Disclaimer: Sigh...as irritating as it is, I guess I better start doing these. I don't own Naruto, I don't make money off this story, plain and simple.

A/N: Welcome to Chapter 2! Once again, I appreciate the reviews for the previous chapter :D Several of you seemed to like Naruto's fighting style. I assure you you'll get to see plenty before the story is done, and he hasn't even busted out some of his best techniques yet (well, except for Hiraishin).

This chapter is more of a set-up chapter, though I feel it still turned out interesting enough. I threw in a little filler action to keep you entertained, but it's purpose was to move the plot into a spot where I can hopefully bring this little mini-arc (the return home) to a close either next chapter or the chapter after that.

That's all I have to say for now, enjoy the chapter!

P.S. - For those of you who noticed, I made a minor continuity boo-boo with Gaara last chapter. If you just can't go on without seeing that small bit fixed, then go back and reread (or if you're just curious as to how I messed up, I mention the fix in my updated author's notes for last chapter).


By TgCid24

Chapter 2: Frogs and Monkeys?

Tsunade strolled into her office, followed closely by her two fellow 'proctors.' Casually, she waved them to the empty seats in front of her desk and relaxed into her own comfy chair.

"Well, I'd say this has been an interesting day," she commented.

"Interesting," began Jiraiya sardonically, "doesn't even begin to cover it."

Kakashi favored them both with a one-eyed glare and remained silent.

"The boy's chakra capacity was already well above the average jounin level during our training trip years ago, but now...I'm not sure if he could run out of chakra if he tried," continued Jiraiya, unable to contain the healthy dose of respect in his voice.

"True, but we always knew that was likely. You told me yourself how the seal was designed to work, and it's not really how much chakra he has that matters, it's how capable he is of using it," she said. "He showed definite skill. His innovation with standard techniques is impressive, and his original techniques are amazing. His chakra control still seems a little off, but that's to be expected with such a large pool to draw from."

"His chakra control wasn't off!" Jiraiya argued, "Need I remind you, Tsunade-hime, that he hid, not ten feet away from you, using a simple henge, and you never noticed him?" She felt her eyebrow twitch involuntarily. She hated that nickname. She hated having her mistakes pointed out to her even more. "Just because he doesn't have your chakra control doesn't mean his is flawed!"

"Whatever," she countered rather huffily. After forty plus years of working together, the pervert still talked circles around her sometimes. "His trapping was chuunin level, which is barely adequate if we want to promote him to the level we had discussed, but the odd clone thrown in here and there made it effective enough."

"True, and with a little training, I think he could bring that particular skill well up above par. He's already working on an average level with seals, which is more than most shinobi can claim. If I can get him trained up, fuuinjutsu will really augment his trapping well; not to mention..."

Tsunade sighed and made for her liquor cabinet, ignoring Jiraiya's lengthy diatribe, extolling the many virtues of seals. She definitely needed some sake if he was going to keep talking; damn authors, their large lexicons, and their love of their own voices!

While she poured, she felt the heavy pressure of Hatake's gaze on the back of her head and groaned inwardly. She had hoped the man would have figured things out long before now, on his own; he was supposed to be a genius after all, but apparently his incredible intellect had failed to take in and properly recognize several rather large clues.

"...and with the kid's ability to innovate and be creative, he could do so many other things with it..." Jiraiya continued obliviously.

Once she had filled her saucer and re-stowed her sake in a place she hoped would be safe from Shizune, she slid back into her chair and smoothly cut across Jiraiya's speech, "Kakashi, if you don't stop glaring at me, I'm going hurt you," she said sternly.

"Why didn't anyone ever tell me?" he blurted out. "Why wasn't I told that my sensei had a son? I could have looked out for him; I could have helped him..."

"You mean you never figured it out?" asked Jiraiya incredulously. He paused for a second, and then burst into laughter. He tried to speak several times, but was unable to find the breath for it. Instead, the old hermit roared hysterically, slapping his knee and pointing at Kakashi.

Kakashi tilted his head down bashfully, and Tsunade was sure she could see a hint of a blush just above his mask. "Well, I had suspected a few times," the Copy-nin began to explain, "but he acts nothing like Minato-sensei! I mean yeah, he learned the Rasengan and Toad Summoning, but you could have taught anyone that! And sure, he looks like him, except--"

"Except for the nose and mouth," Tsunade cut in wistfully, "those are all Kushina. Naruto acts just like her."

"And that's another thing! I never even knew Minato-sensei had a girlfriend, much less a child! So tell me, why all the secrecy?"

Jiraiya's laughter died down, replaced by a sad smile. Silence reigned for a few moments and Tsunade had to clear her throat loudly before the old man finally spoke.

"Twenty one years ago," he began in what she recognized as his 'story-teller' voice, "Kumo was looking for safe avenues into Fire Country, attempting to set up reliable supply lines, setting the stage for war. In that vein, they began seeking possible alliances with countries that shared a border with us. Whirlpool country was one of them."

Kakashi raised a hand to cut him off, "I've never heard of a Whirlpool Country."

Jiraiya shot him an irritated glare, "Don't interrupt me. This came on the heels of our war with Iwa. I'd imagine you had never even seen the eastern borders of our country yet, much less heard of every tiny country on the other side of them. Every capable shinobi we had was focused on the west, and had been for years; we needed them all if we were going to successfully deal with Iwa's superior numbers.

"Anyways, back to what I was saying. Kumo approached the Daimyo of Whirlpool with a treaty that amounted to little more than a notice of annexation. The Daimyo knew his fledgling ninja village couldn't stand up to Kumo's military might, but he was rather savvy, politically speaking, and managed to stall the Raikage, drawing the 'peace' talks out for several months, allowing him time to set things in motion. The majority of his civilian population was already safe in Fire Country by the time Kumo attacked. Unfortunately, the Daimyo himself, and the majority of his military were killed, and Whirlpool Country ceased to exist, becoming the southwestern most tip of Lightning Country instead.

"Uzumaki Kushina was a refugee from Whirlpool Country. She was one of the most talented ninja in her village, heiress of one of their few established clans, one of the few ninja to make it out alive, and a prime target for Kumo. By the time we had Iwa under control, and could turn our attention to Kumo she was safely hidden in Konoha, and she and Minato had already fallen for each other." Jiraiya paused and smiled wistfully.

Seconds later a dark look crossed over his face, "but Minato had accumulated many enemies, and Kushina had already experienced more than enough pain. So, in order to spare Kushina from conflict as much as possible, they kept their relationship a secret. She had settled down into a civilian life, where she hoped she would be safe, and Minato became the Yondaime Hokage.

"A year before the Kyuubi attacked, Sarutobi-sensei wed them to one another in secret. Three months later, Naruto had been conceived, and nine months after that, his mother died in child birth just hours before his father sacrificed himself to seal the Kyuubi within his newborn son. I had never seen my old pupil more happy than the day he asked me to be Naruto's godfather, and it's a damn shame that such a happy little family was shattered before it ever really got going."

The end of the tale left them in a heavy silence. Jiraiya was casually flicking his geta while he stared off into space; Kakashi's gaze was riveted to the portrait of his old sensei, his eyes glazed over as though he were lost in thought. Tsunade studied the ripples in her sake, her own mind wandering over the past.

"I-I don't understand," Kakashi spoke up, "how could he do that to his own child? There were plenty of children young enough to accept the influx of chakra, why did he choose his son?"

Jiraiya looked at him like he had grown a second head. "You trained under the man for years and you have to ask that question? A leader cannot ask those he leads to do something that he himself will not! Minato knew this, understood it, lived it and breathed it! He wouldn't send his shinobi to the front lines unless he was there himself. He could not ask his villagers to sacrifice one of their children if wasn't willing to sacrifice his own."

The jounin, cowed by the vehement response, nodded and stared dolefully at the hands folded in his lap. Silence, once again, reigned over the three.

When the silence became too oppressive for her, Tsunade cleared her throat and attempted to bring everyone back on task. "So, back to our reason for being here: Naruto. Jiraiya...your opinions?"

"Jounin, easily, if Sannin were actually a rank, I'd say he definitely qualifies." He paused to let the weight of his statement sink in. "Yesterday was just a game for him, he never really got all that serious, if that grin of his was anything to go by, and neither did I, to be honest. I pushed him the best I could, but there's only so much pushing that can be done before 'test' becomes 'kill.' He's well above where we expected him to be. I'm sure he can handle any mission you throw at him."

She nodded and turned to Kakashi, "And your assessment, Kakashi?"

"I agree with Jiraiya-sama. He passed me four years ago, and he's stayed well ahead of me; Jounin."

She nodded again, "I concur, though with the addendum that he needs to improve his trapping and his ability to deal with genjutsu. I'll send a messenger to Naruto and we'll all meet here at eight o'clock tomorrow evening, agreed?" she asked, slipping into her commanding 'Hokage voice.' Both men nodded. "That's settled then, dismissed."

Kakashi politely excused himself out the window, leaving the two remaining Sannin alone, staring out the window at the village, bathed in moonlight.

"So, do you think he's all right?" she asked, once she was sure Kakashi was out of earshot.

"Yeah, he'll go home, sit down with one of my incredibly well crafted novels, and he'll be over it by tomorrow," Jiraiya responded off-handedly.

"I wasn't talking about Kakashi and you know it!" Tsunade replied with a scowl. Her old teammate nodded and sighed.

"Hard to say really; he still acts relatively normal, or at least as normal as Naruto ever was, but he seems a bit more...somber, from time to time." She nodded her agreement.

"So, are you going to tell him about Danzo?"

Tsunade shifted uncomfortably. "I...I might tell him tomorrow, but it would be horrible of me to put a damper on things like that immediately after telling him he's been promoted."

Jiraiya laid a comforting hand on her shoulder, "He'll be all right, Tsunade. You and I both know that Naruto never let's anything keep him down." She nodded. "Besides, he deserves to know, and it might help him deal with things."

With an affectionate squeeze, Jiraiya released her shoulder and silently followed Kakashi through the window.

Tsunade was left by herself, lost in an inner conflict.

Naruto whistled to himself, casually strolling down the sidewalk. It was a new and somewhat buoying feeling to be able to walk through the village, in broad daylight, without being glared at. It seemed that spending seven of the last eight years away from Konoha had managed to dull, or in some cases outright kill, the hatred of the villagers.

It was an odd sort of paradox to him, that the time spent away from them would make them hate him less, instead of the time spent with them, trying to get them to like him. He wasn't sure if he appreciated the implications.

His stomach growled loudly and he shook his head, a chagrined look on his face. Waxing philosophical was not a wise thing to do on an empty stomach, and anything that interrupted his trek to Ichiraku's was to be eliminated with extreme prejudice.

In other words, eat now; think later, he thought with a smirk.

When he caught sight of the ramen stand, incredible, long forgotten feelings welled up from deep within. Four years of Ichiraku celibacy was about to end! He almost felt like dancing, but dancing would slow him down, and that was not to be allowed right now.

Just as Naruto began to close in on his own personal Mecca, a flash of pink to his left yanked his attention, kicking and screaming, away from the wonderful smell of ramen.

What he saw suddenly drove all thoughts of his favorite food from his mind.

Sakura! His eyes widened in panic, all the happy feelings that had bubbled up inside him died a violent death, and he fled down a side street; away from Sakura; away from what promised to be a painful reunion, in more ways than one.

"Bu-but Naruto promised to bring you back; you have to come back with us..."

Naruto shook his head like a wet dog, clearing out the unpleasant thoughts.

Feeling a bit safer in the alley, he crouched down behind the nearest thing he could find, hoping that it would keep him hidden. Breathing deeply, he rested the back of his head against it and found that whatever it was was nice and soft, with an underlying firmness that was rather nice...


Hyuuga Hinata was having a wonderful day. It wasn't often that jounin had the chance to take time for themselves. It was even less often that she, personally, had that time, and it was downright rare that she used it to go out on a date. As a matter of fact, up until a year ago, she had never been on a date at all. She had continued to save herself for Naruto-kun, praying that he would return, but as time dragged on, she had finally given up on that happening and opened herself up to the dating scene. She had even cut her hair to commemorate it, all the way up above her shoulders.

And here she was, about to spend her second evening in a row out on a date.

It was...nice, dating. Not great, she didn't really see what some of the other kunoichi saw in it that was so wonderful, but it was a pleasant diversion. Her date last night had been handsome enough, though she had had to get very firm with him when he seemed determined to follow her into the Hyuuga compound to 'continue their evening.'

He wouldn't be walking straight for a few days.

Before she could stop herself, she wondered what Naruto-kun would be like on a date, and if it had been him that wanted to 'continue their evening,' would she have been as firm in her dealings? A light blush graced her alabaster cheeks.

No, no I don't think I would, she answered.

Hinata shook her head and bravely attempted to drag her thoughts away from the young man whom she had loved from a distance for years.

Her gaze drifted to the Hokage monument in the distance, not too far from the Hokage tower, her destination. For a brief second, an image of the Hokages' faces, covered in graffiti superimposed itself over the tableau and she smiled.

No! Don't think about Naruto-kun! she chided herself.

She increased her pace, striding purposefully, almost stomping really.

Oh look, if I turned here it would take me to Naruto-kun's favorite ramen stand...

Without her permission, her feet turned down said street and froze...

Something blurred by and stooped behind her; something that was currently nestled gently between her buttocks.

She turned her head, the only part of her body that wasn't numbed with shock, to find out what, exactly, was touching her in such a...familiar manner. The back of a head of spiky yellow locks was resting easily against her tailbone, a be-whiskered face turned up to watch her curiously.

"Oh, hi, Hinata-chan!" the face said warmly, though a part of her noted that the shoulders and chest that accompanied said face were heaving up down, taking heavy breaths. He peered around her legs like a timid three year-old, "Sakura-chan isn't coming down this way, is she?" he asked nervously.

Her head turned back up the street automatically. "Ano...no..."

"Oh, good! See you around then!" he said cheerily.

In a blur that she could barely follow, he was gone.


She winced. That was the first time she had stuttered in over a year.

All of the blood in her body rushed to her face, and for a brief second her head resembled a black-blue haired tomato. Then she fainted, and all thoughts of her upcoming date fled.

The Suna entourage was making its slow, shuffling way northeast.

The trees that had been on the horizon hours ago were now only a few hundred yards away, and the unbearable heat that had been plaguing them was beginning to taper off into a more moderate, and tolerable, temperature.

Most of the group had expressed some form of vocal appreciation for that fact, but not Gaara. No, he was as terse and stoic as he had ever been. It was not uncommon nowadays to see the young Kazekage with a small smirk or a barely-there frown; that, however, was as far as he had come with his outward displays of emotion.

They were traveling in a standard VIP formation, which meant that Gaara was in the center of a slow moving diamond shaped mass of shinobi with his two siblings acting as a personal guard. Gaara felt severely chafed, he didn't like the thought of those who had become precious to him putting themselves between him and possible danger. Of course, no one would ever know this, because the only outward sign of his irritation was a slight twitch of his fingers, and he'd never say a word about it.

Beside him, his sister heaved a weary sigh. "This is taking too long...I'm getting sand in places that sand shouldn't be...when the hell are we gonna get there?"

"You just miss your precious Naruto-kun," teased Kankuro from his other side.

"Yes, I do miss the only sparring partner I've been able to find who uses wind jutsu as well as me, thank you," she responded coolly, fingering the large war fan that was secured to her back by an ornate red belt.

"Sparring partner," Kankuro began dubiously, "right. I'm sure that's exactly what you want to do with him...spar."

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Temari shouted. Gaara slowed his step minutely, allowing his siblings to get ahead of him. Temari was going to start swinging her fan soon, and he didn't want to be in the way.

"Don't think I missed the way you looked at him when he left, you were all googly-eyed!" Kankuro accused, smiling viciously. Gaara smiled as well, though in a much more understated, and less vicious way. She had been very happy that Naruto had like the cloak she had picked out, even if she wouldn't let Gaara tell anyone that it was her idea. "I'm surprised I don't hear you moaning his name in your dreams at night," finished Kankuro disgustedly.

Gaara's eyes widened almost imperceptibly when he saw a faint blush coloring Temari's cheeks. "I was not googly-eyed!" she retorted. It did not escape his notice that she didn't deny the jibe about her dreams.

"Everybody, get your cameras ready when we get to Konoha!" shouted Kankuro to their entire group. Ooo, that's going to be the last straw, thought Gaara with a small wince. "When Temari sees her one true love, Naruto, you won't want to miss the photo opportunity!" Kankuro laughed boisterously, a few nervous chuckles joined him, but most of Sunagakure no Sato had learned long ago that teasing the daughter of the Yondaime Kazekage was a bad idea..

As Gaara had predicted, Temari's arms moved in a blur, smacking Kankuro upside the head with her fan.

Kankuro landed face first in the sand. "Urk," he said, eloquently.

Temari continued on with a huff, and Gaara chuckled once before tugging at the sand around his brother with his chakra, gently shoving him to his feet.

You have certainly made my life more...entertaining, Naruto. It will be nice to see you again, he mused as he continued to trudge towards Konoha.

Naruto paused outside of the barbeque restaurant and burped loudly. Barbeque didn't have anything on ramen, but it was filling enough, he decided.

Resolved to enjoy a nice afternoon in his new home before meeting the Hokage that evening, Naruto turned towards the edge of town.

He had only taken a few steps when a kunai embedded itself in the road directly in his path.

"So, Kurenai-obasan was right, my rival has returned," said a voice. A teenage boy stepped up beside the kunai. His tall, spiky brown hair was held up by a Konoha hitai-ate, and he wore a black shinobi suit that reminded Naruto almost painfully of the gear the Old Man Hokage had been wearing the night he died.

"You've grown, Konohamaru," he said. Konohamaru grinned. He had begun to resemble his grandfather with his lanky limbs and simian-esque face, though his grin was almost a picture perfect match for Naruto's.

"So have you, Naruto-onii-san. Did you learn a lot of cool jutsu on your trip?" Konohamaru asked excitedly.

"Yeah," Naruto grinned, "You won't believe some of the incredibly cool things I can do now!"

Konohamaru eyed Naruto's new outfit critically. "That cloak is so cool, Onii-san! Where can I get one?" bubbled the boy.

"Thanks, I picked it up in Sunagakure," Naruto explained, straightening the silky black cloak proudly. "The Kazekage himself gave it to me. It's because I'm such a great ninja!"

Konohamaru's face suddenly grew stern, though Naruto could still see the corner's of his mouth twitching. "Good," he declared, hands on his hips, "I challenge you for the right to be the next Hokage!"

Naruto chuckled. "All right then, meet me at training ground seven."

"Sweet!" Konohamaru cheered, "I'm gonna go grab Udon and Moegi, they'll want to see this!" The boy took off like a shot, his signature scarf, the only thing about his appearance that Naruto was really familiar with anymore, streamed along behind him.

Naruto followed at a much more sedate pace, hands in his pockets and a content smile on his face. It was nice to see Konohamaru all grown up, and it would be great to see how he's grown as a ninja.

Slowly but surely, Naruto found himself on the path that led directly to the gennin training grounds. His eyes wandered through the trees beside him, lost in memories of his own gennin days. He wasn't quite sure how it would feel to see the old training ground again.

No sooner had he thought it than he cleared the trees and was faced with three wooden posts. The very same posts that Kakashi-sensei had tied him to for cheating on their bell test. Thankfully, all he felt was the slight warmth of pleasant nostalgia.

He casually sat down and leaned up against the middle post to wait, enjoying the way the sun slanted through the sparse cloud cover.

The minutes ticked by lazily and nearly half an hour passed before he felt the approach of three shinobi. He stood just as they landed across the clearing from him.

Moegi had grown into a cute, if tomboyish, young woman. She still wore her red hair in pigtails, but they no longer stood straight up, instead they trailed down her back, rather like Tsunade's. Her kunoichi attire was composed of a pink shirt, topped by a chuunin vest, and camouflage pants.

Udon still seemed to have a perpetual allergy problem and his eyes looked dim and unfocused behind his glasses, but if Naruto remembered correctly, he was pretty intelligent. He didn't seem to care about personal flare, all he wore was a standard chuunin outfit.

"Welcome home, Naruto-kun!" greeted Moegi. Udon just nodded, a small smile on his face.

"Yeah, yeah, we can make with the pleasantries later," said Konohamaru, eliciting a scowl from his female teammate. "Let's get it on, Naruto-oniisan!"

Naruto nodded and smiled, closing the gap between them until he stood only a few yards away. Moegi and Udon cleared out, coming to rest in the trees behind Konohamaru.

"Ready, Oniisan?" he asked.

"Yep, show me what you got, Konohamaru." Naruto shifted into a relaxed, yet combat ready posture; turning slightly to the side and raising his arms to waist height, fingers splayed out.

Konohamaru bit his thumb and began a familiar set of seals. Summoning? thought Naruto, one eyebrow raised.

"Kuchiyose no Jutsu!" Konohamaru called. A cloud of smoke obscured his side of the field, and when it cleared a masked monkey, garbed in traditional black shinobi gear, stood beside him. The monkey was a good head shorter than Konohamaru, but the black bo-staff it wielded made up for any of its physical deficiencies.

"Ape summoning, eh? Your grandfather would be proud." Konohamaru grinned happily. "I'll tell you what," said Naruto thoughtfully, "how 'bout we make this a battle of the summons? The first one to dispel the other's summon wins."

"I like it," said Konohamaru without hesitation, "Sarubo-san and I can take anything you got!" The monkey nodded in silent agreement.

Heh, I seriously doubt you could take my best, but how about my favorite? Naruto wondered. He bit his own thumb and flashed through the same seal set. "Kuchiyose no Jutsu!"

When the smoke dispersed, Naruto was perched on top of an elephant sized orange toad with dark blue lines around his lips and eyes, the lines trailed down to trace his arms and legs, and make swirling patterns on his chest. He was clad in dark navy blue ninja pants and an open jacket of the same color, topped with a white fur-lined collar. Protruding from his mouth was an ornate golden pipe, puffing out lazy swirls of smoke, and clutched in one hand was a three foot long kunai.

"Yo, Naruto-nii-san," said the toad, waving a gloved hand. "It's been forever since the last time you summoned me! I was starting to get bored."

Naruto scratched the back of his head sheepishly. "Eh heh, sorry about that, Gamakichi, but with the excitement of coming home and all that, I didn't really have time to sit around and hang out."

"Whatever," the toad waved off his excuse, "just don't let it happen again!" warned Gamakichi. "Now, what're we doing? Training; hide-and-seek; King of the lily pad?" asked the toad, hopping from one foot to the other excitedly.

"No, no, no," said Naruto, making shushing motions and doing his best to hide his embarrassment. "We're not playing! I'm too cool of a ninja to sit around a play!" he said unconvincingly. The blonde man shot a few glances at Konohamaru and his friends, but either they had not heard the exchange, or they didn't care. "We're sparring with Konohamaru and Sarubo-san over there."

"Really?" his summon asked excitedly, "It's been ages since you and I have had the chance to fight together!" the toad said, rubbing his hands together.

"Hai, hai," Naruto agreed casually, "Rules are: first to dispel the other's summon wins, got it?"

"Sure thing, boss!"

Naruto sighed deeply. "I thought I told you not to call me that?" Gamakichi handily ignored him, focusing instead on his opponent. "Anyways, you ready Gamakichi?" The toad nodded. "You ready, Sarubo-san?" Naruto shouted across the field. The monkey nodded. "We start on three then!"

He hopped down from Gamakichi's head and began to bellow out a count:




Just like that, both summons leapt into the air. They clashed at the apex, kunai to bo-staff. With a grunt, they pushed off of each other and landed back where they started.

"Gamajutsu: Abou no Mai! (Toad Technique: Dance of the Tree frogs)" Gamakichi declared, forming a one handed seal.

Sarubo shook his head when one toad became two, then two toads become four. Soon, sixteen toads stood before him. They began hopping in a random pattern around him, lashing out unpredictably with their giant kunai.

The monkey did his best to defend, but the toads were moving too fast. Out of desperation, he started twirling his staff in the hopes of blocking at least most of the incoming strikes, but it did not save him from taking a few nicks and cuts on his arms and legs.

Finally, when a lull in the onslaught presented itself, he slammed his bo into the ground and quickly formed a string of seven seals. Feeling the chakra flowing properly, he molded it into his arms and legs, and mentally whispered the name of the technique, "Saruken no Jutsu: Kyabuchikamasu! (Monkey Fist Technique: One Hundred Palm Strikes)"

The monkey-nin launched himself towards the nearest toad, moving much faster than before, and struck a few vicious palm strikes to its gut, handily dispelling it. He continued around the circle in much the same manner, killing all but three of the toads with open handed jabs before the technique finished.

In a flash, the monkey was standing by his staff again, dislodging it and moving into a ready stance, his breathing noticeably more ragged.

Gamakichi, his jutsu rendered all but useless, dispelled the last of his clones and rushed through another set of seals. "Kakushigama no Jutsu! (Hidden Toad Technique)"

His orange gullet bulged and then he began puffing hard and fast on his pipe. The monkey-nin charged, hoping to catch him off guard before he could complete his technique, but it did no good; soon, the clearing was obscured by a foul smelling cloud of smoke.

Sarubo looked around nervously. There wasn't a sound; his enemy was completely invisible; a giant, elephantine toad had just made itself undetectable. It was almost too much for his brain to wrap itself around.

"You fight pretty good, Sarubo-san," Gamakichi's voice echoed eerily through the clearing. "Not many have survived my Abou no Mai!" Second's ticked by and Sarubo's search went from nervous to frantic, his eyes wide and his shoulders heaving; he looked on the verge of hyperventilating.

The sound of steel tearing through cloth and rending flesh permeated the enshrouded clearing. "But no one survives my Kakushigama no Jutsu," the toad mumbled into the ear of his enemy, who was staring numbly at the tip of the kunai protruding from his chest. "You fought well," Gamakichi continued kindly. "Do not be ashamed. Few can best the Prince of Toads."

With a strained nod of respect, the monkey disappeared, the smoke from his dispelling mixing with Gamakichi's pipe smoke. The toad formed a hand seal and released the technique, the smoke dissipated quickly.

"Well done, Gamakichi!" cheered Naruto.

The toad turned and waved. "That was fun, Nii-san. Call me again soon, ja ne!" And with that, the giant toad disappeared.

The three young ninja sprinted across the clearing to Naruto. "That was so cool!" squealed Moegi. Udon nodded his agreement.

"I guess you still get to be the next Hokage, then," said Konohamaru, stuck between grumbling over his loss and being happy for his friend.

"You did really well, Konohamaru. Not many people as young as us can summon awesome stuff like that!" complimented Naruto. Konohamaru grinned cheekily and opened his mouth to respond.

"Picking on the new chuunin, Naruto?" cut in a familiar voice, "how troublesome." The owner of the voice stepped out from behind a tree at the edge of the clearing with a bored look on his face. One of his hands casually scratched the back of his head, just below his spiky ponytail.

"Eh? Shikamaru!" said Naruto enthusiastically. The lazy Nara favored him with an even lazier smile. "How've you been? Did you make jounin yet?"

"Tch, like I would go through the trouble of doing that?" Shikamaru answered. "I'm happy staying a chuunin, thanks."

"Oi, oi, oi!" shouted Konohamaru, "don't underestimate me because I only just got promoted or I'll kick your ass!"

"Yeah, yeah, whatever kid," muttered Shikamaru, casually waving the young Sarutobi off. "When did you get back, Naruto?"

"The night before last. Obaa-chan, Ero-sennin, and Kakashi-sensei did my assessment tests yesterday. I'm supposed to be meeting them tonight for my results."

"Not even back a full day and tested already?" Shikamaru asked sympathetically, "What a pain."

"Nah, it was pretty fun, actually!" Naruto grinned happily, a manic gleam in his eye.

"If you say so," Shikamaru shook his head sadly. "You always were a weird one, Naruto."

"Oi, Oniisan, stop ignoring me!" whined Konohamaru.

"Shh, Konohamaru, I'm trying to catch up with Shikamaru!" Naruto scolded lightly. In response, the sixteen year-old grandson of the Sandaime Hokage pouted like a toddler who had had his favorite toy taken away.

Shikamaru glanced up at the sun and sighed. "I've got to get to the tower for mission assignments. See you around, Naruto." He tossed a lazy wave over his shoulder and strolled off towards the village.

"Later!" Naruto grinned and started off in the general direction of his house.

Konohamaru stared blankly for a moment, watching Naruto casually walk away.


The moon rode high in the sky, three quarter's full, the sounds of a busy, bustling village had all but died out, and Naruto stood in the Hokage's office once again.

The electric lights had been left off in favor of several lit candles. Tsunade stood in front of him, wearing her formal robes of office and traditional Kage hat. She was flanked on the right by Jiraiya, who looked the same as he always did, and on the left by Kakashi, who had chosen to wear the formal, all black shinobi uniform that Naruto hadn't seen anyone wear since the Sandaime's funeral.

"Umm...Obaa-chan, what's going on?" Naruto asked, glancing around at the formal setting nervously.

Tsunade, instead of her traditional reaction of a twitch every time he called her by his favored nickname, smiled.

"Namikaze Naruto."

"Eh...yes?" he responded.

"I, in my formal capacity as Godaime Hokage hereby appoint you as a special jounin of Konoha, pending a formal test for jounin rank."

Naruto gaped at them. Jiraiya covered a smirk and Kakashi's eye crinkled into a smile.

"Do you accept this position?" continued Tsunade.

It took several seconds and a cleared throat from Tsunade for Naruto's brain to grind back into action. He shook his head forcefully, "You're joking!" he shouted.

Tsunade stifled a giggle. "I assure you, Naruto, I'm not joking."

"I-I...I mean," Naruto's mouth worked silently for a few moments. He had expected to be promoted, yes, but not straight to a provisionary jounin; he had just assumed it would be chuunin, that was the way the ladder worked. "Yes," he finally managed to say, though his voice did squeak a little, "I accept!"

"Good," Tsunade said. She turned to Kakashi, who handed her a folded vest. Turning back to him, she held the vest out formally, and Naruto accepted it with a small, polite bow. "Continue to stoke the Will of Fire, Naruto. Protect the village, protect those who are precious to you, and serve your Hokage well."

"At least until I take the job from you," he mumbled, just loud enough for them to hear. Tsunade smiled warmly at him; Jiraiya and Kakashi chuckled.

"Indeed," she said.

Tsunade's formal posture suddenly dropped and she removed her pyramid-shaped hat. Recognizing that as the end of the formal ceremony, Naruto spoke, "Wow! I didn't expect this! Skipped straight to jounin!" he crowed happily, "this is AWESOME!"

"You deserve it...ototo," said Tsunade.

Suddenly, Naruto did something that no one in the room had ever seen him do before: he initiated a hug. Tsunade's eyes almost bugged out when he wrapped his arms around her tightly. "Thanks, oneechan," he whispered back.

Tsunade had to sniffle back tears. He pulled back eventually, with a bright, beaming smile on his face, and thanked the others when they congratulated him.

Whilst he was busy shaking Kakashi's hand excitedly, ignoring the jounin's pained expression in the process, Jiraiya cleared his throat and shot Tsunade a significant look. She felt her stomach clench painfully.

Looking at Naruto's beaming face, looking for once like the old Naruto, she couldn't bring herself to do it; she couldn't ruin this night for him, it just wasn't right.

She turned back to her old teammate and shook her head almost imperceptibly; he frowned, but didn't seem interested in pushing the subject.

"Well," she began, smiling again at her surrogate little brother, "let's go celebrate! I happen to know that the liquor cabinet in your house is fully stocked with some excellent sake."

Naruto cheerfully agreed and led the way through her open window.

The midnight moonlight shined briefly through fast moving clouds.

Outside of the village, a man trudged up the road, cresting a hill that Naruto himself had topped only a few days ago.

"Lessee, good view of tha village. Should be able to pick up tha chakra signature just fine," he was muttering to himself. "Let's just find us a nice seat o'er there, yeah?"

The man, whose garish, red and gold demon mask shone brightly in the moon light, hopped off of the road. He skipped across several trees, red and gold robes billowing behind him, moving from limb to limb quietly, before coming to rest in a spot that overlooked the whole village that was laid out in the valley before him.

He made himself comfortable, assuming the standard lotus position, and began the process of locating a specific chakra signature.

Several dragged by, during which the man began muttering irritably to himself. Finally, he found it, in the last place he looked of course. In a house on the very edge of the village, four large chakra signatures were congregated. His target was among them.

Something felt a little odd about the signature though. Utilizing one of his unique (and if you asked him, superior) abilities, he formed his hand into an odd seal and the chakra signature resolved itself into an image in his mind.

"Spiky blond hair, whisker marks, definitely him," he mumbled.

Satisfied, he released the odd seal and then began a long seal set, ending on ram.

"Kyuukyouku Genjutsu: Nigenteki Gekkai - Tsukitosuppon! (Ultimate Illusionary Technique: Dual Worlds - The Difference Between Heaven and Hell)"

A/N: Ha! My first cliffie...don't hurt me! Like I said in my opening notes, this chapter was mainly just a bridge to the final stage of this arc. As you might have guessed, I've decided to play around a little with both NaruxHina and NaruxTemari before I decide (and even when I decide, you're going to have to wait to see it happen in the story...because it's fun to make you sweat :P)

Next chapter we get to see our mystery man's "Ultimate" technique. And sometime soon we'll see Naruto and Sakura meet again...eventually. So, basically, this chapter was lots of fluff and a little plot; the next chapter or two will be lots of plot and very little fluff...at least that's the play for now.

As always, read, review, tell me what I did right and wrong; help me become a better writer :)

Original Techniques:

As usual, keep in mind that I suck at Japanese, so if these are horrible translations...I blame Jeffrey...whoever he is.

Gamajutsu: Abou no Mai(Toad Technique: Dance of the Tree Frogs): A toad kenjutsu technique. The user creates multiple copies of himself, and then uses bursts of chakra to move them at incredible speeds, creating a fast moving storm of blades.

Saruken no Jutsu: Kyabuchikamasu (Monkey Fist Technique: One Hundred Palm Strikes): A basic ape taijutsu technique. The user utilizes a burst of chakra to move incredibly fast, delivering swift, powerful, open-handed strikes, complete with chakra blows (similar to jyuuken, only without being able to see or close the tenketsu).

Kakushigama no Jutsu (Hidden Toad Technique): A Gamakichi original assassination technique. Gamakichi gathers chakra in his gullet and then infuses it into rapid puffs of his pipe, covering the surrounding area with dense, chakra laced pipe-smoke. Then, he uses chakra to cushion his feet and contain the air distortions around him, giving his opponent no clue of where he is until he's already attacked. Requires excellent chakra control...and a cool looking pipe.

Kyuukyouku Genjutsu: Nigenteki Gekkai - Tsukitosuppon (Ultimate Illusionary Technique: Dual Worlds - The Difference Between Haven and Hell): You'll have to wait and see :)