9 - The Bell Test and Other Inconveniences
Team 7, sans Kakashi, assembled on the Leaf training field at the crack of dawn per the previous day's instructions. Each of them toted a backpack and pouch filled with ninja tools. They stood in an awkward triangle facing one another, doing their best to fight off impending yawns and gritty eyes. Faint streams of light trickled through gaps in the trees and shrubs. The prevailing darkness cast long shadows across the training grounds.
"Morning, Sakura," Naruto said.
"Morning, Naruto," she muttered. "Morning, Sasuke."
Sasuke nodded in acknowledgement and scanned the area. "Where's Kakashi?"
"I don't see him," Sakura said.
Naruto waved off their comments. "Don't worry. I'm sure he'll be here soon, believe it! He wouldn't leave us waiting around again, would he?"
Sasuke scoffed. "You really have a lot of faith in him."
"I'm not sure we should give him the benefit of the doubt," Sakura said, tapping a finger against folded arms. "One time's a coincidence. Twice is a pattern!"
"I agree," a fourth voice said. The speaker leaned over Sakura's shoulder. "Who are we talking about?"
Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura jumped away from the newly arrived Kakashi. They switched into battle-ready stances, all gripping kunai in one hand.
Crying out in surprise, Naruto pointed an accusatory finger. "Kakashi-sensei! How'd you sneak up on us like that?"
Kakashi chuckled. "I wanted to see how good your senses of awareness were even when you're not on the battlefield." He sighed, rising from a crouched position. "Unfortunately, the reaction time you've just demonstrated doesn't bode well for you if you want to pass this test."
"Ah, for crying out loud!" Naruto grumbled. "How were we supposed to know to expect that?"
"We weren't. That's the point, idiot," Sasuke shot back, still focusing on Kakashi. "So, what's this test all about?"
"Yeah," Sakura said, her voice cracking, "tell us, sensei!"
Kakashi's sinister laughter turned Naruto's stomach. He ground his teeth together, bracing for whatever was about to be revealed. The others' reactions only deepened his worry. Sakura's wobbling knees said it all, but to her credit, she stood her ground. Sweat traveled down the side of Sasuke's face. Unlike his teammates, he maintained a false air of stoicism.
"What's so funny?" Sasuke demanded to know.
The Jonin plucked a pair of bells from one of the pockets of his military vest and held them out at arm's length. His half-lidded eyes gave the impression of a mocking smile beneath his mask. Kakashi watched their expressions with a disturbing degree of pleasure before diving into a meticulous walkthrough of the mission guidelines.
Minato gnawed at the edge of one of his nails, sitting in front of his latest stack of paperwork and speed reading the pages. No matter how many letters he stamped or correspondences he delivered, he couldn't abate the unease that had lingered ever since Naruto and Sasuke left for the day. Today was their first day as Genin! His confidence in them knew no bounds, but he would be lying if he said he wasn't concerned.
Although Naruto and Sasuke were quite strong for their age, their personalities were often their downfalls. Sasuke's near tunnel vision focus on getting stronger, and Naruto's insistence on proving himself superior, often clashed with one another. The mere thought of those boys doing the bell test exercise against Kakashi, of all people, was a dangerous prospect. Kakashi was once Minato's student, so he knew the man's no-nonsense teaching style better than anyone else. Kakashi wouldn't hesitate to drop them from the program if he saw fit.
Please take this seriously and work together, Minato pleaded with the boys in his mind. Shaking off his worries, he buried himself in more paperwork.
A few minutes later, he laid his hand on the last wrapped scroll on his desk and watched it vanish from the room with a smile.
Off to the Guardian Shinobi Twelve with you.
He sensed the Flying Thunder God seal marker in the Guardians' location activate, confirming his message's arrival. No matter how many times he made these instant deliveries, they never got old. His improved version of The Second Hokage's jutsu was more than a weapon for battle. It also made the more tedious aspects of his job insanely convenient. If he were honest, he might be getting a little lazy these days.
Minato's eyes fell on a folded sheet of paper on the side of his desk that he'd almost forgotten. Not one for signature, but still important. He snatched it up and unfolded it, rereading the message within. Bitter memories resurfaced, bringing him back to a time he preferred not to revisit.
The Fourth Hokage loathed to venture further into the abandoned lab with Lord Hiruzen upon arrival. Its dismal conditions were less than pleasant to examine, but he knew they had a job to do. Bloodied tables, body parts strewn all over the place, and rows of shelves and dingy cabinets cleared of their contents painted a bleak picture of this place's intended use. Worst of all, there was no trace of the one responsible for it all - Mr. Orochimaru of the Legendary Sannin. The look on The Third's face said more than words, so Minato didn't press him. It was no secret in the village that Orochimaru was one of his most cherished students. The Fourth laid a hand on his shoulder for support, although he knew it was a futile gesture.
Traveling beyond the main room of the laboratory yielded similar findings. Minato darkly pondered how he was keeping his breakfast down in the face of the atrocities he beheld. Whether for better or worse, the Hokages and the Anbu detail accompanying them found no living test subjects among the bodies they recovered.
Over the course of the day, they found two more hideouts where Orochimaru had carried out additional, even more gruesome acts. He hadn't been quick enough to evacuate these locations, so Minato and Hiruzen ordered the areas blocked off. They assigned an investigation unit to round up any survivors and see to it that they were treated by the medical ninja on standby. However, even among those who were well enough to converse after treatment, none of the test subjects provided any useful information regarding Orochimaru's whereabouts.
No surprise there, Minato told himself. Orochimaru would have had the presence of mind to wipe their memories or place seals on them before making his exit.
A squad of Anbu interrupted the Hokages' walkthrough of one the hideouts with more news.
"Lords Third and Fourth!" the leader of the group said as she came to a stop in the doorway. She took a knee, and her comrades followed suit. "Urgent news."
Minato gestured toward her with as polite a smile as he could muster under the circumstances. "Proceed, Yugao."
The purple-haired woman raised her head to reveal an expression wrought with concern. A lump caught in Minato's throat. What else had gone wrong now?
"Several Anbu operatives have disappeared without a trace, sir. Their lockers are cleared out and there is no sign of them anywhere in the village. Without having conducted a more thorough search, we can't be sure, but it's believed they have defected."
Hiruzen darted an eye toward Minato, but said nothing. It was clear they were both thinking the same thing; the former's suspicions surrounding Danzo's involvement were looking more and more credible.
Yugao continued. "Several of the supposed deserters are known to be former members of Danzo's Root division. I've brought a running list." She held out a slip of paper, which Minato took with a reluctant sigh.
He was relieved not to see one of the most valuable Root operatives' name on the list. Codenamed Kinoe, then Tenzo, and at last renamed Yamato, the boy possessed a derivation of Hashirama Senju's legendary Wood Style. He obtained these powers as a result of experiments thought to be carried out by Orochimaru, but these rumors were never confirmed. Minato feared someone with The First Hokage's power falling into enemy hands almost as much as he did the jutsu in the Scroll of Sealing.
Nodding toward Yugao, he dismissed her to resume the search and turned to Hiruzen. The elderly retiree pressed his fingers to his temples. He looked up with wet, tired eyes and a deep frown. "It seems we have much to do, Minato."
"Yeah. Much to do."
Sadness struck Minato's heart as he relived that haunting day from years ago. He blinked and observed the note in front of him, pulling his focus back to the present.
"Lord Fourth, I've made headway in tracking down Danzo and Orochimaru. I encountered one of Danzo's loyalists - a former comrade from Root. He wore the same attire as the enemy ninja from our first mission to track Danzo. I alerted the rest of the squad and we pursued the target, but he triggered a minefield of paper bombs, taking his own life before we could get any intel. I've provided a visual of the location, and will report back when we have more for you.
The 'visual' consisted of the bottom portion of the paper, where Yamato had embossed an image outlined in ink. Minato whistled at the intricate level of detail. The imitation of depth - no doubt achieved with a stamp made from Wood Style - almost made him forget he was staring at a flat plane.
Wow, the things that boy can pull off with his jutsu.
In a matter of several years, Yamato had grown from a solitary soul unsure of his purpose into a devoted ally of The Leaf. His strength, both within and without, was commendable. Minato found comfort in knowing that wherever Danzo was holed up, he wasn't commanding a loyal soldier with Wood Release on top of having Shisui Uchiha's eye. He had Itachi to thank for the latter bit of intel.
Minato sighed and rose from his desk, thinking it might be a good idea to get some fresh air while things were slow. He hadn't made it more than two steps around his desk when a Leaf ninja nudged open the door, staggered through, and dropped yet another stack of papers on the desk for him to sign.
"These just came in from the academy, sir."
So much for taking a walk around the village.
Kakashi placed a timer on one of several wooden posts next to a cluster of bushes.
"Alright," he said, "it's set for 12:00!" He depressed the start button. Holding up the bells once again, he explained, "Today's assignment is to take these bells away from me by noon."
Naruto eyed the shiny metal objects. This mission sounded too easy. What was the catch here?
His stomach growled. He winced, trying to ignore the raging appetite borne from Kakashi's specific instructions to skip breakfast.
Shaking the bells once for emphasis, Kakashi continued, "Those who can't do it won't get lunch."
A mixture of shock and fury boiled in Naruto. He narrowed his eyes at the sadist before him. His idea of a fair first mission was to starve them for hours, then somehow expect them to put up a decent challenge? The blond glanced at Sasuke, who was silent while he listened to Kakashi's words. Sakura was whimpering as she clutched at her noisy stomach.
Pointing toward one of the posts, Kakashi said, "You'll be tied to that...and I'll eat my lunch before your very eyes."
"But hold on!" Sakura interrupted, holding up two fingers. "Why are there only two bells?"
Kakashi chuckled. "There are only two so that at the very least, one of your names will have to go into the logs. That person will be disqualified for failing the mission, and will return to the academy."
"You've got to be kidding me!" Naruto shouted. His teammates gasped and turned to him. "I can't believe Dad really allows someone like this to be in charge of Genin. What kind of crazy test is this?"
"Naruto," Sasuke stressed, "let him finish first."
He gave Naruto a look that said, 'Yeah, I know.' Although he was still annoyed, Naruto reluctantly shut up and waited for Kakashi to continue.
When the instructions were conveyed, Naruto fought to hold back his annoyance with the mission guidelines. The whole thing was rigged. He knew that much. How could an academy graduate learn anything useful from this?
"Hey Naruto," Sasuke said, snapping him back to attention, "eyes up."
His brother was in a combat pose, which he copied. Naruto noticed Sakura doing the same out of the corner of his eye. All three of them shook with anticipation.
The moment was almost here. They needed a plan of action, or they were going to be wiped out with ease. If Kakashi was anywhere near the level of his dad, Naruto knew the test would be no cakewalk. That was fine, though. While it may have been risky, he had a plan. One that would allow all three of them to pass if it worked.
He whispered to his comrades, then smirked as Kakashi spoke up.
"Begin when I give the 'ready-go' signal."
Naruto didn't know what he expected from the Jonin who claimed to have been trained by his father. He didn't know what he expected from the first mission that would secure his spot as a Leaf Genin. He didn't even know if his plan to take the bells from his sensei would really work. But there was no way in hell he could have ever prepared for the sight in front of him.
Kakashi reached into a compartment of his uniform and pulled out an orange book. It appeared well used, but was kept in decent condition apart from its curled pages. He adopted a casual stance, flipped to a specific location, and began reading the damn thing in front of his students. They were about to start their first mission, engaging in a life-threatening battle with him, and he was reading a book?
Wait. Naruto knew that book cover. It was his godfather's bestselling book called Make-Out Paradise! Kakashi-sensei thought reading something sleazy like that was more important than their mission?
Sasuke appeared no less pleased by this. He and Naruto locked eyes, equally confused.
"Um...sensei?" Sakura said. "What are you doing?"
"It should be fine if I read this," Kakashi muttered to himself. "I was just getting to a good part!"
"Sensei!" Naruto interrupted, more aggressive in his tone than Sakura.
"Oh!" Kakashi paused and looked up at him. He gave a quick thumbs up. "You three can begin whenever you like."
"Are you serious?" Naruto said, clenching his fists. "What the hell?"
"He's taunting us," Sasuke said.
Unacceptable. Not even Minato had ever disrespected Naruto and Sasuke to this extent. It's not like he couldn't have if he wanted to, but it was more the principle of the thing. This Kakashi guy was really grating on Naruto's nerves. Who did he think he was, treating them this way? Naruto was the son of a hero. He was going to be the next Hokage, for crying out loud!
"I'll teach you to underestimate me, believe it!" Naruto declared to the engrossed reader. His comment received no acknowledgment. "Sasuke, come on!"
"Yeah, let's do this," Sasuke said. "Sakura!"
Sakura gasped, flustered, then stammered out a quick, "Y-yeah! I'm ready."
Kakashi peered over his book, examining the three kids with a lazy eye. Whatever was going on in his head, it was clear by his unchanging posture that he didn't feel the least bit worried.
Sasuke performed a quick series of hand signs and sucked in a breath. Upon seeing this, Kakashi's eye widened in a first ever show of genuine surprise. Naruto smirked.
Sasuke spewed a concentrated sphere of fire that rocketed toward Kakashi, razing away all grass in its path.
Kakashi leapt out of the blast zone, covering his eyes as smoke filled the area.
Naruto lost sight of Sasuke, but that didn't matter. He'd done his part to get the ball rolling on their plan. Now it was his turn to shine.
"Naruto, you're up!" Sakura said from somewhere close.
Having received his cue, Naruto rushed in through the cover Sasuke made for him. He reached into his ninja tool pouch and fished out a few shuriken. Then he jumped into the air, scanning for Kakashi as he exited the cloud of smoke.
Descending from his evasion of the fireball, Kakashi came face to face with Naruto. The former still held his book in one hand.
"Gotcha!" Naruto said.
He flung a volley of shuriken at Kakashi. Reacting with almost mechanical efficiency, the Jonin used his free hand to retrieve a kunai and deflect the shuriken. He flipped backward to avoid the follow up punch Naruto attempted, and landed unharmed on the ground among the scattered shuriken. He gasped when he turned to see Sasuke speed onto the scene and move in behind him.
"What?" Kakashi gasped, turning just in time to react to his student's Body Flicker Technique.
Sasuke threw two well-aimed punches at Kakashi, who blocked one hand, then the other by using his book as a shield. They stood interlocked in a grapple until the Uchiha decided to kick off of the ground with a burst of chakra, using Kakashi's grip on his hands to steady himself. Sasuke launched into a backwards flip, bringing one heel crashing down toward his sensei's head. However, the Jonin was not fooled; realizing the boy's intent, he flung Sasuke away before his attack could connect. Sasuke rolled out of the momentum of the throw in time to plant his feet against the side of a tree. The tree creaked under the pressure of his collision. Both spots where his feet met the bark formed shallow dents.
Not missing a beat, Naruto charged in when his brother was sent flying, only to end up in a similar hold as the one Sasuke fell victim to in seconds. Despite being neutralized with ease, Naruto looked up at his sensei and grinned.
The shuriken on the ground around Kakashi erupted into clouds of smoke. Clones of Naruto came rushing at him from all sides.
"Multiple Shadow Clone Transformation...?" The Jonin trailed off.
Kakashi spun around, swinging the original Naruto's body in an arc to knock aside the closest of the fakes. Then he tossed Naruto in the direction of Sakura, who was approaching from the treeline. Kakashi dodged and counterattacked as the clones continued to try to land hits on him until they were all dispelled.
"Don't get too comfortable!" Sasuke announced from above. Another fireball came hurtling toward Kakashi, who put away his book just before impact.
Sakura and Naruto disentangled themselves from each other and stood up, looking on in stunned silence. Sasuke landed several feet away from the smoky aftermath of the fireball and retreated to stand next to his teammates. His breath came in shallow huffs.
"Sasuke, you alright?" Naruto said, touching him on the shoulder.
"Yeah. I just used a bit too much chakra making fireballs back to back." Sasuke grimaced. "Don't worry about me. I can rest after we get those bells."
They continued to wait and watch in silence until at last, the haze surrounding the impact site faded. Kakashi emerged unharmed, but without his book. He didn't look as casual anymore, which filled Naruto with pride. He may not have been able to land a hit on their sensei, but annoying him was at least worth something.
"You almost burned my only copy," Kakashi said in a gravely tone. "I guess I'll have to get a little more serious now."
Naruto and Sasuke nodded toward Sakura, who smiled as she tugged on a hidden wire trap. The wire triggered something unseen, and Kakashi looked in the direction of the sound. Without so much as flinching, he caught a kunai that came flying at him from within the forest, turning to Sakura with a dark chuckle.
"Not bad, Sakura," he said. "You almost got me there." He threw the kunai away as a paper bomb tag on its hilt hissed to life. A large rock the kunai embedded itself in exploded, raining chunks of stone across the field.
"Go, Sakura!" Naruto commanded, giving her a light tap on the back and injecting a burst of chakra into her.
In an instant, she vanished and appeared next to Kakashi, who was still distracted by dodging pieces of the exploded rock. She stumbled toward him, lunging for the bells hanging from his waist.
Sasuke threw a handful of kunai in different directions in concert with Sakura's surprise attack. A complex chain reaction of collisions caused the kunai to ricochet off of one another at precise angles. The final kunai aimed straight for Kakashi's book, which peeked out from one of his pockets. Naruto pumped a fist in excitement.
Smart move, Sasuke!
The original plan had involved going for Kakashi's leg so he would have to both sidestep the kunai and evade Sakura. Aiming for his precious book was even better! What would he do now?
In one fluid motion, Kakashi grabbed Sakura's wrist as she was inches away from reaching the bells and turned so that she was in the path of Sasuke's kunai.
Time slowed for Naruto as he watched what he was certain would be Sakura's serious injury or death. Instead, Kakashi jumped away from the path of the attack and gently placed Sakura on the grass. She crawled backwards on her hands, looking up at him in awe.
"What the…?" Naruto whispered.
Sasuke grunted. "He's so fast."
Kakashi rose from his kneeling position, regarding the students with a blank stare. "Are you three done yet?"
Naruto vigorously shook his head. "Of course not! We're gonna get those bells."
"Your attempt was clever. I'll give you all that. You're certainly Minato's son, Naruto," Kakashi said. He gave the group another thumbs up. "And you each played your roles well. However…"
Sakura returned to Naruto and Sasuke's side. "What is it?" she asked, a tremble in her voice.
"There's one key issue with how you went about this." Kakashi looked at them one by one. "There wasn't enough teamwork. Naruto, Sasuke, you two did the majority of the legwork for this strategy, and in the end, your plan didn't account for what might happen if Sakura didn't get the bells from me. You left her in a dangerous position where in a real mission, she could have died."
Naruto looked at the ground, and Sasuke clicked his tongue in annoyance.
"I...I understand," Sasuke said, bowing his head in acceptance.
"Sorry, Sakura," Naruto muttered.
"No," she said, "really, you guys, it's fine. I-"
"And Sakura!" Kakashi said in an authoritative tone, causing her to flinch. "Not only do you doubt your abilities, but you should work on your form. Thanks to Naruto's jutsu, you were in a perfect position to snatch the bells from me, even with my speed advantage. It was your balance and focus that were off, which allowed me to outmaneuver you."
Sakura sank to her knees and let out a whine. "Sensei, you're so blunt."
Kakashi pointed to Naruto. "I didn't know the three of you had Minato's Flying Thunder God jutsu going for you. That should've been your ace in the hole."
"So what now?" Naruto asked, much tamer than usual, but still determined. "Can we give it another shot, sensei?"
"Yeah," Sasuke added, peering at the clock. "It isn't noon yet."
"I guess you could, but if I'm being honest, I wasn't really trying my hardest. The main goal was to see how well you kids worked together as a team when you thought only two of you would be allowed to become Genin. Which brings me to the question: why did you still work together knowing that?"
Naruto gave a cheeky grin with his hands behind his head. "Because, Kakashi-sensei, my plan was gonna eliminate that condition! Believe it!"
"How?" Kakashi asked, all pretense gone. "I'm genuinely curious."
Sasuke answered for him. "He was going to have Sakura give him the bells and then make a shadow clone so each of us could have one."
"Well, well," Kakashi said, rubbing his chin, "that's certainly a creative solution, if nothing else. I wouldn't have counted it, but I give you credit for thinking outside of the box." He sighed. "Anyway, I'm pleased with your overall attempt, so you pass."
Naruto was about to shout in excitement, but Kakashi raised a finger.
"In the future, remember this. Teamwork is key. On the battlefield, you and your comrades will only have each other to rely on. There won't be any workaround, like Naruto's idea to clone the bells. Everyone on the team is an important piece of the puzzle. Keeping this basic rule in mind could save your lives."
"Got it, sensei!" Sakura said with a smile.
"Same," Sasuke answered with little fanfare. Naruto could tell by the drumming of his fingers against his leg that he was fighting back a show of excitement, but decided not to call him out.
"Alright." Naruto nodded. "I don't remember most of that other stuff you said, but I think I got the gist of it. I'm awesome, my plan was awesome, and teamwork is important."
"Interesting how you got that out of my lesson, Naruto," Kakashi said with narrowed eyes. He shook his head. "Good work today, you guys. You're all dismissed! We'll meet with The Hokage tomorrow morning for our first real mission. Take the day to rest and reflect."
"Finally!" Sakura slouched, expelling a breath. "Lunch."
"Let's hope you actually show up this time!" Naruto shouted, his frantic waving unseen as their sensei walked away.
The Jonin strode out of the training grounds, hands in his pockets. Naruto lowered his outstretched arms with a grudging half-smile. No matter how questionable the man's methods were, he had to admit his new sensei was pretty cool.
Sasuke reached for his backpack in the pile they'd put their belongings in.
"Wait, Sasuke." Sakura gave Sasuke a meek wave.
He froze, hand outstretched toward the strap of his bag. "Hm?"
"Well, you see," Sakura stammered, turning from one boy to the other as she spoke, "I was thinking we could all stay and eat lunch here. You know, together as a team." She ran a hand through her hair, cracking a weak smile that sent Naruto's heart aflutter.
"I think that's a great idea, Sakura!" Naruto beamed, hands on his hips. "Whadda ya think, Sasuke?"
Sasuke sighed. "Well, no harm in it, I guess." He cut his eyes at Naruto. "By the way, don't switch any of your rice balls out with mine again. You know I don't like sweets."
Sakura raised an eyebrow at Naruto, whose nervous laugh gave him away.
"I only did it a couple of times, as a joke," he tried to rationalize. The tension of the moment broke when he moved to pick up his bag as a way of changing the subject.
Minutes later, Team 7 sat on the grass by the wooden posts, their lunchboxes in their laps. They said thanks for the food before devouring their lunches in silence. Naruto was thankful to have Sasuke on his team; foods best eaten hot, like the soup he'd brought, were child's play for his brother's fire style. Sakura watched in admiration as Sasuke conjured a weak flame, aimed it at the broth for a few seconds, then turned back to his meal.
Naruto tried to eat in what he hoped was a refined enough manner that Sakura wouldn't see him in a bad light. He poised his chopsticks, for once in his life not feeling averse to the "proper etiquette" his parents used to emphasize when he was younger. They didn't want him scarfing down plates of food during meetings with higher-ups and their families. Granted, his mother admitted she was no saint in that respect either in her youth.
Balancing a red bean from his soup with care, Naruto brought it to his mouth and swallowed. He peeked over at Sakura, who he was happy to see was more interested in her food than in his attempt at appearing cultured. Sasuke ate quietly, not looking at either of them while he cleaned his tray. Deciding to break the ice, Naruto spoke up.
"So, Sakura," he said with an air of false confidence, "now that we're Genin, what are you planning to do next?"
Sakura looked at him in surprise and shrugged. She slurped down a few bean sprouts dangling from her mouth, somehow maintaining her usual beauty and grace. "Oh, I don't know. I was thinking I'd sort of figure it out as I go along. We have our first mission tomorrow, so I'm sure Kakashi-sensei will tell us more then."
Sasuke wiped his mouth after biting into a rice ball. "We'll probably get a lower ranked mission to start with."
"A lower ranked mission?"
The Uchiha nodded. "Maybe a D-Rank."
Naruto scoffed. "Ha! Like Dad would really assign us a D ranked mission. We're the sons of the Hokage, and Sakura is the smartest girl in our class! There's no way that'll happen. Believe it!"
"Whatever you say." Sasuke rolled his eyes and continued to eat.
"WHAT DO YOU MEAN WE'RE GETTING A D-RANK MISSION?" Naruto boomed, his voice carrying into the hall outside of the mission assignment office. Sakura and Sasuke slapped hands against their faces in embarrassment, and Kakashi eyed Naruto with quiet disapproval.
"I mean exactly that, Naruto," Minato said from his seat behind a long table. "You're a new team, so like all new teams, you're expected to complete missions appropriate for your rank and work your way up."
His guards, Genma, Iwashi, and Raido, stood against the wall behind him. They exchanged nervous glances.
"No, no, no, no!" Naruto said, shaking his head. "No can do! That's boring. We're strong enough for a real mission, Dad."
"Naruto," Minato replied, stone-faced, "that's enough."
The others in the room fell silent, apart from Naruto.
"Well then," he said, adding a careful pause, "I...I would like to decline this mission. Please assign it to another team, Lord Hokage." He bowed his head, hoping the show of respect would save him a stern talking to in public.
Sasuke groaned from somewhere to Naruto's right as he and Minato's gazes met. Every breath became a chore, but the determined Genin didn't show fear. As the Hokage's son, he was no coward. At long last, his father broke eye contact and adjusted the collar of his coat.
"Very well," Minato said with finality. "You want a more active mission, huh?"
"Of course I do!" Naruto said. He punched the air in front of him.
"I know just the one."
Minato rifled through a set of scrolls on the table, selected one from the stack, and applied a large stamp to its center. Then he repeated the process on a second scroll. He leaned aside to whisper in Genma's ear. Nodding in acknowledgement, the guard vanished from the room with Body Flicker. A blur sped past Naruto. He sensed Genma exiting the room and heading toward the main entrance. Meanwhile, his father rolled up the scroll he'd chosen with an unsettling smile. Naruto squirmed; that look was never a good sign.
Team 7 spread out around the edge of the forest. They waited for Kakashi's signal with bated breath.
Kakashi adjusted his earpiece, sending brief static through the channel. "Everyone in position?"
Naruto nodded, even though no one could see it due to his hiding behind a tree. He made sure to keep his voice low. "Naruto here, ready at Point A. Believe it."
"Sasuke in position at Point B."
"Sakura here, at Point C."
"Good," Kakashi said. "Eyes on the target?"
Amid his teammates' affirmative replies, Naruto cut in. "Sensei, I can catch it from here, no problem."
The shaggy brown fur of the runaway cat Tora was impossible to miss against such lush green surroundings. The wild-eyed pet appeared unaware of his pursuers, and had settled onto the grass for a quick rest. Naruto pinged with impatience. This mission was a silly waste of their abilities, but Dad had promised to let him complete a much more active mission if he complied. So here he was, using his ninja skills to nab a pet that, from what he could tell, didn't even want to be found.
"Well, alright," Kakashi said after some quiet deliberation. "You get one shot, though. If you fail, we do this the old fa-"
"D-Done?" the Jonin sputtered.
"Yup!" Naruto gripped the cat by the wrists to prevent escape, careful to dodge its dangling feet as they kicked and clawed at the air. "Now, can we head back and get our payment? Dad said he had a better mission waiting for us after this." One of Tora's sharp nails grazed his cheek, causing him to cry out.
"Wow. Great work, Naruto," Kakashi said, his voice distorted by static. "Careful with our target. Let's head back, everyone."
Minato blinked, observing Tora's frantic attempts to escape the grip of the Daimyo of the Land of Fire's wife, Madam Shijimi. She was a heavyset brunette woman with, in Naruto's opinion, an unnecessary amount of makeup, lipstick, and eyeshadow. Her extravagance didn't stop there. The lady also sported hot pink nails and a colorful set of rings on each finger. Tears ran down her face in messy trails, smudging her multiple layers of cosmetics. She squeezed Tora tighter than Naruto thought was comfortable or safe, showering the cat with exclamations of joy. Madam Shijimi looked at Kakashi, her smile wide as she thanked his team for retrieving her pet. Iruka-sensei sat behind the table with Minato alongside several of his personal aides. They were all speechless, the awkwardness of the moment reflected in each of their faces.
Naruto noted that his teammates appeared just as uncomfortable as he was, if not more. Sakura was tapping her foot, a prominent vein in her forehead betraying her waning patience. Sasuke didn't so much as look in their client's direction. Per his usual tell whenever he didn't want to be somewhere, he maintained a thin-lipped frown. Naruto groaned, turning his attention back to the Daimyo's wife.
Poor thing. I'd want to run away, too.
"So, Dad," Naruto said as Madam Shijimi finished paying them and hurried out of the room, "are you gonna tell us what this cool mission you have for us is now?"
Minato straightened a stack of papers and set it aside, smiling at his son from behind the long table. "Of course. Team Kakashi, great job on your first mission. This next assignment will be your first one taking place outside of the village."
The three Genin gasped in sync with one another.
"Really?" Naruto said, his mouth hanging open. "That's awesome!" He threw his arms into the air. The echo of his shouted words traveled down the hall.
Kakashi shot him a stern glance. "Listen up, everyone."
Minato nodded. "Thank you, Kakashi." He leaned back in his seat and beckoned one of his two nearby guards. "Iwashi, tell Genma he can bring the client in now."
The man nodded and flickered out of sight. Iruka slid a hand down his face, a pleading look in his eyes. A pang of guilt hit Naruto, and he did his best to stay quiet while the debriefing took place.
Upon hearing the mission details and meeting the client, an old drunk guy named Tazuna, Naruto shriveled up in disappointment. The story was that Tazuna needed bodyguards on his way back to the Land of Waves, his home village. That was their mission? Really? "Bodyguards" was probably just in the mission title to make an uneventful escort assignment sound interesting.
Tazuna caught him staring in his direction and responded with an equal measure of attitude. His unfocused eyes came to life and honed in on Naruto with a corrosive glare. An overhead light reflected off of the man's silver rimmed glasses.
"These kids are gonna escort me?" Tazuna said with a huff. "I didn't expect The Leaf to assign me a squad of mere children." He paused, raised an open bottle of sake to his lips, and took a gulp. Some of it dribbled down the side of his face. "Isn't there anyone else?"
"I assure you, this team is more than capable of bringing you safely back home," Minato said, turning to Kakashi. "My former student, the famed Kakashi Hatake of the Sharingan, is going to be leading this squad. I wouldn't worry."
"Yeah!" Naruto said, drawing the others' attention, "and we were all in the top spots in our class at the academy, so don't you dare doubt us!"
Tazuna's unimpressed frown deepened.
"Naruto," Kakashi seethed over his shoulder, holding one arm out in front of him. Naruto grumbled to himself and stepped back. Kakashi gave Tazuna a two fingered salute. "We're ready to head out when you are."
"So, we're going to The Land of Waves?" Sakura whispered while Kakashi and Minato held a quick discussion in private. "There are no ninja there, right?"
"That's what I remember the academy teaching us," Sasuke said.
Crossing his arms, Naruto said, "Well, I'm not interested in some lame escort mission. I want a good fight to test my skills."
"Are you ever happy?" Sasuke said with a disapproving snort. "First you want a more challenging mission. Now we get it, and you're still complaining."
"But Sasuke! We've done so much training with Dad, and I really wanna see how far we've come."
Sakura patted Naruto on the shoulder, giving him a sober smile. "There will be plenty of time for that. We're going to be assigned all sorts of missions together, not just these kinds. There's no need to rush things."
He flushed red and turned away at her touch. "Thanks, Sakura," Naruto mumbled. "Sorry. I'm just really excited, you know."
"Yeah," Sasuke said, his tone heavy with sarcasm, "we do know. We know because you haven't stopped talking about it since our squad first formed."
Naruto stuck out his tongue, but was distracted by the return of Kakashi-sensei, who ushered them toward the exit doors. In a few minutes, they would be on their way. Naruto buzzed with a mixture of anxiety and exhilaration. Up until now, trips outside of the village had been rare for him and his brother, unless they were accompanying Dad at political meetings or watching the Chunin Exams from the stands, which seldom happened. His mother once took him on a trip with her to visit the ruins of The Hidden Eddy Village. She taught him about many key events and figures from times before their clan's tragic fall.
All of that was great, but this was another matter altogether. Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura were about to get a taste of what things were like in The Land of Waves. He could only imagine how different the lifestyle was there compared to here.
Naruto stretched his arms and called out in triumph when they reached the other side of the giant green gate that signified leaving the village. "Here goes! Our first away mission."
Sakura, by contrast, was keeping her arms close against her sides. She walked past the threshold of the gate with noticeable stiffness, white-knuckling the handle of a kunai.
"Don't worry," Kakashi said with his back to the three Genin. "There are no major threats in C Rank missions like this one, so we should have nothing to be concerned about."
"Of course, sensei," Sakura said, diverting her eyes in embarrassment.
"Yeah!" Naruto said. "We'll be fine, believe it! You'll see, Sakura."
Sakura gave him a wavering smile and squared her shoulders. "Thanks, Naruto."
The four Leaf Ninja lined up on either side of Tazuna and took their first steps toward the Land of Waves. Now was the time to put everything they learned into practice. Naruto's skin rippled. The hairs on his arms stood on end as they proceeded down the dirt path. He did his best to ignore the primal fear response. He couldn't show fear on a C rank mission. He had not one, but two legacies to uphold.
Nothing of note happened for some time. They continued on uninterrupted, stopping to check that the occasional rustling of bushes wasn't a sign of danger. Naruto felt around in his weapon pack for the two Flying Thunder God kunai he brought along, courtesy of his father. The local weapons shop was working on an order of a personalized set for him and his brother, but Minato provided a few of his with blank tags on the handles in the meantime. Even if this was just a simple escort mission, Naruto had it drilled into him from an early age that it was important to prepare for anything.
They crossed a bridge over a section of land that had eroded away over time, creating a natural creek. Then they continued on, the peaceful splashing of the waves on the rocks lulling them into a sense of calm.
Kakashi delivered a comprehensive breakdown of the distributions of power between nations and the critical role hired shinobi served for ninja-less villages like Tazuna's, prompted by an astute line of questioning from Sakura. When he finished the explanation, something about his posture shifted; his movements became less relaxed. The change was subtle, but it was there. He slowed a bit, looking over his shoulder. Naruto and Sasuke shared a glance and continued on. A few paces later, Naruto realized what was causing Kakashi-sensei's heightened alertness.
The sun beat down across the cloudless sky, illuminating a single glistening puddle on the side of the road. They passed it without incident. On any other day, something so ordinary might be meaningless. There was one problem.
Rain hadn't come for days.
Doing his best not to make any obvious gestures, Naruto closed his eyes and concentrated chakra into his feet. Then he searched for unfamiliar chakra signals around him. He peeked at Sasuke, who was doing the same. Sakura appeared none the wiser, but still held a kunai at the ready.
Not long after they psyched themselves up for battle, something unusual flashed across Naruto's mental radar. He turned around and watched with stunned intrigue as the puddle behind them wobbled to life. A shapeless mass of water rose from its surface and took the form of a man. His Mist Village headband reflected the sunlight, causing Naruto to raise a hand and shield his face. Upon closer inspection, he saw that the enemy wore a plain cloth uniform with spotted sleeves. One of these sleeves sported a bulky metal gauntlet and claws.
Wasting no time, Naruto flung a special kunai in the direction of the stranger. The target ducked past the kunai and moved in for an attack. A second Mist Ninja with a matching gadget came leaping out of a cluster of bushes, launching himself overhead to block their retreat. A serrated metal chain followed the jumping ninja's trail and he landed on the other side of them with a snicker. One end of the chain was connected to each of the foes' gauntlets.
The two men yanked on the chain with simultaneous grunts, pulling it taught around Kakashi and rendering him immobile.
There was a sickening crunch.
The squish of metal tearing through flesh and bone cut through the peaceful sounds of nature like a knife. Kakashi's body scattered, divided into messy chunks by the surprise assault.
"One down!" said the filtered voices of the Mist Ninja in unison.
Sakura staggered backward, letting out an involuntary shriek. Meanwhile, Naruto reminded himself to stay level-headed, searching for his sensei's chakra signature. There was no way he could've gone down so easily.
No sooner had Naruto detected that Kakashi was unharmed somewhere nearby than the two foes approached from his blind spot. He spun around to meet them head on. Naruto went in for a punch to both of their faces, careful to avoid getting tangled up in the bloodstained chain. Just like the overconfident dummies he was betting they would be, they raised their hands to block him.
"Second one down!" they said as they looped one end of the chain around each of his wrists. They sprinted in opposite directions, taking his arms with them.
Naruto was torn in half, vanishing in a puff of smoke. The Mist Ninja stared in bewilderment at the substitution log lying at their feet. They were not at all prepared when two Narutos grabbed them from behind, keeping the shoulders of their gauntlet-wielding arms locked in place.
"That's what you think!" Naruto teased. "Now, Sasuke!"
Sasuke had just left Tazuna in Sakura's care and hurried back to the battlefield when he heard Naruto's cue to jump in. A concentrated flame shot out of his mouth toward the attackers.
The brothers formed signs with their free hands. A rumbling from below ground concerned Naruto. He trusted his gut and retreated with his clone. His choice may well have saved his life, he soon realized; a rush of water came sprouting up from underground, wiping out the clone and lifting his former captives into the sky. The wall of water buckled as Sasuke's fireball collided with it, producing a cloud of steam.
Sakura observed the enemy ninja, who were working in concert in midair. One grabbed the other, spinning and flinging them toward Tazuna. The chain connecting them pulled taut as they careened toward the bridge builder, who took up a position behind Sakura. She gasped and raised her kunai in front of her, knees wobbling in fear.
"Watch out!" Naruto shouted, pushing himself onto his feet and running as fast as he could.
He and Sasuke dashed to intercept, but it was useless. They weren't going to make it, even with their speed. The brothers flung their custom kunai at the dirt in front of Sakura and Tazuna.
"Grab on!" they ordered.
The Mist Ninja formed drills out of water and thrust downward. Sakura and Tazuna noticed wires extending from Naruto and Sasuke's kunai, and reached out to touch the handles. The moment they did, they vanished, avoiding the water drills just in time. The enemies slammed into the ground, scarring the landscape with a vast crater. A fountain of water spewed from the crater and rubble descended like rain.
A familiar sensation engulfed Naruto. He could only describe it as his body falling in multiple directions at once. Tazuna collapsed to the ground beside Naruto, the former landing on his back and looking around in bewilderment. Naruto grinned: he'd made it in time to teleport both of them to his other marked kunai. He pulled the bridge builder onto his feet with a relieved smile, then checked him for injuries.
"I'm alright, boy!" Tazuna spat, swatting Naruto away. "What the hell was that just now?"
"No time to explain. Stay behind me!" Naruto looked back to make sure Sasuke and Sakura were okay.
Sakura was supporting Sasuke under one arm while he knelt and vomited into the dirt. Distracted by this at first, she redirected her attention to the ongoing battle. Kakashi had remained hidden during the fallout of the explosion, but now he stalked toward the two enemies in silence. If the chakra levels Naruto was sensing right now were anything to go by, Kakashi-sensei was planning something big. The Mist Ninja surfed on a wave of water flowing from the crater and headed straight for him, laughing maniacally with their claws at the ready.
The Jonin adopted a wide stance, undaunted, and channeled chakra. In seconds, a dense mass of lightning grew in his hand. No bigger than his palm, it emitted a constant chirping sound. Anyone with the most basic ninja training would know it was bad news.
"Die!" cried the Mist duo. They jumped a moment before impact, aiming to coil their chain around his neck.
Kakashi severed the chain with a swift chop. The current of lightning energy traveled along the broken ends of the chain and hit both enemies.
He leapt onto dry ground as the lightning surrounding his hand faded. The water flooding the crater was infused with electricity. Both Mist Ninja writhed and screamed, then fell limp, washing up near Team 7. Kakashi strode over to Tazuna.
"Whoa, that was awesome!" Naruto said, his eyes wide with awe. Kakashi-sensei was so strong! Not as strong as his dad, but still.
"Well," Kakashi said, making a hand washing motion, "that takes care of that. Everyone okay?"
"Yeah," Naruto said, his gaze moving to the fallen enemies. "Thanks for the save, Kakashi-sensei!"
"We're alright!" Sakura chimed in from afar. She was still supporting Sasuke under one arm. He wiped his mouth with one of his no-longer-white armbands.
"What's the deal with Sasuke?" Kakashi glanced over his shoulder.
Naruto assured him there was nothing to worry about, but didn't go into detail about Sasuke's Flying Thunder God issue. No matter how fun teasing him was, now didn't seem like the time. Appearing satisfied with the non-answer, Team 7's sensei changed his entire demeanor. He directed a serious stare at Tazuna, who looked back at him with a resigned expression.
"Well, Tazuna," Kakashi said, "looks like someone's got a lot of explaining to do."