Team 8

What if Naruto had been selected for a different team? What if he'd had a different mentor? Who would guess the consequences would be so large?

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2. A Painfully Early Morning

Kurenai squinted as the morning sun glinted off the white-painted exterior of the Hokage's tower. She had a blinding headache fueled by a lack of sleep and the company she'd been keeping. She'd lain awake longer than she wanted, brooding about her genins. Her original hope was that Naruto would help bring the Hyuuga girl out of her shell. Making the disrespected Hyuuga heir a strong shinobi would be indirect revenge on the head of that arrogant clan, but it was the best she could manage for the time being.

But it seemed that Naruto would need help of his own. Once you got past the bluster and the pranks, he was just as insecure as Hinata. He just hid it better. Shino had less psychological baggage than his teammates, but he also seemed to lack some of their fire. He just didn't seem to put as much effort into things. Perhaps it was that detached persona the Aburames cultivated. The ones she'd met seemed to act as unemotional and precise as the insects they partnered with. Shino was definitely going to be a challenge to understand.

Naruto's deficiencies were the most glaring though, and might take the longest to correct. So she awoke with her alarm before five and sought out Maito Gai at his favorite training ground.

Kurenai had a theory about the more skilled jonins developing severe personality quirks to compensate for the stresses of missions. If she ever wanted to make a presentation on this theory for the Konoha Natural Philosophy Society, Maito Gai would be exhibit A. She supposed he might have been dropped on his head as a child. Repeatedly. But that didn't explain how he'd survived to become a genin. It was depressing, but far more likely, that he'd started obsessing about green spandex and the power of youth after he became a jonin.

Yuuhi Kurenai dreaded the day she woke up and realized that she'd become just as eccentric in her own way. She'd have no choice at that point but to do the honorable thing and end her own life.

At least Gai was predictable in his obsessions. Every morning they were not out on missions, he and Rock Lee were up before the dawn, working on ridiculously intricate taijutsu combinations. At least he'd focused some of his obsessions in positive ways. His taijutsu was said to be among the best of his generation, and he'd taken on a student with underdeveloped chakra coils and made him an effective shinobi.

She supposed the extra stress of learning how to complete missions without resorting to ninjutsus or genjutsus was considerable. Something had to explain the accelerated descent of Rock Lee into green spandex-clad madness with his sensei.

On the other hand, it was hard to argue with results. The green-clad genin moved so quickly that without chakra, her eyes had difficulty keeping up with him, and his punches were leaving visible divots in the thick training logs. Naruto could learn a lot here.

Gai looked up from his pupil and flashed what he probably thought was a charming grin. "Kurenai-san, you are up early to see the power of youth!"

Kurenai nodded, though she imagined her smile was a little sickly. She was not a morning person by any stretch of the imagination. "I knew I could find you here."

Gai's expression became a trifle smug. "It takes a lot of training to become a genius of hard work! But Lee will make it because he is full of the fires of youth!"

"Yosh! Gai-sensei!"

"Lee!"

"Gai-sensei!"

Kurenai knew she needed to nip this in the bud. Her impending migraine was only a couple of verses away. "I wanted to talk to you about some supplemental training for Tenten, and something else that has come up."

Maito Gai might be self-absorbed, overenthusiastic, and completely lacking in fashion sense, but he wasn't stupid. "Lee! Run five laps around Konoha!"

"Yes, Gai-sensei! And if I cannot do that without stopping, I will climb to the top of the Hokage monument, walking only on my hands!"

Gai cheered as his student took off. Kurenai wondered if Naruto would be safe hanging around with these two. She'd have to make sure later on that day to impress upon her genin that neon green was also not an appropriate color for ninja attire.

Kurenai gathered her thoughts as Gai turned back toward her and crossed his arms in what he seemed to think was a serious pose. "Now that Lee is testing his endurance, what did you wish to discuss?" His smile was a little too eerie for Kurenai's tastes.

"I've been thinking about your idea regarding using our specialized knowledge to best develop our students' potential," she said carefully.

That wasn't exactly what he said when the jonins were all out drinking. What he actually said was something more along the lines of how he'd take pity on any students assigned to his Kakashi, and train them out of sympathy for having such a heartless sensei. Kakashi of course replied by asking if he'd said something.

"Nani?" Gai's inch-thick eyebrows bunched up in confusion.

"Well," Kurenai continued, "I thought it was a pretty good idea, so I'd like to work out a trade. I've got a student who needs a lot of extra work on his taijutsu. If he could join you and Lee in the mornings, he'd provide Lee with a sparring partner as well. In exchange, Tenten can join us when I work with my team on genjutsu training. Lee can come too, if you think he would benefit." Gai's other student, Hyuuga Neji, didn't really need the tutoring. His Byakugan could see through most genjutsus, and Kurenai wasn't crazy about the way she'd seen him glare at his cousin.

Gai ran his thumb over his chin in his 'deep thinking' pose. "Tenten could probably benefit the most, and Lee should at least know what to look for if he falls under a genjutsu. Which student did you want to work with us?"

"Uzumaki Naruto," Kurenai replied, waiting to gauge Gai's response.

To the man's credit, he only nodded thoughtfully. "He is rather small, even if he burns with the fire of youth. Do you think he will be able to train at the pace Lee sets?" The question was innocent, but she saw the man's pride in his disabled/specialized student.

"Naruto's stamina is nearly jonin level. Even when he becomes winded, he's ready to fight again in a couple of minutes. He's also highly motivated to prove himself." She smiled. The hook was baited, now to land the fish. "I wouldn't be surprised if, after getting used to your routine, he didn't start running the two of you ragged."

Maito Gai has never, to her knowledge, ever turned down a challenge of any sort. Ever. "Yosh! We will test the powers of his youth! Kurenai-san, send your student here tomorrow morning and we will make him a genius of hard work, second only to my Lee-kun!"

That was so easy that Kurenai felt a flash of guilt. "Good, and I will have Naruto tell you when we're going over genjutsu and your students will be welcome to join us."

The rising sun glinting off the man's teeth was beginning to give her a headache, so she made her goodbyes and sought out a cup of strong coffee.

There weren't many shops that sold coffee in Konoha. The Western drink was only just now becoming popular. There were even fewer places serving the caffeinated beverage that were open early in the morning and/or late at night. It was no coincidence that all of them were in close proximity to the Hokage's tower. A lot of all-nighters were conducted there.

Bolstered by two large cups of the strongest brew she could find, Kurenai made her way to the Hokage's office. His chuunin guards had eyes almost as red as hers, confirming her suspicions. The Sandaime was rumored to work incredibly long hours, rising early in the morning and often staying up all night. His only breaks from the pressures of his job were the short walks he took through the village, checking up on this and that. Even those had a purpose, as he often saw what others did not.

With all she knew of the man's dedication to the village and its residents, Kurenai couldn't understand why he let the situation with Naruto go on so long. The things she'd learned over the past week left her both angry and hungry for answers.

But an emotional display would not get her those answers, so she schooled her features into an impassive mask and nodded to the chuunin guards. She still had to remind herself at times that she outranked them now. "I wish to speak with Hokage-sama if he is available."

"Hai!" The one on her right barked. "He has been expecting you, Kurenai-san."

She didn't know if he was bluffing or not. Either way, she was impressed. She nodded to them as they opened the door and ushered her into the Hokage's office.

Seeing 'The Professor' like this, in the harsh and unforgiving morning sunlight, reminded her that the man was in his late sixties, and should have been happily retired. Instead, he'd been forced back into this office again, and had labored here for another twelve years after the death of the Yondaime. She felt a stab of pity for a man in a thankless job, but squashed it ruthlessly when she remembered someone who deserved better than they'd gotten.

"You're up early, Kurenai," he said in a mild tone.

"Hai, Hokage-sama," she replied in a formal tone, her voice slightly cold. "I have had a conversation that made sleeping… difficult."

He nodded slowly. "And who was this conversation with?"

"Uzumaki Naruto. After getting to know him a little… I find myself questioning my loyalty to Konoha."

Her words were chosen with the intent of provoking a reaction. An admission of semi-treasonous thoughts would normally be met with outrage or derision. She would not expect such a display from the Hokage, but she wasn't prepared for what he did do.

He smiled.

"I'm glad to see that Naruto has found another sympathetic ear," he said as he straightened up in his chair and re-lit his pipe.

"You…" Yuuhi Kurenai was not often struck speechless, but it took a moment for her to collect her thoughts. "You knew what was going on with the boy? Hokage-sama, why have you allowed this?"

The Sandaime sighed and for a moment his eyes showed her a glimpse of a supremely weary soul. "If only the Hokage were as powerful as everyone seems to think." He gave her a tired smile. "It would be nice to be able to do anything I wanted, at least for a short while."

Kurenai frowned. This wasn't going anything like what she expected. "But you are the Hokage! Your word is law!"

"It is, to a limited extent. In reality, the Hokage just shows the villagers and the shinobi the way. It is up to them to follow his leadership. The two halves of the equation must work together if anything is to be accomplished."

"And in the case of the boy?" She asked. Kurenai had a feeling she knew what he was driving at, but she needed to know for sure.

"You can lead the ox to the river, but it will only drink if it desires to do so. The village elders and the clan heads petition me to have the boy executed, or failing that, to exile him from the village. I refuse to do this. I tell them the boy is the Yondaime's legacy, and that he wished the boy to be seen as a hero, because he is the Kyuubi's jailor. They nod and agree with me, then when they go home they tell their subordinates to shun the boy."

"But… if they are defying your orders… you are the Hokage." The caffeine in Kurenai's blood was keeping her awake, but it also made her thoughts jitter like water-bugs as she struggled with the scope of this betrayal.

"They do nothing to openly defy me," Sarutobi assured her. "They have grown too wary for that. Villagers have tried to kill the boy on numerous occasions, only to be foiled by the ANBU. Worse, there have been shinobi, maddened by their grief, who also sought the boy's life." His eyes hardened. "They met with the same fate. But now? Now they agree with their mouths and disobey with their hearts. The Hokage can tell someone to treat the boy properly, but unless I or one of my subordinates stands over that person, they will not do something they feel has been forced upon them. Konoha has always placed fewer strictures on the private lives of its inhabitants, but it appears there is a downside to this freedom."

Kurenai found herself sitting in one of the chairs facing the Hokage's desk. She wasn't even aware of when she'd sat down. "So you're telling me that the villagers and a good portion of the shinobi… are so determined to abuse Naruto that they will go behind your back to do it? You basically have wide-spread civil disobedience where the boy is concerned?"

Sarutobi nodded. "That is one way to sum it up. The villagers look at the boy and see a reflection of their fears. The shinobi see a reflection of their loss. They won't see him as anything different until he can touch their hearts and make them see the truth. I think one day Naruto will prove himself to the village, and those who scorned him in the past will heartily regret their actions."

"Regrets?" Kurenai asked sharply. "Future regrets mean nothing to him right now. It's a wonder he hasn't run away, or started killing everyone he meets. These idiots will be lucky they don't turn him into a self-fulfilling prophecy with their own actions. Wouldn't it be kinder to send him away? Let him grow up in some isolated village where no one knows who he is?"

"No," the Hokage said in a firm tone. "Naruto is Konoha's. The Yondaime wished him to be the hero of the village, not the exiled pariah." He raised his hand as Kurenai started to speak. "Even if it would be kinder, there are other reasons he must stay. There are rumors of a group that has been seeking out information on the Jinchuuriki. It's not known why they want this, but Naruto is better off in Konoha, and learning to defend himself."

"That's why he was admitted into the Konoha Ninja Academy?"

"He actually wanted to attend…" The Hokage gave a slight smile. "He was quite determined to become a shinobi, as I recall. I just made sure no one stopped him from attending."

"No, but they sabotaged him at every opportunity, didn't they?" Kurenai knew a jonin was supposed to remain calm and logical at all times… but her frustration with what she was learning put that to the test.

"He still overcame that, didn't he?" that gentle smile was still on the Hokage's face. "And he was awarded his hitai-ite from his sensei, a man who lost his entire family to the Kyuubi." He paused for a moment, looking Kurenai directly in the eyes. "And now he has you."

Suddenly Kurenai felt like she'd just passed a test of some sort. "You were expecting me to come here today, weren't you?"

He nodded. "Perhaps not this early though."

"I had to get up to meet Gai. Naruto's taijutsu needs a lot of extra work. I agreed to work with Tenten on genjutsu, which Gai is hopeless at." She bit her tongue after saying that. Technically, jonins were responsible for training their own genins. There wasn't a specific rule against what she'd done, but it was definitely against custom.

The Hokage chuckled out loud, which shocked her. "Trust Yuuhi Kurenai to break the rules in such a way as to make us ask why we hadn't long ago."

Kurenai shrugged, a little uncomfortable with his humor. "It only made sense. Gai is the best taijutsu instructor I know. His time is better spent doing that than trying to teach genjutsus – something I can do better."

"I see the logic of your plan. Most jonins would not admit that someone else can teach a subject better than they."

"I aim for my genins to be as well prepared as possible before I lead them outside the walls of Konoha. We all know how… the unexpected… can always happen." She didn't mean to sound bitter, but her words still came out that way.

"You still dwell on that day." It was not a question her Hokage was asking.

"There are still no answers for what happened." Her voice was layered with a deep tension, like a steel cable gradually becoming taut.

"You mean there are no answers that you will accept," despite his words, the Hokage's voice was gentle. He seemed to be more sad than anything else.

"Some things stretch the boundaries of coincidence… and we all know who benefited the most from such a tragedy." The cable began to vibrate.

"But there is no proof."

"Is that an indication of innocence? Or cunning? It doesn't matter. I have another team with someone on it who he would rather see in the ground. I'm not going to take any chances this time."

That refusal to take any chances was why she found herself standing outside the Hokage's tower right now, waiting for her student. And feeling her headache get steadily worse.

Fortunately, she did not have long to wait. Shortly before the ninth hour, an orange blur appeared in the distance, bouncing along the rooftops. She watched closely, but there didn't seem to be anyone chasing him, which was a relief. She hoped he'd stop committing pranks all the time… especially if she kept him too busy to get bored.

Naruto landed in a crouch in front of her, grinning like a madman.

She raised an eyebrow at him. "What's the rush?" she asked.

"Ano, you said yesterday that a scouting team needed to do a lot of running away. So I figured it would be good training to travel as quickly as possible."

Kurenai nodded. "And your alarm didn't go off and you barely woke up in time to get here."

Naruto laughed uneasily, and scratched at the back of his head, a little embarrassed.

She chuckled a little as she gestured for him to walk with her. "Well, we'll need to get you a good alarm today as well. Tomorrow you're going to start getting up at five every morning."

"Five o'clock! Why?" Naruto's eyes had gone wide and his mouth dropped open comically.

"Because that's when Gai-sensei does extra taijutsu training with his student, Lee. You will be joining them every day we are in Konoha, is that understood?"

"You aren't going to train me?" He asked, sounding a little confused and disappointed.

"You will still train under me with the rest of the team at our normal meeting times. This is extra training. You'll be working with Maito Gai because he's one of the best taijutsu masters I know. He'll be able to show you things I can't necessarily do."

She took two steps before she realized Naruto had stopped dead in his tracks. "Aren't you my sensei?" he asked, perplexed.

"Yes, I am. Though you should probably call Gai 'sensei' as well. Despite what you may think, it's not a weakness to admit that someone else is better at something than you are. In many ways, it's a strength. Gai is the better person to teach you taijutsu… and I'll be showing his students the finer points of genjutsu. That's why shinobis work best in teams, Naruto. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. Knowing how to use the abilities of your team to their best effect is the true test of a leader. Especially a Hokage. Do you understand?"

Naruto stared at her for a moment before he began to nod.

"Good. Then you will be reporting to Gai at training area twenty three every morning at six on days both his team and ours are in Konoha. I'll also give you some advance notice before I start working on genjutsus. His students will probably be joining us for those training sessions. Now… I want you to obey Gai's instructions when you are working with him, but otherwise you are still my student. Before you make any changes that extend outside your training sessions with Gai… I'd like you to check with me first, all right?" She didn't want to undermine Gai's authority, but she was not letting him dress her student up like a clone of himself. One Rock Lee was enough.

Naruto nodded, a little less sure of himself this time.

"Good. Did you bring your money?"

Naruto nodded and dug out a frog-shaped wallet that was stuffed to bursting with folded ryou notes. She blinked, a little impressed that he'd managed to save so much. But she supposed that wasn't so hard to do when few shop owners would have anything to do with him. "Then let's get to it. We have less than three hours before we have to meet the others."

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They stopped for a quick lunch before heading over to training ground nineteen. By that time, Kurenai's headache still hadn't dissipated. The shopping itself didn't help. As she expected, she had to resort to some fairly vile threats to get the shopkeepers to cooperate. Even then she caught two of them deliberately over-charging the boy. The incredibly surprised look on the boy's face when she spoke up in his defense made it even harder for her to control her temper.

"I can refuse service to anyone I choose," a particularly sour old man grated, then spat on the ground in front of them.

"Naruto is a shinobi of the leaf. Is he given a choice about whether or not to defend you if the village is attacked?" she countered.

"You got no business threatening me. What were they thinking, making a silly girl a jonin?"

Kurenai locked gazes with the old man as the temperature inside the weapons shop seemed to drop twenty or thirty degrees. Even Naruto edged backward as the other customers fled. "This silly little girl is acting under the direct orders of the Hokage himself. That means I can do anything to you that I want, since you are acting against his wishes. I can send you on a thirty minute tour of the lowest level of Yomi. When I'm done with you, no one will even recognize you. Assuming, of course, that you're still sane. It would be a lot easier to just drive you mad and then take what we want… wouldn't it, Naruto?"

"Neh, Kurenai-sensei! I don't want anyone to say I am a thief!"

She couldn't tell if Naruto knew she was bluffing or not. This, of course, made the shopkeeper even more terrified. "You are lucky my student cares about his reputation. He's naïve enough to think a foolish old man like you might eventually learn his lesson and see him for who he is. You and I both know that will never happen. After all, you were idiotic enough to insult a jonin to her face, right?" She was laying it on a little thick, but the old baka had decided to play around with the wrong kunoichi this morning.

"Y-yes! I mean, no! I mean…" the old man was babbling in fear now. Even an extremely weak killing intent on her part had nearly broken him.

"Let's go Naruto. As stupid as this old man is, he's probably sharpened the handles of his Kunai instead of the points."

As they made their way to another shop, one run by the father of one of Gai's genins, she spoke quietly to her student. "You notice how fear and ignorance seem to run hand in hand in people? A person with one, usually has a good portion of the other, and as such is easily affected by genjutsu. He hates you, only because he is afraid, and his fear needs an outlet."

"Why are you telling me this, sensei?"

"Because of this… ignorance and cowardice will never be completely eradicated from the hearts of men. Even if you become Hokage, there will be some people who will still refuse to accept you. There are more than a few people in Konoha who do not accept the Sandaime, either." More than she would have thought before this morning anyway.

Naruto nodded slowly. His eyes may have dimmed a little, and she felt ashamed of herself for tarnishing his dreams, even if it would save him from future disappointment.

"That said," she continued, "what I did just now is not something to be done lightly. There was an element of bullying to how I treated that old man, and that is not something a shinobi should be doing."

"Then why did you do it?" he said, asking the obvious question.

"One, I wanted to demonstrate something for you. Two, he was acting directly against the will of the Hokage, which is criminal at best and treasonous at worst. Three, he insulted my gender."

"Gender?" Naruto asked. The boy was full of questions, but in some ways that made him easier to teach.

"Some people think that men are inherently superior to women."

Naruto just looked at her, obviously puzzled.

"Look, which of your teammates would you rather face in a serious fight?"

"Oh. Hinata, of course."

"What do you mean, 'of course'?" Kurenai asked in a deceptively mild tone.

"Well, Shino's bigger, and he hits harder."

"But wouldn't Hinata's Jyuuken hurt more?"

"Maybe, but I don't think she'd use it on a teammate."

Kurenai sighed. "All right then, outside our team. Say… would you rather face Sasuke or Sakura."

The boy visibly shuddered. "S-sasuke."

Kurenai stopped dead in her tracks. Naruto would rather face the Uchiha genius? Maybe he was still afraid of offending his crush… "Why is that?" she asked him.

"Sakura hits really, really hard when she's mad," Naruto whispered.

Okay, he is being objective after all, Kurenai mused, maybe there's hope for him after all. Asuma didn't do nearly as well.

On the way to the other weapon shop, she passed a tailor that had a banner on the front proclaiming their grand opening. She changed their itinerary on the spot, and was glad she did. The proprietor, a man named Ikitaro, had recently emigrated from Wave Country, hoping to make a new start after the economic depression there ruined his old business. As she hoped, the man knew nothing about Naruto's past, and was overjoyed that one of his first new customers would be a Konoha shinobi.

Ikitaro had some ideas that Kurenai liked, though she had a few suggestions, based on what she knew about Gai's training methods.

"Weights? Really? How heavily should those seams be reinforced then?" the young man asked.

Kurenai gave Naruto a speculative look. "I'd use the heaviest material you have, backed with thick leather for the seams and the inserts. His instructor tends to increase the load as they get used to it."

Naruto didn't sound too enthused at what she was suggesting… right up until she mentioned that it would make him faster and stronger than Sasuke. At that point he would have cheerfully agreed to being lit on fire.

Ikitaro didn't have any other customers yet, and he worked incredibly fast, altering some heavy clothes that were already close to the right size. When they were done, Naruto didn't have a scrap of orange left. He wore heavy trousers made of a dark green material, with a matching jacket. Both pieces were reversible, the lining being a neutral grey. The idea being that when he was traveling somewhere with little or no vegetation, the grey color would be less conspicuous. The knees and elbows were reinforced with quilted padding. Ikitaro also included, at her suggestion, a dark grey cloth that Naruto could wrap around his head and tuck under his hitai-ite to conceal his bright blond hair.

Under the jacket he wore a black t-shirt, and a shuriken holster was strapped to each thigh. A weapons pouch was attached to his belt on each hip as well. Kurenai noted that Naruto didn't really seem to favor either hand when he fought; some tasks he seemed to do right-handed and other things he did left-handed. He was more than likely ambidextrous, a rare and useful trait, especially for a shinobi. Not that anyone would bother to notice, she reflected bitterly, best not to make a big fuss about it. That would only drive home that no one paid attention before. They also purchased a large traveling backpack for him. Since Gai would almost certainly have him working with weights on his body like Lee, she decided that some of that extra weight might as well take the form of extra weapons and equipment. One day he might be called upon to carry a wounded teammate, just like she was… Kurenai ruthlessly severed that train of thought.

Naruto was oddly quiet as he looked at himself in the mirror. It was hard for her to tell at that angle, but he seemed to be frowning slightly. She stood directly behind him so he could see her face in the mirror as she nodded approvingly. "You look like a serious shinobi now."

He nodded, but still looked a little sad as he paid Ikitaro and stuffed his old jumpsuit into the backpack. The shopkeeper looked a little unsure about the change in his once-exuberant customer, but he still bowed and invited them back if Naruto needed any repairs or alterations.

"Is something the matter, Naruto?"

He shook his head. "I just feel… funny. When I look at myself in these clothes I get a weird feeling in my stomach, and I know it's not expired milk."

Kurenai was fairly sure she didn't want to know more about his last remark. "Maybe it's started sinking in, Naruto. You've graduated from the academy and become a genin. Soon, you will be doing missions, and some of them will be dangerous. Maybe the new clothes represent that seriousness?"

Naruto nodded slowly. "Is it okay to feel scared about that?"

"It would be stupid not to. Every shinobi who goes on a mission does so knowing that something might end their life. But life is all about risk, isn't it? So we work, and we train, and we do everything we can to be prepared for what comes. I'll do what I can to keep you three alive and safe, and you'll help me keep Shino and Hinata safe as well."

"What about them, sensei?"

"They will help me keep each other safe, and you as well."

"Then who keeps you safe?"

Kurenai smiled. "That's my job. There's a reason they send a jonin with each genin team, and it isn't just to make you behave."

Naruto scowled at this but didn't say anything.

As Kurenai hoped, the next weapon shop they visited had a more congenial proprietor. Once she mentioned that Naruto would be training under his daughter's sensei he was even friendlier.

"Tenten isn't here right now," he explained as he looked at Naruto speculatively. "Do you have a special weapon preference?" he asked.

Naruto shook his head. "Just kunais and shuriken."

The man nodded thoughtfully. "Probably better to get more of your full growth before your commit to something."

"Really?" Naruto looked at him in confusion.

The man nodded. "Unless you plan to train on a wide variety of weapons," he said, his proud smile unmistakable as he thought of his daughter, "it's best to see what size you are likely to end up at. Some weapons work better for relatively larger people, others work better for shinobi that are usually smaller than their opponents. Even a cut down tetsubo is less effective if you are smaller than everyone you fight. Similarly, trying to snare a much smaller and faster opponent with a manriki-gusari can be an exercise in frustration. Most shinobi your age just stick with kunai until they encounter something that really appeals to them."

Naruto nodded thoughtfully. Then he frowned. "What are a tetsubo and a manniki-gitari?"

The man made a face, and then laughed. "A tetsubo is an iron-shod club, made out of heavy oak and around six feet long. It's a very heavy weapon, but hits very hard. It requires good balance and lot of strength to use well. The manriki-gusari is a chain with a weighted handle on each end. It's tricky to use, but very handy for entangling opponents."

Kurenai spoke up before Naruto wore out his welcome. "He'll need two full sets of kunai and shuriken." The ones he'd used at the academy were dull and covered with nicks and gouges, evidently having been forged from inferior steel. He'd no doubt also paid a premium for them, given the way he was frowning at the prices on display.

"Do you carry exploding tags?" she asked before Naruto could ask why his prices were so low. She didn't want him seeking vengeance on the shopkeepers on his own. Her idea worked better than she thought as Naruto's head jerked up. She remembered Mattai talking about how 'men' always liked things that exploded and had to force herself to swallow.

"I just received a new case from the Sumijin. I, uh, tested one out back, just to be sure. It lit up precisely three seconds after my chakra triggered it, and produced a nice-sized fireball. Easily ten feet across."

Naruto's eyes lit up eagerly, and Kurenai had to restrain him from spending the rest of his money on the explosive ofuda. The magic word, of course, was 'Ramen', and a suggestion that he might want to save some money if the team were to get together after practice for an early dinner.

The mention of food also produced a low growl from the boy's stomach that was audible to everyone nearby. Naruto looked embarrassed, but the shopkeeper just laughed and recommended a nearby restaurant. "I remember what it was like when I was his age. I never thought I would stop being hungry!" Naruto chuckled at that and Kurenai decided she'd be sending the man all of her business in the future. The old goat with the shop near the Hokage's tower deserved to go out of business and starve.

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Hinata's morning seemed to crawl by… much like the inchworm she watched as she sat in the garden. She'd slept poorly that night, too excited to relax. She couldn't believe her fortune at being placed on a team with Naruto-kun. The rest of the day had passed in a bit of a haze.

She knew she hadn't been properly focused during the taijutsu sparring. Shino managed to hold her off with no difficulty. Naruto too, was just as fast as she was, if a little less… precise in his movements. Ordinarily, she might have been a little worried about sparring with the boy she admired, wondering if he would grow impatient with her weakness. Instead, he seemed to enjoy it quite a bit, smiling as they exchanged blows, and sticking his lower lip out when she managed to connect. She tried not to pay attention when he did that, because she found his fake sulks adorable and squealing 'kwaii!' in the middle of taijutsu practice was not something a Hyuuga warrior was supposed to do.

The way Naruto enjoyed sparring, she wondered why he never joined in with the other kids after school when they gathered, sometimes with the parents supervising, for extra practice… and to show off a bit. She, of course, was not allowed to do such things, as her father would not approve. The secrets of Jyuuken, her family's 'Gentle Fist' taijutsu style, were not meant to be paraded around in front of 'commoners'. Hinata sometimes wondered who in the village, outside her family, were not considered commoners, but she hadn't built up the nerve to ask her father.

At least her duties as a shinobi were clear cut. If Kurenai-sensei wanted her to spar with her teammates, then she was right to do so. Father could not disapprove of her following a direct order… though sometimes she wondered.

Hinata had learned, at a young age, to be wary of the emotional states of others, and to read them as a means of self-defense. Her father was best avoided when he was angry or frustrated. Otherwise, the sight of her might remind him of her history of failures and he might decide to test her in some new way. She knew he was only trying to find some aspect of her life in which she wasn't a complete disappointment to him, but lately she was starting to wish he would just give up on her. It hurt too much to be given hope that she might somehow win his approval this time, only to have it brutally crushed out of her heart when she invariably failed again.

She knew her life was one long legacy of failures, but hopefully, if she trained hard, she might find some way to make a difference. Perhaps she could die bravely in a mission, like the heroine in a book she'd once read. That way at least her failures would be over and maybe in some way her death would mean something. Maybe if she did that well enough, her father might not regard her as a waste of a life.

She frowned as she recognized the downward spiral her thoughts had taken. This was happening more and more frequently of late, and she found it a little disturbing. Yet another thing that was going wrong with her. The other kunoichis didn't think like this, did they? What was wrong with her?

She pressed her fingers together as she scowled. What was she thinking about before being distracted by failures? Yes. Father could not disapprove of her following Kurenai-sensei's orders. They were drilled constantly on the laws of the shinobi at the Konoha Ninja Academy, and obedience to one's superior was paramount. This was so ingrained in the way of the shinobi that if her commander ordered her to do something that violated the laws of the village, then her commander would be responsible in the eyes of the law.

But she'd also sensed something between her father and Kurenai-sensei when she was sent to the academy. Something that she was almost too distracted by her mortification to notice. There was a tension there, one that was unexpected. Kurenai-sensei never took her eyes off of Otousan, and her father seemed to react toward her with greater disdain than he normally displayed toward a chuunin who was not a Hyuuga. Pondering that dynamic was less painful at the time than thinking about her father's words as he cast her away like refuse.

It was also diverting to think of his latest reactions to her news. Two nights ago, he'd stared at her when she announced that she had passed the genin examination. Then he asked her what her ranking in the class had been. She had been so happy to have passed that she didn't think to ask about the class rankings afterward. He scowled when she tried to explain this, saying in a cold voice that for a Hyuuga to pass as anything but the top of the class was a failure in and of itself. He'd seen the crop of rabble that they were admitting these days, and he was far from impressed. It should be simplicity itself for the Hyuuga heir to distinguish herself from the common dregs, if she would but try.

Hinata was embarrassed and ashamed that she hadn't anticipated her father's request. She had forgotten her family's place at the forefront of the village. Of course, merely passing would not be enough to earn his approval. After lunch yesterday, she'd asked Iruka-sensei in the hallway if she could know her ranking within the class. He'd looked at her for a long moment, then explained that such information was considered classified by the village. She started to explain why she wanted to know when Iruka suggested, in a kindly voice, that Hiashi-sama was more than welcome to meet with himself or any other academy instructor if he desired the details on her performance. At this, Hinata merely turned red and bowed, babbling apologies. She knew father would not waste time to come here in person to hear of her failures.

But his reaction the previous night was even stranger. He asked if she'd been assigned to a jonin for missions, or given some other duty. When she said she would be on a team under Yuuhi Kurenai, he went very still. She saw something dark flash behind his blank eyes and felt a sudden surge of terror. She'd never seen her father fight before. She'd been wrapped up in blankets when her father killed the kidnapper from Kumo. But now she'd seen a flash of his killer intent, and found it to be every bit as terrifying as she'd imagined.

As quickly as it appeared, it was gone. Then he asked who her teammates were. He didn't react to Aburame Shino, but when she mentioned Uzumaki Naruto… The dark fire behind his blank white eyes returned, but it was even stronger this time. His killing intent made what she felt earlier seem to be a mild flash of irritation. She asked if there was a problem, in a quavering voice that she hated herself for. He responded by ordering her to bathe and retire for the night. She wasn't that hungry for supper, but she was puzzled by his insistence that she cleanse herself. She ordinarily took a shower every morning, and she hadn't really worked up that much of a sweat during the day.

Now she wasn't to meet her new team until noon, so she woke up as early as she could and made her way to the garden after dressing. The garden had been her mother's pride and joy, according to the older servants, and it was seldom frequented in the mornings. As such, it had become a haven for her. Here she could sit and think. Here she could try and tease apart the nightmarish tangle of disappointments and failure her life had become.

She looked up at the sun, calculating that it was nearly eleven now. She rose from her mother's bench and slipped out of the Hyuuga compound.

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Aburame Shino was not quite sure what to make of his team.

It was logical that he might be assigned to a reconnaissance team. His abilities were quite suitable for such a role. Shino was a great believer in logic.

He was also painfully aware that his belief in rationality placed him firmly in the minority among both his fellow shinobi and the residents of Konoha in general. He didn't really understand why he was surrounded by people who insisted on handling their affairs in such incredibly slipshod manners. They based the most important decisions of their lives on emotional, poorly thought out, and invariably fallacious reasoning. They mated, raised families, and began careers, all with no thought of the eventual outcomes.

Hives were much more intelligently run. Their goals were rather Spartan, but all the more straightforward because of that. Raise the young to continue the colony, locate and retrieve food to sustain the members, protect the queen so she can continue laying eggs. Simple, but logical. An insect hive's system of priorities was never skewed. Ego and emotions never coerced them into doing stupid things. He admired their focus and dedication to their goals.

For all of his own rationality and desire to maintain an objective focus, how did he end up in this situation? He was teamed up with two of the most emotional and erratic genins in his class. Uzumaki Naruto's abilities followed no sane progression. He failed his exam because he was singularly incapable of creating an acceptable bunshin. But yesterday, he was somehow a genin anyway, and furthermore capable of using the far more demanding Kage Bunshin technique.

There was something quite odd about the boy, something that ran far deeper than just being class clown at the academy. His kikai bugs were unusually wary of being too close to his body. Something about him smelled odd to them, but they couldn't really explain what it was. That alone would be cause for concern. Things that couldn't be easily categorized were invariably dangerous. The idea of the smiling, ramen-obsessed blond being dangerous was ludicrous, but the principle still held. He had a secret, and for a shinobi, secrets can kill.

On the other hand, Hyuuga Hinata was all too easy to comprehend. She had an obvious fixation on their teammate, Naruto. To give her credit, she seemed intelligent on other subjects, and seemingly every female her age was obsessed with at least one member of the male gender. Although Naruto was harder to comprehend in such a role than the Uchiha heir, it was just as irritating to have to deal with.

When he pointed out the obvious gaps in their array of skills, the kunoichi expressed an unswerving faith that the object of her affections would not let them down. She believed he would somehow magically acquire the skills that had eluded him throughout their years at the academy. While hard work could, in fact, make up for some deficits in ability, her avowal that Naruto would never let them down was nothing short of ridiculous.

The sheer irrationality of the situation left him looking somewhat askance at their jonin instructor. Yuuhi Kurenai was only recently promoted to the jonin rank, and this was to be her first team of genins. He found it hard to believe, however, that a genjutsu specialist with her reputation for intelligence would just pick her team out at random. There had to be some deeper reason for the three of them being thrown together like this. He was just damned if he could see it.

It wasn't like he had any choice, and that realization brought a frown to his face. One small enough, however, to remain hidden behind his sunglasses and jacket collar, which was good. One had to maintain appearances, after all. No matter how irritating the situation.

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Naruto felt a bit odd in his new clothes. They were comfortable, of course, Ikitaro was extremely skillful. It was puzzling how he managed to lose his business in the Wave Country. Whatever that 'economic depression' thing was, it sounded pretty bad.

There was more than one reason for his uneasiness, despite what he'd told Kurenai. The other factor just took him longer to puzzle out. When people saw him, they didn't immediately recognize him anymore. In some ways this was disappointing. He wanted people to recognize him, Uzumaki Naruto, the village pariah. At the same time, it was… interesting to have them look at him with the neutral, vaguely respectful expressions they reserved for shinobi of the leaf that they didn't recognize. At least Ikitaro and that last weapon smith seemed to respect him as Naruto, even though Ikitaro had no way of knowing about his sealed prisoner.

Naruto kept his face carefully neutral as he walked with Kurenai-sensei and tried to work out how he felt about this. Some villagers eventually recognized his face as they approached. At this point many would glare as they did in the past. However, a few continued looking confused. Were they wondering what the clothes signified? Or were they starting to question their opinion of the shinobi wearing those clothes? Naruto struggled to maintain the sober expression that Kurenai-sensei called a 'game face' for some obscure reason. He wondered if he should ask her about the villagers' changing reactions as well.

It was a little unnerving, how wise his jonin instructor was. He'd never encountered someone who spent so much time thinking about the reasons behind things. At least, he'd never encountered someone who thought so much about those things – and was willing to share that information with him as well. He'd probably spent more time thinking and less time talking in the last twenty-four hours than in any day of his life. He didn't understand why she spent so much time explaining things.

She said that it was important for him to understand, so that made it part of her job. But that would apply to the academy instructors as well, wouldn't it? Until his last year, when he was assigned to Iruka-sensei's class, he'd never had an instructor who would simply answer any of his questions. Some were sarcastic or abusive when he raised his hand, wanting to know why he couldn't understand something so simple. This would usually get a laugh from his classmates at Naruto's expense. The really cold ones just ignored him when he raised his hand, looking through him like he wasn't there. Those were the worst, and fueled his determination to become a prankster. If they wanted to ignore him, then they would pay the price.

Naruto took a deep breath as they approached training area nineteen. Kurenai-sensei had explained as they ate lunch that he would be far too busy to do many pranks. Naruto wasn't quite sure how he felt about that. He'd had some fun over the past couple of years, and enjoyed the grudging respect he'd earned from the few people who could appreciate his artistry. He would miss planning and executing one of his stunts, not to mention the wild chases that inevitably followed. On the other hand, his pranks were usually committed out of boredom, which was anathema to him… and Kurenai-sensei promised that he would have no time to become bored.

It was also oddly rankling how she said that she didn't want him causing trouble now that he was on her team. He'd lived on his own for years now, with no one bossing him around. Now his jonin instructor was laying down the law and restricting what he could do, even during his free time. However… he wasn't just upset about this. She also said that his misbehavior could reflect poorly on his team as well as herself. When she said that "I don't want to have to explain to Hokage-sama why one of my genins still has enough free time to deface the monument," he felt his stomach contract like he'd been hit. Her genins. His team. He'd never really had anyone claim him like that before. It was an alarming and comforting sensation, all at the same time.

No one had ever described Naruto as 'theirs' before, not in any way that counted. His acceptance at the Konoha Ninja Academy was grudging at best, and he suspected that Hokage-sama had something to do with it. After all, the old man was the first person to even ask him if he wanted to train as a shinobi.

But Kurenai-sensei freely described him as 'her student', even when talking to villagers that obviously hated him. Hinata didn't seem to be disappointed about teaming with the 'dead last'. Neither did Shino, though it was hard to tell with those dark glasses he wore over his expressionless face.

Kurenai also said she was depending on him… depending on him to help keep his teammates safe. No one had ever said anything like that to him before. The responsibility it implied was a little frightening. But at the same time, he wanted to shout about it from the roof-tops. The latter feeling surprised him.

Uzumaki Naruto was not known for his introspective capabilities. He'd gotten through twelve difficult years operating by the seat of his pants, but Kurenai-sensei had demonstrated at Moritake's just how powerful her intuition was when it was bolstered by some hard thinking. It was with this in mind that he tried to tease apart his own feelings. It took a surprisingly short amount of time for him to arrive at an answer.

He'd been acknowledged.

In the space of twenty four hours, Naruto had been acknowledged by no less than four people. First Iruka, who he'd gotten to know over his last year at the academy. Even after suffering the loss of his family to the Kyuubi, he still saw Naruto as a lonely boy, much like himself, rather than the demon kitsune.

More surprising was the jonin who'd asked for him to be included on her team, valuing his skill with Kage Bunshin no Jutsu. She didn't know him, but she still saw value in him as a person and a shinobi. He wasn't foolish enough to believe that the errands they'd run that morning were a normal part of a jonin instructor's responsibilities.

His teammates had also accepted him to some extent as well. They didn't sneer yesterday when he was beaten during their impromptu sparring matches. In fact, he even noticed Hinata smiling when he bounced off the tree and actually got inside Shino's guard for once. Shino didn't get angry when Naruto actually scored on him. He just nodded silently and went back into a ready position.

As far as Naruto could remember, neither of them had laughed or sneered at him while they were at the academy, which already put them in the clear minority.

Naruto's thoughts stumbled over each other as he pondered this realization. He remembered what his sensei had said about Team 10. Most of the leaf shinobi also knew their famous fathers, the previous Nara-Akimichi-Yamanaka team, and how they were still friends (and drinking buddies) to this day. Naruto wondered if they conspired to have their children at roughly the same time, just to ensure they'd have the chance to work together as genin like their fathers. Would his team become as close? Was that normal for genins who undertook missions together?

For Naruto, who'd never really had any friends his own age, that idea struck him like a thunderbolt, almost making him stumble and fall. Would Shino and Hinata become his friends, as well as teammates? Given what he knew, it seemed almost inevitable, didn't it?

Then Naruto was struck by a sudden chill. Well, perhaps not inevitable. There was another possible fate that awaited every genin team. Despite the presence of jonin instructors and the limitations on what missions they could take, there was always the possible fate that awaited any shinobi on a mission. Bad luck and treachery could circumvent any safeguards, and jonins were not infallible. Sometimes genins did not come back from their missions. Naruto also heard that many died during the difficult tests for chuunin rank. Sometimes they made it back, but with injuries that forced them to seek a different vocation. Any way you sliced it, being a professional shinobi was not a safe profession.

Oddly enough, given how short a time he'd had them, the thought of losing his teammates sent a chill right through Naruto's heart. He knew that at this point he was dreading the loss of a potential friend more than the real thing, but it stung nonetheless. He knew Kurenai-sensei would do everything in her power to prevent that, but again, she was still only human.

Then he remembered what she'd said earlier. "…and you'll help me keep Shino and Hinata safe as well," were her words. Naruto's jaw tightened and he felt unaccountably angry, almost… fierce. He found himself gritting his teeth and curling his hands into fists as they approached the training area.

For someone who'd been alone all his life, Kurenai-sensei, Shino, and Hinata had joined Iruka-sensei as representatives of something that was more precious than gold. Anyone trying to hurt his precious people would do so only after stepping over his dead body.

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Yuuhi Kurenai couldn't completely suppress a grim smile as she felt the killing intent literally exploding from within her student. It had been fascinating to subtly observe the play of emotions across his face as they walked to the training area to meet with the others. She'd have to teach him how to hide his emotions better when he was brooding, because the direction of his thoughts had been almost embarrassingly obvious to her. Asuma and the Nara boy would clean out his pockets if they could lure him into a game or three.

But now he seemed to have connected the dots that she'd presented him with, and his obvious determination confirmed that she'd picked wisely. She didn't know if having a potential heavy combat specialist on their team would have saved Mattai and the others, but it couldn't hurt. Especially given how motivated Naruto seemed to be.

He was oblivious to the reactions of the others, hands fisted at his sides and glaring down at the street. But the villagers definitely noticed the murderous aura radiating from the boy like a bonfire. Many of them turned away from him before his presence even registered. The ones that hadn't yet recognized Naruto were quietly respectful; the ones that recognized the Kyuubi's jailor looked terrified. As well they might, Kurenai reflected angrily, given the way he's been treated.

Nonetheless, she carefully placed a hand on the boy's shoulder. His head snapped around, glaring, but his features immediately softened when he saw her. He nodded without saying a word and smiled.

She knew the boy was strong willed. He'd have to be to have endured the treatment of the villagers without breaking down or lashing out. But until now, she'd never had an objective demonstration of it. It took considerable force of will to generate a psychic atmosphere capable of intimidating without words. Especially without eye contact. But the short blond had gone from smiling prankster to enraged killer in the blink of an eye, to an extent that even Ibiki-san would have taken note of.

More and more the boy seemed to be a diamond in the rough, just waiting for a hand patient enough to polish it to gleaming perfection. Maybe her analogy was a little off… her true task was more to sharpen him into a diamond-edged weapon, one capable of helping her reach a goal she'd set years ago.

A/N:

Wow, I was really bowled over by the response to my first chapter of this tale.

About a third as many people read this as read a chapter of HP&NFP (based on the hit counts), but that single chapter got more reviews than any chapter of my Harry Potter story to date. I'm not sure what that implies, but it's kind of interesting to note…

Yes, Kurenai's past in this story is not canon – it's pretty much been left as an open book. If it bothers you that I'm filling this in, then you can consider the annihilation of her old genin team as the AU divergence point, one that resulted in her actions in chapter one. No, I haven't revealed everything about that occurrence that I'm going to. Savor the mystery for now.

Naruto has been given a lot to think about, which is making him a lot quieter than usual. Sakura's words expressing her relief at not being saddled with him on team 7 literally broke his heart. A few hours later, Kurenai treated him like almost no adult in his life ever has before. This led to an epiphany that Naruto, with his loneliness, was almost inevitably going to have once he was placed on a team.

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