Life Without Kurama @axleboost
Chapter 17

Author's Note: This is the point where the story takes a much sharper turn in its deviation from Part 1 canon. If you aren't a fan of that, you were warned.

Chapter 17: A Test of Wills, Part One

A wide array of identical seals were distributed across the field where Sasuke stood. He observed them one by one, taking in his surroundings. Kushina clasped her hands together and cleared her throat.

"Welcome to Day 1 of your training, Sasuke!" Kushina said, hopping in place with a giddy smile. "Are you ready, ya know?"

Sasuke sighed. "Thanks Kushina, but I really don't thi-"

"Ah-ah-ah! We're doing this. I didn't spend the last half hour preparing this for nothing!"

"Hey, I didn't ask you to do that."

"But you did say you didn't want to be left in the dust, so I'm helping you train."

He frowned, taking another look at the symbols drawn in the grass. Kushina eyed the bow secured across Sasuke's back.

"Need to warm up first?"

"Already took care of that earlier," he said, "in the backyard before I left. So, since you're so adamant about this, what are the rules again? I just have to hit every target, right?"

"Yeah," Kushina said, raising a hand to halt Sasuke's rise in chakra. "But NO Sharingan! Just ninja tools and your arrows. Got it?"

He tightened his jaw. "Ugh. Are you trying to torture me today?"

"Nope. You need to avoid becoming reliant on your visual prowess for everything. Trust me, I've known plenty of Uchiha who thought their eyes could win them any battle. They all learned the hard way that a kekkei genkai won't save you from every situation."

"You sure you're not just saying that to scare me?"

She smirked. "Go for it and you'll see."

Accepting her challenge, Sasuke readied his bow in front of him and took a centering breath. He nocked an arrow and searched for his first target. There were about ten, from what he could tell. He couldn't sense the seals because they were inked rather than imbued with chakra. Kushina really had thought this through. However, there was another way to ensure he aced her exercise.

Once a hunter, always a hunter. Sasuke whipped out a kunai and used its reflection to check for regions in his blind spot where she could have hidden targets. He and Itachi often used this method as children to track wild game. Sure enough, Sasuke found a seal marking down the hill at his rear. The instinct to think like a predator tracking prey had come in handy many times since those days, and so far, it had yet to fail him.

He matched Kushina's smirk with his own, flinging his kunai over his shoulder. He threw another behind him in a different direction. Sure of his angle calculation, Sasuke didn't wait for the outcome. He fired off a series of arrows to hit the other exposed seals. Just as predicted, the second kunai he'd thrown ricocheted off of the first and buried itself dead center on the hidden target. He allowed himself a satisfied grin, having landed a hit on every identified target fractions of a second apart.

Kushina gave him a playful smile. "I'll permit you to use your Sharingan now."

He froze. Cracks formed in his confident demeanor. Had he really made a mistake?

Activating his Sharingan, Sasuke scanned the area in a panic. "There's no way I-"

Hidden in the grass behind a sizable rock was an undetected target. He slumped his shoulders in defeat. She observed his disbelief for a moment, keeping her hands behind her back. Rather than rub the loss in Sasuke's face, Kushina marched forward and put a hand on his shoulder.

"Sasuke, just trust me. I'm trying to help you get stronger, okay? Once you're out there in the thick of it, it'll be too late."

He sucked in a breath and nodded. "Okay, I take your point. Should we go again?"

Kushina beamed at him. "Sure, ya know! I'll redraw the seals. Just sit tight."

She skittered off across the field. Sasuke fired a few practice shots in the opposite direction while he waited. Although still serviceable, he felt that the bow was too light for him. He was bigger and stronger now than he was all those years ago. Plus, he couldn't see himself lugging around something that took up so much space in addition to his backpack. He had managed while in the Land of Waves, but kept a mental note in the back of his mind to deal with the issue later.

Maybe I should come up with a storage seal for when I'm not using it.

Sasuke walked along, deep in his own thoughts while passively retrieving his lost kunai. He needed a bow that took up less space and was age-appropriate. Still, the idea of scrapping something that carried so much history unsettled him. Maybe he would pack it or leave it on display. Sasuke finished collecting his ninja tools and came back to find Kushina awaiting his return.

"Ready to try again?" she said.

"Yeah. After we're finished here, though, I'd like your opinion on something."

She smiled. "Of course, ya know! Anyway, I'm gonna spend some more time in my seal dimension while you train."

"Are you sure? Without my Sharingan active, I won't notice if you-"

"I'm sure. I can handle this."

He wanted to object, but Sasuke knew the trust between him and his adoptive mother had to go both ways for it to mean anything.

"Fine," he huffed. "But I'm checking your chakra levels between shots. If I see something's up, I'll pull you out."

She nodded in agreement, then found a spot on the grass a few feet out of Sasuke's line of fire. In seconds, she was lost to him. No nosebleed. No signs of pain or discomfort. Kushina was simply at peace. Convinced she was okay for the time being, he got back to target practice.

About ten tries later, Sasuke was more confident in his bowmanship. He thought this training would prove pointless at first, but now felt like an idiot for doubting a great shinobi like Kushina. She always seemed to know what he or Naruto needed, even if her way of showing it was sometimes…excessive.

Speaking of Kushina, her chakra had only destabilized once the entire time. On top of that, she got it back under control so fast that intervention wasn't necessary. Whatever was going on in there, it was working out well for her. Sasuke grinned, relieved that he was able to help her the way she and Minato helped him.

When he was certain that his aim without the Sharingan was to his liking, Sasuke switched to another exercise. One he'd meant to try after the water walking training, except that there hadn't been enough time.

He affixed another arrow, this one tagged with a Flying Thunder God seal. He closed his eyes, channeling chakra into the arrowhead. According to Minato, his primary chakra nature was Lightning. Aside from his adoptive father's words and a slip of paper that crumpled in his hand as a child, there was little evidence to back the claim up. Today was the day for Sasuke to find out for himself.

A dull buzzing ran from his fingertips to the rest of his body. He tensed, but stayed focused on his task. Sasuke pulled the bowstring taut, aimed upward to avoid hitting anyone, and-

"Wait!" Kushina blurted out, clawing her way back onto her feet.

Her outburst startled him. He twitched and his finger slipped. The lightning-enhanced arrow blasted skyward. A jolt of electricity shot through the air. The stray arrow was gone in an instant.

Sasuke frowned and turned to face Kushina. "What was that about?"

"Sasuke, it's too soon for you to try something that dangerous, ya know!"

He narrowed his gaze. "Why? I can already do Fire Style jutsu. How is practicing with lightning any different?"

"N-no, not that! I meant running a current of elemental chakra into a weapon. That's too advanced, even for you. You should at least wait until Minato or I are around to supervise. Otherwise, you might-"

"Might what? Shoot off an arrow by accident that could land anywhere or kill someone? Oh dear."

She grunted at his blatant facetiousness. "Sorry. But you know what I mean!"

Sasuke kicked at the dirt. "Well, still. I had it under control."

"I just want you to be safe."

"I know."

Silence reigned until the tension of the moment ebbed away.

"Speaking of control," Kushina said, "I made a lot of progress."

"I noticed. You must've been in there for what, half an hour?"

She cocked an eyebrow, trying to discern if Sasuke was using sarcasm. Her face drained of color. "You're serious."

"Yeah. What's the problem?"

The abject shock on Kushina's face gave way to a bright smile.

"There's no problem!" She hopped several times into the air, grabbing Sasuke's hands and volunteering him as her jumping partner. "Everything's perfect, ya know!"

Sasuke's words came in a medley of tones. He was much too stunned by Kushina's sudden shift in energy to free himself from her grasp. "Why. Are. We. Jumping. Exactly?"

Kushina squealed before settling down so she could answer. "Sorry, sorry. I just - I…I did it! I mean, I knew I did it, but I didn't know it would work so well!"

"What would?"

"The time difference! I felt like I was in there almost a full day. I panicked when I realized I hadn't checked in with you for a while, so I left. But now that I'm here, you're telling me it hasn't even been an hour since I started."

Sasuke nodded, a slow realization creeping into his expression. "Oh. Good job, I think?"

"Oh, definitely!" Starry-eyed, she looked up at the cloud-speckled sky. "With this big of a time difference, I should be able to get my seal under control in a few weeks."

Sunlight spilled onto the training field with unbelievably perfect timing. Her long red hair drank in the sun's rays. Its beauty was so astonishing, even Sasuke couldn't remain stoic. The overwhelming effect of her dazzling hair was matched only by her infectious determination. If anyone could beat the odds and triumph over the trauma from the night of the Nine Tails' abduction, it was this woman.

She turned to him and smiled. "Wasn't there something you wanted to ask me?"

His brain went blank for a second. Fleeting though it was, for a moment the void in Sasuke's heart felt a little less empty. Kushina's inspiring aura of hopefulness blazed a trail in the lives of anyone she crossed paths with, and he was no exception.

"Oh, right," Sasuke said, finding his words. "Could you help me with creating a storage seal for my bow? That way I can move more freely during the combat segments of the exams." He held the bow out in front of him, letting Kushina examine it as he spoke. "I have some ideas, but you're the expert, so I wanted to run them by you."

"I'd be glad to!" she said, jumping for joy. "I love little projects like these."

The hint of fear in her eyes that he saw after her nosebleed was still there, but less so. Her passion for assisting others with sealing techniques outshone her inner demons. Sasuke was glad to help Kushina in some small way. He could never repay all that she or Minato did for him, but he owed it to the two of them to try.

Naruto summoned a small sphere of energy in his palm and thrust it forward. The work-in-progress Rasengan collapsed against the large boulder Jiraiya placed in front of him. He made some headway, but the technique lost its form and dissipated. Disheartened by this, Naruto clenched his fists.

"Almost," he said. "Damn it. I really thought I had it this time!"

Jiraiya peered around the rim of the book he held in one hand, his mouth set in a thoughtful frown. "It's getting there." He went back to reading through the novel. "Keep at it, kid."

"Well, you could stop reading your pervy stories and help me! Why do you even need to read that thing again? Don't you already know everything that happened in it since you wrote it?"

"Sure, but it helps to take a step back and remind myself of the finer details. Otherwise, I can't write an amazing continuation!" He uttered a jagged, unsettling snicker. His teeth gleamed in the afternoon light.

"Yeah, amazingly pervy," the boy said under his breath. He clapped to refocus himself. "Okay!"

The side of the boulder closest to Naruto was peppered with individual spiral-shaped markings. Largest of these blemishes was the most recent impact site. Despite his partial Rasengan's weak constitution, it managed to gouge a crater about an inch deep into the stone surface.

"Here goes nothin'," he said.

Naruto opened his palm and gathered chakra again. He planted his feet for balance, enduring the gradual strain of manifesting a Rasengan. Mastering this jutsu was no simple task, but it was getting easier with every attempt. He noticed the chakra in his hand felt lighter and more evenly dispersed than when he started. Pervy Sage was right. He was getting there, but whenever he came close to perfecting it, he choked! Something was keeping his Rasengan from achieving stability.

He powered through and commanded his Rasengan to settle into the proper form. His muscles tensed and sweat beaded along his forehead. Tiny needles shot through his Rasengan-wielding arm. Knees wobbling, he bit his lip and maintained the necessary stance. Letting out a powerful cry, he smashed the chakra orb into its target. Wild spirals of energy demolished the top of the boulder, grinding a fraction of it to dust. Obeying his unspoken will, the Rasengan resisted implosion for a second longer than usual.

Once his chakra flow petered out, Naruto collapsed against the rock. He panted for what must have been thirty seconds straight. The stone underneath his splayed hand was warm to the touch. In the background, he could hear his teacher laughing at his sorry state.

"Ahahaha, you're something else, Naruto! You were very close that time. Took about a fourth of the boulder out before you ran out of steam."


This was insane. He'd given it everything he had, and still it wasn't anywhere near enough? What was he doing wrong?

The exhausted Uzumaki used the last dregs of his strength to turn his head and look toward Jiraiya. Giving Naruto a firm nod, he declared, "That's fine work. How about we break for now and go get some food?"

Naruto wanted to decline and get back to work. His limp, spasming arm told him otherwise. He needed to let his body rest before he burnt out. If that happened, any chance of training more today would be shot. That wasn't acceptable. He needed to get stronger in time for the exams. Whatever it took, he owed it to himself to become as prepared as possible so he could carry his weight on Team 7. In his battle against Haku, he'd failed and needed saving by both Sasuke and Genma.

I swear, next time will be different! Believe it!

Sakura hugged her legs close to her chest on top of her bed, which sat parallel to the bedroom door. Leaning against the wall for support, she turned all of the information from the past day over in her head. Earlier, after unpacking her things, she'd informed her parents about the news Kakashi-sensei shared with her. Their faces lit up with pride. They were ecstatic, which meant she should feel happy too. Right?

So why don't I?

She buried her face into her arms, letting out a frustrated groan. The Chunin Exams were in less than a month, and she had a choice to make.

"A personal recommendation!" her mother Mebuki said, hopping with excitement. "You might even be the first in our family to make Jonin, sweetheart!" She pulled Sakura into a tight embrace. "Our little girl's going places."

Her husband Kizashi joined the hug, belting out a hearty laugh. "Well done, Sakura!" He turned to Mebuki. "Hey dear, you might even say she's 'blossomed.'"

Mebuki shook her head in disappointment. Sakura rolled her eyes, deciding to allow her dad this one pun without complaint. She didn't want to ruin the moment. Warmth reached her cheeks and she relaxed into the group hug.

Back in the present, she slammed a fist on the bed. She needed to hit something. Her covers would have to do.

I was nominated, and that's great, but there's more to it than that. Do I even want to participate? Should I?

The question nagged at Sakura for the better part of twenty minutes. She ran her hands through her long pink locks, stumped by the dilemma. Academics were easy. Tests had clear paths to the right choice. Real life, not so much. No amount of book smarts could help her here.

There was more than herself to think about. Not even just her parents' certain disappointment in her if she turned down the prestigious offer. Naruto and Sasuke were counting on her, too. What if they went into the exams alone and lost? She couldn't do that to the two of them. They were too pumped about the chance to participate, to test their strength, and perhaps most importantly, to assess how much they'd grown compared to the other Rookie Nine. While the interest in comparing themselves to their peers made sense, Sakura couldn't help but feel left behind in that regard.

Looking back, she really hadn't changed all that much from the day they all made Genin. Sure, she learned tree walking and the fundamentals of Genjutsu, but she felt no stronger now than she had on day one. It wasn't enough. Was one month going to be enough time for her to make any meaningful headway?

"Oh, who am I kidding?" she muttered, letting herself fall sideways and flop onto the bed in the fetal position. She let out a dejected whine.

A knock at her door made her bolt upright. "Hello?"

"It's Dad, honey!"

"Oh." Sakura hurriedly fixed her hair and patted down her dress before saying, "Come in!"

Kizashi Haruno turned the doorknob and let himself in. He had hair that was a duller pink than his daughter's, having lost its once youthful luster. The highest point of his star-shaped hairstyle hit the top of the door frame and dragged along it as he entered. She'd been telling him that haircut was silly all her life, but he stood by it regardless of how inconvenient it was.

"Hey, I just came to congratula—wait, what's wrong?" He crouched low and looked into her eyes.

"What are you talking about, Dad? I'm fine."

He pulled at her cheeks and tilted his head. "Where's that smile? You look like something's troubling you. You're usually such a cheery blossom."

She sighed and threw up a hand. "Okay, Dad. I let you have one, but don't get carried away."

Kizashi chuckled, clamping both hands onto his knees. "Come on, it wasn't half bad!"

"Of course you would think that." She got up from the bed and went to look at herself in the full body mirror by the screen door. Even with the accumulation of clouds outside, there was still ample light filtering in through the blinds.

Sakura did a thorough examination of her features and gasped. Dad was right. Her face was drooping, her eyes looked like she was in a daze, and God. Her hair!

She scrambled to her desk and flung open a drawer. "Where's my brush, where's my brush?!"

"It's okay, Sakura," Kizashi said, touching her on the shoulder. "Appearance isn't everything."

She gently moved his hand. "I know. I know, Dad. But my hair."

He frowned and crossed his arms in silent judgment. Sakura froze, left with no choice but to acknowledge the contradiction between her words and actions. He took her hands in his and smiled down at her.

"It's not the end of the world." Kizashi scooped up a handful of her unruly strands. "Hair is just hair. I care more about your well-being." He smiled. "So tell me, what's on your mind?"

Sakura averted her eyes. She couldn't tell Dad the truth. Learning that she was having doubts about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity would for sure destroy him. No matter what he told her now, she was convinced he wanted her to say yes to Kakashi-sensei. Mom, too. What proud parent wouldn't?

But was she good enough? Knowing a ton of facts was useful on tests, but a month of field experience in The Land of Waves taught her that wasn't enough to cut it as a shinobi. She still had plenty of room to grow.

Meanwhile, Naruto and Sasuke are…

"I-It's nothing, Dad," she lied. "Really. I just need some time to myself to think."

He lifted an eyebrow, unconvinced. For a moment, it seemed like he might press further. However, acceptance found its way onto his face and he dropped his arms to his sides. "Alright. Just know the offer's always open if you want to talk."

She put on a smile. "Yeah, I know. Thanks, Dad."

"Anyway, congratulations, sweetheart." Her father started toward the door. He stopped with his hand against the doorframe, turning back. "Listen, Sakura. I know at your age, you're more concerned with things like your appearance and boys, but you're officially a kunoichi now. I may not have made it past Genin, but I understand the pressures of being an active ninja. So I need you to look after yourself for me, okay? Keep being the amazing young woman you've always been, but remember that it's alright if you're not alright."

He somehow spoke all the right words without knowing anything about what was going on in her head. She may not have given the goofball of a man enough credit. Keeping it together through sheer will, Sakura sucked in tears and nodded. "'Kay, Dad."

Kizashi pulled the door closed and left. The dull pitter-patter of him descending the stairs reassured her that it was safe to breathe now. She stopped fighting it and let her vision swim. Tears streamed down her face.

She was still wiping her eyes when a noise outside made her jump. Mentally conceding another point to her father, Sakura resisted the desire to investigate long enough to scour the room for her hairbrush. When she felt presentable, she approached the screen door. Whatever she heard sounded too loud to have been a bird using her personal balcony as a temporary rest stop; too solid to be a bag flying by on a gust of wind. Both were rare, but not unheard of, occurrences. She considered them more than worth the upside of a personal balcony. At any rate, she could cross two things off of her growing list of possibilities.


A misshapen silhouette popped into view behind the blinds. Squinting, Sakura realized it was actually two shadows close together rather than one. They came complete with two very distinct spiky hairstyles. Her confusion melted away and she strode over to the screen door to open the blinds, almost certain of who she would see.

Sakura's hunch was correct. "Naruto? Sasuke?"

The two boys were in the middle of clambering over the edge of her balcony. Sasuke landed on his feet and stuffed his hands in his pockets. Naruto, by contrast, flopped into a jumbled heap of arms and legs beside him. Sakura took a moment to register that not one, but two Narutos were laid out in front of her. She opened the door with a quizzical expression on her face.

"Ugh," Naruto said, de-summoning his clone. He stood up and waved. "Hey, Sakura."

"Hi…? What are you both doing here?"

"We came to speak with you," Sasuke explained.

Her cheeks flushed at the thought of the two of them coming to see her off-duty. On purpose. "O-oh, I see," she stammered." About what? And why didn't you just use the front door?"

The Uchiha's gaze slanted toward his brother, who was busy getting dirt and leaves out of his hair. "Good question," Sasuke said, his words dry and sarcastic. "Why didn't we, Naruto?"

Tuning back into the conversation, Naruto threw awkward glances at his teammates. He straightened up and cleared his throat. "I just, uh, I've always wanted to sneak in through a friend's window like this. Seemed cool."

Sasuke gave Sakura a flat stare. "Well, there ya have it. I suggested we could just knock, but he went the adventurous route." The black-haired boy turned back to Naruto. "Well? Was it all it's cracked up to be?"

"Well, it was kinda fun I guess. But I think making a clone ladder was a way better idea in my head than in real life."

Sighing, Sasuke flicked his wrist to retract a length of metallic wire he'd used to scale the balcony. "Why are you like this?"

Naruto could only offer a nervous laugh in response.

Sakura's curiosity won out over her surprise at Naruto's antics. She stepped outside, but left the screen door open an inch. "So what's up?"

"Well," Sasuke said, "we thought a team discussion was in order." He looked to Naruto, who nodded and jumped in.

"Yeah! So, ya see, with the Chunin Exams comin' up and everything, we wanted to know…" The blond noticed Sakura looking at the floor and paused. "Sakura?"

"Oh," she muttered, "it's about that, huh?"

Her hair concealed her face, but Sasuke didn't let that stop him. He leaned in to make eye contact. "Have you already thought about this?"

"No — well, I mean, yes. You could say that." Sakura clasped her hands together in front of her. A tingle traveled down the back of her neck. She couldn't keep avoiding this forever.

"And?" Sasuke said.

"Geez, Sasuke," said Naruto. "Don't be so pushy, believe it."

Sakura shook her head. "No, Naruto. It's fine. Thank you though." She took a deep breath, finding the willpower to give her team an answer. "Honestly, I've been having doubts."

"Doubts?" Naruto said.

"Yeah. You see, I don't know if I am ready to enter. I-I just…I know how important this is to the two of you, and you deserve a chance to compete in the exams. I don't want to hold you back. I'd never forgive myself if you missed out on such a great opportunity all because I couldn't hack it as a shinobi."

Naruto's expression grew solemn, but Sasuke nodded and remained stoic. Sakura wasn't sure what to say or do next, or if the silence meant they agreed with her sentiment. Naruto broke the silence first.

"We're a team, Sakura," he said, balling his fists. "If we're gonna make a decision as big as this one, we should do it together. You sound like you're already giving up before we've even discussed it."

Seeing him so hurt struck a chord in Sakura. Words escaped her. She wanted to cry. "I'm sorry, Naruto. I didn't mean to-"

"Actually," Sasuke said, "Sakura has a point."

"What?" Naruto glared at Sasuke. "Hang on a second, Sasuke! What are you talking about? We can't just give up, believe it!"

"It's not giving up. Someone who doesn't really want to be there will just slow us down in the long run." The Uchiha looked Sakura over. "I mean, just think about our last mission."

Naruto grunted, but then unclenched his fists and nodded. "I hate to say it, but I guess you're right. Sakura needs to be able to keep up with us. Even in The Land of Waves, we did most of the work." He threw his pink-haired teammate an apologetic stare that should have crushed her spirit. Instead, gears in her brain started turning and she zoned out. "Sorry, Sakura."

Sasuke shifted from one foot to the other. "Maybe you really should drop out. Listen, Sakura. Neither of us will blame you if you pass on this one. We might be able to find someone to fill your spot." He noticed she hadn't reacted to either of their statements and leaned in. "Sakura?"

Sakura's dejected expression morphed into a subtle smile. Her abrupt mood shift brought with it an uncomfortable atmosphere. The boys flinched, unable to read the situation.

"You know," she said under her breath, "I really thought you'd think higher of me than that, sensei."

Sakura raised an arm and made the appropriate hand sign. She slid her free hand into her ninja tool pouch, thankful that she hadn't taken it off yet. "Release!"

Naruto and Sasuke's forms became wobbly and distorted. They melted away like mist carried by a strong wind, leaving Sakura alone on the balcony. Giving herself a metaphorical pat on the back, Sakura scanned her surroundings. There was no time to waste. Such a weak genjutsu would require the caster to remain close to ensure it stayed active. That meant the next few seconds were critical.

A tall, leafy plant growing up the side of the wall opposite her balcony rustled, drawing her attention. Sakura let a shuriken fly, smirking when the person hidden there revealed themself. They landed on the sidewalk, then turned to face Sakura as she jumped down to confront her foe. A familiar messy ponytail and cut across the bridge of their nose made the person's identity unmistakable. The culprit was none other than Iruka-sensei!

"I knew it," Sakura almost sang. "I was right."

Iruka hung his head in admission of defeat. "Well done, Sakura."

Her brow arched. "But wait, why did you cast a Genjutsu on me in the first place?"

The Chunin laughed, touching a hand to his forehead. "I guess this one's on me for not thinking of a better approach. Dispelling the Genjutsu is one thing, but you found me as well! Even your test scores at the academy pale in comparison to a feat this impressive."

"I knew it was a trap from the start, but I played along while I tried to locate the source of the jutsu. At first, I admit I thought you were after the three of us. But that's when you made your biggest mistake, Iruka-sensei. Naruto and Sasuke may be strong and a little reckless, but they'd never tell me to give up or that I hold the team back. That's when I realized they were fakes."

Clearing his throat, Iruka bowed. "Sakura Haruno, congratulations on your success. You're fit to enter the exams after all."

He disappeared in a burst of smoke before she could respond.

A clone?

Sakura sighed; it was no use. He was gone. Just as she suspected, he'd been holding back till now. He had done this little experiment to monitor her, it seemed.

"Wait…" She pursed her lips in thought. "What did he mean by after all? Was he trying to scare me into giving up?"

A rumbling in her chest left her quaking. Sakura shook her fist in the air, insulted by being underestimated. In that moment, she knew she couldn't go through with quitting now, no matter the odds. Her pride as a kunoichi was at stake!

"Damn it!" she cried. "I'll show you, sensei!"

Her academy instructor's attempt to scare her into backing down had done the opposite. Instead, he had stoked a fire in Sakura. She'd show him just how formidable of a ninja she could be. She'd show everyone! There was still one problem, though.

Sakura sank to the balcony floor and let out a whimper. "How exactly am I gonna do that?"

Naruto and Jiraiya walked along a bridge across from a local hot spring, each holding a blue popsicle that had begun to melt. The duo stayed in effortless lock-step with one another. Naruto smiled to himself, intent on devouring what was left of his dessert. That is, until his godfather's eyes wandered toward the thin walls of the nearby establishment. Jiraiya stared hard at the place, like he was hoping that if he looked long enough, he'd be able to see the scantily clad women inside. Groaning in distaste, Naruto took the popsicle he was eating out of his mouth. He turned to Jiraiya and pressed the freezing treat against his exposed fingertips.

"Yiiiii!" Jiraiya said, his voice an incomprehensible mess. He jumped almost a foot into the air and shrank away from the unexpected shock to his system. "Naruto! What the hell was that for?!"

"For being a pervy old coot, that's what!" Naruto shouted back.

Several heads turned their way — a good number of them belonging to young women — and Jiraiya went pale with embarrassment. A couple of onlookers giggled at the scene, while others sported blank expressions. Jiraiya hoisted Naruto up, clasped one hand over his mouth, and hurried along to avoid extra attention.

"Shhhhh, kid," he muttered as they went. "I told you to stop calling me that in front of people!"

Refusing to be silenced, Naruto bit down on his kidnapper's finger. The toad sage yelped in surprise and dropped his unwilling passenger. The latter gulped down a mouthful of fresh air before continuing to argue. "And I told you we could've taken a shortcut. You said this way was better, but now I see you just wanted to peep again!"

"That's ridiculo-I, wha…" Hands on his hips, Jiraiya leaned in and matched Naruto's petulant glare. "You can't prove that, you brat."

The blond mimicked his teacher's posture and poked out his lip in defiance. "Perv."

"Stop it, Naruto." Jiraiya swiveled in either direction, thankful to find they were alone now.

"Perv. Perv perv per-ervvv!"

"Stop it."


The next thing Naruto knew, he was no longer in the village, or at least, he didn't think so. Fleshy barriers encased him, forming what he thought resembled a long walkway. If he was right, then this was the strangest hallway he'd ever seen. The wall moved. Breathed. Naruto gathered chakra into his hand. Just enough to do the job, but not enough that it was too dense to control. A slick coating of saliva along the walls, floor, and ceiling glistened under the light of the halfway stable Rasengan he formed. Naruto tip-toed along, using its light to show him the way.

Whatever was going on here, it was creepy and he wanted out. Just what had that stupid Pervy Sage done?

"Must be some kind of sealing jutsu," he said. "Wait! I bet I can just…"

Jiraiya was in the middle of dropping his popsicle stick into a trash can when none other than a wet and extremely displeased Naruto Uzumaki blinked into view across from him. The Sannin's shocked expression clashed with Naruto's simmering stare for all but a couple of seconds. Then the Uzumaki wiped his mouth with his sleeve and gave the old geezer a piece of his mind.

"I can't believe you sent me to a place like that. That was dis-gus-ting!"

Jiraiya crossed his arms and put his nose in the air. "I did tell you to stop. Did your time in the Toad's Stomach teach you a lesson?"

"Are ya kiddin' me?" Naruto threw his head back in exasperation. "You really don't care about training me, do you?"

"Of course I do, kid. I just have other stuff to worry about too."

"Like what? When the women's hot springs are open?"

"I've told you many times. It's part of my research."

"Research, smeesearch!" The boy stomped his foot. "I want to go back to training with you right now, believe it!"

"Didn't you already mark the location? You could just keep at it on your own."

"I want you there to watch me in case I get my technique wrong. I learn better by just doing it and feeling my way through, you know? So I don't wanna get used to bad habits that might screw things up for me later."

Jiraiya nodded, a thoughtful twinkle in his eye. "You really have matured some since going on that trip, huh?"

"That makes one of us."

The sage growled. Naruto pointed a finger at him.

"Look, Pervy Sage, if you say you're here to train me, then train me!" The idea of Sasuke surpassing him because Jiraiya was playing around when they were against the clock made Naruto want to scream. "Otherwise, I'll just go work on a different jutsu 'till Dad can teach me the Rasengan himself."

"Stop right there." Jiraiya folded his arms and stood his ground. "I'm the master, and I'm the adult here, which means I make the rules. Not some snot nosed Genin. Take it or leave it, Naruto."

Grasping for solutions, Naruto clenched his fists in a repetitive motion to avoid another outburst. His vexation gave way to a sinister grin that put Jiraiya on guard. The young Uzumaki formed the hand sign for the Shadow Clone jutsu.

"No," Naruto said. "You take it or leave it. Either we go back now and you teach me more, or I make a hundred clones and we all shout about you being such a gigantic perv from the rooftops!"

The self-assured sage froze. Seconds passed while his brain registered the threat and weighed its pros and cons.

Naruto wouldn't really do that, would he?

Oh, right. The runt inherited Kushina's stubbornness. So yes, he absolutely would.

I may be able to capture all of them in time, but I can't afford to mess up. Damn it.

Finding himself at a loss, Jiraiya huffed and made begrudging eye contact with his student.

"You're a pretty weird and annoying kid, you know that?"

Naruto snickered in triumph.

Daylight gave way to an overcast sky as Sasuke lounged on the living room couch. The place was quiet to an unnerving degree, even for him. Although his shoulders still ached from target practice with Kushina, part of him was reluctant to let the momentum die. In the end, Sasuke decided he was satisfied enough with today's progress to allow himself an afternoon break.

He couldn't remember the last time he'd had the house all to himself like this. Once Naruto and Kushina returned, the three of them had all of five minutes together before the pair took off. She announced that she wanted to show Naruto something on the outskirts of the village, then whisked him off on a mysterious adventure. Their seemingly bottomless pits of energy never ceased to amaze the Uchiha boy.

Kushina left Sasuke with a work-in-progress storage seal formula to test out in the meantime. He agreed to let Kushina borrow his bow later, but there was no reason not to get familiar with how the seal worked ahead of time. He would have to use it on the fly during the Exams, after all.

He rubbed the fabric around his wrist and observed the intricate markings Kushina drew. The seal was complex, sure, but not so much that he couldn't follow the logic behind her jutsu formula. Several layers of symbols were overlaid on top of one another at specific intervals to create a reliable interlocking mechanism. She had used surprisingly rudimentary sealing logic, but expanded on it in her own unique way. Without a doubt, this was fine work that oozed skill.

I hope I can get this good someday, Sasuke said to himself.

His bow was where he left it before crashing on the couch — laid against the coffee table in an upright position. He snatched it up, injected the seal with a pulse of chakra, and waited while Kushina's storage mechanism came to life. The ink took on a soft glow and appeared to almost rise from the flat surface. Sasuke pressed his bow against the symbols and watched as it was suctioned into the seal dimension. Other than faint warmth at the site of the jutsu activation and an immediate decrease in weight, nothing of note happened.

"Not bad," he said aloud.

Now there was only one thing left to do.

Sasuke activated the storage seal again. His bow reappeared in a sudden burst of smoke. The weapon looked unchanged from its original condition. He nodded, reassured that the project was a success. Setting his bow down, he sank back onto the couch for a short nap.

Sounds of a struggle outside woke him. He recognized a couple of the voices. Sliding the front door open, Sasuke peeked through while feeling for a kunai in his weapon pouch. What he saw made his blood run cold.

"Don't bother," said the stranger who had a sword pressed against Kakashi's throat. "If you even think about building up your chakra or defying me in any way, they're dead."

Sasuke's hand reluctantly left his pouch as he sized up the hostile stranger. He was a heavyset man with a tented hat that obscured his eyes. The lower half of his face was covered by a mask similar to Kakashi's. He also wore a jumpsuit with a guard around his collarbone and a dark cloak. This strange getup appeared to be crafted from foreign materials. Its muted blacks, purples and grays were unlike anything a Leaf Ninja would wear. One glance at his Rain Village headband confirmed this suspicion.

"You're a Rain ninja?" Sasuke said.

The man responded with a mocking chuckle. "Congratulations kid, you have eyes."

What was someone from that region doing all the way out here, and how had he managed to best someone as strong as Kakashi?

"Wait…" Sasuke stopped short, realizing something was off about this guy's words.

He said if I try anything, 'they're' dead, didn't he?

A lump of tension lodged in Sasuke's throat. He pushed the door open wider and saw confirmation of his fears. Sakura was trapped in a similar predicament as Kakashi. She grunted and clutched feebly at the beefy arm that kept her in a chokehold, but to no avail.

"S-Sasuke," she whimpered. "Help."

"Don't do it, Sasuke," Kakashi wheezed, his words just clear enough to be understood. "No matter what he — agh!" The sword dug into the Jonin's neck, drawing a trickle of blood and shutting him up.

"Stop!" Sasuke growled. He cursed his inability to turn the situation in his favor.

Damn it! I can't even use the Flying Thunder God or my Sharingan. He'd feel a fluctuation in my chakra levels.

"What do you want?" he said at last, accepting that for the time being, he was out of options.

"It's simple. Bring me the Scroll of Seals and I'll let them go."

Deep down, a part of him was relieved not to see Naruto among those captured. Still, Sasuke wasn't about to let Kakashi or Sakura get hurt either. The question remained, though; how could he save them? If he tried to outspeed the enemy and miscalculated, their deaths would be on his hands. Handing the scroll over might save them, or the guy could be lying and planning to kill them either way.

If only Minato were here.

But he wasn't. The streets were quiet apart from the odd civilian, so calling out for backup would be pointless. Besides, a man capable of capturing a high level Jonin and bold enough to threaten the son of The Hokage would have no qualms with adding collateral damage to his list of crimes. Sasuke gritted his teeth.

This is up to me.

He held up both hands in surrender. "Alright. I'll be right back." Sasuke disappeared into the house, making his way to where Minato kept the scroll.

"No!" Kakashi shouted, still trying to break free. "Sasuke, don't-"

"Shut up!" the Rain Ninja said from the other side of the door. "Oh and kid, I'll sense if you try anything!"

Once he was in front of the false wall panel that housed the scroll, Sasuke dropped to one knee. He stared hard at the hiding spot, fighting with himself on whether or not to follow through. There was a good chance the claim about sensing if he tried anything was a bluff to keep him in line. However, was taking a gamble worthwhile? If the Rain Ninja wasn't lying…well, Sasuke didn't want to think about that.

When he returned with the scroll in hand, the enemy ninja chuckled to himself. The clone that held Sakura activated a Paralysis Jutsu and laid her aside before approaching the front door. Kakashi grunted in protest. He was subdued on the ground with one knee against his back. Sasuke assumed he must have put up a fight in the short time it took to fetch the scroll. Head hung in shame, the Uchiha handed over the top-secret treasure trove of Hidden Leaf techniques.

"I'll take that," the man said. "You made the right choice, kid. Honestly, I'm surprised it was this easy. Who knew The Leaf raised a bunch of cowards? Pathetic."

Kakashi stopped fighting and crumpled to the floor. His disappointment was palpable, even without words.

Halfway through a cackle of triumph, the infiltrator noticed his hand was stuck to the scroll. "Huh?" He waved the scroll around, but it refused to separate from him. Upon closer inspection, he spotted a paper bomb attached to its center, along with a modified jutsu formula. "Brat, what the hell did you do?"

Sasuke looked up with a teasing smirk. "I gave you exactly what you asked for." He flipped and delivered a kick to the enemy's chin, sending him several feet backward. Meanwhile, the paper bomb Sasuke adhered to his hand with a little creative sealing jutsu handiwork began to sizzle.

There was no time to waste. Body Flickering to Kakashi's captor, Sasuke smashed a fist into him. The guy burst into smoke, revealing that he wasn't the original. Kakashi got to his feet and looked on in stunned silence while his student worked.

"Ah!" cried the Rain Ninja, who Sasuke made sure to tie up. In seconds, the paper bomb on the scroll would ignite and end him. Fear and pain reflected in his eyes made him feel a lot smaller and less threatening than he had at first. "Get this damn thing off me!" He winced as the paper bomb gave off a loud pop, but a small spark was all that it produced before fizzling out. "Huh?"

"That was a dud," Sasuke explained. "While you were worried about the tag I stuck onto you, I had enough time to save my teammates."

"Heh, how foolish. I have the scroll. What do I need with your comrades anymore?"

"Like I'm going to let a creep like you leave with something so valuable to the village." Chakra poured into his eyes and triggered the Sharingan transformation. "Now that they're safe, there's nothing stopping us from taking you down together!"

The man rolled from side to side in a desperate effort to release himself from the rope binding him. All of a sudden, his entire body went slack and he slipped out of the restraints in the blink of an eye. The Rain Ninja stood up, giving Sasuke a slow clap. In a burst of smoke, he returned to his true form. Academy instructor Iruka Umino smiled back at his student.

"Wonderful job, Sasuke. You've passed this test."

Sasuke frowned. "Test?" He turned to find Kakashi and Sakura fading out of existence. "What's this all about?"

"This hypothetical situation proved that you can put your team's well-being ahead of yourself. You were heavily outclassed, given that the enemy was capable of defeating Kakashi. Still, you didn't give up. The original intent of this exercise was to see if you would put the mission, or in this case the village's safety, first, so I was going to fail you when you brought me the scroll."

Sasuke nodded in silent contemplation. Iruka came closer, placed a hand on his shoulder, and continued.

"But you didn't surrender. You still found a way to fight back and both save your team and protect the village's secrets." The teacher laughed and wiped sweat from his forehead. "I was sure I'd thought of everything, but you found a third option outside of the constraints I gave you. Excellent work. You may not have gone about this the way I intended, but you handled it like a true shinobi."

Sasuke took a long breath. "Thanks. By the way, I'm curious. Why did you use Kakashi-sensei and Sakura to trick me, but not Naruto?"

Iruka laughed. "That's because I already know you have an attachment to Naruto. You two have a history together. Kakashi and Sakura are another story. I needed to see if you were forming a strong bond with your other teammates or not, and how that connection stacked up against your loyalty to the village."

"Lucky for you, then," Sasuke said with a smirk, "because Naruto's out of the house with Lady Kushina right now. I'd have known right away."

Iruka chuckled and rubbed the back of his head. "Lucky me indeed. Oh! Speaking of Naruto, where did you say he went?"

The question was met with a weak shrug. "No idea. Somewhere on the outskirts of the village."

"I see. Thanks, Sasuke. Keep up the good work."

Sasuke was just about to reply when Iruka zipped out of sight. He seemed in quite a hurry out of nowhere. Shrugging, the prospective Chunin decided he didn't care enough and walked back into the house. He had a date with the couch.

Naruto was smiling the entire time his mother led them to a secret destination. A long day of training had left him feeling energized, and a nice walk was a great way to burn off his excess energy. He was so wrapped up in his excitement over whatever surprise she had waiting for him that he almost forgot to ask the question that begged for an answer.

"So uh, Mom?" he said at last.

"What is it, sweetheart?"

"Why are we coming all the way out here?"

Kushina smiled over her shoulder. "Sorry, but you'll have to wait and see, ya know. I've wanted to show this to you since you were very little."

"Why didn't you?"

"It just never felt like the right time. I even thought about mentioning it after you passed the academy exam, but then you were sent on the Land of Waves mission."

Her words didn't help him feel any less obsessed with knowing the reason for this trip. Naruto wanted to press her for details, but he held it in. If he was going to become a Chunin soon, then that meant the time for acting like a whiny kid was over. He needed to stay focused and learn to control himself. Dad didn't select shinobi for promotions if they were emotional enough that they could cause missions to fail. Naruto had heard his parents discussing the results of past exams enough times to know that much. He had every intention of making Chunin, and was ready to do what it took to get there.

"You've been quiet," Kushina said as they stopped in front of a massive shrine.

"Just thinkin', Ma." Naruto took in a full view of the temple with widened eyes. "This place is huge! How the heck have I never seen it before?"

Naruto's question was rhetorical, of course. The building was hidden from view by a natural grove of tall trees, making it impossible to see without making the trek out here. Sturdy beams provided a several foot high foundation for the exquisite structure. Stone steps led to a paved path that wrapped around the trees, connecting the otherwise isolated location to the main road into the village.

His overly secretive guide winked. "Your mother isn't all washed up just yet! I still have a few surprises up my sleeve."

Naruto continued to gape at the large wooden structure. The overhang of its eye-catching entrance was decorated with a large Uzumaki Clan crest. Kushina gave him a playful nudge.

"See something you recognize?" she said.

"W-what is this place, Mom?"

"It's a sacred shrine that's belonged to our family since the time of Mito Uzumaki."

"What?! You mean The First Hokage's wife?"

"Yup! Oh, and wanna know the coolest part?"

He gave her a vigorous nod.

"Lady Mito left the care of this place to me as one of the last Uzumaki in the village before she died."

"Wow! That's awesome, believe it!"

"It is, but Naruto, I want you to understand something. This place isn't here for show, ya know. It's a historical symbol that represents the alliance between our people and The Hidden Leaf across generations. Several important artifacts are stored here."

"Really? What kind of artifacts?"

"That's what we're here to talk about. I'm going to teach you all about the things preserved in this shrine so you can carry the knowledge and memory of our ancestors with you. This place is a part of who you are, Naruto. I thought you deserved to know about all of this now that you're a ninja."

The blond boy nodded in slow contemplation of her words. "So what exactly am I supposed to, uh, do? Didn't you say Grandma Mito left this place to you? That means it falls to me next, right?"

"Not just yet!" She wagged a cautionary finger. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves. It's still under my watch until you're older, ya know. Today, we're here for a totally different reason."

Without another word, Kushina ascended the steps. Naruto grinned and followed after her, eager to learn about this obscure remnant of his culture.

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