Sasuke could not sleep. His mind had been rolling with emotion ever since he left the ramen stand. Sasuke had tried so very hard to bury all his emotions, save hatred for Itachi, in his pursuit of power. In the space of a few short days, Naruto had brought out a host of Sasuke's emotions. The first few days, which admittedly weren't his best, Naruto and Hinata had aroused his anger. June was always a month difficult for Sasuke. His beloved mother's birthday is…was June the first. The times around his mother's and father's birthdays were always Sasuke's lowest points.
He groaned as he got out of his bed. Sasuke walked to the window and gazed in the direction of his clan's district. Normally, he shied away from the district during the months of June and August. The memories of his father and mother were too painful. Tonight, Sasuke found he was unable to look away. It was almost as if something was calling to him. It wasn't a genjutsu. Sasuke was certain of that fact. Instead, it was an almost spiritual feeling. A soft smile appeared on his lips unbidden. One day, Sasuke would return to his clan's district. It would be glorious.
'Where has this optimism come from?' Sasuke asked himself in surprise. His thoughts hadn't been this positive in years. Suddenly, Sasuke's train of thought derailed. The section of his mind trained for action and the life of a shinobi became dominant.
There was someone in the Uchiha district.
The Uchiha district was held in trust by the Hokage. Sasuke was the only individual who could enter the district without the joint permission of himself and the Hokage. Sasuke felt a tremor of rage and worry in his gut. He bolted across the room and threw on his shirt and collected his shinobi gear.
He didn't even bother to use the door.
'I owe Naruto a proper thank-you for teaching me tree walking,' Sasuke thought in dark amusement. 'Whoever you are, you will answer for your trespass!'
Naruto and Hinata had remained silent for several moments. The two young people simply wanted to absorb each other's presence and embrace the new facet of their relationship.
"Hinata-chan," Naruto said after taking a few deep breaths. "There is one more thing I have to tell you."
"W-what is it, Naruto-kun?" Hinata asked as she rested her cheek on Naruto's chest. She listened to his heart beat and was shocked that it was beating as fast as hers. Hinata reveled in the intimate connection. It was strange seeing Naruto this nervous. Somehow, Naruto's nervousness made him more human. Hinata experienced a strange sense of relief. She believed for the first time that she could help him beyond simple sparring. For the first time, the small part of her mind that considered Naruto an impossible dream was silenced. "You can t-tell me anything. I will stay with you forever."
"T-this time we might get that chance," Naruto barely whispered. Hinata had barely heard him speak, and she had her head resting just below his chin. She squeaked a bit in surprise as Naruto hugged her tightly.
"This time?" Hinata felt a knot in her stomach. A weighty and mysterious feeling descended upon the Hyūga heiress.
"What I'm about to tell you…I doubt you'll believe me. I have trouble believing it myself…mainly because of how afraid it makes me," Naruto chose his words with care.
'Afraid? Naruto-kun?' Hinata could scarcely believe that. Naruto was so brave. "I'm here for you."
Naruto smiled at Hinata's assurance. "I…sort of traveled through time for you."
"W-what?" Hinata repositioned herself so she could look Naruto in the eyes.
"It's a long story," Naruto said a bit sheepishly. Somehow, Naruto knew Hinata would hang on his every word. Naruto took a deep breath and began to explain. He started with what Namikaze had revealed to him about how he had come back. Hinata was amazed to learn that the Rinnegan actually existed. It was a legend. However, she noticed Naruto's hesitation.
"Naruto-kun, you've told me how 'you' came back, but now why," Hinata prodded.
Naruto shivered. "It hurts." Hinata felt Naruto tense. "I didn't come back as me. A second version of me came back, the older me."
"W-was it Namikaze?" Hinata asked as the pieces fell into place. 'That is why he said Naruto-kun was his past and his future.'
"Yeah…how did you know?"
"H-He came to me at one of the training grounds. It was the day after the Academy Holiday ended. Namikaze…told me how Genin Teams were formed," Hinata revealed.
"O-oh," Naruto said. "Guess that makes this 'easier'. Namikaze is my future self and he will cease to exist in one year."
"What?" Hinata asked in shock.
"When Nagato-nii and Yamato-sensei came back, they immediately merged with their current selves. Namikaze couldn't…because…Well, I guess I should just spell it out," Naruto's voiced trembled as he spoke. Naruto explained, as best he knew, the battle against 'Pain'. He told how Hinata had saved him from being captured and having the Kyūbi extracted. More than that…
Naruto revealed that the future Hinata had loved him.
He revealed that the Hinata of that time had sacrificed herself for Namikaze. Naruto revealed that Namikaze's eyes were not his own. They had once belonged to Hinata.
'Those were once my eyes…' Hinata felt her legs turn to mush. She would have surely collapsed if Naruto had not been holding her.
"He…I…we came back because we couldn't imagine a world without you. I don't have all of Namikaze's memories yet. I won't get those for another couple of months…but I can feel the connection Namikaze and your future-self had," Naruto continued to explain. "And you know what? I'd go back again and again to protect that connection. I wouldn't…couldn't go on without that connection."
Hinata, at this point, was in tears. Naruto's revelations had hit her like hammer blows. Time travel was a mind-blowing concept, but she instinctively trusted Naruto. Hinata had also seen Namikaze. The seal Namikaze and Naruto possessed was far too complicated to easily replicate. It was hard to believe someone could copy Naruto's seal for use in a prank.
Namikaze's eyes were also a shock. They had been hers.
It was somewhat difficult to process Naruto's words. Naruto had come back for her. He hadn't said it plainly, but Hinata was convinced that Naruto loved her. Hinata had never felt so…whole in her life.
"Naruto-kun," Hinata gently breathed her love's name. She was going to show him beyond a shadow of a doubt. Hinata kissed Naruto passionately. The Hyūga heiress poured her soul into the kiss. Hinata wanted Naruto to experience her acceptance, gratitude, and love in a purer sense than words could ever capture.
Naruto for his part was drawn into the present. In that moment, there was no past or future. All Naruto could, or wanted to, comprehend was Hinata. He had no fear or regrets about Namikaze's actions now. Hinata's emotions and hopes practically flowed into his soul. Naruto responded in kind and poured his gratitude, hope, and his own love back into the kiss.
It was a beautiful moment that both Naruto and Hinata wished could last forever. Unfortunately, it was not to be.
"Hinata-sama, forgive my interruption of your…intimate moment, but we must return to the compound soon," Neji said sheepishly. He had the decency to look a bit embarrassed that he had to interrupt the moment.
"Are you sure?" Naruto asked in childish hope.
Neji tried to look authoritative but could only sigh instead. "Hiashi-sama will undoubtedly ask questions about Hinata-sama's training. I do not believe he would be pleased to learn of this rendezvous."
Hinata put a hand to her lips. She hadn't thought about that! Hinata suddenly realized that her lips were a bit puffy from the intensity of the kiss.
"H-how obvious is it?" Hinata asked nervously.
"Fairly," Neji said a tad impatiently even though Hinata's back was to him.
Hinata gulped. "Neji-nii-san, can we spar?"
"I am not sure that is wise. We do not have much time before Hiashi-sama will send someone to locate us," Neji attempted to reason with Hinata.
"I know…but I need you to hit me in the face," Hinata said quickly.
"Whaaat?!" Naruto shouted. He hadn't let go of Hinata and she flinched at his outburst. Hinata shifted in Naruto's embrace so she could see her cousin without activating her bloodline.
"Father would not punish me for being overly aggressive in a night spar. I am worried thathe would not react well to my relationship with Naruto at the moment. In a few days, he will have no choice but to accept it," Hinata explained.
"I never expected such…defiance on your part, Hinata-sama," Neji said neutrally.
"Naruto-kun is worth my father's displeasure," Hinata said firmly. Neji couldn't help but smirk. He was enjoying this defiance of the clan from Hinata-sama. It appeared that Naruto could see the truth of Hinata better than anyone. Naruto's vision was more focused, perhaps. The Hyūga prodigy considered that Naruto could truly see people. Naruto didn't need a dōjutsu to see the truth of one's character. He could simply reach to one's very core.
'Naruto…you have the makings of a legend. You are a man I will follow willingly,' Neji thought to himself.
"But why do you want Neji to punch you in the face? Your face is pretty! I don't want anyone hitting you in the face! Especially when I can't hit them back!" Naruto whined.
"It will be okay, Naruto-kun," Hinata said soothingly. She felt a bit light-headed when Naruto called her pretty. "T-this is just so Father won't be able to interfere. I am still legally a civilian. H-he would be within his rights to withhold me from the Academy until graduation."
Naruto really didn't like the thought of not seeing Hinata for a few days. "Does he have to hit you in the face?"
"I could only graze her mouth. That would likely divert suspicion," Neji offered as a compromise. His words and actions were surprising him.
"I still don't like this idea…" Naruto grumbled. He flopped to the ground as Hinata and Neji entered their Jūken stances. Naruto was familiar with sparring against Hinata's Gentle Fist style. However, he had never seen a match between two Jūken users. Neji and Hinata exchanged a nod and launched themselves at each other. Naruto unconsciously leaned forward. He was amazed by the contradiction of a Jūken match. It was simultaneously fluid and rigid. Hinata and Neji held their stances firm and only grudgingly gave ground. However, their upper bodies were in constant motion. Neji and Hinata were dodging strikes, probing for openings, and searching for any and all advantages. They were like blurs.
"Hinata-sama," Neji said as he jumped back. "I'm going to aim high with my next punch."
"I understand nii-san," Hinata acknowledged Neji. Naruto grumbled about the plan from his spot nearby. The 'accident' came quickly and Hinata's lip had a new bruise.
"Ouch," Hinata said tenderly.
"My apologies, Hinata-sama," Neji said quickly. Naruto got up and walked over to the two Hyūga.
"You are okay, right Hinata-chan?" Naruto sounded for the world like a doting husband. The imagery wasn't lost on Hinata and she blushed.
"I'm fine, Naruto-kun." Hinata took Naruto's hand. "I…I can't wait to see you tomorrow, but Neji-nii-san is right. We have to get back home before Father sends someone looking for us."
"Okay…" Naruto pouted and Hinata giggled at how cute he looked. "Good night, Hinata-chan." Naruto gave Hinata a quick peck on the lips. Hinata was already red from the exertion from her spar with Neji. The quick chaste kiss ensured her blush was visible even in the nearly moonless night.
"G-good night…Naruto-kun," Hinata said shyly. She swooned as she started to walk away.
Neji rolled his eyes as he steadied Hinata. 'At least the sparing match can explain her addled mental state too. I can just blame it on fatigue.'
"Night, Hinata-chan. See ya around, Neji!" Naruto waved enthusiastically. Naruto watched Hinata and Neji until they jumped out of sight. He took a deep breath as soon as he was confident no one else was around. "YES!"
'I can't believe how that worked out! I…I never expected it to go so well!" Naruto thought in unbridled joy. He had honestly been absolutely terrified that Hinata would reject him. Naruto wasn't sure what he would have done if Hinata had turned her back on him. A lesser fear had been Neji snatching Hinata away to 'protect her from the Jinchuriki'. Naruto was infinitely relieved that neither of those nightmare scenarios had come to pass.
In fact, Naruto was trying to think of the opposite of nightmare. Dream struck Naruto as far too bland to describe how good he felt. Naruto wandered away from the training ground in a daze. He was, quite possibly, in the best mood of his life.
"You know, I had hoped you would stop doing that," Sasuke's voice dragged Naruto back to reality.
Naruto clicked his teeth. "Sorry, Sasuke…I guess I was lost in my own little world."
"Don't worry about it. What are you doing out at midnight?" Sasuke questioned.
Naruto sighed and Sasuke knew immediately it was something Hinata-related. "Oh…I trained with Hinata-chan and her cousin…then I…talked with Hinata about some stuff."
"Talked, sure," Sasuke shook his head. Naruto was blushing and that convinced Sasuke it was anything but a talk.
"So, what are you doing out here?" Naruto asked with a hint of his normal composure. Sasuke looked to his clan's district.
"Uchiha business," he half admitted.
"At midnight?" Naruto asked. "Come on, Sasuke. We're friends. If you were about to charge into battle against a bunch of Iwa ninja, I'd tell you to wait so I could get my kunai."
"We haven't been friends that long," Sasuke pointed out and unknowingly acknowledged Naruto as his friend.
"Bah, what better way to cement a friendship than kicking ass in an epic battle?" Naruto waved off Sasuke's point. "Besides, your clan's district is pretty big. You're probably looking for something and it would take forever to find something in there."
Sasuke debated if he should include Naruto. However, if there was one person Sasuke was confident to be discreet, it was ironically Naruto. Naruto had always been a loud and flamboyant attention-seeker. However, he was keeping his relationship with Hinata surprisingly quiet. "Fine."
Naruto beamed. "See, was that so hard?" Sasuke just rolled his eyes and the two boys headed for the Uchiha district. "So, what exactly are we looking for?"
"A trespasser. I just hope the two of us can find this intruder quickly," Sasuke explained and lamented.
"The two of us…maybe not. The two dozen of us, probably," Naruto said slyly.
"What does that even mean?" Sasuke questioned.
"You'll see," Naruto said cheekily.
Sasuke wanted to roll his eyes again. 'Of all the times for Naruto to become cryptic!'
Namikaze paused at the entrance to a small road-side tavern. He could feel something in his bones. Tsunade and Shizune watched the young man pause. Shizune took a tentative step forward.
"Is something wrong, Namikaze-san?"
Namikaze flashed a confident grin. "We found Ero-Sennin a lot sooner than I thought we would."
"Ero-sennin?" Shizune giggled. "It fits."
"Doesn't it?" Namikaze agreed. "It'll be good to see the Old Pervert again. He meant a lot to me."
"I'm glad you are getting a second chance," Shizune said comfortingly.
Namikaze chuckled. He hadn't told Baa-chan or Shizune that his time was limited. Still, the sentiment was nice. There was so much he wanted to tell Jiraiya. Naruto was confident that it would be a great reunion.
"Thanks Shizune," Namikaze responded hopefully. "Ladies first."
Tsuande and Shizune nodded in thanks and entered the somewhat-shady establishment. Tsunade had an amused smile gracing her lips.
"Is something wrong, Tsunade-shishō?" Shizune asked politely.
"Oh, I'm just trying to figure out how I feel about my student who I view as a daughter checking out a young man who calls me 'baa-chan'," Tsunade said mischievously.
"Tsunade-shishō!" Shizune was thoroughly scandalized. The medical ninja blushed a furious crimson and barely held back tears. She had always wondered how Tsunade viewed their relationship. This was the first time Tsunade had hinted that she viewed Shizune as family while sober. Shizune couldn't deny that Namikaze was intriguing.
She wasn't checking him out though!
Namikaze didn't hear Tsunade and Shizune's conversation. Instead, he was focused on his reunion with Ero-sennin. Namikaze was so excited and optimistic that he had to remind himself he wasn't Naruto anymore.
Strangely, the bar was almost completely empty. Namikaze and Shizune followed Tsunade towards a table in the back. The Slug Sannin took a seat.
"Usually, you're the one telling me to take it easy on the sake," Tsunade said with half-disguised pity.
Jiraiya looked up, but his gaze didn't meet Tsunade's. Instead, the Toad Sage looked directly at Namikaze. The young man had abandoned the bloody rags that had obscured Hinata's gifted Byakugan nearly a day ago. Namikaze was shocked by how old Ero-sennin looked. The time-traveler had always known Jiraiya was old, but this was the first time Jiraiya had ever looked old. Namikaze fondly remembered the energy and sheer optimism that Ero-sennin always radiated.
This…this was not Jiraiya-sensei.
Jiraiya-sensei never looked defeated.
"I suppose you hate me, eh?" Jiraiya said after a moment.
"H-Hate you? I…I could never hate you, Ero-sennin," Namikaze stammered. The thought of hating Ero-Sennin, one of the two great father-figures in his past life, was one of the most loathsome ideas Naruto had ever heard.
"The Toads told me everything…" Jiraiya groaned. "They told me how miserably I have failed you and Nagato, Konan and Yahiko…"
"We have a second chance," Namikaze said firmly. "Let's make use of it. Nagato-nii and I wouldn't have this chance, wouldn't have this conviction, without you."
"Quite the idealistic fool, aren't we?" Jiraiya questioned. The question was biting, but everyone heard the approval and some of Jiraiya's natural spark in the words.
Namikaze heard that spark and smirked. "Absolutely, if being a fool means never giving up then I'll gladly stay a fool forever."
"So, guts solve everything?" Jiraiya challenged.
"Not everything, but even then it always helps," Namikaze replied to the challenge.
Jiraiya nodded. "It certainly helps, but boy…I hope you're prepared to accept the fact that you aren't as in control as you think you are. I'm sure you've been taking every precaution, but I want you to be ready for anything."
"Don't worry, Ero-sennin. I've prepared for the battle against Madara," Namikaze declared proudly.
Jiraiya nodded, but quietly hoped Minato's son had planned for the war as well.
Naruto turned to face Sasuke as soon as the two were out of sight of anyone outside of the Uchiha district. Sasuke was surprised by how serious Naruto appeared to be taking the search.
"So, Sasuke, any clue what we're dealing with?" Naruto asked.
"I set up a few visual systems to warn me if someone attempted to infiltrate my clan's district," Sasuke explained. As he finished, he noticed Naruto had entered an odd pose. Sasuke's classmate had his arms crossed tightly against his chest and Naruto's eyes were closed. "What?"
"You can only see these signals when you are at home? Or when you are in specific locations at specific times?" Naruto asked.
"Yes…" Sasuke answered and surprised himself with his hesitation.
"I think we should operate on the assumption someone has figured your system out and is trying to get you here," Naruto said without hesitation. He had been trying to apply Namikaze's belief of 'looking underneath the underneath' to more than just meeting Hinata.
Sasuke, for his part, was caught off guard by how perceptive Naruto had suddenly become. It was as if Naruto had completely transformed from the total idiot everyone had dismissed as simply a loudmouth braggart. "You're almost a completely different person."
"Huh?" Naruto's train of thought had been completely derailed.
"A few days ago, you were a loudmouth idiot who had no talent. Now, you're the only person in the Academy I can count on to not hold me back when we get our team assignments," Sasuke revealed.
"You'll be able to count on Hinata-chan," Naruto said firmly. "but thanks for the vote of confidence."
"I know next to nothing about your girlfriend. She'll definitely be more welcome than any of the other 'kunoichi' in our class. But I want to know what caused this sudden change," Sasuke said firmly.
Naruto sighed. "I'll explain as we look. I think we should stick together."
"We've wasted enough time. If we stick together we'll never find any evidence in time," Sasuke countered sharply.
"Remember what I said about having two dozen of us?" Naruto asked with a cheeky grin. The Uchiha watched as Naruto made an unusual hand seal. There was suddenly a pall of smoke, and Sasuke couldn't believe his eyes. He was staring at two dozen Narutos.
'How can someone I wrote off as a dobe, a hopeless idiot, pull this off? Naruto couldn't even make a single Bunshin a few days ago!' Sasuke marveled.
"I know what you're thinking. How can Uzumaki Naruto make a ton of clones and why am I not this awesome?" Naruto joked. Sasuke rolled his eyes. "Well, I can't help with the second question, but I'm not making Bunshins."
"Then what jutsu is that?" Sasuke asked.
"Kage Bunshins,"Naruto said proudly.
"Bullshit," Sasuke replied. "Explain as we look."
Naruto chuckled as he told his Kage Bunshin to pair up and start looking. "If you find anything, dispel."
The clones made various statements or grunts in the affirmative and quickly spread through Sasuke's compound.
"Kage Bunshin is a Jonin-level jutsu and takes a ton of chakra. Father could only make two and that nearly caused him to collapse from the effort," Sasuke said in disbelief.
Naruto followed Sasuke deeper into the Uchiha district. He chuckled. "I…have had a ton of chakra just about since I've been born. I got Yamato-sensei to teach Kage Bunshin to me."
"Yamato-sensei?" Sasuke parroted.
"Yeah, he saw me screwing up the Bunshin and offered to teach me it in exchange for not pulling pranks for a while. I think he's on a mission right now, though," Naruto replied.
"Do you think he could be our Jonin instructor? You seem to have everything else about the assignments worked out." Sasuke was curious about the possibilities.
Naruto chewed over the idea. "I'm not sure."
Sasuke grunted. "I'm sure the Academy and the Hokage will put us with an Elite. Think about it…I'm Rookie of the Year and a Uchiha. Hinata is the heiress of the Hyūga Clan and you're pretty close to the Hokage."
"I hadn't thought of that," Naruto chewed over the idea. "Anyway, where are we headed?"
"There are a few areas I need to make sure are safe," Sasuke reported as he came to a stop in front of a door. The Uchiha paused a moment before sliding the door open. He took in the sights of the room before moving on.
"No one stole anything, did they?" Naruto asked.
"There was nothing to steal. I just wanted to remember my mother in her favorite room."
The two aspiring shinobi had no idea they were being observed. The artificial human of Akatsuki was conflicted about the current situation. On the one hand, Sasuke was supposed to be alone. The potential bond he was forming would make the young Uchiha far less malleable for the purposes of the Eye of the Moon plan. Sasuke needed to break completely. Once Sasuke had realized the hopelessness of this hollow and disgusting world, he would willingly take part in creating the Infinite Tsukuyomi. The fact that the potential bond was with the Kyūbi Jinchūriki further complicated the situation.
That being said…if a wedge could be driven between them…
A plan was forming. It would take time, but time was a resource those who embraced Uchiha Madara's will could exploit.
"So, what's this place?" Naruto asked as Sasuke stopped in front of a new set of structures. Sasuke hadn't spoken much after leaving what Naruto quickly realized had been Sasuke's home before The Massacre. Naruto had almost zero experience with family, and he prayed every day that he would never have experience with losing family, but he could tell how hard the inspection had been on Sasuke.
"The Uchiha's mews," Sasuke answered and walked among the various shacks and odd T-posts.
Naruto chewed the inside of his cheek. "What the heck is a mew?"
"Houses for falcons and hawks. It was the Uchiha who introduced Messenger Hawks to Konoha. My clan has always had an attachment to birds of prey," the Uchiha youth explained.
"Hawks are cool," the Jinchūriki agreed. "Did you have a pet one?"
"No, I raised one though." Sasuke was about to change subjects when he noticed something…off. The mews were one of the oldest structures in the District. Fugaku had taught Sasuke that the legendary Uchiha Madara had loved falconry. Birds of prey had been connected with the Uchiha. Sasuke hadn't noticed anything out of the ordinary, and honestly did not expect to find the mews disturbed.
The mews may have been significant to the Uchiha Clan, but to the average trespasser they were simply shacks.
'Wait…' Sasuke commanded himself as he was about to leave. Naruto's shadow had passed over the corner of one of the shacks. Sasuke rushed over and noticed some very faint scratches. If the young Uchiha had to guess, they were from something being opened. 'The brick is one away from a corner…'
Sasuke ran up and started inspecting the bricks. He felt how…odd one of the bricks felt. It wasn't the brick Sasuke had first noticed, instead it was the corner brick. There was something else about the brick that screamed 'significant' to Sasuke.
"What is it, Sasuke?" Naruto knelt next to Sasuke.
"There is something about this brick. I think it is a false brick," Sasuke mused.
"Like something is hidden behind it? Or maybe a switch?" Naruto asked.
"Maybe." Sasuke couldn't think of how to activate the brick. There was definitely something vastly important about this brick. Sasuke had a feeling that could only be compared to the one he got when standing before The Tablet of the Naka Shrine. Granted, the feeling was nowhere near as intense. Sasuke still could not afford to ignore this feeling. As a last effort, he tried channeling a small amount of chakra into the brick.
"It reacted!" Sasuke exclaimed.
Naruto cocked his head to the side. "I didn't see anything."
'That's it!' The truth of the brick was completely obvious now. "Neither did I. You need the Sharingan."
"Oh," Naruto huffed. He was a bit disappointed. Naruto really wanted to see what was behind the magic brick. "At least we know no one else can see it either."
"There is that," Sasuke agreed. "Did your clones find anything?"
"None dispelled. I think we're good." Naruto stretched as he finished.
"I want to do one last sweep on my way out." Sasuke cast one last look at the brick. The young man wondered what secret knowledge lurked behind such a small piece of mortar.
Naruto nodded. "It never hurts to be cautious."
Sasuke nodded back. "So, Kage Bunshin is how you're going to graduate."
The Jinchūriki snickered. "Oh yeah. I made a bet with Iruka-sensei that Mizuki-sensei will totally freak out when he sees what I can do!"
"I'll be sure to hang around to hear that reaction." Sasuke lifted his chin and smirked. Naruto's sudden emotional flash triggered one of Namikaze's memories. If Sasuke lifted his chin when he smirked, it was a sign that he was hugely amused.
'Anyone else would probably be laughing their ass off,' Naruto thought.
The two orphaned boys made one last cursory sweep of Sasuke's ancestral home. Sasuke was beginning to wonder if he had simply been imagining things. Naruto, for his part, was amazed at how awesome tonight had been. Hinata's reaction to Naruto's revelations had been better than Naruto had even dared to dream. The second great success was the connection Naruto was building with Sasuke. Naruto was growing in confidence that he could prevent Sasuke's 'betrayal' as well.
'There is no way things can fall apart now,' Naruto thought happily as he parted ways with Sasuke. He could sleep easily knowing that he was holding up his end of the bargain in Konoha and that Namikaze would definitely succeed in his goals as well.
Namikaze had not truly adjusted to Hinata's Byakugan. He remembered the failed mission to reach Sasuke and Itachi before their confrontation. Hinata had revealed that she could focus and see at least ten kilometers away. Namikaze definitely didn't have that kind of range. He could probably see three kilometers if he really pushed Hinata's eyes.
Still, he could see far enough to realize that Nagato had his kinda-freaky Chameleon following the group. Namikaze also could see that Itachi, Haku, Zabuza, and Kisame were waiting. The two groups of humans converged and Namikaze took the opportunity to introduce everyone.
"I'm sure we're all familiar with each other through personal experience or reputation," Namikaze spoke clearly. Everyone nodded, grunted, or spoke in the affirmative.
Tsunade took a step forward. "Uchiha Itachi, I have a question."
"Yes, Tsunade-sama?" Itachi asked.
"Why did your mother lie about Uzumaki Kushina's pregnancy?" Tsunade asked sharply.
"Do you know why I damned myself and killed the Uchiha?" Itachi countered Tsunade's question with one of his own.
"I have heard rumors," Tsunade ground out. "Most claim you were power-mad."
"Good. That means no one is close to the truth. I will tell you the whole truth eventually, but for now, it is enough that you know my mother ensure you had no reason to return to Konoha."
"I need more than that!" Tsunade spat.
"Tsunade-hime, we can't reveal Konoha state secrets to outsiders," Jiraiya interrupted. "Things are more complex than you realize."
The Slug Sannin glared at her former teammate. "Fine."
"You Konoha nin can sort your shit later," Zabuza rumbled. "I have a feeling it is Uchiha Madara's fault anyway. We kill him and everything will fall into place."
"You make it sound so easy," Shizune said. "Madara is a legend. He was the equal of the Shodai Hokage!"
Zabuza pointed his sword at Shizune. Tsunade growled in disapproval. The Demon of the Hidden Mist did not ignore the legendary Sannin's threatening stance, but did not back down. "We have some of the strongest shinobi on the planet assembled against him. Our little…gang has the Eyes of the Sage on our side."
"I'm not sure I would even call us that, Zabuza," Kisame challenged. "We are at best allies of convenience. The only reason we are all cooperating is our fear and hatred of Madara."
"And that is one of his greatest weapons," Tsunade reluctantly agreed with the Akatsuki member. "Madara is more than a man. He's a symbol. As long as that symbol remains, the world will not know peace."
"Exactly." Namikaze's agreement with Tsunade was almost shocking in its eagerness. "So far, we have only our fear and our…hatred to bind us. That's not enough for lasting peace. We have to move beyond simply agreeing to hate someone else more than we hate each other. If we are going to have a lasting peace, we must achieve a deeper understanding of each other."
Jiraiya, Shizune, Haku, and Itachi found themselves agreeing at least partially with Namikaze's philosophy. All four craved a lasting peace. They had all been traumatized by the horrors of war and persecution. Thus, the prospect of a peace based primarily on understanding and acceptance was appealing.
Zabuza, frankly, found the idea idealistic hogwash. Shinobi were instruments of war, destruction, and sabotage. The role of the shinobi was clear and unmistakable. It went against the very nature of shinobi everywhere to preach about lasting peace. However, Zabuza would follow Namikaze and Pain. They were clearly shinobi of unimaginable power. If Zabuza helped them defeat a legend like Madara, it would increase his own legitimacy when he made his move to retake Kirigakure.
Kisame remained silent. He was still adrift. The Eye of the Moon plan had been revealed as another fraud. There was no truth in anything. However, he remembered Itachi's words from earlier. 'I have to find my own truth. Heh, funny. How am I supposed to find something I doubt exists?'
Tsunade fought off a sudden flash of fear. There was a moment where she swore she heard Dan and Nawaki talking. The magnitude of Tsunade's decision to involve herself in another of Konoha's 'messes' had finally dawned on her. Tsunade had made a gamble.
'Scratch that, I've gone beyond gamble. I'm wagering my life, Shizune's life, and the fate of the entire world in a battle against a madman I used to have nightmares about,' Tsunade thought darkly.
The Slug Sannin had gone all in. She wanted to take Shizune and flee far from the coming war. Tsunade had no doubts this would be a war. Madara had lived for war. In Tsunade's mind, Uchiha Madara was mankind's hideous lust for violence and war given form.
It was too late, however. The die had been cast and everything Tsunade still cared about was on the line.
Naruto was dragging his feet as he trudged off to the Academy. Granted, for years he trudged to the Academy. However, that was because he used to loathe classes. If graduation had not been required to become a legal full-fledged Ninja, or if Iruka-sensei hadn't been there, he probably would have never shown up.
No, Naruto was trudging because he was exhausted. He couldn't sleep at all. The combination of his night with Hinata and his search of the Uchiha District with Sasuke had made drifting off impossible. He probably could have skipped and gotten out of trouble with Iruka after explaining some of what had happened last night.
'But Sasuke and Hinata-chan always show up early and I want to be there around the time they show up.' Naruto's thoughts wavered between annoyance and excitement. He was annoyed that he couldn't just turn around and go back to bed. He was excited because he had two people who had quickly become very important to him.
Then there was the added complication of the upcoming graduation exam. Naruto had only recently attempted the exam. However, this exam was his class's exam. Naruto had taken advantage of the staggered and open nature of the Academy's exam schedule. The Academy was constantly accepting new applicants and graduating new shinobi. Naruto was determined to be one of those 'new shinobi' as quickly as possible.
He hadn't been thrilled with his last exam, however. Naruto's disappointment went beyond his failure to graduate. The last exam had been one of the 'immigrant' classes. Immigrant classes were Academy classes drawn from areas of the Land of Fire with historic ties to Konoha, orphans from the capital, or as some whispered, children of clients who defaulted on payment.
Naruto had hated those rumors before Namikaze's arrival. After his future counterpart revealed himself, Naruto's opinion had changed to outright loathing. That policy, if true, was little more than a sanctioned version of ROOT's methods. Naruto had an idealized and firm vision of family. Thus, tearing apart families to repay debts was a true and terrible sin.
Naruto was suddenly alert and awake. He felt incredibly conflicted, but incredibly sure of himself. It was an odd sensation, Naruto realized. The almost instantaneous change from his earlier 'blargh-ness' to this awareness was shocking. Unfortunately, he was also more aware of the passage of time. In his sleepy state, time just seemed to blur together. Now, Naruto realized how long it was going to take to get to the Academy.
"Stupid paying attention to anything not related to missions, Hinata-chan, and ramen!" Naruto grumbled.
It was a very long three minutes before Naruto reached the Academy. He walked past a small group of girls gossiping about something. Naruto didn't pay any attention. The Jinchūriki had accepted that all girls except maybe Hinata gossiped. He passed by another group, and he chuckled as he realized what the gossip was likely about. Hinata and Sasuke were standing a comfortable distance apart, but were standing near the swing. Naruto was about to shout a greeting, but Hinata beat him to the punch.
"Good morning, Naruto-kun," Hinata greeted Naruto with light blush dusting her cheeks.
Naruto beamed brightly. "Good morning, Hinata-chan." The nearly-public young couple exchanged a quick hug. "How's your lip?"
"It isn't sore anymore. My cream helped," Hinata revealed.
Naruto breathed a sigh of relief. "How's Neji?"
"I think he's still coming to grips with what we all talked about. He was in a better mood this morning. Neji-nii-san told me that his Jonin-sensei had returned from an A-rank mission," Hinata chatted happily as she, slightly, separated from Naruto.
"That's cool. I can't wait until we find out who our Jonin sensei will be," Naruto said with a smile.
Sasuke had finally made his way over to the couple. "Hinata and I were discussing that waiting for you."
"So that's what everyone was talking about," Naruto smirked. "I wonder what this next bit will do to the rumor mill?"
Hinata and Sasuke exchanged a look. Naruto's smirk broadened. "So, do you two have any idea who the lucky Jonin of our team will be?"
"We talked about that last night," Sasuke said as he rolled his eyes. "Or did you forget the second you got home because you were thinking about your 'rendezvous' with Hinata more?"
Sasuke's verbal jab was rewarded by Naruto and Hinata blushing furiously. Naruto recovered quickly. "Well, Hinata-chan is more interesting than you."
"Is it too late to give up my Rookie of the Year position to Shino?" Sasuke asked in jest.
"I-I'm afraid you are stuck with us, Sasuke-kun," Hinata joked.
Sasuke stopped and stared at the pair. "I refuse to wear orange."
"Don't fight it Sasuke. You'll give in eventually," Naruto warned.
The Uchiha just shook his head and the trio entered the Academy. Hinata, Naruto, and Sasuke sat on Sasuke's usual row. Sasuke took his place by the window. Hinata took the middle seat, but she openly sat closer to Naruto who had taken the aisle seat. A large portion of the class had filtered in behind the trio.
Iruka and Mizuki entered the classroom before any of the other students had a chance to question the odd arrangement.
"We are approaching the final Graduation Exam," Mizuki started. "So, until the exam, we will be perfecting our basic jutsus. Also, Iruka-sensei and I will be addressing individual students and areas of concern."
The class was led outside to an unused training ground. Iruka and Mizuki had also set up several tables and benches if students needed to study for the academic and theoretical tests.
"I just noticed something," Naruto whispered to Hinata and Sasuke.
"The size of the benches?" Hinata whispered back.
Sasuke gave a closer look at the desks. "One is smaller than the other. It is trying to force us into groups of three."
"Just like the Genin teams," Hinata said in appreciation of the subtlety.
The future Genin team sat at one of the desks. Naruto and Hinata took one bench and Sasuke sat on the smaller bench across from the pair. Hinata had brought her books and they studied a little bit on the Academics. Out of the blue, Sasuke made a questioning grunt.
"I just thought of something," Sasuke said from behind interlocked hands.
"This should be good," Naruto said in anticipation and leaned in closer.
"We're ninja," Sasuke began. "One of our future tasks will be gathering intelligence and other valuable information. Why shouldn't we treat the academic test just like a mission?"
Hinata's eyes widened. "That is brilliant. You really are a genius, Sasuke-kun."
Sasuke nodded in thanks. Naruto smirked as a few thoughts popped into his head.
"A few things," Naruto jumped into the conversation. "First, I think that's the first time a girl has called you 'Sasuke-kun' and you haven't looked like you swallowed a bug. Heck, I think that's the first time you've used kun when talking with Sasuke, Hinata-chan."
"Hinata's a competent kunoichi and she's your girlfriend. I know I don't have to worry about the usual annoyances with her," Sasuke explained.
"We will all be teammates in a few days. I am hoping we can all become great friends," Hinata admitted.
"Cool, I don't see any problems on that front. Do you, Sasuke?" Naruto questioned.
"Only if you two don't use missions as a substitute for dates," Sasuke joked.
"I think he's on to us, Hinata-chan," Naruto whispered into his girlfriend's ears loudly enough for Sasuke to hear him. Sasuke rolled his eyes but smiled at the joke.
"Anyway, I'm with you two. We can use it like an intel mission. Obviously, Hinata-chan's got it easy with her Byakugan. The two of us," Naruto pointed to Sasuke as he explained. "will need to get creative. Luckily…I'm good at creative."
"Let me guess, it involves Kage Bunshin?" Sasuke asked.
"Heck yeah. Do you have radios?" Naruto replied with a mischievous grin. Sasuke returned the grin and Hinata shook her head in amusement. The three didn't get a chance to continue, because Mizuki and Iruka approached their table.
"It looks like the confident ones have all gathered together," Mizuki said with an amused grin. Hinata looked a bit shocked at the statement. It was a rare day that someone declared she was a confident person.
"Well yeah, Mizuki-sensei. I mean, Hinata-chan and Sasuke are the top ranked students in our class and I'm just awesome," Naruto declared.
"Are you sure you don't need to work on the Bunshin technique?" Iruka asked.
"No, you remember our bet right?" Naruto mentioned in an off-hand manner. Iruka nodded and ignored Mizuki's questioning look. "Well, I've got everything covered. It'll be amazing, just ask Hinata-chan and Sasuke."
The two teachers looked to the two top-ranked students. Hinata was wearing a look that spoke of her complete faith and confidence in Naruto. "Naruto-kun will have no difficulty passing."
"Hinata's right. I've seen what Naruto is planning. It is impressive," Sasuke confessed. Iruka smiled as he realized that Naruto was probably going to win both bets.
Mizuki wasn't as confident as his 'friend' and students. He was sure that the Fox did have a trick up his sleeve, but despite the Hokage's boasts Mizuki was not convinced. "I still believe it would be…prudent to work on the Bunshin."
"Maybe later, Mizuki-sensei. We're plotting," Naruto said with a grin that promised trouble.
The two teachers rolled their eyes as they moved on from Hinata, Sasuke, and Naruto. Sasuke watched Mizuki leave with a critical eye.
"It is obvious he doesn't like you," Sasuke reported.
"Which will make my graduation even better," Naruto said triumphantly.
"So, Naruto-kun, what is your plan for the written test?" Hinata asked. The Jinchūriki smiled before looking around conspiratorially.
"Hinata-chan, it is actually really simple."
Naruto had decided that morning that he didn't really care. He had never felt more confident than he did today. Naruto was going to graduate today. Today was the next step to changing the world for the better.
'I'm going to shock everyone with how I graduate. Everyone is going to have to acknowledge that I'm the man!' Naruto grinned as his destination came into view.
The Hyūga compound wasn't as large as Sasuke's district, but it was still very impressive. Naruto thought the stern-faced guards were a nice touch. They glared at him but, for once, Naruto wasn't taking it personally. Naruto was confident that Hinata-chan's guards glared at everyone. Hinata emerged from the gates, and to Naruto's shock, the guards politely nodded at the heiress.
"Good morning, Naruto-kun!" Hinata greeted excitedly. She ran over and hugged Naruto. Naruto gladly hugged her back.
"Ready to amaze the Academy?" Naruto asked excitedly.
"I am. Did you and Sasuke-kun work out your plan?" Hinata asked.
"Oh yeah, it is going to be easy," Naruto smirked.
Mizuki and Iruka had broken up any and all cliques. Hinata was up front for once. Naruto was in the very back, and exchanged a knowing look with Sasuke. Mizuki finished handing out the test.
"Team One to Boss and Teme," Naruto's voice crackled into both Sasuke and Naruto's ears. "We've found the answer key. Number one is…"
Naruto and Sasuke both grinned as Naruto's Kage Bunshin team started reading off the answers. Hinata didn't need the radio. She simply used her Byakugan to copy off both Naruto and Sasuke. The written test had been turned into a joke. In the teacher's room, Naruto's clones wrote a note to Mizuki.
Thanks for leaving the key unsecured on the desk!
Naruto ran up to Hinata as Iruka led the class outside for the physical exam. "Told you it would be really easy."
"Are you sure that key was a real one?" Hinata asked nervously.
Naruto thought about it for a second. "I think so. My clones had to pick the lock and I recognized Mizuki's handwriting."
That placated Hinata a bit before she refocused on the upcoming physical exams. The timed obstacle course wasn't a challenge for anyone in the class. Naruto and Sasuke were definitely looking forward to the spars.
The first few matches weren't very interesting. Shikamaru wasn't very enthusiastic about his match against Ami and simply used his Kagemane Jutsu to force Ami to back out of the ring. Unfortunately, Shikamaru backed out of the ring as well.
Naruto immediately perked up when Hinata's name was called. Hinata's match would be against a girl from a civilian family named Fuki.
"Show'em what you're made of Hinata-chan!" Naruto shouted in exuberant pride. Hinata had grown accustomed to Naruto's enthusiastic praise, so her blush wasn't visible from twenty feet away. She remained in complete control as she entered into her stance.
Naruto turned his attention to Sasuke for a moment. "Fuki's doomed isn't she?"
"Isn't it obvious? Hinata isn't even using her Gentle Fist. That's the Academy taijutsu stance," Sasuke scoffed.
The match was a quick and clinical fight. Fuki hesitated because of Hinata's position as top kunoichi and the fearsome reputation of Hyūga taijutsu. The fight barely lasted long enough for most of the class to process that Iruka had given the order to begin. Hinata dashed at Fuki and ducked beneath a half-hearted strike. Fuki didn't even have time to cry out in surprise as Hinata knocked her from her feet with a sweep kick. In a flash, Hinata had activated her Byakugan and aimed a fist at Fuki's shoulder. There was no need to even ask for submission because Fuki repeatedly yielded.
Hinata walked over to Naruto after Iruka declared her the winner. "I don't like intimidating people like that."
"I know," Naruto said in a placating tone of voice. "We're shinobi though. Sometimes, we might have to do that to get information without resorting to more violence."
"Thank you, Naruto-kun," Hinata said in acceptance.
The next few fights were nothing that stood out to Naruto. Strangely, he got a flash of Namikaze's memories when Sakura fought Ami. Naruto was sure there was some kind of issue between those two. The fact that neither girl pulled their punches confirmed that fact. Naruto shrugged it off. He was only really interested in his upcoming spar and Sasuke's cake-walk. Fortunately for Naruto's limited patience, he did not have to wait much longer for his fight.
"Aburame Shino and Uzumaki Naruto, please enter the ring," Mizuki commanded.
The two boys entered the sparring circle as ordered. Naruto and Shino exchanged a respectful nod. They hadn't talked all that much, but they were on relatively friendly terms. As such, there was no hesitation when Mizuki told them to make the sign of combat. The fight began and ended relatively quickly. Naruto had no doubt that Shino would be an incredibly powerful shinobi. However, Shino relied heavily on his Kikai bugs and any and all potentially-lethal ninjutsu and genjutsu were illegal in this spar.
Naruto pressed this advantage and charged. He wasn't too proud to admit that he misjudged Shino. The Aburame boy had a longer reach than Naruto and was surprisingly quick. Shino managed to land a few glancing hits. Unfortunately for the older boy, the few hits did not slow Naruto's advance down. Naruto's taijutsu had been honed by his recent training with both Hinata and Sasuke. It was a simple matter to sidestep Shino's mechanical and precise jabs. Naruto got inside of Shino's reach and landed a few choice blows before knocking Shino from the ring.
"I'm glad this was a taijutsu-only match," Naruto offered a hand in addition to his words. "If you could have used your bugs, I would have been wrecked."
Shino accepted Naruto's hand and was pulled a bit enthusiastically to his feet. "I thank you for the vote of confidence, Naruto-san. I must also thank you additionally. This match has shown me that I have a critical weakness in my repertoire. I will endeavor to improve so that I will not be a liability for my team."
"You're welcome, Shino. That sounds like a good plan," Naruto said with a nod that screamed approval to anyone around. The two boys made the sign of harmony and went their separate ways.
"Not a bad fight, Naruto," Sasuke acknowledged. "You're right though, Shino would have wrecked you if he could have used his clan's techniques."
Naruto chuckled. "In that small of a ring? Hell yeah, I would have been wrecked."
"The Aburame do have fearsome jutsu," Hinata admitted and forced herself to acknowledge that even Naruto's determination would have a difficult time overcoming the difficulties of that match up.
The next few fights were fairly standard. Kiba's match against Hibachi lasted less than a minute. The final fight of the day was Sasuke versus a civilian-born student named Tobio. Naruto wasn't sure why, but he wanted to see Sasuke put on a show as he beat Tobio. He also had a stronger-than-usual urge to talk with Hinata about last night. Naruto shrugged it off and watched Sasuke efficiently demolish Tobio.
"Hey, Hinata-chan, it's amazing how even your clan name can be a weapon," Naruto pointed out.
Hinata nodded. "The Hyūga, and the Uchiha, have a powerful reputation. My tutors have always taught me that most ninja will fear me because of my connection to the Hyūga."
"Enemies are going to run screaming from our team, then," Naruto boasted. "The two of us are going to be awesome…if only we didn't have to pull Sasuke's dead weight around."
"Funny, Naruto," Sasuke groaned. The final physical test was the ranged weapons exam. Sasuke, of course, finished first. Surprisingly, the second highest score belonged to Akimichi Chouji. Naruto fell around the middle of the pack. Hinata had a strong showing and further secured her position as the top-ranked kunoichi.
The prospective Genin returned to the classroom. Iruka smiled as he looked at each of his students.
"We are now in the final phase of the graduation exam! Now, Mizuki-sensei and I will test you on the three jutsu!"
Iruka began the process of calling students to the examination room. Naruto groaned and put his head onto the desk.
"Naruto-kun, there isn't anything to be worried about. You will definitely pass," Hinata said soothingly.
Naruto grinned into the desk. He really liked that tone of voice. "I know. It will just take forever to get to my name."
Eventually, Hinata's name was called. Hinata stood up and took a calming breath. "Wish me luck, Naruto-kun."
"You don't need luck, Hinata-chan. You've got this in the bag. Just make sure Iruka-sensei and Mizuki-sensei don't dislocate their jaws." Naruto chuckled at his own joke.
Sasuke and Hinata exchanged a confused look. Naruto saw the look and raised an eyebrow. "You know…their jaws drop in shock at how awesome you do, Hinata-chan?"
"I get it now," Hinata giggled. It was an odd joke and not one of Naruto's best. Still, it was cute how eager he was to explain the joke. "Thank you, Naruto-kun."
Hinata rushed off as Mizuki-sensei began to look impatient. Naruto leaned back in his chair and groaned.
"The only bad thing about our kickass family names is that they are near the end of the alphabet," Naruto grumbled.
"I don't like waiting like this," Sasuke half-agreed.
After a maddeningly long wait, Iruka called Sasuke's name.
"Pass quickly so I can go," Naruto grumbled.
Sasuke smirked. "I want to get out of here as much as you do."
Naruto watched as his friend followed Iruka out of the room. He leaned back in his chair as the door shut. Yamanaka Ino was the only person left in the room.
"Please tell me you're as bored as I am," Naruto pleaded.
Ino huffed. "Probably, but at least you got to talk with Sasuke-kun."
"I actually talked more with Hinata-chan," Naruto pointed out.
"Still, you talked with Sasuke-kun," Ino repeated. She suddenly perked up. "What have you talked about?"
"Mostly training," Naruto admitted.
"No deep conversations about what he likes?" Ino questioned.
"He likes training," Naruto retorted. He wasn't thrilled about getting grilled about Sasuke's habits.
'I just hope she doesn't ask about 'feelings',' Naruto thought.
"Oh," Ino was disappointed she couldn't discover anything new about Sasuke that she could hold over Sakura. Naruto, however, was saved from further questions by Iruka's reappearance.
"Naruto and Ino, I'd like to thank you for your patience. Now, it's your turn, Naruto."
"Finally!" Naruto jumped out of his seat. "Good luck, Ino!"
"Are you ready, Naruto?" Iruka asked as he shut the door.
"I've been ready for weeks," Naruto answered theatrically. As Naruto bragged about his preparations, he felt a bit of doubt creep into the back of his mind. 'Will they actually accept the Kage Bunshin?'
Iruka teased Naruto about being nervous and caused Naruto to laugh at how well the teacher could read him. Mizuki was waiting at the teacher's desk. Iruka quickly joined his co-worker and nodded at Naruto.
"Alright, Naruto, please start with the transformation technique," Iruka ordered. Suddenly, he slammed his hands on the desk and leaned forward angrily. "But not that stupid perverted version you use!"
Naruto chuckled nervously. He rubbed the back of his head. "I have a new standard by which I judge how hot a girl is."
"I'm not sure I want to know," Mizuki drawled. Iruka nodded in agreement. "Just transform into one of us."
"Where's the fun in that?" Naruto grumbled, but complied. He quickly transformed into Iruka.
Naruto-as-Iruka scratched at his chin. "So, do I have it down?"
"Your skill with the transformation was never in doubt," Mizuki grudgingly admitted.
Naruto undid the jutsu and grinned triumphantly. "Substitution?"
The young man squawked as Mizuki and Iruka threw several wooden shuriken at him. Naruto landed in the back of the room where the trashcan used to be.
"Good instincts," Iruka joked. Naruto stuck his tongue out at Iruka and Mizuki to demonstrate his displeasure at the testing method.
"Finally, Naruto, you must show mastery of the Clone Jutsu," Mizuki said with a soft 'good luck' smile. Naruto shrugged and walked over to the window. The two teachers had no idea what the young man was planning.
Naruto opened the window and looked out. He saw Hinata and Sasuke waiting outside at one of the benches. Sasuke, much to the Uchiha's annoyance, was surrounded by some of his admirers and was being practically interrogated.
'Time for a rescue,' Naruto thought to himself as he cupped his hands around his mouth.
"Oi! Hinata-chan and Sasuke!" Naruto's not-quite-official girlfriend and best friend both looked up. "I'm about to win a bet with Iruka-sensei. We'll get a free meal at Ichiraku!"
"Are you about to test for the Bunshin, Naruto-kun?" Hinata called back.
"Yep!" Naruto answered. The rest of the class erupted into chatter about how there was no way Naruto could pass that test. Sasuke was actually grinning. Naruto watched as Sakura and Ino redoubled their questioning of Sasuke. It was obvious to everyone that Sasuke and Hinata knew something. "Oh, and congrats on passing without blowing Iruka-sensei's and Mizuki-sensei's minds. It would stink if I couldn't graduate with you today!"
"Uzumaki Naruto, please stop stalling," Mizuki practically growled. Naruto sighed and saluted his friends before turning to his teachers.
"Alright, let's see if you can finally pass this exam. I have faith in you, but it will be nice to have a prank-free Konoha," Iruka said proudly. He truly had faith that Naruto would pass this exam. In fact, Iruka had rarely been this sure about anything.
"Don't blame me when you can't speak for a while! Oh, and it's about to get really crowded in here!" Naruto said as he made an unfamiliar hand-seal.
"Where have I seen that before?" Mizuki pondered out loud.
"Tajū Kage Bunshin no Jutsu," Naruto shouted.
"Wait, what?" Iruka blurted out before the entire room was engulfed in a cloud of smoke.
Outside, there were several palls of smoke as well.
"Just how many did Naruto make?" Sasuke shouted in utter shock.
"I don't know how many he can make," Hinata confessed. "I know he can create at least four."
"What did Naruto do? Why are you two so shocked?" Chouji asked.
"Because Naruto just became even more troublesome and used a kinjutsu that's beyond even Jonin-level to pass his Academy exam," Shikamaru grumbled, but for once was wide awake. Naruto had become an even greater puzzle.
"Bullshit," Kiba said flatly.
Naruto stood proudly in the center of the room. He lifted his right arm to the ceiling and dramatically counted down from three on his fingers.
"So, did we pass Iruka-sensei?" Hundreds of voices asked in unison. The smoke cleared and revealed that the examination room was filled to beyond maximum capacity by Naruto clones.
Iruka wanted to speak. He wanted to win the bet he had made with Naruto. The teacher wanted to tell Naruto how amazed and impressed he was by the boy's incredible jutsu. Instead, all he could do was stare slack-jawed at the unprecedented display of power by the young man.
Mizuki stared at Naruto's accomplishment in naked disbelief. He would never move beyond his hate for the Nine-Tails, but Mizuki would not deny the power of the beast-in-human-form. It would be an incredible boon to harness that potential for the glory of Konoha. Mizuki had been harboring thoughts of absconding with the Scroll of Seals and using it to negotiate a comfortable retirement with one of the minor Shinobi villages until very recently. The teacher had truly felt that Konoha was growing soft for 'coddling' the demon. However, the meeting with the Hokage had convinced Mizuki that Naruto was being groomed to serve as a powerful weapon. The potential for the team the Hokage had created was astounding. There was one thing that was nagging at Mizuki.
"I-Is this allowed? Kage Bunshin…is a Jonin-level technique?" Mizuki asked with a dry scratchy voice.
Iruka heard his friend's words and pinched the bridge of his nose. It seemed to snap him out of his stupor. "Congratulations, Naruto."
Naruto jumped in the air and whooped in triumph. Unfortunately, all of Naruto's clones jumped at the same time. The sound of nearly a hundred clones landing at once was as loud as thunder.
"I am amazed at your…progress," Mizuki said diplomatically. "It is my great 'pleasure' to pass you."
Naruto smiled broadly, and like Iruka, missed that Mizuki's pleasure at passing Naruto was anything but.
"Please, come and get a hitai-ate," Iruka said in an almost paternal tone of voice. Naruto happily complied and selected a hitai-ate. He removed his goggles and placed the hitai-ate proudly around his forehead. Naruto, for some reason, felt that his hitai-ate lacked a bit of soul.
'I wonder what Namikaze's hitai-ate was like?' Naruto thought to himself. He shook off the thoughts. Uzumaki Naruto was not Uzumaki Namikaze. Naruto had finally taken the first true step towards changing the world for the better. He gave one last thank-you and reminder of the bet to Iruka-sensei and Mizuki-sensei before opening the door to the examination room.
It was his first step towards his destiny.
Author's note: Raise your hand if you thought this story was dead? Well, I finally managed to pull out an update. Things have been insanely busy and I was in the hospital recently. I'm doing better, still not 100% but functional. An update on a few of my other fics and my profile.
First, what all of you guys really care about...my other fics. I've actually made a good bit of progress on (le gasp) Hyuga's Hound. I've been massively stuck on a part and finally after about a dozen rewrites have moved passed the part I was stuck on. Sit down, because there's another fic that'll stun some of you. Chains of the Kindred. Yes, I'm nearly done with a new chapter of that as well. Misstep in the Right Direction, and Prince Naruto? are also in the works. Sadly, I'm probably going to officially end and possibly put up for adoption my two Naruto crossovers, Bend in the River of Fate, Terminator: Origin, and New Jedi Order: Shadow of Leviathan.
Next, I have a rant up on my profile. It is against my 'favorite' complication in NaruHina fics, the Sasuke love triangle angle. It's pretty short, but I think I get my point across. Hopefully, it'll also head off any requests on this fic.
Anyway, I hope you all enjoy this chapter! Please leave a review! Reviews really help keep the muse active!