AN: Extra chapter notes: Mayonaka means "midnight." Noriko means "the rule."

Japanese educational systems typically have a trimester system that begins in late March or early April. That is the system that they would most likely use in Konoha and it is also the same system that I will be using in this story.

Disclaimer: Do I really have to do this again? Naruto is not mine. (Sadly.)

Chapter Four:
Friends and Enemies

"Do not confuse love for apathy or kindness for hatred. Do not think that only your war is justified in the eyes of the world. Do not try to pretend to understand something that cannot be understood without experience. And when you have accepted humankind for the way it is, do not ever believe that there is nothing beyond that bit of darkness in your heart without learning to hope."


"Sasuke! Your cat hates me!" A six-year-old Naruto Namikaze bellowed at his best friend. "It's trying to eat me!"

The sounds of giggling filled the confines of the Uchiha Compound. It was well past midafternoon in the Village Hidden in the Leaves and the cool winds of early April wafted through the floorboards in a pleasant manner. Greenery lined the front lawns of many houses throughout the village and especially in the Uchiha District in which most, if not all, the homes were nicely furnished and often modestly decorated with items that seemed to exemplify the Uchiha Clan's riches, but not outright flaunt them.

In the backyard of the clan leader, Fugaku Uchiha's home, a little blond boy was struggling with a purely black cat that seemed to enjoy nipping at his heels while an eleven-year-old preteen chuckled good-naturedly in the background clutching his stomach, and another little boy of Naruto's same age was blinking in bewilderment and sniggering at the same time.

"Naruto," the child addressed replied, "I think Mayonaka likes her new scratching post."

"Ah! What are you talking about? I'm not a scratching post!" the Fourth Hokage's son yelled back.

Sasuke smirked. "Yeah you are!"

"Am not!"

Naruto flung out his arms and subsequently tripped on his own feet, landing with an ungraceful thump upon the emerald grass and sneezing when his nose made contact with the pollen that had fallen on the ground as a result of the springtime and the trees' (annoying) yearly reproduction cycle. Sighing, he turned over so that his back was on the floor, but Mayonaka the cat climbed up and curled on his belly. The Namikaze pouted.

Instead of attempting to hide his own obvious mirth, Sasuke's elder brother, Itachi , began to outright burst with laughter.

The youngest Uchiha pointed at the feline that made itself comfortable on top of his childhood friend and grinned. "You're right. You're not a post. You're a big Naru-pillow."

Naruto huffed as Mayonaka purred and lifted her head to gaze her dark jade eyes at her oddly joyful owners and pawed her newfound "pillow" as if marking him as her personal possession. He grumbled in annoyance and in response the animal decided it would be prudent for her to rub her head against his abdomen, to which the boy did not find amusing or pleasant at all.

There was the sound of a sliding door in the background of wood against wood. The rice paper that made up the rectangular panes in the doorway rustled and three pairs of footsteps pounded lightly on the floor panels. Noticing the newcomers, Itachi turned around and bowed respectfully to the people that had arrived in their backyard while Sasuke continued making teasing jabs at his friend and Naruto complained.

The Fourth Hokage inclined his head at the gesture that the oldest Uchiha brother displayed and Fugaku nodded approvingly at his son while the clan leader's wife, Mikoto, raised her dark eyebrows and smiled.

"Your son is ever formal and polite, Fugaku," Minato observed. "You train your children well. I'm sure Sasuke will be more than ready for his first day at the Academy tomorrow."

"Certainly, Hokage-sama," the Uchiha's father replied. "I can only hope that both my sons will someday do you and this village proud. Itachi has undoubtedly proven himself, and with his help, Sasuke will soon be on the path to greatness as well." The dark-haired man smirked and looked pointedly at the Hokage's son and went on, "Though I have absolutely no doubts in my mind that your own son will be a force to reckon with in the future. He is, after all, the product of the Yellow Flash and the Red-Hot Habanero."

"Ah, you flatter me yet again," the Fourth laughed.

Fugkaku folded his arms across his chest, watching as his eldest son was trying to coax the family pet off of the squirming blond boy. "If I am not mistaken, you have flattered me and my family time and again as well. We are grateful to you, especially after what happened six years ago."

Minato narrowed his cerulean eyes at that particular thought. Even as time had passed him by and that night six years ago was approaching a future when it would become a decade ago, the memories never ceased to unnerve him, albeit somewhere in the back of his mind.

He remembered that mysterious masked man and how he had disappeared from sight just as suddenly as he appeared and how the Uchiha Clan was wrongfully accused of being the culprits of the attack when it was clearly one shadowy figure's fault. He remembered the feeling he felt when he thought he would lose all that he had worked so hard for; he might have lost his wife and his newborn child and his position of Hokage and the village. Though, he supposed he should have counted himself lucky. Though Naruto being the Nine-Tails' jinchuuriki was definitely less than ideal, he was alive and so was Kushina. They could raise their son.

As he surveyed his son who was now laughing happily while his best friend chased him around whilst holding the black cat out in his arms as if pretending to threaten to release the animal on him, Minato felt that strange feeling again, like he could not shake the notion that he really should not be able to witness these precious moments. But right as it came, the weird sensation vanished.

The Hokage grinned and yelled out that it was time for dinner and for Naruto to go home. Kushina said she was waiting after all. She was not a patient woman and would grow intensely irritated if supper got too cold.

"Hey, hey, Sasuke," Naruto nudged the youngest Uchiha brother, "You and Itachi-nii wanna come over for dinner? Mom said she was cooking some ramen and she told me to ask if I had the chance! That means big bowls!"

Sasuke rubbed that back of his head and glanced sheepishly at his mother who only smiled back. "Of course that woman would make extra ramen noodles on the first day before school for you boys," she responded as she rolled her eyes. Mikoto gestured at Fugaku and added, "Of course it's fine with me, that is, if your father has any qualms about the offer…"

The dark-haired man nodded at his son. "You are always welcome to eat with Hokage-sama's family if invited."

Minato raised a blond eyebrow. "Wait. So I don't have any say in this?"

The group laughed soundly at the comment.

After hearing that Sasuke and his brother were allowed to eat dinner in the Namikaze household that night, the boys immediately became riled up and exited. Mikoto and Fugkau waved them off and told their sons to be back before nine in the evening and that Itachi was responsible for his younger sibling.

That led to an odd bunch walking down the streets of the village. The esteemed Hokage was leading the three children down the road as civilians and shinobi alike shot them curious glimpses. Naruto and Sasuke were eagerly guessing about what they would learn first in the Academy, ("We're going to be shinobi like our families!"), and Itachi strode silently in the rear.

The boys thought and talked about Konoha's Ninja Academy for the past few days almost constantly. As the date of the first day of school drew nearer, the enthusiasm had boiled up until it was practically overflowing like an overcooked pot of soup.

The Academy! It was often called the epitome of a ninja's childhood. It was where youths learned the basics of their incoming skills. It was where children would surely make lasting friends and maybe even lasting enemies. It was the stronghold of the future generations, the place where a ninja, be it genin, chuunin, jounin, or even kage-level, would look back on and accept as their first real form of training. It was where they would learn how to defend themselves and the Hidden Village they loved.

How wonderful! How exciting! What a wondrous beginning of a dream!

"Ah! I can't wait to start training to be a strong ninja like you and mom tomorrow, dad!" Naruto jumped animatedly while his father pumped his chakra into the security seals he had placed for protection all over the Hokage Mansion. (He would not tolerate what happened to his son when he was four ever again.)

"Remember, Naruto," he began as the mismatched group removed their sandals at the front entrance and entered the home, "Being strong also means you have to work your hardest and never give up, no matter what."

The boy beamed. "Yup! Sasuke and I won't give up, no matter what!"

Sasuke grunted in affirmation.

At that moment, the four new occupants in the Namikaze estate caught the most delicious whiff of noodles and salty seafood. A woman with lengthy crimson hair strode out into the main entranceway, oven mitts still covering her hands, and an enthusiastic grin on her face.

Kushina beamed at them and said, "I've been waiting for you slowpokes for almost an hour! C'mon, before the ramen gets too cold!" She frowned at Sasuke and Naruto and added, "You boys better eat up. You need a big meal to take you through your first day at the Academy tomorrow! I want you to show those chuunin instructors that you've got stuff!"

Naruto nodded happily and strode inside the family dining room like he built the place, his best friend and the other two males following close behind him.

The family plus the two Uchiha children ate heartily that night with the youngest Namikaze and his mother eating with the most gusto. After all, they had a contest of sorts and Naruto barely won with ten bowls of noodle goodness to nine and a half. The whole room was in a fit of laughter by the end of supper and the children were talking excitedly about the wonders of the next day and Minato only chided them slightly on being too enthused.

Almost two hours later, it was just before nine in the evening and the two Uchiha boys left with a lingering wave and a promise to meet up in the morning so that they could walk to school together. And after he watched them leave, Naruto turned to the kitchen to help clean up the dishes and to put the gigantic pot in the sink with the help of his father who chuckled when he witnessed his son struggle to carry a cooking utensil that was about half his size.

"Alright, Naru," the red-headed woman smiled. "It's time for bed!"

"Aw, but mom!" the boy complained.

A whacking noise reverberated in the hallways of the house and Minato sighed as he watched his wife's antics. Naruto was currently rubbing at a red mark on his forehead and pouting childishly while Kushina picked the child up by the shirt, a feral smirk on her face, and dragged him upstairs to his bedroom.

The Hokage couldn't help it. He snickered to himself and shook his head.

Some things never change, he thought. Then the blond glanced up the stairway and shouted, "Goodnight, Naruto!"

He heard a muffled reply in return and somehow, he could not seem to stop smiling.

ooo

They were giving him those looks again. He knew them well, those cold, hard, stares that told him inwardly that he was nothing to them. He was nothing at all and those icy eyes were enough to tell him so. They were more than enough in fact for a six-year-old child because he felt in his heart of hearts, that maybe, for some reason, he might have deserved it from the moment he was born.

He called it a fantastic hobby, this silly idea of elaborate pranking he pursued, but he knew there was something else underneath. There was another true purpose for his brash behavior, and if one could pick up on the subtle hints the kid threw aroundhow he turned away with a downcast gaze—they would surely know.

All of it, down to the slightest blue and orange tinges of paint splotched upon his cheeks, down to the obnoxious laughter directly after something bad had happened to him, to the constant running and the boisterous yelling for no apparent reason—all of it was a mask.

And so this is where he found himself; he was stuck somewhere in-between. There were remnants of colorful paints from a recent successful prank job all over his clothes and golden locks, but peculiarly enough, the boy did not seem too happy at all.

"I made you lunch today! Enjoy it!" A beaming mother handed a neatly wrapped bento box to the awaiting hands of her offspring while what looked to be the younger brother hopped up and down excitedly.

"Did you put my favorite into it, mom?" the older sibling asked with an anxious voice.

The woman only chuckled, catching her child's hair in her palms as she ruffled it playfully. The boy scowled good-naturedly and grinned right after that. He got the message. Of course his mother would never forget to include the sweet eggs with his meal!

But in the background, you could see little Naruto who observed the scene with sad eyes. He couldn't help but feel a little envious of them. If there was one thing in the world that the village pariah wanted to know, it was how it felt like to have a family.

He closed his cerulean eyes, clutching the now empty paint can in his pudgy little hand, and headed for home.

What awaited him there was the Old Man, one of the few people in the village that certainly did not see the boy as some kind of disease or a disgusting piece of dog doings on the bottom of his sandal. Though, the wrinkled male did have a slightly disapproving look upon his features that Naruto knew all too well.

"I know what you're gonna say," the blond began softly, "I shouldn't have"

The Third Hokage cut him off with a stern expression. "You're right. You shouldn't have."

At that comment, the two peered at each other intently, azure meeting a dark brown hue. Although the little boy had never noticed it before, he seemed to suddenly take note of just how old the man appeared to be. He had prominent wrinkles running down his cheeks and light liver spots spotting the place under one of his eyes. His hair never looked so white before. But even with the added aging characteristics, his eyes said he had experienced things that might have aged him another decade or two.

"However," the elder continued with an emotionless façade, "I did not come here to reprimand your actions." He stuck a withered hand into the folds of his formal cloak and pulled out an envelope, showing it to Naruto. "I have come to give you your monthly stipend. Spend it wisely."

With that, the current reigning leader of the village turned his back on the boy, arms folded gracefully behind his back, and began his walk to the exit of the tiny apartment. But as the child watched him start to depart, something in his chest clenched painfully. It was like he was watching someone leaving him behind for good, like watching someone leaving him alone.

He didn't want to be alone.

"Hey," Naruto said loudly. The aging man turned around with a quirked eyebrow, urging him to let whatever he was thinking out.

The blond sat on the tiled kitchen counter, nervously twiddling his thumbs, but eventually in a moment he had effectively mustered up enough courage to ask what he needed to and he looked up to the Hokage with a curious, yet determined countenance.

"Why don't I have a mom and dad?" he questioned somewhat quietly, and if he had seen the look on Sarutobi Hiruzen's face at that particular second, he would have thought that he had just witnessed the face of a man more ancient than the Sage of Six Paths himself. But, as quickly as the emotion came, it disappeared within the same lapse.

The man sighed and answered, "I have told you this before, though it has been quite some time…"

"I know, ok? You're going to tell me about how the demon called the Nine-Tails ran amuck and a lot of people from the village died, including my mom and dad…" The boy shot up at the initial statement but then subsequently toned down significantly. "But that's not what I'm asking."

Sarutobi was dreading this question, but he knew it was inevitable. He knew it would come eventually.

"Who were my parents?" Naruto asked, innocent eyes abruptly teary and pleading. The old man was almost tempted to give in to that look. He owed it to them after all…

"What kind of people were they?" the six-year-old added to the first inquiry.

In that moment the Third clearly saw Minato and Kushina in him. He saw his predecessor's firm resolve to protect and his wife's clean-cut willpower for vitality and life. He saw the joyfulness and excited anticipation they both had when they found out they were going to be parents. He saw both their hopes and dreams within one child and how his eyes gleamed with the distressed need to know.

Then the old man saw, in his mind's eye, the rushing in of the fox's massive claw, the heartbreaking fearful cries of a defenseless newborn, the desperation in both a mother and a father's entire beings, the way that the Third and two other ninja saw how ready they weremore than ready…ready to be the family they wanted to be…

and how they protected their son.

His resolution broke there.

"It is a foolish thing to question things like that," Sarutobi said without emotion, though he wished deep down that he could tell the truth for once. But he couldn't. He had to protect Minato's son for as long as he could. It was the least he could do for now.

The Third bowed his head and turned his back on Naruto once again and went on, "It won't bring the dead back."

And the door snapped shut. He had ultimately left Naruto alone as the little child sprinted to the outer balcony to watch his old friend walk solemnly away from his run-down apartment and onto the dusty streets of a bustling Village Hidden in the Leaves.

His pupils followed the man until he was a distant white dot and he vanished upon the horizon. Naruto Uzumaki was alone again and he slowly sank to his knees, not even realizing that he was crying until his elbows were touching the concrete ground.

And he was shaking…

Shaking…

Shaking…

"Naruto! Wake up!" A concerned voice broke him out of a deep slumber.

Naruto blinked furiously as a lone ray of moonlight started to peek though the red-orange curtains of the square window of his bedroom. His face was oddly tear-stained and he was still sobbing as he sat up, his mother still frantically shaking his shoulders.

"What happened?" Kushina worriedly asked her son, abruptly stopping when she realized that he had fully awakened. "What's wrong? You've been crying so loudly in your sleep for a good half hour. Your dad and I couldn't wake you up until now!"

It was then that the Kyuubi's jinchuuriki finally saw that he was sitting up in bed, dark blue sheets and thick comforter wrapped numerous times around his person and partially spilled out onto the carpet below and the darkness surrounding them felt suffocating.

His mother was staring at him, looking directly at his face and observing his reactions. Naruto's eyes were wide and the tears would not stop for some reason, but if that was not enough, he couldn't quite remember what had caused all of the commotion. He could not recall why he was crying in the first place and his mind was blank and devoid of anything other than the fact that something in his chest felt hollow, like something deep within snapped and maybe that was why there was this dreadfully familiar and unfamiliar emptiness inside.

"Naruto?" a soothing tenor broke the child out of his semi-stupor, tears now only slowly sliding down the lines on his cheeks. It was the voice of his other parent, his father.

The younger blond instinctively turned to the sound and clenched his fists on the remaining bed sheets. Then, almost out of nowhere, he began to back up into a corner with his back stark against the wooden bedpost, curling his knees into himself and starting to shake his head in the universal gesture for 'no.'

"You're not real," the kid murmured, "You're not my dad. Don't lie."

That was the statement that both parents had not thought they would ever hear, and in Minato's case, never hear again.

The Fourth supposed he should have known better. Even a handful of years later, he should have known that there would have been some repercussions. Suddenly, the frustration at himself for being too ironically slow, a frustrationthat he had attempted to bury a while ago resurfaced with a vengeance, and the man found himself on his knees, his wife behind him with a too-shocked expression, and sitting on his haunches before his son.

"I'm not an illusion. I'm not a genjutsu," Minato said quietly, close to reiterating the same words he had said to the four-year-old version of his son, "It's me."

And so the world, if just for a single moment, was utterly quiet. Not a sound escaped from a human's lips and only the soft breaths of those present in the room could hope to be heard, if ever. And in the evening glow there was a nod of acceptance. Yes, these people were indeed real. They were not a faux panacea for some unknown orphan's heart. But little did anyone know how true that statement could have been…if only in another kind of universe.

The hours passed by sluggishly and the night drifted onward, but in the morning, Naruto acted as if he did not remember a single thing that went wrong that previous evening. Minato kept the thought mostly to himself, but he reluctantly decided that this was his way of coping, of forgetting things unwillingly like a form of denial and selective amnesia. After all, episodes similar to what had happened recently used to occur more often right after the child's traumatizing kidnapping. It's just that the Hokage had thought—and really thought and maybe even hoped—that those kinds of things had stopped for good.

A few members of the T and I Unit (better known as the Torture and Interrogation Unit), had said in passing that Naruto's abnormal reactions to his person and his parents in general in these few and far between states of mania were a terrible and unfortunate side effect of the Iwa ninjas' repetitive use of genjutsu on a prone toddler's mind. Because a lot of the times Riku had changed his appearance to look like Minato and the subsequent negative reinforcement for Naruto believing that the man was indeed his father, it might have resulted in a kind of unintentional behavioral conditioning (1) in which a stimulation was received with a negative response.

And thus, in a sense, little Naruto might sometimes unconsciously associate the appearance of his father or parents with impersonations of people he cares about, if only given the proper trigger.

It was times like these that Minato ardently wished he had killed that Iwagakure shinobi the first chance he had an opening. It was times like these that he faltered in the ninja rule he, for the most part, excelled at: never show your emotions on a mission. Somewhere deep inside, he wanted to see Riku dead or writhing for what he had done to his family.

But just as that admittedly black thought began to fester in his heart, he immediately banished it.

Closing his tired blue eyes in frustration, the Fourth brought a calloused hand up to rub at his temples and hopefully ebb the bitter emotions away into the far recesses of his brain. The blond attempted to think of happier, brighter things and forced himself to stare out of the little window just above the breakfast nook in his home and his lips twitched slightly upward at the sight of Naruto, Sasuke, and Itachi walking excitedly to the Academy for the first day of classes.

The man sighed deeply, a palm leaving his worried face and now taking hold of the handle of his mug of Gyokuro tea (2). He tried to think of how the sweet dew of this tea was his favorite during this time of the year, as it was only harvested annually in the springtime. But he thought briefly that he liked the color of the hot drink the most, as it was a mild, yet beautiful emerald green as a result of the chlorophyll of the leaves.

But it was just that; it was the fact that the leaves gave this morning tea the special hue. He supposed that as Hokage he would be prone to admiring the little things like this. After all, this was the Village Hidden in the Leaves.

And if he thought of the poetic words of his predecessor, the Third Hokage, he would sometimes feel this need to do well for this village again and again…

"When the tree leaves dance, one shall find flames. The fire's shadow will illuminate the village, and once again, tree leaves shall bud anew."

However, the satisfying taste of his drink and the steaming aroma had still brought him back to thoughts of how Naruto was one of those leaves, how Naruto was also part of the huge figurative tree that was Konoha, how Naruto was one of the glistening chartreuse buds that was just waiting to fully develop into something new and powerful and magnificent.

Minato took a tentative sip from his porcelain cup, eyes silently flickering to his green tinted reflection on the ripples of the tea, to the back of his courageous wife with her long tendrils of crimson hair cascading down her back as she washed the dishes and arranged the dry ones on a rack, to the lonely potted fern that sat on the middle of the circular table, and he wondered when he had become so jaded.

ooo

"Troublesome," a lazy voice mumbled into a sandwich as the owner of said voice, a dark haired boy with a spiky pineapple-looking ponytail on his head, sat cross-legged on the grass just outside the school grounds. "All I wanted was a lunch without any worries, but now there are stalkers following us against our will."

"I don't think people are usually stalked willingly, Shika," Naruto Namikaze pointed out to his companion, a new friend who was called Shikamaru Nara, and if the blond had to say so himself, the kid had absolutely no energetic attributes to his personality to speak of.

The raven haired Uchiha that sat directly to the right of the Hokage's son snorted. "Yeah and it's not like you're the only one they're stalking."

A crunching and munching could be heard a little to the left of Shikamaru and the owner of the noise this time was of one Choji Akimichi, a plump brunette boy with a red swirl Clan tattoo on each round cheek, and an odd hairstyle that made it look like he had a dark blue underwear on his head.

"I just wish they'd stop interrupting lunch," Choji said ruefully as he continued to stuff his face with the contents of his bag of potato chips, "I like lunch."

The strangely mismatched group of children was trying to enjoy their hour of break in which they could indulge in the glories of food and cloud gazing, but particularly a break from boring lectures on the beginnings of ninja lore and whatnot.

The four of them had become fast friends, with Naruto and Sasuke already being best friends and Shikamaru and Choji being likewise, they had found that together they were like the ultimate team. And now that they had been officially attending the Academy for two months, things were finally settling down and every new student was acclimatizing splendidly.

Of course there were a few problems, but as always that was something that could be easily expected. Unfortunately those problems included things like rabid fan girls chasing unsuspecting innocent boys. If Naruto and Sasuke were anyone else, maybe they would have actually enjoyed being mauled by crazy females, or—God forbid— if they were perverted enough to be like Jiraya of the Sannin.

Naturally, anyone who came into contact with the two boys became immediate alternative targets. In other words, Shikamaru and Chouji had officially been dubbed "guilty by association," so to speak. The mentality was that anyone who was friends with either of the two "most coveted perfect males to grace the earth" was somehow touched by gold and therefore was purely perfection themselves.

Naruto tried to ask his dad how the heck these people even came up with an ideology like that, but Minato shook his head and murmured something along the lines of, "Here we go again." Apparently, being stalked was something that ran in the family; not that Kushina liked the prospect all that much. Sasuke, on the other hand, was desired because of his almost opposite characteristics from his best friend. He was a mystery to many because he kept to himself, but what most of the Academy girls did not know was that was the nature of most of the Uchiha Clan.

However Naruto and Sasuke (and now Shikamaru and Chouji) had one thing in common when it came to fan girls: they were absolutely terrified by them.

The Akimichi son accidentally dropped one of his crispy potato chips onto the grass and, out of nowhere, a pale hand immediately snatched the offending piece of food away, followed by the face of a brunette female with bouncing and curly pigtails, followed by an inhuman squeal, and followed by running footsteps and more screaming in the background.

A squeaky voice bellowed, "I got his chip! I'm never eating it!" and more voices demanded to know how much they would sell the item for in the fan-girls-only black market.

All four boys shared a collective groan in response.

"We should really find a more secluded place to eat our lunch," suggested an annoyed Uchiha. "I think I'm going crazy."

The blond near him laughed good-naturedly and said, "You're crazy already!"

Sasuke frowned, lips forming into a noticeable pout. "Shut up, Naru. I'll pound you."

The pineapple-haired child only sighed, his arms clasping behind his head as he leaned back into the soft and slightly itchy edges of the grass beneath his legs. He decided to ignore the two bickering classmates and found himself unconsciously using his dark eyes to trace the outlines of the clouds above him. There was a rabbit-with-a-fluffy-tail-shaped cloud floating above him, and a cumulous that appeared to be in the shape of an angry fox face, and a particularly round formation that sprouted a long, thin tail. It was a rat.

He liked watching the clouds in his free time. It was such a calming thing to do. There was nothing troublesome about it, and the Nara thought that maybe he should take a nice, long nap and get rid of all of his worries. No fan girls, no squealing, no arguing friends, no boring lectures. Maybe he would even have a dream…

The annoyingly sharp tone of the end of the period bell rang piercingly in his eardrums.

Damn, Shikamaru thought sadly. I'll never get a good long nap like that.

And so they returned to the final half of the school day, each sitting in their respective assigned spots in the lecture hall. Some students took notes reluctantly, others doodled uncontrollably, Shikamaru tried to get in a nap or two, and still others attempted to follow along with rapt attention.

Their first year teacher, Noriko-sensei, was a silver-haired woman that tied up her locks up into a low braid that ended just below her shoulder. She had dark blue eyes with a gaze that could be intimidating when she was angry or frustrated, and she generally was known for her mastery over her classes. She could make a group of children listen to her with the snap of her fingers. As an unspoken rule, many students tended to avoid her. She was a scary woman. Not only that, but she never needed to shout in order to get her point across. The soft reprimanding tone she used was enough to stir sense into a child's misbehaving bones. (Not that anyone dared to try anything in her class; not even incurable pranksters like Naruto would dare. But if there was one woman that was actually scarier than his current sensei, he would have to say that was his own mother.)

The youngest Namikaze wrote in his lined orange notebook as diligently as possible. Occasionally he would doodle a swirl here and there, maybe even make miniature lists of supplies he would need for a future prank. His newest idea involved tripping wire, his Kakashi-nii, and a massive can of neon pink paint.

But he had to concentrate at least somewhat. He shook his head and pointed his pencil to the paper, in the process of writing the important dates of different events in the First Shinobi World War down for future reference:

The First Shinobi World War started right after Hidden Villages were created…

On the 28th of November the Leaf was ambushed by the Hidden Mist at the border of the Land of Grass and the Land of Fire, resulting in a major conflict and the fighting only went up from there…

Not many surviving records are left of the First War.

Naruto was growing increasingly frustrated. If there were so little records on the war itself, how come there was so much useless information he had to write down? He detested history lessons and would much rather do something more hands-on than read a textbook and try to learn about something that happened decades ago in what might as well have been the beginning of time.

He watched from the corner of his vision as Sasuke sighed at his notes. It did not look like the Uchiha enjoyed history much as well. At least he wasn't alone in that respect. Both boys often wondered what any of those past things had to do with throwing a kunai straight at a target or surviving a mission. But both supposed that if their parents had to go through it, they had to be unlucky enough to sit though lectures for a good portion of the day too.

Life could be so cruel sometimes.

"It was shortly after the duration of the First Great Shinobi War that the carvings at the Valley of the End were established," the commanding voice of Noriko-sensei boomed around the room. "It was said to be the place where the legendary battle between..." Her soft syllables faded from Naruto's hearing from there.

All of a sudden, he was in another time, another place. He was standing at the foot of Hashirama Senju's statue in the Valley, his sandaled feet balancing precariously on top of the liquid foundations of the water beneath the menacing waterfall. He was angry and hurt somewhere deep in his heart and he didn't know why.

He saw someone who looked vaguely familiar across from him, his eyes red and swirled with a strange pattern, almost like tomoe and then…

"Alright," the chuunin instructor's voice snapped Naruto back to attention once again. "That was the bell. Class dismissed. I'll see you next Monday."

The blond blinked. He wondered exactly how long he had been daydreaming. It felt strange, to think of something weird like whatever it was he was thinking. For some reason, he suddenly couldn't remember what he was so deep in thought about. The sensation felt as if the six-year-old had forgotten something important yet unimportant at the same time.

"Hey," his best friend muttered with slight concern from somewhere near his person, "You okay? You look out of it."

Naruto turned in his plastic chair to look into the onyx stare of the Uchiha. "Yeah," he replied solemnly and he shook his head as if to get rid of some wandering thought out of his mind. "I'm okay. Let's get going." He then grinned and both boys stood up eagerly. "Besides, I'm hungry for some ramen!"

Raising a dark eyebrow and giving his companion a curious look, Sasuke smirked. "Of course you'd be hungry for ramen."

"Well of course," the Hokage's son emphasized enthusiastically. "It's only the best food ever!"

"Well of course." And there came the sarcastic retort.

The friends made their way out of the sliding entrance doors of their classroom that led into the main hallways and pathways of the Academy. When they had made it outside, they witnessed how the sun was at its highest peak. The time was late afternoon and as it was the beginning of summer, this was also the hottest time of the day.

The duo began to walk together. Though Naruto lived with his mother and father in the Hokage Residence which was literally right next to the Academy, he wanted to make sure that Sasuke would not have to go home alone. It was sort of like a small tradition of theirs. Besides, it was always more fun to have someone walk you home and talk to you rather than go about it all alone.

When they were more than halfway to their destination, a sudden rift in the airspace before them halted the pair in their tracks. An ANBU with a white porcelain mask appeared out of thin air, the leaves shifting uneasily below his feet. The mask glinted menacingly in the afternoon sunlight and Naruto recognized the man to be one of the ANBU that would guard him on occasion that his dad would say is called "Rat."

"Hokage-sama wants me to escort the both of you to the Uchiha Compound safely," the mysterious ninja said emotionlessly.

Naruto tilted his head sideways. "Huh?" he asked. "Why would he want you to do that?"

"A missing-nin was found to be lurking around in the village and we are still trying to capture him," the man replied with that unnerving tone again. "He wants to make sure that you and Sasuke Uchiha are protected in case the target comes after you. He is taking the necessary precautions. It is best that we keep within the Hokage's orders. Both of you could be in danger."

Naruto's blue eyes met the black ones of Sasuke. They nodded with determination.

Though the two kids were more than eager to prove themselves to their families, common sense also played a significant role. They were only six for one. Their bodies probably did not contain the muscle mass they would need to fight a competent shinobi like a missing-nin, and there was the fact that they had just started their studies to become capable ninja. Plus they were both well aware that their respective statuses in the village were more than enough incentive for someone to come after them.

"Okay," said Naruto, eyeing the ninja that loomed in front of them. "Lead the way, Rat."

Now the group transformed into a trio and the two children followed the third and tallest member tentatively. Their footsteps picked up the dust and dirt on the ground and clouds of smoke lifted up behind them, like a cloudy beacon to their path.

The gates of the compound appeared and they were about to enter, except that for some odd reason, they were left slightly open, the red and white fan-shaped symbol cracked in the straight line down the middle created by the opening. That had never happened before. There was supposed to be a guard patrolling the gates as every major clan in the village had one. Apparently Rat thought so too because he tensed, a hand covered in a fingerless glove lightly brushing upon his weapons pouch.

"Stay close to me," the ANBU member whispered harshly and the two stuck closer together to their newly acquired partner.

"If anything happens, you have to run," he added and the place was still and eerily silent.

Quite on the alert now, both six-year-olds glanced around the deserted looking compound with widened eyes. Obviously something wasn't right. Why was it so quiet?

There was a creak to the left of them that sounded like a wood panel in the house nearby. It was Sasuke's house.

Said boy's eyes grew impossibly wide and he made a desperate break towards the sliding doors of his home, not bothering to take off his shoes as he went. Naruto tried to grab his arm and drag him back in order to hopefully knock some sense into him, but to no avail, and he ended up sprinting after the raven instead. The Rat ANBU launched after the two boys, his short sword finally drawn.

They had slid into the kitchen but there was nothing there but a bare stove and empty oven. Rat flickered right in front of them, blocking their path.

"What do you two think you're doing here?" he questioned angrily. "This place is dangerous! Someone is trying to—" And a shining silver sword impaled him directly in the stomach, flying rapidly through the air from somewhere behind the main duo and slicing flecks of blood everywhere, and the elite shinobi grunted in strangled disbelief. He never knew what hit him until it was too late. Gasping for breath, the ninja fell to his knees, hands trembling uncontrollably, and for a moment Naruto did not see the mask on his face, but a fallen comrade of the Leaf Village.

Grasping onto the hilt of the sword and lifting his face to stare at the Fourth Hokage's only offspring, the blond felt as if the blank circular eyeholes in his façade were desperately trying to tell him something that he really ought to know.

"Im—imposter," Rat stuttered, fingers still shaking. His hands started making hand signs. Fortunately, Naruto recognized what was going to happen immediately. His blood ran cold and he grabbed a hold of Sasuke's forearms and hightailed as fast as he could through the exit that led to the garden nearest the kitchen. He didn't bother to notice that someone else was following them.

"He's going to destroy his body!" the blond shouted hurriedly to the still shocked and confused form of his friend.

As soon as they hit the other side of the wall of the tomato garden outside, a brilliant cerulean light shone through the cracks of the walls and through the rice paper squares on each of the door panels of the home. A vague tremor shook the earth beneath them and a wee-wooing waving sound could be heard for a few seconds before the light swiftly shrunk into itself and was subsequently released outward, forcing an impressive shockwave into the open, breaking parts of the house into oblivion and, Naruto was sure, leaving no trace of Rat's body left for retrieval.

Nonetheless, it was a thorough way for an ANBU of Konoha to die.

They crouched behind the brick wall, clutching their heads and covering their sensitive ears. Without them noticing, both children had fallen into a curled up position, their lids shut tightly over their eyes.

After a brief moment of hush, a sinister chuckling could be heard and their spines tingled with dark anticipation. When their eyes opened, they saw the masked ANBU that had supposedly just lost his life in the explosion. Either he never lost his life or they were hallucinating.

"Well, well," said the man behind the mask. "What do we have here? The demon child and the Uchiha..." He spat out the children's identities with venom that neither of them had experienced before. Whoever this ninja really was, he surely and truly did despise them both with all his being. It was something they could feel profoundly into the marrow of their bones.

"Y—you can't be Rat," Sasuke tried to bravely point out, albeit with a noticeably quivering tenor.

If possible, they could feel the smile in the masked man's reply. "You're right. I'm not," he smugly retorted.

"Then who are you?" asked Naruto, breath hitching with dreadful expectation.

The imposter lifted a gloved hand to his face and appeared to have already undone the strings that tied the porcelain to his head. The Rat mask slid off easily and he made no motion to retrieve the object as it crunched heavily onto the ground below and left a rippling crack upon its surface. A chip of the replicated rat snout tinkered off easily.

"Easy," the man said forebodingly. He was now revealed to be a pale skinned male with chin length white-blue hair and he wore a dark bandana forehead protector with the stylized symbol of Konoha emblazoned on it still. "I'm the man that killed him. I'm Mizuki."

Scared and confused, Naruto tried to reason with him. "But you're from the Leaf Village! You're a comrade and—"

"Shut up, demon brat!" Mizuki cut him off. "This time I'll finish what your worthless father started and get rid of you! And you Uchiha…" The shinobi made it a point to glare coldly at the wide-eyed youth he was speaking to, "I'll destroy you and your foolish clan for what you did that night, six years ago! I'll kill you for what you all did to my family!

"After all, why should you live for wiping out innocent lives? You, the demon boy, and you, a member of that traitorous, repulsive, sickening clan of yours! I'll make you suffer more than enough! I'll make you feel every single hour, every minute, every agonizing second you've made me suffer because you took them all away from me!"

The crazed enemy lunged at the two seemingly defenseless youngsters and they thought that maybe at this moment, all they could do was scream out. But somehow, someway, they were quick enough to start running towards the forest as they swerved away from a handful of well-aimed kunai, a skilled chuunin-level ninja hot on their trail. If they weren't careful, there would be no way either of them would get out of this alive.

And elsewhere, the Hokage was having problems of his own and he was informed of the threat.

An ANBU popped into existence out of nowhere, but Minato was left unfazed. "Hokage-sama! There's trouble in the Uchiha Compound! There was an explosion and three individuals were reported to have been spotted there not too long ago!"

It was a good thing that he had already taken safety measures. He had heard murmurings of a threat for days and evacuated the Uchihas into a temporary safety hold. He had stationed ANBU all over the compound to seal it off for a while and he had sent Kakashi to attend to his son and his best friend as they left school for the day. If he pulled Sasuke out of the Academy in the middle of school hours, it was sure to cause a panic. Minato wanted to keep everything as low key as possible for now.

So why were things still going wrong?

And as he grew more and more frustrated with the situation, the Fourth was able to keep his calm and calculating exterior in place as things in the Uchiha District grew increasingly more difficult for Naruto and Sasuke, both of whom had taken to desperately sprinting through the trees, jumping as dexterously as they knew how. They stayed near to each other and watched each other's backs, already narrowly avoiding haphazardly thrown shuriken knives, although one or two had scraped them on their arms and legs, leaving shallow cuts in their skin.

"What are we gonna do, Sasuke?" Naruto yelped worriedly as a kunai zipped by his right ear. Mizuki was gaining on them and fast. "We don't have any weapons on us and we barely know any jutsu past E or D-rank, maybe C, but that's pushing it! How are we supposed to beat a guy like him?!"

The raven huffed, quickly pulling his companion to the side as an oversized shuriken whirled to where he was running away just seconds previously. The weapon lodged itself into the high portion of a thick oak tree just mere meters away, sending splinters of wood flying and the few birds that had built a nest somewhere on its branches escaped their home with horrified squawking leaving their beaks.

"We can't do this alone!" Sasuke replied, adrenaline rushing through his veins. They had hidden behind a thicket. They could hear Mizuki breathing heavily somewhere nearby. He brought down his voice in an effort to keep them undetected even for just a short while longer. "We need help! What about the Hiraishin seal you have on your body somewhere?"

Naruto bit his lip in frustration. His dad had mentioned a while ago that he had a seal on his skin somewhere, but for some reason he could not see or sense it. It was if it were on him someplace hidden. He didn't know how to activate it yet and he told Sasuke so.

"Oh no," his friend breathed out in exasperation. "What are we supposed to do now?"

"We need to alert the ANBU or get to the Hokage Tower," the blond let out hastily, eyes darting over to the space just above the leaves of the bush. Sweat was already starting to drench his dark orange shirt.

"After what happened with Rat, do you really think we can trust the ANBU right now?"

The response did not have to be said. They both knew the answer. How could they trust a force of people that could easily be someone else in disguise? This was bad. This was really, really bad. They needed to get out of there. Now if only they had some way to counterattack, maybe they could hold off their adversary for a bit more time. They needed a well thought out plan.

All of a sudden, a light bulb clicked in Naruto's head and when Sasuke noticed the sparkle in his eyes, he grinned. So it was the inner prankster that was beginning to show himself out in the open. Usually, he was somewhat aggravated with Naruto's outrageous ideas and pranks, but this time, he guessed that it was one of those few occasions when they were definitely a good thing.

When the silvery glint of ninja wire suddenly wrapped around the two, the metal digging in into their upper arms, Naruto and Sasuke looked at each other with resolve, effectively ignoring the man that had caught them in his trap for that one second, and they disappeared, using the Body Replacement Technique to switch their positions with logs, which had then been promptly sliced into multiple pieces as a result of being exposed to the pressure of ninja wire.

Mizuki cursed out loud.

Meanwhile, the friends had found themselves a good distance away (for now) and they formulated a plan, a formation that had only lasted about a minute before their stalking enemy had finally found them.

The Uchiha waved a rapid hand signal to Naruto, a sign that only to the pair meant "I'll distract him while you do whatever it is you need to do," and he nodded in reply, disappearing as he jumped through the tree branches and watched as Sasuke preform the only C-rank jutsu he knew: the Phoenix Flower. Unpredictable bursts of small flame attacked the traitorous ninja, but he dodged them fairly easily.

A rumbling in the earth shook the ground for an instant, and out of the clumps of trees in the forest, a forest that the ninjas-in-training (specifically Naruto) had deemed their single stroke of good luck, a gigantic log tied with rope flew at the chuunin. The grounds were part of a training field which meant that it was rigged to the brim with a bunch of previously set up traps for training exercises. The prankster in the Hokage's son beamed, that is, until the log had been split in half by the very giant shuirken that they had avoided earlier in the game.

The Namikaze's eyes enlarged. He had no time to dodge something unexpected like that.

But that was when instinct kicked in. Impossibly, and probably out a sheer luck as he heard his name being bellowed out by his best friend in fear, he used the only bout of taijutsu he knew. The blond forcefully lifted his right leg, developing muscles tensing and burning, and used his shin to kick upward onto the bottom of the spinning weapon, watching in disbelief as the shuriken spun at a slower rate and shot upwards into the air. He had only a split second to plunge out of the way.

He yelled out in agony as he rolled a few feet from the spot he was just standing on, clutching his severely bruised leg to his chest. Mizuki took the initiative to throw a pointed kunai in the direction of the kid, who barely had the time to slide away from it. Too bad the weapon had already sliced through the top portion of his sleeve and left a fairly deep and reddening gash at the bottom of his shoulder. The hard metal struck hard into the earth right next to him, sinking into the soil.

"NARUTO!" The youngest offspring of the head of the Uchiha Clan roared. He brought up his fists, fully intent on dashing to the aid of his childhood friend, when the offending chuunin slipped outward in order to block his view.

Breathing heavily, the raven rapidly made the seals for the Phoenix Flower again. RatTigerDog Ox RabbitTiger

And flames burst forth once again, singeing and making the yellowish green grass crisp. It was fruitless, however, in harming the turncoat, who only grinned mockingly. Mizuki flashed away and appeared behind him, as the Uchiha swiveled around to face him, only to be punched unswervingly in the gut. The boy grunted in response and he fell, sliding backwards for a few feet, dirt marring his formerly pristine white shorts.

"You really think you can beat me?" the man glowered as he stared ominously down at the fallen six-year-olds, who were now laying on the floor and closer to each other. "Me? I'm one of the best chuunin in this forsaken village! And to think that you two, a pair of weak Academy students—not even genin yet, no less—think you can really beat me? Trick me?"

The kids shuddered, unconsciously huddling subtly nearer to each other. They thought that if they were going to die a horrible death that they were sure would come if a miracle didn't happen soon, they might as well do it together.

What neither Mizuki nor Sasuke noticed, however, was the Ram sign that Naruto had secretly made with his hands. He tugged on the midnight blue shirt of his friend in a slight gesture of warning, and as the adversary stalked closer and closer and closer, teeth and sneer oddly luminous in the light of the setting sun, the blond whispered unflinchingly, "Release."

Boom.

Chaos exploded in the clearing. Paper bombs that were strewn across the area blew up in succession, activating simultaneously and with purpose. Clouds of smoke blossomed to life, the black ink that was painstakingly painted onto the rice paper shimmered into a temporary white light and busted and thundered, leaving debris everywhere.

Having managed to successfully read Naruto's warning, Sasuke made it a point to drag them out of there. At the moment, he had the panting form of his companion leaning against him and both youths were out of breath. They had made it to a dead run in those few instants they had to escape the crossfire and they had promptly jumped downward as soon as the detonations began.

If the ninja in the village were not aware of the goings-on in the training field before, they sure as hell were aware of it now. Hopefully, that is.

What they heard next was laughing. It started out sluggish, and then it gradually hiked up in pitch and tone. The laughter became manic and sounded definitely demented. It would not stop. It kept on; it continued as if there was nothing wrong with the eerie, all-encompassing sound. This was the laughter of a broken man, of a crazed man, of a man who sought nothing but darkness and revenge but could not find happiness within himself or in others around him.

At that very moment, Naruto and Sasuke felt numb. They thought they had defeated him. Apparently, they were so wrong; so very, very wrong, and neither of them had been more terrified in their short lives.

What stood before them was the chuunin, an insane leer cracked his face. His pupils were dilated strangely and the blue-green of the irises of his eyes reflected disconcertingly against the soft auburn glow of the sun that was now halfway across the sky and heading westward. The ends of his white hair were blackened as a result of the banging eruptions. He now sported superficial burns on various spots across his person. They looked like they smarted as they were pink in color.

However, what was the most disturbing for the pair was that Mizuki now only had eyes for them. It was not as if he didn't have his dangerous agenda on them before, but now it felt as if this man would now stop at absolutely nothing to utterly terminate them forever.

Something that felt sinister tingled down their backs and spines. A deep, caressing, murky emotion enveloped their beings. In momentous flares they saw blood and death and cloudy eyes and cut-off limbs and gore…

This man wanted to more than obliterate them. He wanted them to suffer in excruciating pain.

And so neither of the children could move. They were stuck in a seemingly unwavering flicker of time and space. It felt like a genjutsu, but they knew in their heart of hearts that it was not. This was an unbelievable intent to kill that was so unbearable that you could practically touch it in the atmosphere and the only thing you could do was fall onto your knees and beg for mercy—any mercy, any kind of mercy.

Mizuki grinned, his face grim and threatening. "You're pathetic, Namikaze. And to think that your own father sealed that Nine-Tailed Fox demon within you? Pitiful. I could destroy you in a heartbeat."

There was a pause, a long, long pause. Nothing moved.

Stumbling out of Sasuke's hold and eyes wide with horror, Naruto let out a strangled whisper. "W—what did you say?"

There was another crazed piece of laughter, a chortle that permeated the air. "You heard me," the white-haired traitor said forcefully. "You're the fox demon. Why else would I want to kill you? You came, six years ago, and destroyed everything I knew and loved. And to think that the Uchiha Clan was responsible for unleashing you upon this village…

"It's all your fault," he smirked and subsequently growled in anger. "Your stupid father thought he could protect you by sealing you into an innocent child—his own son—and has been traipsing around, making us all believe that you're some kind of misunderstood hero."

Sasuke watched in terrible panic as he saw his friend steadily sink to his knees, holding onto his head like it was his only lifeline. None of that could be true, could it?

"You're lying!" Naruto hollered desperately, grasping for straws. "YOU'RE LYING! HE WOULD NEVER—"

The child was cut off once again by that outlandish, unadulterated laughter. "You're so naïve!" Mizuki yelled with perturbing triumph in his posture. "You really think that a demon like that could just disappear? Did you really believe what the villagers and the adults have been telling you all this time? Did you not know that your own father created a law that neither you nor your generation should know about the demon sealed within your gut until you were all proper ninja? Did you not know that your own family, your own home, was keeping a secret from you? Have you ever wondered why there were so many attempts on attacking the Uchiha Clan when you were younger, why, even though there are fools who regard you as a hero, there are still some that sneer at you for some unexplained reason?!

"There is only one explanation! They hate you because you killed what was precious to them!" The man finished with an intense flourish.

Naruto sat there, shaking and murmuring 'no' over and over again. He was in total shock, and as the chuunin flung another massive spinning shuriken in their direction, Sasuke could only do one thing and throw his companion a yard or so away from it as he himself ducked with the adrenaline rush.

The armament shredded through the trees behind them until one of them toppled over and trapped the Uchiha's lower leg with a sickening crunch. He yelled out when the trunk hit him.

At least Naruto's safe, he alleged to himself, but the thought speedily dispersed when he really observed the position his friend was in.

The blond was curled into a fetal position, eyes wide and unseeing besides the dread he felt within himself. His fingers shook and his shin was still horribly bruised purple and the slice on his upper arm was still red from the drying blood. A sheen of cold sweat was gleaming above his brow.

Well, Sasuke darkly supposed, I guess we're both injured. But I might be the only one who's in my right mind now. Not that I can do much at this point…

"And now," Mizuki sneered, "now I'm going to finish both of you so that I can get rid of the rest of the Uchiha Clan next."

The man took out a handful of metal kunai from his seemingly endless arsenal and flung them at both Sasuke and Naruto, only one of whom had the decency to flinch as an instinctive reaction while the other still wallowed in his own disbelief that his dad, his mom, his family, his village….and the fox…the fox…

A resounding number of clangs brought the raven out of his reverie and another ninja stood before them, blocking every single one of the kunai from hitting their intended targets. Unkempt and lopsided silver hair reflected in the dimming sunlight, a dark mask covering half of the intruder's mysterious face, and his forehead protector was slanted over his left eye. A gray shinobi vest covered his chest like armor.

"I don't think so," Kakashi Hatake said sternly to his opponent. "I'll admit you had me distracted earlier. You made me believe that you had found where we hid the rest of the clan and I had rushed there with the intent to help guard them, only to find out that they were in no danger whatsoever. You were planning on getting rid of the more vulnerable targets first, weren't you?"

The chuunin chuckled enigmatically. "Very good. Though I knew it was only a matter of time before you figured it out." He gave an intimidating glare and added, "I do wish you had come a bit later though. I had almost, ah…finished the job."

At that comment, the young jounin glanced over to Naruto and saw that the boy was nowhere near sane at that particular moment, then to Sasuke who was writhing in discomfort at the prospect of a crushed foot.

His singular uncovered black eye flashed with ire. "What did you do?" He bit out in total resentment. "Whatever you did, Mizuki, I assure you, the Hokage will have your head for it. It's one thing to be a traitor to the village," he continued venomously, "but another thing to attack innocent children!"

"Innocent?" The wayward ninja snarled. "You think they're innocent?!"

"What did you do?!"

The chuunin laughed hysterically once again. It seemed that the crazily happy smile would never look as if it would wash off of his face. "Nothing! I just did what was coming to them anyway! Besides," and he said this part with a mysteriously ominous tone as he pointed his chin to the wobbling and unbelieving Namikaze, "I just told that one there a little secret."

The silver-haired young man growled. "You didn't."

"Oh," reassured Mizuki. "I definitely did."

They charged at the same exact moment, shuriken hitting kunai, kunai splicing shuriken. Fists pounded against each other in a tremendous dance of skill. A knee was shoved into Mizuki's unsuspecting stomach. He gagged out saliva, the scowl on his face deepening, and he attempted a roundhouse kick to Kakashi's head, to which the said target powerfully redirected with a high block.

The jounin shoved the man over, forcing the battling pair onto the ground until he had caught the challenger in a headlock, his elbow tightening around the male's neck. He pulled out a kunai from his back pouch and lifted the man's head till the sharp tip was right at his throat. The chuunin snorted and poof-ed away until Kakashi was grappling with a pile of harmless twigs.

Dropping the mess in frustration, the Hatake stood up and asked, "Where are you?!"

An echoing voice sounded in his eardrums. "Tsk, tsk," the male commented coldly, "It looks like you've lost most of your skill."

"There!" Kakashi shouted tersely as he launched a volley of shuriken to the place to his right and nearest to the largest oak in the forest. Unfortunately, there was no hitting of his objective as Mizuki dodged them and landed right behind the jounin only to plunge a sparkling knife into his chest. The single onyx eye widened in surprise and his face paled, crimson spurting forth like a fountain.

"It seems," said the man who had defeated the Copy Ninja, "Even I can kill the Hokage's right hand man."

The enemy watched as Sasuke saw, transfixed with terror as he witnessed the death of one of the adults he trusted the most. He smirked as he saw as the boy tried to shift his gaze over to Naruto was had been splattered with some of his "Kaka-nii's" beautiful, gorgeous life blood.

Oh he loved it. He loved it. If he could, he would kill and murder more. It was terrifying; it was refreshing and free! If only he could kill all of the Uchiha next and that wretched Kyuubi container, then, he felt, his life would be complete.

But at the same second he felt a foreign tingling sensation near his shoulder blade. The former Konoha ninja tensed as excruciating pain shot through his forearm and muscles and lightning plunged through to the other side of his body, totally decimating his shoulder. He collapsed, shaking and bleeding profusely from his damaged side. He couldn't believe what was happening.

A sandaled foot stepped into his vision and his eyes travelled upward only to see Kakashi himself standing over his prone form.

"W—what?" the injured foe stammered incredulously, "I thought you were dead."

The silver-haired jounin stared at him with an unflinching frown. "You were already defeated from the start," he said matter-of-factly without taking his eyes off the antagonist. "I had you under a genjutsu from the moment you used substitution to replace yourself with sticks. You miscalculated.

"I was named a jounin for a reason, Mizuki," he spat in an uncharacteristic show of emotion. "But you," he continued unfazed, "you're just a deserter."

And that was that. Mizuki appeared totally defeated immediately after hearing those words and the Hatake deftly bound and gagged his body, not even bothering to feign gentleness.

He turned to a heavily breathing Sasuke who was trying to release his foot from underneath the tree trunk, and he nodded to the frightened boy, calming him down before signaling that he was going to free him himself. One arm glowing bright with chakra, he sliced the log down the center and rolled the remaining piece carefully off of the child's limb. The raven looked at him gratefully while he still clutched his foot, blood noticeably marring the purpling skin on the surface of his ankle, but then the Uchiha glimpsed Naruto as if to inquire, "What about him?"

Naruto's face was blank; his normally cheerful azure irises were dull. He was blatantly ignoring the bad contusion on the surface of his shin which was a magenta and reddish-brown color by now. There was a bit of yellow and green around the edges that were a good thing. It meant that the injury was healing.

Kakashi sighed, a hesitant expression gracing his features. "Naru…?" he asked uncertainly. "Naru. The seal. We need to activate it," he alleged as mildly as possible as he touched the boy's shoulders. The kid did not even move an inch. He still stared blankly at the darkening horizon. That was not a good sign.

"Naruto," the jounin repeated quietly, quite aware of the audience member who stared at his best friend with apprehension. "I'm going to activate the Hiraishin that you have on you, okay?" And yet he still received no reply.

Exhaling silently, he pumped a small burst of chakra with a feather light touch on the boy's abdominal, and something glowed beneath the dark orange fabric that looked suspiciously like a swirled pattern with the squiggled kanji-like writing of the Flying Thunder God Technique seal incorporated onto it.

Less than a second later the imposing figure of the Fourth Hokage flickered into existence nearest to his son.

Minato's gaze scanned the scene before him. He saw Mizuki who stared up at his leader with absolute fear and trepidation, saw Sasuke who was desperately trying to snap his childhood friend out of the vegetable-like state he was in, saw Kakashi peering up at his teacher with something ominous and livid reflecting in his façade, saw Naruto who was acting like there was nothing else and no one else around him.

And then that thing he tried to hold back inside his heart snapped, that thing that he tried to keep within himself only, that thing he knew would rear its ugly head and come out if anything like this ever happened again to his precious people, that alarming thought he had whenever he took a tentative sip from his Gyokuro tea and saw the leaves that made up his village, saw the priceless bud that his son and his son's generation was.

"You're not my dad," he heard the susceptible Naruto murmur in his memories. "Don't lie."

Don't lie.

Don't lie.

You're such a liar.

Minato's face betrayed no emotion, but Kakashi and the rest of those in the clearing could practically feel it permeate the air. Never had anyone seen this man, this dangerous S-class shinobi, so purely enraged. His entire person became cold as ice and his glare was unforgiving, even uncaring enough to send numerous shivers down someone's spine.

He slowly walked to the fallen chuunin, whose eyes widened as each step seemed to escalate his pathetic fright.

"Mizuki," the Yellow Flash said unfeelingly with a stony aloofness to his tenor, "You had an…interesting plan." He gestured to the people in the area, not missing the horrified gasp that came out of the traitor's mouth. "First you lead Kakashi away from Sasuke and...my son," the chuunin recoiled violently at the indication, "knowing full well that he would have no choice but to go and check on the Uchiha.

"Then," the blond continued with increasing coldness, "You decide to disguise yourself as one of my most trusted ANBU, even though you knew that the same ANBU was one of the ones guarding the compound. And let's not forget that you," and he narrowed his eyes at the following statement, "killed that said ANBU and then decided that right before you went on to try and destroy the Uchiha Clan, you would attempt to hurt or maybe even kill innocent children that so happened to include," and he seemingly casually stepped on one of Mizuki's bound hands in an atypical display of minor hostility, "Sasuke Uchiha and," the foot pressed harder onto the man's bruising fingers, "my son."

Minato frowned, releasing the pressure of his foot from the male's hand. He calmly turned around, still with no emotions on his features, his mouth forming a thin line, and clasped both of his calloused palms behind his back as if this were some gesture of nonchalance, but they all knew better.

"You are obviously no longer worthy to be called a ninja of mine," the Hokage furthered icily.

The leaves rustled in the background. No one dared to utter one word. Never, and Kakashi would definitely adhere to the statement, never had anyone witnessed this Hokage so glaringly irate and emotionlessly unsympathetic. One could even call it scary.

From that moment, Kakashi did not have to know that Mizuki did not have to necessarily be dead to be considered a dead man.

"Kakashi," the powerful leader commanded, "Alert the Uchiha and the rest of the ANBU that the missing-nin has been captured and subdued and I expect Inoichi and Ibiki here within five minutes. Bring Sasuke back to his family afterwards. I'll take care of the rest from there."

"Yes," the jounin responded to his sensei, "Understood, Hokage-sama." He never called Minato by his official title unless the situation was gravely serious. He could tell the man would take no sort of fooling around in the mood he was currently in, and after tinkering with his communicator, he was able to inform all intended parties of the news. Right after, he lifted Sasuke from under his armpits and gave him a look as the boy struggled to try and stay to help his friend. The raven comprehended the seriousness of the order, nevertheless, and resigned himself to be reluctantly carried back to his awaiting fellow clansmen.

Moments later Inoichi Yamanaka, a tall man with long, blond hair that was tied back into a ponytail that far reached past his lower back, and Ibiki Morino, a scarred man with a black bandana tied securely around his bald head came into view. Satisfied that the main members of the Torture and Interrogation Department had arrived so punctually, Minato gestured to the bloody and battered form of Mizuki, who they took with them without a spoken word. They too noticed the coldness that their Hokage seemed to be seeping out in spades.

That left Naruto and Minato alone in the training forest.

The six-year-old had long since sat up, injured leg and uninjured leg respectively tucked near to his core and he also laid his chin on his knees. His childish arms were wrapped around the front of his legs in a loose fashion but his eyes…his eyes saw nothing. Absolutely nothing. To him, there was only emptiness beyond the point of his own heart and soul. His mouth was slightly parted and agape, but no noise came out of it. Even if you listened closely, it was difficult to hear the soft breaths that were escaping his lungs, to hear the oxygen come in and the carbon dioxide come out, to hear this child be a part of the cycle of the world.

Closing his eyelids briefly, Minato let the anger drain out of his system before he cautiously sat near to his son. Naruto did not even bother to move. His eyes were still blank and to Minato, that scared him the most of all.

"I know what happened," the father said out loud. "I could figure it out just from seeing Mizuki and Kakashi's face and…" He faltered, scrunching his eyebrows together, "…and your face," he added quietly.

"I know…I know you probably will always hate me for what I did to you," and Minato placed his face in the palms of his hands, "I know I'm not the kind of father that you deserve," and his shoulders began to tremble ever so slightly, "I know that you probably think I'm worthless and you're probably thinking, 'What kind of Hokage is this guy?' and that," and for some peculiar reason his hands started to feel moist and wet and his lips tasted salty, "I'm not the kind of person you could ever look at again," and for some reason his voice started cracking in unusual places as he spoke, "and that I couldn't possibly…and that I couldn't possibly ever deserve your respect or the kind of love that a son has for his dad…"

Gradually and ever so slightly, the light had begun to return to Naruto's eyes. He was no longer quite as still as a ceramic doll as he listened to his father speak to him in that cracking voice of his. He didn't realize until after the fact, but he knew that his parent, his strong and seemingly undefeatable parent, was crying. And he did not know why, but he felt the back of his eyeballs burn as tears spilled out and rolled down as well.

And he found his voice; it was lodged somewhere deep within his chest.

"You—you sealed the Nine-Tails in me?" Naruto shakily asked his father, his azure gaze downcast as the tears continued to leak. "I don't understand. I thought it was gone." He began rubbing at his cheeks furiously as wet streaks came in rivulets down to his chin. "I—I thought you loved me…"

Minato snapped his head up at the comment. He did not want his only son to ever, ever think that way. How could he not love him? Did he not see the lengths he would go just to protect his very existence? Did he not see his willingness, his drive to keep him ever close to his heart? Did he not see that he and Kushina meant the universe to him, that their lives were worth something infinite to him?

Did he not see how much he truly, wholly, and unwaveringly, loved everything his son was just for being there, just for being his one and only child, the one person he helped bring into the world?

Did he not know the kind of love a parent must always have for his child?

"Naruto," he murmured softly, tentatively placing his callused palms on his son's small shoulders and smiling as he too had eyes wet from emotion. "Naruto. I do love you. I do. And nothing will ever change that."

His son was only partially paying attention; his arms were now desperately covering his face and wiping away the tears, but Minato would have none of that. He shakily embraced the six-year-old, closing his eyes as he did so and they held each other close as the warmth spread between them. He felt Naruto stiffen at the contact, but paid it no heed. The child needed to be reassured.

"Even if I had had to seal more than one demon into you I would still care for you," the older man continued. "Even if the whole world hated me for it, I would still care for you. Even if the whole village despised you because they only saw the demon and not you, I would still care. Even if, somehow, you were actually becoming the fox demon, I would find a way to change you back, but I would love you regardless."

Naruto blinked up at his father. "Really?" he questioned silently, almost unbelievingly.

"Really," Minato replied. "I sealed the Kyuubi within you because I believed—and I still believe—that you can control its powers because you are the only one that can and because you are my son. I had no other choice at the time, but of course I regret having to place such a heavy burden on you…

"But I know you can do it. You saved the village that night from an enemy that I could not defeat, and no, it was not the Uchiha's fault either. You're strong and you'll become even stronger. But you also have to remember," and he really looked at his son now, wanting to make sure the message would sink in, "that you are not the demon. You're just the jailer. You're Naruto Namikaze. You're you, not anyone or anything else, so don't believe it if someone tells you that you are some kind of monster."

Naruto smiled tearfully and grasped the front of his father's jounin vest and hugged him back. He snickered softly and somewhat hesitantly stated, "Dad, you're crazy. What if I had a bowl cut like Gai, or a big red eyebrow? You wouldn't love me then, would you?"

The Fourth laughed back and poked the boy in the nose. "Of course I would! Even if you had elephant ears, I'd love you."

"Oh really? What about cat ears?" The unsure excitement rose in his pronunciation.

There's the Naruto I know, thought Minato.

"I think I would love you then too," the man grinned, holding his son close to him as he stood up and began to walk back to the Tower, now in a genuinely better mood than just moments earlier. His little child squirmed a bit in his hold but did not complain otherwise.

"How about if my arms were made out of ramen?"

The Hokage tapped his chin in contemplation. "Hm. I don't know about that one…"

ooo

Evening had fully set in and Naruto and Sasuke were now returned to their homes after an extremely eventful afternoon. Mizuki had been sent to be interrogated rather thoroughly, and Kakashi even made the decision to participate in the questioning himself. That was a sure sign to all shinobi in the Leaf Village that the young man was furious with both himself and the missing-nin. Minato could not blame him.

In fact, he had joined in as well. That morsel of information alone was enough to turn more than a few heads. The Hokage himself never indulged in interrogating a criminal unless it was serious business. And for a good portion of the day many made painstakingly sure methods to avoid him with his dispassionate and shadowy ire.

However, even after hours of interrogating the pitiful former chuunin, they could barely get any information out of him besides his motive which was already something that they could determine for themselves without having to force it out of him.

Even the Yamanaka, a clan well known for their secret mind techniques that were invaluable to cross-examination and information gathering, was of no use whatsoever. This alone was more than disconcerting.

Inoichi had said that he had tried to probe Mizuki's mind for something, anything that could indicate a memory or a conversation, but there were vast amounts of his thoughts that were heavily concealed. It was as if someone had taken evident measures in walling out the important things and he was met with block after block after block and resistance.

But it was Minato that discovered why they couldn't get him to talk, at least. There was a strange and unidentifiable seal tattooed onto Mizuki's tongue, so he sketched it out and kept the paper within his robe pockets. This would be something he needed to break if no one else could.

And the seal was officially known in the small group as an S-ranking secret.

The troubling problem was not the seal that barred them from gathering any kind of useful information, though. It was the fact that the tongue seal was a clear sign that someone was working behind the scenes and that Mizuki the chuunin most likely had a benefactor for his little failed "project," and a supervising ANBU from T and I had told him so.

"The thing is, Hokage-sama," the cat masked ANBU alleged a little diffidently. The Hokage gestured for the man to continue. "Evidence points to the fact that Mizuki could not have been acting alone."

"I figured as much," Minato sighed.

"No. I mean that there's evidence that someone inside Konoha was using him." The elite ninja looked up determinedly and continued, "Someone inside our own village wants the Uchiha Clan gone."

The Hokage's eyes narrowed. He had a foreboding feeling in the pit of his stomach and even had a hunch to who this person was. In fact, all the evidence could be considered palpable, but they needed to tread carefully on these waters. If he was correct, this was a danger not only to the Village Hidden in the Leaves, but to the very roots of its presence within the Land of Fire and the world of shinobi as a whole. Their enemies could take advantage of their weakness if they haven't already secretly done so.

They could be crushed from the inside out.

He gripped his pen and dismissed the agent, observing as he flashed and flickered away from the office, and he thought yet again of the emerald green of the Gyokuro tea and sank tiredly into the plush chair that the office of kage had to offer. Minato thought that maybe, it was time for him to call it a day and go home for the night.

But the morning would come eventually.

AN: Even longer than last chapter! This one's 29 pages. Sorry for the super, super, super long wait!

Coming up next…

Chapter Five: Listen to the Battle Hymn

The Hidden Cloud and Hidden Sand come to discuss peace talks with the Hokage.

Answers to questions that you might have been wanting to ask:

(1) Behavioral conditioning is part of the Behaviorist theory in psychology. To put it in clearer terms, it is kind of like teaching a living being to respond to something a certain way. There are two kinds of behavioral conditioning and that includes operant conditioning (behavior modification in which the likelihood of a specific behavior is increased or decreased through positive or negative reinforcement ), which I would like to think is the kind of conditioning that occurs in this story, and classical conditioning (behavior modification in which a subject learns to respond in a desired manner in which a neutral stimulus is repeatedly presented in association with a stimulus that provokes a natural response).

(2) Gyokuro translates to "Precious Dew." It is a Japanese tea and is known as the highest grade of tea and is harvested annually in the spring. The plant is shaded during the final weeks of growth, producing more chlorophyll in the leaves, and giving it a deep emerald green color.