Chapter 3: A New Direction

Ichiraku's Ramen Stand always seemed to calm Naruto. He wasn't sure if it was the delicious taste and aroma of the food, the nice conversations with the old man, or just the smiling face of Ayame. It was as if the moment he sat down on one of the stools all the troubles in the world seemed to just disappear, if only for a little while.

So when old man Ichiraku placed down a bowl of his new 'Seafood Special Ramen' for Naruto to taste test, he practically forgot all about the week's troubling events with Kakashi, Sakura, and everything about the Chuunin Exams. Naruto was about half way done with his bowl, since he always took his time with new flavors of ramen, and still waiting for the closet pervert to show up when the old man asked "So Naruto, word's been slow traveling around about the third exam. I wanna hear it from someone who was there. Aside from you, who's in the finals?"

At hearing that, Naruto smiled. It was not one of his large foxy grins that he showed to the world all the time, but a small and honest smile.

'Heh, it's just like him to think I got into the third exam without even asking me first.'

Old man Ichiraku always seemed to know what to say to make him feel better about anything, and the chef was better at reading him than even Hokage-ojisan. When it was just the three of them in the small restaurant, Naruto liked to think that this was what it would be like… to have a family. Where everyone would get together during a meal to talk about nothing and everything and just be there for each other. Yea, this was what having a family was supposed to be like, he just knew it.

Naruto slurped up the bit of noodles that were hanging out of his mouth and answered "Well there's me, Sasuke-teme, Neji Hyuuga, eh… and Shikamaru. I think that's it for the Leaf… oh wait, Shino's in the finals too." It was kind of sad, now that Naruto actually was thinking about it. Over a hundred Leaf ninja had started the Chuunin Exams, and only the five of them would even have a shot at becoming a chuunin.

Naruto took another mouthful of noodles as old man Ichiraku whistled in disbelief and asked another question.

"Geez, that's it? Well who's gonna be there from the other countries? Anybody well known or a good fighter? I'm thinking about going to the arena and closing the shop for the day if I know the matches are gonna be good."

Naruto thought about the opponents from the other villages, they were all crazy in one way or another. And he really wasn't looking forward to fighting that one guy, Gaara of the Desert. It was weird, every time Naruto saw or thought about the red-head from Sand he would suddenly get a feeling of… familiarity… or something. There was something about Gaara that Naruto could just feel. It was as if he had met the guy before somewhere. Eh, he'd think about it after he had finished his ramen.

"There's a team from Sand, and all of them got into the third exam." At this both Ayame's and Teuchi's eyes widened. It was almost unheard of for an entire team to make it into the third exam if there were preliminary matches held to cut down the participants. They were both civilians but they knew the difficulties of the Chuunin Exams, they lived in a ninja village after all. For all three to make it into the finals… those three genin were probably very good.

Oblivious to the others' reactions, Naruto continued talking while slurping at the broth. "One of them uses these weird sand jutsus. His teammate, make-up face, uses puppets. And the girl on their team uses a big fan to cut people. Then… there's this one-eyed hunchback from Hidden Sound. I think that's everyone who made it."

Teuchi Ichiraku narrowed his eyes as Naruto finished describing the other participants of the Chuunin Exams. That Sand team sounded really familiar. Teuchi had visited the Village of the Hidden Sand several months before, and distinctly remembered hearing about some monster of a ninja that used sand to kill anyone and everyone in his path. The elderly ramen chef had actually been told that the genin was a monster. Of course he didn't believe such things, if he did then the blonde orphan sitting in front of him… well the boy wouldn't be sitting in front of him. The weird thing was that it was supposedly the Fourth Kazekage's youngest son who was a monster….

At that thought the elderly ramen stopped tossing the noodles in mid-swing. His daughter instantly noticed and asked what was wrong, but he didn't even register her concerned words as he made the connection.

'People think Naruto is a monster because the Fourth Hokage sealed the Kyuubi in him, and if people think the son of the Fourth Kazekage is a monster then…'

No. No, no, there was no way a father would do something like that to his own son. It was unthinkable. He would never have been able to even think about doing something like that to his precious Ayame. He would never force a burden like that onto someone, especial his own child, he loved his little girl far too much.

But the connection made sense. If this 'sand jutsu genin' was like Naruto, then it would explain why he wouldn't care for anyone, why he would hate everyone. To be hated and not given any respite, to have no safe haven to run to. Teuchi suddenly found himself wondering what the young man sitting at one of his stools would have turned out like if he had never found Ichiraku's Ramen Stand, or if he had turned the boy away like everyone else. The very idea made him shiver.

Naruto snapped the cook out of his thoughts. "Hey old man, you alright? You just kinda stopped moving all of a sudden."

Teuchi realized that he had indeed been acting strangely. It wasn't everyday that he just stood stock still in the middle of making his ramen. But at that moment he really didn't care about how he looked to Naruto or his daughter. The only thing he cared about was figuring out if there might be a way to help another boy like Naruto. He wasn't really sure what drove him, but the thought of someone being forced to become a monster because everyone thought of that person as a monster to begin with… it was just wrong. People like Naruto were forced to bear a burden that normal people couldn't comprehend, and they hated those that carried the burden because of that.

Teuchi, who was still distressing his best customer and his daughter with his actions suddenly asked "Naruto, how did other people from the Hidden Sand treat that sand jutsu kid? How did they act around him?"

Naruto tilted his head and squinted his eyes. This was just getting weird. Er… well… weirder. First old man Ichiraku just freezes in place and then he asks this completely random question about some foreign ninja. Eh, the old man was taking this somewhere, so he might as well go along with it.

Naruto thought back to how Gaara'a teammates and sensei had looked and acted around him, and how make-up face had talked about him. Naruto's brow furrowed as he answered.

"It was like… they were afraid he was gonna do something. And then when Gaara got injured in his match with bushy-brows, make-up face said it wasn't a good thing, and he seemed kinda scared." Naruto paused, remembering Gaara's actions at the end of that match. The guy had acted weird, like Gaara couldn't understand why Lee's sensei had stepped in to save his life. It was like… it was like… Gaara didn't understand what it meant to care for people. But that was stupid wasn't it? Everybody had precious people, and it was only natural to protect them…

Naruto stopped that train of thought as he looked back on his own life, just a few years before. Before he had found Ichiraku's Ramen Stand after he failed the Genin exam the first time. Before Iruka-sensei had started being nice to him in his final year at the Academy. Before he had met Konohamaru and Moegi and Udon by mere chance. In an instant, Naruto saw what Teuchi had mere minutes before.

Fear from his teammates. Not understanding other people. Abilities that no one else could do. The feeling of familiarity… it was because Gaara had lived through the same things he had. Which meant…

Naruto's voice was hoarse and hesitant "You… you think… he might be like me?"

At his words, Ayame's eyes widened. While she had been young, merely three years old, at the time of the fox's attack on the village, she knew of Naruto's role of being the Kyuubi vessel. She had at first avoided Naruto at all costs, but her father sat her down and explained that to think the boy and the demon were one and the same would be an insult to the Fourth. She had taken her father's words to heart, but it had only been after she had actually spoken to the fox vessel did she actually start to believe them. She had been amazed at how the boy had seemed to cling onto any kindness shown to him, and just how trusting he had been with anyone that gave him attention. Later on, she realized the truth.

Naruto had been desperate. He had been desperate to find someone, anyone that didn't hate him or ignore him entirely. He had been desperate trying to find a reason to keep living. After that day, she simply couldn't find it within herself to ever say anything cruel or mean to him. She couldn't help but be kind to the blonde, once she realized how close Naruto had come to simply giving up on life. To think that there was someone else, someone who had been through the same things, and had never found that someone who accepted them… Oh Kami…

"I have to help him." Naruto whispered, but it was heard clearly by both members of the Ichiraku family. Both Ayame and Teuchi couldn't help but nod. Naruto was practically a part of their family, and they knew that something like this would force Naruto into action. And like any good family, they would help however they could.

Naruto, not even noticing their reactions, was lost in his own thoughts. Suddenly everything that he had noticed about Gaara made sense, and it all just clicked into place in his mind. How his teammates had been terrified when Gaara had shown up in that alleyway. How Gaara had threatened to kill his own comrades without even batting an eye. Why Gaara couldn't comprehend the acts of kindness. It was because he had probably never been shown any.

Naruto steeled himself and resolved to help Gaara. He refused to believe that Gaara was too far gone. Naruto had been saved from being alone simply because a few people treated him like a normal person, and he would do the same for Gaara. He would not pity Gaara, he would not sympathize. Those were things Naruto hated, and he was positive Gaara would hate it too. He would simply be there for the redheaded genin, as a friend. He would show Gaara what it meant to truly care for people, as Haku had shown him.

'Besides', Naruto thought, 'what kind of Hokage would I be, if I can't save someone from himself.'


Ebisu walked into Ichraku's Ramen Stand to find Naruto and the two workers talking fervently with each other. Each had a look of intense thought and determination on their face, and the special-jounin caught the last bit of one of Naruto's sentences as he entered.

"-vince him. It'll work, I know it will. You better believe it." Naruto nodded his head enthusiastically as he finished speaking.

As soon as they noticed Ebisu, everyone stopped talking and just stared at him. He almost felt like just turning around and leaving, the intensity of the stares was so great. The old chef broke the uneasy silence when he noticed the forehead protector on Ebisu's bandana.

"Hey Naruto, is this who you're meeting? I thought you said your sensei was supposed to be stopping by. And I know you instructor is the Copy-nin Kakashi, so who is this guy?" It was a rude question, considering that Ebisu was standing right in front of them. But more than one ninja who felt like harassing Naruto would come to the stand and wait for him, and Teuchi Ichiraku would be damned if he let that happen in his own restaurant.

Teuchi paused however, when he saw Naruto's face. The blonde's eyes were closed and scrunched, as if he was in pain, and his eyebrows were furrowed. For a moment Naruto looked old, far older than he was. Teuchi was suddenly reminded that the boy, despite his normally positive demeanor and optimism, had still lived through far more than he himself probably ever would. And the old chef suddenly knew that something had happened recently, during the Chuunin Exams. Something had hurt the boy, and hurt him deeply.

"Naruto?" Ayame questioned hesitantly.

After a small moment of tense silence, Naruto responded.

"Kakashi-san didn't want to train me, since it would take up too much of his time to help Sasuke. He asked Ebisu-sensei here to help me with my basics instead. He's gonna be training me this month." As he finished speaking the blonde ninja went back to eating his ramen, as if he hadn't just said his teacher had abandoned him.

Ayame just stood in place, trying to wrap her mind around what Naruto said. She was well aware that people died in the exams, and if Naruto wasn't prepared… she couldn't even finish the thought. Her father started sputtering something about stupid Uchiha punks getting everything. It was no secret that Teuchi disliked Sasuke Uchiha. He had sympathized with the boy after the Uchiha Massacre, but he didn't think it gave the so-called Last Uchiha the right to step all over other people. He had, sadly, lost a good deal of business after his sentiments became known, and many considered him cold-hearted for thinking such a thing about the victim of a horrible tragedy.

Ebisu, believing that he was now allowed into the ramen stand, walked forward and took a seat next to Naruto as he introduced himself. "I am Ebisu, Elite Personal Teacher, and-"

"A closet pervert."

Ebisu sharply turned his head to glare at Naruto, only to find him loudly slurping at his ramen. With his eyes narrowed, trying to figure how the boy managed to eat and speak at the same time, the special-jounin continued. "And" He whipped his head around again to look at Naruto, as if daring him to interrupt once more. Sensing that he wouldn't, Ebisu kept going. "I am going to be training Naruto-kun in far more than just the basics, as Kakashi-kun requested. I have already come up with a training regimen, several ninjutsu he is going to learn, and a taijutsu style that I believe fits him quite well. With this, I have no doubt he will become a chuunin."

Both Teuchi and Ayame's faces lit up after hearing Ebisu's words. It was the first time they had ever heard about someone actively taking a part in Naruto's ninja life, aside from Iruka. Naruto, on the other hand, was quite vocal in his disbelief at what the special-jounin had said.

"Yea, yea, that's really impressive closet pervert, but how am I supposed to learn all that in a month." Naruto was proud of what skills he did have and he thought he picked up on things pretty quick, but to be able to learn all that and be good at those jutsus and such within four weeks…. It wasn't gonna happen, and he couldn't go against Neji Hyuuga only knowing half of a taijutsu style.

Ebisu, on other hand, was actually glad Naruto was questioning him. It would give him a chance to prove that he was a far better instructor than Kakashi. It was the perfect opportunity to be able to demonstrate his truly massive and clearly superior grasp of the shinobi arts. He was after all, Ebisu, the Elite Personal Teacher. However… the boy didn't seem to know about the benefits of shadow clones, which was disturbing since it was the brat's most often used jutsu. Certainly Kakashi had told him about it… never mind.

"Naruto-kun, you use the Kage Bunshin no Jutsu quite a bit don't you?"

Naruto nodded, of course he did. It was the best jutsu he knew. But what did that have to do with anything?

"Have you ever noticed that when you use it, you just might see things from a different perspective, hmm?" Ebisu silently prayed that the boy would pick up on it, otherwise training this month might be a little bit more difficult than he first assumed. Besides, the boy needed to learn to pick up on subtle hints and cues, especially if he couldn't figure out this not-so-subtle-hint.

Naruto's head tilted as his eyes scrunched up and his mouth thinned. The blonde genin had indeed picked up on the stressed words, and he knew that they had something to do with his favorite jutsu since the questions were right after the other, but what? Well, okay, he'd look back on the last time he'd used the jutsu… which was… his match against Kiba today. Yea, when he used that totally cool new move of his along with his shadow clones to win the fight. He didn't remember anything out of the ordinary when he did it though. First he had kicked Kiba in the chest, sides and back so he soared into the air, and then he had done an axe kick to the Inuzuka's face… wait.

'I didn't kick him in the first part of the combo, I just did the axe kick, so why do I remember kicking him the other times. I had my clones… do… that.'

Naruto blinked slowly as the thought entered his head. So… if he used the jutsu, and he remembered doing things from the match that his clones had done… then… he… should remember… other things his clones did? Maybe? Okay, he'd go back further, during that fight with the team from Rain in the second exam. He remembered… punching one illusion in the face while a few feet past that he had a clone kneeing another in the chin. And then he had a memory of kneeing one of them in the chin while seeing a clone punch another in the face… what the hell?!?

He had memories of punching two different illusions at the same freaking time! How had he not noticed this!

With his eyes widened in realization, he looked over at Ebisu. The blonde genin's jaw was wide open and he had a batch of noodles hanging out of his mouth. This was unreal. He knew the things his clones did. This… this… this was flipping awesome! He could just have a clone do one thing, while he was doing another! No! Scratch that! He would have a dozen clones doing something, and a dozen others doing other stuff while the real him could just lounge around eating ramen all day. This was so sweet.

Ebisu was inwardly grinning at the dumbstruck look on Naruto's face, though on the outside he hadn't let any of his approval show. It seemed as though the orange clad young man had figured it out, as well as thought of all the possibilities this new information about the Kage Bunshin no Jutsu offered. Ebisu had to admit, if only to himself, that if it weren't for the learning abilities that the Kage Bunshin no Jutsu possessed, he probably wouldn't be a special-jounin. It was the fastest way to learn anything, and if a clone had an idea about a how a jutsu could be improved or learned, that idea was simply absorbed into the original once the clones were dispelled.

The special-jounin chuckled silently to himself. 'Oh yes, Naruto-kun will beat the Uchiha with this training, and I will be known as a better teacher than the Copy-nin himself!'

Granted, he was sure that training Naruto would be an… enlightening experience, but the reward… oh the reward would be so magnificent. Naruto would become a chuunin, making it one step closer to his dream of being Hokage. As for himself, he would achieve the reputation of being able to turn a dead-last of the academy into a true shinobi in a single month. Or… he would get a bad reputation for training the so called "demon brat". Eh, who cared what those people thought. He sure wouldn't.

"Now that you figured it out Naruto-kun, there are some things that you need to know about using it. While the clones will transfer all their memories to you, the real you still needs to train so you can maintain your physical abilities. So you will not be allowed to be lollygagging and letting the jutsu do all the work for you."

Naruto stared back blankly in response.

Ebisu sighed before making it clearer. "It means you will have to be training alongside your clones."

Damn. Well there went his "eat ramen all day" idea. And he had really been looking forward to that. Speaking of ramen, he still had to ask the closet pervert why he gave those orders about Sakura-chan and his favorite food.

"Okay I get it, closet pervert, no slackin' off, but I gotta ask you about this ramen and Sakura-chan thing you told me to do. What's up with those orders of yours, huh?"

Ebisu was slightly angry at the fact that Naruto continued to call him closet pervert in front of other people, but with a quick glance towards the two chefs, he realized they didn't care what Naruto was calling him. They just continued on with their business while listening in on what he would be doing to help Naruto for the Chuunin Exams. Ayame was wiping the counter while her father was boiling some eggs for the next batch of ramen, so he decided he would the comment slide. This time.

He'd beat it into the brat's head not to call him that eventually, but right now he had to convince the blonde that his obsessions most definitely needed to be removed. Or at the very least, they needed to be curbed. He was very glad he already had come up with some reasons that Naruto would listen to.

"Alright Naruto-kun, let's start off with what I said about the Haruno girl. I'm going to ask you some questions, and I want you to answer them quickly and honestly okay?"

Naruto squinted his eyes in hesitation, trying to figure out where the older ninja was going to go with these questions, but figured it he should play along. After a moment, he nodded.

"Good, good. Now tell me, how often does the Haruno girl ask out the Uchiha?" Ebisu asked as he mentally smiled. This plan was going to work for sure!

"All the time! Like at least once a day. I mean what has he ever done for her? He just tells her to go away or to leaver him alone. I don't know what she sees in him." As Naruto finished ranting he went back to finishing another bowl of ramen as he waited for Ebisu to ask the next question. If he had looked at the special-jounin's face, however, he would have seen the grin hidden behind the hands clasped together in front of Ebisu's face.

"So, what do you think most girls see in the Uchiha then?"

Naruto paused as he swallowed some of his food before responding. He had heard more than enough from Sakura-chan and Ino to piece together what they saw in the Uchiha prodigy. "All the girls think that he's handsome, and a good ninja, and smart, and from a good family. I mean, I know he's a good ninja, I've admitted to it. But… that doesn't make him a good person. You should've seen it when he got angry at Sakura-chan for caring about him during the preliminaries! He's such a bastard!"

Ebisu's grin was now bordering on predatory. He had Naruto cornered for when he threw in the final piece. But it wasn't time yet. There was still more that he would make Naruto realize.

"What do you think the Uchiha has done do deserve such… devotion from Sakura?"

Naruto's answer made Ebisu even happier. "Absolutely nothin'. Like I said, he's a bastard. If a girl asks him out he just blows her off like she's worthless, or he's mean and tells them not to be so annoying." Naruto snorted. "I'd never treat a girl like that."

Ebisu's grin was vanishing slowly, though he was ecstatic at how smoothly this plan of his was coming along. He just couldn't let Naruto know it he had been aiming for these kinds of answers.

"Now Naruto-kun, this is the final question, and then I'm going to ask you to compare something. What do you think of fan-girls?"

Naruto didn't even bother answering that question with words. He just made a vomiting motion and then went back to eating his ramen. In Ebisu's mind, he was doing a victory dance.

"I thought so. Now Naruto-kun, I want you to compare how the Uchiha treats his fan-girls, to how the Haruno girl treats you. Then compare what she has done do deserve the kind of devotion you show her and how the Uchiha deserves the devotion she gives him."

As soon as Ebisu stopped talking, Naruto's mind went into overdrive. He instantly remembered everything he had just said during the series of questions and was about ready to smash his head into the countertop. He knew that Ebisu had tricked him into realizing just how similar Sasuke-teme and Sakura-chan were when it came to others trying to win their affection. But that wasn't all he was upset about.

What really upset him, was that the comparison's were almost exact. Sasuke blew off anyone he felt wasn't worth his time, which was everyone, and Sakura-chan blew off everyone but Sasuke. Then there was the way they treated every that was interested in them. It was the same. Sasuke's fan-girls asked him out constantly only to be turned away like trash. Just like Sakura-chan did to him when he asked her out, except that he usually got bruises in addition to the regular rejection she gave.

'And broken teeth.' He thought, as his tongue felt out the new incisors in his mouth.

The final comparison, though, was what ended his crush of 5 long years, ever since he had first spoken to her at the academy so long ago.

What had Sakura-chan done for him to be so in love with her? He had shown her kindness, shown her compassion, was always there when the bastard Uchiha knocked her down with his rejections. She had done nothing, he realized. Nothing was deserving of the affection he showed her. All his time at the academy, all his time on team 7, he had believed he was in love with her. He couldn't deny that she was beautiful to him, that would be nothing but a straight out lie. But he saw it now. He wasn't in love with her. She wasn't his Sakura-chan. She had never been. He had blinded himself the same way the Sasuke fan-girls blinded themselves to how Sasuke treated them. He had seen her as a beautiful girl that was foolishly following the Uchiha. But was he any better?

'No.' He thought. He hadn't been any better than a pathetic fan-boy when it came to Sakura-ch… Sakura. He hung his head, and realized that all the time he had spent on his pink haired teammate had been for nothing. He was ashamed. All that time, everyday… he had been as foolish as the girls he made fun of.

Ebisu noticed Naruto's lowering mood and decided to step in before the blonde orphan got some ridiculous notion that he was the one at fault for all this. The special-jounin sighed. He would probably have to teach the boy not to blame himself for everything that went wrong.

"Naruto-kun, don't blame yourself. It is the Haruno girl's fault, and the Uchiha's as well. Don't believe even for a moment that you have the right to think you're the one to be blamed." At those words, Naruto lifted up his head and turned to look at Ebisu. The blue-clad ninja was once again caught off guard by just how strikingly blue they were. A small and genuine smile, one of the few that Ebisu had ever seen on Naruto, adorned the blonde's face. The orphan then said a single word, which was soft and heartfelt.


Ebisu could only nod in response as he wondered if Kakashi had ever talked like this to the boy. The special-jounin sadly noted that it wasn't very likely, and the more he thought about it the more he knew he would be arguing with the copy-nin during the day of the finals.

Every extra minute Ebisu was spending with Naruto, he was realizing that not only had the genin not had anyone to help him with his ninja training, he had no one to help him… at all. To grow, to mature. There was no one, except for Iruka Umino, who was almost always trying to convince others hat Naruto was just a young, lonely boy. And Ebisu realized that even if anyone believed the chuunin teacher, no one had acted on it. Naruto had no one to teach him how to respond to certain situations, not on the battlefield, but in life. He had no one he could really go to if he had a problem, he had no role model, except for these two restaurant workers and an overworked academy teacher.

These thoughts, of course, brought out many questions that he was honestly afraid of hearing the answers. Had anyone taught Naruto to read? To write? Had anyone explained the concepts of love and relationships? Had anyone sat him down and given him the talk about sex and puberty? About what words just weren't to be used in public? How to show respect to someone of a higher status?

Each question brought about sinking feeling in his gut, but also a determination to teach the blonde orphan not just about being a ninja, but about being a person. And he was going start now.

"So" Ebisu started, trying to lighten the mood, "what do you want to ask me concerning your ramen?" At this Teuchi stopped cleaning his cooking utensils and not so subtly decided to listen more to the conversation.

"You want me to avoid ramen as much as possible, I mean… what's the deal? Ramen is, like, the greatest food ever!" At Naruto's words, Teuchi Ichiraku turned around quickly and joined the conversation.

"What's this I hear about not eating ramen, Ebisu-san?" Ebisu raised his eyebrows at the old man's interjection and appearance. Teuchi had a hard look in his eye, and in his right hand there was a rather large meat cleaver. The sunglasses wearing shinobi paused for a moment. He expected to meet some resistance, but this was a bit much. He would have to tread carefully and appeal to the man's care for Naruto.

"Ichiraku-san, you know that a growing boy needs plenty of vitamins and minerals. I also know that you know, with you being a ramen chef, that eating ramen all the time is simply not healthy."

Teuchi's face softened slightly and nodded, he knew that too much ramen wasn't good for the body, but… he knew Naruto didn't have anywhere else to go for a normally priced meal. Every other store and restaurant in the Village of the Hidden Leaf either refused to serve the blonde, or made him pay high prices for poor and old products. Not to mention the boy was practically the highlight of every day he worked in his little restaurant. Teuchi didn't want Naruto to stop coming to his ramen stand. It just wasn't… it… he wouldn't know what to do if the boy stopped coming. He couldn't fathom it.

Naruto of course, refused to believe the health warning, the same as he had Kakashi's sole warning about eating fruits and vegetables back when team 7 was first formed. "Hey, I eat ramen all the time, I have forever, and I feel fine. See, I'm fit as can be." As the genin finished he flexed his biceps in a display of how physically fit he was. While Ebisu had to admit, there was a lot of muscle for a thirteen year old, Naruto had to learn that health was beyond just surface appearances. And if Naruto wouldn't listen if he said something was good for him, well then he'd show how bad the other choices were.

"Naruto-kun, do you know why you're so short?" Naruto eyes widened at the question, before narrowing as he glared at the older ninja. Teuchi couldn't help but gawk at the man, since it was well known that Naruto took his small stature very, very seriously.

"It is because you are not getting enough vitamins, enough minerals, and enough nutrients for you to properly grow. If you don't start eating right, who knows? You might just… stay at your height… forever."

At those words, Naruto nearly froze. His face shifted into a near comical expression of shock and fear. For a full minute he stayed like that. He was just sitting on his stool while frozen in apparent horror. Ayame, Teuchi, and Ebisu continued to stare at him, waiting for a reaction. After a full three minutes of nothing, Naruto suddenly moved his eyes to the half finished bowl of ramen on the counter next to him. Then quickly and forcefully, as if afraid that just touching the bowl would harm him, Naruto pushed the ramen to the far side of the countertop.

Ebisu didn't even try to stop himself as he smacked his forehead with the palm of his hand. "Naruto-kun, you don't have to physically avoid ramen. Just… eat other foods, and have some fruits and vegetables. If you know how to prepare them, they can taste just as good as ramen." Teuchi had to hand it to the man, he knew how to appeal to Naruto's weak points.

Ayame, who had been silently listening in while doing the dishes and rinsing the food, decided to join in. She, like her father, had no real desire for Naruto to stop coming to their ramen stand. However, unlike her father, she had an idea to keep it from happening. "Hey dad, why don't we just, you know… start selling food other than ramen. We can start on that diet ramen recipe you've been thinking about, and ask for a shipment of some other food."

Teuchi, feeling the weight of the stares of the other people in the ramen stand, muttered something about "thinking about it" and "money issues" before heading to the back room. Ayame, after a small wave and throwing a washrag over her shoulder, followed him.

With just the two of them out front, while the Ichiraku's debated on expanding the ramen stand, Naruto and Ebisu returned to their conversation about proper dieting and health issues. It took almost a full twenty minutes for Ebisu to convince Naruto to vary his diet, even after the 'staying short forever' approach. It was only due to the special-jounin's comment of him being the shortest Hokage in history did Naruto cave in and admit he would eat what Ebisu told him to.

Naruto, despite being frustrated at being forced to give up his favorite food, still wanted to know what Ebisu had in store for him this month. Being told that he would be able to beat Neji Hyuuga with ease made him incredibly interested in what super cool and amazing training methods Ebisu would have him do. When the ramen loving ninja asked, Ebisu's answer wasn't what he wanted to hear.

"I'll tell you what I have in mind for this month soon enough, I promise. But I need you to tell me about how this Chuunin Exam has been for you, and what has happened in the first two tests."

Naruto was naturally annoyed at the delay in learning of his new training, but after almost another half hour and constantly being told to stop exaggerating, the story of what he had done during the Chuunin Exams so far was revealed. At the end of it, Ebisu was slack jawed. He had learned that Naruto had befriended Kabuto, who Ebisu had learned was a spy of Orochimaru via a chuunin messenger not two hours before. He learned that a team of Rain ninja had decided to target team 7 multiple times through the second exam which ended in him using shadow clones to fight illusions for a good six hours or so, that Naruto passed the first test with a completely blank paper, and that he had killed one of Orochimaru's larger snake summons. What had left him speechless, as well as disturbed though, was the bit about Naruto being struck on the stomach by what was described as a "purple flaming finger jutsu" by a "crazy snake bastard".

Ebisu was aware that Naruto's team had been targeted by Orochimaru, but all of the high ranking shinobi had thought the S-Class missing-nin had only injured the Uchiha during the exam. That nobody noticed, or had even checked the other two teammates was showing an almost disgusting level of favoritism, by both Kakashi and the higher-ups. In addition, Naruto did not mention the curse mark on the Uchiha... he would question him about that later on if Naruto was trying to cover his teammate.

His fears became unfounded when Naruto lifted up his shirt and molded some chakra at Ebisu's request only to find that it was a Five Elements Seal. At Naruto's questioning look and confused expression, the special-jounin went on to explain just what it did and what it was used for.

"The Five Elements Seal was originally created as a method to improve chakra control. Now, has Kakashi taught you about elemental affinity, because it will make explaining this easier."

Naruto's blank face answered the questioned without words. After mentally adding another thing on the list to yell at the Copy-nin for, Ebisu continued.

"Each person has a unique elemental affinity. There is water, earth, fire, wind, and lightning. Sometimes affinities are passed down through families, like the Uchiha clan who are… were almost all fire element. It can also be random, there isn't any real way to tell which element you are until you test for it, which we'll do tomorrow. The Five Element Seal forces the chakra in your body to shift between the elemental affinities. You might be a wind element for a while, and then the seal will change the chakra into fire, even though you are normally a lightning type. Because your body is used to your element, when the seal forces the chakra to change, it makes it difficult to control. And since the seal is regularly altering your chakra, you must re-learn to mold and use it every time the chakra changes. This increases your chakra control rapidly, since it forces you to manage chakra that your body shouldn't have.

"In addition, since the Imprisonment Seal on your stomach also has several even numbered seals to allow the Kyuubi's chakra and your own to mix, it further damages your chakra control."

"Why does it do that?" Naruto more demanded than asked. He was beyond pissed that he had had to fight Kiba with this thing on him, especially now that he knew what it did.

"Now I'm not an expert on sealing, I know of the Five Element Seal because it is used regularly to improve chakra control, but I do know one of the basic rules. An even numbered seal combined with and odd numbered seal, like the Five Elements, causes the chakra to become imbalanced. This further damaged your chakra control. All things considered Naruto-kun, I'm amazed you made it through the second test with this. You should be proud of yourself."

At the complement, Naruto blushed on a level that rivaled a certain Hyuuga heiress and then quickly looked away. Though the response was amusing, Ebisu was distressed and saddened that such a simple complement had that kind of reaction. Was the boy truly so neglected by Kakashi and others that a simple thing like "be proud of yourself" could force him into this kind of happiness? After looking at Naruto's still flushed face and the massive heartfelt smile that was slowly forming, Ebisu knew his answer.

With the explanation of the seal out of the way, the Elite Personal Teacher moved the conversation back to what Naruto had originally wanted to talk about: his new training.

"We'll start on your chakra control tomorrow, and we will be keeping the Five Elements Seal on you." Noticing Naruto's attempt to object, Ebisu explained. "By keeping the seal, you will improve that much more, that much faster on you chakra control. We're going to be going at a fast pace and every bit will help. After you've mastered walking on water… don't look at me like that. You can use chakra to walk on water, and by tomorrow evening you will know how."

Naruto's skeptical expression remained, but he was interested. He was almost positive that Sasuke couldn't walk on water. And if he learned how to do this whole walking on water thing, he'd be one step closer to becoming Hokage. Besides, if he could walk on water… damn. That's just cool. After gesturing for Ebisu to go on and ordering another half dozen bowls of ramen, the special-jounin continued outlining his master training plan.

"After the water walking exercise, we will move on to improving your speed and strength by using chakra. Those two exercises must be mastered before we start on your taijutsu style. The style I picked for you should be perfect. It is called Free-mind Boxing." At the name, Naruto's interest was piqued then and there for one reason only, the name sounded cool. And if something sounded cool, it usually was. "I'll be picking up a scroll on it this evening and some of your shadow clones will start practicing the stances and moves tomorrow. Once you are able of using the taijutsu style in actual combat, we will start jutsu and weapons training."

Ebisu paused as he took a drink from his tea. He had noticed something… off… about Naruto when he had mentioned the part about learning taijutsu from a scroll. It wasn't quite fear, but it was close, and the orange loving genin looked both slightly upset and hesitant. Ebisu quickly searched his mind as he thought of why Naruto might act this way, and came to the only decent conclusion. A conclusion that made him hate both himself and everyone else in the village.

Naruto couldn't read. Or more likely, he couldn't read very well. Now that he actually knew the young blonde, he couldn't help but feel a certain hostility towards those who had mistreated the boy or ignored him entirely. He made a mental note to pick up some beginners books on how to read in case his theory turned out to be true. In addition, he silently promised to do everything he could to help Naruto learn and teach him things beyond ninja training.

When Naruto asked what weapon he would be learning to use, Ebisu smiled slightly. This was where the fox vessel would pick the weapon he would probable end up using his entire life. And he was inordinately glad that it was him and not Kakashi who was here. The silver haired man simply didn't deserve to be a part of Naruto's growth, not anymore.

"Well, that's for you to decide Naruto-kun, I'm letting you pick your weapon. It could be a weapon that either complements the Free-mind Boxing style, or offsets it. Trench knives, a kerambit, or other fist weapons would fit the style, while a long ranged weapon like a sword or scythe would be a good choice if you want the weapon to have a different use outside of your taijutsu. Choosing one could strengthen your taijutsu but limits your options, while the other offers more flexibility in a fight."

Naruto sat and wondered as he ate his ramen. He really couldn't decide. He had only ever used kunai and shuriken, and to use a new weapon… he had no idea what to pick. He didn't know if a sword would suit him, or if he should use trench knives like the closet pervert said to make his taijutsu style more dangerous. After a few minutes, the blonde demon vessel threw up his hands and said he couldn't make up his mind.

The special-jounin frowned thoughtfully for a moment before asking Naruto "Is there any weapon that you find interesting, or imagined yourself using. Maybe there is something from a… book or scroll, a movie or another ninja that you've seen carrying a weapon around?"

Naruto once again entered his thinking expression, with his eyes squinted and his mouth drawn tight and his arms folded across his chest. Suddenly, it came to him. It had been the second weapon he had ever seen on a real mission. And… if he went about it right… yes. Yes, it could work. He could convince Gaara, go there, pick it up, and learn to use it. While he was there he could prove to Gaara what it really meant to care for others. Yes! Yes it was perfect! It was a perfect idea… if he could convince his fellow demon vessel to come along.

He dropped his head slightly at the thought. It would be tough to find Gaara and convince him not to kill him on sight, much less to go on a small training journey with two apparent strangers. But he had to try. He had to try and go there to get the weapon, and he knew he had to convince Gaara to care for others. It was the only way he would be able to save someone… someone like himself. Someone who had suffered just as much as he had. Either way…

He had to try, and he couldn't give up. That was his way of the ninja.

"Closet pervert, I know what weapon I wanna learn to use." Ebisu raised an eyebrow at the blonde's words. He expected the blue eyed prankster to say outright what he wanted to learn. So why was he beating around the bush?

"We'll have to leave the village to get it though…"

Ebisu nodded his head. So that's why Naruto was hesitant.

"And I'd like to take someone with us."

The personal tutor looked at Naruto with a face that was clearly asking for an explanation. After a deep and calming breath, Naruto gave him one.


An hour later, and after the older ninja had paid for an incredible seventeen bowls of ramen, teacher and student walked out of Ichiraku's Ramen Stand. The teacher was slightly dazed at the incredible information he had gotten, and the plan his new student had come up with to help someone who had been forced to suffer the fate of being a living sacrifice. The student was ecstatic at numerous things: at his plan possibly becoming a reality, at his new training schedule, and the knowledge that his teacher actually, truly cared for him and his improvement.

As the two parted ways, with the student headed towards his apartment and the teacher towards the Hokage Tower, one final message was given.

"Naruto-kun, if you can convince him, I'll let this happen. But since we'll have to leave to pick up your weapon and get back, you don't have much time to persuade him. We'll train here at the village for five days. If you can't get him to come along by then, we leave without him. Now get some sleep tonight and meet me at the Hokage Tower tomorrow morning at nine sharp."

As Naruto walked away from his new teacher, feeling better than he had all day, he noticed that he didn't feel tired in the slightest. Knowing that there could only be one real reason why, Naruto took a glance up towards the sky just to be positive. And sure enough, bright and beautiful and framed by silver clouds was a full moon. He wasn't sure if he was just weird when it came to a full moon, or if it was the Kyuubi deep inside him, but on the night of a full moon he would not sleep. And the longer he stayed there looking up at the bright orb in the stars, the more his blood sang and his body urged him to simply move. He knew he wouldn't get any sleep tonight, but he knew that if he gave in to what his instincts were screaming at him to do, he would be too tired in the morning for training. With his mind made up, Naruto leapt up to the rooftops intent on simply laying in the moonlight until dawn.

'Who knows, maybe I'll get a head start on thinking about how to convince Gaara not to kill me.'


And during all this, a white haired man continued to peep on the women's hot springs, with his research undisturbed.


Okay, here's chapter 3. Sorry it took so long, but I had a tough time writing this chapter. I hope you all enjoy it, since it's a bit less… angst driven than the last few chapters. There's also a bit more dialogue than before, since this was pretty much a setup chapter. The last two chapters were the introduction, while from here on out you'll start seeing the real changes that will make this story different from the manga and anime.

Also, I have no doubt that some of you will be going "hey, that scene where Teuchi and Naruto figure out Gaara is a vessel just isn't likely". So to those that think that, you need to understand that just a few minutes difference can make a huge change. In cannon, Naruto and Ebisu stop at Ichiraku's together and discuss chakra control and Naruto still didn't want to train under him. But here Naruto was able to talk to Ichiraku without anyone else interrupting or having the subject changed which led to Ichiraku remembering what he heard about Gaara.

Now, I have an announcement for the poll. I've read the reviews, and listened to some people, and I'm pretty much set on who Naruto will be paired with and what direction I'm going to take the story after the Sasuke retrieval arc. I kept looking at one of my possible plotlines and every time I looked it over, I kept finding myself wanting to write that one more and more. So yes, I have decided Naruto's future for this particular story of mine.

Will I tell you all… no. Sorry, but I'm not going to reveal what's to happen in the future. Just read and find out!

Alright, as usual, I'd like to thank all of my reviewers. So here's the list of those who made me feel good about myself: maneyan, Kai Dragoon, InuyashaHoujo, Rain Raider, ACTION NARUTO LOVER, roboguy45, vnienhuis, copyeye, Seiryuu Ryuujin, Bandit Ken, mangalover248, Ghostboy814, underslayer, Godentine, Igrainne, Gaara218, loli04, Lady Arianrhod, ichi-bro, Angel Alayah, mortalone, Monkeymandb, IEatChicken, raziel44, Harbringer Lady, crusnik, Kage Mistress of Shadows, Demonkid, Paladin of the Blazing Dragon, Dragon Noir, cmartist, Princess Lena aka Lady Kittuna, Telas of the Organization, alterego94, and Whispering-KAZE.

Whew, if I get this many reviewers, I might have to stop writing them all out, haha.

And now to answer a few questions and respond to the reviewers, at least those I can answer without giving away the story too much.

Seiryuu Ruujin you are correct, only Jiraiya knows of Naruto's heritage. Yes he will be showing up soon to add his two cents to Naruto's training. But it won't be how you guys are probably thinking.

Mangalover248 is exactly right when it came to Sakura last chapter. Sakura is, essentially, a very obsessed and very young fan-girl. While she is a ninja, she is also inexperienced at dealing with new things, and she is also a victim of peer pressure, in a way. Almost all of the Rookie 9 has been taught to dislike Naruto in some way or another. If not by their parents, then by their teachers at the academy. Sakura only sees Naruto as an idiot, a good ninja, but still an idiot because she had been taught to see him that way. And while I don't like her character in part 1, she did accept her role as a protector of her teammates in the Forest of Death. That was a lot more than I had originally expected of her.

For Gaara218's question about summons… well, you'll see in a few chapters.

Mortalone, I read your review and I am taking your advice. I have chosen the girl who Naruto will enter a relationship with, I measured up the poll results and while that did impact my decision a bit, I really just made up my own mind about the story. That's kind of a big deal for me, since like I said last chapter, I am very indecisive.

IEatChicken, thank you for your awesomely awesome review. When I read it, it made me feel awesome.

Thank you Dragon Noir for your input about my other stories, but please, remove your AK-47 from my "little soldier".

And finally, Whispering-KAZE, I was impressed at your guess about the seal. I purposely made the references to it vague, so good job.

On a final note, the next chapter may be a little later than some of you want. I am taking a summer college course and I have a test this week. In addition, I am going to write out the very first chapter of Birds of Clay. I'm going to start writing it, and then maybe put it on hold for a little while as I get this story further along. So thanks for reading and please review.