Uzumaki – Chapter 2

Stay on the path

“Oh, yeah… This is gonna hurt,” he thought, the punch connecting with the near exact center of his rib cage, enough force rolling unhindered through his body he could have sworn he had just felt his lungs turn into liquid. As he flew backwards, he could feel the wind rushing by his ears at what must have been hundreds of miles per hour by his calculation, and he wondered if he was just going to keep sailing on off into orbit as his momentum carried him onwards. He hated to admit it, but this opponent just might be a bit harder than he had actually anticipated. The realization had a slight distaste for Naruto Uzumaki, yet it was one he had tasted several times before. Haku… Kiba… Neji… Gaara… Tsunade on a bender… All tastes of the bitter wine he remembered well when his estimations of his own talents proved just a tad too liberal.

He realized he would need to right himself here in a moment. Do some advanced trick with his chakra to latch onto the ground and slow himself, or try to redirect his momentum off of something in an attempt to keep from hitting one of the very large, and very thick trees he had spotted from the corner of his eye before he had been assaulted by the unstoppable force that had been applied in his general direction. Sure, his reputation of having the hardest head in the village would only be reinforced and reinsured if he just took it like a man and slammed into the Sequoia-esque wood life around him, but one thing Naruto had grown tired of was winning when all looked darkest. A fart had saved him in a battle with an opponent whose sensitive nose turned out to be a double-edged sword, and he had yet to live that gastro-intestinal victory down. It was hardly something a future Hokage would want in an eventual biography.

He was moving way too fast to expect anything shy of a miracle to save him. While his chakra control had progressed by leaps and bounds in his two and a half years of training with his lusty sensei, the ground was still a centimeter or two beyond the sole of his boot. It was more chakra than he had learned to generate in this instance, and he would need a steady anchor if he was going to avoid the mind-numbing pain an impact with a giant toothpick would cause at this speed. “C’mon, Naruto!” he yelled at himself, “This is not the day to find out if ninja can fly!”

He should have known his day would end up like this, he realized, nothing had gone right since he had awakened this morning. An alarm clock oddly left unset from a rigorous day of training the day before had failed to raise him from the angelic sleep and borderline perverted dreams he resided in as his brain played in its nocturnal fantasy world. What had been an invitation from the Unlucky Princess to see what ramen tasted like on the oddly shaped plate of her chest, turned into a nightmare as suddenly Sakura had burst into his private dreamscape with eyes that just made Naruto’s heart whither from fear. In his nightmares, what was usually among his definitions of beauty became a truly fearful creature possessed of dark-eyes, teeth, and a fist that could ground concrete with gentle touch. “You perverted son of a…” was usually how she would start, but Naruto rarely heard the last word as his dream self was already running with speed that would have made the Fourth Hokage wet himself in envy over.

Moments later, just as her large, powerful forehead was about to fall from orbit and crush him, he woke with a start, wide eyes, and a palpable sheen of sweat. He had never known what it was that created that image of Sakura in his mind, nor did he believe he wanted to. The death by forehead reference was easy enough. Ino’s constant ragging of Sakura about her forehead had imprinted itself upon his secret joke list long ago. But the dark creature he was not sure of… It was as though he could feel its presence in Sakura’s moments of deepest, darkest anger, but, he had never seen her that way. Ino had been inside Sakura’s mind once with her Shintenshin no Jutsu. Whenever asked about what she had seen, Ino would suddenly go sheet-white, and stop speaking. “I don’t wanna talk about it,” usually killed the conversation right then. It was a look he had seen before. Looks on the faces of older shinobi who had survived the last great war called it “kunai shock.” It was an experience none of them would ever forget, and apparently Ino had found her own experience within Sakura’s mind.

He pushed the chilling image out of his mind, and tossed the blanket off his body, his eyes catching the face of the alarm clock and a time of half past nine. He wanted to rail against the obviously defective clock the shoddy manufacturers had put together, the diabolical device obviously choosing the perfect time to give out, leaving him to fend for himself two hours later than he was supposed to get up. He growled inwardly, ready to tear apart whomever was responsible for this freakishly un-working time-keeping device… He then reached over and pulled out the clean sock he had wedged in between the hammer and the pair of bells before falling like a meteor into the soft surface of his bed.

Pulling his sleeping cap from his head and setting it on the hook above his headboard, Naruto made a beeline for the bathroom and the shower he so desperately needed to throw off the chains he had yet to shake from the voluntary bondage of sleep. Letting his boxers fall to the floor, and letting the water run for a few minutes to gain its temperature, he had to admit to feeling better as only the vapor began to waft through the air about him. He slipped inside, pulling his shower curtain to, and began to work the soap in his hands, gathering the lather and beginning to work it over his stiff body. The combination of hot water, soap, and the grime leaving his body began to sink in and Naruto began feeling human once more. His blue eyes began to open wider, and the smile began to curl his lips…

Until, as though fate could see him truly enjoying something, the rug was once more pulled from beneath him. Unbidden and unhindered, the arctic cold waters flowed from his shower head and Naruto had no possible defense against them, hurriedly trying to climb the tile wall of his shower as each new cold drop hitting his body was like a chilled dagger. The blanket of his comfort was ripped away suddenly, and Naruto found himself suddenly wishing he were back in the Snow Country, where he swore the water was warmer.

His hands, topped by trained, honed fingers capable of turning small knives into deadly weapons and bending chakra to his will moved quickly to try and readjust the water’s temperature in a flurry of movement on the knobs. Moments later, he grew resigned to his fate, and finished his shower, stepping out onto his cold floor, shivering as though stepping out into a deep freeze. He quickly found his towel, and dried off, slipping a robe about his body, and walking into his kitchen. His eyes fixed on his electric bill a moment later, and the reason for his discomfort was now obvious. He growled in spite of himself, and left the bill, complete with its picture of a string tied around a finger on the counter. He would eat breakfast out this morning.

Or, so he had thought, as he passed his usual eating place, the Ichiraku Ramen, his visage becoming downcast as he remembered Ayame’s pregnancy had been just about due before he and Team Kakashi had left on the mission to Suna. The old man had told him that the closer they got to the due date the hours at the restaurant would shorten, and they would close up for a while so that the family could be together with the new baby for a while. His heart broke as he saw that the place had not opened yet. Maybe by lunch he consoled himself, then walked on, deciding on a place her knew with some decent onigiri. It wasn’t Ramen, the gods’ most perfect creation, but it was food, and if he had to deal with generalities this morning to appease his tyrannical stomach, he would.

Another slight pang entered his heart as he thought of Ayame, and the thought of her with child. She had been his first real crush in his life, long before he had ever met Sakura. Her kind face was a refreshing one whenever he had been assaulted by “those eyes” as he called them, and the fact she was serving him her father’s famous ramen didn’t hurt the school boy affection either. He recalled proudly the day he had asked her to marry him, all at the tender age of five… She let him down easy of course, saying she was much too old him, but that he would find a woman to serve him ramen one day. The blow to his heart was softened by an offering of pork noodles to his stomach, and Naruto quickly forgot his pain.

Still, the idea of Ayame having a child only reinforced how much had truly changed in his absence with the Old Pervert. Her father had told him how she had fallen in love with the son of a wealthy vegetable distributor a town or two over. They had been married only a year after Naruto had left. So much had been the same on his return, yet the changes crept out to kick him every now and again, either pleasantly or unpleasantly.

Naruto’s luck with food wasn’t getting any better as he strode through the market on his way to the training grounds. Every place was either out, or was just tossing out leftovers that made him want to gag. Truth be told, he had planned on awakening two hours prior to when he did, thinking, hoping his own biological clock would awaken him from the sound slumber he hoped awaited him. He would have then proceeded to pay his electrical bill, and then onto the training grounds with a full stomach.

The sock had been a simple reaction to one of Kakashi’s new habits of sneaking into Naruto’s dwelling and setting his clock for a very early time every so often to ensure the boy would be at a meeting place on time. After a late appearance or two, Kakashi ran Naruto a good five miles, then snuck into to Naruto’s room, setting his clock for three hours later. It was a prank, they both knew it, not an object lesson as Kakashi tried to play it off. When Kakashi’s mean streak took over, he had no trouble lording his rank over his students. It was something he would pay the one-eyed man back for later.

He had to admit though, Kakashi-sensei was probably right to do as he was doing. In two and half years of training, Naruto had taken on Jiraiya’s lax attitude toward discipline.

No food, cold shower, and late. “Kakashi-sensei is gonna kill me…”

Naruto arrived at the training grounds a good hour late, and he could feel the murderous intent from his place just beyond the invisible boundary where the grounds began and the street ended. It traveled up his spine and over his skin in waves as though Shino’s zoo of bugs had been released upon him to march over. It was one of the few times he actually wanted to take up the mantle of coward Sasuke had stuck him with and run home and climb back into the bed. But, a Hokage must take his lumps, he thought stepping into the training grounds, setting himself for the bitching he knew must be about to come.

He was greeted though, by a sight he didn’t expect to see… The face of Sakura… in a good mood. It was not like the old days, where a simple uttered phrase from him could earn him her wrath, but he had fully expected her to be irritated as well, ready to kill in fact. One thing you learned quickly was that Sakura Haruno was not one to be kept waiting. Not if one expected to keep one’s lung function at even near efficiency. He had been expecting the loudest voice of exasperation to come from her lips. She ran to meet him quickly, and he found himself bracing for the powerful slug that would be coming. Instead, she held out a small package to him. A simple, “Huh?” was all he managed.

“Eat it… Kakashi-sensei’s pissed…” she said, as he quickly unfurled the small package to find a small, but meat packed onigiri for him. “I overslept too… He’s been running us like dogs since we got home from Suna.” Sakura spoke as she ate her own, a small grain of rice on her cheek indicated she had been eating one before he arrived as well. “I made a few, but this is my last… I kind of thought you’d stop somewhere first…”

“Thanks, Sakura-chan,” he said between impassioned bites, his words all but flowing as he spoke with his mouth full. “I needed this…”

“Don’t get me wrong… I’m still mad at you for being late… But the way we’ve been having to train lately has made me all sympathetic,” she said, finishing off the last bite, and the seaweed wrap.

“Have you been in there, yet,” Naruto asked, looking up at Sakura as the last of the rice ball disappeared from his hands.

“No… but with all the killing intent in the air, you don’t need to be ANBU to tell he’s not in a good mood.”

“So its not just me, huh?” he half asked, straightening himself up and relishing the feeling of something in his stomach. “Why is it we happened to get the teacher whose scarier when he’s not feeling well?”

“Beat’s me,” Sakura answered, “We should have expected it, though… Remember what he did last time he wore himself using his Sharingan powers. Its not enough he’s exhausted, we have to be too…”

“Well… Remember. He always was big on teamwork… Must extend to team health as well…”

“That or he’s just a sadistic bastard whose tendencies don’t come out unless he’s had the crap kicked out of him,” Sakura said, adjusting her pack on her back and pulling Naruto by the arm towards the row of trees that surrounded Kakashi’s favorite training grounds.

“I’d go with sadistic bastard…” Naruto said, falling into step with the pink-haired girl. There had been a time in both of their lives when Sakura would not have only not touched Naruto, but would have also worked to go out of her way to not touch him. Things had changed between them in the void left in their lives by Sasuke’s defection, though what it was, Naruto had yet to be able to put his finger on. Either way, he liked it…

They approached the clearing at their best walking speed, but did so reluctantly. They hated showing up late to a training session, particularly when it was usually their sensei’s role in life to do that to them. It was a matter of principle though. They were a team, the least they could do is be there on time, forget the fact he was their commanding officer.

The silver-haired man came into view slowly as the rise of the hill, his back to them as he was turned to regard the large green stone monument that sat off to the side of their training grounds. His hair was spiky, and had the dichotomous look of being unkempt but well-managed at the same time. From their angle of approach, his entire face with th exception of a sliver of cheek was visible, his forehead protector obscuring one eye, and his black face mask the rest of it. It was impossible to tell if he wasn’t facing them out of disgust, or in his unusual deep reverence brought on by the name on the stone that he told them belonged to his best friend. They had thought to ask on occasion, which name it was, but Kakashi Hatake was an insanely private man when in regards to his feelings.

“So… What kept you?” he asked, not turning to regard them.

“Um,” Sakura began, fumbling for words to try and find a way to say they were sorry, but at the same time justify their tardiness due to his training schedule.

“Um… See there was this old lady… And he cat got chased by… And, her groceries…” Naruto began, his fingers grasping at straws of Kakashi’s own arguments that always came out when he was late, “… forget it…”

“Next time tell her to keep her dog on a leash and not carry as many sacks… She always does that to me… Damn dog,” he said finally turning to regard them with his single, visible eye, the look on his face one of his usually detached amusement.

“Seriously though,” Sakura began, “Its been a rough three weeks, sensei…” she said, hoping she was not out of line, “You’ve been keeping us on our toes so much, its been hard to even wake up.”

“She’s right,” Naruto agreed. “You’re being a damn slave driver,” he said, just as the tip of Sakura’s elbow jammed itself into his side.

He would go easy on the boy for the outburst he thought to himself. Naruto’s a passionate idiot, he can’t help it. “It is true I’ve been pushing to the two of you pretty hard since we got back from the Akatsuki mission. Its the last thing I want to do, but at the moment, there are only three of us, and I need you two in top shape in case we get a mission… I’m almost healed so, that will be happening soon, make no mistake.”

They both looked down, and noticed the simple cane that their teacher/commander was using to brace himself so as to take some pressure off of his strained muscles. Three weeks ago, he had been sending them notes via ninja dog for tasks for them to complete. A week and a half later, he was propped up on a painful looking crutch. Now he seemed almost back to his normal self, the older man barely putting any pressure on the cane. Naruto wondered if he actually needed it, or if it was just an accessory to make him look cool. In their last mission, Kakashi had rolled out a new power for the Sharingan eye implanted in his head, and a powerful, unnamed jutsu that took the arm of one of their Akatsuki opponents. The result had left him roughly about as effective as a kitten, and with far less energy.

In the aftermath, Sakura had learned of a traitor in Orochimaru’s organization from one of their vanquished foes, and they had half expected to be sent out after this mole to gain valuable information. The Fifth Hokage had denied them this mission though, saying it was Team Kakashi’s job to get well, and be ready to go out again. She said she didn’t want to break up a winning equation, which Sakura had assumed they would be absorbed into another team, or have a third placed with them under Kakashi’s command. There had been no such type of order coming down from the position of the number-one ninja. Thus, three weeks had come and gone by, filled with training exercises, D-ranked missions, and severe boredom on the part of the blond-haired shinobi.

Things were beginning to look up, though, even if they were being pushed harder than usual. Kakashi was getting his strength back, the missions had increased to C-Rank, and Kakashi was promising some interesting training exercises for them. The only part that lent trepidation to Naruto’s excitement was that for Kakashi interesting could mean anything from fun and entertaining to “Oh, I could die from doing this.”

“As I was saying… Yes, I’ve been pushing you hard the last few weeks. Its not something I’ve enjoyed, so you can drop the sadistic bastard comments,” he said, to the wide, denying eyed looks his pupils gave him. “It pains me I wasn’t able to do these exercises with you, but my injuries prevented it. But, I want you both to believe me, that they were entirely necessary.”

“Why?” Naruto asked, “We did most of this stuff before I left and Sakura became the old hag’s apprentice.”

“Because, Naruto… You two have been receiving personal training. You two are privileged beyond words to have received training from the legendary Sannin. You’ve both progressed farther than I could have expected in two and a half years. There is however, one thing they didn’t teach you, and one area they failed you in.”

“And what’s that?” Sakura asked, somewhat incredulously. How could Tsunade-sama have possibly failed her?

“The Sannin have been alone far too long. I think you’ve forgotten how to work as a team, and now, we’re going to rectify that…” Kakashi said.

“Huh?” Naruto said, “Where do you get that? We did great on our last mission! We took on guys who handed Gaara his ass!”

“He’s right, Sensei… We did well.. Not the best, but we accomplished the mission.” Sakura added, her voice losing some confidence as she thought back to Chiyo’s sacrifice.

“You’re right. We did.”

Naruto shook his head, holding his hands out in an expression that seemed to yell, “Ok?” Sakura joined his look, not following.

“I don’t doubt the level of training the both of you has had is above reproach. However, I’ve been planning this since Tsunade-sama told me Team Seven would be reforming.” Kakashi slid a hand into one pocket as he walked down from the monument, walking towards them, leaning on his cane ever so gently. “The Sannin drifted apart after Orochimaru’s betrayal… That won’t happen to us… Any of us.”

They caught the extra emphasis placed on the last few words. Naruto found himself hoping he and Kakashi meant the same thing.

“Now… Onto the reason I called you both out here today…”

“Yes! I’ve been waiting for this since you told us not to eat yesterday!”

“Naruto… Tell me you ate…” Kakashi said, looking back over his shoulder at the blond boy.

“Of course…” Naruto said, the onigiri he had received from Sakura being more comforting to his stomach than filling, “But usually when you say that, it means the training is extra sweet…”

“Yeah, Sensei… We figured out your tells a while back… ‘Don’t eat’ usually means we’re going to have the crap beat out of us, or there’s going to be something we really need to learn,” Sakura added. “You really need to work on some new ones…”

“Well, luckily, we’re not playing poker…” Kakashi said, continuing walking towards their training area, “Anyway, as you’ve guessed, yes, today is a very special training exercise…” He stopped at the entrance to a rather dense forest, thick, almost choked with threes, vines, and little maneuvering area between them. “Now… You two will go on from here… Alone… Inside you’ll be greeted by a mystery assailant. Your mission is to stop him, and bring him in for interrogation.”

“One guy?” Naruto asked.

One guy,” Kakashi replied.

“What’s the catch?” Sakura asked, refusing to believe it was that simple.

“The rules are very simple. 1. You can’t use any ninjutsu or genjutsu directly against your opponent. 2. You can’t speak to each other. At all,” Kakashi’s expression was suspiciously absent of emotion, but Sakura studied him closely, using her medical training to try and guess what their teacher/commander was really thinking. She knew it was next to impossible. At his best, Kakashi never gave anything away, at least not that her still green senses could detect. Her master, Tsunade, the current Hokage, had been adamant she try to study the way people held themselves when at rest, and to apply her medical training to that. What kind of blush was created through embarrassment, or because you had caught on to their lie. Did the way they held their hips, and the position of their legs mean they were being outgoing, or defensive. Kakashi masked his “tells” far too well on that front, at least.

“What do you mean we can’t talk to each other?” Naruto yelled, confirming their location to their “mystery” assailant if it had not already been broadcast. “How the hell are we supposed to coordinate between each other?”

“You’re a team… Figure it out,” Kakashi replied.

“This is gonna hurt. Isn’t it?” Naruto asked, his expression refusing to rest as it shifted from overwhelmed to excited. He hated the circumstances of the exercise, but Naruto still managed arousal at the thought of a powerful opponent.

“He’ll grow up one day… He’ll grow up one day,” Sakura kept repeating to herself within the confines of her thoughts, seeing Naruto’s tells as plainly as if they were spelled out on flash cards he held up. “Ok… Let’s do this Naruto… A few days in the hospital can’t hurt us… It’ll be like a vacation.”

“Can I have your Jello?” he asked, catching the sarcasm in her voice, something she would never have thought him capable of two and a half years ago.

“Sure… Its usually Lime anyway… I hate lime…” She said, beginning to move forward, Naruto’s joke bringing a smile to her face despite her reservations on this mission. She clutched her fists, gritted pearly white teeth beneath her lips and bent her knees, propelling herself into the trees before them, Naruto only a second and a half behind her, keeping a gap between them just large enough that he could scout their rear.

They bounded through the trees as only skilled ninja could, their feet only finding purchase on a branch or a patch of bark long enough for well-toned muscles to push them off once more into the air and forward. Their eyes were narrowed in quiet but hurried study of their surroundings, keeping them peeled for a broken branch, or a leaf that could be mere inches out of place. Their senses were honed, seeking out any iota for of killing intent, or a sound that might indicate the presence of their attacker, or his movement toward or away from them. One thing both of the Konoha shinobi could be proud of, were senses forged in battle and intense training, sharpened to a razor’s edge by three of the finest ninja the Hidden Village had ever turned out.

Though concentrating on the matter at hand, Sakura’s mind was racing trying to see if she could profile their enemy from what Kakashi had told them of the circumstances of their mission. “Assumption is a double-edged sword,” read one of the plethora of rules she had to memorize out of her quest to become a strong shinobi. Assume too little of your enemy’s might, and one runs the risk of being overwhelmed by the strength you don’t believe he/she possesses. Assume too much, and you risk using an S-class jutsu to swat a fly. She had to admit to not seeing the downside of using a powerful technique to take out a problematic nuisance, but she knew that if it was not the full extent of the mission, it meant wasting precious energy that could be applied towards the end of an arduous mission. “Dammit,” she thought, “things were simpler to figure out when we were just trying to grab bells out of Kakashi-sensei’s pants.”

She could not communicate it to Naruto, but she had come up with a few idea, and could only hope he was going through the same ideas in his head. Their opponent was obviously powerful, that much was clear from the fact that he was going up against the pair of them alone. Sakura could note the number of times on both hands she had been referred to as the “Hokage’s apprentice” instead of a Konoha Chuunin level ninja. Not that she minded the notoriety, but she had hoped by now her reputation would stand on its own. Naruto carried the same reputation since it had become known he was the student of the Frog Hermit, though she noted the stigma around him always carried further due to his unnatural affliction. Either way, despite their technical ranks, it took someone of definite skill to take on the apprentices of two of the Sannin, and the students of Kakashi Hatake. In fact, anyone capable of taking on two Chuunin level ninja was powerful enough to give Sakura pause. Underestimating this opponent could prove fatal, especially if their teacher’s usual Darwinist approach to training held true this time. She felt her heart catch in her throat. Could he have sent them up against one of the Jounin in the village? “Lord, please no…”

Naruto in the meantime had simply taken to the idea of a good fight where he could hopefully cut loose a bit, and not have to worry about dying. In the two and a half years since he began dedicated training under the Old Pervert, Naruto had been schooled in the frightening realities of true battle, even more so than he had been in his previous battles. Fear had not been a real issue for him in the years since he took on Gaara after the Chuunin Exam. Overcoming that real, almost tangible fear in his gut and his heart had left him far more confident than he could have ever maintained in the near-constant bravado he had maintained prior to that. But, he had learned in that time that the real battles he fought were truly perilous. Beyond the mere threat to his own self, he had learned to fear for his teammates in their battle against Haku. The mission to Suna had only reinforced the responsibility he had to his teammates, and his responsibility to his village, and his country. Battles where he did not have to worry had become something of a delicacy to the fight-hungry portion of his mind where his aggression danced in glee with every battle. The delight in the physical exertion, the use of the skills he had honed in battle, the sheer exhilaration of the battle fulfilled that darker side of him that just wanted to feel tough and macho.

He then focused on what Kakashi had told them before the mission. He felt his heart catch in his throat. Could he have sent them up against one of the Jounin in the village? “Oh, God, I hope so!”

The answer to their question was not long in coming as their senses fell on a vaguely human shape began falling through the trees right on top of them. The speed of its decent surprised them both as it descended upon them. Neither of them had a chance as a foot connected with them, one to Sakura’s back, the other to Naruto’s chest, sending them each flying in the opposite direction. Naruto managed to grab a branch as he sped through the limbs, Sakura finding purchase on the side of the tree, the air imperceptibly shimmering around her fingers as her chakra binding her hands to a tree.

“Nope… Not powerful at all,” Sakura thought, her words dripping with sarcasm as she narrowed her eyes, the slight darkening around the edge of her vision allowing her to focus to find their enemy, who had seemingly gone to ground once more. She was lost for a moment in her search as she felt the brush of air over the fabric on her back, sensitive skin catching the vibrations as their enemy flew up behind her in what she had to imagine was going to be a striking maneuver. She barely registered Naruto’s movement a half second later as his hand caught the fist of their assailant, the pain lancing up Naruto’s arm and out his mouth as a grunt of pain. Sakura growled to herself, being impressed with the speed of their opponent, she had let her guard down for a half-second, apparently long enough for their attacker to get behind her.

She had only a second to act, and a kunai found itself in her hand at the speed of thought as she spun quickly, trying to make a quick strike at their opponent before Naruto’s hand left his fist. The black blade caught the hem of a dark brown cloak, but only barely before the other ninja’s feet had propelled him skyward once more into the light-choking canopy.

Naruto looked down at Sakura, appraising her situation before using his own powerful legs, reserves of chakra to propel himself into the air after their prey. Sakura was off after him in a second’s notice, their feet launching them from branch to branch. Their opponent had lost his element of stealth, and they could hear his footfalls and launches on the branches. He or she had obviously been waiting on them. While they easily believed they would have to battle the “intruder,” they had not anticipated having to use the “tag you’re it” rules of the “Hunter and Prey” game. To Sakura’s mind, the situation hardly made sense. If the “hostile” was a spy, he should be using his best stealth techniques, and obviously superior speed to make the best time back to his borders. Information gathering missions always placed the priority on avoiding combat. She then remembered Kakashi had said nothing of their prey’s mission. “If I hear bell one, I’m gonna kill Kakashi.”

Naruto’s thoughts were on nothing but the mission. Kakashi pointed, Naruto was released… A twisted version of “sic’em, boy.” Naruto figured Sakura would be trying to intuit more into the exercise, seeing if there was a hidden message from Kakashi, or a clue to beating the opponent. Naruto’s thoughts were far less captivated on the whys, as he was the fact he was in a combat exercise. Captivated enough that the volley of kunai flying up at him from the forest floor almost made it past his area of awareness. Naruto cannon-balled, bringing his knees to his chest, and tucking his head between his knees, limiting access to vital areas on the body as the kunai tore past him, ripping his black and orange jacket, and leaving several gashes in his pants. As the volley ended, it was proceeded by another. Naruto spread his arms and legs, his hand grabbing a branch, and swinging his legs upward to redirect his momentum up. He flipped on the branch, and towards the tree, springing off of it as he made contact. He added velocity to his spring with a chakra assist, flying in a line right at his opponent whom he could now see clearly.

Sakura had seen the missile attack and had already moved to redirect downward toward their source, her mind working over the angles faster than most minds could add two and two. Watching Naruto, she angled her descent in another direction, watching her teammate dive at the cloaked figure.

The cloaked figure was easily taller than they were by a good six inches or so, and his clothing beneath was pure black, and hid any identifying features. They could tell he was male now, easily by a glance or two at the way his clothing moved. His frame was rather lanky, though not emaciated, and the width of his chest was far too wide for a girl. Once more, they could guess at his age, his height placing him at not much older than they were, though the idea of a twenty year-old chuunin was still somewhat daunting to them both.

The cloaked figure darted left as Naruto was almost on him, Sakura using the fact that he was heading in her direction to launch her own small salvo of kunai in his direction. They were promptly deflected by the figure’s own dagger, which moved swiftly in his capable hands. Naruto was following a half-moment after righting himself, managing to connect with a swift punch to the back of the figure’s head. The figure stumbled forward, but bowed at the waist, planting his hand on the ground and bringing his heel up into Naruto’s chin, and sending the blond-haired youth stumbling backwards. Sakura was moving forward in a blur of her own, a massive amount of chakra accumulated in her fist as she drove it into the ground before their attacker, the ground almost exploding beneath him as the pink haired girl released her chakra into the ground before making actual contact. The figure was caught off guard, but only for a moment as he flipped over, both hands planted this time and spinning on the ground fast enough to send the wind whipping by her face, his feet extended and striking the girl dead in the chest, sending her flying in Naruto’s direction.

Sakura spread her feet, her arc carrying he downward quickly, her chakra slowing her as she gathered it in her feet, booted feet grinding to a stop. She was startled as Naruto’s hand fell on her shoulder, grim determination showing on his face, and near orgasmic pleasure burning in his eyes. He was a bit perturbed, though, he had to admit to himself. He could have wound up the fight about three minutes ago. Ok, he admitted, that was stretching it to say the least of the situation. As a shinobi, his primary strength lay in his admittedly bizarre style of taijutsu, but his application of ninjutsu in those situations was coming up a close second. It was one of the many things he had been drilled on by the old pervert for years since they had left, and his timing had become impeccable in those years. He had not been in a strictly taijutsu fight in years, and it was frustrating not to have the full range of his skills available.

They looked at each other for a moment, the message traveling between them wordlessly that the time for solo-attacks had ended. It was time for a real team effort. Naruto backed slowly into a stance, his arms raised and his fists clenched, blue eyes narrowing darkly as he set his mind to what he was about to do. Naruto stepped forward first, leading out on his left, his right propelling him with a blast of chakra for a speed boost. He bore straight on for his enemy, kunai seeming to appear from nowhere into his hands, dark blades shimmering in the broken light of the forest. He flipped the blades downward, angling his body for a glancing strike. As he expected, their enemy threw his leg forward in a kick that almost threatened to take his head off, or would have, had Naruto not dropped to his knees, reaching up with his kunai to slice at a major muscle group on their opponent’s leg. The enemy caught the movement, however, and used his other leg to propel him upward. Now, Naruto was seriously impressed, his opponent had managed a six foot jump on one leg. “Maybe I need to trade sensei’s with him,” Naruto thought to himself.

His opponent had made a single flaw, however, and had discounted Sakura, who met him in the air with a chakra powered fist to his gut, sending him flying backward.

“They’ve gotten good at this, Kakashi… You should feel proud…” a single voice said, standing a good forty feet away, and well hidden behind the thick husk of a massive branch that had fallen a decade or so ago. He spoke softly, making sure the wind wouldn’t carry his voice towards the battlefield.

“Of course I do…” Kakashi replied, his chakra binding him to the side of a tree by his hands and feet. “I’d be prouder though if they would figure out the point of the exercise.”

“You and that ‘underneath the underneath’ crap, Kakashi… I know shinobi have to be observant too, but I don’t send my students into the equivalent of Ibiki’s nightmares,” the dark figure said, an odd smile crossing his lips.

Kakashi hated that smile, though he never let it show. There was always something about it that always seemed to overlay the madness he knew must lurk somewhere under those eyes. Most Jounin had some form of mental characteristic or problem that lurked somewhere in their minds. It was an unpleasant side effect of being a shinobi as long as he had. “They’re not weird, Kakashi… They’re interesting,” Yondaime had told him once, a year or two before his ascension to the rank of Hokage. “When you’re life is constantly on the line, you learn to live life a little harder than most. If one knows how fragile life is, you tend to get a little nuts in the way you live it. Just wait… You’ll see…” It was a statement that at the time, had chilled him to the bone. “Perhaps… But this test’s creator knew what he was doing when he created it. No one can question its effectiveness…”

“I beg to differ… After all… How many times did it take the great Kakashi to finally pass it?” the dark one jabbed.

“Three times…”

“What was that, I didn’t hear you…”

“Three times… Now, quiet… I’m trying to study them…”

“Fine, fine… I guess once this is over, I’ll have something new for my win column, eh, my eternal rival?” the dark figure poked, an almost blinding gleam erupting from his teeth as the light hit the perfect white enamel.

Kakashi looked up, “Did you say something?”

Naruto could have sworn he heard something like a growl as he dodged yet another flurry of kunai from their attacker, but he pushed it aside, thinking they had scared some animal far away with the plethora of the bladed weapons they had thrown. They had managed to get some more strikes in since they had begun working in unison. They would not alternate, instead picking times at random, and deciding who would attack. Sometimes, Sakura would go first, allow Naruto’s strike to land at home, others would see her striking first. They had managed to work up a system, and now, their system had managed to shift the advantage in their favor, for now at least. It made Sakura’s mind swim in a sea of thoughts… Her, Naruto… Sasuke… This kind of teamwork at use for all three of them. The Invincible Team 7… “Has a nice ring to it,” she thought.

The cloaked figure jumped back, placing some space between them, landing with skill on a branch some ten feet before them. He pulled back his cloak, and reached down for his boots, he pulled a pair of black covers from the leather boots, and a pair of heavy weighted leg wraps.

Back at their hidden location, Kakashi and his companion looked on, his companion was gripping his shoulder, tightly. So tightly, Kakashi was gritting his teeth. “YES!” he whispered, though he wanted to shake the trees with the elation in his voice. “That’s it! You can do it”

Naruto and Sakura both gulped at the same time, having seen this particular movement before. Three years ago, as a friend of theirs relieved himself of a similar burden, and the resulting increase in power and speed made a power difference between him and Gaara of the Desert disappear in seconds.

Sakura’s heart caught in her throat, “Oh, no… Not…”

Naruto’s smile grew wider, “OH YEAH!”


What happened next was as much of a blur in the memory of the kids as Rock Lee was one physically. Sakura lay against a tree, holding her stomach, a bit of blood slipping from her lips. She was not hurt badly, and her training was already working to revitalize her and restore her mobility.

Naruto had not been as fortunate. “Oh, yeah… This is gonna hurt,” he thought, the punch connecting with the near exact center of his rib cage, enough force rolling unhindered through his body he could have sworn he had just felt his lungs turn into liquid. As he flew backwards, he could the wind rushing by his ears at what must have been hundreds of miles per hour by his calculation, and he wondered if he was just going to keep sailing on off into orbit as his momentum carried him onwards. He hated to admit it, but this opponent just might be a bit harder than he had actually anticipated. The realization had a slight distaste for Naruto Uzumaki, yet it was one he had tasted several times before. Haku… Kiba… Neji… Gaara… Tsunade on a bender… All tastes of the bitter wine he remembered well when his estimations of his own talents proved just a tad too liberal.

He realized he would need to right himself here in a moment. Do some advanced trick with his chakra to latch onto the ground and slow himself, or try to redirect his momentum off of something in an attempt to keep from hitting one of the very large, and very thick trees he had spotted from the corner of his eye before he had been assaulted by the unstoppable force that had been applied in his general direction.

It all made sense now, as he thought back on it. Forcing her and Naruto to stay silent kept them from planning any elaborate strategy, kept them having to guess at each other’s tactics, and on their toes. The constant guessing provided just enough distraction to keep them from focusing solely on their opponent, even though they had found a way around it and achieved a synchronicity most ninja could only dream of. The rule against ninjutsu and genjutsu made the playing field equal when Lee’s skills and capability in those areas of combat were essentially non-existent. The only problem coming from that fact was that limiting Sakura and he to taijutsu, Lee’s far superior skills left him with miles beyond any advantage they had working together. Naruto was not sure whether to get irritated, or enjoy it.

Still, he would talk to Kakashi about this later, though. “No ninjutsu used directly… Hey…” Blue eyes became impassioned once more as Naruto’s mind locked onto that single sentence Kakashi had used. He cocked his trademark half-smile and brought his fingers up to his chest, his index and bird fingers extended, then crossed before him, “Kage bunshin no jutsu!”

Naruto moved into position as his massive amounts of chakra began to clump together and take on vaguely human form, the energy weaving itself tighter and tighter, until more detail became apparent in the two large chakra clumps behind him. Suddenly, within a puff of vapor, two exact clones appeared behind Naruto, each hitting the ground with their feet to create enough drag to slow the blond boy down. In moments, and one seamless movement later, the shadow clones thrust Naruto forward towards their attacker.

Sakura’s eyes were wide enough to collect wine in as Naruto screamed his technique name out across the air for anyone to hear. Sure, Kakashi’s rule did not forbid them from talking, just not to each other. She had simply played it safe, not speaking beyond grunts and sighs, not wanting to do anything that could be construed as anything more than absolute, rudimentary verbal communication. But he knew they couldn’t use ninjutsus in the exercise. She eased up slowly, a “screw it” look on her face obviously and unabashedly so. Naruto may have just cost them the exercise, but they would at least finish it. “Ah well,” she said, not caring who heard, “One more thing to beat Naruto for later, I guess.”

They were on their feet and attacking again in a moment, Sakura aiming a strong kick to Lee’s face, Naruto, by way of shadow clone assistance, was rocketing towards his gut. The attack was dodged, but not before Sakura managed to grab Lee’s cloak, pulling it off of him, leaving the tall boy spinning for a moment before coming back to earth. Lee released a kunai of his own at Sakura, which she caught with his cloak, spinning it in the air before her for a moment. Naruto landed beside her, and each took a side of the cloak, both running at him swiftly, trying to catch him in the cloak to try and blind him for a moment. Lee saw through the ploy in a moment, extending his left foot out barely straining his remarkable balance, catching the cloak on his then smiling as Naruto and Sakura let go the moment it had been snagged. His glinting smile faded though as the explosive tags Sakura had attached to the fabric ignited. The explosions were harmless, even to a genin, and really did little more than raise dust and smoke into the air.

Lee tossed the burning cloak away, trying to swipe at the dust and smoke to hopefully clear his views as he created wind currents to hurry them on his way. What greeted him instead of a beautiful, though gently scarred forest, was a wall of pure Naruto headed towards him as the blond boy’s shadow clones advanced en masse. He wasted no time dispatching each clone with a powerful kick or punch, not holding back much because he assumed they were all clones. They were also punches Naruto could take, since it had been one of his favored strategies before he left, hiding among the clones, waiting to pounce with a powerful attack the clones themselves were not smart enough to do on their own.

Lee finally hit something solid, his fist connecting with what he assumed would be Naruto. It did not evaporate the moment it was hit like most clones did, the force of his punch destroying the complex chakra web necessary to maintain the clone’s physical body. He was half right. He did not hit a simple creation of Naruto’s will power and chakra, he felt a real reaction of a real human body being punched. The only difference was that there was the ever familiar pop of the energy field’s cohesion being broken, and the chakra returning to the air as it lost its form. His eyes went wide as he saw Sakura flying back from his fist, obviously hurt, and unconscious. Lee couldn’t tear his eyes away for the few seconds he was watching, a few seconds Naruto took advantage of.

Naruto had been following Sakura’s lead since he saw her get up, thinking she would either figure out what he had, or that she would just think forget the rules as he used his shadow clone technique. He had not known what she planning with the cloak, but he had picked up the ball and run with it, knowing she wanted it given back to Lee. He had attacked Lee with a massive army of shadow clones, thinking she would strike from above with her enhanced strength. Instead, she had hidden among them, transformed into him, He would look into the significance of that later, though, watching Sakura fly back from Lee’s strike, watching almost as he did, breathlessly trying to gage her condition. Then, something snapped Naruto out of his reverie. A simple, imperceptible thing cause him to redouble his efforts, and attack Lee once more. He thought about it quickly, wondering if this was a good idea, or suicide.

Naruto’s were already in place, moving to get Lee into the maneuver while he was distracted. Several clones attacked, knocking Lee back into several more, which kicked him into the air. Naruto and a few others moved into attack position, the original ready to give the final attack, a swift kick in the gut a few feet in the air, then collision with the hard earth below him.

“U-zu-ma-ki” he yelled, before Lee jabbed his fist into his gut and sent the blond boy back to earth before him. He wanted to tell Naruto what a stupid move it was, using a technique Sasuke had copied off of him, which Naruto had in turn copied off of Sasuke. Lee smiled to himself, thinking victory in the bag, but failed to notice the shapely silhouette falling upon him from the canopy of the forest.

“Haruno Rendan!” Sakura screamed, completing Naruto’s usual self-aggrandizing attack name, releasing as much power as she could at the moment Lee’s ascent reached its apex. She released a staggering amount of chakra into her punch, knocking Lee in the opposite direction, slamming him into the dusty earth below.

Sakura could barely get her feet beneath her as she landed, falling to her knees instantly, panting heavily as she tried desperately to get her breath back. She looked over at Naruto, whose smiling visage she wanted to hug, or strangle. She had yet to make up her mind. She returned to her feet, reaching down to help Rock Lee to his feet, both members of Team Kakashi offering their shoulders.

Naruto, characteristically, ruined the moment a second later with, “Yo, Brows! You gotta teach me that jumping trick…”

Sakura chimed in, “Naruto! What did I tell you about calling Lee that?” Her tone was grim, and Naruto wondered how large his ensuing bruise would be.

“Um… Its ok… Sakura… He merely rides the last wave of his inner fire he was on,” Lee said, offering up the best approximation he could do of his “Nice Guy Pose.”

“Quiet you. Its the principle of the thing…”Sakura said, “How would Naruto feel if I called him toe-head all the time?”

“I don’t know…” Naruto replied, “What’s it mean?”

They walked on slowly, Lee eventually being able to walk back on his own, though not understanding why the two walked on ahead of him when he started to make the trip walking on his hands. He righted himself and caught up, “Um, Sakura?” he began, the usual stutter showing up in his voice as he spoke to Sakura.

“Yes, Lee?” she asked, looking over at him curiously.

“I was wondering… Since… Well…” This was uncharacteristic of him, she thought. Usually, he was forthcoming and brimming with confidence when he spoke to her. She never forgot how forward he was the day he asked her to be his girlfriend the day of their first Chuunin exam.

“What is it, Lee” she gently plodded, her next two steps carrying her in his direction, eyebrows lifting in slight amusement, green eyes dancing. She was flirting yes… Something she never would have done long ago. Things were different now, though. Something had changed within her the last few weeks… She had flirted with Lee, Kiba… Even Naruto since his return… Actions she never would have taken before.

“Since the…um… Springtime of youth is so… um… fleeting…” he started again.

“He’s asking you out,” Naruto said abruptly, butting into the conversation as though he had been in it the whole time.

Lee blushed several shades of red, and perhaps crimson as he looked back at Sakura, whose eyes were narrowed in Naruto’s direction.

“What? He is…” Moments later Naruto could be heard yelping, and holding his ribs for a few minutes more as they walked.

“As forward as Naruto is, he is right… Might you… like to have… lunch some time?” Lee asked, secretly thanking Naruto for breaking the last of the tension.

Sakura turned her head away, and smile faded instantly, as though the warmth she had shown only moments earlier had been turned off by a sweaty senior in a nursing home. “Um… Well… You see, Lee…”

“Its alright, Sakura,” he said, his speed slightly increasing, moving out of step with them, “I really should have picked a better time to ask. I really should go now… Gai-sensei will be wanting to earn back the money he lost today… He had a rather large bet with Tsunade-sama. Sakura, Naruto… I shall see you later.”

“Lee?” Sakura said, looking confused, but knowing it was how cold she had turned that shut him off like that, even though the idea sounded lovely. She could tell Naruto was about to ask what was wrong, but luckily for her, Kakashi stood waiting at the end of the trail. She took off running to meet him, Naruto quickly following behind.

“Well?” Kakashi began, “What do you have to say for yourselves?” They tried to read his face, but could not, finding the withering gaze as impenetrable as his dark mask to the light. neither would speak for long moments, prompting the Sharingan bearer to speak again, “I’m waiting.”

Sakura was about to speak up, but Naruto beat her to it, “If you’re going to punish someone, punish me. My shadow clones attacked Lee, all Sakura did was transform. Besides…”

Kakashi’s eyebrow perked.

“You meant for us to break the rules anyway… The one anyway…”

Sakura looked at Naruto incredulously. Of all Naruto’s leaps in logic, this one left her speechless. “How do you get that?” she asked him.

“Think about it… He said we couldn’t use any Jutsu’s directly against our enemy…” Naruto said, a slightly smug smile coming over his face, realizing Sakura had not gotten it quite yet. “I think he figured we wouldn’t notice something like that if we’re constantly trying to figure out what the trick is.”

“So, basically it was a feint?” Sakura asked, “Hide the point in plain sight while we looked around for some deep meaning to it?”

“Pretty much…” Kakashi said, “Though Naruto is only half right…” Kakashi turned, walking towards the village now, still leaning on his cane for support.

“What did I miss?” Naruto asked, he and Sakura falling into step behind him, one on either side.

“You didn’t really miss anything, to tell the truth… You cheated just like you were supposed to…” Kakashi did not bother to look back at them to see their reactions, guessing they were much like his and Rin’s the last time they took the test and passed it.

“Again… Not seeing it,” Sakura said, grabbing her teacher’s wrist gently in a pleading motion to get him to elaborate.

Kakashi sighed, “Alright… I’ll hold your hand for this one… The object of this exercise is to place a team in a situation that is at its heart impossible for them to win.”

“Why?” Sakura asked, “I mean I get training, but why go through all the trouble?”

“She’s got a point… You could have just sicked Team Gai on us… It would have been harder, but I would have had Neji screaming ‘uncle’ in a few more minutes.” The two looked at Naruto to find a look that indicated he was not even taking himself seriously.

“Back to the plot… The exercise is designed to force the examinees to cheat. It doesn’t teach you that cheating is ok… Its the first step in knowing ‘when’ to break the rules.”

“Oh, I see,” Sakura said, nodding. “But, when would we have to know that?”

“Not all genin teams stay together, Sakura… For most, they’re split once one or two members reach Chuunin, or one reaches Jounin…” Kakashi said, stopping to wave to an up-and-coming Chuunin he knew. “Its a skill shinobi have to develop. If you go against your commander’s orders when he’s right, its insubordination. If you robotically obey when he’s wrong, its incompetence.”

“Ok, now you’re losing me…” Naruto said, scratching his head.

“Ok, then… Think about this… What were your guts telling you when I told you to deny Naruto food during our first bell test?” Kakashi asked, looking back over his shoulder.

“Feed me,” Naruto said, followed by a quick smack from Sakura to his arm.

“He’s right in a way… You kept selling us on teamwork, Sasuke and a I knew we would need Naruto at his best… Which isn’t hungry…” Sakura said, her attention turning back to their teacher.

“Yet, you knew the costs you might incur, and knew that you might be forced to give up your objective…”

“Uh huh… Right…” Naruto said quietly. “What’s your point?”

“I’m saying you may be called on to make decisions like that one day, Naruto,” Kakashi said, wishing, for once, that the grand idiot’s head would soften, “Things like illegal orders are easy… There’s little in the way of reprisal for doing something you’re supposed to… But, there may come a time when you have to go against the orders of a superior.”

Sakura narrowed her eyes, “How will we know?”

Kakashi actually laughed, “I wish I could tell you. Its an instinct you’ll develop as you gain in the ranks of the shinobi here… But, I have the faith in the two of you that you’ll know when its appropriate.”

“So what now?” Naruto asked, realizing they stood before Kakashi’s home.

“Now,” Kakashi said, “I want the two of you to take the day off tomorrow. I’m going to be in meetings all day… So enjoy yourselves for a while… You’ve earned it today.” With that, he walked off, yawning beneath his mask.

“Ok… I’ve got a ramen stand to find… Some place has to be open… Wanna come along, Sakura?” Naruto asked, already beginning to turn to walk towards his home, already knowing she was going to decline.

“Not tonight…” She started… “But… Maybe tomorrow? Lunch?”

Naruto had stopped dead in his tracks, eyes wide, skin almost white as a sheet. “Um… Did you just say…”

“How about tomorrow?” she asked again, a pink eyebrow cocked at his reaction.

“Um, sure… 12?”

“Great.” She smiled, then turned slowly, walking back towards her home, leaving a bewildered Naruto in her wake.





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