chapter 29

one day more

Naruto made his way across the training ground towards the sound of combat, the first rays of sunlight occasionally glinting through the trees. Half his mind was still on the seal tag in his pouch. He'd spent a sizable chunk of the past week preparing it, and Ero-sennin had checked his work over, confirming that it had a good chance of working properly.

"Oi, Fuzzy-brows, Gai-sensei!" he called out loudly before the pair of taijutsu specialists came into view, so they'd have time to halt any secret training they might've been doing. Those two often got so worked up that they probably wouldn't have noticed his approach otherwise.

Not a moment later, the blonde ninja had to act fast as his good friend crashed through a tree, soaring right towards him. He braced himself and caught the green-clad boy rather than letting him slam into another tree, as training with the white-haired pervert had taught him just how much that could hurt. Despite the chakra in his feet, Lee's momentum still sent him sliding back several inches; the other genin had definitely increased his leg weights by quite a bit over the past month.

"Lee, you must not lose your focus during battle!" the elder Green Beast shouted, his leg still extended from the kick he must've just hit his student with, "Even to greet a most youthful friend!" While part of Naruto had really missed his morning training with the eccentric pair, another part had been quite glad to get away from the excessive youth.

He set his fellow genin down gently on the ground. "Sorry about distracting you, Fuzzy-Brows."

"Yosh! It is no problem, Naruto-kun!" the green-clad boy exclaimed right into his face. "It was my own fault that I was distracted! As punishment, I shall do 5,000 pushups with a boulder on my back! And if I cannot do that, I shall run 50 laps around the village while carrying a tree! And if I cannot do that-"

"Fuzzy-brows!" he called, interrupting his friend before the tasks he set for himself could become truly ludicrous, "I came to see you 'cause I've got something important I need to tell you. It's about the tournament tomorrow. Specifically your opponent, Gaara."

The taijutsu specialist began to cry freely in joy. "How very youthful of you, to worry about me! But there is no need, as Gai-sensei and I have already created a strategy to counter the ability with sand he displayed in his match!"

"Lemme guess: use your speed to get past the sand and knock him out, right?" The two bowl-cut-haired ninjas nodded, picking up on his seriousness. "Bad idea. I learned that Gaara, when he was born, had the Ichibi no Tanuki sealed into him," Naruto told them grimly.

He saw Gai's eyes widen in surprise and understanding, while Lee just gave him a confused look. Silently asking the jonin for permission to explain, the blonde received a slight nod.

So he explained to his friend about the bijuu, what they were, the raw destruction that even the weakest of them was capable of. Naruto talked in specific about the Ichibi, how it had been in Suna's possession long enough that common factors could be found between its containers, namely the insomnia and how it took control whenever the host lost consciousness.

By the time he was finished, Lee was horrified. "To think that people would force such a terrible burden on a newborn child. How unyouthful."

"Fuzzy-brows, you're missing the point," the blonde told him, while secretly happy at the other boy's reaction; it meant he definitely wouldn't have any issue accepting Naruto's own status as a vessel someday. "You knock Gaara out, and there'll be a hundred meter tall demon rampaging in the middle of a crowded stadium."

The taijutsu specialist's face fell. "But... but... I don't want to just give up! I must follow my nindo, and become a great ninja using only taijutsu!"

But the younger genin wasn't one to leave his friends without help. "Hey, calm down. You can still win, you'll just have to do it a different way."

Eyes shining with newfound excitement, Lee looked at him in anticipation. "Truly? Please tell me your idea, Naruto-kun!" Gai-sensei seemed interested too.

"Y'see, the past month, I've been learning fuuinjutsu, and I managed to make... this!" the orange-clad shinobi announced, whipping the complex paper seal from his pack proudly. "If you can get this thing in direct contact with Gaara's skin, right over his chakra core, it should temporarily kill his body's ability to channel chakra, and that'll be that!"

"YOSH! Naruto-kun!" The enthusiastic shinobi leapt at him, arms wide, and the short boy had to pull a speedy kawarimi, to save himself from becoming part of The Sunset. He kept his eyes closed until the impossible genjutsu faded, when Lee realized he was holding a slightly-crushed log instead of a person.

Unfortunately, he wasn't fast enough to dodge when Gai-sensei had the exact same reaction, and the blonde felt his ribs creak in protest at the sheer pressure of the jonin's hug. To make matters worse, an invisible force kept his eyes open and prevented him from looking away, as the sight of the eyes dripping miniature waterfalls of tears and lit by the setting sun was permanently burned into his mind.

As soon as he was able to breathe again, Naruto flared his chakra in irritation, bringing the other two up short. "Oi, hold on a minute. I wasn't done yet!"

Both taijutsu specialists looked ashamed. "Ah, please forgive our most unyouthful interruption, Naruto-kun. Lee and I were temporarily overcome by the passion of your flames of youth," the elder Green Beast apologized.

Having learned long ago that any sort of response while the two were in "youth mode" would simply serve as encouragement, the young shinobi opted to just keep on with what he was going to say. "Fuzzy-brows, there's a few things you'll need to know about this tag. First of all, it's one use only, so be sure you get it in the right spot. Second, since you can't use chakra externally, I had to set it to activate the moment it's flat against a chakra source, so be careful that doesn't happen beforehand. And third is that there's a chance it won't work; I had no way of knowing what sorta seal was used on Gaara, so I had to make a pretty basic design and just pack a ton of chakra into it. Depending on how it interacts with his seal, it could work perfectly, or it could just cause a big explosion. If it doesn't work, I'm sorry, but you'll probably have to forfeit." The blonde handed the small slip of paper over to his friend.

"Anyway," he continued with only the briefest of pauses, "I gotta get going; Ero-sennin has some last-minute stuff planned for me. Good luck tomorrow!" The last three words were shouted as Naruto ran away at top speed. He hadn't been lying in saying that the Sannin had plans, but more than that, he just didn't wanna risk getting hugged again.

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Jiraiya walked around the clearing to look over his sealwork one more time, checking for any possible flaws; the setup he had prepared was extremely delicate, and the smallest mistake could send things spiraling out of control faster than Tsunade lost money at poker. And given his pupil's absurdly large chakra reserves, the results of that happening would be disastrous.

Speaking of the little blonde rascal, here he came now, half a mile away and moving fast. The brat could be pretty damn good at stealth when he wanted to, even if he usually didn't bother. Right now though, the toad sage's well-honed sense of hearing had no trouble picking up the sound of a person talking to himself while tree-hopping, something about sunset hugs of doom, and that unique chakra stood out like the sun to anyone who could feel it.

Once more, the Sannin questioned the wisdom of what he was about to do. There were other ways to test Naruto's emotional control, ways that were far less risky. But none would be as comprehensive as this, plus it would no doubt leave his student furious with him, which would be useful for what he had planned next.

He finished double-checking the last array just as the young genin burst from the trees. Satisfied, the man looked up just in time to catch the usual exuberant greeting. "Mornin' Ero-sennin!" The boy took a brief look around, blue eyes quickly taking in the large, complex circle of seals drawn directly onto the level ground, "What's all this? Some kinda test, am I suppose't decipher it or something?"

Needing to hurry him along, lest he figure out the purpose of some of the seals and subconsciously resist them once activated, Jiraiya answered quickly. "I'll explain in a bit; for now I just want you to stand in the center." The sharp blonde immediately picked up on the strangeness of the situation, giving him a suspicious look, but complied nonetheless. "Good. Now..."

A quick pulse of chakra through his foot to the activation seal he was standing on brought the entire meta-array to life. Naruto was now suspended in a chakra field, in the exact same position he'd just been standing in, his mind locked in a fully controllable hybrid genjutsu-fuuinjutsu world. Unlike the normal version, used mostly for advanced training in specific areas, he'd included a memory modification seal to enhance the apparent reality of the world; it was a pity that the whole thing required a willing participant, as Ibiki would no doubt otherwise have wanted something like this badly enough he'd order that hot kunoichi assistant of his to strip in order to get his scarred hands on it.

Sighing at the thought of such wonderful research material missed, the man created a shadow clone to keep watch, before entering the illusionary world himself.

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

"I'm home," Tenten called out to her empty apartment as she came in the door. She'd decided to end her training early, seeing as tomorrow was going to be one of the most important days in her young life. Unfortunately, with her teammates and friends busy, that left her without anything to do except maybe care for her weapons.

The kunoichi hadn't been able to find out many details about her first opponent, Aburame Shino, except that he could control the chakra-eating insects that lived in his body. And even that she'd only been able to learn thanks to Neji's byakugan and bugging some of the boy's former classmates whenever she was lucky enough to run into them.

Since she hadn't been able to see him fight, all she had to go on were others' impressions of him, which suggested that he had some decent skills and was an excellent strategist, but with no exceptional strengths or weaknesses; in other words, exactly what one would expect from a candidate in the final round of the chunin exams. The boy would clearly be no pushover, despite being only seven months out of the Academy.

And he would probably be her least difficult fight. Between Lee, who she still couldn't believe had actually managed to beat Neji, Naruto, that frightening redhead from Suna, and the final member of the team of so-called super-ninja Iwa had sent, her chances of actually winning the tournament were practically nonexistent.

Of course, the weapons expert still had every intention to make a good showing of herself. She'd gone through the Academy and a full year and a half of active duty, despite the disadvantage of having no clan (or really anyone) to support her and a lack of any outstanding talent, with the goal of one day becoming a ninja on par with Tsunade of the Sannin. There just wasn't time for slacking off.

That was why she'd pushed herself this past month, harder than ever before. After going over her skills, Tenten had spotted a gaping flaw: she knew absolutely no ninjutsu beyond the basics. She had gotten lucky though, and was fortunate enough to find help with expanding her ability in that particular field. Asuma-sensei had apparently sent all three of his students off to train with other teachers, leaving him free and happy to instruct her.

When they'd tested her elemental alignment, the kunoichi had another stroke of luck; while her primary chakra nature turned out to be fire, she also discovered a strong secondary affinity for lightning, something that went perfectly with all the metal weapons she used.

Her one-on-one time with the bearded jonin had also helped her to improve in the area of strategy and battle tactics. He'd taught her how to quickly and accurately read a situation, how to influence an opponent's actions and control the flow of a battle. He had also shown the ambitious genin other things that, while they didn't directly increase her combat potential, would mean the difference between victory and defeat in many fights.

All in all, the brown-eyed girl was pretty confident of her chances for making chunin, but still... she felt... Lonely.

Whenever she saw teams seven or eight, whether during the joint training sessions or just hanging out together in the village, she couldn't help the pangs of jealousy at their close bonds. Even though they'd been together a full year longer than the younger genin, Tenten still had yet to develop those same sort of bonds with her own teammates. Neji, for all his prodigious skill, had the personality of an ice cube, and Lee was just, well Lee.

The girl sighed as she unsealed her second katana and got to work polishing and sharpening it. Her entire time at the Academy had been spent training and working as hard as she could to keep up with a schedule designed for students with outside help, so when they'd been put in teams, she had been excited at the prospect of finally making friends.

But over the months, that excitement had waned due to their sensei all but adopting one teammate and the lone wolf nature of the other. She had dealt with her frustration by throwing herself even more heavily into training, but her rate of growth never went beyond the slow crawl it had always been. Once, she had even thought about giving up, turning in her resignation and using her self-taught forging skills plus the money she'd saved up to open a small shop, to spend the rest of her life making kunai.

Surprisingly enough, it had been the cold Hyuuga who had spotted her troubles and brought her to her senses. It had been the middle of winter, and they'd just had a rare snowfall the day before, when he'd come up to her during morning training. Lee and Gai-sensei had been absorbed in their usual insanity, kicking snow-boulders (as they were much too large to be called balls) back and forth in a training exercise that vaguely resembled a a soccer game, if soccer had just two players and five balls each about six feet wide.

Neji had just walked up to her, casually twisting out of the way of a snow-boulder gone off-course, and he'd spent almost a minute just looking at her, white eyes studying her. It had been perhaps the tensest minute in her entire life. Then he'd spoken, in his usual firm voice, "You may not be fated for greatness, Tenten, but I do not believe you are meant to be a failure either. Until you accept yourself for what you are, the emotions you are feeling will continue to plague you."

Suddenly, the loud shouts of the two taijutsu maniacs had seemed to fade into the distance, and it had felt like the pale boy in front of her was the only other thing in the world, him and the snow, blending so perfectly with his clothes and eyes. "What am I?" she had asked back, after what felt like an eternity of silence.

More silence, before he'd replied simply, "Even my eyes cannot see everything."

"Why are you doing this?" she could remember asking him after another long pause.

Then he'd glanced off to the side, and to this day the bun-haired girl swore she had seen him crack a smile. "I would much prefer not to be left alone with them."

That had been the start of what she liked to think of as her love/hate relationship with Hyuuga Neji. She was in love with him, the boy who had spoken to her that day in the snow but at the same time hated the cold superiority he always used to shield himself.

She still didn't know what he was hiding from. Her mind had come up with a multitude of possible reasons for why he was the way he was. None had any basis in fact or sometimes even reason, but the young genius still wasn't any closer to sharing his obviously troubled past with his team. Gai-sensei knew, whatever it was, but the man, for all his boisterous yelling, could shut closed tighter than a steel trap when he wanted to. Occasionally, she'd considered just asking Neji about it, but the Hyuuga weren't known for being open and friendly.

Tenten's only clue into her teammate's mysterious life had come to her relatively recently, when they'd taken up Asuma-sensei on his offer of joint training. Never before had she seen a look of hate on his face, until she saw him glaring at Hinata. It made her wonder what possible reason he could have for feeling such an intense emotion towards such a polite, quiet, kind girl; the whole thing just didn't make sense.

And even an idiot could pick up on the way the senseis always took care to separate the two Hyuugas. Really, her best bet was to talk to Hinata and see what she knew about her cousin, but she'd held off, at first because she just didn't know the shy girl well enough, and later because she'd been busy preparing for the exams. Maybe sometime in the coming few weeks, after the finals were over and promotions were handed out, she could track down her fellow kunoichi and ask her some questions...

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

"Oi, Naruto! You need to stay calm and focused, or the whole thing'll fall apart!" the sage reminded him while busily inscribing more seals on the ground.

It took a huge effort to keep himself from getting angry at the man. "I know, damn it. But that's kinda hard to do right now. How much longer?" he asked for what seemed like the thousandth time. Nearby, shielded from sight only by the tall stone wall the Sannin had erected, he could hear people... his friends... fighting for their lives.

The sealmaster took a moment to reply. "...I'm getting there."

Rather than shout at him for yet another vague response, the blonde distracted himself by thinking about other things, like how the hell he'd gotten into this situation. Just hours ago it had been a totally unremarkable day, he'd been on his way to find Ero-sennin for training, then everything had gone to hell.

A ninja, decked out in full ANBU gear, had leapt right across Naruto's path and slammed a paper seal over his stomach before darting off, all too quickly and suddenly for him to react. The paper seal had burnt to ashes almost instantly, as his world exploded in pain.

His next clear memory had been of Jiraiya hurriedly drawing a sealing circle around him, saying that something had disrupted the shiki fuujin, and a group of unknown attackers were making their way towards their location.

The young shinobi's sharp ears picked up the sound of Ino screaming in pain, and he savagely quashed the impulse to leap over the wall and help her. If he left the circle now, there was no telling what would happen.

A few seconds later, he felt another chakra signature vanish and hoped with all his being that it wasn't someone he knew; it was impossible to tell amidst the chaos.

Right, deep breaths, stay calm. The only way this whole thing could get worse was if the Kyuubi managed to get a foothold in his mind.

Just then someone came crashing through the wall. The person, dark-haired and wearing the standard Konoha jonin uniform, slammed into the chakra barrier the Sannin had set up, before landing face-up on the ground. It was Asuma-sensei.

He wasn't moving.

Naruto stood there, frozen, before another burst of pain wracked his body, crimson chakra flaring up around him, urging him to take its delicious power and slaughter the attackers.

No, he had to stay calm, focused.

His sensei's lifeless eyes stared up at him.

No. No, think about ramen, about eating at Ichiraku's. The way it tasted, smelled. The feel of the hot soup pouring down his throat. The sound of Teuchi and Ayame's voices as they asked about his day.

"Got it!" The boy's mind snapped back to the present just as Jiraya activated the sealing circle.

And the world around him shattered.

Naruto caught himself just in time to keep from landing flat on his stomach. Breathing heavily, hunched over on all fours, he felt his real memories reassert themselves. It was the day before the chunin exam finals, he'd warned Lee about Gaara and given him the seal before meeting up with Ero-sennin...

Blue eyes glared up harshly at the large man. "What the fuck was that?" he spat out, internally surprised at just how calmly he spoke.

"Your emotional control test," his sensei answered simply. "Congratulations, you passed. Now, moving on-"

"No! No way in hell do you get to fuck around with my mind like that and act like it's nothing!" He was on his feet now, trembling with rage. Before he even knew what he was doing, the blonde ninja had launched himself at the man, determined to pound his face in, Sannin or not.

Jiraiya's fist shot out, impossibly fast, and he had to bite back a shout of pain as three of his ribs snapped like twigs from the force. He flew backwards through at least three trees before finally stopping on collision with a cliff face.

Naruto's vision swam for a second as he pulled himself out of the indentation in the rock, landing somewhat shakily on his feet. The sage stood a few yards away, an unfamiliar hard look in his eyes. "Moving on, it's time for your final test. You have until midnight to land a hit on me."

The short time the man spent talking was enough for his healing to kick in, so the genin was no longer on the verge of blacking out. His ribs would take a few minutes still, but adding extra chakra reinforcement to the area would let him fight without risking a punctured lung.

Something was weird. The Sannin had never been... harsh like this before. Unfortunately, he had no time to think over the unusual behavior, because a sharp chakra flare was the only warning he had before a gout of flame was launched his way. The blonde went through the necessary handseals as fast as he could.

"Doton: doryuheki" (earth element: earth wall)

The stone barrier rose up just in time to block the worst of the attack, though some of the flames still licked at his face painfully.

Naruto knew that his only hope of actually hitting the white-haired shinobi was to come at him with everything he had for as long as he could and get very very lucky. He quickly formed two kage bunshins before going straight into the seals for the kaze no yaiba.

The wind blade went straight through his wall, and he heard his sensei jump up and back to dodge it. Then the clones on either side of him released the fuuton daitoppas they'd been signing for, launching the top part of the wall straight at their airborne target.

But Jiraiya instantly formed a rasengan and blasted the oversized projectile to pieces. The blonde rushed forward to launch another attack at the still-falling man, until his instincts warned him of an incoming fist, and he was just barely able to dodge the punch from the iwa bunshin he hadn't even known was there.

It was about a second of fast-paced twisting, rolling, and ducking to avoid blows that would make that first hit feel like a love tap before his clones were able to form their own rasengan and destroy the attacker. As it exploded into shards of rock, the young ninja realized it had served its purpose, giving its creator ample time to return to the ground and launch another attack. This time there was a boulder, about ten feet across, hurtling towards him. With its speed and size, he wouldn't be able to dodge.

"Tajuu kage bunshin no jutsu!"

Shadow clones sacrificed themselves by the dozen in an effort to slow the boulder down. Then Naruto, working together with five more of himself, brushed aside the phantom pain of being crushed to death over and over again and caught the flying mass of stone, flinging it right back the way it had come.

This time, he charged right behind his attack, a kage bunshin running alongside him to form a rasengan. Being the creature of habit he was, the Sannin shattered this rock the same way he had the last one, leaving him open as the blonde charged straight through the dust and flying debris. But again Jiraiya was just too fast for him, a powerful hand grabbing his wrist and throwing him so hard he dislocated his shoulder.

Hardening his body with chakra to minimize the damage from whatever he might crash through, Naruto popped his right arm back in place as his mind quickly formulated his next attack. He would be here a while.

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

As the slow, steady beeping of the heart monitor penetrated the silence, she felt like she finally understood why Naruto hated hospitals. Ino sat at the bedside of her best friend, searching for the right words to express her thoughts to the comatose girl.

The blonde kunoichi had already visited Sakura several times this month, spending hours just talking about all sorts of different things, just like they might were she awake. The neat new clothes that had come out a couple weeks ago, some of the more interesting customers who'd come in during her shifts at the shop, and even her budding feelings towards her teammate. The only difference was that her pink-haired friend never said anything back.

But this time, with the finals just a day away, the Yamanaka heiress knew she needed to talk about the one thing she'd avoided. Sakura herself.

"I'm sorry!" she eventually blurted out, and everything that followed came in one long rush. "I know I shouldn't, I mean it's not my fault, not really, but I feel guilty for you being like this. Yeah, it was that bastard Uchiha who did it, but I feel like... like I pushed you. Pushed you into fighting him. I probably did in a way, me and Naruto and Kiba. We were the ones who encouraged you, and if only you hadn't fought Sasuke...

"I can't believe I used to think I was in love with that jerk! Both of us, we were idiots back in the Academy. Breaking our friendship over something as silly as a boy? And just look how that same boy is turning out, what he did to you!"

Calming down from her sudden outburst, the words stopped spilling out quite so fast. "...But you know, I never felt as proud of you as I did when you fought him. I just wish... Oh, what am I doing? If you were awake right now, you'd probably bonk me over the head and tell me just how much of an idiot I'm being, blaming myself like this. It was your choice to stand up to him, to show everyone how much you'd grown, and it was a good choice, no doubt about that. He was the one who lost control of himself, and tomorrow he'll pay for that."

The blonde paused, not sure how to continue. It was so much harder to talk when the other person never said anything back. "I hope you wake up soon." She reached out and took Sakura's hand in her own, gripping it lightly in the hope that maybe, just maybe...

Her best friend remained just as lifeless as she been every time before. Ino sighed. "I miss you."

Only the rhythmic beeping answered her.

Needing to talk about something, the young kunoichi brought up the first thing that came to mind. "Hey, remember that jutsu I was telling you about, the one my dad was teaching me? Well I finally got the hang of it! Just two days ago, as a matter of fact. Dad was really proud of me, and I can't wait to surprise my team..."

That got her going again, and for the next hour or so she just sat there talking to the pink-haired girl about whatever came to mind. Eventually, one of the nurses stopped by to let her know visiting hours were almost over. Ino thanked him and started to leave, before turning back one last time, "Goodnight, Sakura. If things go well tomorrow, I might be a chunin by the time you wake up." With that hopeful thought in mind, she walked out, closing the door gently behind her.

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Looking on as his student struggled back to his feet for what must have been at least the hundredth time in the past few hours, Jiraiya had to hide his amazement at the boy's sheer stubbornness and willpower. By now, his accelerated healing had been working so long and hard that it no longer patched him up as efficiently or effectively, but he was still pushing his body to the same level regardless.

Impossible as it sounded, the brat had actually managed to improve during the middle of the fight. Once he'd managed to form a rasengan with the aid of his kage bunshin, the Sannin had given him the final scroll of forms for Minato's dancing wave fist, the ones centered around maintaining a double rasengan and using spinning and thrusting motions to hit enemies with the deadly spheres. Naruto had practiced the forms daily, but he'd not been able to keep two of the A-rank jutsu going at once, until he'd suddenly gotten the hang of it about an hour ago.

It was amazing, certainly, but it still wasn't enough. The sage needed to know what his apprentice could do when truly pushed; he had to know how far he could go right now, because there was no telling when Akatsuki would come for him.

He'd hoped that the sheer desperation of the impossible task he'd set combined with the mental strain from the previous test and the heavy physical beatdown would have been enough, but apparently not. If he really wanted to see what Naruto was capable of, it seemed he would have to take things to an extreme. They were running out of time.

Jiraiya sighed mentally, hoping the boy would be able to forgive him for what he was about to do. "I never told you what'll happen if you fail, did I?"

Clear blue eyes looked at him silently, waiting. The boy and his clones stayed ready but didn't move to attack, even though the twin balls of destruction were now fully-formed in his hands.

The experienced shinobi took a moment to be sure his emotions were firmly locked away before continuing. A month with the blonde had taught him that a bluff wouldn't work; he had to actually mean what he said, or Naruto would see through it clear as day. "If you can't land even one hit on me before midnight, I'll kill you. Then, I'll go into the village, find your teammates Yamanaka Ino and Inuzuka Kiba, and kill them. I'll kill those two at the ramen stand, that little redhead you adopted, all your friends, everyone you've ever talked to me about. Fail here, and they all die."

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

At first, Naruto wasn't sure how to react. It made no sense! Killing everyone because of some test?

But it didn't have to make sense, because it was true. He could see it in the man's eyes. Fail here, and everyone he cared about would die.

That was not an option.

It didn't matter what sick reason the person before him had for his actions, the only thing that mattered was that he could stop it, would stop it.

In his eerily calm state of mind, the young ninja could feel... something... resting deep within himself. Something powerful, but not the Kyuubi. And so he reached down, grabbed tight hold of that power, and pulled.

The sensations that followed were instantly familiar, though he had only felt them once before. It was the same transformation he'd gone through on that nightmarish mission two months ago. Naruto could still remember what it had felt like back then, the raw strength flowing calmly through him, so different from the Fox's burning power.

But brute force alone wouldn't be enough this time. If he wanted an actual chance of hitting Jiraiya, he'd need more than just the instinct and emotion that had driven him then. Still not entirely sure what he was doing, the boy willed the transformation to stop and was more than a bit surprised when it did.

Naruto took stock of himself. The most obvious physical change was the large thick golden-furred tail, a good bit longer than he was tall, now waving back and forth behind him, his body having instinctively adjusted to the added weight thanks to the rigorous balancing exercises he'd gone through recently. His fingernails, still cupped around the two swirling blue orbs of chakra, had lengthened and hardened into sharp claws.

All the injuries he'd gotten throughout the battle, broken bones that hadn't fully mended, cuts and bruises that never quite finished healing, were gone. He felt strong and full of energy, his chakra flowing faster, thicker, and more smoothly than he could ever remember. All his senses had become significantly sharper, the world around him crystal-clear. It felt like the world around him had slowed down, his eyes tracking a single speck of dust as it was pushed about by tiny invisible air currents.

The demon was also... louder... than usual. Closer to the surface of his mind, he guessed, but it was something he could deal with for now.

Now, there was a pervert in desperate need of having his ass kicked, followed by some serious explaining to do.

Dashing forward at a speed he wouldn't have even been able to follow just moments ago, the young ninja saw his opponent's eyes widen in surprise as he went for a straight thrust with his right arm, testing to see how he matched up against the man in taijutsu with this new power boost.

Jiraiya leapt back to avoid the attack, and the blonde decided to give his new appendage a try. Repositioning his feet, he spun in a full circle, his tail lashing out powerfully.

It was blocked by the Sannin's crossed arms, doing no actual damage, but the momentum sent the large man soaring, just as he had done to Naruto countless times throughout the day.

The legendary ninja apparently decided to take things up another several notches then, as his mind only just registered him making the seals for the guokakyu no jutsu before a giant ball of white-hot fire was hurtling towards him. Trusting his instincts over his common sense, the boy leapt straight into the inferno. His tail wrapped tightly around him, throbbing with chakra, and shielded him from the blaze. He felt the heat against the golden fur, but it wasn't even singed when he came out the other side.

He couldn't locate his opponent, the man having used the brief moment he was in the center of the fire to take cover in the trees. Naruto quickly ran through the seals for one of his favorite wind jutsu, pumping as much chakra into it as he could.

"Fuuton: daitoppa!" (wind element: great breakthrough)

Hurricane-force winds tore through the trees in front of him, leveling a wide swath of trees. He immediately followed this up by summoning 300 kage bunshins, who spread out to search the devastated section of forest he could still feel the man's chakra coming from.

A sudden chakra spike beneath his feet had the blonde launching himself into the air. Just in time, too, as the whole area turned into a swamp, sucking in his clones and dispelling them. As he received his duplicates' memories, he noted that they hadn't gotten even a quarter as much as he had out of the power boost, meaning they'd be more useful for distraction and tricks than the usual support role.

His problem of not being able to find his opponent was then solved when the man's geta-clad foot slammed into his face. It hurt, but not as much as it should have, and the damage was almost fully-healed by the time he got to his feet at the center of the small impact crater he'd made on hitting the ground. This time, he also managed to keep his senses trained on Jiraiya.

There was less than a half hour left before midnight. Now that Naruto had gotten a hang of his new capabilities, it was time to pick up the pace. His tail snatched up the top half of a tree that he'd crashed through on his way down, hurling it at the Sannin at a fast clip. When it got close, he used a kawarimi, the rasnegan the man had prepared to blast the tree with (really, he was too predictable sometimes) going right over his head.

In the few hundredths of a second that followed, the blonde threw a spinning kick with his right leg, knowing it wouldn't connect, but it hid the handseals he was making. His tail moved automatically to counter the kick his opponent had thrown at him.

Sure enough, his foot stopped dead against Jiraiya's palm, though the force behind the blow made him slide back a tiny bit.

"Fuuton: Kaze Kakuheki" (wind element: wind barrier wall)

Used at such close range, the protective sphere of wind served to push each of the Sannin's limbs in a different direction, leaving him wide open. Naruto went straight from the last seal of his jutsu into the seal for an iwa bunshin, the stable clone that formed right behind him acting as a perfect jumping platform. Before his opponent had time to get his guard back up, the boy had launched forward, ramming his head straight into the man's gut.

Jiraiya was knocked onto his back and skidded along the ground, coming to a stop some thirty meters away. The "test" passed, the young ninja let loose his rage, reaching the downed man in the blink of an eye, the golden tail pressing down powerfully across his chest, pinning him to the ground.

"I hit you. Now what the fucking hell was this about, Jiraiya?" Naruto growled, not feeling the least bit friendly towards the white-haired nin at the moment. The only reason he hadn't yet torn the sage's throat out was because the man always had a reason for the things he did.

"I- I had to- see- what you were capable of. How far you'd go- when everything was at risk," the man gasped out, apparently having some trouble breathing. He honestly didn't care.

The blonde wasn't done yet. "And you couldn't have done that some other way? You had to threaten my friends? What if I hadn't been able to do it? Huh?" he roared The pressure from his tail increased, cracks spreading along the earth even with the chakra he was feeding through it to keep the Sannin from escaping that way.

Jiraiya's face contorted in pain. Good. "I knew- ugh- you'd pass -gah- Would've let you hit me -urk- if it came down to it."

While still not willing to forgive him, the genin could get what the man was saying. He took slow deep breaths, forcing himself to calm down. The transformation slipped away, and he was left tired and aching.

The sage sat up. "Naruto, I'm sorry. You should know I-"

"Shut up," the boy muttered, too exhausted to even glare. "You crossed a line today, and its gonna take a helluva lot to make up for that. I'll still learn from you, but don't expect me to treat you like a friend. I'm going home now. Good night, Jiraiya-sensei."

With those parting words, he trudged off back towards the village, more than ready to get back to his bed and go to sleep. After all, it would be a big day tomorrow.

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

comments:

Another chapter done. This one was rather interesting for me to write, because going into it, I had no clear plan for what would happen. Naruto needed to warn Lee and have his tests, but that was really it. Tenten and Ino's scenes were pretty much spontaneous, and I feel that they turned out pretty well.

In the first scene, I'd originally intended to have Naruto talk for a bit about the Bijuu and how he'd done some research to find out which one Gaara held and whatnot, but every time I tried to type it, it just didn't come out right. So I opted to summarize and move on. Other than that, I really like writing the Green Beasts because they're a great opportunity for some light-hearted humor.

I think my favorite scene in this chapter was Tenten's. I knew I'd have to put her in at some point, if only because she's so painfully underdeveloped in canon (seriously, she doesn't even have a family name), and I decided to go the route of making her an orphan rather than the more common daughter of a weapon shop owner because it fits in better with some things I have planned. I'd like to think I did a good job establishing her character, but that's up for you to decide.

Ino's visit to Sakura was mostly filler, since their relationship was settled back at the tower, but I still felt it was important to show her visiting, since that's what a friend would do. I'm not quite satisfied with how quickly Ino resolved her guilt, but all my attempts to extend that bit felt clunky and made her seem a bit whiny.

Finally we have Naruto and Jiraiya, which was the main focus of this chapter. The idea for that final test, having to hit him once or else he'd kill Naruto's friends, was something I got from another story. Unfortunately, I read it so long ago that I can't remember the title. EDIT: Thank you, Just in Jest for reminding me that the story was "Naruto: Altered History" by Geor-sama

About Naruto's fox form, or at least the partial one he enters here, it'll basically serve as a replacement for Kyuubi's chakra when things get dire, since Naruto adamantly refuses to have anything to do with the fox. That said, don't expect it to show up very often, as I think I've demonstrated that he's quite competent without having to rely on any sort of power boost.

When it comes to Jiraiya and his actions in this chapter, he's been shown in canon to have a tendency to take things to extremes when taking a hands-on approach to training (throwing Naruto off a cliff to get him to summon and use the Kyuubi's chakra, loosening the seal during the timeskip). This is just another example of that, only this time he chooses the one thing Naruto won't forgive so easily when he threatens the people he cares about. And just to clarify, when Naruto had him pinned down at the end, he could have gotten away, but not without causing him serious injury.

Also, a virtual cookie to anyone who gets the reference in the chapter title.

I hope you all enjoyed reading!

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

beta readers: ABitterPill, Orion, ching965