A/N : I won't even bother explaining my delay in this update except for lack of muse. I've just been so unmotivated lately, sometimes I even think I shouldn't even write anymore but then I reread your reviews and PMs and it just gets me all pumped up again. So yes, I will finish this story but updates will probably be slow due to my writing muse disappearing and appearing whenever it wants to. Sigh.

Anywho, thanks to Azul Ocean, muzikchic4eva, Chewie Cookies, Metoochocolate, Hinanaru for eva, AoiTori18, Okazaki323, oceanmoon, ShinjiLuver123, Feazko, Inukag4everbabe, LizaUzumaki, Nafsi-chan, MiNKy307, Kinglou27, guest, guest, guest (lol). Believe it or not, your reviews were the ones that spurred this long update. If it wasn't for you guys, I don't think I would've finished this chapter. So thank you! :D

Guest 1 : haha, yes, i just love putting Naruto through pain. :p but don't worry, things will come out better, hopefully. haha. well, he is a protective kind of dude so it is understandable. don't worry. things will work out. haha. thanks for the review. god bless!

ShinjiLuver123 : haha, yeah, but in a situation like that, his emotions got the better of him instead of rational thinking so it exploded into a mini fight. D: haha, of course not. he is the main person who wants Hinata smiling always. don't worry, things will get better for them. haha. thanks for the review. God bless!

Nafsi-chan : haha, so sorry! i wish i had eternal muse so i could write up all chapters quickly and give all you readers the finished story but alas, life just comes and gives me something else to distract me with. D: haha, there is. although that won't be explained just yet but Kakashi does have his reasons and so does Minato. :) haha, awesome! great minds think alike eh? ;D yes, i think i made him a tad bit mean there but Naruto was upset. stupidly upset but still. :p and nah, people say stupid stuff when angry all the time. Kiba and Naruto are too close buddies to mean something like that. XD haha, no problem. i love interacting with my readers as much as i can. :) oh wow, congrats! lemme know how you did on your proficiency exam k? you probably did awesomely. :p thanks for the review hun. God bless!

Guest 2 : glad you liked it. thank you for the review. God bless! ^^

Guest 3 : haha, i will, don't worry, just updates may be slow. sorry. :( anywho, thanks for the review. God bless!

Okay, enjoy this looooonnggg chapter!

'italics' - thoughts
'bold' - emphasis
'bold italics' - flashbacks

Hatake Kakashi is a genuinely nice guy, really, he is.

Throughout his years of living, he has always treated people the way he deemed befitting to them. If someone were to greet him with the best attitude, he would respond back with equal congeniality. Despite his lack of proper parenting because his father was too busy being disappointed in him, he still made sure he was raised to be a man that could fit in into society's good books. He wanted to be viewed as a guy that everyone could admire not only by appearance but by street smarts as well.

But when the going gets tough, the tough gets going.

Pressure and stress is something Kakashi was well accustomed with - having to struggle a lot during his journey on the culinary path and all. So when putting it on someone else, he could even be considered the most heartless villain to ever exist. The past week, he had pushed his student into the toughest and most burdensome tasks he could think of. Giving him tests that even he thought was too difficult for someone of Naruto's level, forcing him to memorize fifty recipes in an hour and then recite it to him word for word, throwing away his cooking and yelling at him to repeat it until it was perfect and the final blow, verbal abuse.

"With dishes like these, give up, there's no way you're getting into Suna."

"What is this crap? Tastes worse than shit. Re-do it all over again."

"How many times have I told you? Why do you keep repeating the same mistakes? Are you retarded?"

"Your father would be disappointed."

Every single time he uttered those insults, his tone would be monotonous yet deadly serious. However, Kakashi was an expert in masking his feelings. Seeing Naruto's usual bright blue orbs turn a gloomy shade was uncomfortable. The dejected expression he saw Naruto hold every single time he threw a dish the blonde worked hard to complete in the garbage was bitter. He swore he could literally see Naruto's spirit breaking into brittle pieces and though that was his objective, it can't change the fact that it broke his heart a little.

Because honestly, Hatake Kakashi is a nice guy.

The silver-haired man heaved a sigh, his shoulders slumped from the horrible feeling piling on it. The palm of his hands toyed with his phone as his eyes looked at it absentmindedly. He drew a short breath as he pressed a button and the screen flashed the current date and time. It was already Sunday. A week had passed so fast, he barely caught it. It was probably because he was too focused on destroying Naruto's dream that he hadn't realized he only had a day left to completely fulfill his mission. To achieve what he claimed to be redemption for what Namikaze Minato had put him through. He knew it wasn't Naruto's choice to be related to Minato but it didn't change the fact they were family, someone associated with the chef prodigy. That was good enough for him.

He stood up, straightening his shirt before heading off to continue where he left off.

Just a bit more and it's over.

He walked straight, his footsteps echoing the empty hallways as he strode forth. His mind was focused on the sole purpose of bringing Naruto's spirit to the lowest point possible so that even if he sabotaged the boy's interview tomorrow, Naruto wouldn't care much. The depressing feeling will be enough to change the young man's mindset and blame himself instead of thinking of other possible culprits. It was a cruel method but it was proving efficient. Throughout the whole week, Naruto had seemed to be drained of life as he moved like a puppet – emotionless and robotic. Though he still had the determination, the spark of passion was gone. No matter how much he tried to create something delicious, he just couldn't. He was losing his touch which meant Kakashi was winning.

Just a bit more.

He turned a corner and entered the kitchen Naruto had been occupying for the past week but as soon as he did, he stopped in his tracks. If it was possible, his shoulders just got heavier with more guilt as he watched Naruto, or to be more precise – the shell of him. The blonde boy was sitting on a stool, stirring a mixture of unrecognizable items languidly. The concoction was emitting a weird odor, not to mention the liquid had formed chunks of weird batter coming in various shapes. Naruto was too lost in another world as he didn't seem to care at all. His motions were slow and sloppy, the white shirt he donned was stained in multiple spots and some powder was smeared on the left side of his jaw but Naruto didn't care. Even his eyes were elsewhere, staring off into space as though hypnotized.

Kakashi couldn't help but feel blue as well just by seeing him.

He didn't know what to do at that point. As a professional chef, he supposed the appropriate thing to do was to snap him back to his senses, make sure he throws away that disgusting mixture and create something much more appealing. As a concerned adult however, the probable proper action was to go over there, take the appliances away from him, stare into the younger man's eyes and demand to know what was wrong (although he had a pretty good idea what it was). Kakashi weighed the options, biting his lip as he pondered carefully on what his next step should be. His mind was practically yelling at him to continue what he had been doing for the past seven days and destroy the boy without a second thought. But this time his heart seemed to be louder.

So he chose the second option.

He stepped over a few toilet sheets, empty beer cans, packets of junk food, various articles of clothing and just plain rubbish. Naruto had been sleeping in the academy (for what reason, Kakashi had no idea) and it was pretty evident he was not a very hygienic person. Kakashi couldn't blame him, the mood he was in was just as pathetic as the surroundings were. He cautiously crept to the low-spirited boy, making sure he wasn't abrasive as by looking at the state of him, a mere touch was enough to shatter him to pieces. He managed to sit down in front of Naruto and get a better look at his expression. It wasn't any better.

His eyes were basically dead – void of any emotion whatsoever. His usual glowing features were dimmed down to the lowest shine possible. His hair though normally messy was worse – anyone walking in would probably assume Kakashi had dragged Naruto from a hobo residence or something. Naruto looked awful, almost as bad as how Kakashi was feeling at that point. The blonde boy didn't seem to acknowledge his mentor's presence as he continued twirling his mysterious-looking cooking slowly, his eyes staring blankly away from Kakashi's concerned ones. The silver-haired man knew he had to make the first move as Naruto made it clear he didn't want to talk.

"Naruto," he mumbled, his voice unable to hold a stern tone as the guilt was just too overbearing.

Naruto remained silent, resuming his actions like nothing was happening.

"Naruto," Kakashi repeated, mimicking a more serious tone to hopefully get the blonde's attention. "We need to talk."

Again, silence. Kakashi's patience was wearing thin by the minute but Naruto was not giving a damn.

Aggravated, Kakashi grabbed the bowl and spoon from the boy, slamming it onto the counter before turning back to the young man in front of him. Naruto slowly lowered his hands as part of his attention seemed to have returned from the clouds above. His glazed irises finally met Kakashi's, the dampened aura still lingering around him. Kakashi had expected him to say something but Naruto kept quiet. His lips didn't even twitch as he just stared at the elder man in a deadpan notion.

Kakashi sighed. There's no easy way to go about this, is there? That's what ya get, Hatake.

"Naruto... I-I know I've been rough on you lately. I admit it. But-"

"I'm a failure, aren't I?"

Kakashi flinched a little to the sudden words. "W-What?"

"You heard me. I'm a failure. Right?"

This was a battle. Not between him and Naruto, but with Naruto and his inner self. Kakashi cleared his throat as he crossed his arms nonchalantly. "And why do you think that?"

A barely audible scoff escaped Naruto's lips as he threw his hands in the air, fury slowly seeping in. "Look around! Look at what I'm doing! Look at the pathetic state I'm in! You're trying your best to help me and I can't even handle it. I can't even be professional about this! I can't... I just can't..."

Kakashi kept quiet, knowing it was better to let Naruto vent out what he was feeling in order to heal. Naruto gritted his teeth, his knuckles turning white from clenching his fists tightly into a ball. He got up and began to lose it as he knocked down random items from the counter, grabbing silverware and throwing them in rage. He kicked stools over, using the tip of his foot to send paper towels flying and shattered a few plates in the process. Kakashi still remained silent. Just leave him be, Hatake. Just leave him...

After a few minutes of blind anger, Naruto finally stopped.

His breathing came out heavy with his chest heaving rapidly. His body trembled, the energy leaving his body as he fell to his knees – the broken glass decorating the floor crunching under his touch. Without him realizing it, a tear trickled down his cheek. More followed suit and soon, he was choking up. He tried to cover his face with his hands, tried to hide his embarrassing state, tried to convince himself not be such a baby but he couldn't help it. His emotions were in a disoriented place until his heart could do nothing but ache.

He hated feeling so worthless. He hated feeling like such a loser. He hated feeling like a disappointment.

He hated it.

"Kiba was right... I don't stand a chance at all in getting into Suna Academy... I mean, who am I kidding? I can't do this... I can't be like Oyaji... I can't... I should just stop fooling myself and move on."

"That's the stupidest thing I've heard you say in awhile, and trust me, you come out with the stupidest things too."

Naruto ceased his sobbing slightly as he turned to face his mentor who seemed to unaffected by his tantrum earlier. "H-Huh?"

"Of course you're not getting into Suna Academy. Not with this kind of attitude, you're not."

The blonde wiped the dried tears off his face furiously, feeling like a child all of a sudden. Sniffling, he said, "B-But... I couldn't even handle the things you were giving me... I failed..."

"So?" asked Kakashi sarcastically, grabbing a spoon nearby and playing with it between his fingers. "If you fail once, you fail for life?"

Naruto stayed hushed, not knowing how to reply to the elder's rhetorical question. Normally he would retort back with a smart and confident answer, boasting his abilities and praising his own capabilities without hesitation. The fact that he knew he hasn't been his normal self lately stopped him.

"Naruto, I've told you before why I chose to be your mentor, right?" asked Kakashi, leaning in closer from his position. Naruto didn't reply but his mind was already replaying what his mentor had told him before. "I want to feel proud of my student. I want to see you succeed, not like your father, but better. Because I know you can."

"Naruto, answer me."

"... Y-Yeah..."

"Who is this person sitting like a loser in front of me now? This can't be Uzumaki Naruto. Not the same Uzumaki Naruto who told me he's going to give it all to get into Suna Academy no matter what. Certainly not the same brat who told me he wants to make his old man proud. And I'm positive this isn't the Uzumaki Naruto who doesn't have the word 'give up' in his dictionary."

The young blonde remained stoic as his ears processed the words Kakashi was saying. He was right. What had happened? What had made him turn from an ambitious youngster into a depressed puppet? As his thoughts rambled to itself, he began figuring it all out. The reason wasn't because of Kakashi's extreme 'training'. No, though that did play a part, it wasn't fully the cause. Another factor was probably the horrible fight he had with his friends a week ago.

To say it hadn't affected him was a huge understatement. Naruto treated his friends like rare gems, always making sure they were taken care of because he knew how hard it was to find true ones. To think that he would last a whole week without contacting any of them was unbelievable. After the fight, he had snuck back in his house to gather some supplies that could last him awhile. At that point, he was too engrossed in focusing on his interview and proving Kiba wrong that he hadn't realized it was a stupid thing to do. He should've gone straight to his housemates and apologized to them directly for acting so brashly. He should've told them he didn't care who was wrong or right. He should've said he didn't want to fight anymore.

More than that, he should've gone to Hinata, went down on his knees before her and apologize like it was the last thing he was going to do.

His fist clenched tightly as he remembered what he had said to her. How could he? How could he say such a cruel thing, after everything they had been through? How could he doubt their friendship when Hinata has been there for him all along? She had proven herself countless of times on how much he can depend on her if he needed. Even though he was the one who was supposed to do the helping, he realized Hinata had helped him a lot too. Just by being by his side, he would feel like he can do anything. Just by lending a shoulder to lean on, he knew he had nothing to worry about anymore.

Hinata and Naruto shared a special bond incomprehensible to others but he preferred it that way. Because he knew that they understood each other and that was all that mattered.

And he had ruined it.

Hinata... Kiba... Ero-sensei... Shikamaru... Chouji... I'm so sorry...

"Get up, Naruto."

The stern voice above him shook him out of his reverie. He looked up to see Kakashi holding out a hand to help him stand, his features bearing a softer and friendlier tone than it had these past few days. Naruto slowly gripped his mentor's hand as he stood up but Kakashi kept their hold firmly. "I want you to promise me now that you will not give up. You will not throw away this amazing opportunity to make a better future for yourself. You will not discard your dreams to make your father proud. And most of all, you will not fail me. Understood?"

Naruto looked at the elder man, sensing nothing but seriousness. He bit his lip lightly as he thought carefully, wondering if he even should promise something he was still unsure he would keep. After all, to an Uzumaki, a promise wasn't just empty words pulled together just to be lie. A promise was a huge contract between a person and another, the deal sealed with trust and faith. Kakashi awaited his answer patiently, knowing this was a huge deal to the young blonde so he chose not to push him.

Images of the people who have always been supporting him flashed through him like a movie. His parents, his godparents, his friends, Hinata, Kakashi, everyone. A soft grin finally graced his lips as he gripped Kakashi's hand a little tighter. "I won't promise all that just yet. How bout I just promise I'll do my best for tomorrow's interview and no matter what happens, I'll still work hard to achieve my dream. Deal?"

Kakashi smirked, knowing his student was back.

"Good enough for me. Now enough of this sap, get yourself cleaned up. You look like shit. How am I supposed to mentor you when looking at you makes me wanna puke?"

Naruto looked down at the mess and gave a revolted expression as he too agreed. He slowly tread over the disaster before him as he left to freshen up and start over with even more determination and focus. Kakashi couldn't help but smile at what had just transpired. How was it that he had gone from the villain to the savior in mere minutes? He stretched his arms widely as he felt a burden being lifted, his body relieved from a weight he thought was unbearable. He knew he had ruined what he had been doing so efficiently for the past few days. He knew he had just helped the person he was supposed to be destroying. He knew it all. Yet, he couldn't find it in himself enough to care at that moment. Though his plan was basically throttled, his heart was giving him a pat on his back. The angels were probably smiling down at him that second.

Because no matter what, Hatake Kakashi is a nice guy.

Before he knew it, the moon had gone to sleep and the sun was wide awake.

Kakashi's eyes warily looked around, monitoring the people bustling around him as he stood motionless amongst the midst of the hustle and bustle. Today was the day, the day of Naruto's interview. The day that will decide his fate. The day Kakashi was sure his revenge would be executed with no flaws. But since his little comforting act yesterday along with a whole night spent on ensuring Naruto received the best teaching he could give, he wasn't so sure anymore on whether his initial plans would go as assumed.

Speaking of his student, the young blonde was nowhere to be seen.

That brat, I told him punctuality's important. Why does he never take me seriously?

He raised his arm as his onyx orbs glanced over his wristwatch. Fifteen more minutes before the interview began. As the hands of the clock ticked away, his heart skipped a beat faster than it's usual melody. Though he had no particular reason to be nervous, his palms were sweaty and his nerves were tipping on the edge. He had disregarded it as a fleeting emotion that would pass but as the time came for his student to present himself to the judges, it grew worse and what was chewing on his insides before were biting into it covetously at that second.

"Well aren't you a sore sight for my eyes?"

Kakashi couldn't help but show the annoyance he felt when he met gazes with Kabuto. The silver-haired man tried his best to ignore the other man's presence, knowing it was for the best he avoided all contact with anyone who still presumed he was going on with his plan to sabotage Naruto. He turned the opposite direction and tried to walk away but Kabuto stopped him dead in his tracks. "You should thank me, Kakashi. I managed to clean up your mess of a failure in less than twenty-four hours. Orochimaru-sama was right to not put his full belief in your capabilities."

Kakashi turned, a panicked expression replacing his aggravated one. "What're you talking about, Kabuto?"

"I warned you before but you chose to ignore it. I told you, didn't I? Orochimaru-sama does not tolerate failure and he will make sure whatever he wants, he gets."

Kakashi's eyes snapped with aggravation as he stormed to the younger man and grabbed him by his collar, grip so tight his whole hand was trembling. "Teme, if you mess up this kid's future, I swear-"

"Is something the matter here, gentlemen?"

Kakashi swiveled his head and was taken aback to see the two representatives from Suna Academy whom would be judging Naruto's admission interview standing before him with curiosity befalling their features. He released his hold on Kabuto (who sent him a smirk that he wished he could rip off) and bowed instantly, regaining his sense of mannerism quickly. "Iie, nothing's wrong. It is a pleasure to meet you. I hope you'll be able to judge my student's interview fairly for I believe he has the potential to make Sunagakure Academy proud."

"Well, let's let his cooking decide that, shall we?" chuckled one of the representatives, patting Kakashi lightly on his shoulder before they made their way to the table situated in the middle of the room. Kabuto fiddled with his glasses casually as his eyes bore through Kakashi like steel. Kakashi was just about to demand more answers from him but a burst from the doors with a heavily breathing young man panting like crazy halted his actions. The blonde looked up and gave Kakashi an energetic wave as he rubbed the back of his head in embarrassment. "Sorry, Kakashi-Sensei. I overslept a little. I'm still on time though right?"

His mentor couldn't help but shake his head at his student's antics. It was understandable why Naruto had overslept, his body could only take so much stress in a week, but to make such an entrance and blurt out his rather lame excuse out loud with no concern only made Kakashi cringe with worry even more. Before he could say anything, Kabuto was walking over to the blonde and placed his hand on Naruto's shoulder. "Naruto-san, I wish you the best of luck. No matter what happens, give it your best alright?"

"Umm, sure. Thanks, Kabuto-san," replied Naruto, his cobalt irises finding Kabuto a little iffy as he walked away. Kakashi was just about to chase him and threaten him with any means possible to let him know what that cunning snake had planned but he decided to warn Naruto first. He wasn't sure on what to say but he had to do something. There was a huge possibility that Kabuto had messed with the upcoming interview in some way already and if the blonde knew, he could at least prepare for the worst. "Naruto, I need to tell you something. Ka-"

"Uzumaki Naruto? Are you present?" called out the representative, hands already busy writing down details needed on the interviewee form.

"Yeah, I'm here! I'll be there in a sec," yelled Naruto back as he slid off his jacket and began to tie the apron prepared around his body. " Can it wait, Kakashi-Sensei? I kinda need to spend my last few seconds focusing on what I'm gonna be cooking."

"No! This is important! It's about your interview. I think-"

"Uzumaki Naruto, ready whenever you are."

"Coming!" Naruto faced his mentor with determination and focus blazing through his eyes. He held his arm in front of his chest as he grinned innocently. "Here goes nothing. Sensei, wish me luck!"

Kakashi gulped lightly, knowing there was not enough time to warn Naruto so he just did what he thought was what Naruto needed to hear most at that point. "Naruto, just remember, even if you fail, it's not the end. It's the beginning... Do your best, alright?"

"What're ya talking bout, Sensei? I've got this one in the bag. I won't let you down," said the blonde with such conviction, Kakashi prayed it would come true. He watched as Naruto walked to the counter prepared and let out a heavy sigh. Kami-sama, please help the kid. He'll need it.

At that moment, to say Naruto was nervous was an understatement. He felt like a wreck.

His heart pounded to a rhythm so fast, he felt like he was going to burst any second. Sweat rolled down the sides of his face as he tried to put an a brave facade, knowing that impressions were crucial in moments like these. The judges eyed him critically, their gazes feeling so burdensome and uncomfortable on him. He gulped lightly, his body trembling from sheer adrenaline.

Minutes passed and neither parties seemed to make any sign on starting the interview. Naruto was the most impatient so he decided to voice out first. "So... how does this work? Do I start now or something?"

"Not without me, you don't."

Naruto turned and saw an unusually pale man with shocking golden eyes walking towards them. He strided with such confidence, such authority, such presence that made the entire room silent as he made his way to the judging table. After he took his seat in the middle, he leaned forth and joined his hands together in glee. He sent Naruto a cunning smile. "So, you're Uzumaki Naruto? I've heard a lot about you."

Naruto cleared his throat in an attempt to bring forth his bravado facade. "You must be the director of Suna Academy, Orochimaru-sama. I've heard a lot about you too."

Orochimaru couldn't help but chuckle smugly. "Well, I guess that's fair then. Now that we're acquainted, why don't we begin? After all, I am always looking for interesting young people to join my academy. And you, Naruto-san, seem interesting enough."

"Why thank you, sir. I'll be sure not to let you down then."

"Very good. Now then, do you know what you need to do?"

"Yes sir. Create a dish that will send all your taste buds to heaven right? I'm ready."

Another chuckle. "Excellent. You have exactly an hour. Oh, and remember, Naruto-san, I do not tolerate mediocrity."

Naruto nodded, feeling the nervousness transform into pure adrenaline as he couldn't wait to start cooking. Orochimaru rung the bell and the timer went off, which resulted in Naruto immediately dashing towards the cabinets. He opened them quickly but was slightly surprised at what he found. Or lack thereof. He was expecting for there to be various ingredients and supplies for him to use for the dishes he had planned to cook but there was barely enough to make one extravagant cuisine.

Huh? What's going on? Did they forget to restock or something? Ugh, no time to waste. Guess I'll just have to go with the flow. Great, guess my plans to wow them with my special steak just flew out the window. Hmm, let's see...

Although his mind was in slight panic mode, his movements were still stable. He quickly gathered all the ingredients he could use and began cooking. He grabbed the vegetables and a sharp knife, placing them neatly beside each other. His eyes frantically searched for the chopping board but it was nowhere to be seen. Naruto grew agitated.

What the? How can there not be a chopping board here!? Ahh!

He decided to just cut the food near the sink so he took everything and dumped it there. His brain was getting tensed from all these unexpected situations. This is what you get for being late and not checking the stuff beforehand. Ugh. As time passed, Naruto noticed his problems didn't stop. Appliances kept coming out either faulty or just plain missing. Some ingredients were even unusable and rotten. Even the stove gave him a little trouble here and there.

The young man felt like screaming in frustration. It was as though someone had intentionally done all this to wreck his interview.

Naruto stopped his frying midway.

Could it be... N-Nah, it can't be. No way. I'm being ridiculous. Gotta focus!

While he was busy trying to work with what he had, the judges were watching him with an eagle eye. Especially Orochimaru. His yellow irises kept a close view of Naruto's movements, noting how he moved about with such hurry and haste. The two judges scribbled down a few notes as time passed but Orochimaru just watched with glee. A coy smirk graced his lips.

An hour passed and after much hard work and sweat, Naruto was finished.

Orochimaru pressed the bell once more, stopping the timer as he looked at Naruto with anticipation. "Time's up."

Naruto nervously looked over his simple dishes, making sure everything was alright and with a silent prayer, brought the meals over to the respective judges. For each judge, he had cooked the same main course but he had added different side dishes for variety. Orochimaru got the best ones since Kabuto did mention how important the snake-like man's opinion was.

The judges eyed the food with hunger, sniffing the sweet and delicious aroma of the dishes. Orochimaru made the first move and scooped into his meal slowly. He cut a piece of the grilled fish, dipped it into the sauce Naruto had provided and popped it into his mouth. His expression remained unreadable whilst the other judges looked pretty astonished when they sampled Naruto's cooking. One of them even smiled a little after swallowing his first bite. The young blonde on the other hand was watching them eat with disappointment. This isn't right. I can do better. If only I had more ingredients and a better station... This feels so unfair.

After each judge was done, they wiped their mouths clean and jotted down a few more points on the sheets provided. Orochimaru merely took one look at the form, filled in a few words and looked straight at the nervous young man in front of him. Naruto gulped. Although Orochimaru looked satisfied with what he had just ate, there was something mysteriously odd about his expression too. Like he had a hidden agenda or something. Naruto quickly brushed it off as superstitious nonsense.

"Alright, let's start the evaluation," Orochimaru turned to the man beside him. "What do you think?"

"I thought it was really good. Though the dish was pretty simple, just a normal Salmon Teriyaki, it had a unique flavor that made me want to eat it more and more and more. I don't really know how to explain that feeling but what I can say is, I'm amazed. I have never eaten such delicious Salmon Teriyaki before. Kudos to you, Uzumaki-san."

Naruto beamed with delight. "Thank you, sir. Means a lot you said that."

Orochimaru snickered lightly. "How about you?"

"I agree, although it was a simple dish, I think Uzumaki-san did an excellent job with it. The salmon was grilled to perfection. It wasn't too overcooked and the meat was just nicely tender and soft. The teriyaki sauce was absolutely delicious. Not spicy, not to sweet, not too sour. Everything about it was flawless. Loved it. Good job."

Again, Naruto was grinning widely. "Thank you. I appreciate the compliments, sir."

"Hmm, so far so good. Feeling quite safe there, Naruto-san?"

"A little. Two out of three done. Now it's just your verdict, Orochimaru-sama," replied Naruto, his fingers fiddling slightly to distract him from the anxiety building in him. Orochimaru smirked and leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms sternly. "I won't waste anymore time so let me just get to it. Naruto-san, you..."

Please say pass, please say pass, please, please, please!

His eyes looked straight at Orochimaru's cold ones, begging him for his approval.


"You fail."

w-wait, what?

"I told you, I don't tolerate mediocrity. It's true, the dish was delicious. I enjoyed it. However, it is a forgettable and average meal. Out of all the dishes you could've chosen, you decided on such a simple one. I'm disappointed, Naruto-san. I thought you would be better."

"But that's not my fault! The ingredients-"

"It is not wise for a man to make up excuses for his own mistake. No matter what reasons you throw, it all comes back to your own flaws. Professional chefs make full use of what they have and strive to create something spectacular though constricted. Didn't your father ever teach you that?"

Naruto wanted to retort something back, wanted to defend himself, wanted to beg for another chance but his voice had already left him. I... f-failed... I failed... Kami, I failed.

"Better luck somewhere else. Good day, Uzumaki Naruto," mocked Orochimaru as he stood up and walked away. The other two representatives were still surprised that Naruto didn't make the cut but nothing could be done. Orochimaru was the decider of everything. The other two were merely mindless puppets. It was already established that no matter how many may say yes, if Orochimaru says no, it is an immediate no. That was the authority of the director of an academy. The other judges looked at the young man with regrettable expressions, sending him a silent apology as they left the kitchen as well.

Kakashi lowered his head in dismay. Though he knew it was a decision that couldn't be avoided, it didn't help the guilty feeling bursting inside him. He had hoped Orochimaru would've been amazed by Naruto's cooking and change his mind but bribery is a much powerful force than sincerity. Kabuto walked past with a smug grin plastered on his lips. He gave a mock salute to Kakashi before following the judges out of the room. Kakashi wished there was no such rule against him punching that guy into oblivion. But there was someone else that needed his attention even more. He looked at his student's dejected form and walked slowly over to him.

When Kakashi stood by Naruto's side and tried to say something, Naruto avoided him completely and quickly fled out of the room – too ashamed to face his mentor eye to eye. The elder man was just about to call him back but decided against it. Maybe some alone time was what he needed. He'd go find the boy the next day.

Maybe there's still another way...

Hinata always saw herself as an open book. A treasure chest unlocked wide open for the public to see and evaluate it's contents. Sometimes she even felt emotionally naked because it was as though everybody knew who she was and how she felt just by taking a glance at her. Though she had built a strong barrier to prevent anyone from messing up her emotions, it did not mean they did not know what it was. She may have created a wall but it was made up of invincible material.

That was why she knew at that moment, everyone could probably tell how nervous she was.

It was the day of her mother's memoir musical and it had turned out to be something that Hinata had not expected.

Neji, who was in charge of the whole event, ensured that the musical came out the best it could be. The memoir was being held at one of the top auditoriums in Konoha. With it's abundance of the finest leather seats for the audiences' comfort, the intricate interior designs donning the walls and ceilings done by famous artists, the vast amount of chandeliers placed to give off an image of a sparkling sky and of course, the majestic stage that could probably hold a herd of elephants. Besides the venue, another important aspect was the orchestra itself and the elder Hyuuga had made it crystal clear that they were the best the world could offer.

"Hinata-sama, do not fret. You will be playing alongside some of the finest and talented musicians existing today. Majority of them have been playing for years and not one of them has caused any mishaps or flaws to a performance in anyway. I trust you will be very comfortable alongside these people."

If only he hadn't stressed how amazingly gifted these people were, Hinata might have felt a little better about herself right then.

But this was for her mother, her guardian angel, her saving grace. Everything had to go perfectly.

Throughout the past few weeks, she had struggled and battled with herself on finishing the composition she wished to play for her mother in the musical. After much thinking and emotionally-draining sessions of hard work, she managed to write up a complete piece. Of course, she felt like it was a mere average composition, worrying over the simplicity and lack of passion it had. She knew it could never describe her mother. Nothing could. Yet she knew her mother would still be smiling at her from the skies above for she had always said that as long as you try, nothing is wrong. Her mother was just that kind.

Hinata gripped her violin tightly as her other hand fiddled with the hem of her dress. Her heart was still throbbing with anxiety as she awaited for the conductor to call them on stage to start the musical. Before lining up with the other performers, she had sneaked a glance to the audience – curiosity nibbling at her to find out how big or small of a number is there. She nearly fell over from surprise when she saw that every seat was taken by a person, not even one left empty. From her view, they looked like a sea of bodies, all with indifferent expressions and suited up with glamorous outfits. Neji-nii-san is truly amazing... I can't believe he managed to sell out the entire auditorium...

Speaking of her cousin, her eyes darted to the front row of seats which were reserved for special people (namely family members) and saw him sitting upright in the center – his face bearing no emotion whatsoever. Hinata was a little shocked to see Hanabi sitting beside him, a bored and unenthusiastic expression marring her delicate features. She stifled a yawn and accidentally locked gazes with her sister, her pale eyes burning with anger and hatred towards the elder one. Hinata bit her lip. Of course Hanabi still has ill feelings for her, especially since she was still blamed for everything horrible that has happened to the young girl.

The conductor finally stepped onto his podium and turned to give a respectful bow to the audience. As the applause died down, he took his baton and swung it a few times – a signal for the orchestra members to make their presence and take their positions. The line began to move and Hinata silently prayed one last time before the light of the auditorium blared above her. She heard the clapping echoing throughout the walls of the hall, her heartbeat almost following it's frantic beat, but she made sure her posture was straightened and her demeanor graceful. She was a Hyuuga after all.

Her eyes couldn't seem to fully take the mass amount of people that were watching her with intent stares. It was either the lights were too bright (which she couldn't help but feel a little thankful for) or it could be that her sense of sight just chose to block it all away to calm her nerves down. The conductor tapped his baton against the side of the podium and all the orchestra members sat down, holding their instruments in place. Hinata too placed her white violin in position, shutting her eyelids lightly and took a deep breath. Okaasan... please guide me through this... please help me not mess this up...

The conductor began moving his baton swiftly and music began filling up the auditorium. Since it was a musical, it was arranged that the orchestra would play five of Hinata's mother's favorite compositions before the finale being Hinata's original work. The dark-haired girl had already memorized all the pieces her mother enjoyed to heart so as soon as the music began, she had joined in and was soon creating beautiful sounds with the rest of the orchestra. The harmonization was on point, the melodies flowed together like a smooth river, and the notes were played with such skill that it left the audience enthralled and captivated by the sheer whimsical rhythm modulating one after another.

Hinata felt light, dainty, weightless. As though she could float out into the atmosphere.

Her mind was focused on making sure she was playing perfectly but her heart kept on reminding her who she was playing for and the effects of the latter was stronger for the young Hyuuga smiled softly as she imagined she was a kid again and that this wasn't a concert watched by unknown people. This was a concert seen by only her mother. Her movements were swift and delicate, each note strung with emotion as the melody began engulfing her wholly. She was in her paradise again.

Before she knew it, the conductor had waved the baton for the final time and the orchestra altogether ceased their playing. Hinata's eyelids fluttered open as the audience gave a huge round of applause, some even getting up in appraisal for the beautiful music they had just experienced. She couldn't help but feel her chest tighten, as though her heart was swelling up with pure happiness. She had just played in front of thousands of people and they were praising her for it. I-I... I did it. I did it! Okaasan, did you see me? I actually did it. I feel so... proud. I'm proud of myself for finally doing this. I'm so happy. Naruto-kun, did you-

She frowned. Naruto-kun...

How she wished at that moment that special blonde boy she treasured so much was sitting amidst the crowd, cheering her with his loud and boisterous spirit. She could imagine the proud gleam in his eyes as he would say to her that he knew all along she had it in her. That she can do something worthwhile. That she was gifted just as much as anybody else. That she was amazing. Her lip quivered on the cold realization that he wasn't there. He wasn't standing next to her, giving her the support she craved from him. He wasn't there whispering sweet words of encouragement like how he used to. He wasn't there anymore. All because of her.

Naruto-kun... I miss you...

"For our final act, we have prepared something rather special. As most of you may know, Hyuuga Hiashi had organized this memoir musical especially for his wife who was an ultimate fan of classical music. Unfortunately her life was short-lived but her spirit will live on with the loved ones she left behind. So her eldest daughter, Hyuuga Hinata, a very talented violinist, has prepared her own composition she wishes to play in honor of her mother. Without further adieu, I present to you, Hyuuga Hinata."

As the conductor took his leave, applause followed suit and soon, she was the only one left on stage. She gulped nervously. Her mind tried to calm her down yet the sight before her was too frightening, she thought she would combust within flames of tension. Everyone's attention was solely on her. The atmosphere was thick with expectations as the audience stared at her with eyes that dared her to begin. Her eyelids shut tightly, hoping the darkness would aid in slowing the speedy pace of her heart. She tried to envision something that could help sooth her nerves away. Her brain ransacked through various miscellaneous images until it stopped on one that immediately helped relax the dark-haired girl.

The auditorium was totally vacant except for a woman sitting directly in the center.

Her mother beaming at her with pride.

"You can do it, dear," she whispered with a gentle tone. "I know it."

Hinata's worried frown instantly curved into a bright smile. She nodded curtly, finding strength once more just by knowing her mother was definitely there watching over her no matter what. She let out a shaky breath before positioning her violin between her chin and shoulder. Her fingers gripped the instrument tightly and her bow began to move. Here goes nothing... Okaasan, this is for you.

The moment she strung the first chord, the nervous feeling she previously felt began dissipating, vanishing into the air as the ambiance grew melancholic with her playing. The sounds moved around the room like a waltz, causing everyone to concentrate on the beauty of the melody instead of on the musician herself. A soft smile graced her lips as she felt her emotion pour into the song. Everything she had remembered, everything she missed, everything she loved about her mother. All of it was shown at that moment, left barren and open for everyone to know.

She felt happy. Never would she have thought she would be given the chance to play for her mother in front of so many people. It felt like one of her childhood wishes came true and she can finally start wishing for something new. She knew none of this was even possible without special people that had helped push her towards a brighter life. Her mother, the woman who had always supported her ever since she was born. Her father, who had always blamed himself instead of her despite of what others believed. Neji, who recently became someone she could depend on. Shizune, who patiently stood by her side ever since she was admitted into rehab and tried her best to break Hinata out of her shell. Naruto, who was probably a huge stepping stone on her road to recovery.

Hinata caught her breath.


The final memory she held of him was not pleasant. He wasn't wearing his usual grin that he was so known for. He wasn't giving her his smile that she loved so much. He didn't even look happy.

In fact, he was wearing the exact expression he had on that night.

"I thought... we were friends..."

Her fingers missed a chord, creating a shrill sound. She immediately stopped playing.

The crowd froze in bewilderment. What had happened? Why did the beautiful music stop? Where did it go? Mutters and whispers started floating around. The whole audience was curious as to what had occurred that made the young Hyuuga suddenly stop midway. Hinata instantly realized the consequences of what she had done. Her fingers moved in panic mode as she tried to find her rhythm once more but her mind just couldn't seem to focus. She thought she was giving them the sweet serenade they were listening to previously but what was coming out was just a bunch of notes strung together sloppily. It was no use. She couldn't get her muse back.

The crowd began growing noisy as the whispers became full out loud comments. Some were telling her to continue. Some were telling her to stop. Some were even telling her to leave the stage. Hinata looked to the audience with saddened orbs, dropping her violin from her shoulders as she tried to hold back the tears that were so close to falling. Oh no... w-what have I done...?

"Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize for my sister's abrupt stop. It seems something interrupted her and she can't seem to concentrate now," explained Hanabi as she stood proudly at the conductor's podium, hoping to calm the situation a little. "My sincerest apologies for this sudden conclusion but this is the end of the musical. On behalf of the Hyuuga family, I thank you all for coming and hope you were thoroughly entertained despite the minor mishap at the end. My mother would be so touched to know so many attended her memoir. Again, thank you and have a nice day."

Though it was a rather peculiar excuse, the audience didn't seem to be interested to bother any longer as they gave a soft round of applause and began leaving. Hanabi gave a heavy sigh before turning to her elder sibling with a look of disgust. "As expected, you couldn't even do this right. Otousan gave you one small task and you couldn't even complete it. Are you even a Hyuuga? Why are you so bloody pathetic?"

Hinata shut her eyelids tight, tears forming at the corner of her eyes. Hanabi was right. She was pathetic. She had worked so hard for this day, for this performance, and just because of her inability to focus, she blew it. Her one chance to make her parents proud of her, she had thrown and stepped on that opportunity like it was nothing but garbage. Everyone must think of her as disappointing. A disgrace to the Hyuuga name. A let down.

"You should be thanking me for saving your ass back there. I put my pride on the floor for you. Do you know how revolting it is for me to have to stand up for you? Someone who can't even play a simple song. And you claim you composed it yourself. That makes it even more saddening. Okaasan herself is probably shaking her head at you right now."

Her lips quivered. Okaasan... I'm so sorry...

"I knew putting you in this musical was a mistake. I can't even look at you. I suggest you get out of here before you embarrass our family any further."

Hinata bowed her head with shame, her long tresses covering the tears she was shedding. Nothing could explain the horrible feeling she was experiencing. Not only had she ruined her chance of making her parents proud, she had also destroyed her hopes of returning to the Hyuuga family with a clean image. A fresh start. A new beginning. All this time she had been lying to herself. She had been telling herself she can recover, she will recover and she will return to her home and show her other family members that she was going to make sure the Hyuuga name was tainted no more. But no matter what, she will always come out as a cast down. A failure.

"That's enough, Hanabi," came the stern voice of Neji, his pale orbs giving threatening signals to the younger girl. Hanabi scoffed, throwing a few strands of hair behind her shoulder before leaving the auditorium with sharp glares. Hinata knew her cousin was standing directly beside her, she could feel his presence. He wasn't doing anything, as expected of the stoic man. Hinata preferred it this way. She didn't know if she could take it if anyone tried to console her at that moment. She knew it was pointless. She was a failure and there was nothing that would change it.

Before Neji could say anything, Hinata muttered softly. "T-Take me back to the center... p-please..."

The young man could only nod in agreement.

When Naruto was sad, he used to prefer to be alone.

Throughout his entire existence, he had always found it even more comforting to be alone and wallow in misery all solo instead of depending on someone else for words of consolation. The idea of crying and showing his weaker side in front of another was unacceptable to him. He didn't mind when others came to him when they needed to vent out a few feelings but never the other way around. Even on the day of his parents funeral, he had gone home, locked himself in his room and cuddled himself to sleep with dried tears on his cheeks. It had always been like that and he had assumed it would continue as so until the day he died.

But after meeting Hyuuga Hinata, he couldn't even fathom the idea of not seeking for her comfort during these hard times.

That was why he was in the elevator of the center, ready to go see her, fall to his knees and beg for her forgiveness.

Okay, all you have to do is go up to her and say you're sorry. Tell her you're stupid for even doubting her and that you'll always trust her no matter what. Tell her how bad you felt. Hmm, I wonder if she even wants to see me... No, she has to. She has to hear my apology. She has to.

The bell chimed as the metal doors swung open. He strode forth and wasted no time in making his way to the counter. It was rather late at night and he knew visiting hours was over but he couldn't take it anymore. His heart was aching and he needed his medication fast. Even seeing her would be enough. He'd take anything at that moment. Not only was he grieving over his failed interview but he also wanted to mend his relationship with the dark-haired girl as fast as possible. A week of not visiting her, not talking with her, not seeing that beautiful smile was torment. He probably couldn't even last another day.

Shizune was currently clearing her table when he walked towards her. When their eyes met, he caught the dampened expression her features held. It was like she was disheartened he had come, which was rather surprising considering she was all for supporting him and Hinata together. "Hey Shizune-san."

"N-Naruto-san? What are you doing here so late?"

"What else? I wanna see Hinata."

"Oh, Naruto-san, that's not possible. It's way too late and our patients need sufficient re-"

"Please, Shizune-san... Please! I really need to see her. I know this goes against the rules and all but consider this an emergency. Heck, if you need me to fill up some forms or talk to Tsunade baa-chan, I will. As long as it'll get me to see Hinata right now, I'll do anything."

Seeing his eagerness and frazzled appearance, Shizune let out a dreary sigh. "I wish I could, Naruto-san, I really do. In fact, I think Hinata-chan needs to see you too. Today wasn't really a good day for her."

Naruto's eyes instantly widened with worry. "Why? What happened? Is she okay?"

"I don't know the details but according to her cousin, Neji-san, there was a little problem with her performance at her mother's memorial today and she was crushed about it. She came back to the center with such a heartbroken look, I wanted to hug her that instant. She refused to have anyone enter her room after she went in. I'm so worried."

"Well, let me go in. I'll talk to her. If she's sad, she shouldn't be alone! I can be there comforting her. Please, Shizune-san, let me see her."

"I'm afraid that's not possible, Naruto."

Naruto turned around and saw his godmother making her way towards them. "Baa-chan?"

Tsunade's heels clacked against the marble floor as her brown orbs flicked to him with seriousness. "Firstly, it's after visiting hours so that's already a no. Secondly, Hinata's emotionally unstable right now so it would be unwise to have someone pestering her. She is after all a patient with depression issues. You go in there and try to console her, you end up with nothing. Depression patients prefer to be alone for awhile before we can send them to undergo therapy. It is pointless to push someone into comfort when they don't even want it. So we need to respect her wishes."

"But aren't you worried she'll do something? She's fragile!"

"Don't you think I know that? I'm the one who authorized her admission here," retorted the blonde woman as she handed Shizune a few papers. "But I think Hinata has changed. She's not the same person who first entered this rehab. She's improved. I believe she won't do anything dangerous even though she may be feeling upset or unstable."

Naruto's worried look didn't waver. "You don't know for sure..."

"You should. After all, the reason she's improving is probably because of you."

His irises widened. "W-What?"

"Her records show signs of improvement ever since you became her 'friend'. I don't know whether to regard that as coincidence or not but I can say you have been doing your job well," said Tsunade with a soft smile. She then turned to Shizune and nodded her head, signaling for the younger woman to hand her something. Shizune couldn't hide the slight sad frown from gracing her lips before sliding a file on the counter and setting a pen on top of it.

"Which is why I'm glad you're here right now. We can settle this faster then."

"What do you mean? Settle what?"

Tsunade merely opened up the file, took the pen and scribbled her signature on a piece of paper. "Your release. From now on, you don't need to come here anymore. Your debt is paid so this contract's expired."

Naruto's shook his head slightly, dreading what he was hearing. No... i-is she saying what I think she is...

"In other words, your time as Hinata's 'friend' is done."

If it was even still possible after everything that had happened, Naruto's heart shattered.

Personally, this chapter was really difficult for me to write and at the end, I still don't like it. I feel like I can do better but for now, this is what I can come up with. So sorry if it didn't meet your expectations. Like I said, my muse is being a bitch and comes whenever it effing wants to. =.= Anyway, lots of emotional scenes, no NaruHina fluff yet (will be coming soon though! :D) and more explanations needed. Again, sorry for the slow update. At least I'm still updating right? *gets fruits thrown at her* okay okay, I'll go write the next chapter now before my muse leaves me again.

As usual, leave a review on your thoughts / opinions / comments / criticisms and all that good stuff. Your reviews really do help motivate me. I like to reread them to remind myself there are people out there waiting for me to update so I'd better get off my sorry butt and write so yeah, do leave a review telling my muse to stick with me forever and never leave. You'll get your updates, I get to continue writing. Fair right? Haha.

Thanks for reading guys. God bless!