"How long are we supposed to just sit like this?" Naruto whined as he sat in the 'lotus position' his sensei had shown him. "We're burning daylight here, and I could use the time better if I trained for tomorrow."
At first, Jiraiya had ignored the boy but his constant complaining over the past hour had finally worn down his patience. "Meditation is supposed to help you relax, kid, besides if you trained today you would just end up having to go to the exams exhausted and tired." Naruto only grunted. "Yeah, well it ain't helping me relax much. My legs fell asleep ten minutes ago." Jiraiya sighed. "Well, I guess meditation isn't for everyone."
The blonde immediately got up from his seated position and happily started stretching his legs. "But that still doesn't mean you can train today." Naruto just groaned but decided that there might be some wisdom to the Sannin's words after all. He then brightened up, as an idea struck him. "Hey, I'll just go and ask Ayame-chan what I should do? She really helped out last time!" He said, before he ran off from the field. "See ya Pervy-Sage!"
The boy was soon seated at his regular stool in the ramen bar, having asked for his usual. Once again, he was talking to Ayame while Teuchi was in the kitchen preparing the meal. "Have you considered trying out the hot springs another time?"
Naruto only shuddered in response to the question. "Trust me Ayame-chan, that place is dangerous. Plus, apparently it's gotten much more crowded recently. A lot of people came here for the Chūnin Exams, and they're taking advantage of everything Konoha has to offer."
Ayame nodded. "Tell me about it. We've had customers from three different villages just today. In fact, three ninja from Kiri left just seconds before you arrived." The girl then refocused her gaze on to the blond. "How are you holding up, by the way?"
"What do you mean?" Naruto asked as he fiddled with a set of chopsticks in his hands. Ayame sighed. "I meant with the Chūnin Exams starting tomorrow. I know you've been putting in a lot of effort and training, but even you have to be a little nervous, right?"
Naruto only smirked boldly in response. "Well that's where you're wrong. Naruto Uzumaki does not get nervous, believe it! I'm going to show every single person at these exams what the next Hokage of Konoha is made of!"
"I have to admit, that attitude of yours sure is an infectious one." Ayame said to the blond. "And you'll have the full support of Ichiraku Ramen, no matter what."
"You can say that again." Teuchi said as he rounded the corner and approached the bar, carefully carrying a tray laden with ramen bowls. "There's no way I'm not going to support a kid that calls my ramen the 'food of the gods'." Naruto nodded bashfully as he scratched the back of his head, before thanking the man for the meal and digging in.
Soon, the boy was done with almost eight bowls, and as he had now slowed down his pace considerably, Ayame continued their earlier conversation. "If hot springs are out, then what about some shopping, or meeting up with a friend." She suggested. "And I'd have to say you are doing a good job with shopping already. I mean, this new ensemble of yours is much, much better than that ridiculous jumpsuit you wore for the last two years."
Naruto gasped in response. "Ayame-chan, you shouldn't speak ill of the dead! Those suits went down in the line of fire." Ayame only shook her head in exasperation. "Say what you want, but that outfit wasn't really doing you any favours." She said, before leaning in closer and continuing in a conspiratorial tone. "Especially when it comes to the ladies."
The blond only raised an eyebrow slowly. "What do clothes have to do with girls?" The girl gave him a hard look, which softened slightly when she realised the boy wasn't pulling at her leg. "W-Well, sometimes wearing good clothes makes you look better, and that can help someone like you, romantically speaking." She would've asked why he didn't know these things himself, but she knew the reason already. 'Sometimes I forget how much I take for granted with a parent.'
Naruto's eyes widened. "Wait, so how do I know if my clothes help people like me?"
"I guess you just develop a sense for it over time. But trust me, this jacket is much better than that old jumpsuit."
In a few moments, Naruto was done with his final bowl as well, and he stood up after placing the cash due on the counter. "Well, I guess I might just go see Jiji. I haven't really seen him in a week. He's been way busier these days because of the Chūnin Exams." With a quick farewell to the ramen chef and his daughter, Naruto was soon in the streets of the village, calmly strolling to the Hokage Tower. He wasn't really in any hurry, so he might as well take his time.
As he walked, he did notice the continuous glares he was still receiving from most of the civilians. They had lessened their hostility towards him considerably since he became a shinobi, although that was more out of fear than any compassion or respect. But they had still taken it upon themselves to make him feel unwanted and disliked. 'They can do whatever they want. It just gives me more reason to want to prove them wrong, and to show them that I am not just a Jinchūriki. I am Naruto Uzumaki!' He raised his head cheerfully as he continued to walk through the village. All of this resistance would just make his final achievement all the more worth it.
Naruto stopped only once he had arrived in front of the Hokage Tower, and a moment later, he was walking into the office, smiling at the old man.
"Ah, Naruto, it is a pleasure to see you." The man said as he signed a paper. He then put the pen aside as he looked to the boy. "Are you ready for tomorrow?"
Naruto threw his head back in exasperation. "Why does everyone keep on asking me that! I can't even wait until tomorrow, so that I can show everyone just how amazing I am." He said, pumping his fist into the air as his eyes filled with fiery determination. "I've spent way too much time and effort on this to not prove that I am the best that Konoha has to offer, and to show that I am fit to be the next Hokage."
Hiruzen chuckled. The boy's undying desire to prove himself always got to him. But he also noticed that there was something different about the way the blond said it this time. "So, you still want to be the most powerful person in the village so that the villagers finally respect you, eh?"
The Genin reached up and scratched his cheek. "Well, actually, I think I finally understood all that stuff you always told me about the 'will of fire', Jiji." Naruto said as his tone grew slightly more serious. "I want to be the Hokage, yeah, but I don't only want to have everyone's respect. I also want to be powerful enough to protect all of my precious people. And I told everyone that I'd be Hokage. I made that promise to myself, and, no matter what, I'm not going to go back on my word."
If the Sandaime was completely honest, he was taken aback by the boy's conviction. "It seems that some of the things I say have actually rubbed off on you." He said humorously as he stood from his chair. "My sensei was the one who taught me about the will of fire, Naruto. Hashirama-sensei was known on the battlefield for his incredible skill, which has remained unmatched. But in Konoha, he was known for the lessons he imparted upon the next generation." Hiruzen chuckled. "He used to call us the 'seedlings for a better Konoha'."
The Hokage then turned to the younger shinobi, as his smile diminished slightly. "Your parents were great shinobi, Naruto. And above all, they believed in the will of fire: the burning desire that exists in a person to protect those precious to them." Naruto quickly grew somber. "Your parents would have been proud of you, even more proud than I am right now. By understanding what the will of fire is, you are the next seedling for a better Konoha, Naruto."
The Genin's eyes were facing downwards to the floor, as he tried to stave off the tears welling up in his eyes. "T-Thank you, Jiji." He said, in a shaky voice. He then took a moment to calm himself. "C-Can you tell me who they were?"
Hiruzen felt a pang of guilt in his heart as he turned around to look at the boy who was just as precious as Konohamaru to him. "I'm sorry, but I cannot." He had been asked that specific question a few times by the boy over the years, but Naruto was usually satisfied by the answer that his parents had been shinobi. "One day, I will tell you who your parents were. But not yet."
Naruto nodded stiffly, not having had very high hopes, but Hiruzen continued.
"They were great shinobi, Naruto. I knew them well, and I do know that they would not have wanted you to be recognised for their feats. They would have wanted you to be proud of the person you became through your own strength and efforts." He paused. "And, they would not have wanted people to know that you were their child, for they surely had enemies of their own. The day that you were born, I promised myself that I would not allow you to come to any danger due to who your parents were. I may not like it, but even I know that our village is not impervious to enemy spies or spreading rumours. And those were some chances that I could not take, even if only you and I knew."
The boy did not know what to say. He could see the sense in Hiruzen wanting him to be his own person. He felt a strong urge to know who his parents were, and to know what exactly they had done which had earned them such glory and had marked them as enemies to certain people. But he also knew that the Hokage would not divulge any information until he wanted to.
"Will you ever tell me who they were?" Naruto finally asked, looking at the man he had come to consider a grandfather.
Hiruzen sighed. "I will, Naruto, but I cannot tell you until I believe you are ready for it. But I promise you, I will tell you." Sarutobi was well aware that Naruto had grown stronger over the previous month, at an almost unprecedented rate. Jiraiya had been very happy and proud of the boy's growth, but even more so had been how he seemed to have matured. 'I was worried that what happened on the mission might do that to him, but perhaps there has been some positive effect from what occurred.'
"But there is no need to be upset, Naruto. You are growing to become a very capable shinobi, especially with your new...gifts. But you must take things one step at a time, and that starts with the exams. Just do your best." He said as he placed a hand on the boy's shoulder. "Why don't you go home and make it an early night?"
Naruto was silent for a moment, but then he smiled up at the Hokage once more, grinning softly. "Yeah, I'll do that. I need to be ready for tomorrow anyways." The boy got out of the chair, and silently left the room.
The old Hokage returned to his seat and leaned back in it. He was getting too old for this. 'This was supposed to be my retirement...our retirement.' He thought wistfully as he looked over to a small frame that lay flat upon his desk.
'The day was finally here.' Sasuke Uchiha thought as he prepared a quick breakfast for himself. He was almost ready to go to the Academy, where the Team had decided they would meet up. He was prepared for this day. He would be one step closer to his goal.
He was soon ready to leave, and as he left the compound, his mind was also shifting to his blond team mate. He had been honestly shocked to see that Naruto was actually able to hold his own in a spar against him with the Sharingan. He knew that the knucklehead would grow stronger after their graduation, but he couldn't imagine him being quite as strong so suddenly.
He had initially been angry, but that had only lasted for a few seconds. The stronger his rival was, the stronger he'd just have to become to overcome the dobe. Kakashi was great as far as being a teacher was concerned, but Sasuke wanted someone to compete against, someone like a rival. 'Someone like what Itachi had been.' Sasuke was wary to admit it, but Naruto was a great rival. The guy was so stubborn and unpredictable that it even threw Sasuke for a loop. He only hoped it would never come to what Itachi had told him on that dreadful night all those years ago.
Sasuke dismissed his thoughts as he finally neared the familiar Academy building. He saw a familiar head of pink hair, and walked over to his teammate. Sakura also smiled as she noticed Sasuke arrive.
"Good morning Sasuke-kun. It's a big day today, isn't it?"
Sasuke nodded. "It is important, which makes me wonder why Naruto isn't here yet. We all agreed to be here by half past eleven." He said. He swore, if he missed out on this just because that loser was late, he'd kill him before he even got to Itachi.
"Hey! Sakura, Sasuke!" A shout caught the two's attention. "I guess I made it right on time." Naruto said as he scratched the back of his head with a grin.
Sasuke grunted. "We should get going. No need to stand here and waste our time." Sakura agreed with him, and the squad entered the academy. They started climbing up the stairs, only to stop on the second floor when they saw a fight taking place. Two large Genin stood in front of the specified room, and were laughing loudly as they blocked any other contestants from entering. "You nubs aren't nearly good enough to participate in the exams. Just go home kids!" They jeered on.
"Nubs Who are they to stop us from entering." Naruto exclaimed angrily. "I'll show them." But before he could storm to them, he felt a hand on his shoulder.
"Naruto," Sakura said after stopping him. "That isn't the right room. We're still on the second floor. This is probably some kind of genjutsu." To confirm, she formed a hand seal, and broke the genjutsu. Both her teammates mirrored the action. "Good work Sakura. I had thought so as well." Sasuke said as the team began to climb yet another staircase.
The girl blushed at the blatant praise from her crush, which sort of miffed Naruto off. They saw that a much smaller number of students were around the real room 302, and they entered. Immediately, they felt a a strong pulse of pressure fall over them as all eyes in the room turned to face them, but they brushed it off. It was practically nothing compared to what it felt like when their sensei and Zabuza had faced off.
"Sasuke-kun!" A cry grasped their attention, and Naruto and Sakura turned to see Ino Yamanaka hanging on to Sasuke's back, clutching on to him. "It's so unfair that I don't get to spend every day with my beloved Sasuke-kun." Sakura grew enraged, as both she and Sasuke worked to get the blond off of his back.
"Well, somethings haven't changed." Kiba commented as he walked up to Naruto, with Akamaru yipping his own agreement. The boy began to say hi to all of his old classmates. They all seemed to be the same, and none of them had really changed too drastically. Heck, Hinata was still having that weird fever of hers which made her face go red and then made her pass out.
"So, all of you are going to be in these exams, eh?" He asked.
"Yeah." An enthused Kiba replied. "They're calling us the 'Rookie Nine', 'cause newly minted Genin don't usually participate in the exams." The small group continued to catch up, and were joined by Sasuke, Sakura, and a thoroughly annoyed Ino.
"Hey, you kids should keep your voices down. After all, you don't want any trouble coming your way." A voice called to them. Naruto looked up to see a man who was probably in his late teens walking to the group, with a Konoha headband on his forehead. "Trust me, everyone's tense right now, and you might not want to attract too much attention."
Kiba stepped forward. "Yeah, and what'd you know about these exams?"
The man only chuckled. "Forgive me, I suppose introductions are in order. I am Kabuto Yakushi, a Genin of Konoha, and this is my seventh attempt at the Chūnin Exams. I've failed every other time, but I have gotten very familiar with the exams." He pulled out a deck of cards. "I even have some information on all the participants here."
'What a loser? Who fails an exam six times in a row?' Sasuke thought, but he was still interested in the man's supposed information, so he stepped forward. "If what you say is true, I want information on Gaara of Suna." He said, before surreptitiously glancing to his own blond teammate as well. "And anyone else if you think they might be noteworthy."
Naruto recalled the name. They had met the boy soon after returning to the village. The Suna team had been there to register for the Chūnin Exams, and the Gaara boy had really weirded Naruto out. 'Doesn't really help that the guy didn't even seem to think I existed. He only wanted to know about Sasuke.'
Kabuto smiled. "I like the way you think, but you're still making it a tad too easy. Now, let's see, Gaara of the Sand..." Kabuto had soon drawn a blank flashcard, which he channeled some chakra into. The card glowed and revealed text and images imprinted upon it.
"Gaara of the Sand, Genin member of Team Baki, along with Kankuro and Temari. His skillset as listed isn't too impressive, but he has never been wounded in battle, which shows he must be strong. Apparently, he's even been on a B-Rank mission, along with multiple C-Rank ones, but he has always pulled them off flawlessly. It's almost...strange." The Rookie Nine didn't say it, but they all agreed with Kabuto's assessment.
"And as for other potential threats, that's rather ironic coming from you, Sasuke Uchiha." Kabuto continued with a sly smile, before he pulled out three more cards. "Team Seven of Konoha, made up of Sakura Haruno, Sasuke Uchiha, and Naruto Uzumaki, and trained by Kakashi Hatake. In fact, you're the only team he's ever passed. You guys have quite a few D-Rank missions under your belt." The man then paused as he pushed his glasses back up his nose. "But that isn't what throws me off. What I want to know, is how the only mission you have ever gone on - other than a D-Rank - is an S-Rank mission, which was successful on top of all things."
Suddenly, Team Seven found themselves to be the centre of attention in the entire testing room. It started with the rest of the Rookie Nine turning to look at their classmates with incredulous looks, followed by those who were standing close to the group of Konoha ninja. Murmurs soon broke out in the crowd of gathered Genin, and it was not long until everyone's eyes were on the three members of Team Seven. Some were marking them as opponents out of their league, and planning to do their best to avoid that team in particular, whereas some were determined to prove that they could take out the rookie team, S-Rank mission or not. If she was being completely honest, Sakura even felt a little intimidated by all the attention.
The good thing was that a certain member of Team Seven flourished in the limelight. "You heard the guy! And it's true, so all of you should watch out, because in these exams, our team is in it to win it, no matter what, believe it!" Naruto exclaimed as he stared down the rest of the room. Sasuke also stepped forward as a sign of agreement with his team mate, even if he didn't approve of Naruto's haphazard manner of doing everything. A moment later Sakura also found the resolve to join her team mates, as Naruto continued. "Just you see, Team Seven is going to show all of you what the future Hokage of Konoha has to offer, and I'm not afraid of kicking anyone's butt if that's what it'll take to get there!"
"Oh shut up." A deep voice drawled out from the front of the room. "I won't take any of you maggots starting trouble in this round, so form groups for your teams and walk up to a Chūnin to be assigned a seat. The next person to talk will find themselves and their team out of this room before they can say proctor. We're beginning the first part of the Chūnin Exams right now: the written exam."
Hey guys and gals! I hope you liked this chapter, even though it didn't feature much action. I was just tying up some loose strings before I began the actual Chūnin exams. But yes, the exams commence from the next chapter. And I really do plan on having these go different from canon. Now, this is only the start of Sasuke's shift from what he would have been in canon, and the divergence will be a little slow, but very much present.
Now, I am finally going to declare the pairings (if you haven't already seen it in the character tags). It will be NarutoxFū, and I am considering adding Mei to the pairing. Your thoughts on it would be appreciated, though I'm pretty sure I know what I'll do about that. It was very fun to see all of you guessing at what you thought the pairing might be, especially the ones who thought it might be NarutoxAnko, or NarutoxAyame. Those are fun pairings, but that ain't going to be happening on this story, so I'm sorry, I guess. And the pairings are not going to be rushed by any means, because that isn't fun at all. I'l try a bit of a slow burn, but nothing way too extreme. A quick mention for Sir Gewen, as he was able to correctly figure out the pairing - through trial and error, of course.
And do not worry, I am not ignoring Lee or anything. There have just been subtle changes which lead to that whole part not happening.
If you liked this chapter, or have any questions, drop a review or shoot me a PM. I do my best to respond to all of those if its a question. No spoilers, of course. Well, that's a wrap!
Kofukuna Shi No Kami