It was twenty minutes before Kakashi saw the trio re-emerge to face him. He’d begun to wonder whether he’d gone too far in his attempts to demoralize them, but the looks on their faces were anything but resigned.
They’d been strategizing, apparently, despite his spurious warnings to the contrary, and it seemed they felt confident with whatever plan they’d thought up.
The one called Naruto stepped forward to speak.
“We’re just letting you know that we are about to make a genuine attempt to defeat you, and since you made us do it, we’re not going to feel responsible at all if you get hurt.”
Kakashi didn’t let it show on his face, but that actually unnerved him a little. These three had already shown an impressive degree of sophistication in their previous attempts, and the Uchiha’s fireball technique could easily be deadly with a direct hit. It wasn’t as if jounin like him were untouchable by virtue of rank alone; it took a lot of hard work to seem so nonchalant… and now that he thought about it, hadn’t “Uzumaki” been the name of the genin that everyone was saying had killed an instructor to graduate?
Caution was a habit. He lifted the forehead-protector that covered his left eye and allowed the enhanced vision of his sharingan to take in the surroundings.
“That’s the eye-technique I was talking about,” Sasuke said. “He’s using it now.”
Unconcerned, they continued forward up to a point several paces from him, where they stopped and waited for Naruto to go through the seals of his shadow clone technique.
A sea of clones burst into existence on all sides of him, packing the clearing with what must have been hundreds of bodies. Kakashi reflexively whipped his foot around to sweep clear a safe radius, but they weren’t even attempting to lunge toward him, so after a moment or so he settled back into place, surrounded, but not yet in danger. The Uzumaki clan must have some pretty remarkable blood for Naruto to have summoned so many clones in the space of mere hours.
The shadow clones stood shoulder-to-shoulder, packing themselves into a dense ring that became the foundation for a second layer of clone bodies.
They clambered up slowly to balance on their fellows’ shoulders, forming a human barrier around Kakashi, just a bit too tall for him to see beyond. He could easily have leaped over it, of course, or broken through at any time, but he kept up the appearance of indifference, pausing every now and then to turn a page in the book he was pretending to read. He could hear what sounded like a small army of clones assembling themselves into some elaborate formation behind the wall.
After a minute or two of preparations some silent signal must have been given. They moved all at once, and with the enhanced vision of the sharingan he saw every step of their plan in perfect clarity.
First, one clone out of every two standing in the top layer of the wall reached into their pockets for a duplicated smoke bomb. They dropped them into the ring as the clones on either side dispelled themselves, forming sixteen narrow gaps in the ring that surrounded him.
A cloud of thick smoke began to rise from the ground—perhaps if they had waited another second or two his vision might have been more effectively blocked, but with the power of his sharingan active he only needed an instant to take in every minute detail of the scene.
The gaps in the walls revealed a circle of clones standing with spear-like tree branches braced against the ground. They weren’t moving in, but it sent a clear signal that if he tried to break out at the ground level he would find himself impaled on their stakes. Mercifully, they didn’t appear to have been sharpened. The fact that Naruto had intentionally opened gaps in the wall for him to see them through was a clear signal that he was at least hoping not to kill him.
The real key to their strategy lay directly in front of him. Through the gaps there he saw two immobile clones trying to pass themselves off as Sasuke and Hinata, but they were close enough that even if he hadn’t had the use of his eye he would have seen right through the imperfections in their illusions. The real Hinata and Sasuke had stationed themselves to his rear, but with his sharingan he could make out the entire scene behind him just from the reflection on the steel of the clones’ forehead-protectors. Ironic that they would be used as a weapon against Naruto only just as he had figured out how to make them duplicate properly.
Both Sasuke and Hinata were transformed to mimic Naruto’s clones again—one subtly leaning forward in that characteristically over-eager stance Sasuke had repeatedly demonstrated, the other one holding too perfectly still, plainly terrified of breaking her illusion early and spoiling the trap.
Most absurdly of all, Naruto had apparently constructed a long ramp out of bodies leading up to the edge of his wall, upon which a pair of clones were barreling forward, holding in their hands what looked like a bundle of clothes—jackets and shoes. Most likely some sort of primitive net to throw down from above.
He almost wanted to let them win just for the effort.
It had taken only a fraction of a second to assimilate the knowledge of his surroundings with the sight of his sharingan, and even as the smoke rose to block his vision, he could still make out his surroundings better than most. Not by seeing through the smoke, as Hinata’s byakugan would have done, but by instantly noticing any disturbance in its steady drift—he would have a moment’s warning of an impending attack, and for him, a moment would be enough.
Kakashi veered out of the way of Sasuke’s expected trajectory, and saw him skid into place an instant later, but Hinata’s grab for the bells didn’t come. Instead he saw the walls of bodies begin to tip inward around him, like a closing trap, only one with walls he could still break through, if he chose.
Ah—he saw their real plan now. As he turned he found Hinata amongst the toppling clones. They had actually managed to fool him—what he’d thought was Hinata pretending to be Naruto had in fact been Naruto pretending to be Hinata pretending to be Naruto, while the real Hinata stood motionless to fall in on him.
He stepped out of her way as she fell into the smoke, turning to dispel the net now descending overhead. Naruto could be forgiven for not yet understanding that his cloned jackets would be useless to ensnare him. His arm swept through them like a blade, bursting a gap open as Sasuke readied another mouthful of air for his fireball. They had really gone all out with this plan.
With the fireball about to purge the inner ring, and the outside blocked off by stakes, the only way out was up through the gap he’d made above.
He kicked off the ground, rising high above the trees as the flame plumed into the smoke beneath him, his feet oriented toward the ground to present the smallest possible target from below. In a real battle he would have preferred to break out by force rather than tolerate the risks associated with launching himself on a fixed airborne trajectory, but he didn’t want to have to hurt the three of them just because they’d done so well.
It wasn’t until he’d landed safely outside the combat radius that he even thought to wonder how a transformed Hinata had even been able to climb up to the second layer of the wall without dropping her transformation…
But if that had just been another clone of Naruto’s, pretending to be Hinata pretending to be him, then where had the real Hinata been?
He looked down at his waist, puzzled, and found nothing but the remnants of his knotted string, its two ends frayed where the bells had been cut free.
Naruto’s clones bit down on their tongues a bare moment before Sasuke’s fire made a charred ring out of the grass at their feet.
“I got them,” Hinata said, out of breath, “it worked.”
She handed them over to Sasuke, as they’d planned.
Kakashi had fallen for their ruse completely. One of Naruto’s clones had impersonated Hinata, and another had impersonated her impersonation of him just in case he saw through the first one, while the real Hinata waited behind the base of the ramp to make her move in the smoke, with her perfect eyes and a pair of new scissors. It was lucky there had been enough money left over for his clone to afford them after his crucial visit to the village’s pet supply store.
Kakashi wandered back from where he’d landed, with his hands in his pockets. Surprisingly, he actually looked pleased with them.
“It seems my challenge wasn’t so unreasonable after all,” he said. “I guess all that’s left now is to see whether you really can stand by your plan to let the dice decide who will be sent back, hmm?”
“We came up with a better idea than that, already,” Sasuke said.
“Yeah,” Naruto said, “We figured it would be easier just to steal a third bell.”
Kakashi raised an eyebrow. “And how did you hope to achieve that?”
“With unbreakable bonds forged in the fires of frustration, even genin can achieve the improbable.”
Naruto formed a chain of Dog, Rat, and Snake hand-seals, grimacing as if he was trying to cast something really difficult, focusing his gaze on Sasuke’s clenched fist.
Sasuke opened his palm, on cue, to reveal three little bells with their strings cut. One for each of them.
Kakashi leant forward, his hand on his chin.
“…Well. That was unexpected,” he said.
He prodded them with chakra, examining them, but they weren’t mere incorporeal illusions, or the duplications of a shadow clone. As far as he would be able to tell, they were all genuine.
“How did you do it?” he asked.
Sasuke closed his fist around the bells. “We swore not to tell unless you let us all pass.”
“Oh, okay. You can all pass, then,” Kakashi replied. “How did you do it?”
“W—wait, what? Really?” Naruto said. “That’s it?”
“We just bought a third bell from the pet store,” Sasuke said. “Clone brought it back to us.”
“Ah… I see,” Kakashi said. “I was going to let the three of you pass at noon, but…”
“Yes, your readiness for cooperation seemed sufficient, by then.”
“You were going to pass us all just for cooperating?” Naruto asked. “But you said—”
“But—but what about all those other teams you failed?” Naruto asked.
Kakashi shrugged. “They couldn’t cooperate. I could have let you pass and gone home early, but I thought it would be more interesting to see how far I could push you. I don’t think you’ll ever forget, now, how much you’re really capable of when you work together.”
“That’s—” Naruto was almost at a loss for words. “That seems like a terrible way to make friends. I mean—thanks for the lesson, I guess, but that still seems pretty severe, for the last five teams. I don’t know—maybe they were nervous on their first day, or something. It doesn’t seem right that the luck of a jounin should have played such a big part in getting them sent back to the academy for a year, with nothing to show for it except a grudge against you.”
“Ah… You’ve changed my mind,” Kakashi said.
Kakashi sat down on the stump of an old tree. “But, I do have my reasons for asking so much of my students.”
Naruto waited for him to elaborate, but he seemed content to leave it at that.
“You planning to tell us the reasons?” Sasuke asked.
“No, I guess not…” Kakashi said. “But I will say that I have little concern for the grudges of my past students. Omitting the last three, who would have only graduated again yesterday, there were twelve genin that I rejected, and as of the most recent chuunin examinations not a single one of them is still alive to dislike me.”
Naruto lowered his gaze.
He’d forgotten just how much death real ninja were exposed to on a regular basis. He felt embarrassed now to have been throwing around objections based on things like ‘fairness’ and ‘leniency’. But even so, twelve out of twelve seemed unusually bad.
“Ah, but there’s no need for suicide yet, my beloved students. You passed, after all, so your odds must be at least a little better, no?”
Naruto nodded weakly.
“Hey, you told us you’d introduce yourself after the test,” Sasuke said.
“Right, right, I suppose I did,” Kakashi said. “Well… let’s see. My name is Hatake Kakashi, and I’m twenty six years old. I have the seventh highest live-capture bounty of any shinobi in Leaf, and if you follow my instructions, I will try to keep you alive long enough that you can boast the same to your own students someday. It’s very nice to finally meet you.”
Over the next few days Naruto continued his eager explorations of the shadow clone technique’s rules, painstakingly filling page after page with measurements of his chakra capacity, and of his clones’ capacity under various different conditions, and of his rate of apparent chakra regeneration, and of his clones regeneration, and how fast his chakra depleted with various numbers of clones active…
Most ninja probably wouldn’t have been able to figure out as much as he could from such observations, but Naruto had long since mastered the elite jounin-level art known as Algebra—one of the few useful ancient skills still surviving. It made him feel strangely proud every time he used it—like he was wielding some tiny fraction of true power.
Lacking any common currency with which to compare the quantities of chakra in his notes, Naruto decided that in the absence of any better system, he was allowed to invent his own. Thus, he declared that henceforth for all time one millichakra would be defined as the amount that a normal ninja regenerated naturally during one second, since he’d read in a guidebook for medic-nin that all ninja were known to regenerate chakra at the same rate, although it might take anywhere between one and four days to fully recover due to innate differences in total chakra capacity. Their observations apparently hadn’t included any jinchuuriki, like him, but the rest seemed mostly accurate.
From his observations, it seemed that a single shadow clone cost about two millichakra every second to maintain, but really the minimum was more like four millichakra, in practice, since summoning a single clone necessarily seemed to mean maintaining the clone-effect over both bodies.
His unnaturally quick recovery and overlarge chakra pool translated numerically to about 2,000,000 millichakra, in total, with 50 millichakra regenerating per second, between all his active clones. That was indeed significantly higher than the norm—as near as he could tell, regular ninja ranged roughly between one and three hundred thousand millichakra, meaning that he had about ten times the usual capacity, but as the Hokage had said: endurance battles were uncommon in the modern age. It was his regeneration rate which seemed most intriguing—even from complete exhaustion he could still recover within half a day.
The up-front casting price of the shadow clone technique had also become clear: 20,000 millichakra, which he shortened in his notes to 20,000 mc, plus 1000 mc extra for each desired clone, suggesting that to exhaust himself within a minute or so of beginning his fight with Mizuki he would have had to summon nearly two thousand clones simultaneously—almost completely draining his reserves in an instant.
It was convenient too that he could regenerate fast enough that his earliest observations weren’t even inconsistent with the newer data, despite having been made on the same day he recovered from chakra exhaustion.
So, whereas a normal ninja might expect to maintain a single shadow clone for a little less than one day, at most (-2 mc/sec multiplied by two bodies, +1 mc/sec regeneration = roughly 180,000 mc burned over 17 hours, plus the 22,000 mc casting price), Naruto could theoretically summon himself a shadow clone and then just walk around in two bodies at once, forever, recovering chakra faster than he spent it. In fact, he could have up to twenty-five such parallel lives, simultaneously.
In the hands of a normal shinobi the shadow clone might be nothing more than a spying technique, albeit a highly versatile and secure one, and it had no doubt served the jounin of Leaf village very well in that respect, but in the hands of a jinchuuriki with an abundance of chakra, it had the potential to be the strangest, most rule-breakingly unfair trick in the book.
In twenty-five bodies at once, Naruto began his daily training as a genin of Leaf.
The accelerated path he was taking made even the dullest work seem exciting—he only had to “personally” experience a tiny fraction of the total daily labor before waking up the next day with twenty-five times the growth, and he raced through books that once would have once seemed tiring, just because he knew that his other selves would see the memories later, and he didn’t want to be the laziest instance of his mind. He could have a friendly rivalry with himself—the most worthy of foes.
Eating and sleeping took a few days to figure out—it seemed that he would require twenty-five full meals if he kept all of the bodies alive all day, and each clone needed their own space to sleep, too, so he ended up refining his schedule to include a periodic re-uniting, and then a re-summoning. After waking up in one body and eating one breakfast, he’d split into forty clones, rejoining around lunchtime for a single meal, and then again for a late dinner, just before bed. His chakra reserves would be gradually depleted over the course of the day, but a full night’s sleep in only one body would be enough to regenerate completely, and even with so many extra clones he wouldn’t ever fall beneath a few hundred-thousand millichakra, which was all that most ninja ever had to begin with.
Forty shadow clones were more than enough to overcrowd his legally-assigned orphan-nin apartment, but he was still wary of letting himself be seen publically in such numbers more than was necessary. Some wandering Hyuuga eye might not get too curious if they only caught a glimpse of it, but if he made it a habit there could be questions, so he developed a system of clone-management whereby he would station his individual bodies in various isolated spots around the village; hiding up in trees to read their books or to complete their training out of the way. Their duplicated notebooks would of course have vanished at lunch and dinner when he reassembled himself, so it was necessary to pawn his spare clothes to purchase a few extra real ones, and to develop systems for transferring notes and for making sure he wasn’t ever seen walking around in too many places at once, but his schedule was regular and predictable enough to make it all a simple matter.
Another potential scheme he dreamed up was to summon a smaller number of more permanent clones, each with a net-positive regeneration rate, and then to let them all fill up to their maximum chakra capacity so that he could dispel them and receive back their refilled chakra pools for a quick boost if he was ever running low, but on reflection it seemed like his own chakra pool was probably more than he would ever need anyway, and it would have meant tolerating too many limitations on the total number of clones and his flexibility with reintegrations and so on to actually make use of the idea.
Aside from his newly-accelerated reading progress—which he liked to think of as his most valuable kind of training—there was also a regimen of ninjutsu training to work at, which inevitably cut into his chakra reserves and lessened the number of bodies he could maintain for the day. As a genin, he had full access now to Leaf’s public library of techniques. It had taken his clone stationed in the library most of a day to sort through it, but he thought that he had a pretty good handle on how to proceed, now.
These days, all five of the great villages—and probably most of the lesser ones—made use of a three-tiered system of ninjutsu secrecy. At the highest level were the secret techniques of individuals and the ones that were passed down within clans, many of which were only possible to use for those of a certain bloodline, which made them effectively impossible to steal except by luck in marriage, and even that was usually unpredictable. At the second level were the jounin-restricted techniques like the shadow clone. These were kept out of the hands of mere genin and chuunin, who too easily could find themselves captured and tortured for information by foreign villages. Records of the hand-seals alone were rarely enough to go on, but one good description of the mental component was all it took. Stolen techniques were sometimes even sold openly to further weaken the country they were taken from, but the fact that the shadow clone was still restricted in Leaf meant that it was unlikely many foreign countries had got their hands on it yet. He was probably the only jinchuuriki ever lucky enough to try it.
Finally, at the lowest level were the techniques of the open library, those abilities which had already spread enough amongst the other villages that there was no real risk in teaching them to anyone else. They weren’t necessarily any less powerful, though, and he imagined that the public libraries could only ever really grow larger over time as more and more information on various techniques slipped out of private control and became too widely known to be taken back. With the era of warring clans now well and truly over, the young genin of Naruto’s own day had access to more destructive and powerful techniques than ever before. What a time to be alive.
He’d made it a priority to catalog these hundreds of abilities in a fashion that would be of more use to him, personally, and then spent some time sorting through them all to find those particular techniques that would play to his personal strengths—his high chakra capacity and regeneration. Two abilities in particular stood out from the rest: the transformation technique he already partially knew, and a simple spherical barrier technique that was supposed to be pretty strong, and which the scroll said was “difficult to maintain for more than a few hours”. That put a nice upper bound on its rate of chakra burn.
Some techniques could be read almost directly off the scroll, but others required days or even months of practice, if there was a high degree of manual chakra control needed. The real limitation on a ninja’s range of abilities was not how many long chains of hand-seals they could memorize, but how many slots there were to fill in your mental model of a battle: you had to know by rote that if the enemy was far away, you reached for this ability, or if they were coming in close you would do that. Hesitation got you killed, so the choice of which mental reflexes to build was crucial, and an error in judgment as a young genin might cripple a ninja for life with an unbalanced fighting style that couldn’t respond well to conditions in the field.
Techniques infused with the power of an element were still too advanced for him, but after a few days of clone-massed training he’d managed to get the barrier technique to a viable point, though it might be years before he was familiar enough to do the whole thing manually and skip all the hand-seals, or even to just to stop shouting “Kekkai!” every time he did it, but most ninja died well before ever reaching that point.
Naruto had once suggested to an instructor that if verbalization was just a kind of mental shorthand, why not confuse their enemies by learning a different set of names for the techniques, and shouting “fire” when they meant “water” or something. The instructor had responded that the country of Hot Springs had already tried that, and if he was so curious to see how it had worked out, he should go and visit Hot Springs now.
The casting price of the shield turned out to be around 5000 mc, with a constant burn rate dependent on the surface area of the big transparent bubble it created around him—which he mightn’t have even noticed if he hadn’t spent so long recording data. The scroll certainly hadn’t mentioned anything like that.
The size of the sphere could only be scaled up or down very slowly once it was cast, but a radius of about three feet from the center seemed to comfortably envelop his whole body, and cost only around 12 mc per second. A larger shield, with a six-foot radius, cost about 50 mc/sec, but might have comfortably protected his whole team at once. Fifty millichakra obviously put the technique a little outside of his “constantly active” range—at least if he wanted to use his chakra for anything else—but it didn’t seem like too much to maintain for an extended duration if there was any fear of ambush, for example. Moving around with it wasn’t very easy, though. It had to be anchored on a source of chakra, too—theoretically any source, but his own chakra was all he could manage.
His skill at the transformation technique would be a little harder to improve. He already had the basics down well enough, but it would take a bit of practice to develop the control necessary to allow free movement while it held, like Sasuke. Naruto did however collect a little more data on precisely how much it cost to use: 5000 mc to start with, and then 2 per second to sustain it. There wasn’t necessarily a whole lot of use for it in battle, but the utility appealed to him—there were creative possibilities in things like the barrier or the transformation technique that made them seem more attractive than something as simple as a fireball. Then again, now that he thought about it, there were probably all kinds of fun things he could do with a big ball of fire, too.
Kakashi was kind enough to schedule a few training sessions of his own on occasion, with the three of them, between missions of his own, first revising some of the basics of manual chakra control before moving onto the real subject: mobility. The single largest difference between academy students and genin was not that genin might have learned how to do a few techniques from the library, but that a genin could navigate in three-dimensions with almost unbelievable agility, like Kakashi could, while an academy student was still running around on the dirt with his muscles like a civilian. Practice consisted of learning to push and pull consistently with their chakra—mostly through the feet at first, and barefoot to begin with, but eventually through the open-toed and open-heeled footwear that made up the standard ninja kit. The tiny open vents fabricated in the soles of their boots were even more difficult to use, but an obvious necessity if you wanted to leap over anything taller than a knee-high fence. Real ninja could jump so high it was almost like flying.
Sasuke seemed to possess a natural gift for these sorts of acrobatics, just like he did for everything else, but surprisingly it was Hinata who first mastered most of their exercises. She wrote it off as not being worth any praise, of course, saying that her clan members always had good chakra control because their eyes could see all the chakra, but Naruto could tell that even Kakashi was impressed, and he’d probably fought beside a real Hyuuga more than once.
After two days of near-constant failure on the exercises, Naruto assigned three quarters of his clones to mobility and chakra control training full-time. He wasn’t sure if he was any worse than the average ninja, but with two highly gifted teammates he had to work a lot harder just to avoid slowing them down. Luckily he was not a full thirty times less gifted, so within a few days he’d managed to catch up, and thereafter he kept pace with only a moderately increased workload.
In his free time he continued to experiment with the shadow clone technique, and following a failed attempt to duplicate a really cool-looking wasp he’d found, he asked Hinata to let him borrow her for a while, to slather her in chakra and see whether a living person could be copied indirectly. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem any closer to working after a few hours of fiddling around. The two of them ate lunch together afterward, and circumspectly she admitted that she hadn’t even thought it would work in the first place, because her own body would be naturally exuding its own chakra, which would impede the effect. She thought that he probably wouldn’t even be able to copy living plants, like seeds and stuff, because of the nature chakra they generated, and after a quick test it seemed she was actually right.
Hinata didn’t tend to speak a lot, but she was turning out to be a lot more capable than he’d first assumed.
Sasuke preferred to train alone, but with so many different uses for Hinata’s eyes on his experiments Naruto began assigning one of his clones to train with her every day. She didn’t seem to mind it, and since she had to take a break around lunchtime to eat, anyway, he fell into a routine of using that shadow clone to eat his own lunch after recombining himself, even though it usually meant splitting into forty parts again in visible range to her byakugan. It would have been hard to hide everything from a teammate forever though, especially when any Hyuuga could see for miles, and without his close familiarity with the numbers she couldn’t have had more than a vague sense that it would be expensive to do so. He didn’t make a point of showing off how much use he made of them, anyway.
Their first mission as a team was a D-rank assignment to locate and retrieve a lost cat. It seemed like the kind of low-paying make-work that was only useful to get fresh academy graduates accustomed to the process of working missions for the village, but Naruto put his clones to work as if it really mattered, and soon they had the creature tracked down and surrounded. The reward wasn’t much, but he needed it more now than ever; as a genin his weekly orphan-nin’s allowance had finally been cut off, and even with so many spare bodies hanging around he was still legally barred from being paid to do civilian work because of his ninja blood. He would have been more than happy to operate a market stall, or something, but the law was the law.
Fortunately, Hinata’s presence seemed to translate directly into free meals from the many civilian eating establishments vying for Hyuuga favor, so at the risk of looking like a glutton he tended toward eating a very large lunch, on the house, and then bagging whatever he could get for later. It was a shame he couldn’t just shadow clone a nice meal without it bursting when he tried to take a bite.
There just wasn’t any justice in the world.
Sasuke seemed to be growing increasingly irritable.
They’d taken care of a few months worth of D-rank missions, now, and he performed as well as ever, of course, but with each new assignment he seemed less satisfied with their work. They’d been busy escorting classes of ninja children around, or taking recordings of the inbound and outbound traffic at the gates—he said he just wanted something with an unpredictable outcome—a challenge—but Naruto also had begun to sense a growing personal resentment toward him, as well. Sasuke had always occupied a lone place at the top of their academy class, written exams notwithstanding, but lately the shadow clone technique had allowed Naruto to keep pace or even to outperform him in some of the areas that had once been his sole domain, and Hinata made most of his other achievements look unremarkable. Their team didn’t really get much use out of his giant fireball technique, either, within the peaceful bounds of the village.
Naruto had made a point of showing both Hinata and Sasuke how to cast the shadow clone, doubting that he’d ever really be reprimanded for it, but he already knew that they wouldn’t have the chakra to make as much use of it as he did, and the clear contrast in performance had probably only underlined the innate differences between them. Even a single clone maintained for most of a day would have left Sasuke needing multiple days to fully recover, so it was no surprise when Sasuke didn’t bother taking him up on the offer to share some of the other details he’d worked out about the technique.
After a particularly disheartening mission in which the three of them were required to spend hours weeding the garden of a wealthy civilian—functioning effectively as a set of walking jewelry for a man with little else to spend his money on—Sasuke had clearly had enough. He made his objections plain during their next meeting with the Hokage.
“We’ve been doing these stupid D-ranks for months now,” he said. “When are you gonna give us something that couldn’t be done by a child?”
Hinata seemed quietly terrified of openly criticizing the reigning Kage, but privately, Naruto agreed. He knew at least that the decision didn’t seem to be in Kakashi’s hands; lately he had taken to letting the three of them practice accepting and prosecuting their missions independently, as a substitute for the novelty their missions were otherwise lacking. If he’d been present now he would have reined Sasuke in, but without him there was no-one willing to curb his outburst.
The Hokage put on a genial smile, as if he’d heard this same complaint a thousand times in his many years of power. “Ahh, the young Uchiha, ever thirsty for greatness… I am of course aware of your rapid development, but I beg you, trust that there shall be dangers enough in your future. I can only advise you to enjoy the peace while it lasts, and to use this time to flower, among the leaves; only then can you hope to be ready when the crucial moment comes.”
Hearing the Hokage’s weirdly sublime dismissal Naruto was struck by a sudden insight, and without over-thinking it too much he started to speak.
“I think, Sasuke, what he means is he wants us to train the fundamentals in a safe environment, like—like learning how to take more risks, when the worst that can happen isn’t very bad. If they haven’t given us any proper missions yet then we must still be doing things wrong, so maybe we need to start being less over-cautious about everything. We could probably just skip all the silly planning where we synchronizing everything to work together all the time, when it would be perfectly fine to just get into action and stay out of each other’s way. That’s what I heard the other genin are starting to do, anyway.”
“Oh, no no,” the Hokage said, “no, it is imperative we ninja always remain cautious, and that we work well together as a team. You need only retain your present discipline, young genin. Seek to change nothing that already works. Have faith in your elders, and you shall be rewarded soon enough.”
They bowed, and left the Hokage’s presence.
Naruto turned to Sasuke again, once they were outside.
“By the way,” he said, “I wasn’t serious about all that stuff I said in there, so don’t think I’m saying we should stop planning our fights and everything.”
Sasuke looked more confused than annoyed. “Why’d you say it, then?” he asked. “I thought it sounded pretty stupid.”
“I was just thinking that the Hokage has probably heard your exact complaint a thousand times already from hot-heads who really aren’t ready for anything tougher. He didn’t even have to think about it before denying you; it was like he was reading straight from a script. So I thought maybe it would help if I upset the whole assumption that extra practice is doing us good. I tried to act like we were learning all the wrong lessons from being kept on easy D-rank missions; like we’d start to lose our good habits out of disuse or something.”
“Hmph. Didn’t work, though,” Sasuke said, putting his hands in his pockets. “Still… Good try.”
“Um…” Hinata said. “The Hokage would have looked weak if he changed his mind for a genin… Next week though, maybe, he might give us something harder. Once enough time has passed that it seems like his decision. I think…”
As it turned out, their very next mission came through Kakashi just two days later, and as Hinata predicted, it was a C-rank.
“I guess you three must have weeded that garden well,” Kakashi said. “Usually it takes a lot longer than this before the Hokage starts sending genin teams outside of Leaf.”
The corner of Sasuke’s lip turned upward.
“Do you mean outside the village, or outside of Leaf’s territory?” Hinata asked, clearly less impatient to leave behind the safety of the walls.
“Outside the territory, but it’s not too far,” Kakashi replied. “I’ll be personally handling a few negotiations up north, with a young village in a part of what used to be Hot Springs’ country. It’s a diplomatic mission, so you three might even get to meet the leader of the village of Sound. How’s that for an ‘unpredictable challenge’, Sasuke?”