things are starting to accelerate
into something, never stopping, always trouble brewing now
i think i'm getting dizzy

-Run Around, Digimon OST

When Jiraiya arrived at the Hidden Village of Cloud one fall afternoon, it was already late enough for the weak sunlight to be fading away from the sky. Though back in Konoha the world would be a vivid blaze of red and gold, the forests around the Hidden Village donning autumn colors, the lands around Cloud looked as grey and bleak as if it were already winter – only without the hiding whiteness of snow. Any foliage had long been stripped by the storm-winds that perpetually howled around the Hidden Village at this time of the year. The sky above them, as laden with clouds as the name of the village would suggest, was no relief for the eyes, mirroring the grey color of the land.

He had pushed himself hard to be able to make it to Cloud before nightfall, and Jiraiya had even had the (now-regrettable) idea to 'spice things up' by proposing a race between himself and his young pupil. He had known Naruto was now able to run much faster than before, but he hadn't known exactly how fast the boy had gotten until he found himself squinting after his student's rapidly-decreasing form.

Konoha-trained, Jiraiya was best able to travel by leaping from point to point – the way all Leaf ninjas, reared amongst towering forests, were. Konoha ninjas did not run from place to place, they boasted, they flew. (Other ninja villages rendered it more crudely by comparing Konoha nins to monkeys and squirrels).

In Fire Country, or in cities with their buildings and rooftops, it was a very effective method of getting about. They turned obstacles that a runner would have to go around into jump-off points, and giant leaps (once you learnt how to land properly) were less fatiguing than running at a comparable speed. In a place like the Lightning Country, however, where trees were stunted by winds and thin on the ground (tall trees had the unfortunate tendency to attract lightning bolts), this mode of travel was less than ideal.

Naruto, meanwhile, had learnt that he liked to run. Not at a sensible jog-trot, either, nor for short sprinting bursts like those used in battle – he ran like a wild horse, joy in the act of running, joy in speed and wind and movement, simply joyous. And he simply didn't stop. When Jiraiya, by now reduced to riding a summoned toad, called a halt for lunch, Naruto only waited until the beef jerky was unpacked (fidgeting madly the whole while) before racing off again, bolting it down on the way.

At that point, Jiraiya had resigned himself to losing the race.

As he walked through the gates of Cloud, presenting one of his many (falsified) passports, he scanned the village for any signs of chaos and bedlam. Screams of rage and fright, perhaps, or huge explosions. Perhaps a geyser of water, or a pillar of fire, or other signs of massive elemental damage. He could always follow the ANBU or equivalent thereof rushing to some crisis, if it came down to that.

This was the way, he knew, to find his wayward student.

They'd done this before: stopped at a Hidden Village to rest and rejuvenate, get checked over at the local medical facility (Naruto always saying how useless it was in his case, and the medic-nins never quite managing to change his mind about that), perhaps freelance a mission or two, and casually – oh ever so casually – dig out news about Konoha. Jiraiya's impressive network of contacts ensured there was always friendly guidance about to help their stay be as smooth and painless as possible.

Naruto was not interested in smooth. Painless wasn't even in his vocabulary.

After fourteen years, it had finally begun to dawn on Naruto that perhaps – just perhaps – people might find his rowdy, riotous behavior a tad bit…obnoxious.

Naruto being Naruto, this opened up a whole new set of problems.

Instead of changing himself to a more socially acceptable type of person, as others might do upon this epiphany, Naruto chose to celebrate in this realization. He reveled in his annoyingness. He flaunted his irritation factor. The only people who might have motivated him to tone himself down were miles away, and in the meantime he was finding his ability to set others ablaze with anger very useful.

"Kick his ass, Raimon!"

"To your left, to your left! Wait, no, above!"

"Look OUT!"

The noise of an excited crowd reached Jiraiya's ears, and he accordingly adjusted his course. Soon enough, a plaza, paved with bricks and surrounded by buildings – a sort of clearing within the tight, shoulder-to-shoulder structure of Cloud - came into view. A ring of people surrounded its perimeter, some people even perched on the rooftops (and walls, in the case of some ninja), all of them rapt on the fight raging before their eyes.

Jiraiya easily maneuvered his way to the front of the crowd, gaining himself an unobstructed view. Naruto, as expected, was right smack in the middle of the plaza, grinning dangerously as he faced off with another young ninja, with dark spiky hair and the pale blue vest that signified Cloud chuunin. Both ninja had weapons out – a fistful of kunai in the case of the dark-haired ninja, while Naruto had the new, arcing-blade daggers that he had begun favoring lately.

The dark-haired ninja – Raimon, hadn't they called him? – struck first, flinging kunai at Naruto as covering fire before charging at him from the side, one last kunai in his fist. Naruto dodged the thrown kunai, spinning as he did so to parry Raimon with one dagger. He slashed at Raimon with the other dagger, forcing the chuunin to take a step back. As he did so, Naruto dropped, whirled, and kicked Raimon's feet out from under him with a two-legged sweep-kick, using his hands as support.

Raimon fell, but managed to turn it into a handspring which ended with him in a taijutsu stance several feet away. His eyes were fixed on Naruto who, still grinning, slowly stood up from his sweep-kick.

The blond fourteen-year-old rolled his shoulders as if to loosen them, and then settled into a taijutsu stance of his own. The light glinted off the mirror-bright surface of his twin daggers as he twirled them in a complex pattern, ending with one arm high and the other low, the daggers held so their edges were parallel to the ground, in what Jiraiya recognized as a Crescent Moon stance.

Alright, when had that brat gotten training in that weapons-style?

He was distracted by an intent conversation near him. The voices were pitched low, but Jiraiya's ears, honed by years of listening for detection while doing 'research', suddenly perked up.

"Hey, who're fighting?"

"Tarou Raimon – you know, that kid who made chuunin recently? Yeah, him and some foreigner what showed up today."

"Man, the brats got some moves on 'em."

"Hell yeah – look at them go! Whoo, that was a nice counter, that was!"

"That's gotta hurt. So what're they fighting over?"

"Search me. If the foreigner were a missing-nin or paperless, the ANBU woulda been after him, not watching the fight, so I guess it's personal. All I know is that they put special conditions on the fight."

"Special conditions?"

"Yeah, heard they're sticking to taijutsu and tools – no ninjutsu or genjutsu in the fight. And the plaza's the limits…no going past the perimeter."

"Well, it makes it easier to watch, anyway…. Aw yeah baby. Look at that sucker fly!"

The sucker in question was Naruto, who had caught a corkscrew uppercut to his jaw that propelled him a good ten feet backwards. He twisted in midair, kicking off from a bench he otherwise would have crashed into, and tackled Raimon with his shoulder. For a moment the two boys wrestled before springing apart. They regarded each other from over the distance. Raimon had a bloody nose, from a head-high sidekick Naruto had given it, and Naruto sported the beginnings of a black eye.

The grin hadn't left Naruto's face at all since the fight began, even with that uppercut to his jaw, and it only widened now. He tossed one dagger into the air, and as Raimon automatically glanced upwards, his eyes drawn by the glittering, spinning metal, Naruto exploded into motion. He was behind Raimon so fast it looked like a teleportation jutsu, and excited murmurs rippled through the crowd.

A flash of bright steel - once, twice, thrice, then again. Then Naruto sprang backwards, his dagger pointed in front of him, its lethal appearance much enhanced by its new red edging. He landed almost exactly where he had been standing prior to his attack – which was proven when he merely opened his hand to let the knife he'd tossed into the air smack hilt-down into his palm.

Raimon, meanwhile, staggered a little as he clutched at his shoulder. Naruto had, during the short time he'd been in close-range, used his knife to deal several slashing wounds to the Cloud ninja. None of them were permanently crippling, or even deep enough that they couldn't be healed in a few hours by a medic-nin. Naruto didn't act like that during spars. The wounds were, however, deep enough to restrict Raimon's movement, painful enough to distract him, and overall lower his combat-effectiveness.

Some ninja, recognizing this - and also that, had this been a real fight, they might have been dead or crippled already - might have given up. Raimon, it seemed, was not one of these ninja. With a roar of fury, he charged at Naruto without any visible effect from his injuries.

Jiraiya, by this time, had seen enough. The gaki was going to win – his gaki, that is. The other kid was good, definitely, but Naruto had been fighting – and winning – against much better ninja than him for quite a while.

Naruto, having discovered that he could annoy almost anyone if he put his mind to it, had decided to use his…'talent' for good. Well, the good of Naruto, in any case. He did this by irritating the strongest ninja he could find into sparring with him whenever he entered the Hidden Villages.

Once, Jiraiya had demanded – with a good deal of exasperation – why his "foolish, foolish student" didn't just ask – politely – for spars. The exasperation was because Naruto and his latest 'sparring partner' – a female jounin, enraged by certain comments about her femininity and lack thereof, and who was unfortunately fond of fire jutsu – had burnt down the fences and a good deal of the superstructure of the local hot springs. Now how was he going to do his research?

Naruto had stared at him in genuine amazement. Who, he had demanded incredulously, would spar with him simply because he asked?

His words had caused Jiraiya a certain amount of reflection. Naruto didn't like to talk about his childhood. And his hyper, recklessly optimistic nature – so different from the dark, angst-y, oh-woe attitude that many other ninja with less-than-ideal pasts adopted – certainly did not seem to suggest tragedy.

So it was easy to forget that Naruto had grown up in so harsh and hateful an environment that it was a miracle he hadn't gone batshit crazy like that Sand kid, Gaara.

But he had. And hadn't.

Everything had come hard to Naruto. Everything he had – everything he had a right to hold to himself and call his own, even if only in his head – he'd had to earn, earn once and twice and thrice over. And so, he thought that the only way to gain something was to fight for it, to snatch at it, desperately quick, because the chance would be taken away soon; to grab and claw and snarl that it was his, his, and dare anyone to take it away…

Jiraiya had been absolutely horrified to find the sneaking urge to hug the little (which he still was – he had yet to hit his long-awaited growth spurt) blond ninja when he'd realized that.

Instead, he let Naruto continue with his constant quest for strong opponents. It was, he had to admit, a hugely useful training tool. Naruto was now undoubtedly the most widely-travelled Konoha genin – possibly the most widely-travelled genin in the world, and probably one of the most widely-travelled Konoha nin, period – and by sparring with opponents from different countries, he could gain himself a wide, varied base of experience from which to draw on. Naruto's flair for the unexpected and easy adaptability made this experience ideally suited for his style, too.

This was why Jiraiya was not even remotely concerned about Naruto's losing the fight. Tarou Raimon must have been something to make chuunin so early, true. But Naruto himself had come damn near, and that was before Jiraiya had really begun training the young jinchuuriki in earnest.

The fact that it was a taijutsu-only battle made it all the more certain.

When Naruto and Jiraiya set off on their training trip, the very first thing Jiraiya had done was to find out for himself exactly what the hell he had to work with. He tested and tested and tested Naruto – verbally, physically, and even a few written exams that had required much wrangling to get Naruto to complete. Jiraiya was not a Sennin, and the Sennin whose specialty was information-gathering, for nothing. Jiraiya knew how to read a ninja. (And a woman, but that was another story.)

He was amazed with what he found. Naruto's genjutsu and general knowledge were, in a word, abysmal. His hand-seals were quick, sloppy, and he only just remembered what their names were, much less the deep theory behind the chakra-molding. His physical condition was more than decent, his ninjutsu high-level if not particularly varied or numerous, and his taijutsu was…adequate.

And of course, his stamina was better than most jounins'.

Jiraiya was amazed by two things in particular. One was how far Naruto had come with such stats.

The second, and rather more important thing, was how much of Naruto's ninja capability was self-taught. He'd done some rather unconventional tests to measure Naruto's IQ – ones that weren't biased so much towards literacy and formal mathematics rather as to pure problem-solving skills and quickness of thought – and discovered that Naruto wasn't stupid. Far from it, the boy was actually above average, if a little easy to derail from trains of thought. He'd made Naruto tell him about his fights in the Chuunin Exam, against Zabuza and Haku in the Wave Country, and of course the infamous mission to retrieve the Uchiha traitor (the second one, that is) – and he'd seen the boy in action for himself. Trickiness in battle, imaginative use of jutsu, and a strange ability to home in on the critical point of every fight – someone as cunning as that was obviously not brain-dead.

The trouble was that most of Naruto's intelligence was undeveloped. He'd gone through the Academy, but with most of his teachers ignoring him, passing him simply to get rid of him. He didn't have the money to buy any but the most basic (and thus boring) of scrolls. He hadn't done homework, because his teachers wouldn't accept it from him; he didn't study for tests, because no matter what he did, they always gave him the bare minimum to pass; and of course he'd early on learnt the art of escaping from class.

Jiraiya didn't yet have the courage to ask if anyone had explained 'the birds and the bees' to Naruto.

Jiraiya had been sure that the legacy of the Yondaime would have a lot of raw potential for him to mold into a shinobi of legendary power. He now learnt that there was both more potential and more rawness than he originally thought.

So they trained.

And trained.

Sometimes Jiraiya would give the brat a day off. If he didn't spend it hunting, which was a sort of training in itself, the boy would spend most of it training.

Jiraiya had been sure that Naruto's area of expertise would be ninjutsu. In Konoha, it had been far and away his best skill. He picked up jounin-level techniques with surprising ease, he had the stamina for even the most chakra-draining jutsus, and what with Rasengan – one of the most control-intensive techniques ever invented – Naruto was sure to develop the control necessary for even the most complicated ones.

Yet it was his taijutsu that developed at leaps and bounds.

Jiraiya remembered watching the brat fight hand-to-hand, that time when he'd first began teaching him Summoning. Naruto, in order to exhaust his own chakra, had conjured up a veritable battalion of Kage Bunshin and then proceeded to take them all on in a pure taijutsu fight. He'd thought Naruto's style crude and unsophisticated, relying on brute strength and raw speed – as well as the chance to back up a blow with several copies of himself doing similarly, although obviously he couldn't do that in this case – rather than the smooth, trained movements of other ninja. It was like considering the differences between a tree-branch and a masterpiece sword.

It wasn't that the boy's taijutsu wasn't effective; it was only that it was not efficient. He fought more like a street brawler than a shinobi, flailing to land any sort of blow – disregarding location and position – forgetting about defense, putting too much force behind blows. He used as much energy in one fight as his yearmates did in three.

Jiraiya thought this just meant Naruto was not patient enough to train in pure taijutsu. The repetitive movements and relatively long training time required to master physical combat may have not been Naruto's preference. Ninjutsu, though more chakra-draining and not as versatile, were flashier and faster – exactly what Naruto was.

So, Jiraiya assumed that once Naruto learnt enough taijutsu to pass the Academy, that was it.

But then they discovered Naruto enjoyed taijutsu training. He loved the feeling of physical exertion. He liked bounding around like a sugar-fueled engine on a pogo-stick. He liked beating things up with his limbs – or, increasingly so, with sharp shiny things. He liked the tired ache of well-worked muscles at the end of the day. He relished finding new ways to deal more damage than should be possible with nothing but his own body. He begged Jiraiya for whatever taijutsu training the Sennin could give him, uncaring if it was only a simple throw or a complicated sixteen-hit combo or a way to combine a dodge and a flying bicycle kick – and absorbed all of them with equally astonishing speed.

When Jiraiya asked him if he had been this enthusiastic in the Academy, Naruto's answer had cleared up a lot of confusion – and given him another uncomfortable insight into Naruto's childhood.

Naruto hadn't had any taijutsu training. Taijutsu, purely physical and based on practical experience more than either ninjutsu or genjutsu, wasn't something you could learn properly from self-study. It required individual attention, a teacher concentrating on one student at a time. Taijutsu training meant having to touch the student, to correct poses and demonstrate techniques, and there wasn't a taijutsu instructor in the Academy willing to do that.

The only participation Naruto'd had in taijutsu class was when he was paired up for sparring. He'd had to develop his own rough style of fighting simply for self-preservation.

The Academy's sin, Jiraiya decided, was thus two-fold. Their first was that they had let a boy with obvious potential in taijutsu – he'd held his own with nothing but the crudest of forms – become nothing more than a glorified street-brawler. The second was that they actually graduated genin who could lose to a street-brawler.

A roar of approval rose from the crowd Jiraiya was leaving behind, and a grin made its way across the white-haired man's face.

Street-brawler? No. That was a shinobi.

AN (well, rant, more like. Pairings information at the bottom)

Completed August 22, 2005

While 8 pages may not seem like much to you, this is quite probably the longest chapter I've ever written. Man. I was tempted so many times to slice this in half and submit it, but I decided that for once I'd try to write long.

I've never really written a fic where actual combat and development thereof is important, I think. So…I don't know how well I've done. I'm trying not to make Naruto an uber-ninja, but he is supposed to become one of the best. I think the series hints at it; the top Rookie with one more year of training than him loses to him, Gaara loses to him, he learns Rasengan, Kage Bunshin and Kuchiyose like that. (snaps fingers) And I doubt anyone helped him train at all when he was in the Academy (nor when he was a genin, until Jiraiya came along – man Kakashi sucked at that.)

Tarou Raimon is a name taken from the awesome series Eyeshield 21. (from whence a good deal of inspiration came). He's going to appear again, but not in a major role; more as a prop to illustrate Naruto's progress. After all, this is a Naruto fanfic, not an original story. Same goes for any new characters I may introduce.

Naruto's new daggers – I just think knife-fighting would suit Naruto. I'll discuss this more in later chapters.

Pairings will appear some time later, but I'm kind of undecided on who to pair him up with. I do know that I am not going to do a yaoi pairing for Naruto, though I think Sasuke is gay and quite possibly crushing on him.

NejiTen, my new OTP, will definitely appear. Heh. Perhaps some AsumaKurenai? Or ShikaIno? Or, let's torture the guy some more, TemaShikaIno? (evil grin)