The Queen's Croquet Ground



Outside IN the COLD distance


two Riders were approaching




Silence. The blond skydiver tumbled down another couple feet.

Naruto eyed the frightening cliffs as they tapered off into the river.

"Ahh! Kyuubi! WAKE UP!"

More silence.

Forty feet. He'd be lucky if he hit the water, what with the spikes lining the bottom of the cavern.


The great demon stirred, or rather, rolled over. "What do you want, you useless—

"Open your eyes, dammit!"

Twenty feet. Above him, Jiraiya was howling with laughter. What kind of moment was this to be laughing?

"Alright. You're falling. So?"

"I'm supposed to use your chakra to summon a frog to save me from the bottom! Do something!"

The demon snorted. "Absolutely not. Do it yourself."

"What?" Naruto sputtered, wind getting into his mouth and sending him coughing.

"You heard me. My interference would defeat the entire purpose of letting you train yourself up without my influence. If you don't want to die, which I assume you don't, I highly suggest you deploy some sort of technique to stop your fall. How about holding on to the edge?"

"Why are you so calm about this?" Naruto asked in bewilderment. "If I die, so do you!"

The demon said nothing to this, and Naruto tried to stop his fall by hanging on to the edge as the demon had suggested, however, his grip slipped almost immediately, and he couldn't hold on long enough to use chakra to steady himself. Above him, Jiraiya called out, "That won't work! The spikes are too wet!"

"What kind of teacher is he?" Naruto hissed, more to himself then anything, more concerned with his death nearing closer then the man's poor teaching skills.

Ten feet, and then—

(some days prior)

"It's…" Naruto trailed off with a forlorn, startled look on his face.

A couple days into his training and Naruto wasn't really all too sure what to make of Jiraiya. Not that he saw much of the man anyway. Usually, the old pervert scuttled off whenever Naruto wasn't looking to spy on the women's baths and giggle perversely in dense hedges. He was a creep, that was for sure. Whenever Yugao dropped by, she made sure to give him the most scathing, evil glare he'd ever seen. She'd cross her arms and huff, as if being in his presence was irritating enough. Jiraiya didn't seem to mind, a lecherous grin on his face and his hands quick at work with writing the next chapter he had in mind—involving a young, buxom purple-haired woman.

Yugao was not impressed.

Currently, Naruto had once again been ditched by his semi-teacher near a riverside. He didn't have to look back to know that behind him a couple girls were bathing in the river, completely unaware of the chuckling man in the bramble behind them.

"It's a frog!" Naruto leapt up in joy, almost squashing the mightily tiny amphibian with his toe.

Jiraiya frowned at the distraction from his work, tottering over the rocky river bank to see for himself what Naruto was making such a commotion about.

"I'm pressed to say it's a tadpole still." Said the sage, much to Naruto's ire.

"What do you mean?" Naruto cried in outrage. He pointed menacingly towards the limp, dying ball of slime no bigger then his big toe. "It doesn't have a tail!"

"So?" The old man snorted. "You probably summoned a malformed one. It's pathetic."

Naruto seethed. "It's not pathetic. And it's a frog, okay? It's progress."

Jiraiya had first allured him to the subject of training with promises of an ultra-cool jutsu like he'd never seen before called the Rasengan. Apparently, the monstrous technique summoned gale winds like tornadoes, and Naruto's imaginative mind conjured a great maelstrom forming above his head, as he laughed maniacally at the great power he'd received.

Kyuubi had laughed considerably at Naruto's ridiculous and wholly overeactive imagination, hinting that he may have seen the move in combat himself. Naruto, fascinated by this, had taken to pleading with him to reveal if it really was as badass as he thought. Kyuubi, however, said nothing, only noting that it was a rather dangerous technique.

At this rate, he'd never get to find out if it was really anything like his outlandish ideas, seeing as though he couldn't even get passed the first stage of training.

He was a bit reproachful at first, but Jiraiya proved himself worthy with a summoning scroll—with his, as well as the Fourth's name on it. Naruto was immediately impressed, and had signed himself down with vigor, much to Kyuubi's intense amusement. When asked upon why, exactly, his desire to be as much like the Fourth as possible was so bemusing, the demon only laughed. Either way, that was about the most interesting thing he'd done all week, as he had yet to summon anything substantial.

Naruto was certain that if the great demon bothered to help him a bit, the entire process would go a lot quicker.

However, said demon had opted to sleep the days away in pleasant solitude, never answering Naruto whenever he bothered to shout at the fox. What was the point in having such a powerful advantage when it did relatively nothing?

Naruto snorted again, as Jiraiya turned away and went back to his spying.

"Fuck this." Naruto hissed to himself, wallowing in the deepest pits of irritation.

He de-summoned his—admittedly, pathetic—frog and tried again.

He thought it would be a lot easier seeing as though his abilities had proved exponentially over the past few months since his and Kyuubi's integration. However, he soon realized that all he'd been doing was relying on Kyuubi's influence. Even when he was in control of his mind and body, Kyuubi was still behind the scenes smoothing out chakra transitions and measuring the correct amount of chakra Naruto should be using without the blonde's knowledge.

Essentially, all the times he had been so frightened during black ops missions when he had thought Kyuubi had left him to fend for himself, the demon had been regulating chakra flow to subtly help Naruto to grow stronger and level out the difference in their abilities.

Now that he was completely devoid of the demons interference, he realized just how much his chakra control sucked.

But perhaps he was being too harsh on himself. He did, after all, lack the thousands of years of practice Kyuubi had.

His next summon was marginally better, but still lacked any great use aside from being utterly adorable.

The frog flopped around as bonelessly as a magikarp, and did relatively nothing besides open its mouth for ragged air.

Naruto didn't find it entirely appealing to look at—a little blue thing with green spots, but when Yugao saw it, she admitted that it really was rather cute.

"But how?" Naruto poked at it, and it floundered away from his hand and near impaled itself on a rock.

Yugao shrugged, looking almost a bit sheepish. "It's… pleasant looking." Which may have been the most disturbing thing he'd heard all day.

This was the second time she'd visited in a week, and something made Naruto feel that this one wasn't for pleasantries.

As if psychic, the plum haired woman pulled out a scroll from her pocket.

Naruto took it warily.

"Ten-hundred sharp, Thursday." Which was two days from now.

"Hey, whoa!" Jiraiya scampered over, looking quite harried with cheeks reddened from slaps and a rather vicious looking slash down his chin. "This is my student here! You can't just take him out ya'know!"

"Really." She deadpanned.

"Without a fee." He ended with a waggle of his eyebrows, to which Yugao batted him to the ground with her fist, before turning back to Naruto.

"It should only take us three days at the longest."

"Three days?" Naruto wanted to groan. "But I thought I we were on leave for the Chuunin Exams."

Yugao made a noncommittal noise. "Technically. But it hardly applies."

Go figure.

"Because even if most of the black-ops are to be called in to Konoha for reinforcements, we still have to do missions at the same time. We can't have our entire workforce sitting around, don't you think?"

"But I'm a Gennin, too! Don't I get a break for participating?"

"I doubt it."

"How does that work?" The blonde asked mindlessly, ready to file a complaint. He was a Gennin, this work schedule was killing him! However, he wasn't entirely sure how to go about doing that, seeing as though he and the ANBU in question shared the same host body (which was his dammit! Not that parasite's!) and it would look rather strange to be two people at once. Instead, he whined to himself and continued to poke at his weak frog until it disappeared from lack of chakra, Yugao long gone.




"Too hot." Towa simpered from a tree. The whole place was hot and drenched in a long coating of humidity, and no matter how hard he fanned himself with the enormous leaf he'd snatched off of a questionably poisonous plant, the heat clung to his skin and heavy armor.

His teammates didn't make a move to answer him; the clearing was damp and lightless, not even a speck of sun making its way from the swathed canopy above. Yugao stood stalk still in front of the line of trees, looking near picturesque as she pulled a katana out of the body below her.

"Stop whining." She answered eventually, starting to walk forward with measured strides, and Towa awkwardly stumbled off of the large mushroom he had slouched upon to catch up to her.

"Hey, hold up there!" He scratched the back of his head. "I don't wanna get lost around here!" He fell in step behind her, peering in front of her and guffawing loudly.

In front of them, some paces away, was a struggling Naruto and a bright blue… part tadpole part frog. The blond Gennin slash back ops was struggling to turn the amphibian into a more definable species of frog, slacking off on his ANBU duties to practice work given to him as a Gennin. Towa would have been annoyed had it not been so absurd. Instead, he was just terribly amused.

"So you get mad at me for slouching off, but not him?" The childish ANBU pointed mercilessly to the frustrated blonde. "At least I was being productive!"

Yugao walked over to stand guard and lean against a tree, arms crossed. "You sat around on a mushroom and fanned yourself with a poisonous leaf. Hardly productive."

"It wasn't poisonous—" Protested the brunette, but he stopped short as he examined his hands with nothing short of horror, noting how his fingers swelled a bit above his gloves and were starting to take on a orange-ish tinge.

"I gotta agree with the idiot." Said Koga, as he dropped down from the trees, Yamato following suit seconds later. "Why does he get to spend his time slacking off and we have to do all the work?"

"Not really work." Yugao rolled here eyes. "We didn't do much beside run around blindly with swords and wait for the enemy to impale himself on one."

"It counts, doesn't it?" Koga snorted.

"Not really." Interrupted the orchid-haired woman. "Young Naruto is in the midst of crucial training, with none other then the great Toad Sannin Jiraiya himself."

The three blinked, and in the background, Naruto howled in frustration at another botched attempt.

"The pervert?" Koga finally asked.

"What kind of training is that?" Towa frowned. "Possibly learning a couple interesting things here and there, when the old guy's not running around out of Konoha and peaking at attractive women? The kid's probably knows more about getting himself in jail for sexual harassment then being a ninja."

"And he slacks off." Koga added.

"I'm not slacking off!" Naruto butted in with fury, feeling like he was in the Academy all over again, rather then in a poisonous jungle with fully grown men. "This is hard stuff, okay?"

Yugao looked pointedly at him, but the effect was lost with her mask. "It's a summoning technique. You've conquered much worse in a significantly less amount of work."

"Yeah, but," Naruto began a bit impatiently, as he redid the Jutsu with the same effects as the prior one. "I'm not using any of Kyuubi's chakra right now. I'm just trying to use my own, and be able to control it the same way I do with his."

"Shouldn't that be easier?" Koga rubbed the back of his head. "I mean… its your chakra. I think it'd be pretty tough to get to know someone else's the way you know your own and stuff."

"Well you're not a Jinchuuriki, now are you?" Yugao rebuked irritatedly.

Koga pushed his hands up in mock surrender to the angry, spitting cat while Naruto responded. "'Cause I use his chakra all the time. I got used to it. And I got used to him regulating chakra so I never have to know how much to use or how precise I need."

Naruto sighed. "Now I'm getting kicked in the butt for it."

The worst part was, Naruto had almost gotten used to the high he had been on for the past few months. Being Kyuubi was… exhilarating. Having so much power at his fingertips without any training made him lurch at the thought, and the blonde could completely understand how people fell to the intoxicating power. If Kyuubi hadn't shut the reserve off, and demanded with no exception that Naruto learn this technique by himself, he'd probably have never weaned off of it.

"Ah," Towa nodded as if he understood. "Poor kid."



"Hey, pervert." Naruto addressed his wayward sensei, who he had found sheltered in a tree some feet away, that way if the raging ladies came again, they'd have to climb the tree, providing Jiraiya with enough material to outweigh the pain he'd receive for his endeavors.

"Don't bother me when I'm working kid."

Naruto ignored the statement completely. "When do you think I can move on to the cool stuff?"

"When do you think you could actually summon a frog?" Came the rebuff.

Naruto pouted, but made no move to say anything else, opting to stand and stretch.

The sun was going down, and he supposed he should wake up early enough to take a shower as long as his hot water tank would last him (he now knew from experience that wherever they went on missions usually stunk, and that it was near impossible to stay as immaculately clean as Yugao did, regardless of what shampoo he used) before getting a large, and sadly, protein-filled breakfast before doing a couple hours worth of stretching.

"Well anyway," He scuffed his sandals on the rocks, hands in his pockets. "I'm going home." And, with narrowed eyes. "Seeing as though you're not teaching me shit."

"Don't blame the teacher," Jiraiya began, almost laughing at this point. "For the students inabilities!"

Instead of getting angry, the blonde Gennin merely walked off.

The sun had begun the last of its dying embers, and Konoha, which rose and set with the sun, was standing on its last crowds. The thinning people provided Naruto with ample time to enjoy the sunshine without any of the usual looks, and he was pleased to note that most people didn't even bother with their usual glares.

By the time he had arrived home, his thoughts had turned ten fold again, and he was beginning to wonder how Sakura and Sasuke were faring. Sasuke was probably angry with him, he wasn't sure why he had such a wrenching gut feeling on this, but he was almost certain that the Gennin wasn't pleased with him.

Last he'd seen of the two, Sakura looked drained enough to wobble on her feet, and Sasuke, as if he was brewing angrily in silent rage. Naruto supposed he was a catalyst for this, and a combination of other pieces strewn together to create enough hatred to cause the Uchiha to storm with that fiery look. Naruto had seen it before, maybe a handful of times. Once in Wave, a dense maelstrom of hate and a concern—concern for him, if he recalled correctly—so deeply evident it almost hurt the blonde to realize it for what it was.

He was important to Sasuke.

The Jinchuuriki fell into a sprawl as he tipped over his bed, eyes on the ceiling.

But how important?

The blonde turned his head, as if he couldn't bear to watch one place for too long without tiding off an overbearing swell of emotion.

They were friends…he supposed. The Uchiha probably meant a great deal more to Naruto then the blonde did to Sasuke.

In fact, he supposed that the single moment in Wave they shared was probably the most Sasuke would ever feel for the blonde, and that was a stirring of contempt and irritation, and perhaps a bit of fondness.

Nothing compared to Naruto, who idled the Uchiha to be something of his closest friend.



The following morning, and Naruto worked relentlessly on turning his pitiful tadpole part frog part sad lump of flesh into the kind of summons he'd seen Jiraiya do.

He succeeded. A bit.

His summon now reached his ankle, and while rather fat and resembling more of a pancake then anything, was certainly progress.

Even Jiraiya had said so, upon noticing the new summon about three hours after it had happened, too concerned with his ladies for much else. However, even then, Naruto wasn't really all there to receive his sentiments. In fact, he wasn't really there at all.

The blonde was too concerned with worrying himself over his teammates—if Team Seven was really considered his team at all anymore—and where he fell with them to really take pride in his minimal achievement.

Much to Kyuubi's irritation, he found that, in the small glimpses of time when he began to surface from his dreams, Naruto seemed to almost be in the cage with him, rather then where he was supposed to be, which was controlling his body.

The fox wasn't the only one to notice this.

"Alright, brat." Called Naruto's wayward teacher, some meters ahead of the blonde. "We're gonna try something else."

"Eh?" Naruto tipped his head. And he was finally starting to get somewhere.

He didn't say much else on the subject, beckoning the young ANBU up a steep hill, and winding around a cliff or two.

Much to Naruto' curiosity, they ended their trek atop a steep hill, where the wind scraped at his hair and his eyes could find the path all the way to the bottom.

Naruto probably would have said something, had he not taken the moment to fall in exhaustion. He'd spent most of his chakra attempting to summon a decent frog. Jiraiya looked down at his young student with a sigh. This little brat was in ANBU already? Admittedly, any child of Minato's certainly had what it took to enter the black ops early, and with his temperament, there was hardly any concern for another Itachi. But how was the blonde a black ops? He certainly didn't show any particular talent other then being a few cuts above the average Gennin.

Meanwhile, Naruto was experiencing the epiphany of his life.

"Listen brat, I'm going to save you. But you're going to do me a favor."

Naruto was more worried about eying the upcoming ground then whatever favor Kyuubi would ask in retaliation. "Fine, fine whatever. Just hurry up dammit!"

The transition was smooth, as usual, and in a moment a swathing plume of smoke erupted from the pit of the jarred rock, and Jiraiya peered down and whistled. He tilted over the edge a bit to see the beginnings of an enormous frog emerge from the gathering smoke.

"Oh?" The frog looked up to the blonde with sharp eyes on his head. "I've been summoned?"

Kyuubi, however, didn't bother to reply. "You owe me, remember that."

"Yeah, yeah." Naruto sighed. "What do you want?"

"Nothing that you could achieve now."

Naruto frowned, puzzled. "Then what—?"

"When the time comes, this will all make sense." The great demon. "Not too far in the future, you'll meet more frogs. I don't know when, but I surely expect you will, as this man is your teacher. One will give you a key."

"A key?" Naruto echoed forlornly. "Uh…"

"You will use it then to unlock me fully."

"WHAT!" Naruto sputtered, before angrily pulling himself to the forefront of his mind.

The frog still looked up at him curiously, but Naruto had yet to do anything besides skewer the rocks with a wrathful glare.

"Let him out." He spat to himself under his breath. "Fuck that."

"What are you talking about up there, brat?" The frog grew impatient. "And who are you?"

"Eh?" Naruto looked down and blinked. "I'm Uzumaki Naruto! I'm the coolest ninja ever! And I'm the newest guy on the summoning contract!"

"Summoning contract?" The frog narrowed his eyes. "Jiraiya is here?" It snorted then. "That perverted old man. Summoning me to some random place like this."

"Jiraiya didn't summon you." Naruto rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. "I did!"

The frog took a moment to digest this, chewing on the edge of his pipe, before he erupted into laughter. "Don't lie you punk!" It chortled. "There's no way in hell a little shrimp like you could summon me."

"You piece of shit toad!" Naruto retorted. "Course I did!"

"I'm the one who summoned you, so that makes me your master!"

Naruto rolled his sleeve down, as if making to punch the frog, who only rolled his eyes. "Got that, you stupid toad?"

"What the…" He sighed. "Who the hell do you think you're talking to, eh?" He frowned derisively. "I'm the Toad Master, Gamabunta-sama."

But Naruto had one hand wedged in his ear and his head titled to the cliffs above. "Damn, where'd that dumb pervert go?"

"Not even listening, cheeky brat." Gamabunta said to himself, before he wrapped his tongue around the whippersnapper, who yelped in surprise.

He took a giant leap and crashed onto the cliffs above, looking to pin Jiraiya, whom he assumed—seeing as though he had known the man long enough to recognize his tendencies to slack and altogether be a slothful sofa spud—would be walking away by now and leaving the poor boy to fend by himself against the Toad Boss.

However, the giant amphibian found himself looking at a signed contract, no Jiraiya insight, and a collapsed replica of the last person who had ever ridden on his head unconscious between his eyes.



it's not the same


They were both watching.

Their eyes met, both red and black, matched together and the sky was made of rings. Thousands and thousands of bright lined edges that never really ended, and neither did their gazes.

It was him, he realized. He was staring.

But so was the other person.

The moon was crooked in the sky, and it hung limply among the stars. The crescent was filled with sharp spines—teeth, it was leering at him. Watching him.

Part of him.

And there was someone next to him, and he could feel the burning claret gaze. (How he knew it was red, and how he knew they were watching him, he wasn't very sure)

But he couldn't waver his eyes from the spinning stars in the eyes of the other boy.

He caught golden out of his peripheral. A swath of spiked lemon and a bright red that burned the sides of his vision.

It was him. No… it was Kyuubi. Immediately, he recalled the beast's last words to him.

"The key." He asked. "What did you mean by that?"

The mouth moved, but no words came out of it. He tried to move his eyes away from the slowly swimming stars, but he couldn't. The voice whispered from the moon. He tried to lean and hear it. But the screaming silence kept the hushed, euphonious voice at bay.

It called to him, still, over and over again, imprinting in the back of his mind—

"Look at your eyes." Said the boy with the eyes made from stars.

Kyuubi moved to stand in front of him, his exact and perfect replica, and slided between him and the boy, until the boy with the starry-eyes melted into the stratosphere of rings.

In the reflection of the demon's russet eyes, he saw it.



Naruto bolted out of his bed he almost tumbled into the window to his left.

The walls were white and closing in and the sheets weren't his own and his head was spinning and his eyes were wide and the moon, bright and big and watching—

"The… Sharingan?" He blinked slowly, whispering to himself.

Naruto awoke to the lazy Nara lounging near his bed, and, surprisingly enough, a fruit basket along with him. Naruto had never been the one to receive many visitors, and was pleasantly surprised to see Shikamaru. The sun was up, and while he remembered the clear imprint of his eyes in the reflection of something, he couldn't remember the rest of his dream.

Kyuubi, when asked upon it, stated that he hadn't the slightest what went on in the strange world that was Naruto's subconscious, and, quite frankly, didn't really want to know anyway. And Naruto wasn't inclined to tell someone so unwilling to listen.

The Shikamaru and Naruto had quite the scare when they saw Gaara looming over Rock Lee's bed, obviously intending to kill him from the blatant way he disregarded the two., no matter how flabbergasted they were as they watched him.

"What?" Naruto yelled allowed. "Why would you want to kill him?"

Beside him, Shikamaru had a grim set frown above furrowed brows. He was probably just as downright freaked out as Naruto was.

Honestly, this kid reminded him too much of Kyuubi. Granted, he also seemed to have no strange, elusive plots going around involving messed up dreams and eyes, but he had the same aloof quality to ending a life that sorely reminded Naruto that this guy was a Jinchuuriki as well.

The redhead seemed to tense away from him, the sand pausing as Shikamaru trapped him in his Shadow Jutsu.

"He can't move while I've got him." Shikamaru hissed out. Naruto stood warily by his side, crouched in a defense position. "But he's still so confident…"

"This guy's crazy." Naruto agreed. "But Shikamaru, we gotta be careful. There's something different about him."

Hah. Something different. He and Naruto were one and the same.

"Yeah, he's fucked up. And self-centered. Probably had a messed up childhood."

"If you get in my way." Gaara continued on as if neither had interrupted him. "I'll kill you too."

The blonde eyed him warily, unsure of what to say to that.

"Want to give it a shot?" He grinned, hands raised.

He pulled his fist down but still had his eyes narrowed. This guy was too cocky. So what if he had a demon? He probably hadn't gone through half the crap Naruto did. And even if he did, it didn't give him the right to be a fucking creep, and stalk bowl-cut haired boys when they're sleeping and stare down at them and contemplate choking them with sand.

Anyway, Kyuubi hadn't said a word about disgraceful behavior unfit for the body of the demon king, so he either didn't care that Naruto was being so brash as he usually was or simply wasn't paying attention.

Naruto would bet on the former.

Shikamaru bit his lip. "We know you're strong from the fight with Rock Lee." He began, trying to bluff. "But we're not bad either. We hardly used any of our strength in the Prelims. There's a lot more to us then you think."

Naruto, however, was unaware of Shikamaru's ability to lie, and with a panicky gulp side glanced at the genius. No matter how smart he was…he couldn't possibly know about Naruto's double life—

"Plus, it's two on one. You're at the disadvantage. If you listen to what we say, we'll let you leave quietly."

"I'll say it again." The redhead repeated. "If you get in my way, I'll kill you."

Shikamaru grunted, but didn't say anything else.

If anything, his calm mantra only angered Naruto more.

The blonde didn't say anything to it, however.

"This guy thinks he's tough shit." Admittedly, for a Gennin, he was. But that was hardly worth much in a society which classed Gennin as the weakest ranking of all shinobi. "C'mon Shikamaru, don't bother wasting your words on him." The blonde eyed the redhead, whose severe expression hadn't changed. "The guy wouldn't listen to you, anyway."

His statement obviously encouraged a rise out of the angered Suna-nin, as the white hands at his sides clenched into fists.

Shikamaru wasn't impressed by his bravado. "I told you to stop it! His strength is like a monster, don't you understand that?"

"Monster." Naruto scoffed. "He's no monster. He's just a kid who hides out under people's beds.

Shikamaru tensed, warily looking between the two. "Stop provoking him dumb ass!" He hissed.

Gaara only closed his eyes in a long movement, almost as if he hadn't done it at all. "Not a monster, huh? I'm sure you'll find that isn't the case."

Naruto was soon to learn that him and Gaara were much more similar than he imagined. Using what Kyuubi had already noted to him, and what Gaara was telling him now, he could understand fully where he and Gaara fit. Gaara's father had used his mother as a sacrifice to seal the One Tailed demon Shukaku inside of Gaara as a child. Obviously, somewhere along the lines the seal had fucked up and Gaara was turned into what he was now, a combination of psychotic demon and warped child.

Naruto wasn't worried. He was powerful, sure, but Naruto had learned to keep an air of self-confidence around him. Not arrogance, but an awareness of his physical abilities and how they compared to others. He wasn't scared, but Naruto's gut wrenched in pity and anxiety. The boy was unstable, insane, warped and twisted and leering at him with those wide sleepless eyes, but more importantly—

In a strange, refracted way, he reminded Naruto of himself.

Luckily, Gai was able to break them up before anything too dangerous happened, and Naruto was left to mull about until the finals began.

He tried to look for Sasuke in the mean time, an important question on the forefront of his mind, but he couldn't seem to find the Uchiha anywhere.

Sakura didn't seem to have the slightest idea where he'd have gone off to, and while her eyes looked fretful and a bit lonely, Naruto couldn't stay for very long. Sakura would surely ask him about that day in the forest, and he honestly wasn't sure what to tell her. He didn't want to ask that weird new creep on Team Seven, and he doubted he'd find any way to track the guy down. As Naruto plundered the streets of Konoha, he felt awfully isolated. He hadn't met anyone he knew today since he wok up aside from Shikamaru. He hadn't seen Kakashi, and for that matter, his ANBU team in general.

More importantly, he hadn't seen Sasuke.

On normal circumstances, seeing the duck face would probably sour his mood considerably. That had significantly changed after he hadn't seen the boy in a few weeks, resulting in their first meeting in the Forest of Death. Since then, Naruto couldn't help but be concerned over his—well, as much as he wouldn't say it aloud, friend's—ex-teammate's well being.

Orochimaru was…scary.

So was Kyuubi, but Naruto had gotten used to that. And it was different, because Kyuubi wouldn't be the first to kill him off, in actuality, he'd probably defend Naruto. Perhaps it had something to do with how untrusting and worried his name made the other ANBU, as if Naruto and the rest of his generation had missed some sort of terror that, like many scandals in the Shinobi world, was buried under years of silence.

Naruto spent a fair amount of time mulling about for Sasuke, who was supposed to be entering the Chuunin Exams today.

Naruto supposed he might already be at the stadium, but when he got in there, he only saw Shikamaru, Shino and Neji that he recognized from this high above.

"Dammit Sasuke." Naruto sighed to himself, as he made his way into the stands with his hands shoved in his pockets. "This really is the worst day to be late."

He looked around for a spot, but couldn't find anywhere that wasn't packed by crowds of people already. His eyes caught a swath of bright pink from amidst the sea of people.

"Ino-chan! Sakura-chan!" Naruto called aloud once he recognized the two best friends sitting in one of the front rows near the railing. Well, he'd have to face Sakura eventually. Might as well be now.

Sakura immediately perked up at once to Naruto's loud voice, swiveling around with a hesitant smile.


"How you guys been?" Naruto slid into the seat next to Ino, a bright grin on his face, and lighting up his features. "Haven't seen you in a while, Ino!"

"Well I've been busy." Ino huffed with a contented smile, pleased with the attention.

"You've been busy too, Naruto." Sakura replied quietly, and Naruto froze in his chair, while Ino's eyes turned curious to the two of them.

"Eh? Oh that's right! Naruto, why weren't you at the Chuunin Exams?" Ino teased with a smirk. "Don't tell me you didn't make it to Gennin."

Naruto shook his head, looking sheepish. "Nah, I did." He turned his eyes away to where the contesters were small, almost undecipherable smudges of color against the terrain. Shino, Shikamaru, and Neji seemed to be the only from Leaf (that were there) and he recognized the Kazekage's children from their meeting amongst the withering dunes of Suna. There was another ninja, who he didn't quite recognize from Mist. "Err—have either of you seen the Uchiha? He's not down there…"

Ino shook her head, hardly noticing the tactful change in conversation.

"Sasuke-kun hasn't been seen by anyone! He wasn't even at the hospital when we went to give him flowers!" She bemoaned aloud. "I wonder how he's doing…"

Sakura only bit her lip, the lack of unethical honorific gone from Sasuke's name. When did Sasuke stop calling Naruto "dobe", and when did the blonde stop calling him "teme"? When did they become so formal?

So distant?

"Well, either way." Sakura shrugged, a smile being stretched onto her face. "We can just sit back and relax, and cheer for our friends!"

Naruto smiled back at her. "And watch Shikamaru be a bum, of course."

Ino chortled with laughter at the jab at her teammate, and the announcer commenced the first match, after a long debate over what to do with the missing contestant. After some amount of time, they had decided upon waiting it out, seeing as though many of the crowd had come for the sole reason of watching the final Uchiha advance to the next rank.


In his dream, he had seen his eyes in Kyuubi's reflection. The Sharingan was spinning in his eyes like slowly swimming fish, trance-like and hypnotic. But they were different than Sasuke's. Sasuke's were ringed only once, and had two tomoe. His pupils had been surrounded by three rings, and nine tomoe.

He frowned as Shino and the Mist nin entered the ring.

What did that mean?

Was that even a Sharingan?

"Naruto?" Sakura began quietly, as Ino left to buy a soda.

Naruto didn't say anything for a few moments, watching the two Gennin slide into offensive positions as the Chuunin proctor recited the rules. "Yeah?" He answered, finally, eyes never leaving the fight.

Maybe in intensity, or because he couldn't face Sakura in the eye.

"The reason you left Team Seven…" She trailed off, and Naruto could imagine her wetting her lips and taking a deep breath. "Is it because you're in the black-ops?"

She waited for his answer with bated breath, even though she was fairly sure she was aware of the outcome of this question.

"Sakura…" He sighed. And she noticed the lack of honorific again. "If I was, I wouldn't be allowed to tell you."

"It hardly matters, does it?" She retaliated. "I already saw the mark on your arm."

As if it burned once mentioned, he looked to his shoulder, where the cut off of his sleeve effectively masked the swirl-like tattoo.

"I wish you would have said something." Sakura spoke up again, rose colored hair brushing past her ears and framing her face. "When you walked off…we didn't know what to think. And you know Kakashi-sensei…he really doesn't like explaining things. And then Sai came along, and no one would give us a straight answer as to why he was there."

"And then Kakashi-sensei said you weren't participating in the Chuunin exams, either." She looked him in the eye then, even though his blue ones were wavering in meeting her steadfast gaze. "Because you couldn't, right? Is that why we got a replacement?"

Naruto sighed helplessly. He hated confrontation. Someone always got hurt. But Sakura had backed him into a corner, ruthlessly almost. He supposed girls were like that though, always knowing just what to say to make you feel like crap.

"It was bound to happen, I guess." He rubbed the back of his head. "I couldn't be two people at one time anymore. I wanted to just be Naruto, but I—" His words got stuck in his throat, and he bit his tongue to keep from saying words he couldn't.

Couldn't be just Naruto anymore.

Luckily, Sakura seemed to understand what he couldn't say, a sweet smile at her gummy mouth, and eyes bright and bottle-glass. "I understand, Naruto." She said. "And hey, maybe next year, I'll be a Chuunin! I bet you and Sasuke will be working together long before I do, but," She pumped her fist. "I'm planning to be the best I can!"

"Sakura-chan." Naruto whispered in relief. His eyes met hers for a moment, which seemed to convey a sincere understanding and unhinged of anger or hate.

She laughed then. "Who knew you were so good, Naruto? I wonder what you've been hiding from us all those times you really sucked."


"Shut up you two!" Ino hopped over the seat, and plopped gracelessly into the chair and tossed Sakura a drink, popping the can of her own once she had nestled down enough to raise annoyed brows at the two of them. "It's starting!"

Naruto turned to watch the beginnings of the match.

While a large burden had been eased off of him, he still felt as if, soon, something heavy would replaced it, something of equal size and stature.

He gulped.

d o n t l o o k a w a y

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