Naruto blinked, wondering at the logic that had placed him on a team with the annoyingly angsty Uchiha Sasuke and the sickeningly screechy Haruno Sakura. Hell, he wondered at the logic that put those two on the same team as each other. Uchihas were famous for having – and hating – their fangirls. Haruno was one such fangirl. As for how Naruto fit in with them? Quite simply, he didn't.
Then there was the jounin who had been assigned as their team sensei. He'd been late yesterday to collect them, then told them not to eat breakfast the next day because they'd be having a survival test and would only throw up. Naruto ignored the 'no eating' advice, having a large but light breakfast before leaving the apartment building in the morning, with a muesli bar tucked in one pocket of his brown trousers to snack on in case the man was just as late today as he had been yesterday.
Naruto had his whip coiled at his right hip, the circle on the outsides of the pocket of his brown cotton trousers – which were made for comfort and ease of movement more than anything else. He was wearing a vest of brown, light leather and his fingerless leather gloves were even lighter, for all they were also tough and durable. They were also brown, but with various little black marks all over. Little black marks that meant ready access to the different attachments for his staff stored in them – Naruto had done that during the self-study sessions at the Academy. Storage scrolls and exploding tags were the only two uses of sealing that were covered at the Academy, but they were covered extensively, so turning his gloves into storage scrolls, of a sort, hadn't been hard when he applied himself. As for the staff itself, Naruto had it horizontal over both of his shoulders with his hands hanging over like some lightly-burdened labourer as he whistled his way to the designated meeting place.
"Naruto! What did you do to your headband!" Sakura demanded, loudly and impolitely, as soon as Naruto arrived at the training ground.
Naruto was momentarily surprised to see that the vain girl had the energy to scream at him so early in the morning. "I'm wearing it," he answered flatly. "What's your problem? It's a bit of metal, it's practical to put the extra protection over my heart. Heads are harder to hit and harder to penetrate even if you hit them."
"So you welded it to your filthy vest?" she demanded.
Naruto didn't care to go into the intricacies of the hows of garment production with the girl, especially so early in the day, and so simply agreed with a shrug and a nod. Then he noticed the great big bags his team mates had brought with them.
"What's that?" he asked, pointing to the bags.
"Kakashi-sensei said to bring all our ninja gear, since we'd need it," Sakura reminded him impatiently.
"Where's yours?" Sasuke asked with narrowed eyes as he scanned the blonde's barely-burdened form. A small lump in one pocket, a whip at one hip, and the staff didn't really look like much in the way of ninja gear.
"I've got seals on my gloves that pull whatever I want from a cupboard back home that's also covered in seals," Naruto answered. "Took all year to get right, but it's so worth it, to not have to lug a big bag around like you two."
Sasuke narrowed his eyes further, now they were just slits of superiority and dislike in his pretty, pale face. "You will make me a pair of gloves like those, and a cupboard," he said. Stated with certainty. Ordered.
"Like hell," Naruto answered. "Do it yourself."
Sasuke's eyes went wide and Sakura started yelling at him about respecting Sasuke-kun, and how he should be honoured to do anything for Sasuke-kun, and how dare he refuse Sasuke-kun, and it went on for ten minutes before she realised that Naruto wasn't listening to her at all.
Naruto set himself to doing warm-ups with his staff for the first hour after that, just the basics that Hakkai had started him off with ages ago. He didn't want to work up a sweat after all, just get his muscles pleasantly warmed. When, at the end of that first hour, Naruto pulled out his muesli bar, he heard not only Sakura's stomach growl, but Sasuke's as well.
"Kakashi-sensei said not to eat," Sakura said furiously. Whether she was angry at herself for her stomach begging for food, or angry at Naruto for ignoring Kakashi wasn't entirely clear.
Naruto ignored her and took a bite of his snack.
Both of their stomachs growled again, and when Sasuke launched himself at Naruto – clearly after the food for himself – Naruto just hopped over him and perched on top of his perfectly upright and suspiciously steady bo-staff. Sakura got in on the action then, swiping at the bottom of the staff in an attempt to send Naruto tumbling. It failed when Naruto did a neat little jump-and-kick combination that meant the staff did a full flip and he could land on the other end, as it was now upright again, just the other way up. Again, it was suspiciously steady.
Naruto took another bite of his muesli bar and was very careful not to smile. It wasn't a smiling matter after all. Sasuke had attempted a tackle of all things, and Sakura's leg-swipe had done more damage to the girl than her target. Where had the years of training gone all of a sudden?
The battle for the breakfast bar continued a good half-hour after Naruto had finished eating it, and that only because Sasuke finally noticed it wasn't there to be stolen any more. When Sakura noticed why her crush had stopped attacking, she collapsed where she'd stood, exhausted and even more hungry than before.
Fun for Naruto, counter-productive for his team mates.
It was another hour before Kakashi showed up. Sakura, in her infinite wisdom, yelled at the man who was supposed to be teaching them. She'd done that yesterday too, and it hadn't phased the guy then either. He'd just stated that his first impression was that he hated them. Naruto got the feeling that what the man really hated was the assignment of having a genin team at all.
Actually, once they'd gotten up to the roof, it had been half-way amusing to introduce himself to them all. Neither the Uchiha or Haruno had said anything Naruto hadn't expected, but he'd clearly left both them and his sensei completely baffled with his brief introduction.
"Uzumaki Naruto, I like the people who live in my apartment building, I don't like either of you," he'd shot a pointed look at Sakura and Sasuke when he said that, "and one of my hobbies is dancing."
Yeah, that had thrown all of them completely off kilter. Not the part where he didn't like them. Having already been informed of Kakashi's first impression, it wasn't a big deal really. It was that he claimed dancing as a hobby. He'd kind of wanted to say 'erotic dancing', but... most twelve-year-olds shouldn't even know what erotic dancing was.
"You have to take one of these two bells from me," Kakashi informed them happily, and held up the two silver cat-bells on their little ninja wires in his left hand. With his right hand, he set an alarm clock on top of a wooden post. "Any of you failing to do so before noon will return to the academy."
"That might be more reasonable if you'd been here on time!" Sakura yelled at him. "Because you were late, that means we've only got an hour!"
"An hour and counting!" Kakashi corrected happily as he tied the bells to his flack vest. Then he produced – from where they had no idea – three bento boxes. "And for those who pass, I have packed lunches for you."
Naruto smirked to see the sudden focus on the faces of his team mates. They'd been denied food once already this morning. They didn't want to miss out a second time.
"Finally, you should come at me with intent to kill if you want to even have a chance at passing," Kakashi proclaimed. "Go!"
Sakura and Sasuke vanished into the trees. That last bit from Kakashi probably reminded them that they had been trained as ninja, and therefore had skills.
Naruto grabbed the handle of his whip and, not even bothering to unhitch it from his side or uncoil it before he snapped it out. The crack of the whip was followed by the gentle tingling of one of the bells, and as Kakashi, surprised, had jumped back from the sudden attack, Naruto didn't have to contend with him when he dashed in to catch the bell that he'd snapped free from Kakashi's vest.
With the bell stashed in the pocket that his muesli bar had been in earlier, Naruto re-coiled his whip with a smirk on his face. Gojyo would have been so proud to see how he'd done that. Gojyo called it 'cold whipping', and it was important when using the whip as a weapon. It wasn't always possible to uncoil a whip and give it a few warm-up flicks before using it.
It was also dead hard, and Naruto had worked long and hard to be able to do that. All those hours and days and weeks and months had so paid off. Getting results felt good.
Kakashi looked down at his vest when he spotted that smile on the blonde boy's face, and his single eye widened in surprise while his eyebrow rose in shock. He was down a bell! That hadn't ever happened before. It looked like he'd have one student at least, until the next class graduated and Naruto was reassigned, or another genin team lost a member and Naruto was assigned with them. Of course, this was assuming that the other two failed. They probably would, but they might yet surprise him.
They didn't, in the end. When the buzzer on the alarm clock sounded, the Uchiha was buried up to his chin and the girl was unconscious from the horror of a little genjutsu. Kakashi collected them up and had them sit in front of the monument for those killed in action. Okay, so technically they were both tied to wooden logs in front of the black stone monument, and Sakura was gagged so that she wouldn't interrupt with her yelling, but these were minor details.
"Two out of three of you won't make it as genin," Kakashi informed them coldly, his dark eye moving from Sakura to Sasuke and back again. "At least one of you would most likely die in your first confrontation with an enemy," he continued. "If you had worked together, this might change, but you didn't. Furthermore, you have shown nothing to prove that you would, or could, successfully work with each other. If you had worked together, I would have passed you. You didn't, so only Uzumaki passes for having successfully stolen a bell from me."
"What about lunch?" Sasuke managed to ask through gritted teeth.
"Oh! Thank you for reminding me!" Kakashi said brightly, and handed one bento over to Naruto while keeping one for himself and sitting down. "Let's eat!" he declared happily.
Naruto laughed and did as bid.
"Not again," Sasuke wailed softly, his head falling forward in despair after he'd seen Naruto lift the first bite of Kakashi's very neat boxed lunch to his mouth.
"You know, Teme," Naruto said, his tone conversational and pleasant even as he insulted Sasuke. "I would be happy to share this lunch with you."
Sasuke's head snapped up.
"You just have to admit that you're not the most awesome person in Konoha by dint of being an Uchiha, and ask nicely of course," Naruto said pointedly, though his tone was still polite enough.
Sasuke's eager look disappeared as he hung his head once more. He didn't say anything from that moment until Naruto had completely finished his lunch and thanked Kakashi for the excellent food.
"You're welcome Naruto," Kakashi answered as he took back the box and vanished it somewhere about his person. "Come along now, we need to report the results of this genin test to the Hokage."
Naruto nodded and stood to go.
If Sakura hadn't been gagged, they would have heard her screaming at them to release her and Sasuke.
"So, why only offer to Sasuke?" Kakashi asked as they walked towards the Hokage Tower.
Naruto shrugged. "We'd have had to remove Sakura's gag for her to eat," he pointed out, "and I wanted to know if food or pride was more important to the self-important prick. It should not have been that hard for him."
Kakashi nodded, accepting the truths in what Naruto had said.
Naruto, the first time he was given the mission to retrieve the cat of the Daimyo's wife, set a Konoha record. He retrieved 'that demonic feline' – as it was known by the other genin and recently promoted chunin – in under half an hour and without a scratch or bite-mark anywhere on him. Hell, he even brought it in purring in its sleep.
When the chunin on the missions desk that day asked Naruto how he'd done it, Naruto had grinned silently.
"Aww, come on Uzumaki!" the chunin entreated. "I've got scars from that beast! Tell me how you did it, please?"
Naruto chuckled. "There was catnip involved," he relented. He'd also used his whip a bit to herd the animal towards the catnip, and then made sure that the cat associated him (and the whip) with the catnip and drug-induced happiness and all things good before attempting to extricate the animal.
After setting such a stunning precedent, Naruto took the Tora missions whenever some other genin team hadn't already been sentenced to it. Of course, he took other missions as well. D-ranks, since Kakashi didn't want to take him on an out-of-the-village mission until he was certain of Naruto's skill-level. Which meant that Kakashi had to actually train Naruto, and because it was one-on-one training, Naruto benefited a great deal from it.
He learnt more about chakra control and channelling chakra from Kakashi in just a few months than he had in several years at the Academy. If he channelled chakra through his whip, then it was practically a living extension of his will now if he wanted it to be, which was awesome. Naruto learned a few defensive ninjutsu, a few offensive ninjutsu, and he learned about fighting against a ninja with the staff, rather than just his peers (who had no idea about any weapon really, though a couple of them had family taijutsu styles) or against Hakkai (who really knew the staff, though only enough of other weapons to defend against bandits wielding them).
Kakashi had to wait a bit longer to get Naruto any mission higher than D-rank than he thought he might have if the whole team had passed. His reasoning was that since there would only be him and Naruto, the kid wouldn't have anybody else to watch his back if Kakashi got into a confrontation with an 'enemy'. This in turn meant Naruto had to be more capable of defending himself than any other kid who'd been a genin for the same amount of time.
That Naruto could use the Kage Bunshin no Jutsu to learn at an accelerated rate was very helpful towards this goal, but it was still a bit later than Kakashi would have allowed a C-rank if he'd had a full team. Well, a full team that worked well together at any rate. If he'd actually had the other two members of the assigned 'team seven', then it would probably have been a couple of months more, unless his own boredom with the D-ranks had gotten to him first. Hmm. Oh well. No sense in dwelling on things that would never be.
The first C-rank that Naruto received was an orders delivery and report collection from a Konoha outpost on the boarder of Fire Country and River Country. He and Kakashi were to take orders to the outpost to ready themselves for a changing of the guard. The guys out there would be coming back to Konoha shortly after their replacements reached them. Naruto and Kakashi were to also bring back the written reports of any and all boarder activity since that particular rotation of guards had been out there. It would be too juicy a target for enemy nin if those returning to Konoha were also carrying all the reports. The two always reached Konohagakure separately.
The journey out was uneventful, the brief layover at the outpost introduced Naruto to new people and gave him and Kakashi a chance to see how he stacked up against a few different opponents, and the journey back was quiet. A successful C-rank in which nobody died or nearly died or anything terrible happened at all.
Naruto's second C-rank, a joint mission with a small team of chunin to rout a bandit camp, also went fairly well. There was fighting, so there were injuries, but Naruto thought he did rather well with it. Even if he was a bit shaky afterwards while the chunin sifted through the now-dead bandit's belongings. Kakashi laid a silent, firm hand on Naruto's shoulder and stood by him until the shakes passed, then quietly told him to start looking for anything he wanted among the dead bodies before they were buried.
Naruto took a few rather light money-pouches and a collection of rings and necklaces that one of the bandits had been hoarding.
"What are you going to do with all that jewellery, Uzumaki-san?" one of the chunin asked.
Naruto managed a weak smile for the man. "I'm good friends with the people who share my apartment building, so I'm bringing home presents," he explained.
The chunin team laughed genially at Naruto's explanation, and Kakashi messed up his hair fondly. He really was proud of the brat. The way Naruto had used his staff and his whip had been incredible, and Kakashi had seen Naruto catch a bandit around the face with his whip, then pull the bandit backwards onto his back, saving a chunin who hadn't been aware of the enemy that had managed to get behind him.
That moment had reassured Kakashi that Naruto was capable of working in a team with others. He'd sometimes worried about that, what with how the initial genin test had gone. Even if he couldn't fault the boy for not wanting to be on a team with the two he'd been set with.
Their third C-rank mission, however... well, third time's the charm, as the saying goes.
"Just these two to protect me?" the drunken old man asked, incredulous through his inebriation. "The short one doesn't look like he'd stand up to a stiff wind!"
Naruto calmly placed the end of his bo-staff gently against the client's wind-pipe. He had well and truly learnt by now to let insults roll off him like water off a duck's back, but he still wasn't above little shows to prove those insulting him were wrong to do so.
"My last mission had my first kill," Naruto informed the man in a steady tone. "I brought back souvenirs."
Kakashi chuckled and messed up Naruto's hair fondly, though didn't reprimand him to stop scaring the client. Ninja were supposed to be intimidating after all, and it wasn't like Naruto was actually making an outright threat.
The man's vision was also clearly impaired. Naruto, for all that he wasn't large, was clearly muscled. It wasn't bulky muscle, but rather flat and wiry muscle. Carefully controlled and tightly leashed power, just waiting to explode into a flurry of movement.
"Alright Naruto," Kakashi said at last. "Go and pack for an extended mission. We'll meet at the Northern Gate in two hours."
Naruto nodded and withdrew his weapon from the client's neck slowly, then disappeared.
Back at his apartment, the girls were crowded around him while Gojyo and Hakkai stood back, watching the scene with amusement.
"You're leaving again?" Eri-chan asked with a pout.
"But you just got back from a mission!" Suzume-chan protested.
"We miss you Cutie-Pop!" Ren-chan insisted.
"You're never here any more," Chika-chan agreed, her full lower lip sticking out just a bit more than it usually did.
Naruto laughed. They'd done this to him before his previous mission as well. That time, Gojyo and Hakkai had put a stop to the girl's teasing and false tears since Naruto was genuinely distressed at their disappointment. This time, he knew better.
"I'm going to miss you all while I'm gone too," he promised them. "This is just a guard duty mission, so it should be fairly calm. I'll bring back souvenirs and send you all love letters while I'm gone."
The girls all laughed happily, dropping their long-faced façade. Based on the seal structure all over his gloves that allowed Naruto to summon whatever he wanted from his cupboard – which was also covered in seals, and more importantly based on the ability to send things back to that cupboard, so that he didn't have to carry them around once he'd summoned them, Naruto had created a sort of mail box which let him reverse-summon letters from wherever he was to the seal-covered box that was nestled among all the other letter boxes in front of the apartment building.
Gojyo or Hakkai checked it whenever they were coming or going when Naruto wasn't in the village, and slipped the 'love letters' that Naruto sent into the box of the girl the letter was for. Or read it themselves if it was for them, and Naruto did sometimes send his 'love notes' to Gojyo and Hakkai as well, which was always good for a laugh.
All the same, Naruto had to pack his camping gear and a few changes of underwear to get him through the mission. He then submitted to kisses goodbye from all the girls, as well as Gojyo and Hakkai messing up his hair, before leaving the building to meet Kakashi and the client at the designated gate.
Kakashi's visible eyebrow raised at all the lipstick marks on Naruto's cheeks.
Naruto shrugged in response to his sensei's silent question. "They miss me when I leave," he explained.
Kakashi chuckled and shook his head. "Some time, Naruto, you have to invite me to your apartment to meet these people who miss you so much when you are assigned missions out of the village."
Naruto smiled. "Sure," he agreed. He liked his sensei, and he was fairly sure that the ladies would like him too. Heck, probably even Gojyo and Hakkai would like Kakashi. "Now will you help me get rid of the marks before the drunk shows up?" he asked.
Kakashi laughed, then produced a cloth and a bottle of water. "Come here," he commanded fondly.
Once all the lipstick marks were cleaned off, they headed out.
Naruto took point and Kakashi the rear-guard, naturally putting the client between them.
They'd been walking for a while when Naruto spotted it. Really, it was ridiculously out of place. A puddle that large by the side of the road, without any sign of evaporating at all, on such a sunny day? No, it just wouldn't fly. He also knew Kakashi would spot it, and if there were ninja out setting an ambush – because a genjutsu like that meant ninja and not bandits – then the options were that they were after the client, or they were after the bounty that was on Kakashi's head from one of the other shinobi nations.
Subtly, Naruto loosened his pack on his shoulders so that he could drop it quickly when – not if, when – the fight began.
Kakashi had just gone a few paces past the puddle when the enemy ninja burst forth, clawed chains rushing the masked jounin. Of course, a man does not train with a whip user and not learn how to dodge such a weapon.
Naruto dropped his pack and swung his staff out to catch the assailant coming from the left in the stomach and propelling him into a tree-trunk. Upon contact between tree-trunk and head, there was a fleshy crack. Kakashi clotheslined and sucker-punched the ninja who came from the right.
"A little something you failed to mention, hmm?" Kakashi suggested to the old man they were escorting.
When the next enemy nin showed up, Naruto grabbed the client and dragged him away – gagged for now so that he couldn't give away their position – and hid the man while Kakashi did battle with the other mask-wearing jounin.
Using a hollow reed to breathe through, Naruto watched the confrontation from underwater. It was going pretty well in general. Kakashi didn't have to worry about protecting the client or Naruto from the other guy, which was a bonus. Just when it looked like Kakashi could finish the whole thing, a third party joined the fight, incapacitating the enemy nin and carrying him off.
"So, who was that anyway Kakashi-sensei?" Naruto asked as he waded out of the river, dragging the client after him – a hollow reed also sticking out of the old man's mouth for him to breathe through while they'd been underwater.
"Momochi Zabuza," Kakashi answered lowly, and then he turned his solemn black eye to the client. "It seems that Gato -" the client had explained his situation on the boat-ride over, seeded with much 'emotional blackmail' to make sure they didn't leave him as soon as they made land, "- is more than just interested in stopping your work."
When they got to the bridge builder's house, Naruto sent a letter back home for Gojyo or Hakkai to deliver to the Hokage for him. The letter also had the heads of the two 'demon brothers' that they had defeated earlier sealed at the bottom of the page. Two hours later – a time pre-determined in his letter to the Hokage – Naruto attempted to summon a reply. There was none. He'd keep trying every hour, on the hour, until he received a response.
The eventual reply was as follows: "Back up on the way. Password is 'fox in the hen-house'. New orders include assassination of Gato and acquisition of his assets."
Naruto passed the note with the Hokage's stamp at the bottom along to Kakashi, who messed up his hair proudly before ordering him on guard duty for the family while Kakashi kept an eye on the client specifically until whoever was being sent arrived. The note was destroyed as soon as they had both read it.
The back up that was sent turned out to be an AnBu, female by the build, and she had secured Gato's head and assets before she had been with them for two full days. She did not walk back to Konoha with Kakashi and Naruto. Naruto, on the other hand, got to meet a boy called Haku, who was the 'hunter nin' who had 'taken out' Momochi. The boy was collecting medicinal herbs to help the missing nin get better. It wasn't any business of Konoha's that the Demon of the Bloody Mist lived or died, as with Gato dead he was no longer after their client. Perhaps not very tidy, but that was life for you.
"The chuunin exam?" Naruto asked in surprise as Kakashi handed him an entry paper.
"I think you're ready," the silver-haired man informed him simply. "Besides, they're being held in Konoha this time, and there's a team that had one member pass last cycle, so you'll be able to slot in with them for this exam."
Naruto nodded, a smile spreading across his face.
The other two genin he would be on a team with were, of course, older than himself and had taken the exam before in a different country. Still, as part of their team-bonding, they gave him a run-down of what it had been last time, so that he might have some idea of what to expect this time.
Their names were Yahiko and Tashigi, and they both carried swords, which meant that Naruto was introduced to a new chakra control exercise: sword walking.
It wasn't that he had to walk on the swords, as such, as be able to – instantaneously – be able to have enough chakra over his feet for him to be able to land on, then bounce off the edge of a blade in order to borrow momentum. Without damaging the blade or his foot-wear at all.
The first step of that was being able to just stand on the edge of a dull blade. The second was to do the same on a sharp blade without dulling it. The third was to walk along the blade, retracting his chakra from his feet each time it came away from the blade (which is where the name of the exercise came from). The final step was that momentum-borrowing 'bounce'.
So, while Naruto had a squad of ten clones working on the chakra exercises, he personally was a participant of team-bonding exercises with Yahiko and Tashigi. Two completely different people, even if they did both use swords.
Yahiko was the 'disgrace' son of a samurai. Even as a ninja though, he believed in a sort of samurai philosophy, convoluted as it was. It was along the lines of "a sword is designed to kill, and with this one sword I will protect the handful of people in the street and in my home"... or something.
Tashigi was just a sword-nerd. She knew "all about every sword, ever", approximately speaking, and grilled Naruto on every detail he could remember of Kakashi's fight with Zabuza as it pertained to the Mist nin's massive sword. Naruto learnt a lot of technical sword-jargon from Tashigi.
Also as part of the preparation for the chuunin exam, Kakashi took to the side-lines of training, just watching as Kyo (a black-haired man with a mild case of either Multiple Personality Disorder or Bi-Polar Disorder, and who was the jounin-sensei for Yahiko and Tashigi) took the metaphorical reigns and made sure that they all got along and worked well together – or else. Kyo-sensei was also going to be the official jounin-sensei for the team, as his students outnumbered Kakashi's two to one. Basic math really.
Then came the day of the first stage of the chuunin exams. Silently, they slipped past the crowd that had congregated and become congested on level two, and continued on to level three where they were supposed to be.
"Oi Naruto!" a voice called once the team was in the testing room.
Yahiko laid a hand on the blonde's shoulder and gave a squeeze. "You catch up with your classmates, we'll go catch up with ours. Re-group when the examiners show up," he said.
Naruto nodded and turned his attention to Kiba, who was followed by Hinata, Shino, Shikamaru, Chouji and Ino, and was the one who had called his name.
"Where's Sasuke-kun and Forehead Girl?" Ino asked. "You were assigned to be on their team, weren't you?"
Naruto shrugged. "They didn't make the grade," he answered easily. "Kakashi-sensei explained that, on average, only about a third of all Academy graduates make it to full genin each cycle. Some years a little more, some a little less. This year," he rolled his shoulders casually, "a little less."
"And how did you make the grade if Sasuke-kun didn't!" Ino nearly screeched.
Naruto was not the only boy to raise his pinky finger and twiddle it in the ear closest to the blonde girl, trying to make the ringing stop. In fact, Shikamaru, Chouji, Kiba and Shino all did as well. So did Hinata actually, and getting a timid, shy, ultimately polite girl like her to do something like that meant that the noise was bad.
"He was too proud to be smart," Naruto answered shortly, then rather blatantly turned away from her to give his attention to the other genin he'd been in classes with. "So, what sort of missions did your sensei lump you with?" he asked the other boys.
"Tora," they all hissed as one, even Shino and Hinata joined in with the hateful tone, which would have surprised Naruto as they were normally very level, quiet and polite sorts of people...
Naruto suppressed the smirk that wanted to slide onto his face. After all, Tora loved him, and he was the envy of all the mission-desk chunins who had ever had that mission themselves because of it. Instead, he 'winced in sympathy', as though he shared their hatred of the animal in question.
"Ah," he said. "I think the only reason there were times that I didn't get the Tora mission was because someone else picked it up before Kakashi-sensei and I got into the missions room," he offered, and it was approximately the truth too, he was just making it sound like he hated it rather than was finding it amusing.
"Alright you lot, pipe down!" a deep voice yelled from the front of the room, and Naruto took that as his cue to excuse himself from his year-mates and re-join his team-mates.
The 'written' test was certainly interesting, Naruto mused to himself as he processed the rules that had been laid out by Morino-san once they'd taken their seats. Rules which said two points off every time you're caught cheating. That, plus the fact that Naruto recognised the chunin on his left (Hinata was on his right), rather suggested to Naruto that the important thing at this stage was to not get caught, while also making sure he had the information he gathered through his cheating correct.
Subtly, Naruto copied the answers from the chunin on his left, then cross-checked them with Hinata on his right, and did his best to figure out the theory of the questions so that he could do a third check. He didn't have time to triple-check all of his nine answers before Morino-san called for pencils down and their full attention.
As soon as the examiner said that they had a choice to take the final question or not, Naruto stopped listening. There were no choices when it came to accepting missions, unless there were an abundance of D-ranks to pick from. If you were given a mission, you took it. That was that. Passing the chunin exam was his current mission, and he would not disappoint Kakashi-sensei, Gojyo, Hakkai, or any of the ladies by failing, especially so early on. He was planning on taking Kakashi-sensei (and possibly Kyo-sensei, Yahiko and Tashigi) to Gojyo and Hakkai's club to celebrate passing, as well as finally introducing Kakashi-sensei to everybody.
When the chicken-nins and less-than-bright-sparks had left, and Morino-san had given his speech to the confused others still present, a window crashed inwards and a woman who was wearing about as much clothing, proportionately, as Ran-chan did when she was about to step out onto the stage, and Ran-chan was the 'conservative one'. It was a considerably more trashy-looking than any of the ladies wore though. Naruto was just used to a bit more style in well-proportioned women of that age.
What was the world coming to when exotic dancers and sometimes-strippers have more style than a tokubetsu-jounin of the Konohagakure ninja corps?
He nabbed a bit of paper on the way out, and once he'd gotten instructions from Mitarashi-san he wrote a note for Gojyo and Hakkai to pass on to the girls when they checked the mail-box saying that he would be restricted to one of the training grounds for the next five days, and could they please put some packeted snacks and bottled water into his cupboard for him to summon as needed?
"Ladies and Gents!" Gojyo announced to the club from the stage. "A young man who is very special to all of the ladies, as well as Hakkai and myself, came home from surviving and passing the second stage of the chunin exams yesterday," the tanned, red-eyed man announced with a rakish grin.
Mild applause answered him.
The grin on Gojyo's face became a smirk. "So, to congratulate him, and because he's finally brought his jounin-sensei around to meet us all, the ladies decided to put on a bit of a show."
That got a lot more applause as the music began and Gojyo got off the stage to join Hakkai, Kakashi and Naruto at a table near to the stage. Kyo-sensei, Yahiko and Tashigi had all declined when Naruto invited them.
"These are the people you live with?" Kakashi asked, his voice a hoarse whisper in Naruto's ear.
Naruto grinned and nodded.
"Guess that explains all the lipstick marks," Kakashi decided as he straightened in his seat and fixed his gaze on the stage.
Naruto, Gojyo and Hakkai laughed at the man as Kotori-chan flung aside the curtain, letting herself as well as Kyoku-chan and Cho-chan through and out onto the stage.
Throughout the show, Kakashi's jaw, masked though it was, hung open. It was a good thing he was wearing a mask too, or something might have flown into that conveniently open orifice. Perhaps a smoke or a potent drink courtesy of Gojyo, but something all the same. The reason for this was that as he watched the girls dance on the stage, he was recognising moves that Naruto had pulled when they were training or on missions together.
That spin that Kotori-chan had done on the pole, where she was practically parallel to the floor and holding on with just her hands as she spun – Kakashi had seen Naruto do that with his staff to change direction fast and take out an opponent at the same time. That back-flip that Momo-chan did across the front of the stage – Kakashi had felt the effects of that when Naruto wanted to put space between them and make sure he'd have a slightly disadvantaged opponent once he got that space (due to height differences, it caught Kakashi in the ribs rather than under the chin like it did with people who more closely matched Naruto's stature). The way Eri-chan pulled herself up the pole with just her hands and did a perfect split while she was up there – Kakashi had seen Naruto pull himself up his staff and perch at the top on his palms, legs out straight in just the same way. The way Saki-chan and Suzume-chan held themselves upside-down and perfectly still when hanging from lengths of blood-red fabric that he'd thought were curtains, and then the way they spun themselves down with such elegant – and leggy – grace... It looked just like what Naruto did when he used his whip to pull himself up out of Kakashi's way when they were sparring, and then came back down again to devastating effect.
Another lady – Ran-chan – was at their table and whispering in Naruto's ear and leading him away before Kakashi even knew what was going on. The next thing he knew, Ran-chan and a blonde with startlingly blue eyes were dancing their way onto the stage.
"Na-chan!" Gojyo called up to the stage. "You forgot this!"
Kakashi's eye's (yes, he'd uncovered his sharingan. There was no way in hell he was missing this after all, or forgetting it, ever!) boggled as Gojyo tossed a very familiar whip up to the blonde, who caught it with practised ease as she twirled on the stage, cracking it in such a way that had just about every man watching the show going bright-eyed with appreciation.
"That's... Naruto's whip..." Kakashi said quietly as he watched the beautiful blonde strut and dance and move and crack the whip.
Gojyo smirked. Hakkai laughed and lay a gentle hand on Kakashi's shoulder.
"That's Naruto," the green-eyed brunette explained quietly.
Kakashi choked. He wanted to say that henge didn't do that. That Naruto shouldn't be able to interact with the pole and his dance partner like that without the henge dispelling. Before he could get his brain cells to line up properly again and communicate those words to his vocal chords and mouth, he had a lap full of beautiful, sexy, scantily clad, female Naruto. Naruto who was gently teasing down his mask to the appreciative hoots and hollers of all the other men in the room – including Gojyo and Hakkai. Naruto who had several hundred ryou shoved into his garter and C-cups and tiny little anklets and lacy wrist bands.
"I knew you were handsome under there," Naruto breathed across Kakashi's lips, and then with a smirk, Naruto pecked a tiny kiss to the corner of Kakashi's mouth before flipping back onto stage before Kakashi could react.
Kakashi was frozen, unable to even pull his mask back up, but Gojyo was kind enough to only snicker at Kakashi's impersonation of a fish, rather than take advantage of it.
"Give me a kiss too, Na-chan! Please!"
The begging call rippled around the room, and Naruto teased them all by smiling coyly, rolling 'her' hips, spinning on the ball of one high-heeled foot, cracking the whip over her head, then disappearing under the pyrotechnics.
Then Naruto was back in his chair beside his sensei. Upon seeing that Kakashi was still suffering from general shock, Naruto kindly shut his sensei's mouth for him and put his mask back into place.
"Breathe, Kakashi-sensei," Naruto instructed fondly. "Breathe deeply."
A very short time later, while Cho-chan was performing one of her popular staple numbers, Kakashi ducked over to the bar and purchased "the largest bottle of whatever is your most potent" - which he then proceeded to drink like water for a full six seconds before Gojyo, Hakkai and Naruto noticed his choice of liquor.
"Gah!" they all three yelped when the spotted the label.
Gojyo grabbed the bottle. Hakkai confiscated the glass. Naruto checked Kakashi's pulse and pupil dilation.
"How is he, Kid?" Gojyo asked nervously, while trading the glass for the bottle with Hakkai. His green-eyed partner needed to have a little talk with whoever was running the bar. The did not sell that stuff by the bottle, ever. Hakkai was the only person either of them had ever met who could hold the stuff for more than one tiny shot-glass worth, but Hakkai was a machine when it came to alcohol tolerance. The slim man could drink anybody under the table and you'd never know he'd even been drinking. Hakkai had won a lot of drinking contests when he and Gojyo were still travelling.
"Fine," Kakashi answered before Naruto could. "Give me the glass back, please. I did pay for that..." and then Kakashi went from sensible to snoring as he fell forward onto Naruto.
"I'll take him home," Naruto said firmly when Hakkai came back, Kakashi's money in hand where the bottle had been.
"You know where he lives?" Hakkai asked as he handed the ryou over to Naruto, who in turn tucked it into one of the pockets of his comatose sensei.
Naruto shook his head in answer. "I'll take him back to my apartment. I wouldn't want to leave him alone anyway," he explained.
Gojyo and Hakkai both smiled the apologetic smiles of people who felt at fault for something done by somebody else when they were supposed to be responsible for them.
Gojyo reached over and ruffled Naruto's hair. "You're a good kid," he told the boy. "You want me to bring up my hangover cure tomorrow morning?" he offered.
Naruto shook his head with a rueful smile on his lips. "If he wakes up tomorrow morning, he won't be hung over, he'll still be drunk. I'll put up some seals to keep the lights dim and prevent sound from travelling from one room to another, make him something substantial to eat. If the hangover hits him, I know how to make a proper Prairie Oyster."
"Hey!" Gojyo objected as Naruto hefted his sensei like a hunter hefts a hunted deer or boar. "What's wrong with the way I make 'em?"
"Gojyo, you put alcohol in your hangover cure," Naruto said slowly. "That's just turning it into a weird cocktail."
Gojyo grumbled, but smiled and waved with Hakkai as Naruto left them behind in the building before carefully using the shunshin technique to take him to his apartment building.
Having kage bunshin to help him learn more stuff, faster, was so useful sometimes.
Kakashi rose to a vaguely conscious level, briefly, a couple of times during the night and in the morning. Every time, Naruto was on hand to give him a little bit of water to drink and a mouthful of hot food before he fell asleep again. When he eventually woke up properly it was almost two in the afternoon.
His head was killing him, and it was only the anti-torture training from his AnBu days that kept him from giving voice to his pain. He did not, after all, recognise the room he was in, nor the bed though it was very comfortable.
"Here Kakashi-sensei," Naruto said softly, padding quickly into the room on cat-quiet feet, a large bowl of rice with finely chopped vegetables and shredded chicken in one hand, and a large glass of cool water in the other. "You'll feel better if you eat something."
"Naruto?" Kakashi asked, furrowing his brow in confusion, even as he accepted the bowl and chopsticks from the boy. He knew it wasn't a genjutsu, his chakra was still too messed up from whatever he'd done to incur the wrath of this hangover to allow a genjutsu to take on him. "What happened?"
"You decided to try drinking Hangman like it was water," Naruto answered, a very slight smirk on his face. "That was not an at all intelligent thing to do Kakashi-sensei," he reprimanded, though his voice was still soft in deference to the obvious pain the man in his bed was feeling. "When you passed out, I brought you to my place, since I don't really know where you live."
Kakashi set his chopsticks in the bowl and extended a slightly shaking had towards the glass of water that Naruto was still holding for him.
Naruto pushed the hand away and gently set the edge of the glass to his sensei's lips. He had of course removed Kakashi's mask in case of vomiting in the night, it also made it easier to feed the heavily inebriated man.
"Hangman is normally only sold to civilians," Naruto continued to explain. "Their ID always has their home address on it you see, so when they pass out Gojyo and Hakkai can load them in a cart and have someone take them home. Ninja ID doesn't have that sort of detail on it. Of course, Hangman isn't supposed to be sold by the bottle, ever. Hakkai had words with the man who sold you it, as well as getting your money back since he'd confiscated the bottle."
Kakashi nodded in acceptance of this, quickly bringing a hand to his head as the motion had caused a sensation similar to being pounded with a large mallet.
Naruto sighed and got up from his seat beside the bed, leaving the room. He came back two minutes later with a glass of... something.
"What's that?" Kakashi asked suspiciously.
"Prairie Oyster," Naruto answered. "Hangover cure."
Kakashi's bleary black eye lit up at those two magic words and set the bowl down in his lap so that he could reach out both hands for the glass, he even made 'gimme' finger-twitches.
Naruto stifled a chuckle and handed it over, smirking as he watched his sensei knock back the contents of the glass in one great gulp.
"Sweet Kami what's in that?" Kakashi asked as he coughed and reached over to swap the glass that had held the hangover cure for the glass of water.
"A raw egg, a shot of Worcestershire sauce, tomato sauce, vinegar, and some pepper," Naruto answered. "Feel better?"
Kakashi drained his glass of water, then blinked and nodded slowly. "Yes," he answered, surprised.
"Prairie Oysters, for all that they're a bit nasty, will cure even the most sinister of hangovers," Naruto said, and gently stroked his sensei's wild silver hair. "The shower is through there -" Naruto said with a nod to a different door than the one he'd used previously, "-and I'll be in the kitchen when you're done," he finished, collecting up the used glass and moving towards the same door he'd already come and gone through a few times since Kakashi had woken up.
"Thank you Naruto," Kakashi said sincerely.
"You're welcome Kakashi-sensei."
Yahiko and Tashigi hadn't gotten into the third stage of the chunin exam. Kyo-sensei excused himself to Naruto and Kakashi to give his attention to his own students improvement for next time, knowing that Kakashi would be resuming his previous full-time training with Naruto.
There had been a preliminary round to thin the numbers before the genin had left the Forest of Death, and Naruto had been darkly pleased to have been assigned Hyuuga Neji as his opponent for the first round of the third stage. With two Hyuugas going for chunin, and only one needed for entertaining the masses who would come to the exams to watch the matches, Neji had been pitted against Hinata – sweet, shy, polite, gentle Hinata – and he'd nearly killed her.
Hinata was still in the hospital and visitors – even family and team-mates – weren't permitted yet. It would be a week, according to the hospital staff Kiba had talked to, before Hinata would be able to have visitors.
His own method for getting through the preliminary stage – cracking his opponent in the temple with the butt of his staff – hadn't been as damaging while still being equally effective towards the goal, and Ino (his opponent) had woken up a couple of hours later with a headache. No permanent harm done, and Ino was a nuisance. Hinata was nice though, she shouldn't have to deal with all that pain, and inflicted by family at that!
No, it would not stand. And if Naruto had his way, neither would Neji for long.
Of course, Neji wasn't the only genin Naruto had to be ready to fight against in the third stage. Shino, Shikamaru, and Lee were other Konoha genin that had made it into the third stage, with all three of the Suna genin making it through as well. It was just about a Suna versus Konoha exam, since all other contenders had been taken out either in the Forest of Death or the preliminary round. Naruto's fight against Neji would be the only fight in the first round between two genin from the same village however. Second round, who knows? He could potentially be facing any of the other six.
For the next month, Kakashi had Naruto train in elemental ninjutsu – regardless of affinity. Kakashi drilled his cute little student in every element and every ninjutsu he could think of. Kage bunshin were a very useful training tool that month.
As well as this, and particularly because Naruto was fighting a Hyuuga, Kakashi taught Naruto what little he knew about pressure points. These weren't tenketsu, which the Hyuuga could see with their 'all-seeing' eyes, but generalised areas that, when struck, would affect the way the body worked. Actually, this learning was augmented by Hakkai's knowledge of acupuncture, and Hakkai knew a lot about acupuncture. Generally, the mild-mannered man used it to help Gojyo or the girls relax, or to cure muscle problems. He did know more than just that though, and the five kage bunshins that were assigned to studying the medical scrolls Hakkai assigned him for supplementary reading on the subject helped Naruto soak up all that Hakkai had to teach him like a sponge.
The most exiting thing to happen during that month, however, had nearly nothing to do with either of them: Uchiha Sasuke was, ahem, 'kidnapped' from his home in the deserted Uchiha district. The bloodline-fixated civilian council requested – loudly – that teams of ninjas be sent out to retrieve him. Only that Naruto had once been in the same class as the Uchiha and had originally been assigned to be on a team with him linked them at all. Otherwise, Naruto and Kakashi were both too busy training for the next phase of the chunin exams, and the Hokage sent neither of them on the retrieval mission. When the chunin teams that he had sent returned with their target – Sasuke – and the boy had been examined by a medic, he was immediately placed in a heavily guarded cell within the Torture and Interrogation Department of AnBu.
The brat had gone traitor, and as much as his bloodline was an asset to the village, Sasuke himself was a liability. He was effectively confined to a cell and – unofficially mind you – labelled in the Hokage's files as "breeding stock only", which would have amused Naruto greatly if he knew about it.
Naruto had a very sharp blade attached to one end of his bo-staff as he stood in the centre of the arena with the other genin as the proctor welcomed the dignitaries who had come to watch the day's events. His whip was oiled and coiled and ready. He'd a neat collection of exploding tags and senbon secreted about his person, and his cupboard back in his apartment was well stocked with anything else he might need.
Soon enough, it was just Naruto and Neji.
"The fates have decided, it is your destiny to lose today," Neji proclaimed.
Naruto raised an eyebrow. "You're either exceedingly arrogant, or a prophet. I'm disinclined to believe the latter," he quipped.
"Begin!" ordered Hayate, the proctor, and with a cough, he jumped back out of the way.
At the same time, Naruto leapt up to the top of his staff, balancing easily on the tip of the blade at the top.
Neji charged, intending to break the staff (obviously he didn't know about the steel core) so that he could reach his opponent. His open palm hit at approximately the half-way point, and it started to tip. As he had when Sasuke and Sakura had charged him back before they'd taken Kakashi's bell-test and his 'team-mates' were after his breakfast bar, Naruto used his feet to flip the staff around. This time, however, he very deliberately caught his opponent in the chin with the blunt end while he dropped to the ground, spinning the staff in his hands so that the blade was out between himself and Neji.
The transferred momentum and kinetic energy of the levered motion, as well as the inertia/gravity matrix resulted in Neji being sent five metres backwards, head-first with his teeth through his tongue, until he crashed into the dirt.
Naruto circled around. He had no intention of standing over the body of a talented taijutsu-user. He instead placed the blade at the end of his staff against Neji's neck from behind the slightly older boy's head.
"Winner: Uzumaki Naruto!" Hayate proclaimed with some surprise. That fight really hadn't taken very long at all. A genin should not be that easy to take down... But he had been.
"I'll take him to the medics," Naruto offered, even as he hefted his opponent. "There are a few things I want to talk to him about when he comes around."
Hayate just nodded silently as he, and the rest of the people in the stadium, watched the surprising blonde carry off the previous year's number one rookie. Once Naruto was out of sight, Hayate shook his head and called down the next pair of combatants: Shikamaru and Temari.
The medic-nins had stopped the bleeding and mostly healed up Neji's bitten-through tongue in just a few minutes, but they advised him to be careful eating for a while as they also did their best to heal the fracture Naruto had made in his jawbone with his first strike, and the bump on the back of his head from his harsh landing.
"I advise you not open your mouth at all except to eat," Naruto quipped once the medics had cleared out of the room. "Maybe then you'll listen more," he said more dangerously as he stalked across the room to the older boy. "And you can start by listening now. I don't give a damn about your issues with your family. That's your shit to deal with. I care that you talked down to, and called weak, possibly the nicest person I've ever met. I care that you tried to kill a member of your family, a kind girl who for reasons completely beyond my comprehension cares about you. I care that for some fucked up reason you think people can't change. Not won't but can't. In this world, there is one thing that is constant, and one thing that is infinite. Neither of these are fate or destiny," Naruto growled, his blue eyes flashing dangerously. "The only thing constant in this world, Neji-baka, is change. The only thing that is infinite is human stupidity. Some might argue the universe, but I'm more inclined to believe it's human stupidity."
Naruto took a deep breath and stepped back from where he'd been encroaching on the older boy's personal space.
"Hinata-chan is proof of the first," Naruto said, his voice controlled and calm. "She works every day to better herself, to improve, to become the person that she wants to be," he continued to explain in a measured, soft tone as he turned his back on the older boy and headed towards the door once more. "You, Neji-san, are proof of the second. I wish you the best of luck with changing that," he said with a glance over his shoulder as he stood in the door frame.
Then he was gone, on his way back to the balcony where the genin waited for their turn in the arena and watched the other matches.
Almost exactly ten seconds into the last fight of the first round – Gaara of the Sand against Konoha's own Rock Lee – an area-wide genjutsu fluttered gently down over the stadium, vaguely luminous white feathers lulling every civilian to sleep where they sat, and a good portion of unprepared ninja as well.
Naruto stood in the office of the Hokage and quietly bit the inside of his lower lip. He didn't think he was in trouble, but he'd used rather a lot of techniques that were on the various forbidden scrolls that he'd borrowed from the Hokage's library. The kage bunshin of course, which had swamped Konoha as a defending army, but it was already generally known that he could perform that technique. He'd been seen using it when training after all. The potential problems arose from all the other techniques that he'd used to defend the village.
"Naruto," the Sandaime said solemnly as he set his pipe down on his desk. "I do hereby accord you chunin rank. This is based on both your performance throughout the chunin exam, and your actions during the invasion attempt by Orochimaru and his subordinates."
Naruto blinked, then his bright blue eyes went wide in delighted surprise.
"Also, as you have reached chunin rank, this is yours," Sarutobi said, reaching into one of the drawers in his desk and removing a scroll. "Study all that is contained within there carefully, Naruto," the old man said, his eyes kind and tired. "And if you happen to see a man with large amounts of white hair peeping into the ladies hot springs, that's your godfather Jiraiya. Punt him my way if you see him? He should have presented himself to me over a month ago."
Naruto nodded, a grin on his face as he accepted the scroll from the old man. He threw a salute and marched out of the office in an orderly fashion before he started bouncing off the walls until he found a window to leave through.
He'd made chunin!