Naruto lay panting on top of his bed, eyes wide and unfocused, his body drenched with a cold sweat. Mind frantic, he turned, the silent and uncaring hands of his alarm clock claiming the time as 3:16 in the morning.

A moment passed before the knowledge managed to penetrate the haze, and then he groaned. Stubbornly, Naruto turned over on his side, trying to reach back for that sense of calm, the peaceful bliss of sleep, but it was already too late. His mind just wouldn't calm or slow down… Not after that experience just now.

That dream again. He hated that dream! Not enough he'd had to live through that once already, oh no! No, his mind just had to keep replaying it, over and over and over again, every damned chance it got!

Worse, Naruto's wide-awake mind knew it wasn't really any less than he deserved. Not after what he'd tried to do. He might try to bury the memory sometimes, but it always turned out to be a very shallow grave, indeed. Lessons learned and paid for in blood never just went away like that, never lingered far from the surface.

Not all scars were physical. And they lingered just as long as the other kind.

With a muted grumble, Naruto threw off the bed covers from himself. Times like this, he knew trying to go back to sleep with his thoughts this wound-up was a lost cause. Worse, just trying to let the thoughts sit on their own, he knew from long, bitter experience, was all but an invitation for them to turn to… darker matters. There was no way he was going to let that happen, not if he could help it!

Well, he was wide awake now, anyway, no matter how damned early it was. No changing that fact. He might as well get ready for the day.

Maybe once that was done, he'd have some time left over to spend, trying to cipher through some more of Elric-san's manuscript.

Tenko no Renkinjutsushi

Two: See no Evil, Hear no Evil, Speak no Evil

Produced by Two Stupid Guys Who Really Just Should've Known Better

Naruto leaned back into his chair as he withdrew his mother's notebook from its locked drawer. Opening it to a particular page, he couldn't help but smile as he traced over a familiar and specific series of words. It was the first line of his favorite page: Kushina's joyful discovery that she was, in fact, pregnant. With him.

Then he frowned. There was also another passage there as well on that same page, a quote that never failed to sour Naruto's mood, no matter how many times he read it.

'No one can gain anything without sacrifice. To obtain, something of equal value must be lost.'

Naruto felt a twinge in his right shoulder in response to that line, a phantom pain he knew he wouldn't ever be able to forget. How could he, after what he'd felt and experienced? Semiconsciously, his hand reached up to grip it, just below the junction where shoulder met neck.

Equivalent Exchange, the founding principle upon which all of alchemy was built. It was simply not possible for anyone, even an alchemist, to create something literally from nothing. Everything had a price, whether it was in the form of money, or materials, or labor, or even time.

Naruto squeezed hard on his shoulder, trying to choke off that worsening ache until, finally, it did indeed begin to subside. Yes, he knew, only too well, how mixed a blessing Equivalent Exchange could be. Alchemy might truly seem to make the impossible possible, but there were just some things in life that did not… could not… have an equivalent to pay for it.

No, some things in life just couldn't be replaced, no matter how much you might wish they could be. Time… Nature… the World… just didn't work that way, and never would. Anyone who wanted to argue that, might as well just be inviting a rebound to come down upon them.

Now Naruto gave a sardonic, self-depreciating little smile. Yeah, he knew rebounds, too, alright. Those weren't much fun, either.

Perhaps Naruto's most… memorable… incident – at least besides the one he had just been forced to relive this night – had involved trying to create a sofa for his apartment, using transmutation as a considerable shortcut. However, without either the proper materials with which to build such furniture, or even the knowledge of how

Well, to put it simply, it had been a disaster. The results had been anything but pretty. Or comfortable. Or fit for human habitation. Or even perception, for that matter! Angles like that were not supposed to exist in only three dimensions, dammit!

It had taken a C-ranked mission, of all things, to destroy the… thing he had created. (Naruto steadfastly refused to call it a couch.) And worth every ryō he had had to scrape up to commission it, in Naruto's considerably less than humble opinion. He still had to repress a shudder, every time he thought of that… thing.

(Rumors even had it that Morino Ibiki actually kept a picture of the thing on him at all times, just in case he ever had to deal with an especially difficult interrogation. Naruto had long decided he was better off not knowing.)

Nowadays, Naruto simply repaired damaged but preexisting furniture. Safer that way.

Clapping Kushina's journal gently shut, he swapped it out for the other, more ancient manuscript, as well as a pencil and his own notes. Immediately he skipped ahead to a page close to the end, where the considerably more difficult code was in use. While he hadn't completely cracked all of the earlier codes used in the book, per se, he had made significantly more headway into those than into this current patch of writing; Naruto was convinced that any kind of progress made in this area, would in turn net him some of the remaining pieces of the puzzle needed for those previous codes. Where better to hide a tree, after all, than a forest?

Naruto stopped, blinking, then chuckled at his own unintended joke. Quickly, he returned his attentions to the ancient text before him, jotting down certain lines, highlighting letters, underlining others, reorganizing and rearranging them.

Some hours later, Naruto sighed, physically and now mentally tired, but victorious. It had been a fierce struggle – wresting these secrets from its ink-borne, coded guardian always was – but he had succeeded. A new piece of knowledge was now his for the taking. Now all he needed to do now was to translate it. With a carnivorous grin that grew ever more vicious with each passing moment, he finished.

Then blinked in confusion, leaning forward in his chair to stare at the letters on the page: "Homunculus."

Oh, he knew what the word meant, certainly. A diminutive form of the older term "homo", or human. A little man, in other words – a dwarf, a manikin, a midget. But what was a word like that doing here?

Cautiously, Naruto flipped back through his trail of notes, checking each of the steps in turn to see where he might have made a mistake. But no, everything seemed to check out alright… so yeah, "homunculus" was indeed correct. He blinked; seriously, what the hell?

Naruto closed the book and held it up in front of his face, as if accusing it of lying to him. But after a moment, he subsided. "This just keeps getting weirder and weirder," he muttered, before sliding the book back into its drawer.

First that one term from the other day, "philosophy stone" or whatever it was. And now this. No previous mention in any earlier part of the text, no advance warning… Just straight out of the middle of nowhere.

Naruto leaned back into his chair, taking a moment to simply sit and think. What in Benzaiten's name had he uncovered here? It very clearly had to be big: to be hidden beneath this many layers of code meant without a doubt that it had to be important, or else Elric-san wouldn't have bothered with all this secrecy. Was this "Homunculus" thing dangerous? Or maybe… something more?

That thought put a frown on Naruto's face. The twelve-year-old prodigy knew, and freely admitted, he wouldn't have made even a fraction of the progress he had now, if not for his mother's already pre-existing notes. His mother made have destroyed the only existing copies of the cipher's various encryption keys, but she had also managed to remember most of them as well, simply reprinting and concealing them inside of her own notes.

And without those notes to guide him, Naruto strongly suspected it would have probably taken him close to a decade, give or take a few years, even just to reach the roughly halfway point he was at now, much less the entire book!

Kushina had also never managed to finish recovering much of the information she had learned from Edward's journal, either, mainly due to the increasing complexity of the later portions of code. Her own knowledge had actually realistically been enough to account for close to 70% of the text; however, actually decoding it to where the results were actually legible to anyone else had been another matter altogether. The woman had only been able to fully decode maybe half of that amount – roughly a third of the entire text – before she had unfortunately passed away, giving birth to her first and only child. Naruto himself had built on that success, not only finishing his mother's translation but also going on to unlock most of the rest of the text. He actually hadn't decoded all of it fully, himself, and the tail end of the manuscript was still incompletely illegible even to him, but optimistically he believed that he only had maybe one or two layers of code left to go. It was only a matter of time.

But the process was time-consuming, more than anything. The way that the text was arranged, it wasn't possible to just decode only one paragraph or section of a particular page; no, the entire page had to be decoded, all at once. And that took whole hours, especially towards the end with layered codes.

It also helped even less that Elric-san's book had been written in another language altogether, one completely foreign to any languages the Elemental Countries currently or had once possessed. That one fact colored everything else about the decoding process. The original, un-coded data, every iteration after the code had been applied… Without full or nearly full fluency in that language, making any kind of sense out of the information just wouldn't be possible.

Luckily, the ancient Uzumakis had been dealing with that fact for generations, and had been training their members to understand and speak that language for just as long. Kushina might not have been around in person to help teach her son, but she had secreted away copies of her clan's instructional manuals with her, when she had fled the destruction of her homeland. Her notes, which Naruto has decoded, had contained the directions he needed to locate those scrolls where she had hidden them. Scrolls to learn that other language; scrolls to detail the process the Uzumakis had used to train themselves, both physically and mentally; even Elric-san's manuscript itself had been included in that veritable treasure trove of knowledge Naruto had uncovered.

That had been when he had decided. Naruto would follow in his mother's footsteps. As long as it took, he would show the world the power that alchemy could give to it.

As long as it took… Naruto leaned back in his chair, face tilting over to look at the clock. Seven thirty-six. Just a bit under an hour now before he had to go to class.

Smiling, he once again drew forth his mother's diary. Her notes it might hold, but it was also still very much her diary as well. Wordlessly he flipped back to his favorite page, a frown briefly crossing his face as he once again came face-to-face with his least favorite passage. Why, oh why did his mom have to put that line on the same page as her most joyful discovery?!

The phantom ache came again, but Naruto was no longer in the mood to indulge it. Ruthlessly he suppressed the urge to feel it, forcing the sensation out of his mind through sheer gritted willpower.

He made to close the book again, but then something in the wording there caught his eye. Something… a pattern, hidden inside the phrasing for Equivalent Exchange. It wasn't really noticeable at first glance, but his sleep-deprived couldn't help but berate himself for not seeing it sooner – for crying out loud, he'd read that page almost every damned day!

Despite the time, Naruto quickly pulled out another piece of paper and a pencil and began the process.

Even as Naruto leaped across the rooftops, the words he had uncovered echoed darkly throughout his head: "Terrible Knowledge." Background noise for the most part in his mother's notes, the only place it had ever even shown up in writing had been that one passage. Except that now that he had uncovered it, looking back through the rest of her notes, he could see just how thoroughly it had colored the rest of her text.

There was more – had been more – but by then the time had caught up with him, and Naruto had had to rush, sprinting off to get to class.

Sliding the door open, Naruto discovered he had to duck a thrown eraser aimed at his head. Iruka's voice was shouting, "You're late, Naruto! Get in your seat before I decide to give you and the rest of the class another pop quiz!"

The angry glares of his classmates were incentive enough to all but teleport into an open seat. It was next to Shikamaru, but Naruto ignored the lazy and near-comatose Nara in favor of keeping an eye on the teacher in front. This was, after all, the day he would become a genin.

Finally, another step closer to fulfilling his dream!

"Alright," Iruka began. Everyone stood on the edge of the seats, knowing they would make or break their ninja career here. "As you all know, today is the genin exam. After today, you may or may not become an official shinobi, but either way, I'm proud of you." He cleared his throat, and picked up a stack of papers off his desk. "We'll be starting with a written test."

Naruto grinned. Written tests stood no chance against him. This was going to be easy.

All was going well. Naruto admitted he could have done better in the taijutsu test, but he wasn't worried. The price to pay for learning only off of family scrolls, honestly – he knew the routine, it was just his sense of timing that needed improvement. Once he was a genin, he'd have plenty of time for that.

The written test was a no-brainer. As an alchemist – more notably, as one who'd gone through what he had – academics was beyond second nature for him. The only question there was whether Sakura would be able to edge out ahead of him or not; that was always a coin-toss. As far as he was concerned, he was home free.

At least until…

"Alright, time for the final part of the test," Iruka began. Everyone turned their sights to him. "For this part of the exam, we will be testing Bunshin no Jutsu."

The sound of Naruto's forehead colliding with his desk was audible across the room. That garnered a few stares, but those students quickly returned their sights to Iruka, unwilling to miss anything that might screw up their chances.

Kill me! Kill me now! the blond screamed out silently.

His single worst jutsu. And it got him every time. Why did Iruka-sensei have to choose the most useless, most irritating jutsu in the world in order to test him with?!

The wait alone was agonizing. The walk wasn't much better: it almost would have been fitting for some kind of funeral dirge or death march to playing in the background as Naruto waited for his turn. Maybe Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, the boy's treacherous and wandering mind mused, just before the rest of him stamped down mercilessly on the thought.

Naruto gulped as he looked towards Mizuki and Iruka. The latter had an expectant look about him, the former a patient smile. It was an effort on Naruto's part, not to sweat buckets.

"You'll need at least three Bunshin to pass," Iruka laid out. "Begin whenever you're ready."

Naruto chose not to speak as he all but slammed his hands together into the ram seal. He could feel his chakra swirling around him as he called it up, the air around him taking on a life of its own. Please oh please, let this work, he pleaded silently.

"Bunshin no Jutsu!" he yelled, and promptly disappeared in a cloud of smoke.

Iruka and Mizuki leaned forward in anticipation. Naruto was the first to reappear, grinning as if he just won a lottery. But then the smoke cleared, revealing his creation for all to see: a sickly, almost dead-looking clone, collapsed on the floor next to him. With a face of horror, Naruto turned back to his teachers, watching as Iruka closed his eyes and sighed.

"I'm sorry, Naruto," the man said disappointedly. "I can't pass you."

"But…" Naruto wanted to say something, but whatever words he could've said were out of his reach.

Iruka shook his head. This was going to be one of those times where he was going to have to act as a shinobi, rather than a teacher. Naruto's safety demanded it.

"Naruto, you were required to create three functioning clones. Three," the chūnin went on, doing his level best to keep his emotions out of his voice. "And the only one you did create is clearly unfit for battle. I cannot in good conscience pass you."

He was interrupted as Mizuki chose that moment to speak up; Naruto perked up, a bit of hope. "But he still managed to create a clone. Wouldn't his other test scores be able to compensate? I mean, his are among the highest in class."

But then Naruto's hopes were dashed as Iruka spoke up again. "I'm afraid it's not possible. As good as his test scores are, his Taijutsu grade is still below normal. Even with the two other grades, they just aren't enough overall to give him a passing grade. It can't be helped." Iruka finally allowed the sorrow within him to appear. "I'm sorry, Naruto. I really am."

As children were greeted by parents, celebrating their success or joining in them lamenting their failures, Naruto sat mournfully on a swing. He didn't even bother hiding his emotions, that was how crushed he was. At one point, he heard the parents whispering about him, about his… issues. There wasn't anything he could do about that, he knew. People were stupid; they never understood anything, never broke anything down into its most basic components and tried to understand it.

He couldn't get mad at Iruka-sensei; his teacher had just had to act like a shinobi then. Naruto knew full well that Iruka cared about him, and was just doing what he thought was best for his safety. Dying on the battlefield because a jutsu had failed was something neither of them wanted. But it still hurt, nonetheless.

What now? Where could he go from here?

"I'm sorry, Mom," Naruto sniffled, trying as hard as he could to keep from crying. Only the act of hanging his head forward let him hide the tears from the villagers around him as he scrubbed at his eyes with a sleeve.

He hated being vulnerable. Shinobi Rule #25 be damned, it just wasn't possible to keep an emotion as strong as this bottled up! But dammit, those self-righteous, hypocrite villagers didn't deserve the satisfaction of seeing them get to him, either!

"Sorry about the test," a voice interrupted.

Naruto's head jerked back up, his cheeks thankfully dry for the moment. In front of him he saw Mizuki wearing a friendly, if saddened-looking smile. Naruto grimaced at him.

"You know he cares about you, right?" Mizuki went on, taking a seat on the swing next to his student. "He's just looking out for you."

It wasn't very often someone outside of Iruka had conversation with Naruto. His emotional balance already off, he decided to humor the man. "Yeah, I know." Inwardly he winced, it sounded more offhand than he had intended.

Mizuki smirked, but quickly hid the expression beneath a caring smile. Now was the time to make his move. "You know, there is another way to pass the test… But I'm not sure you'd be up to it. I mean… Iruka wasn't sure you'd be able to handle it."

Naruto turned to the man, blue eyes suspicious. Something wasn't right about this, something in this conversation was making him feel uneasy. But at the same time, the desire to be like his mother and for her to be proud of him was overpowering. For all the knowledge held in him, forbidden and otherwise, Naruto had disregarded common sense on more than one occasion. Despite all the circumstances in his life, Naruto was still young and naïve – foolish, even, some might say.

In that one instant, for the sake of joining Renbu… his mother's Renbu… Naruto went against everything he knew, desperation and hope mixing violently in his being. He would lend an ear to this man.

"Iruka-sensei thought I couldn't do it?"

There was a bit of betrayal in his voice, but the boy reminded himself that Iruka often tended to be a mother-hen sometimes. Maybe Mizuki-sensei really was on the level.

Mizuki held a hand up to his chin. "Well… it is a difficult test, after all," he drawled, drawing out the sentence just to rub salt on Naruto's emotional wound. "It's not something we'd just let any genin take – just the ones with potential. Iruka did say Sasuke might be able to pass it." The rivalry between the two would-be genin wasn't exactly a secret, after all. "But I didn't agree with him. I saw potential in you."

Okay, now that was just below the belt! They thought Sasuke could pass it, but not him? Screw common sense, he was all over this stupid test now! His skills were among the best of his entire generation, thanks to his alchemy – one-upping that broody emo-bastard was going to be simplicity itself!

"What am I supposed to do?" Naruto asked shortly, eyes burning with determination.

Mizuki had to suppress the smirk that threatened to blossom on his face. Perfect! "Alright, here's what you need to do…"

"You wanted to see me, Hokage-sama?" Iruka asked as he took a seat across his superior.

Sarutobi nodded as he carefully poured tea into two cups before him. "I was curious as to this year's latest batch of students," the Hokage answered as he handed one to Iruka.

Iruka, for his own part, answered without hesitation. "This year's class is one of the finest yet, if I do say so myself," he said, a notable amount of pride in his voice.

Sarutobi nodded again, smiling. "There are a lot of children from the clans of Konoha in this year, it must be an outstanding class. Not to mention that Uchiha Sasuke was present in this class. There is a good reason why many eyes are on them."

Iruka blushed at the implied praise. "Thank you, Hokage-sama."

"But what of Naruto?"

Iruka's good mood evaporated at the mention of the blond. The teacher demurely put down his cup of tea, suddenly no longer thirsty.

"He didn't pass, Hokage-sama," he told his commander sullenly. "I was tempted to claim his other grades made up for his failed Bunshin no Jutsu, but…"

"It's alright," Sarutobi replied, refilling his cup. "You did what you had to do, what needed to be done. Indeed, his alchemy does easily make up for much of his lacking skills. Not only that, but he truly is a bright and capable boy. But he still needs to meet the minimum requirements; it is never wise to send an incapable shinobi out onto the battlefield."

The silence after that went on for too long for Iruka's sense of comfort, however, there really wasn't anything to say. He had failed Naruto for the boy's own sake – the Hokage was correct, an only half-trained shinobi on the battlefield would be a liability at best, a danger to his comrades at worst. But all the same, Iruka still wasn't sure if his decision was the right one, even with the Hokage's reasoning.

Sarutobi finished sipping his tea, taking on a sagely face. "Tell me, Iruka. Why do you think Naruto acts the way he does?"

Iruka nodded. "He's lonely. He wants attention."

He himself could vouch for that. He had been the same as Naruto in his youth, wanting attention merely for the sake of attention. So that people would acknowledge that he existed, that he was real. There was nothing that could ever compare to the pain of loneliness, the nightmare of being alone. Unloved.

"Do you know why he learned alchemy?" the Sandaime questioned, interrupting Iruka's thoughts.

Iruka took a moment to think about it. "Isn't it because of his mother?"

Sarutobi sighed, though not unkindly. "I'm surprised he told you that. Not too many people know that detail."

"Naruto told me about her once," Iruka recalled, remembering a conversation he had had with his student over ramen. "He really looks up to her."

Sarutobi closed his eyes. "To a child, Mother is God. Maybe that was why he took up alchemy at such a young age."

Naruto leapt across the rooftops like a fox fleeing before a pack of greyhounds. He had to get away before anyone could tell he had gone. Bad enough already the Hokage had caught him in the act!

He grinned, though, as the memory of his escape flitted through his mind. That old fart was probably still unconscious, out cold after a nosebleed of that magnitude. No man alive was immune to his Oiroke no Jutsu!

Slung across his back was the enormous Scroll of Seals, filled to the brim with powerful seals and other dangerous kinjutsu.

Just as Mizuki-sensei had told him, he had taken the scroll and was now leaping and sprinting toward a quiet place somewhere where he could train uninterrupted. Part 2 of this test was to learn one of the techniques on the scroll. Naruto grinned, this was the part he was looking forward to.

With one final large leap, Naruto cleared the rooftops of Konoha and hurled bodily the open gates of the village, entering into the forest. Roof tiles gave way to leafy branches, chimneys replaced by the trunks of trees. Every several minutes, Naruto made sure to look back behind him, making sure nobody was following.

Search and retrieval. If he were to be stopped now, it was game over. Mizuki-sensei had made that point very clear.

Only after his arrival in the intended clearing near an abandoned house did Naruto finally allow himself to relax and plop down on the ground, panting and sweating. Unless someone had actually managed to follow him – which he was sure hadn't happened – then there was no way possible for them to track him, not without running around in circles for hours or else getting lost on the false trails he had laid down.

Unhitching the scroll from his back, Naruto unfurled it to the first jutsu on the list and read off the name title.

"Tajū Kage Bunshin no J… Oh, you gotta be kidding me!" he groaned.

It had already been several hours now since the disappearance of both Naruto and the scroll, and Iruka was seriously starting to worry. Something deeper had to be hiding underneath the surface of this whole fiasco, he just knew it. This whole situation was just capital-S Stupid, and if there was one thing he knew without a doubt that Naruto wasn't, it was stupid. The boy might not have had much common sense, true, but never in a million years would he have ever risked everything he had worked toward, for something like this. Naruto had to have been manipulated, that was the only possible explanation!

"Dammit!" the chūnin cursed, one of the few times he actually allowed himself to say a dirty word.

He stopped on a large branch. Taking a deep breath and trying to think, Iruka immediately ran over his list of places he thought Naruto might have run off to.

Anything inside the village walls was out, automatically. A situation this big, everyone – and Iruka meant everyone – would be tearing the village apart, splinter by splinter, looking for him. The forest was the only other place he could be; as an Academy student, Naruto hadn't been to any other places outside of the village that he would know well enough to flee to.

Not only that, but the boy was notorious… nay, infamous… for using the lay of the land in his escapes. As an orphan, as a prankster, and more than that, as the hated "demon-brat", Naruto understood the layout and back-alleys of Konoha, better than many seasoned and veteran shinobi three times his age; his ability to seemingly disappear inside of an alley that others would swear led nowhere was nigh-legendary, especially among the ANBU.

Iruka's own reputation for being the only capable of consistently catching him, was in no small part thanks to his own past as a successful prankster. Anything was preferable to having to go home to an empty house, with no parents there to welcome you; compared to the almost crushing loneliness that would bring, exploring the village seemed much more lively and fun.

Realization and inspiration both struck Iruka just then, as he snapped his fingers. The old, empty shack in the forest! That's where he had to be! Iruka turned and leapt away towards that location, his body suddenly humming with an energy as if he had just eaten a solider pill.

Iruka was about the only person other than Naruto who even knew of the existence of that dilapidated wreck of a house. He had been lucky enough to track the boy there once, after a prank he had managed to pull on the entire Hyūga clan as a whole. Iruka wasn't 100% sure all of the details, but apparently one of the elder members of the Hyūga Main Family had somehow managed to piss the boy off quite severely. (Not that that was any real accomplishment, Iruka mused in the privacy of his own thoughts; those crusty old fossils had a tendency to get on everyone's nerves!)

Of course, being the vindictive little prankster that he'd been at the time, the nine-year-old Naruto had decided to punish the entire Hyūga clan as a whole for the actions of one of their so-called "leaders". Most of the finer details afterward had apparently been classified for the sake of village security, but from what Iruka knew, Naruto had transmuted a cache of what had apparently been some of the most potent stink bombs in all of Konoha's history, if not the entire shinobi world itself. Then with his own natural skills at stealth – which, considering the boy's penchant for wearing bright orange clothing, was actually far greater than anyone ever gave him credit for – Naruto had successfully infiltrated the compound, a feat many would consider impossible, especially the Hyūga themselves, and planted the bombs in various strategic locations, including the training grounds, dining areas, and especially the Main Family's quarters.

The only ones who managed to escape the effects, were the ones who hadn't even been there at all when the bombs went off. Predominantly, that had been the clan head and his daughters, who had been away at the capital for some kind of political meeting, and a few scattered members of the Branch Family who had been out on missions at the time. No one else in the clan had been spared.

However, when the bombs had gone off, Naruto himself had discovered just how much even he had underestimated his own creations. Instead of merely the Hyūga compound alone falling victim, all of Konoha itself had experienced the extreme, rotten-egg stench of the ammonia-based compounds. In that one lone instant, Naruto became the only person on record, ever to singlehandedly defeat both the Hyūga and Inuzuka clans, without even so much as having to lift a finger. Not intentionally, obviously, but it was a record that still had yet to be beat.

A wry smile crossed Iruka's face at that. Some of the Inuzukas' hounds never fully recovered from that debacle. Luckily, the clan leader Tsume and her partner Kuromaru had at least been willing to forgive and forget, thankfully writing it off simply as a prank that had worked too well, more amused by the Hyūga's comeuppance than annoyed at being caught in the fallout.

Good memories like that were what people lived for. Iruka himself had laughed alongside Naruto in the end, despite the amount of trouble the boy had gotten into afterward. Even the blond himself had fallen victim to his own miscalculation, and had reeked almost as badly as his Hyūga victims.

Maybe that had been when they had established their friendship.

Iruka shifted out of his reverie as he came in sight of the house. Coming to a light landing on a branch just above the clearing in front, Iruka peered down to look. Sure enough, there was Naruto, laying on the ground with both hands tucked behind the back of his head. Next to him lay a massive scroll, rolled up and resting against his side.

Suddenly Iruka smirked. The element of surprise should still be his. As stealthily as he could, Iruka began to sneak towards the boy, hoping to surprise him. When he was close enough, that smirk turned into an evil grin, and he opened his mouth to shout. Only to have the words catch in his throat as Naruto opened one eye and grinned at him from below.

"You stink, you know that, right?"

"Why you little..." Iruka couldn't think of anything to say. Instead, he chose to mock-stomp a foot onto Naruto's face, the boy grasping his nose in pain as he shot up.

"What was that for?!" Naruto shouted nasally.

"For being an idiot!" Iruka shot back. He turned serious at the sight of the scroll. "If this is another one of your stupid pranks, it's not funny!"

"Huh? What are you talking about?" Naruto blinked, face guileless. Iruka suddenly realized that if the boy was actually faking it, then it was a much better job of acting than anything he had ever seen before.

Iruka shook his head, finding solace for now in the role of the outraged teacher. "That's called the Scroll of Seals for a reason, Naruto! It holds any countless number of dangerous kinjutsu that could be used against our own village. Do you have any idea what you've done?"

Naruto's eyes shot open wide. "But… I thought…" He paused, Iruka eyeing him carefully. "Mizuki-sensei said he had a test, that if I could learn a technique from the scroll, then he'd let me pass and I could be a genin! I even learned a technique already!"

"You—" Amazed and blinking, Iruka only now noticed. Naruto's entire appearance – face, hair, clothes – all were scuffed up and dirty, as if the boy had just come out of a brawl, or else maybe rolled around in a thorn bush. "You actually learned a technique from there?"

Now he was even more amazed. It had only been, what? Three, maybe four hours now, since the Hokage claimed the scroll had been taken? Sure, Naruto was considered a genius, yes… but learning a jutsu – any jutsu – in so short an amount of time? Especially a kinjutsu from the Scroll?

The blond grinned impishly as he rubbed at the back of his neck and head. "What? You thought I'd just been laying here for the past few hours?"

Iruka blinked, shaking his head to clear it of the mental cobwebs. Even now after all this time, Naruto continued to amaze him. He couldn't help but to feel some pride in his student, despite the fact that Naruto was now in more trouble than he had ever been in his life.

Naruto's smile quickly became a frown. "But man, do I feel stupid. You honestly didn't know anything about Mizuki-sensei's test?"

But before Iruka could say anything, Naruto's eyes widened. Without warning, he slapped his hands together and turned, slamming them against the ground. Actinic light flared, and the earth itself in front of them surged upward, forming a wall.

Not a second later, there were the sounds of multiple impacts. Tips of kunai were jutted out through the wall Naruto had just formed, embedded so deeply they poked through to the other side. It was obvious that they had been aimed at the two of them. Both Chūnin and Academy student leaped out from behind their defense, just as the wall itself crumbled, its power spent. They looked toward the source of the kunai, to find none other than Mizuki sneering down as he crouched lazily down atop a thick upper branch.

"You bastard! You lied to me!" yelled Naruto.

"When Naruto mentioned your name," Iruka's gaze glared holes into the silver-haired chūnin, "it was pretty obvious you were the one behind it!"

Mizuki's leer widened, shaking his head smugly. "Hey, don't blame me! Blame the damned demon brat!" Naruto flinched. "He was the one stupid enough to fall for it!"

Naruto's face fell, an expression of pained embarrassment crossing it. "Dammit, I'm such an idiot! I knew this was just too good to be true! Should've listened when my gut was telling me something wasn't adding up!"

"Hah… Just goes to show you how desperate you were, to have actually believed what I said!" Mizuki laughed, just to try and rub more salt into the wound.

Naruto's face jerked up, anger clear and bright in those blue eyes. Had Mizuki been closer, he might have seen his pupils narrow into slits, yet without losing their cerulean color.

"Mizuki, for you to do this…" Iruka growled, but couldn't go on, unable to put his disgust in words.

"Oh, and it gets better!" Mizuki sneered, before he turned his attention back to Naruto. "Hey, kid, wanna know a secret? Everybody else knows it but you."

Naruto's face morphed into a cross between intrigue and impatience. This bastard was really starting to get on his nerves. But at the same time, he couldn't help his curiosity. There was a secret everyone else knew except him? He had to hear this!

But Iruka cut in before Naruto could voice his opinion, "No! Don't you dare, Mizuki! You'll be breaking the Hokage's law!"

Mizuki scoffed, and grinned once again at the blond. "You see, kid? Even now, no one wants you to know."

Iruka turned desperately to Naruto. "Naruto, don't listen to him!"

Naruto calmly and briefly turned to Iruka, only to turn his attention back to Mizuki. Despite his closeness to Iruka, Naruto was listening to his peaking curiosity. What did everybody but him know?

"What is it?" Naruto asked, surprisingly calm.

"NO! DON'T!" Iruka tried futilely to order.

Mizuki's grin revealed far too many teeth to be in any way innocent as he straightened himself and pulled a Fūma shuriken from its sling across his back. "What they don't want you to know… is that you are the Nine-tailed Demon Fox! The same demon that killed Iruka's parents!"

Naruto stared at Mizuki, blinking and unresponsive. He wasn't stunned, however, his eyes remained too clear for that. The traitor chūnin's eyebrows knit together; this wasn't going at all how he had envisioned it! Where was the 'No, that can't be true!' or the 'You're lying!'? Where was the emotional breakdown he wanted to see?! Bishamonten aid him, he wanted to kill the damned demon-brat while it was laying on its knees, begging, praying that it wasn't true, that all of this was nothing more than some bad dream!

Iruka, too, was strangely wary. Why wasn't Naruto reacting to this? Had he gone into shock? He himself wanted desperately to tell the boy that he didn't believe he was the Demon Fox, that he didn't blame him for what happened, but for whatever reasons, the words just seemed to get stuck in his throat. All he could do now was to stare at the blond, waiting for something to happen and hoping that that something wouldn't be bad.

What did happen, neither of them expected. Naruto's head was bowed, so they couldn't see his eyes, but the edge of his mouth twisted into a little smirk as a faint chuckle began to roll out of his mouth. Then it got louder, and stronger; the chuckle became audible, then turned into laughter.

Then finally, he just couldn't hold it in any longer. Naruto threw his head back and full-out roared out laughing, hands clutching the sides of his face. For a second, even Iruka thought Mizuki might have been right; that wasn't the laughter of someone reacting to a good joke.

…Or maybe it was, rather. That laughter was empty, hollow, full of mocking. That was the sound of someone laughing at the expense of others, as though they themselves were the joke. In his darker times, Iruka had sometimes even believed that that might be how the Kyūbi would have laughed, had it been human as it had attacked the village.

After another minute, the laughter began to run out, and Naruto leaned back forward again. But Iruka could see, that wasn't mirth across his face. There was mocking there, yes, but not mirth. It was the face of someone who'd laughed, only to keep from crying – indeed, bitter tears were running down the boy's whisker-marked face. But whether they stood for joy, sorrow, or… whatever, Iruka didn't know.

Mizuki shifted uncomfortably. Sweat noticeably rolled down his face. This had to be the Kyūbi. It was the only explanation he had for that laughter just now. It had finally dropped the Naruto act and was now out for revenge.

"Oh, thanks, I really needed that," Naruto noted with some degree of sarcasm, stray chuckles escaping here and there as he rubbed at his face with his jacket's sleeve. But then his expression hardened again as he stared up at the traitor chūnin, humor vanishing completely to be replaced by… not anger, Iruka noted, it was too calm for that. Not hatred, either. Disdain, maybe? Contempt?

"You actually think I'm the Kyūbi?! Me? So you're actually stupid, too, as well as a traitor, then?!" the orange-dressed boy roared out, and there was something in his tone that took Iruka back a moment. It reminded him of some of the older shinobi, the ones who had lived and fought and bled through the Third War.

That wasn't the voice of an inexperienced, twelve-year-old child. That was the voice of a veteran, a survivor. An adult. Someone whose own innocence had already been forever shattered, but in exchange for that loss, they had gained something… else.

Mizuki was nervous. There was no killer intent coming from Naruto; only a cold, simmering anger that while ready to attack him, wouldn't happen until Naruto himself chose to let it happen. "Wha— You are the Kyūbi! You'll destroy the village when everybody isn't paying attention! And after I kill you, people will say I'm their hero!"

Naruto said nothing to respond, merely keeping his gaze locked with Mizuki's. Mizuki himself squirmed, pinned by those eyes that seemed just too deep and knowing for a mere brat. He wanted, oh how he wanted, to throw the shuriken in his hand at him, but somehow just couldn't find himself able to.

Slowly, Naruto turned, his gaze leaving Mizuki to focus instead on Iruka. But his eyes now were anxious. Unsure. Pleading.

"Iruka-sensei… Is that how you think of me, too?" he asked, quietly.

Iruka flinched slightly, caught off guard by that question. Was that how Naruto felt? Did his pain really stretch so far, that he could actually doubt him? No, this wasn't the Kyūbi, no way in Hell. This was an insecure child, hoping for some security.

Iruka smiled. "No. I don't think you're the Demon Fox. You never killed my parents. You are Uzumaki Naruto, shinobi, and alchemist of Konohagakure. You're a good boy. You just want attention, that's why you pull pranks. I was the same way: nobody cared about an orphan without talent, nobody paid attention to me, either."

"Th…thank you, Iruka-sensei," Naruto muttered gratefully, turning his attention back to Mizuki as he began to shout again.

"Y-You know he's the Kyūbi! He just wants the scroll for himself so that he can take revenge on our village and—"

But whatever tirade he was going to spout off abruptly was cut off, as Naruto snapped out two, short, forceful words.

"Shut. Up."

In the face of those two words, Mizuki suddenly found himself unable to speak, as if the hand of a deity had clamped down on his tongue to silence him. Mutely, he was transfixed on the blond-haired Jinchūriki's glare, the boy's face coldly angry as those blue eyes speared icily through him. "Don't you dare speak as if you have even the first clue what's really going on!

"You think I don't know what the Fourth Hokage did, sealing the Fox in me when I was a baby? I've known that since I was six, teme! The first time I even learned about it, was when I came face-to-face with the damned thing!"

Iruka flinched, his head jerking to stare at the boy, eyes widened. Already his mind was racing, trying to catch up, to make sense of the words he had just heard. Six years old? Wait, wasn't that when…

Naruto, too, was remembering, just as his teacher was. Even after all these years, the memory still as fresh in his mind as the day it had happened to him.

He couldn't move. He could barely breathe. All the six-year-old Naruto could do was to stand there with widened eyes, looking up at the sight before him, his young body trembling with fear. He could feel sticky warmth running down between his fingers and knew, somehow, that his hands were clenched so tightly that his fingernails were cutting into his palms. But even so, he couldn't even turn his head to look and confirm that, he was so scared. If not for where he was now and what he had just been doing, his trousers would without a doubt be wet and foul-smelling underneath.

He wanted to run, wanted to hide. Wanted to do anything that could get him away from this place. But he couldn't, his body wouldn't listen to him. All because of what he was staring up at.

"Stupid, ignorant child," a monstrous, horrifying voice rumbled playfully. "Making me pay for the cost of your mistakes. Really… how rude," it chuckled, the air around groaning with the agony of its presence.

Crimson, slitted eyes blared down at him. Naruto wanted desperately to believe he was having a nightmare, pleaded silently to anyone that might be listening that that was indeed what was happening. But with every breath of the creature that blew past him, he knew without any shred of doubt that this was all too real.

"Did you really think that you, of all beings, actually had what it takes to play the part of the Creator?" it questioned, grinning around an enormous mouthful of needle-sharp teeth. "It must be agonizing to watch the very thing you've worked so diligently for, slip intangibly through your fingers like that." That deep, rumbling chuckle again; humans were just so entertaining.

An endless white abyss as empty as the void, the little boy stood before the enormous fox. It had lowered its head to his own level, taunting, chastising, mocking him. It took in its prison's misery gleefully, relishing this chance to belittle the boy.

"Leave… Leave me alone…." Naruto whimpered, tears gathering at the corners of his eyes as he tried to shut them against the sight.

"Silly little human, I'll always be with you," the giant fox moved even closer, grin widening ever more as Naruto quailed in fear. "You'll never be able to be rid of me. Wherever you may run, wherever you might choose to cower, I'll always be there. Forever."

Horrified, Naruto opened his eyes without thinking… and found his gaze locked with that of the very thing he held inside him. He couldn't turn away, couldn't do anything but stare, terrified as the countless souls inside screamed in pain, in terror, in anger and hatred. Bleeding, burning, writhing, cursing, begging for respite, for peace, for salvation. Some of them even reached out toward him, demanding, pleading to save them from their own damnation.

Tears spilled down his cheeks. No words he could utter would ever be enough to describe his feelings, his pain. It was a lie, a joke, a bad dream, it had to be. Any minute now he'd wake up and realize he was being silly. He'd meet up with Ojii-san and tell him, and then they'd laugh and make jokes about it.

But he already knew that that was the lie. This wasn't a dream, and it never would be. This was the reality, and no matter how hard he might want to believe otherwise, he would never, ever be able to escape it.

He, and he alone, was the vessel, the prison, the Jinchūriki of the Kyūbi no Yōko.

Naruto snapped out of his reverie; his gaze shifted back forward to land again on Mizuki, resolve hardening. He knew what had to be done.

"I nearly lost it that time," he whispered harshly, the words twisting out of his mouth almost like a snarl, slowly strengthening, growing louder, rising in strength like a crescendo. "Everything I'd had, everything I thought I'd ever wanted… Everything. Nearly undone by what I committed. And it mocked me.

"I've paid for my mistake… I've been paying for it every day of my life since, and it won't ever let me forget what I've done!" The fingers of his hand curled into claws, and then swiftly and tightly clenched into a fist, the joints popping audibly with the motion as he jerked the arm back, as if throwing something away behind. "I am Uzumaki Naruto, not the Kyūbi! My sins are my own! No one else's! So don't you dare tell me things you have no even comprehension of!"

Naruto slapped his hands together, the sound of the single clap somehow strangely louder than it should have been. He spread his hands apart then, and tendrils of energy like alchemical lightning arced between them, before he slammed them both down onto the earth. Beneath his palms the ground concaved, as a handle formed out of the light of the transmutation. Naruto grabbed hold of that handle and pulled, drawing it up out of the earth, the crater enlarging as more and more material was drawn into the transmutation. Finally, the tip cleared the earth, and Naruto held in both hands a spear. Straight edged and chisel-pointed, pressed along the flat of one side of the spearhead had been worked the image of a tiny dragon, its wings slightly outspread as its sinuous tail sneaked back to coil around the end of the haft.

Naruto swung the weapon once experimentally before he turned back to face the traitor, seemingly satisfied with its construction. The look on his face was one of preparedness, patient yet eager, as he assumed a ready stance, balanced on the balls of his feet with most of his weight on his back leg, hands spread across the length of the spear haft to maintain grip and balance.

Mizuki growled; this wasn't going at all how he had planned it. "Grr… If it's a fight you want, demon-brat, then it's a fight you'll get!" And with that, he leapt up off of the branch into the air. At his peak, he unleashed his Fūma shuriken, hurling it with a wide pitch that sent it spinning through the air towards the boy.

Naruto's silent response was merely to shift his weight and grip, sliding the shaft through his front hand until he was hold the butt end of the spear in both hands, much like the handle of a baseball bat. Before the throwing star could come too close, he swung, and the decorative end of the spear, just below the dragon's main body where blade and shaft met, struck the star, catching it in the joint where the blades joined. With the screeching sound of high-speed metal on metal, the giant weapon was deflected, sailing off course into the trees. Naruto felt the impact shoot through his limbs, his hands throbbing, but he did not lose his grip on the spear.

But Mizuki wasn't done yet. The shuriken itself was only a feint, as he surged in with a kunai drawn, poised to stab into Naruto's gut. Already, he was past the point where the spear could be used against him, as there was no time for the boy to pull the spearhead in closer to defend himself with.

But that attack was aborted, as Iruka body-checked the man, his shoulder ramming into the silver-haired chūnin's torso. Their collision devolved into a joint roll across the ground, but Iruka shoved off of his opponent, leaping back to his feet. Mizuki rolled twice more to recover, but before he too could jump to his feet, the earth around him surged, flowing upward. In mere seconds, Naruto's alchemy had transmuted a massive bird cage around the man, trapping him inside.

Iruka blinked, mind catching up with the sight before him, and then he sighed and stood fully upright. It was done, and much better off than it could have been.

Naruto, however, was still on guard. That had been too easy. Mizuki-teme was trapped, yeah, but he wasn't acting like it. Shinobi – hell, human beings in general! – always panicked whenever they discovered themselves trapped like that; the only ones who didn't were the ones with experience, who were already planning their escapes, even as the realization of their capture had dawned on them.

And he knew full well that a prick like Mizuki wasn't experienced enough to fall into that category. What the hell was up with that guy?

"Let's go, Naruto," Iruka interrupted. "He's not going anywhere, and we need to inform Hokage-sama of this development."

The scarred chūnin began to walk away. Naruto, however, remained a moment, his gaze lingering on Mizuki's too-calm (but still angry) face. With the utmost reluctance, he began to turn away as well.

Then Mizuki's chuckle ran through the clearing, stopping the two stop in their tracks. Naruto and Iruka both spun on their heels, only to watch as Mizuki's cage suddenly disintegrated before their eyes. The blond barked out a curse that would have earned him a detention under normal circumstances. Iruka remained strangely calm, however; either he had somehow been half-expecting this, or else it had to be one of those "combat Zen" things Naruto had heard about.

I really need to learn that.

"Wow," Mizuki leered over the failure of Naruto's trap. "If I'd known alchemy had that many uses, I might have started learning it sooner!"

That was when Naruto noticed the ring on Mizuki's finger. A simple thing, really, just a plain gold band with a round red gem set onto it, but the gem itself that caught Naruto's attention – the vibe it gave off was a familiar one. But it was a familiarity Naruto didn't like.

"Here, brat… Let me show you what I can do with alchemy," Mizuki sneered.

Drawing an ordinary shuriken with that same hand as the ring, he held it up just as the gem suddenly flared with bright crimson. All of a sudden, instead of an ordinary shuriken, it was a Fūma shuriken Mizuki was holding.

Naruto's jaw dropped open as Iruka looked on, confused – the chūnin's own knowledge of alchemy admittedly wasn't that great, but judging by Naruto's dumbfounded astonishment, he could at least tell what Mizuki had just done had to be significant.

Naruto himself was thunderstruck. "How…?" What that bastard had done had just violated every possible tenet of alchemy there was! Where the hell was the Equivalent Exchange in that, dammit!?

Mizuki shrugged with false humility, "Maybe I'm just that good," and with a vicious intensity on his face, hurled the shuriken in his hand at the boy.

Naruto scowled, deflecting the projectile angrily with his spear. "'That good'? Don't make me laugh, you bastard! You're nothing but a third-rate hack!" he shouted, and charged toward the smirking traitor, as if to run him through.

Mizuki just scoffed at the boy's action. Several more shuriken were pulled, only to suddenly surge to ten times their size as the gem once again flared. In a blur of motion, all of the massive stars were launched toward the boy.

The blond himself aborted his charge, forced to create another wall instead, to block the attacks. Another clap of his hands, and a four-fingered hand surged out of that wall towards Mizuki. The Chūnin dodged, the hand's miss crashing down into the ground where he had stood. But before the traitor could do anything else, another, different hand formed out of its own extended arm like the branch of a tree, grabbing hold of him and smashing him to the ground. Mizuki cursed as he struggled against the hand that pinned him.

The silver-haired ninja then suddenly noticed the quiet around him. Another curse escaped his mouth as he realized neither Naruto, Iruka, nor the scroll were present.

Reddish lightning sparked over the hand binding Mizuki before it suddenly disintegrated, and the man took off after the two chakra signatures.

Naruto's plan was pulling off flawlessly, at least for now. He had no idea how long that was going to last, however.

Slung across his back as he leapt through the trees was the Scroll of Seals. In a moment of pure epiphany, he had quickly snatched the dangerous article and bolted from the clearing with Iruka in tow while Mizuki had been surprised with the second transmuted rock hand.

"Naruto!" said blond heard someone yell. Turning his head, he saw Iruka leaping alongside him.

"Quickly! Give me the scroll!" Iruka ordered. "It's what Mizuki's after!"

Iruka's only warning was the grin stretching across Naruto's face, before he suddenly found the blond's fist buried into his gut. Both figures toppled to the ground, Naruto landing lithely while Iruka crashed, rolling across the ground into to come to a halt. Out of the flying dust, "Iruka" disappeared in a puff of smoke to reveal a battered Mizuki instead.

"How did you know!?" the traitor questioned.

"Because…" Naruto began, only to transform into a scar-faced chūnin, "I'm Iruka!"

"What?!" Mizuki roared, angry for being duped.

But before the traitor could react further, Iruka charged in with kunai in hand. At the sight of the incoming attack, Mizuki hurriedly drew one of his own knives; a quick flash of light later, it had been replaced by a ninjatō. That allowed Mizuki to deflect the initial attack, but he had missed seeing Iruka's second knife, earning a gash across his shoulder in consequence. The silver-haired man rolled under a third attack, tapping the ground and making a hand, like Naruto's earlier, form out of the dirt and grab onto Iruka's leg.

The academy teacher blocked the traitor's attacks, but the hold on his foot was a detriment. Without warning, Mizuki ducked beneath Iruka's swipe and belted the chūnin in the jaw, so hard that the earthen fist holding him broke apart as he was thrown into the air; Iruka bit back a cry as he felt his ankle snap in that instant. Red-hot agony exploded in his leg and jaw both as he crashed to the earth, rolling twice before his body came to a rest, chest upwards. Iruka was lucky that his jaw had already been slack when Mizuki had punched him, otherwise his own teeth might have shattered with the impact, or else might have caused him to accidentally bite off his own tongue.

Mizuki's foot pressed painfully down on Iruka's chest, pinning him to the ground.

"Where's the Scroll!?" he demanded, pushing down harder. Iruka winced, but stayed silent, glaring defiantly up at him. Enraged, Mizuki raised up his blade and readied to stab it into the chūnin's head—

Until an elbow slammed hard into his cheek, spinning the traitor around into the air; his body lifted up in a neatly parabolic arc to crash headfirst into the dirt. A flash of orange across Iruka's vision, revealing his savior to be Naruto as he skidded to a stop, sans scroll.

"Naruto?" Iruka shouted, trying to roll over so as to pull himself up. "What are you still doing here?! You should be with the Hokage right now!"

The blond shouted back, "I'm not leaving you behind, Iruka-sensei! Besides, I've already hidden the scroll!" He then turned to face Mizuki, who was already back on his feet, the blond's hands raised ready to clap.

"So, you're not going to run?" Mizuki yelled. "I'll just kill you too!"

"Just see if you can try it, Third-Rate!" Naruto roared, slapping his hands together and pressing them against the ground.

A dozen stone hands formed out of the ground around Mizuki and reached for him, smothering him under themselves once they made contact. But then suddenly, the stone coffin exploded apart, the ring on Mizuki's finger glowing profusely. Naruto ran forward, hands already clapped, bending down amidst his run as he scraped his hand across the ground, drawing forth a staff. The moment he came in range, he swung the weapon around in a wide arc; Mizuki leapt up to dodge.

But Naruto had already anticipated that; in the short gap between them, a square pillar surged up from the earth, belting into Mizuki's chin and hurling him back across the ground. Mizuki in response slapped his ring-wearing hand against the floor even as he slid across it; the land beneath Naruto's feet abruptly dissolved into sand, the boy slipping as his footing suddenly vanished. Naruto flipped back up, out of the pit, only to be speared by a thrown kunai to the stomach before he could do anything more.

"NARUTO!" Iruka screamed, watching as his student fell backward, shock and bewilderment on the boy's face. He hadn't even realized what had hit him.

"I win!" Mizuki crowed triumphantly.

And then Naruto disappeared, bursting into a cloud of smoke.

"What…!?" Mizuki tried to say, only for an orange blur to slam into him from the side. To the traitor's shock, he was suddenly dog-piled by not one, but at least twenty Narutos!

"Wrong, Third-Rate!" they all yelled as one.

Desperate, Mizuki roared as he pushed the pile off, the clones all vanishing in puffs of smoke. The sight that greeted him then, however, made him stumble backwards. Tens, hundreds of Narutos, all of them smirking evilly at him.

Behind the mass of orange and yellow, Iruka's mouth sagged. Those hadn't been ordinary Bunshin, the way they had all struck him like that… Kage Bunshin! Naruto hadn't been kidding when he'd said he had learned a technique from the Scroll!

…By the way, where had his student hidden the scroll, anyway? he suddenly wondered.

In a moment of pride, Iruka smiled. Truly unpredictable, Naruto was… and just as gifted. If anyone deserved to pass the Genin Exam, then Naruto was it.

"I'm going to make you pay a thousandfold, bastard! Get ready!" one of the clones in the back shouted.

Desperate, panicking, Mizuki held up his ring to touch his sword, in the hopes of creating a weapon capable of fighting off that horde of blonds. "I'm not going to lose to you!" he screamed, as the ring shone brighter than ever.

"Hey, wait…!" one Naruto tried to warn, realizing the amount of power Mizuki must be putting into that reaction. If he tried to overload the transmutation—

But it was already too late. The conflagration of light surged out of control, and Mizuki felt a strange numbness surge through his right arm that was holding the sword. A numbness that quickly fled, replaced with—

The chūnin screamed, as much in red-hot pain as horror, as he witnessed what his arm had suddenly become. The sword he had been holding had fused with his hand and forearm, and not in any way that could be considered beneficial, either. A lumpy, uneven mass of flesh and metal, asymmetrical and horrible to look at. The last two fingers on his hand no longer even existed, replaced outright with bars of silvery, sharpened metal, as what had once been the hilt of his transmuted ninjatō jutted out from the nub of his elbow.

"A rebound…" Naruto breathed, horrorstruck as Mizuki thrashed about, screaming, clutching at his warped and misshaped mass of a limb. "You stupid, idiotic, incompetent, no-talent, third-rate…" he mumbled, groping blindly for adjectives, any adjective that could satisfy his sudden, deep need to quantify just how utterly stupid what Mizuki had just tried to do was.

He gave up a moment later; not even his vocabulary could come up with anything, word or phrase, that could adequately satisfy a condition such as that! The man had brought it on himself, there was no doubt of that.

Letting out a weary sigh, Naruto dispelled his remaining clones – they weren't needed anymore, not now that the third-rate was out of the fight like this. Clapping his hands together one last time, another birdcage formed up around the unfortunate chūnin; no sense in not restraining him, just because he couldn't fight anymore. Ibiki-san would probably want to have a word or two with him, anyway.

Looking to ensure the job was complete, the blond turned back to smile tiredly at Iruka. "So, what'cha think?" he wondered, a bit sheepishly.

Iruka too was staring resignedly at the sight; he really didn't know what to think. Two people he had cared about had just betrayed him tonight… but only one of those had done it deliberately. Instead he merely nodded, wincing painfully as he leaned against the tree. That last hit against the ground and Mizuki's foot had really done a number on his ribs.

"I'm surprised. I really didn't expect what you did here, Naruto." Those words could have been meant negatively, but Iruka was smiling as he said them. Naruto beamed in response.

Iruka gave a small snort of amusement. "Come here and close your eyes," he ordered softly. "I've got a surprise for you."

Naruto raised an eyebrow, but did as he told. Iruka slipped off Naruto's goggles, and replaced them with his own headband. Naruto's surprise was such that his eyes snapped back open, even before Iruka had finished.

"Now you're officially a shinobi of Konoha," the man said happily, with a slightly pained grin.

Naruto felt his eyes tearing up, overcome with emotion. He tried to swipe at them with his sleeve, but gave up and threw himself into a hug. "Iruka-sensei!"

"Oof!" the scarred chūnin winced. He didn't want to say anything for fear of spoiling the mood, but his ribs definitely weren't feeling up to quite so tight a hug. Naruto must have seen his pained grimace, however, because he suddenly released the man's torso as if burned.

Naruto then recalled the other details of this night, namely Mizuki's complete flaunting of multiple laws of alchemy. Turning to question the rogue chūnin, Naruto stopped cold as he witnessed his giant birdcage empty, several of the bars unevenly cut open. Clearly, Mizuki must have used his new disfigurement to his advantage, cutting open the bars to escape.

"Aw, man…! Again?!" Naruto almost screamed in frustration. "That's twice now that bastard's gotten away!"

He made as if to chase after the man, despite the fact that he had no idea where to look, only to be stopped by Iruka's hand on his shoulder.

"Don't," the man said authoritatively. "ANBU can handle it from here. He won't get far, don't worry. We, on the other hand, need to report to the Hokage and tell him what's happened." That you weren't the one at fault for stealing the Scroll after all, was left unsaid, but still plainly obvious.

Naruto stiffened. Immediately he was torn – What if Mizuki-teme managed to get away? What if he had help? What if the ANBU weren't able to catch him, or had to kill him first in order to? – but in the face of his own culpability, he didn't exactly have a choice. Iruka-sensei had a point: clearing his own name really did kind of take precedence over everything else.

The blond alchemist could only acquiesce, his posture slumping as he nodded meekly. Damn his infernal sense of logic; he really wanted to question Mizuki over how the bastard had actually managed to perform alchemy without having to obey the laws of Equivalent Exchange!

Slipping an arm over the injured Iruka's shoulder, Naruto helped the chūnin to his feet. The two then began to slowly make their way back to the village.

"Naruto," Iruka asked suddenly, curious. "Just how well did you hide the Scroll, anyway?"

A trio of ANBU could only gawk at the massive pile of scrolls before them. They had been the ones charged with recovering the Scroll of Seals while the others chased after the fugitive Mizuki… but they had unfortunately once again underestimated the Uzumaki's ingenuity.

The entire clearing was filled almost to the brim of nothing but massive scrolls, each as long as their arm and nearly three times as thick.

"Uh…" one tried to say. Words escaped him.

"How…?" another wondered, bewildered and frankly a little intimidated.

The third, a specialist trained in chakra-sensing, answered, "Each of them is a Kage Bunshin under a Henge, except most likely for the Scroll itself." His voice held a odd mixture of awe and disgust – the former for realizing just how much chakra such an act must have taken, but the latter for realizing how much work was obviously ahead of him as a direct result.

"And just how many are there…?"

"Um…" The third took a brief moment to scan around the clearing. "At a guess? At least eight hundred."

The second sighed. "Alright, let's get searching."

Mizuki ran as if his life depended on it. It probably did. As long as he had spent fighting with Iruka and that damned Demon, the ANBU couldn't be more than a few minutes behind him, at most. He had to get to his destination – to where they had promised to meet him – before those could catch up to him.

It had all been going so well! What went wrong?

Mizuki's mutilated arm throbbed, forcing the man to clench his teeth as he winced against the pain. He would have cradled the limb to his chest, except that the way the blade had been fused, left random bits of bone and jagged metal protruding from it like some warped ideal of a porcupine's quills, making that sort of action ill-advised.

Worse, he couldn't undo the transmutation, either. The red stone in the ring they had given him had cracked and crumbled apart before his eyes, just moments after the rebound itself had occurred. He was stuck like this, maybe forever!

Mizuki grit his teeth and willed himself to run harder, faster. His breathing was ragged, a sign of the pain he was feeling, both in his arm, and from his battle with Naruto.

It had all been so simple! Mizuki knew that if he had been the one to try and steal the Scroll, then someone would've caught onto him before he could have escaped – ANBU, the guards, maybe even the Hokage himself! That was why he had recruited Uzumaki in the first place: no one except for Iruka had ever been able to catch the blond brat! Not only that, but he was the Nine-Tailed Demon Fox itself – that fact alone made him the perfect scapegoat for Mizuki's plan! No one would ever miss the filthy demon once he himself had killed it!

He'd had the plan. He'd had the stone. He'd even had the element of surprise at first! It should have been the perfect plan!

So where had it all gone wrong?

So intent was he on his questions, that Mizuki almost missed it when he burst into the clearing where he had agreed to meet. Only the sight of the dilapidated wreckage of a cabin – one of actually many such cabins, set there throughout various points in the forest that surrounded Konoha to serve as staging or meet points.

His arm throbbed once again, causing the silver-haired traitor to wince, clutching the misshapen limb in the crook below the elbow, where the rebound thankfully hadn't managed to warp almost beyond recognition. At this rate, he may even have to cut the limb off, but what would that do to his ability to be a ninja?

"You know," a sultry voice spoke up, "those stones aren't exactly easy to get a hold of, nowadays." Startled, Mizuki's head jerked up, sighting on the source of the voice.

Leaning there casually against one of the intact walls of the ruined cabin was a sumptuous woman, with long, full hair the color of fresh blood that went all the way down to her calves, and a figure that threatened to burst out of the sleeveless, strapless dress she wore at any given moment; caught up in the light breeze that blew throughout the clearing, that hair almost seemed to move, writhing about as if it were alive. In the valley above her bountiful breasts was a tattoo, the image of a winged serpent biting the tip of its own tail, circling around a six-pointed star.

Next to her was… Actually, Mizuki wasn't sure quite what it was. Short, fat, and bald, it looked almost like the kind of human-shaped figure that a child might try to make out of clay, its features were so… blank. However for that analogy, the proportions were all wrong for a human: short, arms as thick as tree trunks, with stubby little legs holding up an almost impossibly wide girth – not even the heaviest and most out-of-shape Akimichi ever had a shape like that! The creature just stood there next to the woman, the tip of its forefinger stuck into its mouth as it looked vacantly at him with its blank, beady eyes, a wide, thick nose sitting between the two, seemingly taking up half of its squat face. If not for that face and head, Mizuki might have thought someone had shaved a gorilla.

Mizuki blanched. They'd already arrived here before him. Before he could come up with an adequate way to excuse his failure.

With an amused little smirk, the woman's eyes scanned up and down Mizuki's form, taking in the various bruises and rents in his clothing, the deformed arm, and most importantly…

"I see you weren't able to retrieve the scroll," she said evenly, as though she were discussing the weather.

Mizuki winced, as much from her rebuke as the pain in his arm. "There were… complications," he hedged. Anything to avoid ruining his chances with these people. And their master, Orochimaru.

They had revealed themselves to him months ago, by revealing their knowledge of Mizuki's chance encounter with Orochimaru, some years before. Instantly Mizuki knew without a doubt that they worked for the former Sannin, as he had never told a soul of it. That could only mean… Orochimaru-sama intended to recruit him!

This had been his chance… His chance to finally get the power he rightfully deserved. Konoha had not granted even half of what should have been his – they were jealous of him, scared of how easily he could supplant them, if given the chance. Instead, they had shoved him in that dead-end teaching job, condemned to obscurity with that demon-loving fool Iruka! Well, no more!

Orochimaru-sama had promised he would grant him power, that day; all Mizuki had to do was to seek it, and him, out. That was why he had entrusted him with that Cursed Mark, to safeguard the knowledge of Orochimaru's experiment.

Mizuki knew. By bringing him the Scroll of Seals, he would show that he was deserving of the power Orochimaru-sama had promised him. He would have it finally, his power, and then he would become a force like never before!

"I can see," the red-haired woman cut into Mizuki's developing fantasy. A frown crossed her sensual and lovely face as she ceased to lean against the structure and stood straight. Her long red hair seemed to almost writhe with barely-constrained anger and it flowed out behind, anger that coincidentally was not present on her face as she crossed the glade in but a few steps, to stand before Mizuki's position. For his part, the chūnin felt a sudden flash of fear, that he may have just permanently bungled any chance he had had to join Orochimaru's side.

Ninja weren't the only people out there who could mask their emotions, after all.

"G-Give me another chance!" Mizuki stammered out desperately. "The l-last stone you gave me backfired s-somehow all of a sudden, but if you could give me another one, I could—"

"Could what, hm?" the redhead interrupted offhandedly. Her voice did not rise in intensity or pitch, yet strangely Mizuki clamped his jaw shut as if commanded to silence. "The boy was right… you really are third-rate. You've already proven yourselves unable to take full advantage of what the Stone could give you. Really now… simply enlarging what weapons you already have, and maybe a bit of destruction alchemy here and there? Is that all you thought alchemy is really capable of?

"Not only that, but now the village is going to be on even higher alert, now. Do you honestly think that even with another Stone, you would actually be able steal the scroll now, now that they are actively guarding it?"

Mizuki's eyes flew wide, pain and fear suddenly mingling to his chest tight. They'd been watching his fight the whole time?! Oh shit, oh dear, oh crap, he was really in for it now! Mizuki was suddenly terrified of what was going to happen to him; he'd failed, miserably, and now Orochimaru-sama's agents were going to have an even harder time of themselves now…!

But then the woman sighed, as if she had half-expected this already.

"Oh, well… Nothing for it, I guess. We weren't even really sure this would have accomplished anything, anyway. May as well cut our losses now and be done…"

Mizuki perked up in that moment, realizing. They weren't mad? Did this mean they were giving him another chance? Were they going to take him with them?

But Mizuki's hopeful wondering cut off abruptly as his left side suddenly exploded with pain, the sound of a blade slicing into flesh filling his ears. Gasping against the sensation, the chūnin immediately looked down—

—to find a lock of the woman's hair stabbing into him like a spear, red blood spreading outward from the wound to stain his clothes and armored vest with the color. His blood.

Mizuki's head snapped up in shock and fright, the sight of the woman's beautiful face smiling cruelly down at him. Behind her head the rest of her long hair rose up, floating about alive as if possessed of a mind of its own.

She pursed her full lips, a sound of amusement coming forth from them that could have just as easily been a snort of disdain. "Come now, dear, did you really think we would just let you go, after all of that? Foolish little ninja, you of all people should know better than that!"

And with that, the bloodstained lock of hair wrenched itself free from Mizuki's body, a gout of crimson blood spraying from both sides of the wound as the hair came free. A distracted part of Mizuki's mind rapidly descending into terror noticed how he couldn't even tell her hair was wet with blood, the colors were just so identical. Was that perhaps intentional, somehow?

That thought was immediately forgotten, swallowed up by the rest of his panicking mind as the chūnin screamed in terror and pain, collapsing backward onto his rear as he clutched at the bleeding hole in the front of his side with his unaltered left hand. It did him no good, as there as a nearly identical hole poking out the back of him as well. In seconds, his hand was stained as red as her hair.

The lady tossed her head negligently back to one side, as if shaking her hair loose behind her; the blood-soaked lock vanished immediately into the rest of them, disappearing effortlessly into them.

"You're no longer of any use to us, Mizuki," she said carelessly, as if his existence was of no consequence to her. "So long as Konoha continues not to know we exist, what happens to you doesn't matter to us at all."

"Hey Lust," the other figure wondered out loud, its gravelly voice as though it wasn't entirely sure even how to speak, "can I eat this guy? Huh, can I?"

That woman – Lust – chuckled a second time, amusement and disdain in her voice all at once. "No, Gluttony," she chided gently. "You'd only get indigestion if you ate a fool like him!" A strangled cry from Mizuki; Lust and Gluttony turned, their expressions as if they had already forgotten the bleeding chūnin was even still there.

"Y-You… You can't do this to me! You can't!" he shrieked, witnessing as his entire world came crashing down about his ears. "Orochimaru-sama promised me…! He promised!"

That same throaty chuckle from Lust again, as she leaned forward just slightly, towards his face. "Now, when did we ever say we were actually working for Orochimaru?"

Mizuki's eyes widened as realization crashed into him. Deception… He'd thought no one else had known. But they had… And they'd used that knowledge… Used him… All those months… They'd been playing him for a sap all this time…

A sense of betrayal and abandonment froze in his veins as Mizuki looked up, the disfigured chūnin's eyes catching onto the tattoo in the center of Lust's very noticeable chest. A serpent, a dragon, devouring its own tail…

A sharp sting in the middle of his forehead… And then nothing at all.

The thin javelin of Lust's hair pulled back, sliding free from where it had fatally pierced Mizuki's braincase. The lifeless corpse collapsed bonelessly backwards onto the grassy dirt, his final expression of terror and betrayal frozen permanently onto his face.

Waddling over, the fat Homunculus Gluttony stared blankly at the body, as if confused by it.

Lust for her part could only sigh forlornly, "And now it's going to be even harder to move around in this dinky little village! What on earth was Father thinking, sending us here to assist someone like this?"

"He was thinking," a voice interrupted, "as was I, that this fool's petty and shortsighted ambitions could at least be useful as a distraction, to draw attention away from our own movements. And in that regard, he was superb.

"Although I would not go so far as to call the likes of Konoha, a 'dinky little village,' as you called it Lust," the source of the voice stepped slightly out into the clearing, taking care never to leave the full concealment of the night-time shadows.

Lust smiled, turning toward it. "Is that you, Wrath?" Her hair hung mostly limp down her back, relaxed. She did not fear an attack.

"It is," the figure, now identified as Wrath, affirmed. Medium of height and build both, with the darkness completely obscuring his features, he might have seemed completely forgettable. The only qualities that ruined that assessment were the hawkish gaze, staring intently at his fellow two Homunculi, and the Ouroboros image – the more or less insignia of their kind – replacing the iris and pupil of one eye.

A short distance away, Gluttony continued to peer curiously at the dead body of Mizuki, lifting it up by the back of the collar as if examining it. That did not go unnoticed by Wrath.

"You may have it, Gluttony," he stated evenly, as if speaking of something of no consequence. "Make sure there is nothing left."

Gluttony's only response was to grin widely. Too widely for any human to accomplish. He raised the body to his face, opening his mouth to display twin rows of large, square teeth, the Ouroboros displayed prominently on the surface of his tongue.

"You said he was to serve as a distraction? Does that mean the humans are beginning to realize…?" Lust questioned, effortlessly ignoring the sounds of eating going on behind her.

"No," Wrath shook his head negative. "They have no inkling, I've made sure of that. Even that old fool Sarutobi suspects nothing. Peace has rotted his resolve; he sees only what he wants to see. He will be no threat."

"What of the boy? He has clearly opened the Portal. His abilities here tonight were far beyond anything this world's alchemy has been able to achieve."

There was a sense of smug satisfaction from Wrath, though it could not be seen. "Leave him to me. I cannot risk confronting the boy directly, as he is too high-profile for me to risk exposing myself too soon, but there are other ways to ensure he does not become a threat to Father's design."

Lust remained silent, contemplative for a moment, as if taking that knowledge in. Only Gluttony's chimed "I'm done!" a moment later broke the silence, as the squat Homunculus raised bloody hands and face into the air, grinning stupidly.

"Clean yourself off," Wrath ordered negligently, before turning back to Lust. "We should go. Those fools from ANBU will be here any moment."

When said ANBU arrived minutes later, all they found at the end of Mizuki's trail was a large pool of blood soaked into the grass, and an empty clearing.

Kill Joy no Jutsu (A.K.A. Author's Notes): I'm learning Japanese! It would be great and all if my brain wasn't overheating so much that you could pop some popcorn over it. What I mean to say is: College is very time consuming, and this chapter wouldn't be out and done if it wasn't for the fact I took a vacation for a small while. Sorry, I paid a lot of money for college, and I'm not going to waste it simply because I want to write fanfiction. Nonetheless, I hope you guys enjoyed this chapter.

Anyways… we have some serious plot development going down. Again, I want to reiterate that there isn't going to be another FMA/Naruto crossover like this one. My co-writer and I will make sure this is something new for you all.

We had a quick battle between Mizuki and Naruto. Not nearly as flashy as I'm known for, but I didn't want something drastically huge this early in the story. It's probably good enough to get you a taste of what's to come.

The next chapter should be interesting. Konohamaru makes his appearance, and it's sure to get interesting.

Lecture no Jutsu (A.K.A. Co-Author's Notes): Okay, first and foremost. Before anyone decides to start badgering either of us about how Ed's name was spelled differently in the last chapter, let me inform you up front that that occurrence was 100% deliberate.

One thing that I don't think I'm going to be able to stress enough, is that when Lithius and I conceived of this story, we took into account everything about the two storylines that we could possibly think of – including things like geography, and language. Amestris has a distinctly European flavor to its culture, for example, while the Elemental Nations on the other hand have a very obvious Japanese and Far Eastern influence. Pronouncing the name "Edowaado Erurikku" in the first chapter, using Japanese phonetics, simply serves to highlight that difference, not only in language itself, but the style of writing between the alphabetic English and syllabic Japanese systems.

However, to maintain that same alternate spelling throughout the entire length of the fic serves no purpose, other than to harp on this now already-made point. So rather than annoy everyone around with it – including us, the authors – the name's just going to go back to "Edward Elric" after the first chapter. Quod erat demonstrandum.

Yes, we've killed off Mizuki. (It was Lithius' idea, actually, and I agreed with it.) Even in canon, he never serves any other purpose than to act as a throwaway villain, a means to showcase the main character (in this case, Naruto) and what he is capable of. Rather like Cornello, really, from the first two chapters of FMA. There's a fairly obvious and deliberate resemblance in how those two characters met their end… although rather than simply copy the details of Cornello's death wholesale onto Mizuki, we decided to at least make things a bit more original.

Which is just as well, honestly. Cornello, for all that he was a would-be tin-pot tyrant, at least had a sense of ambition, while Mizuki has never been anything more than a cowardly and sadistic bully, far more concerned with the easy route to power than actually else. Going out as he did, on his hands and knees and screaming how it wasn't fair, in my mind is the most appropriate way that a piece of trash like him can go.

The Homunculi that appear in this story, also, are not the same ones that appear in canon FMA. Those Homunculi – all seven of them, even Lin – have been dead for centuries, ever since the events of FMA itself or shortly thereafter. These new ones have the same base powers as the originals – Lust's Ultimate Spear, Greed's carbon-hardening power, Envy's shape-shifting, etc. – but beyond that they're completely different beings altogether. (Except for Gluttony; because of the nature of what he is, we've decided to make him perfectly identical to the original, just without the preexisting memories.)

And no, neither Lithius nor I are going to tell you who Wrath is, so don't ask. That would completely spoil the surprise.

Also, I should probably revise the statement I made in the first chapter, slightly. This story will loosely resemble the events of Naruto canon in the beginning, however it will do so less and less as time goes by.

Certain events are already going on, regardless of whatever differences occur here now. Wave Country is still being oppressed by Gatō and his thugs. Sunagakure is still starving economically under the Wind Daimyō's policies. Orochimaru is still planning to invade and destroy Konoha during the Chūnin Exams. Akatsuki is still hunting the Bijū. The list goes on and on.

The question is simply how the characters – Naruto, most especially, but there are others – react to these events. Depending on where that metaphorical pebble strikes, it can either cause an avalanche, or else do nothing at all.

For those who are unaware of the identities of the two gods referenced in this chapter, Benzaiten is the Shinto goddess of everything that flows: water, words (and by extension, knowledge), speech, eloquence, and music, one of the Shichifukujin (Seven Lucky Gods). Since Naruto had just made a tremendous discovery within and involving the text of Edward's manuscript, invoking her name specifically would make sense.

Bishamonten, on the other hand, another of the Seven Lucky Gods, is the god of fortunate warriors and guards, and punisher of criminals. That it's Mizuki who's invoking him, specifically against Naruto, makes this one rather amusingly ironic.

Also at this point, I'll go ahead and answer a couple of the better reviews – the ones that actually had something constructive to say, rather than just mindlessly gushing on about or bashing the story.

weixuan18: I won't deny that there's a certain correlation between chakra control and alchemy, however to say that one is essential to the other would be misleading.

Consider the nature of the power sources used by alchemists in FMA in order to run their alchemy: the Dragon Pulse in the east, and the mass of souls contained within Envy in the west. In other words, the concentrated energies of many, many human souls. Put into that context, a single human soul (i.e. that of the alchemist him/herself), therefore, would be nowhere near sufficient for that kind of energy requirement; even Edward was only able to use his own life energy to augment his preexisting alchemy, that one time. The fact that chakra is a mixture of energies, however – physical and mental/spiritual – does alleviate that concern somewhat, but compared to the obvious Lifestream-like properties of the Dragon Pulse, it would still be like comparing regular with premium unleaded fuel. Still too coarse and unrefined, too many "impurities" still contained within the energy.

The answer to that particular concern, however, lay within the general concept behind medical chakra. Just as medic-nin are trained to be able to alter the nature of their chakra so that it takes on a quality more conducive to healing – depicted in the anime as how it changes color from blue to green – it should therefore also be theoretically possible to "refine" one's chakra, making it "purer" and thus more favorable to use in alchemy. (In anime terms, the best color to describe this, I think, would be white.)

Which is where an alchemist-ninja's chakra control comes in. The better their control, the better and easier they can mold their chakra to create… mm, let's call it "alchemy chakra," for simplicity's sake. Likewise, the better and easier the process is for them, the more alchemy chakra they can produce, before they end up tiring out.

There're other reasons, too, but on the whole, that's the gist of why I say chakra control is necessary, but not absolutely essential to alchemy.

animefan29 (with a nod to Airheaded dude): Membership in Renbu is a lot like the State Alchemist system in FMA, honestly; you have to test in order to get in, displaying a certain minimum level of skill, aptitude, and ability. However in this case, Renbu also requires an actual shinobi rank as well; civilians, such as what Ed still was when he first took the test, would not even be considered for entry. Neither would Academy students, for that matter, as they aren't considered actual shinobi quite yet. Naruto has to be a genin at minimum before he can enter, regardless of his… connections to the program.

(Although once he does become a genin, Naruto's current circumstances will be able to allow him to circumvent the testing process – his alchemist credentials, I would think, have already been more than sufficiently proven.)

And no, Orochimaru is NOT and NEVER WILL BE an alchemist, nor will any of his minions. EVER!

I can give any number of reasons why not, honestly – how when you look deep enough at it, alchemy is but one more expression of the natural order of the world, and Orochimaru by his own actions and admission is as unnatural as it can possibly get; his personality, how he'll never be willing to give up anything that might be of equal value to something else that he might want to have, thus defying the very concept of Equivalent Exchange; how he reminds me far too much of Dante from the first anime, a vile, body-swapping parasite with incompetent delusions of godhood; or any number of other things.

But the simple truth is? I don't like him, and I have zero respect for filth like him and those mind-f***ed, degenerate freaks that serve under him. Throwing an insurmountable roadblock into his path for "ultimate power" is a blow to his bloated, self-absorbed ego that he is incapable of recovering from, how matter how hard he tries, and that's exactly the reason why I've chosen to deny alchemy to the likes of him.

Even body-hopping into Sasuke's frame will not make him an alchemist. That disease-ridden cesspool of a mind of his won't ever change, no matter how many bodies he might try to steal along the way. This is one system that even Orochimaru is incapable of cheating!

Damar: While I won't completely disregard the possibility, keep in mind that the events of FMA occurred hundreds of years ago from Konoha's perspective. I specifically made an oblique reference to that fact in the first chapter; several, in fact. So with the possible exceptions of certain characters, all of the main FMA cast would have already long since perished by the time of this story – it's not impossible that there'll be any that make an actual appearance (as opposed to references to them or whatnot), but it's still very highly unlikely.

Constructive C&C always appreciated. Flames will be fed to Gai and Lee, then pointed back at their senders. You have been duly warned.