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Gaara, Temari, and Kankuro had barely stopped on their escape from the village. On several occasions they had been chased by both friend and foe; losing them each time was no easy task. It took several backtracking attempts and a lot of energy in order to finally rid themselves of the trail. It had helped when everyone's attentions had turned towards the stadium where a giant purple snake had been summoned, destroying a solid chunk of the structure.

During this state of confusion, the Sand siblings had been able to escape through one of the holes made in the outer wall, and move onwards to the path of freedom. Night had come and gone, and none of them could wonder just how much of Konoha remained behind them; whether it was still controlled by the Hokage or if it had fallen was a question they couldn't answer.

Gaara had stayed watch while his siblings had gotten some sleep, a notion that still confused the older brother and sister ever so slightly. While it would take some getting used to, there was no denying the fact that it was undoubtedly an improvement.

"Wait," instructed Gaara as he told his family to stop where they were, a small clearing surrounded by trees.

"Are we being followed?" asked Kankuro as he instinctively reached for the puppet that he wore upon his back.

"No," stated Gaara as the bushes in front of them moved slightly before parting to reveal Team Seven, the Konoha team having been on a direct collision course of where they stood.

"Sand," said Sasuke through gritted teeth as he reached for a kunai, Sakura doing the same as Kakashi watched on to see what would happen.

"Wait, these guys aren't our enemies," said Naruto as he stood in front of his team, his arms waving back and forth in order to get their attention on him as opposed to the three standing on the opposite side of the clearing.

"Do you not remember the fact that people from their country tried to kill us not twenty-four hours ago, dobe?" said Sasuke.

"Look, these guys are good guys. Well, at least I know the short one with that sand thingy on his back is, so I guess the other two are as well," said Naruto, giving off a patented smile.

"Gaara, do you know this kid?" asked Temari, recalling how she had encountered this team when they had first come to Konoha all those weeks ago.

Gaara remained silent as he looked at the back of the orange-clad Genin, his mind going over several things that had happened during his confinement in Jiraiya's temporary prison.

The silence was unnerving for the red-haired shinobi; having always had a demonic voice whispering in your ear was one way towards madness, but Gaara was fairly certain that permanent isolation was another. He wasn't alone all the time, but when his only company was Jiraiya bringing him food every once in a while, it left a lot to be desired in the grand scheme of things. It didn't help that the man worked like clockwork, mostly because Jiraiya knew what hours the ladies of the village would visit his favourite spots.

It was to Gaara's surprise then that the door to his chamber opened, revealing the orange-clad Genin that had put him in this position in the first place. Gaara's unblinking eyes locked onto Naruto's, the two of them knowing that in front of them was the opposite of who they were as not just a person but a Jinchuuriki. "Hey, have you seen Ero-sennin?" asked Naruto as he broke the silence.

"Ero?" repeated Gaara.

"Yeah, I call him that 'cause all he does is perv on girls when he should be helping me train," said Naruto. "I don't know what's so special anyways, all he does is look at them and start giggling as if he's watching a funny TV show."

Gaara blinked a couple of times as he questioned whether or not Naruto was serious with his statement; even though he had never partaken in any event like this beforehand, it didn't mean that he was oblivious to what the Sannin was doing. "Well, he's not here," said Gaara answering Naruto's earlier question. "So leave, you have no reason to stay."

"Well, if he's not here then I don't know where I could find him," said Naruto as he ran his fingers through his hair. "I know he'll come here eventually, though, so I might as well stay."

"Didn't you hear me? I told you to leave," said Gaara, his voice starting to show the slightest hint of emotion.

"And I told you I'll stay," declared Naruto, which got Gaara to pause for a second, recalling how nobody bar from his father had ever spoken back to him. "Anyways, we can spend the time between now and when Ero-sennin gets here to get to know one another; perhaps we could even be friends."

Gaara found himself intrigued by that word, never before having even heard someone consider using it in the same sentence his name was in. It took the better part of an hour before Naruto's constant nagging got Gaara to open up just a bit, and little did either of the two Genin know that resting just outside the door was Jiraiya, the Sannin listening in on everything that the two were saying with a smile on his lips.

"He's… my friend," Gaara said slowly, confusing everybody in attendance. While Kankuro's jaw dropped, Temari looked at the blond-haired kid who wore the goofy smile on his face. Everything that had changed with her brother was because of him, the one person who was actually able to become Gaara's friend of all things.

"Alright, now that we've gotten that cleared up," said Kakashi as he finally found the need to speak up. "Since you're running from Konoha, I take it that you were driven out."

"Umm, actually, we kind of left before the battle was finished. We didn't even really take part, if you get what I'm saying," said Kankuro gesturing awkwardly as he tried to find the right words.

"You know, you may not be treated so kindly if your village finds out you're deserters of war," said Kakashi, knowing full well that the three Genin before him could literally be heading back home into hoter water than they were in Konoha.

"We know," said Gaara. "It's a risk we'll take, though."

"Very well," said Kakashi.

"Well, umm, thanks for not killing any of our people and all that," said Sakura, not really sure what to say in this situation.

"Anyways, we should really be going, don't want a hunter squad or anything trying to catch us," said Kankuro, wanting to get out of this awkward scene as quickly as possible.

"If we run into anyone, we'll lead them off your trail," said Naruto giving them the thumbs up.

"'Til we meet again," said Gaara as he stepped forward and shook Naruto's hand, the blond returning the gesture in kind before both Gaara and Kankuro leaped away, determined to resume their journey back to Suna. Temari, however, had paused, still in disbelief that the orange-clad kid in front of her had been the one to change Gaara from the psychotic killing-machine that he had been into what he was now.

"Are you alright?" asked Naruto, still standing several steps in front of the rest of his team. His fellow blonde walked towards him and he couldn't help but wonder what was going on until she bent downwards slowly and gave him a gentle kiss on the cheek, completely taking both him and the rest of his team off guard.

"Thank you," she said as she stepped away from him before leaping in the same direction that her brothers had seconds earlier.

"Well, that...was unexpected," said Sasuke being the one to break out of the stupor surrounding Team Seven first.

"Congratulations, Naruto, this is your first step towards true manhood. Maybe one day you'll receive a proper kiss," said Kakashi, proud to have witnessed this moment.

"Actually…" said Naruto slowly as he turned around to face the rest of his team.

"Wait, you've kissed someone before?" said Sasuke in disbelief.

"Well, yeah, and thankfully this time she didn't faint 'cause I thought that…"

"HINATA KISSED YOU!" shouted Sakura as she put all of the pieces together, Naruto realising he had just made a massive error, one that hopefully wouldn't have any negative repercussions whatsoever.

When Hinata finally came to, she did so within a split second, her eyes staring at the ceiling of a great hall of some sort. Looking around, she realised that she was lying on the floor and was surrounded by various other bodies which had been laid down in a similar manner. Struggling to recollect how she had gotten into this position, she sat up slightly before recognising just where she was. In the arena.

She took a look around, and though she was tempted activate her Byakugan, the Hyuga didn't quite feel up to it. Pieces of the ceiling were clearly missing and there were large piles of debris mainly in the corner. It took her a second to realise that something must have happened in the invasion which caused the stadium to collapse.

"You're awake," said a voice from behind her, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder. "We managed to drive all the opposing ninja out, so we're currently trying to take care of the sick and injured."

"I-Ino," said Hinata in surprise. She wouldn't have thought the blonde girl to be willing to take care of people in the manner which she had just described. "Where is everyone else? None of them…" the girl looked down, unable to finish her sentence.

"Nah," the Yamanaka said with a grin. "We may be rookies, but we're stronger than that."

"So… w-where are they?" asked Hinata, wondering if any of them were injured.

"They're out helping where they can," said Ino as she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "Thankfully most of it was structural damage. That being said, not everybody survived."

Hinata's attitude dropped at that, knowing that when she were to go home, there would be members of the clan adorned in black, showing their mourning for a family member. If this was the case, perhaps if she had been that little bit stronger, all of her family would still be there. Strength was what she needed.

"Umm, Hinata," said Ino catching the Hyuga's attention. "Those black mark thingies are spreading over your skin."

Hinata's eyes widened in realisation as she willed Orochimaru's markings to withdraw from her skin and back into the seal from whence they came. "Sorry," she said under her breath as she drew her eyes away from Ino and onto the bed sheet that covered her.

"It's okay," said Ino as comfortingly as she could. "After your display in the arena, most of Konoha knows your secret now. Well, at least the shinobi community does. From what I've heard you even lashed out at that overly-joyous spandex-wearing Jonin. I swear that man has no fashion sense whatsoever. Before you apologize again, we all know you weren't in the same frame of mind as you usually are, so all is forgiven, but we all hope that you can get control over it before you hurt someone close to you."

"B-but…"

"No buts," said Ino, stopping Hinata before she started. "We're all with you, and we'll help you through this. As Naruto would say: it's a promise."

While those words were meant to help lighten Hinata's mood, they had the exact opposite effect, as Hinata recalled the promise she had made with Naruto before she had kissed him and fainted as a result. This, of course, brought her memory back to the kiss, and with little hesitation, a blush crept across her face before her consciousness began to fade.

And no matter how much Ino shouted in panic, Hinata wasn't waking up anytime soon.

"Have you got word on how many casualties there were, Sensei?" asked Jiraiya, his eyes low as he watched several younger shinobi attempt to clean up the mess that had been created by the invasion.

"A few of the younger Jounin, several ANBU and Chunin and a maybe one or two Genin," said Sarutobi, somberly. "All in all, about seventy-three Konoha shinobi's lives were lost… and I'm disappointed to say that I could not add Orochimaru's name to that list." It went without saying that the list of civilian casualties was far more extensive.

"Don't worry about it too much," said Jiraiya with a shake of his head. He longed for the days when they had still been a team: Sensei, Tsunade, Orochimaru, and himself. "We took down a couple of his freaky experiments, and I'm sure we took more lives than we lost."

"Many of those were Suna ninja though," stated the Hokage. "They no longer appear to be our enemy, and the loss of their ninja is no sweat on Orochimaru's back."

"That's true," nodded Jiraiya. "So are you thinking of promoting any of the brats? They did fairly well to stay alive after all, helped with the stadium after the bastard's snake crashed into it."

"You'll find out at the promotion ceremony," chuckled Sarutobi, knowing that it irked a spymaster like Jiraiya to have information withheld from them. "You're right though, I'm glad that at least innocent children didn't have to die."

Jiraiya snorted at that. The both of them knew what Jiraiya's view on said matter would be, the last loyal member of the Sannin being of the opinion that no shinobi was more innocent than another. "Are you holding up alright?"

"Just because I look like an old man does not mean I am weak, Jiraiya," said the Sandaime, though there was no real force behind his words. In his retreat, Orochimaru had caught the older man unaware and stabbed him with his Kusangi which pierced the Hokage's side and even broke a rib. Jiraiya had been able to ward the snake-like man off before the blade was pushed all the way through Sarutobi's body, but it was a clear statement from Orochimaru: Sarutobi was slipping.

"Heh, I hope not," said the super pervert. "So we managed to drive most of the Sound out after Suna retreated… That doesn't leave much room for another surprise attack does it?"

"Being the spymaster here, I would have expected you to know," the Hokage chuckled without laughing. The ever present losses were too large for him to do so; too many had died needlessly. "I highly doubt it. Suna must have realised that Orochimaru played them by now, so they'll likely return home quickly and try to appoint a new leader in order to not be seen as weak by the other villages."

"That still leaves all the Sound ninja we managed to kick out of here. If there's one thing I know about Orochimaru, it's that he doesn't care for grunts. Either they've deserted Otogakure or they're going to come back when we're not expecting it," said Jiraiya sharply. It was only in front of his teacher that his serious side was drawn out like this.

"Something felt lacking from Orochimaru's invasion however," Sarutobi pointed out. Though the invasion had caught the entire village by surprise, they had managed to fight back regardless of the fact that large losses were incurred; Orochimaru wasn't one to do things half-assed.

"I suspected something similar too," said Jiraiya. "Maybe something went wrong? I know I broke up the Sound Four when it looked like they were doing something suspicious."

"Perhaps. What I want to know is how exactly this tied into his goal of obtaining the Sharingan. Team Seven, the one with the Uchiha on it, were sent to Suna due to a request by the Kazekage," Sarutobi said the name sourly. To think that one of his own rank had been killed and replaced by his former student so… silently. "We got a messenger hawk earlier in the day, and it appears they managed to survive the ambush that was set up for them."

"I bet they did, with that little blond brat," Jiraiya said, envisioning how Orochimaru's plan must have backfired. Orochimaru planned for every situation, but even if he had guessed that Naruto was now slightly more adept in the useage of the Kyuubi's chakra, he wouldn't have been able to afford leaving enough troops to deal with Naruto in Suna.

"Between him, Kakashi, Sasuke, and Sakura, I'm sure they did just fine," said Sarutobi like a faithful grandfather who believed in his grandchildren. Team Seven had really taken being expelled from the exams in their stride, and were looking all the better for it.

"Should we worry about Orochimaru ambushing them on their way back though?" asked Jiraiya, knowing better not to put anything past his traitorous teammate.

The Hokage spoke with brutal honesty. "Probably."

"My most youthful team, I am truly proud of the way in which you handled yourselves yesterday," said Gai with a great smile. "And I have no doubts that my hip rival will be most jealous when he hears of the endeavours of Team Gai."

"Yosh!" exclaimed Lee as he enthusiastically saluted his teacher. "I am glad to have done your proud, Gai-sensei! May we run four-hundred victory laps around Konoha to celebrate our youthful achievements?"

Neji's face became a little less happy while Tenten just laughed awkwardly. "Hey, not all of us have the energy to be running all over the place after hours of intense fighting yesterday."

"Not a problem," said Lee, pumping his fist in the air. "I am sure that once you have challenged the fires of your youth, they will roar with a greater ferocity than before."

"Gai-sensei, what impact will the events of yesterday have upon the Chunin selection process?" asked Neji as he ignored his eccentric teammate. It was the question they were all dying to know anyway.

"I am, unfortunately, not privy to that information," said Gai, his body language sombering up. "So the short answer is that I do not know. I do, however, suspect that your youthful performances during the invasion yesterday will count for field experience, and thus may account to a promotion from either your efforts in the exams or perhaps your skill on the battlefield, maybe even a combination of the two; it is difficult to guess."

"Yosh!" yelled Lee once more though he was quickly cut off from Tenten.

"So what kind of roles would we have had to play yesterday to gain a promotion?" Having been knocked out in the third stage of the exam without really getting to fight properly, Tenten was eager to try and gain a promotion by other means. "What could we have done better?"

"Once again, I am not sure," said Gai, his tone audibly brightening as he continued when he saw Tenten's disappointed expression. "However, each role that was played by every single Konoha citizen was equally important. The Hokage's fight against Orochimaru was no more important than Neji assisting me with the evacuation of spectators from the arena, the roles of those who most youthfully gave their lives in battle no more important than the medic-nin who fought hard to save them, for these things together make up the Will of Fire."

It was a familiar term and while the two more-normal members of Team Gai weren't sure if they appreciated the lecture, they took it to heart.

"Who do you believe will be promoted then, Gai-sensei?" asked Lee. "If I am not chosen to be worthy, I vow to run across Konoha two hundred times on my hands!"

"It would be most unyouthful of me to say," said Gai with small grin. "However, I do believe that all of you have proved to be worthy candidates. Do not worry if you are not chosen though, for it only means that your flames of youth need to be fanned a little more so they can burn brighter in the future."

He wasn't lying about them being worthy candidates. Neji had proven himself in the two fights he had fought and even further during the invasion by helping save numerous civilian lives. Lee had proven to be an unstoppable juggernaut who had perhaps only lost the finals because he was burned out, but that didn't stop the boy from assuming the offensive during the attack on Konoha and constantly getting in the way of the enemy ninja. Tenten on the other hand had displayed her near-mastery of weaponry which made her a shoe-in to one day become a member of the ANBU or a specialised Jounin.

"We're getting closer, right?" said Sakura as she dragged her feet along, noticing that the leaves by her feet looked similar to those which grew around Konoha.

Kakashi nodded, his face buried deep within his book. "Hopefully we're not too late."

"It's not like we're going to be able to make much of a difference anyway," said Sasuke, opting to be realistic. "We're all tired and we'll be walking into the situation blind."

"Speak for yourself, teme," said Naruto. "I'm not going to allow my precious people to be placed in any kind of danger."

"Somehow I doubt you'll be able to make any kind of an impact, dobe," Sasuke shot back. "With all the Sand-nin you took out, I'm sure you can't go on for much longer."

Having seen Naruto in action, Sakura was pretty sure that she knew otherwise. The girl chose to not voice her opinions now, knowing that now was not the time to bring up the fact that she was aware Naruto was the Kyuubi's Jinchuuriki. With the two boys constantly bickering the way they had been ever since leaving Suna, she felt as though if she could subtly pass on her discovery to Sasuke, the Uchiha would finally give it a rest, but she couldn't come up with anything and still felt dead on her feet.

"Sasuke has a point," said Kakashi, or his voice rather, since his lone eye was still clearly buried in his porn. "However, at the same time, despite how tired we may be, if it comes down to it and we need to fight to save our village… we will."

Naruto was tempted to stick out a tongue to Sasuke since Kakashi had taken his side in the argument, but decided against it. The teme was a sore loser after all.

Above the harsh wind that made up the border of the Land of Wind and the Land of Fire, the distinct tune of a soothing melody could be heard. Team Seven found themselves falling silent, wondering what was causing the noise. Kakashi and Sasuke were a little on edge while Naruto and Sakura found themselves in adoration of the beautiful sound.

Then, almost inexplicably, the four of them felt something tighten painfully across each limb. Ropes had fastened around them and caught the group - very well tied ones as made apparent when the three Genin of the team failed at their panicked attempts to move.

Naruto grit his teeth in anger. He thought that the whole chapter with Suna was done and closed, but it looked as though the village wasn't as forgiving as he had hoped - they had clearly set up a trap that they knew Team Seven would undoubtedly wander into.

Sasuke's thoughts were a little more worried but along the same lines of Naruto's. He hadn't fared all too well against the puppeteers of Suna, and wasn't quite yet looking forward to a rematch. When he had told Naruto that he was tired, that had been done in full seriousness. His chakra had essentially been diminished by summoning the falcon earlier on, and he couldn't even reach into his pouch to grab a soldier pill - that was provided that the results of maybe overdosing on soldier pills like Sakura were worth it.

A figure with numerous arms made its way across to the team, its body language strong and arrogant. Some kind of strange fluid was spat out of its mouth and shaped into something that resembled a throwing knife before juggling it between his multiple hands. "Eeny meenie miny mo," the person said in a sing-song voice, something which sent shivers up the Genin's spines. "Too bad pinky, you're first to go."

Sakura's eyes widened as she found herself looking directly at the weapon which was thrown at her with much more speed and force than anything she had encountered in Suna. As it looked to be the end of the road for the young Genin, a strong gust of wind suddenly picked up and caused the weapon to veer off course. Twisting her head, Sakura managed to see that Naruto had somehow managed to force his fingers together and performed one of his jutsu, and from the effect, she imagined that it had been the Kaze no Kyutai he knew.

She would be sure to thank him later.

"Seems someone doesn't want to play our little game," stated someone from behind them before out of the corner of their eye, they could see them put a kunai to Naruto's throat. "We better fix that."

Without any remorse the sharpened blade was pulled across sharply, Naruto's throat opening up as blood began to pool down his neck much to the horror of his teammates.

"NARUTO!"

...

Fuuton: Kaze no Kyutai = Wind Release: Wind Sphere.

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