"Hey Sakura, guess what just happened?" Ino asked when she came into the back part of her family flower store, where the pinkette was putting some labels on the stems of some yellow roses.
"What Ino?" Sakura asked.
"Hinata's back in town, and apparently she's got one hell of a backbone now."
Sakura turned to look at the platinum blonde. "She's back?"
Ino nodded. "Want to go see her? Check out what's different about her?"
Sakura nodded, though a part of her was mildly apprehensive. "Ino, do you think Hinata won't want to see me?"
"Why? Because of the past you had with Naruto?" Ino asked back. "Well, if I were her I'd be a little... what's the word?" Her hand went to her chin for a second and her gaze went towards the roof.
Ino shook her head. "No, not spiteful. Probably not eager to be friendly, but not a bitch either. My point is, I think you will be able to tell her that Naruto's death affected you too, and no one here will say otherwise. Hell, if anything you took it as bad as we all thought Hinata could have."
Sakura didn't respond right away, but sighed and looked a bit relieved. "Let's go then. I'd like to see what she's found."
"You hoping she has some kind of proof that Naruto survived somehow?" Ino asked.
"It would be terrific if she did though."
The two then left the flower shop, with Ino leading the way. Sakura was likely more eager to get to their destination than her friend was, but Ino was the only one who knew where to go so the pinkette forced herself to keep pace. The path led to a part of Konoha that Sakura was not unfamiliar with but wasn't a portion she went to regularly either. She assumed they were going to Hinata's team's meeting ground.
She assumed correctly.
Kurenai and her team looked like they were simply catching up rather than doing any team exercises, making the two arriving kunoichi feel less intrusive about showing up.
"Hi there Hinata. Long time no see." Ino greeted with a wave.
All of Team 8 turned to see who had just shown up. Hinata saw them and her reaction wasn't exactly what the platinum blonde had been hoping for. Sure the two hadn't exactly been friends in the spirit of the word, more associates than anything, but she thought the Hyuuga heiress would have been happy to see more familiar faces.
Hinata looked, in a word, indifferent.
"What do you want Yamanaka-san?" She asked, then looked to Sakura and her expression changed from indifference to annoyance. "And Haruno-san?"
Ino blinked. "Whoa, did I come at a bad time?"
"I don't know when a good time would have been."
"Hinata, why are you being rude to your friends?" Kurenai asked, expecting this even less than the other kunoichi had been.
"Friends?" Hinata asked. "Sensei, these two and I have never spent any time together. Not even on missions. I can't recall a single time these two spoke to me before this minute. With one possible exception." She returned her gaze to Sakura. "I recollect that one of these two mocked me for caring for a certain someone."
Sakura looked a little shameful at this, not certain if she ever had done such a thing but finding it entirely believable that she could have.
Hinata looked back to Kurenai. "So tell me sensei, how are they my friends? We may bear the symbol of Konoha and be the same age, but we are not friends."
"No Kurenai-sensei, she's right." Sakura cut in. "We might be comrades, but Ino and I have never made an effort to be anymore than that with Hinata. She has every right to not be friendly to us."
"Then why are you here?" Hinata asked.
"I'm just here to say hi and welcome back. Like the new outfit by the way, though you might look better if you cut your hair or grow it out more." Ino answered.
Sakura cleared her throat. "Hinata, I'm here for another reason. I'm sure you have a lot of anger towards me regarding some choices I made before you left, but what happened to Naruto affected me too. More than you could imagine."
Hinata crossed her arms. "Like I said earlier today, I have a good imagination. Try me."
"When I heard about Naruto being killed, I had a bit of an emotional breakdown. Well, actually it wasn't a real breakdown until after my mother was executed for celebrating Naruto's death, but when I heard the news that's when I say it really started."
Hinata raised an eyebrow. "You had a breakdown about Naruto-kun dying?"
Sakura nodded, taking no offense at the skepticism. "Yeah, ask anyone. It hit me hard and my mother's heartlessness didn't make it any easier. After a while, I kind of..." She looked to Ino. "How did you put it again?"
"It was like you were slowly committing suicide without even knowing it." Ino answered.
Sakura nodded and looked back to the Hyuuga heiress. "I had to be in the hospital for a while because of it. I had to realize just how much I had taken Naruto for granted, and what I could do to honor his memory. For the past few months that's exactly what I've been doing."
"She really has." Ino said on her friend's behalf. "She's not the Sakura you remember. That Sakura died with Naruto."
"Wait, Hinata?" Kiba asked, getting her to look at him. "Did you find anything out on your trip that pointed to Naruto being alive?"
All eyes were on her, and she in turn closed her eyes like she was trying to get something off her mind. "We didn't find anything." She soon enough forced herself to say.
"Really? You didn't find anything?" Ino asked in disbelief.
"No," Hinata said in kind.
Ino was not convinced. "Then why are you even here? I would've thought you'd keep looking until you found something."
"If I had found something, don't you think I would want to share that with you?" Hinata asked.
"Like you said Hinata, you don't think of us as friends. So why would you want to share something with us? We all miss Naruto and would love to hear if there's a chance he's still alive, but you may feel a sense of entitlement on this issue." Ino answered.
Hinata frowned. "Considering that I actually went out there to find him and I was the only one who valued him before everyone thought he died, I think I'm allowed to be a little entitled here."
Ino smirked and pointed at the white-eyed girl. "Aha! I was right! You do know something! C'mon, tell us. Is Naruto really alive? Where is he?"
Hinata narrowed her eyes. "If I knew where he was, would I be here?"
"Logically you wouldn't be." Shino started. "Unless he was somewhere you couldn't get to."
"What are you saying Shino?" Kurenai asked.
"Let's assume for the sake of argument that Hinata had found something on her travels that gave her reason to believe Naruto was still alive somewhere. Naturally someone in her position would pursue this lead until they found another or a dead end. If it is the latter, than Hinata is here now because she has given up the search yet not partaken the drastic reactions we suspected she would in such an outcome. If it is the former, than Hinata is here because she cannot pursue the lead any further without acquiring something from the village directly."
"And for the sake of argument, what if her being here has nothing to do with the search for Naruto?" Kurenai asked, even though in her mind she was connecting the dots that she suspected Shino had been trying to connect this whole conversation.
"I do not believe that she would drop the search just to come say hi to us all, but if it's as you said then now that she has, she will leave with Jiraiya-sama as soon as he's ready to depart. There is another issue to consider, though; Jiraiya has been searching for Naruto along with Hinata. That was one of the reasons, if not the main reason, that Hinata went with him on that journey; there was no reason for him to come back until he found a lead that led to Naruto, whatever his fate might've been, as he had no real business in Konoha since that time. If he had to report something, he'd just use a toad summon to deliver his messages while he and Hinata continued their search. With that in mind, for what reason would he just drop what they were doing to come to Konoha, unless they did find something but can't go any further and needed to come here to deal with such complication?" Shino responded.
Hinata could tell even without looking that all eyes were on her, expecting her to confirm in some way one theory or another. "Why should I give any answer, regardless of what the answer is?"
Shino leaned in a tiny bit. "You did find a lead. Otherwise, you would have said so."
"I did say so... you just don't believe me. And you're jumping to conclusions Shino."
"Then if Naruto really is dead Hinata, just say it. Don't leave us wondering." Sakura pressed. Given what Shikamaru had told her, she was convinced that Naruto was still alive and no one would know better than the Hyuuga genin before her. If there was even a chance Naruto was still alive, Hinata would know so, despite feeling guilty for trying to get Hinata to spill the beans like this, Sakura just couldn't help herself.
Hinata did not reply right away, making her audience wonder if she was trying to find the right phrasing or merely working through some latent denial, depending on the answer.
"You guys aren't going to give up on this, are you?" She said when she finally spoke, giving everyone an annoyed gaze.
"Pretty much." Kiba answered in very matter-of-fact tone before Sakura spoke.
"We want to help you, Hinata, and we want to help Naruto too. After all the mistakes we've made with him, and after everything he's done for us despite our screw-ups, we owe him that much. If we're going to help, though, we need to know the truth." Sakura said, slightly uprising the Hyuga when the latter realized that the former was being dead serious
After shaking off her surprise, Hinata sighed in exasperation before speaking.
"Fine, I'll tell you the truth but, before I do, remember this: if any of you tell anyone what I'm about to tell you... if the village learns about it and Naruto's life is placed in danger because you couldn't keep your mouths shut... I'll never forgive any of you. I won't speak to a single one of you ever again. You'll all be dead in my eyes." She then turned to look at Kurenai as if to say 'That includes you', which the jounin didn't know how to react to except to nod in agreement along with the genin gathered around Hinata.
"Naruto is alive. Jiraiya-sensei and I have concluded that Naruto-kun is somewhere in Kiri."
"Kiri? How'd he get there?" Kiba asked.
As everyone else pondered that answer to the same question, Sakura simply let out a sigh of relief as she felt like a large weight had been lifted off her. Sure Shikamaru had brought up an excellent case supporting Naruto's survival, but to actually hear confirmation made it feel more real to her. 'He's alive! He's alive!'
"Wait a minute, you said Kiri?" Kurenai asked, and her student nodded. "So that means you're here because-"
"Yes." Hinata cut off. "My only chance to get to him without causing a war is by entering the Chuunin Exams."
"Well, that settles it. I'm going. I wasn't sure if I wanted to try my hand at the exams so soon after the last time but, if Naruto is in Kiri, that changes things." Kiba said eagerly, then immediately lost a good amount of his vigor. "Wait a minute, isn't Kiri the place that hates people with bloodlines? I mean, most of us won't have to worry even if that's the case, but won't they try to kill Hinata on sight or something?"
"Not unless they want to go to war with every other country all at once and start the Fourth War right after just recovering from their civil war. Besides, I heard that whole mess had ended a while back with the appointment of a new Mizukage." Shino proclaimed. "I believe this will more likely be their attempt to rid themselves of that reputation they're currently stuck with, to show that they have moved past those dark times."
"Good. Then I guess we don't have to worry about a bloodbath." Kiba repeated then laughed a bit. "Though I'm pretty sure Hinata would've gone either way."
"If it weren't for Jiraiya-sensei holding me back, I'd have probably started a war just to get in." Hinata replied with some light snark, though with the look in her eyes it was hard to tell if she was just being good-natured or if she actually would have gone through with such a claim.
"Hinata, why didn't you just tell us before?" Ino asked. "Why make us force it out of you?"
"Because nothing stopped any of you from trying to find Naruto-kun on your own." Hinata accused, her tone turning serious again as she looked at each of them slowly. "Justify it however you want, but I wasn't the only one who could have gone looking. I was simply the only one who did. Go ahead, say you had other obligations. Say you knew your request would be denied. Say you thought he was dead or he'd come back on his own. Even say you thought there was a chance that you'd run into him on a mission. But can any of you say that you actually tried to get permission to go look for him?"
The others were silent, feeling a bit ashamed of themselves.
"You're right Hinata." Ino started. "We all could have. Any one of us could have gone to the hokage and asked to go look for him. I think we all just accepted no for an answer before we even asked the question. For that, I am truly sorry. But whatever you do, don't be mad at Sakura. Her whole life fell apart, she was in no condition to go look for him even if she had been given permission to do that."
"Look, I don't hate you guys. I feel many things, but not hatred. It's just... I'm finally able to express myself coherently and there are a lot of things I do want to get off my chest. I'm sorry if I'm coming across as a bad person, but there are some things I just need to get out of my system before we head to Kiri."
"It won't be just you." Sakura added. "We're all going to Kiri. And this time, we're all going to become chuunin and bring Naruto home."
The genin all smiled... until Kiba came to some sudden realization and was quick to bring it up.
"Hold on a second, though... if Kiri has Naruto, why haven't they given him back? I mean, they probably know that he's a Konoha-nin by now. So why risk causing a war with Konoha by not handing him back to us?" he asked.
In that moment, the gears in the heads of the genin began to spin before, at almost the exact same time, they came to the same conclusion... one that Kurenai had already reached herself.
'They now understand the gravity of the situation. The only reason Kiri would keep Naruto is the Kyuubi, which they would've known about almost from the very beginning. If that's the case, they'll make sure he stays there; whatever they did to him all this time to make sure he stays, and whatever they're doing to him now, the gods only know. You kids are in over your heads here, but I guess that's the case with all of us here. It's up to us jounin and Hokage-sama to do what you can't in getting him home... even if that means doing the unthinkable.'
"Yo my pupils, ready for Round 2?" Killer Bee, one of the best jounin in Kumogakure, said to his genin pupils. Unlike most jounin sensei, he had not a team of three but rather two apprentices, and some days it seemed they could not have been more opposite if they tried.
"You bet your ass I am!" Karui, a dark-skinned red-haired girl that many considered to have issues, responded. It was hard to tell if she was being enthusiastic or just yelling.
"Well it's not like you have an ass of your own to bet." Omoi remarked. Omoi was a dark-skinned white-haired boy that many considered somewhat lazy and blunt to the point of being rude on occasion; he also had a tendency to overthink EVERYTHING and, therefore, was somewhat pessimistic in nature. He looked as excited as a child being told the newspaper had just shown up.
Karui glared at her teammate. "You wanna say that to my face sleaze?"
Omoi shrugged. "You heard me the first time."
"Now, as you know we need one mo' to be allowed to go. But lucky for you I found just the dude." Bee continued, which got back the attention of his students. "Put your hands together for Toshiro."
The air beside the jinchuuriki of the hachibi shimmered and rippled like water until someone new appeared. It was a male around the same height as Omoi, maybe a little shorter, light skinned in contrast to the other the other genin and their sensei, with pale blonde hair that was messily spiked, like he had never seen a comb in his life. He was dressed in a long sleeve light blue shirt with a white open vest over it, black pants, and a sword strapped to his back. His expression was that of boredom, but his eyes... they had a certain coldness that made it look as though his eyes were made of ice.
"New guy, huh? So what can you do?" Karui asked.
"Enough to become chuunin." Toshiro replied.
"We'll see about that." Omoi muttered to himself, though no one bothered to comment on it.
With those 'introductions' out of the way, Killer Bee again spoke up.
"Today we'll work on coordinating moves and getting familiar with each other." Bee told them in his horrid rap-ish speech (because calling it rap would be giving the Kumo-nin way too much credit). "So let's go."
"Is he always so-?" Toshiro started.
"Yes." Karui and Omoi answered simultaneously.
Toshiro let out a deep sigh expressing bewilderment... while also harboring thoughts that, if they had been said aloud, would've ended his time with Bee and his team immediately. 'I guess a beggar can't be a chooser; this is the team I'm stuck with. I just hope they don't figure out the truth until I've learned what I can about Uzumaki Naruto.'
"Hey Sasuke, how would you like to go to Kiri next month?" Orochimaru said when he approached the last Uchiha, who at the moment was practicing with his new uchigatana sword by slashing rolled mats. The boy had specifically requested this sword because the name reminded him of his own. But the sword was not a natural fit, meaning he either needed more practice or a different weapon.
"Why would I want to go there?" Sasuke asked, upset that he had only cut the mat, not cleaved it.
"Because some of your old friends are bound to show up there for the Chuunin Exams. You want to show them why they'll never be as good as you?"
Sasuke had to admit he was tempted. It seemed like a good opportunity to thump his chest and deflate some peon's egos, but at face value the whole endeavor was pointless beyond bragging rights. Not to mention Orochimaru would be encouraging Kiri to take action against Oto if caught and potentially form an alliance with Konoha. So what was the snake sannin really after?
"Why bother? Showing off to those losers would be likely showing off to some dogs."
"So you don't want to get revenge on the Hyuuga princess who stood up to you in the name of your ex-teammate?" Orochimaru asked.
Sasuke paused for a moment. "Okay, that's another story. But I'm not going until you make sure she gets there."
The snake sannin nodded. "Not a problem. Besides, I want to get information on the exams themselves. I hear that this year Kiri is doing something new, but I'm not sure what that is yet."
"New?" Sasuke could help but ask, looking confused.
Orochimaru nodded. "Like I said, my sources don't yet know what the difference is. They just know something's going to be different." He then grinned in his particular poisonous style. "Speaking of which, my source uncovered one little tidbit that's exceptionally interesting. You see, they decided to go ahead and scope out those particular genin that would have homefield advantage here. Unnecessary, but not unwise on their part. Anyway, you'll never guess just who they saw there."
Not seeing why he should care, Sasuke also knew his mentor would not bring this up unless the last Uchiha would be interested. The snake sannin held out a photograph that Sasuke shamefully admitted he did not notice earlier, and Sasuke took it.
His eyes widened when he saw this was a picture of the official registration file of a Kiri genin listed as Umitora Naruto, but the photo on file was undeniably the whiskered blonde Sasuke had briefly called friend. Sporting a Kiri hitai-ate.
"So he is alive."
"I'm having my source look into it further, along with the exams themselves, but unless your old buddy had a long lost twin he's alive."
Sasuke did not know how to feel, since Orochimaru had already mentioned the possibility of Naruto's survival just before the Uchiha's humiliating battle with Hinata, but he was certain of one thing. He wanted to see the look on Hinata's face when she saw him devastate the one she loved so much. A part of him, the part that remembered that Naruto was once he best friend, wondered how Naruto had ended up a Kiri-nin and what it meant for both Naruto and Sasuke himself.
Shaking off those concerns, Sasuke excused himself from Orochimaru's presence to seek out further answers elsewhere.
As all these things were going on, two men came upon a serene setting located far to the west of the Land of Rain, somewhere between the Lands of Wind and Stone. It was a gigantic but humble farm, occupying virtually all the land you could with a fence encircling it all. Near the gate that marked the entrance were two residential houses, a two-story home and a four-story home typical of the landowning ranchers in the area, and visible from the gate was a barn, some stables, and a silo. The fields were full of horses, for this ranch specialized in the caring of horses that could be sold to various daimyos and other nobles, and as such usually this farm was left alone due to the wealthy clientele, though the heavily armed guards patrolling the perimeter of the probably played a role in that as well. Part of the field was used to grow and harvest food for the horses and the farmers.
"So this is her main ranch, huh? Rather out of the way, in my opinion." One of the men said. He had long black hair covered by a red bandanna, a bit of a beard, and wore a brown shirt that didn't look entirely washed, and dark brown pants that didn't look much cleaner by comparison. "It's far too remote for me. And nowhere near the sea where we should be."
"Tough shit. You know I've got business here; this is how's it's been since you helped with this deal in the first place. You should've stayed on your turf near old Uzu with your beloved ships if you can't stand being away from the sea." The other guy said firmly. He was younger than his companion, had orange hair that was somewhat spiked, and wore a white shirt with black around the ends of the sleeves, and black pants. He also carried a large odachi strapped to his back.
"Well, I guess my curiosity finally got the better of me, my dear Butterknife. Besides, as she is our ally, this was going to happen sooner or later. Might as well get it over with and then head to Kiri." The black-haired man explained.
Ignoring the man accompanying him, the younger approached the gate to the ranching where he greeted the gatekeepers who, upon recognizing him, opened the gate to allow both men in.
The orange-haired man then walked up to front porch larger of the two houses and knocked on the door. Answering it was a young girl just barely old enough to qualify for a genin test had she been in a ninja academy. She had bright blonde hair in contrast to his, and wore a pink shirt with a dark red skirt.
"Onii-san!" She shouted before engulfing him in a hug.
"It's good to see you too, Ringo; how've you and Mikan been?" He greeted, hugging her back.
"Oh, we're okay. So how long are you going to stay?" The young girl asked.
"Not very long, I'm afraid. I have to head out in a few minutes. My partner and I have to head somewhere far away. I'm not sure how long it will be until I'm back for another visit." He explained.
"Oh, no fair! You work too much, onii-san!"
"Yeah... I guess I do. I promise to stay much longer next time, is that ok?"
"Who's at the door?" A woman's voice called out from inside the house before Ringo could answer. The young man let go of his sister and stood up, seeing a blonde freckled woman with a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, brown pants, and a straw hat and mud-covered boots. Next to her was a young girl about a year older than Ringo, who had short dark hair wearing a yellow shirt covered in hand-shaped dirt marks and green denim shorts.
"Oh, howdy there, Sotensa-san!" The older woman said cheerfully with a rural accent.
"Please, call me Ichigo." The orange-haired man said, then smiled at the young girl. "How are you Mikan?"
"As good as I can be here." She replied simply, glad to see her older brother but uncomfortable showing it.
"I trust everything's going alright here Tamaki?"
"Yep. Your sisters are as well cared for as ever. They're eating fine and their studies are going well. They've even been helping out here at the farm. Ringo's a good helping hand around here as always. It's like she was born to work with horses. Mikan on the other hand is better suited working with the harvest."
"It's more quiet and peaceful. Besides, plants don't surprise you with feces." Mikan said with a suppressed shudder.
"Tell me about it. Does working here require a dead nose because it reeks around here." The dark-haired man who accompanied Ichigo asked.
Tamaki narrowed her eyes slightly. "Well, well, the great pirate finally decides to man up and leave his beloved ocean for more than a few seconds. What brings you around here Suzume-san?" She said, the massive of smug sarcasm in that first sentence almost thick enough to cut with a kunai.
"Oh if he's asking to be called Ichigo then call me Rieki, or Captain Rieki like you know I like."
"How about Dumbass? That good enough?" Tamaki responded.
Rieki sighed. "Why do all the lovely dames in this world act so cruel to a free soul like me? At least the sea loves me."
"I'm glad to see you're okay, Oniisan. Still... how much longer until you're done with your job?" Ringo asked, ignoring the bickering between the other two adults.
Ichigo rubbed her head. "Hopefully only a few more years, though I'm still with these guys after that. Still, by then I can take a break and we can travel the world just like you always wanted Ringo."
Just then, Tamaki ended her back and forth with Rieki before speaking with Ichigo's younger sisters. "Ok, Mikan, Ringo, I need to speak with your brother, so I need a moment with him the fool alone."
Mikan sighed an exasperated groan. "Fine. Will bring us a present next time, onii-san?"
Ichigo smiled. "Sure thing." He hugged her again. "Bye Ringo. Bye Mikan."
"Goodbye Oniisan." Ringo said back, trying not to cry.
"Don't do anything stupid." Mikan said.
"I won't. Now go inside, you two," Ichigo said before his sisters did as he said.
With the girls inside, Tamaki walked outside, closed the door behind her, and sat on a chair in front of a campfire in front of the house. Ichigo and Rieki followed her but remained standing.
"So... what did you want to talk about?" Ichigo asked.
"I just got word from Little Man. He's moled his way into a squad of Kumo-nin headed to Chunin Exams in Kiri. Before he did, though, he meet a contact of his who gave him some info. I think you should take a look at it; he wouldn't have jeopardized his mission if he didn't think it was important." Tamaki said before pulling out a folder and handing it to her guest. Having become good friends with the man, Tamaki knew how Ichigo would react to this info. It wouldn't be good, but if he got this later or not from her his reaction was bound to be worse.
Taking the folder, Ichigo opened it to read the contents, of couple of pages of some report with Rieki taking a peek... and making a face of distaste and terror while his companion kept reading the report, a dark shadow creeping over his eyes as a silent rage burned within. A nervous Rieki looked at Tamaki, a uneasy and clearly forced smile, on his face.
"You know, I think I find the smell here rather lovely, actually. Do you have a guest room I can stay in for the week?" Rieki asked nervously.
The smile that crept onto Tamaki's face was so sweet and innocent and, to Rieki, it seemed like the most evil, sadistic thing in the world at that moment. It made it clear to the apparent seafarer that he'd get no aid from the rancher as Ichigo grabbed his fellow man by the back of his shirt and began dragging him away once Ichigo nodded back at Tamaki in lieu of giving a proper farewell.
"You wanted to go to Kiri, right? Then let's go, Rieki. I'll join you like you wanted." Ichigo said to Rieki, having ignored the man's apparent change of thought or the awkward, comically-looking, and futile struggle to break free of the young man's grasp.
As he tried to break free from Ichigo's grasp, Rieki turned to face Tamaki who now waved good-bye to him, the same smile still on her face.
"Have fun in Kiri, Swindler. When you get there, tell them Rancher sent you." She said, her rural-accent voice laced with a sweet innocence and veiled sadistic malice matching her facial expression.
Rieki, at that moment, knew that 'fun' might not be the best words to describe what he was about to get into. Oh well, it came with being part of the Yakuza leaders.
"So Kiri is going to be hosting the next Chuunin Exams are they?" The leader of Akatsuki asked the other members.
Kisame nodded. "That's what I heard. About time frankly. Honestly, I don't know why they didn't start again sooner. The war in Kiri ended a while ago. Besides, aren't these exams meant to simulate war in the first place?"
"Replace and divert do not equate." Itachi corrected. "Leader-sama, as we know the Sanbi is currently unattainable and we've yet to locate the Rokubi. Why would we take an interest in the Chuunin Exams at this time anyway?"
"Actually we have located the Rokubi. The host is in Kiri as we speak, same with the Kyuubi as we discovered beforehand, and both currently have no plans to leave. We've also have reports that the Hachibi jinchuuriki is leading a squad of genin to take part." The leader claimed.
"So what? Sure they're sitting ducks but there's no point in snatching them up now. Besides, they'll be in Kiri, with shinobi from many of the nations gathered there. Even with our strength, it could turn into a bloodbath." Kukazu pointed out.
"You're right. Unfortunately, though, there are other issues that might force our hand." Pain explained.
"Why is that?" Beniko, the newest member, asked.
"We've received reports that a person matching the description of your old boss, this 'Little Man' as you call him, has infiltrated a team of Kumo-nin. We've also got unconfirmed reports that the heads of the Yakuza in both the Land of Water and the Southern Land of Fire might also be on the move." Konan answered.
Though a only a few members visibly reacted to this revelation, they all were quick to realize what this meant: the Yakuza must see Naruto as a threat and might be moving to eliminate him.
At this point, Deidara summarized the situation with in one sentence.
"Looks like it's going to be a bumpy ride for us, hmm."
The bespectacled medic looked up from his book to see Sasuke. "Yes Sasuke?"
"You clearly have a knack for finding things out. Tell me, what do you know about Uzumaki Naruto's current location?"
"Naruto? Well, for all I know he's six feet under."
Sasuke glared. "Don't give me that. You know he's alive and in Kiri. I want to know how and why he got there."
Kabuto blinked. "I'm sure you can find out when you go there. If you do find out let me know."
The last Uchiha kept his firm look. He was certain that this man knew more than he was saying. The hard part was making him say it, since this time Kabuto wasn't trying to earn his trust with little cards.
"You're saying you couldn't learn if you wanted to? Not even from those 'friends' of yours?" Sasuke tested, deciding to test the waters.
Kabuto shrugged. "I could if I did indeed want to, but the thing is, I don't. As for the others, they've been silent on the matter; it might mean that he's alive but, if so, they haven't told me a damned thing. You want to know so badly, go to Kiri and ask him yourself."
Sasuke silently groaned. "Maybe I will." He said before turning and leaving.
"What do you think Kasumi-sensei wants?" Naruto asked Shiori as they walked to Kaji's dojo, which was where their sensei had asked them to meet her.
Shiori shrugged. "Maybe she's pregnant and wants us to be the godparents to her child?"
Naruto blinked. "You think so?"
"It's possible, though this doesn't seem like the kind of place she would but for all I know she's just planning on some training here."
The two went inside and saw their sensei along with Mei and Kaji there waiting for them. Kasumi looked rather pleased, Mei looked like she was about to watch something interesting, and Kaji looked as passive as ever.
"Welcome you two. Now, we have some good news for you, especially you Naruto." Kasumi greeted.
"I'm told that a certain boy here went snooping around one night and decided he couldn't keep his hands off one of our precious treasures." Mei continued for the jounin.
Naruto and Shiori both blanched, looking like they had just been accused of murder.
"Imagine my surprise when the story also says that the boy handled the treasure safely. That's not something to ignore." Mei continued.
Steeling himself, Naruto got on his knees and bowed. "Mizukage-sama, I accept whatever punishment you have for me."
"Punishment? Who said anything about a punishment?"
Naruto looked up, and Shiori was just as confused as he was. "Then what is this about?"
"My little genin, the swords of the Seven Swordsmen are indeed treasures of our culture, but they were never meant to be put on display like the other treasures we have. The swords were meant to be used, but of course no one qualified was around to do so. However, it seems that to the Kiba, you are worthy of a chance to prove yourself."
"I am?" Naruto asked.
"He is?" Shiori asked.
The whiskered blonde looked to his teammate then back to the mizukage. "Mizukage-sama, I must decline. Shiori-chan has wanted the chance to be a member of the Seven Swordsmen since before I knew her. If anyone deserves the chance to use any of those swords, it's her."
"Maybe, but it's the sword's choice more than anything. If you want she can try, but so far the sword chose you." Kaji told the young jinchuuriki.
"Then I'll give the sword to her." Naruto said.
"No Naruto, don't." Shiori stated.
He turned to her. "What? But Shiori, you've-"
"I know, and believe me I still wish it was me the Kiba wanted. But if the swords choose you, then maybe I'm better suited to one of the others. Besides, my meito is still good enough for me."
"Naruto, there is such as thing as too self-sacrificing." Kasumi said to her student. "Besides, it's not like you'll be using it in battle right away. The Kiba is a difficult weapon to master, you'll need training before we think you're ready to take it into battle. So for the upcoming Chuunin Exams you're better off holding the sword you already have."
"Be honored lad. Normally we'd never even consider letting someone who hasn't made it to chuunin get a chance to train in these swords." Kaji claimed. "Though to be fair, the only reason we're doing this early is because of your recklessness."
"That and I'd like you to be at your best for the exams." Mei added.
Naruto looked a little confused. "Why? I mean, no offense Mizukage-sama, but it sounded like you weren't just encouraging a genin."
The redhaired woman simply smiled. "You haven't had as much time here as the rest. Is it wrong for me to encourage you more?"
Kaji got up and found his way to a box that had been behind the adults gathered here. He collected it and held it out. "Here is the Kiba. Let's make sure that night wasn't a fluke."
Cautious, Naruto looked to Shiori for reassurance that this was not offending her. She nodded supportingly, and he opened the box. Inside were the dual blades of the Seven Swordsmen, just waiting for him.
"How did you guys get the swords in this if I'm the only one who can touch them?" He all of a sudden thought.
"We didn't touch them directly. A few handy water jutsu took care of that." Mei explained.
"We didn't bring them out here so you could look at them kid." Kaji added.
Tentatively, Naruto grabbed the hilt of each sword, and felt no rejection. He lifted them up, holding them so all could see them in his hands.
"That answers that." Kasumi said. 'Wait until Yoshiro hears about this.'
"Now remember Naruto these are not toys." Mei stated. "You're going to have to train harder than ever to actually put these to use."
"I can handle it." He proclaimed.
Mei chuckled a little. "Sure, you say that now. Just remember dual wielding is much harder to pull off than a single sword. And you don't even know how to use these sword's special ability."
"I can handle any kind of training you throw at me."
Mei chuckled some more. "Oh little boy, there's so much fun I can have with challenging that. Luckily for you I'm in a good mood and will leave you to your teachers." She then got up and started to leave, but stopped by the door. "Oh, just one little thing, if you abuse these swords, I'll kill you."
Naruto gulped and the Mizukage left.
"You heard the lady Naruto. Time to see if you really can handle two swords that shoot lightning." Kaji said, standing up and smiling too. "Let's just hope that you're one of the lucky ones, not one of the students who charbroil themselves."
"You're joking right?" Naruto asked. Kaji just kept grinning, and even Kasumi was joining in. "He's joking, right?" He then asked Shiori.
"What's the matter? Afraid of training?" The redhead kunoichi asked, enjoying his discomfort.
Kaji went over to one of the doors. "We're taking this outside boy. If I have to smell burning flesh I'd rather it be where there's wind."
Naruto couldn't help but somewhat glare at his new swords. 'Gee, thank you so much for picking me.'
Regardless, Naruto couldn't very well refuse this challenge. He would just have to work hard and pray that the blades behaved.