Chapter Six: A Master's Evaluation

Along the main waterway of Konoha was an upscale district that attracted a youthful crowd, and this was where the younger generation of ninja often congregated in their free time. And it was here outside of one of the trendier tea shops that Asuma paused to scratch his head, wondering if he was up to facing his friends.

It had been a long week.

But a challenge was a challenge, and Asuma couldn't deny that there was a part of him that was interested in battling it out to the end regardless of how dim his prospects where. Still, he wasn't keen on becoming the main event at a bloodbath – and he had a feeling that Kurenai would somehow sniff out the trouble. That woman...

Thinking of her, he smiled in spite of himself. Ah well, I guess there's nothing for it.

Asuma stepped into the shop, and indeed, no sooner was he inside than he saw those familiar, hypnotic eyes zeroing in. Then a sexy voice called out gamely to him:

"So how have things been with you, Suratobi?"

Kurenai was smiling warmly at him from the bench she and Kakashi occupied. As Asuma approached them, he noted her smile turning sly.

"I heard about that near-disastrous first mission of yours," she said laughingly. "Has everything been straightened out now?"

Asuma sighed. How Kurenai learned these things so fast he'd never know. Then again, it wasn't as if the news of some green genin team wreaking havoc on a wealthy VIP's villa would keep quiet. Taking the seat across from her, he pulled out a fresh cigarette and lit up. "Well, let's just say it's all been taken care of. Finally."

As Asuma sat back to savor the feeling of nicotine flowing through him, Kurenai leaned forward to examine him.

"You're smoking a lot more these days," she observed, eyes narrowing. "How many cigarettes are you going through now?"

Asuma paused mid-drag, looking thoughtful. "Up to two packs a day, I think."

Kurenai looked appalled. "You're going to kill yourself!" she said sternly, crossing her arms. "Think about what you're doing to your lungs!"

"I feel fine," answered Asuma dismissively. "Besides, I need something to help me get through the day. Coffee's just not going to cut it." Not with this bunch, he added privately.

Kakashi finally glanced up from his novel to give Asuma an impassive once-over. "Hmm. Even if that's true, aren't you concerned about the smoke's effect on your students?"

"Nah, they're tough little bug- er, kids. And they've already stopped tearing up whenever they're downwind of me."

Seeing the incredulous look on Kurenai's face and the droll one on Kakashi's, Asuma waved his hand placatingly. "Hey, hey – don't worry! I figure I'll eventually cut back in about... oh..." He paused to think. "Three years or so."

Kakashi raised a brow knowingly. "Your students will probably all be chuunin by then."

"I know."

Some time later after they'd eaten and shared in more good-natured bantering, Kurenai sat up straighter in her seat. She looked at the other two expectantly.

"Well, it's about time we got down to business. So... who would like to report first?"

She glanced at Kakashi, but he merely shrugged. "Ladies first," prompted Asuma quickly when she turned his way.

"All right, I'll start," said Kurenai with a roll of her eyes, but she quickly became more serious as she paused to gather her thoughts. "Let's see... leaving secret family jutsus aside, what can I tell you guys about my team that isn't too revealing?"

"Just stick your general impression of them – that should be sufficient enough for our purposes tonight," answered Kakashi.

Brows knitting, Kurenai pressed a finger against her cheek for another minute before speaking. "To be honest, my team members have such diverse characteristics that it's been hard for me to get a handle on them," she finally admitted. "Take my two boys, Inuzuka Kiba and Aburame Shino: they're total opposites."

This is starting to sound rather familiar, thought Kakashi as Kurenai began warming up to her subject:

"As you know, Shino graduated near the top of his class, whereas Kiba came from the lower end. But that has no meaning for Kiba: as far as he's concerned, he's the team leader, although Shino is plainly more qualified. And then there is their personalities: Kiba is the loud, fiery, open-natured type, whereas Shino is quiet, level-headed and a bit mysterious." Kurenai hesitated, laughing nervously. "Actually, Shino's… quite different. He takes some getting used to."

Kakashi and Asuma exchanged glances, each wondering what Kurenai was holding back as she continued speaking:

"Anyway, my boys have had some clashes already – I guess that's to be expected; they're too different. But they weren't enemies or friends to begin with, and somehow I think that seems to help. They're both starting from square one with each other. I can only hope that time will give them some grudging respect for one another."

You're not the only one, thought Kakashi dryly as Kurenai paused again. Her face became more pensive.

"However, they're not the ones I'm concerned about. It's my third member, Hyuuga Hinata, whom I really worry for. I've never met anyone with such poor self-esteem – although I'm not really surprised why the girl has turned out that way," Kurenai said darkly. "She has great potential but almost no will power – it's really painful to watch. Even though she's blessed with that amazing bloodline limit, she's more of a liability than an asset because of her ineptitude..."

Kurenai sighed heavily. "Right now, the only good thing to having someone like Hinata in the group is that because of her weaknesses, she brings Shino and Kiba together, just a little. It's helping – but it's hardly what one wants in a team, though."

"Cheer up," said Asuma consolingly. "Believe it or not, those sound like average genin problems. They'll probably start to come together more once they get some real battle experience, even the Hyuuga girl."

"Perhaps so," demurred Kurenai. "Anyway, that's enough about my team. So, Kakashi, what about yours? How are they getting along?"

Kakashi gazed absently up at the ceiling as he debated where to begin. "Hmm... I suppose it's another study in extreme personalities. You both know that I have Uchiha Sasuke and Uzumaki Naruto, and everyone already knows what they're like: the class champion versus the class clown. Between the two of them it's impossible to find any common ground. But then I also have Haruno Sakura, who is something of a mixed bag herself: book-smart but not so skilled in practice. So when you add her into the mix with the other two..." He shrugged. "I suppose you could call the end result a bizarre little love triangle."

Asuma and Kurenai stared at him blankly, compelling Kakashi to elaborate: "Naruto has crush on Sakura and hates Sasuke. Sakura has a crush on Sasuke and hates Naruto. And Sasuke…" Kakashi smiled wanly. "Well, he seems to hate them both, actually."

The other two started to laugh. "Ha! Sounds like one of those crazy novels you love to read," joked Asuma.

"Raging teenage hormones… I feel sorry for you, Kakashi," chuckled Kurenai, shaking her head.

"It does keep things mildly amusing," remarked Kakashi. "And there's been at least one good development between Naruto and Sasuke because of it – their intense rivalry seems to be turning into its own driving force, especially for Naruto." Then he sighed. "I'd like to think it's a good thing, but… Naruto has the tendency to take it too far."

"Well, it is Naruto – I suppose you'd have to expect a lot of trouble from a kid like that," said Asuma. Kurenai nodded in agreement.

Maybe, though I'm starting to wonder if that attitude is part of the problem, thought Kakashi, who merely shrugged in response to the others. "So what about your group, Asuma? How are they all getting along?"

Asuma grimaced. Here we go.

"Well, two of mine - Nara Shikamaru and Akimichi Choji - were already best friends before joining the team, so there are no problems between those two as far as group dynamics go. You'd think that would make things easier, but…" Asuma paused, taking a deep drag on his cigarette. "The other one, Yamanaka Ino, is completely different from them. You guys remember that she was the highest ranking female graduate, almost on a par with Uchiha. She's talented, driven, and a touch... opinionated. Whereas both of my boys are, ah, underachievers."

"Isn't that putting it nicely?" chided Kurenai.

"Um... yeah," agreed Asuma weakly. "Anyway, Ino usually ends up trying to boss them around, and while Choji isn't the type to stand up for himself, Shikamaru… he's passive-aggressive. So things have been going downhill fast between Ino and Shikamaru. It's already reached the point where I can tell their dislike is about to turn into active hatred if something isn't done about it."

"That's not good," observed Kakashi. "Your team will never succeed if they can't learn to put aside their personal issues and trust one another."

"Tell me about it."

"Hmm… are you absolutely sure they really don't like each other?" wondered Kurenai as she gazed thoughtfully at Asuma. "Could it be that they're actually secretly attracted to one another?"

Asuma knit his brows. "I've thought about that, too, and I'd say no… but then again, they do tend to have stronger reactions to one another." He shrugged helplessly. "Whatever the case may be, it's interfering with their teamwork."

"Boy-girl tension, huh? Yes, that's much harder to solve, especially at their age," Kakashi mused. He laughed dryly. "I must be lucky then – at least Naruto and Sasuke can beat each other up."

"Oh, is that how you're letting them work things out?" Asuma grinned, considering the plan he'd hatched the previous evening. "Nah, I don't think that'll do it for me. But I've been thinking about it, and Kakashi, I've got a favor to ask. You remember that time when Obito tried pulling that prank that backfired on you both?"

Kakashi let out an exasperated snort. "Of course I remember that – it was one of the most annoying weeks of my life."

"Great. I need you to tell me how it worked."

"Are you serious?" Kakashi looked at him strangely. "Not that it matters to me how you go about training them, Asuma, but I don't think either of their fathers would be pleased. Especially Inoichi."

"It'll be fine. Besides, what they don't know won't hurt them," responded Asuma blithely. Or me.

"Do I even want to know what you're talking about?" asked Kurenai.

"No," answered Asuma and Kakashi together.

Kurenai sighed. "Fine, be mysterious then. In any case, it's time to tally up the score: at this point, who are the weakest links on your team?"

"Ladies first," said Asuma again, which elicited a smile from Kurenai. But then her face fell as she thought about her answer:

"Much as I hate to admit it… Hinata."

"Naruto for me," said Kakashi without prompting. "No contest."

They turned to look expectantly at Asuma. He merely groaned.

"All three of them."

Kurenai burst out into merry laughter and Kakashi couldn't suppress a knowing smirk as he watched the other man slouch back in resignation.

"All right, Asuma – the bill's on you!"