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This chapter was brought to you by Team Outback (Kakarot Son and Razamataz22).
Usually, trying to track down a target was difficult, as they would try to hide themselves and create as minimal ways for them to be followed as possible. Considering that the trees they came across literally had holes in them, however, was a pretty dead giveaway that the person didn't care whether they were followed, something which was mildly worrying for the members of Team Seven. None of them needed to state that Naruto had gone this way, as it was clear as day that this had been the path he had torn through
"Kakashi," said Sasuke as he kept his gaze ahead, being able to sense his sensei's eye upon him. "You can't keep us in the dark any longer."
Kakashi's head sank slightly as he understood just what Sasuke wasn't saying. "Now isn't the time."
Sakura listened in on the conversation intently but had to keep focussed on jumping from branch to branch, lest she slip and fall down due a breach in concentration. Both she and Sasuke had been waiting for this discussion to occur for a long time, and though the moment felt inopportune, she couldn't bring herself to face Naruto unless she knew exactly what she was up against. Not when he had sliced through two shinobi like butter and almost critically injured his own sensei.
"No, Sensei, this is the time to tell us plain and simply that Naruto is the jinchuuriki of the Kyuubi," stated Sasuke, happy to see Kakashi's eye visibly widen.
"How did you…?"
"It doesn't matter, Sensei," said Sasuke. "What Naruto clearly was moments ago was not the blond-haired dobe that we know. We need to know whether or not there is a chance that the Kyuubi has taken control of him... that the Naruto we know is no more."
"It's possible," admitted Kakashi, looking downwards as he leapt ahead of the two. "But I have no doubt in the Yondaime's abilities. In all my time with the man I never saw him make a faulty seal."
"So what do we do?" asked Sakura, breaking the tension. "How do we know he won't do to us what he did to those other ninja?"
Kakashi had no answer for her words. The grim look visible in his body language was explanation enough. "We will do our duty as shinobi of the Leaf if necessary," he finally stated.
Sakura and Sasuke looked at each other, both understanding what it was that Kakashi was implying: on the off chance that they had to stop Naruto, they simply had to, by any means necessary. The way he had said it was unlike him, however, even over this grim topic. Both the Genin remained silent as they didn't want to upset their sensei further and potentially tear open any old wounds that the Jounin was hiding from them.
Thankfully, the awkward silence did not last as the three of them came into a clearing with a river running through the ground, a sole blond teenager staring into the water at his reflection. Sakura made a move to step forward but Kakashi held her back, knowing full well that if the Kyuubi still held control of the shinobi, then they were all in danger and in no position to be making any foolish moves.
A voice caught them all unaware despite the fact that they were all on guard.
"It's okay," said Naruto surprising his team somewhat. "I managed to get control… Actually, I was given control back, something about a prize for fighting back against his will."
"Are you okay?" asked Sakura as Kakashi lowered his arm.
"I guess… maybe..." said Naruto with his back still to the three of them. He lifted up his arms to look at his blood-stained fingers and recalled how it had been his body that had literally torn through his opponents. "I'm scared that if I keep using this strength, I'll hurt one of you guys."
"As if you could hurt me if you tried, dobe," said Sasuke, but his attempt to lighten up the mood was not effective.
"I just think that maybe, in order to protect you guys, I should just go," said Naruto as he lifted his head to look out at the tree line ahead. Several seconds passed as his words lingered in the air before Sakura marched forward with determination in her steps. As she reached Naruto she turned him around on the spot, and before anybody could react she slapped him across his left cheek.
"Don't you ever say something like that again!" she shouted with tears swelling within her eyes. "We are your teammates, and teams stick together. It doesn't matter that you hold the Kyuubi within you; we don't care. You're coming back to Konoha whether you want to or not, and we will get through this together, do you hear me?"
Naruto stood there flabbergasted for a moment as he processed everything, including the fact that it seemed as if his teammates were aware of the burden he carried. His thinking process was shut off, however, as Sakura slapped him again, a little harder this time. "Yes, I heard you, damn it," said Naruto as he rubbed the tender spot.
"Good," said Sakura as she wiped the tears from her eyes with the sleeve of her shirt. "Now pull your shit together before we get to Konoha. We're only about an hour away, and we can't have you moping around when you see Hinata again."
Sasuke and Kakashi watched on in disbelief as the pink-haired member of their team successfully pulled Naruto out of the slump he had been in with two slaps to the face and some reassuring words. Needless to say, if either of them had attempted to rectify the situation in that manner, they doubted the effects would have been the same.
"Alright guys," said Naruto as he and Sakura joined the other two members of the team. "First off, I'm sorry if I tried to kill you during that Kyuubi rage thing back there. Wasn't quite in control of myself… No hard feelings?"
"None taken," said Kakashi, glad that his student was back to his usual self. Or as close he could be at this time.
"Secondly, I don't know how you two know that I'm a jinchuuriki," said Naruto as he indicated to both Sakura and Sasuke. "I don't think that Kakashi told you as it's classified as an S-ranked secret."
"We figured it out," said Sasuke nonchalantly.
"We started doing some research after we were kicked out of the exams," explained Sakura.
"Anyways, thank you for still treating me the same. I was scared that if anybody found out about the Kyuubi, things would return to the way they were before, with everybody avoiding me and treating me like garbage," said Naruto.
"As good as this seminar is," said Kakashi deciding that now was as good a time as any to change the topic, "We need to make our way back home with the possibility still in the air that Konoha may not be under the control of our allies. Naruto, if need be, you're going to have go all out in order to give us the best chance of success. Can you do that for us?"
All eyes settled on the blond as he lowered his head momentarily, and they could only imagine the internal struggle going through his mind at that moment. When he lifted his head, however, they were glad to see a smirk upon his features.
"You can count on me."
"Alright, let's get started," said Jiraiya as he traced his index finger over the outlines of Hinata's cursed seal. "Hmm, different pattern to the Sound-nin I killed yesterday."
"K-killed?" stuttered Hinata, still not having quite come to terms with what had occurred the day before despite her sensei's motivational talk.
"Yeah, looked like he was up to something sneaky, but I took him down before he got the chance," said Jiraiya. "I would've captured him had we not been in the middle of an invasion. Couldn't chance him breaking free at a vital moment or something."
"Oh," Hinata's head nodded in understanding. Maybe shinobi weren't so bad after all, even one as experienced as Jiraiya didn't kill unless he had to.
"Real shame. He would've been a great experiment, might have even been able to reverse-engineer one of Orochimaru's damn seals," said Jiraiya with a shake of his head. Though he was far more proficient than Orochimaru when it came to the art of seals, his former teammate had stumbled onto something truly unique with his cursed seals. He could understand bits and pieces but the majority of it remained a mystery.
The Hyuga heiress' head fell slightly as Jiraiya quickly broke her previous line of thought. He had just wanted to keep the ninja as an experiment, one that he would no doubt toss away once his usefulness had been outlived.
"So this thing acts up whenever you're angry or sad, really any kind of emotional outburst that is negative, right?" asked Jiraiya quizzically as he tapped the highest of the tomeo with his finger. It appeared there was a slight bump on each one. He was no medic-nin, but he doubted that three bite marks would remain swollen after a month.
"Yeah," said Hinata as neutrally as she could. "Since I've gotten it, it's activated about five different times."
"Hmm, that's not too bad, but it's really important that you get a grip on your emotions," said Jiraiya, his words mirroring that of the proctor of the second stage of the Chunin exams. "You're going to end up doing something you regret sooner or later."
"I already h-have," Hinata stuttered shamefully. Akamaru hadn't forgiven her, and Hanabi still didn't look at her the same, despite the girl's insistence that it was all in the past.
"Well, then use that as your motivation to not repeat what has happened," the man said simply before grinning. "I know where I've seen your seal's design before."
Hinata looked at him surprised by both his sentences. As much as she could not believe how dismissive he was of the monstrosities she had performed, the man's second statement had her paying no mind to that. "W-Who?"
"Orochimaru's old student, grew into a mighty fine kunoichi the last I saw," said Jiraiya with a smirk. "I'll have to go meet with her later. Research and stuff, y'know."
Even though she found herself questioning whether or not the old man would actually discuss her cursed seal with Anko, she managed to convince herself by remembering that he was one of the Sannin. She could probably trust him to do something so simple. "S-So how do I stop my cursed seal from activating?"
"I could try and completely seal it off, however that would require you to permanently devote a significant amount of your chakra to keep it locked. Enough that you probably wouldn't be able to remain a ninja," said Jiraiya, although he knew that it was not an option for the girl. The heiress of the Hyuuga clan? She had to be a ninja. "But I'd suggest you keep it as is, dependent on your willpower. If you don't want to use it, that's up to you, but between you and me, it'd probably be a good thing to try and train so that you could use it to your advantage."
"Like Naruto-kun?" questioned Hinata, causing Jiraiya to raise an eyebrow. The girl shouldn't be aware of what she was referring to. At Jiraiya's surprised look, she continued. "He once told me that he too had a d-dark power sealed within him, and I s-saw a different type of chakra in his body back when he summoned that toad in front of the rest of Team Seven and I."
Jiraiya quickly connected the dots, realising that he had been stupid enough to let someone with an activatable Byakugan, someone who did not know of the brat's secret, see Naruto channel the Kyuubi's power. It appeared that she didn't know the full truth, but if she did, that was just Naruto's bad luck. "Yeah, exactly like that, but you should probably try and be careful with it. Practice in solitude or where you can easily be restrained by those surrounding you, attempt to keep a calm head when drawing on its power and all that."
"But w-what if I can't c-control it again?" Hinata asked timidly. Maybe she'd hurt Naruto next.
"Pfft, if you're really that worried about it, I'll talk to Orochimaru's old student for you," said Jiraiya, knowing that he could have her wrapped around his finger if he promised her the first copy of the new Icha-Icha book he was working on. "She's probably got some experience using it and knows better than anyone how it works. Plus, it wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing if she rubbed off on you a little."
"So we're finally back," said a battered Sakura as she looked wearily around Konoha - which resembled a village of ruins a lot more than it had when she had left it. Upon entering the village ready for a fight, the four of them had been pleasantly surprised to find that their village had not been overrun by the minions of Orochimaru, and things were progressing like normal, the only main difference being the amount of reconstruction going on.
"It feels like it's been forever," said Naruto, for once sounding just as depleted as his teammates. "Looks like this place managed to survive though."
"Do you really think they would have stood a chance against Konoha ninja?" asked Sasuke, Sakura finding it strange that his Sharingan was not activated. It took her a moment before she came to the conclusion that he had used up so much of his chakra that he could not sustain it, despite all his training to reduce the strain on it.
"It looks like they did a number on us," Kakashi informed them, his experienced eye having seen a few telltale signs of a long and difficult battle. "I wouldn't be surprised if we suffered pretty heavy casualties."
They got a few looks from the civilians who were rebuilding the village as they passed by, but the team paid them no mind. "What do you mean?" asked Sakura finally, voicing the question that was on the tongue of both Naruto and Sasuke. "I mean, we're just a bunch of Genin and we managed to take down like half of their village."
"Well, you'd be stretching it if you called what we faced even a twentieth of Suna's shinobi's force," said Kakashi as he retreated to his book of porn. "Furthermore, do you think they would have left their most experienced Jounin at home or put them on the front lines?"
"And you were fighting all the strong ones," recollected Sasuke, wondering if he could perhaps one day possess such power. The puppeteers he'd faced were Genin at worst, Chunin at best. "Plus, they probably didn't have any rampaging dob-"
A strong elbow to his side from Sakura cut him off. "You idiot, we're in public. Saying that out loud could get you killed."
Sasuke stammered slightly, nodding in understanding. A part of him was unable to believe that Sakura - the girl who had mindlessly chased after him for years - had just said that. The other part of him, however, was impressed.
"So… uhh," interrupted Naruto, clearly nervous because of the conversation's direction. "Anyone up for some ramen?"
"Not yet," said Kakashi. "First we have to report the mission back to the Hokage, and before any of you think of complaining, know that this is a fundamental rule of missions, doesn't matter the outcome. Before you ask me to do this by myself, somehow I don't think I can even begin to cover everything that went on considering the amount of side-adventures that happened during the mission."
None of the Genin could really say anything to that, Sasuke especially, knowing full well that for several hours he had been missing from the battlefield only to arrive back later atop his very own summon.
"I think we have a problem though, Sensei," said Naruto causing the Jounin's attention to fall on to him. Lifting up an arm, the rest of the team followed his pointing finger to find that a good chunk of the Hokage tower had been destroyed in the invasion, the office clearly visible as there was no wall to shield it from the elements.
"That may be a problem," said Sakura.
"Oh well, guess we'll have to go for some ramen then," sighed Naruto in mock-defeat. He tried to walk off but his plan was quickly shut down as Kakashi grabbed his shoulder.
"Not quite," said Kakashi with a smile from behind his mask. "There is a procedure for what happens at this point, and the result is that a new temporary base is set up that the Hokage will be able to give command from."
"Where's that?" asked Sasuke.
Kakashi said nothing at that as he began to lead his students towards their destination, not wanting to give the surprise away.
"So another C-rank that took a turn for the worse, eh?" asked Sarutobi as he puffed some smoke through his pipe.
"That's about the gist of it," said Naruto before turning to Kakashi and the rest of his teammates. "There. Saved all of you a massive report."
"Unfortunately, Naruto-kun, I'm going to have to ask all of you to write a lengthy report for me to go through and archive," said Sarutobi, a slight chuckle at Naruto's almost comical reaction. "With a mission important as this one, in which international relations were definitely affected, it is vitally important that there is a record of the events which is as accurate as possible."
"I thought Genin didn't have to write reports, though," said Sakura, although it wasn't that she did not want the opportunity. It would be a great chance to impress the Hokage with her writing skills.
"Normally, but you three aren't quite normal Genin," said the Hokage in a grandfatherly manner. "I'm sure that if you need assistance, Kakashi would be most willing to provide it."
"If you want the next Icha-Icha book, sure," mumbled Naruto, eager to get to Ichiraku's.
"So what should we cover in the report?" asked Sasuke, knowing that, aside from Sakura, he was going to be the only one taking it seriously.
"Whatever you deem necessary, but just try and recount the events that occurred. Be as detailed as you can because this might be really important in the future," advised Sarutobi. "Now, would you three be interested in sticking around for a while? We haven't had a chance to announce the new Chunin, and I figured you'd like to be with your peers for the experience."
"Thank you all for coming," said Sarutobi with a smile as he stood at the front of the academy classroom they were in. "Normally we would have held an official ceremony, but the stadium was destroyed, so we will have to make do here."
Shikamaru had no doubt that the reason that Sarutobi was announcing the promotions so quickly was that they were short on Chunin because of the invasion. He was sitting towards the back of the classroom, nostalgically staring out the window at the various clouds in the bright sky as he tried to stop himself from falling asleep. The rest of the Rookie Twelve - Team Seven, having returned from their mission, included - and their respective Jounin sensei were either sitting near him or leaning against the surrounding walls.
"First, I would like to commend all of you on your performance during the exams, and your extreme professionalism in dealing with the issues that arose from them. I am very glad that all of you are sitting here in front of me today and hope that you were all able to take something away from your various experiences," said the Hokage, adopting a rather grandfatherly tone. "You have all proved yourselves to be worthy of the title of 'Genin', and should be very proud of that. However, some of you proved, as all of you no doubt will someday, during the exams and the impromptu invasion, that you deserve an opportunity to become worthy of the title of 'Chunin'."
"I agree with Hokage-sama. All of you were exceptionally youthful and deserve your praise," said Gai, interrupting with an intrusive smile, as the other Jounin nodded their heads gently in agreement.
"To be honest I was expecting less out of you guys," said Asuma as he lit the cigarette held in his mouth.
"By that, we mean that you did really well," said Kurenai as she attempted to make up for Asuma's words before snatching the lit cigarette out of the Jounin's mouth.
Kakashi just sat reading porn in the corner.
The twelve rookies were mostly flustered. Or at least Shino, Hinata and Choji were. Naruto and the rest of his male friends were basking in the praise while Ino and Sakura shared a grin with each other.
"So let us begin then?" said Sarutobi, his words more of a statement than a question, as he revealed a medium-sized scroll. "We have chosen a total of three Genin to be promoted today. Unfortunately, some of you are going to be disappointed with the outcome, but I encourage you to use that disappointment to fuel your performance the next time you participate in the Chunin Exams."
Naruto threw his hands up to the back of his head, satisfied for having gotten a small ramen fix before the meeting had started. The blond knew that he would not be getting promoted, nor would anyone else in Team Seven, because of their failure during the first part of the exams. Though Sakura had previously said that both the mission-gone-bad in Wave and the Suna fiasco were far beyond what any ordinary Genin team was expected to handle, Naruto knew that Team Seven was hardly an ordinary team.
This knowledge did not deter the aspiring Hokage, however. It only helped to make him feel more… relaxed. Standing casually amongst his peers right now truly felt like the first time he'd been able to forget about the worries that circled his life in a long time. There was no kick-ass Jutsu which he was determined to master, no foe he was determined to defeat - it was like an opportunity to catch his breath.
An opportunity he was happy to take up.
"Our first candidate is Hyuga Neji," said Sarutobi as he twirled the scroll in his powerful hands, recounting why the Genin had been chosen. "Having made it to the semi-finals of the Chunin exams, Neji proved himself to be a powerful warrior. Adept in his clan's Taijutsu style, he struck down two opponents at once and proved a worthwhile challenge to a foreign shinobi. Impressive as these reasons may be, the real catalyst of his promotion was his initiative during the invasion in which he fearlessly threw himself at opposing ninja before assisting his sensei in saving the lives of hundreds."
A round of applause and a puff of smoke later, Sarutobi handed the newly-promoted Chunin his vest as he stepped towards him. Muttering a few private words of congratulations, the Hokage firmly clasped him on his back before the boy returned to his peers.
"Secondly is Rock Lee," announced the Hokage. "This is due..."
"YOSH! The flames of youth burn brightly within you, Lee!" shouted Gai, not caring that he was interrupting the Hokage.
"I would not have been able to do this if it wasn't for you, Gai-sensei!" shouted Lee in response.
"AS I WAS SAYING," stated the Hokage loudly in order to break the two of them up before they began on a rant that couldn't be stopped. "Your efforts during the exams proved that you are truly a formidable foe, making it to the finals and proving yourself against the odds. Amongst your peers your taijutsu is second to none and strong enough to rival some of the fresher Jounin we have at our disposal. Needless to say, during the invasion you used these skills of yours to help in whatever way was necessary in ensuring that as many civilians were saved as possible."
"Thank you, Hokage-sama," said Lee as he accepted the Chunin vest that was thrown towards him.
"Next one's going to be me," said Kiba in excitement.
"Yea right," said Naruto from behind him. "I wasn't even here and I know you didn't get it."
"Finally we have Shikamaru Nara," announced the Hokage to a round of applause.
"Troublesome," said Shikamaru as he rubbed the back of his neck.
"Not only did Shikamaru win the tournament, a feat in and of itself," said the Hokage, "but during the invasion he took control of all units nearby and instructed them much like the general of an army would. These qualities are found only in the highest-ranking Jounin, and I can't help but look forward to what you have to show us in the future. As I imagine that the three of you as well as your peers would like to celebrate this occasion, I am proud to inform that I have arranged for you all to have the week off from any missions. I believe that your efforts during the invasion have all but made up for any D-ranked missions I could send you on over the coming days. Dismissed."
A loud cheer of approval was raised in celebration of the newly minted Chunin, as they slowly began to make their way out of the classroom. Hinata was thrilled with the fact that not only had her cousin been promoted, but that Naruto had returned from his mission relatively unharmed. As she walked past the Hokage's desk, however, she heard the elderly man clear his throat loudly, catching her attention. "Stay a moment, will you?" he instructed, a command she willingly obliged. It didn't take long for everybody else to filter out of the classroom before Sarutobi stood up and closed the door.
"Is e-everything alright?" asked Hinata as the Hokage reclaimed his seat.
"There is a reason I asked you to stay, Hinata," said Sarutobi sternly.
"I-Is this about the seal?" asked Hinata. "B-Because if it is, then Jiraiya-sama's helping me."
"That's all well and good," said Sarutobi as he took a puff of his pipe. "I trust he will also have Anko help you learn to control it. There is one problem, however. Gai spoke to me earlier and told me of how you struck out at him during the invasion when he asked you for your assistance. That is a very serious offence and one that I cannot simply overlook."
"I'm sorry," said Hinata as she lowered her head in shame.
"I will not punish you as I believe that, had you not been under the effects of Orochimaru's cursed seal, things may have turned out differently," said Sarutobi as he laced his fingers. "As I said though, this is not something I can overlook. While Anko will be able to help you control your seal, I have asked for somebody's help in order to control your emotions."
"Control my emotions?" repeated Hinata before the door to the room opened.
"Hinata, I'd like you to meet my old teammate, Danzo Shimura," introduced Sarutobi as the crippled warhawk stepped into the room.
"I-It's a p-pleasure to meet you," said Hinata as she bowed towards Danzo.
"There is no pleasure involved," said Danzo intimidatingly. "My old friend has given me a week to correct what is necessary. Any longer and he fears that the results I will give him will be… unwarranted. That being said, what I do, I do for the sake of the village."
"I would tell you to be gentle, but I know you won't listen," said Sarutobi from behind the desk.
"It's not so much that I wouldn't listen but rather I wouldn't heed your instructions," said Danzo before he turned his back on the leader of the village. "Come girl, there is work to be done."
Sarutobi watched as Hinata followed Danzo's instructions, and he couldn't help but wonder whether any punishment he could have constructed would have been worse than what Danzo had in store for her.
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