Well now, here's the next chapter of my brainchild. It's been a while since my last update, and I'm sorry for that, but my life went a little crazy these past few months. Nothing I can't handle pending a schedule adjustment or three though. I find I have very little to say here this time, so I'll just let you get to the reading.

The Road to Progress

Right now, Anko was not a happy woman. It had all began when she ventured out in search of the blonde teen who had removed the one thing that tied her to her former sensei. The problem was that nobody seemed to know or even care where he lived or what he did on his downtime. Of course, she could always try to coax the answers out of one of his friends. She doubted that would be a good use of her time though, the Hokage did say that they were a very tight knit group. Then there where the whispers. Normally, she could handle them, but over the course of the day they reached an all time high. As soon as the word was out among the population that the 'Snake Whore' was looking for the 'Demon Boy', the rumors began to spread like wildfire, warping and twisting to the point that they talked about how they were in bed with each other every night. Still, she was a kunoichi and maintained her composure. What was really irritating her was the fact that the idea didn't seem all that bad. She had to keep reminding herself that Naruto was younger than she was, and still a gennin for the time being.

When she finally came across the object of her search, she had nearly forgotten why she was looking. There he was, sitting at a ramen stall, talking casually to the pretty woman behind the counter. Deciding against a flashy entrance, she just pushed the curtain of the stall aside and took a seat next to the blonde. "You know, Naruto, you're a hard person to find. I've been looking since daybreak." He shrugged, stacking his empty bowl on top of three others. "You only found me because I wanted to be found. What can I do for you Anko-san? I'm sure you wouldn't have searched so diligently if it was just a social call."

Anko let out a small laugh. "Perceptive, aren't we? If you don't make chuunin, I'll be shocked. I just wanted to talk about what happened in the forest. Specifically, what happened when you touched the mark on my neck." She looked around nervously, the same mark being one of the few things that kept some of her fellow ninja from attacking her. "Can we talk somewhere more private?" A nod from Naruto was all she got before he dropped payment for his meal on the counter top and stood up. "Your place or mine?" Anko looked up in thought. "Well, I tend to live out in the tower in the forest. Is your place closer?" Naruto gave a short chuckle. "Maybe not closer, but it is a little easier to get to. There's one stipulation though. You can't tell a soul where I live. It is secret, it is safe, and all for a damn good reason." Anko nodded. Of course she understood why he was guarded about that. It was the very same reason she moved out into the tower, to get away from Konoha's general population and their hatred of anything they didn't think fit in their perfect society. "All right then, let's go."

Needless to say, Anko was impressed at how Naruto could easily slip through the gates without alerting the guards, if a little confused as to why he was leaving Konoha. All was made clear mere minutes later, though, once they reached his tree and he dropped the genjutsu he had cast before leaving. Upon entering and shutting the door, there was a solid click as a heavy steel deadbolt slid into place automatically. "Now then, we should be safe to talk here. Have a seat Anko-san." She did as instructed, occupying one of the seats around the table in the center of the room. Naruto merely leaned against the wall. "I suppose you want to know what I was talking about in the forest before I ran off, am I right?" A nod from his guest was his only answer. "Well, it gets a little complicated. In my younger years, I took hold of a legendary sword. One you may know as the Sword of Mana." Here he unwrapped the bandages from around his arm, showing the intricate metal gauntlet. "Since it was weak and couldn't hold its true form, it instead latched onto my arm, to feed off of my residual chakra and gain strength. In turn, I gained control of the blade, and later, three of the primal elemental spirits."

"Alright, I get it, you picked up some powerful thing. How does this relate to that Thanatos thing you were mumbling about?" Naruto sighed. "If you would let me continue Anko-san, then I would tell you." The jounin had the good grace to look embarrassed at her own impatience as Naruto continued. "Thanatos is something like the echo of the power of the Tree. If Mana were to be considered 'holy' than Thanatos would be its opposite 'evil'. I'm not sure how, but that seal contains the power of Thanatos which corrupts and changes the mind and body to better suit itself. Normally, this wouldn't be held back by anything, but that seal changes things. It seems to react to certain drives that Thanatos resonates with, things like rage, pride, sorrow, and greed, and allows the seal to spread." Anko nodded, though the new information was a little much to wrap her mind around completely when she had no prior knowledge of the existence of such forces, everything seemed to add up.

"So, when you touched the seal, you destroyed it?" Now it was Naruto's turn to be confused. "Destroyed? I don't remember doing anything like that. When I tried to break Sasuke's seal, I could only force it to retreat. If yours broke from just a simple touch, it must have been weak. Orochimaru must still be working on the seals to make them more powerful. That doesn't bode well for anybody." Near the end of his tirade, the blonde began speaking more to himself than to her, but Anko didn't really care. All she knew was that this boy had removed a horrible thing from her body, and, even if he hadn't meant to, she owed him with her very life. For now though, she would say nothing and support him from the shadows. From everything she had gathered, Naruto was cautious to a fault, examining every little detail about a person's actions to see if he could trust them or not. She would bide her time until she could prove her new loyalty. She stood, straightening her long coat, and flashed a grin towards the boy. "Well, it's been a nice chat and all, but I've gotta go run my regular patrols now. Don't be a stranger, Naruto. We've got more in common than you know." With that, she unbolted the door and left, leaving Naruto to ponder the meaning behind her words.

The next week passed by without much event. Naruto went about his business in the village as usual, training and socializing with his friends, working out his designs in the forge, and further sharpening his control over the powerful spirits within his body when he could get away from prying eyes. It wasn't until the final morning of that week that Jiraiya showed up at Naruto's tree while he was meditating just outside. The blonde cracked one blue eye open to register who his intruder was. "I was wondering when you were going to show up. Let me guess, you used jii-san's ball to find me? Doesn't matter." He stood up, dusting himself off. Jiraiya cracked a grin, walking closer. "Got me in one. Look Naruto, I've managed to find the person who can help your buddy through my spy network. If we want to catch her, we have to go now though. I've already cleared everything with the old man, but I won't force you to come along." To his surprise, the boy scoffed, reaching behind his back to produce a single storage scroll. "You're kidding right? I already told you that my friends would have thrown me out of the village if they knew I was the best chance of bringing this person back to help Lee out. I've just been waiting for you until you decided to show up. We have two weeks to get her and bring her back, right? Just how far away is she?" Jiraiya adjusted the shoulder strap of the pack he was carrying, making a mental calculation. "She's in a village not but four days away if we move at a decent clip. True to her MO, she should stay there until we catch up. She's probably gambling away."

Somewhere in a town as near as she would go to Konoha, a certain busty pig-tailed blonde beauty stared in awe at the pachinko machine she had been playing for less than ten minutes. She had just hit a huge jackpot, but such windfalls never gave her any comfort. With her luck, a jackpot was always followed by some kind of trouble, usually from her past. She would have to gather her traveling companion and get out of town as fast as possible... just one more game first.

"So, you said you wanted to show me a few things while we traveled?" Jiraiya looked over at Naruto who had spoken up for the first time since they left his place. It had been hours, and the man had been moving at a speed he wasn't sure the blonde could keep up with for long, but he was surprised again as Naruto kept stride with him without batting an eye. "Yeah, it's a technique your pops developed while he was still studying under me. He called it the rasengan." Deciding that they had made good enough time so far, he stopped suddenly and turned to his godson. "It's a technique that requires no handseals, just pure chakra control. All you have to do, really, is gather a mass of chakra in your hand like so.." He held out his hand, palm up, and Naruto felt the surge of chakra before he saw it. Suspended above Jiraiya's palm was a sphere of pure chakra, tightly compressed and churning erratically. Turning towards the tree they had stopped by, Jiraiya slammed the sphere into the trunk, drilling a clean hole through until it dissipated. "As you can see, it's a brutal attack, though built more for head on confrontation than stealth assassination." With a grin, he turned back towards the way they were headed, looking over his shoulder. "See if you can figure it out for yourself. I'll give you a hint if you need it." Naruto did nothing but smirk as he and the older man ran off again. 'Well, this promises to be an interesting trip. But that ability.. Depending on how I mold it, it could have other purposes. I won't really know until I figure it out and break it apart.'

Konoha was quiet those two weeks. Though Naruto knew he would be leaving, he hadn't left a message behind for his friends. This led to a fairly amusing full scale search for the blonde the first day, encompassing Naruto's friends, Haku, Zabuza, and the Ichiraku family. Zabuza running through town in a panic was a sight to see, but to see the usually composed Haku doing much the same brought on hysterics. It wasn't until late in the night that Sarutobi surfaced from his mountain of paperwork for long enough to realize what was going on and call the lot of them in to calm them down.

The old man cleared his throat after taking a deep pull from his pipe, looking over the group standing before him. "What is this I hear about you all searching for Naruto and causing a general ruckus in town? Didn't he let you know he'd be off with Jiraiya for two weeks? Those two are going to retrieve a wandering Konoha kunoichi who should be able to help Lee-san. I'm sure that man just wanted to take Naruto along to train him." Tenten perked up at that news, having idolized the Sannin for as long as she could remember. "Wait, you mean the Toad Sage Jiraiya? If they would be finding anybody then, it would be the legendary Med-nin, Tsunade-sama! Oooh, he's so lucky, getting to meet two of the sannin like that!" Ino merely sighed, putting an arm around Hinata's shoulders. "Looks like he left us out of the loop yet again.." The dark haired girl giggled to herself. "Now, now Ino. He won't change over night. He's so used to his secrets that he just can't help himself sometimes. He is trying though." She then turned towards the former Kiri ninja with a smile. "Zabuza-san, Haku-chan, could Ino and I trouble you to help us train? Asuma-sensei is out doing a mission of his own, and Naruto is going to be away for a while. It would be nice to have somebody strong to train with, and it would be good to catch up. I don't think we've been able to talk much since Wave."

Zabuza grunted in response, turning around towards the door. "I've got a class of brats to teach during the day, but I'm sure Haku could help you out while I'm busy. If I have time, I'll probably show up and lend a hand. Besides, I've still got to get a feel for Namiken. Kid was right, she's like a whole different blade now that he's fixed her up." Haku shook her head as Zabuza walked out. "I don't know what it is with swordsmen and their blades.. Why must they have a gender when they refer to them?" She reached for her ANBU mask she had at her hip, painted to look like a snow leopard. "I have to run patrol tonight, and it's too late to train anyway. Why don't we just get together tomorrow? Training ground 15. The rest of you are more than welcome to join us if you like." With that, she fit the mask to her face and left through the window, fading into the dusk. Those still remaining filed out in ones and twos, heading for home or whatever other obligations they had that night.

The old hokage watched the group in amusement. One moment they were worried, searching for their friend whom they could always find when they wanted, the next they were in relieved exasperation that he would leave on an errand with one of the strongest ninja Konoha ever produced to find a legendary medic. "Naruto-kun, you have some wonderful friends.. Konoha is beginning to move against you though. I don't know how much longer I can hold their hate at bay." He sighed to himself, looking down at a document that was a request from the citizens to have Naruto exiled and wished, not for the first time, that he could burn such things with a glare.

It was the third night of their travels, and Jiraiya was surprised at the strength he had seen in Naruto during the trip, even if he hadn't done much to prove it. It was just that, what he hadn't done, that proved his strength. Not once had Naruto complained about a thing. In fact, it seemed that he thoroughly enjoyed the challenges that the older man set, raising the bar higher every day. As he mused about this, his eyes found the boy sitting cross legged dome distance away as if in meditation. To say he had been shocked about what the bandages covering the boy's right arm had hidden would be an understatement. He had been considering ways to teach Naruto to harness the demonic chakra of the Kyuubi, only to find that he already could grasp at its' powers and decided not to unless absolutely necessary. That self confidence was so endearing, and so very like Minato that he couldn't help but chuckle. His eyes began to droop as he gave in to sleep, his last thoughts about what they would do when they found Tsunade the next day.

Meanwhile, Naruto had been hearing whispers again. He was beginning to get used to the sensation of a new spirit calling to him, but it was always in a different way. Hearing a light snore behind him that signaled his traveling companion having fallen asleep, he stood and ventured into the darkness and towards the whispers. Away from the light of the campfire, he found himself in a clearing only lit by the stars above, the moon having waxed new. Suddenly, the whispers stopped and a figure stepped out of the bushes directly opposite from him. It is a surreal experience to see yourself, even more so when you see yourself in another form. Before him was a teen dressed in orange and black, his hair short and spiked. The whisker marks that adorned his cheeks were dark and wide, his canines and fingernails elongated, and his eyes blood red with slitted pupils. Ever cautious, Naruto held his hand to the hilt of his blade.

It was his double that spoke first, his voice recognizable, yet distorted, rough and gravelly. "Heh, looks like things have gone alright for you eh? Good to know something's gone right for us somewhere." Naruto blinked, caught slightly off guard. "Yes, I guess things have been good for me. There's just one thing I want to ask. What are you?" The other grinned at the question. "Me? I'm what you could have been under different conditions. Specifically, if you had never found that sword. Want the highlights? I'm on team seven with Sasuke and Sakura. Wave was a disaster that ended in the deaths of Zabuza and Haku. I thought I was in love with Sakura. Oh, and the fox wants to devour my soul. I'm not sure where you are, so I'm not gonna spoil any surprises for you." The doubles' grin changed into something feral as he reached back into his pouch, producing a handful of shuriken. "But I'm not here to talk, I'm here so you can show me your stuff!"

Naruto drew his blade as his doppleganger threw the shuriken, managing to either deflect or cut through the tiny stars. His blood began to boil as the challenge was presented. Fighting against himself would be a true test. Where he had a style of fighting, both armed and unarmed, he found his twin to be an unpredictable brawler who fought tooth and nail. The other whipped his right arm out to the side, retrieving a hidden kunai stashed up his sleeve before pressing the attack once more. Naruto was amazed at his clones' control of wind chakra as he imbued such an unresponsive tool with enough power to create a long wind blade much like Asuma did with his knives. Instinctively, Naruto did the same with his blade and the two clashed once more.

It would seem that Naruto was blessed with his unnatural stamina in any given reality if the one before him was anything to go by. The rasengan took so much control and chakra that any normal ninja would be worn out after two or three consecutive uses. This one used it like an expendable ninja tool although he did enlist the aid of a shadow clone to help form it. Naruto guessed that the reason for that was poor control due to the Kyuubi warring against his chakra rather than bolstering it like she did in his own body. He had just dodged the fifth such attack and the other showed no signs of tiring. In fact, the harder the two fought, the more excited and resourceful he seemed to become. If he saw that, he felt it more in himself and came to a realization. One that he shoved to the back of his head for now, this was an incredible test of his own strength, and he didn't want to waste it.

Now the match had dissolved into a taijutsu fight. Naruto was once again astounded at the lack of any true form or style in the attacks of his doppleganger as he slapped away what would have been a vicious claw strike to the face and retaliated with an attempt to plant his elbow into the others' ribs. The sheer feral ferocity of his opponent reminded him vaguely of his own Kido no Yasei. 'He must have absorbed more from his tenant than he realizes.'

The forest bore silent witness to their battle that night, each going toe to toe on a silent agreement to avoid using their augmented strengths. After hours, the two stood apart, winded but smiling. The sun was beginning to rise, casting a red glow across the sky above.

"You are strong, my shadow. As I grow stronger, so do you and vice versa." The other blinked a few times before breaking out in a wide grin. "So, you figured out what he wanted you to realize eh?" Naruto just chuckled. "Sometime in the middle of the fight actually, but I didn't want to say anything. I was having too much fun. I think most people are afraid of their shadows, thinking them to be evil, the dark side of themselves. What people fail to realize is that the darkness is not unholy. Every part of this world is blessed by the spirits, darkness included. Only the echoes of the world should be truly feared." The other nodded, holding his fist out. "Exactly. You and I are one and the same, even if we have traveled different paths. We will make our dreams a reality." With a grin, he dropped his hand back to his side, taking a relaxed pose. "Well, that's it for me here. Shadows can't stand under the light." As the sun crested the horizon, the other burst into black smoke which crept up Naruto's body and towards the gauntlet, forming a jet black stone in one of the indentations.

"Shade huh? That's four now. The tests will only get more difficult from here. I wonder just how long the other me has been fighting, he already had the rasengan mastered to such a degree." He held out his gauntleted hand palm up, imitating what he had seen himself do with a clone, sending the chakra swirling in every direction all at once to create the bright sphere. "At least I know how it's done now. Perhaps if I had the spirits add their power and adjusted it a little..." He mumbled his theory to himself as he trudged back into camp, finding Jiraiya awake and cooking a scant breakfast. The older man looked up with a grin. "Mornin' brat. You look like you've had a hell of a time. Been up training all night or what? You get the rasengan all figured out?"

Naruto sighed, slumping down onto the ground beside the fire. "Something like that actually. I've got it figured out, but it's actually doing it that I need to work out. After that, there's a theory that I want to.. to...." The world in front of him began to pitch and sway, its colors slowly bleeding away. Jiraiya noticed as Naruto began to black out completely, catching him before his head could hit the ground. "Hey, Naruto?! What's going on? Damn... this isn't good. I'm no medic. I've got to get him to Tsu-hime, she might know what's going on with him." Forgoing breakfast, and even leaving the fire to burn out rather than trying to disguise the fact that somebody had camped there, Jiraiya gathered Naruto's and his packs, threw them both into a storage scroll along with the blonde's sword. This he hid inside of his coat before he picked the boy up, infused the soles of his feet with chakra, and set off towards the village that Tsunade had last been seen in at high speed. 'Come on, Naruto, hang in there!'

Ino shivered in the middle of her meditation, an unusually cold wind for this time of year blowing by. It wasn't just that though. There was something that was making her feel uneasy, almost as if the world was shifting around her. Of course it had to all be in her head. Even so, she couldn't shake the feeling, and couldn't help but notice that her best friend and teammate had noticed something as well. 'Oh well.. Even if I'm not crazy, there's nothing I can do about it right now. I have to keep on my training, otherwise I'll fall behind. Naruto... you'd better not have gotten yourself in trouble when I can't be there to help you out of it..' Even more than just those two, most everybody who had a connection with the blonde felt the same chill run down their spines. Even the reserved Shikamaru or the proud Anko couldn't help but stop and wonder about the feeling. It was almost as if they were standing at the edge of a cliff, looking down into a deep fog, and knowing you had to jump.

Anko shook her head to clear the feeling. She had something that she wanted to know, still, and that meant infiltrating a tight group of friends. Even after she had spoken with Naruto, there were still things she couldn't quite read from his character, and, being the excellent kunoichi that she was, that irritated her to no end. She figured that the two girls on his squad would know him the best out of that group, and she was fairly confident that she would be able to gain their trust fairly easily, relative to the others. They weren't hard to find either. She and Haku had become fairly close recently, so she knew exactly where they would be training. There, sitting back to back, in the middle of training grounds 7, the two younger kunoichi were in deep meditation, working to increase their chakra control. Anko sauntered up to the both of them, sat down, and cleared her throat to get their attention. "Ahem, excuse me girls, I'm fillin' in for Haku-chan today. I've got quite a lot to teach the both of you." Hinata's and Ino's eyes shot open, and they shivered at the smirk Anko had on her face. This probably wouldn't end well for them.

"What's happening to me this time? The last time I felt this way, was when everything began. I feel so, so tired." Naruto was floating in the black between consciousness, aware of his own body, yet nothing else. Something inside of him was changing, his right arm was pulsing strangely. "Sleep now, my champion. You are doing well, but the tasks ahead of you require more than a human can cope with. Thus, for coming this far, I shall give you a gift. Seek the Jumi first, they can help you more than any other. The echoes are stirring, my champion, but I know you can drive back the shadows and bring about a new age of unity. The old world is not dead, but hidden away..." The pure, gentle voice that spoke to him was music to his ears. He hadn't heard the goddess speak to him since that first day. Trusting what he was told, Naruto drifted further into the black, his right arm pulsing ever stronger.

Tsunade was rubbing her temples, leaning against the wall of her hotel room while watching over the spiky haired blonde youth currently occupying her bed. She wanted a drink so bad right now, longing to drown the day in sweet alcohol, but knew that she couldn't right now. So much had happened that day, all starting with Jiraiya popping up out of nowhere while she was winning at a game of cards for once. As if that wasn't enough to remind her of a place she never wanted to return to, in his arms, he was carrying what looked exactly like a mini-Minato Namikaze, begging for her to treat him for... something. She had no clue what was even happening to the boy, but Jiraiya was an old teammate, and she owed him this small favor at least. Throughout her examination of the boy, Jiraiya explained everything to her, right up until the point where he had found her. "So, you're telling me that Minato's kid survived, and that story about the Kyuubi crushing the hospital with Kushina her little one in it, was a lie?" Jiraiya nodded sadly. "Yeah, that pretty much sums up the first part of his life. Tsu-hime, what's wrong with him? One thing I know, he's coming back from training himself, the next he collapses. I know this isn't a case of chakra exhaustion, not with his.. conditions."

Tsunade activated her diagnostic jutsu for the umpteenth time that hour, using it to look over the boy. "I don't know Jiraiya. This isn't like anything I've ever seen before. He's not dying, but his chakra pathways are slowing down. For lack of a better term, it's almost like they are crystallizing. The strangest thing is, it doesn't even seem to be hurting him. His mind is an a state of stasis while his body endures these changes." Dropping the jutsu, she breathed a deep sigh. "It almost seems to be finished though. I would guess that he'll wake up in an hour or so."

Contrary to what she had just said, the blonde teen stirred, groaned, and opened his eyes to see three older people in the same room as him. He saw one familiar face though, and grinned at Jiraiya. "Heh, sorry I passed out like that. Guess you found the person we were looking for, huh?" He tried to sit up, but was held down by Tsunade. "Don't you dare try to move yet, brat. I don't even know what the hell just happened to you, but I'm sure you aren't alright yet." Naruto merely shook his head and propped himself up, feeling just as strong as ever. "Don't worry about me, I'm pretty quick to get back on my feet. Something feels.. off though." Now that he made a careful evaluation of his own state, he found that his chakra felt like it was pushing to get out. Not at levels that he couldn't easily contain, but it was still an odd change. "Hey, let me up. I need to test something out. I have an odd feeling I'm going to have to relearn a few things." Grudgingly, Tsunade let Naruto stand, watching as the teen stretched his muscles experimentally. 'He's far too much like Kushina for him to not be her son. From that confident, relaxed attitude to the way he can bounce back from something that could have killed him without a care. Minato was like that as well..' Lost in her thoughts, Tsunade didn't notice as Naruto began to gather a swirling mass of chakra into his hand until it was already too late. The compressed ball became overexcited, and exploded outwards, sending everything in the room flying away, leaving a frowning Naruto.

"Damn, who knew it would be like this.. Before, I just had a lot of chakra to deal with, and that was fine. I had just recently brought my control to a peak. Now It wants to flow outwards rather than me having to draw it out. If I let it flow too quickly, or too much at a time, it seems that jutsu become.. explosive..." Naruto cupped his hand over his chin as he began to pace in the scattered room. Jiraiya was the first to recover from the shock of the explosion and was caught up in the pose Naruto had taken, and the way he began to mumble to himself. It reminded him so much of his old student that it brought tears to his eyes, at the same time bringing hysterical laughter. "Well now! It doesn't look like you've been all that adversely affected by what just happened to you. Sure, you've got to learn a whole new kind of control, but think about the gain! We'll work on that while we head back." He shook his head to clear his mirth before turning to the other blonde and the other woman in the room, a dark haired, slim figure named Shizune. "Tsunade, we both know that you want nothing to do with that village, but will you return with us? This kid has a friend who needs your expertise if he ever wants to continue his career. I wouldn't plan on staying for too long though. From everything Naruto has told me so far, it sounds like the village plans to move against him soon enough."

Tsunade shook her head, sighing. "You should know better than to ask me that. You know damn well the promise we both made to his parents before that whole mess with the Kyuubi started, and I'll be damned before I break a promise to that girl. I won't like it, but I will go." She turned to Shizune who was holding their pet pig so that it wouldn't get in the way. "Get our things ready, we only have a few days to get back to Konoha before Naruto has to participate in this tournament." Shizune hopped to her assigned duty while the blonde turned towards Naruto this time. "Look, it's not very likely that you'll be able to effectively use your jutsu by the time you need to fight again, but I'll do everything I can to help you figure this condition of yours out. I have a feeling it's not quite what we think it is. Try this.."

As the few days of travel back to Konoha went by, Tsunade found herself becoming more and more fond of the boy. Somehow, without even knowing his own parents, he had inherited their particular charms. From his father came an aura of calm leadership and incredible ingenuity, and his mother, a carefree, indomitable spirit. How he had stayed sane throughout his life, especially with the burden of the Sword on his shoulders, amazed her. Naruto progressed with incredible speed, coping with his new chakra condition almost as if it was natural to him. He explained it as not so much drawing what was needed from a well, but opening a floodgate to let just enough through. His jutsu were still hit-and-miss, fizzling or exploding more often than they actually worked, but he made a discovery that pleased him while honing his sword work.

After finally managing to create on of his sturdier clones successfully, Naruto set about practicing his blade work against himself. It all began when he tried to push Shade's chakra into the blade to see if the effect would be like that of Shikamaru's shadow binding jutsu. However, instead of changing the tendency of the blade like the other spirits had, next to nothing happened instead. He could feel that the blade was full, due to his new condition, it had happened quickly and easily, but not even so much as the color of Tsukihitsume's glow had changed. In the midst of his frustration, Naruto heard Shade's dark voice echo through his mind for the first time since their joining. "More.. Overflow.. Change.." Though little more than a vague suggestion, Naruto decided to give it a try. He had never attempted to overcharge his blade before for fear that the steel would react badly, but it was either that, or never make progress. With a silent apology to his sword, Naruto pushed as much of Shade's power through it as he could.

Naruto was surprised when tendrils of impossible black light wove themselves into his blade's pure glow, but even more shocked one he realized that he was holding a perfect replica of the blade in his other hand, entirely composed of some kind of shadow matter. "Your new power.. Condensed chakra.. Pure Mana.. To gather is unnecessary, merely let it flow." Naruto looked from one blade to the other, an idea already forming in his mind as a pseudo-sadistic smile graced his features. The clone he had summoned to train against began to back away, hands thrown up in front of its body defensively. "H-hey boss.. I know that look well enough. Let's not push things, kay? Nice and easy, yeah?" Naruto just grinned even wider, slipping into what he felt would be a suitable stance for using two blades. "Where's the fun in that? If you were in my place, you'd be thinking the same thing."

Jiraiya had been lounging in a nearby tree, watching the teen try to come to grips with his changes. He had been worried at first, of course. Naruto had to relearn just about everything again, just to pull off even the most basic techniques in his arsenal. He really should have known better though. It was astounding how well the blonde could roll with the punches, far too much like his father in that regard. Just when you thought he was down, he comes back even stronger. The white haired man took a break from his thoughts, bringing a hand up to his throat after having watched Naruto decapitate himself quite cleanly, and reasoned that it was probably a good thing. He did, after all, have a destiny to fulfill. Deciding to avoid interference, Jiraiya headed back to camp to see Tsunade had already prepared food for the group.

Tsunade had been alone with her thoughts most of the day, mulling over the events of the previous few days. It was almost like she had reclaimed a small amount of her former life with the return of Naruto. Though Jiraiya might have known his father quite well, it was Tsunade that knew his mother the best of the two. Naruto was a part of her friend that she had grieved for upon receiving the false information of their death. That was the precise reason she had never returned to Konoha, opting to remain affiliated, yet never having any plans of continued service, or even a visit to her old sensei for that matter. She had been mulling these thoughts over cooking, something she hadn't done in a long while, when Jiraiya returned to camp, an oddly happy smile on his face.

"What are you so happy about? Been peeping on Shizune already?" Some habits were hard to break. Even after years apart, she couldn't fight the reflex to call her old teammate out as a pervert. For his part, Jiraiya just shook his head. "Nah, nothing like that. I figure I'm going to give all that up now. I wasted all my time with those books when I could have been doing much more important things... I was just out watching him train himself into the ground. It seems like he's getting used to things again." He took a seat by the fire in the center of their campsite, staring into the flickering tongues. Tsunade's eyebrows lifted slightly at the news. "Already? It wasn't but five days ago that he changed, and he's already got a grasp on it? I thought it would be quick, especially with us working with him, but I didn't think he would even be stable by the time we got back to Konoha." Jiraiya grunted and tapped his right wrist, then his temple. "He's got more than just us working with him. Remember what he told us? He's constantly talking with the Kyuubi and the Spirits. No doubt they know more about what's happened to him than we will for a while. I bet you were surprised when he told you he had already figured out your technique for muscle enhancement though, eh? I didn't realize just how keen this kid is on his goal, but he's studied quite a lot."

"That's an understatement. I've been working my ass off since I picked the sword up. I've managed to work my way through the entirety of the public library and most of jii-san's personal collection. You'd be amazed what just one shadow clone can accomplish while you work on the physical aspects of training, let alone sending a score of them out." The two adults by the fire jumped slightly when Naruto's voice echoed out from around them. His form melted out from the shadows of the trees as he removed his two forefingers from his throat. "Glad that jutsu still works, I like it far too much to have to leave it behind. The spirit's abilities are also far easier to use this way. Shade's got a pretty tricky cloak technique. All it really requires is a shadow of the right size." Producing a travel bowl from somewhere within his cloths, Naruto served some of the meager stew Tsunade had cooked. "Ittadakimasu!"

Recovering from his surprise, Jiraiya grinned. "Back already? I thought you'd still be out mauling those helpless clones of yours for another few hours." Naruto shook his head, wiping his mouth with a napkin he had produced from wherever he had the bowl. "I wish. I'm faced with an interesting problem though. The spirits, Shade specifically, have told me that what I have is now pure mana. As far as I can tell, based on Tsunade's diagnosis, chakra is a lesser form of energy. When condensed, like mine has been, it becomes mana. The spirit abilities have become easier to use because they had me creating mana before. Now that I have an abundant supply, it's less trouble. However, now I have to figure out just how much I need to eek out to not overpower a jutsu. Otherwise, it blows up in my face, quite literally. It's just a matter of getting a feel for things at this point, but I'm going to have a severe handicap at the exams if I don't want to make my abilities known to the nations. That day will come soon enough."

Tsunade was now beginning to understand the complexities of Naruto's situation. At first, she had wondered why he would want to keep such power concealed and operate only to the parameters of the mission at hand, never doing more than a normal gennin should, when he could just as easily finish a brace of B-class missions on his own. That was, until she realized what Konoha would try to turn Naruto into. Their own personal tool of mass destruction. Of course, it would never happen, Naruto had an incredibly strong personality that would probably never be broken by any amount of conditioning, but it was the bureaucratic heat he was most trying to avoid. It wouldn't do for him to be tied up in red tape with goals like his. She lifted her eyes to look at the teen in front of her. "If that's the case, than shouldn't you try to concentrate on physical combat? By everything I've seen, I can tell that you like to be well rounded in a fight, but now is the time to put pride aside and concentrate on what you can do right now."

Naruto nodded, resting a hand on the hilt of his sword. "That's what I've been doing, and something I pulled in the preliminary tournament gave me an idea. I had shaped a spirit technique to fit the mold of a B-class jutsu, and while training, I have realized I can do a new trick with my blade. I won't say much more than that, you'll just have to see what I come up with." Conversation from that point gravitated instead to comfortable subjects like the changes of Konoha in the past few years, and old, amusing mission stories from Jiraiya and Tsunade.

Hinata had been sitting on the roof of the guard house, chatting amiably with Izumo and Kotetsu, who were, once again, stuck on guard duty. Her body ached all over from her training the past few days. Ever since Anko decided to poke her nose into things, Ino and Hinata endured an extra four to five hours of training a day. Not that they were complaining, the progress they had both made in that time was astounding and they really had nothing better to do with their other friends doing much the same and Naruto away on his retrieval mission. She knew he would be back today though, successful. He had yet to fail in anything he had set out to do, so why would this be any different?

Her sharp eyes spotted four specs on the horizon, steadily moving closer. Four didn't exactly fit the number that should be returning, but she activated her byakkugan just to be sure. What she saw startled her though. Naruto had always been brighter than anybody else due to his various chakra pathways unique to only him. When she looked at him now though, it was almost blinding, almost as if he had become a solid mass of chakra. She would definitely have to press him for information when she could, but that could wait. Standing, she blew a sharp whistle to Ino, who was currently occupied assuring an overconfident civilian that she was taken, and that her man could floor him without a second thought. Grateful for the distraction, she turned away, jumping up to her partner, and shielded her eyes from the sun. "Is that them? Looks like Naruto did what he set out to do."

Ino hopped back down to the ground, flashing a cute smile to the ninja who seemed perpetually shafted with guard duty. "Boys, it looks like our group has arrived. We'll be going out to greet them." Not caring enough to argue, both men simply nodded and motioned to the gate before resuming whatever conversation they had been having at the time. Ino hurried to catch up with Hinata who had headed off as soon as she told Ino who was coming.

Konoha in view, more so his forest, Naruto smiled. It was good to get away from the hassle of a town that scorned him, but it was home at the same time. All he loved was there. Speaking of that.. He sniffed the air with enhanced senses, yet another experiment with mana he found worked quite well. "Hinata and Ino.. Impatient girls. Looks like they saw us coming." Jiraiya shielded his eyes from the sun as he saw two figures moving towards them rather quickly. "The two girls on your team? A Hyuuga and a Yamanaka was it? Quite the spread of ability there." Naruto simply grunted in reply, stopping in his tracks in preparation for what he knew was coming. Not six seconds later, he caught a ball of deep blue and lavender that was Hinata, followed shortly by Ino, nearly knocking him off his feet. "What's this? I've only been gone for a few days you know." He tried, and failed, to keep his delight at seeing them, and his laughter at the situation, out of his voice.

Tsunade stood to the side with Shizune, watching the trio with a smile on her face. However, it wouldn't to to keep stalling like this. "Naruto, I can tell you'll be busy for the rest of the day. I'm going to head to the hospital and see what I can do about your friend. You just make sure you are ready for anything tomorrow. C'mon, you're coming along too." She grabbed a protesting Jiraiya by the shoulder, hauling him towards the heavy gates.

Hinata surfaced from Naruto's chest, her hands having found the pouch he carried the potent healing vials he concocted and taken two, passing the other to Ino. "We're just glad to see you. Anko's been running us ragged the last few days." At Naruto's look on concern, she shook her head, realizing she should have phrased that a little better. "She's been helping Ino and I train along with Haku-chan, but an extra four hours a day with her right after Haku is just.. tiring." With that, she popped the cork on the vial and downed the dark green liquid, shuddering at the taste, yet reveling in the feeling of her body knitting at an accelerated rate. Ino, who had finished hers earlier, chimed in. "It seems like she's pretty interested in you though. She hasn't said anything directly, but we know how to read into things well enough. All she's let slip is that she's grateful to you for something. She's most likely trying to earn your trust through us."

Naruto clicked his tongue in thought, then shook his head. "I wonder.. I can't really tell you about Anko, that would be an invasion of her privacy. Sorry." Hinata nodded, things like this were common enough with Naruto. He never was one to let secrets slip when they didn't need to, and she wasn't worried that it could be an intimate secret at all. That's not the kind of vibe she got from the older jounin. "Okay then, tell me this. What have you gone and done to yourself this time?" At this, Naruto winced, and Ino knew well enough to look as playfully cross as Hinata. "That will take a bit of explanation actually. We do have the time for it though, I suppose. My place for tea, and I'll spill?" That answer pleased the girls more than Naruto knew. He was finally starting to open up to them completely.

Hidden behind a strong Genjutsu, another figure had seen Naruto's return along with two legendary Konoha ninja. Absently, she toyed with her deep red locks, conflicted once more. "Damn it all.. I guess it really was too much to hope for that he wouldn't be around when everything started. He just happened to bring two Sannin with him as well! Nii-san.. I suppose this might bode well for me, actually. This might be my chance." Tayuya turned from the ridge she had been observing from, and made her way back to her 'team.'

Sakura sat in the stands of the grand Konoha Coliseum, face hidden in her hands. Even a month after the fact, she still couldn't get over how easily Ino had beaten her. It had been a trigger to her psyche, something her inner voice had latched onto and continued to flaunt, constantly shouting "I told you so!" The object of her desire, Sasuke, hadn't even spoken a word to her after her loss. 'Did he really think I was that weak, or is he just busy?' That line of thought brought back a vivid memory of the day their teams were assigned. "Why does Naruto get the two best kunoichi of our class on his team?!" Back then, she was just happy to be placed on a team with Sasuke. Quickly, painfully, she realized that he just viewed her as a body that was his grudging duty to protect while accomplishing their missions. Even Shikamaru, lazy and unmotivated, was leagues ahead of her. She was broken from her thoughts by the sound of crutches and somebody awkwardly settling into the seat beside her. She looked over to see Lee staring intently at the Coliseum floor. "Lee-san! Should you really be out of the hospital in your condition? You can barely move around, even with your crutches!"

Lee looked over, flashing his bright smile. "Oh, Sakura-chan! That is what the nurses had been telling me, but Naruto-san found an amazing doctor for me! He managed to pull the legendary Tsunade Senju out of retirement, at least for a little while. It was she that told me to come here." Sakura balked as she did whenever Naruto was mentioned, but kept her biting comments about the teen to herself. With reality as she knew it shattered, she was even beginning to see Naruto in a different light. "He went out and did that, huh? That's more than my own team would do for me if I was in your place." Lee frowned, an odd expression on his usually happy face. "I do not think that is true. I am sure both Sasuke-san and Shikamaru-san would go great lengths if your situation was like mine. However, if you do not mind my criticism, I believe you should take your duties as a teammate more seriously than you have been. It has been said, many times, that a kunoichi trained properly can be far more effective than a shinobi of equal ability. I believe Ino-chan and Hinata-chan are excellent examples of this." Spying Neji and Tenten a little further up the stairs, Lee stood up and hobbled towards them, offering Sakura a simple farewell. "Properly trained, huh? I definitely thought I fit the bill, but I guess not. I guess it's time I got my head out of the clouds and really started to work. But.. what should I do?"

Meanwhile, below the stands for the spectators, the challengers of the tournament waited for the rounds to be called. Just about everybody had arrived, aside from Gaara's brother, Kankuro. Naruto had a distinct feeling that this was on purpose though. From what he could see, Kankuro seemed wary, almost frightened of his brother during the prelims, so it would not be too far of a stretch to say he had forfeited early on to avoid the chance that he would have to go against Gaara. However, that was unimportant to the task at hand. He only needed to center himself at this point, and be ready for anything against Gaara.

Above the stands, two leaders of the ninja world sat side by side, awaiting the proceedings with mild anticipation. The old Hokage looked over towards his guest, the Kazekage, in mild thought. Something was off about the man, though he couldn't place it. Truth be told, he didn't know the man well enough to even tell if something was odd, but there was still that feeling. He always trusted those feelings. Ah, but now the crowd had gathered, and it was time to start. Standing up, he adopted a technique of Naruto's, enhancing his voice with chakra to make himself heard. "Welcome, citizens and nobles of the land of fire! Welcome, also, to our visiting dignitaries! Today we have several young, strong ninja to showcase today, so I hope you will all watch, and enjoy. Let the Chuunin selection tournament commence!"

Aaand cliffhanger. Well, there was quite a bit that happened there, and some of it may have not made as much sense as my brain thinks it does. Do let me know if I've any plot holes, or places that need clarification. I'll make sure to edit them up so it all works out. Until then, I really do like reviews. I really like constructive criticism as well. Feel like leaving either? Write a review!