disclaimer: I have no legal right to the use of the characters, situation, or setting of Masashi Kishimoto's Naruto, and hereby attest that I have received no monetary remuneration for the following story or their appearances in it. Further, if the legitimate owners of one of the various incarnations of Naruto should wish to make use of any of the characters, situations, plotlines, etc. original to the following, then with the exception of the name (not character, name) Nathan Baxter/Bakusuta Neshan, I hereby irrevocably grant them the right to do so either with or without my further knowledge, compensation or consent.
In short, Naruto isn't mine, I'm getting no payment for this, and the only thing I came up with for this that I'd object to the franchise's real owners using in the real series would be my own name.
TEENAGE GENIN NINJA HEROES
APRIL, 12TH YEAR AFTER THE ATTACK OF THE KYUUBI
"Pft. Like a Jounin is going to fall for such an obvious trap."
And he didn't, simply by virtue of opening the door before he walked through it.
"HEY!" Naruto shouted. "What's the idea of wasting so much of our time and then not even having the decency to fall into my trap!"
Hah! Sakura's Inner Self crowed. He just incriminated himself! Whatta yutz!
The Jounin blinked. "Trap?"
"That idiot set the eraser to fall out of the doorjamb, sensei," Sakura said.
Their sensei crouched to pick up the fallen object, and the three students took the moment to evaluate him.
He was probably in his late teens or early twenties, Sasuke decided, which was very young for a Jounin. Average height or slightly below, depending on his exact age, but built heavily - almost certainly a strength oriented fighter. His choice of clothing and its numerous layers - coat over flak jacket over shirt - were almost certainly intended to conceal something significant hidden all across his body. For weaknesses, the way he seemed to turn his head whenever he wanted to look at something would indicate poor peripheral vision, which would mean that his spectacles were actually needed for corrective purposes and would weaken him if they were lost.
Waitaminute, Sakura thought. He's that guy from our Academy class's trips to the Archives. But he's only a little older than us! And a Jounin already...?
His eyes... aren't cold... Naruto realized, and decided then and there that he'd do anything rather than disappoint the second teacher to acknowledge him. Not that he had to let him know about it, of course.
The man studied the eraser in his hand for a moment, then frowned and tossed it casually into the tray under the blackboard, most of the way across the room. "Not funny." He took a deep breath, then held it for a moment as he looked at each of the three members of Genin Team 7 in turn.
Boy, sitting. Black hair, somewhat crested. Forehead protector in the usual place. Dark blue tunic, short sleeves, high collar. White shorts, sandals, and bracing wraps on calves and forearms.
Boy, standing. Short for his age, blonde hair, messy and sticking up all over the place. Bright orange jacket and pants, somewhat too large, with the cuffs rolled up and out of the way. Three whisker-like scars across each cheekbone, and the most arresting bright blue eyes.
Girl, standing. Dress, bright red, short-sleeved and close fitting, with a waist-height slit on either side for free movement. Dark blue bike shorts underneath for modesty. Forehead protector tied across the top of her head, to hold back a sheaf of long - and, apparently, natural - pink hair. Her eyes were nearly as unusual, a shade of aqua, midway between blue and green, he had never seen before.
He let his breath out in a rush, then smiled. "So! Who's for hibachi?"
"My name," he said across their table's grill, "is Nathan Baxter - Bakusuta Neshan, to phrase it a way you can pronounce. I'm seventeen years old, and a Jounin-level specialist in written seals and permanent effects."
Naruto scowled. "Huh?"
Sakura glared, and resisted the urge to smack him upside the head.
Come on! Inner Sakura howled. You know you want to!
Beating up her teammate definitely wouldn't impress their sensei... even if he -was- an idiot. "Naruto! We covered this only last month! A written seal is a way of controlling chakra and forming it into patterns away from your body! They're the reason curse seals and jutsu scrolls work!"
Neshan's carefully neutral face flashed into a broad, slightly goofy grin. "Bingo! You get a gold star, girl. That's exactly correct, and curse seals are only the start of it. There are probably some things that you can't do with them, but I haven't found one yet.
"Anyway, my hobbies are reading novels and doing research. I like teriyaki, my own cooking, and peace and quiet. I dislike people who act without thinking or hurt others for no good reason. My dream..." His smile turned quiet. "I wanna save the world."
The three kids blinked. He looked at Sakura, and his smile broadened back into a mischievous grin. "So, what about you?
She nibbled at her bottom lip for a moment, then said, "I'm Haruno Sakura. The thing I like is..." she blushed, and her eyes skittered involuntarily towards her dark-haired teammate. "... a certain person. My dream is to be with and marry him. The things I dislike - Thank you," she said to the chef as her plate arrived. "- are Naruto..." She made a face. "...and people who make fun of my forehead. My hobbies are taking care of my fish and..." She blushed again, and very carefully did -not- look at her crush.
After a second or two of awkward silence, Neshan looked at the crushed looking blond boy sitting to her left for a moment, then told the dark-haired one on her opposite side, "Okay, so, you next, Uchiha-san."
"Hn. My name is Uchiha Sasuke. No likes, many dislikes. My d- no, dream isn't right. My ambition is to resurrect my clan and kill... a certain man."
Sasuke tensed, every muscle going visibly rigid. "Yes."
Neshan looked at him for a long moment, then nodded. "We'll need to talk about this later."
"Okay. Your turn, Loudmouth."
"Loudmouth! I'm not-" Naruto shouted, standing up and leaning on the counter.
"Standing up and bellowing in the middle of a restaurant?" the older boy asked dryly, before thanking the cook as his order was slid into place.
Naruto closed his mouth and plopped back down into his seat. "Hmph. Anyway, my name is Uzumaki Naruto! I like cup ramen! And Sakura-chan!"
Sakura shuddered, as though at a sudden chill.
"What I dislike is the three minutes it takes cup ramen to cook. My dream is to become Hokage, so that everyone in the village will have to acknowledge my existence!"
Neshan swallowed his mouthful of beef. "We'll start on that day after tomorrow, then. If you pass."
"But we already did pass!"
Naruto and Sakura exploded into protest, and Sasuke nodded to the chef as his food was delivered.
The Jounin held out a hand, palm down, and tipped it side to side for a moment. "Yes and no. You passed the Academy exams, which determined whether or not you possessed the necessary practical skills of a Genin. What you still need to prove is that you have the required character traits."
Sakura blinked. "What traits?"
"Now, now... that would be telling."
"Can't you give us a hint?"
"I could, yes... If you were also willing to accept having the test's difficulty cranked about five, ten notches. If you know what you're supposed to be doing, I'm not going to be satisfied with your simply doing it - you'll have to live it, flesh and blood and skin and bone."
"So! That's easy for a future Hokage! Whatsit, whatsit!"
Neshan started to crack each joint of each of his fingers, one at a time. "Okay, that's one vote for. Sakura, Sasuke?"
Sakura nibbled at her lower lip. "Overnight... No. No, maybe if it was a week, but not just one night." What! What are you, a chicken! Go for it, girl!
"I don't need any shortcuts."
"Okay, so. 'No' it is, then. Training Ground Four, nine o'clock. Don't eat breakfast, you'll only lose it."
A stiff northerly breeze added a bit of bite to the late spring air and stirred the tops of the forest to rustling confusion.
"It's nearly 9:10. Is he always late?" Sakura asked plaintively.
"Unfortunately," said a voice behind her.
"Ya!" Naruto fell flat on his ass trying to turn around and jump away at the same time.
"Eep!" So did Sakura.
skish! Sasuke, on the other hand, managed it perfectly.
Neshan walked past them, winding a timer, which he then set on one of the three short, sturdy poles lined up at the edge of the field. "Okay. Two hours, fifty minutes." He turned around to face them and fished two small, round bells out of some inner pocket of his coat. "Two bells. Get one, you pass the test. When the timer goes off, we break for lunch. If you don't have a bell by then, I tie you to a stump and steal your food. Hour later, you get to try again. Still don't have one by four, and it's back to the academy."
He tucked the bells out of sight again and looked at them seriously. "You're Genin. I'm a Jounin. If you don't go all out, you won't even have a hope."
Two bells... Sasuke thought. Smart... the weakest fails, and the team is stronger.
Hell yeah, Seal Boy! I'm gonna kick your ass! Inner Sakura snarled, eyes aflame. There are only two bells, but... Sakura mused back. "Neshan-sensei?"
"If we get a bell in the first round... do we have to keep it the whole time, or can we give it back without forfeiting?"
He looked surprised - and impressed. "Clever girl... Yes, you may, although you may -not- give it to one of your teammates and have him also pass."
And that made it all clear. "Teamwork..." she murmured, under her breath.
"Any other questions?"
"Yeah!" Naruto yelled. "What if we get both bells!"
Neshan looked pained. "Not so loud, please."
"Yeah, yeah. Well?"
"Planning sabotage? Deliberately ruining your teammate's chances is an instant fail."
"There are only two bells," Sasuke said. "Two people can succeed, yes, but only at the expense of the third."
"You heard Sakura's question, didn't you?" the Jounin snapped.
The last Uchiha finally showed an expression - frustration. "What does -that- have to do with anything?"
Sakura put a hand on his arm. "Sasuke-kun... If a person who got a bell in the first round gives it back before the second, he's already passed - but -both- of the others have a chance at a bell of their own. Theoretically, up to four people can pass."
"Hn." His face was composed, but humiliation brought a faint tinge of red to his cheeks.
"Are there any other questions? No? Then on five... four... three... two... one... BEGIN!"
The three Genin launched themselves away and vanished into the forest. He shrugged off his long specialist's trench coat and tossed it over the top of one of stumps - a flanking one, not the central one holding the timer. Then he jerked his left arm straight - producing an audible crich from the cartilage in that elbow - and rotated that wrist through a hundred and eighty degrees - giving a similar but deeper gunch from that shoulder.
Then he turned, and walked after the crashing noises Naruto made as he moved through the underbrush.
"KAGE BUNSHIN NO JUTSU!"
Neshan stopped dead.
Three of the clones erupted from the bushes on the uphill side of the trail. Two more dropped from the branches overhead, and a sixth lunged out from underneath what had - apparently - been a small, grass-covered hillock.
Bushes, center. Punch in the nose. Duck left, lay that elbow across that clone's temple. Right clone misses entirely and goes over the cliff; won't see -him- again. Airborne right grabs wrist, snag airborne left by the jacket. Pitch the first at the real one lunging out of cover and whip the other up, over, and down straight into the dirt.
All of them simultaneously bamf!ed away into a bank of smoke.
"All of them were...? A probe... and then..."
One hundred square feet of forest path and undergrowth vanished in a pillar of flame and smoke as the carefully laid circle of explosion notes went off as one.
Thirty feet away, a small crater dished itself out of the earth and stone under the Jounin's feet as his arcing leap ended. His eyes flickered to either side, cataloging the various traps set around him and how they left a slowly narrowing wedge of 'free' space, pointing away from his previous position.
Another dozen clones erupted from the undergrowth and lunged to the attack. Most - eight - vanished in a single sweep of his naginata. Reverse the pole to catch one of the remaining ones with the butt, turn slightly, spinning the weapon to slam a clout across the temple of a second and let momentum carry it safely out of the way in the off hand while dropping an elbow across the head of the third - unexpected resistance, that's the real one and he's got a kunai out and's-
WHAM The sidekick exploded out without any sort of conscious thought, catching the clone just under dead center in the chest and sending it crashing into the sturdy trunk of a nearby tree. The impact shattered bark in a ring taller than it was, and sent a rain of twigs and leaves rattling down out of the branches. One beat, two, and the Henge collapsed as Sakura dropped to the ground and, almost, her knees before struggling back upright, battered but game for more.
dingleSCREEKdingBAM-WHAK The kunai strike executed simultaneously with Naruto's grab for the bell had been intended as a distraction, so that the pain from the wound would break the Jounin's concentration enough to let him get free and disengage. Instead, however, it cut through vest and shirt before skittering aside from something underneath with a scream of metal-on-metal. Without that slight covering edge, the grab was just a fraction too slow to reach its goal before a retaliatory fist knocked him back several steps and straight into the spinning haft of the naginata. That impact sent him flying off to one side to fetch up hard against a snare trap.
"KATON: GOUKAKYUU NO JUTSU!" Sasuke's voice came from behind him, back towards the path. With trap fields laid to either side of him, the only direction open was towards the point of the triangle - where Sakura was waiting and ready.
He didn't move even a single muscle as the expanding ball of fire rolled over him.
All three students stared wide-eyed. No way, Naruto thought. Damn bastard Sasuke's not tough enough to take out a Jounin that way.
The flames cleared, and there he was, standing slightly singed but mostly intact in the center of a charred, twenty foot wide crater. "Ow."
"No way!" Sakura squeaked, and Naruto actually stopped trying to wriggle his way out of the trap (he hadn't been having much luck, anyway. Being inverted like that was throwing him off.) to stare in awe.
"All right, Sasuke," and his voice was soft and quiet, enough so that it should have vanished into the constant quiet noises of the forest, but the hard edge of it still reached their ears as clearly as though he had been leaning over their shoulders. "If that's the way you want to play the game..." and between one word and the next he had covered the entire distance between them in a flicker too quick to register as motion "...then let's dance the light fantastic."
THUDhurk-krakBAM The first blow was a punch, low and sharp and right where it would best disrupt Sasuke's breathing. The Genin collapsed halfway, gagging, until his face met a knee going the other direction and was knocked - with the rest of him following dutifully along - up and out, into the zone where the other leg's heel could impact with the greatest combined proportion of all available muscular, positional, and rotational energy.
The lights went out even before his body had hit the ground, but were brought abruptly back as his rag-doll tumble brought him up - hard - against an inconveniently protruding piece of deadfall. Even awake, however, all he could do was lie in place and try to assemble the world around him into a single, coherent piece - which would then, hopefully, stop spinning like that.
"Sasuke-kun!" Sakura almost choked on her fear - and horror. The hell? What happened to the wiseass that bought us dinner last night?
A single kunai snapped from its hidden pocket to the Jounin's right hand, flipped in place from a fighting to a throwing grip, froze a moment - then flicked to the other hand and twirled between those fingers, knocking aside that - relatively small - percentage of the barrage of incoming shuriken which would have threatened unprotected flesh rather than savaging vegetation or clattering off of hidden armor.
Naruto glared at him, face and demeanor, for once, entirely serious. "I won't let you hurt him. Even if he is a bastard."
The effect was somewhat spoiled by the fact that he was still hanging upside down by one leg.
A cocked eyebrow and a slightly sadistic smile. "Oh no?" The kunai rotated around his index finger into a throwing grip.
"Eep!" thwipTHOCKslipthud If Naruto hadn't twisted out of the way - bending himself almost double in the process - then he would have died. Instead, the flying dagger whipped through the space where his head had been and buried itself literally hilt-deep into the sapwood of the tree behind. The violent maneuver managed to do what none of his earlier efforts had accomplished, however, and dropped him firmly on his head as Sakura's knot finally slipped loose.
A reflex neuron in the back of Naruto's brain reached up and gave his adrenal glands a good hard yank. Incoming! He rolled to his right and kicked off, trying to get out of the way before-
Too late! The kick - with all of Neshan's airborne, armored mass behind it - wouldn't land across his temple like it must have been planned to (no, wait, he'd been upside-down, which would've put his... Itai! That just wasn't fair!) but it was still going to-
Pass straight through and leave the larger boy to crash gracelessly against the already-abused tree which had supported the snare trap.
"Ha!" Naruto crowed. "Bunshin no Jutsu! Now I'm gonna get ya!"
"...fuckin' clones playin' goddamn mindgames nothin' where it should be so it won't fuckin' die..." was the rough text of the stream of profanity growled into the leaf-covered loam of the forest floor. He pulled himself to hands and knees and glared murderously at the individual responsible. "I hate that fucking jutsu. I really do." He went from kneeling to crouching to an all out lunge in a fraction of second, legs and body fully extended to drive a speared right hand towards the Genin's stomach.
The target threw himself back, eyes wide in a combination of fear and triumph. He's overextending! Not even a Jounin can-
An instant before the strike came the closest it could have, sixty-four streams of pure chakra erupted from various points scattered across his body, spiraling up his legs and across his torso to wrap themselves in a vortex around his leading arm before concentrating down to a single point about two inches in front of his hand.
A point which promptly exploded, tearing a teardrop-shaped crater in the forest floor and throwing Naruto hundreds of feet in a single high arc that terminated deep in the bowels of some laurel-like clump of undergrowth.
Neshan snarled and followed.
Okay, Sakura. Think! Think! He's coming! You're the only one still standing, you have to last long enough for one of the others to recover. Then you can tag-team him, slow him down enough that you'll be able to get away. But -how-?
He knew she was hiding in the low bush, but ignored her. Finish the whiskered pain in the ass first, then deal with cotton-candy girl.
One gauntleted hand came up, lightning-fast, and batted the incoming kunai away while the other brought out one of his own and sent it blasting...
Straight through a cloud of smoke and a smallish, Y-shaped log.
"Replacement isn't enough!" he roared, and sent a second kunai at the soft 'crunch' of a light-footed body landing on dried leaves. When his eyes followed its path he had time to see her finished the last seal an instant before the flying knife would have hit - so short a time that the replacing log actually appeared behind it.
There was no betraying sound, this time, but his eyes still followed the motion as it led overhead and there she was, falling towards him, kunai looped over one finger and hands working the seals for a third swap. The change in angles slowed his response, just slightly, and he gritted his teeth as he followed the flicker away from his kunai striking -
That was the wrong sound. His eyes snapped back upwards. From the rip on the side of her dress, he had just barely missed (annoying, but he'd sacrificed some accuracy for the speed to hit her before she swapped - the motion he'd followed for that critical split second must have been a log or something she had either carried with her or planted ahead of time) and she had the kunai she'd been holding earlier raised and gripped firmly in both hands for an overhand strike with all her weight and falling inertia behind it.
And between the throw and his abortive tracking of the swap, he was badly out of position to meet that strike. He shifted one foot outward, twisted slightly -
She brought the blade down in a perfect textbook blow, not at the crown of the head, where the heavy bone of the skull might turn it, but down and in to hit the join between neck and shoulder, an area rich in soft tissue and large blood vessels, and almost certainly not covered by that armor of his if it wasn't visible under normal clothing.
The universe flickered around her, and it was all she could do to manage any sort of proper landing with her trajectory drastically altered and a screaming knot of agony wrapping itself around her ribs.
Somewhere outside her field of vision, a leaf crunched.
Slow and measured, steadily closer. She tried to move - her body would not. Could not, paralyzed by the bolts of pain shooting off of her ribs.
Sasuke's voice: "KATON: HOUSENKA NO JUTSU!"
Naruto's voice: "Sasuke, WATCH OUT!"
Gritting her teeth, she managed to raise the energy - and will - to turn her head to towards the sound of battle - just as it ended, with Neshan holding one elbow under Sasuke's armpit and that hand across the back of his neck, and the other arm holding a kunai ever-so-gently to the flutter of the main artery in his neck. Naruto stood only a few feet away, frozen in horror, with one arm still extended in the follow-through of a throw.
For a long, singing moment, everything was silent.
The kunai vanished, and the Jounin released his prisoner and stepped back. "You all pass."
Naruto wobbled, and fell flat on his face. "NANI!"
"We didn't get the bells." Sasuke had one hand resting carefully against his throat.
"No," Neshan answered seriously. "But you did work together. You were willing to protect each other in the face of lethal opposition. You conceived and executed successful stratagems under intense pressure. And you recognized and attempted to capitalize on the openings I gave you." He grinned. "This was never about the bells, remember?"
"Sa- Oh, damn. I'm an idiot. Here, hold still..." He knelt and performed a quick series of seals, before brushing the bluish glow around his hands over the site of his earlier strike.
"You're a medic-nin, too?" Sasuke asked.
"Not hardly. Surgery, chemistry, anatomy, proper diagnosis... No. I know a few healing jutsu, and enough background to avoid making anything worse, but basically all I can do is first aid or simple things like, oh, fixing a cracked rib. How do you feel?" he asked Sakura.
"Better," she said softly. "You hit hard." Bastard! I'll get you for this!
He looked embarrassed. "Sorry. I wasn't prepared to get caught out like that. I... er... Anyway! Training! Tactics. That fight just now - what did you think of it? Things you noticed, questions, comments. Your mistakes, my mistakes. Naruto, you first."
"Ano..." The shortest Genin sat with both arms and legs crossed, brow furrowed in thought. "Where did you get the naginata? And where did it go?"
"Ah." He held out his right hand, then turned it, slightly, so that the back of the gauntlet caught the light.
"Ahhh..." Sakura leaned forward to look at it closely. "I've seen that mark before... on a ninja scroll, I think."
"Exactly. It's a summoning seal, engraved into the plate of the armor itself. By channeling a small amount of chakra into it - like you would for, say, an explosion note - I can activate the seal and summon a specific, predetermined object to my hand."
"That jutsu you used on Naruto, what was it?" Sasuke asked.
"Shikouseibaku no Jutsu."
"Seigoshibakka-what?" Naruto mumbled.
"It's supposed to be triggered by physical contact rather than just in close proximity to the target. Used right, it puts a very big hole through, well, just about anything."
"But, you didn't use any seals," Sakura protested.
"That is separate, and very difficult. I'd say that Sakura is the only one of you with the potential to learn it."
"But!" Naruto started to whine, until Neshan put a single upraised finger across his lips.
"Sshh! Rasengan is at least as good, and doesn't ever need any seals. I can help you learn that, instead, once you're farther along."
"But you don't know it yourself," Sasuke guessed.
"No. But that's not as much a problem as you'd think, since every person who learns it basically has to recreate it from scratch and theory anyway. And, Sasuke, don't worry. You'll get your own turn when it's time."
The dark-eyed Genin leaned forward. "When is that?"
"When you can activate Sharingan. In the meantime, back on task. Sakura!"
"What was my biggest mistake in that fight?"
She furrowed her brow in thought. "I'd say... letting us pick the ground and timing?"
"Good, but no. Once an ambush has failed - been detected - it can become as or more dangerous for the attacker than the defender."
"You lost your temper. Twice," Sasuke said.
"And if I really had lost control, and done so in a real fight, that could well have been fatal. But any person's self-control must have limits, and occasional failures are a fact of the shinobi's life."
Naruto laughed. "You fell for a basic Bunshin!"
Neshan's composure finally broke, slightly - he looked faintly embarrassed. "Well, yes. That kind of is-he-or-isn't-he doublethink is a real problem for me. Lost the only exam I ever failed because of a Kage Bunshin. But in a fight, there isn't time to be right all the time."
Sasuke went next. "You made assumptions about Sakura's strategy which, with a bit less luck on your part, could easily have given her an opening for a killing shot."
HELL YEAH! SCORE!
A grin. "No, I was tracking an actual replacement that time - it simply wasn't her being replaced. Which I never thought of, and so lost time identifying and reacting."
Two Genin stared at a blushing third. "Sakura-chan... sugoi..." Naruto breathed.
There was silence for a moment, then Sakura said, slowly, "If you had taken the time to fully neutralize Sasuke, he couldn't have come back to help me."
Their sensei grinned, fiercely. "Eeexactly. I kept switching targets rather that following through on available openings - which was exactly what you were trying to force me to do.
"Now for something less fun.
"Sakura. Although it was justified this time, taking attacks you don't have to is very risky, and should be avoided whenever possible. More importantly, no matter how concerned you are about your teammates, never reveal your position unless there's something to gain. Understand?"
"Naruto. First, don't attract attention you can't dodge. Second, time you spend gloating is time that could have been spent using that advantage - and time that your enemy can use to recover or strike back. Got it?"
"Sasuke. If the enemy does something you don't expect, don't hold still while you figure out what to do. Evade! Dodge!"
"Great! Now for the good news! Naruto, that bunshin swap was flawless. Well done."
The addressed laughed and put his hand behind his head. "What did you expect from a future Hokage?"
"Sasuke, your tai and ninjutsu are the best in the squad. Good work."
"Hn." A slight smile behind the tented hands.
"And Sakura..." he grinned and bowed to her - deeply. "Unless I'm greatly mistaken, that backpack trick of yours is the first genuinely original variation on Kawarimi no Jutsu in the last fifty years. It's probably going to become a part of the standard repertoire - and I intend to make sure everyone knows it's yours."
"I... wow." Hell YEAH!
"In the meantime, we've got most of a day to kill. So. Training! We're going to improve your control over your chakra."
"What's so important about this 'sharka' stuff?" Naruto asked.
Sakura smacked him across the back of the head. "Baka! Chakra is what you use to power jutsu!"
"Eheheheh," Naruto smiled sheepishly. "I used to sleep through all the hard classes."
The Jounin had his hands against his temples, as though trying to massage away a headache. "Chakra is a mixture of physical energy pulled from your body's energy reserves and spiritual energy generated by your brain. The physical power, for lack of a better way of putting it, gives your chakra purchase on reality, allowing it to affect the real world in a way that pure spiritual energy never could. The spiritual component, first, allows you to control the amalgam's disposition with your mind rather than your nervous system, and second, acts as an amplifier for the physical component, letting it generate far greater effects than that amount of energy could otherwise account for."
Neshan gave up, shook his head, and smiled. "Don't worry about it too much. All you really need to know is that chakra is generated by your body, that it can affect the physical world, and that you can control it either with your will or, for more complex effects like jutsu, by forming hand seals."
"We already do that," Sasuke said.
"If the degree of control could be likened to the sophistication of a weapon, all three of you are walking around with the equivalent of a chipped rock tied to a stick," was the wry reply. "But don't worry. Teaching you how to do better is my job, not the Academy's. None of your peers will be any better, at this point."
"And the reason we should learn better," Sakura said, "is that the simpler, mental sort of control is necessary to properly regulate the type and amount of chakra available for the hand seals to change and shape!" Finally! I was never able to figure out what that book was talking about, before! Hell yeah! You go, girl!
"Exactly!" Neshan beamed at the girl who was fast becoming his favorite student. "If the proper chakra balance isn't fed into the seals, then the jutsu will fail, even if the physical component was performed perfectly. By improving your control, you gain the ability to better fine-tune what you're feeding into the jutsu - allowing you to cut margins closer and preserve your extra chakra for later use... which, in turn, is directly responsible for your being able to use more and larger jutsu."
"So how do we improve our control?" Sasuke asked.
"Climb a tree."
A number of crickets chirped in the following silence.
"Whaaat?" Naruto howled, "How does that work?"
A chuckle. "By focusing a precise quantity of chakra into the soles of your feet, you can adhere to a vertical - or inverted - surface and thereby treat it as though it were the same as a horizontal one." He stood. "In other words, you can walk up walls." And, going to the nearest tree-trunk, he did so.
"No problem! I'll get to the top in no time!"
"It's harder than it sounds," the Jounin promised, with a dark smile. He hopped off the tree and down in front of his students. "Since concentration helps make it easier, I want you three to go to separate parts of the forest until you can make it to the top of the tree. Use a kunai to mark your highest level for each attempt, so as to keep track of your progress. I'll come by and check up on you one at a time - it'll give us a chance to have those private conversations I promised.
"Well? What are you three waiting for? Chop chop!"
"Uchiha, why were you so reluctant to work with the others?"
The black-haired boy stuck his kunai in the dirt and collapsed to catch his breath. "Everything went by the plan."
The Jounin reached down and plucked something out of the inside of his student's sleeve. "Listening Note," he said, displaying the small slip of paper.
"You knew everything. The whole time," Sasuke breathed.
"Yes. Answer the question."
"I didn't need their help."
Neshan sat down himself and poked the younger boy in the belly, eliciting a sharp hiss as he hit a still-developing bruise. "Empirical evidence would beg to differ. Besides, working together was the whole point."
"Having other people distract me will only hold me back."
"Who on earth told you that?"
Sasuke looked away, glaring into the forest. "My brother."
"And you trust him? This man who killed your family, murdered your parents in front of your eyes, you trust his honesty? Hell, you trust his judgment?"
The Genin's head snapped around to let him stare in shock. "I..."
Neshan looked back gently. "When he was your age, your brother was already an ANBU Captain. Even if he really, truly wanted to see you become strong enough to challenge him, his path isn't the same as yours. If you keep trying to become him, you'll never be able to move fast enough; never be able to close the gap."
Wrapped hands fisted, digging into the dirt and tearing grass out by the roots. "What else can I do?"
The older boy leaned back and looked at the sky, letting his breath out through his nose. "The Third is old. It's slowed him down. But at his best... do you think Itachi could have beaten him?"
"...No... I should ask him?"
"I'm sure he'd find the time if you did."
"Why not tell me yourself?"
A grin. "I could give you my angle on it, which isn't necessarily the same thing."
"All right." He closed his eyes and thought for a moment. "People have been trying for a long time to come up with the ideal traits of a soldier. There seem to be two main schools of thought; one of them you know already. The other, mine, is that a person with a healthy emotional life is going to display clearer judgment and, not having to fight through their own angst, show faster reaction times than someone who doesn't have a supportive family or reasonable surrogate. Having people to care about helps ensure that you'll keep a weather eye out on the eventual goal - protecting them, making them happy - rather than getting caught up in the distractions or problems of the moment. Also, the desire to return to them, or keep them from harm... can give you a deeper reserve of willpower that you'd never be able to tap otherwise..."
There was quiet for a while, while birds called and the canopy overhead whispered in the wind, then: "Thank you."
"De nada." Neshan stood, and offered a hand, grasped Sasuke's, and pulled him to his feet. "One last thing... A question you should think on. Is it more important that you be the one to kill your brother, or just that he be dead?"
Naruto fell out of the tree and landed flat on his ass.
"Chikusho!" He sat there a moment, then stood and yelled: "I hope you blow over and ROT!"
"Not for another century or so, probably," Neshan said from behind him, prompting a jump and a startled yelp. "But, if it'd make you feel better, we can use it as a target once we start on offensive techniques."
The Genin perked up at the thought. "Ano sa, ano sa, why not do it now?"
"I want to have you three settled in and working well together before we start in on any of the higher level stuff. Anyway, sit down. We need to talk." He gestured, and perforce Naruto sat.
"Oh, yeah! You said you'd help me become Hokage!"
"I di-? Oh, right. Last night. Yeah, okay..." He closed his eyes and thought for a moment. "What do you think the Hokage does?"
"That's easy! He-" Naruto stopped mid-sentence, and squinted suspiciously at his teacher. "This is some kind of trap, isn't it!"
Neshan laughed. "Bingo! Caught! Yes, it is. Because, I bet you were going to say something along the lines of 'He's the guy who gives everyone else orders,' right?"
The younger boy could have been used as a study model for art class: 'Vulpine Suspicion.' "And he protects Konoha."
A chuckle, and he reached out and ruffled his student's hair. "All right. Now, the thing you need to understand first," and he leaned forward abruptly and gave Naruto an entirely serious look, "is that both of those statements are true - so far as they go. But leaving the description at that would be like saying that the sun is in the sky, or that a ninja is someone who uses shuriken."
"But that's not what a ninja is at all!"
"Exactly - it's a truth so incomplete as to be actively deceptive. Saying that the Hokage gives orders and protects Konoha isn't quite that bad, since those two things are what he does, but... There's a saying in my homeland: 'The Devil's in the details.' The first detail here is that the Hokage gives orders in order to protect Konoha."
The Jounin sighed, and tried a different approach. "Okay. Fast forward twenty, thirty years. You're the sixth Hokage. You're sitting in your office, doing boring paperwork. A messenger comes in and tells you that there's a squad of missing-nin attacking a village near the border to Takinokuni. What do you do?"
Glare. "You're still trying to trap me."
"I'm trying to -show- you -why- you need to follow my advice, rather than just yelling at you to do what I say."
"Oh." He sat and scowled in thought for a minute, two. "I guess... I go out and stop the missing-nin. I have to - it's my job to protect Konoha, right?" He looked at his teacher's carefully neutral face. "Guess not."
"After you defeat the missing-nin, you return to Konohagakure... and find it in ruins. While you were gone, a demon wolf came out of the wilderness and killed everyone it could find." He paused a moment, then said, as gently as he could, "The point isn't to show you that you need to react one way or another to a given problem - it's to demonstrate that the world is a complicated place that doesn't reward those who rely on simple answers or flawed understandings... and to show that the lives - the hopes, dreams, and loves - of every single person in the Hidden Leaf rely on the Hokage making the right choice."
Naruto looked down and gritted his teeth. "You don't think I'm good enough to be Hokage." But... he's right. If Konoha needs someone who'll make the right decisions... I'd just jump in, even I know that.
"I think you could be."
"Nani?" He looked up, and if his eyes were suspiciously bright, then Neshan carefully failed to notice.
"I mean, yeah, you're hotheaded and rash - now. But you're not near as stupid as you act, so there's nothing stopping you from learning better. From learning everything you'd need to know, if you were willing to put in the effort." A slow, conspiratorial smile. "You don't strike me as someone who's afraid of hard work."
Naruto smiled. "'There are no shortcuts to becoming Hokage,' huh?"
"No. But..." he broke off, then started again, tentatively, "Can I offer some advice? On a personal matter."
"Nani? What are you talking about, Sensei?"
"Your teammates... Tell them about Kyuubi."
The Genin's head snapped up. "But..."
Neshan crouched and laid a hand on each of his student's shoulders. "If you do it now, then you can present it in a way that's favorable to you... rather than having an enemy try to turn it into a weapon to blackmail you or break the team with."
"What if they hate me?" His voice was quieter than a whisper.
"Then better to know now, rather than after you've become close to them."
Naruto hesitated, his mind chasing itself around in circles. Those two women watching him as the new academy graduates celebrated around them, and their cold, cold eyes. Sakura's blushing face as he sat next to her on the park bench, wearing Sasuke's form. Sasuke's slow, respectful nod as he volunteered to be the one to test their sensei's defenses - and provoke the heaviest retaliation - to clear the way for the Number One Rookie's attack. "...too late..."
The older boy nodded slowly, drew in a breath through his nose, then let it out in a huff. "All right. Your call." He stood to go. "Keep working on the tree climbing until dusk, then go home and get a good night's rest. I'll try and dig up a tactics manual for you to study by tomorrow morning. Same place, same time."
Study? Aw, man...
"So. You and Uchiha, huh?"
Hell yeah! 'Till the end of time!
"Yes, Sensei. I know it seems silly of me, but..." She blushed, and changed the subject. "Anyway, you said that you would be speaking to us about individualized training?"
"Uh huh." He took a seat on an outstretched tree root, facing towards her. She sat, also, and composed herself to listen. "Before we start, though, I'd like to plant a little bug in your ear for you to worry over."
"Uchiha... Uchiha Itachi is one of the five most dangerous missing-nin in the world. Someone out to kill a man like that... What do you think that he'd be more interested in, a pretty face... or a strong kunoichi? An asset or an admirer? A lover... or a partner?" She opened her mouth to reply, and he held up a hand. "No, I don't need to know. It's private, not my business to butt into. Just think on it a few days.
"Anyway," he said next, after leaving her a moment to absorb the thought and set it aside, "Everyone has a natural chakra level, a reserve of power which may be increased by training or decreased by disuse. The vast majority of people, perhaps ninety-nine percent, naturally fall within a fairly narrow range, leaving differentiation mostly a matter of practice and development. Some, like Sasuke, or Naruto in particular, have exceptionally large reserves, allowing them to access more powerful techniques, sooner and with greater safety.
"Others have naturally lower power levels. They are people who have to go through life dealing with the fact that, no matter what they do, they will always tire sooner. That they will always be limited in their choice of techniques. That they will always lose a battle of attrition. People like me. Or you."
"But, Sensei," she asked, "aren't you a Jounin?"
He nodded. "Yes. But, in terms of jutsu, I'm definitely the weakest one in the village. I achieve my effectiveness by maximizing my own advantages - precision control of my chakra, native intelligence, and a certain variance from the usual viewpoint on most problems - preparing for battle to a degree that most never even consider, and adjusting my battle tactics to either neutralize the enemy's jutsu or prevent them from ever becoming an issue.
"The tactics will work almost as well for -any- combination of abilities, so I'll be teaching them to all three of you. For the rest... your assumptions and background are a lot more conventional than mine, but you don't seem to share my tendency to think strictly in straight lines, which should more than make up the difference. You actually have more chakra than I did at your age, your control is also considerably better, and you're at least as smart."
She quailed, slightly. "What? But, but, I'm not a genius or anything! Not like Sasuke-kun."
He smiled, and messed up her hair. "Genius is what you make of it, girl." She still didn't look reassured. "So! Sakura, what would you say is your greatest weakness?"
She didn't even have to think about it. "Taijutsu. I'm just not very strong, physically."
"All right." He grinned, as though at some private joke. "When the body is strengthened, its internal chakra flows are increased in turn. If it is trained in a particular way, then their patterns are also altered."
She nodded. "I remember. We learned that in the academy."
"Right. What you didn't learn, because the practical considerations make it moot, for most people, is that the reverse is also true. By altering your internal chakra flows, you can alter the function of your own body."
"Broadly, yes. But a body-alteration ninjutsu is a chakra construct defined and executed in terms of a real body - that is, its internal logic is described by how it alters what is already there. It anchors itself to the natural chakra flows, but it does not actually -change- them. It simply... covers them, and when it is done they are left much as they were."
"When you alter the base flows, in contrast, you are changing the operation of your body - redefining the unchanging constant upon which a ninjutsu would be based. You may increase the strength of your muscles and the resilience of your flesh - or decrease them, if you had reason to do so. Instead of using your body to guide a quantity of kinetic chakra, so that you seem stronger, you actually become so."
"Wow... But," some of his earlier words returned to mind and broke through her awe at the many possibilities unfolding from such an idea. "What did you mean about the 'practical considerations'?"
"The degree of alteration required is extremely subtle. Doing this consistently enough to be useful requires that your control of your chakra be absolutely perfect. I'm the only Jounin in the village right now who can do it in meditation, and there's no one who can do it in combat. ANBU can't. Sandaime-sama can't. Ninety-nine out of a hundred medic-nin - whose stock-in-trade is their chakra control - couldn't, even if they knew to."
Her eyes went very wide. "But... if you're telling me, then..."
He met her gaze - and grinned. "At the usual rate of improvement, five years to use it in a combat situation, or three in training. If you make control a special focus, one year combat, eight months training. If you drop everything else and train intensively, three months to fight... and two weeks to levels useful for training."
"If I can't use it in a real fight, what use is training with it?"
"When control is relaxed and the patterns revert, they don't do so all the way - their default position has been slightly altered in the direction of the enhancement, a little farther each time..."
"...so that each time I trained with altered chakra, I'd be a little stronger when I finished!" She leaned forward and bounced in her seat slightly. "Where do I start?"
"Right, good, you've got this cold. Take a break, recover a bit. Running yourself all the way out of chakra won't do anything to improve your capacity. Hey Naruto! What'cha need?"
Sakura struggled to pull herself into a vaguely respectable sitting position, rather than just lying on the forest floor like what she felt like - a well beaten rug. She turned her head slightly, ignoring the audible grinding noise coming from inside her neck. "hi naruto..."
Konoha's most hyperactive ninja charged over to his crush's side. "Sakura-chan! What happened!"
Neshan set a hand on his shoulder and pulled him gently away. "Don't worry. She just overdid the training a bit. She'll be fine."
"How did she overdo it," Sasuke asked from the edge of the clearing, "if you were right here?"
"I'm starting her on a different regimen from you two; hers goes faster if you run yourself almost all the way down." He leaned forward and murmured, so only Naruto could hear, "i guess you changed your mind?"
Sasuke sat facing the three already present, forming a rough circle. "Alright, Dobe. What did you need to talk to us about?"
Naruto looked down at the dirt just in front of his crossed legs, face shadowed and voice entirely serious. "Twelve years ago... the Yondaime Hokage defeated the Kyuubi, the nine-tailed demon fox... But... He didn't kill it."
"what?" Sakura said. "baka. of course he killed it. everyone knows that." Damn straight! ...ow... not so loud...
"No. We kids were all told that it was killed, but it wasn't. It was sealed - locked away inside the bellybutton of a baby."
"If we weren't supposed to be told, how do you know?" Sasuke challenged.
"The final academy test... I failed it, remember? That night... Mizuki-sensei came to me and said that there was a traditional last chance for failing students. If I could get a certain scroll, and bring it to him, then he'd be able to pass me.
"I got it, and... showed it to Iruka-sensei. He said that that scroll... was actually a list of kinjutsu, forbidden techniques. That I'd be in a lot of trouble for taking it. Mizuki-sensei came then. He attacked Iruka-sensei. He wanted me to give him the scroll... Iruka-sensei said that he'd lied to me, to get me to steal the scroll for him. Mizuki-sensei said there was no point in my having the scroll, because... because..." Tears were rolling down his cheeks.
"he said that you were the fox's prison, naruto?" Sakura gave him a weak smile, and laid a comforting hand on his knee. wow. this is big... who'd've thought that 'that naruto' was hiding something this important.
"No. No, he said that, that I was the fox. That that was why all the adults in the village hated me. That that was why Iruka-sensei really hated me. That that was why... everyone always would hate me."
"Sensei," Sasuke said. "Is this true?"
"It is forbidden," Neshan said slowly, "for any adult to speak of the fate and disposition of the nine-tailed demon fox. But, there is a jutsu which produces a seal of the type described, and to the best of my knowledge it is the only way a being of the Kyuubi's power could be defeated out of the means available to the Fourth Hokage."
Sasuke and Sakura absorbed that for a moment. "oh."
Naruto's hands were fisted around the fabric of his pants, every line of his body screaming tension.
Sasuke snorted. "There is no way that the dead last ninja of our graduating class could be a demon as powerful as that."
Naruto's head snapped up. "Hey!" he yelped - but his eyes glowed.
"baka naruto. you're annoying... but that doesn't make you a monster."
Neshan met Naruto's eyes and mouthed 'I told you so.'
Neshan looked up from the array of papers spread across the table in front of him. "There's no need to shout, Anko-sempai. This is a library, after all."
Special Jounin Mitarashi Anko was usually willing to take any chance to tweak a stuffed shirt's nose, but there was no point being vulgar when there was only him around to see it. He got knotted up just because going all provocative stirred up feelings he trusted even less than the rest of his emotions, and that wasn't any fun. So she saved the effort and just flopped across the nearest free chair like some net-covered invertebrate. "Guess what!"
"You're going to flay Hyuuga Hiashi alive and dance through the streets of the village with his head on a spear and feathers in your hair, singing enka at the top of your lungs?"
"Nah. Don't want his blood on me; might be catching." She grinned, then leaned forward, bouncing slightly in her seat. "No, what happened today was... He talked to me!"
"A complete sentence this time, I take it?"
She rapped her knuckles across the crown of his head. "Of course, you twit. We were talkin' about the new batch of Genin. He wanted t' make sure I wasn't gonna eat one'v his precious students."
He chuckled and tucked a slip of scrap paper in the book to mark his place. "Be fair; you do come across as the type."
"Feh. Like they'd let me play shrink if it was true? Let alone run the damned loonie bin?"
"Because of course you're such a terribly modest and retiring person that no one has any problem at all retaining their dispassion and critical thinking skills."
The shot went home harder than it had been meant to, and Anko slumped. "Yeah, maybe you're right. 'S just... why'd it have to be him?"
It was his turn to rap her on the head, and he duly leaned forwards and did so. "He was nervous because he didn't know you well enough to know better. Spend some time talking to him rather than stalking from afar and he'll calm down."
"Ah-ah!" He interrupted her protest with a raised finger. "Was he as nervous when you were done talking as he was when you started?"
She thought for a moment, then looked relieved. "No. Not nearly."
"Well! There you are, then." He cast about for a subject to change to, before she could start in on her fantasy life - again. "Segueing from, how's your team look?"
She gave him a knowing sort of look, but played along. "If yer joking about dead Hyuugas then you know something already."
"Hina-chan, you mean? Yeah, she's a sweetie. Cute as a basket full of kittens. I tried to adopt her a couple of times when her class came here on field trip, give her a place to hide out away where her family couldn't hassle her. It didn't take, though, so there was only so much I could do. I knew you'd gotten her, but not who the rest of the team was."
"Inuzuka and Aburame. Know 'em?"
He nodded. "Vaguely. Kiba's a loudmouth; kinda hard to miss. Shino I've known a while - his big sister was on my Genin team. Quiet kid, obsessive about bugs - even by his clan's generous standards."
"Thanks for the tip." She gave a little mock shudder. "I figure to get the boys workin' together to help out 'Hinata-imoto-chan' so's to boost her confidence. Between you'n me, her actual skills're Chuunin grade already - or would be if she didn't flinch nine times outta ten. By the way, you talked to Ibiki yet?"
"Not today, why?"
"He latched onta me about dinnertime - I just pried him loose a couple minutes ago. It seems," and here she smirked, with a sort of inner delight at seeing the tables of fate justly turned, "that he's got a girl on his hands with some real interest'n kinks. He gave 'em his usual tour a' the dungeons, and from what he didn't say she was goin' real weak at the knees by the end of it. Wanted me to come up with a psychological excuse not to pass her."
He sniffed. "Surprising he'd see it that way, given what the rumor mill says about him. 'Her,' 'her...' he's got this generation's Ino-Shika-Chou, doesn't he?"
"That's them!" she chirped.
"'Her...' Skinny kid, platinum blonde, bossy as they come? Social butterfly type?"
She shrugged. "Dunno. Never met 'er. What about your three?"
"They're the next Legendary Three."
She raised her eyebrows. "No shit?"
He raised his left hand, palm out, and laid his right across his heart. "I shit you not. Sasuke's classic Uchiha across the board, right down to the obsessive tendencies and freakish chakra levels. Naruto, well, you know what I..." His speech dropped off into nothing as a look of dawning realization crossed his face. He grinned and jabbed a pointing finger in Anko's face. "PAY ME, SUCKER!"
Stare. "No way. Nobody's that strong. Nobody human."
"You know how this works!" he crowed. "He -is-, -exactly- in time with the seal's decay, -exactly- the same as what's leaking through!"
"But, but... does it gotta be dango?" she whined.
He blinked. "'Course not. You know I can't stand the stuff."
She sighed, visibly relieved. "No problem, then. Hey, what about the third?"
"Sakura?" Neshan tucked both hands behind his neck and smiled at the sealing. "She reminds me of me. Only better. Not as self-motivated, no great causes, but a lot more flexible thinker. Trust me," he turned his gaze back to her, and grinned. "They're gonna change the world."
And after that, conversation turned to lighter things, like work and business, and went on into the night.
"That was a week a' lunches, right?"
"A month, and you know it, Senpai!"
TO BE CONTINUED...
Author's Notes: Well, here you have it, folks: Yet another blatant self-insertion into the world of Naruto. I've tried to be careful to maintain accurate characterization, both of the actual characters and 'myself', and I think I've succeeded. Team 7 and others look like, at the very least, people who could end up seeming like the ones we see in canon, and 'Neshan' is neither particularly funny, lacking in flaws, nor more powerful/skilled/persuasive than might be expected from seventeen years of preparation and training.
See y'all next week, hey?