100,000! Finally! What an absolute monster of a milestone for me. It feels goooood man, however long it's taken.

Hope you've all enjoyed the ride so far, as well as this next chapter! Chunin Exams are on their way, very, very soon!

Chapter 25

...And Now for the Hard Part

Naruto wiped his brow heavily with the sleeve of his shirt, cleaning it of the gritty combination of dirt and dust and sweat that had begun to gather there as he crawled his way through the filthy ventilation shaft. It was stupidly hot and humid, and the material of his clothes was started to take on rather more sweat than was entirely comfortable.

Truthfully, he was starting to wish he had just burst through the door and started kicking ass.

Still, the exit grill was just up ahead, and he was supposed to be a proper, mature shinobi now; regardless of how much the adrenaline was starting to wear on him, and make him want to start beating on thugs and possibly maybe blowing things up. Okay, that was a lie, he was definitely really eager to blow something up at this point. Either way, he buried the urge as deep as he could, took a deep breath, and started to push on once again towards the exit.

He peered through the inch-thick gaps in the grill in front of him, straining his eyes to their limits to try and be sure there would be nobody within earshot of him as he performed the unfortunately noisy task of popping the grill off of the wall.

Not a soul.

Naruto frowned. He was glad, for sure - I mean, it certainly made his job a lot easier - but this place was supposed to be well secured, manned by many mercenary guards. It was the headquarters of what was, despite Gatou's death, an international crime syndicate. Except that the place was dead. He hadn't even caught a whisper of the presence of the guards, besides the stragglers patrolling outside. It was peculiar - the de facto boss of this syndicate was sleeping in the tower room that was a few steps and a flight of stairs away, a man who was well aware that he had a price on his head, unlike Gatou who was on the surface at least, an ostensibly respectable businessmen (albeit a slimy one); and yet, the security here was weak, non-existent, pathetic.

It put Naruto on edge. It was a feeling he had gotten well acquainted with on his first C-rank mission, traveling through that valley that made his team easy targets for an ambush. His instincts screamed at him, demanded that he take action, because something was simply not right.

A sudden rush of memories focused his mind anew, snapping him out of his moment of almost frantic thinking, trying to figure out what was going on. It wouldn't have helped either way, hiding in a ventilation shaft would achieve nothing other than giving those conspicuously absent guards an opportunity to make an appearance and complicate his job. Regardless of anything else, the dispersal of all but one of his Kage Bunshin notified him that his C-rank mission was now accomplished, provided he made it out of here alive. He had the necessary information.

He gripped the grimy metal of the vent, and gave a single firm shove, detaching the metal from the wall with an uncomfortably loud clang. After a moments pause to ensure that nobody had heard the noise, he leapt to the ground in front of the stairwell leading to the tower his target resided in, and gently placed the grill on the floor, before cautiously moving up the spiraled staircase.

The blond moved utterly silently, hugging the inside wall to give himself that little bit of extra cover should anyone be coming down the relatively narrow stairway during his ascent, but once again, Naruto found himself more than slightly disturbed at the lack of protection. No guards, or defenses of any kind - not even the meagre traps that were lain to protect the secondary entrance to the building could be found defending the room of the man that now ran the entire organisation - and before long, Naruto was at the thick oak door to the man's room, unsure about which disturbed him more; the fact that he was about to kill, or the idea that his count for being ambushed whilst on a mission was about to reach two out of two.

The pause however, was only momentary, and a steadying breath was all Naruto needed to gather the courage to reach for the door nob, and silently enter the room. Konoha needed this to be done, and someone was going to have to do it. The only choice Naruto could make regarding this man's death was whether or not to take on the responsibility himself, so that others wouldn't have to. He knew that killing would almost definitely irreparably damage him, wound his soul in a way that nothing else could. But more damaging would be the effect of leaving it for someone else to do, allowing a comrade, or a friend bear that wound in his place. It was simply unacceptable to him.

The man was sleeping. Peacefully too. Wrapped in brilliant white sheets, lying on his side, breathing surprisingly easily for a man who was at least six foot tall, and really quite heavily built. Naruto tried to swallow and take a deep breath to calm himself but found his mouth suddenly bone dry; yet at the same time, he could feel his palms and brow practically drip with an ice cold nervous sweat.

Glancing down to the hand that tentatively gripped his kunai, he was momentarily pleased to discover that he wasn't shaking, but his attention returned almost immediately to the man sleeping blissfully in front of his in the gloom of the room. Blissfully sleeping. Blissfully alive.

The movement was smooth, practiced, and lightning fast; the blond's gut taking over, and for the first time since graduation, he acted on pure instinct, without thinking, for he knew he could have stood and debated internally over killing the man all night. So he acted, drove his kunai into the sternum and downwards, puncturing the man's heart in a way that would kill him painlessly and bloodlessly, his other hand pressed against the man's mouth to deaden the reflexive scream.

Kage Bunshin had given him the time he needed to train the action into that of a practiced assassin. Fluid, fast, and flawless.

But Naruto had no time to think, no time to ponder or reflect, because the reason for his easy path to the target revealed himself.

"Very, very impressive." The voice came from behind him, deep and gravelly, and definitely belonging to an older man.

The blond tried to turn and adopt a defensive position, but with speed that could only indicate a vastly powerful enemy, Naruto was prevented by two searing hot strikes that crashed through his shoulder blades, and almost caused him to pass out from the pain before he realised what had even been done to him.

A pair of short swords, Tanto from what Naruto's pain hazed mind could gather, had pierced him from behind and pinned him to the weak brickwork on the walls, and left him unable to move even slightly from his position without causing himself nigh on unbearable pain.

"And you are still conscious, too. Magnificent, even for a Jinchuuriki." The final word alone cut through to Naruto's mind, and the shock of hearing it was the jolt that the blond had needed to claw his way back into something close to clear thought. He knew what he was, which meant he was from Konoha...

"You... The enemy within... You're a Konoha shinobi!" Naruto's voice was weak, and tired, yet still somehow managed to be accusatory.

"Enemy? No, child. Everything I do, I do for the benefit of Konoha. I love the village just as much as my old friend Hiruzen. It is just that out methods... differ."

"Funny, I hadn't really noticed, but now you mention it, you're right - the old man never really seemed to be into coming at young boys from behind..." Naruto bit back uncharacteristically, his anger at whoever this man was comparing himself to the Sandaime lighting a fire within him, his anger and adrenaline allowing him to act with far more energy than he actually had.

"Such... wit. It's clear you have already begun to take on some of your Master's less desirable qualities... No matter. It is time we dispensed of the pleasantries. I came for two reasons, firstly to get a measure of your progress, and secondly, to deliver a message. Soon, Uzumaki Naruto, you will have to make a choice. The shadows, or the light; Konoha's future, or it's destruction; to live by the naive ideals of the previous Hokage, or to do what you must to protect the village. Choose incorrectly, Uzumaki, and I will guarantee that you will die. By the hands of Root, or Konoha's enemies. Decide wisely, Naruto, for there will not be a second chance."

And with that, the man made no further sound, and Naruto could detect no further hint of his presence; and finally, Naruto felt the last traces of adrenaline that was coursing through him abandon him, and he very nearly slumped to the floor in exhaustion, regardless of the blades pinning him to the wall, which would have resulted in what would quite possibly be a career ending injury.

He took a raspy, gurgling breath, and steeled himself even as warm blood trickled from the two wounds in his back, soaking the fabric of his black clothing - even as he coughed up even more of the thick, red liquid. Naruto knew this meant he was bleeding internally, and that his airways had been damaged. The blades themselves however, hadn't struck those areas, which meant they had been augmented with chakra, and it was that chakra that had done the damage. This in turn meant that the wounds would not heal so easily, and anybody but a Jinchuuriki likely would have already bled out and died at this point.

As it was, it was only the regenerative abilities that came with being the container of the Kyuubi keeping him alive, or even just awake enough to escape.

Most infuriatingly however, Naruto thought, was the fact that the man had known all of this. He wasn't even trying to kill the blond. Which meant that couldn't even claim escaping as a small victory.

He pressed both his shaking hands against the wall he was pinned to, as though he was about to do a press up, and began to steady his breathing in preparation for the pain he knew was about to come.

A strangled cry erupted from Naruto as he forced himself back from the wall, pulling the blades from the stone using the hilts against his back to ensure that he didn't just slide over them, causing himself even more damage. He staggered back once free from the wall, and fought momentarily to keep his balance, as pain and exhaustion-induced wooziness threatened to topple him.

His teeth ground as he fought through the pain to keep himself silent, even as he knew the very next part would hurt even more. Gripping the right blade in front of him between both his palms, held flat together as though he were praying, he pushed it back and out of him, and it clattered to the floor in a frenzy of blood, and crashing steel.

Moments later, Naruto joined it, bleeding heavily - albeit not as much as he likely should have been - and Naruto's only thought beyond the pain questioned his odds of making it back to Jiraiya in this state.

A brief respite was all he allowed himself before he readied his hands to repeat the process with the remaining blade - and pushed once more. This time, a strangled cry made it past his firmly gritted teeth, and finally tears of pain began to well in the blonde's eyes, the blurring of his vision letting Naruto know he had almost passed out from his efforts.

Breathing heavy, ragged breaths, he dragged himself to the bed and sat on the floor, leaning against it, his eyes locked on the frighteningly large splatters of his blood. Naruto's brain was racing. First, he needed to do something about the bleeding; then, he needed to get out of here, because there was no chance that he's be able to leave the same way he'd entered undiscovered - not with wounds like his.

He could feel his heart pounding furiously at his chest, pumping blood around his body in what would soon be a vain effort to cling to life, should Naruto not move soon; the effort ironically pushing him closer and closer to death as he lost more and more blood. He reached for the bedsheets on the bed above him, and clumsily tore them into strips, all the while fighting the urge to close his eyes and sleep, a move that would guarantee his death.

He wrapped the sheets around his abdomen tightly, trying desperately to stem the flow of blood from the wounds, each layer staining red almost as soon as he placed it upon himself. Eventually satisfied, he heaved himself to is feet, the effort very nearly too much for his exhausted body, and shuffled cautiously to the room's only window.

Without chakra, it would have been a stupendously difficult twenty foot vertical climb down. However, Naruto did have chakra, as he had barely used any for the mission itself, and so lowering himself out of the window to climb down the wall was far less daunting than perhaps it should have been with wounds such as his.

Despite that, he hadn't been prepared for the pain. The effort of supporting himself on the wall strained his stomach and back muscles, and subsequently the wounds; and very quickly, every inch of progress resulted him slipping ever further towards total exhaustion. Every step he took resulted in pain wracking his body, and made maintaining the concentration required to stay attached to the wall ever more difficult.

Being fair, Naruto's chakra control had never been all that in the first place.

The blond was only vaguely aware of it when it happened. Pain, tiredness, and the gradual slowing of his own heartbeat were the only things he had known during the climb that seemed to be lasting forever. That, and the only thing, the only goal he could keep his mind focused on. Keeping himself on that wall. Yet, he was only really aware that he was falling after a few seconds of freefall.

He never noticed that he had only made it a few feet down the wall before his body had given in.

Even as he fell, he could feel the acceptance course through him. He was going to die, and there was nothing he could do about it. His last fleeting thought was that, all things being fair, he was probably going to hell. The last thing he had ever done on this earth, his very last act of any significance, had been to kill a man in his sleep.

And finally, after an eternity, the bone shattering impact with... Something soft, and bouncy? Something, that Naruto couldn't help but think was strangely familiar.

"I swear - like father, like son. He never had a normal mission either. Right from the second he first left the village, it was freakishly strong enemies, or being heavily outnumbered deep in enemy territory every damn time."

Jiraiya sighed, though Naruto never heard it, having let unconsciousness take him.

"Cut me up just as badly whenever he ended up in a bad way, too. Let's get you patched up, kid. Can't have our future Hokage dying from blood loss now, can we?"

"Ah, Naruto-chan! Feeling better I take it?"

Naruto froze, one foot still in the small bedroom that he had spent the last week resting in, the other halfway out of the window that had taunted him with exotic glimpses of the legendary Mt. Myoboku ever since he had regained consciousness.

Smiling wryly, Fukasaku, whom Jiraiya had introduced as the Elder Toad and also a summon more powerful than Gamabunta himself, despite also being one of the most elderly, waved dismissively.

"Then go! Explore away! You have already earned enough respect amongst the toads by the way you have treated those you have summoned, and the promise you show as a warrior, so you will encounter no problems from the other toads venturing out yourself. In fact, how about I give you the guided tour? We can even have a spar - see how your recovery has been coming along?"

Naruto grinned, and eagerly accepted the offer. The Elder Toad and his wife, Shima, had been obscenely kind to Naruto during his stay, and had used their unique medical techniques to help him recover much faster than he would have in Konoha. Needless to say, he had grown incredibly fond of the pair, and they had even taken to helping him work on what he could whilst he rested - Shima had worked on Fuuinjutsu with him, a specialty of the toads, and taught him some incredibly useful seals, as well as tutoring him on constructing original seals, and general fuuinjutsu theory.

Fukasaku on the other hand, had gotten him meditating whilst he rested, trying to focus on feeling out his chakra. It was a unique method of learning chakra control which was particularly suited to those with large chakra reserves, albeit being more difficult. Traditionally, a shinobi would learn to control their chakra by learning to precisely control the amount of chakra they expended when performing an action, practicing being able to draw on less and less, and more and more exact amounts, until they had perfect control.

Jinchuriiki in particular found this difficult, especially those sealed properly, because of the sheer potency of their own chakra, the amount they possessed, and the small amount of their bijuu's chakra that was always present in their system.

Fukasaku's method instead focused on getting to know one's own chakra intimately. Learning it's feel, the way it flowed, molded, and circulated; until one could manipulate it finitely, instinctively. This was ideal for Naruto, as it meant that he would eventually be able to identify the traces of the Kyuubi's chakra by their feel and filter it from his system when he uses his chakra. If normal chakra control was comparable to controlling the amount of water flow from a tap, then Fukasaku's method seemed to be the equivalent of learning to draw directly from the water tank with a syringe.

Should he master the technique, his control could rival that of most ninja; potentially, after years and years of work, though unlikely because of his tenant, he could reach the levels of control a medical ninja has.

Either way, that was a long way off. For now, Naruto was simply enjoying the sights, and the sensations of being on his feet again. Mt Myoboku was a truly extraordinary, and unique place. Towering mushrooms, plants and flowers bursting with vivid colours - striking reds, purples, pinks, and oranges - the place was literally bursting with life. Birds as colourful and varied as the plants hovered and buzzed about the place, and insects both as tiny as ants, and as large and lumbering as elephants scratched and scurried in and out of the fauna - even the biggest somehow inexplicably disappearing from sight once they entered the thick undergrowth.

However, Naruto was not one for long periods of peace and relaxation, and the offer of a spar with one of the Elder Toads was a burning itch at the back of his mind that grew and grew as the time passed.

"So, Fukasaku-sama," Naruto began, trying and failing to appear as casual as possible. The Elder simply chuckled heartily.

"It's been too long since we've had a summoner quite as lively as you Naruto-chan. Even Jiraiya had some restraint. I've been able to sense your agitation for at least twenty minutes." The toad leapt from his spot upon Naruto's shoulder, and assumed an easy taijutsu stance in front of the blond. "What you don't seem to realise, however, is that I've been itching to spar you since you awoke, Naruto-chan. Beating on youngsters is a favorite past-time of mine, young one. Now, show me this new taijutsu style Jiraiya has told me all about. If it impresses, I may teach you the beginnings of Kawazu Kumite to add to it."

The benefits of being healed by the toads of Mt Myoboku included, according Fukasaku, included the prevention of stiffness, and muscle deterioration - you should be able to get up and go as soon as you're fully healed and rested, and Naruto certainly felt it, as he launched himself at the Elder Toad by way of a response to his taunts and struck out with a swift sweeping kick.

The Toad parried with frightening ease, one handed, confident smile upon his face, never breaking eye contact with the blond; before darting forward inside Naruto's guard and leaping up to head height and attacking with a series of acrobatic punches and kicks of impressive power, that had the Genin furiously backpedaling, dodging and blocking at speeds he had never really been forced into before, and it wasn't long before he had begun to sweat lightly.

Fukasaku needed only to touch lightly upon the ground with one foot, before launching himself again at Naruto, delivering another barrage of relentless attacks. And it was this moment, that Naruto decided to capitalize upon, driving forward just as the toad launched towards him, resulting in the amphibian overshooting the jump, giving Naruto the time to create a Kage Bunshin that launched itself off the shoulder of the blond, right at the toad, attempting to deliver it's own set of attacks.

However, Fukasaku was one step ahead, and spun in the air, catching the blond with a crashing roundhouse kick, dispelling it instantaneously.

Naruto and another Bunshin pounced the moment Fukasaku hit the ground, trying to attack before the toad had set himself, but he hadn't accounted for the anatomy of the Elder, as he used the springy nature of his rear legs to immediately launch himself right through the middle of the Bunshin with a single two fisted blow. He hadn't however, expected Naruto's next move, a Kaminari Muchi wrapping itself round his ankle, dragging him back towards the blond, off-balance, and unable to set up an attack.

He smiled internally. He was holding back, of course, but all modesty aside, he was incredibly powerful, and Naruto seemed to be coping admirably for one of his experience and age. His technique and form were obviously well practiced, and for the most part flawless; and his taijutsu style, or rather the way it was created out of small parts other styles that meshed well together, seemed to accentuate the blond's natural unpredictability.

Fukasaku was fast enough to compensate without the blond realizing he was doing it, but more than once already he had set himself to block a right hook, only to find Naruto lashing out with a left-legged roundhouse and so on. It spoke well of Naruto's instincts and knowledge that he had been able to piece together such an effective style out of the most basic parts of others, and then go on to use it to it's fullest potential.

Good fortune willing, and with a lot of hard work, there would be few ninja capable of standing up to Uzumaki Naruto in a few years. Unfortunately for him, most of those ninja also happened to be in Akatsuki.

Still, the toads had already pledged to Jiraiya to help in any way he can, and the Elder certainly intended to do his part to ensure that Naruto survive what was to come.

The punch that Naruto had primed, met the arm of Fukasaku, and the toad used the momentum Naruto had provided in order to spin in mid air, landing a heavy blow with his heel that sent Naruto tumbling back along the grounds, nursing a bruised jaw.

"Very good my boy, very good!" The toad exclaimed overly cheerfully, even as the Genin dragged himself to his feet, muttering under his breath. "As you know, Jiraiya-chan left to report to the Hokagbout your successful missions. What he didn't tell you, however, is that he has asked me if I would be willing to whip you into shape for the Chunin exams that are coming up - I hear you have a tough opponent after your head, my boy. Whaddya say? A two week, all round, intensive training course under the famed Toads of Mt Myoboku? Or is that too much for you to handle, Naruto-chan?"

Naruto grinned and assumed an easy taijutsu stance.

"A better question, Old Man, is whether or not you can handle me for that long."

One Week Later

Hana slumped to the floor, another day of back breaking work finally over. Her spar with Naruto had been a bit of an eye opener for her, in all honesty.

She hadn't held back.

She, in the end, had gone at Naruto with every thing she had, and he had brushed her aside at a canter. He of course had said otherwise. He was much too kind not to have done so, but she knew it was true nonetheless. Of course, she had accepted that in out and out fights, because of her role as a medic, and all the extra training that brings, she would fall behind as a combatant slightly because her role was different.

But Naruto had been a newly minted Genin. She had been taking missions for three years. Granted, Naruto worked freakishly hard, and was a natural fighter, but even so, Hana's showing in her opinion, had been dismal.

And so, she had vowed to get better; and, only a week ago now, she had been given another source of motivation - she was to be partnered with Naruto, who didn't have a team, for the Chunin exams, and only had a fortnight to prepare.

There was now way she could let Naruto down after the way he had fought on their first mission together, and given her recent ponderings, she felt as though she needed to prove herself a capable fighter as well as medic, if not to the rest of Konoha, then to herself. The week had passed, and during it, she had thrown herself into training with her old sensei and her mother, determined that she would be better, both for herself, and for Naruto.

Shikamaru grimaced as he blocked a fierce punch from Asuma, and stepped back out of range of the follow up kick.

Naruto's warning had been brief, a small uttered sentence as they passed on the street. Dangerous enemy. Chunin exams. Be ready. But that had been enough for Shikamaru to take heed. The blond was uncharacteristically serious as he spoke, and the genuine worry that he practically radiated was so out of place on Naruto that Shikamaru decided that it was likely that not increasing his own level of training again would be the more troublesome of his options.

So a word in Asuma's ear about it, and Team 10's training had gone up yet another excruciating notch. Worryingly, Asuma seemed to understand the blond's vague warning, which meant that whatever Naruto had been talking about, was severe enough to be a threat to village security, and as the Nara had decided would be the thing to expect from Naruto, the blond was sure to at the fore whenever whatever it was, struck.

The only thing Nara Shikamaru knew for certain, was that this time, he would be standing alongside his friend when it did happened.