Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto, go figure.
Chapter Title: Touch of Grey by the Grateful Dead
Naruto grunted as his face hit the moist earth of the training field. The gristly taste in his mouth was the dirt he'd just eaten. The salty, metallic flavor was his blood. The sharp stabbing he felt in his cheek was a mystery. He placed his hands underneath his chest and rolled himself into a sitting position before digging around in his mouth for whatever it was that had poked him.
"Damn." Naruto pulled the offending object out of his mouth and gave it a disgusted look. The sight of his bloody molar elicited a gasp from Sakura, but only caused Naruto to sigh in annoyance as the pain in his gum came full force. It was odd how he hadn't noticed the throbbing ache there until he saw the misplaced tooth.
"Sasuke, I told you both no lasting injuries. This is a spar. What's the matter with you?" Kakashi rarely came off as anything other than apathetic, but today the three genin could detect a hint of anger in his voice.
The Uchiha folded his arms and looked his sensei in the eye without a hint of remorse. "It's not my fault that he's too weak to take it. I keep telling you that this is a waste of my time, Kakashi. He's never even beaten me once. I need a better sparring partner if I'm going to get stronger."
Naruto had pulled himself to his feet and was busy halfheartedly waving off Sakura's attempts to inspect the wound while he spat blood on the ground. Sasuke's comment didn't pass his notice, though.
"Fuck you, Sasuke. If it weren't for your Sharingan I'd beat your ass into the ground. Just because you can predict me doesn't suddenly make you above me. Frankly I'm tired of being your punching bag every day. You should be thanking me for putting up with your cheep shots, you ungrateful piece of…"
"Enough!" Kakashi's eye swept a glare back and forth between the two boys. "Four months now you've been at each others throats and I'm getting sick of it. You should be happy that your teammates are willing to help you train, but here you are acting like children."
"Then tell this bastard to stop taking cheap shots at me and at least be a bit thankful that I'm helping him train! You think any other person in this whole village would put up with the shit I do every day?" Naruto held his loose molar up to emphasize his point. "This is going to take me fucking weeks to re-grow!"
Kakashi blinked and looked at the bloody tooth, noticing it for the first time. "You should probably get to the hospital Naruto. They can stick that back in for you."
Sakura couldn't decide whether to be miffed or amused, and ended up sounding a bit hesitant. "Naruto, that won't grow back. Maybe you should listen to Kakashi-sensei and get it put back in while you still can?"
Naruto looked at her and blinked as his anger bled away, if only for a moment. "It'll grow back." He dropped the tooth on the ground.
"Naruto! You only grow two sets of teeth in your whole life! That's supposed to last until you die!" Sakura seemed on the verge of bending over to pick up the tooth herself but ended up thinking better of it and simply gave Naruto a disgusted look.
She had been acting much better since their talk on the mission to Wave – at least when it came to insulting him or dismissing him out of hand – but still had the annoying habit of talking down to him. The fact that he deserved it half of the time made it only slightly more tolerable.
Naruto shrugged. "I'm already on my third set of teeth, Sakura. Mine grow back."
Kakashi looked at him with interest. "Are you serious?"
The blond stared at his sensei for a moment, but the older man seemed to expect an answer. "I've been living on my own since I was six and entered the academy. Nobody really impressed the importance of good hygiene on me until the old man visited one time and saw that my teeth were rotting out. Turns out it didn't really matter."
Sakura frowned. "But that's…"
"A quirk of mine, yeah." Naruto wasn't entirely comfortable speaking about his oddities aloud, especially since only he and Kakashi were in on the Kyuubi secret.
Sasuke just sneered. His disposition hadn't improved at all since their time in Wave, and if anything the rift between he and Naruto had only widened as their rivalry grew. "So what's the problem then, idiot? You shouldn't have anything to complain about. You get a workout every day against me, while I have to pull punches against a useless nitwit like you."
Naruto's face twisted into a scowl, but before he could retort Kakashi spoke up. "Sasuke, stop. You both are improving through this sparring. Why can't you just see that you're helping one another here?"
"How is fighting this weakling making me stronger, Kakashi?"
"Fight me without that Sharingan, Sasuke, and we'll see who's eating dirt! Better yet, let's do a fight with no restrictions. I'll crush your pale ass!"
"Oh, you want to show me some new ninjutsu, idiot? Let's see it then."
"You know damn well that you're useless at anything that isn't the fire element. I'd kill you and you know it."
Kakashi placed a gloved hand to his forehead – an action that he had been performing much too often for his liking as of late – and spoke once more in a raised voice. "And that's why we don't use ninjutsu when we spar, Naruto. Unfortunately I'm not sure that you wouldn't kill each other."
"The point is that I'm tired of this abuse! The bastard doesn't respect me or your sparring rules and I end up going home with the damn bruises every day."
"Like I said, it's a waste of my time fighting this idiot, Kakashi. Let him spar with Sakura and I'll spar with you."
Sakura's face fell at the Uchiha's last line, but Naruto and Sasuke were too busy glaring between one another and Kakashi to notice.
Kakashi sighed, but a moment later straightened with resolve. "You two don't want to spar together? Fine." The older man crossed his fingers and a moment later two perfect copies stood beside the original. "You can spar with me for the rest of the day, and we'll see how you feel about working together again tomorrow."
The hardness in the jounin's voice wasn't lost on the young teens, and Naruto wondered if he should have kept his mouth shut. No, he decided. Even if Kakashi was going to go to town on him he'd still have his pride. It wouldn't have been so bad if Sasuke didn't choose to demean him every day or sneak in painful and unnecessary strikes just to prove how good his aim could be with his damn doujutsu. The fact was that Naruto knew he was improving, and so was Sasuke. Still, it was a wound to his ego to never have won a single bout with his stuck up teammate even with such a disadvantage, and the unnecessary roughness and verbal abuse just made the situation all the more intolerable.
No, he'd made the right decision.
It didn't escape Naruto's notice that the real Kakashi pointed at him and began to lead him away through the trees to another training ground. The scowl on Sasuke's face showed that he hadn't missed it either, though in all honesty it could have been a completely random choice on Kakashi's part. Still, it made Naruto feel just a bit better about the whole ordeal.
Not a minute later Kakashi stopped and turned around and appraised Naruto. "Do you need a moment?"
Naruto blinked in confusion at the question until he remembered he'd just had a tooth knocked out. His gums had stopped bleeding without his notice some time ago. "No, I'm good."
"You know what's going to happen now?"
"You're going to make a point?"
"I just want you to know that I'm not sorry for what I said back there. I have an ego too, and even if my body can take the abuse I can't just sit back and let him belittle me every day."
The older man closed his eye for a moment and gave a faint nod. "I know you can take it, and you're improving quite a bit – more than you probably realize. Even if this training is a bit unpleasant, it'll be worth it in the long run. I just wish you two would start acting like a team. If we get into a mess again like we did back in Wave I'm not sure how we'll be able to pull through it as we are."
"He needs to get off of his Uchiha throne if he wants to be a teammate of mine." The blond shook his head. "What a miserable clan that must have been."
"They didn't all act like that." Kakashi's eye wandered for a moment before coming to rest on Naruto once again and closing in what the blond had come to know as his happy expression. "Well, you said you wanted a go with ninjutsu, so how about it?"
Naruto smiled and gave an enthusiastic nod. Even if he was going to be beaten black and blue, he could still have a good time of it.
"Hey guys!" Naruto half jogged, half limped towards the small group of ninja.
"Naruto! Don't be so loud, we're practicing!"
Naruto slowed as he drew closer. "Really? You look like you're all sitting around to me." He glanced at the four ninja one by one as they rested on a fallen tree trunk. "But I don't want to interrupt anything if you're busy." With that he looked to the oldest member of the group, who was lazily puffing smoke from his cigarette.
"It's alright Naruto, we're done for the day." The bearded man looked the blond boy up and down. "What happened to you?"
"Ugh! Naruto, you're a mess. What is that?" Ino stood up and wasted no time in brushing the clumps of drying mud from Naruto's black and silver gi.
"Knock it off, Ino. It's just some mud." He looked down at himself for the first time since leaving the training ground. "And some blood."
The blonde girl quickly removed her hands and backed away.
"What's Kakashi been having you do, then?" Asuma removed the cigarette from his mouth and proceeded to grind it under his sandal. He seemed genuinely curious.
Naruto rubbed the back of his head. He didn't want to sound like a sissy who'd just gotten the tar beaten out of him. "We've been doing some tough training lately. Mostly ninjutsu with Kakashi and sparring with Sasuke."
"Oh, I heard that Sasuke awakened his Sharingan. I'll bet he kicks your ass, am I right?"
The whiskered boy didn't really appreciate Ino's gleeful expression. "Oh yeah, I wake up every morning looking forward to that jackass kicking my teeth out."
The platinum blonde blinked. "He really knocked out your teeth?"
"One." Naruto tugged back the corner of his mouth to reveal the empty space in his gums.
Naruto looked at dark haired boy and nodded. "Well yeah, and now I have blood all over my clothes." He used his fingernails to scratch at a crusty spot in futility. "It's ruining my look."
Ino snorted. "What look? You managed to screw up something as simple as dressing yourself. Silver and orange? What the hell, Naruto? Are you colorblind or something?"
The whiskered boy puffed up in indignation. "I'll have you know that my eyesight is perfectly fine, Ino. How else would I have found you guys out here, huh? You don't need to keep telling me my clothes don't match every time we meet."
"But that orange is hideous! Getting rid of it was the whole point of getting new clothes!"
Shikamaru raised an eyebrow. "You saw us? Through the trees?" He gave a quick glance around of his own. "They're pretty dense here."
Naruto turned away from Ino and froze for a moment. "Well that and I heard you, ya know?" The truth was that if he focused enough chakra to his eyes these days he actually could make out heavy concentrations of chakra, like those found in ninja, through solid objects. To an extent, anyways.
The dark haired boy grunted.
"Well what sorts of things has Kakashi been teaching you, Naruto?" Chouji had finally put aside the bag of chips that he had been working through.
"Oh, a bit of this and that." Naruto gave the large boy a playful grin.
"Well, maybe we should increase our training schedule if this is what one of Kakashi's students looks like at the end of the day." The blond boy couldn't tell if Asuma was kidding or not, but the look of horror on the other genin's faces was amusing none the less.
Naruto frowned. "If I didn't know any better, I'd say that you old folks knew something we didn't. What's going on?"
The bearded jounin simply raised an eyebrow. "And why would this old man want to tell you anything, hmm?"
Shikamaru sighed. "The Chuunin Exam starts next week. It was obvious, wasn't it?"
"Not to someone who's never heard of the Chuunin Exam before, it's not." Naruto hated being so ill informed about things like this. It wasn't really a surprise that out of nine genin that graduated in their year, seven were from prestigious ninja clans. Sakura had the drive to go out of her way to read up on this sort of thing, but it was no wonder that Naruto had seemed such a dunce in and out of the academy. His peers had been learning about being ninja since before they could walk.
"How did you think ninja got promoted?"
"I never really thought that far ahead." Seeing that Ino was about to speak, Naruto continued on. "After all, they were just going to make me the Hokage and be done with it, right?"
The kunoichi's mouth closed before tugging into a small smile. "Sure they were."
Naruto plopped down on the log between Ino and Chouji before speaking again. "So what have you guys been doing out here to get ready?"
Chouji twisted a bit to face the blond boy, ignoring the unopened bag of chips that he had just pulled out of his pack. "Well, Asuma-sensei's been helping us with our clan techniques and battle formations."
Naruto was always one for seeing new techniques, even though he'd become a bit more reluctant to simply start using the jutsu he'd seen from others. It didn't make much sense to him, but after the blowup over Sasuke's Grand Fireball he'd come to realize that "stealing" techniques rubbed some people the wrong way. He actually liked Team Ten, too. A look-but-don't-touch attitude seemed appropriate here. "Oh yeah? What sort of techniques do you use?"
The Akimichi jumped from his seat, jumped forward a few paces, and turned, clearly excited that someone had asked him for a demonstration. "Take a look!"
Asuma sighed. "Chouji, you shouldn't simply show your techniques to anyone asking to see them. There's such a thing as the element of surprise, you know."
Naruto leaned forward to look around Ino at her teacher. "Worried I'm going to sell his secrets to the enemy, Asuma?"
The bearded jounin pulled a pack of cigarettes out of one of his vest pockets and began fiddling with it absentmindedly. "More worried that you'll be the enemy."
The jinchuuriki's eyes narrowed behind his glasses. He didn't expect that from Asuma – a man he'd known since he could walk. Anger bled into his voice. "And just what the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"He meant in the exam, Naruto."
Naruto's head spun around to face Shikamaru, who was looking at him curiously. The blond boy blinked as the anger bled away. He shook his head slightly to clear it and used the motion to peek at Ino and Asuma out of the corner of his eye.
Both were studying him as well – Ino with a small frown and Asuma with one eyebrow quirked in question.
"Oh, the exam. Right, sorry. I… well, never mind. Sorry." He felt like an idiot. Now that he wasn't ignoring them, the glares of the villagers were starting to get to him – wearing him down. He just couldn't bring himself to be completely indifferent to them, no matter how hard he tried. Something in him craved the approval that he could only get from others, and the disgusted looks he received daily weighed on him despite his best efforts to block them out.
"Come on sensei! All this practicing and I can't even show off? It's not like he won't figure it out when he sees it anyways." Chouji seemed to be the only one who hadn't picked up on the earlier tension.
Asuma removed a cigarette from the package in his hands and sighed. "Go ahead then."
The heavy boy grinned and moved his hands together in a short string of seals. "Multi-Size technique!"
Naruto just stared. And stared. Then he blinked a few times. Then stared some more. "Um, did it work?" He'd been watching closely with the help of his doujutsu eyes, but the chakra flare that raced through Chouji hadn't had the tell tale characteristics of an elemental jutsu. Instead it had just seemed to thicken and dim before the jutsu took effect.
And if the look of the chakra was strange, then the effect of the jutsu was downright bizarre.
"What do you mean? It worked fine!" Chouji looked down at the four ninja in front of him in slight confusion, his eyes drifting from a confounded Naruto to a giggling Ino, who had apparently found the blond boy's question incredibly amusing.
Naruto had to work to stop himself from speaking his mind. Inflating oneself to massive proportions didn't seem like a particularly effective technique. Plus it looked ridiculous. "So… what does it do, exactly?"
"Huh? Makes you big, obviously."
Shock wearing down, Naruto had to keep himself from laughing. Instead of cracking up, he yelped as Ino reached over and pinched his arm, hard. He made sure to send her a nasty look before turning back to Chouji. Actually, he should probably thank her later. "What do you do now, I meant."
"Oh! Check this out." The massive ball of a boy pulled his visible extremities into his body, reminding Naruto of a horribly obese turtle, and took off rolling about the clearing they were resting in, changing direction and spinning in place from time to time.
Naruto leaned over towards Ino, who in turned moved in to catch his whisper. "I think I've finally found a jutsu that I don't ever want to learn."
The kunoichi gave a mischievous smirk. "That just makes me want to learn it more. Watch this."
The blond boy was sure he that hadn't heard that right.
"My turn, Chouji!" Ino hopped up from her place next to Naruto and moved into the clearing as the rolling Meat Tank came to a stop and shrank back to manageable proportions, revealing a winded Chouji sitting on the ground catching his breath.
Asuma looked up from lighting his cigarette. "Don't overdo it, guys. We did just finish up, after all."
Ino brushed aside his comment as she settled into a strange stance, her fingers forming a rectangle in front of her and pointed straight towards Naruto. "Here's my technique, Naruto. Get ready."
Naruto shifted uncomfortably. "Hang on. What's it do, exactly?"
The kunoichi just grinned. "You'll see."
"Hold it, Ino." Asuma was leaning forward, elbows on his knees and smoking cigarette in hand as he stared apprehensively between the two blonds. "Why don't you try it on Shikamaru."
The lazy boy straightened abruptly. "What? Why, sensei?"
"You're used to it by now, and we don't want Ino getting hurt from playing with an injured body, now do we?"
Naruto frowned in confusion. Beside the fact that his bruises and scrapes had already faded, it seemed to him that Asuma was being uncharacteristically evasive. Then again, he didn't know what Ino's jutsu did, so given his special circumstances the man may have had a good reason to have her change targets.
Naruto wasn't going to complain. He spent enough time being a target dummy on a daily basis without having to be one for a second team.
Shikamaru sighed. "Fine, just don't do anything embarrassing. Or stupid."
Ino waved him off. "Yeah, yeah. Nothing too bad, got it." Her fingers were back in the rectangular shape before her and Chouji, Naruto now noticed, was at her side. "Ready Chouji?"
"Then here we go." Ino closed her eyes in concentration, and as Naruto watched, her light purple chakra sped up, the flow increasing dramatically around her body.
Like Chouji's aura, Ino's was different to anything he'd ever seen before. It didn't take on an elemental attribute, and the movement was nothing short of intense. It was interesting to say the least.
Not a moment later the bright mass of Ino's chakra leapt from her body and sped toward the seated form of Shikamaru.
Naruto couldn't help but gasp slightly, earning another strange look from Asuma. How was that even possible? The blond boy watched the violet mass of chakra impact Shikamaru and settle into his body, almost completely masking the deep, forest green that normally resided there. Swinging his head back around, Naruto examined the limp form of Ino, which Chouji had lowered into a seated position on the ground. There was still a hint of the light purple traveling through her body and gathered in the major organs. The greatest mass of all was in Ino's head, and Naruto struggled to understand what that could mean.
Without warning, Naruto was treated to the weight of Shikamaru dropping into his lap. The dark haired boy turned halfway around and wrapped his arms around the stunned blond's neck, receiving only a panicky look in return.
"What the hell?" As the shock wore off, Naruto was reminded that Ino's violet chakra had taken up residence in the boy's body. "Ino?"
Shikamaru smirked, then winked.
The Nara fell to the ground with a loud thump and growled as he picked himself up. "Dammit Ino! I said nothing embarrassing or stupid!" He glared at Naruto. "That hurt, dammit."
Naruto was busy brushing off his pants and shoulders where Shikamaru had touched him. "Gross. So gross. It's a good thing this needed a wash anyways."
Neither boy was particularly pleased at the sound of Ino's raucous laughter or Chouji's snickering.
Ino wiped a tear from her eye. "But you two are so cute together."
Shikamaru got up and stalked to the far end of the log while Naruto slid down to the opposite side. They needed some space.
"Too damn troublesome."
"See, that's why it's funny, Shikamaru. You need to work on your sense of humor." Ino was still having trouble catching her breath.
"So anyways…" As funny as it may have been, Naruto had questions that needed answering. "How did you do those jutsu? They're not elemental, right? The only techniques I know that are like that are the academy jutsu."
Ino sat back down next to Naruto and turned to face him. "They're yin/yang jutsu."
Naruto deflated. "Can we pretend I don't know what that means?"
The kunoichi scowled. "Dammit Naruto! Didn't you listen to anything that Iruka-sensei taught us?"
"Relax, Ino. It's not like he went into any detail." Shikamaru seemed to have gotten over his frustration and was back to his usual, mostly indifferent self.
"Were you even awake for it?"
Shikamaru sighed. "If Naruto really wants me to explain it to him I will. Having him hound us would be troublesome."
"Glad we're in agreement, Shikamaru. Just keep it simple, yeah?" Naruto gave an encouraging grin and leaned forward to look around Ino once again.
"Right. So you know that chakra is made up of two parts, spiritual energy and physical energy, right?"
Naruto frowned and put a hand to his chin in thought.
"I'm kidding, Shikamaru. I know. Keep going."
The Nara sighed. "Okay, so normally when you mold chakra these two components come together in a perfect balance. That way the chakra will remain stable and be easy to use. All of the stuff we learned in the academy relies on this balanced chakra, and that's because it's the easiest and most natural to mold. That's the yin/yang. It's the balance of the components of your chakra. Got it?"
"You know some elemental jutsu, right?"
Naruto gave a small smile. "A few."
Shikamaru shook his head. "Okay, well those use balanced chakra too. The only difference is that you have to assign an elemental aspect to the chakra while you mold it."
"Hurry up Shikamaru, I want to go home." Chouji was already through half of his next bag of chips.
"You don't have to stay, Chouji. Asuma left ten minutes ago."
Naruto turned around to find Asuma's seat vacant. Huh.
"I thought we were going cloud watching?"
Ino crossed her arms. "Get on with it then."
Shikamaru mumbled something that may or may not have been "troublesome" and continued. "What the three of us do is manipulate that balanced chakra into something unbalanced, okay?"
Naruto frowned. "Be a bit more specific."
"Okay. You remember Chouji's jutsu?"
"His clan's techniques all lean towards physical energy. They all manipulate his body's size, so he needs to have a body that can handle the strain and that can store plenty of physical energy. It's why he's eating all the time."
Chouji have a happy nod as he munched on another potato chip.
"Ino's family focuses on jutsu that affect the mind, so she has to force her chakra to contain more spiritual energy so that she can wrestle control of a person's body away from them."
Bingo. That's what Naruto had seen when Ino had used her technique. It had seemed so overwhelming to his sight because it had been spiritually charged chakra. So it seemed that his eyes could see the spiritual power of chakra, rather than spiritual energy itself. It certainly made sense to him. His eye could determine both the amount and the aspect of spiritual chakra, or so it seemed.
"Hey Shikamaru, what is spiritual energy, exactly?"
Ino didn't give him time to respond. "It's the energy of the mind and soul that accumulates based on the wisdom and knowledge of a ninja."
Shikamaru shrugged. "Pretty much what she said."
That wasn't much of an answer, in Naruto's opinion. "What do you mean mind and soul? What the hell is a soul, anyways?"
Ino scoffed. "You don't know?"
"Well I know what it's supposed to be, but have you ever seen one? How do you know that your spiritual energy is based on it? How do you know that knowledge and experience increase spiritual energy?"
The others were looking at Naruto oddly by this point.
"Look. If your spiritual energy got bigger the smarter and wiser you got, then wouldn't that mean that the people with the most spiritual energy be the ones who lived the longest? If that's true, then why are most of the ninja in the village young?" Naruto's confusion came through in his tone. He wanted some answers as to what his unique vision meant.
Shikamaru spoke first. "I'm not really sure, Naruto. I mean you make a good point. Why can kids as young as five and six, or younger, be taught to use their chakra if their spiritual energy is incredibly tiny?" He shook his head. "You'd be better off asking someone who knows a bit more than us."
Naruto growled in frustration. It just didn't make any sense. Ino had said pretty much the same thing as Sakura back in Wave, but that explanation was just too vague for him. It sounded like something that was simply made up to appease schoolchildren. "How did your clan come up with its techniques, Ino?"
Ino tugged on the bandage wrapped around her thigh absently. "I think it was trial and error, mostly. Once you get the hang of using spiritual energy, it becomes easier and I think we just went from there."
"But how do you sense it, to know it's there?"
The frown on Ino's face was disheartening. "What do you mean, sense it? It has to be there, doesn't it? It's part of chakra."
Naruto was becoming annoyed. "But how did ninja even find that out if there's no way to sense it?"
The blond boy's head swung around to meet Shikamaru's gaze as the dark haired boy got to his feet.
"You should ask someone else. We don't know."
Naruto sighed. "Yeah, sure. You're right."
"Finally! Let's get out of here, Naruto. I need to go shopping, and you're going to make sure I look alright." Ino got up and dragged Naruto to his feet.
"Don't you mean you need someone to carry your bags?"
Ino shot him a scathing glance and continued dragging him off.
"Shouldn't I change first?"
"You're going to use a transformation anyways, aren't you?"
Naruto scowled, his last avenue of retreat cut off. "Damn."
Hatake Kakashi walked down a wide, curving corridor within the Hokage tower, exchanging nods of respect with the masked guards that resided within. When he finally came to the large double doors that led to the Hokage's office, he greeted the two men there with a small wave and smile. The masked guards gave him the typical nod of respect before one of them raised his arm slightly and pointed further down the hallway. Kakashi nodded in understanding and continued walking along the corridor as it bent its way around the circular tower.
He stopped at the next door – a nondescript wooden thing, like so many others in the tower – and gave a quick knock. The muffled response from within was his queue to enter, and he quickly slid inside.
The masked jounin found himself in a comfortable sitting room connected to the Hokage's office. The simple furnishings consisted of two facing couches with a small wooden coffee table placed in between. A few potted plants grew against the walls, and a large window opened out over the village below.
Kakashi's eye was drawn to the four portraits that decorated a wall, the blond mop of his teacher's hair catching his eye as it always did. It was only a minor comfort that he got to see that same unruly hair every day, though on another.
Sarutobi Hiruzen sat on one of the couches, his back to the portrait wall. The aging man poured two small cups of tea from an elegant set before looking up at the new arrival.
"Have a seat, Kakashi."
The masked jounin walked around the back of the worn couch and sat, allowing himself to relax a bit. It was one of the many things that he was thankful for in his leader. Underneath the legend and the title, Sarutobi was a caring man and a confidant for his subordinates. "Thank you, Lord Hokage."
"Tell me, Kakashi. Do you really think that your students are ready for the exam?" The old man held up a hand to calm the masked man's bristling. "I only ask because you've expressed concerns to me in the past, and Gai did make a valid point. I myself am a bit wary of so many green ninja being thrown into this test, but I respect your judgement."
Kakashi sighed. "To be honest, I couldn't be happier with their growth as ninja. Sasuke has been making good progress toward mastering his Sharingan and his skills are improving, especially with shuriken and wirework. His eyes no doubt have contributed to that."
Sarutobi threaded his fingers together in front of him and gave a small nod. It was to be expected, after all.
"He's also been learning some more fire techniques outside of our training from his clan's scrolls, but I think he's reluctant to show them in front of his teammates."
The Hokage gave a curious look and took a long sip of his tea before speaking. "And why would that be?"
Kakashi paused before answering. "I told you that Naruto learned the Grand Fireball technique simply by watching Sasuke perform it a few times, yes?" At the old man's nod, he continued. "I believe that Sasuke has become a bit paranoid about Naruto learning his techniques."
The Hokage set down his teacup and examined it for a moment in thought. "Do you believe that Naruto could learn these jutsu simply by watching Sasuke perform them?"
The jounin straightened. "That's just it, Lord Hokage. Naruto has surprised me in many ways – he's grown more than I could ever have imagined, even considering…" Kakashi's eye drifted to the Fourth Hokage's portrait once again.
Sarutobi didn't have to turn to know where the younger man was looking.
"I've taught Naruto a number of both water and earth techniques, and frankly I've never seen anyone pick up the jutsu as quickly as he has. The fact that he can use fire techniques as well is…"
"Unusual, to say the least."
Kakashi nodded. "Naruto has such a natural talent with ninjutsu that I think that Sasuke is developing a bit of an inferiority complex, despite having a number of his own advantages. Their taijutsu spars have become more and more brutal and – given Sasuke's advantage there – Naruto is the one on the receiving end of that brutality."
Sarutobi crossed his fingers in front of him once again in thought. "Their rivalry has gotten a bit out of hand, then. When I put them on the same team, I had hoped that Sasuke's talents would inspire Naruto to grow into his own powers that had been… neglected during his younger years. It seems my plan has backfired a bit, though, since Naruto has shown himself to be a spectacularly talented youngster in his own right." He shook his head slowly. "What of Sakura?"
"Hmm, when I first met her I was a bit concerned. She was rather brash and had an unhealthy infatuation with Sasuke, though I take it that was common among the kunoichi in her class."
Sarutobi gave a small smile, though Kakashi could see a hint of sadness in it. "They're still children in many ways, after all."
"True. Recently, she's calmed down quite a bit. I believe it came as a bit of a shock to her to find how far behind Sasuke and Naruto she was when it came to the practical aspects of the ninja arts. She's been throwing herself into her training, but still has a good ways to go before she catches up with them."
The Hokage took another sip of tea. "And how does she get along with her teammates?"
"Much better than before, especially with regards to Naruto, but Sasuke still seems content to brush her off. He's not particularly impressed with her skills, I imagine."
Sarutobi nodded. "I'm glad that I placed you in charge of this rather… unique team, Kakashi, but I suppose at the end of this we're brought back to my initial question. Why did you decide to enter them into the Chuunin Exam if their teamwork is so lacking?"
"Frankly, Lord Hokage, I don't know how to improve their teamwork as they are. The more Naruto and Sasuke practice together the more their animosity seems to grow. I'm worried that soon they'll be more inclined to fight one another than the enemy. Unless we could split them into different teams…"
The Hokage shook his head. "It's not possible right now. Maybe sometime in the future, but I'm not willing to break up my active squads just to cater to two green genin. I'm sure you understand."
Kakashi nodded. "As I thought. In that case, I've decided to enter them into the exam to force them to build some teamwork. Something drastic has to be done here, and soon, or else one of them is going to be seriously injured."
Sarutobi stared at his teacup in thought, letting the silence drag out. "Thank you for sharing this with me, Kakashi. I think that your method may very well be the only course of action we have open to us, and I can only hope that they can overcome their dislike of each other soon. They are both very promising young ninja, after all." The Hokage shifted slightly. "If not, then perhaps we'll have to make arrangements to split them up, though I am loathe to do so."
The conversation had come to an end, but Kakashi had one last topic that had been bouncing about in his head ever since his team had returned from Wave, its urgency growing every day. It seemed that now was the best time to address it. "One last thing, if I may, Lord Hokage."
The old man smiled indulgently. "Of course, Kakashi."
"Have you spoken to Naruto lately?"
The Hokage blinked. "I've spoken to him on a few occasions, though not as much as I'd have liked to, and certainly not under ideal conditions." Most of their meetings had been to reprimand the boy for altercations with villagers, sadly. "Why do you ask?"
Kakashi frowned, an expression that he hardly ever wore and one that Sarutobi found rather alarming on the casually upbeat jounin. "Do you ever get the feeling that Naruto isn't happy?"
Sarutobi felt his own frown begin to pull at his face. "What do you mean, Kakashi?"
The masked jounin sighed and rubbed the back of his head absently. "I know this may not be appropriate, Lord Hokage, but he seems so frustrated all of the time. He hides it well, but I can see it in him coming and going from practice. I know that he's made friends, but it just seems to me as though he's carrying a weight around that's slowly crushing him."
The Hokage's head lowered and his face darkened, his chin resting on his knuckles.
Kakashi sensed the dark mood. "I'm sorry for bringing this up to you, sir. It's not my place."
"No, Kakashi. I'm glad you spoke to me of this. Naruto doesn't have many advocates in Konoha and I'm truly happy that you've kept your eye on him. Ever since he was made a ninja I've felt the strain on our relationship growing. I don't think he looks to me the same way he once did, and I can't in my capacity treat him as I once did either." Sarutobi straightened and looked Kakashi in the eye. "In all honestly, I'm surprised that Naruto has held up as well as he has until now, given the attitude of the villagers, but ever since he learned of the reason for their dislike of him he's become less tolerant of their persecution. It's not something he can simply shrug off any longer."
"What can we do?"
Sarutobi shook his head. "I'm not sure that there is anything we can do, aside from hope that the villagers' opinions of Naruto change before the boy becomes too jaded. It was always my hope that Naruto would become a great ninja of this village and prove to the people here that he truly is the hero that his father wanted him to be, but in order for that to happen we need time – time which I'm not sure we have."
"And if time runs out? What will we do then?" Kakashi was beginning to become alarmed.
"I don't know, Kakashi. I'm hoping it won't come to a head anytime soon. The reality, though, is that Naruto is dangerous."
"Not to us!" The masked jounin was surprised to find himself on his feet. He hadn't meant to raise his voice.
The Hokage simply raised a hand to calm his subordinate. "Kakashi, Naruto is like a second grandson to me. The fact, though, is that he is a jinchuuriki and therefore is dangerous. Not all of the fear and suspicion that the villagers view him with is unfounded, after all."
Kakashi slumped back into his seat and took a calming breath. "The Naruto I've come to know isn't one who would take out his anger on helpless villagers, no matter the circumstance."
"The Naruto we know is changing, Kakashi. Naruto as he is now isn't the same boy I enrolled in the ninja academy seven years ago, and he won't be the same eager student he is now. Fate has been cruel to him, and will continue to be. It's the path his father and this village set for him."
"How can we help him?"
Sarutobi Hiruzen gave a sad sigh. "I'm afraid, Kakashi, that Naruto must help himself."
"Thanks for meeting me, Iruka-sensei." Naruto greeted his old teacher and quickly ducked under the cloth flaps that separated the bustling roadway from his favorite ramen bar.
Iruka followed quickly behind Naruto and hopped up onto a stool next to the boy's. "You know you don't need to call me sensei any longer, right?"
"Force of habit, I guess."
The chuunin gave Naruto an appraising look. "Nice glasses, by the way."
Naruto grinned. "Like 'em? They were a present from Ino, actually."
"Oh? You and Ino, is it?"
The blond shook his head. "It's not like that. I'm just her pack mule for when she goes shopping."
"Just a pack mule, huh? No romantic dinners yet?"
Naruto scowled. "Well we do go out to eat and hang out from time to time."
Iruka grinned. "So there's some headway there, eh? It's always nice for a teacher to see his students getting along."
Naruto put his head on the counter. "I said it's not like that."
A teenaged girl walked out of the back and spotted them before quickly walking over to take their orders. "What'll it be, Naruto? Iruka-sensei?"
That brought a grin to the blond's face. "See? Even she calls you sensei and you never even taught her."
Iruka returned his grin. "Fair enough."
"Start me off with two bowls of miso, Ayame." Naruto looked to Iruka expectantly, but was met with a slight frown from the older man.
"Starting off with two? Remember that I'm only making a teacher's salary, Naruto."
Naruto gave another grin. "It's on me today, sensei. Don't worry about it."
Iruka's shock only showed for a moment, before he turned to Ayame. "Well in that case, I'll start off with three beef, a shrimp, a pork, and… oh, a miso of course."
The young waitress could barely suppress the giggle that threatened to escape her lips as both she and Iruka watched the look of dawning horror creep across Naruto's features.
Iruka let a large smile spread across his face before slapping Naruto across the back – a little harder than necessary, Naruto thought – and turned back to Ayame. "Just one beef, please."
The young woman could barely get out her response through the bouts of laughter that shook her. "Sure."
Naruto's look of dumbfounded horror twisted into a scowl as realization came to him. "That wasn't funny."
"Oh come on, Naruto. You're not the only one who can enjoy a good joke from time to time."
The blond grumbled a bit. Now that he thought about it, it was pretty funny. "So how's the new class of delinquents? It must be like a vacation in there after me, right?"
Iruka chuckled quietly as he shook his head. "I don't know, Naruto. There are some brats in there that could give you a run for your money, I'll bet. I've got Sarutobi Konohamaru in my class this year."
"So you do know him. He's mentioned you once or twice, you know."
"'Know him' is a bit of an overstatement. I've met him, tricked him, and run from him. That's about it." Naruto grinned as Ayame came back with their ramen and set it before them. "Thanks, Ayame."
"No problem. Enjoy!" The waitress retreated from the bar to let the two ninja eat in peace.
After a minute of far too loud slurping, Iruka turned to his former student. "You should be a bit more tolerant of Konohamaru, Naruto. After all, he reminds me a lot of you when you were that age."
Naruto snorted, causing ripples to spread across the bowl in front of him. "That's exactly why I'm not gonna be tolerant. I was an annoying little brat."
The chuunin looked at Naruto oddly before responding. "You've changed, you know?"
Iruka eyed the bright orange rope tied around Naruto's waist. "Well, maybe not that much."
Naruto nodded and went back to eating. He was halfway through his second bowl when his conversation from a few days prior came back to him. "Iruka-sensei, what do you know about spiritual energy?"
Iruka put down his own chopsticks to look at Naruto. "Oh, finally interested in learning something useful now, are you?"
The chuunin nodded. "Okay. Well to start off, spiritual energy is the energy of the mind…"
"And soul, increased from wisdom and experience, blah, blah, blah. I know all that, but that doesn't really explain what it is, now does it?"
Iruka furrowed his eyebrows in confusion.
"I mean where do ninja get the notion that it even exists if no one can see it or sense it? I know that you can't really use your chakra without accessing your spiritual energy, but doesn't that mean that ninja had to know about spiritual energy before they started using chakra? Is there some jutsu that lets you sense it?" Naruto paused in thought. "But even that wouldn't explain it since you couldn't use a jutsu without using chakra. Bah! It's too confusing!"
"I think I know what you're saying, Naruto, but frankly there is no good way to measure or detect spiritual energy. Molding chakra is something that we teach and pass down through the generations so that there can continue being ninja. That's probably the reason why what we teach about spiritual energy is so hard to apply to the jutsu we use. We really don't know much about it." Iruka shrugged in helplessness. "That's really all I, or anyone that I know of, for that matter, can tell you."
Naruto covered his face in his palms and gave a low growl of frustration. "Someone had to have figured it out. Otherwise ninja couldn't really be ninja. How did ninja learn that spiritual energy exists?"
Iruka blinked. "Oh, that's easy."
Naruto lowered his hands and turned to his old teacher, eager for an answer.
"The Sage of the Six Paths told them so."
Naruto scowled as a dumpy librarian rose from her position at the front desk and moved to intercept him. His scowl deepened as two adult civilians eyed the scene as they walked by unimpeded. One flashed them a deep frown while the other just glared.
Their expressions were genuine, but they weren't directed at Naruto.
The blond boy sighed and prepared himself for another round with his adoring public.
"What are you doing here?" The librarian had stopped a good eight feet from him and placed her hands on her hips.
Naruto supposed it was a method meant to make her look as bloated and imposing as possible.
"Looking for a book. What are you doing here?"
The large woman's eyes narrowed, her disdain growing by the second. "I work here, brat."
Naruto nodded. "Alright then." His attempt to walk around her and continue inside was blocked, however, by her considerable bulk.
"You're not allowed inside."
"Why the hell not?"
The woman huffed, which only seemed to inflate her further. "You're banned."
Naruto blinked. "Since when?"
"Since you glued the doors shut."
The blond had to think about that for a moment. "Wait a minute, that was three years ago." It had actually been one of his more pathetic pranks. After the library had closed for the night he'd used a tube of shower caulk to seal the doors. The next morning, the mostly civilian employees had had to stand outside for all of five minutes before a passing jounin had forced the doors open in under thirty seconds. It was sad, really.
"A ban is a ban."
Naruto scowled. "You can't possibly be telling me that I have a life-long ban because of something I did when I was ten! If you expect me to believe that you're going to have to prove it."
The librarian paused for a moment, which only succeeded in angering Naruto further. The bitch was obviously making this up.
"What do you want from the library, anyways?"
Naruto was losing his patience. He'd honestly tried his best not to antagonize anyone at the Hokage's behest, but that didn't stop him from blowing up and landing himself in the old man's office nearly once a week since he'd been back from Wave. Everyone had his limits, and Naruto was rapidly approaching his. "I already told you, I'm looking for a book."
"What kind of book?"
Naruto grit his teeth. "A history book, nothing sinister. Can I go now?"
The librarian only huffed again. "And what would you want with a history book?" There wasn't any doubt in Naruto's mind at what she was implying.
It looked like he'd be paying the old man another visit this afternoon. He hoped he wouldn't be interrupting anything important. He stepped forward until he was only two feet from the large woman and watched in amusement as her eyes grew wider and wider at his approach.
Naruto grinned from ear to ear. "Well, since you were so polite to ask, I think I'll tell you. Being that I'm an immortal demon and all, I tend to forget things from time to time." He did his best to sound particularly sinister. "No doubt your feeble human mind has experienced a similar occurrence?"
The woman began to sweat, gasp, and sputter. In Naruto's opinion it was quite amusing.
Then she screamed.
That was less amusing.
Not two minutes later the ANBU found Naruto sitting on the steps outside of the library waiting for them. The white-cloaked captain waved his three subordinates inside before sitting down next to the blond boy.
"Naruto, you can't keep doing this every week. What is wrong with you?"
Naruto turned to scowl at the cat-masked man. "Oh, gee, I don't know. Maybe it has to do with someone sealing a monster into me."
The ANBU sighed. "I'll be escorting you to the Hokage's office once my men interview the witnesses."
Naruto snorted. "What witnesses? There was only that fat cow getting in my way." He bent down and wrung his hands in his shaggy hair. "I can't even check out a fucking book in this place!"
"Calm down." The masked man stood up and put his hand on the boy's shoulder. "Come on. We can head to the tower now and they'll catch up to us."
Naruto simply nodded and followed the ANBU captain to the rooftops.
The Hokage sighed and ran his gnarled hands over his bald scalp. "You're a ninja now, Naruto. You can't just go around threatening civilians as you please and playing on their insecurities. You're a soldier of this village and I expect you to act like one."
Naruto couldn't meet the old man's eyes, even with his glasses between them. "Maybe that's the problem. Seems like we have this conversation every time I see you, old man. I'm a ninja of this village so I have to be better than every bigot here."
Sarutobi narrowed his eyes slightly, though he was sure that Naruto hadn't noticed. The situation seemed even worse for the boy than he had imagined. He could only hope that the Chuunin Exam would bring about some good for the boy. "I won't pretend to know what it's like for you, Naruto. I can only ask you to be a better person than those who mistreat you. In time, I'm sure that they can come to know the real you, if only you give them a chance."
"Why should I give them a chance?" Naruto shook his head in frustration. "I'm tired of this."
"I know, Naruto. But it will get better, I promise." Sarutobi adopted a thoughtful expression before proceeding. "I'm sure you've heard by now that we're hosting the Chuunin Exam here, yes?"
Naruto nodded. "It starts next week, right?"
"I'm not sure if I want to take part."
Sarutobi was well and truly shocked. "What do you mean, Naruto? This is your chance to prove to the villagers just who you are. A great Konoha ninja!" The Hokage brought himself back under control. "I have it on good authority from Kakashi that you and your team are perfectly capable of performing well in this exam."
Naruto looked up and met the Hokage's eyes for the first time since entering the office. "How do they grade it?"
"What do you mean, Naruto?"
"How do they decide who passes and who fails? Does everyone who passes get promoted?"
Sarutobi's brows knit together in thought. "Normally I wouldn't reveal this to you until you were preparing for the final portion of the exam, but I suppose I can tell you that a panel of judges made up of powerful ninja decides who has shown the qualities necessary in a chuunin and therefore who gets promoted. Why do you ask?"
Naruto gave a sad smile. "How many of those judges will be from Konoha, old man?"
"Naruto, I hope you're not thinking that they would vote against your promotion simply out of spite?"
"Why do the people in Konoha do any of the things they do to me?"
The Hokage's face fell. "Have a little faith, Naruto. The judges are all ninja, they'll understand."
Naruto's mouth pressed into a thin line. "Please don't pretend that there aren't ninja here who resent me for what I represent to them. I see it every day. They can't stand to look at me."
Sarutobi was at a loss. He knew that it was true, after all. If Naruto didn't participate though, his window of opportunity to turn his life around in Konoha may close forever. He couldn't let that happen to his good friend's boy.
"Naruto, listen to me."
The blond boy stayed quiet and watched the old Hokage carefully pick his words.
"This exam can only be taken in teams of three. If you don't enter then Sasuke and Sakura will be held back along with you."
Naruto shook his head. "I can't even work with Sasuke, what makes you think…"
"I'll only ask this of you once, Naruto. Kakashi has told me that the three of you are ready. If you participate here I promise I'll do what I can to make changes in your squad, but if the three of you are held back, I'm not sure I can help you." He was manipulating the boy, but what else could he do? Let his loneliness and frustration fester into something much worse? "Enter the exam with your teammates, Naruto. Do it for them, for Kakashi, but most of all, do it for yourself. I know you have it in you to become a great and respected ninja, even here in Konoha. You just can't give up yet."
Naruto nodded slowly. "Alright. Just this once, I'll enter. For Sakura and Kakashi-sensei, at least."
Sarutobi smiled, the panic he had felt earlier dimming. "Thank you, Naruto. I promise you won't regret this decision."
Naruto fumbled with his keys as he locked the door to his apartment. The day's emotional roller coaster had worn him out, and he was ready to turn in early for the night.
He was brought out of his musings by the realization that the lights in his apartment were on. He was sure that he had turned them off before he had left for practice that morning. The sound of rustling paper from the living room reminded him that his clones had been tasked with finding information on the elusive Sage of the Six Paths in the library on the off chance that he was denied entrance.
That had been quick thinking on his part.
Naruto followed the sound of paper into the living room to find one of his clones poring over a large, worn book. It certainly looked like it contained some history, in Naruto's opinion.
The clone looked up as Naruto entered the room and gave out a relieved sigh.
"Well? Did you get it?"
The clone only nodded.
"You're not going to like it."
Naruto snorted. "After the day I've had, I doubt I'd like anything you found."
The clone quirked an eyebrow. "I mean you're really not going to like it."
Naruto frowned. "Fine. Lay it on me."
The clone disappeared in a puff of smoke.
Naruto blinked, then walked to the window. The sun was only a sliver of light over the western hills bleeding red across the village. It suited his mood just perfectly.
"God? I hate you."