Naruto: Altered History
Chapter 22:
-Eight Minutes to Midnight-
By Geor-sama

Oceans of ramen, was there anything lovelier? Naruto didn't think so, but then again he was staring out across the vast ocean of ramen so it'd take a lot to break its hold over him. Limbering up, the blond crouched and then jumped, hurling himself into the air before plummeting into the ramen. Only, instead of stopping, he exploded through into a vast sea of darkness, where something malevolent roamed.

'You're the Kyūbi!'

Naruto panicked and twisted around in the darkness, trying to locate the voice.

'Demon! Evil! Foul!'

Naruto looked around frantically, feeling invisible hands grasp him. Struggling free from their grasp, he screamed wordlessly in anger before slamming into contact with a hard surface on his back. The shock alone froze him, then groaning he twitched his body ever so slightly to make sure that everything worked properly.

Assured that nothing had broken he sat up gingerly, the air turgid and cold. Added to that was the unnerving sound of constantly dripping water and a feeling that this was a very bad place. Getting to his feet, taking in the walls and exposed pipes along with the puddles of dark water, he grimaced wondering where in the hell he was.

He couldn't even begin to place any hallway that even came close to this place, a maintenance tunnel that had received very little maintenance. Approaching a wall, he touched it, the thin layer of slime prompting him to pull his hand away. He was just beginning to wonder if this was a very vivid dream when he heard the sound of a voice drifting through the hallway.

Turning he frowned, eyebrows knitting together in thought, he could have sworn that voice had called his name. He hesitated, and then hearing it again moved toward it cautiously, wondering. The hallway turned out to be more of a maze, made up of interconnecting and identical hallways, each as horrible as the last and always the feeling that something truly horrendous just lay around the next turn.

But that voice, a child's voice in the most haunting tone he had ever heard, called to him.

Following the voice and the labyrinth maze of dark, damp tunnels, Naruto knew things were not going to end pleasantly. If there was one thing Naruto was an expert on, outside of Hokage's, it was horror movies and stories. This entire thing screamed horror, it shouted it from the bottom of its heart, that at the center of this whole place was a demon -what kind he wasn't sure- waiting to rend him limb from limb or deliver some other horrible fate.

Still, he couldn't not find the center; he was being drawn toward it like a moth to a flame, or a magnet toward metal. It felt like forever, but finally he stepped into a cavern-sized room and paused. At the far end of the room, which bathed in a haunting yellowish light, were thick steel bars that formed a prison of immense portions.

Behind those bars, bouncing a small red and yellow ball was an innocent looking eight year old girl.

"Oh fuck," Naruto muttered, a chill sweeping through. He knew now, beyond any doubt, that he was in for it, only the most evil of demons pretended to be little girls. It was a fact of nature, the more innocent looking the little girl, the more evil the demon. This girl was the picture of innocence, which meant Naruto now faced a majorly gruesome end.

"Naruto," the girl said her voice pure and vibrate, and when she looked up at him, her eyes were a crystal blue "let me out."

"Right," Naruto said, moving closer despite his instincts "and while I'm at it, how about I cover myself with ketchup to help with the digestion."

The girl smiled at him and Naruto found it creepy as hell. "Catch!"

Naruto of course caught the ball out of instinct, and then looked down curiously. He dropped said ball as if burned and stumbled backward in muted horror and shock. Their on the ground, the ball that she had been bouncing, had really been the decapitated head of the Yondaime Hokage.

Looking up sharply, Uzumaki Naruto now found a gargantuan shadow, with glowing red eyes and massive fangs, trapped behind the bars.

"...can you guess my name?"

Naruto promptly jerked awake with a violent sweep of his arm, only to have it caught and held in check by a curious looking Anko. Breathing heavily, not relaxing one bit, Naruto stared at her and then his hand in confusion. Why had he tried to hit her? There was something stalking just beyond the edges of his befuddled memory, but he couldn't quite grasp it.

"Ah, good, he's awake,." Jiraiya said happily, strolling into the room. "Well, come on, we've got some training to do!"

Anko released his hand, flexing her own subtly and staring at him curiously. Then shaking her head, she handed him a semi-repaired jacket. "Up and at 'em, runt."

Grumbling, Naruto took the jacket and pulled it on as Anko cleared his table with a sweep of her arm. Depositing his gifts into a bag, she tossed it to Jiraiya, before picking up another bag. Dressed now, Naruto stood, popping his neck and wondering why they were leaving so early.

Still, he didn't feel like asking and instead followed the two now -silent ninja out of the room, past the ANBU guards, and to the nurses' station. After more paper work than he cared to think about, Naruto was finally released into the care of Jiraiya and Anko. His first instinct, of course, was to try and find some ramen, but, instead, he was guided out of the hospital, where Jiraiya created a clone to take the bag to Anko's.

"Right, well, let's get moving, shall we?" the white- haired man said happily as Kage Bunshin Jiraiya darted away.

"Nobody should ever be that happy this early in the morning," Anko muttered, following the man, and Naruto realized she was hung over. Knowing Anko as he did, he knew that she could be very violent if provoked. He also knew that it took very little to provoke her in this condition.

So, Naruto, being the considerate person that he was, made sure to stay at the rear of the group, out of harm's way, as he stumbled after the two, stifling his own yawn. As sleep receded, Naruto began to wonder once more why they had to start so early. He was also wondering why they couldn't give him some time to come to grips with what they had told him yesterday.

'Oh, hey, you're actually the jail for the Demon that nearly killed us all, now come on, you gotta train!' Yeah, that was really conducive to his peace of mind. Snorting, Naruto leaped to the rooftops along with the other two, just wishing for a single moment to relax.

Honestly, he had a lot to deal with: First, there was the fact that he was son to the Yondaime. He honestly wasn't even sure what his thoughts or feelings about the great Hokage were. There was resentment, of course, and pride, but now there was anger as well. A lot of anger.

He tried putting himself in the man's situation, but he couldn't. Naruto was sure that he would have found a different way. That he could have killed or defeated the Kyūbi without involving an innocent baby. Naruto wasn't one for self pity, but he couldn't help it. He felt betrayed, but, still, he tried to remember that the Yondaime had to have been desperate.

After all, you didn't seal a demon into a baby, let alone your son, for giggles. You had to have no other option.

Sighing, he shoved it all deep inside him along with the other things he had yet to deal with and instead focused on his surroundings. The sun was slowly climbing into the sky to his right;, the two ninja ahead weren't talking. Looking at the streets below him, he frowned slightly, spotting the lingering signs of the fight.

Kami, what was wrong with people? Why would anyone want to betray their own village?

Leaving the tree tops, the group moved into the semi-dark forest before entering a clearing with three training posts. Coming to a stop, Naruto sighed, while stretching. Kami he felt good. A bit stiff, but good. He hadn't actually realized how much he had missed training till this moment.

Looking at the two, he grinned, stretching his arms out with two loud pops. "Oi, so, how's this work?"

"First, I need you to make me a Kage Bunshin, then you need to pay close attention," Jiraiya said, a small grin on his face.

"Right," Naruto said, with a sharp nod before creating the clone. After that, he shifted his attention the Sannin, wondering what he was going to do. Jiraiya approached the clone, then raised his hand, looking as if he was doing nothing more than holding air... Until a swirling mass of chakra formed in the palm of his hand.

Naruto felt his eyes widen a second before the ball smashed into his clone, who was propelled backwards through a tree before disappearing with a loud pop.

"Fuck me sideways!" Anko said startled.

"Maybe later," Jiraiya returned with a smirk before meeting Naruto's gaze.

"What was that?!" Naruto demanded, more than a little eager to actually learn that.

Jiraiya smiled slightly. "Like I said when you woke up day before yesterday, you're going to be working on a move called the Rasengan. Created by the Yondaime, A-rank and extremely powerful." The man nodded at Anko, who, setting her bag down, tossed Naruto a water balloon with a dubious look on her face.

"Oi, so what's up with this?" Naruto asked as he caught the balloon and glared at the old man. Not that he was about to back talk, after all; anything that could teach him that awesome move was worth doing. Hell, Naruto was even beginning to wonder what else of the Yondaime's there was to learn.

"You saw what I did to your clone, right?" Jiraiya asked, selecting his own water balloon.

"Huh? Sure, you... somehow made it spin around wildly?"

"From a normal point of view, that's how it looked," Jiraiya said with a slightly amused look, then hefted his own water balloon. Blinking, Naruto looked at the balloon, which was making a soft swishing sound as it deformed. It didn't take a genius to figure out that, some how, the old man was making the water spin.

A moment later, the balloon exploded in a small spray of water, and Naruto jerked in surprise.

"With tree walking, your chakra has to be maintained by focusing your mind and keeping that concentration. With water walking, you have to release a fixed amount of chakra continuously..." Jiraiya paused, holding his hand up. "With this, you're combining the two: Like with water walking, you release a continuous amount, and you have to use tree climbing to maintain a fixed amount in your hand."

"Oh," Naruto said, gazing at the balloon. So, he would have to release chakra and then make the water spin. Well, that didn't sound too hard. "I get it."

"All right... Get to work, brat."


Nanko Shrine, Main Temple...

Uchiha Mikoto sighed as she slowly descended the stairs beneath the seventh tatmai mat on the far right side, an involuntary shiver racing up her spine from the chill and the knowledge of who she would facing. The Uchiha Clan Elders, they were the men that truly controlled the Uchiha Clan, they alone determined who led and who disappeared, approved marriages and ended others.

Reaching the bottom of the stairs, she paused, her eyes adjusting to the dim light of the chamber provided by the flickering candles. She noticed the four Elders almost immediately, each grave and locked in a serious discussion. Uchiha etiquette dictated that any woman that wished to address them did so only after announcing their presence and waited for their approval.

Uchiha Mikoto however, was no mere woman. She was the wife of the Clan Leader, whom they had selected, she would be damned before she let them control her beyond what they already did. She had taken three, maybe four, steps before they turned in unision to stare at her.

Their combined gaze made Mikoto shiver, but she refused to back down, though she did politely pause to await their greeting.

"Welcome Mikoto-san, please have a seat." Uchiha Gishou, the eldest, said formally indicating the seat her husband normal used.

"Thank you, however I am merely my husband's chosen messenger," Mikoto said with a polite bow, knowing the trap and instead moved to assume her seiza position on the floor before her husbands spot, as all Uchiha women were expected to adopt. Her eyes briefly glanced at the worn faces surrounding her, then at the small alcove with the paintings of the Tengu leader Sojo-bo and Suswannoo.

Her eyes lingered briefly on the small alter where a scroll sat, a scroll she had urged her husband to destroy on more than one occasion. A scroll that revealed the Uchiha Clan's darkest secrets. Mikoto felt it better to destroy the scroll than to have the information turn against them, to have them revealed for what they truly were.

"So," Uchiha Ahou, the second eldest of the group said after a moment. "Fugaku-san sent you here to speak with us, to reassure us that Itachi-san is not the threat some of us perceive him to be."

"Of course," Mikoto said with a polite half bow. "It is my husbands wish to reiterate and reassure you, the honored Uchiha Elders, that Itachi is no threat to the Clan. Nor will he, through his actions, bring dishonor to our noble clan. Also, my husband wishes to seek your wisdom on the matter involving the Haruno family and an arranged marriage between our youngest son and their only daughter."

"Ah, yes, we have heard of that matter already," Tawainai said casually, running a withered finger along his chin thoughtfully. "of course we are honored that Fugaku-san seeks our wisdom on this matter and in due time we will give it."

"However," Gishou interrupted smoothly "we would like to discuss Itachi-san in more detail. He is, after all, a more pressing detail than an arranged marriage to a Clanless girl."

Keeping her temper in check, after all Sasuke was her favorite son, Mikoto instead placed her hands on the floor, and then her forehead on the back of them, her voice demure. "Forgive me Elders, I am only the chosen messenger for my husband. I repeat, Itachi is of no threat to the Clan or its honor. My husband swears this on his own honor as the Uchiha leader, affirming this by offering his life if he should be wrong."

"Very well," Ahou intoned dispassionately "we accept his pledge in this matter. I inquire now, an explanation from you, as to why Itachi-san has been acting so strange as of late. His hours away from the Clan district, his distancing of the Clan from himself, of his open disdain for the Uchiha clan and its customs."

"I can offer none," Mikoto said without looking up or moving from her position, hating the formality and the subservient role the Clan demanded of her. "I can only offer my opinion that Itachi has been deeply affected by Shusui's suicide and that the stress is finally getting to him. He is eighteen, that is so very young, with so much responsibility. I believe that is the only reason for his actions."

"It is a possibility, just as it could be a mother's devotion to not see a serious threat-" Gishou started to say before Aigin cut him off abruptly.

"We have heard Fukgau-san's answer. He has sworn to us that Itachi-san is not a threat, Mikoto-san also believes this otherwise she would not be here in such a humble position." the older man said, his tone quiet. "As for the subject of arranged marriages, I see no reason for the Haurno girl to be denied. They do not come from a ninja clan, their genetics should allow for the proper disposition for the Sharingan to be passed along. I do however, wondered if maybe we are over looking another matter that should be discussed."

"Aigin-sama, what other matter is there?" Mikoto asked, sitting up glad for the man who always spoke as the voice of reason among the Elder's.

"The one concerning the Uzumkai," Aigin said with a wry smile "his bloodline of course is highly sought not just by us. I believe the other clans will act soon, when it is learned that he has been released from the hospital. However, I wish to act first and request that you find a suitable female to...convince the child properly."

"I will of course try," Mikoto said, keeping her disgust at such a tactic carefully hidden. Women in the Uchiha Clan were not to expect to be treated any different, merely used to gain an advantage, but Mikoto couldn't help her feelings. "However, the Yamanaka girl could prove a problem."

"I am sure, with the proper choice, any Uchiha girl can solve her." Gishou said firmly. "You have our request."

"Hai," Mikoto managed evenly with a polite bow. "I will see to it personally."

"Very well," Gishou intoned "there is still one other matter we must now address. It concern's Sasuke-kun and the reaction this village has had toward hearing such undiluted truth."

"Yes, you must explain to him that while he was quite correct in his assessment of himself and this village, it is unseemly to point this out to the others.

"Ego's are easily bruised after all when they hear such unapologetic truth."

"Of course," Mikoto demurred, sighing in annoyance at these old men and their continued platitudes. Still she was there until they decided to finish and she had no choice but to bow and agree.

"-and she was all weird and everything. Anko's insane! Kami, I don't see how Naruto-kun ever managed to stay alive as her apprentice. Plus, like, how she dresses is a bit-"

"-Extreme. I know, it's so totally the same with Kurenai-sensei. She always wears those bandage -like things, and a shirt, which, ya know, just barely cover her!" Sakura agreed, nodding seriously while grinning slightly. She had never realized just how much she had missed having another girl to talk with. With her rabid Sasuke-fandom, she had alienated the other girls in the village, so being back on speaking terms with Ino was a welcome relief.

After all, Sasuke was great and all, but, well, yeah.

"At least she's nice, though," Ino said sourly.

"Ha! You've never seen her when she's angry or you've made a mistake," Sakura said, glancing at her only recently reacquired friend. "Kurenai-sensei gets all over you and won't let up. Then, if you do finally get it right, she turns all sweet and stuff... It's like she has a split personality!"

"Well, that is scary," Ino admitted with a nod, before grimacing. "But, like, Anko-sensei is even scarier 'cause she's always smiling, even when she's promising to skin us or rip our throats out."

"But even scarier, they want us to be like them!" Sakura said, shivering.

"I know," Ino agreed, before stopping in front of a store display. "Ooh! What do you think?"

Sakura studied the outfit in question; in her opinion, it was ugly as hell. But Ino seemed to like it, and Sakura was aware of how tenuous this repatched friendship was. Still, Sakura couldn't just swallow her opinion on everything. At most, she could refrain from using Ino's nickname. "Please, that is so last year."

"Well, I think it looks good," Ino said dismissively, eying it critically.

"So, Naruto," Sakura said lightly, studying the way her friend subtly tensed. While Sakura herself didn't particularly care for the boy, Ino seemed fond of him. Sakura even mused that he had to have some hidden redeeming quality. She was willing to consider the possibility, since, indirectly, he had given her Ino back as a friend.

"We're just team mates," Ino said curtly, not looking at her. "Friends."

"So you've said," Sakura said breezily, with just enough emphasis on 'said' to make it clear Sakura thought differently. "But I meant, what's he like? All I remember is this goof ball from the academy, kinda smart when it came to pranks, but annoying as hell."

"Actually," Ino said a slight grin on her face. "He's still pretty much like that. Most of the time he acts like a mischievous kami. Other times, he can just look at you and you, iunno, you realize there's more to him than you think. Like, I remember when I made my first-"

"Kill," Sakura supplied supportively at Ino's hesitation.

"Yeah... And he was the one that talked me through it, ya know? Only, when he looked at me, I felt..." Ino paused, deep in thought. "You know how sometimes you can feel intimidated and drawn all at once? It felt like that. Kami, it's hard to describe."

"'Sokay," Sakura said, nodding. She understood Ino perfectly, and it was hard to describe. "So, he's definitely worth knowing?"

"Yeah," Ino nodded, walking away from the window display, lost in thought.

"So, is there something going on between you?" Sakura prodded teasingly.

"There is nothing," Ino said hotly, glaring at her, "going on between me and Naruto-kun!"

"So you say," Sakura said dropping the subject. She knew just how dangerous the subject could become because it would lead to teasing Ino about Naruto's fan girls, which would be a fast way of destroying their rebuilt friendship. Worse, though, it was because talking about Naruto tended to led into a discussion of Sasuke, and Ino was a long way from being able to discuss Sasuke calmly.

"So, what about Sasuke? Is he still training?" Ino asked, startling Sakura. Ino had actually managed that name without a sneer.

"Yes," Sakura admitted, chewing her bottom lip nervously, lapsing into thoughts about Sasuke, and her unease at how fixated he was becoming. He was always training, now; he never let up, and her one visit had met with a very harsh response. He seemed to think she didn't want him getting stronger, but all she had asked was if he would like to go eat with her. But it wasn't his fault, Sakura soothed her bruised ego. He was being driven by his Clan's expectations.

"Naruto's the same way," Ino admitted, sounding a bit put out.

Sakura nodded, but remained silent. What could she say? Naruto was an orphan trying to become Hokage. He was being driven much the same way Sasuke was. Sakura privately felt Ino was better off being unable to see the boy at the moment; it was a side no girl should see in their boyfriend.

Thinking of Sasuke drew her mind to her father, and Sakura surreptitiously hugged herself to remove the memory of his touch. It wasn't just the fixation on training that was getting to Sakura. Without Sasuke around, her father seemed to think he had a free hand. Sakura knew, logically, that she could stop her dad, but he was her dad, and she couldn't bring herself to...

Forcibly relaxing her arms, she focused on the people around her. They were all so happy, going about their daily routine, seemingly oblivious to the two kunoichi. Here and there, she could hear snippets of conversation mentioning Naruto and how they had always knew he'd be great.

It was another all -too -painful reminder that Sasuke needed to come back soon because, if he remained hidden away training for much longer, it would only get worse. They already misunderstood him, and his continued absence was prompting some to whisper about cowardice. Even Ino -who had a dim view of Sasuke in light of events- had commented at how odd it was that they would say that about Sasuke, since Naruto was doing the same thing.

Shaking her head, Sakura put thoughts of Sasuke aside, with difficulty. "So, who do you think will get the promotion?"

"Huh? I don't know," Ino said with a slight scowl. "I know I'm pretty much outta the running, thanks to your boyfriend."

"I'm sorry," Sakura said, annoyance flaring inside her. "It wasn't entirely his fault, though. You were the one that wouldn't give up."

"Sakura, at what point during our fight did Sasuke NOT insult me? Was it calling the kenjutsu I worked my ass off to learn weak and then swiping it? Was it breaking the sword left to me by my now-dead sensei? Or was it calling my entire family pathetic while he broke my arm and kicked in my teeth?" Ino asked heatedly.

"Ino, I'm not gonna do this. Again," Sakura said curtly. "I'm not defending Sasuke-kun to you again, he's sorry. He knows he overreacted, I know he over reacted, but, seriously, bringing it up all the time is a bit much!"

"Well excuse me for-"

"Hey, aren't you on Naruto-kun's team?"

Both girls jerked out of their argument, rounding on the intruder only to be brought up short by the group of girls in front of them. They looked, as crazy as it seemed, like academy students. The oldest one looked as if she was just now getting close to graduating. Sakura raised an eyebrow, watching the oldest girl glance from Ino's arm to her face.

"Yeah, I am," Ino said slowly, a little thrown. "Why do you want to know?"

"We're here to tell you not to get any ideas," the girl said haughtily, shaking her hair out. "Naruto-kun is off-limits."

"... He..." Ino blinked, then looked at Sakura in confusion. "Is she serious?"

"I think so," Sakura said, blinking in confusion as well.

"Oh," Ino said, turning back to the other girl. "Look, this is a big girl conversation. Why don't you and your friends go play dolls or something?"

"As if, cripple," the girl retorted snidely. "Just keep your hands off our Naruto-kun. If you try anything-"

"Wait, are you, like, threatening me?" Ino asked in surprise, sweeping her eyes up and down the other girl in annoyance.

"I'm promising!"

"Fan girls," Sakura said succinctly as she rolled her eyes, aware of the tightening of Ino's muscles. "Come on, Ino, let's just go." Ino ignored her, a dangerous intent radiating off her. "You know you can't reason with them, Ino, come on..." Sakura almost pleaded, sensing an impending death.

"I guess you're right," Ino admitted with a dismissive sigh. "Later, thunder thighs, thigh-ettes." The girls squawked indignantly at this, but Ino was already walking away, and Sakura hurried after her.

Ino, however, was looking less than thrilled. Which Sakura understood. She could remember her first few serious encounters with Sasuke's fan girls. Still, it provided the best chance to keep Ino from renewing their earlier argument.

"Are you jealous?"

"No!" Ino said, a faint blush creeping into her cheeks. "I just can't believe those, those hogs! They, well everyone, ignore him all this time, and now, just because he saves the village, they're all over him. How hypocritical! Besides, it's not as if Naruto-kun would ever actually like fan girls, especially ugly ones like her!"

"Relax," Sakura said, her lips twitching in humor. "So, Naruto's got a few fan girls-"

"You're only saying that because that means Sasuke has less!" Ino snapped.

"Hey, I'm just saying... Though, he might like the attention he'll get when he comes back. After all, you just said he was ignored before now. Kami knows how much attention he'll be getting now."

"Shit!" Ino swore, causing Sakura to laugh. "Oh you think this is funny? How hard is it to find Sasuke, hmm? I'm sure even with his little speech, there are girls willing to go help him 'unwind' from all that training."

"No way!" Sakura shouted angrily while glaring at Ino. Then, seeing the other girl's smug look, snorted.

"Ha! In your face, forehead!"

"Watch it, piggy," Sakura growled, then, after a few moments of silence, glanced at Ino's arm. "You know... I could probably heal that."

"Huh?" Ino managed, startled, then glanced at her arm. "But, like, how?"

"Well, the only reason they reset it and didn't use any medical jutsu on it was because it's preferable to heal naturally. But that's only because healing jutsu create a dependence and likelihood of decreased natural recovery," Sakura explained with a shrug.

"If I, like, let you heal it, how much time would that take off?"

"If I healed it, I might be able to shave a few weeks off, but it'd be a bit tender and sore," Sakura said thoughtfully. "What kind of break was it, exactly?"

"Partial fracture," Ino said sourly.

"Hmm, well that'd take, like, two months to heal normally," Sakura said, nodding. "I'm no Tsunade-sama, but if it was at least a clean break and easily set, I should be able get that down to a month at most."

"You know, speaking of Tsunade..."

With a loud screech, several birds broke cover and exploded into the early morning sky in a flurry of flapping wings. The source of their disturbance was one Uchiha Sasuke, who was striking the -so far only- undamaged training log with all of his strength. Sweat was beading on the sides of his face, his breathing irregular, and, most importantly, his eyes were fixated on the target before him.

Punch after punch, kick after kick, he never let up, not until this log, too, cracked. Stumbling away, he doubled over, gulping in air. He had been at this since sunrise, as he had every day since the end of the Chūnin exams, training and pushing himself, trying to get stronger. Sasuke had even redoubled his efforts three days ago upon learning that Naruto had apparently disappeared from the hospital to train.

He couldn't understand it. Hadn't he trained enough? Learned enough jutsu? He was a genius and an Uchiha! How could that Naruto keep beating him? He held no illusions about that fact; even if he believed he could have won his match against the boy, there was a nagging part of his mind whispering that Naruto would have beaten him.

Sasuke just wasn't strong enough, and he didn't understand why or how the other boy could be better than him. Was it a karmic joke? Growling in frustration, Sasuke stood upright and flashed through the seals before exhaling a sudden burst of chakra -laced air. A moment later the training posts, along with the entire clearing, was engulfed in the blinding white hot flames of his fire ball.

Stretching it out for as long as he could, Sasuke stumbled, head swimming as his air finally gave out. "Why," Sasuke mumbled, leaning against an undamaged tree for support. "How did he get so strong?"

Briefly, he wondered if, maybe, he was making to much of this. Perhaps, if he relaxed slightly, it might help him. As it was, he kept pushing people away, his family and Sakura. He felt a part of him crave some sort of contact with at least the pink- haired girl; she was the only non-Uchiha he could stand, after all. But she hadn't understood his need to train, she had tried to talk him out of getting stronger.

Angry, he darted from the tree while drawing his shuriken and throwing them in such a rapid manner that the charred branches he had targeted snapped. Angry and frustrated, he formed the three seals needed, gathered the burning chakra, then concentrated it into the chirping lightning of the Chidori. With a scream, Sasuke charged across the clearing at one of the few remaining unharmed trees.

A moment later, his hand, fingers drawn together like a spear, drove itself through the trunk and out the other side in an explosion of splinters. "Gah!" Sasuke screamed, the chakra dying as he slowly removed his arm from the hole. Breathing heavily, he swore, promising that he would not stop for anything.

He wouldn't eat, wouldn't sleep, wouldn't go back home, not until he was stronger. Strong enough to beat Naruto, and then, when he was able to do that, he would be one step closer to defeating his brother. Sasuke would be second to nobody. Not a Hokage wannabe, nor a would -be- god -of- shinobi.

Creating a handful of Kage Bunshin, which thankfully he had thought to copy from Naruto, he leaped backward. Landing, his eyes darted between the Kage Bunshin, then darted again as the one on the right began flashing through a series of seals. "Katon: Housenka no Jutsu!"

A second later the air was filled with a series of fireballs, each hiding a deadly secret of spinning shuriken. Sasuke himself danced and weaved his way through the attack, Sharingan working overtime. Skidding to a halt, Sasuke located his Kage Bunshin and hurled a shuriken and flashed through a series of seals for the Shuriken Kage Bunshin.

A moment later the air was filled with several hundred. The Kage Bunshin exploded spectacularly, but Sasuke didn't rest.

Pushing through the burning in his lungs, he dropped low, flashing through another series of hand seals. A moment later, he dodged and weaved his way through the hail of kunai from the last Sasuke Kage Bunshin, before plunging his Chidori through the clone's chest.

The smoke that enveloped the clone was acidic enough to make Sasuke's eyes water and back away. Sensing the few remaining Sasuke Kage Bunshin, he lashed out in a flurry of taijutsu and high -level ninjutsu. A second later, he was alone in the clearing, breathing heavily, dripping with sweat and his body trembling.

Why wasn't this working? He had been training for so long, trying to edge himself forward, past Naruto. Trying to evolve his Sharingan beyond its three-tomoe stage like he knew Itachi had done. Even now, he knew that none of this was actually helping him, it was merely exhausting him. What had Itachi had done for his power?

Why wasn't he stronger?

Straightening up, Sasuke tried to breathe, but his head swam, and there was a sharp pain from the sealed mark on his neck. Suddenly, the ground was rushing toward him in a haze of darkness. Landing with a soft thump, Sasuke drifted endlessly in his dreams, trying desperately to grasp Itachi.

It felt like he was drowning, like he was dying.

Then, suddenly, the pain was gone, and his vision cleared. Slowly at first, then faster, the darkness peeling away to reveal the clearing. Then, Sasuke noted the Konoha forehead protector, the white hair, and the glasses.

"Who are you?"

"I'm Yakushi Kabuto, a Medical Genin of Konoha," the bespectacled male said, his hands still glowing faintly. "You're lucky I was nearby, training, Uchiha-sama; you nearly died of chakra exhaustion."

"Hn," Sasuke managed, allowing the boy to work his magic. He had to train. Every minute he wasn't getting stronger was another minute Itachi was getting beyond him. Naruto, too, he silently added, willing his body to recover.

"Whew, you've really been pushing it haven't you?" Kabuto said lightly, finishing up. "You should get some rest; I don't think your Clan would appreciate you killing yourself this way."

"I'm fine," Sasuke said curtly, struggling his way upright while shoving the boy aside. Sadly, his body seemed to differ on the subject, and he toppled, almost crashing to the ground yet again, except for the steadying hand of Kabuto, who had caught him.

"So you say, but I think your body has other thoughts on the manner."

"I don't have time for this," Sasuke mumbled, trying to stop the boy from leading him to an almost- undamaged boulder.

"Uchiha-sama, you have to rest," Kabuto said with a slight shake of his head. "I don't understand why you and Uzumaki-san are pushing yourselves so hard."

"Naruto? You've seen him training?" Sasuke demanded, glaring at the man intently.

"Aha, so that's it?" Kabuto said nervously, obviously unnerved. "I don't think you'll reach him this way, though."

Sasuke stared at the older teen intently, willing him to explain what he meant. Wanting to know if this boy had an answer, how to get even stronger. Because Naruto was only short term. He needed long term. He needed to beat Itachi.

"Er... Uchiha-sama, why are you staring at me like that?" Kabuto asked nervously, regaining his feet.

"You said I would be unable to surpass Naruto this way," Sasuke said curtly. "How can I surpass him?"

"Well, I just meant you're both training nearly the same in intensity and amount," Kabuto explained with a shrug, "The only real difference I see is your teachers, rather than your training methods. He has both a Sannin as his teacher, and before that didn't he have a Sannin's former student?"

Sasuke narrowed his eyes, a crease forming between his eyebrows. No wonder that idiot was getting so strong. Sasuke needed to get equal instruction. But the only one who came close was Itachi, and Sasuke was not about to ask him for help. Nor would his older brother deign to help him even if he did ask. After Itachi, who else in this village was worth asking?

"Thank you, Yakushi-san. However, I must resume my trainin-"

"I think you need to rest," Kabuto said firmly, and the next thing Sasuke knew, he was once more enveloped in total darkness.

Kakashi felt trapped; he was not used to being forced to stay in one place. He should have been drifting around the village, keeping an eye on things, not trapped behind this desk. Plus, the paper work never ended, he couldn't go more than five steps from the office without Chūnin guards, and, worst of all, he couldn't get five minutes alone to read his precious. He wasn't even officially the Godaime yet, and he was already being deprived of his joys.

Kakashi was truly beginning to appreciate the horrors of being a Hokage.

Resisting the urge to bang his head on the desk, he instead looked at the shinobi arrayed around the office. There were Homura and Koharu, representatives of the Village Council, and Hyūga Hiashi, sole representative of the Clan Council. Of course, he couldn't over look Gai -Kakashi almost winced just remembering Gai's arrival- and Anko, who had taken to balancing one kunai atop another on her finger.

Shaking his head, he looked up as the door to the office opened and Izumo stuck his head in, confirming that, even after two hours, there were still only three shinobi waiting out there.

"Mitarashi-san," Koharu said, her patience finally breaking. "Would you mind telling us where, exactly, Uzumaki-san is?"

"Training somewhere," Anko supplied succinctly without looking away from her balancing act.

"Naturally, you didn't see a reason to interrupt him for this?" Homura asked with a slight edge to his tone.

"Naturally," Anko agreed, oblivious. "Just a ceremony; he's got the rank either way."

"That is beside the-" Kohura started to say before Kakashi cut her off.

"Bring them in, Izumo," Kakashi sighed, standing as the door opened and the three new Chūnin were led inside. Neji came to a stop on the left, looking aloof; Tenten was on his right, practically bouncing on the balls of her feet. Shino was the last and, as usual an enigma.

"So nice to see all of you," Kakashi said, eye curving upward happily. "I'm pleased to announce that, due to your outstanding abilities, as well as your loyalty and leadership skills, you have been selected to bear a burden few can bear, and even fewer deserve."

Pausing, Kakashi made a motion at the vest laid out on the desk before him. "The rank of Chūnin is very important. You now inherit the responsibilities of solving the problems that beset us all. Threats of war, ancient hatreds, increasing inequality, and deep divisions among our own people."

He felt Hiashi stir slightly, and even Kohura and Homura focused on him intently. It was almost intimidating, but Kakashi had been ANBU Commander for a long time and a student of the Yondaime. This was nothing. Still, he decided to ease off the doom speech.

"Through your use of personal abilities and sacrifice, I am proud to usher you into the ranks of Konoha Chūnin. From here on, you are each entitled to all privileges and befits of said rank, but remember that you must now take up even greater burdens to keep the roots of the great tree that is Konoha firmly rooted."

Pausing one last time, Kakashi gestured at the green flak vests on the desk before each shinobi. "On behalf of the Hokage's office and Hi no Kuni, congratulations on achieving your promotion to the rank of Chūnin."

As expected, Tenten eagerly grabbed hers and put it on, a satisfied grin on her face. Neji and Shino, however, took theirs and held them. Kakashi chuckled at that; he could remember doing that back when he had first been promoted to Chūnin. He was pulled from his musings by Tenten, who had apparently decided to comment on the fourth vest.

"Why were there four?"

"Because," Neji said blandly as he finally seemed to decide to put his on, "obviously, four of us were promoted. The real question should be, 'Who is the fourth person?'"

"Good point," Tenten conceded, putting a finger to her chin thoughtfully. "Well, it might be Sakura or, I guess, the boy with the dog."

"Or Naruto," Shino supplied.

"Yes, he is most likely," Neji agreed, looking at Kakashi curiously. "Why, exactly, is Uzumaki-san not present?"

"He's currently occupied elsewhere," Kakashi said, his eye curving up once more. "Now, all of you get out of here before I sic Anko on you."

Unsurprisingly, Tenten bolted with a hurried bow, Neji inclined his head and walked from the room, and Shino remained motionless before turning and walking out as well. Chuckling to himself, Kakashi sat back down and sighed, glancing at the others who were already in a heated discussion about something. He considered making a break for it, but Izumo was already bringing the day's stack of paperwork.

Kakashi couldn't help but whimper.

"Oi, so the secret was to spin it in more than one direction," Naruto said, holding the water balloon up in his left hand while manipulating it with the fingers of his right. He felt a bit like he was cheating, but he offset that with the fact that he had figured this step out in just three days. "'Cause, if I just spin it in one direction, it just stretched flat, but wouldn't break!"

Grinning at the white -haired man, who was looking on with surprise, Naruto continued his manipulation of the balloon, causing it to become deformed and misshapen. A minute later, the balloon blew apart, drenching Naruto's hand, but the boy never stopped grinning. Yes! He'd done it, he'd figured this out, and he was now one step closer to his dream.

"Creative," Jiraiya said in approval. "So, you use your left hand to spin the chakra, then, grabbing it with your right, use your fingers to manipulate the water into moving in different directions?"

"Yep!" Naruto said with a grin. "I was getting really frustrated, and then, like, I squeezed the balloon really hard and saw it deform. That's when I realized what you were doing! After that, I just played around and came up with that. I could hit it, too, but this way is a bit faster. "

"Well, it's still pretty good for just being at this for three days," Jiraiya said, producing an orange ball. "You got it in about the same time it took me. Now, let's see how you handle this."

Naruto blinked, startled that he had figured something out so quickly, and a little annoyed as the man began bouncing the ball he had produced. Then, he watched as the ball rebounded hard from the ground with a soft 'poing' and then shot into the air before coming down at his face. Naruto reacted quickly, catching the rubber ball, while wincing from the sting in his hand.

"Second Step," Jiraiya intoned solemnly, holding his own ball -with a picture of a frog- up. "Break the ball."

Naruto blinked, then watched as the rubber ball Jiraiya was holding blew apart with a loud ripping noise and a burst of power. Frowning, Naruto looked at his own ball and, placing his hands on it, began working diligently, managing at least one bump before it suddenly stopped.

Panting, he glared at it, then at the old man, before trying again.

He tried for a sold ten minutes, each failed attempt increasing his frustration. He knew that he was doing it just as he had with the water balloon, but this time it wasn't working. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't get it to pop. Panting and hands trembling, Naruto looked up at the smirking Sannin, wondering if maybe this was all just a trick for that man's sick amusement.

"So, you get it now?" Jiraiya asked finally, crossing his arms. "It's at least a hundred times harder than the water balloon. It took me three weeks to figure this step out, and the Yondaime about six months. Of course, he did invent the jutsu and didn't have anyone guiding him."

"Heh," Naruto panted, before concentrating on the ball yet again. This time, however, he considered what he was doing wrong. It wasn't technique, that much he knew. Maybe he should try striking the ball instead of using his fingers? Holding it aloft in his left hand, Naruto took a breath. Then, spinning his chakra, he brought his right hand forward rapidly.

For a minute, he thought it was working: The rubber ball deformed, but then, just as before, it went smooth again. "Gah!" Naruto said loudly, glaring at the ball with pure venom. "What the hell am I doing wrong!?"

"Naruto, the first step was to spin," Jiraiya chuckled. "The second step involves adding power. This is the hardest step because, without water, you can't feel your chakra moving."

"So... I add power," Naruto muttered, glaring at the ball. This stupid thing was getting in his way of being Hokage. Plus, he was determined to surpass the Yondaime. Clutching the ball tightly in his left hand, he began pouring as much chakra into as he could while striking the surface.

He wasn't sure how long he stood there doing this, but suddenly his hand was no longer just tired, it was beginning to hurt.

A lot.

But, the ball was deforming, so he didn't let up, couldn't let up. "I can't fail..." Naruto muttered, pouring even more chakra into it. His head was beginning to swim, his arms to tremble, and his hands to throb with pain. Loosing his concentration, he stumbled, then, shaking his head, he caught his breath and tried again.

Over and over, trying desperately to master this step.

Every last erg of his chakra, he poured it all into the ball until his vision blurred, and, losing concentration, he collapsed to the ground painfully. Breathing heavily, sweating, and unable to see anything but blurs, he lay there, drifting on a sea of thoughts and half-formed dreams. He had to get back up, had to try again, and he even managed to push his way up to his hands and knees.

Then, dry heaving, he collapsed to the ground once more and, thankfully, unconsciousness swept over him.

Still, Naruto never let go of that ball.

Uchiha Fugaku should have been at home, working on keeping the Clan from imploding. Itachi was getting progressively stranger, the others progressively paranoid and Sasuke, was begining to worry both him and Mikoto. Well more Fugaku than Mikoto, for the simple reason that Fugaku knew his youngest son was very obsessive about things.

Of course, he also had to handle his duties as the head of Konoha's Military police force, and things were getting even crazier there.

Yet, instead of handling all of that, he was sitting here, after roughly two weeks of demanding a meeting, wasting his morning staring at Kakashi. The masked man had been a thorn in the Uchiha Clan's side for thirteen years, ever since he had been given that eye. Even Fugaku had a hard time dealing with the masked man; Obito had been his favorite cousin, after all, and it was galling to have a non-Uchiha remain in possession of that eye.

Kakashi had, for the last ten minutes, been listening to Fugaku defend his Sasuke. Fugaku had pointed out that Sasuke had, in a way, been telling the truth. That Sasuke had just been carried away, as children his age were prone to do, and that he knew that not everyone were inferior to the Uchiha.

The entire time Fugaku had explained all of that, Kakashi had listened, and Hyuga Hiashi -Voice for the Clan Council- stood in the corner, smirking. To say that Fugaku was upset would be the understatement of a lifetime. Thankfully, Kakashi was now, as if he was repeating a speech from the Sandaime, accepting Fugaku's explanations.

Fugaku was even beginning to think of how best to work this toward gaining access to the Uzumaki bloodline when his thoughts were utterly disrupted by one sentence.

"-Still, you can understand why we can't allow Sasuke to be promoted," Kakashi said.

Fugaku stared at the man incredulously, his every muscle slack. He shook his head to clear it, determined that he had misheard. "Excuse me? It sounded like you just said you would not allow his promotion."

"Well, he insulted quite a few important people, and he showed no Chūnin qualities in either of his matches-"

"-One of which was interrupted before a final outcome could be determined," Fugaku said firmly. "I'm not sure it should count in either one's case."

"Well, minus that then, he came across extremely badly," Kakashi said blithely. "Plus, there is the simple matter that he ignored orders during a time of crisis, which I could normally understand, except that he went out of his way to do so repeatedly."

"But he saved several academy students and civilians," Fugaku countered.

"Yes, but he jeopardized thousands more by not informing Itachi-san of my message," Kakashi said, nonplussed.

"The Clan's, of course feel the same," Hiashi added indifferently. "His arrogance was atrocious, his skills doubtful, and his reliability nonexistent."

Fugaku glared at the other Clan leader, then turned his attention back to Kakashi. He had to figure some way out of this. Sasuke deserved his promotion much more than the Hyūga or the talentless weapons girl. As for how to convince them of this fact, however, the Uchiha patriarch had no clue.

His only chance was to make it both political and personal. That would force them to grant the promotion. He hated pulling such an underhanded trick, but for Sasuke he would attempt it.

"I will concede that you've raised good points," Fugaku said carefully. "However, please remember that Sasuke is a tad young and prone to saying rash things. He is, however, a capable leader, very talented, and he has the Sharingan, which would be an invaluable asset to a Chūnin."

"Uchiha-san," Hiashi said. "Perhaps you fail to realize that the very people he would be attempting to lead were among the people he insulted? No military commander can lead effectively if his own men are actively hostile toward him."

"I think, Hyūga-san, you underestimate their ability to separate personal conflicts from the professional responsibilities as demanded of a sShinobi," Fugaku countered, pleased that the idiot had provided the opening he needed. "Of course, you could be correct, since it seems that Hatake-san has allowed his anger over having his own technique stolen to influence him. It is an understandable reaction, but you can hardly hold that against Sasuk-"

"Fugaku-san, the decision is not going to change," Kakashi said, cutting him off. "Sasuke can try again in six months, but no one in this village is going to approve his promotion."

Fugaku glared at Kakashi in disbelief. It was all he could do to keep from killing the man. He even envisioned leaping across the desk and decapitating him, but held himself in check. It wouldn't be worth the trouble, but now if he could manage it and then frame the Hyūga he'd not hesitate.

Shaking his head, Fugaku got to his feet and walked out, darkly wondering what he would do now.

The air was still; the only sounds that of rustling of leaves, the distant noise of Lee and Gai training, and the sound of metal weapons striking the hanging targets with an almost inaudible thump. Inhaling calmly, Neji forced the world away even more, attempting to make his mind a clam ocean.

Empty the mind, be formless. Shapeless.

He was serenely aware of the weapons striking the tree, outlining his seated form. Cradling his hands calmly in his lap, he concentrated on his breathing. Slow, steady, controlled. He could feel the connection to his body fading, fading... And then, in the emptiness, of his mind he was jarred by the sudden image of Tenten and a bloody kiss.

Tensing ever so slightly, his was mind jarred back into awareness of the world. Taking another breath, the Hyūga genius forcibly cleared his mind, creating the formless void from before. Breathe in, breathe out, forget the world.

Calm, control, stillness.

His body was falling away yet again; the noise of the world faded away. Then he was jarred back into the world once more by the memory of that bloody kiss, of her screams. This time, he couldn't stop himself from opening his eyes to stare at the girl in question, watching her twirl a kunai around a finger absently.

Beautiful, he thought before closing his eyes once more. Taking a deep breath, he expelled it heavily, berating himself. He should not be thinking of her like that, should not feel anything for her. She was not, he could not, care for her in such away.

Yet, he couldn't get that kiss out of his mind.

She had thought she was dying, he rationalized like he had for the last few weeks. She had a crush on him: he knew it. How could he not, with his eyes? It was understandable that she would do such a thing. As her team mate, he had allowed it because he had thought she was dying. Yet, now, he couldn't let it or the emotions it had stirred within him, go.

He tried to focus on his meditation, on his breathing, but it was impossible. Tenten was dancing through his mind, and he felt a slight grin at the corner of his mouth.

"Neji-kun, are you okay?"

Jarred, but restraining himself from showing a reaction, Neji opened his eyes to stare up at her, almost breathless at her beauty. "Yes, Tenten, I am fine. Why do you ask?"

"Well, you're just... Iunno, a little different lately, is all." Tenten said, kneeling across from him in that casual way of she had. A moment of silence passed between them and then Tenten raised an eyebrow. "So, what do you think was the real reason Naruto wasn't there?"

"He was training," Neji answered simply, thankful that he had something to keep his mind off her and her nearness. "Obviously, he was in a place that he could not return from, and, most likely, he was absorbed in training."

"Yeah, true... He does seem the type," Tenten said thoughtfully, seemingly unaware of his attention. "Still, he's pretty strong. Kind of like Lee. I mean, they're both orphans, and they're both making their own way."

"There are similarities," Neji allowed, closing his eyes. "Though you, too, are making your own way, despite your family."

"Yeah," Tenten said in a low tone.

"You have come a long way," Neji said sincerely, offering her a small nod.

"Thanks," Tenten managed, cheeks tinging red slightly.

Neji changed topics, aware of how close he had strayed to close to certain emotions. "However, Uzumaki-san and Lee do differ in one area. Lee came from a known family; he has a family identity to cling to."

"But Naruto doesn't."

"Exactly, Uzumaki-san has no connections to any family. He has no history, no guidance outside of his sensei. Yet, he has proven himself more than equal to any Hyūga or Uchiha. He has risen to an unbelievable height seemingly from nowhere."

"Sounds like you respect him," Tenten said, raising an eyebrow. "Maybe even a bit jealous?"

"Respect? Yes, it would be foolish not to respect his strength. Much as it is foolish to not respect a tiger," Neji explained, closing his eyes. "However, I am not jealous. His strength is dangerous: Without a Clan identity to guide him, there is no telling what will happen."

"... Are you actually worried?" Tenten questioned nervously.

"Hai. He is likely to crumble under the weight of his own strength."

"You raise several good points," Tenten said with a small grin. "However, you still haven't kissed me."

"What are yo-meph!" Neji managed, totally off guard as Tenten leaned forward and kissed him.

When she broke the kiss and sat back, she had a wide grin on her face and a knowing sparkle in her eyes. "Now, next time, you have to kiss me," Tenten teased and then, climbing to her feet, she turned back to her weapons training.

Neji stared after her, then absently reached up to touch his lips. "Gladly," he whispered, then, cupping his hands, returned to his futile efforts at meditation.

"Gah!" Naruto cried as he collapsed in a heap yet again.

His heart was racing wildly, his hand no longer even able to ache. It felt like the nerves had been damaged beyond repair, but he knew that if he waited a minute or so they would be fine. Still, two weeks of this torture, two weeks of just trying to pop one stupid rubber ball.

He was just wasting chakra, no matter how much he poured into the damn thing. Plus, that stupid concentration mark wasn't helping either.

"This has to be the limit," Naruto murmured to himself as he rolled over onto his back to try and ease his breathing. Drifting for a moment, his eyes closed, until he felt something settle on his forehead. Opening his eyes, he reached up to discover that it was a leaf, which prompted him to chuckle as he stared at it sightlessly for several long minutes, remembering the academy.

Iruka had tried so hard to teach him concentration. He could even vaguely remember the story of the leaf. "Heh, I should have listened to Iruka-sensei back then..."

Closing his eyes, Naruto knew that he probably would stand a better chance of concentrating if it wasn't for the pain. It was like every time he let his chakra flow unchecked, the pain got worse, and it destroyed his concentration. He had to increase his chakra until it explod- Suddenly he sat up, eyes wide, as his mind latched onto a solution.

The pain was the key! If he increased his chakra right up to his threshold and maintained it there, he could concentrate. He had the answer! Getting to his feet hurriedly, the blond clutched the ball tightly in his hands and closed his eyes, building his chakra, while chanting 'concentrate' silently to himself.

It started small, stinging in his arms. Then, sharper stabs. The pain grew and grew, telling him that he was close because he never once stopped concentrating.

"Not yet," he murmured, feeling the pain grow closer to what he sought. Eyes now clenched, he screwed up every ounce of his concentration on swirling the chakra in his hands wildly.

"Gahhhhh!" Naruto shouted, eyes snapping open as the ball exploded. The force of the explosion lifted him off his feet and sent him hurtling backwards until he crashed to the ground on his side and skidded to a stop against Jiraiya's leg. Breathing heavily, unable even to see clearly, Naruto still grinned.

He'd done it!

"Second stage mastered..." Jiraiya said, a worried frown on his face.

"Hahahaha," Naruto managed, focusing his eyes on the man. He was far too giddy with excitement stop and care why the man was looking worried. "Let's get the third stage going now!"

"Not right now; you need to rest... We'll get some ramen."

At the mere mention of his precious ramen, Naruto was on his feet and running, a cloud of dust rising behind him. He had been doing a lot of training, a lot of fighting, and he had been denied the most perfect gift that the kami had ever deigned to bestow. Ramen, delicious, mouth watering, ramen!

Skidding to a halt outside of his favorite ramen stand, the blond shinobi blinked in surprise to find Jiraiya already standing there.

"What took you?"

Naruto, however, ignored this and darted into the stand happily, plopping himself down at the bar, stomach growling.

"Eh? Naruto-kun?" Ayame said startled, eyes wide. "It is you! Hey, dad! Naruto's back!"

"What?! Really?!" the old man said, coming from the back, a look of disbelief on his face. "Well, I'll be, it is him! Where've you been?"

"Ramen now," Naruto said, with a grin, "talk later!"

"Of course, of course," the old man said with a mock sigh, turning to his pots.

"So, what would you like?" Ayame asked with that soft smile she usually wore.

"Five Hokage -sized Miso Ramens, three large, two regular, and a small," Naruto said, drooling.

"Geez, are you really that hungry?" Jiraiya asked, sitting down beside him.

"What'cha talkin' about, Ero-sennin?" Naruto asked in surprise. "That was just an appetizer!"

"Eh?" Jiraiya managed in surprise.

"Oi, oi, and Ayame-neechan?" Naruto said, turning back to the girl who just smiled all the more at him. "He's the grown up so he's paying, neh?"

"Of course," Ayame agreed happily.

"SAY WHAT?!" Jiraiya bellowed. "I AM NOT GOING TO PAY FOR YOUR-"

"B-but how can you not?" Ayame said, pouting cutely, much like she usually did whenever Iruka started questioning his decision in treating Naruto to lunch.

"...Not that," Jiraiya whimpered. "Anything but the puppy dog look..."

Ayame jutted her lip out adorably and somehow her eyes got twice as pleading. "Pwetty pwease? Naruto-kun deserves it... For me?"

"...okay," Jiraiya said in utter defeat, just like Iruka.

"YES! Oi, old man, add a couple of number sevens and eights to that first order!" Naruto cheered, even as the first bowl was placed before him. After offering up a tearful thanks, Naruto set about satisfying his lust for ramen in a typical feeding frenzy.

Three hours later, a very happy Ayame and an ecstatic old man waved a sated Naruto and crying old pervert from their now- closed stand.

"Oi, that was great!" Naruto said happily, hands behind his head. "Thanks for treating me..."

"...How in the hell," Jiraiya managed thickly, "can any human, even a wannabe Hokage, close a ramen stand in just three hours?! Do you realize how much you just ate? Or how much that cost me?!"

"Hehe, but I was hungry. I haven't had ramen from there in forever," Naruto said, grinning. "Oi, plus, like, it really helps them out, ya know?"

"...Not even Arashi liked those stupid mochi this much and he was always eating those every time I turned around!" Jiraiya grumbled. "Thank the kami I'll be leaving; I'd be broke in a week trying to feed you."

"Huh? You're leavin'?" Naruto asked, focusing on the man, raising an eyebrow. "Why?"

"Not until I explain the third step," Jiraiya said, resigned, "and because the ANBU have finally found Tsunade's location. I'll have to hustle to catch her before she disappears again."

"Ahah," Naruto said, nodding seriously as his mind drifted back to the Sandaime. "So, so, what's next? You said there were three steps, right?"

"Hold on," Jiraiya said, stopping briefly to buy a pack of balloons from a vendor. Then, walking once more, he blew one up absently. Finishing, he handed it to Naruto and began blowing yet another one up.

"Another balloon?"

"The first step was to spin, the second step was power..." Jiraiya explained as they finally entered a nearby training area. Turning, he held his balloon up at eye level for Naruto. "The third step is this."

"Huh? I don't get it," Naruto said, studying the balloon intently. It looked like nothing was even happening. "What the hell, you're not doing anything!"

"Well, I suppose that's how it looks," Jiraiya said with a chuckle, before holding his other hand up. "Here, tell me what you see now."

Naruto blinked, then watched in amazement as chakra formed in the palm of his hand. Only, it was a perfect sphere, with no bumps or deformities. It was beautiful to see, like a pocket-sized typhoon, and suddenly he realized what was happening inside the balloon. "Oi, so, that's what's happening in the balloon?"

"Right in one."

Fixing his attention on the balloon, Naruto felt overwhelmed. With all that chakra spinning, the balloon wasn't even twitching. It was obvious that the sphere had way more power and speed than when he popped that rubber ball.

"Okay, listen carefully, since you'll be working on your own from now on," Jiraiya said, allowing the sphere to dissipate. "This third step is combining all you learned from the previous two, and charging it.

"Charging it?"

"Basically, you spin your chakra as fast as you can while increasing your chakra to the maximum limit," Jiraiya explained, holding the balloon up carefully. "The trick is, you have to make a wall within the balloon and concentrate your power."

"So, basically," Naruto deadpanned, "I do all the spinning and power from before, but try not to pop the balloon."

"Heh, you have gotten quicker."

"Oi, but why bother?" Naruto asked, scowling in thought. Honestly, the second step seemed pretty damn powerful already. "I mean, it's just wasted chakra, right? So, so, why bother?"

"Watch," Jiraiya said, moving to a nearby training post. He gathered his chakra, much like the second step, before slamming it against the post. The power dissipated quickly, leaving behind deep, spiraling grooves into the training post. "That was the second step. This is the third step."

A second later he shoved his hand forward, the chakra swirling into the pocket-sized typhoon as it connected with the post. This was followed by a cracking sound and then the training post exploded into splinters.

Covering his face, Naruto flinched back from the reaction. Recovering, Naruto lowered his harms, staring with wide eyes at what remained of the post, then looked at the man. "Whoa!"

"See, if you can keep that 'typhoon' of chakra in a sphere, the power doesn't scatter," Jiraiya said with a nod. "The power becomes concentrated to an extremely high level."

Looking at the balloon he was still holding, he narrowed his eyes before grinning thinly. This was it, the big step, and it was going to be hard. Naruto wouldn't give up; this was, for all intents and purposes, a family technique, and however he may have felt about the Yondaime, he wanted some connection to him. "I can do this."

"Good. Now, practice every chance you get. This step can be done walking down the street, eating, just sitting around..." Jiraiya admitted, picking up his scroll and looking at Naruto. "Remember, this is an extremely powerful jutsu. Don't use it lightly."

"Oi, do you have to leave right now?"

"Tsunade-hime won't stay in one place for long, and the ANBU have been working hard to find her. I can't waste any time. You've got the jutsu; now you just have to master it."

"Aright," Naruto said, then, grasping the balloon in his hands, began concentrating. Everything else was secondary right now; all that mattered was completing this jutsu.

A soft swish of noise, branches creaking and leaves rustling. A glint of bone-white porcelain in the moonlight. A lingering baleful aura filling the night as it came to rest on a telephone pole high over the Uchiha district.

Crouching down, the armored figure tensed, then relaxed.

Uchiha Itachi was considered the Clan's golden boy, he was a genuis among genuises. Graduated at the top of his Academy class at age seven, had mastered the Sharingan by age eight, became a Chūnin at ten, and became an ANBU squad captain at the age of thirteen.

Of course, as his mother had pointed out recently, that was nothing impressive.

Sasuke, who had graduated at tweleve, by all rights should have graduated equally early. However, times had changed and early graduation was no longer allowed, even for genuises. Itachi however, ignored this as Sasuke was and always would be, their mother's favorite.

Instead he focused on something much more important, just how much longer he could delay the inevitable. Closing his eyes, he concentrated and reopened them, Sharingan evolving into three elongated swirls before stalling. Everything was clearer, sharper, brighter, but ultimately no different.

He felt a spike of mild frustration at that, still just on the cusp of his final step toward maximum capcity. Silently, he allowed his eyes return to normal and stared down into the silent streets beneath him. It had been this way since the death of Shisui, so close and yet so far.

He had pondered the problem for a long time and had only recently begun to realize the solution. The first part of it was the simple fact that Itachi had not cared for Shisui very much, nor feared his death. Hence it had only nudged his Sharingan forward, frustating him to no end.

The second part was capcity, Itachi was coming to understand that while he had an unbelievable large chakra capcity, the Mangekyou probaby required an even larger one. So he had been building up his capacity, doubling then tripling it, until he felt the maxmium effect.

The third and final part was how, exactly, to finish the development of the Mangekyou Sharingan. Forcing it was pointless and did more harm than good, which made him realize that he would merely have to find someone else. Who, exactly that would be he had no idea, Itachi after all did not feel close to anyone.

Still, he had not given up on this. After deep consideration, thought and rereading the of the Uchiha Clan scoll, he had come to the solution. With his capacity at is peek, the answer was simply to kill all of them. Every last Uchiha, the entire clan, until his eye made its final evolution.

That solution however, had been placed on hold, at first because doing so would leave him with no place to go and further his goals. But with Orochimaru's offer, signified by the Suzaku ring he now wore, that was no longer the case. No now he hesitated only becasue of how many high level ninja were active at the moment, not the least of which was Jiriaya of the Sannin.

Itachi was no fool, any man that had completed one hundred and thirty-eight S-rank missions was not one to risk fighting before he evolved his eye completely. Still this had not meant Itachi was doing nothing, he had taken advantage of the Unity affair and removed all those Uchiha that lived outside the compound. Distant aunts, uncles and cousins who could never develop or pass along the Sharingan.

Now with Jiriaya finally leaving the village, along with the other high level ninja easing up and lowering their guards, Itachi knew his time to strike was approaching. The Mangekyou was perfect for his goals, and he would willingly sacrifice all of them until he found the one to grant it to him.

Just a week left, a week before he was to offer his answer to Orochimaru and join Akatsuki, a week until his capacity was just that much clearer, that much larger. All that was required of him, Uchiha Itachi, was the total errdication of his clan and leaving his brother alive for whatever twisted goals Orochimaru had in mind.

Unless Sasuke was needed, Itachi silently amended. If Sasuke's life was needed to evolve his eyes, then Orochimaru would be denied that boy. Yet it didn't matter; all that did was achieving his goals.

A cloud drifted over the moon, and, when it passed, Uchiha Itachi was nowhere to be found.

...five minutes to midnight and counting...


I extended the opening from the orginal version. Basically, I added the whole Kyubi scene just for this update...and no it wasn't actually a visit with the Kyubi. More like it was using the only access it still had, Naruto's dreams, to fuck with the boys head.