"New look, Naruto?"

The boy in question just shrugged as he sat on the bench that was to serve as their meeting place. Team Ten was meeting for the first time today. At least in full.

"I guess."

Kiba snorted at the answer. "That bastard Sasuke must be rubbing off on you." He drew a chuckle from the blond. The blond laughed louder when a fist met Kiba's head with a smack.

"Don't talk about Sasuke-kun like that, Kiba!" The boy was left rubbing his head in pain as Akamaru growled at the girl from his position in the boy's lap. It wasn't all that menacing. The fact that any of them could throw the dog with one hand lessened the effect.

"Maa, Ino, it's too early to be so loud," Naruto complained. He still wasn't fully awake yet. The filing of his paperwork had lulled the normally alert boy back into his normal morning state of mind. If the Hokage had to file that kind of crap on a daily basis, he wondered why he had ever wanted the job. It just wasn't worth it.

"Pfft, you sound like that lazy-ass Shikamaru. That's not gonna fly." The girl had her hands on her hips in front of the two boys. She glared almost menacingly. "Now that we're a team, you lazy-asses are gonna have to step it up! Forehead girl's on Sasuke-kun's team, and I'll be damned if I let her win just because of that!"

The girl was on a roll, but Naruto couldn't quite grasp her thought process. It was all one big jumble. "Uh…Ino? How does our laziness translate to you losing…whatever it is you might lose?" he asked, genuinely perplexed. Kiba seemed to share his confusion, as the boy blinked incoherently while rubbing his head,

"Sasuke-kun, idiot! Sakura is in prime position to get his attention by being on his team," Ino said in a voice that clearly indicated that the point was obvious. "That means that I'm gonna have to work twice as hard to get him as before! That means that you two slackers are gonna have to pull your own weight."

Kiba had regained his wits. What little of them he had to begin with. All around nice guy he might be, but he wasn't he sharpest. "So we have to not slack off so that you can beat Sakura?" Naruto was still confused as well. The girl made no sense.

"Exactly! I'm gonna have to be twice as strong, beautiful, and amazing than I am now if I want to get Sasuke. You two can't help with the last two, but I'm not gonna be dragged down in training by you two idiots, so get it together!"

Naruto quickly shushed Kiba. This could work to his advantage and he wouldn't let the Inuzuka spoil it by being his usual loudmouth self. "So you need us to help you get stronger so that you can get Sasuke's attention?"

"Yes!" She seemed so pleased that he had finally gotten he point.

"Well, that shouldn't be a problem. I need to get strong enough to kick that bastard's ass anyways." Naruto smirked lightly at the girl's outraged expression at his term for the Uchiha. "You've got a deal Ino. Unless Kiba's got a problem?"

Eyes shifted to the dog ninja. He snarled. "As if I'd let you get ahead of me, Naruto! By the time we're done, you'll be having to contend with me and that prick!"

"So we're all in agreement," Naruto said before Ino could castrate Kiba. The two nodded distractedly. Both were glaring daggers at each other.

Naruto barely kept the victorious smirk from his face. Motivation had been his sole concern coming into this team as well. Ino had spent most of her Academy time competing with Sakura in various childish pursuits, not the least of which was Sasuke. Kiba had been a slacker nearly on the level of Shikamaru. He wasn't about to be held back by either of them anyway, but having them properly motivated would be infinitely easier. Who knew Ino's stupid crush could be so useful?

He did take offense to being called a slacker, however. He wasn't quite sure where she got off referring to him as such. Did his place as second in the class mean nothing to the girl? Honestly, he got no respect.

The girl in question plopped herself down in the space between him and Kiba. She smiled sweetly. "So, now that we're all a team, we should get to know each other!" she declared. Naruto wondered at her mood shifts. One moment she was trying to intimidate the two of them into not slacking off, the next she was downright pleasant.

Girls, he thought with exasperation. So troublesome, he mimicked his Nara friend.

"Well, that sounds like a good idea," a new voice piped up. The smell of cigarettes assaulted their collective nostrils and their eyes watered as smoke was blown in their faces. A big man clad in a standard jonin uniform stood in front of Team Ten. The only item out of the ordinary on the jonin was a white sash that hung at his waist. "I'll go first. I'm Sarutobi Asuma and I'm in charge of Team Ten from now on." Asuma smirked amidst the coughs. "I'm going to be tough on you lot, so get ready!"

"What'd ya' do that for?" Kiba asked indignantly. Naruto winced in sympathy for the boy. His heightened sense of smell would have made the entrance nearly unbearable. "That stings!"

The large man laughed. He was one of the biggest men Naruto had ever seen. Most shinobi were more compact. "Didn't I just say that I was going to be tough? Don't start crying on me already, I might just fail you here."

Naruto's attention was grabbed. "Fail? What'd you mean?"

Asuma just laughed some more. "Ah that's right, they don't tell you guys that sort of stuff. We'll get to that later though. Now, introductions." He blew smoke in their faces again, but Naruto shielded himself with a hand. "How 'bout you first." He pointed to Ino.

She coughed. "My name's Yamanaka Ino," she squeaked out. She coughed again.

"That's it?" Sarutobi questioned. "What about likes, dislikes, dreams for the future? We're teammates now, you have to share that kind of information." Naruto noted that the man hadn't bothered to reveal his likes, dislikes, and dreams for the future. His interest was piqued. The man was shrewder than he let on.

Ino huffed. "I like origami, tending flowers, and Sasuke-kun, of course. I hate loud idiots and lazy idiots." The girl sent a pointed look at Kiba. "I also hate Forehea – I mean Sakura. My dreams for the future are to be a strong ninja like my dad, and to land Sasuke-kun!"

Naruto barely withheld a snort. Sasuke would be thrilled to know that his fangirls treated him like an object. It'd make his day.

"Well, that's nice. How about you, with the dog?" Asuma did his best to look interested. Naruto sympathized with him.

KIba straightened himself. "The name's Inuzuka Kiba! I like Akamaru here, my family, hot home cooked meals, and hotter girls." Asuma nodded in appreciation of the last point while Ino scowled. "I dislike bad smells, people I can't beat up, and arrogant assholes." Ino's scowl morphed into a glare at him for his indirect reference to Sasuke. Naruto wondered what it said about the girl that she automatically connected a reference to assholes to Sasuke. Even then, she was still obsessed with him. "My dreams for the future are to lead my clan and prove that the Inuzuka are just as good as everyone else."

Asuma nodded in acceptance of the introduction. "And the last…"

Naruto straightened. "My name's Uzumaki Naruto. I like training, ramen, and my old sensei. I dislike idiots and laziness. My dream, my goal, is to someday be able to contend with S-rank shinobi," he finished with his head held high. Blue eyes bore into brown as he dared his sensei to mock his proclamation.

Asuma's eyes were appraising as he observed Naruto. "A lofty goal, but something to strive for, I suppose." His eyes shifted to take in the entire team. He smiled once more, blowing smoke into the faces of the three genin again. The smile widened as they all covered their faces, having anticipated the move. They were learning. "Well then, this is the time when most sensei give a test of some sort, in order to judge whether their genin are ready to actually be genin."

Kiba looked confused, Ino scared, and Naruto determined. "That's right," Asuma continued. "You're not officially genin until you pass your sensei's test."

"But we passed the Academy test!" Ino exclaimed. Her indignation was matched by her teammates.

Their sensei nodded. "You did, but did you really think that all your classmates became genin? Even the ones with little to no practical skills?" The bearded jonin shook his head. "Only two thirds of the graduates actually make genin, in most cases. Sometimes there is an exceptional class where more pass, but not often."

"The failed genin return to the reserve Academy, where they are put through an accelerated program that churns out capable, if not exceptional ninja." Asuma leaned against a nearby tree as he explained his position. "In any event, that's where the sensei's test comes in."

The jonin smirked at the expressions on his students' faces. They all looked horrified of failing. "I'm a bit different from most jonin in this case. I don't believe that a test, no matter how complex and tested, can really determine how effective a group of genin can be. You guys have too much depth for something so simple to work," he said. "So, as of now, you're all on probation."

Naruto raised both eyebrows in question. What the hell did probation mean?

"That means that you'll function as a standard three man cell for the time period of one month. We'll train together, take missions, and do everything else expected of a three man cell," the smoker elaborated. "At the end of one month, I'll decide whether you all pass or fail. I suggest you learn to work together, it's an all or nothing affair. If one of you fails, everyone does."

"But that's not fair!" Naruto burst out. He was already entertaining the nightmare of being held back. Motivation or not, humility or not, Naruto knew that both Kiba and Ino weren't on his level. He had goals to achieve. He had to survive! Being held back couldn't happen!

Asuma adopted a serious expression. "Life isn't fair, Uzumaki. You ought to learn that." Naruto caught the deeper meaning behind the words. He berated himself mentally. When had his life ever been fair? That truth had made itself even more known a few nights ago. It made no sense that it would start being so now.

"You're all dismissed for the day," Asuma continued. "I understand that some of you have yet to properly file your paperwork." Kiba and Ino winced sheepishly while Naruto straightened in satisfaction. "I suggest you go do that. Be at training ground ten at eight o'clock sharp tomorrow morning."

The three genin waited in anticipation for some other proclamation, but it never came. Instead, Asuma simply walked off, cigarette in mouth.

The new genin exchanged looks. An unspoken message was passed. They weren't going to fail, no matter what. Naruto nodded to the other two, and walked off toward his apartment. He would grab a quick lunch and go out to train. Maybe he would find Gai and Lee if they weren't on a mission. Surely Gai would have some information to give on Sarutobi Asuma.

He was halfway to his apartment when a hand on his shoulder stopped him cold. He nearly had a heart attack. He hadn't heard or sensed anyone come up behind him.

Asuma chuckled lightly at his student's reaction to his presence. "Calm down, Naruto. It's only me."

"You in the habit of creeping up on people?" Naruto asked snidely. Asuma only laughed. He seemed to do that a lot.

"Sometimes," he answered. He took a drag on his cigarette. "Walk with me for a minute." Naruto obliged.

A few moments passed before the man spoke again, "You're quite the enigma." Naruto raised an eyebrow. "Happy as can be most of the time, but you get serious when it counts. You were the dead last in you class for nearly a year during your first year at the Academy, but then something changed. You train with Uchiha Sasuke on a regular basis?"

Naruto was thrown by the sudden question. The man seemed to be in the habit of keeping him off balance. "Yes," he answered. He was unaware just how much that told the jonin about him. Training with the number one rookie spoke volumes about his skill that no grades could properly convey. That was doubly so, considering Sasuke's own skill.

Asuma nodded. "Gai mentioned as much." Naruto's eyes widened. "He also said that you train with him and his student Lee on a regular basis." Naruto nodded at the unspoken question. "That's interesting."

Naruto was confused. He didn't like the feeling. "Why are you asking me this?"

The smoker shrugged. "I make it a point to get to know who I'm going to be training."

"Then why aren't you talking to Ino and Kiba too?" Why hadn't he brought this up during the meeting?

"Who says I'm not?"

What? Naruto thought. It showed on his face, if Asuma's chuckle was any indication. "You're an interesting person, Naruto. I'm just trying to get a read on you."

Naruto bobbed his head. It made sense. He supposed that he should be flattered that his sensei would take such an interest in him. It was certainly more than his Academy instructors had done.

"Back on topic, where exactly are you hiding the weights that I know you're wearing. Being a student of Gai, even part time, means that you probably wear them." The man gestured to Naruto's outfit in question. There weren't many places where he could hide the weights.

The boy was wearing a forest green shirt and black shorts that fell to the knee. He had his customary black shinobi sandals, and his legs were taped to the very top of his claves. A black band with a snap button held them in place.

Naruto gestured to the bandages on his legs. "Resistance seals. They were a graduation present from Gai-sensei."

Asuma squinted. He could barely make out the seals inscribed on the bandages, and he was looking for them. He nodded. "A good idea, weights can be cumbersome for someone your age." The seals would allow for Naruto to reap the optimum benefits of weight training by having the seals absorb a fixed amount of chakra from every movement. The chakra would then be reflected back on his bones and muscles, allowing for Naruto's strength to grow as the chakra pushed on the muscles. It was less damaging than the weights that he had been using before, which had been more suited to taijustu specialists. There was the added benefit of being less cumbersome as well.

"A chakra flex in the legs disengages them," Naruto told his new sensei. He noticed that they had reached a popular barbeque restaurant. Asuma led him inside. Naruto hoped the man was paying.

"A good design," the jonin said simply, as the two were led to a table. Naruto noted that no one so much as looked at him funny when he was in the presence of the jonin. It was nice. He wondered if it was because of the man's rank or surname. "You can channel chakra to your legs?" he asked.

Naruto nodded. "I had to learn the tree climbing exercise in order to do some less chakra heavy techniques." It had been a must for him to learn the Bunshin. His chakra reserves were far too big for the technique under normal circumstances.

Asuma looked surprised. "Where did you come by the exercise? It's not common knowledge in Academy students."

"Archive," Naruto said simply as a plate of assorted meats was placed in front of them. They hadn't even ordered. His eyes found Asuma's, and he saw that he was smiling at the waitress. He must have been a regular.

"Ah, that explains it." Asuma had turned back to his genin. "Not enough Academy students use that resource. Good on you." He placed the pieces of meat on the grill in front of them. "That puts you ahead of your teammates, then. I'll have to start with chakra control then." He sighed. "What a drag."

Naruto snickered. Asuma raised an eyebrow at the youth. They each ate their meat. It was quite tasty when not burned. Naruto ended up mooching his sensei's meat once his meager grilling skills were exposed.

"So," Naruto broke the companionable silence. "Why exactly are we on probation? Were you just too lazy to come up with a test?" He was starting to see how his sensei operated. The man was laid back enough that Naruto wouldn't put it past him to abandon the notion of a test simply out of laziness.

The bearded man chuckled at his student's cheek. They would get along fine. "Partly. I don't really think that three genin who haven't worked together in the past can be accurately judged by some contrived exam. Most of the tests revolve around teamwork, and getting three genin to work together right off the bat isn't easy. Seeing how you three work together over the span of a month gives me a much more accurate view of you."

Naruto nodded. "But why? A group of three can learn to work together in a month. Doesn't that defeat the purpose of the test, if you just pass them at the end?" The system seemed to be designed to allow the team to pass.

"Maybe, but you'd be surprised how hard it is to get along with your teammates on a day to day basis. I've had a couple of teams that can't handle it. At the end, you're either a team, or you have a few more skills to go to the reserve program with." It was a good system.

Naruto nodded thoughtfully. "How'd you get permission, though? A group of three going to the reserves a month late can't be good for organization."

"Being the son of the Hokage has some perks," Asuma said simply. Naruto wasn't sure, but he looked less than pleased with the notion that his name got him special treatment, despite his willingness ot exploit it. Naruto knew the feeling.

"Anyway, be ready for tomorrow, Naruto." Asuma dropped the appropriate money on the table before walking out. He left a contemplative Naruto in his wake.

/~/

Evenings in Konoha were Naruto's favorite time by far. Many wondered why Fire Country had its name, given its forested landscape. Those who did only had to spend a day in the sun to have their wonders assuaged.

While Naruto had never been out of the country, he highly doubted that he'd ever find a place quite like Konoha. When the sun began to disappear behind the eastward facing Hokages, Konoha came to life.

From the lights of the shops to the lantern lit streets, Konoha in the evening was a beautiful sight to behold. Bathed in moonlight under a clear, starlit sky, Konoha exuded an orange glow from nearly every corner. It was a sight to behold from on high, and it was this that originally led Naruto to his favorite haunt. The top of the Yondaime's head.

Much to the blonde's chagrin, at the moment, he wasn't at his favorite hangout spot. He was dragging himself through the streets on the way to one of his least favorite activities.

Shopping.

In all honesty, he'd rather stab himself in the eye rather than deal with the great village's shopkeepers. They had been the bane of his existence until he had reached the Academy. They had then been replaced with the chunin instructors, but they had remained quite the vexing problem.

A brave few had refused him service in his youth, denying him the essentials needed to survive, but that had stopped once he had complained to the Hokage about mean storekeepers. He had had noticeably less trouble after that.

Regardless, they had done their level best to make his life difficult soon after. While none had outright refused him – though some small shops still did – they had managed to discourage Naruto's patronage. Higher prices, dirty looks, poor treatment and more had greeted the whiskered blond whenever he walked into a shop, and slowly, Naruto had learned to adapt.

Being a scavenger hadn't been fun, but it had been necessary. Stealing had become a regular part of the boy's day for a time.

He often wondered at the villager's stupidity. They were perfectly willing to believe him a great demon hell bent on destroying them all when it suited them, but when it didn't, he was just an idiotic nuisance. It was the only way Naruto could explain how he had managed to get away with stealing as much as he had in his youth, as he had been far from the competent genin he now was.

It was like the villager's opinions shifted whenever they felt like it, and they adapted to their situation. As annoying as it was, it had made life easier for Naruto, at least until he slipped up one day.

Two weeks and one official reprimand later, Naruto never let himself get caught stealing again. It was no easy task, given that all the shopkeepers stepped up their security and vigilance after that one time, but he had managed.

It had even helped him with his skills in stealth. Stealing had been tough, and the results showed. It was no easy feat leading trained shinobi on village wide chases, and Naruto had delighted in it for a few short months before the Uchiha massacre had wizened him up to the realities of life.

Even so, he had managed to pull a few pranks on more than a few merchants after the fact. Watching the wealthy bastards wonder who stole their precious money and goods had been vindication of the highest level.

It was even better when their attention eventually fell on him, and he could see how they so obviously wished that they could pin it on him. He had left no evidence of the fat, however. He'd be damned if he let the pricks ever get wind of him more than once.

His waltz down memory lane halted as his body turned into a ninja supply shop. It was one that he frequented often, for he always needed supplies, and the owners didn't seem to mind him so much. They had immigrated after the Kyuubi attack and, while there was some stigma, they didn't have the loss of loved ones to pin on the beast in his gut.

It helped that their merchandise was well made and priced pretty reasonably.

Naruto gave a brief nod to the girl manning the counter as he picked up a basket.

Wandering to the weapons section, Naruto perused the standard grade kunai and shuriken before picking out two full sets for himself. While not cheap, it was necessary, and the blond had some money now that he was running constant D-ranks with Team Ten.

He glanced over the senbon needles and decided that he wouldn't splurge too much. While he had some serious pocket money, he still needed to use much of it for other essentials. He didn't really need senbon anyway.

His feet carried him to the clothing section, where Naruto's real objective laid. He had ripped another one of his trademark green shirts, and he was in short supply. He rounded a clothing rack moving toward the t-shirts when walked smack into his teammate.

"Kami, Naruto, watch where you're going," Ino groused as she dusted herself off.

Naruto huffed angrily. "I was watching! You were the one who couldn't take her eyes off the floor. Pay attention to where you look in small spaces," he grumbled heatedly.

The blond girl just shook her head tiredly and waved him off. "Yeah whatever, Naruto." She moved to walk away.

Naruto's interest was piqued, warning bells sounding loud and clear in his mind. Ino would never let him off the hook like that. She always had to be right about small things like that, and there was no way that she would let it go so easily.

"You alright," he called to her back. He was concerned.

Ino turned back to him and offered a small smile. Naruto realized how haggard the girl looked for the first time. That made no sense though, Asuma hadn't held training today.

"Yeah, Naruto, I'm alright. Just tired."

"You don't look alright," Naruto pointed out bluntly. Subtlety had never been his strong suit when it came to people.

An angry look flashed through Ino's eyes for but a moment before it was gone. It was replaced by the same tired look she had before.

"Asuma and I talked about some stuff today. Stuff about being a good kunoichi and all that, and he gave me a bunch of stuff to think about." Naruto didn't question why the girl would even bother telling him this.

"Anything I can help with?" he asked immediately. "You know, we're teammates and all and…friends, I guess, so if you need anything…" he trailed off in his explanation, blushing slightly at the look his teammate was giving him. She looked to be sizing him up.

A small smile made its way to her face. "I'm good, Naruto, but thanks anyway."

"You're sure?"

She nodded with a small snort. "I'm sure."

Naruto scratched the back of his head, at a loss for words. Reassured and concern spent, the moment had just gotten awkward. "Well, I'll see you tomorrow then?" They had training in the morning.

"Yeah," Ino said with a little giggle at his discomfort. He blushed lightly. "See you tomorrow."

They went their separate ways, each with confused thoughts of the other blond.

/~/

The Sandaime silently regarded his son. With his pipe in mouth and serious expression, he gave the appearance of a truly stern, wise leader. It was a well cultivated and practiced image.

His son, likewise, had his game face on, though it differed from his father's. Posture slouched slightly, Asuma gave the appearance of the perfectly laid back and lazy jonin. The image was completed by the cigarette perched at an angle in his mouth. It too, was a cultivated image. Few people knew how intelligent and observant the chain smoker was. He intended to keep it that way.

"You've had your month, what's your answer?" The Sandaime's voice was gravelly and stern. Asuma knew that this would be all business. Just like it always was. He wasn't sure if he was truly sad about that.

"Team Ten has passed. They've showed the proper work ethic, teamwork, and cohesiveness that should be present in a genin team." Asuma was straight to the point and nearly monotonous. He exhaled a cloud of smoke, letting the aroma's from the two tobaccos battle it out. The pipe tobacco was winning.

"And what of the three individually?"

"They are remarkably similar in many ways. All three are loud, somewhat brash, and do nothing to hide their emotions from each other. Surprisingly enough, it translates to some pretty good teamwork. It almost makes the bickering bearable," Asuma said dryly.

His father winced in sympathy for him. He was familiar with the personalities of all three.

"As it is, Naruto is the most mature of the three, though you wouldn't know it initially. It's like the boy can flip a switch in his brain sometimes. It's taken some time, but both Kiba and Ino defer to him when they're making executive decisions on the missions."

The elder Sarutobi nodded, his face pensive. "Naruto has a natural charisma that can draw people to him. It hasn't had much opportunity to assert itself in the village, but there are examples. Uchiha Sasuke is the most visible. How goes the boy's progress?"

Asuma took a seat. It was neither offered nor asked for. His father didn't react visibly. "As well as to be expected. I introduced the water walking exercise just last week, and he's still struggling with it. His chakra reserves work against him at this point, though they'll be a boon later."

The Sandaime sat back in his chair and digested the information. It wasn't much, but it provided some insight as to the abilities of the boy he had once called a surrogate grandson. Naruto had distanced himself from the Hokage a few months into his first year in the Academy, incidentally right around the time of the Uchiha Massacre.

He had heard from Maito Gai that he had taken the boy on as a part time student, and Sarutobi had been concerned initially. Gai was well known for his harsh training techniques, and the idea of Naruto training under the man had made Sarutobi wary. He had allowed it because the boy wasn't getting any real help from his Academy instructors, and, short of Sarutobi outright ordering them, he wouldn't likely ever. The boy's time under Gai, sporadic that it was, had yielded results far greater than Sarutobi had initially dared to hope. The astounding progress was proof of the boy's innate talent and potential.

The old man would be deluding himself if he wasn't happy for Naruto quite literally sticking it to his detractors in the Academy. Young Iruka had been quite shocked when Naruto had suddenly jumped from dead last to middle of the pack in a single month. The trend had continued until he was the number two in the class.

He quickly forced his wandering mind back to his son. The man was sitting impatiently in his chair. The elderly man inwardly sighed at the deterioration of their relationship. It was too bad that Asuma had inherited his stubbornness. "You look like you want to say something."

The chain smoker seemed to mull something over. "Gai did the boy a service by helping him when he did. Taijutsu is something that takes years to learn well, and is best learned at a young age. Because of Gai's tutelage, Naruto won't really have to worry about his taijutsu for years. Never, if he keeps practicing with the man."

"Interesting," the Sandaime interrupted. "But I recall telling you much the same when you first took Team Ten." The old man winced at his harsh tone, he couldn't help it sometimes.

Asuma barely reigned in his glare. "In any event, with his taijutsu as solid as it is, he has time to fully turn his attention to ninjutsu," he continued as if his father hadn't interrupted. "I want permission to teach him the basics of elemental manipulation."

The Hokage was stunned, though he didn't show it. Elemental manipulation was a skill practiced and honed by chunin. Most genin had neither the chakra reserves nor the proper basics to begin learning the art. The idea of teaching it to a genin was rare, if not unheard of. It had happened with exceptional genin in the past.

"Is he truly that exceptional?"

Asuma nodded without hesitation. "He is. His taijutsu is good enough to be neglected right now, and his chakra reserves are large enough that it makes sense for him to begin." He was being somewhat modest for his student. The boy's reserves were the size of his own. "Genjutsu will never be his forte, though he shows serious drive in learning how to become immune to them."

"And what of his other teammates? Will they suffer from the extra attention to young Naruto?" The Hokage was cracking. Asuma knew he had his father right where he wanted him.

He barely withheld a smirk of victory as he put the final nail in the coffin. "Not at all. I intend to leave Naruto to study the art mostly on his own time."

The pipe nearly fell out of Hiruzen's mouth. He had never heard such a thing before. "And you expect him to complete it to a reasonable degree? To do so would take nearly prodigious skill with ninjutsu…"

"From what I've been able to glean from the boy, he's already muscled his way through two or three Doton techniques. It's an element that I suspect isn't even his primary one." The satisfaction was evident in his voice.

"Indeed?" The Sandime was being forced to reevaluate much of what he thought he knew about the blond boy. He knew that the boy was skilled, and would likely become even more so as time passes, but to have this kind of talent was beyond the scope of Sarutobi's conceptions.

For a newly minted genin to be able to use elemental ninjutsu, no matter how small, was incredible. It was the stuff of prodigies. Uchiha Sasuke had demonstrated the ability in his test with Hatake Kakashi, but that had almost been expected of the boy. The Uchiha were known for their battle prowess, and Sasuke was a genius even among them. For Naruto to show comparable skill, it was nearly mind boggling.

He couldn't help but be impressed, both by the facts and the reality that the boy had kept it hidden form so many people who, unbeknownst to Naruto, had been watching him quite closely.

"What, exactly, would your plan for Naruto entail?"

Asuma just smiled.

/~/

"You know, it honestly wasn't what I was expecting."

Sasuke pulled out his trademark "Hn," as a response.

"I mean, I expected that the whole aspects of team training could be boring, but D-ranked missions? They're a fucking embarrassment!" Naruto said heatedly.

"Hn." Sasuke casually slurped some more of his ramen.

"Just last week, we're babysitting for this woman, apparently had urgent business in Otafuku Gai – prolly a gambling vacation to get away from her kids – and Kiba starts flipping out on the kids because they were trying to braid Akamaru's hair!" Naruto threw his hands up in exasperation. "He ends up chasing the seven year old – a seven year old girl – around the house for five minutes. Somehow, someway, he spilled new paint all over one of the rooms!"

Sasuke actually snickered at the blonde's predicament. He dares! Naruto thought violently. He continued in the same vein, doing his best to ignore his unsympathetic friend.

"The person tending the house comes back, he's pissed, and we have to repaint the whole room the same day! We didn't even get paid…" Naruto trailed off with a grumble.

"That sounds like the mutt," Ssauke said simply. "Any other worthy moments or note?"

Naruto shook his head as he finished his second bowl of ramen. "Not really. It's been pretty dull otherwise." He perked up quickly. "Though what Ino did to Kiba after that mission was downright vicious."

Sasuke chuckled. "Was that when she had him go around town in nothing but a pink dress for a day?"

Naruto nodded bemusedly. "Yeah. You heard about that?"

"The pink harpy was gushing about it for the two hours we sat waiting for Kakashi. Apparently the yellow harpy told her."

Naruto chuckled in appreciation of their old nicknames for Sasuke's biggest fangirls. He took a little offence for Ino, though. Outside the presence of Sasuke and Sakura, she wasn't that bad. He would admit that he was warming to the girl. "I heard that Hatake's always late. I guess there's truth to that."

Sasuke nodded with a scowl. "Two to three hours. Every. Day."

Naruto chortled. "Sounds pretty bad. Asuma-sensei's never late." He didn't recoil at the heated glare that Sasuke sent his way. Served the bastard right for mocking him earlier.

"You don't know the half of it," Sasuke grumbled. Naruto nearly cracked up at the thought of Sasuke actually grumbling. "Just when I was getting the timing right so I could show up a few minutes before he did, he actually shows up on time! I got an official reprimand for being late to a meeting, and I know he did it on purpose."

Naruto couldn't help laughing at his friend's predicament. It was just too funny. "Sucks, man. What about the rest of the bunch? They any good?"

"Not a chance, idiot. Nara's lazier than Kakashi on his best day, and I can count the number of times that Sakura's done something useful on one hand." Yep, Sasuke was pissed. "Between Nara's laziness, Kakashi's lateness, and Sakura's idiocy, we almost never train. You think you've got it bad, dobe? We do nothing but D-ranked missions! I've taken to getting back into my old routine in the mornings, considering I've got nothing else to do."

Damn, that sucked. Sasuke was somewhat famous for waking up at the crack of dawn to begin training. Naruto followed the boy's example, to a limited extent. "Ouch. I take it you haven't learned much new, eh teme?"

Sasuke shrugged, his anger somewhat spent. "Not much, but Kakashi tossed me a new Katon jutsu last week. Probably compensation for everything. The only team training we do is taijutsu. I'm lucky if I get to spar with Kakashi."

Naruto nodded to himself. He was likely learning more than he thought. He was likely getting some battle experience from sparring with a jonin like Kakashi. That and those eyes of his taught on their own.

The blond couldn't say that he learned all that much either. The gap in skill between him and his teammates was a virtual chasm, now that he could see it properly. As such, Asuma was stuck helping Ino and Kiba with their various deficiencies. Naruto was more than happy to note that they were becoming fewer and fewer.

Regardless, Asuma had helped him with his chakra control in the last week, and had started him on some training with dual kunai. Naruto hoped that this would lead into the man teaching him how to fight with those trench knives of his.

Naruto ended his musings as he heard Sasuke renew his grumbling. He shook his head; Team seven must really be something special if Sasuke was this emotional about it.

"At least Nara as a brain hidden somewhere in that skull of his. I'm starting to think that Sakura has nothing but air between her ears. Book smart my ass," Sasuke griped. He took a long sip of his tea.

Naruto nodded absently. "Ino said that Sakura has some good chakra control. Maybe you could use that angle to get Kakashi to give some serious training?"

Sasuke shook his head. "Already tried. All it accomplished was Kakashi having us do the tree climbing exercise for a week. He's still having Haruno do it on a regular basis. She's got fuck all chakra compared to everyone else, apparently."

Whoa! Sasuke almost never cursed. It was beneath someone of such "noble Uchiha blood", in the boy's mind. "Damn." Naruto thought fast. Sasuke was liable to kill the pink haired girl at this rate. "Good chakra control is required of genjutsu specialist or medic-nin, right? Maybe an offhand mention…?"

Sasuke just sneered. "She doesn't have the temperament or disposition for either. She's either pestering me or trying to kill Shikamaru for "interfering" in our "conversations". What she is, is useless!"

Holy shit. No wonder he was so damn vicious in our spar! "Sounds like she needs a good beating to set her straight."

The Uchiha scoffed. "Don't I know it, but Kakashi doesn't seem to want to do anything about it! Aside from chakra control, he's been drilling us on basics. I'm this close to going to the Hokage about it." He held his fingers about an inch apart.

"Yeah, Asuma-sensei's been doing basics too." Naruto carefully steered the conversation away from Sasuke's team seven woes. "I don't know how Kiba managed to pass the Academy without being able to hold a kunai right, but at least Ino has a solid grounding. I'm hoping Asuma-sensei starts moving us onto some actual ninjutsu, rather than just basics and strategy." The man had been pestering him to pick up shogi. Naruto still hadn't managed to plow through the rulebook. Damn, if that game wasn't complex.

"Hn, I forgot you had the yellow harpy on your team." He smirked slightly, his own woes forgotten at the moment.

Naruto shook his head. "She's not that bad, actually. She's actually pretty focused during training." He was happy to say that he had a newly budding friendship with his fellow blond. She was surprisingly bearable around him these days. It was a pleasant change up from their Academy days.

"Whatever you say, dobe. Are you sure you aren't being a bit, uh, soft with her?" He smirked devilishly. "After all, you know what they say: there's nothing so bad, as something not so bad."

Naruto scowled, though there was a distinct redness to his cheeks. "Shut it, teme! She's pretty decent, and I thought we agreed never to mention that again!" Sasuke was the only one who knew that Naruto had nursed quite the silent affection for the blond Yamanaka during their first years in the Academy. It had lasted until she had started chasing after Sasuke like he was a piece of meat.

"I don't remember ever agreeing to anything, idiot."

Naruto raised a challenging eyebrow. "Oh? What about that whole agreement about me never mentioning anything to Kiba about you and his si-" His smirk was triumphant as Sasuke slapped a hand over his mouth.

"Not. A. Word." Sasuke growled.

"Of course."

"Hey chumps, I heard my name!" Speak of the devil and he shall appear. Naruto smirked. Kiba had impeccable timing.

"Nothing to be bothered with, mutt." Sasuke recovered in the blink of an eye. "Naruto here was going over your numerous deficiencies in training."

Kiba just hmph'd. "Bite me Uchiha, we both know that I can take either of you any day."

"You'd like to think that, wouldn't you, mutt?"

Kiba growled. "Screw you, asshole! We both know I'm bigger and stronger than you."

Sasuke's eyes gleamed. "Maybe so, but everyone knows that you're lacking size where it counts." Naruto couldn't contain his laughter at Kiba's face as the insult sunk in. The raven haired youth was being downright vicious today.

"Fuck you, Uchiha! I'll beat your ass!" Akamaru barked along with his partner.

"Settle down, children," Naruto managed around his laughter. He mentally patted himself on the back for diffusing the situation in such a cool way. "We're all friends here."

"Yeah, yeah, screw both of you," Kiba grumbled.

"Hn." Sasuke was back to his aloof self, it seemed.

Naruto shrugged. "What're you doin' around here, Kiba? Didn't think you ate ramen."

"I don't. My mom says that stuff'll stunt my growth. I'm not exactly lacking size," he sent a pointed glare at the smirking Sasuke, "but you can never be too careful. I was looking for you actually. We've got training in thirty." Naruto assumed that he didn't want to show up to the training ground with only Ino there to meet him. Their arguments were becoming somewhat legendary.

He checked the time. "Shit, gotta go Sasuke."

"Whatever, dobe. Just pay for your share."

Naruto dropped the appropriate money on the counter top. "Later, teme. See ya' old man!"

"Come back soon," old man Teuchi called from the back. Naruto would make a point to talk to him and his daughter the next time he came by the stand. He always enjoyed the simple conversations he had with his first friends.

Naruto and Kiba ambled through the early afternoon traffic in an amiable silence. Naruto took his time seeing the sights and basking in the non-attention he got. The forehead protector was a nice deterrent for the villager's glares. Kiba spent his time playing with Akamaru and leering at the passing village girls and women.

"Honestly, Kiba, you're gonna get slapped if you keep that up." Damn hormonal genin. Naruto could appreciate a fine specimen, but Kiba was just ridiculous.

"Please, Naruto, a woman appreciates guys checking her out. It's flattering."

"It's not flattering when your drool gets on their shoes. Kami only knows how you turned out how you did with your mother and sister," Naruto argued.

"Bah, you wouldn't know the first thing to do with a woman, Naruto."

"That may be true, but if I watch you long enough, I'll end up knowing what not to do." Naruto smirked. "That's got to count for something."

Kiba glared. There was no real heat behind it, though. "I don't know why you doubt me? You and Ino both. You two deserve each other for all the crap you give me."

Naruto chuckled; he might make a pass if he thought he had a shot with the other blond. "Kiba, we're twelve. No one our age is an expert on women. Least of all you."

"I beg to differ, Naruto. Chicks are drawn to me like a moth to flame."

"More like fleas to a dog, Kiba." Naruto laughed outright at Kiba's outraged expression. "How do you reckon they're so…attracted to you?"

Kiba puffed up. "I've got two words for you: animal magnetism."

Naruto snorted. "And I've got two words for you: body odor. It's probably why all these nice people are giving us such a wide berth." Naruto gestured to the gap they were creating in the midday crowds. The reality was that the gap was because most people were giving Naruto a wide berth, but if a little misdirection got Kiba to shower more, who cared?

"Fuck you, Naruto." The boy in question just laughed his way to the training ground.

When they arrived at training ground ten, the two boys were surprised to see their remaining squad mates already there. Ino had her hands locked in the rat seal. Asuma looked pensive, though his gaze flickered around the clearing. His eyes didn't even register the arrival of Naruto and Kiba.

Abruptly, Ino dropped the seal and Asuma reverted to normal. "Well?" the girl asked expectantly.

Asuma nodded to the girl. "Impressive. Just make sure to be throwing your kunai and shuriken in a way for the clones to mimic you." Ino nearly squealed in delight.

"Are we late, Asuma-sensei?" Kiba asked. Asuma turned to regard his other two students. The jonin checked the time.

"Nope, you're right on time. I was just helping Ino-chan out with a few techniques." Naruto was interested.

"Anything for the rest of us?" he asked. The bearded man shook his head.

"Nothing you'd be interested in Naruto. Genjutsu," he elaborated at the look Naruto sent him. The blond boy scowled. It wasn't his fault he had no real aptitude for the illusion art.

"In any event," Asuma began anew, lighting a cigarette up, "we have a new play for the playbook." The playbook was the group of team maneuvers that Team Ten had drilled. He formed a strange hand seal. The team of genin watched in awe as a duplicate of their sensei appeared in a puff of smoke. It was a corporal clone, too. Naruto could see the shadow.

"For the next hour, you three will be attempting to entrap and take out my Kage Bunshin here. Ino, if you could explain the purpose behind the technique you were just practicing?"

"Of course, sensei!" She approached the two boys. Naruto could see that the girl was excited about having learned a new technique. "The genjutsu is called Kasumi Juusha no Jutsu. It creates a group of imaginary clones to surround the enemy and trick them into thinking our numbers are a lot bigger than they are…"

For the next hour, the three genin wandered about the forest surrounding the training ground, attempting to subdue Asuma's shadow clone. They finally managed it at the end, due to Ino's effective use of genjutsu, Kiba's tracking abilities, and Naruto's linear speed.

The rest of practice was spent sparring, Ino vs. Kiba, and Asuma vs. Naruto, and practicing chakra control. Both Ino and Kiba were struggling with the water walking exercise. In between Naruto learning to use dual blades, Asuma taught him the basics of the Shunshin, Naruto having the required control to attempt it.

It was far from simple. The D-ranked ninjutsu required a fine balance of chakra channeled to the legs, or else the jutsu would implode on the user. It was similar to the Kawarimi in that sense. The whole process needed to be drilled into Naruto's head before he could attempt it. That, combined with the ungodly amount of concentration the jutsu took to use well, meant that Naruto was far from mastering the jutsu.

He knew that the jutsu would be worth its weight in gold. Moving through the village at high speeds would not only cut down his travel time, and it would limit the amount of glares the villagers could send his way. That, and running through the streets was so civilian. It was unbefitting of someone such as him.

"Naruto, stay back a minute, will you?" Asuma asked at the end of the practice. Ino and Kiba were limping their way out of the clearing. Naruto was about ready to do the same. He was tired, sore, cut up, and his chakra coils ached like nobody's business.

"What's up, sensei?"

Asuma rummaged around in his utility pouch for a moment before withdrawing a small square of paper and a storage scroll. "I have a side project for you. Elemental manipulation."

Naruto knew his eyes were the size of saucers, but he didn't care. "Sensei?" he questioned in disbelief. "Isn't that a…"

"Skill reserved for chunin and jonin? It is." The jonin had an immensely satisfied look on his face from having stunned his student. "I think, and my father agrees with me, that it is something worthwhile for you to learn."

Naruto blinked, twice. From what information he could glean about the elusive art, it was attempted by chunin in order to become more proficient in ninjutsu. It was a well known requirement for most jonin to have mastered, or at least have use of, two elements. For a genin to begin training in the art…

"Not that I'm complaining, sensei, but why are you teaching me this? It's a skill for chunin and jonin for a reason." Naruto was confused, and he didn't like it.

"I've never known you to doubt your own skills, Naruto. Why start now?" Asuma looked genuinely puzzled.

"No! I'm not doubting myself! It's just that it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. A genin learning elemental ninjutsu is almost unheard of," Naruto countered. He felt that he was arguing against himself, but he wanted to know why. The man had to have a reason.

Asuma nodded sagely, taking a drag on his cigarette. "Almost unheard of. You seem to be pretty well informed. Do you know of any others who learned this skill at your rank?"

Naruto shrugged. "Hatake Kakashi, Uchiha Itachi…the Yondaime was reputed to have used elemental techniques at a young age…" he trailed off. Where was this going?

Asuma nodded with a pleased expression, inwardly impressed with the depth of his student's knowledge. He wondered where it came from. Naruto wasn't particularly academically inclined. "All exceptional ninja in their youth. They all became more exceptional as they got older."

That was quite the veiled compliment. "You're putting me in with the likes of those three?"

The chain smoker shrugged. "I'm saying that you've got potential. Your abilities with taijutsu place well above your peers. Your genjutsu is weak, but you can both detect and dispel most ordinary illusions. You've managed a few rudimentary Doton techniques, and that monster in your gut pretty much ensures that you've got some huge chakra reserves."

The man threw his cigarette to the ground and stamped it out. "I'm not saying this for it to go to your head, Naruto, but your ninjutsu capabilities are nearly unheard of in a genin. Ninjutsu and taijutsu are going to be your bread and butter, and your taijutsu is good enough – and will keep getting better – so we can leave it be for the moment."

Naruto was nodding his head along with his sensei's assessment of his abilities. It was flattering to say the least. It was certainly nice to have his skills validated. Even more so, the waves of pride that were coming off Asuma were making him feel happier than he had in a long time.

He wouldn't let him down.

"What do I have to do?" he asked.

Asuma's face lit up. "Just channel some chakra into this paper, here." He handed over the square.

Naruto focused intently on the white square, and channeled his chakra. He was notably surprised when it split in two even halves. Asuma seemed even more delighted than before.

"Well, that makes this even better," he said to himself. At Naruto's questioning face, he continued, "The paper you just used is specially cared for and soaked with chakra. It allows for ninja to determine their elemental affinity simply by channeling chakra into it. If the paper burns, it's fire; if it crinkles, it's lightning; if it gets wet, it's water; if it crumbles, it's earth, and if it splits-"

"It's wind," Naruto finished in an excited whisper. "Aren't you wind natured, sensei?"

"I am," he confirmed. "That makes this all the easier once you complete the proper exercises. I'll be able to teach you plenty of Fuuton techniques. You're lucky too, that I'm your sensei. Wind isn't really common in Konoha, and I can only think of one or two other users who are any good."

Naruto was excited, he couldn't deny that. Here he was, a genin, learning elemental manipulation from a man who could teach him to harness his affinity better than everyone else in the village. Things were looking up.

"You mentioned exercises?"

"Ah, yes." He handed over the storage scroll. "In here, you'll find a collection of exercises for becoming more proficient with every element. They're considered the basic exercises that every ninja should know about their element before attempting to learn elemental ninjutsu. Without them, trying out techniques is like taking a shot in the dark." Naruto's eyebrows were in his hairline. "The fact that you can use two techniques, both of them outside your primary affinity, speaks of the potential I was talking about earlier."

So, I've got huge-ass chakra reserves, ninjutsu talent, and potential beyond the norm. Fantastic. He barely kept himself from fist-pumping. It was about time things started getting easier for him.

"This is going to be a side project for you, so that means that you won't be working on it so much in practice with the rest of the team, but feel free to come to me with any questions."

Naruto just nodded his head. Asuma ruffled his hair affectionately as he lit up another cigarette on his way out of the clearing. "Try to enjoy yourself."

"Thanks, sensei," Naruto responded weakly. He absently opened the scroll. Kanji representing wind, earth, fire, lightning, and water were arrayed before him.

A quick application of chakra later, and the wind element was opened.

Leaf splitting exercise…interesting.

/~/

AN: Well, I've come to a decision. This story was going to be written in "arcs" anyway, so I figure that I'll upload the arcs when they get their asses written. As it stands, the first arc is just about finished with four chapters written, a fifth about half written, and the final chapter pretty much planned. I really can't keep so much writing just saved on my computer without doing something with it. Unfortunately, with this new system of updates, there will likely be a larger gap between arcs getting posted, instead of regular updates like I had originally planned, but oh well.

Here's to hoping to have the first arc fully uploaded by the new year.

P.S. New name, new sig, so...

I'm so pro.