Chapter Fourteen: Shinigami Once Again

The mission debriefing had concluded a while ago, where Sarutobi had immediately ordered Hinata to report to the hospital for a checkup. She was already well on her way to a complete recovery, but the Sandaime was not one to risk the health of one of his ninja needlessly. So despite the fact that Hinata's wounds were doing fine, she was still subjected to a complete physical as well as a psychiatric examination. Anko, Naruto and Tenten had left the hospital a short while ago, so she was surprised to see her father walk in through the door to her room. She froze for a moment, her right arm held above her head, as she was stretching, trying to work a kink out of her muscles. She lowered her arm and directed her eyes to the floor.

"So I hear that you were wounded during your most recent mission. What happened?"

Hinata peeked at her father through her eyelashes in mild surprise. While the words were direct and abrupt, per his usual manner with her, the tone was, well not kind precisely, but not that of the relentless taskmaster that she had known virtually all her life. She relayed the events of the past month succinctly, leaving out some of the more personal revelations. Hiashi frowned slightly at the news that her sword had been lost, and by association her powers.

"And you say nothing was found of your sword? It just vanished when that monster threw you through the wall of the inn?"

"Correct Father. Not even a shard of the blade was recovered."

"And it was only after you were thrown through the window and injured that it went missing."


"Lift up your shirt. Let me see the wounds." Hinata did as ordered, fidgeting slightly when Hiashi pulled the strap of her sports bra down to uncover the first puncture wound. The doctors had already repaired the damage as best they could, so there was just a faint pucker and discoloring to mark where it had been. Examining the twin punctures with his Byakugan, he frowned. "Well, they did not hit anything physically significant, but given how little we understand your powers, there might be something more to them." Hiashi took a step back and allowed Hinata to put her shirt back on. "The strangest thing is that you say you have not been able to communicate with the spirit of your sword or access that power since the actual sword disappeared?"

"Correct. I have meditated on it and have not been able to return to my soul plain, where I met Minazuki every time I wanted to speak to her before." Now, Hinata was normally quiet and subdued while in her father's presence, but that had been changing some recently. As a consequence, he had begun doling out little bits of praise here and there. But to suddenly see Hinata become so introverted so rapidly again was disturbing. Hiashi continued to question his eldest daughter for a few minutes longer, but Hinata had apparently exhausted her verbosity. While she did not retreat into monosyllables, her answers became shorter and briefer. Finally ending the interview, he left his daughter to her rest.


Kisuke Urahara nodded politely to the nurses and doctors he passed by on the way to Hinata's room. Now, unlicensed Shinigami were rarer than rare. In fact, he had only heard of two or three unlicensed Shinigami ever, and known one, so three popping up at the same time was a surprise to say the least. So that was why he had been keeping a close eye on Team Nine. Were circumstances different between him and the old man, he might have reported their existence to Seireitei . But as it were, he didn't. At least not yet. Checking the number on the door in front of him against a piece of paper, he nodded to himself and let himself in.

Hinata, still clad in her hospital gown did not notice the interloper at first, to busy with her own thoughts. She jumped slightly from where she was sitting against the headboard of her bed, hands wrapped around her knees and leaned up into a crouch. Her stance faltered slightly when she saw Urahara raise his hands palms out, showing that he was carrying no weapon.

"Sorry to intrude young lady, but would you happen to be Hyuuga Hinata?"

"Y-yes, I am she," Hinata replied hesitantly.

"Ah, that is good then. My name is Urahara Kisuke, and I am here to help you regain your Shinigami powers."

"Shinigami powers?" Hinata repeated.

"Yes. You see, I have been keeping tabs on you and your two teammates for quite a while now because you and your two teammates have done something that has only happened once in the last five hundred-odd years. That is to become living shinigami."

"Living shinigami?"

"Yes. If you would be so kind as to follow me, I am sure that I can answer all your questions to your satisfaction."

"How do I know that you are genuine? There have been attempts to kidnap me before."

"Well, I have no proof that I am telling the truth, so you are just going to have to trust me. Come with me, and I can give you the chance, no more, to reunite with you fighting soul."

Hinata dropped all semblance of a fighting stance at those words. She would do anything to be able to speak to the manifestation of her soul again. Besides, her instincts told her that she could trust this man. "All right. Let me change and we can leave."

Kisuke nodded and turned his back to provide the young woman some privacy to change. Once she did so, Kisuke opened the window to her room and jumped out.


"Hello Hyuuga-sama. How are we feeling now? Have your ribs stopped aching at all?"

Inoue Orihime, one of the best nurses at Konoha Shinobi General Hospital just sighed at the empty bed. Honestly, they needed bars on the windows or something. Sticking her head out the door she yelled down the hall, "Doctor! We have another patient break out!"


Once Hinata had begun the process of Hollowification, Urahara left the underground training area, instructing Tessai, Jinta and Ururu to keep an especially close eye on Hinata while he was out. After asking around for a while, he was able to find out where Mitarashi Anko lived. Approaching the house, he steeled himself for the confrontation to come. Anko answered pretty quickly, surprise showing when she saw her guest.

"Urahara-san, I didn't know you knew where I lived."

"I am full of surprises Anko-san. But my visit here is not for pleasure."

"Really? Why don't you come in?"

"Sorry I can't. I just dropped by to let you know that I have taken your daughter-in-law for some extremely specialized training. I assure you that she is okay for the moment, but will be gone for the next two or three days."

"Wait, what? Where is she? I want to see what kind of training you are giving her."

"I rally am sorry, but I can't tell you that. The training she is undergoing is hazardous and you could be hurt if you watched."

"Urahara-san, I am a tokubetsu jounin and one of the top assassins in Konoha. I am sure I can handle anything that Hinata is undergoing."

Urahara shook his head. "This was just a courtesy call, so you wouldn't worry about what had happened to Hinata-san. I will contact you when Hinata-san has finished her training." 'Or died,' he completed mentally. "Good day." Touching the brim of his bucket hat, he inclined his head slightly towards her and vanished.

Urahara let out a breath he had been holding practically since he had approached the Mitarashi household. Former 12th Division Captain as he was, Mitarashi Anko was a scary, scary woman. Especially when her mother bear instincts had been aroused. Calming himself with several deep breaths, he steadied his legs and proceeded to return to his shop. His phone had not rung yet, so that was a good sign, as Tessai or Jinta would have certainly called had the young Hyuuga heiress succumbed to her inner Hollow yet. Nevertheless, he quickened his steps, hurrying back home.


Later that afternoon

Ayame was worried. She was very fond Naruto, as was her father. When she asked the conversation went something like this:

"Good afternoon Naruto-kun. Glad to see you back in town."

"Yeah, me too Ayame-chan," he replied tiredly.

His tone was enough to cause Ayame to do a double-take. Hearing him speak to her like that was a surprise. Naruto was one of the most cheerful people she knew, so seeing him depressed was a shock. That wasn't to say she had never seen him sad or angry or anything like that, (God knew that he had reason enough given some of the things that had happened to the boy) but to see him like that was a shock. Looking back to her father in the kitchen, he nodded at her unspoken sentiment. Setting a bowl of ramen down in front of him she leaned on the counter. "On the house," Ayame answered his nonverbal question. Nodding his appreciation, he took a couple half-hearted bites. Seeing Naruto only pick at a free bowl of ramen only cemented the thought that something was seriously wrong in her mind. She was sure she would have heard had any of his teammates died or grievously wounded on his last mission, so she didn't think that was it.

"Naruto-kun, what is wrong?"

"What do you mean Ayame-chan?" Naruto answered her question with one of his own, voice artificially cheerful.

"Naruto-kun, I just gave you a free bowl of ramen and you have barely touched it. So there is obviously something that is bothering you a lot."

Naruto was quiet, staring into his food for a minute or two. Then he sighed and looked up, and expression of misery on his face. "It's Hinata." Now that was a surprise. Just about everyone knew that Hinata had been crushing on Naruto for years now. So hearing that she had done something to put Naruto into such a funk caused Ayame to quirk an eyebrow.

"What did she do?" Ayame asked.

"It's nothing she did, it's something that happened to her."

"What do you mean?"

Naruto sighed and proceeded to lay out the events of the last two weeks briefly. "And now I can barely get her to talk to me. I mean, I have tried every thing I could think of to get her to just tell me what I can do, but she just brushes me off."

"Well, she may just need time to be by herself. The best thing you might be able to do for her is just give her some space. Who knows, she may be able to get over this all on her own."

"I dunno. It just feels like I am not doing enough to help her. I like her, and... oh I don't know." Naruto growled in frustration and pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes.

"Well, sometimes there is nothing you can do but step back and let the other person work though their problems on their own."

"I guess," Naruto grunted. He spent the rest of the meal in sullen silence and then excused himself. Striding away, shoulders hunched and hands thrust deep in his pockets, he decided to go train some. Perhaps he would feel better once he had blown off some steam.


Hinata lay at the bottom of the shattered shaft breathing heavily after the most recent "corrasion". She was not sure how long she had been down at the bottom of the hole, but she estimated somewhere between thirty four and thirty six hours. Tessai had bound her arms, and Urahara had ordered her to regain her Shinigami powers and escape from the shaft... or die. The first thing she thought to try was simply walking up the wall with chakra. But something had been done to the shaft so that she fell back down to the bottom after only a handful of steps.

Hinata was just beginning to recover and had pushed herself to her feet with an angry determination. 'I cannot die down here! Naruto loves me! I must return to him." She had begun chanting 'Naruto loves me' over and over in her head when the final "corrasion" overcame her. She had thought that the previous "coraccion" were painful, but this one, this one was of a magnitude greater. Hinata barely had time to register the last piece of her Chain of Fate falling away to reveal a Hollow hole and some white material flowing out of her orifices to over her face when she passed out.


It seemed that barely a handful of seconds had passed before she awoke again. Sitting up, she exhaled in relief. She was back in her soul plain. Gaining her feet, she turned in place and surveyed her surroundings. "Minazuki! Minazuki" Hinata yelled. But there was no response. Growing worried, Hinata called again.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm here, don't get yer panties in a bunch." Hinata whirled, half-hopeful, but slightly confused because it was not the ethereal, almost detached voice she knew was Minazuki's, but hers, albeit harsher, throatier, rougher. Her voice froze in her throat as she faced the other person.

"You are not Minazuki," Hinata shot back after a moment.

Her reversed-color double smirked. "Sure I am."

"What did you do with Minazuki?"

"What do you mean 'what did I do with Minazuki?' Isn't that Minazuki there?" her double asked, pointing at her hip. Gasping in surprise, Hinata's hands flew to her hip, quickly withdrawing the familiar rapier from the scabbard. Shocked as she was she almost missed the other-Hinata's next question. "Or is this Minazuki?" As she said this, she drew an exact replica of Minazuki, other than having the colors reversed.

"W-w-what do you mean?" Hinata protested.

"God no wonder your father thinks you are a failure. Let me say it again. I. Am. Minazuki." Hinata was calling on all her skill to fend off the other Hinata, and even so, she was being beaten back. "Here, let me put it in little words for you. Minazuki and I are the same being. We both are the source of your power. Appearance shifts with whoever is in the superior position at the time. So when I say I am Minazuki, I mean I am Minazuki. Defeat me and maybe you can see my other half again."

Now, until relatively recently, most people would have described Hinata as a pushover, a doormat or spineless. But when it was someone she loved who was on the line, she was everything but spineless, as Hollow-Hinata was about to find out. Hinata met Hollow-Hinata's charge and stopped it cold. Breaking the lock, Hinata let her inner Hollow slide past, drawing a line of blood across the Hollow's ribs when it passed by.

"ALRIGHT! Now that is more like it!" Hinata set her mouth in a thin line and readied herself to receive the other Hinata's attack.


Meanwhile, in the real world

At the bottom of the Shattered Shaft, Tessai had his hands full. He had already applied the first part of Bakudo #99, and that was barely holding the seemingly slight girl in check. "Urahara-san, the seals are fraying! I can barely hold Hinata-san back. I must switch to the second part now!"

Urahara said nothing, but watched as Hinata was wrenched to the ground by spirit fabric, then anchored by thin metal spikes to her flesh. After a moment Tessai initiated the final part, summoning a gigantic metal cube that would kill Hinata. The cube hurtled downwards and impacted the bottom of the shaft with a resounding boom. But the impact was obscured by a large dust cloud thrown up outside the hole. After the dust cloud dissipated, a masked Hinata stood before them. As Ururu and Jinta slid into combat stances the Hollowfied Hinata struggled to remove the oval mask attached to her face.

Her mask was actually rather plain but somewhat unsettling nonetheless. The eyeslits were stretched horizontally with the inside ends narrowing to a downward point, with the outside ends pointing up. Under the eyeslits were four horizontal red streaks outlined in thin black lines that split into two halfway to the reverse edge of the mask, Above the eyeslits, between where her brows would be was a single streak that also split in two halfway to the top edge, outlined in black. The fact that the mask was completely smooth, and except for the eyeslits, unbroken, no nose, noseslits or an opening over the mouth that gave the mask its creepy-factor. Finally managing to wrench the seemingly delicate white material off, Hinata glared at the "mere handsome and sexy shopkeeper" who had nearly had her killed.

"You bastard," she grunted before she faceplanted. Tessai hauled himself over the edge of the hole sporting a red handprint and cracked glasses. "Tessai!" Urahara exclaimed brightly. "Come get the girl. Let's let her recover in the guest room before we call the rest of her team." Tessai nodded, slinging the unconscious girl over a shoulder and began the prodigious climb out of the massive underground secret training area.


It had been a long day for Naruto. Anko had taken Naruto and Tenten to one of the training grounds and then ran them to the ground. Naruto had been worrying far too much about Hinata since Urahara had taken her, so seeing that he was exhausted but not having released any of his tension, the three of them trudged back to the hospital to go check up on Hinata again. But she was still not in her room when the trio arrived, the doctors being thoroughly unhelpful. They seemed to be of the opinion that they couldn't be held responsible for patients that ran off when they were supposed to be resting. Anko led the two teens back to her house to get wasted, a miserable end to an extremely unproductive and wearying day. Unfortunately for Naruto, he couldn't manage to maintain a buzz for longer than a few minutes while the two women drank themselves into a stupor.

So here he was, lying in his bed, not tired and unable to fall asleep. Even the sight of something flying in through his open window and splattering on the opposite wall wasn't that rousing. But he did sit up and look. There was a message written in a red liquid on the wall where the thing had impacted. It said Urgent, come to the Urahara shop immediately" A few seconds later, where he would have been freaking out if he was not a shinobi a second message was splashed on his wall. P.S.: If you're thinking that this message is written in the victim's own blood like some cliche from a TV show... then you have no sense of humor.

Rising from the futon, though a combination of verbal (on Tenten) and physical (on Anko) persuasion, Naruto managed to rouse his two female teammates and lead the way to Urahara's store. Hinata blushed when he flew in through the open doorway and seized her in a bear hug. "I missed you too Naruto-kun." Naruto grinned at her blush. Hinata had been so unresponsive recently that seeing her blush was a godsend. He held her for a few moments before turning to face Urahara.

"Okay, we are all here, mot of us are sober, so spill. What were you doing with Hinata for the last two days?"

"That is a simple question with a complicated answer. I promise that I will answer your question soon enough, so please be patient with me." Waiting for everyone to nod, he continued. Before I can answer your original question, I must tell you about other things first for the answer to your question to make sense. Simply put, you three have become shinigami. Ah ah, let me finish before asking any questions. I will answer most of them before I am done." Naruto and Anko both lowered their hands. "Now, you are wondering what I mean by saying that you are each shinigami. Well, there are actually hundreds of shinigami in existence, rather than one omniscient being. The weapons you wield are called zanpakuto, the physical manifestation of souls. Zanpakuto are unique to a single shinigami. There are three states that a zanpakuto can achieve. First there is asauchi, or the sealed state, where it just looks like a normal sword most of the time, Shikai, which is enabled by learning the name of the zanpakuto and usually enables a special ability of some sort. Finally there is Bankai, which increases the shinigami's power by a factor of five to ten. And before you ask, I do not have the time to teach any of you Bankai, as it takes at least a hundred years to obtain.

"Even among normal shinigami, you three are unique. Usually it will take a person years, often at least a decade of training before he or she can learn their zanpakuto's name. I have never heard of anyone being able to learn the name of their zanpakuto right off the bat like you three have. Of all the different zanpakuto in existence, they can be boiled down to two basic categories, constant-release and sealed-type. Other than Naruto-kun, there is only one other person I know of that possesses a constant-release zanpakuto. Because Naruto-kun has such massive spirit power reserves, he cannot control his power well enough to seal it in a smaller form.

"Normally, a person has to die, then be escorted to Soul Society, or Heaven, followed by many years of training to become a shinigami. But there are a few extremely rare individuals who are born with spirit power as well as chakra. Spirit power is to a dead person what chakra is to a living one.

"So, everyone is born with both chakra and spirit power, chakra usually overwhelming spirit power to a degree that it is impossible to detect. But very rarely, somewhere in the range of one in a billion or so, someone is born with a usable amount of spirit power. These people don't live long because chakra and spirit power negate one another. But within that one in a billion, there will sometimes be born a person whose chakra and spirit power do not negate each other, for unknown reasons. You are three such individuals. These rarer than rare people will lead normal lives unless they suffer a violent death, like the three of you did. When they do die violently, the spirit power, which has lain dormant up until this point, will awaken, transforming them into shinigami.

"There are two anatomical features to note on a shinigami. The first is the Chain of Fate. The Chain of Fate is the spiritual link between a spiritual being and it's physical body. While it is not visible on a Shinigami, most having no physical bodies, the location is still important. There is a second spot called the Soul Sleep, which is the source of a spirit's spirit power. Should these two spots be struck, a soul will lose all spirit power, forever losing the ability to become a shinigami. I have seen the report that was written up for the Hokage concerning Hinata's injuries. The creature that Hinata and Naruto fought was a Hollow, a spirit that has lingered in this world too long and become a monster, the antithesis of a shinigami. Only spiritually aware beings are able to see them, combined with the fact that slaying a Hollow with a zanpakuto destroys it and sends it to Soul Society was why nobody else was able to see it.

"When Hinata was injured by the Hollow, both her Chain of Fate and her Soul Sleep were pierced, which is why she was not able to use her zanpakuto afterwards, nor contact her zanpakuto. However, by putting her through a risky trial,by forcing her to either become Shinigami or Hollow, she proved that she had enough willpower to force herself to become a shinigami rather than a Hollow. Hence the sword at her side again. So, any questions?"

The four shinobi shook their heads in the negative, Urahara continued.

"Alright then, as it is late, I will let you go. But, I would like the three of you to return tomorrow for Shinigami training."

When the three genin showed up at Urahara's the next day, he lifted a tatami mat in the back to reveal a ladder leading down into a huge cavern. Once Tenten and Naruto had gotten over their shock, (Hinata, having already been here, was not surprised), Urahara entered lecture mode once more.

"So before we can begin your training in earnest, there are one or two things you must know to use the abilities that I am about it impart on you. There are three terms that are used to describe attributes of a Shinigami and the spiritual world. The first is spirit particles, the stuff that all spiritual matter is composed of. Second is spiritual power, the amount of spiritual energy a being has. Finally is spiritual pressure, the amount of spirit power that a being can exert on their environment.

"Now, the three abilities that I am going to teach you are basic spirit power control, spirit thread visualization and spirit particle manipulation.

The first exercise that Urahara set them to was learning to control their spiritual power, annoyingly similar in practice to learning to control chakra. So the three neophyte Shinigami spent hours a day, whenever they had free time, meditating, locating their Soul Sleep and learning to recognize what their spiritual power felt like. The only good thing that came of all the meditation he was doing was that Naruto was finally able to seal his zanpakuto away into the asauchi form. Now instead of hauling a five foot sword on his back, he was able to clip a short sword onto his waist. The blade was completely straight, double-edged. There was virtually no guard, consisting of a brass band about two fingers wide and a half-inch wider than the blade. The hilt was wrapped in brown leather, ridged and knobbed so it would not slip in his grip were his hands to become sweaty or bloody. A heavy ball of brass pommel balanced the sword. The whole thing was hung on an inch-wide baldric that crossed his chest.

After three days of this and satisfying Urahara by displaying their control, they moved onto spirit particle manipulation. Spirit particles, like most other spiritual concepts, had a counterpart in the living world in atoms. But unlike atoms, spirit particles could be gathered and controlled. The most basic application of this was the ability to consolidate spirit particles under a user's feet to provide an invisible platform in midair, combined with flash steps, giving Shinigami as close to flight as anyone was going to come. An extension of spirit particle manipulation was flash steps. Flash steps was performed by gathering a spirit particles around the legs, improving speed dozens of times over, not too unlike manipulating chakra to the feet to boost speed and jump distances, but far faster. This took another three days of practice before they moved onto the third and final lesson.

Spirit threads were manifested by spiritually magnetizing the spirit particles in the area, causing the spirit particles to make stray threads of spirit particles left behind by a spiritual being's passage to become visible. Ironically, this was probably the easiest technique for the trio to learn, collectively mastering the technique in only a couple of hours.


Seven days after Team Nine's return to Konoha, Sarutobi Hiruzen call a meeting of all the genin sensei in his office. "Well, as you probably already know, in one week, on the first day of the seventh month, I will announce the start of the biannual Chunin Selection Examinations. Now, will the sensei's of the newest genin, Kakashi-san, Asuma-kun, Anko-san, what do you say? Remember, in order to qualify for nomination a team must have successfully completed at least eight missions."

"The Kakashi-led Team 7, Haruno Sakura, Inuzuka Kiba, Uchiha Sasuke, under the name Hatake Kakashi, I nominate them to take the Chunin Selection Exam."

"The Anko-led Team 9, Higurashi Tenten, Hyuuga Hinata, Hyuuga Naruto, same as to my left."

The Asuma-led Team 10, Aburame Shino, Akamichi Choji, Nara Shikamaru, same as to my left."

Before anyone else could speak, Iruka leaped up from where he was seated to one side. "Hold on a second. Hokage-sama, please let me have a word." He waited until the Hokage nodded before continuing. "Please forgive me for speaking out-of-place if I am, but these nine, well, they were my students until very recently. Of course, they are all very talented, but it is too early for them to be taking the exam. Thy simply do not have enough experience to handle them. I respect the jounins positions as their sensei's, but I cannot fathom, their reasoning."

"I became a chunin six years younger than any of these genin," Kakashi stated mildly.

"These genin are different from you," Iruka shot back.

"I don't know about the others, but my genin are always complaining about the low level missions they are restricted to. Perhaps a dose of pain would be good for them."

"Having them feel some pain is one thing, but the Chunin Exams could crush them!" Iruka was really working himself into a fit over Kakashi's lackadaisical attitude.

"Besides, crushing them could prove to be entertaining." This threw Iruka into an apoplectic fit, making him splutter, trying to voice half a dozen objections at once. Kakashi let him hang for a few seconds before continuing. "Jeez, I was just kidding Iruka-sensei. Your concern is understandable, but you are out of line. These genin ceased being your students a long time ago. Right now, they are my soldiers, and as their commander, it is my right to do anything I want with them."

The room was completely silent, the argument between chunin and jounin having killed any sense of joviality in the room. The rest of the jounin-senseis proceeded to state whether or not the had decided to enter their teams into the Exam or not. Iruka had sat back down in his chair and was glaring sullenly at Kakashi's back, knowing, despite the other man's words that there was no way that his most recent batch of students were ready for the tests.


Meanwhile, elsewhere in the village,

Naruto, Tenten and Hinata had met up with Anko in their usual spot earlier that morning to train, but Anko gave them the day off, claiming that there was a meeting being held in the Hokage's Tower for all jounin. Naruto had created a shadow clone so that he could walk with an arm around the waist of both his women and give them individual attention. They noticed immediately when a poorly patterned square "rock" with eye holes cut into it began stalking them. Naruto let the "rock" follow them for a couple of block before addressing it. They had rounded a corner, waiting just out of sight so that when the "rock" came around the corner also, it bumped into his legs, dispersing the disguise by virtue of knocking the box off the trio and setting the three kids under it back on their butts.

"Ah, Boss, I knew we couldn't fool you!" Sarutobi Konohamaru exclaimed, pointing at the closer Naruto. After a moment, Konohamaru seemed to realize that there were two Bosses causing a confused expression to come over him. Expression lighting up, he tugged Naruto down to his level to stage-whisper at him. "Hey Boss, are they your, you know..." simultaneously pointing at Hinata, who still had her Naruto's arm possessively around her waist, and wiggling his pinkie finger in a suggestive manner. Hinata being Hinata, blushed slightly at the things the little boy was implying.

"Oh, yeah. This is Hinata, my wife."

"Your wife! Then who is she?" Konohamaru asked, pointing this time at Tenten.

"This is Tenten, my girlfriend."

"Whoa, Boss, you have a wife and a girlfriend! You're awesome!"

"Yeah, I guess I kinda am," Naruto responded, preening slightly under Konohamaru's obvious awe.

"Anyways, why were you following us, Konohamaru-kun," Tenten interrupted.

"Oh, we wanted to see if Boss would come play ninja with us today."

"Play ninja?" Sakura sniggered, coming into earshot.

"What kind of ninja plays ninja," Kiba continued.

At the two Team Seven genin's approach, Tenten and Hinata drew closer to the real Naruto, preparing to retaliate at the first blow.

"Yo Boss, isn't that the girl you used to like, the one with the huge forehead and weird colored hair?" Sakura was struck momentarily speechless, surprised by the boldness that the kid had just thrown that out there. "I can totally see why you don't like her anymore," Konohamaru continued. "After all, she barely has any breasts at all."

"Hey, who the hell are you kids?" Sakura demanded.

"I am Sarutobi Konohamaru, the Number One Ninja in the village!"

"I am Akimichi Moegi, the sexiest kunoichi of our class!"

"I am Utatane Udon, the smartest ninja in all of Konoha!"

"Together," the three shouted in unison, "we are the Konohamaru Corps!"

The silence stretched for a few seconds, everyone needing the time to absorb the ridiculous super-sentai poses the three students had struck, as well as the absurdity of their entire introduction.

Noticing the less than stellar response their introduction had produced, Konohamaru apparently decided that it was Sakura's fault. Pulling down his eyelid and sticking out his tongue staged a hasty retreat when Sakura started shaking a fist at them. Sakura immediately gave pursuit, determined to teach the brat some manners. Naruto seeing Sakura chasing the three kids followed hot on her heels, with everyone else following closely behind.

So that was why he considered it a minor miracle they didn't all end up in one big heap when Konohamaru plowed straight into a stranger. The other guy, dressed in a black bodysuit complete with a hood and cat ears picked Konohamaru up by the front of his shirt and sneered at the now-terrified boy.

"Hey, show some common courtesy and apologize when you hurt someone you little shit," the stranger growled. His companion, a blond girl carefully eyed the five Konoha genin arrayed against them, personal squabbles forgotten in the face of an outside threat.

"Hey, Kankuro-kun, watch it would ya?" she muttered.

Surprisingly, it was not Naruto or Kiba, the ones in the group known best for hotheadedness that addressed the other pair, but Sakura. "Hey, set the kid down now before you get in any trouble."

The guy holding Konohamaru, Kankuro, finally looked away from his prisoner and seemed to realize that there were other people there. He took in the arrayed genin with barely a blink, surprising since he was outnumbered quite badly. "Wow, Konoha-genin are weak if they need to team up five on two to win," he sneered.

Everyone by now had noted that the Kankuro and his companion were foreigners, from Suna by their hitai-aite, the significance lost on no one.

Konohamaru's strangled cries of "let me go," were ignored as Naruto challenged the other boy. "Let the kid go now you fat pig, or face the consequences." Naruto didn't gesticulate wildly or make any blatantly aggressive moves other than to place his right hand on the pommel of the little blade hanging off a brown leather baldric.

Kankuro narrowed his eyes slightly, noting that the pale-eyed girl flanking him had done the same thing while the darker one had drawn what appeared to be a scaled-down firearm that could be held in one hand. "Well, you see, I have a thing against midgets, particularly rude ones. Makes me want to kill them." That statement caused all the Konoha genin to tense, ready to switch to attack at the first act of violence directed to Konohamaru. As luck, (and perhaps something else,) would have it, a pebble struck the hand that Kankuro was using to hold Konohamaru, causing him to drop the boy who to the opportunity to scamper to safety. Anger etched on his features, Kankuro looked up to where the pebble had flown from, scowl deepening when he saw a smirking boy juggling two more pebbles in one hand.

"What the hell are you bastards doing in our village?" Saskuke asked.

Sakura and Moegi both squealed at the apparent "coolness" of Sasuke's challenge. Even the blond Suna-nin seemed to be checking the Uchiha out.

"Get your ass down here you punk," Kankuro fired back. "It's stupid showboats like you I hate most," he growled, simultaneously slinging the bandaged package off his back and holding it out at an angle by the top.

"Are you seriously going to use Karasu right now?" the foreign chick asked.

Yet another voice interrupted the burgeoning conflict, calling out in a near-monotone, " Stop it Kankuro, you are an embarrassment to our village."

"Oh come on Gaara," Kankuro addressed the upside down figure. "They started it."

"I don't care. Losing yourself in your emotions, how pathetic. We came here for a reason. Now shut up. Or I'll kill you." The Konoha genin were surprised by a number of things, first the stealth that he had approached with ('that's Kakashi-level sneakiness,' Sasuke thought), then by the utter casualness he uttered the death threat and the seriousness that Kankuro took it with, stammering apologies. "Sorry to you guys for his behavior, but we have arrived a bit early, and it wasn't to play around." The mysterious boy with the gourd was obviously the leader of the three, as the other two fell into step behind him as he walked away.

"Hey there, wait up!" Sakura called out again. "Despite the fact that our villages are allies, it is expressly forbidden for foreign shinobi to enter a village without permission. Depending on your stated reason, we may or may not let you go."

"Wow, talk about clueless," the girl chuckled. But she reached into a pocket and withdrew a passport, flipped it to a page in the middle and displayed a stamp stating that she at least was in Konoha legally. "We are here for the Chunin Selection Exams little girl." Turning to leave again, Sasuke accosted them this time.

"What is your name, the one with the gourd."

"Sabaku no Gaara," the flat-voiced redhead answered. "Yours?"

"Uchiha Sasuke."

Gaara nodded. "I will remember it. Hopefully we will meet in the Chunin Exams."

"Likewise," Sasuke stated. As the trio of Suna-genin retreated, Sasuke turned on Naruto.

"Say, wanna go somewhere and have a fight. I am rather anxious to see how much stronger you have gotten since last time."

Until recently, he would have denied the dobe's challenge outright, but ever since the mission to Wave, he had been thinking about the blond boy, thinking of his actions in the Academy and after graduation. Gradually he had come to the conclusion that Naruto, for whatever reason, had been hiding his true skills while in school. So, while he would have rejected the old Naruto's request for a fight out of hand, he seriously considered this new Naruto's challenge. And accepted. But before they could even head towards the nearest training ground, a gloved hand landed on Sasuke's shoulder, preventing him from moving.

"Let's not get carried away here. Anyways, I have something to talk to you guys about."

"You got lucky teme. Next time Kakashi won't be here to save your ass."

Sasuke looked back and did something surprising. He pulled down one eyelid and stuck his tongue out, unknowingly imitating Konohamaru. Naruto, Hinata and Tenten laughed, causing Sasuke to scowl and turn away. Naruto turned around to start walking the opposite way when he ran into something and was knocked on his ass. Looking up, he realized he had walked into his mother and frowned while Hinata pulled him up.

"How long were you there?"

"Long enough," Anko evaded. "But I have a surprise for you three," she said while grinning, holding three forms in one hand.