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Gaara walked with purposeful slowness through the streets of Konoha. Barely ten minutes had passed since his fellow Jinchuuriki had left the village, and he had not been able to stop wondering about just what could have changed with his life if it had just been that little bit different.
No longer was he controlled by his mother's rantings, and he had decided that if he were to ever hear her rantings again, he would silence them personally. For too long he had lived as a puppet to the Biju inside of him, and he would take a stand against the vile mass of chakra.
Gaara's thought process came to a screeching halt as he felt something bump into his leg. Looking down he could see a pink smear across his pants and a young girl by his feet whose ice-cream now lay in the dirt.
"I'm sorry," she apologized as tears swelled within her eyes. "I was just so happy, I spent all my pocket money on some ice cream and didn't see where I was going."
Gaara just stood there stunned, as he tried to figure out what to do in this situation - also on the fact that ice cream was either incredibly expensive or the girl's pocket money consisted of a single Ryo a week. The old Gaara would have already slaughtered the girl without question but that time seemed a lifetime ago. He was still angry, that was for sure, but somehow he was able to prevent himself from acting upon it. Eager to explore the new feeling, he shook his head with a slight sigh. Reaching into his pocket, he counted the money he had on his person before speaking to the girl next to him. "I'll buy you a new one."
While it wasn't so much an offer as much a demand, it didn't matter, as the girl's eyes suddenly brightened like a light switch had been turned on and at that moment she deemed Gaara the nicest person in the world.
Hopefully this little girl would never learn of Gaara's past.
Ino grinned as Choji knocked Shikamaru to the floor with a strong haymaker. Her hands slipped through a few well memorised hand seals before she exclaimed, "Shintenshin no Jutsu!"
This however was just what Shikamaru had been waiting for. Having grown up alongside the two people his sensei had asked him to battle, he knew that there was the slightest delay in the technique. To the normal shinobi who would freeze as they realised just what was going to happen, Shikamaru quickly countered by using one of the three jutsu that he had learned in the academy.
Chouji had no time to react as the Kawarimi took place, and he now found himself where Shikamaru had been. His consciousness, however, lasted less than half a second as Ino's mind was transported into his. Realising what had happened, she quickly lifted Chouji's arms in an attempt to dispel the technique, but found she couldn't form the seal in time as Shikamaru's shadow held them in place, making this his victory.
Smoking on a cigarette nearby, Asuma couldn't help but smile at the ingenuity of the Nara he had been given as a student. Out of the three of his pupils, Shikamaru was the one he believed was most likely to get promoted.
Provided he could find someway to motivate him, of course.
"Kurenai-sensei," muttered Hinata gently. "Do you think we should do some kind of training to prepare for the exams?"
"Don't push yourself, Hinata," said Kurenai as she leaned against a nearby tree. "While you're going to be allowed to participate in the exams, I'd think it's best that you take things easy. Your health is my top priority."
"I don't think Kiba and Shino s-should miss out on having a chance to advance because of me," she admitted quietly, unable to face any of her team members.
"Actually, we've been doing some training," said Kiba with a grin on his face. "Sure, we haven't gotten to meet with Kurenai-sensei that often, but we both have clans."
"Kiba is correct," stated Shino with a slight nod. "We have both been training feverishly for the past month."
"I did some training with F-Father," said Hinata, looking up with a smile.
"In that case, I think a light spar is in order," chuckled Kurenai. "If you're all up to it, that is. I can't have my students falling behind the other teams."
"Well, Sasuke's team didn't even make it into the Chunin exams," replied Kiba, "so at least we've done better than them."
"He beat you rather badly in the two spars you've both had," scolded Kurenai with a sigh. "You shouldn't get too ahead of yourself."
Kiba's annoyance only seemed to intensify as Akamaru seemed to agree with what their sensei was saying, something which made the Inuzuka kick at the ground and grumble under their breath.
"You should not feel discouraged. Uzumaki also defeated me in our spar," said Shino as he backed up his teacher's words. "It appears that Team Seven has not been sitting idle in the past month. Perhaps without the foreboding exams weighing upon their minds they have been able to reach a level that we have not been able to."
Hinata's smile widened slightly as she heard that Naruto had beaten Shino. She held nothing against her teammate but was glad that her favourite blond had been doing so well. Kiba, meanwhile, didn't really like the attitude that Shino took in giving the praise to their friends who weren't even in the running to get upgraded.
"What, you're saying that because we're doing better than them they've improved more?" said Kiba as his voice began to grow with anger. "How does that even make sense?"
"Naruto-kun was always strong," declared Hinata in a tone which caught the rest of the team somewhat off guard. It wasn't the aggressive tone that came about whenever the seal upon her neck began to act up nor was it the timid one that she usually displayed. It was positive, something which they hadn't heard from the Hyuga heiress in a long time.
"There can be several reasons towards this," said Kurenai, speaking up before either of her two male students started asking Hinata what had happened. While she couldn't help but be curious in her own right, she knew better than to go prying into other people's business. "All of the Jonin know that Kakashi is one of the more lazy senseis. Having had his team fall behind may have caused him to intensify their training, or they may have requested it themselves."
"In that case, up our training, Sensei," declared Kiba, clenching his fist. "When I get promoted, I'm going to rub their nose in it so hard."
Shino could only inwardly groan at his teammate's enthusiasm, while Kurenai started going over several things in her mind about how better to improve her students with the limited time they had left before the exam. Before she could give any instructions, however, the clearing they were standing in became occupied by another Genin, one who could potentially become one of their opponents in the later parts of the competition.
"Neji nii-san?" said Hinata as she looked at her cousin in confusion as to why he was here of all places.
"Hinata, Hiashi-sama has requested our presence," declared Neji looking ever so slightly pale, no doubt in fear of the repercussions his previous actions would bring upon him today. Hinata swallowed nervously, already knowing that this conversation would undoubtedly be about her supposed 'kidnapping' the previous day. While she knew that she likely wouldn't get in trouble, it was the possibility that her crush could feel her father's fury that truly made her worried.
Sasuke's brow twitched.
"Tell me about it," whined Sakura as she walked next to Naruto. Something had definitely happened, there was no question of that… Hinata being unconscious wasn't all that uncommon but Naruto having been flustered the way he had been? Sakura couldn't say that she had ever seen that before, and even after years of knowing the boy, the fact that something could make him shut up in that manner still seemed alien to her.
Looking back on their days in the academy, while she hadn't really talked to the boy at all, it was difficult not to hear him from the back row or wherever he may have been sitting. Even from out in the hallway, it had been difficult to not listen to the blond's yelling ways. It was as if the sole member of the Uzumaki clan didn't have an inside voice.
"I can't," the blond responded for the umpteenth time. "Nothing happened anyway, she was just feeling a little unwell."
"Sure she was," said Sakura sarcastically, clearly not believing Naruto's claim. When they were to return, she'd have to ask Ino if she was keen to search through Naruto's memories; gossip this juicy could not go undiscovered.
Sasuke attempted to tune out the stupid bickering of the duo,. They had been at it for hours. Kakashi seemed to be paying them no mind, but he was more than likely far too engrossed in that book of his to pay any attention to them.
"Come on, Naruto, what are you hiding?"
Sasuke fought off the urge to rub his eyes. This was going to be a long trip.
"Neji nii-san?" asked Hinata gently, looking up to her cousin as they reached the inside of her house. "Which people do you think are going to end up getting promoted?"
"I would normally have said that it doesn't matter, as we are all merely pawns to fate and that she would choose that herself," said Neji before he shook his head ever so slightly. "But I'm not so sure I believe that anymore."
She smiled slightly, knowing that was his way of saying he wasn't too sure. "I think y-you might be promoted."
"Perhaps I'll advance the furthest, but that does not necessarily mean I shall get promoted," he responded humbly. "I think that the Nara would make for a Chunin-worthy candidate, but that is only through assuming he carries the intelligence his clan in known for."
"Maybe it would h-have been more fun with T-Team Seven," said Hinata as she let her thoughts move towards Naruto.
"That's true," admitted the branch family member. "The Uchiha would have provided some excellent contest."
"A-And Naruto-kun too," she said with a hint of a smile. "He's become much stronger."
"The kunoichi on their team seemed to fare well agai-"
"I'm glad to see that you're both in one place," declared an intruding voice. As both Neji and Hinata had their Byakugan deactivated, they had not seen the person approach. "I need to talk with the two of you. Hinata particularly."
"O-Okay, Father," stuttered Hinata as she looked towards the man, having been caught completely off guard. "Is s-something wrong?"
"Perhaps," he responded almost morbidly. He spoke with no conviction and his voice was vague enough to make the hairs on Hinata's skin ride up slightly. "What exactly did Uzumaki do with you yesterday?"
Hinata blushed as she bit down on her lip, thinking back to the events of the day passed. "W-We talked a little, about t-the… exams."
"I see," he said with a slight nod. "Is that all?"
"W-Well, we also talked about m-my seal." The hand that absentmindedly brushed across a particular part of her neck did not go unnoticed by either male Hyuga.
"How did he escape the compound with you?" asked her father, willing to let the previous topic drop. The last thing he needed was another episode with that wretched seal Orochimaru had cast upon his daughter. "I believe he used a Kawarimi, but did he subdue or harm you in any manner beforehand?"
"No… Naruto-kun would never do that," she protested with a strength that Hiashi had seldom seen from his eldest. "We used the Kawarimi to escape the compound, and then we ran a small distance away from it in order to be able to talk in private."
"That then raises the question of how exactly he got into the compound," said Hiashi with a frown as he turned to Neji. "According to the guards, they saw you and Uzumaki yesterday entering the compound, and you stated that you had permission - from me might I add - to bring Uzumaki inside. While it's possible that they were deceived by an elabo-"
Hiashi was surprised to find himself interrupted by Neji clearing his throat. "If I may, Hiashi-sama?" The young Hyuuga requested permission to interrupt.
Hiashi nodded slightly, curious to see what his nephew had to say.
"There was no elaborate plan or anything of the sort," he admitted almost shamelessly. "I lied to both Naruto and the guards by telling them that I had received permission from you, and while I understand that this was disrespectful and avoided protocol, I did it as I thought it would be best for Hinata."
"While I'm not sure if I should tolerate your insolence or not," said Hiashi, "do you now realise what repercussions your actions had? Perhaps Hinata would not have been kidnapped if it weren't fo-"
"Umm… N-Naruto-kun didn't kidnap me," Hiashi was interrupted for the second time that day, this time by his daughter of all people. "I went with him voluntarily."
"That changes things, then," said Hiashi as he frowned. He wasn't sure if whoever had fabricated this rumour or he was to blame, since it was a novice error to not check up on bold claims like these before pursuing them. The Clan Head supposed that he had let it slide merely because of Naruto's reputation. "However, I would still like to know why you thought it was acceptable to breach the rules like that, Neji."
"Like I said before, Hiashi-sama, I acted for no reason other than to ensure Hinata-sama's happiness," said Neji as he bit down on his lip slightly. "However, I recognise that what I did was wrong, and I shall accept whatever punishment you deem necessary."
"I will let it slide this once," said Hiashi generously as he looked Neji hard in the eye. "I will not tolerate this occurring a second time, however. Please go through me next time."
The branch family member's eyes widened ever so slightly. He hadn't been destined to approach Naruto or fake Hiashi's permission by any stretch, he had acted entirely out of his own will in that situation. What was surprising, though, was that he wasn't being punished for doing so - Hiashi wasn't known to be exceptionally forgiving. "You have my word, Hiashi-sama." He bowed slightly, this time in both respect and gratitude.
"Now, I need to talk to Hinata in private," said Hiashi in a tone which made it clear that there would be no negotiating. "Go finish preparing for the Chunin exams. I expect a strong performance from you even though you are apart of the branch house."
Neji inwardly chuckled a little. Both he and Hiashi knew that he was prodigy and that the man was just being overly formal. "I will take my leave then. Thank you for your time."
Hiashi's eyes turned towards Hinata as his nephew departed. "Let's go to my office. I think we will find more privacy there."
Hinata meekly nodded, unsure of how to respond to her father Though she loved him dearly, he had a knack for intimidating people. She trailed behind the older man nervously as they travelled towards his office, which was located in the building across the street.
An awkward silence enveloped father and daughter, or at least that was how Hinata saw it from her perspective. Walking through the corridors of the Hyuga estate seemed daunting as she knew what was likely to come. Yet, this was also an opportunity for her to ask some questions that she would have been unable to otherwise. Without a word being spoken, Hiashi slid open the door to his office which Hinata quickly entered, taking her seat as her father closed the door behind him. Moving gracefully, Hiashi took his seat and looked his daughter in the eyes, happily surprised to see that she met his glare and didn't look away.
"Do you believe that your meeting with the Uzumaki yesterday has been beneficial?" he asked, finally breaking the silence between them.
"It was. His words have given me strength," said Hinata as a gentle smile caressed her face. "Why do you ask, Father, if you don't mind me asking?"
"Before I sent Neji off to see you, I had to go see the Hokage, since many of the clan members had been quite infuriated by the boy's actions and had demanded a warrant for his arrest," explained Hiashi, which caused his daughter to gasp slightly. "While seemingly the Hokage had merely laughed at their request, it was still a serious claim, and when young Naruto returns from his mission, I will speak with him personally to see if I deem him worthy to keep you company. That is, of course, once the rest of the clan calms down somewhat."
"Naruto-kun's on a mission?" asked Hinata picking up that finer detail.
"Indeed, he has been sent on a long term mission and may not return for several weeks," said Hiashi. "The Hokage also told me that it was 'far away from Konoha'."
At that news Hinata visibly deflated, since she had been hoping that Naruto would watch her performance in the exams. Perhaps if she had been exceptionally lucky, the Hyuga heiress would have even been given a good luck kiss before her first bout. "I understand," she said solemnly before her mind recalled what it was that she wanted to discuss with the head of the clan. "Father, there is something I must ask of you."
"And what may that be?"
"Yesterday, Naruto showed me his seal, not one like the one on my neck but a large one inked upon his stomach. Do you know what it is?"
Hearing those words from his daughter made Hiashi flinch slightly as he took in this information. "That is most surprising," he said slowly before composing himself. "The seal that he showed you is the greatest secret this village holds. I must ask of you to never tell anybody about this as the aftereffects could very well be catastrophic."
Hinata swallowed nervously and dared not say anything, having never heard her father speak in such a tone of voice.
"For him to have shown you his seal means that he completely trusts you, and chances are that you are the first person he's ever shown it to," continued Hiashi. "While I do know what his seal contains, it is not my place to say it, and I ask that you do not attempt to pry the information out of him. If the two of you become closer as friends then I believe that he will inform you in due time, but until then, I urge you not to speak of this with anybody."
"I understand, Father," said Hinata nodding, and while her curiosity was burning as to just what was held within Naruto's seal, she wouldn't risk their friendship by asking the blond for the information. "If that is all, then I shall commence some extra training shortly and attempt to master what you have taught me a week ago. Please excuse me."
Hiashi watched as his daughter stood up and left the confines of his office, and he couldn't help but allow a small smile to grace his lips. Seemingly, Naruto's talk with his daughter had given fruit to unexpected results, something he would have to make sure happened again.
"So what exactly do you think this mission is going to be like?" asked Naruto, the banter that he and Sakura had participated in having ceased long ago without anything being discovered by the pink-haired Genin. Boredom had overcome to blond since they were in one of their rest phases - Kakashi had explained that while tree hopping allowed them to travel great distances, they needed to allow their bodies some rest, since Suna was quite a long way away - and he couldn't think of anything better to do than begin another conversation.
Sasuke for his part stayed as quiet as he had been for the entire trip, the small inflexion of his right eyebrow being the only hint that he had actually heard Naruto's words. With the sun setting in the distance signalling the end of the day, the Uchiha had been quite thankful for the peace and quiet that he had received once Sakura realised she wasn't getting any information out of her teammate.
"The Hokage already told us, Naruto," said Sakura, still slightly bitter about the blond's secret. "We're probably just going be sitting on our arses for the entire time. Nothing special will happen."
"Don't make that mistake," said Kakashi, speaking up. He had been almost as quiet as Sasuke as the group had travelled, only chiming in from time to time. "Many a Genin have died by presuming that they were granted an easy mission. It's why I made you bring along all of your weaponry."
Naruto's face skewed slightly. "I still don't get the point of that, Kakashi-sensei. We could make it to Suna in like double the time if we didn't have all these stupid things with us," he gestured to the backpack strapped on his shoulders. It was very, very heavy, and Naruto's shoulders were already starting to ache. Sakura and Sasuke seemed to be having an equal amount of trouble with theirs given their slouched figures, but neither had spoken up about it yet.
"Well, we've always got to be prepared. What if we were suddenly attacked by bandits or something?"
"You don't look very prepared," Naruto pointed out sourly. Kakashi had one strap slung lazily over his right shoulder, and had that point been very engrossed in his green - for once, not orange - book. Somehow Naruto doubted that the contents was very different even with the change of colour.
"That's because I'm a Jounin," he said almost cheerily as his one visible eye flicked back to the page he had open.
The four continued walking quietly, each member of the team only having their own thoughts for company before Naruto's face suddenly brightened.
"Why don't we play some kind of a gam-"
"Now is not the time," declared Kakashi as he came to a stop, the three Genin quickly following suit as the masked shinobi put his book away. Naruto swallowed nervously, fearing that since Kakashi's book was now away, they'd be facing some super strong enemy.
It wasn't to be, however, yet that didn't mean that the people in front of them weren't powerful in their own right. Garnished in white cloth with four people encircling them was the Kazekage, the leader of Suna. "Kazekage-sama," said Kakashi as he bowed, showing his respect for the allied village leader.
"Kakashi of the Sharingan, I'm pleased the Hokage has selected a worthwhile shinobi for my request," replied the man as he came to a stop. "These are your students, I take it."
"Indeed. May I introduce Haruno Sakura, Uzumaki Naruto and Uchiha Sasuke," said Kakashi, waving to the three teenagers behind him.
Naruto couldn't help but shiver as the Kazekage's eyes latched upon his. Unlike the Hokage's eyes which always seemed so warm and friendly, these pupils showed only darkness and desolation.
"I hope that you find your time within Suna pleasant," said the Kazekage as he began to walk once more. "Until we meet again."
Team Seven said nothing as they watched the Kazekage continue his march with his guards following him closely. Kakashi meanwhile was looking out into the forest on either side of the path, and every once in a while he would catch sight of a Suna shinobi jumping through the trees, scouting for anything that may be hazardous to their leader. While the number of scouts seemed unusually high, he wouldn't question the methods of another village.
"Alright, let's pick up the pace for the last few minutes of sunlight," said Kakashi as he quickly leaped away, his students giving chase soon after.
Back on the path, however, one of the Kazekage's guards looked over their shoulder at the vanishing group. "Orochimaru-sama, wouldn't that have been the perfect time to place your seal upon the Uchiha?" he asked as his voiced lowered to a whisper so as to not be overheard.
"Indeed it would have been. However, I would be unable to properly test the young Uchiha to see if he would be a worthy vessel," said Orochimaru with a slight chuckle. "Thankfully I set up preparations beforehand so that once they arrive in Suna, I'll know exactly what the young Sasuke is capable of."
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