"The only way is a sphere," Naruto mused aloud. Jiraiya's final demonstration from their first day together had played out in the boy's mind almost nonstop since, only interrupted by eating, sleeping, and sessions with the man himself. Much to his chagrin, no matter how many times he had tried, the balloon had failed to burst.

The Sannin hadn't been joking when he'd told him to stock up on balloons.

He'd managed to pop it a few times, though never in the manner that Jiraiya had demonstrated. One time he had flattened his chakra into a disk that had stretched the latex past its breaking point; another time his frustration with the seemingly impossible exercise had led him to popping the balloon with a concentrated spike of Fuuton chakra. Ironically enough, both failures had resulted in new chakra manipulations that Naruto could call his own. The Fuuton spike would be particularly potent in close combat.

Jiraiya had left him with a condescending pat on the head when he had explained himself, and only said to keep up with the attempts to pop the balloon in the "proper" way.

Which led Naruto to where he was currently: sitting cross legged in the middle of one of Konoha's many training grounds with a water balloon in his right hand. "It's gotta be a sphere," the blond mumbled. The water was rippling at too many different points at once for it not to be. Gotta be big enough to pop the balloon too.

Eyes focused on the balloon in his right hand, he gripped his wrist to steady himself. With a single exhale chakra began to rotate inside the water filled sphere, slowly building up speed. A single ripple appeared on one edge, bringing a determined snarl to Naruto's face. With a grunt, his chakra began to rotate faster, the sphere made larger. A second ripple appeared.

Then a third. And a fourth.

In a matter of five seconds the entire surface of the water balloon was bubbling satisfyingly. Naruto removed his left hand from his right wrist slowly and carefully, managing to maintain the proper spin without the steading hand. The smallest of smiles broke across the blonde's young face as he surveyed his hard work. "Now how to pop you…"

More chakra would make more bubbles and stretch the latex more, he thought. But trying to speed up the rotation even more might do the same, and with less energy. "That and I don't wanna blow the damn thing up in my face," Naruto told himself wryly, thinking on the likely outcome that pumping too much more chakra into the balloon would result in. "Faster it is!"

Refocusing on the still rippling latex, the blond genin tensed his right arm, focusing intently on the wild chakra spinning the water in every direction imaginable. His life energy responded to his call and began to spin even faster, the surface of the water balloon bubbling in tandem with it.

Focus, Naruto! Foc – his determined thoughts cut off abruptly as a slowly emerging presence made itself known at the fringe of his awareness. It hadn't been there even an instant before. Blue eyes narrowed in annoyance, sweat beginning to pour down his forehead, at the emergence while he attempted to split his focus between assessing the threat and maintaining his exercise.

His mind reached a conclusion two seconds after the presence appeared, and his left arm snapped into action. Deft fingers retrieved a kunai and hurled it sideways towards the bushes the presence hid itself in faster than normal eyes could track. The matte black knife parted the leaves and disappeared, only to reappear less than a second later as it returned at twice its original speed.

Naruto only had time to let his eyes widen before the kunai had embedded itself hilt deep in his chest. An explosion of white smoke followed, and the water balloon dropped to the ground with nothing left to support it.

From his place in the bushes, Jiraiya smiled; he maintained the expression even as he maneuvered his shoulders to block a dropping heel that came crashing form the heavens. The burly Sannin didn't even grunt as Naruto's kick found purchase, but grabbed the offending appendage and used it to hurl the blond unceremoniously into the clearing. The genin hit the ground hard and rolled for a few feet before bursting into smoke.

"Not a bad play, gaki," Jiraiya said loudly over the crashing of the waterfall, finally deigning to step into the clearing. "But it'll take a bit more than clones and a clever substitution to get the drop on me."

Two hands burst from the pond where the water from the waterfall gathered and Naruto pushed himself to the surface with a small grunt of effort. "Just trying to get your attention," the blond said, scowling. "How long were you creeping on me for?"

"That there's a secret, kiddo. If you can't notice me sooner you'll never know." The Sannin openly grinned at the sour expression on his student's face before turning serious. "What was your objective with that kick of yours?" he asked abruptly.

"Trying to maneuver you to the left or into the clearing," Naruto returned without missing a beat. "I had a clone in the bushes and myself underwater to follow up."

"And if I had moved in some direction other than what you planned?"

"My clone was set to adapt to the situation, and I can always make more."

Jiraiya nodded once in acceptance of Naruto's point. "Make enough clones to cover all the points of maneuverability in the future. I'm sure your sensei, both of them, tried to teach you to be efficient with your chakra, but you said yourself that you can always make more clones. Not too many shinobi can do the same and it's better to be prepared for any eventuality than have to adapt on the fly, regardless of how good you may be at it. What seems like a small waste of chakra now might save your life someday." Naruto nodded, his face serious as he digested the words. "And use something a bit more lethal than a dropping heel when you're trying to get someone to move, brat. That kick may bruise but that's all it'll do."

The blond opened his mouth to argue that he wasn't about to use lethal force on his sensei – even if the man wouldn't be fazed by it in the slightest – before he remembered his first encounter with Yamato.

"You won't succeed unless you come at me with the intent to kill."

He closed his mouth before the ridiculous protest he had planned could escape, and nodded in acceptance. "Yes, sensei."

"Fantastic!" Jiraiya boomed, his good humor seemingly returned. "Walk with me, kid. I've got some serious research planned for today and I'm not gonna miss it for the world."

"The hot springs again, sensei?" Naruto asked, rolling his eyes at the lecherous man's habits. He had been on the women's side of the hot springs almost every day since the Sannin had taken him under his wing two weeks previous – barring one day when Jiraiya, being Jiraiya, had removed the cloaking seal on Naruto's arm and the blond had been chased away by three very unhappy kunoichi. A buxom blonde had started making regular appearances in his stead the day after.

"Not today! You're in for a real treat, my very lucky apprentice. I have it on good authority that there will be no less than five exceptionally beautiful women enjoying a relaxing day in one of the nearby lakes…" the man trailed off, leaving Naruto a combination of exasperated, disgusted, and – to his growing horror – interested.

Well…there are worse things, the blond boy mused, trying not to be too disgusted at becoming more and more like his sensei day by day. If becoming a pervert was the price Jiraiya demanded for his tutelage, Naruto would pay it every day. Who knows, maybe it'll even the odds with Ino and her damn teasing.

With that not-so-unhappy thought coursing through his head, Naruto obediently followed the perverted Sannin as they pushed their way through a copse of trees. Paradise greeted their eyes.

For Naruto, the sight of shimmering water that was all but undisturbed tucked away in some far corner of Konoha's lands looked like a slice of heaven. The sun shone brightly into the clearing, setting the moisture that hung on the low laying tree branches alight like shining diamonds. The smell of morning dew was immediately prevalent to the blond, the slight breeze that tickled his hair carrying the smell of the forest around them to his nose.

A high pitched giggle that could only belong to Jiraiya shattered Naruto's vision of Avalon. A deadpan expression covering his young face, the blond turned his attention to the five still forms resting on the grass across the water. Two eyebrows raised of their own accord.

That Hyuga's stacked…how does that even work when they're that slim? That one in the purple suit isn't bad either, great muscle tone – IS THAT KURENAI-SENSEI? Naruto's train of thought derailed with the force of a crashing boulder at the sight of the jonin, clad in nothing but a simple black bathing suit. Her body glistened in the midday sunlight, showing clearly that she had been in the water not too long ago, and her inky black hair was slick with moisture as it cascaded down her back, contrasting sharply with her pale skin. Dancer's legs gracefully carried her to a towel that was laid on the nearby grass, each movement hinting at the power lurking just below each lightly toned muscle, waiting to be called upon.

She was a vision; gorgeous, her skin all but unmarred, her body a work of art sculpted by years of training. She was the ideal kunoichi in the flesh.

Asuma-sensei, mad respect

"Now that is a picture worthy of my words," Naruto heard Jiraiya murmur. "Who woulda thought Yuhi Kondo's daughter would grow into such a beauty…"

It was his sensei's words that brought Naruto back to his senses. His cheeks flaming, seemingly of their own accord, the blond hastily averted his gaze, choosing to stare resolutely at the water.

"Well this is as good a spot as any," Jiraiya concluded, giving Naruto a slap on the back that nearly sent the boy crashing to the ground. "Consider yourself lucky, kiddo. Not everyone gets to train with this kinda view."

"Wait, we're training here?" Naruto asked, incredulous. "Jiraiya-sensei, those five are all kunoichi, at least one is a jonin, the rest are at least chunin, and there's two close combat experts down there! And you want to use chakra that would let them know we're here? Are you crazy?" he burst out in a harsh whisper, his mind calling up the information he had seen and digested without consciously registering it.

"Do I look crazy? Don't answer that," the Sannin quickly amended. "Look, gaki, we're so close to the training grounds out here that any residual chakra those kunoichi feel will get brushed off as just another ninja training nearby. They're not about to come running."

Naruto opened his mouth to protest, but hesitated. Jiraiya had far more experience with avoiding the women he spied on than he did, and it wasn't like he could drag the man away to train elsewhere. The Sannin was intransigent when it came to completing his "research", and could never be dissuaded from having some fine specimen of womanhood – or a few – nearby to observe. The blond had tried multiple times, to no avail. At this point he figured it was best just to roll with it and hope for the best.

"Yes, sensei," the genin grumbled, the note of respect that normally colored his tone noticeably absent. "What am I working on today?" Most days spent in the hot springs dealt with rectifying his supposed lack of observation skills, for Jiraiya always had nitpicks regardless of how much Naruto focused on his surroundings. Everything from the temperature of the steam to deriving the thickness of the bamboo walls based on echoes was necessary, according to the Sannin, much to Naruto's ire. There was always something he managed to miss.

Days where they weren't in the springs, few though they were, were spent in some training ground or another. Those days were filled with Naruto summarily getting his ass handed to him from sun up to sun down, with any break in the middle being spent picking apart his taijutsu, getting a Doton jutsu explained in detail – for Jiraiya used many – or licking his wounds. Such a style of training would be extremely impractical for anyone but Naruto, who could rely on the Kyuubi's chakra to heal him overnight, if not faster. If not for that, the sheer amount of bruising and flesh wounds he managed to accumulate as Jiraiya pummeled him would have been debilitating.

It was harsher than any training Naruto had ever been put through – Yamato's taijutsu lessons included – or truly even envisioned. But both he and Jiraiya understood the urgency that lay behind every punch, blow taken, jutsu learned: he was going to be fighting a monster come the third exam.

Normal training wasn't going to cut it.

"Eh, why don't you show me how far you've come with that exercise I gave you?" the Sannin said, eyes glued to the five women in the clearing.

Naruto scowled at the man's lack of attention, but he supposed he ought to expect it by now. The man was blind to most things happening around him when there was a beautiful woman to be ogled, or at least that's how it seemed to the untrained observer. The blond could never figure out how, but the lecher was seemingly hyper-aware of his surroundings at all times, regardless of what he chose to give his attention to.

With that in mind, he pulled out one of the dozens of water balloons he had started keeping on his person. Recalling the work he had been in the middle of when Jiraiya had interrupted him earlier, Naruto gritted his teeth and whirled his chakra into a loose sphere. Ripples along the surface formed immediately, but not enough to pop the infuriating latex.

Faster! Naruto commanded himself. His teeth grinding together so much he thought it should be audible, beads of sweat forming on his forehead, the blond used every ounce of control he could muster to spin his life energy faster than it had ever spun before. More and more ripples formed, the latex surface utterly covered with them –

– and water suddenly splashed Naruto in the face as the balloon popped in a spray. "Gah–!" The blonde's scream of surprise was cut off abruptly by a large hand over his mouth.

"They may not think much about chakra being used, but they have ears, gaki. You wanna let them know we're right here? Keep it down," Jiraiya ordered, his expression ornery. He removed his hand from Naruto's mouth, revealing an expression caught between glee and annoyance. It looked like a grimace.

"Did you see that, sensei?" the genin whispered eagerly, letting his excitement at finally completing the exercise take over.

"No, I missed seeing you get splashed in the face by water," the Sannin deadpanned. "Congrats on completing your assignment, kiddo, only took you a couple o' weeks…" The white haired man ruffled Naruto's hair with a mocking smile, eliciting a scowl.

What a prick…"So…what's next?" Naruto asked, pushing his annoyance aside. He barely had time to blink before his hand reached up and plucked a ball headed towards his face out of midair on reflex. "Huh?"

Jiraiya's back was too him, focused anew as he was on the women near the water. "Pop that thing. Same way as before," he ordered.

The genin narrowed his eyes at the man's back. "Seriously, the same exercise?" White hair bobbed up and down in time with the man's head nodding, the older man refusing to turn around. Naruto stuck his middle finger out at him, turning to survey the ball.

"And don't flip me off, gaki. It's disrespectful."

How did he… Naruto's thoughts on Jiraiya's supposed omniscience trailed off as he surveyed his newest adversary. It was squishy and it bounced low when the blond tested it. The surface was perforated lightly; hundreds of tiny holes were poked in it for some reason that was unfathomable to Naruto. "At least that'll give my chakra room…" his murmur trailed off, his eyebrows slowly reaching toward his hairline. Could it really be that simple?

"Rubber equals more density, which means more chakra…heh," Naruto spoke lowly to himself. Narrowing his eyes, he poured his life essence into the ball, every shred of his focus directed at recreating the same amount of rotation that had popped the water balloon.

Only with twice the chakra; then three times; then four; then five…

Jiraiya discreetly turned from his research to observe his student just as a ripple formed on the ball's surface. The smallest of smirks crossed his features. "Well I'll be damned…"

Naruto, too absorbed in his task to notice, finally gave up on increasing his chakra output in increments and poured every bit of life energy he could muster into the ball, his control forcing it into a rapidly whirling sphere. One ripple became fifty in an instant, before the rubber exploded outward with a "boom".

The blond fell backwards, grimacing and holding his now burned right hand in pain. "Ow." Slow clapping caught his attention quickly, and the genin forced himself into a sitting position.

"Not bad, kid. That bit ain't easy to get down," Jiraiya complimented. Naruto felt a rush of pride, the Sannin almost never gave compliments. "Well, I think that's enough for today. I'll leave you with one last thing. Pro tip, Doton: Dochuu Senkou is a great way to make a quick escape."

With that, the Sannin swiftly disappeared into the ground without warning.

"The fuck?" Naruto shook his head in bewilderment at his sensei's hasty exit. "What is he-" the blond trailed off as the sound of light splashing seemed to get closer and closer, and the feeling of incoming chakra presences assaulted his senses. The five kunoichi had heard…

"Oh, fuck you, sensei!" Naruto ground out, his eyes wide as he performed the fastest Shunshin of his young life.

He wasn't a moment too soon, as the five women, led by Kurenai, burst through the underbrush, only to be greeted with the sight of strewn latex and rubber.


"You gonna be ready?"

The question from his blonde companion registered but went unanswered in the wake of Naruto's continued slurping. He had finally convinced Ino to get ramen with him and he wasn't about to waste a moment while it was still hot. She had somehow managed to get him to get takeout and bring it up to the top of the Hokage monument – it was "their spot", she claimed – as opposed to eating it fresh in the stall. That amount of wait-time was unacceptable when the ramen was cooling rapidly, and yet he found himself with the familiar spectacular view that the top of the monument afforded.

Mindful of his manners, the blond boy finished his monstrous bite before answering, "Is that a trick question?"

"You tell me," the Yamanaka harangued, eyeing him from the side as she faced the village. "And don't say you were born ready. You're not Kiba and you shouldn't try to sound like him."

Naruto contained a pout, put out that the comeback he had skillfully planned was now off the table. At the same time, however, he recognized his teammate's tone. Ino wouldn't be asking any questions about his preparation if she wasn't legitimately concerned. "Yeah, I'll be ready. Sensei's got me working on a few things. Why you asking?"

The answer was slow in coming, prompting Naruto to actually turn and stare at his companion. Ino's sea foam colored eyes faced the village, but they were unfocused, appearing to stare at but not see the view that was before her. Her shoulders were tense, her arms flexed, her knuckles white as they gripped the stone beneath her.

"Hey," Naruto lowered his voice, tentatively laying his right hand on Ino's shoulder. The contact didn't shake her, but her face turned to his, her unfocused gaze meeting his concerned one. "What's eating you?"

Ino blinked at him, appearing to ponder the question. "I'm scared," she finally said, the words sounding uncertain as they tumbled hesitantly from her lips. "And I don't know why…" Her lips didn't quiver, her eyes had no hint of unshed tears, and her body wasn't shaking. She was just tense, coiled like a spring, ready to release in some unknown fashion at the slightest provocation.

Naruto blinked in surprise at the unexpected answer. He opened his mouth then promptly shut it, unsure of how to respond to his companion's distress. Ino wasted no time in filling the conversation's lull.

"I don't get it. We've been on missions where we've been up against guys way out of our league," the girl continued. Her voice was entirely level, without any indicator that she was emotionally distressed. "There was Zabuza in Wave, and I don't remember being scared at all. Then in Rice Country, even when Kiba and I were alone, I was focused on getting away, on getting to the next alley and away from the Oto-nin. I've never felt this way, Naruto…" She trailed off, the last sentence sounding like a plea for help to Naruto's ears.

It was a plea he didn't know how to answer.

"What are you afraid of?" he asked instead, his mind whirling to find a solution to his companion's problem.

"I…failing, maybe," Ino muttered, her eyes now cast downwards. "I don't wanna lose. But I…I don't wanna die either. And some of the people in the exam –"

"Hey," Naruto cut her off assertively. "None of that crap. You've been training with Yamato for three weeks now. You're just as good as anyone else in this tournament. Kiba too."

"Not you."

The quick response caught Naruto off guard, and he paused. There was no doubt in his mind that in a straight fight – and the third stage was a series of straight fights – he would steamroll both of his teammates. It would have been the case before the break in the exam, and would most certainly be the case after his month long stint as Jiraiya's student. He had widened the gap.

But that wasn't what Ino needed to hear at the moment.

"Don't sell yourself short," he said softly. "Both Asuma and Yamato trained us well. You can do stuff with genjutsu that I –"

"Oh, cut the bullshit, Naruto!" Ino burst out, slapping him across the chest. "We both know that you could take me and Kiba no problem. I'm not worried about fighting you, Naruto. I'm worried about when I fight someone else like you."

Naruto was silent, unsure of how to respond to his companion's distress. Every person he had ever fought, with the exception of his short encounter with Orochimaru, he had believed that he could beat. Whether through his skill or the Kyuubi's chakra as a last resort, the blond had never encountered someone who had managed to push him out of his comfort zone before the fight had even begun. But then I've never fought someone in a tournament before, he realized. I've never known who I was gonna have to fight before it started. There's never been time…

Heedless of his silence, Ino kept on. "Every mission, every enemy I've ever fought, you've been there. And if you weren't, then Kiba was, or Asuma or Yamato. There's no one but me now…"

Realization struck Naruto like a hammer blow. Ino, like most Konoha genin, had never had to truly tackle an obstacle without the safety net of their team being there to bail them out. It was the genius of Konoha's system: success on a mission was almost never entirely on one shinobi's shoulders; it was borne by the team as a whole. The genius of the Third Exam was exactly opposite that.

"That's the point," Naruto said with finality. "By testing us individually, the Hokage can see what we're truly capable of without our senseis or teammates. Without anyone." It was trial by fire, sink or swim. The genin had one month to gather information and game-plan for any future opponents, and then they had to execute. In effect, it was a solo mission watered down, though no less lethal in possibility.

You're a crafty bastard, old man, Naruto mused with detached humor.

"We're so used to working in teams that it throws us off our game when we're not. Shit like that happens on missions that we're gonna end up leading. If we can't handle it, we don't get promoted. End of."

Ino was staring at him with realization. She blinked once, turning her face back to the village with a sardonic smile. "Then I'm already failing," she said.

Naruto had had enough. "What's wrong with you?" he exclaimed, throwing his hands skyward. "You're sitting here moping about something that hasn't even happened yet. Where's your confidence, huh?"

"Not everyone's like you, Naruto!" the blonde girl nearly yelled. Her sea-foam eyes were brimming with tears. "We can't all be freakishly fucking strong genin who run through missions and enemies without a second thought. We can't all plow through anything that gets in our way. We get scared sometimes…" she trailed off, wiping furiously at the tears that were now freely cascading down her face.

Unsure of how to properly assuage Ino's fears, Naruto nevertheless wasted no time in pulling her to his chest. She collapsed against him without a moment of hesitation, burying her face into his shoulder. "I'm just so scared," she whispered.

Naruto rested his chin on top of her head and sighed. Give him an enemy to fight and he'd do it in a heartbeat; and yet, a crying girl had him at his wits' end trying to think of a solution. Get it together, Uzumaki! Unwittingly, the image of Itachi's Sharingan eyes that had been seared into his memory burst forth. The blond shivered.

"I am too," he murmured. "Do you really think I don't get scared too, Ino-chan?" he asked gently.

"Yeah but you just keep on going, though. I freeze," Ino whispered, almost inaudibly. "When we were in Rice Fields and Kiba and I were separated from you, we got cornered and I just froze. No weapon, no hand-seals, no jutsu, no thought! Kiba was hurt, Akamaru was useless and I just couldn't move…"

"It won't happen again," Naruto said.

"You don't know –"

"I do." It was a statement of fact and nothing less. "I know because you're not gonna let it happen again. Ever."

Ino's face lifted from where it was buried in Naruto's shoulder. "How can you just say something like that?" she asked softly, her teary eyes boring into his.

"I know you, don't I?" he offered with a quirk of his lips. Blinking once, he turned his gaze outward to the village. "When we first became a team, you said that Asuma talked to you and it changed something. You said you were gonna work harder and you did, right? When you say you're gonna do something you do it." He felt her nod against him, tickling his chin with her hair. "Well now I'm talking to you, and I'm saying you're not gonna freeze next time you get scared. I want you to say it, Ino-chan," he finished, turning his eyes back to meet Ino's burning gaze.

She broke eye contact for a moment before Naruto's hand on her chin brought her eyes back to his. "Say it."

"I…I won't freeze up next time."

"Next time what?" he prompted.

"The next time I get scared," she whispered, their gazes locked.

Naruto nodded. "Now make it a promise."

"I promise that I won't freeze up next time I get scared," Ino said with finality. A grin broke across Naruto's face at the proclamation.

"Now that's what I like to hear!" he declared loudly, planting a wet kiss on Ino's lips that left her sputtering and wiping at the residual saliva.

"Idiot," the blonde girl murmured fondly, slapping him on the chest.

"Maa, so mean," he griped, rubbing at his chest. Naruto stood up abruptly. "Well! I think this calls for a trip to Ichiraku," he declared.

His companion barked a laugh. "We were just there!"

"Yeah but that was a long time ago and all the ramen got cold," Naruto reasoned. "You can't eat ramen cold, Ino-chan."

She giggled as she rose to her feet. "Fine, but you're still paying."

"Eh, the old man'll just give it to me for free." The whiskered boy waved her off as he started back towards the long staircase that led to the ground, Ino falling into step beside him. He slung an arm around her shoulders.

They walked in silence for a few moments before Ino broke it. "Naruto?"


"Thanks. I really needed that."

Naruto shrugged, unsure of how to really accept thanks for doing something he wasn't all that confident at. He was no motivational speaker. "Eh, it's whatever. Just remember one thing, though."

"What's that?"

He looked at her seriously, locking eyes once more. "You can't break a promise, Ino-chan. It's not allowed."


It was well into the night by the time Naruto returned to his apartment. The small one bedroom suite was tidy, as it always was, but lived in. The low hum of the kitchen appliances was familiar now that the blond had enough money to leave them plugged in during the day. The curtains rustled in the breeze filtering in through the open window that overlooked the residential street below.

Naruto shut the front door behind him quietly, but did not lock it. He turned to face the combined kitchen and living room and stared at the empty loveseat that acted as his couch.

"I know you're there, whoever you are. You can come out now," he said quietly but firmly. Blue eyes were hard and a hand rested next to his twin knuckle knives on his waist.

The body of an old man shimmered into existence on the loveseat, and Naruto had to fight against raising his eyebrows at the sight. He was heavily bandaged, with only half of his face revealed. The bandages trailed down the entirety of what looked like his right arm, though the end was tucked into his cloak so Naruto couldn't be sure. A cane was laid across his lap casually.

"Your observation has improved, Naruto. Jiraiya has trained you well," the man stated. His calm, smooth tenor belied his apparent old age – for he looked as old as the Sandaime – and held a note of authority that Naruto immediately associated with rank.

"And what does an elder jonin want with me?" Naruto asked, taking a gamble based on what little he knew. He was rewarded with a slight upturn of the old man's lips.

"An educated guess at my rank and position to catch me off guard and take control of the conversation," the man said, causing Naruto to stiffen. "An effective, if simplistic tactic for information gathering. Far more than would be expected from a genin."

"Who are you?" Naruto asked bluntly, changing tactics.

"Someone who doesn't appreciate speaking with a clone," the man answered. Before the blond could so much as blink, the elder had raised two fingers to his lips in a half ram seal and sent a tiny, all but silent bullet of wind through his forehead protector.

Smoke erupted where the revealed shadow clone had stood, leaving the mysterious elder alone. Not a moment later, the real Naruto rose from the floor, twin knuckle knives saturated with wind chakra that caused a breeze to pick up in the small space. His appearance elicited another half-smile from the man.

"It's been some time since I've seen the Hien. Your versatility with it is to be commended," the man complimented. "You've taken it further than my student imagined when he had those knives designed."

Despite the situation and his confusion and wariness, Naruto couldn't help his mouth from dropping open. "You trained Asuma?" he asked before he could help himself.

"For a time. Futon users are hard to come by in this part of the world. I helped him refine his skills when he first discovered his affinity." The elder remained motionless on the loveseat, regarding Naruto through thin black eyes. "And to answer your previous question, my name is Danzo."

Naruto, mind reeling from the casual reveal, deactivated his knives, though he kept them held loosely at his sides. "And what do you want with me, exactly? Not used to gettin' house calls from elders with an ANBU guard."

The half-smile disappeared, giving way to neutrality and mild annoyance. "They're sloppy if they can be detected by a genin. Though you are no mere genin, I suppose."

"You've complimented me twice and I still don't know why you're here…"

"Can one not simply stop by to commend a young shinobi for his good work?"

The man was completely straight-faced, giving nothing away. Naruto had no idea if he was joking, but he didn't strike him as the type of man to joke. It didn't fit with his manner.

Either way, the blond had no idea how to respond, so he opted to remain silent. The silence held for a few seconds before the elder's lips quirked in what was the smallest smile Naruto had ever seen. "You've come far in a short time, Uzumaki. Dead last in your class to second in a few years, and now the most powerful genin in Konoha. Quite the transformation, wouldn't you say?"

Naruto remained silent, thrown by the casual assessment of his abilities. He knew he was talented, knew he was strong, but it was unnerving to hear a ranking shinobi say it in so many words. He had never been used to praise.

"I guess it is," he finally hedged. He didn't think of himself as the strongest genin in Konoha. It was a meaningless title. Walking around with the moniker wouldn't deter the likes of the Akatuski.

Across the room, Danzo regarded him with an impassive stare. "One might even wonder what sparked such an amazing turnaround. The world may never know."

The pounding of blood in Naruto's ears was almost all encompassing; the prick of sweat forming on the back of his neck making feel like he was drowning. Could he know…?! his subconscious screamed impotently. Unbidden, the image of Uchiha Itachi's blood-red Sharingan flashed in front of Naruto's eyes.

"They will hunt you, Uzumaki Naruto."

"I couldn't tell you," he responded, his voice somehow level despite his alarm. The sound of the words on the open air seemed to reach his ears from a great distance. "I wanted to be Hokage when I was younger. Somewhere along the way I realized I'd have to actually be something more than a dead-last in order to do it."

Danzo gave the words a slow nod. The pressure in Naruto's head lessened immediately and he gave a slight exhale in relief. "An admirable goal you and I have both shared, though you speak in the past tense."

"Maybe I don't wanna be stuck behind a desk," the blond returned with a shrug. He was rewarded with another slight quirk of the old man's lips.

"Youth and its fancies of adventure and wonder." A fully formed, sardonic smile split the elder's face. "And of power…You'll learn soon enough that the front lines are worth far more trouble than the glory they bring."

I don't care about glory, Naruto thought distantly. I care about surviving. "That sounds like a warning."

"Smart boy, you're shrewder than most give you credit for." The blond was unsure whether or not to be offended.

When the old man failed to elaborate Naruto asked, "And? What are you 'warning' me about, then?"

The ensuing silence was heavy for a moment before, "War."

Naruto blinked in disbelief. Then he blinked again, his mind not quite processing the single syllable that every shinobi dreaded. "War?" he finally managed to croak.

Danzo nodded, unperturbed by the blonde's sudden shock. "As we speak, a coalition force from Sunagakure and Otogakure is preparing to attack the village on the day of the Third Exam, two days from now."

Naruto shook his head in a vain attempt to clear it. "And the Hokage-"

"Is both aware of the situation and has planned accordingly. The jonin have all be informed, as well as select chunin squad leaders, and the ANBU are prepared for battle," the elder stated with authority. "You're being made aware of the situation because you have an assignment, A-ranked."

Since when are jonin in the business of handing out A-ranked missions to genin? Naruto wondered distantly. "Which is?" he asked weakly.

"Sabaku no Gaara is the container of the Ichibi no Tanuki." Naruto started at the revelation. He's like me… "He is the linchpin in the enemy's plan," Danzo elaborated. "Your mission is to eliminate him."

No gray area; no room for error. Simple orders. Naruto had never been more shaken about receiving a command from a ranking shinobi in his life.

"So that's it? Just kill him."

"Without the Ichibi's power, the invasion force will have no presence within the village to properly distract from any attempt to break the outer walls. They will be herded into the outer districts and routed." The words were said with the certainty of success, and Naruto, whether due to the underlying confidence or because his own shock hadn't fully faded yet, didn't bother to question them.

"Why are you telling me this?" Naruto asked, his voice a whisper. "Why now? Why you?"

"It has been decided that informing the genin competing in the final stage would do more harm than good. The Hokage and I, however," Danzo said, "felt that you would be able to exercise a modicum of discretion and responsibility. As for 'why now?' It was only confirmed recently that you would be capable enough to carry out the mission. I merely petitioned for the honor of delivering the task. It is not every day that one gets to meet the most talented member of the coming generation."

Even through the haze of confusion and uncertainty that had settled in Naruto's mind, he realized that elder jonin didn't simply come and hand out mission orders. He knew the Hokage well enough to know that the old man would call him into his office personally. Something greater was at work here.

"And when I ask the Hokage about this mission of mine…?"

The enigmatic smile returned, as if the old man was pleased by Naruto's small defiance of his authority. "Sarutobi will confirm it. He sanctioned it, after all."

"Then why not tell me himself?"

"The Hokage is a busy man."

"And you're not?" Naruto returned.

"Possibly. Like I said, it isn't every day that I get to meet Konoha's future," Danzo said.

Naruto paused for a beat, weighing his options. The man was a jonin who looked to be the Sandaime's age. Any successful jonin who lived to be that age, let alone have the Hokage's approval to hand out high level missions, would be, if not extremely famous, known. The blond had never heard of him, much like he had never heard of Yamato, an elite jonin, before he became his sensei. Last card… "Here I thought being in Black Ops would let you keep an eye on anybody you wanted."

Silence filled the room at the declaration. Gotcha there didn't I? the genin thought with relish. Across the room, Danzo was impassive. Abruptly, he rose, his cane supporting him as he made for the door. "Indeed it does," he finally acquiesced as Naruto moved aside to let him pass. Opening the door, the old man paused with one foot in the hallway. "Good luck, Uzumaki. We'll be watching."

He was gone a moment later. The door closed quietly behind him, and Naruto slumped to the floor with his head in his hands.

First there was the Hokage's faith in his supposed dominance over the other genin, then Orochimaru's offer of power, followed by Jiraiya's interest, and now he was handed an A-ranked assassination mission. The combination was one part flattering and about a thousand parts unsettling. He wasn't used to getting so much attention in regards to his abilities, whether it positive or negative.

Closing his eyes and craning his neck back so that his face faced the ceiling, Naruto barked a laugh. "No pressure, Naruto. Yeah fucking right."


Been a while hasn't it? Sorry about the delay. Between college and the rest of my life it's been tough to find writing time.

Just setting the stage for the final part of the exam here, so you'll forgive me the filler-ish material I hope. As always, thanks to the DLP crew for collective beta work, y'all know who you are. Drop a review if you will once you've read the chapter, they're always appreciated.

I'm so pro...