Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto
Chapter 3: A Gentle Push
Kakashi watched Naruto as the boy sat in front of the Memorial Stone. This was the second time in the one week since he'd passed his cute little genin that he'd found the boy here, talking to his mother. He made sure to maintain a healthy distance from Naruto, just far enough so that he couldn't hear what the boy's words. It was partially out of respect for Naruto's privacy and partially because of the boy's newfound capacity as a sensor.
And hadn't that been a whole new can of worms. After pulling Naruto aside after their first D-Rank mission and asking him how exactly he'd known where he was underground during the Bell Test, Kakashi had gone directly to the Hokage. He'd never once heard of a sensory techniques that keyed in on emotion rather than chakra, let alone one that seemed to hone in on strong negative emotions specifically.
The Hokage had looked at him in that way that reminded Kakashi just how old the man was, before starting a conversation that rather quickly turned into a brief history of the Kyūbi's involvement with Konoha. In that short time Kakashi learned no less than three S-Rank secrets, bringing his total to an unhealthy six, all of which could be at least tangentially related to the Kyūbi.
In short, Naruto's sensory ability was called Negative Emotions Sensing and he had presumably gained the ability as a product of the Kyūbi's chakra leaking through the seal and into his chakra network. In as far as the ability was understood, it allowed the user to sense and locate the source of hostile intent, though whether or not it was only hostile intent it keyed in on and not simply negative emotions in general was unknown. The reason the Sandaime knew of this ability was because Naruto was not the first Jinchūriki of the Kyūbi in Konoha. Instead, it had been the honorable Mito Uzumaki who had served as the demon's first container, having sealed it within herself following the Shodai's infamous battle with Madara Uchiha at the now dubbed Valley of the End.
Of course, the honorable Mito had died around two decades prior to Naruto's birth, which lead to the question of who had contained the beast in the interim. It had to be a person too. The Kyūbi's chakra was apparently far too potent to keep it sealed away in an inanimate object, unless said object was unimaginably powerful. Rumor had it that Kumo kept the Hachibi sealed in a relic from the age of the fabled Sage of the Six Paths in between hosts, which theoretically meant it might be able to seal the Kyūbi. Of course those were only rumors and Konoha had an unfortunate lack of powerful, ancient artifacts to seal a Bijū into which made the point pretty much moot.
Kakashi found himself feeling a great deal less surprised than he'd thought he'd be when he learned that the second Jinchūriki of the Kyūbi was none other than Kushina Uzumaki. In hindsight, it made the way her hair floated and split into nine "tails" when she got angry far more foreboding yet simultaneously humorous.
Now Kakashi could proudly admit that he knew a decent amount about fūinjutsu. His sensei had been the Yondaime, a veritable fūinjutsu master, and he'd have to have been completely oblivious, or Obito, to not pick up at least some passing knowledge of the arcane art. As a result of this, Kakashi knew that one of the reasons seals that were properly placed on the human body didn't begin to degrade over time was that they drew upon the latent chakra produced by the body to maintain their integrity. He also knew that this was the reason seals on a pregnant kunoichi's body tended break down sometime during the pregnancy. The chakra maintaining the seals was instead used by the body to help nourish and protect the growing child.
Generally this wasn't too big of a deal. In the case of a pregnant Jinchūriki though, the situation became exponentially more dangerous, especially when the Bijū they contained happened to be the Kyūbi. At first glance, this explained how the tragedy that was the Kyūbi attack had occurred, assuming one knew about Kushina's status.
Closer inspection proved otherwise of course. Minato was a genius fūinjutsu master who went to almost ludicrous extremes to ensure the safety of those he loved, and he'd only gotten more paranoid about it after Obito's and Rin's deaths. It was a small wonder Kakashi hadn't been permanently tattooed with a Hiraishin seal marker after Rin's death and he would bet every mask he owned and his complete collection of signed, first edition Icha Icha material that Minato would have spent every spare moment pouring over every note and detail of Kushina's seal in preparation for Naruto's birth. The only possible reason Kakashi could fathom his sensei failing to maintain the Kyūbi's seal was if there had been interference from a third party.
Of course that was exactly what the evidence pointed towards. First, not only had the safe house Minato had prepared exploded, but the area had also lacked any noticeable residue of the Kyūbi's chakra. Not to mention that autopsies of the honorable Biwako and the ANBU bodies recovered revealed that they'd been assassinated prior to the explosion. Also, the Kyūbi had been quite literally appeared in Konoha in massive a cloud of smoke that resembled the results of a large summoning. Finally, Minato had appeared on the battlefield briefly and then disappeared again for nearly ten minutes before appearing again to teleport the Kyūbi away from the village. Kakashi knew that it shouldn't have taken his sensei anywhere near that long to prepare the sealing under normal circumstances, which suggested that he'd had to deal with fending off whoever had loosed the Kyūbi on the village in the first place.
The thing was, there was absolutely no trace of the supposed interloper left behind at any of the apparent battlefields, which meant that they had been strong enough that Minato had only been able to drive them away. In short, that meant that whoever had been responsible for the Kyūbi attack all those years ago was still at large. It also meant that Naruto needed to be stronger and he needed to be stronger yesterday if he had any hope of surviving a confrontation with that person if they ever decided that they wanted the Kyūbi again. Kakashi would have been furious with the Hokage for letting Naruto waste his years in the Academy fooling around if he didn't know that the most likely alternative might have been ROOT.
He would have never forgiven himself if Naruto becoming strong had meant becoming an emotionless drone under the command of that one eyed extremist.
If Kakashi were to be completely honest with himself, he'd still been wary about the whole teaching thing before learning and deducing all of this. He'd been called a genius and a prodigy while growing up, but the one thing he excelled at above all else was in being a coward. It was why he'd shamefully stayed away from Naruto during the boy's childhood even though he was the son of the man who had nearly been a second father to him. It was why he hadn't tried to be there for Sasuke after his clan had been slaughtered even though he owed it to Obito, especially after he'd failed to protect Rin. Hell, he'd probably still be burying himself in ANBU mission work if it hadn't been for the direct order of the Sandaime.
He couldn't afford to be that coward any longer. It was already bad enough that Sasuke seemed only a step and a half away from losing himself in his need for revenge, but now he had to worry about some madman who possibly had the power to stand toe to toe with the Yondaime going after Naruto as well. He also had to worry about how Sakura might handle being thrown into the absolute shit storm her teammates were liable to attract. Standing back and letting his genin grow at their own pace while he remained safely distant with his well-honed mask of aloofness simply wasn't an option anymore, no matter how much it might hurt to risk opening those old wounds again…
The only problem with his grand plan to make his cute little genin into rampaging terrors on the battlefield was that he had almost no idea where to start. Before his informative meeting with the Hokage, his plan had been to run D-Rank missions to build a solid foundation for teamwork between them before really getting into anything further than the miscellaneous skills and knowledge they'd be expected to know that may or may not have been covered during their time in the Academy. Even after that meeting he was still rather set on that plan, though on a faster track.
He'd like to think that plan was justified too. The teamwork his cute little genin had displayed during the tail end of the bell test had practically gone up in smoke during their foray into D-Rank missions. Sasuke and Naruto got into fights over the littlest things while Sakura either attempted to ignore them or berated Naruto depending on who seemed to have started the fight. He was a bit disappointed in her blatant favoritism towards Sasuke, but he could at least give her props for not ganging up on Naruto when her crush was the primary aggressor.
And then, yesterday, they'd gotten the infamous Tora mission. Their teamwork had remained as abysmal as it had been for the rest of that week, right up until the moment Tora first made a fool of them all. After that it was as if a switch had been flipped and the teamwork they'd displayed during the Bell Test came back full force.
It was sort of uncanny actually, how well they could work together for a team of genin who'd been together for barely a week. Naruto seemed to have a surprisingly keen sense for knowing how and when Sasuke or Sakura were going to act and Kakashi wondered if that was due to some unknown quirk of Negative Emotions Sensing. Then again, Sasuke showed signs of that intuition as well, which Kakashi wasn't quite sure how to explain.
Sakura was the only one who seemed entirely normal in that regard, but she managed to get by on slipping into the role of filling in wherever Naruto or Sasuke ended up leaving open. It wasn't a perfect display of running support, but it was passable for a newly graduated genin.
Regardless, it was proof enough for him that when his team set their mind to it they could work in tandem surprisingly well for fresh graduates. It would have been better if that was their first response, but Kakashi figured he could use their first C-Rank mission or two to work it into their skulls that teamwork should be the first response to every situation, regardless of how mundane it might seem.
"Now all I need to do is figure out what exactly to teach them," Kakashi muttered to himself as he let himself be partially soothed by the morning breeze running through his hair. "Hmm…I suppose chakra control is a necessary skill for all shinobi to learn. Oh and I could test their awareness like Minato-sensei did when he taught us those exercises. And there's no better time to improve one's taijutsu than when you're learning to walk on water. Oh! It looks like Naruto is just finishing up now. I wonder if Obito will have any advice for me."
Sakura stared up in unconcealed amazement as Kakashi hung upside down from a tree branch, casually defying the laws of physics. 'How in the hell does he still manage to look like the laziest bastard in the world while walking sideways up a tree?'
"Alright you little cuties, now it's your turn to try!"
Sakura grit her teeth and prepared to send her chakra to her feet. She clenched the kunai she would use for marking her progress, then glanced at Sasuke and Naruto and saw them prepping themselves in a similar manner.
"You know if you all just want to stand there all day I'm sure the Hokage would be glad to give us the Tora mission again if it's available," Kakashi called out from his perch.
All three of them bolted forwards instantly at the threat. Sakura sent a small amount of chakra to the soles of her feet just as she reached the tree and took one vertical step. Then she took another, and another, and another and before she realized it she was running out of tree to climb. She curled around the trunk and sat herself down on a branch.
She took a few deep breaths, not because she was tired, but because the experience had been exhilarating. She couldn't believe how easy it had been, with her chakra responding to her beck and call like it was the most natural thing in the world. Sure the Academy Three had been easy for her to learn, but there was just something about tree walking that was far more exciting.
She looked down below to check on Naruto's and Sasuke's progress and was surprised to see both of them on the ground. She knew now that Naruto's chakra control was abysmal for reasons that were at least somewhat out of his control, but somewhere along the way Sasuke's status as Rookie of the Year had translated into 'best at everything'.
"Hey guys! How's it going down there!" she called out, feeling uncharacteristically cocky. 'Hell yeah! Sakura Haruno is number one this time! Take that!' It was pretty awesome, she realized, to have something that she was undoubtedly best at in this team. Even though she'd been taking steps to find something she could learn to truly make herself a place in Team Seven, she was still feeling a bit melancholy over how ineffectual she felt she had been during the Bell Test.
She halfheartedly listened to what Kakashi was saying to motivate Sasuke and Naruto to keep working at the exercise while she contemplated the various ideas she'd come up with while at the library during her free time in the past week.
"-kura. Sakura!" She glanced up so quickly that she very nearly fell off the branch she was standing on. After she steadied herself she finally took note of Kakashi waving at her. "Come over here Sakura."
After a moment's hesitation, Sakura leapt to a branch adjacent to her sensei's position and turned to face him. "What is it Kakashi-sensei?"
"Ah, well you see the thing is I wasn't actually expecting any of you to get the exercise down so quickly. Your chakra control is a good deal ahead of the curve, and you've left me in a bit of a predicament," Kakashi explained. "The next exercise I had planned works best when there are more than two people and it's just not the same if everybody involved can't perform tree walking." The wistful tone in the masked man's voice immediately put Sakura on guard. Even after only a week under his tutelage Team Seven had collectively learned that that tone of voice was generally a precursor to a particularly demeaning or menial task.
"So what does that mean for me?" Sakura asked, barely keeping the tremor out of her voice as memories of the Tora mission flashed through her mind. She still thought Kakashi had been lying through his teeth when he said the cat had no formal shinobi training. Sure, the cat was docile enough once it was in her arms, but when it was loose she swore it had to be part demon or something.
"It means that you have two options at the moment," Kakashi said, in a surprisingly serious voice. "You can either progress directly to the next chakra control exercise or you can tell me here and now if there's anything specific you want to learn during your time as a genin and we'll see if it's within my ability to get you the tools necessary to do that."
Sakura's eyes widened. "You mean, you'd really?"
"Until the day you are no longer a genin under my command, regardless of how that relationship terminates, it will be my job as a sensei to ensure that you have the tools at your disposal to develop as a kunoichi in the way you so desire so long as it is of benefit to both Konoha and your team," Kakashi explained.
"Oh," Sakura said, feeling a bit overwhelmed. Even though she'd seen this side of her sensei before after Team Seven had passed the bell test, it was still hard to reconcile the lazy, unassuming man who read smut (she most decidedly did not know what that small orange book consisted of because she'd stumbled upon her parents' own poorly hidden copy) in public with the serious jōnin he could be. 'He's still sort of a bastard though!' "I uh, I was hoping to learn…" she looked down at her feet nervously, "…fūinjutsu."
Several long seconds passed by without an answer from Kakashi as Sakura shifted nervously on her perch and continued to stare at her feet. Finally, the tension became too much. "I'm sorry!" she blurted out. "I should have known that that would be too much to ask. I mean, I've read that you need a specialized tutor to even get started because no one has ever wanted to risk putting directions down on something anyone might get ahold of, and asking something like that of you after you've only been our sensei for a week might sound like I'm ungrateful and I-"
Sakura was cut off by a firm hand on her shoulder. She glanced up in surprise into the one eyed gaze of her sensei. "There's no need to apologize Sakura," Kakashi reassured her. "I was simply…surprised at your choice. I am curious though, as to why you chose something as delicate and complex as the art of fūinjutsu. It takes a very specific mindset to excel in and incredible skill to apply it effectively in battle is something only an exceptional few have ever managed."
"I, I know that, but I," she bit her lower lip nervously before taking a deep breath and drawing herself to her, admittedly unimpressive, full height. "I want to have something that makes me more than just the hanger on of Team Seven. Sasuke's already a genius, and even though Naruto is pretty bad at almost everything, he has shadow clones. If he actually masters that jutsu and becomes even half decent at everything else…especially with how he barely seems to notice when he uses a lot of chakra…" she trailed off.
"And then there's me," Sakura began again. "The only thing that makes me stand out from the average person is that I'm supposed to be the smartest kunoichi of my graduating class, but I don't have a single thing to show for that."
"And that's where fūinjutsu comes in?" Kakashi asked.
"Yes!" Sakura exclaimed, beginning to feel excited now her sensei hadn't immediately shot down her reasoning. "I mean, it's not like I've really been able to study it at all, but from what I've read it sounds like it's one giant logic puzzle where you know what shape you want to make, but have to figure out pieces you need to use to build it, and sometimes if you slightly change which pieces you use to make the shape you can affect how the whole process works. And, and-"
Sakura cut off abruptly when she realized she'd started rambling. She felt her cheeks heat up as she glanced at her sensei, hoping she hadn't overdone it. Her embarrassment was immediately replaced by concern as she took note of the wistful expression on his face. "Kakashi-sensei?"
He seemed to become aware of himself again at the sound of her voice. "Oh, I'm sorry Sakura. You just…reminded me of someone. He used to go on and on about the newest bit fūinjutsu he'd been working on with the same kind of enthusiasm."
Sakura perked up at that. "Oh! Does that mean that he might be able to-"
"No." Kakashi cut her off so suddenly that she barely had time to register her indignation before she noticed that his gaze had drifted towards something in the distance. She turned to follow his gaze and froze when a familiar black monument entered her view. She whirled back around to apologize only to be silenced prematurely by a single finger pressed against her lips. "There's no need to apologize Sakura. You couldn't have realized. And no, I won't tell you who it was," Kakashi cut her off again as he removed the finger from her lips. "Of course that doesn't mean that you can't try to figure it out for yourself," he said, the edges of his eye crinkling in a way Sakura had come to realize meant he was smiling. "Gathering information is a very important skill for shinobi to excel in."
Sakura was caught between admiring her sensei's method for getting her interested in some additional personal training and annoyance that he wouldn't just give her a straight answer. 'Stupid masked bastard being all evasive and subtle to make us increase our skills…'
"Now on the topic of your desire to become a budding fūinjutsu specialist, you're in luck," Kakashi said. "I happen to be moderately proficient in the art myself, so you won't need to find yourself a supplementary tutor."
Sakura took a moment to process what Kakashi had just said before her face lit up with excitement. She opened up her mouth to exclaim her thanks when he cut her off yet again.
"I need you to understand something Sakura," her sensei began in a grave tone. "This isn't going to be as simple as poring over a book and making sure every stroke of the brush is neat and methodical. Those exceptional shinobi I mentioned? They weren't exceptional because they were fūinjutsu masters. They were exceptional because whenever they applied fūinjutsu in battle, it made their already impressive skills several magnitudes stronger. You want to stand on level with what you believe Sasuke will become, what you think Naruto might become? Then prepare yourself for a living hell Sakura. I will work you to exhaustion, till the only thing you want to do is just drop where you are and sleep. Then while you're resting I'll make you decipher and write your own fūinjutsu patterns until your eyes ache."
Sakura barely repressed the urge to flinch away as Kakashi leaned in close. "Every day will be the day you tell yourself you want to quit and it will only get worse when you reach the end of what little I'll be able to teach you. That will be the moment you truly learn whether or not all the effort you've put into your studies will have been a waste or not."
"What do you mean sensei?" Sakura asked, feeling her confidence wane even further under the weight of Kakashi's declarations.
"What I mean is that for all I've been called a genius of almost no parallel in my generation, there was a point in which I simply hit a wall when I was learning the art. It's the barrier that separates those who do nothing more than memorize the layout of the seals they use and those who can create a seal on the fly. To truly understand and master the art of fūinjutsu means you must be able to step beyond that barrier between learning and creating. Do you truly want to spend the time it takes to reach that point on the chance that you won't be able to break through to the other side?" Kakashi asked.
Sakura stared into the man's one visible eye as she contemplated his words. Did she really have what it took? Could she put forward the kind of effort Kakashi was saying it would take on the off chance that even after all that effort she might find herself stuck at the meager position of merely proficient? She thought back to the bell test, where a single one of Naruto's shadow clones might have been able to replace her for the final confrontation and get nearly the same results. Then she thought to the Tora mission, where she'd done her best to fill in the gaps of the two boys' almost unnaturally competent teamwork.
Where would that leave her when she wasn't needed to fill the gaps? Was she destined to become nothing more than an extra when that time came? 'No!' Would she be relegated to simply watching from the sidelines? 'I refuse to be nothing more than a spectator!' She'd been so certain she was a competent shinobi. She'd been so certain that even though she knew she couldn't possibly match up to Sasuke, she was certainly better than the dead last Naruto who had been put on the team a weaker one from being dragged down. She'd thought that meant she was an exceptional shinobi. 'We are, dammit!'
Could she even keep up with the tortuous regimen that Kakashi was saying he'd put her through? Was she really willing to face that kind of exhaustion on a regular basis?
Sakura blinked in surprise, not immediately recognizing that it had been her voice that had spoken that last thought aloud. She glanced up at Kakashi and just barely caught the tail end of a shocked expression, before it morphed into something she was hesitant to label as approval.
"Well it's good to see you're sure about this," Kakashi said. "I suppose the first order of business would be get you settled with your basic necessities. Let's go then."
"Now?" Sakura asked, once again shocked by how proactive a role Kakashi seemed to be taking after the incredibly hands off approach he'd been using for the past week. "I mean, what about Sasuke-kun and Naruto?"
"Naruto and Sasuke are big boys and can handle something as simple as tree climbing without adult supervision," Kakashi reassured her. "I'll let them know we'll be leaving for a bit and then we'll be on our way." With that said he leapt down from the tree. After a moment of hesitation Sakura followed, though she chose to walk down its side instead. She did it mostly because there really was something exhilarating about feeling her chakra dancing almost perfectly to her beck and call, but she'd be lying if she said didn't get a bit of a thrill from showing off as well.
"Whad'ya mean Sakura-chan's gonna get extra training? What about me and this stupid bastard?" she heard Naruto cry out as she reached the ground. 'Cha! Who does he think he is, calling our precious Sasuke-kun a bastard? I oughta beat him over the head for that!' Sure, Naruto sorta-maybe-possibly wasn't quite as bad as she'd once thought he was, and it was a relief that he'd suddenly gone and cut down on how many times a day he asked her for a date or bugged her over the most trivial things, but that still didn't excuse him from talking to Sasuke that way! She was about to walk up and show him exactly what she thought of his language when she was stopped by a hand coming to rest on her head.
"Now, now Naruto," Kakashi said from beside her. "I'm sure once you've learned how to climb trees you'll be ready to do something a bit more challenging. I suppose if you really wanted to you could join us though. I'm sure you'd love to learn the fine art of calligraphy."
Sakura frowned. He wasn't really suggesting?
"Calli-what-now?" Naruto asked, a confused scowl adorning his face.
"Calligraphy idiot," Sasuke answered before Kakashi could explain. "It's the art of writing in an aesthetically pleasing manner. Or rather, it's learning how to write so it looks nice," he further explained, presumably to cut off what would most likely be Naruto asking what 'aesthetically' meant. Sakura felt heat rise in her cheeks as Sasuke's gaze turned on her, his eyes seeming to search her expression for any hint as to what Kakashi was teaching her that would require neat handwriting.
Conversation continued for a bit longer, during which time Sakura realized that her sensei's seemingly veiled invitation to Naruto to learn fūinjutsu alongside her had actually been a subtle way of dissuading him from attempting to learn as well. She was only confused as to why Kakashi would take such a roundabout method of doing so for as long as it took her to realize that Naruto would probably just take a direct denial as a challenge to figure it out on his own, which could end less than pleasantly for everyone involved. From what she'd read, fūinjutsu required a great deal of caution and restraint during the learning process, something that Naruto was sorely lacking in. Sakura might not have liked Naruto all that much, but that didn't mean she wanted to hear that he'd gone and blown his arm off trying to recreate something he probably wouldn't understand in the slightest.
"I wasn't lying about the calligraphy bit you know," Kakashi spoke up as they finally began to leave. "It wouldn't do for you to have something blow up in your face or simply not work at all because your handwriting was sloppy."
"Right," Sakura nodded. It made perfect sense. If her seals weren't working right because her handwriting was off she'd probably get herself, and possibly others killed.
"Good to see you understand. Now do try to keep up," Kakashi said as he dashed away.
Sakura froze for a moment as she stared uncomprehendingly at her sensei's quickly shrinking figure, before she bolted after him. It wasn't long before she was running at a full sprint, straining to ensure that the man didn't disappear from sight. As her muscles began to burn under the strain of keeping up with Kakashi, Sakura felt a sinking sensation in her stomach as she realized that this kind of situation was likely going to become her routine.
'That stupid, masked bastard won't know what hit him. I'm going to stick him in a box! I'm going to stick him in a small box and seal the fucking thing closed! And only his head is going to be allowed to stay out so everyone can mock him for getting stuck in a fucking box!'
As Team Eight exited the Hokage's tower after turning in their successful D-rank mission for the day, Kurenai watched her team interact from her position behind them. Hinata remained withdrawn as she listened to Kiba ramble on about something to do with the differences between regular dogs and ninken. To their left, Shino didn't appear to be paying attention to the one sided conversation, but it could be hard to tell when it came to the Aburame clan.
For not the first time, Kurenai found herself ruminating over the three genin she'd been handed just a week ago. She'd been confused but pleased when she'd been among those chosen to take on a genin team. Having her own team had been one of the things she'd been looking forward to from the moment she was awarded the rank of jōnin, but it was considered rare to receive a team as early as she had. Then she'd learned exactly who her team was to consist of and she'd gone from confused straight into silently wondering if the Sandaime had begun to go senile.
She had a team consisting of three genin who could theoretically be the leaders of their clans, two of which hailed from the noble clans of Konoha. She hadn't even been a jōnin for a full year yet and she had been tasked to train and protect children who could very well become a vital part of the political foundation of Konoha in the next ten to fifteen years. This revelation had led to Kurenai being far tenser in her initial meeting with the genin than she'd have preferred and it was just her luck that said children all had the necessary skills drilled into them by their clans for them to pick up on that.
Shino had responded to it by remaining closed off, Kiba decided that it was open season to test the boundaries of her leadership and Hinata, the poor girl, had acted as though she thought the entire situation was all her fault. Shino's and Kiba's attitudes were at the very least something she could work through given enough time for everyone to get comfortable with each other, but Hinata's attitude was concerning. That the girl had assumed fault with so little to suggest it hinted at a dangerous penchant for self-deprecation and deep seated issues with poor self-esteem.
Of course, if Kurenai had thought it was bad during their first meeting, the second time she met with Hinata had truly opened her eyes to how badly off the girl was. Kurenai respected Hiashi Hyūga for his prowess as a ninja. She tentatively respected his position as the head of his clan. As a man and a father though, Kurenai could honestly say that she unequivocally loathed the man.
For Hiashi to have stated that his eldest daughter and heir was useless to the clan and indirectly state that he did not care if Hinata got herself killed while out on a mission had been despicable. For him to have stated this all knowing that Hinata had been well within hearing distance, and Kurenai didn't believe for one second that the man hadn't known, made him little more than trash in her eyes.
The only thing Kurenai thought was even marginally good about the situation was that the man hadn't made mention of anything pertaining to an "honorable" death. Hinata's problems seemed numerous enough as it was, and she most definitely didn't need "potentially suicidal" added to the list.
The days following that incident had been tense. Having had her already fragile confidence in herself ground to dust by her father's words, Hinata had been so full of self-doubt that it had affected her ability to the point that she had nearly caused the failure of several D-Rank missions. By some unknown miracle, both Kiba and Shino had been surprisingly supportive of the girl. Kiba was a bit insensitive and Shino was hard to read most days, but neither seemed to hold Hinata's faults against her.
The jōnin could only hope that having what seemed to be a supportive environment in Team Eight could help the girl. Kurenai wasn't sure how well Hinata would respond to extra positive reinforcement or praise, and the girl was perceptive enough that if praise was handed out simply to raise her spirits, it might very well destroy any trust she had for her team.
Hinata seemed to have a desire to grow past her weakness and had taken up staying behind and training even after Kurenai dismissed them each day, but the woman wasn't sure if it was helping or not. The girl would train herself until her palms left bloody stains on the post, yet no matter how long she worked at it, Hinata always seemed to reach a point where her willpower seemed to simply peter out. She'd curl into herself and simply sit there looking miserable.
Kurenai had considered approaching Hinata during these moments, but a part of her was wary that it wasn't her place to try and step in and interfere. Another part of her was unsure whether this was something Hinata had to get through on her own, and was hesitant to extend a hand and drive the girl's confidence in herself even lower.
Not to mention that Kiba was still testing his boundaries and might take any sign of favoritism as an excuse to act out. Her team could work together, but it was less true teamwork and more that Kiba was prone to take charge immediately, and Shino was still too socially awkward or reluctant to successfully contest his teammate's choices before Hinata simply followed Kiba's lead due to her lack of self-confidence.
Kurenai's train of thought was cut off as she overheard a particularly loud outburst from down the street. "Oh yeah? I bet I could totally find them way faster than you if I used my Shadow Clones you stuck up bastard!"
She watched as the owner of the voice was revealed to be one infamous Naruto Uzumaki. Kurenai's opinion of the boy was mostly undecided. With her rudimentary knowledge of fūinjutsu, she liked to think that she knew well enough that someone with skills as legendary as the Yondaime's would be capable of creating a more than adequate seal to hold back the Kyūbi. She didn't particularly like the boy, but most of what she knew of him was by reputation, and Kurenai liked to think she was a sensible person who didn't judge a person solely on hearsay.
Kurenai's attention was caught by the way Hinata almost immediately perked up as Naruto and his companion, one Sasuke Uchiha, came more prominently into view. Kurenai continued to watch curiously as the young girl's gaze followed the two as they came closer and a light blush lit up her cheeks.
"Oi, Naruto!" Kiba called out. Naruto stopped mid tirade and turned to face their group. His angry demeanor turned jovial as he changed course to approach them while Sasuke trailed leisurely after him with an exasperated look on his face.
"Hey there Hinata! How's it going? Is your team's sensei any good? I mean, they've got to be better than Kakashi-sensei 'cause sometimes he is just the laziest, no good bastard ever," the boy rattled off. Kurenai quirked an eyebrow at the boy's blatant disrespect for his sensei and wondered if he realized she was standing there.
"Oh, h-hello Naruto-kun. It's going, um, well and Kurenai-sensei is a b-bit strict, but she's very kind," Hinata answered.
"Oi, Naruto! You just going to ignore the guy who actually called you over?" Kiba asked.
Kurenai watched on as Naruto turned with an annoyed look towards the other boy. "I don't see why not," he said. "Hinata's way cooler and more interesting than you'll ever be dog breath!"
Kurenai wasn't sure what was more noteworthy, the fact that Kiba seemed so completely flabbergasted by Naruto's blatant disrespect that the expected angry comeback failed to coalesce, or that Hinata seemed to have actually straightened up a small amount from her more standard fretful slouching, regardless of the cherry red blush covering her face.
Naruto turned away from Kiba and continued to speak as though there had never been an interruption. "So how have the missions been for you Hinata? Have you gotten anything more interesting than those crappy D-Ranks? I mean they're so boooring! I mean, I guess they pay ok, but I didn't become a shinobi to chase some crazy lady's crazy cat!"
"W-well, Team Eight has only, um, gotten D-Ranks as well and they're…n-not so bad. I mean…" Kurenai frowned as the girl trailed off and shrank into herself, presumably remembering the various fumbles and mistakes she'd made over the last week. Naruto seemed to notice something was wrong as well and he crouched slightly to look into Hinata's downcast eyes with a worried expression on his face.
"Hinata…you ok?" he asked in a surprisingly soft voice.
Hinata jerked in surprise and began to ramble off denials. "N-no, I mean yes! I mean, um, you d-don't need to b-bother yourself over it Naru-waahhh!" She cried out as Naruto grabbed her by the sleeve of her jacket and began dragging her away. "N-Naruto-kun, what are you d-doing!"
"We're going to Ichiraku's!"
"B-but what about-"
"No buts! Ichiraku's ramen makes everyone feel better!"
Hinata looked back at Kurenai with an expression that made the woman question whether the girl was requesting permission or pleading for rescue. Making a split second decision, Kurenai gave Hinata a subtle gesture of dismissal while a knowing smirk curled her lips. She was rewarded with the sight of Hinata's already red blush spreading from her cheeks to across her entire face, though her posture relaxed considerably and her half-hearted resistance to Naruto's attempts to drag her away ceased.
"Sensei, are you sure it was wise to allow something so disruptive to our duties?" Shino asked, speaking up for the first time since the encounter had started.
"We've already performed a mission for the day," Kurenai replied, "and I was going to suggest we break for lunch anyways." She paused for a moment, raising a hand to her chin in contemplation. "Though I was wondering… Was there anything between those two during your time at the Academy?"
"While I cannot say I know when or why it started," Shino began to reply immediately. "Hinata-san focused a great deal of her attention on Uzumaki-san when she was not focused on her studies. I would hypothesize that she sees Uzumaki-san as a viable suitor, but as her actions do not line up with what I have determined to be the standard behavior preteen girls seem to partake in when confronted with the object of their desire, I cannot say for certain. In addition, I find myself surprised by his most recent actions. Why? Because I am not aware that he ever reciprocated her attention in any significant manner during our years at The Academy."
Once again Kurenai was reminded of Shino's below average understanding of interpersonal relationships. She had a feeling the boy's childhood had been nearly as lonely as she believed Hinata's to have been, sans the abusive home situation. Aburames were generally reserved and calculating in most everything they did, but Shino seemed less well equipped interacting with non-clan members than her previous experience with other Aburame would have suggested.
"Shino's right…probably. I might have lost a bit in translation," Kiba chipped in after a moment's hesitation. "The only girl Naruto ever really paid much attention to during The Academy was Sakura. I always thought he was a little weirded out by Hinata because she always got so nervous around him."
"Apparently something happened between those two during the day we had team assignments." The three remaining members of Team Eight turned to look at Sasuke, most of whom had forgotten he was there. "Stupid idiot just completely forgot that we were looking for Kakashi and Sakura." Sasuke sighed. "Dammit, I don't have time for this." The boy tilted his head marginally in Kurenai's direction before taking to the rooftops and darting away.
"Huh, I guess that explains why they came to class together that day," Kiba said as Sasuke disappeared from sight.
Kurenai took a moment to file away that newest piece of information as she put together a plan of action. "Alright then," she said. "We'll break for lunch like I was planning and meet up at the usual training ground in one hour. I'll make sure Hinata knows, so you don't need to worry about her." She waited just long enough for the two boys to nod an affirmative before disappearing in a swirl of leaves.
Naruto paused a moment in his voracious assault on the contents of his ramen bowl to glance over at Hinata. To his growing distress, it seemed that she was largely immune to the feel good effects of a hot bowl of Ichiraku's ramen. She'd done little more than aimlessly twirl her chopsticks through the broth and slurp up a meager portion of noodles every few minutes while Naruto felt a stifling feeling of melancholy emanate from her in waves.
He glanced back at his mostly empty second bowl, before setting down his chopsticks and turning to face Hinata more properly. She startled at the sudden movement and turned to face him in return, though her eyes refused to meet his for more than a moment.
"Are you ok Hinata?" he interrupted.
"W-wha- I, um…n-yes! I mean…y-you don't have to b-bother yourself over it Naruto-kun," Hinata stammered out.
"It's not a bother, really," Naruto said. "I mean, I'm probably not the best to ask about the dos and don'ts of being friends, but I do know that they're supposed to help each other right?"
Hinata shook her head. "Y-you don't….I'm n-not…I'll only drag y-you down if I'm your f-friend. I'm…" her voice cracked, "I'm just a f-failure…I…I c-can't even do a D Rank m-mission without screwing it up. I-I'm no good at my c-clan's techniques and I c-can't even beat my y-younger sister in a spar." Naruto was frozen stiff as stifling feelings of melancholy he'd been feeling from her began warp into something heavier and far more sinister. The worse it got, the more familiar it became and he felt like he was almost suffocating by the time he'd finally identified the corrosive, heavy weight of self-loathing. Combined with the almost desperate concern the other was feeling, it was pushing him closer and closer to his breaking point.
"I'm n-not a person who d-deserves to be friends w-with someone l-like y-"
Hinata jerked and her expression became one of pure shock as Naruto slammed down his hands on her shoulders and latched onto them in a vicelike grip.
"You're not allowed!"
Hinata's expression morphed into one of confusion. "I'm n-not-"
"Right! You're not allowed to do that to yourself! You're not allowed to hate yourself!"
Her eyes widened at his statement. "B-but-"
"No! You aren't worthless and you aren't allowed to decide whether or not we should be friends over something like that!"
"B-but I'm just a f-failure who always g-gives up," Hinata countered weakly, tears beginning to well up in her eyes.
"Then you won't give up anymore!" Naruto countered back.
"H…how c-can you be so s-sure?" the girl asked, sounding almost desperate for an answer.
Naruto was suddenly reminded of how he'd felt during those few minutes after he'd learned about the Kyūbi, but before he'd heard Iruka express his belief in him. He remembered that desperate need for someone to tell him it wasn't true, that he wasn't that evil monster everybody despised.
Naruto let his hands fall off Hinata's shoulders, and the way she turned away from him, as though she expected him to reject her, made an indescribable pain bloom in his chest that was echoed by the other. He took a deep breath to steady himself.
"Because," Hinata turned back to face him at the sound of his voice. "Because you already have that strength. You just need to believe in yourself." Naruto wasn't sure why he felt so certain of this. It was almost like when he felt the other's emotions, but there was something about the feeling that reminded him more of an echo. "Because you said that you think I'm strong, that you believe in me, not because I get it right, but because I don't give up when I fail. So now I'll be the one to believe in you." He felt the unmistakable feeling of an echo wash over him and his next words seemed to roll off his tongue in the same way they had when he'd declared his intent to protect his precious people.
"In my eyes you're a-
"So together we'll be-
Naruto's attention was briefly diverted as he tried his best to keep ahold of those words of Hinata's that he was sure she'd never spoken to him. Just like all the previous times though, the words slipped away like water through his fingers and there was nothing left but indecipherable murmuring and this indescribable feeling of joy and a welling up of confidence that he couldn't explain.
A sniffling sound brought his awareness back to the present. He saw that Hinata had dipped her face forward so that her bangs hid her eyes. Naruto was confused as to what she was doing until something that sounded like a cross between a hiccup and a whimper came out of her mouth. Naruto felt the beginnings of panic creep into him as he realized what was about to happen, but before he could begin to flounder about in an attempt to keep Hinata from crying, a movement from out of the corner of his eye caught his attention.
The ramen shop owner's daughter, Ayame, stopped waving her hands as he looked her way and began to make an odd circling gesture with her arms. Naruto gave her a confused look, completely dumbfounded by her actions. Ayame covered her face in exasperation for a moment before pointing at Hinata with a very firm gesture, then making the circling gesture with her arms again. This time however, she also slid her arms together, as though she was drawing something in.
Naruto looked back at Hinata before his arms began to raise hesitantly. He glanced up at Ayame again, who made an impatient gesture towards the girl. In a panic, Naruto swiftly grabbed Hinata and pulled her into an awkward hug. She let out a gasp and stiffened in his arms as the sudden action pulled her off her stool and onto her feet. Naruto looked back at Ayame worriedly, who simply made a rubbing motion with one of her hands. After a moment of hesitation, he began to rub Hinata's back.
Ever so slowly, Hinata's body began to relax in his arms. Her arms rose at a slow pace and hesitantly wrapped around his torso until he felt her fingers clutch at his jacket, followed by her burying her head into the crook of his neck. Then, much to Naruto's once again rising panic, he felt Hinata begin to tremble in his arms and make sad little gasping and whimpering sounds that were accompanied by a wet feeling on his neck.
He threw a desperate look at Ayame, who simply gave him a consoling look and a thumbs up. Biting his lip worriedly, but figuring that the older girl understood the situation better than he did, he turned his attention back to Hinata.
He could feel the thick, oppressive weight of misery emanating from the girl in his arms, but to his surprise it seemed to be gradually dissipating. It was as though it bled out of Hinata bit by bit through every tear she shed. Eventually, Naruto felt her trembling cease and the soft whimpers and sobs faded into silence and the oppressive misery that he had been feeling had faded to the point that he could barely feel it at the edge of his senses.
Several moments passed and Naruto began to feel flustered as Hinata showed no signs of letting go. Physical contact was something he had experience with. Between sparring and getting into plenty of fights over the years he'd had plenty of experience with touch. He wasn't used to this kind of touch though. Sure, he might receive the occasional rub on the head, or maybe even an arm around the shoulder, but that was rare, and hugs were rarer still.
It wasn't that he disliked it. Hinata's body felt pleasantly warm and soft in his arms. It was more the fact that someone was willing to partake in and receive comfort from this kind of contact with him and it left Naruto feeling oddly giddy, and more than a little out of his depth.
Eventually, Hinata released her grip on his jacket and brought her hands around to gently push away from him. Hinata backed away a step and sat herself back on to her stool while wiping at her eyes. If Naruto hadn't still been in a bit of a daze over how his stomach still seemed to be doing halfhearted flips and twists, he might have taken the time to ask if she was feeling ok, considering how red her face was at that moment.
"Thank you…Naruto-kun." The softly spoken words snapped Naruto out of his daze.
He scratched at the back of his head nervously. "O-oh, um, it was no problem…hehe…"
Naruto barely caught glance of the subtle upturning of Hinata's lips as she turned to face her previously abandoned ramen. She raised her chopsticks only to have the bowl in front of her whisked away and replaced with a new, freshly steaming bowl. Both Naruto and Hinata looked up in surprise to see the ramen stand's owner standing there with a gentle smile on his face.
"I couldn't possibly allow someone to eat lukewarm ramen at my stand when they've finally found their appetite. Don't worry about payment," Teuchi said, cutting of Hinata's protest before it could begin. "That bowl is on the house. I insist." The man nodded appreciatively at Hinata's whispered 'thank you', before heading to dispose of the bowl of ramen he'd taken. He paused briefly to reach over the counter and ruffle Naruto's hair affectionately.
Naruto protested weakly and blushed in embarrassment before turning back to his own ramen, only to be faced with the reminder that his bowl was practically empty. He sheepishly glanced up at Teuchi who began laughing. "I'll have another bowl ready in a few minutes Naruto-kun."
"Hehe, thanks Teuchi-jiji!" Naruto glanced over at Hinata and was simultaneously happy and dumbfounded to see her attacking her ramen with remarkably dignified gusto. Noodles were disappearing into her mouth at an exceptional rate, yet there wasn't a single splash of spilled soup or dropped topping in sight. Naruto had been eating ramen at Ichiraku's for years and he still had trouble with spills from time to time.
"Hinata!" The young girl jumped in shock at Naruto's excited call and turned to face him with a surprised expression and a bundle of noodles precariously held between her chopsticks and mouth. "You've gotta show me how to eat like that!" Naruto continued.
Hinata simply stared at him with a bemused expression, so confused by Naruto's request that she seemed to have forgotten that she hadn't yet finished the bundle of noodles currently trapped between the grip of her chopsticks and mouth. The sound of Ayame's laughter drew Naruto's attention.
"Hey! What're you laughin' at?" Naruto asked, which only seemed to make Ayame laugh harder.
From there on out the conversation drifted in no direction in particular, jumping from topic to topic about as quickly as Naruto's mind could change course. Hinata didn't actually do much talking, but Naruto was starting to realize that that was just a part of who she was. He wasn't quite sure if she was just super-duper shy, or simply didn't like talking all that much, but it wasn't because she was weird, and it definitely wasn't because she disliked him. Even discounting everything else that had happened, Hinata seemed far too interested in what he was saying for it to be that last one.
That in and of itself was a lot nicer than he'd expected. Even Iruka and the Hokage seemed to get bored if he rambled on long enough, but Hinata seemed to be interested no matter what he was saying. It reminded him of how irritated at himself he was for spending so much time practically screaming for attention that he'd drowned out the quiet voice of someone who seemed more than happy to be his friend.
Naruto pushed that line of thought aside so that he could refocus his attention on attempting to obtain the secret to Hinata's speedy and clean method of eating ramen.
"It's the moments like these that I wish I'd cherished more."
Across the street from the ramen stand Hinata and Naruto were eating at, Kurenai stood watching. She'd arrived on the scene, ready to offer Hinata an out if she'd managed to misread the situation from earlier, and had been just in time to hear the beginning of the girl's self-deprecating rant.
What followed had left the jōnin in a state of mild shock. For a boy who seemed to have all the social grace of a rampaging bull, he'd shown a surprisingly keen perception for cutting right to the heart of Hinata's issues. Near the end of his speech, the pieces clicked and Kurenai began to understand why it was this boy in particular that Hinata had chosen to look up to. He was brash, loud and seemed to know next to nothing about proper social graces. His academic record was abysmal and his reputation around the village was better left unsaid. It wasn't unlikely that he had shared more than his fair share of verbal and emotional abuse, not only from the adults, but also from the children who had learned by example to treat him as an outcast.
Somehow, despite that abuse, he hadn't broken. The evidence of his struggles was visible in his mannerisms and general track record, but Naruto could still smile. He could still stand tall. He shouted his determination from the rooftops. He refused to give up. Despite the cruel hand life had dealt him, he seemed to live an overwhelmingly vivid and expressive life.
It was those qualities that seemed to have drawn the attention and admiration of the young, broken girl that currently sat by his side, and that admiration certainly seemed to be paying dividends at that moment. Kurenai couldn't remember a single time she'd seen as wide a range of positive emotion expressed on Hinata's face in the week the girl had been under her tutelage.
Kurenai was thrust from her thoughts as she felt a slight disturbance that signaled someone's arrival just to the left of where she was standing.
A few seconds passed before the new arrival spoke. "It's reassuring to see someone his age who seems to genuinely care about him."
Kurenai turned her gaze away from Hinata and Naruto to Kakashi, surprised by the open sincerity in his voice.
"He deserves so much better than the hand life dealt him," the man continued. For a moment Kurenai contemplated Kakashi's choice of words. She understood that as a student of the Yondaime, Kakashi might have felt some degree of attachment to the young orphan the Kyūbi had been sealed into, but the way the man was speaking suggested that there was something more to it. There was something missing, a key piece of information that Kurenai didn't have ahold of that left her unable to put together the big picture.
She turned her gaze back towards the two genin across the street, deigning not to voice her thoughts as she responded to Kakashi's statement. "There are many who do." She saw the affirmative tilt of his head out of corner of her eye.
There was a brief period of companionable silence as the two jōnin continued to watch their genin interact.
"You have to make them strong Kurenai," Kakashi said, breaking the silence.
Kurenai turned a wry expression towards the man. "That's a given Kakashi. Every jōnin instructor tries to make sure their genin are-"
"No Kurenai," she was frozen by the edge to Kakashi's voice, "you have to make them strong."
"What are you getting at Kakashi?" she asked, frowning at the man's insistence.
"There are unknown forces out there that might try and reenact a tragedy they failed to complete years ago," he answered cryptically.
Kurenai's eyes widened at the implications. There were only two great tragedies in recent memory that had to do with Konoha, and there wasn't anything unknown about who had committed the atrocity that had been the Uchiha Massacre. "You learned something recently." It wasn't a question.
"A whole bunch of somethings really," Kakashi quipped back in an infuriatingly flippant manner, "and I can't tell you a one of them!"
"Then why risk saying anything at all?" Kurenai grit her teeth in frustration as her blood ran cold. S-Rank secrets, as in plural because genius-boy Kakashi could never do anything by halves or even wholes, were not something you just casually referenced in conversation, even if you were being frustratingly vague. The execution orders on revealing them weren't just empty words.
"Because," and the man's voice was back to serious, "when I see that girl look at him I'm almost reminded of the shinobi I've watched throw themselves in the line of fire for the sake of their loved ones. Because I get the horrible feeling that we won't have the luxury of keeping them out of the fight the way our predecessors attempted to keep us out of it that night."
She clenched her fists in an attempt to reign herself in. If she'd had any doubts that he was implying that the Kyūbi's attack had been orchestrated by a third party, then his implying that Naruto would be the target had erased them. "Exactly how strong are these so called unknown forces Kakashi? Can you tell me that much?" She knew that she'd regret asking that question, assuming he could and would answer it, but she needed to know what he was telling her to prepare for.
"Theoretically, they'd be strong enough to survive fighting a kage and then retreat from the scene without leaving any evidence of who they were."
'Damn him! DAMN HIM TO HELL!' Kurenai barely managed to avoid completely losing her composure. It didn't take a genius to realize that the Kage Kakashi was talking about was the Yondaime, a man known for being one of the single most efficiently lethal shinobi of his time. She'd seen the man in action shortly after he'd gained his moniker as the Yellow Flash near the end of the Third Shinobi World War. The speed with which she'd watched him dismantle an entire enemy squad of shinobi, using the legendary Flying Thunder God Jutsu and a handful of custom order kunai was something that even most kage level shinobi would find near impossible to replicate. To suggest that someone had done battle with that man and had managed to get away without leaving a trace was to suggest that said interloper was an absolute monster in their own right.
She hadn't even been a jōnin for a year yet, dammit! She'd been anxious enough when she learned who her genin team was going to be, and now she was being told she might have to prepare her team for possibly encountering a kage level threat because of their potential connections to Konoha's jinchūriki. This wasn't what she had signed up for when she'd gone for her jōnin promotion. This wasn't what any jōnin signed up for!
"Suppose I take you seriously Kakashi," Kurenai began. "If this person was strong enough to cause that tragedy and survive a fight with a young, healthy kage, why haven't they made another attempt to obtain their target?"
"I honestly couldn't tell you," Kakashi quipped back at her. "And isn't that just terrifying?"
Kurenai didn't have a response for that, so she chose another line of attack. "Why are you so certain that they'll have no choice but to be involved?"
"Because this generation of rookies is the future of Konoha, and his dream is to be the lynchpin that holds them all together."
Kurenai frowned. "You really think he has what it takes to become Hokage? It's not uncommon knowledge that he practically flunked out of the Academy, and his reputation speaks for itself," she said. Once again she got the feeling that she was missing a vital piece of information, with Kakashi seemingly so adamant that Naruto would rise to the occasion.
"Isn't it interesting then, that he taught himself the Shadow Clone Jutsu in only a few hours," Kakashi said.
Kurenai didn't bother trying to maintain her composure this time. "He what?" she asked, blatant disbelief clear in her voice and expression.
"Yep," Kakashi said. "And then he summoned a hundred or so of them and beat the traitor black and blue only a bit after he'd learned it." Kurenai barely avoided gaping at that. Only a handful of people had been debriefed on what exactly had happened between Iruka, Naruto and the traitor on that night a few weeks ago, and she hadn't been one of them. Now that she thought of it, she'd foolishly given little to no thought about the boy's earlier declaration that he could perform the jutsu, nor to how he would have gone about learning it.
"Besides," Kakashi continued. "Assuming I'm even partially correct about what I'm insinuating, he'll probably need to have what it takes if he wants to survive long enough to have an actual chance at the hat."
Kurenai took a moment to really observe Kakashi. She couldn't say she knew the man very well and her social circles only just brushed against his because of her newly budding relationship with Asuma. However, it didn't take an intimate knowledge of the man before her to recognize that he was far too tense for a jōnin watching over one of his genin in their home village.
"You're terrified," she stated.
The eye smile Kakashi gave her was so fake that any lingering, misplaced hope Kurenai had had that the man was simply screwing with her was shattered. "Didn't I say as much just a bit ago?" he asked in a too pleasant tone.
She looked back at the genin who were animatedly chatting about one topic or another while enjoying their ramen. "Jōnin aren't expected to try and turn their genin into super soldiers."
"But we are expected to give them the tools necessary to survive."
"And if they burn out?" she retorted, not hiding the bitterness that seeped into her voice.
"Then we'll have failed in our duty."
Kurenai clenched her fists, holding back any other sign of her frustration with sheer willpower. When she felt the slippery feel of blood trickling through her fingers, she took a moment to compose herself. "…they're only children," she murmured halfheartedly.
Kakashi sighed. "We asked them to stop being children the moment we handed them their hitaite. Isn't it better that we give them the tools to survive to their physical adulthood, rather than leave them their naivety and be forced to bring their bodies back home one day?"
There wasn't really anything Kurenai could say in response to that, so she simply continued to gaze upon the two children currently eating side by side, intent on letting them enjoy what moments they could grab.
Hiruzen Sarutobi sighed in exhaustion as he turned away from his crystal ball. He hated having to manipulate Kakashi the way he had, but it had been the simplest way to motivate the man into ramping up his training schedule and forcing the man to push past his own personal demons. Not that anything he'd told the man was a lie. He'd simply given the young man enough information to spur him into preemptively breaking down a few of his self-erected walls.
Normally it wasn't standard practice for jōnin to give their genin any kind of specialized teaching unless they were considering nominating them for the Chūnin Exams, but unique circumstances called for non-standard responses.
The old man glanced over at the pile of ash that had only recently been a heavily encrypted message from the only student of his that still remained in contact with him. They had been words straight from the mouth of the ancient toad sage, Gamamaru, and Hiruzen's only wish was that the ancient toad had been less frustratingly cryptic.
Certain references were easy enough to guess their meaning. He had little doubt as to who the 'Fox' was, and the references to the Sage of Six Paths, while shocking, were clear enough. He also had his theories on who certain referenced figures might be, such as the 'Children of the Man Wrought Twice Upon the World'.
Other titles left him confused and reeling for answers. Who in the world were the 'Nine Children of the Sage'? Even more pressing was the convoluted chain of manipulation and betrayal that seemed to involve a 'Puppet God', a 'Shattered Idealist', a 'False Messiah' and the 'Rabbit on the Moon and its Scion'.
For the first time in decades, Hiruzen felt as though he was little more than a lowly pawn on a shogi board, incapable of discerning the larger picture. A picture that he was beginning to worry showed the scene of a conflict that would make the past three wars look like little more than tantrums thrown by selfish children who hadn't gotten their way.
"I wonder if these old bones of mine will last long enough to see that day come," the old man murmured to himself. Left unsaid was whether or not he truly wanted them to.
Author's Note: So this took a lot longer to get written than I thought it would, and I can only partly blame it on the fact that I moved to an apartment with my sister recently. Ah well, what will be will be. I'll try to avoid taking 3-4 months for the next chapter, but no promises.
Fun Fact, I'd originally had Kakashi appearing to Kurenai's right, but soon decided that he'd probably appear to her left because he keeps his left eye covered and such. On the other hand, I think I would have been fine having him stand at the right side of Gai or Yamato/Tenzō.
So I said I'd have some more action in this chapter in my last update (it WILL happen next chapter), but then it didn't happen because this chapter went and did a thing with Kakashi learning a bunch of secrets and getting the motivation to get his ass in gear. I won't say the man was a bad teacher in canon since we didn't actually get to see much of how/what he taught because of the time skip of at least a month or two between Wave and the Chūnin Exams, but he seemed to be pretty content to let Team 7 advance at their own pace unless shit hit the fan (Teaching Sasuke Chidori+getting him fast to face Gaara, and thinking up a fast track training program for Naruto's Wind Release training when the Akatsuki started to look like an even bigger threat then they already were after Asuma's death).
A lot of people give the man shit for being a shitty teacher, but he got his ass in gear when he learned there was a direct threat to a member of his team's safety. The only reason he never gave Sakura this treatment was because she never had a psychopath/terrorist organization specifically gunning for her head and by the time he might have thought to do so because she was getting herself involved in the Akatsuki threat because of Naruto, she'd become the prodigal student of one of the Sannin and he probably figured Tsunade could prepare her just as well if not better than he ever could. (Not to mention that it might have been seen as incredibly disrespectful to try to give Sakura specialized training by that point because it could imply he didn't have faith in Tsunade's/THE HOKAGE'S ability to train her pupil)
Other than that the whole Hinata thing happened. I'll be frank, the only reason Hinata's not on the main character list is because there are only 4 slots and I don't want to plant any preconceptions/make people think this is a fic with a focus on shipping. Not to say that shipping won't play a notable part of it because it will, but I mostly want to explore the repercussions of Naruto pseudo-time travelling, as well as the effects of time travelling being attempted at all (Some of you may have caught onto some of the hints I've left about the latter statement already). If I could include as many characters in the heading as I wanted I'd have to add Sasuke, Sakura, Neji, Spoiler, Spoiler, Spoiler, etc. So, since Naruto was the main focal point of everything changing I simply left Naruto as the only character in the character slot.
So is Naruto more mature/socially aware than he was in canon? Hmm, I'd measure it at a very hesitant 'sort of but not really'. Negative Emotions Sensing gives him a shortcut so to speak, but that doesn't mean that he's batting a hundred for his reactions. The echoes can help give him the context he has difficulty parsing out due to his less than stellar/complete lack of an upbringing, but they're sort of there in the moment and then not there. He knows that he saw/heard/knew something, but what exactly that was can slip away rather quickly once the moment has passed so the effect tends not to last beyond the moment it's in relation to.