Naruto: The Uchiha Chronicles Re-Version:

AN/ Hello. So obviously I went for the four week wait. Sorry about that. I was hoping for two, but honestly the chapter after this has been kicking my butt trying to construct and I was hoping to get about four chapters done. So for that reason for now I'm going to stick to one guaranteed monthly update for now on and AO3. In the future I hope to be posting every two weeks.

Arc IV: Training Renewed:

Chapter 21: Struggle and Progression

— ₪ NTUC ₪ —

Naruto's eyelids felt like lead. It was a struggle to keep them open as Kakashi gave his long, droning report in that lazy tone of his. How Gramps could just sit there completely alert and unblinking, he would never know. 'If this is what being Hokage is, maybe I should re-think my goals.' He thought bemusedly. Not that he actually meant it. The exhaustion of the trip was just getting to him.

"… after Gato was dispatched, we stuck around to see through the finishing of the bridge." Kakashi concluded.

The room was silent for a moment as the Hokage mulled over the report. Heady tobacco smoke filled the air as the man took a drag from his corncob pipe. Though one of the many windows was cracked open, it did little to mitigate the slightly disorienting effect of the smoke mixing with the lingering heat of an early summer day. It didn't help Naruto's exhaustion at all.

"I see. It sounds like your team handled a volatile situation rather well. For now, you're dismissed. I'll expect a full written report as well." Said Hiruzen.

His words were like an instant muscle relaxant for Naruto. All across his body muscles that had been devoted to staying alert seemed to loosen up. A relieved sigh swept past his lips. Finally, he could get home and go to sleep! The journey home had been taxing in a completely unexpected way. There wasn't much time for talking when dashing from tree branch to tree branch high above the ground. A constant tunnel of blurred colors and dulled sound tended to form around you. Conversation was difficult due to the way the air seemed to instantly snatch words away, and the constant rush of wind that filled your ears. It left him with no break from his own mind and thoughts.

The entire time he'd been staving off the worries that had been nagging at him since the end of the Battle at the Bridge. Nothing but time for his mind to constantly wander back and agonize over everything he did wrong. He'd mentally exhausted himself constantly coming up with distractions. At this point the blissful silence and unconsciousness of sleep would be a relief.

'Finally a break.' Alongside Sasuki and Sakura, Naruto turned to make his way out. Gramps' voice stopped him in his tracks and made his shoulders tense.

"Naruto, would you mind staying back?" He asked.

Well, it came out as a question, but it was definitely an order. His teammates gave him confused looks, though Kakashi didn't have much reaction.

"Don't worry, I'm sure it's nothing. Go home and rest." He reassured them with a smile.

Sasuki and Sakura's eyes still relayed their concern, but grudgingly the two girls turned and left with their sensei. The door shut behind them with a soft–clack–behind them. The sound seemed far louder than it should have been. As soon as they were gone, he felt the previous tension creep back in. His facial muscles ached as he tried to force an easy-going smile.

"What's up Gramps. Why'd you want to talk to me alone?" He asked.

The Hokage's wrinkled brow was furrowed in worry. His eyes shone with concern. He took another drag from his pipe, expelling a small cloud of smoke. "I couldn't help but notice you seemed rather tired during the briefing. Much more than was warranted after several weeks of relative downtime and a small journey at high speed. Is everything all right?"

It was almost impossible to hold back a wince. For what must have been the millionth time over the years, he cursed Gramps' observation skills. He was able to pick up on the little tells that nobody else saw. Naruto always found it near impossible to hide anything from him. Usually he'd cave and open up, but he really wasn't up for a long philosophical talk right now.

"Hehehe, you worry too much. I'm just looking forward to a good night's rest in my own bed after a tough mission." Naruto insisted with a light smile.

By the narrowing of the man's eyes, he could tell he didn't buy the excuse. His body tensed even further. Would the old man insist on talking? He dreaded that idea. Finally, mercifully, Gramps gave a dismissive grunt. "Very well. I suppose I'll let you get to it then. We'll have to catch up soon, maybe over a game of shogi." Hiruzen said.

A more natural smile stretched his lips at the offer. "Sure thing. I'll see ya later old man."

With a casual wave, Naruto turned to make his way home. He tried to leave as quickly as possible without being suspicious. No need to temp the old man to insist on talking. Just as he put his hand on the door handle, Hiruzen called to him one last time.

"Just remember, if anything is bothering you, my door is always open."

He acknowledged the man's words with a slight nod and light smile. Though he didn't say anything else. As the door slid shut behind him, his cheerful features quickly melted away. His face and posture sagged with exhaustion. He was relieved to be home. Just not for the reason he gave Gramps. Sleep would offer him a distraction he desperately needed. Hopefully things would be better on a full nights rest.

'Tch, you humans are so odd. You worry about the most foolish things. Always scheming and trying to keep secrets.'The Nine-Tails commented.

A bitter chuckle ripped from Naruto's lips. Even as he made his way down the curving hallway of the administrative building for the village, he shot off a snarky reply. 'Like you're one to talk Ninesey. Last time I checked you wouldn't even tell me your name. So stingy!'

The subsequent annoyed growl brought a cheeky smile to his face. It was always fun trading barbs with his fuzzy friend (though he didn't dare to call the fox that to its face). Part of him suspected the fox was purposefully trying to help distract him. The other just laughed at that notion.

With it being the middle of the evening, the streets were fairly lively as he walked home. Naruto passed several civilian families out and about for dinner or a movie. The excited chatter of There was still quite a bit of light out, and the air was just barely starting to get cooler. The familiar sights and sounds helped to set his mind at ease. It was hard to be concerned in such a peaceful atmosphere. Not even the occasional disapproving glance could ruin it for him.

If only that notion could have lasted.

— ₪ NTUC ₪ —

How did it all go so wrong?

Blood trickled down his face. The warm, sticky texture made his skin crawl. A heavy iron smell filled his nostrils. His body felt completely frozen as if his muscles were made of stone. He could feel a tightness in his chest. It felt like someone had a hold of his heart and was squeezing. Naruto never took his eyes off the cloaked man. More specifically, the raven haired girl he was clutching by the neck. Her face was even paler than normal, and her eyes were full of fear.

A pair of bloody red sharingan eyes regarded him coldly through the eye sockets a snarling, skeletal fox mask. Black markings crawled across the bone-white mask. It was the sight of the man that had Naruto frozen. He wanted to move. He just couldn't. A primal dread filled him when he saw the man. Why couldn't he move?

"Ah, there you are. Why don't you come quietly?" The man asked. His voice was deep and cruel. Just listening to him felt like spiders crawling across his body. An uncomfortable, maddening terror.

It was a struggle to speak. His vocal cords felt tight and numb all at the same time. He wanted to shout and rail. For some reason, it came out as a whispered squeak.

"Wh-who are you?" Naruto gasped.

Somehow he just knew who the man was. Even before he answered. He'd known since the second he saw those eyes. This man had haunted his nightmares since he'd learned of him.

"Come now Naruto, don't play dumb. I'm the reason that Tailed Beast is inside you. Now, hand yourself over before I lose my patience. You know I don't have an issue killing those who get in my way."

As the man spoke, a macabre scene unfolded before Naruto. As if they had always been there, bodies appeared at the cloaked man's feet. First Kakashi and Sakura, their throats slit wide open to reveal pink flesh. Blood oozed from the wounds. His sensei's sharingan eye looked like it had been ripped from his skull. All that was left was dark, gaping socket with a thick trail of blood down his right cheek. The next to appear were his parents, gigantic gaping holes in their stomachs and what little of their internal organs that remained lay scattered on the grass below them.

The smell of iron hung strong in the air. It was thick and ever-present. There was a sense of surrealness to the scene. A dark and foreboding fog. His heart hammered painfully, and electric fear-born adrenaline seized his muscles.

"All these people, dead because of you." The man taunted.

Naruto shook his head in denial. "No, you're wrong." He protested.

That skeleton mask tilted to the side mockingly.

"Oh really? Your parents died protecting you after I took advantage of your birth. If you hadn't been born, they'd still be alive." He rebutted. His eyes flicked to Kakashi and Sakura's corpses. "As for them, well, I didn't have much choice but to move up the timetable, now did I? Quite naughty of you to hide the truth of your heritage."

His words were like a bucket of ice water being poured over Naruto. He gasped for air. There were needles in his lungs.

"Now, will you come quietly? Afterall, it would be a shame to kill this girl because of your secrets. Isn't that right Naruto Uchiha?" The man asked. His words were as mocking as his posture.

It killed him to look at Sasuki. Betrayal. Her dark eyes practically screamed the emotion.

"U-uchiha?" She gasped.

The man turned his head back to Sasuki. "Ah, you can still talk. Let's fix that." He said coldly.

His grip became even tighter. Naruto watched helplessly as Sasuki's pale white features slowly became a frightening purple. There were only seconds left.

"Well?" The man asked impatiently.

He acted without thinking. It went against everything he'd been taught. There was no guarantee the man would honor his word. All he gained from caving in was getting himself captured as well. But he couldn't let Sasuki die right in front of him. Not after the promise he made. He'd do anything to protect her.

"Okay, okay, just let her go." He cried.

A deep chuckle sounded from behind the mask. It made it sound distorted and inhuman. With a contemptuous flick, the man threw Sasuki to the ground at Naruto's feet. She landed with a loud–thump–and a deep gasp as the air was driven from her body. Instantly, he reached down to help her up, but she slapped his hands away.

Even as she lay choking and gasping for breath, his friend fixed him with a furious glare. Rage smoldered in her dark eyes.

"U-Uchiha? Is it true?" She asked.

Naruto froze. Tears welled in his eyes. This was the moment. The moment he'd dreaded. And it came in the worst circumstances. His friend finally knew. Knew what he'd hidden for years.

"I … yes." He said.

Her reaction was explosive. "All this time I was alone … and you just let me believe that. I hate you!"

In her anger, Sasuki threw herself at him. He didn't try to stop her. Her words cut too deep. Before she could reach him, though, a blade suddenly erupted from her chest. Blood burst forth and spattered across his face.

He watched the light fade from Sasuki's eyes. Her face–the one that used to be so kind–forever frozen in an expression of hatred. It was wrong. Just so wrong! He felt like his heart was torn from his chest as she slumped forward with a sick fleshy–THUD! The man stood in her place.

"Tch, silly girl. Although you're just as stupid. Can't leave loose ends. Now, let's get going. We have a plan to begin." He said.

The last thing he saw was a gloved hand approaching his face. Then all he knew was darkness.

Naruto awoke with a terrified shout. His heart was fluttering as fast as the wings of a hummingbird, and it felt like someone had been sitting on his chest. All he could see was darkness, save for a single shaft of silvery light peaking from between the lank green curtains covering the window.

Every muscle was tense as he sat up in a panic. He looked around frantically for the fox-masked man. Was he still here? Where was here? The familiar egg-shell white walls of his bedroom greeted him. Slowly, his racing mind began to settle. He finally realized the truth.

"It was a nightmare. Thank god."

The realization was like the drain being pulled from a bathtub. Instantly, all the adrenaline seemed to leave him. He slumped back on the pillow tiredly. The tension was gone. Within moments, only dregs of his panic remained. A delirious part of his mind wondered how he could go from terror to relief so quickly.

Goosebumps rippled across his skin as the cool night air hit him. Naruto finally felt the dampness of his sheets and the way his shirt stuck to his body grossly.

It helped to clear his mind even more.

'That dream … it was so vivid.' He thought tiredly.

Of course, his mind had constructed what the masked man looked and sounded like. Naruto had never actually seen him or heard his voice. The man existed only as a concept. A dark boogey man that represented the tragedy of the night he was born. That man was a silent shade that had occasionally stalked him in his nightmares over the years. This was the first time he'd actually taken a solid form. Naruto couldn't help but wonder if the real thing was as terrifying as his mental construction.

Tiredly, he rolled his head to the side to glance at the digital display on his alarm clock. It glowed a vivid blue in the darkness.

4:15 A.M.

There were several hours before he had to be up to get ready for their normal meeting at nine. With the terror gone, he could feel exhaustion clutching at him again.

"Better get some more sleep." He mumbled.

A tired sigh escaped his lips as he turned on his side. His eyes closed and he settled in for a few more hours of restless sleep.

— ₪ NTUC ₪ —

The day after their return, Sakura cursed the amount of time it took her to get ready. It left her with little time to eat anything healthy, so the only way to stick to her diet was something light. Her stomach already felt like it was trying to eat itself. An apple and granola bar were nowhere near enough food. To add insult to the injustice, she was also running slightly later than usual. Still, it was better than getting fat.

Today was one of the increasingly rare overcast days in the Hidden Leaf. The cloud cover made it hot and muggy, with a hint of ozone that tingled in her nostrils. She could already feel a light sheen of sweat on her forearms. No doubt by the time training was done she'd be all sweaty and her hair a frizzed out mess.

'Ugh, gross. I'll need to take a shower after training.' Sakura thought with distaste. It took forever to get her hair dry and styled in the first place.

Predictably, she was the second one to arrive. Sasuki leaned against one of the trees with her eyes closed. Her arms were crossed over her chest and raven hair cascading around her shoulders. How did she make looking so good seem so simple?

"Morning Sasuki!" She called.

Black eyes snapped open and glanced at her coolly.

"…morning, I guess." Said Sasuki.

Sakura felt her eyebrow twitch at the lackluster reply. She'd always looked up to Sasuki. After all, she was everything Sakura wished she was. Yet the longer she spent around her, the more of the negative sides of her personality Sakura saw. Seriously, was Sasuki always going to be so cold?

'Sure she's cool, but who does she think she is, cha!'Inner piped up.

They settled into a tense silence. While she waited for their other teammates, Sakura took out a book that one of the medics at the hospital had suggested. It covered the basic jutsu Medical Ninja used. A red ribbon marked the place she left off the day before. The pages rustled under her finger as she cracked the book open.

A red ribbon lay draped over the image of a hand shrouded in a blue aura. There was a label underneath the diagram. Chakra Scalpel it read. The jutsu had caught her attention when she was skimming the book the night before. It formed chakra into a blade that could be used to make incisions for surgery, sometimes without even cutting the skin.

'If I can master this enough to use in battle, this could be really deadly.' She thought as she started to read the details. According to the book the control required made it difficult to use in battle. But Sakura was determined that she'd make it work. After all, her teammates both had bloodlines and abilities that made them unique. 'I need to find something of my own, and this is a good start.'

Sakura became absorbed in dissecting the jutsu. That's how she learned best; carefully examining a technique from every angle before ever trying it. It was easy to lose herself in the peaceful atmosphere. The small river that wound through the training ground trickled merrily, a cool breeze wafted from its surface to provide relief from the muggy air. She was so absorbed she almost missed the crunch of dirt underneath shoe as someone entered the training ground. When she glanced up, she saw Naruto walking towards them at a sedate place. For some reason, he didn't seem to have as much energy as usual.

"Yo, I see you two beat me here. Guess that's what happens when you accidently sleep in." He said with a yawn.

Naruto swept a hand through his long blond hair. Even bound in its usual ponytail, it seemed slightly more lank than usual. As he got closer, she started to notice other things. Like the tired slump of his shoulders, the paleness of his skin, and the slight bags under his eyes.

"You look like crap." Sasuki said bluntly.

Her eyes widened in surprise. She didn't know why. Such lack of tact was common for Sasuki. It was hard for Sakura to disguise her snort of laughter at the askance look on Naruto's face. He quickly recovered.

"Well good morning to you too little Miss Sunshine." He shot back.

She didn't bother to hide the light giggle at his nickname for their teammate. It earned her a slight glare from Sasuki, but it was well worth it in Sakura's opinion.

"You three certainly seem to be getting rather close."

Sakura let out a startled scream at the voice that called down from the branches above her. It's echoes rang through the trees and startled several birds. She quickly jumped up and glared at the offender. Wind rustled through gravity defying white hair as her sensei leaned casually against the trunk on one of the large branches. He was even reading his stupid orange book!

"Dammit Kakashi-Sensei, do you always have to make such a sudden entrance!" She yelled reflexively. Her heart was still racing in her chest. It was a mark of how flustered she was that she cursed at her teacher without even thinking.

Kakashi's lone eye blinked owlishly. "Huh, that was a bit unexpected." He said.

His words were like a douse of cold water on her temper. Suddenly, she became completely aware of the fact both her teammates were also looking at her weirdly. Even Naruto–tired as he looked–seemed slightly intrigued. Her face rapidly heated up under the scrutiny. She couldn't believe she lost control like that in front of the entire team.

"Uh, sorry, I was just … startled." She said meekly.

Her sensei simply gave a light shrug as he stowed his book away. With a casual leap, he landed in front of them soundlessly.

"Oh, it's no big deal. I just didn't know you had that kind of spirit." Said Kakashi lazily. He took his usual spot for giving instructions in front of the three thick posts near the front of the training ground. "Now, everyone gather around. We have some things to go over about your training going forward."

Sakura fell into line alongside her teammates. She stood on the left side, with Naruto in between Sasuki and her. Once they were gathered up, Kakashi reached to one of the pouches on his vest and unclipped one of the scroll pouches on his left breast. The buckle gave off a sharp–snap–followed by the rustle of paper as the scroll dropped into his hand. Taking the end between his fingers, Kakashi unrolled the scroll slightly to reveal a seal. From the markings, she was pretty sure it was meant for storage.

"To start with, during training I want you to start using these. Whether you use them more than that is up to you." He said. With a slight application of chakra, a small puff of white smoke burst from the seal. It cleared to reveal twelve black band about four inches wide and ten inches long.

She noticed Naruto give the bands an appraising look. It made her take a closer look herself. There were slim rectangular lumps along the length of the bands. If you weren't looking closely, it was easy to miss them. And … were those symbols?

"Uh, are those training weights?" She asked. If they were, they weren't like any she'd ever seen. The lumps were too small to carry significant weight.

Her sensei nodded. The slight shifting around the mouth area of his mask told her he was smiling. "Indeed. This is a variation on a technique developed by my own Sensei's teacher." He explained. "It distributes an even amount of weight across the body for training. This is more effective and safer than regular weight training. By channeling chakra into them, you can adjust the weight."

Sakura could tell Naruto was impressed by the purpose of the weights. His eyes were gleaming in interest. Not only was it a way to train harder, but it used seals. For a training nut like him (and someone who also had an interest in seals) it must have been amazing. Even she could admit it was an impressive invention.

"Well, put these on. Then I'll explain our new training plan." Said Kakashi as he tossed the weights towards them one at a time.

Surprisingly, they weren't that heavy to start. She was able to catch her set of four fairly easily. Sakura didn't hesitate to strap them on. The buttons used to fasten them clicked into place with satisfying pop sounds. When all of them were done, Kakashi showed them the hand seal to adjust the weights.

"Be careful how much chakra you use too much, and you can–" Kakashi started to give them a warning, but his words were interrupted by a loud–BOOM–to the side of her. With wide eyes, Sakura saw Naruto struggling to move from where he now lay, a slight indentation in the ground around him. "–do that. Might want to lay off a bit Naruto."

He seemed to get the message, and quickly shot back to his feet with a sheepish grin on his face.

"I'm good." He said.

On the other side of Naruto, Sasuki shook her head and muttered, "Idiot …"

Taking a lesson from Naruto's mistake, Sakura started off slow. She used just a sliver of chakra to start. Blue seals glowed along the areas with the weights. A slight pressure started to press down on her. It was almost like in a dream when you couldn't move right. She went until it started to become just barely strenuous to move her arm. Once all of them had adjusted their weights, Kakashi gave a pleased nod.

"Good, now, for your new training schedule." Kakashi said. He reached into his pocket and removed three sheets of paper. "The last mission showed I should be taking your training more seriously. Especially Sakura, who wanted to train harder. That's why I've made these new training schedules."

He handed each of them one of the sheets of paper, before stepping back and explaining. As she read what was on the sheet, Sakura found herself slightly intimidated by the list of exercises.

"Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays will be physical training. That will be slightly individualized to fit your various skillsets, but in general we'll do it together. Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays will be purely individual and that's where we'll spend time honing your individual skills. I'll discuss your individual schedules more in depth with each of you. This schedule stands barring any missions, and we'll still be taking the occasional D-Rank on individual days. For now, let's get started with today's physical training." Said Kakashi. For some reason, his tone set her on edge.

What followed had to be the most grueling day of training Sakura endured. Just the effort it took to run laps through a simple forest trail with the weights on was insane. It was like there was quicksand all around her. The very air felt heavy.

She was panting and huffing by the time the first lap was over. It only got worse from there. Pushups, squats, lunges, punches, kicks. An endless array of exercises. Hell, Kakashi even had them do stretching! How could stretching be difficult? When all was said and done, Sakura lay slumped on the ground heaving for breath. It felt like every cell in her body was on fire. She had a nauseous feeling from hunger that made her want to throw up. Not that there was any point since her stomach was already empty of what little she'd had. The sour taste in her mouth reminded her of the earlier bought of nausea. Her clothes were positively drenched in sweat, and her hair fell in matted clumps about her face. A few twigs and leaves poked at her scalp.

Her teammates were fairing much better. Sasuki was only leaning tiredly up against a tree with her eyes closed, while Naruto simply rested his hands on his knees trying to catch his breath. Was he … smiling? He almost seemed to have gained more energy than when he got there. That boy was a stamina freak!

"Well, that's all for today. Tomorrow we'll be doing something special before our first individual training day, so make sure to rest up." Kakashi said lazily.

Unlike them, he seemed completely fine. He leant casually against one of the training posts just like earlier, still reading that stupid book. 'I swear to god, someday I'm gonna destroy that thing, cha!'Inner Sakura ranted. For once, she was in agreement.

She let out a tired sigh when Kakashi disappeared in a swirl of leaves and whisper of wind. It was silent for several moments after he left. The only sounds were the constant trickle of the river fifty yards away, and their tired panting. Naruto was the first one to break the silence, letting out a loud exhale of breath as he stood straight and tossed his head back.

"Hoooh, that sure was intense," He said.

Sakura nodded slightly. "That's an understatement. I don't know how you two are standing."

"…this training wasn't that bad compared to what Naruto's grandfather used to have us do." Sasuki replied.

Her eyebrows rose at the comment. She managed to muster up the energy to sit up and look at her teammates, specifically Naruto. "Your … Grandfather, I thought you were an orphan?" She asked curiously.

An odd look passed between the other two. Almost like they were having a silent conversation.

Finally, Naruto turned to her and said, "Ah, yeah. My parents died when I was born. At the time my grandfather wasn't in the village cause of a long-term mission. Once he got back when I was six, he retired and started raising me. Sasuki would come over and train with us occasionally. He passed away about a year and a half ago." There was a sad glint in his eyes when he mentioned his grandfather passing away.

Long-term mission? 'That's usually how they refer to espionage missions if I remember right. Ah, that must be why Naruto never mentioned him!' It made sense. Spying missions were really dangerous. They could get you enemies that would go to any length to kill you. Though she felt slightly bad about bringing it up.

"Ah, sorry to hear that." Sakura said. Thankfully, Naruto just brushed it off with a dismissive wave.

"Don't worry, I've gotten over it mostly." He assured her. Suddenly, a loud gurgling growl came from his stomach. "That reminds me, man I'm starving. You two want to join me for lunch at this sushi place I like?" He asked.

From her perch against the tree, Sasuki gave a nonchalant shrug. "You mean Kintaku? Sure. I'll have to go take a shower first."

At the mention of food, Sakura felt her own stomach growl fiercely. Like a caged beast waiting to be unleashed.

"I'm in too. Where should we meet up?"

Naruto put a thoughtful finger on his chin. "Hmm, Sakura, your family live on the North side of the village near the Yamanaka Flower Shop, right?" At her nod, his eyes looked upwards as if trying to picture something. "I think it'd be best if we met on the corner of the main market street, near the convenience store. Sasuki and I both live closer to the Academy on the South-East side so that'll be about in-between." He concluded.

Sasuki gave a nod of agreement, confirming the plan. It made Sakura smile. Despite being tired, she couldn't help but be excited to hang out with her team outside of training and missions.

"Sounds good, I'll see you in a bit." She said. It was hard to withhold a wince at the stiffness of her muscles as she stood up. Thankfully, she'd already made sure to deactivate her weights.

With that the team broke apart. As she walked home–though perhaps hobble was more accurate–Sakura felt a couple drops of water. It was slightly warm. "Huh, it might rain. Better bring my umbrella." She mumbled to herself.

— ₪ NTUC ₪ —

As it turned out, the Kintaku Loungeturned out to be far different than Sakura had expected. She'd been to Ichiraku with Naruto before, so she expected something more along that line.

The restaurant was halfway down one of the most popular streets in the village for food, with multiple restaurants and bars all in close proximity. Polished wooden panels almost seemed to glow on the walls and ceiling. The light from the wide windows bounced off the shining panels. Most of the floor space was taken up by many large circular red and black upholstered booths. Over each of them was a circular electric light set into the ceiling, almost like spotlights. On the far wall was a small bar with high stools that looked into the kitchen area where employees were hard at work preparing food. Only a couple customers were in the restaurant at the moment.

"I feel a bit underdressed …" She mumbled, self-consciously clutching at the skirt of her red qipao dress. The only thing that made her feel a little better was her teammates seemed to just throw on one of their spare sets of shinobi clothes as well, with the exception of Sasuki donning a white skirt instead of shorts.

Beside her, Naruto chuckled.

"Eh, don't worry about it. I know it looks pretty fancy, but they're pretty laidback here. It's technically a sushi restaurant, but they serve other stuff and it's more like a diner. Old Morimoto isn't that hung up on customs and stuff." He reassured her.

Whish! Clang!

Sakura stared with wide eyes as Naruto casually tilted his head to the side to dodge a gleaming silver knife as it whizzed past his cheek. The blade continued to embed itself in the wall, shivering from the force.

"Keep calling me old and I'll beat some formality into you brat." A man said as he emerged from the kitchen. He was a slightly older man with deeply tanned skin and greying hair slicked back into a small ponytail. A dark blue apron was wrapped around his waist.

The man–Morimoto she assumed–gave a loud humph at the sight of Naruto. "Well, take your usual table. I'll send Chiho out in a few." He said gruffly.

Despite the harshness of his words, there was a bright smile on the man's face as he spoke to Naruto.

"Ah, whatever." Naruto said dismissively. When the chef turned to go back to the kitchen, Naruto turned to Sakura and jerked his head in the direction of a booth in the corner of the restaurant farthest from the door. "Come on, that's our usual spot over there."

Sakura ended up sitting across the table from Sasuki, while Naruto sat in the back of the booth in between them. For a few moments, the three of them sat and chatted while they waited for this "Chiho". Mostly about what they were working on individually. Inevitably, she ended up bringing up her desire to learn the chakra scalpel.

"…So you want to be able to use it in combat? Cool. Sounds like a useful thing for sneak attacks." Naruto said enthusiastically.

Perhaps most surprising was the approving nod the idea got from Sasuki. "That's actually pretty smart. It'll make up for a lack of power." She agreed.

The praise from her teammates made her flush in embarrassment. 'Cha! We're gonna be awesome now that you aren't being so pathetic!'Inner remarked.

Before their discussion could go any further, a droll feminine voice interrupted them. "Hey there, guess you two are back. And you brought a pretty friend."

"Ah, hey Chiho." Naruto said with a wave at the new arrival.

Sakura stared at the woman in surprise. Like the restaurant, Chiho wasn't what she'd expected. She had long dark hair with red-painted lips, and wore a collared sleeveless black shirt that exposed her bellybutton at the bottom with dark grey leggings. The most unique thing, though, was the large tattoo on her left arm of a red koi swimming up a waterfall full of cherry blossoms, and the silver hoop piercing in her upper lip.

With a start, she realized she was staring. She felt a hot flush in her cheeks. "Uh–um, thanks. I'm Sakura." Sakura mumbled in response to the compliment.

"Nice to meet you Sakura. Here's your menu's," Chiho said as she took some menu's tucked under her arms and passed them around. The girl smirked at Naruto and Sasuki. "Not that you two need it, I assume. I'll give Sakura here a few minutes to look the menu over. You want anything to drink in the meantime?"

"Just water for me." Naruto said.

Sasuki shrugged and asked for the same. Chiho turned to look at her expectantly.

"Um, I'll have a water, and some green tea if you have it." She said.

"No problem. I'll be back in a few." The waitress replied.

As Chiho returned to the kitchen, Naruto gave Sakura I smirk. "Not exactly your average waitress, right?" He asked.

It was like his words were a release. She felt a little awkward about her earlier staring, but apparently it didn't come off as overly weird.

"No, she isn't not that there's anything wrong with it. I actually think she looks kind of cool." Sakura answered. While she spoke, she took some time to look over the various dishes on the menu. "Jeez, there's so many options here. I'm not sure what to go with. What do you usually get Sasuki?"

Sakura figured her female teammate would know something healthier and light. Though she quickly found herself slightly surprised by her answer. The black-haired girl gave a simple shrug.

"A double order of grilled eel over soba, with a large side of grilled tomatoes." She replied. Her eyes bulged in surprise. Sakura couldn't help but glance at Sasuki's body. How the hell did she eat so much and look like that?

"Wha–seriously? Aren't you worried about getting fat?" She asked incredulously.

She almost instantly regretted the question, as both of her teammates gave her weird looks. Almost like they thought she was stupid. Well, more Sasuki than Naruto in that regard.

"Why in the world would I worry about something so stupid?" Sasuki asked bluntly.

Sakura's face burned in embarrassment. "Bu-but don't you diet?" She asked more uncertainly. The subsequent shake of the head compounded her embarrassment. Had … had she and Ino been approaching things wrong?

"I think what little miss sunshine means, is since we do such crazy training, we need more calories than average people. Plus, the proteins and nutrients help your body recover and improve. Especially since we're young and still growing." Naruto cut in.

Even though his words were meant to be encouraging, Sakura only felt even more stupid. She always spent all her time in the academy learning everything she could, memorizing the material backwards and forwards. Why hadn't she bothered to look into the effects training has on the body? 'I might as well have been training with one arm tied behind my back the past few years.'

That realization … it made her question everything about her approach to training and being a kunoichi. She glanced at Sasuki, who appeared to have lost interest in the conversation. It didn't seem like she had the same problem Sakura did. Wait, that's it!

"He-hey, um Sasuki?" She asked hesitantly. The black-haired girl glanced at her direction aloofly. "Do you think some time we could compare notes on training and stuff … I, I think I could learn a lot from you."

For a long, awkward moment, Sasuki just stared at her. Sakura didn't back down though. She was waiting for the inevitable harsh denial. Weirdly enough, Sasuki and Naruto quickly locked eyes, and Naruto gave the girl a pointed look. 'There's that silent communication again.' Whatever passed between them, Sasuki let out a huff.

"Sure, no problem." She relented.

Sakura was left blinking in confusion. She expected a lot more resistance. Before they could talk anymore, Chiho returned with their drinks. After she'd deposited the tray on the table and distributed the drinks, the waitress turned to Sakura and pulled out a notebook and pencil.

"So, what can I get for you?" She asked.

Taking a moment to scan the menu again, Sakura picked something she'd initially dismissed earlier. As a matter of fact, with the way hunger was clawing at her stomach, she decided to go for two!

"I'll have the Katsudon, with an extra pork cutlet please." She said with a smile.

Chiho's lips twitched at her enthusiasm. "Alright, Katsudon with an extra cutlet, a double order of grilled eel over soba with a large side of tomatoes, and a triple order of Chirashizushi coming right up. I assume this is going on your tab Naruto?" She said.

Sakura's eyes widened at the last part. She opened her mouth to protest, but Naruto answered before she could even think about it.

"Yeah, put it on me. I got this one covered." He said.

She looked at her teammate slightly askance when Chiho left. "Why'd you pay? I could have covered it." She protested. Surprisingly it was Sasuki who responded with an amused snort.

"Tch, don't worry about it. Magnet Boy's grandfather had plenty of money he left him." She said.

Still unsure, Sakura looked to Naruto for confirmation. When he nodded, she let out a relieved sigh. 'Huh, who'd have thought Naruto had money. He always seemed more the frugal type.' She thought to herself.

With all of that out of the way, she resigned herself to sit back and enjoy the time with her teammates. The somewhat dim lighting provided an intimate atmosphere that made it easy to talk. Sasuki was actually surprisingly animated outside of a mission setting. When the food arrived, Sakura found herself tearing into the bowl of Katsudon ferociously. She polished them off in record time. Though the amused and knowing look from Naruto made her blush.

When they left the restaurant an hour and a half later, the trio were in high spirits. Sakura's belly felt full and heavy for the first time in a while. She was even feeling a bit sleepy and unsteady on her feet. Thankfully she had her umbrella to keep balance. They walked out onto the main road and started to make their way at a leisurely pace. It was then that Sakura broached something that she was curious about.

"So what do you think this "special training" is that Kakashi-sensei has planned tomorrow?" Sakura asked.

Naruto shrugged. "Who knows. Could be some kind of unique chakra control exercise, or even a special kind of lesson." He said.

"Who knows with that stupid cyclops." Sasuki agreed.

Though she pretty much agreed with the two, Sakura was slightly discouraged that they didn't have any clue. Seriously, she hated mysteries! 'Cha, it better not be anything weird!' Inner agreed.

As they passed by Yakiniku-Q (a well-known barbecue place), a boisterous, gruff voice called out from behind them. One she hadn't heard in a while.

"Hey, if it isn't Team 7. What are you guys doing here?"

Sakura turned around to see Kiba coming out of the barbecue restaurant with his teammates close behind. She didn't miss the frown Naruto had, or the way his eyes rolled in annoyance.

"I don't know, what could we possibly be doing in a place known for having a lot of restaurants?" He asked sarcastically.

It was hard not to giggle at the way Kiba's cheeks flushed from Naruto's taunt. The boys hand balled into a fist, and he glared at them with his slit pupiled eyes.

"Watch it pretty boy. This ain't the academy. There's nobody to give detention if we fight." He said menacingly.

"You say that like I should be worried." Naruto growled as he took a step forward.

For a few seconds, Sakura almost thought a fight would break out. There was a decided tension in the air. She could feel it in the pit of her stomach. A nervous thrill. The pre-storm atmosphere hung over them. Thankfully, help came from perhaps the most unlikely source.

"He-hey Kiba, we shouldn't g-get into a fight. Re-remember Kurenai-sensei s-said we should rest up?" Hinata said in her usual stutter.

She placed a calming hand on Kiba's forearm and gave them an apologetic look. Though she seemed to intentionally avoid looking at Naruto. Her cheeks flushed pink every time she looked in his direction. Her words seemed to calm Kiba down and make him think. "Oh yeah, you're right." He said.

Taking advantage of the opening, Sakura quickly locked eyes with Sasuki. It seemed like she instantly knew what the other girl was thinking. 'Huh, is this that silent communication they have?' Without saying a word, they both grabbed ahold of one of Naruto's arms and started to frog march him away. It was sort of hard. Naruto was no slouch when it came to physical stature. His arm felt like stone underneath her hands. 'Sheesh, talk about rock hard muscles. I guess that all that training gets you this.'

"Come on idiot, we don't have time for the mutt either." Sasuki muttered.

Though she wouldn't put it in quite so crude a term, Sakura nodded in agreement, "Yeah, remember, we have that thing with Kakashi tomorrow."

With a heavy sigh, Naruto let the tension drain from his body and quickly turned to walk alongside them.

"Guess you're right. Sorry, I got kinda carried away there." He said sheepishly.

"Don't worry about it, the mutt gets on my nerves too." Sasuki said.

Sakura laughed at her words, the vibrations shaking her body. When you got used to it, there was something really funny about Sasuki's blunt dismissal of things. The group continued to walk in comfortable silence. Eventually, they made it back to the convenience store they'd met at. It was seemingly just in time, as an ominous, rumbling boom echoed through the sky, followed by the pitter-patter of several drops of rain.

She was quick to open up her umbrella and use it to cover herself.

"Guess that's our que to split. I'll see you two tomorrow." Naruto said with a casual wave.

"Sure thing, have a good day." Said Sakura with a smile. Sasuki merely offered a grunt and turned to walk away. Her blond-haired teammate gave one last wave and disappeared in a burst of speed.

No sooner did her teammates leave, than the rain started to come down in earnest. It fille the air with the earthy smell of warm rain hitting the ground, and the material of her umbrella started to get pelted with a constant pitt-patt-pitt. Despite it being just a little past midday, the combination of the training, a full stomach, and her rollercoaster of insecurity and confidence had her feeling suddenly rather exhausted. The rhythmic sound of the rain just made it worse.

She'd have to grab a nap when she got home. Just a small one though. Anything more and she wouldn't be able to get enough sleep for that special training It was something she was surprisingly eager about. Who would of thought that less than four months out of the Academy she'd actually be looking forward to more intense training?

— ₪ NTUC ₪ —

AN/ Well, there was Chapter 21. I know it seems like more of a filler chapter, but this is leading into the next arc and eventually the Chunin Exams and I'd consider it important in it's own way. Besides, can't just go from action arc chapter to a brief downtime and right into the next arc. Speaking of which, this next arc is going to be completely original as far as the characters besides Team 7.

Anyways, for now I'll be posting every month to and AO3 until further notice.

In other news, once I get done with this next arc I will be switching over to redoing "Naruto: The Death Flash" and posting that. Right now I'm thinking he most likely won't have Dead Bone Pulse in the new version, mostly because that started as a fic for a reader and looking back it doesn't quite fit the brief for that. It shouldn't take too long to get that going, and once I do I'll switch back and forth between the two stories and maybe one other. For now I'm not looking to be working on more than three stories at a time.

Well, that's all for now.

See you next chapter,

RinneTaicho, Signing Off!