This chapter takes place during chapters 16 and 17 of 'Naruto: Captured'

Journeys

Neji frowned as he pounded on the training post. The Hyuuga prodigy was upset over many things recently. His belief in fate had been cracked as of late. He had been made a fool of in front of the entire village by Shikamaru. Then his semi-final match in the Chunin Exams was interrupted by an outside attack. The jonin proctor had casually sliced his sword and the Sound genin's arm had been severed; the same genin that had demolished his teammate in only a few seconds.

Neji had a hard time beating Lee. In spite of his attitude, even he had to admit that Lee was a formidable foe in battle. The spandex clad boy always pushed Neji to greater heights in his training. However, the brief battles during the failed Invasion showed him how much further he had to go.

He could allow for the fact he was not at his full growth physically. He needed a half dozen more years to reach his full physical size. There was nothing he could do to speed that process. Even fate could not change in that regard.

Even so, he now realized he could affect fate but not change it. Perhaps that was the leeway he had always been looking for. His efforts could hasten or retard fate's progress but not the end result.

His musing was interrupted by Tenten arriving. He did not mind allowing the female member of his team to train near him. It allowed him to multitask on his training. He would activate his Byakugan eyes and track her thrown weapons while he did his own physical workout.

"Neji, Hokage-sama called a meeting of all the Elite genin for noon today. Do you think they are going to give out promotions to chunin?" she said somewhat excited.

"I am not certain, Tenten. It has been a week since the Chunin Exams and usually promotions are handed out immediately. However the battle might have delayed them," Neji suggested.

The pair could not comment further before the balance of their team arrived in spectacular fashion.

"Dynamic Entry," a pair in identical spandex unitards shouted as they entered the training area.

Neji glared at Guy and Lee as the duo posed for him and Tenten.

"Come, my cute students! We have been summoned by Hokage-sama to attend a youthful meeting! However, we must not arrive caked in sweat and grime! We shall go get cleaned up first!" Guy shouted in a booming voice.

Lee smiled as well but did not shout as his sensei did. He had recovered from his injuries during the Exams through the magic of medical ninjutsu. This was his first day back at training and it showed. Guy was a maniac when it came to training but he drew the line when his student was pushing simply to please him at the cost of the boy's health.

The pair had barely finished a quarter of their normal morning workout when Guy had stopped to 'inform' Tenten and Neji of the meeting in spite of him sending the girl to tell the Hyuuga. They would benefit from arriving clean and Guy's plot would let Lee rest and recover without needing to admit his 'lack of youthful endurance'.


Ino sat up in her bed as her parents came in to see her. The blonde girl was quickly regaining her strength after her ordeal. She was following the instructions of the medics in a way she had never listened to anyone before this. The parents were glad for her new maturity but also concerned over the reason for it.

The 'reason' was in a bed directly adjacent to Ino's; Gaara of the Desert, genin of Sunagakure and jinchuuriki of the one tailed beast Skukaku. He looked the couple over for a moment before returning his attention out the window of the room.

"Hi Sweetie," Ino's mother said in a happy voice. She had given up hope that her daughter would even be alive right now and getting her back both alive and in sound mind was something she had only prayed for. Just weeks before she had been holding onto Ino's hand as she waited for her baby girl to die. Now, she looked to the boy who had been responsible for that condition. He had also been responsible for the girl being alive by adding his chakra to hers to keep her alive when the Sand ninja tried to move him out of Konoha.

"Good morning, Gaara," the older blonde woman said in a polite but friendly tone.

The red haired teen looked away from the window once more to center his eyes on Ino's mother. He felt no malice from the woman so he merely nodded to acknowledge her presence. He turned back to the window after that.

"Gaara is not big on conversation, Mom," Ino said with a smile as her dad had finished up with a hug.

"Oh, I picked up on that already. I just want to acknowledge his being here in the room, Sweetie," the florist said still smiling.

Ino's father Inoichi spoke up now. "Ino, they are going to let you out of the hospital in a few days." He looked to Gaara now and spoke louder. "Gaara is being let out of the hospital as well. He is scheduled to be sent home to Suna immediately afterward."

Ino stopped and paled slightly at that news. "So soon?" she asked.

Inoichi hid a smile at his daughter's reaction. "I'm afraid so. The Sand village searched all the places the Kazekage had visited the past year. They found his body along with those of his guards. He had been dead for months. I'm sorry, Gaara."

Gaara merely nodded. The boy knew the Kazekage would be dead. He had no positive feeling for the man who sired him but even so the news was troubling.

"With the knowledge that Orochimaru had killed and impersonated the Kazekage, the Hokage decided to settle terms pretty much as they were before. Some fine points of the alliance like Konoha accepting fewer missions from the Wind daimyo will be changing over the next few months but that is for the diplomats to discuss."

Gaara kept his view out the window. He understood what Ino's father was saying. After finally making a friend, he was going to be losing her soon.


Neji was not pleased with his new assignment. Being shuffled to Team 8 as a replacement for his cousin was not what he had hoped to get in that meeting. He still had a great disdain for his younger cousin and former heir apparent for the Hyuuga clan. The introductions had gone poorly and things had gone downhill from there.

"I am Hyuuga Neji. My likes and dislikes are of no concern to you. My only ambition is to be free of the bindings that fate has decreed for me," he told the team.

"So you're Hinata's cousin huh? She talked about you often and admired your skill at your clan taijutsu," Kiba said as a way to break the ice some.

"Hinata-sama was right to admire my skill since she had none of her own," Neji said blandly.

Neji soon found himself in a staring contest with Kiba as Shino looked on. The Inuzuka boy still had braces on his arms. Team 8's sensei Yuhi Kurenai had stood back as the genin glared at one another.

"Take that back," Kiba growled.

"It is merely the truth," Neji retorted calmly. "She was flawed at her taijutsu. She would hesitate instead of striking. She was kind when she should have been firm. She …"

Neji was cut off as he was punched in the face and fell backwards to the ground. He had kept his eyes on the Inuzuka but he had not paid attention to the Aburame at all. Shino had been the one to hit him. Kiba was startled and even Kurenai was shocked by the teen's action.

"Hinata is not weak. How do I know this? She destroyed three jonin to save her team. It is not logical for you to discount such actions. However, your words are proof that you do. Therefore, I shall not suffer to hear such slander. If you insist on doing so in my presence I might find my control over my new colony of destruction bugs to be … lacking. Do you understand me, Hyuuga Neji?" Shino said in a cold voice.

Neji wiped blood from his mouth and stood back up while activating his bloodline.

"Enough," said Kurenai. "Shino, back off."

Shino nodded and stepped back to his previous location.

"Neji, you are filling in on this team for the time being. If you wish for it to be a pleasant experience, I suggest you refrain from speaking poorly of Hinata. Both of your teammates owe their lives to her and hold respect for her skills. Your skills may be greater but that should only help this team achieve greater success. If you insist on a belligerent course it will make greater failures. Do not forget, your performance with this team affects your chances at chunin. Your choice, Neji," Kurenai said with an edge to her voice.

The Hyuuga was not stupid. He had his entire team against him here and making chunin was the only way to get away from them in the near term.

"Very well, Kurenai-sensei. I shall refrain from discussing Hinata-sama. What are to be my duties with this team? I am used to being part of a heavy assault team, not a recon squad," Neji said politely.

Kurenai just nodded and began to go over the team's duties on missions.


Tenten found a completely different reaction to her presence on Team 10. Asuma and Shikamaru took to starting a game of shogi while Choji watched and ate.

"So, um, what kind of training do you do?" she asked hesitantly.

"Mainly, the team is a support level capture and interrogation squad," Asuma said as he moved a tile on the board.

"Shika would grab them, I would hold them and Ino would pull information out of their heads. It was based around the same concept that our fathers had," Choji said between mouthfuls. Ino had beaten on him enough times that he would not talk with his mouth full around girls.

"So how am I going to fit into that kind of team?" Tenten asked Choji who just shrugged.

Asuma looked up from his game with Shikamaru.

"The team will be moving toward a more combat oriented style; the same way as with the original team. Shikamaru's shadow jutsu can strangle and kill among other things in addition to holding people in place. Choji's multi-size jutsu can make him into a formidable close combat ninja. Your long range weapon skills will allow you to take out opponents held by Shikamaru or support Choji during combat," the leader said as he kept puffing on his cigarette.

Tenten just nodded. That was a role she could handle. The role she played under Guy was similar but she rarely got to do much unless the taijutsu maniacs she was teamed with let her get her weapons out before a fight would be over.

'Well, at least I won't have to wear earplugs half the time to drown out cries of 'Youth!' like I did with Guy-sensei and Lee,' she thought with a chuckle as she took a chip from the bag Choji held out.


Somewhere deep under the T&I building in Konoha were the cells for ANBU prisoners under interrogation or those simply too dangerous to send to the prison in the caldera. Danzo sat motionless in his cell as occasional guards passed by. He had lost track of how long he had been here but his will remained resolute. The cowardly attack on him by Sarutobi's minion had left him unable to unleash his true power at the meeting that was his downfall.

Without his 'good' hand to open the seals and encasement over his 'crippled' arm, all the power of the Uchiha Sharingan embedded in it was useless. When he had been processed into the prison, the ANBU had simply removed the enhanced arm from his body. The eye of Uchiha Shisui had been gouged out of his head soon afterward. It rankled on him that all of his preparations had been for naught. He could not even activate his last resort seal and die with his honor intact.

Once per day, he was taken to the interrogation chamber as multiple people tried to pull his secrets from his head. To this point, none had succeeded. The only things he had given up as far as information were things they already knew about. He would wait in silence until he died before he would betray his Root and his dreams of a strong Konoha.

The cell door opened and Danzo stood to be taken to the interrogation room once more but he was surprised to see Jiraiya waiting at the door this time.

"What do you want, boy?" Danzo growled out.

"I was just in the village and was about to leave on a mission for Sensei. I figured I would stop in and see how you were doing. You're as pleasant as ever, Danzo. I trust you like the accommodations. Much warmer and better lit than you old warren I hope," Jiraiya replied.

"What do you want?" Danzo repeated.

"All business I see. Fine, I'll be direct. I want the release sequence for the seals you placed on the tongues of your Root members," Jiraiya said in a cold voice.

"There is none. They are my soldiers and mine alone. As long as I live, they will remain mine," Danzo sneered in an arrogant manner.

"Ah, a seal tied to your life. Only you would do something that cruel. So we are at an impasse. We need to know the things you refuse to tell us. The prisoners could tell us and a few seem willing but cannot due to your seal. This makes you life worth less and less as the days pass, Danzo. If you truly care for Konoha as you claim; you would be helping us, not hindering us," Jiraiya said as he turned to leave.

"Do not attempt mind games on me boy. I have withstood such things from people who are better than you at them. Konoha needs to be strong but allowing others to gain strength as a part of that is in reality a weakness on Sarutobi's part. The Sand village turning on us is proof of that," the one eyed ninja said in haughty tones.

Jiraiya smirked. "Funny thing about that, Danzo. How do you know something that no one informed you about? That means you had knowledge it was coming but did nothing to act on it. It seems there is something else for us to learn about. I am sure Ibiki can get something out of your people with that piece of information," Jiraiya said while signaling the guards.

Danzo growled in annoyance as his normal guards took him toward the interrogation room

Jiraiya was pleased to have ruffled the old war hawk as he headed out on his mission to find Tsunade for the Hyuuga.


Ino was happy to get out of the hospital at last. The girl was glad her mother had been taking such good care of her body while her mind was trapped in with Gaara. Her mom had moved Ino's comatose form into range of exercises daily. That had cut weeks off of her possible stay in the medical facility.

In spite of the condition her body was in, she was put on 'no mission' status for the next four months. She had lost her physical edge needed for ninja duty. She realized the time off was also time to evaluate her mental state after her ordeal. She dressed calmly while her parents signed the forms for her to leave the hospital. Since she was a ninja she did have status as an adult but she still had her parents as guardians in the event of an injury where she could not make a decision. It also allowed her an additional few minutes with Gaara.

The red head stood quietly near the window as he had since he had awakened that morning. The boy was able to sleep in short spans now and not have it effect his containment of the Ichibi. The monster no longer spoke to him in his sleep since he had essentially taken its power away and claimed it for himself.

Since his awakening from the coma, Gaara remained calm and saner than he had been in years. He had grown so much in the past month it felt strange to be awake even now. But his newfound growth had other consequences. He had learned to care about another person again. Now due to that caring he was faced with losing the person he cared for.

He heard Ino pull back the privacy curtain and he glanced over at her. She had dressed in her ninja uniform before heading home. He smiled slightly as that was how she looked the entire time in his mind. The blonde girl stepped up to the window next to him.

"Gaara?" Ino said quietly. "It's time for me to get out of here."

The boy just nodded at first. After a minute he replied. "I leave for Suna once I am released. I delayed that until after you left the hospital. I will miss you."

Ino stepped closer to Gaara and wrapped her arms around him in a hug. It was the first Gaara had received in person in spite of her doing so in his mind quite often. He awkwardly wrapped his arm the girl in reply and closed his eyes to hide his pain. Ino hurriedly let go and rushed out so the boy couldn't see her tears of regret.

Once the girl had left the room, the sand holding the legs of the beds together dissolved and flowed up to Gaara's leg to wrap around his ankle. He watched Ino from the window of the room until she disappeared from sight before heading out of the room to her back to his village.

At home, Ino went ot her room before she would let her tears come freely. Her mother heard the crying and came in.

"Sweetie, what's wrong?" her mother asked.

"Gaara is leaving and all I can do is watch him leave," the teeenage girl replied.

"Why didn't you say something sooner?"

Ino just looked at her mother before answering. "This is Konoha. He is from Suna. I have to be here and he has to be there. We can't be loyal to what we swore to and be together at the same time."

In the end, her mother just held the girl until they both knew Gaara was gone from the village.


In the two weeks since joining Team 8, Neji had proven himself to be much more than anyone had expected. The mission performance on a simple bandit removal had gotten the team a glowing report from Kurenai. Where Hinata would have simply gone along with whatever Shino and Kiba had decided, Neji took command and directed the other boys by using his Byakugan to spot the hidden bandits. Kiba was grumbling at not being 'alpha' of the group but even he could see that Neji had more experience and ability than him. Shino just kept his quiet way about him as he trained daily with his new upgraded bug colony.

Team 10 had a similar experience on a short mission in the north of the Fire Country. A report came in of some rogue genin who survived the attack on Konoha but refused to return to Sound. The team was dispatched with a pair of military teams to capture or eliminate the rogues. The mission ended up with Shikamaru coming up with a plan to capture the enemy with no casualties to the Leaf ninja.

The Hokage was pleased that his Elites were showing leadership after the events surrounding the attack during the Chunin Exams. He made both Neji and Shikamaru acting chunin. They would hold that rank until the three month point after the team realignments; where they would receive their official promotion to chunin.

The acting ranks allowed the jonin sensei of Team 8 and Team 10 to not be needed for D-rank mission to be assigned to those teams. The jonin were suitably glad and the pair would disappear for short 'joint breaks' while their teams did the D-ranks within Konoha.


Ino sat in the flower shop of her family looking at the stock with a careless eye. She had been in a funk since Gaara had left the village two weeks prior. She couldn't even talk to Sakura since the pink haired girl was out of town on a mission. She helped the few people she saw each day as customers but she had no one to talk to. Team 10 was busy. Everyone she knew that was a ninja was still busy with repairs to the village. She was stuck on 'no mission' status for a long time yet so she could not even get on a D-rank to get out of the flower shop.

She was bored and lonely.

Her parents could do little to help in that regard, Inoichi was out helping T&I with the few captives they had and her mom was off doing 'mom' stuff with other women. However, the girl knew they were keeping an eye on her and her mental health.

'In a clan of mind walkers, of course they are going to be watching me for signs of going nuts,' she thought as she plucked petals from a dying flower she removed from a display.

Unknown to her, her father had done something that would change her boredom.

Ino heard the bell on the door ring and she looked up. A chunin stood there and looked around before spotting her and walking in her direction.

"Yamanaka Ino?" he asked in a clear voice.

"That's me," Ino replied.

"The Hokage has sent for you. Please report to his office two hours past noon," the chunin said before excusing himself.

The summons left Ino puzzled but she got a cousin to watch the store and she headed out to the Tower.

Once she arrived, she waited the few minutes until the appointed time before being ushered into the Hokage's office.

"Yamanaka Ino reporting Hokage-sama," she said in a strong clear voice.

"Ah, Ino. I am glad you got her promptly. There is one more ninja in this meeting but he sent word he is running late and stilll needed to stop for another person. So, how are you feeling, Ino?" Sarutobi said with a pleasant tone in his voice.

"Um, all right I guess Hokage-sama. Just sitting around on 'no mission' status is bugging me when everyone I know is so busy with ninja duties," she replied hesitantly.

Sarutobi nodded sagely. "We might be able to do something about that. We have had a request from the Sand Village. To further relations between our villages and so that the failure of the alliance will not happen again, they have suggested exchanging ambassadors. I have gone over our potential candidates and selected a retired jonin who has relatives there to be the ambassador from Konoha."

Ino was slightly confused by what the Hokage was telling her and was about to ask when the door opened and her parents came in. This made her wary but she kept quiet as her father trained her never speak out when confused.

"Ah, Inoichi, glad you could get here. I got your message that you would be delayed. Is everything all right over at T&I?" Sarutobi asked.

"Things are going well, Hokage-sama. We were having a productive session with one prisoner so I felt it would be pest to pursue that to the end," Inoichi replied.

The Hokage nodded.

"Now that everyone is here, I can get to the rest of this meeting. As I was telling Ino, we are sending an ambassador to Suna. However, the request for ambassadors came with an additional request. According to the note, since he left us Gaara has become 'irritable'. In diplomatic speak that means his condition is deteriorating mentally. They requested that since he called you his friend that you might travel to Suna to be closer to him. In turn, they would send Temari, the former Kazekage's daughter to Konoha. It would be a form of learning hte other village's culture."

Ino was shocked. The Sand Village had basically asked for her as part of a hostage exchange. But, in spite of that, her heart leapt at the idea of being with Gaara. She was not sure she truly loved him or if he even cared for her like that but there was something past simple friendship between them.

"Am I being sent as just a hostage or as a bride, Hokage-sama?" Ino asked in a whisper.

Sarutobi could see the girl did not quite understood the situation.

"You will not be a hostage and are certainly not being sent as a bride. Ino, I know this is something that Konoha normally does not do. Officially, each of you would be listed as the aide to the ambassador. I consulted with your father on this matter first and he indicated that you might be open to going so I am leaving the final choice to you."

Ino looked back at her parents. Both were smiling at her. She felt their love and approval of her.

Buoyed by their faith and want for her happiness she looked back to the Hokage.

"I'll go Hokage-sama," she said as she smiled for the first time since Gaara had left.


Jiraiya left the fourth town in as many weeks since he had begun his search for Tsunade. His blonde teammate was proving more elusive than he had hoped. So far none of his normal contacts had anything close to a warm lead for him. Tsunade was not using her skills as a healer for anyone in recent months. That means she had established a line of credit or gotten a large jackpot and was simply hitting the gambling halls. A change of plans was in order. Those would be his next object in his search.


Gaara stood out in the open desert near Suna watching the sun set. The sand beneath his bare feet was comforting to him. Shukaku was always quietest when he was among on the dunes. The sound of footsteps in the sand reached his ears but he did not turn to see who approached. No one ever dared approach him. Too many people had been injured or killed by him over the years of his life.

His sand whipped up in defense at first but slowly expanded to close in on the person approaching. The steps kept coming closer before stopping a short distance away. Whoever was there was just waiting for him to turn. After the sun had slipped below the horizon, he turned to see the purple clad kunoichi who haunted his brief dreams.

For a moment he thought it was a trick of the sun but after blinking and looking again he spoke.

"Ino?" he asked.

The girl smiled. "Hi Gaara," she replied with a smile.

"What are you doing here?" he asked still stunned seeing the girl there.

"The Council of Jonin here asked if I would come here to Suna to keep you company for a while. Um, they said you needed a friend. So I figured I would see if we still are. … Friends I mean."

Gaara took a few steps toward Ino but she stayed still. The sand in the air around them settled to the ground as he moved to an arm's length away.

"I missed you," he said simply as he closed the final bit of distance to hug the blonde girl. She in turn held him tightly as both let out a few tears of happiness.

They held each other until long after the sunset faded to blackness.


Next Chapter: Madness


Author Notes: It has been a while for this update. I only hold on to my explanation that writing fan fiction does not pay the bills. Work does. Of late, I have been more worried about losing my job than I was for writing. Fear of unemployment makes for a severe lack of inspiration.