surely he would be able to make them help out, but had hesitated. He had been somewhat wary of the office of late. Itachi's warning still rang true in his ears during his moments of introspection. "There will come a time when the Sandaime's protection will not be enough…" If he couldn't solve a small problem like this without help from the old man, how would he ever be able to survive against a group of ninja dedicated to his death? That decided it. He would deal with his problems on his own. That, naturally, had lead him to where he was presently: dancing through the Academy's taijutsu katas. Well, more like stumbling through. It turned out that learning taijutsu wasn't all that easy on one's own. Scrolls could only help so much, as one couldn't really be sure if they were doing the move correctly. Stances were hard to gauge, proper footing was impossible to know, one could never be sure of block, and most all but the simplest maneuvers were almost out of reach. If one wanted to do them right that is. Learning crappy taijutsu from a scroll was easy. Sitting on the grass gently, Naruto pulled a ball of bandages from his hip pouch. He began wrapping his hands. When he didn't move through the katas of the Academy, he punched logs. It was boring, mindless, and tedious, but it helped to strengthen his fists and was therefore useful. If it was useful, he did it. That was part of his new nindo, his ninja way. Punching, at least, was something he knew he was doing correctly. It was one of the few things the academy instructors had consented to help him with. It fit the m.o. of the staff there perfectly, at least in regards to him. They almost never outright refused to help him, and when they did they usually had some contrived reason, but they always did the bare minimum when it came to their help. Useless chunin, the blond thought uncharitably. Brooding and negative thoughts weren't something Naruto liked to have most of the time, they certainly didn't help keep his spirits up in regards to his new objective, but he found himself having them more and more. This was especially the case when the various offences against him kept piling up. Just the other day he had overhear Yamanaka Ino asking for help with her taijutsu – an occurrence that wasn't common – and Iruka-sensei had been only too happy to help. Bloody hypocrite. He wasn't sure if these movements against him were new or if he was just more observant of them, but they were all downright annoying. Some were to the point of being deliberately harmful to him. His instructors wouldn't teach him much of anything, shopkeepers sold him crappy goods – if at all – and that didn't even begin to cover how many people outright glared at him when he walked by. His former dreams of acknowledgement and acceptance were becoming distant memories as he noticed the hatred the Konoha populace seemed to have for him. He wondered how he had brushed it off before. Fury spiked through him. What had he done to them? What the hell could he have possibly done to deserve such hatred? The answer was nothing. The training log met his fist with a brutal 'thunk', and Naruto recoiled in pain before deflating. He had channeled all of his pent up anger into that punch. He didn't even splinter the wood. "Kami damn it!" he cursed softly. He cradled his right arm to his body, watching as the blood seeped through the bandages. He jumped in surprise, startled as a hand came to rest on his shoulder. The sight that met his eyes was an odd one. "It warms my heart indeed to see such youthful fire burning in one so young!" the man said. He was dressed in a green leotard, likely made of spandex, orange leg warmers, and a standard flak vest that was issued to all Konoha ninja chunin and above. Naruto, however, had his eyes fixed on the man's face. Those things above his eyes had to be caterpillars. There was no other explanation for eyebrows that big. "Who are you?" Naruto asked, complete with all the bluntness of a seven year old. Who needed tact? Apparently, Maito Gai didn't, as he introduced himself exuberantly; much to Naruto's confusion. "I couldn't help but notice your practice of taijutsu. A fine endeavor indeed for as young as yourself, but…" he trailed off his head cocked to the side thoughtfully. The cleverness that had turned Naruto into a rather infamous prankster reared its head. Violently. "Is there something wrong with my taijutsu, Maito-san?" he asked, sensing an opening. The green clad man was strong, of that there was no doubt in the boy's mind. If he was willing to help him… "I'm afraid so Naruto-kun." Naruto hadn't had to introduce himself. "For you see, taijutsu is an art that needs to be taught from sensei to student, and scrolls can only take one so far." Gai's voice had adopted a lecturing, almost sage like quality. "Do not fret, though! I, Konoha's beautiful Green Beast would be more than happy to help one so clearly in the springtime of youth!" Naruto wasn't quite sure what the man meant about beasts and the like, but he was pretty sure that he had just offered to teach him. That wasn't something he was about to pass up. /~/ One month. Four weeks. If he ever looked back, Naruto was sure that he would remember these past weeks. The aches, pains, and almost never ending soreness would ensure that. Gai had been impressed with his stamina regardless, but Naruto wished he could have done more. Truly, the man deserved his self determined moniker. He was a beast indeed. Four weeks of almost nothing but taijutsu training. He couldn't be happier with his progress. He had been intense at the start, hoping to impress the helpful jonin enough so that he wouldn't simply brush him off. That had lasted until he had looked the man up. His intensity had likely tripled after that. Maito Gai. A taijutsu master. The taijutsu master if the records were to be believed. The man was Konoha's foremost expert on the particular branch of the ninja arts. He was also a rather formidable jonin. He ranked somewhere in Konoha's top ten. And he had just decided to help him, for no other reason than to help out a child full of "youthful fire". It was amazing. Looked like even he could catch a lucky break sometimes. The man really knew his subject too. Stances became rigid. Blocks and guards were solidified. Punches, kicks and other maneuvers became fluid under the man's teaching. His speed had increased too. The eccentric jonin had been kind enough to foot the bill for a set of leg weights for Naruto, though he had stressed the concept of proper rest. It wouldn't do to injure himself because he bit off more than he could chew. Really, he couldn't have been luckier. The standing invitation to train with him and his "youthful student" was going to be exploited as much as possible. He knew he was far from a taijutsu master. He likely wasn't even the best in his class; that honor belonged to the enigmatic Uchiha Sasuke, certified genius that he was. Even so, his brief time under Gai's tutelage had placed him at the middle of the pack at the least, as recent spars had shown. He was likely better than that, but it was always best to maintain a humble attitude toward one's own skills. His humility had been forced upon him via necessity. It was all for the best, however, as he was finally starting to make some progress. A solid foundation was the key to future success. Taijutsu hadn't been the only thing that Gai had helped him with. His accuracy had improved tremendously with thrown weapons. His technique had been inefficient, apparently. It wasn't overtly bad and would get the job done, but he lost a lot of potential power behind his throws, and accuracy was hard to come by, especially as he wasn't always using the exact same motion each time. Some of the anger he had felt then threatened to spill out as he shut the door to his apartment, all one room of it. He had learned his throwing technique at the Academy. It fit the way the teachers operated perfectly. The taught technique would get the job done. It just wasn't as good as it could or should be. The inferior technique could easily be blamed on Naruto's lack of attention and practice, if it ever came under question. He had vented his anger in the taijutsu work he had done later that day, though some of it still remained. His emotional control wasn't helped any by the liberal helping of glares he received as he wove through Konoha's morning crowds. He kept his eyes firmly forward, if not on his feet. He knew it wasn't below some villagers to cuff him if he appeared antagonistic, especially in a crowd. That had been the start of his bubbly persona. They had no reason to do anything to him if he was constantly friendly and outgoing. What a waste that had been. Striving for their acknowledgement had likely been the largest waste of his time in his seven years of living. He still did to some extent, as only an emotionally neglected child could, but he had much bigger things to worry about. The game had changed. Striving for the acknowledgement and attention of an antagonistic populace had no place in his fight to survive. It was a refreshing change of mind. Blinking, Naruto noticed with some wonder that his feet had brought him to the Academy. Had he really been that lost in thought? He scoffed. His academy instructors would likely have to pick their jaws off the floor if they knew how much he was thinking these days. It clashed horribly with their view of him. That likely wouldn't change for some time, though he suspected his new effort in class would draw some attention. He didn't hold out hope that it would be the good kind. He took his seat with a short nod and smile to Inuzuka Kiba. The canine ninja was one of his running buddies whenever they had decided to cut class, though Naruto was seriously cutting back. "Any idea what t'day's lecture's gonna be about?" he asked Nara Shikamaru gruffly. The boy was smart. He was also lazy. He thought he was likely the laziest person in all of Fire Country. Akimichi CHouji disagreed. He thought he was the laziest person in the whole Elemental Nations. The boy grunted. He was obviously too bothered to answer. Sleep was a full time job for Shikamaru, much like eating was a full time job for Chouji. Naruto didn't complain. He often got to mooch some of the boy's endless chips. "Too troublesome to answer?" he asked with a foxy grin. The lack of answer was expected. "Bah, it'll prolly be boring all the same. Right, Chouji?" "Probably, Naruto. Chip?" "Thanks, mate." The lecture was boring. Not that that was ever truly in question. While Naruto admitted that the scarred chunin knew his stuff, he could at least make an effort to make it somewhat engaging. It didn't help matters that the information likely wouldn't serve any purpose beyond the Academy tests. Who really needed to know about the mysterious figure that was the Shodai's wife? Not everyone was Haruno Sakura or Yamanaka Ino with their academic drive. A soft smile rose to the blonde's face as he thought about the pretty blond haired girl. After the lecture, Iruka brought the class to the weapon's range. Each student had a slot where they were supposed to sink six shuriken, the standard brace size, into the target. It was harder than Iruka and Mizuki, his assistant, made it look. Practice normally went on for half an hour, while the two instructors would make their way through the group of students and correct them where they saw fit. Naruto was often left for last. More often than not, his "instruction" got cut off when the practice ended. He could deal with that though. Accuracy was one thing that could be improved on one's own. Now that his technique was fixed up, he hoped that his accuracy would rise. It proved true not a few moments later. He smiled in satisfaction as he caught his breath – it had become heavier as he put force into the throws. Four of the six were imbedded in the target. One was not even an inch off the bull's-eye. Two thirds was good, considering he was barely at one third just a month ago. Progress was slow, he thought as he removed the shuriken from the target, but it was still progress. Moving back to his starting line, he launched all six stars again, this time one at a time. Four out of the six stuck again, but one had glanced off another, the angle so perfect that it had directed the shuriken into the bull's-eye. His smirk threatened to split his face when he caught sight of Iruka's raised brows. "What'd you think of that, Iruka-sensei?" he asked obnoxiously. The scarred man called an end to practice without an answer. He'd have to work on that trick. It might come in handy some day, though he suspected that it might be easier with kunai. The short blades were a larger target by design; they were also heavier, making it easier to affect them in flight while still keeping on target. Shuriken were too light for that sort of intentional showmanship. The rest of the class didn't need to know that though. Uchiha Sasuke had an unknown look on his face. It seemed calculating to Naruto's untrained eyes, but who was to say? From target practice, the class moved to the center of the Academy's designated training ground. That meant it was time for sparring. The one on one bouts were viewed by the whole class. Once the fight was finished, the instructor, be it Iruka or Mizuki, would review the fight with the class as a whole. They often went over strategy and what worked and what didn't. The student's were often tasked with coming up with their own solutions to the problems they had, the idea being that one learned more if they fixed the problem themselves. The instructors were always available to help, however. At least if your name wasn't Uzumaki Naruto. The fights proceeded without incident. Kiba had too much focus on full frontal attacks. Shikamaru was too defensive. Chouji made openings for himself, but hesitated too much. Sakura needed more punching power. Ino needed a haircut, though not much else. Shino was too stiff with his movements. Hinata hesitated twice as much as Chouji, though her Jyuuken made up for most of her other faults. In the end, it was down to Naruto and Sasuke. Naruto didn't know the meaning of the word cliché, but that's how he would have described it if he did. Iruka-sensei was most likely trying to take him down a peg or five. Uchiha Sasuke was the class' resident genius. No one save Shino and Kiba had ever managed to get more than a glancing blow on the boy. Naruto didn't much care. The class spread out from the two fighters. The combatants were encouraged to use their environment to their advantage, so being too close to the fight was just asking for trouble. Suitably competitive fighters wouldn't hesitate to bowl over anyone who happened to get in their way. Naruto winced in remembrance of when he was used as a shield by Ino when she had fought Sakura two classes previous. He didn't quite know where the instructors got off telling the girl she needed more punching power. Naruto bounced on the balls of his feet as the crowd of students backed up. Gai's lessons about having an explosive first step sounded loudly through his mind. The initiative could decide the outcome of a fight better than any level of skill. Most shinobi fights didn't last long enough for true skill to shine through. Iruka signaled the start of the fight. Naruto sprang forward, hoping to steal the initiative. His right leg shot out in a near-perfect mid-air roundhouse kick. He hit nothing but air as Sasuke ducked under the strike. The raven haired boy didn't wait for Naruto to recover, snapping a quick kick at Naruto's chest from his low position. The blond blocked with both arms crossed, but winced lightly as the kick connected. Sasuke wasn't much bigger than him, but he hit hard. Doesn't matter, Naruto thought fiercely. His landing was less graceful than he would have liked, but he regained his footing nonetheless. It wasn't a moment too soon, as Naruto moved his face to the left to avoid Sasuke's fist. The displaced air whispered across his skin as he moved inside the Uchiha's guard, snapping off a backhand fist that connected solidly with Sasuke's face. If the Uchiha was surprised at being hit, he didn't show it. The boy rolled with the punch, and snapped off one of his own that was blocked by Naruto's face. The two separated quickly, Naruto blinking back tears of pain. He glared fiercely at his opponent, though his feeble attempt to turn him to ash failed. Muscles flexed, coiled, and uncoiled as the two boys threw themselves back into the fight, each looking for almost nonexistent openings in each other's guard. Naruto, so far, was thoroughly pleased with the encounter. He had held his own quite well. He had watched the Uchiha's fights closely in the past