When I'm Gone Chap. 1

The gentle spring winds blew through through the field, caressing it with its warmth and serenity. He smiled as he fell back into the grass beneath him. He adored such peace and tranquility. Being a shinobi, his life was more full of blood and violence than passion and love. He wished he could stay like this forever. Alas, such a dream would never be. With a sigh, he stood up, a few blades of grass falling from his clothes. Running a hand through his thick blonde hair, he went off in search of his teammates.

His thoughts drifted to the difficulty of hiding so many secrets from the public. There were only two living people besides himself who knew these secrets. Every. Single. One. If anyone else knew his secrets, he would surely be exiled from Konoha without question. His most well known "secret" was that he was the Jinchuriki to the Kyuubi no Kitsune, the demon fox that nearly destroyed Konoha nearly fourteen years ago. The villagers have tried many times to kill him out of fear, though that stopped after he became a shinobi. He has not yet revealed this to his friends, who were mostly unaware of his demonic powers.

His second secret was the mask he wore whenever he was in public. He would purposely act like a carefree moron when he was around other people in order to keep the attention. His real personality was much more calm and collected, though he was far from antisocial. Very rarely has his mask slipped in public, though he had allowed it in several life-or-death situations in the past.

Perhaps his most well-guarded secret, his last secret was the most dangerous of them all. He learned of the circumstances only a week prior, and to be honest with himself, he still had a hard time believing it. If word of it were to become public, he would be exiled without question. He was a hanyou – a person with half-demon ancestry. As such, he was granted abilities that a normal human would not be able to possess. Also, he noticed, he was growing at an abnormal rate. Only a week ago he stood at 4'11'', but now he measured at 5'5''. In addition to the Kyuubi's abilities and his own prowess, he was very powerful. In fact, he could give Jiraiya a run for his money if they were both serious enough. This secret tied into the secret of his parentage, which he believed to be a blessing rather than a curse.

On the day of his fourteenth birthday, he learned the truth of his heritage. His father was named Namikaze Minato, the world-renowned Fourth Hokage of Konoha. His mother was his fiance, Lady Uzumaki Kushina of the Whirlpool Country. She was the heiress – or princess – to the throne of the Whirlpool Country, and was to ascend the throne after her marriage to Minato. However, the Kyuubi attacked took both of their lives. His mother died in battle, giving her lover and son time to seal the beast away. After the Kyuubi was safely sealed within his son, Minato passed away as a result of the jutsu he used. He learned that his mother was a hanyou as well, thus where his hanyou abilities came from.

If the village council knew that he was a hanyou, then he was going to be exiled from his home. So, in order to prove that he was an asset to the village and not a danger to it at all, he spent many hours each day training his skills. Jiraiya often supervised his training, stepping in if his powers began to overwhelm him. So far, he had gotten a grip on his basic hanyou abilities, and was able to maintain himself using three tails of Kyuubi's power. Aside from those powers, he was now able to manipulate wind chakra and utilize it in battle. Jiraiya estimated that, if he were to master all three sets of skills he had at his disposal, then it would be possible for him to match the strength of all three Sannin combined. However, his abilities were still in the developmental stage. It would be a long while before he became that powerful. It would take months, maybe even years, before he mastered it all. The most difficult aspect of it all, though, was keeping it a secret.

He arrived at the training area where, to his surprise, he found all of his friends talking amongst themselves. 'What could they be talking about?' he wondered as he approached them. He approached cautiously, making sure that he was not detected by any of them. He made doubly sure that he masked his chakra so no one, not even those with Kekkei Genkai, could see him. He got within earshot of the group, listening in on their conversation.

"Okay, so we all agree that Naruto cannot find out about this." a girl said. She had short pink hair and emerald green eyes. She wore a red belly shirt outlined in white with a hollow circle design on her back. Along with this she wore a light pink battle skirt with black shorts underneath. The skirt was cut so it was more like two cloths hanging from her belt. Naruto knew her to be Haruno Sakura, a genjutsu mistress and a medic-nin to boot.

"Right. Though, I don't feel comfortable keeping secrets from him." a blue haired boy remarked. He had soft green eyes, wearing a red jacket over a yellow shirt with black sweatpants. The jacket's collar covered his neck slightly. He also had red bands around his wrists. He was Naruto's friend, Mokushi Taiyou, heir to his clan and holder of the Atsusagan.

"But this is important. If Naruto knew, he'd have a fit! You know how he is." a blonde haired girl replied. Her hair was worn in a long ponytail, with a smaller one accenting her face and light blue eyes. She wore a purple belly shirt similar to Sakura's, except it was buttoned down the middle and her abdomen was wrapped in bandages. She also wore these bandages around her forearms and thighs. She had black spandex shorts under a purple battle skirt like Sakura's. She was Yamanaka Ino, one of Sakura's old friends and Naruto's acquaintance. She was a master of interrogation and manipulation.

"This is what must be done. I don't particularly revel in it, but it's the way it has to be." a young boy with long brown hair replied. He had light lavender eyes, though they were serious in nature. He wore a white short-sleeved shirt with a black stripe going down the front and around his collar. The yin-yang symbol was etched into the back of the shirt. With it, he wore a pair of black shorts with a chain hanging from his back pocket. Bandages lined the shape of his arms and legs. Naruto recognized him as Hyuga Neji, a friend and rival of his, hailed as the prodigy of the Hyuga Clan.

"But why? I mean, I get the point, but still...." an auburn haired boy asked. He had dark cerulean eyes filled with a kind demeanor. He wore a forest green jacket, with the fabric hued lighter on the sides, over a dark orange shirt. To complete the look, he wore baggy brown cargo pants. This was Naga Aki, a young boy Naruto had befriended and a genjutsu master of the highest degree.

"This training is supposed to be a secret. If Naruto knew, he'd butt in. What we need to do is get stronger and what he needs is rest." a girl said. She had long black hair and gentle hazel eyes. She wore a red crop top with a matching shorts and boots. Fishnet coverings spread over her abdomen, forearms and legs to prevent over-exposition. She was Tsubasa Aira, a friend of Naruto's from the Academy and a master of lightning jutsu.

"Yeah, Aira's right. We respect him, but we can't have him saving us all the times." her male teammate added. He was small, with light brown hair and bright green eyes. He wore a light brown vest over a white t-shirt. A water drop design was on his chest, encircled in black. He had white baggy cargo shorts, with a small scroll hanging from the side. This was Aka Shikin, one of Naruto's old friends from the Academy and a talented water jutsu specialist.

"He's been over working himself as well. Even he has his limits." a girl added. She had short length blonde hair and deep emerald eyes. She wore a pink tank top with the astrological symbol for the planet Mars sewn into her back. She wore a white battle skort over a black pair of shorts, with black knee-high boots to finish the look. She also wore black leather gloves on her hands, giving her a hunter-like appearance. She was Mokusuke Natoyo, another companion of Naruto's and a famed hunter and fire jutsu specialist.

"It is admirable to work oneself so hard, but it is important to know when to rest and when to train." one boy said. He had black hair in a howl cut and large, bug-like black eyes. He wore a white short-sleeved jumpsuit with green stripes going down the sides of his shirt and shorts. A green lightning-bolt design was on his chest, circled twice in thin green lines. He was Roku Lee, a close friend of Naruto's and a talented taijutsu expert.

"If you ask me, this whole mess is still troublesome." another boy commented. He had muddy brown eyes and jet black hair tied in a small ponytail on his head. He wore a black vest with white outlines on his chest. With it, he had a pair of black sweatpants and a cloak around his shoulders. Black leather gloves adorned his hands. This was Nara Shikamaru, a new recruit to the Konoha espionage department and one of Naruto's closest friends. His vast intelligence allowed him access to the espionage agency.

"Maybe we should change the subject......" a large boy commented. He had spiky brown hair and soft hazel eyes. He wore a blue vest over a white shirt with the kanji for 'meal' on it. With it, he had a pair of black shorts and a bandanna tied around his neck. Bandages were wrapped around his arms and legs. He was Akimichi Chouji, a close friend of Shikamaru's and an acquaintance of Naruto's. He was a master of his clan's secret jutsu.

"Yeah, like what this training is really like." a brown haired boy said. He had dark brown eyes and two red triangle-like marks on his face. He wore a black leather jacket with matching leather pants. His jacket was zipped over slightly, revealing a gray undershirt beneath it. A large white dog sat next to his master, several brown spots decorating his body. He was Inuzuka Kiba and his nin-dog Akamaru, masters of the Inuzuka arts and perfect partners.

"I hope it'll be useful." one girl commented. She had long brown hair and muddy brown eyes. She wore a gray short-sleeved jacket over a white undershirt, with a dragon-shaped design on her left side. The dragon's jaw was around a star pattern on her back. She wore a gray spandex skirt with matching knee-high boots. Fishnet coverings ran down her arms, reaching her wrists. She was Hanori Kiyoko, Aira's and Shikin's teammate and a master of earth elemental jutsu.

"Of course it'll be useful! Look at how many of us there are!" another girl retorted. She had dark brown hair in two buns on either side of her head, with light brown eyes matching her features. She wore a red crop-top under a magenta hued cloak that reached her thighs. Two white bands were tied around her hair buns, hanging at knee-length. She wore a pair of dark blue sweatpants to finish the outfit. She was Amachi Tenten, a good friend of Naruto's and a weapons expert.

"This training shall prove to be beneficial to all involved. It was a clever idea to invent such an utilitarian way to strength ourselves." a boy said. He wore a hood over his brown hair, and his green eyes were hidden behind dark tinted sunglasses. He wore a white baggy jacket over a baggy black shirt, which had a collar that covered the lower half of his face. He also had a pair of black sweatpants with a chain hanging from his back pocket. His shirt and jacket hung just above his knees. This was Aburame Shino, an enigmatic friend of Naruto's and a master of the Aburame Clan's insect jutsu.

"Sakura deserves most of the credit. She came up with the idea." another boy said nonchalantly. He had spiky black hair, his bangs hanging from the sides of his face, and dark obsidian eyes. He wore a black sweat jacket over a blue t-shirt, with a red and white fan design on his back. With it, he wore a pair of black sweatpants. A necklace with a charm shaped like a fireball was around his neck, symbolizing his heritage. This was Uchiha Sasuke, the last surviving Uchiha, holder of the Sharingan and Naruto's main rival.

"B-But......why c-can't Naruto-kun come to the training?" a quiet voice spoke up. The girl had long midnight blue hair that rested softly on her back, with pale lavender eyes that shone with an inner vitality. She wore a light blue baggy jacket with white trimmings, the yin-yang symbol etched into the back. She also wore a pair of baggy white pants, the lighter coloring highlighting her placid skin tone. Her name was Hyuga Hinata, the heiress to the Hyuga Clan and wielder of the Byakugan.

"Because, like Lee said before, he's been overworking himself. He needs to rest before he overexerts himself and blows his limit." Sakura explained to her.

"It still feels like we're.....betraying him though....." Hinata quietly complained. Kiba patted her shoulder gently.

"Don't worry Hinata. It's only 'til Naruto takes a little break. Then he'll be on the field with the rest of us." he said encouragingly. She sighed reluctantly.

"Okay.....I s-suppose if that's how it'll work....." she relented. With that, Sakura continued her explanation.

"Now that that's cleared up, we're going to hold a little tournament, with one-on-one matches going around. Since there's only seventeen of us at the moment, someone will get a free pass. Whoever faces that person will have a five-minute break so they won't be at a disadvantage. Now, we'll draw straws. Whoever has the shortest straw will get the free pass." she said. She held up several straws in her hand. Everyone came and picked up, leaving only one left in her hand. Once making sure everyone had one, she nodded in confirmation.

"Okay, reveal on the count of three. One.......two.......three!" she called. Everyone showed their straws at the same time, carefully observing the others. They were easily able to point out the shortest of them all.

"Looks like Hinata-chan's got it. You'll have to sit out this round." Sakura said to her friend, slightly upset it was her. Hinata seemed disheartened, though hid it with a small smile.

"Okay. I guess I could, uh, watch the others and think of how to fight them." she offered as an excuse.

"That's the spirit, Hinata! Okay now, let's split up into groups." Sakura said, turning to the others.

Naruto watched from his spot above in the trees. To be honest, he was hoping Hinata would be able to fight, just to prove she's capable of doing so. However, fate apparently had other plans. He watched as the girl sat against the trunk of the tree, watching as the others started to battle. Naruto would've stayed longer, but a sudden sensation made him turn in the other direction. He knew exactly what it was.

Due to his hanyou abilities, he was able to discern messages from the chakra fluctuation in the air via a comrade who knew how. So far, only two people knew how to call him like that. With a sigh, he vanished from his spot, heading towards the Hokage Tower. Whatever Tsunade wanted to see him for, it must be important for her to use that ability. He hoped that it wasn't another assassination mission.....

(Current Day: Hokage's Tower)

Tsunade was highly stressed by the mission report on her desk. Standing next to her was Hyuga Hiashi, the father of Hinata and the head of the Hyuga Clan. He was the one who posted the mission report, for a reason he claimed was personal. She had called Naruto a few minutes prior, and the blonde was on his way.

"How could this have been kept a secret for so long?" she asked Hiashi in frustration. The Hyuga head replied with a shrug of agreement.

"I'm not sure myself. It was foolish of the counsel to elect this a secret from the public, especially from him. How would Minato react if he knew?" he inquired. Tsunade scoffed in reply.

"You would think being his aunt would entitle me to that knowledge. Yet even I would not know." she said. Hiashi sighed regretfully.

"Had I known who he was, I never would've allowed him to be mistreated like that." he commented in remorse.

"If we had all known, he wouldn't have been mistreated. But, sadly, we cannot erase the past. Though, it may be a good thing. It has shaped him into the person he is today." she remarked.

"I suppose that is one good thing that came out of this mess." he remarked with a small smirk. Before their conversation could continue, the open to the office swung open, revealing Naruto standing behind it.

"Tsunade-baa-chan, what's wrong?" he asked. The elder woman hide her emotions behind a stern face, staring at him with serious eyes.

"Naruto, I have just received a mission report from Hyuga Hiashi, the head of the Hyuga Clan. I believe you two are acquaintances?" she said. Naruto bowed respectfully towards Hiashi, who returned the gesture. Upon discovering his heritage, he learned that Hiashi and Minato were close, if not best, friends when they were younger. After discussing the events of the past, Naruto and Hiashi had also developed a steady friendship. He had won favor with Hiashi earlier in his shinobi career when he bested Neji during the Chunin Exams, and again when he helped and encouraged Hinata to change herself. Since then, Naruto had gotten along greatly with the Hyuga Clan. Though, as to why Hiashi was here, he was clueless.

"Hiashi-san, it's nice to see you again. Did something happen at the Hyuga Complex?" Naruto inquired. Hiashi nodded in confirmation.

"A thief had broken into the manor, snatched but a single item, then fled without anyone hearing him. However, he did leave small traces of his trail that we found with our Byakugan. I have reason to believe it was a shadow thief that had stolen it." he explained. Naruto was further confused. His explanation was somewhat vague, but he did get the message that something did indeed occur.

"What was stolen? And, what's a shadow thief?" he asked in curiosity. This time, Tsunade spoke up.

"A shadow thief is just as the name suggests. They are thieves that travel swiftly and quietly through the shadows as to avoid detection by enemies during espionage or assassination missions. Most of the time, they have had shinobi training in the past, which allows them to travel with such ease. As to what was stolen.......well, that's what worries us. What was stolen was one of the twelve Holy Crystals." she explained. Naruto's eyes widened at this revelation.

"A Holy Crystal!? B-But, is that possible? I thought they were only legend!" he exclaimed in surprise.

"Years ago, when the world was young, the unbalance of nature allowed evil forces to control the lands. Many people perished under the harsh conditions and unrelenting cruelty. However, twelve brave warriors stood up against the darkness and defeated it, sealing it back within the demonic dimension from whence it came. In order to ensure that peace rained over the lands they had worked so hard to save, each hero created a crystal from their own chakra and infused it with the natural element they were most familiar with. Afterwards, they blessed the crystal to give them the power needed to protect our world. Each element – fire, water, earth, wind, lightning, ice, wood, light, darkness, steel, cosmic and arcane – is kept in balance by these crystals. If they were disturbed by any dark forces, the balance of nature would once more be thrown into turmoil." Hiashi explained.

"The creator of the Fire Crystal was an early founder of the Hyuga Clan. Therefore, the clan has guarded the crystal for centuries until now. If one crystal was stolen, chances are the other eleven are also viable targets. Your mission is to retrieve the Fire Crystal and to protect the others from being stolen as well. In order to avoid suspicion, you'll have to go undercover." Tsunade explained. Naruto nodded anxiously, fully understanding the situation.

"Okay, I get it. What do I go undercover as?" he asked. At this, both Hiashi and Tsunade became visibly solemn and troubled. Naruto looked at them both in confusion. It wasn't normal for them to let their emotions be displayed freely.

"......A missing-nin." Tsunade replied darkly. He froze at her words, looking at her in shock and despair.

"A......missing-nin? B-But why!? I mean, I didn't do anything, and-" his complaints were cut off by Hiashi, who spoke up over him.

"This is only a cover. We know you are not really a missing-nin and so does the council. When you return, you'll be welcomed back as if you were on a normal mission." he explained.

"We rarely use pseudo-missing-nins to do things, but this is one of those fews exceptions. If you started collecting the crystals in Konoha's name, our neighbors might begin to think we're plotting something and declare war on us in fear of the unknown. This is also to avoid unneeded bloodshed and lost of life. You do understand, don't you?" Tsunade asked. Naruto solemnly nodded in agreement.

"I suppose, when you put it that way, I really don't have a say in the matter. I understand. But......if you have to send ninja after me, please tell my friends the truth. They have a right to know." he pleaded. Tsunade sighed in reluctance.

"I'll try to, but once they hear about it, they will go after you. Nothing I say will stop them. Are you prepared to face that possibility?" she asked him. He hesitated for a moment, thinking deeply. Without uttering a sound, he nodded.

"I can fight them as long as they don't go all out on me. If I go all out on them, it'll reveal things I don't want them to know yet." he replied.

"Understood. You are to leave tonight, when there is no one around. I will let the night guards, Nara Shikaku and Akimichi Chouza, know of your mission so they will not hinder you. I suggest going home to rest and spend the night with your friends. It'll be the last time you see them for a while." Tsunade urged. Making sure there were no tears in his eyes, he nodded.

"Arigato, Tsunade-sama." he replied, his voice hiding the smallest traces of pain and sadness. He left the room before his tears could fall. Tsunade looked down at the top of her desk in shame. How could she have let him down so? Hiashi could easily sense her inner turmoils.

"Tsunade-sama?" he questioned. She straightened up, an expression of resolve in her eyes. She turned to the Hyuga head with an idea brewing in her head.

"Hiashi, let your daughters and nephew know that Uzumaki Naruto has escaped from Konoha tomorrow morning. Make it sound convincing. Those three will be part of his 'rescue team.'" she ordered. Hiashi raised in eyebrow in response.

"What are you planning?" he asked, questioning not only her plan, but her mental integrity as well.

"The members of the Konoha 20 will be sent after Naruto to retrieve him. Ha, I don't know why I didn't think of this before! I'll have Naruto's friends track him down so they can see exactly how strong he's become. Perhaps they may even join him in his mission. The elders may think they've finally rid themselves of 'that Kyuubi brat,' but they'll lose twenty valuable shinobi in the process." Tsunade explained. Hiashi began to catch onto her plan.

"You plan on having Naruto's friends discover his secrets and accompany him as 'rogue ninja,' aren't you?" he asked. Tsunade smirked devilishly in response.

"The elders aren't the only ones who can play dirty." she replied, walking out of the office with a newfound sense of pride. Hiashi couldn't help but laugh. 'Just like Minato.' he thought.

(Current Day: Naruto's Apartment)

Naruto walked through the door to his apartment, taking in the feelings as he tossed his keys on the counter. He won't be needing those anytime soon. This would be one of the last times he would be able to relax at home – or anywhere actually, considering the nature and urgency of his mission. With a solemn sigh, he reclined on his couch, staring at the ceiling in deep thought. He would have to traverse the known world in order to find the Twelve Holy Crystals, possibly more to find the one that was stolen. It was bound to be a grueling and lengthy journey.

"Yo kiddo." a voice said. He sat up in surprise, not expecting the voice he heard. Sitting on his window sill was his mentor Jiraiya. The expression on his face told Naruto that he knew about his mission.

"Jiraiya........I'm sorry." he said apologetically. The fact that the blonde had used his real name and not his nickname told Jiraiya that he was depressed about the situation he was in. He loved his village with all his heart; for him to be banished from it in order to save it was the ultimate irony in his life. No, perhaps that was inaccurate. The ultimate irony was that he saved the village from the demon fox Kyuubi and was hated for it.

"What are you apologizing for?" he asked. Naruto looked away from his master, unable to face him directly.

"I always said I wanted to be Hokage........I thought I'd be able to do anything to protect my home. But now......I don't know anymore." he admitted. Jiraiya put his hand on his shoulder and looked him straight in the eye.

"I understand what you mean. What you must do......it's not a task most are capable of. However, you were chosen because we all have faith in you. Don't ever forget that, even if things seem its bleakest, there is always a better day ahead." he said encouragingly. Naruto smiled lightly as he turned to his mentor.

"I know, but......everything I've worked so hard to get here....I'm afraid it'll all be taken away." he replied, his smile fading. Jiraiya just smiled a cocky grin.

"Don't forget, you have a great bunch of friends that believe in you. Ever since you rescued Sasuke from Orochimaru and released his curse mark, everyone has seen you in a better light." he pointed out. The mission to retrieve Sasuke from Orochimaru had ended in the Valley of the End, where Naruto finally managed to defeat Sasuke and destroy the curse mark dictating his actions.

A side effect of the mark, however, caused Sasuke to temporarily develop amnesia. As such, he hardly remembered a distraught Team 7 when they came to visit him. Instead of letting things take their course, Naruto and Sakura decided to use their teammate's amnesia to try and bring him out of the antisocial shell he had created. The results were even better than they expected.

After Sasuke regained his memories, he personally thanked them for helping him in his time of need. Even if he didn't want to admit it, they played a major part in his life and he needed them as much as they needed him. Naruto even noticed that he seemed to be getting a lot closer to Sakura than before. He decided to let them work out their own problems. Like now, he had his own problems to worry about.

"That's true, but my friends won't know the truth if they just rush after me without hearing Tsunade-baa-chan's reasoning! I don't want to fight them!" Naruto replied.

"Then you try to convince them. Explain to them what happened and why you have to go. They'd probably only listen to you anyway." Jiraiya remarked. The blonde sighed dejectedly.

"I guess only time will tell....." he agreed.

(That night: Konoha Gates)

Naruto stood at the gates of Konoha, a pack slung over his shoulder. It was time. He started taking a few steps towards the gate, leaving for an undetermined amount of time. The images of his beloved friends ran through his mind, all smiling and laughing with each other. He wasn't going to see them again for a while, and when he was they were going to be enemies on the battlefield. Just as he was about to leave, a voice called out to him.

"Oh, Naruto, it's you. Come here for a sec, will ya?" an older voice said to him. He turned to see Nara Shikaku, the father of Shikamaru, and Akimichi Chouza, the father of Chouji, standing guard by the gate.

"Shikaku-san! Chouza-san! Boy, for a minute there, I thought someone caught me already." Naruto admitted. The two older men laughed a little at the boy's response.

"Don't worry Naruto. Tsunade-sama told us about your mission already. We wish you the best of luck." Shikaku said.

"When tomorrow comes, we'll have to try and play the part of innocent bystander when we tell our kids about you leaving. Tsunade-sama sent a message to all the parents of the Konoha 20 about it. They'll be taken care of, so just focus on getting the Holy Crystals." Chouza said consolingly. The blonde nodded in recognition.

"Thank you. I promise I'll save this world so everyone can live in it peacefully, and I'm not gonna die until I do." he promised.

"We expect nothing less. Now get going and good luck!" Shikaku said. Naruto nodded in response and sped out of the gate, his mission officially beginning. 'I promise......I won't die.' he vowed. With his promise heard only by the darkened winds of night, he disappeared into the shadows and into his newest adventure.

(The Next Morning: Hyuga Complex)

The Hyuga Complex was famous throughout Konoha for being one of the most majestic, peaceful and tranquil places in the entire village, if not the whole country. However, the normal peace and quiet was shattered by a loud slamming sound.

Hinata fell over from her bed in surprise at the sudden sound. Her blanket followed suit, and she soon found herself looking up at her father from the floor. He had a worried look plastered on his features.

"Father? Is there.....something amiss?" she asked curiously. It was very rare to see her father display any type of concern or angst of any kind. For him to be so concerned meant it had to be something big.

"I have an urgent message from the Hokage. It seems that.......Uzumaki Naruto has fled the village." Hiashi regretfully reported. Hinata sat straight up in shock at the revelation.

"W-What?! W-What does that mean?" she asked in a similar manner.

"Last night, the two guards at the gate only caught the fleeting glimpse of the all too familiar form of Uzumaki Naruto running from the Konoha. He had a pack around his shoulder and they had not received any notification from the Hokage that he had a mission. Therefore, he is now considered a missing nin and a team of shinobi is being assembled to track him down. You, your cousin and your sister have been chosen as part of the team." Hiashi explained. Hinata could feel her heart breaking as her father motioned for her to stand from the floor.

"Please prepare yourself for what's to come. I will inform Neji and Hanabi, then the three of you will proceed to the Hokage's Tower." he said. She nodded silently and he left the room. She turned, put her blanket on her bed and sat down on it. She drew her knees to her chest and buried her head between them. She let her tears flow freely.

(Later: Hokage's Tower)

The Hyuga trio soon arrived at the tower, where the guards recognized them. They allowed them inside, having been informed of their presence beforehand. Hanabi looked up to her sister worriedly.

"Hinata, are you alright?" she asked. She wore a dark brown short sleeved shirt with black sweatpants clinging to her delicate legs. Her shirt had a V-neck cut, with fishnet coverings right above her breast. She had the same eyes as her sister, but her father's long brown hair.

"I will be once I learn the truth." Hinata replied sadly. Neji seemed concerned for his cousin's wellbeing, but decided it would be best to let the Hokage explain the full situation.

"Hinata-sama, just remember that Hanabi-san and I are here if you need us." he offered reassuringly. She smiled and nodded at them.

"Yes, I know. Now, let's go." she said. They only walked a few more steps when they saw a small crowd of people in the waiting room. They instantly recognized all of them.

"It's......the Konoha 20!" Hanabi exclaimed in surprise. Sakura, hearing her outburst, turned to see them. She seemed confused and hurt by the news.

"Hinata......Neji......Hanabi......I can't believe it." she remarked, tears threatening to fall. Aki came over to comfort her.

"Sakura-san, don't worry. We don't know the full story, so maybe its a misunderstanding." he said encouragingly.

"I hope you're right, Aki." Sakura replied. Suddenly, the door to Tsunade's office opened, revealing the Hokage herself. She seemed sullen and depressed, a bottle of sake in her hand.

"It seems you're all here. Good, then I won't have to explain more than once. Everyone, please sit down before we begin." she instructed. They did so, curious as to what was going on. Tsunade sighed as she began.

"Yesterday, at approximately twelve o'clock midnight, the night guards caught sight of Uzumaki Naruto fleeing the village with only a single pack over his shoulder. They had no notification from me that he had a mission, and therefore came straight to me to report it. As of now, he is classified as a wanted missing-nin and is to be captured for arrest." she explained. Silence followed as the Genin took in this information. Then, they began to speak up.

"But why would Naruto-nii-san want to run away from the village? He wants to be Hokage someday!" a young boy exclaimed. He had dark brown, almost black, spiky hair and obsidian eyes. He wore a long, dark blue scarf around his neck, along with a turquoise blue jacket and black sweatpants. He was Sarutobi Konohamaru, the grandson of the late Sandaime Hokage and Naruto's surrogate younger brother.

"We have reason to believe that he has pilfered the Fire Holy Crystal from the Hyuga Compound as well. He may very well be searching for them all for some unknown purpose." the Hokage reported. This came as a shock to the Genin, who retaliated angrily.

"How could you be so cold-hearted!? You're jumping to conclusions with so little evidence!" Ino said accusingly.

"Naruto has done nothing to abuse our trust! How could you say things like that?" Taiyou asked, disappointed in his Hokage.

"It is also entirely possible that Naruto went in pursuit of the thief who truly pilfered the crystal. It stands to reason that, given his past behavior, he would act rashly and not realize the consequences of his actions." Shino said calmly, though there was an annoyed undertone. As more complaints began to erupt, Tsunade silenced the room with a mighty shout.

"QUIET!" she ordered. The room instantly obeyed. "I do not now, nor have I ever, doubted Naruto. I know for a fact that he would not have done this without good reason. What I want is for you all to discover what that reason is." she said.

"We understand, Tsunade-sama. We promise, we will bring him home." Sasuke said on behalf of the group. Just as they prepared to leave, she stopped them once more.

"Wait, everyone, please. There is......something else I must share with you." she said. This piqued their curiosity. The Hokage was never one known to deign to share her secrets with people.

"Naruto once told me that, should something ever happen to him, to tell you all the truth about him." she said. This caught everyone off guard. The truth about Naruto? What did that mean?

"What do you mean by 'the truth?'" Shikin asked. Tsunade sighed to herself as she began. She couldn't believe she was doing this, but this is what Naruto wanted her to do. She was not going to dirty his name any more than it had been already.

"There are three things about Naruto that you, along with most of the public, have no idea about. The first is probably the hardest to believe, so I'll start with that. Only one day after Naruto was born, the Kyuubi attacked Konoha. As you all know, many shinobi lost their lives that day trying to subdue it long enough for the Fourth Hokage to kill it. However, no human being could ever kill a Bijuu by ordinary means. So, he was forced to use a human child, a newborn baby, to seal the beast away." she explained. She allowed them to fill in the blanks. It didn't take long for them to figure it out. She could tell by their horrified expressions.

"You mean.......Naruto has the Kyuubi sealed inside him?" Aira asked in shock. Tsunade merely nodded in confirmation.

"No way......Naruto's kept that a secret from us this whole time?" Chouji asked sadly.

"Having the Kyuubi sealed inside him resulted in him being able to call upon its powers. He also has much more chakra and vitality than most people. However, there is another reason as to why that is. The last two secrets are in this folder." Tsunade said. Everyone looked at her questioningly as she revealed a small file from her robes. She placed it on the desk between them, letting them read it themselves. Sakura picked it up and skimmed through it, reading the highlighted data. She gasped in shock as she peered at the bottom of the page.

"No way......How could this have been kept a secret for so long?" she asked as the others crowded around her to see.

"What is it Sakura? What did it say?" Taiyou asked. She turned to them in disbelief.

"According to this file, the Fourth Hokage – a man named Minato Namikaze – fell in love with and married Lady Uzumaki Kushina, the heiress to the throne of the Whirlpool Kingdom and a hanyou. They had a total of three children – one girl and twin boys. After their deaths, relatives took in all but one. The same child used in the demonic sealing process, a hanyou due to his mother's garuda blood, and remained in Konoha. That child was......Namikaze Naruto." Sakura said, reading the file aloud. There was a chilling silence as the information sinked in. Hinata fell to her knees in remorse.

"He's been through so much.......and all anybody ever did was ignore and belittle him. He was put through hell on earth since the day he was born....." she remarked, tears shaking her voice.

"Hinata-nee-san....." Hanabi knelt down to comfort her sister, but Hinata refused, shaking her arm away from her sister's grasp.

"Don't you see!? Naruto had every right to do what he did! Who'd want to live in a village where everyone hates you, and the few people who like you don't even know you?!" she rebutted hysterically. Hanabi was taken aback by her sudden animosity. Many of the others looked down in shame. Surprisingly, it was Sasuke who spoke up first.

"I'm going. This is a waste of time." he said nonchalantly as he headed for the door. His indifference angered many of the others.

"Sasuke, what the hell are you talking about?" Taiyou asked threateningly. The Uchiha heir looked at him with a calm expression.

"If we're going to find Naruto and tell him that he's being stupid and that he should just come home, it'll help if we get ready to go now. Sitting around here feeling sorry for ourselves is not going to get anything done. Instead of wasting time, we should be moving." he explained.

"......Sasuke is right." Aki said, bringing attention to himself. "We have to find Naruto and let him know that he's not alone anymore. Maybe if we appeal to his emotions, he might come back without a fight." he continued.

"What if we have to fight him?" Kiyoko asked, bringing up the possibility. Silence. Aki spoke up once more.

"Then we don't hold back." he replied solemnly.

"I think that's something we'd all like to avoid." Shikin interjected, trying to bring an optimistic view into things.

"Let's get ready for our mission. This is one we have to succeed." Hinata said with steeled determination. Everyone agreed unanimously and without hesitation.

"We have reason to believe that, if he truly is collecting the Holy Crystals, then he'd stop in Kiri first. It is the closest location of a crystal, even though it is three days away." Tsunade said.

"Then that's where we'll start!" Kiba exclaimed. However, Shikamaru shook his head.

"If a group as large as ours travels to a foreign nation, then the implication is that we're looking for a fight. I suggest we divide ourselves into smaller forces and scout out the other places where Holy Crystals are said to be. One of the groups will head to Kiri to see if Naruto really has stopped there, while the others try to find the other crystals." he explained.

"And that's why you're our strategist, Shikamaru-san." Konohamaru commented. Tsunade agreed with the young Nara, then divided up the group as she saw fit.

"Here's how it'll work: since there are eleven crystals still hidden away, I'll have to send some of you solo. Sasuke, Sakura, I want you two to head to Suna. We are allies with them, so they should be able to provide information regarding the Wind Crystal and sending my apprentice with the Uchiha Clan's heir should prove exactly how urgent this mission is." she began.

"Hai, Hokage-sama." Sakura replied. She turned to Hinata, who seemed ready to fight.

"Hinata, I want you to follow Naruto and head towards Kiri. There, the Water Crystal should be located within its temple, so hopefully you'll find it first. Your Byakugan should help you find him." she said. The heiress merely nodded in response as she prepared to leave.

"Ino and Shikamaru, you are to investigate the Earth Crystal within Iwa. I'm sending you both into enemy territory, so please be careful. Just because you are both experts in spying doesn't mean that you can't get caught. The Tsuchikage may use your infiltration into the village as an excuse to start a war." she warned.

"You got it, Tsunade-sama! We'll handle it!" Ino replied, dragging Shikamaru off to get ready.

"Hanabi and Konohamaru, I'm sending you to the remains of the village of craftsmanship, which is right outside Suna. The Steel Crystal is somewhere among the ruin. You are still young and inexperienced, but you show great potential. There are no doubts you can accomplish this." she said to the two youngest members of the group.

"Thank you, Hokage-sama. We shall not fail you." Hanabi replied respectfully, bowing slightly. Konohamaru, in a slight daze, copied her bow and left with her.

"Aira, since you have relatives in Kumo, I'm sending you there solo. I want you to try and find information on the Lightning Crystal." she said to the black-haired Chunin. She nodded in response.

"I'm sure my aunt knows a little about it. Don't worry, I got it covered." she replied before leaving.

"Aki, Natoyo, I want you to investigate Hoshi, where the Cosmic Crystal is said to reside. Be cautious, as cosmic energy is very unstable to those without the natural affinity for it." she said.

"Right. We'll leave right away." Aki said as he and his teammate left after the others.

"Kiba, Shino, Lee, I'm sending you three into the new village, Kurogakure. I have reason to believe the Dark Crystal is there. Since it is so unfamiliar with us, I'm giving you two front-linesmen and a sentry as to ensure your safe return." she explained.

"The power of youth shall prevail as always! Come, my comrades! Let us venture into the unknown!" Lee shouted excitedly. Kiba and Shino sweat-dropped as they followed him out the door.

"Similarly, I'm sending Neji, Tenten and Kiyoko into the opposite territory, Asahigakure, where I believe the Light Crystal is held. Like the other team, you have two fighters and a sentry, so you'd better come back okay." she said.

"Okay then, let's get going." Kiyoko said as the trio went to prepare for their journey. Tsunade turned to the last three boys.

"Taiyou, I want you to head towards Yuki, where the Ice Crystal is supposedly held. If you need to, ask the daimyo about it. Your position as heir of the Mokushi clan should be able to grant you an audience with him." she said.

"Alright, I'm on it." he replied, running out of the building to prepare. The last two eagerly awaited their orders.

"Chouji, Shikin, you are to head for Kusa and do research on the Wood Crystal. They are a neutral people, so we must try to be as socially polite as we can be. You two are the social butterflies of the group, so I know you can't screw that up." she explained.

"You can count on us, Tsunade-sama." Shikin said, laughing a little at her joke. As soon as they left, she adopted a shameful expression on her features.

"What are the consequences of what I've just done?" she wondered aloud. She supposed she wouldn't know until it happened, but by then it may already be too late.....

(The next day: Port Town)

Naruto looked out the window of the hotel room he was renting at the moment. The gentle sound of waves splashing against the shore was calming, helping him keep his emotions in check. He didn't bother concealing himself with a henge, since no one here knew him, so he stood at his full height. If one of his friends saw him now, they'd be in shock. He smirked a little at that thought.

Deciding to see where he should head for first, he pulled out the map given to him before he left. He deduced that the thief couldn't have gotten across the continental border in only two short days, so he ignored the left side of the map, focusing more on the right.

"The closest location as of now is Kiri, so I suppose I'll head there first. The Water Crystal is supposed to be in the ruins of the old Kiri, which had been converted into a mausoleum." he said aloud, reciting the information he had been told. With that in mind, he packed up his things in preparation to leave.

On his way out, he couldn't help but notice the stares he was getting from two young girls in the distance. One of them, a young girl no more than fourteen, approached him shyly.

"Um.....um.....excuse me." she said quietly, but loud enough for him to hear. He turned to her with an amiable expression on his face.

"Yes? Can I help you?" he asked. He didn't want people to get the same opinion that the Konoha villagers had, so there was no need for his mask either. The girl blushed a little as she began tapped the toe of her sandals on the ground. She glanced down a little, as if too embarrassed to face him properly.

"W-Well.......um......oh, I don't know why I'm doing this. I-I'm sorry, but my friend wanted me to ask you if you would like to hang out, since she thinks you're the next best thing after Hercules." she explained quickly. Naruto barely caught a word, but was able to understand.

"Oh, is that all? I'm sorry, but I must be off. I have some business in Kiri that is of the utmost importance." he replied. Naruto couldn't help but laugh mentally. It was weird hearing himself talk, almost like it was someone else. The girl seemed disheartened at first, but then looked up with resolve in her eyes.

"You're going to Kiri? Really? I-I'm from Kiri! My friend and I are Genin from there, but our teammate was kidnapped and we're trying to find him. However, we've had no luck." the girl explained. She suddenly realized she had his attention. Maybe she had said more than she should have......

"Your teammate is missing and you can't get home? Well, that's a problem. But, I think I may be able to help you after all." Naruto replied.

"You can? Oh, thank you so much! I thought we'd never catch a break, but now I'm glad Naito forced me to talk to you!" she said in a grateful tone.

"Now, why don't you tell me a little bit about yourself?" he asked. She nodded, thinking it would be rude to ask for help without introducing oneself.

"My name is Shuuha Umi. I am a Genin of Kiri, like I said before. To be honest, this is one of the few times I've really opened up to a stranger, but I feel I can trust you." she said. Naruto chuckled a little. She certainly was in better spirits all of a sudden.

"You sure seem anxious about this. My name is Namikaze Naruto. I'm from a small town, and I serve as a mercenary of sorts. However, I'll help for free. I can't stand it when people are hurt for no reason." he said. Umi nodded in response.

"It's nice to meet you, Naruto-san. Let me just tell Naito – that green haired girl over there – and we'll be right back." she said, going over to her friend. She had long light blue hair and deep violet eyes. She wore a baggy purple flask jacket over a black undershirt, as well as fishnet coverings above her breast. She had on black sweatpants that were cut at her ankle, leaving room for her black shinobi sandals. Her Kiri headband, he realized, was tied around her head in a manner similar to his friend Sakura tied hers.

When she came back, she had with her a green haired girl with tanned skin and dark blue eyes. She wore a green sleeve-less jacket with a pair of black gloves adorned on her hands. She had a white battle skirt over a pair of black shorts that barely covered her thighs. She also wore knee-high black boots to complete the look. Her Kiri headband was tied around her waist.

"Naito-chan, Naruto-san has agreed to help us look for Masato-kun!" Umi announced happily. Naito seemed surprised as she looked at the blonde.

"You have? Thank you. My name is Kusabana Naito, I am pleased to make your acquaintance." she replied, holding out her hand in a friendly manner.

"I am Namikaze Naruto. I hope to be of service to you." he replied, taking her hand in a gesture of friendship.

"....I wanted to apologize for having my friend come here on my behalf. It was pretty stupid of me to put her in that situation, especially since she's so timid around strangers." she admitted. Umi turned to her forgivingly.

"I told you that it was okay. If you hadn't, Naruto-san may not have helped us." she explained.

"If either of you had told me your predicament, I still would assist regardless." Naruto said, throwing in his two cents.

"Maybe we should get going now. If we waste time, we have less of a chance of finding him." Umi said, urging them to leave.

"Right. We should leave." Naito agreed. She was honestly still a bit embarrassed that her hormones had gotten the best of her and hoped to put that behind her.

"Then let's be off. Kiri is a good day away." Naruto said.

"Not for us. We know a special shortcut that cuts the travel time in half." Naito said. Umi looked at her in surprise.

"Naito-chan, you're really thinking of using that? The only people you've shown it to are myself and Masato!" she said in shock. Naito was a very secretive person, cold and aloof to strangers and kind only to those she liked. On more than one occasion she had been called the Lone Wolf of the Mist.

"Right now Masato's safety is more important." she replied. Umi agreed with her immediately, knowing it was true. What many people overlooked about her was that, to the few friends she did have, she was extremely loyal.

Naruto's mind was in conflict with his emotions. He knew he had to find the Water Crystal, but he couldn't just leave these two halfway. Their friend was in danger and they would not be able to rescue him alone. How could someone save the world without saving the people right in front of them? His mind was made up.

"Take me to this path. It may be imperative in retrieving your friend." he stated aloud. The two kunoichi looked to him in slight surprise. Naito nodded her head in confirmation.

"Right. It's just outside of town. However, bandits have been known to travel through it at times. Whenever we come across them, I cast a genjutsu to hide ourselves from detection." she explained.

"Well, since I'm around, that won't be necessary." Naruto stated.

"You mean you want to fight them? But that's crazy!" Umi protested.

"If we don't get rid of them, innocent people may be hurt in the process, correct?" he inquired. The two girls visibly shuddered at the mental image they received.

"....He's right. Our selfishness may have caused the deaths of innocent civilians every time we didn't fight them. We have to atone for our past mistakes." Naito stated, a bit more dramatically than needed. Naruto felt that it wasn't to that extreme, but if it motivated them into fighting, then it wouldn't hurt to let them believe it.

"Naito's right. Okay then, Naruto-san, we'll be counting on you." Umi said. He looked at them with an inquiring expression on his face.

"What are you two capable of?" he asked.

"I use mainly genjutsu and ninjutsu, so I'm more of a supporter than a full-blown front-linesman. But I can use a sword." Naito admitted.

"I'm a medic nin, so I don't really fight unless I have to. I use water-style ninjutsu and even a little light magic from the west...." Umi said, revealing a light magic tome from her jacket. Naruto took in consideration their separate abilities, knowing that neither of them would last long without support. He knew, though, that he could easily provide that support.

"Okay then, here's how it'll work. Umi, you stand back and support from behind us, healing us if we need it. Naito, you and I will take to the front lines, but keep your distance so you can cast genjutsu. I'll be the main tanker, so the two of you don't end up getting hurt." he explained.

"Alright. If that's settled then, let's get going." Naito remarked. As the two ran towards the village gate, Naruto was left to ponder his sudden resolve. Of course it would be the right thing to do, but he certainly didn't want to involve innocent people in his mission. The thought of having travel companions, however, overjoyed him. A journey as long as his would be quite boring and stressful without the company. He just hoped he could keep things discreet.

(Later: Kiri Forest)

The three stood at the entrance of the forest, mist surrounding them on all sides. The trees glistened in the small amounts of sunlight that pierced through. Small droplets of water decorated the leaves, and the humid climate made one feel like stepping into a spa or sauna. Having been here before, Umi and Naito were not as mesmerized by the natural harmony, but it was enchanting nonetheless.

Naruto looked around the forest trees, finding the serenity of the forest a beautiful thing. It was hard to believe that bandits were razing these woods for their our benefit. He hoped that they didn't run into any bandits, otherwise he might have to ruin the placid grass with crimson stains.

"Here we are. From here on out, we should use extreme caution. Not only bandits, but wild animals lurk within this forest. If we let our guard down, we could be attacked in surprise." Naito said.

"Yeah, I know. Let's get going." Naruto urged. The trio ventured into the misty trees, their vision impaired by the cloudy surroundings.

As they walked, Naruto reflected on his mission and the possibility of involving others in it. As much as it annoyed him, he knew that he would have to bring someone into it sooner or later. It was just one of those predictable life events that changed the entire direction the path is going, and yet somehow no one ever sees it coming. Hopefully, they would rescue the missing boy without him having to reveal too much information, if any. Keeping these thoughts to himself, he continued ahead of the two girls, who were chattering about something behind him.

Umi and Naito made sure that their voices were low enough so Naruto couldn't hear them. It would be awkward for them if he discovered what they were talking about. While they were grateful for his help, there was something about the boy that made them suspect something.

"Have you noticed that, when he talks, he seems on edge, like something is about to jump out to kill him?" Naito asked. Umi nodded silently.

"It's like there's something on his mind that he can't tell anyone. I've seen that type of edge before. It's when someone has a secret they can't tell." she replied. Naito knew she was referring to their friend Shisui, who had recently confided in them one of his most precious secrets.

"Yes, I've seen it as well, though it looks like Naruto's is five times worse than any I've ever seen." she noted.

"Maybe there are five things he can't tell anyone?" Umi suggested. Her friend shrugged in confusion.

"Who knows? All I know is that he's on our side in this mess. Maybe he'll get to know us well enough to confide his secrets, but it's his decision in the end." she said.

"You're right. He's a nice person, so I can't complain. I trust him." Umi said, the conversation ending. With that, the group walked in silence.

(1 Hour Later: Kiri Forest)

Rain had begun to fall, forcing them to take shelter under the branches of a grand tree. The mist had dissolved due to the water and wind the storm brought, but the resulting darkness did little to ameliorate their eyesight. They kept their weapons and supplies close by in case of attack, but so far there was no sign of danger.

Thunder boomed loudly as lightning zipped across the sky, illuminating the area for only a few seconds before it disappeared once more. Umi yelped in surprise as she covered her ears in fright. Naruto raised an eyebrow to her behavior as Naito comforted her.

"It's okay Umi, we're safe here. Compared to the other trees in this forest, this one is pretty small so lightning won't strike, and thunder is just a loud sound. There's nothing to worry about." she said soothingly.

"B-But still......w-what if the tree catches fire and the whole forest starts to burn? T-Then we'll be stuck here!" Umi said in fear.

"Then we'll just put it out with a water jutsu. It's no big deal." Naito responded. Another thunder boom caused her to continue her fearful frenzy as Naruto looked on in slight amusement. Naito turned to him apologetically.

"I'm sorry about this, but she has a very irrational fear of thunderstorms. When she was a little girl, she was caught up in a storm and nearly crushed by a tree struck by lightning. Ever since then, she's been traumatized by the experience and cowards like this whenever a storm comes around." she explained.

"It's alright. Everyone is afraid of something, so it's only human for her to act like this. Though, I have to admit, it's kinda funny to watch." he admitted, laughing lightly.

"I have to agree with you, but it's not funny to her. She always tries to punch me whenever I start laughing at her because of it. But she can easily overcome her fears if her friends are in trouble. Even if she doesn't look it, she's a very brave girl." she said.

"I don't doubt it, but it's kinda weird seeing someone quiet and composed suddenly flip out at a moment's notice." he said, a hint of amusement in his voice.

"You're a bit of a mystery yourself, you know. We know next to nothing about you. Are you afraid of getting too close to anyone?" she asked. He looked at her strangely. 'It looks like someone's been watching too many movies lately....' he thought.

"No, it's not that. It's just......the past is hard to talk about, that's all. I hope to go back to my home someday, but it may not be for a while." he admitted.

"Care to talk about it? Sometimes talking is the best medicine." Naito said, sitting down within the tree's trunk. He sat next to her, taking the opportunity to talk.

"I suppose so. What do you want to know?" he asked.

"Like, where did you come from, whose your family, your friends, all that stuff." she replied. She hit a nerve as she saw a flash of pain in his eyes. She immediately apologized, but he shrugged it off.

"You apologize too much, you know that? Anyway, it's okay. It's been a long while since I've actually sat down and talked with someone about that, so I'm a bit overdue." he admitted.

"I'm all ears." she said. With a deep sigh, he began telling her his life's story, about how he grew up in a town where hardly anyone liked him, but he eventually proved himself to the people and made friends. He told her about his fights, his failures and his victories, and about the people that influenced his life. He told her about how he was evicted and banished from his home in order to protect it, and why he was on a journey now. She looked up at him in reverence.

"That's......amazing. Purely and simply amazing. How anyone could've overcome that is beyond me." she said in awe.

"Naruto-san, thank you for sharing your story." Umi's voice said from inside. The two turned to her in slight surprise.

"You heard?" he asked.

"Yes." she said, appearing from behind the bark. "It was too mesmerizing a story to turn a blind ear to. I'm sorry that you had to go through all that." she said.

"It's okay. There's no need to feel sorry anymore." he replied. He looked up into the sky, which had cleared somewhat during his storytelling. "Looks like the rain's gone for now. We should continue." he said.

"I'm not worried just yet." Umi admitted. She held a small necklace in her hands, which glowed with a soft blue light. "This is a Soul Jewel. When it comes into contact with chakra, it absorbs it and emits a glow like this. The only way for the glow to disappear is if the person whose chakra is in it dies. Masato-kun gave me this necklace for my birthday last year, with his chakra inside it. It's glow hasn't dimmed a bit." she explained.

"We're looking for him now so we know he's safe for sure and, in case something does happen, we can help him." Naito said, giving the reason they were searching for him when they knew he was okay.

"That's why this jewel is so precious." Umi said. She clutched the necklace closely to her chest, her eyes closed in hopeful thoughts. However, a rugged laugher broke her concentration and the tranquility of the forest.

"A precious jewel, is it? Then you'd best hand it over or we'll just have to take it from ya!" it said, a man by the sound of it. The trio looked to see five bandits emerge from the bushes around them. They instantly took battle stances, just as they planned beforehand.

"Dammit, we're surrounded." Naito noted, seeing how the bandits were in a circle around them. The other two noted their predicament as well.

"We may need to alter our previous plans." Naruto said.

"I think I've got an idea, but I'll need at least two of the bandits taken out first." Umi said. Naito smiled knowingly.

"You want to use that move, huh?" she asked. She nodded.

"It'll be the best way to settle this quickly." she said. Naruto looked at them confusedly.

"What are you talking about?" he asked.

"You'll see. You and I have to defeat two of the bandits so she can do her thing. I hope you don't have any opposition to killing them?" she said. He shook his head, knowing it was a kill-or-be-killed fight.

"I hope y'all have lived good lives, cuz they're endin' here! Get 'em, boys!" the head bandit ordered. Two bandits came forward, one aiming a dagger at Naito while the other had an axe raised over Naruto's head. They both easily dodged their attacks, their assailants fumbling over their lack of dexterity. This left them wide open for an attack, and sudden the attackers became the targets.

Naito drew her sword and cast a small genjutsu that binded her target in darkness. As he stumbled about trying to get a feel of something, she ran towards him with her blade raised. With a quick slash across his chest, the bandit fell to the ground, blood pouring from the open wound. She nearly gaged at the corpse's visible insides.

Naruto took three kunai knives and threw them with expert precision at his target. Two landed in the bandit's legs, while the third paralyzed his axe arm. The large weapon fell to the ground, leaving him helpless as his attacker sent one more kunai into the back of his head. With a grunt of pain, the bandit fell to the ground, never to rise again.

Umi took the chance she was given and put her hands together in prayer. One of the other bandits saw this as a chance for an easy kill, charging at her with a clawed gauntlet. Suddenly, however, a mystic force kept him back. She had opened her eyes, staring at him with a mix of serenity and animosity.

"Divine radiance, reveal thy power. Photon!" she called. Several bolts of light swirled around the bandit, compressing into a sphere of energy that imploded on him. With a final cry of pain, he fell like his brethren had. Now, only the leader and his subordinate were left.

"It's time for our plan! Naruto, Umi, keep them distracted while I cast." Umi said to her comrades.

"Got it!" they replied simultaneously. The head bandit was furious that three of his men were killed in less than a minute. By a bunch of kids no less!

"There's no way I'm gonna lose to a bunch of snot-nosed little punks. Time to die, darlin'!" he said, drawing his longsword from his scabbard. He lunged at Naito, who parried with her katana and pushed back with it, knocking him away from her. The last bandit threw several shuriken at Naruto, who deflected them with his own. Flashing through a series of hand seals, he prepared his next attack.

"Wind Style: Tempest Bane!" he called. A fierce whirlwind of slicing air blades flew through the space between them, hitting the bandit with the full force of the attack. His body was mutilated beyond repair, falling to pieces on the ground. Fortunately, they were buried in the bushes around them, sparing them the sight of the dismembered corpse.

Just as the head bandit got up from Naito's recoil, Umi finished her spell. "O violent torrent, arise and wash this land of sin and evil. Tidal Wave!" she called. A large wave of water rose from the ground and crushed the head bandit under it. He was killed instantly under the pressure. The water receded back into the ground, Umi's magic energy no longer fueling it. Naruto turned to his comrades once more.

"That was awesome, Umi! How'd you do that?" he asked curiously.

"I use mystic artes to attack with. There are spells like the ones I used, and artes for hand-to-hand combat as well." Umi explained, "They're like jutsu, but they use mana instead of chakra and require an incantation instead of hand seals. My family is a mix of both eastern and western cultures, so I would naturally use both styles in my fighting." she said.

"Now that the bandits are gone, we can move on forward. Masato is still waiting for us to find him, and Naruto here needs to do whatever it is in Kiri, so let's not dilly-dally anymore than we have to." Naito said. The other two agreed and began to head for the forest's exit.

Naruto looked at the two Kiri kunoichi from behind and couldn't help but think of how similar they were to his old friends back in Konoha. If they ever met, they would be quick friends. There was no doubt about that. He wondered how his friends took the news of his disappearance from the Hokage. Perhaps they were searching for him now? Maybe....

(Concurrently: Main Road to Kiri)

Hinata ran down the path at the highest speeds she could muster, the wind whipping through her hair and cascading from her skin. It stung her eyes slightly, but she ignored the sensation in favor of concentrating on the task at hand. It had been a full day since she had left, and she was nearing her destination far quicker than anyone would've imagined. Then again, she had also ran straight one through for nearly a day and a half by now. If she was attacked now, she would be relying on sheer force of will to attack back.

None of that mattered to her at the moment, however. Out of all the assignments given, she felt hers was the most important in finding out the truth. She was going to find Naruto and confront him, and she was going to learn the truth, whether she'd like it or not. And then.......she preferred not to think of the worse case scenario. Instead, she kept running. Running towards her destiny and her future. 'Naruto-kun.......I'm coming for you!'

This was a working idea for nearly four months now, so I hope you enjoy it. The plot is going to be divided into ten "sagas" so to speak. This is the first chapter of the "Exiled" saga, and it sets the foundation for the rest of the story to take place. I'm going to be combining elements from various places in this story, so if you are confused by something, please don't hesitate to ask.

As for "Jinchuriki of the Leaf" and "The Leaf's Emblem," don't worry. Those stories will be updated soon. Really soon. It's spring break and I finally have time to work on it. It's been busy. Don't ask. I should also mention: Aira, Kiyoko and Shikin are not my original creations, but I fail to recall who submitted the characters. And I deleted the e-mails. So, if you remember giving me the characters (you know who you are), this is your credit. I apologize for my temporary brain lapse.

Anyway, here's a short preview of Chapter 2:

They looked up at the temple in surprise. They certainly weren't expecting it to be that big. Then again, maybe they should have. These were the ruins of the old Kiri, so it was bound to be large.

"So, Masato is somewhere in there?" Naito asked Shisui, who stood beside her. He nodded in confirmation.

"Yes. I saw him get taken in there by these weird guys in cloaks. They went in only a few minutes ago, so there's still time." he replied. Naruto nodded in response.

"If they're after the Water Crystal, why would they need Masato to come with them?" he asked. Umi seemed distressed at the question, something they all noticed. She spoke up quietly.

"...They say that the crystal is protected by the Shrine Guardians, a group of specialized spirit soldiers meant to stop people from taking it. The only way to appease them is to prove that you are of pure heart and strong body." she explained.

"And that means?" Naruto asked cautiously.

"........They're planning to sacrifice Masato." she replied.