"They will hunt you, Uzumaki Naruto."

Blue eyes, normally vibrant with energy, were shadowed, contemplative even. It was a sight to behold on the blond haired, blue eyed seven year old, though no one was around to see it. A gust of wind gently ruffled the boy's hair as he overlooked the village from on top of the Yondaime Hokage's head.

The eyes, while staring at the vast village below, saw none of it. They saw not the Administration Building, nor the Grand Archive, the Shinobi Academy, or any other building of note. They did, however, see the faint outlines of the numerous shinobi hurriedly entering and exiting the Uchiha District. The once proud, sprawling clan compound was now littered with the blood and corpses of its former members.

And he had met the man who had done the deed.

"Wha-what?" the short blond asked his uninvited house guest. The boy had experienced some frightening moments in his life, not the least of which had been what he had determined to be an assassination attempt when he was four. This one was beginning to move up the list.

Those red eyes were both awesome and terrifying, their burning intensity belying the churning emotions behind the emotionless mask his guest wore.

"They will hunt you, Uzumaki Naruto," Uchiha Itachi spoke. His voice was nearly a monotone, lacking both emotion and inflection that was commonly used. "They will hunt you. They will find you. And they will kill you."

Just behind the terror he was feeling, only compounded by the blood spattered ANBU armor the teenager wore, he realized that the shinobi was giving him a message. "W-why? Why are you telling me this?" Naruto asked, his voice quavering.

"To serve as a warning. Those who would hunt you are both numerous and powerful, some far more powerful than myself," Naruto's once silent protector told him. "There will come a time when the Sandaime's protection will not be enough, a time when this village can no longer protect you. I warn you now so that you may be ready for that day."

Naruto, in his entranced state of heightened fear, could not even nod in acceptance of the teenagers point. "Who?" he squeaked. Inwardly, he mentally berated himself of showing such weakness in front of the teenager, though he really couldn't help it. An entire village full of people whose animosity was only barely concealed couldn't break him, so how could this lone teenager inspire such fear in him.

Itachi paused, seeming to weigh whether or not he should tell Naruto, before, "Akatsuki, and a man named Uchiha Madara."

Abruptly, the sense of imminent doom and terror subsided, left with only confusion as the red eyes faded to black. The teenage ANBU made a single seal, before vanishing silently with a small gust of wind.

His parting words were but a faded whisper upon a breeze.

"Survive, Uzumaki Naruto."

Needless to say, he hadn't been able to sleep. That led him to where he was now, seated atop the stone head of Konoha's greatest hero. It wasn't the most common occurrence to find the blond there, but it was one of the boy's few true haunts; a place where he could be alone to think, away from the judgmental eyes of the villagers.

Naruto usually avoided this spot, preferring to spend his free time training or executing a well thought out prank on some unsuspecting villager, rather than thinking. Thinking was boring, and often painful.

While many, his academy classmates included, would say this as confirmation of his lack of intelligence, it was far from the case. While not the sharpest kunai in the holster, Naruto was far from unintelligent. He merely applied himself to other pursuits.

Thinking was painful because it inevitably led to questions. Tough questions, painful questions, and questions that no one seemed to want to answer. Not even old man Sandaime would answer those questions, and he was one of the few people who were nice to Naruto.

Thinking led to questions like: who his parents were, and why did no one seem to know who they were when he asked? Why did a man in black try to kill him three years ago? Why did everyone seem to hate him, down to the last villager?

With such unanswerable questions plaguing his young mind, it would come as no surprise to anyone that the boy did his best to avoid true introspective thought at all costs. He succeeded too.

Not this time, though.

This time, there was no avoiding the questions, though they were of a different sort. Who was 'Akatsuki'? Who was Uchiha Madara?

Naruto hardly felt that he could go to the Sandaime with questions like these. After all, he couldn't answer the easy questions, like who Naruto's parents were. Why would the old man be able to answer these?

And why would Itachi tell him what he did?

If nothing else, Naruto's thoughts were revolving around this one question the most. He had learned of the teenage ANBU's name when he had made his way to where he was now. He had heard many on duty shinobi speak the name in whispers as he snuck by them. Others had cursed it violently for the destruction he had single handedly carried out.

The fact that the executioner of the Uchiha Clan had warned him of people out to kill him only made the question that much more confusing, and the answer that much more tantalizing.

Not for the first time in his seven years of living, Naruto was confused. It wasn't a feeling he liked. He needed answers, and he needed them quickly, before he could decide what he was going to do.

Unbidden, a statement from one of his sensei's – he thought the scarred man's name was Iruka – made its way to his mind: Information is the backbone of the true shinobi. Without it, a living shinobi was soon to become a dead shinobi.

His course set, he would gather the necessary information before setting a plan of action. According to Itachi, his life was in danger. This was a matter to be taken most seriously, even more seriously than his pranks and his dream to be Hokage. He couldn't just wing it like he usually did.

Blue eyes coming back into focus, Naruto snapped his attention to the circular, black building that served as the Grand Archive. It wasn't a place that Naruto frequented often.

Memories of his last visit to the Archive made themselves known, and Naruto scratched the back of his head, letting out a nervous laugh, unknowingly dispelling the tension in his body. This may prove to be a bit harder than he had first imagined.


As the Archive workers were still bitter about having their workplace desecrated – orange was a great color, in Naruto's opinion at least – he was left with only one option.

It had taken him the better part of two months, but he had managed to master the Henge no jutsu. It hadn't been easy, not by any stretch of the mill.

As neither of his instructors – the scarred man was named Iruka – had consented to teach him the E-rank ninjutsu, they had said he was nowhere near advanced enough, he had had to resort to more extreme measures.

His first had been his tried and true patented spying. He had snuck out of class in order to watch some of the older students practice the technique, and had "inadvertently" overheard what their instructors were telling them to do with their chakra.

Now, Naruto was far more intelligent than his classmates and teachers gave him credit for, but he wasn't at the level to be able to reverse engineer a technique just by watching it and listening to some vague tips not meant for his ears. His second measure had been the Academy Library, small though it was.

He had thought Suzume-sensei was going to have a heart attack when he asked her where to find a scroll on the Henge. The mousy chunin had looked put out at being forced to help the whiskered student, but had been unable to find a good enough excuse to refuse the blond.

From there it had been naught but nigh endless hours of training as he attempted to figure out the secrets behind the Henge. It likely would have taken him longer, had fortune not smiled on him as he was listening in on a conversation between an older student and an instructor.

Apparently, the trainee was using too much chakra for the Henge to work properly, and the instructor set the girl to doing the leaf sticking exercise, in order to help the girl limit her flow of chakra into the jutsu.

The scroll had said nothing of the sort was necessary, and it was only sheer luck that Naruto had happened upon that gem of information.

Once he had completed the leaf sticking exercise, no easy feat for the blond – he discovered he had a lot of chakra, more than all the students in his class, at least – the Henge became that much easier, and the mastery of the technique finally boiled down to sheer concentration.

And so, he found himself once more outside the Grand Archive, staring dispassionately at the symbol for Fire that was engraved on the side. He took a strand of mousy brown hair in his fingers, quickly checking to make sure that the Henge was still in effect, before striding forward confidently.

Opening the double glass doors, Naruto felt the stale air of the Archive brush over him, grimacing in distaste as the smell of old parchment and paper made itself apparent. Moving quickly, he wanted to spend as little time as physically possible in here, he approached the reference center. Stopping in front of the half circle of wood, his presence was noticed by an attractive, auburn haired girl who looked no older than thirteen.

"May I help you?" she asked politely, her voice having a pleasant lilt to it. A smile appeared on her face as she took in the form of the seven year old.

Naruto barely withheld a scowl. It had been this girl who had denied him entry two months previous, citing that he was banned until such a point when he became a full fledged shinobi. She had been rather polite about it, but it didn't raise Naruto's opinion of her.

"Where can I find information on the Uchiha Clan?" he asked, using his best "innocent" look. It was complete with wide blue eyes, the only defining feature Naruto had left unchanged by his Henge.

The girl didn't bat an eye when he asked for information about the once great clan. He assumed that he wasn't the only one looking to become more informed of them since their rather untimely demise. "Right this way, dear," she said with a smile. It was a pretty smile.

He followed the attractive girl to the middle of the library that had been marked and designated as 'Clans'. From what little Naruto understood about the Archive, he knew that this area held all the non-classified information on Konoha's various shinobi clans. The information was far from sensitive, though it often contained some small amount of information about the better known clan techniques. The majority, however, dealt with clan history.

Hopefully, that would be all that Naruto would need.

He quietly thanked the pretty girl who had helped him, receiving an offer for any future help that he may need. Her name was Mai.

He tentatively opened the book that the assistant had gotten for him, and was promptly confused. The history book, like all others, started at the beginning. It was a general book, dealing with some information dating back before the founding of Konoha, though not much. It came as quite the surprise to find the name Uchiha Madara on the first page.

Naruto sighed heavily. The book stated that Madara had been one of Konoha's founding fathers, alongside Senju Hashirama, Konoha's Shodai. That made him older than the Sandaime by a few decades. It was going to be one of those days.

That, of course, raised even more questions. Naruto highly doubted that Itachi had intentionally misled him. Naruto had had a few encounters with the Uchiha before that night, and it simply wasn't in the stoic teenager's nature to give misinformation. The boy had been the epitome of professionalism. Not to mention, he was in ANBU. Everyone in the village knew that those guys had no sense of humor.

With all other avenues exhausted, Naruto's young mind was forced to wrap around the idea that either Itachi had been wrong, or that Madara really was alive.

Regardless, he had work to do. Even if Itachi had been wrong about Madara, Naruto didn't think he would mislead him about having some shady organization after his head. Itachi had also said that some members were stronger than him. Now, while Naruto had no real idea of how strong Itachi was, he had apparently wiped out the Uchiha Clan single-handedly. That took some serious skills. If people stronger than Itachi were after him…Naruto shuddered. He didn't want to think about what might happen.

Hell, he didn't even know if these mysterious murderers were even stronger than the Sandaime. Two months ago, he wouldn't have even entertained the notion. The old man was Hokage. He was the strongest. The last two months of observation and training had opened his eyes some, though, and Itachi's message hadn't done much to help him keep a stable world view.

The truth of the matter was, the old man was, well, old. While old didn't mean weak, he was still the Hokage after all, being old certainly didn't make him any better. Not physically at least. He couldn't remember how many times the old man had preached to him about how a shinobi needed to use his mind just as much, if not more, than his body.

Naruto was starting to see how that might be necessary.

Itachi was a thinker, if all he had heard about the prodigy lately had been true. The old man was a thinker, a great one, if Iruka-sensei's lectures about Konoha's history were to be believed. Hell, this Madara character was likely a thinker. If he really was alive, which was doubtful – the book said he had lost a battle with the Shodai, and had never been seen again – then he must have been pretty smart to survive unnoticed for so long.

Naruto shook his head, closing his book lightly, watching dispassionately as the resulting displaced air fluttered some pages that were spread across his table. Looking outside, he noticed that some time had passed. The sun had moved enough that a couple of hours might well have gone by. How he hated thinking.

He stood fluidly, stretching his tight muscles. Naruto brushed an errant lock of brown hair out of his face as he moved to the front of the Achive. He gave his book to the attendant; it wasn't the same girl as before, he noted. Too bad.

Stepping out of the grand building, his eyes automatically found the face of the Fourth Hokage. His idol. He shook his head. Nothing was the same any more. His grand dream to be Hokage seemed insignificant compared to the monumental mountain that had been dropped in front of him. With becoming Hokage, he had had time. Plenty of it, in fact. The path had been fairly clear cut, as well. Genin, chunin, jonin, they were all milestones on his grand journey.

Now though, he had to survive. He sighed heavily, it was becoming a pattern.

Glancing around the street, Naruto observed the crowd moving back and forth. Not a single one looked his way. That wasn't anything new, at least. It really was amazing how alone you could be in a crowd.

Unbidden, a scowl crossed his seven year old visage. Had he looked in the mirror, he would have wondered who was staring back. What did these people have against him? What had he ever done? Nothing, save a few rather harmless pranks. They had ignored him even before that.

Acknowledgement? Fuck that. He had bigger things to worry about now.

"Akatsuki." He tested the name of his new enemy. A familiar determination spread through him, igniting his nerves and giving him Goosebumps. He'd show them. All of them. No villager, ninja, or even Uchiha Madara himself would stop him.

Uzumaki Naruto wasn't going down without a fight, and a damn good one at that. Believe it.


Naruto exhaled slowly as his kick split the air. Pulling it back at the knee, while still keeping the leg airborne, he kicked out once more, just as slowly.

He had been doing much of that lately. His new determination to survive had sparked sessions of intense training. Unfortunately, his instructors at the Academy had been less than helpful in his endeavors to better himself. They had said he needed a more solid foundation before he could learn more advanced techniques. Naruto was starting to see what they meant.

Before, he would have simply brushed their comments off, disregarding them in the face of his undeniable awesomeness. It turned out that he wasn't really that awesome. He had Uchiha Sasuke to thank for that little lesson.

Unfortunately, he had apparently made such a bad impression on his teachers that they were unwilling to help, even when he asked for some remedial lessons. That had pissed the blond off like nothing else. Here he was, swallowing his pride and looking to advance his skills, and they simply brushed him off. Weren't they paid to teach people? Last he checked, he was still a person.

Apparently they had more pressing matters to attend to.

He had considered appealing to the Hokage, surely he would be able to make them help out, but had hesitated. He had been somewhat wary of the office of late. Itachi's warning still rang true in his ears during his moments of introspection.

"There will come a time when the Sandaime's protection will not be enough…"

If he couldn't solve a small problem like this without help from the old man, how would he ever be able to survive against a group of ninja dedicated to his death? That decided it. He would deal with his problems on his own.

That, naturally, had lead him to where he was presently: dancing through the Academy's taijutsu katas. Well, more like stumbling through. It turned out that learning taijutsu wasn't all that easy on one's own. Scrolls could only help so much, as one couldn't really be sure if they were doing the move correctly. Stances were hard to gauge, proper footing was impossible to know, one could never be sure of block, and most all but the simplest maneuvers were almost out of reach. If one wanted to do them right that is.

Learning crappy taijutsu from a scroll was easy.

Sitting on the grass gently, Naruto pulled a ball of bandages from his hip pouch. He began wrapping his hands. When he didn't move through the katas of the Academy, he punched logs. It was boring, mindless, and tedious, but it helped to strengthen his fists and was therefore useful.

If it was useful, he did it. That was part of his new nindo, his ninja way.

Punching, at least, was something he knew he was doing correctly. It was one of the few things the academy instructors had consented to help him with. It fit the m.o. of the staff there perfectly, at least in regards to him. They almost never outright refused to help him, and when they did they usually had some contrived reason, but they always did the bare minimum when it came to their help. Useless chunin, the blond thought uncharitably.

Brooding and negative thoughts weren't something Naruto liked to have most of the time, they certainly didn't help keep his spirits up in regards to his new objective, but he found himself having them more and more. This was especially the case when the various offences against him kept piling up. Just the other day he had overhear Yamanaka Ino asking for help with her taijutsu – an occurrence that wasn't common – and Iruka-sensei had been only too happy to help. Bloody hypocrite.

He wasn't sure if these movements against him were new or if he was just more observant of them, but they were all downright annoying. Some were to the point of being deliberately harmful to him. His instructors wouldn't teach him much of anything, shopkeepers sold him crappy goods – if at all – and that didn't even begin to cover how many people outright glared at him when he walked by.

His former dreams of acknowledgement and acceptance were becoming distant memories as he noticed the hatred the Konoha populace seemed to have for him. He wondered how he had brushed it off before.

Fury spiked through him. What had he done to them? What the hell could he have possibly done to deserve such hatred? The answer was nothing.

The training log met his fist with a brutal 'thunk', and Naruto recoiled in pain before deflating. He had channeled all of his pent up anger into that punch. He didn't even splinter the wood. "Kami damn it!" he cursed softly. He cradled his right arm to his body, watching as the blood seeped through the bandages.

He jumped in surprise, startled as a hand came to rest on his shoulder. The sight that met his eyes was an odd one.

"It warms my heart indeed to see such youthful fire burning in one so young!" the man said. He was dressed in a green leotard, likely made of spandex, orange leg warmers, and a standard flak vest that was issued to all Konoha ninja chunin and above. Naruto, however, had his eyes fixed on the man's face. Those things above his eyes had to be caterpillars. There was no other explanation for eyebrows that big.

"Who are you?" Naruto asked, complete with all the bluntness of a seven year old. Who needed tact?

Apparently, Maito Gai didn't, as he introduced himself exuberantly; much to Naruto's confusion. "I couldn't help but notice your practice of taijutsu. A fine endeavor indeed for as young as yourself, but…" he trailed off his head cocked to the side thoughtfully.

The cleverness that had turned Naruto into a rather infamous prankster reared its head. Violently. "Is there something wrong with my taijutsu, Maito-san?" he asked, sensing an opening. The green clad man was strong, of that there was no doubt in the boy's mind. If he was willing to help him…

"I'm afraid so Naruto-kun." Naruto hadn't had to introduce himself. "For you see, taijutsu is an art that needs to be taught from sensei to student, and scrolls can only take one so far." Gai's voice had adopted a lecturing, almost sage like quality. "Do not fret, though! I, Konoha's beautiful Green Beast would be more than happy to help one so clearly in the springtime of youth!"

Naruto wasn't quite sure what the man meant about beasts and the like, but he was pretty sure that he had just offered to teach him. That wasn't something he was about to pass up.


One month. Four weeks. If he ever looked back, Naruto was sure that he would remember these past weeks. The aches, pains, and almost never ending soreness would ensure that. Gai had been impressed with his stamina regardless, but Naruto wished he could have done more.

Truly, the man deserved his self determined moniker. He was a beast indeed.

Four weeks of almost nothing but taijutsu training. He couldn't be happier with his progress. He had been intense at the start, hoping to impress the helpful jonin enough so that he wouldn't simply brush him off. That had lasted until he had looked the man up. His intensity had likely tripled after that.

Maito Gai. A taijutsu master. The taijutsu master if the records were to be believed. The man was Konoha's foremost expert on the particular branch of the ninja arts. He was also a rather formidable jonin. He ranked somewhere in Konoha's top ten.

And he had just decided to help him, for no other reason than to help out a child full of "youthful fire". It was amazing. Looked like even he could catch a lucky break sometimes.

The man really knew his subject too. Stances became rigid. Blocks and guards were solidified. Punches, kicks and other maneuvers became fluid under the man's teaching. His speed had increased too. The eccentric jonin had been kind enough to foot the bill for a set of leg weights for Naruto, though he had stressed the concept of proper rest. It wouldn't do to injure himself because he bit off more than he could chew.

Really, he couldn't have been luckier. The standing invitation to train with him and his "youthful student" was going to be exploited as much as possible.

He knew he was far from a taijutsu master. He likely wasn't even the best in his class; that honor belonged to the enigmatic Uchiha Sasuke, certified genius that he was. Even so, his brief time under Gai's tutelage had placed him at the middle of the pack at the least, as recent spars had shown. He was likely better than that, but it was always best to maintain a humble attitude toward one's own skills. His humility had been forced upon him via necessity.

It was all for the best, however, as he was finally starting to make some progress. A solid foundation was the key to future success.

Taijutsu hadn't been the only thing that Gai had helped him with. His accuracy had improved tremendously with thrown weapons. His technique had been inefficient, apparently. It wasn't overtly bad and would get the job done, but he lost a lot of potential power behind his throws, and accuracy was hard to come by, especially as he wasn't always using the exact same motion each time.

Some of the anger he had felt then threatened to spill out as he shut the door to his apartment, all one room of it. He had learned his throwing technique at the Academy. It fit the way the teachers operated perfectly. The taught technique would get the job done. It just wasn't as good as it could or should be. The inferior technique could easily be blamed on Naruto's lack of attention and practice, if it ever came under question.

He had vented his anger in the taijutsu work he had done later that day, though some of it still remained. His emotional control wasn't helped any by the liberal helping of glares he received as he wove through Konoha's morning crowds. He kept his eyes firmly forward, if not on his feet. He knew it wasn't below some villagers to cuff him if he appeared antagonistic, especially in a crowd. That had been the start of his bubbly persona. They had no reason to do anything to him if he was constantly friendly and outgoing.

What a waste that had been. Striving for their acknowledgement had likely been the largest waste of his time in his seven years of living. He still did to some extent, as only an emotionally neglected child could, but he had much bigger things to worry about.

The game had changed. Striving for the acknowledgement and attention of an antagonistic populace had no place in his fight to survive. It was a refreshing change of mind.

Blinking, Naruto noticed with some wonder that his feet had brought him to the Academy. Had he really been that lost in thought? He scoffed. His academy instructors would likely have to pick their jaws off the floor if they knew how much he was thinking these days. It clashed horribly with their view of him. That likely wouldn't change for some time, though he suspected his new effort in class would draw some attention. He didn't hold out hope that it would be the good kind.

He took his seat with a short nod and smile to Inuzuka Kiba. The canine ninja was one of his running buddies whenever they had decided to cut class, though Naruto was seriously cutting back.

"Any idea what t'day's lecture's gonna be about?" he asked Nara Shikamaru gruffly. The boy was smart. He was also lazy. He thought he was likely the laziest person in all of Fire Country. Akimichi CHouji disagreed. He thought he was the laziest person in the whole Elemental Nations.

The boy grunted. He was obviously too bothered to answer. Sleep was a full time job for Shikamaru, much like eating was a full time job for Chouji. Naruto didn't complain. He often got to mooch some of the boy's endless chips.

"Too troublesome to answer?" he asked with a foxy grin. The lack of answer was expected. "Bah, it'll prolly be boring all the same. Right, Chouji?"

"Probably, Naruto. Chip?"

"Thanks, mate."

The lecture was boring. Not that that was ever truly in question. While Naruto admitted that the scarred chunin knew his stuff, he could at least make an effort to make it somewhat engaging. It didn't help matters that the information likely wouldn't serve any purpose beyond the Academy tests. Who really needed to know about the mysterious figure that was the Shodai's wife? Not everyone was Haruno Sakura or Yamanaka Ino with their academic drive.

A soft smile rose to the blonde's face as he thought about the pretty blond haired girl.

After the lecture, Iruka brought the class to the weapon's range. Each student had a slot where they were supposed to sink six shuriken, the standard brace size, into the target. It was harder than Iruka and Mizuki, his assistant, made it look. Practice normally went on for half an hour, while the two instructors would make their way through the group of students and correct them where they saw fit. Naruto was often left for last. More often than not, his "instruction" got cut off when the practice ended.

He could deal with that though. Accuracy was one thing that could be improved on one's own. Now that his technique was fixed up, he hoped that his accuracy would rise.

It proved true not a few moments later. He smiled in satisfaction as he caught his breath – it had become heavier as he put force into the throws. Four of the six were imbedded in the target. One was not even an inch off the bull's-eye. Two thirds was good, considering he was barely at one third just a month ago.

Progress was slow, he thought as he removed the shuriken from the target, but it was still progress.

Moving back to his starting line, he launched all six stars again, this time one at a time. Four out of the six stuck again, but one had glanced off another, the angle so perfect that it had directed the shuriken into the bull's-eye. His smirk threatened to split his face when he caught sight of Iruka's raised brows.

"What'd you think of that, Iruka-sensei?" he asked obnoxiously. The scarred man called an end to practice without an answer.

He'd have to work on that trick. It might come in handy some day, though he suspected that it might be easier with kunai. The short blades were a larger target by design; they were also heavier, making it easier to affect them in flight while still keeping on target. Shuriken were too light for that sort of intentional showmanship.

The rest of the class didn't need to know that though. Uchiha Sasuke had an unknown look on his face. It seemed calculating to Naruto's untrained eyes, but who was to say?

From target practice, the class moved to the center of the Academy's designated training ground. That meant it was time for sparring. The one on one bouts were viewed by the whole class. Once the fight was finished, the instructor, be it Iruka or Mizuki, would review the fight with the class as a whole. They often went over strategy and what worked and what didn't. The student's were often tasked with coming up with their own solutions to the problems they had, the idea being that one learned more if they fixed the problem themselves. The instructors were always available to help, however. At least if your name wasn't Uzumaki Naruto.

The fights proceeded without incident. Kiba had too much focus on full frontal attacks. Shikamaru was too defensive. Chouji made openings for himself, but hesitated too much. Sakura needed more punching power. Ino needed a haircut, though not much else. Shino was too stiff with his movements. Hinata hesitated twice as much as Chouji, though her Jyuuken made up for most of her other faults.

In the end, it was down to Naruto and Sasuke. Naruto didn't know the meaning of the word cliché, but that's how he would have described it if he did. Iruka-sensei was most likely trying to take him down a peg or five. Uchiha Sasuke was the class' resident genius. No one save Shino and Kiba had ever managed to get more than a glancing blow on the boy. Naruto didn't much care.

The class spread out from the two fighters. The combatants were encouraged to use their environment to their advantage, so being too close to the fight was just asking for trouble. Suitably competitive fighters wouldn't hesitate to bowl over anyone who happened to get in their way. Naruto winced in remembrance of when he was used as a shield by Ino when she had fought Sakura two classes previous. He didn't quite know where the instructors got off telling the girl she needed more punching power.

Naruto bounced on the balls of his feet as the crowd of students backed up. Gai's lessons about having an explosive first step sounded loudly through his mind. The initiative could decide the outcome of a fight better than any level of skill. Most shinobi fights didn't last long enough for true skill to shine through.

Iruka signaled the start of the fight. Naruto sprang forward, hoping to steal the initiative. His right leg shot out in a near-perfect mid-air roundhouse kick. He hit nothing but air as Sasuke ducked under the strike.

The raven haired boy didn't wait for Naruto to recover, snapping a quick kick at Naruto's chest from his low position. The blond blocked with both arms crossed, but winced lightly as the kick connected. Sasuke wasn't much bigger than him, but he hit hard. Doesn't matter, Naruto thought fiercely.

His landing was less graceful than he would have liked, but he regained his footing nonetheless. It wasn't a moment too soon, as Naruto moved his face to the left to avoid Sasuke's fist. The displaced air whispered across his skin as he moved inside the Uchiha's guard, snapping off a backhand fist that connected solidly with Sasuke's face.

If the Uchiha was surprised at being hit, he didn't show it. The boy rolled with the punch, and snapped off one of his own that was blocked by Naruto's face. The two separated quickly, Naruto blinking back tears of pain. He glared fiercely at his opponent, though his feeble attempt to turn him to ash failed.

Muscles flexed, coiled, and uncoiled as the two boys threw themselves back into the fight, each looking for almost nonexistent openings in each other's guard. Naruto, so far, was thoroughly pleased with the encounter. He had held his own quite well.

He had watched the Uchiha's fights closely in the past months, and he had managed to develop a thin sort of strategy. The best plans were the flexible ones. His first hope for the fight had been to take the initiative early. That attempt had failed rather easily, and he now had to reevaluate his options.

He made a split second decision.

Leaping head first into the fray, Naruto jumped inside the larger boy's guard but, instead of immediately attacking, feinted forward. Sasuke reacted instinctively, bringing his right arm into a textbook guard, but was unprepared for Naruto to grab the offending appendage. From there, life was good for the blond as he laid two heavy haymakers into the Uchiha's face before the raven haired boy managed to wrench himself from Naruto's grip.

Sasuke made to make space, but Naruto wasn't giving up that easily. Charging forward, Naruto made to strike high, but dropped at the last moment and performed a textbook leg sweep. The Uchiha was knocked of his feet, but acquitted himself nicely by landing a solid kick to Naruto's stomach.

The raven haired boy landed an uppercut to Naruto's chin, but received a smack to both ears in return. Naruto, reeling from the blow, shook his head before charging low. The Uchiha was unprepared for the blonde's bum-rush maneuver, and had the wind knocked out of him as he hit the ground hard.

Naruto, while both smaller and lighter than Sasuke, had unintentionally managed to position himself perfectly on top of his opponent, ensuring that Sasuke couldn't maneuver his body to a certain extent. Leaning forward, he laid into the Uchiha, landing five hard punches to the boy's face.

Victory was in his sights, as Iruka would surely call the match. Naruto peripherally felt a pair of legs snap around his neck, and blinked in confusion as he saw a victorious snarl cross Sasuke's face.

He opened his eyes blearily. Huh, the sky is really blue, isn't it? he thought. A scarred face disrupted his view. "Neh, Iruka-sensei! You ruined my view," he complained loudly. The sound of laughter assaulted his ears, and he turned his head in order to view his tittering classmates.

"Get up, Naruto," Iruka demanded. Naruto noticed it wasn't quite as harsh as usual. He brushed it off; it wasn't important. He reluctantly obliged the chunin, though his body seemed to protest. Loudly.

"As you were unconscious at the time, you don't know what the class went over after your fight. I suggest you get the notes from one of your classmates," the instructor stated stiffly. Naruto just nodded in acceptance. His memories of the fight were flowing back rather steadily.

His only mistake had been leaning too low over Sasuke when he had had him pinned. Being too low allowed for one's opponent to apply a leg-choke-hold. Sasuke had apparently demonstrated this rather well, as Naruto managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. He grimaced as feeling returned to his neck.

Blue eyes sought onyx as Naruto glanced about. He spied Sasuke with an ice pack held to his jaw. He glared balefully at those who attempted to help him. Apparently, he didn't need any help. The newly forming bruises on his face didn't agree.

As Naruto caught the clan heir's attention, he nodded, hoping to convey the message "good fight" through the simple gesture. Surprisingly, Sasuke nodded back.


A twelve year old Naruto sputtered as he spit grass out of his mouth. I guess this is what they mean by eating dirt.

It was a rare occurrence, thankfully. The taste of grass and dirt was not one that Naruto wanted to get used to. Unfortunately, his sparring partner had other ideas.

Naruto didn't even flinch as he narrowly avoided a chakra enhanced haymaker. He had enough bruises coming from this fight already. He wasn't about to let Sasuke land a near cheap shot on his face that easily.

The blond danced out of the way of his sparring partner's follow kick easily. It looked almost choreographed in its simplicity.

Footwork changed, stances flowed, and Naruto sprang forward with the force of a cannon, his weight and chakra carefully flowing into his outstretched elbow. Air whistled past his ears and he snarled happily as Sasuke was only able to redirect the blow. The elbow had caught him in the right shoulder, spinning him round.

Two steps and a minor weight adjustment later, Naruto's left footed roundhouse kick had sent Sasuke hurtling toward a nearby tree. The boy managed to right himself in mid-air, and landed gracefully. Red eyes regarded Naruto balefully as their owner clutched his chest.

Blue eyes narrowed and Naruto sighed inwardly. Sasuke had activated his Sharingan not a full year ago; he had managed to get dragged into "testing its limits" as the young Uchiha put it. He could say with full honesty that he hated those eyes. It had been more than difficult to keep up the clan heir before he had activated his kekkei genkai. Now it was nearly impossible.

His taijutsu superiority had all but disappeared in the last year, his tri-weekly sessions with Gai having little effect overall. That wasn't to say that he wasn't improving. It was just that Sasuke's already high learning curve became even higher. Bloody genius.

The Uchiha had made one of the smarter decisions of his life once he had activated the famed dojutsu. He had decided against letting the world know about it. Naruto heartily approved. A shinobi always had his secrets. Just like Naruto would never let Sasuke know that he wore a full set of both leg and arm weights under his long sleeved clothing.

It wouldn't do well to reveal his trump card. Naruto was sure that Sasuke had a few tricks up his short sleeves as well.

Naruto absently dodged a high kick to the neck, and moved swiftly under its follow up. Snapping out a palm, he felt the heel of his hand just miss its target, Sasuke's eyes allowing him to predict the motion before it was complete. The offending appendage was grabbed tightly, but pushed himself forward, rather than back, throwing Sasuke off balance. Panting his feet and re-shifting, Naruto used his superior strength to hurl Sasuke over his shoulder.

The boy landed just as gracefully as before, however, and Naruto grimaced. A neutral fight was pretty much all he could hope for once Sasuke brought out his eyes. The acclaimed genius might not be fully experienced with the dojutsu, but he learned fast. And those eyes taught on their own.

Naruto wasn't about to go full speed at the boy, even with his weights on. They both held back considerably here, neither wanted to be injured in a spar that meant nothing. Naruto was similarly reluctant to break out the few ninjutsu he knew. While they might turn the tide in the short term, it would only hurt him in the long term. Sasuke knew a few ninjutsu himself, and there was no doubt that the Sharingan would copy everything Naruto threw at him anyway.

Life just wasn't fair sometimes. Though it wasn't fair nearly all the time, in the case of Naruto.

As such, he was often left taking a beating from his sparring partner. He consoled himself with the knowledge that he was getting better just as much, even if his progress was that much slower than the prodigal Uchiha's.

The two rushed each other at some unspoken signal, and two punches were caught with a smack of skin on skin. They separated just as quickly, each one making space. Each dodged the other's punch this time, Naruto by a lesser margin than Sasuke, and the blond kicked out. Two shins met in the middle and each boy winced.

Leaping back, the two regarded each other with calculating eyes, each assessing the other. Naruto smiled. "Well?"

"Hn." Sasuke nodded. The two relaxed immediately.

Naruto collapsed heavily against a nearby tree; Sasuke joined him moments later. "Not bad, in my esteemed opinion, at least."

Sasuke snorted. "If your opinion mattered, the standard Konoha uniform would be entirely orange and there would be a yearly ramen festival."

"It's not my fault nobody recognizes what an awesome color orange is!" He didn't bother refuting the second part of the statement.

"Why don't you wear it then?"

"I do wear it, just…not during training," Naruto trailed off lamely. The truth was, orange was a horrible color for shinobi. It had taken Naruto about a full year into his stint at the Academy to realize that orange wasn't a practical color for a shinobi. In fact, it was a downright horrible color for a ninja. That was doubly so for a Konoha ninja, given the general greenery of the area.

One of Naruto's lesser known goals was to one day be skilled enough for his color of choice not to matter. Even he knew that that day was far, far in the future.

"Anyway…back on topic?" Naruto began.

"Hmph." The response was almost eloquent in its simplicity. Naruto would forever envy Sasuke's ability to sound cool with such a minimal response. Not that anyone would ever find out. "Not bad, I suppose. The hits are harder, more precise. You've gotten faster." The unasked question went unanswered. Every ninja had their tricks. Sasuke would never know about Naruto's leg weights if the blond had anything to say about it.

Naruto nodded seriously, silently appreciating the bluntness of the conversation. Neither of them liked to dick around. "Thanks. About the same form my end. You've managed to include a few new moves since last time." Getting your techniques stolen was an occupational hazard of training with a Sharingan user. Naruto didn't much mind. He was essentially bastardizing Gai's goken style as it was. Complaining about his training partner stealing it would be hypocritical. As long as the Uchiha didn't take any of his ninjutsu, few that they were, he was just fine.

"Gai teach you anything new?"

Naruto shrugged. "I'm working on some things, but nothin's done just yet. It's more internal chakra stuff than anything else."

"Useful?" The thought of Naruto learning a new technique, and then his copying of it, was something of interest to the Uchiha.

"Maybe." Now Sasuke was really interested. Naruto didn't deflect questions very often. He didn't have the mental capacity or personality, in Sasuke's opinion at least. His dodging of the question spoke volumes about how useful this technique might actually be. Sasuke knew better than to push, though. Naruto would lock up tighter than the Hokage's private ANBU security detail.

"Good for tomorrow?" Naruto asked, trying to move the conversation forward.

Sasuke actually laughed, though it was more of a chuckle. "Is that a question, idiot?"

Naruto had the grace to blush. Sasuke was the number one rookie for a reason. "Ah, guess not. Not worried then?"

"Of course not. I'd be more worried about yourself, dobe."

Righteous anger quickly bubbled to the surface. "I haven't been dead last for four years now, teme! Why do ya' have to call me that?"

"Guess it just stuck. Why do you call me teme?" Sasuke reflected the question with unearthly skill.

"It fits! Don't!" he exclaimed when Sasuke looked about to interrupt. The boy settled for a vicious smirk. "You're a total douche to everyone. Teme makes sense. Dead last isn't a great nickname for the number two in class."

The smirk never left the Uchiha's face. "Maybe, dobe." Naruto sputtered in indignation. He was ignored. "Still, second best is still last in my book."

"Good thing your book isn't the grade book, then. If those dammed written tests didn't mean so much, you'd actually have to work some to keep that one spot."

Sasuke got up to make his exit from the training ground, idly wiping the residual dirt from his shorts. "As if, Uzumaki. Try not to fail tomorrow."

"You too, asshole." Naruto flipped him off. Sasuke just snorted. They were friends.

Naruto didn't bother to watch as Sasuke disappeared from his sight line. His mind was on other things. More important things. Tomorrow marked the true beginning of his ninja career. He wouldn't be too ashamed to admit that he was more than a little nervous. Not for the graduation test, he was second in his class for a good reason. No, he was nervous because for every step towards skill and power he took, it was one more step toward his enemies.

Akatsuki, he thought with hatred, though it wasn't particularly focused. He didn't know who they were. He didn't know what they were after. All he knew was that they were strong enough that Konoha wouldn't be able to protect him for long. Every minute of every hour of every day he had spent training was working toward the eventual confrontation he would have with the organization.

He would be ready. Believe it.


Author's note: Well, here's the new story. Credit goes to a guy by the name of -and-only for giving me the plot idea. It revolved around a particular scene in the story Failing Twilight. Now, no offense to a damn good author, I pretty much took offense at the scene, and decided to do my own thing with the idea behind it. To those who know the fic, you'll know what scene I'm talking about, and you probably know why I didn't like it all that much. Anyway, this is my idea.

I probably won't be updating for a bit as I want to have more written, but I have about 35,000 words done, and this was begging to be published.

Read, review, etc. Constructive criticism is always wanted.

Peace out,