TRANSITION


A Step Aside for the Cause. - Revised 01/16

For the Sake of Peace


~ Forenote ~

This is just a transition chapter. I have made several changes to it, and have recently had it beta read, but most of it is an export of S'tarKan's 19th Chapter. Original work starts In the next chapter. That being said, don't skip over it because some of the changes I made are very important


It was a very odd procession that slowly made its way back to Konoha. The Sand team was battered and bruised. Naruto had clones carrying Kankuro's puppet as well as Temari's fan. As reluctant as they were to give up their weapons, they relented when Gaara spoke.

The Leaf shinobi were in better shape than their captives, but most of them had used up a great deal of chakra. Even Nara Shikamaru's slouch seemed more tired than usual.

Of the group, Uzumaki Naruto was the least exhausted, but even he was feeling a little drained. The seal containing his prisoner had given him a degree of unnatural stamina that most shinobi couldn't even muster without the aid of a lot of sake. He'd literally lost count of the number of times he'd used Kage Bunshin no Jutsu that day, the latest to form a cordon around both teams as they made their way back to Konoha.

Despite all the extra eyes, Naruto was still looking around cautiously. His teammates claimed they were all right, but they looked pretty wasted to him. All but Hinata had fought in the tournament earlier that day as well, and the glimpses he'd gotten of the Hyuuga girl's fight with Temari made him wince in recollection. Those two had gone after each other with a ferocity that shocked him just a little.

Naruto sort of understood Temari's attitude. She'd been worried about her brother. But as he sifted through the memories from his clones, he remembered Hinata practically snarling at Temari that she wouldn't let her harm her Naruto-kun. Just thinking about that gave Naruto a very odd feeling.

Maybe some of his precious people considered him equally precious?

Even considering the possibility made Naruto's heart pound in his chest. But he had more immediate concerns at the moment. Gaara shuffled along like the rest, and just as silent. But every so often, he would glance at Naruto out of the corner of his eye. Every time he did this, Naruto expected him to say something, but he never did. Finally, Naruto turned his head so he caught Gaara looking right in his face. The red-haired boy actually jerked back a little. Naruto could see the others flinch in response.

"Is there something you'd like to ask me?" Naruto asked in what he privately called his "Kurenai voice". He hoped it sounded as patient as she was.

"How do you…" Gaara began, but his voice trailed off. "You have control of your demon. How did you do this?"

Naruto winced as Shikamaru let out a startled cough. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Shino grasp the shadow-user's elbow, his head leaning toward Shikamaru's ear. Naruto sighed. Pretty soon his prisoner would become the worst kept secret in Konoha. "I don't," Naruto said in a slightly irritated voice. "My seal may be a little different from yours, since I don't have any kind of automatic protection, but the only time it can try to influence me is when I am pretty mad."

Gaara nodded slowly, taking this in. "Yet you used its chakra several times today. I could feel it, especially when you escaped Shukaku's sand."

Naruto nodded. "We sort of have a deal. It knows that if I die, it dies too. I only ask when I really need it for something, and it knows that if it refuses it will probably die. It really doesn't want to die."

Gaara's eyes widened a little. "Then, I am in the same situation." He nodded slowly and resumed walking. After a moment, everyone staring at the jinchuuriki blinked and began walking as well.

As they walked, Naruto noticed that Temari still held her right arm at a funny angle, moving it tentatively. Even if she'd kept her fan, he doubted she could have even carried it this far. He was hardly surprised, given how many times he'd been nailed by a Jyuuken strike. Shoulder tenketsu really sucked, because a hit to any of them tended to make the whole joint lock up. But Naruto was surprised when Hinata sidled up to the older blond girl and spoke with her in little more than a whisper. A moment later, she handed the Suna girl a small jar she'd taken from her pocket. Temari stared after the Hyuuga girl as she resumed her place in their formation, periodically activating her Byakugan to check for enemies.

Privately, Naruto was glad she hadn't changed too much.

It would take them a little while to reach the gates of Konoha. They were halfway there when Naruto remembered the chakra-drained Sound-nins they'd left back in the forest. Fortunately, they weren't that far away, and he dispatched a platoon of clones to collect them. He was still a little annoyed with himself for not remembering earlier.

As he finished, Shikamaru fell into step with him. Naruto steeled himself for what was likely to happen next.

"Shino explained," the slouching Genin said, staring up at the clouds overhead.

Naruto nodded.

"I think I understand how you've been slinging shadow clones around like cheap kunai. I asked Asuma-sensei about that technique and he said he wouldn't teach me until I had Jonin-level chakra reserves, or else it might kill me." He sighed. "I suppose you might just be too stupid to know when you're supposed to collapse, but that's not why, is it?"

Naruto shook his head. Shikamaru was one of the few classmates he'd gotten along somewhat okay with, but now he sounded irritated.

"I suppose having a demon sealed inside you would boost your chakra a lot," Shikamaru continued. "It's annoying that I didn't figure it out sooner. I had all the pieces in front of me, too. Damn Aburame…" his voice trailed off and he shot a glare over at Shino… who seemed oblivious.

Naruto scowled. Hating him was okay, but Shino hadn't done anything but be smart.

"Anyway," Shikamaru continued, turning back to Naruto, "you're annoying as hell at times, but hating you for something like that is stupid and troublesome."

With that, the Nara boy slowed his pace a little, meandering toward the back of the group again, and leaving Naruto to continue beside the silent Gaara.

OoOoO

As they approached the village, it was clear that the attack was over. The late afternoon air was oddly quiet without the sounds of distant explosions.

Their reception at the gates of Konoha had been a little hostile. Naruto supposed he couldn't blame them for being jumpy, but he didn't think anyone in Konoha would fail to recognize him, or fail to see Hinata's eyes. Then, as soon as the older Chunin acknowledged that their forehead protectors were real, they demanded that they turn over their prisoners. Naruto clenched his fists as his temper began to fray. Maybe he'd been overexposed to Jiraiya, but he especially didn't like the way the younger guard was eyeing Temari.

"You two are really brave," Shikamaru announced with a yawn as he stretched. He grimaced as something in his neck made an audible pop. "I wouldn't have the guts to countermand a Jonin's orders. I'm sure their sensei will be impressed by your initiative… right before she busts you back to Genin."

After a whispered consultation, the gatekeepers decided to let them send one of their number ahead to fetch their sensei. However, they would be responsible if their prisoners tried to escape.

At that, Gaara looked up. "We have surrendered," he said in a flat, emotionless tone that still managed to sound annoyed.

At first, Hinata seemed like the logical person to find Kurenai-sensei as quickly as possible… until Shino cleared his throat.

Naruto stared at his teammate. "You tagged Sensei?" he demanded, incredulous.

"I tag everyone," Shino answered, adjusting his sunglasses. "Therefore, I already have a general idea of which direction to go."

"Shino would be faster," Hinata agreed.

As their teammate slipped through the gates, Kankuro coughed. "Tagged?" he asked. "As in, with bugs?"

"Yeah, that's how we tracked you down," Naruto said absently. Then he snapped his mouth shut. Even if they were prisoners and that was fairly common knowledge about the Aburame, he needed to watch what he said.

Temari gave a whole-body shudder that made Naruto quickly look away. "I'd like to slap Father in the face for even thinking about attacking this place." She looked up just in time to catch Shikamaru staring. "What are you looking at?" she demanded.

"A prisoner, who I'm supposed to guard," Shikamaru said, just a little defensively, Naruto thought.

"That doesn't give you the right to ogle me," she snapped.

"If you'd rather take your chances with those two…" Shikamaru offered, nodding off to the side toward the Chunin manning the gate.

Temari tried to cross her arms and look away, but one of them still wouldn't move right.

"I – I think we should just wait for Sensei," Hinata offered.

"You better listen to her," Temari said in a spiteful tone. "She kicked my ass, she'd take you down in a heartbeat, pineapple-hair."

"Temari," Gaara said, and she immediately subsided, looking away. After a moment, she pulled Hinata's ointment from her sash and used her left hand to work some into her right shoulder under her uniform.

Kankuro edged toward where Naruto and Gaara were standing. "She gets like that when she's scared or upset. We're not going to violate our parole."

"Parole?" Naruto asked.

Kankuro peered at him, maybe wondering if Naruto was making fun of him. "Gaara surrendered to you. If we tried to escape now, we'd be violating his word and he'd probably have to kill or recapture us to regain his honor. Don't you do this in Fire country?"

Naruto shook his head. "Not that I've heard of. Maybe it's because you're the Kazekage's kids, so you're like royalty?"

Kankuro made a disgusted sound. "Hardly. The Daimyo of Wind Country hates the Kazekage. He's tried to ruin our village practically since his coronation."

Naruto was about to ask more about this when there was a commotion at the entrance. Shino and Kurenai came through the gate with a dozen ANBU, but following right on her heels was an old man with one arm, swathed in bandages, who was accompanied by unfamiliar men who looked like shinobi.

"I understand your concerns, Danzo-sama, but my team performed the capture, and they will be turned over to Ibiki to be held until the Hokage can make a decision." Kurenai spoke as she walked, but the clipped tones warned Naruto that she was about as angry as he'd ever seen her.

"The Hokage is still in the hospital, and it is questionable whether he will survive," the bandaged man said, and Naruto's heart seemed to freeze in his chest. "We must determine how deep this plot goes, and we must have this information immediately, no matter what steps must be taken."

Hokage… hospital… questionable whether he will survive. The words seemed to echo in Naruto's suddenly empty mind. He took half a step forward and his mind was no longer empty. It was filled with red flames. It was only as the red glare seemed to settle across his eyes and he saw Sabaku no Gaara flinch away that Naruto realized what was happening. He continued walking forward, forcing down the rage, rejecting the demon's gift of chakra, ignoring the Chunin and even a few of the ANBU as they stopped to stare at him. Duty. Do your duty. He reminded himself. Don't embarrass Sensei. Don't embarrass your team.

His voice was almost normal as he stopped several paces in front of the procession. "Uzumaki Naruto, reporting for duty, Sensei. We have apprehended the Suna team, who surrendered to us. We also neutralized a team of Sound shinobi that tried to intercept us. I have clones bringing them to this gate for processing."

"Very good, Naruto," Kurenai replied. She turned to the bandaged man. "I think that presents us with a compromise that won't violate orders. Danzo-sama, your men can process the Sound-nin-team while we secure the Kazekage's children. We don't want to risk triggering a diplomatic incident before we have all the facts, do we?"

Danzo gave her a long, measuring look. "I see that Sarutobi's subordinates are just as wedded to his vision of the world. Very well, I will abide by his authority while he still lives. But keep in mind that we have reports that one of his charity cases cost him his arm. Be careful you don't earn yourself a similar fate from your pet. Jonin of your skills are hard to come by."

Kurenai inclined her head politely, then gestured for her team to follow her. Naruto's clones picked up the fan and the puppet while the Suna Genin shuffled over.

Once they were through the gate, Naruto noticed the signs of battle only hours past. There were scorch marks on walls, and the odd crater in the street. The memories of the clones that he'd left behind to help told him that no quarter of Konoha had been spared at least some damage. He decided to let his remaining clones keep an eye out while he asked the question burning in his mind. "Sensei," he whispered, "what happened to Hokage-sama?"

Kurenai sighed. "He was attacked by the Kazekage, who turned out to be Orochimaru in disguise. They were sealed behind a barrier which no one, except for a single one of the proctors, could get through. Both the Hokage and Orochimaru lost their right arms, and Orochimaru was forced to flee. Most of the fighting in Konoha stopped after that. There are indications that the Sand shinobi were deceived by Orochimaru."

"Our father is dead," Gaara said in a flat voice, making Naruto jump. His hearing was much better than Naruto had thought possible. His words also made his siblings jump, turning to him with wide eyes. "He would not have allowed himself to be replaced in such a manner if he was still alive. If Konoha was to be humbled, he would want to be there when it happened."

Both Kankuro and Temari looked shocked, but neither one disagreed.

"That is what most of the Suna Jonin said when they surrendered after the barrier went down," Kurenai said. "But it will take some time to sort things out and let the Hokage come to a decision."

"So… he's going to be okay?" Naruto asked, hating the hopeful, wheedling tone in his voice.

"His arm was frozen to prevent poison from spreading through his body," Kurenai said, "but the medics have every confidence that he will fully recover."

Naruto let out a sigh of relief. Despite the signs of damage to his home, he knew everything would be all right.

OoOoO

When they arrived at the detention center, Naruto had to bite back a laugh. The shinobi who'd conducted the written exam was also in charge of the ANBU Torture and Interrogation Force.

Figures.

A glance to the side showed a sour grimace on Shikamaru's face as well. Shino's expression, if any, was hidden behind that damn collar, and Hinata-chan was far too polite to say something. Unless she got mad, of course.

What was more interesting were the looks Ibiki exchanged with Kurenai-sensei. They seemed to know each other, though Naruto was having trouble guessing why Kurenai looked so amused and Ibiki looked like he'd drunk bad milk.

"I suppose I should have guessed your troublemakers would be out raising hell, Yuuhi," Ibiki growled.

Then Naruto remembered his brash words at the end of the written exam and swallowed. Oh well, at least Sensei didn't look angry. That had to count for something, right?

"They acquired some very high profile prisoners, Ibiki-san," Kurenai said with a slight smile. Then her face turned serious. "The Hokage will want them handled very carefully. Danzo-sama has already expressed an interest in them."

Ibiki frowned, pulling tight the cloth he wore tied across his ruined scalp. Naruto hoped it didn't pop loose – seeing that once was enough. "Who the hell did they bag?"

"I am Sabaku no Gaara," Gaara said tonelessly, accompanying his words with a formal bow. "I have given parole, along with my sister and brother," he added, in that affectless voice that still gave Naruto chills. He hoped Gaara didn't forget what they'd talked about in the forest.

Ibiki only blinked once. "That explains a lot. I have a place we can keep them until the Hokage can make a decision."

"Will they be allowed visitors?" Naruto blurted out before he completely thought it through.

"Not normally," Ibiki replied, his eyes narrowing as he turned toward Naruto. "Why do you ask?"

"Err, it might be important," Naruto replied evasively. "For reasons I cannot discuss. I also think Jiraiya should see him as well." Naruto floundered for a moment. "For safety reasons," he added lamely.

Ibiki turned to Kurenai, but Naruto's sensei was staring at him curiously. "Does this have something to do with the Hokage's special law?" she asked.

Naruto nodded quickly.

"How urgent is it that Jiraiya come here?" she asked.

"Very urgent," Naruto replied. "Something might need to be fixed, and it might be a good idea for me to check on it until he's had a look."

Kurenai's eyes flicked over the prisoners, and then she turned to Ibiki and nodded. He raised an eyebrow, but nodded back. Naruto thought it was interesting that the special Jonin was evidently willing to accept Kurenai's assessment over his own opinions. "All right," he finally said. "I can arrange visiting hours once a day. Noon?"

Naruto nodded gratefully, and then turned to Gaara who had witnessed the whole conversation silently. "I'll bring you guys' lunch or something."

Temari and Kankuro just looked confused. Very, very confused.

OoOoO

"This convenes an emergency session of the village council for Konohagakure," Homaru announced in a dry, but steady voice.

"Is this even proper?" a voice asked uncertainly. "I mean, we barely have a quorum here."

Hyuuga Hiashi quickly rose to his feet, directing a glare at the questioner. The silk merchant flinched visibly. Though prosperous, a good portion of his income flowed from Hyuuga coffers and he knew it. "The treacherous attack on our village requires swift action if we are to properly discharge our responsibilities to Konoha," he said in a chilly voice – clearly daring anyone there to disagree.

"That is correct, Hiashi-sama," echoed Maniki Gowabara, the head of the ancient Moneychangers Guild. In modern times, they controlled all of the village's banks, including the large cash reserves that served as a foundation for Konoha's economy, as well as guaranteeing the village's credit.

"What is our first order of business then?" asked Yoshikawa Toshiro. He owned a large chain of retail shops scattered throughout Konoha. Directly and indirectly, his businesses supplied most of the equipment used by ANBU and the other shinobi.

"The first is to declare the Chunin Examination cancelled," rasped Danzo. "I've always counseled that inviting foreign shinobi into the heart of our village was a mistake, despite what some may claim. We no longer have time to deal with this misguided policy when Konoha itself is in danger."

"I must disagree," Announced the representative of the Aburame clan. "I saw a lot of talent out there and I can name a few Genins that should be raised with or without the results of the exam. Like the Nara boy"

His son had stopped by on his way to retrieve his sensei and had been very insistent that he make it to any meetings that might take place. Hence, when he observed the interactions between certain other parties on the council, he made haste to intercept them before their arrival. Thusly, his presence was ensured. Now, he could tell why. This was most likely, even if only minorly, related to the slanders Shino had brought to light, but bringing up Naruto might have a counterproductive effect.

"He will have the chance to retake the exam in six months-".

"Yes, but as I said, his deserving a promotion is only marginally related to the actual exam." The Aburame interrupted Danzo. "He was the one who first discovered the attack on Konoha, and before anyone else at that. Besides, he is only the first out of three, I think may have earned the rank of Chunin. Dismissing this possibility to apply their opportunity would be a simile to outright sabotage."

Other members of the council murmured and shifted in their seats. Most had been in agreement with the Aburame.

Danzo was clearly getting irritated by this. "Understandable, yet the Sandaime is no longer able to make such decisions, so it is in the best interest of the village if such matters as promotions are set aside for the time being."

"I'm sure you are willing to do whatever it takes, Danzo," a gravelly voice said from the entrance to the council chamber. "Fortunately, such steps will not be necessary."

The bandaged face of the Root leader showed almost no reaction as he turned, but the minute widening of his visible eye spoke volumes to those that knew him. "There were reports that you were on your deathbed," the one-armed man said. His tone implied he wasn't too thrilled to find them to be false.

"Well, the hospital wouldn't allow me to bring it with me," the Sandaime grimaced as he slowly walked into the chamber. "The medics were able to save my life, if not my arm." He was trailed by a blank-faced medic-nin and one of the Chunin proctors from the exam. Those two were flanked by a small group of Chunin, including the pair that normally guarded the doors to his office.

"I see," Hiashi said coolly. "Then I must congratulate you on your survival. However, it is clear that you are no longer capable of fulfilling some of the more strenuous duties required by your office."

The silence that followed that statement was absolute. Hyuuga Hiashi wasn't quite challenging the Hokage – but only by the barest of margins. Several of the council members shivered slightly. The room seemed to have grown quite chilly in the last few moments.

"I can manage, but thank you for your concern." the Sandaime said, breaking the silence. He smiled slightly. "However, in the unlikely case that I find I can't fulfill my duties, I will be making arrangements to have my chosen successor brought here soon. In the meantime, I will of course receive aid for any of my shortcomings from someone I think is very capable." Sarutobi's eyes seemed to ask for challenge. "Now, I know all of you must be worried about your homes and families. I appreciate your dedication to making sure Konoha isn't left leaderless in the face of this crisis, but as I am no longer incapacitated it is no longer necessary for you to exercise your emergency powers."

It wasn't quite a dismissal, but the Hokage's tone was clear.

"In that case, we will adjourn," Hiashi said. The stony face he wore as he stepped away from the podium was only marginally short of offensive.

Sarutobi's eyes lingered on each of the council members as they left. Many of them refused to meet his eyes, looking down as they quickened their steps. Danzo was the last to leave, and he met the Hokage's gaze squarely.

"This isn't over," Danzo said. His eyes lingered on the empty sleeve of the Hokage's robes.

"No, it isn't," Sarutobi agreed.

After the Root leader shuffled out and the door closed, the Hokage suddenly sagged, and might have fallen if Haku hadn't appeared at his remaining elbow to steady him.

"Hokage-sama, I told you this was ill-advised," the dark-haired medic-nin fretted as he ran a glowing hand across the chest of the old man's robes of office. "You have not fully recovered from your hypothermia." The last he said with a sympathetic glance toward the Chunin, who nonetheless winced.

Sarutobi coughed once before he sat down in one of the recently vacated chairs. "I agree, but it was still necessary. If I had stayed under your care at the hospital, there is no telling what mischief they would have gotten up to." He sighed. "And, if it wasn't for Aburame Shibi, we wouldn't have gotten here in time to stop their first decree."

He had known that the first thing the council would do was to cancel the exam results. Sarutobi had hurt the boy enough already, if he had let them do that, he doubted even Naruto could forgive him.

"Surely canceling the examination was justified under the circumstances, Hokage-sama," one of the Chunin guards exclaimed.

"Perhaps," Sarutobi said, "but I think I saw enough in the time I did have to make some recommendations to the proctors." He sighed. He would make more than just recommendations. All though, there would still be some questions as to the validity of the tests, since some participants were clearly not there for honest competition. "Nothing to be done about it now." This was not a fight he could afford, not with everything else happening.

His lips pressed together in a thin line as he levered himself to his feet. Lingering here too long would reveal too much to his enemies. For a brief moment, he wished Konoha was more like other villages, where a Kage's word was absolute and he could overturn even the most lawful exercise of power by the council when it suited him. He shook his head. That sounded a little too much like his old rival, and wasn't what he and the others had fought so long for.

OoOoO

In the aftermath of the attack, the Genin teams were mobilized en masse to assist with the cleanup. It felt very strange for Naruto, to not be on the intensive training schedule he'd followed prior to the finals of the Chunin Exam. Instead, Kurenai-sensei met them first thing in the morning with a long list of assigned tasks. Normal mission pay was reduced in light of the crisis, but no one even thought of complaining.

Team Eight spent most of their days on street repairs, patching up battle-damaged walls, and doing their best to eradicate any signs of the invasion. The work seemed to be endless, but Naruto found that he didn't really mind. It felt good to have something concrete he could do to make things better. And having over 100 clones carrying lumber for building repair at the same time did show immediate results.

With their operation they could finish the repair on an entire building in only one day. Just like the first mission they had applied his clones to work, Hinata was over-seeing, and the clones doing the hard work. Naruto would have several clones hold the beams up and one clone for each nail. Kurenai-sensei was not so thrilled. She even looked sick when she asked one of his clones why they were just climbing on top of another instead of getting a ladder. The baka's answer was that he didn't bother to use a hammer either, instead his clones just plugged the nails in with one pound of his palm.

He was a little disappointed when he received word of the examination results being postponed, but in light of everything that happened, he couldn't really complain. He was actually a little surprised that they hadn't been canceled. Of course, Konoha recovering from the invasion had to have the highest priority. Kurenai-sensei emphasized that when she told them the news and Naruto supposed that only made sense.

At any rate, even if he wanted to whine, any urges to do so would have fled the instant he saw the Old Man at the Hokage's tower after their last day of repair work.

They had finished early that day, having completed more missions than Kurenai-sensei had expected. Naruto had been feeling restless with the lack of training, and their tasks that day were mainly ones that benefited from throwing dozens of Kage Bunshin at them. Filling in fifteen potholes at once had really sped things up.

Seeing the Hokage with those deep lines etched on his face and an empty sleeve really drove it home for Naruto. He tried to speak, but no words would come out.

OoOoO

The Sandaime looked up wearily from his paperwork. He smiled a little when he saw Team Eight, but it was a weary expression that sat heavily on his face. The only good he could do them was to make sure the boy got his rightful promotion. There was little doubt in his mind that Uzumaki Naruto was ready for Chunin rank. The skills he'd displayed in the arena showed a remarkable degree of growth. Part of him was annoyed that he'd never pressed Yuuhi Kurenai to join the Ninja Academy as a Chunin, but part of him was equally happy that she'd been available when Naruto really needed a skilled mentor.

The only mark against the boy was the conclusion of his first match, and given the lethal techniques the Hyuuga boy had attempted, he could hardly hold that against him. He knew full and well, why the match had been so vicious, but he could hardly meddle in clan affairs and maintain his neutrality as the Hokage for the entire village.

That was why he was equally glad to see young Hyuuga Hinata returned to semi-active status for D-rank missions. In light of the vast number and degree of them, he had been required to give semi-active status to many, who would otherwise not be permitted to take missions. Including even the elders long retired, they could at least perform the most sedentary missions such as minding the infant children of those lost or on missions, or even manning the relief stations set up to provide aid to the less than critical needs, while the hospital was so overly taxed.

The encumbered Genin having been granted semi-active status out of so many cases was hardly unwarranted. If her sensei still felt she needed to supervise the last stages of her physical therapy, who was he to disagree?

Naruto froze in place for a long moment in the doorway to his office, and the Hokage steeled himself for bitter recriminations. The doorway was suddenly empty and the boy was standing beside his desk. Gods, but he'd gotten fast. Haku's fist was drawn back with senbon glittering between the fingers before he saw the Hokage's hand sign to stand down. Naruto's arms were wrapped around his ribs in a hug that made them creak.

The Sandaime remembered consoling a young Maito Gai after his sensei had been killed on a mission. The boy's strength was at least comparable, and he quickly patted Naruto on the shoulder to console him. Overwhelming emotion could make a taijutsu powerhouse forget their own strength, and the last thing he needed now was broken ribs.

Kurenai's reports regarding how badly he was still being treated by certain villagers had left a worm of guilt gnawing at the pit of his stomach. His actions, or rather inactions, had given the boy more than enough reason to hate him by now. However, the elder knew he had to face the consequences. That was one of the first lessons he'd learned from his predecessors.

Still, when the boy raised his tear-streaked face, the Hokage felt better… lighter… than he had in weeks. Naruto clearly forgave him his failures. Perhaps he could come to forgive himself.

He looked over at Jiraiya, who was lounging next to the door. He hoped he was doing the right thing.

OoOoO

Naruto straightened up and sniffed, a little embarrassed by his impulsive outburst. But seeing the Old Man looking so… old… just tore through him like a kunai. He was even missing an arm like everyone said, and he was still here doing Hokage things like paperwork and mission briefings.

Kurenai-sensei had talked to him a few times about what being the Hokage really meant. She wasn't so much trying to talk him out of it, he realized after a while, but she wanted him to realize exactly what he was letting himself in for. Nothing underlined her lessons quite so well as seeing the old man sitting at his desk, doing paperwork a little awkwardly with his left hand.

The Old Man gave Naruto a kindly smile as he scuttled back to his team, and some of the deeper creases in his face seemed to lighten. He should smile more often, Naruto decided. As he got back in line, avoiding Kurenai-sensei's eyes, he noticed a new Chunin standing in the back corner of the room. She was pretty, with long, dark hair, and she looked vaguely familiar to Naruto as she tucked something into her sleeve. Then he remembered the proctor at the written exam that had escorted him to the bathroom. He hoped she wasn't mad about his little trick. He shrugged. She shouldn't have followed him into the bathroom in the first place.

Naruto was also a little surprised to see the Old Pervert leaning against the wall next to the door. He still gave the man a silent, but respectful, nod. 'Literature' aside, Naruto admitted his lecherous ninjutsu teacher had shown his serious side during the invasion. According to rumor, he'd killed hundreds of Sound and Sand troops that were attacking the walls. Naruto overheard a bandaged Chunin claim that the survivors would never be able to look at a toad without screaming in terror. Naruto thought he might have been exaggerating, but then again, he never wanted to get on the wrong side of Gamabunta-sama, so maybe it was true.

Jiraiya had also done Naruto a personal favor and looked at Gaara's seal. It actually hadn't taken that much persuasion, once Naruto explained that he didn't think the seal was functioning correctly. The only things the Toad Hermit took as seriously as chasing women were jutsu and sealing techniques. The next day when he and some clones were bringing ramen to the holding cells, he saw Gaara sleeping so deeply that he could not be roused. His siblings were petrified, convinced he'd been poisoned or that Shukaku was busy consuming Gaara's soul. Naruto finally had to tell them, in low tones, that the crazy old man who'd examined Gaara had taught the one who made Naruto's own seal.

The day after, Gaara was awake, but drowsy. He seemed very… odd. Quiet and remote, but every so often he'd focus his attention so fiercely on what someone was saying that it was like a physical force. He did this most often with Naruto when he was there – much to the relief of his siblings. When Naruto got up to leave, Gaara asked him to thank Jiraiya-sama. Naruto quietly promised to do so, ignoring how shocked Temari was at her brother's humble tone.

Jiraiya had been unusually pensive when Naruto's clone tracked him down to pass on the message. "Remember this when someone asks you why you serve Konoha," was all the old pervert would say before dispelling the clone.

And a week later the Suna team seemed to be used to Gaara sleeping. Temari even laughed as she told him how Gaara apparently sucked his thumb, though Kankuro was obviously afraid that her comment might get them hurt.

OoOoO

Kurenai thought she'd broken the news about the Hokage's condition as gently as she could, given the circumstances. But Naruto's reaction when they entered the office only showed that it hadn't fully sunk in yet. But after seeing the Hokage's reaction, she couldn't bring herself to chastise her student for his lapse in decorum. She reminded herself that the two of them had a relationship that far predated her taking Naruto on as a student. Something seemed to pass between the two of them, and some of the jagged tension seemed to drain out of the elder shinobi. Maybe the Sandaime had really needed that hug.

And maybe Uzumaki Naruto was just a little more perceptive than she gave him credit for.

"We have completed our assigned tasks, Hokage-sama," she said with a hint of pride. Her Genin had worked especially hard that day, and they deserved to know that she was proud of them. Sarutobi suspected they'd been using large numbers of Naruto's clones as brute force labor. Team Eight was completing more tasks per day than any other five Genin or Chunin formations in Konoha, something he'd been pleased to point out to a number of people who had grumbled about their task assignments.

"Good, good," the Hokage said, fumbling with his pipe. He sighed and tapped out the ashes and set it down. "I was about to send a runner out to find you, so this is fortuitous." He leaned back in his chair a little. "I've asked Jiraiya to assist in the return of the Kazekage's children, and he believes that as your team was the one to apprehend them, it would be useful if certain members of Team 8 tagged along."

"Besides, I have a new technique to show you, boy," Jiraiya added casually. The Hokage leaned back in his chair and smiled, a trifle grimly. Sarutobi had arranged this with Jiraiya in order to get Naruto out of the village when he announced the results of the exam. He knew how many would react and didn't want Naruto to have to hear any of it, especially after saving so many of the villagers. It wouldn't be right to let him hear any of the ungrateful reactions that were sure to come.

Naruto brightened a little with excitement, but subsided almost as quickly, shooting troubled glances at his teammates. The Sandaime nodded to himself. It spoke volumes about the boy's character that he immediately thought of his teammates, but future missions wouldn't always be with the same comrades every time.

"Hokage-sama?" Kurenai injected inquisitively. "This sounds like at least a B-class mission?" Hinata's eyes drifted to the floor.

"Yes, I understand that Hyuuga Hinata has not been cleared for any missions above D-class" Then the Hokage glanced down at the formal scroll sitting on the corner of his desk. He'd left it there as a reminder of a less pleasant matter. With the fallout from the examination and Hyuuga Neji, he could only push Hiashi so far on this matter. "That item has come up. Is she recovered sufficiently to return to full active status? I have had an inquiry from her family."

Kurenai stiffened a little. She knew the Hokage had seen through her little subterfuge, but she thought he'd quietly approved of keeping Hinata away from her father a little longer. Undoing years of abuse was impossible in such a short time, but just staying in a supportive environment was having positive effects on her emotional equilibrium. And from the way her student's shoulders had drawn in, the prospect of returning to her clan was not a welcome one. But she could not lie to her Hokage. "She is… mostly recovered, Hokage-sama."

"I see," the Hokage said quietly. He had already known what the answer would be, but hoped that her sensei would feel confident enough to allow the young Hyuuga a role in this mission. "If she has finished with her therapy regimen, then she should probably be returned to her home." He replied some of the creases on his face seemed to deepen again.

Naruto glanced at Hinata out of the corner of his eye, trying for once not to be completely obvious. His teammate did not say a word, but her paling face bore the pinched, closed-in expression she'd donned in the hospital when he'd persuaded her to tell him about the Hyuugas.

Naruto turned to look at Jiraiya. The old lecher's face bore an unusually grim expression. Something was up with this escort mission, but he wasn't about to tell him anything here. Naruto quickly weighed the pros and cons. If it was too dangerous, they'd veto what he was about to propose. But if he wasn't around, he couldn't really look after his friend. He had to at least try.

"Err, if team 8 is going on a mission, then shouldn't Hinata come along too?" Naruto asked, swallowing when he noticed all the adults looking at him. "She can still use her Byakugan, and that alone would give us an advantage." he finished lamely.

The Hokage, Jiraiya, and Kurenai-sensei all exchanged glances, but Naruto had no idea what unspoken conversation was taking place.

"That's not a bad point, boy," Jiraiya grunted after a moment. "Even if it is an excuse to bring your-"

"I'm sorry, that just won't do," Kurenai disagreed sharply, cutting the old hermit off, much to Naruto's relief and disappointment. "But, if she still isn't able to go on such a mission, then I propose that she remain in my care until she is back to full status."

The Sandaime nodded after a moment. "Duly noted. I will inform her father that she will be receiving round the clock supervision aside from her daily missions until she has recovered in full."

Naruto resisted the urge to cheer. Seeing Hinata's face out of the corner of his eye, watching it relax as a small smile formed on her lips, made it even harder. Then a questioning thought hit him. "Um, if she isn't going…. Then who…-"

"That is an excellent question," the Sandaime cut in. "And it brings me to the next topic of this mission. This is Haku." The Chunin took a step forward. "He will be accompanying you to the nation of sand."

OoOoO

Kurenai dismissed her team for the rest of the day. Shino would need a little time to prepare to leave in the morning. And it was obvious that he would spend as much time with his 'allies' as possible. Hinata, on the other hand, would be wanting to help Naruto with his packing.

As soon as the Genin filed out of the Hokage's office, she turned toward the two older men. "With your permission, Hokage-sama, I would like a few moments to brief Jiraiya-sama with respect to my Genin."

The Sandaime's lips twitched minutely around his pipe, "In just a moment, Kurenai, I have a question to ask. While two of your pupils are gone I am sure you will be able to find time to spare?" He asked in a mock beggar voice. "I believe that you are just the person I need to replace my arm."

Kurenai took a step back. She was shocked at what he seemed to be implying. "Are you asking me to assist you in the duties as the Hokage!?" she accused. "I… well," This was out of her league, but, it was true that she would have time to spare, and she couldn't refuse the Hokage. Him asking, only needed to be out of courtesy. "If you require aid then I am willing to accept the job."

"Good, good. Then for the time being, you will act as my advisor. You start tomorrow afternoon. That will allow you to see off your students and start Hyuuga Hinata on that recovery regiment. Now I believe you wanted to brief Jiraiya over your students."

0o0o0

Jiraiya had a ridiculous grin on his face as he followed her to an unused conference room. He spoke up as soon as the door closed behind them. "Well, I didn't think this would happen so quickly, seeing as how we really got off on the wrong foot, but I-"

"Jiraiya-sama," Kurenai replied crisply, "I know you cannot possibly be as large a fool as your public persona acts. Please do us both a favor and drop the act for the next ten minutes. Neither of us really has the time to waste on idle posturing." She had regained herself on the way to the room, and had her temper back in full.

Jiraiya blinked once, and then his eyes hardened. "Very well, Jonin. What did you wish to discuss?"

"Naruto. And your behavior towards him."

Jiraiya crossed his arms. "Go on," he said.

"Uzumaki Naruto has no primary male role model at this point in his life. The Hokage has behaved in a grandfatherly role in the past, but his duties make him too remote, and now that Naruto is a Genin, the differences in rank are coming between them. Umino Iruka is a good man, but his contact with Naruto has lessened considerably since he left the Academy. Maito Gai…" She broke off and shuddered.

Jiraiya grimaced and nodded.

"Gai is a good example of hard work and discipline, but even Naruto is aware of his eccentricities and… social shortcomings. You, on the other hand, are a well-respected Shinobi with a legendary reputation. You are highly knowledgeable in ninjutsu, an aspect of shinobi training in which Naruto has the capacity to excel. You also aren't infected with the idiocy that made many in this village treat the boy as a pariah." Kurenai's voice trailed off.

"But?" Jiraiya prodded her, his voice flat.

Kurenai's voice was even as she continued, with no hint of anger leaking out. "But in many ways your behavior is even more deplorable than Gai's. Like it or not, that young man looks up to you, and will likely do so more as time passes and you continue to work together. He's had nothing but positive things to say about the things you've taught him, and that advanced doton jutsu probably saved his life. But I'm concerned about what he might learn from you besides jutsu."

Jiraiya's scowl deepened, drawing his eyebrows together. "Don't you think you're overreacting?"

"No," Kurenai said softly, "I am not. There are things that might be acceptable for you that are not acceptable coming from Uzumaki Naruto."

"If you think polite behavior is going to make people stop hating him for the Kyuubi, you're a fool," Jiraiya scoffed.

Kurenai shook her head. "I'm not talking about acceptable for Naruto the Jinchuuriki, I'm talking about Naruto the Hokage."

Jiraiya stared at her. "You really believe his boasting about becoming Hokage?"

Kurenai shrugged, something she hadn't done in a long time. It was odd. When Jiraiya acted seriously, he reminded her of her old sensei. "At first, I wasn't sure. It was his overriding goal when he left the Academy, so I decided to take it seriously and phrase everything he needed to do to improve in terms of how it would advance him toward that goal. Even if he changed his mind later, he'd still be a better shinobi for it." She shook her head. "But he's worked at a pace that I find almost frightening. He's improved so much in such a short time, and now his goal doesn't seem so far-fetched. If you had any idea what a mess he was at the Academy…"

"I know exactly how bad he was," Jiraiya said with a growl. "The old man didn't take me too seriously when I said something was going on there."

Kurenai looked up, her eyes glinting. "How did you know?"

"I checked up on him, secretly, whenever I returned to Konoha to report to the Hokage," Jiraiya said. Then he added, "He is my godson, after all."

The Sannin winced a little at the spike of killing intent that tore through the room.

"You are his godfather," Kurenai said, taking a step toward him, "and you left him to be raised like this? What the hell is wrong with you?"

"He's alive," Jiraiya replied coolly. "He probably wouldn't be if I'd claimed him. I have too many enemies and so did his father." He spat to one side, knocking over a wastepaper basket. "I'm not happy about how things turned out, but it could have been a lot worse. I've also spent damn near every day of the last ten years working to protect my godson. Ask the Hokage about an organization called Akatsuki, you should be cleared for it, given your relationship to Naruto, and your new job. Oh, and while you're at it, ask him how many times he's talked me out of eliminating half the Council. Or where and why I went ten years ago in the middle of our conflict with Kumo! "With that, Jiraiya turned and angrily stalked toward the door.

"Wait!" Kurenai's voice stopped him as he was reaching toward the doorknob. "His father? Gods… The Fourth really did have a son, didn't he?"

Jiraiya turned back toward her with a grimace. "Me and my big mouth," he sighed. "Congratulations," he growled, "you've stumbled across another S-class secret. If this gets out, half the hidden villages will be sending assassination teams within the week. But you won't have to worry about that because I'll kill you myself."

"It won't get out because of me," Kurenai snapped back. "But if the resemblance gets any stronger, people will start to assume things like that Iwa border patrol."

Jiraiya shook his head. "I suppose you're right about that. All we can do is really just buy him as much time as we can before things come to a head."

"At the rate he's improving," Kurenai observed, "I think he's got a good chance."

"Maybe," Jiraiya grunted sourly.

"Which brings me back to my original point," Kurenai continued. "I don't think it's going to help Naruto as a Hokage if he has a reputation as a pervert. All right, I can understand in your case why it might make an acceptable cover, but for such a… why are you laughing?" she demanded.

Jiraiya was actually doubled over, holding his stomach. With a mighty effort, he stifled his laughter, save for an occasional chortle, and straightened up, wiping the tears from his eyes. "I'm sorry, but that's the funniest thing I've heard all day."

"I don't see what's so funny," Kurenai said.

"Every time I publish a new masterpiece of adult entertainment," he explained, his grin widening with every word, "I reserve the first thirty copies to be shipped back to old friends in Konoha. Number one is always personally signed, with a dedication to my old sensei."

Kurenai hung her head, pinching the bridge of her nose as she struggled to rid her mind of the image of Hokage-sama reading an orange book and giggling like Kakashi. She failed miserably. Being a genjutsu master required a vivid and detailed imagination. Times like this made her wonder why she hadn't become a seamstress like her mother wanted.

Kurenai sighed. She wondered if the break room had any coffee left. Maybe some aspirin. "All right, let me rephrase. I think it would be a liability for a Hokage to be publicly known as a pervert. There are already stories going around about some strange sex-change jutsu he developed at the Academy, but I think those will just be treated as youthful pranks. Naruto's already going to face an uphill challenge getting most of Konoha to accept him. Do you want to make it even harder for him?"

Jiraiya sighed. "All right, you've made your point. I'll… keep a handle on my cover activities when he's around. All right?"

Kurenai nodded. "Thank you. The only other thing I wanted to discuss was his friends."

"Look, I was willing to take the kunoichi so he won't feel too lonely. I don't see what the problem is."

Kurenai paused for a moment to collect her thoughts. "I'm going to bend on a few personal confidences here. This information is for your ears only, understood?"

Jiraiya nodded, rolling his eyes.

"Hyuuga Hinata is the oldest daughter of the clan head, but I doubt she will ever be confirmed as heir. She's been subjected to systematic emotional abuse for most of her life, punctuated by what seems to be plausibly-disguised episodes of physical abuse. I've considered removing her from active duty, but missions appear to be her only escape from an abusive environment. Confined to the Hyuuga compound, I'd give her less than a year before 'accidentally dying' – either by her own hand or someone else's."

Jiraiya's eyes hardened as she spoke.

"I'd also estimate a greater than even chance of Naruto, and possibly Shino, engaging in unauthorized retaliation were that to happen, no matter the consequences."

Jiraiya's eyes widened. "It's that serious?"

"It can be," Kurenai replied. "If you checked up on Naruto, then you know he's had no friends his own age up until now. Imagine how close he's become to his teammates – his first friends?"

Jiraiya closed his eyes for a moment, and Kurenai winced. The breakup of the Densetsu no Sannin was well known, but she hadn't intended to open old wounds. "To their credit," Kurenai continued after a moment, "his teammates appear to be just as loyal. Shino confronted his clan elders regarding slanderous rumors spread about Naruto, even threatening to leave the clan if what I heard was true."

Jiraiya's eyebrows went up at that.

"After his first kill, Naruto was actively contemplating suicide, due in part to some active sabotage performed by the Academy's psychological counselor," Kurenai tightened her jaw and continued, despite the rage that purpled Jiraiya's face. "Hinata was able to get him to open up before he did anything drastic and convinced him that he wasn't a monster. And then she got me to talk to him as well. Don't worry, that counselor was remanded to Ibiki as soon as we returned to Konoha."

Jiraiya calmed himself with a visible effort. "She seems like a nice girl, if a bit quiet," he said after a moment.

"She loves Naruto unreservedly," Kurenai replied, "or at least to the extent that someone with her problems is capable of loving anyone. One of her happiest memories is of Naruto telling her she was his best friend."

"But he doesn't consider her as a girlfriend?" Jiraiya asked, both puzzled and mildly offended. "He isn't… you know, is he?"

Kurenai frowned. "Hinata, for a variety of reasons, is afflicted with crushing shyness. For that matter, Naruto has only now acquired his first friends. How would he ever have had a chance to learn what love is?" she asked sadly.

Jiraiya looked slightly ill. "The more I learn, the more I second guess the plan we put together to keep Naruto safely anonymous."

Kurenai peered at the Sannin. For an instant, she saw past the gruff exterior of the Toad Hermit and saw a middle-aged man grieving for lost opportunities. "I suppose hindsight is always twenty-twenty," she said after a moment. "But I can't argue with the fact that he is alive today. Your plan wasn't a complete failure."

Jiraiya nodded, slowly straightening back up. "I suppose it wasn't. And I get your point. I won't tease him about either of them. Much, anyway. If I completely stopped, Naruto would know something was up. He's a lot sharper than he lets on, isn't he?"

"Yes," Kurenai agreed with a smile. "He's surprised me more than once."

OoOoO

For once, Naruto was eating alone at Ichiraku's. Shino had excused himself as soon as they left the Hokage's office. The Aburame compound had suffered some serious damage during the attack, and several of the breeding colonies had been damaged when an incubator heating unit exploded. His clan didn't begrudge time spent on clean-up missions for Konoha, but he did feel obligated to help out as much as possible. Even with the mission tomorrow. Naruto offered to come along and lend some clones to help, but it seemed that the most time-intensive activity remaining involved sorting out the colonies that had been mixed together and making sure that they didn't accidentally interbreed. To Naruto's eyes, most kikai bugs looked alike, and he reluctantly agreed that he'd be pretty useless. Shino had, however, thanked him for the offer, and promised to let him know if they had any 'brute force' jobs left.

Hinata, on the other hand, had told him she would like to meet him later to help him prepare for the mission tomorrow. She seemed a little distressed at leaving Naruto to eat alone, but she said she wasn't really that hungry. Naruto also knew that she tended to be a little obsessive when it came to packing for an extended mission, worrying that he'd forget something they'd desperately need once they were gone. She was probably right on that though.

It was kind of odd for Naruto, knowing someone well enough that he could guess why she did something without even asking. He'd almost been that close to Iruka at the Academy, but he hadn't really understood him until that night in the forest with Mizuki. It was kind of… comforting… he supposed, to know someone that well. Maybe it wasn't the predictability so much as what it symbolized – a really close friendship.

And it wasn't so bad having a quiet meal by himself. Ichiraku's was completely untouched during the invasion. It seemed that some of his stray clones ended up congregating on that particular street after their primary objectives were accomplished. Naruto didn't think it was a coincidence of any sort, but he wasn't about to admit it to anyone who asked. Still, he was glad that Teuchi's stand hadn't been damaged at all, and the old man responded to his good fortune by offering half-price ramen to anyone working on village repairs.

Nonetheless, he'd been a little surprised by the extra-warm greeting he received the first time Team Eight visited after the exam. It hadn't even occurred to him that people would bet on the examination matches, but it warmed his heart to know that Teuchi and Ayame believed in him enough to bet their savings on him.

The fact that Iruka-sensei had organized the betting pool, and evidently become quite rich from it, completely scandalized the Genin. What happened to the straight-laced Academy teacher that lectured him about proper behavior? Imitating a foreigner to skin the rich bastards of Konoha? Naruto reminded himself to have a few words with his old sensei the next time he saw him.

Still, things were looking good as he started on his fourth bowl of miso ramen. He had an important mission tomorrow. Hinata wouldn't have to deal with her crappy family for a few more days. Ero-Sennin had even promised to teach him a cool new jutsu. And to be honest, he was getting a little bored with D-rank repair missions, no matter how necessary they might be.

Naruto was just drinking down the broth when he glanced up to see Ayame frown, looking over his shoulder. "There had better not be any trouble in here," she said coolly, then turned away from the counter.

Naruto looked to his side as Hyuuga Neji carefully sat down on the stool next to him. The Branch Family Prodigy was moving a little unsteadily, like he'd been off of his feet for several days, and a bulky bandage was wrapped around his head, completely covering his forehead. He was also dressed in a plain white robe Naruto was fairly sure came from the hospital. He'd seen Hinata wearing one long enough.

Naruto didn't say a word as Ayame took his bowl away and brought him a fifth serving. She didn't ask Neji if he wanted anything, and her facial expression was coldly proper. Naruto wondered if it bothered Neji at all, being treated here like Naruto was treated in a lot of restaurants in Konoha.

If it did bother the Hyuuga boy, he didn't show it. Naruto started on his noodles, pausing only after a couple of minutes when Neji finally spoke.

"Your final blow left a large scar," he said quietly.

Naruto resumed his meal after a moment. He wasn't precisely being rude – Neji hadn't asked him a question yet.

"The Caged Bird Seal was completely obliterated when the skin was ripped away," Neji continued after a moment. "That shouldn't be possible, but the medic-nins think a burst of chakra might have disrupted the seal as the blow was struck."

Naruto resumed eating after Neji fell silent again.

Neji took a deep breath after a couple of moments. "That's equally impossible, at least not without killing me, unless there was something very strange about the chakra that was used. But given how you recovered from having your tenketsu closed, that is not very surprising." He turned on his seat, facing directly toward Naruto. "The scar that formed is also suffused with chakra. When the Elders tried to reapply my seal, that chakra disrupted the attempt. At this point, the medic-nins insisted that further attempts would be too dangerous and when Hiashi-sama insisted, the Hokage asserted his authority on the matter. My Uncle tried to have me immediately removed from the hospital, but the request was refused."

Naruto finished his ramen, drinking down the last of the broth. He wiped his lips and turned to face Neji, going over the speech he'd worked out with Shino. "Is there something you wanted to ask me, or did you just come here to bore me with your medical history?" It was a little weird, but he sort of enjoyed using that snide tone. Shino said it would annoy Neji a lot more than overt rudeness.

Neji's eyes narrowed a little, but he showed no other signs of anger. "I left the hospital because I wanted to know why. You freed me from the seal that has enslaved my family for generations. I now owe you a debt of honor, but I want to know one thing: Why did you do this?" The reserved Genin's voice became a little rougher at the end, but he still spoke in little more than an intense whisper.

Naruto looked directly into Neji's eyes for a moment. "I didn't do it for you."

Neji blinked.

"I visited your cousin in the hospital after you nearly killed her," Naruto said. "I saw her every day, and she never mentioned seeing a single member of her family when she was there. She really only asked for one thing from me when I visited her. Do you know what that was?"

Neji slowly shook his head.

"Your life," Naruto snapped. "She practically begged me not to kill you. She knew I wanted to. I still want to. Either that or claw a little lower, rip out your eyes, and leave you forever blinded. She was coughing up blood at one point, but she wouldn't stop talking, wouldn't stop making excuses for you and what you did."

Naruto looked down and saw that his hands were trembling. He took a deep breath and blew it out. "I couldn't tell her no. So you had to live. But I asked my teacher if I could damage a seal using chakra in a special way and he explained how it could be done." Naruto smiled a little, but it never reached his eyes. "I don't think that was quite what he had in mind, but it seems to have worked."

"So this was just an experiment," Neji concluded in a flat voice.

"No," Naruto corrected. "You're right. You owe a debt for being freed from the seal. But you don't owe it to me, you owe it to Hinata. I did it for her. She hates that seal even more than you do."

Neji opened his mouth to protest, but Naruto interrupted him. He'd had a lot of time to practice what he wanted to say, and he wasn't about to let Neji interrupt him now. "She feels guilty and ashamed every time she thinks about the seals on you and the other branch family members. She'd rather be in the branch family herself and carry the seal than be in the main family and feel responsible for the others being sealed. And even aside from that… despite all the crap you helped her father put her through, despite all the 'special training sessions', despite you almost goddamn killing her for a stupid examination bout… she still thinks of you as "Neji-nii-san", her cousin."

Naruto shook his head. "Did you know her earliest memory is wishing she could trade places with you? She envied the fact that everyone said your father actually liked you before he died, while hers… Well, I guess he liked you better as well, as long as he had a seal on you, right?"

Neji leaned back on his stool and Naruto abruptly realized that he was leaning far forward. He took a deep breath as he straightened. "Does that sound like a weak person to you, Neji?" Naruto shook his head. "As far as I'm concerned, any debt you owe me is really owed to her. Make up with Hiashi-baka if you have to, convince him you'll remain loyal, but look out for her when I can't. Act like her cousin and not just another fucked up Hyuuga idiot. You want to discharge your debt? Well, Hinata wants her cousin back. You can start while I'm on my next mission. Try to help her out when she needs it. Give her that, and your honor is satisfied. Got it?"

Neji nodded and slowly got up from his stool. He turned to leave, paused, and then bowed very low to Uzumaki Naruto.

Naruto was silent as he watched the Hyuuga leave. Then he too, stood up. He paid for his meal and headed home, where he had promised to meet another Hyuuga.


~ Notes ~

This is just the transition chapter: I will shift from the original Team 8 plot and move on to the plot that I have started. Now it may seem really lazy to have just modified this chapter, but aside from the few alterations I have placed in it. I really don't think it even could have changed very much.

In the next chapter: Hinata says good bye and begins to train once more. Kurenai starts her new job. Naruto, Shino, and Haku accompany Jiraiya to return the Kazekage's children. You will see Shino's point of view as he watches the two jinchuuriki learn how manipulate their Bunshin. And Naruto will get the good news that should have awaited him back at Konoha.

P.S. This was started before the death in the family, and was not inspired by it. I had no idea he would kill her when I began writing.


While T8: Retroversion will be my main Fic, Five others are on my list to work on at the moment: LATE Naruto: Life After the Ends; Uzumaki: A Lone Fox; The Thousand Ninja; Village Hidden in Plain Sight; and Wisdom of Chance. Descriptions on profile.