His half lidded eyes slowly trailed the form of his teacher. Two orbs of crystal blue shifted and tumbled, eventually settling onto a greyish-white haired man.
His mind was working sluggishly in his tired state, taking twice as long to decipher the gesture of his instructor as a simple wave of goodbye, ending yet another day of mission work.
The blonde ignored it, too tired to make any semblance of a response.
Even as Sasuke left for home, he stood unmoving like a training dummy, stiff and completely unresponsive.
It had been weeks since that day, yet his memories were as fresh as the day it happened.
His nights since then, had been plagued constantly by visions of the dead.
When he slept, as soon as his mind crosses the boundaries of consciousness into sleep, his subconscious mind would be bombarded endlessly with images of a dying Haku.
His face bloodied from the blood that flowed from his lips, and the terrifyingly dull, eyes as he lay dying. He had the look of someone thoroughly defeated, but was perfectly at ease and content with the approaching death, as though it brought him comfort by finally releasing his from a lifetime of torment and pain.
Even in a dream, the image of Haku's face was frighteningly vivid. And when he stared into those lifeless eyes, he would find himself jolted awake suddenly, soaked in cold sweat once again, only to find that he had dosed off for no more than a few moments.
The lingering guilt of his first kill was causing him a lack of sleep, and was taking it's toll on him mentally and physically.
More than once, Naruto wondered whether Haku's spirit was seeking vengeance even in death, by not allowing him any rest.
The blonde sighed finally, and shook himself out of these absurd thoughts.
Each night, he would only get just barely enough sleep to scrape through the next day. He was still capable of performing his duties as a ninja, but he no longer had the energy he usually held, and to others, he passed off as unusually quiet and distant.
Kakashi had been concerned for his mental health, having made his first kill. The jounin even tried to remove him from active duty for some time to recover, though he refused adamantly not wanting to show any weakness to his teammates, especially Sasuke. Kakashi eventually relented, as he proved capable still, in completing his duties.
But it seemed that he really should have taken time off, as he was starting to hallucinate in his tired state due to a lack of sleep. It was making him see square rocks and in the middle of the road.
He blinked and shook his head a little, trying to shake away the hallucination.
Naruto blinked again. It was still there. He squinted his eyes at the rock, taking a closer look.
'Wait a minute… Square rock?'
The blonde frowned and his eyes began to twitch. He wasn't hallucinating at all.
It was only someone using a ninja technique to make themselves seem inconspicuous, and doing a really poor job of it. And he thought he had been seeing things!
Only a poorly trained person could butcher such a low-level ninja technique. Even he had a solid grasp of this technique despite his lack of skill in the basic ninja techniques when compared to others.
And he knew just the person…
"Konohamaru, a square rock with two holes like that does not exist! It's so obvious" He spoke exasperatedly, rolling his eyes as he spoke.
"I should've expected that from my rival", a child like voice exclaimed from within the rock textured box.
Then, the square box glowed brightly, making Naruto back away slightly. As the brightness reached it's peak, it exploded, enshrouding it in a dense cloud of smoke.
Coughing noises could be heard from within the smoke, making Naruto sigh even further in exasperation.
As the gaseous substance slowly dispersed, three tiny figures revealed themselves from within.
"Hey, you used too much gunpowder!" Konohamaru complained loudly.
The three then realised that their presence had been revealed and turned awkwardly to the blonde who was staring back with a deadpan look. Quickly jumping into a pose, the three introduced themselves in a way they thought cool.
"The one who possesses the sex appeal of an adult, and the female ninja from the senior group, Moegi!" a small red headed girl exclaimed.
"The one who loves dividing numbers, Udon!" a dark haired boy sporting a pair of glasses cried out half heartedly, as he got into an equally silly pose of his own.
"The village's number one genius ninja, Konohamaru!" the final figure, Konohamaru boasted.
"The three of us make the Konohamaru corps!" The three called out in unison.
As much as he loved theatrics and flashy entrances, Naruto couldn't help but groan at the display that was totally lame. The sheer level of absurdness of those poses made him want to slam his head against a wall.
"Just like I thought. It's just you three".
"It's just you three? You've been treating us so cold lately" Konohamaru pouted.
"And? What do you want?" the blonde said exasperatedly, while rolling his eyes.
"See! He's so cold!" Konohamaru whispered to Udon.
"Well, Leader, do you have time right now?" Moegi asked, breaking out the puppy eyes.
He scratched the back of his head slightly, finding it difficult to refuse the girl's cute puppy eyed look, yet not quite in the mood for playing games.
"I was going to train…" he said in an apologetic tone, not wanting to seem too harsh in turning the kids down.
"But you said that you would play ninja with us!" Konohamaru whined, greatly disappointed at the blonde's response.
The spiky haired blonde rubbed his hair sheepishly.
"What's the point in ninja playing ninja?" a voice interjected from the side.
A little surprised at the extra presence, Naruto looked to the side to see Sakura looking back at him in a little amusement. He had forgotten about her, expecting her to have already left with Sasuke like she usually did.
What he didn't know was that the pink haired girl had been worried about him, as he had not been acting like his usual self, and Sakura felt that it was her responsibility as his teammate to ensure his well being.
She hadn't caught the usually cheerful boy smiling even once since the fight in Wave country. A depressing atmosphere now replaced the cheery optimism that he held, and she found it was causing her to also feel slightly depressed.
Naruto's cheerful nature had always brought her a warm feeling. Now that it was gone, she felt somewhat empty inside. She hadn't known before, how much she would miss his cheerfulness and energy, until now that it was gone. But she knew that she wanted it back.
"Nii-chan, who's this girl?" Konohamaru looked at Sakura, before smirking a sly grin at Naruto, and patted his rival on the back as if congratulating him for something.
"You're better than I thought" Konohamaru exclaimed, the smirk still in place.
"She's your… right?" Konohamaru said, while sticking his pinky out to indicate what he was implying in place of the word he left unsaid.
Sakura glared threateningly at Naruto as if daring him to agree.
Naruto noticing the look on the girl's face, sweat dropped and quickly denied it, unwilling to invoke the terrifying girl's wrath.
"Actually, she's just my team mate".
Though it had been what she had wanted to hear, Sakura felt oddly disappointed by his answer.
"Well, I suppose you could do better than someone with that big a forehead…" Konohamaru quipped, rubbing his chin in contemplation as he took a better look of the pink haired girl.
The blonde winced as he caught the dark look that appeared on the said pink-haired girl's face. The murderous intent in her expression was almost demonic, and Naruto found himself frozen to the spot.
"You should start running Konohamaru…" Naruto advised in a whisper.
The boy gulped loudly, realising his mistake, took the advice, and quickly fled for his life as fast as his legs could take him.
As she gave chase, Sakura turned to look over her shoulder.
Catching the small, amused smile that the blonde sported, she felt a little relieved.
He was smiling again. And she felt the warmth in her chest return.
The sound of impact around the corner caught his immediate attention. It had originated from the direction in which Sakura and Konohamaru had disappeared to, around the corner of the street out of his view.
The subsequent sounds of struggle put him further on edge.
"That hurt…" A boy dressed entirely in black clothes and hood spat, hoisting Konohamaru up by the front of his shirt.
"Stop it. We're going to get scolded later", a blonde kunoichi beside him reprimanded, though made no movement to stop him.
Naruto cautiously approached as he took the time to observe the two. Judging by their hitai-ate, they were clearly ninja from Sunagakure.
The kunoichi looked to be a few years older than he, and had a head of blonde hair held in four ponytails. She was quite beautiful and her exotic looks stood out clearly among the local girls of Konoha.
The male Suna ninja wore a completely black outfit and hood, and could be identified from the crowd by the distinctive purple and white face paint he wore, though in Naruto's opinion, it made him look a bit ridiculous.
Both ninja had large weapons strapped behind them, though Naruto couldn't quite make out what they were from his point of view.
"Please let him go" Naruto said, as he walked up beside Sakura who had also approached the foreign ninja.
He was polite, yet his tone was firm, though not demanding. It was almost emotionless, and unnervingly calm tone of voice, a type of speech that he picked up from Kurenai, as the kunoichi often spoke in such a tone to not reveal any information about one's self through their speech.
Until he had an idea of the two Suna ninja's skill and was confident that he could defeat them, it was wise to avoid a fight if possible. Being a specialist in espionage and tracking, avoiding direct combat at all cost was something Kurenai had drilled into his mind.
While it hadn't been something he liked to learn, Naruto knew that learning to control his emotions would only serve to make him a better ninja in the long run.
Though avoiding conflict had been a sound decision, Naruto knew that while being polite in this situation was imperative, being too passive would only be counter productive as the Suna ninja would take it as a sign of cowardice.
'These guys are Konoha genin…' The hooded man grinned as if he was a child just given a new set of toys.
"I just wanted to play around a bit…" He said, sporting an arrogant smirk.
Despite his improvements in controlling his emotions, Naruto struggled to suppress his anger and irritation.
Quickly calming himself, Naruto decided that the hooded guy was underestimating him.
If being polite did not work, then the only way for him to get the guy to back down was to show some of his power.
In other words, he needed to show off a little. Something that he had no qualms in doing. In fact, he would take pleasure in doing so. Though this would also risk further conflict.
Grinning inwardly, while stepping forward with an impassive look. He stared into the other boy's eyes.
"You should let go of the Hokage's grandson. Or there will be…."
"Consequences…" a voice whispered from directly behind the two sand genin.
The sand genin quickly whirled around completely startled at the voice that whispered into their ears behind them to see another Naruto looking at them impassively.
The male Suna genin dropped Konohamaru in complete surprise, who scurried on his hands and feet quickly, seeking safety behind Naruto.
Sakura and the three kids gaped at Naruto in awe.
'Since when was Naruto so cool?' Sakura thought.
Sure, he was undoubtedly much more attractive than he used to be… But what he had just done had been a level of cool that she had always attributed to Sasuke, and not something she had suspected Naruto was capable of.
Now wearing a serious look on his face, the sand genin reached for the strap on his shoulder, ready to unleash his weapon.
"Hey you're going to use Karasu?" The sand kunoichi asked surprised and anxious that this would lead to much trouble for them.
"Kankuro, stop" A new, cold and emotionless voice interjected from above.
Naruto frowned slightly as he turned to look at the new arrival that was standing upside down on a branch in a nearby tree.
His eyes passed over the redhead and he quickly analysed boy.
He was short, though his exact height was hard to judge given that he was hanging upside down in the air. The boy had a cold expressionless face and dark rings around the eyes.
Naruto had no doubt that this new presence was strong. He had not sensed him even when he was so close. The redhead had a level of stealth comparable to even Kakashi.
'He's good. Really good' Naruto thought, a little worried that he may have to fight someone of this calibre if they cannot resolve this issue peacefully.
"You're a disgrace to our village" the redhead spoke coldly to the hooded boy.
Kankuro laughed nervously at the sight of the new boy.
"What do you think we came to the leaf village to do?" Gaara reprimanded.
"Listen Gaara…Th..These guys started it, and…" Kankuro stuttered out nervously.
"Shut up, or I'll kill you" Gaara threatened.
"I got it. My mistake, I'm sorry, really sorry" Kankuro waved his hand in front of him desperately to placate the redhead, seemingly extremely frightened of him.
Gaara then turned to Naruto.
"Apologies to you guys".
'He has strange eyes.' Naruto thought. 'And as far as I can tell, this Kankuro guy isn't weak… For him to be this scared of the redhead… He's got to be really strong…'
Unknown to him, Gaara was also analysing him. 'To be able to catch Kankuro off guard so easily. He's good…'
Using a swirl of sand to cover his movements, Gaara appeared beside the two previous sand ninja.
"Let's go. We didn't come here to play around" Gaara ordered to the two other sand ninja.
As the sand genin turned to leave, Sakura rushed forward.
"Wait!" The pink haired girl called out.
"What?" the sand kunoichi questioned without turning around.
"Judging from your hitai-ate, you guys are ninja from the hidden sand village, right? The fire country and wind country may be allies but it's forbidden for ninja to enter each other's villages without permission. State your purpose! Depending on…"
The sand kunoichi interrupted her. "Talk about living under a rock. Don't you know anything? Here's my passport".
The kunoichi lifted a pass with her picture and details on it.
"We're genin of the hidden sand from wind country. We've come to your village to take the chunin selection exam", the blonde kunoichi stated.
Naruto stepped forward.
"What are your names?"
He wanted to learn as much of these ninja as he could in case his team gets nominated for the exams. It never hurt to have some information about your competition.
The sand kunoichi pointed to herself questioningly. "Me?"
Naruto nodded while giving the beautiful sand kunoichi a wink, making the girl blush.
"Yes. You and your teammates"
Sakura frowned a bit, slightly angry at the sight of Naruto flirting with the beautiful foreign kunoichi.
'He shouldn't be flirting with that foreign hussy! He should be flirting with me Shannaro!' Her inner personality screamed.
"Sabaku no Gaara. I'm also interested in you. Your name?" Gaara cut in, before the kunoichi could speak.
"Uzumaki Naruto" Naruto answered Gaara, then turning to the kunoichi and gave her an expectant smile.
"Sabaku no Temari and that's Kankuro" Temari answered, still blushing lightly, while pointing at the hooded guy.
After making their introductions, the sand genin walked away. Naruto stared at their backs as they left, and a thoughtful expression appeared on his face as they disappeared around a corner.
In a large room, twenty or so ninja was gathered before the Hokage. There were shinobi with a wide range of duties ranging from the protection of the village, to academy instructors to jounin team leaders.
"From the people here, you should already know the reason for this meeting" Sarutobi began.
"So, its that time of year already?" Kakashi commented.
"I've already seen a few in this village", Asuma asked with a cigarette hanging from his mouth.
"So? When is it?" Kurenai asked, masking her excitement and eagerness to have her team prove themselves in the chunin exams with an impassive tone. She had trained her team especially hard just for this moment.
"One week from now" Sarutobi answered.
Kakashi raised his eyebrow at the revelation.
"That's sudden" the white haired jounin admitted.
Sarutobi took the pipe from his lips and blew out a puff of smoke.
"I will now make the official announcement. Seven days from now, the first of July, we will begin the chunin selection exam", the leader of the leaf village announced.
"Now, those watching over the new genin step forward. Kakashi, Kurenai, and Asuma. Are there any genin you would like to nominate for this exam?" Sarutobi said.
Among the gathered ninja, Umino Iruka frowned.
'He doesn't need to ask. They aren't ready' the academy teacher thought, already expecting none of the teams to be nominated.
"Now, starting with Kakashi…" Sarutobi continued.
"Team 7: Uchiha Sasuke, Uzumaki Naruto, Haruno Sakura, under the name of Hatake Kakashi. I nominate these three to take the chunin selection exam" Kakashi announced.
Iruka gasped in shock at the jounin's announcement.
"Team 8 consisting of Hyuga Hinata, Inuzuka Kiba, Aburame Shino. I, Yuuhi Kurenai, nominate team 8 for the chunin exam" Kurenai announced with confidence.
"I, Sarutobi Asuma, leader of team 10, consisting of Yamanaka Ino, Nara Shikamaru, Akimichi Chouji. I nominate these three for the exam".
Surprised gasps were heard from most of the gathered ninja and whispers of the sudden revelation began to pass between the gathered ninja.
"All three teams nominated?"
"All of the rookies in the chunin exam?"
"Hold on a second!" Iruka cried out to the Hokage in protest.
"What is it Iruka?" Sarutobi questioned.
"Hokage-sama. Please let me have a word! I may be speaking out of place, but these were students of mine at the academy. They are all very talented, but it's too early for them to take the exam! They should have more experience before being nominated!" Iruka cried out in concern.
"I became a chunin when I was six year younger than Naruto" Kakashi challenged, knowing how much Iruka cared for Naruto.
"Naruto is different than you! Are you trying to crush these kids?" Iruka retorted.
"They are always complaining about the missions. Experiencing some pain may be good for them".
"What?!" Iruka frowned.
"I understand what you're trying to say. But your concern is unfounded. Naruto is perhaps the most ready out of them all, at least mentally. Along with Sasuke, the two of them were able to defeat a jounin level ninja together in a C-ranked turned A-ranked mission. Naruto also made his first kill in that mission" Kakashi revealed.
Iruka's eyes widened at the revelation. He had heard of the mission, but he wasn't aware of the details, as he had not been the one to review the mission report, and had yet to hear anything from Naruto himself.
He had expected an elite jounin like Kakashi to deal with all the combat situations they came across.
Iruka found himself speechless and unable to respond.
Kurenai was also immensely surprised, and would've let out a gasp of shock involuntarily, if not for her good self-control.
She hadn't seen the blonde haired Jinchuriki since he left for the mission to Nami no Kuni over a month ago. Even when she knew he had returned, the blonde kept skipping their usual scheduled training sessions together, only leaving her a note each time to say he would not be coming.
The red-eyed woman had been irritated to say the least, and had been planning on giving him a piece of her mind for slacking off and wasting her time.
But now, that irritation turned to worry for the boy.
The memory of her own first kill was still as fresh on her mind as the day it happened, even after many years had past.
She had been young then, as young as Naruto was now.
She had taken weeks off active duty to recover. And it was only with the support of her teammates and sensei that she slowly got over it.
'Maybe I should check up on him…' she thought.
It was late in the evening when the meeting had ended.
While the central business district of Konoha was still bursting with nightly activity, the quieter streets were already deserted, as most citizens had returned home.
Unlike the majority of shinobi that had left the meeting exhausted and wanting to wind down with a few drinks at the pubs, Kurenai had no desire to do so this night.
She wasn't a big drinker like many of the shinobi that liked to wash away their troubles and painful memories with large amounts of alcohol. Though from time to time, she would share sake among friends and socialise with her fellow ninja.
Most of the time, she did so to keep up with the latest rumours and news pertaining to the ninja world, both in and outside the village. Information gathering was an essential skill for a shinobi, and most people are at their most talkative when they're sloshed.
It was surprising how many ninja liked to talk of their exploits and experiences on missions over some sake. And Kurenai felt that any information she learned at these times could potentially be useful for her career as a ninja. One would never know, as that gossip could end up saving her life one day.
But tonight was not such a night, as she was already mentally exhausted after a lengthy meeting. She had still planned to organise some last minute training for her team to prepare for the chunin exams.
She absentmindedly declined an invitation from Asuma to go to the nearest pub, to his disappointment, and headed towards the more busy streets of Konoha looking for a bite to eat before she embarrassed herself in front of fellow shinobi with the rumbling of her stomach.
Kurenai was glad she had the foresight to eat something before the meeting, although it hadn't been more than a stick of dango, in her rush to get to the meeting.
Being a seasoned ninja, She was no stranger to working on an empty stomach for extended periods of time, though it wasn't exactly a good feeling having hydrochloric acid burning at your stomach walls.
Looking left and right as she travelled down the streets, passing by several restaurants, trying to make up her mind on the type of cuisine she wanted to sate her hunger with.
Her red eyes eventually settled onto a small ramen stand that stood just outside of the busiest parts of the street.
She smiled slightly. Ichiraku ramen didn't sound bad at the moment.
Kurenai had been to the Ichiraku ramen stand several times with Naruto and Anko. The ramen was good in her opinion, more than good enough to be deserving of the title of the best ramen one could find in Konoha, which Naruto praised as the self appointed greatest fan of ramen.
She wasn't nearly as enthusiastic as Naruto was in ramen, though she found the blonde's obsession to be slightly contagious and developed a small appreciation of it.
Thinking about the boy's eagerness in eating ramen always brought a smile to her lips.
Even though she had not seen the boy for just over a month, she found herself starting to miss his company. The reason she enjoyed his company wasn't because she had romantic feelings for the boy, despite how much Anko liked to joke about it.
It was because of the energy that he brought to her monotonous life. Even Anko had often commented on how dull she was at times and that she was way too serious about her job as a ninja, that she was a borderline workaholic.
Kurenai entered the stand, and exchanged an awkward glance with Ayame, before ordering a bowl of ramen.
As she waited, the image of an impatient Naruto fidgeting heavy as he waited for his ramen passed through her mind.
But thoughts on the boy only served to make her worry. She wanted to know how he was coping with having his first kill.
She eventually decided to hurry with her eating and check up on the boy after she was done. She knew that she wouldn't have any time in the next several days to visit him, as she had to prepare her team for the exams.
Wincing from pain, he jerked backwards in natural reflex, as a kunai skimmed his arm, cutting it. Ignoring the bleeding, he jumped backwards dodging another blade, by barely an inch.
His body was tired, almost on the verge of collapse. And his legs wobbled unstably like jelly, not knowing when it would finally give way to gravity.
But he pushed on with sheer will.
He quickly tensed his legs locking his muscles to control the shaking, before having to dive to the side as a moderate sized fireball roared past him, incinerating all in it's path, before dispersing into smoke.
He panted heavily in exertion, and the lingering heat from the fire did nothing to help, as it made it difficult to breath.
As he struggled to regain his breath, his eyes worked in a frenzy, trying to track every movement of his enemy.
There were six of them, their features undiscernible in the dark.
For the next few seconds, they did not attack, allowing him enough time to calm and regulate his breathing. But they had taken that time to surround him, each taking an advantageous position for both offensive and defensive strategies.
His eyes narrowed. Six against one were not good odds for him at all.
Every move he made now would be crucial. Any wasted movements on his part will lead to immediate defeat. He could not afford to make even a single mistake.
The only way he could win was to be something he wasn't. He needed to fight in a way his enemies aren't.
He needed to be efficient.
Every movement he made, every step he took, every punch, kick, block or parry he made must be calculated down to the last degree.
But more importantly, he must be ruthless in attack.
Every blow must be simple and quick, and executed without any hesitation, and delivered without mercy.
When striking out, there can only be one goal in mind…
And that was to kill. And to kill immediately.
A single strike to the throat or to the heart is all that will suffice.
He had never fought like that before. Never as ruthless, never as brutal. Never aiming to kill.
Except that one time…
Now breathing evenly, he extended his senses outwards preparing to defend himself against the hidden enemy.
Suddenly, something prickled his danger instincts, and he dove to the side urgently. Several thumping noises were heard, as three kunai embedded itself into the dirt ground where he had been standing.
His eyes widened in horror, when he caught sight of several small paper tags tied to the ends of the kunai.
Not quick enough.
He grunted in pain, as he was thrown roughly against a tree. Coughing out some blood, he slumped tiredly and in pain against the tree.
Using the tree behind him as leverage, he shakily hoisted himself upwards, holding onto the tree to maintain balance.
Turning around, he headed into the forest, hoping to hide himself within the darkness of the night and the shadows within the trees.
But the enemy had already anticipated that action, as if their actions were extensions of his own mind.
With his escape route cut off, he headed back into the safety of the clearing.
The option of hiding was no longer available.
They were aware of every tactical decision he made, and countered each and every one of them.
If he could not hide in the darkness, there was no point in staying within the darkness of the forest. Barely any moonlight penetrated the canopy of the trees, certainly not enough for him to fight effectively.
He barely deflected a thrown kunai with one of his own, lucky that he had been at the edge of the forest where moonlight reflected off the steel blade, allowing him to see the incoming weapon.
Standing at the centre of the clearing once again, he waited, the initiative in the enemy's hands.
It was late at night, but under the bright moonlight, he could see everything and anything the enemy could throw at him.
Even though they surrounded him, several hiding in the surrounding trees, he would be able to handle any projectile weapons much easier from his current position, which would force the enemy into close combat.
Precisely what he wanted.
Hearing the rustling of grass from behind, the sign of fast paced movement, he reacted on his fighting instincts and ducked under a kick sent from behind.
Sliding out of the way, so he faced his enemy, he found himself assaulted from behind by another opponent.
He blocked the kick with his right arm, grunting slightly in pain as he took the full brunt of the impact with the limb.
Pushing downwards in a single sweep of his arms, he redirected the leg to the side, causing the enemy to slightly lose balance.
He did not have the chance to counter attack, as he was forced to add some distance between them, by the first attacker.
Before he could gain a stable stance, he barely managed to side step yet another fireball from a third enemy.
This time, the flames managed to singe parts of his clothes. And he winced as the heat of the fire scorched his skin just from proximity.
Then, a flare of chakra alerted him to the presence above.
He looked upwards, finding another attacker barrelling upon him.
He sent himself into a tumble to move out of harm's way, managing to escape a direct hit, which made impact with the ground.
But the subsequent explosion of rubble caught him off guard, sending him flying back ten feet and painfully onto his back.
Brushing away the chunks of dirt on his chest, he lifted his bruised and battered body off the ground painfully.
He snarled angrily at being beaten so easily.
He clenched his fist hard. If he was going to lose, he would at least do some damage.
He let out a loud war cry, and charged the nearest enemy, the one that attacked from above, putting his all into one single attack.
The enemy stood wide-eyed, frozen to the spot, not expecting him to go on the attack, nor for him to be able to move at that speed.
He moved, as fast as he could, the remaining of his energy forced into his legs to generate more speed.
His arm reached out, hands already formed into a claw.
His full concentration was aimed at the throat.
To win, he must come at them with intent to kill.
He neared his enemy… two feet… one feet… half feet…
Just before contact, a pale face flashed through his mind.
And blood… Haku.
It was all it took for the situation to be reversed.
And he found air forcefully expelled from his lungs before he landed roughly onto the ground.
He laid there on the ground, thoroughly defeated.
Pushing himself into an upright, sitting position to get more air back into his lungs, he then coughed out some blood.
Six figures surrounded him, looking down upon him, no longer hidden among the trees.
He held out a hand, a sign of surrender.
The figures nodded and disappeared in puffs of smoke.
He sat there alone, breathing raggedly.
"Even when I'm awake, it still affects me" he whispered to himself.
Completely exhausted, he collapsed onto his back, resting his aching body.
The scene that greeted her wasn't one Kurenai had been expecting.
It was already deep into the night when she reached the training grounds, a time where most would already be sleeping.
It was already rare to find anyone using the training grounds at this time of the night, but never the red-eyed woman never expected to witness a sparring session that was more akin to an all out battle to the death.
The training ground was small, consisting of mostly a small section of clearing, surrounded by trees.
Potholes were everywhere, shuriken and kunai all over the place. The ground was cracked, rubble was scattered around, small trenches and craters decorated the small section of clearing, and many of the surrounding trees were collapsed and burnt, a sign of the use of katon jutsu.
And in the centre of all the destruction, lay Naruto unmoving, obviously too exhausted to move.
It had taken Kurenai some time to locate the boy, as he had not been at his apartment as she had originally thought. Though she eventually tracked him down to one of his usual training spots.
She had hidden herself from view, quietly observing his training.
She had only came in time to catch the tail end of the fight, but the ferocity and sheer intensity of the training worried her. It was much more intense than any training she had put her team through, or would willingly put them through.
She had known he was hardworking ever since she had started teaching him. But this was complete recklessness. One wrong move, and he could've been severely injured or even killed.
She had wanted to cut in to stop the training, but did not want to get in the crossfire of jutsu and weapons.
Surprising ninja in deep concentration would've been unwise as it could invoke negative reflexive responses, such as throwing weapons at the object of their surprise. In this case, which would be her.
But seeing the boy collapsed to the ground, Kurenai immediately moved to check on him. Chakra exhaustion ranged from mild to severe, and in the worst cases, could even be life threatening.
Kneeling down next to the blonde, she whispered his name softly.
The blonde turned his head in her direction, meeting her worried eyes.
Naruto lifted himself a little so he could sit upright.
Kurenai gasped as she saw the heavily troubled look on his face that seemingly made him look much old than he was. And the slightly darkened bags under his eyes showed his lacking sleep.
"Naruto! You shouldn't train like this. You could've hurt yourself. It's late. You should be at home, getting some sleep!" Kurenai chided concernedly.
"I couldn't sleep…" Naruto mumbled under his breath, his eyes on the floor and his voice sounding quite hoarse.
Kurenai frowned, and it was then, that she knew she had been right to find the boy. She remembered that she too, had trouble sleeping after making her first kill. He looked like he really needed someone to talk to.
Kurenai paused slightly to gather her thoughts so she could find a good way to approach the topic, as she knew that despite how much he needed it, he didn't want to talk about it.
It was clear to her now, that he had been releasing pent up emotions through training.
And seeing him in such a miserable state made it clear how troubled he really was.
His eyes were dull, the usual fire in them was gone. She hated to see the normally strong willed boy like this.
Kurenai cursed Kakashi for not helping the boy as his sensei. Though she knew that Kakashi had never been good at, or comfortable with emotional talks.
Swallowing dryly, she realised that she was still undecided on how to start the conversation. The beautiful jounin knew that being blunt or overly forceful in trying to get him to open up would only make the boy feel worse.
She could only offer him an ear to listen.
"Naruto… I've heard from Kakashi about your mission…" Kurenai began cautiously with a soft voice.
Naruto remained silent.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Kurenai offered gently.
Naruto remained silent, still looking down at the ground, never once making eye contact.
Kurenai was patient, and waited for him to speak on his own.
For some time, they remained completely silent, before Naruto finally let loose his troubles to his sensei. He told her everything. From his fight with Haku, to making the killing blow, and then killing Gatoh.
He told her how the mission had completely changed his view of the shinobi profession.
He had been woken from a fantasy world, and reality had shaken him to the core. He had lost all confidence in himself, and his future as a shinobi was in doubt. He used to ache for higher-level missions, and fights with powerful ninja.
But he realised that the reality of ninja battle can be cruel. And the consequences were not always what you expect, and rarely ends up a happy ending.
Naruto knew that he could not continue as he used to, having lost his innocence. But if he continued to be a ninja, he wasn't sure if he could do what needed to be done when the time comes.
If he was forced into the same situation once more, could he kill again?
His view of the ninja world had been in terms of black and white. Where those who were evil are his enemy, and those that are good were his allies.
And before the mission, he had thought that he would have no qualms in killing his enemies, because they were evil.
But he never realised that it was not always the case.
At the time, he knew that his sense of justice would never allow him to let Zabuza succeed in killing Tazuna.
Yet, despite being enemies, Haku was not evil. They became enemies only due to a conflict of interest and circumstance.
If he was forced into the same situation, knowing that he had to kill someone like Haku, could he do it?
The guilt of taking Haku's life was already tearing him apart.
He wanted to protect. Not kill.
But if he had to kill in order to protect, knowing he might kill someone that did not deserve to die, someone that he fought only due to circumstance… Could he do it?
"Could you live with yourself if your friends and teammates died, all because you wouldn't kill, and knowing that you could've saved them if you did?" Kurenai whispered, but it was thunder to Naruto's ears.
She knew exactly what he was feeling. She had felt the same when she made her first kill. And her own sensei had asked her the exact same question. And now, she in turn would ask him the same.
Naruto's head rose sharply, gasping in shock at her words. His dulled blue eyes made contact with his sensei's piercing red eyes.
He swallowed dryly and repeated her question in his mind.
'Could I? Could I live with myself, if I failed to protect them because I won't kill?'
Naruto's face hardened.
'No… I can't'
He had realised that he had come to the same conclusion at the time of the fight.
He recalled that at the time, he was ready to bear the guilt of taking a life if it meant Sasuke and Sakura would be safe.
Yet, after the fight, no matter what he did, he just couldn't convince himself that it had been the right decision.
But now, he realised now, that he had done the right thing. Because Sasuke may not be alive now had he not done what he had.
Kurenai smiled as the boy's resolve slowly started to return.
But it faltered once more.
While killing Haku had been a necessity, the circumstance in his killing of Gatoh was completely different.
He had killed the tyrant in cold blood for having to kill Haku in vain, not because of his desire to protect.
It was true he had used chakra from the nine tails at the time, although he wasn't consciously aware of it until sometime afterwards. But he also couldn't deny the fact that he had been in control of himself, and had truly desired the crime lord's death.
He had relished in killing the short man, and even taken pleasure in inflicting fear into Gatoh's crooks. He had felt no remorse at the time, as he was much too worried for his teammates. But in the aftermath, he was completely disgusted with himself.
No matter the fact that the crime lord's death released an entire country from his iron-fisted rule, and no matter the fact that he was a hero to an entire country, he could not accept that as answer to the fact that he had enjoyed killing, if only for just a moment.
"I'm a monster… just like they say…" a voice, barely a whisper escaped his lips.
Kurenai's eyes widened.
"No!" Kurenai told him firmly.
"But I killed Gatoh in cold blood! I even enjoyed it!" He sniffled, letting out a choked sob, as he tried hard not to break down crying.
He tried to look her in the eyes but flinched and turned away too ashamed to do so.
Kurenai held her hands to his face, guiding his gaze to her own, so she could look into his eyes.
Naruto tried to avert his eyes unwilling to see a look of disgust in her eyes.
His heart ached. He didn't know why, but her opinion meant everything to him, and he could not bear to be rejected.
"Look at me" Kurenai whispered softly in a caring tone.
Naruto found himself unable to do so.
"Please…" Kurenai pleaded.
Eventually, Naruto reluctantly turned his eyes so he could gaze into pools of red.
The look in her eyes was not what he had expected. A look of complete acceptance reflected back at him.
His heart soared.
Kurenai gave him with a serene smile in response to the look of hope in his eyes.
"You are not a monster. If you are, you won't be beating yourself up over it. You did a good thing. You saved the people of Wave." Kurenai told him firmly.
Naruto felt happy, happier than he had felt for a long time. So happy, that he could not stop the tears from rolling down his face.
Kurenai couldn't help but gather the fragile boy into her arms.
He sobbed lightly into her shoulder, as she rubbed his back comfortingly in a circular motion.
After some time, the sobbing died away.
Kurenai tried to released the embrace, but found Naruto sleeping soundly in her arms.
Kurenai smiled softy, thinking that he looked so peaceful and cute in his sleep.
For the first time in weeks, his nightmares did not come.
It was morning once more, and team 7 found themselves waiting for their teacher who was late as usual.
Naruto was deep in thought, recalling the night before. He had not remembered when he had fallen asleep.
Though he had woken in his bed feeling better rested than he had been in weeks. Not once had the nightmares bothered him.
He was glad of his talk with Kurenai. He felt his troubles disappear as if a large weight had being lifted from his shoulders.
His resolve had returned, perhaps even stronger than before, now that he had come to terms with having to kill.
Naruto felt immensely grateful for Kurenai's support, and thought that he should do something nice for the woman. Not to mention he had wanted to make up for having missed her birthday celebration while he had been away in wave on mission.
Meanwhile Sakura watched Naruto with a small smile. She was glad to see the shine in his eyes return.
But with Naruto deep in thought, and Sasuke quiet as usual, silence was shared between the teammates. And the silence was making Sakura uncomfortable and in her boredom became increasingly fidgety.
"ARRRRRG" Sakura screamed in frustration eventually. "Why does that guy call us out and then make us wait? What about the feelings of a young maiden who overslept and couldn't finish blow-drying her hair!"
Before the two boys could reply, high-speed movement could be felt.
Turning their heads, they caught Kakashi appearing on a pillar above them in a blur.
"Morning everyone! Today, I got lost on the road of life".
"LIAR!" Sakura screamed.
"Well, anyway… This is sudden, but I've nominated you guys for the chunin selection exam. Here are your applications"
The team was speechless.
"But… this is just a nomination. It's up to you whether or not to take the exam. Those who wish to take it sign the applications and take them to room 301 of the academy by 3pm six days from now. That is all".
And with that, the jounin disappeared in a puff of smoke, as suddenly as he appeared.
Seeing the look of uncertain and insecure look on Sakura's face, Naruto gave her a reassuring smile.
"Don't worry Sakura. You'll be fine".
Sakura gave the boy a grateful look, feeling much better at his words.
Seeing his reassuring smile, she couldn't help but feel safe and secure.
You plan to take the chunin exam with that?" mocked one of the pair of Konoha genin that had been blocking the doorway to the room, as he punched another genin to the floor that tried to approach.
"You guys should quit now" the genin blocking the way spat. "You're just little kids"
"Please let us through" pleaded a girl who was dressed in a pink shirt and had hair in two buns. She helped her teammate off the floor, the boy that was punched to the floor.
He was a goofy looking boy with a bowl cut and massively thick eyebrows. But more outstandingly, dressed in green spandex.
The bun haired took the silence from the genin as agreement and walked forward, only to receive a fist to the face knocking her to the ground.
"Horrible…" a voice murmured from among the gathered crowd of chunin hopefuls.
"Listen, we're being kind. The chunin exams isn't easy", the genin that threw the punch said.
"A lot of people in this exam will end up quitting as Shinobi. And some others won't even be able to recover at all. We've seen it many times" His teammate added.
"Chunin are military platoon captains. The failure of a mission, the death of a soldier are all part of the captain's responsibility. Yet kids like you think…." The genin snorted, not even bother finishing.
"We're just thinning out those that will fail anyway. What's wrong with that?"
Sasuke moved through the crowd with Sakura and Naruto trailing him. "I agree, but you'll let me pass. And remove this genjutsu-created surrounding. I'm going to the third floor".
Confused whispers were shared among the crowd around them.
Naruto rolled his eyes slightly.
'We could've just walked to the real room 301. But noooooo, he had to show off. We could've eliminated a lot of competition. But then again, if they can't spot this genjutsu, they aren't much of a threat to us'.
His eyes then turned to the three at the front of the crowd beside them. He narrowed his eyes at the team that just had two of their members knocked to the floor by the genin that was blocking the door.
'There's no way a Hyuga can't see through a genjutsu of this level. That team must be faking it to hide their strength'.
"So you noticed?" One of the genins blocking the doorway spoke.
Sasuke smirked in triumph. "Sakura, you must have noticed it first, right? Your analytical ability and genjutsu know-how are the most improved on our team".
Naruto hid a smirk of his own at Sasuke's words. He had been keeping his genjutsu training with Kurenai a secret as his trump card.
Though he was glad Sasuke had also noticed Sakura's waning confidence and used this opportunity to help her regain some of that confidence she had lost.
Sakura smiled slightly at being praised, finding herself feeling much more confident than before.
"Thank you, Sasuke-kun" the girl whispered under her breath.
She looked up, this time with a confident expression. "Of course I noticed. Because this is the second floor!"
The genins blocking the door smirked and released their genjutsu.
"Not bad. But all you did was see through it!" The genin called out, while sending a kick straight at Sasuke.
Having remained alert since the start of the confrontation, Sasuke returned a kick of his own back at his attacker.
But before either blow landed, it was intercepted by the unassuming boy that was dressed in the green spandex.
'Fast' Sakura thought, in slight awe of the speed this genin had moved.
Naruto raised an eyebrow. 'He's pretty fast. I was right, he had been faking to hide his strength'.
Sasuke frowned. 'He intercepted my kick…'
The teammates of the spandex wearing boy moved up beside him.
"Hey, what happened to the plan? You're the one who said we shouldn't draw attention to ourselves" The Hyuga genin questioned.
"Well…" The boy replied sheepishly, not knowing what to say.
The boy then turned and looked to Sakura with admiration in his eyes. His female team mate shook her head "oh no…"
"My name is Rock Lee. So your's is Sakura… " His smile brightened, as he gave a thumbs up in a pose that was as stupid as he looked.
"Let's go out together! I'll protect you until I die!"
Sakura's jaw dropped.
"No… way… You're lame…" she deadpanned.
The boy in spandex bowed his head depressed at her rejection.
Sasuke and Naruto stared on dumbfounded, both finding the scene amusing.
'No way I'll go out with you! That hair cut, those eyebrows… Ewww' Sakura thought in disgust.
"Hey you! What's your name?" the Hyuga boy spoke to Sasuke in a demanding tone.
"When you want to learn someone's name, you should give your's first" Sasuke retorted arrogantly, not liking the Hyuga's tone one bit.
The Hyuga frowned at the Uchiha's response.
"You're a rookie right? How old are you?" He questioned again with the same demanding voice.
"I don't have to answer you" Sasuke scoffed.
The Hyuga narrowed his eyes in anger. "What?"
The girl with the hair in the buns smiled, but rolled her eyes slightly at the exchange between the two arrogant boys. 'How cute…'
'But…' She turned to look at the blonde and pink haired genin that stood beside Sasuke. Her teammate Hyuga Neji had obviously gained an interest in the Uchiha survivor. As his teammate, she decided to scope out the Uchiha's teammates just in case they were a threat.
She gave the pink haired girl a quick once over, but found nothing special. In fact, the girl looked weak. The girl seemed to be the type of kunoichi that cared more for her looks than her ability as a ninja. And as a kunoichi that was very serious about her career, she immediately found a small dislike for the pink haired girl.
The blonde on the other hand gave mixed signals. The way his gaze landed on her team had been somewhat unnerving, giving her a feeling that he might have been analysing them, just as she was analysing him.
On the other hand, the cheery and carefree expression on his face revealed none of that, and the relaxed posture and stance he held gave an impression that he was weak.
And being the Uchiha's teammate, he would've likely been the dead last of his class, suggesting that he wasn't much of a threat to her team.
It was a shame as she found the boy to be kind of cute. Though skill and strength were attributes that she looked for in potential boyfriends, and the blonde boy despite being physically cute seemed to lack these attributes.
But then again, looks can be deceiving, considering her teammate Lee's progress since her team started.
It would not be wise to completely discount them so early. After all, this was the famous Hatake Kakashi's genin team.
Feeling the stare of the bun haired girl, Naruto turned to the girl making eye contact.
Smiling slightly, he gave her a small wink before looking back at the confrontation between the Hyuga and Uchiha prodigies, making the girl blush slightly.
'At least he knows how to flirt… unlike Lee… or Neji…' The bun haired girl mused.
Eventually, the Hyuga and Uchiha boys broke eye contact from their attempt to gauge the other's strength.
Sasuke turned to leave, with Naruto and Sakura following closely behind.
Team 7 stared in awe as they found themselves facing a large crowd of over a hundred genin.
Having been possibly the last team to arrive, it served to freak them out a bit as they stood at the centre of attention.
The sense of hostility that permeated the entire room intimidated them, and even though Naruto felt confident of his strength, he couldn't help but feel a bit unnerved at the glares sent their way.
The blonde's eyes swept from left to right, scanning through the crowd of genin, getting a feel of the level of competition they would have in the exam.
Like Kurenai had taught him, his eyes drifted from genin to genin, trying to determine the strengths and weaknesses of each shinobi that he could see.
However, those who were the greatest of threat stuck out like a sore thumb, to those that knew how to look.
All one needed to look for, was the confidence in each shinobi.
Barely repressed killing intent, the air of danger that was suffocating and the sheer intensity of the glaring eyes of the gathered ninja made it impossible for the weak to remain composed.
Despite the gathered ninja being supposedly the cream of crop of their respective village, only a handful of ninja held themselves with absolute confidence.
Most seemed to hide their nervousness behind a false mask of confidence by emitting a small amount of killing intent.
The greatest threat however, lay in the rare few shinobi that remained completely calm and unwavering even within this kind of oppressive atmosphere.
Naruto's eyes instantly settled onto the first of such ninja.
The green clad ninja, though silly looking and fairly unassuming could be considered an embodiment of the expression that 'looks could be deceiving'.
Despite his looks, there was one thing that was certain.
He is undoubtedly strong.
On their way to the room, Sasuke had been challenged to a fight by this one genin.
The fight lasted mere moments, ending with the Uchiha utterly decimated and humiliated.
Had he not witnessed the outcome of the fight first hand, he would be hardly convinced if told that Lee was incredibly powerful.
But despite Sasuke's loss to this genin, they were able to garner valuable information about Lee. Not that the boy with thick eyebrows bothered much to hide that he was in fact a taijutsu specialist. Lee had even announced that loudly at one point during the fight. Which Naruto found amusing as it served to further incense the Uchiha.
Even with his bloodline limit, Sasuke was unable to come close to defeating Lee. The gap between their abilities was too large, the boy was simply too fast and skilled for Sasuke.
Naruto understood that in terms of taijutsu, his skill was well below the older genin. And beating the boy they now dubbed fuzzy eyebrows in sheer speed was highly unlikely, as he seemed to specialise in speed.
Even though he could easily match the boy's display of speed in the quick fight, Lee was definitely hiding his true speed.
However, taijutsu specialists are usually more susceptible to genjutsu, although it was not always the case.
But for Naruto, who had been secretly learning the art of genjutsu, it was an advantage that he held over the older genin.
Still, Lee was undoubtedly a large threat to their team's success in this exam, and was definitely someone they needed to watch out for.
The blonde's eyes then moved to the raven-haired genin standing beside Lee.
The distinctive pale eyes instantly identified him as a Hyuga. Like his teammate, he held himself with complete confidence, with a tinge of arrogance.
Naruto was well aware of the strength of the Hyuga clan. He had at one point researched the Juuken taijutsu style in hopes of furthering his own taijutsu training.
Although in the end, there hadn't been much he had discovered of the style, except one thing.
Fighting in close combat with any Hyuga would be pure folly.
On top of the style, there was the advantage of the Byakugan bloodline limit that makes them almost impossible to catch off guard.
Naruto also recalled the fact that Lee had mentioned before offhandedly that his teammate was perhaps the strongest Konoha genin in the exam.
Is would be imperative for him if he even faced Neji, that he fought using his only advantage.
Despite their superiority in taijutsu and strength as a clan, the Hyuga clan's arrogance and confidence in their techniques prevents them from studying other techniques.
If given the chance, Naruto decided that he should observe the Juuken fighting style in order to learn it's secrets.
Naruto's eyes then turned to the final member of Lee and Neji's team.
It was difficult to determine the exact abilities of the girl, as she seemed somewhat plain and unassuming, even though she was kinda cute in a girl next-door kind of way.
She did not stand out among the crowd, being somewhat tomboyish, hidden among bloodthirsty ninja.
But given what he knew of the girl's teammates, the logical conclusion would suggest that she would be a mid to long range fighter, as both Neji and Lee are close combat specialists. She was either someone that uses genjutsu or mid to long range ninjutsu for support, or was an expert marksman.
Despite the fact that he could not clearly gauge her strength, she was clearly the weakest of the team, seeing as she did not held herself with the same level of confidence as her teammates.
But then, there was hardly any other team within the room that could even consider challenging this team with all their skills together.
Naruto's eyes then travelled through the crowd, finally settling on the next several genins that was a threat.
It was the Suna team he had bumped into several days earlier.
Like Rock Lee's team, the entire team of Suna genin exuded an aura of dangerousness without actively trying to appear so.
But despite that, it was the redhead that garnered most of his attention.
Sabaku no Gaara.
Despite his short and skinny frame, his presence just screamed danger. It wasn't something one could really sense or see, but affects on a subconscious level.
He didn't know why, but something about the redhead makes him wary, much more so than both Neji and Lee combined.
Though the blonde had to wonder whether he was just paranoid, as he seemed to be the only one being wary of a small thin kid.
With the emotionless visage, there was nothing that could be discerned of his personality or abilities.
Nevertheless, even without any evidence what so ever, his instincts tell him that Gaara's threat level was the highest among the entire crowd.
Definitely someone to watch out for, and to stay away from, unless confrontation was unavoidable.
Just as Naruto was about to move on to analyse the rest of the crowd of exam participants, a loud voice called out from beside him.
"Sasuke-kun! You're late!"
Looking out the corner of his eyes, he was treated to the sight of one Yamanaka Ino glomping Sasuke from behind, having jumped onto his back.
"I haven't seen you for a while! I've been so excited!" Ino said, relishing the fact she was holding onto her crush.
While the blonde pony-tailed girl was happy for Sasuke's presence, sadly the said boy did not feel the same.
The raven-haired boy sported an irritated looked that made him look like he was going to kill someone. And as much as the Uchiha tried to shrug the girl off his shoulders, Ino did not even budge. She was stronger than she look, considering how thin she was, and maintained a tight grip on him.
Naruto gave the boy an amused grin, which gained him a death glare in return.
His other teammate however, was far from amused, and let her opinion know quite vocally.
"What are you doing? Ino-pig! Get away from Sasuke-kun!" Sakura cried out in outrage.
"Why if it isn't Sakura. Big ugly forehead as always", Ino teased.
"What did you say!" Sakura growled indignantly.
"Sasuke-kun is mine! Bleh!" Ino mocked, making a face at the pink haired girl with her tongue sticking out.
"Well, well, everyone is here." A new voice comments.
The group turned to face the source of the new voice only to see Inuzuka Kiba, who had his dog Akamaru sitting on top of his head.
Behind the Inuzuka was his two teammates Hyuga Hinata and Aburame Shino.
"Geez. You guys too?" Nara Shikamaru said, as he approached the group, having followed Ino.
"So all 9 of this year's rookie genin are taking the exam" Kiba comments, feeling proud that he was allowed to participate as a rookie genin, which goes to show his level of skill.
"I wonder how far we'll get, eh, Sasuke" Kiba challenged.
"Pfft. You seem confident Kiba" Sasuke scoffs.
"We did a lot of training, we won't lose to you" Kiba brags.
Sasuke scoffs at that.
"So… Where's that idiot Naruto?" Ino quipped.
Sakura pointed to the blonde who had been beside them all along, with a deadpan look on her face.
Ino blinked, then jaw dropped.
Her turquoise eyes widened to bizarre proportions as she took in the form of the blonde boy whom she had always known to be an idiot.
Pointing to the boy in disbelieve she stuttered "T..tt.that's… N.n.naruto?"
To say Naruto had changed was an understatement. It had only been six or so months since she had last seen him. But where he would've been a target of ridicule in terms of his lack of height a few months ago, he now stood at a respectable height for someone their age. Although he was still not quite as tall as the taller of the boys of their class.
It also seemed that the boy had suddenly gained a sense of fashion, as he had abandoned the orange eyesore, and replaced it with a rather nice white coat that reached his knees.
His hair was longer, making some shadow, which hid a bit of his eyes, giving him a slightly mysterious feel.
Behind the golden locks of hair were deep blue eyes that shined with warmth and a tinge of playfulness.
His face was sharper, making him look more mature and serious, having lost some baby fat that used to make him cute in a child like way, no doubt, the result of intense training.
And that grin which she had always though as cute in a childish and silly kind of way, now seemed oddly seductive.
She couldn't help but feel the warmth build in her cheeks. Ino really wanted to berate herself as she caught herself checking out the dead last idiot.
As much as she liked Sasuke, she couldn't even remember the last time looking at Sasuke had made her blush as much as she was now.
Still, part of her stubborn mind argued that Sasuke was still much better looking. It wasn't exactly false. Given several more years, then perhaps Naruto could rival Sasuke in the looks department, but there was no denying that Sasuke was better looking at the moment.
But another part of her mind found the wild blonde hair and a warm gaze was more to her tastes in contrast to the cold gazes from the Uchiha.
A gaze from deep blue eyes that was currently looking at her with an intensity that sent shivers down her spine.
And what was that glint in his eyes?
While Ino was taking in the sight that was Naruto, the said boy gave the speechless girl a mischievous grin.
It was oddly gratifying to have a member of the opposite sex, and one as beautiful as Ino to find him attractive. And even though it had been an increasingly common sight ever since his change in wardrobe, it was still a massive boost to his ego.
He had to force himself not to blush from Ino's stare.
That was until his prankster nature kicked in.
Striding up beside his fellow blonde, he placed an elbow on her shoulder while leaning his face towards her face.
"Aww, I'm so disappointed you don't recognise little ol' me, Ino-chan" Naruto said jokingly and teasingly, knowing for sure that his close proximity and the way he called her name would serve to further fluster the girl, having seen her earlier reaction.
Ino's blush deepened much to Naruto's delight.
Ino had always been extremely proud of her own looks, and loved to flaunt it and often took amusement in making the boys blush with a little flirting. And now, Naruto was giving her a taste of her own medicine.
"Is that a blush I see?" Naruto teased again finding the irony to be incredibly funny.
Her blush now resembled the ripest of tomatoes. And the girl looked away slightly unable to meet his eyes, causing Naruto to chuckle slightly.
Desperate to hide her embarrassment, she did the only thing she knew that would work in this situation. Lashing out, she smacked Naruto in the head and grabbed his collar, and yelled loudly into his face.
"What the hell you trying to imply?"
However, the blush on her face remained.
Naruto just chuckled and lifted his hands in a gesture of surrender.
Beside them Sakura was fuming mad and more than a little envious of the blonde girl.
Naruto had not referred to her with such endearment for some time, and hearing Naruto call her greatest rival that brought a twinge to her heart.
The pink haired girl had not been envious of Ino for quite some time. She had believed that she had grown out of the blonde girl's shadow and had gained some confidence in her own self worth.
When they had been younger, she had not been very confident of herself, and had looked up to Ino as the most beautiful and ladylike as well as the most talented kunoichi their age.
She had eventually gained confidence in herself as she grew older and thought that the gap between them had closed and believed herself to be just as beautiful and as good a kunoichi.
Now seeing Naruto flirt with Ino rather than herself had hurt.
Was Ino that much more attractive and desirable than she was?
She had witnessed Naruto flirt with several other girls, but how many months had it been since he even paid her any extra attention?
Watching Naruto and Ino now made her wanted to cry.
Even if Sasuke was the one she wanted, she wanted to be the one that Naruto paid attention to, not these other girls.
As Naruto tried to placate Ino, Kiba spoke.
"Ha! Just because you changed your clothes doesn't mean you aren't a dobe".
"Naruto-kun…" Hinata whispered softly with a blush on her cheeks, from her position beside Kiba.
Naruto was about to make a retort to Kiba's statement when a new voice cut in, making Ino release Naruto.
"Hey you guys, you should be more quiet."
The entire group of rookies turned from the spectacle that was the two blondes, towards the new arrival.
The owner of the voice was a boy with grey hair that wore a pair of glasses. He seemed to be several years older than they were.
"You guys are rookies just out of the academy right?" The boy says.
"Who are you?" Ino asks bluntly.
"I'm Kabuto. But look behind you" Kabuto pointed.
The rookie genin did as Kabuto advised and found the entire crowd of genin glaring at them, with the stares of the genin from Ame the fiercest, as if they were ready to go on the kill.
"Those guys behind you are from the hidden rain, they have short tempers. Everyone is nervous about the exam, quiet down before you cause a scene" Kabuto advised in a matter of fact tone.
"Well I can't blame you guys. You're all rookies after all. Reminds me of how I used to be" Kabuto state offhandedly.
"So this is your second time, Kabuto-san?" Sakura asked politely to the stranger.
"No, this is my seventh time" Kabuto said casually, not at all embarrassed that he had failed that many times. "This exam is held twice a year so this is my fourth year."
"Wow, so you know a lot about this exam?" Sakura questioned.
"That's right" Kabuto states proudly. "I'll share some info with you cute rookies. With these nin-info cards…" Kabuto says as he flipped out a deck of cards.
"Nin-info cards?" Sakura questioned.
Kabuto places the deck on the floor, and the gathered rookie genins crowded around in a circle surrounding Kabuto, trying to satiate their curiosity.
"They are basically cards which have info burned onto them with chakra" Kabuto replies.
"I have four years worth of info here, over 200 cards. They look blank but to open the info on these cards…" Kabuto grabbed the card from the top and placed it info side up, and spun in on the tiled floor with a finger.
"What are you doing?" Sakura asks curiously.
"You can't view them unless I use my chakra".
With a poof of smoke, diagrams and writing revealed itself on the card.
"This is the number of genin taking the exam, and the breakdown of what country they are from" Kabuto says.
"Do you have cards with info on individuals?" Sasuke asked, curious of the data Kabuto had gathered.
"Is there someone you are worried about?" Kabuto says, "My info on this exam's participants isn't perfect, but I do have it. Even you guys. Pick someone and I'll take a look".
"Rock Lee of Konoha" Sasuke says.
"Oh you know the name? It'll be easy then", Kabuto say.
In a blur of hands, Kabuto retrieved a single card from the deck.
"Show me" Sasuke demanded, hoping to gain any info that could help him defeat the genin that defeated him so easily.
"Ok, Rock Lee, he's a year older than you guys. Mission history is 20 D-rank, 12 C-rank completed. Sensei is Maito Gai. His taijutsu have improved greatly in this year, the rest is nothing impressive. He gained some attention last year as a talented new genin, but he didn't participate in the chunin exam. So this is his first time like you guys. His teammates are Hyuga Neji and Tenten".
"Is there anyone else?" Kabuto asks after letting the rookies absorb the info.
All of the rookies shook their heads, but one voice called out from among them.
"Sabaku no Gaara".
The genin looked to Naruto in surprise, especially with the unusually serious tone. Not to mention the said blonde was staring directly at the redhead among the crowd that was also staring back intently.
"Sabaku no Gaara. Mission history, 8 C-rank, and 1 B-rank. Wow, a B-rank mission as a genin. I don't have much info since he's newcomer to the exams from a foreign country. But… it seems he returned from all of his missions without even a scratch…"
Naruto's eyes narrowed. As expected, this Gaara was good. B ranked missions were assigned to jounin level ninja. It was unlikely that the boy had gotten lucky, although not entirely impossible. After all, Sakura had technically completed an equivalent of an A class mission without a scratch in the mission to wave, as she did not fight at all.
But considering the way the boy bossed his teammates around, it meant that he was definitely the most powerful of the group, it wasn't possible that only luck was involved.
Which meant Gaara was at least close to jounin level.
Despite his nervousness, his blood boiled in excitement, Naruto smirked.
He looked forward to it.
AN: Sorry it took so long for this chapter to come out, but I've been busy lately and haven't had much time to write at all. Plus, I'm never satisfied with my writing. I was on my 11th revision for the chapter before I finally posted it. And it's still not as good as I wanted it to be.
This chapter is mostly a recap of canon events, so I hope you guys aren't too disappointed with the lack of original stuff. It was supposed to include the second part of the chunin exams where things vary from canon more, but it ended up much longer than I had expected, so I stopped the chapter here.
For those that are disappointed by the recap, it's because I felt that the introduction of the major characters and their first interaction with the changed Naruto to be fairly important since their first impressions will impact how they act and interact with each other later, thus creating more plot divergence.
Hopefully the small bit of Naruto and Kurenai interaction will satisfy you guys. Though I'm not very good at writing emotional stuff, so it wasn't very good. I prefer writing fighting scenes.
Also, thanks to the people that pointed out that I kept referring to Haku as female in the last chapter. I was aware of it when I was writing, but a few cases still slipped past my notice when I was editing. It happens unconsciously because it helps me keep track of which side I'm writing about in the fight since I changed POV between Haku and Naruto/Sasuke a lot. It should be fixed now.
I just realised that has changed the formatting so that the scene change breaks I put in no longer showed up. Annoying to have to go back and change it, took me some time, but fixed that too.