Chapter Seventeen: Yet Another Round

(Flashback, Age Eleven)

Gaara blinked. Was that supposed to happen? Instead of a bloody paste, Gaara's reward for proving his existence was thick, billowing smoke. Was that a bloodline or something? No, of course not – had there been a bloodline that potentially versatile, he would've known about it.

So then... what the hell had happened?

"Dynamic entry!" Gaara turned just in time to see his automatic sand defense catch his victim. He willed the sand to keep a tight hold on the blond's ankle while dangling him upside-down. "Damn it! Jiraiya-ojisan always said this would work..."

Much to Gaara's surprise, his... victim... pouted, seemingly uncaring of the situation he was in. Usually people – both ninja and not – would be screaming for their lives. Those who didn't were either competent enough to prove his existence or on a suicide mission from his father.

"How did you evade my technique?" Gaara asked, his voice flat and monotone. Despite how he sounded, the Kazekage's youngest child was actually curious.

"Shadow clones," Naruto said with a ridiculous-looking shrug. "No one ever expects them, I swear. I'd learn more types of clones, but mine are just too great at doing their job."

Now Gaara's victim looked smug. The Suna-nin raised an eyebrow. "Why are you not screaming for your life? I like it when people scream as their life flashes before their eyes."

It was refreshing.

"Meh, I figure I can get out of everything you do," Naruto nonchalantly replied. "Besides, how do you know I'm not a clone? Every single me you ever see could be a fake. Pretty crazy, huh?"

Naruto waggled his eyebrows. Gaara was unbelievably confused at how the blond was acting. Unsure how to reply, the teal-eyed boy dropped Naruto to the ground, causing him to hack and spit sand out of his mouth.

"Who are you?" the sand-controlling boy questioned.

Thumbing his forehead protector, Naruto replied, "I'm Naruto Uzumaki, Konoha ninja and future Hokage! And, uh, I might just have caused a political incident. Maybe I should've just beat it after I escaped... but you're from a friendly village. I guess it'll be okay?"

Still observing his victim, Gaara said, "You are a very peculiar person. I don't feel any others nearby... you must be the original. Yet, you do not flee. Why? I don't understand." Gaara raised his hand up to his brow and rubbed it, trying to ease the rapidly worsening headache he was experiencing.

Thinking about matters that involved why's and how's – especially regarding human emotions – always made his head throb. A lack of understanding had always bothered him.

He knew how to make the pain go away, though. Usually, crushing the opposition made him feel better.

"Psh, you're not going to kill me right here in Suna. I'm pretty sure this is all a joke, right? ...Right? Uh, hello?"

"Whatever," Gaara mumbled. "Your existence is physically hurting me. Please die."

And then the sand erupted around them, forming a grainy sphere that cut the two children off from the outside world. With Naruto's only avenue of escape was removed, Gaara mentally instructed the sand below to rise up and destroy the boy in front of him.

A very high-pitched and girlish scream sounded out – Naruto had not yet matured enough to attain a more manly-sounding, testosterone-laced shout. However, before the sand could actually steal the blond's life away, the sphere was torn down by a shimmering veil of gold dust.

Standing outside, robes a-fluttering and expression furious, was the Kazekage. He had a hand out, golden particles easily wresting Naruto away while pinning a moaning Gaara down. "Enough," he coldly ordered. "This boy is one of our guests. Do you really wish to damage the village further, Gaara?"

"Eh, I'm not that special," Naruto nonchalantly remarked. He got a glare in response from the Kazekage, causing the blond to stare back in childish defiance.

"Not that special, huh? I thought I told you not to get into trouble," Jiraiya deadpanned, having followed Suna's leader to where the confrontation had been taking place. "You're too much like Kushina – always doing your own thing and never listening to instructions."

"Really? Cool!"

"That's not something to be proud of, damn it!"

The Kazekage cleared his throat, slowly withdrawing his golden dust when it seemed like Gaara wasn't going to retaliate – or worse, transform. "Gaara, leave," he instructed. "I will see to you after our guests are situated."

Gaara rose from the ground, sand swirling around his body. He growled before turning and walking away.

"Wow, you're a dick," Naruto said.

Gaara paused, having overheard what his victim said.

"Naruto-"

"No, really, he's a dick. How could you treat your own son like that?" Naruto demanded.

The Kazekage cocked his head, the harsh frown on his face showing that he was obviously not impressed with Naruto's lack of decorum. Furthermore, he appeared to be irritated that the blond actually knew that bit of information.

Then again, Naruto hadn't seen the man smile or be reassuring in any way. Weren't village leaders supposed to inspire their men?

Standing next to Naruto, Jiraiya sighed. "I apologize for my apprentice's outburst because he sure as hell won't."

"I was not aware Konoha allowed private information to be given so freely," the Kazekage drawled. "Perhaps you are not as friendly as you seem?"

Naruto scoffed and walked around the Kazekage, heading towards Gaara, who was still frozen in place. Although Gaara was dangerous, Naruto kept his distance, whispering under his breath about jinchuriki, loyalty, and respect. Such things were only meant for the Ichibi's jinchuriki, but both the Kazekage and Jiraiya heard the words nonetheless.

"If we're overstaying our welcome, then we'll leave as soon as our supplies are restocked," Jiraiya said, causing the Kazekage to glance back at him. "Maybe you would be willing to give us another chance?"

His son sure was. Or, at least, he was giving Naruto another chance.

"...We will see."

VvVvV

(Konohagakure no Sato)

Thunk.

"So he's been doing this every day for the past few weeks?"

Thunk.

"Yep. Usually Gai-sensei and Lee are here to bother him a bit more, though. I don't know why he'd want to meditate anywhere near those two to begin with..."

Thunk.

"It's odd seeing Naruto-sensei so quiet. I don't think it fits him."

"Yeah. I keep expecting him to scream and shout or whatever. How'd you get such a loud chunin sensei to begin with?"

"I'm not so sure myself. Naruto-sensei has friends in high places, is what Father would say."

Tenten let out a breath and observed her handiwork. The clearing was littered with metal objects and the majority of the trees in the clearing had kunai piercing their bark in a Konoha leaf pattern. "Oi, Naruto! You awake in there? You said you'd help me out since Neji's gone and I'm not crazy enough to spar with Lee!" the kunoichi yelled.

"I'm awake, I'm awake," Naruto grumbled, opening his eyes and rising from the grassy soil. He stretched his body, letting out a satisfied groan as he did so.

Then he took a step forward, stumbled, and almost impaled his foot on a double-bladed knife that was stuck in the soil. "What the hell? Where did you get all of these from? Is that... is that the Konoha leaf on those trees?" Naruto cried.

"I told you, I'm a good shot," Tenten deadpanned. "Hitting immobile targets isn't what I need practice on, though. You said you'd help, so I'm waiting for you to help."

Hanabi observed an errant weapon before piping up, "I certainly find your ability to hit out of sight targets impressive. Not many have that kind of coordination. Enough of these weapons would serve as an amazing diversionary tactic, especially if you could get that one last hit in."

"Unfortunately, it wasn't enough for me to secure a promotion," Tenten grumbled, her mood dampening. "Plus, it's hard to throw all of this steel at once. There's too much prep time involved."

Naruto picked up a flail and stared at it in curiosity. "Why do you even throw things like this around? Seems like you're just doing it to be funny," he remarked.

"If it hurts, I'm throwin' it," Tenten replied with her chin up. "That one actually has a good story behind it. See, I was fighting a bandit and-"

"Yes, yes, I'm sure it's all very interesting, but you're right; there really is too much prep time with all of this. You have the potential to be a very deadly kunoichi," Naruto acknowledged, "but being hampered down by weight and preparation is not something you want."

"You're not going to lecture me about the importance of my teammate's lives, are you? I've already heard that one," Tenten said.

"Nah, I'm just going to help you reduce your prep time so if you're caught unawares you won't get absolutely destroyed," Naruto replied.

"Are you going to modify her scrolls?" Hanabi questioned.

"Hammerspace bag helps too," Naruto muttered, bending over to check out another unorthodox throwing weapon.

"A... hammerspace bag? What is that?" Tenten asked.

"Bag with nearly limitless space in it. It's just inscribed with seals that unseal a weapon when you reach into the bag," the blond explained. "Okay, the majority of these are useless. A wider area of attack is not worth this. Replace some of your weapons with explosive tags, please."

"Those are expensive! Do I look like some snooty noble with a bank account larger than my ego?"

"I can teach you the sealing arts," Naruto offered.

Tenten blinked. "Huh, really? Isn't that difficult though? Like, won't it take me a long-ass time before I'm anywhere close to creating my own explosives?"

"Not if you copy and paste," the blond said. "I'm going to teach you a specific Lightning Release technique, too. Personally, I'm not too great with them, but for you and your arsenal of pointy, metal objects..."

The blond trailed off, staring at Tenten meaningfully. She did get the hint and her eyes lit up in remembrance of what had happened to her at the exams. Weapons weren't the only thing she liked, apparently. That suited Naruto just fine – dangerous women were the best kind of women.

"Let me show you the hand-seals real quick-"

Hanabi cleared her throat. "Do you intend to kill us, Naruto-sensei? Surely you're not going to launch the technique here, of all places." The Hyuuga swept her arm out, gesturing at the multitude of weapons dotting the field.

Naruto palmed his face. "Ugh, what I would give for a Magnet Release user right now... Panda-chan, how do you usually pick up all of this stuff?" he asked.

"Neji and Lee help since I'm usually trying to shoot them down, but it does take some time," Tenten admitted. She withdrew one of her large sealing scrolls and unrolled it, walking over to each piece of weaponry and resealing.

As usual, Naruto found his patience wearing thin after Tenten slowly sealed a third weapon into her scroll.

"Shadow clones go!" he bellowed. Ten clones appeared next to him and, in a whirl of movement, dashed off to clean up the mess. The ordeal was over fast and soon enough, a pile of metal was in front of them.

"Could you teach me that too?" Tenten questioned, grinning gratefully at the proud jinchuriki next to her.

"Nope." The older kunoichi deflated. "I can put a seal on each weapon that'll connect them to your scroll though so you won't have to keep them up. All I have to do is-"

"Please don't try to explain advanced seal-making again, Naruto-sensei," Hanabi groaned.

Chuckling sheepishly, the blond rubbed the back of his head and turned to Tenten. "Okay, so chuck a few kunai out into the field. Be sure to spread them out too, so we can see how far-reaching your first effort with the Lightning Release technique is," he instructed.

Tenten did as ordered. Her kunai were scattered throughout the clearing, each precisely the same distance from each other. "Now what? Elemental training or something? I remember Gai-sensei gave us a lecture on that," she said.

"Eh, I don't think an affinity to lightning is necessary for this," Naruto said, scratching his cheek. "My elemental nature is wind and I don't really have an issue with it. Believe me, if I have a problem with something, it's usually a pretty big freaking problem."

"I'm not going to hurt myself doing this, am I?"

"Nah," Naruto replied, "you won't. Fun fact: lightning chakra can stimulate your nerves pleasurably rather than painfully. Certain masseuses in Kumogakure are known for doing so."

Hanabi squinted at her teacher. "Are you sure about that?" she demurred. "I've never heard anything about that before."

"It's a trade secret," Naruto said with a shrug. "I only know about it because I've actually had the liberty of exploring Kumogakure when I was younger. Not all chakra usage that isn't related to medical jutsu is harmful, ya know. Anyway, back to the technique. Follow these hand-seals and think about an itching sensation on your dominant hand's fingertips."

Tenten nodded and watched as the blond slowly went through the hand-seals necessary to carry out the technique. She realized it was quite a simple technique, with only a few required seals. It would be easy to memorize.

After running through the seals a few times, she initiated the technique. A multitude of thin, blue arcs of electricity shot out of her fingertips, lancing across the clearing towards the nearest kunai sticking out of the dirt. From there, the lightning branched off, sparking furiously whenever it hit a new kunai.

A scorched training field was revealed when the bright sparks and arcs of energy finally faded. The majority of the kunai had been melted into scraps of metal, indicating the high temperatures the technique had generated.

It smelled pretty freaking bad, too.

"I'm guessing you don't mind the odor?" Naruto asked, coughing at the lingering stench. "Nice range, by the way. Check out a chakra nature test as soon as you can, 'cause you might be naturally inclined towards Lightning Release jutsu."

"This... is amazing," Tenten exclaimed. She eagerly turned to Naruto, her eyes wide and sparkling. "Please, teach me more!"

"Your fingers are burned," Hanabi muttered, pointing at her fellow kunoichi's right hand.

"Eh...? I don't feel anything."

"Oh boy, that's not good," Naruto said. "Come on, we should get to the hospital and have a medical ninja heal you up. I don't want to explain to your sensei why you might have nerve damage."

VvVvV

(On The Road)

Naruto slowly inhaled and exhaled, ignoring his surroundings. He needed to make sure he could remain still for hours upon hours on end – that was what his godfather had mentioned if he wanted to be able to have a chance at defeating Akatsuki members. Simply relying on tricks against those monstrously powerful ninja wouldn't be enough.

"Look!"

"Huh?"

"Look at what he's doing!"

"He's meditating again? Wow, that's surprising. Naruto usually tends to try and chat up everyone who interests him and there are a lot of interesting people here."

Someone sputtered. "Don't you see where he's meditating? Ugh, I have half a mind to go and shove him into the bath. That is downright disrespectful."

"Then why don't you? His eyes are closed and he's not moving."

"...I could do without the sarcasm. And, I'm pretty sure he's aware of everything going on around him. How else has he not been caught yet?"

Refraining from breaking his breathing rhythm, Naruto remained seated. The quiet voices discussing his location were distracting, yes, but ultimately were nothing more than a minor irritant. The true distraction was below him, where several native women – and kunoichi – were relaxing. Self-control was a necessary part of his meditation.

"Calm down. He's not even looking down. No harm, no foul, right?"

"Kakashi, I am incredibly tempted to incinerate that book of yours and then place you under an illusion I know will give you nightmares."

There was no response from the other voice except for a nearly-silent shuffling. Naruto did manage to hear the sound of a pouch being zipped up, though.

"See? I put it away. No more threatening the Icha Icha, okay? Seriously, though, he isn't looking down. It's an exercise in self-control, for crying out loud. Besides, he won't peep if little Hanabi is there. Naruto is vehemently against that sort of thing."

"How would you know?"

"Common sense." And personal history. "Come on, do you honestly think he's that kind of guy? He spends quite a bit of time staring at older women. He's mentioned a few things about you too, Kurenai."

"He's just a child. A useful one, but still."

"A hormonal teenager," the lazy voice – Kakashi – corrected. "He's also mentioned that he's seen your breasts. Several times, actually."

Naruto now had the impression that Kakashi was very pleased with himself. The jounin's last sentence, though quiet, was said quickly enough to direct Kurenai's anger towards him. Ugh, whatever happened to quiet and reflective meditation? His self-control was of the utmost importance!

"Are you implying something, Kakashi?" Kurenai asked, her voice low and deadly.

"Hm. No, I don't think I am," Kakashi replied, his tone light. "A child wouldn't be able to pull one over a jounin, right?"

"Now I think you're implying I'm a poor jounin," Kurenai flatly remarked.

"I'm not implying anything of the sort."

"Excuse me." Kurenai glanced sharply at the flamboyantly-dressed blond addressing her and Kakashi. "Could you two please keep it down? I'm sure what my boss does during his time off is interesting and all, but he's really trying to get some meditation in before he goes to sleep and we resume our trip."

Kurenai looked up, watching a Naruto with open eyes stare at her expectantly.

"Sorry, Naruto," Kakashi said, sounding chagrined. "Kurenai here is uncomfortable about where you're meditating. Could you do it elsewhere?"

"Where else could I exercise my self-control? It's not like there's a brothel anywhere near here," the clone said with a huff.

"A brothel? You shouldn't be thinking of things like that," Kurenai chided.

"What's the big deal? I've already been to a few," the clone replied with a shrug. "Now, unless you have another place for me to meditate in, I'd appreciate it if you two stopped bothering me."

Kurenai furrowed her brow. "Who raised you? Don't you have any idea of what's appropriate in good company?"

"Nope," the clone deadpanned. "My godfather tended to disapprove of that. Isn't it enough that I'm not some mindless killing machine? Or would you rather me be like that? I'm sure it'd be better having a jinchuriki who wants to kill everyone than one who wants to witness the beauty of the female body."

Kakashi made a show of craning his neck to stare at some point in the distance. "Hm? I think Asuma wants to talk to me about something." The masked jounin made a hand-seal and vanished in a puff of smoke.

"I thought you wouldn't make a big deal out of this," the clone added. "I'm not hurting anyone and you've seen that I've made an effort to help out your team as well as Shino's clan. Do you have anything against me, Kurenai? It wouldn't be anything new."

The red-eyed jounin pursed her lips and then sighed. "Don't get the wrong idea, Naruto. I can see that you're a good person, but I've always had an issue with peeping toms. It's something my father impressed on me and you're rather blatant about your desire to act as one."

"I see," the clone murmured. "If... if you really have that much of a problem with it, even if I'm not actually peeping on anyone, then I'll go somewhere else. Sorry about this."

The clone vanished and Kurenai watched the real Naruto fade from view using his modified Transparency Technique. Feeling slightly guilty – and hoping he wasn't gone just yet – the kunoichi called out, "Naruto, wait!"

One Body Flicker Technique later and Kurenai had caught up to Naruto, who had dropped to the ground to walk back to the inn the Konoha villagers were staying at. His back was slumped over and he had his hands in his pockets, an utterly bored expression on his face.

"Hm? What do you need, Kurenai-sensei? I already said I'd go meditate somewhere else," he said.

"I probably shouldn't have gotten so worked up about it," Kurenai replied. "I'm sorry about that, but I'll stick to my beliefs. Would you want women to peep while you were bathing?"

Naruto's face lit up.

"Never mind," the red-eyed jounin muttered in exasperation. Then, she tilted her head. "Back when you and my team were searching for the Bikochu beetle, you weren't at the campsite, were you? You were watching Hinata and I," she accused, folding her arms over – unfortunately – her chest. "That's a serious privacy intrusion."

"Ignorance is bliss," Naruto replied with a shrug. "I taught myself how to hide very well early on in my career. What people don't know I'm doing won't hurt them unless I want to kill them. And if I want to kill them then I'm not going to be staring at a woman's breasts." He paused. "I ain't no necrophiliac. I like many things, but that's definitely not one of them."

"You do realize you're trying to justify inappropriate spying, right? To a fellow Konoha ninja, no less!" the jounin exclaimed.

She might've let it go if it were an enemy village or something. At least then he could've obtained useful information.

"It's not illegal," the blond argued. "You might think it's morally deplorable, but it's not expressly against the Land of Fire's – or the Land of Wind's – laws so long as I'm not messing with your private property."

"Then tell me," she replied.

"...Huh?"

"How is it that your Transparency Technique is so difficult to recognize? I'm no sensor, but my ability to detect intruders isn't exactly subpar," Kurenai dryly remarked.

"I've always told my comrades how it works," Naruto defended. "I use my chakra to refract light. It can't be canceled like an illusion can since it's not dependent on another person's chakra system and I have more power over it since I've got a lot of chakra."

"If you're using a lot of chakra on this technique, then how come ninja can't sense you? Any half-assed sensor should be able to tell how much chakra you have if you're actively using it, especially since you're the Kyuubi's jinchuriki," Kurenai stated.

"Many people tend not to have their guard up while relaxing...?" Naruto tried. "I don't know. I guess I'm just that good." Actually, he did know the reason why people overlooked him when he wanted to hide. It wasn't really knowledge he wanted public. "Honestly, I bet I could hide from you for the duration of the entire night."

Kurenai unfolded her arms and rubbed her chin in apparent thought. "Actually, I'll take you up on that bet. You'd honor a promise to a fellow Konoha-nin, wouldn't you?"

"Sure," Naruto said, slightly confused at the change of pace. "I'll have you know though that I've never intentionally lost a bet. Still want to give it a go?"

"You haven't even heard what the stakes are or what the challenge will actually be," Kurenai replied, sounding amused for once. Naruto remained resolute and she continued, "We'll stick to what you offered. If you avoid me for the entire duration of this night, then you win one request from me within reasonable terms. I could teach you how to perform genjutsu – anyone can learn it with a fair amount of practice."

The blond Uzumaki stared at her. Rip-off artist confirmed, he thought. "Define reasonable terms," he said out loud.

"Anything not related to exposing flesh," she stated. When she saw Naruto's frown, she added, "This is non-negotiable."

"And if I lose?" Naruto questioned.

"No more attempting to peep on the women in the bath. Some of them are already ogled enough. I'd also like to not have my guard up when I relax," she said.

"You have a large bath inside of your house... and I shouldn't have said that. Oops," Naruto nonchalantly muttered in response to Kurenai's sudden, icy glare. "Okay, seriously, that's not fair. I need to relax too ya know! You should lighten your restrictions."

"Maybe," she allowed. "It depends on how well you hide." She definitely had no intention of lightening her restrictions. Naruto could fulfill his perverted tendencies elsewhere.

Naruto appeared to mull it over for a few moments and then he nodded his head. "I accept. Give me a twenty-minute head-start and you'll never find me. Again: I'm pretty damn skilled at not being seen when I don't want to be."

"Fine. I'm waiting," Kurenai said. She closed her eyes and extended her senses, hearing – and feeling – Naruto run off. He was still surprisingly fast, Kurenai noted, much faster than a few other chunin she had known in the past.

She'd actually think he'd make a decent jounin if he weren't so immature. Naruto was strong and inventive, yes, and he did have a wide inventory of techniques to utilize if what Kakashi had said was true, but his immaturity got on Kurenai's nerves. Plus, something about him tended to rub her the wrong way.

The jounin wasn't sure why that was so, however. Everything about him made Naruto seem like an ordinary teenaged – if strong – ninja. The air of false-innocence he carried with him and cheery personality only accentuated that.

Perhaps it was due to his status as the Kyuubi's jinchuriki? Such a thing didn't bother her – not in conventional terms, she was sure. She hadn't seen him do anything truly frightening and the blond chunin was very defending of people in general.

Ugh, she'd have to figure it out later. Naruto's twenty minutes were almost up and she had all night to search. Kurenai could practically taste her victory – how difficult could it be to find a single ninja, especially one as brightly dressed as Naruto?

VvVvV

"You seem oddly pleased," Kakashi began, easily weathering the harsh sunlight that menaced the Land of Wind. Sand was everywhere – in the air, on the ground, in everyone's pants...

It was incredibly annoying, not to mention exhausting. Thankfully, Naruto was a portable air conditioning unit. Constantly spewing wind chakra and releasing it in small torrents cooled Konoha's group considerably.

The added effect wasn't too bad, either. Many of the kunoichi crowded near him, eager to stay away from the dry, hot ear.

"Yep."

"You do realize you lost, right?" Kakashi asked.

Naruto shrugged. "It's not a big deal. Konoha's not the only village with a bathing area and now Kurenai can feel like she has the moral upper hand," the blond said, sounding somewhat amused. "Besides, she's going to be pretty annoyed when she realizes what the agreement was actually about."

Kakashi snickered. "Those loop holes of yours are going to get you killed one day," he remarked. "Well, at least we'll be able to see exotic women in Suna. Sakura should do well in their exams, especially if Asuma's team is with her."

"Hey, Kakashi-sensei... was that the only reason you tagged along? Asuma, Kurenai, and Gai came because their teams are participating in the exams. I know Tsunade-baachan and the Old Man wouldn't let you come here just because of one student," Naruto remarked.

"Are you not my student as well, Naruto?"

"Don't change the subject," the blond deadpanned.

"Hm. Well, they're worried about Akatsuki," Kakashi bluntly replied. "Your godfather especially. He's off trying to find out more information about them. That's pretty dangerous."

"Jiraiya-ojisan can handle himself," Naruto confidently said. "He taught me how to deal with them, too. I can't fight them alone, though. Having a partner would help."

Teamwork was the way to go! If S-rank criminals believed in it, then other ninja could too.

"Well then, if they show up, I'll help as much as I can," Kakashi mildly remarked. "I'm sure Gaara would help you as well. Two jinchuriki at once is a tempting target, huh? Maybe it might've been safer if you stayed in Konoha..."

Naruto scoffed. "Hell no. Traveling is too much fun and I want to see Temari-chan again. Ya think I can sucker her into a poker game this time? Last time I caught a few women unawares..." The blond snickered to himself, his eyes growing distant as he remembered a certain event a few years back.

"I remember Jiraiya-sama mentioning something about that," Kakashi said. "I think I might join too and try my own luck."

The mask Kakashi was wearing was for more than just appearing fashionably ninja. It was much easier to wear a poker face when three-quarters of your face was hidden from others.

"Smart decision," Naruto nodded. "I'll get your money too, then."

"Don't be so sure," Kakashi said, his eye crinkling shut as the jounin smiled. "Oi! Everyone! We're at the gates!" he called as Suna's walls and 'gates' came into view. Two Suna-nin guarding the entrance to their village waved at the group of Konoha-nin, knowing that there were prospective chunin within.

Entry was quickly granted and the Konoha-nin wasted no time in viewing the sights. There wasn't very much to be proud of – they were, after all, in the middle of a desert – so the group of ninja found their designated place to stay, happy to be out of the overbearing heat.

Sakura and Ino sighed in relief, falling backwards onto the couches there were in the lobby of the hotel they were staying at. Naruto rolled his shoulders, eying the team leaders as they spoke with a representative about the starting time of the exams.

"Had a fun trip, ladies?" Naruto asked.

"No," Ino deadpanned. "I'm sticky and I want to wash this sand off. Where're the showers?"

"Why are you asking me? Want me to join ya?" Ino's fellow blond replied, waggling his eyebrows suggestively.

Ino blinked owlishly before laughing loudly. Taking a breath, she said, "Seriously, where are the showers?"

"Suna doesn't have them active during the day in order to conserve water," Sakura chimed, rubbing her brow tiredly. "If you want to bathe yourself you'll have to either be proficient with water techniques or be lucky enough to sniff out an underground reservoir."

Everyone pretty much doubted their ability to do the latter.

"Proficient with water techniques, huh? Hey, Sakura, do you-"

"I don't think our overseers would be very pleased if they came back to a dowsed bathroom," Asuma rumbled from where he was standing.

"Damn it. I'm going to smell bad all day!"

"It's not that bad," Naruto reassured. "The sun's going down soon. It'll only be for a few hours. You should probably be more worried about the exams, anyway."

Chouji plopped down on the ground, his face suddenly reflecting his nervousness. "Yeah. I mean, the first one was bad enough..."

"Don't worry, Chouji. We can do it!" Ino declared, her mood rapidly shifting.

Naruto watched the three genin – along with Hinata, Shino, and Kiba who had decided to join in as well – chatter amongst each other before vanishing through the doorway. The three jounin had probably seen him, but he was bored and wanted to find Temari – if she was in the village, of course.

Exiting through the doorway, the blond began to leisurely walk to the Kazekage's main building. The heat didn't bother him – portable air conditioning, hurray! – and Suna's leader had warmed considerably towards Konoha ninja in the past few years.

Naruto blinked and turned to his right. "Gaara," the blond said with a grin.

"Naruto," the Suna-nin acknowledged in return. "Are you taking the exams again? I thought you were promoted the last time."

"I was," the blond confirmed. "I'm just here because staying in Konoha all the time makes me a bit stir-crazy. It's a big world out here, with ladies waiting to have their precious Naruto-"

Gaara sighed in a loud, exaggerated manner. "Yes, I'm sure they are, Naruto. I'm surprised you aren't being followed right now. Father has been rather adamant that a contingent of ANBU follow my every waking movement. It's rather frustrating," he admitted.

"He doesn't think you're capable of defending yourself?"

"He does, but he doesn't want to take any chances," Gaara muttered. "At the very least, the ANBU are well-versed in my techniques and can avoid my more destructive attacks."

"We're in a desert," Naruto pointed out.

"They had a lot of practice when I was younger," the Suna-nin amended.

Naruto winced in sympathy. "Well, help can be... helpful, I guess. It's better than failing in the end."

"I read that report your Hokage sent to my father," Gaara replied. "That's... a shame. The Rokubi jinchuriki's death is bad. Had he survived the ordeal, we could've had another trapper."

"A... trapper?"

"I'm of the opinion of using ourselves as bait so the villages themselves aren't targeted as a result of our allegiences."

"Not a bad idea," Naruto agreed. "I wouldn't want your sister or any of the ladies in Konoha to be hurt trying to defend you or me. Speaking of whom, where is she?"

"...Who?" the blond's fellow jinchuriki asked, sounding slightly wary.

"Aw, don't be like that, buddy! Ya know Temari-chan and I are friends too! Kankuro too," Naruto said, adding the last portion as an afterthought.

"She's on a scouting mission investigating reports of odd bandit activity with Baki-sensei. She'll be back when the exams start tomorrow." Gaara looked over his shoulder, appearing slightly uncomfortable. "I'm going to have to leave in a bit. Father wants to speak with me."

"Bandit activity..." Naruto muttered. "You guys get bandits here in Suna? Who the hell would want to steal stuff in the desert?"

"Certain deposits of valuable minerals are occasionally found. That's why Temari went to check it out; bandits don't usually appear this close to Sunagakure. Expanding our coffers is always nice, too."

Naruto rubbed his chin for a moment, an odd, apprehensive feeling settling in his stomach. It was just an ordinary mission...

"You don't look too enthused," Gaara noted.

"Hm? Nah, it's nothing. You don't look so swell either, my friend."

"Again," Gaara sighed, "if you do anything in appropriate to my sister – or to an of the women here in Suna – I'll help them castrate you."

The blond chuckled nervously. "You don't have anything against poker, do you Gaara? Old buddy, old pal? Everybody loves a chance to win some healthy money, right?"

Gaara rolled his eyes. "How typical."

VvVvV

I decided to cut it off here because this sets up the next chapter (and the one after that). Yeah, long-ass delay, I know, but whenever I want to work on this I either have no motivation (or my muse died), have an idea for my other stories, or can't write. School's been back for me and I've had work to do.

Anyway, back to the story: That bit I made Naruto mention about the peeping is true. So long as a person is not on your private property, they can stare all they want. Creepy, huh? Be mindful of what you're doing!

If there are any continuity errors, personality errors (in your opinion), or other generic errors, please let me know. It has been a while since I've worked on this and I may be a bit rusty... and this isn't error-checked.