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"Sakura-chan!" - Regular Speech

'Baka!' - Thoughts

:Shannaro!: - Inner Sakura

[Quest Announcement] - Gamer Ability/Notification

Beta'd by BigCC

Chapter 27: High D-Rank: Escorting Ayame

A Week Later

Hokage's Office, Hokage Tower

"I see you have both taken the opportunity to update your equipment, young kunoichi." the Hokage stated with a nod as the examined the three genin standing in front of him.

Naruto just grinned from where he stood at the centre of the formation. He was dressed in his casual ninja outfit, with the only new addition being a heavily armoured bracer secured to his left forearm. According to the young Jinchūriki, it had been a reward earned for aiding in the start of reconciliation between his two teammates.

Sakura blushed slightly as shuffled under the elder Kage's gaze. Her red battle dressed had been swapped out with a similarly coloured top and skirt, with the thin slip of her belly left uncovered, showing it was now protected by an armoured mesh shirt that went up under her top and was reinforced to better protect her chest. She also now had a matching set of greaves and bracers protecting her shins and forearms, as well as a set of metal-backed combat gloves over her hands. Her hair had also been tied back into a ponytail similar to Ino's. Though she'd kept her original black spats, the edges just visible under the edge of her skirt.

Ino mere huffed lightly, crossing her arm under her budding bust. Her outfit had remained mostly the same, save for the addition of a set of light greaves and bracers and the mesh armour that was now occasionally peeking out from beneath her clothes and bandages.

"It gladdens me to see the next generation taking their first steps into the world so seriously." the Hokage continued with a firmer, approving nod. "I've always believed it was foolishness for even Genin to ignore having at least some basic protection in their uniforms. Even if it is not expected for you to enter combat on every mission, a shinobi should always make at least some preparation should the worst occur."

His piece said, the Hokage reached out and began shuffling through the papers scattered across his desk. Sarutobi's eye briefly lingered on the pile of scrolls that occupied his left-hand side, each detailing a D-rank Mission he would normally assign to genin teams at random. However, since Naruto's unique [Gamer] ability had manifested the ability to allow him to freely select which mission his team would be assigned, Sarutobi had taken to testing it slightly on occasion. His tests so far had revealed that, while Naruto's unique ability seemed to have some control over random chance, or perhaps even subconscious decision-making, it was far from all-powerful.

If he selected a specific mission for his son's team an hour before they arrived, for example, Naruto's ability would not grant him a choice, instead simply informing him of the mission Hiruzen had selected. He'd also ordered Naruto to select a specific once and then purposefully selected a different one, causing the 'Mission' Naruto had selected to be 'cancelled' and the one he selected to take its place.

These discoveries had actually relieved the ageing shinobi somewhat. An ability that allowed someone to overwrite reality or another's free will so thoroughly, far surpassing even the Yamanaka Clan's ability to manipulate or control their target's minds, would have been a far too dangerous thing to leave alone.

Today he had a special mission in mind for his son's team, and he was curious to see if Naruto's unusual power would somehow highlight it and affect his ability to select it at random.

"Back to the matter at hand, you are all here for a mission, are you not? Let us see what we have available." he offered aloud, reaching absently toward the pile, his eyes discreetly studying Naruto as he extended his arm. In between one second and the next, Naruto's disposition suddenly seemed to shift from relaxed and slightly laid back to tense and alert, with his expression and body language seemingly lagging behind a second or two to adjust to this apparent shift in attitude. The difference between the two shifts was subtle, and it was only Hiruzen's years of experience as a shinobi, leader and negotiator (and the fact that he'd been actively been watching for any sudden changes) that allowed him to notice the inconsistency.

'Oh dear, I wonder just what kind of trouble this is going to bring?' Sarutobi briefly pondered before continuing on with grabbing and unfurling the scroll he'd been reaching for. It was, after a quick glance, the one he'd been hoping to offer to Team Asuma. Did that mean that Naruto's ability had given him some insight onto the mission that he wasn't aware of just yet?

Putting the concern to one side for now, he continued with the plan he'd originally prepared for this specific mission. "Ah, yes. It appears that Team 10 has been specifically requested for a mission by the client, always a pleasant surprise when that happens. Ichiraku Ayame is going to be heading out to pick a large order of ingredients from one of the nearby villages and is requesting an escort there and back."

"Wait a minute, are we actually leaving Konoha for this?" Ino asked, blinking in surprise. "I thought that D-ranks could only take place in Konoha, anything outside the village is C-rank or up."

"Ah, that's a common misconception, Ino." Umino Iruka, his assistant for the time being, offered kindly. The younger man was an excellent aide and organizer, and Hiruzen would honestly be saddened to lose him when the Academy restarted and he was assigned a new class. Were it not for both his passion and capability when it came to teaching the seedlings that would grow into the next generation, the Sandaime would have been long tempted to poach the younger man from the Academy for his personal staff. "Konohagakure's territory actually extends a good twenty miles beyond the walls of the village. There are several training grounds and facilities placed in the area that, for security or safety reasons, are not housed in the village proper, as well as several Clan-owned properties, the Nara Clan's Deer Reserve being one prime example. In addition to that, there are also over a dozen small villages that act as way-stations for merchant caravans, couriers and other civilian needs making their way to and from Konoha as well as serving as farming and animal husbandry centres to supply the village with food. Given the security of the area being directly under Konoha's aegis, it is considered safe enough that any mission as long as it remains within that territory can still considered a D-rank, albeit a High D-rank at least."

The trio of genin took a moment to process the impromptu lecture before it was surprisingly Sakura who broke the silence.

"Well, it can't be any worse than having to chase after that damned cat again." the pink-haired kunoichi offered with a shudder.

Sarutobi hid a small smile behind his laced hands. Yes, Madam Shijimi's cat, Tora, had been an unholy terror since shortly after she was gifted to her as a kitten by the, then still thriving, Uchiha Clan. Forcing the genin to chase and retrieve the feline menace had become something of a rite of passage among Konoha's shinobi in recent years. Naruto had already reported that Tora was apparently Level 40, so it was very likely that the beast wasn't even taking its pursuers seriously, instead simply treating the entire affair as some form of game for its own amusement.

"You can be assured, Tora is truly one of a kind." he offered, letting out a light chuckle as he noticed young Ino's twitching eye. That's right, she was the one who'd gotten most severely scratched when they'd last pursued Tora, including a rather large 'X' across the centre of her face. "Unless a mission takes you to the capital, you'll be unlikely to encounter her outside of one of Madame Shijimi's visits."

Unfortunately for the genin of Konoha, Madame Shijimi was rather fond of their village and regularly spent at least one or two weekends out of every month 'visiting' the Leaf Village.

"Demonic little…!" the Yamanaka Heiress hissed out through grit teeth.

"Ahem, back to the matter at hand." The Hokage interrupted, preventing another rant against Tora 'the Genin Hazing Cat' by one of her disgruntled victims. "Your mission is set to start at eight o'clock sharp tomorrow morning. You are to meet your client at the Main Gates. As this will be your team's first mission outside the village proper, your Jonin-sensei will be going over exactly what your mission kits will require. As this mission is expected to take only four days at most, an abbreviated kit should suffice."

"Roger that, Hokage-sama." Asuma agreed with a lazy grin. "Team Ten formally accepts the mission. Kids, meet me outside in ten and I'll go over what's expected as part of your kits, I've got a few things I need to discuss with the big boss."

The girls nodded and quickly turned to leave and with Iruka already busy with more paperwork, only the two Sarutobi noticed Naruto flashing a message in Konoha Sign Language.

'Bloodline Activated. Serious concerns. Request meeting at convenience.'

That certainly didn't bode well. The Hokage sent a quick 'Understood' sign back before Naruto left with his team. He just hoped that it wouldn't be too serious.

Later

Living Room, Uzumaki Naruto's Apartment, Amekage Apartments

Naruto was not in a good mood as he glared at the window floating in front of him as if it was Mizuki returned to mock him.

[Quest Alert!]

For the Love of Ramen: Ichiraku Ayame has hired your Genin team to escort her to the village of Arakusa, a small relay station and farming community located on the very edge of Konoha's outer patrol perimeter, in order to pick up a delivery of ingredients from Na no Kuni. Arakusa, while small, is an important rest point for many caravans heading into and out of Konoha, making it a tempting target for the likes of bandits and Nuke-nin.

Quest Objective 1: Escort Ichiraku Ayame to the Shukuba (Post Station) in the Village of Arakusa.

Quest Objective 2: Guard Ichiraku Ayame while she collects the ingredient delivery.

Quest Objective 3: Escort Ichiraku Ayame back to Konohagakure, taking care to protect the produce as well.

Quest Failure: Death of Ichiraku Ayame, Death of yourself.

Quest Reward 1: +1000 EXP, +500 Reputation with [Ichiraku Ayame]

Quest Reward 2: +500 EXP, +1000 Ryo.

Quest Reward 3: + 10000 EXP, +10000 Ryo, [Honoured] Reputation with [Ichiraku Teuchi] (Error: Reputation Already MAXED), [Honoured] Reputation with [Ichiraku Ayame] (Error: Reputation Already MAXED), ?, ?, ?.

This Quest has been Accepted.

There were so many things about this particular mission that were setting off Naruto's internal alarms that he honestly didn't know where to start. The fact that both he and his surrogate sister could be killed if the mission failed was a big one, or maybe it was the fact that the third objective's rewards were so disproportionately large compared to the prior two that was setting him off so badly. Seriously, ten times the experience, twenty times the Ryo and three mystery items was just screaming that something major was going to happen on the way back to the village.

Another, far more subtle, warning had been the mention of bandits and Nuke-nin in the initial Quest blurb. [The Gamer] was many things, but so far it hadn't proven itself to be capable of all that much subtlety at even the best of times. If the thing was specifically mentioning those in a Quest description, then he was willing to bet his ramen that they were going to show up in some way or form.

Conclusion: something very rotten was going on here.

He'd already decided that he was going to be heading out tomorrow with a full combat loadout. He'd be wearing the Storm Suit and carrying Sumire, Tsubaki and Kogetsu Kyūshiki in addition to his usual shuriken and kunai compliment. He'd also have to make sure that his teammates were at least armed with something better than their normal kunai and shuriken, since neither had settled on their own weapons just yet.

He'd loan Sakura his collapsible spear. It was by-far the easiest weapon he had to work with and she'd have plenty of time to at least get the basics down while they were journeying to Arakusa.

Ino would be getting his chakra blade. She was the more physically capable of the pair and likely had at least some basic blade training from her Clan, so she should be able to handle the enlarged, kunai-like blade fairly easily.

He'd already sent out a Kage Bunshin to get holsters for them both; thigh-mounted ones, they'd be the easiest to get ahold of and use. Fortunately, the Higurashi store had plenty of those in stock and even had a 'made to order' section if they didn't have anything in stock that fit the two, admittedly oddly-shaped, blades.

When Jiji showed up, with Asuma-sensei quickly following at his heels, he immediately invited the both of them into a party and showed them the Quest information, pointing out everything that was setting off red flags in his eyes; as well as what he was already planning on doing to help mitigate the risks to himself and his teammates.

"Why did you even accept the Quest if just seeing it has gotten you this worked up?" Asuma asked with a frown on his lips as he chewed his cigarette in thought.

"Ayame-nee-chan is going to go and pick up those ingredients whether I accepted it or not." Naruto answered without hesitation. "If she goes alone, then whatever shit is waiting to break loose will hit her while she's alone and unprotected. There's no way in hell that I'm letting that happen!"

"A fair enough point." Jiji nodded with an approving smile. It was just like young Naruto to put protecting those that he cared for ahead of his own safety without hesitation. Truly, the Will of Fire burned brightly in the young Jinchūriki. "What we need to discuss now is whether your team will need backup or not. If Nuke-nin are going to be involved in a raid against one of Konoha's perimeter villages then as Hokage I cannot allow it to go unanswered."

"Hmmm…if we apply videogame logic to this, then I can really only see two things happening if you do that, Jiji." the Last Uzumaki offered with a frown. "One, a random event will happen that will draw away or distract whatever backup you send away from the main event and keep them from interfering. Two, they'll show up and get involved but the enemies will also turn out to be stronger to even things out."

"That does sound like something that would happen in a video game. Konohamaru mentioned it once…power scaling he called it." Asuma muttered. He'd asked his nephew a bit about video games since he'd discovered his student's unique abilities and had gotten a crash course on the subject and the common terminology involved. He let out a brief sigh before continuing, "So sending a squad of ANBU might just make things even worse. If that's the case, it would probably be best to keep it low-scale, maybe pull in another team from the Genin Platoon? Come up with an excuse to send them in the same direction on the same timeframe. Kurenai, Gai or Kakashi's teams would likely work best in this kind of situation, give us another reason to keep the kids together."

Hiruzen nodded thoughtfully, silently agreeing with his son's appraisal. "Team Gai is already out of the village, attending to a C-rank in Kawa no Kuni. I'm afraid Team 7 is still suffering from far too many interpersonal issues to warrant them receiving a High D-rank mission outside of the Tora Missions. However, Team 8 has been showing excellent growth lately and Kurenai-kun has stated that she believes that they are ready for a higher-ranking mission. They might well be our best choice for this."

"The Hyūga Heiress, Nara Heir and Akimichi Heir all under the command of Konoha's Genjutsu Mistress." Asuma stated with a grin. "Mix them in with Konoha's Number One Unpredictable Ninja, the Yamanaka Heiress and this year's Top Kunoichi under the Smoking Guardian and I'd say we have quite the potent little group."

"Indeed. If need be, Ino can work with Shikamaru and Chōji in order to make use of Formation: Ino-Shika-Chō." the Hokage agreed. "It should also help minimize the risk of this 'power scaling' phenomenon occurring, particularly considering that Kurenai-kun was only promoted to jonin less than half a year ago."

"Plus, she's a genjutsu specialist." Asuma added. When he noticed Naruto giving him a curious look at the odd statement he elaborated. "Genjutsu specialists don't tend to power types, kid. They specialize in technique, skill, subterfuge and cunning; not raw power. And power seems to be the big indicator for your ability's level determinations."

Decision made, the two adults left, allowing Naruto to return to his own preparations. Opening up his inventory, Naruto pulled out the random piece of equipment he'd earned for turning in the second of the Shodaime's Mokuton Journals, a trick gauntlet. Designed to be used as a part of shinobi armour, it functioned exactly the same as a lightly armoured kote but could be loaded with up to four 'gadget add-ons', of which it had come pre-equipped with one, a rappel/grapnel line launcher.

He'd already sent out a score of his Kage Bunshin to search throughout Konoha for any additional add-ons for his newest piece of gear. He wasn't going to hold his breath, but if he got lucky and they found something that looked like it would work they had orders to purchase it and bring it back immediately.

The other special reward, the one he'd received from the Hokage, had been a particular treasure trove; a treatise on Fūton and Doton ninjutsu written by the old man himself. Absorbing it had raised both his [Natural Primary Wind Affinity] and his [Secondary Earth Affinity] by two levels each! And thanks to his duplication system, he still had an actual copy of it in his inventory to use as he saw fit.

The Jutsu Scroll that he'd been able to assemble from the scroll fragments he'd collected while going through TG13 with Sakura and Ino had been…a disappointment. It was a genjutsu scroll, [Genjutsu: Kyōken no Ikari] (Illusion Technique: Rage of the Mad Dog) to be specific. According to what he'd been able to glean from actually physically reading through the scroll, it was one of the few genjutsu that the Kemono Clan used; usually as a technique of last resort or to create a distraction. It could be used to target someone else or the user themselves, sending the target into a berserk fury for a set duration of time.

Naruto supposed he could see how it could be useful. Throw it on a guard or an enemy and they'd go berserk, drawing attention away and allowing the user to sneak by in the chaos or land a sneak attack. Use it on yourself and you have a brief boost of berserker strength and speed in a dire situation, albeit at the cost of throwing yourself into a frenzy. Definitely not what you'd normally expect from a ninja, but he supposed that element of surprise was part of how well it could work.

Again though, Naruto still couldn't use it even if he wanted to. Requirement: [Average Chakra Control] was a fucking WALL that was keeping him from learning any form of genjutsu for the time being. In the end, he'd decided to hand it over to Jiji so that someone in the village might get some use of it. The old man had thanked him and then handed him a cash reward for 'donating a jutsu to the Konohagakure Ninja Forces.' He certainly wasn't going to turn down an extra ten thousand Ryo.

'That's all I can do for now. I need to unwind, some shurikenjutsu practice before my nightly Fūinjutsu practice will do the trick.' the blonde boy decided as he got up and stretched slightly. 'I need to make sure I get plenty of rest tonight, not only is it my first out-of-village mission, but I already know that it's going to go pear-shaped. I need to be at my best.'

Suiting actions to words, Naruto turned and headed off for the shurikenjutsu range.

The Next Day, Morning

Great Gates of Konohagakure

"Jeez, Naruto. You look like you're heading out to a battlefield rather than a simple escort mission." Ino stated dryly, not so subtly eyeballing her fellow blonde in his current outfit. He looked…honestly pretty impressive. He was dressed in a blue t-shirt with a red spiral on the chest under a dark blue, waist-length jacket with an armoured plate on his left shoulder and a patch of the same red spiral symbol as his t-shirt stitched on the opposite shoulder. His trousers were of the same design as his jacket, with armoured portions protecting both his knees. He had two different armoured kote covering his forearms, with the left obviously more heavily armoured than the right, and she could see the sheathed forms of all three of his swords, the two tantō sheathed in the small of his back and the kodachi over his right shoulder.

She absently adjusted the new holster that was strapped to her own left thigh, which held the goddamned master-crafted chakra blade he'd given to her just minutes ago! She was honestly still reeling a bit from that. The sheer amount of Ryo you'd have to pay for a blade like that wasn't something her entire clan could just dismiss. She'd actually been more than a bit relieved when he'd told her that he was just loaning it to her for the duration of the mission, the same with the collapsible spear he'd handed Sakura.

Seriously, both of those were master-crafted items. Giving a kunoichi a gift like that was basically declaring your intent to court her in the most shinobi way possible. (Ino would forever deny that her heart had skipped a beat when he'd told her about how good it was).

"It's our first mission outside the village. I thought it'd be a good way to test my full battle uniform, even if I just end up wearing it constantly for a week or so." Naruto responded with a shrug.

"Not a bad idea, kid. And you look pretty sharp while doing it." Asuma-sensei offered approvingly from where he was leaning on a nearby wall. The Jonin honestly didn't look any different from usual, save that he wasn't smoking one of his usually ever-present cigarettes. He was keeping an eye out for their client as their team had all arrived several minutes early, as was expected for shinobi on a mission, and they were due any minute now.

"Sorry, am I late!?" Ichiraku Ayame called as she hurried over to them. Rather than dressed in the Ichiraku Ramen outfit that Ino was now used to seeing the older girl in, the civilian was currently dressed in sensible travelling clothes with a large backpack slung over her shoulders. "Damnit Oyaji, why did you have to choose this morning to mess with the showers…?!"

"No need to worry, Ichiraku-san. You're right on time, we just arrived a bit early." Asuma reassured the young lady with a pleasant smile.

"Well, that's a relief." the brunette let out a small sigh and offered the older man a grateful smile before she spotted Naruto. "Wow Naruto, those are some serious-looking clothes! You look so cool!" she offered brightly.

"Hehehehehe! Thanks, Ayame-nee-chan!" the blonde grinned at her with a blush. "Err, so how are we gonna get your delivery back to the village anyway? You have a cart reserved at the Shukuba or something?"

"Nope." Ayame chirped happily, momentarily pulling off her bag and reaching into it. A moment later her hand came back out gripping a long, slim scroll. "I've got a dozen storage scrolls with me, all designed for bulk food storage. My dad had a friend back when I was a little girl who was a dab hand in Fūinjutsu and they made them specifically for the restaurant in exchange for a year's worth of free ramen. These babies have made ordering, transporting and storing ingredients for the restaurant child's play for over a decade now." she explained, replacing the scroll and holstering her pack back onto her back. "Dad used to just hire a Genin team for a C-rank to pick them up using them, but I've been doing it myself for the past few years since I've got awakened chakra coils myself. He still insists on me getting an escort though."

"Impressive craftsmanship if they're still working so well after a decade of regular use." Asuma offered with a nod.

Sakura merely blinked, staring at the civilian girl in confusion. "How do you even have awakened coils?"

"Oh, I was actually an Academy Student for a while. I was pretty good too, if I do say so myself. Top 5 in my year, every year. Shame I had to drop out in my Third Year after mum died." the ramen chef answered with a sad smile. "Dad…didn't take it well and he needed me at home. Oh well, no use getting all morose over might have beens, right? So, when are we heading out?"

"Whenever you're ready." Asuma replied with an easy smile. "We're at your disposal, miss."

"Heh, alright then! Let's head out!" Ayame declared with a grin.

As their group was in the middle of signing out with the gate guards, Team 8 joined the small queue of groups leaving the village. Hinata managed a shy wave of her own, while blushing up a storm, when Naruto suddenly noticed her and began to wave enthusiastically.

"Yo, Kurenai." Asuma greeted his not-so-secret crush. "Don't tell me your team earned themselves' a C-rank already?"

"Unfortunately not, just a High D-rank, much like your own team I assume." the red-eyed beauty replied with a casual shake of her head. "The Hokage requested that we deliver a message to the leader of the Boundary Patrol Corps currently stationed in Arakusa Village. Thankfully, the message isn't urgent so we'll be using it as a training mission to get my kids used to travelling outside the village."

"Huh, that's actually where we're heading." Ino offered with a blink. "Wonder why he didn't just ask us to deliver it if the message isn't that urgent."

"Technically, he couldn't since we've already been hired out by a civilian." her sensei pointed out simply. "That kind double-dipping is frowned on by clients. Besides, Oyaji isn't the type to put all his eggs in one basket like that, it's an old habit he picked up living through all three Great Ninja Wars. He was probably hoping we'd meet up and work together on our own. You interested?" he asked, looking to his fellow jonin.

"Of course. It's good experience for them, both for escort missions and for working with other teams." Kurenai agreed.

"Urgh, great. I'm going to be stuck dealing with the troublesome blonde duo again." Shikamaru grumbled unhappily.

"WHAT WAS THAT?!" Ino roared in anger at her childhood friend.

"Shikamaru, I have been telling you that acting like that is exactly why your mother and Ino react the way they do." Kurenai crossed her arms and frowned at her laziest genin. "You need to learn that not everyone shares your opinion or needs to hear it. If you learned to control that tongue of yours, you'd likely find yourself dealing far less scoldings. That'll be a black mark on you before we've even officially started the mission."

"Ino, learn to keep that temper of yours in check. Shouting like that in public is unprofessional." Asuma added his own reprimand.

"Hai, Asuma-sensei." Ino frowned but nodded.

"Ugh…hai, Kurenai-sensei." Shikamaru groaned out.

Once both teams were signed out along with Ayame, they quickly set out along the road.

A Few Hours Later

With Naruto

The blonde Uzumaki relaxed as they walked along the road...or so it would seem to any unaware observer. In fact, he was actually fairly alert, keeping an eye out on the road and its environs. He wasn't taking any chances with his surrogate elder sister's safety. He mentally reviewed the various armour pieces he was wearing, not including his t-shirt.

[Storm Armour] (Light Version)

Very Rare

A suit of modern light shinobi battle armour. Created in Arashi no Kuni, it is made from the skin of a Raijū, a powerful cat chakra mutation that requires a team of Chūnin to hunt and slay it. Treated with a unique version of the leather curing process, the protective aspects of the skin, already phenomenally strong for basic animal hide, is enhanced severalfold. Crafted from the skin of a beast that constantly crackled with lightning, this armour offers its wearer extra protection against chakra-created forms of electrical energy, absorbing and dissipating a certain amount of energy before it can reach them. The armour is also highly modifiable, capable of adding further protections to itself in exchange for a slight sacrifice of mobility, or removing sections to account for tropical location in exchange for less overall protection. The metal shoulder-pad currently attached to it is designed to carry up to four Fūinjutsu scripts in order to customize the suit to better fit the user's fighting style.

Level 16

DEF: +50 to all covered locations

Durability: 250/250

Shoulder Pad Fūinjutsu: 1) Fūinjutsu: Kiji Bōei (Sealing Jutsu: Cloth Armour).

2) Chakra Storage Seal linked to Seal Number 1 (Full).

3) Weight Reduction Seal (-50%).

4) Passive Chakra Absorption Seal, linked to Seal Number 2 (Currently Inactive).

Effect: Lightning Negation: Can negate up to 50 points of damage per jutsu that are of the lightning element.

It was a very good set of armour, and the shoulder pad that Higurashi Tatsuhiko had custom-made to take the place of the original one had an awesome effect. Four pieces of Fūinjutsu on one piece of metal! He was awesome.

[Armoured Kote (Left Arm)]

Uncommon

A kote made with the sole purpose of protecting the arm that carries it, it is an old style of shinobi battle-wear, made mostly obsolete in recent years in favour of lighter armours that allow for greater speed and manoeuvrability. Still, it is more than capable of being used as a shield from close combat attacks. Initially made popular by Sarutobi Hiruzen as a part of his war regalia as the Sandaime Hokage during his first reign as Hokage.

Level 15

DEF: +50 to Left Arm Only.

The kote he'd gotten from helping Ino and Sakura wasn't all that special, but it would make a useful shield if he was fighting another weapon user up close.

[Trickster's Kote (Right Arm)]

Rare

A kote specially designed to combine protection with utility. While only lightly armoured and providing minimal protection, the majority of the kote's internals can have various devices and gadgets added into them. While none of the small devices that it is capable of carrying are particularly dangerous or lethal, a clever ninja can find numerous uses for this unconventional tool.

Level 17

DEF: +25 to Right Arm Only

2 out of 4 Add-On Slits filled.

Front Slot: Grapnel Line: A chakra-powered launcher can fire a miniature grapnel line, made of highly flexible and strong metal, from a concealed slot in the front of the kote. It has a maximum length of 25 meters and is strong enough to bear two fully grown men. It also has a chakra-fuelled auto-retract system allowing the wearer to withdraw it quickly and rapidly when needed.

Mid-Slot 1: Mechanical Shuriken Launcher: A device built into the midsection of the kote, it can fire a smaller-than average shuriken at an enemy. A distraction more than anything else, but these little shuriken are real and can leave a nasty cut when they hit. Magazine Size: 6.

Mid-Slot 2: Empty.

Rear Slot: Empty.

It had been a stroke of incredible luck when one of the clones he'd sent out yesterday had come back after finding not only the [Mechanical Shuriken Launcher Add-On] but a huge box full of the [Prepared Shot Shuriken] that it used as ammunition in the same pawn shop. He now had over a thousand of the little buggers and all it had cost him was a measly 200 Ryo. Apparently, the thing had been lying in the shop for over five years and no one had any idea what it was for.

The best part about the [Trickster's Kote] was that it was designed to let the add-ons be interchanged quickly. It only took about twenty seconds to pop one out and replace it with a new one. Granted, some of the add-ons were restricted to specific slots within the kote, the shuriken launcher could only be placed in one of the Mid-Slots for example, but it was still incredibly useful.

Absently, Naruto opened his Status Window.

Name: Uzumaki Naruto

Class: The Gamer [+]

Level: 18 |Next Level: 99.49%

Title: Genin (+15% EXP to LV25) [+]

Age: 12

HP: 4108/4108

CP: 4061/4061

STR: 43

STA: 46 (+10)

DEX: 45

INT: 41 (+5)

WIS: 37

LUK: ?

He had to bite back a frustrated scream; he still hadn't levelled up! It was maddening after how long it had taken to get so close, only to be stopped by a freaking half-a-percent! The delay he could kind of understand, he'd been so busy with team training and D-ranks, not to mention the responsibilities his new job as a goddamned landlord kept adding to his plate, that he simply didn't have enough time to visit the Training Ground and go on a good hunt.

He knew that he was one more dead enemy away from levelling up, which was why he was keeping a hungry eye out for any possible to targets to make themselves available. Was it bloodthirsty? Maybe it a little, but Naruto really wanted that level up. Besides with both Kurenai-sensei and Asuma-sensei here, along with himself, any run-of-the-mill bandits would likely run for the hills once they realized what they were facing.

Sakura, Ino, Kurenai-sensei and Ayame were at the front of their impromptu formation, talking about something and occasionally exchanging giggles (Naruto didn't know and didn't want to know, he was just keeping well away from it) while Shikamaru was dragging his heels at the rear of the group with Chōji loyally plodding along beside his best friend. That left him, Asuma-sensei and Hinata at the centre of the group.

Even without actually intending to, they were in a loose 'protect the client' formation; a Jonin and two genin in front, with the client, two more genin and another jonin, and two more genin at the rear. Not bad for an unconscious effort in Naruto's opinion.

"A-Ano...Naruto-kun?" Hinata asked him shyly.

"What's up, Hinata?" he replied with an easy grin.

"You've...gotten much stronger...c-congratulations on starting...o-on the path to your dream." the Hyūga Heiress said, clearly mustering a lot of her willpower to speak so clearly.

"Heh...thanks, Hinata." Naruto said, rubbing the back of his head bashfully. "It was a lot of work, but it was worth it!"

"C-Could we...practice together? Once w-we stop for the day?" Hinata asked. Unseen by the two genin, Kurenai was giving her only kunoichi student an encouraging smile, while Sakura and Ino felt frowns trying to form on their faces for some reason. Ayame was just amused by the entire situation, who knew her pseudo-little brother was growing into such a heartbreaker?

"Sure thing. I don't know anything about the Gentle Fist that you use, but maybe I can help you with your throwing technique?" Naruto offered.

As they started talking about training options, Asuma had to hide a smile. 'Kurenai-chan did say that her girl was carrying quite the torch for the kid, but I didn't think she'd put her best foot forward so soon. Looks like having two pretty girls on Naruto's team, including his school-yard crush, is giving the girl a lot of motivation to try and get his attention. Though it looks like the kid's actually realized that the girl is interested in him, which is a bit of a surprise. I wonder how…ah, [The Gamer]. Oyaji did mention that one of the things it could do was show how well he was regarded by people, organizations, villages and even nations. So, it likely showed him just how highly the little lady thought of him.'

Asuma silently shook his head. The sheer number of powers this [Gamer] thing seemed to offer its holder was just plain unfair. 'Honestly, I'm just glad it ended up in the kid's hands. If it had landed in the mitts of someone like Danzō or one of his little cronies then he'd likely already been abusing it to try and overthrow Oyaji by now.' the bearded jonin paused, before chuckling. 'Then again, Naruto does want to become Hokage himself, he just plans to take the hat legitimately and let the old man retire again. I can agree with that, pops is well overdue for a bit of R&R.'

Later

Courtyard, Yanagi Inn, Farm Village of Kōchi

"The key to handling a polearm weapon is all in the grip." Asuma offered as he adjusted Sakura's hands until they grasped the spear correctly. "You've got to get the strength behind it just right. Too tightly and your grip gets brittle and any decent impact will cause you to lose your hold. Too loose and your weapon will slip right out of your hands when you meet any resistance. Good, just like that; now run through that kata I showed you.

"Hai." the pinkette nodded, and started following the basic stab-swipe-return kata that he'd shown her.

As he watched his student, Asuma snuck a look over to where Naruto was giving Ino a bit of help in using the Chakra Blade he'd loaned her.

"Just channelling chakra into it creates a regular blade like this one." the Uzumaki Heir demonstrated with the blade, a larger, sharper construct of glowing blue energy forming around the blade as did so. "Its size and shape are pre-set by the Fūinjutsu placed on the blade. But that's just the most basic use. What do you think would happen if you tried channelling elemental chakra into it?"

"I'd...have an elemental blade?" the Yamanaka Heiress guessed.

"Yup." Naruto confirmed before changing the chakra he put into the blade from neutral chakra to Fūton Chakra, creating a barely visible blade that let off a shrill, high-pitched sound with every movement. "This is a Fūton Chakra Blade. The seals on the blade automatically make it like a fixed-strength version of the [Chakra Nagashi no Jutsu], giving it an edge that can cut though almost anything-dattebayo!"

"I'm a Primary Katon Affinity. What's the Chakra Blade going to do if I channel Katon Chakra?" Ino asked.

"Hmm...I think it's basically the same as a Katon Chakra Nagashi, which would be a burning edge and maybe an explosive force behind each hit." Naruto guessed. "Neither of my elements are Fire; I only ever user Wind and Earth with the [Chakra Nagashi no Jutsu]."

"You've got it right, Naruto." Asuma called over, still watching Sakura's practice.

"There you go. Anyway, you've barely started using Katon Chakra, so you probably won't be able to use the Katon Chakra Blade for more than a couple of seconds." Naruto said to Ino. "For now, try to get used to wielding the blade and trying out the regular Chakra Enhanced Blade. I'm gonna be over with Hinata to practice our Shurikenjutsu if you need me."

Huffing, Ino started practising her swings with the short sword, adjusting her kata from the kunai portion of the Hakage Style to take into account the Chakra Blade's larger blade size and greater weight.

"Shikamaru, you will be training." Kurenai stated curtly to her lazier student, who'd simply laid down on the grass when they'd exited the inn for some evening training. "If you do not, not only will I dock your pay, I'll inform your mother that you have been goofing off…again."

"...troublesome." the Nara Heir grumbled. Reluctantly, he heaved himself up from where he'd ben cloud watching and started practising his Kagemane no Jutsu (Shadow Possession Technique). Chōji was doing a basic taijutsu workout, after which he would be practising the Bubun Baika no Jutsu (Partial Multi-Size Technique), a fairly chakra intensive jutsu that Chōji wasn't yet able to use in combat due to its large chakra cost.

"Wow, you guys are really going all out." Ayame observed to Naruto and Hinata as they practised their [Hikō Yoshin Fast Draw Technique]. According to Asuma-sensei, all the inns in the villages inside of Konoha's inner and outer patrol envelope were set up so genin on High-D-Ranks could train and practice while travelling between the villages. It was a courtesy that innkeepers incorporated to encourage passing shinobi to stay at their businesses.

"Can't get better without training." Naruto said before sending a cluster of shuriken into the Target-kun set up for them, clustered in and around the bullseye.

"W-wow...that was a good shot, Naruto-kun." Hinata quietly enthused before she copied him, the spread being a bit looser, but still very good.

"Seriously? You're better than I was before I left the Academy, and shurikenjutsu was one of my best subjects." the brunette blinked in surprise. "Hey, can I borrow a shuriken?"

Blinking, Naruto gave her one as she walked over to stand next to him. Her arm blurred and the shuriken was suddenly embedded in the middle of the bullseye.

"Hah, still got it." the Ramen Chef smirked as she absently wiggled her fingers. "I practice every so often just so I don't lose my touch, a girl needs to know how to defend herself after all. But the restaurant has been so busy lately I haven't had much time, so I was worried that I'd lost my edge."

"Dang. You're awesome, Ayame-nee-chan!" Naruto blinked in shock.

"Hehehehe. And don't you forget it, mister." Ayame smirked, crossing her arms under her breasts proudly.

Later on, as Naruto took up the first watch of the night outside of Ayame's room (Sakura, Ino and Hinata were sharing with her), he grimly thought of the trouble which might come tomorrow. The schedule was to arrive at Arakusa Village by about midday, check the goods to see if everything was above board, then spend the rest of the day sealing the supplies into the storage scrolls, before starting the journey back to Konoha the day after.

Were this a shinobi-only mission, they could have been there and back in just over a day, but as Ayame was only a civilian, even with active chakra coils (something he hadn't known about her before now and he'd never felt the need to use [Observe] on her), they had to move at her pace.

'Whoever these bandits are, they'd better leave Ayame-nee-chan alone.' he thought with a determined scowl. 'I won't let anything happen to her on my watch!'

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Next Chapter: Karehagakure Strikes

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