Life Without Kurama @axleboost
Chapter 7

7 - Boys on the Battlefield

Wall mounted candles illuminated the way through a network of underground tunnels. Danzo strolled along, trailing behind the man whose hospitality, as much as he hated to admit it, was to thank for his not being dead right now. The air swelled with dust particles, making breathing a conscious effort. A quick glance to either side reminded Danzo of the silent, watchful entourage Orochimaru assigned to him. Closest to him was the slim figure and muted gray hair of Kabuto Yakushi. Once a trusted and exceptional Anbu operative, he was plucked fresh from The Leaf's Yakushi Orphanage by Danzo himself. Then there were four other guards he'd never seen before. One was a man with two heads, and the other had six arms. A redheaded woman and a larger man with a sparse amount of hair flanked Danzo on the right. Strange sights, the four of them were. If Danzo were honest, given that he was in a hideout organized by Orochimaru, this was probably nothing compared to the worst the place had to offer.

The weight of young Kabuto's eyes on him reminded Danzo how tenuous the current agreement was. Even so, he couldn't help but laugh; it was a dry, lifeless chuckle that echoed through the cavernous corridor. His escorts' footsteps ceased, and he could tell without looking that they had their guards up. Hairs raised on the back of Danzo's neck. He quieted the urge to reach for his concealed ninja tools.

"What's so amusing?" Kabuto asked, repositioning a pair of black framed glasses. His voice was syrupy, almost mocking in its calmness. There was a confidence in him Danzo had never seen during his early days as an Anbu agent.

Unfazed, he met the smug subordinate's gaze with a thin-lipped smirk. "Oh, I was only thinking about how ironic this all is."

"All of what?"

"Kabuto, look at us. Both former citizens of The Leaf. Both hiding like dogs in the same snake-infested den...but in your case, you seem right at home being Orochimaru's lap dog." Danzo found immense pleasure in watching Kabuto's brow wrinkle in annoyance.

Orochimaru raised a hand, drawing everyone's attention. The usual sly undertone in his voice made an unwelcome return. "Now, now, Danzo. Kabuto has proven to be a loyal subject of mine, just like he once was to the Anbu. Don't antagonize him. If you two end up in a fight, you'll be amazed at how far he's come as a ninja. I guarantee it."

Scoffing at the threat, Danzo rubbed the sleeve of his bound arm and muttered, "A boy like that, measuring up to me? Nonsense."

They walked along, tensions high, for about another minute. Each of the uniformly designed wooden doors they passed bore no engravings, name tags or symbols of any kind. How could Orochimaru possibly know his way around this place?

At last, they reached a room at the end of the hall. The door was ajar, providing a clear view of a spacious bedroom. A bed with a headboard composed of mirrored snake heads, a single chair, and a dresser adorned one side of the room. The other was bare, save for a tall candle holder providing just enough light.

"Here we are, Danzo. This will be your room while you're staying with us." Orochimaru motioned with a hand, stepping aside.

Danzo huffed, declining the invitation to enter with a gesture. "It will do. Are you ready for the unsealing now?"

The Sannin examined the markings on both of his guest's arms with a detached curiosity befitting a scientist. His slit-like eyes traveled from the seal markings to Danzo's tapping foot and back again.

"In due time. First of all, I'll need something from you." The pale man let off a bone-rattling chuckle.

A heavy groan reverberated down the hall as Danzo waited to hear what he suspected was coming all along. "Alright, out with it. What's the catch, Orochimaru?"

Their conversation was put on pause by the arrival of a handful of Anbu Root members, still donning their standard issue white masks. Chief among them were Danzo's youngest agents, Fu Yamanaka and Torune Aburame. They knelt in front of him, followed by the lesser followers at the rear of the formation, and removed their masks. Fu's ginger hair was tied in a neat ponytail atop his head. Torune bore a second, more unconventional slate gray mask underneath his Anbu one. It concealed the top half of his face and was equipped with two circular lenses. Although still in training, both boys were skilled beyond their years.

"Fū, Torune," Danzo acknowledged with a nod. "Any sightings?"

"No, sir," Fu said. "We secured the perimeter as you ordered. No search parties have found us."

"And if they do," Torune added, "my jutsu should handle any intruders."

"Good," Danzo said. He turned back to his host. "Now we are ready to-"

"Danzo," Orochimaru said, "hold on. We should make absolutely certain you weren't followed. Take these four along just in case."

"But Lord Orochimaru," the redheaded woman objected, stepping in her leader's direction, "we can't leave you alone with him!"

The Sannin chuckled again. "Don't worry, my dear Tayuya. I'll have Kabuto by my side. Now go on. We have much to discuss. Don't we, Danzo?" His sly stare earned a miffed grunt from his guest.

"Yes," Danzo seethed. Keeping his emotions lidded took all the willpower in the world. He remembered his subordinates, who were still kneeling as they awaited orders. "Go back out there and keep watch. Divert anyone you encounter off of the trail of this hideout, no matter what it takes. Stay spread out, stay hidden. Understood?"

A chorus of voices responded, "Yes, sir!"

Fu and Torune donned their disguises once more. The group of followers, including Orochimaru's four servants, formed synchronized hand signs.

"Everyone!" Danzo interrupted, "don't forget that if you're hit with a Flying Thunder God Seal, you are to end your lives. Under no circumstances do you return to this location!"

The odds that the Hokage would come along on the mission to find him were slim, but it couldn't hurt to be thorough. Everyone nodded, and the four guards and Danzo's Anbu detail vanished in a spectacular burst of smoke. After they were gone, he said, "Can we please get on with this already?"

"Of course." Orochimaru smirked. "As you may have already guessed, my plans primarily concern The Leaf."

Danzo blew out a breath, none too surprised.

"I will need to build up a more powerful force in order for what I have in mind to be successful. That's where you come in."

"Is that so? What exactly do you have in mind, then?"

"It involves both of the former Hokage." A glint appeared in Orochimaru's eyes. "As a condition of using my hideout to evade capture, I want you to help me defeat them, and crush The Hidden Leaf." He licked his lips, and his face twisted into a demented smile.

Danzo ground his teeth, maintaining eye contact. There was a crispness in the air as the two men assessed one another.

"The Sound is but a fledgling village at the moment," Orochimaru went on, dismissing his shrewd guest's glare. "But we will indeed make our move. When that time comes, Danzo, you'll be key to my plans."

"And what makes you think I would agree to something like this?"

Tracking a blur of movement, Danzo shifted in time to parry an outstretched arm that sliced through the air, buzzing with dense chakra. He followed the glowing hand back to its source: the young man named Kabuto. His steadfast gaze held a quiet intelligence that had shone through even in his days of piteous orphanhood. The naive innocence that once graced those eyes was long gone - no doubt snuffed out by his experiences as a spy for the Anbu. Kabuto had become what Danzo always believed he could; he was an efficient killing machine. Under any other circumstances, the Leaf elder might have been impressed.

"I highly suggest you think twice before raising a hand to me, boy," Danzo growled, shoving Kabuto away only to discover he'd interlocked his other arm in an attempt at a grapple. Neither gave an inch, and they stood in a static pose for several seconds that passed like hours.

Kabuto sneered. "I sensed your intent to harm Lord Orochimaru. I won't allow that."

Danzo swept Kabuto's legs, forcing him to loosen his hold and flip backward. The young man took care to check that his glasses weren't askew once he was back on his feet. Orochimaru watched the interaction in amused silence.

"I was planning no such thing," Danzo said, giving the irksome lackey a healthy dose of side eye. "I simply don't care for this arrangement."

"I thought you might say that," Orochimaru admitted, throwing up his hands. "That's why I came up with a contingency plan. I have terms that might make you more...agreeable. If you'll follow me?" He led the way down a branching hallway with a crooked smile on his face.

Wind whistled past as Yamato soared through the air, gliding from one impossibly thick tree branch to another. He alighted and placed a hand against the trunk beside him, closing his eyes. Not long afterward, he heard the rustle of leaves above him.

"Yugao," he acknowledged without looking up.

"Anything yet?" she asked in as quiet a voice as possible.

He shook his head. "Not here, but I think my Wood Clone found something up ahead."

"Then let's go check it o-" Yugao dove sideways as she cried, "Watch out!"

Yamato sensed the threat half a second earlier than Yugao's warning reached his ears. He flipped forward, diverting some chakra to his feet to adhere them to the underside of the tree branch. A barrage of kunai embedded itself in the wood where his hand was a moment prior.

Yugao crouched on a branch beside him, her sword drawn and sharp as ever. She deflected another volley of projectiles with a single stroke of her blade, which left a trail of faded afterimages. Scanning the area, Yamato spotted several figures lurking in the surrounding forest. They zipped from one area to the next, staying just out of reach of the sunlight spilling into a nearby canopy.


Even from this distance, he recognized their distinctive Anbu uniforms and armguards. The accompanying white masks caught and reflected light filtering in through the trees, giving away their locations.

They really should've thought this through better.

Yamato weaved hand signs and placed a palm against the wood at his feet. A second Wood Clone rose from within the stagnant bark and solidified. The replica nodded in understanding of its purpose, then darted into the fray.

"Yugao, go!" he shouted. "The other me will draw their attention."

"Right!" Her long purple hair floated with grace as she dashed forward, gaining on the clone. Yugao shimmered and was gone in an instant.

Trusting her to get the job done, Yamato redirected his attention to the clone he sent to scout ahead. He hurried in its direction, sensing a disturbance in its chakra. Hopefully he wasn't too late. Faint cries of pain somewhere behind him brought a relieved sigh to his lips. Yugao must have dispatched her enemies as expected.

A speck in the distance grew as he approached. In no time, Yamato arrived in front of yet another Anbu traitor. Try as he might, Fu of the Yamanaka Clan couldn't hide the fiery orange hair peeking over the rim of his mask. The teen loomed above the motionless corpse of Yamato's Wood Clone, which hung limply on the branch of a tree. Shuriken were scattered across the surface of the clone's tattered uniform. The false body burst into a cloud of smoke.

"Stop!" Yamato ordered, getting into a stance with one palm open. "Don't move another inch, Fu."

The rogue ninja blinked, readying a handful of shuriken. "It's no surprise The Fourth sent you."

"Why would you take Danzo's side on this? You'll only die for nothing."

"As a member of Root, my only allegiance is to Lord Danzo." Fu's tone was tinged with hostility. "There was a time when you understood that too, Yamato."

Seeing someone so young who was already warped by Danzo's teachings hurt deeper than words could describe. Ex-Anbu traitor or not, Yamato didn't want to hurt a child. Especially one he saw so much of his former self in.

"Please stop and think!" Yamato braced his outstretched arm with his free hand. Gulping back reluctance, he channeled chakra. "We don't have to do this. We're comrades! That hasn't changed."

The boy shook his head and uttered an empty laugh. "Everything has changed." He flung the shuriken at Yamato, using the distraction to flee.

A wooden beam extended from Yamato's palm and stretched across the distance between the two ninja. Smaller outcroppings of wood sprang from it and deflected the incoming shuriken. Inches from Fu's collar, the tip of the beam reshaped into a hand that grasped for its target.

A moment before the technique made contact, Fu leaned to one side. His mask was knocked off, but he unsheathed a tanto imbued with chakra and sliced the hand off at the wrist. Fu hopped from one tree to another, wasting no time in his escape. The wooden beam receded into Yamato's hand and he gave chase, stringing together the signs for his next jutsu. Large, adjacent wooden pillars rose around the young man and his pursuer. The pillars twisted together, converging at a peak atop the trees. Yamato landed on a sturdy branch and wiped his brow.

Capture successful.

It wasn't long before he realized he'd spoken too soon.

A creeping mass of darkness ate away at the side of the wood prison closest to Fu. Light peeked through, revealing a masked ninja on the outside of the barrier. Once the hole was big enough for his body to fit through, the Yamanaka leapt to freedom. Yamato deconstructed the dome and followed, preparing to use another jutsu. However, he paused when he noticed Yugao gliding overhead.

"Yamato!" she called out. "The other squad members are almost here. Let's hurry and deal with these two."

Yamato and Yugao struck an enemy each. Yugao crossed blades with Fu in midair, while Yamato melded with a tree and traveled through the underground network of roots to surprise the second Anbu. He emerged from a branch in front of his foe, transforming one hand into a spike. He thrust it forward, aiming for their center mass. The enemy sensed him and turned away from observing Fu just in time to backflip. Still, he caught the edge of their mask, cracking it, and gouged out a sliver of their chin.

The injured operative landed on a nearby branch and wiped the blood from his face. Staring back at Yamato was none other than Fu's partner, Torune of the Aburame Clan.

Yamato deflated, his resolve in shambles at the sight of the injured teen. "You, too?"

Saying nothing, Torune extended both arms. He emitted a wide spray of purple mist from both sleeves.

"Yugao," Yamato called out in with urgency, "get some distance!" The tree where he stood disintegrated an instant after he dodged out of the way.

Torune's highly lethal swarms of insects were no secret among the Anbu. Even at so young an age, the Aburame boy made a name for himself as wielder of one of the deadliest jutsu in The Hidden Leaf. If those bugs touched any of their team, it would mean certain death. Only Torune possessed the antidote.

Yugao parried a blow from Fu. Her well aimed kick rocketed him toward a tree. He crashed against it with a dull thud and dropped to one knee. Then she Body Flickered past him and retreated alongside Yamato.

Both Anbu tore through the forest, using small bursts of chakra to power every leap. Branches cracked under the pressure of their landings, but they pressed on. A quick glance over the shoulder revealed they'd put considerable distance between themselves and their former allies. However, their lightning fast jumps stopped short when they fell right into the enemy's trap. One of several giant spiderwebs absorbed their impact and snapped back into place, leaving them suspended in midair.

"Damn it," Yugao said, writhing, "they lured us this way on purpose!" She strained to peel her face away from the webs, eyeing her outstretched sword-wielding hand. Attempts to maintain a firm grip on her blade, which had also become trapped in the web, bore no fruit.

Yamato grunted, having just as little luck escaping the trap.

If only my fingers weren't stuck to this thing!

He watched in panicked frustration while four unknown individuals took up positions around the minefield of webs. There was something odd about each of their appearances.

Fu and Torune landed next to them, examining their captured prey with expressionless gazes. One of the new arrivals, a man with two heads and shoulder length gray hair, snickered at their predicament with his dominant head. The other remained silent.

"Is this all The Hidden Leaf has to offer?" he teased.

"Should we kill them?" asked the most imposing of the four, a large man with a perpetual serious stare.

"Of course we should, fatass," snapped a redheaded woman. "Don't be stupid!"

"Tayuya," the man replied, "girls shouldn't talk that w-"

"Shut the hell up!" She bristled, melting his intent to admonish her with a stare.

Several more ninja, all wearing a uniform Yamato didn't recognize, gathered around the spiderweb trap.

"Let's bring their bodies to Lord Orochimaru," the last of the four, a man with six arms, suggested. "He'll want to dissect and study them."

Yamato grimaced at the mention of that name.


He'd been that monster's test subject once before, and had no intention of ending up on his operating table again. Worse still, what would Orochimaru do to someone like Yugao, who had no unique genetic abilities for him to exploit? The obvious answer made his stomach turn. If only for her sake, he needed to get them out of this. He put all of his might into pulling against the thread, but it was infused with chakra that strengthened its adhesive properties. His arms fell slack and he smacked face first against the spiderweb, defeated.

A fierce chirping cut through the tension, along with the network of webs. Kakashi of the sharingan swooped in wielding his signature Lightning Blade and sliced through several layers of the sticky substance like a knife through butter, freeing his comrades. Genma, Iwashi, Raido, and Yugao's lover, Hayate Gekko, darted onto the scene. Hayate caught Yugao and Yamato as they fell, while the others drove the enemy ninja back. Yugao and Yamato rested by their allies' side, taking a moment to catch their breaths. Kakashi's gang of ninja hounds was last to arrive.

"Don't let the webs touch you!" Yamato warned, sitting up and watching as his allies engaged the enemy.

Metal clanged against metal, explosions rang out, and smoke filled the air as the opposing forces clashed in a frenzy of battles. Attacks came from all directions. What began as majority hand to hand fighting escalated to impressive displays of elemental techniques, creating a low visibility zone.

Kakashi dodged and ducked, expertly following the movements of two of the individuals from Orochimaru's faction. He flipped to evade a burst of sound from one of his combatants that was powerful enough to shatter a rock. Then he pushed off of the side of a tree, aiming to land a punch on the man with multiple arms. His target caught the incoming fist, only to gasp as Kakashi was revealed to be nothing more than a Lightning Clone. Sparks danced across the body of the man. He cried out in agony and plummeted toward the forest floor.

Capitalizing on the opportunity to strike, Yugao freefell toward the enemy. She drew her sword and swung straight for his exposed neck. If not for Hayate's warning, she would never have noticed the paper bomb trap awaiting her on the ground. The six-armed man opened his eyes and caught her blade with a devious grin, directing their descent toward the igniting slip of paper.

"Yugao, look out!" Hayate shouted, closing in behind her. He sliced the enemy's tendons, yanked his beloved away and spun with her as the explosion went off, sending them flying.

"Yugao! Hayate!" Yamato cried. He concentrated chakra and created a platform to break their fall, then turned back to observe the others.

A quick survey of the scene made it clear things were not going their way. Genma, Iwashi, and Raido were in heated combat with one of the four Orochimaru minions, along with a dozen other identically dressed foes. Kakashi, who made headway against the enemies at first, found himself on the run after Torune unleashed his parasitic insects again. They coated the forest floor and reduced a couple of unlucky Leaf Chunin standing on a low branch to desiccated corpses. The flood of insects rose like the ocean, missing Kakashi by an inch as he dashed to safety. Left with no other choice, he de-summoned his tracking dogs and focused on his own survival.

Yamato roused Hayate and Yugao, relaying that they needed to give up on Danzo and escape. Yugao's eyes fluttered open, filling with tears when she saw Hayate clutching his bloody shoulder. Crimson droplets rolled down her lover's sleeve. The flow was only stemmed by the makibishi spikes lodged in his upper arm.

"They used shrapnel," Hayate spat, wincing through the pain. "My's no good."

"I've got you," Yugao said. Ignoring his protest, she scooped him into her arms and took off alongside Yamato.

Looking back, they watched in horror as a third party member was wiped out, reduced to paste by a chakra-fueled punch from the largest of the four newcomers. His skin was covered with a design of some kind. Black lines traveled along his face and arm like a tattoo, but Yamato knew better. This was one of Orochimaru's curse marks. He saw the other three enemies take on similar appearances, preparing to converge on Kakashi.

Yamato conjured an earthen wall, providing enough cover for those who survived to make their escape. Kakashi and Minato's guards sped up, with bugs blanketing every tree, shrub, and rock in their wake. Just when all hope seemed lost, the tidal wave petered out. Yamato looked on with sadness as Fu and Torune stared at him from beyond the swath of insect-ravaged forest, not a shred of remorse in their expressions.

Naruto couldn't believe it had been seven years since he met the girl walking alongside him. Her eyes, which were a solid, pale lavender, no longer struck him as odd. He no longer cringed when he saw veins protrude from her face as she used her clan's special ability. Hinata Hyuuga slowed down when she noticed Naruto staring at her.

"Hm?" she asked, turning toward him with a smile. "What is it, Naruto?"

"Oh! Sorry." He looked ahead, not having realized he made his daydreaming so obvious. "I was just thinkin'."

"About what?" Her tone was a touch stronger than usual. Inquisitive, but not pushy. Even this was a major step up from the timid Hinata he met on that day.

Naruto came to a stop next to a tall tree growing at the edge of the path to the Hyuuga Manor. Its thick, gnarled branches twisted and splayed in an artful collage of wood and leaves. The large roots that gave the tree life had grown into the path's side wall, unwilling to be restrained by artificial borders. He couldn't help but admire the old marvel of nature.

"About us." Naruto nodded toward the tree. "This is the exact spot where we met. Don't you remember?"

She stood next to him, leaving room for others to pass. "O-of course I do."

"Feels just like yesterday," Naruto said, exhaling and staring up at the clouds. "'Cept I don't think this tree was there back then."

Hinata shook her head. "No, it wasn't. Mother had a few of these planted right around the time Lord Fourth started negotiations with us."

He snorted, reflecting on Hinata's words. Of course, by "us" she meant her father Hiashi, not the Hyuuga clan as a whole. She was just trying to make it sound more like the group effort they both knew it wasn't.

Hiashi Hyuuga. Naruto didn't like the guy all that much, or the way he treated his own daughter, Naruto's best friend. Why his dad was so dead set on meeting with Hinata's dad to discuss the future of the Hyuuga Clan was a complete mystery. The man was so bullheaded that Naruto couldn't see any chance of Minato getting through to Hiashi, or at bare minimum, making him stop branding his own relatives. Main and branch families aside, the tradition was sickening in Naruto's opinion. When he became Hokage, it would be the first thing he changed.

Naruto snapped back to reality and caught himself scowling at nothing. Hinata shot him a knowing look.

"He seems to be changing, you know."

An aura of doubt oozed from his every pore, eliminating the need for words.

"I mean it, Naruto," she said, making a wide gesture. "He doesn't scold or ignore me as much anymore. I think your dad may have something to do with it."

"Huh?" Naruto balked. "Whadda ya mean?"

"I think that m-maybe…" Hinata looked at the pavement. "I think Lord Fourth has softened him."

Naruto tilted his head, not believing his ears. However, there was no way Hinata would lie to him. "Oh. Well, great! I think?"

Hinata stifled a giggle. "I'm glad our parents can get along so well. I'm glad we're...friends, too." She blushed, turning away so that half of her face was visible.

"Me too." Naruto flipped her a thumbs up, smiling broadly, and put an arm around her shoulder. "I bet you and I are gonna be on the same team when we leave the academy! Don't you, Hinata? Wouldn't that be great?"

He marched along the path with unnecessary fervor, swaying side to side and pulling Hinata along with him. Her muffled voice of agreement was drowned out by his impassioned chanting that drew attention their way. Hinata shriveled a bit in Naruto's grasp. Her awkwardness in public had diminished, but there were still remnants. Not for long, though. Becoming a full-fledged ninja and going on missions with him would train that out of her!

In the heart of the village, Naruto strolled along with his hands behind his back. Hinata disappeared from the corner of his eye. He turned in search of her and, finding her a couple of paces behind him, sighed with relief.

"Hinata? What's wrong?"

"Naruto, we just ate large bowls of ramen. Two, in your case. Aren't you feeling at least a little sluggish?"

Naruto raised a brow, then patted his signature orange jumpsuit. The bright fabric conformed around his bloated stomach. This was nothing he hadn't seen before, so he shrugged.

"Nah. I do this all the time! You know I love Ichiraku." Naruto gave Hinata a wide smile, showing his teeth.

"Oh," she said, nodding, "r-right."

"Anyway, let's walk this food off and then go do some training. It'll be late before we know it!"

Naruto forged ahead, this time slowing down to allow Hinata to move at a speed more comfortable for her. They weaved their way through the busy streets of The Leaf Village, overlooked by the looming stone faces of its current and former leaders. Per usual, their presence turned a few heads. Such was to be expected of the children of a village leader and a clan head. They were accustomed to the attention and ignored it with ease.

A calming breeze blew, delighting a young girl Naruto and Hinata passed when her handheld pinwheel picked up speed. Sunlight beamed down, bathing the area in a golden glow. Naruto shielded his eyes from the sun as he observed the rightmost face of the Hokage Monument; the one representing his father. He grinned.

I can't wait to become like you, Dad!

Sasuke was sitting on the couch adjusting his cloth leg wrappings when Naruto stumbled through the door. He and Hinata were in the middle of a deep discussion about which method of cooking ramen yielded the best results, but Naruto paused at the sight of Sasuke. Hinata closed the door behind her and stood with her hands behind her back as the boys locked eyes.

"Oh," Naruto said, "Sasuke! You're home."

Sasuke craned his neck in confusion. "Yeah. Why wouldn't I be?"

"Whatever, smarty-pants!" Naruto said, glowering at him. "Look, I just came to get my-"

"Your shuriken holster?" Sasuke questioned. He lifted the pouch Naruto sought from the seat cushion beside him and tossed it across the room. "I was about to bring it to you."

Naruto caught it out of the air and secured it to his waist. "Uh, yeah. Thanks."

"I noticed you left it in our room and I figured you'd be at your usual spot. After all, you said you were going to train with Hinata today."

"Wow. I'm surprised you were actually listening to me," Naruto admitted.

"Of course I was, idiot." The insult lacked bite, but Sasuke smirked nonetheless, seeing Naruto's cheeks flare in irritation. He gave Hinata a quick nod. "Hey."

Hinata flinched for a moment, then bowed. "G-good morning, Sasuke!"

"Alright, alright," Naruto said. "Now that that's settled…" He walked over to Sasuke's side of the couch. "Are you coming with us?"

Sasuke huffed. "Pass."

"Pass?" Naruto echoed, his face contorting in offense. Sasuke didn't look at him.

"You heard right. I'm off to work on my Fireball Jutsu."

"Wha-" Naruto splayed his arms. "Why can't you do that with us, silly?"

"I could, but I'd rather not have you slowing me down." Sasuke continued adjusting his leg wrappings while Naruto simmered. "After all, the academy graduation test is soon. I need to be at my best."

"Well, I don't care how much training you do or how good you are in a fight. When it comes to manners, you're the worst!" Naruto shook his fist at his indifferent brother.

"Oh, get over it," Sasuke spat. "Besides, it's not like you two have any long range attacks to help me test my fireballs' strength against. If I used one at that spot where you like to train, I'd probably burn down the forest."

His arms crossed in a defiant gesture, Naruto could only nod in grudging defeat. While Sasuke may not have made his point in the nicest way, the logic was sound. "Good point, I guess."

Hinata shook her head and smiled at the siblings' banter. "Come on, Naruto. Let's go."

"Yeah, I'm comin'," Naruto groaned. "Wait a sec." He turned to Sasuke. "Have you seen Mom and Dad at all?"

Sasuke hopped to his feet and nodded. "Minato had to go in earlier than usual. He jumped to the seal in his office pretty much right after breakfast. Kushina left an hour ago to fix some weak seals her students made."

"Oh. Alright. Well, we're off!" Naruto said with a smile. "See ya later, brother."

"I'm not ever calling you that," Sasuke declared to Naruto's back, but Naruto wasn't convinced. He could hear the smile in his adoptive sibling's voice.

"You got this, Hinata! Believe it!"

Naruto stood in front of Hinata, taking a wide stance as he waited for her to recover. She rose from the dew-swept grass, spat out dirt, and struggled to her feet.

"Naruto, don't you think that's enough?" she asked.

"One more time!" he replied, a hopeful smile on his face.

"Okay…" Hinata's reluctant frown gave way to quiet determination. She closed her eyes for a few seconds and they transformed. The veins around both eyes protruded, producing a spiderweb effect across the skin on both sides of her face. "Byakugan!" she shouted, zeroing in on Naruto.

Naruto grinned, formed a hand sign, and reached into himself to access his reserves of chakra. Two dull 'poofs' sounded and copies of himself appeared on either side of him, shrouded in smoke. The air cleared and Hinata faced the three Narutos down.

"Here I go!"

Hinata took a deep breath and assumed a wide battle stance, one palm out in front of the other. She assessed her opponents, then charged in, going for a low strike that the middle Naruto avoided with little effort.

"Over here!" teased one Naruto.

"Here I am, Hinata!" said another.

"Can't catch me!" The third stuck his tongue out at her.

Hinata whirled around toward the closest Naruto at an astonishing speed, her dark blue hair shifting in a graceful arc. She lashed out again, striking the air just shy of her target's ribs. Her chakra warped the air around her fingers, then seemed to dissipate with no effect.

"Hehe!" said the Naruto she'd been trying to hit, "thought ya had me there, didn't y-" He grunted and clutched his side. "What the…?"

The injured Naruto poofed out of existence, and Hinata smiled in triumph. Unknown to Hinata, Naruto was filled with a surge of pride. She'd managed to hit him at last!

"One down," she said, eyeing the remaining Narutos.

"Not bad," one of them conceded, "but you still haven't figured out which one of us is the real deal!"

"Here I come again, Naruto!" Hinata said before pumping her feet off of the ground, putting herself on a collision course with the duplicates. Both versions of Naruto met her head on, eager for another round.

The sun was starting to set as Naruto and Hinata entered the Hyuuga Manor. They passed under the familiar archway just beyond the main entrance, and in no time, they were stepping over the threshold leading into Hinata's gigantic home. The layout consisted of an elaborate network of large, open rooms crafted from polished wood and separated by paper dividers. Naruto looked around in awe. He had come here many times before, but the grand scale of the place never lost its appeal. That is, until he remembered the two people who also lived here.

One of these undesirables entered the main room from a side door. He scrunched his face up in confusion at the sight of their tattered clothes and weary expressions.

"Lady Hinata? Naruto?" Neji said. His expression hardened. "What's happened?"

"We were just training, Neji." Hinata panted, nursing her sore forearm. "There's nothing to worry about."

"Are you certain?" Neji gave Naruto a once over.

"Yes, really." She meekly shielded her guest with her good arm. "I wasn't seriously hurt."

"Still uptight as ever, huh, Neji?" Naruto met Hinata's cousin's gaze.

While Neji never outright disrespected him, he did seem to resent Hinata, for reasons Naruto never quite understood. That was all Naruto needed to know to consider him an enemy. Over time, Neji must have picked up on these feelings, because he started mirroring them in subtle ways. When Naruto would visit for dinner, Neji would put on passive aggressive airs. Once or twice, it had earned him a splitting headache when Hiashi activated the curse mark on his forehead due to him "going too far." If Minato brought Naruto by for high level meetings, Neji would glare at the Hokage's son as he was allowed into spaces forbidden to all except those from the main branch of the family. Of course, Naruto's tendency to lay it on thick by making faces when the adults weren't looking didn't help at all.

The two were civil toward one another on their best days. Years of tensions left Naruto practically begging for Neji to make a move so he could find a justifiable reason to deck him. So far, no such luck.

"Just be sure to treat our princess with care," Neji warned, turning away.

"Like you care," Naruto shot back over his shoulder as Hinata led him to her room.

"Excuse me?" Neji seethed.

"You heard me!"

Hinata stopped and looked from one boy to the other, her face white with panic.

"Come on Naruto," she said, tugging at her best friend's arm. "I'll get us both some ointment."

Giving Naruto no time to protest, Hinata dragged him along with her across the polished wood floor of the manor. She slid open a screen door along the wall, pulled Naruto through, and shut it behind her.

Naruto winced as Hinata's soft hand rubbed ointment onto his scrapes and bruises. "Agh!"

"Hold still," she whispered.

"Easy for you to say!"

He grunted through the last of the pain as Hinata wrapped a double layer of gauze around his exposed upper arm.

"Okay, Naruto," she said, "now...I need you to…"

"Hm?" Naruto's confused frown deepened when she didn't continue.

"I need to get to your r-ribs," she explained in a somehow even quieter voice.

Her cheeks blazed red as he slipped off his jacket and showed skin without hesitation. Naruto looked away, gulping in anticipation.

"Just make it quick, will ya?" he said. "Ah, this one's gonna hurt the most! I can feel it."

"Sorry," Hinata said, taking a nervous breath before dabbing a small amount of ointment onto the tender patch of skin surrounding Naruto's bruised rib.

He howled with pain, squirming as she worked in determined silence. She slid a few fingers across the affected area with deliberate efficiency. Despite how fast she went, the pain was no less difficult to withstand. Finally, after what felt like years of agony, Hinata applied a bandage over the slick film of salve and allowed him to put his shirt down.

Naruto was still quivering from the echoes of pain as he struggled back into his jacket. "You really got me good back there, Hinata! How'd you do that?"

Hinata muttered something.

"What's that?" Naruto asked, leaning in. She grew a couple shades redder and shrank away.

"I said the Gentle Fist style doesn't need to connect to do damage," she stammered out, standing and moving toward the door for some reason. "Anyway, sorry, Naruto! It should heal in about a day. I-I didn't mean to hurt you this badly."

Why was she always so jumpy around him? Even after years of knowing each other and becoming best friends, there was a degree of distance between them that he couldn't seem to bridge. Naruto pushed aside this worry. He enjoyed her company, and she enjoyed his. Wasn't that all that mattered?

"Ah," Naruto said, clicking his tongue, "don't worry about it! I heal super fast, remember? I'm an Uzumaki. We may bruise, but we don't break easy." He smiled and flexed a muscle with his good arm - a gesture he'd picked up from his mother.

"O-of course." Hinata stepped aside, allowing Naruto to leave the room first. Her hot breath hit the side of his neck as he passed.

"Anyway, thanks for patching me up! I've gotta get home before dinner. Good job today."

"T-thanks. Y-you too, Naruto."

"We're gonna blast that Genin exam outta the water. Believe it!" Naruto smiled back at her as he strolled down the narrow hallway. "I'll show myself out. See you in class."

Naruto hurried out of the manor, waving hello to Hinata's sister Hanabi as he went. She was like a tinier, less reserved version of Hinata. How anyone as kind and respectful as those two could share the genes of that jerk Hiashi was a mystery to Naruto.

"I'm back!" Naruto announced, stretching his arms in a grand gesture as he stepped through the front door of his house.

There was a pleasant smell in the air, but he couldn't quite place the herb and spice mixture. Whatever it was made his mouth water. Sasuke, who was focused on setting the table, looked up from his task at the sudden interruption. He wore a white, square bandage on each cheek. Naruto did his best not to laugh at the ridiculous appearance of his brother.

"Hey," Sasuke said. His face contorted, as if he were uncertain how to feel about the sight before him. Prior to this reaction, Naruto had all but forgotten his half-mummified appearance. "What happened to you?"

"Me?" Naruto held back his laughter. "What happened to you?"

"You boys just don't know when to quit is what happened," Kushina chastised, entering the room in her signature apron with her red hair pinned up. She scurried past Naruto and Sasuke, eyes glued to a pot simmering on the stove. "I swear, it seems like every week I have to patch one of you up, ya know!"

Sasuke and Naruto shot mutually amused expressions at one another. Kushina was always bent out of shape over their battle scars. Her parental love was fierce and constant. That might have been too much for some, but Naruto understood that this was just how his mother showed she cared. It was one of the many things that made this household so near and dear to Naruto's heart, and he was sure Sasuke felt the same.

"I know, but we've gotta train, Mom," the blond whined. "There's only a few days left until graduation!"

"Still, there's such a thing as overdoing it," Kushina said, shaking a ladle at the boys before dipping it into the pot.

"Your mother's right, you know," Minato said. He strode into the room from the hallway. "We wouldn't want either of you to get hurt and end up having to make up your graduation exam."

The irony of this statement knocked the wind out of Minato, leaving him speechless as his eyes fell on Naruto. Kushina stirred in a slow rhythm, humming to herself. Once she was confident the food had received enough attention, she removed her ladle, stepped away…

...and noticed Naruto's injuries.

She abandoned the stove and ran to check on him. "Where did you get all of those wounds, Naruto?! I told you to be more careful with your shuriken training, didn't I?"

"Yeah, mom, but really, I'm fine! Hinata fixed me up with some special medicine back at her place. I'll be good as new after a day or two!"

"Well, medicine or no medicine, I don't want you out like that anymore until your injuries heal." She pulled him close, then ushered him toward the dinner table. "I'm serious, ya know!"

"I gotcha, I gotcha," Naruto said, casting a weary glance down at the plates and chopsticks. "Boy, am I starved, too! Whatever that is smells great."

Naruto pitched in with helping Sasuke out, and in no time they were all sitting down to eat. Minato and Kushina took turns carrying over large dishes piled with food. Of course, one of the plates was reserved for Sasuke's favorite: Kushina's red rice balls, without their signature sauce, as he wasn't thrilled about the sweet kick it added. A host of other dinner items, such as smoked meats, potatoes, and a spread of steamed vegetables sat alongside the rice balls. The feast would not have been complete without a rack of sushi to top it all off.

He'd never say this aloud, but although all of this was great, Naruto still had a taste for some more Ichiraku Ramen. Of course, there was no way his mother would let him endanger his health by eating there all the time.

Everyone gave thanks for the food before digging in. During the meal, Sasuke stopped eating and peered across the table at Naruto.

"You were gone a while."

"Yeah," Naruto said, sucking his teeth as he rolled his injured shoulder. "It was worth it, though. Hinata and I got some really good training time in."

"That's great, Naruto," Minato chimed in. "Sasuke's been making great progress too. His Fireball Jutsu is flawless now, and takes less chakra to perform. I just know you'll both do a great job as Genin."

"Genin?!" Naruto balked. "But we haven't even made it past the academy exam yet!"

Minato winked. "I'm not worried. It should be a cinch for my sons, after all."

A ghost of a smile graced Sasuke's face, and Naruto blushed at the compliment.

"Excuse me, Minato," Sasuke said in a serious tone, bringing the heartwarming mood of the moment to a halt. "I was wondering something."

Naruto stared across the table, clueless. He was halfway through devouring a mouthful of sushi. "Hmm?" he said, his voice muffled.

Minato gestured to Sasuke to go on. "What is it, Sasuke?"

Sasuke kept his eyes on his plate at first, brow furrowed, but gained confidence as he spoke. "Could you please spar with me before we graduate? I'd like to measure my progress after all this time."

Kushina gasped, glancing at her husband, who had yet to respond.

Naruto almost choked on his food. Gulping it down with considerable effort, he blurted out, "Hey! Not without me you don't, Sasuke!"

Sasuke flitted his gaze in Naruto's direction. "You want in too?"

"You bet I do! I'm the son of The Yellow Flash and The Red Hot Habanero. There's no way I'd sit this one out."

A moment of hesitation later, Sasuke nodded. "Alright. Let's see which of us is the strongest, then."

Kushina sat trembling in her seat. The very air around her grew charged and heavy, or maybe that was all in Naruto's imagination. However, he doubted it, given his dad's reaction. Minato went from quiet admiration of the boys' healthy rivalry to a look of subdued terror at the sight of his wife. She sat idle, a prominent vein on her forehead bulging as her anger built. In an instant, she rose from her seat and her hair snapped free of its hairpin, fanning out in multiple directions. Each thick tuft waved like a monster's tentacle, with a life of its own, and she glared at her family members one by one.

"Naruto, Sasuke!" her voice boomed, freezing the boys in place. "I just said no more getting yourselves hurt, didn't I?! I won't allow you to drag your father into this as well."

"A-alright," Sasuke said, letting it slip that he was intimidated by the display. His pride kicked in soon after, and he puffed out his chest in a feigned show of bravery.

"We got it, Mom! Really. No need for that!" Naruto waved his hands in a frantic attempt at stopping 'that' from being unleashed. The last thing he needed right now was the Red Hot Habanero upset with him. Last time that happened, he'd feared for his life.

"And you," she muttered, craning her neck toward Minato, "you're not going to entertain this, are you?"

He held up both hands, a sheepish smile on his face. "Now hold on, Kushina! I think it's a harmless idea, so long as we don't go all out. Maybe we give the boys a couple of days to be in fighting shape again." His final sentence was more a question than a statement. The hunched position he adopted made it clear he was dreading how Kushina might react.

She sized him up, eyes wide with fury and her hair dancing like mad around her. Then, at last the spectacle ended, and she settled down into her seat.

"I'd better not have to deal with any burns or bruises again," Kushina said with finality, returning to her food.

"Yes, ma'am," all three young men agreed, their heads bowed in a mixture of embarrassment and relief.

The tension in the room had all but erased Naruto's muscle pains from his mind, but with his mother's episode over, all of the signals his nervous system was firing at him came flooding back. Hinata had really done a number on him. He'd known she had it in her all along, but sheesh!

Wait a second.

Perplexed, Naruto felt around his abdomen, then did it once more to be sure. His rib injury still hurt, but the pain wasn't as distracting in that spot as it had been an hour and a half ago. He grinned with excitement at the realization that it had already begun to mend. Naruto's inherited healing factor never ceased to amaze him. He would always be grateful for his Uzumaki lineage.

Two days before the final test at the academy, Naruto and Sasuke walked alongside one another into The Leaf's training yard. It overlooked a pristine lake. The waters stood as still as the sleeping woodland creatures in the surrounding forest. A sliver of light glanced over the crest of the treeline, affording a modicum of sight.

The boys stopped at the edge of the water, where one of Minato's kunai was embedded in the soft dirt. Several minutes into their wait, Naruto groaned.

"I don't see why Dad had us come all the way out here for this," he said, wiping his eyes. "We have space near the house for training."

Sasuke half-yawned as he said, "Probably so Kushina wouldn't watch us like a hawk while we sparred with him."

Naruto opened his mouth to answer, but his father blinked into existence out of thin air, distracting him. Minato plucked his kunai from the ground and stowed it away. The sun was rising in earnest now. It's amber glow illuminated the area as if in silent anticipation of the battle to come.

"Are we ready?" Minato asked. His white Hokage cloak flapped behind him, descending slowly as if he'd fallen from the sky.

"Yeah, Dad!" Naruto beamed with pride. Goosebumps covered every inch of his arms at the thought of showing his idol how far he had come.

"Sure," Sasuke said, more subdued, but Naruto liked to think he knew him well enough by now to pick up on his eagerness.

Minato slipped off his coat and laid it on a bench a few paces away. Everyone took their places at equally distant ends of the field, doing a few quick stretches beforehand.

"I suggest you take me on simultaneously," Minato said, not bothering to get into a defensive position. "By the way, I won't use the Flying Thunder God."

Naruto and Sasuke nodded to one another, signaling they were ready to go.

Not bothering to give any warning, Naruto called upon his reservoir of chakra and charged in first. He zoomed across the open field at a speed he knew was uncommon for his age. Sasuke dashed forward until he was beside him. They rushed Minato with head-on punches. Unseen to anyone, they enacted the first phase of their plan.

The earth trembled at the moment of impact. Minato grinned, clutching both boys' bare-knuckled fists in his palms. Naruto and Sasuke struggled against The Fourth's iron grip, but could not free themselves or overpower him.

"Ah, I'm impressed," Minato said, a nonchalant smile on his face. "You two have honed your Body Flicker speed very well."

"We had an awesome teacher," Naruto shot back. He smirked at Sasuke out of the corner of his eye. "Right, Sasuke?"

"What?" Minato gasped and let go, putting distance between himself and his attackers. Sasuke was engulfed by smoke and replaced with a clone of Naruto. "I didn't notice."

"That's right!" said the other Naruto, laughing, "we tricked ya!"

"Now!" cried the original.

Metal whistled through the air. Minato scanned his surroundings and spotted a shuriken arcing past him, followed by a coil of metallic string reflecting a thin stream of sunlight. He vanished before the string could constrict around him, reappearing next to the two Narutos. The failed trap fell harmlessly onto the grass.

The real Sasuke flung a barrage of shuriken at Minato from his perch on the branch of a nearby tree. Without looking, Minato kicked one of the Naruto duplicates into the path of the attack. The clone was pelted with a flurry of projectiles, let out a garbled shout of pain, and disappeared. Most of the shuriken clattered to the ground, but a couple of late arrivals came straight for Minato. He used a kunai to deflect both in one swift motion.

"Nice try, but…" Minato trailed off as one of the shuriken he deflected, which had popped up into the air, erupted in a puff of smoke, revealing a paper bomb-tagged kunai. The ignited paper was already crackling and falling toward him by the time Minato realized what was going on.

He formed the appropriate hand sign, conjured a clone, and darted away from the scene at an untraceable speed. His sacrificial copy hugged the explosive close to its chest and perished in the blast.

"That was a nice attempt," Minato said when the smoke cleared. "It'll take more than this to harm me, though."

Sasuke didn't reply, instead weaving a series of hand signs from his position in the trees while keeping Minato in his sights.

The remaining Naruto grunted in frustration.

"Then how's this?" Naruto said. Instead of waiting for Sasuke to make a move, he dished out a series of quick jabs and kicks.

Minato humored him, evading and defending with minimal effort. Every so often, he commented words of encouragement like "good" or "close one." These compliments only served to aggravate Naruto, who became sloppier with each misplaced strike. When Minato had had enough, he stepped around one of Naruto's punches, grabbed his wrist, and flipped him onto his back.

All air left Naruto's lungs. The world spun as he struggled to focus on the face of his father, who was looking down at him in silence.

"Naruto!" called Sasuke. "Get out of the way!"

Things realigned for Naruto a moment later. He grinned, realizing the opportunity he had here. He put his father's leg into a tight hold.

Naruto weaved a sign as his father resisted the bind, chuckling at Minato's predicament.

A handful of Naruto Uzumakis popped into being around Minato. They dogpiled onto him as Sasuke loosed a targeted fireball into the fray.

Minato wrestled with the many versions of Naruto that were intent on keeping him occupied, but to no avail. The contained mass of fire hit one of the clones and exploded, showering the area with charred bits of debris. All that remained was a blackened radial scar on the battlefield, a smoldering log at its center. Neither the clones, nor Minato, remained.

Sasuke looked around in confusion, unable to find any trace of his brother or The Fourth.

Naruto was ready. Since being shown this awesome jutsu by his father, he'd practiced the method with Sasuke time and time again. Neither of them were amazing at it, but they'd each succeeded at least once. Due to certain 'involuntary reactions,' Sasuke wasn't so keen on using the jutsu, but Naruto didn't have that problem. Today, he would nail his dad with a surprise attack and earn his title of destined Fifth Hokage.

He sat cross-legged, molding chakra in a secluded section of the forest. Sasuke could hold his own until he was done, and then they'd win this thing!

"What are you so busy thinking about?" said the voice of Minato.

Naruto shrieked, flipped onto his back, and crawled away from the direction of his dad's voice. "How did you find me so fast?!"

"You wear a bright orange outfit, Naruto," Minato pointed out, laughing to himself as he readied a kunai. "Better be on your guard."

Naruto scrambled to his feet in time to whip out a kunai of his own and counter his dad's, but the unexpected force of the strike sent him flying out of his hiding spot and back into the open. He performed a kip up and dodged as Minato rushed out from behind the treeline. Sasuke, who had returned to the field, attempted a roundhouse kick. Minato bent backward to avoid this and did a handstand, kicking his two assailants across the grass before getting back onto his feet. Naruto tumbled over rocks skirting the edge of the lake and fell in.

"I think that'll do for today," Minato said, putting away his weapon. "So why don't we-"

A wet kunai pressed itself into The Fourth Hokage's throat from his blind spot.

"I wouldn't be so sure, Dad." Naruto grinned, standing behind Minato. "Admit it. I gotcha, didn't I?"

Minato flinched, one eye trained on the corner of his vision. He raised his arms in surrender.

"Alright, Naruto," he said in a lackluster tone, "you got me. Or at least, that's what I would be saying if I were the real me."

Naruto coughed as his father turned into smoke, blinding him. Pressure on his back drove him to the ground, and he looked up to find Minato securing his hands behind his back. Across the grass a ways, Sasuke was tied to a tree. The grass beneath Naruto grew damp with the water from his jumpsuit as he made a futile attempt to wriggle free.

"You two still have a long way to go," Minato assessed, "but you're improving faster than even I expected. The Flying Thunder God, at your age, Naruto? I didn't expect you to actually be able to get it back when I demonstrated. I figured maybe in a few years, but..."

"Sasuke learned it too," Naruto explained when his father released the hold on him. "But he totally has to hurl whenever he jumps to a seal!" He pointed and laughed.

"Shut up, Naruto!" came his brother's embarrassed reply. Naruto ignored him.

"We practiced for months. I couldn't wait to show you! It takes so much preparation though, so I saved it for the right moment."

Minato aimed a shuriken at the ropes binding Sasuke. They fell slack and he collapsed onto the grass, breaking the fall with his hands.

"Sasuke, too?" Minato said, cocking his head to the side. "Impressive. By the way, when did you mark me?"

Naruto let out a mischievous giggle. "I didn't. I marked your kunai!"

Minato examined the kunai he used in the fight, and sure enough, the jutsu formula for Naruto's teleportation was overlaid on top of his own symbol. "Huh," he said to himself.

Naruto laughed again, freezing when his father patted him on the head.

"Very well done. The exam should be nothing compared to the things you've both mastered at this point."

Sasuke walked over to them, dusting off his shorts. "Yeah, shouldn't be a problem." He, too, received a parental head rub. Minato took care not to use the hand that was still wet from touching Naruto's hair. Sasuke clenched a fist with a determined look on his face, seeming to have already forgotten his adoptive father's praise.

"Thank you for sparring with us," Sasuke said absently, as if speaking to himself instead of Minato. "Now I know the areas where I need to improve."

Minato sighed. "Sasuke, you're not still…?"

He let the words trail off. Sasuke stayed silent.

Naruto squinted at the two of them, feeling lost. "What're you two talking about?"

"Never mind that," Sasuke dismissed. "Let's go home."

He walked back toward the village. Minato sighed and looked at the ground.

While this wasn't the first time such a thing had happened, Naruto was curious. Like today, sometimes Sasuke or Minato would get all quiet and thoughtful. Or they'd say something cryptic and then change the subject. His mom never seemed to ask about it, so Naruto figured she was clued in on whatever they were being so weird about. Awkward moments like these had happened off and on ever since Sasuke joined the family. There was something everybody wasn't telling him, and he had no clue why.

He didn't like being the odd one out.

What the hell's going on here?

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