Chapter 1

Trickster's Mind, Hero's Heart

Few things can strike fear into the heart of a true warrior. What frightens them is a mark of what truly separates the novices from the experts. You ask a novice, and you'll hear them list off the names of a dozen or more notorious jonin or nukenin from various villages, and occasionally someone from their own village with an infamous temper. The likes of Uchiha Itachi and Momochi Zabuza are among the top listed, for obvious reasons. Behind them you'll occasionally hear Sasori of the Red Sands, and outside Kanoha, you'll hear tales of Hatake Kakashi. Few of them ever list the acting Kage of course, as they're essentially benched. Otherwise, they'd still be raving about The Professor, Sarutobi Hiruzen. If you ask any of these novices why they're afraid of these ninja in particular, they'll either speak of their vast list of achievements or destructive capability.

The experts are those that know why these ones are frightening and why there are others that could be far worse.

Stealth, versatility, and misdirection. Every year, countless novice shinobi join the ranks expecting to get by on overpowered techniques and combat prowess. These are the ones that forget what shinobi are meant to be. Ninjutsu are powerful, but their versatility is far more important, and the greatest of ninja must be able to utilize it to the fullest of their capability, either by mastering and expanding a small range of all-purpose techniques or becoming adept at so many that your move pool is bottomless. What is most terrifying of these true masters is that some of them can go completely unnoticed, just waiting to untap that potential. An exploding tag under your feet just waiting for a spark. The most fearsome are the ones that have yet to ignite and are given a chance to.

Of course, this is a capacity that few ever develop, and fewer ever maintain. What's rarest of all is those who are born with this capacity and carry it as a core aspect of their being. Usually, those few miracle children are easy to recognize, but for all the wrong reasons.

"Naruto…. The hell did you do this time?" Hiruzen rubs at the bridge of his nose with his wrinkled, arthritic fingers. Upon opening his eyes once more, he's almost blinded by the child's ear-to-ear grin. His spiky blonde hair and random patches of his face and black T shirt are all stained by various colors of paint ranging from neon green and pink to his favorite "kill me" orange. The vast number of stains marring the visages of three of his favorite anbu now standing behind the boy almost makes him crack a smile, professional apathy be damned.

The boy in question just chuckles as he tries to ease away from the assassin currently gripping the back of his shirt collar. "Well, this paint cannon trap was supposed to be for that arrogant prick Tsurugi on his way into work this morning..."

Hiruzen raises a brow and leans back in his chair. "Tsurugi Kaneda? The grocer? Why exactly was he your target?"

Naruto grunts and drops his smile. "He's been doubling his prices on me. Figured I'd pay him back by ruining a good set of clothes and making him miss a day's sales."

Hiruzen makes a mental note to visit Mr. Tsurugi personally later. "Alright… and why exactly did you and these anbu get caught in your trap?"

"Ummm…" He scratches at the back of his head and averts his gaze. "They caught me fleeing the scene of another prank I pulled on Genbe-sensei at the academy that… may have been a bit more dangerous than I thought? How what I supposed to know flour was that flammable?" Well, that explains the small explosion at the academy earlier. Not much damage, just a little paperwork and a teacher he intended to fire got burned. Hiruzen waves for Naruto to continue. "O-Oh, right, um… well, they chased me a good distance, and I lead them all the way to my trap, which sadly, wasn't triggered properly when Tsurugi-teme got to work. But, I figured it'd slow these guys down, maybe blind em or something. But I had to trigger it myself to do that, so I got caught in the blast."

Hiruzen nods faintly, turning to his crystal ball and gazing at the alley behind the grocer's. The paint spatters on the opposite wall to the tampered dumpster turned into a hidden paint cannon provides a clear outline of the young ninja in training and the three anbu. "And how exactly did you get the supplies to build something like this? Or even learn to build it to begin with?"

Naruto snorts and chuckles at his own ingenuity. "You wouldn't believe what can be done with what most people throw away. Old paint cans or colors they don't want, old pipes, air tanks they think are empty left over from old folks dying… and that's just the kinda stuff I used for just this prank. Though…" He bites his lip faintly. "… SOME of it may be stolen from stores that've kicked me out or overcharged me…"

Silence falls as Hiruzen lets the details sink in. A self-taught, mechanically wizened prankster capable enough to catch anbu in one of his larger, more complex traps. If the paint had been poison, acid, or even just kunai, he had no doubt all of them would be dead right now.

That kind of efficiency and the rarity of this gift cannot be squandered. "Anbu… leave and clean yourselves up. I have to speak with Naruto for a bit, and your presence is unnecessary." The three masked figures behind Naruto nod and shunshin away. Hiruzen offers his adoptive grandson a smile and a wave to usher him over. Being but eleven, he's all too eager to rush to the Hokage's side. "Naruto… you have a very unique and rare talent among ninja. Not a bloodline like the Inuzuka or the Hyuga, but a personal skill that sets you among an even rarer and more valuable type of shinobi that I haven't seen a true prodigy of in years, and the last one wasn't even from this village."

Naruto's sapphire eyes light up at the thought of how special he just might be. "Really? But… what? I… I constantly fail in class." His smile fades away as he averts his gaze to the floor, lost in thoughts of his many failures. Sarutobi knows all too well that the scowl Naruto forces on hides tears. "Iruka-sensei is the only one that sees any potential in me, but he's never seen anything 'special' about me…"

"Well, this is a talent that most would have difficulty noticing… that, and Iruka may be a little distracted by having to help clean up the results of your pranks at school." Hiruzen chuckles at Naruto's undignified groan. "But no, this talent is something truly rare. You, Naruto, are natural trap master. Your ability to devise traps and pranks from whatever materials you can find and turn them on the most careful of ninja in my ranks is incredible. Just think what would have happened if you'd designed that trap to harm and used it on a troop of bandits, or an enemy shinobi!" The light returns to Naruto's eyes as his potential sets in. "You're brilliant, Naruto. Brilliant in a very uncommon way. What we need to do now is ensure you master this talent."

Naruto leaps and cheers, throwing a fist to the ceiling in pure joy. "YES! Ok, how do we do this? A private training session? My own sensei? OH! Teach me a jutsu for trap masters!"

The Hokage snorts and burst into a short bout of laughter. "No, no, Naruto. I can't manage to provide quite that much. For one, trap masters are rare and secretive. Next to no jutsu designed just for them have ever been recorded. Furthermore, I can't recall having one in this village right now. This is an undertaking you'll have to see through yourself." Naruto slumps in dismay. "What I can do is provide access to some supplies to teach yourself more easily with. The first thing would be learning to trap animals by building your own traps from scratch." He turns around in his chair and rolls it across the room, digging into one of his bookshelves. "Let's see… yes, here it is." He pulls two books free and tosses them to his favorite blonde knucklehead. "Basic physics and trap construction. If you can get through these and trap ten animals of various sizes, then I'll provide the tools for your next step."

Naruto fumbles as he catches the two books, nearly stumbling face-first into the front of the desk. Once he catches himself and gets a better look at them, he groans and almost drops them both. "I have to read? Come on! Can't you just teach me a jutsu?"

Hiruzen sighs as he rolls closer to the windows. "Naruto… you say you, one day, want my seat, and my hat. Do you realize how much reading that's going to require? How much smarter you'll have to be?" He peeks over to Naruto to find him at full attention, despite the mild bewilderment on his face. "The Hokage isn't just the strongest ninja in the village. We are also among the smartest, the most level-headed, the most trusted, and the most deserving. The only ninja in this village that can outthink me are the Nara, and they're too lazy to want the job. Few are quite as level as I am, save for the best of the Aburame. Whether one deserves it is determined by the purity and meaning of their achievements. As for trusted… well, after all of your pranks thus far, what exactly have you done to gain the people's trust?" He turns to stare out the window. "You have a very long and difficult road ahead of you if you want to be Hokage, Naruto. So the question now is… will you let a little reading get in the way of that goal, or is it too daunting for you to want anymore?"

Silence falls for several moments as Hiruzen stares out the windows of his office and into the vast expanse of his village. Oh, how it's grown since his youth. His sensei would be proud, bless the Nidaime's soul. He had succeeded in inspiring a once rambunctious young man into being the now second-oldest kage in history. Hiruzen could only hope he had not crushed this youth's dream with the reality of it.

To his surprise, he hears the turning of pages behind him. "… Well… it doesn't look too hard. Not as hard as the tests in class, anyway…" He turns his head up to meet Hiruzen's stern gaze with his own piercing eyes. "I'll get back to my place and get right to work on these. I'll see you in a week!" Naruto turns and bolts out the door, leaving a stunned and confused kage in his wake.

… Wait… what was that about the academy tests being harder?

"… Should I look into that?" Sarutobi turns to look back out the window, finding one of his most trusted former anbu speaking to him from the roof.

"Of course. Get Iruka to assist you. I'm certain he's not involved, and he'll be eager to help nail the culprits. I shouldn't have to tell you to be discreet about it, but then again…" He sighs and rubs his temples. "Most of our ranks seem to have forgotten what stealth is. Only the anbu and genjutsu users seem to have a grasp on it anymore."

"Hm.. I suppose you're right." The silver haired jonin out the window closes his book and stashes it away. "I'll be right on it. And I'll be sure to keep track of Naruto's progress for you, while I'm at it."

Hiruzen nods and turns away, knowing Kakashi's already gone by the time he opens his eyes again. They quickly fall upon the paintings of his predecessors, and the lost successor. "… He's so much like you both. Your drive. Your passion. Your potential. I hope you're watching…" He grins.

"Big things are in his future. I'm sure he'll make us all proud."

Back in his ramshackle apartment, Naruto digs through the first few pages of his physics book to start off, with his trap-making book open to a diagram page off to the side. "Huh… so that's where my diaper catapult prank went wrong. The pivot wasn't secured right and swung off to the side, and the force applied wasn't half as strong as I needed it to be…" He turns the page and scribbles a few notes in a scroll to his left. "And my paint cannon's trigger was the same… not enough tension on the tripwire. I was too focused on the ideas of one object just knocking into the next and interacting, not enough about how hard it hit…"

Outside his window, a clone sits on the wall with a smile on his face beneath a spandex mask. "Not bad, kid. Might have to put in a request with the Hokage." He returns to his book for just a moment before smirking as it reads one of the most perverse lines in the book and dispels itself to send that memory to the original. If not for his mask, Kakashi would have had a nosebleed on the paperwork he was investigating at the academy. Few would ever guess that hiding reactions to his reading is one of the greatest advantages to his mask.

A racoon chitters and growls as it scrambles about in a makeshift cage of pipes, branches, and zip ties. The trigger mechanism was constructed from a few clothespins, some scavenged ninja wire, and sheet of sandpaper hidden beneath the fallen leaves. The sandpaper then doubled as a way to ensure the racoon would stop scrambling and struggling after a few moments, when the leaves had been swept aside or ground down. Once it's clear the creature is caught, Naruto scrambles up to it with a wild grin. "Yes! That's three squirrels, two racoons, and an owl now…" He takes a fur sample as the racoon attempts to escape, then lets it scamper off. "Ok… now to go check my large target traps." He forces himself off his knee and to his feet, then bolts through the woods on the outskirts of the village. His hands are wrapped in a layer of bandages that covers all but his lightly cut and raw fingertips. Making some of these traps has been intensive, and paired with his physical training, he had to cover his hands to let them heal a bit. Fiddling with rope and ninja wire all day can be a literal pain.

In the distance, Naruto could hear the honks and groans of an ensnared deer. "Yes!" He skids atop the grass until he stops only a few yards from a deer now suspended in a net hanging from the branches. It doesn't seem to bother with struggling at all, just curled up in the bottom of the net, tangled around its antlers as it calls out. As he approaches, Naruto can't help but assess its lethargy. "Huh… Why the hell would it be this lazy caught in a net?"

"Because it knows we're coming." Naruto jumps and nearly screams, wheeling around to see Shikamaru and Shikaku Nara. The clan head sighs as he steps up to cut the poor animal down. "You should know better than to hunt deer on Nara clan property, Naruto."

"Um…" He chuckles nervously. "S-Sorry. I didn't know this was clan property. O-Oh, one thing before you release it!" He leaps up and past Shikaku, using a kunai to cut off a small patch of fur. "Need to record my catches for Hokage-jiji. This is my seventh one!" He laughs giddily as he pockets the fur. "Three more, and he'll start my next lesson!"

Shikamaru raises a brow and pulls his hands from his pockets to cross his arms. "What's the Hokage teaching you to catch animals for?"

"O-Oh, this is just to practice trap building and hiding. The goal is to get good enough at this to trap enemy ninja."

Shikaku pauses as the pieces of the living puzzle that is Naruto start to fit together. "… I see. Well, try to keep off our property when doing so. Regardless…" He looks over the net and the various small mechanisms used to trigger and pull it. "… This isn't half bad. I'd suggest securing your pulleys a bit more, but it's otherwise a solid trap." He cuts the deer down and lets it land with a thud, then assists it with removing the net from its antlers. "I'd also suggest killing, skinning, and cooking anything you catch that you'd care to. Get better at making reusable traps and sell the furs, and you could make a pretty penny before you're even out of the academy."

Naruto tilts his head as that sinks in. "Huh… Alright, I'll give that a shot." He spins his kunai and slips it back into his pouch. "Shouldn't be too hard. I mean…" He sighs. "… If I'm gonna be a ninja, I'll have to get used to killing. Hunting should be good practice." He stretches for a moment and peeks around to get his bearings. "Ok… I think the next trap I gotta check is that way…" He turns back to Shikamaru and grins. "I'll see ya in class tomorrow, Shika!" He leaps off into the trees without waiting for a reply, leaving the two laziest of Naras watching his back.

"… He's gonna be amazing with those traps one day, isn't he?" Shikamaru sighs. "Troublesome blonde numbskull…"

Shikaku nods and turns to leave. He's more like his father than I thought. I'll have to discuss this with Kakashi and the Hokage. Maybe Hiashi…

About a kilometer away, Naruto stumbles to a stop in a small grove where he set a small pitfall trap with a deep, smooth barrel buried and covered. With only smooth plastic surfaces, no animal can get a proper grip to climb back out. The sounds of scratching and scrambling within proves his point. "Ok, what do we have he-"

Naruto stops as his sapphire eyes are met by the faded bronze of fox eyes. Not a word is spoken, but they plead to him, and somehow, seem to recognize him. He can feel them burrowing into his soul, but to empathize rather than harm. He stammers for a moment, trying to reason that he should start taking Shikaku's advice, but…

"… Ok, fine. Come on, let's get you out of there…"