A/N: Hello, people!

I don't own Naruto or Harry Potter.

I have no beta.



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-I had the majority of this finished for a while but it still felt like some
of the sections were missing something so it sat around for a while.

-Making a whole new Chunin Exam that no one has ever done before
is some next level shit tbh. Like, there is so much stuff that goes into
it. And I'm pretty sure this isn't new because we're all human and no
idea is truly original anymore. But at least I think this is rare enough
to work. And this is only the First Exam.

"Yahoooo! We're gonna kick everyone's ass in the Chunin Exams! Right Akamaru?!"

Arf! Arf! the puppy agreed.

Shikamaru sighed and turned away, unable to deal with Kiba's annoying energy so early in the morning. By the look of him, Shino was of the same opinion. Though it was often difficult to understand what was going through his head at any given time, Shino was easy to read after a while of getting to know him. You're not a team for almost a year a pick up nothing from each other after all.

Together, they left the Inuzuka to himself while they chose to relocate to somewhere… less troublesome.

The ship was a massive one that was used to transport cargo usually, but because of the Chunin Exams, the company who owned said boats wanted in on how lucrative the Exams would be and decided to rent out a few of their best vessels to everyone who would be traveling. Getting from one end of the massive ship to the other took ages. Shikamaru almost regretted not staying in their Team's designated room, just because the walk took forever and there were so many people who wanted to talk to complete strangers for some reason?

They ended up coming upon Team Seven in the canteen, which was a relief strangely. The ship was so massive that it could fit an entire room meant for taking meals alone. And the owners were able to sell foodstuffs on the ship as well, in case people didn't bring their own food. Just another clever way to make a profit off of the Exams. He couldn't fault them for it, even if their outlandish prices were done only for the sake of skinning their new type of cargo of its fleece.

Still better than nothing.

Not everyone aboard was a shinobi after all. Other people were making use of the transportation offer while they could. It was only a limited time thing and best to get in on it before it was over.

Naruto was seated between his teammates at a table of their own to the far left of the entrance. His new, bright orange hoodie was too easy to pick out amidst the collection of people. His hair had grown out quite a bit, the longest strips reaching his collar bones while the rest continued defying gravity. Before him was a massive bento that he and his teammates were dipping into without hesitation as they people watched. Shikamaru had seen that particular bento before. Naruto's sister-figure had used it many times for many occasions.

Sharing a look with Shino, they both nodded and decided to join the other Konoha team they were familiar with. Naruto had mellowed out a lot since graduation, and while he was loud and still chose to wear orange of all colors, he still knew when to keep better control of himself. Especially since he no longer needed attention like before Potta Hari came along. Now he had positive attention and he didn't have to act out and be obnoxious. Before, Naruto had just wanted acknowledgement, whether it was good or bad, and now that he had it he didn't need to be so dramatic all the time. It made him less troublesome too.

"Shikamaru!" squealed Ino upon spotting them, almost too loud for his tolerance. She gestured wildly for them to come over as if that would get them to move any faster. Shikamaru liked going at his own pace, thank you very much.

"Hi, Shino! Shika!" Naruto bellowed, thrusting his arm out to madly wave at them as well. Shikamaru wasn't oblivious to the slightly pleased hum Shino gave at being not only remembered but included as well. Naruto had that ability to just make everyone feel like they belonged. For a kid who hadn't belonged for most of his life, it was a miraculous feat.

Ino was rifling through her bag and pulled out a storage scroll. From it, she unsealed a chess board and placed it on the table in front of her. Instantly, Shikamaru knew he was to sit opposite her and play. He appreciated it. Ever since she'd been put on Team Seven, Ino had also matured considerably compared to the beginning of their last year in the Academy. It was something he hadn't expected until she'd reached her twenties and gained a harsh understanding of the world, but it seemed like her exposure to Naruto's sister had been a big help.

Potta Hari seemed to helping a lot of people in her own way, whether she knew it or not.

When drilling their Ino-Shika-Cho formations with Choji, Ino's head was always in the game, and she was less loud and controlling. Even though she was the self-professed leader of her own team, she still wasn't a jerk and had been less troublesome as of late. It made him wonder what she would have been like if the Hokage had put Ino on his team instead of Naruto's.

Having Naruto and Sasuke to worry about constantly seemed to be just what she needed though. And her crush on the Uchiha… that seemed to die down more and more as the weeks passed them by. And not for any problems between them or Sasuke becoming unappealing suddenly - he still looked exactly the same and was even stronger now - it was just that her interests just seemed to be changing. And she might have picked up somewhat on Sasuke's crush on Naruto. Just a bit maybe.

How it wasn't blatantly obvious to everyone, Shikamaru had no idea. Sasuke deliberately oriented himself around the blond at all times. Glared at anyone he so much as assumed was romantically interested in him. Or abnormally interested at least. Stopped using the minor-insulting nickname he'd given Naruto ages ago. Always looking to Naruto first to see his reaction to pleasant events. Always looking to him first the moment something dangerous happened because his concern got the better of him. His priorities were kind of obvious and how no one noticed was beyond the Nara Heir.

Uchiha Sasuke fancied Uzumaki Naruto. Not something Shikamaru would have ever thought to be possible considering their turbulent history in the Academy, but never say never and all that rot. Seemed like being around each other every day for months had had its own affect on all of Team Seven.

"How've you guys been?" asked Naruto, looking between he and Shino. He was eating ramen, not like a pig like he used to, and looked expectant. Shikamaru decided to let his teammate do the answering while he and Ino began their game. It was just less work for him to do.

"Asuma-sensei had decided to send us on more and more C-Rank missions. Why? Because he wished to raise our level of experience in preparation for these particular Chunin Exams. The last Exams he'd entered us in had been to give us new experiences as shinobi, but he admitted to us not being ready. Now he has faith in our skills," Shino said in his usual, frank and monotone manner.

"The missions have been a drag," Shikamaru added. "Sixty-seven D-Ranks and thirty-one C-Ranks and one A-Rank. Ugh! What about Team Seven? What've you gotten to do so far?" He was only a little curious.

As one unit, Ino and Naruto looked to Sasuke for the answer. The Uchiha glared playfully at them - yes, Shikamaru wasn't exaggerating a bit on that, the Uchiha was even smiling a little - and said, "One hundred and seventeen D-Ranks, sixty-one C-Ranks, four B-Ranks, and three A-Ranks."

The table went quiet as both Shikamaru and Shino processed those words. He was trying to make sense of what could have happened to turn normal C-Rank missions into B and A-Ranks. Because that was the only logical choice. No matter how talented they all were as a team, Team Seven was full of newly minted Genin and could not legally be allowed to go on A-Rank and above missions unless one of them was an Iryo-nin with Level 10 skill. That amount of ability was simply too good to withhold from active duty no matter the rank of the mission.

So what had happened for Team Seven to find themselves on missions that had to be upgraded mid-way? And what were they getting paid?

"Your team is troublesome," Shikamaru decided, fixing his attention back on the board and reaching for a piece finally. He'd already calculated one hundred and ninety-three different outcomes from his first move. That number would obviously change once Ino made her first move.

Naruto sputtered, "We are not! It's everyone else who can't just leave our clients alone! -ttebayo!" His teammates nodded their agreement, looking defiant.

Team Seven attracted danger. Shikamaru knew for a fact that Team Eight hadn't experienced any of their missions escalating in rank. And while it wasn't unheard of for things like that to happen, it rarely happened to the same exact team multiple times in a row.

He wasn't one for superstitions or putting faith in things unproven, but he was willing to consider that maybe it was possible to be cursed. All the extra work that came from being on a more difficult mission than what was originally expected, made his brain hurt just thinking about it.

"Hey, where's Kiba at?" asked Naruto, several minutes after them meeting up. As if he just remembered the boy's existence.

Shino's sunglasses gleamed beneath the lights overhead. "He was being his usual rambunctious self, and we felt the need to get away for a while. He had Akamaru to keep him company of course."

Neither felt bad for ditching their teammate as Kiba thought them to be boring when they were around one another for too long. And if they didn't leave, he eventually would have. It was a mutual understanding between them. They didn't hate each other, there was just only so much they could all handle of one another at one time.

"Kiba will sniff out the food eventually and join us," Shikamaru murmured around a yawn. "Of that I have no doubt. So hide that bento while you can or you won't get any more of its contents. He packs it away like Choji and his ninken can really eat a lot too."

"Hi, Gaara!" came a familiar, bellowing voice that almost upon him. "I missed you!"

The redhead blinked twice before turning in time to see a flash of orange heading in his direction at a speed almost too fast for him to catch with his eyes. His body certainly hadn't prepared itself for the flying leap hug from Uzumaki Naruto, but he was getting used to it so it wasn't as bad as the last time it happened. And he was still pleasantly surprised when his sand did not immediately rush to block the blond from touching him. Naruto was a friend.

Naruto was short, much like Gaara was, so when he hugged the Suna shinobi, his face ended up pressed right against Gaara's. It always baffled him how Naruto was so tanned and Gaara wasn't even though he lived in the middle of a desert and the sun beat down upon him all the time no matter how much he tried to stop it or block it out. But no, Gaara ended up being the fair-skinned one between them.

"I missed you so much!" the other Jinchuuriki said, nuzzling his friend's cheek. "It's been forever. -ttebayo!"

"We saw each other less than three months ago," the redhead felt compelled to point out, because it was true. They'd been on a joint mission and had spent an entire week together, teaching each other Jutsu and learning more about each other. It had been… one of the best times in Gaara's life. he would never forget it.

"As I said, forever," the blond enunciated slowly and dramatically, blinking his bright, blue eyes at Gaara. "So much has happened in such a short amount of time too!"

Yes. Even on Gaara's end things had begun to pick up considerably. Despite having their own struggles going on, the world kept turning every day.

"Where's the cat cosplayer and your sister?" asked Naruto, looking around the deck for signs of Gaara's unfortunate siblings. Only Gaara had wanted to see the ocean though, so they remained in their shared room for the time being. Suna did not have much water and they'd never formed an interest in it personally. Gaara was drawn to how calming it could be one minute, yet how deadly it could be the next. The duality of its inherent nature was always fascinating to think about and lead to internal arguments about moral aptitude.

"Down below in our room," he told the blond. "I… like water more than they do."

A sand user loving water. It was almost unheard of seeing as it was the element that would slow down his attacks and defense the most. But ever since learning that Suiton Jutsu to better help Sunagakure, he'd been around it a lot more lately. The people who managed Suna's wells seemed to no longer be terrified of him, too focused on the fact that he was helping provide their village with a natural resource they were short on. The economy was the most important thing. Their fear of him was fading with every day.

He also managed to teach the Jutsu to two others as well. Their chakra wasn't like his, and they couldn't perform the Jutsu multiple times in a row like he could, but it was still improvement. They now had three shinobi instead of one, capable of helping the village. Help was something anyone would be foolish to ignore, no matter who it came from.

"You excited about the Exams?" asked Naruto as he pulled away a bit. The blond was still clinging to him like a limpet. Or an octopus.

"Tetsu no Kuni snows constantly. I am not looking forward to that part of it. Anything else will have to be considered upon arrival. I try not to judge a place before seeing it myself."

"I'm looking forward to the snow! We don't get any in Konoha, and I plan to rain all hell down on Sasuke in a snowball fight of epic proportions! -ttebayo!"

"Using snow against a Katon user seems counterproductive," Gaara felt the need to point out. The Uchiha were known for their Shurikenjutsu and incorporating their specialized Katon Jutsu into their attacks to make them more deadly. The snow would be melted before Naruto even had a chance to do anything remotely threatening with it.

"Maybe," Naruto conceded with a nod, "but hitting him in the face with even a single snowball will make it the best thing I've ever done. So it's worth the effort to try."

"If you wanted to surprise me with this, you shouldn't have said it out loud."

Both Jinchuuriki turned to find the Uchiha standing there, looking a bit surly, hands shoved deep into his pockets. His Sharingan was activated and he was staring at Naruto's arms, which were still wrapped completely around Gaara despite the small distance between their bodies.

"I'll get you even if you're expecting it, teme! -ttebayo!"

The Uchiha scoffed. "I doubt it. I have better skills at dodging than you do if you recall."

"That don't mean shit! I'll hit you smack dab in that smug face of yours when you least expect it! -ttebayo!"

Gaara got to watch as his friend devolved into a childish battle with his teammate, and found himself slightly warmed by it in a sense. This was what camaraderie was. he hoped to have it himself some day.

Luna smiled. In the training ground of choice, Hari had brought the orphans out for a fun day. And all of them who were available had showed up because water balloon wars, swimming in the river, and a massive picnic, was something most sane people wouldn't pass up. Food and fun on a hot day was always a good way to cool down. There was even a Genin team hired to make sure everything was safe. and yes, they took got to partake in the event if they wanted.

Hari had put a little more effort into this outing because she was trying to ignore how much she was missing Team 7 and the rest of their new friends. She had enlisted Luna's help to cook up all the food ahead of time, and Luna couldn't help but eye the roasted daikon that the kids kept passing up. Hari had used some oil and basic herbs and, like all other vegetables she roasted, it came out perfect.

She was trying to determine if anyone would miss the radish if she happened to disappear all of it by herself. She didn't want to be greedy.

As if sensing Luna's thoughts, Hari deposited the entire platter of roasted daikon onto the blond's lap and smiled. "Apparently the melons are a bigger hit today since they're sweeter and colder, so have at it."

"Probably because of the heat and them containing so much water which will keep them hydrated," Luna noted as she took up a large slice of radish and bit down. Oh, it was the greatest!

"And kids are really taken with those decoratively carved bowls I made out of the melons themselves."

That too. Too bad they didn't have the time to do this every day. Unfortunately the world outside of their little pocket of paradise was still spinning and dastardly plots were still being undertaken at every second. Too many for even Luna to keep up with all of them. Soon Hari was going to be dragged into many situations far bigger than all of them, and soon her decisions were going to affects more people than she'd realise.

"You're going to be a great parent," Luna decided to say instead, eying Hari up from beneath her pale lashes.

The woman gave a small smile and turned back to the kids. "Kanna, that is not what we do with the water balloons! They are to stay outside of our shirts! Tsubaki, you can't have all of the chicken for yourself, other people would like to have some as well!"

It was a nice day. The sun was high above them and the clouds remained puffy and welcoming. For winter, Konoha sure had some lovely weather.

Getting into Tetsu no Kuni was far easier than getting into any other country, as far as Naruto's experience told him. There was no gate to walk through or a station to exchange papers to inquire about intentions. Tetsu was on an island shared with like three other countries that he didn't remember the names of.

Of course it was the village itself that was a lot harder to gain entrance to. It was run entirely by samurai who did not favor shinobi and their way of handling business at all. Still, they'd agreed to host this particular Chunin Exam for a reason, and that meant all visiting shinobi had to abide by their particular rules and laws or face the embarrassment of being kicked out and bringing shame to their village.

So when they got to the village entrance, their entourage was halted by a large group of armored men bearing swords. Samurai. He'd never seen a real one in person before. They looked cool and threatening. Like they could actually kick a ninja's ass if they truly gave it their all. Sasuke had told him that they could also use chakra but to different capacities.

"You are the Konoha delegation?" the man in the center asked, voice stern and face set like literal steel. His hair was long and greyish blue, and his eyes were dark and had a blank stare. He looked like he wanted to be anywhere but there. Naruto could understand as guard duty sucked the biggest ass out of most shinobi jobs.

Kakashi stepped forward and nodded. "Yes. We have with us Forty-nine three-man squads and forty-nine Jonin sensei."

The Samurai looked toward another and they shared a sharp nod.

"I am Hideo, and I am a lieutenant under Mifune-sama sent to greet entrants to our village. You will line up by team and show your documentation to Eiichi here. You are not to fight outside the designated Exams times. You will not cause disruption to the hard won peace of the village. If you wish to participate in ridiculous squabbles between yourselves or members of other Elemental Nations, you will remove yourselves from the village and handle the issue outside our borders. Avoid all places you are not welcome. Respect each other, even if you do not get along due to past grievances, when not in the midst of an Exam."

Kakashi nodded. "We understand, Hideo-san." The rest of the Konoha contingent all bowed simultaneously afterward to show their agreement. It also made them look more cooperative, playing on the idea of Konoha residents being 'Tree Huggers'. But hey, if people wanted to underestimate them, then that was fine. So they preferred peace first, so what?

The entire company had already gotten their passports out and had lined up by their sensei and then oldest to youngest students. Kakashi, Sasuke, Ino, and then Naruto for Team Seven specifically.

They trudged through the snow and into the village one team at a time, and Naruto was completely blown away by the size of the enormous ass mountain at the very center of the population. He wanted to climb it.

"Don't even think about it," said Sasuke with a knowing look.

"But what if I-"


"But I could totall-"



There was no way Sasuke knew was he was going to suggest! He didn't know Naruto that well!


Looking upon the landscape, Shikamaru shivered and wrapped his scarf extra tight around his face. He probably looked ridiculous, but he couldn't help it. It was cold. Still, no one looked as ridiculous as Shino.

Shino was literally a living hive. His body had to maintain a certain temperature so his kikaichu could remain healthy and living. So he was bundled up even more as he couldn't use his chakra to constantly warm himself since the insects were eating a good portion of it and he didn't want to be weakened too much before the Exams started.

As for Kiba... he hadn't changed his clothes at all. He remained int he same thing and simply kept moving. His boundless energy was going to give Shikamaru a headache.

Asuma didn't looked affected by the temperature in the least. None of the Jonin did. Team Seven was also among the few Genin squads who looked perfectly at home in this environment.

Snow was a drag, he'd decided.

At least no one was verbally complaining about it though. One thing Konoha shinobi weren't, were whiners. Specifically, verbal whiners in the presence of clients, officials, and people of great importance. Shikamaru could think unpleasant things all he wanted but he sure as hell wasn't going to shine an unflattering light to Konoha by voicing his thoughts aloud. He knew how these types of political games were played. He knew what these things meant.

He was nowhere near his father's level when it came to matters such as this, but he was decently prepared. The Chunin Exams had always been about showing off for your village and earning the attention of more clients. Acting like whiny children was not going to be appealing to anyone sane of mind.

If only such measures didn't have to be taken, but of course he wasn't that lucky. Politics were practically the cornerstone of everything in the shinobi world. Seeing underneath the underneath applied to political stuff perfectly. Too bad most shinobi ended up being bad at politics.

"I wanna climb that mountain!" announced Kiba, gesturing the massive rock formation at the center of Tetsu No Kuni.

Akamaru, who was bundled inside his furred coat, barked in agreement.

"I'm not going near it if I don't have to," said Shikamaru with finality.

Hiking in snow was a drag.

Samui sighed as once again, Karui and Omoi got into an argument. Somehow, Omoshiroi managed to sit back and just watch them go at it without any remorse either.

Karui's red hair was beginning to stand on end from her frustration with Omoi always second-guessing himself, and Omoi was a cross between bored and anxious and telling Karui to mind her own business. Omoshiroi was grinning like a loon up at the snowy sky, his blue hair in a spiked mess around his head.

"Can you hurry it up?" Samui demanded of their small company. "I would like like to be in Samurai territory before nightfall."

She then broke away from their loose formation at a moderate run, forcing them to chase after if they wanted to remain in some semblance of a group.

They indeed reached the samurai village with an undisclosed name before the sky darkened to a more storm grey than a blue-grey. Apparently the weather blocked the sky too much for them to see it fully. Kumogakure had sent along only five teams to compete in the Exams. Their recent output of shinobi hadn't been much and they had so few who were worthy of promotion yet. They merely had to showcase their strength with what they had now. As Kirabi wasn't allowed to leave the village at present, Samui, already a Chunin, was the stand-in squad leader while Omoshiroi was added to the team to make the squad even.

She handed over her passport to the required Samurai and was given directions to their lodgings while visiting. The building they'd be in would be shared with Sunagakure and Kirigakure shinobi. Apparently they had the least amount of teams out of the big five nations. Konohagakure, unsurprisingly had the most participants, followed closely by Iwagakure and they would be sharing a building alone. She could only imagine the heated arguments that could be happening between them.

The remaining shinobi villages, with much smaller populations and forces, would also share a building.

Putting Konoha and Iwa in the same building was like putting Konoha and Kumo in the same building. Not smart.

Or perhaps it was smart. The rules they were given as guests graciously allowed into the secretive village, said no fighting was allowed. And the Five Great Nations had a very sketchy history when it came to treaties and betrayal. The relationship between Konoha and Iwa was, if the pun be excused, rocky at best. Maybe this was a way to test the shinobi from opposing nations to see if they could put aside their differences in order to achieve their similar goals. It was no secret that samurai did not approve of the shinobi way of life.

"Do not start any fights," Samui warned her team, sending local hothead, Karui, a dark look. "I don't care if you think someone's looking at you the wrong way or that they've disrespected you. You will not jeopardize this for us and you will not bring shame upon our village."

The redhead rolled her eyes but didn't argue for once. "Can we just go find out where we're sleeping already? I want food."

Haku smiled at all the snow. It had been some time since he'd seen any and associated it with a good memory. But everything was better now. He was legally a shinobi and once again a proud member of Mizu no Kuni. His Kekkei Genkai was considered an amazing talent that wouold be used to protect his precious people. Zabuza-sama had taken to training him even harder than before in order to prepare him for Jonin status. He had an apartment to stay in and didn't want for food or warmth or clothing.

Things were so much better now compared to all those years ago. And he was looking forward to the Exams even though he knew they'd be ridiculously easy at his current level.

It'd be like a mission of exploration. Seeing a new land, meeting new people, and taking notes on everything he laid eyes on. Trying to understand the world and the new people who for the most part weren't civilians, but weren't shinobi. A new way of life to try and understand.

The unfamiliar sights were nice.

The familiar ones were even more nice if what he thought he saw was truly what it was.

There was a shinobi sitting in an open restaurant, wearing a kill-me-orange cloak and had a blue hitai-ate wrapped around his spiky, golden hair. Beside him were two people in tan cloaks with red stripes across the bottoms, also wearing hitai-ate. They looked more like those who would blend in though.

"Naruto-kun," Haku called quietly as he came up behind the group. He was unable to keep his fondness from his voice. It was nice to meet up with friends again and see that they were doing well.

The blond whipped around, showing that his mouth was stuffed full of noodles. In seconds, all noodles were gone and he was launching himself into Haku's arms. How he could manage from when he was sitting ¼ of a second ago, was impressive. He threw his whole self into the embrace too. "Hi, Haku!"

How a shinobi could be this endlessly filled with energy and joy despite their profession and the things Haku knew the younger Genin had seen, always amazed him. It was as if there was this innocence inside Naruto that not even the most harsh realities of war could taint. Haku hoped that it would never be tainted, because people like Naruto were rare. Naruto was someone that could lead by example, always finding the good in things even amongst all the bad. Pessimism was such a downer at times and finding happiness where none seemed to spawn would be a relief.

"When did you get here?" he decided to ask, sliding into the chair beside Naruto's at the long, sparsely-filled bar.

"This morning. Kakashi-sensei wanted to be prompt and early. Familiarize ourselves with the environment and stuff. Take in whatever we could in the time we have here."

It made sense. The Exams didn't start for another three days. Anyone who came just on time or even a bit late would be in for a tough time of rushing about to find their rooms and where to get food.

Haku took a quick glance at the menu above the bar and told the man behind it he'd like a bowl of udon, house style. He didn't even know what it contained but he just wanted to eat something not fish-related for once. Kiri resided on an island and the most common meat available was always seafood and the main items to export had to do with anything related to seafood. Haku was sick of sushi and had never tried crab or lobster as he was allergic to shellfish.

"I can't believe you're here," said Naruto around another mouthful of noodles. "You're like, a Jonin already. An Anbu even! You're super good and awesome, so why'd you have to come here?"

Yamanaka Ino shook her head and rolled her eyes, but it was done with friendly exasperation instead of annoyance. "It's a power play, Naruto. Kirigakure has been in dire straits for the last decade or so. Everyone in the Elemental Nations knew about the civil war going on, but not the details. And no one offered to help the Rebellion's quest to overthrow the Mizukage, so they all know that things weren't looking too good, and now Kiri is down on its shinobi force."

Naruto merely squinted at her, his confusion obvious.

Uchiha Sasuke picked up where his teammate left off without hesitation. "Basically they didn't promote anyone yet because they want them to all show off in this Exam and prove to the other nations that Kirigakure is still a threat and isn't to be taken lightly. It'll also bring in more customers when they see how reliable Kiri shinobi seem to be."

"Oh. I guess that makes sense. You're definitely getting promoted though, right?" Naruto asked, returning his full attention to Haku, who smiled calmly in response. "I mean, it wouldn't be fair to you when you've done so much and you're so awesome already."

"Mei-sama has said all of us at least deserve the rank of Chunin. Some may receive higher promotion should she feel they deserve it. I am one of those fortunate few."

"Then that's okay. I'm getting promoted by the end of this too! I can feel it! -ttebayo!"

Feeling warm inside, and pleased with their easy camaraderie, Haku nodded. "Of that I have no doubt, Naruto-kun."

Haku was certainly not imagining the hard look Uchiha Sasuke was sending his way, right?

"I am simply not a person who is meant to be alone," Hari remarked easily and without hesitation as she lounged unevenly in her borrowed chair.

Inoichi stared at her over the top of his notebook in which he kept all personal notes of her that he'd decided were important. No one but him saw the notebook and he'd only ever show the Hokage if ordered to. It was private. He actually took the Doctor/Patient confidentiality thing seriously, unlike the people she'd been exposed to before coming to Konoha.

"Like, when I was younger it was super easy to be alone because I was always forced to be alone. And then I got friends, and I began to care, and it became harder. And yet I pulled back when it became necessary, they all separated to the four winds basically to escape the growing terrorism from within our community, and I was alone again. But it wasn't as bad as it could have been. And now I have people again and the moment they're gone, I'm a wreck.

"Perhaps I'm too clingy."

"Or maybe," Inoichi began, "you're a human being, feeling human emotions, and you don't want to be lonely. A common desire among many, I assure you."

There was nothing wrong with wanting companionship no matter the kind. How one went about acquiring it was a completely different situation entirely of course, but it was perfectly normal to not want to be lonely. There were vast differences between being alone and being lonely.

"I'm also a bit worried you know. I have this unfortunate luck on my side that negatively affects everything. When I start to really care about people, they die on me somehow. It's happened to a lot of people and I keep waiting for something horrible to happen because I can never just have something nice for once."

She was so fatalistic. It was concerning and not even because of suicidal tendencies. She wasn't suicidal at all. She was however, a bit superstitious and lumping that together with her supposed bad fortune, and she had a very real fear before her at all times. It reminded him a bit of Tsunade-sama's own issues. But worse.

"Everyone experiences anxiety in some way, shape, or form, Hari. And when you've been through dangerous situations, it isn't unheard of for PTSD to form."

The young woman huffed. "I bawled over my past last week, in front of Kakashi."

That was new.

"He's really awkward around people when they're emotional, but it was okay because he had let me meet his pack and he tried his best to just be there even if he didn't know what to do. It's a lot better than what many people have ever managed for me."

How very interesting. For a moment he cursed doctor/patient confidentiality because he wanted to tell his friends so badly! Then again, Shikaku would probably be able to guess it anyway since he was so damn observant. But Kakashi was opening up emotionally in his own way and it was a massive step in the right direction for him. Deciding to help another with their emotional problems was helping him as well whether he understood it or not.

"I thought I was over this stuff by now," said Hari, obviously feeling grumpy. She folded her arms in a childish manner at pouted at the wall. "I cried and screamed and blew things up years ago so why am I still getting emotional over it all now? It's over and done with. I've accepted it all. I've moved on. nothing can change what has already happened."

"That may be," Inoichi agreed hesitantly, "but the effects will live on in you forever, because they helped shape who you are as of right now."

Green eyes rolled toward the ceiling, but nothing was said in return.

Inoichi was simply glad she'd begun to open up on her own. That was a step in the right direction. No longer avoiding answering questions and being willing to explain herself was a good thing.

"How would you say the foreigners are handling their surroundings thus far?" Mifune asked his personal council which consisted of many elder and younger Samurai and general administrative workers in their village. He wanted to know how things inside his village were going considering all the extra noise they were surrounded by.

"Iwa shinobi are uncomfortable in all the snow. Coming from a land surrounded by earth constantly, it doesn't make this a surprise," said Mirai, a young woman in charge of the Administration Block. "They haven't made any complaints but it's easy to tell by how they interact with the landscape that they don't like it here. They're rather short-tempered."

A chorus of nods filled the room.

"The Konoha shinobi are almost as out of their depth save for a few teams here and there who seem perfectly comfortable, meaning they've most likely prepared special training on how to regulate body temperature with chakra. It isn't surprising that one of these teams is Hatake Kakashi's team."

Yes, even Samurai were familiar with the 'best of the best' in terms of ninja. They had a Bingo Book from every shinobi nation just in case they ever needed to identify a threat. Hatake Kakashi was one of the most expensive bounties in the Elemental Nations, and his statistics had raised even more recently, raising his bounty as well. Almost beyond the ability to pay it even.

They all knew of Sharingan no Kakashi, the ninja prodigy, student of the Yondaime Hokage and one of the best soldiers to ever come from Konoha. He had a Flee On Sight order in every one of his Bingo Book entries.

"Hatake's squad has been seen in the company of two squads from different villages," said Shinra, adjusting his box-like glasses as he looked over the information he'd written out. "The Yondaime Kazekage's children from Sunagakure and Zabuza Momochi's squad from Kirigakure."

Interesting. It seemed implausible that such teams would get along at all, but perhaps there was more involved than they personally were aware of.

Urakaku slid a file across the desk. "Kiri shinobi are all quiet and seem resigned to the weather. Kumo shinobi are pretty much the same. Ame, Kusa, Oto, and Tani shinobi are so few in number that keeping up with them is actually difficult when they all have similar shinobi uniforms compared to the great five nations and their shinobi."

As expected.

"We have a total of 216 teams registered to compete in the Exams and more than half are from the big five," said Okisuke.

That was 648 Genin. Mifune was certain they would see that number cut in half at least by the first Exam's end.

"Any errant actions from our visitors?"

"No, sir. They've been following the rules which I'm honestly surprised by," Okisuke admitted almost begrudgingly with a smattering of agreement from the rest of the room.

"You forget how important this is to them," Mifune told them all. "Shinobi are quick to do battle and declare war and this in a way, is their own method of handling aggressions with each other while preventing another World War from cropping up so soon. It's a warning to all other nations what your people are capable of and a way of telling them to threaten you at their own risk. It is a power play first and foremost."

It was always a power play no matter what it was in life. Power simply held so much control over everyone and everything that many things would always come back to the concept of power and the control it has over men's hearts.

"Keep an eye on everyone of interest. I want to study exactly how shinobi of opposing nations handle being in close quarters outside of diplomatic missions," Mifune told them. "The key players of each village will suffice."

Hari slugged back an entire glass of Firewhiskey. She'd decided to dip into her diminishing stash because she was annoyed. Naruto was off in a country not even on this continent, getting into Merlin knows what, and she was stuck in the village doing boring shite now and then. A lot of paperwork mostly. And only one chance to go to the cinema.

Unless she went out to train, which wasn't an everyday thing, there was nothing to do. Sometimes stuff happened and she had to dedicate time to those pursuits instead, but for the most part, everything was dull. And those other pursuits weren't all that great either.

Such as the Academy having some sort of special day coming up for parents and this meant that none of the orphans had anyone to bring. She didn't like the idea of that, or at least the wording of it. Not every child had a parent or even an adult that looked after them. The general idea of the day was interesting but it also served to exclude certain children and further shove them away from their classmates because they couldn't participate, but they had to go to school anyway or be marked as absent/tardy.

She flicked a hand out, and the kettle lifted off the tray and poured water into her mug. The tea bag unfolded itself from its packet and dipped inside, and an additional wave of the hand saw the water steaming suddenly. She didn't have patience to go and reheat the kettle and then wait for it to warm up on its own.

How was she going to handle a group of kids who would no doubt be sad about having the fact that their classmates had loving family members and they don't, shoved into their faces?

She'd seen things like this before in primary. Vernon had come for Dudley, not Hari of course, and he'd talked about drills and the like. As if his job was interesting. It wasn't and the class had proven that by practically falling asleep on him.

Hari'd gotten beaten for that happening when Vernon insisted that it was her fault that no one listened to him. The dumb reasons he always came up with just so he could lay hands on her or punish her somehow, were pathetic. Sometimes Hari wished she had just left them to face Voldemort and not bothered to get them protection of any sort. Ages ago she would have been horrified at the thought but no longer could she care such abusive pieces of shite.

So what was the right choice in this scenario?

Perhaps she could consult Umino Iruka.


"That is a predicament. I've never considered that before," the man admitted, looking put out by the fact that he'd overlooked a rather glaring issue in his own classroom.

"I suppose we could call it Parental Figures Day. This demonstration has to happen, it's been going on for the past three decades. It gives the children examples of different professions in the shinobi and civilian sides just in case they need it. A parental figure isn't necessarily a parent, just someone a person views in a parental light. Such as you for Naruto."

Hari nodded. It was a much more pleasant wording in her opinion.

"If I was to come in as Aiko and Akari's parental figure, would that be fine?"

"Certainly! You're a figure of interest in the village. You'd have interesting answers for the children I'm certain," Iruka smiled, the scar across the bridge of his nose wrinkling a bit from the action. It was grin she often saw on Naruto's face. He'd picked up a lot from his Iruka-sensei and it was adorable.

"Thanks. This was stressing me out so much."

The man's grin softened. "You're a good guardian and the children are lucky to have you, Potte-hime."

She sighed. Eventually she'd get everyone to drop the bloody 'hime' business.

"Is it me or that Iwa team really glaring holes into my head?" Naruto asked Ino quietly, though not quiet enough for Sasuke to miss it.

The Uchiha's head snapped up, Sharingan activated as he looked around to find the source of Naruto's discomfort. They'd known it could be a possibility that one of the Kumo or Iwa shinobi would recognize Naruto's features. Once their team finally learned about his parents and saw a photo of the Yondaime, it was pretty obvious who Naruto was the son of. No one else in Konoha history had the man's unique coloring. He was an orphan so no one knew where his roots hailed from either.

They couldn't expect everyone to be dunces obviously. And after their last experience with Iwa shinobi and how that whole training mission went, he could understand Naruto's discomfort. Being attacked just because he looked like someone was fucked up. And the method used had been done with intent to torture. Being drawn and quartered was one of the more messed up ways to go.

They'd attacked Naruto's Kage Bunshin simply for looking like the Yondaime Hokage. They had assumed, quite right as well, that he was the son of the Yondaime. For all Team Seven knew, Iwagakure forced their shinobi to commit Namikaze Minato's photo to memory so they could push their hatred for him into the future generations and then gave them the go ahead to attack anyone who had so much as a shred of a similarity to Konoha's legendary Kiiroi Senko.

When his Sharingan alighted upon the team in question, he made extra certain to memorize their attire and choice of weaponry, categorizing the best ways to take each teammate down.

If it was possible, Iwa had made enemies of most shinobi villages save for Kumo. They gone to war with the other big three and had Kage who personally battled the other Kage. Iwa was not known as a very friendly place and Sasuke's experience with them made him dislike them on principle. It probably wasn't fair to judge them all, but if a squad of Jonin illegally entered another country and were perfectly willing to murder a child because he resembled someone they hated, then something had to be messed up about the entire village of Iwagakure. Jonin were supposed to be the most mature shinobi in the ranks. That was the point of being promoted to such a status.

Ino clucked her tongue in disappointment. "Is this going to be something we're going to have to deal with every damn time we run into Iwa shinobi? It's getting very old very fast."

Sasuke scoffed. "You could easily handle the one in the red hakama. He's favoring his left leg over his right despite being a right-sided individual. He has an injury that has long affected his performance, and his chakra is relatively low with no seals on his body. I could take the one with the sword. Kakashi's been training me and applying Sharingan techniques and Raiton Chakra has helped me advance in a timely manner. And Naruto, if it comes down to it, you'll take out the redhead. He has the most chakra but looks to be the least trained."

"Got it," the blond nodded. "Overwhelm and then surge."

A common fighting style for Naruto actually. It worked for him better than it would for anyone else.

Sasuke would absolutely destroy anyone who so much as came at Naruto with intent to kill. He hadn't been able to help the last time it had happened, but Sasuke was stronger now. He was doing better than before. He was capable of going toe to toe with Chunin of Kiri if the Rebellion mission was anything to go by, and that was months ago. He wouldn't let his teammates down this time.

To make certain his dislike was obvious, Sasuke glared at the group across the street, making certain they got his message clearly as he fingered a kunai.

The three stiffened for a second, before glaring right back at him.

At least he could say the Exams were going to be interesting.

"I know you like befriending people, Naruto, but don't try to befriend Iwa shinobi," Ino said in a low aside. "They aren't worth your effort or kindness. You're too good for the likes of them."

"You don't know that. Not all of them are judgmental pricks I'm sure."

Sasuke sighed and turned his attention back to his idiot teammates. "You're too nice for your own good."

"I just try to remain optimistic. After spending so many years being unhappy, I'd rather look at the positives. It's far more conducive to a happier future that way," the blond said, sounding too mature all of a sudden.

"Conducive, nice one," Ino nodded with an impressed grin.

"Yeah! I got that one from Iruka-sensei! -ttebayo!"

"How are things doing today, Tsunade?"

The blonde woman sagged in her seat as the Potta Head entered her office at the hospital. She had a Kage Bunshin stationed in the Hokage's office, so Hari bringing it food would technically be pointless and Tsunade didn't want to waste the girl's resources. Instead, the young woman had enough foresight to know to bring lunch to the hospital.

In her hands was a brown basket that smelled of fresh bread that would most likely still be warm. And she could pinpoint honey, rosemary, and some form of meat. Tsunade hadn't gone into Tracking, but she liked to think her sense of smell was well-honed. Being a medic who had to often combat poison usage made her intimately familiar with all kinds of flora.

"The day has been hell, Hari," she told the young woman. "Heart surgery is never something to take lightly and we had an emergency this morning. Essentially there was a tear in the aorta and it had to be repaired immediately. It's classified as an emergency situation. It happened to the patient on a mission and went undiagnosed officially until they arrived this morning. The surgery is called Aortic Dissection Repair, and a very small percentage of people ever manage to live through it. The shinobi in question seemed to understand something even more grave than their other injuries was afoot and did a patch job of trying to heal their heart personally. They had enough medical training to pinpoint where the issue was and force as much healing as they could into that particular area, prolonging their own life in the process to slow internal bleeding."

The Chunin was brought into the emergency room, her teammates screaming about multiple injuries in the chest cavity. Her hand had been pressed against the center of her sternum, glowing green as she struggled to breathe through the pain of her broken ribs.

It was an impressive feat for one without a license to practice Iryo-Ninjutsu. Whatever she had learned was self-taught and not gleaned from the hospital or any of its Iryo-nin. She'd helped save her own life as she had correctly administered advanced medical healing to herself.

The surgery still took forever though. Thankfully, because they had the benefit of Blood Replenishers from the Potta Clan, the patient hadn't bled out like others would have mid-surgery. But it was still a trying time for all of them. Yet it was a relief when their patient managed to join the mere 5% who managed to make it through the surgery itself.

"Is the patient expected to make a full recovery?" asked Hari as she set up the place settings she'd brought along, on Tsunade's desk.

"From the heart surgery, yes. From the rest of their injuries… perhaps. The heart was the most concerning thing, but the newest round of Iryo-nin are working on the resetting of the bones still. The ribs were a mess the last time I checked. But your Skele-Gro will surely be helpful in the end, so once again, your family has proven why it's so important to us here in Konoha."

Before her, was set an elaborately crafted bento full of sushi. Tsunade didn't often eat sushi, but she did admire Hari's. And instead of sake, or any other kind of alcohol, Hari presented her with a thermos of hot tea.

At least the tea was good. And avoiding alcohol on the job was probably for the best. Not that anyone could really do anything about the Head of the Hospital imbibing liquor on the clock.

"I have some food set aside for Shizune as well."

Shizune's shift would be over in the next few minutes. Hari was always startling when it came to her awareness of time and schedules. It was possible that Shizune had told her of course, but there was just something about how Hari went about things that had Tsunade certain she was just instinctive. Or perhaps her cousin had been helping out with the future.

Tsunade accepted her own bento with a smile, missing the time in her life where she got to have them on the regular. Hari meanwhile, was busy cutting a long loaf of bread into three sections. Bread and sushi. Not exactly a common meal choice, but it worked at the very least. And the bread was indeed warm and Hari had brought along all manner of spread for it. Tsunade chose the persimmon 'jam' because it was homemade and Hari was a great cook.

The office door opened to reveal Shizune, looking haggard and drained, eyes puffy from need of sleep. Her dark eyes lightened considerably when she saw them seated at her shisho's desk. "Finally something different! We only just finished the rest of the surgery on Fujioka-san."

Hari waved the woman forward, shoving the bento and the piece of bread she'd set up, toward her portion of the table. "Take a much needed break and gossip with us."

A chair was retrieved and the three set to enjoying their meal together.

"Do you think they made it to Tetsu No Kuni by now?" Hari asked after a few minutes.

Both medics hummed, but Shizune answered, "Yes. If the ships were created in Yuki no Kuni, they will be far more capable than common ships. They seem to be a very technologically advanced nation and have been sharing their innovation with the world at large."

"Yes," Tsunade agreed. "Other than them, I believe Amegakure is also very advanced, though we don't have many people capable of talking about it. They're very secretive. Jiraiya is actually on a mission there at present and will be using some of those potions of yours to infiltrate the village and get some good intel for us."

The bastard always ended up with the sensitive missions. She hadn't wanted sensei to send him there, but what little information he'd gotten had been too valuable to ignore. Hari supplying their Recon division with an unnaturally large amount of her 'Polyjuice Potion' had been a real help in recent months.

So long as he attuned his chakra accordingly, the disguise wouldn't fall even with the introduction of pain. Even if he was cut into, the disguise wouldn't fall, which was what made the potion so valuable to Konoha now. The Potta Clan would be hailed as geniuses in the future. Their assistance in the various shinobi arts and trades would never be forgotten or overlooked.

"I hope Ero Sennin's okay," said Hari. "He annoys me sometimes, but he's a good bloke overall."

Tsunade waved off her concern. "That idiot is far too persistent to die on such a mission. He'd laugh in Death's face if he could."

For some reason her attempts are reassuring the young woman worked, leaving her with an amused grin that was full of understanding Tsunade didn't comprehend.

"They've been monitoring us closely," observed Kurenai as she reclined in the room several of the Konoha Jonin were sharing. "I can't tell if it's just because they don't trust us to behave, or it's because they're trying to dissect the shinobi around them."

"Yes," Kakashi chose to reply. It was most likely a mix of the two reasons. Samurai avoided ninja like they were a plague. They could barely tolerate the shinobi way of life, so they didn't expose themselves to shinobi all that often. This would be the perfect opportunity to study the Five Great Shinobi Nations at once and in relatively close quarters.

Asuma hummed around a senbon. Smoking was not allowed in the building, but he hadn't wanted to stand outside in the cold, so he has to satisfy his oral fixation some other way. Too bad Genma wasn't around to see it. "Good thing I came prepared."

He proceeded to pull a scroll out of his pouch and released a shogi board from it. "Who am I beating today?" he asked, tone cocky.

And because he felt like being an asshole, Kakashi plopped down in front of his friend of many years, nose still shoved in his recent copy of Icha Icha. "It'll be a pleasure to defeat you," he said pleasantly. The ratio of wins to losses against Asuma was in Kakashi's favor. And Kakashi never played a game where he wasn't reading Icha Icha at the same time. If he put all of his attention on the game itself, Asuma would never win. But playing with a disadvantage was a more fun challenge and it annoyed Asuma to not be taken seriously.

Kakashi made a living as a troll and he loved it.

The unimpressed look the Sandaime's son sent him, made Kakashi grin beneath his mask. "Something the matter, Asuma-kun?" Kakashi asked, using the very voice and address the brunet had always hated when growing up. Fangirls screaming it at him had been a real turn off. As such, his friends never ceased ribbing him over it even to this day.

"I simply wanted to play a nice, rousing game with Kurenai, Koinu-kun."

Kakashi flicked the other shinobi's nose before he could even process what had happened. "Only Hari gets the privilege of using that nickname. You'll have to use your lacking imagination and come up with something different."

"Oooh!" Anko appeared in the doorway then, hands full of baskets of food to share. She was beaming in a way that screamed Victory. "Something extra special between you both, huh? Sounds kinky to me!"

He sighed, willing away the flush that seemed intent upon coloring his face. He would not give her the pleasure of seeing it. "Why must you take everything to the sexual level?"

"Because I have to be away from my girlfriend and if interfering in the love lives of my best friends is the best way to get some good entertainment, then damn skippy I'm doin' it! The twerps are off exploring and aren't around for me to mess with so you'll have to do."

There wasn't a love life for her to interfere in when it came to Kakashi. He and Hari were just friends. Just a grown man of decent physical attractiveness, being friends with one of the most uniquely beautiful people he'd ever met that he constantly was reminded of his attraction toward. That was it. Nothing special about it. Nothing special would come out of it either. At least he had no plans to make anything special out of it.

Anko's baskets ended up being filled with, and it wasn't very difficult to guess if someone knew her well enough really, dango. Just dozens upon dozens of packages of dango sticks. "They don't have a dango specific shop or anything in the town central, so I had to clean out three mini-marts to get all this shit, so be grateful and no one touch the green tea ones or I will skewer you alive so well, Genma would shit himself."

She proceeded to pile up all the packages she wanted for herself - fifteen of them to be precise - and pushed the baskets toward Kakashi. He contemplated the baskets for a moment, before picking out two packages of Hanami and passed the baskets behind him to Kurenai who was lounging on one of the beds. Yes, the Samurai equipped the rooms with actual beds and not futon. To be honest, he felt a little spoiled by it.

Asuma finally made his first move after what felt like forever waiting for him, and Kakashi too moved a split second after, disappearing dango with finesse while reading his porn without blinking. His nonchalance was already getting to his opponent. Asuma was so easy to mess with and it would never get old. He wasn't explosive with his frustration like Gai was, but it was still humorous to watch him lose his shit.

Shinobi life was stressful and full of darkness and sorrow. They had to find amusement somewhere in a controlled manner that didn't harm others. This was simply Kakashi's chosen method of coping. Far healthier than some of the other coping methods he'd been witness to.

Click. Clack. Click. Clack. The pieces went down in rapid succession for the first few minutes. Kakashi went through sixteen pages of reading and polished off the rest of his dango in that time span.

Finally, they came to the point where true strategy finally came into play. Where Asuma had to stare at the board in contemplation and plan the possibilities from his possible moves. Kakashi, who had always been quicker on the uptake than his peers, had already categorized the next dozen moves and the dozens of consequences of those moves, which lead to even more consequences that he'd already worked out.

"You should totally teach Hari how to play this," said Kurenai from behind his right shoulder. She was looking at the board and seeing just how quickly Asuma was getting played and he didn't even realize it.

Anko groaned. "She doesn't seem the type to be into this crap. It's so much sitting and staring and that shit's boring."

"It's mentally stimulating," countered Asuma as he finally chose to move a piece exactly where Kakashi wanted him to.

A scoff was the kunoichi's response. "I can think of a ton of things that I'd consider to be 'mentally stimulating' and shogi sure as hell doesn't fit on the list."

"That's because shogi is for those of a higher mental aptitude, Anko," Kakashi teased, flipping a page and moving a piece at the same time. He also easily caught the kunai she'd thrown his way, as opposed to leaning back and allowing it to embed itself into the wall. There were no jutsu for fixing walls and he didn't want to make Konoha look any worse in the eyes of Tetsu no Kuni.

"Mah! Such rudeness, attacking a comrade."

"Fuck off."

Kakashi loved pissing people off. It was practically his calling!

"We have a problem."

Obito's attention was caught instantly the moment Zetsu appeared, seemingly sprouting right out of the ground, the black and white halves stark against one another and joint mouths spread in a grotesque grin that actually appeared to be frowning.

On the other side of the room, Pein straightened, his Rinnegan locking onto Zetsu's position instantly. The bright purple color of his eyes and the black rings that overlapped the minuscule pupils were unnerving. "And what could possibly be so bad that it would have you so alarmed?" he asked, voice deep and resonating. It was one thing Obito could respect. The ability to command wasn't an easy one and many people weren't capable of it, but Nagato, as Pein, surely managed. He sounded like someone who should be followed.

"Amegakure has been invaded by Jiraiya of the Sannin on a secret mission to find the headquarters for Akatsuki."

Immediately, both Obito and Pein were alarmed. How was it possible? The entire village was under constant surveillance! They would have known about him coming anywhere near the village!

"Upon a little investigating in Konoha, we found out that Sandaime Hokage, Sarutobi Hiruzen sent his former student on a reconnaissance mission here, following a lead given to him elsewhere. And he used means provided by the new Potta Clan of Konoha, to get in undetected. When we tried acquiring the same means, we were unable to cross whatever barrier was set up to protect the items in question."

Potta Clan. Meaning that Potta Hari, who seemed to be involved in everything in Konoha these days, was also involved somehow. Her clan's contribution to the village gave them a spying technique so useful it couldn't be detected? And now Ame, formerly heavily protected fortress that it was, was now potentially revealed to all enemies should Konoha feel generous enough to share its newfound knowledge with anyone else.

Obito did not like the way things were going.

"Hinata, are you memorizing the different streets?" Sakura asked as she looked around the restaurant their team was seated in. Her fur-covered clothes were warm because it was warm indoors, making her almost regret wearing them at all. But outside it was snowing and she knew the fur would be needed eventually. She was cold just thinking about all that snow.

Her teammates had wanted to get food first. Or rather Choji was hungry like he always was, and the girls went along with him out of curiosity over Tetsu no Kuni's casual fare. Hinata's Byakugan had been activated for half an hour as she eerily stared ahead while her near-360 vision let her get acquainted with their surroundings. If anything, she'd be able to lead them around if something unfortunate happened at any time while they were in the village.

The Hyuga Heiress hummed her agreement. "I can see Rock Lee in Building B if you feel like visiting him, Sakura," she said, voice teasing even as her near-stoic expression didn't change in the least.

Sakura's face tinted pink like her battle dress. "I don't know what you're talking about, Hinata."

"You have a crush on him because he is a patient Taijutsu instructor but gets fired up like you do and encourages you to break things with him," Choji clarified around his chopsticks.

A scoff was her response.

"That wasn't a disagreement!" he sang around a mouthful of pork.

"Eat your damn food before I make it so you can only use a straw for the next month." As a medic-in-training she could follow up with that threat too.

Hinata giggled a bit as the veins protruding around her eyes receded and she blinked for the first time in thirty-three minutes and seventeen seconds. It was creepy but also cool in a way.

"I hate you both," Sakura groused, taking up her tea to hide her face behind the cup.

Choji continued shoveling another… something that was wrapped around a bit of meat and then fried three times, into his mouth, a grin on his face the whole time.

Sakura didn't care which room Lee was in. Eventually he would somehow find her no matter what. He was just that good at spotting people he liked. She didn't have to worry at all. And she didn't have a crush on him either! Sakura was too busy for crushes now! She was a full-fledged kunoichi and future Chunin, dammit!

Wait a minute. "Hinata, you said he was in his room, which is in a building half a mile down the main street. Were you looking into every building along the way?"

The other girl hummed.

"And has that special Dojutsu of yours ever possibly given you a front row seat to events that are considered too adult for us young folk to be faced with according to our parents?"

Instantly, Hinata's face went hot pink. Like it did whenever she thought about Naruto, or Naruto looked at her, or Naruto spoke to her. The embarrassment was thick around their table as the girl 'eeped' and looking down at her food which had remained untouched until now.

Well then. All those times Sakura had lamented over not having a Dojutsu, ended up being ridiculous and unnecessary. There were some consequences in having near-360, X-Ray vision.

"So what exactly is the game plan for tomorrow?" asked Ino as she lounged on their bed. Yes, the whole team was sharing the big ass king bed that came with their room. Naruto had insisted upon sleeping on the sofa, but then Sasuke insisted on joining him, and Ino eventually got annoyed with their bickering and told both that they'd all share or else. She'd fingered her sai meaningfully while doing so, just to get the point across.

They were unsurprisingly agreeable after that.

Since the team had shared sleeping bags before, this wasn't such a big deal. They had come too far for this to be what unnerved anyone. Ino had seen Naruto's naked behind before, and yes, his skin was the same shade everywhere, it wasn't a really a tan. There wasn't much more that could bring them any closer. She was pretty sure one of them had gotten a eyeful of her young and developing body and at the time it had been a horrifying thing to think of but now she didn't care. Too many actually important things to worry about now.

"We don't let anyone who doesn't know us already, in on the truth about our skill sets," said Sasuke as he flicked at a strand of Naruto's spiky, blond hair. The blond playfully glared up at him, but he wasn't paying attention. "That means I won't be using Kenjutsu, anything beyond a couple Katon jutsu, or the Sharingan if I can help it. Naruto is to not use his Chakram, Summons, Rasengan anything, fuzzy buddy, or Fuinjutsu. And you won't be doing any Iryo-Ninjutsu, Elemental jutsu, or mental jutsu. Unlike the tournament matches, we keep under the radar as much as possible and then surprise everyone with everything we've got in the Third Exam."

She liked the idea of that. It would give future opponents less of a chance to prepare for a match against anyone on Team Seven. Having surprise on their side was important in any scenario. Being underestimated used to be really annoying, but now she fully understood what a boon it was and intended to use it to her advantage as much as possible now.

"I hope the first two exams don't take forever, I wanna go and kick some ass! -ttebayo!"

Sasuke flicked the blond's forehead. "That won't happen any time soon. There's a month of time between the Second and Third Exams. Enough to let everyone plan for their possible opponents."

"The hell are we gonna do in that time frame? Can Kakashi-sensei really teach all three of us in so little time?"

"He's been doing it for months," said Ino with a shrug. "Even managed it during the Rebellion mission."

Sasuke was nodding along. "Though I think Itachi wants to… teach me some more about the Sharingan during that time frame. And Ino's dad wants to teach her more about their family's Hiden techniques."

"What about me?" the youngest member of their team demanded.

"You have a Sannin godfather on your side."

"Oh yeah! But do you think he'll be around for a month to train?"

"Of that I have no doubt. He wouldn't leave you without even a small bit of help."

Naruto grinned and burrowed further into the sofa and subsequently, Sasuke's lap here he'd been resting his head. "Even though he's a great, big pervert, he's a pretty awesome guy. And nee-chan seems to finally like him now."

"Hari-chan can hold a grudge like no one's business," commented Ino.

"Yeah. She's kind of terrifying like that. But it was on my behalf, so I'm more touched than anything else."

Naruto deserved to have someone like that in his life. Ino was glad they had found one another, however it had happened.

The morning the First Exam was to take place, the Genin were all instructed to meet up in the first floor of the Administration Building which was located at the very center of the village. It was big and red, standing out against the bright white snow and darkish, stormy sky above them. There was literally no way to mistake it for anything else and if someone got lost... why were they even a shinobi in the first place if they were that inept?

The teams had until noon to make it to the specified room, otherwise they could not enter. No one had gotten lost and everyone ended up making it, filling the room with dead silent children and young adults all waiting for some kind of notice over what was going to happen to them.

And that was when Mifune, the leader of the secret village, stepped into the room with his right and left-hand men. As rehearsed, there was a considerable distance between them and the Genin.

"Good afternoon," he told the gathered shinobi. Most remained silent, but a few rumbled a greeting in return and a boy in orange waved madly, a wide grin on his face. "My name is Mifune, and it is by my allowance that you are taking the Chunin Exams here. Tetsu no Kuni is neutral and has always been neutral in the face of the other nations. We are not shinobi and do not look favorably upon the practices of shinobi, however we understand the necessity of the Chunin Exams, and have agreed to monitor this particular one."

No one spoke. Not even a single cough or a sniff, all simply too fixated on his words to say anything. There was a tenseness to the air that got thicker and thicker by the second.

"In this first Exam, you will all be faced with the same duty in a Team Exam. Your objective is to gain entrance into the Second Exam, and it's only by completing a certain number of steps together that you can do that, so listen carefully and commit each word I say to memory. You can only fail or pass as a team."

The shinobi all straightened to attention once it became obvious that things were going to get serious.

Mifune gave the signal nod, and Jonin shinobi flooded the room, passing off plain, white boxes to their squads. The boxes were not tampered with as promised if they wanted their team to remain in the Exams and not bring shame upon their village. The value of a reputation was something all shinobi seemed to understand so the threat had worked.

"As you see, your sensei has handed you a box. Each box contains three vials, each vial contains three scrolls with a different piece of information inscribed thereon. The only way you are allowed to get the scrolls is through consuming the contents of one of the vials. No matter what happens, someone must drink what is inside of the vials. And only one vial from each team may be consumed, by only one person. Each vial contains the same information so it doesn't really matter which you choose in that regard."

The Genin began to murmur between themselves as they peered into their boxes in curiosity.

"The green vial is a poison, the red and blue vials are the antidote," Mifune told them plainly.

Confused faces all around.

"The antidote must be taken in a certain order after taking the poison otherwise it will turn and attack the body as the poison it is meant to cure will. So to properly counter the effects, it would be green, red, and then blue in order to stop the poison entirely."

Protests finally erupted, but the Iwa shinobi were not at the forefront. In fact, it was the Kusa shinobi with only a few teams, that made the most noise out of the gathered Genin.

"That isn't very Samurai of you!" someone yelled.

"We observed shinobi practices to compile the requirements for these Exams," was Mifune's simple answer accompanied by a shrug.

Eventually the bustle all died down, allowing him to continue.

"You will only have an hour to accomplish this task. The scrolls are necessary to be allowed entrance into the next Exam's area. If you don't have them, you will be disqualified. There is one scroll for each team member. You may not destroy the box nor the vials either or you will be disqualified. When finished, you will present yourself before me and we will determine whether you move to Room A or Room B. Both rooms are the same, we simply don't have another room big enough to fit so many of you at once. Your hour begins now."

And… as instructed by Mifune, the Jonin sensei, standing at the very back of the room and out of their students' eye-line, put their hands together and placed a detailed Genjutsu he'd described to them, over the room. Those who didn't manage to free themselves by the end of the hour would fail.

He was curious to see the reactions once the hour was up.

Team Seven huddled together and stared down at the open box in Ino's hands. It was a devious plan, making it so someone would be poisoned no matter what they did. Only one vial could be consumed and it didn't matter which because if not taken in the proper order, then they all did the same thing basically. Though they weren't told what exactly the poison would do, which was a big problem too. And there was no time for Ino to set up a station and experiment.

Sasuke felt a tingle and looked up, noticing several blank faces and others not so blank. Genjutsu.

He quickly tapped Ino and Naruto to snap them out of it, but motioned for them to remain quiet as he quickly signed, Genjutsu.

They nodded in understanding and returned their focus back to the vials. Sasuke's mind replayed what the Samurai leader had said.

'Someone must drink' had been what Mifune said. He didn't say, 'by one of your team'.

That meant they could feed a vial to another person. And nothing said anything about taking another's vial either. The thought of poisoning someone all for a promotion didn't make him feel good, but there were enough under Genjutsu for some to not notice their vials going missing until it was too late. So he'd take his team's green vial, plus a red and a blue from two other teams to lessen the number who would move forward, and force someone else to go through all three so they didn't die if that was what the poison did at all.

Placing a finger to his lips to show them that silence was necessary, he took up the green vial and surveyed the area for nearby teams who were open. Itachi had taught him how to layer on Genjutsu with the Sharingan, so he knew how to get through this quickly and quietly.

His target ended up being the rude ass Iwa team that had been giving Naruto the stink eye the other day. While he didn't like them, he wasn't so low as to simply kill them for no reason. They hadn't really done anything truly offensive yet, and now they weren't going to. He swiftly and effortlessly stole the vials he needed from two other teams and made his way over, slinking through the groups between him and his prey.

Sasuke uncorked the vials and made eye contact with the redhead who looked to be the leader. The Sharingan's effect took hold, mirroring the three tomoe in the other's eyes. Sasuke handed over the green vial first and waited for the teen to consume it. His body was immediately wracked with spasms and Sasuke forced the red and then blue vials down his throat in quick succession.

Once he determined that the poison had been negated, he burned the red and blue vials' scrolls with his Katon Chakra and headed back to his own group.

Naruto and Ino were gaping at him as he presented them with their vial and scrolls.

Badass, Naruto signed in appreciation, making Sasuke flush a bit. For no obvious reason.

Looking at the scroll, they read the instructions. 'Present this to an official in charge of the second Exam when the Exam is set to begin, and you will be allowed entry.'

The made their way toward Mifune, the first team to do so.

"Give me your scrolls" the man ordered, hand outstretched.

Sasuke's eyes narrowed. The First Exams hadn't finished yet. So the Second Exam could not officially begin.


"Then you will go into Room B and await further instruction."

Without even saying a word, he gestured to Room B and his teammates followed him without question. The scrolls said to give it to an official when the Second Exam began. He was doing the right thing.

Getting through the Exam had been easy. Genjutsu did not work on Gaara, and Temari and Kankuro were good at deflecting it altogether. Poisons also didn't work on Gaara, so him taking the poison had absolutely no effect whatsoever. It also saved Kankuro from having to try and make his own antidote in so little time. He was decent at concocting poisons, but not anywhere near a genius yet.

His siblings were horrified when he'd taken up the main poison and drank it in a single gulp. He felt a small twinge of pain, but then the familiar burning of Shukaku's chakra filled him, and he knew it wouldn't work as it was intended to.

From what he'd observed of Naruto's team, the blond did not know that poison didn't work on Jinchuuriki because the Bijuu inside them had incredibly deadly chakra and would burn it out of their systems quickly. He felt like that piece of information should be shared as soon as possible.

Their team ended up joining Naruto's soon enough, much to the blond's excitement. Gaara made certain to relay the information he had instantly.

"It never said a member of our team had to consume it, just that it must be consumed," Chojuro pointed out, shifting his glasses somewhat nervously.

Haku smiled calmly and took up the necessary vial. "Give me a moment."

His target ended up being an Iwa team, simply because they were known to be quite hotheaded, which was ironic since they weren't even from Hi no Kuni. And the Konoha shinobi were very calm in response actually.

Also, Iwagakure had refuse to aid the Kiri Rebellion despite having former alliances with Kiri in the past. Mei-sama was very displeased with the village as a whole and wanted their displeasure to be obvious and unavoidable.

On the surface, their only allies in this exam were Konoha. That was how it had been during the war, and so that was how it would be in the Exams. Mei-sama had ordered them to leave any Konoha shinobi alone as payment for Konoha's assistance. Until a part where they ended up in one on one battles, Konoha was to be aided at all costs.

And it was just so fortunate that Iwa shinobi were glaring heavily at Naruto's team, making them a threat that should be expunged. Haku did not like people threatening his friends. Now that he had people who were precious to him, he had vowed to keep them safe.

Still, even if he wasn't fond of Iwa as a whole, Haku wasn't cruel. He wouldn't kill anyone when lethal force wasn't even necessary. Haku didn't like violence all that much and preferred things to be handled as peacefully as they could be.

So no, Iwagakure was not suddenly short three of their shinobi.

Chojuro gave him a shaky smile when he returned to their team with the necessary scrolls in hand. "Do you think they did something to the scrolls to keep them from getting wet?"

"Probably Fuinjutsu."

Sealing could do anything and had more applications than he could even think of.

In no time at all, their team joined the room Naruto's team had gone in. The blond welcomed them with a mad wave and an excited air. Other shinobi were treating the Exams like they were some kind of life or death mission. Stone-faced and callous in the face of whatever was to come. Naruto treated it like some kind of journey of discovery.

How someone could remain so positive even in times of trials, Haku would never understand, but he liked the boy's attitude. Now if only he could understand why Uchiha Sasuke looked like he'd swallowed a particularly tart lemon whenever Naruto looked away from him.

Karin huffed a laugh as she'd finally had enough time to consider the directions they'd been given and the possibly meanings therein. "I know exactly how to separate this from my skin," she said, holding up the vial with the poison. "It's a medical technique. Either of you got shinobi oil on hand to make this a bit easier on me?"

Shin nodded and pulled out a small container he often kept attached to his hip. She'd never bothered to ask about it before since he'd always carried it. Karin took a quick swig to coat her mouth, and then popped off the cork of the green vial. From the scent filling her nostrils and mouth, she could tell it attacked the muscles and inflicted intense amounts of pain and spasming. Probably a Hellebore base to start off with and then building upon that to make it worse.

She pooled her chakra into her mouth, mixing it with the oil to make certain nothing of the poison would touch any part of her body and therefore couldn't seep inside upon contact. It was one of those unavoidably deadly kinds that would be absorbed through skin and eyes if it was made into a gas, so a mask would just be pointless.

The poison wasn't swallowed so much as it was swirled around in her mouth and the chakra and oil surrounded it in a protective bubble that began to slide down her esophagus. She guided it along with her chakra, careful on how she moved it through the upper and lower esophageal sphincters. Having such exact control over her own bodily functions was something she'd worked years on.

This maneuver was a self-care kind for Iryo-Nin and poison specialists. Sometimes the two went hand in hand. It was best to know how to handle these sort of things and took intense chakra control, and muscle control to manage. Karin had been training as a medic for a long time against her will, and only recently because she desired to put her gathered knowledge to good use. She knew this technique very well.

Once she felt the bubble reach her stomach, she kept it in place and gestured for them to move along with their scrolls. They had limited time before the bile would destroy the oil coating entirely, so they had to move quickly.

When they ended up joining Team Seven in Room B, and the door closed, Karin finally deemed it safe to stop.

She put her hand out to keep everyone at a distance and then tilted her head back so her throat made a straight line. Less chance of obstruction that way. The bubble was then forced back up the esophagus and through both sphincters and back into her mouth where her taste buds were assaulted with the taste of bile. But it was either bile flavor that would last a few minutes, or excruciating pain by poison that could last a few hours if not days if it wasn't immediately seen to. So she'd take it and deal.

Rummaging through her bag, she found an empty bottle and promptly spit out the poison, which when mixed with the brown of the oil, turned a murky green color.

There were a few seconds of silence before Naruto said, "That was badass! -ttebayo!"

Karin flushed and smiled. Being an Iryo-Nin was not a waste of her potential. It was nice to have that proven now and then.

"Thanks, Naruto. It's an advanced technique and takes a lot of effort to work through but it was the best I could think of at the time, so I went with it."

"Will I get to learn that?" asked Ino, looking damn near starstruck.

"After you pass Level 10 and can be trusted to have enough control to do it, yes."

"Awesome," the blonde whispered in awe.

"We got beat by Konoha of all villages, hurry up!" Karui hissed to Omoi who was still busy trying to decide whether he should make an Iwa Bunshin or a Mizu Bunshin to deal with the poison business.

"It doesn't matter which one you make, just make it and the drink the damn poison!"

"But what if i-"

"Just do it!"

An hour passed a lot faster than any of them expected it would. One by one, Genin would enter the room with them, but sometimes they weren't even in groups of three as teams. Some came in alone, without teammates. And always, they would be holding a scroll in their hand.

When the time finally was up, Mifune entered the room and cleared his throat. "I specified that this is a Team Exam, to be passed together. You can only pass if your team is together at the very end. If your team members ended up split between both rooms, then every member of that team is disqualified."

"WHAT?!" a blue-haired girl from Kusa demanded, looking ready to split hairs with her katana. She'd come in alone, looking surly the entire time as she stood off in a corner by herself.

"Furthermore, it is specified on your scrolls that they can only be given to an official of the Second Exam in order to gain entrance to said Exam. This Exam was not pronounced as over and was still continuing. If any member of your team gave me their scroll outside, the whole team is disqualified. It behooves you to pay attention to even minor details. A lesson I'm certain will benefit you in the future.

"If your whole team is not in this room, please exit through the door you came in, and thank you for participating. Your sensei will be awaiting you. Everyone already outside that door failed and will be going home."

The room cleared of excess ninja quickly, leaving, from what Mifune could see, fifty-seven teams left. Out of 200+ that was a considerable drop. Forty-seven teams in total hadn't even managed to free themselves from the Genjutsu. That didn't look very good on the Shinobi villages as a whole.

So far, the standing had Konoha with 23 teams, Iwa with 9 teams, Kumo and Kiri with 7 teams each, Taki with 3 teams, Hoshi with 2 teams, and Suna, Ame, Oto, Tani, Yuki, and Kusa with 1 team each.

"Congratulations to those remaining, for passing the First Exam. You've proven that you understand the details of the instructions given to you even when there seem to be impossible odds weighed against you."

He'd personally taken note of the Uchiha boy's desire to not leave his victim poisoned. He went, did the job he was supposed to without harming his own teammates, and had enough kindness in his heart to make certain the Iwa shinobi, his natural enemy based on their opposing history, didn't suffer for too long. There had been no rules that said death wasn't allowed after all. It was something worthy of note.

Others demonstrated extraordinary means to move on in the Exam, but the kindness was what impressed Mifune the most.

It gave him hope that shinobi weren't as dishonorable as they always seemed to be. That they could indeed be trusted.

"You will return here tomorrow and present your scrolls to the official in charge of the gate with same color strip as your scrolls. Only then will you be allowed entrance. Have a nice evening."

"That was a lot easier than I thought it would be," Naruto said the moment they were freed from the building. His arms were folded behind his head as they walked. "I was expecting something like a written test and I was nearing a mild panic from it."

Every knew that written exams were not Naruto's specialty. Ever. Even when he managed to graduate middle of the class after drastically improving his overall scores. He just wasn't that kind of learner. They were the bane of his young existence.

"I'd heard it was supposed to be a psychologically challenging exam," Ino told them. "But that didn't feel like it at all."

"I think it was in a way. A lot of the details were seemingly inconsequential. For those of us who noticed them just fine, we were okay, but I'm certain the rest who failed all the steps weren't having such a good time. I broke the Genjutsu before any of us could see what it was supposed to show us, so for all we know it was a bad one," Sasuke said.

And that was true. Naruto was also really terrible at noticing Genjutsu. It was his weakest skill with a literal 0 while everything else was at least a 2 or 3. If he realized he was caught in an illusion, he knew how to cancel it, but beyond that he was hopeless. Naruto sucked at realizing and would have been one of the idiots trapped if Sasuke's eyes weren't so fancy.

"What was your First Exam like, Kakashi-sensei?" Ino asked, sending the quiet man an expectant look.

"A written exam."


"That was basically a front so the officials could see us cheat without getting caught and then determine if we were willing to risk it all for the sake of the mission by taking the final question which would supposedly leave us Genin forever if we failed it."

Ino nodded. "Now that is psychological horror. This one seemed kind of pointless."

Kakashi closed his Icha Icha. "There was a point and it was to determine how good each Genin was at the most basic of shinobi skills, which is paying attention and planning. Many shinobi fail in missions for failing to take in details around them. That includes interpreting the instructions correctly and then dispelling the subtle Genjutsu. In a similar scenario like that on a real mission, the way Sasuke handled it would have saved all of your lives and gotten you back home. Karin's method was also very advanced and would have saved her own life on such a mission should she have gotten captured by the enemy."

That made more sense actually. And Samurai were different than Shinobi. They had different values and tended to believe that Shinobi held no honor or respect for other living beings. So making the aim of their First Exam different from how a ninja village would handle it, made perfect sense.

On the Shinobi side it sounded like it was more about personal gain and finishing the mission no matter what happened to you. On the Samurai side it seemed more like keeping your comrades alive was more important in the long run.

He actually really liked that and he could tell just by looking at Kakashi, that he liked it too, even if he wouldn't say it aloud.

"I have returned!"

Tsunade glared at him from her seat behind the Hokage desk. "You fucking asshole. You got out of this and I hate you for it."

Jiraiya was given pause as he took in everything. The interior of the office had changed a bit. Enough for a cabinet to be installed inside and he was certain it contained all amount of liquor Tsunade could get her addicted hands on. It even smelled of sake to a small degree.

There was now a rug beneath the old desk, which gave the room a bit more life with it's cobalt and cream stripes. A few wall scrolls that matched were now hanging up. He was surprised she hadn't made everything green, considering how often she wore the color.

"Sensei finally gave you the hat?" Meaning Jiraiya didn't have to hear about becoming the Hokage anymore? Finally? After so many years of trying to avoid the topic entirely he was free of it?

"Not exactly," the woman grumbled. "He practically split it in half between the Hatake gaki and I and since he's not in the village, I'm getting acquainted with the duties personally. And I'm just a Kage Bunshin. Boss is back at the hospital dealing with training the newest medical course pursuers."

His jaw dropped and he wasn't sure which part shocked him more. He ended up asking, "Who came up with the idea to use Kage Bunshin?" And how come it had taken this long for the idea to come about?

"Hatake Kakashi," she growled in a familiar tone that said someone was going to lose a limb. "And when he gets back and his team becomes Chunin, we'll both be officially announced as joint Kage of Konoha and we can split up this shit job between us. The fucking paperwork never ends! I finish shit and someone comes in with a new stack of shit! And half of it is ludicrous and shouldn't need my attention in the first place!"

For once Jiraiya was super glad that he had a job as a Spymaster, otherwise he would have to be doing what Tsunade was doing now and then. And sensei had thought of a good way to split the responsibilities two ways and if Jiraiya had been in Konoha, no doubt the man would have split it three ways just be an asshole. And then he would also be trapped with paperwork. No, he did not envy Tsunade in the least.

"Well I can at least tell you that I've collected some valuable information about Amegakure and the terrorist cell known as Akatsuki. More than we could have hoped for when going into this mission."

Her eyes narrowed at the name and she waved him forward while also signing for the Anbu to extricate themselves from the room until five o'clock. The privacy seals activated and then they were alone. Too bad it wasn't for fun reasons.

"This is the group after the Jinchuuriki, yes?" Tsunade asked as she removed two large bottles of sake from the desk and passed one over. She was a Kage Bunshin but that didn't mean she wouldn't partake in her vices.

He accepted the offering, deciding that it was just what he needed. "Yes. They are using Amegakure as their headquarters even though the members technically don't reside there. Only two seem to perpetually spend their time in the village."

His face slumped a bit at the thought, and Tsunade caught it.

"What happened?"

He sighed. "Some time ago, Akatsuki formed for a completely different purpose. And it was through the actions of Hanzo and Danzo collectively, as well as what seem to be outside manipulations, that twisted the original purpose. Or maybe their purpose is still the same and they're going about seeing it through differently?"

Jiraiya wasn't exactly sure how to describe what he'd learned.

They'd extracted much information from Danzo when he was alive. His brain was still being studied actually. And his manipulations of the shinobi world as a whole extend back decades. Back to their days before becoming the Sannin. There were just so many layers to sift through when it came to him.

"It seems the two Akatsuki leaders in the village are called Pein and Konan, and Konan is the same one from all those years ago. And Pein resembles Yahiko but with Nagato's Rinnegan."

Tsunade's hold on her sake slackened, and the bottle dropped to the desk and rolled off. Neither bothered to catch it as the glass was too thick to break from such a fall.

"Your former students run a terrorist organization?"

"It seems that way," he reluctantly admitted, taking a swig of sake to sooth his tense muscles and mild discomfort. "Ame is thriving under their direction. Better in the past two decades specifically, and the inhabitants owe this success to Pein-sama and Konan-sama. Near worshipful of them even."

"Did you find out why they want all the Bijuu?"

"No, but I can guess from what I know. If the rest of the countries don't have access to creatures capable of ultimate destruction, they can then hold them over the heads of the rest of the shinobi nations. Theoretically a threat of that magnitude could stop all fighting and bring peace. Which is obviously a false dream and not how true peace could ever be obtained. I'm not certain all the members of the group understand that this is their purpose either. Itachi and Kisame surely didn't know enough even with how long they'd been in the group."

Orochimaru was certainly not looking to bring peace to the world in any capacity. He'd joined the group probably in his quest to obtain more Jutsu and become all-powerful. He probably hadn't even realized what he was signing up for in the end. He'd left for personal reasons too.

Jiraiya reached into his clothes and retrieved a scroll he'd labored over. "I mapped out the entire village of Ame over the week I was there recently. I know the names of all the merchants and the Chunin level and below shinobi. Hari-hime's Polyjuice really helped on this mission." He was the first person to successfully invade the village in the past two decades, and all because of a concoction made by a special clan that was generously passed on by its Head.

He handed over the map he'd painstakingly sketched and took another drink of sake to loosen himself up some more.

That was the most information that any other shinobi nation had ever managed to get on Ame. Jiraiya had basically hit a goldmine thanks to Hari's potion. And because only Hari and her cousin and anyone blood related to them could ever create those potions, and it would take a genius not in the know to figure that out, there was no true fear that other nations could ever get their hands on such a creation. Konoha was the farthest ahead and no one even knew it.

"Impressive," Tsunade murmured as she looked the map over, taking in the tallest buildings and their descriptions. "Would have been useful to have all this back in the great war, huh?"

"Don't I know it. But at least we have this information now."

That was better than having nothing at all.

The Sage stood, keeping the sake in hand. "I'm going to go and bother Hari-hime now. She's bound to be all bored and lonely now that most of her friends are all in Tetsu no Kuni. I could keep her company," he said with a suggestive brow waggle.

Tsunade pretended to gag and waved him out of the office, the privacy seals dissolving the instant he slipped out the window.

Hari's head was bobbing as she sang along to the music in her head. It was nice to relax when cooking and she couldn't help but pull out a classic from her long memory. "I see a little silhouetto of a man, scaramouch, scaramouch will you do the Fandango? Thunderbolt and lightning, very, very frightening, me! Gallileo, Gallileo, Gallileo, Gallileo, Gallileo, figaro, magnificoooooooooo!"

"Your voice is off pitch."

She 'eeped' far louder than she would ever admit to, and her spatula went flying. Thankfully, Jiraiya's super ninja reflexes from hell managed to catch it before it hit the ground.

"And your reflexes aren't so great either," the man observed with a roguish grin.

Hari was filled with the urge to smack him with the very spatula he'd saved, but then she'd have to wash it and didn't feel like walking four steps toward the sink just to do it. "Ever heard of a bloody door?" she demanded, gesturing to the wooden contraption which just as easily lead to the kitchen, as the window did.

"Doors are for people without imagination."

At least nine people had told her a variation of that line before. It had to be some kind of secret ninja code. It would explain why all of them, spanning various ages and rankings, would say the exact same thing at some point.

"Uh huh. I see you didn't die on your super secret mission. Naruto will be thrilled." She refused to admit that she too was also thrilled. Human mistakes aside, he wasn't a bad person overall. And he wasn't a manipulative dick either, which was a plus. It would be sad if he got killed. His books were nice and his brand of humour was tolerable.

The large man plopped down at the kitchen table and folded his hands. "How've things been around here? I see some new scars that weren't there the last time I was here and I'm curious to find out exactly what happened."

She shrugged and went back to stirring the pot of stew she was making. Stew could last a week if she spaced the portions out appropriately and she wanted to do as little cooking as possible leading up to her trek all the way to Tetsu no Kuni. Since she was a civilian, it would take her longer to get there for the Third Exam, than it would a shinobi going the same path as her. She'd never been to the country in question so she couldn't just Apparate there yet.

"I got kidnapped. I knocked my kidnapper out. I levitated him back to the village while I was bleeding out. He nearly bisected me according to Tsunade. I got fixed up but I'll be forever scarred. They got the info they needed from my kidnapper who apparently stole the Nidaime's fancy sword a couple years ago, so that was returned to the village. The origins of the mysterious deaths of people in the Daimyo's court, spanning back twenty years was revealed. The woman who put a hit on me had at least one member from every family killed out of jealousy. She's been brought to trial and has received her punishment which is various types of menial labour for the rest of her life."

It was a lot to say, but she got it all out in record time and a single breath. Naruto would be proud. He was the king of long-winded rants.

Jiraiya was quiet for a moment before huffing. "Nothing is ever calm around you."

"No," she agreed. Her whole life, Hari seemed to attract danger and drama from every angle. She didn't ask for these kinds of things to happen, but happen they did. It had to be that famed Potter Luck that followed her around from birth. Which was also more popularly known as Murphy's Law in case anyone was curious.

Sometimes Hari felt like Fate's bitch.

"Fate does not exist!" said Death, coming up out of nowhere to intrude.

I know that! It's an expression, you twat!

"It isn't my fault that you tend to respond to certain information like a sieve!"

And yet this is one of those things I have yelled at you before! You even tried to tell me it was real, I refuted that statement, and then you explained why it wasn't real. I'm not stupid despite what my class scores from Hogwarts might tell you!

"Hari-hime, are you okay?" asked Jiraiya after she'd gone silent for too long.

"Just fine, Ero-Sennin."

He hummed. "So what's cooking and when can I have some?!"

She angled the spatula at him. "The meat is about to finish cooking, and then I'll be adding it to the pot. Everything in the pot has been simmering for hours. It'll fill you up good along with the homemade bread I made. And you will eat everything!"

"Hey! I have been mercilessly teased with the fact that I still haven't gotten to try your 'delicious food'. Of course I'm going to eat everything I get!"

Oh yeah! She hadn't even noticed that fact.

The night between the end of the First Exam and the beginning of the Second Exam, was long. The Samurai leaders were busy compiling all the data they had gathered from the First Exam, shoving papers of observations around as recorded footage played on one of their largest television screens for them all to watch. It was being rewound multiple times so they could focus more.

They were going team by team, analyzing their dynamics and how they acted, paying far more attention to the teams who passed compared to the teams that didn't. There was no point in wasting energy on teams who wouldn't be around in the future of the Exams.

A lot of Konoha teams had proved themselves to be ones to watch. Certain teams from Iwa had proven to be concerning however, and some from the smaller villages as well. There was a considerable amount of ... darkness in the hearts of Kusagakure's shinobi. They were glad most of the village's teams hadn't made it through to the Second Exam.

However, in the end there were a lot less bloodthirsty shinobi than originally had been expected. Only some had been unnecessarily cruel and the number had been far lower than anyone has postulated it would be, which was a nice surprise for them all.

Using the preferred methods for shinobi in their exams hadn't gone over well with about half of the Samurai in charge, but eventually Mifune had gotten through to all of them. Using their own rules and examples meant they couldn't complain about unfairness should one of their own die in the process. And yes, there had been a few deaths in the First Exam because of that aforementioned cruelty displayed by certain shinobi who had entered the Exams, but it was a lot less than what usually happened in the other villages and nations when they chose to host the Exams.

"I believe that the assessment of Konoha being the "Tree Huggers" of the shinobi world, is correct," one of the generals stated, fixing his spectacles. "Reviewing what information we have on their histories and the structure of their military, they handle things differently than the rest of the shinobi nations do."

Mifune hummed. "Yes, they typically do multi-manned squads even well into their Anbu missions. They have the lowest casualty rates out of the Elemental Nations' combined military forces."

"Yes, they also prefer to have a medically-trained person on each team, which is useful in keeping their shinobi alive. I know we've all heard the various insults about Konoha being too kind and forgiving and gentle, but considering what we know of them, it's a far preferable ninja village compared to the others."

"And they have never been the ones to declare war, and have also been the ones to give their enemies chances to pull away up until the very last second," said Seiji.

"They also handled the revelations of Shimura Danzo's duplicity with expedience and an iron fist so to speak," added another General.

In the most basic description, Konoha was the most preferable shinobi village. Should anything ever become so terrible that Tetsu no Kuni had to break their long-time neutrality with the other nations, Konoha would be the best out of all their options. Not just because they were the most powerful among the shinobi nations, but because their Hi no Ishi, the Will of Fire, seemed to hold them to higher standards.

Population 5/5

Military 5/5

Economy 4/5

They had the most people. The most military power, even after the failed invasion orchestrated by Oto and Suna. And even a booming economy, with Kumo coming up behind them in a very close second on the last note.

It was best to keep an eye on the shinobi of Hi no Kuni specifically, for the duration of the Exams.

"How are the Iwa shinobi holding up?" Mifune asked, turning his attention to the next group. He'd noted that many of their teams had been automatic targets, most likely due to their attitudes being so unpleasant and no one wanting to deal with them.

"Many of their entrants are above Chunin level," one of the Generals in the back noted.

"The same with the Kiri entrants. A power play obviously," someone else stated. "I don't fancy our village being in the middle of one."

"There is always a power play," said Mifune, stroking his mustache. "These are shinobi after all."

It had been a while since Hari had to go to the Academy in person. Not since Naruto was still in school and that honestly felt like forever ago. The halls were exactly the same as the last time she'd been there since it was a ninja school and not a magic school, and Iruka's classroom was just as she remembered it being. He really had a thing for inspirational quotes taped to the walls too.

In the room, she was directed to the seat Aiko and Akira shared, both looking at her with dropped jaws. She smiled at them and placed herself directly between them, waiting patiently for Parental Figures Day to begin.

It was interesting to see what walks of life these people came from. Not every shinobi-to-be had a shinobi parental figure in their life.

A parent who worked in the growing film industry. An Aunt who owned a restaurant in the upper district of the village. A cousin who had a meat-packing industry providing meat to the various businesses of Konoha. It was nice to know that even if being a Shinobi didn't work out for some of the kids, they'd still have something decent to fall back on in order to make a living.

"Up next is Potta-hime," said Iruka after a quick glance at his clipboard. He sent her an encouraging smile and waved her forward.

Hari made her way to the front. For that morning, she'd chosen a qipao in the shade of emerald green with black trimming. Her untamable, black hair had been plaited into a fishtail and she wore a simple, red lipstick. Her arms were bared to the room, showing off her scars and no doubt raising questions. Which was the entire point of this.

"Hello," she said, giving a small bow to the room. "My name is Potta Hari, I'm the Head of the Potta Clan as well as the Matron of Konoha's orphanage. I am Aiko and Akira's guardian."

Hands shot up instantly and she chose one of the boys right up front. His face bore the similar markings of the Inuzuka clan and he looked borderline feral like Kiba did. He was without a canine companion however.

"How did you get those scars?"

She'd expected it and Iruka's offended sputtering was calmed by Hari's dismissive hand. She'd always been a weird one, finding certain topics less taboo than others would.

"I got kidnapped by an Ame ninja who had taken a mission to get rid of me and he wrapped me in sharp ninja wire that cut into my skin everywhere."

All the kids leaned forward immediately, their eyes wide with interest. More hands raised as a result.

"You're not ashamed of your scars?" one of the girls in the back asked, looking baffled.

"No. I had some pretty bad scars before it happened and now I just look like I'm cosplaying a tiger all the time."

That got her some giggles and even more hands.

"What other scars do you have?"

She showed them her upper arm and the Basilisk fang scar which hadn't been ruined by the ninja wire. "A big snake bit me here when I was twelve. It was about 25 meters long."

Gasps of horror all around. "Yeah, its body was taller than me and terrifying. I killed it with a sword through the roof of the mouth."

She turned to present her back to give them an idea of where the injury had been. "A… feral dog left claw marks across my back spanning from right shoulder to left hip. It took time to heal."

"Did you cry?" a boy asked.

"Yes," she said firmly, earning a confused look. "It's a natural reaction to pain stimulation when you aren't used to it yet. So at the time I did cry. I did not cry when I was kidnapped by the Ame shinobi. By then it was more annoyance at the inconvenience of being kidnapped and the rudeness of him not murdering me in a clean room."

The whole room looked a cross between amazed and horrified. Including Iruka.

"Can you fight?"

She shrugged. "A friend of mine has been teaching me Taijutsu just in case. I'm not that good but could hold my own against a civilian just fine. I tend to rely on my Kekkei Genkai though."

And then spurred on dozens of questions of a different nature entirely.

"What does your Kekkei Genkai do?"

"Are you married?"

"Will you pass it on to your children?"

"Are you looking for a wife?"

"Could you fight a ninja even if you aren't trained as a ninja?"

Eventually, and it was a good thing this whole event took the entire school day and not just a single class period, Hari got around to explaining her and Luna's contribution to the hospital. She told them about how she made certain the children were all trained in first aid and that a lot of the village's orphans could go on to medical jobs in the future, be it as normal Doctors or Iryo-Nin.

Hari's occupation wasn't anything particularly amazing compared to some who were blacksmiths or shinobi, but the kids seemed reasonably impressed. And to top it all off, she'd brought them biscuits to snack on as well. It had worked on Naruto's class and it would certainly work this time as well.

When all was said and done, Hari felt as if she'd done a good job at representing her kids, and committed herself to similar duties in the future for the younger children as well.

All Sasori wanted was to get on with his business without any interruptions. However, it seemed as if some of his biggest projects had fallen apart and he was not thrilled by it.

First, his little mole in Orochimaru's clutches had stopped sending intel months ago. He practically disappeared off the face of the Earth. Kabuto was one of the major ways the Akatsuki gathered information outside of Zetsu. The creature couldn't be everywhere at once even with their special skillset. Kabuto had filled the void by being a proper spy.

Now he was gone.

Itachi and Kisame were also gone. Itachi having been a mole himself, for Konoha, in which he was no longer a rogue. And Kisame somehow willingly returned to his home village where he was welcomed with open arms as if he'd never left.

And then Sasori's contacts in Hi no Kuni went blank. Specifically Kurosaki Sayori's family and their entire business. For years they'd been supplying him with bodies for puppets and for years he, in return, would give them information on their rivals in the Daimyo's court. It was a system that had worked just fine for so long and for it to suddenly stop was annoying.

Of course word spread fast once the ball got rolling. Sayori usually hired Sasori to dispose of her biggest opponents, but this time she had deviated from the norm because he'd been too busy to answer her summons. And instead of simply waiting for him to have free time, she went and hired some A-Rank shinobi from Amegakure to do the deed. And the idiot failed.

To make it even more interesting, the target had been none other that Potta Hari, the newest civilian to Konoha and the guardian to the Kyuubi Jinchuuriki. Her clan was apparently very old, very powerful, and very wealthy. They contributed considerably to the hospital according to what Zetsu had managed to gather personally. And they made the security stronger somehow. Infiltration techniques unlike any ever seen before.

A wealth of knowledge and worth helping Hi no Kuni to prosper as the greatest of the Five Great Nations. Of course the Daimyo would favor her and her clan member over the others. They brought something especially worthwhile to the land. And Sayori had gotten jealous as usual.

So now Sasori was down two informants/workers. Of course he had more, but now he had to find replacements for those two and Kabuto had actually been someone of impressive skill. His use was far above all the others under Sasori's employ.

To make things even worse, with Itachi and Kisame gone, Pein was being a pain in the ass ironically. They had Sasori, Deidara, Tobi, Konan, Hidan, and Kakuzu left if the leader was excluded. As Pein and Konan never left Ame, it was up to the rest of them to hunt down the Jinchuuriki now and see the plan finished. That meant more work for Sasori.

The immortal duo were a single team. And he and Deidara being art-loving fanatics got to be another team. It was all basically designed to make Sasori suffer no matter what. This left Tobi, dumbest of the dumb who could barely function like a normal person, without a teammate of his own. Basically two teams to hunt down nine Jinchuuriki. It was all a mess. How the hell they'd manage it he had no idea.

The teams themselves weren't the most coordinated. They all tended to argue more than get any work done. And the thing was, even if Sasori was paired with one of the other ones, it wouldn't be any better. Hidan's mouth was annoying. Kakuzu's greed was annoying. Deidara's artistic views were stupid. Tobi himself was just stupid. No matter what, Sasori would be fucked either way.

Konan was simply not an option. She wasn't exactly Pein's partner, but she wasn't anyone else's partner either. Zetsu never worked in a group because the last time he did, he ate his partner and no one wanted to deal with that. He didn't have many skills beyond gathering information so he'd be pretty useless in the long run.

This whole mess with partners and such wasn't how he wanted to spend his day. And now Sasori had to be the one to tell Pein that something had happened to Kabuto.

He sighed. He didn't want to do it at all.

Konan regarded him blandly when he entered the room. She was standing closer to Pein, but not close enough to touch. She tended to hover near him at all times, Sasori had noticed. As if waiting for something to happen. Like a protective guardian.

"What news do you bring, Sasori?" Pein asked, his deep voice calm but his Rinnegan shining with malice.

"Kabuto has gone dark on me. All attempts to contact him have been met with silence on all ends."

The resulting crack in the floor was expertly ignored by all three of the room's inhabitants. Pein's eyes remained unnervingly open and intent upon Sasori's puppet body. "Is that so?"

It was rhetorical of course, and Sasori knew that. He was so glad his body was no longer a living organism or he'd no doubt be susceptible to the treacherous thing know as a heartbeat and a pulse. No doubt both would be thundering away in fear from the look Pein sent him.

Thankfully, he was simply a glorified weapon now and didn't have need of fear since he felt no pain itself.

"I suppose we'll need to send Zetsu to find out what happened."

That didn't mean Sasori couldn't be aggravated of course.

Orochimaru, in his newest body from one of his faithful shinobi, surveyed the surrounding Genin, looking for Uchiha Sasuke. The boy was nowhere near Itachi's level so getting a hand on him would be easier.

Getting into Tetsu no Kuni had been relatively easy even if him and the small amount of teams he'd traveled with were given a very clear threat about their time in the village. Oto's hand in the invasion of Konoha did not go unnoticed even by the samurai.

He had one team left in the Exams. Kimimaro, Tayuya, and Kidomaru. The others of the Otogakure no Shinobi Yonin Shu hadn't lived through the Konoha Invasion. Though Tayuya had to get a lung transplant thanks to the noxious fumes she'd breathed from that massive cheetah summon.

Kimimaro was sure to not lose. He was the strongest shinobi in Oto now, right behind Orochimaru now that Kabuto was gone for good. if he lost to anyone, that would be someone Orochimaru should consider for a mark.

Still, his main target in all this was still to acquire the Sharingan and he needed Uchiha Sasuke to do that.

Of course there were also two Byakugan users available too and perhaps he could plan ahead just in case. He'd have to think more on it later as that dojutsu had never been too terribly interesting.

The biggest problem he was facing, was the fact that despite the Konoha Jonin sensei being given their own quarters to share, Hatake Kakashi had chosen to linger outside his team's room all evening and Kakashi's stats showed to be on par with the Sannin by now. Maybe even better in some aspects than each of them.

He'd just have to use the Second Exam as the chance to get to Sasuke. It wouldn't be that different from the one in Konoha he was certain. In the survival test, Team Seven wouldn't have anyone to hide behind. It was just a matter of tracking them down and then getting what he wanted.

A stray thought hit him out of nowhere. What if Uchiha Sasuke didn't even have a Sharingan? He had nothing noted that he had it. If he didn't it would explain why he was nowhere near his brother's level of power.

First order of business. Test the boy before bothering with the mark.

A/N: Another is done!

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Ja ne! :D