AN: Okay, before any of you start ripping into to me for taking so long to update this story, let it be known that I have a very good excuse for the delay. I'm not going to tell you what it is, but trust me it's a good one.

Chapter 8: Training Begins

Yuuhi Kurenai silently watched her team as they trained. Initially, she had been reluctant to take on a genin team so early in her jounin career. It's not like she disliked the idea of training a team, she just thought she should have had a bit more time as a jounin under her belt. However, she overheard some chuunin question the ability of a woman to train a squad of genin, siting that even Tsunade of the Sannin never took a team. She'd be damned if she didn't take this opportunity to prove them wrong. And so far she was very happy with the team she received.

Shino was your typical Aburame; silent, reclusive, showing almost no emotion. He is very intelligent, with a gift for strategy. During Kurenai's test, Shino took on the role of leader of the group, much to the annoyance of Kiba. Kurenai had to admit, if she was indisposed, she would feel more at ease if Shino was leading the team. He would rely on his logic and not fly off the handle when things became desperate. However, Kurenai was worried that Shino relied too heavily on his Kikai bugs in combat. If he were to come across an opponent that was able to get past his insects or rendered them ineffective, Shino would be hard pressed to overcome them. So Kurenai planned for the bug boy practice taijutsu as well as his family's techniques.

Kiba seemed to be Shino's polar opposite. He was loud, brash, and far too overconfident for his own good. But physically, he was probably the strongest member of team 8. Couple that with his clan's techniques and help from his canine companion, and Kiba was very dangerous in a close quarters fight. However, his pride would sometimes cause unrest in the team, often arguing with Shino over his apparent leadership. Also, Kurenai admitted, embarissingly, the boy was a bit of a pervert, constantly leering at anything in a skirt. He even tried hitting on Hinata a few times, but the girl kindly turned him down every time.

Speaking of whom, Kurenai then looked to her third charge. She had known Hinata years before Team 8 was formed. It still angered her greatly that Hiashi had so casually pawned off his own daughter when she didn't appear to be progressing as quickly as he wanted. She held a deep loathing of that man, and probably always would. He had effectively destroyed his own child's confidence.

When she had gathered her team for the first time after graduation, Hinata was still the same as she remembered; painfully shy, low confidence, and very quiet. Kurenai had hoped that Hinata would come out of her shell during her tenure at the academy, but that didn't seem to be the case. During Kurenai's test, Hinata didn't really do much in the way of offering ideas of how to pass; she merely followed her teammates and activated her Byakugan when asked. Kurenai knew that the girl's self-confidence was going to be an issue.

However, in the coming weeks Kurenai noticed a change coming over the shy Hyuuga. It was subtle at first; she walked a little straighter when she met her team, didn't seem to shy away from conversation quite as much as she used to, and she fought a bit harder during spars. Kurenai initially took this as a result of her becoming more comfortable with her teammates, but now the jounin believed that it may be something more than that.

Lately after team practices were done, Hinata would stay behind while her teammates left. Kurenai had remained after dismissing her team one day to see what Hinata was up to. To her surprise, the young Hyuuga was using this time to further train herself. She'd practice strikes on the training posts, conditioning her body, and going through the Jyuuken stances. Kurenai had never seen Hinata train with such determination before and wondered what had sparked these changes in the girl.

The young jounin pushed those thoughts to the back of her mind for now. It was time to call an end to team practice for the day. So she signaled to her students to come over to her. She didn't speak until all three genin were standing in front of her.

"Great job. All of you did very well today." She smiled as her students beamed under the praise… except Shino of course. "But don't get ahead of yourselves," she said sternly, "there's still a lot of room for improvement from all of you, understood." Her students stood straight and nodded their affirmation. Kurenai smiled at her team. "Good, we're finished for the day. You're dismissed," she finished before disappearing in a swirl of leaves.

Kiba and Shino mumbled their goodbyes and began their trek home. Hinata, however, didn't move. "A-ano… Shino-kun, K-kiba-kun, c-could you wait a m-moment please?" she asked in a voice barely loud enough for her teammates to catch. Kiba and Shino stopped walking and turned back to the Hyuuga heiress.

"Sure, what's up Hinata-chan?" Kiba asked.

Hinata didn't reply immediately. She poked her fingers together timidly, a habit she had divulged in less and less in the passing weeks. Kiba and Shino shared a look. They hadn't seen her act this nervous since their team was first assigned.

"Hinata-san," Shino said, "we are your teammates. If there is anything you wish to inquire of us, ask and we will do our best to assist you."

"Yeah, what he said," Kiba reassured. Akamaru yipped his agreement for good measure.

Listening to the reassurances of her teammates, Hinata took a deep breath to calm herself. "I…I would like you both to help me train," she said with as steady a voice she could manage.

Kiba looked confused. "But Hinata-chan, we train with you all the time. We just got done training with Kurenai-sensei." Hinata made to explain herself better, but Shino beat her to it.

"Kiba, I believe Hinata is seeking our help with training beyond what we cover during our team meetings," Shino said, looking to Hinata for confirmation.

"Hai," she replied while nodding appreciatively to her stoic teammate. "I want to create a new technique, a-and I was hoping you could help me." Hinata looked at her teammates with a hopeful expression.

Kiba and Shino shared a look, and by silent agreement both nodded their heads. The dog boy turned back to Hinata with a toothy grin. "Sure thing Hinata-chan. So when do we start."

"R-right now, if it's not t-to much trouble," she replied.

"What would you like us to do?" Shino asked.

Hinata slid into a fighting stance with her left arm forward and her palm facing her teammates. "Attack me with every thing you have."

From a nearby tree, Kurenai watched as her team began their new training regimen. She couldn't help the proud smile that spread across her face as she looked at Hinata. She was certain that just a month ago the shy heiress wouldn't dare approach her teammates for help with her training. That of course raised more questions as to what was causing the change in the young Hyuuga's personality.

Kurenai liked to think that it was her leadership and her team's support that was bringing Hinata out of her shell, but something in her gut was telling her otherwise. And she highly doubted that Hinata was getting any encouragement from home. So what was it? She just hoped it wasn't something she should be worried about.

As her students' new training session heated up, Kurenai decided to keep an eye on Hinata when she had the chance. If something or someone was affecting one of her students this deeply, she wanted to know what the source was.

"Geez this is boring," Naruto complained. He and his teammates were currently waiting for their sensei to wake up from his exhaustion induced stupor.

"Shut up Naruto baka!" said an agitated Sakura before turning back to watching over her sensei. 'Geez this is boring,' grumbled 'inner' Sakura.

Earlier that day Team 7 was able to reach Tazuna's house with little trouble after the run-in with Zabuza. They were greeted by Tazuna's daughter Tsunami, who helped them put Kakashi on a futon so he could rest properly. Now all they could do was sit and wait for their sensei to wake up.

Unfortunately, sitting and waiting was never something Uzumaki Naruto ever did willingly. But he couldn't just leave his teammates to watch over him by themselves. The nagging would never end. Fortunately, Naruto was a master at being in two places at once.

After excusing himself to use the bathroom, Naruto walked out into the hallway. As soon as the door closed behind him Naruto summoned a few kage bunsin. He didn't want to leave a clone with his team this time since it seemed disrespectful to his sensei. But at least his clones could get in a little training before Kakashi woke up.

Reaching into his pack Naruto retrieved one of the rubber balls he had brought with him and tossed it to one of the clones. He discovered a few weeks ago that he couldn't use Kage Bunshin no Jutsu to create more rubber balls to practice with since the balls would already be made up of his chakra and pumping more into it would be redundant. The ball would already be a part of the clone, so it wouldn't really be any different from focusing chakra in its hand.

Turning to his two other clones, Naruto again reached into his pack and pulled out a mostly blank scroll. These clones would be working on one of Naruto's other projects. Giving a short nod to their creator, the clones silently left the house to find a quiet place to train. Naruto turned back to the room to continue his team's vigil over their sensei. Now all he could do was wait for the lazy jounin to wake up.

Sakura was keeping herself busy by occasionally checking over Kakashi and trying to engage Sasuke in conversation. Sasuke paid little attention to his pink haired teammate. Instead he simply sat against the wall and occasionally cast a suspicious glance at Naruto. He still couldn't figure out how he did so well in the fight against Zabuza.

Upon reentering the room, Naruto received quick glances from his teammates and nodded towards them in turn. Taking a seat along the wall adjacent to Sasuke, Naruto reached into his pack for something. This drew the curious glances of Sakura and Sasuke… only for him to pull out a deck of cards.

Naruto was oblivious to his teammate's stares as he took his cards out of their box and began to shuffle them. And he kept shuffling. He didn't lay them out to play a game to pass the time, as his teammates had first thought. Instead he just kept shuffling the cards in different manners as fast as he could.

Eventually Sakura became fed up with his strange behavior. "Naruto-baka, what on earth are you doing?" she hissed. "Stop goofing off!"

Naruto finally glanced up from the deck and noticed his teammates staring at him. His face formed a sheepish grin while his free hand scratched the back of his head. "Hehe, sorry about that Sakura, I was just doing a little exercise that Iruka-sensei told me about." At Sakura's questioning look he decided to elaborate. "He told me that if I ever have any down time I should try activities like this using my hands. He said that it improves dexterity in your fingers so you can perform hand seals better and improve reaction time."

Sakura actually didn't have a response to this. She didn't actually think he had a good reason for doing that. The only intelligent thing she could say was "Oh" and went back to sitting quietly. She actually felt a little bad for snapping at him, but quickly shook off that feeling. It was Naruto after all.

Sasuke remained aloof on the outside, but inside he was actually considering Naruto's little exercise. It hadn't occurred to him that he could be using this time to perform small exercises like that. He'd have to try it sometime. Not in front of Naruto though; Sasuke's pride wouldn't allow the dobe to think he'd influenced the Uchiha in any way.

The room fell into a lull of silence. After about an hour Tazuna joined the shinobi to keep them company. It would be another half hour before the monotony was finally broken.

Kakashi suddenly shot up to a sitting position, his one visible eye widened. Immediately his team was by his side.

"Kakashi-sensei, you're awake," Sakura said, stating the obvious.

"Geez, you about gave us a heart attack sensei," Naruto said.

If Kakashi heard his students, he didn't show it. Instead, he stared straight ahead, as if mulling something over. His students could hear him mumbling something along the lines of 'dammit, I can't believe I missed it, why didn't I notice sooner.'

"Ne, Kakashi-sensei, you all right?" asked Naruto. "You look like you saw a ghost."

Kakashi let out a tired sigh before looking at his team. "We might have a problem. When a hunter-nin eliminates their target, they normally dispose of the body immediately, only taking the head as proof of their kill."

"So? What's your point sensei?" asked Sakura.

"So… how did the hunter-nin dispose of Zabuza's body?"

"How are we supposed to know, that masked guy took off with Zabuza's body," Sakura stated as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

"Exactly, why lift a body that was considerably heavier than he was? Plus, the weapons he used…" Kakashi let the sentence hang, allowing his students to fit the last piece.

Sasuke and Naruto had similar thoughts going through their heads. 'The guy only used simple needles.' Almost simultaneously their eyes widened

"No way," Sasuke rasped out.

"Crap," Naruto muttered.

Sakura gaze shifted between her teammates, not quite catching on to what Kakashi was talking about.

"That's right," Kakashi said. "In all probability, Zabuza is still alive."

The affects of his words were immediate. Tazuna's face seemed to lose all color at the prospect of his would-be assassin still lurking about. Sakura's features took on a look of shock and horror while Sasuke put on a dark scowl. And Naruto… Naruto's eyes seemed to light up with determination and, if Kakashi wasn't mistaken, excitement.

"B-but Kakashi-sensei," Sakura stuttered, "he had no pulse. You said so yourself."

"True, but that was most likely a false-death. Hunter-nin possess intimate knowledge of the human body, and with those senbon needles, it was probably simple for him to place Zabuza in a death like trance."

The room fell into an uncomfortable silence. Finally, Naruto spoke up. "How long do you think Zabuza will be out of commission?"

"Well, that's a little hard to say. Placing someone in a death-like state like that takes a large toll on their body. Plus the damage he took during the fight. If Zabuza's hunter-nin companion is a proficient healer, then my best guess is that Zabuza won't be in fighting condition for another week, at the soonest."

"So what do we do until then?" questioned Sakura.

Kakashi's visible eye curved upwards, indicating his smile. "Training."

"But Kakashi-sensei, Zabuza was an opponent even you had trouble facing; how is a week of training supposed to help?" asked Sakura.

Kakashi simply continued to smile at his students. "Sakura, who was it that rescued me when I was trapped by Zabuza? You're all improving rapidly, especially you Naruto."

Naruto flinched slightly at his sensei's words, not quite believing what he just heard. Slowly, a smile spread across his face; a true smile. There were precious few moments in his life when he received praise, and he cherished every one. His reaction didn't go unnoticed by his sensei. 'Strange, to get such a reaction from such a little compliment.' The jounin shoved this bit of information to the back of his mind.

"Of course, I don't expect you to run off and fight Zabuza any time soon," Kakashi continued. "He's far beyond any of your levels at this point. You'll just be training until my body is done healing."

Naruto shook excitedly. "Well, when do we get started?"

It was shortly after breakfast the next day that Kakashi led his team into the woods to begin their new training. Naruto was only to happy to get outside to get some training. Besides, that kid Inari was starting to grate his nerves.

The jounin was still very weak, having to use a pair of crutches to walk. Kakashi stopped his hobbling in front of a few large trees and turned to face his students. For some reason Naruto began to experience a case of déjà vu.

"Alright, I think this should be a good spot."

"Ano, sensei, what kind of training are we going to do?" Sakura asked.

"I'm glad you asked Sakura. Today I'm going to teach you to properly use your chakra."

'Yep,' Naruto thought to himself, 'this is definitely sounding familiar.'

"But sensei, we already know how to use chakra," said Sakura.

Kakashi simply smiled at the girl. "True, you know how to access your chakra, but genins rarely know how to properly mold and use their chakra to its fullest extent."

"What's that supposed to mean," asked an annoyed Sasuke. He didn't like being told that he didn't know how to do something.

His tone only seemed to further amuse Kakashi. "Well Sasuke-kun, as you all should know, chakra is the combination of physical and spiritual energy in your body. And by molding chakra you are able to utilize it for jutsu. However, during a battle like the one with Zabuza, you have to be ready to pull out your chakra at a moment's notice, even while moving rapidly. Most fresh genin are unable to do this without wasting quite a bit of chakra in the process. If you don't learn to properly control your chakra, you can't expect to become a decent shinobi."

Naruto noticed that Sasuke and Sakura glanced in his direction when Kakashi finished. He had to suppress a growl of irritation at his teammates. 'Of course, if someone on this team has bad control, it has to be me,' Naruto thought bitterly. 'But if Kakashi-sensei is going where I think he's going, they're going to be in for a bit of a surprise.'

After glancing at her 'dead last' teammate, Sakura turned back to her sensei. "So, what are you going to teach to improve our control sensei?"

Kakashi grinned, and Naruto almost joined him as he guessed the next words out of the jounin's mouth. "Tree climbing."

It took every ounce of willpower that Naruto had not to laugh at the reactions of his teammates. Both held looks of confusion and shock. When that passed, Sasuke's face fell into a scowl. He probably figured Kakashi was messing with him and wasting his time. Sakura reacted the same way she always did when she thought someone was poking fun at her: loudly and angrily.

"What the hell is that supposed to mean sensei?! How is dragging ourselves up a bunch of moldy old trees going to make it easier to mold our chakra?"

Despite Sakura's outburst, Kakashi never dropped his damn smile. "I never said anything about using your hands Sakura." He took a moment to enjoy the confused stares of his students, all except Naruto. The blonde just kept looking at the jounin as if he were telling a joke that he'd already heard, and was just waiting for Kakashi to hurry up and get to the punchline.

"Watch closely," Kakashi said as he formed a seal to focus his chakra. The seal was more for his student's benefit than actually needing it to mold his chakra. He turned to a nearby tree and, as Naruto expected, began to walk up the side. Kakashi stopped when he reached a low hanging branch, looking like a bat: a giant, silver-haired, cycloptic bat… with crutches.

"This exercise works two-fold. It requires a small but exact amount of chakra to stick to the tree. Doing so should get you used to drawing out chakra for your jutsu without wasting as much. Also, it builds up your stamina for longer, drawn-out battles. And since directing chakra to the soles of your feet, performing this technique should better prepare you for learning new jutsu."

As he finished his description, Kakashi gauged his student's reactions again. Sasuke actually appeared to be interested, the chance to become stronger winning him over. Sakura didn't look like she found the idea of a sweaty workout appetizing, but refrained from saying anything lest she look bad in front of Sasuke. And Naruto, much to Kakashi's annoyance, actually looked a little bored. 'What are you playing at Naruto?'

Reaching into his pocket, Kakashi withdrew three kunai before flinging them at his students' feet. "All right, pick a tree and start climbing. You can use those kunai to mark your progress. Oh, and you might want to get a running start, your not good enough to simply walk up the trees."

Team 7 nodded their understanding and picked up the kunai. Each of them took a moment to focus their chakra before beginning. Suddenly, as if by some unknown signal, all three genin rushed forward towards their respective trees.

Sasuke ran at the tree at full speed. He was determined to outperform Naruto in this exercise. The Uchiha was able to make about four steps up the side of the tree before his chakra output faultered. The bark under his foot cracked under the strain and he was repeled from the surface. Sasuke bounded off of surrounding trees before landing back on the ground. Looking up to see his progress, he was disappointed to find out he'd only reached a height of about eight feet or so, and most of that was from his momentum. 'I never thought it would be this hard.'

"This is pretty easy!" came a shout from above. Sasuke's head swiveled around until he was looking up the tree that his pink-haired teammate had climbed. Sakura was sitting on a branch about thirty feet above the ground, her legs dangling off of the side.

For the next several moments, Sasuke could only stare dumbly at his female teammate. 'How did she get it so fast?' After a few seconds he was able to remove the look of shock from his face, replacing it with his normal, apathetic façade. 'Che, I guess her booksmarts finally counted for something.'

Sasuke turned to check on the progress of his other teammate, certain to find the dobe with his face in the dirt. Sakura followed his gaze to Naruto's tree only to see… nothing. The blonde was nowhere to be found.

The two genin began to scan the area around the tree, looking for any sign of the blonde. To their confusion, he didn't appear to be anywhere on the forest floor. So they looked to his tree. They didn't see him on the trunk, or any scratch from his kunai.

"Where the hell is the dobe?" asked Sasuke.

"The baka probably got lost on his way to the tree," Sakura said with a smile, hoping to elicit a chuckle from her crush. Of course, she received none.

A cough caught the attention of the two genin. Both turned around to face Kakashi. However, the jounin wasn't looking at either of them. Instead his gaze was fixed on something almost straight above them. Naturally, Sakura and Sasuke followed his line of sight, up through the canopy. What they saw shocked both into silence.

Uzumaki Naruto, dead last of their class in the academy, was standing at the top of his tree. The blonde genin was using his vantage point to enjoy his view of the Wave country, and it was a hell of a view. He could see the village from his position, and could just perceive Tazuna's bridge beyond that. Some of the morning mist had yet to lift, and when the sun reached a certain point in the sky, it seemed to cast the whole country in a golden glow. A breathtaking sight.

"A place worth saving," Naruto muttered to himself.

He was brought back to the present by a shout from his teacher.

"Well done Naruto… you can come down now you know."

Naruto turned to look down to the ground to see his team staring back up at him. He just flashed a grin at them and with one dramatic step forward, allowed himself to begin falling to the ground.

Sakura gasped at Naruto's apparent leap to his demise. Kakashi cursed his weakened body, unable to catch the boy. Sasuke tensed, preparing to save the dobe; after all, if Naruto died then Kakashi might be too distracted to train him.

Team 7's collective worry was all for not. At about twenty feet from the ground, Naruto flipped forward and kicked off the tree. From there he continued to bounce from one tree to another until he finally reached the forest floor, landing in a crouched position.

Standing up, Naruto realized his team was still staring at him. "What?" he asked innocently.

His words seemed to bring Sakura out of her shock induced stupor. "What do you mean 'What'!? You just about killed yourself by jumping off of that tree you baka. How the hell did you get all the way to the top anyway? Kakahsi-sensei said not to use your hands baka. If you're cheating just to try and upstage Sasuke-kun, I'm going to pound you into the ground."

Naruto simply stared forward while Sakura spoke. When she finished her little tirade he blinked, as if coming out of a daze. "Huh, what were you saying Sakura? I couldn't hear you over that sudden gust of hot air."

The vein in Sakura's forehead suddenly began to pulsate violently. A soft snicker behind the girl caused Sakura to turn around and glare heatedly at her sensei. But Kakashi already had his nose buried in his little orange book. Turning back to her blonde teammate Sakura began to move forward, fully intent on beating Naruto into unconciousness. However, she was thwarted by her sensei's voice.

"Now Sakura, Naruto did climb the tree using only his feet. I watched him do it myself."

Sakura deflated at Kakashi's words. But she pushed it out of her head when her crush began to speak.

"Dobe, where did you learn to do that?" Sasuke was becoming increasingly aggravated with Naruto's recent increase in abilities. How could the loser know things that an Uchiha didn't?

Naruto rubbed the back of his head while he grinned sheepishly. "Oh that. Well, I asked Iruka-sensei for a good chakra control exercise about a month ago and he showed me how to walk up trees."

'So that explains it,' Kakashi thought to himself. 'But according to what I've heard about Iruka, he normally doesn't show favoritism to any one student. Why did he make an exception for Naruto?' He pushed his thoughts aside for now. 'I wonder how long it took Naruto to master tree walking.' No sooner had he thought it when Sasuke voiced it.

"How long did it take you to figure out dobe?"

Naruto was about to tell him the truth before he thought better of it. Mastering tree walking in a single day would be nearly impossible for someone with his initial control. He may have to come clean about his training methods, and he wasn't exactly ready to divulge that bit of information. Kakashi may try to dissuade him from ever using it again due to the amount of mental stress it causes. Even when Naruto dispelled his bunshins systematically, he still received massive migraines if he used more than a dozen for a prolonged period. That's why he cut back on using it too often. Plus, Naruto just didn't want his training methods to be made public knowledge.

"It took me about two weeks to get it down, but I still work on it whenever I get the chance."

Naruto's answer seemed to assuage Sasuke's ego slightly. After all, if the dobe could grasp this technique in two weeks, then an Uchiha of his skill should be able to master it in a fraction of the time. Sakura also accepted the answer. Of course someone like Naruto would need all the training they could get to keep up with her and her Sasuke-kun.

Kakashi was the only one who felt there was something off with Naruto's explanation. He noticed that Naruto seemed to catch himself from saying something before telling the team of his training. It was just another question that went along with the enigma that is Uzumaki Naruto.

"Well," Kakashi said, returning everyone's attention to himself, "it looks like the only female on the team and the dead last seem to have gotten this technique down pretty well… so much for the great Uchiha."

Sasuke leveled a deadly glare at his sensei, not appreciating the slight against him.

"Hey, don't say that about Sasuke-kun!" Sakura shouted. 'He might get pissed at me for doing better than him.'

Kakashi ignored the girl's outburst. "Since Naruto and Sakura have such a good grasp of this exercise, they will be alternating guard duty for Tazuna. When you're not on guard duty, I expect you to continue training in whatever you see fit. Meanwhile, you Sasuke," he said while turning to the brooding boy, "will continue working on this exercise. I'm sure you can get it within the week," Kakashi said with a slightly sarcastic edge to his voice."

Sasuke didn't spare his teammates a second glance as he turned back to his tree and attempted to run up its side with renewed vigor. Kakashi smiled under his mask. The boy needed a lesson in humility. Hopefully he'd get over his pride and ask his teammates for help.

The jounin turned to his two other students. "Now, one of you needs to guard Tazuna for today." Sakura was about to volunteer Naruto so she could stay with Sasuke, but Kakashi cut her off. With one hand behind his back, Kakashi said, "Sakura, how many fingers am I holding up?"

Sakura took on a contemplative look for a second. "Three," she half-stated, half-asked.

Kakashi smiled as he revealed his hand with three fingers extended. "Good guess Sakura. You have the honor of guarding Tazuna today."

Sakura opened and closed her mouth wordlessly, unable to sputter out her outrage. Not giving the girl a chance to find her voice, Kakashi merely ushered her on her way. When she was out of sight, he turned back to Naruto.

"Ah, Naruto, it looks like we're all on our lonesome. Perhaps we should use this time to have a little chat."

Naruto blinked at his sensei, he then glanced in the direction Sakura just went and then turned back to Kakashi. "You did that on purpose, didn't you?" It was more of a statement than a question.

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Kakashi replied in a bored manner. He then turned and began walking away from where Sasuke was practicing. "Let's go somewhere more private." Naruto let out a resigned sigh as he followed his sensei.

As the two left, a pair of suspicious black eyes followed them. Sasuke let out a low growl before turning back to his tree and making another attempt at climbing it.

While Kakashi was leading Naruto away from the practice area, Naruto's mind was in overdrive trying to think of a reason Kakashi would need to speak to him. The only time his teachers ever pulled him aside to talk it was because he was in trouble.

Naruto began to rattle off the excuses he used to use when these situations came up. 'I didn't do it… I was eating ramen at the time... You have no proof… Kiba did it…' But then he realized something: he really hadn't done anything wrong… recently. Before he could question his sensei, Kakashi stopped walking and took a seat on a nearby log.

"So, uh, what did you want to talk to me about Kakashi-sensei?" Naruto asked nervously.

The jounin didn't answer immediately. He simply closed his visible eye, as if in deep thought. Finally he opened his eye, but still did not look at his student. Instead, Kakashi turned his gaze towards the sky as he spoke. "Uzumaki Naruto, dead last of his class in the academy, only passing the Genin Exam after failing three times. Due to special circumstances involving Touji Mizuki and the theft of the Forbidden Scroll, Umino Iruka graduated Naruto from the academy to the rank of genin at the age of twelve."

Now the poor genin was more confused than ever. Why was Kakashi talking about him as if he wasn't there? Naruto knew that his sensei was always a little flaky, but now he was wondering if his sensei had actually lost his mind.

Kakashi seemed oblivious to his student's confusion and continued speaking. "Lineage: Unknown. Taijutsu: D-rank, basic knowledge of Academy fighting style. Ninjutsu: High D to Low C-rank, profficient with Kawarimi and Henge no Jutsu. Only known attack jutsu is Kage Bunshin no Jutsu. Genjutsu: n/a, shows little to no aptitude for said skill. No other skills or techniques known. Chakra capacity: high chuunin, possibly low jounin level."

Naruto listened as Kakashi gave a detailed, albeit flawed, summary of his skills as a shinobi. Finally, the jounin lowered his gaze to meet his student's. "That is what I read in your file when I became your sensei. However, ever since our team formed, you've proven time and again that the information in it has been a bit… inadequate."

'So that's what he's getting at,' Naruto realized. But he still didn't really know what to say to his sensei. "Uh, well, what can I say? I'm just full of surprises," he said with a goofy grin.

"No doubt," Kakashi replied evenly. "Tell me Naruto, do you know what 'killing intent' is?"

Naruto took on a thinking pose. "Uh, the intent to kill?" he said while shrugging his shoulders.

Kakashi just let out a sigh before continuing. "When Zabuza first disappeared into the mist, do you remember feeling a sense of dread and intense bloodlust?" Naruto only hesitated a moment before nodding. "That is 'killing intent' or ki. A skilled shinobi can focus their anger, hatred, or bloodlust and by adding their chakra to the mix, can emit a terrifying aura. Unless their opponent is used to it, this aura can paralyze or possibly drive them mad with fear. There have even been occurances when a shinobi emitted a ki so strong; his opponent actually took their own life."

Naruto shivered slightly at the thought. When he had felt Zabuza's ki during the fight, he admitted to himself, it had frightened him, but wasn't so scared as to even consider taking his own life because of it.

Despite Kakashi's explanation of Killing Intent and Zabuza's use of it, Naruto was still confused as to where the man was going with this. "Okay… but why did you need to talk to me about it?"

The jounin closed his one visible eye for a moment before responding. "Naruto, when you've been in this line of work as long as I have, you can read a person's emotions farely easily through body language, their voice, and even chakra fluctuations." Kakashi opened his eye and stared right at Naruto. "When Zabuza hit all of you with his ki, I could practically feel the anxiety rolling off of Sakura and Sasuke. Both were paralyzed with fear, and if I hadn't canceled out most of Zabuza's ki, they would have officially been taken out of the fight. Their reaction wasn't really that suprising; honestly, I'm more surprised that they didn't pass out. No, what really caught my attention was how you handled it."

Naruto stared at his sensei blankly. How was he supposed to have handled it? "Ano, Kakashi-sensei, I still don't know what you're getting at."

Kakashi let out a sigh before continuing. "The amount of 'Killing Intent' that Zabuza was releasing would have driven just about any fresh genin into fear induced shock. And I could tell you were afraid." Kakashi lifted his hand when Naruto made to speak. "However, you didn't freeze up like your teammates.

"There are only two real reasons I can think of that it didn't affect you the same way as Sakura and Sasuke." He raised one finger as he spoke. "First, someone trained you from an early age to ignore your emotions, like the Hyuuga or Aburame. I think it's pretty obvious that isn't the case," Kakashi said with a smile, which Naruto returned. "Second," he continued, his voice taking on a graver tone, "you've been subjected to 'killing intent' before, and have become more resistant to its effects."

Naruto shifted uncomfortably under his sensei's gaze. He had been subjected to Ki before, on several different occasions in fact. Ever since being 'released' from the orphanage at five years old, their have been moments when he'd felt the effects of someone's killing intent, even if he was just walking down the street. Whether it was some shinobi that held a grudge against him for the fox or the villagers' subconsciously emitting it, Naruto didn't know.

Then there were the teachers at the academy. Before Iruka became his class' sensei after his second year, Naruto's teachers made a habit of singling him out for punishment. And whenever he was separated from the class, either while out in the training field or in a corner in the classroom awaiting punishment, some of the teachers would bombard him with killing intent without affecting the other students or teachers noticing.

'They were probably trying to drive me out of the academy,' Naruto thought sadly. Fortunately, none of the teachers were skilled or powerful enough to emit a ki to scare him off without drawing attention to themselves.

"Naruto," Kakashi continued, his voice deadly serious, "have you ever felt ki before?"

Naruto was hesitant to tell the jounin about his past. In fact, Naruto never liked to talk about his treatment by a majority of the village to anyone. If there was one thing he disliked more than the cold stares of the villagers, it was pity. So he decided to go with a half truth.

"Well, during my fight with Mizuki, I felt a little bit of the same thing. So when Zabuza used it, I guess I was kinda used to it." Naruto tried not to cringe at his own flimsy excuse. But if Kakashi noticed he didn't say anything. "Besides, how am I ever going to become hokage if a little ki is going to scare me off," he said the same grin he put up whenever he was uncomfortable or upset.

Kakashi forced a smile to match his student's, but on the inside he was scowling at the grin. He had known Naruto long enough to recognize the difference between his true smiles and the false ones. Unfortunately, he'd seen the latter far more frequently than the former.

"Ne, Kakashi-sensei, is there anything else you wanted to talk to me about; I really want to get back to training."

Kakashi let out a sigh. Apparently he wasn't going to get anything more out of Naruto over the current subject. But the boy was hiding something; that much was obvious. 'Maybe Sandaime-sama knows something about this,' he mused to himself.

"Actually Naruto, there was something else I wanted to ask you about." Naruto sat in front of his sensei, doing his best to remain patient. "When you attacked Zabuza's clone, you did something odd with your kage bunshin. I've never seen one cause so much smoke when it was dispersed."

Naruto's smile altered slightly at that. "Oh that. I came up with that about a week ago. While I was practicing with a lot of clones, I noticed that when a bunch dispersed they made a pretty decent smoke screen. But I figured that it would be kind of pointless to have to use a few dozen clones just for that purpose, so I tried to figure out a way to increase the amount of smoke dispersed from a single clone. It took me a while to figure it out, but with an extra handseal and a little extra chakra, I was able to make a single kage bunshin produce more smoke than a hundred regular ones," Naruto finished with a proud smile.

Kakashi nodded at Naruto's explanation, his face remaining impassive behind his mask. But truth be told, he was rather amazed. The boy had known Kage Bunshin no Jutsu for little over a month, and he was already modifying it. That was a complicated process even with the simplest of jutsus, but to alter a B-rank ninjutsu in such a short amount of time… It was impressive to say the least.

"What do you call it?" Kakashi asked.

Naruto puffed his chest out importantly. "I call it Bunshin Enmaku."

Kakashi looked up thoughtfully for a moment, mulling the name around in his head. "Short, simple, to the point…" he muttered while bringing his gaze back down to Naruto, "I like it."

A sweat drop formed on the back of Naruto's head. "Heh, thanks Kakashi-sensei, I guess." A brief silence fell between the pair. Kakashi doubted the boy would be very forthcoming with any real information on his past. That's what worried the jounin the most. It unnerved him greatly that he knew so little about his own student.

Naruto clambered to his feet after a moment's silence. "Well sensei, as much fun as this chat has been, I really should get back to training."

Kakashi nodded to Naruto's statement. "I suppose so. Well, if there's anything you need help with, don't hesitate to ask me or your teammates."

"Alright," Naruto said as he began walking away. "Thanks Kakashi-sensei," he called over his shoulder.

The jounin remained seated as he watched his second student walk off. When Naruto was out of sight he let out a weary sigh. He hadn't learned much of anything from their little chat. Kakashi could easily tell that the boy kept a lot from him. It seemed that despite Naruto's loud and talkative nature, he didn't like to discuss his personal life. Kakashi figured that either Naruto didn't trust him enough to confide in, or it was just too painful to drudge up the past. The jounin found neither prospect appealing.

With a grunt, Kakashi stood from the log and began to hobble back to Tazuna's home. He decided to put Naruto's behavior out of his mind. He couldn't force the boy to open up to him or his two other teammates. Kakashi would either have to wait for Naruto to come to him or get the information some other way.

'Hmm, that chuunin Iruka seems to be pretty close to him, he might know something,' Kakashi mused as he pulled out a little orange book.

Using the memories of his clones he created the day before, Naruto made his way to a clearing a fair distance away from Tazuna's home. Walking up to a seemingly random tree, he reached into a hollow space and retrieved his scroll and a deflated ball with a small hole in it.

Naruto examined the ball for a moment before letting out a sigh. The clone wasn't able to push out as much chakra as the original normally could without dispelling itself, so it just barely ruptured the ball. But every bit of practice helps, so he didn't let it get him down too much.

Looking to his scroll, Naruto found that it had a bit more writing in it than it had before. Inside were notes and observations from his clones, all on his latest jutsu.

After Naruto made his alterations to Kage Bunshin no Jutsu, he decided to take a crack at creating his very own jutsu from scratch. Unfortunately, doing so was far more difficult than he thought. Since he wasn't working with an already existing jutsu, he had to start from square one. There was a lot of trial and error in creating a jutsu, so Naruto began having his clones take down notes to keep track of his progress. It was a pretty slow process, but one that Naruto was more than willing to go through.

Placing the scroll on the ground, Naruto took a seat next to it and struck a thinking pose. He had a lot of training to do and only one week to get it done. Zabuza was a tough opponent who was able to put Kakashi on the ropes, and if Naruto's impression of the false hunter-nin was correct, then he wasn't likely to be a pushover either. So he had to use this week to its fullest in order to face them.

But before he got into his training, there was something else he had to do. According to some of the books he read on strategy, if he ever found himself in a situation where he would face an opponent that he'd fought before, it was wise to analyze every detail his previous fights. That way, he might notice a pattern to their attacks, develop a defense, or possibly notice a weakness that he hadn't seen in the heat of battle. So, Naruto began to recall everything he could remember from the fight.

He remembered how his clones in the surrounding forest were systematically destroyed without seeing their attacker. He didn't know whether they were wiped out by Zabuza or the hunter-nin, probably both. Next came Zabuza's attack, his use of the mist further showcasing his mastery of stealth. The man also used a lot of water based jutsu, unsurprising since he was from Kiri. Unfortunately, Naruto only knew a few weak Doton jutsus, none of which were likely to work on someone of Zabuza's caliber.

Then came the killing intent, and like Kakashi said, it didn't affect Naruto as much as the others. It was a scare tactic meant to break down the morale of the group in order to take them out more effectively. It worked to a degree, since Zabuza was able to easily penetrate their defense and nearly dismembered them with his massive sword. If Naruto hadn't summoned his kage bunshin when he did…

Naruto paused in his recollection. Now that he thought about it, he couldn't remember using a hand seal when he performed the jutsu. Normally he'd just pass it off as reacting on reflex in battle, but he was holding a kunai at the time. He clearly remembered pulling out a kunai when his team fell into a defensive position. But the blade would have been awkward and cumbersome when he formed a hand seal, taking away from his reaction time unless he dropped it. But the blade had remained in his hand the whole time, and the clones had appeared almost instantly.

What could it mean? Naruto knew that all of his clones in the forest had been destroyed prior to Zabuza's attack, so they couldn't have performed the jutsu to save his team. So that just left him. What did he do to create four kage bunshin without the usual hand seal?

Naruto tried to recall everything he felt and did. When Zabuza appeared in his team's formation, the only thought that ran through his shocked mind was to get his teammates and Tazuna to safety. He remembered consciously thinking of the Kage Bunshin no Jutsu and beginning to build up the chakra for it, but his hands never left his side. Instead, Naruto recalled feeling something inside him, molding his chakra for him. It was difficult to describe.

From what he'd read during his studies, Naruto knew that sealless jutsu were incredibly rare and difficult to perform. It took years of practice to perform even the three basic academy jutsu without seals. And beyond that, sealless jutsu were normally performed with objects, weapons, or even as a result of a bloodline. To pull off a high rank kinjutsu like kage bunshin without seals was almost unheard of.

But Naruto had pulled it off, except he had no idea how the hell he did it.

The young jinchuriki almost let out a groan. He only had a week tops to train before the fight with Zabuza, and this had to come up. Just another skill he felt he should master before that time came.

'Thank Kami for Kage Bunshin no Jutsu,' he thought to himself. Running a hand through his hair, Naruto tried to think of a way to best prioritize his time. So he started a mental checklist of all he wanted to train in before the week was up.

Training for the Rasengan would remain, obviously. Being able to pull out an A-rank jutsu during a fight would definitely swing things in his favor. He also wanted to complete his new jutsu. From the way it was shaping up, he could tell it was going to be a pretty strong attack.

Then there was his taijutsu training. He still had his weights on, about a hundred and fifty pounds per limb. Actually, he was a little embarrassed that he'd forgotten about them during his encounter with Zabuza. But he shrugged off that feeling: after all, it just left a little surprise for the next time he faced them.

Before setting off to train, Naruto continued with his analysis of his enemies. Unfortunately there was very little to go on for Zabuza's accomplice, and none of it was promising for Team 7. The boy was obviously skilled, with intimate knowledge of human anatomy. But the rest of his techniques and skills were unknown.

'So, we're going up against an elite jounin and his partner, whom we know almost nothing about. Great,' Naruto thought sardonically. 'Oh well, I guess I'll just have to prepare as much as I can and hope for the best.' And with that uplifting thought he placed his hands in a cross seal to begin his training.

Sakura sat on a pile of supplies watching over Tazuna as he worked on the bridge. She was still a little miffed that it was her that was chosen for the first guard shift. 'Naruto-baka should be the one here instead of me. I could be using this time helping Saskuke-kun train.' The girl's mind shifted into fangirl mode. 'He'd probably have trouble for a little while, then I could give him some advice so he'd understand it even faster, then he'd tell me how eternally grateful he was for my help and then…'

"Hey girlie, why are you you the only one here, where are your teammates?" Tazuna asked, breaking the girl out of her daydream.

Sakura blinked at the unexpected question, but replied soon enough. "Oh, Kakashi-sensei had us work on a new exercise and since I'm so advanced at it he chose me to guard you," she said importantly.

Tazuna just stared at her for a moment. "Really?" he asked incredulously.

A vein throbbed in Sakura's forehead. "Yes, really," she said through gritted teeth.

"Okay, okay," Tazunas said, raising his hands defensively. He only lowered them when she calmed down. "So, your teammates were having trouble with this exercise."

Sakura didn't respond immediately. "Well… no. Naruto-baka figured it out somehow, but I still think he cheated."

Tazuna set down the load he was carrying and took a seat next to the girl. "You don't seem to like the blonde gaki that much."

"Naruto, ugh… of course not. He's a stupid, annoying, attention seeking jerk. He barely graduated from the academy, and he's always trying to upstage my Sasuke-kun. He's not even that good of a shinobi."

Tazuna raised an eyebrow at that comment. "I don't know about that. When that Zabuza guy attacked me, it was Naruto that saved your sensei, not you or your little boyfriend."

For a moment, Sakura was at a loss for words, but recovered soon enough. "That's just because he got lucky. I'm sure Sasuke-kun would have come up with a plan to save us if Naruto hadn't been in the way. After all, he's from an elite shinobi clan," she said in a know-it-all fashion.

"Oh, and who were Naruto's parents?" Tazuna queried.

Again, Sakura didn't immediately respond. "Well, no one really knows who his parents were, Naruto's an orphan."

Tazuna's features saddened a bit. "Oh, that must have been hard on him then, not growing up with a family."

Sakura just shook her head. "Nah, Naruto doesn't care. He's always laughing and joking around. He doesn't know anything about responsibility because no one cares if he gets into trouble. My parents would ground me from now until judgement day if I tried any of the things Naruto has. He's so lucky."

When Sakura looked up at Tazuna, she was greeted with a glare. "I'm willing to bet that Naruto doesn't feel the same way," he said with an icy tone. "You're parents punish you because they care about the person you'll become, and I'm sure Naruto would give anything to know that someone cared for him that much." Tazuna stood and began to walk back to work, but stopped after a few steps. "You say that he's always laughing and joking around. Sometimes the people who laugh the loudest are the ones who are hurting the most. They do it so that no one else has to see their pain." With that, Tazuna continued on with his work.

Sakura was stunned. She'd never really heard anyone defend Naruto in that way. She tried to push it out of her mind, the idea of a depressed Naruto was too ridiculous to imagine. But Tazuna's words stuck in her mind. 'Naruto couldn't be that deep, could he?' Sakura thought. For once, 'inner' Sakura had nothing to say.

Team 7 was gathered in Tazuna's home, enjoying a dinner cooked by Tsunami. Sasuke and Naruto both looked extremely worn and tired. Sasuke had been running up the side of his tree almost nonstop since Kakashi had marched them out there. He'd made admirable progress, but it was far from enough for him. Naruto had also spent most of his day training, but in what his teammates didn't know.

Sakura kept throwing curious glances at Naruto through the meal instead of fawning over the Uchiha. The conversation with Tazuna was still fresh in her mind. Her teammates would have found her behavior odd if they hadn't been too exhausted to notice. Eventually Sakura tried to find something to distract herself from her thoughts, so she looked around the room. Her eyes were drawn to a torn picture on the wall.

"Hey, why does that picture have a corner ripped off? It looks like someone's missing from it."

Silence filled the room for a long moment. Tazuna and Tsunami shared nervous. Suddenly, Inari stood up from his seat and walked out of the room.

"Inari!" his mother called after him, but to no avail.

Sakura looked contrite. "Did I say something wrong?"

Tazuna shook his head sadly. "No, there was no way you could have known. The man missing from that photo is Inari's stepfather, a hero in this country." He then began to tell them the story of Kaiza, how he'd met Inari, and all he had done for Wave. He finished with the man's execution at the hands of Gatou and his thugs. "Ever since that day, Inari changed, and this village lost all hope."

Sakura's eyes were brimming with tears. "Th-That's terrible. And poor Inari was forced to watch all of it."

Naruto nodded slightly in agreement. He thought back on the boy's behaviour since they'd arrived. At least now he saw where the brat was coming from, though that still didn't mean he agreed with it. Inari's attitude just reminded him too much of the brooding wonder sitting across from him. Cleaning up the last scraps on his plate, Naruto stood from the table and began to walk to the door.

"Where are you going Naruto?" asked Kakashi. "It would be a bad idea to train; you're obviously exhausted from today."

"Gomen sensei, but I have to prove something to that kid," Naruto said over his shoulder.

"Prove what?" questioned Sakura.

"That there are still heroes in this world." With that, Naruto walked out of the house into the forest.

He quickly made his way to his clearing, all previous fatigue forgotten. If he was going to help this country and Tazuna's family, he didn't have time to be tired. He grabbed one of the few rubber balls he had left, and then seated himself on the ground. Closing his eyes, he began to focus all of his attention on the ball in his right hand.

Naruto had to learn this jutsu. He needed to help Tazuna complete his bridge, to stop Gatou. This country was being held under an oppressive thumb and kept in perpetual poverty, something Naruto had first hand experience in. And he'd be damned if he'd let an entire country suffer that fate because of one greedy bastard.

Chakra began to build up in his palm. 'Focus,' he thought.

Images began to flood his mind: the poverty stricken village, Inari's downcast expression at the mention of his father, Tazuna's determination to complete his bridge, to bring back the hope of his people.

More chakra was being forced to his hand. 'Focus!'

His teammates flashed before his eyes, fighting for their lives against the Demon Brothers, standing against Zabuza to defend Tazuna; Kakashi falling prey to Zabuza's trap. He needed to get stronger to make sure they made it out of those situations again.

Naruto could feel the chakra in his hand was almost ready to explode, but held it back. 'FOCUS!'

Next came his precious people back home. The people he had to protect at all costs. Iruka, Sarutobi, Ayame, Teuchi, Konohamaru, Gai, Lee, Hinata…

His eyes snapped open. 'NOW!!' The chakra in his hand burst forward as Naruto spun it as fast as he could. The ball was instantly shredded in a violent maelstrom of chakra. The backlash was so intense Naruto was blown off his feet, sending him skidding across the forest floor for several yards.

Naruto lay where he landed for several moments before rolling on to his back. A grin slowly spread across his face. "Too easy," he murmered. With grunt of exertion, he pulled himself to his feet. Now his real training could begin.