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 Chapter soundtrack: “Hoshizora” by Nao

Haku stared with wide gray eyes as his father lunged for him. The man had retrieved the knife that had always been kept in the storage shed and bore down on his child, the blade already tinted crimson. Forgotten in the corner lay Haku’s murdered mother. Her bloody hand prints stained the wall beside her. The young boy was screaming as he stumbled in retreat, but beneath his terror he felt his insides boil as he was consumed with the will to survive.

“Mama! No! Please!” Haku dodged his father's deadly strike, tumbling down to the hard, wood floor. Still her body lay unmoving. Her face was hidden by the frantic tangle of her dark hair.

The boy backed away from his father, who was shouting unintelligibly at him to hold still. Haku cowered back to a far wall, bumping into a bucket of water his mother had brought in barely a half hour before.


Haku squatted in the fresh snow, curiously observing the remnants of a snow man he had made the day before. It had melted and then refrozen into a thin layer of ice in the frigid morning air. His mother watched him from afar as she fed the chickens.

Life on a farm was simple, peaceful and something she had always wanted for her Haku. Before she had made her home in the farming town with her husband, her life had been troubled by shinobi wars. So long as she drew breath, she had sworn, her son would have no part in the violence. She noticed him crack through the sheet of ice with a delighted chirp.

“Haku, don't play in that water, you'll catch a cold!” She called out to him. He was too busy playing to pay her any mind.

The cold water stung his bare hands and he drew them back in a startled gasp, “Ack!”

His interest was quickly drawn to the glistening, frozen puddle he had discovered. He traced a small finger over the surface and smiled sweetly at his rippled reflection. In a harmonious moment of nature meeting human inquisitiveness, Haku had inadvertently tapped his chakra for the first time. 

A shining thread of water rose up from the puddle, surprising him. He watched in awe as the droplet followed gracefully as he waved his hand about. Haku brought up his other hand that was puckered red from the cold.

He slowly shaped the water with both hands as he would a handful of clay. It was fascinating how easy it was to manipulate, almost like magic. It felt like a natural thing to do.

“Amazing!” Haku purred in delight, attracting his mother's attention again, and she dropped her bird feed in shock.

She ran over to him and dropped to her knees, watching in stunned horror as Haku shaped the water into a small sphere.

“Mama, look what I can do!” The boy was very pleased with his handiwork, “I have special powers Mama! I can make the water-!" 

She cut him off, seizing both of his wrists. Haku looked up her, rattled, and the sphere splashed uselessly back into its place of origin. Her face was wracked with panic. It unnerved him; he had never seen her so worried...

“...Mama?”

His mother dropped one of his hands, and slapped his cheek in warning. It had been hard enough to get his full attention. Immediately, Haku squealed and recoiled in pain, cradling his injured face with his free hand.

“Mama...” He said softly, feeling a warm tear slide down his cheek, “I'm sorry, I didn't mean to do any...anything wrong...”

He looked up at her again, and saw that she had begun to cry as well. He was not able to understand it, that day, why she had been so upset by his discovery. Suddenly she pulled her son into a tight hug, burying her face into his ebony hair.

“Haku, never...never do that again, do you understand me? You must stay safe.” Her voice was stern, but it cracked as she continued, “Please, never do that again…don't let your father see...”

He clung to her, sobbing, “Oh Mama, I'm so sorry. I...I promise, I'll hide it...”


“You little monster! Hold still!” His father swung his knife again, slicing Haku's shoulder.

“Papa no! No!” Haku was howling, terrified, scrambling along the wall. His shoulder throbbed, and his desperate screams went unheard.

The frightened boy tripped over the bucket of water his mother had fetched earlier and knocked it down. Its contents spilled out onto the floor, causing his father to slip.

The water.

His memory from earlier returned once he noticed the water. Maybe it could protect him?

“Papa, stop!” Haku cried out. He felt a magnetic and instinctual pull help him grip the water. His energy surged with a rush of adrenalin and something else…something that gathered in his stomach and flowed out to all parts of his body. The temperature in the house dropped abruptly, stupefying his assailant. A gust of wind swirled as a tremendous power drew on the moisture in the air.

“Monster!” His father was incomprehensible upon seeing his son's mysterious power.

Before his father could bring the knife down Haku let his instinct take over. His desperation to survive opened the floodgates of his power as energy poured out of him and ice pillars filled the room from all directions. The child’s eyes were wide.

His father stood motionless and his weapon clattered noisily to the floor. Haku had impaled him through the center of his chest. Holes had been punched through the roof and walls. The young boy clapped his hands over his mouth in shock as he watched his father slide sickeningly down to the floor.


 Haku hid in his room after he and his mother had discovered his power. He stood quietly by the door and eavesdropped.

“You lied to me!” His father's voice boomed, shaking him.

He heard his mother's response, “Darling, please…” She was crying, “I...I never knew it would be passed down to Haku...we are peaceful! You have nothing to fear!”

“You're one of them, one of those Clan people!” His father snarled. Haku could hear a glass object being shattered.

“Please! I never meant any harm, I'm sorry...” Her voice was pleading. Haku became extremely uneasy as he listened to his father’s shouting. Never had he heard the man speak so angrily in his life. He knew something was very wrong.

“He's a monster! You're a monster!”

Haku's eyes welled with tears, ‘Papa thinks...I'm a monster?’

“We'll keep it a secret! He won't hurt anyone...” She was begging now, “No one else will know...”

Haku listened and it was uncannily quiet. After a moment, he heard his father speak, “Yes...no one will know...”

There was a pause, and then his mother screamed...

Haku gasped, “Mama?” He raced out of his bedroom and into the fracas. He watched in terror as his father pulled a knife out of his mother's side and she slumped to the floor.

Utter disbelief was visible on Haku’s face. He stood rooted to the spot as his father approached.


Haku trudged through the snow as tears ran freely down his bright red cheeks. His bare feet ached as he trekked through the snow. His farm was out of sight now, as well as his parents. Just as he had been taught that crops and animals could die, so too could his parents. Now he was alone.

“Mama...” He muttered to himself. He had never known such grief before.

He wandered all the way into town and fumbled along down the street. Haku then felt something cold land on the end of his nose.

A snowflake.

It was beginning to snow and Haku felt his heart sink lower in his stomach. Things were not going to get easier for him. His shoulder no longer hurt and had stopped bleeding, but he could not comprehend why his father had done what he did.

He dashed under the cover of a bridge and dusted the white powder off of his ragged clothes. Haku sat down on the ground, incapable of crying anymore. Instead he wondered how he was going to proceed. The temperature was dropping and his stomach was growling.

Haku could not deny his hunger.

“Oh, be quiet...” He mumbled. He sighed in exhaustion. It had been a long walk, and on top of his heartache he was cold and ravenous...

‘What's going to happen to me?’ Haku pondered as he felt his eyelids droop, almost considering a nap. A cold breeze instantly sobered him, and he scooted closer to the edge of the overhang. He sat in silence for a long while, until time seemed to lose all meaning.

After a while, snow thickly blanketed the ground. It was then something caught his attention...the soft treading of footsteps. They were close.

Haku watched as a man passed by. It was a very tall man with short, black hair. He looked formidable in a flak vest and his face was hidden by bandages. Haku observed with wide, discerning eyes as the man halted and sensed his presence.

The man with the bandaged face glanced over at him curiously and stared at him for a moment. Their gazes locked, and Haku had a curious moment of kinship with the stranger. Haku could not put his finger on the reason why, but he knew that this person would understand him.

For a moment he was tempted to speak, but he thought better of it. Haku averted his gaze, nearly embarrassed. Disinterested, the man looked away, and as quickly as he appeared, he vanished.

Haku felt his insides twist. Something was strange about that man: plainly different from other people. He almost felt inclined to stand up and run after him. Maybe it had been a mistake not to ask for help?

Still, he hesitated; Haku had been just as intimidated by the man's gaze as he had been intrigued. To speak to him seemed nearly out of the question. All Haku knew at that moment was fear. There were other people in town: they might offer food or shelter, if he was fortunate.

Hunger took over his mind at last. Food was absolutely imperative for his survival. Haku stood up, and tottered out into the snow shower. He stood in the middle of the street where he had seen the man, yet it was now empty. Again, disappointment seized Haku. He had waited too long and now the stranger was gone.

Haku sulked down the abandoned road, his heart feeling numb. The snow may have begun to freeze it and now all rational thought seemed to be slipping away just as the tall man had.

Then...a smell.

Haku caught the scent of something edible. His head snapped to his left, where a garbage can stood. The boy experienced a moment of repulsion, hoping he would not have to pick through refuse to find food, but his empty stomach urged him on. On tip-toe the young child peered into the trash can, hoping for anything that would appease his hunger.

A growl came from behind him.

The dog was small but glaring daggers at him; likely just as hungry as he was. Haku would not have his one chance of nourishment be taken away. He was prepared to fight for it.

“This is mine.” Haku hissed in a hoarse voice, “Don’t even try it!”  

The mutt bristled, obviously starving. The child could sympathize for it on a small level. In a way, he and the dog had much in common. They were both alone, cold and famished. But Haku had something that the dog did not.

“I have special powers.” Haku warned, hoping to unnerve an animal that had no ability to understand him.

It only growled in response, and then leaped at him, not at all threatened.

Haku's eyes narrowed. This was no challenge; he deserved to live far more than the dog did. Fighting was, after all, in his blood.

He evaded the dog's snapping jaws, and delivered it a rough yet ungraceful kick in the stomach. The animal crumpled to the ground in pain, whining pathetically.

Haku was startled. He had never had to compete with another for survival before. Earlier he had saved his own life and now he was struggling to make it on his own. Fighting, although instinctual, was still very new to him. It had by now occurred to him that defending himself would be one of his most important life skills.

Haku watched with sad eyes as the dog skittered away.

“I'm sorry.” He whispered, feeling sympathy for the animal. Again he peered into the garbage can and did not find much that was edible.

A half-eaten apple looked rather inviting, even if the skin was beginning to turn brown. Desperate, Haku lunged for it, snatching the precious morsel. He sat down next to the garbage can and sniffed the apple inquisitively.

It was not really fit for eating, but still, food was food.

“Boy?”

Haku dropped the apple in surprise; he had not noticed anyone nearby. He turned and saw a man who he did not at all recognize. This one was an older, overweight fellow wearing a very concerned expression.

Haku regarded him carefully and said nothing, and then finally picked up his apple again.

“Boy?” The man repeated, “What are you doing out in the cold?”

Haku detected a hint of compassion in the man's voice. ‘Maybe he has better food than this?’ Haku wondered.

He put the apple down and looked up at the man with beseeching, storm-colored eyes.

His voice was soft, “I have no place to go...”

The fat man seemed alarmed.

“No place to go, little guy?” He was replied, and then asked, “Where are your parents?”

Haku knew the answer. Dead. But different words left his mouth, trying to cover up what had really transpired.

“I...I don't have any parents, mister.” He answered quietly. The fat man nodded in understanding and a sort of sorrowful look came over his face.

“I'm sorry to hear that,” The fat man said, “Well that makes two of us, then. I didn't have any parents either.”

Haku's eyes lit up quickly with an idea. ‘He's like me! Maybe I can stay with him!’ He had passed up the opportunity earlier, and it may not be wise to do so a second time. If his survival depended on it, he would find someone to connect with.

“Do you have any food, mister?” Haku asked, this time in a bit louder of a voice.

The fat man seemed to have expected the question. “You look like you could eat a horse, I bet.” The stranger said, “Sure! I bet I’ve got something to spare! Follow me.”

Haku eagerly followed the fat man, his stomach writhing in pain.

He scampered after the man down the street and around a corner. There he beheld a large cart brimming with supplies, and yes! Food at last! Haku rushed up to the cart and helped himself, reaching into a paper bag, and withdrew a slice of bread.

The fat man chuckled, “Go right ahead. Take what you need. Here, let me fix you some of this stew. A friend gave me more than enough for my trip!”

Haku nodded while he bit large pieces out of the bread. His older companion spooned stew into a bowl for him and handed it to him with another slice of bread. With a sigh he sat down next to Haku on the cart and watched him eat. Sadness was visible in his eyes.

“You know, little guy,” The man said softly, “You aren't the only orphan in the Water Country...it’s really quite a shame what goes on in these lands. So many families have been torn apart…”

Haku sat quietly and listened, chomping his bread with thankful bites.

“When I was young, I had no one to look after me either,” The man admitted, “I lost my parents and had to depend on a schoolteacher until I was old enough to take care of myself. I know how hard it is for you, and how hard it will continue to be for you.”

Haku nearly choked on a wedge of potato and finally slowed down, carefully lapping up the stew and kept his attention on the man. The round man had possibly saved his life, Haku noted. Knowing his limitations and that he had won the stranger’s sympathy, Haku decided to beg for the man's help, as graciously as he could.

“Please mister, you're very nice. I am a hard worker and I can read and write a little! I know that we just met, but…will you let me stay with you?” His voice was timid, nearly quaking.

The fat man observed Haku for a moment, still with those sad eyes.

“It may not do much good to stay with me. I'm sorry little one, but I'm afraid I have no shelter to offer you. I'm a merchant, and I'm on my way to Kuro to do some trading business up there. Nearly all I do is travel, and I haven’t the money to buy a home yet. I may not be the person you can depend on.” He explained.

Haku felt panic rise within him, and tears welled up in his eyes.

“Please mister! Please let me come with you! I don't want to be alone!” Haku squeaked as he attached himself to the sleeve of the man's yukata.

The man sighed again. He could not give the boy a home, but accompanying him was another matter. The poor child was only asking for companionship. He then nodded in acceptance to Haku, smiling wistfully.

“Alright then little fellow, don’t fret! I'll let you come with me for as long as you like, or, until better care can be found for you.” The fat man decided, “Do you have a name?”

Haku appeared overjoyed, “I'm Haku!”

The fat man laughed heartily at the boy's smiling face, “Nice to meet you, Haku!”

Haku felt a sudden swelling of hope inside his chest. “I promise mister, I'll help you with your work and I'll never cause you any trouble!”

In his excitement, he nearly tugged the man's arm off, but the man was only happy he could help, “Alright, alright, settle down there Haku! And my name is Hiroshi, if you don't mind.”

Haku wore a jubilant grin, “I don't mind at all sir! Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

Hiroshi chuckled to himself and privately wondered what he was getting himself into. Haku was really a rather energetic and simple bundle of joy. It was not difficult to bring a smile to the child's face. And Hiroshi quickly realized that Haku had the same effect on him.

Chapter Text

Chapter Soundtrack: “Twice” by Little Dragon

“...I could never love you Gaara, in fact I…I hate you...I hate you for taking her away from me!”

Gaara stood, observing his uncle with disbelieving eyes. How could this be happening? How could this be real?

“Uncle...?”

“Karura never wanted to die...and she's dead because of you! You're the reason my sister is dead!”

Gaara felt tears sting at his light green eyes. His mother...died because of him?

Yashamaru grunted in pain, his body was crushed and his death was drawing ever closer thanks to his red-headed nephew's sand.

“You...you've never known what your name means, have you?” His uncle growled, biting back the agony of his mangled body.

Gaara stood, tears flowing freely down his cheeks. His uncle, the only person he believed had ever cared for him, had tried to assassinate him. But what hurt him more than the idea of Yashamaru himself trying to kill him, were his dying words...

“Gaara: a demon that loves only itself...that's what you are...” Yashamaru spat, glaring at the broken hearted six-year-old.

“Your mother named you that in hopes that if you lived...you would live to curse the village responsible for your creation...”

‘A demon? Am I evil?’ Gaara was confounded. The news was too much for him to take in all at once.

Yashamaru smirked at his nephew as his eyes drifted shut, “And you know what, Gaara...?”

The red haired boy stood quivering by his uncle, paralyzed with fear and sorrow.

“...Karura was right...”

After a moment, Yashamaru's shuddering body was still and silent.  Gaara observed the passing man with narrowed eyes, the tears slowing, as his thoughts swirled in a storm of anguish.


Gaara walked down the street, his feelings deeply hurt...as usual. ‘Monster!’

'Why did that boy say that to me?' The red haired child wondered, ‘I only wanted to help him...'

He recalled the other children in his village playing ball together. He yearned to join them, to be a part of them and to not have to be alone.

At one point the ball had escaped their grasp, and he only meant to return it to them...

But they were afraid of him; terrified. Some screamed at the mere sight of him. It pained him to hear those shrieks of fear, and watch them scatter like grains of sand in the wind. He never meant to harm anyone, but none of the other children made the effort to get to know him.

Gaara only wished them to stay…to keep him company for whatever time they could spare. When they fled from the ball yard he reached out to them, his sand partially preventing their escape. It was just an innocent gesture, a cry for love that no one understood.

But they were horrified and unwilling to accept his power. Unwilling to accept him. He had hurt the other children when they struggled to flee; he saw it happen, though he would never hurt them intentionally. ‘I never meant to…’

Yet Gaara was still determined to prove that they had no reason to fear him, and no reason to run away when he approached.

So he visited the young boy's house in the hopes of apologizing because his injuries had been the worst. He had even brought ointment with the intent of easing his pain. He came to the door and then...

“Monster!” The door quickly slammed shut.

‘Why did he say that when I only wanted to help?’ Could he ever make a friend?

A moment later he left, walking in contemplative silence down the street.

“You filthy little demon! I saw what you did today! We’re all better off without the likes of you!”

Gaara’s attention snapped to the man who had berated him. It was salt on a raw wound. He had no desire to be a monster, and he did not view himself as one, but every other person must have seen something different from what Gaara thought he saw in the mirror. ‘Why does it have to be this way? Does no one want me? My brother and sister are scared of me! Dad is scared of me! Everyone! Everyone-!’

He had no way to stop it; the pain willed his sand into action, in a violent effort to end his torment. To silence the cutting words. The man barely made one more jeering taunt before sand swiftly wrapped around him. Moments before rationality reinstated itself, the confrontation was over. Gaara killed that man on the street and no one had seen him do it.

It was a horrific sight and as Gaara came out of his rage he quickly realized his crime. Was it right to defend oneself if the assault went straight to the heart? He fled, wishing there was a welcoming place to go. He left the man dead in the alleyway, secretly praying that he had not proved his cruel words true.


'Gaara: a demon that loves only itself...'

The words thundered in his ears, the last words of his beloved uncle. The person he had killed in defense of his life.

Gaara felt a distant roar inside him, coaxing him to let go, to stop trying to understand how unjust the world was.

‘I'm alone...I'll always be alone.’

His insides burned. It hurt: the inescapable pain of reality.

You don't need these worthless humans...

Gaara felt his heart miss a beat. ‘What was that voice?’ So placating, and yet savagery and bitterness stitched into every fiber of its voice.

‘Is it me? Or is it what's inside of me?’ Gaara could no longer ignore the words of the tailed-beast imprisoned within him.

We are all that matter now, they mean nothing... 

Gaara clapped his hands over his ears, futilely attempting to ignore the barbarous voice.

“No!” Gaara cried, “Leave me alone! I'm…I'm not a monster!”

The thing...he could feel it grinning.

Of course you are! Why else would they treat you so unfairly?

“No!” Gaara sank to his knees.

For a moment it was quiet, and then the voice returned, louder and more aggressive than before.

Let me out! I can save us. We can be free...make them suffer for what they’ve done! 

“No! I won't hurt anyone else! Never again!” Gaara staggered to his feet, still covering his ears.

Despite his pleas and protests, inside, he felt himself giving in. He felt the brutality of the thing within him soothe him, somehow making it seem alright to kill; to inflict pain on others.

Let me out. 

No!” Gaara was screaming, running down the street with a newfound speed. His eyes fell upon the open gates of his village, and then...the people. Those lining the sides of the road, faces familiar and unfamiliar…all of the people in Suna that caused him such grief.

Make them suffer! 

Sand whirled threateningly around his feet, with no way for Gaara to control it. The boy's legs were quaking, his small hands raking wildly at his locks of crimson hair.

The struggle was at its peak, and Gaara felt himself slipping, letting the thing within him gain more control. And its influence was also somewhat appeasing...the strength and power...it was so overwhelming to feel it course through his small body.

“No...” Gaara stumbled to his knees again, sobbing, and giving in.

It's alright... The demon purred, After they're all dead...you'll still have me, It smiled, And I won't leave you alone.

‘I don't want to be alone...’

Gaara looked up with an inexplicable grin on his face. The tailed-beast’s power was euphoric.

He felt a feral growl of triumph escape his throat, a laugh that Gaara was sure was not his.

Suddenly, justification was abundant. It was refreshing. It was alright to kill others simply because they deserved it. His life mattered more than anyone else’s. They would feel all of the pain and misery that they had inflicted upon him.

Gaara's grin grew wider, and he gave his full attention to the beast inside of him.

Gaara's fussing had attracted a lot of attention. A few people looked over at him with concern. That concern was reserved mainly for themselves.

Kill them all.

The red haired boy stood up, his spindly legs steady beneath him. His sand circled around him, awaiting his command.

Then there were two faces…faces he knew very well. They held some sort of value to him: value that the voice had tried to get him to ignore.

‘Wait...I know them...’ Gaara hesitated, desperately trying to recall the two children he saw standing at the far end of the road, staring at him with alarm.

They don't matter! Kill them! 

‘No! I know them!’

A girl with light blonde hair watched him worriedly, her brother standing beside her. Gaara watched as his name soundlessly crossed her lips in confusion.

‘Temari? Kankuro?’

Kill them now! 

Gaara understood why he faltered at the sight of them. ‘My brother and my sister...’

They don't care about you. 

Gaara felt a twinge of electric pain course through him. ‘Maybe that’s so but...I care. I won't hurt them...’

Gaara felt Shukaku rattle his insides in fury, and radiate a huge burst of chakra, startling many of the nearby shinobi.

Do as I say!

Demonic strength consumed his body, and a whirlwind of sand then encircled him. The young boy felt his teeth gnash in immense effort as he endeavored to restrain the power and bloodlust rising within.

He then realized that this power would not be easily stopped.

‘I won't let you hurt them, not anymore!’

Gaara panicked as the tailed-beast howled viciously inside of his head, willing his feet to move. He felt himself slowly approaching his fellow villagers, hands raised, sand flying at them, knocking them away.

Temari and Kankuro stood motionless; horrified.

He heard the cries for any sand nin to stop him, by any means. Gaara watched in fear as kunai and shuriken flew towards him, glinting menacingly in the daylight.

Shukaku laughed.

A barrier of sand repelled every weapon, while the rest of the sand was busy at work crushing any other shinobi. He was hurting them...again.

Is this why they hated him? Because of this power? The power he couldn't control?

‘I don't want them to hate me...’

Gaara gazed sadly at his older siblings as the cowered helplessly on the sidelines. His heart wrenched and for a moment, he felt his will suddenly severe his connection with Shukaku. The sand dropped to the ground and time slowed down.

‘I will find a way to control it, and then they won't have to be afraid. Then I won't have to be alone ever again.’

His mind was set and fully focused.

‘Then I will leave...and I will come back…when I'm safe for them.’

Gaara found the strength he needed, and in a whirlwind of sand he departed from Suna.

Chapter Text

Chapter Soundtrack: “Imaginary Folklore” by Nujabes feat. Clammbon

A set of brilliant, blue eyes stared downcast at the ground.

It was a warm, sunny day, and a six-year-old with messy blonde hair sat quietly on a swing outside the Ninja Academy. The cool breeze swept a few stray leaves past the boy's lonely face.

If loneliness was an illness then Naruto would have been confined to a hospital for it.

His home was in Konohagakure, the Village Hidden in the Leaves, even if it was painful to admit. He had been shunned and ostracized for the length of his young life by his fellow Leaf villagers.

Unknown to Naruto, the reason for his unhealthy solitude was that he was the container of a monstrous demon that had attacked Konoha the night he had been born. As a result, contemptuous shinobi and mistrusting citizens kept their distance from the otherwise harmless child.

He had no concept of what he could have done to bring such cruelty unto himself.

‘I've been so nice to everyone, but why do they always ignore me? What did I do?’

Naruto sat in silence, pondering the reason for his misery.

“Hey!”

The blue-eyed boy looked up, and noticed two girls his age looking at him strangely from a bench.

“Hey!” The girl with the light blonde hair called to him again, “What are you doing over here all by yourself?”

A girl with pink hair stood shyly next to her, trying to hide her head from view.

Naruto felt an enormous smile explode onto his face, ‘Wow! They're actually talking to me!’

He hopped up from his spot on the swing and went over to them.

The blonde girl had her hands on her hips and appeared far more confident than her friend.

“Well?” She asked again, “Why are you all alone?”

“Because no one ever wants me around.” Naruto answered honestly. It was awkward, he had never fully participated in a conversation before, and talking to the girls felt refreshing.

“Why is that?” The pink haired girl stepped out from behind her friend.

“I don't know. They always treat me that way, I guess.”

The blonde girl shook her head in disapproval, “Well that's just silly. You can play with us if you like to...um, what's your name?”

“Uzumaki Naruto!”

“Okay, Naruto. I'm Ino; my dad owns the Yamanaka flower shop.” Ino then turned to her friend, “And this is Sakura. Don't worry if she's acting funny, she's trying to hide her big forehead.”

Ino!” She squealed, “Don't talk about it!”

“What? It's not really such a big deal.”

Naruto had a better look at the girl called Sakura. She had green eyes and pale pink hair; though he did not see much of a problem with her slightly spacious forehead.

“There's nothing wrong with your forehead Sakura. It's kinda nice.”

Naruto's words seemed to shock the self-conscious girl.

“You...you really think so?”

Ino nodded, “Yeah he's right. When you don't hide it, it makes you look cute.”

Sakura smiled, glad her forehead was being admired rather than spotlighted for its size.

“So you'll really let me play with you?” Naruto was elated at the nice girls' offer.

“Sure, come on,” Ino answered, leading them along down the path, “We can go play on the slide, I'll race you there!”

Ino ran ahead, and Sakura and Naruto laughed as they followed her.


The next morning, Naruto was as happy as the proverbial clam. Never in his life had he ever played with other children, and it was something that he was looking forward to with his new friends Ino and Sakura.

He recapped in his mind how wonderful that day had been.

‘We played and played until the sun started to go down, and they even invited me to come back and play today! This is great!’

In fact, Naruto was in such a pleasant mood, he had even brought along two extra cups of miso ramen for his new buddies.

He sat on the swing anxiously.

He had checked his clock before he had left home: it was nearly ten o' clock. A goofy, excited grin was plastered on his face when he saw two small figures approaching from the other side of the academy.

“Hey Ino! Hi Sakura!” He called out to them as they neared.

The two girls paused and looked at him for a moment. The hazy, morning light blurred the expressions on their faces. Still too excited to sit and wait for them to approach, Naruto sprang up and trotted over to them.

“Hi guys! I brought somethin' for ya'! It's my favorite–”

Naruto quieted his rambling when he noticed the odd looks on the girls' faces.

“Hey, um...are you okay?” He asked, not understanding their silence.

Ino gave him a fierce glare, her mouth pursed in a tough line.

“I went home yesterday and told my dad about you, Naruto,” Ino snapped at him, “And do you know what happened?”

Naruto shook his head, worried over the answer.

“He yelled at me! It was horrible! He says that I'm never supposed to go near you again…so…so there!”

The boy winced. Why? Why was this happening?

“I'm sorry, Naruto,” Sakura apologized, “But, my mommy and daddy don't want me talking to you either...I'm really sorry...”

Naruto's head was spinning from the magnitude of rejection.

Sakura and Ino...they had all had so much fun the day before. Why? Why were his new friends doing this to him?

He watched as the girls turn to leave and panic set in.

“Wait!” Naruto cried, “I don't understand! We're friends and... I promise I'll be nice! I won't do anything wrong! Don't go...”

Ino huffed and turned her back on him.

“Come on Sakura, let's go.”

“Please don't leave me all alone again...” Naruto sniffled helplessly.

Sakura gave him a pained look.

“I...I'm sorry...” She whispered, before taking off after Ino, leaving Naruto behind.

‘They...they left me...’ Both cups of ramen slipped from his hands and fell to the ground, spilling their contents on the dusty path.

A single tear slid down his whiskered cheek, and he swiped it away with the back of his hand.

Naruto turned and ran in the opposite direction from where Sakura and Ino had come from.

He ran back into town alone as he had done many times before.


‘Why did they go? I...I thought that they liked me...’

Naruto stumbled down the deserted street, under the beaming light of the morning sun. His head was hung in great dismay.

The dull, resonating ache of loneliness bit at his insides again. It hurt when he realized that he could barely make friends, let alone keep them...

He sniffled quietly to himself as he trudged along his usual path, and then stopped, noticing two people ahead of him.

Naruto gave them a brief, but observant glance. They wore green jackets and fish-net shirts, and had forehead protectors with the Hidden Leaf symbol on them. They were ninja...Chunin, he had heard was their rank, and they looked much older and more experienced than the Genin he had seen outside of the academy.

They smirked at the small boy.

“Looks like the beast still walks these streets freely...” One of them muttered. The other stared at Naruto soundlessly, a look of utter repugnance in his eyes.

The blonde haired boy looked at the two shinobi again for a moment, and then continued, too broken-hearted to listen to any derogatory comments they may have saved for him.

Angered by his innocent gesture, the silent shinobi shot forward and grabbed hold of Naruto's arm, and squeezed threateningly.

“Ow! Hey! Let go of me!” The boy yowled, not expecting an attack from a member of his own village.

“Did you let go, demon?” The enraged ninja hissed, “Did you let my sister live? She's dead now...and you...you're still alive...”

Naruto had no idea of what the infuriated ninja was speaking about. The troubled Chunin grunted in surprise when his companion halted him with an outstretched arm.

The other shinobi did not want to linger, “Enough Takeshi, you know the law. Besides we have a mission...”

“No.” His partner hissed again, hoping to get some kind of retribution: that hurting the boy may hurt the Kyuubi.

Naruto felt tears sting his eyes. Why did people hate him so much?

He held his ground, knowing he could not outrun them, and prepared himself for a flogging that never came.

“Stop it.”

The voice was young, like his, but obviously aware that what was happening was wrong.

Takeshi and his partner observed the young boy indifferently.

“Oh…it's just that little Uchiha kid, you know, Itachi's brother.”

The distraction snapped Naruto's attacker out of his rage.

“Don't you have a mission, you said? You should go. He didn't do anything to you.” The boy with the onyx eyes spoke again.

Naruto only stared at him.

The two Chunin begrudgingly admitted that the child had a point. Without a word of apology, they left, promptly forgetting about Naruto. The young Uchiha approached him.

“Are you okay?”

Naruto nodded with an impressive poker-face, knowing that deep down his heart was still in tatters.

“I'm Uchiha Sasuke.”

“Uzumaki Naruto...”

The sound of pain in the blonde’s voice unnerved Sasuke. What had they done to the boy who called himself Naruto? He had seen him around the village from time to time, but Sasuke hardly knew a thing about him

“I recognized those two,” Sasuke added, “They aren't friendly. You should stay away from them.”

Naruto could not bring himself to answer. He was so rattled with pain from what Ino and Sakura, and then the chunin had done. Trying to make friends with Sasuke seemed ridiculous.

Naruto looked at Sasuke who wore an expectant expression.

“...thanks...” He said quietly.

Too embarrassed to let the other boy see him upset, Naruto fled, returning to his apartment where he could be alone cry.


It was noon. Naruto had not wasted much of the day before he had gotten a grip. He had taken a number of his few but valuable possessions (which included lots of instant ramen) and packed them in a bag. He had gotten the idea to sneak away. ‘Most of the time when people don’t say mean things to me, they ignore me. If I am so good at not get noticed, I can probably get out of here and find a better place.’

This was it, he decided. He could take a hint. Maybe there was another place he could be treated humanely. Maybe he would build a thicker skin out there in the world. Maybe he would find a way to get people to respect him.

If I can find a place where they won't recognize me…then…someone may like me!’

His hopes were not very high, of course, but he was willing to take a chance. Additionally he was unsure of where he could go after escaping Konoha. His plan was to take the road to a new town and cross his fingers.

Naruto left his apartment and slinked through the lower district, effectively packed up for a journey, and wore a determined expression on his face. He stuck to the dark alleyways; devoid of the bustling foot traffic out on the main road. It was not worth it to endure the pain any longer if there was a chance he may discover acceptance elsewhere.

At that thought of finding a new home, he recalled Sasuke. He had been nice and helped him without being asked. But Naruto kept in mind that Ino and Sakura had been nice earlier...and they had turned on him.

He shook the idea from his head. What was left in Konoha that he could possibly stay for?

‘No...this time I can do it. People won't hate me anymore.’

It was a relief when he passed through the wooded area near the village gates. There were few people here and he did not have to put much effort into sneaking. It was quiet and peaceful, and it helped give him the strength to press on and seek happiness.

Yellow-blossomed forsythia bushes lined the gate. The flowers smelled nice and he slowed down a bit to admire them.

A small voice nearly made him jump out of his skin.

“Naruto?”

The blonde boy turned around and faced the voice's owner. It was a girl.

She had black hair and silvery-white eyes. He recognized her in a moment.

“Oh...Hinata, uh...hi.”

Naruto had first met the shy girl near the Ninja Academy. While he sat gloomily on his swing, he noticed a girl sitting at the base of the tree in total silence. He had realized she was quiet and shy, but had grown accustomed to her presence as she would often sit with him near his swing almost every day.

She was not a talkative companion, but she was far more pleasant than most people who acknowledged him.

Hinata observed him quietly.

“Naruto, are you alright? You s-seem upset.” Her stuttering was still understandable, even with her soft voice.

He looked at her sadly, “No Hinata, I...I'm fine.”

“Are you sure?”

“...yeah. Don't worry about me, I'm okay.”

Hinata noticed the backpack he had with him, and she quickly put two and two together.

“Are...are you going somewhere?”

“Yeah.”

“By yourself?”

“Yeah...”

She looked distressed, “W-where are you going?”

“I...I don't really know.”

They were both quiet for a moment.

“I see...” Hinata spoke quietly.

Naruto still felt the dull ache in his chest. The loneliness had become a cage that he so badly wanted to escape.

“Well, I just hope y-you'll come back s-soon then...” She informed him.

The blonde boy was confused, “Why would ya' say that Hinata?”

A blush crept up over her cheeks.

“Um...w-well, you see...I...” She found it very difficult to articulate, “I know that I'll miss you every day by our t-tree...until you come back...”

The hope that had been dwindling like a flickering ember inside of Naruto quickly flared up.

‘Hinata will miss me? She wants me to come back...so then...maybe I will!’

Naruto grinned at her reassuringly, “Sure thing Hinata! I'll be back soon, and then we can sit under our tree all the time!”

Hinata smiled in response, “R-really? That would be wonderful.”

He was suddenly invigorated and ready to explore, and he rushed out of Konoha's gates, calling over his shoulder, “I'll see you soon, Hinata-chan! I promise!”

It was something that she nearly died with joy from hearing. Not only had he given her the honorary suffix, but he had promised to see her soon.

And Uzumaki Naruto never breaks a promise.

Chapter Text

Chapter Soundtrack: “Haru Kaze” by Nao

Low-hanging clouds rolled slowly overhead, blocking all sunlight.

Haku hummed to himself pleasantly as Hiroshi narrated yet another one of his many stories, tugging his cart along the road with Haku onboard.

“When I was young, I had the chance to meet a skilled ninja who at the time, was preoccupied with a mission-”

“A mission?”

Hiroshi sighed softly. It was difficult to explain everything to the farm boy who had no real knowledge of the outside world. In particular, Haku had no concept yet of what a ninja was, or even his ties to being a descendant of such a warrior.

“Yes, Haku. Ninja partake in tasks and jobs of varying difficulty, or so I've been told.” Hiroshi went on, “Well anyway, the one I ran into was quite helpful. If it wasn't for him, the thugs attacking me, who coincidentally he was after, would have-”

“His mission was to look for people, Hiroshi-san?”

‘How do I put this to an innocent little kid?’ Hiroshi wondered, pursing his lips.

“Uh...sort of. He rather beat them all bloody and saved me in the process. I haven't seen many shinobi in action since that day. It was an impressive sight.” The man smiled fondly to himself. He had grown a certain respect for ninja with intentions of doing good in the world.

Haku looked up to his companion with a quizzical look on his face.

“Hiroshi-san, did you ever want to become a ninja?” He asked; his eyes shining a color identical to the sky above.

Hiroshi chuckled in response, “I suppose I did when I was younger, but unfortunately the opportunity never came to me... These days I'm more concerned with making a living than running around tossing shuriken at enemies. But who knows? Maybe you will succeed where I have failed!”

Haku perked up. From what he had been told the life of a shinobi was an adventure. That would be something far better than becoming a merchant or a farmer.

“You mean maybe I can train to be a ninja, Hiroshi-san?”

“Well, don't get your hopes up too high, little one. It's hard enough to get an education these days, let alone one as a shinobi,” Hiroshi answered, “But it is a possibility. You're still very young, Haku. There’s a chance you'll be discovered.”

Haku gazed out into the depths of the surrounding forest, deep in thought.

“I do want to become a ninja: one who is strong and can protect others...” He muttered to himself, just loud enough for Hiroshi to catch his proclamation.

He found Haku was not a typical child. He was uncannily thoughtful for a boy his age and had a complex for improving himself.

In fact just a few days earlier Hiroshi had been surprised at how quickly he picked up on reading and simple math skills. Were his parents really farmers as Haku had said?

It was odd. An astute farm boy.

Well, maybe not that odd: every now and again a gifted person was born.

Haku was a child; still absorbing information and developing skills. It was a point in his life where his future abilities would be determined by his environment and experiences.

Hiroshi was quiet for a moment and thought to himself. Hopefully, the child had not had many negative experiences besides being an orphan. He wanted to change that; to give the boy a chance.

And yet already the child had a dream. Sadly it was one that Hiroshi was quite sure that he would be unable to help Haku with. ‘Maybe I can find him a good teacher? One that walks down the righteous path...’

“Hiroshi-san?”

“Hm?"

“Thank you for letting me stay with you, Hiroshi-san.” Haku gave the man a genuine smile.

The cart jerked upward as it went over a rock on the dirt path. Haku quickly grabbed hold of a parcel that nearly fell from the sudden movement.

Hiroshi chuckled, “I should be thanking you really, Haku-chan. You've been excellent company.”

Haku was quiet, but still wore the blithe expression on his face while he held onto a porcelain pot.


It had been several days of traveling northward and a brief ferry crossing before they left the snowy weather of the Water Country behind. Both Hiroshi and his ward easily adjusted to the warmer climate.

Their arrival in the town called Kuro was a relief, and a place where Hiroshi intended to see if he could spot any welcoming shinobi who may be in the trading town. He was also aware their chances were slim.

Hiroshi acknowledged that it was missing-nin and outlaws who preferred the quiet towns devoid of village ninja. One such place was Kuro, and Hiroshi feared that Haku may get mixed up with the wrong type of people here.

The odds of actually running into a good teacher for Haku were very low just about anywhere they went. Being morally sound, he wasn't about to hand the boy over to some blood-thirsty assassin who had no more intention than to turn Haku into one himself.

Hiroshi deliberated silently as he trudged into the city, with Haku swinging his legs off the edge of the cart. ‘Maybe I'm over-thinking this… He may not be at all up for a shinobi lifestyle even if he got lucky...’

Haku was a frail, rather...feminine looking child. He did not outright appear to be ninja material. However, despite Hiroshi's hesitation, it was apparent that something inside of Haku was meant for that path.

The boy's spirit was also heart-warming.

“Hiroshi-san, are we in Kuro now?” The boy observed the bustling street he and his companion were travelling down, with many different people going off in every direction.

“Yes, Haku-chan, we're here.”

“And we're going to sell these things you have here?” Haku gestured to the mound of items he had been guarding during their journey.

“I'm going to sell them,” Hiroshi gently corrected, “It'd be a bit tedious for you to try to sell goods to such a tough crowd little one! I think you should just watch for now.”

“Alright.” He saw no reason to argue. Haku had been raised on a farm and was aware he would be useful to Hiroshi up until a certain point.

The cart pulled to a stop on the side of the road, and Haku leaned back with a long sigh. It had been quite a trip, and it was the farthest from home he had ever been.

Memories flooded back to him, and he breathed out again, wondering what he would be doing at that moment if his parents were still alive. And how he had found his special power, and Hiroshi, and the man with the bandaged face.

‘That man was like me’, Haku thought to himself. ‘Alone.’

It was a weak comparison, but Haku could not shake the odd feeling that he would definitely see the stranger again. And even more to his surprise, he realized, was that he wanted to find him. He made sure not to say anything about it to his heavy friend.

The boy frowned to himself while Hiroshi was busy setting up his stand. Haku had been frightened of that man, and the more he thought about it, the more he wanted to see him.

‘That man...he was strong. I could feel it. I want to be strong, and maybe if I had went with him...’

Haku suddenly felt a wave of guilt come over him. How could he be so ungrateful? Hiroshi, though lacking any presence of intimidation, was certainly a wise choice on his part. He had offered Haku necessities and a chance at life.

He had been given no more than an icy glance from the man in the Water Country.

Power was all that he would have expected from such a person. And he didn't need power.

Did he?


The overcast day kept many people from venturing outdoors, although a few did stop by to do business.

Haku watched with mild interest as Hiroshi interacted with his customers. He made note of how polite some were, and those who weren't. Also he noticed things they were looking for and what kinds of people stopped by.

After a while his observation got boring.

He could be home chasing the chickens around his yard right now; a delightful activity. Haku also made note that he would not be going home. Not this time.

With a yawn Haku settled down and curled into a ball on the cart. Quickly sleep took him, for he had been worn out with his long journey and everything he had taken in that day.

Hiroshi bade farewell to his last customer and then turned to Haku. He chuckled to himself upon seeing him asleep. He took a spare blanket he had in supply and draped it over the slumbering child. A young woman stopped by his cart and smiled at Hiroshi. She found Haku cute.

“My! What an adorable little girl you have there!”

The comment was made with the best intentions.

“Thank you! Though he's actually a boy.”

“Oh.”

The woman smiled at Hiroshi uncertainly before walking away, a little embarrassed by her mistake. He merely sighed; that was the fourth time that day he had received that comment. He glanced over to Haku, wondering why that was.

‘He doesn't resemble a girl that much...his hair is still pretty short.’ Hiroshi paused and noted the child's face. His features were very delicate, ‘Those big dark lashes though…and that china-doll face…makes him look like he has some noble-blood.’

Hiroshi looked out onto the emptying street, and then towards a vender a few feet away. He caught the tempting aroma of confections as it drifted on the breeze, ‘Oh…that’s chichi-dango over there…’

His sweet tooth beckoned. Hiroshi momentarily observed Haku.

“I'll be back in a minute...” He said quietly, before venturing over to the dumpling stand.


 It was dark. Haku rolled over and bumped his head against the porcelain pot.

“Ow...” He sat up and rubbed his forehead as his eyes blinked open.

Why was it so quiet?

Haku looked around, and saw no more than an empty street and a darkening sky. He felt his blood run cold: where was Hiroshi?

“Hiroshi-san?” He called softly.

There was no answer, and Haku quickly stood up, looking around frantically. He saw nothing familiar. It was getting cold and he did not understand why Hiroshi was not with him.

‘Oh no... Did a bad ninja get to him? Is he hurt?’

Haku wandered around the street in a small circle, his hands wringing together nervously. The feeling of being alone again was so overwhelming that he had difficulty thinking straight.

‘I've got to find him. Where could he have gone?’

“Hiroshi-san?” He spoke louder, but received no response.

Haku paused in his circling and gasped.

What if he was injured? He recalled the agonizing end his parents had met and the sudden, partly rational fear for Hiroshi's life overtook him.

“Hiroshi-san!” Haku was calling out into the emptiness of the main avenue, darting about on swift legs.

His head was pounding and his thoughts became a tangled mess.

‘Where is he? Where is he? Why did he leave me alone?’

“Hiroshi-san!” Haku’s panic intensified and he scurried under the cover of trees, retracing their route along the forest path.

The woods were quiet and the grass was damp beneath his feet. ‘I'm alone...I'm alone...’

“No! Please no!” Haku pleaded, “Hiroshi-san, are you there?”

He raced farther into the line of cedar trees, tripping over his own feet. After a minute of his desultory search he stumbled down to the wet earth and wailed.

‘Now I'm alone. He must have found out about my power and left me.’

He pulled his knees up to his chest and sobbed. His logical functions shut down and yielded to grief once again. He had no idea of whether Hiroshi had left him or if he had become another victim of violence.

Haku’s small frame rattled as he cried. He had not been able to bring himself to do it any sooner. He cried for his parents, for the dog and for himself. Why did things always turn out this way?

He heard a foreign noise in the background, despite his tears. He couldn't place it, but it was a constant, soft sound that helped him focus.

Haku sniffed and wiped his damp cheeks with the back of his hand.

“Huh?” He gazed ahead and then noticed a glimmer a short distance away. A river ran parallel to the town, flowing gently.

The sight of water was curiously soothing to Haku. He stood up, still drying off his cheeks on his scruffy shirt, and took small steps toward the body of water.

He stopped at the water’s edge and frowned down at the dark water.

He recalled how his ability to manipulate water and ice had gotten him into a lot of trouble. It flowed undisturbed, as if it were mocking him, mocking his pain.

“I lost Mama and Papa...all because of...” Haku sniffled, struggling with the weight of the terrible memory.

Despite the trauma he had gone through, Haku liked the power he had. It felt just as normal as taking a breath of air or knowing how to walk. He never would have used his ability to harm anyone, if his father had only accepted him as he was.

For a moment he stood staring accusingly at the water. He was upset his parents were gone and that Hiroshi had disappeared. Was it a sign? Was he really meant to be alone?

“I am not a bad person...” Haku affirmed, “And my power isn't bad either...”

He raised his hand and watched in reserved delight as the water rose up at his command. It made him feel better.

Haku waved his hand forcefully to the left, making the thread of water fly up above the surface. The ribbon of shimmering liquid coiled gracefully as he directed it, easing his heartache.

‘I like my power and I will use it to become a strong ninja...’

Smiling at the thought of one day becoming a shinobi, Haku continued with his activity…until he was interrupted.

Whoa!

The shout from behind him startled Haku so badly that the serpent of water that had once been airborne, splashed quickly back down into the river.

Haku turned around and faced the newcomer.

“Wow! That was awesome! How did you do that?” The boy was about his height and was incredibly loud.

Haku took a moment to regain his composure before answering.

“I don't really know. I just can.”

The other boy was grinning. Haku assumed he had no idea that the power he possessed bothered most people.

“That was so cool! Can you do it again?”

“Um...sure.” Haku indulged the newcomer by showing off a bit more, raising more of the water into the air. He smiled to himself proudly as he noticed the other boy's awe.

“That's really something...”

Haku observed the boy. He was a mess; there was no other way to describe him. His blonde hair was tousled and full of leaves. Dirt was smudged on his face and...just about everywhere else on him. His clothes were even more tattered than Haku's.

It couldn't have been more obvious that he had been out in the wilderness for quite some time.

Haku looked at the boy curiously. He was unsure of how to act since he had hardly ever had contact with other children before.

The blonde boy flounced up to Haku, apparently thirsting to socialize.

“Hey! I'm Uzumaki Naruto! Who are you?” Haku's ears were hurting.

Why was he so loud?

He answered in a quiet voice, “I'm Haku.”

Naruto grabbed his hand and shook it, “It's great to meet you Haku! You're the first person I've seen outside of Konoha!”

Haku picked up on Naruto's enthusiasm and found himself smiling as well.

“Konoha?”

Naruto looked dumbfounded, “Don't tell me you haven't heard of the Hidden Leaf Village!”

“I'm sorry. I haven't.”

The blonde boy folded his arms across his chest and huffed, “Well jeez! It's only the best ninja village around! I'm out here because-”

“Did you say ninja village?” Haku could not believe his luck. Not only had he met a friendly youth like himself, but Naruto was actually from a village of shinobi!

Naruto nodded, “Yeah, I'll be going back there soon to see Hinata-chan, but I've been away for a couple of days so I can train myself. Maybe you can come too!”

Haku wasn't sure if he was dreaming or not, considering this stroke of good fortune. However his head was still spinning due to the disappearance of Hiroshi, and his fear of losing his only friend irked him to no end.

Naruto took a deep breath and then dropped his backpack to the ground with a thud. He landed on his butt next to it and stretched his arms.

“Man I went pretty far! I'm starved!” Naruto continued to puzzle Haku as he retrieved a cup of what appeared to be noodles from his bag.

Haku sat down as well, still surprised Naruto had actually liked his ability rather than feared it.

“Want some?” Naruto was preparing the cup ramen, and he held out an extra for Haku. Haku hesitated. Naruto had poured a thermos of lukewarm water into his meal and then tore into it.

The dark haired boy watched Naruto slurp his food rapidly, as if he was rushing just to move on to a second helping. Haku thought it disgusting to eat that way.

He lost his appetite.

“No thank you, Naruto.”

The blonde boy shrugged and then stashed the extra cup back in his bag. He continued his messy meal contentedly.

Haku sighed inwardly. This was turning out to be a weird day.

He had to say something; now that he was aware that Naruto had actually come from a ninja village it may be his only chance for the training he wanted.

“Naruto?”

“Mff?”

“What's it like in your village?” Haku went straight to the point, “Can I train to become a ninja there?”

Naruto sighed and put down his empty cup, his face became solemn upon recalling Konoha. In his heart he knew it was a great place, just not particularly for him, but he promised himself he would find a way to change that.

He tilted his chin up in the air in thought, “Well...”

Haku looked at him with great anticipation.

“Training to become a ninja is hard no matter who you are. Do you think you have what it takes?” Naruto tried to unnerve Haku, but he only succeeded in confusing him more.

“Do I have what it takes?”

“Yeah, you know: jutsu, weapons, skills…that kind of stuff.” Naruto himself understood very little of what he was talking about.

Haku shook his head. What was a jutsu? He had lived on a farm for Heaven’s sake!

Naruto took a closer look at Haku.

‘He's kinda...scrawny and…I don't know...’

“Well, you can do that cool thing with the water so that's a start...” Naruto tried to form a list of assets, “Can you fight?”

“I can with water.”

Naruto shook his head, “No Haku, I mean like punching and stuff. I heard people at the academy call it something but I don't remember what exactly. Anyway, can you?”

“No, I don't know how.” Haku felt embarrassed. He hadn't taken into account that he would have to be able to fight in more ways than one. He felt disheartened by the idea.

By some miracle, Naruto came up with another idea, “Well, you can learn to fight and stuff later! But are you good at anything else? Like medicine? How fast are you?”

If Haku could remember correctly, he could be impressively fast when he wanted to be. Yet he was not certain if his speed could compare to a ninja's. He decided to give it a shot anyway.

“I'm fast.”

“Good! Let's see!” Naruto jumped to his feet, his energy practically radiating off of him. It made Haku feel tired just by looking at him.

Haku stood up as well, ‘I'm fast. I can prove it. I have skill...’

It was the first time in Haku's young life he had heard three specific words used in the same sentence.

“Tag! You're it!”

In a flash of yellow, Naruto was gone.

Haku stood where he was, completely perplexed, “I'm afraid I don't understand, Naruto.”

Naruto sighed in exasperation and leaped down from his hiding place among the tree tops.

“You're 'it', so you know, you gotta run after me and try to catch me. That way I can see how fast you are.”

Haku was still bewildered that the blonde boy jumped in and out of trees like it was nothing, which could explain all of the foliage he was covered in. He shook the thought out of his head and nodded.

“Alright.”

‘I don't think I can get up into the trees though...I suppose I'll have to find a way to keep him on the ground...’

Naruto laughed gleefully as he disappeared into the tree tops again, and Haku quickly pursued him while on the ground.

“Why don't you just come up here Haku? You're pretty fast!” Naruto called down to him, leaping from tree branch to tree branch.

Haku frowned up at him, “I...can't jump that high...”

“Then you'll never catch me!”

Naruto certainly wasn't concerned with stealth; his laughter echoed through the entire forest and made it easy for Haku to follow him. It was frustrating for the dark eyed boy to stay grounded.

Luckily Haku had something that Naruto had not counted on: brain power. He was clever enough to fix his problem.

‘Naruto makes it seem that I can only catch him if I chase him around. But maybe if I…’

“Too slow!” Naruto laughed while jumping over Haku's head. He raced like a yellow blur back towards the river.

Haku was not willing to be out-done. He nearly matched Naruto's speed and let him lead the way through the forest while he waited for the blonde boy to play into his still-forming trap.

“Come on Haku! I thought you said you wanted to train as a ninja!” Naruto taunted playfully as he bounced around the treetops with ease.

Haku remained quiet in his pursuit, waiting for the right moment to strike...

Suddenly Naruto made the mistake of coming too close to the water's edge.

‘Now!’ Haku waved his hand in a diagonal motion he had practiced before, letting a thin jet of muddy water land a direct hit on Naruto's face. His accuracy was alarming and his timing was flawless.

“Wah!” The blonde boy slipped from the tree branch, blind-sided by the attack. Since his calculations had served him well, Haku quickly pounced on Naruto with a triumphant smile as he collided with the ground.

“I got you!”

Naruto was still hollering in laughter, aware that Haku had used wit rather than speed to catch him, but he was impressed all the same.

He spoke between pants, “You're...not as...fast as...me...”

“Not yet.” Haku admitted it with a smile since he had still proved himself.

“I didn't expect a trap!” Naruto dried is face on his sleeve once he had caught his breath.

Haku felt accomplished; if only Hiroshi had seen how well he had done!

Hiroshi!

Haku leapt to his feet, remembering his friend and how he had not completed his search.

“Oh! I need to find Hiroshi-san! It's getting dark.”

Naruto looked up towards the red and pink sky and then to Haku, “Who's Hiroshi?”

“My friend. I fell asleep a little while ago and when I woke up I couldn't find him.” Haku explained. He didn't feel as panicked as he had before, but he was still worried enough to keep looking.

Naruto slipped his back pack on and also stood.

"I'll help you find him!” Naruto volunteered. His main reason to help was that Haku was an enjoyable playmate, and he did not look forward to being left alone again.

“Thank you.” Haku was glad Naruto had decided to come along. It took a moment for Haku to get used to his new companion as they ventured back towards the town.

‘He's like me…more than Hiroshi or the man with the sword...Naruto wants to be a ninja.’

Haku was startled when Naruto spoke up in a normal tone of voice.

“So...does this make us friends?”

Haku smiled, “It would be an honor to be your friend, Uzumaki Naruto.”


By the time they had returned, street lamps were already lit, and the sun sank slowly beneath the horizon. At that point, Haku was certain of one thing about Naruto...

He liked to talk.

A lot.

He was uncertain why Naruto was so chatty, however it was pleasant to have someone his height to speak to.

“The people in my village don't like me much,” Naruto went on about Konoha, “I don't know why. So I'm going to become a powerful ninja so they'll stop hating me and start respecting me.”

Haku could understand that feeling.

“Why do you want to become a ninja, Haku?”

He looked to Naruto as they walked down the side of the street. He knew the answer to that.

“I...I need to become stronger to protect the people who are precious to me. I haven't been able to do that...” Haku recalled how he had failed his parents, “And if I train as a ninja I can find a way to save people...”

Naruto nodded, “Yup, that's a good reason! I like that reason.”

“Haku!”

It was a deep, bellowing shout that made both boys turn around. A large man was jogging up the road and he appeared greatly distraught. Haku's face lit up as he saw that his companion had not abandoned him after all.

“Hiroshi-san!” Haku darted over to his fat friend and hugged him in great relief.

Hiroshi frowned at the farm boy, “Sweet lord, Haku! I've been looking all over for you! I don't want you running off like that again, you hear me? This place isn't safe.”

Haku bowed his head in apology.

“I'm sorry Hiroshi-san, it's just that when I woke up you were gone and I thought you had left, so I went to look for you...” He rambled, “I was worried.”

Naruto watched the exchange, waiting for a chance to introduce himself.

“You should have waited for me, Haku-chan. I was only getting some dango.”

Haku had never heard of such a thing before, “Dango?”

“Try it,” Hiroshi reached into a paper bag and handed him a skewer of pink and green dumplings, and then turned to Naruto, “So, who's your friend here?”

“I'm Uzumaki Naruto!”

Hiroshi chuckled at the spirited boy, “Hello Naruto! I am Hiroshi and I take it you've already become acquainted with Haku.”

Haku bit into one of the dumplings and he found that he liked its light sweetness. He took one of the dumplings for himself and passed the skewer on to Naruto. He also had never tried dango before, but devoured the remaining treats easily.

Hiroshi chuckled, “I guess I'll just have to buy some more. Why don't you boys just wait by the cart?”

Naruto casually tossed the stick aside, and hoped that Hiroshi would still be willing to share the upcoming dessert. Haku returned to his companion's cart with Naruto beside him, and they sat down while Hiroshi returned to the vender.

“Wow. I guess it wasn't really that hard to find your friend after all, huh Haku?” Naruto observed.

Haku forced a smile. It turned out to be just that.  He had indeed overreacted. Though Haku believed Naruto wouldn’t understand the feeling of panic that came over him earlier.

Naruto shook some if the leaves out of his golden hair, “I sure am dirty! I've been working really hard to get stronger since I left home. I can't wait to go back...then I can just sit with Hinata-chan by our tree.”

“And I can come with you?” Haku confirmed.

“Yup! Then you can meet Hinata-chan. She's really nice!”

Haku laid back and sighed, “I'd like that...”

“Have you two settled down?” Hiroshi returned with two skewers of dango and Naruto looked at them expectantly. “I suppose Naruto will be staying with us for a while?”

Naruto shook his head, “Nah, not for too long. I'm gonna go back to Konoha for ninja training and Haku's coming with me.”

Hiroshi was stunned, “Konoha? What are you doing away from Hidden Leaf?”

“Trying to get stronger, but I'm going back soon.”

“You're a bit too young to be wandering by yourself if you ask me, Naruto,” Hiroshi handed him the dango that he had been staring at, “Are you all by yourself?”

“Yeah.” He chomped gratefully on the sweets.

How had no one come looking for this child yet? He was too young to be out on his own!

Funnily enough, the good shinobi who could help Haku with his ninja training happened to be a six-year-old. It was something Hiroshi was not expecting.

“So Haku-chan, would you like to go to Hidden Leaf to train as a ninja?” Hiroshi asked.

Haku looked excited at the idea, “Yes, I want to go with Naruto.”

Hiroshi nodded to him. It was settled then. He had not anticipated it to be so simple.

Haku noticed an odd sight while he was watching the sun set.

A small dark cloud appeared in the distance, silhouetted against the rosy sky. It seemed to be moving.

He looked at it curiously for a moment, watching it as it came near. After a quiet moment, Hiroshi and Naruto noticed it as well.

“What the heck is that?” Naruto asked with one last mouthful of sticky dango.

No one could answer. What once appeared to be a cloud, turned into a mass of furiously whirling sand: that was approaching at an unsafe speed. It nearly resembled a funnel-cloud, but was far too small to be a tornado.

That was when Haku decided he really was having a weird day.

The three of them looked on in shock as the sandstorm halted several yards away from them, kicking up dust and sand as it slowed to a stop.

Hiroshi's dango slid off of the skewer and plopped down to the ground. ‘I guess today is not my day for snacks…what is going on?’

Naruto and Haku stared with wide eyes as the sand thinned and then ceased its motion, revealing a person amidst the center of the swirling wind.

“That's really cool!” Naruto commented, feeling the same awe as he had felt meeting Haku.

The sand cleared, and what remained was a small boy with a shock of red hair. His eyes were bloodshot and he was trembling uncontrollably, suffering from extreme exhaustion. Haku took a few steps forward and then stopped.

He could feel the immense power the boy had, just as he had felt it with the man with the bandaged face.

The red haired boy stared at them silently for a moment, shaking. Hiroshi looked at him, unsure of what he could do.

“Hey are you alright?” Naruto promptly asked.

Haku watched with baited breath; the power that he felt was flickering. The boy was going to collapse.

The boy's voice was weak and pained, “...help me...”

The three watched as he sunk to the ground, landing with a soft thud. While Haku and Hiroshi stood in stunned silence, Naruto could not help himself:

“...WHOA...”

Chapter Text

Chapter Soundtrack: “Bluebird Story” by DJ Okawari feat Jumelles

Hazy steam drifted upwards from the hot springs.

It was a relaxing afternoon until a woman with dark hair turned to her friend after hearing a peculiar noise from outside.

“You didn't hear that? It sounded like someone talking or…giggling... am I going crazy?”

Her friend nodded, “Yeah, I'm pretty sure I heard something to that effect.”

Both girls peeked over the fence, but their eyes met nothing but the surrounding forest. A loon called out an eerie cry as they suspiciously scanned the area.

The dark haired woman shook her head and settled back into the water.

“Maybe we're just imagining things...”

Her friend nodded again and did the same.

Little did they know that they were in fact the subject of one ninja's undivided attention.

Stooped in the high branches of a sycamore tree was none other the Legendary Sage Jiraiya, renowned author of the Icha Icha Paradise series. He scribbled notes down furiously while watching the girls bathe, it was after all…

Very important research.

“Heh, heh, this is probably the best yet...” He muttered excitedly to himself.

He had recently returned to the Fire Country and dropped by the Leaf Village; however his research there had been nothing short of a disaster when a certain green-spandex clad jounnin caught him near a women's changing room, and accused him of disrupting the girls' “Springtime of Youth!”

“Feh...weirdo...” Jiraiya frowned as he recalled.

What did he know anyway? Why, Jiraiya was quite certain he was overflowing with youthfulness, and was by no means disturbing anyone's “Springtime”.

The small town called Kuro had given him the perfect opportunity to seek new inspiration for his story. Boy did he ever get it. In the midst of his work, he abruptly felt a fierce wind catch him from behind.

Reluctantly, Jiraiya tore his skillful eyes away from the girls and looked behind him. Approaching at an alarming speed was what appeared to be a large whirlwind of sand and debris. The wind was heading straight his way.

“What the-?”

He had no time to evade it, and was hurled from his hiding place with tremendous force and sent hurtling through the air until he crash-landed in the middle of the hot springs on his head. Tree branches and stones rained down beside him.

“...ow.”

As if the encounter had never happened, the gale continued on, leaving Jiraiya bruised and soaked with his notes soggy and unreadable.

“Damn gust’s gotta screw up my brilliant notes and-!”

“Eh-hem!”

His attention was redirected by the sound of someone clearing their throat noticeably loud from behind him. He jumped to his feet and faced the throng of savagely angry and nude women beginning to surround him.

“Oh, hello there ladies! You're all looking lovely today.”

The dark haired woman who thought she was hallucinating before smirked at their discovery.

He received a merciless beating at that point in time, and because the women were both beautiful and not trained in combat he had no choice but to take it without retaliation. The spandex-wearing jounin from Leaf seemed like a mere greeting card after that.


“...WHOA...”

Haku wasn't certain what had just happened. Out of nowhere, a swirling mass of sand blew into Kuro and dissipated to reveal a small red haired boy.

It was enough to throw Naruto for a loop.

“Are you alright?” The blonde was shouting even though the boy who had appeared was currently unconscious.

Haku sighed to himself upon seeing his friend's reaction, ‘He is very excitable…’

He and Naruto went to the boy's side to inspect him.

He was deathly pale and covered in perspiration. His face was drawn up in a look of total despair. Naruto was quiet for a long moment before asking, “Is he dead?”

Haku frowned to himself. Was he dead? He of all people should be able to recognize such a state. He placed his hand carefully over the nameless boy's parted mouth.

He drew a weak breath.

“No he's breathing, Naruto!” He reported.

The blonde boy had a look of worry etched onto his face. He could not explain why he was so concerned for the well-being of a person he didn't even know.

Naruto lowered his voice, “What do you think happened to him?”

Haku shook his head, “I don't know.”

“What in the world is this about?” Hiroshi wondered out loud as he squatted down beside the two children in his charge, “This poor child just tumbled out of cloud of sand! That's not something you see every day.”

“Hiroshi-san, is he hurt? I can't tell why he's in so much pain.” Haku observed as the boy twitched and jumped without any clear reason.

Hiroshi shook his head, “It’s hard to tell, Haku, he could be very sick. Maybe it was all that sand-?”

Naruto folded his arms and squinted his eyes, “Nah, I don't think so. It kinda looked like that sand was keeping him safe.”

Hiroshi and Haku both looked at Naruto strangely. He certainly did have an interesting perspective, although a huge cloud of sand didn't at first look...safe.

“We have to help him, Hiroshi-san.” Haku resolved and Naruto nodded in fierce agreement.

Hiroshi looked immensely overwhelmed, “I don't know…I already have you two to look after, and this little one seems to be in very bad shape. I’m not sure where to start...”

Haku looked at him pleadingly, “But we have to do something!”

“Please, Hiroshi-san?” Even Naruto called to him with familiarity. He already had taken in two children, what was one more?

Hiroshi nodded to them, “Alright, Haku, go fetch some water for this poor child. Naruto, there should be a small bedroll by the cart. Can you spread it out for him?”

Both answered in unison, “Yes, Hiroshi-san!”

They both dashed back to Hiroshi's cart to go about their appointed tasks. Hiroshi bent down and scooped up the small boy, wondering what had happened to him

He laid the boy out on the futon Naruto had quickly prepared, and Haku returned hastily with a bowl of water. Hiroshi helped the boy into a sitting position.

“Okay Haku, now just tip some of that water into his mouth.” He instructed.

Meticulously, Haku let the unconscious boy take a small sip of water, and he involuntarily leaned up for more. Hiroshi noticed this behavior and concluded that the boy must have been without food or water for a long while.

“Is he gonna be alright?” Naruto was leaning against Haku's shoulder to get a better look at the red haired boy.

Haku was nearly as antsy as Naruto was.

Hiroshi sighed, “I think he'll be alright. We'll have to keep watch to see when he wakes up. Maybe then he can tell us what happened to him.”

“Right.” Naruto put on a serious face and crept up onto the cart beside Haku. Hiroshi sat down as well with another deep sigh. Good grief.

And as if their day hadn't been long enough, Hiroshi watched with detached concern as a white haired man with red markings under his eyes lumbered towards them in a seemingly foul mood.

He walked with a limp and a scowl was plastered on his face as approached. The cart's occupants looked at him soundlessly until he stopped in front of them. A twig was stuck in his hair.

Just as Jiraiya was about to begin ranting to the odd troop about what mayhem he had went through he felt as if he had been warped back to Konoha.

Bright blonde hair, ocean-blue eyes, and that face...

It was the spitting image of his former student!

Jiraiya blinked his eyes in disbelief. He must be losing his damn mind. He was well aware that his protégée had a son years ago who resided in the Leaf Village and was under the care of the Third Hokage.

And he knew that the child had been named Naruto.

There was no way he could have snuck away without someone taking notice. This was an important kid!

He took a moment to regard the blonde child, trying to verify if it was indeed the one he had in mind. The small boy just gave him a questioning look and seemed ready to shout a snappy remark.

The resemblance was just plain freaky, ‘This is him alright…but how the hell did he get here? That is negligence if I ever saw it!’

It quickly occurred to the sage that he ought to return to boy to the Leaf Village as soon as possible. If he didn’t he could be held responsible if the Kyuubi fell into the wrong hands.

After a few moments of ordering his thoughts Jiraiya remembered why he was so infuriated.

“Right...have any of you seen a tornado pass by here by any chance?” Jiraiya asked, pulling debris out of his long, white locks.

Naruto immediately identified the man before him as a complete weirdo.

Haku gestured to the unconscious boy as an answer and Jiraiya gave the child a quick glance.

Okay, so the kid was outlandish…but something on the boy’s arm immediately drew his attention. A faintly visible, calligraphic arrangement was glowing on the boy’s upper arm.

A seal?

He mentally groaned, ‘Well I'll definitely have to look into this circus then...’

“He just showed up in a dust-storm, though I am not sure how.” Hiroshi explained to the sage, “He may have some sort of illness or...well, it’s hard to say.”

Jiraiya nodded, “I think I may know what the kid's problem is. He certainly caused a bit of trouble for me.”

He remembered the earlier incident when he had been brutally assaulted by a crowd of angry, naked women…all because of some red haired imp!

Naruto decided it was time to share his two-cents.

“Hey old man! Why the heck is your hair so long?” Naruto could no longer contain himself, “What are ya trying to pretend you're a girl or something?”

“You aren't exactly the definition of normal yourself kid.” He countered, “You’ve got leaves sticking out of your hair like me, if you didn’t notice. What is this? Lord of the Flies?”

“Hey!” Naruto stood up and pointed a finger at Jiraiya, “You can't talk to me like that old man! I'm going to be the Hokage someday!”

Jiraiya smirked, “Oh really? Then what are you doing outside of the Leaf Village, eh squirt?”

Naruto was fuming while Haku could only watch.

“I'm training that's what!” Naruto barked, nearly falling off of the cart.

“Right...”

Hiroshi smiled slightly; Naruto would never run out of energy.

“Naruto, sit down before you hurt yourself,” The fat man admonished, “My apologies sir, he's had a difficult day.”

Jiraiya shrugged, “Yep, so have I.”

Haku was again keener to detail than his friend.

“Are you a ninja, sir?” Haku asked curiously, noting his forehead protector with the kanji for ‘oil’ on it.

The sage seemed to inflate, “Why yes! I am the Legendary Toad Sage Jiraiya, today gracing you with my presence!”

Naruto didn't buy it.

“You still look like a crazy old man to me...” He snickered.

Jiraiya snorted, “You're right, Hokage-sama, I'll deal with you later.”

He then turned to Hiroshi, “I'm afraid I'm a bit behind on my research at the moment, but I'll come back in the morning to check up on the sand kid. And the smart-mouth too, he’s strayed too far from home.”

The pudgy man nodded, “I'd appreciate it. Will he be alright until then?”

Jiraiya was busy trying to air out a saturated note pad, “Er…yeah, just keep that squirt hydrated and he'll live. He’s too exhausted to cause any more trouble.”

The merchant nodded uncertainly and Haku looked curiously at the Toad Sage. He wasn't exactly what he had expected a ninja to be like and apparently Naruto shared his opinion.

Jiraiya departed, cursing under his breath that his notes had been ruined.

‘Damn sand kid...’


The next morning dragged in slowly.

Sunlight peaked over the horizon and Hiroshi was snoring loudly. It had been a difficult night.

To his good fortune, Naruto managed to tucker himself out and fall asleep. Haku on the other hand kept a quiet, overnight vigil over the nameless boy even against Hiroshi's wishes. He was determined to make sure that he would be alright.

It wasn’t easy. Haku had the task of giving the boy water, and at some points slipped in and out of consciousness while on watch. Hiroshi had gone through it as well, yet he would often wake up to the incoherent rambling of the red head and his thrashing.

The man could only wonder what made him suffer so. It appeared that Jiraiya hadn't explained enough when he said to keep him hydrated. In Hiroshi's opinion, he needed to be hospitalized; he was just that ill.

At one point in the night, Hiroshi thought the boy was dying when he suddenly began screaming bloody murder into the darkness of Kuro's streets. He had certainly given Hiroshi and his wards a good scare.

Naruto, however, almost immediately fell asleep again afterwards, and Haku was desperately trying to console the unconscious boy. Hiroshi wasn't sure there was much else they could do besides what Jiraiya had instructed.

Hiroshi had to wonder: Did the Legendary Sage in fact know what was afflicting the boy? He had only a brief look at him and had not made a big deal out of it, even though he appeared to be at death's door.

Or maybe the emotional equivalent.

Haku was still awake at daybreak.

He was slowly beginning to nod off as the sun rose in the sky. He was too anxious over the boy’s condition to get any rest. Still, he began to succumb to the effects of his sleep deprivation.

Haku rested his chin against his chest. The bowl that had once contained water for the red haired boy was empty, and slipped out of his hands silently.

‘I can't fall...asleep...’

Haku began to snore gently just as Naruto sat up and stretched. He looked over to Haku, noticing his predicament. He stood up and looked towards Hiroshi who was next to him on the ground.

‘I guess I'll let them sleep. Now I have a chance to train!’

His definition of training was jumping around through the treetops until one could do it blind-folded. And so he went on his merry way. ‘When I finish, I'll make ramen for everybody and see how the new kid is doing!’

Naruto leapt up into a nearby tree and wondered to himself if he would be able to show Haku to jump in the same fashion. It would be a helpful ninja trait.


Two green eyes blinked open.

The light was painful at first, but after adjusting, they were able to take in the surrounding sights.

‘Where am I and...why am I so comfortable?’

Gaara turned his head slightly to look at the cushion he had been resting on. A bedroll. ‘I'm not on the ground?’

He then turned to his right and nearly had a heart attack upon finding another person so close to him just sleeping.

‘I thought everyone was afraid of me!’

Gaara gazed at the snoring boy. He felt strange seeing someone so relaxed. The boy curled up beside him on the cart seemed so peaceful…it was an expression he could hardly recall.

Gaara observed the dark haired boy beside him curiously. He couldn't be much older than himself and he appeared careworn.

He sat up groggily. His head felt like a scrambled egg, and he rubbed his temples gingerly while he tried to remember what happened. Yashamaru, Temari, Kankuro...and his escape from Suna.

What a nightmare it had been. The voice that had been inside his head was at the moment silent, although during the night he could hear it whispering to him.

It told him to get up and do terrible things. Yet he was in no physical or emotional state to obey and so the voice died down. But he didn't know how long it could last.

Haku had felt the shift in weight on the cart, and opened his eyes a margin to observe the movement. ‘Oh...he's awake...’ He felt his eyelids droop again.

‘He's awake!’

Haku's eyes snapped open in surprise: the ailing boy was awake and seemed to be just fine, as Jiraiya had predicted.

The boy looked inquisitively at Haku, as if he had no idea how to act.

He really didn't.

Haku couldn't help but smile as he so often did, “Good morning! How are you feeling?”

Gaara's brain was experiencing an overload. ‘What did that boy just say? Was he just nice to me? Does he actually care?’

Haku was still smiling even when he gained no immediate response. The boy seemed frazzled and unaware of what had occurred between the time he had pleaded for help and the present.

“I'm Haku.” He spoke again, trying to encourage the boy to talk.

The response was concise.

“Gaara.”

Haku nodded, “Nice to meet you, Gaara.”

Gaara felt compelled to say the same; it was nice to meet Haku, a person who wasn't out for his blood, but no words came to him.

Somehow Haku seemed to understand, “Are you thirsty?”

He didn't wait for an answer, and he stood to refill the bowl with water from a nearby well. Gaara stared at the sight and thought to himself, ‘Wow, I must have died and went to that really nice place.’

While Gaara sat on the cart contemplating the situation he was startled by a loud shout from his right.

“Hey! Haku! Is he awake yet?”

‘Oh no! I must be in that other place!’

As Haku walked back bearing a full bowl of water he regarded Naruto as he returned to the cart. Gaara was sitting up wasn't he? Did Naruto really have to ask?

Oh well.

“Yes Naruto. This is Gaara.”

With a flying glomp, Naruto spastically soared through the air and onto the cart to greet Gaara. He landed a bit too forcefully and knocked Gaara from his seat at the edge. He tumbled to the ground in bewilderment.

What a first impression that was.

“Woops! Sorry Gaara,” Naruto pulled him up and dusted off his shirt, “You know Haku and I were really worried when you blew in here and-”

“What is the matter with you children?” Hiroshi was awake, and not pleased with how Naruto had been throttling the red haired boy.

The blonde boy rubbed the back of his head sheepishly, “I didn't mean to send him flying like that, honest!”

“Here you go.” Haku handed the bowl of water to Gaara and he gratefully accepted it.

“...thank you.”

Naruto huffed.

“Take it easy, Naruto, he’ll be fine.” Hiroshi chuckled, patting the boy's head.

Naruto considered his actions for a moment and decided to emulate Haku’s behavior, in the hope he could make another friend.

“I'll make us some breakfast,” Naruto volunteered, impressing Haku and Hiroshi, “Maybe you can tell us how you got here, Gaara?”

Gaara finished gulping down the water he had been given. He nodded to them, not very sure how to explain it.

While Naruto was busy fishing through his bag for ramen, Hiroshi was relieved to see Jiraiya appear. He looked very pleased and he was flipping through a new notepad.

“Well, well,” The sage got a good look at Gaara, “It seems like the sand kid is alright.”

Gaara looked towards Jiraiya strangely. He was having a hard time getting used to all the odd people he met. Haku watched Jiraiya with admiring eyes, while Naruto only sniffed disdainfully at his presence.

“Kid, what's your name?” Jiraiya was never too blunt.

Gaara gave the man a fierce look, inclined to bite back, ‘Why should you care?’ Or ‘Leave me alone! For the first time I've actually met some nice people.’

But what he said was, “Gaara.”

He had a default response. Jiraiya put his research pad away and went over to the red haired boy beside the cart. He had overheard a rumor a few days earlier that the Kazekage's youngest child had been reported missing.

Even more curious was that small squads of chunin and jounin had been quietly dispatched to search for the boy throughout the five countries had not recovered him yet. It was unusual that the Kazekage wouldn't start an uproar amongst all of the hidden villages when his son had vanished.

The smell of foul play hung in the air.

There had to be a reason for the boy's disappearance.

Jiraiya still wasn't very interested in such a chaotic political situation, but the fact that the boy named Gaara had blown into Kuro in a whirlwind of sand, causing him grief in the process, was enough to make him suspect the kid was the one in question.

Gaara's intense eyes reflected a painful experience.

And his use of sand made Jiraiya conclude that the boy was certainly the Kazekage's son. He knew for a fact that the Fourth Kazekage could manipulate gold dust, and he had a hunch that his children may also carry such an ability. He had also heard through the grapevine that the jinchuriki of Suna was unpredictable and dangerous despite his young age.

“Let me have a look at your arm, Gaara.” The Toad Sage tried to be casual about it.

Gaara looked at Haku and then to Hiroshi; they didn't seem to object. He lifted his arm and let Jiraiya inspect it, not caring for the reason why he wanted to do so.

‘I thought so…this must be the imperfect seal of the Shukaku.’

In his vast knowledge of seals, he quickly recognized Gaara's 'ailment'. Not only did he have the jinchuriki from Hidden Leaf on his hands, but he had also discovered the one missing from Suna as well.

‘Boy do I need a drink...’

“Alright.” He allowed Gaara to lower his arm and Naruto and Haku took a seat beside the boy. Naruto passed around cups of instant ramen. Haku, remembering how Naruto had devoured his noodles the last time, felt his appetite disappear again.

Gaara only picked at the ramen disinterestedly.

Hiroshi turned to the sage, “Well, is anything wrong sir?”

‘No, unless I admit the fact that we have two demon-jailers right in front of us. Heh! I doubt the Kazekage wants Gaara back for friendly reasons, now...how do I break it to the merchant?’

“Nothing is, er…wrong per se. However, I'm under the strong impression that I should bring these two back to Konoha with me for safety purposes.” Jiraiya indicated Naruto and Gaara who were slurping noodles.

Gaara paused, his eyes widened and he turned to Naruto, “...this is...good.”

Naruto was thrilled, “I'm glad ya like it Gaara!”

Gaara couldn't believe how friendly the blonde boy was, although he did find his volume a bit high.

Haku gingerly nibbled at the noodles, forcing the image of a binging Naruto out of his mind. Hiroshi watched them interact.

“Why only Naruto and Gaara?” He had to ask.

“I believe they would be of special interest to the Hokage. Naruto especially, since he ran away from home.” Jiraiya didn't want to get into too much detail.

“I understand. It would be better that way. I'm in no position for supporting children on my own, and they deserve a much better life than what I'd offer,” Hiroshi agreed, “But, if you must take Gaara and Naruto then I would like you to take Haku as well.”

Jiraiya mentally groaned, ‘Aw crap...I mean two is already bad enough...’

The fat man noticed the disapproving look on the Toad Sage’s face, “It's the only thing I'd ask of you! The boy needs training as a ninja and Konoha is where he can get it, right?”

‘Damn, how do I weasel out of this one?’

“Er, well, I'm not in the habit of bringing just any kid to Hidden Leaf to become a shinobi. His chances of becoming one are slim,” Jiraiya tried to be convincing, “Sorry, I'm only taking these two.”

Hiroshi sighed, “I see.”

‘I'm sorry Haku, maybe I can take you there myself one day...’ The hefty man lamented inwardly.

Haku had been listening and was completely devastated by the news. He turned to Naruto and Gaara, painful silence gripping him. ‘How can I become a ninja now?’

Furious, Naruto threw his ramen cup at Jiraiya.

“Oh yeah? Well, we're not going anywhere until you let Haku come with us!” Naruto grabbed the boy protectively by the shoulders and then turned to his red haired companion, “Right, Gaara?”

‘Haku is nice so why shouldn't he be allowed to go to Konoha?’

“Haku comes with us.” Gaara agreed and made Naruto's face lit up.

‘What brats...’

Jiraiya frowned at the Kyuubi container, “...oh, fine. But I don't want trouble out of any of you, got it?”

Haku was once again jovial, “Thank you, Jiraiya-sama!”

The Toad Hermit smirked to himself, finally a bit of respect!

Although Hiroshi was happy it had somehow worked out for the three youngsters, he had also felt somewhat disappointed. He wouldn't have anyone once they went with Jiraiya to the Hidden Leaf Village.

Jiraiya whipped out his notepad again and turned towards Hiroshi, “It’s settled. I'll be back at noon to pick them up. That should be enough time for good-byes right? Anyway, I have a bit of research to do until then.”

The merchant nodded, “Very well.”

The sage was gone a moment later, eager to continue his “research”

At that point, the three boys had finished their breakfast, although Naruto's had been cut abruptly short.

Naruto and Haku were chattering excitedly, while the more reserved Gaara listened, liking the way they described becoming shinobi. The merchant sighed to himself.

How hard could a farewell be?


“Parting gifts?” Haku asked as Hiroshi led them through a town market, “But Hiroshi-san, we don't need any gifts.”

Naruto begged to differ, “Presents would be nice.”

Gaara frowned at Naruto. Did he often take advantage of people this way? Or was this a special occasion? Haku shared his thoughts.

“No I suppose you don't,” Hiroshi replied, “But I want you to all have something to remember me by while you're off training to become ninja!”

“We won't forget you Hiroshi-san.” Haku said quietly.

Gaara detected the distress in the boy's voice, although Naruto was not as conscious of it. He made a bee-line for a dango vender and pointed to it enthusiastically.

“Hey, Hiroshi-san! I know what I want for my present!” The blonde boy was excited, “See, normally I would ask for ramen but I get ramen all the time. So if I get dango I'll think of you every time I eat it!”

Hiroshi saw the childish logic in his reasoning, “Alright, Naruto.”

Naruto was busy selecting his snack while Haku spoke to Gaara.

“Gaara, where exactly did you come from? If you don't mind my asking?” He asked quietly, knowing it was more of a personal subject.

“...the Village Hidden in the Sand.”

Haku nodded, “I see. I'm from the Water Country.”

Haku was easy to confide in, Gaara decided, although he wasn't prepared just yet to tell him how and why he had left Suna. Thankfully, the black haired boy didn't ask any more questions.

“Thanks, Hiroshi-san!” Naruto munched on his skewer of dango, and pranced back over to his companions.

Hiroshi then turned to Gaara. He hadn't known the boy for that long, but already he was beginning to grow on him. He was reserved, almost shy. And his quiet nature was refreshing.

“Anything you had in mind, Gaara?” He asked.

Gaara was startled. ‘A present? For me?

This was something he was sure wouldn't happen again to him for a very long time. He scanned the area, not seeing anything he really wanted. Typically, a child his age would want sweets or a toy, but when he did finally find something that struck his fancy, Hiroshi was slightly confused.

“I can use that.” Gaara pointed to a gourd that was large in proportion to his height. Hiroshi was puzzled why he would ever want such a strange thing as a parting gift.

“Are you sure Gaara? Do you really want...that?” Hiroshi clarified.

Haku also was perplexed, “Why would you want that?”

Gaara went up to the vender. An old woman watched as he removed the cork from the top of the gourd and then raised his hand. His companions watched in stunned silence as Gaara summoned the sand that was scattered all over the street.

There was quite a lot of it. The sand lifted off the ground at Gaara's whim and neatly slipped into the gourd. Hiroshi, although caught off guard by such power, understood why the boy wanted it.

A container.

Naruto and Haku watched in awe as they had before.

The blonde boy grinned to his friend, “Wow, he's kinda like you Haku, but with sand instead of water.”

Haku nodded, “Yes, I guess so.”

Hiroshi nodded to the red haired boy, “Alright Gaara. I'll get it for you if you want it.”

The old woman nearly had a heart attack watching, and quickly wanted to appease the boy with the frightening power, “Go on, just take it and go.”

How fortunate!

Gaara wrapped his arms around the large gourd and waddled back to his companions.

“I just want to keep my sand with me.” He explained.

Naruto nodded, “Yeah, I can see why. Hey Haku, maybe you should get one too but for water instead.”

Haku shook his head, “No, I...I don't want anything. I'll always remember Hiroshi.”

The merchant could understand why Haku was having a difficult time with the idea. Yes, Haku was overjoyed that he had the opportunity to go to the Village Hidden in the Leaves, but he was hesitant to leave Hiroshi.

The merchant had saved his life and become his dear friend in the process. It wouldn't be as difficult for Naruto and Gaara to say goodbye.

And Hiroshi admitted to himself that he would sorely miss the boy from the Water Country as well.

Hiroshi composed himself; this was no time to get emotional. The kids had a future now, and a seemingly bright one at that. It was all he had to know.

“Come on you three,” Hiroshi waved them on, “Let's get ourselves some lunch before Jiraiya-sama returns.”

Thankfully that would take a while.

The boys followed Hiroshi, all the while Naruto complained at why Haku hadn't gotten a present (and that he was wishing for more dango as well, but not for its sentimental value).

“There's something I want you to have Haku,” Hiroshi told him as they walked into a tea house, “I know it would mean a lot to you.”

Haku was still firm in his decision, “But I don't want anything Hiroshi-san.”

The merchant chuckled, “Well that's just fine Haku, but I want you to have it anyway.”

Gaara eyed the teacakes spread out on the table hungrily. It had been days since he had eaten properly, and he was about ready to eat a horse, or at least the remainder of all Naruto's ramen.

“Are ya hungry, Gaara?” Naruto gave him a slap on the back, “I am too!”

He apparently was always hungry.

And the close contact Naruto was introducing him to almost made Gaara want to give him a good whack. Still, he wanted to exercise more self-restraint; a small, first step on his way to learning to control his power. Even if it was tough to get used to, surely it was a change for the better.

Gaara wondered if Haku had the same feeling about Naruto.


After lunch, Naruto began to describe the beauty of Konoha as they returned to Hiroshi's stand. Jiraiya was waiting for them.

The sage was busy with editing his book however, and wasn't too anxious for their arrival.

“Are there lots of ninja in your village, Naruto?” Haku absorbed all of what he was told, even if it had been slightly exaggerated.

“Yup! Tons of them!” He answered. He was eager to go home; he hadn't expected to miss it so much.

Gaara spoke up, “My village has lots of ninja too.”

Naruto squinted his eyes in realization, “Oh...yeah that's right. Where are you from again, Gaara?”

“He's from the Hidden Sand Village.” Haku informed him.

Naruto had heard of the place before, but not in detail, so he only nodded to Gaara. It was when he caught sight of Jiraiya his pleasant mood turned sour. He disliked the sage for a reason he could not yet put his finger on, even if he did hold a mild respect for the old nin. One day, he would understand what that “research” was all about.

“Hey, old man! Tell me again why we have to travel with you?” The blonde boy complained.

Jiraiya didn't even look up from his work, “Because I'm the only one around who can take your sorry little butts to Leaf...”

Naruto was offended, “Quit talking like that to us, old man!”

Naruto lacked the ability to practice what he preached.

“I apologize for my lack of respect, Hokage-sama, but you aren't exactly rolling out the welcome wagon either...” He muttered to himself after that, “...squirt.” Jiraiya couldn't believe that he had to be the one to find the runaway Kyuubi vessel.

Gaara frowned at Naruto as well as the sage. He had to put up with this bickering for the entirety of their journey? He wasn't looking forward to it.

“Haku,” Hiroshi beckoned the farm boy over, “Come here for a moment will you?”

He slipped away from his companions and went up to his guardian, “Yes, Hiroshi-san?”

“Take this,” The fat man handed Haku a long scarf; it looked almost new, “It's from the Water Country. I just want you to have something from your homeland while you're...while you're training.”

It wasn't very useful since the weather would be warmer in Fire Country, however the boy was overcome with gratitude. The gift meant a lot to him.

Haku tied it around his waist and beamed up at the thoughtful merchant, “I...um, thank you Hiroshi-san!” The boy felt tears sting his eyes but he held them back.

He was supposed to be happy right? He was going to a better place where he could achieve his goal. So why was he so sad?

“I know you've been through much, Haku, even if you haven't told me all about it,” Hiroshi patted him on the head, “But I just want you to know that I believe in you-”

The merchant turned to the other boys as well, “I believe in all of you. I know that you'll all make fine shinobi someday.”

Jiraiya snickered inwardly, doubting the notion. They hadn't shown very much promise and had all appeared to be misfits. Still, he knew it was a sentimental moment and he decided not to ruin it.

Naruto sniffled loudly; he too had grown attached to the old merchant.

He and Haku gave Hiroshi a big hug, and when Gaara only watched with mild curiosity, Naruto dragged him into it as well, nearly suffocating him.

Jiraiya sighed; did farewells really have to be this difficult?

Hiroshi chuckled at Haku and Naruto's sad faces, (and Gaara's blue one) they certainly were an odd bunch; a group of outcasts, but they were his outcasts, and he was fond of them all.

“Well, farewell for now,” He each patted them on the head one last time, “I'm sure we'll see each other again sometime.”

Naruto nodded, “R-right...” He then chuckled to himself, “Heh, I'm starting to sound like Hinata-chan...boy do I miss her!”

Gaara turned to Naruto, “Who's...Hinata?”

While Naruto rambled on about his only friend in the Leaf Village, Haku smiled at Hiroshi.

“I promise Hiroshi-san, I'll become a strong ninja and...I'll come back and take you to Konoha when I can.”

The merchant nodded to Haku, “I know, Haku.”

“Are you ready?” Jiraiya asked, putting away his naughty book, “You don’t have to go if you don’t want to.”

“I apologize Jiraiya-sama, it’s time,” The merchant nudged his wards along, “Go on now boys.”

“Bye Hiroshi-san!” Naruto bade him farewell, ready to go and see Konoha again, busying himself by making verbal jabs at the toad hermit.

Gaara's green eyes scanned over Hiroshi for a moment, but a small smile formed on his face, “Goodbye.”

After the Kazekage's son had followed after Naruto, Haku looked up at Hiroshi, still hesitant to leave.

“Go on, Haku. It's alright.” The fat man assured him.

Haku nodded, ‘I...I must go to the Hidden Leaf Village.’

“Come on Haku! Let's GO!” Naruto called back to him.

With one last smile, Haku ran after his friends, promising to himself that he would make Hiroshi proud.


Three days later, Jiraiya was about ready to kill himself.

Or at least kill Naruto.

He was becoming insufferable, while Gaara and Haku at least remained quiet. Still, Jiraiya wasn't the paragon of patience and understanding these days, nor was he a very nurturing parent-figure either. He was very out-of-practice with kids and it was beginning to show.

“Hey! Old man! Are we there yet?” Naruto walked alongside the sage while Gaara and Haku kept a safe distance away.

Jiraiya's explosion was imminent.

“Well? Hey old man! Are you listening?”

The Toad Hermit's brow twitched, ‘I'm gonna strangle this kid!’

“Naruto,” Haku tried to prevent the explosion, “I think Jiraiya-sama is a bit tired.”

The blonde boy squinted his eyes, “Ya really think so?”

Jiraiya led them along in wrathful silence, trudging with heavy steps and bloodshot eyes.

“He looks fine to me.” Naruto shrugged.

Gaara shook his head, “Haku means you're bothering Jiraiya-sama.”

‘Just stay calm; we're only a day's walk from Konoha-’

“Am I bothering you Toad-Sage-Guy?” Naruto couldn't restrain himself.

“Yes.”

The Kyuubi's vessel smiled in satisfaction, “Good!”

PUNT

Naruto was booted into the tops of a nearby oak tree like a field goal.

Suddenly, Jiraiya felt much better, “Now, where were we?”

Haku watched as Naruto hurtled down through the branches, his face was red with indignation.

“What was that for, old man?” The boy squawked, “What do I look like? A football?”

Jiraiya paused and looked at him, “No, I just had to put some space between us. Now let’s be on our way.”

Gaara and Haku followed, but Naruto pounced on Gaara's gourd.

“Hey, wait a minute guys!” Naruto was still determined to get on the sage’s nerves. “See, if he really is a legendary ninja he should be able to teach us some ninja techniques and stuff! I want to see him prove it!”

Haku and Gaara halted. Although their energetic friend went a bit overboard at times, they were interested in ninja skills as well.

Jiraiya groaned when he noticed he had lost the favor of his other two wards, “Aw, sheesh, not you too! I mean you guys were actually pleasant! Are you really going to listen to this blonde squirt?”

Haku nodded.

The sage slapped his forehead in frustration.

Naruto folded his arms across his chest triumphantly, “Well? Let's see it old man!”

“You brat! We're only a few hours from Konoha and you have to pull this crap?”

“We're not going anywhere until you teach us a ninja skill.” The blonde confirmed.

Jiraiya cursed under his breath and then smiled devilishly at him, “Alright then, I'm sure this won't take long.”

Gaara sighed to himself. Was Naruto the only one who didn't realize Jiraiya was going to give him a hard time?

“Of course it won't take long! I can take anything you dish out!”

Apparently yes.

Jiraiya shrugged, “Very well then. I'll test all three of you. We'll begin with the basics of chakra control. I believe that you have all heard this term at least once, correct?”

Gaara and Naruto nodded, while Haku stood uninformed.

“What's chakra?”

Naruto was quick to answer his question, “It's the energy that helps ninja do stuff!”

Could he be any vaguer?

Gaara mumbled a better definition into Haku's ear while Jiraiya continued to explain.

“To start, I want you each to select a tree; a tall one. And climb it.” The sage stated simply.

Naruto laughed, “That's easy!”

“Is it? Well good for you, squirt, because there are few children your age I know who can get up a tree without using their hands.” Jiraiya added.

Naruto was floored.

No hands? Run up a tree? No jumping?

Gaara frowned, he wasn't very well acquainted with trees…this wouldn't be an easy task for him either.

“So...I suppose we just…focus our chakra in our feet?” Haku once again proved he had brains.

“Aaaand the farm boy gets it!” Jiraiya hollered, “Now, get to work! Oh...and here.”

He handed each of them a kunai, “Make a mark when you reach your limit. I doubt you'll get very high.”

Jiraiya made himself comfortable on a nearby boulder and took out his newest volume of Icha Icha Paradise for editing.

Naruto still was adamant about impressing the sage, “No problem!”

He lunged for the oak tree while Gaara and Haku watched. He built a tremendous amount of speed, but lost focus when he began to travel in a vertical direction. Naruto tumbled backwards with a startled cry.

The record to beat: 4 inches.

The Toad Hermit glanced over at the boy who was bent double at the base of the oak.

“What's the problem squirt? You didn't have any trouble getting up into that tree before!”

Gaara turned to the sage, “...you helped him.”

True: in a painful way. Jiraiya smirked, “Oh, that's right...”

Naruto stood up and brushed himself off, “Oh yeah? I'll show you!”

This time Gaara ran up a tree as well, although he didn't exceed Naruto's record by very much, he at least landed on his feet. Haku felt nervous; he had never used chakra before, at least, he hadn't noticed himself using it.

He got a better grip on the knife in his hand and concentrated. ‘Okay, I need to focus my chakra...focus it to my feet...’ He had made the educated guess that the force he drew upon to manipulate ice was what this “chakra” was. He did his best to feel it out intentionally.

The grass beneath his sandals bent away from the force of his chakra, though Haku didn't let the achievement get to his head. ‘Now...how much do I need to use?’

That was the question of the day.

It seemed like Gaara and Naruto hadn't figured that out yet; neither of them had gone beyond ten feet as they dashed at their trees. ‘I guess I'll have to take a chance...’

Haku got a running start while Gaara and Naruto both came back down to the ground. They paused to watch him.

The dark haired boy ran and then felt himself set foot on his chosen tree.

‘Focus...my...chakra...’

His feet stuck to the tree.

So naturally he kept running.

And running.

And he felt no need to use his kunai, he was so focused, he knew that he wouldn't fall.

“Whoa, Haku!” Naruto gasped and Gaara watched in shock as the farm boy went up...and didn't come back down.

Suddenly, there was a thudding sound, and a few leaves floated down from the cedar tree. Jiraiya looked up and smirked.

“The farm boy really does get it...” He muttered, fascinated.

It was unprecedented. This was probably no ordinary farm-kid.

“I...I'm at the top Jiraiya-sama.” Haku announced, still surprised over what he had accomplished.

The sage nodded, “I can see that. It appears you have perfect chakra control, Haku. Come back down and we'll try something a bit harder for you.”

He then turned back to the other two boys, “Hey, did I say you could stop?”

Determined now more than ever, Gaara and Naruto began racing up their respective trees with twice the previous effort.

While Jiraiya led Haku to a nearby pond, he considered to himself that Gaara and Naruto had a difficult time with their tasks because of all the chakra they had to tame. They both had immense reserves.

He turned to the farm boy and pointed to the small pond behind him, “You did well, kid! Now, apply the same concept to the water. Focus your chakra to your feet, and you can walk across the surface.”

Haku found it all too easy. Water? Water was completely at his command, although, that was something Jiraiya was unaware of thus far.

Haku nodded, “Yes.”

Gaara watched from his tree as Haku strolled out onto the water's surface effortlessly. He gestured for Naruto to observe as well. They were both riddled with envy that it came so easily to him.

Haku walked back and forth over the pond, as if he were still on land. Even though he had the opportunity to brandish his power, he feared Jiraiya may not take it as well as Naruto had. So he hid it.

Jiraiya sighed, what next? Ask him to fly? ‘I bet he can do it too…’

“Alright Haku, that's enough. Hiroshi was right about you; you have the makings of a great ninja, but that doesn't mean you can slack off, got it?” Jiraiya said as he left the water.

Haku nodded, “I understand.”

The farm boy quickly rejoined his companions to give them a few tips.

A brilliant farm boy and two jinchuriki...

‘I need a drink.’


With Haku's advice, Naruto and Gaara were able to make it half way up their trees. Yet after a short while, Jiraiya herded them on, assuring them they would have plenty of time to practice in Konoha.

By the end of that day, Naruto had deflated himself, reducing his insults to the sage once every 15 minutes instead of twice every five.

The three boys were overwhelmed at the sight of Konoha's gates. Even Naruto was relieved to have arrived back at his village, even though the people there may not be as happy to see him.

Jiraiya looked up to the guard standing watch.

“Hey! Open the gate will you?” His voice was gruff, “I need to speak with the Hokage.”

“Of course, Jiraiya, sir,” The guard answered respectfully and then looked to the sage’s companions as the doors slowly swung open, “Um, you’ve brought children with you?”

The three boys looked at each other excitedly. Konoha at last!

The Toad Hermit sighed.

“I was trying to be a good person and bring them to a decent village, but they are making it really hard for me. You want ‘em?”

Chapter Text

Chapter Soundtrack: “Peruna” by Akeboshi

Jiraiya, The Legendary Toad Hermit is highly regarded (usually) for his amazing abilities including his marvelous sealing and summoning techniques, as well as the Rasengan. His knowledge and skills are well respected.

But, somehow, all that knowledge becomes irrelevant when one is hunched over at a bar, visibly distressed, with three small children nagging at said person.

Well, at least one was still nagging...

“Hey old man! What are you doing? We've been here for hours so let's get going!”

Naruto stood on a stool next to the sennin and bombarded him with questions, while Haku and Gaara sat quietly waiting for further instruction. Konoha wasn't what they had expected, or rather, Jiraiya was a poor tour guide.

Either way, they hadn't done very much since their arrival.

They had been in the Leaf Village for about two hours, and Jiraiya had made a bee line for the nearest tavern, wanting to strip away the tension Naruto had so generously bestowed him with during their return journey.

It wasn't the wisest move.

The bartender wasn't sure what to make of the sage sitting there with three small children at his side. He didn't say anything and went about serving Jiraiya, after all, a well-paying customer doesn't need their privacy invaded. Although, the yappy kid was annoying.

“Old man, when am I gonna get to go see Hinata-chan?” Naruto bent down to get a better look at the buzzed ninja.

Jiraiya had his head bowed down on the counter, and he mumbled a feeble response to the blonde boy. Who was this 'Hinata' he kept rambling on about anyway? Psh...he could care less.

Why the hell did he have three kids with him anyway? He had been through this kind of rigmarole twice in the past! But a third time? ‘Third time’s a charm…’

Two jinchuriki and a farm boy…it was the oddest congregation he had ever seen.

“I'm gonna need another drink...” The sennin muttered; his head lolled weakly on his folded arms.

Neither Haku nor Gaara could make heads or tails of the sage’s odd behavior. Haku, being the most perceptive, had come to the conclusion that whatever was going on was not the most wholesome activity they could be participating in.

“What is this stuff anyway?” Naruto yanked the bottle of sake out of the man’s hand easily. He inspected it with an inquisitive sniff, and Haku and Gaara watched curiously while he took a sip.

Jiraiya wasn't moving, and Gaara could hear the faint snores coming from under the man's mop of white hair. Why is he sleeping now? He was wide awake a second ago...

In disgust, Naruto spat out the strong rice-wine, “Nyah! That stuff is gross!”

He handed the bottle to Haku, who passed it along warily to Gaara.

‘Why did Haku just hand me this?’ Gaara inspected the alcoholic beverage. Jiraiya had been guzzling down its contents for quite a while; there must have been a reason.

Before Haku could advise him against it, Gaara tipped back the sake and put the bottle down.

‘Whoa.’

“This stuff is...” Gaara’s faced scrunched in reaction to it. It was nasty.

“Hey old man! Snap out of it!” Naruto gave him a few reviving slaps on the cheek, “I'm fed up with waiting for you!”

“Ugh...” Jiraiya heaved himself up and looked to the kids.

A blonde, a redhead and then dark hair. The colors made him dizzy, but he stood up anyway and paid the tab for his numerous drinks.

“Thank you very much, sir.” The bartender wasn't sure if the sennin had meant to leave as much money as he did, but again, he said nothing about it.

“Be careful, he doesn't look so well,” Haku led the drunken sage along by the hand carefully, “Maybe he had too much to drink…”

The four of them walked down the street with Jiraiya muttering insensible babble and occasionally pausing to shake his head as if he were some sort of irritated dog.

“Now that you mention it...” Naruto acknowledged the ninja's state, “He does look a bit sick. We'll take him back to my place for a rest.”

They agreed it was the best course of action if the sennin had to be such a burden.

Gaara tugged his gourd along, it swung gently on his back while he walked beside Naruto. The Village Hidden in the Leaves was much different than his home. Trees and plants were everywhere and there was not a grain of sand to be found.

The red haired boy had even been surprised he was shivering slightly, for he was not yet adjusted to the cooler temperature of Konoha.

‘This is the place where I can learn to control my power and...’ The thought of his painful departure from Suna glanced across his mind again,‘...maybe I can stop the voice from talking to me...’

He was thankful he didn't have to listen to the psychopathic demands of the demon imprisoned inside of him for the moment. But any time the voice returned would be too soon.

‘I'll just ignore it then.’

Suddenly, Jiraiya sniffed and then appeared to have snapped out of his funk.

“Oh, my head...wait a minute,” The sage groaned, “Where are you taking me?”

“To Naruto's place.” Haku answered.

Jiraiya was less than pleased with that response, “Like hell you are! That place is probably a nest of wild animals and ramen!”

Naruto whipped around and snarled at the halted ninja, “What? Fine! You can't come then!”

They just stood there, wondering what to do. Jiraiya quickly realized that disorganized six-year-olds and a wicked buzz didn't mix.

“We're going to the Hokage,” The man announced, “There's a lot of explaining I have to do on all three of your accounts, especially you, you little brat!” He pointed to Naruto.

It was becoming increasingly obvious that Jiraiya and Naruto lived to bother each other.

“I only did what I had to do...” Naruto retorted, but knew that he shouldn't have so recklessly fled from his village.

“Sure...”

The three children followed Jiraiya in the opposite direction, and ahead of them a large tower came into sight.

Haku looked up, observing the structure as they approached. Back in the Water Country he hadn't ever seen a building so tall before.

“What is that?” He murmured.

Naruto quickly answered, “That's the Hokage's tower! Cool huh?”

It wasn't anything new to Gaara. He recalled a similar tower that had been built for the Kazekage as well in Suna. ‘My father is the Kazekage…and he only wants me dead…’ The boy considered.

Would the Hokage want the same?


Sarutobi Hiruzen blew a puff of smoke slowly from between his teeth.

“Naruto, the last thing I need is to send a search party after a young boy such as yourself.” The Hokage sighed, “Your safety is of great priority, however you should know better than to abuse my protection.”

The Kyuubi container stood guiltily in front of the Hokage, while Haku, Gaara and Jiraiya stood behind him and watched.

A rebellious expression lingered on the blonde boy's face even while the Hokage lectured him on the path to becoming a shinobi and a respected citizen of Konoha.

“It isn't proper for anyone, child or adult, to run about and do whatever he or she pleases,” The Hokage added while he inhaled on his pipe.

“I will have your word that from now on you will remain inside of Konoha until you are told otherwise by myself or an instructor, is that clear?”

“...yes, Hokage-sama.” Naruto's voice was low and annoyed.

It was just a bit of 'training', no big deal right?

Apparently the Lord of the Leaf Village thought otherwise.

Naruto was tired of listening to adults condescend…he would rather visit a friend waiting for him by his favorite spot!

And what did these wise elders really expect? Naruto wondered to himself as the Hokage continued on about showing respect and obeying rules: he had no family, no parents; no one and nothing to teach him anything. ‘They want me to follow rules, but hardly anyone talks to me! I find out what I do wrong after I do it and then they yell at me!’

He didn't have anyone to tell him anything. Not even that socks were supposed to match when you wore them...or that girls get upset when the toilet seat is left up. The common-sense things that others were taught by parents and families he had to discover on his own.

Always the hard way.

After ending his lecture, the Hokage turned to Haku, “And who is this?”

Jiraiya nudged him forward, “Well? Go on kid.”

The dark haired boy stepped up and bowed respectfully, “I am Haku of the Water Country, Hokage-sama.”

It was a pleasant change for Hiruzen to talk to a polite child for once. Between Naruto and his young grandchildren he was constantly being challenging by youngsters.

“Do you have a family name, Haku?”

The farm boy paused. The others had often introduced themselves with family names (with the exception of Gaara), and he felt awkward when he couldn't give an answer.

“I...I don't know my surname, Hokage-sama.” Haku replied honestly.

The old man nodded, a wreath of smoke ringed around his head, “I see...”

Hoping he wouldn't have to, Jiraiya sighed when he spoke up for the boy.

“As far as I can tell, this kid came from a farm on the lands that surrounded the Mist Village,” The sennin leaned in and lowered his voice, “It's really suspicious. This kid may have lived a commoner’s life, but his chakra control is so advanced he must have shinobi lineage.”

The Third understood, “You suggest he is of ninja descent?”

“There’s no other explanation,” Jiraiya shrugged, “It's freaky. He could be a survivor of one of the clans that had been ravaged in Mist during the war.”

Haku had listened carefully and faintly understood. He dimly recalled his father ranting about he and his mother belonging to the ‘clan-people' before he had been killed.

 “I am descended from a clan,” Haku said suddenly, startling his companions as well as the skilled ninja, “My father told me I was, so he...he tried to...”

“He what?” The sennin was impatient with his hesitation.

Haku hadn't expected he would have to confess to his family tragedy upon arriving in Konoha. Although he feared that admitting the truth would affect his chances for ninja training, he decided it was worth the risk.

He looked at Gaara and Naruto and then to the Hokage.

“He killed my mother...and then he tried to kill me.”

There was a silence.

Naruto and Gaara only stared at their docile friend; never had they expected that gentle Haku could have been through such a horror.

Jiraiya and Hiruzen were less surprised.

“So he was fearful then,” The Hokage then looked directly at Haku, “How did you survive?”

“I...I ran away.”

Jiraiya saw through the lie immediately and shook his head. The Hokage had already assumed the answer.

“Very well, your story is proof enough, since you have no ties to the Hidden Mist Village. You are welcome here,” The Sandaime declared, “I only have one question for you, Haku.”

“Yes sir?”

“Can you tell me of any special abilities that you have?” The Hokage asked.

Naruto couldn't keep his mouth shut, “Yeah! He can control water! It's SO cool!”

Jiraiya lightly whacked the blonde in the back of the head, “Shut up, squirt. He didn't ask you!”

Naruto glared viciously at the sennin.

“What Naruto said is true,” Haku said quietly, “Water and ice...I can use however I want.”

Jiraiya raised an eyebrow, “Er…I didn't know about that one. Heh, it looks like we have another unique Kekkei Genkai in Konoha, eh Hokage-sama?”

Naruto pouted even more. He had at last realized Jiraiya had been sarcastic while referring to him as the Hokage. Gaara noticed Naruto’s reaction and sighed inwardly.

“Just more paper work really; there’s no use in prizing shinobi with blood limits over those that have none...” Sarutobi sighed, knowing that recording Haku's progress would span the course of the boy’s lifetime.

Despite the random child winding up in Leaf and needing to be raised, the information on one of the survivors of the Water Country's old clans would be invaluable.

Seeing he was through, Haku went to stand by Naruto who had gone quiet.

Gaara took this as his cue and stood before the Sandaime.

“I already know who you are,” Hiruzen’s voice was guarded, “You are aware that your home is in Sunagakure, yes?”

Jiraiya mentally slapped himself.

Crap. He had forgotten the Hokage wouldn't be very pleased with having the One-Tailed jinchuriki as a resident. For political reasons, the Leaf Village was technically not supposed to have more than one jinchuriki: the Kyuubi was promised to Konoha when the First Hokage had been arranging peace treaties. To take in anymore could anger any village that found out.

Would the Hokage even consider sending him back to Suna? Back to his death?

It was bad enough Gaara hadn't even responded to the hostile Hokage's question, but Jiraiya assumed his input may be the last straw for the Third.

‘Screw it.’

“Hokage-sama,” The sage chose his words carefully, having a hard time of doing so with his still-buzzing head, “You know as well as I that if the Kazekage was truly concerned with the boy's welfare he would have doubled his efforts to locate him. I mean, sheesh, the kid's in Konoha now! Obviously he wasn't trying very hard to find him-”

“The Kazekage had ended his search two days ago, according to a report I received.” Sarutobi took a deep drag on his pipe.

“Oh, er...” Jiraiya hadn't been informed. What could he say? He was a hermit after all, and distanced himself from anything that didn't revolve around his precious 'research'.

Gaara stood quietly while Haku and Naruto watched the discussion.

“So I guess he doesn't want the kid back then after all?” The sennin inquired.

“No, he assumes this child is dead…saving some work for him,” The Hokage answered simply, “It would be unwise to return Sabaku no Gaara to the Kazekage…who believes him to be long deceased.”

“You mean...he should stay here?”

The Hokage sighed, “...we'll have to keep this quiet.”

Jiraiya grinned to himself, “Well that will be a kick in the pants for him when the Chunin Exams roll around, huh? How will you explain that if the sand kid is participating?”

Hiruzen said nothing and took a very long drag.


“Where does Jiraiya-sama keep going to do his research?” Haku asked while Naruto led them through Konoha, drawing a few stares.

The sennin had once again left them up to their own devices.

“Who cares? That old man isn't good for much anyway!” Naruto snorted scornfully.

“He leaves us alone a lot.” Gaara said quietly.

“He's just a jerk, that's why.” The blonde asserted.

Gaara, who walked behind Haku, suddenly paused when he felt a pair of eyes on him. He looked back, wondering who may have been inspecting him.

Haku noticed his actions and also stopped, while Naruto obliviously kept on walking.

“What is it Gaara?” The dark haired boy asked.

He said nothing in response, and noticed a set of curious white eyes examining him from across the street. It was a boy, young like themselves, with long, dark hair tied back. He stood next to a tall man who Gaara supposed was his father.

He felt a twinge of jealousy over the boy for a moment. He had never felt such attachment to anyone in his family.

“Gaara?”

The boy kept watching him, as if he could see right through him. Gaara felt almost compelled to lash out at him but he willfully suppressed the feeling.

Gaara turned back to Haku, “Nothing. Let's go.”


“Home at last!” Naruto leaped inside of his apartment and tossed his back pack aside.

Haku and Gaara gingerly ventured inside after him. It was a strangely decorated place.

The walls were painted a pale green, and there were potted plants placed in strange places throughout the apartment. Laundry, both dirty and clean, was sprawled out covering the entire floor. Gaara didn't have much of an opinion on Naruto's living space, but Haku did.

“Do you live here by yourself, Naruto?” Haku asked rhetorically.

The clueless blonde answered, “Yup, just me. I guess you guys will be staying here too. This is gonna be great!”

Suddenly Gaara was as alarmed as Haku was. Live here? The place was in shambles!

“Naruto,” Gaara spoke up, “This place is a dump.”

Haku agreed and couldn't restrain a small laugh.

Naruto's cheeks brightened and he retorted, “Well I…I haven't been here in a while, that's all! I'll have this place cleaned up in a jiffy!”

Gaara appeared skeptical about the comment. It looked as if the place hadn't been cleaned in years.

Naruto scrambled around lifting armfuls of clothing and tossed them into a closet. Gaara watched with amusement as Haku rushed to help him.

Haku was very orderly for a farm boy and felt the need to clean things. Either that or he felt bad for the disorganized blonde and only wanted to assist him.

Gaara didn't make a move. What the heck was this? Weren't they supposed to be training to be ninja? How was this anywhere near relevant to their goal?

Naruto finally stopped when the floor was visible, but Haku continued on cleaning other miscellaneous objects.

“He's a bit weird isn't he?” Naruto asked Gaara while they observed him engaging in chores he had often helped his mother with back in the Water Country.

“So are you.” The red head answered bluntly, then added, “...me too.”

Naruto grinned, “Heh! We're weirdoes!”

Gaara became quiet again. Was it even something to be proud of? Their individuality? He'd give anything to be normal so he could live a better life and not be hated by his village.

“Naruto,” Haku was currently in the kitchen, “Why don't you wash yourself up? You told us you wanted to see your friend soon.”

Naruto looked down at himself. Oh...

What had Jiraiya called it? 'Lord of the Flies?'

He was a mess like his apartment. And it wasn't very reassuring that Haku had been reduced to doing his dishes for him. How would they function together?

“Yeah, I guess I am kinda gross,” Naruto chuckled, “I'll clean up and then we'll go see Hinata-chan!”

As the blonde ran into the bathroom trailing dirt and leaves behind him, Gaara set down his gourd.

“Haku, please stop cleaning.” It bothered the red haired boy to watch Haku pick up after their loud friend.

“It's alright, I like to clean,” He replied while looking around for a dish towel, “It reminds me of home.”

It was quiet except for the sound of a shower running and Naruto babbling to himself. Gaara sat quietly in a chair in the kitchen, recalling what the Hokage had said.

“Did your father really try to kill you?”

Haku was silent for a minute and then answered, “He did.”

“My uncle tried to kill me.”

Haku looked at him, “Is that why you left your home?”

Gaara nodded.

Haku knew better than to ask how he had gotten away with his life. But judging by the similarities all three of them shared, he guessed they had both escaped by parallel means.

“Do you think Naruto...?”

“Probably,” Gaara answered shortly, “I don't know why anyone would want to hurt him though.”

“Maybe he just left Konoha to become stronger like he said,” Haku mused while drying a plate, “He said he has a friend so…maybe people like him.”

“Maybe.” Gaara wasn't sure why Naruto had left such a great village like Konoha in the first place. Something must have been wrong.

“Um, Gaara?”

“Hn?”

Haku smiled sheepishly to him, “Can you help me with the dishes? Naruto has left quite a mess.”

The red head groaned inwardly. He didn't like housework, but knowing their blonde companion he supposed he'd have to get used to it.

“Fine.”


Clean and excited, Naruto had practically shoved his friends out the door and ran to the Ninja Academy. Gaara was thankful he had decided to leave his gourd back at Naruto's apartment, because he was sure he wouldn't have been able to keep up with him bearing all the extra weight.

“Naruto slow down!” Haku called ahead to him. He and Gaara trailed behind the blonde who was running as if he were gunning for first place.

“Naruto, you said she'd be waiting for you so what's your rush?” Haku called again.

He slowed down to let his companions catch up, “I don't know. I just really want to see her I guess.”

Gaara gave Naruto an annoyed look while he took a moment to catch his breath. The blonde only laughed merrily. Hinata would be surprised to see him.

“Come on guys, hurry up! It isn't far!” Naruto could no longer wait and rushed ahead. With a sigh, Haku and Gaara followed, hoping they wouldn't have to do this often.

They passed by a squad of training genin as they neared the academy, and a few shouted some rude remarks to the blonde boy.

He was too busy to hear them. However Haku was rather appalled by their impolite language. Gaara began to doubt how Haku believed Naruto's fellow villagers liked him.

Suddenly, Naruto paused and then leapt up into the cover of a tree, gesturing for his friends to follow. Gaara leapt up as well, while Haku walked up casually, proud of his chakra control.

“Look there she is, see?” Naruto pointed to a swing on a nearby tree, where a dark haired girl sat.

“Who is that with her, Naruto?” Haku whispered.

She wasn't alone.

A pink haired girl stood next to her, talking up a storm, while the quiet girl listened intently. Gaara thought his eyes were being fooled for a moment. Pink hair? He blinked a few times.

Naruto, on the other hand, was taken aback. He recognized both girls, but was still keen on impressing Hinata. After a silent moment of Naruto grinning to himself he stood up on the branch.

“Hey! Hinata-chan!”

Gaara and Haku shook their heads. What was the point of stealth if Naruto would only blow their cover by increasing his volume?

The white eyed girl immediately looked up into the tree, and her pink haired friend turned as well.

Naruto jumped down and Gaara and Haku followed after a moment.

“N-Naruto-kun?” The quiet girl squeaked.

Haku noticed her timid voice. How could such a loud mouth and a shy girl become friends?

Naruto ran up to her. His face was one big grin, “Hi Hinata-chan! I told ya I'd be back!”

She nearly fainted when he hugged her. Was this a dream?

“I-I know...” Hinata answered softly. Her face was so red it resembled the shade of Gaara's hair.

“Hi...Naruto.” The pink haired girl said with a small smile.

Naruto looked over the top of Hinata's head, “Oh...Sakura, um...hi.”

Sakura? Gaara made note of her name, as did Haku. Time to get acquainted with the people of their new village.

Sakura appeared guilty-looking, and when the blonde finally backed away from Hinata, she bowed her head in apology.

“Naruto, I...I'm sorry for what I did to you. It wasn't fair. Ino she...” Sakura watched as the boy's face became mistrusting, “Ino…she wasn't nice. And I still want to be friends with you Naruto, I don't care what my parents say.”

Gaara and Haku watched the blonde boy carefully. For once his face appeared grim. What was going on?

“So, are we still friends?” Sakura asked uncertainly.

The blonde's frown melted away, “I think we can be.”

“You...you aren't mad?” The pink haired girl was relieved.

“No way! Friends stick together!” Naruto declared, brandishing his usual foxy grin, “Now, I want you two to meet my other friends I met outside Konoha!”

He grabbed Sakura and Hinata by the wrists and pulled them over to the two boys behind him.

Haku immediately liked the girls. He could sense they were agreeable, “Hello, I'm Haku.”

Hinata nodded quietly while Sakura answered, “Nice to meet you!”

They turned to the red haired boy. He simply said, “Gaara.”

“Don't worry, he doesn't talk much anyway,” Naruto assured them, “And guys, this is Sakura-chan and Hinata-chan!”

Hinata wore a small smile and a huge blush, while Sakura was more open with them.

“So, where did you all meet?” The pink haired girl asked curiously.

“We all met each other in Kuro Town,” Haku explained, “It was more of an accident really, but we all want to become ninja.”

Gaara kept looking at Sakura's hair.

“Hinata and I are going to be ninja too!” Sakura announced, “We'll be the best kunoichi in the entire village!”

Hinata was silently praying that was true, since her father expected much from her.

Naruto looked curiously at Sakura, “So, Sakura-chan, where's Ino?”

“Oh, she...” She lowered her voice, “...I decided that we can't be friends anymore if she was going to be so mean to you.”

“You didn't have to-”

“I know, but I wanted to,” Sakura smiled, “And Hinata-chan is the best! We spent all day yesterday pressing flowers.”

Hinata smiled, “Yes, it was nice.”

A voice came from behind them, “Hinata-sama?”

The children looked back at a tall, dark haired man and a young boy. They both had the same eyes as Hinata. Gaara recognized them from before and he frowned, sensing something strange about them.

“Hinata-sama,” The boy spoke again, “We should be going now.”

She nodded quickly, “Oh...yes, Neji-niisan.”

Hinata turned to her friends, “I...I should go home now.”

Sakura and Naruto appeared the most disappointed that she couldn't stay.

“Can we see you tomorrow, Hinata-chan?” Naruto asked hopefully.

The girl took another look at Neji and his father, and the solemn expression on Hizashi's face made it clear she would be confined to the Hyuga compound for a while.

“I...I don't think so. I’m sorry.” She said softly, and she then turned to Haku and Gaara, “It was n-nice meeting y-you.”

Haku smiled, “It was nice to meet you too, Hinata-chan.” Gaara nodded in agreement, and watched as she went up to her uncle.

Naruto and Sakura appeared perplexed as to what was going on and why the tall man looked so upset. Neji looked at Gaara and Haku curiously, immediately recognizing, as his father had, that they were not natives of Hidden Leaf.

Before Neji could talk to the red haired boy he had seen before, Hizashi ushered them on, “Let's go you two.”

Hinata waved goodbye to her friends as she fell in step with her uncle.

Naruto looked confused, “Neji-niisan? She never told me she had a brother!”

Sakura sighed, “She only has a little sister, Naruto. That was Neji, her cousin. She sort of considers him like a brother she can look up to.”

Still, he didn't get it but nodded anyway.

“I saw them before.” Gaara said and Haku looked at him.

“You mean when we left Hokage-sama's tower?” He asked.

Gaara nodded.

Naruto folded his arms behind his head, “I wonder what has them all so freaked out.”

A sad look came over Sakura's face, “Didn't she tell you?”

The blonde looked at her oddly, “Tell me what?”

“Neji, Hinata's cousin,” Sakura continued, drawing Gaara and Haku's attention, “She told me something about a seal that he'll be getting tomorrow. She said it isn't good, and that they haven't told him about it yet.”

Haku didn't like the sound of it, “What kind of seal, Sakura-chan?”

“I don't know, she didn't say anything else after that.”

“Well that's dumb,” Naruto sniffed, still upset that Hinata had to go home so soon, “Why wouldn't they just tell him? Is it that bad?”

Gaara only frowned.

“He's a Branch Family member,” Sakura added, “They all get it I, guess, so the Main Family stays stronger.”

“Hinata-chan must be from the Main House of her clan then?” Haku realized.

“She is,” The pink haired girl sat down on the swing, “But she's really worried. She told me that she doesn't want Neji to have this seal put on him.”

“So don't let him get it!” Naruto resolved, “What's the big deal?”

There was a silence. Naruto's lack of understanding could be a pain at times.

“The point is its bad and we can't do anything about it.” Gaara said shortly. Family matters didn't have to be publicized in his opinion.

“Who says?” Naruto smirked, “We'll go find Hinata-chan tomorrow and see if we can help her, uh, her cousin.”

“You're crazy Naruto!” Sakura snapped, “Have you seen her house? It's huge! We'll never be able to get in.”

“We can get in,” Haku said, finding he liked Naruto's idea, “Jiraiya-sama has taught us how to climb trees using our chakra.”

“Yeah!” Naruto recalled, “We'll just climb up the side of her house if they won't let us in!”

Again, the pink haired girl was flustered, “What will you do about guards? You can't just sneak into someone's house whenever you feel like it!”

“We'll be careful!” The blonde insisted.

“You'll get caught! And then what?”

“I can handle the guards if we have to.” Gaara volunteered.

“You can't fight grown-ups!”

“Yes he can!” Naruto declared confidently and slapped Gaara's back, “Gaara’s sand-power is awesome!”

Sakura couldn't believe how arrogant they were being. She turned to Haku and Gaara.

“Naruto's being silly! We can see Hinata-chan another day! Are you really going to listen to him?”

Haku nodded.

Unbelievable.

“Boys are so stupid...” Sakura grumbled. Was she the only one that realized that the Hyuga compound was nearly impenetrable and off limits to unwelcome outsiders?

Gaara took a long look at Sakura. She was smart, he liked that about her. But still, Haku had sided with Naruto's idea. Haku was also smart.

Was this really a bright idea?

“I'm going too.” Gaara confirmed, not taking his gaze away from Sakura.

She couldn't have made it any clearer how they were being foolish. Yet, she still felt they should do something to help Hinata and her cousin.

“Well, if you really have to go, fine, but...” Sakura sighed, fearing she would regret it, “I'm coming with you!”

Chapter Text

Chapter Soundtrack: “Furaito” (Flight) by CHABA

The morning sun filtered down through an open window, illuminating Haku's angelic face. He rolled over under his blanket and after a moment rubbed the sleep from his eyes.

“Hmm...” Haku sat up with a well-rested stretch, welcoming the sunlight.

Yesterday, he had recalled, was the beginning of his life in Konoha. It wasn't all ninja training that he expected it would be but rather learning to live peacefully again.

It was something he could get used to.

He also found it a pleasant change to sleep under a roof for once after traveling with Hiroshi for so long…sleeping out in the cold. Haku sighed at the thought. How was Hiroshi doing?

‘I promised to make him proud...’ Haku smiled to himself. After seeing he had managed to impress Jiraiya as well as his friends, he felt he was well on his way in doing so.

The dark haired boy peered over from his spot on the couch. Not too far away was Naruto, snoring loudly in his bed while wearing a penguin nightcap. It was a comforting sight.

On the opposite side of the room was Gaara. He was sitting propped up against the wall with dark circles under his eyes. Haku was concerned.

“Did you get any sleep, Gaara?” Haku asked as he stood and folded his blanket.

The red haired boy shook his head, “...the voice keeps me up all night.”

Haku looked at him with worry, “What voice?”

Every night they had stopped on their journey to Hidden Leaf with Jiraiya, Gaara had the same excuse over and over again as he stayed up. Haku feared if he didn't eventually get some sleep he might go crazy.

But Naruto was a living testament that proved one didn't have to be deprived of sleep to be crazy.

Gaara noticed Haku's troubled face. It touched him that he and Naruto cared so much.

“It's alright. I'm okay so long as I get a chance to rest.”

“You still have to get some sleep eventually.” Haku replied softly.

Gaara turned his gaze back to the open window. He had watched his friends sleep all night with a mix of jealousy and fascination.

It was strange to have to watch Naruto and Haku sleep soundly while he just sat there; afraid to let the Shukaku possess him again.

A sparrow fluttered to the window sill and perched there, observing the apartment’s occupants curiously. Gaara couldn't help but smile. He liked Konoha. That was one thing he was sure of.

Haku quietly passed by the slumbering blonde and entered the kitchen. He had taken it upon himself to feed everyone that morning, and he investigated all of the cabinets and the refrigerator to see if anything edible was present.

His luck wasn't very good. One sniff of a milk carton told Haku that he would have to be cautious as to not accidentally poison his friends.


“Gah...what smells so good?” Naruto's nose distinguished the wonderful aroma of food even during his sleep. He sprang out of his bed and paused when he saw Gaara seated on the floor, looking exhausted.

“Gaara, are you okay?” The blonde boy asked, “Come on, I smell chow!”

Gaara slowly got to his feet and followed Naruto to the source of the pleasant smell. Spread out on the table were three bowls containing rice and eggs with a side of miso soup.

Naruto grinned, “Haku! Where did you learn how to cook?”

He dove into his breakfast with an excited 'Itadakimasu!' while Gaara just observed Haku's handiwork. Apparently his talents extended beyond perfect chakra control and cleaning.

The black haired boy smiled at them, pleased that he had done well.

“My mother taught me many things.” He answered, “I would make things for her sometimes. Gaara, aren't you hungry?”

Gaara nodded and took a seat beside Naruto. His stomach growled. He felt as if he hadn't eaten in ages. Gaara eyed the rice in front of him warily.

“Itadakimasu...” He said softly before quickly bringing his chopsticks to his lips.

Haku was in an extremely pleasant mood that morning, and just couldn't extinguish the sweet smile on his face. In only a matter of minutes, Naruto had devoured every last morsel in front of him.

Haku sighed in slight annoyance. His energetic friend's eating habit was something he would never get used to.

“Oh, Naruto, I suppose later we'll have to go get some more food,” Haku announced, “There isn't much here.”

Naruto blinked at Haku and then chuckled sheepishly, “Heh heh, you're right. I can't cook well and I mostly just eat ramen all the time...”

“We've realized.” Gaara smirked.

Naruto huffed. Over time, Gaara's at first quiet/timid personality had become cooler as he got to know Haku and Naruto better. Yet, Naruto was able to see he was still being friendly.

“Right,” Haku nodded, “We can go later after we-”

“Go see Hinata-chan!”

The blonde's responses were becoming easier to predict. Haku smiled and nodded again before taking a bite of egg.


“Hey, check this out!” Naruto flashed a shuriken in front of Haku and Gaara's faces, “I found it lying on the side of the road yesterday! I'm gonna start practicing how to throw it!”

“That's great Naruto.” Haku wondered how an expensive weapon such as a shuriken had been cast aside but it was Naruto's good fortune.

Haku had once heard the saying: 'finders-keepers' and believed it applied to any abandoned item.

Suddenly Gaara spoke up, “What is he doing?”

Naruto turned to him, “Who's doing what?”

The three of them looked up, and saw none other than the Legendary Toad Sage balanced on a high tree branch next to a building while scribbling notes.

“Research maybe?” Haku suggested.

Naruto of course frowned, “What a weirdo...”

He leapt up into the tree to go insult the old ninja, and Haku and Gaara followed out of curiosity.

Before Naruto could bark at the sennin, his eyes strayed in the same direction the toad hermit's had. Jiraiya was peeping into a window, observing a...

“What the heck are you doing old man!” The blonde hollered.

Startled, Jiraiya seized Naruto and clapped his hand over the child's big mouth.

“Shut up ya little runt!” He hissed, “You want me to get caught?”

There was a muffled 'yes', and Haku and Gaara had also noticed the subject of Jiraiya's attention. Gaara scowled and Haku wore a look of utter repugnance.

“Jiraiya-sama!” Haku gasped, “It's not right to spy on ladies when...when they don't have their clothes on!”

“Ahh what do you know?” The sennin growled, “Hm, we better get down before she catches us.”

They leapt down from the cover of the tree and Naruto was released from Jiraiya's hold before he could gnaw his hand off.

“Old man you should be locked up for that!” Naruto barked in disgust, pointing an accusing finger at the sage.

Haku was also mortified and Gaara was gripped in a state of silent abhorrence.

Jiraiya snorted, “Its important research! Squirts like you are too young to understand. Now why don't you run along and go play with your little friends?”

Glad to be rid of the offended nuisances, Jiraiya resumed his post to continue his notes.

Haku stood blushing. He felt his respect for the legendary ninja wilting.

Naruto was still appalled and felt that no amount of insults could affect the perverted sennin after what they had witnessed. He turned to Gaara and mumbled something quickly into his ear.

He only shrugged.

With a 'pop', the cork sprang out of the top of Gaara's gourd, and with his arms folded, the red head let sand leak out surrounding Jiraiya's hiding place.

Haku and Naruto watched (Naruto especially pleased) as Gaara effortlessly flung the sage back out of the tree with his levitating sand.

“-the hell?”

Jiraiya was face-down on the ground and covered in sand before he could blink.

“You little shit!” Jiraiya growled at Gaara, “That's the second damn time!”

Gaara wore a small smirk, wondering if he should have done worse to the sennin. Naruto was rolling on the ground laughing, holding his sides.

“Ha ha! Ero-sennin! You had that coming!”

“Naruto, we should hurry and go find Sakura-chan now.” Haku reminded his friend.

“In a second, Haku,” Naruto was grinning, “I asked Gaara to do a bit more than that...”

Gaara stood with sand whirling in wait around his feet.

“But if we don't hurry to the Hyuga compound, then that boy will get the seal put on him-” Naruto muffled Haku before he could continue.

“Shh! We don't want Ero-sennin finding out!” The blonde hissed. Haku nodded in confirmation.

The words 'Hyuga compound' and ‘seal' attracted the sennin's once undivided attention.

‘Now how would these three squirts know about the Hyuga Clan and their Branch Family's Caged Bird seal? They just got here!’ He frowned at Haku, wanting an explanation.

“What was that, farm boy?” Jiraiya inquired.

Naruto waved him off of the subject, “It's nothing old man! I thought you wanted us to go play with our little friends!”

Gaara's sand returned to his gourd. He saw there was no point in continuing to torture the sennin.

“Why don't you just go ahead with your nasty 'research'?” Naruto had successfully managed to divert the sennin's interest.

Jiraiya looked smug, “That's not a bad idea...”

In a flash, he had gone back to his hiding place, taking the blonde's advice.

Haku sighed, “Maybe later we should tell Hokage-sama what Jiraiya-sama has been doing?”

Naruto looked down at the shuriken he had discovered, “Yeah, maybe Hokage-sama will let me use him for target practice!”

Gaara smirked, “I don't think you need permission for that sort of thing, Naruto.”


As Jiraiya was about to persist in his research, he hadn't expected that his inspiration would be fully clothed and waiting for him.

But then again, what had he expected with all the raucous they had made?

There was an angry shout from inside the apartment; the kunoichi was not pleased.

“Shadow Snakes!”

Multiple, black snakes were launched at the sennin and wrapped themselves tightly around his face.

“Waah!” Jiraiya had no hope of escape after that point.

‘I swear, I'm gonna make those kids pay when I get out of this!’


Sakura was waiting for them in front of the Ninja Academy.

Once again, as if due to a magnetic force, Gaara couldn't peel his eyes away from her pink hair which had been done up in a ribbon.

“Naruto-kun! We better hurry!” Once they had arrived Sakura immediately set out in a run, “I don't know how much time we have, so we have to be quick!”

He grinned, “We're fine! Who's up this early anyway? I usually sleep until noon!”

“Not everyone is like you, Naruto.” Gaara pointed out, a bit touchy on the subject of sleep.

Naruto only laughed sheepishly, feeling optimistic since Gaara had given Jiraiya a piece of his mind earlier. It was going to be a good day.

He could tell.


“Now what?” Gaara folded his arms as they stood outside of the Hyuga compound.

Sakura had been correct; the place was huge. Haku had mentioned on the way there that they wouldn't be admitted in the front gates if someone wasn’t expecting them.

So they reverted to Naruto's crooked plan of inconspicuously scaling the wall surrounding the estate. The idea was so ludicrously simple there was a chance it could work.

“Okay, so once we're on the other side we sneak around until we find Hinata-chan, got it?” Naruto explained the remainder of his plan to his companions while they remained out of sight.

Sakura hung her head in doubt, “I don't think this is going to work...”

“It will if we're careful! We’ve got to try!”

Haku rested his hand on the loud blonde's shoulder, “Um, Naruto, try to be a bit quieter. They'll find us more quickly if you keep shouting like that..."

“I'll go first.” Gaara volunteered himself again.

Before Naruto could protest the red haired boy had jumped the wall and disappeared to the other side.

“I'm the leader, so I should've went first!” He pouted.

The pink haired girl gave him a sarcastic look, “Who made you the leader anyway?”

“I just am, okay!”

“I think its best that Gaara went ahead; he is the quietest after all.” Haku said softly.

The three of them ducked behind a nearby bush as a few people walked past, probably going into the compound.

After a few tense moments, a hiss from the other side was heard, “It's clear.”

Naruto shot like a bullet over the wall, nearly giving Sakura a heart attack. His energy was frightening at times.

“Climb on my back Sakura-chan, I'll help you get you over.” Haku offered.

She gave him a grateful look, “Are you sure I'm not too heavy, um...Haku-kun?”

He smiled, “Really, it's fine.”

Sakura did as she was instructed and watched in amazement as Haku scrambled up the wall, regulating his chakra to withstand the weight of two people. She suppressed a frightened shriek as they fell ten feet back down to the ground.

Haku landed with cat-like grace and Sakura quickly hopped off of him.

Naruto nodded to them once they had arrived.

“Good, you made it!” He said in a low voice, “Now we just need to get around those two guys over there.”

Naruto indicated two guards stationed in front. It didn't appear as if they would be leaving anytime soon.

Without a word, Gaara uncorked the gourd and let his sand slip unnoticed along the ground. Again, Sakura was surprised; she hadn't witnessed his power before.

The guards did not see the sand until it had surrounded them in a thick cloud. Naruto and Haku grinned as the guards scrambled around in confusion, unable to avoid the irritating dust.

“Go.” Gaara hissed, “I'll distract them.”

“Thank you, Gaara!” Haku said quietly as he took Sakura by the hand and dashed after Naruto across the lawn.

Gaara smirked to himself as he watched the fumbling guards in amusement.

Maybe it wasn't as difficult to get in as Sakura had made it seem.


 After bolting across the Hyuga estate’s grounds, they found cover in a garden. Sakura was bothered that they had left Gaara behind in order to continue on.

“Will he be alright by himself?” She wasn't needlessly worried.

“Nah, Gaara can handle himself fine,” Naruto assured her, “He had no problem dealing with Ero-sennin before!”

Haku watched carefully from the bush they had concealed themselves behind. The area appeared to be empty.

“I don't think anyone is over here,” He determined, “We can cut through this garden and keep looking.”

They nodded in agreement before moving on.

The three of them darted through the flowers and foliage, following Naruto's lead. Sakura was still troubled over leaving Gaara behind as they covered more distance, completely lost and unaware of their surroundings.

Just as they thought they could move on without being seen...

“Naruto, wait!” Haku hissed.

He was too late, and the blonde boy rushed headlong into a bewildered member of the Hyuga family.


‘That's it! Now we're in trouble’! Naruto was prepared to be seized by the collar and hurled out of the front gate.

Instead he only heard a soft voice recognize him, “N-Naruto-kun?”

He looked over to the girl he had knocked over, “Hey Hinata-chan!”

“Naruto be quiet!” Sakura warned as she and Haku came up from behind him.

Naruto helped the Hyuga heiress to her feet and she only stared at her friends, stunned.

“W-what are you all d-doing here?”

The Kyuubi container grinned at her, “We came to see you and help your cousin!"

She was shocked, “What? W-why?”

“Because you've been really worried about him,” Sakura explained, “And we want to help.”

Color flooded the shy girl's cheeks, “Thank you...it's so very k-kind of you all.”

Haku turned to Hinata, “Hinata-chan, do you know where we can find your cousin?”

She nodded shyly, “Yes, he should be on the other s-side of the grounds...”

Naruto was beaming, “Then let's go! We can bust him out of here before anything happens to him!”

As they followed the blonde boy Sakura had her doubts, “I don't know...we left Gaara-kun alone and now we have to take some boy we don't know from his own house, Naruto? I think this is getting a bit too complicated.”

He didn't seem at all swayed, “Well, it's important to Hinata-chan, so we can't give up!”

They snuck around the back of the house, and Hinata led them on at the front, keeping watch for anyone who came too close.

“This way!” The nervous girl showed them into the back of another garden, not sure what Naruto intended to do once they found Neji.

Many people stood outside of the house there and the children immediately ducked behind a cluster of azaleas. While Sakura kept constantly reminding Naruto to be quiet, Haku had another question for the Hyuga girl.

“Hinata-chan, why is this seal so bad exactly?”

Her eyes dropped to the ground, the mere idea of it bothered her tremendously.

“My f-father says that since Neji-niisan is p-part of the Branch Family, he must have it p-put on him. We call it the 'Caged Bird Seal'...” Her voice faltered as Sakura and Naruto began to listen as well, “When a Branch Family member shows d-disrespect or d-does something inappropriate, Main Family members can use it to...to hurt them."

“Why would you want to hurt someone in your own family like that?” Sakura wondered.

“I don't want anyone to b-be hurt!” Hinata declared rather loudly, “The seal...it...it could k-kill Neji-niisan if someone uses it...”

Naruto's mind was quickly made up, “Then we can't let that happen to him!”

“B-But, what can we do, Naruto-kun?” Hinata asked.

He wore an expression of pure determination, “We find him and get him out of here...even if we have to fight!”

Sakura shook her head, “This is too much! We're going to get into so much trouble!”

“Well, maybe we can't fight but, we have snuck around without being seen for a while,” Haku said quietly, “Maybe we can escape without being noticed.”

“I don't know...there’s probably a way.” Sakura was also trying to come up with a plan.

Hinata surveyed the courtyard, looking for any sign of her cousin, “I d-don't see him and if w-we don't f-find him soon...”

“I think we should split up! We've all seen what he looks like, right? We can find your cousin a lot faster if we all look!” Naruto decided, “In a few minutes, we'll all meet back here, alright?”

It was the only idea they had.

“Okay,” Haku nodded with a smile, “I'll cause a distraction while you all look.”

Naruto continued to slink along the side of the house through a line of hedges, while Hinata was able to search out in the open, ducking through a crowd of her relatives.

Before Sakura went her own way, she turned to Haku, “Haku-kun, please see if you can find Gaara-kun. I hope he's alright.”

“Of course, Sakura-chan.” He agreed. She departed with a grateful look and Haku quickly darted around the back of the congregation, silently praying that Naruto wouldn't blow their cover.


Hinata desperately tried to sort through the small crowd of people in the courtyard. All at once she was glad that her friends had come to help her and yet terrified of what would become of her older cousin.

‘And Naruto-kun is so brave...he wants to help me even if it means he'd get into trouble…’ The prospect of the blonde boy selflessly aiding her only added to her adoration for him. ‘No! I can't let Neji-niisan get the seal! Not after so many people came to help!’

As she darted around searching, fierce determination flooded her veins, ‘I'll be like Naruto-kun...I won't give up!’

Suddenly many of the adults rushed over to the garden and watched in astonishment as the contents of a bucket of water inexplicably began to levitate in the air.

While the water swirled about, Hinata noted that it was Haku's aforementioned distraction. She seized the moment to continue her search.

Without warning, something clicked in her head.

Hinata was startled when she was suddenly fully aware of her surroundings. Her once-straining eyes saw perfectly in all directions and even inside of her own house...through a solid wall.

It was a shock that also felt natural somehow.

‘Is this what father sees when he uses the Byakugan?’

She now understood her father's description of the Hyuga Family's blood limit. She didn't waste time doting over her accomplishment, although it was the first time she had ever used her Kekkei Genkai.

Hinata stopped in front of the Branch House and giggled to herself when she noticed Sakura and Naruto slinking along unseen through the hedges.

Without the Byakugan, she wouldn't have noticed them at all, which reminded her of a daunting realization.

‘If someone else uses their Byakugan and sees them...’

They didn't have much time. Haku's power had also aroused suspicion that something other than the absence of gravity was responsible for the hovering sphere of water.

Hinata swung her head from side to side to get a full view of the area, and gasped suddenly when she spotted the one person she had been looking for.

“Oh, Neji-niisan!”

The boy looked at her in confusion, “Hinata-sama?”

He stepped outside of the Branch House and walked over to her, seeing the apprehensive look on her face. Neji also noticed how many people were gathered around the garden for some strange reason.

“Hinata-sama is something wrong-?” The boy fell quiet as he observed the veins surrounding her eyes.

“Hinata-sama...when did you begin using the Byakugan?” He had only just managed it himself a few weeks before, and was surprised to see shy Hinata brandishing the prestigious blood limit.

“Um, j-just now actually,” She said quickly while deactivating it with a small twinge behind her eyes, “But Neji-niisan, we must hurry! P-Please come with me!”

Hinata hastily grabbed his hand and pulled him along towards Naruto and Sakura's hiding place.

“What’s going on?” Neji asked.

Instead of a response, Neji was surprised to hear a voice from the hedges, “Hey, did you get him Hinata-chan?”

“Yes!”

A blonde boy who Neji had briefly seen the day before dove out of his cover and grabbed the both of them. He pulled them back behind the bushes hurriedly.

Neji looked at the blonde boy and Hinata's pink haired friend who he had seen the previous day, “Hinata-sama, what are we doing, and what are they doing here?”

“Shh!” Sakura was quick to warn him, “You have to be quiet!”

He looked at her, not understanding at all.

“You s-see, Neji-niisan, we don't want you to get the Caged Bird Seal...” Hinata clarified.

“Yeah!” Naruto agreed in a low voice, “They were gonna put that seal-thingy on you so we came to rescue you!”

Neji was dumbfounded, “You mean it will happen today, Hinata-sama?”

“I think s-so...” She said softly.

“But don't worry Neji!” Naruto wore a reassuring grin, “We're gonna get you out of here before they can find you!”

A look of betrayal and horror was present on the boy's face. He had no idea that he was so close to receiving the Caged Bird seal, ‘No one said anything to me…’

It made sense to him then why his father had been so upset recently, and he felt a combination of anger and fear rise inside of him. He had seen his father at the mercy of the Caged Bird seal before, and had come to dread the time when he would be branded with it.

“Come on, let's go!” Naruto commanded before turning away to retrace their steps. Sakura followed close behind him, but Neji was hesitant to go anywhere.

“Please, Neji-niisan,” Hinata gave him a worried look, “We can't s-stay here.”

She had a point; the sharp ends of the tangled branches were painful.

He said nothing, but followed Hinata and her friends, wondering where his father was.


The gardens had emptied out after the water had ended its supernatural dance. Haku had easily caught up to his companions who made a bee-line for the front gate.

“Haku-kun,” Sakura was glad he had re-joined them, “Did you find Gaara-kun yet?”

The black haired boy shook his head, “No Sakura-chan I haven't, but I think he's alright.”

Haku then noticed that they had successfully retrieved Hinata's cousin, “Oh, hello Neji-san! I hope you're alright.”

Neji couldn't believe how popular he had become in such a short amount of time.

“Okay, it's just a bit farther now!” Naruto was grinning at them, “I can't believe how well this worked!”

Honestly, it was a miracle his plan had worked at all.

Sakura was still edgy as they neared the perimeter wall, “Naruto-kun, we can't just leave without Gaara-kun! What if he needs our help?”

Naruto halted and they ducked down as a few Hyuga clan members entered the compound.

“Hm, you're right Sakura-chan. Where did Gaara go anyway?” The blonde pondered. They hadn't seen hide or hair of him anywhere.

Neji quickly took stock that everyone he had seen yesterday was now present with the exception of one person. He recalled the boy with the red hair, and assumed he was the one Sakura was worried over.

Silently, Hinata had activated her Byakugan for the second time, and scanned the area. She noticed a small, lone figure well-hidden in a tree top.

“Naruto-kun, I see him!” Hinata pointed to Gaara's perch, “He's up there waiting!”

Haku clapped his hand over Naruto's mouth as Jiraiya had, silencing him before he could call out to their lofty friend.

“Remember Naruto, we still have to be quiet,” Haku said in a soft voice, “We haven't escaped just yet.”

The Kyuubi container nodded and Haku let go after seeing he would restrain himself.

“How are we going to get his attention without being seen?” Sakura asked.

Haku frowned. Sakura had another point.

Without warning, Naruto hurled his shuriken up at the tree, causing Hinata to 'Eeep!' in surprise.

With a thunk, the shuriken was embedded in the side of the tree, and after a moment, Gaara extracted it and hopped down from the branch.

Naruto was grinning at himself. It was the first time he had ever thrown a real shuriken and he actually hit his target!

Sakura knocked him on top of his head, “Naruto! Are you nuts! What if you hit Gaara-kun?”

“He didn't.” Gaara had quickly re-joined them, “Here.” He handed the weapon back to Naruto who was nursing the new lump on his head.

“Aw! Come on Sakura-chan, he's fine!” Naruto whined, “And why did you have to hit me?”

“Because what you did was reckless and I don't ever want you to do that again!” She scolded.

Neji watched with slight amusement.

Although Hinata did feel bad that Naruto had been disciplined so roughly, she agreed with Sakura's reasoning. Naruto had once again nearly given her a heart attack.

“We should g-go now,” Hinata said softly while she observed the front gate, “No one's coming.”

Naruto nodded to her, “Alright, let's go!”


To attract less attention they ran out in pairs of two, as suggested by Haku. If there were less of them to be seen at once it was more likely they would go unnoticed.

Gaara headed up the front for defense, alongside Naruto who was still exhaustingly fast. Hinata kept her eyes open warily as she and Sakura followed. Once on the other side they ducked down by the wall, preparing to jump it again.

Just as Haku and Neji were about to make the mad dash to the gate, a voice sounded.

“Neji? Where have you been?”

Haku felt his heart drop into his stomach and he froze where he stood. An error on his part: he should have had Neji leave first. It made the most sense since it was their mission to rescue him after all.

The plan quickly went down the proverbial tubes.

“Father...” Neji said softly, standing protectively in front of his frightened companion.

From a distance, Hinata gasped and immediately ordered that they turn back. Even though it was a hopeless objective at the time, she ran back to her cousin, still determined to prevent the inevitable.


Hizashi and Hiashi stood in front of Neji, both wearing inquiring looks.

“Neji,” Hizashi looked down at his son, “Who is this with you?”

He didn't sound angry, only confused. But still, Haku was terrified and had no idea how he would be able to think his way out of his current situation.

Neji recalled Sakura saying his name, and hesitantly answered, “Haku.”

Hiashi looked down at Haku with piercing lunar eyes.

“How did you manage to enter Hyuga grounds, Haku?” He asked.

Before Haku could summon his courage to answer the head of the Hyuga Clan, four more children appeared out of nowhere to stand beside him and Neji.

Hiashi was bewildered to say the least.

“How did all of you children get in here?” Hizashi asked, seeing that the Uzumaki boy was among the group.

“We wanted to help Neji!” Naruto couldn't keep his mouth shut.

Hiashi only gave him a guarded look, wondering how the Kyuubi boy had come to know Neji.

“F-Father,” Hinata spoke up, “These are my friends. The r-reason they are here is that we d-didn't want to let Neji-niisan receive the Caged Bird seal...and so we tried to...”

She didn't have to keep explaining for her father to know what was going on, “Hinata, you know better than to let anyone interfere with Hyuga tradition.”

The girl looked down guiltily.

“Even if it's tradition or whatever, you can't just put that seal on him when he didn't do anything wrong!” Naruto protested, “Neji! He's nice I can tell! I won't let you put that seal on him!”

Hiashi felt his temper flare as the Uzumaki child showed such unwitting disrespect. Gaara and Sakura watched quietly as Hizashi looked down at Naruto with an appreciative look.

“Excuse me sir,” Haku hoped being polite would soften Hiashi's mood, “But Neji-san and Hinata-chan are cousins; they're family members. So why would people who care about each other have such harsh traditions?”

Apparently, Haku had a brief understanding of how a normal family would function. Yet his knowledge did not reach to the complexity of clans and the balance of power that was involved in living in one.

Hinata couldn't believe their boldness, especially Naruto's. Even she was terrified of speaking to her father like that!

“You children have no concept of what you're doing,” Hiashi gave each of them a bothered look, “Neji's fate has been decided.”

“Hiashi-sama...”

Hiashi turned to his brother and noted the pained expression on his face. Neji stood by him, trembling terribly.

He winced inwardly, but swallowed the momentary guilt he felt on his nephew's behalf.

“Hiashi, these children speak with a wisdom that is beyond the capacity of our clan,” Hizashi said slowly, his eyes resting on Neji, “The only thing I would ask of you, my brother, before my parting…is the freedom of my son."

Recent events made Hiashi understand his twin brother's meaning, but he still couldn’t defer from generations of rites for the sake of one boy; it was something the clan elders demanded. Hiashi himself would prefer to halt the proceedings if it were possible.

“Father, p-please...” Hinata pleaded.

Hiashi finally turned his gaze to his daughter and was astounded. She looked to him with the tearful eyes of the Byakugan, hoping that in some way she could make him listen.

“Hinata,” Hiashi's voice was low, “When did you accomplish this?”

“When we were looking for Neji-niisan,” She squeaked, “I did it s-somehow...”

Even Hizashi was amazed. He hadn't expected his brother's timid daughter to discover her blood limit so quickly.

Naruto also looked over to Hinata and got a closer look at her eyes. The way they seemed to intake light and their sheer depth unnerved him.

“Hey Sakura-chan,” He whispered to the pink haired girl beside him, “I didn't know Hinata-chan could do that with her eyes!”

“I don't think that anyone knew she could, Naruto-kun.” She replied quietly.

Hiashi examined his daughter's eyes for a long moment before saying, “I understand that you care for your cousin, Hinata. But you must realize that if I exempt him from receiving the Branch Family seal he will be eligible to become the next Head of the Hyuga clan. You will both be heirs, and thus, be forced to compete.”

Hinata wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her lavender kimono, “I...I know, father...”

He frowned at her, “Do you understand, Hinata? You may be the heiress to our clan, but that title won't mean anything if your cousin is free to surpass you.”

“I-I understand,” Her voice was meek, “But it d-doesn't seem right to hold him b-back in such a horrible way...”

“It is tradition.”

“It isn't fair!” Naruto spoke up again, “If you're so scared of everyone being stronger than you, then maybe you should put that seal on everybody!”

There was only silence.

Neji stood shaking by Hizashi, who braced his shoulder comfortingly.

No one had ever seen Hinata stand up to her father before. It even left Haku, Gaara, as well as Sakura stunned.

And Naruto didn't seem intent on backing down either, even if he displayed his opinion through his volume.

“Father,” Hinata said steadily, “It's what I wish.”

Naruto stood next to her and nodded vigorously.

Hizashi turned expectantly to his brother, having no idea what Hiashi would say next.

“I see...” Hiashi then sighed, “I will speak to the elders if that is your true decision, but you are young yet, and may come to regret your actions later, Hinata. Bear this in mind.”

She shook her head, “I p-promise, I won't regret it.”

Her father wore a contemplative expression, “Very well. I expect you to begin more rigorous training then, Hinata, since you have finally activated your blood limit.”

“Yes F-Father...” She bowed her head respectfully in thanks, and watched with quivering lips as he returned to the Main House without another word.

She felt like crying she was so happy.

And yet, she was also frightened at what she had agreed to. Her father had made it very clear to her that her decision may radically affect her future, but she felt it was a necessary consequence.

Naruto's face once again exploded into a grin, “Woo hoo! We did it Hinata-chan! Neji won't be getting the Caged Bird seal!”

He began giving high-fives to all of his friends (nearly tearing Gaara's arm off), and even gave one to a rather startled Hizashi. He watched the small children hop around cheering. A tear welled at the corner of his eye, still unable to believe such a thing was possible. Could the kindness of children change the future of the Hyuga?

“Hinata-sama...” Neji was still trembling, completely overwhelmed of how she had stood up for him so selflessly.

A smile cracked on Hizashi's face as he watched his son hug the Hyuga heiress in deep gratitude. Never in his life had he expected such a blessing and he, just like Hinata, decided he would live with no regrets.


“There you are you little brats!” Jiraiya had suddenly appeared on the Hyuga grounds, and was absolutely fuming. After what he had overhead earlier, he figured that they may have snuck off to the Hyuga compound.

He had a black eye and a few unexplainable bite marks on his face and hands, suggesting he had been in a great struggle.

Naruto was actually pleased to see him, “Hey Ero-sennin!”

“Stop calling me that you little twerp!” The sennin hoisted Naruto up by the collar of his black shirt and prepared to strangle him. Hizashi gave him an incredulous look.

“Gama-sennin,” He asked, “To what honor do we owe this visit?”

The Legendary Toad Sage was always a welcome guest around the Hyuga compound, even if his reasons for stopping by were unclear. He practically stormed right through the front gate, cussing and rambling about some loathsome children.

Jiraiya turned to Hizashi and then chuckled sheepishly, “Oh, uh, just looking for the kids. They keep running off...”

“Yeah right Ero-sennin! You keep ditching us!” Naruto laughed, not at all bothered that the man was ready to crush his windpipe so he wouldn't speak.

“I told you to stop calling me that you punk!” Jiraiya roughly dropped Naruto back to the ground and he landed on his butt.

“Jiraiya-sama, are you alright?” Haku was bothered by his bruised and bloodied face, “What happened to you?”

“You two and that red headed imp cause me far too much grief.” The sennin growled, glaring daggers at Gaara.

Gaara smirked back at him. He, like Naruto, had less respect for the perverted old man.

“Father, who is this man?” Neji asked curiously.

“This is the Great Toad Sage, Jiraiya. He was the sensei of the Fourth Hokage.” Hizashi answered.

At the mention of his noble title, Jiraiya once again inflated, but then recognized the man next to him, “Oh, Hizashi-san! I hope you’re well.”

“Very well indeed, Gama-sennin.” Hizashi nodded, smiling.

Any day his only son was spared of the Caged Bird seal was a very good day.

A dark look came over Jiraiya's face for a moment and he asked in a low voice, “So...when are you scheduled to go to Cloud?”

Hizashi’s expression saddened a bit, “You've heard?”

“Yeah, sorry about that,” Jiraiya apologized on bringing up such a personal subject, “I was talking with Hokage-sama yesterday...”

“It's alright,” Hizashi assured him, “I have less than two weeks.”

Jiraiya nodded, he held a great respect for the branch family member after what he had been told. Hopefully, his son hadn't been informed about his father's not-too-distant fate.

Clearly Neji had no idea. He and the other children only watched the exchange between the two men, puzzled.

“Right...” Jiraiya cleared his throat loudly, “Well, these three here can be a real pain,” He gestured to Naruto, Haku, and Gaara, “But they're good kids for the most part.”

Hizashi nodded, “...I know.”

Neji had stepped up to them, “Thank you, all of you. I don't think you can ever know how much you've helped me.”

Naruto grinned at him, glad they had succeeded, “It was no problem! You can count on us!”

Hinata smiled as well and then remembered they hadn't been introduced, “Oh, Neji-niisan, you haven't r-really met them all have you?”

He had caught some of their names...

“This is Naruto-kun, Haku-kun, and Gaara-kun,” Hinata then turned to her last companion, “And Sakura-chan.”

Neji bowed his head, “It is good to meet you all.”

“Likewise, Neji-san.” Haku was equally friendly. Gaara was quiet but appeared to be glad as well.

Naruto was surprised when he felt a pair of arms embrace him in a warm hug. Hinata's face was beet red but she was very grateful for everything he had done.

“Naruto-kun, thank you f-for helping us...”

He hugged her back, ‘Wow! It is good to have friends!’

“Anytime, Hinata-chan!” He then looked over to his other companions, “Now I am starving! I can really go for some ramen!”

Haku turned a pale shade of green.

“Time to get going you three,” Jiraiya interrupted, “We need to talk...”

Naruto frowned, “No way Ero-sennin! I want to stay with Hinata-chan today, like I promised. Don't you have any 'research' to do?”

“I'll be dead the next time I try thanks to you!” Jiraiya scowled, “I swear, Konoha isn't a good place for research...so let's get going.”

They ignored him.

Neji found Jiraiya's annoyed face quite amusing, as did his father.

“Haku, Gaara, grab the blonde squirt and let's go.” Jiraiya tried his luck with the other two.

“We're going to stay here, Jiraiya-sama. Maybe later.” Haku's politeness was beginning to irk him.

Time for a different approach.

“Fine, stay if you like...” Jiraiya smirked, “If you want to miss out on a new ninja skill...”

All three of them lined up in front of him.

“When do we start?” Gaara asked.

The offer had even attracted Hinata, Neji and Sakura's attention.

“As soon as we leave.” The sennin sighed.

They were easy to please.

“Um, Jiraiya-sama?” Sakura spoke up, “Can Hinata-chan and I come too?

“Why not?” He then smirked to Naruto, “Popular with the girls already squirt? I must be rubbing off on you!”

The Kyuubi container gagged, “Buh! No way Ero-sennin! I'm not like you!”

“Father, can I go with them?” Neji asked.

Hizashi had no problem with it, “Yes. Make sure you bring back Hinata-sama in the evening for her training.”

His son nodded, “I will!”


They had ended up outside of the Hokage's tower. The Third had requested that Jiraiya bring Haku along with his friends in hopes that Haku may demonstrate his Kekkei Genkai abilities.

The sennin felt it wouldn't be difficult.

All he had to do was tempt the children with the promise of a ninja skill that they most likely wouldn't be able to perform and they flocked to him like moths to a candle.

However, Jiraiya had been slightly annoyed that Naruto had made so many friends. The crowd of children following him made him feel something like a mother duck.

He disliked that sensation.

Yet the newcomers had proved to be polite, obedient and didn't give him a hard time.

Unlike a certain three stooges he had come to know.

“Hey, Ero-sennin! What are you gonna teach us to do?” Naruto was growing impatient.

“Ugh...” The sage decided to pick another basic skill, “We'll start with Henge no Jutsu: the Transformation Technique.”

Sakura's face brightened, “Wow! You'll teach us a real jutsu, Gama-sennin?”

The sennin smirked, “Oh, I'll teach you all right, but that doesn't mean any of you squirts will be able to do it! I mean you guys are what? Three, four?”

“Six!” Naruto barked, “And we can do it old man! You just show us how!”

Hinata felt her heart flutter. Naruto's confidence helped boost her own, and maybe if she was able to perform the jutsu she may demonstrate it to her father later.

“Alright, sheesh...” Jiraiya cleared his throat and then proceeded with a lesson, “As most of you are aware all jutsu require chakra. The amount of chakra needed depends on the jutsu that is being used-” He looked down at the row of children in front of him, “Any of you squirts by some chance have any chakra control yet?”

Haku, Gaara and Neji raised their hands and even though Naruto couldn't prove it, he too raised his hand.

Hinata wore a disheartened look, but Sakura quickly dusted the subject over for her, “How much chakra does this jutsu need anyway, sensei?”

Jiraiya smirked, “Good question, missy. The Transformation jutsu don't require much chakra at all, but focusing your chakra is the key. It's easiest to begin by transforming into another person.”

Haku smiled to himself. He knew he could focus.

“Alright so...any of you know any hand seals?” The sennin asked, not expecting them to.

At first no one answered and Jiraiya felt he would have his work cut out for him. He then noticed the shy girl of the group slowly raise her hand.

“Um, there is the d-dog, horse, b-boar and hare...” Hinata said softly, surprising her companions with her knowledge.

Jiraiya raised his eyebrows at her, “Yep, that's right, princess. Anyone else?”

Neji continued the list easily, “There is also the rat, ox, tiger, dragon, serpent, ram, monkey, and bird.”

The sennin's eyebrows went up even further, “Wow. You Hyuga kids sure know your stuff! Anyway, of those twelve signs the only one you will need to know for this jutsu is the Ram Seal.”

Jiraiya demonstrated the seal for them, “Make sure you get this right, or it will fail. It's important to have full concentration while executing a jutsu.”

They quickly memorized the hand sign, although it took Naruto a few moments (with Hinata's help) to position his fingers correctly.

“So Jiraiya-sama, we focus our chakra and concentrate on what we want to transform into?” Haku confirmed, always one step ahead.

“I swear kid; the way you work things out deserves an award...” The sennin commended him, “As usual, you're right Haku. Give it a try when you're ready.”

“Who exactly should we turn into, sensei?” Sakura asked, wondering if he had anyone specific in mind.

“Whoever you squirts can think of...” He didn't really care.

Gaara frowned. He didn't want Haku to surpass him yet again, although it was something he was getting used to. He formed the ram seal and focused his chakra.

There was a poof of smoke, and where Gaara once stood was the spitting image of Jiraiya.

Naruto felt his jaw drop.

It was still glaringly obvious that it was Gaara, because of the uncharacteristic scowl the false Jiraiya wore.

The sennin sighed, “Next time, kid, try to look a bit happier...”

His companions looked on in surprise, not expecting Gaara to have such luck on his first try.

Gaara released the jutsu and smirked at Jiraiya, “I'll try.”

‘One of these days I'll give that sand kid a piece of my mind...’

“Hey Gaara, that was great!” Naruto praised him.

Haku immediately tried it next, having no problem focusing his chakra and flawlessly imitated the image of Jiraiya as Gaara had. The sennin was grateful for the less angry expression on Haku's henge.

“Well done, Haku.” Jiraiya nodded to the farm boy after he had released his jutsu, wearing a very pleased smile.

“How do you keep doing that Haku?” Naruto spoke up again, “It's like you know everything!”

The dark haired boy shook his head, “I really don't...”

Hinata looked at both Gaara and Haku in amazement. Had they ever used a jutsu before? They made it look so easy.

Neji wore a small frown while he too made the hand seal. Once the smoke from his henge had cleared, a false Haku stood there, startling the real farm boy.

Neji then smiled in a similar way that Haku had, scaring his companions with his accuracy. Sakura was hopping up and down, excited that there had been three successful henge in a row.

Naruto however was uncommonly hesitant, not sure who to imitate.

“Eh, that was kind of creepy...” The sennin admitted to Neji, “Again, great job but maybe you should lay off the smiling, kid.”

Of course, Neji took it as an open invitation to smile more to startle his foes.

Naruto laughed at Haku's astonished face, “Heh heh! Haku, that was pretty cool huh? Poof! He looked just like you!”

A small smile spread over Gaara's face. He too found Haku's astounded expression funny.

“Okay! My turn!” Sakura announced, and she quickly made the hand seal.

Her’s was one of the most shocking (and oddly successful) transformations yet...

She had taken the appearance of Gaara.

The Kazekage's youngest son felt his smile turn into a look of shock. He understood how Haku had felt upon looking at a copy of himself.

“Whoa! Sakura-chan!” The blonde boy was pleasantly surprised yet again.

The pink haired girl grinned in accomplishment after undoing the jutsu, “How was that Gama-sennin?”

“Not half-bad, missy...” Jiraiya answered, appreciating that someone had eliminated Gaara's smug expression.

Neji turned to his cousin, “Do you think you can do it, Hinata-sama?”

A nervous blush crept over her cheeks, “I...I'll try...”

“I know you can do it Hinata-chan!” Naruto grinned at her.

Haku nodded with a friendly smile, “Yes Hinata-chan. Its simple.”

She felt her hands slip into the ram seal, and concentrated her chakra. Her henge choice had been clear in her mind for quite a while. Hinata trembled slightly before she was enveloped in smoke, still slightly anxious.

Thankfully, she had succeeded.

A nervous-looking Naruto stood in front of her companions.

Sakura cheered with Haku and a low chuckle resonated from her cousin.

Naruto stood bewildered for a split-second and then peeled into a fit of laughter.

He couldn't have been more flattered.

After undoing the henge, Hinata's face was completely crimson. Jiraiya nodded his head with a small smile, “Good girl! Make sure you show that to your dad!”

“I w-will.”

“Why did you pick Naruto?” Gaara asked her curiously.

Hinata gulped before answering, “I-I, um...well, he hadn't b-been chosen so I thought...”

Naruto gave her a thumb up, “Hey! Hinata-chan! That was so awesome! You even had me fooled for a second!”

Jiraiya sighed, “You're the only person who'd admit that, squirt...”

The blonde boy glared indignantly at Jiraiya.

“Naruto, aren't you going to try?” Haku asked.

The Kyuubi container nodded excitedly, “Yup! I just thought of what I'll do!”

Dramatically, Naruto went to the front of the line and cleared his throat loudly. He carefully made his hand seal, and focused as best he could on the flow of his chakra. Poof!

There hadn't been much of a transformation.

Instead, Naruto stood there wearing a huge grin…

In full Hokage attire.

There was delighted chatter and laughter from his friends, but Jiraiya's eyes nearly bugged out of his head.

“NO WAY IN HELL!” Jiraiya snapped, “I'll be dead before I see you become Hokage!”

“That's true,” Naruto laughed while tipping his hat to the sennin, “You are really old!”

That was the last straw for the toad sage.


The Sandaime had been watching Jiraiya's escapade from his office.

He hadn't expected all of the children to pick up on the jutsu so quickly, but had been pleased to see Naruto's creativity.

“He looks so much like his father...” Hiruzen muttered to himself.

The Hokage watched in entertainment while Jiraiya began to draw Haku into his plan.


“I have to say,” Jiraiya said after knocking Naruto over the head a few times, “You all did surprisingly well!”

Hinata and Sakura smiled excitedly at each other, and Naruto began to rant about how the sennin was a big jerk.

“But really, out of all of you, Haku truly is the most impressive...” Jiraiya continued, “His chakra control is far superior and for a five-year-old he's uniquely intelligent-”

“Six!” Naruto shouted, “And what are you talking about Ero-sennin? I thought we were all awesome!”

“I agree, but his talent far exceeds any of you,” The sennin paused, “Except maybe young Neji here…”

“I don't buy that!” The blonde snapped back, “Haku may be good at some things, but I think that we're all equal for the most part!”

He just didn't get it.

Even so, Haku stoutly agreed with his friend, “Jiraiya-sama, Naruto is right. I'm no better than anyone here.”

It seemed they were all in agreement on the matter.

‘Kids are such a pain...’

“Can you prove that squirt?” Jiraiya smirked at Naruto, “Are you just as strong as your buddy here?”

“I sure am!” Naruto barked and then turned to Haku, “Hey Haku, why don't we have a rematch? You know, from that day in the woods?”

How could he forget?

“Alright,” He nodded, and glanced over at a nearby fountain, “I think I've gotten faster, Naruto...”

“We'll see!”

Seeing that some sort of contest of strength was about to take place (thanks to a bit of prodding on his part) Jiraiya relocated himself and the rest of the group to a nearby bench to watch.

“Haku will win.” Gaara said simply.

Neji nodded and even Sakura agreed, but Hinata protested, “A-Are you sure? Maybe Naruto-kun is r-right...maybe they're the s-same...”

Her friends took the thought into consideration, although it didn't seem likely.

On a silent command, they began.

Naruto charged, ready to barrel into the frail Haku although he was not aiming to hurt him in any way.

Haku held his ground.

‘I'll wait for him to get closer...’

“Hyah!” Naruto leapt at the farm boy who side-stepped the move gracefully.

The clumsy blonde tumbled to the ground but quickly regained his footing. By that time Haku was running in the opposite direction.

Naruto laughed in response, “What? Are you scared or something Haku!”

The Kyuubi container unwittingly followed, not even realizing Haku was once again leading him into a trap.

Curious, Neji turned to Jiraiya, “Why is he running away, Gama-sennin?”

“Oh, you'll see...” Jiraiya anticipated the farm boy's next move.

Naruto was making a round of strange battle cries while he raced to catch up to Haku.

With a knowing smile, Haku jumped up to the large circular fountain and stepped out onto the water. He kept running along the surface, preparing for his attack.

The onlookers (with the exception of Gaara) gasped in surprise as Haku walked on top of the fountain water.

“How can he do that?” Sakura blurted out, not believing what her eyes were seeing.

“Like I said,” The sennin sighed, “That kid has superior chakra control. It’s a skill that takes most graduated genin a while to develop. Haku is not a genin yet.”

“You can't get away this time!” Naruto laughed as he hopped up on the rim of the fountain.

He realized too late that his opponent had been waiting for him.

Haku raised his arms, and thrust them purposefully towards Naruto. Two jets of cold water fired themselves at the blonde boy's face, his usual target.

“Eyaah!” Naruto, blinded, stumbled and fell face-first into the shallow water.

It wasn't wise to fight Haku in his own element.

“This kid is gold...” Jiraiya chuckled to himself, noting that the Hokage was seeing what he was seeing.

Free manipulation of water was a skill unheard of to nearly all ninja...unless one was a descendant from a Water Country clan. Haku's assault on Naruto had confirmed what both Jiraiya and the Hokage had assumed about him.

Sakura immediately asked the question that was on everyone's mind, “Gama-sennin, how can Haku-kun move water like that?”

He was glad to answer, “It is a unique ability of his missy...a Kekkei Genkai. Our young Hyugas here also have a unique blood limit.”

“The Byakugan.” Neji stated, while Hinata nodded.

“So, it's a power only he has?” The pink haired girl asked.

“Fortunately and unfortunately, yes.” The sage told them, “The bright side of that fact is that only Haku will develop this unique skill of his in Konoha, granting the Hokage invaluable information. The sad part is, this means that he has no family and no clan to protect him.”

A sympathetic look appeared on both Hinata and Neji's faces. They could imagine what it would be like to have no clan members to depend on.

Suddenly, a hand shot up from beneath the water and seized Haku's ankle. Before he could give a startled shout, Haku was dragged under the water as well.

Surprised, Jiraiya hopped to his feet, “Whoa, I might have to step in...I didn't think this would get ugly!”

Within seconds, a large blast of water catapulted Naruto out of the fountain and painfully back down to the pavement. The group watched as he sailed through the air like a screaming rocket, and then landed full on his rump.

The sennin sat back down, “Never mind.”

Haku stood up and inhaled a breath of fresh air. He shook his shoulder-length ebony hair out, scattering droplets of water everywhere. He quickly ran to Naruto who was on the ground, soaking wet and rubbing his sore butt.

“Are you alright Naruto? I'm sorry if I-”

The Kyuubi container forced a grin, “Nah! I'm fine Haku! I didn't think you'd blow me out of the water like that...”

Gaara smirked as he stood by Naruto, “I almost thought you had him, Naruto.”

“Almost!” The blonde chuckled.

Neji and Sakura didn't waste a moment going over to Haku and asking him how he had managed such a victory.

Hinata, on the other hand had promptly gone to Naruto as Gaara had.

“Naruto-kun, that was amazing. Y-You and Haku-kun were very closely m-matched.” She said softly to the boy.

He appreciated her consoling words even though he wasn't a sore loser.

“Thanks Hinata-chan!” He gave her a genuine smile of gratitude. She blushed furiously in response.

Gaara rolled his eyes.

“Well squirt, I can't say you didn't have that coming to you.” The sennin was pleased that Naruto had suffered a defeat at the hands of his gentle friend.

“Yeah, yeah, Ero-sennin, but I still think that if there wasn't any water we'd be the same!” Naruto still hadn't been convinced otherwise.

Gaara suddenly had an unusual look about him and he appeared peculiarly anxious. He turned to Haku who was explaining the functions of water-walking.

“Haku, why don't you fight me?”

The farm boy's head snapped around and he looked at Gaara in surprise. Haku was still dripping-wet from the last fracas and now Gaara was ready to have a piece of him?

Haku felt hesitant. Gaara had proved in the Hyuga compound how crafty his sand could be.

He didn't feel he'd be much of a match for him, “I don't know, Gaara…”

Jiraiya noted that the Hokage was still observing, and believed that another match to test Haku's abilities would be something worth seeing.

“Go ahead Haku,” Jiraiya encouraged airily, “You won't hurt him too much.”

Haku didn't find that much incentive. He hadn't even hurt Naruto that badly and it still had bothered him immensely. The thought of physically harming Gaara was vexing.

Gaara, however, just looked antsy to test himself rather than to beat fragile Haku to a bloody pulp.

Haku nodded after a moment, “Okay.”

In seconds, sand began to leak out of Gaara's gourd, and both Haku and the observing Hokage wondered what he had just gotten himself into.

Haku smiled to himself.

It was only a bit of sparring between friends...

What could happen?

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Soundtrack: “Solitude” by Ryuichi Sakamoto

Gaara narrowed his pale green eyes.

Haku was a very worthy opponent.

Not caring that his friends and possibly other villagers were watching him display the terrible power that struck fear into the hearts of the people of Suna, Gaara unleashed a very mild projectile of sand at the Water Country boy.

Haku made a sound that resembled a startled gasp before stumbling back towards the water fountain he had utilized during his bout with Naruto.

'Gaara's sand moves fast like my water!'

Haku waved his arms, raising a defensive wall of water to deflect his opponent's strike. He watched Gaara regroup, his sharp eyes studying his every move.

Every fleeting moment was a chance for Gaara to observe Haku and dissect his strategy. He wanted to turn his own method against him, and avoid that amazing water ability that had so easily throttled Naruto.

The sand pulled away lightly, and the wall of water that had been protecting the dark haired boy splashed uselessly down to the pavement.

It was a sign that he was weakening.

Jiraiya frowned to himself as he watched. Even though Haku had dispatched Naruto quickly the overzealous blonde had clearly tired him out.

Gaara had a fine opportunity to finish what Naruto had started.

Still, Haku had superb chakra control, and a few direct hits would be more than enough to overpower Gaara.

'But the farm boy's chakra is limited, that's for sure...' The sennin noted while watching him retreat to the fountain for cover.

Jiraiya had taken notice that Haku was panting heavily. He wouldn't be able to hold out very long if Gaara decided to get serious.

Apparently that was the case.

“Come on Haku! Whack him! You did it to me!” Naruto cheered his fatigued friend on.

Neji and Hinata looked on apprehensively, while Sakura seemed in awe of Gaara's unique power.

Haku took a deep breath and raised a hand slowly over his head. Gaara vigilantly observed as a stream of water raised itself from the small pool behind the dark haired boy and it lashed out at him suddenly; whip-like almost.

Automatically, Gaara's sand shield surrounded him, nullifying Haku's attack. The red head wasn't entirely expecting it either; his sand sometimes acted on its own accord.

Naruto fell quiet as he watched the next move, unsure of who would come out victorious.

With a soft grunt of effort, Haku raised a number of strands. Three, four, five...Gaara quickly lost count. He could feel a slight jolt as Haku summoned the reserves of his chakra. The red haired boy aimed for patience, understanding Haku was pressing his limits.

Multiple jets of water were fired at Gaara, only to be countered with his wisps of sand. Haku suddenly felt frustrated, this was very different from fighting Naruto.

Very different indeed.

'Just a bit more...' Haku thought to himself while pummeling Gaara's defenses.

The large amount of water he had used had lowered the surface of the fountain slightly, which in turn began to dampen Gaara's sand.

It was Gaara's turn to frown. Haku had again used that sharp wit of his.

His sand steadily became more slow and clumsy: heavy with the weight of the saturated grains.

Like that was going to stop him.

Haku did not stray from the fountain, intending to keep the battle in his preferred element. Gaara wouldn't have it.

Gaara let his sand soar in a wave towards Haku, but his slothful weapon had failed when speed was needed, and reached the fountain after Haku had aptly dodged.

'Well, well...the tables are about to turn, you little sand squirt...’ Jiraiya thought, quite entertained.

Hinata and Sakura gasped as Gaara's sand shot forward relentlessly, delivering a swift, vicious blow.

Reaching into his chakra reserves again, Haku managed another water shield, more spherical; similar to what Gaara had defended himself with.

“He's been watching me too...” Gaara said softly to himself.

Haku was a true challenge and he had quickly earned Gaara's undying respect.

Neji had turned to the toad sennin, “Haku is straining himself.”

Jiraiya nodded, “Yep, and it's actually a good example of what really goes on in the field.”

He momentarily drew the children's attention away from the fight.

“You all want to be ninja right? So understand this: when you're on a mission or get ambushed, you won't always be in the best of health,” The sage said matter-of-factly, “Your enemies will seek to wear you down until you are reduced to your last breath; that I can guarantee you.”

Hinata gulped, “It is so d-dangerous...if you get s-sick or injured...”

Jiraiya shrugged, “Well, that's what medic-nin are for, and sheesh, it's not like every mission has life or death situations, princess.”

The Hyuga girl lowered her eyes, “I know…”

“Don't listen to Ero-sennin, Hinata-chan! He's just trying to scare you!” Naruto stood by her and frowned at the sennin.

She lifted her head and smiled gratefully at the blonde boy.

“Whatever, just hush up and watch.” The sage snapped, restoring the group's attention to the proper place.

'I wonder what Hokage-sama thinks about this match up...' Jiraiya thought.

Haku realized that he had to end the fight or Gaara would end it for him.

'I have to use the last of my chakra...there's no other way I can fight him...' He resolved while watching sand creep around the circumference of the fountain.

Haku dug deep within himself, scraping up the last of his chakra and forcing the water around him to obey. The strain was so immense; his companions could sense the surge of his chakra.

Even the dense blonde could feel it, so he made it known, “What was that? I feel strange all of the sudden.”

“You're feeling Haku's chakra.” Sakura answered simply, unable to withdraw her eyes from the sparring match.

“We all are.” Neji confirmed.

Gaara watched as a vortex of the remainder of the water fountain's contents raised itself like a looming serpent into the air. He grinned to himself.

Now Haku was desperate.

The funnel motion Haku had developed Gaara mimicked with his sand and he launched his counterstrike to meet Haku's. Jiraiya was greatly entertained by how Haku proved valiant in his struggles and how the red head could be nearing victory.

Sand and water collided with a huge force, and the recoil was just as bad for the two combatants. Both boys were forced back a number of feet while deflecting the other's blow. It appeared to be a stalemate.

What Haku hadn't counted on was Gaara's improvisation.

Upon analyzing Haku's fight with Naruto, Gaara was certain that Haku had no proficiency in hand to hand combat. The red haired boy ducked away from the clashing beams of water and sand and ran at Haku. The onlookers were surprised by the full-out assault.

Haku was not at all prepared. He had been preoccupied with his water barrage. Without thinking he exhaled, freezing a puddle on the ground into ice. Gaara slipped on it, but caught himself, and carried on towards Haku.

Gaara's hand balled into a fist and connected solidly with Haku's chest.

Again, the dark haired boy made a startled sound, acknowledging he had been defeated.

Or that's how it looked at first.

“Whoa!” Naruto was in hysterics as Haku stumbled back and collapsed into the fountain, “Gaara just hit Haku!”

Sakura thrust her fist in the air triumphantly, “Yeah! I knew Gaara-kun would win!”

Neji and Hinata were too surprised to form an opinion about the outcome.

Jiraiya, however, had seen it coming from a mile away, 'Damn sand kid...'

Gaara stood on the lip of the fountain, looking down at Haku who struggled to regain his composure. His chakra was nearly depleted and he had no hope of contending physically with the larger, bolder Gaara.

'He out-smarted me...' Haku considered his friend’s strategy, 'He knew that I can't fight without water.'

As painful as it was for him to admit, Gaara had found his weakness. But Haku decided to accept his loss with a smile.

Gaara wasn't smiling.

He hadn't hit Haku hard, but he wanted to.

It had frightened him how he had wanted to hurt Haku. The adrenalin coursing through his veins when he had moved in for his unwarranted punch still left him itching to fight; to attack.

But Haku was down and he didn't look like he could continue.

It was time to stop. He had won. Well done.

Gaara's eyes snapped wide open, 'No! Not you again!'

You wanted to use more chakra. You wanted to hurt him. It pleased me to watch.

'No! I won't hurt Haku! I can't hurt anyone anymore!'

Liar.

Gaara abruptly screamed.

He fell back from the fountain, covering his ears as if he were listening to some terrifying sound that only he could hear. It instantly frightened his companions.

“Gaara-kun?” Sakura was alarmed at the sight.

Jiraiya felt his stomach leap into his throat, 'Has the Tanuki decided to resurface?'

They looked on in confusion as Gaara stumbled to the ground as if stricken. He was thrashing wildly and crying out like he was being attacked.

“Sand kid...” The sennin muttered while he hurried over to the flailing child.

“No! No!” Gaara was rolling around, raking his hands through his hair.

Don't push me away, it's useless.

'No! You're evil!'

I am not evil. I simply want what I want.

Haku wobbled to his feet and watched Gaara sob his eyes out on the sidewalk. He felt a little guilty for some reason, although he wasn't exactly sure why Gaara was in a panic in the first place. 'Gaara didn't hit me that hard...I'm alright.' He confirmed.

Jiraiya bent down to the red haired boy, “Hold still squirt, you'll be alright.”

Gaara was inconsolable. His sand thrashed about as well, giving the sage a few painful blows to the face.

“No more fighting for a while, kid.” Jiraiya grabbed hold of his arm, “This seal of yours isn't stable like the blonde squirt's is.”

Haku ran over to Jiraiya who was busy performing a four-point sealing technique to restrain Gaara's weakened seal. Due to the boy’s screaming Haku couldn't tell if it was Jiraiya who may have been hurting him.

“Gaara!” Naruto rushed to him with Sakura in tow, not understanding what had happened.

Neji made Hinata keep her distance and she protested.

“It isn't safe, Hinata-sama,” He said gently, “We'll wait for things to calm down before we get closer.”

Not as if he wasn't concerned for Gaara's well-being, but primarily he felt that it would be worse if he failed to insure the safety of his cousin. Gaara had already given Jiraiya a mouthful of sand at that point.

The sealing was done quickly and before Gaara had another moment to scream the exertion left him unconscious.

Haku, Naruto and Sakura had no idea what had taken place.

“What's wrong with Gaara-kun?” Sakura demanded.

Haku's voice shook, “Did I...hurt him?”

“No, it wasn't you Haku,” Jiraiya assured him, lifting Gaara up, “I can't explain it right now-”

“You better explain it, Ero-sennin!” Naruto hollered in the old ninja's face, “Gaara was screaming like...I don't know! If you know something then tell us!”

Jiraiya sighed, “All I can tell you squirts is that the sand kid needs, er- 'medical' attention. You all wait here. I'm taking him to see the Hokage.”

In a cloud of smoke, Jiraiya had disappeared with Gaara, leaving five very puzzled children behind. Neji and Hinata joined their companions.

“W-What happened t-to Gaara-kun?” The Hyuga heiress asked.

Naruto grimaced, “We don't know. Ero-sennin wouldn't tell us.”

Haku was quiet, still believing that he had somehow caused Gaara's fit.

“Something was wrong with his chakra,” Neji pointed out, “Didn't you feel it? It grew and he started to panic.”

Sakura nodded in agreement, “Yeah, I noticed it too. I...I just hope he's okay...”

“Hokage-sama and Gama-sennin w-will look after him, Sakura-chan.” Hinata said softly.

Naruto grinned, “Yeah, we've seen Gaara worse! This one time he fell out of this cloud-thingy and when Haku and I found him he looked horrible. I think he'll be okay though!”

Although it had only been about two hours since Naruto and his company prevented him from getting the Caged Bird seal, Neji decided that they had seen enough excitement for the day.

“I hope that Gaara-san feels better soon,” Neji said honestly, “Hinata-sama and I should probably be going home now.”

Hinata gave her cousin a bothered look, but then nodded to him.

“Thank you for all of your h-help,” Hinata smiled, “I w-would like it if we could see each other again sometime s-soon.”

Naruto gave her his foxy grin, “Sure thing Hinata-chan! How does tomorrow sound?”

She nodded, “That s-sounds perfect.”

“Goodbye.” Neji bade their friends farewell before leading his cousin along for her training.

Hinata smiled to herself as she thought, 'Neji-niisan didn't get the Caged Bird seal...and I can show father the jutsu Gama-sennin showed us! I hope Gaara-kun will be alright...'

It looked like it was going to be a good day.


After their Hyuga friends had departed, Sakura turned to a crestfallen Haku.

“Haku-kun, are you alright?” She asked.

Haku sat down on the rim of the currently empty fountain and sighed. He was exhausted, bruised and out of chakra. Of course he was alright.

“I just...I don't know if I hurt Gaara somehow.” He confessed his guilt.

Naruto folded his arms, “Gaara has been like this before, remember?  When we first met Ero-sennin?”

Haku looked up at him, “Oh yes! He was acting strangely then too...”

Sakura was baffled, “What happened when you first met him?”

“See Gaara was really sick or something when he first showed up,” Naruto summed up the events, “So we had to take care of him.”

“And he doesn't sleep.” Haku added.

Again, she was perplexed, “What do you mean he doesn't sleep? How can someone not sleep?”

Naruto shrugged, “Gaara’s weird like that. He just doesn't.”

“I don't think he can sleep Naruto, at least recently,” Haku corrected, “He's afraid to.”

The blonde scratched his head, “Oh yeah...he said that he hears voices, didn't he?”

Sakura frowned. She was growing more and more concerned for the red haired boy. Besides having to put up with Naruto's denseness and Haku's brilliance, she knew little of any other obstacles he may have faced.

“I don't think that you hurt Gaara that bad anyway...” Naruto continued, “I mean, it looked like he was the one beating you up Haku!”

Haku brushed a spot of wet sand from his forearm, “I suppose so.”

“If you weren't tired, you would've beaten Gaara-kun I think,” Sakura added, “Naruto just happens to be really good at messing things up.”

The blonde huffed at the pink haired girl, “What's that supposed to mean?”

“If you hadn't made Haku-kun run around like crazy before, Gaara-kun wouldn't have hurt him so badly!” Sakura retorted.

“So what if Gaara is super strong?” Naruto looked at Haku's bruised face, “Haku looks fine to me!”

Haku couldn't help but smile, which only added to Sakura's annoyance.

“Boys...” She muttered to herself, not understanding how they could be so ignorant.

Naruto seemed to be on his own level of brainlessness at times.

“Is anyone else hungry?” Haku asked, hoping to lighten the mood.

“Yeah!” The Kyuubi container had only one thing in mind, “Why don't we go to Ichiraku Ramen and eat? That place is supposed to be great!”

“Um, Naruto-kun, we don't have any money…” The pink haired girl sighed.

Disappointment washed over his face. The cruelty of the material world hath no mercy on even children.

“But I guess we can go to my house and eat!” Sakura quickly added, not wanting to dampen her friends' spirits.

Haku nodded, but Naruto looked hesitant.

“I thought your parents didn't like me, Sakura-chan.” Naruto reminded her.

She frowned and then resolved, “Oh, well, we can just eat outside then...I don't care what they say!”

Naruto's grin reassured Haku and Sakura that he held no grudge against the less hospitable people of Konoha.

Haku followed behind Naruto and Sakura. They led him around, showing him their places of interest, which included numerous ramen stands and even the Ninja Academy.

While excitedly explaining to Haku that in a few days they would attend the Ninja Academy together, Naruto noticed a familiar face quietly traveling down the opposite side of the street.

Sakura looked at the distracted blonde, “What is it now, Naruto-kun?”

She and Haku looked curiously towards the distraction. It was a boy with raven black hair, and equally dark eyes. He was walking by himself.

Naruto's mouth acted on its own, “Hey! Sasuke!”

“Do you know him?” Haku asked, impressed that Naruto knew so many people.

Sasuke looked up, nearly startled, and watched Naruto jog across the street and fall in step with him. A girl with pink hair and another young boy followed him.

The young Uchiha recognized the loud blonde after a moment, “Oh...hello Naruto.”

Naruto was grinning again, “Hey Sasuke, I didn't get to thank you for calling off those Chunin from a while ago!”

The other boy nodded, remembering how Naruto had been attacked for no apparent reason. Sakura and Haku, however, had no idea what their loud friend was talking about.

“It was no trouble,” Sasuke answered simply, “Uh...how have you been?”

He could only guess what had happened to Naruto during the time he had disappeared with no explanation for over a week.

“Great! I went to train by myself for a while!” Naruto answered, “Oh, and here are my friends: Haku,” He gestured to the dark haired boy, “And Sakura-chan!” The girl with the pink hair nodded to him.

Sasuke had seen Sakura around town once or twice, but he had never seen the likes of Haku before, “Are you from around here, Haku?”

The dark haired boy shook his head, “No, my homeland is in the Water Country. I came here for ninja training.”

The Uchiha boy wondered to himself why he had come to Konoha rather than train in the Hidden Mist Village he had been told about. He chose not to say anything about it.

Frail-looking Haku didn't at first appear to be ninja material in Sasuke's opinion, “You want to be a ninja?”

He nodded and Naruto added, “Yeah, we're all gonna be ninja!”

“That's right.” Sakura agreed.

A small glimmer of pride flickered across Sasuke's face, “I'm going to be a shinobi too.”

It seemed to be a recurring goal around Konoha, Haku figured.

The raven haired boy turned around and displayed the fan emblem on his back. Sakura was the only one who remotely recognized it.

“I've mastered a fire jutsu that my father taught me,” Sasuke announced proudly, “So he has allowed me to wear the Uchiha clan crest.”

“A fire jutsu?” Haku was interested. How many types of jutsu were there?

“Hey! We can use the Transformation jutsu!” Naruto was beaming, “And Haku can do this cool thing with water...”

“Why don't we show each other our jutsu then?” Sasuke asked, “I was going back home, would you like to come with me?”

Sakura was excited, “You'll let us go with you to the Uchiha estate?”

He smiled at her, “Sure, it'll be fun.”

Haku was very interested in seeing a fire jutsu as well as making another friend, “I'd like to see your home, Sasuke.”

Naruto nodded, “Yeah! And, uh...could we maybe get something to eat?”

Sasuke gave him a puzzled look, “...alright.”

The sun had set the street lamps buzzed on.

On the way to the Uchiha compound, Naruto and Haku described their meeting (as well as an absent Gaara) to Sasuke and Sakura. The story entailed the kindness of Hiroshi and the perverted ways of the toad sennin Jiraiya.

“Naked ladies?” Sasuke was befuddled by the stories of the old sage.

Naruto disliked recalling Jiraiya's vulgar hobby, “Yeah, the guy's totally gross! Gaara knocked him out of the tree then so he'd stop looking at-”

“He did it twice?” Sakura asked, “I didn't know Gaara-kun tried to beat up Gama-sennin more than once.”

“Gaara isn't afraid of Jiraiya-sama at all.” Haku explained, wondering why that was.

“Yeah! He's great like that!” Naruto laughed, remembering how Gaara had so easily made a fool of the sage.

Sasuke would make it a point to meet this 'Gaara' they were talking about one day.

After turning onto a street that led into the Uchiha district, Sasuke noticed the uncanny silence. It was very out of place.

Naruto kept on talking, oblivious to the worried look on the other boy's face.

He paused. A foreboding feeling sunk into the pit of his stomach. Usually, at that point in the day, Sasuke was used to returning home and hearing the chatter of his kinsmen. He hadn't been expecting the stillness of the place.

“Is everything alright Sasuke?” Sakura looked at him quizzically, as did Haku.

Sasuke frowned to himself, “It's just that...”

He couldn't put his finger on it. He took a few hesitant steps onward. Maybe he was imagining things?

He had just gained his father's approval and met Naruto and his friends. It was possible this feeling of uneasiness was temporary, caused by the new changes in his life. That was what he was thinking until a metallic smell caught his attention.

You can feel a change but you can't smell it. Can you?

Suddenly he felt nervous, and somewhat embarrassed that he broke out into a paranoid run in front of his companions, who only shouted after him in confusion as he tore down the street.

'It's alright. I had a long day...Maybe I'm just-'

Sasuke finally stopped at the end of the ally and rounded the corner.

The smell, the smell...

You can smell change.

“Sasuke-san, are you okay?” Haku asked after he, Sakura and Naruto had caught up to him.

He said nothing.

Haku almost took it as a rude gesture. After all, he and his friends were worried and didn't find running around a way to be welcomed into someone's home. He could at least nod his head if he didn't feel like talking.

Naruto was about to speak up about finding a snack when he had turned to look at the street before them. He didn’t want to believe his eyes.

They were all lying on the ground.

A hush fell upon the four children, and for a solid minute they stood, surveying the countless corpses lining the entire street. There were so many, old and young alike, dead and still and laying as if some cruel artist had painted them into such graceful positions.

Dark hair hid many of their faces from view, but those less fortunate had eyes open wide and glassy like red and beautiful marbles. Crimson covered the clothing of every individual, their throats and sides torn open.

The sight and smell made Sakura nearly gag.

Haku felt his stomach heave and he was sick on the side of the road for a moment. Naruto stood by him, a dark look on his face, not caring that the farm boy had almost vomited on his shoes.

“What happened?” The blonde's voice was barely above a whisper.

What had happened?

Sasuke felt compelled to casually ask his auntie Shizu who was only a few meters away that very question. He came to the hasty conclusion she would be unable to answer; she was slumped over on the ground just past her doorway, surrounded by a ruby pool.

He was suffering from a complete mental shutdown. How had this happened? Were they all dead?

They couldn't all be dead. There were so many people in the Uchiha clan; some may have been on missions...

Sasuke was trying to fool himself and failing miserably. Many of his immediate family: grandmother, uncle, cousin…they were present and unmoving.

Dead.

The word stung his thoughts. He had never had to think about death before.

'What if mother and father...?' His heart was hammering, 'What if...Itachi! Is he alright? I've got to find them!'

Sasuke bolted down the road, completely forgetting his companions.

It was true, he loved his parents, but he would be unable to bear the death of his beloved older brother. His image gave speed to his feet.

“Wait! It isn't safe!” Sakura cried and followed him without a moment’s hesitation.

“Eh? Where are you going?” Naruto was just about ready to run after the two, before realizing that Haku was bent double at his feet, “Haku?”

The dark haired boy was shaking uncontrollably, and his dark eyes were wide and misty.

Blood.

The smell and the sight of it…it made him remember so vividly, so perfectly the death of his parents. He had no way to remind himself that this was another person's family, or that they were possibly in a lot of danger themselves staying there.

He was drowning in the inescapable and gruesome memories of his parents and their final moments. Haku lurched forward, bawling at the top of his lungs and giving Naruto a terrible headache.

“Whoa! Haku! What's the matter?” Naruto took the trembling farm boy by the shoulders and gently shook him, desperate to snap him out of his sudden fit.

His mother: stabbed to death. His father: skewered on a shaft of ice.

Haku could see them so plainly, as if they were standing in front of him, and he could even hear his father's distant, accusing voice.

It was all his fault.

Monster.

“NO!” Haku sobbed helplessly onto Naruto's shoulder.

The blonde began to realize that they would be unable to follow after Sasuke and Sakura, and even worse, they wouldn't be able to leave the scene of the tragedy until Haku overcame his haphazard nervous breakdown.


“Sasuke!” Sakura had lost sight of the Uchiha boy after he made a sudden right turn down another street, “Where are you?”

They had left the streets, and had ventured towards the main house of the Uchiha clan. There were fewer bodies out in the open, but the smell of blood hung thick in the air.

She was scared. Losing track of Sasuke could mean his death. Her head was spinning. What would become of Haku and Naruto? Were they safe?

And Sasuke had run off without saying anything.

'I hope they're alright...' Sakura tried to keep her thoughts ordered while she ran around the outside of the houses of the complex, 'Haku and Naruto can look after each other, but Sasuke is all alone and...I have to find him!'


Sasuke flew down the paths of the Uchiha homestead, sweat pouring down the sides of his face.

“Mother? Father?” He found himself calling out into the silence of the place, disturbed by every dead body so carelessly abandoned in the rooms he passed by.

They really were dead.

And not just dead: someone had killed them. Weapons were strewn about; there were signs of a struggle.

Someone powerful, who could kill dozens of ninja quickly and easily had done this for a reason he couldn't even fathom.

Cold-hearted murder; the murder of his clan.

The desperation he felt made him scream, “Itachi! Please be alright! Itachi!”

Only silence.

His feet thudded hard against pavement as he raced down another alleyway.

“Aniki! Please!”

Suddenly, fear made him wise. He had made himself a perfect target if the killer was still present, by calling out to his family members.

Sasuke didn't make a sound as he entered the courtyard of his home.

'Please be alright...Please be alright...'

The front porch was bare. In silence he moved towards the house, racing to find his loved ones.

He thought he could hear his own heart beating in his head like a sledgehammer as he stood outside the door of his parents’ room. It was closed and it was quiet.

“Mother?” He whispered, wondering if his parents were even in their room at a time like this.

Sasuke was shaking badly as he slowly pulled open the door. He only took a half-step forward before freezing where he stood.

It was dark and they were there.

The silence burned his ears.

His eyes darted to the two figures ahead of him on the floor. They were piled one on top of another, and there was the metallic smell again.

But oh, sweet relief found him for the briefest of moments as he saw his brother with them, standing up and he seemed perfectly fine.

“Itachi?” He murmured.

After a moment, he could see better in the dim light. Itachi stood there, wearing a blank expression, with his swirling red eyes aglow in the darkness. He was wearing his Black-Ops armor.

His sword was drawn and bloody and it was then Sasuke understood.

His parents and everyone of his clan...they were all dead.

Itachi had killed them.

“No...” Sasuke said softly, shaking his head, “H-How...?”

He could only stare at his older brother's emotionless face as he stood mere feet away from him. Itachi slowly sheathed his sword without a word, and Sasuke watched, fixated with his parents' bodies.

He wanted comfort and justification; to beg Itachi to tell him why he could ever do such a terrible thing to his own family.

But this was not Itachi.

Before him stood an evil, heartless creature that had crawled into his beloved brother's skin and slain so many people for no reason.

Itachi was the caring older brother who acknowledged him and spent time with him. Itachi was a genius and his role model and his friend.

Itachi was not a murderer.

Something in his older brother's eyes told him that Itachi already knew what he was thinking. Sasuke also understood in an instant that his brother could not justify what he had done, for whatever reason.

“Why…why did you do this?” The boy cried.

“To measure my own capacity.” His brother’s voice was calm.

“You mean…you would kill everyone just for that purpose?”

“It’s essential.”

Sasuke felt that his death would be nothing more than a favor on his brother's part. The least Itachi could do would be to kill him quickly and reunite him with his parents and end his heartbreak.

“How could you do this!” Sasuke screamed, holding the sides of his head as he wept.

In response, a shuriken shot past him, and Sasuke felt a cut open on his arm.

“Foolish little brother.”

The words made his heart stop. Itachi's stoic face was tearing him to pieces. Did he feel nothing? Not even an ounce of regret for killing his clan?

Sasuke couldn't bring himself to look away from the red, swirling pools and soon knew why it had been a huge mistake.

“Tsukuyomi.”

Sasuke felt himself being surrounded by a world of shadows and he could feel the seething aura of his older brother all around him. He couldn't move or speak.

He had found himself trapped inside a world that was completely controlled and projected by his older brother. It was a world that perfectly resembled the Uchiha compound. An illusion.

'...what?'

His family members were near, all of them standing up and alive. Everyone just stood there, not doing much of anything.

And then there was Itachi, in full ANBU attire, standing in the middle of the street.

Without any sort of warning, Itachi began to kill them, one by one, letting Sasuke witness the piercing screams of agony as they were cleaved and gutted.

Their blood flecked the ground like scarlet rain drops.

And Sasuke watched in terror as Itachi effortlessly ended the lives of his family members.

He looked on in dread as his parents attempted to plead with their eldest son, but to no avail.

His parents were cut down. He had to view every last lurid detail of the annihilation of the Uchiha clan.

They all died terrible, painful deaths.

And he was next.

In a matter of seconds Sasuke was released from Tsukuyomi, and he stumbled down to the floor in a state of mental collapse.

“P-Please...don't kill me!” Sasuke was sobbing, fearing for his life and grieving for his family.

Itachi did not move and said nothing to his younger brother.

Sasuke's legs felt as limp and useless as wet paper, but he felt such an instinctual drive come over him that he was almost shocked when he was able to stand up.

He was shuddering like a leaf in the autumn wind.

“Don't kill me!”

When he saw that his brother still had made no motion to harm him, he didn't give it a second thought.

Sasuke fled.

He ran until his legs failed him and he tripped and fell to the dusty ground outside, sobbing and screaming, and begged any higher powers to allow him to wake from such a disastrous nightmare.

When he looked down the alley ahead of him Itachi had caught up to him. Sasuke froze.

“You have potential sleeping inside of you...to become an opponent that can truly test my limits. You’ve been filled with jealousy and hatred in the hope of surpassing me…that’s why I’m letting you live.”

Sasuke listened with tears streaming down his cheeks.

“Foolish little brother, if you truly wish to kill me: Hate me. Detest me. Live a wretched, miserable existence and run. Run and cling to life…” Itachi told him, “And when you finally obtain the same ‘eyes’ as me, come before me once more!”

His older brother fell silent again and Sasuke’s tears ended. What choice would he have but to take Itachi up on the proposition? His knees quaked but he made himself stand upright and stare at the terrifying man in front of him. He felt motivation and energy surging inside his chest.

And after a moment his surroundings were illuminated with perfect clarity. Though Sasuke was unaware of it, his irises dyed red and a single tomoe swirled in each eye. He watched his brother suddenly leap away, finally trying to make his escape.

If he was going to be allowed to live then what did he have to lose? He gave chase.

“Get back here!” The boy shouted.

Sasuke sprang, pulling stray kunai knives from the wooden fence beside him, and bounded over the complex wall after his brother. With precision he had never known before, Sasuke hurled the weapons at his brother’s head.

Itachi was taken aback. He handily blocked two of the kunai with his sword. The third brushed the back of his head, cutting the tie of his headband and a few strands of black hair. Itachi’s hitai-ate fell to the ground and he kneeled down to retrieve it.

The burst of energy faded and Sasuke collapsed again, holding his injured arm as he watched his brother retie his headband. He sat panting on the walkway and Itachi turned to him.

His face was distraught. A tear trailed down his cheek.

Sasuke swooned and felt the world go black.


Sakura tripped over a garbage can ungracefully when she heard a yell outdoors. She stood up and brushed her knees off, looking over her shoulder towards the origin of the sound.

'What in the world is going on here?' She slipped down an alleyway as quietly as she could manage, 'Is anyone alive? Who was shouting? Oh...I have to find Sasuke!'

There had never been a time in her life in which she had wanted her parents near her so badly. All the death and gore was making her feel violently ill, and the only way she could bring herself to ignore the bloody chaos was the thought that her friends could be in mortal danger.

For a moment she questioned herself, weighing her chances of survival in a possible death trap, and felt stupid that she hadn't sent for help or looked for any signs of life or...anything rational that she could have done.

Nope. Irrationality went hand in hand with the actions of a frightened little girl.

At the time she had seen Sasuke take off like a bullet, she hadn't thought of the consequences of following him...or getting lost in a huge clan estate full of dead people.

Sakura considered herself at the moment, and rightfully so, more foolish than brave, but resolved that it would be better to find Sasuke and escape rather than to not find Sasuke and escape.

The makings of a kunoichi: guts and blind devotion.

Sakura hopped up stairs to a new part of the district. It was empty. She didn't see any more bodies...or Sasuke. Knowing that calling out to him could warrant her death, or possibly her friends' deaths, she mentally kicked herself for not having a backup plan.

'Think Sakura! Think! What would Haku-kun do?'

Haku's brilliant mind would have made her search a lot easier if she hadn't left him behind (or had he not had a nervous breakdown). But no, she had to focus on the task at hand. There was a good chance she could find her mark, and leave the Uchiha compound unscathed, that was, if she found him at all.

'Okay...what would Sasuke do? If I came home to...to this...what would I do?' Sakura took a moment to organize her thoughts, 'I...well...I'd look for my mom and dad...wait! He must have-!'

From behind the barrel she had been using for cover, she surveyed the other side of the street and laid eyes on a small figure on the ground. Sakura leapt from her hiding place and dashed across a small pebble garden to where Sasuke had fallen.

“Sasuke!”

Darn, and she thought Naruto was dense. At that moment, she felt like she understood the blonde and his big mouth a little better. Sakura just couldn't help herself at the time.

She kneeled down next to him placed a hand on his shoulder. He drew a breath and she exhaled in relief, glad that he was alive. He was sweating and unconscious. His upper left arm was bleeding.

“Sasuke-kun?” Her voice was soft, “Wake up! What happened?”

He leaned into her arms as his eyes peaked open. He had a far-off expression and did not seem to be completely aware of where he was.

“Did he…leave?”

“Did who leave?”

“Am I dead?”

“No! You’re okay.” Sakura consoled him, “I won’t let anything happen to you.”

“...h-he killed them.” His voice cracked. Exhausted, his head dropped and he lost consciousness again.

He was definitely in bad shape, Sakura determined. She wrapped him in a tight, sympathetic hug before hooking his arms in her own. She pulled him away from the center of the road and over to a low porch. Sakura laid him flat, supposing that she would not be able to get him away from the estate by herself. To leave and find help may also be dangerous.

‘This is terrible. He just wanted to be friends with us and exchange jutsu…show us his home…’ Sakura thought sadly, ‘Why did the day he met us turn out to be his worst day?’

In spite of the horrible massacre that had taken place, Sasuke had at least made one friend. In the brief moments he had woken to inquire about his safety, Sakura’s face was immediately engraved in his mind and associated with care and protection. While he had forgotten a detail or two about his brother; Sakura, at least, remained.

Sakura deliberated on how to act next. She willed herself not to cry, although she knew how she would feel if she had come home to find her family murdered. Keeping her composure was no easy task. She needed help, but she was unsure of how she was going to get it. It was still unclear if the danger had passed, ‘Sasuke is hurt but he’s alive…did the killer leave like he said?’

They had only just met and it felt like a piece of her had been forcibly ripped away, and all she wanted to do was sit there and hold the Uchiha boy, and pray that somehow they could leave the compound alive.

“Sasuke, I'm sorry that this happened to you.” Her words were quiet, “I’m sure you and your family didn’t deserve it. I hope whoever did it pays…and I am sorry that I may not be able to get you away from here.”

She felt the soft raven spikes of his hair brush against her hand while she attempted to fortify her nerves. His breaths were quiet. Sakura surveyed the area thoughtfully before she stood up.

“I’ll go as fast I can and get you some help!” She was determined, “Hang in there! I’ll be back.”


“Come on Haku! Wake up!” Naruto shook Haku by the shoulders, attempting to revive him.

The farm boy had passed out after he had seen the dead bodies lining the street, and Naruto had sat there, frantically trying to wake him up.

It wasn't working.

“This is bad.” Naruto looked around and shuddered, “All of these people...”

Haku was deathly pale, and the way he had freaked at the macabre scene hadn't made Naruto feel any more at ease.

'Haku may be smart and strong, but...' The blonde shook his head, 'Jeez, he just totally flipped out!'

He was about ready to 'flip out' as well. Naruto had never been acquainted with death before, and he wasn't sure how he should handle it. He could throw up in an effort to relieve his anxiety like Haku had, or he could run around like Sasuke and Sakura and hope that this was all a bad dream.

Neither option seemed very appealing to him.

“Where did Sakura-chan and Sasuke go anyway?” Naruto frowned.

The thought had crossed his mind that they could be in danger or something worse. He could not do much about it with Haku out of commission

He propped Haku up in a sitting position against a wall and sat down next to him, trying to avoid the sight of all the lifeless people down the road. Naruto felt bile rise in his throat, maybe he was going to be sick like Haku.

His nausea immediately passed when he saw Sakura sprint down the street towards him. Naruto grinned in relief and jumped to his feet.

“Hey! Where did you go?” He raised his eyebrows, “Sasuke isn’t with you?”

Sakura gave him an update, “Sasuke needs help. He’s alright but he’s unconscious and I can’t move him…”

Naruto glanced over to Haku, who was still out cold, “I know that feeling. Haku’s been out too but I don’t know if we can just leave him here…man this is annoying.”

Sakura crossed her arms and tapped her foot while she thought. How terribly inconvenient that only two people were awake and functioning! Only one solution came to mind.

“Naruto-kun, I need you to do something very important okay?” Sakura spoke up in a strange take-charge sort of voice.

He looked at her, responding to her confidence.

“I'll stay here. I’m going to keep trying to wake Haku up and maybe he can help me get Sasuke out of here. If not…we can just wait for help.” She explained, “But I need you to go find Hokage-sama as fast as you can and tell him what happened here!” Sakura's command was straightforward enough and he understood.

“You’ve got to be careful, okay Sakura-chan? We don’t know if it’s safe yet.” Naruto replied, “But I will! I’ll hurry, you can count on it!”

And he was off at top speed. Thank goodness for that boundless energy of his…

She kneeled down beside Haku and began tapping his cheeks with wake-up slaps.

‘Hurry back, Naruto. I’m not sure what happened…but this could be bad for the entire village…’

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Soundtrack: “Reflection Eternal” by Nujabes

“Sheesh, this kid is a load of trouble...” Jiraiya sighed while rubbing the back of his head, “Maybe he should be sent back to Suna, you know, so that way we can-”

“This child will stay here until I decide otherwise, Jiraiya...” The Hokage said sternly. He took a drag on his pipe and closed his eyes for a moment.

The red haired boy was passed out on a maroon armchair, curled in a ball and twitching from time to time.

The toad sennin sighed. What was he thinking? Bringing such an unpredictable jinchuriki into the Hidden Leaf Village wasn't his best idea. Certainly he had a fair understanding of the boy's ability to cause mayhem with his sand, having experienced it firsthand on a number of occasions, but he hadn't taken his plight seriously.

Jiraiya hadn't anticipated the instability of the boy's seal to actually hurt the boy.

It just looked like he was able to hurt others.

But the Sandaime was adamant in keeping Gaara's presence in Konoha quiet, even if it would be extremely difficult.

“The boy's seal can't be fully repaired,” Hiruzen continued, “However I will be able to restrict a majority of the biju's chakra. He will need a great amount of training in chakra control.”

Jiraiya smirked, “I saw to that myself and he's not doing that bad either.”

The Hokage turned to face his former pupil, “Even so, was it wise to pit him against the Water Country child? They may be young Jiraiya, but that makes them no less...destructive.”

“No one cared about that sissy fountain anyway.” The sennin muttered, recalling how Haku had ravaged it for its water.

The Hokage frowned, “They've barely spent one day here, and already there are property damages...”

Gaara rolled over on the cushions and made a small sleepy sound.

“Heh, I can see why Naruto gets along with those two so well.” Jiraiya chuckled, “Hopefully, they'll have enough sense to avoid becoming pranksters like him.”

The Sandaime nodded absently while examining Gaara's arm. With a heavy sigh he set the boy's arm back down and took a seat behind his desk.

“It is in a moment like this that I am truly in awe of the Yondaime's work.” Hiruzen said softly, “This boy won't be near as fortunate as Naruto. His seal will still be considerably weaker.”

Jiraiya had faith, “The sand squirt can tough it out.”

In the same moment the Sandaime made a motion to adjust his hat, the door to his office flew open with a resonating thud, and a flustered-looking child barreled in, unable to catch his breath. Black-Ops guards outside were still shouting at the disobedient boy as he hurriedly entered the Hokage's office.

For a long moment, Naruto stared at Jiraiya, nearly at a loss for words.

He couldn't quite explain what was on his mind, or how he could make anyone understand what had happened.

“I...uh...” Naruto was still panting. His face was scrunched up in recognizable fear and what looked like a hint of anger.

The sage looked at the blonde boy oddly, 'Oh right...I haven’t been gone for that long. What could've happened?'

Jiraiya as well as the Third regarded Naruto silently for another long moment.

'Uh oh, maybe Haku found another water source to demolish...' The sennin thought, hoping he wouldn't be the one to pay for any more damages.

His cerulean eyes locked onto the Sandaime, “Hokage-sama! So many people! All of them!”

The Hokage looked at Naruto puzzled, while waiting for him to inhale more air. Apparently the matter was very urgent.

Naruto began again, more clearly, “Hokage-sama, the people in Sasuke's clan! All of them are dead! There were bodies lying in the street, we couldn't do anything-”

“What the hell are you talking about kid?” Jiraiya had never seen Naruto act in such a manner.

The blonde boy was livid, “Don't you hear what I'm telling you old man? Hurry up! Someone killed them all and we have to go back because Haku and everyone could be in trouble!”

The sage was confounded. Poor Naruto had to be the bearer of bad news.

The Hokage looked highly disturbed. Even though he had been making great efforts in the past months to protect the Uchiha clan and avoid an uprising, the unthinkable had occurred. Even Jiraiya could not know of this failure. The implications could be disastrous.

“Is this true, Naruto? What you saw?” Hiruzen asked for confirmation.

Naruto didn't even notice Gaara fast asleep in the armchair beside him; now wasn't the time for the adults to be acting stupid.

“At the Uchiha place!” Naruto screamed, upset that he wasn't being understood, “The people that live there: they're dead! Whoever killed them might still be there!”

The statement made things a bit clearer for the Hokage. There had been other recent Uchiha deaths but at staggered intervals. The final blow had arrived. Hiruzen was particularly troubled that young children had come across the massacre.

The Hokage nodded, “I see, Naruto. You will lead Jiraiya to wherever your friends are and insure their safety. I will send an ANBU squadron as well to investigate.”

Jiraiya gave the Sandaime a dubious look, “Do you really think-?”

“Go.” The Hokage had a great amount of trust in the young boy, “I need to contact the squadron leader. You will be faster.”

The toad sennin looked to the blonde boy and observed the shattered expression on his face. Where most children so young are oblivious to death and murder, Naruto's face made it apparent that what he had seen was no figment of his imagination.

Jiraiya lowered his voice, “...alright. Lead the way, kid.”

His frustration ended and Naruto nodded fervently, with a new respect for the sage. Jiraiya followed the anxious boy out of the office quickly and Hiruzen took another long drag on his pipe.

A Black-Ops guard poked his masked face into the office, wondering what had happened, “Sir?”

The Hokage gazed absently at Gaara for a moment and sighed.

The Third gave his attention to the puzzled ANBU, “Listen carefully, I doubt I can stress the seriousness of this situation...”


“Sakura-chan! Haku!”

The children looked gratefully at Naruto as he bounded back with Jiraiya. Sakura was relieved Naruto had done it so quickly. She had managed to wake Haku up, and although he had been horrified by their surroundings, assisted her in carrying Sasuke to the entrance of the estate. He was still unconscious.

Naruto kneeled down beside his careworn friends, “Hey guys, was everything alright while I was gone?”

“I guess,” Sakura answered softly, “We have to leave this place. It's so quiet and it just...it's scary.”

“Do you mind explaining to me what happened?” Jiraiya folded his arms across his chest and looked down at the children.

Haku and Naruto sat side by side, unable to completely describe the situation.

Sakura sat with Sasuke’s head in her lap. Her expression was somber.

“Well, Gama-sennin...” She looked up meekly at Jiraiya, “Sasuke invited us to go home with him so we could show each other our jutsu...”

“So we did.” Naruto added.

“And when we got here just down there,” Sakura pointed to a street down further, “There are bodies all over the place...Sasuke's family.”

“Hm, I figured...” The sennin’s voice was grim.

“Someone killed them!” Naruto growled, “Whoever did it, I'll...I'll make them pay!”

Jiraiya looked Naruto square in the eye, “Oh really? Use your heads! Whoever is responsible could make short work of all of you. Staying here is the last thing you should've considered.”

“But we couldn't leave without Haku-kun and Sasuke-kun!” Sakura retorted, “And someone had to go tell the Hokage!”

Naruto nodded in full agreement, “Yeah!”

“So while Shorty here came to find me, the rest of you squirts could be turned into chopped liver or worse, am I right?” Jiraiya snorted, “But whatever, the point is you're alive...but you can’t make a habit of risking yourselves that way.”

Even if Jiraiya didn't do a good job of showing it, he did care for the safety of his misfit kids.

“Hey Sakura-chan, is Sasuke alright?” Naruto noticed the sleeping Uchiha survivor in her care.

She glanced at the raven haired boy before answering, “I think he is. I guess he just couldn't take it anymore.”

Naruto's startled gasp interrupted her when he noted a number of lithe, dark figures in masks darting across the rooftops. After a moment he relaxed, recognizing them from when he had barged uninvited into the Hokage's office.

The blonde boy turned to the sennin and observed the grave expression on his face.

“What are they going to do?” Naruto asked the sage.

“ANBU Black-Ops teams are the first to appear at a crime scene this horrific. The Hokage relies on these elite ninja to get to the bottom of matters quickly and guarantee the safety of the village, Naruto.” The sennin elaborated, “Sadly they will only be trying to solve this murder, considering that they arrived too late. I don’t expect someone your age to really understand the role of Black-Ops in our village.”

Even if Naruto took every opportunity to reprimand Jiraiya’s perverted antics, he was still comforted to know that the man was looking out for them.

He felt more nervous than ever, seeing ANBU forces descend on the scene swiftly and silently to examine the bodies of the Uchiha clan and locate their killer. Naruto did his best to stay calm and ignore the presence of the ghost-like shinobi nearby.

Jiraiya noticed the new boy with the pink haired girl, noting the dark hair and family crest that were associated with the Uchiha clan.

“This boy is Uchiha Sasuke, right? He’s the only one that survived?” The man asked.

Naruto nodded.

Exhaling, Jiraiya bent down and scooped the unconscious boy into his arms. He looked from Sakura to Haku to Naruto and then nodded.

 “Let’s get out of here, kids. This is way more than you needed to see.”


The time it took for them to leave the Uchiha compound and return to the Hokage's tower seemed little more than a depressed blur, and they each took a seat in a waiting area, rattled into silence.

After what seemed like an eternity, the Third came out to them, closing the door quietly behind him. He looked at the toad sennin expectantly.

“It doesn't look good Hokage-sama,” Jiraiya sighed, “There weren't any reports of survivors except for this little squirt.” He gestured to Sasuke who was laid on a bench.

The Sandaime nodded solemnly and then turned to Sasuke, “He’ll be taken care of. He appears to have a small injury.”

Sakura’s eyes darted over to the unconscious boy. She had ripped a piece of her shirt and tied it around his arm. The bleeding had stopped but his mental trauma was not likely to go away.

A Black-Ops guard beside Hiruzen moved and lifted Sasuke, ordered to escort him to the hospital for observation.

Naruto sat cross-legged in his chair, wearing an uncharacteristic frown on his face, “This was supposed to be a good day.”

Sakura and Haku were sitting quietly. It was likely the same thought had crossed their minds.

First the unorthodox attempt to rescue Hyuga Neji, and then Haku and Gaara's dismal fight, and lastly the macabre scene they came upon after venturing into the Uchiha compound.

It wasn't exactly what Naruto had in mind after returning home.

Jiraiya exchanged a few words with the Hokage regarding Naruto and his friends.

“I think it may be best if Naruto, Haku and Gaara live together. They’ll be good support for each other and you’ll have an easier time keeping an eye on them that way.” He suggested, “Maybe you should give them a bigger place?”

“I’ve already arranged it, Jiraiya. They’ll have a stipend as well and they’ve been enrolled at the Academy.”

Jiraiya was pleased the boys would be provided for. They had a fighting chance of becoming shinobi after all, he believed. He was also remorseful that he couldn’t shield them from the Uchiha Massacre; if he had only kept the children occupied for a short while longer, they could've avoided the gruesome scene altogether. They were all in a poor state and had been exposed to the true horror of death, in his opinion, far too soon.

The sage sighed to himself and sat down next to the oddball children. A cloud of smoke surrounded the Hokage's head as he stood motionlessly by the door.

“...what happened to all of those people?” Haku asked in a low voice.

Sakura furrowed her brow. She herself didn't know for sure, but decided to share her opinion anyway, “I heard Sasuke keep talking about someone while he was out. Someone named...Itachi. I think they're related.”

Naruto watched Sakura intently, his insides writhing.

“Maybe... he did it...” She said barely above a whisper.

The idea was sickening. 'Related' Sakura had said? Few things could drive family members to eradicating their entire clan, and the thought of it made them feel ill once again.

'Just the way those poor people died...' Naruto thought to himself, 'But how could it have happened? Sasuke…he didn't seem to look like he had expected it...like he and his family members were close.'

The last idea filled the blonde boy with bitterness for a moment. He had never had a family to love or to be close with or to be sad with…or in this case...be violently unhappy with. Naruto just couldn't picture a normal family tearing each other to pieces.

He had seen many families. He had always been the outsider. While wistfully observing parents and siblings interact during their daily activities Naruto had never seen any of them express such terrible aggression.

Naruto suddenly felt unsafe. What was the world coming to? He had endured beatings from strangers on the street, but he couldn't imagine what would happen if his own family was stolen away.

He believed that Konoha had been a safe place. He shivered at the thought of fellow villagers, people of the same clan even, destroying each other.

Naruto bowed his head and silently grieved for Sasuke's enormous loss.

Haku looked at the Sandaime with a completely innocent expression, “Hokage-sama, if they're related how could he have just...” He trailed off, unable to understand it, and not really wanting to. His father had chosen a similar course of action regarding him.

“Itachi is your friend's older brother,” Hiruzen answered honestly, “If he truly is responsible as you suspect him to be...then he will be dealt with severely.”

It pained him that he could not explain to the youngsters that tragedies often had catalysts.

The three children cringed at the word 'brother' and then blocked the rest of the sentence out.

After a moment, the Hokage looked down at the pink haired girl, “Miss Haruno, I've been informed that you are 'missing', or rather, your parents have been looking for you since early this morning. I suggest you return home and end their worries.”

Sakura blushed a furious shade of pink and leapt to her feet, “Oh no! I forgot!”

She walked in a small circle before stopping in front of Naruto and Haku, “I guess I better go home huh? I hope they aren't too mad...”

Jiraiya chuckled. Someone was in for a scolding.

“I'll see you guys tomorrow!” Sakura shouted and ran out of the waiting room; then poked her head back in, “Oh, will you tell Gaara-kun that I hope he feels better?”

Naruto nodded with a small smile, “Sure thing, Sakura-chan.”

She grinned at the both of them and after a hurried farewell to the Hokage and toad sennin, she departed in a flash of pastel pink.

As casually as possible, Jiraiya posed a question on his former teacher, “So...how's the sand kid doing anyway?”

Hiruzen took a short drag before answering, “The young one's seal has been strengthened, though I recommend he catch up on any sleep he may have been deprived of.”

The sennin looked smug. Maybe this would mark the end of Gaara's unfair disturbances to his precious 'research.'

Haku coughed softly before leaning over in his seat to listen to a joke Naruto had been saving. The Third glanced at the children curiously.

“Naruto, I will be increasing your allowance in order to support Haku and Gaara as well. They will be living with you.” He announced, “I also expect you three to take your studies at the Academy seriously.”

“Thanks Hokage-sama!” Naruto was genuinely touched, “Though…sometimes villagers can be mean to me and I…don’t want them being mean to Haku and Gaara too.”

“You leave that to me.”

Naruto grinned gratefully at the Hokage. The blonde was most uplifted by the prospect of being able to live with his friends from then on.

The door to the Hokage's office had opened without them noticing.

Haku and Naruto looked up to see Gaara swaying in the doorway. He looked peaky and a bit disheveled, but was clearly in a good mood judging by the small smile in his face.

The red haired boy turned to Haku, “...good fight, Haku.”

Clearly he was behind on a few things.

Jiraiya and Hiruzen watched with mild amusement as Haku and Naruto leapt from their respective chairs and bounded over to Gaara, grinning in relief.

“Gaara!” Naruto patted his back, “How are you doing? That was a pretty crazy fight you had with Haku!”

“He should be fine from now on.” The Hokage assured them; Gaara still swaying in a dreamy state in the doorway.

“Oh Gaara, Sakura-chan says she hopes you're feeling better,” Haku recalled, “Are you feeling better?”

Gaara absently scratched his arm and yawned, “Yes, better than I've felt in a while.”

The Hokage gave a reproachful look to the sage and Jiraiya sighed, “Ugh...well squirts, I'm sorry that you had to see all that nasty stuff back there. I'll take you guys out to dinner tonight, what do you say? I know you haven’t eaten.”

“All right!” Naruto cheered, “This means you're paying?”

“Yeah.”

Hiruzen looked very pleased.

Gaara still wore the eerie, blithe expression he had on since he had woken up, and Haku suddenly felt a rush of normalcy return to them. Maybe a noisy dinner later on would help them forget what had happened at the Uchiha compound.


“Gah...I should've known.” Jiraiya grumbled.

When evening came Naruto had insisted that they go to Ichiraku Ramen. The sennin protested but was immediately overruled by three, small, hungry faces.

They sat in a line at the bar: Naruto, Gaara, Haku and Jiraiya, each having a unique perspective of the ramen shop. The owner was very pleased to have a group of customers and was friendly to Naruto.

Gaara and Naruto were halfway through their first bowls of miso within fifty seconds, although Naruto was clearly in the lead. Haku did his best not to watch while slowly slurping his beef ramen with a green face.

Jiraiya smirked. They were annoying, yes, but they were growing on him.

Still, the sage feared that Naruto's alarming eating habit was beginning to rub off on Gaara, 'The way he eats...I'll have nightmares about it.'

Gaara seemed to be enjoying himself immensely as he and Naruto asked for a second bowl. He felt so refreshed it was almost alien; yet he also felt a huge desire to sleep, not at all threatened by the thought of the inner voice that may haunt his dreams.

“Try not to overdo it you two,” Jiraiya feared they may decide to move onto a fourth bowl and was concerned for Haku who was looking greener every moment, “I knew this wasn't a good idea...”

“Hey Gaara, I was wondering...” Naruto said after a slurp of noodles, “When you and Haku were sparring, when you went nuts, could you hear the, uh...that voice?”

Gaara looked at him bewildered for a moment, “How did you know?”

“I guessed,” The blonde shrugged, “You were acting like that when we first met you, right Haku?”

Haku nodded, “Yes, that's right.”

Jiraiya cut in, “Don't worry about voices anymore. The Hokage and I took care of that problem for you.”

Gaara smiled at the sennin before he continued eating.

After a frightening amount of noodles it was much too late for young children to be awake. Jiraiya followed the three boys as they darted beneath lampposts, recalling the day’s events (some more fondly than others).

“Remind me again why you had to butt into the Hyuga clan's affairs?” The sage asked Naruto, “You could've gotten your assess kicked if it had gone badly.”

“Hinata-chan and Neji needed our help, Ero-sennin!” Naruto bit back, standing outside the door of his apartment.

“Just so you know Hokage-sama is sending someone here tomorrow to help you pack up. You’ll be moving to a new place that fits the three of you.” Jiraiya reminded him.

“Yeah, yeah.” Naruto acknowledged as he opened the door.

Gaara looked slightly excited, “I can't wait to sleep...”

Haku laughed at the red haired boy's enthusiasm for such a trivial thing as they ventured inside Naruto's place, but he could understand how appealing a peaceful night's sleep sounded to him.

Jiraiya looked back, noting that the loud blonde had not gone inside.

“Naruto?” He looked around and then sighed, “Sheesh, he was just here...”

The sennin poked his head into the apartment, surprised by how clean it was.

“Er, you two get some sleep. I'm gonna have a talk with the loud mouth.” Jiraiya announced to Haku and Gaara who was already passed out on the couch.

Haku frowned disapprovingly, “You mean Naruto?”

“Uh...yeah...” Jiraiya rubbed the back of his head, “We'll be back later.” Without another word, the sage closed the door, wondering how and why Naruto had managed to slip away so quickly without being noticed.

“Pain in my ass...”


Naruto sat silently on a stone face of the Hokage Monument, gazing at the ethereal stars dotting the black sky. He felt frustrated with the perverted toad hermit for always doubting him and poking fun.

He huffed to himself. Maybe he shouldn't have just taken off like that. Haku and Gaara might worry and that was the last thing he wanted.

Naruto appreciated that he had a spot to go to by himself now that he finally had friends. He never suspected that he would ever want to be alone again after meeting Gaara and Haku, but he just needed to clear his head.

“Hey kid.”

Alas, he spoke too soon. Naruto looked up at Jiraiya and sighed, “How'd you find me old man?”

“I'm the Legendary Toad Sage for cripes sake, give me some credit!” Jiraiya's voice then softened, “What are you doing up here?”

“I come here to think.”

The sennin smirked, “Well that's a swell habit to get into!”

Naruto ignored his sarcasm and kept his focus on the stars. With a defeated sigh, Jiraiya sat down next to the small boy. 'What a weird kid...'

The sage had never witnessed Naruto sulking before, even in his short while of knowing him. He wouldn't have dreamed that the cheerful boy was capable of sulking.

“Why do you look so down, squirt?”

“I'm not down, Ero-sennin.” Naruto sighed, trying to dodge the question.

Jiraiya made a doubtful face and then gazed out from their high vantage point at the city of Konoha. He smiled nostalgically at the lights and buildings below.

“I don't come here too often nowadays; being a hermit,” Jiraiya began, “Though sometimes I do get a bit homesick...it's hard to forget how beautiful it is here.”

Naruto lowered his eyes, “But it's really a lot different than it looks.”

“I know they don't treat you that well kid. Don't let it get to you,” Jiraiya said quietly, “Just try to remember the important things and ignore the assholes around here. You do have people who care for you.”

“If I become a strong ninja, then they'll stop hating me.” Naruto surmised, “They'll respect me when I'm Hokage.”

“You know you don't have to be Hokage just to impress people. There are other ways to be strong,” The sennin chuckled, “People who are precious to you give you reasons to be strong: to protect them and to not give up. You know, like the farm boy and sand kid.”

“I do care about Haku and Gaara,” Naruto admitted, “But...I just...how can I protect them when they're stronger than me? It's like…they have powers and I'm just me.”

“What's wrong with that?”

Naruto frowned, “They'll end up protecting me! And I didn't realize when we met that they were so-”

“What? Are you complaining?” Jiraiya sniggered, “Just because they were born with their abilities doesn't make them 'stronger' than anyone, even, dare I say it? You.”

The blonde boy blinked.

“Sheesh, I mean, you think I didn't see you throw that shuriken towards the sand kid at the Hyuga compound?” The sennin smirked cleverly, “Do you honestly believe that Haku or Gaara could do that?”

“Well maybe if-”

“My point is don't underestimate yourself kid!” Jiraiya barked, “You'll only be as strong as you let yourself be, so don't hold back! Strength isn't measured by cool powers last I checked...”

Naruto felt a small smile tug at his lips.

“You know, way back…I had a student like you.”

“You did?”

“Oh yeah...” Jiraiya went on, “Scrawny, weird kid like you...blonde, athletic...had a good idea from time to time...he wasn't sure what the future held for him either.”

Although Naruto was offended by the hermit's remark on having good ideas from 'time to time', he was still interested in what he had to say.

“What happened to him?”

“Well he did his best, and it landed him in the right position I'd say. He ended up creating a powerful technique of his own; he could summon toads without blinking, trained his own Genin team and helped us win the war against the Hidden Rock. He was a great ninja, really brave...” Jiraiya paused, “Oh, and...uh...we're kind of sitting on his head...”

Naruto jumped ten feet in the air in shock.

“YOU trained the Fourth Hokage? NO WAY!”

Jiraiya yanked the stunned boy back down to sit, “Sheesh! Calm down kid! But yeah, I did, he was my best student...and a good friend.”

Naruto suddenly felt a great swell of regret for insulting the toad hermit so often, when he really was responsible for training one of the greatest ninja Konoha had ever seen.

“Yeah, he was smart too. Excellent with seals...he valued the village and his friends above all else...” Jiraiya continued, “That's what made him strong.”

A very inspired Naruto clung to Jiraiya's every word, forgetting what a pervert he was.

“Though...he did have help.”

Jiraiya reached behind him and removed the large scroll he had kept on his back. He placed it proudly in front of Naruto.

“Do you know what this is kid?”

Obviously a scroll...but there was nothing more he could decipher, “Not really...”

Jiraiya went on, “It's a summoning contract, Naruto.”

“A what?”

“Tell me kid, in the battle against the Kyuubi, what did the Fourth ride to battle on?” The sennin asked.

Naruto had only caught bits and pieces of that story, but was able to answer, “A huge toad! Uh...Gamabunta, right?”

Jiraiya grinned, “Okay, so you've got some history in that head of yours...yep. He used this summoning contract as I have to summon toads, and at times, Gamabunta.”

Naruto's ocean eyes were as wide as saucers, “Can I do it too?”

Jiraiya had actually considered this for a short while earlier. Why not teach the kid? It could give him an edge against Haku and Gaara, if he did it correctly.

“Sure, but it'll be hard, I can promise that,” Jiraiya replied, opening the scroll, “Look here! This is my name and the Fourth's see? Signing this contract enables you to summon toads, which basically needs a sacrifice of blood along with the right seals.”

“So you'll teach me?” His volume was rising again in excitement.

“Er...yeah. What? Am I talking for my health?” The sage said, “You need to sign in blood though and then put your hand print next to it...”

Naruto, in a state of astonished excitement, signed his name next to the Yondaime's without a moment’s hesitation. His name gleamed in red on the scroll. There was no way he could get the huge grin off of his face.

“So can you show me now?”

“Jeez, you’re impatient! Pay attention squirt...” Jiraiya guided Naruto through the steps of a small blood sacrifice and the proper seals. The blonde boy memorized every last step.

“Got it?” Jiraiya watched Naruto nod his head like a bobble-head doll, “Well? Give it a shot.”

“Right!” Naruto was shaking with excitement, determined to get it right. While focusing his chakra, he bit his thumb and quickly drew blood, and went through the seals: boar, dog, bird, monkey, ram...

His heart almost stopped when there was a puff of smoke and Jiraiya raised an eyebrow at his success.

A tadpole.

Jiraiya screamed with laughter and Naruto stood next to him, stricken and shocked. The blonde boy looked at the sennin, slightly frustrated that he hadn't even summoned a fully-grown toad.

After getting over his little joke Jiraiya exhaled, and Naruto sat back down, wondering if he could have done better.

“I'll do it again!” He was determined.

“You can't expect Gamabunta on your first try kid! You start small and work your way up, that's the nature of things...” Jiraiya explained while grinning, “Keep trying, Naruto, you've got plenty of time!”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Soundtrack: “Winter Dance” By Uttara-Kuru

Konoha didn't know what hit it.

It was quite possible that six years had made the hidden village a bit keener to the types of shinobi it had been producing. A select few had been more noticeable than others, and rumors had been spread that the Hokage had abducted young children from foreign countries just for the sake of training purposes.

Still there was nothing that confirmed or denied that children had been brought to the Leaf Village, and the Hokage said nothing more on the matter. So people stopped caring and assumed that rumors of foreign invaders were only slander that had been circulated by the attention-seeking Jounin of Konoha.

Nothing seemed out of place, especially on a street corner in the dim light of the morning, where a silent apartment building stood innocently in the center of the shady town.

On the third level, a window was left ajar, letting sweet, fresh sunshine spill inside and illuminate the room that had welcomed it in.

A room, that in fact, was piled high with a number of mounds of dirty laundry, which curiously resembled haystacks in a freakish sort of way...And beyond the tangle of dirtied clothing were shelves of strange plants, Ninjutsu scrolls and the occasional weapon.

The wall on which the shelves had been mounted on was a peculiar shade of green with a few evident dents and chips in it, which was almost completely obscured by random pinups and calendars, all carefully arranged around a single framed photo of three young boys.

The tallest, with long dark hair stood pleasantly in the middle, while a frustrated-looking red haired boy looked as if he had been dragged into the shot at the last second. Beside them was a grinning blonde boy with exuberant blue eyes, brandishing an enthusiastic thumb up to no one in particular.

Beneath the wooden frame some distance below was said blonde boy, snoring gently in his messy bed. His penguin cap flopped childishly to the side and he was lying in what looked to be an uncomfortable position.

Beneath his mop of wild, golden hair his fine, whiskered face was well pronounced in the bright morning light. A wide smile adorned his mouth as he had carefree dreams of delicious ramen.

“Wake up.”

A redhead with fierce, glacial eyes stood by the window wearing an impassive expression. A large gourd was tied to his back and he had his arms folded across his chest as he came to wake his snoozing roommate.

Gaara had suspected that he wouldn't get very far by talking the slumbering Naruto back to consciousness. He roughly shook the blonde by the shoulder. Naruto’s head lolled to the side with no response.

He did so for a few moments before stopping himself.

And as if he couldn't be any more irritable, Naruto gave a loud snore and rolled over, proving how futile Gaara's attempts had been.

The red haired boy frowned: his patience was wearing thin.

Snore

Again, Gaara doubted that there was any way that this morning could have started without use of excessive force.

Sand leaked from the gourd on his back and made its way expertly towards an unsuspecting blonde.

With a shudder, the entire mattress was overturned, and the red haired boy watched in great satisfaction as Naruto sailed across the room with a strangled yelp. There was also an uncalled-for smash as somewhere a china pot that had belonged to Haku shattered into a thousand cobalt pieces.

'Naruto can pay for it...'

A groan of pain came from beneath the blanket that had draped itself over the rudely-awoken boy, and the penguin cap that had once been on Naruto's head was caught on the ceiling fan.

The sleepy blonde looked at Gaara bleary-eyed, and as if it were routine asked, “Morning already?”

Gaara was still frowning, “Haku-kun left an hour ago, Naruto-kun.”

After replacing his once-airborne mattress, Naruto scratched his head and stifled a yawn, seemingly unfazed, “Haku-kun always leaves early...”

The red head's eye twitched slightly.

“You have five minutes.”

“Huh? Five minutes to what Gaara-kun?”

“To get to the Academy on time. I’m leaving.”

“WHAT?” Naruto tripped over a haystack of laundry and looked to Gaara who was walking casually out of his bedroom.

Naruto began to dress himself in record time, and as Gaara left without a care in the world, the blonde called after him with a small hint of contempt, “Hey, thanks for waking me bastard!”

Konoha's number one hyperactive ninja pelted down the sidewalk at top speed, grinning as he caught up with his red haired friend who had been walking leisurely with his arms still folded.

“So you thought you could ditch me eh, Gaara?”

Gaara looked sidelong at the blonde next to him; did he even stop to brush his teeth?

Maybe it'd be better if he didn't ask.

“No. However I did assume that you'd at least try to make an attempt not to be late today, but it appears I expect too much from you...”

Naruto smirked and faked a punch at Gaara's face, then grabbed his upper arm suddenly.

“Well come on Gaara-kun! We don't wanna be late!” The redhead sighed as Naruto proceeded to drag him the rest of the way to the Ninja Academy, leaving a trail of dust in his wake.

Sometimes Gaara wondered how this had become their routine every morning. Overhead, dark clouds rolled in front of the sun.


With only seconds to spare, both Naruto and Gaara collapsed into their seats next to a good-looking boy with long, ebony hair. A group of his fangirls were dawdling nearby, chatting excitedly to each other.

Haku smiled knowingly as his best friends once again arrived barely on time, “So tell me, what did you break today?”

“China pot.” Gaara dead panned.

“The blue one...?”

The red haired boy nodded, not feeling very remorseful over what he had so carelessly destroyed. Still, Haku appeared distressed and sighed to himself.

When would the vicious cycle end?

Naruto had his head bowed onto his desk, gearing up for a nap. Even Gaara's morning beatings weren't proving as effective as they had been for keeping him awake these days. He found himself increasingly tired, or at least, bored with the lectures at the Academy.

“Settle down please!” Iruka called out above the chatter of the class, “Role call!”

Naruto had his eyes closed but listened for his name to be called, just so he could have a reason to raise his voice. Gaara sat quietly while Haku scanned over a scroll while names were announced.

“Haku!” The dark haired boy raised his hand, and across the room his admirers twittered enthusiastically.

“Gaara!” Gaara only blinked, his typical response, but was still accounted for.

It went on. Naruto waited to be called, though his head did dart up after hearing Hinata and Sakura being called, upset he had come in late and was unable to talk to them.

“Naruto...”

“Oh yeah! I'm here Iruka-sensei!”

“Yes, I can see that...” The chunin instructor sighed.

Once Iruka had gone through the entire roster, he went on as it fell quiet, “Today as you all are aware is the Genin Examination-”

Naruto's head shot up again in excitement. Today was the day he became a real ninja!

Or died trying...

Haku leaned over towards Naruto and whispered, “You have been practicing your clones like you said, right Naruto-kun?”

Naruto waved him off, “Yeah, yeah...”

It wasn't very convincing. Haku cringed. Clones were Naruto's worst jutsu, this he and Gaara knew, and if he hadn't at least been trying to form one correctly, there was little hope of him graduating.

'Maybe I'm overreacting, he'll be fine…Naruto-kun always comes through in the end.' Haku tried to reaffirm the fact.

After finishing his speech which Naruto had only caught a few scant words of, Iruka added, “In a few moments we will begin with the first part of the exam.”

Gaara appeared as unperturbed as ever, but Haku gulped, hoping Naruto would do well.

They began with the Henge no Jutsu.

Students were required to transform into their teacher, namely Umino Iruka. There were mixed results with the first few students, some did poorly, while others like Haruno Sakura and Uchiha Sasuke, copied Iruka's appearance perfectly.

Sakura waved to Naruto after she had succeeded and he was confident he would do well. It was, after all, a skill he had perfected nearly six years ago...

Grinning, Naruto formed the ram seal and transformed into the spitting image of his chunin instructor...with the absence of the scar across his nose and Iruka clarified the blunder.

Cursing himself for missing a feature so obvious, Naruto chuckled, “Hey, I'll try again!”

“No, your Henge was sufficient so you don't-”

The blonde transformed again, not into Iruka, but into a voluptuous, naked babe with pigtails that immediately gave Iruka the worst nosebleed he had ever had in his life. He undid the jutsu and had a good laugh at his teacher's reaction.

“CUT THE STUPID TRICKS!” Iruka snarled, trying to subdue the flow of blood, “THIS IS YOUR LAST WARNING!”

Naruto was still laughing as he passed by Gaara and Haku, who only sighed at their friend's predictable, yet strangely effective prank which he had dubbed the ‘Sexy Jutsu.’

Haku and Gaara followed after Naruto, both of them transforming into Iruka faultlessly, and when they joined Naruto to watch the rest of the procession, he mumbled to them, “Show offs...”

Haku sniffed in response, “Naruto-kun this is no time for fooling around, this is the Genin Exam. If you don't pass then you can't graduate.”

“I know, Haku-kun, I know! Don't worry about it!” Again, Naruto waved off the dark haired boy's concerns.

The blonde observed the shy Hyuga girl stepping up to the front, and when she looked his way he gave her a reassuring thumbs-up. She blushed a deep shade of scarlet and then proceeded to transform into Iruka.

Gaara noted Hinata's timid tendencies towards Naruto, 'Does he really not notice?'

He found it such a waste that a girl as smart as Hinata (and not a worshiper of either Sasuke or Haku for that matter) would dote on a sadly-oblivious person like Naruto. Frowning, Gaara looked at Naruto who was congratulating the shy girl on a job well-done.

'Maybe there is hope yet...'

The first stage was followed by target practice.

The target range was a real deathtrap with Naruto around, who volunteered to go first.

Iruka feared for the safety of the other students, “Alright, just take it easy Naruto...”

“I got it Iruka-sensei!” Naruto looked smug as he launched his shuriken at targets attached to trees on the other side of the courtyard. Incredibly, he made four bull's-eyes and the last weapon, which he threw with a bit too much zeal, tore directly through the center of the final target. It was split clean in half.

There were a few startled gasps as well as impressed shouts from namely Sakura and Haku.

Iruka sighed to the other examiners, “Good lord...”

‘That was an unbelievable display, though. I don’t know if any of the other students can do what Naruto just did…’ Iruka considered, smiling a bit to himself.

Hinata was beaming all the while, not in the least frightened by the odd display of strength Naruto had shown on his last throw.

Naruto gave Gaara a slap on the back (as he often did) as he went ahead next, looking just as confident. Even more impressive than Naruto, all five of the red haired boy's projectiles broke every target in half down the center.

Students actually clapped, hoping that with no more targets left functioning, they would be exempt from that part of the exam.

“We don't have a big enough budget to keep up with the damages they cause...” Mizuki, a fellow examiner, muttered to Iruka who nodded solemnly in agreement.

Much to the disappointment of the remaining students, more targets were brought out while Naruto raved about Gaara's 'mad skills.' Gaara didn't seem much affected that he had once again destroyed school property.

A few other students took their turns, and Sasuke who also hit all five marks ignored the cheering squad of fangirls who barely knew how to throw a shuriken, let alone cared about graduating.

Haku looked paler than usual when he was evaluated. Naruto had his fingers crossed and Gaara glared at the targets, threatening them to jump in front of Haku's shuriken or suffer another untimely fate.

They knew as well as Haku that his coordination came and went. He was a regular klutz when it came to projectiles and he wasn't looking very confident.

It wasn't so much of the disaster it could have been.

The first shuriken just barely fell short of the target, while the second sailed far off to the right. Iruka held his head in his hands in disappointment as the third soared clean over the target.

Panicked at his predictably poor performance, he hurled his last two shuriken together which narrowly missed Naruto's head.

“Wah! Haku-kun, take it easy!”

There was nervous chatter among the students and Haku's fangirls whined in great dismay over his abysmal aim. After making sure Naruto was in one piece, the dark haired boy hung his head in humiliation.

He had to admit, he had anticipated much worse. At least no one had been injured. But over the years, Haku had come to understand that he lacked the skill in hurling kunai and shuriken at enemies that Gaara and Naruto had.

'It's just so barbaric, lodging a kunai in someone's head...' He thought to himself, 'I don't think I'll ever get the hang of it.'

“Good try Haku-kun,” Gaara said quietly, “I'm disappointed that you missed Naruto-kun. I'm certain Iruka-sensei would've given you full marks for that.”

Haku laughed. Naruto glared at Gaara and growled, “I think he could've gotten more credit for hitting you, Gaara!”

The red haired boy smirked, “You're right. That would've been impressive.”

From across the yard, a young kunoichi watched Haku with great interest, despite his pathetic display. She narrowed her chocolate eyes in thought as he returned reluctantly to the cluster of students.

'Hm, clearly he isn't comfortable with those weapons...I can fix that!'

All in due time, Gaara and Naruto also ran into their problem areas. As Naruto had told Haku, he had indeed been practicing his Bunshin, but didn't necessarily say that he had actually done well. After producing only one replication, and a sickly one at that, Iruka firmly announced that Naruto had not done well enough to graduate, much to his disagreement.

Gaara had also done poorly while performing the replacement technique, for reasons he didn't really care to explain, “Mizuki-sensei said that I wasn't fluid with my substitution...” Clearly he didn't have many nice things to say about the examiners that had failed him for something so ridiculous.

Haku tried to comfort them by explaining that they always had next year to improve their techniques, but Naruto seemed to be taking it extremely hard. He had set his hopes high on graduating that day, which had proven very foolish.

The three of them assembled by the swing outside the Academy, watching with envy as the passing graduates gathered outside with their new forehead protectors. “Let's get some lunch,” Haku didn't want them to drown in their frustration, “It's just after noon-”

“No thanks,” Naruto stood to leave, “I just wanna think right now...”

Haku nodded to him as the blonde left to brood by himself. He and Gaara had noticed how Naruto made himself scarce when he was feeling less than joyous, as to not upset his friends. It was another quirky habit of his.

“Do you think he's going to the Hokage monument again?” Gaara inquired.

Haku nodded, “Most likely...”


Mizuki had easily found the Naruto after the exam had terminated. It wasn't difficult at all to convince him once he had discovered him alone on a rooftop. He'd be the perfect scapegoat: the village prankster up to his old tricks again...

“Don't be upset with Iruka for being so hard on you, he's only looking after you.” Mizuki explained to Naruto, trying to act like he cared, “It just wouldn’t be right to send you on missions when you aren’t fully prepared.”

The blonde boy had a difficult time believing it, “It was just one slip up.”

“Really Naruto, it won't do you much good now,” Mizuki restrained himself from smirking, “But I can help you. There are other ways to pass...”


“Excuse me, you're Haku aren't you?”

Haku turned from Gaara and looked at the girl who had addressed him; thankfully it wasn’t one of the rabid girls who were incessantly asking him out on dates (to which he would politely decline.) Her brown hair was done up in two buns on top of her head, and judging by her hitai-ate, she was clearly a seasoned ninja.

Haku smiled at her, “I am.”

His friendliness caught her off-guard, but she went on, “I'm Tenten. I graduated last year. I've heard that you're one of the best in your class.”

From Gaara's point of view, it was just another girl looking for a date.

The dark haired boy was modest as always, “Not really, seeing that I failed the Genin Exam...”

As if the sky began to weep over such a tragedy on Haku's part, the dark clouds that were overhead gave way.

She placed her hands on her hips and studied him for a moment while rain drops fell one by one, “I saw you had some major problems with your weaponry.”

Grudgingly, he nodded.

Gaara took note that this was not going the way he had anticipated, and felt that he should no longer intrude on the discussion. By some miracle, Sakura was standing at the front of the Academy and was waving him over.

He looked to Haku, “I'll see you later.”

Once Gaara had departed, both Tenten and Haku decided to continue their discussion out of the rain. They darted beneath the overhang of a clothing shop as the drizzle turned into a downpour.

“Whew, that was close. It's been looking like rain all day!” Tenten was smiling at their good fortune and Haku found her to be very pleasant company.

“But anyway, I need to know if there are any weapons you're comfortable with Haku-san,” She went on, “I'd like to help you if I can.”

“Please excuse my curiosity Miss Tenten-”

“It's just Tenten if you don't mind.”

Haku paused, “Tenten then...how can you help me? I do find myself to be a lost cause with my atrocious aim...”

What he lacked in confidence he made up for in his eloquent speech.

The kunoichi gave him a skeptical look, “You're not a lost cause, Haku! Besides, I specialize in weaponry. If there's anyone who can help you, it's me!”

Boy was he was lucky. It wasn't everyday a pretty girl offered to help him learn how to throw knives.

“So what’s your fighting style?” Tenten asked, “Once I know I can determine what weapons you may be better suited for.”

A simple yet profound question.

'How do I fight?'

There was a simple solution to that: he relied heavily on his Kekkei Genkai, and he didn't see how that would help her decide on a weapon he could actually throw without flinching. Or maybe...that was exactly what she was looking for.

“I manipulate water.” He said simply, earning a quizzical look from Tenten.

'Maybe a demonstration is in order...'

And water there was in abundance, nearly flooding the street it was raining so hard. If only he had been so lucky during his exam...

She watched in awe as Haku flicked his wrist and threads of water rose from the street and streaked through the air. He suddenly looked at peace and focused.

After a minute of watching raindrops being cast aside in all directions, Tenten seemed to have had an epiphany. His technique was more graceful and he didn't seem to be the type wanting a messy fight.

“I get your style...” Tenten nodded to him, “I know just what you need!”


“I'm sorry that you didn't pass Gaara-kun,” Sakura said supportively, “You, Haku-kun and Naruto-kun...”

He shrugged in response as they stood in the entryway of the Academy along with a few other students waiting out the rain. Gaara could honestly say that he hadn't expected things to go well after seeing calm and collected Haku tossing shuriken at Naruto (which had mildly amused him.)

“I did poorly, so I'm not fit to graduate.” Gaara said simply, not wanting to press the matter that was already burning him up.

Sakura scowled, “And it's that kind of attitude that won't get you anywhere! Those stupid examiners, you're more worthy to be a genin than I am...”

“I doubt that.”

Again, she frowned, “Why's that?”

“Because you passed.”

“Ugh...Gaara-kun, could you be any more apathetic?”

Gaara smirked, “Would you like to see me try?”

“No thanks, you already have me depressed.”

Ever since their childhood, Sakura had remained a loyal friend to Hinata, Naruto, Haku and Gaara. It was tearing her up that the three of her closest friends (whom she had nicknamed The Trio)would not proceed into Genin training with her.

She was about ready to pick a fight with Iruka-sensei for failing them all, but that docile nature that she had shielded herself would not permit it.

“What a crappy day...” Sakura muttered. She was in a worse mood than even Gaara.

“I'll walk you home Sakura-chan.”

Sakura gave him a bothered look, “Don't. It's pointless for both of us to get wet...”

“Do you remember who you're talking to?”

She hadn't noticed the sand shield that had been surrounding them for the past minute and she mentally slapped herself.

“Oh...well, I guess I'm just so used to you by now that I don't notice these things.” She chuckled sheepishly.

He said nothing and stepped out into the rain, but couldn't help but notice the look of wonder on her face. The only other person they knew who could walk out in the rain without being soaked was Haku, for obvious reasons.

Gaara listened patiently while she began another one-sided conversation during their walk. Something about Naruto's perverted jutsu and it somehow reflected his cleverness in a sick sort of way.

By the time they had reached her house, the rain had stopped, and Gaara's sand returned to his gourd. His hands were buried in his pockets, and he suddenly felt awkward around the pink haired girl.

“Maybe I'll see you tomorrow.” It was the 'maybe' that irked Sakura. Things were uncertain now that he could not leave the Academy.

She frowned and then hugged him, giving him flashbacks of when they were young children when he had first come to Konoha with Naruto and Haku.

Sakura smiled, “You will see me tomorrow.”

And she went inside leaving him with an odd feeling in the pit of his stomach. He stood outside her door for a long moment, inhaling the moist air that smelled like rain, forest, and Sakura.

Gaara's spirit was lightened somewhat, and then seemed to do a nosedive after noticing Naruto in a flash of orange leaping over a number of nearby rooftops. He had a large scroll that he was certain his friend was not the owner of.

“That's conspicuous.” Reluctantly, Gaara followed his blonde friend, hoping this wouldn't lead to any further complications.


In a short while, Tenten had easily solved Haku's coordination problem.

“Senbon are perfect for you!” She was proud that he had picked up on throwing the needles so quickly, “Do you really believe you're a lost cause now, Haku?”

They stood on the side of the empty, damp street, where he had been using a wooden telephone pole as a makeshift target. He embedded senbon into the want ads and posters that were stapled to the pole.

Haku fiddled with the three needles he had gripped in his hand, “Well, maybe not, but I can't say that I would've thought of this myself.”

“You just practice, and you'll graduate in no time...” Tenten said while tossing a few needles herself, lodging them in the bearded face of a man on a poster, “You'll need a good knowledge of the human body too if you want to study Shinjutsu.”

The dark haired boy regarded her for a moment while she casually flicked senbon at the pole, and a small smile appeared on his face, “I'm very glad you found me Tenten. I'm not quite sure what I would've done if-”

She blushed, “It was nothing! Really! Just do me a favor and pass will you?”

Haku then had a thought, “I wonder; how did you come to find me anyway?”

Tenten extracted the needles from the wooden beam and turned to him, “Oh, well, my team mate had mentioned you, actually. He said that when you were young that-”

“Haku!”

The dark haired boy looked across the street and saw Gaara standing there. He was scowling and Haku could tell that it probably had something to do with Naruto.

“I think I should be going now,” He sighed, “I'll come find you tomorrow so we can continue training.”

“Tomorrow?” Tenten mulled it over in her head, “Okay then...I really should go too.  I kind of ditched my team to come find you.”

Haku gave her a grateful smile when she handed him a fistful of senbon, “Here, they're on me! I have plenty more for myself...it was nice meeting you Haku!” He watched her jog off down the street and he then turned to Gaara again who didn't look pleased.


“Naruto-kun, what are you doing?”

Gaara had described to Haku how he had seen their friend making off with a large scroll that he had never seen before. They both tracked him down in a forested area and Naruto seemed ecstatic to see them.

“Haku-kun! Gaara-kun! Check it out!” He displayed the large scroll he found, “This Forbidden Scroll if full of awesome jutsu!”

“Did you ever think that it was 'forbidden' for a reason?” Gaara said pointedly.

Haku however wasn't as hostile, “Maybe we should hear him out...”

The red haired boy gave him an incredulous look as Naruto went on, “But there's more! You see if we master a jutsu from this scroll, then we can pass the exam and graduate!”

“Where did you hear that?” Haku asked. He hoped it was true.

Gaara remained skeptical.

Naruto was gently slipping the rope off the scroll, “Mizuki-sensei told me.”

Gaara exchanged a confused glance with Haku.

“He did?”

“Oh yeah!” Naruto nodded while opening the scroll in front of his friends to give them a better view of its contents, “He said any jutsu would work. I say we give it a shot!”

Haku nodded, “If that's what Mizuki-sensei said then I have no objection!”

Gaara watched with his arms folded as the blonde boy and Haku examined the first few techniques. Nothing about this seemed to make sense. Why hadn't they heard of this scroll before? And how did Naruto come by it?

Then again, graduating to become a genin sounded just too good for him to resist, and discarding his better judgment, Gaara settled down beside them and took a peek, “Let me have a look...”


Early evening came, adding to the darkness of the cloudy sky.

“It's all over...” The three boys looked up to see none other than Umino Iruka glowering at them, who seemed disappointed at discovering Naruto along with his fellow juvenile delinquents.

Naruto leapt to his feet, closing the scroll and grinned at Iruka as he stepped in front of Haku and Gaara. Naruto was well aware that even though Haku and Gaara were known to be his closest friends, their records weren't nearly as tarnished as Naruto’s yet.

Simply put, Haku was a polite, well-behaved boy and Gaara's hobby was sleeping rather than using his free time to vandalize the Hokage monument and such. So Iruka gave props to the three for being good friends in spite of their diversity.

Of course, he wouldn't put it past either Gaara or Haku to be enticed when Naruto managed to get his hands on a Forbidden Scroll. Iruka noted that Haku, genius though he was, wouldn't pass up the opportunity to learn a few jounin-level jutsu, and Gaara, well...

In his first years at the Academy, he had received complaints that strange, threatening messages were being spelled out in sand across the desks of some students who, coincidentally, Gaara and Naruto weren't particularly fond of.

Yet he never could prove Gaara was the one responsible for that, or any other unexplainable phenomena for that matter; like the chairs that were often found snapped in half: the pieces scattered around the classroom in the morning (due to some unseen fits of rage), or the missing window panes (the glass was discovered shattered in piles outside the Yamanaka flower shop), or that freak accident when the roof went missing last year.

In other words, Gaara had a clean slate as well.

Naruto on the other hand, drew attention to himself through pranks just for the sake of getting attention. And although he had plenty of intervention from his friends, who often made sure he avoided catastrophic consequences, Iruka could tell that the blonde boy had some help from time to time spreading graffiti on the Ninja Academy's walls.

So here were all three of them: caught red-handed.

It was disappointing and slightly expected all at once for the young chunin teacher. Iruka knew they had always been outcasts at their time in the Academy. Haku was placed on a high pedestal for being so brilliant, while Naruto was ostracized for being himself, and Gaara was shunned for simply being...'outlandish' as Jiraiya had once put it.

Still, they'd have to learn eventually that they had to stand above the abuse, and not resort to such childish pranks.

Naruto chuckled at his teacher's serious face, “You found us already, sensei? We only learned a few jutsu so far...”

It was then Iruka understood. All of them, sweaty and tired, they had been working hard, that much was clear. Gaara gave a reserved glance to Iruka, sensing that something was not right; but Haku was just as chipper as Naruto.

“Iruka-sensei,” Haku spoke up tiredly, “We'll show you the techniques we've learned and then we can pass the exam as genin. Anyone who learns at least one jutsu from this scroll passes, yes?”

“What?” The chunin was baffled, “Who told you that?”

Haku looked taken aback, and Gaara frowned, knowing it was all too good to be true.

Naruto however was still hopeful, “Mizuki-sensei told me! He told me where to find the scroll and this place...”

A look of horror and realization came over Iruka's face as Naruto trailed off, looking just as lost as Haku and Gaara. The only thing they all noted was the swift sound of kunai coursing through the air.

Gaara's sand shield surrounded him as the knives rained down, while Iruka knocked Haku and Naruto out of the way of the deadly hail. Iruka was forced against the wall of the cabin nearby; a few of the kunai had met their mark. Hastily, he removed the knives that had been deeply imbedded above his right knee.

From the tree tops, a recognizable voice called out, “It seems you've found our hideaway, Iruka-sensei...”

“Mizuki!” Iruka snarled, ignoring the dumbfounded looks on Naruto, Gaara and Haku's faces, “So you're the one after the scroll?”

Mizuki sneered down at him, “I see you've caught on. I wasn't expecting so many to turn out, but no matter...”

“What are you talking about?” Naruto barked, “What do we have to do with the scroll?”

“Get out of here! All three of you!” Iruka ordered, “Go! Take the scroll with you!”

Mizuki grinned as the three young trainees stood without a clue about what was going on.

“Well it's obvious isn't it Naruto-kun?” The silver haired traitor went on, “You were perfect for fetching the scroll for me. It doesn't seem like something you wouldn't do, so why don't you save yourself the trouble and hand it over to me now?”

“No.” Gaara spat and then turned to his companions, “Don't play his game. We out number him four to one. He's a coward for using Naruto just to get the scroll.”

“Get out of here! He's a chunin and he has us right where he wants us!” Iruka was glad that Gaara also didn't trust Mizuki, but upset they weren't trying to escape, “Don't let him get that scroll!”

Mizuki glared at Iruka, “Doubting their abilities again, Iruka-sensei? Typical. Why would they bother listening to the one who failed them? You see...they're stronger than they know...”

“That's enough Mizuki!”

Naruto's grip on the scroll tightened. He was going to make sure that he didn't hand it over, although he wasn't sure who to trust.

Mizuki scowled down at Haku, Gaara and Naruto, “Ha! You still don't know, do you? What monsters you all are?”

Haku had heard this before, and he readied the senbon Tenten had given him, “What are you playing at...?”

“Didn't you ever stop to think, Naruto-kun? Why everyone hates you?” Mizuki smirked at the boy as he continued, “Many years ago the Fourth Hokage sealed the vicious beast that attacked our village, The Nine-Tailed Fox, into a young child...”

Gaara and Haku looked towards Naruto, wondering what the traitor's words could mean.

“That's enough Mizuki!” Iruka bellowed, throwing his own kunai back at him. Mizuki easily dodged them and landed nimbly back on his tree branch.

“And that baby, Naruto-kun...it was you!” He spat, “You are the Kyuubi!”

Naruto's blue eyes were wide in shock, but in a way, it made sense to him. People always had avoided him and hated him...Now he knew the reason why. So did Haku and Gaara. What did they think of him now?

Haku and Gaara only stared at Naruto, at a loss for words.

“And you!” Mizuki suddenly rounded on Gaara, “You're from Sunagakure! You're not even worthy to be a shinobi of the Leaf Village! I can't say why the Hokage would want to keep a disgusting monster like the One Tailed Tanuki around!”

Gaara was floored. True, he was already aware of his situation, but he certainly didn't want anyone to know about it. The red haired boy shot a look of loathing at Mizuki, wanting to let his sand crush him into tiny bits.

“Shut your mouth, Mizuki!” Iruka shouted, not believing that Mizuki had disobeyed a direct order from the Hokage to never tell the youngsters of their painful pasts; the pasts they kept hidden from each other.

While Naruto and Gaara shook with righteous fury, as two jinchuriki exposed, Haku knew that he wouldn't be spared.

“And you, perfect little Haku-kun of the Water Country...you're a real mystery,” Mizuki looked smug, “No one would suspect a genius like you to be a murderer, now would they?”

There was a silence. Haku knew that what he had tried to hide from his friends for so many years was about to be publicized.

“It's been kept confidential of course, but it's hard not to notice on your record that you're held accountable for the murder of your own parents-!”

“Shut up!” Haku threw the senbon needles he had prepared, which caught Mizuki off guard. Three of which connected painfully with the traitor's shoulder and forearm.

'But how–?' Mizuki couldn't believe it, 'This kid can't aim for his life...when did he–?'

More senbon rained into the tree tops. Haku was inconsolable and charged ahead after Mizuki, completely forgetting that he was a chunin instructor.

“Haku!” Gaara followed after him, his sand awaiting his any whim.

Naruto, however, stood rooted to the spot clinging to the Forbidden Scroll.

“Naruto! Listen to me, you have to take the scroll and get out of here!” Iruka tried one last time talking sense into him, “I have to make sure that those two don't get killed!”

At first it seemed as if Naruto hadn't heard him at all. But Iruka watched with relief as Naruto nodded slowly, and then rushed away with the scroll through the forest canopy. Iruka then proceeded to follow after his other two students, cursing their foolishness for being drawn into a trap.


The entire forest was too quiet and Iruka feared he had lost track of Gaara and Haku. He could only hope that they would be able to fend off Mizuki until he found them.

He was surprised when he stepped right into the crossfire between Gaara and Mizuki. Haku was nowhere to be found; he too must have been separated. Unfortunately, Iruka was unable to react in time after Mizuki had hurled his largest shuriken at Gaara, who made no move to dodge it.

“Get out of the way!” Iruka felt his voice had failed him as the enormous weapon collided with the redhead's chest. That was until the ‘Gaara’ he saw began to leak sand instead of blood, and then completely reformed into a mold of sand.

No doubt Mizuki was frustrated.

'A sand substitute!' Iruka was impressed and relieved at the same time, 'But where is the real one?'

“I don't have time for this!” Mizuki hissed as he evaded the wave of sand that toppled over the tree he had been using for cover. The traitor rushed ahead, with Gaara at his heels, using his sand to barrel over the trees that his foe lingered in.

'He's still after the scroll! I have to get Haku and Gaara before he finds Naruto!' Iruka bounded after them, diving through the swath of green leaves that surrounded him like an endless ocean.

Mizuki grinned to himself while watching a flash of orange dart past him through the tree tops, and then stop, exhausted. It had been easy to lose the dratted sand kid with a simple genjutsu.

'He's been running for a while, the fool...this makes it all too simple...' Mizuki crouched expertly on the branch, making sure the Uzumaki brat had not seen him, and then let a dozen shuriken fly at the boy's head.

All in a split second, Naruto turned, looking straight at Mizuki with eyes of deep anger: eyes that didn't really seem to belong to Naruto...

The chunin's breath hitched when he realized that he had been discovered, and worse, that it was not his true target that was nearby. Oh no, this was made plainly clear as senbon met the projectiles halfway, pinning each to a tree by its center.

The image of Naruto disappeared in a cloud of smoke, and where the blonde once was stood Haku, his stormy eyes darker than ever. Unable to believe he had been so easily fooled, Mizuki created a clone to distract the boy and continue his search for the scroll.

'Where the hell is that kid?' He hadn't expected Naruto to cause him so much trouble, or that his juvenile friends would show up to stall his plans. But they didn't matter, Iruka was weak and the rest of them were failures barely worth his time.

Mizuki picked his way through the woods with ease, nearing his starting point, and watched as the real Naruto stumbled while he ran, and then collapsed at the base of a tree with the scroll, trying to catch his breath.

He raised a kunai, 'There you are Naruto-kun...'

Mizuki aimed for the boy's chest this time, and felt his insides boil when a shield of sand unexpectedly surrounded him.

His target looked up, smirking, “Naruto isn't here.”

Gaara undid the jutsu and let his sand surround his traitorous teacher, or at least, the substitute he had left behind to fool him. The red haired boy cursed under his breath as the tree he attacked spilt in half and crashed to the ground in a splintered heap. He was wasting time, and he still hadn't found Haku or Naruto.

Iruka leapt down from his vantage point on an oak tree after he had spotted one of his students crouched behind a thornbush.

“Haku!” The chunin barked, and the dark haired boy turned to him in surprise.

“Iruka-sensei!”

Haku hurried over to his instructor and asked, “Where's Naruto-kun? Is he alright?”

Iruka frowned, “For now, I believe. What were you thinking? Mizuki is dangerous! You and Gaara could've been killed!”

“I'm sorry sensei...”

“Fine, for now we have to find Gaara and then return that Forbidden scroll to the Hokage before-”

Iruka was interrupted as Haku plunged a kunai into his teacher's left shoulder and gave him a relentless kick in the gut, sending him tumbling to the hard ground in utter shock.

Haku smiled sweetly, “Idiot.”

“Where are they Mizuki?” Iruka's voice was hoarse and he watched as Haku vanished and his fellow chunin appeared.

“It's not like you care do you? After all, they're monsters and abominations, they have no place in the world as shinobi,” Mizuki shrugged and watched as Iruka struggled to stand, “They deserved every bit of pain I inflicted on them. Why don't you say 'hi' to them when you're dead Iruka?”

A few meters away and out of sight, Naruto had hidden himself behind a tree, still guarding the scroll he had stolen. He did his best to breathe quietly while he listened to the exchange between the two men.

Iruka shook his head, “No, I don't believe you. I trained those kids and they're strong...not even you could hope to defeat the three of them.”

Mizuki purred while wondering if he should put a kunai in his opponent's eye or throat, “You sound so sure. They didn't put up much of a fight...”

Naruto felt his eyes burn. Were Haku and Gaara really dead?

Panting, Iruka extracted the knife from his shoulder and let it fall to the tall grass, “It's clear that they're alive, after all, you haven't found the scroll yet.”

Mizuki looked irked and his voice rose a margin, “Why do their lives matter to you so much? All of them are monsters, causing pain and leaving suffering in their wake! Or have you forgotten that your parents are dead because of the Kyuubi?”

“You're right, that is how monsters act...”

Naruto cringed, 'So...sensei really does think we're monsters.'

Iruka continued fiercely, despite his injuries, “But those three aren't monsters! They're good kids; the best I've ever had the pleasure of teaching! The only thing that I see here causing pain and suffering is you Mizuki! You'll never get your hands on that scroll and they'll make sure of it!”

“We will.”

Gaara and Haku leapt down on either side of Iruka, startling both chunin. From his hideout, Naruto was relieved to hear his friends' voices.

“You just don't know when to quit do you?” Mizuki was seething, “Then I guess you'll just have to learn the hard way!”

As the traitor reached for his second fuuma shuriken, Gaara and Haku tensed, preparing for another fight. Iruka wasn't in good condition and Naruto's whereabouts were still unknown.

Or were they?

The energetic blonde barreled out from the canopy and leapt at Mizuki, planting his knee solidly in the latter's face. Mizuki crumpled backwards, while Naruto landed in front of his companions, his expression determined.

'We haven't worked this hard for nothing...'

“If you ever touch my friends or my sensei again...” Naruto's voice was a snarl, “I'll kill you!”

A deranged laugh escaped Mizuki, “Is that so Kyuubi?”

Before there was a single word of protest from Haku, Gaara or Iruka, Naruto's eyes had narrowed dangerously. He formed the hand seals he had memorized earlier, and cried, “Tajuu Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!”

A thousand copies of Naruto filled the entire forest, earning a look of terror from Mizuki. The shadow clones nearest to Iruka and his friends seemed more protective than the rest of them.

Iruka was in awe, “They're not just illusions; they're solid clones!”

Gaara and Haku both looked smug.

“He wasn't able to make this many before...” Haku muttered, “I suppose this is a special occasion.”

“Hey bastard!” The original Naruto spoke up, “What were you saying about knowing when to quit?”

Every Naruto in the clearing grinned triumphantly as they each got a turn to beat Mizuki's head into the ground.

Literally.

“Here sensei,” After Mizuki had been knocked out, Naruto returned the scroll to Iruka, “I didn't mean to cause so much trouble.”

Iruka sighed and looked at the three of his students. They had really pulled through and worked together, and Mizuki's treachery had been exposed and dealt with.

They were all silent, still trying to absorb what had transpired.

“I have to say you all did very well,” The chunin confessed, “In fact...”

His words incurred hopeful looks from the three and the most prominent was the pleading expression on Naruto's face.

“Substitution, coordination, and shadow clones...” Iruka went on, “After the way you all fought today, I say you're all more than qualified to graduate! Congratulations, you pass!”

Of course they were pleased.

“Yeah! Alright Iruka-sensei!” Naruto nearly tackled their teacher to the ground when he hugged him. Haku only bowed respectfully with a word of deep gratitude, and Gaara's smirk seemed more good-natured than usual.

“I'm pretty sure we have a few hitai-ate leftover for the three of you...we can stop by the Academy later,” Iruka added with a smile, “Why don’t we get something to eat first?”

'Funny how we reap rewards after such an excursion...' Gaara thought to himself.

“Woo hoo! Sensei you're the best!” Naruto had labeled this the best day ever.

Oh yes, Konoha didn't know what hit it.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Soundtrack: “Windspeaks” by Nujabes feat Uyama Hiroto

Gaara's dreams were seldom pleasant.

For the past few nights he was constantly plagued with dark images and faces of his youth, and he made damn sure he didn't speak a word about it to either Naruto or Haku.

There were whispered undercurrents of rage in his thoughts and even with the Shukaku being under his control for nearly six years, he would wake with the terrified faces of Temari and Kankuro still in his mind, just as he had this morning.

“Hey Gaara,” The red haired boy felt a large pillow impact his face with peculiar force, “You know usually you're the one waking me up, but I guess there's a first time for everything!”

“...you dunce...” Gaara sat up and threw the cushion back at the blonde, clipping him in the side of the head.

He'd have liked to have remained asleep to revel in the sight of his elder siblings memories (despite their wild fear at the time), but he chose not dwell on it. He forced himself back into the uncomfortable plain of consciousness.

Naruto grinned and threw the pillow into the open door of Haku's bedroom (from where it was stolen) and watched as Gaara let out a string of grumbling noises.

“Sheesh, put a shirt on will you?” The blonde snorted at the sight of his roommate's bare torso, “You look like some kinda ghost you're so freaking pale!”

Gaara frowned. True, he was seriously lacking some skin pigment, but he'd rather not have his bothersome friend annoy him and invade his privacy so early.

“Get out of my room, Naruto.”

“Sure thing, Cranky,” The Kyuubi container backed out of the doorway but poked his head back in, “Haku-kun just wants to know why the hell you slept in again. I mean, since we're Genin now he thinks that you'd probably-”

The door slammed in his face with a loud bang.

Naruto grinned to himself, 'Yep, he's fine!'

Naruto wisely decided to leave Gaara alone for a while and returned to the kitchen where Haku had finished preparing the usual morning meal. The dark haired boy sat down and nibbled at a bite of egg while he concentrated on reading a scroll.

“Is he awake yet, Naruto-kun?” He asked without looking up.

“Yeah,” The blonde sat down across from Haku and helped himself to some breakfast, “I had to use that shirt-excuse again though.”

Haku paused and smirked to himself, “He really hates that you know...he’s a bit self-conscious.”

“Why else would I use it?” Naruto said before slurping his miso.

It was enough to earn a good-hearted laugh from Haku and he continued on reading, very amused with his friend's antics.

Naruto caught a brief glimpse of the scroll that Haku had been ferociously reviewing and was fairly curious about it. Haku rarely, if ever, read basic Ninjutsu scrolls. Naruto and Gaara had noticed that Haku had developed an insatiable appetite for 'higher-level' techniques...or so he called them.

When of course, all it really meant was that he always had a keen, open eye for B-level jutsu and higher.

And for some strange reason, Haku had a knack for 'picking-up' certain scrolls and such in that ever-unobtrusive manner of his. All the more sense for the Chunin teachers in the Academy to label him 'naturally brilliant'...which was partly true.

Anything he did absorb into that clever head of his he didn't flaunt often. Haku wasn't foolish enough to alert any high-ranking officials that he enjoyed stealing scrolls and picking apart their contents.

But what could he say? It was one of his and Naruto's favorite pastimes, and until recently (with the involvement of the traitorous Mizuki) this fetish was gradually being passed along to Gaara as well.

So Naruto didn't hesitate to ask, “What do you have there, Haku-kun?”

Haku looked up, “Oh, it's just a Shinjutsu scroll. It has detailed descriptions of the human body. It’s also more complicated than I thought.”

“A what?” Naruto was disappointed, “You mean that acupuncture crap? What's so great about poking people?”

Haku clarified for him, “I want to use it in combination with my senbon that Tenten gave to me.”

The blonde nodded thoughtfully, “Right, right...so is she cute?”

“Who? Tenten?”

“Well yeah! Gaara didn't tell me what happened while I was gone yesterday and you keep talking about this Tenten girl, so...” Naruto grinned mischievously, “What's she like?”

“She's...fun company. And fairly pretty, I admit...” Haku added, “Though I'm sure you understand I'm more focused on training than-”

“Having any sort of social life?” Naruto finished for him, smirking.

“Well...yes.” A faint blush appeared on his cheeks.

The blonde's smirk widened after he finished his miso soup, “You're worse than Gaara sometimes, Haku.”

“You are entitled to your own opinion.” Haku went on to change the subject, “But as I was saying, shinjutsu is a very precise art and can disable enemies completely if done correctly.”

“Sounds right up your alley.” Naruto acknowledged, “I still don't see how sticking needles in someone actually counts as 'art' though.”

Certainly Naruto was not foolish enough to bait Haku, was he?

“I can give you a small demonstration...” The dark haired boy suggested, standing and walked over to Naruto who didn't seem very much bothered as he ate.

“Make note, Naruto-kun, this is a very basic strike,” Haku warned while tapping a particular point on the blonde's upper left arm.

“Wha-?” Naruto jerked as if he had been slapped, and dropped his chopsticks much to Haku's delight.

Gaara entered the room just in time to witness the uncontrollable twitching that came over the right side of Naruto's face. He stopped just next to Haku to watch the effects of the shinjutsu strike that left Naruto confused and unable to eat.

“You have to do this more often.” Gaara said quietly, and Haku nodded while Naruto struggled to regain control over his facial muscles.

One tap on the side of the neck ended the Kyuubi container's convulsions. Gaara silently wondered how long Naruto's predicament would've lasted had Haku not done anything about it.

“What the hell did you do to me?” Naruto had a new respect for acupuncture and related skills.

“A simple maneuver,” Haku closed his scroll with a pleased smirk, “That pressure point sent messages to your brain to contract your jaw muscles.”

“That's pretty freaky...” Naruto mumbled, rubbing his face.

Gaara had sat down and began to eat, glad that Naruto had some sense knocked (poked) into him that morning. Haku was elated to get his point across to his blonde friend so vividly.

“We should leave soon,” Haku announced, finishing his bowl of rice, “Today they announce the Genin squads...we shouldn't miss it.”

Gaara and Naruto grinned at the dark haired boy.


Their arrival at the Ninja Academy wasn't at all expected.

The few who noticed the three of them enter the classroom were either bothered or disinterested. In Haku's case, many of his loyal groupies flocked to him like a herd of dazed sheep and smothered him in sweet words and declarations of love.

It wasn't anything out of the norm.

In the mid-row, a young, pink haired kunoichi sat slumped over, with her head bowed onto her desk in despondency. Without a word to his companions, Gaara stalked over to her, leaving a troubled Haku behind.

Next to her, a thin, sickly-looking boy with light hair turned to the despairing kunoichi.

“Are you feeling alright, Sakura-chan?” He asked quietly, “You look terrible.”

She lifted her face to give him a small smile, “Me? I'm fine Tadashi... just tired.”

With a shrug, he stood up to talk to one of his nearby friends, and she sighed heavily to herself. Tired? Her excuses were getting lamer and lamer. Why not admit she was miserable because three of her closest friends were missing out on a crucial stepping-stone of their shinobi careers?

“Sakura-chan, you should have more faith in your words.”

“See, I have this issue with lying through my teeth when I'm sad-” She prattled, before looking up at her visitor, “Gaara-kun, you did make it!”

Sakura struggled to suppress the urge to glomp him.

“You said I would.”

She frowned, “Oh, I did, didn't I? Well, maybe it'll also work for other things like...” She paused in thought, “Ino-pig will disappear!”

Inanely excited, Sakura looked across the room to where the blonde kunoichi was fawning over a raven haired boy. She didn't dematerialize or anything of the sort, much to her dismay.

“Darn...” Sakura muttered, but then smiled at Gaara, “How are Naruto-kun and Haku-kun?”

“They passed too.”

She leapt from her seat, “Wow! Really? How did you guys do it?”

“It's...a very long story.”

“And I want to hear all of it at lunch,” Sakura smiled, sitting down, “Hey, maybe we'll be put on the same team! At least, that's what I hope...”

“I'd much rather be on your team than anyone else's.” Gaara ground out, shooting a venomous glare at a nearby eavesdropper.

“Except maybe Haku and Naruto's team right?” She laughed, relieved that they had all made it.

“Not really.”

She blushed and nodded, wondering if he really meant it.

“Why don't you just go out with one of them already?” Naruto mumbled to Haku, “That way, you'd only have one of them bothering you and the rest of them would give up and leave you alone!”

“I'm not so sure it works that way, Naruto-kun,” Haku sighed resignedly, “And that wouldn't be proper to use someone like that. It's cruel.”

“You've got to stop being such a gentleman all the time,” Naruto frowned at his stilted friend, “I mean, look, Sasuke's got the right idea!”

The blonde indicated the Uchiha boy near the back row who paid no mind to the lovesick girls surrounding him. Haku only frowned at Sasuke's rude method but was slightly tempted to attempt it himself. But then that would only tarnish his reputation as one of the few, courteous, well-mannered ninja of Konoha...so he brushed the idea aside.

“N-Naruto-kun? Haku-kun?” A quiet voice came from behind them.

Haku took this opportunity to focus his attention on Hinata rather than turning down date and marriage proposals. Naruto faced her with a large grin that made her heart flutter.

“Hey Hinata-chan!” Of course he was always glad to see the shy Hyuga girl, “Looks like we're all ninja now, doesn't it?”

“Good morning, Hinata-chan.” Haku smiled at her, sending his groupies into an agitated frenzy.

“I wanted to congratulate the both of you and Gaara-kun on g-graduating,” Hinata continued softly, “Since I didn't get to see any of you yesterday...”

“Thanks Hinata,” Naruto was still grinning and Haku pondered at how his face could stay like that for so long, “Yesterday was pretty crazy!”

“I hope you enjoyed my target practice from the genin exam, Hinata-chan,” Haku joked mildly and she laughed when she recalled his performance. It was a soft, melodious sound that only she could make.

“Take your seats!” Iruka's voice drifted over the noise, and after a moment, successfully managed to order them to plant their butts. Haku and Naruto took a seat on either side of Hinata, but Naruto hadn't noticed Gaara was missing until he realized the redhead wasn't next to him.

'That's the problem with quiet people...' Naruto figured, 'They sneak off and then I can't find them.'

“He's with Sakura-chan.” Haku said quietly, pointing to the relocated Gaara who was currently settled in the center row by said kunoichi.

Iruka began to call out names in groups of three for genin cells, and the room fell silent as they waited for their names to be called.

Sakura looked over to Tadashi who was the first of the genin to be called, along with two others whose names she didn't catch. The second cell, however, turned a few heads...

Iruka smirked to himself, “Squad 2: Uzumaki Naruto, Haku and Gaara.”

Sakura glanced at Gaara next to her who gave no indication whatsoever that he was pleased with this development, while somewhere in the back, Naruto whooped loudly. Haku merely wore the serene expression as he usually did, but was apparently glad that Iruka had a hand in forming the teams.

There was confused murmuring while other squads were called.

Sakura began to shake slightly in anticipation for her name to be called, her mind spinning with the possibilities of where she would be placed, 'Please! Not with Ino-pig!'

The circumstances were a bit limiting, she realized, since three of her primary choices had been eliminated, the rest was up to fate.

“Squad 7: Haruno Sakura, Uchiha Sasuke and Inuzuka Kiba.”

'There...that wasn't so bad was it?' She let out a shaky breath and Gaara gave her a quizzical look.

Genuinely curious, Sakura stole a peek at Sasuke who was quietly brooding on the opposite end of the room. For a split-second, their eyes met, black and green, and her head snapped back to the front as if it were on a hinge.

'Sasuke?' Sakura let it boil in her head, 'He's alright...I guess we haven't talked in a while...and Kiba? Well...' She glanced at the Inuzuka boy who was having an animated conversation with the puppy perched on top of his head, 'He'll take some getting used to...'

“Whew! Not that bad,” Sakura whispered to the red haired boy beside her, “I'm just glad I'm not stuck with Ino-pig!”

“...likewise.”

“Squad 8: Aburame Shino, Hyuga Hinata and Hatake Sato."

Hinata made a small squeak that was only audible to Naruto, who in turn, gave her an enthusiastic nudge. The last of the teams were called in a short time.

“Squad 10: Nara Shikamaru, Yamanaka Ino and Akimichi Chouji.”

After the more important instructions were announced, the volume of the class immediately began to increase. Naruto thumped Haku hard on the back, unable to contain his excitement, “Alright! I just knew we'd be on the same team! This is gonna be awesome!”

 Haku nodded while the blonde boy rambled on.

Disheartened she wasn't placed with any of her friends, Hinata attempted to shrink away to contemplate her fate with her newly assigned team. Of course, Haku stopped her before she could sulk off.

“Come and have lunch with us, Hinata.” Haku offered.

Naruto nodded, “Yeah, we haven't told you or Sakura-chan how we passed the genin exam yet!”

Glad that she wasn't so easily forgotten she nodded with a small smile and followed after them, hoping that even if they were on different teams that nothing between them would change.


Sakura and Hinata could not stay for very long. They ate lunch together outside near the swing, while Naruto explained how they had read the forbidden scroll and how they had also outwitted Mizuki.

“I never realized Mizuki-sensei was like that...” Hinata said quietly.

“None of us did,” Haku admitted, “That's why it was difficult to fight him. We couldn't fully view him as an enemy until...”

He trailed off, not wanting to describe to them how Naruto had learned that he was the vessel for the Kyuubi and other sad discoveries.

“The point is that we proved ourselves as shinobi and graduated!” Naruto cut in, much to Haku's relief, “And that we kicked Mizuki's ass!”

“I still can't believe you stole that scroll Naruto...” Sakura snickered, “I mean...couldn't you have shown it to me and Hinata-chan too, at least?”

Gaara gave her an incredulous look, “Have you no shame?”

She smirked, “Well, since the three of you just browsed through it, I don't see why you couldn't have shown it to us! Didn't you think we'd be interested?” Hinata gave a small nod and Gaara sighed, hoping that this would've taught a valuable lesson to them.

But apparently he was wrong.

“There wasn't much time to think at all Sakura-chan,” Haku answered, “We were desperate.”

“I'm glad you took the scroll, Naruto-kun...” Hinata said softly, silencing her companions in surprise. Naruto who was halfway through a bite of his rice ball nearly choked.

Hinata wasn't the trouble-seeking type.

“If you didn't take it, then maybe Mizuki-sensei would still be teaching here,” She went on, “That...that wouldn't have been good...”

Sakura nodded thoughtfully in agreement, “Yeah, she's right. No one knows how it could've turned out if Naruto didn't steal it.”

Naruto nodded, pleased that they agreed with his actions.

“But he still fell into a trap.” Gaara deadpanned. It snapped them back to the reality that if Iruka hadn't arrived, things could've gone very badly indeed.

“We should go and meet with our teams now,” Sakura sighed, as she and Hinata got to their feet, “We'll come find you later if that's alright.”

“Sure it is!” Naruto barked, looking almost offended. He then turned to his teammates, “Maybe we should find out who our sensei is too, huh?”

The girls departed after a short farewell, leaving the boys as they returned to the Academy.

“There were a lot of graduates.” Haku began to speculate, “I didn't think that there would be enough jounin to attend to every team.”

“Yeah, that was weird.” Naruto scratched his chin, “I guess we just lucked out, getting placed on the same team huh?”

Gaara frowned, “Or maybe we were placed on the same team deliberately.”

Haku grimaced. Who would want to mentor the three of them? After learning that the elder ninja of the village knew of their identities, few jounin would actually volunteer to train such a group.

Not that they needed supervision: they had been left unattended for six years and had done very well in perfecting their techniques on their own or with each other. Still, now that they had graduated to genin rank, they were probably going to need formal guidance from a personal instructor.

Who was up to the task?

Ten minutes of waiting at the front of the Academy left the three boys particularly anxious. And it wasn't until a distantly familiar grunt caught their attention did they realize that their instructor had snuck up behind them.

“Holy shit. You all got tall.”

Jiraiya reveled in the marvelous sound of dropping jaws as Naruto, Gaara and Haku instantly recognized his scratchy voice.

Naruto, ever the opponent, rounded on the toad hermit, “Ero-sennin, where the hell have you been?” Jiraiya was shocked to see him smiling, “I thought you were too busy doing that nasty 'research' of yours!”

“Well, it has been a while and I am still pretty busy...”

Naruto went on, “It's good that you're here! You see we're waiting for our instructor.”

Jiraiya was affronted, 'Does he really think so little of me?'

Haku chuckled sheepishly, “Uh, Naruto-kun...it's quite possible that Gama-sennin will be teaching us.”

Gaara frowned at the dark haired boy, “Don't joke like that, Haku.”

Jiraiya hadn't expected the 'welcome wagon' but this was more criticism than he had anticipated. And of course the sand kid just had to be a peach as usual.

“Oh ho, sand kid! Don't think I've forgotten you!” The super pervert glared daggers at Gaara, “We have a score to settle, you and I!”

“If you say so.” It was a bland, snippy retort.

Belatedly, Naruto came to the frightening conclusion that Jiraiya had reared his fuzzy white head back in Konoha for only one reason other than peeping.

“NOOO!” Naruto stared wide-eyed at Jiraiya, “Not the pervert! There's no way you're teaching us!” He gave horrified looks to both Haku and Gaara who couldn't give him an exact answer themselves, “Right?”

“What? Is this really such a tragedy?” The sage was insulted, “Look, I've already had my share of Genin and you're lucky to have me as your sensei as it is!”

Haku nodded politely, while Naruto fretted over Jiraiya's naughty hobbies and Gaara pondered if he could continue throttling the hermit now that he would be teaching them.

With a sigh, the Legendary Toad Sage recalled how he ended up in such a position...


“I'm glad you could make it, Jiraiya.” The Third Hokage smirked while he watched his former pupil shuffle into the office.

“Yeah well,” The sennin grumbled, “This better be important, Hokage-sama. I'm on a deadline for the new sequel of Icha Icha you know.”

'Time must be making him increasingly flippant...' Hiruzen reasoned. Jiraiya rarely showed disrespect, least of all to him.

“I'm sure...” The Sandaime sighed, “Jiraiya, please understand that I have called you here on strict business and I will have nothing but your full attention.”

Jiraiya leaned against the chair placed in front of the Hokage's desk, “I'm listening, Hokage-sama.”

“Uzumaki Naruto and his companions have achieved Genin rank.”

“That's...” Jiraiya wanted to say 'alarming', “Er...great.”

“You will be their mentor.”

“WHAT?”

The Hokage’s expression was serious, “Surely you had expected this position when you brought them here six years ago, am I wrong? If I recall, you did begin their training but you haven't yet completed it.”

“Wait a minute!” The hermit barked, “Why does that obligate me to train the runts? I made no promises and I didn’t sign any paperwork! So why me?”

“The other jounin do not believe they are up to the task.” Hiruzen answered simply.

“So you want me to do it, tearing myself away from my hard work to train up another bunch of snot-nosed brats?” Jiraiya put on a childish pout, “I'm getting old, Hokage-sama!”

The Hokage looked at him for a long moment, “Jiraiya, I myself am getting old, but have I been any less active as a result?”

“...no.”

“Exactly,” The Third nodded, “Furthermore, these three young shinobi have special abilities that you have first-hand experience with. That makes you the perfect choice as their squad leader.”

It wasn't very flattering, “So?”

“You also have past experience with training genin...”

“So?” Jiraiya was certainly pushing his luck, “You could always order someone else to do it.”

“They are familiar with you,” The Sandaime added, “And it also may please you to hear that young Naruto has become skilled in summoning toads.”

This caught the sennin's attention.

“Er...well, that is good,” Jiraiya admitted, grateful that Naruto didn't make light of the summoning contract he had been given, “What about the other two squirts?”

“Recently the three of them went on another fantastic escapade: stealing a forbidden scroll and reading its contents. I suspect they learned some high-level techniques.” The Hokage went on airily, “Why don't you ask them yourself?”

'Darn, I'm being swindled...' Jiraiya thought to himself, 'Clearly there's no way out of this one.'

“So what if I do train the kids Hokage-sama?” The sennin shrugged, “What's in it for me? I mean, I am coming out of retirement just to train the brats. I need some kind of incentive.”

“I assure you, Jiraiya, you will be compensated,” Hiruzen told him, “Though I must warn you...they have become quite a handful.”


“Let me put it to you this way,” Jiraiya sighed, “I was appointed to train you by the Hokage, and if you've got a problem with that you can march your little butts up to him and tell him about it.”

They didn't budge and the sennin inwardly sighed in relief, 'Whew! I really thought that had em!'

“Hokage-sama made you our instructor because you're acquainted with our abilities," Gaara surmised, “I can't argue with that.”

Even Naruto came up with an excuse, “You may be a super pervert, but you know what you're doing...” He admitted, “And I have to show you this awesome jutsu I learned!”

“Save it for later.” Jiraiya smirked as the blonde's face fell.

And of course, predictable Haku was always respectful, “I'm honored to have one of the Legendary Sannin as our mentor.” After giving a small bow he had Jiraiya pegged.

He wasn't about to admit it, but he couldn't believe how much he had actually missed the 'annoying brats.' When the Sandaime had ordered him to lead their genin squad, he was somewhere between annoyed and excited to be reunited with them.

And a bitter feeling also sank into the hermit's stomach, 'Yeesh, they grew like weeds...I'm kind of sorry I had to miss it.' A large amount of guilt also hit Jiraiya when he looked at Naruto, who even in his absence, continued to summon toads as he had been told to.

It wasn't the most happy of reunions, but it was still worthwhile, Jiraiya figured.

“That's settled then. Now that there are no more complaints,” Jiraiya smiled at them, “From here out you will refer to me as your sensei and I expect you to meet me at the fourth training area tomorrow at 9 AM sharp...got it?”

“Yes, sensei.”

“Sure!”

“...”

The sennin frowned at Naruto and Gaara's faulty responses, “What was that?”

They spoke in unison, some more enthusiastic than others, “Yes, sensei.”

“Good!” Jiraiya was grinning, “Now I'm off to continue my sequel. I have a deadline to meet!”

And he left the three new genin of Squad 2 with a very awkward feeling.


Hinata took a deep, steadying breath as she approached one of her newly assigned teammates.

“Hello Shino,” She gave him a small smile, “I understand we are to be teammates?”

He nodded silently behind his dark glasses.

The Hyuga girl was honestly relieved to have the quiet boy on her team. She could relax knowing that he wouldn't be an arrogant, insult-throwing ninja as many of the boys in her graduating class had been.

As for what he thought about her...she couldn't tell. He seemed indifferent about her presence, but instead of that annoying her it actually helped her relax around him.

Hinata stood quietly next to him, supposing that since she was a girl, he would expect her to initiate a conversation.

“So, um, has Sato or our s-sensei arrived yet?”

“They haven't.”

“Oh...” Hinata cursed herself. Wasn't that rather obvious? If they weren't present then most likely they hadn't arrived. Shino still seemed indifferent so she relaxed again.

Fifteen minutes of silence later...

“I w-wonder if they know w-where to meet us-?”

“Yo!”

Startled, Hinata turned to see another genin walking over to them, apparently not at all bothered by his tardiness. Even Shino raised his eyebrows over his sunglasses in acknowledgment.

The boy was just a few inches shorter than the tall Aburame boy, with a mop of silver hair and midnight blue eyes. Unlike Shino, the boy's emotions were easy to read judging from the placid smile on his face.

Hinata blushed in spite of herself.

“Hey there Hinata, Shino,” He nodded to both of them, “Sorry about me being late, but I see that our sensei hasn't gotten here just yet either...”

“I'm afraid s-so.” Hinata said softly.

“Heh heh, I don’t mind!” Sato leaned back against a tree trunk and began to fiddle with a small camera slung around his neck, “I just hope we get someone good.”

Moments passed and then a formidable woman appeared near the end of the alley. She gave the three genin grouped together a short stare. It sent shivers up Hinata's spine, and she was certain that their instructor had arrived after she began to walk towards them. She looked irritable.

She stopped in front of them, settling her fierce, ruby eyes on them, “I'll have you know that I will not abide by lateness from any of you,” And to prevent herself from becoming a hypocrite, added, “For now I will beg your pardon because I have just violated that simple request. I was detained and thankfully it will not happen again...”

Yuuhi Kurenai tried to shake off her dizzying encounter with the perverted toad hermit from only minutes before. His request was truly obscene and she would've made short work of him had it not been for the genin team she had kept waiting.

The three young ninja looked at her, at a loss for words.

There was an abrupt camera flash and Kurenai fixed her glare at the culprit, “You.”

“Yes ma'am?” Sato looked at her innocently.

“I forbid you from taking pictures of me without my permission, understood?” She was a bit paranoid of any media that could be passed along to the vulgar toad hermit, “I will excuse you just this once.”

He nodded, “Understood ma'am!”

She cleared her throat and went on, “I am Yuuhi Kurenai and I will be your Jounin instructor. And I would like to hear something about each of you as well.”

Kurenai paused and glanced back at the silver haired boy, “You...you look familiar.”

He smiled, “Hatake Sato. You probably know my uncle Kakashi.” He pulled his hitai-ate down over his left eye, imitating the Copy Ninja surprisingly well.

She frowned, “I didn't know that Kakashi had a nephew. Though you do look like him.”

Sato shrugged, “I get that a lot but...he and I don't get along too well. He's a closet pervert.”

“I know...” Kurenai muttered, then went on, “Tell us about yourself.”

“Well I take pictures of my opponent’s techniques and...things that I'd like to preserve,” He grinned at Kurenai and she gave him a dangerous frown, “You'll never find anyone who's better than me at setting traps...” He added confidently and Shino raised his eyebrows again, “And...I love coffee. That’s it.”

That was all Kurenai had to hear.

“You?” She turned to Hinata.

“I am Hyuga Hinata,” She said quietly, “I am proficient in the Hyuga clan's Gentle Fist style and can utilize the prestigious abilities of the Byakugan...” It sounded as if she had rehearsed this information many times, “And I...I like to spend my time with my friends and pressing flowers...” Certainly she had added that in herself.

“Good,” Kurenai turned from Hinata to Shino, “And you?”

“...Aburame Shino,” He wasn't thrilled to have to speak up, “I monitor the growth of my colony of Kikaichu insects. I also collect different species of insects.”

He didn't elaborate further.

Kurenai nodded. This team...it could work. Still she was going to push them to their limits and make sure they reached their full potential.

“Hey sensei!” Sato was grinning again, “How about a group shot?”

She frowned at him, 'But this one is...a bit eccentric.'


“Well...this is a drag.”

Shikamaru spread himself out on a picnic bench. He folded his arms beneath his head and gazed blankly at the flocks of cumulus drifting up above.

Nodding in agreement, Chouji settled down on the table next to him munching on a bag of potato chips.

“What are you two doing?” Ino snapped, upset with their attitudes, “Like, we're a team now! Shouldn't we be training or...doing something constructive?”

Sarutobi Asuma took a drag on his cigarette when Ino gave him a pleading look. He didn't really feel like stepping in at the moment. It was true they had just officially become Team 10, but not much training was needed in his opinion. The Ino-Shika-Cho formation worked well enough, and there was little the three young genin could do at the moment to improve it. Missions and experience first; refining technique later.

“It's the first day Ino, let up a little.” Chouji protested, while offering her a chip.

She gave him a frustrated look, “Let up? Why don't you let up on the snacks, Chouji!” Ino turned to a cloud-watching Shikamaru, “And you! Get up off your lazy ass and do something!”

He frowned at her for a long moment and then sighed, “Fine, but only if you stop being so troublesome.”

Ino smiled smugly to herself. Finally a bit of cooperation!

Shikamaru raised himself into a sitting position on the bench, and with no change of inflection asked Asuma, “Sensei, are you up for a game of Shogi?”

“Sure.”

“Hey!” Ino glowered at her lazy teammate, “I didn't mean go play a board game! How is that constructive?”

Shikamaru raised his chin up a fraction, “It is a game of strategy that requires patience and planning...not like you'd know anything about that.”

She wore an expression equivalent to a wrathful harpy.

Chouji paused in his munching, “Alright Ino, I'll train with you.” It seemed his offer came out of the desire to end her nagging rather than the out of goodness of his heart.

Ino also noticed this.

“Oh...fine,” She gave another annoyed look to Shikamaru and his opponent, “We'll leave the old men to their little game!”


“What the hell is taking so long?” Kiba groaned, leaning impatiently against his desk.

He and his fellow members of Squad 7 had been waiting inside the Academy for nearly an hour, and the passing time was gnawing away at their patience.

Next to him, Akamaru barked in agreement. The dog was in a more pleasant mood since Sakura had been patting his head for the majority of their wait.

“Maybe our sensei is just busy,” Sakura sighed, exasperation weaving its way into her voice, “Jounin get called onto a lot of strenuous missions right?”

Kiba made a bland grunt in response, doubting the notion.

A short distance away from them, Sasuke sat with his fingers laced beneath his chin, just as uncommunicative as he had been for the past 45 minutes. The only evidence they had that he was actually capable of speech was his short greeting to Sakura earlier.

Without warning, Akamaru's floppy ears swiveled towards the direction of the door, and he moved his small head away from Sakura's ministrations. Kiba took a brief glance at his dog before understanding, and a satisfied smirk appeared on his face, “It's about time...”

Relieved and annoyed, Sakura and Sasuke also looked on as the door slid open, and a tall, wiry-looking ninja strolled inside, deeply absorbed in a book he was reading.

It was so anticlimactic it made their eyes sting.

“Hey teach!” Kiba barked at the silver haired jounin, “What took you?”

Reluctantly, Hatake Kakashi peeled his eye away from his favorite volume of Icha Icha Paradise, and settled it on his three would-be pupils.

“Oh, you know, I just got lost on the road of life...” He didn't bother making a good excuse.

The Inuzuka boy restrained himself from shouting out a very improper comment, and barely managed to give a highly critical look at the tardy jounin.

Kakashi swept his right-sided gaze over the freshly graduated genin, “Hm. This is an...interesting bunch. Why don't we go outside to get to know each other?”

Once outdoors, things didn't improve much for the newly-formed cell.

“So, tell me a bit about yourselves,” Kakashi still had his dark eye glued to his naughty book, “Your names, hobbies, dreams; things you like and dislike...”

“Why don't you go first sensei? Just so we can have an idea.” Sakura suggested.

He considered it briefly, “My name? Hatake Kakashi...hobbies...hm. I don't really have any. Dreams? I keep that to myself. Likes and dislikes? Hmm...never thought about that either...”

The genin sighed. So the only information he did give out was his name.

Kakashi glanced towards Kiba, “Why don't you start?”

“I'm Inuzuka Kiba,” He said while scratching Akamaru's ears, “And this here is Akamaru. I like to train with Akamaru and hate things I can't chew...” He paused in thought, “My dreams? I'm going to be the strongest ninja in my clan!” His ninken barked fiercely at the proclamation.

Kakashi nodded, and then looked to Sakura, who seemed to be going over a mental checklist.

“My name is Haruno Sakura,” She began, perking up considerably, “I like to hang out with my friends and study...and I hate Ino-pig...” Her voice lowered dangerously, “And...I will be one of the best kunoichi in the entire village!”

'She's...spirited...' Kakashi mused while turning his gaze to the last of Squad 7.

Sasuke narrowed his eyes before speaking, “Uchiha Sasuke. My sole focus is training. There aren't many things I like...and one day I will destroy a certain someone.”

“Hn, I figured...” Kakashi muttered, “Fair enough.”

His students looked up at him as he slowly raised himself off of the railing he had been leaning on.

“Tomorrow morning, you'll be participating in a survival exercise,” Kakashi explained while turning a page in his novel, “We meet at training ground three at 6AM, oh and, you might not want to eat breakfast...because you'll throw up.”

The genin were unnerved by such a menacing statement.

Unabashed, Kakashi turned on his heel with a wave, “See you tomorrow!”

Sakura exchanged a disbelieving glance with Kiba after their sensei departed. The Inuzuka boy quickly shook off the awkwardness.

“He's probably bluffing, that retard,” Kiba snorted inelegantly, “I'm still eating breakfast anyway! I'll see you guys tomorrow.”

The pink haired kunoichi watched as Kiba walked away as well, with a yappering Akamaru at his side. She felt slightly ill.

'Things seemed alright when we were picked as a team, but...' Sakura evaluated how different the experience was from her initial expectations, 'Kakashi-sensei...he really keeps to himself...'

“He's weird.”

Sakura turned; surprised that Sasuke hadn't left yet. He had spoken voluntarily. He wore a contemplative expression, and his onyx eyes were less fierce than they had been during the introduction.

“He is.” She agreed after a moment, “I was kind of hoping we'd actually get someone at least...a little ordinary.”

“There are no normal jounin in this village.” Sasuke replied bluntly and she took it into consideration.

He had a point. Many of the elite ninja of Konoha were...quirky. After many perilous missions and other painful strides to achieve the rank of 'high ninja', many shinobi had lost some of their more sociable characteristics. Kakashi, she judged, was no different.

As the young Uchiha began to walk away, Sakura turned back to him, “Sasuke-kun?”

He halted. It had been a while since she had called him that.

She frowned in thought, “Should we eat breakfast tomorrow?”

Sasuke gave her a reserved glance, “If he's serious we'll throw up either way.”

Sakura closed her eyes and grumbled, “Right.”


The next morning was a bright, cloudless day. Naruto, Haku and Gaara arrived at the fourth training area at their designated time. They were antsy.

It had sunk in overnight that Jiraiya, the pervert who had brought them to Konoha as young children, had at last returned after six years as their sensei. It was difficult to wrap their heads around. It was also a monumental development, they had agreed over a dinner of beef ramen, seeing that they would be trained by one of the Legendary Three. Few could boast the same.

Haku was still a tad more enthusiastic than his teammates about Jiraiya being their mentor. Not because he approved of the hermit's lecherous ways, oh no. It was merely because he believed there was no use in complaining about Jiraiya’s flaws when they were lucky to have a familiar face supporting them.

Had he returned to Konoha for any other reason, Haku probably would've chewed him out as his friends had, being older and more aware of the world.

Jiraiya abruptly ended his scribbling of notes, and looked excitedly at his genin students, “Fwo ho! Five minutes early eh? That's better than what I had expected!”

Naruto yawned, “Can it, old man.”

Apparently, not much had changed between them after all.

“What kind of training do you have planned for us, Ero-sennin?” Naruto went on while stretching his arms over his head.

Haku jabbed him lightly in the side, “Call him Sensei, Naruto-kun. Have a bit more respect.”

“Okay...” The blonde grumbled. Gaara was also slightly disappointed that they would have to cut back on their casual behavior with the sennin.

Jiraiya nodded to Haku before answering slyly, “This isn’t exactly training...”

There was an eerie quiet before the sennin continued, “Listen up. This is a test of skill and if you fail to meet expectations you will be sent back to the Academy.” He smirked, “That way I can continue my research in peace.”

“No way we're going back there, old man!”  Naruto declared ardently.

Honestly none of them could say they hadn't suspected Jiraiya to plan something along those lines. The three boys radiated determination, not wanting to return to a place that they had proven their abilities were far beyond.

“What does this test entail, Jiraiya-sensei?” Haku asked.

“You have to get your hands on one of these bells,” He said simply, holding up two small tinkling objects, “Anyone who doesn't will be tied to one of the poles behind me,” Jiraiya gestured to the three wooden stumps in a line, “Your time will be limited. I'm giving you five hours to get a bell, no exceptions.” A kitchen timer was seated on top of one of the poles.

Gaara frowned, “There are only two bells...meaning one of us will undoubtedly be sent back to the Academy once this is through.”

Jiraiya scratched his cheek disinterestedly, “Yup.”

A look of horror came over Naruto and Haku, while Gaara hid his outrage.

“Forget it!” The blonde hollered, “You can't do that when we've all worked so hard to graduate!”

“Uh, yes I can!” The sage barked, “You've heard the conditions so you may begin...” He paused and watched each of them tense, “Now!

The three genin scattered, disappearing instantly into the surrounding forest.

'This sucks!' Naruto was thoroughly appalled that the super pervert had managed to turn him against his best friends all for the sake of passing a ridiculous test, 'But I can't go back to that place! Still...I can't just forget about Haku-kun or Gaara-kun either.'

He waited silently at the base of a fat tree, desperately trying to calm down, 'Relax. Get a bell and see what happens...maybe Ero-sennin has a third one hidden somewhere!'

But would he risk it? Risk sending Haku or Gaara back to the Academy if there wasn't an imaginary 'third' bell?

Naruto clenched his fists, 'No I...I can't do this. Not if it means...' Memories of the years he had spent growing up alongside his friends resurfaced in his mind; of how they shed sweat, blood, and tears to get to where they had, 'No. I guess I'll just tell Ero-sennin I quit, there's always next year...but Haku-kun and Gaara-kun, I wouldn't do that to them!'

Just as he was about to leave his cover and return to the open field, Gaara appeared in front of him, motioning for him to be silent. Puzzled, Naruto followed after the sand manipulator farther into the brush and up into the high tops of an oak tree.

Balanced like a cat on the top-most branch was Haku, waiting for them.

“There's no way any of this makes any sense...” Haku said in a low voice as Gaara and Naruto perched beside him, “What's the point of a three man cell if one of us will be sent back to the Academy anyway? It discourages teamwork outright!”

Gaara nodded, “He wants us to compete with each other.”

“No way in hell!” Naruto hissed, “Even Ero-sennin's gotta know that we wouldn't turn against each other!”

“Maybe his intent was to test our team effort in the face of dire consequences.” Haku hypothesized, “If we turn against each other, he will have a much easier time stopping us. I think there’s still a chance we can make this go our way…”

Gaara and Naruto looked at him expectantly.

“We attack him head-on, all at once,” Haku resolved, “Do whatever it takes to get a bell...I'll sort out the rest...”


Jiraiya sat comfortably in the clearing while putting the finishing touches on his novel. He looked up when three copies of Naruto came careening out of the tree line, each wielding a kunai.

With a sigh, Jiraiya stood up, “There's really no rush kid, you still have...” He stole a glance at the kitchen timer, “Hm...four hours and forty-six minutes it looks like...”

“I'm getting a bell now old man!” Naruto snarled. He and his clones leapt and dove for the sennin, who wasn't at all impressed.

“Have it your way...” Jiraiya sighed, side-stepping the first Naruto and grabbing the wrists of his counterparts, “You could've put more planning into this you know!”

With a shove, he redirected the clones to simultaneously stab each other and disappear. Or at least, that's what the sage envisioned would happen. The clones didn't erupt into a cloud of smoke...they only leaked sand.

“Wah-?” Jiraiya leapt back, startled as Gaara appeared to his right, remolding his sand copies of Naruto to attack again. Naruto was already diving at the off-balance hermit.

The blonde nin dodged the sennin's counterstrike and reached for the two, shining bells tied to his belt. Naruto grinned broadly as his fingertips made contact with the cool metal surface of a bell and...

“Hands off!” Jiraiya quickly swatted him away, knocking him down into the dust with a grunt.

While Naruto staggered to his feet, the sennin smirked as he evaded Gaara's sand clones, impressed that they had made a combined effort, 'What about the farm boy though? He's around here somewhere-'

Preoccupied with Gaara, Jiraiya was unable to prevent the flurry of senbon that were rushing toward him from snapping the strings of the bells. Haku, somewhere aloft in a tree, had taken the position of 'sniper' and would only intervene if necessary.

Gaara and Naruto eyed the two, tiny flecks of light that dropped helplessly to the ground by Jiraiya's feet. They charged like beasts. All the while Jiraiya made note of how different this bell test was compared to his own as a genin, 'Sheesh, it's always a team effort with these three! I figured it would be. Unlike most other teams I suppose cooperation won't be an issue here!’

“Shadow Clone Jutsu!”

The sage had no time to prepare himself as ten clones of Naruto materialized, surrounding him in a ring of orange jumpsuits.

“Shadow Clones, eh?” Jiraiya grinned as he knocked his assailants back with little effort, “That's new, but not good enough!” The real Naruto dove for Jiraiya again with a cry, aiming towards the glinting objects at his feet.

The overzealous nin suffered a painful knee in the side of the head, followed by an exasperated sigh from the toad hermit. Gaara wasn't pleased with the bloody nose Naruto was now sporting. If Jiraiya wanted to get rough, he wasn't going to hold back.

Gaara formed seals as Jiraiya made a grab for the bells himself, “Sand Dragon Bullet!”

“Eh?” The sand around the sennin's feet twisted into the form of a large, grainy, angry-looking dragon, “Not again-!

Pressurized sand hurtled into Jiraiya's chest, knocking him into Naruto and sent them both tumbling to the opposite side of the clearing.

Haku sprang like a blue blur from his vantage point and snatched the bells off of the ground while the tangled, sandy mess that was Naruto and Jiraiya recovered from Gaara's powerful and as always...reckless assault.

“Get off me, Ero-sensei!” Naruto wriggled away from the super pervert and stood, brushing sand off of him, “Hey Gaara! Next time aim!”

“I was aiming.”

The blonde huffed in aggravation as he returned to his teammates, but his annoyance vanished upon seeing Haku holding up two, small bells victoriously. Gaara smirked as the sage also stood, muttering curses under his breath.

Once the toad hermit had recuperated and regained his genins’ attention, he glared down at Gaara, “That...that was pretty good, save for hitting Naruto. But...lay off the thrashing will you? I'm getting too old for that crap!”

Gaara said nothing, not making any promises.

“Jiraiya-sensei,” Haku looked smug, “It appears we've finished a few hours early.”

The sennin snorted, “Yep. Thanks to your strategy. To be quite frank, I didn't really think it would take long for you all to grab a bell,” A maniacal look came over his face, “I only wanted to see who actually did get one...the outcome was...interesting.”

Naruto frowned, “What's that supposed to mean? We worked together, but Haku got both of the bells!”

“I noticed,” Jiraiya said dryly, “So we'll solve this diplomatically...you will decide amongst yourselves who'll be going back to the Academy. Two bells...two genin.”

“THAT’S BULL!” Naruto bellowed, “None of us are going back there!”

The sennin gave him a detached look, “Life isn't always fair kid. Get over it.”

Silence fell over the three genin of Squad 2. They had hoped, even been almost certain, that if they worked as a unit they would all pass...according to Haku's suspicions. The exercise was to pit them against each other, but overcoming that obstacle and working as a team should've enabled them all to remain a squad.

Apparently not.

Naruto was sweating. Diplomatically? The obvious choice would be to send him back. He hadn't been the most serious of students, he admitted, but that didn't mean he didn't learn. He wanted to stay on the team. He couldn't leave.

“I'll go back.”

Jiraiya, Naruto and Haku looked at Gaara in shock.

Gaara didn't seem very perturbed at all, much to their surprise...although an ounce of regret was visible on his face after he volunteered. And unfortunately he had astonished Haku and Naruto so badly they were beyond the point of protesting.

Jiraiya showed no sympathy, “Well? Get going! Don't stick around here and waste my time!”

Haku looked close to having a nervous breakdown.

Naruto's fists clenched and he gritted his teeth, “Don't talk to him like that! He...he doesn't have to...” He turned to the red haired boy, “You don't have to do it, Gaara! This is stupid! Ero-sennin is a complete jerk so...why don't we all go back?”

Haku looked up. Naruto was right: Jiraiya was being unusually harsh.

“Yeah!” The blonde gave a fierce look to the man, “If you have a problem with one of us; you have a problem with all of us! We'll all go back to the Academy and get a teacher who's not a big asshole! We'll always be a team!”

Haku nodded in solemn agreement and a look of mangled relief came over Gaara. It was disappointing, but they would stick together no matter what the difficulty was, even failing a hopeless test.

The grave expression on Jiraiya's face began to crack and he chuckled to himself, “You three really are inseparable, aren't you?”

They looked at each other, confused.

“Well, there's no denying you couldn't give a rat's ass about the rules of any mission when it comes down to the fate of your teammates, even if it is a bit extreme, so...” The sennin grinned, “You’ve passed!”

Stunned faces.

Jiraiya nodded, “Right...well? Quit standing there like idiots and let me see how you’ve improved! You didn't actually think I'd send one of you squirts back to the Academy did you?”

Haku looked floored, “B-But, why did you push us so hard to get a bell if it was all an empty threat, sensei?”

He flipped open his naughty novel, “Oh...well, Hokage-sama said you three recently stole a Forbidden Scroll and learned some jounin-level techniques...I was just curious to see if it was true...”

Naruto was grinning, “Well why didn't you just say so? We could've showed you from the start!”

“Where would the fun be in that?” Jiraiya snorted, “You think I can't pull your legs once in a while?” He smirked, “You should've seen your faces when the sand kid volunteered! It was priceless!”

Gaara wasn't in a laughing mood. His self-sacrifice was no laughing matter.

At least they would remain Team 2. At most, they had made complete fools of themselves by chasing bells early in the morning...and Jiraiya cherished the thought.


By noon, Naruto, Gaara and Haku were seated contentedly at Ichiraku Ramen, and their sensei would've joined them if not for the fact that he was on a strict deadline and didn't have time for noodles.

“Naruto-kun,” Haku began, setting down his chopsticks, “I'm just curious, but I was wondering if maybe you could demonstrate to me and Gaara how to produce shadow clones?”

Naruto stopped mid-slurp, “Huh? Why would you want to know?”

“We can only create replications out of sand and water,” Gaara cut in, “Your clones are solid. They can fight for much longer.”

The blonde grinned, “Well you should've looked at that jutsu yourselves when we had the scroll if you're so interested! It's not like I give stuff like that away, even if you guys are my best pals!”

Haku and Gaara sighed in resignation. It was worth a shot, but they hadn't expected him to agree.

Naruto smirked impishly, “Maybe, if you guys get some cool jutsu to exchange...”

That was a good point. It wasn't as if Naruto could manipulate water or sand, which was where his strength differed from theirs. Without the elements they influenced, they wouldn't be of much use in a fight. It was only natural that they would fall back on Naruto's aid for melee combat.

Haku picked up his chopsticks again, “That sounds fair.”

Gaara caught the attention of Ayame who was wiping the counter clean, and she smiled at him, “More miso, Gaara-kun?”

“Please.”

Haku and Naruto restrained a smirk as she hurried off.

“Heh heh,” The blonde looked at his red haired friend, “I think she likes you.”

“...”

“She does seem to favor you over us, Gaara-kun,” Haku nodded in agreement.

Gaara didn’t care. He never really thought much about the girl who had worked in the ramen shop. He wasn't exactly keen to notice girls, especially while he was eating for god's sake...

Haku and Naruto just liked to push his buttons.

“Good afternoon Naruto-kun, Haku-kun, Gaara-kun,” A gentle voice sounded from behind them.

With his mouth full of noodles, Naruto turned to see Hinata standing behind them, smiling shyly.

He quickly swallowed and Haku was surprised he didn't asphyxiate from all the food he inhaled, “Hey Hinata-chan! How have you been?”

She smiled, “I'm fine. So I see you are all an official t-team now. That's wonderful! Some others didn't make it...”

Gaara quietly thanked Ayame after she returned with his miso.

“Gama-sennin is also our mentor,” Haku added, and her eyes widened, “He returned to train us specifically on Hokage-sama's orders.”

“W-What an honor...”

“Not really,” Naruto sighed, “He's still a pervert as usual.”

Gaara noticed two other young ninja behind Hinata, “Your teammates are with you?”

The Hyuga girl quickly turned to them, “Sorry, these are my teammates: Shino-kun,” A tall boy with dark glasses nodded to them, “And Sato-kun.”

The silver haired boy smirked, “They know me already, Sunshine.”

Naruto gave Sato an enraged look, “Eh? Hinata doesn't need a pet name!”

“Ah, but she positively radiates light wherever she goes!” Sato declared, grinning, and she blushed terribly, “Besides, I'm glad I caught up with you three. I'm not surprised you're all on the same squad!”

Shino turned to Sato, giving him an inquiring look, “You know each other?”

Haku wore a somewhat humiliated look and Gaara turned away, busying his mouth with ramen. Naruto on the other hand was grinning just as broadly as Sato had been.

“Oh yeah! Half the pranks Gaara, Haku and me pulled were all his idea!” Naruto announced, and both Hinata and Shino looked at their teammate, not very surprised, “Now that I think about it, it has been a while...maybe we should plan another one soon...”

Haku looked mortified, “If you are planning another one, I'd prefer to sit it out this time.”

Hinata giggled. So even Haku had been forced into backing up toilets around the Academy at least once.

Sato, ever resourceful, produced a picture from his back pocket and handed it to Naruto, “Maybe you remember this one, Naruto-kun?”

All of the present genin leaned in for a look. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. It was a simple picture of the Ninja Academy...with the roof completely missing, perhaps by other-worldly means.

Gaara couldn't help but smirk at the sight of it.

Shino's eyebrows appeared above his sunglasses, “That was you?”

“That was the best!” Naruto laughed, nearly spilling his bowl over, “We never got caught. I couldn't believe it!” He flashed an appreciative glance at Gaara for reasons one could only guess.

The silver haired boy sighed, “Yes, that was absolute perfection. It'll never be duplicated...good thing it's all on film!”

Hinata turned to her rambunctious teammate, “So, is that one of the things that you like to, um, 'preserve' Sato-kun?”

“That's right, Sunshine.” He nodded, “Haku is a bit lax at times, so it's usually Gaara, Naruto, and I doing all the hard work.”

“Pranks hardly count as work...” Haku said pointedly and Hinata was giggling again.

Shino, however, didn't see much humor in their adventures. He glanced sideways at Sato, “Your frivolous habits: do not let them interfere with our team's training.”

After making sure his warning was heard, the bug tamer stalked off. Sato called after him, “I promise they won’t, Shino-kun! Jeez! I'm a serious ninja! You have to lighten up a little!”

Naruto found Shino's behavior slightly vexing, “What's his problem?”

“Shino-kun is...quite serious,” Hinata offered, sensing that her teammate's words had partially discouraged Sato, “He isn't very fond of p-practical jokes, I suppose.”

'He and I could get along well...' Haku thought to himself.

“He'll unwind eventually,” Sato yawned, putting away his cherished photograph, “He's probably just beat because Kurenai-sensei ran us all ragged today...”

“Maybe we can train together sometime?” Hinata asked her old friends hopefully.

Naruto liked the sound of it, “Sure! I don't think Ero-sensei will mind if you stop by, as long as you don't interrupt his 'research'.”

Hinata nodded, “Alright...um, I suppose I should be going home now...”

“We'll come see you tomorrow!” The blonde announced, “Just to hang out if you like.”

“O-Okay...”

Sato watched in amusement as she turned several shades of red, something Gaara was also aware of.

Team 2 bade the remaining members of Team 8 farewell:

“See you guys tomorrow!”

“It was nice seeing you two again.”

“Goodbye Hinata-chan...Sato.”

Naruto squinted in the bright light of the afternoon as the Hyuga girl and Hatake boy traipsed away, grinning, and then turned back to his ramen.

“So, want to go see if Sakura-chan is around later?” Naruto piped up again.

Gaara nodded, but Haku seemed deep in thought.

“I have plans later, actually," Haku said quietly, a smile creeping across his lips, “Do tell her I said hello, will you?”

The blonde nodded, “You got it! Uh...what 'plans' are you talking about?”


After visiting Sakura and listening to the astonishing tale of how she too had a haphazard bell test (but longer and more painful than theirs had been) with her sensei, and telling her that Haku says, "Hello," Naruto and Gaara temporarily parted ways.

Once again, Naruto lingered atop the stone face of the Fourth Hokage, gazing at the blazing summer sky that looked like blue fire. Shortly after he had arrived, Jiraiya also popped up, as he had expected him to.

“How often do you come here kid?” The sennin half-yawned, sitting down next to him.

“All of the time.”

“Ah.” Jiraiya appeared to nearly say something important, but changed his mind, “... believe me it's a good habit to get into.”

Naruto grinned, “Yeah, you told me already.”

“I've heard that you've kept up with your toad summoning,” The sage added unobtrusively, “What do Gaara and Haku think of it?”

“They tell me all the time how jealous they are,” The blonde joked, “But, I mostly just do it to annoy them, it isn't like I've been in any big fights or something like that.”

“Annoy them, eh?” Jiraiya smirked, “How about you give me a demonstration of how far you've gotten? Past a tadpole I hope?”

“Shut up old man! I was just a kid!” Naruto bit back good-naturedly, and stood up, “Yeah, I've gotten better!”

In a well-practiced motion, Naruto bit his thumb, flew through the seals and called a toad. Jiraiya raised an eyebrow as the smoke cleared, and a toad not much taller than Naruto's knees appeared.

The small creature looked up at Naruto with familiarity, “Hi! Anything I can do for you, Boss?”

Jiraiya grunted, “Huh. You could've done better. Gamakichi’s a little twerp. Is this as far as you have gotten, kid?”

“Nah, sorry I bothered you.” Naruto said to the small toad, which departed just as quickly as he came. He then turned to Jiraiya, “I could do better if I wanted, but I call him most often if that's what you mean,” He paused thoughtfully, “I'm still 'starting small and working my way up,' Ero-sensei!”

He sat back down beside his mentor and Jiraiya nodded, “Yeah, I suppose that'll do for now...there's no use rushing it.”

The sennin stole a glance at Naruto, slightly upset that he was hiding his full potential. For all he knew, Naruto probably could have been summoning Gamabunta for a while now.

'I'll have to remember to ask him...' Jiraiya mentally noted for the next time he saw the toad boss.

“So...what have I missed since I've been gone?” Jiraiya then added, “Besides you and the other squirts growing a few feet taller, I mean?”

There was a quiet moment of thought before Naruto answered, grinning again, “You haven't missed that much...maybe some really awesome pranks, but that won't be much of a problem...”

The sage couldn't help himself, “Er...why?”

Naruto shrugged, “Sato's got it all on film. I can show you tomorrow if he lends me the pictures.”

It was silent again, but Jiraiya was smirking.


“Rising Twin Dragons!”

Tenten leapt high into the air inside the flying double-helix her scrolls created, and launched her summoned weapons at Hyuga Neji who waited on the ground for the assault.

Nearby, ever-enthusiastic Rock Lee was busy mastering a new taijutsu technique with their equally, if not more enthusiastic sensei, Maito Gai.

As countless, razor-sharp implements of death descended back down to the earth towards her 'presumably doomed' teammate, Neji effortlessly countered with a rotation, releasing chakra from all of his tenketsu, and formed a 360 degree shield of chakra. He deflected all of her projectiles.

Haku watched all of this occur in a sheer matter of seconds from the side of the training field, unable to suppress his awe of the older, more advanced genin team. Most especially the energy that Lee possessed, fearing that if he ever tried to break a tree in half with only one kick as the latter had, he would most likely shatter his leg.

As Tenten ended her attack and drifted back down to the earth, her eyes didn't pass up the tall, dark haired boy clad in a blue gi that stood nearby. He was watching her squad train with his gentle, discerning eyes.

Once both of her feet were planted firmly back on the ground (moments before Neji ended his Kaiten) Tenten almost immediately abandoned her opponent without a word, jogging over to Haku.

There was a moment of confusion when the young Hyuga prodigy realized that his training partner was no longer training at all.

He frowned when he saw her running giddily in the opposite direction, “Tenten...”

“Haku!” Maybe she was a little too happy to see him, and she quickly calmed herself down, “What...what are you doing here?”

He smiled at her, “I came looking for you, and it seems my luck has prevailed.”

Lee and Gai had also noticed the lack of battle cries from the opposite side of the training ground and were curious to investigate who or what had so easily distracted the young kunoichi of their team.

Neji had gotten there first.

Tenten paused for a moment, wondering if she should introduce him to Haku, but then recalled that it had in fact been Neji himself who had mentioned him by name two days earlier.

This registered as Neji was about to violently 'shoo' away the uninvited intruder before he saw that the 'uninvited intruder' had been none other than Haku.

“Hello Neji!” He was just as friendly as he had been when they were younger, “It's good to see you are well!”

The Hyuga prodigy merely clammed up, unable to think of any 'friendly' responses at the time. He substituted a verbal reply with a slight nod of his head, surprising Tenten. Neji did not want to be insensitive to a person who had helped save him from the Caged Bird seal.

Before Tenten could speak another word, Lee and Gai had arrived, both excited over the 'uninvited intruder.'

“Hello there youthful, young man!” Gai's teeth glinted in the sunlight and Tenten sighed to herself as the 'introduction of fiery youth' commenced, “I am Maito Gai!” His shorter, physical double then added jubilantly, “And I am Rock Lee!”

Haku's smile was plastered onto his face in semi-shock, 'I can understand Neji being Tenten's teammate, but...I have to say I'm slightly frightened now...'

“It would please us to no end if we could know the name of the youthful ninja who has befriended the fiery young flower of our team!” Gai added, posing in front of Haku.

Taking a deep breath, he managed to reply as if he were speaking to another sane person, “I am Haku.”

He even managed to keep that convincing smile on. Haku always had possessed ‘social nerves of steel.’

Tenten stepped in front of her overzealous sensei and teammate, “So, uh, Haku; did you want to get more practice with senbon?”

“Yes, but not right now,” Haku said smoothly, “Actually, I was hoping you'd join me for some tea this afternoon if you're not busy.”

“I'm not busy!” Tenten blurted it out, but hastily added, “I mean, if you can skip out on some training today, Neji?”

The Hyuga prodigy frowned. Why was she asking permission? What for? She wasn't actually going to go drink tea with that pretty boy, was she? Her work ethic was boundless and here she was pouncing on the first opportunity she could get to escape training with her team for the afternoon. Then again…

'I can't really blame her...' Neji thought to himself, seeing that half the team was bursting with so much energy it was classified borderline insanity. After putting up with the speeches of 'Fiery Passion!' and the 'Springtime of Youth!' for over a year straight, Tenten deserved a small break, that much was clear.

But only a small one.

“I'll survive.” He replied blandly and she smiled.

Haku bowed politely to the rest of her team, “Forgive me for borrowing Tenten for today.”

Unsummoning her weapons and wiping the sweat off of her brow, Tenten followed Haku out of the training area while asking him what sort of tea he liked, delighted to learn that they both enjoyed jasmine tea.

She had forgotten to say goodbye to her teammates.

Not that it mattered, since Lee was beginning another impassioned monologue for his remaining teammates.

A tear of joy escaped Lee's eye, “Yes! Tenten has finally accepted her youthful wishes and bloomed into a burning blossom of love! Oh! Haku certainly is the type I would expect her to take interest in!” He paused for a moment, “Gai-sensei, shall we invite Haku to return tomorrow to train with us?”

Gai placed a hand on his hard working student's shoulder, “No Lee, I'm certain he has much training that needs to be done with his own team...”

Neji snorted. He hoped what Gai had figured was true. He couldn't stand training with anyone other than Tenten on his team...for obvious reasons.

Without warning, Gai continued excitedly, “If it is what the young blossom of our team wishes, then she herself will bring young Haku along to train with us!”

And of course, Lee turned to the Hyuga prodigy, “Neji, my eternal rival! Let us train twice as hard until Tenten returns with a song in her step and love in her heart!”

Neji's eye twitched in deep irritation.

Lee was about to get a serious beating...

And it was all Haku's fault.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Soundtrack: “Climbed Mountain” by Uyama Hiroto

The small tea house that Haku had selected was a place completely and utterly alien to Tenten. It was a popular ‘date-destination’ and she had never been taken anywhere before.

'I like tea, so why haven't I ever set foot in a place as mundane as a tea house?' It wasn’t as if she needed an escort to take her to local hubs.

Haku looked to her while she thought and she gave him her most convincing smile, 'Well, being uncultured isn’t as bad as smelling of body odor...and I definitely do right now.' Her afterthought made her flinch; she couldn’t do anything about it.

Tenten was not the sort of person to be pointedly self-conscious, but Haku had put her totally on the spot after training with Hyuga Neji, of all times, and taken her to a nice café while she was still bruised and sweaty and out of breath.

And yet, somehow, she hadn't bothered to voice this distressing matter to Haku at all because she was to say the least...so very astounded that he had even brought her anywhere for purposes other than training.

Tenten couldn't quite bring herself to complain either.

It was Haku.

Who, despite her disheveled state, still wanted to get to know her; which was a true first on all accounts, 'Lee doesn't really count and Neji...Neji doesn't care to know anyone really, so I should relax and have fun! Or...enjoy myself, yes, that sounds about right...'

Tenten didn't deny that he had flair, as Haku sat across from her at a smaller, more secluded table, still smiling. Not that he appeared to be a complete flirt...because it was hard for her to accept that anyone would want to flirt with her.

“Your sensei and um, Lee; they're very passionate,” Haku was considerably polite so she refrained from laughing at the use of the word 'passionate,' “All the energy on your team...how do you and Neji-san keep up with them?”

A very relevant question indeed.

“That's the funny thing,” Tenten said while inspecting a lovely patch of bruising skin above her elbow, “We don't exactly 'keep up' at least...we're at a different pace than they're at.”

Haku gave her a mild look so she continued, “Well, I can't say for sure that we're even on the same planet, though we may be on the same team.”

It was odd how seriously Tenten had meant it.

Haku's smooth chuckle pierced the air right on time, and it was then she knew why he was desired by nearly every girl in the Ninja Academy...or the majority of Konoha most likely.

He wasn't perfect but he was somewhere dangerously close to it.

She then acknowledged on the most minimal, harmless level that existed that she was attracted to him. ‘No use in making a raucous about it.’

A waitress came by for their orders, unanimously jasmine tea, and then left quickly. She was unable to stop herself from blushing.

Tenten felt a subject change would get the ball rolling.

“I take it that you passed the graduation exam?” They were both grinning when he nodded, “I knew you would! There are few shinobi who I've seen handle senbon as well as you did, and in such a short time for that matter.”

“Again, I must thank you for the recommendation,” Haku eyed a purplish bruise near her shoulder while adding, “Though I don't think I'll ever compare to you in terms of Shinjutsu, Tenten.”

“Uh...why don't you tell me about your team?” She soldiered on, miffed that she was having slight difficulty focusing, “Have you gotten any missions yet?”

“No missions just yet, since it was just today we've been validated,” He briefly wondered where his companions were at that precise moment, “My teammates are Uzumaki Naruto and Gaara, my life-long friends.”

“Lucky...” She congratulated him, resting her chin on her hands and leaned on the table's edge.

“Our mentor is one of the Legendary Three-”

Tenten jumped up without warning and slammed her hands down on the table, “You're being trained by Tsunade-sama?” She almost screamed it.

All universal irony must have made it so the boy she handed a fistful of senbon a short time ago would be trained by her idol!

He smiled, and gently corrected her, “No, Jiraiya, the Toad Hermit, actually.”

She relaxed and settled back into her seat, ignoring the strange looks directed at them, “Oh, well, that's still impressive! What's he like?”

A pause.

“Um,” Haku decided to be truthful, “Frighteningly perverted, but undoubtedly powerful.” Tenten raised an eyebrow in concern, “He also has a fondness for making complete fools out of my friends and me.”

The kunoichi sighed, “I'd trade Gai-sensei for him any day...”

The waitress returned with their beverages and set them down before hurrying off to another table, still beet-red after laying eyes on Haku.

Haku took a small sip of tea, “I know we both are on separate teams, but I was hoping that if an opportunity presents itself we could spend more time together.”

Somewhere in the back of her head, she heard alarm bells going off, “For...for training?”

“In our free time, only if you'd like,” He answered and her stomach constricted nervously, “But it also would be a good idea to train more with senbon, I think. You really are talented.”

Tenten nodded slowly, and lifted her cup, gulping rather than sipping, 'Oh no...I was hoping he just wanted to talk about senbon, or training or...but he's...he's actually coming onto me...like he likes me or something?'

Clearly he wasn't aware of how inadequate she was feeling at the moment. She put on another smile and tried to clear her head, 'Maybe I'm overreacting. He's constantly being chased by girls so he'd probably only be interested in friends.’

“Tenten, are you alright?”

The kunoichi looked up, “Hm? Oh yeah, I'm fine!”

Haku didn't look fully convinced, but thankfully the waitress came to her rescue, asking him if he'd like anything else.

'Friends?' She scoffed inwardly, 'What friends drink tea together?'

The waitress ended her distraction and Haku returned his attention to Tenten, “I hope you like dango-”

“I do.” She was stymied, 'How does he know this stuff?'

Tenten didn't want to come across as rude, but she was not quite ready for Haku and the romantic-vibe he was giving off. Training was familiar and something she enjoyed, and she was nearly ashamed that she wasn't handling the situation better.

'Is this a date? I guess it is...it isn't what I had envisioned.' She paused, 'Well, what I envisioned had more...a lot more weapons involved, so maybe I really am socially lacking in this department.'

He smiled at her patiently; respecting her while he noted that she was busy with her own thoughts.

'I don't think I've ever met a person so attractive that it's staggering to be around them.' Tenten smiled to herself, 'Maybe it's because I'm spending too much time with Lee.'

Haku was inspecting the tea leaves at the bottom of his empty cup with curiosity not dissimilar from a kitten's.

He really is patient. Fancy that.

'I do like Haku, just in the 'friendly' sort of way...involving pointy objects,' Tenten took another long moment to see if that had made any sense, 'Maybe now is a good time to bring this up...'

“Haku?”

He gave her a knowing look.

“Is this a date?”

Haku had only seen Gaara deadpan so elegantly.

“I believe so.” He answered with as much aplomb as he could muster.

She couldn't help the smile that peaked onto her lips, 'That's a first: taking a badly-beaten, sweat-rag of a girl on a date, how very entertaining. Haku you are a rarity...'

The dango arrived and they both helped themselves as Tenten went on, “Sorry that I spaced out before, I'm back with you now. And thank you.”

“For what?”

“For your semi-unnatural patience and the tea and snacks,” She nearly patted herself on the back for such an honest reply, “Even though this has been slightly-”

“Awkward?”

She nodded, savoring the sweet bean paste, “Yes, the awkwardness was my fault. I'm not used to this sort of thing, but hey, I'm really enjoying myself so it's balancing out.”

“You seemed to be thinking very hard after I mentioned us spending more time with each other,” He added carefully. Curse him and his powers of observation!

“Um, yeah, about that...” Tenten took one last sip of tea, “I do want to spend time with you, believe me I do. I just want that time to be spent...training, if that's alright.”

Haku smiled, admiring her work ethic, “It is alright, in fact, probably time better spent than drinking tea.”

'Among other things...' She thought while trying to ignore how his storm-colored eyes caught the light very nicely.

Tenten gave him a confused look after he stood up.

“I know you were just training with Neji-san, but perhaps we could improve our shinjutsu now, if you have the energy?” Haku suggested, “This place is a bit stuffy.”

She took the last skewer of dango and also stood, “Energy? You fed me. There's little to debate.”

Haku smiled to himself as he left the tab money on the table and then followed her outside, noting how he also preferred training over the dim lighting of the tea house.

“We'll go back to my team's training area,” Tenten finished the last of the dango, “I have targets set up there and if you're really good you can start throwing senbon at Neji for practice.”

Haku gave her a quizzical look, “On the off chance that I hit him-?”

“You most likely won't be able to. His Kaiten is impenetrable,” She then smirked, “Though, who knows? You're also a genius; you might figure something out...”


The following day, Naruto and Gaara had an uncharacteristic interest in how Haku's attempted date had gone as they painted a fence for their first D-rank mission. They were very amused with how it turned out.

“It was awkward, but still enjoyable I think,” Haku paused mid-stroke, “But then, we decided to train with senbon and it was...”

“What? Did you poke her eye out or something?” Naruto had a healthy fear of needles after Haku's demonstration on him the day before.

“No, her teammates, they...”

“What about them?” Gaara prompted.

“It seemed that Neji had been training with Lee while we were gone...quite thoroughly,” Haku frowned to himself, not sure if he could call the crumpled mess that was Lee an object of actual training, “Tenten was upset about it.”

Naruto squinted his eyes, “Well, maybe he was jealous.”

The dark haired boy looked to him, completely puzzled, “Jealous? Why?”

“From how you described Lee he seems to be too lively,” Gaara suggested, siding with Naruto, “You removed Tenten from their squad, which caused a...” He searched for a description, “Violent imbalance.”

“So he probably just went off on the poor guy,” Naruto nodded to himself, “You know, just to vent some steam.”

“I wouldn't take Neji to really be the jealous-type,” Haku admitted, continuing his painting, “He didn't seem bothered when I came looking for Tenten.”

Gaara seemed to be deep in thought, “I wonder how much he has improved...”

Naruto looked lost, “Who?”

“Neji,” Haku clarified, still up to speed, “Yes, maybe we should train together someday, to test our skills.”

“Even after what he did to Lee?” Naruto had somehow become the voice of reason during the conversation.

There was a silence between Gaara and Haku, before Haku spoke quietly, “Maybe it would be better if we just stayed friends. I don't want to cause any problems for Tenten’s team.”

“It seems to be a little late for that.” Gaara pointed out.

“Are you done over there yet?” Jiraiya's voice rang out from the top of a nearby brick wall, where he was beginning work on another one of his novels, “The guy in that yard keeps yapping at you three and it's disturbing my work!”

Naruto threw his paintbrush at the sennin's head, missing him by inches, “It wouldn't take so damn long if you were down here helping us Ero-sennin!”

“I'm busy.”

Haku observed an old, toothless man on the opposite side of the fence that they had been painting a bright white for the past fifteen minutes. He seemed inordinately distressed, but his incessant chatter made no sense at all.

The water manipulator paused and watched as Naruto scrambled angrily over to Jiraiya's spot to retrieve his brush. Gaara continued his work while glaring impassively at the fence.

It occurred to him that something was indeed amiss. He quickly realized what the problem was but feared to speak about it.

“What's wrong?” Gaara's voice was monotone against the arguing going on between Naruto and their lazy mentor.

“Well it seems that there's been a mistake...” Haku sighed, though Gaara wasn't much deferred in his work.

“Get up off your ass, old man!” Naruto was tired of trying to motivate the pervert, “You should be helping too! This place is freaking huge!”

“Jiraiya-sensei!”

The toad hermit responded to Haku's partially urgent voice and looked down to him, “What now, Haku?”

Naruto huffed, not pleased that he was so easily ignored.

“Sensei, the man who lives here, I do believe he's been trying to tell us that there's been a mix up,” Haku indicated the old man that they had been ignoring.

“Like what?” Jiraiya still didn't seem very interested.

“That we are painting the wrong fence,” Gaara answered gruffly, nodding his head in the direction of another fence across the street that looked to be in desperate need of a new coat of paint.

The blonde hurled his brush again in frustration, “Great! Our first mission and we screwed up! Maybe if you were paying attention, Ero-sennin, we wouldn't have wasted our time!”

Still, the sage didn't seem bothered, “It's not my fault you guys got the address wrong.”

Naruto and Gaara looked murderous, while Haku seemed more mildly upset that their laboring had all been a waste.

The drab fence was actually starting to look good, apart from some spots that Naruto had missed during his enthusiastic strokes.

The sennin smirked at them, “What's the problem? You've done that ancient buzzard down there a favor. Just paint both fences if your panties are in such a knot.”

“We don't wear panties you sick bastard!” Naruto was deeply offended, but his friends were once again more level-headed.

Gaara and Haku had moved along to the opposite side of the empty road, preparing for another round of delightful, menial labor.

“Screw this!” Naruto leapt down from the wall while quickly forming seals, “Shadow Clone Jutsu!”

Twenty clones attacked the correct unpainted fence with replicated paint brushes, again reminding Gaara and Haku what a surprisingly helpful talent it was. Jiraiya merely flipped a page and sighed, wondering how he had survived all those years ago after training his first genin team.


Two weeks and 26 D-rank missions later for Squad 2, it was another ordinary, sunny day in Konoha.

“Where the hell is Ero-sensei?" Naruto sat on a stump in the field that they had begun using for their training.

Gaara stood quietly with his arms crossed. A deep frown graced his face.

“He was supposed to be here nearly an hour ago,” Haku also found it unusual for the sage to be late, simply because he never had been until that point, “Maybe we should speak to Hokage-sama and accept a mission without him?”

“We don't really need Jiraiya-sensei's help when walking dogs.” Gaara agreed irritably.

“Maybe he's just peeping again,” Naruto yawned, “He's so in love with his new book, he hasn't even bothered to show us a new jutsu yet!”

It was another fact that bothered them all deeply.

After a short trip to the Hokage's office the three genin waited for The Third to acknowledge their presence.

“Is there any trouble?” The Hokage asked, noting their peeved looks as he took a drag on his pipe.

“Not unless you count the fact that Ero-sensei's gone missing,” Naruto answered shortly, “We even checked around the girl's locker rooms! Where the heck did he go?”

The Sandaime sighed, already aware of the situation, “That’s right. I apologize for not giving you an earlier notification. I'm afraid you'll be without your instructor for a short while...”

Haku was alarmed, “You know where he is Hokage-sama? Is he alright?”

'Maybe he was useful for once and offered to go on a high-ranked mission...' Gaara speculated, giving him far more credit than he should have.

“He's...alive and well,” The Hokage answered, and Naruto looked somewhat annoyed at the news, “Your sensei was arrested late last night actually, for...” He riffled through a pile of papers and read aloud the charges, “One count of trespassing and two counts of harassment.” The blonde snorted again, knowing what that meant, “No one has posted bail as of yet. I believe he'll be performing community service once he is released.”

“Typical.” Gaara was to say, rightfully humiliated that the sennin couldn't pull himself together for his students when it came to his 'research.' Apparently it did get him into trouble once in a while.

“Will we still have missions?” Haku wore a pained look equivalent to being punched in the face.

To their relief, the Hokage nodded, “Yes. Although you will need a substitute for the time being.”

As if on cue, the aforementioned substitute arrived.

“You asked for me, Hokage-sama?” A young woman with fierce brown eyes and clad in an overcoat entered the office without knocking, and bumped into Haku on her way in.

“Come in, Anko.” The Sandaime turned back to the members of Squad 2, “As I was saying, you are required to have a stand-in instructor until Jiraiya is...fit to return. Since Anko here is the only available jounin at this time she will oversee your missions with you.”

The three boys observed the kunoichi who was assigned as their instructor, each with their own unique perspective. Naruto frowned, 'We don't need some weird lady to tell us what to do!'

Anko gave each of the boys a once-over glance, “So I've gotta babysit these maggots huh, Hokage-sama?” She looked amused at Naruto and Haku's offended faces, “How long do you think this will take?”

Hiruzen took another drag, “I can't honestly tell you how long this position will be yours, Anko. At least until Jiraiya is processed, sentenced and then approved to return to work.”

She shrugged and Gaara gave her a questioning look, 'Maggots?'

“Why do we have to have some ugly hag to tell us what to do?” Naruto complained and Anko didn't seem very bothered by his description of her at all, “Ero-sennin never helped out anyway, so what's the big deal?”

“Hey, I'm not gonna sit around and watch you three newbies shovel horse shit and scrub walls...” Anko was just as disdainful as Naruto at the moment, “Tell me we can at least have a C-rank mission Hokage-sama! Something interesting? Aren't they about ready for one?”

'She whines more than Jiraiya-sensei...' Haku shuddered.

There was a moment of thought as the Hokage considered the request, again riffling irritably through the scrolls on his crowded desk, “Hm, Squad 2 has completed 26 D-rank missions so far...”

Naruto and Haku were on edge; a long-awaited C-rank mission? It was something they had constantly been asking Jiraiya about during their first week, which he had forcibly argued as: “Too dangerous for you genin brats! Now shut up! You’re distracting me!”

Anko frowned, “Psh! 26? That's good! So what do you say, Hokage-sama? I mean, they're with me for cripes sake!”

'Her method of persuasion is...straightforward...' Haku thought to himself, finding that he was slightly intimidated by her forceful personality.

“Yeah!” Naruto decided to lend his voice, “We're ready Hokage-sama!”

“Very well,” Hiruzen felt Anko had a point, “A simple C-level mission is still open. I suppose you can have it if you insist on the matter.”

Gaara smirked at their good fortune. Jiraiya was too lazy to even consider taking them on a higher rank mission so early on.

Naruto's opinion of Anko had done a complete 180, 'She got us a C-rank mission! This lady is awesome!'

Anko looked pleased with herself and the expressions on the genins' faces.

“You will be guarding a man named Tazuna, a master bridge builder, as you escort him back to the Land of Waves,” the Hokage said simply, “This trip should only take a few days at the most,” He eyed the boys, “So I expect you'll all put your best effort in for this mission.”

“You got it Hokage-sama!” Naruto then turned to his teammates, “This is great! Our first C-rank!”

Anko nodded, understanding the details of the mission.

“Tazuna, I expect, is waiting outside,” The Third finished, “Go meet him and leave immediately.”


They followed Anko over to a bearded man seated on a bench, sipping sake leisurely. He looked up expectantly as they approached.

“Tazuna-san,” Anko showed a bit more respect than what the genin had expected, “I am Mitarashi Anko. Are you about ready to get going now?”

“Yeah,” He then looked at Naruto, Haku and Gaara, “What the hell is this? Trusting my life to a bunch of kids?”

Gaara gave him an annoyed scowl.

“You’ve got a problem with that?” Naruto snapped, unable to control himself, “We're ninja! If you want to give us a hard time, then go back to the Land of Waves by yourself!”

Tazuna sniffed, “Gladly.”

“Please forgive Naruto, Tazuna-san,” Haku didn't want to create unrest with their client, “But we are ninja, and you can be assured you'll be perfectly safe with us as your guards.”

“I doubt it.”

Haku sweat-dropped, 'Well, I did my best. I suppose we'll just have to deal with his attitude until we get him back to the Land of Waves...'

Anko smirked, proud of how Haku tried to be welcoming and how he gracefully accepted Tazuna's criticism. Naruto, on the other hand, clearly wasn't fond of the old windbag at all.

“Let's get going then.” The kunoichi was growing impatient, “Don’t knock it before you try it.”


“What do you think Ero-sensei got up to last night?” Naruto wondered out loud.

Haku and Gaara weren't very inclined to think about it. Whatever his inappropriate behavior had warranted the night before, it was enough to land him in jail and most likely related to his perverted habits.

“I believe the issue began after he thought he could get away with his antics in Konoha again,” Haku answered thoughtfully, “Sensei is normally careful when he sets out on his...research. He typically goes outside of the village to do it, where there is less enforcement. Though in Konoha…he is taking a chance.”

'Although maybe this will finally teach him a lesson.' Haku hoped in the back of his mind.

“We'll have to break his habit,” Gaara decided, “By whatever means...he'll thank us for it later.”

Naruto nodded in agreement, “Yeah, we do owe him a kick in the head don't we?” He avoided a large puddle in the dirt path as they marched on.

Tazuna wasn't fond of their chatter, “Will you three can it? All your girlish gossip or whatever, you should be paying more attention.”

“I don't think thugs are keen on a quiet attack, Tazuna-san. We'll know if there's danger.” Gaara said matter-of-factly and Naruto snickered as the old man huffed in annoyance.

Anko seemed relaxed. “In the event of an attack, noise isn't always a bad thing,” She pointed out, “It's a good thing they're able to communicate with each other. It gives us an advantage in a fight.”

Haku was about to rethink her words of wisdom before she sighed irritably, “But jeez, I wish someone would show up...it gets really boring when nothing happens...”

Gaara said nothing, but in his own mind agreed with her. Where was the action? Apparently C-rank missions weren't what they had pictured in their heads.

Haku fiddled with the strap of the back pack he wore. Its weight was doubled, carrying both rations for himself and Gaara. This was the arrangement that had been agreed upon so that Gaara could bring his larger, self-fashioned sand gourd with him.

Haku’s mind wandered as they walked. He remembered the kindness of Hiroshi; the man that had fostered him until he was brought to the Leaf Village. Memories of his birthplace, his parents and the anguish of being orphaned briefly surfaced. Haku tried to put them out of his mind, realizing how inappropriate a time it was to reminisce.

His train of thought was interrupted when a sudden shout of warning came from Anko. All of his senses were again at full alert. Haku watched as a short distance ahead, as if it were in slow motion, a dark, cloaked shinobi left the shadows and lunged at Tazuna, with metal claws outstretched for the kill.

The dark haired boy called for the old man to move, to run, or to defend himself in some way, but his terrified cry never escaped his throat.

Gaara appeared beside the bridge builder.

'Wasn't...wasn't he behind me?' Haku watched in amazement as his friend stood beside Tazuna with his arms folded, ready to clash with an opponent.

The enemy's weapon met a wall of sand and Gaara merely glared at the dark figure, raring to fight back. He was also aware that their client was scared speechless behind him and unwilling to run for it.

The dark ninja leapt back when his attack failed, and sized up Gaara's unique defensive ability to decide how to avoid it to reach his target.

Haku's eyes were wide but he didn't see Naruto or Anko anywhere. He did see, however, a second dark ninja leap from his cover in a tree on the side of the road, 'What do I-?'

His rational thought ceased as the second unknown shinobi moved toward him; deadly iron claws catching the sunlight as they appeared from under another tattered cloak. Haku felt his knees lock and he wondered why he was standing his ground when he had absolutely no intention of attacking. Instinct, overpowering his mind, the instinct to run...but his body simply wouldn't comply.

“Haku-kun!”

He felt a hand close like a vice around his upper arm and shove him off balance towards the ground. He fell gracefully. He didn't realize that the unidentified enemy had come as close as he had until he watched the claws rake down Naruto's face and continue to his navel, ripping him open like a paper bag of flesh.

'Naruto!'

Haku felt his head hit the ground and the impact made his eyes lose focus for a few seconds, 'Naruto-kun! This...this can't be happening! Why didn't I do anything?'

Eyes blurred, Haku squinted and saw the Shadow Clone that had saved his life revert to a puff of smoke. Immediately his brain was back up to speed and Haku felt his hand quickly grab three senbon. He slid his feet back beneath him and stood.

His nerve returned to him after Naruto (his clone rather) had demonstrated such bravery. The enemy ninja cursed under his breath that he had missed, but before he could round on Haku again with his gauntlet, a mass of black snakes enveloped him from behind.

Anko smirked, “Hm, two of you huh? Let's have some fun!”

With unexpected strength she pulled back on the shadow snakes ensnaring her opponent and sent him hurtling back and down to the ground. Haku watched on shaky, anticipatory legs, wondering how she'd finish him.

“Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!” A dozen replications of Naruto materialized and dove recklessly at the startled nin, knocking him senseless with many painful kicks to the head and gut as he struggled to free himself from Anko's snare.

Across the way, there was an agonized scream and Haku looked over to Gaara, who was methodically crushing sections of the first attacker's body with a cloud of concentrated, merciless sand.

Tazuna stood near him, looking away from the ordeal. Knowing that it was over nearly as soon as it had begun Haku put away his senbon, ashamed that he had been nothing but a burden to his companions.


After beating the enemy ninja into total submission, Anko's shadow snakes bound the pair to a nearby tree. After a short moment of eyeing their hitai-ate, she sneered at them, “Well, well...if it isn't Gozu and Meizu, the Demon Brothers of the Hidden Mist Village. Earlier I noticed that we were being followed but I didn't think it'd be the two of you.”

Naruto, Haku and Gaara looked on silently next to Tazuna as the two Mist nin slowly regained consciousness.

Gozu, the elder brother, spoke up, “When did you begin to suspect us?”

Anko snorted, “Any moron would've seen that stupid puddle on the path! It's the middle of the freaking summer and it hasn't rained in days! Seriously, you could have been more thoughtful! Fire Country summers are much dryer than in Mist.”

Naruto looked startled; he had nearly stepped in that 'stupid puddle' it was so convincing. But it seemed that both Gaara and Haku had been just as oblivious on the matter as he had been, '...how the hell were they hiding in a puddle?'


After sending a message to Leaf and they abandoned the Demon Brothers they continued on, still rattled that they had been ambushed so early. After a quarter of a mile, Anko stopped walking.

“Tazuna-san,” She said solemnly, “Let's get one thing straight here. I'm not an idiot. I did indeed notice those two morons earlier, but I still chose to let them attack us...because I had to see what or who they were after.”

The genin halted, understanding her meaning.

“When we accepted this mission, it was C-rank: standard protection from robbers and highway men and whathaveyous...” Anko continued matter-of-factly, “But those Mist nin sure came a heck of a long way up to the Fire Country and not without a reason,” She frowned, “You never said you had ninja after you...that's different from having some jackass try to rob you, wouldn't you say?”

“Why would ninja be after you old man?” Naruto was genuinely curious.

Gaara and Haku listened intently for his answer.

“You're right,” Tazuna's scratchy voice lowered, “Those ninja intended to kill me.”

“Why?” Haku had a hard time not sounding alarmed.

“They were sent by Gato, a shipping magnate who's been smuggling drugs and illegal goods in and out of the Land of Waves for many years now, holding a tight grip on the lives of the people who live there...” Tazuna explained, “I'm constructing a bridge though, one that will connect our village to the mainland and increase trade and commerce.”

“Bet the greedy bastard wouldn't like you freeing your town and messing with his crime ring, huh?” Anko quickly understood, “So he kills you and this bridge of yours doesn't get built? Fabulous. We're in deep over our heads this time. It was selfish of you to ask for cheap, low-level protection when these genin have so little experience.”

“But why didn't you just say you had ninja after you in the first place?” Naruto asked.

“My village doesn't have the money to pay for high-level protection,” Tazuna admitted, “The people there are suffering from sickness and poverty. I can’t afford to hire shinobi who are above trainee level.”

“We're beyond the scope of our mission if you have other shinobi after you.” Gaara said simply, making the old man glare at the ground.

“So, I suppose you'll quit on me because I don't have the money for you, eh?” Tazuna inquired darkly, not looking at his temporary guards.

“Are you kidding?” Anko grinned, “Money or no money, this is gonna be great! It's been a while since I've had a mission as unpredictable and meaningful as this! And it'll be good training for the maggots! They need to learn to adapt to dire-straits missions!”

The three genin gave Anko nonplused looks. Tazuna hadn't counted on her to still be willing to protect him. The idea of it excited the genin after a few moments and Anko’s confidence made them bold.

“Yeah old man! We'll get you home!” Naruto grinned at him, “We've got you covered!”

“We've already set out and it would be pointless to turn back,” Haku figured, “It'd be a good experience to help you return to your village and build your bridge Tazuna-san.”

Haku felt the need to be as objective as possible while on a mission.

“Hn.” It was Gaara's way of agreeing while maintaining his detachment.

The details of the mission had changed and Anko was more thrilled by the prospective danger than repelled by it. Team 2 continued on, hoping the real-world experience would be payment enough for their efforts.


Later as they crowded into a less-than-roomy motorboat to cross a bay enveloped in mist, Haku was again lost in his thoughts. Occasionally he looked up to survey their surroundings.

'When those ninja attacked I...I just froze up,' Haku was still unable to forgive himself, 'I just stood there like an idiot! I'd definitely be dead if it hadn't been for Naruto.'

He looked out onto the water which was surprisingly calm, 'I can't be a burden anymore. This is real. I'm a ninja now and I have to get serious!'

Haku was frustrated that Gaara and Naruto handled the situation so remarkably well. Weren't they even slightly frightened? 'Well, Naruto might have been...but Gaara fears few things in life...and I can't say that it's a good thing.'

He paused, wondering what good berating himself to be a coward would do, 'No, I won't feel sorry for myself. It's pointless. I have to focus on the mission and protect Tazuna and everyone else, for that matter. I can put my team at risk if I don’t focus.'

“Hey Haku, are you feeling okay?” Naruto turned to him, remembering the ambush from earlier, “You're not hurt or anything, are you?”

“I'm fine, Naruto-kun.”

The blonde nodded and leaned back in his spot and turned to Gaara, who also looked tense, “What about you Gaara?”

“This water makes me nervous,” The red haired boy admitted, “I don't swim well.”

Naruto laughed but quickly muffled himself after he recalled that they were still in enemy territory. Haku looked at Gaara, understanding that he did know how to swim, but that he wouldn't be able to with a cumbersome gourd attached to his back. It was now completely comprised of sand and the weight would be unmanageable in water.

'We're all mortal,' Haku firmed his resolve after talking to his friends, 'This mission can only succeed unless we all work together. The next ninja we meet...I'll be ready.'


Once back on land, the Leaf ninja and their client continued their trek through a dense forest, through which would be the quickest way to their destination. Anko was clearly more guarded than she had been in the Fire Country, 'Those last two were chunin. Next time it will be a jounin...'

“How does someone become a 'bridge builder' anyway?” Naruto wanted to get to know their client, “The same way a person becomes a lumberjack or street-paver?”

Anko snorted in laughter with Naruto while Tazuna bit back, “It's a necessary occupation in the Land of Waves you stupid kid! With all the water-ways around here bridges are pretty common wouldn't you say? I worked hard to become a top engineer.”

Naruto got over his little joke, “Yeah, sorry old man. It's just building bridges seems pretty lame. How do you do it?”

“It takes a large amount of engineering, money and labor to get done. A combined effort produces great things.” He answered, “But I won't get technical with you. That tiny brain of yours already seems stretched to capacity.”

Anko snorted again and Haku and Gaara couldn't help but smirk.

“Shut the hell up!” Naruto didn't like insults to his intelligence. It was just another way people underestimated him, which often proved foolish.

Out of the corner of his eye, Naruto watched a nettle of ferns quiver in a manner that didn't appear to be caused by a breeze. After drawing a kunai from his holster he threw the knife with startling precision directly into the offending undergrowth.

There was a thud as the knife made contact with a solid object, followed by a small squeak of terror. His companions didn't appreciate the gesture that much either.

“What are you doing?” Gaara gave him a sideways glance of annoyance.

“Naruto-kun, you shouldn't be throwing kunai at random!” Haku scolded, “What if you hit an innocent bystander?”

“Relax, would you?” Naruto moved the foliage aside and revealed the area where his kunai had sunk deep into the bark of an ash tree, a few inches above a rabbit's head, “See? The little bunny's okay!”

Naruto lifted up the terrified animal and stroked its ears soothingly.

“Put that stinking thing down, Naruto.” Anko sighed.

He looked at her with an expression of protest.

Haku observed the rabbit and commented, “That rabbit is white.”

Naruto continued to calm the small creature, “So?”

“That means that it has most likely been bred in captivity,” Haku went on, “To be a distraction.”

“A...distraction?” Naruto put the rabbit down and it bounded away. Its white fur contrasted with the surrounding verdant undergrowth.

Anko was on edge, also noting Haku's observation, even before the sound of rushing metal through the air came to her ears, “Move!”

Haku pulled Tazuna down into the undergrowth near Naruto, and Gaara and Anko ducked out of the path of a huge sword that was sent spiraling towards them with a great force. The zanbato that they evaded collided with the top of a tree, biting deep into the wood.

They looked up and beheld another ninja standing on the blade that had imbedded itself into the tree. Quickly regaining their feet, they formed a protective ring around Tazuna, silent and anxious. The gentle sound of Gaara’s sand was reassuring to Haku and Naruto.

Anko narrowed her eyes, 'Damnit! I thought we'd at least get a bit farther before another one showed up! Looks like this is it...'

Haku, for a brief moment, held his breath as he observed their assailant, 'But that's–!' There was no mistaking it. Haku recognized the shinobi to be the same man with the bandaged face he had seen long ago.

His eyes were wide in disbelief and he felt his hands close around the senbon he had tucked away in his gi, 'This man...I've seen him before! He must be another hit man from the Mist Village after Tazuna! But he's jounin...' His grip on the needles tightened considerably.

The Mist ninja glared down at them, “...Mitarashi Anko,” A deep baritone pierced the air like a knife, “Special jounin of the Leaf Village; it seems you've had no trouble with the Demon Brothers...”

“I know you: Momochi Zabuza, one of the Seven Shinobi Swordsman of the Mist,” Anko's knowledge was also well-rounded, “You are a missing nin and are one of those responsible for the attempted coup d'état in Mist a few years ago...”

Haku didn't like the sound of that, 'He tried to overthrow the Mizukage?'

Zabuza smirked, “Impressive, but that's enough with the pleasantries...” Naruto, Haku and Gaara tensed as the nukenin formed seals, “Hidden Mist jutsu...”

A thick haze enveloped the young Leaf shinobi and the Mist ninja disappeared from their sight. As visibility quickly diminished, Anko gritted her teeth, 'This is bad...' She turned to her genin, “Stay in formation and guard Tazuna!”

Naruto nodded grimly, “Yeah, Anko-sensei!”

“...There is no escape. With the Silent Assassination Technique I can kill an opponent with one fatal blow...” The boys of Squad 2 were unnerved even further as Zabuza's voice rang out through the Mist, seemingly from all directions.

“I can't tell where it's coming from!” Naruto turned his head frantically left and right to see if he could decipher where the enemy was truly hidden.

“Calm down!” Anko warned, not wanting them to begin to panic, “He's using the Utsusemi no Jutsu! He uses it to project his voice from all directions, so don't move!”

Haku wondered if maybe senbon would be of any practical use at a moment where he may need to counterattack, seeing both Naruto and Gaara wielding kunai as they stood in a ring around their apprehensive client. But there was no time for thinking now, only time to react.

Gaara estimated it to be about four seconds until the nukenin reappeared. Unfortunately it was where they least expected him to. Naruto felt his heart leap into his mouth as the ghost-like Mist nin had penetrated their defensive formation and had his horse-slaying sword raised, preparing to cleave Tazuna into two.

Again, wild fear gripped the genin, disabling them from countering. Anko, who was still a few yards away also couldn't respond in time.

With a bestial snarl, Zabuza brought his big blade down; his eyes fixed on the old man at the center...but instead connected with a barrier of sand that had automatically formed to shield Gaara, which coincidentally saved Tazuna's life as well.

This instance somewhat increased the red haired boy's nerve, and his hands unconsciously formed a familiar seal, “Sand Coffin!”

Sand enveloped the Mist nin that had been temporarily delayed from his failed attack, and Haku and Naruto watched in grim excitement as Gaara finished his deadly counter, “Sand Burial!”

The tomb of sand that had enveloped the nukenin and his zanbato imploded with such speed and force that it crushed him instantly, earning a gasp from Anko and Tazuna. Haku and Naruto remained silent, having witnessed it before on inanimate objects.

It didn't go as planned.

The target that Gaara was certain he’d killed splashed into nothing more than water and once again put everyone on edge.

'He substituted with a water clone!' Haku's brain was reeling, 'So where's the real one?'

The four of them turned after hearing a cry of great effort as Zabuza reappeared by Anko, who was just barely able to dodge his enormous sword.

“You leave them out of this you eyebrow-less bastard!” She spat furiously, still able to creatively insult while under a great amount of stress, “I'll finish you myself!”

Zabuza smirked beneath his mask, “We'll see.”

Anko began with a diversion of shuriken and kunai, which as she had expected, were deflected with ease by the Mist nin's huge sword. While gradually edging the fight farther away from the genin and closer to a lake's edge, she attacked more fiercely, “Shadow Snakes!”

The ruthless attack momentarily caught him by surprise as he leapt back, raising his sword and watching with sharp, calculating eyes as the snakes coiled around the blade, biting futilely at the gleaming metal. The snakes were surprisingly resistant and held fast as the blade’s edge cut into flesh.

There was a pause and Anko had no time to brace herself as, with an inhuman amount of strength Zabuza swung his sword, snakes and Anko attached, and hurled them. She righted herself as she soared through the hazy air and landed on bent knee on the water's surface.

“She's awesome!” Naruto crowed, impressed with her athleticism, but still appropriately fearful of the current state of things. Haku, Gaara and their client silently agreed.

Zabuza casually walked out onto the water towards Anko, seemingly unfazed by her valiant efforts. After a few milliseconds of watching a bead of sweat travel down the side of the kunoichi's face, he began to form seals and rushed at her.

Anticipating his movements, Anko drew a kunai and steadied her chakra-glued feet to the calm water's surface, preparing to counter. As he was barely three feet ahead of her, he vanished, and she staggered suddenly in spite of herself. She caught herself with an outstretched hand, pushing off the water’s surface with chakra, and crushed another water clone with a roundhouse kick. She continued to spin and a large serpent darted from her coat and sunk its fangs into another clone, dispersing it.

Just as she had felt she had the upper hand in close-quarters he reappeared next to her, completing his jutsu, “Water Prison Technique!”

Her cry of surprise was cut off as she was surrounded by a swirling sphere of water, much to the horror of the genin who were still guarding Tazuna. Anko ended her struggle and gave a brash look at Naruto and his companions as they stood motionlessly, almost like she expected them to free her.

After a long, painful moment of deliberation they realized that was their best option.


Haku made up a strategy on the spot, and although he was certain that it was doomed to fail, he decided that with some improvisation it may help them survive against the jounin at least for a short while.

“Gaara-kun, you need stay with Tazuna-san,” Haku said quietly, “Naruto-kun and I can take him.”

Naruto couldn't help but grin at Gaara's alarmed face, “Yeah, stay with the old man, Gaara-kun!” On cue, he turned to the dark haired boy, “So, uh, what's the plan?”

It was rather simple, “...shadow clones...lots of them.”

The blonde nodded, “Roger!”

Gaara scowled as his foolish (suicidal) friends ran ahead towards the lake, leaving him to ensure Tazuna's safety, and hearing the distant shout of  “Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!” along the way.

“Do they do this often?” Tazuna inquired, stunned by their actions.

Gaara wore a resigned expression, “Always.”

The old man smiled slightly.


Zabuza's water clone waited on shore while he held the Water Prison Jutsu containing Anko firmly with his right arm. He glared at the approaching genin, 'What are those idiots up to?'

The kid in the orange jumpsuit created a dozen shadow clones, all of which dove at the Mist nin's clone, with Haku in toe, senbon at the ready. As Naruto and his clones tackled the nukenin, Haku pulled back, as if to wait for something.

With one swipe of his sword, Zabuza destroyed half of the shadow clones crowding him, and continued onward, much to the terror of the real Naruto, and Gaara who stood watching from afar. Haku stumbled backwards, not expecting the jounin to switch targets so abruptly.

“Haku!” Naruto's voice reached a shockingly high pitch.

The zanbato hacked through Haku's mid-section and Anko was about ready to scream a string of profanities at her captor until she witnessed what she had believed to be Haku splash into a puddle of water.

“A water clone,” Zabuza grunted, and then smirked as if he were entertained, “I thought so.”

He turned back, raising the blade, and cleaved through the remainder of the shadow clones. Naruto and Haku (who had transformed himself into his blonde friend) immediately leapt away. Noting that it was senseless to stay in disguise, Haku released his jutsu and continued on, preparing to attack the real Zabuza.

The Mist nin avoided Naruto who had intended to plunge his kunai into his opponent's arm, and planted a solid kick to the young genin's back, sending him crashing painfully to the ground. Although his mind screamed in protest, Gaara did not leave Tazuna's side, aware that it might mean the man's death if he did so to help Haku, who was now on his own.


Haku could feel the separate chakra of the water clone that chased after him. Even if he had been able to ignore his growing fear and attempt to save his substitute jounin instructor, he knew there was little chance he could escape his pursuer.

'I've got to destroy that water clone...my senbon can only do that if I hit the clone's weak points...' And he was aware he was asking much of himself while running as fast as he could at the enemy ninja holding Anko prisoner.

'I've got to try!' Haku leapt up, gluing his feet to the side of a tree and twisting himself around to get a clear view of the water clone. His eyes went straight to the zanbato that was raised, and he did his best to aim for the neck and chest regions of the replication.

The dark haired boy abandoned the tree shortly after and cursed himself after Zabuza's water clone easily deflected the projectiles without slowing down, 'If he gets any closer I'm done for!'

He kept moving, twisting and diving through the lofty tree branches with great speed. He listened to the nearing crashes that echoed behind him as the water clone devastated the spots he had lingered in only seconds before.

What was worse, he realized, was that his purser had efficiently prevented him from getting any closer to Anko, who wore a horrified look as she watched him weave through the tree tops with a huge zanbato at his heels.

'I can't do this; he's wearing me out...' Haku could indistinctly hear Naruto calling to him, not far behind, 'I have to get rid of this clone and I can only do it if...'

He paused, and tumbled away as the horse-slaying sword came hurtling down next to him, showering him in splinters and leaves. Haku felt his sandals connect with the ground and he pelted back into the open, closer to Anko now, but he had allowed the clone to get too close, 'I have no choice...'

The dark haired boy made eye contact with the Kyuubi container, who was a short distance off, creating another batch of shadow clones.

He pivoted and faced the clone, feeling his stomach turn over, and raced through a good number of seals as the false Mist nin closed in on him, ready to finish him off.

“Gaara! Can you give me a hand maybe?” Naruto hollered, sending his kamikaze shadow clones barreling into the water clone, mere steps away from Haku.

The blonde grinned as a cloud of sand joined the fray, attempting to encase the water clone, but the young genin were still overwhelmed as Naruto's shadow clones were sliced apart and Gaara was just too far away to pose a notable threat.

Their distraction, which had granted a few precious seconds, allowed Haku to finish his sealing, “Suiton: Water Dragon Blast!”

Anko and her captor glanced behind them as a large current of water rose up into the air, spiraling and coiling, dragon-like in shape. It dove downward and circled once around Haku as Zabuza's water clone leapt back to avoid it. Anko grinned openly as the current shot forward again and completely blew away the once-perilous water clone and the remainder of Naruto's shadow clones.

The kunoichi was totally flummoxed as Haku raised his hand, not forming any kind of seals at all, and redirected the current back at the real Zabuza. Naruto staggered to his feet and watched wide-eyed as the Mist nukenin pulled his arm out of the sphere containing Anko and avoided the attack that would have surely ended the battle.

Anko spat out a mouthful of water in disdain after being released from the jutsu and watched guardedly as Zabuza settled himself on dry land near Haku, zanbato in hand.

Haku stood close to the pond's edge, ready to use water jutsu if the Mist shinobi decided to attack again. Curiously enough, he didn't. Zabuza merely stood wearing a thoughtful yet mocking sort of expression.

His growl-like voice shook Haku to the core, “So...it is you. I thought so.”

Naruto stood frozen, not understanding at all what the nukenin was talking about, and quickly glanced back at Gaara who still had his sand shield surrounding Tazuna, also listening.

The dark haired boy clenched his fists tightly around his senbon, “What are you talking about?”

The swordsman's amused chuckle was dark, “You think I don't remember you? The beggar kid from the Water Country, all those years ago? Hn...I'm impressed you're still alive.”

Haku gritted his teeth, 'How does he remember me? One look at me and after all the time that's passed...'

“You're wasting your time in Leaf, kid. You’re from 'that' clan; it's obvious from your abilities...” Zabuza smirked as Haku suddenly became all ears, “You possess the Hyoton, a Kekkei Genkai which controls water and wind to create ice...it's not something I haven't seen before.”

'The Hyoton? There are others like me?' Haku felt compelled to ask these questions aloud but knew it was foolish enough to let his guard down, let alone listen to the (possibly deceptive) words of an enemy nukenin, 'But he can't be lying...he knows about my Kekkei Genkai.'

“There's no way you'll fully master your ability in the Fire Country, kid,” Zabuza snorted, resting his zanbato leisurely on his shoulder, “Real training for people like you resides in Kirigakure, there's no way two ways about it.”

“What are you saying?” Naruto barked, “Haku's a Leaf ninja! No way he'd go to the Mist Village for something as stupid as that!”

“Oh really?” Zabuza glared at Naruto, who was about ready to pounce in a mix of confusion and anger.

Without even looking over his shoulder for confirmation, Zabuza side-stepped the shadow snakes that Anko had aimed at the back of his head, and gave a lasting stare to Haku, “This isn't over.”

Anko cursed loudly as the Mist nin disappeared, presumably to regroup. Gaara and Tazuna were cautiously crossing the field to where Naruto stood and considered Haku, who appeared to have taken Zabuza's words very seriously.


“You okay, kid?” Anko rested her hand on Haku's shoulder while he absently put away his senbon.

“Oh.” He looked startled, “There's not a scratch on me sensei, but I should be asking you that question.”

Naruto nodded, “Yeah, we were pretty freaked out when he got you stuck in that weird bubble Anko-sensei!”

She waved them off, not much bothered by what had transpired, “We got off easy. It could have gone much, much worse. Can you imagine what would've happened to Tazuna-san if Haku hadn't distracted that brute?”

“I would've had a rough time...” Gaara answered and Tazuna smirked, more appreciative of his body guards after encountering the powerful Mist jounin.

“Yeah, you would've.” Anko murmured, “We should get going. He may be gone for now, but he'll be back for Tazuna later, I'm sure.”

“I live close by,” Tazuna seemed truly relieved to be alive, “If we're lucky enough to avoid any more ninja, it should be less than an hour’s walk.”

“Yes! And when we get there can we find something to eat? I'm starving!” Naruto inquired, upset that they had skipped breakfast that morning after Jiraiya had not shown up.

“That's a good idea.” Anko agreed, also appearing to be a bit peckish, “Maybe they'll have some dango in town...”

They set out again, exhausted, hungry and kunai within reach. More than ever Gaara seemed irritable due to the fact that he had seen the least action of any of them, granted he was the best suited to defend Tazuna should Zabuza reappear.

And the knowledge that Haku actually knew a missing nin from the Mist Village was also unsettling. Gaara knew that as much as he could've put up a fight against the nukenin, he would've been undoubtedly critically wounded or worse if Haku had not distracted Zabuza.

'He knows about Haku's Kekkei Genkai as well...' Gaara frowned inwardly, keeping a wary eye on their client, 'That puts us at a disadvantage, no matter how strong Haku-kun may be.'

Naruto patted Haku on the back, grinning as they walked, “That was awesome Haku-kun! You blew bandage-face away with that jutsu!”

Haku sighed, rubbing his arm humbly, “I'm not much of a fighter at all without water...I was just lucky I suppose.”

“But still! Luck or whatever it was, you chased off a jounin!” Naruto emphasized 'jounin' by waving his arms about, “Of course Gaara-kun and I helped!”

“Of course.” Gaara agreed tersely, not wanting to give all the credit to the tall, frail-looking boy.

“Will you three shut up?” Their client looked irked once again, “Whenever you start talking, we get ambushed. Do you notice a recurring pattern?”

“Coincidence,” Naruto insisted, “Besides everyone's still in one piece so it isn't really a problem!”

Anko smirked, “You’ll get used to it eventually, Tazuna.”


“This is where you live?” Haku asked Tazuna as they entered a desolate-looking village. It showed clear signs of poverty and hunger. The dirt streets weren't very crowded and buildings appeared to be vandalized and even uninhabitable. Roadside food stands had little to offer, with only a few items sitting on the dusty shelves, untouched.

“It isn't really what you'd call living.” Tazuna replied grimly.

“I don't suppose they have any real medical facilities or such in this area then?” Anko asked, noting a sickly homeless person seated on the side of the street, shivering with cold.

“There are a few...” Tazuna answered slowly, “The real problem is affording anything around here. Gato has taxes on nearly every necessity there is in this town, and not many people are as financially stable as my family.” He paused, “But even so...everyone has lost something precious to Gato and it has to end...the people cannot go on living like this.”

Gaara looked down as he felt a small hand tug on the sash tied around his waist. A small child, maybe four or five, with tousled hair and a round, dirty face looked up at him in silence. At first he didn't understand until he watched the pleading brown eyes begin to water and tear.

Begging.

Not noticing that he had fallen behind, his companions continued on, discussing the village’s hardships and Gaara stood in the center of the street, watching the starving little girl tug desperately on his sash.

'I know suffering.' Gaara's eyes softened considerably and he kneeled down, removing the girl's hand from his sash.

“You're hungry.” He said quietly and he watched the child struggle to give an answer.

Gaara fished through his back pouch, not bothering to count how much money he had retrieved and handed it to her, “Here.”

“Eh?” She looked confused. It was probably been the first time anyone had given her anything.

“Go on, you can keep it.” He patted her head gently and she grinned, deeply grateful to the kind stranger with a large gourd.

Gaara stood and watched as she tottered away towards a shabby-looking young woman who he guessed was the girl's mother, apparently bartering with a shop-keeper. After having one glance at what her daughter held up to her, the woman looked up frantically, making eye contact with the red haired boy.

She seemed to understand.

So he left, not wanting to think about how many people were in serious need of help. He would give up the shoes on his feet if it would do them any good. The only way to break the shackles of oppression chaining the people down in the village was to end Gato's tyranny, 'And I will.'


“Tsunami, I'm back,” Tazuna grunted as he shuffled into his house, which was noticeably larger and more stylish than many of the homes they had passed by on the way.

A young woman with dark indigo hair and black eyes poked her head out of the kitchen while drying a dish, smiling, “Dad, I'm glad you're back! Did you have a safe trip?”

“Yes,” He then gestured to the four people standing quietly behind him, “These ninja from Konoha have saved my life at least twice today. I've invited them to stay with us until they are prepared for their journey home.”

Tsunami smiled at Anko’s group, “Welcome! I hope you'll stay for dinner tonight! We'd be happy to have you.”

Naruto grinned, “Sure we'll stay! I'm starving-” Anko smiled while she pinched the boy’s lips shut.

“Try to be more respectful, Naruto. These people have invited us into their home without even knowing us.” Anko went on, removing her hand from his face, and he nodded, somewhat annoyed.

Gaara untied his gourd and set it down carefully before taking a seat between Naruto and Haku, who had just been served tea by Tsunami. She looked up as a small figure slipped into the room, “Inari, there you are! Come and meet the nice ninja who've been looking after Grandpa!”

A small, eight-year-old boy trudged inside to stand by Tazuna, his shifty gaze examining the shinobi one at a time from beneath his hat, “Ninja?”

“That's right!” Naruto confirmed with a grin, “We've fought off dangerous enemy ninja to bring your grandpa home safe and sound!”

Inari frowned, “You don't look that tough.”

Gaara regarded Tazuna’s grandson while he and Haku sipped their ginseng. Naruto gave a reserved glance to Inari, “Is that so? Well you'll be impressed to hear that we've saved his life more than once during the course of the day.”

“So what?” The boy snapped, “You save people or whatever, but it doesn't matter because in the end everyone dies eventually! So what's the point?” Without warning, Inari turned on his heel and fled, leaving his mother calling after him as his footsteps thundered up the stairs, leaving Naruto deeply insulted.

“Man! What's his problem?” Naruto wondered, slurping his tea in irritation.

The same question occurred to Anko, Haku and Gaara.

“You'll have to forgive Inari. He's a bit sensitive about things like that...” Tsunami said with a sigh, “Would anyone like more tea?”


“What do you mean he isn't dead yet?” Gato sat behind his desk, glaring at Zabuza, “I didn't hire you to play around with them Zabuza. Stop wasting my time.”

The Mist nin's voice was dangerously low, “There's been a change of plans.”

“What?” The statement had the conniving shipping magnate worried.

“There's a boy, a very interesting prospect...” Zabuza went on cryptically, “It's very rare to come across such a valuable find.”

Gathering his nerve, Gato went on, “You've already been paid half. You hold up your end of the bargain and kill the bridge builder as we agreed, and after that, you can do whatever the hell you want.”

Zabuza's eyes narrowed, “You have no place to describe to me the things I can and can't do, you brainless parasite,” He paused, smirking again as he thought, ‘The Hyoton boy. Before this is over, I'll have a fine tool to finish what I've started.’

“If that's all you've got to say then get out of here and get back to work,” Gato replied curtly, fearing the zanbato slung on the nukenin's back, “I told you I don't care what you do so long as you kill the old man, got it?”

Zabuza ignored him, walking out of the office deep in thought and closed the door behind him with a resounding bang.

Two body guards on either side of Gato's desk gave him incredulous looks after the unstable jounin departed, both concerned that their lives could end suddenly should the Mist nin become angered.

“I don't trust that bastard, not as far as I can throw him.” Gato ground out, his fists clenching, “If he's sidetracked, there's sure to be a double-cross. That bastard won't get the job done on time...”

“What do we do about him then?” A gaunt-looking guard asked, his hand resting on the sword tied at his side.

“We finish off the old man without him,” The shipping magnate decided, “Once he finds this 'interesting prospect' of his we kill him and the kid, just to make things fun.”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Soundtrack: “Ribbon in the Sea” by Uyama Hiroto

‘You're wasting your time in Leaf, kid. You're from 'that' clan, it's obvious from your abilities.’

‘You little monster, hold still!’

‘Haku's a Leaf ninja! No way he'd go to the Mist Village for something as stupid as that!’

‘This isn't over.’

‘Monster!’

Haku rolled over. Sunlight that had been flooding through the window had tattooed crimson on his eyelids. His hair was splayed messily over his face, tickling his nose. Without a sound, he blinked his eyes open and sat up slowly.

'Even in my dreams I'm restless.'

Haku had dreamed of his father, for the first time in a long time, who he recalled few fond memories of. He used to think he had resented his father for being so cruel and unforgiving to him and his mother (as well as trying to kill them) until he remembered that he had been the one to end his father's life, 'I didn't mean to...he was not himself.'

He didn't like death, or the fact that he was fully capable of killing so easily thanks to his Kekkei Genkai. It seemed like he couldn't escape it. The guilt he felt for killing his own father out of pure desperation still stung after all this time. Haku had vowed that it would never happen again.

Haku absently groped around next to him for a hair tie, finding one, and proceeded to pull his silky black tresses into a ponytail. His dark eyes were glued to the blank wall ahead of him while he swam through the last of his mottled dreams.

'Why do I have to have the Hyoton? Why can't I just be normal like everyone else? I hate this. I hate that my parents are gone and I'm the reason for it.'

He turned when he heard Naruto mumble something indecipherable in his sleep. It was something joyful, 'Ramen maybe?' Haku smiled. The blonde's face was obscured by the blanket draped over him but he was sure the boy was grinning.

Next to Naruto, Gaara was also fast asleep, snoring gently. It didn’t look comfortable, sleeping straight on his back like that, but Gaara still appeared peaceful. His fear of the Shukaku had diminished since Jiraiya and the Third’s intervention, but there were still some nights Gaara had restless sleep. The day’s excitement had tired him out and allowed him to sleep deeply.

Only recently had Haku been told that his best friends were both jinchuriki and he still hadn't thought about it much. This was because nothing had really changed after he had found out. They were still Naruto and Gaara, his friends who had become closer than brothers, and he was sure they always would be. After Haku had left his homeland they were the only family he knew.

Haku also felt a swell of pride rather than fear knowing that they were demon containers, 'Their sacrifice for holding the Kyuubi and the Ichibi keeps people safe every day from a demon's unrestrained wrath, not just in Konoha but in any village.'

He couldn't see why people were so fearful of Naruto and Gaara back in Leaf. It hardly seemed rational. They had never done a thing to warrant ill-will from anyone. If anything, they should have been treated like heroes for devoting their lives to their village. That was his opinion, at least.

Haku pushed aside his blanket and let himself stretch, listening to his shoulders crack, 'It doesn't matter to me if they jail demons or not, we're friends and nothing can change that.'

Just as Haku was about to further observe the depths of his loyalty to Naruto and Gaara, the blonde boy sat up, still asleep, but looked as if he were reaching for something. As abruptly as he had shifted, Naruto was horizontal again, snoring and mumbling, “Nmm are you gonna...?” Haku kept watching, amused that Naruto's dreams could even touch the physical world, “...eat that...mnf...fishcake...?”

'He's already hungry and he's not even conscious.' Haku noted, flinching when Naruto rolled over again, a flimsy hand striking Gaara right in the face, who miraculously slept right through the sleepy assault, 'Maybe I should go fix breakfast before he eats Gaara-kun's gourd...'

Gracefully rising to his feet, Haku stepped lightly over to the pile of travel gear in the corner of the guest room. He unceremoniously dove into a larger bag and riffled around in search of clothing. He had slept in his pants, so he pulled on the plain, white gi he had extracted and then quietly exited the room.

Naruto and Gaara's snores followed after him as he closed the door.


The rest of the house was silent compared to the room Haku had slept the night in. He continued to blink the sleep out of his eyes as he went down the flight of stairs and turned right to where he had recalled the kitchen to be.

Not to his surprise Tsunami was already there, setting a frying pan on the stove. Haku cleared his throat innocently and she turned to him, smiling, “Oh, good morning Haku-kun. Did you sleep well?”

He nodded, “Yes, I did. Thank you for letting us stay here, Tsunami-san.”

“Not at all, it’s my pleasure,” She waved him off, cracking an egg expertly and opening it over the pan with a sizzle, “Have your friends woken up yet?”

“Not yet,” Haku answered, “Would you mind if I helped you?”

Tsunami smiled, “No, over in that cabinet there are some bowls, if you can set them on the table please.” He moved to the shelf she had pointed to and discovered a good number of ceramic bowls stacked on top of one another.

Haku vaguely felt nostalgia for the morning routine of his childhood which was spent with his mother preparing meals and cleaning. He knew that his mother was long dead but the memory made his heart a bit lighter.


After aiding Tsunami in preparing the morning meal, Haku returned to the guest room where, predictably, Naruto and Gaara were still sleeping. With a sigh Haku pulled the blanket away from Naruto who shifted in his sleep but did not wake.

“Gaara-kun...” His red haired friend wasn't as difficult to revive as Naruto was. Upon hearing his name his eyes snapped open and he sat up groggily. He flashed a look of slight annoyance at Haku.

While Gaara fought his way back to consciousness, Haku called to Naruto several times and even shook him roughly by the shoulders. He had to admit, Naruto could probably sleep through a train wreck soundly if left undisturbed; he was just so deeply asleep. 'But,' Haku thought to himself, 'His mind does have more developed areas of interest.'

“Naruto-kun, the ramen will get cold if you don't hurry.”

“Ah!” The blonde leapt up, clear over Haku's head, “Wait for me!” He ran out of the room, partly-awake at the most, and the dark haired boy listened in slight amusement to the thundering sounds as Naruto half ran, half fell down the stairs, following the delicious aroma that hung in the air.

Haku didn't bother to hide his wide smirk as Gaara continued to laze about and yawn. Naruto was unique in the sense that whatever he deemed to be important, whether it be friends or food, would be something he would give his best effort to, 'Well maybe friends more than noodles.'

“Don't rile him up,” Gaara stood, scratching his neck, “He'll scare the people who live here.” He moved to lift his gourd with only one arm (He's getting stronger...Haku noted in wonderment), and then turned to leave the room without a second glance.

“Only with his appetite.” Haku replied and promptly followed after Gaara.


Downstairs Gaara and Haku joined Naruto at the table, the latter looked suspiciously bruised. He grinned at Haku, “Thanks for waking me, Haku-kun! I got down here just in time!”

“Don't mention it.” The dark haired boy sat down across from him, 'I wasn't really serious before...'

Even though he had only made up an excuse to rouse the Kyuubi container, Naruto was still grateful to wake up to a bowl of miso, as was Gaara, but with less enthusiasm. Tsunami was busy scrubbing down the frying pan she had been cooking with earlier, humming merrily to herself.

Gaara kept his eyes half-lidded and poured himself some tea. Haku noticed this sulky behavior, 'Gaara-kun seems a bit off this morning...' After setting the kettle down the redhead lifted his cup and took a slow sip. Naruto's cheerful slurping of noodles was disgustingly audible all the while.

Haku frowned to himself, still watching as Gaara drank with his dark-rimmed eyes closed. He looked sallow and kind of clammy; was he sick? The red haired boy looked up and couldn't help but notice Haku's oddly perceptive stare aimed at his head.

“What?”

Haku's frown deepened thoughtfully, 'What's with everyone today?'

“Eat something Haku-kun!” Naruto said between two very loud slurps, it came out almost like an order. Haku poured himself some tea, not looking at Gaara who was once again irritable and uncommunicative.

Haku glanced at Naruto instead. Was he telling him to eat because he just happened to be underweight for someone his age and height? Or was he giving fair warning before he plowed through the remaining dishes set on the table? He guessed it was a bit of both.

Tsunami was still humming.

The tuneless noise was beginning to annoy Haku.

Gaara finally raised his chopsticks to his mouth, muttering, “Itadakimasu...” and still kept his gaze down.

'Seriously...I can't understand what's with them today.' Haku was still frustrated.

“Hey, where did Anko-sensei go off to?” Naruto asked only because his bowl was empty, “Did she eat breakfast already?”

Tsunami turned to him, “Your sensei left with my father early this morning to help him buy supplies...and something about finding dango. They'll be back later. She really is a very nice lady!”

Gaara scoffed at the word 'nice.' Anko didn't seem so nice as much as she did clinically insane. She was more inclined to forge onward into dangerous territory than most instructors. Oh yes, and they would have to fix Jiraiya's peeping problem, because he wasn't sure how much longer they could last under Anko's guidance.

Naruto took a bite of egg and Haku watched as the white, pointy incisors came down in full efficiency, 'Since when do I watch people eat? Since when do I watch Naruto eat? Do I want to make myself sick?'

Gaara gave a half-hearted glance of concern to Haku, who seemed to be silently retching across the table from him, 'I'm not even going to ask.'

Naruto however was a bit concerned, “Whoa, Haku-kun, are you alright? You need something to drink?” Haku's struggle seemed to slow a bit, “Are you choking?” Naruto pointed a finger at Gaara next to him, “Gaara-kun can use CPR so I know you'll be okay!”

Gaara gave a heated glare to Naruto.

Curiously enough he had learned how to perform CPR, but he wasn't keen to use it right now!

“You shouldn't assume such things.” Gaara said curtly, taking a slurp of ramen and making Naruto feel slightly flustered. After a moment Haku stilled and seemed to be breathing regularly.

'You never know...' Naruto thought to himself.

The dark haired boy's shoulders were slumped; his knuckles were white as he gripped his tea cup fiercely. Naruto and Gaara kept eating, warily. 'Haku-kun looks like he's gonna explode.'

Tsunami was still humming.

“How can you be so normal about it?” Haku finally snapped, quite loudly. His friends paused in their munching and looked at him quizzically. Abruptly, Tsunami's humming stopped.

Finally.

“Normal about what?” Gaara said coolly, thinking if Haku was troubled that the shit was about to hit the fan.

“About that nukenin! Zabuza!” Haku hissed, lowering his voice so Tsunami wouldn't be subjected to their petty ninja affairs, “How can you be so relaxed? He's still out there! Looking for-” He paused, noticing Tsunami's wandering ear.

“You need to chill out Haku-kun,” Naruto said quietly, “The no-eyebrow clown, yeah, we know he's around here somewhere. But you can't freak out in front of his family. I mean, we're still on a mission!”

“But-!”

“No,” Gaara interrupted, “You're only nervous because he has a thorough knowledge of your abilities, which is understandable.” He paused, “But you must stay in control of your emotions. We can't afford to have you distracted if things take a bad turn.”

Tsunami's gaze was suspiciously focused on the window above the sink where she was still washing cooking utensils.

“We can't talk about this here,” Naruto finished the rice ball he had been eating with one swift chomp, “Hey, why don't we go out and train for a while? Just to calm our nerves?”

Haku nodded and was starting to visibly relax, “I agree.”

Haku and Naruto rose from their seats but Gaara didn't move, “Not yet.”

“Why?” Haku didn't want to sound indignant but it was difficult. Even Naruto was clearly abashed that Gaara could somehow stomp and spit on his good ideas.

The redhead gave an almost imperceptible shrug, “You haven't eaten anything Haku-kun.”

Naruto's offence evaporated, 'He has a point!'

Haku took his seat again, a grateful smile on his face, “Alright.”


They left shortly after collecting their weapons. It was warm outside and the three genin seemed slightly nervous thanks to Haku's earlier rant, but it was too beautiful a day not to relax.

They settled for an empty beach beyond one of the docks nearby the house. There was a breeze coming off of the bay. It was high tide, Haku also noticed.

“This is great!” Naruto fell back onto the sand and gazed at the sky above. It was the same color as his eyes. Gaara dropped his gourd which fell to the ground with no perceptible sound and he kneeled down beside the blonde, running his hand over the beach sand.

It was different than the grains native to Suna and he noted that he would be one of the few people who could tell them apart at all. It was cooler, by far. Water washing in and out over it constantly gave it a different texture, less smooth than the fine, wind-blown sand of his homeland. Even the smell was unique: here it was the ocean, and it was nice, but in Suna it was the open sky and that was best smell there was. To him at least.

Gaara sat silently, creating amorphous shapes with the grains while Naruto rambled on about something to Haku, who was watching the calm water rush off and onto shore.

“Hey Haku-kun, how does that crazy Mist guy know you anyway?” Naruto couldn't help but wonder. This question was also on Gaara's mind.

Haku half turned to them, still standing near the water's edge, “Well I...I guess there's a story I have to tell you then.”

Naruto sat up, listening as intently as Gaara was.

“When I was young I lived with my parents on a farm. We were happy, I guess. Things were simple,” He looked away from them, “It was early spring. There was still snow on the ground when I discovered the Hyoton.”

“How?” Naruto prompted, “You were like five, right? How could you use it if you were so little?”

“I don't know. It just happened. One day I could do these things,” Haku said quietly, “My mother knew because she had it as well. She was once part of a clan. When my father found out he thought we were monsters...” The dark haired boy glanced back at them, “He killed her first. I watched him do it, and I...couldn't stop him. When he came after me I just...”

Gaara and Naruto were silent.

“I don't know how I did it really, but once they were dead I knew I couldn't stay.”

“Where did you go?” Gaara asked. His voice was low, somewhat angry.

“Nowhere,” He said simply, “It was freezing, I remember. There was a bridge outside of town and that's where I saw him.”

“And the guy saw you but he didn't do anything?” Naruto prompted, up to speed.

“No. He left. I'm not surprised, it wouldn't be in his character to care about another human being,” Haku's voice was particularly icy, “But after that I met Hiroshi and then-”

“Us!” Naruto finished and nodded to himself as if that explained everything. Sadly it did.

“Odd how he can still recall you if you really held no interest to him...” Gaara speculated.

“Yes, I'm not so sure about that myself,” Haku mumbled, turning back to stare at the water, “I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner. It was just painful to talk about.”

“No sweat, we're even now!” Naruto soothed, “You know how me and Gaara-kun are super-cool jinchuriki,” Gaara rolled his eyes, “And we know about...well, your mom and dad.”

Haku nodded, not quite sure what to say. So he said nothing, following his better judgment, and walked out onto the water, focusing his chakra to his feet without really thinking about it.

“He's sad,” Naruto said quietly, “I wish there was something we could do to, you know, get his mind off of it.”

“There's nothing we can do now.” Gaara answered, sand drifting dreamily around him in circles.

“Feh!” Naruto stood, brushing himself off. He was aggravated that Haku, one of the most emotionally stable people he knew, was still unable to come to terms with his past. Not that he blamed him. It wasn't everyday a missing nin shows up and tells you that there are others like you somewhere out there.

Something occurred to Naruto as he watched sand drift around the redhead in slow, calculating coils and he frowned, “Let's train! I'm bored.”

Gaara looked up at him impassively, not very interested. Haku most often tested his defenses, and when it came to sparring against Naruto, the boy usually made such a raucous Gaara would purposely end the fight just to not have to listen to his jabbering.

He also knew that wasn't very fair, but it bothered his conscience little.

The blonde couldn't help but be spiteful. There was sand everywhere! It was an open invitation and apparently Gaara wasn't taking him seriously.

“Get up off your ass you bastard, we should really work on your taijutsu,” Naruto smirked, seeing the redhead scowl, “I mean all you do is stand around and let your sand protect you. But I'm pretty sure one day you'll run into someone who can get past that shield of yours...”

“Unlikely.”

“Well, it'd still be useful,” Naruto went on, “What? You’re too lazy to improve your speed and stamina? Now that I think about it you are kind of clumsy.”

“Have you looked in a mirror recently?”

“Hey! At least I can throw a punch!” Naruto barked, flexing a muscle, “Which is more than you can say!”

The sand hovering around Gaara dropped down; that was the last straw. He didn't have to prove anything to anyone, most especially Naruto. Gaara stood, almost mechanically and gave Naruto his attention.

The blonde was pleased, 'I guess that got him!'

In truth, Naruto had never actually seen Gaara fight in close-quarters combat. Ever. So it was an understatement to say he was completely shocked as the red haired boy shifted into a textbook-perfect offensive stance and beckoned him to come at him with a flat-palmed hand.

The nerve.

The absolute nerve.

Naruto balled his fists and leaped, not sure how to attack Gaara because it was astounding to see that sand didn't race up to shield him once Gaara caught Naruto's punch, and forced him back with a flick of his wrist. Still, the sun-bleached grains quivered beneath Gaara's feet as he restrained it with chakra, yearning to come to his aid.

“Okay! Good! You're not totally pathetic,” Naruto had only said it to provoke him, and was successful, “No cheating with sand, got it?”

Gaara said nothing and only lunged forward. Naruto was taken aback by his burst of speed. Leaning back, he avoided a jab that was quickly followed by an uppercut, grazing his left shoulder. Naruto let Gaara drive him back; his feet skidding in the sand, grit and shells were sent flying.

It was odd but surprisingly well-matched. Dodge a swipe at the face, 'That would've hurt you bastard!' Throw a few punches, block a few, Naruto wasn't trying hard and it was a mistake. Wham. Gaara smirked, picture-perfect hit on the solar plexus and Naruto stumbled backwards, grinning maniacally, 'When did Gaara get this quick?'

His stomach nerves were screaming but Naruto moved faster, forcing chakra into his feet for speed as Haku had once suggested. Naruto's first two blows connected with Gaara's shoulder and rib cage, the third he blocked, 'Darn! Improvise!' Naruto smirked as he followed through with his punch and predictably Gaara caught it. He cursed himself as he was nailed by a brutal roundhouse kick in the side.

He tumbled down, sand around him writhing and swept Naruto's legs out from under him. The blonde made a yelping noise and righted himself on outstretched hands. Gaara regained his footing and continued with another volley of punches.

'He isn't as fast as Haku-kun, but he's way stronger...' Naruto could already feel himself begin to bruise, 'Maybe Ero-sensei can give us some formal training or something. This is awesome!'


Two hours later they were seated on the beach, sweaty and bruised and out of breath. Naruto sported a black eye that made him resemble his sparring partner somewhat. Gaara wouldn't admit it, but Naruto had the upper hand. He was more experienced, better with improvisation and hit hard consistently. He was sure he had beaten the blonde well enough to get his point across.

He could throw a punch. He just chose not to.

Was that a problem?

Haku all the while had been absently utilizing his Kekkei Genkai while his friends fought. Water had been sent streaking through the air, creating dozens of shapes and a number of different variations of clones. For a half hour he had been fiddling with one shape in particular.

He had formed a simple rectangular sheet of ice with a very generous amount of chakra. He had been compressing the surface, making it smoother, flatter, and thinner as his teammates' battle cries rang out over the beach. He was surprised no one had stopped by to investigate them yet, but appreciated the privacy all the same.

'I'll give it a bit more chakra.' He estimated, forcing it into his basic ice-sculpture and began to refine it; purifying it of sand, salt and minerals. It couldn't have been more than a quarter of an inch thick when the once bluish, translucent ice became glass-like and reflected the sun's light brilliantly.

'A mirror.'

It was perfect: a sheet of ice in the summer. Maybe he'd use a bit less chakra next time...

Haku observed himself in his creation. It was magnificent. He felt it too, as if his chakra control was truly balanced as he gazed into it, wondering what the resonance could mean, 'It would be useful for distracting enemies and quite possibly a good-’

“What are you doing, Haku-kun!”

Haku leapt in surprise. He felt his stomach fly up into where he thought his brain should be and his chakra fluctuated drastically. He was startled and he felt some part of him being compressed as he fell forward, expecting to slam into the mirror but he seemed to...melt into it.

Naruto watched as Haku dove into the mirror and disappeared.

Eh?” Naruto, horrified, fell backwards, abandoning any chakra control that his feet had on the water's surface and crashed into the salty waves. Seagulls screamed in laughter overhead.

The blonde forced his head above water, gulping air, “W-what the hell just happened?” He stared at the mirror hanging suspended in the air. Haku had been there a second ago and just vanished from sight.

Naruto gaped as Haku's image shown perfectly clear in the mirror, as if he were still standing in front of it, 'This is one retarded jutsu or a magic trick...'

“Naruto-kun?” Haku was speaking, or was it the mirror?

Naruto's brain was beginning to hurt as he treaded the deep water. Even more puzzling was that Haku emerged from the ice mirror, stepping out of it casually and back onto the surface of the water where Naruto stared at him in wonderment.

“How'd you do that?”

Haku was mystified. He hadn't exactly tried to walk into a mirror before: that sounded like some ridiculous carnival trick. But this was real. When he felt it, it wasn't like ice to him at all. It was water, allowing him passage and once he was inside, it was a wide plain, where he had a large view of his surroundings from a separate dimension. Even if it appeared outwardly thin and impenetrable it was almost like walking into a room. How he did it was another matter.

“I don't know...”

Confused, wet and annoyed, Naruto regained his chakra control and trudged back to shore with his clothes sopping wet. Gaara watched from the beach as Naruto returned and Haku moved into the mirror again inquisitively, wanting to investigate, “Well that's new.”

Naruto was grumbling to himself as his feet reached the sand again, and he wasted no time in tugging his saturated, orange jacket over his head and tossing it at Gaara, who snickered at him when he missed by a few feet, 'Damn...the wind's blowing the opposite way.'

His tee stuck to his chest with a smacking noise as he clawed at it, still muttering ill-naturedly. Next time he'd make sure he'd warn Haku that he was visiting when he wanted to investigate his progress, 'Jeez, he's paranoid. I wish I wasn't always on the receiving end of his panic-attacks.'

“Haku-kun's new ability looks interesting.” Gaara mused, not hiding his smirk.

“Yeah? Well, you wouldn't think that if you were the one who went out there to check on him.” Naruto snapped, reduced to his dark-green boxers, “Haku-kun is way too jumpy.” The blonde sprawled out on the warm sand, ignoring Gaara's mirth at his lack of clothing.


After watching Haku experiment with his new Kekkei Genkai ability for nearly an hour, Naruto and Gaara were beginning to bore. The redhead had suggested that they continue to pass time sparring, but Naruto loudly objected due to his partial nudity and the wounding of what was left of his fragile pride.

So they sat and gazed out onto the water. The thin strips of cloud above that were far too emaciated to provide any real sun cover, 'Heh, maybe Gaara-kun will finally get a tan...'

For a good while Haku had been darting between now two ice mirrors, which Gaara supposed had consumed a good amount of chakra to create. Every moment he increased his speed until he was an indistinct flash.

“Haku-kun's ice doohickeys are pretty cool, but they don't look very useful.” Naruto commented dryly and Gaara grunted. Maybe it was a noise of agreement but it came out indifferent.

The Kyuubi container had been building a blob that was first intended to be a sand castle on top of his stomach, covering the majority of his seal. Small splinters of driftwood acted as tiny flagpoles and gates, with pearly fragments of seashell placed haphazardly for windows, 'The color kinda reminds me of Hinata-chan's eyes...'

“Hey, Gaara-kun?”

“...hm?”

“What do ya suppose Hinata-chan is doing right now?”

Gaara blinked. He knew his friend to often have sporadic thoughts, but this was unusual even for Naruto, “Can't say...”

“Really?”

The redhead gave Naruto a look of slight incredulity, "Well, like any upstanding kunoichi such as herself she'd be with her team actively participating in missions in service to Konoha...” Naruto stared dreamily at his sand-blob, “Use your imagination.”

“By upstanding kunoichi do you mean Sakura-chan as well?”

“Drop it.” His voice was snippish.

“Ha! Okay.”

They hadn't noticed Haku had finished with his Hyoton creations until he stood in front of them looking very relaxed. His smile was a good sign; maybe he had improved his mood?

“Done, Haku-kun?” Naruto was destructing his doomed castle, but saved a few of the nicer shells.

“Nearly.”

The dark haired boy glanced at Naruto's clothes, still a bit wet even after laying in the bright sun for forty-five minutes straight. They were placed in an ordered line: jacket, shirt, holsters, pants, but he was still wearing his forehead protector out of habit.

With little effort Haku raised his hand and with a short dose of chakra and extracted the last of the saltwater for his friend. Just to show off he compiled it into a hovering, transparent sphere.

“You could've done that earlier,” Gaara pointed out blandly, “I'd rather he keep his shirt on.”

It was his first opportunity to throw one of Naruto’s comments back at him.

Haku nodded, grinning openly as Naruto scowled at the redhead for pitting his own joke against him.


Around noon they returned to their lodging. As expected Anko and Tazuna had also come back from their early-morning shopping trip and were seated at the kitchen table which was decorated with a fair selection of seafood.

“Back so soon huh, boys?” Anko smirked. It appeared as though she and their client had already begun eating, “I figured you would've taken longer, so we started lunch without you.”

“How kind.” Haku said softly. Tazuna raised an eyebrow while Naruto and Gaara snickered.

“Come in and sit down boys,” Tsunami appeared to be preparing dinner already, “There's plenty left!”

“Where is Inari?” Gaara asked, supposing the boy was sulking.

“He and I already ate,” Tsunami answered, “I think he's upstairs playing.”

The genin sat down and Naruto was first to help himself, “Thanks! This looks great!”

Haku's eyes wandered to a framed picture on the wall. In it he saw a younger Inari with his mother and grandfather beside him smiling, and above them a piece of the photograph had been torn away, leaving the top right corner frayed.

“Excuse me,” Haku couldn't help his curiosity, “That picture there, it seems that a part of it has been torn out.”

Tazuna paused in his chewing and furrowed his brow, drawing attention to himself.

After a short silence he spoke nostalgically, “The person taken from the picture is Kaiza, Inari's father.”

Tsunami also paused in her supper preparations, “My husband...” Haku looked slightly alarmed that he had touched such a delicate subject.

“It's alright,” Tazuna rasped, and took a sip of tea, “That man was once a hero here.”

“A hero?” Naruto's eyes widened in interest.

The old man nodded, preparing to narrate a story, “Yes. He brought the meaning of courage back to our village a few years ago, before he died.”


“Hey, I see you're awake,” A cheerful voice helped Inari get a grip on consciousness, “How are you feeling?”

“Hm?”

The young boy sat up and rubbed his eyes. There was a man in front of him. Earlier, he felt his heart tear out of his chest after those rotten boys had taken his young puppy and thrown it into the lagoon to drown. But he was certain he was dead too as he, an eight-year-old with no swimming experience, was pushed in after the puppy.

Somehow Pochi figured out how to swim in a mere thirty seconds and paddled along to shore. After a few minutes of flailing, Inari was still about to drown as the guilty kids ran off to let him die, his terrified screams unheard.

Or so he thought.

“You saved me?” Inari asked, needing to confirm it.

“Yeah,” The tall man smiled, “But first eat,” He gestured to two skewered fish cooking over an open fire, “Then we can talk about it.”

The fish were tasty.

“I had a talk with those boys,” Kaiza assured him, “They won't be causing you trouble anymore.”

“I just wish I knew where Pochi went...” Inari mumbled solemnly.

Kaiza scratched his chin, “Hmm, in the country where I come from dogs are very loyal to their masters...” He paused, “Though you did kind of abandon him first you know.”

“I wanted to save Pochi, really,” The boy protested weakly, “But I...I couldn't do it.”

“Hey! You have to be strong! If you care about something, protect it! With both arms!” Kaiza displayed his own scarred arms, “You should never hesitate to put your life on the line for the things dear to you.”

“Well, I guess so...” Inari agreed, a small smile dawning on his round face.

Kaiza ruffled the boy's hair, “Now that's the spirit!”


 “After that, the two were inseparable,” Tazuna stared down at his sushi, “Inari never knew his real father so Kaiza became a father figure for him...and a part of our family.”

“Why was he a hero?” Naruto prompted.


“If we don't get this gate closed the entire lower district will be flooded!” A man cried despondently to his companions as their ponchos flapped wildly in the wind.

A fierce storm had rained down on the village for days on end, overwhelming the levees and flooding many of the waterways. A group of people were huddled together in a tight group, staring down the embankment as the rising water level threatened the survival of their village.

“If we can get this rope secured around one of the gate posts, we can pull it closed from here!” One suggested, voice straining against the screaming wind and rain.

“You're crazy! Someone would have to swim out there to do it!”

There was a silence among them as they stood in the howling wind. It was a fool's errand.

“I'll do it!” Kaiza volunteered. All heads turned back to face him as he removed his hat, appearing surprisingly calm.

Kaiza was a well-respected man in the community, known for his solid beliefs and courageous heart. A man handed him a rope without a word, unwilling to protest his generous offer. Kaiza took it and moved ahead, preparing himself for the shock of cold water that he was about to leap into.

“Dad don't go!” Inari yowled, knocking people aside and clinging to his father's soaked shirt.

Kaiza smiled down at him, “It's alright Inari. This village is important! It's our home. Remember, if you care about something you must protect it, right?”

He sniffled pathetically for a moment, but then raised his eyes, “...w-with both arms...”

“That's my boy!” Kaiza was elated by his reply and patted his head affectionately, “I'll be right back! No worries!”

Before Inari could protest again his father dove into the water.


“He saved the village that day,” Tazuna said quietly, “He was a hero.”

“Brave.” Anko offered a word before sipping her tea.

“What happened to him?” Haku asked. Behind them Tsunami began to chop onions more ferociously.

“Gato arrived a short time later and took control of our village,” The old man continued, “Kaiza resisted him even after several warnings and threats from his thugs. One day Gato took it too far...”

The genin wore questioning looks. They hadn't touched their food.

“He was murdered: killed in front of the entire village as a warning to not interfere,” Tazuna's voice was a low growl and Tsunami restrained a sob, “He was beaten and tied up for believing in freedom and killed for Gato's own selfish gain...killed in front of Inari.”

“Coward.” Anko supplied another word, this time describing the shipping magnate.

“The village's courage died with him and Inari has never been the same since,” Tazuna finished, “The only way I can truly avenge Kaiza is to build this bridge and restore hope to the Land of Waves.”

It was quiet for a while.

“We'll make sure you finish that bridge, old man.” Naruto vowed.


For the remainder of the day Haku insisted that they train. He worked in quiet solitude out on the water and refined his new ability while Gaara and Naruto continued their clumsy rounds of close-quarters combat.

They each contemplated the death of Kaiza. It was painful to think that a family suffered nearly as much as they had, and it was difficult to admit that the outcome of their mission looked bleak with Momochi Zabuza looming in the future.

Dinner was more cheerful, mostly revolving around a series of jokes both Naruto and Anko had been telling. Inari, as always, was silent and moody, and they made it a point not to touch on the subject as to why.

As he often did, Gaara retired to sleep first, followed shortly by a yawning Haku. Naruto, though battered from Gaara's fierce strikes due to their training, was not as tired as he should've been and lingered.

It was a clear night.

The air was thin and the breeze carried a salty smell. Naruto preferred the familiar rustic, leafy scent of Konoha. He slipped outside barefoot. Naruto stood on the cool hardwood deck and stared with unblinking eyes at the ocean of stars dotting the black sky.

He turned after sensing a faint presence nearby. Inari sat silently with his hat tipped over his bowed head and his short legs dangling off the side of the porch. Without much thought, Naruto padded over to the young boy and took a seat next to him.

Inari refused to look up, too stubborn to acknowledge his presence. He didn't like being ignored. With a light-hearted seriousness, Naruto removed the younger boy's hat in one swift motion, which left him amusingly startled, and replaced it on his own head.

‘Aw, it's too small...' The Kyuubi container mused to himself. Inari snatched his hat back with an air of annoyance and tugged it back on, “Quit it, will ya? This is my favorite hat.”

“It's kinda ugly,” Naruto droned disinterestedly, still staring upwards and Inari scowled at him, “Go inside. You'll catch a cold of you stay out here you know.”

“I don't care.”

“Your gramps will care,” Inari didn't respond, “And your mom too.”

“Just shut up okay? I don't need some weirdo who thinks he's a ninja to tell me what to do!” Apparently it hadn't been very hard for Naruto to get his attention.

With the thick silence that ensued, Naruto lowered his eyes to the lazy waves crashing in slow-motion ahead of them. The young boy was tense and angry and it was radiating off of him. Naruto could feel it. How could someone that small give off so much resentment? One might think he would've spontaneously combusted by now.

“I heard about what happened to your dad.” Naruto said without looking at Inari.

The young boy's back stiffened and he didn't answer.

“You have it rough here and you're unhappy,” Naruto went on when Inari didn't protest, “But that doesn't mean you give up and let things stay like this.”

“You don't know what you're talking about.”

“Yeah, I think I do!” The blonde bit back mildly, “So you think you're miserable? Then would you know what it's like to not even have a father to look up to? Or have your fellow villagers look at you like you're some kind of monster? I don't think so.”

There was a long silence before he began again.

“When I was little I had nothing. No family, no friends, and people turned their backs on me wherever I went,” Naruto's voice was low, “I met Haku-kun and Gaara-kun and they...they knew what it was like to have nothing; to have no one to depend on. We grew up together wanting to become ninja because the only way we could be respected is if we proved ourselves first...and life shouldn't have to be that way.”

Inari was finally looking at him.

“No matter how bad it gets that doesn't mean you surrender. You have to try harder every time you fall down,” He continued to watch the waves, “I'll be the strongest shinobi in my village, the Hokage, and then everyone will see me. And you...” He gave a serious look to the young boy, “You've got to stand up for yourself and for your village, because we can't fight Gato for you. Even if you die, you'll die fighting for what you believe in. That's the only way I'll ever let myself die.”

“But it won't make a difference. We'll all still be stuck here until he kills us all,” Inari's voice shook, “He has us trapped here...”

“Stop being such a baby about it! What would your dad say?” Naruto snapped, “Sometimes you've gotta fight for your freedom. As long as you don't let him, that's the one thing that Gato guy can never take away from you!”

“My freedom?”

“Yeah! Believe it!” The blonde nodded, “It's okay to be scared, but that doesn't mean you run away from your problems. I bet your dad never did that did he?”

“No, but...I just don't see what good I'll do. I'm just a kid and Gato's got a whole army!”

Inari looked taken aback when Naruto pulled out a kunai and held it out to him, wearing a convincing grin. With a quivering hand Inari reached out and took it from him, gingerly grasping the cool, metal ring.

“Haku-kun once told me that it's not the weapon, but the force and spirit behind it that does the most damage,” Naruto recalled a small bit of philosophy, “Of course, that was after I kicked his butt during training...” He smirked to himself.

Inari nodded, taking the words to heart and then stared at the knife in his hand for a long moment, “Right! Um...” He wore a quizzical look, “W-what do I do with this?”

Naruto shrugged then yawned, “Just practice with it. Try throwing it at Gaara-kun and see what happens.” Inari looked floored as the blonde grinned mischievously, “Now come on, let's get some sleep! It's freakin freezing out here!”


“Sir, we're a few days behind schedule but we can still finish laying the support beams by the end of tomorrow if the weather keeps up,” A man wearing a blue helmet gave his report to Tazuna, who scratched his beard in thought.

“Good. Keep the pace up and we'll take a break for lunch in a few hours.”

“Yes. Um, sir?”

“What now”

“Er, well it's just a rumor but...is there really a ninja trying to sabotage this bridge?”

Tazuna looked away from the paper he had been reading and gave a stern look to the young worker, “You can go home now if you want. I won't stop you,” Tazuna looked back down at his paper, “But I'm not leaving. Come hell, high-water, or assassin, I'll die here if I must.”

The worker gave him a shaky nod before stumbling back to his duty. Tazuna heaved a sigh. He didn't blame his staff for being nervous. Ninja were all-around bad news if they weren’t on your side, but he couldn't afford to have his laborers abandon their posts now.

Besides, he still had his faithful body guards nearby.

They seemed more inclined to chat rather than act as surveillance apparently.

“So then Haku-kun just jumps right into his mirror thingy and disappears!” Naruto was retelling the tale of how Haku uncovered his new Kekkei Genkai ability the day before, “Can you believe it, Anko-sensei?”

She nodded, “Um, yeah. Naruto, are you sure you didn't hit your head or something last night?”

“Positive! I wasn't dreaming, really! Haku did get into that mirror. I saw him do it!”

Anko nodded again while Naruto did his best to convince her it was not a figment of his imagination. Haku said nothing, not really wanting to expose his new ability so early on, 'I thought I could at least keep it a secret until we got back home...Why must Naruto-kun always talk about these things?'

“I'm just curious about something...” Anko had to ask, “Does Gaara sleep in often?”

They had left the redhead behind after he had failed to wake up at the designated time. Naruto wisely suggested that they let him get his sleep because waking him too early could result in loss of one's life and or limb.

“He'll catch up when he's ready.” Haku said simply.

Anko shrugged.


“Idiots.”

Gaara disliked being left behind. He slung his gourd onto his back and burst out the bedroom door with an audible bang. His heavy footfalls alerted Tsunami to his presence before his scowling face appeared in the doorway.

“Good morning, Gaara-kun. How did you sleep?” She was awfully cheerful and it made him even more irritable.

'There's a missing nin after Tazuna and they leave me behind? What logic possessed them? Fools...' Gaara glared at the clock hanging on the wall above Tsunami's head and she was clearly unnerved by his icy stare.

“Where are they?” He deadpanned. He didn't mean to frighten her, but he was too grumpy to be polite at that point.

“Um, your teammates and my father left for the bridge nearly a half-hour ago,” She answered, desperately trying to compose herself, “Would you like some breakfast-?”

He was already out the door.


Mist rolled in over the bay, gradually enveloping the bridge from bottom to top. The poor visibility discouraged a good number of the workers who had hoped for clear skies. It didn't take very long before Anko and the two present genin grew suspicious. It had been a perfectly clear day and the newly formed haze was sure to make their mission to protect the bridge builder more difficult.

Haku reacted the most strongly of the three waiting shinobi, sensing the unnatural, minuscule elements of chakra interwoven with the water vapor more quickly than even Anko had. He was more attuned to this development, and his voice held a tangible edge of controlled terror, “He's here.”

There were sudden cries from a few unfortunate workers who had disappeared into the fog and beyond their sight. Unseen, a ninja killed them slowly, letting Tazuna's guards relish the pained screams, just to make his job interesting.

The hair on the back of Naruto's neck was on end, and he felt his hand grasp a kunai from his leg holster, wondering why they had left Gaara behind.


Gaara hadn't gotten very far. He was passing through a wooded area not far from Tazuna's home when he noticed something out of place. He detached his chakra-glued feet from the tree branch he had been balanced on, and leapt back to the ground.

The forest floor was littered with countless types of colorful plants that Gaara was certain Haku could name with ease and an explanation if he were there; but between a nettle of glossy ferns was a curious object roughly the size of a dog.

It was the smell too, he noticed. It was dead. It had been for a short while.

Bracken-colored and toppled over onto its side was a small wild pig. It was bloodied around the throat and gut.

Now Gaara was certainly no tracker, but from the looks of the bent foliage and the tracks that seemed oddly bipedal all around, the boar appeared to be the victim of a human rather than a natural predator.

Sand scooped the dead animal up a bit and he gave it a closer look, holding his breath because of the unbearable smell. Flies lined up along the gashes, clearly from a blade of sorts.

They were deep lacerations. He stepped away and set it down again, glancing over the two-footed trail that led away from the carcass and in the opposite direction that he had been heading in.

'Sword wounds.' He surmised, 'Someone was bored and felt like killing a pig on the way out here. Pathetic.' If it were him, he would've chosen something more impressive, like a bear or a wolf or something that may have attacked him first and could defend itself.

The question was a person, possibly two or three, wielding a sword was heading South, but to what point and purpose? Immediately his brain supplied an answer: other hit men. They weren’t Zabuza, but they were still armed. If they weren't looking for Tazuna, then they were looking for the next best thing.

Gaara had vanished in a whirlwind of sand after drawing his conclusion.


“Inari!”

Tsunami poked her head out of the side door. Her son had said he would be busy that morning, of course he'd still have to have breakfast first, she reasoned. Frowning when no answer came, she stepped outside, taking in the fresh air as she made her way down to a nearby dock.

“Inari!” Tsunami called again and he looked up.

He had been fiddling with the kunai that Naruto had bestowed upon him the night before. He put it out of sight as he watched his mother come up to him. He was considerate enough to understand she wouldn't appreciate him playing with knives.

The walk wasn't long but she took her time, savoring the breeze. Tsunami paused a few feet away from her son who looked to be lost in thought, “Inari, come inside and get some breakfast.” She watched as he stared at the waves and then nodded to her.

Inari stood up and paused, again drawing her attention, “Um, mom?”

“Yes?”

“Those ninja who went with grandpa, they're...” He searched for a description, “...not so bad.”

“No, in fact they're quite honorable,” She smiled down at him, “I told you they were nice people.” He nodded again, more enthusiastically.

The smile vanished from his face when someone came up from behind his mother and seized her roughly. She restrained herself from yelping because the last thing she wanted was to alarm her son. Her hands flew up to the blade that was level with her throat and she stared at Inari, her eyes screaming at him to flee.

“So this is the bridge builder's family, eh? Not very impressive if you ask me...” Another thug spoke from behind his counterpart. Tsunami struggled, a low, feral growl rising from her throat as the second thug closed in on Inari.

“Let her go!” Inari howled, immediately brandishing his knife, and his mother's eyes widened. She looked slightly grateful for the gesture.

His mother's captor chuckled at him, “You little runt! Put that away before you hurt yourself.”

“I'm warning you! Let my mom go!”

“No Inari! Go find your grandpa and tell him what's happening! I'll be alright, just run!” The metal nipped at the exposed skin of her neck and she fell silent; indignation was clear on her face.

Inari felt his knees shake as he took a few short steps and was intercepted by the second smirking hit man, “Where are you going kiddo? Your mommy's in a spot of trouble right now, you know.”

He didn't think when he hurled the kunai, missing his mother by inches and felt his breath hitch in surprise when it sunk into the thigh of her captor. Tsunami took advantage of the distraction to bite his forearm, and plunged her elbow into his gut, leaping away when he loosened his grip.

She threw her arms around her son protectively, glaring like a wildcat. The two thugs  were clearly taken aback. Inari watched them; shaking, suddenly wishing he had another kunai so he could continue to fight.

The man with the sword extracted the kunai and tossed it aside with a clatter, “You'll pay for that kid!” Now they both had swords drawn and he briefly wondered how their luck could be so bad so early in the day.

The fluid movement of the sand impacted the hit men, knocking their heads together and creating a stylish, simultaneous knockout. Gaara appeared shortly after, looming over the two unconscious figures, wearing a bored sort of expression.

There was hope for breakfast yet.

“Are you alright?” It was partially rhetorical, but the red haired boy did his best to put some compassion into the words. It worked. Just a teeny bit. He was getting better at it.

Tsunami nodded, not hiding her relieved grin, “Yes! Thank you Gaara-kun! But you should hurry and see if my father and your friends are alright.”

He nodded blankly and then looked down at Inari, “You did well. Though I don't think Naruto should've given you a kunai without showing you how to use it first.” Inari saw his point; he had no idea what to do with the darn thing, so he figured throwing it could be a place to start when there was danger.

“Well, he said I could practice throwing it at you.” The boy admitted, and his mother looked appalled.

“Did he?” Gaara's expression was somewhere between annoyed and amused.

His sand quickly went to work, crushing the two men’s' arms with a sickening crack that made Inari and his mother visibly squeamish. It procured a few pained moans from the thugs but they didn't stir.

“They shouldn't bother you now.”

Inari nodded dumbly as Gaara left and Tsunami, still deeply perturbed, kicked the discarded swords off the edge of the dock and into the churning water. Inari slowly bent down, picking up the kunai that he had used, silently thanking Naruto and his friends.


“This looks bad.” Tazuna's voice was gruff as Naruto, Haku and Anko formed a circle around him, tense and wielding either kunai or senbon.

“Hey, Haku-kun, could you get rid of some of this mist maybe?” Naruto suggested quietly, noting his full control over all kinds of water.

Haku said nothing and with a small blast of chakra, the water molecules that had formed a thick haze all around them bent to his will and flew apart. The air was clear once again and Naruto would've sighed in relief if there hadn't been six water clones of the nukenin surrounding them with swords raised.

Two of the water clones each received a flawlessly aimed senbon to the eyes, destroying them instantly. Tazuna looked around wildly, wondering how it could happen so fast. Haku stood in front of him and Naruto leapt out at the water clones seconds after Anko had.

It was more chaotic without Gaara, Naruto realized while dodging a deadly sword swipe. The redhead could have destroyed all of the water clones at once with his sand. It also put more pressure on Haku, who was currently defending the bridge builder, a duty clearly not well suited for someone without a sand shield.

There was a shout and Naruto's head whipped around as Haku was propelled backwards by the dull edge of Zabuza's blade. He watched as the black haired boy crumpled to the ground, trying to regain his breath. This left quite the dilemma, as Anko was too busy tangling with another water clone ensnared by her shadow snakes.

“Back off, bastard!” The words left the blonde's mouth before he could stop himself, and the Mist shinobi turned, abandoning Haku and targeting the bridge builder.

Naruto quickly formed two shadow clones and leapt. Tazuna stood motionless, helpless without Haku. The clones reached him first, each grabbing one of Zabuza's arms in an effort to restrain him, “Weaklings.” The clones howled as they were thrown off and destroyed and the nukenin turned again to the old man, eyes crazed.

Tazuna looked on in shock as the blade stopped short of him and Zabuza's eyes narrowed, glowering down at the short ninja who had gotten in his way.

Naruto wore a triumphant grin. His considerably smaller kunai fending off against the looming zanbato, which had made a clean, shallow slice from his left shoulder and proceeded down his chest until the kunai prohibited any more leverage.

“Hey, old man...just go already.” Naruto ground out through clenched teeth while glaring at Zabuza, “Haku-kun won't let anything happen to you.”

Remarkably, the bridge builder stumbled back towards the other young genin nearby, still staring as Naruto's shoulders shook from the strain of deflecting the huge sword. Zabuza didn't seem impressed with the boy's strength.

“Naruto! Get over here-!” Anko's order was cut off as the water clone she was preoccupied with nearly landed a fatal blow.

Blood dripped slowly off of his orange jacket. “That old man, he has...a lot of important things to do,” Naruto spat as the nukenin withdrew his stained blade, “I'm not gonna let you kill him because I'm going to be Hokage! And that means I can't let assholes like you run around and do whatever you want!”

“Naruto-kun!” Haku stood in front of Tazuna, throwing senbon which bounced pathetically off of the missing nin's zanbato.

“You can't be Hokage if you're dead.” Zabuza said simply, raising his sword over his head and swung downward again.


Gaara's sand swarmed around the blade before moving on to crush Zabuza, who promptly leapt back to avoid it. Naruto grinned as his red haired friend appeared next to him, arms crossed, with his usual scowl plastered on his face. It was safe enough, so the blonde kneeled down to rest, his arm putting pressure on his gaping wound.

“Gaara, you've gotta stop sleeping in.”

“Shut up.”

His sand collected around Naruto and Tazuna in wait, and somewhere behind them there was a pleased whoop as Anko finished off the last of the pesky water clones. The real Zabuza didn't give any indication that Gaara's arrival made a difference.

“How bad is it?”

Naruto looked up at Gaara, frowning, “How should I know, bastard? It's bleeding a lot so I'd say it can't be good huh?”

“I would've liked to have cut you in two, boy,” Zabuza sneered, “This won't take much longer.”

Haku had somehow gotten behind him, senbon out, and had hit a few of the nukenin's pressure points before he rounded on the genin with a snarl.

Anko was beside Tazuna, and before she could protest, Haku continued to drive the Mist ninja back, “Suiton: Water Dragon Blast!”

A current rose up from the side of the bridge and plunged down, just barely missing Zabuza as he avoided the strike. Haku couldn't exactly pinpoint where his aggression was coming from, but he didn't have much time to think about it.

'This person cares for no one but himself.' He threw many more senbon, missing any and all vital points and it seemed Zabuza was entertained, dancing around Haku's frenzied attacks as if he were playing a child's game.

'Now is my chance!' Haku did his best to clear his head and quickly formed hand seals he had memorized the day before. The water that had drenched half of the bridge was at Zabuza's feet. It didn't take much chakra to mold the once amorphous water into sheets of ice.

Haku, being the Academy-proclaimed genius that he was, wouldn't have dreamed of using such an underdeveloped ability without a plan. His chakra permitted the creation of eight mirrors, seven encircling the Mist shinobi and one positioned above the rest.

He quickly re-examined the strategy he had developed in his head from the night before (more like thinking feverishly instead of sleeping to devise some feasible plan) while he ran at Zabuza, who still stood at the center of the ring of mirrors, not in the least threatened.

Anko stared, mouth agape, but caught herself after a moment and smirked, 'I guess Naruto really didn't hit his head...'

Naruto and Gaara were impressed by the memorable feat; however it was uncertain whether Haku’s new technique would work.

Haku dove into the nearest mirror, and Zabuza’s reaction was almost quizzical. A calculating glare quickly returned to his face.

Haku was admittedly frustrated as he prepared to throw a flurry of senbon at the missing nin once he began to laugh. Even an enemy should be cautious of such a unique skill, but Zabuza was clearly the exception.

“You're not like those other Hyoton ninja,” The nukenin said after ending his deranged chortling, “It seems you have discovered something they haven't, although you may never see their techniques for yourself either,” He paused, “You’re going to need to do better than this.”

“Kick his ass Haku!” Naruto barked, fed up with the arrogant Mist ninja.

He didn't need to be told twice.

Haku dove in and out of the mirrors, just shy of light-speed, while launching round after round of senbon. Zabuza could clearly not evade all of the projectiles, and there were grunts of pain as a number of the needles lined the back of his neck as Haku aimed for critical points.

Though the speed of his movements was downright near impossible to follow, Haku felt his chakra wane just to keep the mirrors levitating, let alone to stay in shape. And it seemed that Zabuza had noticed an error in Haku's assaults after only a short time.

Haku was moving so quickly that he had no way to avoid the zanbato that had inexplicably been raised to interfere with his projected path. He dodged away to his right, hoping to enter another mirror when he was stopped with a jolt that jarred his bones.

Zabuza had effortlessly caught Haku by the scruff of his gi, similar in appearance to a helpless kitten. Still wild with adrenalin, the dark haired boy twisted around and plunged the remainder of his senbon into the nukenin's arm, striking a few weak points.

He expected to be thrown aside, or maybe even beheaded, but Haku couldn't force down the rising apprehension in his stomach as the zanbato came around in full swing, smashing each mirror he had created as if they were made from the most flimsy of glass.

The young ninja began to struggle as the rough hand closed around the back of his neck, poised to snap it with the least bit of effort. Although the thought did cross his mind where that strange chakra he was sensing was coming from...

Haku's peripheral vision detected the flash of visible, red chakra that collided with the back of Zabuza's head and sent him and the nukenin crashing to the ground. Haku regained his feet, wondering how Naruto had gotten so strong, or why he wasn't resting when he was suffering from such a large wound.

Except...there was no wound, he noticed upon further inspection. Blood was indeed splattered all over his orange jumpsuit, but the gash that was once hemorrhaging a few minutes before was completely gone.

And then it occurred to him, 'This is...the Kyuubi's chakra isn't it?' It was odd, he thought, how he hadn't noticed Naruto's feral appearance sooner. Haku was suddenly wondering what the outcome of the battle would be as Naruto continued on ahead and Zabuza found his footing again, and could only fend off the blonde's enormous strength with his zanbato.

Anko felt a chill drip down her spine; she hadn't expected Naruto to be able to tap into the demon's chakra, 'Was his seal broken somehow? And what about-?'

She glanced over at Gaara, who looked appropriately enraged, but nothing in the way relating to the Shukaku's chakra exploding out of him. Somehow she was able to relax a bit.

Anko stood close to Tazuna, wielding two kunai. Naruto landed another Kyuubi-powered punch at Zabuza, clipping the nukenin's head again and sending him back a considerable distance.

Haku was dizzy, apparently suffering from a major loss of chakra. He still had his senbon out, although from the look of it he only had a few more to spare. What was for certain was that he was no longer in fighting condition. Surely Gaara and Naruto would pull up the slack.

It looked like Naruto was coming back to his senses (human ones at least), as he stumbled around the nukenin who continued to swing his zanbato ruthlessly. He had made another water clone too, which Haku spotted in dread as it came up from behind Naruto but was promptly crushed by Gaara's sand.

Naruto finally leapt back after another dozen of his shadow clones were demolished, letting Gaara try his luck against the missing nin. The redhead and his sand paused abruptly as Zabuza turned with a snarl, directing his attention to the opposite end of the unfinished bridge.

'Short attention span maybe?' Naruto pondered before realizing that Zabuza had lost all incentive to fight, just because there was someone watching them a short distance away, 'Wait a minute...'


There was a balding, short man on the far side of the bridge, smirking as he watched the young Leaf genin try to overpower Zabuza. Behind him stood a large crowd of hired thugs and bandits that were also amused by the ninja battle. They had only just arrived and the Mist shinobi wasn't pleased by their presence in the slightest.

“I told you no distractions,” Zabuza said gruffly, near authoritatively, “I'm working.”

“That may be so,” Gato sneered, less fearful of the nukenin when he had a mob of thugs behind him, “But you've exhausted my patience, Zabuza. You aren't reliable. Your services are no longer required.”

Naruto stood beside Haku, wearing a dumbfounded look, “That little wind bag is Gato? You've gotta be kidding me!”

Gato's smirk widened as Zabuza lowered his zanbato, eyes again calculating, “I see you've found your interesting prospect, but I'm afraid we'll have to cut this short. To be fair before we kill you we'll peel the kid's face off and let you keep it as a...” He snorted, “...token of my appreciation!”

Zabuza wasn't affected by the shipping magnate's double-cross. In fact, he had been counting on it. His eyes shifted to Haku who was nearest and then to Gaara and Naruto a short distance away.

“Kid,” He was speaking at Haku, “Looks like the old man's off the hook, since I'm not getting paid...”

Naruto's eyes narrowed, 'Greedy bastard!'

“Here's a chance to prove yourself,” Haku looked alarmed and it only made Zabuza smirk beneath the bandages concealing his face, “A true possessor of the Hyoton can easily eliminate twice this many men.” His full glare rested on Haku and the boy felt even more jumpy, “Now show me.”

“Zabuza, you really are pitiful,” Gato declared and there were numerous shouts of agreement from behind him, “This child, kill us? It seems I was right about you.” He then looked to Anko, “I didn't plan for other shinobi to interfere, but no matter...this land belongs to me now!”

Naruto shifted nervously, wondering how the nukenin could so suddenly become cooperative when he had been trying to kill them all minutes before. Haku stared ahead and thought, 'Should I do it?'

He weighed the circumstances quickly in his head. It wasn't as if he had anything to prove to the treacherous Mist nin, but maybe he should at least try to measure up to his clan's...standards. 'What clan?' His mind supplied dryly, 'But I...I could do it. These people serve Gato, the one person who is responsible for this village's suffering. I can kill them. I should. But I've never...'

While Haku was still deliberating whether he was emotionally ready to kill, no matter how noble the cause, Naruto's panicked shout snapped him back to the physical realm.

“Gaara don't!” The blonde warned, in a futile attempt as sand encircled the crowd at the end of the bridge with astonishing speed. Haku saw the red haired boy's face contorted in an expression of pure hatred, animal-like and his eyes were completely blank.

He ignored Naruto, raising his arms and listening intently as the thugs tensed, raised weapons, and did their best not to become unnerved by such a strange ability. It was odd, Haku thought, that Gaara had nothing to prove, but also nothing to keep him from taking lives. He had done it before.

It was impossible to say what Zabuza was thinking as he watched sand envelope half of the group and implode all at once, leaving the remainder of the thugs to scramble in an effort to avoid the billowing, bloody cloud of death swirling around them. Anko didn't move. Their client had shut his eyes, sickened.

Haku and Naruto shielded their faces as blood rained with the pitter-patter sound that authentic rain would make. His friends stopped calling out to him. If someone had planned to end Gato’s tyranny, at least he would get the job done quickly.

Tazuna turned and saw a crowd of familiar faces behind them.

“Grandpa! We're here to help!” Inari crowed, oblivious to the bloody massacre Gaara was initiating at the moment. There were enthused cries behind the boy from their fellow villagers, and Tazuna felt his heart leap into his throat, witnessing a revolution.

It took a long moment for Naruto's brain to register how quickly Gaara had crushed the second half of the crowd (seeing that there wasn't enough sand to kill them all at once). Ruby drops dotted his face like freckles when it was over and he looked to Haku who had dropped his senbon.

Unfortunately it wasn't over. There was a single survivor that hadn't met his end quite yet. Gato tripped over his own feet, falling to the damp concrete of the bridge, whimpering like a cornered dog. Gaara's face was expressionless and that relieved Haku to a degree.

The villagers, including Inari, looked on with little understanding of what was happening. Sand slowly coiled around the last criminal, who was sobbing uncontrollably and Haku wondered why he suddenly felt pity for someone as despicable as him. Maybe it was because Gaara didn't mind killing.

“This land belongs to no one,” Gaara's voice was not his own, “Anyone who tries to conquer others and control them should always expect to fail!” Enlightenment flickered in Gato's eyes for less than a second, “Sand Burial!”

Zabuza slung his zanbato on his back with a satisfied look.

Who knew there was such a capable killer among them? And one that slept in late that morning too...

Naruto wondered how he prevented himself from vomiting. He didn’t want Gaara to take offense. Or possibly because his body simply had no energy left for such a trivial function. The Mist ninja turned, not bothered.

His glare rested on Haku expectantly, who refused to raise his eyes from the ground.

“You will prove yourself to me...Haku.” The dark haired boy felt his name equivalent to a curse when Zabuza spoke it, “You already know where to find me.”

He disappeared and Haku exhaled a breath he didn't realize he had been holding.

It was over.

There were crazed cheers from the villagers and Naruto fell to his butt in exhaustion, muttering something about ramen and a nice, long nap. Gaara's sand slipped back into his gourd, soaked in the blood of his enemies. His face belied some alarm over his actions.

Anko clapped Tazuna on the back cheerfully, before seeing to Gaara, approaching him with the utmost caution. Haku dragged his feet over to Naruto, plopping down beside him and immediately setting to work on examining the blonde.

“Naruto-kun you were injured...weren't you?” It felt odd that Haku had to confirm it.

The blonde shrugged and then grinned, “I guess it's that old fox! I saw the no-eyebrow clown grab you and I, well...” He scratched his head, “It gets kinda fuzzy after that...but I felt like a million bucks! All healed up and energized!”

“I'll take your word for it.” Haku sighed, wiping sweat out of his eyes.

Naruto's grin widened, sheepishly, “Heh heh, the fox demon may scare the hell out of people...but it sure has its perks!”

Haku managed his first genuine smile of the day.

'Oh, if only Ero-sensei were here!' Naruto mused.

Inari raced up to his grandfather with a small crossbow he had borrowed from a neighbor, “Hey grandpa! Are you okay?”

The old man looked down at him and nodded, still trying to recover from all that had transpired. He was alive and in one piece thanks to the Leaf ninja. There was finally hope for his village now that they were free of Gato. The bridge’s construction would continue.

“You brought most of the village with you I see,” Tazuna chuckled, patting his head, “Good thinking.”

“We were worried about you guys,” Inari smiled at Naruto nearby who was wobbling to his feet, “I guess you could handle things without us though...”

“I can’t say I’m surprised that Zabuza ran off like that, he’s still a wanted criminal,” Anko pointed out to the bridge builder, “I think you can relax though. Clearly that freak has no interest in you anymore.”

“I'm glad,” Tazuna sighed heavily before turning to Gaara, who seemed unsociable at the present time, “I must thank you and your friends. You're responsible for avenging Kaiza and restoring hope to our village,” Haku and Naruto grinned at the praise and Gaara remained quiet, “Is there any way we can repay you?”

'Not in the way of money...' Anko thought blandly.

Naruto beamed, “Well, you see we are a bit hungry...”


The bridge was completed in roughly two days and Team 2 were the first to cross it back to the mainland. Tazuna, Tsunami, Inari and a good portion of the village had come to see them off.

“Take care on your journey back.” Tazuna said, looking much happier than he had a few days earlier.

“Quit worrying about us you old coot. You just make sure you get a ton of business through these parts and fix this place up, alright?” Anko grinned, finding that the mission was a total success and that the genin were responsible for it.

“We will, thanks to you.” Tsunami was smiling widely, like her son who stood in front of her.

Gaara and Haku were eager to return home, but Naruto still had one last question on his mind, “Uh, hey...what are you guys gonna call this bridge?”

Inari looked at him for a moment and then laughed, “Well, I thought we'd call it the Great Naruto Bridge!”

Haku looked a bit flustered, “What about Gaara-kun and I? Don't we receive credit for all our toils?” Gaara didn't seem very much bothered about it.

The boy shrugged, “You get credit, but we can't give it too many names! I'm sure you understand.”

“Yeah, my name sounds cooler anyway!” Naruto nodded, pleased with Inari's decision.


The next day the team had arrived back in Konoha: dirty, hungry and downright exhausted. Anko congratulated them and was ready to turn in the mission report.

“You maggots did well for your first C-rank. Actually, you pretty much crushed it considering you’re still amateurs,” She found it difficult to call Gaara an amateur after witnessing his capabilities on the battlefield, “But I'm sure you understand that I'd rather not wait around for your master, on behalf of my sanity.”

“Yeah, we do,” Naruto agreed, scratching the side of his head, “You were way better than him anyway if you ask me...”

“The Legendary Three are not to be underestimated Naruto and eventually...”A dark look came over her face, “You'll learn why.”

“Is there anything we can do for you before you go, Anko-sensei?” Haku would be polite until the very end.

Anko looked thoughtful, “Well, I'd have you buy me all the dango you could afford, but sadly, I have a mission debriefing to give the Hokage. Later boys!”

She stalked down the street, her overcoat swaying slowly in the light breeze. Naruto slipped the bag off of his shoulders and stretched his arms over his head, with a yawn loud enough to wake the dead.

Gaara stood next to them silently. He had scarcely said a word on the return journey, not that he usually had much to say at all. The mission had altered his behavior and hopefully it was only a temporary side-effect.

“Let’s ditch this crap back at home and then get something to EAT!” Naruto decided loudly, grabbing his bag and taking off without an answer. Haku scurried after him, begging him to slow down before his feet were eroded away to nothing. Gaara followed a fair distance behind them with only half a mind.


At noon, Team 2 was bathed and redressed, settling down at Ichiraku Ramen for lunch, when a familiar, aged face trudged up the sidewalk looking utterly defeated.

“Ah, Ero-sensei! They let you out of jail already? Anko-sensei was way cooler!” Naruto smirked, and watched as the toad hermit dejectedly took a seat between Gaara and Haku.

“I was never in jail, I got booked at headquarters.” Jiraiya muttered, “But it would've been preferable...”

Naruto chuckled maniacally, “Ooh, someone's moody!”

The statement captured Gaara's attention, “Preferable?”

Jiraiya nodded and Ayame came by with Naruto, Haku and Gaara's orders. She looked at the sennin curiously, “Would you like something Gama-sennin?”

“I'll take whatever you got, I don't care.” He mumbled.

She nodded and returned to the back of the kitchen. Haku felt a small amount of worry for the sennin, wondering what had made him so miserable, “What's wrong sensei?”

“What's wrong? What's wrong? It's terrible I tell you! Hokage-sama was too harsh on me this time! Oh! The complete humiliation...” The sennin wailed, burying his face in his hands.

Gaara frowned, “Now you're being dramatic.”

Naruto nodded while slurping his beef ramen, “Yeah, Gaara-kun's right. Pull yourself together you pansy!” Haku chuckled but muffled himself with a sip of ginseng tea.

Jiraiya frowned, “It was one tiny slip up and now my life is in total disarray! Jail is more merciful than these conditions!”

“You stay out of prison on what conditions? What did you get?” Haku prompted, knowing they were quickly losing interest.

“Just probation really...but it's horrible! My publisher postponed my book! Four months!" His students cringed, wondering how he would cope, “Community service is also gonna eat up all my time! It's cruel...”

“Maybe if you weren't such a lecher you wouldn't have these problems.” Gaara pointed out, and his friends nodded solemnly.

Ayame returned with a bowl of noodles and Jiraiya selected a pair of chopsticks from a dispenser half-heartedly after thanking her.

“Yeah, well, enough of your problems! We had to fight a friggin jounin for the past three days!” Naruto barked, finishing his ramen.

Jiraiya raised his eyebrows, “What are you talking about?”

“While you were gone, Anko-sensei believed we were ready for a C-rank mission, so Hokage-sama obliged us,” Haku clarified, “But it proved to be much more dangerous than that. Our client was targeted by Mist shinobi and-”

“Yeah, yeah, so what about this jounin?” The sage went straight to the point.

Haku explained the story from start to finish; from the Demon Brothers, to the Hyoton, to the climactic battle on the bridge with Momochi Zabuza.

Naruto would occasionally add in a detail or two while Gaara listened as he ate. Jiraiya listened quietly and narrowed his eyes during some of the more dangerous parts. When Haku had finished narrating, the sennin spoke.

“I don't think I should have to tell you this Haku, but make sure you watch your back from here on out,” Jiraiya advised after a big slurp of noodles, “That nukenin Zabuza is one of Seven Shinobi Swordsmen of Mist, in other words, bad news for anyone associated with them. It seems he's only interested in you because of your Hyoton.”

“But why Haku-kun? I mean, he knew about other people from his clan, so why just Haku?” Naruto wondered.

The sennin thought about it, “I can't say for sure, there could be many reasons. Possibly because Haku is young and, no offense kid, can still be easily manipulated,” Haku didn't mind, “Or because this clan, er, Haku's clan, is not very sociable in the ways of a shinobi these days. The war had a heavy toll on the great clans of the Water Country so they aren't exactly what you'd call ninja-friendly.”

“I'm glad for that,” Haku said quietly, “They...well, I don't want what's left of my family to be involved in these things, even if I'll never get to meet them.”

Naruto patted his back soothingly and Gaara offered him a sympathetic look.

Jiraiya sighed, feeling the boy's pain and then turned to the blonde, “Oh and Naruto, it's upsetting to hear that not once have you summoned anything during that mission. What were you waiting for? An invitation?”

Naruto had begun work on his fourth bowl, “Oh...well, not really,” He chuckled, “I guess it never really crossed my mind. Next mission, I promise! I'll call a few toads...but they aren't very good fighters anyway...”

“Oh yeah?” Jiraiya was defensive, “Well maybe if you practiced more often you'd actually do something worthwhile with your summoning! Honor that contract I gave you!”

“Why do you care so much old man?” Naruto snorted, just to test his patience, but was also curious.

Jiraiya was about to snap out an answer, but thought better of it, "Just...practice, will you?"

Naruto nodded, “Sure, just chill out Ero-sensei. You make it sound like I've never gotten around to summoning Gamabunta or something...”

Gaara and Haku smirked at Jiraiya's stunned face.

After composing himself, the sennin managed to ask with some aplomb, “So…you have summoned the toad boss after all! How did he take to you the first time?"

Naruto shrugged, “Eh...he only tried to kill me. It wasn't so bad.”


“What was the outcome of your mission today?”

Hinata looked up with an expression similar to a deer being caught in the headlights. She sat quietly next to her sister and across from her father at a small, mahogany table, sipping tea with her head bowed. The shy girl had been desperately hoping her father wouldn't pay her any attention at all, but how could he not after the Hyuga clan heir had returned from her first C-rank mission?

She swallowed, “It was a success, father.”

Hanabi raised an eyebrow imperceptibly, trying to disguise her astonishment as interest. Her elder sister was well known for her absurdly gentle ways and many of her D-rank missions had poor results that only, 'tarnished the Hyuga name.'

Hiashi said nothing else and Hinata had trouble telling if he actually cared what had transpired during her mission, so long as it was a success. It was a fact that stung her deeply.

She had been training extensively ever since she had achieved genin rank, hoping that in some insane way her father would be proud of her. However it slowly began to dawn on her, over the years, that she had made herself a hopeless rival: none other than her cousin, Hyuga Neji. He was beyond compare in skill and she had no hope of diverting her father's attention away from the prodigy unless she somehow became Hokage (highly unlikely, but not impossible, Naruto-kun could give her some pointers), or if she died an honorable death while completing her mission.

If the mission failed, well, her death wouldn't count as much.

But whatever the case, she felt stunted, almost harassed by all of these expectations coming from her father, sister, her clan, and how could one forget? The entire village, who would lose any and all respect for the most powerful clan in Konoha if, heaven forbid, she became the leader of the family.

And somehow she managed to live her life without expressing these hardships to anyone, not even to her friends. It was bottled up, or rather, locked up inside of the deepest confines of her soul because the last thing a respectful member of the Hyuga family would do is complain.

She never complained because she rarely found her voice. When she did, it was quiet and polite. It made her want to scream, but that would be contradictory. Maybe Gaara-kun could help her learn how to be sarcastic and mean. Naruto-kun was also very vocal so he could help.

Though the outlook for that didn't look good.

'I'll find my own way to make my life worthwhile. I can still be strong...somehow...'

“Onee-san,” Hinata snapped out of her thoughts, “You haven't said anything about your teammates. They say they're both young men from our fellow clans. What are they like?”

Hiashi didn't appear interested and sipped his tea, while Hanabi watched her sister expectantly, wanting the dirt on any up-and-coming talent among the shinobi clans of Konoha. Hinata swallowed again, collecting her thoughts.

“My teammates they...they are b-both quite strong,” Her father took another sip of jasmine tea, listening with some eerie sort of detachment, “Shino-kun is of the Aburame clan...”

“You mean those people who use insects to do their bidding?” Hanabi looked slightly disgusted, “A real ninja wouldn't need such tiny creatures to fight for them! Real ninja stand on their own two feet.”

“But Shino-kun does fight on his own,” She protested weakly, “He uses his Kikaichu insects most often for collecting information and for disabling his opponents.” Hinata raised her eyes, “I think it is very impressive.”

Hanabi ignored the retort, “What about the other? The Hatake?”

Hiashi paused briefly while pouring himself some more tea.

Hinata tried to grasp the words to form a description of him, “He is...unique. Sato-kun has a remarkable talent for traps and Genjutsu. I have seen his chakra circulatory system with my Byakugan a few times during training and his chakra is...quite different than anything I've ever seen.”

“It is the white chakra of the Hatake clan,” Hiashi clarified simply and she bowed her head sheepishly at her lack of knowledge, “He, I assume, is the Copy Ninja's nephew. They possess an unusual white chakra that can be channeled through certain weapons.”

Hanabi looked intrigued, but Hinata wasn't very keen on exposing the secrets of her teammates' families. Looking into her empty tea cup for a brief moment she wished she could escape somehow but then sat up straighter, brushing her thoughts aside.

“Father, may I be excused?”

He inclined his head slightly in what she took as an affirmative, before standing up, and silently exited the tea room. It was amazing how restless her own family made her feel, and there were times she yearned for another family that would only expect her best rather than perfection during her career as a shinobi...or even in general.

She stepped lightly in the hall, passing by a few of her indirect relatives; some cousins a few times removed, and gave them a small, shy word of greeting before moving on. Hinata glanced outside an open door and saw the sun was sinking beneath the horizon in an explosion of orange and pink.

It made her smile unconsciously and she kept walking, wondering when Naruto, Gaara and Haku would return from their mission. A small chirping noise caught her attention once she turned a corner and she looked around to see if a bird had strayed inside the compound again.

Hinata saw nothing but the soft chirping persisted, and she was grateful the hall was empty because she looked like a damn fool turning in all directions searching for the sound's origin. Absently she looked down at the hardwood floor beneath her bare feet and her eyes widened when a tiny string of color lined up beside the wall, red and yellow.

She knelt down, perplexed and awed all at once. Tiny, colorful toads had somehow infiltrated the Hyuga compound, chirping blithely with those cute, beady eyes. Immediately fearing for their lives if they stayed any longer out in the open, she followed the trail down the hall, gently lifting each minute creature and cradling them in the palm of her hand while they sang carelessly.

The final toad, a bright, lemon yellow was scooped into her palm and she sighed in relief that she hadn't been caught by any other residents. Much to her surprise, she had reached her destination. In fact, it was suspicious that the little critters had lined up and lead her down the path straight to the door of her own bedroom.

Hinata opened the door quickly and went inside, shutting it behind her while her whole hand was chirping. Her room was quiet. She had activated the Byakugan just to make sure no more of the darn little things had strayed into her room and could quite possibly become victims of her own foot.

“Hey, Hinata-chan, what took you so long?”

Startled, she looked up, making sure not to drop any of her precious cargo. On her windowsill sat Naruto, looking very pleased with himself. 'I didn't leave that window open.' Hinata thought to herself before acknowledging that he was a ninja and that infiltration was a common ability.

“I...j-just came back from a mission, Naruto-kun.” She answered quietly, setting the small, autumn-colored toads down and watched them hop across her bed like splashes of magic paint.

For a long moment he balanced on the pane outside her window, looking thoughtful. She feared, irrationally however, that he could possibly fall and break his neck, “Please come in, Naruto-kun.”

“Don't mind if I do!” He bounced inside, grinning.

It wasn't the first time he had snuck into the Hyuga estate. He actually had been doing it regularly for several years, but this was the first time he had ever laid bait for someone who lived there...namely Hyuga Hinata. She sat cautiously on the side of her bed and admired the red and yellow dots scampering across it.

Naruto raised an eyebrow at her, “Er, I'm just curious Hinata-chan, but why did you bring all those little guys with you?”

She blushed, answering honestly, “Well, I think they're sweet and I didn’t want anyone to s-step on them...”

He laughed loudly and she feared he'd alert someone of the main house, or even worse, her father to his presence. There was no reaction so she relaxed. The blonde took a seat on the floor, carpeted, because she disliked cold floors and fiddled with a medical scroll that had been forgotten there. She frowned. She'd have to clean her room even though it was already anal-retentively well-kept.

“Hinata-chan they can't get hurt, they're summoned!” His grin widened, “You worry too much!”

And just like that, Naruto had the tiny, chirping, spots of color disappear in many small puffs of smoke. Her heart fluttered, wondering if he intentionally wanted to make it feel romantic or if she was being ridiculous once again because of his close proximity. She'd analyze it later.

“Yes, I was being silly I suppose...” She admitted, wishing he had left them, “But, um...your mission!” Her voice squeaked and he chuckled at her, “How did you and Gaara-kun and Haku-kun do? Was it successful?” Hinata paused, not liking how she sounded like her father, “I mean, what happened?”

He stood up, ”See, that's why I came here. Let's get some ramen and I'll tell you how awesome it was!”

In a few hours her father would be expecting her at dinner and she still hadn't finished reading a scroll pertaining to advanced forms of healing jutsu that Haku had given her for her birthday. But that smile and those eyes...

“I'd like that Naruto-kun.” She smiled back, also standing and followed him out the window, asking him how he had gotten those adorable toads into the mansion.

Maybe her father wouldn't notice she was missing.

Chapter Text

Chapter Soundtrack: “81 Summer” by Uyama Hiroto

“You three will be training without me this morning,” Jiraiya muttered, lighting his pipe, “And most likely the morning after that...and the one after that and so on.”

“How long does your probation last, sensei?” Haku was the only one of the genin present to offer sympathy to their instructor that morning, and he shot an irritated look to both Naruto and Gaara who stood next to him, looking half-asleep.

“I already told you, four months...quit rubbing it in...” The toad hermit took a drag, depression written all over his face.

“Yeah, well, you have fun Ero-sensei, we'll be seeing you.” Naruto turned and wandered away down the sidewalk. Gaara followed suit.

Jiraiya snorted as his less enthusiastic students walked off, yawning and grumbling. He looked down at Haku who stood silently in front of him waiting to be properly dismissed.

“Get going Haku, and make sure they actually do something productive today.” The sennin sighed as the dark haired boy nodded obediently.

“Is there anything I can do for you sensei?”

Haku's unfailing politeness was beginning to get on his nerves, but Jiraiya decided it was better than listening to Naruto whine, or Gaara not say anything.

“Not unless you can convince Hokage-sama to get me off the hook,” Haku looked sheepish and Jiraiya smiled, “Just go kid. I'll tough it out.”

Haku nodded again looking a bit torn and followed after the rest of Team 2.

With a heartfelt sigh, Jiraiya turned on his heal and walked in the opposite direction, wishing he had something a bit stronger to smoke.

Something in his gut told him this day would be odd.


The first piece of evidence supporting Jiraiya's prediction appeared when Naruto, Haku and Gaara arrived at the fourth training ground, only to find that it was already occupied. Apparently another team had gotten there first.

He wondered what Haku and Gaara's reactions had been to the intrusion, so he glanced over to them to check. Haku was smiling beside him, predictably. It seemed as if he already knew who had taken over their field and he didn't look the least bit upset. Gaara was silent and folded his arms mechanically. Unlike Haku, he seemed slightly more irritated; but then again, Gaara was always irritated by something.

“Hey!” Still, Naruto was dismayed by the intrusion, “We were early today! Who got here before us?”

A black haired woman turned to him, frowning, “We did. These training areas are for all Leaf shinobi to use, I am sure you are aware.”

He was intimidated enough to fail to come up with one of his smart-ass retorts. Thankfully, he didn't have to, because two familiar faces appeared from behind the formidable young woman.

“N-Naruto-kun?”

The blonde brightened considerably. The shy Hyuga girl gave him a questioning look and beside her stood Shino, who was gently holding a small Kikai insect up to his face, murmuring orders to it.

“Hinata-chan, what are you doing here? I thought you and your team would practice somewhere...” Naruto looked around at the beaten, sparsely grass-covered ground and battered training posts that screamed abuse, “Somewhere...nicer.”

Gaara snorted from behind his blonde friend. He'd be impressed if there was any place nice to train in Konoha. Shinobi tended to be destructive, at least, from his point of view.

“Our usual location is under construction,” Kurenai said matter-of-factly, “Homes are being built there for citizens of Konoha. I'm sure you'll forgive us for imposing on your space.”

“Certainly.” Haku fell silent as his teammates gave him warning looks. Not as if sharing a spot of land with Hinata and her team would be a terribly bad thing, but they'd rather not expose their techniques to other ninja. Furthermore, this vulnerability would be exploited by Shino and Sato beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Hinata was trustworthy enough for them to relax.

'Then again,' Naruto viewed it from a different perspective, 'We'd be watching them fight too! So I guess this is a good thing for both of us...unless that red-eyed lady kicks us off our own field!'

It was quiet for a long moment. Kurenai's ruby stare was fixed on Naruto who tolerated it. Both teams stood facing each other, getting absolutely nothing done.

'Did they come here just to stand around?' Haku pondered as Shino had finished briefing his insect servants and looked up at them impassively.

“What exactly are you doing here?” Gaara's question was directed at Shino, though it was meant for the entirety of Team 8.

“Waiting.” Shino's response was terse and disapproving, which reminded Gaara much of his own voice, he noted in wonderment.

Kurenai frowned again. Her eyes narrowed, but her gaze was still inconspicuously set on Naruto, who was still oblivious to his being watched. Haku was the first to speak up about the missing individual.

“Does Sato-kun usually keep you waiting this long?” The dark haired boy asked and watched curiously as both Shino and Kurenai's brows furrowed in annoyance.

“Oh right! He's on your team now!” Naruto remembered, quite vocally.

“This is about the average amount of time,” The jounin muttered darkly, “Every minute he is late adds to the amount of discipline he will be rewarded with.”

“Rewarded?” Gaara pressed the subject further.

“Hinata and I attack him and he is restricted from defending himself.” Shino explained. Hinata cringed a little. It wasn't a punishment she liked engaging in.

“Harsh...” Naruto folded his arms behind his head casually, “But he probably deserves it, wherever he is...”

Hinata and Haku gave him a look of slight disapproval before silently agreeing with his reasoning.

“The only issue is that Sato does not learn from his mistakes,” Kurenai's tone was icy, “He does not understand that his lateness only grants him pain. It is his most flawed characteristic as a shinobi.”

Shino nodded in agreement.

“I think Sato-kun is a wonderful shinobi.” Hinata's protest was soft, “Even if he d-does need some improvement...”

“Sure he is,” Naruto shrugged, “He's kinda like us I guess,” He gestured to his teammates who didn't bother to disagree, “We're not perfect, but we still kick ass!”

Kurenai raised a fine eyebrow at him.

Haku began to feel the pressure of Jiraiya's request of 'actually doing something productive,' and noted how not much was getting done so far.

“We can go find another place to train then, it's the least we can do,” Haku offered, looking to his teammates who once again, didn't care either way, “Consider this your new training ground.”

“Thank you, Haku,” Kurenai brandished a small smile, “You certainly do have more manners than your sensei.” Her students gave her confused looks, but Haku and his teammates understood.

“We try.” Gaara muttered, nodding to them before walking away. Haku gave the other team a short farewell before also moving to leave.

He turned back to the Kyuubi container, “Naruto-kun, aren't you coming?”

The blonde shook his head, “Not yet. I'll catch up with you guys later.”

Haku nodded before turning to find another suitable training area with Gaara. Naruto was seemingly still hung up on their previous subject.

“So uh, where does he go every morning anyway?”

“We're not quite sure,” Hinata admitted, “Sato-kun is...difficult to track. If we knew where he was, we'd go find him ourselves.”

“It's not right for him to just keep you all waiting. I mean, even Gaara-kun sleeps in, but not this late...” Haku's gentlemanly-ways were beginning to rub off on him, Naruto suspected, “I'll go find him for you and then you can beat the snot out of him!”

If you find him.” Shino pointed out.

“Naruto, it isn't as if we're asking you to take time out of your training with your team.” Kurenai added, wondering if he'd be swayed from his offer.

“Hey, if I'm going to be Hokage I can't let bums like him hold people up all the time,” Naruto smiled, “No sweat! I'll get him for you!”


“Where the hell is he?”

At first it hadn't seemed like such a difficult task: locating a strange, slothful, pocky-loving ninja and dragging him back to his team for a well-deserved beating. In his days at the Academy, Naruto had only known Sato as that type of person.

Now he wasn't so sure. Was he being evasive deliberately? Or was he simply that difficult to track? It was only a quarter past eight in the morning and Naruto was sure that Sato's interests didn't extend far beyond sweets, photo-worthy events and causing mischief.

Therefore he had searched many of the sweet shops around town, places that were related to media and photography, the Ninja Academy, hell...he had even checked around the girl's locker rooms, only to be chased off the premises violently.

After so many failures in such a short span of time he had deemed this errand ridiculous and even considered giving up.

But he had so nobly volunteered to find the bastard and even brought his vow of becoming Hokage into the matter...and what would Hinata-chan say if he let her down?

'She'd probably just say I did my best and that she doesn't mind...' His mind supplied wryly, 'But the point is I won't be doing my best! That's inexcusable! How can I become Hokage if I can't track some stupid guy down?' He frowned to himself, 'But if I keep looking, I'll be at this all day...'

He took a moment to consider his options from his perch on top of a high flagpole in the center of the village. After a few minutes of thought, he decided to continue on, but from a different approach.

'So...he's not at any of the places where he's supposed to be...' Naruto felt like Haku on a scavenger-hunt (i.e. unstoppable), 'If I was slacking off where would I be?'

His brain instantly supplied an answer.

The correct answer.


“This should be the place...” Naruto passed by an old weaponry forge and looked up at the small apartment building to the left of it. The place was fairly new, he supposed, but smaller than the building he, Gaara and Haku lived in.

The blonde decided to scale the building, rather than marching inside and promptly being thrown out by its residents. He moved quietly, watchfully, not wanting to overlook his target, 'Doesn't he live on the third floor? Second maybe?'

Cautiously, he peeked inside windows, looking for anything that resembled a ninja's abode. He did see one with a number of kunai strewn all over the floor, and went inside through the unlocked window.

“Is this it?” He asked himself uncertainly. Something was out of place. After a quick look around he realized that no one was home, and more importantly, it was a kunoichi's apartment. He noticed the feminine clothes lying around.

He left in a hurry, trying not to leave any evidence of his presence.

A few windows down he was finally successful. Grinning, he positioned himself on the ledge outside said window, trying to get a better look inside of the place, “Well, that took long enough!”

In the apartment his assumption had been proven correct as a bleary-eyed, barely-conscious ninja in red boxers stumbled around yawning, trying to prepare himself for the day. The silver hair was unmistakable.

'What a lazy ass! He's been sleeping all this time!'

Sato slowly entered a cramped bathroom and brushed his teeth, totally unaware of his being watched. Naruto rolled his eyes in boredom from his vantage point as the door closed and he heard the sound of a shower being turned on, as well as the loud, out of tune whistling that followed thereafter.

'This is gonna take forever...'

Approximately three minutes and forty-eight seconds later the water stopped running and the door opened abruptly. 'That was fast...awah-!' Naruto wasn't quite prepared for the nudity that met his eyes and he fell back from his perch, falling several feet and landed painfully on another rooftop on his back, 'Ugh my eyes! That guy is such a retard!'

After recovering from his fall Naruto stood up and brushed himself off, reasserting his sanity. He waited a minute or two before returning to his roost. By that time, thankfully, Sato was redressed and Naruto relaxed, but was still irked at the fact that he had been so caught off-guard. The silver haired nin strolled a few paces out of what appeared to be his bedroom and into a tiny kitchen, still whistling a preposterous tune.

It took Naruto a moment to realize he was making coffee, being that Sato's actions were so sporadic and unpredictable that he could have just as easily been playing hopscotch.

'Now I see why he annoys Hinata-chan's team so much...'

Almost normally, Sato poured coffee into a mug waiting on the counter and he didn't bother to fetch anything to fix it with. What caught Naruto off-guard again was when the silver haired ninja seemed to instantly forget about the cup he had poured himself and took a sip from the pot. Shortly afterwards he remembered the mug and finished it off.

'...weirdo...'

Afterwards he stretched his arms high over his head. Sato turned around for the next part of his morning, once again his usual perky old self. Naruto briefly wondered if the reason for his liveliness was his consumption of caffeine.

The silver haired boy bounced over to a cabinet and opened it, revealing organized, stacked boxes of... 'Pocky? Is that all he eats?'

Whistling a slightly more bearable tune, Sato placed the box of strawberry flavored pocky into a pouch without shuriken and moved on to a small desk obscured by papers, scrolls, numerous photographs and rolls of film.

Five minutes of arduous deliberation later, Sato selected two rolls of film and also placed them in a pouch reserved for 'not pointy’ things.

“Alright!” He exclaimed and then nodded to himself.

He walked around in a small circle before ending his whistling and moved on, beyond Naruto's line of sight.

'What's he doing now? Sheesh, if he was on my team I definitely would have killed him by now...'

“Naruto?”

The blonde's head snapped left and right and saw only an endless sea of buildings. He was fairly certain he heard someone nearby call his name but one could never be too sure.

“Down here.”

Naruto did look down and on a tiled rooftop adjacent to the building he had been peeking into was another lazy shinobi.

“Oh, it's just you Shikamaru.” He commented pleasantly and then continued his spying.

“Naruto, what are you doing?”

Again, the blonde looked down at the Nara, a frown of concentration plastered to his face.

“I'm trying to figure out what the hell that lazy ass has been doing, so quit distracting me,” He paused, “Uh...what are you doing?”

“Resting.”

Obviously that's what it looked like; laying back leisurely and staring at the passing clouds. Naruto knew better by now.

“Pft, sure...you and Sato, both of you are good-for-nothing bums who lay around and don't bother helping their teams! I can't believe you're a shinobi!”

“...likewise.”

Naruto gave him a well-measured glare before turning back to the window.

“Who'd you say you were looking for?”

“That other lazy idiot, Sato.”

“You mean that guy down there?”

Naruto jumped and looked down at the street below where his target was turning a corner, once again whistling another absurd song, 'How'd he get passed me without me not noticing that heinous noise he's making?'

“Ah! I gotta go!” Naruto leapt onto a clothes line and raced along to another roof, knocking a few helpless garments into the air. Shikamaru only sighed and went back to his vigilant cloud watching.


Sato, en route to joining his team, decided to stop and get some breakfast first. He stepped off an empty street and into a small, dimly lit diner which only had three people inside including the waitress and chef.

As he had done countless times before he settled down at a booth where someone was already seated eating eggs while reading.

“You come in here this early just so no one will see you eat? You're not that ugly you know.” Sato sat down across from his temporarily de-masked uncle, who didn't bother to look up at him.

“It's not really my insecurities that reduce me to this, Sato-kun,” Kakashi sighed, “I do have to find a place where I can waste three hours reading before going to meet my genin.”

“I see your point. No one else would come into this dump, the food is terrible,” The waitress who was wiping down a nearby table huffed at him and he grinned innocently back at her, “So um, maybe you'll buy some breakfast for your beloved nephew today?”

“No. Last I heard you make your own living as a full shinobi now, am I right?" Kakashi chuckled and then took another bite of egg.

“You of all people should know how little genin make on missions around here!” Sato replied sourly, helping himself to an untouched rice ball on Kakashi's plate and he didn't protest.

Sato finished it in three famished bites and then looked up at a clock above the doorway, “Hm, time-check is...whoa, you've only got twenty minutes left before your precious three-hours-of-doing-nothing is up...better make em' count!”

The young silver haired ninja stood and before leaving turned back to his uncle, “I've gotta go drop off my film now. Oh and...thanks for breakfast.”

“...don't mention it.”


After dropping off his most recent film to be developed and walking out of the pharmacy, Sato paused and glanced over to a livid-looking ninja in orange.

“Hey, Naruto-kun! You're up early!” A fist closed around the collar of the silver haired boy's shirt.

“Yes, to you, I guess you'd call this early,” Naruto muttered, while dragging him along, “But after all the trouble you put me through this morning I hope Shino kicks the crap out of you...”

“Hey, why are you so mad? Since when do you care how late I am? And what's this about Shino...oh no,” He tried to pull back from Naruto's iron grip and failed fantastically, “Um, you know...Shino's really uptight about me not showing up on time for training and uh...oh look! A monkey!”

The angry blonde didn't bother looking up.

Sato sighed in defeat and walked alongside Naruto casually, which was preferable to being dragged. “Yeah...I guess monkeys don't really live around here do they? Oh well, you caught me...time for my morning beating.”


“Hi everyone! Sorry I slept in late this morning and then Naruto found me and there was this monkey too, so...” Sato ended his excuse, “Um, that's why I'm...late...?”

“I'm sure,” Kurenai sighed, watching as Naruto marched past her straight up to Hinata to earn his praise, “Today you will only be sparring with Hinata.”

“Why just Sunshine?” Sato looked genuinely baffled, “Don't you want Shino to strangle me too, sensei?”

“I have judged from that black eye you are sporting,” Sato pointed questioningly at his left eye where Naruto had promptly punched him after telling a rude joke on the way over, and Kurenai nodded, “That Naruto has given you enough discipline of that sort for the day. Hinata's Jyukken will be just as effective for taming your morning habits.”

He smiled, “Yes, I agree!”

Shino looked thoroughly disappointed, a feature which Kurenai did not overlook.

She turned to Naruto, who was retelling his capture of the young Hatake, “Naruto, thank you for retrieving our lost lamb. It is no simple task. Why don't you stay and train with us for the day?”

Naruto looked to her thoughtfully, “Hm, I don't know...Gaara-kun and Haku-kun won't survive long without me.”

“Maybe j-just for a little while then?” Hinata's hopeful squeak was nearly inaudible.

After a short moment, he grinned, “Well...okay!”

“I will be your opponent then.” Shino stepped forward and Naruto took a step back.

“Eh...no thank you. I'm kind of only here because-”

“Your reasons are of no concern of mine,” Shino cut him off, “Hinata and Sato have already begun their training,” Naruto glanced over to where Hinata had taken an offensive position and activated her Byakugan, “You will fight me or Kurenai-sensei.”

“Alright, alright! Sheesh. Sato was right...” Naruto pulled a kunai out of his holster and rolled his eyes, “You really are wound up tight, aren't you?”

Kurenai frowned, wondering if Naruto was fully prepared to be the outlet for the young Aburame's impatience. Her concern faded after seeing Naruto spring away from a cloud of Kikai insects and counterattack. Nearby Sato evaded a near-perfect Gentle Fist strike and planted a counter-kick to Hinata's stomach, sending her crashing to the ground.

Kurenai was not the only one who noticed.

“You bastard!”

Sato's right eye also fell victim to Naruto's fist and with a wail of confusion and pain, the silver haired boy fell backwards. He didn't bother to get up for fear of being hit again, “Ugh...what did I do now, Naruto?” He was again genuinely curious, 'Why does he hate me today?'

“You can't hit Hinata-chan!” Naruto snarled as Sato watched small, shiny orange stars orbit his head. Kurenai only sighed to herself.

Hinata had regained her feet and restrained the flailing 'fist of justice' that was about to reconnect with her dazed teammate, “Naruto-kun, please! It's alright! We were only sparring!”

He looked at her for a long moment, “You were...? Oh.” Naruto then looked at the boy flat on his back at his feet, “Er, sorry about that. I kind of overreacted.”

“Yeah I get it...but just stop hitting me will you? You're freakishly strong.” Sato stood, rubbing his newly-swollen eye.

Hinata offered Naruto the most understanding look she could muster before saying, “I'll let Sato-kun rest and then maybe...you two can train together when he's ready. I will go spar with Shino-kun now, if that's alright?”

Naruto snuck a glance at Shino who was as impatient as ever, but couldn't help but feel somewhat left out. He had noticed that for the last six years he had been Hinata's first choice in most activities, 'I guess it's something I'll have to stop taking for granted now. She's got a new team and new friends...maybe she'll replace me?'

“It's fine.” He forced a smile. With a tiny nod she walked over to Shino and Sato chuckled loudly, suddenly aware of what was happening.

Naruto gave him another scowl, “What are you laughing at?”

The silver haired boy smirked, “Oh nothing! It's just that I don't think it's very fair of you to just butt in like that, Naruto-kun. Sunshine is my favorite sparring partner after all...” And as an afterthought, 'Why wouldn't she be? Shino hates my ever-loving guts.'

“Stop calling her that! Her name is Hinata! Hi-na-ta! Got it?” Naruto snapped, trying his best not to hit him again, “Why are you always so familiar with her anyway?”

“We're just close friends. But you know what?” Sato lowered his voice and smiled devilishly, “I think she likes me!”

Naruto gagged at the idea before regaining his composure. He asked with a fairly large amount of hostility, “Who in their right mind would like a person like you?”

“Hmm...” He smirked again, “I would!”


“Team 13?” Gaara asked as he followed Haku down a trail leading to what Haku had claimed to be 'a welcome place for them to train.'

“Yes. You remember, Tenten's team.” Haku clarified, smiling to himself.

Gaara frowned. He wasn't in the mood for sharing a training area this morning at all, and where the hell was Naruto? Maybe if his blonde friend was around he'd be able to talk Haku out of this folly and find an unoccupied place.

But no, Haku always had to choose the social route. It bothered Gaara to no end.

And before Gaara could think of another complaint they had stepped out into a clearing that looked as if a violent bomb had gone off: pulverized trees and posts, discarded weaponry and craters everywhere one looked. Initially, Gaara only saw one person; a tall, long-haired boy who at first he failed to recognize, until he turned around to face them with piercing white eyes.

Two other ninja appeared as well; one from the air and the other from a vertical yet, battered-looking log that was a receiving a thorough beating.

“I hope you don't mind if we train with you today,” Haku called as they approached, “We've been deprived of our training area.”

“Not at all, Haku-kun!” Gaara's ears hurt from a cry that was equal to Naruto's in volume, “Oh! Who is this with you?”

Haku stepped aside to give Lee, Tenten and Neji a better look at the newcomer.

“This is my teammate Gaara and Naruto-kun is not with us at the moment. He may show up eventually...” Haku introduced, “And this is Lee, Tenten, and you already know Neji.”

Gaara gave a short nod but was no longer frowning.

“It is a true pleasure to meet one of Haku-kun's dear friends!” Lee had somehow gotten a hold of one of Gaara's hands and shook it enthusiastically, “It would be an honor if I could test myself against one of the geniuses of Konoha!”

Gaara gave him a confused look, “I wouldn't call myself a genius.”

“Ha! So modest!”

Haku sighed as Gaara gave him a fierce glare before being led away to a place where he and Lee could compare their skills. Obviously Lee's first impression of Gaara had been a good one.

And Tenten's impression, well, she had seen Gaara once before, she had even heard him shout. But that was about it. Her opinion of him so far was somewhat accurate, 'Well, if fierce, artic eyes and crimson hair don't scream badass nothing will...'

Neji's current thoughts were indecipherable and maybe it was for the best.

Haku hadn't mentioned it to Gaara on their way over, that he hadn't exactly chosen Team Gai's training area for its mere convenience. He procured two ninja-tool scrolls from his gi, which he had recently acquired and turned back to Tenten, who was scurrying around the field retrieving her fallen kunai.

“Tenten, I have something for you.” She looked over to Haku incredulously but quickly hid her surprise with a bright smile.

“Really?” Tenten trotted over to him. Her excitement was not well hidden. It had been a while since she had been given a gift of any kind.

He handed her both scrolls and she gave him a look of deep gratitude, “Thanks a lot! I'm pretty sure I know what these are, or I'll find out soon enough...” He smiled at her when she asked, “Where did you get these? These aren't like any weapons scrolls I've seen.”

'I'm glad for that too. If she were wielding weapons this powerful on a regular basis her sensei would have a fit...' Haku didn't feel like admitting he had a talent for stealing high-level scrolls at the moment, “I don't think you should worry about where they're from. You just make sure you use them well.”

Neji, a few feet away, raised an eyebrow at him, guessing that he had obtained them by less-than-legal means. Still he felt no reason to object. If Tenten began utilizing more dangerous weapons during training she'd be more of a challenge to him.

Tenten shrugged and tucked the scrolls away. Nearby there was a shout and they looked over to see Lee running around Gaara in circles, trying to evade the cloud of sand hovering in the air.

Haku chuckled to himself, “I don't know what good taijutsu will do against Gaara-kun. His defense is nearly perfect.”

Neji looked intrigued, “If his defense isn't perfect then that means it can be penetrated,” He wore a small smirk, “Lee's taijutsu may not be able to break through that sand, but mine will.”

Haku took a moment to consider Neji's outstanding abilities and how he would try to defeat Gaara if they ever met in battle. The image in his head was a bit unnerving and he decided that it would be better to not explore the depths of that deadly match.

To Haku's slight dismay, Tenten nodded in agreement, “Neji's right. Lee focuses his attacks on the exterior, but I don't think that Gaara will last long after a few blasts of Jyukken, even with all that sand he's got."

True, Haku knew well enough that Gentle Fist was one of the worst pains there was in taijutsu. A few strikes to the stomach or heart could easily and painfully end a fight. 'And closing tenketsu off to manipulate an opponent's chakra seems almost unfair, but then again, I aim for weak points all the time...'

The dark haired boy watched in amusement as Lee leapt off of the sand shield surrounding Gaara in frustration, trying to find a way around his defense. It was then he was reminded of something he had recently developed that pertained to Team 13.

After quickly forming a few short hand seals and murmuring, “Water Gathering Jutsu...” Haku had extracted a fairly large amount of water from the surrounding air, leaving it dry and thin. Both Neji and Tenten who had seen Haku's Kekkei Genkai before watched as the water drifted around him slowly, being held up by only his will and chakra.

“Tenten, there's one more thing I need to show you,” He said, as if preparing for an attack, “You're been an inspiration.”

The kunoichi raised her eyebrows when he crouched down, water circling around him more rapidly. Neji didn't miss the surge of chakra that Haku gave off and even Lee and Gaara had paused in their squabble to have a look at the water manipulator.

“Rising Water Dragons!”

He moved almost too quickly to be seen, as two threads of water, dragon-like in shape twisted to a ridiculous height into the air, past the length Tenten's summoning scrolls could reach. Haku leapt up to the center of the twisting currents. He knew that it would be much easier if there had been a body of water there, rather than him wasting chakra to condense water.

Once he had reached the zenith of the helix, Haku quickly froze the top of the currents into ice, and smirked to himself as vicious shards of ice rained down, of course, away from his audience.

Neji estimated it was an assault he could easily deflect with the Kaiten. Tenten gazed upward wide-eyed, and then frowned to herself, “Now why didn't I think of that? Water is such a better medium!”

Neji gave her a disapproving look to which she quickly added, “I know I don't have some incredibly obnoxious bloodline limit like that, but still...it's cool...”

He shook his head in exasperation, wondering why she would even look beyond her perfectly lethal use of weaponry, especially if a jutsu she favored required a unique Kekkei Genkai.

Not far off Lee was clapping and wooting as Haku had reached the ground again, and the water he had used had all been spent as icicle spears. Gaara merely gave him a favorable look, which Haku equated with the phrase, 'Interesting.'

Of course, Haku wasn't about to get away with his unexpected arrival and his flaunting of abilities; it was something called karma.

“Haku,” The dark haired boy turned as he caught his breath and saw Neji frowning, “Let us see how your skills compare to mine.”

'This can't be good.' Gaara looked on, wondering if Haku would even consider fighting Neji. Even Lee looked upset, most likely because he had never been much of a challenge to the Hyuga prodigy. Their momentary pause ended and Lee immediately went back to evading Gaara's sand.

Haku took a moment to observe Neji. He wondered what it must have been like for him growing up, after Naruto had lead them on that courageous mission to prevent Neji from being endowed with the seal of the Branch Family. Although Naruto had assured them many times over the years that they had done the right thing and that Neji was grateful to them, Haku couldn't help but suspect that things had not gone as well for him as they had believed.

Tenten frowned, “Neji, I don't think that-”

“It's alright,” Haku interrupted her and then nodded to his opponent, “Let's see how much we have improved.”

“Why not just use Ninjutsu?” Gaara asked, bored as Lee continued to run around him in circles, slicing through wisps of sand with a kunai.

Lee's answer was slightly pained, “I can't!”

For a long, agonizing moment, Gaara continued to watch the green clad ninja run remarkably fast, but not enough to completely break through his sand shield. The redhead folded his arms and huffed, not understanding why his opponent was so stubborn.

“You cannot defeat me with only Taijutsu,” Gaara warned finally, raising a hand to fight back, “I will make you change your strategy.”

The sand that had been lazily drifting around Gaara deflecting blows suddenly came to life, lashing out at Lee. It made no sense; how he refused to fight back without substitution, clones or any type of ninjutsu for that matter. It was enough to make Gaara lose his temper, 'He isn't taking me seriously. He thinks I'm just standing around.'

Lee was barely able to evade the wall of sand that came crashing down, but even with this new prospective danger, it was a thrill. Neji often refused to train with him being that he thought himself to be a superior shinobi. It had taken many assurances from his sensei and Tenten for him to realize that Lee was not at all inferior. It was just that Neji was very selective of his opponents and didn't really see Lee as one.

So day after day, he resorted to battling a badly beaten tree stump or his sensei, sometimes even Tenten would stay late just to offer him a sympathy sparring partner.

'But this is different!' Lee couldn't help but grin to himself as he moved faster, evading Gaara's attacks and frustrating him more, 'I am not fighting Gai-sensei or Tenten. I am fighting a very worthy opponent, someone without prejudice towards me! This fight shall determine if I am truly a splendid ninja!'

It was only in a split-second Lee saw his chance and ducked under an oncoming wave of sand before barreling into the red haired shinobi, startling him. Gaara caught his punch, which to his astonishment, was so incredibly strong that it forced him back a number of feet, bruising his shoulder, 'He wasn't even trying to hit me that hard...'

Gaara recovered from his shock and put a wall of sand between himself and Lee to regroup, wondering why Lee wore a grin similar to Naruto's as he wove back, also preparing another assault.

Finally fed up with this preposterous match, Gaara made his furious sand halt and gave Lee a bothered look, “Why are you only using taijutsu? Tell me now.”

Lee also paused and his smile faded, “Ah, I see...my fighting style discourages you?”

“You aren't...doing anything.”

Lee gave Gaara a nearly offended look before grinning again, “Believe me, I am capable of much more! However my abilities, I am afraid, do not extend beyond taijutsu.”

Suddenly, Gaara understood. As absurd as it sounded at first he realized that Lee was indeed taking him seriously, “You mean you can't use Ninjutsu or Genjutsu...at all?” His voice carried with it an air of disbelief.

Lee sighed, “It is true, comrade, I hold no capability for either. Still I am a fierce contender with my taijutsu and youthful spirit, am I not? After all, I am a genius of hard work!”

Gaara was somewhere between annoyed and sympathetic towards Lee. He couldn't imagine what it would feel like to be a ninja incapable of ninjutsu or genjutsu, it just seemed...so utterly hopeless in his opinion.

'What kind of dreams must he have,' Gaara pondered as Lee went on proclaiming his redeeming qualities, 'That make him this strong, despite his weaknesses? It is no easy feat to come this far with sheer will power...'

“Shall we continue our match Gaara-kun?” Lee inquired, still enthused even after admitting his weakness to an opponent.

Gaara nodded to him and smirked, 'A genius of hard work? He may be right.'


“Thanks for treating us to lunch, Naruto-kun!” Sato was beaming as he sat next to Shino and Hinata at Ichiraku Ramen, waiting on their meal.

Naruto gave him a look of contempt, “I'm only treating Hinata-chan, not you!”

Sato gave him a heartbroken look before shrugging, and then turned to Shino, prompting him with a knock-knock joke. Shino gave no response.

“I'm glad you stayed to train with us this morning, Naruto-kun,” Hinata's smile was shy but cheerful, “But d-don't you think you should be going soon to find Gaara-kun and Haku-kun?”

A thoughtful look came over his face before he answered her, “Well, I want to eat lunch first, then I'll go find them. I'm getting kind of tired of finding people today...”

She giggled softly and Ayame came by with their food, not overlooking the Hyuga girl next to the number one customer of Ichiraku Ramen. Truthfully Naruto had a great time training with Hinata's team. He was so used to Haku's by-the-book suggestions and Gaara just standing still deflecting blows that fighting against new people (although he found Sato and Shino insufferably annoying) was very refreshing.

Hinata herself had even trained with him but refused to use Jyukken. She merely tapped him gently when he had been hit, and he would chuckle at her humbleness when she was obviously 'kicking his butt.' Oddly enough, he had found himself to be less rough around her as well. Naruto was used to slugging Gaara and Haku painfully in the face on a regular basis, but with Hinata it was different.

He was more careful and attentive when fighting her, not hitting her nearly as hard as he would one of his teammates. Then again, he assumed it was only natural. She was a girl, smaller and less sturdy than many of the male shinobi he had gotten into fights with, and if he was foolish enough to injure her, his head would be presented to Hiashi on a golden platter.

'Now I see why the lazy idiot likes to train with her so much,' Naruto thought to himself as he slurped down a mouthful of pork ramen, 'Hinata-chan is way strong but she didn't beat the shit out me. I kinda wish...well...I kinda wish that if it couldn't be Haku-kun or Gaara-kun, that maybe she'd be on my team.'

Naruto snuck a fond glance at Hinata as he continued his slurping. She was staring down at her bowl with a nostalgic look, slowly nibbling at noodles held with a pristine delicateness by her chopsticks. 'She's treated like a princess by her clan but...she looks so sad all the time. I wish I knew what I could do about it...'

“Naruto!”

The four genin turned to see Jiraiya approaching, wearing one of his more serious expressions.

Naruto didn't look very pleased to see him, but finished his slurping and gave his attention to his perverted teacher anyway.

“Back already, Ero-sensei?” Naruto asked as the sennin stopped in front of him.

“I had to pull some strings to do it,” He replied tiredly, exhausted from his many of hours of backbreaking community service, “I figured I'd find you here, Naruto. Er, where are your teammates?”

Jiraiya gave a puzzled look to Sato when there was a camera flash. The silver haired boy grinned at him innocently and said nothing.

“Gaara-kun and Haku-kun are...they're somewhere training I guess.” Naruto admitted, he himself wondering what sort of place could occupy them for so long.

The sennin nodded, “Good! There's something I actually needed to talk to you about anyway. We can find those other two knuckleheads later.”

“...we need to talk now, Ero-sennin?”

“Yes, now. And stop calling me that,” Jiraiya hissed, not wanting to be insulted in front of genin that were not his students, “Finish up now.”

Naruto gave him a frustrated look, “Alright, fine, but I don't see what the rush is...” He turned to Team 8, “We definitely have to train together again sometime, and I'll bring Haku-kun and Gaara-kun with me,” Naruto hopped off of his stool and left tab money for himself and Hinata while he gave a foxy grin to the Hyuga heiress, “I'll see you later, Hinata-chan!”

“Goodbye, Naruto-kun...” Her squeak of a response was just barely within his hearing as he turned to follow his instructor, wondering what all the fuss was about.


“What are we doing here, Ero-sensei?” Naruto wasn't very pleased to be lead back to the training area he had spent his entire morning at with Team 8, “Look I just ate sensei, and I'm not really ready for any sparring or stuff like that-”

“I know,” Jiraiya's voice was gruff, “That isn't exactly what I brought you here for kid.”

“Oh?” Naruto raised an eyebrow at his teacher, “Then what are we doing here?”

“Naruto, by now you are aware of the Nine Tailed Fox's chakra within you, are you not?”

“Well...yeah, I know about it. So do Gaara-kun and Haku-kun.”

The sage nodded with a smile, “Of course they would. But Naruto, now I need you to swear that you will not breathe a word of what I am about to tell you to either Haku or Gaara, understood?”

“Why?”

“Just swear it already so I can get on with this!”

Naruto scowled, “What is so important that I can't tell Haku-kun or Gaara-kun? I won't hide anything from them!”

“This technique I'm trying to pass onto you is meant for you and only you,” Jiraiya sighed, “I can't have them jumping on the band-wagon-of-techniques, if you know what I mean!”

“...a new...technique?”

“You heard me! Now swear!”

“I swear.”

The sennin nodded, “Good, now we can begin... As I was saying before, for someone in your position, that is, a vessel of a powerful biju,” Naruto snorted at him in acknowledgment, “Your chakra control is not nearly as bad as it could be...since I happened across you all those years ago.”

“You shouldn't take all the credit for that old man! Haku-kun, Gaara-kun and me, we've been training since long after you left.” Naruto almost wore a hurt expression, but it seemed more annoyed rather than upset. “Now tell me what the heck you brought me here for!”

Jiraiya shrugged, not hiding his smirk, “Well, fine. If you're so eager perhaps it would be much easier if I just showed you.”

Naruto gave him a quizzical look as the sennin marched up to one of Haku's target poles, still lined with senbon that he hadn't extracted from it. He couldn't help but stare in wonder as his mentor raised his hand, revealing a swirling blue light.

'What is that? Chakra? Yeah...but how is he...?'

The blue, spiraling sphere that had materialized in Jiraiya's hand swirled within its self-contained shell, and the legendary ninja smirked to himself before calling back to his student, “Now pay attention, Naruto!”

The blonde nodded absently as he watched, trying to understand what he was witnessing.

“Rasengan!” The sage thrust the sphere of chakra forward, into the pole and shattered it into countless splinters of pathetic wood. Chips of cedar rained down on the field and Naruto felt the hair on the back of his neck stand on end with anticipation.

'I am so gonna figure out how to do that!'

“Well, what do you think, Naruto? You want Haku and Gaara to learn that as well?” Jiraiya turned around, brushing dust from his hands victoriously.

“...not really.”

“I thought so.”

“What did you do? You've got to teach me how to do that sensei!” Naruto was grinning, with his fists clenched in excitement.

“That was the Rasengan: a spiraling sphere of chakra,” Jiraiya stated proudly, “By now, with your ability to walk on water and climb trees with only your chakra, I feel you are ready to begin learning this technique.”

Naruto took a moment to examine the toad hermit's new faith in him, 'The last time I walked on water was at that beach when Haku-kun freaked out...and tree climbing? Psh! This'll be a piece of cake!'

The blonde didn't fail to wonder why his mentor would suddenly entrust him with such a powerful attack. He decided to think on it later.

“So what exactly is the Rasengan?”

“Hm, that's a good question.” Jiraiya scratched his chin thoughtfully, “To sum it up, it is a concentration of chakra which the user spins in many directions, making it self-contained and might I say...” He glanced over to Haku's demolished target, “Very destructive.”

“You're gonna get Haku-kun a replacement target right?”

“Eh? No! He can use trees! His aim isn't half bad anyway...” Jiraiya muttered, “But I digress...the entire function of this technique does not rely on hand seals of any sort. The key is chakra control. Without control, there is no way a shinobi can master this technique.”

“Is that why you had me, Gaara-kun and Haku-kun running up trees when we were little?”

“Nah. It was just funny to watch...” Naruto gave him an irked look, “Sheesh, Naruto! I was joking! To answer your question; no. I had you three working early because, well let's face it: the Kyuubi and the Ichibi aren't what I'd call a picnic chakra-wise. You and Gaara were major concerns in general as to whether or not you had control over yourselves period. Haku…he sort of always has been perfect when it comes to molding chakra, so he doesn't count.”

“So you just taught us that stuff so we'd have better chakra control later...I mean now.” Naruto frowned, “I thought you actually had plans for us! Like you'd look after us or something...”

“Naruto, I'm one of the Legendary Sannin and a very successful novelist. I didn't exactly have time for raising kids,” Jiraiya sighed, “I was old then so try imagining what I feel like now!”

Naruto wondered why he felt so dejected, “...whatever.”

“Look, I'm sorry you three suffered, okay? If it were up to me, I'd string up all the assholes around here by their ankles and let you whack them like piñatas...but unfortunately that isn't the way the world works,” Jiraiya then smirked, “And besides, I did have my reasons for teaching you.”

“I know I'm secretly your favorite student!” Naruto grinned, humor returning to him, “Admit it!”

“Er...yeah. Now shut up so we can move on!” He didn't seem very sincere.

“Right! So it's a spiraling sphere...but...how can you spin chakra like that?” Naruto reverted back to their original subject, much to the toad hermit's relief.

“With practice,” Jiraiya riffled around in his pocket for something other than his research materials and obtained a small bag of deflated, rubber balloons, “You'll focus your chakra into the palm of your hand and spin it.” He procured one balloon and tossed the bag aside without a second thought.

After filling the orange balloon using a water-gathering jutsu, Jiraiya tied a knot and handed it to his baffled pupil, “This will act as an instrument of measure on your progress. The faster your chakra spins, the flatter the balloon gets. Try it out.”

“Spin my chakra... How long do you think this will this take sensei?”

“As long as it needs to,” The sennin answered absently, taking a seat on a nearby stump and retrieving his novel-notes, “Don't expect to get it on your first try, kid. The only way you actually learn something is through practice and hard work. Remember: there's no shortcut to power!”

Naruto nodded, taking the words to heart. He stared at the water balloon in his hand for a long moment as an idea crossed his mind.

Jiraiya looked up as Naruto created 20 Shadow Clones of himself, each of which fetched their own balloon, and scrambled over to a Haku-made pond on the side of the field to fill them with water.

“Uh, Naruto? What are you doing?”

One of the blondes crowded around the small water source turned to Jiraiya (presumably the original) to answer, “If I have more balloons to try this out on, then it'll get done faster, right sensei?”

Jiraiya shrugged, “Maybe...maybe not. The point of this is to actually get it right, so I don't see any use in rushing it.”

“I want to master this technique soon! Then I'll have one up on Haku-kun and Gaara-kun!”

“Hey! Doesn't your toad summoning count?” The sage was again miffed, “I'm quite certain those two goofs are incapable of summoning.”

“They can't,” Naruto confirmed, as his clones lined up, focusing their chakra into each, individual balloon, “But I can't help but get competitive with them, sensei, even if they are my brothers.”

The sennin paused in his scribbling of notes to look up at Naruto, “...your brothers?”

“Yeah, that's right!” The blonde grinned at the notion, “That's what I've decided we are. I mean we're much closer than friends, and we are already sort of a family so…that's what we are.”

Jiraiya shrugged, smiling, 'What a unique family he must have...'

The following twenty-five minutes saw each of Naruto's clones, as well as himself, desperately try to flatten their water balloons by spinning their chakra. The fifth clone from the left nearly had it, as well as the real Naruto, who were beginning to feel that success was near. However, there was an abrupt pop, followed by a splash and a clone on the far right looked up bewildered for a moment before crying victoriously, “Yeah!”

All 18 other replications and the original turned to said clone, each inquiring how the feat was accomplished.

Within five minutes each balloon was popped.

Jiraiya nodded pleasantly while lighting his pipe, “Damn! Not bad! Now for the next step. Same idea, but this time your chakra will be focused on a rubber ball.”

“A rubber ball?”

His master pointed to a cardboard box settled inconspicuously next to a training post which was, as expected, filled with rubber balls borrowed from the Academy.

Naruto gave his instructor a questioning look, “Ero-sensei, what's with all this stuff? Do I really need this many?”

“No. I just figured you would get frustrated at one point and start breaking or throw things at me,” Jiraiya paused and regretted his words, “Uh, not to give you any ideas that is!”

His student shook his head, “Why would I waste a perfectly good water balloon on you?”

Jiraiya frowned at his smart-mouthed student while taking a long drag.

The second stage of his training was by far shorter and more productive. As Naruto and his Shadow Clones proceeded to spin chakra into rubber balls, their chakra began to dwindle. Eventually, clones that had spent all of their chakra poofed out of existence, letting their once chakra-filled items drop to the dusty ground.

Nearly fifteen minutes after beginning the second stage of his Rasengan training, Naruto noticed that each of his clones had spent all of their chakra leaving only him with beads of sweat rolling down the side of his face, 'I don't know if I can...keep this up...'

He really knew better, but he was simply too stubborn to give in and rest. In his heart, Naruto had always felt that Gaara and Haku had somehow been stronger than him, even when they were young. It had been difficult to accept their natural gifts. It wasn't that he wanted to be superior, but he wished to be on the same physical level as them, 'I want to be a match for Haku-kun and Gaara-kun, not just with knowledge but in ability! I may not have powers like they do, but I will be Hokage! I will!'

It hit him like a ton of bricks and he hadn't even realized what had happened.

Naruto, for a moment, wondered why Jiraiya had attacked him. The throbbing pain in the back of his head wouldn't subside. It took the blonde a moment to realize that he had not been physically injured at all. The pain was strictly from his lack of chakra, 'I used it all up? That quick? Well, I have been training all day...'

He had been warned many times in the Ninja Academy that using up all of one's chakra had catastrophic repercussions. Although he himself had never been pushed to such limits, he had always had a healthy fear of going over the edge. After all, chakra being directly linked to a shinobi's stamina could result in the death or crippling of the ninja. Naruto and Gaara never paid the thought much mind, seeing that they had never had a problem with their stamina once in their entire lives. Unlike them, Haku held a better understanding of the concept, due to his limited (if not pathetic) reserves of chakra. His warnings and advice however, did not fall on deaf ears.

'Does this mean I'm...dead?'

His vision returned to him surprisingly quick, 'Maybe I'm not dead just yet!'

Naruto looked ahead, seeing a strange light. He was in a dim, echoing place. He frowned to himself, 'I thought it was daytime. Why is everything so dark all of a sudden?'

Rising to his feet and brushing off his pants, Naruto went ahead, curiously observing the faint, glowing beams ahead of him, 'I guess I hit my head pretty hard.'

The blonde haired boy paused and looked up, regarding a strange sign mounted halfway up on one of the beams. It was plain, save for an old, elegant character painted onto it, which from his line of sight was unreadable in the darkness. Naruto scratched his head, wondering how he had ended up in such an eerie place after he had been trying to master the Rasengan.

He wanted to have a look around the dusky expanse of the place until he heard something.

It started low, but grew in volume; a thundering, rolling purr, which shook the ground beneath his feet. The hair on the back of Naruto's neck was on end as the growl abruptly ended, and he jumped several feet back as something emerged from behind one of the ghastly beams.

An enormous set of claws thudded down with tremendous force, directly where he had been standing moments before. The boy was sure he could hear his palpitating heart in his mouth as he stood, watching as the great paw dragged back slowly into its place of origin, followed by another resonating growl.

A few moments helped him assure himself that he was beyond the creature's reach. The beams he had seen before were in fact bars, 'This is a cage...'

Naruto strained his eyes to see in the cloudy dark, but saw no movement, 'How am I going to get out of this place? This must be where…'

His thoughts were interrupted as a deep, amused-sounding voice sliced the air like a knife, You've made contact. You certainly took your time.

A huge face appeared ahead of him inside of the cage; grinning fangs and eyes the color of blood.

“You're-!”

There was another thunderous purr of amusement ahead of him, Oh yes. I am your exalted prisoner, the greatest of the tailed beasts, I am the Nine Tails.

Naruto watched in grim silence, wondering how he should handle this situation. It wasn't everyday he was able to speak face to face with the demon fox sealed within him, 'Was this how Gaara-kun felt when he was little? Some giant thing growling in his head whenever he closed his eyes?'

Do you know why you're here, Naruto?

The blonde boy looked up at the fox, startled, “Huh? Why I'm...here?”

You're as good as dead, boy. You have utterly spent your chakra. You are only alive because I provide you with my chakra.

“You...you're keeping me alive?” Naruto gave a disbelieving look to the biju, “Why would you want to help me?”

The once flashing grin set into a thin line of annoyance, I don't have a choice in the matter. If it were up to me, I would tear your scrawny limbs off one by one.

There was a sudden shudder from within the cage and Naruto strained his eyes to see the huge fox disappear again, as if he were interrupted. There came a string of frenzied growls for a long moment before it quieted down. The blonde haired boy cringed as the fox reappeared, smirking at him.

You'll have to forgive that disturbance. Unfortunately I am not alone in here.

Naruto frowned again, warily edging closer, but keeping out of Kyuubi's reach, “What do you mean you're not alone?”

Spare me your pathetic questions! The fox seemed touchy about the subject, The truth of the matter is that if you die, then I shall die with you. We have been bound together in such a way that I cannot break free from this seal. As a result you and I coexist, keeping one another alive. Though I wouldn't really call this living...if I had been in a host with a seal just the slightest bit less complex…I would have torn free by now. Count yourself very fortunate.

To emphasize his point, the fox gave a fierce head-butt to the bars, only rattling them.

“So if I die, you die with me?” Naruto looked intrigued, “I didn't know that.”

I'm sure we'd enjoy life more without each other, Kyuubi growled bitterly, In exchange for you being my vessel, preserving my spirit, you receive my chakra...all of it if necessary, He smirked, You should let me out more often. I enjoy the fresh air.

“Eh...sorry, no can do.” Naruto replied, “The way I see it, I'm the one who's calling the shots here, Fluffy.”

INSOLENT LEECH! Naruto stumbled backwards, knocked off his feet by the demon's roar, You will show the proper respect! Do not think you are the only one who is in control... The fox's eyes narrowed, I can make your life contemptible, boy, I have nothing better to do with my time.

Naruto felt some of his sass return to him, despite the looming beast in front of him, “I bet you could, Fluffy, but you see you're stuck in my body, so you have to do what I tell you! If you make my life miserable...who's to say I wouldn't choose to end it?”

...surely you are not a fool enough to threaten me, whelp? You're too much of a coward.

Again there was stirring from deep within the Kyuubi's cage and he roared in annoyance to end it.

“You're gonna give me some chakra right now,” Naruto folded his arms and smirked, “It's not like you have anything better to do, right?”

The Kyuubi glared at him, It's quite possible that I do.

“Look, I can't stay and chat. I've gotta get back to my training so I can learn the Rasengan!” Naruto snapped, fed up with the fox, “Give me chakra now and I'll...I'll leave you alone for a while.”

I doubt that.

“No, seriously! I mean, well...if I pass out again I guess we'll see each other soon...” The blonde scratched his head, “I got it! The next time I see you, I won't ask stupid questions and I'll even be more respectful!”

The fox gave him a bored look.

“So what do you say?”

Deal.

Naruto watched a surge of red chakra escape the bars and meet him; fiery and exhilarating. He smirked to himself, glad that he could get the fox's cooperation through bribery. The blonde stretched his arms over his head as he felt energy return to him, grinning, “Thanks a lot! Now I can get back to work!”

The Kyuubi sniffed, See that you master this technique and... The fox's smirk was broad, Don't embarrass me.


“WHOA!” Naruto sat bolt upright.

He had ended up on the ground and next to him was the rubber ball he had dropped. Naruto rubbed his head before he leapt to his feet, 'Wow, I...I feel great! Who knew that old fox could be so useful!'

Jiraiya looked over to him, just noticing his collapse, “You okay kid?”

It must have all happened in a very short amount of time if Jiraiya didn’t notice his predicament. Naruto grinned at him, “Oh I'm better than okay, Ero-sensei!” He picked up the rubber ball, “Well, better get back to work!”

The toad sage nodded slowly, smiling. He had actually been counting on Naruto to run out of chakra, figuring that if he tapped into Kyuubi's chakra he'd be able to learn the Rasengan more quickly, 'I wonder what went on in the squirt's head just now...'

Smirking to himself in amusement, Jiraiya put away his research and stood, watching as Naruto easily blasted apart the rubber ball with his newly-acquired, rapidly spinning chakra. The blonde boy laughed in triumph, feeling like he could jump over the moon he was so full of energy.

“Well done, Naruto! I'm very impressed,” The sage raised an eyebrow at him, “I don't think I've ever seen anyone complete stage two so quickly...”

“It's not like you'd teach something like this to just anyone, right sensei?” Naruto pointed out, practically bouncing.

Jiraiya nodded, “True...but what I mean to say is you've exceeded my expectations. So...I suppose you're ready to begin stage three?”

“You bet I am!”

“Okay, this combines what you have learned in both steps one and two; spinning and shaping your chakra,” Jiraiya explained, “This time, you create the shell yourself, that way it is self-sustained. Once you do that...well,” He grinned, “I'd say you've just about got it.”

Naruto nodded and it was then Jiraiya noticed the change in his features. The thin whiskers on the boy's cheeks had broadened, as well as his eyes, which were more red than blue, “I'll get right on it sensei!”

“There's no rush Naruto, really...you've already come remarkably far.”

Jiraiya stood by to watch as his enthusiastic student began to spin chakra in his hand, wondering how much longer it would take before he would have created a full, spiraling sphere, 'I'd give him four days...tops.'


The sun was low in the sky by the time Naruto returned to his apartment; sweaty, tired, and grinning. He couldn't wait to have something to eat and then collapse onto his bed and sleep, 'Maybe Haku-kun made dinner already...'

Once inside he stripped off his jacket and ventured into the kitchen, helping himself to a pitcher of water that had specifically been for Haku, 'He's always so picky about his water...' He drank it all, savoring every last drop.

He plopped down into a chair at the table and exhaled deeply, helping himself to an apple.

It was only a few moments later that a bewildered-looking Haku appeared and gave an incredulous look to his blonde friend, “Naruto-kun, what are you doing? Where have you been?”

“Hm? Oh, hey Haku-kun! I've been training with Ero-sensei. What about you?” He took a bite of the apple contentedly.

“Gaara-kun and I spent the day training with Tenten’s team,” Haku nervously rubbed the bruises on his arms where Neji had easily sealed his tenketsu earlier, “But that doesn't matter...you should hurry up and get ready!”

“What for?” Naruto gave him a quizzical look, “Haku-kun...why are you all dressed up?”

Gaara entered the room, surprisingly enough, also in formal attire; black unlike Haku's choice of blue yukata. He wore a disapproving look, “Naruto, get dressed. It's the Tanabata Festival. We’re going.”

Naruto took another bite of apple thoughtfully, “It's already that late in the year? Heh, I guess I forgot it was coming up!” He stood up, “Why don't we just skip out on it tonight? I'm pretty tired and I don't exactly have any wishes to make...”

“That's not exactly why we’re going,” Haku said while pulling his ebony hair into a sweeping ponytail, “There will be many shinobi there from Konoha as well as the neighboring villages. I feel it would be a good idea to get a look at some of the other genin candidates before the Chunin Exam arrives.”

A pause.

“THE CHUNIN EXAM?”

Gaara sighed, “Not yet, Naruto. It's still weeks away.”

Naruto relaxed a little and finished his apple once he had calmed himself, “I didn't know that was coming up either! Sheesh! I've gotta check the calendar once in a while!”

Haku chuckled, “I think that's a good idea, Naruto-kun. We'll be leaving soon, so I suggest you get cleaned up.” He walked out of the room, leaving only Gaara, who wore a suspicious look.

“Where were you today?”

Naruto shrugged and also stepped out of the kitchen, “Oh, places...”

Irritated, Gaara followed him, “Like where may I ask?”

The blonde scrambled for the bathroom, hoping to avoid the subject, “I spent the day training with Hinata-chan's team...”

“They go home in the afternoon.”

“Yeah, they do,” Naruto conceded, filling the tub and beginning to strip himself of his odorous clothing, “But uh...I well...I was training with Ero-sensei after that, otherwise I would've met up with you guys.”

Gaara leaned against the doorway, frowning in thought, “You haven't been this devoted to your training in quite a while. What have you been doing?”

Naruto frowned at the red haired boy, “I'll tell you later...now will you get out? I'm trying to wash up here!”

Losing interest, Gaara left, closing the door behind him. With a sigh Naruto turned the hot water off, glad that Gaara hadn't suspected him of anything just yet. He sat naked by the tub, thoroughly scrubbing his skin of dirt and filth he had accumulated from the day's training. The blonde haired boy frowned to himself, wondering why Jiraiya had sworn him to secrecy about the Rasengan.

'I want to tell Haku-kun and Gaara-kun about it but...what if they want in on it? They'd feel left out. Well, they'll feel left out no matter what. It’s better if they don't know about it...' The idea of it irked him, 'But still it's just me and Ero-sensei and I still want to tell someone!’

Furrowing his brow, Naruto discarded his bathing utensils and rinsed himself, still deep in thought, 'I guess I can wait a while, maybe after I have the Rasengan perfect...maybe I can tell someone who won't care what I'm learning, at least, not want to know it themselves... But who?'

He decided not to stress over the matter, 'Whatever...I guess I should get dressed...' He frowned to himself, recalling how well Haku and Gaara brushed up, 'Uh...what the heck am I supposed to wear?'


“I'm starving!” Upon their arrival to the festival, Naruto was already insisting upon food, “Let's get something to eat! They’ve got great stuff at these festivals!”

The blonde boy led his friends along through the crowd, following his nose, and they sat down at the nearest ramen stand. Predictably, Naruto had chosen a bright, orange yukata in his possession to wear to the festival. Since it looked fairly appropriate, Haku had agreed that it was a wise choice and hurried his teammates along to the fair.

While Gaara and Naruto ordered their ramen, Haku passed out tanzaku strips to each of them. He also urged Naruto to make a wish on one of the paper strips, “Naruto-kun, seriously, I suggest you do make a wish for better penmanship.”

“What? Are you saying I write sloppy?”

“Well, yes. Otherwise I wouldn't have given you one.”

Naruto looked over to Gaara, who only shrugged, and took a slip of paper from Haku anyway.

While enjoying his food, Naruto looked to Haku who sat beside him and noticed he had delicately folded a turquoise paper crane, “Hey, aren't you going to eat anything Haku-kun? I'll buy you something.”

The dark haired boy shook his head, “No thank you, Naruto-kun. I'll eat later.”

“What do you have there?”

Haku held up the paper bird, “An Orizuru. It will keep us safe and healthy for the rest of the year.”

“Hopefully through the Chunin Exam as well.” Gaara added darkly.

“That's what I'm hoping...” Haku admitted.

“We'll ace that exam for sure!” Naruto said confidently after a slurp of noodles, “We've got to be one of the strongest teams in the whole village, right?”

“Second strongest to our team, Naruto.”

Surprised, the genin of Team 2 turned around to see Sasuke with Sakura and Kiba beside him. Gaara gave the Uchiha an annoyed look, not liking the notion.

Naruto however was not upset at all, “Hey Sasuke! It's been a while!”

Haku nodded politely to Team 7, “Good evening! I hope you are all enjoying yourselves.”

“We are Haku-kun,” Sakura smiled, “It's nice to see you three! I figured we'd find you here.”

Gaara felt it was odd to see Sakura, their childhood friend, on another team. It didn't look as if she were complaining about it either. Unlike her teammates dressed in dark gray and black she was a vibrant pink, with a floral pattern to match her name. And that hypnotizing hair of hers...was done up elaborately with two sticks.

This was going to be a difficult night.

“I hear that you three are now under the instruction of Jiraiya-sama,” Kakashi approached as well, not even glancing up from his book, “I'm sure you must be training very hard.”

“Not really,” Naruto replied pithily, “Our sensei's a perverted old man who writes trash novels all the time!”

Kakashi smiled, “I'm afraid I have to disagree with that statement, Naruto.”

The blonde gave the masked ninja a bothered look before Kiba clarified, “Kakashi-sensei likes trash novels, apparently.” He frowned at Naruto, “It's as if all the teachers around here are pervs...”

Kakashi said nothing to deny it either.

Sakura chuckled in embarrassment and attempted to change the subject, “Anyway...have you guys had any interesting missions recently? We just got back from a trade dispute nearby the Hidden Grass Village!”

Haku nodded, “We also returned from a mission a few days ago from the Land of Waves,” He paused, concluding that he should skip over the majority of mayhem that occurred, “It was...relatively uneventful.”

Gaara and Naruto gave him incredulous looks as they slurped their ramen.

Sasuke didn't fail to notice these exchanged glances, and assumed there may have been some sort of drama, as there usually was on missions. His own team had plenty of drama: with Sakura's wit, Kiba's arrogance, and Kakashi's obsession with Icha Icha Paradise.

Sasuke smirked to himself as his eyes flickered red momentarily. Their most recent C-rank mission had helped him acquire a favorable trait passed down through his clan.

Nearby, a short round of applause caught Kiba's attention, “Whoa! Who's the babe?” Akamaru yappered in agreement from atop his head.

Sakura scowled as all the present males, with the exception of a reading Kakashi, looked off to the far right to where a fairly large crowd of people was gathered. Barely within sight was a girl moving in rhythm with the tune of a shamisen and drums. Even Haku had to admit she was incredibly attractive; with dark doe eyes, a bewitching smile, and long, black hair even more beautiful than his own.

Funnily enough no one recognized her.

Kiba only grinned mischievously, forming ideas.

Kakashi turned a page of his naughty book, “She's off limits, boys. Don't get your hopes up.”

Naruto, Gaara and Sasuke didn't seem very much bothered by the news. Even if the mystery girl was a piece of eye-candy they had much better things to do than give chase…and they already preferred other girls. Kiba, on the other hand, was visibly indignant.

“What's that supposed to mean, sensei?” He growled, peeved, “How would you know that anyway?”

There was a sudden, crashing noise as Naruto and Gaara's ramen bowls were spilled over and a very excited, green-clad jounin landed in front of them as if he had dropped out of the sky. Haku had to close his eyes for the shinobi's grin was just too bright

“Why is that marvelously youthful, young flower dancing over yonder out-of-bounds for all of you impure-minded young ninja?” Gai laughed jovially, “She is Maito Tama! My darling niece!”

Haku sighed, hoping that he would've been able to stall for his friends before the day came that they too met the enthusiastic ninja who adored all things 'youthful and fiery.'

Sasuke wore a stoic expression, while Kiba and Sakura seemed to be somewhere between shocked and intrigued. Gaara and Naruto were too busy ordering more ramen to pay attention to Gai.

“Hm? Oh, hello Gai.” Kakashi hadn't noticed his presence at all.

“What?” Gai scowled, shaking his fist angrily, “Kakashi, my eternal rival! Your hip-modern attitude is pissing me off! At least acknowledge me in a contest of will if you insist on acting cool!”

Kiba didn't care if he came across as rude, “How the hell can such a beautiful girl like that be related to a freak?”

“Gai's philosophy doesn't run in the family, it seems.” The masked ninja flipped another page.

Still Kiba felt like challenging the idea, “Why can't I go without her then? I'm not impure-minded!”

Sakura scoffed at his words, as well as Akamaru, whose bark sounded more like a sarcastic laugh. Even Sasuke looked doubtful.

“She is forbidden to any man in this village,” Gai announced, grinning, “Because she is engaged to my eternal rival's beloved nephew!”

Naruto dropped his chopsticks, '...WHAT?'

All heads turned to a nearby stand where Sato stood, laughing blithely alongside his teammates as he participated in a dart-throwing game. Teams 2 and 7 watched in astonishment as the young silver haired ninja won his prizes. He handed a stuffed purple bear to a very annoyed Shino and a pink frog to Hinata who gazed at the plush lovingly.

Sato grinned triumphantly at the Aburame boy and the Hyuga girl, “There you go! For my best pals!”

“Lucky...” Sakura muttered, still unable to believe it.

“That doesn’t make sense.” Gaara said pointedly, and Naruto and Haku nodded fervently, still shocked.

Sasuke gave a strange look to his teacher, wondering how drunk he must have been to have agreed to such a preposterous idea. Kakashi only shrugged at his students, not peeling his eye away from his dirty novel.

“Wait a minute!” Naruto wasn't at all convinced, having being acquainted already with the younger Hatake, “What the hell are you talking about? Sato's an idiot! How can he be engaged at such a young age?”

“They have been betrothed since birth, Naruto,” Gai sighed dreamily in response, “Isn't youth such a wondrous thing?”

Kiba gagged.

The genin turned to the masked ninja, seeking confirmation.

“I believe it was a noodle-eating contest years ago that Gai challenged me to...” Kakashi recalled, “I waged my nephew and Gai waged his spandex...it didn't turn out well.”


Moaning with discomfort, Kakashi's head impacted the restaurant counter and the attendants looked on in alarm. Beside him were stacks of bowls, 25 of them to be exact, and one in front of him just emptied. He dropped his chopsticks with a clatter.

'...eat...through...the...pain...'

A seat away from him sat his opponent. Gai laughed, sputtering, as he slurped noodles out of his 28th bowl. He grinned down at his defeated rival, and the attendants of the restaurant gasped in unrestrained horror.

Ha! Youth has prevailed!”

And not a moment later, also past his limits, Gai toppled off of his stool; crashing down to the ground with a loud thud. It was another typical yet pointless contest between Kakashi and his self-proclaimed 'rival.'

A few seats away from them sat Akimichi Chouza, who merely shook his head disapprovingly at the spectacle, “Amateurs...”


 After listening to the absurd story, Sasuke was nonplused, “And you weren't affected by your...loss?”

“My nephew had it coming.”

Naruto nodded sagely, eyes closed, “Yeah, he sure is a weird kid. I can see why he got involved.”

“Didn't his parents have a say in the matter?” Haku wondered how such a ridiculous bet could physically affect two families.

“His mother didn't object,” Kakashi flipped a page in his book disinterestedly, “Marriages between ninja families are honorable and usually beneficial.”

Gai looked offended, “Who could refuse my charming niece?”

An awkward silence followed.

Deciding shortly afterwards to escape Gai and his many youthful stories about himself and his 'eternal rival,' Teams 2 and 7 decided to join Team 8 who resided nearby a stand selling sweets.

Before Naruto could even open his mouth to greet Hinata and her teammates, there was a break in the crowd nearby and Tama herself, dressed in a flashy yellow and green yukata, came racing out while ducking her lovesick fans.

She scurried over to Hinata, clearly looking flustered, but smiled at her, “Hi Hinata-chan!” She noticed the Aburame boy next to her, “Oh and you too Shino-kun, have you happened to see-?”

Sato had his back turned, as he tried to pay for all the pocky he had bought in bulk, “Look lady, I'm short on money, but I have this nice purple bear you can have in exchange for-”

“Sato-kun!”

He turned around, and the saleswoman retrieved all of the cookies he had attempted to barter from her, “Oh...Tama.”

Kiba looked heartbroken as she grabbed the silver haired boy's hand, and proceeded to drag him along, “It's a good thing I found you! I could use some help right about now...”

“Uh, Tama-”

“Hurry up! If we keep them waiting they'll start throwing stuff again...”

“Tama-”

The tall girl looked down at her shorter fiancé, “What’s wrong?” She wasn't oblivious to his distress.

Sato wore a contemplative expression and he turned back to see his teammates, as well as Naruto and Sakura's teams staring at him, confusion written all over their faces.

“Nothing really…”

“Good. I can get you some pocky later, but I need your help now.” Tama interrupted him and continued to tug him by the wrist back to the throng of impatient people.

He gulped fearfully.

Sato dug his heels into the ground, stopping just short of the ring of Tama's fans. His face was beginning to resemble Hinata's as his embarrassment grew, “Tama, wait a sec!” He nervously looked left and right, hoping to find an escape route, “Do we have to do this now?”

She frowned at him, upset, “What? Are you waiting for Christmas or something?”

“Well, now that you mention it-”

“Oh come on! I know you can do this!” Another forcible tug had him moving again, and they penetrated the thick of the crowd, where her groupies began to holler in excitement. The soft plucking melody of the shamisen drifted through the air like a cloud and Sato's companions saw no more of him after that.

“What...just happened?” Sakura inquired, genuinely curious.

Hinata seemed to have a fair understanding of what was going on, but then suggested, “Why d-don't we see where Sato-kun and Tama-chan went?”

Not having much else to do at the time, Teams 2 and 7 followed after the remainder of Sato's team. Naruto fell into step with the Hyuga girl, “Hey, Hinata-chan, how do you know that Tama-girl anyway?”

Although she was dismayed that his question may have risen from his interest in Tama, Hinata decided to be truthful anyway, “She comes to see Sato-kun quite often, Naruto-kun. She even comes to visit him while he trains with Shino-kun and I. She is...very devoted.”

“More than he deserves...” Naruto muttered, “I'm just glad he's just not trying to put the moves on you or anything, I mean...you're too good for that guy.”

Hinata felt her insecurities evaporate and she smiled at the whiskered boy, grateful for his concern.

It was difficult to get a view of anything that was going on, the crowd was so condensed. The genin settled on the fringe of people, hearing music faintly against the shouts and chatter. Gaara disliked having so many people around and he put on an annoyed expression as Haku stood beside him, looking very entertained.

“I don't see what all the fuss is about,” Naruto turned to Haku and Gaara, “Can't we go somewhere else?”

“Oh joyous youth! It is about to begin!”

Naruto leapt back as Lee appeared beside him, looking very excited. Haku and Gaara acknowledged the ‘youthful’ ninja's presence.

“Hello Lee,” Haku smiled pleasantly, “You came here with your teammates as well?”

“Oh yes, Haku-kun! Many shinobi have gathered here tonight. I am here to see the wonderful performance of Miss Tama! My sensei's darling niece!”

“We've heard that before...” Gaara sighed, seeing a recurring pattern.

Naruto looked at Lee oddly, “What are you talking about Bushy-brows?”

“You must be Naruto-kun! Gaara-kun and Haku-kun have told me so much about you!” He shook the bewildered blonde's hand, “But haven't you heard, Naruto? Both Tama-chan and Sato-kun are accomplished dancers!”

“Sato can...dance?” Sakura glanced over to Shino and Hinata who looked just as perplexed, “Hm...I wonder if Kakashi-sensei can dance?”

“God, I hope not...” Kiba remarked and Akamaru barked in agreement.

Sato peeked over his shoulder as his companions came into sight, and he frowned, wishing that this aspect of his life wouldn't have become so public.

“Tama, really, I haven't practiced or anything! I'll suck and ruin your reputation,” He tried to deter her while she lead him along to an open space, smiling carelessly, “You don't really need me! You can just ask some other guy to-”

“Oh stop being such a baby! You are very talented and we always do great together.” Tama admonished him quietly, “You'll do fine as always...that is, if you still want pocky!”

“Okay!”

Shino and Hinata watched in utter disbelief as their once rigid, ungainly teammate shed his nervousness (although they were uncertain how), and took up his fiancé's hand, grinning wolfishly, and stepped lightly to the music.

“Oh my...” Hinata couldn't suppress her awe of the sight.

Tama certainly was the more experienced of the pair and by far more graceful, however the Hyuga girl found it somewhat inspiring to see her teammate lead her around in intricate tangles of footwork. It almost looked as if he were fighting...not with Tama, but his movements were swift and timed like a shinobi's.

The shy girl's heart fluttered.

“Hinata,” She turned to see Shino, observant as ever, looking at her, “His movements...they reflect in his taijutsu, do they not?”

Hinata turned back to see for herself. Once again, the Aburame boy had a point. Sato had never been a ninja who used full-out taijutsu. His movements were sporadic and evasive, and made him downright impossible to hit if he moved quickly enough. She should know; she was his primary sparring partner.

“It's...amazing,” She answered softly, “Do you suppose his taijutsu style comes from his training with Tama-chan?”

“It's possible.” His gaze turned back to the silver haired boy, not very surprised by the fact.

Naruto was also impressed, having only known Sato as an incompetent shinobi and little else, “Wow, he's not that bad...but I still say he's a blockhead.”

Lee, on the other hand, was inspired. He turned away from the crowd while shouting, “Tenten! Beautiful flower of my team! I would be truly honored if you would share a dance with me!”

Naruto and his teammates grinned as they watched the excited ninja rejoin his teammates nearby at an astrology stand where Tenten had insisted that they had their fortunes read. Neji had decided earlier that she would be better company than Lee so he had joined her.

“What did you say, Lee?” She looked over as he approached, still distracted with her horoscope.

“It will be wonderful Tenten! Just one dance!” He was bouncing with joy.

Tenten, dressed in an intense, crimson yukata, took a few steps back from the green-clad boy, “W-What? Lee, I really don't think that's a good idea...”

Neji made no comment as he watched the rest of the scene play out.

Lee wouldn't have no for an answer.

“Oh, but I insist Tenten! You look ravishing and there is no other girl I would prefer more!” Before she could give another objection Lee had grabbed her by the sleeves and yanked her along.

Her yelps were audible even over the festival’s raucous. Neji stood, perplexed, wondering if maybe he could've been more help to her.

He didn't feel like taking a bullet at the moment so he moved along, trying to discover the source of Lee's excitement.

Beside Sato and Tama, another pair appeared, moving much faster and by far more recklessly.

“Lee-!” Tenten was writhing, trying to escape a grip that was equivalent to the 'Jaws of Life.' It was a hopeless endeavor, and Lee wasn't likely to hear anything she said over his excited ranting.

The crowd found Lee and his absolutely livid partner's twirling in circles to be very humorous, compared to the fluid, elegant footwork of the first pair.

Eventually Tenten gave in and ended her struggling, letting her teammate tug her along in circles. Once or twice he had even gotten her to laugh, admiring her sportsmanship, even though she wasn't doing much of anything.

Neji appeared beside Gaara. They said nothing to each other, both being equally annoyed. Much to Naruto's terror, Gai popped up beside him, in hysterical tears, “Oh, Lee! Tenten! My beautiful students are burning with such passionate youth!”

Naruto edged away from him, bumping into Haku and muttered to him, “This is beyond freaky Haku-kun. Pretty soon everyone will be out there doing the cha-cha or something...”

“...uh huh...”

“Haku-kun are you even listening to me?” The blonde turned only to see his conniving friend taking up Hinata's hand and offering a wary smile to Neji who was only a few paces away, glaring daggers at him.

Hinata made a small squeaking noise as Haku went out to join Lee, gently guiding her along.

The sight struck a chord in Naruto that triggered a very protective reaction. What had possibly possessed Haku to steal away innocent Hinata? He wasn’t going to stand for it.

“Get back here!” Naruto dashed out after the sneaky Hyoton boy, feeling murderous.

Sakura laughed alongside Kiba, suddenly having much more fun. As ridiculous as Lee looked out there, it still looked like fun hopping around with a friend. She tried to picture herself in Tenten's place; even Hinata's place and Tama's.

'There's no way Kiba-kun will go out there, but maybe I can-? Oh…’

She frowned to herself, 'Come on Sakura! Get your act together!'

“Um...Sasuke-kun?”

The raven haired boy turned to her; he didn't look like he was having fun at all.

“Sasuke-kun, maybe you'd like to, um…well, I just thought that maybe you'd like t-to...”

“I don't dance.”

Her heart sloshed mushily inside her stomach. She found it remarkable how his answer had just killed the moment for her, but what had she expected? It was his forte after all.

The bored-looking Uchiha turned and walked off, no longer interested in the festivities they had been watching. Sakura, though slightly discouraged, looked over to Gaara wistfully who had not seen her and then followed after Sasuke.


“I'm sorry if I caught you off your guard, Hinata-chan,” Haku smiled down at the shy Hyuga girl, “It just looked as if you wanted to dance."

“I d-did...”

He gave her a knowing look, “Would you like me to ask Naruto-kun if he'd-?”

“Oh n-no! That's alright!”

“Really, Hinata-chan, it wouldn't be any trouble...” Haku slowed and checked over his shoulder to see if he could spot his blonde friend.

Not seeing him anywhere Haku returned his gaze to his partner, only to see Naruto in Hinata's place.

“Hey Haku-kun!”

“What? Where's-?”

Haku noticed Naruto grinning maniacally from the sidelines as he stole Hinata back, guiding her back though the crowd and shouting over his shoulder, “I hope you have fun with that Shadow Clone, Haku-kun!”

Hinata giggled out loud as she disappeared with the clever blonde. Haku easily destroyed the clone Naruto had substituted Hinata for and smirked, astonished by Naruto's skill.

After a short while the music ended and Sato took it as his cue to escape. However, he brought Tama along with him, “You'll get me pocky now, right? You said you would if I did well!”

“I know,” She laughed as they proceeded through the stands, “But I want to go play that knife-throwing game first!”

Sato gave her a curious look before shrugging, “Whatever floats your boat! I'm just glad I didn't make a complete fool of myself…or you.”

“Not to worry! You were excellent,” Tama glanced back at Lee who was still spinning around with Tenten, “I'm not so sure about Lee though...”

The silver haired boy laughed, glad that he had decided to dance with her since it had made the night very interesting.


The following morning Naruto and Haku had awoken to find Gaara missing. It was unusual. Gaara had the habit of sleeping in late now that they had become genin and no longer had to race to the Academy every morning.

Naruto, however, was confident he could locate his redheaded friend and set off to find him while Haku went ahead to their training area.

'If I were Gaara-kun, I'd go somewhere quiet where I could sleep...' Recalling a few places around town like that, Naruto decided to go with his gut instinct and search downtown, the area where he had found Sato. 'I bet all slackers gather there...'

Sure enough, on the roof of a launderette, Gaara sat quietly next to his sand gourd, watching clouds pass. A roof over from him Shikamaru also lazed about, leaned against a chimney. Naruto frowned as he landed next to his teammate.

“I figured since you and Shikamaru have the same hobbies that I might find you here, Gaara,” Naruto smirked, “You can't just ditch training to do nothing!”

“We don't have any hobbies, Naruto.” Shikamaru informed him from a few feet away, still lying on his back and staring at the sky.

The blonde scowled, “Exactly! That's what you two have in common!”

“You're very troublesome, Naruto...”

Gaara said nothing in response, but stood up and tied his gourd to his back. Naruto smiled to himself, 'Well, at least he's cooperating...'

The teammates moved on, leaving Shikamaru to his cloud-watching. Even though Gaara had never been very talkative to begin with, Naruto found him curiously quiet, 'Maybe something's bothering him?'

“You can't keep hanging out with that lazy-ass, Gaara-kun.” Naruto tried to create a conversation.

Gaara gave a monosyllabic grunt in response.

“Why weren't you home this morning? You usually sleep in. Oh and you missed breakfast...” Naruto went on airily, hoping not to get on Gaara's nerves.

“I couldn't sleep last night.”

“You couldn't-?” The blonde frowned as he jumped over a gap, “Was it the-?”

“No. I just couldn't sleep.”

“Oh.”

Gaara gave him another suspicious look, “You never got around to telling me where you were yesterday.”

“I told you already. I was training with Ero-sensei.”

“I'm aware,” He retorted, “What were you training for exactly?”

“Uh, I can't tell you that...” Naruto put his hand over his heart, “Ero-sensei made me swear!”

Gaara frowned and lost interest.

Still, Naruto didn't want to lose the conversation so he scrounged around for another subject.

“Did you see how pretty Sakura-chan was last night?” Naruto smiled at his friend, “She's always pretty of course but last night she and Hinata-chan looked pretty good!”

Gaara’s expression did not change, leaving Naruto puzzled, but he continued.

“And the way she kept hanging around Sasuke you'd think they're having a fling or something.” Naruto mused, trying to push his buttons.

Something in Gaara's face snapped and his expression which had once been stoic turned into a full-blown glare. He sped up the pace, “I don't want to talk about her.”

“Huh?” Naruto was caught off guard by his anger, “Why not? Is something wrong?” He didn't understand. Sakura has always been so close to him, “Didn't you talk to her last night?”

“...I did.” His eyes narrowed.

Naruto looked a bit nervous, “W-what did she say?”

“Many things.” Gaara ground out through gritted teeth, and then stopped on top of a shingled roof. Naruto paused as well, waiting for an explanation and fearing it at the same time.

“She succumbed to her teammate's questions and told them about our abilities.”

The blonde boy wore a horrified look, “What? How much did she tell them?”

There was a long, painful silence.

“...everything.” Gaara's face was dark.

Naruto scratched his head, not certain what to do, “Well, I mean...she is on another team now so I guess she-”

“She has betrayed us.”

“No!” Naruto shouted, shaking his head aggressively, “Don't say that! What else could she have done? It isn't her fault...” Naruto felt his insides twisting into knots at the news. He supposed that Gaara was taking it very hard, simply because he had always felt very attached to her.

“She did try to apologize by giving us information about her team.” Gaara went on, looking disgusted.

“She did?”

“The only thing of consequence she gave away was Sasuke's recently gained Sharingan,” The red haired boy spat, “Yet still her loyalties are so torn she will even stoop as low as to giving away her own teammate's secrets...pathetic.”

Naruto felt something sting at his eyes and he rubbed at them frantically, “No...you're wrong. Sakura-chan would never do that.” He looked up at Gaara, who had his face turned away from him, “Gaara please...don't be mad at her! She...I know that she likes you! She likes you a whole lot! Really! And I know that you...you care about her too!”

“Shut up, Naruto.”

“No!” The blonde boy glared at him, “Is that why you're so mad? Because she made a mistake? People make mistakes, Gaara, and you have to forgive them. You can't be mad at her! You like her, I know you do!”

“You have no idea what you're talking about,” Gaara hissed venomously, turning his back to Naruto, “You don't know anything about that. You can't even see it for yourself, not even when Hinata looks at you, you see nothing. You are a blind fool!”

The blonde boy stumbled back in shock, unable to believe what Gaara had told him.

After a brief silence Gaara turned to face Naruto again, his voice full of rage, “The Chunin Exams are near, Naruto. People will turn against us. It is the way of things. Sakura is our enemy now, even Hinata and Lee's teams will be nothing more than our competition,” His sand enveloped him and he disappeared in a whirlwind after adding, “You'll do well to understand that.”

Naruto stood there shaking from head to foot, desperately rubbing at his eyes.

'But I don't understand, Gaara-kun...I can't.'


Around noon, Sato arrived as his team's training area looking very pleased with himself.

“You're early.” Kurenai said sarcastically, by now knowing that he would always be late no matter how he was disciplined.

“Good morning to you too, sensei!” He grinned, and then turned to Shino, “Hey! Shino-kun! Let's spar!”

Shino didn't look very interested, “Where were you?”

“Well I can actually tell you the truth this time!” Sato smiled and even Hinata looked confused.

“You see, my uncle was giving me a hard time this morning...but I finally convinced him to teach me how to use his most powerful technique! It's totally awesome!” Sato gave them a thumbs up, still grinning.

A look of alarm descended on Kurenai's face, 'But...he can't mean...'

“His most...p-powerful technique, Sato-kun?” Hinata asked, confused, “What could it be?”

Rather than explaining it, Sato decided to demonstrate. Completely shocked and unsure of what to expect, Shino formed a clone of himself with his Kikai insects as a ball of electricity crackled to life noisily in Sato's hand.

The silver haired boy laughed, “I told you it's awesome!”

Chapter Text

Chapter Soundtrack: “Cute ninjas don’t cry” by Otso

The following morning it was a cold, cloudless day. With it there was a hushed air of anxiety as Haruno Sakura climbed the stairs of a quiet apartment building at a quarter past nine. She walked slowly with a silent guilt. She reviewed the script that she had been practicing in her head for nearly a day.

'What if they just slam the door in my face? Do they hate me now? Gaara-kun...he was so mad... I guess I deserve it really. What kind of friend am I? Kiba-kun and Sasuke-kun just kept asking...I can't believe I caved in like that!'

Ever since the night of the Tanabata festival, Sakura had regretted every last one of her words. In her mind, she was sure she had never meant to say anything at all to her teammates, but her mouth had subconsciously run away with her one day during training and gotten her into serious trouble.

Her feet, which had traveled the walkway many times, knew where to go on their own, letting her mind wander freely.

'I can't let them put pressure on me anymore, my friends are just too important to me. I...I don't want to lose them like this...'

After a minute or so, she looked up. There ahead of her gleamed the black number 4 on a door to her right. Sakura stopped and wrung her hands together nervously. The script that she had been continuously rehearsing suddenly evaporated from her head, leaving her helpless and shivery.

'What do I do now?' She wondered, feeling something fluttering in her stomach, 'Wow...I've never been afraid to talk to them about anything before. What's wrong with me?'

She brought her hand up and let her knuckles rest soundlessly against the wood of the door, 'Why can't I do this?'

All it took was the memory of the red haired boy scowling at her as she confessed her crime, the way he seemed to get farther and farther away from her as he stood perfectly still until he was a mere dot on the horizon.

'And what do Naruto-kun and Haku-kun think?'

She could imagine their expressions quite vividly as well, and for a moment she had even considered turning on her heel and running back home as fast as her legs could carry her.

But that stubborn attitude Naruto had filled her head with after more than a thousand speeches of morality and justice and becoming the Hokage made it impossible for her to turn away.

'Sakura...you've brought this upon yourself.'

She timidly knocked. It was a small, soft sound aimed at the center of the dark green door. Sakura waited there for a few seconds, hearing no commotion from within as she rocked back and forth on the balls of her feet.

With a shuddering sigh, she knocked three more times, louder, but more tentatively.

The hair on the back of her neck stood on end as she heard the sound of a chair being pushed back against the floor as a person stood. The footsteps that followed were inaudible, and she waited, thinking feverishly for something to say, 'What if it's-?'

“Sakura-chan?” In an instant the door was wide open and she saw Haku.

She relaxed a fraction.

“H-Hi...Haku-kun.” Her voice was quaking and she mentally scolded herself for being so cowardly.

He looked as if he understood, if only a little, her reasons for coming. For a half a second there was a pause and Sakura examined his facial features. He certainly looked more surprised than angry, that much was clear. He also looked as if she had broken his concentration and he seemed to be in a good mood. She was in luck.

She smirked inwardly as she looked up at him, 'He's standing about a foot above me! When did he get so darn tall?'

“Good morning, Sakura-chan,” Oddly, he wasn't smiling, but he wasn't frowning either, “Would you like to come in?”

“Yes, thanks.”

She stepped inside and he closed the door. After that, the formalities began.

“Would you like something to drink? Milk? Tea?” Haku was walking ahead of her and she followed after him silently into the kitchen.

“No, I'm fine.”

He nodded, eyes closed, and went to the table and cleared it of the scrolls he had been comparing. Sakura stood awkwardly in the doorway, trying to recover scraps of her evaporated script.

Haku gave her a measured look and a ghost of a smile appeared on his face, “Please sit down, Sakura-chan.”

She nodded dumbly and took a seat at the table. Her throat felt tight and dusty, 'All of a sudden I feel like I'm going to cry. Why is he always so nice?'

His hair was down, she noticed. It fell just past his shoulder blades and she recalled how Naruto and Gaara would constantly dog him to cut it…and how he always refused, saying that it was a symbol of how well he maintained himself.

'His hair's prettier than mine...' Sakura reexamined the thought, 'Hmm...maybe his hair is prettier than everyone's hair...'

She then wondered why she was having trouble focusing.

“I'm sorry that I barged in on you so early, Haku-kun.” Sakura said quietly, not meeting his eyes.

The ebony haired boy stood over the sink, scrubbing dirty dishes that were neglected from the night before with a little help from his Kekkei Genkai, “No, it's quite alright Sakura-chan. You are always welcome here at any time.”

His kind words stung her just a little bit.

Sakura's eyes dropped down into her lap and she gave up trying to salvage her script.

“Sakura-chan, is there something you would like to talk about?” His voice was edged with worry and she could tell.

“Are...um...Naruto-kun or Gaara-kun here, by any chance?” Her nerve returned, “I need to talk to you all about something.”

Haku tilted his head back in thought and then smiled genuinely, “Well, I do believe Naruto-kun left early, he said there was something important he had to do. And Gaara-kun is still sleeping, I think.”

“Oh.” The part when he said, 'I think' had her partially nervous. Her heart rate escalated.

“If you'd like, I could go wake him for you,” Haku offered, then added, “Although, I have been trying to wake him for twenty minutes now...”

“No, that's...that's alright...let him sleep.”

The dark haired boy sighed and stacked a few of the cleaned dishes, “It would do him some good. He needs to break that habit of his. He's been a bit slow lately...”

She was silent, staring anxiously at the wall across from her, on which a calendar had been hung with a picture of a dog carrying a kunai in its mouth, tail wagging wildly.

“Sakura-chan,” He spoke again, his smile faded into a more serious look, “Naruto and Gaara told me what happened.”

This time she made eye contact and her panicked look unnerved him. She was still unable to form words easily.

“It's alright, Sakura. I understand,” His voice was warm and comforting; everything that Gaara's had not been that night, “There was nothing else you could've done. They're your teammates and I don't hold that against you.”

“But I shouldn't have done it in the first place!” She answered, angry at herself, “Haku-kun, you and Naruto and Gaara; you're my friends! I can't live knowing that I'll screw up and end our friendship...”

He ceased drying the dishes and turned to face her fully, “You've already been forgiven Sakura-chan, don't punish yourself. Besides, I'm sure that Sasuke and Kiba are your friends now as well, aren’t they?”

“Well I...I guess so.”

“Then you must have faith that we will always be friends, no matter the obstacle,” Haku went on, then smiled again, “You worry too much. What's done is done and now we must move forward. It isn't the end of the world.”

“It's just...” She sighed and then stood up, a small smile finding her lips, “Well, you're right Haku-kun. This definitely isn't the end of the world...”

He chuckled good-naturedly in response, trying to lessen the tension.

“I'm just...I'm sorry for everything. I messed up and I promise it won't happen again.” Sakura said, her voice stronger, “I'll come back later if that's alright. Naruto-kun and Gaara-kun deserve an apology too.”

“I'll be glad to have you back.” He answered and she smiled in relief.

Sakura left, feeling better walking out than she had walking in. Still, somewhere in her gut she knew things were going to change between them.

Whether for better or worse it was still unclear.


Naruto walked down the sidewalk with his arms folded behind his head, deep in thought. The day before had left Gaara, Haku and himself in a right state after getting the news about Sakura's slip up.

However at the present time his mind was set on something else; something Gaara had said.

'You have no idea what you're talking about. You don't know anything about that. You can't even see it for yourself, not even when Hinata looks at you, you see nothing. You are a blind fool!'

Naruto frowned, not sure if Gaara had seriously meant anything he had said, 'He was upset. He was rambling. But what if...what if some of the stuff he had said was true? Could Hinata-chan maybe...?'

Naruto shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts, 'No, I can't just jump to conclusions! Maybe I'm just over thinking this...' He then smiled to himself, 'But what if she...?'

Again he shook his head fiercely and other pedestrians gave him odd looks.

“I'll just go ask her myself,” Naruto said and nodded as he walked, “Then: problem solved! I'm sure Hinata-chan can set things straight if I go see her!”

The blonde haired boy marched on, more confident, and certainly more oblivious of what he was about to do.

Upon his arrival to the Hyuga compound, Naruto was unable to keep his mind off of the thought.

'Why would she like someone like me? Gaara-kun's crazy.'

Well, that had always been apparent.

Rather than jumping the wall as he normally did, Naruto strolled leisurely right in through the front gate. The standing guards merely ignored him, knowing that if they refused him entry he'd still find a way in anyway, as he always had.

He was a familiar face at the estate.

The lawn was ridiculously well-kept, with trees and hedges trimmed to perfection. Gardens lined the outside of the mansion with blooms of every color imaginable. It was hard to believe, Naruto felt, that such a cheerful landscape could be a home for one of the crankiest clans in Konoha.

Darting about were a few servants carrying baskets and other items with heads bowed submissively as they passed a Main Branch member. 'These people are just so friggin stuck up all the time! I can't believe Hinata-chan's related to them...

There it was again. That pesky little notion about Hinata. Naruto himself could scarcely imagine why he couldn't stop thinking about her after hearing Gaara's tirade. 'He was just mad...maybe he was making stuff up.'

It felt weird that he was compelled to deny it, as if it would be a bad thing if she possibly did like him. 'Well, maybe it wouldn't be bad,' He smiled to himself again, 'Hinata-chan, she's...'

He then recalled how her father, Hiashi, seemed stilted, if not deeply bothered by his presence whenever they met. 'Er...her dad would probably kill me if he found out.'

His jumbled thoughts were interrupted by a familiar face. Naruto stopped and looked far across to the opposite side of the yard to see a young shinobi exiting one of the buildings.

It had been a while since he had seen Neji, he noted. 'Wow, he doesn't look as pissed as he normally does right about now.'

Indeed, the young Hyuga seemed less moody than usual, though his face betrayed no visible trace of emotion. He walked ghost-like in the morning light across the lawn. 'Sometimes I even forget he lives here...'

It then occurred to Naruto that he might be leaving to join his team for a day of training, 'Maybe I should take a leaf out of his book!'

Before Naruto took his gaze off of Hinata's older cousin he noticed Neji stop abruptly, and that once relaxed air that he emanated seemed to die instantly. A few feet away from him stood an older man, perhaps a shinobi, Naruto assumed.

At first glance he appeared to be extremely hostile towards the younger Hyuga.

Neji was aware of it as well.

It was silent for a long while and when the elder Hyuga spoke Naruto was too far away to hear it.

A fierce, white glare settled on Neji, “Why...why should you be free? How can you matter so much?”

There was a flicker of sympathy in Neji's eyes for a moment: real humanity. It vanished instantly as the elder Hyuga seemed to radiate some terrible killing intent which Naruto was able to sense, 'What was that?'

Before Naruto could make out any more words or an exchange of sorts they were at each other, snarling like dogs. The blonde watched in bafflement as the elder Hyuga leapt at Neji, palms flat, a wild thing of rage.

Neji didn't seem genuinely angry as he prepared to defend himself, but he certainly wasn't pleased with the development. Naruto watched, floored for the first few seconds as they slapped at each other with bursts of chakra, fast and savage. Apparently he was the only current witness.

A moment later it became more aggressive, slaps turned into full stabs of Jyukken, blue and painful. The killing intent was then overwhelming and Naruto couldn't understand how Neji was able to stand his ground after feeling it, 'What should I-?'

The blonde stood still and watched as Neji took a solid blow in the side, which he returned to his opponent, cringing. The elder Hyuga was then hissing, a thing possessed, wanting to flay Neji, crush him, make him feel bloody and broken and stepped on and screaming and…

It was over.

Neji leapt back, shaking.

His foe was on the ground, sobbing, clawing at his forehead. That was when Naruto had noticed Hiashi had appeared out of nowhere. He looked grim and ended his torture of the insubordinate Branch member nearly as quickly as it had begun.

Neji's opponent lay there pathetically at the clan leader's feet, shoulders shaking and tearful.

Neji knew.

He had always known. This humility, this cage; it could've been his fate. Hiashi was silent, still furious that his nephew had been attacked.

Neji stared down at the crumpled mess of a human being that wanted to end him...or himself.

There was no seal on his forehead, but still, Neji suffered the pains of the Branch family. They made sure they shared their suffering with him. Their cage was his own and he had always known what if felt like.

Neji's stare turned to Hiashi, icy and resentful.

Naruto watched from afar, not comprehending what he had seen at all.

The anger he had felt when he had been defending himself was redirected at Hiashi, the person he thought was responsible for this pain. The one who inflicted it. The one who embraced it. His pain and the others' as well.

Hiashi's gaze rested briefly on his nephew, he spoke in a low voice, “Run along now, Neji.”

Neji, who had the present sense to not act on anger unlike his unfortunate relative, held his tongue and continued walking, stiff-backed and visibly reproachful. What he had seen he had never wanted to see again.

Naruto watched as Neji left swiftly through the front gate, ignoring the staring sentries, and proceeded to find his team with, yet again, a ruined mood.

Shocked and slightly disturbed by what he had witnessed, Naruto continued on quietly, wanting to find solace in the one person he knew who could always give it to him.


Hinata's favorite garden was on the west side of the compound. It was a discreet place that was often overlooked, full of young sapling trees and lilies: white, pink, and orange everywhere one looked.

Naruto knew he would find her there.

She sat humming to herself beside a koi pond, scattering feed on the surface of the water and watching as the orange and white fish flapped about eating to their hearts' content. The blonde stepped clumsily on a twig and alerted her to his presence.

The white eyed girl turned to him and put down the small bucket she had been holding, “Oh! Naruto-kun! It's so nice to see you!”

Hinata quickly got to her feet and dusted her pants off. Her bright smile made him feel a bit livelier.

“Hey Hinata-chan!” He tried to give her a foxy grin, but it seemed pained, “I hope you don't mind that I stopped by!”

She looked slightly alarmed and raised her hands up, “N-No! I like it when you come to visit!”

He nodded but his smile faded.

It was his lack of a smile that had her worried, “Naruto-kun, are you feeling alright?”

“I'm not really sure.”

Hinata decided to cover the basics of formality first, “I see. Have you...had anything to eat yet? It is still quite early.”

Right on time, his stomach answered her in a low growl. He frowned to himself, wondering where her precognitive powers had come from. When the noise subsided, they laughed together heartily. Naruto, as usual, was a bit louder.

“Well I...I guess if you have any leftovers lying around, I'd really appreciate it...” He chuckled, rubbing the back of his head.

She nodded shyly, “Yes, it is about time for breakfast I think. Let's go inside. I'd be glad if you joined me.”

She stepped up on the porch, already barefoot, upon which he hastily removed his shoes. He followed her inside and down a short corridor, “Your dad, he...won't get mad if I hang around for a bit?”

Hinata gave him a puzzled look, “No, I don't think he will, Naruto-kun.”

He nodded as she opened a sliding door and they ventured into the dining room. There was a long, low table in the center of the room with a traditional tatami mat floor. A window was left wide open for fresh air.

Hinata took a seat next to the only girl at the table, and motioned for Naruto to sit at the free place beside her. The blonde plopped down next to her ungracefully and scratched his head. He smiled at the younger girl.

The girl who was already present gave him an incredulous look before going back to her tea. A moment later a servant scurried in, head lowered, with a tray of dishes. He quickly laid them out in front of the girls, bowed, and then left.

Naruto blinked at how fast he had come and gone.

Hinata smiled, “What good timing. Do help yourself, Naruto-kun.”

“Sure!” Naruto reached over to a plate, secured himself a pair of chopsticks, and after a grateful, “Itadakimasu!” he was off.

The younger girl gave Hinata an odd look, which Hinata interpreted as confusion.

“Oh yes...Naruto-kun, this is my sister, Hanabi.” She turned to Hanabi, “Hanabi, this is my good friend Naruto.”

“Huh.” She didn't seem very interested. Hinata sighed, expecting such a reaction.

Naruto, after swallowing, grinned at Hanabi, “It's nice to meet you!”

Hanabi sniffed at him and then turned to Hinata, “Remember Onee-san, you will be training with father later on...you shouldn't get yourself distracted.”

Hinata's cheeks became beet red remarkably quick.

Naruto didn't like Hanabi's attitude, “I'm not a distraction! Sheesh! Can't I guy hang out with his friends once in a while?”

Hanabi smirked, wondering how such a loudmouth had befriended her quiet, older sister.

Hinata proceeded to serve herself something to eat, then asked, “So um, Naruto-kun...what brings you here this early?”

Naturally, he had wanted to blurt out the first thing on his mind: 'Do you happen to secretly adore me? According to Gaara this may be true, and I just wanted to get my facts straight...'

Naruto busied his mouth with some egg to buy himself a moment of thought. With Hanabi around it was much more difficult to touch on the already-difficult subject.

'What am I supposed to say to her anyway?'

For once he didn't know.

He swallowed and then replied carefully, “I just wanted to...come over and...train with you. Yeah! You're an awesome sparring partner Hinata-chan!”

It took him a moment to believe his own bluff.

Hanabi raised an eyebrow as she sipped her tea, wondering what all his stalling was about.

Hinata, for a moment, looked like she had been expecting a different answer. She was quiet as she thought on it, and then nodded, honored, “I...I'm glad that you think so, Naruto-kun, but...wouldn't you prefer to train with Haku-kun or Gaara-kun?”

“I train with them all the time. They're pushovers!” He smiled at her, trying to be convincing, “You're different. I like training with you, Hinata-chan, really!”

In his head, he was upset with his evasion of his primary subject, 'Wow...I really didn't think it'd be this hard to talk about...'

Her face was bright red again and her sister rolled her eyes.

“Well then...I suppose it would be alright.”  A small smile crept up onto her face, “I like t-training with you too, Naruto-kun...”

After finishing breakfast and retrieving their shoes, Hinata lead the way to an empty courtyard behind the Main house. All the while, Naruto searched for any signs or actions given off by Hinata that may prove Gaara's theory true.

Strangely, he saw nothing unusual: just the same old, soft-spoken Hinata.

It was clear that she had been befuddled by his random appearance that morning. She had still seemed happy to see him, which was normal for her.

Naruto, unfortunately, had no talent picking out the subtle hints like his red haired friend had. So much of the girl's blushing and stuttering went overlooked, which was also normal.

“Shall we begin with taijutsu first?” Hinata asked, noticing him stretching off on the side of the yard.

“You bet!”

She giggled at his perky answer and then slipped into a perfect Gentle Fist stance. Nearby, a lark called out into the cool morning air. Naruto did his best to recall the last time he had fought her, 'She whacked the crap out of me! Better try to dodge more this time...'

He gave no warning when he ran at her. Not that it mattered, she was ready, and he saw the veins surrounding her eyes appear as he leapt, beginning with a heel kick that he often used to off-balance Gaara.

She countered with a small cry, pushing him back with a flat-palmed hand. He couldn't restrain his laugh at her utterly adorable counterstrike, but managed to evade another palm that came swiping for his head.

Suddenly he had forgotten why he had come in the first place and began to believe his own bluff.

After a tangle of shuffling feet and a number of resounding slaps, “Oh Naruto! Your head! Are you alright?”

“I'm fine!”

Naruto had realized just how grateful he was that she wasn't using real Jyukken blows against him. With a strained leap, he landed behind her and she evaded his sweep kick thanks to her Byakugan. Then the rounds of punching and dodging began again.

Ten minutes turned into twenty, twenty became a half hour, and after a long while of laughing and dodging, Naruto finally thought to ask, “Say Hinata-chan, why aren't you with your team right now?”

She paused in their scuffle and admitted sheepishly, “Today is my team's day off.”

Naruto felt his brain turn mushy, “What? But...if today was your break and I've been making you...”

“No, it's alright!” She assured him, “I train on my days off as it is, Naruto-kun, sometimes with my father, but...you are much more fun.”

The blonde still felt guilty, “I'm sorry Hinata-chan, if I had known you were resting I wouldn't have-”

She shook her head again, “Please! It is quite alright!”

He nodded, grateful that she was so easygoing, and then an idea popped into his head from a completely unrelated topic.

'Didn't Ero-sensei make me swear not to tell Haku-kun or Gaara-kun about the Rasengan?' He smirked to himself, 'He never said anything about Hinata-chan though...'

It was truly the perfect opportunity. The Rasengan, which he had nearly mastered fully, was something he desperately wanted to get off his chest. Every time he was near his teammates, his mouth burned to talk about it, 'Argh! But Ero-sennin made me swear!'

Here was Hinata. She was shy, innocent and certainly not the type of person to spread gossip, 'I can totally trust Hinata-chan!'

“Hey Hinata-chan,” He had regained his foxy grin and her heart fluttered at the sight of it, “How about I show you this super cool new jutsu I've been working on?”

Hinata gave him an odd look, “A...new jutsu?” Instantly her mind went to Sato and his coincidental revealing of the new jutsu he had pestered his uncle to teach him. She knew better though. Naruto wasn't exactly on the best of terms with either Sato or his uncle, so he was probably unaware of it at the time.

The blonde nodded sagely, “Yeah, if you promise not to tell anyone, I can show it to you...”

She nodded fervently, “Of course!”

He grinned at her predictable cooperation before her curiosity got the better of her, “So um...what sort of jutsu is it?”

“It's this move called the Rasengan!” He shouted, feeling the weight lift off of his shoulders like magic, “My sensei taught it to me, but he won't let me tell Haku-kun or Gaara-kun about it.”

“I see,” She murmured, “It sounds so exciting...can you teach me, maybe?”

He scratched his head, “Eh...I don't know...it uses a lot of chakra. How about I just show you?”

Hinata stood a short distance away from him and observed as he formed a spiraling sphere of chakra in his right hand. Intrigued by such a strange technique, she decided to view it with her Byakugan as well and noticed something curious.

'Naruto-kun is right. He is using a large amount of chakra...' She frowned to herself, concerned, 'Where is all that chakra...coming from?'

She noticed the small specks of red chakra filtering through his circulatory system, where they channeled together through his arm and down into his hand, chakra spinning wildly in many directions, 'He can spin his chakra so quickly!'

Naruto smirked to himself, glad he had caught her attention, 'Good...now, what's around here that no one is going to miss? She won't see how strong this is just by looking at it...'

Thinking quickly once he had it fully formed, he stole a peek around the yard and spotted a beaten-looking log on its side a few paces behind him, “Okay Hinata-chan! Check this out!”

He turned around and ran at his defenseless target, grinning maniacally. Hinata watched in silent astonishment as he barreled into the log, thrusting his hand into it, and the blue sphere of chakra easily blew the dead tree into thousands of pathetic splinters, '...oh my...'

Dust rose up into the air in a thin cloud as he returned to his sparring partner, smirking broadly, “Pretty neat, huh?” Even he was impressed with himself, 'That was the first time I had it right actually...'

“I've...never seen anything like it before...” She said quietly, wondering when he had become so strong.

“Ero-sensei told me that the Fourth Hokage used that move a lot,” Naruto brushed his hands off casually, “Just another reason I know I'll be Hokage someday!”

Her awe was tangible as she stood gawking, “I...I know you will. But you don't need some p-powerful jutsu to prove that to me, Naruto-kun.”

Naruto gave her an appreciative look and took a moment to take in her encouraging words. Hinata was quiet after that, and the blonde haired boy pondered that maybe he had intimidated her just a bit too much.

“Yeah well...I've got other great jutsu too.” His eyes lit up with an idea, “I know this one I can definitely teach you! If you like...”

“Really?” Her face brightened hopefully.

“Of course! I think I know one you'd like...” Naruto smirked to himself and quickly formed seals, “Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!”

Beside him stood an exact replica of himself. She herself could tell it was no ordinary clone. Naruto watched warily as she activated the Byakugan again, to observe his creation.

The clone gave her a goofy grin and her cheeks tinted a pale pink. The blonde boy glared at the clone, hissing threateningly under his breath, “No fooling around, got it?”

Naruto's replication only chuckled.

“You think that I...might be able to do this?” She inquired softly, less confident after witnessing the Rasengan.

He gave her a disapproving look, “What? Of course! It's pretty simple actually, and making one or two clones doesn't take a lot of chakra...” As an afterthought, 'Though I can make hundreds of em!'

“So long as you’re careful and stay within your limits you can definitely use this technique!” Naruto informed her.

Hinata brightened again, “You really think so?”

“Yeah! Believe it!” Naruto nodded fiercely, “Your chakra control is fine so it should be a piece of cake for you.” He showed her the seal required for the jutsu, “Give it a try.”

She nodded slowly and formed the seal he had showed her. Her voice was faint, “Kage Bunshin no Jutsu.”

Naruto knew his faith would be well invested in her. On her first try, Hinata had formed a shadow clone of herself. It stood nearby quietly, blushing. His grin was wide, “See? What did I tell you?”

She grinned back, her cheeks tinted, “Thank you, Naruto-kun. I promise I'll work very hard to make this jutsu worthwhile.”

“I know you will, but for now,” He smirked, “Let's keep this a secret between you and me. Gaara-kun and Haku-kun don't know that jutsu either.”

She nodded and then let her clone dissolve. Hinata sighed, tired out from their training, “Maybe we should take a short break?”

Naruto, still enormously proud of her, stretched his arms over his head, “That sounds like a good idea...”

The two of them went off to the side of the courtyard and seated themselves on the back porch of the Main house. Naruto leaned against a support beam and relaxed, his head making a soft thud with the impact. Hinata timidly removed her jacket, finding herself a bit overheated.

Naruto's thoughts began to wander again, 'Maybe Hinata-chan can explain what was going on when I first got here...'

“Hinata-chan” She looked up when he spoke, “When I came here this morning I saw your cousin.”

“Neji-niisan?”

“Yeah,” He nodded, “Something happened though. Some guy just jumped him, maybe even wanted to kill him, it felt like. They were fighting like crazy and then...your dad showed up and stopped it.”

Her eyes lowered, clearly saddened, “I hoped you would never have to see something like that...”

“What was it about anyway?”

“Do you remember the day you and Gaara-kun and Haku-kun helped me prevent Neji-niisan from getting the Caged Bird seal?” She asked, not delighting in the memory.

He frowned, “Sure I do.”

“Neji-niisan is still considered by most of my clan to be part of the Branch family, as his father was,” Hinata explained, voice shaking, “My father made a plea to the elders so that he would not be given the seal, well...” She sighed, “It was m-my plea really. My father he...he wanted so badly for me to be strong, stronger than Neji-niisan...”

“But you are strong Hinata-chan!” Naruto was indignant, “How can you say you're not?”

“My father wanted me to succeed him as the Clan Head, but I was never talented enough...not like Neji-niisan is,” She said quietly, almost ashamed, “Without the Caged Bird seal, Neji-niisan is a rival candidate for being clan heir...my rival.”

Naruto folded his arms, growling, “So your dad says he's stronger than you...”

“But he is!” Hinata admitted, dropping her gaze, “Neji-niisan is very skilled and unlike the other members of the Branch family, he is free. Because of that many of them are bitter...”

“I get it...” He nodded, “So that guy who attacked him...he was angry?”

“Yes.” She replied solemnly, “Some are happy for him though. They feel that he may be able to break the cycle of the Caged Bird seal and heal our clan...” She paused in thought, “That is what I want. That is my goal as well. I feel that it is a tradition that should be thrown away...”

“Me too!” Naruto agreed, “It's just so stupid, how they keep a clan separated like that.”

“But my father, he...” Her voice trembled, “He is ashamed of me. I am not strong like Neji-niisan is. I am...weak and afraid and an embarrassment to my clan...” Her white eyes grew teary, “And he knew that once Neji-niisan d-did not receive the Caged Bird seal, that I w-would lose any chance of becoming the leader of my clan...”

Naruto looked horrified as tears slipped silently down her cheeks, and her head was bowed in total disgrace after she finished speaking. His expression quickly turned to one of anger.

“No!” He stood, shaking his head aggressively, “You can't believe that load of crap! It's all a lie and you know it!”

Hinata looked up at him questioningly, wiping the drops from her face.

“It's not true. You aren’t weak and afraid,” Naruto protested, “You're strong, I mean, you can beat the shit out of me if you wanted to!” She giggled, still wiping her cheeks, “And you're brave! Believe it! When we helped Neji, it was all your idea to do it! You're the reason your cousin is free and that makes all the difference! You're not an embarrassment at all; you're someone that your clan to be proud of!”

He nodded in finality and added, “Yeah! So...I think that you should be the leader of your clan, not Neji! Because you...you don't think with your fists, you use your heart and that's why you're a shinobi! A strong one!”

Her eyes were teary again, “Oh N-Naruto...” A small smile appeared on her face, “Thank you, but...I'm afraid that my father just doesn't see that yet.”

Naruto grinned, “So what? You can make him see it if you just do your best! Then he'll see picking Neji over you is a big mistake!”

“You...think I can do it?”

“Of course! Just don't worry!” The blonde boy’s eyes were intense, “I'll help you! I promise.”


When Tenten had received two unknown weapons scrolls from Haku, she had been itching to test them out.

Later on that day, before attending the festival, she had decided to investigate what she had been given. The first scroll, upon inspection, had been a chain-scythe. Not much of a challenge, after all, she already owned one and could wield it with deadly expertise. However, much to her astonishment, he had given her another weapon that never in her life had she even imagined wielding.

It was labeled as a discontinued Leaf arsenal weapon and had probably not been used in ages. She had never seen one before, but she knew from past research exactly what it was. A zanbato.

Tenten suspected it had been taken from the arsenal without permission because even she was aware it was illegal for Leaf shinobi of trainee level to wield such a weapon. She wasn’t about to rat Haku out for taking it, knowing it could get them both into trouble. Horse-slaying swords like these she knew were outlawed for many reasons.

One reason being that they often endangered the user with their massive recoil and lack of maneuverability, making them clumsy in battle. A second reason being that attacking an enemy and successfully landing a blow was nearly always a guaranteed kill.

'What goes on in his head that makes him think I can actually...use this?' She pondered, fearing where the notion came from.

She had to admit she loved it.

The blade itself was nearly as tall as she, not counting the length of the leather-bound hilt. It was new, or as far as Tenten could tell, unused. Perfectly balanced and unmarked, the blade shined in the morning sun and the tip curved upward at its end, reminiscent of the claw of some terrible predator.

It was art, pure and simple, and her most treasured sword so far.

The primary issue however was rather simple.

“Ugh!” Tenten tugged furiously at the hilt of the sword. It didn't budge the slightest, “Why do they- argh! Always have to- grr! Make them so huge?” She collapsed beside it, panting heavily.

Tenten had arrived at her training field first in order to try out her new favorite weapon. Unfortunately she found herself completely incapable of lifting it. It was ridiculous that a shinobi could be expected to lift one in the first place, let alone fight with something as preposterously heavy.

“I'm not giving up yet!” Rising to her feet again, Tenten took hold of the sword, stubborn determination written all over her face.

Focusing her chakra into her arms she heaved with a new, chakra-assisted strength. Her arms shook as the blade snuck a few inches from the ground...and a few more...until she held it nearly to waist-height. Her mouth was set in a firm line and she glared at her quaking, struggling limbs. Just lifting it was not chakra-economical. Mastering this weapon was going to take a very long time.

'I've never realized how...physically weak I am...' Tenten marveled, disgusted with her lack of strength, 'There's no way I can use this. I might as well hand it over to-'

“Hello Tenten!”

Startled, she lost control of her chakra, and once again bound by gravity the sword plummeted an agonizing three feet down, the dull side landing squarely on Lee's foot. He was still happy to see her and Tenten watched guiltily as his eyes began to water from the crushing agony that was her sword.

Frantic, Tenten used her full weight to pull back on the blasted weapon and managed to free Lee's wounded appendage. Howling, his foot came up, cradled like a wounded babe and he hopped around in a small circle to shake off the pain. He felt better in seconds.

Lee faced her, intrigued, “Tenten! My merciful teammate,” She gave him an apologetic look, “What do you have there?”

She furrowed her brow as she looked to her frustrating yet delightful new addition to her arsenal, “This is it Lee. This right here,” She patted the smooth face of the steel blade, “Is my limit. Oh! I'm really sorry about your foot Lee! This thing is stupidly heavy. It's not broken is it-?”

“I am perfectly fine!” He grinned at her, then turned his attention to the zanbato, “My! What a fantastic weapon, Tenten! Did Haku-kun give that to you?”

Tenten sighed in exasperation, “He sure did...”

Lee reached out and took the hilt of the sword from her inquisitively, to which she made no move to object. To her immense dissatisfaction, he lifted the damn thing with relative ease.

“So you are having difficulty wielding this sword?” Lee asked, wearing a thoughtful expression.

She nodded, completely miffed, “It's no good. I've got muscles alright, but I'm not Gai-sensei..." With a wail, she added, “Finally, when I get my hands on something truly amazing I can't even lift it!”

He gave her a quizzical look, “But you were holding it up before if I am not mistaken.”

“No Lee. That was pure chakra and chakra alone doing that, and even then I was about to lose my grip!” Tenten's frustration was evident, “Sure I can swing that thing around for a while...but I'll deplete my chakra nearly three times as fast at any given rate.”

Nodding, he took her problems into consideration, and then declared, “Then we must train your body to withstand such strain! With hard work and perseverance, I can help you build up your muscles until you can lift things many times heavier than this!”

Eyes wide, Tenten accepted the generous offer, “That...that would be great, Lee.” She glanced down at the zanbato, “When should we get started?”

“There is no better time than the present!” Lee announced jubilantly and lowered the sword, “Here Tenten, try to lift it again.”

She reached out and took the hilt from him. She tugged with a force all the way from the tips of her toes and had no success. Picking apart the problem in his head, Lee took hold of the hilt as well, assisting her. Incredibly, it was up.

She frowned, disliking the gap in their abilities.

“You said you could lift it with your chakra, yes?” Lee asked, forming ideas, “I think we should begin with that.”

With a huff, Tenten forced more chakra into her arms, and felt some strain lessen from that and Lee's help. He nodded, smiling at the small progress.

“Good! Very good! Now we shall have a few warm-up swings, to accustom your arms to the stress,” Lee was surprisingly helpful.

“Yeah...yeah I get where you're going with this,” Tenten answered, bending her arms as Lee had and pulled back on the blade, “When did you become so knowledgeable about this sort of stuff, Lee?”

“When training in taijutsu, it is very important to be mindful of the limitations of one's body,” Lee quoted Gai, “Physical strain like this, I believe, falls under the same category.”

Tenten nodded, swinging the blade, and hoping that their grip on the hilt wouldn't fail and send the blade crashing back down to the ground again. It lasted for over ten minutes, Lee explaining the functions of the warm up, and Tenten feeling like her arms were on fire.

After a short while, Lee paused in their practice, leaving Tenten's chakra-high arms quivering.

“Now I feel you should slowly reduce the amount of chakra in your arms, so your muscles will-” He tried to put it as mildly as he could, “Adapt. Weaning yourself off of the use of chakra gradually should help I think.”

“Adapt?” Tenten huffed, amused, “You mean let them get torn to pieces so they grow bigger.”

“Yes.”

She sighed, “Well...whatever works...”

Almost fearfully, Tenten focused on how much chakra she had built up, and with a reasonable hesitation, lessened it a tiny margin. The blade drooped and she felt her brain splash down into her stomach.

Lee looked expectant.

Her arms were shaking more violently, as they struggled to deal with the weight. Cringing, Tenten took a breath, “Okay Lee, I'm good now.”

He nodded, not wanting to rush her.

Arms bent, the blade was pulled back, and Tenten felt the fire in her arms escalate. They swung the blade forward together, but Lee's strength alone was no longer enough to compensate her reduction of chakra.

She felt something in her forearms pop and she yelped in response, “Lee, I think that did it...”

“That is enough for now,” He helped her lower the sword, “We'll give you a few minutes to rest and then we can begin training you in taijutsu!”

Tenten gave him a puzzled look, “How will that help me lift this thing? It's like trying to lift a cow...”

“Ah, but wielding a sword uses not just the strength of your upper body does it?” Gai's protégée pointed out, “You must be able to block and move while you fight, and taijutsu is the perfect conditioning for that!”

Tenten smiled, rubbing her arms at the idea, “Lee, I'm really impressed. I think I may be able to use that thing after all...”

“Your youthful spirit will make sure of it!” Lee laughed jovially, “I know you will be the finest of all weapons specialists in the Fire Country, Tenten! I have no doubts!”

She chuckled in response, still rubbing her agonized arms.

From the side of the field, Neji then came into view and was certainly not in the highest of spirits. Lee, however, was in the exact opposite state.

“Neji! My eternal rival! Today will be the day I shall defeat you!” Lee announced, predictably.

Without a word, Neji stalked past him and up to Tenten. Neither Lee or Tenten mentioned it, but the Hyuga prodigy looked like he had already been training for a while then, or rather, like he had been in some sort of fight. His arms were bruised and his face was contorted in something worse than his normal level of anger.

And with no change in inflection, “Tenten, are you ready?”

'Oh, I forgot...' She realized after a moment, 'I really should be training with Neji now. Maybe without this over-sized butcher's knife of mine...'

She turned to Lee who gave her an understanding look. Tenten frowned at that look. It was puzzling how they so easily surrendered to Neji's whim whenever it was expressed. He tended to have that effect on people.

“Actually Neji...I'm training with Lee today,” Lee gave her an alarmed look, fearing they may incur the prodigy's wrath with such an idea, “He's helping me out with this thing,” She gestured to the zanbato beside her, “I'll train with you in a little while if you like.”

He was still processing the sentence that included 'training' and 'Lee' in it.

Oh no. She wounded his precious pride.

Losing interest, if there was any, he turned without saying anything and ventured to the side of the field for some hard-core meditation.

Tenten gulped, feeling that this foul mood they had witnessed was not by any means produced by them. Lee still appeared flabbergasted that she had the guts to turn her sparring partner down for a second time and without much protest from him either.

Shaking off the awkwardness, Tenten faced Lee again, “Well? Come on! I want to get started.”

Right on schedule, Gai arrived in a spectacular display of swirling leaves and blossoms, distracting Lee, who immediately ran to him for the morning rant.

“Gai-sensei!”

“Lee!”

“Gai-sensei!”

“Lee!”

With a sigh, Tenten went over to them, wondering how she coped.

“Hello my youthful students!” Lately he had been favoring Tenten and Lee after their dance at the festival, “I see that you two are working together this morning?”

“Yes, Gai-sensei!” Lee was radiant.

“Splendid!”

Gai seemed to overlook the giant sword Tenten had summoned after seeing Neji quietly meditating a long ways off.

“Please, return to your hard work and cooperation!” Gai grinned down at them, earning a salute from Lee in response. Tenten nodded, trying to cling to whatever normalcy was left over.

Deep breaths and full concentration were not softening Neji's mood in the least. He didn't very much care that Tenten had arranged other plans; he would've only used her as an outlet for his frustrations, as usual.

Seeing a distant cousin attack him out of pure envy, and then to see him writhe on the ground helplessly at the mercy of the Caged Bird seal was not something he delighted in. He had watched its effects for too long, even with his own father before his death, and for an instant of blind rage, he may have even considered challenging Hiashi, but to what end?

He had reopened the tenketsu that his foolish relative had sealed, but the marks remained. Neji felt more humility from what he witnessed rather than how he was attacked.

“Neji, my prodigy, I see that you have decided not to train with your youthful teammates this morning?” Gai had quietly snuck up beside him, something he had noticed much earlier.

Neji kept his eyes closed and said nothing in reply.

Taking a stretch, Gai pressed the subject further, “Those injuries…I do not believe they were inflicted by either Lee or Tenten.” Which was relatively obvious.

“I'd prefer not to discuss the matters of my clan.” Neji pointed out dryly, ending the conversation. Hell would freeze over before he confided in Gai.

With a nod Gai left the Hyuga prodigy to meditate, and went ahead to investigate how Tenten had acquired such a massive zanbato.


One Week Later

“I will not debate this with you any longer. You have heard my conditions,” Kurenai was fed up with her most argumentative student, “I have spoken to your uncle and he has been reprimanded by Hokage-sama himself for teaching you such a technique.”

“But I'm telling you sensei, I can use the Chidori!” Sato was still protesting, even after days of disagreement.

“That is precisely why you have been forbidden from performing it,” She pointed out, “It will get you killed. You have no means of defending yourself from a counterattack, not like your uncle.”

“But I can still subdue my enemies! I can show you-”

“No. Whatever you feel may make your use of the Chidori effective is not worth the risk.” Kurenai gave him a steady glare, “You are only a genin, Sato, and your skill is questionable. As your instructor I must ensure your safety.”

“You act just like Kakashi! Dance around the truth of it, say it's too dangerous, but you don't acknowledge anything that I can do!” Sato snarled, “All you really mean is that I'm stupid! That I can't protect myself! I don't have anyone who believes in me...and now I think I don't need anyone who does! I don't care what you have to say sensei! I can do this on my own! You're just like the rest of them.”

Abruptly, before she could retort, the silver haired boy stormed out of the new training area that they had been using. Hinata watched him leave, hands folded, worry weaving its way into her delicate features.

She was unsure of what to think. Both Sato and Kurenai had brought up great points, but in terms of safety and ability, Kurenai had the upper hand. Hinata could only hope that Sato would not do anything rash before the arrival of the Chunin Exam.

Shino, it was clear, agreed fully with Kurenai. He stood next to Hinata, hands hidden in his pockets.

“It is for his own good,” Kurenai said finally, to her remaining students, “I'm sure I can trust you two to prevent him from endangering himself?”

They nodded silently.

Back in town, Sato was fuming.

He had a difficult time recovering from the endless argument he had with his jounin instructor. Even his own teammates seemed uncertain of him using the Chidori after seeing it themselves.

The young Hatake made his way hastily down a busy street, frowning and thinking the situation over, 'What do they know anyway? They're not really concerned about my safety! They're just pissed off some juvenile delinquent like me is raising the bar for the other genin around here! Always selling me short...'

He stopped outside of a bakery and peaked in through the window thoughtfully, 'Maybe I can hang out here for a while...'

Sato strolled inside, running into the back end of a long line, 'Whoa, it's busy in here today.'

He took a seat as people scurried around, picking out pastries and bread, shouting orders, arguing who was first in line...things he was used to hearing. Patiently, Sato waited for the customers to leave one by one, and snapped a picture of the last to exit, who happened to be a balding, obese man who had purchased a fritter.

Sato smirked to himself, amused.

“Did you come out for lunch?”

He looked across the now empty shop to see Tama leaning on the counter next to the register. She gave him a welcoming smile and he grinned back, feeling less upset.

“Nah, I'm not hungry. Hey, guess who's fifteenth birthday is in...” Sato took a moment to think, “Two months and six days?”

Tama sighed, smiling, “Mine? Maybe?”

He pulled up a chair to the counter and sat down cross-legged, grinning, “I think you're right, clever girl.”

His odd behavior did not catch her unaware and she rested her chin on her hand, considering the false expression on his face, “You seem upset about something. Is everything alright?”

The grin he had conjured crumbled away, “No, nothing's alright anymore,” He admitted, “I got my team pissed off at me again...”

“What happened this time?” She asked, curious, turning around and rearranging the bread on the shelves behind her as she listened.

“See, I finally got my cyclopic uncle to teach me the Chidori, right?”

Tama giggled, “Right.”

“Then I show my teammates because I think that they might give me just a bit more respect, right?”

She nodded, “Right.”

“Then Kurenai-sensei just flips out and tells the Hokage! Now I'm forbidden from using it ever!” He hollered, standing up and waving his arms about.

After a moment of thought, Tama answered, “I understand. That wasn't very fair of them to do after all of your hard work,” He smirked at her favorable response, “However, I think for now you should be patient and trust their judgment, so you don't get into any more trouble, alright?”

“But it's so stupid! No one has faith in me! They all think I'm just some kid with a bunch of tricks, but I'm-”

“Shh! Keep it down, you'll scare away my customers,” She admonished lightly, “You've got to calm down. You are a great shinobi; don't let them convince you otherwise. If it were up to me, I'd let you use the Chidori whenever you felt it necessary. But I think just because they're looking out for you doesn't mean that they don't trust you.”

“I know you believe in me, but that's kind of your job, isn't it?” Sato chuckled, feeling buttered up by her confidence.

Tama shrugged, “Yes, I suppose it is my job,” She then added, “Although, this is my job too...” She patted the counter smirking, “It's hard to believe I earn more money in a day's work than a genin does!”

He sighed, “Not that hard to believe, actually...”

Her dark eyes lit up with an idea, “Oh! I just remembered! Could you do me a favor and find Lee for me?”

Sato grinned, “What? You want to ask him on a date or something?”

“No smartass,” Tama snapped, “I'm kind of not allowed to do that.”

He laughed playfully, “I bet you would if you could, right?"

She wore a small smile, “Maybe I would, now will you quit it? I need you to find him and tell him to come out here in his free time.”

Sato's voice became slightly defensive, “...why?”

“Unlike you he helps out around the shop and is polite and courteous!” Tama explained, folding her arms, “All of his help has earned him a free muffin. So can you tell him to stop by and pick it up?”

He relaxed a margin, “Oh, sure. I thought you had a thing for him or something.”

“Will you knock it off?” She warned, “You have no reason to mistrust me!”

“Hey, it's okay...Lee's a cool guy.” Sato chuckled, “I'll go find him for you then. I'm not busy.”

With a sigh she nodded, glad that she had his cooperation, “Thank you.”

Sato exited the bakery with a new spring in his step.

Visiting Tama always cheered him up. Although he was aware that his idiot uncle was the reason for his engagement to her, it had not bothered him when he was young. Sure she was nearly three years older than he was and quite a handful, but she was one of his closest life-long friends.

There were times he wondered if it was wrong that he didn't want to marry her, like he would be breaking some sort of contract that was signed for him. After all their relationship was forged when they were infants. He prized her friendship and support, but the older he got the more doubts he began to have.

She also seemed aware that he was reluctant of the entire marriage idea. But they never complained, because good friends shouldn't fret over sharing a life together, she had once said.

Still, he remembered trying to interest her in others on a few occasions, hoping she would choose a different path. It never worked. Then again, the dates he had set up for her hadn't gone very well and she let him know it too.

So whether they liked it or not, they were stuck together, thanks to their ridiculous uncles.

'One day, karma will come back to bite Kakashi in the ass...' He thought to himself pleasantly as he traversed down the sidewalk, 'Er...what was I supposed to do? Oh yeah! Find Lee. Hm...where is Lee?'


Sato had no idea where Lee lived or hung out yet he did, fortunately, know someone who might.

He ended up near his own apartment building. The weapons forge next door looked open and occupied so he decided to drop by for a minute.

The front door was left wide open and upon entering Sato's eyes met the display of a countless number of swords, kunai, shuriken, chains and every other pain-inflicting devices that shinobi adored. They had all been hand made.

'It's a bit warm in here...'

Venturing casually to the back, Sato discovered Tenten, hard at work like the blade-smith she was. He watched curiously for a moment as she folded the steel of the blade she was making over a glowing fire, hammering away. Judging that she was drenched in sweat and looked a mess, and that the blade looked like it was coming into its final stage of lamination, he guessed she had been hard at work for a while.

Sato cleared his throat loudly to catch her attention.

She paused and looked up in mid-swing. Tenten gave him a weary smile, and pulled the blade out of the hearth, setting it in a basin of cold water.

The silver haired boy raised a hand in greeting, “Hello there, neighbor!”

True, her apartment was only a few doors down from his.

“Hi,” Tenten removed her gloves, and rubbed the sweat out of her eyes with the back of her hand, “What can I do for you, Sato?”

“I've been sent to find Lee,” He reported, “I don't suppose you know where he is?”

“He should still be training with Gai-sensei, I think. Our team uses training area six, uptown.” Tenten answered, leading them to the front of the forge, “Can you believe that Lee's training has actually made my folding better?” She displayed a well-muscled arm, now capable of swinging things many times the weight of a cow.

'She's way fitter than I am...'

“I believe it all right...” Sato mumbled, “Maybe I should stop by sometime if the results are that good...”

Tenten smirked, noting his annoyance, “I'm sure he wouldn't mind! He'll run you ragged though.”

“If I can survive Kurenai-sensei's training, I can survive just about anything,” He replied, heading out the door, “Thanks Tenten, and oh! Good luck on your C-rank mission tomorrow!”

She frowned to herself after he had gone, 'Now how did he know about that?'


The following day, Team 2 had been training rigorously under the watchful eye of their mentor.

“Move your feet, Haku.” Jiraiya advised, looking up briefly from his book.

The dark haired boy leapt, hurling a few dozen senbon at Gaara who met them with his sand shield. Round after round of needles, Haku's attacks were utterly useless against his teammate.

'I can't keep up long range attacks...I have to get closer.' Haku landed lightly, moving fast and low as Gaara's sand reformed and floated around him. In a bold move, Haku met Gaara's first onslaught of sand with a running kick, breaking through, which the red haired boy promptly blocked.

Senbon were thrown again, only two connected with Gaara's arm and not in critical spots either. Haku cursed his inaccuracy as Gaara hit him with a solid punch that he had no ability to block. Off-balanced and frustrated, Haku was knocked down with another blast of sand and Jiraiya sniffed at his poor performance. ‘Jeez, looks like my genius student needs to dust up on his taijutsu. Naruto has hit harder than him since he was six.’

“Where is Naruto-kun?” Haku asked curiously, winded, being that his defense was not nearly as difficult to crack as Gaara's was. He would much rather have the blonde boy as his opponent at the moment.

Gaara extracted the needles from his arm and answered, “When he isn't here it usually means he is training with Hinata-chan's team.”

Haku frowned and stood, brushing himself off, “You shouldn't put ideas into his head...he might get into trouble.”

“I doubt it.”

Gaara had earlier informed him that since he had dropped a subtle hint to their blonde friend about Hinata’s crush, Naruto had been investigating it thoroughly. Haku feared that if Naruto did not handle the situation properly that Hinata’s feelings could end up getting squashed.

Though he often never meant to be, Naruto could be quite destructive when it came to delicate circumstances like that, and Haku was very worried that he may even unintentionally discourage Hinata from her pursuit. He found it amazing that Naruto already had such a faithful admirer, although it could be anyone's guess how long it would be before he recognized it.

Gaara just liked to shake things up...in his own lazy sort of way.

Jiraiya had put away his notes and turned his gaze to Haku from his seat atop a summoned toad's head, “Haku, I’m going to be honest with you. Your taijutsu needs major improvement, and I mean major, before the Chunin Exams begin, got it? It could end up saving your butt if you get yourself into a difficult fight. I've already recommended you guys for the exam and I won't have any of you making a fool out of me!”

“You do that perfectly well on your own.” Gaara pointed out and the sage ground his teeth at him.

Haku had already learned that the hard way. Unlike his teammates, Haku was frail and terribly low on stamina. Where Naruto could easily recover from a hit, Haku often suffered a knock out. The Hyoton boy had to admit, it was difficult to keep up with the abilities of his teammates in terms of chakra, endurance, hand-to-hand combat and general ability.

There were moments when he wished he could trade his agility and strategy for better physical qualities, 'Some are just lucky I guess...'

Jiraiya had once told them that they were a fairly balanced team. Haku and Naruto were fast on their feet while Gaara was the stationary, defensive sort. Haku contributed brains to the team and Naruto contributed brute strength and Gaara was a bit of both worlds for stability.

But it was becoming more and more evident that Haku was starting to fall behind, 'Things just seem to come more easily to them these days. Perhaps it is in the nature of jinchuriki to adapt rapidly?'

“Since you're so close with Team 13, I suggest you go train with either Neji or Lee in your free time.” Gaara commented, noting Haku's troubled expression, “They will help you improve more quickly.” Haku nodded, since he had even thought of it himself.

“I did speak with Tenten earlier about it. I will seek them out when they return from their mission.” He resolved, glancing over at Jiraiya who had dismissed his toad, “Until then, I think we should see where Naruto-kun has been.”


Near the border of the Fire Country Team Gai advanced swiftly towards their location.

It was a standard C-rank mission and was not scheduled to last more than two days. The task was to simply retrieve a scroll that a wealthy lord did not rightfully own, though he claimed it being a 'divine heirloom' of his clan. It was unclear if he was even originally from a clan to start and there were no reports of encountering any opposing shinobi, so it was deemed another taking-candy-from-a-baby sort of mission.

Once they had passed through a rocky outcrop of forest, they stopped for a moment of rest on a rock ledge overlooking the palace below. A scrub-covered plain was between them and their destination.

“The estate further ahead is small and should have relatively weak defenses,” Gai announced, grinning in the hazy afternoon light, “They will not be expecting ninja to be seeking this scroll.”

“What is our plan, Gai-sensei?” Lee was already trembling with excitement.

“Neji, Tenten; you two will scout ahead near the west side of the estate,” Their jounin instructor became more serious, “If there is no guard stationed there you will proceed to infiltrate the palace and retrieve the scroll. The records said it is kept separate from other documents on the grounds and should be relatively easy to locate."

Tenten nodded, memorizing their instructions.

“If your approach on the east side of the palace is unguarded, we can expect to rejoin you once we are inside?” Neji pointed out keenly and Gai nodded.

“Yes. Lee and I will follow behind and keep a lookout for sentries. Keep your radios on and we will meet back here before dark.”

Tenten gingerly adjusted the device secured around her neck.

“Move out!”

The Hyuga prodigy and his partner darted down the stone slope while Gai and Lee retreated back into the brush forest. Already, Tenten could hear Lee's enthusiastic rambling over the radio and she smirked in amusement when she saw Neji sigh to himself, also hearing his proclamations.


“It's definitely clear now. That guy near the shrine just turned the corner...” Tenten reported in a low voice, and turned to see Neji beside her, still fiercely examining the inside of the nearby building with his Byakugan.

“We'll move in now.”

She nodded and followed him along a tiled wall they had taken cover under. They were lithe shadows as they slipped through a dying garden, with gray sunlight filtering down through the thick clouds overhead.

Tenten found it perplexing how Neji simply slid open a door without an ounce of hesitation once they had gotten close enough, although it was all accredited to the fact that he could see through walls and most other solid objects. She was still amazed at how calm he could be at a time where she could barely handle the adrenalin coursing through her limbs.

The smell of burning, bitter incense hung in the air. Tenten, out of habit, drew a kunai as they rounded a corner and flanked down a deserted corridor. It felt almost too quiet as they paused near a wide open window, which she peaked out of, only to see shadows in an empty courtyard.

Neji eyed solid walls keenly, until finally he turned to her, motioning for her to be silent.

They passed down another atrociously long hallway and Tenten could already tell that it had occupants, judging by the recently waxed floor. She delighted in how her feet made no sound as they padded further into the interior of the palace.

'Not very decorative, are they?' She wondered, noting how only a few paintings adorned the walls. It was simple and creepy and she wanted to find the scroll and get out as fast as possible.

Neji, it seemed, was in no rush.

They stopped again before the turn of a corner. His voice was low, warning, “There are two ahead of us. The room they are stationed in front of has the scroll.”

“You can see it? From over here?”

He gave her a look of incredulity before she shrugged, then asked, “Right. So can I have first dibs?”

Neji grinned, knowing exactly what she meant, “If you're quick enough.”

There it was: another competitive challenge during a simple mission. She frowned, knowing he wouldn't deliberately endanger a plan, but still, she wanted to put him in his place.

Tenten was down the hallway in less than a second, too fast for them to even realize she was not a resident. The first one managed to draw a kunai in defense but he was no shinobi. It was a motion she had practiced hundreds of times before: knock the knife away, jab at the gut, blow to the head and he was down. She didn't even have to use her blade.

Tenten turned in time to see the second guard tumbling down unconscious after a vicious, unrestrained dose of Jyukken. Neji slid open the door again, not missing a beat. She couldn't help but smile, 'That was what? Five seconds?'

She followed him in and found that the incense had in fact been burning in that room next to a rack that contained a single, crimson colored scroll.

'Some useful tips for the future: follow your nose...it's surprisingly helpful.'

“Tenten,” Neji's voice had snapped her out of her thoughts, “Let's go. We-”

There was a faint crackling over both of their radios, and the distant shout of, “Leaf Hurricane!” that grabbed their attention. Tenten gave her partner a pained look, knowing they were both thinking the same thing after what they had heard.

“The report said no shinobi encounters. You don't think-?”

“It didn't say we were the only shinobi searching for this scroll,” Neji answered and her face darkened, “We have competitors.”

“Let's go now.” Tenten had enough of waiting and she darted out first with Neji close behind her. They retraced the path they had used to infiltrate the palace to find means of an escape.

They flew down the last corridor in less than a minute, meeting no resistance, although uproar could be heard from the eastern portion of the estate. Tenten watched their surroundings as they raced by; the door, garden and wall swirling past them as they moved, boundless energy supplied to her legs as she tagged beside Neji.

'Lee...Gai-sensei...what's going on?' Her thoughts were frantic as well. Thankfully, their quick escape had granted them a moment to recuperate, so they paused beside an out-of-commission fountain in front of the palace. Guards were scrambling around a ways off, too busy to even notice them.

“Here.” Neji handed her the scroll, which she took with a shaking hand, and watched as he tried to establish communications with the missing half of their team. After a minute of tampering around with the device, the radio was still silent.

Tenten sighed, trying to cling to optimism, but it was difficult.

He looked thoughtful for a moment before he stood, “We should keep moving. It's possible they've already retreated.”

She nodded, taking a deep breath, and followed after him as they abandoned their hiding spot and raced out onto the scrub plain ahead.

The sky darkened and light seemed to shrink away nervously as the two ran in silence through the field, skipping over boulders from time to time. Tenten gave an inquisitive look at the scroll she had been trusted with. Her eyes widened in thought.

“Neji...Neji, I think I know what this is,” Tenten paused, glancing over it again to be sure and he gave her an odd look.

His head snapped around however, after hearing another approaching them fast.

“Neji! Tenten!” Lee stopped in front of them and tried to regain his breath.

Tenten was alarmed, “Lee! Where's Gai-sensei?”

He shook his head, a grim expression on his face, “He told me to go ahead and rejoin you two. It seems that there are other shinobi who arrived shortly after we did looking for the same scroll. Gai-sensei is fighting one of the Rock ninja...I think they are jounin.”

Neji's eyes widened, not expecting such high-level threats.

“Jounin? From Iwagakure?” Tenten found it astounding, “What could they possibly want this for?”

Lee's fists were clenched, “I do not know, but Gai-sensei is outnumbered! He may need our help!”

Tenten turned to Neji, at a loss. It was unthinkable for them to take on a single jounin without their mentor, but if there were more, and from the Hidden Rock village no less, the mission could become chaotic very quickly.

Lee shook silently, standing across from them. He, like Tenten, could think of no course of action that would lead them to success. The silence was long and Neji broke it.

“We're going back.”

His teammates looked at him, shocked. Neji wore a defiant expression as he went on, “The outcome of this mission is likely to be a failure as it is. It's pointless to leave him behind,” He smirked, “Unless you...have doubts?”

Their stunned expressions seemed to melt away into something close to awe. Neji rarely ever displayed such bravery and leadership, and they felt inspired by his proposition.

Tenten grinned, tucking the scroll away, “No way. I'm not leaving Gai-sensei behind.”

“Me neither!” Lee hollered, fire burning in his eyes.

“It's settled then,” Neji looked pleased with their decisions, “We should hurry.”

They ran fully out in the open with Lee at the front. It seemed absurd for them to return to the estate with it already in turmoil, but they had little else to lose if they chose to take more risks. Tenten's gaze followed Neji as he moved like a breeze over the shrubbery, and she wondered what had suddenly made him decide to turn back.

Their return trip was cut short when Lee skidded to a startled halt, his teammates doing the same shortly after.

Ahead, some two dozen yards, was one of the Rock ninja garbed in dark clothing and a thick vest. He looked surprised to see them heading back in the direction of the tumult, but his expression soon turned to satisfaction to see they were only genin.

'Great...Lee was right. This guy really is a jounin...' Tenten grumbled mentally, trying to form some sort of strategy.

“Hand it over kids and I promise you can run home safe and sound,” His voice was a low baritone, “It's a wonder you got involved at all.”

'Involved in what? A theft?' Tenten's mind was running away with her again.

“We are not leaving until Gai-sensei comes with us!” Lee yowled, giving a shifty look to Neji beside him, who remained motionless. Tenten felt her hand close around a number of shuriken.

Just as the Rock ninja's eyes fell upon her, Tenten felt her heart jump into her mouth as her teammates charged together, 'Wait! What are they thinking?'

It was an impressive sight as for the first few seconds, the Rock ninja was too surprised to block, but as seconds ticked by, Lee was given a run for his money. Neji had already activated his Byakugan.

Tenten wasn't very inclined to just sit back and watch.

Whipping out two of her best scrolls and setting them down, she smirked as she cried out something of a warning to her teammates, “Soshouryu!”

She was in the air a moment later, hurling scythes, swords, kunai and other delightful instruments of pain. Lee ducked out of the way of the assault and Neji blocked out of pure reflex as he continued to jab at the jounin with spikes of Jyukken.

The Rock shinobi managed to evade most of the projectiles, although one or two knives protruded from the front of his vest. Their hearts sank as he formed seals and aimed a rock jutsu for Tenten, who was still helpless in the air.

Instinctively she raised her arms up in front of her as she fell, trying to lessen the blow, but the sheer force of the boulder knocked the wind out of her even before she had touched the ground. Tenten tumbled down, still fighting fit, trying to regain her breath, 'Ow...I think he cracked something...'

Lee, somewhere off to her right, had opened a gate and began to circle around the Rock ninja in preparation for an attack at a speed untraceable to the human eye. Neji was already beginning an assault of his own, “Hakke Rokujuyon Sho!”

The Rock nin had some difficulty blocking while Neji attempted to seal off his tenketsu. Lee was still circling, waiting for Neji to end his attack.

'That's not going to finish him...gah! I need to do something!' Tenten riffled around for any scroll in her possession and her hand closed around one which she quickly inspected, 'Oh. But this is just the one we stole. Still, I thought it was...well, it could be a-'

Out of hurried curiosity, she opened it. What she saw made her shudder in excitement.

A summoning scroll.

'It's a weapon too! I can't believe my luck!' Her eyes scrambled around, looking for a place to sign it, 'Mission or no mission, I don't care, I'm not passing this up!'

Only one name had been signed in the space before hers and it looked very outdated, 'Hm, I wonder why this hasn't been in use?' Using the stolen time from Lee and Neji's distraction she hastily bit her thumb and signed her name hurriedly in blood, unable to suppress her grin.

As she stood and darted further away to put more distance between herself and the fracas, her eyes passed over a small, faded kanji near the top of the scroll, 'It looks old...but it's in good shape. It looks like a bow of some sort. Great! I can work with that!'

Tenten leapt up to the top of a rock outcrop, overhearing Lee trying to perform Primary Lotus. Without wasting a moment she summoned the weapon, and in a flash of smoke her excited grin turned into a frown of the utmost bafflement.

It was a golden yumi (long bow), tall enough so that it reminded her of her new zanbato, which she had lovingly nicknamed 'Cow-Killer.' The bow was among the most magnificent of bamboo yumi she had ever laid eyes on, with small, red seals lining it down the side

After the momentary euphoria of her success, the horror kicked in, 'Wait a minute! It's just the yumi...but no arrows!'

Anyone well-practiced in the art of Kyudo would first condition their bodies and relax, but Tenten was beside herself over not having thought of bringing arrows with her. Her brain was scrambling, and the sight of Lee getting knocked back a few dozen feet by an earth jutsu was not helping her relax.

'No arrows! No haya or otoya? I'm screwed! How I am supposed to use this?' Her eyes darted frantically up and down the beautiful yumi, 'Now I get why no one used this thing! It's completely-!' Tenten's breath hitched when her dark eyes noticed an odd kanji at the center of the bow which could be distinguished clearly, '...molded chakra...what the heck is that supposed to mean?'

She figured any shinobi could be discouraged by such a puzzling weapon, even the ones from Iwagakure, 'Pft...as if they'll figure out how to...'

Chakra.

She understood.

'Does this mean...use chakra as an arrow?'

Tenten figured that was her only option. Focusing chakra into her right hand, she laid it over the seal as she held the yumi steady with her left hand. Her excitement returned as she pulled back, and a blue shaft of light formed. Now that was progress.

She strung her chakra ya to the bow, her heart hammering so loud she was sure she could hear it, and pulled back, eyeing her teammates as they relentlessly attacked the jounin. Tenten's aim was on the spot; the trouble was that Lee and Neji were still in the way.

“Move!” She must've screamed it at the top of her lungs as she launched.

The three shinobi below her looked up, startled, only seeing a flash of blue soaring towards them. As expected, Lee did not have to be told twice as he raced out of the way, not certain what was going on. Neji, on the contrary, was a bit preoccupied as the Rock nin continued to fight, this time drawing a sword.

Halfway in its trajectory, in less than a second, the chakra arrow did something rather peculiar.

It lit on fire spontaneously and there was the briefest of panicked moments as it landed squarely, unaffected by wind or resistance at the jounin's feet, setting off and exploding like some sort of grenade. Neji deflected the blast at the last second with Kaiten. The Rock ninja was less lucky.

Further beyond the fresh crater lay their opponent, unconscious, and then sporting some nasty third-degree burns. 'All that from this thing?' Tenten eyed the yumi, smiling, 'I'll be sorry when I have to hand it over to Hokage-sama...'

Down the slope of the outcrop, Lee looked up at Tenten, whooping and hollering, “Tenten! That was amazing! I have never seen such destruction with a single shot!”

“Me neither...” She muttered, beginning to stow it away.

Neji, who recovered the fastest from Tenten's frightening attack, made certain their opponent was knocked out before calling over to them, “We should keep moving!”

Lee nodded, still excited from the battle.

Tenten didn't want to rush the care of her new favorite weapon, “You guys go ahead without me! I'll catch up in a minute.”

They left a moment later and she continued to store away the yumi, regarding it with admiring eyes.


“We were chased out here after they discovered us,” Lee explained as he led Neji past the tree line into the surrounding forest of the estate, “This is where I last saw Gai-sensei...”

Neji had activated the Byakugan and was already examining the area.

Lee paused, hesitant to go any farther, “Shouldn’t we wait for Tenten?”

“She'll be right behind us,” Neji dismissed the thought as he searched for signs of their mentor.

All at once, the two Leaf ninja leapt back to avoid the shuriken that rained down where they had been standing. They looked up to see another Rock shinobi, perched on top of a nearby rock ledge. He looked a bit older than them.

Both Lee and Neji were confident at that point after having defeated a jounin. The chunin before them did not seem at all threatening.

“Feh!” Clearly he was displeased with his aim, as he made a reach for more shuriken.

“Where is Gai-sensei?” Lee demanded, taking an offensive stance.

“If you mean that crazy guy with the stupid haircut,” The Rock nin smirked, “My squad leader is handling him right now...”

Lee glared at him but knew better than to be provoked. Neji, even without using the Byakugan, noticed the earth clone of the Rock ninja that had crept up behind them and he turned, signaling for Lee to move.

After avoiding its surprise attack and reducing it to a pile of dirt with a blast of Jyukken, Neji was about to destroy the other two clones closing in. Lee had found one of them and was already attempting to dispatch it, not prepared for when the original Rock chunin attacked from underground, “Doton: Inner Decapitation Jutsu!”

Taken by surprise, Lee was suddenly dragged underground, leaving only his head exposed above the surface. He wore a baffled look as the earth clones approached.

Neji easily destroyed them with two well-placed jabs, and after seeing that Lee was stuck he continued on to get rid of the young Rock nin. In his rush, he evaded the rest of the shuriken the Rock chunin hurled at him with ease.

Unfortunately, after he sealed only two tenketsu, the Rock ninja managed one last panicked jutsu. Neji failed to avoid the rock slide that came crashing down beside him, obscuring him from Lee's view.

Lee spat out a mouthful of dust, “Bleh! Neji!”

It was quiet for a long moment. Out of the rubble, brushing dust from his arms the Rock ninja appeared, coughing and sputtering after his reckless move.

Lee fell silent and watched as the Rock shinobi descended the slope, pleased with his handiwork, 'Did he...really get Neji?'

It seemed so.

Not a moment later, Tenten came diving through the trees, throwing round after round of kunai. One of which, with an exploding tag attached, landed nearby Lee as he began to wriggle out of his prison, “Tenten–!” He was cut off as the tag detonated and thankfully gave him enough leverage from the debris to free himself.

The Rock chunin blocked her hail of knives and ducked back, not expecting another to show up.

She landed in front of Lee with a kunai raised in front of her. He sighed in relief.

“Where's Neji?” Tenten gave him a sideways glance.

“He was injured and I think-”

“Then take him and go ahead and find Gai-sensei,” Tenten answered, eyes set on the Iwa nin, “There's no use waiting around here.”

Lee gave her an incredulous look, “But Tenten, what about you?”

“I can handle it.” She said curtly, watching as the Rock ninja began to form seals.

With a compliant nod, Lee darted over to the rock pile as Tenten leapt at the opposing shinobi. After leaning the unconscious Hyuga prodigy on his shoulder he bolted, hoping she would end this battle as decisively as she had ended the last.

Again, the chunin used a Rock jutsu which she easily avoided by taking cover in a tree. The shuriken he threw as a follow up she deflected and threw back at him. Tenten was still fresh with energy and she could tell her opponent was wearing down.

'If I stay up here, I can avoid his earth jutsu no problem!' She decided, jumping up higher and higher into the canopy of old oaks.

Without warning he appeared behind her and stabbed her full in the back. He only destroyed a substitute. Again he was frustrated, “Why don't you come out of hiding little girl? Your teammates aren't here to save you!”

Tenten already had a summoning scroll out, moving fast. In her mind, she thanked Lee for all of his training as her beloved zanbato appeared and she took hold of its hilt with calloused, practiced hands.

The chunin settled on a lower branch, still searching for her with a kunai in hand.

Suddenly she was falling with the weight of the blade, and she seemed to fly downward, in a silent free fall though the treetops, crashing down next to his position. Tenten watched as his eyes widened in shock, probably due to never seeing such a weapon before.

And it happened with her mind elsewhere. The blade swung nearly on its own accord and bisected him right through his middle.

The Rock nin gave a startled, choked gasp before he fell back off of the branch in two halves.

She rested on bent knee and leaned on the stained blade. She panted heavily.

Tenten could tell she had won even before she had summoned the sword.

With only half a mind and a conscience that seemed to be frozen over, she unsummoned her blade without cleaning it, her arms trembling from the effort.

Tenten hadn't wanted to kill him but he had gotten in the way. If she hadn’t stopped him he would have surely gone after her friends.

The next thought that did cross her foggy mind happened to be something less important, 'I'm definitely not calling it Cow-Killer anymore.'


“Remind me again why we're not out training?” Naruto yawned, preparing ramen for his breakfast.

It was the day before the Chunin Exam and the three boys of Team 2 lazed about at home early that morning.

“Jiraiya-sensei feels we should rest our bodies and minds for the day so we can be fresh for tomorrow,” Haku answered, busy sweeping, “Today we relax.”

The blonde boy smirked at him, “You don't seem very relaxed to me, Haku-kun.”

Haku frowned at him, “If I don't do the housework it'll never get done.”

Naruto nodded, knowing that neither he nor Gaara were keen on chores, at least not the way Haku was. Somehow during their years spent living together Haku had assumed the role of housekeeper.

On the couch Gaara was spread out, dozing lightly.

Though they didn't admit it, the boys all had the 'pre-exam jitters,' or so Jiraiya had labeled it. They didn't know what to expect from the exam besides the participation of shinobi from distant countries. It was anyone's guess what would happen after they took the plunge into the fierce contest of becoming chunin.

Gaara was confident enough to sleep on the idea.

Naruto and Haku, on the other hand, were a different story.

Finished with his cleaning, Haku sat across from Naruto at the table and helped himself to some instant ramen. Naruto slurped his noodles slowly, staring down into his cup.

“So, tell me about your training with Hinata-chan,” Haku said after a moment, looking sly, “Gaara says you've been going to see her often now.”

The blonde boy's face lit up at the subject, “Yeah, Hinata-chan is awesome to spar with! Her taijutsu totally rules out yours and Gaara's!”

“I can imagine...” Haku sighed.

“She's great, but...” Naruto's smile faded, “Her clan has issues. I've never seen people more stuck up! And they make her out to be some kind of joke. It's completely unfair, Haku-kun.”

“The Hyuga's strict traditions make them quite narrow-minded,” The dark haired boy agreed, taking a nip at his ramen, “But what do they have against Hinata-chan?”

“Her dad thinks she's worthless and that Neji's some kind of saint!” Naruto had stopped eating, and his raised voice caught Haku by surprise, “I'm telling you, it's unbelievable that she's even related to them at all!”

Gaara smirked from his place on the sofa.

“And Hinata-chan…she keeps trying so hard. When I'm Hokage, I'm gonna set that clan straight, just wait and see!” Naruto gestured with his chopsticks.

Haku smiled and with an earnest voice answered, “Naruto, you really will be the most virtuous of leaders this village has ever had. I will cherish the day your face joins those on the Hokage monument.”

Naruto wore an astounded look upon hearing his friend's sincere words, and then nodded quietly, unsure of what to say.

In his own mind, Gaara agreed with Haku's declaration.

“I spoke with Sakura-chan yesterday after I ran into her uptown,” Haku changed the subject with flawless timing.

Naruto wore a surprised expression, “Really? I haven't seen her in a while.”

Gaara's smirk vanished.

“Yes. She and her teammates have been thoroughly preparing for the exam, although she seemed a bit nervous,” Haku added thoughtfully, “Not unlike us.”

“Feh! We'll do fine! I still think we're the best team in this entire village!” Naruto grinned confidently, having faith in his team's abilities.

Without any kind of warning, Gaara rose from the couch and left the apartment. His friends blinked in confusion.

The door closed behind Gaara gently and Naruto stared after him inquisitively, “Where does he think he's going?”

“Gaara-kun can handle himself,” Haku said simply, “Let him go where he likes.”


Sakura walked down the side of the street carrying a bag of groceries. Even the day before the Chunin Exam her pushy mother still had her running errands.

Unable to help herself after seeing the beautiful display of chrysanthemum, Sakura stole a peak in both directions before stopping for a moment in front of the Yamanaka flower shop. She took an indulgent sniff of the bright blossoms, trying to calm her jumbled nerves.

Ino had stepped out at that precise moment to add another mum to the display.

At first sight, Ino had actually been glad to see her. Even though she had been Sakura's top competitor during their time at the Academy, and then after, she couldn't help but have a soft spot for the pink haired girl.

Like she'd ever show it.

“Well, well, forehead girl! Fancy seeing you here,” Ino gave her a sassy look, “How's Sasuke-kun doing?”

Sakura turned slowly to face her, refusing to take the bait, “Hello there, Ino-pig,” She smiled back, “He's fine.”

Ino still wanted to strike a nerve and get a rise out of her, “Good. I'm looking forward to a date with him one of these days! It isn't as if I have any competition.”

Sakura was surprised at how boring the conversation was, “Yup.”

Ino, flustered, couldn't help but become aggravated at Sakura's submissive attitude, “Why did you come over here anyway? Is something bothering you? Other than the fact that you're going to fail the exam tomorrow?”

“My team and I will do just fine tomorrow, Ino,” Sakura answered, turning away from the flower display, “You should save your concerns for your own team.”

In her mind, inner Sakura was raving, 'Cha! Toss that one right back at her!'

Before coming up with a snappy retort, Ino's eyes happened over a lone figure across the street that immediately gave her the creeps, “I don't see him come around here often...”

Sakura followed the blonde haired girl's gaze to the opposite side of the road where Gaara stood in the shadow of a tall building, watching her impassively.

The pink haired girl felt her brain slosh around in her stomach. Ino didn't overlook Sakura's bewilderment.

Steeling herself, Sakura took a deep breath and straightened the paper bag in her arms, “I'll see you later, Ino.”

With wary steps Sakura crossed the street to him, hoping this meeting would be on peaceful terms. Ino set down the flower pot in her arms and smiled, finding the scene intriguing, 'Maybe I'm wrong about Sakura. It looks like she's got different goals than I thought she did.'

The pink haired girl tried to avoid eye contact as she approached, but it was an arduous task. She gulped, trying to gather her wits, 'It's just Gaara-kun. Everything is going to be okay.’

“Hi.” Her mouth had acted on its own. It was then she realized time had not slowed down, and that she was standing only a few feet away from him. 'He looked so far away...'

He did not answer in words but instead gave a slight tilt of his head, gesturing for her to follow. Sakura ambled after him as he entered the alleyway behind them and leapt with ease up onto a fire escape. Readjusting her parcel, Sakura made the jump as well, and then proceeded to follow him up onto the aluminum roof of a tattered building.

They stood for a moment, facing each other awkwardly. 'He doesn't look mad...' She thought.

Sakura forced herself to smile, trying to calm herself down, “I…haven't seen you in a while. How are you and the others doing?”

Gaara shrugged.

The simple action helped her relax fully and she was glad to see he wasn't in one of his wrathful moods. Sakura found she was able to form words easily again.

“Well I can't tell you how excited I am about the exam tomorrow! I just know we're going to do great!” Sakura was in one of her rambling states of mind, “Kakashi-sensei says that we should expect to be competing with ninja from other villages, and we should be as healthy as possible when the exam starts,” She paused, seeing that he was once again listening intently, “Things are going to get really crazy come tomorrow...”

The silence that followed made her more alert to the fluttering creature in her stomach.

“I don't blame you.” He spoke at long last.

Sakura gave him a quizzical look, “B-Blame me? For what?”

“For you telling your teammates about us,” He ignored her terrified look, “It was...the right thing to do. Teammates should not keep secrets from each other.”

She shook her head, “They weren’t my secrets to share.”

Gaara's face gave no trace of emotion, “You don’t have to worry about that anymore.”

“Yeah...” She mumbled, a small smile finding its way to her face.

With no change in inflection, he added, “I'm disappointed in you.”

Her face froze up in response; not comprehending, 'I don't get it! He tells me that it's alright and now he's sending me on another guilt trip?'

“I was disappointed that you didn’t believe I would forgive you.” Gaara said quietly, as if she couldn't have figured it out for herself, “Something you should keep in mind, Sakura, is that I am your friend. I could never hate you, but I will warn you to be cautious of your actions from here on out. My temper gets the best of me at times.”

She was surprised by his sage piece of advice. Sakura then understood why he had sought her out, 'I suppose he wanted to be honest about his feelings with me…without using Naruto or Haku as a go-between.’

“I...I will.” She answered softly, finding it hard to look at him, “Good luck for tomorrow.”


The following day was cloudy and a sharp tension filled the air. Naruto, Gaara and Haku had only caught a brief glimpse of Jiraiya before heading off to the Academy. He was not thrilled that he had to contribute a few hours of community service before going to check up on them. His parting words had been: “Knock ‘em dead!”

At the present time, Naruto and his teammates were making their way through the busy corridor of the second floor, listening as Haku quizzed them on questions they may be confronted with. It was, after all, a formal exam. Mental preparation would be helpful.

“There's no way you can kill someone like that Haku-kun,” Naruto retorted, as they passed by a group of lost-looking Rain ninja, “Senbon don't kill people.”

“They can.” Gaara said simply, “It's just that Haku doesn't kill people.”

“You're not qualified to talk about this subject,” Naruto grumbled, disliking his lack of knowledge, “Except for maybe the...uh...killing part.”

The red haired boy only sighed.

“On to the next question...” Haku pressed on as they passed by a crowd of desperate, young ninja gathered around a blocked door, “Hm, I hope they realize that this is the second floor and that is only a genjutsu...”

“They'll figure it out for themselves eventually,” The blonde smirked, “Now, next question, and make it easier!”

“Alright.” Haku took a moment to think, “Three shinobi are guarding a scroll. Shinobi A is directly behind Shinobi B and directly left of Shinobi C. If Shinobi A and Shinobi B are 15 feet apart, and Shinobi B and Shinobi C are 17 feet apart, what is the distance between Shinobi A and Shinobi C?”

“I said easier, Haku-kun! Not crazy math stuff!”

Gaara had already worked it out, “8 feet.”

“That’s right.” Haku nodded happily.

Naruto gave Gaara an annoyed look before shrugging, “Ah, well. You always were good at math.”

They reached the third floor, which was relatively clear of ninja, with the exception of shouts coming from down the hall. The genin of Team 2 exchanged short glances before moving on, wondering what the fuss was about.

The boys passed over a balcony and below it they discovered Lee challenging another ninja.

“You! The one with the bad attitude!”

“Oh no.” Haku was alarmed by the sight.

On the floor below them was Team 7 and Lee, who was glaring at Sasuke. The Uchiha seemed relatively unfazed by Lee's presence. Naruto chuckled, not expecting confrontations before the exam. Then again, he had to consider how Lee adored camaraderie and punished disrespect. Sasuke was bound to strike a nerve if they crossed paths.

“I, Rock Lee, challenge you to a fight!” Lee was clearly over-excited and without his teammates. Still, Sasuke wasn't looking very much bothered. Kiba and Sakura could only observe in exasperation, fearing that Lee was too riled up to think rationally.

Gaara decided to save him the trouble, “You shouldn't waste your time here, Lee.”

Lee was surprised by the comment and looked up, as did the other Leaf genin. Lee immediately lost interest in his challenge of the Uchiha survivor, and leapt up onto the balcony to join Team 2, “Ah! It is good to see you comrades! This indeed is a momentous day, is it not?”

Below, Sasuke looked nonplused. Lee's attention span didn't linger on sneering opponents; he seemed to naturally gravitate to friendlier people.

“How are you Lee?” Haku gave him a small smile, “It looks like Neji and Tenten aren't with you.”

“Yes. They went on ahead while I stayed behind to...” Lee glanced back down at Sasuke, frowning, “Test myself against one of the geniuses of Konoha!” He then turned his attention back to Haku, “Of course, there may be a better time and place for it. Are you and your teammates ready for the exam?”

“Of course we are Fuzzy-brows!” Naruto replied enthusiastically, “Haku's been giving us drills all morning!” Haku wore a troubled look, but Gaara seemed just as confident as Naruto did.

“Hey! I don't mean to interrupt your shouting match up there, but if you guys don't quit it you'll be late for the first part of the exam.” Kiba pointed out, sick of delays. Akamaru yappered in agreement from atop his head. Kiba turned to Sakura, “Let's get going.”

She nodded to him and looked up to Lee and Team 2, giving them a parting smile. Sakura followed after her teammates in silence, hoping that she was hiding her nerves well.

“He is right,” Lee nodded sagely, taking the Inuzuka boy's advice, “I shall now go and return to my team!” In a flash of bright, green youth he departed down the hallway, radiating confidence.

“I wonder what that was all about?” Naruto said, stretching his arms over his head as he, Haku and Gaara continued on, “I know Sasuke's not exactly what you'd call friendly, but Lee looked ticked off.”

Haku stared ahead at Gaara's gourd as they walked, frowning inwardly, “I can't say that I know.”

Gaara didn't bother sharing his opinion, but he didn't have to; his teammates were already aware of his opinion of Sasuke.

When they were younger, Gaara had missed out on the fateful day Sasuke's family had been annihilated. While Naruto and Haku assured him that it was a good thing he had, and that no one should have to witness something as macabre as the sight of that bloody mansion, they themselves wondered if that was one of the reasons Gaara seemed to detach himself from the very thought of the Uchiha survivor, harboring no sympathy for him whatsoever.

Naruto often called it 'Gaara's pet peeve'. The mere mentioning of Sasuke seemed to plaster a scowl on the red haired boy's face for hours on end. Haku had tried to discover the roots for his extreme detestation but there seemed to be no motive.

That was, until recently, they had gained a rather ominous clue.

Things began to go downhill with Gaara's mood swings as Sakura had been placed on the same cell as the young Uchiha. Sakura and Sasuke seemed to share an unidentifiable bond, as subtle and obscure as it was. Gaara noticed it better than anyone, and he spat on and shunned the idea of the two actually being friends...through glares and silent protest.

In short, both Haku and Naruto had concluded that Gaara felt at least slightly threatened by Sasuke, with regards to Sakura.

'Though I guess it's got to be more complicated than that...' Naruto assumed, 'Gaara-kun won't say a word about it. When he was ranting about Sakura a while back...he didn't say anything that proved he likes her. He can be such a prick sometimes. I guess I'm used to it by now.'

Gaara kept walking silently, sensing his teammates' anxiety. He chose to ignore it.

Naruto slid open the door on the far end of the hallway and his expression turned to one of astonishment. The same could be said for both Haku and Gaara as well.

The auditorium was packed. Teams of shinobi from many different villages were seated at desks or standing along the walls, huddled together talking, scheming, praying and other such activities to pass the time. The cacophony of the room was deafening.

“Wow, a lot of ninja turned out...” Naruto muttered, still visibly amazed so many people could fit in one place. He and his teammates ventured inside, keeping a wary eye on the foreign shinobi hanging about.

The blonde boy's shock turned into fascination at all of the different headbands he was seeing, “Grass, Cloud, Sand, Sound, Rain...” He grinned at Haku, “Hey! Maybe some Mist ninja showed up too, Haku-kun!”

Gloomily, Haku shook his head, “I wish. The Hidden Mist Village has had its own Chunin Selection Exam for quite some time, Naruto-kun. I don't think they're fond of interacting with other countries.”

Naruto sighed in defeat at the news. There just seemed to be no way to cheer Haku up with the idea of being reunited with his kindred.

They lingered near the back of the room, where thankfully, a cluster of Konoha genin resided. Naruto didn't overlook Hinata seated between Shino and Sato at a desk in the far right corner. He shouted and waved, “Hey! Hinata-chan!”

Her cheeks tinged pink as he approached, followed by a smirking Gaara and Haku.

“Hello Naruto-kun,” She said softly, smiling, “Hello Gaara-kun, Haku-kun...”

Shino nodded to them as well, which was something uncommon on his part. The blonde boy turned to see Sato next to Hinata, his head buried in his folded arms on top of the desk. He frowned to himself in puzzlement, having never seen him in such a state.

“Is Sato-kun feeling well?” Haku asked, not wanting to disturb him.

Hinata glanced over at her silver haired teammate, “He's been sleeping since w-we arrived. I'm not sure what is troubling him, but Sato-kun hasn't been v-very anxious at all over the exam.”

“His unusual lack of energy may be attributed to matters that we are not permitted to discuss.” Shino added cryptically, which was little help. Hinata, however, only nodded in agreement, giving a worried glance to their less-than-perky teammate.

“That's gotta suck, being sick on the day of the Chunin Exam...” Naruto assumed he was ill, “Hopefully he won't hold you guys back!”

“I'm sure he'll catch a second wind...” Hinata said softly, hoping that was the case.

Gaara had his arms folded and he gave a thoughtful glance to the young Hatake. He too found his lack of liveliness to be disconcerting.

Haku looked to his left to see Kiba and his teammates approaching, along with the members of Team 10. Sakura and Ino appeared to be having a heated argument already. 'So many are participating...it seems that a majority are actually Leaf shinobi as well...' Haku was trying to get a head count on their competition.

“Hm, it looks like you're all a bunch of newbies this year...” A voice came from behind them, and they turned around to see another Konoha genin, straightening out his glasses, “You better watch your step! This is one tough crowd.”

Naruto gave him an odd look, “Eh? Who are you supposed to be?”

The boy smiled back at Naruto, “Me? My name is Yakushi Kabuto,” He then chuckled, “And you are Uzumaki Naruto.”

The blonde boy was startled, “How'd you know that?”

Kabuto smirked, “I know all there is to know about the genin participating in this year's exam,” He paused, glancing over to Haku and then Gaara, “That is to say...I'm an old pro. I've failed this exam seven times.”

“Seven times?” Haku and Naruto spoke in unified disbelief.

He nodded gravely, “Yes. This isn't a game. The Chunin Selection Exams are the dividing line between Academy students and true ninja, and it's no easy line to cross. It's a test that many rookies take lightly and well...” Kabuto sighed, “They come to regret it.”

Shikamaru, with Chouji munching a bag of pretzels beside him, gave a suspicious glance to the strange Konoha genin, finding his words to be a bit theatrical. He reflected on how the difficulty of the exam could prevent him from advancing, especially when he lacked the full incentive to actually pass it to begin with.

Ino and Sakura had ended their loud discussion and took a moment to heed the seasoned genin's advice.

“All my time spent taking the exams hasn't been wasted,” Kabuto smirked to himself, pushing his glasses further up the bridge of his nose, “From my experiences I've compiled these Ninfo cards,” He displayed a deck of cards, whose faces appeared blank, “They contain information on every genin here.”

Sakura's eyebrows knitted into a frown, “But those cards are blank.”

He nodded, “They are now. But once I pump a bit of chakra into them they become more useful...” Kabuto demonstrated by squatting down and placing a single card on the floor. He tapped it with his index finger, injecting a small amount of chakra.

After a moment an image appeared on the once-blank card. Haku took a mental note of the trick, finding it interesting.

Again, Kabuto smirked, very full of himself, “These cards are the fruit of all my toils. There's not one ninja around who I don't have details on.”

His audience at that point had no doubt about it, having never witnessed something like it before. Still, proof would help the skeptics rest easy.

Sasuke frowned. He had his hands stuffed in his pockets, “Then you have information on the rookie genin as well?”

“Of course,” Kabuto again readjusted his glasses, “Name anyone. I have them.”

Sasuke was thoughtful for a moment and Kiba and Sakura both gave him contemplative looks. “Rock Lee,” Sasuke suggested, thinking of his most recent encounter. A moment later a small smirk appeared on his face, “And Gaara.”

Naruto felt the hair on the back of his neck stand on end before he turned to his redheaded friend. Both he and Haku stole a glimpse of their teammate. He seemed outwardly relaxed, almost as if he hadn't heard Sasuke's request. Yet beneath the façade Naruto could tell he was barely leashing the killing intent that often radiated off of him in waves.

After a short search through the deck, Kabuto retrieved a blank card and fed it chakra to make the information visible, “Here we are: Rock Lee. It looks like he graduated a year before you did. He is the student of Maito Gai and his teammates are Hyuga Neji and Tenten,” He blinked and then continued, “Hm...it says here that he's improved greatly in taijutsu, but has no talent for either genjutsu or ninjutsu. His team has completed 30 D-rank missions and 12 C-rank missions.”

Sakura held her breath as Gaara's card was also found and she stole a glance at Haku and Naruto. They also looked a bit nervous. The red haired boy was silent as he watched, wondering what his own stats were.

“This is it: Gaara. Wow, looks like he and his teammates are being trained by one of the Legendary Three, Jiraiya,” Kabuto was impressed, “His teammates are Uzumaki Naruto and Haku. He well-rounded in taijutsu and has potential for genjutsu. His ninjutsu far exceeds genin skill...”

Naruto and his teammates relaxed, seeing that there was no critical information listed on the card.

“His team has completed 33 D-rank missions, 4 C-rank missions and...whoa! Get this: one A-rank mission lead by Mitarashi Anko!” Kabuto read the last of the information with an air of incredulity.

Stunned, the rest of the rookie genin turned to give a hearty stare to Team 2, unsure if what Kabuto had listed was even accurate. Sasuke and his teammates were clearly baffled.

Naruto, Haku and Gaara only snickered, not expecting their mission to the Land of Waves to be recorded. The Hokage must have posted the results immediately upon their return.

“Well, it looks like Konoha has some of the toughest competition this year...” Kabuto concluded, stowing away his prized Ninfo cards, “Some other ninja to watch out for come from Sand and Rain, but I wouldn't worry too much about any Grass or Sound shinobi; they’re pushovers. Cloud ninja are a force to be reckoned with; however there are few participants this year.”

A short distance away a team of Sound ninja listened in, not liking Kabuto's viewpoint on their village's strength.

“It's surprising though, I didn’t think Cloud would participate with us at all,” Kabuto went on, gesturing towards a team on the far side of the room that seemed to be chatting idly with each other, “And the Sound village is relatively new and not very large,” He added, smirking, “I feel those ninja won't be much of a threat.”

Naruto was about to ask him why that was before one of the eavesdropping Sound ninja nearby rushed over to Kabuto with an incredible speed. He was nearly unable to block the incoming punch that forced him back a few feet. Hinata gave a small chirp of alarm while other Leaf genin flared up their senses for a fight.

The bandaged Sound nin stood warily in front of Kabuto, unwilling to back off. Kabuto tried not to appear intimidated. Haku, with the exception of Shikamaru, was the least inclined to start a riot over the assault, 'We can be disqualified before the exam even begins if we cause trouble now...'

Other ninja seated nearby looked on curiously, wondering if things would get ugly.

The Sound ninja's voice was a low growl, “You'd do well to not underestimate the shinobi from my village, cur.”

Kabuto readjusted his glasses, smiling at him, “Perhaps I will, but this doesn't prove much to me you know...I simply-” He stopped speaking and fell to his knees retching. The lenses in his glasses had cracked and it was evident there were signs of a silent attack.

“Kabuto?” Naruto reacted the most sympathetically, as was his nature, “Are you alright?”

A few other Leaf genin helped him stand as the Sound ninja stalked off, fuming. Kabuto wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, muttering, “I see...so it was that kind of jutsu. I should've been more cautious.”

Gaara merely blinked at Haku, feeling that the know-it-all genin had brought it upon himself. Haku sighed. He was grateful they had avoided an all-out brawl. As the noise level in that part of the room began to steadily increase once again, it seemed as if the incident had been forgotten.

“Quiet!” There was a shout that could be heard over the raucous and the assembled genin quickly hushed. Their attention rested on a man at the front of the room. He was clad in a dark overcoat and a fierce expression resided on his scarred face.

He continued speaking, “Before the first part of the Chunin Selection Exam commences you all will be randomly seated by number. Do not expect to be placed by your teammates in this part of the exam.”

After a moment or so names were called and categorized into different rows. Of the rookie Leaf genin Haku was the first to be called. Giving a cheerful expression to his teammates he went ahead to one of the rows nearest to the front, leaving the other genin to contemplate their positions.

It took a long while to seat all of the genin, but once the process was finished, Naruto relaxed a margin. He had been lucky enough to be seated next to the shy Hyuga girl. He grinned at her, whispering, “Hey Hinata-chan! You see our teammates anywhere? I can't spot em.”

With a blink, she nodded, “I saw Gaara-kun near the back before I was seated and...Sato-kun is just a few seats right of you...”

The blonde boy turned to have a look and saw the silver haired boy nearby. His head was still resting on his folded arms, “Wow, he looks like crap. Are you sure he's going to be alright?”

She sighed, “I...really don't know.”

“Listen up!” All heads faced front, “For many of you this is your first time taking the exam. Pay attention because I will not repeat myself,” He cleared his throat, “My name is Morino Ibiki and I will be your proctor for the first part of the Chunin Selection Exam.”

The room was very still after that and Naruto noticed Hinata shifting uncomfortably in her seat.

“The first portion of the exam will be the written test,” Ibiki went on, “There are nine questions on the written exam. Each of you will start with ten points each. Every time you are caught cheating, two points will be deducted from your score. Anyone who is caught cheating more than five times will fail and any team whose combined scores are fifteen points or less fail. After the 45 minute period you are given to answer the test questions, a tenth question will be administered.”

Naruto leaned his chin on his hand, absorbing the information, and then turned to Hinata, “Jeez! So many rules! They really put you through the ropes with all this stuff...”

The shy girl nodded silently.

“The sentries stationed about the room are there to make sure you do not cheat,” The proctor informed a few puzzled genin, who were startled by the hawk-like guards nearby, “There will be no talking after the tests are handed out,” Ibiki smirked, “Good luck.”

The scratching of pencils was absent as the tests were distributed, but Naruto's attention was focused on Haku who was only a few rows ahead of him. The moment the dark haired boy had been handed the test he had just started scribbling. The blonde boy frowned to himself, “I didn't know Haku-kun was left handed.”

“I believe he is ambidextrous, Naruto-kun.” Hinata said softly, smiling as she signed her name on the top of her own paper.

He nodded to her, but was still confused, 'I can't believe I never noticed that...' Without further preamble Naruto glanced over his own test after signing his name.

'Okay, question number one: Three shinobi are guarding a scroll. Shinobi A is directly behind Shinobi B and directly left of Shinobi C. If Shinobi A and Shinobi B are 15 feet apart, and Shinobi B and Shinobi C are 17 feet apart, what is the…wait a minute! I know this question!' Naruto scratched his head, wondering what the odds were that Haku had actually given them the first question to the written exam, 'Whoa that's creepy...huh. What did Gaara-kun say the answer was? 8 feet?' He scribbled that down before he could forget it.

He smiled inwardly, 'Alright! No sweat on the first one! Now to number two...' Maybe Haku had inadvertently given him the answers to the other questions as well?

Unfortunately, he found the question asked for the elemental weakness of Earth element jutsu, 'Hmm...okay, skip that one!'

The third question was even worse, 'How am I supposed to know how that jutsu works? Next one...' Again he moved ahead, only to find he could not answer any of the following questions, ‘Ugh! Every one of these is harder than the one before!'

Sweat began to form on his brow and he kept his eyes firmly glued to his own paper, even though he could not make heads or tails of any of it, 'Oh no! Oh no no no no no! Haku-kun and Gaara-kun, they're gonna kill me!' He pictured the looming figures of his best friends at the idea of him failing, and in short, failing all of them, 'There's no way I can answer any of these! I...I've gotta cheat! There's no other way...'

Ibiki's words of warning on cheating replayed in his head, 'Gah! But if I do then I might get caught and fail anyway! How am I supposed to-”

“Naruto-kun...” A faint whispered sounded from beside him.

The panicked blonde glanced over to Hinata, “Oh...uh, what is it Hinata-chan?”

Her face heated up, “Well...I j-just thought that if you were having trouble...I could share my answers with you, if you like.”

He raised his eyebrows, “You'd really do that, Hinata-chan?”

“Of course!” Her soft voice trembled, “You have been such a help to me...I wouldn't mind at all.”

He grinned at her and gave a tiny nod as her fully-filled out paper slipped from beneath her left arm almost imperceptibly, and his cerulean eyes began to scan over the answer of the second question, 'Heh heh...she must've gotten the answers with her Byakugan, I bet...'

Not a second afterward, a pencil met a clipboard, scratching fiercely. Naruto glanced over to the sentry who had jotted his name down, smirking at him.

'No...I guess...I guess this just won't work.'

“Hinata-chan, I can't,” He turned his face away from her and she looked dismayed, “I don't want you to get into trouble and besides...” Naruto looked back and gave her a foxy grin, “I'll make it! I have to if I'm gonna be Hokage!”

With a blush, she nodded, pulling her paper away quietly.

A moment later, Naruto was busy panicking again, 'Who am I kidding? I'm screwed!'

Elsewhere in the room, Gaara had finished copying his answers with a technique he had developed during the last few months of his training with Jiraiya.

He had called it simply, 'Daisan no Me,' forming a third eye out of sand which was connected to his optic nerves and required very little chakra. Naruto, upon seeing it for the first time, called it the 'Creepy Sand Eye,' and asked him not to do it again because he found it gross. Gaara told him it was an irrational fear since it was an object comprised of only sand and chakra, but the blonde boy had different opinions.

Near the front of the classroom Haku had answered all of his questions within the first ten minutes. With a sigh of relief, he put his pencil down and closed his eyes, thinking the situation over. 'Gaara-kun won't need much help, but I doubt Naruto will be able to answer anything beyond the first question...I'm sure he won't mind if I assist him.'

As Naruto sat leaned over his test, fidgeting nervously in his seat and he almost missed his one and only salvation as it formed next to his paper. His shifty eyes strayed downward to where a small, icy mirror had appeared out of thin air. In it there was the unmistakable reflection of a paper, completely filled out, 'HA! Haku-kun, you're the best!'

Quickly, he picked up his pencil and filled out the remaining questions on his test, grinning all the while. Hinata merely gave him a confused look but then smiled to herself, glad he had found a less risky way to obtain information.

For good measure, Haku had sent an ice mirror over to Gaara as well.

Naruto finished copying down the answers Haku had so easily supplied him with and sat back, chuckling maniacally to himself. 'I never would've thought Haku-kun's ice-doohickeys could be so useful! Now we'll definitely ace this exam!'

The blonde boy gave a small smirk to Hinata who only blushed in response. He let his eyes wander about the room, averting test sheets, and saw how the rest of the genin were doing.

To his left, Sato had woken from his depressed slumber. He wore a dark frown as he scratched answers down onto his paper, unknown to Naruto; he was guided by the movements of a tiny beetle. The blonde boy only raised his eyebrows, wondering what had him in such a funk.

A short distance off he spotted Sakura, who looked as if she too had finished with her exam as well. She had turned over her paper. Chouji was seated further ahead to the right and looked as if he were finishing his test as well, 'Wow. These people are either really smart or really good cheaters...'

And not a moment after Naruto had thought that to himself, a sentry on the side of the room hurled a pen at someone on the far left, startling the genin as the pen stuck up from the center of his paper. He looked up, horrified, as the sentry smirked at him, “You're done. I've been watching you: your five chances have been spent. You and your teammates fail.”

“But I wasn't cheating! I swear! I don't know what you're talking about-”

“I said you're done,” The sentry repeated, with no trace of sympathy, “You and your teammates are to leave immediately.”

The genin's teammates stood, faces grim, and shuffled down their respective rows in utter humiliation. Still mortified, the guilty genin stood also, muttering in shame, “I...I'm sorry guys.”

His teammates said nothing as they left and the door closed behind them with a click. All other cheaters in the room abruptly paused, fearing the same fate.

Naruto shuddered at the sight. He had to steel his nerves after the incident. The time that slowly ticked by afterwards was only a blueprint for disaster as numerous other teams were eliminated. Their numbers were shouted aloud and they made the terrible trek to the door, their heads hung in embarrassment.

Forty five anguishing minutes passed.

“Times up!” Ibiki's voice rang out over the thick silence, “Now, I will explain the rules of the final question...”

Groans of annoyance sounded as tired brains were reawakened.

Naruto faced front, eyes wide, 'This is it! Number ten!'

“Some things you should be aware of before we proceed are the following: if you answer this last question incorrectly your entire team will fail automatically,” Ibiki's voice was mechanical, “Furthermore, neither you or your teammates may participate in any future Chunin Selection Exams if you miss this question!”

Groans of annoyance transformed into gasps of shock.

“What are you saying?” Sakura's shout was distinguishable, “Our entire performance so far is judged on a single question? That makes no sense!”

Naruto stood up, howling in outraged agreement, “Yeah! That's totally stupid! Just what kind of question is it anyway?”

“Silence!”

The two rowdy Leaf genin sat down and shut up.

“You have been given an option,” The heartless proctor went on with no change in inflection, “If you feel that you are unable to answer the tenth question under these conditions you may choose to drop out now and be free to take next year's exam. Otherwise, this will be your only chance to pass the first portion of the test.”

The room was eerily quiet as hands began to appear in the air, and numbers were called as nervous genin and their teammates stood and prepared to leave, believing in the phrase 'better safe than sorry.'

A few minutes passed as more and more genin abandoned their endeavors. Naruto sat, shaking in a fit of rage, unable to believe that an entire test could depend on one question. He glanced back at Gaara who sat unperturbed in his seat, staring ahead. Haku, who was at the front, also looked peculiarly calm.

'I just can't accept this. Not even if Haku-kun gives me the answer...if he knows it...this is complete bullshit.'

A quivering hand rose into the air and from the back of the room, Gaara narrowed his eyes, not expecting his stubborn friend to succumb to such pressures. Even without looking back Haku could tell Naruto had raised his hand.

And just as quickly as he had lifted it, Naruto slammed his fist down onto his desk, standing and glowering at the scarred proctor. All eyes were set on him, even those who were about to give up, as the blonde boy glared blue fire at Ibiki, “This whole test is complete bullshit and I couldn't care less if I flunk this question or not!”

Haku sighed to himself, smiling.

“I don't care if I'm stuck as a genin for the rest of my life! I'm going to be Hokage someday and that means I can never back down!” Naruto declared, wearing a sadistic grin, “So whatever this question is, bring it on!”

He sat back down with a thump and folded his arms. Inside his head, however, his resolve was shaken, 'Oh crap! I better get this right!'

Hinata stared at him with pearly, awe-struck eyes. Her thoughts were a jumbled mess of inspiration, 'Naruto-kun is so brave...'

From the right the blonde boy was surprised to hear the first peep to come from Sato, who was muffling his laughter. Somewhere in the back, although he couldn't tell from where, Lee was congratulating Naruto's 'Youthful Spirit!'

Ibiki himself was impressed that after the speech no more genin had decided to quit, 'Well, looks like that kid did it! No one else appears to be backing down,' He frowned to himself, 'Hm...there's a lot more left than I had anticipated. This is going to be very interesting.'

The proctor spoke up a moment later, “Very well, we will then move on,” He smirked inwardly, “Pay close attention.”

The room was quiet again, with the exception of Sato's stifled chuckles.

“You all...pass.”

Somewhere in the back of the room a person had collapsed from their seat. The sound of thudding jaws impacting desks was also predictably audible. Ibiki only sighed as the volume of the room grew in hysterical confusion.

Gaara's eyes were set on Naruto as the blonde boy struggled to grasp what had happened.

“Wait a minute!” Sakura still wasn't buying it, “What's the tenth question?”

“There isn't one,” Ibiki said simply, “It was merely a ploy to determine which ninja would stand up to the challenge, no matter how hopeless it appeared.”

“Just what are you trying to say exactly?” Naruto inquired, eyes squinted.

“In the world of a shinobi there will be missions that seem hopeless,” Ibiki explained, “Many ninja would abandon their duty if they were given the choice to do so, as seen here. But a ninja must be able to fight against the odds, regardless of how difficult the mission is.” He looked directly at Naruto, “Anyone left here now has proven they are willing to face such adversity, a characteristic necessary in order to become a chunin. That is why you've passed.”

Naruto's bafflement melted away in seconds and a huge grin covered his entire face, “Ha ha! I knew it all along! There's no way we could fail a test like this!” He turned to the shy girl beside him, “Isn't that right Hinata-chan?”

“R-Right.” He was delighted by her squeak of agreement.

Other genin added to the cheering, though none as loudly as Lee or Naruto.

The rejoicing had barely lasted five minutes or so before an explosion of smoke filled the front left corner of the classroom, and a ninja tumbled inside, hurling kunai into the walls in order to secure a drape that obscured Ibiki from sight.

The kunoichi righted herself and glared at the surprised genin, “Alright, listen up maggots! We will now move on to the second part of the Chunin Exam!”

Haku stared wide-eyed, “Anko-sensei?”

The dark haired woman looked over to him, “Oh, hey Haku. I knew you'd be here. How about the weird ones?”

“Um...they're here too.”

She grinned, “Perfect.”

“You're early again, Anko,” Ibiki walked out from behind the drape, “We were just finishing up.”

“Ah, I can see that,” She frowned, “Ibiki...there are way too many left over. What were you thinking? You better not be getting soft with your tests...”

“I can assure you, I'm not. We have a large number of strong candidates this year, it seems.” He answered, looking very pleased.

Haku blinked, never guessing that Anko would be involved in the upkeep of the Chunin Exam.

Anko nodded and then returned her attention back to the genin, “Listen good maggots! I'm Mitarashi Anko, your proctor for the second part of the Chunin Selection Exam! You are all to report to training area 44 within a half hour! Any questions?”

There was a stunned silence as her response.

She didn't bother waiting for any enquiries, “Good! I'll see you there!”

Anko was gone a moment later, leaving Haku to share a long-sided glance with his teammates. Naruto stood after a moment, stretching his arms over his head, “Whew! That wasn't so bad!” Other genin also began to stand, murmuring to each other.

“Leave your test papers at your desks. They are to be collected.” Ibiki gave his final announcement, “You better move along. You will not be registered for the second part of the exam if you're late.”

Naruto had appeared beside Gaara and they waited as Haku left his seat, his head still reeling from the puzzling written test.

The blonde boy gave his friend a nudge in the ribs, “See? I told you we'd pass no problem!”

Gaara was not so easily fooled, “Haku-kun put a mirror on your desk too, didn't he?”

“Yeah, he did...”

“Let's go.” Was Gaara's reply once a fatigued-looking Haku had joined them, and they proceeded to join the exiting crowd, already pondering what the next portion of the exam held in store.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Soundtrack: “Otoranbu-Jongarayosakoi” by Agatsuma

“What a charming place...” Haku muttered as his dark eyes settled on the prodigious trees caged by a wire fence. He flipped a stray strand of hair away from his face as Gaara gave a short grunt, warning him that now was not the appropriate time for sarcasm.

“This is area 44, huh? How come we've never been to this place before?” Naruto wondered aloud, walking beside Haku and ahead of their silent redheaded friend.

“It's off-limits to genin,” Haku answered the obvious, “It is now clear why.”

The three of them had finished the first part of the exam and moved along to the site of the second stage as Anko had earlier instructed. Naruto was still a glowing light bulb of self-confidence after passing the first test with such ease, albeit it had greatly frayed their nerves at first. The blonde bounced along with his arms folded behind his head, not in the least bit fearful.

Haku, as usual, was the most apprehensive of his team. He supposed this was the part when the real danger started, when ninja began to vie for the chance of being promoted to Chunin rank. Like Naruto he too was confident of his team's strength, but dared not underestimate the shady characters that had arrived from other villages.

Gaara had decided early on to not form any sort of strategy without first being informed of the second stage's regulations, and didn't let himself get anxious over it.

They were not the first group to arrive. Other genin teams were already pacing the open lawn in front of the fenced-in training area, eagerly awaiting the exam to continue. Deciding to keep a space cushion between themselves and their rival shinobi, Team 2 settled next to a maple tree, all the while watching the other teams circling about.

The tension was suffocating.

“What do you suppose we'll be doing next? Racing through that jungle maybe?” Naruto asked finally, unable to leash his ever-mounting curiosity.

“It's likely.” Gaara replied, folding his arms across his chest.

Haku frowned, “It seems like all the genin will have to go in there and that means...there will be confrontation.”

“We can handle it. Those other ninja don't look so tough!” Naruto yawned, still undeterred.

Other genin arrived in the passing time; many teams were from Grass, Sound and Rain. There were also the familiar faces of the other Leaf rookies who had passed. Off in the distance, the blonde haired boy caught sight of Sakura as she walked beside her teammates. Akamaru was nestled comfortably in her arms. He waved to her but she did not see him.

“Times up! I will now announce the rules of the second stage of the Chunin Exam, so listen good maggots!” Anko's voice reverberated through the air once she had appeared near the front gate of area 44.

All of the present genin crowded around to hear the announcement, each team huddled close together. Naruto, as expected, lead his team straight to the front, not wanting to miss anything.

“The area behind me is known as training area 44, and better known as the Forest of Death,” Anko began, with no trace of sympathy in her eyes, “The goal of the exam's second stage is simple: navigate through the forest and reach the tower at its center.”

Many genin relaxed at the news, that was, until she had continued.

“You will have five days to do this. The tower is located 10 kilometers from every entrance gate. In addition, each genin team will be given one scroll before entering. Upon reaching the tower every team must have both an Earth and Heaven scroll. You acquire scrolls that you have not been given by defeating your competition, if you haven't already guessed,” She smirked maniacally, “This will reduce the number of ninja who will proceed into the next stage of the exam.”

Haku sighed to himself, drawing an annoyed look from Gaara.

“Keep in mind that there are many more dangers than just ninja in the forest. There are also many edible plants and suchlike in area 44 to hold you over for the next few days, so keep a sharp eye. One last thing...”

She paused and her glare seemed to even out over the crowd, “You may not under any circumstances open your scrolls until you have entered the tower! Anyone who does so before that time, well...the consequences will come swiftly.”

“What the heck is that supposed to mean, Anko-sensei?” Naruto didn't fully understand, “If you give us those scrolls then I think we should be allowed to look at them!”

Anko hurled a brace of kunai at him for his interruption.

Naruto caught the first knife and dodged the second, grinning. After his mission to the Land of Waves with her, he could more easily anticipate her random attacks.

That was what he thought until she was behind him a moment later, and Naruto found his fuzzy yellow head in an inescapable headlock. He scowled, accepting the fact that she was a jounin.

“Will you can it you loudmouth? Rules are rules, and if you don't follow them in this exam then you'll ruin your chances of becoming a chunin...” she paused thoughtfully, “Or your chances for survival, rather.”

“Okay, Anko-sensei! I get it!” Naruto grumbled through his flailing and she promptly released him.

“Now that that's out of the way, my advice to you all is: just don't die!” Anko concluded with a cheery smile, “Registration is over that way. Sign your name away so that we won't be held responsible if things go unfortunately for any of you. Turn in your consent forms for a scroll and then proceed to your assigned gates. Good luck maggots!”

She trotted off, leaving the confident genin to move on to register.

Naruto followed after his teammates as they moved on, rubbing his neck tenderly where he had been grappled, “Jeez, she's just as crazy as ever...”

Haku chuckled at him, hoping that some humor would lighten the mood, but it didn't really. It was inevitable at this point that they would be facing other shinobi in the forest. It was not clear yet who they would encounter and if they could procure the scroll they needed.

After receiving their forms, reading over them (although Naruto skimmed through his hurriedly) and signing their names away into presumed oblivion, Team 2 was given a Heaven Scroll. For safe keeping, it was given to Gaara to hold, who was the least likely to lose it.

Naruto's excited chatter was the only thing that seemed to ease the ten edgy minutes that followed as they lined up in front of gate 19, waiting for their chance to burst through the fence and make the mad dash to the tower deep inside the Forest of Death.

“I feel it would be wise to travel at a steady pace today and tonight,” Haku suggested, the cogs in his brilliant mind turning once again, “If we cover a lot of ground in the first 48 hours, we can ambush another team as they approach later. Once we obtain an Earth scroll we should be able to take some time to rest before reaching the tower.”

Naruto frowned, still processing the dark haired boy's plan, “You want to travel during the night, Haku-kun? Can't we get just a bit of sleep?”

“We can rest after we secure the second scroll,” Gaara sided with Haku, “The sooner we get an Earth scroll, the better our chances of succeeding will be.”

“Uh...yeah.”

A resounding siren pierced the tense morning air and each gate opened with a sudden jolt. The blonde boy's eyes widened to the size of saucers for a split second, before a grin spread over his face.

“Let's go!”

Without even glancing at his teammates to check if they were prepared, Naruto raced in, determined to succeed as they had in the first portion of the exam.


Neji immediately took to the treetops, his dark hair flapping wildly behind him as he and his teammates ascended. They moved predatorily, ready to take a scroll from the first unwary team to cross their path.

As usual Lee was the most cordial at the moment, despite their objectives.

Team 13 had begun to take the net of safety that the Byakugan provided for granted, because there was never a moment on any mission in which Neji could not be fully trusted to scope out their surroundings.

The Hyuga prodigy took up the lead, sweeping his all-seeing eyes through the dense wood, searching for any signs of other ninja. Once again, he didn't seem apprehensive at all. He approached the goal of the exam as if it were his mission.

'He treats everything like a mission...' Tenten thought with her gaze glued to the back of his head.

Lee was on her right flank, moving slightly faster. His round, piercing eyes were focused on the bramble ahead. She smirked, knowing how much the exam meant to her teammates. It had never been one of the major 'milestones' in her shinobi life. She had known she would eventually advance when she was ready to advance.

'If I move up to Chunin rank, I'll be one step closer to becoming a legendary ninja like Tsunade-sama...' That was her basic reasoning, so she had fervently agreed to participate when Gai-sensei had questioned them about the exam months earlier.

Tenten was startled when Lee dropped out of her peripheral, and for a moment she believed that they had come under attack, 'But that's impossible! Neji would've-’

Her surprise turned into relieved exasperation as she saw that Lee had only lost his footing, and tripped over an oddly-angled branch. He fell for a number of feet, before catching hold of a lower branch and agilely swung himself upward, again level with Tenten in the canopy. He laughed at himself and she sighed, wondering what triggered his clumsiness, ‘He better watch his step!'

They kept moving, increasing their speed to catch up with Neji, who hadn't slowed very much for them.

Neji.

Tenten's mind was a jumbled mess these days, but the one constant had always been Neji. It was difficult to say exactly how it had started, but for the past year of training with Gai-sensei she couldn't help but feel drawn to him.

It hadn't been as early as their days at the Academy; that much was for certain. Unlike other kunoichi from her class that year Tenten disliked gossip and raving about cute boys. She most often was seated at the back of the room next to Lee (coincidentally), displaying the new knives she had forged with the utmost pride, “Look! Look! This edge is nearly 36 microns! It can cut though human bone in one stroke!”

Her tomboyish habits did tend to frighten her teachers a little, but many of the boys in her class thought she was an engaging rarity among female ninja. 'Many' meaning, excluding Neji, who sat by himself. Sometimes he spared a moment to glance over at her new, pointy creations.

Once Tenten was placed on Team 13 she had known she would be the Hyuga prodigy's sparring partner. She had nearly insisted on it so that she wouldn't have to watch Lee be thrown down time and time again.

Training with Neji was difficult, frustrating and more often than not, left her exhausted and completely bent on improving herself. There were times she nearly forgot she had a life beyond training with him. Everything about him seemed so calculated and perfect that it was hard for her to believe that she could actually put up a decent fight…until she ran out of weapons.

In turn, it spawned a second goal for her, one even direr than her dream of rivaling Tsunade. Tenten wanted to be as strong as Hyuga Neji. It was indeed a very ambitious goal.

Her admiration for his skills and ability, with time, seemed to warp and reshape itself into a flickering, fragile affection as she pieced together his fragmented family history and life. Not only did she want to be like him, but she wanted to help change his life and get him back in control of his destiny.

There were moments she subconsciously admitted that she would have more luck striving to be like Tsunade. But she always argued that Tsunade was not on her team, not relying on her and most certainly not struggling with her clan life.

So it happened automatically, with her helpless to prevent it. Tenten had unwittingly devoted herself to the aims of the young Hyuga prodigy.

Lee, upon private discussion of the subject, (and even declaring himself as her best and most trustworthy friend) had told her how sad it was that such a smart, caring person like herself would sacrifice her future for someone as detached as Neji.

She had yelled at him after that but secretly knew he was right.

Things were just far beyond her emotional control right now.

Lately, however, her constantly evolving psyche had suffered through something nearly as painful as the truth of her problem. Team 13's mission to retrieve the scroll of the 'Infallible Fire Bow', or so was its title according to Gai-sensei, had opened her eyes to many things.

Her first kill had been quite gory, much to her distaste. She knew it was an unavoidable event with her being a weapons specialist. She had accepted it with silent yet horrified grace, then acknowledging what her beloved weapons were truly for.

Even worse was that upon rejoining Gai-sensei and returning to Konoha (Neji with only a minor concussion), was that Gai-sensei had discovered the body of the slain Iwa nin, which Tenten had been too frantic at the time to dispose of. He had spoken to her about it in a surprisingly conciliatory manner, not holding her actions against her. He said he would not tell either Neji or Lee about it, and left the subject's optional discussion with her teammates up to her.

Moreover, she had even impressed the Hokage once Gai-sensei had turned in their mission report, and as conciliation for her trouble she had been given custody of the Infallible Hiyumi. Being that she had handled it with such expertise, it would 'be a shame to stow away such a magnificent weapon into the archives' when she had the full ability to wield it.

She accepted it with great humility from the Hokage that day, bade her teammates goodnight, went directly home and cried herself to sleep, wondering why she was being rewarded for killing.

Her parents had been viciously killed on one of their ANBU Black-Ops missions before she had graduated from the Academy. It seemed to her that because she was engaging in such an ugly deed she was becoming the very thing she sought to destroy.

Then again, being a shinobi was an art of the utmost ambiguity.

Tenten wouldn't call herself a hypocrite, but she did feel the guilt whenever she gazed at the scroll of her new yumi, 'All ninja will have to kill at one point in their careers...I just got an early start.'

Tenten had decided to not tell her teammates about her slaughter of the Rock chunin.

Most especially not Neji.

Neji and Lee had stopped moving. Her thoughts scattered and she halted abruptly, just in time to perch next to the Hyuga, who was staring down at the forest floor with the Byakugan in full intensity.

Below there was nothing visible, to her at least. Nothing always meant something.

'Genjutsu.' Tenten suspected, hence Neji's fierce examination of the trap.

Before he leapt down, he gave a silent motion for Lee and Tenten to wait, and Neji plummeted down. They watched as he made contact with the muddy earth, raced to the center of a clearing and with a stab of Jyukken he unearthed a hidden Rain ninja. The shinobi's pained cry was cut short when another slap of Jyukken connected with his abdomen, immediately rousing the attention of his teammates who had hidden themselves on the opposite side of the clearing.

With their trap so unexpectedly sprung, their attack was slow and confused as they abandoned their hiding place to ambush Neji, only to be ambushed themselves.

“Take this! Leaf Hurricane!” Lee was a vibrant green flash as he knocked the two Rain nin from the air with a round of relentless kicks. Their heads hit the ground first when they fell, and Tenten raised a fine eyebrow to see that it had taken them less than a half hour to get their second scroll.

She jumped down next to Lee and watched smugly as Neji took the defeated Team's Heaven scroll. He replaced it in his hip pouch.

Lee was jubilant, “Yes! Our strategy and teamwork succeeds once again!” He raised a hand to high-five Neji and the prodigy only stared at his hand, as if he didn't comprehend.

Neji's stare turned to Tenten and she gave him a weak smile, trying to show her approval of his quick thinking. He blinked slowly, something she found inanely adorable and un-Neji-like. Tenten quickly put the pattering feeling in her chest in line.

He seemed satisfied with her reaction and completely misinterpreted Lee's.

“We should keep moving,” Neji decided, his voice raised over Lee's chatter, “We can gain some ground before nightfall.”

Lee nodded in excited agreement. Tenten's nod was slower and more thoughtful.

Somehow she could tell their luck far exceeded that of some other teams presently.


Elsewhere in the forest, Team 8 was having trouble locating another genin team to steal from.

Hinata had immediately activated her Byakugan once she and her teammates had entered the forest, intending to find the safest path through and at the same time, find an opposing team more quickly. It was not working the way they had anticipated.

Team 8 was making good time, but there were no signs of other shinobi, not even after an hour of searching. Unknown to her teammates, something else was troubling Hinata.

Her eyes had begun to bother her over the past few weeks, although there was nothing wrong with her Byakugan, much to her relief. It was a dull, persisting ache near the chakra pathways that lead to her eyes. It simply would not end.

She had determined that this may be a sign of illness, much to her terror, or worse: her Byakugan was beginning to deteriorate. Hinata had no idea what may have triggered such a reaction, being that she had done nothing to injure herself at all recently. She was terribly fearful of admitting her problem to anyone, most especially her father, who would take it as a sign of weakness if her blood limit were somehow malfunctioning.

So no one knew and she raced on through the dark woods with her teammates close behind her.

Hinata rubbed absently at her shoulder only to discover a small Kikaichu insect there. She let it be, knowing Shino often planted his 'little helpers' on herself and Sato to keep track of them if they were ever separated. Without turning her head, she looked at Shino, seeing him as focused and calm as ever. The sight helped her relax and ignore her aching eyes.

Sato, as far as she could see, was still unwilling to talk to them. This upset her greatly.

After she and Shino had agreed to prevent him from ever using the Chidori, Sato had become cold and distant towards them. Even during the first part of the exam when Shino had sent one of his insects to give answers to Sato, it was a bit disturbing for her to see him squash the helpful bug mercilessly after it had presented him with all of the test paper's answers.

He had proved his point quite vividly to Shino, who was absolutely enraged after Sato's outburst. Sato never hurt insects, not even accidentally, one thing Shino respected Sato for. Apparently things were changing now.

'If Sato-kun does not begin to communicate with us soon we may fail this part of the exam...' Hinata was fearful of the consequences of her moody teammate's actions, 'I wish there was something I could do...'

She decided to stop and halted on a thick tree branch. Shino and Sato did the same. Relieving her eyes of the Byakugan, Hinata sat down and caught her breath, accepting the canteen of water Shino passed to her, “Thank you, Shino-kun.”

“If you wanted to have a rest earlier, all you had to do was ask.” Shino pointed out and she blushed in embarrassment, hoping her fatigue wasn't that visible. He sat next to her and also had a drink of water.

Hinata watched in reserved fascination as the Aburame boy tipped some water into his palm and let his Kikaichu insects have a drink as well. She found that she no longer feared bugs after spending so much time watching Shino interact with them.

Sato, who stood sullenly nearby, turned on his heel and began to descend down to the forest floor. Hinata couldn't help but overreact, “Sato-kun? Where are you going?”

“Bathroom.” His response was terse. He vanished into the undergrowth a moment later, leaving her slightly troubled.

Shino's eyes were invisible behind his dark glasses, but Hinata could tell they were narrowed.

“Please don't be angry with Sato-kun.” She said softly, dropping her gaze, “He is very upset. He didn't mean to kill that-”

“He had full intentions of doing so after he gained information from it,” Shino responded coolly, “Regardless of how he feels; he had no place taking the life of a comrade that was merely giving him assistance. He is childish and irrational. I will not sympathize with him.”

Hinata closed her eyes and whimpered quietly, exhausted from all the animosity between her teammates. There was just no reasoning with them, she had concluded, for they knew all too well how to get on each other’s nerves.

Sato heartlessly squashes Shino's bugs and Shino berates Sato for his puerile behavior.

It was a vicious cycle that even she could not end. And what made matters worse, in her opinion at least, was that they were just actually becoming friends. Shino had 'lightened up' around Sato after the Tanabata Festival, if only a little. And Sato was beginning to act more wisely and respectfully, kudos to Shino.

Now it seemed things could never be that good between them again.

'Oh Naruto-kun, what am I supposed to do? They will barely look at each other...so how can we ever make it through this exam as a team?' Hinata was hoping some of his grinning, sunshiny advice would light the way for her, but she could think of nothing.

Ten minutes had passed and Hinata was certain that Sato had not gone to the bathroom as he said he had. Shino shared her thoughts.

“Do you think Sato-kun is alright?” She asked, standing up at last.

He stood as well, “There is always a small chance he may need our assistance.”

Hinata followed Shino down to the forest floor, her heart hammering in her chest. What were the odds that Sato ran into another shinobi team when they had no luck finding one earlier?

Probably very good.

They had only gone a few meters before they spotted him, trekking through a nettle of ferns and scratching his itchy cheek. His midnight blue eyes flew open as he saw his teammates rush at him, kunai out, 'Aw crap! They're gonna kill me aren't they?'

Sato's arms flew up in front of his face and he cringed when they stopped in front of him, looking equally bewildered. There was a tense moment between them. He wondered why he had suspected his own teammates to attack him, 'Psh. Like that'd ever happen. What was I thinking?'

“What were you doing?” Shino was fed up with him. He tucked his kunai away, seeing they had nothing to fear.

“What do you care, bug-boy? You're the one with the scroll!” Sato snorted, very loudly.

There was a pause as Hinata exchanged a confused glance with Shino. The Hyuga girl frowned inwardly, 'I thought I had been given the scroll...'

Things became clearer as three ninja dropped from the dusky treetops and surrounded Shino. Sato and Hinata scattered in response. Sato smirked; glad they had taken the false bait.

The Cloud ninja each plunged a kunai into the Aburame boy, only to recoil in surprise when it dispersed as a clone made of insects. Humiliated by their mistake they turned around, hurling kunai at the Leaf genin in unison.

Shino had reappeared behind Hinata after they deflected the projectiles and Sato, it seemed, had planned this much earlier than they had thought he had.

The first Cloud ninja to jump forward seemed to hang suspended in the air for a suspiciously long moment, a moment his teammates overlooked as they too lunged in a craze at Team 8, only to get tangled in the trap that the first ninja had been snagged in.

Hinata had not seen Sato set a trap so cruel before.

With pained cries, the three struggling Kumo nin only entangled themselves more thoroughly in the barbed wire Sato had laid over a spike pit in the ground. The wire, though excruciating, was the only thing preventing them from falling into another, more deadly trap.

Sato watched with dark eyes as they slashed at the wiring, unable to cut it, and only tightening their snares. Hinata turned away, trying to forget how skilled Sato was with traps, especially when he was angry.

Shino seemed less bothered, if not approving of Sato's hard work, and took the scroll from the indignant, struggling kunoichi who was then dripping with blood from head to toe, “Wait! You can have our scroll! But get us out of this!” Her voice was reaching a shockingly high pitch, “Come on!”

Her teammates were howling in agonized agreement, still clueless as to how to escape.

“Get yourselves out,” Sato spat, his glare was tangible, “We have what we want and we could've just as easily taken your scroll without you falling into my trap.”

The Hatake jammed his hands into his jacket pockets and stalked away, Shino following close behind. Hinata knew they were not setting a very good example by showing no mercy, but she would be unable to free the helpless team without Sato's instruction. He was unwilling to free them.

She gave a short apology to them before following after her teammates, trying not to listen to the pained cries of the stranded Cloud ninja.


“Hey can we stop for a minute?” Naruto asked, stopping in his tracks. Ahead of him Gaara and Haku also stopped, each of them offering the blonde a questioning look.

“Naruto-kun, I thought we'd agreed to travel for the first 48 hours without stopping.” Haku recalled, he himself not trying to show any fatigue.

“Yeah I know,” Naruto answered, a small frown on his face, “I have to pee.”

“Then hurry,” Gaara folded his arms and sighed, expecting something as trivial from Naruto, “We can't afford delays.”

“Wait,” Haku didn't let him leave right away, “To prevent any ambushes we'll all speak a common password.”

“A password?” Naruto didn't understand his reasoning.

“Yes, when you come back we'll ask…” Haku quickly thought up a question only Naruto could answer, “What is the name of the village we first met in, alright?”

“Whatever you say, Haku-kun.” The blonde gave him a sheepish grin before turning to search the undergrowth for a good spot to relieve himself. Glad for a moment of rest, Haku leaned against the nearest tree, wondering how Gaara kept up so well with Naruto even with the extra weight of his gourd.

'It is merely a testament to how much stronger he has become,' Haku thought, taking a deep breath, 'Neither he or Naruto seem to be tired yet. When did I become such a burden?'

Again, he was left to ponder how he had begun to lag behind the progress of his teammates. Taking Jiraiya and Gaara's advice before the start of the exam a week earlier, Haku had gone to train with Lee's team in hopes of improving his taijutsu.

Neji seemed a bit too preoccupied training with Tenten to offer him any training that didn't involve getting all of his tenketsu sealed. Lee and Gai, on the other hand, had taught him some basics in the short time they could.

He was still sore from their rigorous training, Haku was surprised to admit. He had a low tolerance for pain and very little muscle mass, so Gai didn't hesitate to tell him he was appalled of how frail 'young Haku-kun' was, and then proceeded to toughen him up by having Lee spar with him.

Haku was glad when it was over.

Lee, as a sparring partner, put both Gaara and Naruto to shame. And although Haku did improve drastically from his previous skill level, he couldn't quite compare his physical strength to either that of his teammates'.

The dark haired boy sighed aloud, drawing a curious look from his red haired friend.

Gaara could tell without even having to ask that Haku was under a lot of stress. It wasn't necessarily a bad thing either. He knew that Haku tended to work better under pressure.

After a minute Naruto had returned, wearing a goofy look of relief, “Ah! That's better!”

Gaara snorted and Haku frowned at him, not understanding his pithy behavior.

“Password?” Haku asked it on reflex and was surprised by Naruto's answer.

“Hn? Oh. Konoha!”

In the next instant, the imposter found himself trapped in a coffin of sand, which then hurled him through the air and slammed him full-force into a tree. The pop of his dislocating jaw was audible as his head hit, and Haku shook his head as the henge fell and revealed an injured and cross-eyed Grass ninja.

He fell to the ground unconscious and Gaara, with no guilt of any kind, searched him for a scroll. Haku was even further astonished when Gaara found one.

“When he was listening in he should've been more cautious,” The dark haired boy pointed out as Gaara handed him the Earth scroll that the Grass nin had with him, “What luck!”

Naruto arrived a moment later, looking flustered, “Uh...some guy jumped me when I was going! Then he ran off when he found out I didn't have the scroll,” He frowned at the knocked out ninja at the base of a nearby tree, “Oh, never mind, you got him.”

His teammates could only chuckle in amusement, not expecting it to be so easy.

The sun began to lower in the sky and the last trickling beams of light filtered through the canopy of the dense forest. Team 2 had decided to scrap their plan after Haku began showing signs of slowing and they found a place to rest beside a small stream.

“We've got a Heaven and an Earth scroll now, and it's only day one!” Naruto was thrilled with their good fortune, “We'll have no problem with this exam, for sure!”

“We can't start getting overconfident now, Naruto-kun. We still have to reach the tower in four days,” Haku pointed out, “Hm...some food would be nice too...”

“Then we go fishing!” Naruto resolved, referring to the bubbling stream behind them, “Come on! The sooner we eat the better!”

The blonde moved to the water's edge, trying to catch sight of any prey. Eventually he was assisted in his endeavor by an equally hungry Gaara. Haku also decided to help a few minutes later, catching the most fish due to his Kekkei Genkai. He merely levitated the sections of water that the fish generally swam in and let his teammates pick them off.

A short while later, the three boys sat contentedly around a fire, finished eating.

“I still like ramen better...” Naruto decided, stretching, “But now I think that fish isn't that bad.”

Gaara smothered the dying flames of the cooking fire with sand, not wanting to create smoke that could attract other ninja. Haku sat next to him, feeling better with a full stomach.

“We should collect rations for the next few days while we can,” Haku suggested, trying to form a new plan, “That way we can stop less for food.”

“That's a good idea, Haku-kun,” Naruto agreed after a lazy burp, then dropped to his back, “Hm...I'm gonna take a nap now.”

Rather than sitting idly, Gaara stood and collected the canteens each of his teammates had with them, “I'm getting water. You should go now if you want to find more things we can eat."

Haku nodded and then departed to search for other edible wildlife.

Naruto, predictably, hadn't moved an inch. He was too full from all the food he ate. If their luck persisted he could probably sleep it off with sweet dreams of ramen.

Haku, being the most familiar with plant life, was the wisest choice to be sent looking for food. There weren't that many things to find, he was troubled to see. There were nearly as many dangerous plants as there were safe.

Even after ten minutes of picking his way through the undergrowth, he had only gathered a small number of mushrooms and a few leafy plants. They weren't very nourishing but would provide some stamina, if he had read correctly.

Things that they didn't really need he also came across: herbs that were good for burns and cuts he found growing beneath a boulder, and a few budding flowers also had some properties that could help an upset stomach, 'I may have to save this for Naruto-kun later...'

Haku looked ahead in the patch of holly fern he had been picking through, and saw a ninja standing out in the open. A quick glance at the nin's forehead protector notified him it was another Grass nin. This one was also alone.

'It's possible this shinobi is the teammate of the one that Gaara knocked out, possibly trying to retrieve their lost scroll-' Haku's thoughts were sent reeling off into nonsensical babble as he was stuck with a blast of killing intent that left him utterly paralyzed.

He dropped everything that he had gathered for his teammates, and found he was unable to draw his horrified, dark eyes away from the stare of the Grass nin. The stranger stood perfectly still in the same field of ferns.

'I can't move-!'

“Hm, you're a pretty one aren't you?” The ninja's voice was amused and oddly outgoing, “Is it wise to be out here all by yourself?”

'I need to get to Naruto-kun and Gaara-kun.'

“Run. I won't stop you. Run away right now back to your little teammates,” The Grass nin smirked, “Can't you run, pretty little boy? What's the matter?”

'This...killing intent. It's so powerful that I just can't-’

“I see. You will not run then. That's alright,” The Grass ninja drew out a kunai, “I suppose you want to make this easy for me; I should thank you.”

Haku's shuddering hand managed to close around a few senbon, but when he raised his arm back up, he was unable to throw them, 'I can't fight! Not like this!’

“Are you sure you don't want to run before I kill you? Pretty little boy?”

'Move.'

“Ah, I understand.” The Grass nin's smirk broadened, “You've given up.”

'Move.’

“Goodbye Leaf ninja. You've made this very easy.” The Grass nin launched his kunai.

'Move!'

Haku's shuddering hand jerked, sinking a needle into his right arm. The pain was enough of a distraction to rid him of his paralysis, and Haku dodged less than a moment before the kunai landed in the spot he had occupied before.

The dark haired boy made a leap for the treetops, wanting to gain the high ground.

The Grass shinobi did not follow immediately.

'I'm too far off to rejoin Naruto-kun and Gaara-kun. I have to get them to come to me...'  Haku searched around through his holster and retrieved a kunai with an exploding tag attached. Naruto had given it to him the day before, saying it may come in handy even if he didn't like knives.

With as much strength as he could muster, he hurled the kunai skyward, reaching above the treetops by only a meter or two, and with a flicker of chakra he detonated it. The explosion was not as visible as it was loud, and Haku wondered why Naruto felt the need to possess such powerful explosives.

“I'm over here little boy,” The Grass nin was resettled on a nearby tree branch, “If you want to fight I don't mind!”

Haku subconsciously reached for more senbon before the Grass ninja leapt. Much to Haku's dismay the shinobi utilized taijutsu. He came at Haku with a volley of punches followed up by a powerful kick which he was just barely able to avoid.

The dark haired boy aimed for critical points on his foe's body, and was glad to see that after throwing nearly two dozen senbon, more than half had hit since they had been in close quarters. The Kusa nin had slowed considerably, and was visibly in pain from Haku's senbon strikes.

“Shinjutsu. I see. It is not a common practice,” The Grass nin watched Haku with calculating eyes, “But it will not be enough to stop me, little boy.”

Before the ninja could make another move, sand rose in a grainy cloud, swarming the branch and forcing the Grass nin to relocate. He frowned at the newcomers.

Naruto and Gaara landed on either side of Haku, both startled.

“We heard the tag go off,” Naruto explained, giving Haku a quizzical look, “What the heck's going on here?”

“A Grass ninja, but he's strong,” The dark haired boy rubbed the bloody spot on his arm, “Be careful. The killing intent he gives off is like nothing I've ever felt before.”

“There is only one of him,” Gaara was ready to fight, “We will end this quickly.”

More sand leaked from his gourd and proceeded to swarm through the branches, driving the Kusa shinobi further and further back.

“I did not think we would meet so soon,” The Grass nin purred, eyeing Gaara, “You remind me of my plans.”

To Naruto and as well as Haku's horror, the Grass nin used a summoning jutsu. At first, they could not see the creature he called until it reared its huge, ugly head from below, attempting to seize Gaara.

The red haired boy leapt back, surprised, sand everywhere.

“So he summons a snake! Big deal! I've got something way better!” Naruto grinned broadly before biting his thumb and rushing through a number of seals.

Haku leapt up to a higher branch, watching as the smoke cleared, and beside Naruto were three enormous red toads. Each had a sword slung on its back. The blonde hopped readily on the head of the center toad, which gave a confident croak.

“You mess with Haku-kun, you mess with me!” Naruto barked, his battle toads itching to fight.

The Grass nin was impressed, “Interesting! One as young as you can already summon such powerful toads. It will be all the more sweet when I crush you.”

The giant snake refused to end its pursuit of Gaara, who simply did not have enough sand to crush something so monstrously large. He was on the ground, fending off the creature's head with blasts of sand.

“Let's go!” Naruto and his amphibious comrades rushed straight at the Grass ninja who still was still not intimidated. Haku, from higher up, hurled rounds of senbon with the intention of slowing their opponent down even more.

The Grass shinobi quickly summoned a second snake, slightly larger than the last, which immediately clamped down onto one of the toads with powerful fangs. In response it stabbed the snake's neck with its sword, trying to free itself. A moment later, the trapped toad was bitten in half.

Naruto's remaining toads lunged forward, livid, skewering the serpent through its open mouth. It reared back in agony before crashing down to the forest floor. Haku and Naruto continued on, not letting the Grass nin out of their sight.

'I guess it's now or never!' Naruto was closing in on the Grass nin, who had summoned a third snake to eliminate the last of his toads. A blue, spiraling sphere of chakra formed in his right hand as he raced along a branch towards the enemy with no intentions of slowing.

Haku stopped throwing senbon at the Kusa shinobi. Naruto had gotten too close and he didn't want to hit him by mistake. He watched his blonde teammate continue forward, and couldn't recognize the blue sphere he saw Naruto begin to form.

“Take this! Rasengan!” Naruto leapt at the cornered ninja who was backed against the trunk of a tree. To his disgust, the ninja's tongue reached out a number of yards, snake-like, and wrapped itself around his middle, stopping Naruto just short of his target.

The Rasengan missed, but nicked the Grass nin's cheek.

“Oh! That is very impressive!” The Grass nin was delighted, “You're not half bad...”

Naruto was held at a distance as he tried to wriggle free of the Grass nin's grip, “Gah! Let me down you sick bastard! This thing is a tongue? Ugh!”

Senbon rained down, striking the enemy ninja in the face. He recoiled and dropped Naruto.

The angered Grass nin turned his gaze to Haku, who stood on a high branch of an ancient oak. Senbon were steadied between his knuckles, “Don't think I've forgotten you, pretty little boy!”

The new snake finished the last two of Naruto's toads and proceeded to attack him. The blonde leapt up, higher into the canopy, beginning to draw on the Kyuubi's chakra, 'Come on you old fox! I need some help here!'

Naruto felt his chakra reserves instantly replenish and he grinned, knowing what forces were at work. He twisted around, catching a glimpse of Haku who was still tailing the Grass ninja.

The blonde formed a second Rasengan and this time he did not miss. He slammed the sphere into the hideous, scaled face of the oncoming snake, knocking it back as it toppled over a number of huge trees.

Haku had never seen Naruto display such a powerful technique before and could only assume Jiraiya had something to do with it.

Down below, Gaara had been cornered in his own sand shield, trapped in the coils of the snake. Feeling triumphant over the small ninja, the serpent opened its lethal jaws wide and swallowed him and his sand shield whole. The snake relaxed afterwards, preparing to process its meal.

A moment later, the snake was blow apart from the inside out with spikes of sand. Gaara landed, flustered and covered in digestive fluids, with his sand circling around him in wait. He wore a disgusted expression as he began wipe saliva off of his arms.

Before Naruto could meet up with Haku higher in the canopy, the Grass nin's wicked tongue had caught him by surprise again, reaching to an even longer length.

“You've caused a bit too much trouble, boy!” The Grass nin glared at the struggling, Kyuubi-powered ninja, “I've grown tired of you.”

Haku had thrown his senbon a moment too late.

“Five-Pronged Seal!” The Grass ninja jabbed at Naruto's stomach, placing an odd-numbered seal over the seal of the demon fox. A moment later the boy went limp and was tossed aside carelessly, hitting a few branches on his way down to the forest floor.

“Naruto!” Haku leapt downward, not understanding what had happened to his teammate. He was intercepted by the Kusa nin.

He narrowed his eyes while the Grass nin extracted a needle from his cheek casually, smirking at Haku, “It's better if that little brat stays out of our way.”

“What did you do to him?” Haku leapt at the rogue ninja in a rage, throwing the last of his senbon.

The Grass shinobi had another kunai out and blocked the final round of needles with little effort. Haku landed behind his opponent on a higher branch, trying to find another means of attack.

“Don't worry about your little friend,” The Kusa nin grinned up at Haku, “You shall soon share his fate.”

Haku formed hand seals, no longer stalling, “Demonic Crystal Ice Mirrors!”

It wasn't as difficult as he expected it to be, using the water in the air to create sheets of ice. The dome of mirrors encompassed the branch the Grass nin was standing on, trapping him. Haku failed to note that he had created many more mirrors than he had ever been able to form before, once he had dove head first into the mirror nearest to him.

He was too busy trying to think up a strategy, 'I can only use ice from here on out. I have to make this quick!'

Where was Gaara? Haku certainly hoped he would arrive soon; he didn't have much chakra left in him.

The Grass ninja stood, perplexed, having never witnessed mirrors used in battle before. He smiled and watched, waiting for Haku to strike first.

Haku formed half of a seal he normally would to form to manipulate water, something he had experimented with on his mission to the Land of Waves, “A Thousand Flying Water Needles of Death!”

Ice from his mirrors contributed in the attack, sending thousands of shards of needle-like projectiles at the enemy, who made no move to dodge.

“How creative.” The Grass nin liked to hear himself talk, even in the midst of an assault, “You are not a shinobi originally from Konoha, are you?”

Haku's target had disappeared, only a moment before his needles had struck, 'What? He moved so quickly I couldn't even see him! Where did he go?'

He had no time to react when in the reflection of an adjacent mirror, the Kusa ninja had returned, wielding a strange sword. Haku shuddered, knowing there was no time to escape, 'What can I-?'

The shinobi's sword hacked through the ice mirrors, though it seemed the Grass ninja was making a tremendous effort to do so. Haku watched as the fragments shimmered in the burning afternoon light, and as the sword came crashing towards his current mirror, 'I can't stay here!'

He fled, letting the last of his ice sheets be destroyed and he tumbled down a few levels through the thick of the canopy. He hit hard on his back, unable to breathe and out of chakra.

Haku had never been in more desperate need of his teammates, 'I can't do this without them! I need Naruto and Gaara! This ninja is going to-'

“Had enough?”

The dark haired boy struggled to sit up, choking on the air rushing into his lungs. His enemy, still fighting-fit, stood pleasantly on the same branch a few meters away. The sword he had with him was gone, but Haku could see slight evidence of the wounds he and Naruto had inflicted on him.

'Gaara-kun, you have to-'

“Very good! You're perfect! A truly rare find...” The Kusa nin was rambling again, and Haku could not find the strength to stand, “You certainly have made my visit here much more fun...”

“What are you talking about?” Haku watched in bewilderment as his foe's neck had stretched to an inhuman length, reaching far enough to be inches away from him. Grinning sinisterly, the bizarre ninja revealed a pair of fangs and sunk them down into the right side of Haku's neck.

The shock barely registered on his face as the dark haired boy tried to jerk away, but simply had no energy to do so. Searing pain shot through him like fire, blurring his vision, and he was surprised there was enough air in his lungs for him to cry out like he had.

Fangs dripping, the Kusa nin drew away to observe his achievement, licking his lips, “Hm...and it's still so early in the day.”

Shuddering, Haku looked on with eyes wide in confusion as the ninja proceeded to peel his face away, revealing a grayer, more menacing face beneath. He felt his stomach turn over and he hoped that there was a chance for his death to come quickly.

“I feel we have not been properly introduced. Haku, was it?” The ninja's smirk only defined his snake-like features, “My name is Orochimaru, and we will meet again.”

The bite mark on Haku's neck began to darken and in a short moment three black marks appeared. He had not seen the seal form but he had felt it. Haku could barely see as Orochimaru departed, no longer interested, very pleased with his torture of the young Leaf genin.

Panting, Haku put pressure on the marks at the nape of his neck, unable to subdue the increasing pain. He hadn't the faintest idea who Orochimaru was or what he had wanted, but their next meeting would be too soon.


Gaara hadn't removed much of the snake's bodily fluids from his clothing before a blonde blur came hurtling down through a storm of leaves. He could tell immediately Naruto was unconscious and took it as a very bad sign. Naruto was not the kind of person to allow himself to be defeated.

With a strained leap Gaara caught the latter by his jacket as he fell. His jump was ungraceful and they fell in a heap. He landed on an upraised tree root with a crack which Gaara assumed was the sound of the vertebrae in his neck realigning.

After a long, dizzying moment the red haired boy rose slowly to his knees, rolling the blonde onto his back with a short tug.

“Naruto.” He spoke his teammate's name automatically in a weak effort to revive him. Naruto lay silently, unmoving. He did not respond in any fashion. Not even a snore. His breathing was shallow, but there appeared to be no wounds on him from what Gaara could decipher.

Before he could further examine the Kyuubi container's state, a chilling wail shook through the canopy above him, scattering birds more quickly than when the exploding tag had gone off earlier.

Haku.

It was Haku's cry and Gaara was moving fast, trusting that Naruto wasn’t going anywhere. Haku was not well. He was aware of it long before he discovered his other teammate hunched over on the limb of an old oak, screaming so loud Gaara believed it would attract the attention of all the genin in the forest.

He landed behind the dark haired boy, placing a steadying hand on his shuddering shoulder. At the touch Haku fell quiet and motionless, as if Gaara had turned him into some sort of statue.

It had a similar effect.

Haku swooned and fell back into Gaara's arms, knocking him over. There was blood on Haku's neck and Gaara hastily wiped it away, trying to discern the area where he had been injured. It was difficult to tell.

“Haku, sit up,” Haku was completely out. His full weight was pressed on the redhead, who wriggled out from beneath him in aggravation and tried to right the boy with little success. Gaara gave up on speaking to his dark haired teammate.

There was no wound, which frustrated him even more. How had the Grass ninja (whose whereabouts were currently unknown to him) rendered both Haku and Naruto incapacitated without even injuring them?

It was then, upon dragging the limp form of his second teammate upward, that Gaara did notice a peculiar blot on Haku's neck. He made note of it but was truthfully grateful that no one on his team had been critically wounded.

Was this the price they paid for obtaining both of their scrolls so quickly? Giant serpents? Killing intent? Utter mayhem?

Gaara muttered something unintelligible, yet clearly infuriated as he returned to Naruto’s resting place with Haku draped over his shoulder. It was a moment when Gaara would've appreciated the absence of his gourd, despite the protection it offered. Haku was not heavy, but he was precariously tall.

'I need more arms,' Was his first thought as he grabbed Naruto, as gently as possible, by the scruff of his fluorescent orange jacket. When had he suddenly become the pack-mule for wounded ninja? It was humiliating for someone of his talent and he was unsure of what to do after managing to tug along his unconscious teammates.

'I need to find a place where they can recover with no further interruption.' Gaara thought, his head throbbing, trying not to become frantic. By his very nature he was calm and collected, but neither Haku or Naruto were showing any signs of good health, wounded or not. It was that fact that had him moving surprisingly quick down on the gloomy forest floor, while carrying the full weight of his companions.

The next time he saw that Grass ninja Gaara would make certain that his face was the last thing the fool would ever see.

He picked the wrong one to leave conscious.


Anko sat atop the registration tent while munching on her favorite snack. She hummed to herself pleasantly, savoring the sweat flavor of the bean paste as she devoured skewer after skewer of dango.

Once she had finished the last bite of her lunch, Anko tossed the skewer to her right, where it joined countless other sticks that impaled the side of a cedar tree. She approved of the shape she had created with them, “There! A perfect Leaf Village symbol!”

“Anko-san.” A voice came from down below, and she glanced down to the three chunin waiting below the registration tent.

“What? I'm on my lunch break you know.” Anko responded sourly, being that she would have much preferred to enjoy another snack before going back to tending the second stage of the exam.

“Do excuse us,” A second of the ninja spoke up, more urgently, “But there is something we believe you should see.”

The alarmed look on the chunin's face sold her and she hopped down, her long coat flapping behind her, “Let's see it then, if it's that bad.”

Anko followed them a short ways off to a memorial in silence, curious about what was troubling them. Once there, they gestured to the three bodies at the foot of the stone, laying askew and overlapping each other.

She walked over to get a closer look as one of the chunin filled in a few details, “These three are Grass ninja. It looks like they were killed after they had registered. Watch out though, it's pretty nasty...”

Anko flinched away after seeing what had been so revolting about the genins' death, “Their faces are...completely gone.”

A young chunin with a scarred face spoke up, “Yeah, it's really bad. We're not sure how it was done. There doesn't seem to be any motive for their murder either and no signs of struggle. It looks like an ambush.”

'The last time I saw something like this was...' Anko's eyes were wide when the truth dawned on her, horrifyingly, 'There's no mistaking it! This is his work alright...but what is he doing here of all places? And why now?'

“Go notify Hokage-sama of this immediately,” Anko barked, startling her subordinates, “Go now! I have to get to area 44.”

The chunin gave her a questioning look before submitting and taking off together to the Hokage's tower, uncertain about her cause for panic. Anko quickly abandoned the murder scene, rushing in terror back to the Forest of Death, 'What are you doing here, Orochimaru? What can you gain from this exam?'

Thus began her agonizing search through area 44 for the one she once called her mentor.


Gaara sat quietly between Haku and Naruto. They were both unconscious. It had been a long while since he had ever been so stressed. Gaara couldn't recall a time when circumstances had been so bad.

He had found shelter in a small alcove which, at the time of its discovery, had been inhabited by a truck-sized millipede. He promptly squashed it with his sand and claimed its home for himself.

After laying his teammates down he holed up the entrance of the cave with a wall of sand, not wanting any unwelcome visitors to drop by. It was then he realized the magnitude of his conundrum.

They would not be able to proceed through the forest unless fully awake, and the time until which both Haku and Naruto achieved that state could range from hours to possibly days, for all Gaara knew.

The only option that was left for Gaara, in the meantime, was to wait.

He hated waiting.

With his stolen time, he resolved to be thankful for how fortunate they had been during their haphazard battle with the lone Kusa nin. They hadn't lost any scrolls and no one had been injured. It was really quite miraculous.

Even so, Naruto had still given no indication of waking and neither had Haku. It was then, brushing his hand against the dark haired boy's pale arm, did Gaara discover something deeply alarming.

Haku was blistering with fever.

This was indeed very puzzling to him. Gaara was certain that Haku had not been in any way ill upon entering the Forest of Death. He could only assume that he had contracted it after fighting the strange Grass ninja, although how was still a mystery.

He was forced to cope even though he didn't nearly have as much experience as Haku when it came to giving someone medical attention.

Gaara rummaged around through the few supplies his team had with them. Finding that Naruto's items would be of the most use, he took all of them. At least they had some water, thanks to him, tipping some from Haku's canteen and wetting a cloth. He removed his teammate's forehead protector and replaced the damp cloth there instead, hoping it would help.

Finding nothing else to do, Gaara ventured outside, set a trap, and then returned, anxious and irritated. If this exam had any parallels to the true toils in a chunin's life, his suggestion would be to teach more medical techniques to genin while in the Academy, because a kunai would not bring a fever down, unfortunately.

Gaara sat beside them watching. Waiting.

He hated waiting.

They were so still there were times he leaned over just to make sure they were breathing. An hour passed. As did a second, and over the course of that agonizing time, Gaara had frequently made Naruto and Haku sit up and take a drink of water.

It was when he depleted their water sources Gaara discovered something even worse: Haku had stopped sweating. Though Naruto had no such problem, the red haired boy was aware that it was a sign of dehydration, a common symptom of someone running a fever

Haku. Dehydrated.

Gaara didn't think something like that was possible but apparently he had been wrong.

Therefore that made the top priority to fetch more water, and prevent anymore hardships for his team. He took all of their canteens and left, bringing his gourd with him. After exiting the hideout Gaara resealed the entrance with a wall of sand as he had before, knowing it would be more than enough protection for them.

Fortunately, the stream he and the rest of his team had stumbled upon earlier that day branched off in two directions; the eastbound brook, as he could see, ran very close by. Gaara knelt down by the trickling rivulet, filling their containers while wearing a frown that threatened the longevity of his face.

Never before had he been forced to keep such a thorough guard of Naruto and Haku. It was unsettling for him to admit just how nervous he had been after the bout with the Grass ninja, hoping that their lives had been spared. It was unclear what the goal of the enemy ninja had been because Gaara had not witnessed the fight.

He finished filling the canteens and set them aside, cupping his hand and splashed his face with the icy water. Gaara blinked, feeling a bit more alert.

That was about the time he heard a commotion nearby and he scowled. 'Other ninja,' His mind supplied, and he didn't recognize any of the rowdy shouts to be of Leaf genin. Gaara felt ninja affairs should involve communications of less volume.

Of course, the thought also crossed his mind that another squad of ninja and a healthy, loud one to boot, could pose as a major threat for his severely weakened team.

Gaara decided to investigate the raucous.

He left the canteens by the water's edge, intending to return for them in but a few short moments. Gaara was nearly as talented as Haku when it came to stealth. Naruto, he noted, also had talent, but lacked the capacity to keep his mouth shut sometimes.

As usual, he was the 'intermediary of his team', or so Jiraiya had called him. Gaara had disagreed, saying that there was much more to a balanced team than at least one possessing mid-ranged talents.

The red haired boy approached by ground, his keen eyes piercing ahead into a scrub-filled clearing, where, by the look of it, a trap had been set off and evaded.

He was slightly baffled to see that only one ninja was making all the racket: some short, mouse-haired ninja garbed in buckles and layer after layer of leather. Gaara snorted to himself, he'd seen this type before. Antagonist.

It was foolish for the ninja to provoke another team so openly, but since he was here, Gaara thought a bit of eavesdropping wouldn't hurt.

“And they said Cloud shinobi were dangerous! Pft! You're just a bunch of stuck up pricks! What are you so afraid of? Scared you'll lose your scroll to us?” The mousy antagonist was grinning a yellow-toothed smile, and Gaara frowned, not understanding his aim.

The trio of Kumo ninja stood close in formation. However it was a shock to see that they weren't wise enough to ignore the loudmouth's bait...or simply wanted to indulge him.

The tallest of the Cloud spoke, his eyes narrowed, “Our merit is well deserved. It would be best for you not to make any more foolish choices in this forest.” His teammates stood close, both boys less inclined to speak, but equally annoyed.

“Cut it out Miosuke,” A groan of impatience sounded from behind the short trouble-maker, “We already have both of our scrolls. Save the attitude for later fights will you?”

Miosuke gave an irritated look to his teammate who came up from behind him, carrying a bandaged puppet on his back.

“Kankuro's right,” A blonde haired girl came to stand beside him, one hand rested on her hip, “No need to further dishonor Suna with your antics.”

“Stuff it, Temari,” The mousy ninja yanked on the strap of a huge boomerang slung on his back in agitation, “They came after us, remember?”

Gaara froze.

The Cloud ninja watched, agitated, as Miosuke tried to justify his thirst for a fight to his teammates. They were in no hurry.

Gaara's brain scrambled, trying to compute the reality of the situation.

Surely the mousy boy hadn't been speaking to his Kankuro and Temari.

His brother and sister.

Odd how possessive a moment it was for him, how Gaara couldn't understand the long-lost and yet recently reawakened yearning to be near his siblings.

He had never counted on them being in this year's Chunin Exam. Gaara, as a matter of fact, hadn't believed them to even be alive at this point in time, and had they been, he pictured them to be jounin by now.

Yet there they stood. Plain as the day was long.

'My brother and sister.' Instantly he hated Miosuke. The mousy antagonist. The loudmouth.

His replacement.

'That could've been me standing there.'

Haku and Naruto were going to have to wait.

“Let's go, this is getting ridiculous,” Temari turned her nose up at the Cloud ninja. Clearly she was as impatient as her brother, “We're wasting time you dolt.” Miosuke turned from her, not even considering her advice.

“Tell me something,” Miosuke smirked at the tall ninja, “Does it ever bother you that the sign on your forehead protector looks like a pile of shit?”

That did it. Kankuro and Temari scowled, fed up with their teammate.

The Cloud nin were also fed up with him.

The two quiet members of the Kumo team charged, their mouths both drawn into a feral snarl. Kunai were whipped out, thrown with such speed and force that there was no way Miosuke could dodge.

Gaara was still in too much of a shock to see that the fighting had started, much to his siblings' disdain.

The squat antagonist gripped the tie of his enormous boomerang, flashing his teeth, glad he finally had gotten a rise out of them, “Futon: Jet Stream Slash!”

The huge weapon was hurled forward with surprising strength, and the red and ivory arc screamed past the unprepared Cloud shinobi, knocking both them and their kunai back to the complete other side of the clearing. The boomerang rebounded, slicing tree branches in its path, and returned obediently back to its master's waiting hand.

“You idiot!” Temari descended upon him, furious, “Was that at all necessary? We could be on our way to the tower by now and you pull this?”

The Cloud ninja attacked again, this time in a different formation. Kankuro ran ahead, preparing for the worst as the Kumo nin scattered a huge net of wire over the scrub field, entangling trees and the Sand team.

Miosuke hadn't been expecting it, and tugged frantically upon realizing his boomerang had been snagged in the worst of the copper-wire knot, “Shit! Kankuro! A little help here please!”

“This is your doing you moron!” His puppet was out, slicing at wires, but Kankuro paused in his work, noting that severing the wrong wires would only tighten the trap's grip on them. The Cloud nin circled in wait, eyes hungry for a slaughter.

Temari had the more direct approach. Her iron fan opened, revealing three moons, and she slashed with a frustrated cry, freeing herself from the tangle, astounding the offended Kumo team. Two of them were at her a moment later, one wielding a short sword and the other a scythe. She was more than a match for them, but the male portion of her team was still stuck.

Gaara could only watch, numbed and unable to move.

The last of the waiting Cloud nin turned his attention to the struggling of Miosuke and Kankuro, still caught up in the snare they had laid out. “Hey,” His eyes were set on Miosuke, “Tell me something…”

The mousy antagonist glared indignantly, and hating karma.

“How does a piece of bread feel after it's put in a toaster?”

“Crap...” Kankuro muttered under his breath, withdrawing Karasu only moments before an electrical jutsu ran through the copper wires, giving him and Miosuke a powerful shock that singed the tips of their hair.

Temari was wide-eyed and overwhelmed. If half of her team was finished, then she wasn't far behind. She gave a fierce wallop to the head of the nin swiping at her with the sword: an instant knockout. The other, unfortunately, was faster than she and landing more blows.

Something in Gaara's head clicked then: some sort of subliminal signal to take action, even though he had no business being there to begin with. He was still obligated by a resounding memory forever imprinted in his blood.

He could finally move.

Kunai shot forward, connecting with the two remaining Kumo nin. They ducked back in a panicked shock, removing the knives, as a red haired ninja appeared on the side of the field with crazed eyes. Temari stood very still, unsure of what was going on, and whether the newcomer was singularly after the Cloud team.

A wave of sand crashed down, knocking back the Cloud ninja with thunderous force. They reasserted their wits and countered together, one leaping over Gaara and the other going for a low, finishing blow to the gut.

The knives rained down in unison, slashing Gaara to pieces, or rather, the sand clone he had substituted himself with. They skidded to a halt and turned back, running to their fallen teammate as sand closed in from all around them: the air, ground and clone that they had shredded.

Gaara stood at the center of the clearing, his shaking hand raised in anticipation as he levitated the individuals trapped in their respective sand coffins. They were crying in fear. Kankuro and Miosuke had come to, and watched in confusion as the unknown shinobi closed his fist, crushing the Cloud ninja into nothing more than a short drizzle of blood.

Temari shielded her face from the red rain, horrified.

Maybe she and her teammates were next?

Kankuro and Miosuke scrambled to free themselves as the mysterious red haired shinobi stood in silence. Temari didn't make a move to help them, fearing to provoke the sand manipulator.

Sand.

'He can control...sand?' Her heart missed a beat as her fan folded over. Temari took a hesitant step, wondering if there was even the faintest most minuscule of possibilities that the boy she was looking at could be her…

“I missed you.” Gaara's confession was the lowest of whispers. It coaxed Temari closer after hearing it. Somehow she knew, and she was sure that, as he tripped over the ruined wires in shock, that Kankuro knew as well.

He was aware that staying and speaking to them would only lead to disaster, 'Not here. Not now.'

But he would. Gaara would mend his broken past; mend the wound in his heart that was the absence of his flesh and blood.

The Sand team stood motionless and would've missed Gaara's escape via whirlwind had they blinked.

Gaara returned to the stream and washed the blood from his face, reciting the names of his brother and sister until the words were well-practiced on his lips. He would've felt ecstatically happy to see them had they not been on an enemy team.

The shock was wearing off by the time he had collected the water rations he had left there and returned to his teammates, who he suddenly had a new urgency to protect.


Night had fallen and Sakura sat in a dazed stupor beside her teammates.

They had been preparing to settle down for the evening, late that afternoon, wanting to celebrate their defeat of a team of Rain ninja who they had successfully ambushed for their Heaven Scroll.

When they had stopped to rest was when the Grass nin appeared.

She shivered at the memory, remembering how close of a battle it had been. In fact, it had been no contest really. The Kusa nin had been alone but he had nearly killed them all.

'He called himself Orochimaru...' Sakura rested her chin on her knees, hugging them to her chest, 'What did he want with Sasuke-kun?'

She hadn't a clue. And to make matters even worse, was that they had handed over their Heaven Scroll, believing that at the time to be what he was after. He burned it on the spot, to their horror, and then attacked again. Sakura considered it to be a miracle that they were still alive.

Sasuke lay beside her, completely drained from the fight and sported an odd mark on his neck where he had been bitten by the rogue ninja. Kiba slept uncomfortably on her opposite side, also low on chakra reserves, and with a wounded arm after he had been ambushed by a terrifyingly large snake.

Akamaru sat whimpering next to him, licking his face. With a sigh, Sakura pulled the small dog into her arms, “Not now Akamaru, he needs to rest. They'll be okay. I'll look after them.” The dog whined in response.

The pink haired girl closed her eyes briefly, but they snapped open a moment later. She knew that she had to keep alert. Falling asleep would leave them open to an ambush, although she believed she had done a good job of hiding her team in a gap of roots below a large tree. Their discovery would lead to trouble and she was in no condition to fight.

Sakura watched vigilantly with Akamaru, praying for the morning to come.


“Nyah...” Naruto rolled over, blinking the sleep from his blue eyes. He bumped into someone.

Gaara looked down at him, expressionless. The dark circles beneath his eyes were more pronounced, as if he had been up for an excruciatingly long time.

The blonde sat up and stretched, feeling his mouth automatically curve into a well-rested smile.

“Hey, what's up?” Naruto's speech was slurred through his yawn.

“You and Haku-kun were nearly killed when you fought that Grass ninja, remember?” Gaara sighed, hoping he would at least recall that much of what had transpired.

The boy's cerulean eyes lit up with the memory, “Oh yeah that's right! Er...how long was I out?”

“Two days.”

“TWO DAYS?” Naruto was flabbergasted and wished that it was all a joke. Gaara, he knew, seldom joked about anything, especially serious matters like these.

After a moment of horrified rambling, the blonde doubled over in pain, clawing at his stomach. Gaara's eyes narrowed at the sight, wondering if maybe his teammates had been injured after all, 'It isn't as if I can detect internal injuries.'

The Kyuubi container's stomach whined loudly and he frowned at Gaara, “Ugh...I'm starving. I can't believe it's been that long since the fight!”

The red haired boy dismissed his theory on Naruto having any internal injuries, “We barely have any food left and we're saving it for Haku-kun.”

“Oh fine, but you could've-” Naruto's eyes flickered curiously to the still-sleeping form of Haku beside him and guilt washed over his face, “Is he alright?”

“No.” Gaara glanced over to the dark haired boy as well, “He had a high fever for over a day, but it seems he's overcome it. Though he hasn't woken once.”

The blonde boy gulped, staring down at Haku whose face was somehow not peaceful. He certainly was paler than usual and it was plain to see he had been very ill. Naruto petted his unconscious teammate's head worriedly, forgetting his hunger.

“When do you think he'll wake up?” He felt the need to ask.

Gaara shrugged, “I have no idea. Soon, maybe, once he's had enough rest.”

Naruto nodded glumly, not understanding how Haku's health could fail him in the middle of the Chunin Exam. He thought of Sato briefly, wondering if there was a virus going around, 'If that idiot turns out to be the germ-bag behind this I'm gonna-!'

“I'm going outside.” Gaara spoke abruptly, his voice hinting that Naruto should join him.

The blonde stood up reflexively, trying to overcome his growing concerns for Haku's state of health. He followed quietly after the red haired boy, only realizing that they had been resting in a cave once they had gotten out of it. Gaara didn't even bother to hole up the entrance behind them.

“Don't set off any traps-” Gaara's warning came a bit too late, as he watched Naruto dodge a hail of kunai that had sprung from a nettle of leaves, where he had unwittingly stepped on a trip wire. He sighed at his friend, expecting as much.

“Yeesh! You could give a bit more warning than that Gaara!” The blonde boy followed after his teammate, peeved, “What? Were you trying to scare off any army or something while we were out?”

“It's a possibility.” Gaara said blandly, finding he was unable to smirk as he normally would at a moment like this. He absently wandered back to the stream as Naruto followed him, wary for traps.

Gaara sat down by the water and splashed a handful of it over his tired face. Naruto plopped down beside him and immersed his entire head into the cool water. His teammate sighed in exasperation. The blonde resurfaced, grinning and refreshed.

It was then Gaara considered telling Naruto about his encounter with his long-lost siblings. Though he was aware it would probably come as a shock, since he had never spoken about them before in his time with Naruto and Haku. He felt torn. It was horrible and never before had he been so hopelessly confused in his life.

Gaara decided against it. Naruto had a lot to deal with at the moment and forcing his problems onto the blonde would only complicate things further.

He'd find out eventually anyway.

“Maybe we should just...wake Haku-kun up,” Naruto suggested thoughtfully as they stood, “You know, give him a little nudge. I bet he's got enough energy to at least have us get to the tower...”

For once, Gaara couldn't argue with him. Haku would have to get going any way; they simply didn't have any more time to allow him to recover. The red haired boy nodded solemnly in response and Naruto raised his eyebrows at him for a moment, but then shrugged, glad Gaara didn't deem his idea foolish.

They returned to their temporary hideout where Haku remained in a deep sleep. It felt like a crime to wake him, being that Gaara had spoken of how terribly ill he had been, but it needed to be done.

Naruto kneeled down next to the dark haired boy and gently shook his shoulder, “Haku-kun, it's time for us to get going...”

Haku's eyes opened slowly and his pain was visible. It took a moment for them to adjust to the light before the image of Naruto's whiskered face came into view. Gaara sighed inwardly, hoping he had enough energy for the continuation of their journey.

The blonde boy helped Haku sit up and let him have a sip of water from his canteen, 'I don't know about this...he's still as weak as a kitten and he can barely see straight...’ Haku was cross-eyed at the moment.

“How are you feeling?” Gaara couldn't help but notice the dark haired boy shaking slightly. It wasn't comforting.

“I feel like I was hit by a train...” Haku's voice was hoarse, but humorous. Naruto grinned, glad that he wasn't the zombie-version of himself he had been expecting.

“We kind of lost two days after the fight with the crazy guy,” Naruto announced sheepishly, “So we better haul ass in the next few days or we'll be late and...yeah.” He didn't want to upset Haku, but he was a bit late on the uptake.

Haku's storm colored eyes lowered in shame, “I'm sorry.”

“For what?” Naruto barked, indignant, “You've got no reason to apologize, Haku-kun!”

“I've been a burden,” He said softly, “I've slowed us down.”

“Technically you've both been burdens,” Gaara pointed out and his teammates looked hurt, “It's not something to be remorseful about. We're here and have both scrolls. If we go now there's little chance that we'll be disqualified at all.”

Their expressions brightened considerably.

“Well? You think you're up to it, Haku-kun?” Naruto's mood was as sunny as usual.

He nodded, sliding his legs beneath him and stood awkwardly. He looked terrible, but if he believed that he was able to continue his teammates weren't about to stop him.

“I have a question though.” Haku's eyebrows knitted together in a frown, “While we were knocked out, what happened? Were there any other shinobi that you encountered, Gaara-kun?”

“A team of Cloud,” He answered succinctly, walking ahead of them into the sun-lit brush of the forest, “I crushed them before they could get too close.” It was only half of the truth, but the truth nonetheless.

“Ah.” Haku nodded in understanding and had no further comment on the matter. Naruto walked beside him, guardedly, keeping watch for any other ninja, as improbable as another encounter would be.

Haku felt his chakra slowly begin to return to him, but it was painfully low. His limbs ached as he followed his teammates up into the treetops, and he hoped that he would never again slow them down.


At that time Kabuto arrived at the tower. He bade farewell to Team 7, whom he had escorted there after stumbling upon them in the forest.

The silver haired boy pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose as he pulled open one of the double doors and went inside silently, as if expected.

He was.

“Ah, so you've brought the information, Kabuto-kun?” Orochimaru's voice hung slippery in the air as he leaned against a wall, his arms folded across his chest.

Kabuto smirked darkly, holding up one of his cards, “Yes, Orochimaru-sama. It's all here: the information on Uchiha Sasuke.”

Orochimaru accepted the card offered to him, before he asked “And what of the other? Young Haku-kun?”

Kabuto frowned, “I'm afraid I was only able to track down Sasuke. Haku and his teammates have remained elusive,” His smirk returned, wider than ever, “Though I should have no problem collecting information on him. He seems to be one of the favorites of this village...”

“No matter,” Orochimaru waved the subject away, not caring very much. He had seen what he wanted from both boys, “I will be watching both of them with interest. It's quite surprising that they have both survived...”

Kabuto remained quiet; his eyes were unblinking behind his glasses.

“The Hokage knows that I'm here,” Orochimaru's smiled sadistically to himself, recalling how Anko had confronted him the night before, “He isn't foolish enough to stop the exams...not when I'm having so much fun.”

“What are your orders?” Kabuto asked.

“Do not let the third stage of the exam be interrupted;” Orochimaru said simply, vanishing into the shadows, “I'm looking forward to it...”

The silver haired boy nodded and then moved on, unable to suppress his gleeful smirk of how easily things had gone according to plan.


On their way to the tower, with Naruto heading up the front with an unprecedented speed, they had run into a team of Rain nin. Haku had been, and unknowingly so to the other team, unable to fight. So naturally his teammates were a tad overprotective of him.

Gaara and Naruto trampled the fools trying to confuse them with genjutsu, leaving them to their misery and woe, but with their scrolls intact.

“That was bullying you know,” Haku was highly disapproving of their actions, “We could've just left. There was no need for a standoff.”

“Yeah well, bullying or whatever it was, they attacked us first!” Naruto protested, “They had it coming!”

Gaara silently agreed with him, leaving Haku to follow behind them, troubled, wondering if they were planning on demolishing every team they encountered on their way to the tower.

The tower, which had appeared absurdly far away during the day time, was much closer than they had anticipated, to their relief. The moon was high in the sky once they had gotten there and they had not been intercepted by any other shinobi since their battering of the Rain nin.

They entered cautiously, unsure of what to expect.

The double doors closed with a rusted creak behind them. It was a wide, vacant room. Moonlight filtered into the dark, echoing room from beneath the door and small windows placed high on the walls. It was not what they had expected and quite underwhelming.

“This place is empty,” Naruto went ahead to state the obvious, “”What do you suppose we do now?”

“Look up there.” Haku pointed to a large sign hung on the opposite wall, which, after reading it, left them even more baffled.

Gaara remained silent; fighting the urge to let his eyes slip shut and fall asleep on his feet.

“There's a word missing on that sign. It doesn't make any sense!” Naruto declared, annoyed.

It wasn't as if his teammates hadn't noticed. By now they were exhausted and there was little energy left in them to think up any conclusions. Haku, as he often was, was the exception to that rule.

“I suggest we open our scrolls now,” Haku decided, fighting a yawn, “We'll open them at the same time...”

Naruto wasn't sure about the idea, “But Anko-sensei said we couldn't open them until-”

“Until we reached the tower.” Gaara finished for him, “We're here now.”

Haku nodded, “Yes. We've followed the rules, so we have to take it up until the last step.” He riffled through his blue gi and retrieved the Earth scroll, and Naruto watched apprehensively as Gaara displayed their Heaven scroll, wondering what the outcome would be.

“Together...” Haku's gulp was audible. Even he was just a bit nervous.

He and the red haired boy opened the scrolls in unison, finding the writing on each to be perplexing. After a moment, Naruto slapped the scrolls from their hands knowingly, letting them fall to the floor with a flutter. His teammates frowned at him.

“What?” Naruto folded his arms, “You want whoever you're summoning to land on you?”

“They're summoning-?” Haku realized that he was in fact correct. He would have eventually noticed what they were, but Naruto had more experience with summoning and recognized it first.

A cloud of smoke billowed from the scrolls on the floor and after a few seconds of observation a figure became visible.

The three of them gawked in shock.

Jiraiya blinked down at them in silence. He then broke into a fit of hysterical laughter at the sight of his bewildered students' faces. Naruto, Haku and Gaara stood, nonplused, even as the sennin fell to the floor, tears welling in his eyes as he chortled like a madman.

“Ero-sensei!” Naruto was the fastest to recover and vocalize, “What the hell are you doing here?”

Jiraiya stood, wiping at his eyes, “Eh? Oh. Well, as it turns out, I would've shown up here to watch you in the next round anyway. But I managed to strike a deal with Hokage-sama a week ago in which if I were to meet you here I'd be free of my community service!”

“Oh joy.” Gaara droned. He was honestly glad to see a familiar face, but just too tired to express it. He fell to the floor abruptly, grateful he no longer needed to defy gravity. Haku and Naruto followed suit, falling to their butts and longing for rest.

Jiraiya smirked at his pupils, “Hm? Pooped out already? How difficult was it in there?”

Naruto and Haku exchanged a long glance with each other, before Naruto proceeded to recap their struggle. He outlined their original plan, getting their scrolls, fishing, and the Grass ninja who ultimately defeated them but left them alive.

“Right...” Jiraiya was livid after hearing the story, although they weren't sure why, “Tell me, did you find out this Grass ninja's name?”

Haku vaguely recalled his introduction to the ninja, which had also been his farewell. Gingerly, he touched the seal on his neck, but decided not to bring attention to it, for he himself was unsure of what it was for.

“He said that his name was...Orochimaru, I believe.” Haku confirmed and recoiled in shock as Jiraiya reeled away from them in an infuriated frenzy of derogatory comments and babble including phrases like, “They're my students!” and “I’ll tear him right of his filthy snake skin!”

Gaara gave him an inquiring look a few minutes later, after he had calmed down, “You know him?”

Jiraiya's eyes narrowed, “More than I'd like to, believe me. Now tell me, did anything happen when you fought him? Anything at all?” His voice was dangerously serious and it was frightening.

Haku still didn't bring up the mark on his neck, being that another question was on his mind, “Yes actually,” Jiraiya's gaze was fixed on him after that, “Naruto-kun used a technique against him called the...Rasengan,” Naruto's cheeks tinted; he had forgotten about it, “When did he start using such a powerful move?”

Gaara's glare connected fully with the back of Naruto's blonde head now that he knew what he had been doing during the past few weeks.

Jiraiya's anger warped into a surprised face, “Uh...he did?” He looked down at his blue-eyed student, “You did?”

“Yeah I did!” Naruto's nostrils flared in annoyance, “You think I wouldn't be able to?”

“Truthfully, yes...” The toad sage sighed, further agitating his hard-working pupil.

“Yeah, well...I had to use the Kyuubi's chakra to do it twice...” Jiraiya's eyes widened after the word 'twice,' and Naruto didn't miss it either, to his delight, “But now...it's funny. I can't feel my chakra at all. It's like the fox just vanished or something.” He added in puzzlement.

Jiraiya raised one white eyebrow, “Oh? That is something. I better take a look...”

Haku and Gaara watched in clinical curiosity as Naruto removed his jacket, and with a small dose of chakra, made the seal on his stomach appear. The toad hermit kneeled down, observing it carefully. He knew what the problem was immediately.

“That bastard...” He muttered, focusing chakra into his fingers, “I was afraid he might use something like this on you. Good thing I can take care of it now.”

Naruto gave him a look of bafflement, “You mean he did something to the seal?”

Jiraiya nodded, “Yes, but it isn't permanently damaging. It's preventing the Kyuubi's chakra from mixing with yours at a stable rate. Easily fixable. Now I want you to look over at your teammates.”

“Why?”

“Just shut up and do it, squirt.”

“Alright! Fine!” Naruto's irritated gaze traveled over to Haku and Gaara, who appeared equally as puzzled as he.

“Good,” Jiraiya smirked to himself, drawing his right hand back, “Next, count back from 100.”

“This is so stupid. How is this gonna fix-?”

“Get on with it!”

“Sheesh! Fine!” Naruto blinked at Gaara, who looked amused, “100, 99, 98…”

“Five-Pronged Unsealing!” Naruto felt something slam into his abdomen. Perhaps he should have expected it, knowing his sneaky mentor well enough by then. Jiraiya’s hand was lit with radiant chakra and it burned off the restraint that had been applied to Naruto’s stomach.

Jiraiya promptly stepped back to observe a winded Naruto. He had fallen on his rear to the floor. The five inhibitors surrounding the seal of the demon fox vanished and Jiraiya nodded, quite pleased with himself, “Well that about does it! You don’t need to count anymore.”

“I wasn't gonna keep going anyway you jerk!” Naruto yowled, trying to recover, “What the heck was that for?”

“You can use the Kyuubi's chakra again, that's what it was for,” The sage smirked, turning to his other two visibly amazed students, “Now that you're all here and well, my advice would be for you to rest and prepare for battle-”

“Ero-sensei...”

“What now, Naruto?”

“Can you get us some ramen, maybe?” Naruto's face was pathetic but cute, “We're all starving!”

Gaara frowned, not understanding when Naruto and Haku had picked up that ‘cute pout’ that could sway others to their whim. Gaara was totally immune to the tactic but also incapable of using it.

Jiraiya frowned down at them as they sat huddled on the cement floor in the dark of the night, begging for food.

“Ah...alright, but quit it with the face.”

Naruto's pout was replaced with an expression of delight. So far, he felt that the Chunin Exam were the coolest thing that he had ever participated in while in Konoha.

And the best part was that his friends were beside him.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Soundtrack: “Lion” by Kodo

“You look a bit nervous Haku-kun. Are you gonna be okay?”

The dark haired boy turned to Naruto. He leaned against the wall of the gymnasium beside Gaara. Haku rubbed his neck in reflex, trying to relieve his obvious anxiety.

Haku sighed in response, “I'm fine...really.”

Naruto nodded, believing him full-heartedly. He pulled a kunai from his holster and began to sharpen it on a whetting stone.

Gaara's glacier eyes opened a margin as he spoke, “Have you restocked on weapons like Jiraiya-sensei said?”

The blonde boy frowned at him, “Do you see me holding this kunai?”

“I wasn't talking to you.”

“Oh.”

A withered smile appeared on Haku's face, “I have. Relax.”

Like it could be so easy.

The redhead settled his eyes shut again and attempted to calm himself, but his mind was buzzing like a hive of bees at the moment. At any time the next part of the Chunin Exam would commence, and Jiraiya had only left them with a goofy grin behind his pipe earlier that morning. He had not provided them with much information on what was to come.

'We've been waiting in this tower for a while now...what's gonna happen next?' Naruto stowed his kunai away after it was sharpened to his satisfaction, 'Things can only get rougher from here out, I bet.'

The other teams that had managed to arrive in one piece were also hovering in silent apprehension about the place. It was when a group of recognizable jounin appeared on the opposite side of the room did the genin snap out of their stupor and congregate in that general direction.

Haku and Naruto stood, stretched, and then followed after Gaara. They had been grateful for the day of rest they had once they had reached the tower. Jiraiya had even smuggled food and weapons in for them, then asking if they had spotted any cute kunoichi during their escapade in the Forest of Death.

Now they were ill at ease, knowing what horrific power some of the other ninja attending the exam possessed.

The Hokage stood in front of a huge statue of the ram seal on the opposite end of the gymnasium. He and the present jounin observed the curious number of trainees who had passed.

The genin teams lined up in adjacent formations, chattering amongst themselves with a new-found energy. Haku suspected that the sight of the Hokage himself may have reinstalled some vigor into the other ninja.

“This is it! This is it! This is it!” Naruto's excitement could only be contained in a small whisper to Haku, who stood with trembling shoulders in front of him, “We are gonna kick so much ass! I just know it!”

Gaara stared at the back of Naruto's head, trying to keep his emotions in check. It was surprisingly difficult.

Not far off was the team of the Sand Village. Miosuke, stubborn as ever, kept his cold eyes glued to his sensei up front while he mulled over their mission objectives. His anger at his teammates was not well hidden; for there was just no talking to them, not since they had realized that all the years of their father assuring them that their baby brother was dead were totally inaccurate.

Miosuke had insistently reminded them that it didn't matter, and that Gaara had been a vessel of a terrible demon, and that there was absolutely no point in stressing over it.

Their brother was dead. The ninja they had met in the forest was just another worthless Leaf genin.

Still, both Temari and Kankuro remained watchful over the red haired boy, unable to think of how he could have possibly survived so many years in another village without their father knowing.

Closer to Team 2 stood an exhausted-looking Team 10. Shikamaru, sporting dark circles beneath his eyes, accepted a potato chip Chouji had offered him. Ino, slightly more dapper, gazed in fangirlish awe at Sasuke, whose team they had assisted in the Forest of Death. Although, they hadn't provided so much assistance as they had a distraction.

Team 7 stood quietly, completely worn, with only Sakura muttering in concern to Sasuke, who disregarded her troubles.

Outwardly, Team 13 appeared as healthy as ever; Lee already congratulating Tenten on her historic, single-handed defeat of an ambush by Kabuto's team. She tried to quiet him, but to no avail.

Hinata's soft eyes were weary as they settled on Naruto, her beloved, grateful he and his teammates were well. She was utterly spent in spirit after enduring all of her teammates' animosity. Shino and Sato refused to speak unless it was to her, and even then she could feel their discontent towards each other.

Haku glanced back at her by chance and surprised her. He offered her an amiable smile, which she returned as best she could. Noting her fatigue, his eyes scanned briefly over the remainder of her team, in which he noticed a pair of kodachi adorning Sato's belt.

His gray eyes widened and he nudged Naruto gently in the ribs in order for him to redirect his attention to the unexpected sight. Gaara, ever observant, stole a glance as well.

Naruto swallowed his gasp and then turned to Haku, hissing in confusion, “What does he think he's doing with a pair of swords? Is he crazy?”

“They're too small to be swords, Naruto-kun,” Haku answered in a low voice, trying to explain, “Too small to even be short swords really. They are called kodachi, but how he obtained them is a mystery to me...”

Gaara snorted, “It's unlikely he's even able to fully wield them.”

Naruto shrugged, the shock wearing off, “You never know. He's a weird kid.”

They returned their attention to the front where a ninja had appeared, stifling a fit of coughs. Once he had regained his breath he turned his eyes to the genin, “Mn... Welcome. I am Gekko Hayate and I am your examiner for the next portion of the Chunin Exam.”

He was interrupted by a sudden cough, after which he continued, “There will now be a word from Hokage-sama before the Third portion begins.”

Hayate stepped to the side, allowing Hiruzen to speak.

The Sandaime's eyes were uncommonly rough once they settled on his audience, “I congratulate all of you for making it this far, for it is proof that you possess the minds and skills of true shinobi...”

Naruto folded his arms in a manner similar to his equally impatient red haired friend, buckling down for another boring speech from the leader of his village.

“By participating in the next part of the Chunin Selection Exam, you will be battling your peers to the death, representing the friendship that unites our villages together.”

There was a soundless pause in which the genin took a moment to consider his words, shortly after they concluded that they had no understanding whatsoever what he was talking about.

Sakura, tired yet willful, spoke up with a few others, “Friendship? How can our fighting each other represent good will towards other villages?”

Kakashi gave her a measured look from afar and she fell quiet again, knowing better than to get too worked up.

“Decades ago, when the great ninja villages were still young, endless bloody wars persisted for years on end. As shinobi, it is one's will to do battle and to defend their respective homes. In times such as these, long after those battles, the Chunin Exam stands as a reminder of the true nature of a ninja even in times of peace,” Sarutobi watched as comprehension crept up onto the faces of a few of the listening nin, “You are all part of an invaluable tradition that upholds the bond between the shinobi villages. As such, it is your duty to preserve the bond and honor the ninja before you who gave their lives for your homes.”

The subject seemed to clear up after that.

Haku took the words to heart, approving of the goal of the exam, as brutal as it sounded. He was disappointed to see that his teammates didn't share his enthusiasm. Naruto watched his mentor from across the room, surprised that he didn't have any of his notes out.

Instead, the toad sage stood silently beside Kakashi with his eyes trained on the wall farthest from Orochimaru.

Had he chosen to neglect all self-control the entire exam could have gone to hell in a hand-basket right there. Jiraiya could barely stomach the snake traitor's return, let alone his attack on his pupils.

'When this is over, Orochimaru, I swear, there will be hell to pay,' He inhaled deeply as he tried to remain cool, 'Once Hokage-sama allows me, I will take your freshly severed head to him myself. The people you've killed and the harm you've done...you'll regret the day you went near my students!'

The snake sennin had chosen a new disguise as a jounin-sensei garbed in dark clothing. He kept a watchful eye over the two genin he had branded. He had no trouble at all being so near to his old teammate, contrary to how Jiraiya was feeling.

The Sandaime finished, allowing Hayate to continue.

“The upcoming matches will be one-on-one and randomized. Any ninja who feel that they will not be able to compete should withdraw now.” Hayate glanced over to some of the more battered-looking shinobi.

Without hesitation, Kabuto and his teammates raised their hands, by an earlier order from Orochimaru. The other Leaf genin could understand their plight, for many of their wounds (inflicted by a certain weapons specialist) had gone untreated and could possibly prove fatal.

“We're out,” Kabuto groaned, adjusting his glasses, “We won't be able to continue.”

Hayate nodded to them and the other genin watched as they departed, looking very relieved. Although it looked tempting, the remaining ninja knew they had come too far to quit. No other shinobi asked to be dismissed.

“No one else then?” The proctor made one last call and the enduring squads stayed quiet.

Hayate nodded, “Very well. As of now, the third stage has begun. The board will display two random names of those remaining to fight.” He gestured to a huge score board high on the left side of the far wall.

Everyone present looked up expectantly as names flashed rapidly on the black screen and finally settled on two of them.

Hayate restrained a loud cough, “Er-hem! The first match will be between...” He consulted the board's readout, “Aburame Shino and Rock Lee. All other ninja must proceed up to the balcony now.”

Sato and Hinata, stunned, did not at first move. Shino appeared totally relaxed, but they, on the other hand, could not help but fear for him as he was the first to fight.

The silver haired boy frowned inwardly and then padded up to the balcony to rejoin his sensei. Hinata suppressed her anxiety, frightened by how quickly it had started, “Um...good luck, Shino-kun.”

“Thank you.” His calm attitude upset her as she departed.

Neither Neji or Tenten could have gotten a word in edgewise to Lee due to Gai's last minute pep-talk, “Now listen Lee, do nothing but your best! The fires of Youth burn brightly within you!”

“I will Gai-sensei!”

“Good luck my student!”

“Gai-sensei!”

“Lee!”

“Gai-sensei!”

“Lee!”

Gai promptly punched him in the face to get him moving, tears of joy rolling down his cheeks. Lee recovered immediately, saluting his teacher and teammates, who could only sigh at the sight of him as they ventured up to the higher level.

It was a scene that had bewildered all who had not been witness to it before. So, naturally, Team 2 weathered it quite well, as did Teams 7 and 8.

'It wasn't nearly as bad as it was the Tanabata Festival...' Haku recalled with a shudder.

Without further interruption the two Leaf genin faced off, neither intimidated in the least, as Hayate ended yet another coughing fit.

“Ready? You may begin.” Hayate backed away, letting the battle commence.

Shino, calm and smooth, drew a kunai. His eyes scanned Lee from behind his dark glasses, who had taken a ready pose. He predicted that Lee was going to come into close-quarters to fight. This would complicate things because Shino knew he fought best at a distance. He had to maintain the space between them.

“It will be an honor to fight against another talented shinobi from my village!” Lee proclaimed, leaping forward with surprising speed.

The Aburame boy threw the kunai with precise timing, but thanks to his training with Tenten, Lee dodged it effortlessly and continued on. Lee turned, preparing for a roundhouse kick, and was dismayed when it was easily countered.

The watching shinobi were silent as Lee cast a flurry of expert punches which Shino blocked with great effort. Kurenai admitted to herself while observing that Shino was, in her opinion, her most gifted student. He was able to adapt to most opponents. He kept up well with Lee, but Kurenai knew that soon he would use his cunning to disable his opponent's taijutsu.

Lee, while weaving away from what could have been a brutal hit, saw an opening in Shino's defense and went for it. With a cry, Lee planted a terrible uppercut squarely on Shino's lower jaw. Hinata squeaked in spite of herself.

Shino, a moment later, dispersed into a swarm of Kikaichu insects, much to Lee's shock. The bugs of Shino's doppelganger took hold of the enemy, slowing his movements as he struggled to get them off.

Shino appeared behind Lee, his insects scuttling away from their host in increasing numbers as they joined together to attack Lee.

“My insects will drain you of your chakra,” The Aburame boy warned, as Lee swiped them off frantically, still trying to get nearer to his opponent, “You may avoid injury if you give in now.”

Naruto, leaned excitedly on the railing between his teammates, impressed, “Oh man...Bushy-brows is in trouble! He better do something soon...”

Haku nodded in agreement, still nervous over his future fight. Gaara, unlike his friends, knew that Lee was much more capable than most gave him credit for.

Hinata shifted her eyes to Sato. Much to her surprise he was wearing an anxious expression. His midnight blue eyes were focused on the match below and held no trace of anger as they had before.

'Maybe Sato-kun is worried now...' Hinata pondered, noticing his change in behavior, 'This match was a shock to him. Is it possible that he wanted to fight Shino-kun himself?'

It seemed likely. Sato had trouble letting go of his anger, even if it was sparked through his teammates looking out for his safety. Now Shino was in a fight that Sato had never imagined could have taken place, and he was unsure of how he was supposed to feel at all.

Kurenai turned her crimson eyes to Gai, who had his signature grin plastered to his face as he observed the match. She knew by now that there were definite parallels in skill between the student and teacher, if that were any more indication of her fears.

Lee ended his struggle against the insects clambering onto him by the hundreds, and instead looked up to his mentor questioningly, waiting for a signal. Tenten frowned, hoping he wasn't planning anything too drastic. Once Gai had given him a thumbs-up and a huge, dazzling smile, Lee's expression changed.

Shino wondered why it was taking Lee so long to surrender, but he decided to stay cautious, sensing a change in strategy fast approaching.

Many people watching had blinked and missed it, as the Kikaichu insects attempting to drain Lee's chakra were blown off of him all at once, and the boy in green vanished. Kakashi, observant as ever, gave a look of disapproval to Gai, wondering when he had taught the boy to open chakra gates.

The sudden surge of energy had stunned the bugs, leaving them belly-up on the floor and unable to move. Shino had no time to react once Lee had reappeared, moving extraordinarily fast, and hit him with a vicious, high-speed flying kick.

Sato flinched.

The Aburame boy flew across the room, to the horror of many in the audience, and crashed into the opposite wall with a small yet noticeable shockwave. The impact knocked the wind out of him, but he was still able to function. Shino took a moment to regroup.

'How was he unaffected by my insects? That was no normal amount of chakra...' Shino righted himself, ready to fight again, but unable to understand what had just happened.

“How can Bushy-brows move that fast?” Naruto muttered in astonishment.

“It is a result of his training with Gai-sensei, I believe,” Haku answered, also in awe, “He is much stronger than I had originally thought...”

Lee stood patiently, wearing a confident expression as he anticipated Shino's thoughts, “You see now that your insects were not able to drain my chakra and will not be able to in the future!”

Slowly, the Kikaichu insects on the floor began to regain mobility and returned to Shino, hissing to him their dislike of his opponent. In his own mind he agreed with them. Lee was a bit too energetic for his taste.

Shino threw a round of shuriken as he rushed at Lee, who was also approaching, and prepared to create another clone from his insect allies. Again with an invisible speed, Lee disappeared before the projectiles could reach their mark. Frustrated, Shino skidded to a halt and formed seals: a costly mistake.

Lee reappeared again, low to the floor, and kicked Shino into the air before he could complete his jutsu. Lee's teammates watched expectantly, having seen it before as Shino struggled, only to get hit repetitively, preventing him from returning to the ground. His insects could not move fast enough to catch up to them.

Sato was horrified, having never seen Shino take so many ruthless hits. It was at that moment he had given up his resentment. He could accept that his teammates only promised to prevent him from using the Chidori in order to protect him. It had been a poor excuse to squander their friendship.

“Shino! Come on! You've got to fight back!” The young Hatake threw his fists in the air, hollering, “It isn't over yet!”

Kurenai didn't fight the small smile that bloomed on her lips.

Hinata, though surprised, was grateful that Sato had finally broken out of his funk, even if it had taken a long while. Nearby, Team 2 was also startled, for it had been the first time in over five days they had heard a peep out of Sato.

Shino was shocked to hear his teammate cheer for him and countered a number of Lee's strikes in response, buying enough time for his insects to reach him and begin their assault on Lee.

Lee, though inspired by the cheering, was ready to end the battle, “Shadow of the Dancing Leaf!”

Lee's arm bindings came loose and coiled around Shino, restricting his movement, and Sato watched, stupefied, as Lee began pulling Shino down with him towards the ground, head first.

“Front Lotus!” The rapidly spinning combatants crashed down, leaving a cloud of dust in the aftermath of the attack.

An uproar followed, many shinobi were unsure of the end result. Naruto was left speechless, finding it difficult to say anything after witnessing the sheer force of the attack. Jiraiya only smirked, finding it interesting that one so young was incredibly skilled in taijutsu.

When visibility down below returned, Lee was the first to be seen, standing on shaky legs. He looked pleased with his work, despite a few Kikaichu insects still trying to feast on his chakra.

A short ways off, Shino could be seen in a small crater, weakly struggling to stand and failing at it. Lee's Front Lotus could have maimed him had his insects not broken the worst of his fall. It was quiet for a long moment as Shino used up the last of his strength before collapsing, spent.

Hayate approached, fighting back a few threatening coughs, “The winner of the match is Rock Lee.”

Sato, unable to stop himself, leapt over the railing and went to his fallen teammate, hoping his injuries weren't too extensive. Hinata stayed close to Kurenai as tears welled in her pale, white eyes. She was glad that her teammates had gotten over their hostilities.

Shino was conscious yet mortified over his loss. He looked up at Sato who helped him stand, not minding the insects that climbed onto him. It didn't take long before a goofy grin found its way onto Sato's face, as it often did, “You did great buddy! That's got to be one of the best fights I've seen in a while...” He paused guiltily, “I'm...sorry I was a jerk.”

Shino said nothing, but offered a nod.

Kurenai folded her arms, approving, and spoke quietly to Hinata, “When will they ever learn?”

The Hyuga girl smiled slightly, even if Shino's loss was disappointing.

Lee, predictably, was a gracious winner, “That was a splendid match! Your youth is commendable beyond a doubt, Shino-kun!” Sato snorted in laughter as he and the annoyed Aburame returned up to the balcony, friends once again.

The jounin could tell that the first match had inspired the watching genin.

Gai had decided it was an ideal moment to speak with his eternal rival who was nearby, “So Kakashi, what do you make of my hard-working student?”

There was a long, awkward silence.

A few moments later, Kakashi looked up from his naughty book and turned to an expectant-looking Gai, “Hm? Did you say something Gai?”

Gai clenched his teeth in aggravation, 'Ack! That Kakashi thinks he's so cool! I'll show him one of these days!'

“Lee! Great job!” Tenten finally mustered the strength to smile when Lee had returned, “Of course I knew you had it in the bag from the get-go, but still, you looked good out there.”

“Thank you my beautiful teammate!” She sighed, expecting such a flowery response.

Tenten turned her gaze to Neji who gave her a sour look. He did not feel like congratulating Lee at the moment. Her eyes narrowed in impatience as she waited, when finally, he spoke, but not approvingly, “You were slower than usual.”

Tenten sighed, wishing he could try to be a tad friendlier.

Lee grinned in response, finding it more favorable than what Neji often criticized him for. A few paces away stood Gai, challenging Kakashi to a round of rock-paper-scissors.

Jiraiya scratched his chin, finding the outcome of the match interesting. In turn, it made him curious as to how his own students would fare in their own approaching matches, “Hey squirts, there's something you should probably be aware of...”

Naruto gave him an alarmed look, “And you're telling us now?”

“Yep,” He nodded, “Try to understand the fact that this is the first preliminary of the Third stage of the Chunin Exam has had in over several years,” His students gave him questioning looks, “Meaning that it is extremely unusual so many genin made it this far. Not more than ten on average pass, but here now there are over twenty ninja competing...”

“It is quite strange there are so many strong shinobi all competing at the same time,” Haku agreed, seeing the break in the normal pattern in the exam, “How can there suddenly be so many more passing genin, sensei?” His teammates also found it curious.

“I have a few theories...” Jiraiya answered slowly, lighting his pipe as his eyes narrowed at Orochimaru, “For now, the only thing you three can do is tough it out. If any weird crap starts going down we'll know.”

The new readout appeared on the board.

“The second match will be between Tsuchi Kin and Nara Shikamaru.” Hayate announced, glancing up towards the balcony.

“Aw man...why does my match have to be next? And against a girl too?” Shikamaru muttered irritably, and his jounin instructor gave him an expectant look.

“Good luck out there.” Chouji smiled, assuming that Shikamaru may decide to give in quickly, but still hoped to motivate him.

“Alright Shikamaru! Get down there and knock her block off!” Ino was enthusiastic.

Shikamaru complied, taking his time as he left the balcony, his hands jammed in his pockets. It wouldn't have been so much of an issue, he figured, if his team hadn't faced down the Sound nin kunoichi earlier in the Forest of Death.

'Sakura's team gets ambushed and Ino has a mental breakdown while we watch her take on three enemy ninja. Sounds like any other mission we're on actually...' He sighed inwardly when he reached the main floor.

'I really don't want to fight this chick...' Shikamaru stood at the rooms' center, staring down his opponent, 'And what's worse is that she's seen my jutsu and I haven't seen her's.'

It would be a problem, undoubtedly, facing a foe who had already seen his strategy in action. Especially topping off the fact that he had very little incentive to fight anyway.

“The lazy bum's up now...I've never seen him fight before!” Naruto folded his arms behind his head, immensely bored. Truthfully, Naruto didn't expect Shikamaru would make it so far, considering that he was such a slothful ninja. But the exam, he had found, held many surprises.

Haku stood beside him, still tense, while Gaara leaned against the wall behind them in silence.

Kin smirked maniacally at Shikamaru, feeling confident. She had not forgotten his team’s interference with their plan to kill Uchiha Sasuke and she was ready to put him in his place.

“Begin.” Hayate stepped back, waiting for the next combatants to start.

“I'm going to finish you quickly and painfully.” Kin announced, jumping back and putting distance between herself and Shikamaru. The Leaf nin hadn't expected her sudden onslaught of senbon, but he managed to dodge seconds before they were able to hit him.

“Senbon, eh?” Shikamaru wasn't happy and dodged another round of needles. His attention was diverted when a small, ringing sound came from behind him, starling him.

His dark eyes scanned over two senbon that had missed him and had been imbedded into the wall. Attached to them were bells, tinkling an eerie sort of sound. Shikamaru then noticed the Sound kunoichi controlling the bells herself from across the way with string, while also throwing more senbon at him.

'I've played into her trap!' He dodged in response but was still struck by three of the needles, thankfully in no critical areas.

Kin smirked again, seeing how easily manipulated he had proven to be, “Ask not for who the bell tolls. It tolls for thee!”

Shikamaru muttered in annoyance as he extracted the painful needles from his arm and shoulder, trying to come up with a plan. Kin rang her bells again and this time, Shikamaru found, they had a strange effect on him.

Kin appeared to multiply from where she stood. A blurry line of six kunoichi appeared as his eyes grew fuzzy with the ringing bells, disorienting him, 'Yup, this is definitely genjutsu...I guess I'm going to have to stake out the real one...what a drag!'

“I only threw three needles the last time, but the next time I'll throw five...” She warned, bringing mathematics into her favor, “You'll be a big pincushion once I'm through with you.”

Before she could launch more senbon, she frowned, puzzled. Her confusion turned into alarm when she saw Shikamaru stand, smirking triumphantly, “Looks like my Shadow Possession Technique was a success...”

Kin's eyes widened in alarm, finding that she was completely frozen and under her opponent's power. She was certain she had remained watchful of his shadows. She couldn’t believe she had overlooked something.

Bored again, Shikamaru decided to point out her error, “You should have realized that the thread you had attached to those bells wouldn't have cast a shadow at such a height,” She glanced in horror to the thin shadow cast on the floor, “All I had to do was stretch out my shadow and bingo! I've got you now...”

Asuma, above with his other two students, gave a grunt of approval from behind his cigarette. Ino was ecstatic, “Awesome Shikamaru! Now finish her off!”

Reaching into his holster, Shikamaru drew out a kunai, prepared to end the fight. Kin watched as she too drew out a kunai, mirroring his actions, 'There's no way he's crazy enough to-!'

Without a second thought, Shikamaru threw his kunai, with Kin echoing him helplessly. He leaned back to avoid the knife she had thrown at him. Relieved, she did the same, dodging the kunai…and hitting her head with a powerful thud on the wall behind her.

Kin fell to the floor unconscious and was then released from Shikamaru's control. He stood up again, adding, “It would've also helped if she had been paying attention to her surroundings.”

Hayate found the victor obvious, “The winner is Nara Shikamaru.”

Chouji munched furiously on a bag of chips, unable to believe that Shikamaru of all people had won his match. Ino stood beside him raving, pleased with the outcome.

“Who knew that lazy guy could actually pull it off.” Naruto muttered, completely baffled.

Haku nodded in agreement, also not expecting it, “His strategy was impressive! Maybe he has more skill than he lets on.”

“Feh! Yeah right!” The blonde snorted in reply, doubtful.

Shikamaru returned up to the balcony, not very proud of his victory.

Without further preamble, the score board selected the next pair of combatants, whose names Hayate read aloud as he resisted a loud cough, “Hm...the next match will be between Yamanaka Ino and Temari.”

Shikamaru, who had just reunited with his team, gave her a troubled look as she patted his shoulder. She grinned and then proceeded down to her own match. Ino was to say, quite confident after seeing her lazy teammate come out victorious in his battle and had few worries.

The Nara glanced over at the kunoichi of the Sand village who also went down to the main level, having a dark, merciless look in her eyes. He didn't like that look.

Gaara stared unblinking as his sister descended, unsure of what to think.

“Gaara-kun has been acting strangely ever since we reached the tower, haven't you noticed?” Haku asked in a nearly inaudible voice to Naruto.

The blonde nodded, “Yeah. I can’t say I know why.”

Haku and Naruto found Gaara's lack of communication more irksome than usual. It was still a mystery to them what had been bothering their red haired friend for so long. Gaara, when asked about it, denied there ever being a problem.

Temari, at first sight of Ino, concluded that she wouldn't be much of a threat, 'I'll finish her fast, there's no point in dragging the fight out...' She looked up at Gaara and jumped when their eyes met, 'Just don't take this personal baby brother...I didn't ask to fight another Leaf ninja.'

Hayate began the fight, but Temari hadn't been paying much attention.

“If you're not going to start then I will!” Ino declared, beginning by hurling a hail of kunai and shuriken.

Not much bothered; Temari reluctantly took her eyes away from Gaara and replaced them on Ino. Her fan, almost reflexively, deflected the projectiles with ease. Ino, greatly dismayed, came closer while throwing more weapons, only for them to be blocked time and again.

As seconds evolved into minutes, Ino's apprehension grew, 'I can't get close with her using that big fan of her's...' She frowned to herself, 'I'm just going to have to try something else then!'

Ino, reasserting her confidence, formed hand seals, “Here's something you can't block with a fan!”

Sakura observed the fight from above and held her breath, hoping Ino could pull it off, 'She better win this match so I can face her in the next round!'

Temari narrowed her eyes at Ino, not understanding her aim, 'What's she babbling on about? There are few jutsu she can use that will harm me...'

Ino was glad to see that Temari had no knowledge of how to avoid her attack and didn't bother to try to dodge it, “Mind Body Switch Technique!”

Temari had only thought to move too late, but she froze an instant later.

Ino's team watched anxiously as she fell to the floor limp, leaving them to hope that she hadn't missed her target.

“Did it work?” Chouji asked lowly. He and his teammates were unable to tell.

Kakashi glanced down at his pink haired pupil, seeing how she was more attuned to the current battle than she had been to the first. He smiled beneath his mask, knowing a healthy rivalry would do her good.

Temari's eyes opened and she smiled, “Gotcha!”

“What's going on?” Kankuro muttered, noting the change in his sister's behavior, “Something definitely just happened here...”

“I think that goofy Leaf girl got her.” Miosuke mumbled, finding it difficult to believe, “It's not like she saw it coming, the fool.”

Kankuro flashed his teeth angrily at his pessimistic teammate, not wanting to hear any of his derogatory comments.

Ino, once inside Temari's mind, set straight to work, 'Alright! I'll just end this match and head back to my body! This was a total cake-walk!'

To her surprise she detected a very ominous presence that she had not anticipated to find. This mind, unlike others she had seen, was deep, dim, and pained; swirling with thoughts and dark memories as she tried to establish an influence in the foggy realm, 'Wow...it's pretty creepy in here.'

'What do you think you're doing?' Temari's voice came clear as a bell from behind her, and Ino lost focus once she spun around, horrified.

'You! But how? I thought I suppressed you completely! You shouldn't be able to-!'

Scowling, Temari glared at the invading Leaf kunoichi, 'It isn't very polite to intrude in other people's minds and you...' She paused, livid, 'You dare enter my mind? It's private and it's strong. It isn't something that a half-baked ninja like you could overpower...'

Ino was upset to find that she hadn't so much as raised Temari's arm in the air before things went downhill.

'You're leaving now and once you're back where you belong, I'm going to crush you,' The Sand ninja announced, Ino backing away in terror, 'Out.'

The astral form of Temari backhanded Ino in the face, sending her crashing out of her body and back from whence she came. With a jolt, Ino's once-limp body gained a consciousness, and she wobbled awkwardly to her feet, her brain reeling.

Sakura frowned, knowing something went wrong, 'What happened? I thought for sure Ino-pig had her...'

“No way!” Shikamaru and Chouji were as equally stunned as Ino, never before seeing a mind that she could not gain control over.

Asuma sighed, fearing what would happen next.

Once Temari was back in control of herself, she opened her fan fully, glaring at Ino, “Cutting Whirlwind!”

The blast of wind hit Ino with incredible force, knocking her against the back wall as the gale sliced deep into her skin. The attack was vicious and intended to be so. Temari would not stand for her mind to be violated.

Ino fell, unable to fight.

“Temari is the winner.” Hayate found her technique impressive and even more so, the power of her own mind, which could fend off intruders.

With a disheartened sigh, Shikamaru went below to retrieve her. Though she weakly protested his help and refused to raise her eyes out of shame, he gave her a soft word, commending her for her effort. Chouji was relieved that it hadn't gone worse, and offered her a snack when she had returned to her team, scratched and bruised. She accepted it, unwilling to look at them.

Sakura felt something constrict in her stomach: pity and a mix of disappointment. She had hoped to be the one to defeat Ino, but at the same time hadn't expected her to be beaten so badly.

Hayate called out the new names the board displayed, “The fourth match will be between Kanosuke Nari and Kankuro.”

Gaara's light eyes followed after his older brother nostalgically.

Kankuro frowned, hoped to have had more time to congratulate his sister, but proceeded down anyway, hoping Miosuke wouldn't act like a jackass around her. He found it curious that he would be facing a Cloud shinobi even when Kumogakure had been allied with Sand and Sound for the upcoming invasion planned for the end of the exam.

Ally or not, he refused to hold back.

“You may begin when ready.” Hayate stepped back again, allowing the fight to commence.

With no hesitation, Nari took the chain-scythe that had been waiting at his side and flung it with a cry at his opponent. Kankuro could not dodge easily with his cumbersome puppet still on his back and only managed to avoid the sickle.

Nari pulled back, looping the chain around Kankuro's arm and attempted to drag him nearer. A moment later he formed hand seals while still gripping the chain, sending an electric current through the metal towards Kankuro.

He had seen it before and anticipated this new Cloud nin to have a similar strategy to the ninja they had encountered in the Forest of Death. The shock, much to the Kumo nin's astonishment, had not effected Kankuro at all.

The henge fell and what the young Cloud shinobi thought he had been attacking was in actuality the puppet that had been carried on Kankuro's back. Logic then proved that the person emerging from the bandages beside Karasu must have been the real Kankuro.

He smirked, his face paint making his face look more aggressive than he truly was, “Surprised?”

With a sudden tug, Kankuro directed Karasu to pull back on the chain tangled around its forearm, yanking Nari forward, his boots scraping against the floor. Unable to free his scythe in time, the blue haired ninja was enveloped inside the battle puppet, finding blades waiting inside that would shred him at Kankuro's whim. The boy cried for help, acknowledging his defeat.

Hayate called the match, not wanting it to end in an unnecessary death, “The winner of the match is Kankuro.”

Temari smiled, glad Kankuro was able to overcome the Kumo ninja which had been a difficult task for them days earlier. Even Baki was pleased as he stood and observed, noting that there wasn't a scratch on him.

Miosuke wiped his nose, unimpressed, “Cloud shinobi are bogus!”

Temari restrained the urge to punch him full in the face. Their days as teammates, two years earlier even, had not been happy ones. Miosuke was always provoking them, causing trouble, and certainly not very worried over anyone other than himself.

So she wouldn't go as far as to say that they were friends. More like associates. Disdainful associates.

Kankuro averted his eyes from Gaara during his return to the balcony, feeling some indescribable pain raking at his gut.

It hurt that their brother had to live his life in another village. It hurt even more that before the exam's end, Konoha was scheduled to be invaded. Needless to say, Kankuro was having second thoughts and so was Temari.

Gaara had found a new home and they had yet to decide if they were willing to destroy it.

The board overhead flashed a pair of names that startled Team 2.

Hayate read aloud the next combatants, “The fifth battle will be between Sosumi Miosuke and Gaara.”

Naruto and Haku turned to him, wide eyed and grinning. They knew there was no way he was about to lose this match. Gaara blinked at them, accepting their confidence in him, and turned to go down, ready as ever.

Jiraiya smirked at the red haired boy as he stalked off, “Kick some ass, Gaara.”

Leaf genin had their eyes set on Gaara as he ventured down. No one was more apprehensive than Sakura. She swallowed audibly, wanting to wish him luck, but discovering that her voice had abandoned her, 'Gaara-kun...just don't do anything too rash...'

From the beginning Gaara had found Miosuke's attitude repulsive, especially in regards to his teammates. He was admittedly glad he had been selected a challenger worthy of a severe beating. Although he hadn't quite expected the mousy Sand nin's thorough knowledge of him.

Miosuke's voice was a low hiss, something only Gaara could hear, “Hey there, Ichibi-chan...”

From above, Temari and Kankuro found themselves unable to speak. They could tell somehow that Gaara intended to show little mercy to their arrogant teammate and they didn't blame him for it either.

'However this turns out...' Kankuro thought, 'It won't be good.'

By the time Hayate had advised them to begin, sand was pouring out of Gaara's gourd, and Miosuke had put a large distance between himself and his foe, ready for long-range combat.

“Let's see if you're really as tough as they say you are!” Miosuke barked, readying his enormous boomerang, “Jet Stream Slash!”

The ivory and red arc shot across the room, creating a fierce shockwave in its wake. The resulting gust nearly knocked a few nearby genin off of their feet. Gaara stood very still, scowling with his arms folded. He had seen this jutsu before.

His sand reached it half way, swarming around the boomerang, and by the time it had even gotten close to Gaara, it had been stopped fully. With a clatter, the arc dropped to the floor, useless, and unable to return to its master.

The mousy antagonist was troubled, but just as talkative, “You know, it isn't very fair that you have that sand advantage of yours when you aren't even of Suna anymore!”

Gaara's eyes widened, wondering how much his opponent would dare to expose about him.

“Can it you ass!” Naruto howled, sharing Gaara's fear, “Just shut your mouth!”

“What does he think he's doing?” Temari hissed, giving a worried look to her mentor, “He'll...he'll ruin the mission!”

“If he even tries it,” Baki growled in response, just as displeased, “I'll end this match myself.”

Lee turned to his own sensei, confused, “What is that Sand ninja's meaning? Gaara-kun is not originally of the Leaf village?” It was something Neji had assumed on his own, but Tenten had never suspected that a genin could hail from a different village.

Gai figured it was best not to lie, “No Lee. Gaara arrived here many years ago when he was a young child,” He gestured over to the remainder of Team 2, “The same can be said for young Haku-kun as well, who is rumored to have been born nearby the Mist Village.”

“How fascinating!” Lee didn't object to the idea at all.

“But sensei...why would they be forced to leave their own villages and come here?” Tenten asked, still finding it odd.

“That Tenten, I am afraid, is confidential...” Gai answered, his voice stern, “Their past lives are none of our business.”

Miosuke's attention had turned to Naruto, who was yowling down at him from the upper level. He hadn't expected someone to defend the secret of Shukaku's container so fervently.

“What does it matter to you?” Miosuke spat, his wicked eyes connecting with Naruto's fiery blue ones, “Monsters like this deserve to be exterminated! You have no idea of what you speak you idiot!”

Gaara's sand had impacted him, cutting his rant short and barreling him over.

Miosuke struggled to his feet again, fuming.

'He'll be wanting his weapon back, seeing as he has no skill in close-quarters,' Gaara predicted, untying his gourd and letting it fall to the floor with a thud, 'If I catch him by surprise he will be all too easy to defeat, being he's so distracted.'

After all, Miosuke's words would not win him the match.

Gaara was more about action.

Jiraiya eyed the crater Gaara's sand gourd had formed incredulously, 'Yeesh! What is that kid thinking? He could injure himself carrying around all that weight!'

Sakura's eyes widened, much like Kiba's had, who stood next to her. She had no clue as to what he was planning, 'Since when did he get this strong? I know he said he and Naruto-kun have been improving their taijutsu but…could he be over-doing it a little?'

Gaara's sand swarmed over the earthbound boomerang, obscuring it from sight. Miosuke ground his teeth together in frustration, 'I can't take him close-range...if I don't get Tsubakura back, this may take longer than I expected.'

“Come on you bastard!” Miosuke hurled an alarming number of kunai and shuriken with deadly accuracy and Gaara didn't bother to avoid them.

To the mousy shinobi's horror, his projectiles bounced off of Gaara futilely, leaving him unharmed, “But how-?”

“Sand armor!” Haku muttered, smirking, “It will slow him down though. It’s heavy and consumes a lot of chakra. He's sure to discard it soon...”

“Looks like that Sand creep isn't so tough after all!” Naruto snorted, folding his arms.

Gaara, being a courteous ninja, decided that Miosuke could not be crushed to a bloody pulp when he was the teammate of his siblings. Still, he wouldn't hesitate to beat him into submission.

Jiraiya raised an eyebrow as Gaara's sand armor peeled away from him and he rushed at the stunned Sand ninja, who found he was out of shuriken.

“I thought he could only fight with sand...” Temari whispered, having never seen Gaara utilize hand-to-hand combat skills. It was almost fulfilling to watch Miosuke stumble as he received a jab in the gut, and double over in pain after Gaara delivered a fierce roundhouse kick.

“Looks like he's learned a thing or two while he's been here...” Kankuro surmised, giving her a lopsided smile. He too found it amazing.

“Yeah! Gaara!” Naruto's cheers were far louder than anyone else's, though only a margin above Sakura's.

Miosuke's pathetic block was broken and he was sent crashing into the wall a moment later, his eyes watering. He touched his chest gingerly, wondering if any of his ribs had been broken, 'This freak...he's using that thing's chakra to make his blows stronger I bet!'

“Woo hoo!” Lee's excitement radiated of off him, “Just like in our training Gaara-kun!”

The battered Sand ninja slid down the wall, exhausted, wiping the blood from his lip.

Gaara knew there wasn't much more he could take.

He turned away, sand gathering around him in wait, “Proctor,” Hayate looked to Gaara from the sidelines, “Call the match.”

It seemed that it was something he was already considering without Gaara having to tell him.

Miosuke, seizing his chance, drew back on the chakra strings he had concealed, pulling Tsubakura back to him frighteningly fast. Gaara stood near his gourd, not intimidated.

The Sand nin's eyes lit up with new hope as his hands closed around his beloved boomerang, and they narrowed at Gaara as he stood shakily, calculating his next move.

'He must enjoy pain,' Gaara thought blandly, not interested in fighting any longer, 'Ninja like him don't survive long anyway...’

Miosuke gripped Tsubakura eagerly, “You filthy monster! I'm surprised they kept you here at all outside of a cage!” He couldn't stop his rambling mouth, and he gave a brief glare up to his teammates, “Temari and Kankuro said that you are ten times the ninja that I am,” Miosuke smirked to himself, “But I don't make a habit of listening to demon-loving traitors!”

Few noticed the murderous looks that came over both Kankuro and Temari's faces. If Miosuke so much as even hinted about the presence of the one-tailed beast again, they'd aid Baki with disciplining the fool.

“That idiot!” Naruto was furious, “Do you hear the trash that guy's talking? If it wasn't Gaara-kun's match I'd-!”

“Relax Naruto, it's not your fight,” Jiraiya patted the blonde's head, quieting him, “So he knows more than he should, but his knowledge is the only leverage he has against Gaara. Do you really think he'd throw the match if someone threatened his secret?”

“Well...no...” Naruto frowned, “But he'd still be pissed!”

“That's true...and the Hokage, did he make a law preventing others from learning about Gaara's demon like he has for Naruto?” Haku asked curiously.

“In fact he did. No one who already does know is allowed to tell anyone, not even you two,” Jiraiya pointed out matter-of-factly, “Actually, only Gaara may tell another, so it's not likely to spread around the village as a piece of gossip, if you get my meaning.”

Gaara hardly spoke, let alone gossiped.

Naruto returned his gaze to the cloud of sand Miosuke was swiping at with his boomerang. It was pointless, he and Haku could tell. The sand was already gathering around the loudmouth, poised to finish him, 'Wow, he got Gaara pretty mad...'

Miosuke had realized that throwing his boomerang again would only leave him defenseless against his foe's sand, but there was little he could do to protect himself at all. Stubbornly, he refused to withdraw, even when Gaara's sand had clustered around his flailing arms.

The red haired boy scowled as he closed his fist, exercising an abnormal amount of control as he crushed only Miosuke's arms, leaving his teammates to attempt to ignore his screams.

Hinata turned away, hating the violence. Sato stood beside her, fascinated by Gaara's strategy.

“The winner is Gaara.” Hayate's voice could barely be heard over the sand nin's wails.

“He did use excessive force...” Haku said softly, concerned. He could tell Gaara had issues with the Sand team other than the fact they were of his old village, though it seemed more than ever he'd be unwilling to talk about it.

Gaara returned, hostile, and stood beside Jiraiya. His teammates knew better than try to make a conversation when his mood was ruined. His match had been an easy win, no doubt, but Miosuke had unearthed old wounds that stung like they never had before.

The mousy antagonist was taken away by medic-nin who were unable to quell his agonized cries.

Naruto sighed deeply, scratching his head, 'Oh man...Gaara-kun, he really wanted to kill that kid. He probably would've if he'd said anything in front of everyone about the-'

“Naruto-kun, look!” Haku pointed over to the screen where his name had appeared.

The blonde's brooding thoughts melted away, “Alright! Finally I'm up! This is gonna be great!”

Predictably, Hayate called down the next two contestants, “The sixth match will be between Uzumaki Naruto and Inuzuka Kiba.”

Naruto gave a foxy grin to his teammates before leaping over the railing, 'Oh yeah! I am totally ready for this match! I hope Sakura-chan doesn't mind if I kick dog-breath's butt!'

'Do your best, Naruto-kun...' Hinata's undying faith was with the blonde haired boy in this match, whether he knew it or not.

Kiba, from across the way, believed his match would end quickly, “Hey! Check it out Akamaru! We're up against the kid! Looks like we lucked out...”

“Kiba-kun,” Sakura's pastel eyebrows knitted together in a frown, “I don't think you should be underestimating Naruto, I mean...he's come a long way.”

“Oh right...” He didn't want her to fret about it, “I promise, Sakura-chan, I won't bust him up too bad. I know he's a friend of yours.” Akamaru barked in friendly agreement before they ventured down, Kakashi stifling a chuckle.

'He really could be a bit more humble...' The pink haired girl thought, knowing she'd be unable to cheer for either side during the match. Her head felt heavier and her gut churned in anxiety, 'This is a crappy match up. Why did it have to be Naruto-kun of all people? I can't stand it...'

Sakura leaned her head against the Uchiha prodigy's shoulder with a disconcerted sigh.

Rather than shrugging her off, he replied to her nonsensical grunt, “It is what it is, Sakura. There's nothing that can be done about it now.”

“I know...” She muttered irritably, “I just don't want to watch this fight.”

“Then close your eyes.”

On cue, she felt her eyelids droop, “Oh...I um...” Sasuke didn't have to think hard to find a solution for her problems and it annoyed her slightly.

Curious, her forest eyes flickered over his features, wondering if her physical contact was bothering him yet. His arms were folded, a sign that he was high-strung, but other than that he was surprisingly acquiescent with the contact.

Obediently, Sakura shut her eyes a moment later, trying not to think about it.

Hayate announced the start of the match, “Begin.”

“Here we go!” Naruto immediately created four Shadow Clones, ready to coordinate an attack.

Kakashi raised a silver eyebrow, 'Shadow Clones...it isn't a common ability for genin. It seems training with Jiraiya has really paid off for him and his teammates, but Kiba will still be a tough opponent to beat.'

“Sit tight Akamaru, while I set things up,” Kiba growled down to his companion who waited beside him, tail wagging in excitement. He ran ahead, tossing a smoke bomb in the midst of the clones, lessening visibility.

'I can't fight if I can't see, better get out of here...' Naruto made a grab for the nearest clone as he felt Kiba rush past him recklessly, nearly hitting him. Naruto dove up and out of the cloud, while his clones tumbled out of it, waiting for Kiba to reappear.

'He's gone into this fight with a strategy.' Haku smirked inwardly, foreseeing Naruto's plan, 'I believe he's even used this attack pattern on me once before...it isn't pleasant.'

Kiba tore out of the dark cloud with terrifying speed and shredded the nearest clone. The action had riled Akamaru up, who raced over to him, wanting in on the beat down.

While Kiba's attention was set on the clones, Naruto used the stolen time to hurl four kunai at Kiba from overhead, with exploding tags attached. Predicting the assault, his shadow clones leapt back, avoiding the blast, as did Kiba and Akamaru, though slightly singed.

'Those were the last of my tags...I'll have to ask Sato for more.' Naruto mentally noted while creating two shadow clones beside him as he descended, which flung him at Kiba who was unprepared for the random attack.

The Kyuubi container landed a flying punch on Kiba's face, who knocked him away shortly after. One of the Shadow Clones had gotten a hold of Akamaru, who nipped furiously at the surrounding, grinning replications.

Kiba, it was visibly clear, had a change in his plans, “Naruto, if you're smart, you'll let Akamaru go...” He tossed a pill at his dog who caught and swallowed it and then ate one himself.

“Eh?” The clone that had been holding Akamaru hostage observed inquisitively as the dog's fur turned red, and was then destroyed with one swift kick from the animal's hind legs.

Kakashi smirked from beneath his mask. Sakura's eyes remained closed, but she could tell things were getting serious as she felt Sasuke's shoulder tense from beneath her cheek.

The little red dog leapt up, teeth bared, and blew apart two more of Naruto's nearby clones. The last two Shadow Clones stood on either side of the real blonde, regrouping, 'What the hell? It's like the dog has super powers or something!'

Akamaru raced back to Kiba, who kneeled down for him, and leapt onto his back, his crimson fur on end. The Inuzuka boy formed hand seals, ready to get serious, “Beast-Human Clone!”

Akamaru transformed into the spitting image of Kiba, who leapt off of his master's back, itching to fight. Naruto's eyes widened, 'O-kay...I didn't see that coming! Better take out the real Kiba, and then his mutt won't have a chance.'

Naruto sent one of his clones to charge Kiba and his double as a distraction, while the other stayed near him as he hastily began to form the Rasengan.

Back up on the balcony, Haku and Gaara observed, wanting to get a better look at the new technique Naruto had revealed days earlier to them. Jiraiya folded his arms and chortled to himself, knowing that if his student did land the attack on his opponent, it wouldn't fall short of overkill.

Kakashi's visible eye widened in shock, dancing within it distant memories of his old mentor.

“Gatsuuga!” Both Kiba and Akamaru threw themselves into a coordinated spinning attack, easily eliminating the oncoming clone.

Naruto's final shadow clone ran ahead of him. It intended to draw Kiba and his companion nearer so Naruto would have a more accurate shot at them.

It happened nearly too quickly to see: Kiba, raking the last clone apart and the real Naruto catching one of Kiba’s two replications, slamming the Rasengan into the nearest foe's gut. Kiba went flying backward, and his counterpart skidded to a frantic halt. Akamaru reappeared, an instant knockout.

“Ah well...there was only a 50-50 chance of getting the real one anyway...” Naruto muttered, wishing to have finished the true Kiba.

It left many genin and jounin alike stunned. The Hokage himself, who had been watching aloofly, looked to Jiraiya with a disapproving smile on his face.

“What the heck was that?” Sato blurted out loud, “Naruto-kun just totally annihilated Akamaru!”

“The Rasengan...” Hinata clarified for her team. She was in awe, despite having seen it before. Sato gave her an astonished look, wondering how she had known.

You...” Kiba's voice was a low growl, stitched with rage, before he attacked Naruto again, “Gatsuuga!”

He hit Naruto full-force, sending him crashing to the floor. After a short, painful tumble, Naruto stood again and wiped the blood from his arm, as Kiba slowed and turned around to attack again.

The blonde cringed at the gash running up his arm, bleeding freely, 'He's pissed alright...but I'm not out of ideas yet!'

Naruto created half a dozen more clones as Kiba came back at him, howling in outrage. Two clones were devastated by his assault, but one lucky clone got behind Kiba as he slowed and managed a fierce, unexpected kick that sent the Inuzuka boy upward. The remaining clones followed through with the attack, leaving no room for Kiba to counter.

Naruto leapt above his shadow clones and hit Kiba squarely in the face with one final kick that knocked him down to the concrete floor. Drops of blood splattered as Kiba made no move to get up.

Hayate didn't have to examine Kiba long to know that he was no longer able to continue fighting, “The winner of the match is Uzumaki Naruto.”

“Ha ha! Yes! I knew I'd come out on top!” Naruto's ecstatic chatter followed thereafter as he then returned to the balcony. All the while, Haku and Jiraiya cheered ecstatically for the blonde while Gaara opted for quieter congratulations.

“Open your eyes now.” Sasuke instructed, knowing the battle had ended in her favor. He himself had expected Kiba to be defeated, though not by such a powerful display.

Exhaling, Sakura opened her eyes and smiled at Naruto's victory, “I know Kiba-kun will be okay.”

“For the most part...” Kakashi interjected, finding the interaction between his two remaining students curious, “Though the technique Naruto used against Akamaru was for Kiba, so you can imagine the pain the little fellow is in right now.”

She frowned, hoping the small puppy would be able to recover from the blow.

Passing by Team 8 up on the balcony earned Naruto an onslaught of congratulations. Sato remained blissfully unaware of the blonde boy's suspicious look at the two, short blades he had with him, “Awesome fight, Naruto-kun!” Shino, who stood recovering beside his silver haired teammate gave a nod to him in his usual quiet way, though it seemed more approving than previous ones.

Naruto rubbed the back of his head sheepishly, “Er...thanks,” He tried to be polite, “Hey Shino, your fight with Fuzzy-brows was pretty cool.”

“Naruto-kun...” Hinata was wearing a bright smile, “You should take this...” She held out a small container to him which he regarded quizzically.

“Oh, thanks Hinata-chan!” He grinned at her, accepting it, “What is this stuff?”

Kurenai was also smiling, “It's a healing ointment, Naruto. Go ahead and use it, you've earned it.”

Down below, medic-nin escorted Kiba and Akamaru away. Upon rejoining his team, Naruto was already rubbing the ointment on his already-healing wound, amazed by its effects. He then smirked at Haku and Gaara, “So what did you think of that?”

Jiraiya patted Naruto's head again, “I'd say all of your training has paid off.”

Haku nodded in agreement, “It really has, Naruto-kun. You did very well.” Personally, seeing his teammates' performances only made Haku more nervous of his own match, 'I just hope I don't make a fool of myself, not after Naruto-kun and Gaara-kun have won.'

To Haku's dismay, his name appeared on the board readout a minute later. It was funny, he thought, how he could stress over something until the time finally came to act. His teammates were clearly pleased and wished him luck before he went down; doing a last-second count of how many senbon he had with him.

“The next match will be between Abumi Zaku and Haku.” Hayate announced as the contenders proceeded out to the middle of the floor. Naruto cheered fanatically from above, and like he, many Leaf genin were pulling for Haku.

Haku had only noticed once they were facing off that his opponent, a Sound ninja, had both of his arms in slings. The dark haired boy frowned, unable to stop himself from being sympathetic, 'He's been this badly injured and he's still competing? This exam is brutal! I don't know if I want to be the kind of shinobi who preys on the weak...'

“Begin.” Hayate's voice seemed distant.

“Before we begin, I would advise you to withdraw,” Haku suggested to his opponent, “There's no sense in a struggle that will only worsen your injuries.”

“He's awfully nice to his foe...” Shikamaru muttered, finding Haku's nobility rather impractical. This was an opportune battle, an easy win! It was only because Sasuke had gone a bit overboard in the Forest of Death when Sakura had been ambushed. Zaku would never make that mistake again.

Zaku, not in the least dissuaded, glowered at Haku, “Save your pity! You think I can't fight? Heh! It looks like I've got some movement in this arm...”

Zaku's left arm shuddered out of the sling, his glare still focused on the dark haired ninja, “I'll win this match yet!”

Haku, though surprised, decided that if there was no convincing him that his opponent would have to learn the hard way.

Sakura felt anxiety creep over her as she watched Haku face off against one of the Sound ninja who had ambushed her team days before, 'That's the one that Sasuke-kun throttled...' She remembered vividly how Sasuke had woken from his coma and used an inhuman sort of power to scare off the team of Sound nin.

The pink haired girl frowned, stealing a glance at the mark on her teammate's neck, 'What happened back there…it definitely has something to do with that weird mark. What did Orochimaru want with Sasuke-kun?'

Haku began by throwing six senbon at his opponent, who raised his shaking arm up to defend himself, “Slicing Sound Wave!” The sound waves he emitted knocked the needles away before they even came near him.

Haku's eyes widened, 'I've never seen a jutsu like this! Pressurized air is coming out of the hole in his hand...' He frowned, 'It is both strange and problematic.' He held back, deciding to learn more about his foe before attacking again.

“That's it? Out of tricks already?” Zaku was becoming increasingly confident, “I'll end this match right now!”

The Sound shinobi fired continuous jets of air from his hand, chasing Haku around the arena. Fortunately, he was agile as ever and easily avoided the sound waves. His senbon were utterly useless against an enemy who could knock them away without even trying.

'It's futile to get nearer with those blasts...I'll have to use a jutsu.'

Haku formed hand seals and above on the balcony Orochimaru smirked.

“Demonic Crystal Ice-” As he drew on his chakra, Haku slammed into some sort of painful inhibitor, disabling the jutsu. He stumbled, his breath stolen from the immense pain shooting through his neck, 'What's happening-?'

The remainder of Team 2 was immediately concerned. Naruto turned to Jiraiya, “What's he doing? Is he still sick or something?” Jiraiya frowned to himself, unsure of what had stalled Haku.

The dark haired boy's pause cost him, “Slicing Sound Wave!” Zaku's attack hit him fully, barreling him over. Haku's head was spinning and he was completely disoriented by the blast. His dark hair splayed over his shoulders as he tried to regain his bearings.

“Haku-kun...” Hinata looked on, immensely worried. She was also aware of the troubled expressions both Naruto and Gaara wore.

“Haku-kun! Come on!” Naruto barked from above, “You can take this guy!”

The dark haired boy stood again, shaken, desperate to find a way to fight back, 'What's happening to me? It's this thing...' He touched the seal on his neck, trying to understand how it worked, 'It won't let me draw on my own chakra.'

Zaku, though unsure of what had slowed his opponent, continued to fire sound blasts at him. Jiraiya frowned, certain that something was wrong, 'Haku...if you've gone into this fight in anyway impaired you'll have me to answer to!'

Haku kept moving, trying to come up with a solution, 'There's got to be some way I can counter! This mark, it's as if it-' He avoided another sound wave, but could still feel the sting where the air had sliced near his shoulder.

In that moment his desperation was great enough for him to draw on the cursed seal, even if he hadn't fully meant to. Orochimaru watched, delighted, as black scales began to creep up the boy's neck and cheek, and a dark chakra radiated off of him as he slowed, feeling rejuvenated.

Naruto, baffled, looked to an equally astounded Gaara and then to his sensei whose enraged face was turning many different shades.

Haku found the new chakra strange, but it didn't stop him from proceeding with his original plan, “Demonic Crystal Ice Mirrors!”

He had only created two ice mirrors, one stationed ahead of Zaku and the other behind him. They were tinted a pale indigo, with jagged edges rather than the smooth sheets of ice he was normally able to make.

It was enough to make Gaara speculate, “What is he doing? They've never looked like that before.”

“Don't ask me!” Naruto scratched his head, as clueless as his red haired friend, “Something is definitely up!”

'What's happening to me?' Haku disliked his physical change, 'Orochimaru! He's got something to do with this!' He fought against it as he raced to the nearest mirror, Zaku still standing in total confusion, 'I...no...I won't let this mark control me. I won't!'

The dark scales that had formed receded after a short-lived internal struggle and by then he was safe inside his mirror. Naruto cheered as his friend vanished momentarily, and then reappeared in the reflection of the dark ice mirror; to the shock of nearly all watching, including the Sandaime.

“So you're gonna hide in there, huh?” Zaku spat, assuming it was some sort of trick, “I guess I'm just gonna have to smash that glass thing of yours then!” His right arm, in worse condition than his left, somehow lifted from his sling, and Zaku aimed both of his arms at Haku's image, “Slicing Sound Wave!”

The blast of air hit the mirror, but did not break it. It merely bounced back, slashing at Zaku with an equal force. Stunned by his own attack, the sound ninja fell to his knees in pain, leaving himself open to a counterstrike.

“I've never seen Haku-kun do something like this before!” Sakura was amazed, “This is an ability that can only be used with his Kekkei Genkai, right Kakashi-sensei?”

The silver haired jounin had temporarily stopped reading his book just to watch the match, “It is Sakura. No other ninja can use this jutsu, not even me.” He paused, “It's a unique technique that I've never seen before.” Kakashi pulled up his hitai-ate, exposing his Sharingan eye, wanting to get a better view of Haku's movements.

It was something that many of the Leaf genin could not see. Haku darted with an untraceable speed between his two mirrors with Zaku in the middle and landed senbon after senbon at his helpless opponent.

The sound nin was unconscious even before his face hit the cold floor, needles protruding from various pressure points Haku had targeted.

It was precision work that Tenten had only thought Neji capable of, or herself, but it appeared Haku was more than adept at incapacitating his opponents with his unique ability.

The dark haired boy stepped out of his mirror, dispatching it, and re-acquainted himself with the slower world. He looked up to Naruto and Gaara and smiled at their more-than-approving expressions.

“The winner is Haku.” Hayate announced, his words followed shortly after by cheers from many of the Leaf genin. Among those satisfied with the battle were also the Sand team and Orochimaru, though Jiraiya was far from proud of his bright pupil.

Once Haku had returned to the balcony, the toad sennin didn't even allow his teammates to congratulate him, “Haku, come with me now.”

He had been, at that moment, riffling around his gi in hopes of finding a replacement for his hair tie which had snapped during his fight. Haku as well as Naruto and Gaara were hushed by the deep anger that was audible in Jiraiya's order.

Although the dark haired nin had wanted to stay to see the remainder of the matches, he knew better than to argue with his mentor when he was angry, “Yes, sensei.” He gave an unnerved parting look to his friends before following after their jounin instructor.

“What do you suppose Ero-sensei is so mad about?” Naruto inquired of his remaining teammate, worried of what fate was in store for Haku.

“It has something to do with that thing on Haku's neck.” Gaara pointed out, still uncertain of what it did or how it had gotten there.

“You mean those black spots that showed up on him?”

The red haired nin nodded, “It was effecting his Kekkei Genkai during the match. It could be harmful in some way...” If there were any further issues, he could only speculate, “It's likely Jiraiya-sensei is going to remove it from Haku now.”

“I sure hope he'll be alright...” The blonde muttered. The two didn't notice the new names that appeared on the overhead board as they discussed what had so deeply bothered Jiraiya.


After a short round of coughing, Hayate called out the next combatants, “The eighth match will be between Haruno Sakura and Tenten.”

The surprise that dawned on the pink haired girl's face was painfully obvious, 'Tenten? She's got to be the best kunoichi who graduated last year!' Sakura honestly knew little about her other than her amazing skill with weaponry, 'Well, it's better than having to fight Hinata-chan...'

If she were to face off against her pale-eyed friend, well, Sakura would much rather call the match. It was something her heart would be unable to take.

“Look sharp, Sakura.” Kakashi smiled at her from behind his mask and she nodded to him brightly.

Inwardly, however, the silver haired jounin knew better than to underestimate Gai's students, least of all the kunoichi of his team who, it was rumored, had already thrown down a number of Rock ninja on a past mission, 'She needs to be cautious in this fight. I didn't train her to fend off weapon-masters...'

Sakura felt lighter after receiving a confident nod from Sasuke and moved down to the main floor. The Uchiha prodigy then aimed a contemptuous glare at Tenten who, across the way, was also descending for the match.

Lee's cries of encouragement rang after Tenten as she sulked off, wishing Neji could've at least attempted to not be indifferent about the development. She tried to clear her head and focus on Lee's advice: “Harness your burning flames of youth, Tenten!”

Tenten focused on relaxing more than Lee's proclamations.

Hayate glanced at either kunoichi before backing away, “You may begin when ready.”

“Sakura...” Tenten's eyebrows furrowed in concern, “I don't want to hurt you.”

“Give it all you've got!” Sakura gave her a blissfully cheerful smile, “I don't want either of us to do less than our very best!”

Tenten would've liked to have protested further and convinced her to concede, but Sakura had begun without her as she hesitated.

The pink haired girl hurled a handful of shuriken at her opponent as a starting diversion, while leaping back to add some space. Tenten deflected the projectiles expertly. Sakura frowned, 'If she's really as good as they say, it'll be more of an accomplishment defeating her than even Ino-pig!'

“Yeah, Sakura-chan!” Naruto grinned down as the pink haired kunoichi darted back from Tenten, forming hand seals. Gaara's eyes narrowed suspiciously when he observed for the first time that Sakura's hair was noticeably shorter; something that irritated him a great deal.

Two clones formed on either side of the pink haired ninja, hoping to confuse Tenten who had already thrown two infallible kunai at the duplications. To Sakura's annoyance, they were destroyed nearly as soon as they had been created.

Tenten tightened her grip on her kunai, looking for an opening, 'That can't be all she's got...I know that she has a plan of some kind!  I...oh...what the-?’

The bun haired girl felt a strong sensation of dizziness catch her off guard as her head swam in a fog. Sakura paused for a moment, glad that her genjutsu had taken effect. It was the first time she had used it. She was unsure if it had been successful; being that she herself had no direct control over her opponent's visions.

The victim created their own illusion, Kakashi had told her after demonstrating it, that being the reason it was so unpredictable. It was a slightly more advanced technique specifically for surfacing things in the foe's mind that they feared the most, trivial or profound. Sakura waited, noticing Tenten's movements slow.

Tenten shook her head from side to side momentarily as her vision became focused again, 'Good...now back to business!' She raised her kunai again, moving ahead to catch the pink haired girl.

She found something different.

Tenten saw herself, though at first she hadn't quite been able to recognize it. The familiar posture and hair style came to her attention. Her doppelganger's back was turned from her and she halted again, perplexed, 'What? Wait! I didn't make a clone or-!'

She saw Sakura again.

Her double had plunged the knife into the pink haired kunoichi's throat, not in the least bit reluctant. It was a motion so practiced she was certain that she had actually done it.

Sakura fell to the floor, completely still, but the proctor did not call the match. Tenten didn't even bother to look around for Hayate, because she was preoccupied with the horror of her physical double's attack and how Lee leapt down and ran to Sakura, futilely.

The doppelganger then moved to Lee, fluidly, gracefully, and Tenten felt her voice catch in her throat like a fluttering bird as her reflection aimed a downward slash at his back, 'No don't-!'

Gai, furious and uncomprehending, descended after Lee tumbled down on top of Sakura in a heap. Her sensei knocked the kunai out of the double's hand, ready to pummel her, but the sword in the left hand had gone unnoticed until Gai had been skewered.

Tenten's legs were locked, 'Stop it! You can't! I won't-!'

It shouldn't have been that easy. It couldn't have been. Tenten then saw the face of her malicious doppelganger lit with childish delight. Countless other ninja had by then jumped down, reluctant to go near the crazed kunoichi.

Tenten was beginning to wonder if they could even see her.

What she wished wouldn't have happened did in fact occur.

Her last teammate appeared, his fierce eyes teeming with the power of the Byakugan. Neji moved to the double without fear, hands poised to strike tenketsu. The sword moved downward again with freakish speed and Tenten was moving, at last, seizing her double and grappling with the bloody demon even as Neji struck them both brutally, unable to tell the two apart. As if they were one and the same.

The same.

The blade was ripping down her arm, aimed for the Hyuga prodigy. Tenten felt no physical pain, but she couldn't on top of the guilt that was clawing its way up through her throat, 'I won't let you! You aren't me! I would never do this!'

The fog came back and Neji vanished, even as she reached out frantically with her cries unheard.

Sakura's genjutsu had only lasted about two seconds, much to her disgruntlement, and the pink haired girl found it intriguing how it had frozen the opposing kunoichi in her tracks. She then planned her next course of action as Tenten began to come to.

Lee turned to Gai again, “Gai-sensei, what has happened to Tenten? Will she be alright?”

“I can't say that I know, Lee,” Gai frowned, “Though it appears she has now overcome the genjutsu.”

Kakashi's Sharingan eye narrowed after sneaking a peak at the effects of Sakura's attempted genjutsu, 'My...I’m sure that has to be disturbing. What has Gai been doing to evoke such a fear in his own student? This is serious. I didn't know any of Gai's students were this capable of killing yet...' He pulled his hitai-ate back down over his red eye.

“Sasuke,” The Uchiha prodigy looked up at Kakashi when he had been addressed, “This is more dangerous than I thought.”

“What are you talking about?” He was annoyed with his teacher, as usual, “Sakura's holding up well.”

“It isn't Sakura who's the problem.” The jounin answered, though Sasuke still didn't understand his meaning.

Tenten straightened herself, back in reality. Her eyes were dark.

A hail of kunai and shuriken shot forward unexpectedly, and Sakura barely had time to substitute as she avoided the storm of weapons, 'I guess my jutsu didn't work. She's just as strong as ever...' Sakura gave a crack at another genjutsu, creating dozens of replications of herself, completely surrounding Tenten, 'Maybe this will slow her down!'

Sakura had unwittingly pushed Tenten to her psychological limits.

Tenten procured two familiar scrolls on reflex, not even noticing the horrified look on Gai's face, “Rising Twin Dragons!” The weapons specialist leapt up, hurling various weapons at the numerous pink haired replications encompassing her.

“Sakura-chan!” Naruto's eyes widened in alarm as the blades rained down, and he turned to Gaara, “What does that girl think she's doing? She's gone crazy!”

Gaara couldn't say he disagreed with the idea. Tenten had suddenly become ruthless, almost panicked.

Sasuke was finally beginning to see Kakashi's point. Even he would have trouble facing down someone who kept that many weapons with them.

The genjutsu dispelled instantly once Sakura had been hit, and she did her best to avoid the last of the incoming projectiles but with little luck.

Tenten landed; aggression visible on her delicate features. She felt so violated, so horrified that someone had actually been able to exploit her true vulnerability. It something that not even Neji had accomplished.

Sakura removed a shuriken which had sunk into her shoulder, and ignored the many gashes and cuts lining her quaking arms and legs.

The on-looking genin watched apprehensively, unsure of what would happen. Kakashi knew that he may soon have to step in if Gai didn't, judging by the dark look on the taijutsu specialists’ face.

“I won't give in...” Sakura whispered, knowing that she still had a chance, “I guess I can't save this for later like I wanted to...”

Sasuke's eyes narrowed, anticipating Sakura's next move, and Kakashi gave him a curious sideways glance.

Her hand seals were hurried as she rushed blindly at Tenten, who was already drawing out another scroll, “Katon: Grand Fireball Jutsu!”

Tenten had the present sense to leap out of the way before Sakura breathed a huge fireball that completely dumbfounded Naruto and Gaara.

Kakashi raised an eyebrow at his student, “Now I wonder where she picked that up from?”

Sasuke smirked, proud of her mastery of the jutsu.

Sakura's attack ended a few moments later only for her to see, much to her terror, that Tenten had disappeared, 'Did I...did I get her?'

Neji, being the most familiar with the tactic, was the first to look up. He was just in time to see Tenten summon her Bo-staff. She plummeted down and Sakura leapt back a split-second before the bun haired kunoichi reappeared, unscathed by the fire jutsu, 'She avoided it!'

Tenten had always been an adept jumper.

Naruto called down to her as Sakura blocked the first blow, but Tenten merely had to poke her gut to stun her before landing a knockout blow to the side of her head, which she found much more preferable than finishing her with another hail of knives.

Sakura landed on the floor with a soft thud and Tenten frowned, upset with herself, “I'm sorry Sakura...I took this too far and you paid the price,” The pink haired girl didn't catch her apology, “I should've had more control over myself.”

“The winner is Tenten.” Hayate stifled a cough after declaring her the victor.

Gaara was very still at that moment, unable to take his eyes away from the pink haired kunoichi who had shocked him completely.

“Gaara-kun?” Naruto gave him an incredulous look, “Are you coming?”

The red haired boy was silent.

Tired of waiting, the blonde shinobi jumped down to Sakura, Sasuke having beaten him to her.

Kakashi sighed aloud, grateful she hadn't been harmed any worse than she had been as Gai approached him, looking solemn, “Kakashi?”

He turned his visible eye to Gai knowingly.

“Tenten did her best to hold back, I can assure you,” Gai appeared deeply troubled, “However, on a recent mission she was unfortunately forced to take a life-”

“I know Gai. I don't take it personally.” The silver haired man didn't want Gai to feel guilt over things beyond his control.

Lee looked to Neji uncertainly, unsure of what to do. His first thought was to go see how badly Sakura had been injured, but he feared that checking on the pink haired girl would offend his teammate who had fought against her.

After using his better judgment, Lee decided to stay where he was.

“Hey Sakura-chan,” Naruto gave the pink haired girl a small smile as she leaned against her teammate, numerous wounds lined her pale skin, “You did awesome!”

Her head bobbed as she nodded, smiling back at him in response.

Sasuke couldn't think of anything comforting to say, being he had his gaze locked on the weapons specialist as she returned to the upper level, 'The match should have been even. Something happened that made that knife-freak panic around Sakura.'

His glare intensified as Lee and Neji looked down at him, sensing the killing intent aimed for their teammate. Tenten was far too exhausted to pay any mind to the Uchiha as she trudged down the pathway, grateful she hadn't actually killed anyone. Neji stared back down at him. His expression promised death if Sasuke made so much as a slight pass at Tenten.

“Tenten! Um...your battle was very impressive...” Lee's congratulation was unsure and peculiarly quiet, “Are you feeling alright?”

“I am, Lee...” Her reply was gloomy, not at all like her normal tone of voice. She settled between her teammates and leaned on the railing, feeling slightly ill as she noticed Gai exchanged a word with Kakashi across the way, 'Great...I've caused a problem for Sakura's team? What's wrong with me? Why did I have to freak out like that?'

Her anxiety doubled when her eyes locked with Neji's, almost as if he had seen right through her façade. It was if he could tell what had unnerved her during her battle, even if there was no evidence of it.

To her relief, he spoke, “It was no contest, Tenten. Your skill is above that of any other Leaf kunoichi.”

Tenten briefly wondered for a moment if she had misheard, 'Did he just praise me? Like he actually thinks I did something right?'

It was an absurd notion, although it was accurate.

She nodded, giving him the most cheerful smile she could muster, “Thanks, Neji.”

It was a heady feeling, having the Hyuga prodigy name her the most skilled kunoichi right out of his own biased opinion. The fluffy, warm feeling ebbed away after she noticed Lee behind her nodding sagely, approving of Neji's confidence in her.

Naruto reappeared beside Gaara, knowing better than to say anything. He knew that more than anyone, Gaara had wanted to be the first to rush to Sakura's side, but he was so emotionally crippled at the time it was difficult enough just to speak to Naruto.

Gaara kept his gaze away from his brother and sister, wondering how he was supposed to explain their presence to his friends.

Hinata stood beside Kurenai, sadness visible in her silvery-white eyes, 'Sakura-chan...please feel better soon. I know Tenten-san never meant for you to come to harm.'

Hayate called down the next two shinobi displayed on the board, “The next match will be between Akimichi Chouji and Kinuta Dosu.”

Chouji's stomach growled audibly and he frowned, not looking forward to facing one of the Sound ninja he and his teammates had encountered in the Forest of Death, “Er...sensei, why don't I just withdraw from this match?”

“Aw, giving up so soon?” Asuma smirked down at his hefty pupil, “Even if I take you to an all-you-can-eat buffet if you win, Chouji?”

Ino joined in, wanting to motivate him, “Yeah, Chubby! What do you say?”

Ino! I'll finish this guy quick and then teach you a lesson!” A mix of anger and determination was engraved on his face and he immediately went down to the main floor.

Shikamaru sighed, knowing it was a match he was not intended to win.

“Begin.” Hayate backed away and Chouji didn't waste a second while performing his trademark jutsu.

“Human Bullet Tank!”

Chouji transformed himself into the human equivalent of a steam roller that could have landed a devastating attack on Dosu, had he not been moving so slowly. The Sound ninja dodged his rolling attack with no effort and merely led him along until he crashed into a wall.

“My sound amplifier is the only thing I need to finish you.” Dosu announced, brandishing the device attached to his arm.

“You can't hurt me if I can't hear you!” Chouji hadn't heard Dosu's warning, which may have been a bad thing.

The sound ninja jabbed Chouji's gut with the amplifier, letting the ultrasonic waves course through his body. It didn't take long before Chouji had fallen unconscious, and Hayate had announced Dosu as the winner.

Ino frowned, “Darn...I thought getting him mad might have helped him win.”

“Being angry is one of the worst ways to fight your battles.” Shikamaru replied lazily, offering her some wise advice that Chouji could have definitely used.

Temari exchanged a nonplused glance with Kankuro, not expecting a match to be so short.

“Hey, check it out Gaara-kun. One of those Sound ninja made it...” Naruto hadn't expected anyone from the team of Oto ninja to proceed past the preliminaries.

His friend made no reply and Naruto faced him fully, miffed, “Hey are you listening to me? I know you're upset about Sakura-chan but she's gonna be okay! You really should-”

“Naruto, the next match will be starting soon.” Gaara gestured to the overhead board and Naruto compliantly glanced over to it.

Kurenai closed her eyes briefly, sighing, “Hinata, I will let you proceed in whatever way you judge to be right. This is your match after all.”

The shy Hyuga girl was abnormally calm, “Thank you, sensei.” Her behavior earned her quizzical looks from her both of her teammates.

As expected, Hayate called out the next two ninja, “The tenth match will be between Hyuga Hinata and Hyuga Neji.”

Naruto felt his heart break as the examiner announced the next match, 'No! This isn't right! Not Hinata-chan! Anyone but her! They're cousins so why would they...why does it have to be this way?'

The golden haired nin watched as Neji moved down from the balcony, his face as stoic as it had been before. Naruto felt his lips peel back into a frustrated snarl, not comprehending how the Hyuga prodigy could not be troubled, 'Looks like he's not too upset! What does he think he's supposed to do anyway? I...I can't believe this!'

He turned to his crimson haired friend, totally distraught, “Gaara-kun, there's no way that they-”

“You know that we are utterly incapable of interfering,” Gaara knew exactly how he was feeling, “This match is going to be a clash of rivals all for the sake of an old feud.”

“But there's no way this fight was random! I mean, it's the both of them!” Naruto's anxious ocean eyes were beginning to unnerve his friend as well, “What are the chances? There's just...no way...”

“I...” Gaara could not find the words, “I have no foresight on the outcome of this match...”

Sato looked to Hinata as she swayed where she stood beside Shino, she herself quite stunned, “Are you gonna be okay, Sunshine?”

A small smile appeared on her face, “I'll b-be alright.”

He nodded to her before she moved on, steeling her nerves and feeling something like lead weighing her stomach down. Kurenai's ruby gaze flickered over to Gai, where both he and his students looked on grimly as Neji arrived on the main floor first.

'Is Neji actually going to go through with this?' Tenten wondered if perhaps she should have asked him before he had left, 'There's no way she'll be able to withstand him. She doesn't know him like I do. He'll...' She clenched her fists, fearing for Hinata, 'He won't hesitate to crush her...'

Hayate wore a doubtful expression before starting the match, “You may begin.”

Hinata faced her cousin nervously, desperately clinging to her resolve, her inspiration, and everything that Naruto had taught her. She felt like she was drowning in her own ideals, with no hope of treading the sea of expectations her father had swamped her with.

Neji's white eyes settled on her, uncommonly soft, yet no less threatening, “Hinata-sama...”

She felt her chin snap up in response. She already knew what he was going to say.

“Hinata-sama, there is no one in our clan that I respect more than you,” Neji's sincerity had floored her completely, “However if you do not withdraw, this match will hardly count as a match at all...”

“I can't...” Her voice was like a fragile pane of glass, “I cannot do that, Neji-niisan.”

He found it strange that she was not as controllable as she most often was, “I am grateful to you Hinata, but I can no longer have you influencing my future. It is something that I must create on my own.”

“Neji-niisan, as your rival, I do not strive to do my best as a l-leader...but...only to prove something to myself...” Hinata looked up briefly to Naruto, trying to draw on the strength he had given her.

“You can prove nothing in this match against me,” Her cousin reminded her, “You and I both know, Hinata-sama, which of us is destined to lead the Hyuga clan out of chaos.”

“Chaos? In Sunshine's clan?” Sato turned to Kurenai, “Is there a fight going on or something, Kurenai-sensei?”

“An old and bitter feud between the Main and Branch houses of the Hyuga clan has yet to be resolved, even after countless decades,” She replied, sighing, “Neji is the first Branch member ever to rise as a candidate as the next leader of the Hyuga clan. Hinata has not told you about this because...within this notion lies her worst fear.”

“Her fear?” Shino prompted, unsure of her meaning.

“Yes, her fear of her father. He dictates her future depending on how quickly she gains skill as a ninja,” Kurenai explained, “If Hinata outmatches Neji there will be no repercussions for him, but if Neji defeats Hinata...her father has the final say on what happens to her.”

“So what if she doesn't become the leader of her clan?” Sato barked indignantly, “Her dad wouldn't demote her in her own family...would he?”

Kurenai shook her head, “I just...I myself cannot be sure. This match dictates Hinata's fate.”

“Neji-niisan, I will not concede, not when I m-must know if I've been able to change...” Hinata's voice was soft but stern, “Defend yourself!”

Neji sighed heavily, tired of trying to persuade her, “If that is what you believe, Hinata-sama...then it cannot be avoided.”

Lee's prominent eyebrows furrowed in concern as his eternal rival took an offensive stance, with his younger cousin mirroring him, neither willing to back down.

“I will not hold back.” The Byakugan appeared in Neji's eyes automatically and Hinata frowned, her nervousness quickly being replaced with scraps of a plan.

Tenten leaned on the railing, disbelief clear in her features, “Lee...how can this be happening? There's just no way...”

He was unable to think of an answer for her, being he also was troubled.

Neji watched intently as Hinata wove away from his Jyukken strikes with grace, and paused abruptly when she formed a hand seal, a determined frown plastered on her face.

“Shadow Clone Jutsu!”

To her opponent's greatest astonishment, three shadow clones formed beside her, looking just as fierce as their creator, 'She must have learned that from Naruto! He is the only other genin capable of the jutsu!' It was frustrating enough to admit that he could not discern the real Hinata from her duplications because her chakra was so expertly distributed.

“Go Hinata-chan! You've got this!” Naruto's cheers were borderline screaming as he hung off the edge of the rail. Sato was also raving nearby.

Both Lee and Tenten were pleasantly surprised alongside their mentor, not expecting Neji to be caught off-guard by his cousin.

Kurenai smiled broadly, flashing an appreciative glance to Naruto.

'I will do my best!' Hinata moved in perfect coordination with her clones as they encircled Neji, countering and delivering relentless slaps of Jyukken. Four pairs of Byakugan eyes surrounded him, searching for weaknesses. To her shock, he was able to dodge many of the strikes from her clones even while attacking.

'It won't be long before Neji-niisan disposes of my kage bunshin...' She noted, evading a jab that might have knocked her out, 'I must do this quickly!'

Hinata and her clones leapt back, preparing to regroup. Neji fell back into his first stance, totally calm and expecting her next assault.

“Hakke Rokujuyon Sho!” Hinata cried as all of her clones closed in again with blinding speed.

On her own, Hinata scarcely used the Divine Sixty-Four Palms, having only accomplished it once in front of her father; but had found after training in secret with her shadow clones, it was made all the more devastating when coming from all directions. Neji could certainly see the attack, but that did not mean he could counter it.

“She...she's really got him...” Naruto mumbled in awe as the clones synchronized their attacks with Hinata, each focusing specifically on 16 different tenketsu all at once. Gaara stood beside him, equally amazed.

“Hakkesho Kaiten!”

Tenten flinched involuntarily as Neji rotated, creating a 360 degree shield of chakra that blew apart the shadow clones instantly, forcing Hinata back as well. Tenten knew better than anyone how painful it was to be knocked away by the Hyuga prodigy.

The Hyuga girl stumbled away from the crater Neji had formed and called on her Byakugan again, still not defeated. Distantly she could hear Naruto hollering from above, making her more bold.

'I can do this! I see it now! I've found my way!' Hinata steadied her footing as Neji retaliated with powerful blows that were much more than small slaps of Jyukken.

Her evasion was faultless as she dodged away from his strikes, desperately trying to deliver her own, but with little success. Hinata's silvery white eyes burned with a determination akin to Naruto's, 'I will keep going! Neji-niisan is fighting back now! If I wear him down...'

Neji hadn't fully expected her to be so fiery in her attacks, but he knew that if the match persisted he would be forced to harm her more than what was necessary, 'I will end this match now.'

Blocking her assault, Neji landed an uppercut that had sent her reeling, frantically trying to regain balance. He seized his chance to finish her, knowing that she would have done it no differently, “Kaiten!”

It was a weaker rotation that was enough to position her in the air, where he struck her solar plexus expertly, watching as her eyes fluttered in reaction to the mind-numbing pain. He backed up; watching as she stumbled again, stunned, and tumbled down with a soft thud.

The silence of the observing ninja hung thick in the air, even leaving the Hokage to speculate the meaning of the bout.

Neji's Byakugan deactivated with a mere blink of his eyes, “Don't you see, Hinata-sama? Your place as a leader of our clan was determined long before this match.”

Hayate frowned, not very much a fan of the Hyuga's brutal fighting style. He looked over to Hinata who was crumpled over in anguish, staying very still.

He cleared his throat, “The-”

“Don't you dare call this match!” Naruto howled from his place on the balcony, furious, “Not yet! It's not over yet!”

Hayate gave the crazed boy an incredulous look before looking to Hinata again, where she had miraculously staggered to her feet, wiping the blood that was smeared on her mouth. Neji's eyes narrowed as they fell upon her shuddering form. He believed that a wise person would admit defeat when their bodies could no longer continue.

His cousin was not nearly so wise.

The proctor remained silent but did not back away. It was clear the girl would not last much longer.

Hinata coughed, flecks of blood polka-dotting her jacket. Her eyes remained fixed on her cousin, open to a new truth that she had discovered while fighting him, “N-Neji-niisan...”

The other Leaf genin were astonished by her endurance.

“Neji-niisan...I know now what I f-fight for; why I am a ninja...” She held her sides, her shoulders were quivering in pain, “I need n-nothing more than my nindo: to n-never give up...but you, Neji-niisan,” Her eyes were glassy, “Do you even know what you're really fighting for?”

He said nothing, because in truth he didn't. Neji had never questioned the fact that he had been training tirelessly to become the heir of the Hyuga clan since his father's death, but it had never honestly been something he himself had wanted, not entirely.

Once Hinata stumbled again, Hayate called the match without being interrupted, “The winner is Hyuga Neji.”

Naruto and Sato had moved simultaneously, abandoning the balcony for the floor below. Hinata lay in agony on the floor, coughing up many more red spots onto her jacket.

Gai sighed heavily, having predicted that the fight was fairly one-sided, no matter how formidable Hinata may have become. Even Lee had not yet defeated the Hyuga prodigy. Lee stood quietly beside Tenten, watching Neji with an unspoken dream as he left the main floor.

Tenten averted her eyes from Hinata when Naruto kneeled down beside her, and she wondered if her teammates would have been as concerned for her if she had been defeated in her match.

Her insides churned in horror as she sent her greatest sympathies to Hinata, the one with whom she could relate, 'Neji you...you really don't know what you're fighting for do you? She's right about you. You fight simply because you can, not because you fight for those you care about...if you care for anyone at all.'

Hinata felt humiliation creep over her as Naruto settled beside her, looking enraged, “N-Naruto-kun, I'm s-sorry. I thought that if I c-could change-”

“Whoa wait, Hinata-chan, what do you think you're apologizing for?” He grinned at her, trying to ignore the blood she was covered in, “You wer