Geniuses of Hard Work
Of course, keep in mind... they ARE twelve. Best to be patient...
Team 8 settles down and gets to work!
Naruto leapt from roof to roof as dawn began streaking the eastern sky. He flexed his left hand repeatedly, trying to work out the annoying tingles. On Kurenai-sensei’s advice, he’d picked up a field alarm at one of the outfitter shops.
A shinobi on a mission might desire to wake at a specific time, or to limit the amount of rest he did allow himself to take. However, a conventional alarm clock was far too noisy to use when a mission might require stealth. At some point an extremely clever Cloud shinobi devised a portable clock powered by small, but powerful batteries, charged with a simple raiton jutsu. Instead of ringing a bell to wake its owner, the ninja-clock sent a pulse of electricity through a pair of wires attached to the owner’s body.
Naruto slipped the metal rings onto his fingers before finally falling asleep the previous night, trusting the device to wake him for his training session. The problem was that he stayed up fairly late beforehand. He’d been upset after the confrontation at Ichiraku’s, and the thought of his team-mates listening to Sakura berate him just made his stomach twist even worse.
He didn’t really understand why Shino and Hinata were willing to treat him differently than the others. A small part of him wondered if they would suddenly ‘wake up’ and see him like everyone else. The niggling fear of that occurring kept him from even thinking about taking Kurenai’s advice. He’d rather no one ever knew about his prisoner.
Such thoughts kept Naruto awake far later than he realized, and he’d evidently slept through the first several pulses of his new alarm clock. Whoever built this particular model must have had some experience with sound sleepers, though. The pulse that finally woke him up left his hand numb and tingling. That complicated things as he rushed around his small apartment, trying to get ready with only one hand working well.
Still, he did manage to make it on time, and arrived at the designated training area at the stroke of six. Of course, what he found there immediately had him wondering if he was still asleep and dreaming.
Gai… sensei… he supposed… was a large, muscular man in a green leotard. The outfit was loose on his frame, for which Naruto was grateful, and over it he wore a chuunin vest. Topping all of this was the ugliest bowl cut Naruto had ever seen.
Though the one on the kid standing next to him was close competition.
Standing next to Gai was a half-size duplicate that Naruto supposed was this Rock Lee person. He didn’t have the vest, though he did have the orange leg-warmers that matched with nothing else. After meeting Kurenai-sensei, Naruto was beginning to dislike that color for some reason.
“Ah, you are right on time!” The man boomed in a loud voice that seemed to have no business belonging to a ninja. “You must be eager to start banking the fires of your youth!”
Naruto had no idea what that just meant, so he used one of Kurenai-sensei’s parting words of advice. He just smiled and nodded.
Hours later, Naruto was bruised, tired, and hungry. Despite his ‘handicap’ with ninjutsus, Rock Lee was still a formidable opponent. He proved this by beating Naruto senseless every time they sparred. Possibly the most irritating thing about this experience was that eerie smile he wore the whole time. Naruto was used to a variety of expressions from his opponents. Sneers and emotionless masks he was used to, having known both Sasuke and Shino. Scowls were the norm with Kiba, and bored calculation was to be expected from Shikamaru.
But Rock and his teammates were from the previous year’s graduating class at the Konoha Ninja Academy, so Naruto had never sparred with him before. It was a little odd to fight someone who never stopped grinning, even on the rare occasions when Naruto actually managed to land a blow.
Gai-sensei’s idea of training consisted of Naruto and Lee sparring for nearly two hours straight, while he watched and nodded thoughtfully. By the end, Naruto realized that Lee was starting to take it easy on him, which actually stung his pride a little bit. That drove him to fight even harder, but every blow he landed was just further proof that Lee was holding back.
Finally, the older boy went to make one of his flying spin-kicks, but was just a hair slow on the launch. Instead of ducking or blocking, Naruto stepped inside the kick and sunk his left first into the boy’s stomach.
Lee fell down, for the first time that morning. When he got up, he was still smiling, but he nodded and Naruto realized he was breathing heavily.
“Yosh!” Gai said, startling the genin, “Kurenai was right. You will make a most challenging sparring partner for my Lee!”
“No,” Naruto said, shaking his head. “I barely hit him at all.” He usually didn’t let his frustration show like this, but he was tired, cranky, and humiliated at how thoroughly he’d been schooled all morning.
“Naruto…” Gai said in a disappointed voice that made Naruto want to shiver. Something about the man made his skin crawl, just a little. “Don’t let the fires of youth gutter out so quickly. Not many of your age can hold their own against Lee, and especially not for two hours. I’ve never seen anyone wear him down like that since he became a genin.”
Lee abruptly straightened and bowed. “Naruto-san! We must train together! Only then will we become true geniuses of hard work!”
Naruto scratched his head. What the hell were these crazy people talking about? “Geniuses of hard work?” he asked in a dubious voice.
“Yes,” Gai said gravely. “Konoha has many geniuses. Lee’s teammate Neji is considered a genius by many of the Hyuugas. Uchiha Sasuke in your class was also classified as one. But it is one thing to be born a genius, to be given talent like a gift one has not earned. It is quite another to be like Lee, a genius of hard work. He has no special abilities or skills, only his own determination to be the best. His willingness to work for his goal is more valuable than being any sort of lesser genius, and will take him much farther in the end.”
Naruto frowned as he considered the strange jonin’s words. It pleased him, just a little, to hear Sasuke described as a lesser type of genius by someone else. But something else he said echoed Kurenai-sensei’s words. A little hard work can make up for a lot… The day will come when Shino and Hinata’s lives may depend on you. Mine as well. He gave a sharp nod as he made up his mind.
“Good… Lee!” Gai barked. “You still need to work on your endurance if Naruto can wear you out! Double your weights and run five laps around Konoha!”
Lee practically cheered at this announcement, which confused Naruto even more. But as the boy strapped heavy bracers to his forearms and began running, Gai took him aside to work on his forms.
Naruto had never had a lot of individual instruction before, so it was a novel experience as Maito Gai had him settle into one fighting stance after another and began correcting his posture and foot placement. At first, all the tiny adjustments seemed silly. Did it really matter if his lead foot was turned slightly outward instead of slightly inward? But he remembered what Shino had said about the man’s reputation, so he did as he was instructed. When Gai then had him shift from one stance to another, using the corrected forms, Naruto was surprised at how different it felt.
His surprise must have been visible, because Gai began to explain the reasons for the corrections. The turned in foot affected how the knee flexed, and allowed him to retreat more fluidly if he faced a strong attack. The slightly flexed rear knee allowed him to chamber a kick with that foot an instant faster. After each explanation, Gai would ease him through the motion, making Naruto repeat it at least three times so the proper form would have a chance to engrave on his memory.
Next they began working on punches and blocks in conjunction with the corrected stances. Everything seemed to flow together much better than Naruto remembered. The man’s voice was almost hypnotic as he talked Naruto through all the basic Taijutsu moves. He never seemed to lose patience or become distracted. It was still a little unnerving, but Naruto was more entranced by the way everything seemed to flow together.
Time passed a lot quicker than Naruto realized, because they’d just finished running through all the basics when Lee staggered into the clearing, red-faced and breathing hard. So, of course, Gai immediately had them spar again.
It was slightly more even this time. Lee was clearly winded, though he soon got his breathing back under control. Naruto’s Taijutsu was a little smoother, and he occasionally scored a glancing hit on his opponent.
Lee was sweating hard, but he was still smiling as they fought. Dimly, Naruto realized that fighting when he was tired was just one more challenge for the boy, one more way to make himself a little bit better. Naruto wondered if he should start worrying when such odd people began to make sense to him.
It was after nine o’clock and both boys were considerably worse for the wear when Gai called a halt to the sparring. Naruto brushed some dirt from his sleeve. He wouldn’t have time to go home and wash it before he needed to meet his team. Both he and Lee were red-faced and sweating. They both had bits of grass sticking to their uniforms from where they’d been knocked down, and their hands trembled slightly as they froze in their ready positions at Gai’s command.
“That’s enough for today,” Gai said with a nod. “Naruto, you should report to Kurenai. Lee and I will take a jog to cool down. I’ll expect to see you here tomorrow at the same time.”
Naruto aped Lee’s bow to his sensei, and watched with some amusement as Lee struggled to keep up the pace Gai set as they ran out of the training area.
Naruto walked a little slower toward training area nineteen. While he didn’t have time to clean up, he was really starving… especially since he hadn’t even had time for a cup of instant ramen when he finally woke up that morning.
Now that he’d acknowledged it, his hunger waxed rhapsodic as he made his way down the street. Most village shopkeepers were just opening up for the day, and he’d already spent over three solid hours training and sparring. Being groggy and half-starved, it was no surprise that his feet picked their own route, and he found himself passing Ichiraku’s. Surprisingly, it was open, serving hot tea and dumplings to merchants and workers as they began their day.
The old man did a slight double-take when he saw Naruto approach. “I’m sorry, but we haven’t even started making the broth for noodles yet.”
Naruto tried not to let his disappointment show. “Kurenai-sensei says I need to eat something besides ramen all the time, anyway,” he said with a shrug.
“Bite your tongue! She’ll put me out of business,” the old man said with a laugh. “You look like you’ve been working hard already. I’ve got some nice hot tea, how about some rice balls and pickles to go with it?”
Naruto nodded and sat down at the counter. The square plate that was soon placed in front of him was crowded with food, but he wasn’t about to complain. The hot tea washed down the sticky rice and made a nice contrast with the sharp taste of the pickles. As he finished, he felt new energy flow into his limbs and knew stopping here had been a good idea. As he was finishing his tea, the old man took his plate and leaned forward a little.
“I’m glad I got to meet your friends last night,” he said with a smile as Naruto patted his stomach.
“They aren’t friends, so much as…” Naruto began but trailed off. He wasn’t completely sure what he wanted to say. They were teammates, and that was it.
“They’re good kids,” Old man Ichiraku corrected him gently. He smiled ruefully, “they tore those snot-nosed brats a new one after you left.”
Naruto wasn’t sure he heard the man correctly. “Nani?”
“Yeah,” the old man nodded as he collected Naruto’s tea cup. “They really didn’t seem to like the way those others talked to you. I think that little Hyuuga girl gave that pink-haired one the scare of her life.”
“Hinata?” Naruto asked in disbelief.
“Yeah, that was her name,” the old man smiled. “She did something weird with her eyes. I couldn’t see her do anything with her hands, but that other girl jumped back like she’d been burned. If that little girl is a Hyuuga, I can see why everyone steps lightly around her clan.”
Naruto was confused as he thanked the man and paid for his breakfast. As he resumed his journey toward the training area, he tried to puzzle out their behavior. He didn’t know why they stuck up for him, especially since he wasn’t even there to see it happen. But knowing they had done so made him feel unaccountably warm.
The more he thought about that, the stranger Naruto felt. He knew as he approached the training area that he needed to do something about this.
Kurenai was mildly curious as to how Naruto’s training session with Gai and Lee would go. She’d been tempted to look in on them, but Gai was a jonin and his senses were particularly acute. He might take offense if he thought she was questioning his abilities, and she didn’t want to do anything to jinx the deal they had struck. It was a little unusual by Konoha standards, but she felt it was the best way to get Naruto’s level of proficiency up to where it should be. She felt unaccountably pressured in this respect. Perhaps it was that unknown group the Hokage mentioned; maybe it was her own instincts. Either way, she had the feeling that the sooner the boy learned how to effectively defend himself and his teammates, the better.
Hinata arrived first, as seemed to be her habit. She was visibly more composed than she had been the day before. Kurenai hoped that her words, and the successful completion of their first mission, had bought the girl some peace. She hoped that sending her genins out on an obvious team bonding exercise would ease them past any potential tensions that might arise. She was particularly concerned about the Hyuuga girl. If her assessment of the girl’s father was accurate, she’d likely need a safe haven within the team. If she was uncomfortable with her teammates, that would not be available.
The girl greeted Kurenai in her usual, hesitant manner, but from her posture, the jonin could tell that something was wrong. “Hinata,” she asked as a quiet inspiration overtook her, “how did dinner at Ichiraku go?” Something about the girl’s turmoil suggested that it was related to the boy she so admired.
Hinata pressed her lips together, even as her forefingers began to push against each other. Her posture was hunched over as normal, but the quaver in her voice when she spoke was something new to Kurenai’s ears. “A-ano… Naruto caught up to us part of the way there… We, we asked him about his extra training, and he told us he was working with Gai-sensei as we walked the rest of the way.”
Kurenai frowned at that. She’d hoped the boy would have more sense than to brag like that, but she supposed he was still making up for what had happened in the academy. Still, she’d have to talk to him about this.
Hinata took a calming breath. “When Shino said he’d heard of Gai, Naruto replied that you told him his taijutsu was so bad that you didn’t think you could fix it yourself.” She paused for a moment, and then continued in a rush. “Why did you say something like that to Naruto? He tries so hard and no one ever gives him any credit.”
Kurenai rocked back on her metaphorical heels, but tried not to let anything show on her face. It wasn’t like she hadn’t actively encouraged Hinata to assert herself when they talked – but it seemed like her words had just been wasted air. And now… this same girl was questioning her judgment where Naruto was concerned. As breakthroughs went, it was a minor thing, but Yuuhi Kurenai had learned as a genin to take whatever successes she could find. How she handled this was important… at least it was if she wanted Hinata to build on this.
“Hyuuga Hinata, before I say anything else, I want you to know that I am pleased that you have taken me at my word when I said I wanted you to ask questions when you don’t understand something. This was not a question I had anticipated, but I am pleased that you trust me enough to ask me about this,” Kurenai concluded with a smile. “That said, I would ask you if Shino had any expression on his face when he mentioned Gai-sensei.”
Hinata frowned in confusion. “Kurenai-sensei… I did not notice anything, but…” her voice trailed off.
“But you were focusing on Naruto as he spoke,” Kurenai supplied helpfully. “I ask this because that was not exactly how I described the situation to Naruto when I told him he would be working with Gai. I think he chose his words so that you and Shino would not think he was receiving favorable treatment. My arrangement with Gai is… unusual among jonin-sensei. Naruto’s unusual stamina means that he can make up the time he lost at the academy faster than most. Our… arrangement will facilitate this. It is because of Naruto’s strengths, including his willingness to work hard, that this was done.”
Hinata looked more than slightly mortified. She ducked her head down again as she stuttered out, “G-gomen, Kurenai-sensei.”
“None of that, Hinata,” Kurenai said sharply. “Your loyalty to your teammate is commendable, and I specifically instructed you to ask me questions like this. At some point, you may become an advisor to a village leader or ANBU captain. Under those circumstances, not speaking up would be an abandonment of your duties. I am also glad to hear that Naruto was considerate of the feelings of his teammates when a potentially uncomfortable subject was raised.”
“Naruto is never cruel,” Hinata said quickly, then stopped and swallowed.
“No, he isn’t,” Kurenai agreed, “but he doesn’t always realize when he’s giving offense to others, does he? But he means well, and that counts for a lot. All he has to do is just learn to think in another’s place, part of seeing ‘underneath the underneath’. You have just given me proof that he is making progress in that area and for that I thank you.”
Hinata’s cheeks pinked and she nodded in acknowledgment.
Kurenai frowned at her and decided to take a stab in the dark. “Something else happened, though, didn’t it?”
Hinata let out a sigh and began describing the confrontation with Team 7. Kurenai nodded thoughtfully, smiling when Hinata related the warm greeting Ichiraku’s proprietor had given them. She’d have to find an excuse to talk to the man at some point. Naruto might just be a regular customer to the man, but it wouldn’t do to make assumptions. She did raise her palm at one point to ask a question. “Are you quite sure you felt the killing intent coming from Sasuke before Naruto turned around?”
Hinata nodded quickly.
“Good,” Kurenai said with a smile. “I am glad he did not do anything to provoke Uchiha. I’ll be having words with Kakashi about controlling his students if anyone tries to make something of this.”
However, Yuuhi Kurenai was highly annoyed by the time Hinata was finished with her story. “I almost hope the owner of Ichiraku does file a complaint against them for interfering with his customers,” she growled. She frowned at her student. “Hinata, you did nothing worse than standing up for your teammate. Activating your Byakugan, consciously or not, is not an offensive action by itself. Sakura did not look like she expected that, did she?”
Hinata slowly shook her head. “I don’t understand why she can be so cruel to Naruto-kun,” she said, the honorific barely whispered – but Kurenai’s ears were sharp.
The jonin cleared her throat. “I think it’s because she’s a silly, shallow girl. She chases after Sasuke for the same reasons many of the other kunoichi do, and she cannot appreciate the subtle qualities of others.”
“Subtle qualities?” her student asked.
“Most people see Naruto and dismiss him as a prankster or worse,” Kurenai replied, skating around the edges of the Hokage’s law. “You’ve told me yourself that you appreciate his cheerful nature and how he always keeps trying, no matter what. Those are actually very good qualities for a shinobi to have; it is wrong that you are the first person to notice this. Aside from Umino Iruka, I don’t have a lot of respect for the teachers at the Konoha Ninja Academy.”
Hinata’s pale eyes widened at this admission. Kurenai knew she was laying it on a little thick, but Hinata’s tendency to second-guess herself was holding her back. That vague sense of urgency she felt was also pushing her to become less circumspect in her dealings with the girl.
“Honestly,” Kurenai continued, “I think you see Naruto better than many. And he needs people that understand him more than you know. Between you and me,” she said, lowering her voice in a conspiratorial manner, “I think he needs friends as well as teammates. Would you like to be more than just his teammate?”
Kurenai phrased the last question innocently enough, and she suppressed a grin as Hinata’s face immediately went bright red. Her suspicions confirmed, she looked up at the morning sky as her student collected herself. Hyuuga Hiashi might very well die of apoplexy if he knew what she’d just learned, but that was far too kind a fate for him. “I – I would like to be his friend,” Hinata finally said.
“Good. I think you are making an excellent start,” Kurenai said. “Just keep in mind that he hasn’t had many people defend him over the years, so he may not understand why you do it.” She didn’t add that it was sad that this was the case, as sad as the fact that Hinata had no experience with being appreciated or complimented. Sometimes Kurenai felt like she was a medic-nin in a ward full of broken bodies… only what she was trying to repair here was harder to heal than mere flesh.
She was broken out of this reverie by Shino’s arrival. The Aburame boy was as quiet and expressionless as ever, but Kurenai could almost feel his attention shift back and forth between herself and Hinata.
“Hinata informed me about the altercation last night,” she said.
Shino appeared to straighten slightly inside his long coat, but it might have been Kurenai’s mind picking up subtler indications and filling in the blanks for her. “Our conduct was within the guidelines set forth for shinobi at the academy,” he said, a little stiffly.
Kurenai nodded. “And I was about to compliment you both on your handling of the situation.”
Shino nodded in turn, accepting her implied criticism of his defensiveness. “Will there be repercussions from this?” he asked.
“Only for them. Your conduct was above reproach, all of you, even Naruto. He left while being insulted, rather than retaliate. That speaks highly of his maturity, of all your maturity,” Kurenai added. Then her expression hardened. “If there is an inquiry of any sort, I will deal with it, and make whoever raised it sorry to have done so.”
Shino stood there for a moment, and Kurenai could almost hear the gears turning behind those dark glasses of his. Finally, he nodded again. Kurenai felt like the boy was still forming his own opinions of her as well as his teammates. She wasn’t sure whether her last statement would move him positively or negatively, but she guessed the former to be the case. After all, logic would maintain that they had followed the Konoha Shinobi Code of Conduct to the letter, and logic was something Shino, like many Aburames, seem to inordinately prize.
“I would suggest,” She said, “that we not mention this incident to Naruto unless he brings it up. They were his classmates and it was him that was being targeted, so it may not be a comfortable subject… but if you can bring this sort of cohesiveness to our field missions, they will become much easier to accomplish.”
“What was that about missions?” Naruto asked as he landed in the middle of the clearing.
Kurenai felt her blood change to ice. Her student had discarded the uniform Ikitaro had spent so much effort altering the previous day. Instead, he was wearing a bright green leotard that bunched up in odd places on his small frame. The burnt umber leg warmers were there as well, with the toes of his sandals barely poking out of the fabric pooled around his ankles. Topping it off, his hair had been unevenly dyed black, so some of it was ebony, some bits were still blond, and gray-yellow streaks abounded. It had also been hewed, apparently with a dull kunai, into a crude approximation of a very distinctive bowl cut.
Gai had practically sworn not to do this. Naruto wasn’t supposed to make major changes to his equipment without consulting her. She’d taken so damn many precautions, only to see… this… after only one training session. She didn’t know how her kunai had gotten into her hand; all she knew was that it felt very, very right somehow. “I am going to kill Gai in his sleep,” she snarled. “He promised me! No, I’m going to just sever his spinal cord and let him live as a quadriplegic!”
Naruto had taken a step back, as did her other startled genins. He seemed to be having some sort of difficulty moving, or was it breathing? Abruptly, he bent forward and his legs buckled. His rear end hit the ground and there was a loud pop and a puff of smoke. When it cleared, Naruto was lying curled up on the ground, in his new uniform, holding his stomach and laughing until tears began to leak from his eyes.
Kurenai stared at her student, realizing that she’d just been had. She’d been so shocked by Naruto’s appearance that she hadn’t even thought to check for a henge. He’d conned her, and quite skillfully under the circumstances. She tried to keep a straight face, but the corner of her mouth kept twitching as she stared at her genin.
Naruto sat up abruptly, as if he felt her eyes boring into him. He scratched at the back of his head and tried to stifle his laughter. “I promised I wouldn’t pull any more pranks in the village, but I didn’t say I’d completely stop,” he explained in a sheepish tone.
Kurenai gave it up as a lost cause and let out a bark of laughter, something that hadn’t been heard in Konoha for many years. She saw her other genins’ eyes widen as she laughed along with the blond-haired prankster. “Very good, Naruto. I hadn’t extracted a completely binding promise from you, had I?” she asked rhetorically. “Now, do you know why your little joke worked so well?”
Naruto sat up straighter and frowned. Hinata had a faint smile on her face, no doubt from seeing Naruto fully recovered from the previous night. Shino was… well, Shino. Naruto shook his head.
Kurenai kneeled on the ground, getting comfortable and motioned for the others to do the same. “That was a very realistic henge, but normally, I can see through a henge a block away. I am a genjutsu specialist after all. But I didn’t immediately think to check. Why was that?”
Naruto frowned, concentrating, but it was Shino who spoke up first. “You were clearly agitated by the apparent changes to his appearance. This obviously interfered with conducting logical thought processes.”
Kurenai nodded. “That’s part of the answer.”
“From… from what you said earlier, about when you said I’d still be your student,” Naruto said slowly, “You repeated that several times, but it didn’t make sense until I’d seen Lee. Then I understood that if Gai made Lee dress like him, you might be afraid he’d do the same with me,” he concluded, shuddering at the thought.
“Exactly. And if I was afraid it would happen, then I obviously considered it to be at least remotely possible, correct?” Kurenai asked.
Shino spoke up. “So he showed you something you at least partially expected to see, and made sure that it was sufficiently upsetting that you would react without thinking first?” he summarized.
“Exactly,” Kurenai agreed. “Now, while this was a good prank, you can also apply those principles on missions, can’t you?”
What followed was a rather stimulating discussion on using misdirection and knowledge of the enemy’s emotional hot-buttons, both on the battlefield and to accomplish mission objectives. The latter was more applicable for a reconnaissance team, but all three of her genins contributed to the discussion. Hinata had evidently been paying attention in her classes, for she was able to effortlessly recall details from various famous missions they’d studied at the Academy. Naturally, Shino settled into a role as the critic for their various strategies, picking apart their plans and exposing every weakness.
Uzumaki Naruto was as creative as his… additions… to the Hokage Monument suggested. What was surprising was his ability to put together a plan almost instantly when presented with a situation and an objective. Kurenai slowly began to realize that Naruto’s pranks had given him a thorough grounding in operational planning that many shinobi three times his age lacked.
For the most part, Kurenai would simply present them with a situation, then sit back and watch them hash it out. Sometimes it would take Naruto several attempts to come up with a plan that Shino would approve. Hinata stayed out of the discussions at first; she turned pink and looked down immediately after correcting Shino regarding the range of a Sand Country hunting boomerang. That interruption did not pass unnoticed by either boy, and soon they were working on drawing her into the planning sessions – usually by asking her specific questions.
By the end of the hour, her genins’ heads appeared to be buzzing with all the new thoughts and ideas they’d assimilated. Despite herself, Kurenai was a little impressed by the way they’d worked together on her hypothetical problems. She’d spent several hours last night looking up incidents that had occurred over the last seventy-five years, and memorizing enough details that she could relay it naturally and without anyone realizing they were being tested. She’d expected them to take a least three sessions to work through the fruits of her labors, not one.
Nonetheless, she smiled to herself as they began walking toward the Hokage’s tower to receive a mission. It wasn’t often that she misread people like that, and it was even rarer for her to be positively surprised. Her genin team was a bit more intelligent than she’d anticipated, and that was a good thing. She idly wondered why she’d been so resistant to taking on apprentices when her bitter memories supplied the answer.
Unbidden, she saw her students’ forms overlaid with ghosts from the past. Hinata was replaced with a slender, red-eyed kunoichi with a far more aggressive attitude. Shino was replaced by the equally pragmatic, but even more hard-headed Nomaru. And Naruto… the village pariah was replaced by another young shinobi, also hated by some for something he had no control over… Mattai was there, his pale eyes in sharp contrast with his heavily tanned face and unruly black hair. The ghosts of her childhood walked before her, and Kurenai wondered if she looked into a mirror, would she see the imposing figure of Kobaru-sensei in place of her own.
It was a fortunate thing that a jonin must possess iron self-control. It was a blessing that the shinobi code would allow no trace of her anguish to show on her face. It was a curse that she would walk behind her team, letting them find their own paths, but always watching their backs and swearing to herself, never again. All of this as her mind relived those painful memories, along with bittersweet remembrances of a boy she once thought she might have loved.
With creative use of Kage Bunshin, kikai bugs, and Hinata’s all-seeing eyes, Naruto and his teammates began regularly clearing out two “D” ranked missions every afternoon. As long as they finished their first mission quickly, the Hokage was happy to oblige them when they returned to the tower. Kurenai-sensei was also correct about how the money would accumulate from doubling up on missions. Naruto soon paid Ikitaro the tailor another visit, and ordered a duplicate uniform made to the same specifications. It would be nice not having to do laundry every night to keep from stinking. He even thought about buying a small washing machine.
Such thoughts were especially attractive since he got pretty dirty every morning. If anything, the pace of the workouts with Lee and Gai-sensei grew even more intense. Naruto was frustrated that he couldn’t build up calluses and scar tissue on his knuckles like Lee could. He tried to hit the training logs just as hard as his rival, and he always finished with bloody knuckles, but after they healed the skin refused to harden up. Eventually he gave up and just wore his fingerless gloves, trying to do as much damage as possible to the thick wood.
Under Gai-sensei’s careful guidance, Naruto’s taijutsu form slowly improved. Now he found himself rarely losing his footing when sparring with Lee, and almost never against Shino or Hinata. Speed, however, was still a sore point with Naruto. No matter what he tried, he couldn’t ever seem to match Rock Lee in that department. Gai assigned him to wear some leg weights, and Naruto obeyed – though he attached twice as many as he was instructed to. He was so frustrated that he wanted to get better as rapidly as possible. Of course, the first time he tried to leap onto a roof-top after doing this, he ran face-first into a wall.
Kurenai-sensei pulled him aside after he showed up for a team meeting barely able to walk. That was when she explained why it was better to gradually increase the weights, so he could get used to them. A sudden increase in his burden would merely keep him from moving as freely, which would be counter-productive in the long run. Sure enough, once he reduced his load and began moving a little more freely, the increases in speed and strength sped up as well.
Nonetheless, his morning sparring sessions with Lee consisted of the other boy running rings around him at first, until eventually Naruto could tire him out and get the fight onto a more even footing. It was humbling to realize that if they ever fought for real, his only hope would be to fight totally defensively and hope Lee didn’t strike a decisive blow before he could wear the spandex-clad ninja down. Of course, that knowledge, galling as it was, only spurred Naruto to work harder, and increase his weights whenever he began to move a little easier.
Against Shino, Naruto’s efforts were a little more gratifying. The larger boy still had reach on him, but Naruto’s corrected stances were stable enough that he could block his teammate’s attacks without falling or being shoved off balance. The weights made it harder to block fast enough, but the increased mass was gratifying when he snapped his forearm around properly and knocked Shino’s arm completely out of line. The bug-user’s eyebrows rose above the tops of his dark glasses as Naruto spun inside his guard and lightly slapped his stomach with a textbook perfect reverse punch. Not a word was exchanged as they slid back into ready positions for the next round, but the nod Shino gave him was oddly respectful – more like a subtle bow – and Naruto responded with a tight grin… though he really wanted to shout out loud.
Naruto was also secretly glad that he had not run into certain other people as well. They’d heard through the rumor mill that Team 7 had been given a C-rank mission after Kiba pitched a fit about being asked to catch the cat belonging to the Fire Lord’s wife for the third time. Now, Kiba, Sasuke, and Sakura were out of town for an unspecified period of time, escorting some bridge-builder. Naruto really wouldn’t miss Sasuke, or even Kiba. Sakura… it was weird, how he’d still get that light feeling when he saw her… no matter how nasty she’d been to him the last time. That light feeling would last until she said something, or until she started fawning on Sasuke, or do something else to remind him of exactly how much she didn’t care for him. He didn’t understand how he could want to see her, but still hate how she made him feel afterward. Maybe he deserved it in some way, so it was only right that it would happen like that. Of course, now it wouldn’t happen for a while now – all over a tantrum about a mission to retrieve a cat.
Naruto didn’t understand what the big deal about that cat was. Of course, after the first time they’d caught it, Shino left one of his smaller bugs concealed under its collar. He and members of his personal colony can apparently smell each other from blocks away, so after that it took maybe half an hour to narrow down the errant feline’s location. Naruto’s presence was usually enough to flush the pampered pet, who seemed unusually agitated whenever he was around. On the other hand, it would usually run straight to Hinata and beg to be picked up. The white-eyed girl would oblige, and stroke the fur around its ears while they returned it. Naruto thought it was kind of funny how easily the finicky cat took to his teammate, but when he asked Hinata if she had any pets, she just looked down and became extremely quiet. He wanted to ask Kurenai if she knew what was going on, but when he caught her eye she was frowning as well.
Uzumaki Naruto wasn’t the most observant shinobi in the leaf, but he wasn’t stupid. Well, not completely stupid anyway. His white-eyed teammate wasn’t just quiet. At times, something would seem to set her off and she’d just seem to disappear, shrinking in on herself and refusing to make a sound. Try as he might, he couldn’t see any pattern to when this happened. He remembered when he tried to compliment her in the herbalist’s garden, and how she pretty much refused to talk to him after that. Yet that same evening, she’d reportedly gone off on Sakura for saying something nasty about him. It just didn’t make any sense. Even for a girl.
Of course, that meant he had no idea what to do. He knew his own issues with that damned fox sealed behind his navel tended to make him react oddly at times, but no one bound a demon to Hinata, so he had no idea what was wrong. It was very confusing so he tried to not make a big deal out of it. He just wished he knew what Kurenai-sensei was being so close-mouthed about.
After completing their thirtieth mission, yet another cat retrieval, Kurenai-sensei did not lead them back to the Hokage’s tower for another mission. “You three have been working very hard, and I’m quite pleased with your progress, so we will take a break this afternoon and relax,” she said with a smile.
With that, she led them through the village to a cluster of buildings that looked vaguely familiar to Naruto. But it wasn’t until the sign became visible that he realized she was taking them to Moritake’s.
Kurenai smiled as she led her team into her favorite restaurant. They’d been working hard the past two weeks, between missions, sparring, group lessons, and their individual training. She could see from the effects it had on their performance than none of them had been slacking on the latter. At the same time, she became concerned she might be pushing too hard, and risking burn-out of some sort.
That was the excuse Asuma used when she asked him about the training regimen he used with his team. Mostly it seemed to consist of him playing Go with the Nara kid, while the other two looked bored. Or the four of them eating at Asuma’s favorite yakitori place. He seemed to think that just putting a Nara, Akimichi, and Yamanaka together on one team was enough to ensure success. Kurenai knew better: success and survival were never to be taken for granted.
Moritake himself looked up from the bar as they walked in. “Kurenai, Naruto, come in, come in. This must be the rest of your team?”
Kurenai smiled and introduced Shino and Hinata to the retired shinobi-turned-restaurant owner. Soon they were seated at a table in the corner, where a waitress took their orders.
Shino looked from her to Naruto and back again before speaking. “Logically, this would be an establishment that you are familiar with. But how did he know Naruto?”
Kurenai resisted the urge to grimace. You couldn’t train kids to look ‘underneath the underneath’ for years and not expect them to do so at inconvenient times. “After our first team meeting, I took Naruto here to discuss some issues that had come up.”
“I see,” Shino said in a neutral tone, then took a sip of his tea.
Kurenai’s eyes cut over to Naruto, who was looking a little uncomfortable. Hinata just stared down as if studying her plate. “No, I’m not sure you do,” she said in a reasonable tone. “Naruto doesn’t like to make a big deal of it, but I don’t think you are aware of the extent of the supplemental training he has taken on.”
Naruto’s face reddened a little, but now Hinata was looking up, evidently interested in the direction the conversation had taken. Shino just gazed at his sensei, his facial features settled into his neutral mask. Shino refused to show any overt emotion, but she was fairly sure the bug-user was bothered by a seeming favoritism on her part toward his teammate. He seemed to respect logic, so she would lay her cards on the table in a logical fashion.
“We came here to discuss his role within the team, and the measures that would be necessary for him to fill it. He agreed to replace his uniform, at his own cost, for something better suited to our probable mission profiles. He is also undergoing the most comprehensive training program out of the three of you. Every morning, he gets up at five and meets with Maito Gai and his student for taijutsu training from six until nine. Then he meets with us for team training at ten. Between training and missions, we are usually together until five or six in the afternoon. After that, he stays at training area nineteen and practices alone with his jutsus and chakra control exercises. What time do you go home each night, Naruto? Be honest.”
“I usually quit and go to Ichiraku’s around nine or so,” he answered in a low voice.
“What have I told you about eating Ramen too often?” Kurenai chided him with a smile. Naruto acted embarrassed, but that only made her point for her. “Anyway, I was asking him to basically commit to working fifteen hour days, so I needed to ask about several things, including his willingness to work such a schedule.”
Shino nodded slowly. “I admit I was curious as to the true extent of his extra training. He purposefully made light of it when we discussed it earlier. I… given Naruto’s improvements, I would probably also benefit from extra taijutsu training, but I currently spend most of my mornings and evenings working on the kikai colonies at home.” Kurenai was sure there was a regretful note in the boy’s usual monotone.
“I understand that,” Kurenai agreed. “Your family’s unique abilities are based on your affinities with the colonies you host. Your father made me aware that they were entering a delicate phase in their breeding program. I’m sure the long term benefits will more than make up for any delays in your training.”
Shino nodded again but didn’t speak. Kurenai tried not to let any relief show on her face. The last thing she needed was any jealousy or perceived favoritism poisoning the atmosphere between her genins. The problem with Shino was that he didn’t give her a lot of information to work with. He was normally so restrained and emotionless that the normal warning signs were usually absent. But as Kobaru-sensei once said, ‘still waters often run the deepest’, and it was a mistake to assume the boy behind the emotionless shinobi mask was without feelings of his own.
Kurenai’s musings were interrupted by a hesitant voice. “A-ano,” Hinata said. “I would like to take extra training, if I can. I know I have a lot that I need to work on, and I need a lot of extra effort to be as good as… as good as I need to be.”
Kurenai considered the girl for a moment. While she damned Hiashi for systematically destroying the girl’s sense of worth, his actions seem to have given her motivation to work harder, rather than just giving up. It was too bad her father was too stupid to see her stubborn determination and acknowledge it for what it was. “I appreciate your desire to improve, Hinata, but I don’t think the morning sessions with Gai would be much help to you. They are working on standard taijutsu forms, not Jyuuken. The styles are so different that you would be re-learning everything from step one. I also hate to mention this, but I think your father would have strong objections to you learning another style, at least for now.”
Kurenai considered her next words as she watched the girl’s face fall. She supposed Hinata couldn’t help but take it as a rejection – everything in her world was probably rooted in the rejections from her remaining parent. Even if she understood it, Kurenai still found it painful to watch. “On the other hand, I think you should work on your individual exercises in the morning. After our team meetings are over, you can always stay late and work with Naruto.”
If someone had suddenly whisked Hyuuga Hinata away, and left an alabaster statue sitting in her place, Kurenai doubted it would have looked much different.
Kurenai turned toward Naruto, who looked a little surprised. “You two are about the same size, so you make good sparring partners, at least for right now. You can show her some of the things you are learning from Gai. Hinata also has excellent chakra control, and that’s one of your weaknesses. I think both of you can benefit from working together. Do either of you have any objections?” She asked innocently. She felt slightly guilty for putting them on the spot like this, but the better she got to know the two of them, the more she felt a stronger friendship between them would do them both good. Hinata needed to absorb some of Naruto’s confidence, and Naruto needed acceptance. He was still afraid to tell anyone who didn’t already know about his prisoner. Kurenai felt, given her reactions, that Hinata was the least likely person to reject him if she found out.
Still, it was a calculated risk. She didn’t know what Naruto would do if he did finally trust someone, only to be betrayed. The worst case scenario was, well, disastrous. Not that it would be anything worse than this village seemed to deserve, claimed a traitorous thought welling up from the bitterness of her past. She dismissed that sentiment as unworthy of her, and unworthy of the memories of those lost. She looked from Naruto to Hinata and back again. If she was wrong, the village would live or die on the merits of its youngest generation, and perhaps that was as it should be. Wars were usually decided in a similar manner, weren’t they? “Do either of you object to working together?” she asked archly.
“N-no,” Naruto said quickly. Kurenai remembered how upset he’d been after Hinata reacted so strongly to his compliment at the herbalist’s house. He was still fearful of upsetting her again, which wasn’t really a bad thing. Hinata had few enough people in her life who were considerate of her feelings.
Of course, that could be used both ways. “Hinata, I understand if your father would not approve. If you don’t think you can do this, Naruto understands,” Kurenai said. “It’s not like you’ll hurt his feelings,” she added innocently.
Naruto nodded calmly, but Hinata’s face took on a trapped expression. “I-I will be happy to train with Naruto!” She stammered quickly, confirming Kurenai’s assessment. As nervous as she was, Hinata was more afraid of giving offense, or doing something that could be seen as hurtful to Naruto. “Good, it’s settled. You two can start tomorrow. If your father has any questions, Hinata, please tell him to direct them to me. But let’s not go borrowing trouble, all right?”
Hinata nodded. Kurenai doubted Hyuuga Hiashi would even notice unless someone brought it to his attention. He was evidently very involved in training the girl’s younger sister, Hanabi. There was already buzz around the jonin ranks about another possible Hyuuga genius being considered for an early admission to the Konoha Ninja Academy. Even if he did object, custom mandated that, even as Kurenai was powerless to interfere in his daughter’s home life, Hiashi was similarly powerless to interfere with her genin’s training regimen.
The next day, Team 8 performed no missions at all. Instead, they were joined by two newcomers to training area nineteen. Kurenai watched Naruto lead Rock Lee and a brown-haired girl into the clearing to join them.
Tenten was a pretty genin, a year older than Kurenai’s students, with her long hair done up in an elaborate double-bun that kept it up and out of her way. As they entered the clearing, she was twirling a kunai and telling Naruto about a sword her father was designing. When they saw Kurenai, Tenten and Lee immediately moved to stand before her and bow.
“Thank you for allowing us to attend this training session,” Tenten said in a respectful voice as she straightened up. Lee didn’t say anything, but nodded vigorously.
Kurenai blinked, a little disconcerted by their extreme politeness. “That’s all right, I’m happy to have you here. Naruto has improved so much working with Lee and your sensei.”
Tenten nodded. “He’s really sped up. Gai-sensei has me come by every so often for target practice, and I can barely hit him now.”
“Target practice?” Kurenai asked curiously.
“Hai,” Lee said abruptly. “It’s to test our reflexes. Naruto-san and I are the targets and Tenten-san practices.”
“Blunted kunais,” Tenten said quickly. “They don’t draw blood. Well, not much anyway.”
“I don’t let her hit me in the face anymore,” Naruto said innocently.
“I… see,” Kurenai said in a distant voice. “Well, let’s get started.” She motioned for them to sit. “A genjutsu is a construct, composed of chakra, designed to deceive the senses…”
As she began with the standard academy introduction, Kurenai considered her audience. Shino was as impassive as ever, but she got a sense that his attention was unusually focused today, whether by the visitors, or by the subject matter was debatable. Hinata hadn’t said a word since the newcomers arrived. Her Byakugan could see through most genjutsus because the chakra would be directly visible to her. But she still paid close attention to the lecture. Kurenai wondered if she was aware of the small number of advanced techniques that could deceive the Hyuuga bloodline, if she expected her eyes to fail her when it counted most, or if she was just being polite. Naruto was mostly focused on her words, though he did fidget a little as she talked. For someone as energetic as the blond shinobi, that was almost inevitable.
In addition to being excruciatingly polite, Gai’s students were most attentive.
Lee frowned a lot as she talked. She wondered if he was having difficulty following the material, since he probably hadn’t studied genjutsus much since discovering he couldn’t mold the chakra necessary to create one.
Tenten, on the other hand, was almost starry-eyed. It took a while for Kurenai to understand why she had such an awed expression on her face. From what she’d heard, the girl was one of the more formidable new kunoichis, deadly accurate with thrown weapons, and no slouch with melee weapons either. Still, she was on a team with a male jonin and two boys, one of whom was the Hyuuga prodigy. It was likely that she’d questioned, at least once or twice, if a woman could be a successful ninja and advance to the jonin rank. Girls were a noticeable minority at the academy, and the disparity only became more pronounced at the higher ranks. Kurenai realized, with an uncomfortable lurch, that the girl probably idolized her for her apparent success.
Yuuhi Kurenai’s multi-tasking capabilities were put to the test as she sorted out her feelings and concluded the textbook explanation of her art. While she had made the rank of jonin, she didn’t consider herself any sort of success, let alone a role model. She’d simply had the dumb luck to survive a situation that killed her betters, and then been unable to find conclusive evidence as to why it had happened. Not that she needed it. She knew why it happened. But the Hokage couldn’t act without proof, and for something like this… she’d need unassailable proof, because the villagers wouldn’t want to believe it, wouldn’t want to act.
And so he got away with it. And she was left to pick up the pieces of her life. To find another team, but never get close to them. To pass the rank exams, but never feel successful after that one awful failure. Part of her wanted to pull that starry-eyed girl off to the side and scream into her ear. Tell her to stop looking to the future and to look around instead. Tell her to cherish her teammates and her friends, because they could all be taken away in the blink of an eye. But she couldn’t do that. She’d frighten the girl, and she’d probably talk. Word might get around… and the one who did this to her, the one responsible for so much. He would know, and it might please him to know how deeply he’d scarred her.
She’d rather die first.
Instead she wrapped up her description of the theory. “Are there any questions?” she asked. When no one moved, she continued. “Now, as for identifying when you are being affected by a genjutsu, remember it is limited by two things: the amount of chakra used, and the creator’s imagination. Both of those factors mean that not every element of the illusion will be perfect. There’s only a finite amount of chakra that can be used to create the sensory overlay, and it can’t include anything the creator didn’t think of. That means if you act or focus on things the creator didn’t anticipate, you are more likely to notice discrepancies. Once your mind seizes on these differences, the battle is mostly won. You aren’t fooled any more, and now all you need to do is push back the curtain that has been drawn before you.”
Noting the nodding heads before her, Kurenai posed a question. “One commonly known method of disrupting a genjutsu is to wound yourself – the sudden pain can shock the senses and disrupt the overlay. But this is hardly an elegant solution, as someone in a dangerous situation hardly needs to be mutilating themselves. How else do you think this can be accomplished?”
Shino spoke up first. “Logically, if it is a chakra-based energy construct, the genjutsu can be disrupted by the application of a similar form of energy.”
“That is correct,” Kurenai agreed, “but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. What is an easier way to free oneself from such a construct?”
Lee and Naruto looked puzzled, and Tenten frowned. Surprisingly, Hinata hesitantly raised her hand. “A-ano… if the construct is anchored to your personal chakra, would it be easier to just disrupt the anchors, rather than the whole thing?”
“That’s very close,” Kurenai agreed. “You can temporarily remove what the genjutsu is anchored to. It’s tricky if you don’t have good chakra control, but if you can suppress your own chakra circulation for a split second, the genjutsu will instantly fall away from you. This is a lot easier than trying to shatter a chakra construct that might have been made by someone considerably more powerful than you are.
With that, she demonstrated the seals, and with a sharp intake of breath, suppressed her chakra circulation to zero. Instantly, the sunlight dimmed, the sound of birdsong became fainter, and the feel of the warm sun on her face was muted. She blew out the breath, released her chakra, and everything quickly went back to normal.
She had each of them practice by themselves, then with her standing next to them, maintaining a blindness genjutsu on them. Hinata and, surprisingly, Lee picked it up immediately. After figuring out what they were doing wrong, Shino and Tenten soon mastered the technique.
Unfortunately, Naruto was never able to completely suppress his chakra. Kurenai suspected the Yondaime’s seal and/or his tenant was the reason, but she couldn’t discuss it in front of others. She had to settle for a sympathetic look as Naruto grumbled and sulked.
“K-Kurenai-sensei?” Hinata asked, glancing at Naruto. “Is there a way to remove a genjutsu from another person?” Kurenai did not miss the look she sent Naruto’s way, but the boy was too busy sulking to pay attention just yet.
“Well… there is, but it’s a little trickier,” Kurenai agreed. “Shino hit upon the principle earlier. You have to disrupt the chakra in the genjutsu itself. The easiest way to do this is to draw in your chakra and push it down toward your hara, right below your navel. You collect as much as you can, and compress it into as tight a sphere as possible. Visualize it like a ball being squeezed and compressed from every direction. Once you have it packed as tightly as possible, release it all at once.”
“W-won’t that, er, hurt?” Hinata asked nervously.
“Not really,” Kurenai assured her. “One, it is very difficult to gather a lot of energy that way. Also, it’s still your chakra. It’s attuned to your body, and until it’s aspected by a jutsu, it will just pass through your cells without damaging them.”
“I can see how that might push away a genjutsu anchored to me, but how will that help someone else?” Tenten asked curiously.
“Another very good question,” Kurenai acknowledged with a nod. “When the chakra leaves your body, it will form a pulse, almost like a shockwave, that will extend a small distance, based upon how much chakra is used. That pulse can also disrupt any genjutsu it encounters. However, it’s difficult to generate enough power to make the pulse extend any great distance. Thus, you may have to be very close to the person you are trying to free,” she concluded, ignoring the blush that suddenly spread across Hinata’s face.
With that, Kurenai had them practice the harder method. Unsurprisingly, Lee could not perform this method at all. Tenten could do it, but the pulse only extended a few inches from her skin. Hinata concentrated for several moments, then released a chakra pulse that extended over two feet from her body, after which she fell to her knees, gasping for breath.
Yuuhi Kurenai didn’t often think about the Kyuubi. It was locked away, sealed inside Naruto. It gave him unnatural stamina and the hatred of the villagers, but it didn’t control his mind or his soul. She was far more concerned with her student as a person than as a strategic asset. So it could be understood how she overlooked the effects her instructions would have on the vessel that contained the nine-tailed fox.
It wasn’t until the frustrated genin began to concentrate and an actually visible haze of blue chakra appeared around him, tinted purple at the edges, that the implications sank in. Kurenai opened her mouth to tell him to stop when he released the chakra pulse.
She instinctively threw up her hands as the energy washed over her. Her skin tingled and all the hairs on the back of her neck stood at attention, but there were no truly adverse effects. The air was filled with sound as the trees around them emptied of birds. Turning and looking across the clearing, Kurenai could see flocks of birds taking wing in the distance… and the faint shimmer in the air meant the pulse was still traveling.
She turned back around and saw everyone staring at Naruto. Tenten’s mouth was hanging open, but Lee was giving him a v-for-victory sign. Shino’s eyebrows were clearly visible above his sunglasses. Hinata’s Byakugan were activated, and the expression on her face bordered on awe. Naruto gave his sensei a sheepish grin and shrugged as he scratched the back of his head.
Kurenai sighed. “I suppose if you aren’t good at chakra suppression, you’d make up for it with chakra expression. We should try to finish this lesson before the ANBU get here to find out what happened.”
The Hokage was more amused than anything else once he learned the full story that evening. Kurenai was mortified when she discovered how large an area Naruto had effected. Nearly a quarter of the village had felt the chakra pulse. It hadn’t hurt anyone or damaged anything… as long as you didn’t count the dignity of the wives of a few village elders. Kurenai was secretly annoyed at the frivolous uses some made of her art, so having one’s cosmetic illusions stripped away suddenly, seemed a just comeuppance.
Fortunately, no one would learn of Naruto’s involvement in their less than private humiliations. All they would know was that a test involving an experimental jutsu had gone awry, affecting a large area.
To his credit, once she reported the basic facts, the Hokage was more interested in Naruto’s development.
“I suppose it’s best,” he concluded, “that if he can’t use one method to break a genjutsu, then the alternative would work even better for him.”
“I’d say a bit more than better,” Kurenai disagreed in a respectful voice, “I felt that pulse. He could disrupt every genjutsu user in a battle with one technique.”
“Ours as well as theirs,” the Hokage gently reminded her.
“We can work out a signal so friendly forces would know to expect it. I’m just wondering what else he can learn to do,” Kurenai said. She sighed. “So much time wasted at the academy, being ignored. But he’s determined to make up for lost time now.”
“How is he doing… aside from his studies?” the Hokage asked.
“Better,” Kurenai said after a moment’s thought. “He seems to have struck up a friendly rivalry with Gai’s student Rock Lee. They spar for hours every morning, so it’s not unexpected. He and Shino get along, though it’s sometimes hard to tell with the Aburame boy. He’s as quiet and close-mouthed as any of his family. As for Hinata…” her voice trailed off. “I think she may suspect his secret now. She’s far more intelligent than anyone gives her credit for, and those eyes… she had them activated and was staring at him after he released that pulse. I think she suspects something.”
The Hokage frowned. “That is worrisome. I suppose we could arrange to have her moved…”
“On the contrary,” Kurenai said quickly. “I think it’s the best thing that could happen.”
The Hokage stared at Kurenai for so long that she began to feel a little nervous. But she couldn’t let him do anything to disrupt what she’d spent so long building towards. “I’m not sure I understand your reasoning,” he finally said.
“Naruto has been isolated all of his life. He’s been alone as long as he can remember, and now, thanks to Mizuki, he knows why. You and I can tell him it’s not his fault until we’re blue in the face, but it won’t matter if everyone else who knows treats him like a monster. With all due respect, Hokage-sama, right now your law is slowly killing him. No one his age knows the truth, and he feels like once he tells them, they will turn on him like their parents have. All the burdens are on him, and right now he’s so overloaded he can’t even take the first step. He’s gladly working fifteen hour days because it gives him something else to think about, gives him something he actually has control over.”
Kurenai looked over at her superior. His eyes were squeezed shut like he was in pain, and his face had a peculiar grayish tinge to it. His pipe sat forgotten and extinguished near the corner of his desk. Kurenai felt a sudden stab of pity for the old man, but she knew she had to make her point before he did something to ruin things. “To break him out of this destructive cycle of belief,” she continued, “three things have to happen. First, someone of his generation has to figure out what happened. With your law in effect, that’s a tricky proposition. Second, they have to confront Naruto and let him know they know something’s wrong. Finally, they have to accept him as he is.”
“And you believe this Hyuuga girl can do this?” the Hokage whispered.
Kurenai nodded. “I believe she’s our best chance. She’s intelligent, well-read, and… well, she likes the boy. She was mortified yesterday at the thought of something she said hurting his feelings. She’s also volunteered for extra training with Naruto – they’re probably sparring as we speak.”
The Hokage nodded, though his eyes were still troubled. “So much was done with the best of intentions, yet we only end up hurting the boy worse.” He sighed. “When he learns the whole truth, I doubt he will ever forgive me.”
Kurenai had never seen her Hokage look so… defeated before. “I think…” she began, but her voice trailed off. “I think he is more forgiving than we believe. Times were chaotic back then, and you chose the best course you could. He will understand that.”
“Would you in his place?” The Hokage asked.
The question caught Kurenai off balance. She realized that her smoldering resentment of his reluctance to pursue a dangerous investigation had been apparent all along. She felt shamed, a little, by that. “Perhaps,” she said, realizing it was more true than she first thought, “but I think he is more forgiving than I. After all he has been through, he still wishes to become Hokage – knowing what the job entails.”
The old man seemed to gather himself and leaned back slightly in his chair. “That is one of the more amazing things about the boy. While you are probably correct about his nature, I still need to find some way of making amends. I will leave it to you, Kurenai. I only hope you are correct in your assessment.”
Kurenai inclined her head respectfully toward her leader, a man she revered even more now than she did before. “I hope I am right as well, I do not see any other way for this to end well.”
After the genjutsu seminar, Hinata stayed in training area nineteen with Naruto. Her father hadn’t expressed any concern when she informed him she would be doing extra training in the evening. Honesty required Hinata to admit that there were places she would rather spend time at than home – and this was one of them. Her training partner immediately sprang to his feet and began making an extremely exaggerated series of stretches. Grimacing comically, he grunted and groaned as Hinata suppressed a smile. His habit of trying to do everything in as funny a manner as possible was also one of the things she admired about him. He always wanted those around him to be smiling and laughing. She knew she had far too little of either of those things in her life.
She must have let a little of her smile show as she rose to her feet, because Naruto stuck his lower lip out in an exaggerated pout. “Hey!” he exclaimed, “it’s not funny. I don’t think I’ve ever sat in one position that long in my life!” Abruptly his face fell. “And then when I do finally get to do something, I can’t make that chakra-interrupt-jutsu-thing work right.”
“But you were able to do the other method,” she reminded him gently.
“Yeah, that’s right!” he agreed, brightening. “It seems like I can do that chakra pulse thing fairly well.”
Hinata found herself nodding agreement without saying a word. The truth was that he’d done quite a bit better than ‘fairly well’. She activated her Byakugan just before he released the pulse, something she never casually did when she was looking at the boy. She didn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea, especially after Ino had asked her some very embarrassing questions about Sasuke after school one day,
But the chakra spike she felt was so strong, too powerful to be coming from the genin before her, no matter how hard he tried. It didn’t seem possible, so she activated her Byakugan to search for the real source… and found Naruto, shimmering with gathered chakra, swirling in complex patterns around his navel as he concentrated. She’d never seen anyone gather that much chakra before, including her father. When Naruto released the pulse, he glowed within her special vision and then his aura exploded outward. The only thing she could think of when she saw it was the old tales of Susano, stepping out of a thunderbolt as it struck the ground.
Then the shockwave passed and Naruto was still standing there, looking a little embarrassed while everyone stared at him.
And now she was training with him.
When Naruto finished stretching and grunting he looked over at Hinata. “What do you think we should work on first?”
Hinata could barely force words out of her tightening throat. “A-ano… whatever you think we should do is fine,” she squeaked out.
Naruto frowned and she wondered what she’d said wrong. “Er, I don’t really know what we should work on first. Do you have any suggestions?”
Hinata swallowed. She was uncomfortable, but she was also bolstered by the thought that Naruto didn’t seem to be knowingly putting her on the spot. “K-kurenai-sensei said that each of us has things t-to learn from the other,” she said.
Naruto nodded thoughtfully. “All right, what did you want to work on?”
“Well,” she replied, “she did mention I could work on my sparring with you, since we are roughly the same size.”
“Okay,” Naruto said, brightening, “that sounds like fun.”
“Ano, Naruto, what did you want to work on?” Hinata asked in turn. It was funny how it got easier to talk to him once she got started. Thinking about it, she realized it was because he never lost patience with her or anyone else. He’d even stop to talk to younger students who still attended the academy, like Konohamaru, if they ran into him and his friends while they were working. It was yet another thing she admired about him, especially when she was dealing with other, less patient people.
Naruto scowled for a moment and Hinata thought she’d offended him before she realized that was just his ‘thinking’ expression. Evidently he found it painful. “Well,” he said slowly, “I normally work on my chakra and my jutsus in the evenings. I don’t get much chance to do them during the day, except when Kurenai-sensei works on them with us. Lee can’t do ninjutsus, so we just practice taijutsu.”
“Kurenai-sensei gave me some special exercises to work on my chakra control. Would you like to work on those as well?” she suggested.
Naruto nodded slowly. “I think that would be a good idea. Sensei says my chakra control sucks.” He paused as Hinata stared at him, “Er, actually she said it was ‘one of my weaknesses, and I need to fix those as much as possible’.”
Hinata reflected that at least he had some strengths, instead of being all weaknesses like her. Their sparring only confirmed this. Naruto had improved so much working with Gai-sensei and Lee that she could barely touch him now. He was so fast…
When they paused for a moment, Hinata asked between pauses for breath how he’d become so quick on his feet. Naruto nodded like he’d just remembered something and pulled up his pant leg.
Strapped to his lower calf and ankle was a padded bracer studded with metal ovals. Hinata’s stomach dropped as she realized he was beating her even while he was burdened with extra weight. “I took some of the slugs off before I came here,” Naruto told her, oblivious to her mortification, “because I wanted to give you a good fight. But training with these on my legs and a smaller pair on my forearms really helped me improve. I bet Kurenai-sensei knows where we can get you a pair. The cool thing is that they have a quick-release latch that makes them just fall off of you. That way if you get ambushed you can ditch them quickly.”
Naruto slid his pant leg back down and straightened up. “I tried that once, just to see what a difference it makes… I felt like I was flying at first. That’ll give people a real surprise, won’t it? Er… what’s wrong?” he asked.
Hinata was trying valiantly to maintain the cool composure her father demanded of her… but standing as close as Naruto-kun was, it was impossible to hide so much from him. Trying to control her quavering voice, she asked “D-do you think they would help me that much?”
Naruto frowned. “Of course it should. I remember you kicking my butt that first day we sparred.”
Hinata felt even more embarrassed now. He obviously remembered their sparring and resented her showing him up. “G-gomen,” she said quietly.
“Nani?” Naruto asked, his face a portrait of confusion. “Why are you apologizing for being a good sparring partner?” he asked. “Lee kicks my butt almost every day, and I learn a lot from it. Now my job is to kick your butt so you can learn from it. See how it works out?”
Hinata privately wondered how much her rear end would hurt when this was over, but she only said “Hai!” in response.
They sparred for another hour before Naruto called a halt. He was flushed, but Hinata was trembling and pouring sweat. She knew she looked a mess, but she’d rather sweat like a pig than let Naruto think she was unwilling to work hard. Ino and Sakura would be mortified to be seen in such a state, but didn’t Naruto-kun suggest, in a roundabout way, that he liked Hinata better because she wasn’t like them? “That was really good Hinata,” he said, “Once you got warmed up you kept up with me… and if you’d been using your Jyuuken, I’d have been in real trouble!”
Hinata knew he was exaggerating to be nice, but his words still buoyed her. “Thank you, Naruto. We should probably work with chakra control now. What specifically are you having problems with?”
“Everything,” he replied, rolling his eyes.
Hinata did not react to his joke, but merely waited patiently for Naruto to continue. Finally, he sighed. “All right,” he said. “I know from things Shino said that you and he are working on some kind of chakra-based tree-climbing exercise. I’m still having trouble with the basic water-walking Kurenai-sensei showed us nearly two weeks ago.”
After they began, Hinata’s normal reticence was countered by Naruto’s obvious chagrin. She didn’t understand how a boy who’d created such an incredibly powerful chakra pulse that afternoon had such difficulty pushing a constant level of chakra out of the bottom of his feet. Nonetheless, that was exactly his problem. The chakra in his feet would vary widely until it destabilized his support and let his feet fall through the surface of the pond. Fortunately, he would do this barely more than a step from the bank, so only his feet got wet.
Hinata watched him concentrate, and turned her Byakugan on so she could study the chakra flow through the coils in his legs. The delicate blue tracery was visible at this range, which pleased Hinata. Her eyes weren’t as well developed as those of, say, her cousin Neji, and she sometimes had difficulty seeing another person’s coils in any detail. After a moment, she began to make out more of the details as Naruto repeatedly dunked his feet.
One reason she was able to see the coils was simply size. Naruto had some of the thickest chakra coils she had ever seen on a human being, let alone a genin. However, with coils that thick, he should have no difficulty supporting himself on the surface of the water. But as she watched, she noticed bits of red chakra mixed in with the pure blue. When they reached his feet, they would surge in irregular ways. Sometimes the red chakra would cancel out the blue chakra, leaving that foot dangerously under-supported. Other times the red chakra seemed to reinforce the blue chakra, and that foot would start to raise up a little bit, unbalancing her teammate.
“Ano… Naruto, I have never seen someone with two types of chakra before. Why is that?” No sooner had the words left her mouth than Hinata knew something was wrong. Naruto went very still as his feet sank into the water. He wasn’t even trying to support himself now.
“You’re… looking? At my feet?” he asked her.
“Gomen,” Hinata apologized quickly. “I thought, if I could see what you were doing with your chakra, I could help you more.”
She could almost hear as well as see Naruto swallow. “I see,” he said.
She dug her fingers into the crest of the bank. What was so wrong that Naruto was reacting like this? What had she done? She took a shallow breath and tried to steady her voice. “If you can keep the red chakra out of there, it’ll probably work better,” she suggested timidly.
Naruto frowned. “And how do I… wait… Hinata, tell me when you see any bits of the red stuff, all right?”
Hinata nodded and Naruto climbed onto the bank, concentrated for a moment, and then stepped out onto the surface of the water again. He held steady for a moment, until Hinata saw a mote of red light winding past his knee. “Naruto, I see one, traveling down your right leg. It just passed the knee, and now it’s…
Naruto’s face held a fierce grimace as he stood there with his eyes shut and his hands fisted at his sides. Hinata saw the blue chakra swirling faster down his right leg, and suddenly the red chakra was expelled, along with several bits of blue chakra, from one of the Tenketsu points on his calf.
“You did it, Naruto-kun!” Hinata said, unable to keep the excitement out of her voice.
“G-good,” Naruto said, panting, “tell me if you see another one.”
“Hai!” Hinata agreed. After a moment she spoke again. “I see one in the other leg, still moving down the front of your thigh.”
“I think I can feel that one,” Naruto said as he concentrated. After a moment, that too was expelled. “Did that get it?” he asked.
“Hai, Naruto,” Hinata said in an excited voice. “That was even faster.”
“Good,” he replied with his eyes still shut. “I’m going to see if I can sense the next one myself.”
Sure enough, a large fragment of red appeared, moving quickly down his right leg. “Right?” he asked her.
“Yes it is,” she breathed. Naruto had been standing on the water for nearly two minutes now. A moment later, a red spark escaped from the Tenketsu point on his knee.
Slowly Naruto stepped back onto the bank and sank onto his haunches. “Well, it looks like you were right, Hinata. That’s the longest I’ve been able to stand on the water before.” He let out a shaky breath. “That was harder than I thought it would be. I’m about beat. Do you mind if we break for the night? I need to get something to eat before Ichiraku’s closes.”
Hinata stood up, wiping the fragments of grass from her fingers. “Ano, Naruto, I thought Kurenai-sensei said you eat there too often?”
Naruto shrugged. “Well, I got to eat something before I sleep, or Lee will hurt me in the morning.”
“Naruto, I thought the training would run late, so I prepared a dinner. You can have some if you like,” Hinata offered as she retrieved her backpack.
“That, that’s okay, Hinata,” Naruto said quickly, “y-you don’t have to do that…” his voice trailed off as he saw the size of the bento she pulled out of her pack. The bamboo lunch box was obviously sized for more than one meal.
It should be, since she spent over an hour filling it before leaving for the team meeting.
“Naruto,” she said quietly, “I made enough for two. I appreciate you agreeing to work with me. It’s… it’s really a big help.”
Naruto shrugged as she slid open the box. He tried not to drool when he saw what was in there. “I like sparring with you. It’s really a challenge to block your attacks so I wouldn’t still get zapped. When you get used to the weights, you’ll probably go back to hitting me six times for every time I hit you. Besides, you really helped me today, too. I had no idea why I kept losing my footing like that.”
Hinata ducked her head as she handed him a small square of porcelain. Using a pair of chopsticks, she quickly loaded it down with curry rice, cold baked fish with a miso glaze, sesame green beans, and potato noodles with daikon. Naruto’s eyes literally bulged as he took a long sniff and let out a low whistle. Finally, she pulled an extra pair of chopsticks out of a paper sleeve and handed them to Naruto.
After a heartfelt “Itadakimasu!” Naruto took small bites of each dish, each of which was followed by an appreciative noise that made Hinata blush a little harder each time, distracting her as she removed a ceramic cylinder from her bag and unscrewed the top. After a few moments, Naruto looked up with surprised eyes when Hinata handed him a cup of tea she’d just poured from the thermos. He took a small sip and shook his head. “Wow Hinata, I had no idea you could cook like this. If you ever got tired of being a ninja, you could get a job at Moritake’s, or, or even with old man Ichiraku!”
Hinata stared at Naruto as she felt her stomach drop like a stone. Was he telling her that he didn’t think she’d make it as a ninja? Didn’t he understand that her father would never let her work like a ‘common tradesman’? She stared into his blue eyes as she felt tears begin to well up in her own.
Then she remembered her sensei’s words. Hinata, we both know that Naruto hasn’t had a lot of friends at the academy. I can’t really say why, but it’s not his fault. He hasn’t had many people be nice to him, and so he’s sort of out of practice at being nice himself. So when he tries… he’s likely to be clumsy. Don’t take anything he says too seriously if you think it’s meant to be hurtful. Naruto isn’t like most people – he doesn’t hide his emotions at all. So if there are two ways to interpret what he says, and he’s smiling at you, assume the nicer one and you’ll be right every time. Naruto was, in fact, smiling at her, so she made herself smile back – because he wasn’t saying she shouldn’t try to be a ninja. He was just saying that she was a ninja who was also a good cook.
They sat there on the bank of the pond, eating dinner as the sun slowly sank behind the trees. Hinata enjoyed that meal more than any she had ever eaten at the Hyuuga compound.
But she still wondered what Naruto had been so anxious about.
Kurenai was a little surprised when Hinata approached her about where to find some wrist and ankle weights. She supposed she shouldn’t have been shocked, given the success that Naruto was having with them. The boy was incapable of keeping a training strategy secret for the competitive edge it would give him. At least as far as his teammates were concerned, she could only approve of his ethics. While she never used weights herself, Kurenai was not primarily a hand-to-hand fighter either. Speed was crucial for Hinata to successfully use her Jyuuken, so it made sense of a sort. If she couldn’t find wrist and ankle bracers small enough for Hinata’s limbs, Kurenai resolved to approach Tenten’s father about having some made.
Watching Hinata hurl herself at Shino, scoring a glancing hit on his forearm, Kurenai wondered how their joint training had gone. Hinata was slightly more aggressive than usual, which was something she’d been trying to encourage in the girl. Naruto was a little quieter than usual, which was also welcome. He did, however, seem to be extremely focused on Shino and Hinata’s sparring – enough so that Kurenai was hesitant to pull him aside to test his progress with Gai and Lee.
All of her students seemed to be fairly relaxed, and worked together with little friction. Whatever Hinata had seen the previous day must not have affected their relationship. Kurenai had confidence her genin would take the correct path once she knew the truth, but she wasn’t that anxious to immediately put her intuition to the test.
After an hour of sparring to get everyone warmed up and loose, Kurenai called a halt and they made their way to the Hokage’s tower for their next mission. Naruto made a whispered comment to Hinata that made the Hyuuga heiress stumble and let out a quiet giggle. Shino turned to look at his teammates, only to have them assume perfectly sober expressions. The bug-user nodded slightly, then resumed looking straight ahead. Kurenai had the oddest feeling he was possibly also smiling behind the high collar of his jacket – if that was even possible.
Kurenai considered the rising morale of her genins and wondered what was happening when she was not around. Whatever it was, she hoped it continued.
It wasn’t until three days later that she was reminded that everything had its price, and even good morale could be dangerous in its own way.
They were returning to the Hokage’s tower after their first mission of the day, another cat retrieval. The Fire Lord’s wife was most appreciative, though she was a little disconcerted when her pet was clearly reluctant to leave Hinata’s arms. Naruto, who was less than fond of the cat that shunned him, appeared not to notice, while the rest of his team kept their expressions carefully neutral.
As they made their way through the lunch-time foot traffic, Kurenai noticed a disturbance coming from up ahead. Several figures were moving above the roof line at high speed, and distant shouts were echoing above the street noise.
The distant “crump!” of an explosion got everyone’s attention, and the streets cleared with surprising rapidity. Despite a decade of peace, Konoha was still a hidden village, and its inhabitants were not ignorant of danger.
Kurenai’s eyes expertly tracked the movements as the figures approached. One figure appeared to be pursued by several, and the pursuers were wearing ANBU masks. At their current course, they would pass within a block of Team 8’s position. Something flew backward from the pursued, and a rooftop disappeared in a huge ball of fire, making the ANBU detour around the explosion.
Kurenai considered intercepting the fugitive, but paused, remembering the unseasoned genins behind her. She drew a kunai with her left hand, while her right formed the seals for a masking genjutsu that would disguise her team. She had no intention of risking them against an unknown shinobi that seemed willing to anger an ANBU squad.
Too bad her team was no longer behind her.
Kurenai bit off a curse as she dropped the illusion and spun back toward the chase. At first, she saw nothing except the ANBU and their quarry.
Suddenly, half a dozen Naruto’s leapt out from between two buildings. The shinobi, who Kurenai could now see wore no insignia over a dark purple combat suit, spun and hurled a double-handful of shuriken at the boys. Four of them disappeared in puffs of smoke, but the last two avoided all the projectiles and slammed into their target, wrenching at his legs.
Off balance and hobbled, the shinobi lost his footing on landing and the three of them skidded and rolled across the roof of a furniture-maker. The two bunshin were disrupted by the hard landing, so the shinobi easily rolled to his feet and straightened the visor that hid his eyes. More purple cloth covered the rest of his head, concealing his gender, but Kurenai thought he moved like a man as she leapt toward the rooftop.
Naruto, however, beat her to the punch. He suddenly appeared, alone, in the air above the rooftop. Kurenai saw two more in the alleyway she was passing over and realized they must have thrown him into the air. “Kage Bunshin No Jutsu!” the one in the air yelled, and suddenly it was raining Narutos.
Kurenai lost track of the original as she moved to get an angle for a kunai-throw at her genin’s target. That was easier said than accomplished, because Narutos were attacking him from every direction. The speed Naruto developed in his morning training sessions was very apparent now – his clones were little more than blurs as they landed and hurled themselves at their foe.
The shinobi, however, was not an easy target. He blocked and countered with a degree of skill that worried Kurenai. He even avoided the first two kunai that she threw, dodging by the smallest of margins. But eventually, Naruto scored, and delivered a spinning roundhouse kick to the head that knocked the shinobi off his feet. The shinobi tumbled over and over until he rolled off the roof and into an alleyway. Naruto thrust his fist into the air and yelled “Yatta!” in triumph… not noticing the explosive tag that the shinobi had left behind.
Kurenai opened her mouth to shout a warning when the rooftop was engulfed in a ball of flame. She was hurled backward, helpless as a leaf in a storm, and curled her body into a ball to control her tumble. She ricocheted off the side of another building and angled toward the alleyway that murderous bastard had fallen into.
The jonin landed hard on the dirty cobbles, but she regained her balance in time to see a blurry figure fleeing down the haze-filled alleyway. The screams of frightened civilians were distracting, but she knew if the fire crews arrived soon they could confine the fire to a single roof. But that wouldn’t help if they couldn’t stop the one setting off the explosions.
Her quarry pelted down the alleyway, with Kurenai slowly gaining on him. He was limping a little; proof that Naruto’s blows had counted. Her stomach contracted, wondering what happened to her student, but now was not the time…
Especially when Shino had just stepped into the mouth of the alleyway, blocking it.
With a smooth, practiced motion, the shinobi let his right arm fall straight downward at his side. With a sudden twist of his wrist, a pair of sharp metal blades shot out of the end of his sleeve, extending a foot past the back of his hand.
Shino started to turn, but his hands were in his jacket pockets, and he was moving far too slow to avoid…
The nameless shinobi rammed the metal blades into the genin’s chest as Kurenai watched, still several paces behind, too far away to do anything as her throat burned with acid. The shinobi twisted his whole body in a powerful motion, and the blades tore through the side of the boy’s chest as he exploded in a fountain of… bugs?
The henge wavered and disappeared, and in Shino’s place, a large mass of kikai bugs took to the air and settled on the shinobi. Kurenai noticed that a good portion of them seemed to be settling between the shinobi’s shoulder blades, where he couldn’t easily brush them off.
Half-blinded, the shinobi stumbled out of the alleyway, only to find a small, timid-looking twelve year old girl waiting for him.
Hinata wasn’t completely convinced that this was a great idea. But when Naruto signaled her and Shino, she couldn’t stop herself. They’d worked out once, while eating a quick lunch at Ichiraku’s, what they could do if they were discovered by an enemy scout and needed to capture him or her before they could report back. It seemed so simple in theory, but the execution… she’d heard the explosion, and even though Naruto promised to be careful, she was worried. Shino’s Kikai Bunshin looked so real that she almost screamed when she saw the blades poke out of its back.
But everything had worked fairly well up to this point, and now it was down to her. That was the problem. She didn’t know why she agreed to take care of the final phase. It made sense, she supposed, in terms of what she could do… but it also meant that if she failed, all their efforts would be for nothing. Naruto and Shino had done their parts perfectly. The target was at least a little damaged, and more importantly was limping. Shino’s kikai bugs were now draining his chakra reserves. But now it was Hinata’s duty to make sure he didn’t slip away to recuperate.
Hinata suddenly felt very small and weak. The shinobi, no matter how bruised, was a fully grown man, like her father. There was no way a weak little girl could hope to stop him. Not one who failed at everything she tried. She just hoped Naruto hadn’t gotten hurt for nothing…
Naruto… the thought of her teammate made her chest clench with pain. He’d always encouraged her, always worked with her. He didn’t think she was a failure like everyone else did. Now he would know better. Now he would look at her like everyone else, with pity… or contempt, like her father.
Suddenly a new emotion burned in her heart. It was the same one that burned when she saw how the villagers treated Naruto, the same one that burned when she saw how her fellow genins didn’t respect him, only now it burned for her.
She wouldn’t let Naruto down.
She’d die before she’d let that happen.
She activated her Byakugan, took another step toward her enemy and suddenly everything seemed to slow down. “Divine Sixty-Four Strikes” she whispered and she could see a sudden tracery surrounding them. Time seemed to slow down even more as she became acutely aware of every detail of their relative positions and the angles of their limbs. Her hands began to move like quicksilver traceries, moving around the blades, around his arms, seeking their glowing targets.
Her foe tried to block, tried to counter her flashing hands, but he was too close, too off-balance to stop her completely. Three strikes were deflected before her chakra-emitting fingers brushed across the Tenketsu on his left shoulder, closing it. The joint immediately froze, and the muscles bulging around it gave evidence of his pain. The next series shut down his elbow and wrist on the opposite arm, and now there was no stopping her. Time began to speed up again as she systematically closed his chakra holes in a pattern that would look random to anyone else.
Betrayed by his numbed body, the shinobi fell to his knees and Hinata froze, pulling her last blow, palm quivering an inch from his forehead. The ANBU might want to talk to him, after all. She drew back into a ready position as the man collapsed backwards.
Hinata found herself panting with exertion and discharged nervous tension. Had she actually done that?
A shout from the alleyway snapped her out of her daze. Naruto, looking a little rumpled and ash-streaked, thrust his fist into the air. “Yeah, Hinata! Way to kick his butt!”
Yuuhi Kurenai was sure that she was getting too old for this. For that matter, she didn’t think she’d been born young enough to deal with this. Not only had her genins rushed to engage an unknown enemy, but she’d watched what looked like two of them die from it. She took a deep breath as Naruto cheered a vividly blushing Hinata and the ANBU squad landed in the street.
Their leader, a shinobi wearing a bear mask, inclined his head respectfully toward her. “Good work,” he said. “He stole a scroll from the Hokage’s tower and led us on quite a chase.”
Kurenai pinched the bridge of her nose. The clatter of the fire-wagon was only adding to her headache. “I didn’t do this,” she said flatly. “My less than obedient genins decided to take matters into their own hands.”
The ANBU glanced at each other and then took a closer look at her genins. Shino stepped from behind a doorway and his kikai bugs marched toward him in a steady stream. Naruto, who’d been patting a stunned Hinata on the shoulder looked up at his sensei’s words and scowled.
Kurenai held her tongue as the ANBU took down their names and statements, bound up the unconscious shinobi’s arms and legs, and carried him off for interrogation. The crew of the fire-wagon had the small fire on the rooftop extinguished as well, so they resumed their journey.
Naruto was still scowling in outrage, but Hinata just looked ashamed. Kurenai began to feel the prickle of her conscience when Shino, of all people broke the silence.
“I understand that disobeying an order is a serious offense, sensei,” he said in an even voice, devoid of any tone whatsoever. “However, if you gave us an order not to intervene, I did not hear it. I also understand that, as Konoha Shinobi, we are obligated to assist ANBU members in pursuit of their duties whenever possible.”
“That is correct,” Kurenai admitted with a sigh. “You three deployed before I had a chance to tell you to stand down.”
“Why would you want us to do that?” Naruto asked, “We nailed him good!”
Kurenai turned on her student. “Because you had no way of knowing how powerful he was. He could have killed you all without blinking!”
“But he did not,” Shino reminded her.
“That is correct,” Kurenai agreed. “You got lucky. Do not forget that.”
They were quiet the rest of the way to the Hokage’s office. The chuunins guarding his door had evidently heard the news, because the looks they gave Team 8 were oddly respectful.
The Hokage himself was unusually animated, and waved for them to sit down in the chairs provided. “We think we have identified him. He is an infiltrator from Cloud, and he made off with several sensitive documents.” He paused theatrically, “Although ranked a jonin, he was a stealth specialist. For all that, he was still capable of directly fighting at a minimum of chuunin level. It’s very impressive that your team was able to stop him, Kurenai.”
Kurenai shrugged. Over the worst of the shock, she’d recovered some of her equilibrium. “I didn’t do much of anything,” she admitted wryly. “They did it all without me.”
“On the contrary,” the Hokage said with a smile, “from the reports, they fought well together as a team. And that is a testament to your training.”
Kurenai blinked. “Thank you, Hokage-sama.”
“As a reward for assisting in the capture of a dangerous fugitive, I’m awarding you pay equivalent to a C-rank mission,” the Hokage said with a smile. Before Kurenai could do more than open her mouth he continued, “That’s at least the rank of mission I’d have to assign to get those scrolls back – and that to an entire hunter team. Besides, by the time everything had been straightened out, the remainder of today’s D-rank missions had been taken.”
“Thank you, Hokage-sama,” Kurenai repeated.
“I think,” the Hokage continued, “that this, along with all the D-rank missions you’ve accomplished, qualifies you for your first true C-rank mission. Come back tomorrow and we will have the details ready for your first border patrol.”
A/N: Well, that was the biggest chapter I have ever written for a fanfic. Hope you like it.
Please address any questions or concerns to my yahoo group, Viridian Dream. Link is in my Author Profile.
Appropriately enough, "Geniuses of Hard Work" is also the longest fanfic chapter I have ever written.