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This chapter was brought to you by Razamataz22 and Kakarot Son, otherwise known as Team Outback.

"Are you ready for this?" asked Naruto as he cracked a couple of knuckles. "I'll understand if you want to back down; Team Seven's become pretty kickass recently."

"Nah, I'm good," said Chouji as he chewed on the last few chips of the packet before scrunching it up and shoving it into a pocket.

"So this spar is going to only involve Taijutsu," said Shikamaru, temporarily taking on the role of adjudicator. While he had wanted to head home when Chouji had created this impromptu match, he figured that it wouldn't be too troublesome to stick around a little longer. "If that's all, then, let's begin."

"Wait," interrupted Sasuke before either could get off a punch. "If you're fighting Chouji in the Chunin Exams, wouldn't it be unfair for you to see him fight?"

"Why? Are you looking to get your hands dirty too, Sasuke?" asked Naruto, feeling slightly put out that the fight could potentially be called off.

Shikamaru's hand grasped his chin in a thoughtful manner as he looked from Chouji to the sky several times. "Troublesome... I was just on my home, anyway."

"You can't just leave like that!" protested Ino as she threw her hands up in frustration. "Am I the only one in this team who wants to take the exams seriously?"

"Hey, I'm taking them seriously," muttered Chouji, who had used the opportunity to munch on some more food. He'd need all the energy he could get for the fight with the hyperactive blond, even if he couldn't use chakra during it.

"Relax, Ino," said Sakura as she clasped a hand on her friend's shoulder. "Shikamaru said he was going home to do his own training, and Sasuke's right, even if you guys are teammates, since Chouji and Shikamaru are fighting each other they need to do their own private training from time to time."

"Pfft, as if," huffed Ino as she blew a loose strand of her hair up in the air. "Shika would probably just go home and watch clouds."

"I'm sure his dad wouldn't allow that," responded Sasuke. Though he couldn't remember much of his own father, the man never slacked when it came to training. He didn't know the Nara family that well, but Shikamaru's father couldn't be that different from his own.

"Shikaku would just join him."

"Anyway, I'm off," said Shikamaru, eager to not be the center of the conversation any longer. "It doesn't matter if I don't make it through anyway, since our performances are being judged individually from now on."

"Whatever," said Ino as she waved her teammate away, realising that with Chouji and Naruto both fighting, she and Sakura would have Sasuke to themselves. And she was willing to bet that her favourite avenger had grown eager to get away from his bubblegum-haired teammate, given how much training they would have to do each day.

"So are we ready to start this for real, then?" asked Chouji as he glanced at everyone still present before firmly looking at Naruto.

"Fine by me," said the blond Genin as he resisted the urge to throw his hands into his favourite hand seal. "Do you want to call it, Teme?"

"Sure." Red irises span in place, circling black tomeo as their owner smirked. "Let's begin."

With that, Naruto jumped backwards and threw himself into something of a defensive stance. It was somewhat jumbled, since he hadn't cared to perfect it during his academy days but it would do. Had he been up against any other opponent, the Uzumaki would have immediately launched onto the offensive, but he was sure that the larger boy would manage to shrug off whatever quick blow the blond might have landed with ease.

It proved to be a good thing too; Chouji had stepped forward and let loose with a strong haymaker. Naruto evaded it by a mere centimetre or two, and the Jinchuuriki quickly took it as an opportunity to jab the Akimichi squarely in the gut with all his strength. He was, however, surprised to find that the fatter boy managed to grab onto his arm with incredible speed, and use it to swing the scrawny blond aside.

A small cry of fear escaped Naruto's lips as he found his body bouncing across the ground before he managed to right himself, only to see Chouji's foot coming at his head. While able to duck underneath the blow, Naruto's counter missed its target as Chouji jumped backwards to avoid it.

"Since when has Chouji ever been able to move so fast?" questioned Naruto to nobody in particular as he clenched his fist, a smile coming across his face. "Guess I won't need to hold back, then."

"So, Ino-pig, what training have you been doing for the exams?" asked Sakura as she turned her attention away from the match.

Ino, however, wasn't quite sure how to respond to the question, pausing momentarily as she recalled having watched Sasuke and Sakura fight one another atop the river the other day. When nobody had been watching she had gone and attempted the feat herself, and after two unsuccessful attempts which ruined her outfit, she got the overall gist of how to properly water walk. To use it in a fighting situation like Sakura had, however, was still out of her grasp.

"Lots," she decided to say, using the vaguest answer she could think of. Before Sakura could start to question her further, she knew that she needed to change the topic quickly. "So I see Sasuke's still cold to you. Take it you haven't gotten the courage to do anything with him yet."

Now it was Sakura's turn to be quiet. While she wanted to gloat that she had spent plenty of time with Sasuke outside of training hours, she couldn't really say that she'd spent those times in the library researching their other teammate. She could only imagine how Ino would react to that. "There have been times when it's just been me and him," said Sakura as she avoided eye-contact by turning towards the fight, just in time for Naruto to kick Chouji's feet out from underneath him before punching the big-boned kid's chest with enough force to make him bounce across the ground.

"So you spend time with Naruto then. You've really changed these last six months," stated Ino as she flicked her hair behind her ear.

Sakura took the words to heart, knowing that it hadn't taken six months for her attitude to change but rather the past couple of weeks since they had been kicked out of the exam unjustly. While they didn't have a chance to become Chunin for the better part of six more months, she couldn't say that she was unthankful that things had turned out this way.

For better or worse.

"Despite being annoying from time to time, he's not a bad person," said Sakura as she watched the person of interest dodge a right hook that could have taken his head off.

"You remember that stupid crush he had on you at the academy? How could you even look at him after what he put you through?" questioned Ino, over-exaggerating just a little bit. "You could have told him to beg at your feet and he would have done so."

"That was then. He could probably even go toe to toe with Sasuke now. He's changed a lot," said Sakura as she tried to remember the last time that Naruto had actually attempted to ask her out on a date. Looking back on it, she couldn't really recall a time where she had spent some one-on-one time with the blond, and wondered whether she should make an effort to get to know him a bit better.

"Shikamaru's changed a lot too," said Ino, though she would never say it to the boy's face. Thankfully, the only one present that wasn't in the middle of a fight was Sasuke who was a couple of meters away from them; she made a mental note to go and chat up the dark-haired boy once she was done with Sakura. "You'd think the lazy ass would be watching clouds all day, but he's actually started taking his training a little seriously. Something about his 'troublesome mother' pushing him. Chouji too, he's a lot stronger physically as well."

"I guess he's a fair bit bulkier than us," chuckled Sakura as she looked toward the boy in question, who managed to just barely break out of a lock Naruto had him in with brute strength. "Naruto's changes are a little more shocking, though. He doesn't yell half as much, and I'm sure that if we pushed it, we could get him to swap out that hideous orange jumpsuit of his."

"Please," scoffed Ino. "He's still the same old Naruto. I mean, he's getting beaten by Chouji as we speak."

"Have you been watching the fight at all?" asked Sakura with a devilish smile.

Ino blinked a couple of times before she drew her attention away from her friend, just in time to see Naruto dodge underneath a jab and drive his fist into Chouji's stomach. As Ino's jaw dropped ever so slightly, Naruto decided that he had had enough of this contest, springing upwards and driving his knee into Chouji's jaw with enough force to put the Akimichi heir on his back.

"Told ya," said Sakura cheekily as she walked towards the battleground, intent on congratulating Naruto on his hard-fought victory.

"You know, Sensei, it's pretty disappointing that your ANBU leave openings like this," yawned Jiraiya as he swung in through the Hokage's open window. "Would've thought that someone might have maybe slapped a barrier seal on that or something by now."

"From where would you come in then, Jiraiya? The front door? I certainly think not." A bemused twinkle ran through the old man's eyes as he smiled warmly. "It's good to see you again."

"We just met a few days ago," said Jiraiya, however he knew that before their most recent conversation, the two hadn't seen each other in years. "So I suppose you want to know how that little chat I had with Hiashi awhile ago went, right?"

"I wouldn't mind hearing it since I have not conversed with Hiashi himself since," said Sarutobi with a firm nod.

"Well, I'm not so sure that he's gotten around the idea that since his daughter has questionable willpower, the seal has a hairpin trigger. On the other hand, he understood that that she needed a bit of room. What was more interesting, though, was the kid I ran into while there."

"Kid?" questioned Sarutobi, nodding as he took in Jiraiya's information. "Do you mean Hanabi, Hiashi's eldest?"

"Nah, his nephew. He had some strange notions about fate, but from what I gathered, he managed to fight Orochimaru for a while," nodded Jiraiya. "Looks like he could end up being a strong ninja if he doesn't let foolish ideas cloud his judgement."

"He is but a Genin," replied Sarutobi, inhaling a little smoke from his already-lit pipe. "Give him time and I believe he may come around, but he also was the Rookie of the Year back in the academy."

Jiraiya snorted, "And I was dead last. You know as well as I do those rankings don't mean shit in the real world."

"Perhaps," chuckled Sarutobi, "I do remember the good old days though. Orochimaru loved to rub it in your face just as much as you liked to peep on women."

"Hey, you came along with me from time to time!" protested Jiraiya, fondly recalling that since he had no father, he'd taken strongly to Hiruzen as a father-figure, and the pair had bonded over a series of peeping sessions by the hot springs. After the two shared a small laugh, the younger ninja's face became a little more serious. "Speaking of the old snake, what do you reckon he's up to?"

"No good, obviously. However, I can't help but wonder what he wanted from the Chunin exams. Though it's caused a bit of disparity, I can't see what made him put his cursed seal on Hiashi's eldest."

"Did he want something from any of the other teams, maybe? I know that the… Kyuubi's brat, Naruto, and the rest of his team got the boot in the exams' early stages. Maybe he was after a Bijuu or something?" suggested Jiraiya.

"I haven't any ANBU guarding me. No-one will overhear if you mention Naruto's heritage." Sighing, Sarutobi turned his attention back toward the topic at hand. "I'm afraid that if Orochimaru were after a Bijuu, he would have claimed Gaara… the Kazekage's son, and holder of a notably weaker - and therefore easier to tame - Bijuu."

"On that note, I've currently got him locked up in the basement of one of my old properties," said Jiraiya with a look that promised to explain further. "So he doesn't want a Bijuu, but he randomly strikes one of the Hyuuga, even though there are several far more promising ninja with stronger Byakugan than Hinata."

"Her cousin for one," added Sarutobi thoughtfully. "He was… is participating in the very same exam."

"He's branch family, right?" asked Jiraiya, receiving a small nod from his superior. "Orochimaru's cursed seal doesn't work like that, at least not in conjunction with the Caged Bird seal. I've been doing some research into the bastard's seal since you dragged me back here. While I wouldn't put it past him to experiment in order to satisfy those sick urges of his, the two seals would likely fight each other and promptly cause the kid's brain to implode."

"I wonder what Minato would have had to say about all this." Sarutobi shook his head, attempting to ward off his frustrations. This situation just made no sense.

"Heh, I'd bet good money that the brat would manage to completely screw over Orochimaru's seal within a week," said Jiraiya, attempting not to boast as he thought back to the various abilities of his talented student. "Anyway, so he randomly decides to grab a Byakugan and target a clan head's daughter."

"It just doesn't add up," said Hiruzen. "If he did any research - I'm sure he has many spies within Konohagakure's walls - he would know that Hiashi has a second daughter. And that his younger daughter has more of a… natural calling to the Ninja Arts than his older one does."

"Hold on," said Jiraiya suddenly. "Maybe he was going after the Byakugan after all, then."

"Why would you say that?" asked Sarutobi.

"Well he has the choice of a Bijuu, and about any of the other major Konoha clan's secrets and bloodlines, but he purposely goes for the Byakugan," said Jiraiya, his incoherent thoughts barely making sense to his sensei.

"Why the Byakugan? I'd have thought the Sharingan would be… wait. That's it, the Sharingan!" exclaimed Sarutobi, the relaxed elderly persona he normally displayed having disappeared.

"I guess there's a reason people call you the smartest person in Konoha that doesn't have Nara blood running through their veins," Jiraiya smirked just a little. It fit perfectly and they suddenly had a bit more of a glimpse of what his old teammate was up to. "He must have been going for Itachi's little brother, but was caught off guard when Team Seven were kicked out of the exams."

"Exactly, and then he would have gone after Hinata to scramble the true nature of his plan," said Sarutobi before sighing. "However, some part of me tells me that my estranged student merely saw an opportunity to create chaos and suffering, and then took it."

"Still, that's a case solved," said Jiraiya as he dusted off his hands. "All you've got to do is have your ANBU secretly watch over the Uchiha until anything else happens."

"Right. Now, would you perhaps like to tell me why you have the son of a legendary foreign Kage locked in your basement?"

...

"Hinata-sama," Neji's voice called as he approached the girl's door. He didn't need his Byakugan to be active to know that the girl was lying wide awake on her bed, her face buried into the tear-stained sheets. "Hiashi-sama insists that you have something to eat."

"I'm not hungry, Neji nii-san," she replied, not wanting to face anyone else. The voice that had been attacking her head had long since disappeared, but the dark thoughts it had left with her were not going to vanish anytime soon. "Tell Father that I'll skip dinner."

"I cannot do that, Hinata-sama," Neji sighed. Several other members of the clan had attempted to get the heiress to eat something, but they had all failed before the Clan Head finally sent his nephew to retrieve the girl. "You haven't eaten breakfast and apparently had something that the cooks hesitated to call even a small lunch."

"I-I don't care," she said stubbornly, determined to not budge from her position.

"Would it be alright if I came inside?" asked Neji respectfully, unsure why he didn't just walk away from the situation and tell Hiashi that his daughter wouldn't be coming out.

"I-I guess," Hinata sniffled uncertainly as she sat up. "The door is un-unlocked."

Neji turned the knob without hesitation, and found that his cousin was sprawled across her bed just as he had expected, only now beginning to sit up slightly. "You do not look to well."

"It's n-not that," Hinata shook her head before lowering her voice to a whisper, as if it would make a difference with a compound full of people with x-ray vision and significant lip-reading prowess. "It's the… s-seal."

Neji's head cocked slightly. "You mean Orochimaru's mark?"

"Yeah," said Hinata, her face dropping while Neji closed the door to give the two a bit of privacy now that they would be discussing topics that were better left unheard by others. "It… speaks to me..."

"Speaks to you?" repeated Neji, unsure if Hinata knew what she was saying.

"Yes," said Hinata as she lifted her head so that she made eye-contact with Neji. "It's as if...as if I can hear Orochimaru himself whispering to me, feeding my insecurities."

Neji remained silent at that as he didn't really have any way that he could properly respond. He knew he could go on about the seal that was marked upon his brow, but from what he was hearing, the cruelty of these two seals were on completely different levels. Words finally left his mouth but they were not his own, as he recalled what Jiraiya had said to him a few days earlier. He couldn't remember it word for word he recalled the general conversation. "Fate is a fickle thing," he quoted. "Therefore it shouldn't be trifled with. It's something that simply takes a seat in the back row and watches as the game continues. It does not decide the road you take, it does not guide you along any path, and it doesn't choose how you live your life. Take whatever the world has in store for you, and if you don't like it, return it back tenfold."

"Neji nii-san," said Hinata slowly as she tried to understand what her cousin was trying to say.

"Basically," said Neji in the very same mannerwhile trying to figure out just what message he wanted to tell the clan heiress. "You've reached a dividing point in your life where you have to make a decision. Either you can submit to this, or you can push yourself through this and show your worth by proving that not even one of the Sannin can stop you."

While his words weren't exactly along the same level of somebody who could speak publicly, Hinata nodded as she understood what Neji was talking about. Several of his words replayed over in her mind as she judged her worth, however not in her own eyes but in those of Naruto. The Uzumaki had never said a hurtful word to her, and Hinata knew that he would see her as somebody worthwhile. If she pushed through this, she may even be praised by the blond-haired boy, something which would send her into overdrive.

Having said his spiel, Neji turned towards the exit, knowing that he couldn't really add much more to the conversation. As his fingers gripped the doorknob, however, he heard Hinata's feet place themselves on the floor. Looking over his shoulder, he could see that the younger of the two was now standing with poise and grace, much unlike her previous position. "Hinata-sama," said Neji slowly, anxious to see just what she had planned.

"Inform my father that I will be at the dinner table in fifteen minutes," said Hinata without a single hesitating falter in her voice.

A smile crossed Neji's lips as he left the room, allowing Hinata to get herself prepared for the meal ahead. Perhaps his words did have some power behind them after all.

...

Sasuke groaned. His eyelids were heavy, as had become the norm in the past few days, and like usual, Kakashi was late. The headaches that he'd become accustomed to were just starting to dull in intensity, and he found that his bloodline was straining his chakra a little less. However, unlike his two teammates, he couldn't create a Shadow Clone to keep himself busy with.

Normally, either of the two would have offered to spar with him, but Naruto was still fresh from his spar with Chouji, and seemed to be having an epiphany of some sort, doing god-knows-what with multiple clones that he kept on summoning and dispelling. The Uchiha couldn't bring himself to bother interrupting him, nor did he really want to. Sakura, on the other hand, was working on honing the fire Jutsu which Kakashi had given her.

Though the Uchiha knew he had gotten the worst Jutsu out of the three, he didn't really mind all that much in the end. Being from his clan, he already knew the Grand Fireball - a luxury that neither of his two teammates had. It was clear that they were a little more even now. He couldn't quite figure out why Sakura had a Shadow Clone up though; given the girl's tiny reserves it was more likely that it would turn out to be a burden once she found that she had exhausted all her chakra within two minutes.

He would have commented on it, but his female teammate seemed far too engrossed in what she was doing. And thus, Sasuke found himself almost bored out of his mind as he waited for Kakashi to show up. The bad thing was that they themselves were already three hours late.

Almost on cue, a flashy puff of white smoke erupted in the middle of the training ground. Kakashi stepped out of it, an orange book clutched firmly in his grasp as the other members of Team Seven paused their strange activities to look at the man.

"You're late!" a few of the Narutos and even one of the Sakuras proclaimed.

"Heh, I'm sorry. I was strolling along the road of life when I noticed a large cat-like thing dressed completely in black following me. After that, I had no choice but to lead it through the rest of the village and show it the sights…"

"Sure," Sakura rolled her eyes sarcastically. "So what are we doing today? Pulling weeds from someone's garden, painting an old lady's fence, or catching a cat?"

"None, actually," said Kakashi as he eye-smiled at the girl. "While I would love for you to focus on building your teamwork skills, Sasuke here's still going through his Sharingan conditioning, and we need to keep up with our training."

"Great," muttered Sasuke. "So Naruto and Sakura will go off and work on their control and reserves respectively while I spar with you in Taijutsu."

"Mah, mah, my cute little Genin think they have me all figured out," said Kakashi sheepishly as he almost teleported over to Sasuke and ruffled the boy's hair.

"Hey… uhh… Kakashi-sensei?" Naruto asked questioningly, looking rather nervous given his regular disposition.

"Yes, Naruto?"

"Uhh, I don't know how exactly to phrase this… but weird things have been happening with my Shadow Clones," Naruto prodded his fingers together in a manner that seemed remarkably similar to Hinata.

"That's interesting," Kakashi said, his voice as aloof as always. "We'll talk about that later, but if you three are interested; I come bearing gifts and goodwill."

"Seriously?" exclaimed Naruto as he completely forgot where his prior train of thought had been going.

"Yep. Three new jutsu for you three to learn over the coming week," said Kakashi as he revealed the scrolls he had kept hidden in his back pocket.

"Umm, Sensei, I still haven't mastered the first one," admitted Sakura as she bit her lip.

"That's alright, you'll find that many Jutsu will take months if not years to master. Just focus on increasing your repertoire, practice your Jutsu once in a while and you'll be good," replied the masked Jounin.

Sasuke's eyes narrowed as he understood what Kakashi was saying while looking at his own arsenal of jutsu, currently consisting of the Shadow Clone Jutsu, a handful of Fire Jutsu that he had learned by scouring through the clan files, and the single Lightning Jutsu he had been given. While not that big by any standard, with his Sharingan always active he knew that it would increase over time once he got through this vigorous training, but for now he'd have to learn techniques the old-fashioned way. Hopefully this time he'd have something with a bit more spark to it.

"Ladies first," said Kakashi in a chivalrous manner unlike him as the excited three Genin loomed over the three scrolls in his hands.

"Thanks, Sensei." Sakura allowed a little smile to grace her lips as she reached forward and grabbed the scroll that Kakashi gestured towards.

"For our favourite pinky, we've got Katon: Te Moete. I'm sure you know that all Jutsu aren't flat out offensive, and this is a nice supportive fire-type Jutsu which will help you cauterise almost any wound and soothe any injury."

"So a borderline medical technique, then," said Sakura with a nod, she could work with that. It seemed logical that alongside her poisons she'd have a medical technique to counteract some attacks.

"For our hyperactive blond, we have Futon: Kaze no Kyutai, something a little defensive so that when you charge into battle you don't reach the enemy looking like a porcupine," said Kakashi as he handed a scroll over to Naruto.

"Sweet. Thanks Kakashi-sensei," beamed Naruto. He couldn't wait to show Iruka what he had learned one of these days.

"Finally, for Sasuke we have Raiton: Mahi Yubi," concluded Kakashi as he handed over the final scroll.

Even without knowing the details of the scroll inside, Sasuke knew just from the name that this technique would have its uses; the implicit smirk on his Sensei's face made that clear.

"I want you three to head home tonight, start breaking down those jutsu, and show me what you have learned tomorrow," instructed Kakashi.

"Yes, Sensei," stated all three of the Genin as one, which couldn't help but make Kakashi beam from behind his mask. He was beginning to enjoy this teaching thing more and more everyday. Perhaps he'd even start rocking up on time… or at least an hour earlier than usual.

...

Gaara's eyes shot open as he raised a hand to his head, his brain thumping with tremendous force. This place was unfamiliar to him. The walls that surrounded him weren't of a prison cell, but the faint trickle of light signalling the end of the day that dripped through the small window made it seem so. His gourd was nowhere in sight, and the sand armour that usually hugged his body had been stripped away, effectively preventing him from any escape attempt. Recalling what had happened, a savage growl escaped his lips as he silently swore that, with his mother's aid, he would crush those who had bested him.

Yet, it had been at that moment he came to a startling realisation that something was amiss, something that had been with him for as long as he could recall.

Mother.

For the longest of times, every passing second he had had venomous whispers tickling his thoughts. His mother had moulded him, guided him as long as he remembered. Their words had shaped him into who he had become, into who everybody feared.

Now, however, there was nothing. He couldn't hear his mother's call, not even a whisper.

The silence was deafening.

Translations:

Futon: Kaze no Kyutai = Wind Release: Wind Sphere

Raiton: Mahi Yubi = Lightning Release: Paralysis Fingers

Katon: Te Moete = Fire Release: Burning Hand

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