"Naruto-kun! It's wonderful to see back in the village safe and sound finally." Naruto grinned widely and warmly in response to the Hokage's enthusiastic greeting as he entered the old man's office along with Jiraiya. "And it's good to see you using the front door like everybody else," the elderly Kage added, wry smile on his face as he began to prepare his pipe.

"I gotta say old man, it's good to be back." Naruto answered, the earnest grin never faltering as he replied.

And he really was glad to be back, too. Of course, his time with the toads had been brilliant, and he had learned more than he had ever thought was possible in two weeks; but this had been the longest time he had ever been away from the village, and he had really started to miss the place.

And then there was the fact that the competitors for the Chunin exams had already arrived, something Jiraiya had informed him two days ago. From that moment on, Naruto had been desperate to leave for Konoha, but Fukasaku had been adamant that he stayed and made as much progress as possible in the time he had. But try as he might, Naruto couldn't shake the fear that Gaara would attack somebody whilst he wasn't there.

Being rational, it was a ridiculous thing to fear. ANBU would be monitoring all foreign shinobi, and there was nothing he could do to stop Gaara, that the ANBU squad that would likely be assigned to monitor a foreign Jinchuuriki couldn't. But the worry ate away at him still. He just had to be there for his friends. It was who he was, he supposed.

The Hokage smiled in response, before schooling his features into what Naruto liked to call his 'Hokage-face'. It was the face he put on during mission briefings and meeting, the face of a strong and wise leader; and Naruto immediately straightened up, knowing that the pleasantries were officially done with.

"Now, Jiraiya has already provided me with full mission reports from the both of you, and I congratulate you on the completion of your missions, Naruto. You have gone further for this village than anybody should have the right to, and performed exceptionally to boot. You should know, that as of yesterday morning, our shinobi struck at all the major bases from which Gatou Corporation operated across the elemental nations - the locations of which your intel provided us with. The company's illegal operations have been decimated, and for all intents and purposes are no more."

Naruto bowed his head slightly to acknowledge the praise, but didn't allow himself a smile, or to interrupt. This was obviously not the main piece of information the Hokage was about to impart.

"However," Sarutobi started, exhaling a steady stream of pipe smoke before pressing on. "Given how your mission finished, and since that you have been highlighted as a potential target, I feel you deserve an explanation - and an opportunity to take part in something which at this point involves only those that I trust beyond all others." Naruto couldn't help but widen his eyes at the implications of those words, and how they related to their conversation during the mission briefing the last time he saw the old man.

The threat from within.

"Jiraiya has told you nothing at my request, but the truth is, we know precisely who attacked you - and he resides within this very village. In fact, he is a prominent member on the civilian council, as well as a former shinobi and a very influential figure amongst Konoha's military forces. His name is Shimura Danzou."

Naruto's breath caught. He knew that name. Obviously, the man wasn't legendary in the same way as the Sandaime is, or the Sannin, or even Hatake Kakashi - but he was still a prominent figure in Konoha's history. Rival to Sarutobi, and a shinobi that worked under the Nidaime Hokage and had influential roles in several of the most prominent battles in two different shinobi world wars.

More recently, Naruto knew his as someone he had often seen going into Sarutobi's offices for meetings and discussions. He was seriously important within the village, and held an enormous amount of sway.

Too much of course, for anyone to be able to accuse him of attacking the blond, as Naruto hadn't actually seen his assailant.

"He was my team mate, friend, and rival to the seat of Hokage all at the same time. When I attained the position over him, he became increasingly militaristic and dark in his worldview, disagreeing with the views and teaching of the Shodaime. He started an organization called 'Root', an off-shoot of ANBU under his own control, initially with the remit of undertaking 'black' missions for the benefit of the village that as he was an independent force, we could not be blamed for.

"They went against everything I believed, everything your Father believed, and everything the Shodaime had taught; and yet, I let him continue. Continue with the missions, continue building Root's strength. Even now, I'm not entirely sure why. I suppose I believed him to have the village's best interests at heart, the way he saw best to protect the village. I still saw him as my friend.

"However, it became increasingly clear that Danzou's motives had at some point, changed. He begun to plot to usurp me as Hokage, to establish Konoha as the dominating force in the world. He intends to conquer the rest of the elemental nations, with Konoha at the head of course, by any means necessary."

Naruto felt slightly ill at that. The sheer loss of life such a campaign would exact upon Konoha, on his friends - hell, on the world - was utterly staggering. But it was the idea of a Konoha with the Hokage as some kind of oppressive tyrant, was what really disturbed him. The idea of the position his Father held, the position he aspired to, being used to rule over people with an iron fist sickened him to the very core.

"This Root... It's gotten too big for you to take down with force, hasn't it; and obviously Danzou is too influential for you to have him taken out and get away with it, and too careful to be caught doing something to damage his reputation?" Naruto asked slowly, running over possibilities and facts in his mind faster than he could even process them properly.

"On the money, gaki." Jiraiya interjected from his position at the back of the room, arms folded, with a similar serious expression to the Sandaime on his face. "Essentially, we're stuck waiting for him to make his move, with very little we can do to directly counter him."

"Assassination is out of the question. Danzou is too well protected, too damn paranoid and frankly, too good to be taken out of the game like that. Obviously I could simply have Root removed and Danzou killed.." Sarutobi started, leaving Naruto with an opportunity to fill in the rest.

"But you can't move without evidence because he has so much support from within the village; and that aside, fighting against a force of Black-ops trained shinobi would be horrific in terms of casualties and structural damage, as well as being impossible to hide from enemies on the outside." Seeing the Hokage nod in confirmation, Naruto pressed on. "So what can we do?"

"We watch, Naruto. Gather a circle of those you trust absolutely around yourself, and work to monitor Danzou's movements and actions, and counter them as often as is possible. Then it's just a case of waiting for Danzou to make his move. In most cases, under the radar battles for control of a village such as Konoha are long term, and rest on the swaying of the influential young of the village - the heirs to the most prominent people and clans - onto your side before any real conflict can break out... However, we have something on our side this time that could be instrumental in that particular battle - something Danzou would never be able to acquire for himself."

Naruto racked his brain trying to reason out what Sarutobi was hinting at, but in the end, the elder Kage put him out of his misery.

"I have somebody already integrated into the current crop of major clan heirs - somebody they all trust, but more importantly, somebody I am absolutely certain I can trust absolutely. We have you Naruto." Sarutobi sighed as he finished his sentence. Involving a Genin, a freshly minted one at that - not to mention one he cared for as though he were family - was deeply disturbing for him. But he was being honest. Naruto would be invaluable in ensuring that as many of the heirs as possible remained on his side, the side of the Will of Fire.

Even now, he knew, Naruto had started to make friends and secure the loyalty and trust of several of them. Asuma was fairly certain the Nara heir would remain in whatever camp Naruto himself was in, that Naruto had already managed to inspire a large amount of trust and loyalty in the Nara. He was equally certain that the Akimichi and Yamanaka heirs would do the same, if not only because of Shikamaru. He had also become incredibly close with Inuzuka Hana, who while not the heir, was the daughter of the current clan head, and the eldest child, and thus held a lot of sway within the clan itself. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the current Hyuuga heir seemed to be incredibly fond of the blond, which would be vital in ensuring at the very least, that the village's most powerful clan would not support Danzou.

"You've already begun to make friends and earn the trust of a great amount of your graduating class. As you're probably aware, every Hokage has a circle of his most trusted Jonin, ANBU, and advisers; that he is certain he can trust above all others. My own currently includes the likes of Jiraiya, Kakashi, and my son Asuma. What I want you to attempt to do, is try and begin to establish your own, at first from those within your graduating class."

"Also," Jiraiya interjected, "you should keep in mind exactly how useful of a circle of people you can trust, and are ready and willing to help you out, can be. These aren't just the people that we want you to try and work with against Danzou's machinations - the are the clan heirs and important ninja that are going to support your drive to become Hokage, that will stand against your enemies alongside you. Of course, it's implied that you'll do the same for them - but I have a feeling that you'd help any of them either way. This is just another step towards you achieving your goal of becoming Hokage." Jiraiya paused before allowing a wry grin to emerge on his face.

"And another step towards me blowing away the ladies by being able to claim I was the man who trained two Hokage's. They'll be throwing themselves at me!"

* * *

Naruto exhaled slowly, trying very hard to centre himself and clear his mind, but it was a thankless task. There was so much going on. The Sandaime had essentially asked that he formed a semi-independent faction for a covert, long-term battle for control of the entire village, and the Chunin exams started in a mere four days - bringing a vast amount of foreign shinobi, including the maniacally homicidal jinchuuriki Gaara, and a whole heap of mortal peril to boot.

But most importantly, he was excited. Excited because one of his newest friends was about to arrive at his training ground, and they would begin their training together for the Exams. The Hokage had been unable to find a third teammate for him to take the exams, but because he had worked with the second member of his 'team' before with good results, he'd be able to take the exam as a pair.

He'd be taking the Chunin exam as a duo with Inuzuka Hana.

Who coincidentally, had just walked into the clearing that he and Jiraiya had monopolised to train in.

"Meditating, Naruto? Didn't think it's be your thing."

Naruto got up and turned to face the grinning medic, and gave her a sheepish smile.

"To be honest, it really isn't, but I spent some time recently training with my toad summons, and they insisted I learn. It's actually the first stage of learning a way of fighting that may well be strong enough to put me on a level above most Jonin at least. I won't be able to start learning it until my body is ready, but meditating will make it much easier when I start."

Hana blinked, dumbfounded for the briefest of moments, before bursting out laughing. "Only you, Naruto, could be so blasé about learning what seems to be such a powerful skill from the summons of Jiraiya of the Sannin and the bloody Yondaime of all people. I take it you've gotten a lot better since we last met up then?"

Naruto grinned, his features taking on a distinctive fox-like quality. "You have no idea."

"Well then, before we get down to working on our teamwork, and planning for the exams; what say we get... reacquainted? My Mum's been helping me prepare for the exams while you've been gone, and I have some new moves I've been dying to try out on you." The Inuzuka stated with a smirk, cracking her knuckles faux-menacingly.

"Heh, well if you think you can touch me, you're welcome to try. Just don't be whining when I put you down."

"Dog jokes, Naruto? Really? I thought you were better than that." She sighed dramatically, shrugging her shoulders to complete the look. "Now I'm gonna have to kick your ass."

* * *

The Day Before the Chunin Exams

"Basically, I hate midgets. Especially ones that are rude... Makes me want to kill them."

Sakura gulped heavily at that declaration - after all, the situation the annoying little boy being held aloft by his shirt was in, was mostly her fault. He had made some sort of vaguely insulting comment about her ability as a ninja - she didn't even really remember or care at this point - and she had chased him, fully intending to enact vengeance on the little brat. How dare someone who looked like they hadn't even enter the academy talk about her skill as a ninja!

But she hadn't meant for this to happen. She had apparently chased him right into the clutches of a pair of murderous foreign ninja. One was a blonde girl, perhaps a little older than her, wearing a plain white dress, tied with a red sash round her waist; and if Sakura had to guess, a metal battle fan strapped to her back. She looked utterly indifferent and fed up with the turn of events, as if strolling into a village full of foreign ninja and murdering a small child was nothing unusual, nothing to be concerned about.

The second, however, was the one that truly had Sakura scared. He was directing a fair amount of killer intent her way - something she still hadn't even learned how to do - and seemed utterly serious about killing the kid just for bumping into him. He was the same age as his companion, but wore a black full body suit, that even covered the top of his head, and had covered his face in white and purple face paint; that to Sakura, made him look entirely menacing.

She knew full well she was outclassed, and had almost descended into a minor panic. None of her team-mates were close, and he sensei, Hatake Kakashi, had been called away to the Hokage so there was no way he could help. She was on her own, and had no way of being able to help the boy, let alone herself if they decided to attack her as well.

"P-please, don't-"

"Begging?" The boy in black snorted loudly. "I knew Konoha Genin would be weak, but begging? Pathetic."

Sakura actually winced. This entire situation was preying on every insecurity she had developed since graduating, and finding out just how behind her team-mates she actually was. Of course she had known Uchiha Sasuke was better than her. How could she not? He was the last Uchiha - a famous, and powerful clan - and the Rookie of the year. He was undefeated in the Academy spars, aced all the tests, and even knew jutsu outside of those taught in the academy. He was a prodigy - a natural genius, born to be a top shinobi.

But she had been the second placed graduate, and even edged out Sasuke in a good many of the written tests. Her chakra control was, even according to Kakashi-sensei, superb, and she had always done reasonably in the academy spars. She had actually believed she would actually make a decent ninja.

And then she graduated. Saw first hand how much better than her Sasuke and her other team mate, Sai, were. She had witnessed Jonin level combat and stared death in the face on her first C-rank mission. And it had shaken her to her very core. She was very, very close to quitting all together. And then this had happened, and Sakura was once again completely helpless and out of her depth.

"You know, walking around in somebody else's village, flaring off killing intent and threatening their shinobi - civilians even - really isn't very clever. Call it a hunch, but I don't think you're quite Chunin material."

Sakura started as a familiar voice spoke from her side.

It was Naruto, and she hadn't even sensed him until he had spoken.

But it wasn't just that. Naruto might as well have been a total stranger for how familiar he looked. He was dressed almost completely in black, wearing what was the standard shinobi uniform, but instead of a flak jacket like the Jonin or Chunin of the village, he was wearing a deep red set of body armour that covered a fair amount more than the Anbu standard armour she had seen on the mysterious masked shinobi around the village. She also couldn't help but notice that he had absolutely no pouches for his ninja equipment, or anything remotely similar.

But what stood out more than absolutely anything else, what shocked her even more than his ditching his ridiculous orange outfit sometime since their only D-rank together; was the expression he wore. He looked... Intense. His cerulean blue eyes fixing the two shinobi in front of them with a firm and penetrating stare. Taking everything in, measuring the situation, measuring the enemy.

Suddenly, for some inexplicable reason, Sakura suddenly felt better after seeing his expression - like she knew that now he was here, these two foreign ninja wouldn't be able to get to her past him. It was ridiculous. She knew that Naruto was an idiot. She knew he was weak - even weaker than she was in fact. And then, she'd glance at him and feel reassured all over again.

"I'm getting lectured by yet another weak Konoha midget? I should just deal with you all right-"

"Kankuro, he's going to be mad if we don't hurry. Just put the brat down." The boy, Kankuro apparently, glanced at the blond girl who had spoken condescendingly.

"Man, Temari, just relax a little. He's not here, is he? I just want to have a little fun before we have to meet him." The blonde girl rolled her eyes and sighed, but said nothing more, apparently deciding to leave Kankuro to it.

"I'm really sorry - Kankuro, was it? But I absolutely can't let you hurt that kid." Naruto interrupted the exchange, trying to remain as polite as absolutely possible. Sakura might not have had a clue about who these two were, but he did. These were Gaara's siblings, and the eldest children of the current Kazekage - in other words, pretty much the only people in the whole of Suna who could get away with strolling into a foreign village and causing problems.

And they just so happened to have taken the grandson of the Sandaime Hokage, essentially as a hostage.

Somehow, somehow - Naruto had managed to walk into the middle of a hugely volatile diplomatic situation - on his way to Ichiraku's, of all the utterly innocuous things. If the Genin wasn't already convinced that he'd never have a normal day in his life, he was now. This was so his luck.

"And what exactly is some punk like you going to do about it?"

Naruto did his best to shoot the crying child a reassuring smile, before fixing Kankuro with an altogether disarmingly innocent grin that only Sakura recognised as the grin he wore before one of his pranks went off in class.

"Well probably something like this." And with barely a flicker of movement from his right hand, he sent a pair of kunai towards the two Suna shinobi, one aimed at each of them. Not one person even tried to figure out exactly where Naruto had gotten the kunai from.

Kankuro smirked at the rather pathetic attack. He thought about intercepting the blades with the kid in his hands, but realised rather quickly that the both of the weapons were off-target. This waste of space couldn't even throw kunai straight.

He couldn't help himself. He burst out laughing as the kunai went straight past his face. And as a result he missed the sound of two transformations dispelling from behind him. Temari had heard it, but the deactivation of the technique had been perfectly timed, and she hadn't been able to react until it was two late, and both of the Suna ninja felt the cold steel of a kunai pressed against their bare necks by a pair of smiling blond shinobi.

"Would you please let the Grandson of the Sandaime Hokage go now? If you don't, it's my duty as a Konoha ninja to kill you to protect him, and I really don't want to have to cause a diplomatic incident because you're sort of an idiot."

Kankuro gulped impulsively and released his hold on the boy almost instantly. He had very nearly made an unbelievable mistake. He had nearly ruined everything. Of all the snot nosed little kids he could have chosen to mess with, he had probably picked the only one that he couldn't have gotten away with hurting. In fact, his poor choice of target probably meant that the blond holding a kunai to his throat would be pretty safe to kill him right now in defence of the Hokage's relative, some minor diplomatic issues aside. The only reason he wasn't already dead, assuming this Konoha ninja had the stones to actually kill him, was his own status as a Kage's son.

"Kankuro. You're embarrassing us."

The third voice surprised Sakura, but it was Naruto's reaction that had her worried. The two Bunshin darted forward and picked up the boy, and ran back towards her and the original Naruto, who himself had stepped forward protectively, and fresh kunai in his hand and all signs of false politeness or mischief totally erased from his face.

"I was wondering when you were going to come out of that tree... Gaara."

The red-haired jinchuuriki was hanging from the branch of a tree overlooking the confrontation, his arms crossed, and a cold stare on his face aimed at Naruto.

"Uzumaki Naruto." Suddenly, Gaara disappeared in a swirl of sand and chakra induced smoke, and reappeared in between the two opposing groups of shinobi, looking directly at the blond Konoha nin. "Mother wants your blood..." His rasping voice, somehow managed to set Naruto even more on edge, even as Naruto searched for a sign that Gaara was anything less then totally lost in the darkness.

Unfortunately, the sight of several trails of sand snaking towards him across the ground cut that particular search short.

"Gaara wait!" Naruto exclaimed, desperate to avoid a fight with the Jinchuuriki in the middle of the village. "If you attack me now you'll be thrown out of the village!" But the sand kept coming, and Gaara gave no sign that he had even heard his fellow container. "I said wait! If you get thrown out, you won't be able to fight all of the other strong ninja that are competing! People stronger than me! People who can... Prove your existence."

The sand stopped dead, and Naruto suddenly felt immensely grateful to Jiraiya, who had apparently put some significant effort into producing an intelligence report on the Ichibi's container. That last part, had been part of one of the most difficult things Naruto had ever read, because he came to realise exactly how close to becoming like Gaara he had come.

"Because after all, when your all alone, when your lost in despair... You have to find a reason..." Naruto spoke softly, not even really talking to Gaara in particular.

"A reason to live... To exist." Gaara's eyes had widened before he replied, because he had seen in Naruto's eyes, the exact same thing he saw in his own.

Uzumaki Naruto understood. And it was Mother's insane whisperings that told Gaara why. Kyuubi. The one word that Gaara had been able to properly recognise. Uzumaki Naruto understood because he bore the exact same burdens that Gaara himself bore - and yet, he was so very different.

What reason had he found?

"You and I... are the same. What- What is your reason?"

"I found friends. People who cared for me, for no other reason than because I was me. They rescued me from the hell that you're still in right now, Gaara. They're my reason to exist. I wonder, Gaara, who's reason is a stronger? Who's existence?"

"Someone who lives for others... Will always be weak. Yours is meaningless."

"Then prove it, Gaara. Save up all that blood lust for he exams, and find me. Find me and prove that your existence, your reason, is stronger than mine."

Gaara just stared, his eyes boring into Naruto's. "You want to prevent me from killing."

"Of course I do. But I can't really stop you once your in the exams... Although, I would appreciate it if you'd just focus on me until you've killed me."

The red head couldn't fathom how Naruto had found his answer, how their reasons could be so radically different. Surely, his reason was weaker than his? He was weak? And yet, of all the people he had tried to kill, the Konoha ninja was the only one other than his father who had escaped. The only one that had managed to live...

"Do not die until we fight, Uzumaki Naruto. Mother... Wants your blood, and she will have it." Gaara turned from him, and started to walk away. "Kankuro, Temari. Come."

The mention of his siblings brought Naruto's attention away from Gaara for the first time since he had showed up, only to see both Kankuro and Temari gazing at him with unreadable expressions on their faces. "Sure, Gaara... We're coming." Temari stated quietly, shooting Naruto one final glance, before her and Kankuro left with the red head.

"Well," Naruto began as soon as he was certain they'd gone, turning his attention back to the pair that had started the entire incident in the first place, "that could have gone a lot worse. For a start, the three ninja hiding in the bushes across from here could have decided to get involved." Both the reaction of Sakura, as well as the ninja in the bush - who left without even revealing their faces - made Naruto grin widely as he tried to put Gaara out of his mind.

"Are you okay, Konohamaru?" Naruto queried with a gentle smile at the still shaken boy, and tousled his hair once he had received a nervous nod in the affirmative. "Anyway, Sakura, I've got to head off - some last minute preparations to make for the exams. But, if you have time, there's a meeting of the rookie Genin at Moritake's barbecue place this evening at six. It's about the Chunin exams, and Gaara. See if you can't get your team mates to show up as well."

Sakura nodded, knowing full well that Sasuke would want to be there if it was a meeting about enemies they might face in the Exams.

"Great! I'll see you then."

And with that, Naruto strolled away, leaving the girl alone in the street with the shell shocked grandson of the Hokage, and her thoughts. She supposed she should be curious about the new abilities Naruto had shown, or the fact he had been able to sense that red-haired ninja before she had, or even his new, and much improved clothing. But as she watched the blond stroll away from her casually, as though nothing of importance had just happened, she was only really struck by one thought.

'He didn't ask me on a date - He didn't even call me Sakura-chan...'

And try as she might, Sakura couldn't even begin to understand why these two facts hurt quite as much as they did.

* * *

Shikamaru couldn't help but smirk a little as he watched Naruto's left brow twitch in annoyance as he tried not to lose his cool in front of the little gathering the blond himself had put together. Their entire graduating class, all nine of the rookie Genin had turned up - along with Shimura Sai and Inuzuka Hana - something that actually surprised the Nara somewhat. He didn't think Sasuke or Sai would come here at Naruto's request, no matter how convincing he might have been; but, having finally found out why he had called all of them together, he wasn't all that surprised.

Subaku no Gaara. A guy so strong that Naruto was worried enough to call them all together and warn them. A guy strong enough that the Hokage would be willing to provide Naruto with a dossier of what was likely classified information on the kid, so that they'd all have the best chance of surviving the encounter. A guy who had come to Konoha to compete in the Chunin Exams that they had all been entered into by their senseis. It was the very definition of troublesome.

Predictably however, Sasuke had brushed off Naruto's concern with all the swagger and arrogance that Shikamaru had come to associate with him. He simply did not believe that another Genin could be a threat to him, and his newly awakened sharingan. In his own words, he had stood against Jonin, awakened his fabled and powerful blood line, and been trained by Hatake Kakashi. Why on earth should he heed the 'dobe's' warning about another Genin, of all things? Besides, he needed strong opponents to test his skills.

And with that, he had taken one of the copies of the dossier that Naruto had bought for each of them to study, and left, Sakura in tow.

"Ino, I don't care how much you like him - that guy is an asshole." Naruto ground out to his fellow blond, who frowned at the comment, but didn't quite have it in herself to argue.

"As much as I hate to admit it, ignoring advice endorsed by the Hokage, is kind of arrogant. If you, Jiraiya-sama, and the Hokage are all in agreement about avoiding this guy; then that's advice we can't really ignore, Naruto. Prodigious Uchiha or not." Ino responded truthfully. She of course, had a giant crush on the Uchiha - what girl didn't, after all? But her Father had taught her well enough not to blind herself to a person's faults, and regardless of what Sakura believed, Sasuke had many. And that was why Ino knew that her crush on Sasuke was just that - a crush, despite her regular arguments with Sakura.

"He's ludicrously strong, guys. Make no mistake about it. And he has a... Power, that very few people have, that allows him to get even stronger. When he's using it, he'd probably give most Jonin a run for their money. If you add to that the fact that he's insanely bloodthirsty, and he's come here not to compete, but for the opportunity to kill other Genin, then we have a really serious problem."

"So, Naruto - whats the plan?" Several people looked startled at Shikamaru's question, particularly Ino and Chouji, knowing full well how good Shikamaru was at formulating strategies. For him to defer to Naruto, was making a big statement, and it was one that only Naruto seemed to miss.

Shikamaru, for his part, hadn't really seen it in terms of him making a statement though. Shikamaru was too busy trying to shake the feeling of familiarity that hit him as he, for all intents and purposes, briefed them on an enemy shinobi. It was the same feeling Asuma gave off when he gave them serious orders in the field, the same feeling he got from the Hokage when being sent out on a mission.

Naruto had never been naturally smart. Nor had he been particularly strong, or talented, or had any special ninjutsu or techniques. And yet, here they all were, being briefed by him - being led by him. He made people want to follow him, to fight by his side and for him. If Naruto became a powerful shinobi in his future, then it would be because he worked himself to the bone for it. But Shikamaru knew without a doubt that one day, Naruto would be a leader. Whether he was simply a Jonin or Chunin heading up a team, or even if he actually managed to become Hokage - Uzumaki Naruto had been born to lead.

"For the most part - run. If you come across him during the exam, escape through any means necessary. If you're drawn against him in the tournament - forfeit. If you fight him- Well, I don't think there's anybody here strong enough to fight him properly and still live, at least not yet. There is one more thing you can do however - if escape is impossible, if you truly need help..."

And with that, Naruto pulled out and unraveled a small sealing scroll, that had a dozen individual seals drawn onto it's surface, and unlocked the first seal; revealing a small case that held, in amongst a bed of soft cloth, a rather plain looking kunai.

"How exactly is a kunai gonna help us against this Gaara guy?" Kiba exclaimed, frustrated. He liked Naruto, and knew he had improved at least enough enough that his warning was well worth heeding; but Naruto acting as if a kunai was some kind of secret weapon was a little more than he he could handle with patience. And if his barking was anything to go by, Akamaru was the same.

"If you'd have given me a chance to explain, mutt, you'd know. This isn't a kunai, it's a Kage Bunshin under a transformation." Naruto smiled wryly as he watched the reaction to that news. Kiba obviously wasn't even trying to understand, but Shikamaru and Ino were thinking furiously, trying to work out what Naruto had planned. "See, Jiraiya-sensei taught me a way to deal with Gaara's special abilities - but I don't have time to teach it to any of you, and obviously I can't really follow you all around the exams. So, I transformed a bunch of Kage Bunshin into kunai, and had Jiraiya-sensei help me with a seal that would feed them chakra to keep them from dispelling. All you need to do if you come under attack from Gaara - or anyone you think you need help with for that matter - ask the kunai to transform and dispel. Kage Bunshin are special, because they transfer their memories to me when the dispel, so I'll know where you were, and hopefully be able to come and help you get away."

"I have to admit, Naruto - that's actually pretty smart. Are you sure your technique to deal with Gaara will work?" Kiba asked, sounding suitably impressed with both his plan, and the Kage Bunshin's abilities.

"It should. All I need to do is make contact with Gaara's exposed skin for a second or two, and it should work. Though, with how strong the guy is, that's easier said than done."

"I-I think you can do it, Naruto-kun." Hinata spoke up softly for the first time since the meeting had started, carefully avoiding the gaze of everybody else in their private room at Moritake's. "You're a very strong person..."

"Heh, thank you Hinata." Naruto answered, suddenly realising just how shy the girl was. "But it is funny though," He pressed on, returning to the original topic of conversation. "Other villages don't usually allow people like Gaara to compete in Chunin Exams outside of their own villages - they're too dangerous - so why was he sent here? Without even letting our Kage know, at that. It's, well, troublesome."

Shikamaru quirked an eyebrow, not at Naruto's choice of words, but at something he'd said at the start of his sentence. "Naruto, what do you mean by 'people like Gaara' - and while I'm asking, what exactly are Gaara's 'special' abilities? The ones that make him as strong as a Jonin? The dossier on his attacks and battle strategies is surprisingly well detailed - but once it reaches the part about his ability to increase his power, it gets incredibly vague, and to be honest, not very useful at all outside of being a generalised warning."

Naruto sighed, and leaned back in his chair at their table. He knew that someone would ask the question, and that it would most likely be Shikamaru. But if there was anyone he didn't want to have to explain Gaara to, it was the Nara. It would be easy - too easy for Shikamaru to figure out exactly how Gaara's status as a jinchuuriki related to Naruto, and that was a secret Naruto thought he didn't ever want to get out.

But at the same time, with the conversation with the Sandaime and Jiraiya regarding an 'inner circle' still fresh in his mind; Naruto was certain that any group he managed to gather would mostly be comprised of those in this room. At least, everyone but Sai. Sharing a last name with Danzou, as well as his pretty mysterious origins, pretty much instantly ruled him out.

Either way however, knowledge about Gaara's state as a jinchuuriki, would probably be almost essential to the people in front of him while they were trying to survive. This secret wasn't worth risking their lives even more over keeping.

"Tell me, guys - have you ever heard of the term Jinchuuriki?" Naruto looked out unsurprised at the series of confused faces in front of him. The subject of tailed beasts and their human containers was after all, a rather sensitive topic in Konoha after all. "No? Okay, then, how about the word Bijuu?"

The word resulted in further confusion, not because they had never heard the term before, but because they were struggling to see how exactly this related to Gaara. Perhaps most surprisingly, it was Hinata who answered for the group. "T-the tailed beasts, like the Kyuubi that attacked the village, are also called Bijuu." She answered timidly, but this time managed to maintain eye contact with Naruto, giving him perhaps the strangest look he had ever received in his life. But before he could think on it any more, Kiba jumped in and asked the question Naruto was sure was on everybody's lips.

"But what the hell do the Bijuu have to do with Gaara?"

"Well," Naruto began, trying to ensure he gave as few clues as possible, both in his words, and in the emotions on his face. "In short, the hidden village's in the past spent a great deal of time trying to find a way to harness and use the immense power all of the Bijuu have at their disposal. You've all heard about the Kyuubi, how it could flatten mountains and level villages with just a swish of one of it's tails - well shinobi tried to weaponize that power, in order to use it in their wars.

"Of course, eventually, they succeeded. The answer laid in fuinjutsu - sealing. All they had to do, was seal the beast inside a living person, and have that person become a shinobi - then teach them to access the power of the bijuu through their seal - and they would have their great weapons." Naruto paused a little, needing to regain his composure after his fairly callous depiction of jinchuuriki. "These people were called jinchuuriki, 'the power of the human sacrifice' - people who would give up their status as normal people, and risk being taken over and destroyed by the bijuu within them. However, the seals wouldn't take when applied to adults - the power of even the weakest bijuu ripped apart the chakra systems of the hosts because of the sheer intensity and quantity of it. So the villages took a different approach.

"The chakra coils of newborn children are incredibly flexible, and able to expand almost infinitely as they cope with growing chakra levels. So they tried to use newborns to seal the beasts - and it worked, finally providing stable containers for the power of the bijuu. Unfortunately, the bijuu were already widely feared within the villages - because every time a sealing failed, the bijuu broke out and attacked the village it was in out of revenge, and was only recaptured at the cost of a great many lives. As a result, the jinchuuriki grew up hated, and ostracized, and alone - a truly, truly hellish existence.

"Gaara is one of these people. Suna sealed the Ichibi into him at birth, at the cost of his own mother's life, condemning him to that existence. But the seal they used was of poor quality, and it actually allows the beast a small amount of influence on Gaara, a small impact on his mind. At first he resisted, but as he grew up, witnessed the hatred and fear he faced in his own home, he found less and less reason to. He started to strike out, attack the people who wronged him, and as a result, his father attempted to have him assassinated."

The room sat in dumbfounded silence. Whatever they had been expecting, it hadn't been that. But it was Ino that truly stood out. She was looking straight at Naruto, right into his eyes, with an utterly devastated look on her face, tears streaming silently from her eyes. And Naruto knew at that point without even a shadow of a doubt that Ino knew. Ino had figured it out from his words somehow, that Naruto was the same as Gaara, before even Shikamaru.

And yet, of all the imagined responses to someone finding out, the sheer sadness Ino displayed was not a reaction that he had anticipated. Fear, anger, mistrust he had expected. But not this.

Ino must have seen something on his face, or in his eyes, because what happened next changed the course of this little meeting, and the future, forever.

'It doesn't change anything Naruto, and it won't for anybody else here. The Kyuubi will never be able to change the fact that I am your friend, and that's a promise, or I'm not Yamanaka Ino! I swear it Naruto, you have friends now Naruto - people who care about you, me, Shika, and Chouji at the very least - and we're never going to let you be alone again.'

If Ino hadn't surreptitiously shifted to show the hand seal she had formed with her still shaking hands, he would have been certain he had dreamed her voice in his head. But it had been some kind of Yamanaka clan technique.

And after a declaration like that, Uzumaki Naruto could do nothing less than tell his friends everything.

"Gaara's power increase is because he gradually allows Shukaku, the Ichibi, more and more influence over him - to release more and more of it's power through him, until it has completely possessed him if necessary. When pushed, Gaara can transform into the Shukaku itself, something with enough power to level a village if left unchecked. It really is fortunate for Konoha that the Yondaime was one of the greatest seal masters that had ever lived, if we're being totally honest." Naruto stated quickly, before he backed out of his own internal promise to reveal all. It was definitely too late now regardless, if Shikamaru's stunned face was anything to go by.

"After all, bijuu like the Kyuubi cannot be killed by anything."

And at that statement, the entire room went deadly silent, but Naruto powered on through it. "So the Yondaime sealed the Kyuubi in a child born on the day of it's attack, using on of the strongest seals ever conceived. I'm told by Jiraiya that the seal is a work of genius... The Kyuubi can only exert it's influence when it's chakra is being used in large quantities, making the seal virtually impenetrable from within. Furthermore, it's designed in such a way that the Kyuubi's 'will' is sealed separately from the chakra itself, meaning that eventually, it's Jinchuuriki could learn how to control certain amounts of it's chakra without risking releasing the Fox. The child the Yondaime chose... was me."

As he finished, Naruto's nervousness was almost palpable in the room, and he turned his head away from the group, unable to even risk looking at the reactions of his comrades.

Naruto started however, as Shikamaru snorted. Loudly.

"Man, Naruto. I don't know if you were worried, but hating you for something like that would be far too troublesome for words. It's like you said - the Yondaime was the best at sealing, and Jiraiya-sama was his teacher, so if those two think it worked, then it did as far as I'm concerned, and anybody who says otherwise is just a troublesome idiot. You're just Naruto, my friend. The fact that you happen to be keeping us all safe from an evil Fox spirit too doesn't even come into it."

"Hating you for what you contain would be incredibly illogical for an Aburame, Uzumaki-san. I am not particularly well acquainted with you, but I believe that I would also like to be able to call you a friend, regardless of the Kyuubi." Shino chipped in, pushing his sunglasses further up his nose as he spoke.

"I-I think the Yondaime chose you for a reason N-Naruto-kun... He thought you were strong enough to keep the Kyuubi contained, a-and I know he's right. I-I'd also like to be your f-friend... If that o-okay with you..." Hinata added, a blush rising to her face as she finished what was perhaps the longest sentence she had ever spoken to her crush.

"Damn, Naruto. I never even thought that anything like this was even possible... But my Mum always taught me to use my gut and your experience with that person when it comes to deciding what kind of person somebody is, and I've known you for a long time now, and you had better believe that I consider you a friend! And an Inuzuka never turns his back on his friends!"

"I'm proud of you, Kiba." Hana suddenly interjected, a proud smile on her face at her brothers words. "Spoken like a true Inuzuka. And Naruto, I have to confess," she continued turning her attention to her blond team mate; "I was just technically old enough to know about the Kyuubi in the first place, and although I wasn't old enough to understand it until much later, some of the population saw that as enough to be able to talk to me about it, so I've known since before I met you, Naruto. It was never even an issue for me. I know better than to make a judgement before seeing any evidence, and I saw enough of the kind of a person you are during our first mission together to know that I wanted to be your friend, and like Kiba says - once an Inuzuka knows that, we'll never turn our backs on you."

"You've always been really kind to me, Naruto," Chouji added, "and if Shikamaru trusts the seal, then so do I! Of course I'm still your friend!"

Only Sai and Ino hadn't spoken out loud at this point - though obviously, Ino had shown her support with her family ninjutsu - but Naruto found he didn't care. He did the only thing he could do, and smiled. Widely, and honestly, and thanked every single person there profusely.

And vowed to himself more surely than he ever had, that these people - his most precious people - would never, ever come to harm while he had anything to say about it.

He just hoped that he always would.

* * *

The Next Day - The Start of the Exams

Naruto stood outside the main entrance to the Shinobi Academy, the place where he had spent the better part of his childhood, and he couldn't help but wonder how far he could have gotten had he been allowed to study and learn in the same way as everyone else. He had been held back and stunted by so much during his time here - so thoroughly sabotaged - that the urge to try and picture how strong he could have been now had it not happened.

He glanced sideways at his team mate for the Exam, and one of his first true friends, Inuzuka Hana - who was, as ever, trailed by her three faithful Inuzuka dogs - and couldn't help the small smile that found it's way onto his face.

No. For friends like her, and Ino, and Shikamaru; all the sabotage in the world had been worth it. There would be no telling how a proper education would have affected how things turned out, and even the slightest risk that his bonds with his friends would be changed or damaged simply wasn't worth it. Besides, he had come such a long way since his days in the academy - Kami, he was genuinely on first name terms with the head librarian and archivist and the Konoha library, and even now had Bunshin in there, trying to scrounge up as much knowledge as he possibly could. In fact, ever since he had first learned the value of Kage Bunshin, he had made it a point to have at least a few Kage Bunshin in the library working.

He figured it was a good habit, and he was now so used to the influx of memories from his Bunshin, that one of them dispelling didn't even break his concentration anymore. Not only that, but he and Hana had decided that having Bunshin that could work for them outside the exam would be a massive benefit.

Giving his brunette companion an even wider, more confident grin, he stepped forward into the Academy building, and began the trek to the third floor, the location of the first stage of the Chunin Exams. A trek however, that was interrupted early, by the commotion on the second floor. Both he and Hana had managed to spot the Genjutsu making the second floor appear to be the third floor, but apparently, a good portion of Genin had not done the same; and sharing a glance, Naruto and Hana both immediately understood that the testing and elimination of Chunin candidates had already begun.

"Listen," Naruto turned his attention to the spiky haired Konoha Genin who looked awfully familiar to him, that was standing over another bruised and beaten Konoha Genin that was laying at his feet. "This is our kindness." He continued, gesturing to his bandanna-wearing companion. "The Chunin Exam isn't easy - even we have failed it three times. Those that take the exams and end up quitting as shinobi because of the things they have experienced during the Exam, and even those who die during it - We've seen it all.

"And yet you think that kids as weak as all of you can take the exam? Chunin are military captains, leaders of squads. The lives of their comrades, and the success of their missions are all their responsibilities. You really think that you're ready? Don't make me laugh."

Naruto almost snorted at the rather tame attempt at intimidation. Though, perhaps his view of what was 'a tame attempt at intimidation' was somewhat distorted by Danzou's stab at it during his last mission. He and Hana begun to surreptitiously edge towards the stairwell to the third floor, but Naruto's attention was drawn back to the scene by a familiar drawling voice.

"I agree... But you will let me pass through - and also remove this genjutsu. Sakura noticed it first - her genjutsu knowledge and analytical know how is something else."

He saw how a nervous looking Sakura perked up and seemed to gain a massive amount of confidence from Sasuke's words, Naruto fought the urge to sigh out loud, Team 7 having just arrived. The genjutsu had fooled a good many teams - teams that would have been eliminated before the exams had even started had Sasuke just moved on through without causing a scene. The fewer teams competing, the better chance he and Hana would have of making it through to the third stage, and therefore being eligible for selection as Chunin; and while the teams that had been put off by the genjutsu likely weren't the strongest of teams, a lucky ambush combined with the numbers disadvantage they had, meant that almost any trio could pose a threat to them.

He could have taken the time to bolster Sakura's nerves later, or even before they had come into the building. Not only that, from what he knew of Sakura, he'd had just given away her likely skill set in front of a room full of potential enemies. It was a good sign of course, that he was willing to speak up and compliment his team-mate - the Sasuke he knew at the Academy wouldn't have done that ever, so he had obviously thawed somewhat emotionally - but the manner that he did it in just screamed fatal overconfidence.

Once again Naruto had moved to leave, but stopped in place as Sasuke and one of the pair blocking the door chambered kicks at each other, only to have the green clad boy that had taken a beating before move faster than Naruto had seen any other Genin move, and block both kicks with each of his hands. The strange looking boy, dressed in vivid green spandex and orange leg warmers had obviously been feigning both his incompetence and his injuries, which made it incredibly likely that the brunette girl in a pink Chinese style shirt who appeared to be his team-mate who had also taken a hit, had done the same.

"What happened to the plan? You're the one who said we shouldn't draw attention to ourselves." This boy, Naruto did recognise, and his words indicated that he was the third team-mate. This boy, dressed in a beige shirt, black shorts, with long black hair reaching halfway down his back, was Hyuga Neji. The pale white irises of his eye gave away his possession of the Byakugan, the dojutsu of the Hyuga clan; and it was this dojutsu in combination with his prodigious talent in taijutsu that had led to Hyuga Neji becoming known to be the most powerful of all of Konoha's Genin.

He was the cream of the crop in Konoha, and his team-mates were likely at a similar level, so when the one dressed in green spandex challenged Sasuke to a fight, Naruto's curiosity couldn't be ignored. He created a Kage Bunshin in the hallway out of sight of the rest of the Genin, leaving it to watch the fight between Sasuke and the boy who had revealed himself to be called Rock Lee, while he and Hana moved on to the true third floor.

"Is he always quite that arrogant, Naruto?" Hana queried, once they were out of earshot, eliciting a small snigger from the blond.

"My God yes - I've been saying it for years, but no one would listen to me. Sasuke's a true blue asshole to most people, though it seems that he's at least a little nicer to his team than he is the rest of us. It's just a shame that he's good enough to back up most of the talking he does."

Naruto blinked as he received the memory of the fight between Rock Lee and Sasuke, and burst out laughing as he processed exactly what had happened.

"Sasuke got his ass kicked by that Rock Lee guy! Totally outclassed!" Naruto explained at Hana's inquisitive look. "That said," he continued, his voice taking on a more serious tone as he took in the consequences of what he had just seen. "It would appear that his team is one of the best here. Lee's taijutsu looks to be much faster than I am, and better in taijutsu in terms of form and ability, and I think he might be wearing weights just to top it all off. Two top class taijutsu specialists and one unknown quantity make that team a very dangerous prospect."

Hana just nodded, her face set into a frown. If Naruto was worried about this team, then that meant they were going to have to steer well clear of them until the third stage, which was a one on one fighting tournament. Dealing with such powerful opponents with a numbers disadvantage, and with only Naruto really specialising in combat, would be disastrous.

"Well, here we are... You ready?" Naruto asked his team mate with a grin, as the pair reached the door to room in which the first stage of the Chunin Exams would take place.

"As I'll ever be." Hana started, before her own smile became positively feral. "Let's go and kick some ass, Naruto."

* * *

Naruto subconsciously found himself edging in front of Hana, even though he was certain she would not need his protection, as they entered the room positively brimming with rather menacing looking Genin.

The immediate thought that struck Naruto was that Jiraiya had well and truly underestimated how incredibly rare it was for there to be rookie teams in the exams - at least if this room was anything to go by. The majority appeared to be at least over the age of 16, with some even entering middle age. A fool might say that since these people had been Genin for so long, they must simply lack talent or ability, but Naruto liked to think he had at least become smart enough to avoid falling into that trap.

No, these were Genin that had been out in the field for years. Teams of three that had worked, fought, and survived together; and spent years accumulating skill and experience before coming here. Of course, they were still only Genin - any Kage would have had a shinobi promoted if they were ready for the responsibility - but they were experienced, well oiled genin cells, and to underestimate or assume anything about any of them would be utter folly.

Still, within moments Naruto had singled out several Genin that were so very obviously a step above the rest. Gaara's team practically oozed danger; and a team with musical notes on their hitai-ate carried themselves in a manner that displayed their thorough training quite clearly. Though it also gave away more than a touch of arrogance, something Naruto eagerly filed away for later, they were very obviously not to be taken lightly.

Scariest of all though, was the team from Kusagakure. Standing out of the way, right at the back of the room, the trio gazed almost imperiously out at the room of Genin - as though they were so far above that the rest were just insects to them. In the centre of the three however, was a woman with black hair that reached about half way down her back, wearing a simple loose fitting beige shirt, black combats and the same conical straw hat that her entire team wore; and while the rest of her team put him on edge, this woman had the blond's instincts screaming.

Her eyes jumped lazily between the gathered genin, resting on some slightly longer than others, but never losing that gleam of a predator stalking it's prey. This woman looked at the rest of them as though they were her next meal, and Naruto found it very difficult to risk turning his attention away from her, as though she would strike at him the very second his back was turned.

Though, the issue was kind of forced, when a fuming Ino burst into the room behind him, fists clenched and muttering loudly; trailed by an obliviously munching Chouji, and a very fed up looking Shikamaru - although, Naruto thought briefly, that might just be how the Nara normally looked. Naruto didn't even have time to move before a raucously laughing Kiba burst through the door to room, paused to look at Ino, before laughing even harder.

The garbled recount of events he had managed to get from Teams 8 and 10 in between Kiba's laughing, was that somehow, Kiba had tricked Ino into glomping Lee who had been walking fairly close behind her, by telling her it was Sasuke behind.

And naturally, Lee had immediately declared his undying love for the shell shocked Yamanaka. Loudly. In front of the real Sasuke.

However, the commotion being caused by Konoha's rookie's was ended fairly abruptly soon after Team 7's arrival, by a much older Konoha genin.

"You guys should keep it down. Screaming like little children - aren't you guys just rookie's out of the academy? Take a look around you, I think you've managed to make yourselves targets for every team in the room." The bespectacled Konoha Genin that had approached their group certainly wasn't wrong. Naruto couldn't even count the number of glares being sent their way; but one thing was for sure, they had the whole room's attention all right.

"I suppose I can't blame you, being rookies and all. In fact, you guys remind me of how I used to be the first time I took the exams."

That really got Naruto's attention. Any intel he could get could prove important for he and Hana. Fortunately, Sakura had decided that she was going to do her questioning of this Genin with long, silver hair with all of them around.

"Sorry, ah..." Sakura trailed off slightly, realising that she didn't even know the boy's name.

"My apologies," the Genin started with a small smile. "It appears I'd forgotten to introduce myself. I'm Kabuto. Yakushi Kabuto."

"Right, Kabuto-san... You've taken these exams before? Would you be willing to... give us any clues about what to expect?" Sakura asked, trying to gain the information they all wanted - though not as subtly as he would have liked. Nor was the rather blatant asking for information approved by Hana, going by the look of disdain on the Inuzuka's face.

"Indeed I have. This is my fourth year of taking them, so my seventh exam in total. And while I can't give you any help with the format of the tests, since they change them every year, I can give you a little bit of information I've picked up about the competitors this year. Is there anyone that strikes any of your interests?" Kabuto asked the group, smile fully morphed into a confident smirk.

Unsurprisingly, it was Sasuke that bit first.

"Rock Lee, and Sabaku no Gaara."

"You even know the names? That just makes things too easy..." And with that, the Konoha ninja reached into his kunai pouch, and pulled out a deck of what appeared to be blank cards. "These are my ninja info cards. I use them to store intelligence that I've gathered on other competitors. They may appear blank, but if I apply some of my chakra..."

His hands glowed a pale blue as he did so, and almost immediately the cards entire front face filled up with information and graphs.

"...And all the information I have on Rock Lee appears. Now let's see... Maito Gai's student, on a team with the Hyuuga prodigy Neji, and the talented weapons user Migurashi Tenten... Graduated dead last, but has since gone on to become a specialist in taijutsu under Gai-sensei's tuition. Has completed 20 D-rank missions, and 8 C-ranks - an impressive total for a relatively new Genin cell."

Naruto nodded with the rest of his graduating class, acting impressed and pleased to receive the knowledge, but his mind with abuzz with the possibilities regarding this mysterious supposedly Konoha Genin.

All mission records of C-Rank and above within Konoha were classified without exception. There was almost no possible way without permission from the Hokage that this Genin could have gained access to the complete mission records of one of Konoha's premier Genin cells. Meeting Shikamaru's eyes, he noticed that the Nara had noticed too, and the blond gave a slight shake of his head to indicate that he should do or say nothing.

It was too risky. The likeliest outcome was that Kabuto was not who he said he was - a spy. Though for who, Naruto couldn't say. The only person that really came to mind, was Danzou; but for some reason, this just didn't fit what Naruto knew of the old man's modus operandi. It was too blasé, too out in the open - arrogant, almost. It almost felt like Kabuto was showboating for somebody.

Naruto's mind couldn't reason out anything more, even as Kabuto read out his information on Gaara - that although wasn't as detailed as the Hokage's dossier - was still mostly made up of highly classified Suna material.

Naruto needed to get a message to a higher up that could be trusted, as soon as possible - but even that thought wasn't to last, even for a second, as the three shinobi in the room with musical notes on the hitai-ate reacted violently to a remark about their village. Apparently, they were from Otogakure, a new village in the Elemental Nations; and one that was still currently too small and weak to send more than a single team to the Exams. A fact that Kabuto had very rudely, and very loudly recited within the earshot of the Oto-nins.

This left Naruto in a dilemma as the three shinobi rushed Konoha. Yes, he believed that Kabuto was a spy, but he did not know for absolute certain - should he intervene?

In the end, the idea of a Konoha shinobi being injured because of his inaction was enough to spur him into defending the still-smirking Konoha nin. Reacting instinctively, lightning began to crackle around both his wrists as his Kaminari Muchi sprang into life from both arms; and the blond lashed out with the whips, striking just ahead of the travel path of the closest two Oto-nin, scorching the ground and stopping them dead in their tracks.

A third attempted to dart between his two halted team-mates to continue the attack, but Naruto's whips were already ready to strike again - and in mid-air, the male Genin was unable to dodge. The two chakra whips gripped his arms and yanked him backwards, sending him tumbling back towards his team-mates, and the three sent the most ferocious glares at the blond they could muster.

"Looks like some Konoha brat has a death wish." The shortest, and central figure hissed, and Naruto allowed himself the opportunity to closely examine the Oto team. The trio were all dressed in matching blue-gray camo outfits, and standard Oto hitai-ate, but that was where the similarities ended. The one that had spoken to him, a short male who had bandages cover his entire face besides a single eye; also appeared to be carrying around some form of shell on his back, as well as being armed with some form of unwieldy metal gauntlet on his right arm.

The second boy - still picking himself up after Naruto's attack - wore a tan brown baggy shirt that covered the camo gear the rest of his team wore, and had black, spiky hair; but other than that, didn't appear to have any real distinguishing features that could clue Naruto in as to what kind of shinobi he was, or how he fought.

It was however, the girl and third member of the team. She regarded him fairly neutrally, which was unusual amongst her comrades at least. She had silky black hair tied back behind her head that seemed to reach almost all the way down her back; and wore a green shinobi combat vest on her upper half, as well as a camo patterned scarf that matched her team. But it was the way she held herself that had Naruto interested.

She was, like the rest of her team, fairly well trained from what he could tell. But, while her team-mates stood together facing him, shoulder to shoulder; she stood with her body angled so she could see and defend both against him and her team-mates. It was as if she was expecting them to attack at any moment, and for Naruto, to whom loyalty to ones comrades was paramount, this was deeply unsettling.

However, he was once again interrupted, this time by the arrival of the proctors, led by a bandana and black trench coat wearing Jonin.

"Pipe down, maggots! As of now the Chunin Exams have begun, and any unsanctioned fighting will result in disqualification. Now, what do you say we get down to business."

* * *

A written exam.

The first stage of the Chunin Exam, the famously dangerous selection procedure for selecting Genin ready for promotion; and the first stage was a freaking written exam.

Now, Naruto was probably the most academically active Genin in the entire village, given the untold hours his Bunshin racked up in the library, but a written exam was where he drew the line. And with a look at the questions, his frustration built even further. He had read extensively on most shinobi related subjects since his graduation, going far beyond what had been required for the Genin exam; but the questions on this test were levels above where he was at in his education, and he had only managed to answer the first and easiest two. There was absolutely no way that there were more than a handful of Genin in this exam that could answer more than one or two of these questions.

Which of course meant that there was another purpose for this exam.

Glancing around, he could see that the majority of Genin were attempting to cheat. Badly. But as a result, the proctors that lined the classroom they had been allocated for the exam were almost constantly noting points being docked from teams, and groups of Genin were ejected with an almost clockwork regularity. There were however some impressive examples of cheating. The girl from Neji's team had managed to construct a wire and mirror system to copy answers from another student, and then provide them to her green-clad third team-mate. Kiba was using Akamaru's elevated position seated on top of his head to copy from the people around him, and Sasuke had activated his Sharingan in order to mimic that hand movements of those who were writing.

According to the rules that the bandana clad proctor had explained to them, each team started with ten points, and each time a member of one of the teams got caught cheating, they lost a certain amount of them. Once a teams total hit zero, they were evicted from the exam. To Naruto, this was particularly unusual. He had not been above occasionally trying to cheat on the written exams back in the academy, but the penalty of an instant fail grade if caught had put him off for the most part - particularly for the important exams, the ones that you had to pass if you wanted to progress through the Academy.

So, an exam to progress as a shinobi where cheating did not mean automatic disqualification had piqued Naruto's interest, and was a puzzle that just refused to leave his mind. He glanced up at the fierce looking proctor, and realised quite quickly that he vaguely recognised the man from his study of the Bingo Book, a book that most villages produce that contains intelligence reports on many powerful or otherwise important ninja, both foreign and from the village itself.. His face scrunched up in concentration as he tried to remember why exactly this man's entry in the Bingo Book had suddenly struck him as important.

Morino Ibiki.

The blond's eyes snapped open in a silent expression of triumph.

The man was Morino Ibiki, Tokubetsu Jonin, head of the ANBU Torture and Interrogation department, and probably one of the most feared interrogators in the entire elemental nations. He was a master of emotional manipulation, often not needing to resort to physical pain to break even seasoned Jonin. Naruto almost let out an impressed whistle at the calibre of person proctoring the Chunin Exam of all things. Then again, Chunin were expected to lead teams, to take dangerous life threatening missions where often, some of those who left would only ever return in a body bag. Only the best Genin could be allowed to advance, only those truly ready for the responsibility.

Naruto returned his mind to his original question, and only one plausible explanation really came to mind. Chunin were often expected to lead reconnaissance missions in foreign, if not outright hostile territory. They needed to be able to gather information discreetly and under pressure, where getting caught would mean death or worse

Now, Naruto could have tried to figure out a way to cheat in the middle of an open room, in plain view. Of course he could. But he and Hana had come prepared for such a situation, and getting the answers to the test in front of him would actually be pretty simple for him, given the fact that what was possibly his best ninjutsu had been designed specifically with gathering information in mind.

Catching Hana's eyes, and receiving a surreptitious nod, he knew that she was relying on him for the answers too - the Haimaru brothers were rather too big to spy from atop her head after all, and were thus relegated to lying patiently at her feet under her desk - and Naruto sent a silent thank you to Fukasaku, and the work they had done on fuinjutsu together as a rough plan came together in his mind.

The blond raised his hand, and asked to be allowed to go to the bathroom. He could practically feel Ibiki's eyes on him as he was led out of the room and accompanied to the toilet by another proctor, and he couldn't help but stiffen slightly as the man focused a touch of killing intent intent in his direction. He wondered briefly if that had cost him some points. Lord, that man was good at his job.

Fortunately for Naruto, he was allowed to go into a cubicle unaccompanied, and almost instantly after locking the door he created a Kage Bunshin silently, which with equal silence, dispelled as quickly as it had come.

This had the effect however, of transmitting it's knowledge of events to all his other currently active Kage Bunshin, including those he still had working in the library. They would then get together the required answers for himself and Hana, before one would dispel itself, giving him the answers to the test without him having to do anything overt in the exam room itself.

He grinned at the minor success, and took advantage of the opportunity to relieve himself (you never knew how long it would be until he next had the chance - he was a shinobi after all) and allowed himself to be led back to his seat, where Ibiki fixed him with another brief glare, before resuming his patrol of the room, and all Naruto had to do then was wait for the answers to come to him before he could get on with the part of his plan that he was really excited about.

Fortunately, thanks in part to the fact that his Kage Bunshin were already working in the library, he did not have long to wait. Scribbling his answers down in a hurry, he sent a quick look in Hana's direction to let her know he was about to use his new technique.

It was one that Naruto was incredibly proud of having learned in his time with the toads, partially because it was a fuinjutsu technique; but mostly, because it was a seal he had come up with himself. After a week of fuinjutsu instruction from Fukasaku, Naruto had begun to experiment with some of the basic seal components that he had mastered. Begun to tweak, modify, and tamper with several different seals as his knowledge of how making certain changes would affect the function of a seal.

Initially, he had tried to make some seals for use in out and out combat. However, particularly with explosive seals, Naruto had found that the seals that created most explosions were incredibly volatile when not created in certain, exact ways, and therefore required a lot of experience and knowledge to modify without risking blowing oneself up.

So he had turned to creating something that would make life for shinobi in general easier and more efficient. What he had actually come up with, after much frustration, and many bad ideas, was quite possibly revolutionary - especially once he figured out how to improve it beyond it's current limitations.

He had created a set of sister seals - two seals connected to the each other that had essentially the same function. His reacted to the chakra of the user to change the ink of the seal matrix into letters and wording on the palm of one's hand. The sister seal, as long as it was in range, then imitated this action. In essence, it allowed two shinobi to communicate utterly silently, with a minimum of chakra over small distances, without needing to see each other.

The ramifications of this could be huge for Konoha. If Naruto could increase the range, and tweak the functionality of sending and receiving messages; it meant that Konoha ninja could provide real time updates to the village as to the progress of missions - could request aid instantaneously, cutting waiting periods by hours, days, or even weeks depending on how far away the ninja were. Ultimately, it could save lives, improve efficiency, and provide a distinct advantage over other villages.

For now though, it was an ideal way for Naruto to send over the answers for the test to his team-mate.

Once he and Hana had all the answers written down, his mind returned to Ibiki. Did he have the Hokage's full trust? Naruto supposed that as the Head of an ANBU division loyal to the Hokage, then he would have to be trusted by the Old Man - which in turn meant that Naruto needed to let the bandana wearing Jonin know about Kabuto as soon as he could, especially since he had completed the exam apart from the 'Tenth Question' - a final question that would be revealed ten minutes before the end of the test.

The idea he came up with, was almost painful in it's simplicity - and yet, it fit the persona Naruto had cultivated during the Academy, and so very few people would question his acting out. Surreptitiously pulling out a jar of sealing ink, he drew his only original seal on a blank space on the page, just to the left of the seventh question.

"Test-shmest!" He exclaimed at the top of his voice, the cockiest smirk he had ever managed plastered on to his face. "I thought this Chunin Exam was supposed to be difficult?"

He had wanted Ibiki's attention, and now he had it, along with a considerable amount of the man's formidable killing intent.

"So maggot, you really think this test was that easy? Are you understood the questions, dead last?" Naruto almost smiled at the man's attempt to push his buttons, mainly because if Naruto had been serious, Ibiki likely would have been successful.

"Well why don't you take a look at my test and see for yourself? Or are you afraid you'll look like a total loser compared to me, Ibiki-san."

Ibiki tried not to let his surprise at Uzumaki's knowledge of his name show on his face, as he stared down the blond Genin. He was no idiot - information was his specialty after all, and he knew that the reports from the Academy about Naruto's ability, intelligence, and potential were as good as useless these days, and that Naruto had forged himself into an almost entirely new person since his Academy days.

Which logically, meant that his revert to type was a farce, and had a purpose. To cheat was the most likely, but Ibiki could see that his test was entirely filled out, leaving him rather puzzled. The only thing really, was to take the boy's test and give it a once over as he had asked, and try and divine his purpose from there.

"Just so you know, my personal favourite is question seven." And to Ibiki's astonishment, as soon as the blond had spoken, a fuinjutsu seal appeared on the paper, and began to form words with it's ink.

Yakushi Kabuto. Has classified mission records for at least Team 9 - claims to have similar data for most of Konoha's other participants. In possession of data on Sunagakure's Jinchuuriki. Imprints onto chakra encoded 'info cards' kept on his person. Likely spy. Recommend immediate report to the Hokage.

Ibiki didn't react, but on the inside, he was beaming. The deductions this boy had made, and the decisions he made in reacting to the knowledge he had gained, displayed perfectly the qualities needed to be a Chunin. More importantly, however, he as a Genin, had managed to uncover and alert Konoha of a spy that had apparently managed to infiltrate the Hokage Tower to access the mission records, without actually alerting the spy himself - giving Konoha a clear and present advantage.

What's more, with the potential Oto/Orochimaru invasion that the Hokage suspected, the discovery of one of the Snake Sannin's agents could be massive, if that was indeed who Kabuto was. However, the invasion had been kept secret from most, meaning that the kid had been alert enough and wary enough to see through Kabuto, without even knowing about the threat to Konoha.

There was however one final test that the blond would need to navigate however, before Ibiki would be betting on his promotion.

The almost infamous 'Tenth Question'.


About the author

Cathal Ashenhand


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