Yes, I do realize that it's been a while since I last posted, life happens, muses happen, and I don't really have anything else to say about that.

Team 8 arrived at the tower sometime around midnight, roughly twelve hours after the second phase of the Chūnin Exams began, and collapsed into bed as soon as they found one. They woke up and wandered into the cafeteria to find the only other team that had made it to the tower, one from the Sand Village. They introduced themselves to the other team, or at least the two who looked sane. The blonde haired girl introduced herself as Temari, and the black clad boy as Kankurō. They then gestured at the third, a redheaded boy sitting by himself, and introduced him as Gaara.

Kurama let Naruto know, in no uncertain terms, that this Gaara could be a very dangerous enemy. He was the jinchūriki of the One Tailed Beast, and could likely use sand to great effect. The fox also stated that it seemed that the One-Tail seemed to have passed on his blood thirst, and possibly driven his host insane. Naruto relayed this to the rest of his team subtly, before heading over to try to get his fellow demon container to talk to him, open up a little.

This did not work, although it did seem that Gaara had a decent grasp on his emotions, as the only response Naruto was able to get out of him were a couple of sand body flickers to other parts of the tower that sent Naruto on a little hunt. When Gaara flickered out of the cafeteria as supper was being served, Naruto sighed and returned to his team, who were just now sitting down to eat.

"Well, that was a bust," Naruto sighed.

The rest of the team expressed their sympathies. "Don't worry," Hinata comforted, a hand on his shoulder. "He might not want to make friends outside of the Sand Village."

Kiba barked out a laugh. "Or he might just be a jerk!" The others shared a laugh at that, before their stomachs let them know they wanted food.

After they ate the next morning, Kiba suggested that they go train a little. As they were leaving, Hinata asked Naruto if they could talk for a moment. Naruto responded positively and sent the two foxes with Kiba and Akamaru to warm up a bit.

"So what did you want to talk about, Hinata?" Naruto asked as the door to Team 8's suite shut behind them.

He turned to see Hinata sitting on one of the couches in the room, poking her fingers together in a sort of nervous tic. "Um, Naruto?" she began, glancing up at him to see that she had his attention before blushing and looking back to her hands. "I've been thinking recently about some things. Specifically our trip to the border with Wind Country." Naruto paled slightly, still rather bothered by his strong reaction against that one bandit. "When you saved me from that bandit, you said something. Do you remember what you said?"

Naruto thought for a moment, slightly relieved that this wasn't about his instinct-fueled savagery. "No, most of that battle is a bit of a blur, especially after you cried out like that."

Hinata sighed, before steeling her resolve. "As you attacked the bandit, you said that I was…" She trailed off, before whispering "Your m-mate."

Naruto mulled over her words, trying to decipher her whispers, before his eyes widened to comical proportions. "I-I said that?" Hinata nodded, blushing. "And, um, what were you thinking about it?"

Hinata blushed more, whispering, "That I… kinda… liked it."

The two of them stared at each other processing this information. After a moment, Naruto nodded to himself. "Um," he began again, "I'm gonna need a little bit of time to, um, actually think about this. Tell the others that I'll be there eventually, or whatever." Hinata nodded, rushing out the door to get away from the awkward atmosphere. Naruto just sighed before turning his thoughts inward and conversing with Kurama.

Naruto stopped Hinata as she was following the rest of their team to their suite. "Hey, guys, me and Hinata are gonna go talk about something." Receiving acknowledgement, he led her, blushing, to one of the roof of the tower, where they could look out over the Forest at night. "So, Hinata," Naruto began. "I did some thinking and some soul searching, and I talked with Kurama a bit, and I came to a conclusion."

"And that is?" she asked, excited and nervous all at the same time.

Naruto chuckled slightly. "That I have no idea what any of this means." After a moment, Hinata giggled, breaking the slightly tense atmosphere and causing Naruto to smile. After she calmed down, Naruto took her hand. "I don't have much experience in relationships of any kind, most of that coming from you. I don't have any experience with any kind of romantic feelings." Hinata looked away, a slightly crestfallen look on her face. "But," Naruto continued, "I do know that I don't want to lose you, I don't want to think about what my life would have been without you. I know that I just want to make you happy." Hinata blushed and tried to retreat away from the embarrassment, but Naruto held firm. "You have a lot more experience with this kind of thing than I do, even if it's just from watching others, so you'll need to lead. I just want you to do what makes you happy, or tell me what to do to make you happy."

After a moment of silence, just staring into each other's eyes, Hinata blushed harder. She then leaned into him, wrapping her arms around him and holding him tight. He followed her lead, and they spent a relaxing evening in each other's arms. They turned in for the night, more relaxed than they'd been since that dramatic mission.

The next morning at breakfast, Kiba, Akamaru, Tsumi, and Kimaru all noticed a change in the behavior of the remainder of their skulk. Namely, that Naruto and Hinata were sitting much closer together than normal. It took a moment, but Tsumi finally caught on, explaining the cause to the rest of the group. This brought on strong blushes, which caused a round of uproarious laughter.

Kiba, tactless as always, grinned after the laughter died down. "About time, you two." Getting curious and blushing looks, he grinned. "The four of us, and Kurenai-sensei, all noticed how you two act around each other and knew it was just a matter of time, especially after that one mission. We were even thinking about a betting pool, although that's kinda busted now."

After another round of blushing and laughing, and actually eating breakfast, Kurenai walked in. "So," she began, "I hear you two finally got together."

"How'd you know?" Naruto asked, shocked.

Kurenai chuckled. "The Hokage told me. Now," she continued, cutting Naruto off. "The three of us need to have a talk. Don't worry, it's nothing bad, just standard procedure for a ninja couple who go on missions together." The two nodded, before following after their sensei for 'standard procedure'.

The fourth day of the second stage of the Chūnin Exams flew by with little of importance, though Teams 9 and 10 and a team from Sound did arrive at different points in the day. Naruto and Hinata made it a point to keep away from the Hyūga boy on Team 9, not for fear of being discovered, they just didn't want to cause a scene.

Around 11 am the fifth day, Team 7 arrived, with Team 12, which had that Kabuto kid, arriving shortly thereafter. At 1 pm, exactly five days after it began, the second phase ended. All the passing teams lined up in the central room of the tower, a large arena. Team 8 looked around, taking in the competition. The other two rookie teams, 7 and 10, were there, Team 7 looking significantly more worn down than Team 10.

Team 9, the one with the Hyūga, seemed to be confident, although the boy in the green jumpsuit was incredibly hyper. Kabuto's two teammates were confident, though Kabuto himself seemed to be… restrained? As if he wanted to appear as if he wasn't happy with everything. The Sound team seemed to be fairly ready, though the girl was smirking at the boy with an arm in a sling with cruel satisfaction. Said boy kept glancing around, as if looking for something that was lurking in the shadows, waiting to strike.

Naruto grinned, relaying the fact that the kid was still under the effect of their howl. The last team was the one from Sand, and Temari and Kankurō were visibly attempting to put as much room between them and Gaara as possible. Gaara, however, seemed to simply be bored.

The skulk was drawn from their musing by Anko clearing her throat from the front of the room. "Congratulations, brats, on passing the second phase of the Chūnin Exams. Unfortunately for some of you, there are too many of you to pass on to the third, so we will be running a preliminary stage here and now." After relishing in the complaints for a moment, she gestured behind her. "First, however, the Hokage would like to say a few words."

The Hokage stepped forward in full regalia, leaving the line of jonin sensei and the proctors, letting Anko take his place. He panned his gaze across the gathered genin before delving into his speech. He explained to the genin that, for the preliminaries and the third stage, they would be having one on one combat, and that the main event would be open to the public. The then went on to say that this tournament was the modern replacement for war, and that the genin should do their best to make their villages proud.

The Hokage called forward a special jonin who introduced himself as Hayate Gekkō. Hayate then explained that, as the proctor for the preliminary round, he had final say in the battles to take place, that there weren't any true rules, killing your opponent was frowned upon, but not illegal, and that when he said to stop, you stopped. He then gave an out to anyone who didn't want to continue.

Kabuto took him up on his offer, claiming he was having hearing difficulties and was low on chakra.

After Kabuto left, Hayate then announced that the combatants would be selected randomly and gestured above and behind him to a screen that began to scroll through the names of the genin there. After a tense moment or two, the names stopped on Sasuke Uchiha and Yoroi Akadō. "Sasuke Uchiha and Yoroi Akadō remain on the floor while everyone else head to the observation deck."

A minute or two later, everything quieted down, Sasuke standing across from one of Kabuto's teammates, Hayate standing a little ways back, and everyone else observing from above. "Ready?" Hayate asked. Getting a nod from both, he raised his right hand before bringing it down, shouting "Begin!"