Motivation Chapter Eight
By Brian Randall
Naruto is the property of Masashi Kishimoto; these are his paints. Some tinting is borrowed from Rumiko Takahashi. The easel is mine, but that is all. No disrespect is intended with the posting of this story.
Note: I see now that kawarimi and shunshin aren't considered space-time jutsu ... but then, it's obviously not on the level of whatever Minato and Madara could pull off. Eh, I'll say they're comparable, but the S-rank ninja get really complicated and significantly more bad-ass versions. It'll remain internally consistent.
Naruto's day began with an odd start, as the bunshin he'd left awake all night studying dispersed. Its memories released to him and almost blurred into his half-remembered dreams, but it was a pleasant cushion from that unwelcome topic in any case.
The bunshin had handled his assignment by flipping through the handbook and thinking about the cover story he would use for his 'day job', and how he could make sure it fit with the academy regulations concerning the role. He'd spent long hours grumbling to himself and re-reading the pages. As it was, he was starting to think it might be a good idea to get more notebooks...
Earlier in the morning than he had expected, when he was nearly dozing off, he was roused by the sound of his door opening. He turned to look across the small living space in surprise until Hinata stepped in with a bag of groceries, freezing when she spotted him.
"Oh, hey!" he called, waving to her. Just the thing; he was too tired to concentrate anyway.
She relaxed slightly and closed the door behind her. "Y...you're up early!" she managed, her face coloring.
"Nah, up late," he corrected her, before explaining his situation, and the cover identity he was working on.
"Ah!" she exclaimed when he finished. "C...can I help, then?"
So, she'd listened and given her thoughts on his cover, refining his initial ideas until it was time to wake himself up.
Which was accomplished by the bunshin dispersing.
"Huh," he mused, padding out of the room to greet the cheerful Hinata (again, but that was fine), before going on to duck into the shower.
Once again his bunshin had discovered something interesting and useful. If he were in the field, leaving a bunshin up all night to watch over the camp might be boring ... but it'd mean he could rest well anyway. He nodded to himself as he turned the water on, stripping out of his pajamas. Shikamaru and Shino would probably approve, but he'd run the idea by them and see what they thought, too.
After sampling all three of the jounin assigned to teaching them, Ino had determined that Asuma was her favorite. He seemed a bit lazy, and it was just as well that she was ahead of Naruto and Sakura in meditation and thought exercises - she'd overspent her chakra practicing with Naruto's bunshin. Nothing near real exhaustion, but she'd at least groped close to her limits, which had been a good place to stop.
So she'd spent most of the day just relaxing, recovering her strength and contemplating refinements in her ability to sense the chakra of others. It was a difficult adaptation of the one clan technique she'd learned well, and it was disappointingly strenuous so far. Still, it would be something...
The only real problem was the fact that he bought them lunch.
She'd woken up hungry and already had a larger breakfast than she would have liked; her figure was a real concern, after all. And then, without asking what they wanted, when it was time for the group of genin to eat, he'd had the waitress set down the same heaping plates of barbecued beef and vegetables that he always did.
"I don't want to eat all of this," Ino complained, shaking her head.
"Me either!" Sakura chimed in. "Isn't this too much?"
"I'll eat whatever you don't want," Naruto cheerfully volunteered.
"No, you won't, no, it isn't, and yes, you do," he answered them in reverse order, giving each of them an unamused glance. After a draw on his cigarette, he added, "You must put your ability as a ninja ahead of your appearance at this point in your training."
Sakura and Ino blinked, shooting a glance at one-another across Naruto, who was obliviously gobbling his lunch in a completely undignified manner.
Asuma reached out and sprinkled dried red peppers from a small shaker the restaurant left on every table across Naruto's plate, causing the boy to halt his eating and stare at the meal darkly. "Why'd you do that?" he complained, looking up at Asuma.
"You've abandoned enough appearance so far; you're advancing to the next level," the bearded man drawled.
The blond blinked in astonishment. Ino and Sakura exchanged another doubtful glance. "What, meditate through the burning while eating lunch?" Naruto asked in confusion.
"Mmm," Asuma noised noncommittally, making a motion that may have been a slight nod, but was probably not, a slight nod.
"Cool!" Naruto exclaimed enthusiastically, eating his meal almost as quickly as he had in the first place.
Ino rolled her eyes and pushed her water glass closer to the boy, guessing what was to happen next.
Sakura squinted at her plate with a frown. "I still don't want to eat this much!"
"Are you trying to look good, or be a ninja?"
Seeing where the argument was heading - and that Naruto was so far handling the red peppers without much trouble - Ino reluctantly continued eating.
After that, and more of Asuma's discussions, they reunited at Senzo's for their traditional meeting.
"Bets on tomorrow's groups?" Kiba asked, as soon as his team straggled in, the last to return.
"Answer unclear," Shikamaru drawled, "ask again later."
The team of Sasuke, Hinata, and Kiba had survived their trial against the dreaded Bastard-sensei, so it seemed that things on that front would calm down. Ino's main hope was that she could finally try being on a team with someone aside from Sakura - Naruto and Sasuke had gotten into a fight, and they weren't on teams together anymore.
She began to wonder if she and Sakura were to get into a fight, if the two of them...
...but no, that only worked because the jounin-sensei didn't know about the fight. It wouldn't actually help her situation at all, and anyway, she was totally winning against the other girl. After all, Sakura just spent her extra time running off to the library - the Yamanaka girl had spent her time genuinely training!
Asuma strode in and glanced across the students before declaring, "Naruto, Kiba, and Choji, you'll be with me tomorrow." He nodded at his students and left as he always did, raising a cigarette to his mouth as he vanished through the doorway.
"Hmm," Naruto mused, frowning. "Barbecue beef for lunch again tomorrow."
"Yep," Kiba and Choji chorused with matching grins. Akamaru added a pleased yip of his own.
"We should have a contest to see who can handle the most red peppers on their lunch!" Naruto exclaimed in sudden realization.
Kurenai was the next to step through the door, giving a pleasant smile to all and announcing, "If it's not too much trouble, Shino, Sasuke, and Shikamaru - you will be with me tomorrow. Take care until then!"
"Ouch," Shikamaru mused, shaking his head once the woman was gone. "That puts an all-kunoichi team up against Bastard-sensei tomorrow."
Once again appearing in a swirl of leaves and chakra smoke without the decency to foreshadow his presence, Kakashi wondered, "You're still visiting another teacher behind my back? You wound me, my cute little students!"
"Yes, I'm totally talking about some other teacher," Shikamaru drawled, looking pointedly away.
"Well, I'll have to bring training up a notch to compete with this stranger!" Kakashi mused, sounding disturbingly pleased at the prospect. "This unknown teacher will be my rival in motivating you, then!" He shrugged and crinkled his visible eye in a smile as he regarded Hinata. "But that's fine - it appears that you, Sakura-chan, and Ino-chan will be working with me tomorrow! Won't that be fun?"
Without waiting for a response, he sauntered out of the restaurant.
Kiba and Naruto unleashed simultaneous grumbling sighs.
Ino shook her head at that, tugging on Naruto's shoulder from her seat next to him, earning - for some reason - the sharp attention of Hinata, on Naruto's other side. "Hey, come on, Naruto," the blonde insisted. "Help me practice again; I'm starting to get that sensing technique down." No need to mention she hadn't gotten the slightest inkling of Kakashi's presence before he had arrived.
"I dunno," Naruto answered doubtfully. "Don't you owe me some training?"
She realized he was actually being subtle, and not saying 'practice date' in front of everyone ... or had just forgotten what she had to offer in exchange. She wouldn't be surprised by that, really. "I'll pay you back after practice, since my chakra will be low then anyway," she decided.
"Alright, I'll give you a bunshin," Naruto allowed, making a gesture and producing a clone standing behind him in a relaxed pose, arms crossed behind his head.
"If," Sasuke suddenly coughed out, looking like he was struggling to swallow something particularly vile, and not meeting anyone's eyes, "you're trading techniques, Naruto... You need to improve your ranged abilities. Those bunshin are useless with only melee attacks against anyone with a reasonable short-range defense - and there are a lot of ninjutsu out there that do such things."
He nodded to Hinata, who met his gaze, unflinching. Ino froze, sucking in a breath, and everyone else subtly tensed as well, wondering if this was going to lead to another fight. Naruto had adopted a scowl, glaring at Sasuke out of the corner of his eyes, his arms crossed over his chest - his bunshin followed suit identically.
"I remember hearing once..." Sasuke trailed off and grimaced even more deeply and shook his head. "Her family has a technique like that, for example. If your bunshin can't do anything, then you have to risk damage to yourself; you could overcome that with better throwing skills ... like a wire technique. You can wear that defense down more efficiently with a good ranged spread, instead of wasting bunshin."
Naruto blinked, absorbing all of that with a slowly fading scowl that had shifted to a suspicious look. "How'd you get this?" he wondered. "Why do you think I want some ... wire technique?"
"When we fought last," he said blandly. "Your bunshin were all obliterated by my fire jutsu - you could have easily had them wait outside of range or dodge and used a cordon of tightening wires instead of sacrificing any of them."
The blond blinked again, raising his eyebrows at this.
"Where did this sudden goodwill come from?" Shikamaru wondered aloud, breaking into the conversation with a shake of his head. "Really- What prompted the change of heart, Uchiha?"
"I'm not doing this out of charity," Sasuke countered, shooting a scowl at Shikamaru. "This is a trade- I want Naruto to show me his kawarimi; he can already switch with other people, and I want to learn that as well."
Naruto looked dubious, and Shikamaru looked unconvinced. Hinata, for some reason, looked annoyed at Sasuke.
"Pragmatic," Shino commented.
Naruto considered it, then shrugged, making another bunshin. "We'll see how it goes," the new bunshin allowed.
"W-wait!" Sakura protested, shaking her head. "I- I can help! I showed Naruto those tricks with kawarimi, and-"
"This is just between the two of us," Sasuke overrode her, before Ino could throw her own protests into the mix.
Considering how he'd snapped at her last time, she decided to say nothing when the bunshin Naruto had made for him dubiously moved to follow the Uchiha heir. "You know," that bunshin remarked, "if you're going to start actually training with us more - Choji, Kiba, and I have this every-other-day thing going on for taijutsu practice."
"Hn," Sasuke noised thoughtfully, thrusting his hands into his pocket as he walked off with the bunshin at his side.
Once he was gone, Kiba barked the obvious: "Wow! That was different!"
"What matters is that he is slowly learning to put the good of the colony ahead of the worker," Shino remarked.
"I guess," Naruto allowed. "Anyone else want a bunshin before Hinata-chan and I go out for practice?"
Sakura grumbled, checking the time, then dropped some money on the table and scurried away.
Ino bit back a small smile of triumph. "Come on, Naruto," she told the bunshin she was dragging along. "You can practice your stealth while I work on my detection."
With supreme annoyance, Sakura realized that the familiar Naruto bunshin in the library were no longer present. She grudgingly admitted that she actually liked the presence of the other boy... And she really did want to know if he could puzzle out whatever that mysterious 'enten-hari' was.
She'd not gotten a glimpse of the chunin or jounin involved in the conversation where the name had come up since, and deduced that the jounin had gone on a mission. Possibly the chunin as well, but it sounded like he had responsibilities in or near town.
After setting up her books and study materials, she was a bit annoyed when a slight, somewhat handsome but largely unremarkable boy with dusty gray hair sat in the chair opposite hers. He was wearing a genin's headband and giving her an enthusiastic, eager grin. She frowned and glanced across his attire - generic-looking mesh shirt, a gray bandoleer filled with kunai, the general distribution of shuriken and tool pouches... But he didn't seem like anyone she knew, despite his uncomfortable nearness to her.
"What?" she asked challengingly, when their gazes had locked for a long moment.
"I know what an enten-hari is," he said, his grin widening. "You remember your promise?"
Sakura blinked several times in astonishment. "Wha- More henge practice?"
Naruto shook his head, his smile widening even further as he dropped his voice to the lowest possible whisper. "I'm doing infiltration training - but this is part of my cover. It's actually pretty cool," he explained, waggling his eyebrows.
The pink haired girl shook her head several times at that, a little jarred by the familiarity - and more obvious differences - between Naruto and this new henge. "I... Alright, let's hear what these things are?" she asked.
"So - an enten-hari is a kind of throwing needle, except it's super-dangerous to use," Naruto offered.
"Is that all?" Sakura wondered, mystified, even as she turned to a fresh sheet of paper, prepared to take further notes.
The boy shook his head, leaning even closer and keeping his voice low. "It's supposed to be kind of cone shaped, I guess - it takes a kind of explosive tag that releases slowly. They call it a 'blaze' tag, or something like that... So instead of a big bang, it does a smaller thing that makes the needle shoot out like, super, super fast!
"So, it was made by some ninja in Tetsu no Kuni, long ago."
"There are no ninja in the Land of Iron," Sakura protested, shaking her head, scribbling notes.
Naruto shrugged, continuing, "Anyway, these needles could punch through even samurai armor, but if they were handled wrong, they could explode, or turn backward, and a bunch of other stuff. It's supposed to be a super-rare and way dangerous weapon to use!" He nodded in satisfaction and leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest. "So, did I get it right?"
She realized that he thought she knew, so reluctantly nodded. "That matches everything I know about them," she agreed. "Except for the Land of Iron part, anyway... Well, you did figure it out... How did you, by the way?"
"I asked the..." The bunshin's bright smiled faded to a grimace. "I asked Iruka-sensei's replacement. She's ... actually kind of alright."
Sakura blinked, uncomfortable about that reminder. Well ... she could probably put off trying to meet that person just yet. "Okay. So ... what is it you needed help learning at the moment, anyway?"
"Math," he sighed, shaking his head.
She blinked at him in ... not quite disbelief, at that point. He'd said and done enough weird things with his bunshin lately. "Math?" she wondered.
"I've noticed that people who are good at math tend to have really good chakra manipulation," he explained, shrugging. "And when people try and tell me about other techniques and stuff, numbers almost always come up." He nodded sagely at that, as though he had uttered words of true wisdom.
She couldn't honestly fathom why he was interested in learning math, of all things, but if that was what he wanted, well ... she was good enough at it that it wouldn't take real effort. "Okay," she allowed. "That's fair." She didn't know where to begin, though...
"So ... the head chunin instructor said that math wasn't her strongest point, either, but this is about my level," the henge-ed boy added, handing her a teacher's guide for math.
She frowned slightly, accepting it. Well ... she had nothing to complain about here; he knew what he needed and where to start. That was ... starting to actually be kind of admirable, even if his level were so basic it was kind of pathetic. It was first year academy stuff. "Okay," she agreed. "Um ... start at the beginning, I guess?"
He nodded eagerly, as she cracked the book open and went to the first lesson.
"So ... let's see..."
Sasuke wasn't completely convinced by Kakashi's speech about Naruto being a 'rival'. The theory was sound, and if it was a way to satisfy the teachers, so be it- As little as he liked to admit it, Naruto had demonstrated himself to be powerful. He had some skills, too, even if they were crude and unrefined, mostly.
But it didn't hurt to give Kakashi's approach a reasonable try. If he could get some skills off Naruto he wouldn't have developed on his own as quickly, so much the better. Spending time teaching something in exchange wasn't ideal, but if he was lucky, Naruto would be a fast enough learner he wouldn't waste much time.
So that thought in mind, he led the copy of Naruto - not the real Naruto - to the Uchiha private training ground. He did put work into maintaining it, after all. "Alright," Sasuke said, breaking the silence once they had reached a clearing with a good number of targets set up.
Naruto eyed the targets. "Throwing practice?" he asked doubtfully.
"Stand over there," Sasuke dismissed, gesturing to one side. "Watch."
The bunshin snorted and walked over to lean against a tree, crossing his arms over his chest and watching Sasuke expectantly.
"Wire techniques are especially useful if you have a fire affinity," Sasuke explained, readying a shuriken on a wire. "You can have your chakra flow down the cable, and then follow that pattern."
"And it lets you curve your technique more easily," Sasuke demonstrated, throwing the star out and guiding it with the wire - weaving between two trees before slamming into a target- Very slightly off center. Within the middle ring, but Sasuke grimaced internally. He could do better than that...
Naruto's bunshin was suitably impressed. "So you can get around defenses with that?" he wondered.
"Or try to entangle someone who is concerned about the shuriken, and not the wire," Sasuke agreed, pleased that Naruto picked that part up easily enough. He tugged on the wire and had the star weave back before catching it and holding it out to Naruto. "Do you even have any wire?"
"Of course!" the bunshin exclaimed, digging in a pouch and pulling out a spool.
Really? He just left it in a spool? He didn't have the foresight to... Well, whatever.
"That gauge of wire is a bit heavy," Sasuke judged. "Good for starting out, but very easy for an enemy to see. As you get better, you'll want to switch to lighter wires. But before we even get to wires, how can you handle normal throwing?"
Naruto snorted, flinging a trio of kunai at the same target Sasuke had struck. They all hit, though none any closer to perfect center than Sasuke's. "How about that?" Naruto asked, mildly prideful.
"That would pass Academy tests," Sasuke allowed.
"What, you can do better?"
Giving a slight nod, Sasuke threw a single kunai, planting it directly in the center of Naruto's - which then puffed into chakra. "How often in the ninja world is 'close' actually 'enough'?" he asked, unable to keep a satisfied grin from forming.
The bunshin stared at the target for a moment before humming thoughtfully, crossing arms behind his head. "Make every shot count, right?" he asked.
"As though it were the last," Sasuke agreed, a bit surprised that Naruto grasped that without throwing a fit. He'd thought he'd tease the other boy a bit.
"I could probably throw enough kunai it wouldn't make a difference. Between all the bunshin I'd pull out, a few would be more than 'close' and actually be 'enough'. But ... Shino's always saying that the trick is to do more with less. So, let me guess - I have to get more accurate with throwing before I'm ready for wire work?"
Actually, Sasuke was certain Naruto would be able to start on the basics right away. "You don't have to, but no one else is a worthwhile challenge in accuracy, except for Sakura and Hinata. One of those is slow, and the other is too timid to throw half the time."
"You keep a close eye on your teammates?" Naruto asked, looking very thoughtful.
"If I know where my teammates are weak, I know where I have to be strong," he returned flatly.
Naruto nodded at that, smirking. "That makes perfect sense," he agreed, shrugging. "I'm also trying to figure out where my allies have holes in their abilities, so I can help them out! I use it a lot when we do our training exercises - those are kinda fun!"
Sasuke blinked slowly. What was the point in telling someone where they were making mistakes? Usually they just got annoyed... Someone who cared enough to fix those problems - those were people he'd like to work with. Sakura and Ino just got defensive and tried to come up with excuses. Or they'd ask him to train with them, where he had nothing to gain from the exercise.
...maybe Naruto could be a bit different. "Alright, so you'll help me out with the wires, and I'll tell you what I know about kawarimi," Naruto declared. "Sure - the boss will agree to that!"
Boss? Sasuke shook his head - that must be what the clones called the real Naruto. Strange idea. "Right," he agreed.
"Okay! I'll give you my tips, and then you can try it a few times- Once you need to catch your breath a bit, you can help me out with throwing!" the bunshin declared.
Sasuke nodded. Maybe... Maybe Kakashi had really been on to something. Someone he could compete against that wasn't an obstacle on his path to find his brother? This was something he might be able to get behind after all!
"Huh," Anko mused, watching Naruto's bunshin and Sasuke practice throwing. This was while Sasuke was recovering from practicing his kawarimi against Naruto - as amusing as it was to watch the blond boy laugh at his dark-haired counterpart.
That, in turn, just goaded him to try harder, and shortly after that, it had turned into Naruto grudgingly discussing the finer points, before Sasuke called for a break to demonstrate a few different throwing techniques.
She had honestly expected the bunshin to dismiss itself out of annoyance, or Sasuke to lose his temper and do it himself.
Instead, they were working together.
"How'd you pull that one off, exactly?" she finally relented, turning to the one-eyed ninja at her side.
From behind the simple genjutsu he had set up to shield them, the man shrugged, explaining, "Truly, it's a lesson I learned from you ... or at least, from chapter seventeen."
She shorted, shaking her head. She doubted she'd get a clearer answer from him until she could drag him into her bed again. "Time to meet with the others?" she wondered, changing the subject.
"It seems we can report positive progress on all fronts," he agreed.
"May as well!" She slipped through the twilight along the rooftops, arriving at the front door to the genin's normal meeting place at the same time as Kakashi. How had he notified the others, then? Probably kage bunshin, she decided, glancing around and spotting Asuma and Kurenai approaching together.
Very shortly, the quartet were seated at a booth in the corner. "Thoughts?" Asuma asked, taking the teapot and pouring a cup of tea for everyone, as soon as the elderly proprietor had brought them the tray.
"Sakura and Ino are cooling toward one-another," Kurenai said with a frown. "Well, you would have seen them last, Asuma. I'd rather they were actually getting along as friends instead of just tolerating one-another, though."
Asuma nodded, frowning. "And the other pair that doesn't get along?" he prompted Kakashi.
"Training together on their own initiative, last I checked," the one-eyed ninja answered lazily, swirling the half-empty teacup before him thoughtfully. At the stares he received from the other jounin, he admitted, "I gave Sasuke a little nudge in terms of considering Naruto a rival instead of an enemy. It'll put him on the path to work with rather than against his colleagues."
"Hmm, I'm not sure that's an option for Sakura and Ino," Kurenai mused, frowning. "Though, it is good that they're getting along..."
"Or just pretending to," Anko noted.
Ignoring her, Kurenai continued, "I don't think that approach would work with Ino and Sakura, though. Ino's techniques are a blood limit, so she couldn't teach them to Sakura, and Sakura doesn't really have anything that Ino doesn't to offer in exchange anyway. I don't see Hinata having much bearing on either of them, honestly."
"What, using her as leverage against the other two?" Anko mused. "Let them see that she's the obedient and loyal kunoichi - an example they should aspire to?"
"Asuma, since you have them first, what's your plan?" Kakashi asked, before Kurenai could do more than give Anko a flat stare.
"Awareness training," the large man decided, pausing as their orders were brought out. Not that anyone would be able to overhear them anyway. Between the bearded man's wind, and Kurenai's genjutsu, only the wait staff could even notice them.
"That puts emphasis on Hinata primarily, and Ino second," Kakashi mused. "So that will probably leave Sakura feeling like the weak link. When they come up against me for practicals the next day, Hinata's going to shine again."
"Setting aside the risk of her being some specific teacher's favorite student, what's wrong with letting her show up two kunoichi who need to step up?" Anko asked, lifting a skewer of shrimp from the plate before her and biting one off.
Asuma looked thoughtful. "If we do that, we drive Sakura to look for another venue of training. As far as I can tell, once she finishes with the others here, she runs off to the library," he mused.
Kurenai leaned back, staring at her bowl of soup. "Study isn't the worst habit, but I'm starting to agree that she needs more practicals," she agreed. "Ino's blood limit gives her an excuse on that front, but what else is there?"
"Medical-nin?" Anko ventured, brows furrowing together.
"There really isn't enough time for that," Asuma countered, shaking his head.
"Actually ... that's a possibility," Kurenai mused. "Sakura has excellent chakra control, but her reserves aren't that great. She wouldn't be able to pick up much of use before the chunin exams, but that would be a venue of study that she could use as an anchor-point for confidence building."
"And it wouldn't be that bad to have at least one medic out of nine genin," Kakashi agreed, nodding. "Even if she can't pick up real techniques, there's a lot of practical first-aid knowledge that doesn't require chakra manipulation. The way she studies, she'd probably soak that up like a sponge. Hmm... I think I see it, Asuma. Seem like a plan?"
"What?" Anko and Kurenai asked together, both of them shooting the male ninja annoyed looks. Kurenai and Anko had had bonding experiences, of a sort. When had Kakashi and Asuma gotten that? Absolutely, Anko was going to pick on Kakashi for this in return somehow!
"Kakashi's testing focuses on sensors and awareness in general," Asuma explained. "This benefits Hinata and Ino, with Sakura feeling left behind."
"They come to your session the next day," Kakashi continued, nodding to Kurenai, "and when Sakura's down, you point out the possibility of medical training."
"...and I can just happen to have the title of a book and some basic exercises to get her started," Kurenai completed.
"Doesn't quite get around to having Sakura and Ino getting along, though," Anko countered. "And if you haven't missed it, the Chibikage's got training programs of all kinds going off anyway. Sakura getting medical training isn't a bad idea-"
"Of course not, you offered it yourself," Kurenai interjected dryly.
"-but it and being a sensor are actually related in terms of both being connected to excellent chakra control. Throw in Hinata's blood limit... Have you heard of a Hyuuga medical-nin that wasn't amazing?"
Asuma crossed his arms over his chest, done with his yakisoba already.
"We keep circling back to the same point," Kakashi mused. "What does Sakura have that no one else does? She's great at math. Her memory and ability to study are excellent. And...?"
Anko spread her hands in a shrug when Kurenai gave her an expectant shrug. "I'm just pointing out a hole in the plan," she said defensively. "I don't actually have a solution to the problem."
Heaving a sigh, Kakashi shook his head. "After this training cycle, let's give them another day off and look into other options," he declared. "That's also around the time we should consider D ranked missions, anyway."
"What other options?" Kurenai asked doubtfully.
"We must look without," Asuma said slowly, nodding. "Have them practice alongside others, see how they work as teams and learn from their example."
"I don't have a better idea," Kakashi admitted. "Alright- That sounds reasonable to me."
"Alright," Kurenai sighed, shaking her head. "For the time being ... neither do I."
"Then we'll meet up again tomorrow," Asuma determined, rising from the table and pausing to leave enough to cover the entire check.
"Tomorrow," Kurenai agreed, sounding less than pleased about the idea.
After another intense evening of practicing with Hinata - and he was starting to learn how to block better, thanks to her - Naruto trudged tiredly toward the small okonomiyaki place where he had his practice dates with her. The last few bunshin he'd left scattered around were dispersing, reporting what they had learned for the day.
An evening practicing throwing with Sasuke - that wasn't too bad. Better accuracy wasn't going to hurt. Practicing with Ino didn't give him anything, but she was paying him back with the practice dates, so that was okay. Hanging out with Shikamaru and Shino, he'd been able to show them the finer points of kawarimi, though he was surprised to realize how much more practice than them he'd gotten with it.
Come to think of it, he could take some of what he'd run into trying to explain it to Sasuke, too, and help them out better the next time.
Other than that, Sakura was surprisingly patient, and after a few false starts had managed to help him get started on improving his math skills- She'd also given him a host of study tips in general, which didn't hurt in the slightest! He had to be sure to stay on her good side, though, so he could keep learning more!
It looked like 'math' in general was going to be something tricky, and it probably wasn't something he could just throw more bunshin at. Though ... there was probably no real reason he couldn't always have a bunshin working on it in general, was there?
The bunshin he'd left to hang out with Kiba and Choji hadn't had a chance to participate in the training, but hanging out with his friends was cool anyway.
The bunshin he'd sent out with Ino dispersed just before he and Hinata reached the okonomiyaki shop. They paused, seeing the familiar pigtailed man taking down his wife's curtain, indicating they were closing.
He eyed them, then looked over his shoulder and shrugged, gesturing them in. "Come on, then," he said dryly. "You'll be the last customers for the evening."
The expecting woman behind the grill gave him a sharp look, but it faded when Naruto and Hinata cautiously stepped through the doorway. "Well, for you two, I don't mind so much," she allowed, winking. "Alright, sugar," she said, addressing Hinata first, with a glowing smile, "what will you have?"
"Ah," Hinata started. "Um ... the grilled pork is very good; could I have one of those, please?" she asked, ducking her head slightly as she wobbled to a seat and nearly collapsed.
"Training to your limit, huh?" the pigtailed man asked, shaking his head as he moved around them, closing up the rest of the shop.
"Y...yes," Hinata agreed sheepishly.
"Seafood special for me," Naruto declared. "Oh, hey, Hinata, I forgot to introduce you last time! This guy's named Kuonji - his sister is teaching at the Academy, now..." It was still hard to think of that Iruka shaped gap. That redheaded teacher didn't quite fill it, and neither did her brother - even if they were pretty cool in their own ways. Shaking his head, he continued, "You know, she used to have the title for number one most surprising ninja in Konoha?"
The man smirked for some reason, while his wife poured a quartet of okonomiyaki and rolled her eyes. "You two are here on another 'practice' date, huh?" she asked.
"Ah, yeah!" Naruto agreed, nodding, which prompted Hinata's face to redden. She must be sitting a bit too close to the grill; it seemed pretty warm!
"Don't you worry," the chef assured Hinata with a wide grin. "At this rate he'll treat you right once it's time for the real thing!"
Naruto blinked. Him, ask Hinata on a real date? He opened his mouth to correct the woman when he caught the frantic head-shaking of Kuonji.
Hinata turned to give him a curious look, but by that time the pigtailed man had appeared to be just bringing in the last of the signs from the street - and blood limit or not, Hinata had seemed too distracted to catch it.
"Er, yeah," Naruto finished a bit lamely. He was just going to say that he didn't really think about dating Hinata - they were just awesome friends! Had Kuonji guessed what he was going to say? Or did he think Naruto was going to say something tactless?
Maybe there was something else to it. He didn't like the idea of letting it go, so chewed the thought over while waiting for his okonomiyaki. Ino kept reminding him that part of dating did mean remaining tactful at all times.
"Of course," the chef mused, "even though there were some pretty unlikely obstacles, I was in an arranged-"
"Ucchan," the man overrode her with a pained wince.
"Oh, fine," the woman relented, sticking her tongue out at her husband. Turning back to Naruto and Hinata, she continued, "He doesn't like to go over that bit of ancient history. Anyway, even if you are a bit young, you're a cute couple- Now, order up! I know you can burn through a lot when you train hard, so the extras are on the house!" That said, she parceled out their orders, beaming a bright smile to the pair of them, and pouring another quartet for herself and her husband.
For his part, the man took the last seat he hadn't already stowed, a short distance away from Naruto. At a glance, Kuonji was just flipping through a bingo book. He wanted to ask about it, but had a suspicion that if he did, it'd just get put away.
Instead, since he wasn't sure what else to do, he turned his attention to Hinata. "I've been working on my math," he said proudly. "Hopefully we can change up our training routine in a few days!"
"That'll be great!" Hinata said happily. "I can't wait to teach you- Um- New things!"
...of course, the man at the counter was a ninja. Though his eyes didn't leave the bingo book, one eyebrow climbed slightly higher. Better to be careful!
"Well, you two are always welcome to grab a bite here after training," the chef encouraged them, smiling. "If I'm not here, my husband and," for some reason, she paused to snicker, while Kuonji looked pained, for some reason, "his sister can both make okonomiyaki, too!"
"Thank you very much!" Hinata declared, setting down her chopsticks and bowing her head politely.
"Yeah!" Naruto echoed. Well, Hinata had her family, and he didn't have one. The closest thing was Iruka, but somehow ... his friends were really filling the gap. Did it matter if he had no family, if he had close friends and allies? Hell, if he kept up with Shikamaru and Shino's advice, it was possible even Sasuke could be less of a jerk!
And in the meantime, Kuonji and his family seemed really friendly, too.
All things considered, things were pretty good! Not as great as they'd be if Iruka were still there ... but pretty good.
The Hokage clenched the stem of his pipe between his teeth and puffed thoughtfully, peering into the depths of his crystal ball. He would have liked to be spending more time spying on his most promising group of young genin ... and, perhaps, if any of them were left to only one teacher, he would have. Even his own family wouldn't be immune to that scrutiny, if it were to happen.
Sarutobi Asuma was powerful, accomplished, wise ... and because of his personal history, sometimes just a bit too lazy. Kakashi announced scars he didn't really have to bear by masking his face and eye, frequently shying from responsibility that he couldn't accept behind an anonymous ANBU mask. It pained him to admit that Anko was supremely right in what Kurenai had related to him.
The bell test...
Oh, it had been his test. But Sarutobi had meant it as an object lesson. Students that failed the bell test were told they needed to be a team, not simply failed and forgotten...
Even so, he thought Anko had missed the point of it, as well - that test had nothing to do with Orochimaru's flaws... In fact, it was more of a test of intelligence - or courage. Enough of either would have sufficed. Tsunade had been brave enough to risk his wrath to give Jiraya some of her food. Orochimaru had been smart - believing that if they stuck together, their punishment would be minimized.
Both were right.
And that thought... It reminded him of the main reason he was focusing so hard on his current work. He'd spent what precious time he usually would have invested with the jounin teachers crafting a new seal. Painstakingly, and unashamedly strengthening the ink with blood. Some of it was his own.
Ah ... that it had come to that.
It wasn't what he wanted to be thinking. Looking at the seal, he knew in a flash that his student - though he would never say it before Tsunade - his best living student would look at the seal and give a sympathetic, supportive smile.
Hell, seals were hard. There was a reason that Uzushio... Uzushiogakure, properly. It hadn't been destroyed by armies of ninja by chance.
The raw irony over the base of his own seal education was palpable. The yondaime had learned of seals from his sensei, Jiraya. But in truth, he had been taught true mastery by his wife. For all of his other gifts and his amazing deeds ... the yondaime was not truly as skilled as Kushina. Now she was a master; it had been innate, in her blood. She'd taught everything she knew to the yondaime...
And the yondaime, having an unreasonable sense of fairness, turned around and taught as much as he understood to Jiraya. Sarutobi remembered the sannin relating the story well - the legendary Toad Sage, who had been so foolish (and brave) as to attempt a summoning jutsu without a summoning contract. Jiraya, who had first watched his own favorite, and best student with tears of pride and joy...
Oh, but those were different days.
So long ago - like the wars, and certain other losses, they cut so deep, though. How could he not remember?
Jiraya had spent months after the yondaime's death studying Naruto, desperate to find new, deeper insights into his own student's seal-work. Trying to understand ... what Minato had done to his son.
And the sannin finally bemoaned the fact that he was not his student's equal and gave up on trying to completely unravel the mystery. Only after that did he pass on some of what he knew of seals to his own sensei - Sarutobi.
It was such a sad, pale shadow... If his own student would look at the seal and give him a smile and a sympathetic nod, surely the yondaime would have to laugh at such an attempt. And then, a shadow's shadow ... because his teacher would look down even further.
He felt a sad certainty she would only look upon what he had accomplished so far with disappointment.
Enough - he reprimanded himself. The pain had to be real, just like the blood - but that was enough - the seal would work ... or it wouldn't.
He shifted his shoulders wearily, wishing the years didn't bear on him quite so much, and placing the crystal ball on the table, in the center of the seal array. "Who?" he demanded quietly, staring into the crystal. "Who prompted Mizuki?"
- he fell, then, as he knew he would. Drawn into the inherent pain and blood-desire of the seal, projected through the lens of the crystal -
He saw the painful moments that Mizuki endured. Felt the dead chunin's rage over his circumstances... Wrath for Iruka replayed in his mind, but the Hokage stilled himself, hardening his mind and his heart.
No - too neat. He didn't believe it.
He peeled back the genjutsu that had become innately entangled somewhere upon Mizuki ... some sort of deceptive art concealing the truth; embedded in the man's own mind and imprinted firmly upon his death. The scenes replayed again, this time the impact less harsh...
A misdirection. So the root cause was as it looked, and yet ... something happened to warp the man's perception? Possibly - there had to be some link, though, through blood or deeper...
Ignoring the pain building between his temples - the slowly building, throbbing ache of straining himself so hard in this way - he pushed further, probed deeper.
There - a transaction of some sort. In the days before graduation of the academy - an ... an eye, a single glaring, sharingan eye.
The Hokage felt his heart literally stop for a space at the possibility of Kakashi as traitor. No ... not even the yondaime's student?
But no - it was the wrong eye. The other eye, and an instant after it was revealed, something metal- a binding- he was too deep, had to get out- "For the village..."
- flash of an ... arm? No, no, arms don't have staring sharingan eyes... - the seal - there had been a counter-seal! Only another seal-master could try to- "Only the village's greatest servant could break this seal."
- screaming in pain as his tongue was pierced with hooks, stretched out, and then marked with an agonizing, soul-searing seal-
- too far, too far, the cost - how was he ever to make it back from this? He had to - No, he had to dig deeper. He'd never get out on his own, not now. But if he were to get out- "No time for games!"
- the voice had been worried, though; he knew he was closer. Even if he was to die, he would spite whatever was left in the seal in Mizuki's blood. What were the words that had started this off? How had it begun? - "Iruka, the boy's link to stability; destroy him; crush the boy's will. Once he is-"
- Tenzo kneeling above him, a tree where his seal and crystal ball - and indeed, most of the desk had been. The strange, foreign power he'd inadvertently made himself vulnerable to was gone, contained entirely within the wood-shaper's control.
The night air was remarkably still, despite the presence of a several-meter-wide tree where half of his office had been. A stray passing breeze ruffled the low-branches that ran parallel to the ceiling. Before Sarutobi could even speak, Yamanaka Inoichi and Nara Shikaku appeared on either side of his ruined desk, and a distant alarm sounded in the village. Shikaku was pulling his chunin flak vest on still, he'd arrived so hastily.
Why was he just lying there and observing, though? He was the Hokage - the sandaime! He needed to warn them, to tell them-
Not only couldn't he move, he still couldn't speak! Tenzo made some hand-seals, then an absent gesture, flinging his ANBU mask away before leaning close and beginning chest-compressions. After three of those, Sarutobi's chief ANBU officer gave an annoyed shake of his head and breathed in - then leaning close and giving the Hokage the breath of life.
Embarrassingly to the sandaime, it took almost a full minute for his lungs to resume working properly, and then his heartbeat was still irregular, erratic. The jounin commander and his friend had already closed the office's blinds, but none of his subordinates would let him rise from the floor on his own. He could only imagine a great tree emerging from the top of the Hokage tower, roots down and wound through the archives...
"ANBU," he gasped out.
Tenzo nodded, a look of confusion on his face.
"Ibiki," Sarutobi added, bemoaning the effort it took.
Shikaku blinked a few times, then narrowed his eyes. "Not a request for help - this incident concerns the ANBU medic with Ibiki?" he pressed, frowning. "Hokage-sama, please blink twice for yes, and three times for no. You want us to understand something before we summon assistance?"
He blinked twice in answer.
Tenzo pulled a bottle of something from his belt pouch and soaked a clean handkerchief in it, dribbling whatever it was - some bitter-tasting medicine the man was evidently carrying around - through Sarutobi's lips.
"He concealed the existence of a seal or some other trap?" Shikaku suggested.
Two more blinks.
Inoichi and Shikaku both turned grim and exchanged a nod. Neither had authority over Tenzo - or indeed, even reacted to the man's presence. It was automatically implicit by the situation that Tenzo would be at Sarutobi's side until more allies had been established. Sarutobi was glad for a moment, allowing himself to slightly relax. He was in the best possible hands, for now...
Unless Jiraya and Tsunade could somehow be convinced to return, giving their combined wisdom on seals and healing.
"I can fetch Ibiki - Hokage-sama, at the risk of overstepping our bounds, I think it would be most productive if you were to let Ino here handle communications for the moment," Shikaku warned.
Sarutobi stared for a long minute, then grudgingly allowed two blinks. Shikaku used shunshin to vanish as quickly as he arrived, while Inoichi knelt at the Hokage's side, placing fingertips gently on the Hokage's temples.
The sandaime had familiarity with such abilities before ... but he was weak. Had Inoichi contemplated a coup, it would have been simple for him to delve for any secret he wanted. But the Hokage believed - had to believe - that his handpicked best carried - and were carried by - by the will of fire.
The Yamanaka elder's mind touched against his gently, barely even close enough for contact. "Hokage-sama," Inoichi said, echoing the speech with a slight inclination of his head.
The Hokage pushed everything he had gleaned from his accidental study - and, shamelessly, even his poor seal-work through to Inoichi. Oh, the pain, that - that he kept for himself. But the circumstances behind the seal needed to be shared.
Inoichi gently pulled his hands away - but the mental link remained in place. He gave Tenzo a nod, explaining before Shikaku returned, "A man with a single sharingan eye is behind this plot and ... and something else - something worse."
Tenzo stared, unblinking.
"Not Kakashi," Inoichi added, shaking his head sharply.
Tenzo nodded grimly, a sudden warp of wood causing his mask to roll across the floor and to his fingertips before he put it back on. A heartbeat after that, Shikaku stepped in through the door, Ibiki in tow.
The torturer paused, freezing to see the Hokage, still lying on the floor and being tended by an unfamiliar ANBU. Then he froze in a completely different manner, perfectly mimicking Shikaku's stance and posture. He showed no sign of struggling to resist, only mild curiosity - and grave concern.
"Stick his tongue out," Inoichi said, drawing close and pulling some of the torturer's tools from his pocket.
"The face and vocal chords," Shikaku began, before Ibiki began saying the exact same thing in time with him, "are tricky. Give me a moment to make sure I have everything so you don't- Okay."
Ibiki's expression even had turned to completely mimic Shikaku's intent concentration, as both men stuck their tongues out as far as possible, Shikaku a few steps behind the torturer.
"No obvious sign," Inoichi remarked, using a tongue depressor he'd found in Ibiki's pockets to push the torturer's tongue every way. The fair-haired man spent a minute thinking, then declared, "If there is a seal on his tongue, it surpasses my ability to detect."
He glanced to the Hokage.
"Stage two?" he asked.
Sarutobi would have grimly nodded if he could. Instead, even though Inoichi was still aware of his thoughts - and doing exactly as Sarutobi wished - he blinked twice.
Inoichi nodded acceptance, then disengaged from the Hokage's mind, turning the full weight of his focus on Ibiki. The torturer's eyes unfocused and became very distant; his jaw went slack, even in Shikaku's control, and he began to drool. Shikaku's technique ran out, but before then he caused Ibiki's body to kneel, while visible - yet colorless - curls of chakra flared around Inoichi's hand. The elder Yamanaka turned his head very slightly from side-to-side, as though probing for something difficult to find.
"He is legitimate and loyal," Inoichi announced stiffly, frowning. After a moment, he raised his hand to his head and added in an aside, "I respect your privacy, but if you don't mind we'd like to borrow your interrogation techniques for a bit."
His eyes refocusing, and allowed to speak on his own for the first time since arriving, Ibiki agreed, "Understood."
Shikaku nodded grimly. "Danzo is undoubtedly going to be here soon in response to the alarms. Hokage-sama, do you think we can put on a good show...?"
"We'll dismiss them, and then go after that medical ANBU," Inoichi announced, checking the Hokage again - and once more restraining himself to the most polite and distant of scans. "Shika, the Hokage wants you to hide - very, very well - and use your shadows to animate him. He didn't mention it, but if we're in for a long night, we'll want Cho in on it."
Shikaku blinked at that, then nodded. Tenzo folded one hand in seals and caused the tree to warp away, folding back into the walls and floors of the room, revealing a remarkably intact desk, no sign of the seal, and a crushed crystal sphere. Inoichi added, at Sarutobi's behest, "This ANBU goes by 'Tenzo' and is supremely trusted by the Hokage."
The jounin commander accepted that without hesitation, expertly folding and contorting himself into a tiny space that Tenzo made in one wall - shaping the wood with more of his hereditary jutsu. Senju's blood ... roused by something - the same key that had allowed him to escape the seal, unless he missed his guess.
In short order, the Hokage's body was back in place, supported first by Tenzo's cautious grip, then the binding shadows, settling then further into the chair. He knew it was incredibly difficult for Shikaku to hold himself still and simultaneously move someone else's body, but he needed very little help here, with any luck.
Subtly, Tenzo sank into the floor beneath the hokage's desk, reshaping the chair to more capably support his ailing body. An afterthought tossed the Hokage's forgotten pipe into the air, and a stray tendril of shadow picked it up, setting it on the desk - seemingly within easy reach.
Whoever was behind that, they were powerful. His first, heart-stopping thought was the most obvious. Sharingan eyes ... on an arm? What kind of person would do such a thing? Who would develop the medical arts that could make such a thing possible?
More importantly ... Sarutobi had known that intent. He couldn't identify it, precisely, but he knew beyond a doubt it was something he had felt before.
And then ... who knew seals? Who coveted the power of Senju? The power of the Sharingan?
There was one easy answer.
Inoichi's face paled as the thought crossed the Hokage's mind and into the mentalist's.
Before the first council representative arrived to investigate the wood-shaping in the Hokage's tower, the fair-haired man uttered the name, causing an entirely new degree of stillness in all present - even the hidden Shikaku:
Choza woke up to his least-favorite sensation in the world. Inoichi's purposeful yet - as much as it could be said - polite mental 'knock' rousing him from deep sleep.
He was on his feet, struggling into his emergency combat gear, half-dressed before he snapped to complete awareness. He bit off a curse, hurriedly dressing, skipping his heavier armor for the moment and using his least-favorite technique - shunshin - to respond more swiftly.
It took some running thanks to the defensive seals that were up to actually reach the Hokage's office. By that time, any irritation he had was gone, replaced with significantly more urgent concern. He burst into the hallway of the Hokage's office with just enough time to try and look casual, as councilors Koharu and Homura, as well as the venerable Danzo, and the heads of the Hyuuga and Aburame clans walked out of the office. The group all stepped into the hallway, looking for the most-part placated.
Choza admitted to himself that he wasn't the most brilliant reader of character - that was a job he left to his allies. He provided weight to the group, and was glad that when push came to shove, he could rise to the occasion as well as them. So he didn't even try to give anything away by searching them too hard. Instead he gave them the polite, respectful nods they deserved, until they'd gone past, and he could casually stroll into the Hokage's office.
The second he was inside, the doors casually, slowly creaked shut. And the instant that was done, Choza searched around the room warily. The Hokage, looking incredibly worn, slumped back in his chair, his eyes dimmed.
A wooden panel folded away, a heartbeat later Shikaku undergoing some of his unnerving contortions and slipping out of the cramped space with a wince. Inoichi stood in the open, at one side of the desk, and a heartbeat later an unfamiliar masked ANBU and the scarred face of Ibiki emerged from an opposite wall.
The ANBU hovered over the Hokage protectively, and Choza guessed it was for good reason.
"It's like this," Shikaku began without preamble, his brow furrowed, "we have to get the ANBU medic that conducted Mizuki's autopsy here and question him. Tenzo - as the most senior ranking ANBU member, it would be best if you were to order him here with the utmost urgency to tend to the Hokage's wounds."
Tenzo - the ANBU hesitated, then his masked face nodded and he vanished. Without hesitation, the leader of the trio turned to Choza. "Once he arrives, it's standard formation." Turning slightly to Ibiki, he added, "You do your job; Inoichi will work 'in the background' so to speak; you can compare notes with the Hokage after we're done, if we find the seal."
Setting his jaw, Choza nodded, understanding his duty well enough. He had to pacify an ANBU medic.
Okay, this was going to be a bit different. He thought about how his hands should grow. ANBU medic ... possibly poisons. Probably lots of sharp cutting abilities with chakra. Right - body enlargement with a thick, ropey core of muscle layered in segregated bands of fat. Lots and lots of chakra-bloated fat. He could just as easily squeeze the man if he had to, and that was body-mass he could afford to burn - or cut off, if required.
Wouldn't be the first time.
The Akimichi had a well-earned reputation for sturdiness, and if Shikaku had to save his strength for more tactical use, well - he might not be able to spend as much on the pacification effort. But between the two of them, they'd always have enough brain and muscle to get through things - especially with Inoichi's awareness backing them up.
He hoped that whatever the hell else was going on, his son would find a group he could work with as closely as he did with his allies - his friends.
Then the time to stand around and distract himself passed; the door opened without a knock, Tenzo returning, leading another unfamiliar ANBU - the medic, evidently. Same mask as any other ANBU, but with a red salmon across one cheek.
The door shut behind him, and the medic stiffened- He flipped out of the way of Shikamaru's flicking shadow - right into a chakra-enlarged palm that wrapped around him, clenching tight, bulging folds of flesh conforming to him and squeezing in, locking him down in one of the most - Choza admitted - ham-fisted captures any ninja could be caught in.
Ibiki looked mildly impressed, then reached into his vest, walking around Choza's extended arm - no reason to keep the medic close, after all. Tenzo moved to stand almost directly between the medic and the Hokage. Shikaku crossed his arms over his chest and stared intently at the medic, while Ino moved behind him, reaching across Choza's swollen knuckles to brush the mask off.
A flash of disappointment ran through the senior Akimichi, then; it wasn't anyone he recognized. Well, perhaps for the best ... he wouldn't have to kill someone he knew, even if he couldn't guess more at why the hell this was happening. An unremarkable stony visage, brown eyes, sandy hair.
Ibiki produced a tongue depressor and took the falling mask, holding it across half of his own face, as though to shield himself from some unexpected spitting attack - like throat needles. Choza tightened his grip at that thought, steadily driving air from his prisoner's lungs, limiting his ability to try such a stunt.
"Show your tongue," the interrogation specialist demanded.
The medic didn't respond in the slightest.
Nodding, Ibiki put away the depressor, and produced a large, folding clamp. He pressed the points to the medical ANBU's face, some spot midway between his ear and the bottom of his jaw and slowly began to apply pressure. Even the medical ANBU betrayed a grunt of effort at resisting the pain as his jaw was excruciatingly pressured - the tendons themselves being assaulted.
His teeth slipped far enough apart for Ibiki to shove a wedge of metal into the man's mouth, locking it open. Releasing the clamp, the wedge somehow stayed in place on its own. Choza briefly wondered how, and then reminded himself of what Ibiki's specialty was.
The torturer produced something that looked like a pair of long, double-hooked fish hooks, with both points facing the same direction and on the same side, just one at the bottom, one nearer the middle. In an instant, both of them were spun around their top-loops on the torturer's fingertips - like kunai. An eye-blink later, they were inside the medical ANBU's mouth, and with another betrayed moan of suffering, the man's tongue was dragged through the narrow gap of his teeth.
Ibiki made a 'tsk' noise, applying a screw to the wedge between the man's teeth, ratcheting it open wider and wider with one hand - now pressing the back of his head into the cushion of Choza's meaty paw. The other hand held both of the hooks on the man's tongue, and pulled it further out - finally revealing what it was they were abusing the man for.
"A seal," Ibiki remarked, unnecessarily. "On the back of the tongue, near the throat - from your angle, you can probably only see part of it."
The Hokage grunted in response. Tenzo's hands, at his side, flexed, each fingertip wiggling independently for a moment - as though in preparation for some jutsu.
Shikamaru leaned close, studying what he could see of the seal, then causing tendrils of shadow to reach out and pull the man's tongue even further, causing the medical ANBU to choke. Once he'd committed the details to memory, he released his shadow-tendrils. Ibiki removed the hooks with a practiced, fluid precision, leaving the contained medic to weakly cough blood - into a wadded cloth that Ibiki shoved between his teeth before removing the clamp and wedge.
The Nara elder made a copy of the seal on a paper and showed it to the Hokage. For a long minute the sandaime stared at it, before finally sighing and shaking his head. "No good," he said weakly. "We need ... an expert."
Tenzo's lips pursed tightly.
"What about this guy?" Choza asked, jerking his head to the medic. Yeah, he could contain him for a while longer, but...
The Hokage's eyes hardened. "Stage ... two," he answered. He coughed, and Tenzo was immediately at his side, frowning worriedly.
The ANBU medic's attention was already gone; Inoichi needed no further instruction. The ANBU was a traitor to Konoha, or worse. Even if it was unwitting...
"Ah," Inoichi said, using his mind-voice, instead of his real one - that habit that emerged in his deepest scans and interrogations. The mode he used when he forgot how to speak normally, he was in so deep. "He dies if I pull the information behind the seal from him ... and he loses control of his body if he tries to speak of it."
There was a moment of silence as Choza and Inoichi glanced to Shikaku expectantly. He usually was the one to find a solution in these situations. The jounin commander stroked his chin thoughtfully, expression irate.
"The seal's on his tongue," Ibiki remarked, breaking the silence. "We can just cut that out."
Choza and Shikaku shared a somewhat surprised glance at the torturer. Inoichi's mild surprise was tangible across his mind, before he restrained himself from broadcasting.
"I am not a proper medic, but I can ensure he won't die of blood-loss. I've performed this procedure before," he added. Then he turned and nodded to Inoichi, explaining, "I wouldn't normally suggest this, but you won't need his tongue to get answers."
"Efficient," Tenzo remarked, his first contribution to the discussion so far.
The Hokage looked unhappy about it, but gave an incredibly weak, shaky nod. "Yes," he allowed.
Choza was suddenly glad he hadn't had time to eat first.
Before he continued further, Inoichi added - on behalf of the Hokage - "The Sandaime does think that the tongue should be preserved for Jiraya to examine later."
Yeah, it was going to be one of those days.
"Mmm. My advice? Add Tsunade to the 'get-the-fuck-home' list," Shikaku added sourly, not looking at the Hokage.
He hoped Choji's day went better than this.
Ino hated to admit it, but her chosen training was already wearing down on her. Naruto's bunshin made good sensor practice targets, but it still strained her chakra reserves. Add in a late-night 'training' date, and she was wiped out by the time morning came around.
It didn't help that she was still stuck with Sakura, but the two had settled into an uneasy truce. Kurenai was the 'nice' teacher, but even she wouldn't sit back and let them snipe- And it was a terrible habit to get in the business of, since Kakashi took it as an invitation to slap an exploding tag on or between them.
She glanced around to be sure she wasn't being targeted as she stepped through the doorway. Her mother had been up early, grumbling about her father's work. She had no idea what it was about, but knew better than to ask either of them, anyway. Choji probably knew; their fathers tended to be together more often than not.
Of course, before that, she had to finish her daily assignments. They still didn't even have clearance for D rank missions! How long was this going to continue, anyway?
She warily headed to the bridge to await Kakashi's arrival. Thankfully, Hinata was there, first. Ino was sure she could bite her own tongue as long as there was one other person; if she'd been stuck with Sakura alone, she'd probably be unable to avoid picking at the girl with the over-sized forehead.
"Good morning," she called to the dark-haired girl, stopping to stretch her arms over her head a few paces away from Hinata. "No sign of forehead yet?"
"...morning," Hinata mumbled in response, shaking her head.
Sheesh - why was she so quiet, anyway?
"So, your blood limit makes for good sensors, huh?" she posed.
Probably, Ino was training for something that would be useless if she were on the same team as the white-eyed girl.
Hinata blinked at that, her eyes locking on Ino. "It's just fine control," she answered, ducking her head and looking away.
"'Fine control'," Ino groused, crossing her arms over her chest. "Everything is linked to 'fine control'."
"Almost," Sakura agreed, popping out of a nearby bush and startling Ino. Hinata didn't seem surprised in the slightest, though. "Though fine control also lets you conceal your presence from sensors."
"If fine control is so awesome, why doesn't everyone work on it?" Ino wondered, eying Sakura suspiciously.
"Chakra is usually related to body mass, since at least part of it is physical energy," the pink-haired girl lectured authoritatively. "Males are larger than females, so they tend to have more chakra. Therefore, females develop better control so they can keep up with limited resources. That makes females more likely to be sensors or medical ninja."
"So are men just lazy?" Ino wondered, snorting.
"It's not laziness," Hinata said, sounding surprisingly irate for such a timid girl. "If someone's got so much chakra they almost never needed fine control, then they wouldn't learn it."
"Don't you have the best control of any of us?" Sakura asked, raising her eyebrows.
Hinata shrugged, one hand gesturing to her face. "I can see what I'm doing," she said simply. "So can any Hyuuga."
"Huh, so girls make better ninja because of their superior control?" Ino wondered.
"Not precisely," Kakashi remarked warmly, seeming to just then appear from nowhere- Even Hinata was a bit startled, so Ino didn't feel too bad. "In this world, there are exceptions. Men with small reserves and naturally good control, or women with more chakra than some men ... and worse control. It's important for any ninja to focus on countering their own weaknesses, as well as trying to complement their strengths!"
Since the session hadn't started off with an exploding tag, Ino cautiously asked, "You mean, get more chakra?"
"That's right, my cute little students!" the one-eyed jounin agreed cheerfully. And what better way to work on that than practical applications? Chakra is like developing muscles! So we have to exercise and spend chakra to start developing more!"
Sakura looked pale, but shifted to a defensive stance, ready to spring away at a moment's notice. "So, more of the usual training?" she asked unhappily.
"Perhaps!" Kakashi allowed, shrugging. "But you were already speaking of sensors? Why not practice that! Now, let's start out with a jog toward our favorite training ground - today's test ... if you can detect me coming, I'll save my explosive tags for more worthy targets!"
Sakura blanched, while Ino's eyebrows rose. Now that sounded like a chance to put a certain pink-haired know-it-all in her place! Sure, she wouldn't be close to Hinata's equal, but who cared about that? She'd still be better than Sakura!
"Alright!" Ino cheered confidently. "I'm ready to face this training!"
"I'm not running away from this challenge," Sakura agreed, despite how unhappy she looked with the idea.
"That's great!" Kakashi cheered. "But I already told you where we should be training, and we're all still standing here! So-"
Hinata broke away faster than Ino could follow, managing to clear the radius of the explosive tag that Kakashi... Well, Ino realized in retrospect, as the explosion made her ears ring and blasted her toward the same damn river, it was probably one of Kakashi's bunshin.
The only real consolation she had was Sakura being catapulted into the same body of water at her side.
It was harder to get up without having Hinata around to make breakfast and wake him up. But then, Naruto reminded himself, he couldn't afford to get soft! Having a friend help him out was awesome, but he couldn't take it for granted, could he?
But he could have a clone stay up all night working on something to wake him up- And that he did.
"Boss!" the clone called, shaking his sluggish form.
"Eh," he groaned.
In response, the clone released, filling his head with a night of studies and rousing him.
That still worked really well!
In high spirits, he finished his morning routine, pausing to admire his outfit before dressing. He had thought it was getting a bit shabby, but when he looked it over, it seemed in much better condition than he recalled. The knee reinforcements... Hmm. When had he gotten those? He couldn't remember, but when he looked closely, there were no signs of hasty repairs. Other than a fine sheen of ... spider silk?
Maybe a moth or something had tried to eat his outfit. Well, it was just as comfortable as ever, and holding up amazingly well. That was great, too!
After dressing and assigning a bunshin to clean up the place - Hinata had gone through so much trouble to get his apartment into good condition, after all - he trotted out to meet with Asuma and the others.
He found that Choji and Kiba had beaten him to the meeting place, both of them staring toward the tower. "Hey, guys!" he called, waving cheerfully.
"Oh, hey!" Kiba barked. "What's up, Naruto?" From the top of his head, Akamaru yapped his own greeting.
"Not much. I'm on time, right?"
"Should be," Choji agreed, nodding slowly.
Naruto glanced at the tower, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. "What's going on?"
"Something happened at the tower last night, but nobody seems to know what it is!" Kiba whined. "I heard a huge tree exploded out of the Hokage's office!"
"My father was gone when I woke up," Choji said thoughtfully. "Called to help the Hokage with something."
"What's it mean?" Naruto wondered.
"Not sure," Choji apologized, shaking his head.
Before anyone else could speak, Kiba growled, "Sensei incoming!"
The three turned to look, seeing Sarutobi Asuma approach from the road, his step slower than usual.
"Morning, Sensei!" Naruto called excitedly, once he was within hearing range. "Do you know what's going on at the tower?"
Choji and Kiba both stared at Naruto, making him wonder if he'd said something he shouldn't have. Hey, it was a fair question, wasn't it?
"As far as I've been told, business as usual," Asuma answered, shaking his head. "I can tell you that the Hokage seems fine."
Naruto exchanged a glance with the others. What did that mean?
Clearing his throat, the man continued, "Over the next three days, instead of focusing on more techniques or other training, all of your teachers are going to focus on either your chakra control, or your chakra reserves - whichever is weaker and would benefit from more training. After that, if all goes well, it will be time to start you out on D rank missions."
"Yes!" Kiba yipped. "It's about freakin' time!"
Even Choji looked excited at the prospect. Naruto wanted to practically dance - this was going to be great!
"Of course, you're far behind quota. At this point ... it will be difficult to catch up," Asuma mused. "Well! Don't let that interfere with your training today!"
Naruto and the others stared at the bearded man, who slowly nodded to himself, seemingly absently.
"Yeah- Alright, on with your training," he declared, clapping his hands together. "Naruto, Choji, for you, that's chakra control. Kiba, you've got a fair balance of both power and control, so you're going to work to bring both of them up. That means that all training will be done while performing the leaf concentration exercise."
The three genin groaned in perfect harmony.
While Shikamaru would rather have had Naruto at his side instead of Sasuke, he found some small solace in the fact that the Uchiha seemed as unimpressed with the 'nice' sensei as he was. It beat training with Kakashi in terms of intensity, as Kurenai gave them a speech about the benefits of fine control. Like they hadn't heard enough variations on that lesson already.
"More tree-climbing?" Shikamaru asked unenthusiastically, once Kurenai had wrapped up the latest rendition of that tired speech.
"It would be more effective to work on both your control and reserves," Kurenai said, smiling and gently shaking her head. "And you've been practicing on your own quite well! So as a treat, it's time to teach you something new!"
Shikamaru's eyebrows rose. Well, that was unexpected! "Is it something good?" he wondered, when Shino and Sasuke both remained quiet - seemingly in some sort of unspoken agreement to compete on being stoically silent.
"Water walking!" Kurenai announced. "And once you have the trick of it down, light sparring atop the water! Though, I expect you'll need most of the day just to get started on it. It's still a good choice of exercise to get you started, in any case!"
Shikamaru was confident he could imagine Naruto's reaction to that reveal. "Yay," he said flatly, turning to glance at the other two genin. "You guys looking forward to this as much as I am?"
"Hn," Sasuke replied, eyeing the light glinting off the nearby lake speculatively.
"Hmm," Shino echoed, adjusting his glasses while facing the same way.
The shadow-user was rewarded for his scrutiny of the kunoichi by a faint twitch of her eyebrow, though she kept her smile in place. Still sounding cheerful, she declared, "Then let's get started!"
Though he was certain that she was just trying to do her job, he couldn't help but feel mildly vindicated at seeing a hint of annoyance. She was also right that strengthening their reserves and control would be beneficial for all of them - but Shikamaru and Shino were already working themselves to the metaphorical bone on that count trying to keep up with Naruto's seemingly limitless chakra reserves anyway.
After learning how to tree-walk, walking on water wasn't - surprisingly - that much harder after all, though Shikamaru felt somehow certain Naruto would make some embarrassing mistake a few times before he got it right. Well ... there was time to try and slip him some extra help on that front before his current team met with Kurenai anyway.
That thought in mind, after some of the light sparring that the kunoichi would allow - Sasuke certainly was ready to go at it with more energy than Shikamaru was ready to spend - they trooped to Senzo's for their traditional meeting.
Surprisingly enough, the female genin didn't seem to be nearly as singed as he would have expected from an intense session with the bastard sensei. Too bad the one-eyed jounin hadn't stuck with another lecture-only session...
Since Naruto's team was the last to appear, as the trio took seats next to the kunoichi, Shikamaru asked, "Ba- Uh, Kakashi let up a bit?"
"Not a whole lot," Ino said sourly. At her side, Sakura seemed sunk into an even more bitter mood - and at a glance, she was singed significantly more. The blonde shook her head, adding, "Pretty much 'awareness' training. So if you could detect him coming, he'd just say something annoying instead of the whole - you know - explosive tag thing."
All of them shifted and glanced about uncomfortably, as if expecting another one.
"He did use less in general, though," Hinata added helpfully. She barely looked ruffled, unsurprisingly.
"Either that or he's running low on his exploding tag fund. Hell- Maybe Konoha in general is running short on paper. The amount of tags that that single bastard teacher uses in training probably outweighs the amount of paper going through the Hokage's office!" Shikamaru returned.
Naruto snorted at hearing that as his team straggled in, and even Sasuke's lips twitched in an almost-smile at the joke.
Senzo collected their orders as a matter of course, and then since training wasn't that exciting, conversation shifted to the next interesting topic. The only points of interest were the slip from Asuma to his team about D rank missions, and whatever had happened at the Hokage's tower.
Of course, none of them knew much about it, beyond Inoichi, Shikaku, and Choza being involved. It could have meant anything, really. "Well," Sakura said authoritatively, "the Senju clan is lost, but they supposedly had a kekai genkai that let them manipulate wood.
"The Hokage is supposed to be renowned - legendary among ninja. It's entirely possible that 'the Professor' has learned some way to replicate that lost blood limit!"
"Could be," Shikamaru mused, rubbing his chin. "It raises some questions..."
"Are we going to find out?" Naruto asked. "See if it's a technique we can pick up, too?"
"If it's the Hokage's, no, I don't think anyone but you is going to pick an S-rank jutsu up from him and learn it overnight," Shikamaru answered. "It's best to not really worry about it ... but..." He paused, thinking things over. He'd been putting it off partly because of the lack of opportunity, and also partly because he was a bit nervous about what he was doing.
"Yeah?" Kiba whined. "You got an idea?"
"Nothing that will get us in trouble," Sasuke said flatly.
"No, of course not," Shikamaru agreed. "There's one way we can poke around, but we won't find anything out unless it's not classified. We'll need a day off, first."
"Okay, then what do we do?" Naruto asked excitedly.
"Well, I'll need you to help me out with a distraction," Shikamaru said, shrugging. "Shino and Hinata can help me get what we're looking for, and then we'll all meet up and trade notes. To be honest, I don't expect to find much of anything."
"I don't want any part of anything that makes us look bad," Sakura grumbled.
"Me, either," Ino agreed.
"Well, whatever- For now we've got taijutsu practice at my place," Kiba barked. "Choji and me practice almost every day, even when everyone else is busy with other stuff- Who's in?"
"Family training," Hinata said apologetically, shaking her head.
"Ah, I'm in!" Naruto declared. "Your sister keeps finding weak points I have to close up! Shikamaru, Shino, you want to join?"
"I will," Shino agreed quietly.
"I'll pass," Shikamaru said with a shrug. Turning to Sakura he asked, "Do you still have those notes on ciphers? Having code-language and phrases as a team isn't going to make a great difference in training - but it could be very useful in the field."
Kiba made a face at the thought of studying, and whined, "So there's no real reason to learn it now, is there?"
Naruto looked like he agreed, but bit his tongue.
"A code language would show the teachers that we were very serious about working together," Sasuke said, frowning at his clean plate.
Sakura straightened up, grinning like she'd just been handed a huge bounty. "Yeah!" she said enthusiastically. "Um, we can talk about the ciphers any time, Sasuke-kun, Shikamaru!"
"Not me," Sasuke said with a shrug. "I'm going to join the taijutsu practice. I'll learn the ciphers once you two sort it out."
Sakura's expression twisted to confusion, and she looked conflicted. "O...oh, okay," she said quietly.
"Did you still want another bunshin to practice your sensor stuff, Ino-chan?" Naruto asked.
The blonde started slightly, then shrugged. "Actually ... I'll stick with Sakura and Shikamaru," she decided.
"I'll send one with you guys anyway," Naruto declared, grinning.
"Good idea," Shikamaru allowed. "Give yourself a leg up on the ciphers."
"A...are you going to be joining us regularly?" Choji hesitantly asked Sasuke.
"I have to," Sasuke grumbled. "I'm supposed to be part of a team, so shouldn't I?"
"Yeah!" Kiba yelped. "Absolutely! Alright - we're going to be the best team ever! Now who's ready to get thrown around the dojo by my sister?"
Sasuke snorted. "Like that'll happen," he retorted. "Let's pay up and get to it."
Shikamaru nodded, wondering what exactly had changed for the Uchiha. Whatever his motivation, he was at least working with Naruto and the others ... wasn't he? "Alright, everyone, we have our assignments. Let's get to it."
The genin nodded to one-another and left behind enough to cover their meals before filing out, Hinata alone giving a forlorn glance to the two groups as she headed home for her own training.
Kakashi, for one, could hardly wait for the convergence of the teachers after the students had cleared out. The other teachers dispensed with what subtlety they usually bothered with, skipping Senzo's entirely to meet in the relatively more private space of Anko's apartment.
Anko's apartment that he was getting oddly comfortable in, but he tried not to think about that part, sitting on the floor by the table, next to Asuma.
"The kids are digging, but I don't think they're going to get far," he volunteered, starting off the line of discussion.
There was no real point to beating around the bush.
"So none of you know what happened at the tower, either?" Anko asked, grimacing.
"I know that my father is reasonably healthy," Asuma supplied. "But, well..."
"I don't like it," Kurenai muttered. "But what can we do?"
"Prepare your students to the best of your ability and keep a sharp eye open," Anko supplied. "I mean, I'll just throw that out there as a wild guess, since I don't teach anyone myself."
"The bigger concern is what Kakashi mentioned. Namely our students doing something they shouldn't," Kurenai said, shaking her head. "I'm concerned about Shikamaru's plan, whatever it is."
"Well, do we blow the fact that we're keeping an eye on the Chibikage, or wait until we can catch him in the act?" Anko wondered. "I mean, one way, we teach him to just be sneakier."
"To be completely honest, I'm not that worried about it," Asuma answered, shrugging. "Shikamaru has to contend with his father."
Anko squinted at him. "Hang on," she said slowly. "You're planning on letting them dig while spying, so if it's something good, you get to know it too, aren't you?"
Kurenai sighed, shaking her head and crossing her arms. "Really?" she asked doubtfully.
Asuma allowed the smallest hints of a smile. "We wish to know as well," he supplied. "If we're watching them and can step in before they get in trouble, then we can claim it was infiltration practice."
"You're using your students like tools!" Anko protested.
"You're actually complaining about that?" Kakashi wondered. "I would have expected you to say that letting them mess up would be a great chance to teach them about the consequences of failure."
"Well ... yeah." Anko pouted, crossing her arms over her chest. "I wanted to suggest it first," she muttered. "But I had to play 'responsible' since you beat me to it."
Sighing, Kurenai rubbed her forehead. "I'll be borrowing a page from Haruno's book and pretending I know nothing about this," she declared.
"In the meantime, while it's taken a bit longer than I'd have liked, the kids are all getting into the idea of working together," Kakashi supplied. "Once we start the D rank missions, we can put a bit more emphasis on special training. We should be prepared."
"True enough," Asuma agreed. "I think I'll turn in early tonight on that note."
"That seems sensible," Kurenai agreed, nodding. "Until next time, then."
And then they were leaving, putting just Anko and Kakashi together.
After locking her door, Anko winked at him and said, "Come on, hero. You got your two favorite students to work together; let's see what 'teamwork' we can pull off in the other room, huh?"
Kakashi was about to agree, until a knock interrupted the pair of them at the door. Frowning, Anko wrenched it open, blinking at a familiar ANBU mask - that of a bear.
His stomach lurched, and he frowned, turning his gaze away from the ninja he had worked with so often during his own time in ANBU. It wasn't his mask that drew Kakashi's attention, but the missive from the Hokage he held out in one hand, the unmistakable seal facing Kakashi directly.