/~/

"Take a seat, Uzumaki-san."

It was a marked improvement from his first trip to ANBU's Torture and Interrogation Department. He wouldn't even be here had Yamanaka Inoichi maintained an office somewhere else.

As it was, the office was simple and professional. He dropped onto a plush red couch across from a comfortable looking armchair; a simple wooden coffee table sat between them. Inoichi himself sat behind a heavy looking desk made of a matching dark wood, scribbling away at a piece of paper. The desk, like most of the office, was mostly unadorned. The only accoutrements were what looked to be picture frames, undoubtedly holding photos of family members, and a sheathed, ornamental ninjato resting on a block of wood.

Putting the finishing touches on whatever the head of ANBU T&I did, the older man rose and smiled. It reached his eyes, but Naruto could tell the clan head was tired. His chakra levels were muted and the lines around and beneath his eyes spoke of minimal sleep.

"Apologies. There's always something else to finish," Inoichi said, sitting down opposite the younger blond.

"Can't say I envy your position."

"I'd call you a fool if you did." He pulled a slim, black recording device out of one of the pockets of his vest and placed it on the table between them. "Follow up evaluation: Uzumaki Naruto." Inoichi smiled. "Try to stay relaxed, you're just speaking with me."

Just Ino's father, got it. Naruto smiled back thinly. Ino had told the Godaime about their momentary entanglement, he knew; he had no idea whether that information had made its way back to Inoichi. Unlikely since he didn't remove himself from being my evaluator, he mused. Some of the tension bleeding out of his shoulders and neck at the thought, Naruto leaned back and made himself comfortable.

"Ask away."

"It's been two weeks since you and I last spoke," the words were punctuated with a small, companionable grin, "How have you found yourself adjusting to Konoha?"

Naruto shifted his gaze away from the older man, considering. "Better than expected." When Inoichi didn't speak, he continued, "It's nice to be part of a team again. It's nice to be around people again, I guess."

"You didn't strike me as lonely, during our first session."

Shrugging, the younger blond said, "I wasn't. But there's a difference between talking with contracted summons and humans. The Salamanders are my friends and allies. They can't relate to being human. We don't think the same."

"Hmm. I've never had a summoning contract myself, but that makes sense," Inoichi allowed. "We'll get into your new team later on, but have you been making connections outside of them?"

Naruto nodded. "Reconnecting with old friends."

/~/

"I can't believe how big you are!"

Naruto scratched the back of his head bashfully as Hikari ushered him inside a modest one bedroom. "It's only been six years," he said. Remembering himself, he thrust forward the flowers in his left hand. "For you and Daisuke. Thank you for inviting me."

"Our pleasure, man," Daisuke crowed as Hikari took the flowers. He grabbed Naruto's hand firmly and pulled him into a one-armed embrace. The redhead was clad in loose-fitting, navy fatigues, a sharp contrast with Hikari's far more formal burgundy kimono. "Glad you had the time."

"Well I'm not technically allowed to leave the village just yet," Naruto said with a smile. "Couldn't avoid you for too long."

"Have you found an apartment?" Hikari asked, ignoring his poor attempt at humor. She passed him a steaming cup of fragrant tea that he took gratefully. "Daisuke said you were put up in the barracks."

"I did. Studio a few blocks off the market district. It's small but it works." In reality, the simple amenities were a nice difference from both the rugged minimalism of his house in Tea Country and the casual luxury in Ame.

"Civilian area," Daisuke grunted, slipping an arm around his fiancé – who he was now officially taller than, the blond noticed.

Naruto shrugged. "I don't mind it. Between you and me, I'm still not totally comfortable being back in a ninja village."

"We're a scary bunch." Daisuke yelped as Hikari did something unseen to him.

"Ignore him, Naruto. Come, take a seat," the Hyuuga said, taking him by the arm and leading him toward the table. "We're running a bit low on food so I had to make a last minute stop at the market, but I hope you'll like it."

"He's been living on a beach eating nothing but sand crabs for who knows how long, Hikari. And before that, it was war rations. You could serve him instant ramen and he'd be fine," the redhead snarked.

"Well excuse me for being raised with manners," Hikari sniffed. She turned a pupil-less glare on her fiancé. "Shouldn't you be offering him a drink?"

Daisuke must've seen something in her eyes that Naruto missed, because he made a beeline for the kitchen.

"The sand crabs really weren't bad," he said as Hikari turned back to him.

Her eyes rolled and her lips quirked upward. "I should hope my cooking clears the bar, then."

Moving to the table, Naruto surveyed the branch Hyuuga in his periphery, trying to marry his memories of the strong-willed, fairly no-nonsense operator with the woman before him now. She'd been a far more nurturing figure than Daisuke or Housei, but then that wasn't a high bar to clear. Now, though, she was softer, which really shouldn't be surprising. ANBU brought out the harshest side of everyone. For some, the only way to cope was by shutting certain aspects of their personality down. Others, like Daisuke, enhanced other parts.

Or maybe we all just grew up.

"Hope you're good with beer." Daisuke padded back in and handed him a green bottle identical to what they'd been drinking at the Indigo weeks ago.

"So long as it's not clear and made in the Land of Water it's fine by me." He flicked the cap off with a miniscule application of chakra and tossed it into the waste bin in the corner. "How're the genin treating you?" he asked as Hikari left to put the finishing touched on whatever wonderful smell was wafting out of the kitchen.

"They're good kids. A fifteen year old and two fourteen year olds so, ya know, they're shitheads, but good kids." The redhead plopped down across from Naruto and ran a hand through his hair. "Never thought I'd be scared of a C-ranked mission, but here we are."

Naruto nodded, remembering that their original sensei had been injured on a previous C-rank. "Takes on new meaning when you're in charge," he said.

"It's not like they're helpless; been together going on three years now. But you know how it goes…" Daisuke took a pull from his beer that Naruto copied.

"Never pegged you for the responsible type."

"Shit, you and me both, Naruto," the redhead laughed.

"I've been a good influence on him," Hikari said as she emerged from the kitchen, two steaming plates piled high with red sauce and smelling of garlic and onion. She placed one in front of Naruto and the other at the empty place setting, sitting down gracefully.

"Um, excuse me?" Daisuke harangued.

"You live here. Serve yourself."

The redhead rose, an affected expression of incredulity on his face. "This is what passes for Hyuuga manners these days? Sad!"

"Please ignore him."

"I always do. This is delicious by the way," Naruto complimented around a mouthful of chicken, mushrooms, and rice.

"Is it? I know it's nothing special…"

"Seriously, and not just because of the sand crabs."

Hikari smiled, gratified, and took a bite herself.

"Daisuke mentioned you're working for your clan these days?" Naruto asked.

"Yes, unfortunately," the Hyuuga said as Daisuke made his way back, plate piled high.

"What does that look like?"

She sighed. "I sit on multiple committees to…make sure Hyuuga interests are being represented is the official line. Of course, I'm Branch, so none of the committees are all that important. Those seats are reserved for Main House members."

"There's no point, is what she's saying," Daisuke chirped. Hikari didn't contradict him. "But, hey! The pay's decent."

"You're tokubetsu. Why not take missions?" Naruto asked, genuinely curious.

"The short answer is I don't want to," Hikari said. Her pale eyes turned to Naruto and she smiled. "I had my fill of defying death in ANBU. And once Daisuke and I decided to give it a try, it just didn't make much sense anymore to be leaving for weeks at a time. I'm lucky that I have the option."

The couple's hands found each other's across the table. Naruto couldn't help his smile. ANBU was for the young and unattached. That his old teammates had done this well for themselves after leaving the corps was everything he'd ever hoped for himself after Kusa.

"Enough about us. What do they have you doing, Naruto?" Hikari asked kindly.

The blond grimaced tightly. "Classified, unfortunately."

Daisuke guffawed, and muttered, "Figures," under his breath. "Anything you can tell us?" he asked before taking a swig. "Inquiring minds wanna know."

Quirking an eyebrow and smirking at the older man's antics, Naruto said, "Only thing not classified is the team assignment. Uchiha Sasuke and Yamanaka Ino. Can't say any more."

And the only reason that wasn't classified was because any shinobi could just happen upon them training.

Daisuke's chopsticks froze halfway to his mouth and he exchanged a look with Hikari. "With you leading?" she asked. At Naruto's answering nod, her well-manicured brows lifted. "That's…quite the team, Naruto."

"You don't do things by half, huh," Daisuke said, a wry gleam in his eyes as he finished his bite.

Naruto frowned. "Not sure what you're getting at..."

"You're leading a team with the Hokage's apprentice and the last Uchiha," the redhead said slowly. Naruto nodded – he was no stranger to his squad mates' skills. "That's a lotta firepower."

"That's a lot of star power," Hikari corrected. "I know you haven't been here for long, but Ino and Sasuke are consensus future elites."

"And you're, well, you," Daisuke finished.

Nagato's words echoed in his mind: "They will want you back just as surely as they wanted him."

Leaning back, the blond took a swig of his beer, suddenly uneasy. "I get that, but I've been gone six years. Any reputation I might've had in ANBU is long gone by now."

Scoffing, Daisuke said, "Don't think you know quite what your rep was back in the day."

"Nobody ever said much because it was ANBU. It didn't matter," Hikari said around a mouthful. "But just because they didn't say much didn't mean they didn't say anything."

"And what were they saying?" he asked, decidedly uncomfortable.

The couple exchanged another glance before Hikari shrugged delicately. "The second coming of Itachi, mostly. Hokage candidate. Things of that nature."

"I was thirteen," Naruto scoffed.

"In ANBU. Naruto, you were the first kid that young in the corps since Itachi. There hasn't been another since," Daisuke said. "That means something. And people talk."

"Surely you weren't blind to everything we're saying," Hikari said softly, an eyebrow raised. "You had to have noticed."

Naruto sighed. He'd always known he was special; had taken pride in it more than once. "You're not wrong. I just…It's not exactly comfortable hearing about it, y'know? What'd you all think of me?"

"That you were a jumped up little shit with too much dip on his chip," Daisuke fired back without missing a beat.

The blond choked a laugh around a sip of beer while Hikari swatted at the redhead. "Can't you be serious for five minutes?"

"He asked, I answered!"

Naruto ran a hand through his hair, thankful for the levity. Regardless of how right Nagato may have been, and likely was, hearing it from people who had known him was markedly different. However much his younger self may have craved recognition and rank, all he wanted now most days was to blend in.

Hikari's hand on his arm shook him from his musings. "We don't mean to make you uncomfortable. But, well, we thought you knew."

He smiled at her. "I think I did. Just different hearing you guys talk about it so plainly."

"Hey, man, at least there's no pressure, right?" Daisuke said, waggling his eyebrows as he rose.

Rolling his eyes with a smile, Naruto drained his beer. "Think I'll take another one of these. Sounds like I'll need it."

/~/

"Do you want to talk more about how others view you?" Inoichi asked.

Naruto shrugged. "What's there to say? Are you comfortable when you know people talk about you?"

"Never. By virtue of my work I'm able to maintain a more professional distance from a good part of the shinobi corps, however," the older man said. "That distance allows me to insulate myself from such things. As of now, you have no such buffer."

A blond brow ticked up; it was a more in depth answer than he'd expected. "I'm made uncomfortable by the implicit expectations that come with it," he allowed.

"Meeting them?"

"I guess. Mostly just that they're there."

"So you want to live a life free of expectations?"

Smiling thinly, Naruto asked, "Doesn't everyone?"

"Not necessarily: those who crave or seek responsibility don't. Not all expectations are bad. My wife expects me to be home in time for dinner most night of the week," Inoichi said with humor. "The village expects me to perform my job to a certain standard in order to keep people safe. Both of which I take pride in."

"Is that what gets you out of bed every day, then? Keeping people safe?" Naruto asked, genuinely curious.

"You're very reciprocal." Naruto said nothing, and Inoichi smirked. "Yes, that's my motivation some days. Others it could be any number of things. Are you normally so inquisitive about people?"

"You've had a front row seat to everything I've ever seen or felt," the younger blond returned. Inwardly, he marveled at the discomfort roiling beneath his skin at the admission. "Maybe I want to even the playing field."

"A completely normal response," the older man reassured quickly. "The power dynamic is skewed between us. In most other circumstances, I'd have had to remove myself from your care. Given the nature of my…findings, however, the Hokage felt it prudent to include as few people as possible."

Naruto nodded, accepting the implied apology.

"Let's get back to expectations. You said you have a problem with them simply existing…"

Sighing, the blond shifted on the couch. "There's a lot of pressure on me to succeed. And I guess if I had a real problem with that I wouldn't be here," he said, entirely truthful. "When it comes to my being back in Konoha, looking back on everything, the way I grew up, I guess it just feels like I never had a choice. I wanted to be great, exceptional, sure. But I can't help but wonder how much of that was me and how much was people choosing things for me."

"People, in this case, being?"

"Did you often debrief teenagers with the Sandaime, Inoichi-san?"

"Ah." Inoichi crossed one leg over the other. "No, I suppose I didn't."

"So you can see why I'd be uncomfortable with the choices I thought I made, but retrospectively seem like they were made for me."

"Would you consider yourself resentful?"

"You already know the answer to that."

"I'd like to hear your interpretation of your feelings," Inoichi said kindly. "Speaking as a psychologist now, instead of an interrogator, what I think about your feelings is irrelevant. Your own interpretations, how you feel about them, matter far more."

Naruto let the silence hang, considering. "I don't resent Konoha as a whole," he said at length. "Sandaime-sama and Danzo sent me off to a war I couldn't have ever been prepared for. I can't exactly get those years of my life back. So yes, I'm resentful. I think you probably would be too."

"Quite possibly," the older man allowed, voice quiet and expression unreadable. Naruto wondered which of his memories he was pondering over. "Let's shift gears. We've talked about reconnecting with old friends. Outside of your team, have there been any new connections? New friends, people you enjoy spending time with?"

"One or two."

"And how would you characterize your time spent with them?"

Naruto paused. "Productive," he said with a smirk.

/~/

Naruto exhaled, a thought accelerating the ice particles in the air in criss-crossing, collision courses. Lightning erupted around his right arm a moment later, small crackles disturbing the peaceful air of the Hokage's training ground. A brief pins and needles sensation made the hairs on his outstretched arm rise; a quick flex relieved the feeling a moment later.

"That's definitely a first," Jiraiya mused. "How'd you figure it out?"

"Trial and error mostly," Naruto said. "Once I understood how it worked it was just a matter of replicating it on a much smaller scale."

"And you said the Salamanders taught you?"

Not exactly. "They've taught me more than I thought was possible," he said truthfully.

Jiraiya chuckled good naturedly as Naruto's jutsu cut off. "Think that's the nature of summons. I basically tripped and fell over backwards into the Toad contract and it's probably the luckiest I ever got." The older man cocked his head to the side and his brow furrowed. "Well, maybe second luckiest," he said with a goofy smile.

The blond sat down on the smooth stone and leaned back against the sloping cavern wall. "I'm fortunate to call them allies. I wouldn't be who I am today if not for them. I probably wouldn't even be alive."

"You've mentioned that." The older man plopped down next to him and flicked open a scroll. Two canteens popped into existence, and he passed one to Naruto who took it gratefully. It was needed after a training session with a Sannin. "How'd they manage it? I've learned a ton from the Toads but healing's not their forte. Always thought that was the slugs' wheelhouse."

"It's not medical ninjutsu," Naruto said. "It's honestly a bit tough to describe…"

"I'm something of a purveyor of the esoteric," Jiraiya harangued with a smirk. "Try me."

Now used to the older man's humor, the blond smiled. "It's a trance. My body basically drops into what they call a hibernation state and…" he trailed off, mind clicking onto something he'd forgotten to ask about a week before. Blue eyes slid over to Jiraiya, seeing a questioning eyebrow raised. "What was that technique you used at the end of our fight?"

The second eyebrow joined the first. "Thought we were talking about you?"

"Humor me, please."

Huffing, Jiraiya joined him in leaning back. "It's a Toad technique. They call it senjutsu. Long story short, you draw what's called natural energy into your body, balance it with the rest of your chakra, and it becomes part of your chakra stores. It increases durability, speed, strength…"

"Senjutsu," Naruto parroted. He shook himself back to the present, mind awhirl. "The Salamanders described the trance as letting the world heal you. You 'open yourself' to the world's energies, if that makes any sense."

"Perfect sense," Jiraiya murmured. "Can you describe the feeling?"

The blond shook his head once. "Not really. I meditated on it a lot when they first found me but didn't really get anywhere; couldn't find what they told me to look for. Ibuse ended up putting me into the trance manually enough times that my body adapted. Subconsciously, I can find it."

"So you learned backwards, basically."

"In a way. I've never been able to replicate it consciously." Unless…

A large hand combed through the older man's mane. "I've never heard of senjutsu to heal before. Tsunade says it speeds my metabolism something fierce, though, so I guess it's not outta the question." He turned to Naruto. "If you don't consciously know how it feels, why'd you ask me about my technique?"

"Because I've felt that before," Naruto declared. How many massive sources of energy can there be? He rose abruptly and began to pace. "My water affinity is high enough that I can feel the individual particles. It's how I make lightning." He saw Jiraiya nod and lean forward, interest naked on his face. "I've been able to…enhance my awareness through water particles in the air for years. I used to only be able to do it when I deliberately used the Kirigakure no jutsu. In Kusa I learned how to do it just by focusing, and it's only gotten sharper since. More recently, when I meditate there's more. A heaviness that's just out of reach. If I focus correctly, it's like I can see the world with my eyes closed."

The older man was quiet as he rested his chin in his palm. Dark eyes surveyed the blond with some emotion Naruto couldn't pin down. "What happens if you focus incorrectly?"

"It slips; I lose it."

"Can you describe what focusing correctly feels like?"

"You know those little floaters in your eyes? You can see them, but when you move your eye to look at them they move with it? It's like that," Naruto said as Jiraiya nodded. "If I'm content to just let it sit in my periphery, it stays. If I try to hone in on it…"

"It disappears," the older man finished. "Tricky bit of mental gymnastics to figure out how to hold onto it, I imagine."

"Haven't been able to pin it down."

"Hmm." Leaning back again, Jiraiya threaded his fingers together behind his head and stared up at the overcast sky. "If it is natural energy you're feeling, and I've got a feeling it is, you're going about it in a way I've never heard of. Or at least the slowest way I've ever heard of. That could be for a lotta reasons, but it sounds like the Salamanders don't have as sophisticated of methods as the Toads when it comes to training it."

"How do you mean?" Naruto asked, trying not to feel offended on behalf of his friends.

Jiraiya grinned crookedly. "Don't take it the wrong way. The Toads have been around since before the Gift of Chakra. Far as I've heard, only the snakes at Ryuuchi cave have been around as long. That's a millennium's worth of time to fine tune their chakra. You know how long the Salamanders have been around for?"

"Not that long," the blond allowed. Ibuse was their second patriarch, and he was only a couple of hundred years old as far as Naruto knew. Honosuke was younger than Jiraiya.

"Exactly. Combine that with the fact that the Toad's ancestral home is literally built on a hotbed of natural energy. Honestly, I'm more surprised the Salamanders cottoned on to natural energy at all, unless there are more hotbeds popping up," the older man trailed off, a considering look on his face. He shook himself a second later. "Anyway, the Toads developed an oil that basically throws you off a cliff into natural energy. One drop of the stuff and you're on a trip that'll put Wind Country's mushroom's to shame. That's how I learned."

"Definitely sounds faster than just meditating on it."

"Loads faster. To be honest, I'm still not all that great at it," Jiraiya said sourly. "When we fought, I used a clone to gather the energy below the water. Your lightning dispelled it and my body absorbed the latent senjutsu chakra."

"Do you think you could help me with it?" Naruto asked eagerly. The boost the nature chakra had given Jiraiya had been staggering.

The older man shrugged. "Don't see why not. Be a lotta trial and error considering I learned completely differently than you, but can't hurt. What I'd like to do is drop you at Mount Myoboku like I did with Minato." Jiraiya shook his head. "But the Toads are territorial and you're already contracted with the Salamanders so that's out."

"Could my father use senjutsu?" the blond asked, curious in spite of himself. The Yondaime's legend was still alluring despite his stated disinterest.

Jiraiya grimaced. "Not well. Turned out it was the one thing he didn't take to easily. I'm sure he could've figured it out, heavens know I'm still working on it, but it wasn't a priority for him."

He was plenty strong without it, Naruto mused.

"Anyway, no time like the present!" Jiraiya crowed, clapping his massive hands together. He beckoned Naruto closer, and the blond sat down in front of him, legs crossed. "The good news is you already know what you're looking for. The bad news is you can't focus on it without it disappearing. Am I right so far?" Naruto nodded. The older man rubbed his hands together, a childish grin overtaking his face. "So! That leaves us in the tricky space of getting you to completely grasp the idea of what you're doing, while also not paying any real attention to it, all at the exact same time."

The blond couldn't help his chuckle. "Sounds easy. Mental gymnastics indeed."

"Ahh, you're a sharp kid. Between the two of us, we'll get it figured out in no time." Jiraiya's gaze turned distant and he frowned contemplatively. "If we get stuck we could always just summon 'Bunta and Ibuse and pick their brains."

"Provided they don't try to kill each other first," Naruto muttered. Ibuse had a score to settle with the boss Toad dating back to the Third Great War.

"Eh, minor details. I'm sure we'd be fine."

/~/

"I had more meant people your own age," Inoichi said around a smile. "Not that Jiraiya-sama isn't a valuable friend."

"I wouldn't consider us friends," Naruto returned. "Not in a bad way, but we've trained together twice in the couple of weeks I've been back."

"Then what would you consider a friend?"

"Is this a question from the Hokage, or to satisfy your personal curiosity?" the younger blond tossed back. He wasn't truly annoyed, but being psychoanalyzed wasn't exactly enjoyable. It's not exactly relevant.

"It's a question of how well you can be expected to continue adjusting to Konoha," the older man said clinically.

Shrugging, Naruto said, "I've never had many friends. You've seen that. The people I've always been closest to were the ones I ran missions with; I've reconnected with the ones who are still around."

"How about this," Inoichi began. "You answer my question, and I'll answer one of yours."

"Reciprocity." Didn't think I was being that difficult, he thought.

"I apologize for not suggesting it sooner."

A blond brow rose at the unnecessary apology, but Naruto said nothing in response, choosing to ponder the question. "Someone I enjoy spending time with, of course," he said at length. "I don't know, I guess there's supposed to be some shared experiences there." He could always fall back on ANBU with Daisuke and Hikari.

"You hit on something there: shared experience. Do you think there are many people you know who have a similar set of experiences?"

"Thought we were trading questions now," Naruto said, smirking.

"Answer me this and I'll answer anything you'd like," Inoichi returned.

The younger blond pushed a strand of hair out of his face – it was growing back quickly. "No. I haven't exactly made any attempts to connect with the other operators who were in Kusa, but I expect my situation is rather unique."

"It is," the older man confirmed. "And I'm not suggesting you should look to speak with those men and women. I'm just trying to get a better picture of what your long term future in Konoha looks like."

"Thus the personal questions."

"Exactly. While there are those who are primarily concerned with your mission fitness, ensuring that you're in the best mental state to lead a healthy life is one of my main concerns. The ordeals you've been through were harrowing to say the least." Inoichi sighed. "You asked me if saving lives is what motivates me; it is, but probably not the way you think."

Naruto leaned back on the sofa, mildly interested in spite of himself.

"I fought in the Third War. It was, without a doubt, the worst experience of my life. And it's why I have this job," the older man said. "You're probably too young to remember much, it ended only a few years after you were born. By that time my wife and I had Ino. The thought of her facing what we did…" He shook his head. "There's nothing I won't do to prevent another war, prevent her from having to experience what I did."

You already failed, Naruto thought. He kept his face blank, however, in deference to the man's larger point. His daughter taking priority didn't make him a bad person. "An admirable goal," he said instead.

"One I wish more of my colleagues shared," Inoichi said at length. "Regardless: now you know something about me. How have you been adjusting to being part of a team again?"

"Saved the best for last?" Naruto asked with a smile.

The Yamanaka grinned. "I'm always interested in how others view my daughter. But, more seriously, you've been on your own for some time."

Trying not to think too hard about how he first viewed Ino, Naruto shifted to make himself more comfortable. "They've gelled faster than my last squad…"

/~/

He rolled out of the way of an earth bullet only to have the ground beneath his feet turn to sludge. A second of concentration saw him rising to the top of the muck, and he pushed off into a shunshin. He reappeared a second later in the path of Sasuke's fist.

Ice crystals formed at the speed of thought, blocking the blow, and Naruto snatched the Uchiha by the wrist, pulled him close, and crashed a palm strike into his solar plexus.

Shit. He threw his left hand skyward as Sasuke's body exploded into electricity. The current lanced through him and he redirected it up in a bolt that was strong enough to leave his hair standing on end. You'd think they're trying to kill me

His momentary need to stand still left him wide open. A Doryuudan raced toward him, jaws open wide to crush him whole. A half ram seal – Suiton: Zessenzan – saw a thin stream of water erupt from his mouth. It impacted the approaching dragon and sliced through it vertically. The sludge parted around him in two neat waves as Naruto stepped forward.

Getting better, he thought as he dropped beneath Ino's punch, the latent chakra in her fist bleeding into the air. He kicked out at her legs but the younger blonde hopped adroitly over his sweep. Much better. Forced to abort his follow up kick as Ino's hair suddenly lengthened and sharpened into a cocoon, Naruto substituted with a nearby log.

Reappearing, he grinned. A thought encased him in ice half a foot thick as twin dragons of flame erupted from both his flanks. His palms slapped together as the worst of the heat passed a second later, twin sharks exploding from the leftover humidity. Eyes forward, he made a hand seal to lance out at two Sasuke's blurring away, but had to crouch as a bullet of sharpened ice made for his head.

"Son of a bitch," he muttered, locking eyes with himself across the thoroughly ruined clearing. A sheet of ice materialized in front of him to catch another bullet. It chipped, but held firm in time for Ino to plow through it a moment later.

Grimacing as he was pelted with a few thousand bits of shrapnel, Naruto redirected a punch to his left and noticed his legs were suddenly encased in ice. Sasuke was on him before he could break out of his clone's trap, and the blond leaned forward to halt the Uchiha's descending blade by catching his wrist. He got a front row seat to Sasuke's smirk as he yanked his arm back, pulling Naruto into the path of Ino's outstretched fist.

Ow. Chakra cushioned the worst of the damage, but he was still sent hurtling through the air from the sheer kinetic force. He skidded to a halt some thirty feet away and rolled to his feet, only for a wave higher than the trees to do its best to eclipse the sky above. Show off. It broke into three parts, each with a dragon's face, and dove for him in the time it took to blink.

He swirled himself into a Suiro no jutsu as the titanic force barreled into him, precise chakra control spinning his water prison up the length of the wave as it rebounded off the ground. Naruto rode the wave up as high as the backwash allowed, then propelled himself upward with a single, chakra enhanced butterfly kick.

Sasuke's chokuto greeted him as he broke the surface. Naruto smirked and brought both his hands up as the cold steel pressed lightly into the skin above his jugular vein. "I yield."

"Hn," Sasuke grunted, face betraying none of the satisfaction in the syllable. Ino landed next to him a moment later, grinning widely.

"Not bad for less than two weeks," she crowed. She nodded at the Uchiha next to her. "Nice work on the dragon pincer."

Sasuke just nodded, returning his blade to the sheath resting at the small of his back.

Naruto smiled at his charges. "That was three solid combos you managed to work through." He blinked as his clone dispelled beneath the manmade lake. Kage Bunshin was a tremendously useful technique. "Excuse me, four. I'm sure the last would've caught me if I hadn't already given up," he said sheepishly.

He shook the water out of his hair as he rose to his full height, a thought evaporating the latent moisture saturating his clothes. Both Sasuke and Ino stared at him, eyebrows raised as steam wafted off of him.

"Mind sharing the love?" Ino asked, gesturing at herself. Both she and Sasuke were thoroughly soaked as well.

"Apologies," he said. He reached out with his chakra and drew the water out of their clothes. It collected in two dense balls roughly the size of his head before dropping into the water beneath their feet. "Occupational hazard working with me, but you both know that by now. Good work! I wasn't timing it, but that felt a bit quicker than the drills from yesterday."

"Twelve seconds," Sasuke confirmed.

Almost as obsessed with minutia as Itachi. Must run in the family. "Fantastic. As far as feedback goes, that was nearly flawless. Ino, good work on anticipating your attack wouldn't force me to move. You took back the initiative by flying through that gap." The Yamanaka straightened slightly, lips turning upward a tick. "Sasuke, that lightning clone was well done. I barely sensed it in time to redirect the current."

He clapped his hands once and the ten feet of water beneath them began to drop as it was rapidly absorbed into the ground and evaporated back into the air simultaneously.

"Your teamwork is much improved with my clone," Naruto continued. "How comfortable are you both feeling with the coordination?" The majority of their maneuvers revolved around using either Sasuke's summons or his sensory abilities to pinpoint the enemy and converge upon them. Ino was a developing sensor herself, but wasn't anywhere close to his level, and as such was much better suited for violently taking advantages of any opportunities Sasuke's litany of ninjutsu created.

The two younger nin looked to each other. Ino raised an eyebrow while Sasuke shrugged. "Feeling good," Ino said for the both of them. "It's faster paced than I'm used to, working with your clone; but the openings that are created are bigger too, so it evens out."

"That's good to hear. It'll only get easier." As good as she was, Ino was the least suited to high level combat. But that wasn't saying much considering Naruto's own experience and Sasuke's eyes. She was catching on quickly.

"If we don't have anything else to address with the combos, I guess we're about done here," he declared. "Ino, stay back a minute, will you?"

A momentary look of apprehension was squashed on her face before she nodded. Sasuke spared the two of them a cursory glance before inclining his head ever-so-slightly. He disappeared in a shunshin a moment later.

Naruto ran a hand through his hair as the last of the water receded, leaving the two blondes standing in a dry, if ruined, clearing. They'd had five practices in the ten days since the team had been created, and somehow he and Ino still hadn't been alone long enough to clear the proverbial air. Sasuke had taken up some of that time with various questions, but part of it was just Naruto delaying the inevitable.

Get it over with, you twat.

"So," he began, only for Ino to quiet him with a raised hand.

"Look, I know that we've gotta have this talk considering everything. Just wanted to say that I apologize for running out on you the first day. It was unprofessional and disrespectful," she said, voice clinical.

Naruto fought from raising his eyebrows. Not what I expected, but ok. "Accepted." He paused and cocked his head. "Why did you, if you don't mind me asking?"

Ino's expression was studiously neutral. "I was embarrassed by my performance during the test."

That made some sense. She hadn't performed poorly by any stretch, but then both she and Sasuke were reasonably prideful shinobi. "Got it. Anyway, there's not a whole lot to cover. Considering that our…" he searched for the right word, "entanglement…happened before the team's construction and wouldn't be classified as a 'relationship,' there's nothing that needs to be reported officially." Unless we decide to continue.

He was far from opposed. Emotional attachments, if they existed, had a way of rearing their ugly heads regardless of sexual intimacy in his experience. But given Ino's relatively distant attitude in their team trainings – when compared to the night they met, at least – he wasn't expecting much. Probably for the best, he mused.

"I reported it to the Hokage after the initial team session," Ino said, breaking his reverie. "In the interest of transparency, I though you outta know." Naruto thought she looked a tad sheepish as she said it.

He quirked a brow and fought a smile. "In the interest of transparency, how'd she take it?"

His fellow blonde shrugged. "She's never cared what I do with my time outside of missions."

Well at least I won't have the Godaime breathing down my neck.

"She did show me your file," Ino said, pulling him up short.

His second eyebrow joined its counterpart. "Did she…I suppose I should be flattered that you didn't put in for a transfer," he murmured after a moment of consideration. He shoved his rising hackles back down; privacy was a myth in a hidden village – he'd just have to readjust.

"I'm not about to back down from a challenge," she declared, and Naruto couldn't help the bark of laughter that escaped him.

"Is that what I am, then?" he asked, shoving his hands in his pockets.

Ino had the good grace to grimace. "…that came out wrong. This is an important mission, and one I wanna be a part of."

Naruto nodded. "I believe you. Can I ask you a personal question?" Ino nodded back. "What does Tsunade want you looking out for?"

Her face shuttered. She held her silence for about ten seconds, seafoam eyes regarding him; Naruto held her gaze with ease, his sharpened awareness trained on her in return. "Nothing in particular," she said at length.

Her heart rate was steady. His sensing wasn't a foolproof lie detector test, certainly not one for a kunoichi of Ino's caliber, but it was an added perspective. He nodded, appreciating that she didn't bother trying to bullshit. Her being Tsunade's eyes and ears was a given; lying about it would've only lowered his opinion of her. "Fair enough."

"Can I ask you a personal question?" she threw back his way.

"Shoot."

"Why're you here?" Ino asked, naked interest written on her face.

Like teacher like student, I guess, he thought with humor. "Are you asking why I didn't stay on a beach in Tea Country?"

"Something like that. And none of that platitude shit," she ordered.

Naruto laughed. "What, you don't trust my sense of duty?"

Her lips turned up in a small smile. "Don't forget who my sensei is."

Nodding, for he'd already had this conversation with the Godaime anyway, he shrugged artlessly. Distantly, he wondered at Tsunade surrounding him with people who weren't preaching loyalty of the highest order. Would be an interesting way to build trust. "This mission, Akatsuki, it's more important than anything I feel personally. How deep did you get into my psych report?"

"Deep enough to understand why shishou would want me on the team."

Point. "My qualms lie with shinobi as a whole, not specifically Konoha."

"You're a pretty good killer for someone who claims to hate it," Ino said. Her gaze lingered on him, eyes glittering a brilliant blue in the midafternoon sunlight. It was similar to how she'd looked at him at the bar, though the clear attraction had been replaced by something far more calculating.

"Is that a question?"

"Take it however you want."

Naruto snorted lightly. "Just because you've done something, doesn't mean you have to keep doing it. I'm strong enough to have the luxury of a choice when I fight. So I choose life."

At some point in the conversation, Ino had drawn closer to him. She was no more than two arm's length from him now, and she had to look up slightly to meet his eyes. "I told you you couldn't be boring," Ino told him quietly.

"We've established that disappointing you is a bad idea." Naruto rocked back on his heels slightly. "Just holding up my end of the bargain."

White teeth gleamed as Ino grinned. "Much appreciated, senpai," she said lowly.

Fighting a flush, Naruto did his best not to fidget. "I may not have a ton of experience, but I feel like most people would have some qualms about working with someone like me."

Ino rolled her eyes. "Do I look like 'most people?' And my father doesn't seem to think you're that dangerous."

Oh, I bet you enjoyed that, didn't you? he thought uncharitably, connecting the dots between his interrogator and his squad-mate. Ino's face, predictably, revealed nothing. "Well…lucky me." At her immediate grin and raised eyebrows, he rolled his eyes. "Getting back on topic, am I gonna have to file a report to the Hokage?" he asked. The conversation had turned rather unexpectedly.

Snorting, Ino said, "No. I like you, but this mission is a bit more important." And like that, whatever tension had been between them evaporated like Naruto's suiton jutsu.

Professionalism slid back into place. "Understood. Anything else to go over?" he asked.

"Think we've about covered it."

"Then I'll see you at oh-seven-hundred in two days."

She nodded once and made a half ram seal. "Naruto," she bid farewell.

"Good work today, Ino."

/~/

"She's very driven," Naruto said, withdrawing from his reminiscence.

"Very," Inoichi affirmed. "She had an altercation during the Crush that flipped a switch in her." His eyes, a darker shade than his daughter's, glittered with amusement. "I'll admit it was a bit jarring at first, but I couldn't be more proud of the woman she's becoming."

The younger blond didn't bother to hide his smile.

"Anyway, your two week evaluation period is now complete. Is there anything else you'd like to share with me?"

Naruto shook his head.

"I thought not. You're acclimating better than I'd hoped when I performed your first evaluation," Inoichi said. "I'll speak to the Hokage and let her know I'm clearing you for active service. I would, however, ask that you continue to see a psychologist moving forward. It doesn't have to be me, but I feel you'd benefit greatly."

It was an easy price to pay. "That won't be a problem."

"Very good. Our time's up for today. Good luck, Naruto-san."

/~/