Kakashi arrived before the Hokage in a swirl of leaves. He lowered his head and took a knee with the fingers of his right hand brushing the floor and his left fisted over his chest. The only other people in the room, the Hokage and two hidden ANBU guards, had enough skill to detect his incoming chakra and focus in on the motion. The Hokage remained unaffected behind his desk except for a slight twitch to the pipe in his mouth as his lips tightened. Chakra signatures of the seven jonin Kakashi had been called to a meeting with departed beyond the office's closed doors.

The Hokage removed his pipe, disturbing a thin line of smoke drifting on his right side. "To your feet, Kakashi."

Kakashi rose. With the lower half of his face and left eye covered by a half-mask and band, his smile showed through the squinting of his visible eye. He rubbed his right hand over the back of his neck in a pretense of nervousness. "My apologies, Lord Third."

The Hokage nodded. "I'm sure you were simply following a lead that could not be left uninvestigated."

"Yes, sir," Kakashi said. "Pakkun and I determined the stray cats in the business district do not have the chakra of summon animals."

The corner of the Hokage's mouth twitched into a smile before returning to neutrality. Grabbing a file from the center of his crowded desk, he offered it to Kakashi. "There are no changes in procedure since your last assignment."

Kakashi dropped his casual posturing to accept. The Hokage continued puffing his pipe as he skimmed the first page. Meeting his eyes, Kakashi said, "You know I won't pass anyone based on pedigree. Why these three?"

"However many students you fail, you will always be permitted to use the bell test. It was my error not to consider your convictions for Naruto's graduation."

Taking another look at the file, Kakashi flipped to the short profiles on the next page. "You think this time is different."

"That's for you to determine." He looked at the closed doors, where Kakashi sensed a new source of chakra drawing up to the Hokage's secretary. "Contact details are in the file."

Kakashi closed the folder and nodded his head in a small bow. "Yes, Lord Third."

The Hokage caught his attention with a slight shift of his head. "And Kakashi, try not to be late." At the jonin's masked smile, he said, "Dismissed."

Kakashi escaped in another body flicker through a window just as the secretary opened the office doors.

Sasuke Uchiha chose an open desk next to a window to avoid the crosstalk of a dozen excited classmates. He sat with his elbows on his desk and his hands clasped in front of his mouth. As more new genin trickled in, the noise peaked with a shrill argument and race up the aisle. He recognized the voices involved: a Yamanaka girl named Ino and clanless girl named Sakura.

"I win!" Ino said, stopping at the two empty seats next to him.

"No way! Look at our feet," Sakura said.

Sasuke tried not to pay attention. He wasn't Iruka or Kou, who could assign seats or settle the dispute with a single-round competition. Across the room, the Nara clan heir sauntered in. His heavy-lidded gaze dragged over the disruption near Sasuke before moving on. Including that slacker, someone who'd slept through most classes, nearly every student who had taken the graduation test had passed.

Ino flipped her long blonde ponytail, scoffing. "Like you deserve it anyway. You may have gotten the best written scores, but I'm top kunoichi in taijutsu."

Sakura nearly growled. "Sasuke doesn't need someone who can fight. Teams need balance, you know, and he can beat anyone in class."

"What are you saying, Forehead? Do you think Sasuke needs his written scores balanced?"

"No!" Sakura said, glancing at Sasuke, who glared out the window. "Ino-pig, you're always twisting things!"

New movement to Sasuke's right caught his eye. While Ino and Sakura argued, Shikamaru Nara slid into the seat in question. Shikamaru nodded at Sasuke's sideways look. He folded his arms in front of him and turned his head to the third person in the aisle.

"Excuse me, Ino," the Akamichi boy said. His heavy physique, characteristic of his clan, prevented him from sneaking by like Shikamaru had.

"Choji?" Ino said, before seeing Shikamaru. "What! I called that spot, Nara!"

"We got here first!" said Sakura.

Shikamaru lowered his head into his arms, peering sideways at them. "You're too loud."

Choji said, "Sorry, Ino. You'll be able to stare from the seats in the row up anyway."

Ino let Choji pass. She met Sakura's eyes in a moment of inaction before both girls thundered up to the top row. They fought through the protests of the boy occupying the aisle seat of that desk, and even after shoving past him, they continued to bicker. At least it kept them from staring as suggested.

A man walked in, focused on the papers in his hands. He had a long scar running across the bridge of his nose and brown hair styled in a spiky ponytail similar to Shikamaru. He said, "Sakura, Ino, settle down. Everyone take a seat."

"Iruka!" an Inuzuka boy shouted, along with support from the more excitable among them and a small bark from the puppy laying on his head. "You're late!"

The echo of all the times Iruka had admonished them gave him a small smile. He wasn't technically late, but he didn't usually let the class go without supervision for so long. After years as their main teacher, the change stood out. The clamor died down in the time it took him to take his place front and center.

Iruka folded his hands behind him, smiling up at the twenty-six twelve and thirteen-year-olds. "As of today, I am no longer your teacher. You are all ninja, beholden to the Will of Fire, but the trials you faced to get to this point don't compare to what your responsibilities now demand. Remember that your lessons don't stop in this classroom. Even those who pass genin rank, or chunin, or jonin, rely on their comrades to cover their weaknesses and foster their improvements. That's the reason we've grouped you into three-man squads, led by jonin. These squads have been set up to balance your respective strengths and abilities so you can continue to grow."

Sasuke had trained alone every day after school to graduate at the head of his peers. He listened with one ear as Iruka started to list the team configurations. He had counted twenty-six students, making eight full teams of three. The remaining two would need to be skilled to warrant a jonin teacher. The second top student, Shino Aburame, was tolerable enough. However, if his name was called before the end, that would mean that the reduced team would probably be the top shinobi and kunoichi, which would put Sasuke with Ino.

"Team Seven: Sasuke Uchiha, Kiba Inuzuka, and Shikamaru Nara."

Sasuke tensed slightly, containing his desire to scowl while beside him, Shikamaru gave a quiet sigh. The weight of the class's attention kept him from looking over, so he barely caught Kiba giving two thumbs up to Shikamaru, prompting one in return. Choji began devouring a bag of chips. As Iruka continued, his munching intensified.

"Team Eight: Shino Aburame, Hinata Hyuuga, and Choji Akamichi."

Choji's furious pace slowed.

Iruka's attention shifted to the two remaining students. "Ino Yamanaka and Sakura Haruno, due to your respective scores, you've both been offered apprenticeships," he said, setting off a few low whispers. If high scores were the only qualifier, an offer should have gone to Sasuke. Iruka's neutral expression didn't explain the decision either. "Your teachers will give you your designations."

Ino raised her voice over the murmering. "Wait a minute. Who are the jonin?"

"You'll all find out who your team leaders are when they arrive later today." Iruka relaxed his stance, addressing the room. "For now, you're free to enjoy a long lunch, but make sure you're back here by twelve. Your teachers don't have to stick around if you're late."

The class exploded into motion. Sasuke unclenched his jaw. Taking a breath, he gradually released the tension that had built up through Iruka's announcements.

"Hinata and Shino are nice," Shikamaru said to Choji. "Probably nicer than Ino would have been anyway."

Choji crumpled up his empty chip bag. "Yeah, I wish I knew them better though. You're lucky you got Kiba."

"Oh, that loser?" The insult had a wry edge that indicated Shikamaru was smirking. "I think he must have passed by cheating off Akamaru."

With a clunk, Kiba jumped onto the desk, crouched in front of the two. He had the two red triangular marks of the Inuzuka clan on his cheeks, reminiscent of fangs, and a white puppy peeking from the collar of his fur-lined grey jacket. "Alright, you little weasel. It sounds like you're asking for a beating."

Sasuke stepped into the aisle at his left. From the immediate break in conversation, he felt their attention shift his way.

Kiba called after him, "Hey wait a minute, Sasuke."

He faced the desk again.

Kiba dropped to sit with his legs crossed towards the aisle. "I was thinking we could have a team lunch before we meet our jonin teacher. Choji, you can get your team in on it too."

"Works for me," Shikamaru said.

"Yeah, sure," Choji said. He glanced around at the scattering class. "I don't see Shino though."

"What, already? Well, we can track him down in a minute." Kiba eyed Sasuke. "What do you think?"

The thought of fending off questions from five people made the area behind his eyes ache. "I have my own plans," he said.

Kiba shrugged. "Offer's open if you change your mind. We'll probably be on the roof."

Sasuke gave them a nod before continuing down the aisle. He was one of the first to head for the door. Similar clusters had formed at other desks and in aisles, but they'd left the perimeter clear enough to get by.

Behind him, Kiba said to Choji, "Maybe we should have this lunch just between us. One last meal together."

"Man, do you have to be so dramatic about it?" Shikamaru said. "You make it sound like we're dying."

"So what if it's dramatic? How often have we seen Naruto since he graduated, huh?"

Sasuke distanced himself to find a lunch spot that couldn't be seen from the roof.

"Alright kids," Iruka said, jolting Kiba out of his attempts to keep track of the world outside the window. "We have to report to the Hokage Tower. You can wait here for your team leader to arrive." He picked up the papers he and Kou had been filling out while they'd waited then pointed at Kiba. "I'll know if you break something."

With Kou shaking his head, they headed towards the door.

"Don't worry about us," Kiba called after them. "I can tell this guy what's what." He slammed his fist into his palm.

"No, Kiba..."

Kou dragged Iruka out of the room. "You're all responsible for each other now. Keep him in line. We don't want to hear about you being flagged for insubordination on your first day."

Sasuke glared at Kiba in challenge as they left. Kiba perked up, his legs and arms shifting to climb on his chair and desk.

"Picking fights?" Shikamaru said. "You don't even care if he's late."

Spinning around to sit on the desk, Kiba said, "Do we have to wait inside all day? This is cruel."


Kiba groaned and hopped down to stride towards the front of the room. He glanced at the door, then approached the center desk. "Think they left behind anything?"

"Like what?"

"Our assessments, the jonin assignments, lesson plans, orders from the Hokage. Akamaru, you sniff around over there." Kiba pointed to one side of the desk and crouched down to check for hidden compartments.

The immediate area stunk of chakra. Since a combination of spiritual and physical energy had no true scent, Kiba's nose interpreted it as associated blends of sense memories unique to his classmates. They'd been practicing basic chakra techniques for the graduation test the week before, and the remnants of a hundred clone and disguise techniques lingered in the air. Impressions of crackling fire and heated smoke couldn't cover real smells, but it could distract from them. Kiba sniffed close to the paneled desk and focused on the scent of lacquered wood. The chemical tang registered as poison. Past that, he caught a hint of metal tucked between two panels of the desk. He left the hidden senbon alone. Unfortunately, the desk had no drawers or compartments for storage, almost as if discouraging the teachers from leaving anything for students to get their hands on. Kiba moved over to inspect the raised section of floor the desk sat on. He tapped his knuckles to the wood to listen for any hollow sections while Akamaru sniffed around. All he found was another hidden weapon.

After a few minutes of rummaging, he said, "Who keeps a room this clean?"

Shikamaru lowered his head again.

Kiba swept every corner of their classroom, and sniffed and sneezed at the chalkboard. Twenty minutes later, once Shikamaru stopped responding to any attempts to include him, Kiba and Akamaru resorted to jumping across desks and practicing flips to entertain themselves. Sasuke glanced over occasionally from the safety of the middle row closest to the window, but he largely kept to himself and stared outside. The shadows deepened, and Kiba's patience ran out.

"Hey, Shikamaru, wake up."

A second passed before a barely audible rustle indicated a shift in weight. "What is it, Kiba?"

Kiba turned to the back of the classroom. Shikamaru was still face down, and Sasuke had barely glanced over. Akamaru took the pause as a sign to jump from the nearest desk into Kiba's arms.

He brought him up to lay on top of his head, then paced before Iruka's abandoned desk. "This guy is testing us."

Shikamaru slowly picked his head up.

"My clan pulls this all the time." Kiba stopped and looked at Sasuke, who stared back at him. "You ever been to the eastern market?"

Sasuke gave a slight nod. Shikamaru's expression turned considering before he slid his attention to Sasuke.

Kiba said, "My ma lost me there when I was seven. Between the fish and sweaty crowds, it took a while to sniff her out. After that, she told me I could join the academy."

"You're an Inuzuka," Sasuke said. "Not everything is about tracking."

"You think we were left here for nothing?"

Sasuke's posture only tensed further. "Don't make assumptions."

Shikamaru said, "He could be late. Or testing us some other way."

Kiba glanced from Sasuke, to Shikamaru, to Akamaru. "We're hunters." He turned to Shikamaru. "An Inuzuka, a Nara"—he turned to Sasuke—"and the best trap-maker in class. What other kind of test would we get?"

Sasuke frowned, and his eyes flicked Shikamaru's way.

Shikamaru sighed, resting his head in his hand. "Our clan techniques were developed to capture deer."

After a beat, Sasuke met Kiba's eyes. "You want to hunt down our own team leader."

Kiba nodded, grinning. "Yeah. Think you can live up to your reputation?"

Sasuke rose his chin in answer, so Kiba looked at Shikamaru.

Shikamaru considered him. "What's your plan?"

"I'll bet he left us a way to figure out who he is and track him down." Kiba pulled Akamaru off his head and set him on a desk. "Akamaru can keep watch. He'll warn us if anyone comes while we're gone."

Shikamaru and Sasuke shared a glance.

Shikamaru said, "It could work."

"Great." After a look at the door, Kiba turned back to the others. "Where do we start?"

Shikamaru sighed. "We should stop by my house. My old man was still hanging around when I left this morning."

"The jonin commander? Think he assigned the jonin teachers?"

Shikamaru yawned, stretching his arms above his head. "He didn't say."

Kiba gave a shrug. "Worth a try. You good, Sasuke?"

Sasuke didn't jump to join him, but he nodded and stood. While Shikamaru dragged his feet, Kiba held out his hand for Akamaru to smack with his paw.

"Catch you later, boy"

Akamaru barked back.

Kiba laughed. "You're as bad as Ma." He stepped away as Shikamaru and Sasuke came down to meet them. Shikamaru stuck to the back of the pack as usual, so Kiba took charge. "You ever been to Nara territory, Sasuke?"

The Nara lived along the South-Eastern edge of the village, hidden across the Naka river where it cut down from the mountain and behind a thicket of trees. Walking a step ahead of Sasuke and Shikamaru down a packed dirt path, Kiba caught the scent of deer. The closer they got, the stronger it became, until they arrived at seven foot tall walls broken by an open gate. A man standing guard watched them approach.

"Yo," Shikamaru said, continuing on.

Kiba gave the guard a smile as he and Sasuke followed.

They passed through the developed part of the property. Being so close to the mountain and forest, the area had enough hills and copses to create natural screens and boundaries around a few private shops, workshops, and traditional homes. Dark wood and tiered roofs in earthy colors gave off a comfortable, welcoming harmony.

Trees grew to either side of Shikamaru's house, casting dappled shadows about. With two stories and a forest at its back, it had an intimidating edge sharpened by relative size and isolation. The windows were shuttered and quiet, which had to mean that Shikamaru's mother wasn't home. Kiba had only met her once, but he suspected that she would be a force even when she wasn't telling off Shikamaru for skipping school.

Maybe the unwelcoming feeling wasn't the house. As Shikamaru and Sasuke walked the path to the front door, Kiba stopped. He sniffed, squinting at the wall of trees. The strong scent of a deer gave direction to his search. He turned his head and caught the brown head and black eyes of a stag watching them from behind a few branches. If Akamaru had been with them to growl, Kiba might've joined in.

"Kiba?" Shikamaru walked back a little to see what had kept him. When he followed Kiba's eyeline, he said, "The deer are hungry. You two can head inside. I'll be back in a minute." He rounded the house, heading towards the forest.

Kiba took one last glance, then caught up to Sasuke. "He said we can go in." He opened the door and barged inside the somewhat darkened interior.

Sasuke stepped carefully after him, removing his shoes. "I thought we were going to ask his father who our team leader is."

"Must've left I guess." Kiba kicked off his shoes and stalked over to the sitting room, sniffing all the way.

The oldest, most pervasive scents were easily identified. Kiba recognized two, for Shikamaru and his mom Yoshino, which meant that the last belonged his dad Shikaku. He ignored the less distinct trails and those from what he guessed were a couple regular visitors. The most recent stood out from the mix. Kiba crossed the room and slid open a door to the patio. It gave him a clear view of the forest, which he eyed for a moment before stepping out to follow his nose.

Sasuke came along, sliding the door shut behind him. The trail lingered around a checkered board set up for a strategy game. Kiba walked a step closer before getting distracted by a snap from the forest.

"Why are we here?" Sasuke said. He had his arms crossed, but he was facing the noise and hadn't moved from the door.

"Waiting for Shikamaru, probably. It's creepy, isn't it?"

Sasuke turned his head towards him slightly.

Kiba said, "I'd rather hike through Aburame forestland. Their bugs would try to eat me alive, but at least I'd feel like I had a chance." He sniffed around the board. Another unfamiliar scent hung around the side opposing the one Shikaku's was attached to.

Sasuke came up behind him, glancing at the trees. "What's in there?"

Kiba shook his head. "I've only seen the deer."

After a few seconds, Sasuke said, "Can you smell if he was here recently?"

"Akamaru would've been better, but I can guess. It's strong, so he was either sitting here a while or just before we came. How long does this kind of game take?"

"I don't know," Sasuke said, frowning at the board. "He was playing with someone?"

"Maybe not, depending on when they left. His scent is stronger. He could have been hanging around and the other guy found him here." Kiba walked across the patio, stepping down at the corner of the house and looking back towards the gate. "I can track him now if we really need to."

"This guy he met—"

Movement from the line of trees caught Kiba's attention and paused Sasuke mid-sentence.

Shikamaru had reemerged, strolling up to them. "Are we ready to go?"

Sasuke said, "You didn't expect your father to be here."

Shikamaru shrugged. "He was when I left. He met with someone today, right?" He directed the question to Kiba.

"Yeah, they headed that way. Don't know how long ago."

"Can you find the stranger?"

"Maybe," Kiba said, frowning at Shikamaru. "How'd you know this would be the guy we want?"

Glaring at the ground, Sasuke answered, "Jonin traditionally seek a guardian's approval before taking on a student."

Shikamaru and Kiba glanced at him, then Shikamaru nodded once at Kiba.

"Good enough for me." Kiba stepped back on the patio and made for the door. "C'mon, Sasuke. Why'd we take off our shoes?"

They didn't bother retreading the stranger's whole journey. Whatever the reason he and Shikaku had been winding around the place, he had to have come and gone through the gate.

Kiba sorted through countless other incoming and outgoing trails just beyond the boundary to hone in on the blend of metal, displaced oil and mud, river splashed on canvas, scrolls, and hint of nin-dog that he'd familiarized himself with at the house. As he sniffed around, Shikamaru leaned against the wall on the opposite side of the guard, and Sasuke stood a few feet away. He shouldn't have taken more than a few seconds before heading out, but the most recent trail ended where he stood. He walked a few seconds along the slightly older, incoming one. It went farther, into the woods, touching on a high branch branch before disappearing. Kiba returned to the gate.

Sasuke said, "What's the problem?"

Kiba shook his head. "The trail's too faint, if it's there at all. It's like he used a body flicker as soon as he left."

Sasuke grimaced, and they both sent looks at the guard.

The man brushed at something on his chunin vest. "Weird."

"The body flicker is just high speed movement," Shikamaru said. "Shouldn't there be physical traces?"

"With basic tracking, sure. We can look for broken twigs and footprints and work out his likely route, but whatever scent he left is too weak for me to follow without Akamaru."

"If he was using a chakra technique to travel, that had to have left residual imprints."

"All they're good for is telling us we're on the right track. Imprints don't carry the same as active chakra."

Sasuke said, "We're already hours behind."

"You know another way? We have nothing else to go on," Kiba said, directing the second part at the guard.

Without looking over, he said, "What a shame."

"What about your guardian?" Sasuke said. "If we get a description, a name, we can find out more and predict his moves."

Kiba scratched his head and looked at Shikamaru. "My mom's intense about earning her help."

Shikamaru stepped away from the wall, joining them at the edge of the wood. "It's better than nothing. We need all the information we can get."

Kiba winced. "Can't say it'll be quick either. We live at the other side of the village."

"We're ninja," Sasuke said. "We can run."

Shikamaru sighed.

They set out over the rooftops. Midway through, above a merchant thoroughfare full of sizzling meats, clattering carts, and bartering people, Kiba glanced back. Sasuke matched pace with steady ease. A few steps behind, Shikamaru narrowed his eyes and shook his head. Kiba grinned, sped up, then flipped onto a stretch of iron railing. "Don't get lost, Shikamaru!" He launched across hanging terraces and tiered shingles, leading Sasuke towards a dense maze of packed buildings.

Shikamaru made his own way into the village's south-western edge. He navigated deteriorating surfaces in winding, narrow blocks of civilian homes and shops before returning to the ground. His footfall crunched dirt. Alongside slatted fencing backed by hedges and creeping vines, barks and shouts filtered into the street.

Out of sight, Kiba said, "We've got to see Ma. She around?"

Shikamaru rejoined his team with his hands in his pockets. Kiba and Sasuke stood, their breathing conspicuously measured, in front of an Inuzuka gate guard and his grey and black dog. Everyone except Sasuke had turned their heads towards Shikamaru before he came into view.

"All of you?" The guard crossed his arms. "What business?" The dog plodded over to Shikamaru, so he let it sniff his hand.

Kiba huffed and walked forward. "Got a question for her."

"Strange group. No Akamaru?" The guard leaned in.

Kiba took a half step sideways. "He's fine. Cut it out."

The guard smiled. "I've got to know if I'm going to let outsiders in."

"They're my team, and Kama checked us already. Let us through."

"A Nara and an Uchiha, huh? You piss someone off?"

Shikamaru couldn't react without inciting a fight, so he slouched. Sasuke stilled. Kiba growled.

The guard laughed with his hands on his hips. "It's a bit early to play the team card. Maybe I'll just say no."

"You're wasting our time." Kiba took a step around.

The guard lashed out, capturing Kiba's neck in the crook of his arm. His free hand rubbed Kiba's hood. "Aww, look at you all puffed up."

Shikamaru took a step back as Kiba struggled, growling. Sasuke inhaled, but Shikamaru shook his head at him. Kiba bit into a padded armor forearm.

"Hey, no biting!" The guard grasped Kiba's hood and pulled.

Kiba leaned forward. The guard flipped over his back. Kiba tackled, but the guard redirected his momentum and flung him away. Kiba sailed eight feet inside the gate. He turned in the air to land upright but skidded a few inches, then tensed, leaning forward again.

The guard stepped aside with a grin. "Alright." He gestured at the clear path for Shikamaru and Sasuke to enter. "Go on if it's so important to you."

Shikamaru waited for more aggression, but the guard had relaxed. Kiba grit his teeth, then gave a low scoff. Sasuke watched them both. He started past while Kiba's nails bit into his palms and released.

Kiba raised his hood again over his mussed hair. "You're lucky Kama does all the work, Tsuchi."

"Tsume's not going to welcome any more visitors today. Don't say I didn't warn you."

Kiba tongued the tip of his canine tooth before he nodded at Shikamaru and Sasuke. They made it to his side, and Kiba rolled his shoulders and distanced them from the perimeter.

Snippets of shouted insults and laughter carried over from between houses. Near the entrance, a few heads had turned at the brief scuffle, but most were unaffected. While Sasuke stared at scattered ninja, nin-dogs, non-combatants, and children, Kiba touched the collar of his coat and made for the side of a central path.

Shikamaru caught Kiba's eyes, then flicked his own towards the well-trod dirt. "We aren't the first visitors."

Kiba nodded and sniffed the air. A moment later, he slowed. "That guy was here. All around. I can barely pick one trail from the next."

In the Nara properties, the jonin's trail had been winding, not obscured. Shikamaru looked for a reaction from Sasuke, but he still had his jaw clenched watching the Inuzuka. Kiba led them under the shadows of the closest houses.

They passed dogs who sniffed at their heels and humans who gave them second looks even while preoccupied with other tasks. Inuzuka in chunin vests rushed around, many without their nin-dogs or nursing injuries, and most started and stopped as if they were searching for something. As one chunin crossed the rooftops overhead, she wasn't subtle about staring at Shikamaru and Sasuke.

Kiba called out, "Akane! Where's Ma?"

She slowed. "Can't say, she's been moving." Kiba peered towards the distance and gave an absent wave to see Akane off. She passed out of sight saying, "Good luck!"

Kiba scowled ahead. "We're not getting much help. My mom probably said something."

The guard's warning in mind, Shikamaru matched Kiba's frown. Beyond the houses, thick trees and a low sun threw lengthening shadows. "I'm beginning to doubt we're saving time here."

Kiba looked at Sasuke.

"Nothing's changed," Sasuke said.

Kiba took a breath. "Be ready if we can't find her, or if she won't tell us anything."

"It couldn't be easy." Shikamaru sighed, earning a snicker.

Although clan members continued to throw out greetings and questions, the three of them escaped to training fields next to the wood.

From the tree line, a black wolfish dog with a white belly trotted to meet them. It spoke with a graveled human voice. "Kiba, why are you back so soon?"

Smiling wide, Kiba said, "On a mission. Did Ma meet with someone today?"

"You can ask her yourself."

Kiba's smile and shoulders dropped.

The dog took up the lead, back under swaying leaves into cracking vegetation. At the edge of a natural clearing, they found Tsume and Hana Inuzuka, Kiba's mother and sister, locked in conversation.

Hana turned her head away to call, "Haimaru Brothers!" She told Tsume, "I have to get back to the clinic. Kiba can take over."

Hana's three grey dogs bounded out of the trees, the wolfish dog returned to Tsume, and Tsume faced Kiba with folded arms.

Hana looked at his hood and collar. "Where's Akamaru? He ditch you?"

A tendon in Kiba's jaw twitched. "He's at the academy."

Tsume said, "You've got some timing, brat. Shouldn't you be back there yourself?"

Hana gave Shikamaru a nod and made herself scarce.

Kiba shrugged. "We're tracking our jonin leader."

Tsume looked them over. Her mouth curled at the corner. "This your team?"

Kiba jerked his right thumb over his shoulder. "Shikamaru Nara." He did the same with his left. "Sasuke Uchiha."

"Shikaku can't plan everything," Tsume said. "Well, get to what you're here for."

Kiba's hands flexed. "We need to know who we were assigned to."

"So you're asking me?"

"We know he came here. I can smell him around, but we're behind. We need to head him off."

She tilted her head while gazing at the forest. "You need help? Shouldn't have left your partner."

"We hedged our bets," Kiba said, but he scowled. "We know he uses nin-dogs."

"Yeah, get out of here. I'm not your academy teacher."

"You know more than us."

"I'm in the middle of my own mess."

He mimicked his mother's crossed arms. "What's going on?"

"Capture exercise."

A human howl, female pitched, echoed from the training grounds. Tsume's nin-dog returned the call. The whole clan seemed to have been occupied well before the team had arrived.

Kiba worked his jaw and gathered himself. "Just somewhere to start. We'll get the rest. Then we'll figure out who he is, what he's planning, and beat him. So what do you want?"

Akane arrived, sweeping past them to Tsume's side. Tsume leaned in to listen to her rushed whispers. They exchanged a few clipped, indistinguishable words. After close to thirty seconds, Tsume said one last thing and jerked her head in a dismissive gesture. Akane jumped farther into the forest.

Tsume turned back to Kiba. Snarling, she said, "Why are you still here?"

She hadn't told them anything about the meeting. Instead, she'd pushed them to return to the academy three times, like it was normal to be there hours after team assignments. Something must have aggravated her.

Kiba's chest swelled. He glared back. "We're not leaving without a lead."

Tsume locked her eyes with his. Leaning forward, she let the tension build, then smirked. She straightened up and raised her eyebrows. "Kakashi Hatake. You've read a bingo book, haven't you?"

Kiba blinked, then shook his head once.

She gave him a leaden look. "You and Hana both today. Elite jonin. Silver hair. Covered eye. Makes an impression."

In the bingo book from Konaha, Kakashi Hatake had the moniker 'Copy-Nin'. He had an expansive knowledge of combat techniques, but his skills centered around tracking. He would have made a great rival for an Inuzuka capture exercise.

Shikamaru asked, "How did he act when you met today?" Their attention snapped to him.

Tsume said, "Good question, but I'm not feeding you the details. Trace his steps, ask around. You'll probably trip over something." Breaking eye contact, she said, "Kuromaru, we're done here." She and her nin-dog leapt into the trees and disappeared the way of Akane.

Kiba shouted after her, "We don't have time for that!" He kicked a rock and whipped around, scraping ruts into the dirt and grass. He gave a few harsh breaths. "She didn't even give us a chance."

The pieces they had were enough. Tsume hadn't finished the capture exercise or the meeting until after they arrived. Shikamaru shared a look with Sasuke. "She didn't need to," he said. He took a step backwards, watching the spot the two had disappeared from before turning away and heading out. "Come on."

Though Kiba hesitated, he followed when Sasuke did.

On the way, Shikamaru clarified, "Kakashi Hatake specializes in tracking and capture missions. Your mother had your cousins doing a capture exercise. She was irritated, but decided to give up information after whatever your cousin told her. So what do you think your gate guard meant?"

"With the warning? Yeah, the visit could've set everyone off."

Shikamaru gave him a look.

"What? I've been with you."

Sasuke said, "If the exercise was a competition between them, the jonin must have just left. He wasn't testing us, he was late."

In the following silence, Kiba sped up. They ran side by side.

Outside the gates, Sasuke and Shikamaru set out at the same speed they'd arrived. Kiba took a few beats longer. Kama and Tsuchi were the only others in sight, so Kiba checked the air. He focused for signs of the Jonin's recent escape past Shikamaru's curious glance back. From the west, a breeze swept stray leaves to their feet, along with the scent of a dog. It wasn't Inuzuka. Kiba's head snapped towards a point on the nearest rooftop.

He fell behind as his teammates jumped up on the opposite side of the street. "Wait. There."

"Kiba?" Shikamaru said, stopping. Sasuke waited with a clenched jaw.

Peering around, Kiba joined them. The smell had vanished, but he'd recognized that specific mix of oils and fresh shampoo. "I smelled something," he explained, willing the breeze to pick up again. He pointed to the roof. "The Jonin's nin-dog was watching us."

"He must have had it with him when he left," Sasuke said.

More like it had been waiting there. Kiba sniffed for the Jonin's scent, everything else fading. "I don't think so."

Sasuke shook his head. "We need to leave." He looked at Shikamaru.

"You still think he's testing us then?"

Kiba said, "It doesn't feel like he'd hang around for no reason."

"If he didn't go back right away, good." Sasuke turned, drawing Kiba's attention. He kept running. "We'll get there first."

Shikamaru inclined his head in a gesture to follow, but Kiba's eyes flicked to the rooftop. He shook his own head.

"Let us know if you're right. I'll send Akamaru if Sasuke is." Shikamaru left to catch up without waiting for a response.

Frowning, Kiba muttered, "Yeah." He grunted, then doubled back to the rooftop.

There was no dog, but an impression of its scent and chakra lingered in a shaded spot under the overlay of a roof. Kiba crouched down. Closer, the memory of lightning floated in the air and seeped into the shingles. A puff of chakra and lack of a trail both pointed to the dog being summoned and released.

Kiba snarled, glancing in the vague direction of the others. Narrowing his attention to the section of roof, he smelled, among the grime and pollen, scuffs with the same signature. Kiba leaned over them. Beyond that sign that the Jonin had landed there, more marks traveled away. They had the scentless, chakra-imbedded imprint of footprints made with a body flicker technique. Kiba pushed forward, running alongside the trail. This time, he wasn't far behind.

He traveled the scuffed rooftops back towards the marketplace. The prints set down between two food stalls, the chakra use cutting out in a burst. Any more physical traces mixed in with the milling crowd. Kiba stood and centered himself, breathing in and out. He pushed past the sweat of a hundred people, the cooked and fresh game, the roasting vegetables and nuts, and the pungent teas. Under it all, the Jonin's trail had disappeared, but Kiba caught the hint of dog.

He marked the source in his mind but contained the impulse to run straight for it. Opening his eyes, he stepped into the crowd. He made for a side street to start circling down wind. Most nin-dogs could track chakra, so Kiba tried to disguise his by sticking near the strong life force of the towering Hashirama trees growing throughout the streets. He kept within their shadows, hoping the dog wasn't on alert, and crept closer.

Beside a trunk as wide as a person, Kiba caught sight of a dark-eared brown pug dressed in a deep, standard blue vest with a simple white design stitched on the back. The dog was standing on a stool in a small rice and sushi restaurant, talking to a hesitant and quiet cook.

"In the pocket." It turned to the side to give access to its vest. "You can take the total, but try anything funny and I'll bite you."

Kiba tilted his head and looked around for the jonin as the cook gingerly retrieved a bundle of money, replaced the rest, and held out two cloth-wrapped boxes. The dog bit the ties to hold them and hopped down to leave. It made its way over to a tree and jumped into the branches, then ran across a series of trees and rooftops, away from Kiba. Waiting for someone to move after it, Kiba watched it get almost out of sight before he followed.

As his pursuit led closer to the center of Konoha, Kiba still didn't smell the jonin. The dog didn't move like someone concerned with shaking possible tails either. Losing patience, Kiba began to think he should have spent more time searching the marketplace. He sped up to approach.

The dog broke stride, kicking off one branch, spinning, and landing facing Kiba on the next. Around the cloth in its mouth, it said, "You're not getting my food."

Kiba jerked to a stop across from it, his feet finding purchase with a crack. "Huh?"

It turned again and ran full speed away.

"Hey, wait! I don't want your lunches!" Kiba pushed off, and leaves shook.

He and the dog raced into and through an otherwise peaceful neighborhood. While the dog had no trouble maneuvering on steep inclines and slick surfaces, Kiba clambered behind. On the roof of a weapons supplier, they crossed a large shadow, and someone called out from above.

"Kiba. There is a problem."

Kiba's heart jumped, sending him skittering away from the person perched in a cluster of overhanging branches. A high-collared grey coat swallowed the figure up to his nose, and black shades hid his eyes. "Shino! You came out of nowhere." Kiba strained a laugh. "Can't talk now."

"You will be interested in this." Shino dropped down. "Why? Because Shikamaru is with my own team. He is distressing Hinata."

Kiba stopped attempting to shuffle around. "Shikamaru? How?" Besides how unlikely that was, he and Sasuke should have gone straight to the academy. If the strange, easy-to-follow, hard-to-catch dog hadn't distracted Kiba, he would have gone with them.

"How? Because he is interfering with our mission."

"He is?"

"Come with me." Shino dashed off in a direction slightly to the right of the academy.

Kiba shook his head. Letting go of his chase, he went with Shino.

They diverted from the grouping of shops and apartments catered to ninja to a small triangular park made by the junction of a few blocks. The park had some artful stonework, along with areas to eat and a few raised checker boards. Hinata and Choji idled near one of them while Shikamaru sat moving pieces against an old man with a full salt-and-pepper beard. Bags were collected around Choji, who was settled on the ground eating chips and not paying much attention, and Hinata, who stood fidgeting with her hands clasped.

While Kiba and Shino approached, the man chattered in a steady stream, "I wouldn't say the place down the road is worth mentioning though. They change the prices on you with the weather. No, you're better off walking a couple blocks..."

As the man went on about shopping habits, Hinata looked up, prompting a glance from Shikamaru.

Choji raised his chips in greeting. "Have a seat."

"What's going on?" Kiba plopped down between him and Hinata.

"Shikamaru's playing shogi for a pack of cigarettes."

"Right. Where's Sasuke?"

"He said he had more important things to do."

Kiba nodded, then watched another moment. He might have seen Sasuke's point. "Did your jonin leader give you a weird test after he picked you up?"

Choji tilted his head at the question. "He brought us to the mission office. We got a D-Rank to help out around the civ school."

"A mission we are bound to fail," Shino added from the other side of Hinata. "Why? Because we are violating mission parameters."

"Right now?"

Choji said, "The cigarettes are for us. We were supposed to buy a bunch of supplies within the school's budget." He pulled out a list and handed it over to Kiba. Every item had been crossed out except the last, written with different handwriting. Cigarettes.

"There a lot of students taking up smoking?"

Shino said, "We are meant to be purchasing the pack for our jonin leader."

Hinata said, "We can't buy items for personal use with money belonging to the school."

Kiba looked at each of the others. "So tell that guy to quit." At Hinata's horrified expression, he added, "Politely."

Choji said, "I didn't think you knew what politeness was."

Kiba showed him his teeth then walked up to the board, scrutinizing it. The game had progressed by two moves, and Sasuke could have met their jonin leader already. Kiba interrupted the old man, "Hey, Shikamaru. This can't be the only way to get smokes. Think of something else or I'll carry you back to the academy."

"Oh," Hinata said, and Choji laughed. The man moved a piece.

Shikamaru frowned at Kiba. He took his turn and leaned back to watch his opponent.

Kiba prodded his shoulder. "You know I'll do it."

Shikamaru waved the hand away and crossed his arms. "Their leader had to know the rules when he added to the list. This gets around them."

"And what doesn't?"

Shikamaru shook his head.

Kiba started for him, "Well..."

"He wouldn't be happy."

"This guy sounds like a jerk anyway."

Choji said, "Right? Before this, I thought he seemed cool."

"Please tell us," Hinata said. They all looked at her. Her arms locked to her sides, and her face turned red. "We can bear the consequences. It's not right to keep you here for our responsibility." The last words came breathier than the first.

"You gonna let her show you up?" Kiba said to Choji.

Choji shook his head and stood. "No, she's right. Don't worry about us, Shikamaru."

Shikamaru looked at them, then the game. "If you specify the item is for a superior officer on the request form, you can buy it on credit from the mission office. The list is good enough for proof of approval, so the charge will be filed to his account and taken out of his mission pay."

Kiba blinked. "That's that then." He pulled Shikamaru by the arm. "Sorry, old man. We've got somewhere to be."

Shikamaru resisted to say the others, "He'll see the charge."

Choji nodded towards the academy. "Go on. We've got this."

"Why? Because it is our mission."

Kiba pulled Shikamaru a few steps before he got him running on his own. "What happened to signaling?"

Shikamaru kept his expression bland. "Sasuke went ahead."

"And if he's the only one at the academy when our leader gets there?"

"Better hope you were wrong about this being a test."

At Shikamaru's smirk, Kiba shoved him. "Idiot! Just run faster." They didn't have long before they got back.

Sasuke's hand lingered a motion away from the door of the academy classroom. On the other side, Akamaru barked. Sasuke stepped in, and the noise stopped. Near a far desk where Akamaru sat, a man was perched on an open windowsill. The man had the jonin uniform of dark blue clothes under a green tactical vest, the plate badge of Konaha on a band over his right eye, and grey hair. They both looked over.

"You're late," Kakashi Hatake said. Then he raised his eyebrows.

Sasuke clenched his teeth. "We thought we had to search for you."

Kakashi hummed down at Akamaru. "Well, that was wrong."

Silence fell. Sasuke said, "Yes."

"I wonder, how often do genin ignore orders?" Kakashi looked into his eyes. "I could demote you." When Sasuke straightened with an inhale, he turned his attention to the window with an easy motion. "Where are the others?"

"They sent me ahead." Sasuke forced his fingers to stop clenching. "They wanted me to signal them if I found you."

"No need. We'll wait. Let's see how long this takes."

The man made no sense. Sasuke slowly nodded and climbed a step up to sit at one of the center desks.

Kakashi watched him until he had folded his hands and looked over again. He tilted his head towards Akamaru, blocked his mouth with his hand as if that would keep him from being heard, and said to the dog, "They're lucky to have you." He disappeared in a rush of air that swept Akamaru's fur towards the window.

Sasuke's hands tightened, but he stood up before his knuckles could turn white. He approached the window while he stretched and curled his fingers. He rested his hands on the sill. Kakashi had body flickered somewhere out of sight. On the road beyond the academy, Kiba and Shikamaru were nowhere to be found. He looked at Akamaru, then jumped out onto green grass. Akamaru dropped down after him.

Sasuke walked out, still in sight of the classroom, and looked around again. He caught grey and dark blue on the roof. Kakashi was leaned up against the wall of another level. His head moved a little when Sasuke spotted him but continued to stare at the people on the road. From that viewpoint, he could probably see people heading into the Hokage tower too.

Sasuke made his way to the small testing ground on that side of the academy. He reached into the pack on his thigh and pulled out three kunai. Each one hit a separate target. He glanced, but Kakashi didn't seem to mind.

On familiar green grass, Sasuke fell into routine. The first deviation came when a brown pug showed up carrying some blue cloth in its mouth. It hopped up to the man on the roof for a minute, then joined Akamaru in watching Sasuke. The nin-dogs kept themselves a few feet back from the thud of kunai sinking inches into their marks.

Sasuke's rhythm broke with a bark. Akamaru ran behind him, to the side where Kiba had arrived with Shikamaru. He looked at the pug and whispered something before opening his arms to Akamaru, who leapt up to be pet. Sasuke started making his way over.

Kiba called out, "Did we make it?"

Sasuke looked towards the roof of the academy.

Three stories up, Kakashi was watching from the edge of the building. He jumped down with a body flicker, appearing next to his dog. "You genin get worse every year."

"That's a no," Shikamaru said.

Sasuke tensed, and Kiba bristled.

"Since we're short on time today, I'll be brief." Kakashi took a half-lidded look at them, then held up a bell. "If you can take this from me, I won't send you back to the academy."

Kiba narrowed his eyes at the glint of silver. "One bell."

Kakashi looked at it like he hadn't noticed. "Only a third of the genin who graduate ever get taken onto a jonin's team. Giving you those odds sounds fair, doesn't it?"

They exchanged disbelieving looks, and Akamaru barked a protest.

"But I'll be generous. Sasuke, since you at least found the sense to turn back, here." Kakashi threw the bell, which Sasuke caught, and pulled out another. "You can sit this out." His one exposed eye darkened. "Shikamaru and Kiba, you pass or fail as a team. Prove you're worth my time."

Sasuke held the bell so tight that his fingers pressed white. "I don't need special treatment."

"It's not. It's the benefit of being first."

Kiba said, "You did this on purpose."

"Quiet." At Kakashi's dark look, Kiba's mouth snapped shut.

Sasuke took in Kiba's snarl and Shikamaru's furrowed brow. They didn't stand a chance without support. Kakashi had singled out who'd pass or fail and set them apart for nothing, a bare justification to ease the way for the last Uchiha. Sasuke grit his teeth and threw the bell back. "I'm doing the test."

Kiba smiled sideways at him before looking back.

Kakashi tilted his head. "Hmm." The bell he'd given Sasuke vanished in a puff of chakra. "You pass."

After a beat of silence, Sasuke said, "What does that mean?"

"No test. I'll see you all at training ground three at sunrise."

He disappeared in a swirl of leaves, and all of them looked at each other.

Kiba said, "That was easy."

Sasuke scowled, and Shikamaru dipped his head. Kiba grinned.

Sasuke worked his jaw, but when Shikamaru rolled his eyes to him, he looked away. Kiba leaned forward. "Did you know he was jerking us around?"

Sasuke eyed the area Kakashi had left. "No."

Kiba leaned back and stretched his shoulders. "Good call."

Sasuke narrowed his eyes at him, nodded, then started walking past. Shikamaru watched even as he gave him space to leave, but Kiba matched him. Akamaru ran along slightly ahead.

Kiba moved faster, picking Akamaru up, and faced them. "Tomorrow at dawn, right?"

Sasuke stopped with a half-hearted glare, but Kiba stood unaffected.

"Think it's going to be team training or a mission?"

Sasuke shook his head, looking away.

"How is this going to work?" Kiba asked, pulling Sasuke's attention back. He raised his chin. "We're a team, right? We can be the best in the village." Sasuke mirrored Kiba. Shikamaru had looked down, so Kiba paused until he caught his eyes. "The way it looks now, we're going to have to take care of ourselves, watch each other's backs."

Sasuke's nose twitched towards a sneer before he controlled himself. "I don't need anyone's help."

Shikamaru only gave a bland raise of his eyebrows.

Kiba walked forward, closer to making an equal triangle between them. "To get stronger, promoted? Training together and learning each other's moves is how we survive."

Sasuke didn't respond, but his jaw clenched.

Shikamaru said, "You're going to make this difficult, aren't you?"

Kiba looked down at Akamaru, who barked back. After a moment, he asked Shikamaru, "Before, when you heard that jonin's name, you knew him?"

Shikamaru kept up his mild expression. "He's in the bingo book."

"So what's his deal?"

Shikamaru rolled his head back and sighed at the sky. "He's supposed to be the Copy-nin. He knows over a hundred chakra techniques, but his signature is lightning. He created an assassination technique called the Chidori that chirps like a thousand birds. Most of the rest you know. He's a tracker — uses nin-dogs." He looked at Sasuke. "He has a Sharingan under that forehead protector."

"Sharin-" Kiba started to mutter, then cut himself off.

Sasuke's annoyance burgeoned into something that held him still and sharpened his vision. "He's not an Uchiha."

"No, it's implanted."

"It's stolen."

Shikamaru stared back half-lidded. "The book didn't say."

Sasuke grit his teeth and made to walk off before the pressure inside him could peak. Kiba turned to call after him, putting Akamaru on top of his head. "Don't you want to show him he can't jerk us around?"

Sasuke stood for a moment, facing away, then turned on Kiba. "I'm not going to hold back."

Kiba grinned and shared a nod with Sasuke. He gave Shikamaru a thumbs up. "How do you think Choji's team did?"

"It's been fifteen minutes." Shikamaru slipped away to slump against a tree in the nearest spot of shade. "They're still doing paperwork."

Kakashi flickered into the trees near the seventh training ground, the closest training ground to the civilian school Asuma Sarutobi and his genin team had just been on a mission for. Asuma was perched high, watching over the Hyuuga, Aburame, and Akamichi clan heirs.

With some courtesy rustling, Kakashi dropped in next to him. "So they made it."

Asuma didn't bother looking at him, focused on how his team was showing off tricks for a few of the civilian kids. Asuma's career wouldn't have suffered if he'd failed the stacked team, but the clans probably wouldn't have accepted them all being sent to the academy or corps either. "They had help, but that's its own skill. Yours?"

Kakashi sighed, exaggerated.

Asuma chuckled. "It had to happen sometime. Kurunai won't believe me." He looked over. Kakashi was watching him silently. "She might look a little like that."

Kakashi shook his head. "Not many people use a mission as a test. The school?"

Asuma's face fell. He interested himself in his team again. "We've all got our methods."

"You haven't been back long. Maybe find your footing before you try shaking trees."

"I am," Asuma said seriously. He glanced over, then back. "Didn't expect words of caution from you."

"It's a day for the unexpected." Kakashi stood, looking down at him. "Take care, Asuma."

He left without waiting for a reply.