spending the time until thier teacher arrived in personal pursuits. Sakura continued to read her medical scrolls, intent on completing the tasks the medics at the hospital had given her and Sasuke had settled in to continue his attempts at meditation. Willowtail had sat with him and explained how meditation would help him both physically and mentally, and how would it help with channeling chakra and he was willing to try anything once.

Naruto and Seiji had found the biggest sunbeams on the training grounds, slumped down and fell asleep almost instantly, breathing quietly, in sync with each other, a calming background mixed with birdsong and the light summer breeze.

It was almost ten in the morning by the time Kakashi appeared in the clearing of the training ground, obviously trying to make an entrance but being completely ignored by his students.

"Alright my cute little students! No time to waste, let's get up and get started." Let it never be said that Hatake Kakashi couldn't dig his own grave deeper and deeper with his own hands. He watched the genin grumble and get up, coming to stand in front of him with bleary unimpressed gazes.

"Good!" He pulled from his waist pouch two bells on red strings. "The goal of this test is to take from me these two bells. You have until one o'clock this afternoon to do it. The purpose is two-fold. Those who have the bells when the alarm rings get lunch and get to move on as full genin of Konoha. The one who doesn't have the bell gets tied to the post, goes hungry and goes back to the Academy. You'll need to come at me with the intent to kill if you want any hope of passing this test." He noticed the lack of stomach grumbling at the mention of lunch and he narrowed his eyes, choosing to ignore the glee in their faces as he set the limit for the test.

"Did my cute little students eat this morning?" He infused his voice with just an edge of danger but instead of quailing before his wrath Naruto rubbed the back of his head in embarrassment while Sakura and Sasuke both scoffed.

"Skipping meals with his metabolism? No offense, sensei but I like all of my parts attached and not being used as chew toys." Kakashi watched as Sasuke crossed his arms and stared at the other boy while Sakura nodded emphatically.

'I would never!' Naruto's offense was clear, his signs quick and sharp with it.

"Naruto the last time you went too long without food you bit Raido-senpai during our spar. Genma-senpai was making barbeque jokes for like, a week after that."

'I forgot about that.'

"Sure you did."

Right, note to self: Make sure Naruto was always fed to prevent accidental attempted consumption of allies.

"I see. Well, with that out of the way I suppose now is as good a time as any. Ready?" They tensed and Kakashi nodded slightly at their eagerness.

"Good. Begin."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"Sakura I think you killed him."

"I did not!" A pause. "At least, I don't think I did. I used the right concentrations of yarrow and hemlock and I made sure to negate the worst of it with five parts mosswater during distillation. He should have, at worst, thrown up and fallen over."

'I think it was the combination of the flashbang and that last punch to his temple. His chakra feels ok.'

Naruto, Sakura and Sasuke stared at the limp form of thier sensei where he lay slumped on the ground, arms tied behind his back with a tight spool of ninja wire. They'd taken the man by surprise using a combination of steam from Sasuke and Sakura's jutsu and Naruto's summons, herding the man into the traps they'd set before. Once blinded and staggering with his hands clasped desperately over his ears as if trying to hold his skull together, Sasuke and Naruto had managed to land enough senbon in him that the poison took effect and Sakura was able to deliver a chakra-enhanced punch to his head, rendering the man unconscious.

Securing him was the work of moments and taking the bells even less time. Of course they realized what was meant to happen. After all, there was no two man cells in the shinobi ranks. The bells were meant to pit them against each other. And that might have worked, had the three of them not been living together for the last several months and been driven by the need to succeed as one unit.

"Who has the smelling salts?" Naruto tossed Sakura the little vial that she shook and twisted, holding it under the older man's masked nose. There was a beat, then another and then Kakashi was grunting, heaving himself into a upright position and wavering in place.

"Don't move so fast!" Sakura's voice was disapproving as she came forward, small firm hands gripping their sensei's chin and getting a look in his one exposed eye, turning his head this way and that. "Pupil looks clear, thankfully, so concussion is unlikely. No blood from the ears either so the flashbang tags haven't ruptured anything. Looks like that power level is ok for training exercises, Naruto. You're awful pale for what we used on the weapons. Are you oversensitive to poppy by any chance?"

"A little." Came the gritted answer, followed by a groan and Sakura sighed.

"Of course you'd be sensitive to one of the most basic components for grade two poisons and then just not mention it. You must be an absolute joy at the hospital." Her voice was colored with exasperation and the boys shared a smile, glad it was turned on someone other than them for once. "Sasuke, untie his arms. Naruto can you unseal one of the spare water bottles and then bring me that and a few pieces of bread?" The others set to doing their jobs, fairly ignoring Kakashi as they went about what Sakura had asked of them while Sakura herself reached into her thigh holster, pulling out a syringe with an amber liquid.

"Unfortunately for you, there's no antidote to this poison because we don't really need one usually. Of course, we would have used something different if we'd known poppy was out of the question. I'm sure you know what this is." She held up the syringe with a vicious little smile and Kakashi almost whimpered. A flushing agent meant he was in for a long and unhappy night.

"You're all little monsters." He panted as he brought his now freed arms forward to rub at the skin of his wrists. "You all pass, if only because you might actually kill me if I didn't."

Sakura's little smile was all false innocence as she pressed the water and bread into his hands.

"Eat it. We can't flush you on an empty stomach." They left him to his own devices, obviously realizing that the mask wasn't meant to be seen under as they went about their own lunches a few feet away. Once his stomach was full of the bland food Sakura came over, rolled up his sleeve and cleaned a patch of skin with an alcohol wipe before she jabbed him with the syringe.

The effects were almost instant and he jolted to his feet as he felt his stomach begin to rebel.

"Team 7 starts duties tomorrow morning at eight. Meet here." If his words were clipped as he clutched his stomach and practically teleported away well, no one was going to mention it beyond a few giggles.

"Hey Sakura?"

"Yes, Sasuke?"

"I'm almost certain that every poison we use has an antidote."

"I'm fairly certain you're misinformed, Sasuke-kun."

A beat.

"Yes Sakura."

Chapter Text

The first day of training and the trio showed up to Training Ground 3 at 7am, having eaten breakfast and ready to go. Kakashi, as they were figuring was the pattern, was late by fifty minutes but for the morning they were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, as Sakura's homemade flushing agents were nothing to sneeze at.

When Kakashi arrived in a whirl of leaves he half expected various complaints about his tardiness. Instead he received a set of flat, unimpressed looks and he sighed, rubbing the back of his head.

"Maa, maa, morning my cute little monsters!" He enjoyed the eye twitch his greeting elicited and then let himself sink to the ground, settling seiza. "Come on, take a seat. We've got a lot to cover this morning." They sat around him and gave him their full attention and Kakashi was man enough to admit it was a little unnerving to be scrutinized by all of them at once. He'd been expecting snot-nosed brats that, if he even passed them at all, he would have to coddle them for the first several months while they stumbled around like puppies. What he got was a group of young wolves with fangs, still wily and silly, but already so deadly.

"Right, well you're obviously not at Academy fresh genin levels so a lot of what I had planned for you isn't applicable anymore. And there's no point in working on teamwork, since it looks like you've been working together for years already. While that saves us a lot of time covering remedial stuff, it does throw into question what exactly we should be covering with our time." He sighed and settled more comfortably on his heels. "So over the next few days we're going to measure your strength, your speed and your stamina and review your other skills. From there I can make a schedule that will allow us to train, allow you to train with any other established teachers and still allow us to take at least four D rank missions a week." They seemed eager and he gave them all an eye smile.

"So! To start, I want you all to run around this clearing, as many time as you're able. Don't go until you collapse, but go until you're starting to feel uncomfortable. Its important to know your limits and where your performance starts to deteriorate." They each stopped and stretched and went to where he'd indicated, starting off at an easy jog and increasing speed until he was happy they were moving at a pace that was strenuous enough to try them but not a full out sprint.

They were promising, certainly. Sakura managed what was equivalent to four miles before she pulled off to do some cool downs and Sasuke stopped two miles later. Eventually Kakashi had to call Naruto and Seiji off after they passed the eleven mile mark. The stamina on the two of them was something else and they appeared entirely unaffected as they too quickly went through some cool downs before they reconvened in front of him.

"It's a good start. Now, I want you to do the same thing but with push-ups, then sit-ups. Go until you start to feel worn, take a three minute break and then go to the next exercise." In this Naruto's smaller body worked against him as he was meant for speed and not strength and he was the first to drop down from push-ups and the second from sit-ups.

"Well done." He praised as they came to kneel around him again. "As I suspected, just from these preliminary tests I can tell you're no where near Academy levels. Sakura, we need to work on your stamina. While you're the strongest, you lack the staying power to make any use of it. Naruto, Sasuke, you're fast but you don't have the strength to back up your blows. While several quick, light blows may work on some weaker enemies one day you're going to meet an opponent who needs both speed and strength to bring down. To that end I'm going to be fitting all three of you with weight, resistance and gravity seals, which will help you build up the attributes you lack and continue to build everything else."

He reached into his pouch and pulled out three slips of paper. "We're going to take a little break from the physical and go over your other skills and how we can make them work for us in the context of this team. After that I'm going to be testing your evasion and your tactical minds. Now, does anyone know what these are?" He asked, brandishing the papers again.

"Chakra paper, sensei. They tell shinobi what their elemental affinities are so they can learn the jutsu best suited for thier chakra natures."

"Well put, Sasuke and exactly right. Generally elemental manipulation isn't worked on until later in a genin's career, and even some chunin haven't begun it at the time of thier promotions but considering I can skip a lot of the teamwork and basic chakra exercises with you we can move ahead with this. I also noticed that all three of you have at least some passing knowledge of some low level elemental ninjutsu. From your training together, I assume?"

At thier affirmatives he gave them another eye smile. "Do any of you know your affinities already? Naruto I know you recieved training outside the village before your arrival. Did your mentors test you?"

"They didn't." Seiji spoke from where he was sitting. "The jutsu we used at the Academy are basic techniques all summoners are taught, to work in tandem with the Okami Bunshin and their partners." Sasuke and Sakura replied in the negative as well and so Kakashi handed each of his students a slip of paper.

"Now, the way the paper reacts tells your affinity. If it gets damp, you have a water affinity. If it crinkles around the edges, its lightning. If it cuts, its wind and if it turns to dust its earth. If it lights on fire, it's obviously fire. To use the tests, just push a little chakra into it, like you were about to set off an exploding tag. Sasuke why don't you go first."

Sasuke's brow furrowed minutely in concentration as he did as instructed and he hissed as the paper crumpled up into a tiny ball before going up in bright flames.

"Hmmm. Dual affinities in lightning and fire. Both of them quite strong as well. Depending on which on you work on more, that one will eventually become your primary affinity and the other a more powerful than ordinary secondary one. Both are excellent attacking affinities but lack for defensive capabilities." Sasuke stared at his hand in muted wonder and Kakashi turned towards his next student.

"Go ahead, Naruto." Naruto bit his lip as he pushed chakra into the paper, watching with wide eyes when the paper split in two and then both halves became wet.

"Oh now that's interesting. A primary wind affinity but a strong leaning for water chakra as well. Wind is swift and sharp, good for attack while water is agile, and has both good attacking and defending qualities, known for being equal parts calm and wild. Well rounded and gives you the best advantage on the field if you can master both."

Naruto looked pleased as he set down his paper and they turned expectantly towards the last member of thier group. "Alright Sakura. Let's see what you got."

Sakura had the easiest time, as her reserves were the smallest and much easier to push into the small receptacle of the chakra paper. In her hands the paper crumbled into little bits and then became wet, settling like mud in her hands. "Earth and water. A good, steady combination. Earth is known for strength and steadiness. Its heavy as well and will lend even more power to your strikes than is already there. In this context, your water nature shows your affinity for medical jutsu, as water is often associated with healing power."

Kakashi hummed as he settled back, letting the three genin devolve into excited words and signs as he thought. Between the three of them, they covered all five of the chakra bases and, as yesterday had shown with Sakura and Sasuke coming together to make steam as hot as it had been, it showed they had potential to be devastating together. And together seemed a state they were all intent on remaining.

"Right." He said, getting their attention on him, a little spark of petty glee lighting in him. "I think you've rested enough. This next test is more fun for me than it is for you but its important. It involves those trees over there, this pouch full of rubber kunai and your ability to dodge."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"You understand what you're asking me to do is highly unusual, don't you Genin Uzumaki? Informing three additional people of a Triple S Rank secret, one that was made to protect you I remind, is just not done outside of certain circumstances, none of which has occurred here." Hiding a wince at the form of address Naruto stood ramrod straight, Seiji at his side and nodded his head, preparing the argument he'd been rolling over in his head for the better part of three days.

"We do, Hokage-sama. However now that we're active in the field there is every chance we may have to draw upon the Kyuubi's power. Even when it's filtered, it is unmistakably the power of a Bijuu and at least Kakashi-sensei is bound to recognize it. If we have to manifest anything beyond the initial chakra cloak, the secret is out anyway and at that point not only would we be dealing with the backlash of having to use the power in the first place but the fact of the matter remains that my team will know something is up. Trust would be tenuous at best and destroyed at worst. Word could leak back to village before we're ready and then the secret would be out to everyone. Maybe not right away, but it only takes a few people with the information before it spreads. By informing them ahead of time we cut off the surprise aspect of it and can nip any possible problems in the bud."

Hiruzen sat back at his desk with a heavy sigh, crossing his arms as he stared at the pair in front of him. He couldn't deny their claims. There was every chance that they would have to use the power of the Kyuubi at some point in the field. There was also the chance that they may slip and pull on that power accidentally if they were in danger of dying or, if some of Mito-sama's records were to be believed, if people he cared for were in danger. And Naruto already very much cared for his teammates, especially considering the young Uchiha lived with him the Haruno girl was there more nights than not since graduation.

The problem was in keeping the information a secret if they did, in fact, inform the rest of Team Seven of the secret. Kakashi he wasn't worried about, seeing as the man was already a part of enough S Rank and Double S Rank secrets to fill a book. It was the genin he was worried about.

"You make valid arguments, Genin Uzumaki. This is my counter offer. They may be informed of the secret if they'll consent for information locking seals to be placed on them. The seals will only pertain to your status as a Jinchurikki and any information that passes over the course of the meeting. If they find themselves incapable of maintaining the secret they will find their minds wiped of the meeting and only the meeting. You will deliver these terms to them up front and if they consent we will hold the meeting in my office five days from now. Do you understand?"

"We do, Hokage-sama. It will be as you say." Hiruzen nodded and relaxed in his chair, undoing the privacy seals on the room. Naruto and Seiji relaxed as he did, stretching a little. Hiruzen was not ashamed to admit that he'd had a soft spot for the boy when he was toddler and his investment in him was more than a village leader looking after an asset. He'd been horrified when they boy was stolen out from under their noses and relieved, if somewhat concerned, when news of his rescue at the hands of the White Woods summoners had at last reached him. Despite his concerns, Han and the wolves had raised him well and Naruto was kind and playful, had persevered through his debilitating injury and continued to strive to better himself. "Is that every-" They were cut off by the door slamming open and Naruto whirled, senbon clutched in his hands.

"I've got you this time grandp-AH!" The occupants of the room watched as a small boy, perhaps six years old and waving a rubber shuriken around came sprinting into the room and tripped over his own scarf, falling ass over tea kettle and coming to rest at Seiji's paws. He bounced back to his feet, head whipping this way and that way as he hopped up onto his feet before he stopped to glare at Naruto, rubber shuriken forgotten in his fall.

"Villain! How dare you trip me?!" Naruto made a noise deep in his chest, some cross between wild amusement and indignation at the accusation and dropped his senbon back into his pouch, poking the boy square in the forehead with a grin.

"Us, trip you? You bark a big game for a pup tripping over his own paws!" Seiji teased as the boy's eyes bugged, realizing the wolf was talking while Naruto was not.

"Ah! Freak!" He screamed, scrambling to hide behind the Hokage's desk as he went.

"Freak? Rude." Seiji huffed and Naruto snorted, covering his mouth with a hand.

"Naruto, Seiji, I see you've met my grandson, Konohamaru. He's intent on defeating me for the position of Hokage. He also seems to be skipping his lessons in manners if he's going around calling people freaks." The old man's voice had taken on a dangerous tone at the end and the boy gave a nervous chuckle as he eased out from behind the desk to squeak out an apology.

Naruto got a better look at him now and he gave him a small smile, not bothering to hide his teeth and enjoying the quiet "eep!" as the boy ducked down a little. He had spiky brown hair and big brown eyes, wearing a bright yellow t-shirt and green shorts. He had a long blue scarf wrapped around his neck, the true culprit of the fall, and a bandage across his nose. He had the the milky-bland scent that all young did, not old enough to have developed his own scent quiet yet and his chakra was a little orange spark, like an ember waiting to burst into life.

Konohamaru seemed to have gained confidence, because he crept out from behind the desk and come to stand before Seiji, eyes wide and glinting with admiration. "You're huge." He whispered and Naruto bent double as he tried to cover up his laughter even as the Hokage gave a heavy sigh from where he was sitting. To be fair to Konohamaru, who was even smaller than Naruto was by virtue of his age, Seiji looked like a veritable giant at over five feet tall. The boy looked between them before he gasped again.

"Your eyes are the same!" He shouted and Naruto's smile took on a softer edge. He loved how genuinely excited and curious kids tended to be and this kid was going to grow on him quick, even if he'd called them freaks just a few minutes ago.

"We're shinobi partners, pup. We share a bond and work together. It's why our eyes match." Seiji explained and Konohamaru practically went into paroxysms of excitement.

"That's so cool! Can you teach me?!" Partners shared looks before looking over at the aged Hokage, who was watching them with gentle amusement and he gave them a nod.

"If there's nothing else, Hokage-sama, I think we can be convinced to spend an afternoon with the pup. Maybe we can work on his footwork." The jab went right over the kid's head as he whipped towards his grandfather, a litany of "please" filling the space before the Hokage held up his hands.

"Yes, yes, we're finished here Naruto-kun, Seiji. Please return him by sunset and if he misbehaves you can send him home as well." They bowed to the Hokage and Seiji grabbed Konohamaru by the back of his shirt, hefting him up onto his back much to Konohamaru's joy and they left the office at an easy jog.

The afternoon was spent working on Konohamaru's stealth and tracking skills and that devolved into a glorified game of hide-and-seek where in Konohamaru had to find members of the pack hidden around the training ground or hide from them in the market place. They rounded out the afternoon with Konohamaru sat in Naruto's lap while they leaned against Seiji, Naruto carefully guiding Konohamaru through the twelve basic hand seals.

Konohamaru was a sharp kid, for all that he was a bundle of energy that rivaled Naruto at the age, and he'd taken to the game of skills that the pack had concocted with enthusiasm. He awoke something primal and fierce in Naruto, something that was so wild it almost scared him even as Kurama radiated smug pleasure at him through the seal. It wasn't until, as the sun was setting and Naruto was giving a drowsy six year old a piggy back home, that Seiji put words to it.

"You can't kidnap the Hokage's grandson, aibou. Even I have to draw a line somewhere at your possessiveness." Seiji's voice was low and teasing, his gaze brought with mischief and Naruto snapped his teeth at him.

"I was not thinking of kidnapping Konohamaru!" He bellowed over the bond and Seiji pranced in place.

"Lies, aibou! I can practically feel the waves of "mine mine mine" you're throwing off over there. He's going to be yours just as much as Sasuke or Sakura is but you cannot steal him from his parents before he even has an impression. You' don't want to be a creche robber, do you aibou?" Naruto's swipe was easy to dodge as he was hampered by his passenger and Seiji gave the wolf equivalent of a raspberry, dashing ahead to the gates of the Sarutobi clan compound where Naruto recognized Asuma-sensei from Team 10 was waiting for them.

Naruto handed over Konohamaru while managing to hide his reluctance and ignore his giggling partner, bid goodbye to Asuma-sensei and then whipped around to shake his fists at his partner, pelting off after Seiji and howling abuse down their bond while Seiji's bright laughter filled the nearly empty streets in the evening light.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Kakashi found himself sitting in the Hokage's office with two of his genin at his side, facing Anbu Commander Wolf, the man's arms crossed and looking at them all. Naruto and Seiji were behind them in a corner, kneeling quietly. It was, to say the least, unnerving because both boy and wolf refused to meet their questioning looks, instead opting to keep their eyes firmly planted on the ground where a small seal array lay dormant.

When Naruto had come to them a few days previously he'd been nervous and withdrawn and Kakashi wasn't afraid to admit his eyes had widened a little at the terms of the meeting. Secrecy seals on a village's own shinobi wasn't something that happened unless it was absolutely necessary. But they'd agreed because it obviously meant something to Naruto, even if he wouldn't come out and say it. When they'd come into the office Anbu Wolf had caught them one by one and brushed a small kanji into the inside of their wrists and then sent them to sit. He could tell both of his students were more curious than scared, even faced with all the security and secrecy and he felt a small bud of pride in thier willingness to face the unknown.

The door open the reveal the Hokage and it was shut behind him by an Anbu with a tri-color Tiger mask. Odd. What was Tenzo doing here? Tenzo- Anbu Tiger- stopped in front of Wolf and held his wrist out, allowing the other man to ink the kanji for the secrecy seal into the pale skin of his wrist and Kakashi's brow went up. An Anbu being sealed for secrecy as well? They must be dealing with some high level information here.

"Is the room clear, Wolf, Naruto-kun? The old man asked as he settled himself into his chair.

"All clear, Hokage-sama." Wolf and Seiji reported quietly and Hiruzen nodded.

"Very good. Naruto-kun, you may seal us in and then join us here." Naruto nodded his affirmation and quickly nipped all ten of his finger tips and went through a quick seal string, though not even Kakashi recognized all the seals in use there, before pressing his palms to the seal array at his knees.

The array spread out in lines of gold and black and the kanji on thier wrists flashed multiple colors before fading into their skins. Naruto was going to hold the key to the information seals? How very odd. He watched as his student rose to his feet and came to claim the chair on the end of the line, shaking his head when Sakura went to heal his finger tips.

"The blood has to run for the duration of the seal so we can't heal it." Seiji mumbled, laying the ground.

"Now that the room is sealed, we can begin. Anbu Tiger, you may unmask." Tiger jumped where he was standing next to Wolf, looking at his commander and receiving nothing before he nodded and pulled his mask away, revealing his face to the room.

"Excellent. Now I'm sure you're all curious as to why you were brought here today and all the secrecy around it." A series of nods. "Before we get there, there's a little history we have to cover. I'm sure you're all aware of the Kyuubi attack some twelve years ago. In the history books we write that the Yondaime defeated the Kyuubi, not that he killed it and this is an important distinction. No being of pure chakra can ever be killed. With enough force it can temporarily be dispersed, but it will always reform and no human can muster the power necessary to disperse a Bijuu."

He took a draw from his pipe and Kakashi had a feeling he knew where this was going. Everyone knew that their was a Jinchurikki after the attack but no one knew who it was because the Hokage had made it the highest classed secret in the village.

"The most surefire way to deal with a Bijuu is to seal it in a person. We call these people Jinchurikki."

"'The power of human sacrifice?'"

"Indeed, Sasuke-kun. These people are the prisons for the Bijuu, and prevent them from running rampant over the elemental nations. They can also learn to utilize the power of thier Bijuu, given time and training. Unfortunately Jinchurikki do not live good lives usually. They are feared for the power they hold back and for the potential of destruction they hold. On the night the Kyuubi attacked, their was only one readily available child to seal it into. And the child was Naruto-kun."

"That's why you never told us your birthday! You didn't want to risk anyone drawing the connection." Sakura's voice was sharp but not accusatory and Naruto nodded.

"At the time the Yondaime wished for Naruto to be seen as a hero. However, when I informed the council that a Jinchurikki had been created to stop the attack they immediately called for us to kill the child, as they thought it would finish the job that the Yondaime had started."

"But...wouldn't that let the Bijuu free again?" Sasuke asked, head tilted to the side.

"It would indeed, but they would not listen to reason. Grief makes men do terrible things, children. So, knowing that Naruto would be in jeopardy if his identity was to be released I refused to tell them the Jinchurikki's identity. Instead I informed them that I had already sent the infant off to be raised and trained outside the village and made his identity to be a Triple S Ranked secret and the fact that there was a Jinchurriki at all S Ranked. While the knowledge that a Jinchurriki existed made it's way to the village via a traitorous Anbu, we were able to keep his identity a secret. With the village thrown off of his trail, I entrusted Naruto to a student of mine, who checked over his health and then gave him to an orphanage, claiming to have found him on a destroyed farm just outside the village."

The Hokage steepled his fingers and leaned forward, puffing gently on his pipe and filling the room with the scent of cinnamon."I must stress that Naruto is not the Kyuubi and-"

"Of course he's not! Anybody who would think that is an idiot!" Kakashi sighed and covered his face at his student's outburst but he couldn't help but feel warmth as Sasuke nodded next to her.

"Anyone who has seen him before coffee could ever get him confused with a 100 foot tall demon fox. He's practically useless." Okay that was an embarrassing little tidbit but he figured Naruto would appreciate that his friends were able to tell him apart, even if it did cause him to blush.

"I'm glad you think so, and that you're so enthusiastic in his defense. I'll admit I had reservations about allowing the team to know this secret but it appears my worries were misplaced." He settled back into his chair and smiled at them. "However, Naruto made a good point when he came to me last week. Now that he is actively in the field, there is every chance he will have to draw on his mastery of the Kyuubi's power to defend you or himself. Tiger, I included you in this meeting because Naruto will, at some point in the near future, begin working on his mastery over the Kyuubi's fourth tail and eventually the tails and power beyond that. He informs me that this is a large milestone with the biggest chance of going wrong and at that point we will call on your expertise to assist him with this training."

"The biggest chance of going wrong?" Tiger asked and Naruto nodded, Seiji lifting his head to answer.

"The fourth tail is the first time we can enter the second state of tailed beast transformation, where there's a more pronounced physical change. It's also the easiest point to lose control over the power, even with the Kyuubi and I working in tandem with each other. We're tapping into a lot of demonic chakra and it's hard to control at first."

"And you can actively draw on the first three tails without issue?" Naruto made a motion with his hand that mean 'sort of'.

"We can drawn on an fight with three tails but if the fight goes on longer than say twenty minutes or if we receive too much damage it will force us to drop the cloak and we generally cannot fight right away afterwards. As we grow older and train more with the three tails cloak we'll be able to hold it longer and longer."

Tiger sat back, satisfied for the moment and it was Kakashi's turn to ask questions.

"Does it have anything to do with how tiny you are?" Sure enough that set Naruto's brow to twitching for a second, the others around them chuckling before the boy nodded.

"It's a little hard to explain and I don't have my diagrams with me. I can explain at the Den over dinner though." Kakashi nodded his consent and both Sakura and Sasuke indicated they didn't have any pressing questions while Wolf muttered about the presence of actual diagrams for the explanations.

"Very well. Now that you're aware of the presence of the Kyuubi in your teammate it will be up to you as a team to determine where to go from here. The seals printed on your wrists will prevent you from speaking of anything in this meeting to anyone who doesn't also have a seal or who is Naruto or myself. You are dismissed."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

They arrived at the Den to find the pack waiting for them in a line, expressions eager and tails waving. The feel of the chakra bond they shared was bright and excited so Naruto's fears were assuaged and he padded over to them, allowing them to press and flow around him, thier quiet chorus of "pack leader" giving him an idea of what was happening and Seiji huffed, turning towards the rest of Team 7.

"Why don't you guys head inside and order some food for dinner. There's something we need to do." They shared a look between them before they shrugged and headed in. Naruto was seldom secretive if he could help it but he was very protective of his duties as pack leader. When the rest of the team had vanished into the house Naruto and the pack went around into the back yard.

The pack fanned out to circle the hard packed earth and a form sat there in the dying afternoon light. The form was another wolf with a deep russet pelt and black socks on all four legs, his tail tufted in white leaving him looking rather more like a fox than a wolf. Big amber eyes looked at them with equal parts fear and excitement and Naruto grinned internally, though he kept his face impassive. This was Tobi, a young wolf who'd been visiting them off and on since well before Naruto had even come to Konoha. Tobi was fast and lean and full of excitable energy with the habit of referring to himself in the third person and problems modulating his volume at the best of times.

Previously Tobi had been too young to join the Pack. It was considered taboo to bond a wolf under three years old unless they were born into the Pack already, as they were considered too young to make such a huge permanent decision and thier chakra was too underdeveloped to form the bond. Tobi had been insisting for the better part of those three years that he was going to be an excellent messenger for Naruto.

Chakra lashed the air as their chakras waved and twined together, Impressions pressing into each other as names, given or True, were whispered down the connection. Naruto basked in Tobi's, Leaps-From-Shadows, essence while Tobi wrapped himself in Naruto, Treads-Upon-Stars, and Seiji, Not-Like-Others, familiarizing himself with his new pack leaders and thrilling in thier innate power, their protective drive and the welcome that came thrumming to him from the others ringed around him.

Tobi came forward, pushing his nose into Naruto's outstretched hand. The connection of thier chakras solidifying into the bond was instant and around them the pack lit up in howls of delight as Tobi's presence joined the mishmash of colors that make up the chakra bond and the wolf turned a paw over to reveal a golden swirl.

"Welcome Leaps-From-Shadows. Be at peace among our pack." The rite closed with the chakra in the air fizzling out and the pack abandoned their seated positions to press in around them, cheering and welcoming their new member. Ten of them now, including his partner, and Naruto is still a few months short of twelves years old. Tobi had devolved into spasms of joy as Willowtail joined them, pressing her nose to his forehead to get his attention.

"That's not all that needs doing tonight, Treads-Upon-Stars." Naruto blinked and turned towards her, reaching out with his chakra sense to test her. She felt fine, a little giddy and slightly brighter in her presence than usual. Nothing at all to cause alarm so he gave her his full attention, patiently waiting.

"I have an announcement to make. I am expecting kits. The father is Seiji and they will be here in a little over three months." The backyard was silent for a moment before Naruto shot forward, wrapping the silver wolf up with a strong hug, the pack breaking out into joyful and triumphant howls around them again, the pack bond thrumming with joy-thrill-congratulations. Behind him Seiji radiated pride and smugness. The first pups in a pack were a huge milestone as it showed the members trusted in the leader to protect thier pups and it was only fitting, without the presence of a mated pair, that the pack leader's partner would be their sire.

And considering that Naruto and Seiji were bound at a soul, body and chakra level, those pups were just as much his as Seiji and Willowtail's. The connotations of that were a little mind-boggling, considering Naruto had no physical hand in the act of siring the pups but he could already tell they were going to have him wrapped around thier little dewclaws from the get-go.

"Well this has been an absolutely wild ride of a night, hasn't it aibou?" Naruto nodded and sighed, leaning back into his partner with a grumble. The revelation of his Jinchurikki status to his team, the new pack member, the pups it was all a lot for the span of two hours.

"We're doing good though. Pack's getting bigger and that's all we can ask for isn't it?" Naruto smiled and pressed his agreement at Seiji, thier gaze trained on where the pack continued to celebrate the night's events.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Dinner done and the news shared with his team they now all sat in a circle in the living room area of the Den. Naruto was on the couch with Seiji under his feet, a stack of drawings sitting on his lap while the rest of his team fanned out before him. Even Kakashi was there, barefoot and flak vest gone in a show of ease and trust. He remembered that it was common in Inuzuka households for guests to removed weapons and armor to show that they trusted the hosts to be honorable and he figured the gesture was the least he could do for his student who'd trusted them with such important and personal information only a few hours ago.

"So Kyuubi and the bond we share causes a lot of different effects but to understand why those things happen I gotta explain the seal first." He pulled up the first drawing the others sweat dropped at the childish drawings of chibi wolf people. "So when the Yondaime sealed the Kyuubi in me he made it so the seal would loosen gradually over time, slowly leaking more and more chakra into my own reserves after purifying it. One day I would have access to all of Kyuubi's powers when I either subdued him and took the power for myself or he willingly gave me access to all of it. So when I was three and almost died, Kyuubi had to wait until I was almost dead and the seal had loosened enough before he could send out enough chakra to heal me. This is where the hiccups started."

He flung aside the current card to reveal the next, and image of a chibi wolf Naruto and a chibi wolf Seiji, one colored in with orange and blue the other colored in with green. Next to that image were the same two chibis but both had all three colors in them. "Kyuubi was able to summon help by forcing my chakra to fluctuate and that caught the attention of Han and his partner, who'd been out on a mission. They summoned Petal, one of the oldest and strongest healers, and Grandmother and Grandfather the Wolf Sages, which is just a fancy way of saying the oldest and most experienced summonses in the White Woods. Kyuubi had flooded my system with his chakra but had only been able to heal closed all the arteries and veins and my treachea because as he healed more and more I got farther and farther from dying and the seal got stronger. Petal after him was able to close my neck the rest of the way but shock would still have killed me if Grandmother and Grandfather hadn't approved an ancient ritual that had been banned in the White Woods." He took a drink of tea to and Seiji settled more heavily under his feet, content to narrate.

"So back in the old, old days summoners who contracted with the White Woods would only have access to all the powers available to them if they underwent the bond. Yea they could still summon and build a pack, but the highest forms of the abilities would be forever out of thier reach if they didn't. Many chose not to because there's a fifty-fifty chance that the bond doesn't take and the summoner dies and the wolf is forever incapable of forming a singular partner bond. The pros of the bond included increased strength, senses and speed and shared longevity. I was going to die anyway so they figured there was no harm in trying. Seiji volunteered and we were bonded. The bond mixes the partners at every conceivable level: chakra, soul and body. We are, in every way that matters including legally, essentially the same person. However because Kyuubi had flooded my system with Bijuu chakra it mixed with Seiji's and caused a lot of the extraneous features you see. The bond on it's own would have caused the matching eyes and my teeth would have gotten a little longer but mixed with Kyuubi's influence it set those features into overdrive. It also caused a chakra disruption, which stunted my growth. While my chakra flows the way it's supposed to it was like a sharp shock to the rest of my body's systems, which kinda set it into slow motion I guess is the best way we can describe it. It also dampens the natural regeneration I was gifted for containing the Kyuubi and it cause chakra resonance disruptions, which is why only Willowtail and Dr. Takeada at the hospital are able to use medical ninjutsu on me. They've spent the time synchronizing thier chakra with mine so they can heal me. Poppyfrost and Petal can act as backups and eventually Sakura will be able to as well. We've determined that eventually, by the time I'm twenty at the latest, it should all resolve itself and I'll reach a normal adult height and the chakra resonance disruption should clear itself out. As it stands I heal, on average about four times faster than a normal person, thanks to Kyuubi. Broken bones that could take three months to heal can clear up in as little as three weeks."

"Does the Kyuubi have anything to do with your sensing?" Sasuke asked, leaning back on his hands and appearing genuinely curious.

"Yes and no. Kyuubi gives his Jinchuuriki Negative Emotion Sensing but sensing was an Uzumaki clan trait, which my mom comes from as far as I can tell. My sensing is strong but it has nothing on some of the Uzumaki of old and it pales in comparison to Senju Tobirama's skill. It's said he could sense people all the way across Hi no Kuni and tell their emotions like they were his own. I can sense the village and about a mile around it. I would have gotten a much weaker version of sensing regardless. Wolf summons form these things called Impressions of people. It's a combination of thier chakra and thier scents. So for example Sakura is Catmint Grown in Shade of Rock. She smells like herbs and is soothing like them and her chakra is cool like water and steady like a rock. Of course not all Impressions are that easy to decipher. Kakashi-sensei you've got a good nose. What do we smell like?"

"Well I guess a bit like mint and vanilla with a little bit of woodsmoke and something like warm fur I suppose. Its muddled sometimes which makes it hard to pinpoint. I assume you mask it."

"We shower with scent killing soap. And you're right. Yet our pack mates tell us our Impression is Sunburst Over Freshly Fallen Snow. So yea, they don't always make a huge amount of sense. And people under like, ten don't have their own Impressions. Their chakra and scents aren't developed enough before that to make one. So any other questions?"

There was a quiet moment before Sakura's hand shot up and they favored her a look of fond exasperation. "Go ahead."

"You called Tsume Alpha before. What does that mean?" Naruto flickered through the stack of diagrams at his side before he pulled one out and turned it to show the room. On it were three chibi wolves, each with progressively more teeth and a larger and larger orange aura of squiggles around them.

"So that's a whole other nest of weasels but I'll do my best to explain. Wolf summons have a hierarchy in the overall pack. It's all instinct. Much like any other summons we have a boss and then there's the Wolf Sages and Leafshadow Ojii-sama. The other wolves and myself and the other summoners as pack leaders fall into three categories, kinda like a real wolf pack. We have Alphas and Betas and Omegas. Each has thier own stereotype like Alphas are the strongest and most likely to meet a threat head on and kill it, Betas are pack providers and Omegas are healers and raise pups. Obviously no one is going to enforce those on anyone but its like, this instinctual comfort in those jobs. Now our dynamics have nothing to do with who we mate with or fall in love with or who leads summoner packs but there's a few other instincts snarled all up in it. Alphas generally are the strongest and they provide comfort and safety and discipline. Young Betas and Omegas will seek out Alphas to take care of them. When I lived in the White Woods Han, my primary human caretaker, was my Alpha. He made sure I had food and shelter and he was affectionate with us. When I left the White Woods I wasn't ready to be without an Alpha and so sought out a new one. Tsume is wildfolk, so she understood the impulse and took me on, set boundaries and provided safe zones and made the transition into the village much smoother for us. That's why she's still my emergency contact even though she's not my legal guardian anymore."

"So what are we?" Sasuke asked and Naruto hummed, setting aside his diagram.

"Well, nothing yet. Most people don't have defined dynamics until they're older. Wildfolk clans like the Inuzuka define their dynamics much earlier by virtue of thier wild blood, helped along by their bonds with their ninken. Most others settle into a dynamic after they come to terms with themselves, kinda just like an additional personality facet. And only people like the Inuzuka or certain kinds of summons can even really tell."

There were a few other questions from his team, mostly about growing up with the summons and what his bond with the pack meant and entailed. Eventually though, several hours after the sun had long gone down they called the meeting to a close and cleaned up snacks and tea, Sasuke heading upstairs to his room and Sakura to her own. Kakashi left last and Naruto gathered up the pack, shrugging off his clothes just beyond the curtained sunroom door, sinking down into fur and silk clad in nothing but his boxers. Seiji curled up next to him and Tobi leaned across him, the others circling up and pressing in close, like a living blanket.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~Two Months Later

Ino walked behind her teammates, Asuma-sensei leading them through the woods surrounding Training Ground 18, humming quietly to herself as she looked around her. It had been just over two months since they had graduated and Ino wasn't sure if they'd made any real progress. While they did do some physical training, it was never for more than hour, usually because Shikamaru's fleeting motivation left him or Choji's stamina ran out. Then Asuma would run them through theoretical exercises or chakra exercises while he and Shikamaru played shogi. Hinata, who walked beside her after Team 8 and their sensei had joined them halfway to their destination, the training ground where Team 7 practiced, had told her that Kurenai had them working a lot on teamwork and chakra control and tactical work but not much beyond that.

Apparently all the active jounin sensei had been called to a meeting with the Hokage but the content of the meeting revolved around the genin teams and there would be news to be shared with them shortly so they were all going to be left together on the training ground while thier sensei were gone.

"That's odd." Asuma's voice pulled her out of her thoughts and she looked towards where he was running his fingers over a red ribbon tied around a tree branch. "Second level sparring markers? Did someone forget to take them down when they were done?" Asuma had explained that, for safety, Konoha shinobi had a color-coded system of markers that could be placed around training grounds to prevent accidents. Red ribbons stood for second level spars, where more destructive jutsu would be in use and interrupting them could lead to injuries.

Before anyone could respond there was a flash of light through the trees and a sound like an explosion, followed by a practically bone chilling howl that Ino swore promised pain and suffering. The teams edged forward and peered into the clearing, making sure not to break the tree line as common courtesy dictated. Ino gasped at the scene and almost broke forward, several of the other genin behind her going to do the same before the sensei stopped them, eyes trained on the training ground.

Naruto was held at kunai point by Kakashi-sensei, the older man keeping one of the boy's arms bent and trapped behind his back, the other twisted up with the arm holding a kunai to his neck. A few feet away was Naruto's partner, crouched low and snarling with Sasuke at his side, hands twitching for seals while Sakura stood nearby, arms raised in a ready stance.

"What happens now? I've got your boy here and one wrong move means he gets a knife to his neck. Your next move determines how everything plays out." Kakashi's voice was calm and even as he tightened his grip on Naruto, ignoring the pained grunts of the much smaller ninja in his grasp as he didn't betray anything.

The clearing was tense and Ino wanted nothing more than to dart forward and help, even as a part of her reminded her that it was likely just an exercise and that Naruto was in no actual danger from his sensei. Seiji whined, looking between his two other human teammates before they all nodded and Sakura and Sasuke lowered their arms, clearly surrendering.

"Good choice." Kakashi nodded, pulling the kunai away from Naruto's neck and relinquishing his grip, placing large hands on slim shoulders. "In that scenario you made the right choice, whether you feel like it or not. You three are good for your age but I'm the clearly better combatant and I had a hostage. Out in the field if you had attacked I would have slit his throat and been done with it. Surrendering when your enemy is looking for hostages and not eliminating you outright is a viable option when you're overpowered. Technically, fleeing to regroup and launch a counter offensive or wait for backup is also an option but at that point there's no guaranteeing the safety of the hostage. If I was frustrated or believed one of you may have held more value than Naruto I could have killed him and given chase." He patted Naruto's shoulder and gave him a soft grin.

"How's the head, puppy? Not so fun to be on the receiving end of your own tags is it?" Naruto favored the taller man with a look that promised vengeance but gave a thumbs up, getting a hand in his hair for his trouble. "Good! Now I'm considering this simulation a pass so good job today. Everyone take a break so our guests can join us. Naruto, be a good boy and send a few clones out to grab the markers would you?" Naruto made a cross symbol and three clones appeared in a cloud of smoke before scurrying off, in their place came Seiji, nosing at his partner worriedly while Team 10 and Team 8 followed thier sensei out of the trees to where they were sitting in a loose semi-circle, passing around bottles of water.

Ino felt a flash of jealousy as she watched them while they entered the clearing. Kakashi had crouched down so he was at their level, murmuring quietly to them with his one visible eye crinkled in a smile while Team 7 gave him their full attention. Even Sasuke, who'd given the Academy instructors only grudging attention at best, was gazing intently at his teacher and absorbing everything he was being told. Just how far ahead of everyone else was Team 7 she couldn't help but wonder. Asuma hadn't started them on anything so interesting as the exercises that they'd seen Kakashi's team working on.

She hung back as the other genin pushed in around Team 7 and the sensei were clustered off to the side, talking to each other before Kurenai-sensei clapped her hands, drawing the attention of the nine genin before them. "We'll be back in an hour. Feel free to train or spar, but nothing that requires supervision. You can also go get lunch, so long as you're back here at the end of the hour." Ino found herself drawn into the discussion as the jonin left and the genin decided to go an get lunch at a nearby BBQ restaurant.

If anyone noticed her silence, they didn't mention it.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Lined up with his fellow jonin sensei in front of the Hokage's desk Kakashi couldn't help but wonder what could require the attention of all of the most recent sensei as well as Gai. It was still too early for the genin teams' reviews and none of the teams besides Gai's team had been on anything higher than a D-ranked mission yet. Of course subtly asking Asuma and Kurenai revealed nothing and Gai only had his usual observations about youth and his own wonderment about what the Hokage could want with them. So, tucked behind his ever present orange book he kept an eye and an ear on on the aged Hokage who was sat behind his desk, hands clasped before him and dark eyes trained on them.

"I assume each of you recall that during this time of year we usually hold some form of live fire exercises for our shinobi, yes?" Kakashi snapped his book shut in affirmative even as the three others nodded. Once or twice a year the village held exercises meant to mock up assaults or invasions or escaped prisoners. It was viewed as both a readiness and a learning exercise for shinobi and civilians alike. Last winter they'd held an exercises for the jonin and chunin where "rouge ninja" had invaded the Academy and attempted to kidnap many of the children who would be targets for an actual kidnapping. Kakashi himself had played the rouge leader and gotten a taste of what it was like to be on the receiving end of Konoha's response to attack. Other past exercises had included an mock invasion on the border, a biological attack and attempts to steal important village documents out of the Hokage's office.

"This season's live fire exercises are going to focus on the genin." This caught Kakashi's attention and he focused even more on the Hokage as the older man continued. "The fact of the matter is that, while your four genin teams are not the only genin teams this village has, not by a long shot, they are the most high profile politically and the village is going to want to field them the most often for C-ranked missions to make an impression. Word around recently has claimed out village has been fielding less and less powerful teams. In order to make sure that your genin can live up to the expectations of our clients I want you to run no less than three mock missions with them, utilizing the most common C-rank missions as bases. A mock escort mission, a delivery mission and a bandit elimination mission." The older man took a puff from his pipe before setting it aside and pulling out four scrolls, tossing one to each jonin.

"You'll have access to the mock bandit fortress on the southern stretch near Watchpost Cedar and nearby Outpost Fir has been temporarily cleared for occupation. Several squads of chunin, tokubetsu jonin and jonin have volunteered to act as enemies for the various exercises and a medic has been assigned to you for the duration. You'll be leaving a week from tomorrow. In the scroll I've detailed extra parameters for each exercise as well, to make sure the genin are covering as many bases as possible." Kakashi pocketed the scroll to be read later and hummed over what he would need to cover before they left for the excursion. He'd already started them on advanced genin training scenarios but he hadn't really touched on mission etiquette yet for C-ranks and beyond. They'd have to go over packing for trips, dealing with clients, transport and a variety of other things.

"You'll also be running the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape exercise. Uzumaki Naruto will be the target and the remaining genin will be the trackers." Kakashi looked up, eye narrowed in confusion even as Kurenai spoke up to voice her concerns.

"Hokage-sama is it wise to have a genin be the target? Not to disparage Uzumaki's skill but the roll of target is usually held by jonin or even Anbu. Even if we adjust the exercise with deference for his age he'll still be spending up to five days actively being hunted and possibly captured." SERE exercises were important and run year round as needed. Starting from the village the target was given a two hour head start and a point one hundred and fifty miles away, usually the second farthest border from the village. The goal was to avoid two separate teams, one acting as Konoha's reaction force and the other a group of enemy ninja and make it to the safe point as fast as possible, usually within five days. The goal of the two teams was the capture and detain the target and escort them to marked safe points while the target could escape or be taken by the other team. The exercise only ended when the target reached the border or when one of the teams reached thier own safe points with the target.

"Your concerns are valid, Kurenai but there's something you're not taking into account. Uzumaki Naruto is, for all intents and purposes, a mute. And while that doesn't bar him from active duty thanks to his partner it does prevent him from verbally passing on information he's privy to. Should he ever be captured and his captors realize this they will not hesitate to end his life as he will be useless to them. His best chance of survival will be to be able to avoid capture at all cost. At least this way he can run the exercise in a controlled environment where he life isn't in danger and the medics are at hand. This is also an important trial for Teams 8 and 10, who specialize in tracking and in capture respectively." Kurenai nodded at the explanation and the Hokage settled further back in his chair. What went unspoken but that Kakashi caught was the danger to Naruto if his Jinchurrikki status came out after being captured. If an enemy village got their hands on him and realized what he was, they would stop at nothing to turn him to thier cause, including mind altering or memory wiping seals. "If there are no other questions then you are dismissed."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"You know, your face is going to stick like that if you keep making that face." Ino looked up as Sakura settled down on the ground next to her, ice cream cone in hand. After lunch the genin had reconvened on the training field to hear about the information that their sensei had come back with and then been dismissed for the afternoon. Instead of going thier separate ways they had meandered to a nearby ice cream place by unspoken consensus and then to a nearby park. Naruto had immediately been swarmed by kids and even now he and his partner were playfully chasing them around the park, playing the bad guys in a game of ninja most of the other genin had been drawn into one way or another.

Thinking back to the news of the impending live fire exercises Ino couldn't help but think that her team was far from prepared for what the jonin had described. Asuma had barely trained them in anything of substance so far and Kakashi had listed off several things they were going to cover collectively over the course of the next week that made Ino's head spin. While they'd covered the basics of mission protocol in the Academy they hadn't touched mission etiquette, never mind prisoner transport or evolving field structure of command or any of the other things the older man had mentioned. She frowned again, looking at Shikamaru, who was asleep under a tree and at Chouji, playing with the Academy students and she knew, just knew, that they weren't prepared for whatever was coming for them next week.

"It's scary, isn't it?" Sakura's voice was soft, pitched low and Ino turned towards her, blue eyes wide, a questioning noise leaving her as she took in the form of her long time friend. Sakura was dressed in shinobi pants and a mesh short, a red apron skirt fluttering in the summer breeze, looking so different than she had in the Academy.

"What's scary?" She asked, following Sakura's gaze to where Naruto had been pinned under three kids, his partner and Sasuke standing over him and shaking their heads in fond exasperation. And wasn't that something, to see Sasuke looking something other than broody and being willingly around other people.

"Looking at your teammates and knowing the danger they're going to be in out in the field and knowing you won't always be able to protect them. Sometimes I wake up from nightmares and all I can see is them broken and bloody and dead and I have to go and look for them in the house and show myself they're fine. They've both already had brushes with death and those won't be thier last, not by any stretch." Sakura's hand clenched on the ground and Ino sucked in a harsh breath, brief but horrifying images of Shikamaru and Choji, injured and at the mercy of enemies, flashed through her eyes and her breath hitched.

"How do you deal with it?" She whispered and Sakura locked gazes with her, green eyes glinting like jewels.

"You get stronger. Kakashi-sensei doesn't train us as hard as he does because it's fun. It's because he wants us to have the best chance as possible to live."

"Asuma-sensei hasn't taught us anything other than teamwork and we only train for a few hours a day."

"Eh, really? Like, what, six hours?"

"Try four, if he pushes us. And Daddy won't train me in any of the advanced family techniques yet." Sakura sucked ina breath, looking at her in surprise.

"Only four hours? Kakashi-sensei keeps us for eight. Sometimes ten if we've been really focused on something or we have D-ranks that need to be done as well. And we have additional teachers as well on certain days in the afternoon."

"You have extra teachers as well?" Ino gaped, a sense of jealousy surging in her as Sakura nodded, ticking it off on her fingers.

"Well, yea. Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon I go to the hospital to learn medical ninjutsu, Sasuke goes to learn kenjutsu from a friend of sensei's and Naruto learns fuinjutsu from one of his summons. Saturdays I spend at the hospital, Sasuke spends it with Raido-senpai working on kenjutsu and Naruto learns more collaboration with his partner. We train together every morning and on the days we don't have extra studies we do D-ranks in the afternoon. Two on Fridays, because sensei gives us Sundays off." It sounded like a lot, but Sakura had gotten used to being constantly busy. Between Kakashi and her mentor's at the hospital she returned each night pleasantly exhausted.

"We don't get to do any of that. After Asuma-sensei is done with us for the day the boys go home and I help at the flower shop."

"You could always join me at the hospital if you wanted! Mikoda-sensei says she wishes more people were interested in medicine and it helps with your chakra control a lot. And being able to perform basic field medicine could help your team a lot in the long run." Ino sat for a moment in contemplation before she nodded, blue eyes filling with determination.

"I will then. If no one else wants to help me than I'm going to help myself!" Sakura shared with her a supportive smile as they settled into the shade further, watching thier teammates. Ino still had quite a few questions, about how strong Sakura actually was and what the deal was with her sudden seeming lack of her attraction to Sasuke and the relationship she had with her team that was so different than Ino had even seen or heard before, but for now she was content to bask in the warmth of her own conviction and look forward to the path she'd need to follow to find strength all her own.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

The night before the teams were due to leave for the exercises found Kakashi sitting on the couch of Naruto's home, watching as his students went over thier supplies under his watchful eye. Naruto's talent for sealing scrolls was coming in handy as each one of his genin had several of them sprawled open before them, piles of weapons and spare clothes and other supplies waiting to be packed away. Sasuke had the least amount of extra supplies, having slipped his sword care supplies into one of the seals of his main scroll and a few books and scrolls of styles he was studying. Sakura had another scroll full of herbs and bandages and other medical supplies next to her primary, ready to treat her teammates at a moment's notice.

Naruto was in a league all his own. On top of his basic supplies he had a large scroll filled with spare food in deference to his metabolism, though considering how many Akamichi Kakashi had served with it wasn't too strange. What Kakashi hadn't been prepared for was the scroll of sealing supplies. Both Kushina and Minato had been fuinjutsu experts in their own rights but they'd never carried more than spare blank tags and scrolls and plain chakra ink on them. But spread out before Naruto was an assortment of items Kakashi hadn't realized could be used in sealing, if he could even name them. Pots of ink powder in various colors, vials of oils, and jars of powders in red and green and gray. A mortar and pestle, over a dozen brushes in various sizes, blank tags and scrolls in all kinds of sizes sat waiting to be sealed up.

"What's all the extra stuff for Naruto? I can't recall seeing anyone else use any of those before." Naruto looked up from where he was patiently grinding a chunk of a red rock in a spare mortar.

"Well it's all a different school of sealing isn't it? You probably saw Uzumaki or Toad style sealing before." Kakashi's one visible eyebrow rose, disappearing behind his hitai-ate.

"There are different styles of sealing?" Naruto nodded as he tipped the ground stone into one of the jars, wiping the mortar with a soft black cloth while Seiji narrated from his place behind the couch.

"Well, yeah. Sealing is an old art. Older than even chakra, if the legends are to be believed. The amount of knowledge that's been forgotten far outstrips what we know today. The various summons remember the most and the Uzumaki's were said to have learned sealing from the last dragon before she died. Toad style is known for being focused around live sealing, like the gravity and resistance seals you gave us, and the Uzumaki were said to be the best at sealing demons and other spirits. The Shiki Fūjin that holds Kyuubi in me is an Uzumaki technique. " Naruto reached for a strip of bright green bark, crumbling it into the mortar with sure hands. Sasuke and Sakura had long finished sealing everything into scrolls and were paying rapt attention. The Academy only covered the very basics of fuinjutu, so it was interesting to hear more in depth about it from a student of the art.

"The White Woods style focuses a lot more on inanimate sealing, like scrolls and barriers and exploding tags. Of course that's not to say I couldn't learn to seal demons or body seals. But, well, there's no one to teach Uzumaki sealing to me anymore and the techniques were likely lost in the fall of Uzushio and the Toads won't teach a non-summoner, which is fair. The wolves wouldn't either." His hands paused as he gazed into the distance for a second, blue and amber eyes flickering with something sad and Seiji's voice dropped a register in response to his partner's sadness as Naruto ducked his head back down and continued his work.

"You know, I was gonna go to Uzushio, see if I could recover something from my mom's home village. I never got a chance before I came here though. Han was worried about taking me before I was old enough. Apparently it...well apparently it doesn't look so good from the outside. And no one not of Uzumaki blood can get past the last defenses into the city center."

"Do you....do you know anything about it?" Sakura asked, settled against the couch with Willowtail's head in her lap.

"A little. A few of the older summons had been to Uzushio before and Ivytail, one of the elders, had an Umino summoner and lived there. They said it was beautiful. Lapis and redstone roofs and buildings made of marble so white it would shine in the sun. Bright blue seas. Ivytail said the Uzumaki claimed that the very island was alive and that you could feel it when you stepped paw there. It was an old saying that no matter how far they would travel, Uzushio would always welcome her children home." No one dared to say aloud that Naruto was the only one left as far as anyone was aware and the air had taken on a melancholy cast.

Kakashi frowned behind his mask as Naruto quickly tried to clear the air, the three of them finishing their packing and settling in to talk quietly to each other, not for the first time realizing what a burden two of his students carried. In this case Naruto was the very last of an entire people whose whole culture was lost to the bloody tide of war. Sasuke, cold comfort that it was, had gotten time with the other Uchiha and knew about his family before he lost them. Naruto did not have even that. His mother had died when he was born and thier people wiped out before that. Konoha, ashamed of thier inability to help thier long established allies, had long since removed most mentions of Uzushio from the history books at the Academy.

The genin had long left for bed by the time Kakashi was finished with his thoughts, the very beginnings of a plan forming in his head as he pulled his sandals and vest back on. It would bare a little more thinking on and a few conversations with the Hokage, but Kakashi figured that it would be worth the effort in the long run, especially if he could give one his students some well deserved closure.