Life Without Kurama @axleboost
Chapter 8

8 - One Bad Apple

Chattering students sat side by side at desks long enough for groups of three. Posters with a series of educational messages were posted on the rear wall's blackboard. Several rows of tiered seating overlooked a man behind a podium. He made a single hand gesture, commanding total silence.

Iruka Umino clutched a sheet of paper close to his chest, careful not to allow his captivated audience a sneak peek at its contents. His watchful eyes surveyed the room, checking the students who were present against a memorized roster. Varying degrees of discomfort registered in the faces staring back at him.

"The graduation test is about to begin," he announced.

Everyone in the room tensed up, save for two students: Sasuke Uchiha at the center desk near the far wall, and Naruto Uzumaki on the right. Of course. The Hokage's boys.

Confident as ever, Iruka noted with a faint smile.

He glanced down at the paper again. "When your name is called, proceed to the next classroom. The test is on the Clone Jutsu."

"The test is on the Clone Jutsu," said the Chunin instructor. He was a tan, lean-muscled man. The prominent scar across his nose was usually hard to look away from, but the words he just spoke did the trick.

Naruto held back a gasp and almost fell out of his seat. The Clone Jutsu? The one he'd learned at seven years old? Piece of cake.

Then again, he, Sasuke, Sakura, and Shikamaru were the only students who'd known how to perform the jutsu before it was covered in class. So it wasn't like this test was all that easy for the average academy class. The four of them were simply not average.

When called for his turn back when the class had to do a live demonstration, Shikamaru made a clone that was just stable enough to pass itself off as him. It wobbled if you stared at it long enough, but Iruka sensei was already marking him with a passing grade by the time this happened, and none of the other students were shrewd enough to notice. Unlike the rest of the class, Naruto and Sasuke weren't fooled; they could tell by how fluid Shikamaru's replication of the hand sign sequence was that he'd memorized it long ago, but didn't want the abundance of attention that came with excellence.

Naruto rested his chin on crossed arms as he thought back on that day. The very pretty and smart Sakura Haruno, whom he'd expected to be first to recognize Shikamaru's ruse and call it out, let him down. She had been far too focused on watching Sasuke, and to a lesser extent, Naruto himself, to detect anything.

Shikamaru could be lazy if he wanted to, but Naruto had other plans. If he was going to fill the shoes of his father, and maintain his reputation as the Hokage's gifted - and really cool - son, he needed to keep training hard and learn all of the jutsu he could. He had intermediate level sealing and a handful of standard ninjutsu down, but there was more to being a ninja than that.

"Practice your forms, then I'll take you to Ichiraku," his mother had often said when he was younger.

In hindsight, Naruto was grateful for Kushina's insistence on passing down the basic framework of her sealing techniques to him, even if back then he'd found it to be a bother. Learning to make even the most rudimentary Uzumaki seals had demanded so much out of him, it left him starved of chakra whenever he didn't get the formula exact. However, the difficulty of this regimented training bred rapid growth.

Naruto's chakra control rivaled that of a Genin with several missions under their belt by the time he was nine. Everyone in the village said he had the makings of a Hokage, and while he wasn't all that invested in the idea at first, he didn't hate it. Over time, he'd just come to accept that path for himself as the natural progression of things. He was the child of two amazing ninja, after all!

It was with this in mind that Naruto sat forward in his chair, eager to hear his or Sasuke's name called. The room was still with the weight of everyone's anxiety, fear, and excitement - the latter, in Naruto's case. He wanted to get this over with and move on to the team selections.

Naruto stared hard at the paper in Iruka-sensei's hand, still refusing to believe the final test was something this simple.

The Clone Jutsu?

His luck today was just unreal! Iruka-sensei had pretty much eliminated any chance of him not graduating with flying colors.

Sensing eyes on him, Naruto looked over his shoulder. Sasuke was smirking at him from his seat. He smiled back, then returned to listening to the names being called.

Which team will I end up on?

The question lingered, causing him to tune out of the announcements from Iruka-sensei. He glanced at Hinata. She was hunched forward and fidgeting under her desk. Although her nerves seemed to be getting to her, there was a quiet strength in her eyes that refused to fade. Naruto was proud of how far she'd come, and could only hope his best friend would be assigned to his team.

When his turn to be tested came, Naruto practically leapt onto his feet and power walked to the next classroom. He high fived Sasuke on his way past. He was ready. There was no time to waste here: he needed to start completing missions and get stronger!

"Great job," Iruka said as Naruto dispelled his five identical illusions. One clone was the minimum requirement. He figured it would be better to make several and get a higher score. "You pass! Congratulations, Naruto."

Iruka stamped a sheet of paper, and his fellow teacher, Mizuki, gave Naruto a nod of approval.

"Come choose a headband," Iruka instructed, "and then you can wait to be picked up in the courtyard."

"Alllllllllright!" Naruto cheered, raising a fist. "I graduated!" He approached the desk Iruka and Mizuki sat behind, tensing up at the amused expressions on their faces as he selected one of a few dozen blue Leaf Village-engraved headbands. "I mean, it's not like I was scared I wouldn't or anything."

"Of course not," Iruka said, shaking his head.

"Anyway, see ya Iruka-sensei, Mizuki-sensei!"

Naruto hurried from the room, eager to share the news. When he stepped out onto the vast courtyard, a handful of students and their parents were gathered. Some of his classmates were crying or receiving consoling words and a pat on the back. Others were hugging their family members or celebrating in other ways. Amidst these emotional displays, his parents broke through to the front of the crowd, smiling at him.

"There you are, Naruto!" his mother said.

"Mom! I passed!"

"I knew you would, ya know." Kushina pulled Naruto into a hug, admiring the headband he maintained a white-knuckled grip on. While they hugged, Minato reached out and patted him on the head.

"Well done," he said. Naruto flushed pink. "There's a couple of visitors here to see you, too." Minato stepped aside, allowing two others to approach.

"Wha-wha…?" Naruto gasped at the familiar sight of the woman with long, blond hair in pigtails, and the white-haired man in sandals who accompanied her. "Grandma Tsunade? Pervy Sage?"

"Hey now," Jiraiya chided, "that's no way to address your beloved godfather. I came all this way to see you on your big day, you know."

Naruto laughed as the stocky man patted him on the back.

Tsunade stepped forward when Jiraiya withdrew and planted a kiss on Naruto's forehead. He shrank back, smiling nervously due to the many spectators' comments.

"Not in front of all these people, Granny," Naruto said, holding up his hands.

Ignoring him, she smiled and took a step back. "We're both very proud of you, Naruto. Keep on following your path."

"You know I will, believe it!" Naruto said, pumping a fist.

Everyone laughed at his display of confidence, but then Kushina paused and looked around.

"Where's Sasuke?" she asked.

Naruto nodded toward the exit. "He's still in there. I was called before him."

Several minutes later, Sasuke made his appearance. He held up a freshly gifted headband to show he'd passed, and was showered with the same surprise affection from the welcoming party. Naruto took the opportunity to break away and congratulate Sakura.

She didn't speak more than a few words, but her eyes shimmered with awe the whole time. The girls around her made comments under their breaths, watching as one of the two most renowned students paid Sakura a personal visit. Until now, he'd always tried to limit himself to the occasional passing hello, but Naruto wanted to show his appreciation for Sakura on such an important day.

"Naruto, come on," Sasuke beckoned, walking over to him. "We're going to Ichiraku to celebrate."

"We are? No kidding?" Naruto said, his attention captured by the news.

Sasuke nodded. He made eye contact with Sakura and offered her a subdued, "Congratulations."

Just as she had with Naruto, Sakura remained silent for the most part, and was only able to utter a soft, "T-thank you, Sasuke."

"Heck yeah!" Naruto shouted at the sky. "That's what I call a celebration." He heard a thud, turned back, and noticed Sakura was no longer standing behind him. She had fallen unconscious, her long hair fanned out around her. "Oh no, Sakura! Sakura, are you alright?"

Naruto knelt at her side, freaking out as a crowd formed around the pink-haired girl. "Sakura! Sakura, wake up!"

This day was wild: first he aced a super easy graduation exam, and now he was getting a trip to Ichiraku, but couldn't hightail it there because his crush passed out? He hoped that at some point, things would calm down.

Tsunade strode onto the scene and took on the task of reviving Sakura. Everyone cleared the way for her, but even with a wider gap at its center, the crowd of onlookers grew. When Naruto was sure Tsunade had the situation under control, he stood back and observed his surroundings.

A single individual stood a noticeable distance away from the huge crowd. The person's shoulder length white hair and green vest disappeared around a corner. Alarms raised in Naruto's head. That had to have been Mizuki-sensei, but why was he in such a rush to leave?

"Sasuke," Naruto said, "c'mere."

"What's going on?" Sasuke asked, leaning closer.

Naruto whispered into his ear, received his brother's nod of approval, and took off after Mizuki while everyone was distracted. Sasuke would let Dad know what was up. Now all he needed to focus on was finding out why the Leaf instructor snuck off like that.

Mizuki smirked as he leapt from tree branch to tree branch, making his way to The Fourth Hokage's residence. The sky was almost dark by the time he stopped at the largest tree near the house. He crouched and formed a hand sign, checking the premises for any inhabitants. None were detected.

Heh, this was easier than I expected. Now I'll just grab the scroll while everyone's at the academy!

Mizuki dashed from the edge of the forest to the side of the house, pressing his back against the wall. He peeked around the corner just in case, pleased to find there was nobody in sight. No nearby chakra signatures either. He slinked along the wall and amassed chakra in the soles of his feet. Leaping off of the ground, he rose several feet into the air and grabbed onto the railing outside of the front door. Mizuki flipped over the side of the railing and planted his feet, bypassing the stairs in one smooth motion.

The front door was made from high quality wood, and a Leaf Village symbol was carved into its center. No surprise; only the best for the residence of the Hokage. Unseen to the naked eye were a series of interlinked seals embedded into the polished wood. One 'parent' seal triggered the rest, as far as Mizuki could tell from a distance. If he dared to try and break in without disarming the initial trigger point, he wouldn't like the result.

"Release!" Mizuki said under his breath, forming the hand sign necessary to disengage the barrier.

He couldn't help but laugh. Ironically, he had Lady Kushina's guidance to thank for his success. He'd paid more attention than anyone else during her sealing jutsu classes, and taken the lessons even further while studying on his own.

An intangible sense of something unraveling within the lattice of chakra that protected the Hokage's home earned a wry smile from Mizuki.

I did it! Now I can just walk right in.

Wherever Mizuki was going, he wasn't wasting any time getting there. Naruto could have matched his speed with no issue, since it paled in comparison to the speed drills his dad put him and Sasuke through. Instead he hung back, careful with his footing to avoid giving himself away. In all honesty, Mizuki was so hyper-focused, Naruto doubted he would have noticed any suspicious sounds anyway.

Some time later, Mizuki slowed down a bit. Naruto let the gap between them widen in case the Chunin was about to stop. He was correct. Mizuki landed on a branch of the tree nearest to Naruto's house and stared at the residence from afar. Then he hopped down onto the grass, formed a quick sign, and snuck across the stretch of land leading to the house. He must've been double-checking that he wasn't followed with that last jutsu. Whatever the academy teacher was up to, there was no chance in hell that it explained away breaking into Naruto's house while no one was around. He had to be crazy to think he'd get away with this!

Boy, Naruto said to himself with a snicker, have I got a surprise for you.

He observed as Mizuki deactivated the seal from outside and let himself in. When he was certain enough time had passed for the intruder to let down his guard, Naruto took action. He brought his hands together, weaving a short series of signs from memory and activating the house's network of security seals. Mom would be so proud of what he had planned. A blend of unusual sounds emanated from his house. He proceeded toward the scene of the beautiful disaster with a playful smile on his face.

Taking a tentative step forward, Mizuki reached for the door handle. He touched it and flinched, relaxing when no alarms sounded and he wasn't blown to kingdom come. Sighing, he kicked himself for being scared.

Why should he be? Most of the Anbu detail was either on missions or overseeing the graduation proceedings, so no one would show up to stop him. The Scroll of Sealing was ripe for the taking - it was as good as his.

"Stupid," he chastised himself, shaking his wrists as he drummed up the courage to follow through with the plan. His clammy hands were a testament to the dread creeping like a trickling bead of water down his spine.

He'd planned this out long ago. He couldn't chicken out now, after all of that preparation! What would the point of any of it be if he did?

On the other hand, once he did this, he'd be branded a criminal and a rogue ninja. Sure, perhaps he could make it beyond the village border before anyone was the wiser, but who was to say Anbu scouts, or whatever Jonin team Minato sent to apprehend him, wouldn't catch up before he could disappear into the safety of anonymity in another land?

He shrugged. There was no way to know. Mizuki was so close—so close—to having his hands on that thing! All he needed to do was pick the lock on the door and take his rightful prize for himself. Keeping this in mind, he steeled his resolve and got to work.

Less than a minute later, a satisfying click came from the hidden mechanism in the door. Mizuki had to stop himself from cheering with excitement. He tapped the door and it swung wide, bumping against an adjacent wall.

Here goes nothing.

Mizuki took a ginger step forward into the house, giving it a quick sweep with his eyes and feeling the space out for any unusual chakra sources. The scroll wasn't in the main room of the house, much less laying out in the open for him to find. That was to be expected. He chose another room, peeked around the corner despite being sure he was alone, and entered. Again, no luck.

The fourth try was the charm. As he had in the previous locations, Mizuki performed a jutsu to feel for the scroll's chakra. This time, he found something unusual hidden behind a false panel in the wall of what seemed to be Minato and Kushina's bedroom. He slid back the panel, pulled the scroll free, and felt along its seam. While on the surface, it appeared to be simple to open, an invisible sealing jutsu prevented him from accessing the contents. Mizuki molded chakra in preparation to undo the seal, but made it no further.

Without any warning, the dull hum of the home's intruder detection jutsu reached his ears. Fear struck him like a gut punch. He made a beeline for the exit with the spoils of his mission under one arm, but it was no use. When he reached the front door, a current of lightning chakra rippled in the air and struck Mizuki, rooting him to the spot in front of the entrance as his body spasmed. The scroll fell and rolled away.

He cried out, unable to do a thing beyond fight to stay conscious. His teeth ground against one another with considerable force. He bit his tongue so hard, not even a grown man could shrug the pulsing pain off. The agony of Mizuki's predicament was unimaginable, made all the more unpleasant by a sudden wave of water crashing down onto him to amplify the shock. Where this water came from was anyone's guess. Then, as if all of the previous torment wasn't enough, stone spikes protruded from the carpet beneath his feet and pinned him in place.

The only responsive part of his body was his eyes. He willed himself to look around the room for any sign of the Hokage or his guards. He saw neither; instead, he took in the smug expression on the face of one Naruto Uzumaki. The boy stood at the threshold of the front door, smirking like a classroom prankster at the pathetic sight in front of him. His bright orange jumpsuit and blond head of hair were the last things Mizuki saw.

"Caught ya, 'Mizuki-sensei! I rigged the seal to go off in reverse, and target anyone inside the house, after you walked in.'"

The boy's cheeky victory taunt stung. A twelve-year-old caught him? Powerless to do anything else, Mizuki cursed the damn brat with all of the energy left in him before passing out.

The following morning, Mizuki's arrest, made possible by The Hokage's Son, was the topic at the forefront of everyone's minds. The village was shocked that a traitor had lived among them all of this time, harboring malicious thoughts behind a deceptive smile. The Chunin instructor had years of history with the village, built a life and reputation here, and had thrown it all away in one instant for a power grab that failed. His entire life was eclipsed by a shameful legacy of betrayal.

The opposite was true for Naruto.

He strolled along the central path through The Hidden Leaf Village with Sasuke, smiling and waving to the frequent praisers of his good deed the prior night. A handful of kids came up to him asking for details about his awesome takedown of the Chunin-level rogue ninja. Rather than tell the lame tale of their home security measures handling the threat, Naruto allowed himself to spice the details up a little, invoking endless eye-rolling from his brother.

"Yeah, I totally clocked him good!" Naruto lied. "He begged me to let him go, but y'know, I've got a village to defend. Believe it!"

This seemed to satisfy the first batch of inquisitive citizens, adult and child alike. Soon, he was retelling the encounter again.

"Ah, it was nothin'. I let him know the Anbu were on their way and he fessed right up. Told me his plan to steal the Scroll of Sealing from Dad and everything."

"Wow, Big Brother Naruto," said the pint-sized boy staring up at him in awe. "You're so cool!"

"Thanks," Naruto said, smiling down at Konohamaru Sarutobi, the Third Hokage's grandson. His friends, a girl with long brown hair parted down the middle named Moegi, and Udon, a boy with a messy trail of snot dripping down his nose, echoed Konohamaru's sentiments. Of course, Naruto accepted the compliments his mini-fanclub threw at him.

Sasuke clicked his tongue as the children left. Naruto frowned in confusion, his hands behind his back while they walked in step with one another.

"What's up?" he asked.

"You're just so cocky sometimes," Sasuke said with a shake of his head.

"What? It's not like I didn't nab him."

"Still, no need to act like such a big shot. Plus, you may not have noticed, but you keep changing your story. Anyone could tell you're embellishing."

Naruto's face turned a deep red. He raised a fist. "W-whatever! You're just mad because I was the one who took him down! Isn't that right?"

"Heh. Give me a break."

"Can't you just be happy for me? Jeez."

"Idiot, it's not that I'm not happy for you," Sasuke was quick to correct, "it's just...yeah, we're the Hokage's sons, but we aren't untouchable. Minato isn't either."

Naruto poked out his lip. "Hmph! Speak for yourself."

Damn that Sasuke! Always such a downer. So what if Naruto was still riding the high of his recent triumph, or the three bowl free ramen binge he'd indulged in at Ichiraku after graduation? He could afford to feel special. They both could. They'd earned it, right?

Naruto splayed one of his palms and looked down at it, smiling as he recalled the single piece of the puzzle he'd kept from everyone. The moment when, on a whim, he'd directed a shadow clone to return a transformed copy of the scroll and kept the original for himself. He wanted to see what was so precious inside of the darn thing, and boy, had he seen! He replaced the seal and put it back by morning, of course, but the new jutsu he learned was gonna blow everyone's minds, including Sasuke's! He couldn't wait to show it off.

A faint rumble caught his attention. Sasuke glanced in the direction of the disturbance, too, getting into a battle stance.

"What's that?" Naruto asked, scratching his head.

"How should I know?"

No sooner had Sasuke given this remark than two girls appeared in the distance, joined at the cheek and hip and fast approaching. One was Sakura in her usual hot pink kimono with white trim, and the other was the long haired blonde, Ino Yamanaka, in a purple kimono. They sped down the path, leaving a billowing trail of dust in their wake. Sasuke yanked Naruto out of the way and backflipped to avoid the girls' advance. They continued to glare at each other, disappearing around a corner. Nearby witnesses whispered and watched as the tornado of rivalry tore a clean path to Sakura and Ino's destination.

Naruto got to his feet and dusted off his clothes. "What's up with them?"

"They're probably racing to the academy for team selections." Sasuke narrowed his eyes. "You know, where we'd be if you didn't waste all of our time boasting to bystanders?"

"Ah, shut up."

"Just hurry up already!"

They picked up the pace. Naruto could see the roof of the academy in the distance. He shivered from head to toe with excitement. Today, he'd be placed on a team!

Iruka-sensei finished calling out team assignments and waited as his former students processed the news. Naruto's stomach dropped at the realization that he wouldn't get to do missions alongside Hinata after all. At the very least, he would have time to get closer to Sakura. He already worked well with Sasuke, so that was no issue.

Brushing off his mild disappointment, Naruto raised a fist. "Go Team 7, believe it!"

Sakura was slower to raise her hand, but she joined him, and so did Sasuke, with much less emotion than either of his teammates. Naruto turned to Sasuke. Behind him, Ino made a remark that sounded negative, and he could hear Sakura chuckling to herself. Those two were always at each other's throats.

"Sasuke," Naruto said, "you ready to meet our sensei?"

Sasuke was resting his head on steepled fingers. He turned to acknowledge the question with a plain expression. "I'm ready to go."

Naruto was more than ready as well, so he was beyond displeased at Iruka's news that their sensei would meet with them in half an hour. Making matters worse, they had to stay in the classroom the whole time. Naruto shifted around in his seat as he fought to repress his mounting impatience. One after another, the other teams descended to the bottom floor of the lecture hall and left with their appointed sensei. When it was her group's turn to go, Hinata stopped and waved goodbye to Naruto, giving him a sad smile. He tried to distract himself as she left by striking up a conversation.

"I wonder what kind of guy our sensei is." Naruto looked up at the ceiling and let his imagination run wild. "Do you think he's someone really strong and cool? Or maybe a big, brood-y guy?"

"Who knows?" Sakura said. She ran a hand through her long hair, leaving Naruto mesmerized by its silky appearance, and sighed. "I just hope he shows up on time. That's the least he could do."

"Agreed," Sasuke said.

Sakura flushed pink. "Hey Sasuke, Naruto? I'm really glad we're all on a team together."

"Uh huh." Sasuke nodded.

"Yeah, me too!" Naruto smiled back, trying to ignore the butterflies in his stomach. "Maybe we could go out for lunch together later." He froze, realizing his blunder. "I mean, uh, all of us, as a team, you know?"

Sakura gave him a polite smile, her voice wavering a little as she said, "That would be nice, Naruto."

Several more minutes of mind numbing silence later, they moved to the bottom row of seats. However useless this small act was, it allowed them to pretend they'd cut down on the wait time by sitting closer to the door. At last, even Sasuke couldn't take it anymore and spoke up.

"Seriously, come on," he said. "Where is he? The other teams are all gone and he's still keeping us waiting."

"I bet he was out on some super secret awesome mission, and he's on his way here as we speak!" Naruto suggested. He pointed to the sliding door they'd spent the better part of 45 minutes staring at, his face stuck in a perpetual open-mouthed smile.

Nothing happened.

He turned to his teammates with a sheepish grin. "Seriously, he couldn't have forgotten about us or anything. Right?"

"I highly doubt it," Sakura said. "After all, Naruto, you're the Hokage's son, and Sasuke's the last Uchiha. There's no way our sensei forgot he was assigned to this team."

"Good point," Sasuke muttered, scanning the room. "Then what could be keeping him?"

Naruto launched into a feeble attempt to salvage Sakura's self image, realizing she'd indirectly downplayed her own importance on Team 7. She was amazing, after all. Smart, and pretty, and...and he must have looked like an idiot stuttering through sentences like he'd never spoken a word in his life. It would be a miracle if any of his excited gibberish was understood, let alone managed to boost Sakura's confidence. In the middle of Naruto's rambling, Sasuke nodded toward the door.

The children ceased their chatter and honed in on the man who'd just entered the classroom. He had a slim build, a head of spiky silver hair, and wore a black mask that covered the bottom half of his face.

"Hello, you three," the man said, hands in his pockets. He spoke in an even tone with a bit of a lazy drawl. "My name is Kakashi."

Kakashi's mask's movement was the only indication that the words they heard came from him. Naruto gasped. He squinted at his sensei and wasn't all that surprised to notice Sasuke scrutinizing him, too.

"I know you," the boys said in unison. They shared an awkward glance.

The vague memory of this man visiting their home a couple of times in the past was all Naruto knew of this man. He appeared to have been very close with their parents, judging by his casual demeanor and how they welcomed him inside. Seeing that Sasuke remembered him was a relief, and helped make Naruto more sure he wasn't making this all up.

"Ah, that's right," Kakashi said. "I believe we did meet before this. I didn't stick around for long, though. Anyway, nice to more formally meet you, Naruto, Sasuke. Minato was my sensei back when I was your age." He turned to Sakura. "And you must be Sakura Haruno, correct?"

She stood up, flustered, and gave a polite bow. "Yes, Kakashi-sensei! A pleasure."

"Why were you late?" Sasuke asked, cutting straight to the point.

Kakashi rubbed the back of his head, delivering what Naruto guessed was a nervous smile. It was hard to say for sure because of the mask. "Ah, right. Sorry about that. I fell into a puddle on the way here and had to go change."

The three of them looked at him with deep skepticism. He flinched. Laughing it off, he said, "Well, why don't we get going?"

"This guy's a Jonin?" Sasuke whispered.

"No kidding," Sakura said, arms crossed. "I'm not convinced."

Already past the point of debating this, Naruto hurried out of the classroom when Kakashi beckoned them to follow him to the rooftop. The area retained its usual cozy vibe: the flooring was two-tiered, separated by steps leading to a narrow lower level. Kakashi rested on a rail of precarious structural integrity that wrapped around the entire rooftop, giving it a closed off feeling. Rows of tall trees dotted the upper level. Naruto plopped down on the highest step between Sasuke and Sakura with a smile.

"So," he said, adjusting his headband for the billionth time just for the rush of knowing it was there, "are we gonna do some awesome ninja training now?"

"Not so fast there, Naruto," Kakashi cautioned, wagging a finger. "Let's see...first off, let me have you guys introduce yourselves. Well, I guess you already have, but give me more detail than just your names."

"Introduce ourselves?" Sakura placed a finger on her chin, gazing up at the hazy clouds. "What should we say?"

"Your likes, dislikes, your future dreams and hobbies?" Kakashi made a wide gesture. "Things like that!"

"I'll go first!" Naruto piped up.

"Of course you will," Sasuke said with an amused roll of his eyes.

"My name's Naruto Uzumaki, and I'm the son of the amazing Minato Namikaze, the Hokage! I'm the strongest one on this team, believe it!"

Sakura tried to interject. "Naruto, that wasn't one of the questio-"

"I like instant ramen, but I like the ramen from Ichiraku even more! What I dislike is the three minutes after pouring hot water into instant ramen. My hobbies are eating ramen, comparing ramen, and hanging out with my best friend Hinata. And my future to live up to my namesake as son of the Fourth Hokage, and to one day surpass my dad!"

"Surpass Minato-sensei?" Kakashi said, eyes uncharacteristically wide. "That's quite the goal."

"You're always so ridiculous," Sasuke said.

"Oh, and I also dream of making my big brother eat his words one day!" Naruto directed a cutting glance at Sasuke, who smirked.

"Okay," Kakashi said. "Next." His eyes fell on Sakura, who clammed up and curled her legs against her chest.

"I-I'm...Sakura Haruno, sir, and I…" She eyed Naruto and Sasuke, face drained of color. "What I like…I mean, who I like is..." Her eyes flitted from one boy to the other, and she blushed. "And my hobby is…" Her eyes cut to them again, and she averted her gaze. She drew in a heavy breath. "My future dream is to…" Sakura let out an excited squeal and said nothing more.

"And?" Kakashi prodded. "What about your dislikes?"

"I, I don't know. I've never really given it much thought. I guess you could say I dislike Ino from our class for being so bossy, and for being jealous that I'm on the coolest team, while she got saddled with the lamest one! I also dislike getting gum stuck in my hair." She feigned gagging. "It takes forever to get out, and um...I'm not really sure what else."

"I see." Kakashi turned to Sasuke, not bothering to prompt him.

"My name is Sasuke Uchiha. I'm this loudmouth's adoptive relative, and for whatever reason, I like him some of the time. I dislike a lot of things, including Naruto when he's grandstanding for attention."


The young Uchiha disregarded his brother's complaint. "My future dream is a complicated one, but it includes restoring my clan. I aspire to avenge my loved ones."

"Wait," Naruto said, "what do you need to avenge us for?"

"Not you guys, dummy." Sasuke stared at the floor. "I'm grateful for Lord Minato and Lady Kushina taking me in, but I can't just wait around. I have to get stronger if I'm going to make my goal a reality. And I will."

Naruto examined Sasuke's cold stare, unsure what to say or do next. What was up with him all of a sudden? Did this have to do with whatever it was that he and Dad always kept secret?

"Good!" Kakashi clapped his hands together in finality. "You all have unique aspects about you, and I look forward to our first mission tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?!" Naruto and Sakura said at the same time.

"That's right. You three have to complete one task first before I approve you as Genin."

Taking in Kakashi's words, Naruto gulped. Resisting the impulse to nag the man to spit it out left him squirming with excess energy. There was something new in the atmosphere. He could tell by their rigid postures that Sakura and Sasuke felt it too. Whatever this mysterious mission was, Naruto feared Kakashi might make it something cruel or impossible to complete. But as he thought back on his parents' undying confidence in him, the tension in his shoulders eased and his breathing slowed.

Thanks Mom. Thanks Dad.

Naruto slowly pulled open the screen door leading to his parents' room and peeked through.


Minato was sitting cross-legged in the corner of the room. He exhaled and turned to face Naruto with a smile.

"Welcome home, son. I heard you were assigned to Kakashi's squad."

Naruto nodded, directing a solemn stare at the floor.

Minato raised an eyebrow. "Is something the matter?"

Scratching the back of his head, Naruto said, "Yeah. I mean, not exactly? It's complicated. Are you busy right now?"

"No." Minato waved dismissively. "I was practicing my manipulation of nature chakra while your mother's out reinforcing the village barriers. Nothing urgent. Go on."

Taking a moment to compose his thoughts, Naruto straightened up and said, "It's about the Scroll of Sealing. I...kind of didn't return it right away. I got a little ambitious. Before you get mad, I promise I didn't let it leave my sight!" Naruto put his arms up in a defensive gesture and shut his eyes. "I just wanted a peek. I put it back as soon as I was done."

Minato rose from the floor and walked over to Naruto. When the latter realized he hadn't been scolded or struck, he cracked one eye open.

"Dad?" he said, trying to keep the fear out of his voice.

His father placed a hand on his shoulder. "I already know, Naruto."

"Y-you know?"

"Yes, but I appreciate that you came to me about this."

All of the pent up anxiety that had been driving Naruto crazy until now left him. He fell to his knees. "I was so scared. I thought you were gonna punish me!"

"Well," Minato said with a rub of his chin, "most parents might, but to be honest, I simply trust you too much to be worried."

Naruto couldn't believe his ears. He stood up again, collecting himself. " me?"

"Of course." Minato smiled. "Last night, after I checked to see that the scroll was returned, I examined it. You did a great job recreating the seal. I couldn't tell it apart from the original at first. No surprise there. But I couldn't feel the chakra from my Flying Thunder God marking on the inside of the scroll. I knew then that it was a fake, and since Mizuki was being processed into jail by the Anbu, it didn't take much to put together who had the real scroll."

Naruto frowned, the weight of his poor planning crashing down around him.

"I decided to let you keep it for the time being. I would've spoken up if you didn't return it after tonight. Naruto, I know that you understand the importance of that scroll to the village's safety, and I trusted you wouldn't misuse its contents. Besides, not only are you my son, but you're an Uzumaki. If knowing your mom has taught me anything, it's that your clan's chakra reserves are more than enough to handle high caliber jutsu like the ones in the scroll."

"Wow." Naruto fought to slow his rapid breathing and looked up at his dad, eyes wet. "Thank you, Dad. You seriously aren't mad?"

"No. Not this time, anyway. I didn't tell your mother either. Neither of us wants to deal with one of her explosive episodes right now, do we?"

Naruto grinned, relief coursing through him. "Nope!"

"One other thing, Naruto. I know you must have done more than just peek. I admit I'm a bit excited." Minato leaned in closer. "What did you learn from the scroll?"

Letting out a nervous laugh, Naruto averted his eyes. "Yeah, you got me! So ya see, I spent hours practicing this awesome jutsu. I can make hundreds of clones now!"

"The Multi Shadow Clone Jutsu, eh? Impressive. I haven't seen that jutsu performed in years. To think that you would learn it, and at such a young age."

A noise near the front of the house caused them to perk up, both studying the chakra of the one entering the front door.

"Mom's home," Naruto said.

"Well, we'd better go greet her. Please promise me you won't pull any more stunts like this, son."

Naruto turned back to his father and gave him an impassioned salute. "I won't! It's a promise. Believe it!"

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