Disclaimer: Naruto is the property of Masashi Kishimoto.

~Confronting the Shadow: Chapter Thirteen~

"A Past Revealed: She Who Prevented Calamity"

The moment the village leadership discovered that Orochimaru was present during the Chūnin Exams, everyone was on high alert. Extra patrols both inside and outside the village were organized to detect any suspicious activity. To the outside observer, nothing seemed all that different. It was standard procedure for security to be tightened during international events such as the Chūnin Exams — especially when they garnered so many spectators.

As he walked back to his home after his patrol shift, Hayate pondered the undoubtable danger that the village was facing. It was very likely that there wasn't anyone in the village strong enough to fight Orochimaru. The Hokage was admittedly past his prime, and Jiraiya had already been defeated by Orochimaru during the latter's defection. There was also Tsunade Senju, but as far as Hayate knew, she'd left the village long ago.

It was moments like these where the loss of the Fourth Hokage was truly felt by everyone. He would certainly be able to handle Orochimaru with little issue. However, since his demise, there hadn't really been anyone close to his level since. Kakashi Hatake, a student of the Fourth, was an incredible prodigy from Hayate's generation. Yet, his strength didn't compare quite yet. The only other notable person that came to mind was Itachi Uchiha — but he was an even worse story than Orochimaru, depending on who you asked.

Hayate let out a tired breath as he mindlessly listened to the sound of his footfall. It was frustrating to feel so powerless. There were always stories about legendary shinobi, such as the Hokage or the Sannin, powerful enough to fight off entire armies. Yet, ordinary people like Hayate could never hope to match such feats of strength. So, in situations such as this, what exactly was he supposed to do? There was no way that he would be able to stand a chance against someone like Orochimaru.

Just as the thought crossed his mind, Hayate noticed something odd in the distance. He focused his vision and was able to see a familiar figure slinking through the woods. It was the jōnin leader of the Hidden Stone team, Deidara. While it wasn't that strange to see him in the village, it was suspicious for him to be traveling so late in the evening.

'Lord Hokage never said anything about the Hidden Stone,' Hayate thought with a frown. Nevertheless, it wasn't just something that he could ignore.

Thankful that he was already armed and ready, Hayate began tailing Deidara in the hopes of finding out something useful. However, he was mindful that he needed to be very careful about what he chose to do next. If Hayate were to get into a fight with Deidara due to an incorrect presumption of guilt, then there was the possibility of an international incident. The Hidden Stone village was precisely the type of people to use that as a provocation for a conflict of some kind.

Yet, as Hayate was about to find out, there would be no presumptions needed. He watched as Deidara fashioned an object out of clay before pinning it against the base of a wall. Based on both the reports he had read — along with the display he saw during the preliminary matches — Hayate knew that the clay was used as a medium to create explosives. Therefore, it didn't take a genius to figure out what was going on.

The Hidden Stone had always been chief among the Hidden Leaf village's greatest adversaries. So, the concept of them collaborating with Orochimaru in any capacity wasn't beyond the realm of possibility. However, Deidara was also known in the Bingo Book as a hothead that rarely followed orders. It wouldn't be too surprising to learn that he was acting out on his own accord.

'I need to alert Lord Hokage,' Hayate thought to himself. He wasn't powerful enough to take on Deidara by himself. It would be much more valuable for him to pass along the information to those that could make some use out of it.

Hayate silently turned to leave but paused when he noticed something strange in his peripheral vision. Initially, he thought that it was a peculiar animal. Yet, his eyes widened as he realized that it was a large spider fashioned out of clay. Before Hayate could react, the creature was already latched onto his face. A silent explosion rang through the surrounding forest — only alerting the most vigilant of animals.

From his position not all that far away, Deidara watched the display in amusement. He would need to contact Orochimaru's man, Kabuto, to take care of the body. Leaving it here would just prompt an investigation that would result in the Hidden Leaf finding the bombs he was placing along the village walls. Couldn't let that happen — especially since he'd sacrificed much of his night preparing.

(The Following Day)

After yet another grueling day of training, Sakura made her way home. She began her day working with Kakashi and Sayuri, as usual, before discreetly traveling to the depilated temple to study under the mysterious blonde woman. While admittedly rough around the edges, the woman had a vast knowledge of chakra control and medical ninjutsu. With the month of training nearly complete, Sakura had already learned how to do things with her chakra that she never thought possible. It also helped that she apparently had a knack for it.

The sparring with Sayuri was also helpful — even if Sakura lost pretty much every time. That was fine, though. She was only concerned with defeating Kurotsuchi and putting on a performance that would demonstrate that she was chūnin material. As the Hokage said, you didn't have to win the tournament to get promoted — hell, you didn't even have to win your match.

As Sakura neared her home, she was surprised to see a familiar figure walking from the opposite direction. It was Ino, and by the looks of things, they were both headed for the same destination — oddly enough. They hadn't been afforded a chance to speak after their match in the exams, considering how quickly things were moving. Therefore, Sakura wasn't all that sure how Ino had handled losing to her old rival. She supposed she was about to find out.

"Sakura," Ino greeted first.

"Ino," Sakura replied.

It was only then that Sakura noticed the food that Ino was carrying — enough for two people, by the looks of it, "I figured that you'd be training hard for the finals," Ino elaborated once she followed Sakura's gaze. "So, I decided to bring you this."

With all that they had been through, Sakura tended to forget how kind Ino could be. In fact, the very genesis of their relationship involved her saving Sakura from bullies and teaching her how to be confident. It was funny how time could make a person forget, "Thanks," Sakura accepted the gesture with a smile. "Want to come in?"

Years had come and gone since the last time Ino stepped foot in Sakura's house. Not much had changed since then, as her parents weren't the types to redecorate or reorganize. Based on casual observation, Sakura was able to detect blatant nostalgia emanating from Ino as they walked up to her room. Surely this was a walk they'd made hundreds of times in the past, but now they were very different people. It served as a reminder that while people changed, the world often remained the same.

The two girls spent the next few minutes on Sakura's bed, eating from their bento and discussing what they'd been up to. Apparently, Ino had taken her defeat in the preliminaries to heart and requested tougher training from her sensei, Asuma. She'd also been helping Shikamaru prepare for his match against the girl from the Hidden Sand team Temari — a fight she was adamant that her teammate would win.

Ino suddenly paused in her soliloquy before giggling, much to Sakura's confusion, "It's just like the old days. I've been talking the whole time, and you've just been listening," she elaborated before leaning over in anticipation. "Well, what about you? How's your training been?"

"You mean aside from getting my butt handed to me by Sayuri every day?" Sakura joked, much to Ino's amusement. "It's been good. I feel like I'm ten times the kunoichi that I was a few weeks ago. Hopefully, that'll be enough."

In a manner that contrasted her pretty demeanor, Ino scoffed, "Hopefully? Where's your confidence, forehead?" she lectured. "You're about to have the most important fight of your life, and you "hope" that your training will be enough?"

Being scolded by Ino about her confidence was something Sakura was more than familiar with. Perhaps it was just her cautious nature, or maybe she still had some work to do in that regard? Regardless, Sakura couldn't help but admit that Ino was right. Confidence was developed through preparation, and there was little doubt in her mind that she was as prepared as could be for her match.

"Yeah, I know," Sakura conceded. "You're right."

Ino nodded approvingly, "Good. Besides, you can't lose to a Stoner. We fought a war with them before — I think."

"Yeah. The Third Great Shinobi War," Sakura replied in a deadpan voice. "It was only one of the most important wars — like, ever."

"Well, that makes your fight all the more important then," Ino responded with a shrug. "This is like country versus country stuff."

Sakura scowled, "I'd rather not make the match anything more than it needs to be."

The last thing Sakura needed was the weight of an entire nation on her back.

"I get it, I get it," Ino placated. "You know how I get. I like some good drama. Especially when it has some history behind it."

They proceeded to engage in idle conversation for a bit longer before the topic shifted back to Sakura's training. She was considering telling Ino about the woman that she'd been training with at the temple. However, Sakura was a bit apprehensive given the woman's reclusive nature and Ino's gossip habit. In the end, she decided that no harm could be done if her friend promised to be discreet.

"She's one of the smartest people that I've ever met," Sakura continued to explain as she told Ino about her mysterious mentor. "It's like she's a living breathing textbook on medical ninjutsu — only I think she knows more than anyone could fit into a single book."

Ino nodding appraisingly, "And what does she look like? Is she some old hag stirring a cauldron? Because that's what it sounds like."

"Actually, she's one of the most beautiful people that I've ever met," Sakura remarked with a cocky smile. She almost felt a sense of pride toward her new teacher. "She has blonde hair and pretty brown eyes. Oh! And she also has an interesting mark on her forehead. I think it's a tattoo of a purple diamond."

Throughout Sakura's explanation, Ino merely nodded absentmindedly. However, as the details began to stack up, she slowly began to straighten her posture until she lunged forward until her and Sakura's noses were practically touching, "Are you making this up right now, or are you being serious?" Ino asked before leaning back and giving Sakura an up and down look. "You wouldn't joke about something like that, right?"

Sakura tilted her head in bewilderment, "Joke about what?"

"Oh my god, you're serious," Ino remarked in awe before clasping Sakura's shoulders. "You just described Lady Tsunade, you dolt! You know, the greatest and most beautiful kunoichi in the whole world. Were you like the only girl growing up that didn't look up to her?"

It was then that everything began to click in Sakura's mind. She recalled mentions of a Slug Princess in a few of her medical ninjutsu scrolls but didn't think much of it. But now that she thought about it, she did recall learning about many of the legendary shinobi back in the Academy. Among those stories were tales of the Legendary Sannin — summoners of Snakes, Toads, and Slugs, respectively. Tsunade Senju was said to be one of the three.

"Holy shit."

Ino nodded in agreement, "Exactly. Holy shit," she said. "I thought you were supposed to be smart."

This changed a lot, as far as Sakura was concerned. What were the odds that she managed to accidentally come across one of the most legendary shinobi of all time? — and one that happened to be an expert in a field that she was studying? Despite generally being a practical person that avoided superstition, the situation was proof enough to Sakura that destiny could possibly be real.

Yet, this new discovery left Sakura feeling conflicted. Should she reveal what she learned to Tsunade or keep the information to herself? On the one hand, she was usually a proponent of telling the truth if she could help it. However, on the other hand, Tsunade seemed like the kind of person who preferred for her past to remain a secret. So that begged the question. What should she do?

Well, at least Sakura had until tomorrow night to decide.

A campfire flickered and crackled through the evening night. The flames served as Sayuri's sole focus as she and Kakashi both rested after a lengthy day of training. Significant progress had been made in the past month. The newfound power that coursed through Sayuri had been further honed and refined to the point of complete mastery. Moreover, she'd learned a new jutsu that she was sure could end a fight with anyone in the exams — Naruto included.

So, as Sayuri sat transfixed by the flame, she thought to herself. Was she ready? Had she finally reached the point that she'd been striving toward all this time? The thought of plunging her newly learned Chidori through her brother's chest nearly brought a smile to Sayuri's face. There was only one way to find out.

"Someone looks like they've got murder on their mind," Kakashi chimed from across the fire — in that teasing, disinterested tone that only he seemed to have mastered. "You do know that while killing is allowed in the exams, it's generally discouraged."

For a moment, Sayuri didn't even process Kakashi's words. However, with a slight straightening of her spine, she afforded her sensei her full attention, "Do you think that I'm ready, Kakashi?"

Evidently amused by the lack of "-sensei" attached at the end of his name, Kakashi pondered Sayuri's question with a faint hum, "For Neji? Certainly," he replied. "But I have a feeling that's not what you're asking me."

Sayuri's silence all but confirmed Kakashi's suspicions.

"Do you want me to be the kind and supportive sensei or the tough love sensei?" Kakashi asked with a casual shrug. "Because I can do both."

"Just be honest with me."

Tough love it was then, "I'd say that you still have quite a bit of work ahead of you," Kakashi admitted.

While she wasn't all that surprised by Kakashi's response, Sayuri couldn't help but clench her fists in frustration. Now that her momentary bout of confidence had been broken, doubt began to seep through the cracks. The strides Sayuri made over the past six months seemed astronomical, and yet she still wasn't even remotely close to her brother yet. There wasn't even a guarantee that she was as strong as her brother was on that night.

Itachi's words echoed through Sayuri's head, 'When you possess the same eyes that I do, come before me.'

"It was never going to be easy," Kakashi continued, prompting Sayuri to roll her eyes upon hearing the understatement of the century. "There's nothing that I can tell you about your brother that you don't already know — well, aside from a couple of stories that wouldn't be relevant to this conversation—"

At any other point, Sayuri may have inquired about some of Kakashi's stories. Yet now, she remained quiet.

"— but I digress," Kakashi moved on. "Right now, you're progressing at an incredible pace. I truly believe that there is a light at the end of the tunnel for you, Sayuri. Just because you can't see it right now doesn't mean that it isn't there. You just need to keep pushing forward. That's what a shinobi does, after all."

Kakashi didn't appear all that perturbed as his words failed to penetrate through Sayuri's rocky exterior. She supposed that was one of the things that she admired about him the most. No matter what happened, Kakashi never lost his cool or surrendered control of the situation. Even in matters of life or death, such as Team 7's battles with Zabuza. Or when dealing with the difficulties of leading a team.

"You remind me a lot of myself, you know?" Kakashi remarked, this time earning a more visible reaction from Sayuri. "I too was once an unruly brat that was never satisfied no matter how high that I climbed."

Sayuri's brow twitched at being called an "unruly brat."

"I had everything, and then nothing. And then everything and then nothing again," Kakashi explained with a far-off look in his lone eye. "Only the second time, I didn't realize what I'd lost until it was already gone. It's one of my greatest regrets — one of many."

Even before this revelation, Sayuri hadn't been arrogant enough to assume that Kakashi hadn't experienced loss. He was a shinobi with a lengthy career who'd fought in a war. One simply didn't live a life like that and not lose parts of what they loved along the way. Yet, not all loss was created equal — and not everyone handled it the same way. What worked for one person in overcoming grief could be utterly useless to another.

"I guess part of being a sensei is preventing your cute disciples from making the same mistakes that you did," Kakashi revealed with one of his classic eye smiles. "But as you know, I'm still kind of new to the whole teaching thing. So, feel free to let me know if I'm doing a terrible job."

Sayuri felt the corners of her lips twitch up in what resembled a smile. Perhaps it was true that Kakashi could never fully understand what she'd gone through? Yet, that didn't mean it didn't feel kind of good to see him try. It reminded Sayuri of the moments she often shared with Naruto — where she felt as though she was having a conversation with a more eccentric version of herself. Talking with others out there who'd gone through tragic loss like her made the world feel a little less small.

"You're doing alright," Sayuri admitted with a shrug, causing Kakashi's smile to soften for a split second before returning to normal.

And yet, just "alright" felt like enough.

(The Following Day)

Ever since his encounter with the Nine Tails, Naruto had been a wreck. Sleep evaded him more than usual, and his waking hours were spent ignoring whispers in the back of his mind and the shadows in his peripherals. And yet, to an outside observer, nothing in Naruto's demeanor indicated that anything was going on. Jiraiya would undoubtedly grow suspicious at any sign of strange behavior. So, it was beneficial that Naruto had spent years honing his ability to conceal what he was thinking and feeling.

The moment Jiraiya left the clearing for the day — apparently in need of some R&R — Naruto allowed his shoulders to sag. Keeping up a façade for hours on end while simultaneously undergoing intense training was seriously testing the limits of his abilities. All throughout, he heard hurried whispers urging him that Jiraiya was onto him. At first, Naruto ignored them quite well, but eventually, they began to grate on him. What if it was true?

'He's going to tell them.'

Naruto visibly cringed at the dozens of different voices speaking all at once. He then began to ponder what was said and subconsciously began to chew his nails with worry. Would Jiraiya sell him out like that?

'They'll come for you now. You'll be trapped forever.'

Almost as if on cue, Naruto was alerted to rustling in the nearby bushes. He shot to his feet in a panicked hurry and prepared for the worst. However, the new presence in the clearing appeared to be Hinata with a basket in hand. Upon seeing his alarmed state, she appeared both perplexed and disturbed by nevertheless approached.

Realizing that his paranoia had been misplaced and that he was now no longer alone, Naruto calmed his nerves and smiled. This seemed to work on Hinata, whose discomfort immediately faded as she noticed the tension vanish, "Sorry," Naruto said once she was close enough. "This whole month I've been half-expecting to be jumped by the competition."

Hinata smirked, "Doesn't seem healthy, but who am I to judge? — seeing as I've already been knocked out of the running."

'She sees everything.'

Naruto ignored the voices and offered Hinata a place to sit. She readily accepted his offer and revealed that she came bearing gifts, which came in the form of an entire meal. It was enough for two, which implied that Hinata was seeking to share a meal together. Too unfocused to ponder the connotations of having lunch with a girl his age, Naruto accepted the offer without thought.

"So, do you feel prepared?" Hinata asked in-between bites of her food. "The finals are in a couple of days."

"Without a doubt," Naruto assured with a confident smirk. Even with all the uncertainty he'd been feeling lately, he was confident that he was going to win the entire tournament.

'Do you actually believe that?'

Discussing the finals served as a reminder to Naruto of Hinata's defeat during the preliminaries. Seeing her get beaten down with no mercy by someone that was supposed to be her family made his blood boil. A not-so-secret part of Naruto had even prayed to be matched up with Neji in the finals.

"How about Sayuri?" Hinata inquired, trying her best not to sound concerned. "How's her training going?"

Naruto shrugged, "Beats me. I haven't seen her at all this month. I'm sure she's doing fine, though."

Disappointment was evident in Hinata's eyes as soon as Naruto finished speaking. It was clear that she'd been hoping to learn a bit about Sayuri's training — perhaps to ease her worries about the fact that she would be fighting Neji?

"Sayuri's strong, but Neji—" Hinata began but snapped her mouth shut almost as quickly as she began. This all but confirmed Naruto's initial suspicions. "Sorry. Never mind."

After her apology, Hinata proceeded to hang her head down and eat her food in silence. Naruto blinked in confusion at the entire display, admittedly a bit surprised to see that she appeared to be so concerned with Sayuri's wellbeing. As far as he knew, the two girls had only really interacted on two occasions — with one of those being a fight against each other during a training exercise. Was Hinata really that kind?

No doubt, Hinata felt that it was rude to share her doubt regarding Sayuri's chances with one of her teammates. And while Naruto understood why she might feel that way, he recognized that her concern came from a good place. Yet, that didn't mean that he necessarily agreed with her assessment of the match-up.

With a slight smile, Naruto sought to regain Hinata's attention, "Hey, no need to apologize," he expressed. "Sayuri will be fine. If anything, I'd be more worried about your dickhead of a cousin. She's actually pretty terrifying — but don't tell her I told you that."

Almost immediately, Hinata's spirits seemed to brighten. This tended to happen whenever she was around Naruto. He had this uncanny ability to alleviate all her concerns and doubts like no one else could — not even her sensei or teammates. She supposed that was odd since they didn't see each other all that often, but it was true regardless. The impact Naruto had on Hinata's life was greater than he could probably ever know. However, being in his presence once again also served to remind her of her failure.

"I tried my best," Hinata suddenly said, causing Naruto to perk back up from his meal. "Against Neji. But it wasn't enough."

Naruto nodded slowly as he internally processed what he was going to say, "You never gave up. That's all that matters," he concluded. Though, Naruto also recognized that answer wouldn't satisfy him at all if he were in Hinata's shoes. Nobody was content with losing — him especially so.

"I almost did give up," Hinata confessed before looking Naruto in the eyes and smiling softly. "And then I saw you watching and knew that I couldn't quit."

It felt rather strange for Naruto to be the subject of someone's admiration. Sure, there were plenty of people who acknowledged his skills as a shinobi. Yet, not many people openly expressed respect for who he was as a person. Konohamaru kind of fit into that category, but his was a more childish fascination. Sakura also came to mind, but lately, he'd started noticing anxious looks that she sent his way when she thought he wasn't looking. In contrast, Hinata seemed to look at him with even higher esteem when she felt he couldn't see her.

Unsure how to respond to such blatant kindness, Naruto rubbed the back of his head and chuckled, "Thanks. I—"

However, before Naruto could finish what he was saying, he spotted several movements in the distance. At first, it was just some rustling in the trees and bushes, which was suspicious on a windless day. Then, Naruto saw several colors that appeared distinct from the rest of the environment. Whites, reds, blues, grays, and everything in between. But it was when he saw the first porcelain mask rise out of the darkness that he knew things were about to pop off.

'They're here.'

Utter chaos then unfolded. The Anbu apparently no longer felt the need to hide their presences and leaped out of the treeline. Each of Naruto's assailants released handfuls of kunai and shuriken in his direction. With his mind processing the situation in almost slow motion, his eyes widened in horror when he realized that Hinata was in the direct path of the onslaught of spinning steel. She appeared completely unaware of what was going on, with that kind smile still spread across her face. It was a familiar expression that sparked painful memories.

'She'll die. Like Yua.'

"Get down!" Naruto urged with borderline manic intensity, prompting Hinata's eyes to widen in a mixture of surprise and fear.

Naruto then proceeded to lunge in Hinata's direction and drag her to the ground. He flipped her around and hovered his body over hers, so as to shield her from any damage. Expecting a great deal of pain, Naruto squeezed his eyes tightly shut and tensed his body in preparation. However, surprisingly, the pain never came, and the clearing was engulfed in an eerie silence.

"N-Naruto — what's going on?!"

Silence remained for a few more moments before Naruto finally opened his eyes. The first thing he saw was Hinata's face, and relief flooded him when he saw no blood or signs of injuries. However, that comfort was brief as Naruto was reminded of what prompted his sudden action in the first place. Ignoring the slight blush that appeared on Hinata's cheeks at the physical contact, he straightened his posture and looked over his shoulder.

Bafflingly, Naruto saw nothing, "You didn't see that?" he inquired with wide eyes. "They — They came for me!"

"See what? Who came for you?" Hinata slowly and softly asked before activating her Byakugan.

Naruto waited with bated breath, feeling confident that Hinata's dōjutsu would validate what he'd seen. However, when the veins around her eyes dissipated without the accompanying looks of recognition that he'd been expecting, he knew that he was about to feel disappointed, "There's nothing there," Hinata revealed. "Just some animals. Is that what you saw?"

'What?' Naruto thought to himself as he lifted his body off Hinata's and plopped back onto his butt. 'That's impossible. I saw it!'

'She's lying to you.'

For a moment, that explanation appeared more plausible to Naruto than the notion that he'd imagined everything. It was easier to accept that someone was lying to him than it was to come to terms with his waning grip on reality. However, Naruto quickly purged the thought from his mind. Hinata was a good person that would never lie to him in such a way.

Naruto's expression suddenly shifted back to normal, "Just messing with ya!" he lied with a lighthearted chuckle. "You should have seen the look on your face."

With a face that made her look as though she'd swallowed a lemon, Hinata observed Naruto with skeptical eyes, "Really?" she asked, before ultimately relenting her suspicion with a shake of the head. It was easier for her to believe him. "You could have picked a better moment for a joke like that. I was kind of opening up to you there, you know?"

"Sorry, sorry," Naruto apologized while rubbing the back of his head. "I guess I was getting a little nervous. I'm not used to stuff like that, ya know? It felt like we were just a few steps away from a declaration of love back there."

Hinata's face instantly grew beet red at the mention of love. Words refused to come out of her mouth as she stammered and struggled to speak. Naruto watched the display with amusement before standing up to his feet and wiping the dirt off his clothing. He then extended a hand and held it out to Hinata in an invitation to get off the ground.

Seeing Naruto reach out for her immediately calmed Hinata down. She accepted the gesture and was soon brought back to her feet with astonishingly little effort. Despite having a rather average frame for his age, Naruto was surprisingly strong. A comparison between him, Kiba, Shino, or any other boy from their class was like night and day.

After brushing the dirt off her clothing as well, Hinata recalled where their conversation left off and blushed. She'd been waiting quite a while to tell Naruto how she felt about him, and it seemed like she'd been setting it up pretty well. However, his unexpected outburst pretty much killed any of the momentum that Hinata was working with. Yet, she was still feeling strangely confident and decided to jump right to her confession.

"Um — there's something I need to tell you," Hinata whispered. "You mentioned love earlier, and well...I think I feel that way about you."

Perhaps it was because she'd spoken too softly, or maybe it was due to Naruto's attention still being fixated on the trees. But, Hinata's words seemed to fall on deaf ears. Upon realizing what she'd said, she was immediately grateful that he seemingly hadn't heard her. What in the hell was she thinking?! Hinata had never been so bold in her entire life.

"Hmm, what was that?" Naruto casually asked when he noticed Hinata looking directly at him. "Did you say something?"

Hinata nodded rapidly, "I was just saying that I'm happy you've enjoyed the food. Let's finish it together."

Seeing no reason not to believe her, Naruto shrugged before sitting back down and continuing his meal. He and Hinata continued to talk for some time, but throughout, his thoughts were focused elsewhere. Despite being told that there was nobody else in the surrounding area, he still felt that eyes were watching him in the distance.

(That Evening)

After finishing her final day of training with Sayuri and Kakashi, Sakura once again headed to the dilapidated temple. After some consideration, she decided to reveal that she'd learned Tsunade's identity. In Sakura's eyes, it was only fair, and keeping the knowledge a secret wasn't something of which she was probably capable. A seasoned shinobi like Tsunade Senju would easily pick up on the fact that she was hiding something. Plus, if this somehow burned any bridges between herself and the Legendary Sannin, at least it was after their month of training together had ended.

Upon her arrival, Sakura was unsurprised to see that Tsunade had already begun drinking. As per their agreement, she continued to bring her booze in exchange for continued tutelage. The deal seemed fair enough, though Sakura did feel slightly guilty contributing to someone's alcoholism. It reminded her of back in the day when she'd somehow managed to convince her father to stop smoking — a promise he'd stuck to for nearly six years now. She then imagined a world where she hadn't done that and instead enabled him to keep smoking.

'I mean, there's a big difference between alcohol and cigarettes, but still,' Sakura thought to herself as she made her presence known at the temple. Drinking was fine in moderation, at least from a health perspective. However, it was also in violation of the three shinobi prohibitions — those being drinking, lust, and money.

"Don't give me that look," Tsunade commanded — almost as if she could detect what Sakura was thinking. "Now sit down, and let's get to work before I change my mind."

And so, Sakura did just as she was instructed. Given that today was her last day of training before the finals, Tsunade chose to give her a series of tasks to complete to confirm that she'd truly mastered everything she'd learned over the past month. It was with great satisfaction that Sakura completed each of the tasks she'd been assigned — from reviving dead fish to other more…destructive things. However, even more satisfying was the look of pride that Tsunade shot her way when she thought that she wasn't paying attention.

When it was all said and done, Tsunade proposed that they share a drink to celebrate. Obviously, Sakura declined the invitation, as she was underaged and knew for a fact that her parents would skin her hide if they found out. She was already taking enough risks sneaking alcohol as it was. So, in the end, Tsunade opted to knock back two drinks — one for herself and the other on Sakura's behalf.

"I have to say, kid, I didn't expect to run into someone like you during my trip," Tsunade confessed. "It's refreshing to see someone your age taking such an interest in medical ninjutsu."

Sakura blinked in surprise at the unexpected sentimentality, "Thank you, ma'am," she said, nearly accidentally calling Tsunade by her name. "Is it really that rare of a field, though?"

Tsunade shrugged her shoulders, "It's not as bad as it used to be," she explained with a look of remembrance in her eyes. "I mean, I've trained other students before, but you're the first from this newer generation."

Now that Sakura knew who Tsunade was, hearing about the history of medical ninjutsu had significantly more weight behind it. It was hardly an understatement that this woman was solely responsible for revolutionizing medical ninjutsu and its function within the shinobi system. Before Tsunade's recommendations, squads were rarely supported by medics which resulted in a higher death rate per capita. Her efforts saved countless lives, both in the Land of Fire and the other nations that adopted her ideas.

"Speaking of students, I know one who's probably searching for me right now," Tsunade snickered. "I wish that she'd use this time apart as an opportunity to take a break. But I have a feeling that she's more than likely pulling her hair out with worry."

"I didn't know that you had any other students," Sakura remarked. Secretly, she was both disappointed and excited by the news. On the one hand, it felt kind of cool being the only disciple of a living legend. But on the other hand, an opportunity to meet a sibling disciple was something she wouldn't pass up.

Tsunade waved the response off, "No need to get jealous. She's a carryover from back in the day," she explained. "I taught her years ago, and then she started following me around everywhere. Now she's more of my babysitter than anything else."

Imagining some poor woman having to follow Tsunade around and keep her out of trouble brought a smile to Sakura's face. The amount of patience and mental fortitude required for such a job must have been astronomical. It made Sakura all the more eager to meet this woman, as she was sure that it would present opportunities to learn more about both medical ninjutsu and Tsunade's past.

Speaking of which, was now the time for Sakura to bring up what she'd learned? Training for the day was complete, and Tsunade seemed in relatively high spirits, all things considered. She also was buzzed enough to be pleasant but not drunk enough to throw a fit. With that in mind, Sakura mustered up all her courage and cleared her throat.

"Um, there's something that I need to tell you, ma'am," Sakura said, causing Tsunade's head to perk up at the nervous tone of voice. "I know who you are. I figured it out recently, actually."

Tsunade stared back with an unreadable expression. Admittedly, Sakura hadn't been sure of what exactly she'd expected. However, a complete lack of any visible reaction was not something she'd anticipated at all, "Oh yeah?" Tsunade finally replied. She sounded utterly undisturbed by the development. "I suppose that now you're going to ask me a million questions and ruin my buzz."

Relatively speaking, it wasn't that bad of a reaction. Sure, it was clear that Tsunade was less than thrilled by the news, but at no point did she indicate that she was angry or upset. However, what Sakura actually feared most was the possibility of Tsunade refusing to ever speak with or see her again. So, overall, things were looking pretty good.

"I only have one question, really," Sakura admitted before looking Tsunade in the eyes. "Why did you leave the village?"

There was little doubt in Sakura's mind that the question she'd chosen would be the most difficult. Whatever happened in Tsunade's life that forced her into apparent self-imposed exile couldn't have been pleasant. She was a child of war, having fought in the Second Great Shinobi War — the conflict from which she and her comrades acquired their legendary status.

"You're lucky that I like you, kid, because that's the only reason we're even having this conversation right now," Tsunade responded, clearly struggling through some painful feelings and memories. "Sometimes you lose too much, and the only way to fix it is to leave your old life behind. And while I hope that you never have to do the same, I'm sure you'll be able to understand once you're older."

"So why come back after all this time?" Sakura pressed. "Does this old temple not bring back any memories too?"

Upon hearing Sakura's retort, Tsunade observed the run-down temple with thinly veiled regret. It was almost as though she took personal responsibility for the current condition of the grounds. After learning Tsunade's identity, Sakura reached the logical conclusion that the dilapidated temple must have been some sort of ancient Senju shrine.

"This place is very important to my clan — of which I'm the last," Tsunade revealed, all but confirming Sakura's suspicions. "It was here that the Senju and Uchiha made their truce that resulted in the founding of the village."

Seriously? Then one could argue that this place was one of the most historically significant places in the entire country. How in the hell had Sakura never heard of it before? It seemed like something that would have been taught in the Academy, and there was no chance that she would have forgotten. Sakura Haruno didn't forget anything that she'd learned in class.

"For many years, I put this place behind me, along with the rest of the village," Tsunade continued. "But then something brought me back about five years ago, and I've been returning ever since. I suppose I'm too much of a coward to actually step foot in the village again, so this is the closest that I can get to being back home."

Then Sakura asked the obvious question, "What happened five years ago?"

Another touchy subject, no doubt, if Tsunade's reaction was anything to go by, "There was this kid who was really sick," she explained. "So sick that he was actually a danger to everyone around him. Nobody knew how to treat it, so the village sent for me. I was reluctant at first, but they pretty much guilted me into it."

Tsunade then let out a soft chuckle, "That kid ended up saving me as much as I saved him," she confessed with a smile. "He was comatose the entire time, but rescuing him helped me realize much of what I'd forgotten. It reminded me of what it meant to be a medic and a doctor, and ever since, I've been slowly trying to muster up the courage to come back home. I think I'd be happy to see him again and find out what kind of person he's become."

"Then why don't you?" Sakura asked before returning to her feet. "We could go together right now."

Tsunade shook her head, "Not now," she declined. "Not yet."

With a slight frown, Sakura sat back down and pulled her knees to her chest. It was apparent that Tsunade was going through some personal demons, but not being able to help was both painful and disappointing. Maybe Sakura was just being an immature kid by assuming that the solution was as simple as standing up and walking home?

Seeing Sakura so let down immediately flooded Tsunade with guilt. The girl was actually quite similar to Shizune Katō, the woman who previously held the title of being her only student. They were both incredibly sweet and caring people, which made Tsunade wonder if that was a personality type that she gravitated to in her disciples?

"You've been very helpful these past weeks," Tsunade revealed, causing Sakura to perk back up. "Usually, I only stay here for a few days, but you're what's kept me."

Training with Tsunade helped Sakura understand what it felt like to be the star pupil. Being on a team with Naruto and Sayuri basically defaulted her to being third on the priority ladder. However, with Tsunade, there was never any doubt in Sakura's mind that her development was anything other than priority number one. So, to see that her teacher seemed to value their relationship just as much as she did was an incredibly touching moment.

Sakura subtly wiped joyful tears from the corner of her eyes. The duo then sat in comfortable silence for some time. She knew that Tsunade was aware of her match in the tournament tomorrow, but she abstained from asking her to attend. Clearly, her teacher wasn't quite ready to take that next step and return to the village, so Sakura wasn't going to try and force her. Yet, in the back of her mind, she wished for Tsunade to see her victory in person.

Impersonating an Anbu wasn't nearly as difficult as one would expect — at least when one was as skilled as Kabuto Yakushi. After his fruitful investigation at the Orphanage, he decided that much of the information he desired was probably located amidst the village's secure files. Guarding those files was among the many tasks assigned to the Anbu Black Ops, so accessing them was a simple as "replacing" whoever was currently on protection duty.

Once inside the vault, Kabuto pulled out a small flashlight and began rummaging through files. While usually he'd like to take his time and learn as much as possible, he was realistic enough to admit that his time was limited. The Anbu were no joke, so it probably wouldn't take them very long to realize that something was amiss. They were already on high alert because of Orochimaru as it was.

Eventually, Kabuto discovered the files that he'd been looking for. A smile broke out over his face — though no one would be able to see it underneath his mask. While skimming through the text, Kabuto confirmed much of what he already knew — while also learning things he hadn't been aware of. Apparently, after Kabuto left the Orphanage, it was converted into a facility used to house children with exceptional and dangerous abilities. The subject spent most of his childhood there until the incident that resulted in the Orphanage being shut down for good.

"Seems like he had a track record for mischief," Kabuto read with a smile. "And an inability to make friends — how unfortunate."

However, Kabuto then learned that the subject managed to form a bond with a young girl named Yua. It explained that carving that he'd discovered on the girl's bedframe. It was "N + Y FRDS 4EVER" if Kabuto remembered correctly. Yua had apparently taken a liking to the subject when most of the other children ignored or picked on him. She was also the first to contract chakra poisoning during the onset of the incident and the only person that was recorded to have died.

Even Kabuto had to admit that the story was tragic. A young boy — even among other strange and unique children — was ostracized and feared because of the dark power that he contained. Then, a kind girl took pity on him, and the two become fast friends. However, the girl eventually died horrifically when the boy lost control of his power, leaving him alone in the world once more.

While continuing to read, Kabuto came across even more interesting information. One night the girl returned to the Orphanage feeling ill. Her condition quickly took a turn for the worse. Then other children began exhibiting similar symptoms soon after — though to a lesser degree. The Anbu promptly took control of the situation and evacuated the building. They then discovered the subject in the woods nearby, radiating such fearsome chakra that even the Anbu nearly collapsed on sight. It took a squad clothed in hazmat suits to extract the subject and take him to a secure location.

In the meantime, a special facility was built underground on the outskirts of the village. The walls were thick and made from concrete, as well as lined with seals that prevented chakra from escaping. The subject was brought there for treatment, but nothing proved successful. Even a fully healthy adult shinobi could only spend a few minutes around him at a time before contracting chakra poisoning themselves.

Eventually, the village leadership determined that there was only one person capable of treating the subject successfully. Tsunade Senju had both medical prowess and resilient chakra, which made her the perfect candidate. Finding her didn't take that long, and soon attempts were made to acquire her services. However, she rejected financial compensation and only agreed when the Hokage himself came to speak with her.

The subject was progressively treated over a period of several weeks, with Tsunade making steady progress along the way. Eventually, the subject's condition reached a point where other medical staff could finally be allowed in the room with him, and his recovery was ultimately successful. Once the subject's life was saved, Tsunade Senju left the village, and he was soon put under the care and supervision of Jiraiya.

Once he finished learning all that he could, Kabuto put everything back exactly where it belonged. He then proceeded to organize the information onto a timeline so that he could better understand what had happened. By this point, he could safely say that he had a pretty solid grasp of what had gone down five years ago — enough to advance with what he had been planning.

'What an interesting life you've led, Naruto Uzumaki,' Kabuto thought to himself with a smile.

Naruto awoke to see a monster looming over him — a creature filled to the brim with vulgar, bubbling hate that threatened to spill out and stain his bed. And yet, Naruto did not flinch or cower away. He stared the horror directly in the eyes and saw curiosity and longing. This creature — this fiend — saw something in Naruto that reminded it of itself — and Naruto saw the same.

"We have the same eyes," the creature said, its eyes a putrid-green and surrounded by dark rings.

And Naruto, with eyes as blue as the sky, inclined his head in agreement, "We do."

What did it say about Naruto, that he was able to see so much of himself reflected in the eyes of a monster? Did that mean that he was a monster as well? Or did it mean that this monster was a human draped in a veneer of evil?

"Your teammate is the same," the creature continued. "I'll kill her first, and then you."

Almost immediately, Naruto sprang into action. He manifested a chakra kunai in his hand and attempted to slash the creature across the face. However, before his attack could reach, a tendril of sand wrapped tightly around his wrist like a snake. The bone snapped audibly before Naruto was thrown across his apartment, slamming into the wall and knocking over furniture.

The pain in his arm rang like a shrine bell and roused Naruto out of his half-asleep mania. He immediately recognized the "monster" that he had been speaking to as Gaara from the Chūnin Exams. Sand continued to swell around his midnight intruder threateningly as if promising death. Images of Kabuto being crushed into a wet pulp ran through Naruto's mind and served as a reminder that this opponent was not to be underestimated.

Instead of stalling for time or attempting to flee, Naruto manifested two chakra chains from his lower back that whipped at Gaara with blinding speed. The chains managed to coil around Gaara's body, though a thick layer of sand prevented any damage from being done. The two boys now stood at a stalemate — and much as they had mere moments ago, they stared into each other's eyes with frightening intensity.

"When I mentioned your teammate, your eyes changed," Gaara observed. "So, we're not the same after all? I love only myself and fight only for myself. Your love for your teammate makes you weak and vulnerable — like an insect waiting to be crushed."

"If I'm like you say, why don't you kill me right now?" Naruto countered.

The chains that wrapped around Gaara's defense were steadily tightening. With each squeeze, the sand surrounding him became more compact, progressively pressing against his body in an uncomfortable display. The sound was akin to a shovel scraping against hard soil, and the crumbling of Gaara's defense seemed almost like an inevitability.

And yet, throughout it all, Gaara retained stony eye contact, "I was born a monster. I exist to kill every human besides myself. My existence will never vanish."

Just as he finished, the chains ripped through the sand, and Gaara was ground into a cloud of dust. As Naruto watched the particles of sand float out from his window in the evening breeze, he realized that there were no blood or human remains whatsoever. So, unless Gaara was literally made of sand — which was definitely a possibility — then it was more than likely that the monstrous boy had managed to escape using a substitution.

With the crisis having now been wholly averted, Naruto was finally free to focus entirely on the pain shooting through his arm. He winced in pain before unceremoniously plopping down onto the floor, "I can't catch a damn break," he growled to himself as he gripped his trembling appendage.

'Cut it off, and the pain will go away.'

Naruto shook off the violent remark and stood back to his feet. Sleep would more than likely elude him, but he returned to his bed regardless. Tomorrow morning would be the final exam — a welcome end from a month of suffering and torment. He was excited to test his new skills and focus on something other than the dark thoughts swirling around inside of his head. However, more than anything else, he found himself excited to see Sayuri again.

'If she knew the truth, she'd hate you like everyone else.'

That was a lie. It had to be. Otherwise, Naruto had no idea what he would do.

The streets of the Hidden Leaf village were like a maze for Dosu Kinuta as he fled for his life. His demeanor reflected that of utter exhaustion, indicating that he had been running for some time. On his way back to his hotel, he had been attacked by a hulking figure without provocation. Initially, Dosu assumed that it was a Leaf shinobi attempting to kill or capture him due to his association with Orochimaru. However, he soon found himself wishing that was the case when he realized that his pursuer was Han from the Hidden Stone team.

For the life of him, Dosu couldn't think of a reason why Han would seek to kill him. Before tonight, they'd never so much as interacted with one another. Yet, for obvious reasons, he hadn't been granted an opportunity to ask. And even if he did, it wasn't like he'd get an answer anyway, seeing as Han was about as talkative as a brick wall.

Suddenly, he felt an overwhelming force slam into the ground behind him and immediately made to flee. He felt no need to look over his shoulder as he felt the behemoth of a man nipping at his heels. The sheer chakra emanating from Han was unreal, reminding Dosu of his encounter with Sayuri Uchiha in the Forest of Death, where he barely escaped with his life.

As he finally reached the outskirts of the village, Dosu began to weave through trees and hide within shadows. And yet, despite all his best efforts, he still failed to shake off Han. At this point, Dosu was considering stopping to fight, but based on what he'd seen during the preliminary matches, he knew that he would stand no chance in a fight.

However, Dosu soon wasn't given much of a choice when a rough hand grabbed the back of his head and slammed him onto the ground — hard. The impact took the breath out of his lungs and left him feeling completely dazed. When Dosu was finally able to see, he saw a large boot hovering over his head, and his blood ran cold. Before he could make any move to defend himself, Han slammed his boot down and crushed his skull like a watermelon.

Han watched dispassionately as blood and brain matter oozed onto the grass underfoot. The killing wasn't anything personal, but Dosu had made the fatal mistake of getting between him and what he wanted. Was he honestly expected to wait until the second round of the finals to get his fight with Uzumaki? There was little doubt in his mind what the outcome of that match would have been, but he wasn't keen on waiting any longer than he needed to.

Out of nowhere, a new voice spoke out from the darkness, "We're supposed to be working with those guys. You know?"

"I don't care," Han replied, not even turning around to address the new presence directly.

The hidden spectator was revealed to be Deidara, who was casually leaning against a tree as though he hadn't just witnessed a gruesome murder. He'd always known Han to be a thoughtless beast, so to see him assassinating one of their new allies came as no surprise. Still, he could have at least tried to do it with some theatrics. Crushing someone's head underfoot was pretty barbaric — even for a shinobi.

Deidara smiled teasingly, "So did he glance in your general direction or something?" he asked, knowing how comically easy it was to get on Han's bad side.

Predictably, Deidara's question went unanswered, "Well, I hope you don't expect me to help you clean this up," he said.

Luckily, Orochimaru didn't seem like the kind of man who would throw a fit over one of his underlings getting whacked.


Thanks for reading. Next chapter is the final exam.