Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach or Naruto, or any related characters or properties.

Unstable Determination

"Come on, Toshiro, give it back!"

"And tell me, idiot, why I should?"

"Because it's mine!"

"Who said?"

"Ame made it for me as a gift!"

"And I'm supposed to care because..."

"Shut up, Toshiro! It wouldn't even look good with your stupid hair!"

"Oh, look at Naruto, the fashion expert!"

Naruto huffed, wanting to just punch the daylights out of the little brat for taking the bandanna that Ame had worked so hard to make. He stopped for a moment, trying to give Toshiro a false sense of security, before lunging at the kid again.

Toshiro laughed, pushing himself to his feet and leaping into the air, just in time so that Naruto smacked into the ground, a cloud of dust billowing from his body. The brat chuckled again, before running toward the town at full speed, hoping that Naruto would follow.

The blonde boy spat and brushed himself off, before dashing in the direction Toshiro had went. He heard Ame weakly call out for them to be careful, but Naruto was past that point. He'd do just about anything to get that damn bandanna back.

He spotted Toshiro, just as the silver-haired boy clumsily knocked into a merchant, causing a domino effect that left a lot of people covered in fruit and trinkets. Naruto sped up and leaped over the mess, inciting an angry yell from the merchant and the crowd.

Don't scream at me! Toshiro's the one who did it, Naruto thought, a angry gleam in his eye. I'll get that kid if it's the last thing I do.

He sped off again, passing through one of the side streets and momentarily passing Momo as he did. The girl whipped her head around, calling out to him, but he ignored her. Maybe she'd follow him, help him catch that brat.

Naruto stopped long enough to catch his breath, looking up at the edge of town and the beginning of the woods surrounding it. Somewhere past that was district two and district three, and he got an unnecessary moment of nostalgia. He pushed that down, hurrying into the woods after the silver-haired demon that plagued his existence.

He pushed past the trees, touching one of the branches as he passed with his fingers. He didn't notice, but the branch seemed to bend at his touch.

He broke through a clearing, seeing a flash of silver ahead. It was enough of a distraction that he didn't notice the very steep bank decline into the lake below, and his entire body lost touch with the ground. He tumbled down the side of the bank painfully, causing him to cry out in pain. Before he knew it, he was lying face-down in the water, his thoughts filled with revenge.

He stood from the shallow depths, clothes covered in mud and leaves and water. His rage and embarrassment had reached a new high.

"It's a good thing I took this from you," muttered a cool voice. "Because if I hadn't, you'd have gotten it all wet and dirty."

Naruto took a deep breath, a reprieve before he turned all of his attention on the bastard who did this to him. The silver-haired boy with bright blue-green eyes was holding the white and orange bandanna between his fingers, twirling it around his index finger. He was standing at the top of the bank, his expression smug and Naruto wanted to scream so hard that he could barely stand it.

"Hitsugaya, I'm going to kill you. That's all there is to it. Prepare to be-"

"Covered in mud? I believe you have that handled, don't you?"

Naruto was about to charge up the bank when he heard something rustling through the bushes. The two boys looked over to see Momo, who was positively confused at what was going on.

When she saw Naruto, her entire expression was filled with shock. "Are you all right? What happened?"

"Lil'Shiro over there stole the bandanna " he muttered angrily, brushing the mud off of his tunic and ignoring Toshiro's reminder that the nickname wasn't his name. "I'm fine, just cold and wet and angry."

And with that last word, Toshiro just could not hold it in any longer. He cackled into the sky, loud enough Naruto was certain that everyone in the Seireitei could hear him. Hinamori, trying to keep her composure, eventually caved and started to laugh as well, which naturally caused Naruto to realize the hilarity of the situation. His anger abated, he started to belly-laugh so hard that he nearly fell back into the muddy shallow water.

After a few moments of that, Toshiro calmly climbed down the bank, removing his sandals to join Naruto in the lake. He was kind enough to lay the bandanna on the limb of a tree, where it wouldn't be ruined.

Hinamori, noticing the two of them, began to undo her kimono.

"No! What are you doing?!" Naruto exclaimed, his eyes bugging out of his head. He turned around, looked to the corner of his eye and saw that the silver-haired brat was still watching her. He waded over to him, still turned away from her, and plunged his head under the water. The blonde noticed how cold the other boy's skin felt, thinking that that was not exactly normal.

"It's no big deal, Narunaru," Hinamori replied, joining them in the lake. "I didn't want to get my clothes all yucky. See?"

Naruto peeked through his fingers to see that she still had her underwear on, and she was thoroughly submerged with only her head and shoulders sticking out. "Fine. But warn us next time, all right?" Momo just laughed.

Toshiro burst from the water, shouting for air. He then lunged at Naruto again, like some kind of silver, sloppy river monster, and the two of them wrestled and laughed.

For the next two hours, the three of them splashed and swam and got covered in mud, not a care in the world. Toshiro did not seem to notice that he was making the water colder around him, but Naruto did not care. They already knew that the silver-haired brat had a lot of reiryoku, even if he didn't admit it himself.

At the end of that, the three of them climbed out of the water and laid on a grassy hill overlooking the sparkling water. Momo tried to clean herself off in the shallow water, before joining them fully dressed. Naruto could only smile.

He loved being out here in nature, and if he had time, he liked to come out here and take a nap under the trees. Sometimes, one of the others came with him, but usually, it was just him.

"This is my favorite spot," he muttered from the base of the oak tree, his head resting on a root. He could see the breaks in the foliage, the way the sun broke through the leaves to give them a soft yellow glow. It made him feel like he was at home.

Toshiro was sitting up in the grass, watching the lake's push and pull creating small waves. He breathed in the air, not usually taking this much time to care about sitting outside. Outside was where the other kids in the district were, and they all treated him like dirt, like they were scared of him.

"This is nice," Momo muttered, running a dirty hand through her brunette bangs. She had climbed up a couple of branches and was lying perfectly balanced at a fork in a large branch. "I haven't done this in so long."

The three of them just waited and enjoyed the feeling for a long time. It was impossible not to enjoy it, even if you weren't a nature person. Peaceful, calm, and homey. Just like Naruto liked it.

"Ame is going to kill us when we get back, isn't she?" asked the silver-haired boy.

"Nah, just you," Naruto said, laughing. "You did cause this mud and stuff you know."

He smiled. "Maybe. But you did clumsily fall into the lake."

"Because I was chasing you."

"And? You still shouldn't have fallen into the lake."

Before it could turn into a much larger argument, Momo twisted towards Naruto and read his expression. "So, how would you say the last ten years have been?"

He thought about the decade. A decade since he was exiled from Hokutan. A decade since he was pleasantly accepted into Ame's home. About eight years since Toshiro finally warmed up to him, despite his cold exterior. About four years since the Shibas moved into town and started monthly fireworks shows; they were gone now, but the three of them had shared a lot of good memories under those light shows. Three years since he last saw Tadashi, who had come to visit them with news that Daichi had been arrested and charged with the rape of a different young girl; he hadn't told Hinamori about that, hoping to keep from bringing that up.

"It's been... really good," he said with a smile. He felt completely relaxed with not a care in the world. "I wish Ame was in better health though. If she hadn't started getting sick, then this would have been perfect." He solemnly looked up at the clouds, tracing one of them that almost looked like a raccoon with his eyes.

Ame had been waning slowly, for no determinable reason. She was exhausted all the time, her bones looked frail and her skin was always pale. It bugged all three of them that they couldn't find a way to make her better, although sometimes Toshiro liked to pretend she wasn't sick.

Today was one of the those times. "Oh, she'll be all right, you guys. Stop worrying so much."

"You can't deny that she looked awful this morning, Toshiro. There are some days when she's fine, and others when she looks like a walking corpse." Naruto tried not to notice the irony of the fact they were dead.

The silver-haired boy sighed. "You guys are depressing."

Momo looked at him curiously. "We're not depressing, Lil'Shiro. You're such a stick in the mud sometimes that you don't notice what's happening around you." With the look on her face, Naruto wasn't sure if she was talking about Ame's illness or the latent reiryoku the boy had.

"Oh, Ame, stop with that talk about spirit stuff again," Toshiro muttered. "And stop calling me, Lil'Shiro, Bed-Wetter Momo."

Hinamori just shook her head in disbelief, before looking at the two of them. "I've been doing some thinking, you guys. I'm thinking that I may join the Academy."

Naruto's eyes widened. "The Academy? You want to become a shinigami? I thought you said you didn't even want to try because you didn't think you'd be good at it."

"Well, today is a day that brings back good memories, and I thought I might just decide to make some more," she said with a smile. "Let's all apply! We could all be in the same class and learn from the same teachers and be in the same squ-"

"No," Toshiro muttered. "Too much stuff to do. Not enough time to do it. I'm not interested."

"What is all this stuff that you have to do, Toshiro?" asked Momo. "Last time I checked, you don't exactly have much going on. I think it could be good for us."

Naruto gave it some thought again, as Toshiro huffed that conversation away. He'd actually been considering doing it himself for a while, in the future, but he wasn't sure if he wanted to do so now. But Hinamori's expression was enough to at least make him reconsider.

"I've heard it's difficult though, Momo. Dangerous even. What if one of us got hurt?"

She sighed. "We've all heard Jidanbou's war stories, Naruto. Most of them are made up anyway. He was never a member of a regular squad; he's always been one of the gatekeepers. It was like his family was bred for that exact thing, all giant and imposing."

"That doesn't mean it's not dangerous," argued Toshiro. "Naruto's right, for once. It could be too much for us to handle."

"The three of us? We're strong, capable people! We can handle anything they can throw at us!" Momo said, beating her chest like an ape for emphasis. Naruto had to laugh not to point out how hilarious that was.

The blonde thought for another moment before sighing. "I guess I'll think about it, but how would we get into the Academy? Actually, where is the Academy?"

"It's on the outskirts of the Seireitei, not too far from the wall on the north side. We have to pass a test though to get in, and there are these checkpoints all along the walls where they do tests."

"We'd have to pass a test?" asked Toshiro, "Just to get in?"

"I hate tests."

She scoffed. "You two are such party poopers. How do either of you know if you hate tests so much unless you remember tests from your past life."

"My hatred for tests is not bound to life or death. It will be forever lasting," said Toshiro, a serious and inexpressive frown stretched across his face.

Hinamori rolled her eyes. "You guys are impossible. I can't believe you don't want to do it."

When Naruto saw how upset Momo was, he finally collapsed. "Fine. I'll do it. When are we going to do it?"

"Soon," Momo said. "I'm not sure when, but the three of us will ask Jidanbou if he has any idea where the nearest testing station is or if we have to wait until a certain day."

"Three of us?" asked Toshiro, surprised and looking almost offended. "I'm not going to do this. If you two want to, go for it. I'm on my own here."

Hinamori looked like she would argue, but Naruto gave her a look. She sighed, but was still excited about the possibility. In a strange way, so was Naruto. He was excited, even if a little hesitant. It couldn't be all bad, right?

With Naruto's ten-year anniversary bandanna securely in place, which he wore as a headband, he headed to meet Jidanbou outside the gate. Hinamori was supposedly already there, as far as he knew. Toshiro stayed behind with Ame, taking care of her the best he could while his mind pondered his friends. Why would they commit themselves to this?

Getting to the gate from district one took almost no time at all, since most of Junrinan ran alongside the wall anyway. The walls to Seireitei were extremely tall, almost twice as large as Jidanbou was tall, and that was saying something. He caught sight of Momo standing outside the big western gate, called the White Way Gate.

Jidanbou was also there, outfitted with his two axes and the standard black robe of a shinigami. He was easily about eighteen feet tall, his axes a proportionally large size. Naruto would never, ever mess with him.

"Oi! Naruto!" the big goof bellowed. It was such a large and hearty sound. "How've you been?"

"Good, Jidanbou, how about you?" Naruto asked, genuinely curious. Momo gave him a smile as he approached, finally catching up with them.

"Doing just fine!" the man said, bulging his muscles in a way that made Naruto wonder if it was on purpose or by accident. "Momo said that you guys had a couple of questions to ask me."

Naruto nodded, but let Hinamori take the reins. "Well, we were wondering what the selection process was like. Is there a specific time or place where we have to do it?"

"Hmmm," the giant pondered, the hum creating enough vibration in Naruto's ears that he wondered if it was some kind of earthquake. "It's been nearly three hundred years since I've had to do any Academy business, but I suppose that it's still the same. A spiritual energy demonstration and a written exam." He stopped to consider it a moment. "I've let some potential students in recently, and they explained that the nearest testing center is located along the wall about an hour's walk to the north. It's not too far from here, and to get into Seireitei, you have to pass that exam and get the seal."

Momo smiled. "Oh, all right. Do you know if they are still accepting students right now, for the upcoming academic year next month? It's supposed to start in September, right?"

The giant nodded, his ax shaking behind his shoulder at the demonstration. "Yep. If you pass, you'll get a spot in one of two classes, one for advanced and one regular. If you fail, you won't be able to take it again until next June through August."

Momo nodded. "Okay, thank you for the information!"

"Yeah, you're awesome, Jidanbou. We'll take you out to dinner or bring you something good one day soon, all right?"

The giant seemed positively happy with that offer. "Don't you two forget now, you hear? And good luck with the exam!"

The two of them left, deciding to just go ahead to the testing center that was supposed to be an hour away. Momo was talking a mile a minute about how excited she was and how much she was looking forward to. She wanted something new to happen in her life, and quite frankly, Naruto could not blame her.

"I'm worried, Momo. I have never been very good at written tests."

The girl frowned. "Oh, hogwash. It's not that hard. You'll do just fine!"

Naruto did not feel like arguing, he just let Hinamori's positivity try to drown out his own negativity. She was excited enough for the both of them to do well, and he fully expected to do just that.

The testing station was barren of activity, but it was built directly into the wall that made up the great city's defenses. It looked a little bit barren, though like no one was there.

Momo dragged them up to the counter fast enough that the teller was so shocked to see newcomers that the strange glasses she was wearing were nearly knocked off. "Hi, ma'am, we'd like to take the exam!"

The teller looked over both of them for a moment before smiling. "I suppose that we can get you two situated soon. You're lucky because this is the last day of regular testing."

"Wow, we cut it close, didn't we?" asked Momo, a surprised look on her face. Naruto just laughed.

They filled out and signed quite a bit of paperwork and had to do a forced blood sample to get themselves into the system, before the teller could let them through to the testing site. When the clerk was done, she gestured to the door behind her.

"All right, the two of you will go through the double doors behind me. From there, you'll take a left until you see another hallway. Go down there and the first door on the right is where you need to go. Good luck!"

Naruto and Momo bowed to her, thanking her for her hospitality, before heading to the room she referenced. When they were certain they had found it, the two prospective students headed inside.

The room was like a large auditorium, but it was nearly devoid of activity. There were about three others sitting in the front row of the large auditorium and an older man, sitting on the edge of the stage. The chairs were like ones you would see in college, with a sliding panel used for a writing surface. Naruto had no clue where he knew that from, and it was actually physically disturbing him that he could not remember where he learned that.

"Oh, good!" the person on the stage said as they wandered in. "More future students. Come on up and get this packet and a pen."

They did just as he said, finding seats on the front row alongside the others. He gave them both a look and said, "At least one desk between the two of you, please." Naruto shifted over one seat, wondering how that would make a difference.

"All right. Who I am is not important, but the test you are about to take is."

Naruto grinned. "But sir, don't I deserve to know the name of the person who's about to kill me?" Momo reprimanded him with a look, but the instructor just laughed.

"A joker, huh?" the teacher asked, laughing. "That won't get you anywhere inside the walls of the Academy, so you'd better quit it now. No one inside is able to understand the beauty of humor like I can."

The blonde boy gave him a puzzled look before shrugging. The instructor went over a few rules first, most of which Naruto would have understood on his own. And then they were allowed to break the seal, open the booklet, and turn to the first page.

Name the afterlife. Naruto wondered why that first one was so simple, so he wrote out the obvious answer. The Soul Society.

Who founded the Thirteen Court Guard Squads? The blonde cursed himself for not knowing this one. Had Jidanbou ever mentioned it to him? Oh! Yamagenryuki. That had to be right.

What are the three possible paths a graduating student can take? Naruto only knew one, and that was from the previous question. He wrote that down and continued to the next question, hoping for partial credit.

If a zanpakutou can demonstrate one thousand kilojoules of power in its shikai state, typically, how many kilojoules can it produce in its bankai state? Use the following equation.

Naruto's eyes widened, not even able to read that equation. He skipped that one and looked through the rest of the test. Most of them were simply not possible to answer. He looked through the corner of his eye to see Momo writing answers down to almost every question, and it completely upset him that he was unable to do so. They should have studied more or something.

After an hour of mental torture, Naruto was saved when the buzzer finally went off. The exam proctor gave the blonde a knowing smirk, wondering if it had tortured the boy enough.

He collected the tests, setting them on the stage near the podium before opening his bag and presenting a tiny silver orb. It looked like it could have belonged on a pearl necklace, or maybe even as an earring, but he had never seen anything like it before.

"This is a miniature version of a reishuukaku core, developed by the Shinigami Research and Development Institute, which is also the answer to number twenty-nine," he muttered, eyeing Naruto again. "This is designed to draw out the reiatsu that you should possess, and if you have a good amount of control, you'll create a sphere of energy around your hands. Demonstrate good control, and you'll pass this portion."

He handed the orb to a girl on the front row first. She stood in front of the stage, before looking at the orb a moment. The girl smiled and simply concentrated for a short moment, a glowing orb of light generating around her palms. Naruto could feel the reiatsu pressing him into his seat, like some kind of oppressive feeling. The instructor nodded appreciatively, before passing the core to the next person.

Some seemed to pass and keep their orbs relatively stable, but others were unable to even do the simplest thing. Then it came to Momo.

Naruto wasn't sure if she would pass or not, because as far as he knew, she'd never learned to draw out spiritual pressure. Neither had Naruto, actually, so he was more than a little bit worried.

The girl concentrated for a long moment, holding the spherical object within her palms. Her eyes closed and for a brief moment, Naruto felt a strange sensation on his skin, like something was... pressing on it, warping it. He felt... odd, more odd than the others because this felt familiar. It felt... like an old friend.

And then, with only another moment, the orb began to glow and a transparent blue ball of light surrounded Momo's hands. Naruto's jaw dropped at the display, because he didn't think she could do it; she'd never mentioned how to do it. The blue sphere was not perfectly solid, a bit shaky in places, but the teacher nodded at the display. "Good going." He took the core from her and handed it to Naruto. "Your turn."

"I don't know how to do it!" he exclaimed, cursing himself. One of the other students laughed. Hinamori was about to remark how to help, but the instructor gave her a warning glance.

"Doesn't mean that you cannot try."

The blonde nodded. If he wanted to have any chance at passing, he was going to have to do it.

He focused on the ball within his fingers for a few seconds, before trying to shift his focus toward his inner self, whatever that meant. He inwardly shrugged, thinking that it sounded good either way and tried again. He tried to find anything, remember anything that could give him access to his powers, but nothing happened.

The instructor nodded, taking the orb away from him. Naruto was going to protest, but the man cut him off. "A soul with no spiritual pressure does not belong as a shinigami, young one."

"I have spiritual pressure!" He started listing off things that he had done that were not explainable, like making cracks in the floor or melting his fingers through a wooden desk.

"It's too late," the teacher said, before turning to address everyone. "If you would, could you step back into the clerk's office while I grade your performance? It should not take very long."

The prospective students nodded, following his orders. The blonde boy sat next to Naruto, his mind swimming with worry about failure. Momo was supposed to give him a reassuring glance, but she looked as worried as he was.

"Don't worry! It's not as bad as you think," Momo tried, but he shook his head.

"Yeah it is. Those other kids were all able to at least generate some sphere. I couldn't do any of that. I answered maybe five or six questions on that entire test, Momo. I failed it, I failed it hard." He was just about to stand up, ready to leave.

"Where're you going?" asked Hinamori.

"C'mon, there's no point in staying. I knew we shouldn't have done this."

"But Naruto, I think I passed!" Momo declared, confused and offended that he would just get up and make both of them leave.

The blonde got up and started walking toward the door. When he heard Hinamori try to follow, he waved her back. "Don't worry about me, Momo. Meet me back at the house, all right? After you get your results."

Momo nodded, still wondering what had gotten him so upset. "Um, all right."

And with that, he walked out of the room, heading back towards the town. Momo was utterly bewildered, not sure if she should follow him or stay. Eventually, she made up her mind and sat down, feeling conflicted all the while.

Naruto heard Ame cough loudly, breaking him from his slumber. He turned his head to see her lying next to Toshiro, her body shivering and her breath literally like ice. He sighed, walking over to her to cover her up with his blanket, before slipping out of the room.

It was almost dawn, and there was just enough light coming through the windows for him to see well enough. He read through the notes that he had forced himself to write after his fourth failed attempt at the exam. He'd been compiling them, editing them, changing them over the years so that he had a sort of cheat-sheet.

Momo had visited only a few days before, excited about her fifth year starting at the Academy in just under a month. The two of them were happy for her, but Naruto would have been more happy if he were with her. He'd failed that damn test three times now, having skipped a year, and the next time to take it was coming up. He hated tests, hated them with a passion but he wanted to join the Academy now more than ever. He'd been trying for far too long to get in that he just had to pass this time.

When he was done reading over some spirit energy calculations and equations, the steps to doing them memorized in his head, he stepped into the night air. He sat on the porch, feeling the air against his skin and hearing the calm sounds of morning.

He sat there and thought. Thought long and hard about how to call out spirit energy. He'd managed to do it a few times, getting progressively better and better the more he did it. It helped for him to try to picture a certain shape in his mind and only that shape, allowing him to push all other objects aside and connect with his spirit energy. It usually worked nowadays, but it wasn't a perfect system. Nor was it as potent as it could be, as Jidanbou had explained once. But it was all Naruto had at the moment.

Toshiro would be up soon, and Naruto pushed thoughts about the Academy away when he heard the boy rustling indoors. The sun was beginning to rise, and the silver-haired boy stepped out of the house and joined him. The boy had not gotten much taller in the almost fifteen years that he'd known him, but neither had Naruto. Momo, however, seemed to have aged last time she visited. He had no clue why that made sense.

"Hey, Toshiro," he muttered under his breath, putting the notes away once more.

"You know, you come out here every single morning to study," the silver-haired boy muttered. "Or at least most mornings. What do you hope to accomplish? Haven't you embarrassed yourself enough with that damned test?"

Naruto was taken aback. "Toshiro... why are you so upset?"

The boy sighed and nearly yelled out. "Geez, I'm not upset with you. I think it's great that you are studying for it. I don't think it's great that you're obsessing. It can't be that damn hard to control your spirit energy."

"Can't be that hard, huh?" asked Naruto, curious and upset now. "You try, smarty-pants. Channel your reiryoku into the air around you."

The boy accepted the challenge, his face snide. He closed his eyes and started to breathe deeply, before causing the air around him to burst with cold air. Some of it literally froze at the effort, falling around him in small flakes. Naruto could feel the potency of the display, feel his body react to the presence of his best friend.

"There," he said. "You happy?"

Naruto was in awe. "How did you do that!?"

"Me to know and for you to find out."

"Me to find out, huh?" asked the blonde, before suddenly tackling the other boy to the ground. The two of them laughed and laughed until Ame shouted out a weak muttering to stop and that they were giving her a headache.

"Sorry, Ame!" Toshiro called out under his breath. "We'll be more careful!"

The two of them settled down, sitting on the edge of the porch to relax. Naruto watched the other people pass them by, walking down the busy street of Junrinan and going about their business.

"So you think I'm obsessing, huh?"

The other boy nodded. "Yeah. Ever since Momo passed and you didn't, you go through these periods every year where you shut everyone else out to prepare, and then you've failed every time. Why do you think that is?"

Naruto considered it a moment, giving it some thought. "I don't know."

"I know why," the silver-haired boy proudly declared, before pointing to Naruto's forehead. "You're thinking too much. You have to learn when to let things go and when to obsess. I'm not telling you to give up, but let it slide a bit. It's not the end of the world. You've got plenty of time."

Toshiro was right. Naruto had been thinking too hard. His mistake the first time he went into that test was not preparing at all. His mistake going into the subsequent tests was preparing too much. It was like something clicked in Naruto's mind.

"So... what do you need me to do to help you?"

"Help me? You're going to help me pass?"

"Hey, don't act so surprised. I tried to help you two years ago, but you shut me out every time."

"You did?"

Toshiro nodded. "And you and Momo call me oblivious."

Naruto turned to the sky, feeling the sun shining on his face. "Okay. Tell me this. How did you learn how to channel your spirit energy?"

The boy considered it a moment. "Channel is probably not the right word, since I never really learned to control it. I just... learned how to call on it."

"How though?"

Toshiro sighed. "I'm getting there. You're too impatient. It's not that hard to figure out. I just listened to Jidanbou telling Momo about it years back, before she even took the test. You just imagine feeling very, very emotional, a feeling that can make your entire body tighten up, kinda like a spring. Then you just... imagine your mind letting the spring go, while still being upset. Don't let yourself hold back any longer."

The blonde tried to do as Toshiro asked, sitting on the porch and trying to call on a specific emotion. He tried to force himself to be angry, to let his entire body react to that anger. After a moment, Toshiro visibly reacted by flinching away from him.

"There," the silver-haired boy said with a slight smirk. "Was that really so hard?"

Naruto shook his head, his head swimming with excitement. He now had a sure-fire way to call on spirit energy. He did not relax, allowing the feeling to progress to such a degree that he did not notice the adverse effects it was having. The columns holding the porch up started to splinter, and several people who had been milling about near their house started to run faster, as far away from the two strange boys on the porch.

"Okay!" Toshiro yelled, breaking Naruto's reverie and the control over his reiatsu, calming the feeling immensely. "That's enough. You're going to snap the porch in half if you aren't careful."

"Oh. Right," he muttered sheepishly, surprised that he could do such a thing.

"I'm going to go to the market," Toshiro said, standing up. "You want to come?"

Naruto shook his head. "No, I'd rather head to the lake, clear my head. See you later."

Toshiro nodded and headed towards town, leaving Naruto there to think. The blonde got up, told Ame where he and Toshiro were going, and then headed toward the lake at a leisurely pace.

His mind was swimming with new information. Toshiro's trick to call on his reiryoku made perfect sense. He'd tried to do it before and had been able to, but it was difficult to do repeatedly. Now, here he was, able to push and pull on the power inside him. It was almost scary, in an exciting and inviting sort of way. If he could learn to control it, to keep it there and mold it to the shape of the sphere, then he'd pass the second portion of the exam.

Now if he could just concentrate on the first.

He arrived at the lake, immediately finding his favorite tree and sitting at the fork of two large roots, his head against the bark. He practiced calling on his spiritual pressure, the results very favorable. The waves seemed to move faster in his presence, the wind blow harder and more rapidly. The tree almost seemed inviting, so much so that he did not even notice that he had fallen asleep.

"Damn that insufferable woman!"

Naruto's eyes opened with a start, his vision still swimming from his dream of a red-haired woman. He looked up to see Toshiro standing only a few feet away. "What's wrong?"

Toshiro began a long spiel about going to a fruit stand, picking up a piece of fruit and getting treated horribly by the kiosk owner. "I turned around, running right into the chest of some blond woman wearing black robes and literally knocking me down. She tried to take up for me to the shopkeeper, but I ran off, too angry that the woman had knocked me down." He paused, upset. "Doesn't that just bother you?"

Naruto pondered it for a moment. "I don't understand why you're upset at her. You should be mad at the shopkeeper, if you ask me. She tried to help you. In fact, I think she might have been a shinigami."

Toshiro rolled his eyes. "There's no way that a woman like that could be a shinigami. She'd suffocate the first time she had to run with that damn chest of hers!"

Naruto just laughed, imagining it now. "You ready to go back? It's almost getting dark, and I'm sure Ame is worried sick about us."

Toshiro nodded. "Yeah. Let's go."

The blonde-haired boy shook his head free of the cobwebs, something having awoken him in the middle of the night.

He looked over, shocked to see Toshiro completely and utterly bewildered, panting loudly. There was a brief moment when Naruto saw someone else, a blonde woman with a very large chest, but it was gone so fast that he wasn't even sure he saw what he saw. The younger boy was staring at Ame with a pained expression.

"You okay?"

Toshiro shook his head, before gesturing toward the door. Naruto got up and followed, and Toshiro looked just about everywhere outside for something. "She just... disappeared."

"Who disappeared? What's going on?"

Toshiro looked toward Naruto. "That shinigami woman from earlier. She... I woke up from one of my usual dreams, and she was there. She basically said that if I don't become a shinigami, my reiatsu would kill Ame."

"What?" Naruto asked with shock.

Toshiro explained the entire encounter with the mysterious woman, every detail. It suddenly made so much sense for the two of them: Ame was sick and getting skinnier because of Toshiro's latent spiritual pressure. It was... unsettling, to say the least.

"I can't believe I have been hurting her all this time," he said with a grimace, wanting to practically hurt himself for being so stupid. "I should have listened to you when you guys talked about this reiryoku that I supposedly have. I should have realized that the reiatsu would have harmed her."

Naruto shook his head. "It's not your fault, buddy, and no one blames you. I've probably done my fair share of damage to her, to be perfectly honest, and that bothers me too." He stopped, looking at the sky for a moment. "What are you going to do, Toshiro?"

"When d'you say those tests were held?" the boy, his expression one of determination.

Naruto smiled, all of this far too sudden, although he wasn't sure he should be happy about it. "Um, there's another one coming up today. I wasn't going to take this one, I was going to wait until next week so I could prepare a little more."

"Nope, you're coming with me to take the test later today," Toshiro said in the early morning moonlight. "You're going to pass, I'm going to pass, and Ame is going to be just fine."

Once that was decided, Naruto grinned. "Momo is going to be so happy."

"Yeah, yeah. I finally caved on all the spirit stuff. Get over it."

With Ame's blessing, Naruto and Toshiro headed to the testing site. By this point, the clerk running the front desk knew Naruto by name, but Toshiro still had to fill out a bunch of paperwork. The other boy was thankfully on file.

Once that was settled, the two of them followed the clerk's directions into the testing site, the same auditorium Naruto had seen quite a few times already. Inside, the instructor was still the same man, but the place was a bit more full this time, with a little over two dozen participants and three more instructors.

Naruto found a place to sit and Toshiro followed, not sure about what was going to happen, but he had heard Naruto explain it enough times that he knew what to expect. The instructors handed out the sealed testing packets to each of the participants, explained the rules in the same way as before, and then told them to begin.

Naruto read question after question. He answered question after question. There were several that he wasn't entirely positive about, like a question detailing the behind-the-scenes legal process to transfer from one division of the Thirteen Court Guard Squads to another. Or the question about the noble families that make up Central 46. But there were a majority of questions that Naruto knew without a doubt, and it was enough that he was feeling very, very good about this.

Toshiro was very quiet and seemed to pause a lot, making Naruto wonder what was going through his head. Toshiro had always been smart, scary smart really, so was this his method of thinking things through? Was he considering a bunch of answers or using his mind to decipher them? Naruto really had no clue, but he hoped that Toshiro would do well enough.

The time limit went off, and Naruto happily gave his testing booklet to one of the other instructors, who turned it in to the guy in charge. Toshiro and Naruto exchanged a look that was really not sure, but both felt relatively good about this.

The main instructor, whom Naruto had learned was Gengoro Ounabara over the years, gestured to the bag to start the next step of the exam. The exam proctors split the groups by rows and were each handed a reishuukaku core, the device to transmit spirit energy into a sphere.

Naruto always enjoyed watching this section of the exam, because it was interesting to guess if a certain person would do well or not based on their appearance. Some were able to generate huge spheres, others small ones, and some none at all. Last exam, Naruto had managed to create a sphere that immediately exploded in his face, so the tension was very high for him this year. One girl, her hair wrapped up in buns almost like a panda, generated a sphere of blue light that fluctuated for several seconds, making everyone worry that it would explode, before it finally stabilized; she seemed utterly relieved, thanking the instructor. Then it was Naruto's group's turn, and Toshiro was up first.

Naruto wanted to give him some last minute words of encouragement, but he knew it wasn't allowed. Toshiro stepped up to the plate on stage and was given the tiny, white-blue sphere that looked almost like a pearl. "All right, your turn, half-pint," Ounabara said, earning a glare from the younger kid.

Toshiro immediately closed his eyes and focused on the orb between his palms. Naruto noticed the air get considerably colder, as though a cool breeze was emanating from the silver-haired boy's very presence. Immediately, a glow was emitted from the core, growing larger and larger until it was covering an area almost all the way to Toshiro's elbows. Everyone there was shocked, especially Naruto. Was Toshiro really holding that much power?

"Well, a bit of a show-off, huh?" asked the main proctor, laughing as he touched the large, stable sphere and admired how solid it was. "Good job, kid, although it's a little cold." The sphere dissipated, and he grabbed the core from Toshiro and handed it to the next person.

There were three more people after him, and Naruto gave Toshiro a congratulatory thumbs-up. He passed that part of the exam beyond a shadow of a doubt, Naruto was sure.

"You again?" asked Ounabara when it finally turned to Naruto. "Haven't you given up already?"

Naruto shook his head. "I'll never give up. I'm going to pass this test one day, and that day is today."

The teacher smiled and handed him the core.

Naruto immediately thought of the moment when Kaori banished him from Hokutan, the anger he felt in that moment enough still, several years later, to cause him emotional distress. He felt the power start to grow from within, but it wasn't enough just yet. He thought of the moment when he fought Daichi, defending Momo from a possibly terrible situation. Finally, the orb began to glow and absorb his spiritual pressure, before expelling it in an orb of energy.

An extremely unstable orb of energy. It was nowhere near as large as Toshiro's, but it was shaking and vibrating more violently than the girl with the panda hairstyle. It made him think of how imbalanced the surface of a lake or a river was, and that imbalance was making him extremely scared. He did not want to repeat the year before, not going to stand for an explosion this time.

He tried to take his anger and console it with thoughts of excitement, things that made him happy. Things like Tadashi giving him the job he had held for so long, like the day he was moved into Ame's home. The orb began to solidify, turning from an unstable, flickering sphere into a stable, almost glass-like surface. It wasn't perfect and it did not last long, but it was enough for him. Naruto finally felt like he could have passed.

"Took you much too long, young Naruto," the instructor said with a smile. "Not perfect, but not bad. Not bad at all." He took the core and moved to the next person, but all Naruto could think about was his chances of passing. The silver-haired brat could only smirk.

The Academy was a tall, grand structure with a huge yard. It was completely closed off from other sections of the Seireitei, which Naruto wished he could have explored more than he did. Toshiro was standing next to him, already dressed in his standard Academy blue uniform. Naruto wished he could be in the advanced class with Toshiro, but all he could think about was the fact that he had passed at all. Naruto felt very nice in the crisp uniform, but he had a feeling that he would get very tired of it very quickly. He was more upset at the fact that he couldn't wear his headband, but he figured that it could wait.

"This place is massive," Toshiro said, humbled by the size. "Much bigger than any building back home."

Naruto had to nod. "Most definitely."

The yard was filled with students milling about, many with swords across their backs. The two boys wished that they had their own, because both felt like they stood out as first-years.

"Lil'Shiro! Narunaru!" yelled a voice. They both turned to its source, smiling as a very excited Momo Hinamori, dressed in her Academy red and carrying her sheathed blade, appeared from the top of the stairs. Both boys were extremely glad to see her, even though the nicknames were just a little annoying.

"Momo! How are you?" Naruto asked, as the girl hugged both of them hard around the neck.

"I'm doing just fine," the girl said. "I'm just ready for my last year of the Academy! Izuru, Renji and I have been waiting for far too long."

"Who are they?" asked Toshiro, but Momo waved them off.

"No worries, you'll meet them. Let me give you a tour, and then you'll have to head over to orientation!"

And with that, the three of them left to explore the place that would house them for the foreseeable future. Naruto was so excited that he could hardly wait.

Toshiro seemed to notice his expression. "You do realize this is a school, right? With tests and exams and homework?"

"Shut up, Toshiro, you're spoiling it."

What did you guys think? Was it all right? Please, let me know in a review!

Also, a special thanks for all the attention! I didn't expect that many alerts and favorites in under two days, so thank you so much! Here's hoping the next update will not be too long from now!