For anyone who is still with me at this point, I apologize for the long delay. I have lost some of my interest in this story, and I feel like my writing has lost its flow. However I will not be killing this story, nor will I be putting it on hiatus. I am going to reread what I have written and see if that gets me back on track. Hopefully I'll be writing again very soon. I'm out of classes right now so I have a lot more time to write.

Once again Naruto found himself glaring at a balloon. To think he once used these evil things in his pranks. He would certainly never use them again, because he would probably have a life long hatred of balloons after this training was over. The evil thing blew up in his face again, almost as if to spite him, and Naruto was knocked onto his back.

He let out an irritated growl, and just lay there for a moment staring up at the sky. Jiraiya hadn't been kidding when he said that this was the hardest step in the training. They had been here for almost a week, and even though he practiced constantly he hadn't made much progress. After breaking the water balloon with one hand had lead to little improvement in the final stage, he had stubbornly returned to perfecting the second step. He had managed to destroy the rubber ball with one hand earlier that day, though it still took him a long time to do it. Even with all that improvement on the fundamentals he still couldn't stabilize the rasengan, not even when using two hands. It was frustrating.

Naruto pushed his sore body into a sitting position and grabbed the canteen of water he had brought with him. Kakashi had taught him early on in his training that it was important to drink plenty of water in small amounts to both keep the body hydrated and prevent muscle cramps. He grabbed the fabric over the bridge of his nose and tugged until the hole that usual only revealed his eyes uncovered his nose and mouth as well. It was easier to breath without the thin cloth as an obstruction, and he inhaled deeply before taking a small sip of his water. After yesterday's incident with Tsunade he had decided it was safer to stick with the full mask, instead of the preferred hood and half mask, while in town. He didn't want any accidents.

He was about to inflate another balloon and resume training when someone cleared their throat. The unexpected sound caused him to jump and turn around. He mentally chastised himself for being unaware of his surroundings; such carelessness could mean certain death to a ninja.

Tsunade smirked lightly at the boy's obvious surprise. She hadn't tried particularly hard to conceal her presence, but he had been so focused on the task at hand that he had excluded everything else. Such single mindedness was both a blessing and a curse.

"What do you want Tsunade-san?" He resituated his mask over his cheeks and nose, leaving Tsunade with no facial features, but his new dark glasses, to look at.

There was a certain coldness to the boy's tone that lacked any semblance of respect. His insolence made Tsunade's eye twitch slightly, the only sign of her irritation. "You lack the control necessary for that technique, you should give up."

Naruto was unfazed by her callous observation. "If I gave up every time things got tough I wouldn't be here today, so forgive me for not taking your advice."

His statement held an air of dismissal which Tsunade chose to ignore. She had come to learn more about this strange, ambitious boy, and she would not leave now. However it was obvious that he did not respond well to belittlement, so she would have to drastically change her tactics.

Naruto learned a lot about Tsunade in their first encounter. She was a woman broken by grief, but she was still incredibly proud. Her pride was one of the few things she had left in the world, and he could tell that she refused to let anyone take it away from her. So he was surprised when she lowered herself to the grass across from him rather than leave at his rude tone. But he refused to show it.

"You still haven't told me what you want Tsunade-san."

Her eyes narrowed slightly at the continued insolence. "You are an interesting person Naruto-san. I simply want to know more about the genin who has the gall to speak to a Sannin in such a way."

Naruto could tell that she was playing a game with him. Her formal tone was mocking. "Respect is earned, not freely given Tsunade-san." His words practically oozed contempt.

Tsunade smirked slightly. The kid definitely had balls. "Very well, you don't like me, and I certainly don't like you. On this at least we agree. But that doesn't mean we can't have a civilized conversation.

Naruto grimly nodded and sat down opposite her. He wanted to continue being childish and rude. He wanted to storm away in a huff, and leave her sitting on her fat ass, hopefully with a stunned look on her face. But then she would have won, and he refused to hand over even the smallest victory, and so he stayed.

Tsunade smirked lightly. She knew that he would not back down from her challenge, no matter how small it was. Thirteen year old boys tended to be very prideful and stubborn, no matter how unusual or special they might be. "Why do you want to be Hokage?"

Naruto blinked in surprise at the question, though she couldn't see it. He had told many people about his dream. Most scoffed and told him that he would never achieve such a goal. A precious few believed in him, and said he would make a fine Hokage, but hardly anyone ever asked him why. In fact, so few people asked him why that he hardly ever thought about the reason any more. He was embarrassed to discover that he spent so much time defending his dream that he had completely forgotten why, and was forced to think about the question before giving an answer.

The pause was longer than Tsunade had expected, and she was about to repeat the question when he finally cleared his throat to answer. "Everyone loves and respects the Hokage." His voice was surprisingly small, very different from the brash child that called her a coward yesterday, and she leaned forward slightly to hear the rest of his answer.

"The villagers and ninja all trust him with their lives every day. They would never ignore him, or call him a demon, because they all know that when trouble comes he is willing to protect them all with his life, his soul even. Everyone in the village is like a member of the Hokage's family, from the head of the Hyuuga clan, to an orphan like me.

"I want that more than anything in this world; to know that everyone trusts me enough to protect them, and care for me enough to let me into their family. I would gladly give up my life to feel like that, just once, and I would die to protect it."

She had not expected such a profound answer from a young boy. He hadn't tried to give her some idealistic bullshit about self sacrifice; nor had he told her something childish about strength and being a hero. Naruto simply wanted acceptance, and he was so desperate that he would do anything to get it, even die. It was a strange how something so selfish could also be incredibly selfless.

Her eyes stung slightly from tears that she refused to even allow to glisten in her eyes. This little brat sitting before her managed to remind her of Dan and Nawaki, the fiancé and little brother that she had lost to the pursuit of the same foolish dream. Naruto's very existence suddenly made her angry. "How do you not hate them?"

The sharp tone, accompanied by the rather sensitive question, stabbed into Naruto like a kunai. He couldn't control the compulsion to shrink into himself slightly, and his jaw clenched with self loathing. The idea of allowing this woman to see any weakness was repugnant.

"I did hate them." The words sounded wooden and unemotional, even to his ears. "It was impossible for me not to, but hating them didn't make things better. Hating them didn't make me feel better, what did was when someone was finally nice to me." The words came easier now, and he was beginning to sound like his old self again. "Old man Teuchi gave me food when I was starving. Hokage-jiji gave me a place to live when I had nothing. Iruka-sensei listened to me when no one seemed to care. Kashi protected me when I thought no one would." He was back to his old self again, voice strong and clear. "It's easy to hate the villagers, but it's also exhausting. Happiness is a lot harder to come by, but I prefer it."

Naruto stood up and brushed off his pants. He didn't want to answer anymore stupid questions. "If you don't mind, I've got a technique to work on." He didn't wait for a reply, simply began inflating the balloon he had been interrupted with earlier.

Tsunade didn't stop him. She had bothered the kid enough for the day. She sighed as she pushed herself off the ground. "It is a rather impressive technique when completed. To keep so much violent movement tightly compressed in a ball is truly amazing."

Naruto froze as she walked away. His mind went back to the time he spent creating a spherical shell of chakra, as he waited for the wounds he received from Kisame's sword to heal. He hadn't thought about the exercise since that day. He just filed it away as something Jiraiya gave him to do so that the old man could get some research done. Now, after hearing Tsunade's comment he felt a bit stupid. What was there better to contain his chakra than his own chakra?

He immediately got to work on the idea, silently thanking the old lady for the tip. Why couldn't Jiraiya ever be so helpful?

Tsunade was sitting at a small road side stand drinking sake, when Jiraiya approached her. He gestured the bartender for another bottle and a second saucer. The toad sage glanced over at his old teammate as he poured clear liquid into his own saucer. "So, how did your talk with my new prodigy go?"

Tsunade snorted as she downed another saucer. "I wouldn't call him a prodigy. That kid doesn't seem to have natural talent. His chakra is so wild that I doubt his control will ever be more than mediocre."

Jiraiya chuckled lightly as he poured her another saucer. "Our team always did have different views on what qualities make the best ninja. You always place your focus on precision and control, Orochimaru felt that ruthlessness and cunning were the most important. I, on the other hand, value creativity and heart. Naruto has both in spades, so to me he is a prodigy. But you didn't answer my question Tsunade-hime."

She shook her blond head in irritation, and tossed back the alcohol, relishing in the slight burning sensation as it slid down her throat. "You sound like that brat of yours." She poured another saucer, and she and Jiraiya saluted each other silently before emptying the small dishes. "He reminded me so much of them. The same foolish dream, the same blind devotion to the village, and he'll probably have the same messy end." She downed another saucer, her face pulled into a bitter expression.

Jiraiya shook his head sadly as he watched his broken teammate. "I don't think that will be Naruto's fate, and if it is I don't think he will care. I talked to Kakashi before we left the village."

"Minato's student?"

Jiraiya nodded and sipped his sake. "He's been acting as Naruto's guardian for the past three years. He told me about Naruto's training and personality. Apparently when Kakashi showed him the hero's monument Naruto said, 'getting your name on that stone is the only way to go'."

A smile tugged at the corner of Jiraiya's lips as he pictured his young student saying such a thing. Naruto had a true warrior's spirit. "I don't think he will be happy if he doesn't die fighting."

Tsunade had been watching her old teammate intently as he spoke, her sake almost forgotten. Jiraiya had been broken by grief when Minato died. The toad sage had been almost as bad as her, pulling away from the village and submerging himself in writing his perverse books. She had heard him swear that he would never take on another student, for no one could ever compare to Namikaze Minato. Yet here he was, with another student. He was genuinely smiling again.

She picked up the sake and poured them each a saucer. "He's not Minato you know?"

Jiraiya grabbed his saucer and gulped it down before pouring another. "I know that. Naruto will never compare to Minato." He downed the saucer, and let out a satisfied sigh. "Naruto will be far greater one day."

Tsunade's eyes widened slightly at Jiraiya's statement. To Jiraiya Minato had been the perfect student, yet here he was proclaiming that another student was better. She sighed as she looked at her reflection in the little saucer of clear rice wine in her hand. "I don't think Nawaki and Dan would be very proud of me."

Jiraiya gave her a questioning look as she drank. She placed the empty saucer on the table, but did not refill it. "Here I am refusing to go back to my home village because I lost a few precious people, when a boy, who has every reason to hate Konoha, stays and fights. I feel like I've failed them."

Jiraiya patted her back with one hand as he filled her saucer with the other. "I don't think that they would blame you for mourning. Besides there is still plenty of time."

Tsunade drank the sake he had poured for her, and glanced over at him as he lifted his own saucer to his lips. "Orochimaru promised to bring them back to me if I fix his arms."

Jiraiya choked and spluttered, desperately trying to clear his airway of alcohol. "You aren't seriously considering helping that bastard!?"

She looked down in shame. Jiraiya would never allow himself to be tempted by such an offer from Orochimaru. "I was at first, but I wouldn't want Dan and Nawaki to see me like this." She ignored Jiraiya's sigh of relief. "He will be here tomorrow morning, for my answer."

Jiraiya's face became stony as he thought of his traitorous teammate. When his eyes met Tsunade's there wasn't even a hint of the goofy pervert present. "Are you asking for my help Tsunade-hime?"

She smirked lightly, though it did not fully reach her honey brown eyes. "Want to help me finish what sensei started?"

Naruto was groggy when he awoke. He was lying on the grass in an open field, and it took a while for him to realize why he was there. He had passed out from chakra exhaustion sometime late last night. As he took in his surroundings he noticed that the sun was still low in the east, which meant it was still early. Sleeping in a room with a glass ceiling he was used to sleeping through morning sunlight. So what had woken him up?

The birds were singing softly in the distance, the sun was warm, and it looked like the start of a beautiful day. But still there was a sense of wrongness permeating the atmosphere. Naruto stretched out his senses, still groggy from sleep, to try and identify what was wrong. Despite the brightness and beauty of the morning he couldn't drive away a sense of foreboding.

It only took him a few seconds to realize what had disturbed him from his slumber. It was chakra; the air was heavy with it, so heavy that Naruto could almost taste it. A titanic battle was taking place somewhere in the vicinity.

Naruto leapt to his feet and strained his ears to catch the distant sound of fighting. It was far away. The fact that the residual chakra permeated the air so far away was a testament to the strength of the combatants. For a fleeting instant Naruto felt the instinct to run away, to avoid this battle at all costs. He squashed that impulse as quickly as it came, and ran toward the distant sound of fighting. Jiraiya would be there.

There was no doubt in his mind that he was not strong enough for this battle. The odds of him dying if he got involved were high. He lacked the strength and experience necessary to survive such a fight. But Naruto was a Konoha shinobi, and he would not leave his sensei to fight alone. If there was the smallest chance that Naruto could contribute to Jiraiya's victory, he would be there to take it.

Naruto arrived on the scene just in time to see Shizune fall at the hands of a silver haired boy. There was no mistaking the young ninja Naruto and his friends had met in the chuunin exams. Kabuto didn't bother to kill Shizune, just left her gasping for breath as she kneeled on the ground, and walked calmly toward Tsunade.

For some reason she was not moving. She just sat there, seemingly unaware that she was in any danger. Shizune was desperately trying to heal herself, and Jiraiya's attention was focused on some strange snake like man. Tsunade was completely alone, and still she did not move.

Kabuto lifted his hand, glowing with green chakra, to strike her when a kunai pierced through his palm. Naruto had acted without thinking; the kunai had left his hand before he even had time to consciously aim it.

Kabuto jumped back, pulling the projectile from his bleeding hand, and whipped around to face his new foe. Naruto's eyes immediately went to the musical note emblazoned on Kabuto's hitae-ate. He pulled out another kunai and slid into a fighting stance.

Kabuto smirked at the young genin before him, wiggling his fingers slightly as his hand healed. "You don't seem surprised to see me Naruto-kun."

Naruto slowly began edging toward the still frozen Tsunade. What was wrong with her? Was she under some type of genjutsu? "I knew there was something off about you Kabuto. No one gives away information for free, especially not to an opponent."

Kabuto tsked and shook his head condescendingly, as he countered Naruto's movements. "So untrusting Naruto-kun, aren't you a little young to be so cynical?"

"Never too young to know a snake when you see one." Naruto managed to place himself between Kabuto and the near catatonic Tsunade. She seemed to be muttering something about blood.

Kabuto did not seem at all concerned by Naruto's presence. In fact he chuckled slightly. "Do you really think that you can defeat me Naruto-kun? You must have realized by now that I am no ordinary genin. After all, you did so well realizing I was untrustworthy during the chuunin exams."

Kabuto was bating him, and Naruto had no intention of biting. "Who said anything about defeating you? I just have to stop you." He threw his kunai at Kabuto and charged forward. If he wanted to do anything he needed to be in close.

The bespectacled ninja smoothly dodged the projectile, and prepared to intercept. His hands took on an ominous green glow that Naruto had never encountered before. He aimed a sharp fast strike at Naruto's chest, forcing the younger boy to twist out of the way. Naruto rolled along Kabuto's extended arm and used a sharp back handed strike to hit Kabuto's unprotected neck.

The two continued their deadly dance, Naruto dodging green glowing hands as he gave out swift punishing blows whenever possible. The young genin moved around his opponent with the wild animalistic grace he would one day be known for. Unfortunately it was only a matter of time before Kabuto's superior skill and experience got the better of him.

Naruto was forced to block a green glowing palm headed for his chest, he failed to notice the other before it was too late. His footing made dodging impossible, and Kabuto's chakra infused palm made contact with Naruto's thigh.

The pain came immediately and Naruto leapt away. His landing was messy as his leg refused to support his weight. Kabuto chuckled lightly as he watched the confused genin. "You've never fought against a medic nin before have you Naruto." The eerie green glow returned to Kabuto's hands. "All it takes is a single touch in the right place to kill you. You were right to block the strike to your chest, but you will find that you only managed to delay the inevitable, for your leg is useless now."

Naruto grimaced as he tried to push himself up, but to no avail. His eyes flashed to the fight between Jiraiya and the strange snake like man. The battle was definitely going to end in Jiraiya's favor, but there would be little point if Tsunade died.

His eyes returned to Kabuto, who was calmly walking towards the frozen Tsunade. The arrogant sound ninja obviously saw him as no threat. Kabuto obviously knew very little about Uzumaki Naruto.

Channeling chakra into his one good leg, Naruto managed to propel himself forward, crashing into Kabuto's legs and bringing the older ninja tumbling to the ground. By putting all his weight on his good leg, he was able to stand between Tsunade and her attacker.

With his injury Naruto knew that he would not last long against Kabuto. But he also knew that if he could stall long enough Jiraiya would win his fight, and come to their aid. So Naruto stood on his one working leg, prepared to do everything possible to protect Tsunade.

Kabuto seemed annoyed as he pushed himself off the ground. "You are foolishly determined. You won't live very long if you continue to fight like this Uzumaki."

"Well that's my problem, isn't it Kabuto?"

The silver haired ninja smirked as he pulled out a kunai. "Why bother protecting her? True she was once a great medic ninja, the very best in fact. But look at her now, unable to move at the mere sight of blood. What use is any ninja who can't stand blood? She is worthless."

Naruto didn't budge from his spot in front of Tsunade. "All Konoha ninja have worth, no matter how broken they might be. Which is more than I can say for you traitorous scum!" Kabuto charged forward to stab the partially immobilized genin, but Naruto had other ideas. He barely even winced as the kunai stabbed through his left hand. "Rasengan!"

Kabuto's eyes widened as a fully formed rasengan crashed into his chest. He tried to throw one last blow at Naruto's heart. But the unsteady genin could no longer force himself to stand, and began to tumble backwards. Kabuto only managed a glancing blow on Naruto's right shoulder before being forced back by the Yondaime's famed attack.

It was when Naruto called out the name of his attack that Jiraiya made a fatal mistake. He allowed himself to look away from his fight with Orochimaru, and the snake struck with deadly accuracy, his blade plunging into Jiraiya's abdomen. Jiraiya hissed in pain, and was about to resume the attack when music floated on the air into his ears.

Two large beings charged toward his downed student, and Naruto could not defend himself, his arm and leg rendered useless by Kabuto's jutsu. Jiraiya ran to protect his apprentice, but he was too far away. There was no way he would be able to get there in time.

Naruto watched as the two humanoids barreled towards him. He knew there was nothing he could do. Even if he could still move the blood loss from his hand wound was making him dizzy, throwing off his perception. Still he refused to go down without a fight, and he pulled a kunai from his pouch. It slipped in his bleeding left hand, but he held it firm.

He never had to use that kunai, for at the last second Tsunade leapt in front of him taking the attack meant for him. Using her infamous brute strength, Tsunade shoved the two creatures away. "If you want the kid, you'll have to go through me first." That was the last thing he saw and heard before he blacked out.

The music stopped abruptly, and the two figures before her disappeared. Tsunade didn't have time to wonder what had happened, for Jiraiya arrived next to her, his stomach bleeding profusely.

"What were those? A genjutsu?"

Tsunade shook her head. "No, they were definitely solid. Probably a summons of some sort." She scanned the field for any sign of enemy forces. There was none. "They were a distraction to cover Orochimaru's escape, and you let yourself be fooled by it. I thought you were never going to let him slip through your fingers again." She crouched down and started a scanning jutsu on Naruto.

Jiraiya watched her tending his injured student lying prone in the grass. "Some things are more important than settling old scores."

Tsunade smiled at her old friend. "That's just the thing a Hokage wants to hear from her ninja."

Shizune, who had finally managed to repair the damage done to her lungs, looked at her mentor in shock. "You mean you're taking the job?"

Tsunade nodded. "I think it's high time we went home. Besides, with this kid around I doubt I'll be Hokage very long."

"So he's going to be okay?" Jiraiya's eyes were pleading, and she felt a bit of pity for him.

"He's going to be just fine Jiraiya. I'm far more concerned about you."

"I'll be fine, just look after the kid."

Tsunade pushed herself off the ground, and approached her old teammate. Her honey brown eyes were sharp. "Don't be foolish Jiraiya. Shizune can take care of him, but you and I both know how dangerous the kusanagi is. Now lie down and let me have a look."

Jiraiya knew better than to argue with her when she looked at him like that. He didn't even make a perverted comment when she opened his shirt to get to the wound. She got to work quickly, her hands steady. "What happened to your fear of blood?"

She allowed her eyes to drift to his for a brief moment, a smirk playing on her lips. "Some things are more important than old fears."

Orochimaru was furious. He had been positive that offering Tsunade the revival of her dead loved ones would ensure him her healing abilities. He had been positive that her grief would make it impossible for her to refuse. Good thing he had accounted for the impossible.

Orochimaru's paranoia had saved him many times before. It was his paranoia that made him bring Tayuya along to cover their escape if necessary. Her demon summons could be controlled from a distance and were always good diversions. It was due to his paranoia that he managed to give, that hopeless excuse for a Sannin, Jiraiya the slip.

Despite his clean escape he was very angry. His dead arms still burned with a pain that was almost unbearable. He would have no choice but to change bodies now. He would need Uchiha Sasuke sooner than expected.

As if that wasn't enough, there was the problem of Jiraiya's new apprentice. Uzumaki Naruto had been a mere annoyance during the chuunin exams, but now. Anyone who could learn the rasengan, a technique that Orochimaru himself could not completely figure out, in such a short time would become a force to be reckoned with. Also the boy was pivotal to Akatsuki's plans, and Orochimaru couldn't let them stand in the way of his ambition. Yes, the problem of Uzumaki Naruto would have to be fixed as soon as he got his new Uchiha body.

The cunning old snake allowed himself the luxury of an evil chuckle as he began formulating a plan to lure Uchiha Sasuke away from the safety of Konoha.