Disclaimer: I don't own or have any rights in the Naruto Franchise, it all belongs to Masashi Kishimoto, Shounen Jump and other affiliated companies.


1) I'm back, I will try to update more regularly but I have no promises, it all depends on my job load and social life, e.t.c.

2) Special thanks to DarkHeroOrion (You should read his new stories, they rock!), LD1449 (Can't believe his legendary Lost Soul fanfic is almost over...), Grumpywinter and rasengan86 for their help and advice and help which help me write the chapter and motivate me enough to give my muse CPR and get my ass in gear and produce what I believe is a good chapter worth your wait (Even if it is a bit shorter than I'm used to)!

3) I sincerely hope my attempts at diversifying and going more in depth in the 1st person PoV are to your liking. On a side note, chapters are going to be most likely shorter than before (less than 10k but more than 5k).

4) I hope this chapter will give you readers a glimpse into the future of Naruto's development from the rock bottom he'd at now emotionally and morally to the future which is based on his determination and resolutions and his sense of responsibilities.

5) Some of you said in your reviews that a hero shouldn't compromise his morals and beliefs, I agree, but this isn't our world, in the chaotic universe of Naruto, it's much more violent, harsh and unforgiving and if you're going to change things you have to work from the bottom and move up. And Naruto is like those before him, and those after him, may rail at the system, but can't break it on the fly and can't afford to go rogue and endanger everyone he loves, so he has to choke on his sins until he has enough influence and power to rock the boat.

6) As for the Beta request, DarkHeroOrion, corrected me and said that at the moment he can still offer beta services. I've noted those who've volunteered and I appreciate it, when the need arises (And I imagine it will soon enough) I'll call upon one of you. Thank you all for your support!

7) I hope you enjoy, please read and review (I'd really like to know if my writing is still up to par after such a long hiatus) and bear with my plots and sometimes questionable decisions, at the end of the story some time obscure plot lines will converge and make sense and some plots I planted today will bear fruit in the last installment of the series.

(The day following Naruto's meeting with the Daimyo, Wilderness, Somewhere in the Fire Country)

Anko was not having a good day. Her body ached horribly, her joints and muscles protesting after weeks of atrophy and disuse. She was surprised with her body's resilience—that she could stand was impressive; that she could walk and run was nothing less than a miracle.

Her skin glistened with perspiration, clinging to the dark blue shirt she wore along with dark violet pants. Both articles were a size too small and considering her lack of support, her jiggling bust was another obstacle. Dark lips twisted into a frown. 'Fuck, I'm chaffing all over the place!' She scowled and for the umpteenth time stuck her hands in her pants to adjust them.

She felt the crisp air blow through the long strands of her hair. The once smooth strands were now a tangled mess which partially obscured her view. She wondered how many days had passed since her abduction. She wasn't sure entirely what happened to her, everything was fuzzy, just like that time all those years ago. Orochimaru must've messed around with her memories again.

'I've got to get back home as soon as possible. Kami only knows what he did to me. Besides, I'm sure Tsunade'll be pleased I trashed his lab and killed some of his scientists on my way out… '

The serpentine woman suddenly collapsed. She hit the ground hard, hissed breaths escaping clenched teeth. Her eyelids shut and she brought her hands over her face, scrubbing her eyes quickly. The damnable itching just behind her eyelids was the worst of the ailments that plagued her ever since she woke up.

When she woke up in Orochimaru's lab while that pervert leered at her, her eyes were brown once more. However, in the last couple of days, it would seem the mutagens in the Venom Queen's venom and Orochimaru's own genes (if one believed his claims of him creating her) were overcoming her once more.

Her pupils had become slits once more, but instead of gold and violet, her eyes were taking on the unnatural yellow of her accursed tormentor's eyes. 'As if I won't have enough shit to deal with when I get back, debriefing is going to be a bitch!'

The agonizing stabbing sensation subsided minutes later. Anko cursed under her breath as she wiped her eyes and cheeks with the back of her hand, grimacing at the smears of crimson staining her skin. Every time the paralyzing seizure struck her out of the blue, the same thing happened—tears of blood. It was so damn morbid and freaky; a fitting memento left behind by that crackpot, Orochimaru!

Her footing was wobbly as she climbed back to her feet and resumed her steady trek through the woods. She paused abruptly when a familiar scent filled her nostrils, a very slight mix of ash and nicotine. 'Either my senses are sharper than before or Asuma's gotten better at stealth than I remember. Fuck! What did you do to me? My balance, my senses, my chakra! Everything's different somehow…'

Her glance wandered ahead of her, and then some dread filled her as she stumbled backward, falling on her derriere as two blurry shapes descended from the branches above her. She bit her lower lip, pushing against the agonizing sensation of snakes crawling beneath her skin.

'NO! I am the one in control! I won't hurt them!' She felt nausea and vertigo envelop her as the angry hissing in her mind and beneath her skin became deafening. She murmured over and over beneath her breath how she would not hurt or kill a fellow Leaf ninja as she gasped. She thrashed on the ground, fighting the instinctual urges of fight or flight; suppressing the symbiotic serpents hiding within her. 'It hurts, damn it…it burns!'

Her body convulsed as something slammed between her shoulder blades and foreign chakra invaded her body, shutting it down forcefully. She crashed to her side, harshly exhaling through gritted teeth as she felt two pairs of hands force her own behind her back, something cool and metallic locking around her wrists.

The snake jounin's eyes widened a fraction and a pit of dread settled in her stomach. Her eyes swam as she caught the blurry sight of her comrade smoking only several feet away, a dark gleam in his eyes as he flicked his cigarette away.

'Why do I have the feeling this is one of those days I should not have woken up to…?'

(Four Days Later, Hidden Leaf)

Naruto thoughtfully frowned as he looked up at the moon. He sat on the roof of his apartment, his eyes slightly glazed as he got lost in the silver luminescence. The furrow of his eyebrows deepened as he inhaled through his nostrils. Dark bags marred his handsome features and his face seemed paler and more gaunt than usual; the price of his guilt and insomnia quite apparent upon his body.

He shut his eyes and his chest heaved heavily, vapor escaping his nose and lips in the late night chill. 'I know Grannie didn't mean to send me on that mission. I know rationally she had little choice with how fucked up things are with how tense things are. But…but damn it! I don't know anymore!'

He tried to accept the platitudes of Kakashi, about duty and sacrifice. He tried to cling to Tsunade's compassion and remorse, but deep inside, in that part of him which suffered so long, that was one of those innocents which the strong stomped on, all he felt was shame. 'It doesn't help that the Kyuubi just loves this opportunity to mess with my head.'

His shoulders slumped and he covered his face with his hands, rubbing his palms against his skin until it felt raw, as if he could peel the scab off the festering wound that lay gaping in his soul. The Daimyo had compared him to his father, singing his praises over his loyalty and strength of spirit. What a load of shit!

He had time to mull over things in the last four days (ever since the day he set foot back in Konoha) and, the more he thought about it, the more he felt a primal, deep rage rumble deep within his chest, clawing and gnashing to get out. But, then, the weight of reality crashed upon his shoulders and dispersed his rebellious thoughts before it even began.

He thought of the sweet child, so innocent and happy just minutes before he snuffed her life like blowing on a candle. In a flick of his wrist, he stole her dreams and murdered her future. It wasn't too long ago when that could have been him, if the old man had been a bit less vigilant or the ninja in the village a bit less fearful.

He growled as he gnashed his teeth hard. He then channeled some wind chakra into the pointer fingertip of his left hand and slashed across his right palm. He ignored the flash of pain and gazed silently at the scarlet life essence rapidly oozing down his arm and dripping upon the tiles of the roof.

"You're going to be late," he heard his sensei's monotone voice behind him. His lips faintly twitched. He peered over his shoulder, noticing that even though the Copy Ninja's face was schooled into a stoic expression, his single visible eye gleamed with a flicker of emotion he couldn't quite put his finger on.

"I think Izumo will cut me slack. It's not like you've never been late for anything, Sensei," Naruto softly quipped and slowly stood up. He felt the weight of the jounin's eye on wound and blood.

"What's this? I didn't think you were the type to cut yourself, Naruto." Kakashi's voice was chiding, but they both knew it was but a jest, for they both shared the same mission, all those months ago, when Naruto made a similar gesture on the cusp of a great resolution.

"I'm going to become Hokage, Sensei," he murmured and didn't wait for the silver-haired ninja as he climbed back into his apartment from the veranda.

"I thought we established that on the roof of the Academy, many months ago, Naruto."

Naruto smile was brittle and his eyes stung as he weaved through the clutter and mess of his apartment. The state of urban disaster was worse than usual as he hadn't bothered cleaning…for obvious reasons. "I know I'm a kid and I'm still weak, but it won't stay that way for too long."

The noncommittal sound behind him prompted him to elaborate, and so, he did. "One day, no ninja of mine will have to murder for no other reason than the whims of one man, no matter how grand he should be or how much money he has."

"Naruto…" He heard the weariness and discomfort in Kakashi's tone, obviously his mentor believed him either idealistic or delusional. Maybe he was, but it didn't matter—not anymore.

He briskly threw on his attire as the silence stretched between them, suffocating and imposing. He tied his utility belt and tightly fastened the straps of his chuunin jacket. As he tied his forehead protector, he spoke in a calm, resolute manner, his face becoming determined and grim, "Save it, Kakashi-sensei! You and Grannie and everyone else have told me how impossible the situation is, how this is the way things are, and I have to suck it up and deal with it. Well, I think it's time things changed…and you know me. I'm Uzumaki Naruto; I don't go back on my word. I can't, because the way things are now…is just fucked up real bad."

"You're not the first one to have this goal in mind, Naruto. It's been tried before, and failed every time. The ninja world…most people will agree it will never change," Kakashi neutrally observed.

Naruto paused, his hand on the rail of his window as he prepared to leap outside. He briefly turned his head. "Nothing lasts forever. I will be the first to make things change. Believe it," the blond declared with finality and conviction.

(The following day, Hokage Mountain, Konohagakure)

Ino crossed her arms beneath her breasts, her fingers tapping over her forearms. Her cyan eyes narrowed as she glared at her boyfriend's back. She inhaled deeply through her nose and opened her mouth to speak but then tightly clamped her lips. She didn't like these feelings he was invoking in her – fear.

Naruto's body was so tense; a palpable feeling of compacted fury blending with a deep, soul-crushing depression. He was avoiding her, and from what she gathered, everyone else as well, ever since he got back from his mystery mission five days ago. 'Damn it, Naruto! You're not supposed to be bottling things up. We're a couple, and you're…you're supposed to share with me.'

"Ino-chan, if you're going to ask something, just spit it out," Naruto's voice burst out rather harshly.

He didn't move from his spot, his brooding continuing despite her presence. A tight knot of tension that had been building for weeks abruptly exploded, a fiery, sweeping rage flushing through every fiber of her body. 'Who the hell does he thinks he is? He can't talk to me like that!'

"What the hell is wrong with you? You've ditched me three times today! I called your name and I know you heard me!" Every word she hissed was coated with venom as she stomped over to him, hanging around just an arm's breadth away from him.

"Leave it alone, Ino. I don't want to talk about it," Naruto cautioned in a quiet, controlled manner.

"No! I'm sick of this! You've been distant for weeks. We don't hang out, we barely kiss or touch and we definitely don't talk. We…" She accused explosively, her hands fisting into the fabric of his upper coat, preparing to turn him around.

"Shut up, Ino," Naruto's clipped tone cut off her tirade and she felt the iron grip of his fingers around her wrists.

She had always been enraptured by the emotional vivacity dancing in his irises. But now, there was no vibrancy, only a muted deadness which chilled her to the core. 'Wh-what happened to you, Naruto?'

"Life…" His voice trailed off in a deadpan manner, almost as if he read her thoughts like an open manga. A heavy sigh escaped his lips and he seemed to deflate. He bowed his head and gently rubbed his hands up and down her arms.

While the tenderness of the gesture was appreciated, it was not nearly enough to appease her curiosity and fear at his statement. "Naruto, stop it! You're scaring me…"

"Please, Ino, I can't do this now, and even if I could, you'd never understand…" His voice broke into a small whisper and she gasped heavily at the gleam in his eyes.

"Then make me understand! Stop keeping me out! How can I be here for you when you keep everything to yourself?" she choked out, his words deeply cutting into her.

Ino shrank back as the bitterness and anger ignited in her lover's eyes as he stood up to his full height. It was as if a dam had fallen down and weeks of emotion gushed out of his lips in a quick, furious rant. "No, Ino! What part of 'back off' don't you get?"

"Don't you take that tone with me, Uzumaki! I deserve better than this!" she shouted, aware that spittle sprayed all over his face as she got close and personal with him, her nose touching his own.

"Do you, Ino? How the hell can you ask me to share with you when you accuse me of not caring about you? You say I'm being distant and moody and not spending time with you like I'm doing it on purpose? You make me sound like I'm some jerk that's dicking you around! But you KNOW I care about you, and I've been working my ass off to earn free time to spend with you."

"You've got a funny way of showing it!" she scoffed and turned away from him, hugging her body tightly. She cursed herself as her eyes stung with tears, her shoulders shaking.

"Tell me what to do, Ino. Tell me what more I should be doing!" he demanded, grabbing her arm and spinning her around, his eyes wild. They seemed to glow with his emotions, pulsing brightly with an intensity that sent shivers crawling down her spine.

She choked, paralyzed like a doe in the face of a tiger. "You're hurting me…" she whimpered and watched him back away as if she burned him, his face twisting into a remorseful grimace.

She couldn't help it anymore; she started sobbing earnestly and covered her face with her eyes, falling to her knees. "I don't know! I don't know anymore, Naruto!"

Puffy, red eyes peeked at him, a part of her regretting the anguish and frustration she felt radiating off him. But another part of her, one that relished in his pain, selfishly clinging to her righteousness. "I can't do this anymore."

It was Naruto's turn to deeply inhale, a choked sound escaping him and she felt his arms wrap around her, a murmured 'no' repeated beneath his breath. "No, don't do this to me, Ino. Please, I'll try harder…I'll…Please don't do this!"

"No, you won't," she said, defeated. "Look, you mean the world to me, Naruto, but maybe…we should take a time out."

"Ino, don't do this to me, I lo…" he started before she interrupted him by pressing her lips against his in order to not condemn her with his confession. She held him, taking in his scent, the firmness of his muscular body pressed against her body.

She melted against him, her lips hurting with how hard she kissed him, engraving his scent and flavor into her memory, she would miss them deeply. 'I'm sorry, but I won't be second fiddle to your commitment, to your teachers, to your other friends…anymore.'

"No, you don't, and that's okay," she shakily uttered and cupped his face with her hands. She cut him off before he could deny her statement; before he could vanquish her with sweet words and hollow platitudes and promises. 'Damn it, Naruto. I don't want to do this…I love you, too! Bu-but this is for the best. It hurts too much to deal with this…'


She broke away from him, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. "It's not you; it's me…I want to be with you, but we'll only end up hurting each other. I care about you too much to let that happen…maybe someday, but not now."

Naruto's eyes were moist and for once, he seemed speechless. She took advantage of the opportunity and ran away. She sobbed for the disappointments of reality, for being too selfish to share the man she loved with both the village and other people; she just wasn't strong enough—at least, not yet.

She left the tattered ruins of her heart back in the clearing, praying one day he'd be able to forgive her and maybe even give her another chance, though she wasn't sure she'd ever be able to exonerate herself.

(Three Days Later, Yard within the boundaries of Hyuuga Estate, Konohagakure)

Hinata frowned faintly over the rim of her tea cup. Her slender eyebrows were deeply furrowed as she watched Naruto practice with his mother's blade. The oolong tea was bitter against her tongue, sharpening her awareness. She licked the inner part of her cheek thoughtfully as she analyzed the Uzumaki's kata.

His motions were fluid, every step, pivot and shift of his body a calculated strand in the weaving dance of steel and muscle. But anyone who knew Naruto—the real Naruto—easily noticed he was off. There was no enthusiasm; no excitement in his training, his upbeat and die-hard disposition diminished.

"It's a sight, isn't it, Hinata-sama?" Neji's cool baritone disturbed her musings. Her gaze flicked over to her older cousin, one of her brows quirked high in an inquisitive manner. "I used to hate how perky and exuberant he acted, but now…" His voice trailed off as he poured himself a cup of tea.

"Give it some time. It's still fresh in his mind." And heart, she quipped mentally and sighed against the hot liquid. "You know how he is, Neji-niisan. He has to process, mull over it internally and then…"

"And get over his funk and find something positive about everything," Neji breathed out his answer, shaking his head. Neji brought the cup to his lips and his next words mirrored her own secret, treacherous thoughts. "I'm not sure it's that simple this time, Hinata. Naruto seemed withdrawn and depressed even before Ino-san's…precarious decision."

She scoffed, the familiar stirring of disbelief mingled with fury settling deep within her stomach. It boggled the Hyuuga heiress' mind how childish and petty Ino was acting. If only it had been her…

Neji chuckled softly, obviously amused by her expression of disgust and distaste. "And here I thought you grew out of your crush on Naruto, Hinata. If I didn't know better, I'd think you were jealous of how deeply he cares for Yamanaka."

Hinata felt heat rush to her cheeks, her eyes averting to the cup in her hands. "I am not and will not be pursuing Naruto, no matter how tempting the notion is. Naruto and I each have our own goals and ambitions to fulfill which take precedence to teenage romance." Besides, she wouldn't be a rebound girl; she could wait patiently for a better time in the future.

Though she couldn't see it, she felt the smugness oozing off her cousin. "So, if Naruto walked up to you tomorrow and planted a kiss on your lips and profess his undying love you'd say…no?"

Hinata gritted her teeth, the mental image eliciting a heavier blush and she shot her older cousin a dark glare. "Stop it, Neji! You know this is not the time to explore these things. Dark times are coming…"

Neji acquiesced and she brought up her hands to cover her face, just as a massive gust of wind blew across the entire area. "Should we warn him about the likelihood of him destroying Hiashi-sama's property again?"

Naruto's sword shone with blue light, the seals engraved over its surface angrily palpitated as he pushed more and more nature chakra through the conductive alloy. His motions were getting faster and faster, blurring slightly as gusts of air whipped around him.

"Hiashi-sama won't mind too much, since he's too busy trying to outwit the elders at every turn," Neji replied offhandedly and his eyes shifted to eerie silver, veins protruding around his eyes. "Naruto's other clones are acting similarly, too."

"It won't end well for him or for the Hyuuga clan in general if he keeps this up. That's why…" Hinata commented in a subdued manner, feeling a flush at guilt at her part in dealing with the same people whom looked down on Neji for all his life.

"I know what you've been doing, Hinata. It's okay," her cousin cut her off, smiling apologetically. "We of the Branch understand more than we're given credit for. We know you're trying to heal the clan by making bonds and approaching your fellow main branch members. We have nothing against the middle aged and younger members of the main family, as they do not perpetuate the cycle of servitude."

"Y-you don't?" she stuttered in shock, her breath held as she curiously peered at her formally bitter and hateful cousin.

"We're all family, one way or another. If you convince them and are the one leading when they are ready to reconcile and repent for their oppression, the branch will accept this and try to open a new page. But we accept you, not Hiashi, Hanabi or anyone else…"

Hinata pursed her lips and swallowed, shakily chuckling. 'No pressure then, right? And he asks why I don't pursue a romantic relationship with anyone, much less Naruto? He's got to be kidding me…'

"Good." She managed to regain her wits a minute or so later. "I've put the plan into motion. The contract has been brokered with Jiraiya-sama, with Naru-kun's assistance. If anyone can devise an alternative to that…thing, it'll be him."

Neji willed a ghost of a smile to pass his lips. "I'm happy, Hinata. I'm happy you're not like them. You're not weak; on the contrary, you're just as strong as your crush and idol. You should be proud, as he is…as we are. You will be a great leader, and this, I know for certain."

Hinata blushed furiously and smiled a bit. She thanked Neji and resumed watching Naruto. 'If only I could make myself proud and help him…he's suffering so…'

(At the same time, Mizukage's abode, Kirigakure)

Sakura gulped as she knelt low against the wooden floor. She pressed her forehead against the cool surface and dared not look up at the woman sitting on an elevated throne; she still remembered how quick Terumi Mei's temper flared.

"You asked for an audience with me, Haruno, so sit up and speak. I have little time for idle chatter, so get on with it," the red-haired beauty firmly snapped, tapping the handle of her throne with her manicured nails.

The former Konoha kunoichi licked her lips and exhaled through her nostrils. "A week ago, I was returning home from training with Suigetsu and I saw a suspicious figure rummaging through one of the dumpsters."

"So…you saw a homeless person looking for food and you thought it was prudent to update me on this…" The blandness in the Mizukage's tone sent shivers down her spine. The laughter of her alter ego grated on her nerves; even though she was slowly ignoring the voice in her head, it didn't make the advice, profanity or annoying observations stop.

"Mizukage-sama! I've been monitoring everyone who lives in the area and said homeless person doesn't live nearby or had ever been in that vicinity. Besides, our building is occupied by ninja, we rarely eat in, and it doesn't make sense for him to look for food or stuff there, when he could get better scores in the mercantile district."

She dared to steal a glimpse at the woman and noticed the thoughtful expression on the leader's face. 'She's thinking about it!' she thought excitedly.

The bloodline extraordinaire smiled and spoke in a softer manner, eliciting hope in the young woman's battered heart. "Very well, I'll readily admit that is suspicious. I'll send a sketch to interview you later tonight. You're dismissed."

The dual-personality kunoichi bowed once more, and as she turned, she grinned widely when a single sentence by her new Kage chased her on her way out. "Good work, Sakura."

She then proceeded to practically float and skip her way home. She hummed herself a tune as her cheeks hurt through her grin. 'YES! Haha! Take that! I can prove myself to her! I will find acceptance!'

'One victory in battle is hardly winning the war, Sakura-chan. You should know by now to be cautious with our feelings. You'll only get disappointed when reality slaps us in the face once more!' her darker side chided her, mildly cackling in her head.

Sakura scoffed and rolled her eyes. She was already used to the voice in her head that tried to keep her rooted—or rather, knock her off her high horse whenever she started feeling smug or happy. 'You'll see! I've got everything under control!'

'Is that so? Then why can't you sense the chakra signature that's been following us for the last three blocks?'

Sakura's eyes narrowed and she slipped into a more secluded alley, her hands running through several hand seals just as she took a quick turn around a corner. She spread a small area-oriented illusion several feet in every direction, projecting the image of her body blending into the wall, the alley around her empty.

She waited with bated breath, her heart racing and throat dry. Her hands shook slightly and sweat drizzled down her forehead and cheek. 'He's not stupid enough to fall for something like that, Sakura-chan. If you must know, the stalker is waiting around the corner for you to continue. I suspect a sensor ninja.'

'You don't have to be so smug and snarky about it! Damn it…!' Sakura grumbled mentally and pressed her back against the concrete of the building. She felt the cool surface soothe her nerves and made five hand seals. 'Raiton…'

She spun around the corner, cupping her hands together as electricity flashed between her fingertips. The nature chakra angrily lit up at her command. However, before she could unleash her attack, a foot smashed into her cheek, slamming her back into the alley.

Her ears rang and she shook her head. 'Duck'. She obeyed her body's instinct, barely dodging the follow-up kick; however, the request for her to block was too little, too late. A hand smashed between her breasts, pushing her hard against the wall, and then a hand wrapped around her neck.

'Are you still optimistic, Sakura-chan?'

"So sorry, Haruno. My reflexes got the better of me," a gravelly voice she recognized as one of the Mizukage's aides coolly spoke. He wasn't sorry at all, that son of a bitch.

He dropped her unceremoniously, his dark visible eye dancing with some mirth. She wondered what he hid behind the sealed eyepatch on his right eye. She didn't have much time to ponder the blue haired jounin's situation as he smirked at her.

"Do not think because Mizukage-sama gave you a place amongst us due to the kindness of her heart that you can take advantage of us. I and other jounin don't trust nuke-nin scum like you. Until you prove yourself trustworthy, we'll continue to keep an eye on you, understood?"

"Y-yes," she croaked, rubbing her throat, ignoring the tinkling laughter in her mind.

"Also, do not mention this to anyone, especially the Mizukage. You won't like the consequences if you do," he cautioned and bowed slightly, walking away without another word.

Sakura hit the back of her head lightly on the wall behind her, groaning miserably. 'I told you it wouldn't be easy…maybe next time you should listen to me.'

'You knew who it was and didn't tell me, didn't you?" Sakura darkly accused her other personality, covering her face with her hands.

'I didn't know for sure…but I had my suspicions. This was just a lesson for you, my dear. Life is a series of respites between disappointments and harsh realities. Grow up and accept we're fucked over and adapt in turn.'

'NO! I will not give up! I will succeed and make you eat your words…!'

'By all means, Sakura-chan, prove me wrong. However, do note the following: a) you're living in a dream world conjured by misinformation and self-delusions; b) you're arguing with yourself over life philosophies…

'I hate you…'

'You mean you hate yourself? How pathetic can you get?'

She growled and hit her head in frustration.

And now you're a masochist too!'

Her growl reverberated throughout the desolate alley.

(The following evening, on the bank of a pond, Near Training Field Six, Konohagakure)

Naruto threw his mesh shirt off his body, the protective material joining his overcoat and chuunin jacket. He slapped his face with both hands and sat down in a lotus position, bringing his hands together.

He was undergoing intense emotional and mental turmoil. At first, the guilt over his sins was beginning to fade into a small part of his soul which he felt was forever tainted. He compartmentalized it, kept it in the back of his mind and finally found clarity and purpose in evolving his original goals in a more realistic manner.

And then, she, who remained nameless, struck like a hunter-nin's blade, silent, swift and with deadly force. He was still grappling with his emotions when she came to him, with her demands and would've showered him with more empty platitudes which unlike Kakashi and Tsunade had no experience to support them. It wasn't as if he could've shared his sordid affairs with her anyway; it was classified.

Why did she have to push him? If she had just given him some time like all his other friends, like his teachers and Tsunade, she wouldn't have…wouldn't have dumped him. He just needed time to digest and move on. Why didn't she understand?

He snarled and his eyes snapped open. He couldn't meditate when all he wanted was her. He had grown accustomed, felt deeply for her, and now she was gone. It hurt, and he didn't know how to deal with it. Were they friends? Was he supposed to forget her now? Did he want to move on?

He growled and leapt to his feet. He started pacing back and forth, his hands behind his back as he brooded. His friends were worried about him; he could smell it, see it and hear it in their tones and how they walked on eggshells around him. His sensei, however, was beginning to lose patience with him, and if he was honest, he, too, was tired and sick of himself and these feelings.

He wished Jiraiya was there. If he was, he would give him romantic advice, and while he was a pervert, one could not deny his expertise in romantic liaisons and in dealing with rejection, as Tsunade had been shooting him down for over forty years. Therefore, he had little alternative but deal with it on his own.

'I might as well summon Fukusaku. I've been avoiding him for long enough. He won't be happy…' the Jinchuuriki miserably conceded, preparing himself mentally for pain, and lots of it.

He bit his thumb and made five quick hand seals, pressing his palm hard against the ground. He felt the chakra ooze out through his arm and compact upon the ground. He took several steps back as the white smoke clear, revealing a very irate looking bearded toad. "Naruto-chan…"

"Fukusaku-sama, I…" The excuse was on the edge of his tongue; however, it was not fated to be spoken as the small amphibian blurred forth and smashed into his abdomen, knocking him several feet away.

He grunted hard, adjusting his trajectory so he landed in a manner which didn't dislocate bones or chafe his skin. He climbed into a loose stance. He didn't wait for approval, or have time to talk; all he had time to do was dodge out of the way and pray for the best.

He weaved to the left, just barely avoiding an angry green projectile. "Who do you think you are, boy? You think the toad clan is some group of pets you can summon at your convenience?"

"No! I-I'm sorry…I just—!" Naruto stammered fearfully as he heard the tree the toad sage collided with explode into splinters, literally torn apart by the force of the blow. 'Geez…he isn't holding back, is he?'

"Give me one good explanation for this insult, or I'll make you regret the day Kushina-chan pushed you out of her womb and into this world, you conceited little snot!" the miniature green disaster threatened, his yellow eyes seeming to glow with his fury.

Naruto shut his eyes and heavily exhaled. He decided to conceal his sinful endeavor for the Daimyo and went with the harsher, more painful of the two. "I-I got dumped by Ino."

The sounds of crickets filled the clearing, and for a moment, he was positive he was going to either die or suffer another tirade of platitudes—neither an appealing option. What he wasn't expecting was for Fukusaku to snicker, cough and then start laughing audibly, holding his sides and falling on the ground.

His right eyebrow twitched. "It's not funny! I loved her! I spent every free moment trying to be with her, even if it came at the cost of my health. Then, I'm a bit busier than usual and we have a fight and she…I-I think she couldn't handle how busy I was…" he huffed angrily, glaring at the guffawing toad sage.

It was quite unsettling and insulting to be ridiculed over his most intimate and private failings and woes, damn it! The elder toad controlled himself and wiped tears from his eyes. "And I thought you were looking down at us, thinking you're too good for us. All my anger and preparations of torturing you wasted over some useless teenaged romance?"

"Oi! I told you…I…" Naruto defended himself, feeling outrage well within him. He didn't have much time to feel upset as Fukusaku's foot smashed into his cheek, sending him careening back until he landed with a splash into the icy cold lake water.

He gasped for air while spewing water, shaking his head. "W-what was that for?" Naruto angrily exploded as he climbed out of the lake. He wondered who was crazier—the toad, for beating him up for no apparent reason, or him, for repeatedly summoning him and taking the punishment.

Fukusaku leaped and landed on his head, speaking softly in a bemused manner. "That was to knock some sense into you, boy. Stop moping about like some pussy. Naruto-chan, you're not even fourteen! What do you know about love?"

Naruto glared up at the offending summon and grumbled in a low voice. "I know what I feel…hey, ow! Ow! What the hell?"

He fell to his knees, the fierce series of blows to his noggin driving him to the ground. He tried to grab the toad sage and shrug him off, but the bugger grabbed onto his hair and tugged. "Enough, Naruto-chan! No toad summoner is this pathetic! Where are your guts?"

Naruto eyed him dubiously. "My guts…?"

" Your guts! No, not your intestines, but your heart and courage, my boy! You know what I mean, Naruto-chan! That's why we liked you in the first place! When the world beats you down, you get right up and keep on walking!"

"But I don't want to move on, and it hurts, and I…damn it, you pulled some hairs that time!" He ended his moping with a scream.

"Don't interrupt me! So what if some stuck up little princess dumped you? It's her loss if she can't appreciate how hard you're working! You're a chip off the old block, only better 'cause you've got your mother's eye shape and smile!"

Naruto blanked out slightly, the turn of the conversation become distinctively embarrassing. He blushed a light scarlet and didn't talk anymore, fearing he'd earn another beating.

"So here's how things are going to be from now on. You get off your ass and get your priorities straight! Get back in shape, and stop ignoring us and all your other friends! Or else, next time, I won't hold back when I smack you around, capiche?"

The blond mulled over his words, gulping nervously and nodded. "I-I guess I'll try, but it'll take some time…"

Fukusaku smashed his fist hard on his head. "You're even thicker than Jiraiya-chan was at your age! I meant 'from now on.' I'll be keeping some summons to spy on you, Naruto-chan, just like I did back in the day…and if I hear you're pulling an Uchiha on me, I'll tell Bunta and he'll be the next one to come talk to you…"

Naruto balked at the notion and gulped. 'I guess I have been pretty pathetic. Ino fucked me up good with her stunt but…I've got other things to do with my life and I guess I'll see where every day will take me.'

He wouldn't forget that there were good times he wanted to cherish which marched hand in hand with the bad times he spent with Ino. But, he wouldn't let her dominate him…destroy him. Too much was on the line—his future, his ambitions and his village. 'Tch, I'll show that miserable bastard, I'm no whiny pussy like he says. I'll show him strength and I'll show him guts! You just wait!'