Riderofdragons: Hey all. Well finals are at last over with and I've poured all the ideas that have built up into this chapter, so I hope you enjoy this super sized update. If you're a returning reader, you might have noticed that I changed the summery of the story. The reason is that I fell the story is changing from what I originally intended and wanted it to reflect that. Hopefully I didn't confuse anyone to badly. As for my two cohorts…they went and graduated without me. So, unfortunately, I haven't seen them much recently cause of life taking us in different directions and they couldn't join in this time. Ok, I doubt you guys care at this point. I'll let you get on with the story. Catch you at the end.
Disclaimer 1) I do not own Naruto. Seriously, I wouldn't be living in a communal dorm if I had that kind of money.
Disclaimer 2) I do not own the lyrics/music to Softly I Sing. I found it over on under an independent artist by the name of Hania. I love her stuff for some reason and decided to use it since it fit nicely into what I envisioned in my head.
A Shinobi's Decision
Chapter Fifteen: Nindo
"What do you mean they already started the practical application portion of the exam?" Asuma, for the first time anyone could remember, was livid. "There are procedures that are to be followed if the exam makeup is changed!"
Mao stepped up and faced Asuma with no signs of being intimidated. "It's our choice how we test the little maggots when they're on our turf." Her lip curled ever so slightly in challenge. "The way you react, is 'pinky' on your team?"
"No, she would be a member of my team." Kakashi leaned against a wall to the left. His good eye didn't leave Mao for a second and his copy of Icha Icha Paradise was no where to be seen. "Why do you ask?" He kept his tone as neutral as possible, though he was in much the same rage as Asuma was at the moment. "Has something happened to her?"
"Not yet." Mao replied, though she remained locked in her staring contest with the smoking jounin. "At least she was ok when we sent them into the gorge."
"The gorge?" Kurenai's striking crimson eyes darted to the window. "You mean where the storm is centered now?" She crossed her arms over her chest as a deep frown appeared on her normally kind features. "I understand the need to make sure they can survive in any situation, but that is a callous choice of testing means. Evenjounin would have to be extremely cautious in that."
"What about you spandex man?" Mao asked as she and Asuma seemed near ready to begin a physical altercation since their staring contest reached a stalemate. "You going to yell about this test too?"
"This exam." Gai sat on the floor in a cross-legged position, his voice was uncharacteristically low and calm. "I have no objection to it at all."
Kurenai spun and glared at her fellow shinobi. "Gai! How can you…"
Mao blinked as she suddenly found Gai in between her and Asuma. She began to sweat nervously as Gai took her hand firmly in her own.
"I believe this exam will be the ultimate test of Lee, Neji, and Ten-ten's youth!" Gai proclaimed loudly.
Mao had very little doubt that she would have face faulted from the outburst were it not for the man's inhuman grip on her hand. "Well then, at least…"
"The means by which you set up that test however…" Gai's voice became serious in tone once more. "Was most unyouthful."
Mao frowned. "Unyouthful? What the hell does that even mean?" She broke Gai's hold on her and took a step back cautiously. "One of you can translate from baka to normal right?"
"All participant's jounin-sensei are to be notified of any changes to the exam." Asuma repeated. "Your council didn't follow those guidelines."
"Maybe your scrolls just got lost in the mail." Mao turned around and walked back to her desk.
Kakashi's eyebrow raised slightly. "Along with everyone else out there?" He motioned his thumb to the closed door where he knew a number of otherjounin from various villages were waiting for their chance to speak with Mao.
Thekumo-jounin shrugged. "Guess the level of our mail-bird handlers has slipped in recent years."
Kakashi gave a curt nod. "Yeah, that must be it." He pushed of the wall and began to cross the room toward the exit. "I have no doubt my team will make it through this exam." He paused right at the nexus of the room and looked back over his shoulder, his eye clearly targeted on Mao. "However, I expect to be notified of any more changes to the exam schedule immediately Raikuro. I believe that is still my right as a Sensei."
Mao's lip twitched ever so slightly. "Of course. I'll have the scrolls sent to your rooms at once."
Kakashi turned away and opened the door to the hallway. He didn't look back, but he knew the others were following him. The sight of shinobi from other villages filled his vision. "This is going to get really bad, really quickly." He muttered to himself.
"You can say that again."
Asuma turned as he heard the familiar voice. "Shikamaru?" He motioned the entire group to keep walking forward away from prying persons. "Where have you been?"
The pineapple haired chunin yawned and scratched the side of his nose. "I was out watching the clouds. Where else would I be?"
Asuma quickly shot the other jounin wary glances. Shikamaru's answer was too long. "You'd usually say 'It's to troublesome to explain'."
Shikamaru shrugged. "Yeah, but there were some really interesting clouds out today. So I'm feeling nice and refreshed."
Kakashi's eye rolled slowly towards Shikamaru and then to Asuma. It seemed the boy had discovered something of great importance.
Kurenai also caught the undertones of the conversation. "The clouds were really big then?"
"Bigger than you could imagine." Shikamaru replied with a yawn. "Or maybe you could, and that's why you had us stare at the ground the whole way here?"
Gai frowned. "We felt it would be best if you all saw where it was you were going. We did not want you to trip."
This time, Shikamaru frowned. "We're perfectly capable of walking on our own. It's not like we'd get lost with our heads in the clouds."
Asuma sighed, but smiled slightly. "Not all shinobi are as adept at cloud watching as you are Shikamaru."
"Mendokusei…"Shikamaru shoved his hands in his pockets. "The winds are changing rapidly. I should go write about the clouds I saw before they change shape."
Kakashi nodded. "It's been a while since I last watched the sky. I think I'll join you." The four jounin and one chunin exited the Raikage's office building and quickly blended into the crowd of people on the street, vanishing from sight.
He didn't say anything. He couldn't say anything. All he could do was stare and feel the millions of tears forming in his heart caused by the fear in her eyes. At last he did the only thing he could do, something he swore he'd never do again in his life. He ran.
The coming storm didn't concern him, and Sakura's screaming of his name only fueled him to go faster. He couldn't take that pain right now. He had thought he could take it. That he'd be able to deal with whatever came next so long as Sakura was alive and safe.
He landed hard on the branch of a tall tree. Slowly, red transitioned back to cerulean as his false strength left him and he fell to his knees from both the physical and emotional exhaustion. For the first time since he had come to know his friends and begin to trust them as family, Naruto cried in earnest. "The damn fox was right…" He murmured softly. "I am going to be all alone again." He stiffened as something landed with a heavy thump on the branch beside him. He looked up and saw a falcon masked ANBU looking down at him.
"You should rejoin your team." The ANBU spoke. "It's dangerous for a weak gennin like you to be on your own out here."
Naruto blinked as the ANBU speed off again and quickly vanished from sight. "What the hell is ANBU doing out here?" Naruto forgot about his self-pity as he began to wonder about this new development. He crossed his legs and sat on the branch, head bent forward in thought. "Hebi-teme already has Sasuke, so there wouldn't be any reason for him to infiltrate this exam." He paused as he remembered Kakashi telling him about Anko's one-time apprenticeship to the snake-sannin. "Unless he's looking for someone to replace Sasuke with when the time comes." He shook his head. "Ero-sennin said we have at least two more years before that happens. So at least five before he needs a new apprentice."
Closing his eyes, Naruto entered the meditation state that Kakashi had taught him. Naruto would never be the strategist that Shikamaru or Kakashi could be. Nor would he ever have the vast repository of knowledge that Ero-sennin and the old man had at his disposal. Naruto knew he would always be heavy on earth and light on heaven, but Kakashi's training had made him much better than he had used to be.
"What other threats could require ANBU involvement?" He whispered as his mind began to expand in search of answers. "Akatsuki?" His brows furrowed. Gaara and he were both here, two targets for the price of one. "Not to mention the others Garra mentioned…" He whispered. "There may be three or four of us here now." He shook his head. "But they would have made their move already." He swallowed hard. "Wouldn't they?"
"Neji." He turned his mental eye in a new direction as he recalled the Hyuuga's first memories of Kumo. "Hinata and Hanabi. Could ANBU be looking for them? And if so, to help them or hurt them?" Naruto grit his teeth. The thought of anyone hurting his friends, even the little brat, made his blood boil. In a sense they were no different from him at the moment. Being hunted for something that was hidden within them. "I have to protect them…" He whispered. "Even if…" He shook his head, it was already done. He couldn't put the fox back in the bag now. "I will be Hokage…I will keep my precious people safe…no matter the cost to me."
Blue eyes snapped open and Naruto jumped to his feet with surprising speed. He looked back the way he had come, and sweat a little. "Going to take longer without using the Kitsune's power…" He realized aloud as he pulled his head band tighter. He slapped his face with both hands simultaneously, the slight sting fully pulling him from his thoughts and back into reality. "Yosh!" He pumped chakra into his legs and feet propelling him faster and faster through the trees.
In his newfound determination he failed to notice his observer. He brushed a few stray pink hairs out of his eyes and grinned triumphantly. "Now things will really get interesting." He whispered in an amused tone before he vanished in burst of white fire.
As Naruto neared the cave he left the others in, the storm fell down around him. Naruto looked up as a bright bolt of light raced toward him, and he smiled. The bolt lanced through the boy and into the tree behind him with a shower of sparks, only for the afterimage to fade out of existence a moment later. Naruto grinned as he reappeared almost a kilometer up from where the lightening was.
He raced through the trees almost carelessly, somehow always able to remain a step ahead of the deadly electric masses. Something below him caught his eye and he quickly found cover in the trees. Squinting his eyes to try and get a better view of things he identified a team of ninja pathetically huddled under a make shift tarp. He recalled Mao's words from earlier about the gorge and sighed. Figuring the team was in bad enough shape Naruto decided to leave them and be on his way, until he caught sight of their hitai-ate. "Kumo-nin…" He whispered as his face took on a stony determined look. "Gomen-ne."
Focusing chakra into his hands and feet Naruto began to climb down the trees quickly until he reached the muddy ground. The plan he came up with was simple and direct and he quickly set it in motion as he raised his hands into the cross-shaped seal. "Kage Bunshin no jutsu." He whispered as the technique gave rise to two new Naruto's. At the same time all three Naruto's brought their hands up into a new set of seals. "Henge no jutsu."
The unfortunate cloud gennin didn't know what was happening around them as each was attacked and restrained by a masked ANBU. The falcon masked ANBU went after the most physically intimidating of the three cloud shinobi. Falcon quickly tackled to the boy to the ground and pulled his arm back and around into a shoulder lock. If the boy even moved and inch Falcon could dislocate his shoulder and snap his collar bone. He stepped onto the boys remaining hand, just in case he knew anything about one handed seals.
Thekunoichi fared no better as the dog masked ANBU slammed her into a near by tree. He spun her quickly around to get her back and grasped her hands with one of his own. Dog's other hand circled around her throat and applied pressure with his fingertips to her windpipe. He used his body weight to keep her pinned against the tree.
The third cloud ninja received the worst of the three as the Fox masked ANBU unleashed a strong spinning back kick into his chin. As the boy fell backwards Fox continued to spin and grabbed the kumo-nin's shoulders and slammed him down into a seated position. Fox then grabbed the man's hands and held them high over his head with one hand. A kunai flashed briefly before coming to rest at the man's throat. "Cooperate and you'll live through this." Fox ordered.
Falcon's captive struggled for a moment. "Who the hell are you guys? ANBU has no reason to be in this area!"
Falcon applied a bit more pressure into his lock, instantly silencing the man. "ANBU goes where it must."
"What is the status of the operation?" Dog asked, though to no one in particular.
"Operation?" Fox's captive looked around at his team's predicament. "What the hell are you talking about? The only thing going on is the exam…" His voice trailed off as the kunai cut into his skin just a little.
"I can feel your muscles twitch every time you lie." Fox informed the his captive in a cold, monotone voice. He continued quickly before they had a chance to call his bluff. "Do not lie to me again. Again, what is the status of the operation?"
Dog's prisoner glanced nervously from the masked man before her to her two teammates. "Honestly…I don't know anything about what you're…" Her voice trailed off as more pressure was felt on her wind pipe.
"Stop!" Falcon's prisoner struggled to help his teammate to no avail. "In my pouch…there's a scroll for the exam! A good one! Take it and leave her alone!"
Falcon reached into the pouch and gripped the scroll. "You think this is what we're after?" He threw the document far off into the surrounding foliage. "Tell us what Mao has planned!"
"We don't know what Mao's job was." Fox's prisoner finally admitted. "We were only told to stay away from the white eyed ones from Leaf."
"Why?" Fox demanded.
The three ANBU looked at each other for a minute before nodding slightly. They released their prisoners only long enough to deliver a series of knife-edge strikes to the base of their skulls, knocking thekumo-gennin cold. Turning from the downed ninja they ran into the forest again. Falcon scooped up the scroll he had tossed away earlier and threw it to Fox. As they ran through the rain, Dog and Falcon vanished in clouds of smoke while Fox changed back into Naruto.
The blonde shook his head as realization set in. He had gotten what he wanted, more than what he expected really, but the way he had done it left a sour taste in his mouth. He had not planned to really hurt the Cloud team, but he had made them believe he would. He had even used the girl to push them over the edge, something he had been ready to kill Gaara for when he had done that to Sakura. Naruto shivered as he realized that his way of life, his nindo, had a significant flaw. He stopped dead in the middle of his run and looked up at the sky as rain continued to pelt his face. "In order to protect my precious people, I might have to hurt people who are precious to others." He spoke softly. The scroll was slipped silently into his satchel as Naruto resumed his run back to the cave.
As the make shift hideout came into view Naruto reduced his speed and waited, not at all looking forward to having to face Sakura. He waited until the last possible minute as the storm intensified around him before racing toward the cave. Making a reckless leap from the cover of the trees as a shower of lightening bolts threatened to do him in Naruto tumble rolled into the safety of the cave.
"Naruto!" Sakura ran from the small fire she had built towards the mess of orange limbs that lay on the floor of the small cavern. "Where did you…How did you…Are you…"
Naruto grinned, finding he didn't have to force himself as much as he thought he would, as Sakura stumbled for questions. He reached into his satchel and pulled out the scroll. "I found one, but you should make sure it's good."
"Naruto…" Sakura stared at the held out document. "You…"
Naruto sat up quickly and rose to his feet. He knew that tone all to well, Sakura wanted to ask something but didn't know how, and he got the feeling it wasn't something he wanted to deal with right now. "Sai!" He called as he walked deeper to the cave.
"I don't care." Sakura whispered at the blonde's back, smiling weakly as Naruto stopped suddenly. "I don't know what you did." She continued slowly. "You saved us. Whatever secret you have…I don't care. So if you want to keep it a secret that's ok." She swallowed hard. "But you're my teammate, and my friend. I trust you and hope you trust me. If you ever want to talk…"
"You should check out that scroll for now." Naruto interrupted, his voice barely able to be heard. "This is…" He shook his head. "Never mind, thanks Sakura-chan." The orange clothed ninja continued to walk, not looking back at his friend. "Sai! Did you send those rats of yours into the cave?"
Sai nodded and held up a new map. "There are many passages. It would be easy to get lost."
Sakura frowned slightly as she watched the two boys begin to talk. She had seen Naruto do this before. When he didn't want to address something, he found something else to do to get out of it. It cut deeper than she thought it would, seeing as Naruto had never used this approach on her before. Following Naruto's example, Sakura looked down at the scroll's contents and began to analyze it for it's validity.
"You never change it seems."
His eyebrow twitched ever so slightly as the other man spoke. He had sensed his presence a few minutes ago, but he knew from experience that he had to let his informant make the first move lest his pride become bruised. Closing his small notebook, he turned away from the hole in the wall of the hot spring's resort. His geta, possibly the nosiest shoes ever designed, made no sound even against the hard stone surface of the walkway as he began to move down the street. Jiraiya glanced skyward, a sign they had agreed on long ago to ensure they knew who the other was, before he began his task. "What have you got for me?"
The man's voice traveled out from seemingly everywhere and nowhere. "There are three teams here."
The toad-sannin frowned deeply. "Three? Why the hell are there three here now?"
Jiraiya swallowed hard. "Don't tell me…"
The novelist hung his head slightly. "What the hell Tsunade?" He grumbled. "You were supposed to keep the brat in Konoha." He sighed. "You could have at least sent word that to me he'd be here so I know to look out for him."
"I believe there was more to her actions than simply giving the boy room to move." The man replied, his voice still calm. "I have watched him for a short time. He is…different."
"Different how?" Jiraiya stopped at a small food stand and purchased a portion of yakitori, as well as a few prepackaged items. He moved on and bit at the chicken only to burn his tongue. "The seal?"
"Yes, and no."
"It can't be both." The older man griped quietly. He didn't care how skilled his informant was, there was something about the non-answers his generation favored that got on Jiraiya's nerves.
"Hisoriginal seal is intact." The man replied. "But he seems to have learn afuuinjutsu for himself."
Jiraiya's eyebrow raised in shock at this. "Who taught him?"
"I don't know." The man's voice was low, as though he hated to be ill informed of anything. "Sealing techniques are not my specialty, nor was he under my watch whenever he was taught. I only know because of what I've seen of him just recently."
"And what is it you have seen?" Jiraiya asked as he sat on a bench along the street. There was a long pause that almost made Jiraiya think he had lost his informant. He pulled a small item from his bag and placed it on the bench beside him, though he didn't let go of it. "You wouldn't have brought it up if you didn't have more."
At last the man's voice returned. "As I said, he is different. To be more precise, he is changing."
"How?" Jiraiya heard the faint rustle of fabric, and indication that his spy was shaking his head. Jiraiya's frown deepened, as he knew it was an action the man rarely performed.
"Again, I do not know the specifics." His voice came slow. "But it has to do with his chakra somehow. The way in which he moves it has changed greatly. It is almost…sluggish in it's control. Like a dam has been put into place."
"I'll have to look into it." Jiraiya took his hands off the small cardboard box he held and a moment later it vanished completely. He almost laughed. "Still quite the sweet-tooth."
"Hn." Came the muffled reply. "I will keep you informed as I am able."
"Of course." Jiraiya nodded. He waited a few minutes more until he felt his spy's presence fade away. Resting his elbows on his knees he leaned forward and continued to eat his yakitori while deep in thought. "This…is really lousy." He muttered as he stood and threw the majority of his meal away. "Honestly, how can someone who runs business like that serve such lousy food." Walking slowly up the street, he failed to notice the scantily dress women trying to entice him into the bars. "I should go find my student's protégé."
Sakura tapped Sai on the shoulder as they came to a juncture point deep with in the caverns. "Why does the map end so suddenly in this area?"
Naruto glanced at the mentioned area and scratched his head as if thinking about it for the first time. "Maybe the rats ran out of chakra?"
"No, that's not it." Sai responded curtly. "It's an anti-detection measure." He turned a level stare at Naruto. "And they're mice."
"A what?" Naruto asked cluelessly, completely ignoring Sai's issue with the mice/rat naming.
"A recon technique doesn't do you an good if someone sees it." Sakura nodded. "So, some other team must have found there way into the caves." She thought for a minute. "Can you send some more mice down that way. To act as sentries to alert us as they get nearer."
Sai nodded. "Keep look out. This will take a moment."
Sakura lifted her emergency flare above her head and looked around. The walls took on the red-orange color of her light source, but gave very little in terms of revealing illumination. Still, she was glad they had at least that. With the rains coming so suddenly there was no dry wood to make torches with, and their small fire from earlier had already consumed what few branches she had been able to gather. She hoped that they found their way through these tunnels before they burned through all four of her emergency flares. She dreaded the thought of being down here in the dark. He eyes drifted towards Naruto again as they had so many times in the past few hours. "Then again, maybe that wouldn't be so bad." She blushed brightly as she considered the innuendo of the thought. "I mean, he would think we were going to die and he'd tell me the truth about…" Her inner monologue stopped as she watched the blonde move about the cave.
Naruto was having a hard time adjusting to the caves. It wasn't that he couldn't see, in actuality he could see too well. He had always had fairly decent night vision, but now it seemed like his eyes picked up any stray speck of light thrown by Sakura's flare and enhanced it. It wasn't perfect, but he had seen well enough that he could navigate them past a few pitfalls he was sure he would have never seen in the past. On top of that was the smells. There were moments he felt like he was choking on the odors of the cave. The wet soil, the stagnant water, the mold and dust, Sai's ink, even Sakura's perfume threatened to overwhelm him. It made no sense to the young gennin.
"They are in place." Sai informed his team. "The mice will dissolve if the unknown team comes too close to them and the information will relay to the map."
Sakura frowned. "So we can't get an exact fix on their position?"
Naruto shrugged. "Better some warning than none right?" He turned as he heard something scratching somewhere down the corridor. "You hear that?"
Sakura blinked and directed her flare toward Naruto. "Hear what?"
Sai's eyes narrowed slightly as he saw the blonde grit his teeth. "Have the caves began to trick your senses?"
Naruto was slow to answer the question. He hadn't considered the idea that there might be something in the caves that effected his sight and sense of smell, it wasn't hard to believe that there something to effect his hearing as well. "And if it's effecting me…" He whispered. "Why wouldn't it effect them?"
"Naruto?" Sakura inched closer to the boy, concerned that maybe he had a fever from going off into the rain. "You feeling ok?"
Naruto held up his hand to stop Sakura's movement as he heard the noise again. His head cocked from side to side as he tried to pinpoint where it came from or what could cause that type of scratching, like millions of little, metal, barbs being dragged against stone. "Are there any genjutsu in the area?" He asked quietly.
Sakura handed the flare to Sai and quickly formed the needed seal. "Kai." Her attention returned to Naruto, slightly distressed to see him still trying to listen for something only he seemed capable of detecting. "Are we under attack?"
"I don't think so." Naruto whispered. He brought his hand up and made a few quick gestures.
Sai recognized the moves instantly, though he wondered where Naruto had learned them. He looked over to Sakura and saw she recognized the hand signals as well. "This will certainly change things." He thought silently. "I didn't expect them to know such means of communication. What else have their files omitted?"
Sakura nodded as she broke down Naruto's silent commands. Taking back the flare she fell back into line behind Naruto and felt, more than saw, Sai take up the position behind her. She held the light source slightly off to the side of her body to let the light curve around Naruto's body and give him more visible area to follow.
Sai pulled out one of his prepared scrolls and broke the opening tab of the parchment. If they were attacked all he'd need do is push some chakra into his paintings and they'd have a small army backing them up. He'd rather not reveal that particular aspect of his art just yet, better for Sakura and Naruto to think he was only capable of recon work for now.
Naruto moved with his usual confidence, quickly navigating around the small stalagmites and sinkholes, leading his team along the safe path. He didn't know why he could see as well as he could, but he wasn't going to complain at this point. He paused as he heard the sound again and quickly motioned down the right most tunnel that they came to. Naruto licked his lips slightly, only now realizing they were dry. They continued through the near dark for a few minutes longer when the sounds became more distinct. The same metal barb sound but now there was also something else accompanying it. Like bone scraping on rock, but at more timed intervals than the metal barbs. He brought them to a stop and signed to Sai. "Map." He looked over the scroll a moment and pointed at an area were the drawing ended abruptly.
"No more chakra." Sai signed.
Naruto sighed. The other team in the area must have changed direction and were using tunnels that the rats hadn't had a chance to explore. He handed back the map and signed quickly. "Defense."
Sakura nodded her acknowledgment of the order. She had to consciously remind herself not to reach for the scroll in her satchel. They had their ticket to the next portion of the exam, but that just meant they were an even bigger target until they got to the checkpoint. She signed back to Naruto. "Counter attack?"
Naruto shook his head and motioned for them to resume their movement. For the next half an hour they moved through the shadows of the cave tracking the sound. A few times it was even necessary to retreat the way they came as the sounds would begin to move closer to them suddenly. In those instances it had seemed the hunters had become the hunted, but nothing had discovered them nor vise versa. Naruto was nearly ready to call an end to the game of cat and mouse when the odor hit him. He pushed Sakura and Sai to the ground as they nearly walked over the drop off.
Sakura shot Naruto a look that was a mixture of question and death threat. She glanced into the drop off but could see nothing. She signed to Naruto. "Target?"
"Unconfirmed." Naruto signed back before looking over the edge. He could barely make out the three figures, two male and one female, which he relayed to the others via signs. It was the smells that confused him, rotten eggs, wet-dog, and…vanilla mixed with lavender? His eyes lit as he realized who it must be. He motioned for Sakura and Sai to remain silent as he moved away from the edge slowly and flipped onto his back. "Kage bunshin no jutsu." He barely whispered.
To say she was confused would have been an understatement as Sakura watched her teammate's clone run off into the darkness. "What are you doing?" She signed franticly. "Enemy?"
Sai nodded in understanding as he signed. "Verify."
Naruto nodded as he waited patiently. Once again, he motioned for them to remain quiet. A moment later his voice was heard at the opposite side of the cavern.
"The old monkey likes to read…" Began the clone.
A man's voice picked up a second later. "Within the leaves that reflect the fire's light."
Sakura blinked and leaned up over the edge. "Shino?" She called uncertainly.
Gruff laughter was heard a moment later. "Naruto? You up there?"
Naruto laughed back. "Yep! It was your smell that let me figure out who you were Kiba!"
"Shut up!" Kiba almost barked. "I do not smell!"
Naruto laughed again and jumped over the edge. "You do! Like a wet dog! When was the last time you washed that coat?"
Sai forced a smile to his face and turned to Sakura. "It seems he found us some allies."
Sakura nodded slowly. "But how did he know?" She kept the thought to herself as she leapt down.
"Sakura-chan?" Hinata's voice whispered through the darkness. "Daishoubu?"
Sakura almost asked how Hinata could see the look on her face before she remembered who she was talking to. "Fine, just fine. You guys?"
"Feel like we're running in circles." Complained Kiba. "Thought we had it all figured out, but can't make heads or tails of this damn network." He shot a glare at Naruto. "Must have been you guys that made us have to keep changing our plans."
"Hey! We thought you were enemies too!" Naruto shot back. "Just be thankful we didn't decide to just take you out right from the start!"
Theinu-nin stepped up to the blonde at the remark. "Think you can?" Kiba challenged.
"Know I can!" Naruto stood toe to toe with the other man.
"Ahem." Shino cleared his throat. "This is pointless."
"Got that right." Sakura huffed.
Hinata watched as Sai sat on the ground and began to paint. "Ano…what are you doing?"
Sai's fake smile once again appeared. "I am going to try to finish the map of the caverns."
Hinata watched him a moment more before her attention diverted else where. The sole reason for her discovery was the lack of light in the caves that forced her to keep her Byakugan active. "Naruto-kun?"
"What is it Hinata?"
Hinata almost gasped as she saw the boy turn to look directly at her. He didn't turn in her general direction, he focused immediately on her. She wondered how he could pinpoint her so easily in the darkness, but shook her thought away. "Did you have any kind of trouble before you arrived in these caves?" She frowned a little as she watched Naruto shrug his shoulders but didn't elaborate anything more. "Oh…I see." She smiled at him shyly. "It just looked like you were a little…worn out."
Naruto shook his head. "Never better." He smiled back, no need to tell her all the things he was trying to work out right now. Looking around briefly, Naruto pointed towards a tunnel at the other side of the room. "Come on, we should see if we can find a way out of here."
Kiba nodded. "Team up for now?"
Sakura nodded. "I don't see why not."
"Kiba and Hinata should lead." Shino suggested as he began to walk towards the door. "Naruto and Sakura after that. Sai and I will take the final position."
"Not to fond of being down wind of Kiba." Naruto grumbled semi-playfully.
"Let it go." Kiba growled slightly. "You're smelling a little musky yourself."
Hinata smiled weakly as she took her spot in the formation. Her attention drifted to Naruto once more before they set out. "His chakra flow…" She thought quietly. "His entire chakra network has been altered…" She shook her head, recalling the last time she had seen something like this. "He's always had more chakra than the rest of us, but why would his coils change now?"
Sasuke stood in the trees, staring at the cave the he had seen Naruto enter hours ago. "Why?" He whispered angrily. "He was right there in front of me. I could have done something." His fist shot out and slammed against the tree. "Something…" Turning his back on the cave, Sasuke began his trip back to the village, still ranting slightly to himself.
"It's not like I even had to kill him." He grumbled. "All I would have had to do was use my Sharingan and trap him in a genjutsu before he had time to react." His chakra spiked as his temper began to flare. "He would have been nice and occupied out of the way. If I got lucky, maybe another team of shinobi would have found him while he was still confused and killed him for me. Then I wouldn't have had to worry about Orochimaru or Itachi. I wouldn't have to deal with the damn snake wanting me to kill Naruto, and I'd have to find some other way to gain power since following his directions on how to gain Mangekkyou Sharingan!" He landed on the branch with such force that his imitation Falcon ANBU mask fell from his face. With and angry yell he lashed out, catching the mask with a roundhouse kick that sent it deep into the underbrush.
Sasuke stood there, staring hard at where the mask had gone and breathing hard. "Damn it…" He muttered after a few minutes. "Damn itdobe…" His right hand rested on his hip while his left hand came up to his face. He closed his eyes and chucked humorlessly. "What have you done to medobe?" Black eyes opened slowly and his head tilted up to the sky. "It was raining that day too, wasn't it? Or was it just the waterfall?" He shook his head a moment later. "No, it was the rain. I couldn't do it then, and the first time seeing you since then…I still couldn't do it."
Jumping down from the trees to the muddy soil Sasuke retrieved the dirty, and now cracked, mask. "A shinobi is to have no emotions." He whispered. "A shinobi is a tool, and does not pursue his own endeavors." It was a lesson they taught at the academy, and Sasuke was pretty sure the nuke-nin Zabuza had said something similar to them. "I suppose then… that I am a ninja and not a shinobi." He held the mask out at arms length and let the rain clean the dirt from the mask before donning it once more. Without another word Sasuke ran deeper into the forested gorge, leaving only his muddy foot prints behind.
"I honestly didn't expect you of all people to show up." Kakashi sighed and closed his book. "I am grateful however, I get the feeling we'll need the extra help if things get as bad as I think they will get."
Jiraiya frowned. "Why are you expecting things to get bad?"
Kakashi turned his head ever so slightly towards the older shinobi. "Tsunade-sama didn't inform you?"
"Inform me of what?"
Kakashi sighed again. "We should go get something to eat." He stood from his sentry station outside the Raikage's office building and tapped at the collar he wore. "We have an unexpected ally in the area. We're going for a debriefing." He whispered into the small microphone. He nodded as he received a series of responses in his earpiece from the other jounin.
Jiraiya listened as they walked. The mention of food was a ruse, any ninja past a gennin would know that. Still the information that Kakashi supplied him with was not what he expected, or needed, at the moment. "Forget food." He muttered. It was mostly to let Kakashi know he had information to exchange as well, but there was a faint hint of honesty in his tone. "I'd rather have a drink after leaning all this."
Kakashi kept his eye on the ground as Jiraiya passed along the information gathered by his spy. It really was the worst possible timing, and his thoughts went straight to the safety of his team. "Any idea who they are?"
Jiraiya shook his head, but handed over a scroll. "These are all the members I've been able to identify so far, as well as who they are reported to be partnered up with." He rubbed the back of his neck. "Of course, their latest whereabouts are also supposed to be in there but that's clearly false…" He grumbled something about needing to go out to maintain his spy network better. "So there is a possibility that there is errors in that info as well." He walked silently down the street a while longer. "He will be here though."
"Your informant listed the team for the Kyuubi specifically." Kakashi nodded. "Asuma's fought Hoshigaki Kisame before, he'll be able to handle him especially with Kurenai to back him up."
"And you, Gai, and myself will focus on Uchiha Itachi." Jiraiya nodded.
Kakashi glanced at Jiraiya. "Assuming that those are the ones we fight."
"They should be the only once we have to concern ourselves with." Jiraiya replied calmly. "The other's will go after their targets. They shouldn't interfere with us unless we try to get in the way of their objective."
"Even if that's true…" Kakashi stopped where he was in the street. "Naruto would never allow himself to stay off to the side while others like him, like Gaara, are in danger." His voice took on a slightly colder tone. "And Naruto would certainly never forgive anyone who would even consider a plan that would sacrifice others for his own safety."
Jiraiya sighed and stopped, though he didn't turn to face copy ninja. "I realize what you're saying Kakashi, believe me. But, I've already lost one student, I'll be damned if I'm going to lose another one. Doubly so considering…"
Kakashi clapped a hand on the older man's shoulder. "I know."
Jiraiya turned and smiled weakly. "They really are like two peas in a pod aren't they?"
Kakashi's mask shifted ever so slightly as he smiled. "That they are." He pulled the man towards a nearby oden stand. "Let's get that drink."
Jiraiya nodded as he translated in his head. "Let's start planning."
Theoto-nin gasped for air as his captor held him in place. "What the hell do you want?" His voice raspy and choked, yet still tried to sound demanding.
Pale eyes surrounded by dark circles narrowed on the sound ninja. "I have told you what I want." The eyes flicked to his teammates who had already finished off the other two sound members. "They were less than cooperative."
"Oi, Gaara." Kankuro wiped blood off of some of Karasu's blades. "Let's stop wasting time."
Temari closed up her fan and strapped it to her back. "I hate to say it, but he's right Gaara. Your sand is definitely giving us an advantage to be able to move through this storm, but we can't waste time when we'll likely need every second to find a useable scroll."
The youngest sand ninja nodded. "Last chance." He faced the sound shinobi one last time. "Orochimaru tou Uchiha Sasuke wa doko desuka?"
The sound shinobi struggled against the sand that surrounded him. "Even if I knew where they were, I wouldn't tell you." He spat in Gaara's face. "Suna oni."
Gaara didn't even bother to wipe his face. Instead he simply raised his hand toward the sound shinobi. "Sabaku Kyuu." He watched with disinterest as the sand closed around his victim until he vanished from view. "Sabaku Sousou."
Temari winced slightly as she heard the body within the sand snap repeatedly. She swallowed down her unease as blood began to show in the sand. "Why are you so interested in…" She leapt to the left as something rustled in the bushes behind her.
Kankuro acted immediately. Chakra strings formed instantly from his finger tips and connected to Karasu. Poison coated weapons exposed themselves as the assassin's puppet propelled at the source of the sound. "Got you!"
A figure dropped from the trees above, coming down between Kankuro and Karasu. "Tanseinaiken no jutsu." His voice calm, but loud enough to let the three suna-nin hear him. His hand, glowing with blue-green chakra, severed the chakra strings causing the puppet to fall flat and lifeless. He lifted his head slowly and brushed a few stray pink hairs from his face. "For your sake, don't do that. You'll only piss her off."
Kankuro's eyes narrowed. "You're the ones from the waiting room."
Daiki grinned smugly. "Guilty as charged." He nodded his head, signaling the tanned girl on his team to come forth and show herself. "We didn't come to fight, there'll be time enough for that later."
Temari looked around, not trusting the fact that she couldn't see their third member. "If not to fight, they why are you here?"
"A business proposition. Name's Daiki, if ahou hasn't told you that much already."
Temari's eyes narrowed. "I can only assume you're referring to Uzumaki." Though her attention focused on Daiki but her hand remained fastened to the end of her fan incase of a surprise attack. "What makes you think we'll be interested in any kind of deal with you? We don't know you at all."
"Who said we were looking to make a deal with you post-op?" The tan girl sneered.
Kankuro fought hard not to laugh, and failed as a few chuckles escaped him. He had teased his sister about her less than lady-like mannerisms, but no one had ever been so direct before. He quickly quieted down as Temari began to unfurl her fan and glare death at him.
"Miyako." Daiki's laughed lightly, but his tone was warning at the same time. "You'll be interested in the deal for a number of reasons, the biggest being…" His eyes locked with Gaara. "You still feel you have a debt to the idiot." He grinned as saw the red head's eyes shift almost imperceptibly. "Right?"
Kankuro grimaced. "Fine, you know how to twist our arm. We get anything out of it at least?"
Miyako threw something to the puppeteer. "Authenticated and everything. One scroll, don't lose it."
Temari jumped as a body dropped into the area between the two teams. "Nani?" She moved in closer and kicked the body over. "It's one of the exam proctors. What gives?"
"Naruhodo." Gaara nodded solemnly. "You took him off our tail."
Daiki grinned and looked up into the trees where his other teammate stood waiting patiently. "Domo…Shizuka."
Temari blinked at her brother. "What do you mean you see?" She kicked the dead proctor again. "How can we pass now that our examiner is dead?"
"Think about it Temari." Kankuro supplied. "All we need is to have the scroll at the checkpoint to prove we're able to do what they ask. Why have the proctors follow so many teams around?"
Temari grit her teeth. "We've been set up." She turned to Daiki. "A partnership then?"
Daiki shook his head. "Not with us. We can handle ourselves." He crossed the distance between them and stood shoulder to shoulder with Gaara.
Kankuro frowned as he watched the two young men talk. He couldn't hear what they were saying, nor could he read their lips from where he stood. Yet he got the sensation that there was much more than what seemed to meet the eye here, of that he was certain.
Temari also watched her brother and this strange boy converse. "Why?" She thought silently. "Why can he get so close without the sands moving against him?"
Gaara nodded. "All right. We'll do it."
Daiki grinned. "See you at the checkpoint then." He continued to journey into the forest. "Miyako. Shizuka."
Gaara watched them go with the same disinterest he always showed. After a few moments more, as if to make sure they were really gone, he turned and headed off in a westerly direction. His stride was unusually quick, something his brother and sister picked up on immediately.
"So?" Kankuro asked as he strapped Karasu to his back. "Where are we going now?"
"If the scroll is good we should just head for the check point." Temari complained, though it was half-hearted and clearly not what she really wanted to do. "Of course, if there's a chance we can fight some people along the way I certainly wouldn't mind that either."
Kankuro chuckled dryly. "That kid get you that mad?" He leapt back on the defensive, one hand on Karasu, as Temari whipped her still closed fan around at him like a club. "Hey! I didn't say it! She did!"
Temari seethed in barely contained anger. "And you are going to forget all about that comment. Do you hear me?"
"Both of you knock it off." Gaara's voice was cold. He recalled Temari once saying he had two voices, pre-Uzumaki and post-Uzumaki. This time definitely fell in to the pre category. "We have work to do."
Temari shivered slightly, she hadn't seen Gaara so focused since he had been slated to fight the Uchiha. "And what work is that?"
Kankuro blinked. "You accepted a mission during the exam?"
Gaara nodded, and let his voice soften just a little. "There is a plot against the Leaf, against Naruto's precious people. We're going to help them."
"Again?" Kankuro sighed. "I hope it's not the one from last time. I couldn't get that wet dog smell off me for a week."
This time it was Temari who laughed. "At least you know it can't get any worse."
Gaara's eyes narrowed. "You may very well regret those words." He smirked for just a moment as he heard his family go dead silent, but just as quickly his mask of stoicism returned. No one said anything more as they moved deeper into the darkness caused by the storm.
"So how'd you know to go this way anyway?" Kiba asked as he poked a stick into the small fire. He was thankful they had found a small supply chamber amongst the tunnels, though they had needed to burn another of Sakura's flares to get the blaze going. "I mean, not even Sai's map had that tunnel scouted out."
Naruto shifted a bit uncomfortably at the question. "I could just…smell the air." He offered weakly.
Sakura glanced over from where she and Sai were studying the map. "Smelled the air? Since when can you do that?"
"I don't know. I just could." Naruto shrugged. "The rain, the ozone from the lightening, the lack of pollen." He shrugged again. "I just knew what it meant somehow."
"Then how was it I missed all these clues?" Kiba asked, irritation clearly in his voice.
Hinata saw the look of skepticism on her teammate's face. "P-perhaps the caves dulled your senses." She offered. "We were down there a long time, and we had to double back over Shino's marked routes a number of times. Maybe your nose got desensitized."
Kiba sighed. "Maybe…"
"It is really immaterial now." Shino stated as he moved out of the shadow of the cave. "We found another exit, and it puts us considerably closer to the final check point." He pointed out towards something in the distance, though it was obscured by the storm. "It was a good use of the day."
Naruto glanced out into the storm. "Yeah, but that leaves us only four more days to get to the checkpoint. And there's no telling when or if this storm will break."
Sakura moved closer to the fire and brought her hands up to warm them. "We're not so bad off since we found a scroll, but you guys will have a tough time if you have to wait too long."
"We'll manage." Kiba shot back with a smile. "If this idiot can do it…" He pointed his thumb towards Naruto. "There's no way I'm going to let us do any less."
Hinata smiled. "Yes, we-we'll all have to do our best."
Naruto nodded. "We've never really had any joint missions in the past. But we could help you guys out if you want."
Sakura jerked a little at this offer. She had no aversion to helping them, but it was still a competition. Before she could voice her opinions however, Shino spoke.
"This is a competition Naruto." The bug wielder stated calmly. "Our elimination would in turn help you later. Why would you help us?"
Naruto smiled and looked down at the ground. "Cause we're allKonoha-nin. We're the rookie nine, well, twelve if you count fuzzy-brow's team. I think it would be really great if we all made it through together, just like last time."
Hinata felt her whole body temperature shoot though the roof. "He remembered what I said?" Her mind asked in a panicked frenzy. "Could he really have taken something I said and made it that important to him?"
Naruto's smile faded. "But that's not the only reason." He quickly told them of his encounter with the kumo-nin and what he had learned, surprising everyone present. At least he though they were all surprised, it was hard to tell with Shino and Sai cause their faces never seemed to move. Naruto shook his head and continued. "So you see, there's a big risk to your team even on top of the exam."
"W-we have to warn Neji-nii-san and Hanabi-chan." Hinata gripped at the fur lining of her coat so hard her normally pale skin looked even whiter along the knuckles. "We suspected that something would happen but…"
"Neji will be fine." Naruto spoke quickly before anyone could say anything. "Having fought the guy and seen him take on that freaky spider sound ninja…" He grinned. "I know Neji will be ok, and if by some slim chance they do get passed his guard, Lee and Ten-ten will back him without a thought."
"And Hanabi?" Shino questioned.
"Choji and Ino won't let anything happen to her." Naruto rubbed his jaw as he remembered the last time Choji had punched him there. "Ino'll line them up and Choji will knock them down." The blonde smiled at Hinata. "And if she takes anything after her sister, Hanabi'll kick their butts good too."
Hinata looked down at her lap. "So…you're saying…I'm the only one who needs to be protected…"
Sakura mentally slapped her forehead and sighed. She wondered how Naruto could say all the right things one moment, but still be such an idiot the next. "I think what he means is…"
"I'm not saying that at all Hinata." Naruto cut Sakura off. He didn't want someone else trying to cover him or put words in his mouth. It felt strange to him, he knew just a few months ago he would have gladly let her speak for him and agreed with her no matter what she said. "What I'm saying is there is strength in numbers. If I had my way we'd go looking for all the both of their teams and go as one collective pack." He shook his head. "But the chances of finding them are very slim, so that's not a workable plan."
"I…" Hinata brushed her eyes with her sleeve, not wanting to look weak in front of the others. "I have a seal tag…and so does Neji." She paused as she realized everyone was looking at her. "It's for signaling the other seal tag. Kind of like a distress flare, but more covert." She looked down again as she saw Naruto's eyes light up. "It can only be used once though." The revelation left people in their own thoughts for a few moments.
"If signaled for nothing, you will not have it if a need for it should arise." Sai's remark cut through the silence. "There are advantages to each method, but there are costs as well."
Kiba nodded at the analysis. "We've already got a big group. Shinobi teams are designed for four people so you have enough backup, but are small enough to not get noticed." He looked over at Naruto. "So while we might have really good offensive force from joining up with the other teams…"
"Having a team of six, nine, or twelve, as you're suggesting would be asking for trouble." Shino finished. "If there are indeed hunter-nin after those of the Hyuuga bloodline, a team that large would be inadvisable to maintain our cover."
"And if you are confronted?" Naruto demanded curtly. "Some of these guys can take on S-ranked missing-nin. What good is one team of almost-chunin going to do against an opponent like that?"
"If they are good enough to take on S-rank nuke-nin, what makes you think four teams of 'almost-chunin' will do any better?" Sai asked calmly.
On the surface the argument made sense, but Sakura had been a member of Team Seven long enough to know there was always something more below the surface. "That chakra Naruto used before, was the same one I felt in Wave Country on the bridge." She thought to herself. "Be cause of that chakra, the boy that almost killed Sasuke-kun was defeated. Even Kakashi-sensei and the man with the giant sword seemed worried about it." She looked over at Naruto again in silence. "If Naruto is there, there may really be no problem with hunter-nin." She frowned slightly. "Naruto…why do you always try to do everything yourself."
"I agree with them." Hinata's hands twiddled anxiously in her lap. "In this circumstance the best thing to do is to hide in plain sight and beat them at their own game."
Sakura blinked in surprise. She knew Hinata was capable of such thoughts and plans, but she so rarely voiced them. "What do you intend to do?"
"We know about their plan now." Hinata continued. "But we don't know if they know that we know."
Kiba shook his head. "What?"
"The hunter's might not know that they've been compromised…" Naruto whispered in understanding.
Hinata nodded. "So if we all get together, they'll know something is wrong and come at us full force. If we pretend nothing is wrong…"
"Then there is a chance we can get the drop on them first." Kiba grinned. "I like this plan already."
"That will only buy us so much time." Shino pointed out. "The best way to go is to get a scroll and head for the check point. Too much can happen under the guise of the exam. Though it is to a limited extent, there is more safety in being right under their noses that out here."
Naruto nodded slightly and cast a look between Sakura and Sai. He needed their approval for this, and begged silently. As he had expected, Sai shrugged with indifference.
"If that's the best course of action, you should take this and go." Sakura sighed and reached into her hip pouch. "Head for the checkpoint and get word to the jounin-sensei. We won't be targets so we can move around easier to get another one and we might be able to warn the others along the way."
Kiba took the scroll that Sakura offered and looked between it and his teammates. "I…don't know what to say." He tapped the end of the scroll gently as he though over the plan.
"We can't accept that." Hinata shook her head. "There aren't enough scrolls for all the teams to pass. This would risk you failing the exam."
"This is no longer about the exam Hinata."
The girl jumped as the blonde spoke. "Naruto-kun?"
Naruto nodded. "The instant that I found out about the hunter-nin, this exam became secondary. All that matters to me right now is keeping you, your family, and our friends and teammates safe."
Hinata blushed brightly. "Why?"
"Because we're all Konoha-nin." Kiba replied with a grin. "Just like he said earlier. We have to watch each other's backs."
Hinata looked around at the other's as they nodded in agreement. She held out her hand and took the scroll, tucking it away in her jacket for safe keeping. At last her eyes came to rest on Naruto. "Arigatou Naruto-kun."
Naruto grinned and interlaced his fingers behind his head. "Nothing to thank me for." He scratched the back of his head gently. "To be honest, I'm still not thrilled with this plan." He grinned at Hinata. "But even a great future Hokage like me can't do everything himself. So you guys have to make sure you get to safety and let Kakashi-sensei and the others know what's going on. And I know I can count on you guys."
Sakura bit her tongue. Hard.
Hinata was sure her face was going to pop right open from all the blood rushing to her head because of Naruto's praises. She looked down to keep from passing out, but nodded her head. "Hai…you can count on us."
Naruto rose from his seat and walked over to the entrance of the cave. "The rain will carry on a while I bet. We should rest while we can, go our separate ways in the morning." He sat down again right at the edge of the waterline. "I'll take first watch."
Shino nodded. "Then I will…"
"I'll take second watch." Hinata spoke up suddenly, then abruptly dropped off. She couldn't tell the others that she wanted Naruto to be the one to wake her up, or that she was hoping to get to talk with him as they changed positions. "It's just…ano…there's still some light right now, but the next shift will have almost none since the moonlight won't get through the clouds. I'll have the best range of vision during that time."
Sai turned and found a spot of moss on the ground. "I have no objection to that." He lay down on the moss and turned his back to the group. "Wake me when it is my shift."
"I'm not one to complain about some extra uninterrupted sleep." Kiba moved away and lay down on the bare stone of the floor, strangely enough curling up like a dog would. Akamaru then jumped on his back, circled three times, and also lay down to sleep. He barked once and then both master and pet remained quiet.
Shino looked at Hinata once more before shrugging his shoulders. He crossed silently to one of the walls of the cavern and sat with his back against it. One would have to look very carefully to see the change in his breathing to reveal that he was actually sleeping. It was slightly unnerving to discover that the bug user essentially looked indistinguishable either asleep or awake.
Sakura pulled a small silver object from her pouch and unfolded it to reveal that it was a thermal emergency blanket. She carried an extra one in case of such occasions, so she didn't have to worry about not having another if an emergency did come up. She wrapped herself in the foil-like cloth and lay down, facing away from Naruto and the others.
Hinata was the last one to ready herself for bed. She pressed her back against the cave wall a short distance from where Naruto sat looking out into the storm and pulled her knees to her chest. Most didn't know it but her jacket had a fair degree of elasticity and she made use of it now to pull her coat down over her legs. Hinata rested her head on her knees and turned to watch Naruto until her eyes could no longer remain open.
Naruto watched them all as they drifted off in the realms of sleep. He scooted back a bit and leaned against the ridge of the cave opening. When he was sure that his friends were truly asleep he brought his hands up into a familiar cross shaped seal. "Kage bunshin no jutsu." The smoke rose out into the open air, but was quickly dissipated by the rain. Naruto directed two clones to the back of the cave to watch that entry. One clone remained seated beside him while another clone went to the other side of the front entrance. The remaining five clones Naruto sent out into the storm to set up watch points to act as an early detection system. When everyone was in place he folded his legs one over the other and cupped his hands in his lap. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. He began to stretch his sense out, finding he could now go much farther thanks to these strange enhancements, and settled in for a long night.
Hinata awoke sometime later to the smell of ramen, sweat, and what vaguely resembled musk. Her head lifted slowly and she saw orange. It took her a few moments, and the rubbing of sleep from her eyes, to realize that Naruto's jacket was draped over her like a blanket. She looked around quickly and found multiple copies of her crush in various positions around the cave. She quickly zoned in on the only one without a jacket.
He sat at the center of the entrance just short of the waterline cause by the now subsiding rain. His brilliant blue eyes reflecting the faint rays of light that fought to cut through the remaining gray clouds. He shifted ever so slightly as he heard the change of breathing behind him. "Ohaiyo Hinata."
Hinata rose on stiff legs and walked over to where Naruto sat, still clutching his coat around her smaller frame. "Aren't you cold?" She asked concerned.
Naruto turned his head to face the girl. "Nope, meditation is really good for stuff like that. You learn to block all that out." He smiled. "Besides, you looked chilly shivering in the corner like that."
Hinata blushed slightly, having not considered that Naruto might watch her while she was sleeping, let alone act so generously towards her. She sat beside him, though made sure to give him some space, and looked out into the lessening storm. "I suppose it's my turn for watch."
Naruto shrugged. "The sun will rise pretty soon. I'll finish the watch if you want to sleep a little longer."
Hinata looked quickly between the boy and the clouds. She activated herkekkai genkai and saw that the moon was almost vanished and there was a faint light coming from the horizon. Though the light was so faint even to her unique bloodline did mean that it would be a few hours until it actually reached them. "Why didn't you wake me?" Her voice was quiet as her eyes returned to normal. "Why did you take watch the whole night?"
"Because, I wouldn't have been able to sleep anyway." Naruto replied with a sad smile, though he quickly replaced it when he realized what he must look like. "I just figured, it would make more sense to let you guys get more rest rather than just lay in fake sleep for hours on end."
Hinata watched Naruto quietly for a few moments. "But what about you? We're going right to the checkpoint, you could still be out here for days. You need the sleep more."
Naruto shook his head. "Nah, I'll be ok. It's just like…"
Hinata could only feel sad for him as she watched Naruto tense up and go silent. "What is it Naruto?" She felt her face warm slightly as his eyes flitted over to her for a moment.
"You promise you won't tell?"
Hinata nodded. "Yakusoku."
Naruto broke eye contact with Hinata and traced some designs across the stone floor with his fingers for a time. He didn't know why he was doing this. Hinata was always so kind and helpful but… "I've never told anyone this." He began to speak. "Not Sakura-chan or even Kakashi-sensei."
Hinata gasped slightly, honored that Naruto would trust her with such a secret.
"You know how back at the academy I always got in trouble for playing pranks?"
Hinata nodded, giggling lightly. "I remember the day you and Kiba-kun put crazy glue on Iruka-sensei's chair, making him rip his pants when he stood up to quickly."
Naruto laughed at the memory of Iruka standing at the front of the class with ripped pants and his exposed heart-print boxers visible to the world. "Yeah that was a pretty good one." Naruto knew he couldn't tell Hinata the whole truth, he didn't want to scare her like he did Sakura, yet he still wanted to talk about this for some reason. "But do you remember how angry he got?" He waited as he saw Hinata nod, trying to figure out how to continue. "When I was younger, before I knew any of you guys…I used to prank the other villagers."
Hinata heard the sad tone of his voice, as well as noticed that his eyes were shifting rapidly. She remembered the lessons she had asked Neji to give her after they were on better terms. "He's lying…" She thought silently. "A white lie, maybe to hide what really happened, but still."
"Sometimes, the pranks were really bad." Naruto continued, not realizing what Hinata had discovered. "And people would get really mad and come after me to get even." He paused a moment. "I got beat up a lot. It got to the point I was afraid to got to sleep at night. I'd sit huddled in a corner with my pillow hugged to my chest, trying to stay awake the whole night in case someone came looking for me."
She continued to watch his eyes. She had heard of Naruto's pranks sometimes when she was younger, but none were ever bad enough to warrant a beating. Never mind a beating on a child. Plus if he wanted the beatings to stop, all he had to do was stop pranking people all together. Hinata knew he was telling the truth about the villagers, but he was omitting something big from the story. "It's not my place to push him…" She thought as she nodded for Naruto to continue.
"After a while, I got good at sleeping lightly." Naruto smiled. "But then I'd wake up at ever little sound, so I'd still be tired the next day. That was when I got really good at it."
"It?" Hinata questioned.
"It's like meditation, but not quite." Naruto explained. "You let half your mind sleep while the other keeps look out, then you switch them."
"Naruto-kun…you can't have only half your brain sleep." Hinata countered. "It's a medical impossibility."
Naruto scratched his head. "Really? I guess it's just a half-sleep state then all around." He shrugged. "Either way, it let me get enough sleep, but I also got enough warning when I had to run away. It's a pretty handy skill at times like this."
Hinata felt her skin crawl at the actions of the other villagers, and gained even more respect for Naruto that he was able to simply brush it off like that. At the same time she couldn't help but think about a scroll she had read about the effects of sleep deprivation on jounin on long term missions as Naruto finished. "To be so young and have to deal with that…" She thought with a shake of her head.
Naruto noticed Hinata's movement and smiled. "But I'm probably boring you right now. You should get a bit more rest Hinata."
"Do you…never sleep then?" She asked timidly.
His face scrunched in thought. "Well…after I became a ninja and got on Team Seven, I started to sleep because I knew I could trust my team." His sad expression returned and this time seemed unable, or perhaps unwilling, to shake it. "Then all this stuff with Sasuke-teme happened and…" Naruto shook his head violently and his smile reappeared. "Guess it's a good thing that I have this weird sleep thing."
Hinata's chest ached as she saw Naruto's fake smile reappear. "I know I'm only in training as a med-nin, but I would like for you to try and get some sleep." Her voice was soft but insistent. "It's not healthy for you to go so long without a true sleep. I don't want to see you fall ill." She smiled at him. "I would be a very bad friend to let that happen to you when you've done so much to help me."
Naruto was a bit taken aback by Hinata's statement and he found himself staring at her. This wasn't the shy Hinata he had spoken to at the training fields before his match with Neji. Nor was it the teaching Hinata that had worked with him under Daiki's orders. It wasn't even the determined Hinata he had seen in the prelim battles who had something to prove. It was just her, a friend concerned for another friend. "I would, but, I won't be able to sleep."
Hinata blushed furiously under his intense gaze. "M-maybe I could help you…"
Naruto's head turned to one side. "How?"
"There was…" Hinata fidgeted slightly. "There was a lullaby…my mother used to sing it when my father couldn't get to sleep. I used to hear it though the shoji doors, so I still remember it." She smiled, somehow looking both sweet and shy, at Naruto. "It always seemed to work for him. Perhaps…"
Naruto doubted that a simple lullaby would let him sleep, but Hinata looked so set on it. He didn't have the heart to simply tell her no, so he nodded. Laying down on the ground from where he sat he attempted to find a comfortable position. "How were you guys able to sleep so easily on this stone? A bed of nails would be more comfortable." He joked.
Hinata swallowed hard as an idea came to her mind. Summoning ever once of courage she had she scooted herself up near Naruto's head. "We-we'll have to do something about that then…I-if you're to get any decent sleep." She knelt down and crouched into a seize position, thankful for the first time in her life that her father made her master that position. She lifted Naruto's head gently and set him down on her legs, turning herself into a pillow for him. "B-better?" She asked nervously as her face turned bright red.
Naruto's face also reddened quite a bit. "Y-yeah." He looked down and out to where the rain had finally stopped. Looking up at Hinata made him feel weird for some reason. It wasn't a bad feeling, but he wasn't sure he trusted it completely either. His mind slowly started to drift as he heard the faint melody.
Though Hinata knew the song by heart, she found she was shaking too much to trust her voice to speak the words. Instead she began to hum softly. At first it was only to herself, but it gradually picked up and she found herself humming the basic tune of the old lullaby. The humming soon turned to the gentle singing of chords of music, but no lyrics as of yet.
Naruto was finding it harder and harder to keep his eyes open. "Her voice, is really pretty." He thought sleepily, not wanting to interrupt her music. "Why does she always…speak so timidly…when she…sounds…like…this…"
Hinata smiled down at him as she watched Naruto's eyes began to close. She could see his whole body relax even as she felt his neck muscles loosen by her knees. Knowing he wouldn't be awake much longer she began to sing.
Softly I sing, to you, my king
I hope that you sleep so soundly
Naruto's eyes closed, losing himself into Hinata's song. It scared him. He was a ninja, supposed to be able to react at a moment's notice.
I am right here, don't wake my dear
Sleep well and I'll comfort you quietly
He shouldn't have allowed himself to be taken in. Maybe this time they were safe, but what if someone had impersonated Hinata. His guard was down, she could easily slit his throat, but…he couldn't ever remember a time he had felt so protected.
Dream of your land, of waves on the sand
Your thrown overgrown with wildflowers
Naruto let himself go and the realm of dreams readily claimed him as he was long over due. His head lolled to the side slightly, a small smile on his face. His eyes began to move rapidly under closed lids, his dreams influenced by Hinata's words.
Dream of the light, casting shadows at night
Gentle rain drops and silver showers
Hinata smiled as she watched Naruto sleep. She looked around and saw that the clones had fallen asleep as well, at least until the dispelled with the slipping of Naruto's concentration to maintain them. She knew she should be watching for attacking shinobi teams, but Hinata allowed herself one moment more of distraction. Carefully, so as not to wake him, she shifted Naruto's hitai-ate up off his forehead. She giggled as his hair spilled down around is face without anything holding it back. Parting his hair slightly to see his face better she went about memorizing every aspect of his face. "He's looking less like a kid…" She realized. "More like…a young man…"
Hinata began to lean forward, closer and closer to Naruto. She stopped suddenly when she realized her lips were scant inches from his and pulled back. A blush crept slowly up her face as she realized what she had almost done, a small smile also began to show itself on her face. "I don't have enough courage for something like that." She whispered as she leaned forward again. "But I can give you this for luck, in the hopes it keeps you safe." She gently kissed Naruto's forehead and pulled back, her face redder than Gaara's hair.
Shaking away her distractions for the moment, and attempting to calm her jack hammering heart, Hinata turned her attention to the cave opening. Activating her Byakugan she scanned the area for a few minutes making sure they were safe. She deactivated her bloodline shortly after so as not to exhaust her chakra. She decided to activate her enhanced sight on a random time basis in case any enemies were nearby trying to figure out her pattern.
Hinata continued to watch over her friends as she waited for the sun to rise in a few hours. A smile turned her lips as the clouds finally cleared and she was able to see the stars again. Despite her thoughts of keeping her full attention on her guard duty, Hinata's hands kept returning comb gently through Naruto's hair. She couldn't help but feel a bit warm inside that he seemed to sigh in pleasure each time she did that. The young girl would regret when this night ended, but she was determined to make the most of this simple contact while she could.