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...

It wasn't too late for the members of Team Seven as they walked away from their mission, payslips in hand, along with a couple of tips that the customers had given them as a result of their good work. Well, at least Sakura and Sasuke had been given tips; Naruto hadn't been given anything.

"Nice work today, you three. We'll meet up at the usual spot tomorrow at nine o'clock, where we will once again send Shadow Clones off to do jobs while we pick up on our training," stated Kakashi as he walked steadily behind his Genin.

"Is that nine o'clock normal time or Kakashi time?" asked Sasuke, hiding a grin. Despite the fact that Kakashi had improved in leaps and bounds with his teachings, it didn't come as a surprise that he was still late to nearly every meeting.

"Well, if I'm not there then I imagine you three can find some way to pass the time," said Kakashi before he vanished, leaping away faster than the three could see; once again this was something that hadn't changed over time.

"What do you guys want to do tomorrow while we wait for Kakashi-sensei?" asked Naruto as he put his hands behind his head.

"We need to start working on collaboration attacks," stated Sasuke.

"In what way Sasuke-kun?" asked Sakura.

"At the moment, I'd say that, individually, all of us could go one-on-one against any Genin that Konoha has to offer, along with some of the other countries," said Sasuke, and Sakura couldn't help but beam at the subtle compliment she had just been given. "Together, though, I reckon we'd have a solid chance of taking on a couple of Chunin head on."

Sasuke recalled the time that he had taken out one of the Demon Brothers, who was supposedly a Chuunin ranked shinobi, but frankly Kiba had given him a tougher time than that missing nin had.

"So should we ask Kakashi-sensei for a couple more jutsu tomorrow? Something that would work well together?" asked Naruto.

"Well, you and I could work with what we've got Naruto," said Sakura. "Both of the jutsu that Kakashi-sensei gave us should work well together; we just have to practise it so that both of our attacks are in sync."

Sasuke was going to speak up but was cut off by the vision of himself, walking towards them. His clone, that is, followed by the rest of the surrogates that had undergone the babysitting mission. From here, though, he could hear the Naruto clone chanting a mantra of some kind; something about too many diapers? He wasn't too sure, nor did he really want to be.

"What happened?" asked Naruto of his clone.

"There was poop everywhere!" said the clone as they dropped into a fetal position and started rocking back and forth.

Yep, Sasuke would have prefered to remain without any knowledge of that whatsoever.

Hinata's fingers dug deep into her palms, as she stared almost slack-jawed at the girl in front of her.

"As you can see, it shall be a while before your sister recovers properly," said Hiashi, his voice betraying all emotion. "It may be several days before she awakes. While her body will recover naturally over time, you must do your best to regain your sister's trust, which in turn may take months or even years."

"I-I understand," Hinata bowed her head respectfully to her father. How had she allowed such a thing to happen? Was she really so weak that she couldn't even save her loved ones from herself?

"Had this been any other person, or had it occurred for any other reason, I might have sought punishment for the one responsible," said Hiashi. "However, since I organised the bout in the first place, some of the blame must fall upon my shoulders. That, nonetheless, does not excuse you for your actions."

"I am sorry, Father." Hinata's face fell lower as tears threatened to fall. While the words were overly formal, such a display of emotion from both parties was still rare for the Hyuga clan.

"For the next week, you will not be allowed to leave the clan's grounds; not to see your sensei, your teammates, or anyone else. How you spend the majority of your time, I will leave to you, but you shall be reporting to the sparring grounds at noon each day where I will spar with you. Beware that I shall not be going easy on you, in order to both train and punish you," said Hiashi monotonously, knowing that making the punishment too severe could have further implications with her cursed seal. "Keep in mind that I am restraining myself in order to prevent from hindering you in the exams, but I will punish you further afterwards if I do not find your performance during them to be satisfactory."

Hinata remained silent on the matter as she lifted her head ever so slightly, allowing her sight to fall upon the broken form of her sister - the one she had created like some kind of wild beast. She wanted to say that she didn't remember how it had happened, but the memory was imprinted into her mind like a brand on livestock.

"I understand if you wish to stay here by yourself and apologize to your sister, but I expect you to be back at the compound by the time I have returned. There are several people whom I must speak to," said Hiashi as he turned to leave. No more was said as he exited the room, closing the door behind him and allowing a breath to be released - one he hadn't realised he'd been holding. Staying in the same spot momentarily, he heard a brief thud from inside before the wailing of his oldest daughter, her grief fully coming out now that she was alone. With a soft sigh he began to walk down the hospital corridor, knowing that there was nothing more he could do for the moment.

Sabaku no Gaara was by no means a patient man. The unquenchable bloodlust which was now coursing through his very being had him irritated, the annoying feeling having managed to achieve the honour of being one of the very few things which could get under his skin. Gaara had felt a stronger desire to kill, to obliterate, before, but nothing which he had ever experienced in his life was quite like this peculiar feeling.

It had all started when he arrived at Konoha to participate in the Chunin exams. Something - he couldn't remember quite what - had set him off on his very first day, and with every passing second afterwards, his blood seemed to boil hotter. His teeth seemed to grind against themselves more violently, and perhaps worst of all, the beast inside him - his mother - was angrier than it had ever been. She would occasionally ask for the blood of a random individual throughout his life, anyone from a random Jounin to a young academy student, and Gaara was always rather eager to comply. This time, however, no matter who he killed… who he attacked, the hungry feeling which he found mother radiating through him was not satisfied.

It had briefly disappeared for the few days when he had gone into that forest for the second part of the exam. He had gotten to feast on the blood of numerous things there, many large and strange creatures and even the occasional Genin, but the second that he had left the forest, the feeling had returned with a vengeance.

Tonight was one of those nights where the urge had been exceptionally bad. Back in Suna, his sleepless nights were amongst the most memorable experiences of his life - nobody was ever awake and he loved the feeling. Absolute silence, complete darkness, and so many unsuspecting victims. That, and they also gave him the time to think; the setting of the sun was one of the things that he most looked forward to during each pointless day. However, ever since he had arrived in the Village of the Leaves, as it was called, the darkness of night had become far less of a sanctuary from the emptiness that was his unvalidated existence, and much more of a terrifying trap where he had no option but to feel unbelievably bloodthirsty for hours on end. He had tried killing, of course, he'd consumed countless Konoha residents with his sand, but he knew that he could not let himself loose either - his father would have his head if he were to make Suna look any worse.

He clenched his fists in frustration as he glanced out the window of the hotel room he was staying in - not sleeping; he never slept. As much as he wanted to satisfy mother's hunger, to appease her and relieve himself of the strain that he was feeling, he knew he needed to get through this... one infernal night at a time.

...

With the dawn of the new day, Team Seven found themselves waiting in the training area that their sensei had specified the previous night. Needless to say, when he didn't rock up on time, the Genin were not that surprised.

"Alright, Sakura, you were saying last night that the two techniques that you and Naruto shared could be used as a collaboration attack before we got cut off by… us," said Sasuke, not quite sure how to refer to the shadow clones they had walked into.

"Well, considering the amount of chakra Naruto can use in a single technique, the D-ranked Jutsu Kakashi taught him could easily be classified as at least C if not B-ranked," stated Sakura knowledgeably. "You remember how in class we were taught which elemental Jutsu were weak and strong against one another?"

"I may have fallen asleep in that class," said Naruto sheepishly as he rubbed the back of his head.

"Figures," tutted Sakura with a shake of the head. "Well, Iruka stated that wind is weak against fire. Instead of competing against one another, however, we're going to be standing side by side, and while you pour your chakra into the attack, I'll add my Jutsu. In theory, the small vortex you create should fuel my fire."

"We're going to make a flamethrower!" shouted Naruto in excitement.

"I figure this is only in theory, though," stated Sasuke, assuming the role of the wet blanket. "Several things can go wrong with this scenario, the most notable one being that Sakura's fire is extinguished before it can be fully integrated into the attack. In that regard, we can't have you going all out because this is a team attack - you can't extinguish Sakura's fire with your wind."

"Alright then, should we give it a shot?" asked Naruto practically bouncing up and down from excitement.

"Well, you start, Dobe, and I'll watch onwards from nearby and tell you to adjust if need be," stated Sasuke as he moved to the side, his red irises flashing in anticipation. The last thing he wanted was to be close to this experiment in the case that it backfired horribly - in other words he wanted a front row seat.

"After you, Naruto," gestured Sakura with a wave of the hand.

Nodding, the blonde Genin turned towards the river, minding the potential size of this attack so as not to scorch the forest. Quickly going through the necessary hand seals, Naruto pulled his head back ever so slightly. "Futon: Kaze no Otakebi!" shouted Naruto before gale force winds burst from his lips. As both Sakura and Sasuke had predicted, what should have been a simple technique was made into something ridiculous just because… well, it was Naruto.

Standing beside him, Sakura in turn began to go through her necessary hand seals. "Katon: Kasai Nagere!" shouted the pink-haired teen as a small trail of fire escaped her lips, though it was quickly wiped out due to the pure force of Naruto's jutsu.

"Naruto, tone it down a bit," instructed Sasuke from the sidelines. "Sakura, you're going to need to pump a bit more into it this time."

Naruto adjusted as he was told, while Sakura stopped her technique and focused on her breathing. She could feel the wind that Naruto was producing had slowed down a good five knots, but it would still be hard to combine her miniature attack with something of that magnitude. Moulding the chakra within, Sakura performed the proper hand seals before letting loose with her technique.

The result was instantaneous.

Bursting forward was a torrent of fire that spread a whole hundred feet to where Naruto's control over the wind waned. Sakura could only stare wide-eyed as she realised just what kind of magnitude such an attack could have. From her point of view, she could see Sasuke a good twenty feet away doing his best to shield himself from the heat.

Naruto, meanwhile, was having the time of his life as he started steadily pumping more and more chakra into the attack, the width and length of it increasing with every second.

From his perspective, Sasuke could barely fathom just how strong this technique was. He imagined that if he tried to counter it with his Grand Fireball technique, his own attack would be swamped, unless he poured every bit of chakra he had into it. Although, just from knowing how long the chakra battery that was Naruto could last, he would be easily overpowered after a handful of seconds.

Hiding in the trees nearby, Kakashi's fabled book was lowered as he eyed the torrent of flames that passed over the river. Just figuring out from the size of it, the attack could consume an entire battalion of bandits if they were caught off-guard; an enemy camp reduced to ashes within a minute. He'd have to make sure to show this to Jiraiya at some stage, though part of him believed that the Toad Sage was watching from somewhere nearby, but that was a slim chance when there was research to be done. Knowing how long Naruto could likely keep this up, he figured that he'd better step in now and begin the day's training before they decided to test the heat against some trees to see what kind of effect it would have on them. Judging by his recent luck, the batch of trees they would target would be the one that he was currently hiding in.

In no way could that end well.

"Strike with more ferocity," barked Hiashi as he evaded another poor attempt from his daughter. The composure that she had displayed so ruthlessly against Hanabi was all but gone, a mere shadow of it being all that remained.

She nodded, acknowledging his instructions, but didn't seem to react otherwise. Her form was much the same, and Hiashi was sure that the match up until this point would have been more equal even if he did not have his Byakugan activated.

It was hard for him to admit it - Hanabi had always been his pride and joy - but seeing his eldest daughter move the way she had the other day had sent an inkling of pride coursing through his body. Though that was soon replaced with worry for the wellbeing of his youngest, Hiashi knew that the occasion had been one of the rare times when Hinata was at her peak. Being his daughter, the Clan Head knew that the girl had much potential, but she never seemed to be able to tap into it - she was too fragile. He suspected that she had been angry with something, and that had pushed her over the edge; he recalled that his wife exhibited behaviour that was not dissimilar before she had passed on.

A sharp jab at the tenketsu located by his right shoulder blade was swatted away easily as he sealed off the chakra in Hinata's left hand with his counter attack.

"Where is the strength that you were using beforehand?" asked Hiashi boldly. "Do you wish to humiliate the Hyuga when you compete in the tournament?"

"N-No, Father." She grit her teeth, an abnormal gesture for the reserved girl, as she attempted to not let her willpower fade. In doing so, the seal would feed on her darker thoughts until it took control of her and she did something she would regret once again. 'I cannot rely on its power anymore… not after I've hurt so many people, so many times.'

"Then get up and fight!" the Clan Head all but barked, a gesture made more chilling by the fact that he had managed to perfectly keep his composure the whole while.

Wordlessly, Hinata attempted to attack his stomach; it wasn't a Jyuken strike, but the same technique had worked well on Hanabi. He caught her outstretched hand with ease, however. He began to crush it with a precise amount of pressure, not nearly enough to break her hand but more than necessary to have her body writhing in pain.

Tears fell down Hinata's face and rather than trying to break out of the grip her father had on her hand, she found herself apologising. "I-I'm sorry."

"For what?" he asked abruptly. "Remember that I am not your sister, and you can't allow the fact that you are disappointed with what you did previously get in the way of the present."

Hinata stuttered a little, words springing to her open mouth but her brain was unable to fully process them. Her fingers, which were still held by her father, began to numb slightly as the pain lessened. The tears stopped flowing and she stood up a little taller, her composure stronger.

"I understand, Father." With that, the Hyuga slid her hands out of her father's - little resistance meeting her way - as she fell into a slightly less sloppy stance. A ghost of a smile fell upon Hiashi's lips as he noticed a strong fire burning away within her lavender eyes. Now he had something to work with.

...

"This is so boring, Ero-Sennin." Naruto stifled a yawn as he looked dispassionately at his current sensei.

"Well, what would you rather be doing right now, brat?" asked an almost irate Jiraiya. The kid certainly hadn't learnt how to quieten down over the few training sessions they had had. "Eating ramen or yelling about being Hokage one day?"

"I know," said Naruto, as he bit his lip in frustration, ignoring the slight jab. "I just don't think I can stand another theory lesson on demonic chakra!"

"Well, if you actually paid attention to what I was saying, you might actually learn something," said Jiraiya as he crossed his arms, attempting to look unimpressed. "Why Minato never disrupted my lessons like that…"

"Who's Minato?" asked Naruto, the name sounding extremely familiar to him for some reason.

"You mean you don't know the first name of the very man who sealed the Kyuubi in you?" Jiraiya's eyebrows raised in mock interest, since he recalled the brat having shouted something about idolising the man.

"Do you mean that you taught the Yondaime?" Naruto was sure that his jaw made contact with the ground. The gears in his brain had begun to spin at the mention of his first name, but the Genin had thought it to be a coincidence that the Yondaime had the same first name as Jiraiya's student. "First Kakashi-sensei, now you… Has everyone that's taught me been tied to the Yondaime in some way or the other?"

"Depends if your instructor in the academy was Koetsu or not," chuckled Jiraiya as Naruto shook his head. "Guess the old bat must have retired by now."

"So… can you tell me any more about the Yondaime?" asked Naruto. Though the man was somewhat responsible for the young boy's life, he was still a figure that the blond held high. Asking Jiraiya about him and getting a first-hand report sure beat going to the library and trying to read some stupid textbook.

"Maybe if you actually get down what I'm trying to teach you," smirked Jiraiya, knowing that the blond would follow each instruction of his unquestioningly from now on.

"Fine." Naruto stuck his tongue out.

Before Jiraiya could continue with his lesson, however, he grabbed Naruto with speeds that the blond couldn't comprehend, as they moved out of the way of a tendril of sand that slammed down in the spot they were just standing. "Lesson's over kid, seems we have company."

"The hell was that!" shouted Naruto, realising that having been caught off-guard could have killed him; that attack surely wasn't designed to simply injure someone.

"Perhaps by showing you what I'm actually capable of you'll come to understand just how great I am," boasted Jiraiya as he put Naruto back down on his feet. With their attention turned towards the forest, they could feel the menacing aura come closer and closer until the red-haired Gaara stepped into the opening. "Ah, the jinchuuriki of the Ichibi. I wondered if he would have reacted to your chakra from the other day."

"Wait, so there's more people like me with crazy big monsters in them?" questioned Naruto, never having heard of any other village-destroying monster other than the one that was tucked away in his seal.

"Kid, meet what you could have become," said Jiraiya while pointing at the enemy.

"Mother... demands blood..." said Gaara slowly as if possessed.

"The hell is he talking about?" asked Naruto, who was slightly more on guard as of the moment.

"Unlike the masters who contributed to making the seal that keeps the Kyuubi at bay, the seal masters of Suna - if they even deserve to be called that - are pretty shoddy with their work," explained Jiraiya as tendrils of sand began to float around Gaara menacingly. "Lucky for them, I'm going to rectify that."

"Mother wants your blood… I shall give it to her," stated Gaara coldly, his eyes unblinking as he unleashed his opening attack.

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