Disclaimer – I own nothing, mores the pity.
It had been a long night and Yuuhi Kurenai was exhausted.
She'd gotten an early start that morning, so she could scout out the potential new genins at the academy. An unusual number of talented students were taking the test this year, probably enough for three full teams. That was why the sandaime asked her to take on a genin team.
She'd worked independently for almost ten years, ever since that incident. She wasn't happy about being forced to work in a team again, but when the Hokage asks, he doesn't necessarily have to say please.
The fact that Sarutobi did so made him even harder to refuse.
The old man was actually very considerate of her feelings. He knew that this would be opening old wounds, ever since that tragedy…
She ground her teeth to avoid the memory, but only a truly skilled shinobi would note any change of expression. Likewise, no one at the Academy could have detected her presence as she observed the students go through their routines. After the sandaime's 'request', she decided to utilize the remaining days to observe the students. This was unusual, as most sensei jonins simply waited for the team assignments to be made, trusting the academy instructors to construct well-balanced teams.
Kurenai was not most jonins.
Sarutobi had asked her to revive an old tactical concept, and lead a team of reconnaissance specialists. The last one had come to grief, but she didn't think the concept itself was flawed. What happened to Nomaru, Mattai, and Kobaru-sensei had been a tragic accident. At least that was what she told herself on her good days.
On her bad days, her thoughts were much darker. Sometimes they flirted with treason. Of a sort, anyway. If her suspicions were correct, she wasn't alone in such thoughts, just in failing to act on them.
However, she'd been having good days recently, so she occupied herself by watching the potential genins, unheard and unseen. The Inuzuka kid almost sensed her presence during recess when the wind unexpectedly shifted, but she'd been able to move before he could smell her.
Mostly she watched them talk and play. She noticed an unusual number of children from prominent shinobi families. Just like their parents, a Nara, a Yamanaka, and an Akimichi were all set to graduate together. If they all passed, there was little doubt they'd be placed on a team together. People liked to stick with what worked. It was just too bad for the boys that the Yamanaka girl looked to be an incredible shrew.
She saw a few prospects for a recon team. There was an Aburame kid who was so quiet the instructors tended to lose track of him. If he was any good with his bugs he'd be a resource for any team. She'd worked on occasion with a man who was probably this Shino boy's father. His 'little friends' always warned them of approaching enemies, giving them plenty of time to change position. The Inuzuka boy undoubtedly had a good nose like most of his family, as would his dog. He was a little loud, and a bit of a braggart though.
There was also a Hyuuga there, and Kurenai recognized the girl, Hinata, that she'd escorted to the academy years ago. She'd done a tour at the Academy while recovering from her wounds and preparing for the jonin exam.
She'd been dispatched to the Hyuuga compound in response to a request from the clan head, Hyuuga Hiashi. The man coldly informed her that his daughter was hopelessly weak and unable to master more than the basics of the Hyuuga gentle fist taijitsu style. It was hoped that she'd be of some use to the village as a shinobi if she was too weak to serve the family directly. The fact that he told her this in front of the silent girl sorely tested Kurenai's patience.
Of course, she expected no less from the leader of the white-eyed bastards. Aside from that silent girl, she'd never seen a member of that prestigious family that wasn't stuck up and arrogant. Well, Mattai wasn't like that, but it wasn't really the same. Remembering her old comrade always brought a pang, and she needed her concentration to focus on the quiet girl.
As if in reaction against the rest of her family's arrogance, the Hyuuga girl was still painfully shy and timid. She sat by herself and kept her head down so much it took Kurenai a while to confirm she actually had the Byakugan eyes her family was famed for. The only time the girl seemed to perk up at all was when the class troublemaker came tearing past, being chased by the Yamanaka girl and some pink-haired kunoichi-in-training that had to be a Haruno.
Kurenai was a genin fresh out of the academy when the Kyuubi attacked Konoha. She and most of her friends were assigned to areas of the battlefield far from the worst of the fighting, which was probably the only reason any of them had survived that night. She didn't have any personal animosity against the child the fourth had sealed the demon fox into. It wasn't like the little gaki had asked for it.
Still, this Uzumaki Naruto seemed to be quite a handful. He was always pulling pranks, though never anything really mean or hurtful. Mostly he just seemed a little starved for attention. Unfortunately, that was something most of the academy instructors seemed unwilling to give him. To his credit, Umino Iruka seemed to be the least prejudiced of the lot: his irritation seemed to be focused more on the boy's poor study habits and hell-raising.
At least his antics were occasionally entertaining. He did show a lot of creativity in his mischief, and the reactions of those around him also gave Kurenai some insight into their personalities.
Unfortunately, it looked like his lack of focus had caught up with him that afternoon, during the genin exam. A fair number of his classmates ran out of the building afterward, proudly displaying their new Hitai-ite, but the blond haired boy just trudged over to the swings and sat there, the picture of dejection.
Kurenai was surprised to note that someone else was watching the boy as well. The Hyuuga girl stared at him from behind a post. She was obviously distraught - blushing and pushing her forefingers together in a nervous gesture. At the same time, the girl stood up straighter than Kurenai had ever seen her. She fidgeted behind the post, stepping out from behind it only to step back again without doing anything. From what Kurenai could see, the girl's cheeks were bright red.
The jonin smiled to herself as she slipped away. With no curse seal, the girl was obviously of the Hyuuga main family. For such a one to be attracted to a ruffian like the one who bore the kyuubi was an ineradicable smear on her family's honor.
Good for her.
The thought cheered Kurenai as she made her way to the Hokage's tower. The Sandaime and the new jonin sensei would be meeting with the academy instructors to go over the test results and decide how to split the new genins into effective teams.
It was nearly nightfall by the time all the jonins arrived, mostly due to Hatake Kakashi's chronic tardiness. She understood the reasons for his frequent diversions all too well, but that was not a good reason to make everyone wait for over an hour. Although she supposed the same could be said of her violent dislike of the Hyuuga clan.
The first bit of bad news was that only eight students had passed the genin test. That meant one team would be short a student, or they would be forming two four person teams. Kurenai wondered if she'd be let off the hook, but Sarutobi soon scuttled that hope. He said he didn't think the best of jonins could give four students sufficient attention for their development. The jonins sometimes whispered on drinking nights that the old man still blamed himself for Orochimaru's betrayal of Konoha. No sane person blamed the old man for his grown student's actions, but Kurenai knew quite well that guilt follows no logic but it's own.
No sooner had they settled that question and began wrangling over who would only have two genins than a messenger arrived. It seemed that someone had broken into the Sandaime's quarters and made off with a scroll of forbidden jutsus. No one was sure who had done it, but Uzumaki Naruto had been seen in the vicinity just before the break-in was noticed.
Umino Iruka went pale as a ghost when he heard this news, confirming to Kurenai's eye that the man did care something about the unwanted child. He immediately rushed out to join the search for the boy.
"How did Naruto do in the examination?" the Sandaime asked one of the academy record-keepers.
"He did not pass, Hokage-sama," the man asked without even checking his scroll.
"If he was able to break into the Hokage's office and make off with a heavily guarded scroll… it makes me wonder how hard that test is," Asuma grumbled sourly. He'd been forbidden to smoke inside and Kurenai was sure he was suffering from lack of nicotine.
Sarutobi seemed unusually unconcerned about the missing scroll, so after he went up to his office they instead sat around discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the genins as they looked through the reports. It seemed a little odd to do this when neither of the senior instructors were present.
Kakashi volunteered to oversee the training of the Uchiha survivor, which made sense given his use of a sharingan eye. He also was willing to only have two students. This was presumably so he could devote more time to Uchiha Sasuke, but Kurenai wondered how much of that was just laziness. It seemed to her that the more skilled the ninja, the more eccentric their personal habits became. It also made her wonder if her own ambitions to improve her skills would become ultimately self-destructive. The copy-cat ninja was feared throughout the ninja world, but he was also squirrelly as hell with his chronic tardiness and perverted reading material.
In fact his fingers were reaching for the corner of a brightly colored book protruding from his flak vest when Sarutobi led Iruka back into the room, the latter missing his hitai-ite.
"It looks like we have a ninth graduate," the chuunin gasped after sitting down. He looked like he'd been in a nasty brawl – he was covered with cuts and scrapes, including a really large gouge in the middle of his back.
"What happened, Iruka?" Maybe it was Kurenai's imagination, but the slight smile the Hokage wore indicated he knew more than he let on.
"It was Mizuki that betrayed us, Hokage-sama. When Naruto couldn't produce a good bunshin, he failed the jutsu portion of the exam. Mizuki told him that stealing the scroll and bringing it to him would count as extra credit and allow him to still pass the exam."
"He fell for that?" Kakashi asked in surprise. "And we're considering making him a ninja why?
"If students cannot trust their sensei, who can they trust?" Iruka asked stiffly. "We cannot punish him for listening to a teacher, can we?" He turned toward the Hokage with the last question.
The Sandaime nodded gravely. "I agree. If we cannot guarantee the loyalty of the people who teach our children, we cannot blame them for doing no better than we." He looked at Iruka for a second. "What happened to your forehead protector?"
Umino Iruka smiled proudly. "I gave it to Naruto for passing the exam. He'd failed to produce a simple bunshin, but when he was defending me from Mizuki's attacks he revealed that he'd learned Kage Bunshin no Jutsu and filled that whole section of the forest with clones. I literally lost count."
"But Kage Bunshin is much harder to perform!" Asuma protested.
Iruka shrugged happily. "That's why I passed him. He's quite surprising."
"Well then, it looks like we have three full size teams now," Sarutobi said with a faint smile. Most of the jonins knew he sympathized with the boy's lack of family. "Kakashi, if you will take Naruto, that will-"
"Your pardon, Hokage-sama," Kurenai broke in. She'd been thinking about the Hyuuga girl. With her bloodline, she had tremendous potential, but her confidence issues were worrisome. Now she saw a possible way around them. "I wouldn't mind having Naruto on my team."
"Are you sure of that?" Sarutobi asked. She also saw Asuma and some of the academy workers quietly shaking their heads. "I understand your team is to specialize in reconnaissance missions, and Naruto doesn't show a lot of potential in that area."
"Or any other," she thought she saw one of the record keepers mouth to his co-worker. Iruka shifted painfully in his seat to glare at them.
"After what happened to my genin team," she said coolly, "I'd prefer that my new team not be overly specialized. If they fall into a trap," she continued, giving the last word a slightly sarcastic emphasis that made the Sandaime wince, "it would do well to have someone with the ability to get us out of a perilous situation. A genin capable of filling the woods with kage bunshin would be able to provide quite a distraction, wouldn't he? Besides, I also seem to remember a large number of chuunins, jonins, and ANBU pursuing that boy after he decorated the Hokage monument. He led you on quite a chase, didn't he?"
Several faces in the room looked a bit sheepish after that. Iruka, on the other hand, appeared happy that someone was recognizing his pupil's abilities. Of course, he was also the one who eventually caught the boy.
She turned toward Kakashi. "Kiba is passable with his taijitsu, but he also spends a lot of time working with Akamaru. They work well together and might give your students an example of the teamwork you seem to prize. Psychologically, the Inuzuka boy is like most of his family and very pack, er, group-oriented. He's a little boisterous, but friendly enough he might be able to thaw out that Uchiha headcase."
Kurenai noticed that everyone in the room was staring at her. She sighed. "When I was selected to mentor a genin team, I decided to spend a few days observing them interact and getting a handle on their personalities. Am I the only jonin in this room that bothers to think ahead?"
Kakashi was reading his book and Asuma was fiddling with his cigarette. Evidently, she was.
She sighed and laid her face in her hands. "Fine, then. Just take my word for it. The Uchiha kid is a self-centered brat and you're going to have your work cut out for you."
"Hmmm…" Sarutobi grunted. "I would think Naruto would be able to warm him up a bit better. And it is traditional that the highest and lowest-ranked genins be placed on the same team to balance it out."
"Perhaps," Kurenai agreed. "But I think that kid's been through enough without sticking him on a team with two people who won't appreciate him, and neither Haruno nor Uchiha respect him at all… Besides, given what he did tonight, I'm not sure I agree with his assessment results."
The third Hokage nodded thoughtfully. "You think he will do better on your team?"
"Aburame Shino seems neutral toward the boy, which is better than the outright disparagement he receives from other students. Hyuuga Hinata would be his friend if she were not so shy." Kurenai paused for a moment before continuing. "I believe that if your law mandating secrecy regarding the jinchuuriki were to be strictly enforced, all of the academy students would be made orphans."
Yuuhi Kurenai was quite sure that, were she to drop a senbon, the clatter when it struck the floor would have been deafening in that silence.
"That is ridiculous!" One of the academy workers snapped. "I have never heard one whisper of the Kyuubi in all the time I have worked here. No parent has told their child of it!"
"No," Kurenai drawled, "they instead tell their children to hate Uzumaki Naruto and shun him for no reason they will admit. You don't hide a secret by drawing attention to it with bright lights and dancing around it doing everything you can get away with that doesn't involve saying the forbidden words."
Sarutobi sighed and sagged in his chair for a moment. Kurenai was reminded how old he actually was, and how he'd been enjoying his retirement up until his successor was forced to sacrifice his life to seal the Kyuubi. She felt a stab of shame that she'd reminded him of how little some of the villagers deserved his protection.
"Anyway," she continued in a kinder voice, "I think the gaki has a lot of potential. If I can bring it out, he may one day become a formidable shinobi."
"That may be a lot of work," Iruka said in a cautious voice. Kurenai's eye caught him wincing a little, obviously torn by his loyalty to the boy. She considered that a point in his favor.
"It will be worth it to prevent any more… accidents," she said in little more than a whisper. Even Kakashi managed to look uncomfortable, for all that his mask hid.
"Very well," the Hokage said in a quiet voice. "I will want weekly reports on the boy's progress and his physical and mental state."
Kurenai nodded. She expected as much.
Hyuuga Hinata had not slept well that night. Yesterday had been the last day she'd likely see Naruto in a long time. She passed her Genin Exam, but he would be staying at the academy for remedial classes until he could pass. He tried so hard that it broke her heart to see him fail. For once, his smiling mask had slipped and he'd walked outside like a broken down old man.
And still she failed to say anything to the boy who inspired her so much with his attitude and ever-present smile. Her father was right – she was a useless coward. Not brave enough to do more than hide and watch him like some pathetic stalker.
She'd always been a little embarrassed for the sillier kunoichis who chased Uchiha Sasuke around like a miniature fan club. But in the end, was she any better? She was just as hare-brained and silly, and even more cowardly. Those girls at least had the courage to let Sasuke know that they liked him. Not even the prospect of not seeing Naruto anymore could make her act, and she despised herself for it.
She'd been too upset at herself to even think of eating breakfast, and her steps faltered as she slowly walked to the Konoha Ninja Academy for the last time. Her only consolation was the possibility that she might see Naruto there again today. It was fairly common for students who failed the Genin Exam to stay home the following day – it was painful and embarrassing to see your classmates who were leaving to become full-fledged shinobi, even if they were only reporting to a different room for team assignments. But then again, Naruto seldom did the usual thing. The prospect of seeing him again, even if it would be the last time in a long while, buoyed her spirit. Maybe today she would find the courage to actually speak to him.
Her steps quickened as hope slowly leaked into her heart. She soon made her way into the academy building and found the classroom where the new genins were assembled.
Her classmates were spread out in their usual disarray, but Naruto was there as well, with his head down on a desk. She froze in shock as she walked in the door, but then her feet automatically led her to one of her usual seats; high up and near the door in the back – everyone ahead of her and no one behind. She stared at the boy, wondering if someone would come in and tell him to leave. Finally, Nara Shikamaru ambled into the room and stopped by Naruto's table. When he asked Naruto why he was there, the blond boy sat up and said he'd passed, showing off his new hitai-ite. "Naruto-kun graduated too," she whispered to herself.
Then Ino and Sakura burst into the room, arguing about who arrived first. Naruto stared in her direction, his face lighting up, and Hinata felt her heart skip a beat. But then the pink-haired kunoichi walked by her and she realized Naruto was looking at her instead.
"Ohayo, Sakura-chan!" Naruto greeted her with a smile as she approached.
"Out of my way!" Sakura snarled as she elbowed him to the floor so she could sit next to Uchiha Sasuke.
An unpleasant voice in Hinata's head said it was glad that the girl Naruto seemed to like did not return his affections. But for the most part, she was dismayed to see him treated so cavalierly. Then Ino contested Sakura's right to sit in the chair she'd just thrown poor Naruto out of. In moments, most of the girls in the room were arguing over the evicted seat while Naruto was still sprawled at their feet.
Naruto climbed up on the desk and glared at Sasuke, again attracting the ire of Sasuke's fan club. Even worse, an inattentive boy at the table in front of them bumped into Naruto, making his and Sasuke's faces meet. It was hard to tell from where she sat, but from the screams of outrage that followed immediately afterward, it seems the two boys had inadvertently kissed. Hinata thought it was somewhat funny, especially the way the two boys carried on afterwards, spitting and gagging like they'd been poisoned.
The Sasuke Fan Club ™ on the other hand, was incensed at Naruto's forward behavior – not to mention quite jealous. The beating they gave Naruto was well out of proportion to his actual offense. Hinata grew worried as they showed no signs of stopping. She pushed back her chair and was about to intervene when Iruka-sensei entered the room and broke it up. Poor Naruto looked like he'd been run over by a farmer's wagon.
When Iruka-sensei announced that the teams had been chosen, Hinata began pressing her index fingers together as her thoughts raced. I might be on a team with Naruto-kun. I might not be on a team with Naruto-kun. Those two thoughts kept repeating as the instructor worked his way down the list.
"Team Seven: Inuzuka Kiba, Haruno Sakura, and Uchiha Sasuke."
Sakura looked ecstatic as Ino's face fell. Naruto also seemed horribly disappointed, and Hinata couldn't help but feel sorry for him, even though her own hopes were rising.
"Team Eight: Hyuuga Hinata, Uzumaki Naruto, and Aburame Shino."
Naruto's expression didn't change, but Hinata thought her heart would explode out of her chest. She knew her racing pulse was making her cheeks flush, but she couldn't help it. Not only had Naruto passed, but they would be together on the same team. This was rapidly becoming one of the happiest days of her life, definitely the happiest since her mother died.
When the team assignments were completed, they were given a long lunch break, as their jonin instructors would be meeting with them that afternoon. Sasuke immediately got up and stalked out of the room, Sakura trailing behind him. Kiba grunted as he stood up, frowning at already being left behind by his team.
Naruto stared after Sakura, and sat in silence after she left. Hinata felt ashamed that she'd been happy he was on her team instead of Sakura's. She was an awful person if she took joy from the sadness of someone she admired. She looked down at her hands and began pressing her fingers again. She was too ashamed to look up as Naruto left the room.
After a while she got up and went outside. She saw Aburame Shino sitting on a bench near the playground. Determined to get to know her other teammate, Hinata sat down on the other end of the bench from the silent boy.
"Ano… I understand we are to be teammates," she said in a quiet voice.
The Aburame genius turned toward her, his face expressionless – what little of it she could see behind the high collar and the dark glasses he wore. "Hai," he said in little more than a whisper. He then turned back and Hinata realized he was studying an ant hill that had been constructed in front of the bench.
Hinata blinked and began unpacking her lunch. She thought of offering some to her teammate. She tended to bring more than she needed, on the off chance that one day Naruto would forget to bring his usual cup ramen. Alas, she never had the chance to share her food with him… not that she would've had the courage to approach him, she reproached herself bitterly.
Shino, however, had also brought food. It was a little disconcerting to see his kikai bugs swarming onto the dish as they consumed a portion of his rice and fish. They confined themselves to one corner of the square container as Shino's chopsticks fed their host.
Hinata bit into a rice ball and wondered what she could do. She'd never been in this position before, trying to converse with someone who was even quieter than she was. "Ano… which jonin do you think we will be assigned to?"
Shino turned toward her again. He seemed to stare at her for a long moment, making her fingers fidget even faster. "Given our abilities, I would think one of the scouting specialists. Uzumaki's presence is troubling though."
Hinata took a deep breath. "I'm sure he will work very hard to make us successful," she said in as firm a voice as she could muster.
Shino simply regarded her for several heartbeats before answering. "Perhaps. But he doesn't possess a bloodline or sensory abilities. I question what role he could perform, or if he was simply placed here to keep him out of the way."
Hinata felt her stomach contract into a small, hard ball. She always questioned whether she would actually be useful as a ninja or not. Was Team 8 just a place for throwaway ninjas? Had she and Naruto been placed here to keep them out of the way? But what about Shino? He was supposed to be the pride of the Aburame clan, the best bug user they'd produced in over a generation. "Ano… I don't think we're a team for shinobi that no one wants. Naruto works very hard when he trains by himself, and he still received a hitai-ite. "
Shino turned back toward his lunch. "That may have been done to remove him from the academy. There is something about him that the adults do not like. My clan will not speak of it, but they do not hold him in high regard."
While Hinata was glad that Shino was speaking more, his words disturbed her. She remembered the way her father's face twisted when one of Naruto's pranks was mentioned at dinner. The branch family retainer blanched under Otousan's furious glare, and for an instant Hinata thought his cursed seal had been activated. Hinata may not have been the ideal Hyuuga warrior, but even without her Byakugan active, she was still intelligent and above all, observant. As such, the looks some of the adults gave the object of her affections did not escape her notice. "Surely they don't hate him for pulling a few pranks? Naruto-kun never hurt anyone, not even by accident."
"I believe it's something deeper than that. I've heard his name mentioned in passing even before the first time he defaced the Hokage Monument," Shino replied.
Hinata was too involved in their conversation to wonder at how her teammate seemed to have finally discovered that he had a voice. Later, she would wonder if it was the teasing apart of a mystery that finally engaged him, or if it was simply the fact that someone was actively seeking to speak with him. Hinata wasn't especially fond of insects, but they didn't creep her out like they did some girls. "What else could he have done to become so unpopular?" she asked, frowning.
"It may not be anything he did," Shino replied. "I don't know of another Uzumaki in the village, so he may have come from a family that disgraced themselves in some fashion. Hokage-sama wouldn't execute a child for the crimes of the parents, no matter how heinous. The villagers may not be so forgiving."
Hinata sat there, her mind racing as a half-eaten rice ball fell back into her bentou. As far as she knew, Naruto-kun had no parents, and was forced to live alone as there was no one who would take him in. To think that he would still be blamed for the actions of people he'd never met made her feel very strangely. It was similar to the tight feeling she got when Otousan told her Hanabi would make a better heir and how she at least could make him proud… but the emotion gripping her right now was much stronger.
Hyuuga Hinata was angry. These people deliberately hurt her Naruto-kun with their cold eyes. The boy with the big dreams who always smiled and tried again no matter what – he deserved better than that. She'd seen his smile slip a few times, the most recently after the Genin Exam, and even if she was too cowardly to say anything to him, his sorrow still stabbed her heart like a kunai. After a moment she was able to master her new emotions and don the sterile mask she was taught a Hyuuga must always present to others. "That is very foolish of them," she said coldly, "since he is going to be Hokage some day."
Shino didn't say anything, but turned back to his lunch. While he didn't necessarily sound like he agreed with her, Hinata would settle for a lack of overt disagreement. They finished their meal in silence and returned to the academy to await their sensei.
Naruto sat at his desk with his head in his hands. The ache in his stomach was finally subsiding, but the pain in his heart was worse. It wasn't fair that Sakura was assigned to a different team, and even worse that she was partnered up with that Uchiha-teme.
When he saw Sasuke eating his lunch, Naruto was struck by inspiration. This might be his last chance to find out what Sakura really thought of him. Fortunately, the overconfident jerk was surprisingly easy to subdue. So much for genius. The look on his face when the kawarimi log appeared in a cloud of smoke and half a dozen clones descended on him like the wrath of Kami was the high point of Naruto's day. After that it was simply a matter of tying the fool up and using Henge no Jutsu to copy his appearance.
He found Sakura where he'd left her – scorning his presence and mooning after Sasuke-teme. He didn't think she could really be that cruel – not when she was so beautiful and smiled so sweetly. The way her face lit up as he approached made the breath catch in his throat, and for a moment he almost forgot that she was reacting to Sasuke's appearance, not his own.
After a moment, he remembered his plan and sat down on the stone bench next to her. He tried to copy Sasuke's patented slouch and glower, and it seemed to work. Sakura smiled shyly and blushed.
"So," Naruto said, trying to sound disinterested. "What's the deal with that Naruto boy who seems to like you? He's always greets you warmly every morning and you usually bash him on the head."
Sakura looked confused for a moment before giggling. "That Naruto, he's always such a pain. He doesn't really understand me, and he's always interfering with my plans." She sighed. "At least he's not on a team with us, and after today I won't ever have to look at him again. Aren't you relieved as well, Sasuke-kun?"
Naruto didn't trust his voice at that moment as he felt his heart shrivel up and blow away. He just grunted and stood up again. He slouched away as Sakura called after him. He refused to acknowledge her confused cries. Maybe she might come to know how it feels. Not that she cared. He was halfway to the academy building when his stomach began cramping violently.
Naruto did raise his head when he felt a presence full of killing intent enter the classroom. Sasuke didn't look at him directly as he stalked over to an empty seat, but Naruto could feel the anger radiating from the boy. Naruto also knew the stuck up Uchiha wouldn't say a word about what happened – he'd sooner die than admit that the 'dead last' had beaten him down in a fight. While he had been taken by surprise, it was no excuse for someone that was trained in the ninja arts… let alone the almighty Uchiha genius.
Naruto didn't even look directly at the boy, who also ignored Sakura's confused expression. "Those two deserve each other," he thought bitterly. "She just seems to irritate him, and now she'll get a chance to see how it's like to be ignored and despised."
His mind was so wrapped up in his misery that he almost missed Iruka calling out for Team 8. He stood up and sullenly shuffled over to the teacher's desk. Iruka frowned at him as he joined Hinata and Shino. Iruka-sensei introduced a tall woman with shoulder-length black hair and red eyes. "This is Yuuhi Kurenai. She will be your jonin instructor. Good luck to all of you." Iruka smiled when Naruto nodded and straightened the hitai-ite that Iruka had given him.
Kurenai smiled faintly, but her eyes were watchful as she led them outside. Hinata smiled at him, a little hesitantly. Naruto actually respected her for being one of the few girls in their class that didn't spend all their time fawning over Uchicha-teme. Shino was a little odd. He didn't talk much, just the opposite of Naruto, but the other kids avoided him because of the bugs, which was something they had in common. Naruto didn't mind bugs, as long as they didn't try to get into his food. His live-and-let-live attitude ended where his ramen began.
As he walked out the door, Naruto found himself looking back at Kiba, Sasuke, and Sakura, who were still waiting for their jonin instructor to show up. He took a deep breath and turned his back on them, leaving with his new team.
Kurenai didn't miss the blond boy's backward glance as she led them out of the classroom. "He must be disappointed he wasn't teamed with that Haruno girl," she concluded to herself, "not that she ever gave him the time of day. Was I ever that young and stupid? Surely not."
She spoke aloud after leading them out to the playground. "Now, I'd like to get to know each of you, so please tell me a little about yourselves." It was better to handle introductions in a familiar place, to put them all at ease. "I'll begin. I am Yuuhi Kurenai, and I became a jonin after the last exam. I'm a specialist with various types of genjutsu. I like to study human psychology, sing karaoke, and work in my garden. I dislike loud drunks and people who think I can't be an effective ninja because I'm a woman. My ambition is to prove that a reconnaissance specialized team can be successful and to see all three of you become jonins."
Naruto looked at each of his less-than-talkative teammates and then cleared his throat. "I'm Uzumaki Naruto. I like ramen. I hate how long it takes to make instant ramen and stuck up bastards like Sasuke-teme. My ambition is to one day become Hokage."
When neither Shino or Hinata showed signs of speaking up, Naruto nudged the Aburame boy. Shino's head snapped around at Naruto so quickly the blond flinched back. Kurenai wondered if the bug-user was used to any sort of human contact. "I am Aburame Shino. I like to study insects and find new varieties that haven't been catalogued by my family yet. I dislike people who kill insects for no reason. My ambition is to learn all of the Aburame bloodline jutsus and then develop my own techniques using my allies."
Once the taller boy finished, everyone looked toward Hinata, who appeared to be ready to sink into the ground without the benefit of a Doton jutsu. "A-ano… I am Hyuuga Hinata. I like cheerful people… who are kind. I dislike… people who hurt others… for no reason. My ambition is to become stronger so I will be acknowledged by my father… and someone else."
Kurenai nodded thoughtfully. Shino was just as focused, or obsessed, as she thought. Hinata's home life was probably just as bad as she'd imagined from watching her. Naruto's focus was scattered all over the place, which was also about what she expected. He was going to need a lot of work, and the sooner she started the better. "Very good. Now, are you all familiar with training ground number nineteen?" she asked, specifying a variable-terrain space set aside along the southern border of the village. When all three of them nodded she continued. "Good. We're going to do a short skill assessment. Meet me there as quickly as you can." With that, her hands blurred into a seal and she disappeared in a sudden swirl of wind-blown leaves.
As soon as the substitution technique was finished, Kurenai took off for the designated training area at her best speed, leaping from roof to roof and tree to tree. With her advanced chakra control, she could feed a trickle of energy into her legs, allowing her to reach incredible speeds as she traveled overhead.
Surprisingly, she barely beat Naruto there. All that being chased after pranking had to pay off somehow. The boy had incredible stamina, just as she suspected. He was blowing hard and sweating when he arrived, but his color and respiration normalized in less than three minutes. It's not like he could ever use stealth to escape from pursuers, not with that bright orange jumpsuit.
Shino arrived a few minutes later, followed shortly by a badly-winded Hinata.
"I can see we're going to need to work on speed and endurance both," Kurenai said, frowning.
"Is that because we're going to be a reconnaissance team?" Shino asked.
"Yes and no," Kurenai answered. "Moving quickly is especially important for successfully completing a scouting mission. However, endurance training will also help increase your chakra reserves, which will in turn improve your taijutsu and make your ninjutsus easier to use."
Shino and Hinata nodded at this. Naruto just looked confused. "What do you all mean by a reconnaissance team?" he finally asked.
Kurenai nodded to acknowledge his question. If the boy had as hard a time in the academy as she thought, she didn't want him to be reluctant to ask her for information. "That's a very good question, Naruto. When genins are selected for teams, it's common practice to put members together who have powers that compliment each other. For example, Team 10 has a Nara, a Yamanaka, and an Akimichi. Their fathers all worked together as well. The Nara and Yamanaka bloodlines are especially useful for capturing or immobilizing people, and Akimichis excel at grappling techniques. Furthermore, the Akimichis have some special attacks that are truly devastating, but somewhat easy to avoid."
Naruto frowned for a moment. "So Ino and Shikamaru hold them while Chouji pounds them?"
Kurenai nodded. "That's one way their abilities compliment each other. Now a reconnaissance team has members whose abilities make them especially well suited for finding the enemy or discovering their secrets. Sometimes that information is more valuable than gold – being able to adequately prepare for the enemy has decided more wars than any fighting technique or jutsu."
"Ano, K-kurenai-sensei," Hinata spoke up, "how do my, I mean our abilities make us suited for such a role?"
"That's also a very good question, Hinata. Your Byakugan eyes are an obvious asset. You can see for very long distances and through light cover when you activate them. With proper positioning, you can see into a commander's tent and read his battle plans with no one being the wiser. Shino's bugs can also be invaluable when seeking out the enemy. I've worked with members of his clan before, and the kikai bugs have an excellent sense of smell. They also make good sentries. When deployed around the team, they can alert us if an enemy patrol is approaching. One of the greatest hazards of getting close to the enemy is the chance that they will stumble over you and attack."
Kurenai paused, thinking about how to phrase what she wanted to say next. Naruto, however, noticed the incompleteness of her response.
"Sensei, what role do I play?" he asked, his eyebrows drawn down in a frown.
Kurenai sighed. "I won't lie to you. The scouting missions our team will likely be assigned will be dangerous. That is why I don't want this team to be over specialized in that role. Naruto, if the worst happens and we are discovered deep in enemy territory, your job will be to buy us time to escape. Your… unexpected… skill with Kage Bunshin makes you well suited toward distracting pursuers so we can successfully disengage."
"So it's all about running away?" Naruto asked, sticking out his lower lip.
"Yes, it is," Kurenai answered sharply. "Because completing your mission is what shinobi do. Proving who's tougher is a schoolyard game. Staying to fight when the Hokage needs our information isn't just stupid, it's treasonous. Ninjas who don't learn that lesson usually die as fools. Their names won't even be carved onto the memorial stone because they threw their lives away, rather than sacrificing them for something meaningful."
Everyone grew quiet after that. Kurenai gave them a moment to digest that, then set them to work on basic taijutsu drills. Hinata proved to be the best of the bunch. Her form was almost perfect, and her movements were swift and precise. While she may lack somewhat in power and speed, that would come as she got older. Shino's taijutsu was workmanlike, not particularly inspired, but she was sure he practiced it more for the chakra enhancement than anything else. More chakra meant more energy for his bugs. Naruto's stances were awful and his form was unbelievably sloppy. At the same time, he was blindingly fast and seemed to pull off the wall moves out of thin air. When he sparred with Shino, he proved unusually adept at using the terrain to his advantage, ricocheting off an overhanging branch to land a kick on the taller boy's head.
Kurenai scowled as she realized why his hand to hand skills were so undisciplined. With no friends and no parents, he could only practice outside of school by himself. He was probably going to one of the training grounds and trying to teach himself the more advanced taijutsu moves, possibly after watching older ninjas train. It was a wonder he wasn't worse. She considered her possibilities as she watched Shino knock the smaller boy down for the fifth time in a row.
"Yamete! That's enough." The boys separated and she noticed that after two deep breaths Naruto didn't even appear to have been exercising at all. Taijutsu wasn't one of her strengths, but she did know someone who was quite good… and Gai had been asking her for tips on teaching his genins how to recognize advanced genjutsus.
She then had them demonstrate some of their preferred ninjutsus. Shino used his kikai bugs to turn a log into a pile of sawdust in less than a minute. Hinata did a henge of Kurenai that was picture perfect – until the shy and hesitant body language immediately revealed the imposter. Naruto leapt to his feet when it was his turn and called out "Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!" in an enthusiastic voice.
There was a loud pop and two more Narutos appeared on either side of him. Both looked rather pale and sickly. One immediately ran behind some bushes and began making retching sounds. Kurenai felt the burst of malformed chakra when Naruto fired off his technique – she was actually surprised he produced anything at all. The other sickly twin broke wind so violently that he disappeared with a puff of smoke.
"Very impressive," Shino said in a deadpan voice. "I'm sure if we're about to be captured they will be quite a diversion."
"Kuso!" Naruto cursed. His reddened face screwed up in a rictus of concentration, he formed the Ram seal again and roared "KAGE BUNSHIN NO JUTSU!" at the top of his lungs. Kurenai felt the hairs on the back of her neck stir as she felt the massive surge of chakra being shaped.
At first Kurenai thought her eyes were blurring, but that was just the shimmer that preceded the shadow duplicates as they popped into existence. The fact that the blurring covered most of her field of vision was because Naruto had filled the clearing with clones. She heard Iruka describe how Mizuki had been beaten to within an inch of his life, but it was quite another thing to see a genin use a jonin-level jutsu to create almost a hundred duplicates of himself. The gaki had a right to stand there proudly with his arms folded across his chest. Especially since he didn't look like he was about to collapse from chakra depletion.
Shino's eyebrows had become visible over his glasses; while Hinata's pearly eyes had gone wide as a blush reddened her cheeks.
"That's more like it," Kurenai said warmly. Naruto blinked and scratched at the back of his head in embarrassed pleasure. Inside, she was saddened. For the boy to react so strongly to a simple compliment… It said a lot about his early life, none of it pleasant. Her respect for the Sandaime had also taken a hit. The boy deserved a lot better than he'd gotten.
Naruto set his clones to sparring one another while Kurenai gestured for them to sit down. She ignored the errant clone that made a rude gesture at Shino's back, causing Hinata to stifle a giggle.
"That was a very interesting display, all of you. Tonight and tomorrow I'll be putting together some training plans for all three of you. We'll meet here at noon to discuss these, and then we will report to the Hokage for our first mission. So go home and get a good night's sleep."
"Yatta!" Naruto yelled, leaping to his feet. "Our first mission!" He struck a 'V for Victory' pose that made Kurenai and Hinata smile. Shino did not react, at least not visibly.
As Hinata and Shino left, Kurenai tapped Naruto's shoulder. The boy shied away from the unexpected touch in a way she found disconcerting. "I'd like to talk to you about a couple of things," she said in a quiet voice.
Naruto looked at his teammates, who were already out of earshot. He let out a resigned sigh and shrugged. Kurenai suppressed the urge to try out some phrases she'd picked up from Asuma. Instead, she put on what she hoped was a reassuring smile. "Come on," she said. "I'll buy you dinner while we talk."
Naruto brightened as they began walking.
"But no ramen."
"If you eat nothing but noodles, it's no wonder you're the shortest kid in your class. Don't you know if you don't eat right it will stunt your growth?"
Now the boy looked horrified.
Kurenai sighed. "I don't mean never eat it again. But if you don't get some vegetables and a good amount of protein and dairy products in your diet, you'll never achieve your full growth."
"I drink milk every day," he said defensively.
"That's a good start, but you still need protein, and vegetables contain vitamins you can't get anywhere else. It's a wonder you don't have rickets or scurvy."
"Those are malnutrition-related diseases that sailors used to get when they went on long voyages without proper food."
"How do you know so many things?" he asked as they left the training area and re-entered the village.
"I'm a jouinin." It was easier than explaining that she was an insomniac who read half the night. Reading was a lot easier on her mind than thinking about Mattai.
As they walked, Kurenai noticed the subtle glares and sneers the villagers directed toward her student. She began returning the glares, and made a point of straightening her hitai-ite. She was a jonin, by Kami, and she wasn't going to put up with any attitude directed toward herself or her student.
Her red eyes were just a Yuuhi family quirk, but back when she was a genin, Kurenai developed a low-powered genjutsu that gave her eyes a subtle glow. It was more cheap theatrics than anything else, but Mattai thought it was hilarious. It was fairly effective on the less intelligent residents of Konoha – villagers who thought she was 'too pretty' to be a ninja, and shinobi who wouldn't take no for an answer. The seals were easily performed in an unobtrusive fashion and soon she was glowering at anyone who looked twice at her charge. The glow was just barely visible in the waning afternoon light, and it had the desired effect. Kurenai smothered a smile as a particularly obnoxious shopkeeper stumbled over his own merchandise when his glaring eyes moved from Naruto to her. The crash of broken bottles was music to her ears.
Naruto looked back at her and twitched a little when he saw her eyes. She smiled at him and he grinned back. Unlike his previous smiles, this one was shy, with just a hint of mischief. Kurenai wondered if this was the first honest smile of his that she'd seen.
Moritake's was a small café run by a retired shinobi who'd been a friend of Kobaru-sensei. Moritake-san lost most of his lower left leg to an explosive tag trap during the war with the hidden village of stone, and was retired as an active shinobi. He still tended bar and swapped stories with the new graduates, making the place popular with ninja of more than one generation.
Kurenai always dropped by on Kobaru-sensei's birthday and on the anniversary of that awful day when… Anyway, he recognized her the minute she walked in. Naruto rather hesitantly followed her as she strolled up to the bar. He obviously wasn't used to this kind of place.
"Kurenai-chan!" Moritake-san called out with a smile. "And who is the Gaki?"
"This is Uzumaki Naruto," she said in a loud voice, "one of my new students."
She was a little disappointed to see the hesitant expression on Moritake's face, but he quickly mastered it and smiled at the boy. "I know what she wants, but how about some tea, kid?"
Naruto nodded and Kurenai wondered why he was being so quiet. She accepted the warmed bottle of sake with a smile, then placed an order for some yakitori, along with steamed rice and vegetables. Carrying their drinks, Naruto followed her to a table in the corner.
They sat down and Kurenai poured a saucer of the steaming liquid and used it to wash the dust from her throat. She looked over at Naruto, who took a sip of his tea, but seemed pensive. Kurenai looked around. Was he being quiet because he was nervous being in the restaurant?
"Have you ever been in a place like this before?" she asked him in a quiet voice.
Naruto shook his head. "No. I've been to Ichiraku's for ramen, it's really good there, and…" his voice trailed off.
"And they don't run you out like other places do?"
Naruto nodded and growled. "Stupid people…" he muttered.
"I know why they act that way," Kurenai said and Naruto stiffened. "And you're right," she continued, "they are stupid people."
Naruto looked up at her. "Iruka said he wasn't allowed to tell."
"He isn't. I was there actually, when it happened. I was barely a genin, and we were assigned areas well away from the worst of it. No one knows why the demon decided to attack Konoha, and I doubt we ever will. But the people blaming you for its actions are just trying to strike back at something because they have fear and anger left over from those days. That still doesn't excuse their behavior though. The Hokage's law prohibits me from saying anything to people who don't already know – and you know. The law specifically doesn't apply to you either – you can tell anyone you want to."
"Nani? Why would I want anyone else to know why all the adults hate me?"
"I don't think all the adults hate you. I certainly don't. You had nothing to do with what happened to the village, and you're maintaining the seal that makes sure it doesn't happen again. I think your friends, your true friends, won't care."
"I don't think I have any friends like that, Kurenai-sensei."
"Perhaps, perhaps not. Maybe you will in the future, so don't close off any of your options. Anyway, I wanted to ask you, are you serious about your dream? About wanting to become Hokage?"
"Yes!" Naruto said the word so forcefully that people at neighboring tables glanced over at them.
"Being the Hokage means making decisions for and protecting the entire village and everyone within it," Kurenai informed him. "Including the people that glare at you and treat you like a criminal today. Are you sure you want to devote your life to protecting them as well?"
Naruto took a deep breath. "I'm already doing that, aren't I? The fourth Hokage picked me for some reason to hold back that bastard fox. I spend every day keeping it from destroying Konoha. If he picked me for that duty, I'd like to think he considered me worthy of that responsibility. I just want everyone else to see me that way as well, so his choice would not be in vain."
Kurenai leaned back in her chair and took another long swallow of sake. The hot alcohol blazed a warm trail down her throat and spread out from her stomach. The boy's reasons were not the absolute best, but she knew a lot of kids his age whose ambitions were anchored on far less worthy soil. "All right," she said, "maybe you will make a worthy successor. I'll help you get there."
Naruto stared at her, eyes wide. Maybe she was the first person who hadn't laughed at his ambition. She doubted the Hyuuga girl would, but first she needed to work up the courage to actually speak to him. Something else she needed to work on with the girl.
"First things first," Kurenai continued. "When you have a big goal, the first thing to do is to break it up into smaller goals. You can use those as milestones toward your final objective. Now, what rank is below Hokage?"
"Jonins and special jonins," Naruto replied.
"And before that?"
"So good milestones would be achieving chuunin and jonin, correct?"
"Okay, before you can even think about testing for chuunin, we need to make you a solid genin."
Naruto frowned. "I've already made genin," he protested.
"Naruto," Kurenai said firmly, "I'm not going to lie to you. You are sort of a mess right now. You have a lot of potential, but for various reasons, some of them most definitely not your fault, you have yet to achieve that potential. On the other hand, you also seem willing to work hard for your goals, correct?"
Naruto looked hurt, but still nodded.
"Good. A little hard work can make up for a lot." She took another drink of her cooling sake. "With your endurance, you should be able to make up a lot of ground. I wasn't kidding about your role in the team. If things get dicey, they will be depending on you to get them out of danger. The more you improve your taijutsu, the better your clones will fight. The more ninjutsus you know, the better you can utilize that enormous chakra capacity you have. The day will come when Shino and Hinata's lives may depend on you. Mine as well. I'm going to be setting up a lot of extra training for you, if you are willing to do the work. Are you?"
Kurenai found herself blinking rapidly at the expression on Naruto's face. That earlier smile was nothing compared to this one. Naruto's hand shook where it was gripping the table. "K-kurenai-sama, I-"
"Just work hard at your training," she interrupted him, using a purposefully light tone of voice. "And when you're Hokage, assign me a bunch of easy missions and we'll call it even, okay?"
"Hai!" Naruto barked.
Their food arrived at that point and with a shared "Itadakimasu!" they went to work on it. Kurenai was secretly glad of the interruption. Her student was getting a little emotional, and it was becoming contagious. He was just so damn earnest, about everything. Kurenai was an only child, but now she had a pretty good idea of what it would be like to have a younger brother.
After the waitress cleared the plates, Kurenai drank the last of her sake. "We also need to do something about that," she said as she reached across the table and tugged on Naruto's sleeve.
Kurenai frowned. "Er, you aren't color blind, are you?"
Naruto frowned. "No."
"Then you do realize you are wearing a bright orange jumpsuit, right?"
Naruto nodded. 'What's wrong with it?"
"Naruto, we may need to sneak around at some point. That means bright colors are not a good idea. That's why Shino and Hinata are wearing neutral colors."
"But you're wearing red, and that wrap around thing is black and white," he objected.
"I don't usually wear this in the field, though some kunoichis dress in bright colors so they can masquerade as civilian women. Besides, I mask my appearance with a genjutsu anyway. The brightest color I wore as a genin was such a dark red that it looked like brown from a distance."
"But I like this suit," Naruto whined, looking away and frowning.
Something didn't add up for Kurenai. At first she wondered if he couldn't afford new clothes. But with the stipend he received from the Hokage, and his cheap tastes in food, he shouldn't be hard up for ryou. Then she remembered the looks he received from the shopkeepers on the way there. "Tell you what, meet me at the Hokage tower at nine and I will take you to a place I know."
Naruto looked up and nodded eagerly, confirming her suspicions.
She sat there quietly fuming while they waited for the check. The boy was reluctant to put up with abuse from random shopkeepers, but that left her wondering where he'd found the orange suit. Maybe it had been cast off in a refuse heap, or it had been the only thing they were willing to sell to him. Perhaps some worthless trash of a human being hoped the bright colors would make him more likely to die on a mission.
Kurenai didn't know the owner of the equipment store she frequented, but if they snubbed Naruto in front of her it would be the last thing they did. Experiencing two hours in the life of Uzumaki Naruto left Yuuhi Kurenai ready to commit assault, if not murder.
After she paid the bill, she sent Naruto home with a reminder to meet her in the morning. Then she went straight home to her bed. She planned to get up very early and have some strong words with the Hokage before she took Naruto to get properly outfitted.
Hello, and welcome to my little break from the Potterverse. Don't worry, I'm not discontinuing HP&NFP – this is just a mental aperitif… Something to cleanse my brain when The Plot That Will Not Die is causing mental constipation.
The divergence point that makes this AU is Yuuhi Kurenai's decision to take a surreptitious look at the genin candidates after Sarutobi asked her to take on a genin team.
Kurenai's past is such a blank page that it leaves me some room to work with. As you can tell, part of her decision to be so painstaking with her genins is due to a tragedy that befell her own team when she was a genin. More about this will be revealed in the future.
Naruto himself will start becoming more and more OOC as time passes. A lot of his personality seems to have been formed as a reaction to the less-than-benign neglect that has been the basis of his life. I always wondered what he would have been like with a solid mentor who was really looking out for him. (Yeah, Jiraiya did care for the boy later on, but the Toad-Sennin is irresponsibility incarnate.)
As the effects of this one small change start to propagate through the original timeline, expect things to start changing more and more.
So, tell me what you think. Reviews are always welcome and spur me to write faster.
Thanks for reading and welcome to 2006!