Arc Four: The Light Shines Through
Chapter 11: Chunin Exam Training Camp
"I'm lost. Seriously. I mean, I know the Hokage is supposed to be the strongest shinobi in the village and all, but I honestly think that the current one might be going a bit senile." The man in the hare mask said, earning him a smack to the head from the woman wearing an owl one.
"Be respectful." She admonished.
"Ouch! I was only kidding, alright?" The same man complained. No one ever got his attempts at humor. "My point is, what did we do to deserve this kind of punishment? Training that other brat was enough as it was! We paid our dues for every mistake we might have made in the past, yet he sees it fit to dump another load of kids on us! Worst of all, he has the nerve to act like he was actually rewarding us or something!"
"Oh, stop being such a drama queen." Owl said dismissively. "It doesn't fit your character. I actually like being a sensei, and I think you do too. I bet that deep down you're just a big softy. You're just too much of a stuck up idiot to admit it."
"Have you listened to yourself, woman?" Lion intervened. "Hare having feelings? Inconceivable. Naruto beating all the three Legendary Sannin at the same time is something actually much more likely to happen."
"Say what you will. My opinion has not changed." Owl replied.
"Awww, Hare wuvs children!" Lion teased.
But Hare paid him no attention. "Wolf?" He prompted his other teammate, who had remained silent throughout the entire conversation. "Are you alright?"
Wolf had stopped walking, her head turned upwards to stare at the sky, where the sun had begun to shine through the dark, menacing clouds, progressively bathing the village in light. "Uh? Oh, sure, I was just… I was just looking at the sky."
"Ah, it looks like the sun has finally revealed itself." Owl stated happily. "I'm glad we'll have good weather today. That's got to be a good omen."
Wolf did not reply, but the expression on her face clearly indicated that she didn't agree entirely. "Shouldn't we get going?"
The genin inside the Hokage's office were in a frenzy, asking questions left and right without pausing for an answer, trying to make themselves heard over all the other conversations, momentarily forgetting where they were, and in whose presence. However, all it took was for Hiruzen to raise one hand to effectively silence them, restoring order to the room. "You may ask any questions that you might have, provided you do so calmly and in an orderly fashion."
Shino looked around at his fellow shinobi and, seeing that no one took the initiative, decided to do so himself. "And exactly what kind of training will we be undergoing, Hokage-sama?"
"Well, that is entirely up to the assigned sensei to decide." Hiruzen replied. "Although knowing them, I'd guess they will focus primarily on improving your weaknesses, so that you are not as vulnerable when the time comes. Believe me, the Chunin Exams are never easy, and this is one very important part of preparation."
Shino nodded, satisfied with the answer, and allowed Shikamaru to speak up. "I have never heard of anything like this before. Is it being done now for the first time?"
"No, it isn't." The Third explained. "That's a good question. We've actually been organizing these events for a considerable amount of years now. We take every newly graduated genin, even those who do not intend to take the exams that year – so that numbers don't grow too much the following years; besides, a ninja is also supposed to be able to memorize information reliably – and send them off to the same training camp accompanied by experienced instructors, usually their jonin sensei or, if they are for some reason unable to go, anyone the Hokage deems capable. Despite the fact that the camp is heavily protected, guarded by seals and surrounded by traps and such, and a considerably short distance from the village, we prefer to keep the whole thing a secret from anyone not involved.
Exposing our young genin, the future of Konoha's forces, like that might prove too tempting an opportunity for other, less than amicable villages to pass on. We are not currently at war with any, but many still bear grudges against us because of conflicts past and, as ninja, they will most likely take any chance they can find to weaken us. Also, we must not forget that sometimes, the genin carry powerful bloodline limits exclusive to the Leaf and that many would do anything to put their hands on, or are children of wealthy merchants or renowned clans, being as such worth a considerable ransom.´
Not that you are in any danger. Your elite ANBU sensei and all the protections I mentioned before should be more than enough to defend you against any squads sent to attack you – should there be any. Plus there's border patrol, which makes sneaking into the Fire Country undetected very difficult, and, of course, taking any action against us in times of peace can lead to many complicated diplomatic conflicts, if not war, which are often too much trouble to deal with and serve to discourage those other villages. Even so, all things considered, the less people who know about this, the better." Shikamaru thanked the Hokage for the answer and went silent, obviously not planning on asking any further questions. "Anything else?" The older man inquired.
There was, in fact, one final doubt running through the minds of most of the children, albeit none dared voice it. None, that is, except for Kiba. "Why does Naruto get to be trained by you?" He blurted out, rather inappropriately, the jealousy in his tone easily noticeable. Mortified at her teammate's blatant disrespect towards the leader of all of Konoha, Sakura quickly nudged him in the ribs, causing him to yelp slightly, her wide eyes shifting nervously between him and the Hokage, trying to remind him of exactly where he was. "Uuh… I mean, uh... Hokage-sama." He quickly added after realizing his mistake.
"That is alright." Hiruzen said calmly, appeasing the genin's worries. "In the future, however, Kiba-kun, remember to think before you act, for others might not take it as lightly as I just have." Kiba swallowed and nodded. "I did say you could ask anything, after all. The answer to this is, however… complicated. I should not, and want not, to go into details about this. It is something you might find out by yourself as you grow older. For now, let us just say I owe him this much and leave it at that."
The children stayed silent, the seriousness of the matter not gone unnoticed by any of them.
"Is that all, then?" The Hokage asked. Some of the kids nodded. "Very well. Naruto, I still have some matters to attend to today, but we will begin our training tomorrow, at roughly the same time your friends will. I will send you a messenger with the details later. Until then, you are dismissed. As for the rest of you, two hours should be enough for you to pack your bags and still have lunch. I expect all of you to arrive on time." He instructed, purposely looking at Shikamaru while doing so. "And good luck with your training. I know you will make me and the Leaf village proud."
Taking that as a dismissal, the genin exited the office. "Hey, Hinata-chan!" Naruto called while they walked down the hallway. "After you pack your stuff, how about we head to Ichiraku's for some ramen? We won't be seeing each other for a few days, after all."
Hinata blushed. That day was going quite well for her. "I'd be happy to, N-Naruto-kun."
"Can I come?"
Hinata and Naruto both stopped dead in their tracks. If the latter's eyes could have jumped out of their sockets in disbelief, they would have. As it were, they were simply wide open, contributing to the incredulous look etched upon the boy's face. "Who are you and what have you done to Sasuke?"
"Hn. That joke is grossly overused." The Uchiha replied, looking away from his teammates, already wondering whether asking had been a huge mistake.
"Of c-course you can come, S-Sasuke-kun." Hinata said before Naruto had the chance to retort and possibly ruin the entire moment. She was slightly disappointed she wouldn't get to be alone with her crush as she'd initially hoped, but also glad to be spending time with her whole team, especially because Sasuke rarely ever felt like being with them.
"Hey! If Sasuke-kun's going, I am too!" Ino shouted suddenly. Only then did Team 7 realize that the others had stopped as well to listen to their conversation.
"Uh? Oh, me too!" Sakura added moments after.
"As long as there's food, I'm in!" The 'big-boned' Akimichi happily stated.
"Me and Akamaru aren't going to be left out! You in, Shino?"
"It is only logical. This seems to be a good opportunity to form bonds with fellow comrades of the Leaf."
"This is so troublesome…" Shikamaru moaned, but he too agreed to join in.
Hiruzen listened to the voices slowly fading away until they could be heard no more. He felt glad that they seemed to be getting along. That would be, after all, fundamental if they happened to work together in the future.
But there were more pressing matters to take care of at that moment. The mysterious spies all over the village, the sudden actions of that unknown organization, it required further investigation, further…
But he found himself unable to concentrate on that for the time being. The Inuzuka boy's question, albeit innocent, had greatly upset him. Usually, the Hokage just tried not to think about it altogether, but sometimes he just couldn't avoid confronting the truth. He was only human, with all the strengths and weaknesses of one, as well as the responsibility of leading an entire ninja village upon his shoulders, an overwhelming weight that had been slowly wearing him out for many years. Often looking up to him and the wise and mighty Hokage, many people overlooked that fact, instinctively assuming he could do no wrong, while in fact it was quite the opposite, as his position of power put him in many complicated situations, where it was too hard to take the right decision and too easy to take the wrong ones. Sarutobi had long assumed that, when one entrusted one's belongings, homes, lives and families to someone else, it was simply much easier to convince oneself that that someone was incapable of error.
As if to prove a point, his brain immediately invoked an image of the day of what was, in his opinion, his biggest mistake to that date: the day he'd let Orochimaru escape the Leaf village unpunished. He sighed, as he always did when he recalled that fateful occurrence.
He was old and tired of the job he had accepted, entirely out of a sense of duty towards the village, for the second time, after the Fourth had died during the Kyuubi attack. It was only natural he made mistakes, but still, that shouldn't serve as an excuse.
In all honesty, after the crying Naruto had been laid on his arms for the first time, still warm from his by then deceased father's embrace, Hiruzen had sincerely concluded that keeping the identity of the boy's parents a secret was the most sensible thing to do, and to the present day, he stood by his decision. Even so, over the years he had begun to doubt himself with increasing frequency as he witnessed the hard life Naruto led. He couldn't help but feel that part of it could've been avoided, by him, no less. The Third had no doubt that, if the village had known about the boy's heritage, a considerable part of its inhabitants wouldn't have treated him at least as badly as they did. Still, the threat of his father's enemies attempting on his life as a form of revenge had been an ever present one. Several small feuds against mainly Iwa and Kumo in the past few years had kept the tension between those villages and Konoha built up high. If Kumo had dared to send a squad of kidnappers to obtain the Byakugan from a three year old girl under the guise of a diplomatic mission, a move that had been frowned upon even amongst other ninja villages, Sarutobi couldn't begin to think what they and Iwa would do to get back at the man who had caused mass casualties amongst their ranks during the last war.
He was still convinced that keeping it a secret was the best thing to do, but there had been times he had almost gone back on that decision. And to add insult to injury, everything he did to try and make the boy's life easier had the nasty habit of eventually coming back to bite him in the butt.
He had transferred a nine year old Naruto to a better orphanage, only to have him kicked out at the age of ten.
He had assigned ANBU to look after the boy, remaining ignorant of the fact that, for a few months, they had not only turned a blind eye to the village's merchants' ridiculous overpricing, they had actually encouraged it.
Realizing that Naruto wasn't being well taught, out of spite, in the Academy, he had changed Iruka to his class, leaving it to the chunin instructor to pick his partner. He had chosen Mizuki.
Looking back on those times, maybe he could have done more to help the boy, but he had had his hands full with Hokage work and… No. He was determined not to make excuses for himself. And there was no point in mulling over the past like that. One of the worst things you could be, Sarutobi reasoned, was an old man filled with regrets. The past was the past and there was nothing he could do to change it. He had to make it up to Naruto while he still could, not feel sorry he hadn't done so before.
And so, with a smirk, he put his boring paperwork aside and got to reading Kakashi's report of his team's mission to Wave Country, his mind already going through the various methods he'd use to mold the boy into the finest shinobi that the Leaf had ever seen.
"Aaah… That was great! Ichiraku's is the best!" Naruto happily stated, rubbing his stomach in satisfaction. Only Choji had been able to eat as much as him.
"Why did we let him pick the place, again?" Kiba joked, but he had also enjoyed his food.
After a big, invigorating lunch, Naruto had decided to accompany his friends to the village gates. It would be a good opportunity to see his ANBU sensei, whom he had started to miss, again, and besides, it wasn't like he had anything better to do anyway. As their destination came into view, he saw that they had not yet gotten there. The genin were a few minutes early and it was typical of the ANBU to arrive right on time. Not one second early, not one second late. Even if they were already there, which was likely, they would wait until the right moment to reveal themselves. When inquired about that habit, they usually just said it was 'an ANBU thing'. Naruto inspected his surroundings casually, but quickly grew tired. Even if they were quietly laughing at him in the shadows, there was no way he'd find them. He wasn't that good… yet.
There were, however, people waiting for them there.
"Hello, Hinata-sama." Ko greeted with a smile. "We heard you were leaving for a training mission today and Hanabi-sama wanted to come and say goodbye." Hanabi didn't say anything and kept staring at the ground, embarrassed, instead.
Without looking at her face, Hinata was unable to guess what her sister was feeling. "Hanabi-chan?"
Then Hanabi surprised her by lunging forward and capturing her in a tight hug. Although uncharacteristic, it reminded Hinata of what a seven year old girl was really supposed to act like. She was glad there was still some child innocence left in her sister, and it seemed like Hanabi had gotten tired of playing the emotionless jerk. "I'm sorry, nee-chan…" And that time, she really meant it.
As a reply, Hinata just smiled and returned the hug. By then, all of the other genin had walked on by, with the exception of Naruto, who had stayed behind to wait for his teammate. "How about you, Ko-san? How have you been doing?" The older girl asked. Her bodyguard caught the hidden meaning behind her words. Everyone had seen him enter the compound after Naruto had intruded, and most Hyuga were more than capable of putting two and two together.
"Well, Hiashi-sama and some elders summoned me for a hearing a while ago, while you were away. It did not take long before they discovered what my role had been in all of this." He said, then, anticipating Hinata's questions, continued, before she could speak. "He had no choice but to reprimand and punish me, not in front of the elders and our other clansmen." The young heiress raised her hands to her chest, concerned, but Ko just smirked and went on. "So, until Hiashi-sama no longer deems it necessary, I am to observe and supervise all the training you and Naruto-san decide to do in private." He finished with a joyful smile. A smile that Hinata returned, content with her father's clever actions. "But we should be going now. We have business of our own to attend to back at home, is that not right, Hanabi-sama?"
The younger girl nodded, finally letting go of her sister, and the pair said goodbye and walked away in the direction opposite to the gates. Hinata waved at them until they could no longer be seen, marveling at the enormous change her family had undergone. Naruto watched quietly, feeling happy that his friend's life seemed to have taken a turn for the better.
"When you and your girlfriend are done over there, brat, it would be ever so kind of you to join the rest of us." Came a male voice from behind them. Owl resisted her sudden urges to somehow cause Hare pain for ruining the moment. Naruto's cheeks reddened a little, but his blush was nothing compared to that of Hinata, who looked like smoke could come bursting out of her ears at any moment.
"She's not my girlfriend!" Naruto yelled, annoyed, and Hinata couldn't help to feel slightly sad. Was the prospect of having her as a girlfriend so terrible that he felt the need to deny it so vehemently? But before she could go any further she shook off her insecurities, trying to convince herself that he hadn't meant it like that. "Why should I even do what you tell me?" He continued, oblivious to the effect his words had had on his friend. "You're not my sensei anymore."
"Once a sensei, always a sensei, Naruto-kun." Owl replied before Hare got the chance to. "It's nice to see you again." She said, stepping forward and hugging the boy. The other three nodded and mumbled their agreement, but other than a quick pat on the back – Lion also decided to mess up his hair, an annoying habit he'd picked up during their years together – established no physical contact. Owl had always been the most affectionate one.
It was strange, Naruto reasoned, how Owl managed to be the most open one of her group of four, yet the one whose abilities he knew the less of. Granted, she had taught him Math, History and Strategy instead of Illusions, Ninja Techniques and Martial Arts – not that he could claim he knew everything the other three could do other than what they'd taught him and what they'd shown during practice fights – but they had sparred a couple of times and she'd always gotten the better out of him using only the classic Academy style. Not exactly a big accomplishment, of course, considering how weak he was compared to her, and Owl had always liked to cover the most fundamental basics before moving onto different things.
"Ahem!" Lion cleared his throat loudly in an obvious attempt to get the kids' attention. "Brat aside…" He shot Owl, who still kept one of her arms around Naruto, a glare. She didn't seem fazed by her leader's disapproval and squeezed the boy even harder, eliciting jealous looks – albeit directed at different people – from both Kiba and Hinata. "As you should have deducted by now, we are the ones who have been assigned as your sensei for the next four days. You may refer to us by using the names of the animals our masks represent. The camp we'll be travelling to is located some miles southwest of the village. It isn't very far, but since we'll be walking, not running, the entire way – it will be a good opportunity to teach you important survival skills – we will only arrive there by nightfall, which doesn't leave us much time for anything. The following day, however, expect intense, harsh training, worthy of a true shinobi of the Leaf. It will be straining and exhaustive, but I fully expect each and every one of you to carry out our orders to the end. Anyone who gives up at any point during those days will be immediately sent back to Konoha. It doesn't matter if you're not a good ninja yet – the purpose of this trip is precisely to correct that – but we have no time for weak-willed individuals. If any of you don't want or don't think you can endure this, you can just turn around and walk away right now, no questions asked. This is the last opportunity you'll have before we push you to your limits. Anyone?"
But no one wanted to look like a coward or a weakling, and despite how apprehensive some of the genin were, no one – not even the lazy Shikamaru – said a word.
Lion smiled behind his mask, but kept his tone of voice the same. "Very well then. You will not come to regret that choice. Follow us." And, guided by the four ANBU, the eight genin exited the village and disappeared amongst the nearby trees. Finding himself alone and unoccupied, Naruto decided to go home. Maybe that day he'd have an early sleep. He was sure he'd need every bit of energy for his upcoming training with the Hokage.
The sun had vanished in the horizon shortly before the group from the Leaf finally arrived at their destination.
The camp, as it had been referred to, was actually nothing very elaborate. It was composed of four different clearings in the woods surrounding the Leaf Village. There was a small one, where the only two buildings in miles were located – two wooden cabins for them to sleep in; one for the ANBU and the other for the genin – and at which centre the charred remains of a long extinct campfire rested. The other three, where the genin assumed they'd be doing their training, were considerably larger and completely empty, with the exception of a water reservoir, presumably to allow the use of Water Style techniques, in each one. Here and there, one could also spot the occasional burn mark on the ground, as well as several other signs of the usage of destructive jutsu.
"Well, at least we won't have to stay in tents." Kiba commented as he and the rest of the trainees walked into the smaller clearing, each of them holding a bunch of different herbs and plants. Along the way, Owl had taught them everything about the flora of the Fire Country. Which plants were good to eat, which would kill you, which would make you severely ill or serve as laxatives, which could cure diseases or heal wounds, and each one of them had brought a few samples of their favorites to make sure they'd remember what they'd learned.
The ANBU, however, decided that that would've been too easy. "Listen up!" Lion called out as they sat around the ashes. Hare was quick to get some of the stored firewood and ignite it, to light the area. "We'll have a little competition to test your skills and make sure you memorized everything Owl told you. First, you'll need to give me all those plants you have." They did so obediently and as soon as Lion had them all in his hand, he made a quick hand sign and they all went up in flames, much to the distress of many of the younger ninja. "Now, first of all, let me point out that this is not a team exercise or some kind of hidden stratagem to promote teamwork. You are to perform this task individually, without any help from your colleagues." Certain that he had everyone's attention, he moved on to explain the exercise Hare had come up with. "Now for the other rules of our little game: These woods are home to a wide variety of plants and animals. Your dinner tonight will consist solely of what you are able to catch and gather."
Many of the genin gasped or uttered cries of protest, Choji having been the loudest of them all. Hinata stayed silent, but eyed her crutches worriedly.
"You will be given exactly one hour and a half to head into the forest and find dinner, using whatever means or resources you might have at your disposal. You are to be back here on time, even if you didn't manage to find anything." Assuming that was all, Kiba and Sakura stood up, but Lion immediately signaled for them to sit back down. "I haven't finished yet. To spice up this competition, we'll add a little twist. It does not end when you return with the food, not by a long shot. You will then have to poison each other's meals."
Seeing looks of outrage on many faces, he was quick to proceed. "Nothing that could potentially kill you, of course, that goes without saying. But Owl taught you about minor poisons as well, herbs and mixtures that can cause fever, body aches and several other undesirable symptoms. You will have to secretly slip those on your opponents' dinners while taking care not to suffer the same fate. Of course, if you do get distracted and end up throwing up every ten seconds, it usually helps to have a few possible antidotes. This game serves various purposes: it is not only meant to be a reminder of what you were taught today, but also a test of your survival skills, hunting ability, stealth, creativity and foresight. As motivation, those who fall ill won't be allowed to get any sleep until they recover fully and those who manage to avoid it will get an extra thirty minutes of sweet slumber for each of you that gets sick. And believe me, you will treasure that sleep. That's all. Remember, every minute counts. Go!"
And the genin darted off into the dark forest.
Two hours later, everyone was in the course of preparing their meals as the ANBU observed them to evaluate their performances. Lion watched Choji, who had prepared a campfire in the centre of the clearing, where the previous one had been – Hare had put it out to ensure the kids would have to do all the work themselves. The older man was uncertain of whether the boy had chosen that central, exposed spot as reckless boasting or some sort of clever trap, but he had to give the Akimichi something: he did look intimidating. Choji had succeeded in bringing down a big, adult boar, which was now roasting slowly over the flames. With one hand he pressed a small cloth damp with some sort of chamomile infusion he'd prepared against his many cuts and bruises, which he displayed with a certain sense of pride, and used the other to laboriously crush a few herbs into a mixture he sprinkled onto the cooking meat from time to time.´
Off to the side, Shino was also making some herbal powder, but he did not season his bird with it. Lion's carefully trained ANBU eyes were able to detect a tiny, orderly line of bugs carrying small portions of the mixture in the direction of Shikamaru. Upon coming into the light of the Nara's fire, which he was using to cook a rabbit he'd caught using his Kagemane no Jutsu (Shadow Possession Technique), however, the bugs seemed to panic and immediately scattered. Lion raised one of his eyebrows, surprised. It appeared that the shadow user had predicted that attack and concocted some sort of bug repellent. Realizing that that approach wouldn't work on Shikamaru, Shino redirected his bugs to another target with a slight jerk of his head.
The ANBU leader then watched Ino with curiosity. The girl could've caught something easily with her Shintenshin no Jutsu (Mind-Body Switch Technique), but seemed perfectly happy with her assortment of plants and fruits. Lion shook his head sadly. Another young kunoichi more concerned with her figure than her health. They'd have to change her habits soon.
He looked around for the Hyuga heiress, but it seemed as if she was hidden somewhere.
Hinata wasn't hidden, not exactly, but given her inability to move around quickly, she felt it was probably best not to move into the offensive, so she had decided to have dinner in the dark – since she had nothing that required cooking, anyway – behind the ANBU's cabin.
She eyed her food sadly. Some nutritious, yet horribly bitter herbs, a handful of chestnuts and as many apples as she'd been able to carry. She silently cursed her injured knee and her crutches. Her Byakugan would've given her the perfect advantage for that task – the ability to see everything in the dark – had she been able to approach any creature fast enough to catch it. But all she could do was stare at the others jealously, and the delicious scent of various roasting meats didn't really do anything to help either. At least she could still use her dojutsu for defense. She was able to detect and take measures against anyone or anything coming her way. Most of the others ought to know that, and perhaps that was why Shino's bugs seemed to stray clear of her.
Noticing someone approaching, she hurriedly shoved her food inside her pockets and grabbed a kunai under her jacket. They weren't allowed to cause any serious injuries, but hopefully it would be enough to scare people off, since she was in no condition to run away.
It was indeed her Uchiha teammate who kept coming closer. She wanted to trust him, but found herself clutching her concealed weapon harder. The boy had had a very easy time during the first stage of the game, his speed and various ninjutsu the perfect tools to catch and cook anything he wanted. When he finally reached her, they just stood there for a few seconds, looking at each other, before he held out one of his arms. Only then did she realize that in his hand was a still warm piece of heavenly smelling rabbit. She was surprised for a moment, then examined it suspiciously. Offering her poisoned mat in an act of fake pity would've been a good plan.
Sasuke knew exactly what she was thinking, and rolled his eyes. "It's perfectly fine, look." He said, proceeding to take a bite himself.
But a ninja had to be cautious, and she still wasn't fully satisfied. "Sasuke-kun… Why a-are you d-doing this?"
The Uchiha boy rolled his eyes again, this time accompanying it with a sigh, and sat down next to her. "You didn't catch anything."
"N-neither d-did Ino." Was he doing that because he really pitied her? Did she still come across as such a pathetic loser?
He sighed once more. It was obvious he didn't enjoy that line of questioning. "It's not the same, I…" He took a deep breath. "You're in my team." He said simply, but sincerely.
Hinata sensed the honesty in his words and, finally convinced that Sasuke meant her no harm, smiled and shook her head. "I'm s-sorry, Sasuke-kun, b-but I cannot accept that. I n-need to learn to cope with my weaknesses. I am n-no longer the weak girl I once was."
"Whatever." Sasuke replied, taking another bite of the rabbit. But, contrary to what Hinata had assumed he'd do, he stayed there next to her. "They can forbid me from working with my team, but they can't force me to act against it."
Hinata noticed that her grip on the kunai had loosened. Finally feeling comfortable with Sasuke, she took one of her apples and began to eat. With the Uchiha prodigy right there next to her, no one would dare to attempt anything, and they weren't breaking any rules, since they were by no means working together. "Thank you, Sasuke-kun."
When they woke up the day after, they saw that their temporary sensei had kept true to their word. It was 8:30 a.m., an hour and a half later than scheduled, and the four ANBU were already waiting outside, along with Kiba, Ino and Choji, who were doing push-ups. They still looked a little pale, but appeared to have recovered from the poison that had been slipped into their meals the previous night.
After a brief breakfast, the ANBU gathered them in the small clearing to inform them of what they'd be doing that day.
"Each two of you…" Wolf explained. "Will be assigned to one of us for the entire day. We each have a different field of expertise to teach – that's one of the reasons we were chosen for this job – and depending on your degree of progress, you might eventually be changed to another subject. Now, to get this over with quickly, Sasuke Uchiha and Kiba Inuzuka…" The dog user grinned in expectation when his name was called, but his good mood quickly faltered as he heard exactly what he had been given. "… Strategy and Tactics, with Owl."
All of a sudden, the Hokage's words about covering their weaknesses sprung up in everyone's heads, and the genin became visibly more anxious.
"Choji Akimichi and Shikamaru Nara, Genjutsu, with me." Wolf continued. Shikamaru sighed in relief. At least he wouldn't have to move around much. Even Choji didn't seem particularly unhappy, since he'd been paired up with his best friend. "Sakura Haruno and Hinata Hyuga, Ninjutsu with Hare. Finally, Shino Aburame and Ino Yamanaka, Taijutsu with Lion. Now that this has been taken care of, let's get going. We have a long day ahead of us."
That morning, as told to him by the chunin messenger the Third had sent him the night before, Naruto got up early and headed to Training Ground One – the Hokage Training Zone was only used for long stays – to meet the man who'd give him the training he'd been craving for years. He was already there when the blond arrived, dressed in his traditional red and white robes and the hat with the kanji for 'Fire', patiently waiting for the first student he'd accepted for what seemed like ages. When the boy got there, Hiruzen's eyes shifted to the side for an unperceivable second, then he smiled and stepped forward to greet his soon to be pupil.
"Naruto-kun, I hope you're ready for today."
"I've been ready for the past few years, oji-san!"
"Haha, good answer!" Then his voice took on a more serious tone. "Now, understand that what we'll be doing together here in no way invalidates any form of training you might do with Kakashi. He's a very skilled jonin, one of our finest, and we each possess different knowledge to pass on." Naruto nodded frenetically, eager to get to the good part. "Did you warm up before coming, like I instructed?" Another nod. "I expected no less. I thought we should start with something easy today, so I can see for myself exactly how much of the ANBU's report on you is actually true." Naruto lost some of his enthusiasm at the perspective of an easy day, but perked up again when he heard what exactly the Hokage considered 'easy'. "So I'll be teaching you two Earth Style jutsu from my own repertoire, a high C-rank and a high B-rank, which you might find useful."
"Alright! That's awesome, oji-san!" The boy shouted. Learning new techniques always did put him in an overly excited state, especially if one of them was a B-rank, of which he didn't know many. "Can I see them?"
The Sandaime had foreseen the question. "Of course. Will you create an Earth Wall for me, please?" Happy to have the opportunity to show off his skills to the Hokage, Naruto quickly made a four meter tall wall of rock rise from the ground a considerable distance away from Sarutobi. "Now stand back." The older man ordered, bending his knees in preparation as he went through some hand signs and leaned backwards, his cheeks swelling unnaturally. "Earth Style: Great Mud River!"He thought, being unable to speak because of the mud accumulating in his mouth, which he then proceeded to spit out, forming a narrow but violent stream that crashed straight into the wall. In his mind, Naruto began to go over the possibilities for such a jutsu. It wasn't very destructive – it hadn't even made a scratch on his defense – but perhaps he could find other uses for it…
But the Hokage was far from finished, and went on to demonstrate his second technique. "Earth Style: Earth Dragon Bullet!" At the point where the stream that still flowed out of his open mouth met the ground, the mud began to shift, forming a massive, imposing dragon-like head. At his command, the dragon opened his mouth wide and shot three earth missiles aimed at Naruto's nearly fifty centimeters thick wall, which exploded in a mess of mud and rock shards. When he stopped the jutsu, the boy was literally vibrating in excitement.
"That was fantastic! But…" He assumed a thoughtful pose. "I once saw a technique similar to that first one, but it had a different name… I think they called it Mud Indulgence." He said, referring to the technique the lion masked man had used on him before his graduation. "How come they have different names if they're the same?"
The Hokage shook his head. "I happen to know that technique, and I can assure you that they're not the same. This is not an uncommon occurrence in the ninja world, however. You see, every jutsu behaves differently for each individual. Those with more chakra, for example, are able to make their techniques bigger and scarier, while those who possess better control prefer to concentrate on accuracy and efficiency. These particular ones, the Mud Indulgence and Great Mud River, were originally one single jutsu. The Mud Indulgence is the result of more chakra and less control – you might have noticed that while the mud was more plentiful, it was also harder to control, causing it to behave more chaotically – while the Great Mud River is more precise, but more difficult to hit, since it is so small. Most jutsu variations are insignificant, and as such, ignored. But these ones differed so much from each other that they eventually ended up being recognized as distinct techniques. Does this answer your question?"
"Yeah, thank you, oji-san. I'll have these two jutsu in the bag by nightfall, you'll see!" He yelled confidently.
"I'm sure you'll do great, Naruto-kun." The Hokage answered with a look to the man spying them from the shadows, but despite the boy's determination, learning two secondary affinity techniques in a day was not an easy task, and he had barely managed to get reasonably proficient at the first one by sunset. Still, it was already a very impressive feat, a sign of the impressive ability to learn that Naruto had, that he had been able to successfully perform it as many times as he had. However, due to his usual lack of control, he had gotten thrown around quite a bit, and would definitely find some bruises in the morning.
Later, he dragged himself to bed, wondering if his friends felt as tired as he did.
And the answer was 'yes'. Yes, they were, maybe even more so. Their sensei had indeed pushed them to the brink. Even Kiba and Sasuke, who had counted on Strategy and Tactics to be a simple, 'sit down and take notes' type of class, since Owl, unlike the other three, didn't even have a clearing at her disposal, were worn out. It turned out that the reason why she didn't use a clearing was because that particular subject called for practice in other kinds of environments. Deep in the forest, throughout the entire day, patrol squads, merchant caravans or even numerous 'enemy' battalions, composed of Owl and her shadow clones, had waited for the two genin to develop the necessary strategies and battle tactics to accomplish whatever goals they'd been given, and put them into effect. That kind of exercise revealed itself to be both mentally and physically exhausting.
And so, after another 'catch your own dinner' competition, which had ended with the poisoning of Ino, Sakura and, surprisingly, Shino, they could at least enjoy a night of restorative sleep before waking up beaten and sore the morning after.
The assignments didn't change and, by midday, the day was proving to be rather uneventful. However, when everyone gathered at the smaller clearing to have lunch, there were people waiting for them: six ANBU, all of them wearing the traditional feline and bird masks that indicated the lower members of the organization and displaying their Konoha forehead protectors on their arms with pride. As soon as they saw Lion, the leader stepped forward to shake his hand and pull him apart for a conversation away from the children's ears. Wolf, Owl and Hare followed them.
"Not to be rude…" Lion said after greeting the other man. "But what we're doing here has been classified as a top secret assignment. What are you doing here and how did you find us?"
"We apologize for interrupting your mission, sir." The lower ANBU replied, addressing Lion with the proper respect for a superior. "But we're under direct orders from Hokage-sama. I trust you have been informed about the recent happenings at Konoha, involving a group of rogue ninja that has infiltrated the village."
"New information has come to light and Hokage-sama decided to take immediate measures. Naruto Uzumaki might be in danger." The four elite ANBU exchanged concerned looks at this. "As such, we were quickly dispatched to fetch the boy and return him to the safety of the village."
Lion blinked twice, but thankfully, his surprise wasn't noticeable through his mask. "So you came from the village, under Hokage-sama's orders?"
"And you were sent to get Naruto from us?"
"Yes. Is there a problem?"
Lion sighed. "Of course there's a problem!" The other three elite ANBU tensed up. "You're interrupting our training! But I guess I can't interfere with Hokage-sama's orders…"
"I apologize, but surely you understand we are just following his command."
"Of course, of course…" Lion replied, rubbing his mask where his temples would be. "Hare, would you kindly fetch Naruto from the larger clearing? Tell him it's an urgent matter, if you will." Hare nodded and disappeared behind them. "Owl, Wolf, you are not needed here. Take the kids to the cabin and get the meal started, alright?" The women also nodded and led the kids away from the group of ANBU. After a few minutes of uncomfortable waiting, Lion again addressed the other men. "They should be almost here."
"Fire Style: Grand Fireball Jutsu!"Sure enough, it was at that point Hare decided to show up, after shooting the enormous fireball at the visitors, who swiftly jumped sideways to avoid it.
"What kind of treachery is this?" One of them shouted.
"Drop the act! We know you're not real ANBU!" Lion yelled angrily. "Wolf!" At his call, Wolf and Owl appeared in a swirl of leaves next to him and Hare, ready for battle.
"Release!" Wolf joined her hands in a simple seal and dispelled the genjutsu easily, revealing the six men's true appearances.
"I do not know how you found out, nor do I care." Their leader said, seemingly unfazed by the turn of events. "But give us Naruto Uzumaki, and we might just let you live."
End of Chapter 11
And so we finish yet another chapter. I received a lot of feedback, most of it positive, for Chapter 10 and would like to thank you all for you support and collaboration once more! Originally, I had planned to focus more on Naruto and Sarutobi in this chapter, and not so much on the genin, but it just came out, you know? And who am I to fight it? I promise, however, that there will be much more of Naruto's training in the next one. By the way, what did you think about the cliffhanger?
As usual, thank you for reading and reviewing!