Chapter 1: Get Set
by Ryvaken Lucius Tadrya

Naruto Uzumaki was not a happy academy student.

Mostly because he was still an academy student. He had failed his genin test. Being a ninja, becoming Hokage, and his dream of being acknowledged seemed further away than ever. So he wallowed in his memory, watching his classmates' parents pretend he didn't exist. Somehow he didn't think a prank would make him feel better. Not this time.

Well, there was an exception. Mizuki, one of Naruto's teachers, was coming towards him with a sympathetic smile. Naruto didn't like Mizuki as much as Iruka, but he could count the number of people that bothered to smile at him on one hand. Even that weird girl, Hinata, never smiled at him. But it would take more than one smile to lift Naruto's spirits. "Hey, Naruto," Mizuki said. "Tough break with the bunshin. But you know, the official test isn't the only way to become a genin."

Naruto's eyes widened. "Really!" Well, that could break even Sasuke's funk!

Mizuki led Naruto away, going over the plan to steal the scroll…but didn't notice that lavender eyes were on his back.

Hinata sighed. As expected, her father didn't find her graduation worthy of more than a firm nod and left her alone quickly. She was Hyuuga. She would pass. There had never been any question of that, even from her. Left alone while other children were given such praise, she secretly turned her attention to her kindred spirit. Naruto Uzumaki was so like her. They were both friendless, without anyone to encourage them. But while she had a huge family pressuring her to succeed, Naruto had only his own determination pushing him forward. His enthusiasm and confidence were addictive, and Hinata marveled at the strength of character it took to keep pushing forward. She herself would have curled up in a ball and never moved had her family not pushed her. It wasn't the kind of pushing she saw in their classmates, what Kurenai-sensei called the 'carrot and stick' approach. She got all 'stick' all the time. But somehow, looking at Naruto's back as she was pushed in his wake made the journey easier. Although if anyone ever found out she thought of it like that she'd die of embarrassment and her family would disown her corpse!

Hinata's quiet introspection was destroyed when Mizuki approached Naruto. She knew her crush liked Mizuki, but she had watched them both from a distance. Mizuki's smile was like her own. When no one could see, Hinata would smile at Naruto. And at the same times, Mizuki would scowl. The ugly expression fit his face too well. Whatever plan he was sharing with Naruto, Hinata hoped he was playing the part of a caring teacher, but it was so much more likely that this secret test would be the end of Mizuki's lie, and Naruto would pay the price.

Hinata had a brief image of being pushed in life as genin without Naruto to blaze the trail ahead of her. A resolve she only rarely knew settled in her and made her path so very clear. Over my dead body! she swore to herself. The only path she would walk would lead to Naruto, should it cost her her life or her family, it did not matter. And as she was so fond of saying to herself, she wouldn't go back on that promise. That was her Way of the Ninja!

Naruto felt like laughing, but held himself back with practiced ease. Mizuki was right, this was a challenge! Stealing this scroll of techniques pushed his academy skills past their limit; henge to pass guards and kawarimi to make an escape. Without bunshin to make a diversion he would need to be unusually stealthy, though.

People often asked how a loud, brightly-clad boy could possibly be stealthy. These same people would wake up in the morning to find their houses and occasionally faces covered in graffiti, without a single witness to testify against the obvious culprit. Naruto never claimed to be subtle, but the one area he truly was better than Sasuke was not being seen until he wanted to be.

But he never noticed the only one in class better than him. Hinata watched Naruto's progress. She thought about using a henge to be a fake bunshin of him to help, but this was supposedly a test. If Mizuki wasn't lying, if this really was Naruto's last shot to become a ninja, she might disqualify him by interfering. She shook her head; she couldn't risk that. She'd watch, nothing more. If Mizuki turned out to be up to something, then she'd act.

While she was a freshly minted kunoichi, Hinata was not the expert in stealth that Naruto was. As she was keeping a Byakugan eye on Naruto, she herself was being watched from the shadows. Kurenai Yuhi, the newest jonin in Konoha, watched the girl carefully. She had long cared for the Hyuuga's uncertain princess, but could think of no reason why she would be studying the Hokage's tower so carefully.

The guards of the tower glanced at eachother. The arrival of Hinata was unexpected, and why was she being watched by a jonin? The guards signaled eachother with handsigns. What was Kurenai doing? Should Hinata be taken into custody? Should they just ignore it? The subtle debate rolled through the ranks of the guards for several minutes as they watched the apparently motionless kunoichi.

Then one of them finally noticed that the seal had been broken on the door he was supposed to have been guarding.

Hinata twitched in surprise as the alarm went out over the village. Lights were coming on, people were yelling about Naruto stealing the scroll. They sounded angry, surprised. didn't sound like a test. Hinata sighed. The problem with living in a village of ninja was that they were all really good at acting. If this was a secret test, then it wouldn't look like a test, right? It wasn't yet time to act. She went after Naruto.

Kurenai's eyes widened. If the tower had been robbed, she had more important duties than Hinata! She ran out of the shadows and leapt for the tower. "What happened?" she yelled to the guards. They looked at her and then quickly looked away in embarassment. That...wasn't a good sign. Someone had done something very stupid this night.

Elsewhere in Konoha, Mizuki was impressed despite himself. He knew the fox brat was good at this, but he had at least a full minute of a head start above Mizuki's expectation. At this rate, he could take his time killing the boy and switching the scroll with a properly Narutoish fake.

Naruto sat in a clearing and opened the scroll eagerly. A lot of it didn't make sense, but Mizuki said he only needed to learn one of the techniques. He just needed to find one with only a few handseals, something so awesome that not being able to do bunshin wouldn't matter.

Well, that first one was…really simple! One handseal, and only two fingers? A whole bunch of boring stuff about chakra use, and it was even a kind of clone! And the next…and the next…Naruto grinned. These were all kinda simple, you just needed to give it your all to pull them off. No one gave their all like Naruto Uzumaki!

"Well, you did better than I thought, fox brat," Mizuki said, walking out of the trees.

Naruto looked up with a grin. "I can do this! Thanks, Mizuki-sensei!"

Mizuki laughed. "You? Do a jutsu off that scroll? Fool! That is a scroll of techniques the Shodai Hokage declared too dangerous to use! A failure of a demon like you couldn't even grasp what they do!"

"What?" Naruto asked, shaking. He knew this script. Others had called him failure and demon. They sneered and turned their backs, never called him by name. "I'm Naruto!" he yelled. "I have a name! I'm Naruto Uzumaki! Why are you calling me a demon, too?"

"You," Mizuki sneered, "are the Nine-Tailed Demon Fox. I have no idea why the Yondaime didn't just kill you, but I won't make the same mistake. Goodbye, Fox!" He pulled back his shuriken and…felt blinding pain in his lower back.

This was no test. Hinata ran around Mizuki, but her second palm strike never hit the chunin. He grabbed her wrist and twisted it painfully, causing her to cry out in pain. Mizuki stared in shock and fury. "What? What are you doing here?"

"Naruto isn't like that," Hinata said angrily. Her soft voice carried a bite to it that would have filled her father with something like pride. The adrenaline was surging through her, the fear of death...for one, brief moment all those fears of a little girl seemed so small, like she could just step over them and put them behind her, at least for a moment. A moment of clarity. " my friend."

Mizuki glared at Hinata. "Isn't that cute. You have a crush on the demon." Hinata's composure deteriorated into mortification. Her fears came rushing back at her, and she responded with all the maturity and emotional control of a twelve year old girl. Which is to say, she blushed, squeaked, and lost all sense of equilibrium.

Mizuki tossed her at Naruto, and the proclaimed demon did his best to catch her. The two children collapsed in a heap, Hinata on top of Naruto, but her head hit the ground hard enough that Naruto could hear it. She moaned, trying to make sense of what her eyes and ears were telling her. Between the emotional and physical trauma she was experiencing, she was hard pressed to tell up from down.

Mizuki ground his teeth and raised his weapon again, not triumphantly as before but in rage. "You silly girl, you've ruined everything! Hiashi won't accept that Naruto could kill even a failure like you if I seriously tried to stop him. He'll make sure I never make jonin. Now I have to go missing-nin just to survive!"

"You'd betray Konoha?" Naruto yelled.

Mizuki laughed again. "Such loyalty for a village you nearly destroyed," he jeered.

"That's how we taught him," Iruka said, appearing between Mizuki and the children. "But I guess you needed to take that class yourself."

Mizuki snorted out his frustration. Plan A was a complete bust already. Plan B had always been kill everything in sight and run. Iruka just made it more interesting. "Well, no reason not to kill you too, Iruka. Maybe you can keep teaching these failures in the afterlife!"

Naruto's head was swimming. His favorite teachers were paired off and fighting to the death. Hinata was sprawled over him in a daze. He had learned jutsu he shouldn't be able to do. Hinata had tried to protect him. He had some connection to the Kyuubi. Hinata had defended his character, his good nature. He didn't know what all that meant, but one thing was clear enough. Mizuki needed to pay.

Iruka went down, wounded but not critically. Naruto pushed Hinata off him gently. "Hinata. Whatever happens, he doesn't get this scroll," he said, pushing it into her hands. Hinata clutched the scroll and nodded dazedly. He stood up.

Mizuki sneered. "You think you can take me, fox?"

Naruto crossed a finger on each hand. "My name is Naruto Uzumaki! I'm going to be the Hokage and make everyone acknowledge me! And I'm starting with you! Taju kage bunshin no jutsu!" Chakra flooded Naruto's body for a moment and he pushed it into the form required. It flowed, a torrent of power held and contained by the solid mold he envisioned. One copy. Two. Four. Eight. Sixteen. Soon he couldn't count the number of copies he felt his chakra make and triggered the jutsu. The air filled with opaque white smoke…and then there were a lot of him. Hundreds. Maybe thousands.

Mizuki twitched. "This isn't possible," he whispered.

"This is my way of the ninja!" Naruto roared, one voice from innumerable throats. He charged Mizuki from all directions, and to his credit the chunin may have beaten half of him, but numbers told the tale. In moments, ten Narutos had Mizuki pinned to the ground.

The real Naruto made his way to Iruka. "Sensei?" he asked worriedly.

Iruka smiled. "Naruto. Do me a favor?" Naruto nodded, guileless worry etched on his face. "Take off my headband."

"Okay," Naruto said. He undid the knot and pulled the metal protector away. "It doesn't look like you're hurt."

"I'm not," Iruka said, smiling through the blood on his lips. "At least not there. Take a look at your hand, Naruto." Naruto looked at his hands, clutching Iruka's headband. "That's yours, now," Iruka explained.

Naruto took a moment to process that. "You mean?"

Iruka nodded. "You're a ninja, Naruto."

"NO!" Mizuki yelled, hurling off the clones on him in a fit of rage. "Not him! He doesn't win this! I win! I risked everything! It should be me that climbs higher!"

Naruto quickly tied the protector around his head and faced Mizuki. "I won't let you hurt him!"

Mizuki spun on Hinata. "Then I'll kill her!"

Hinata's world slowed down. Mizuki rushed her. Naruto got between them, making a handsign she had never seen before. Iruka yelled something. Then the world turned to cranberry-cinnamon flavored ramen.

"No, Naruto!" Iruka yelled. "Not that jutsu!"

But it was too late. In a flash of blinding light, Naruto, Hinata, and the scroll were gone. A circle of bare earth, half a meter in radius, was the only sign left.

Mizuki stared at the patch of dirt. He gave a weak laugh. Then another. And another. Then he was laughing uncontrollably, tears running down his face. "Nothing!" he howled. "I did it all for nothing!" He was like that when the ANBU came, and the last Iruka ever saw him, Mizuki was simply a man who had gambled everything he had and lost so completely that his mind broke.

Minutes later, Iruka was mostly bandaged up. Sarutobi himself had come to inspect the last spot Naruto had been seen. "Will he ever return, Hokage?" he asked.

Sarutobi shook his head slowly. "He activated the original time-space jutsu invented by the Yondaime. I would never have believed even Naruto to have that much chakra."

"I thought the scroll was scribed by the Shodai Hokage," Iruka said, confused.

"The core of it," Sarutobi agreed. "But each Hokage has added something to it. Jutsu that were too dangerous for ordinary ninjas' chakra coils to handle. But back to your question. The Yondaime theorized that with enough chakra, he could jump to an utterly unreachable place. But he'd never be certain of coming back. Or that he would survive the journey."

Iruka felt his throat tighten. Ninja died all the time, but this was different. Naruto and Hinata had been mere students only yesterday. "I passed Naruto," he said. "He was a genin when he...left."

Sarutobi smiled sadly. "I'll make sure it's entered into his record."

Whatever Iruka planned to say to that was interrupted by a spark of light. He turned and frowned. There, on the bare patch of dirt, was a glowing mote of orange light. As he stared at it, the mote expanded, unfolded, and became a diagram of some kind of fuuinjutsu. The base pattern was a circle with a seven pointed star inside, some unfamiliar script, all in constant motion as different parts rotated about their own axises. He estimated its final size as only a few feet across. "Uhm, Hokage-sama?"

Sarutobi was among the most knowledgeable men in the elemental countries. In the topics of chakra and jutsu, there was little he did not know. "I don't know," he said gruffly.

When the one circle was joined by two more, the ANBU bodyguards came out of hiding and interposed themselves between the strange jutsu and the Hokage.

Iruka hobbled backwards. The new circles were identical to the first, save one was a pale lavender and the other a pleasing crimson. "They don't feel like chakra," he suggested.

"No they don't," a ferret-masked ANBU agreed. "I don't find that comforting."

"Wise," Sarutobi muttered. " something coming out of them?"

The ANBU tensed. Storage seals could contain just about anything if they were this big. If some village had found a way to create seals at a distance, the circles could be a prelude to an attack. Or, worse, they could even be the attack itself.

The circles glowed brightly and shot columns of light into the sky. Shapes appeared inside the cylinders of power, human shapes. A boy and girl with staves, and another girl with a strange bow in her hair and a sack over her hip. The ANBU readied weapons.

The orange column spoke. "Hey, old man. Miss us?"

Sarutobi felt his pipe try to leave his mouth in shock. "Naruto?" The light faded and Sarutobi found himself looking at...he wasn't entirely sure. Naruto, Hinata...and Naruto?

Naruto was taller, older by a year at least. He had a cocky grin that was enough to dispel any doubts about his identity, and his orange, blue, and white outfit was also familiar. However, the colors were muted, the white almost grey, and he looked as if he could fade into shadows far more easily than he could have in his previous outfit. Iruka's headband was firm around his brow, clean but unpolished, with the telltale signs of age despite care, rather than slavish devotion to cleanliness. He carried a black staff with a round orange jewel set in a triangular headpiece.

Hinata was as old as Naruto and had grown her hair several inches. While her outfit was largely the same as it had been, either she had hit a growth spurt or she had chosen a more daring outfit. Daring compared to her former, overly bulky coat that is; she was still one of the most conservatively dressed kunoichi in Konoha. She carried a green staff, the same shade as one of Konoha's flak jackets, with a large opal set about two thirds up the staff.

The third individual was almost beyond description. She looked like Naruto's "sexy jutsu" henge, but had large, red-furred ears and tail suggestive of a fox. The girl wore shorts that barely came to her mid-thighs and a halter that left a great deal of skin showing above and below her bust. She did not have a headband, but rather a collar with a green metal tag in the shape of the Konoha leaf design.

Naruto grinned a bit wider. "Who else dattebayo?"

Sarutobi waved at the ANBU and their weapons vanished in a professional display of synchronized obedience. "What happened?"

"How long have we been gone?" Hinata asked.

"Maybe half an hour," Iruka said numbly. "We thought you were dead."

"Half an hour?" Naruto asked. He looked to his staff. "Good work."

[Thank you, boss.]

If Sarutobi was surprised by the staff's mechanical monotone, he didn't show it. "Your report?" he repeated. There was a time to be kind and grandfatherly and a time remind everyone who was in charge. This wasn't a grandfather moment. Something very strange had happened here, and he needed answers while there was still a chance of keeping the situation contained. Maybe they could just bury the incident and pretend it never happened. Wouldn't be the first time they'd covered something up. It wasn't even the first time that week.

"We were teleported to another world a year and a half ago," Naruto started.

So much for that idea. "Nevermind," he said gruffly, "this is all secret as of now." That was too much to bury reliably. Sarutobi switched to damage control. Mizuki's testimony needed to be handled carefully and if anything he needed more answers faster. "Iruka, go to the hospital. Ferret, make sure Mizuki's interrogation is handled by Ibiki. Badger, I want the strongest tea we have in my office in the next five minutes. As for you three, Naruto, Hinata, and...?"

"Naruko," the fox-girl supplied.

Sarutobi blinked and decided that he was going to need to put some stronger stuff in his pipe to go with that tea. "You three in my office, now. You're going to tell me everything."