Team Dragon Star does not own Naruto, this chapter was brought to you by Team Outback.
"And that's about all I know of the situation," said Kurenai as she bit down on her lip nervously.
"I see," Sarutobi replied as he drummed his fingers against his wooden desk. "I suppose the most appropriate course of action would be to pull her out of the exam."
"What?" Shock overcame Kurenai's face as she heard the elder man speak.
"Yes, Orochimaru is very dangerous," said Sarutobi as he reached forward to light his pipe. Inhaling a sharp puff of smoke, he continued, "I would much rather have Hinata safe and in hospital than put her at risk out there."
"With all due respect, Hokage-sama," responded Kurenai with a frown, "I'm going to have to disagree with you there. Team 8 have already successfully completed the second stage of the exam, so why pull them out now?"
"Because, the third stage is in some ways more dangerous than the second," answered Sarutobi as he sighed.
Kurenai's eyebrow tensed, a perplexed look crossing her face, "How so?" she questioned. What was more dangerous than throwing a bunch of Genin into a forest that most Jounin were weary of?
"I suppose it would do no harm to tell you, seeing as this phase is drawing to a close, but you're not to inform your team of the next stage until the rest of the Genin get to know," said Sarutobi as he gave her a somewhat serious stare. His gaze lingered for a second before lifting, "The third stage of the exam will be a one-on-one tournament, with each victor advancing to the next stage until someone wins the whole thing."
"I see," she said tonelessly. It wasn't all that different from the Chunin exams that she had attended, though she hadn't been promoted through them. She was one of the few that had received a field promotion but that did not aid her in seeing what made the whole thing so dangerous—tournaments weren't all that uncommon.
"It seems that you don't believe me when I say that the next stage of the exams are dangerous." It wasn't a question.
Had she been talking to someone else, Kurenai would've been surprised that her face had been read so easily, but it was something the Third Hokage did frequently. She had spent times ambling on whether or not that was because he was extremely smart or because he was a wise, old man. "It's just a tournament. Not like anything worse will happen, right?"
"You are right," mused Sarutobi, "but you are also wrong. Keep in mind that sometimes the only way to truly separate the Genin from the Chunin, the boys from men, the girls from women, is to have them fight to the death." Nothing that Sarutobi could've done would've prepared her for those last few words, as Kurenai dropped the poker-face that she had been attempting to carry as the Hokage continued. "To fight in such a situation is dangerous in itself but to fight when one is not in peak physical and mental health will severely risk their life."
"That's a month away though, surely there's something you can do to help her," pleaded Kurenai.
"I have done all that I can," said Sarutobi, a decisive tone to his voice. "It would be inappropriate for me to condone what will almost certainly be the merciless death of a defenceless Genin."
"Please give her a chance, Hokage-sama," Kurenai begged. "I can promise you that she'll be in fighting condition within a month."
"How exactly do you intend to do that, Kurenai?" asked Sarutobi, wondering how the Jonin would respond.
"I'm not sure," muttered Kurenai, "but I'll figure something out. Anko will probably be able to help me out too since she probably knows what we'll be up against."
"Hmmm," Sarutobi murmured, "your points are reasonable and should she be in an appropriate condition, I won't have any problem allowing her to participate. However, I think the person we really need talk to is her father."
"He's not going to like what we're going to tell him," said Kurenai flatly. "And I'm sure he'd attempt to remove the seal by himself. The Hyuga are known for their sealing practices."
"Which is why I have attempted to contact my old student, Jiraiya." Sarutobi exhaled a breath of smoke. "He is a well-respected seal master. After he's been retrieved by the team I have sent, I have no doubt that he will be able to deter the Hyuga from attempting anything... impure."
"Impure?" questioned Kurenai, unable to catch onto what the Hokage was hinting at.
"Politics aren't always black and white," answered Sarutobi before moving on. "I also believe that he'll be able to explain Hinata's state to Hiashi."
"So what do we do for now?" asked Kurenai, "Do we tell anyone? Do we say anything to the rest of my squad?"
"No," said Sarutobi, "we must keep this quiet. I believe that if we were to announce what has happened today, we may fall victim to yet another one of Orochimaru's infinite ploys. However, I would recommend talking to Hinata's teammates so that they better understand what she is going through."
"Alright. Thank you, Hokage-sama," said Kurenai as she walked out of the man's office, setting out to find Anko.
"There's no way I'm teaching that depressed little shit!" protested Anko, twisting her head to the side as she crossed her arms.
"Anko, come on," sighed Kurenai as she leaned back against a wall. "How else are we going to get her ready for the Chunin exams?"
"There's no 'we' in this," answered Anko, still refusing to look at Kurenai. "She's too whiny and quiet. Never would've imagined that the bastard would start giving hickeys to the silent type."
"Now's not the the time for jokes," scowled Kurenai. "If we don't help her, then almost everything around her is going to rapidly fall apart. How's she going to understand what has happened to her without you?"
"She's not," snorted Anko as she waved a hand dismissively, ignoring the chatter of the few individuals in the Jounin lounge. "Let her figure it out like I did."
"A-Anko," Kurenai bit her lip in frustration. "Stop being so unreasonable and come with me to have a chat with her."
"Fine..." muttered Anko before chiming up as she finally turned her head to look at the Jounin, "but only if you ask nicely!"
The Genjutsu master bit harder, "Anko, please come with me to have a chat with her."
"See, that wasn't so hard," said Anko playfully before adopting a more serious tone. "And it's already been done, had a talk with her when you stuck me on babysitting duty."
Kurenai's eyes widened slightly, "Thank yo-"
"If you really wanted to thank me, you'd treat me to some dango later," grinned Anko, knowing that the adept Genjutsu would be unable to deny her request this time.
The Jounin-sensei nodded slightly before continuing, "Okay, sure, but what was Hinata's state of mind during the talk?"
"Quiet and withdrawn, but I'd assume she's almost always like that just by the way she dresses," answered Anko. "I don't think she really understood what was happening, but she was extremely worried about how her family would react to the news."
"I had a chat with the Sandaime about that," said Kurenai. "He mentioned that he's got a team tracking down one of his old students to come and explain to Hinata's family what has happened."
"Pfft, good luck," scoffed Anko. "There's only one student that the Hokage would call for this situation and unless he's sent his best tracking team they have no chance of finding him."
"I'm sure the Hokage's sent the very best team that he could," said Kurenai reassuringly. For such a serious situation she was certain that Sarutobi would spare nothing when it came to selecting an appropriate team. There was even a chance they had already found this person and were already on their way back.
"Where is he!" exclaimed Naruto. The sun had long since set and the town had practically come to life with the night crowd. Despite that, they'd had very little success in finding the one person they were searching for.
"I think it's pretty clear that he's not out here on the street," said Sasuke, fed up with his teammates whining. "We need to think of something else."
"Well it's not like we can go into every club and ask if a white haired pervert's been there," said Naruto in a huff.
"If he's already in one place, there's a good chance that he's not going to be moving out of it," said Sakura. "But if we went into club after club he might catch wind on what we are doing. Chances are that some of these clubs are interconnected somehow."
"What do you mean?" asked Naruto.
"Well imagine that one customer's hassling other patrons. You'd think they'd have some way of informing other places to keep that person out," explained Sakura.
"And with our headbands it's pretty easy for us to be identified," added Sasuke. "Doesn't really matter though if we keep switching henges."
"Actually that may even make it worse," said Sakura. "That would mean that instead of one person looking for him there'd be a group and hence he'd almost vanish even quicker."
"So we need someway to draw him out into the open," said Naruto, as he got into a thinking position. Several ideas started to brew but none of which he could muster with the limited supplies he had.
"Do we at least have an idea of how many clubs there are?" asked Sasuke.
"At least thirty," said Sakura, having been quick to ask several locals on some helpful information. "That's not including adult places however as nobody really seemed to know too much about that."
"Either that or they wouldn't tell somebody who was too young to go into them," said Naruto, knowing the feeling of having information kept from him.
"So the situation remains the same," said Sasuke. "We need some way to get one person out in the open without him really knowing that we want him to come to us."
"I got it," exclaimed Naruto, slamming a fist into his palm.
"What?" asked his two teammates urgently.
"Well Kakashi said he's not just a pervert, but a 'super pervert,'" said Naruto. "What if that means that he's got a super perverted sense?"
"I have no idea what you're going on about," said Sakura.
"What I mean is that this guy may be able to sense out pervertedness, like a bloodline of sorts," explained Naruto.
"That's ridiculous!" exclaimed Sakura, tempted to bash Naruto across the side of the head.
"It is plausible," said Sasuke. "Considering the number of bloodlines that there are, undoubtedly there are some which are completely useless or redundant."
"I can't believe you're agreeing with his stupid idea," said Sakura. "What kind of bloodline would alert you towards something perverted?"
"Well what do you think Kakashi-sensei meant by saying 'super pervert?'" asked Naruto of the pink-haired girl. Several seconds went by as she tried to construct a reasonable answer, but to no avail. She knew from some of their classes that such a bloodline had never been documented, but at the same time she couldn't help but wonder if the heirs to such an ability really wanted other people to know. Without any point to give, she sighed in defeat as she pondered just what stupid idea Naruto had in store.
"Considering this is the only theory we have, what's the plan?" asked Sasuke.
"Well, perverts are attracted to places where they can see ladies showing off their bodies," said Naruto and almost immediately Sakura covered up her private parts with her arms.
"Like hell I'm doing that Naruto!" she screamed, earning a few questionable looks from nearby civilians
"Not alone," said Naruto cheekily. "A girl standing out in the open completely nude isn't sexy. In fact, people will be rushing forward to cover you up. We need something that'll get people's jaws dropping to the ground but at the same time not insult people by taking it too far."
"So you're suggesting something that one of us should henge into a female and kiss Sakura," stated Sasuke, reading between the lines, to which the pink-haired girl in question immediately jumped into the fray.
"Let's do it, Sasuke," she said, boldly clenching her fist.
"You'll need to use a henge as well, Sakura," said Naruto. "If Sasuke turns into an eighteen year old woman who's kissing a thirteen year old it's going to be wrong on so many different levels."
"You're not going to say that you should be the one kissing her?" asked Sasuke.
"If this wasn't a mission, definitely," said Naruto, looking towards his school crush. "While I could probably act everything out until the kiss, I don't think I'd be able to keep in character after that."
"Naruto," started Sakura, placing her hand on the blonde's shoulder, "Thank you."
"Y-You're welcome?" replied Naruto, unsure of why the pink-haired girl seemed so appreciative.
"C'mon, let's get this over with," said Sasuke, mostly wanting to get this over and done with so that the three of them could resume their search. He moved across to a nearby alleyway where he could make the henge without being seen and Sakura did the same down a different alleyway.
She knew it was for the mission but she couldn't help but feel giddy. Sasuke wouldn't have the face of himself, but she wouldn't be wearing her own either so technically they would still be sharing a kiss. Finding that she was out of sight, Sakura quickly performed the henge and turned into an older version of herself in her late teens. As an extra touch she had changed her hair colour and style to look more like Ino's, figuring that if this person was already on to them having the same unique hair colour would be too obvious.
Walking back out into the street, Sakura saw that Naruto had vanished. Undoubtedly the blonde had gone to higher ground to watch out for their target without being seen. Turning towards the adjacent alleyway, she quickly spotted the henged form of what she figured was Sasuke. His female form stood at the same height as her and kept his trademark short black hair. Walking towards one another, they met in the middle of the crowded street and stood in silence for a few seconds.
"C'mon, let's get this over with," said Sasuke in his feminine voice, becoming more and more unhappy with this scenario with every passing second. Leaning forward, his lips gently caressed Sakura's, the female genin too stunned to truly react.
Here she was in her dream moment as Sasuke robbed her of her first kiss. A few seconds passed before the kiss was broken, Sasuke drawing back and looking around to find that nothing had happened. It seemed that their target hadn't fallen for the bait.
Sakura finally broke out of her stupor as Sasuke looked around, her lips still tingling with the initial sensation.
And she wanted more.
Grasping Sasuke's cheeks, she pulled the Uchiha in as her lips slammed against her teammates, this time forcing the black haired teen into a momentary stupor. Before he could react Sakura's tongue drove forward, quickly invading the inside of his mouth. For a moment Sasuke attempted to struggle before giving up, Sakura wasn't sure either this was because of enjoyment or for pursuing the mission, but she didn't care as she relished at this opportunity many of her peers had dreamt of.
Sakura's hand dropped away from Sasuke's face and slowly dived towards his ass where she quickly gave his behind a light squeeze. She didn't know what had come over her, but by no means did she want this moment to end, whether or not it attracted this pervert didn't matter anymore. Chances were that she'd never get an opportunity like this again and she would not relinquish it under any circumstances.
Except for one where she felt creepy breathing coming from a spot too close for comfort.
Breaking her contact with Sasuke, she turned her head to stare threateningly at whoever was invading their personal space, only to find a white haired man that perfectly met the descriptions they had been given. Silently she cursed Naruto, wondering how such a stupid plan had worked. That being said she would gladly reenact the same plan at any given time.
"Don't mind me, keep going," said Jiraiya as he continued to furiously scribble down several notes on a piece of paper he held in his hand. "Just pretend that I'm not here."
"Like hell!" shouted Sakura as she pulled her hand back to strike out against the pervert, but was surprised as her hand was caught with unexpected ease.
"Please, you guys have got some great material going on here and I know my readers will be highly interested in what you're producing here," pleaded Jiraiya, lowering Sakura's fist.
"Sorry, but that's not going to happen," said Sasuke, but not the one that was close to where Sakura was standing. Turning her head, Sakura found her teammate standing near the alleyway his female counterpart had walked out earlier. Focusing her attention on the person she had been making out with she feared that Naruto had been the one to steal her first kiss from her. What she wasn't expecting however was for the person to burst into smoke, revealing that it had been a Shadow Clone all along.
Whilst Naruto made his presence known to Jiraiya and Sakura, Sasuke walked slowly towards the group, not fully understanding why it was as if he could feel the warmth of what he imagined was Sakura's lips upon his own.
"So..." said Jiraiya, his mood dampening, "the old man wants me back in Konoha again?"
"Yeah," answered Naruto. "He said it was pretty urgent too."
"Well that's too bad," replied Jiraiya carelessly. "Because I have no intention of returning to Konoha."
"What?" shrieked Sakura, rubbing her ears slightly to confirm that they were hearing right. "Don't you understand that you've received a direct order from the Hokage?"
"Meh, you underestimate how well I know the man," Jiraiya attempted to push the topic away before pulling out a rather familiar orange book. "Now could I interest any of you young folk in buying one of my books?"
"Books?" questioned Sasuke, having dropped his henge. The Uchiha had no doubt that the only reason the pervert in front of him hadn't fled was because he was hoping that he would get to see Sakura and himself reenact the scene from before.
"How could you have not heard of my literature? Your sensei is a great fan from what I understand, surely he would have shared these treasures that I spent years handcrafting with you!" Jiraiya shook his head. "Anyway, I can guarantee you that just reading the first chapter of one of these goodies will make your life oh-so-much more enjoyable."
"By literature, do you mean the written porn that Kakashi-sensei reads?" questioned Sakura, her temper starting to flare slightly when Jiraiya offered a cheesy nod. "How could such a great ninja like you write something so... inappropriate?"
"Yeah, I could understand Kakashi-sensei reading it because he's just pretty weird," added Naruto, "but why would you bother writing something like that when you could spend all day playing pranks or something?"
"Ah, you have yet to discover the joys of teenagehood," said Jiraiya thoughtfully. "I suppose you've not learned where babies come from either, right?"
Both Sasuke and Sakura blushed deeply upon hearing this, but Naruto, having missed the lecture on 'adult' activities, merely looked on flabbergasted. "No... where do they come from?"
"That's a lesson for another time," said Kakashi as he appeared, dropping down from a roof that he had been listening in from. "So it seems that you have succeeded in securing the client."
"It was all my idea!" boasted Naruto as he stuck his chest out. "I knew his super-pervert senses would go of-"
"Baka! It was Sasuke and I who did all the work," huffed Sakura, before reddening slightly as she remembered just what the 'work' had entailed.
"Interesting," said Kakashi, before looking towards the Sannin with his lone eye. Within seconds, he had a book out and opened it at the front page as he bowed down on one knee. "May I humbly request that you bless this special edition copy of your masterpiece with an autograph?"
Jiraiya nodded appreciatively as he pulled out a pen, speaking as he signed it with a grin. "See kids, this guy knows how to appreciate a genius like me."
"Well, why don't you come back to Konoha with us?" asked Naruto, thinking of Konohamaru's teacher, Ebisu. "There are plenty of other perverts there who like your works."
"I have fans across the globe," answered Jiraiya, uncaring for Naruto's words. "It's not like there's anything special over there."
"What about the hot springs?" questioned Sasuke, realising that the only way to lure the man back to their home was to tease his libido drive. "The hot springs in the Fire Country are world renowned for being incredibly exotic."
"I can't believe I'm saying this," grunted Sakura as she sighed, understanding what Sasuke was doing. "But Konoha has plenty of hot Kunoichi who love visiting the hot springs."
"Hmm..." hummed Jiraiya, "it has been a long while since I've checked out the Kunoichi back home."
"So it's settled then?" asked Naruto hopefully.
Hinata balled her hand into a fist as she weakly made her way off her bed. As she stumbled onto the floor she was glad to find a steady hand by her side, supporting her as she stood up straight.
"Take it easy, Hinata," chided Kurenai. "It's alright if you miss this. You look as though you've not slept the entire night."
She hadn't. She'd been crying to herself into the wee hours of the morning, during which she had eventually managed to shut her eyes for a while. Despite that, she wouldn't call the almost-comatose state she had gone into sleep, especially since she was extremely exhausted after it.
"No... I-I want to go," she stuttered softly as she leaned on Kurenai a little. "I need to know what happened."
"What happened?" asked Kurenai, unsure of what the still-recovering girl was talking about.
"I-If that strange man got any other Genin," she explained, her voice emotionless. If not for the fact that she was having trouble forming coherent thoughts, Hinata would've taken a moment to reflect on the irony of the situation: her voice was above and beyond the cool and collected charisma her father often demanded she exude.
"He didn't," replied Kurenai, realising that awaking her student wasn't the best idea. She clearly could have done with more rest.
"I Still want to go," the Hyuga said weakly as she took her first step forwards. "I need to see Neji too..."
"Neji?" Kurenai asked almost questioningly before recalling that the boy was another contestant, Hinata's cousin interestingly enough. "He's fine."
However Kurenai soon realised that she was talking to nothing, the young heiress having waddled forwards a few steps towards the door. Grabbing the frame of it, Hinata offered a slightly chilling smile, which Kurenai immediately realised was unlike her. "You coming?" the girl questioned as she grit her teeth, grunting slightly as a wave of pain washed through her body.
Briskly walking forward, Kurenai sighed as she offered her arm to the girl for support again. Though the pale-skinned girl didn't take it, she nodded appreciatively as she leaned against the wall, slowly trodding forwards.
"Hinata," said Kurenai to no avail as the girl ignored her. "Hinata, you're going the wrong way."
The girl slowly spun around, a slightly flustered look upon her face as she leant on Kurenai's side for support once more while the two made their way towards the lobby where all the contestants were gathering.
Moments later as she stepped into the room, she was greeted by a familiar smile. "Ah Hinata, it's good to see you on your feet again!" exclaimed Lee.
"T-Thank you," she said softly as she looked around the room. There were people that she remembered from the first exam and thankfully all of the other rookie Genin from Konoha, save for Team 7, amongst the few other random teams she couldn't quite recognise. Her lazy irises cycled through the various familiar faces, a sense of dread growing in her stomach as she failed to spot Neji.
Though she didn't expect her cousin to even really respond when he saw her, Neji had been emotionless like that for as long as she could remember. A part of her couldn't help but feel as though she owed him something. Something for at least trying to protect her.
The fact that he had failed in doing so was enough to make Hinata realise that he hadn't cared about what 'fate demanded' during that moment in time. Neji would never admit it, but he had been hoping to save her, Hinata had no doubt about that, and he had pushed himself to new parameters in his attempt.
"Kurenai-sensei..." muttered Hinata, her vocal chords nowhere near as clear as her mind. "I can't see Neji."
"Hmmm..." Kurenai took a glance around the room herself, having a significant advantage in height. "I can't seem to see him anywhere either, but I wou-"
"You happen to be looking for my ever youthful rival, would you?" questioned Lee, a blinding smile upon his face.
Hinata merely stared on in confusion, unable to decipher the words of Gai's student, however a gentle squeeze of her hand from Kurenai prompted her to nod with a jolt. "Y-yes, have you seen him?"
"He's talking to Gai-sensei," Lee gestured towards a corner where Hinata could just barely recognise the tall and green form of Gai, several other ninja in the way.
With a mutter of thanks, she met Kurenai's sparkling red eyes with a mutual nod before bravely letting go of her teacher's hand and making her way to where she had spotted Gai. Though it was still certainly there, the sense of dread in her stomach, but it was slowly starting to diminish.
"Hey, Hinata!" yet another voice yelled out, causing the Hyuga to snap her head up to its source with curiosity. "I was thinking that maybe one of the monsters in the forests had eaten you up."
"Only a blonde like you would think of something that stupid," muttered Shikamaru as he earned a glare from Ino.
"N-no," laughed Hinata awkwardly. "I was just out for a bit..."
"Out?" asked Choji with curiosity. "Did one of the other teams manage to get to you?"
"Heh I knew these exams were no place for little girls," boasted Ino as she noticed the perturbed look on Hinata's face. "I mean Sakura got kicked out in the first stage."
"That was unfortunate," chipped in Choji as he too saw the disgruntled look on the Hyuga's face. "But hey, I'm sure that they're doing fine now."
"It's too troublesome to worry about any of that," sighed Shikamaru as he ran a hand through his hair. "Besides, we're only rookies, it's a miracle that we all got through that entrance door anyway."
"Y-Yeah," said Hinata, more preoccupied with finding Neji's figure.
"You okay?" questioned Ino as she noticed that Hinata looked a shade or two paler than normal, something that should've been hard to pick up on, given the girl's almost-creamy skin tone. "You don't look so hot."
"Uhh, just tired."
"From what?" queried Ino, "I saw Kiba all relaxed when we came here, and we were like one of the first groups to make it."
Hinata stiffened a little at the mention of her teammate, the altercation the two had had recently was still as clear in her mind as the initial pain she'd had from the seal now on her neck. Thankfully, Shikamaru's lazy self stepped in to save her the pain of having to reveal something that she still hadn't come to terms with. "Meh, who cares? Stop being so bothersome Ino," said the Nara, "Now let's go find Asuma-sensei and hope we can get out of here quicker."
"Sheesh, who put bees in your underpants, Shika?" asked Ino sarcastically as she followed the tactical-prodigy away.
"See ya, Hinata!" waved Choji as he pulled out a packet of chips from seemingly nowhere and followed his teammates, leaving a rather confused Hyuga in his wake.
Attempting to shake the strange confrontation off, Hinata continued to proceed further towards where Lee had said Neji was, her heart skipping a beat when she failed to find Gai's barely visible form. As she navigated her way through the slightly crowded room, she couldn't help but stare in amazement as she realised that there were a mere fraction of the Genin that had been present in the prelude to the first exam with her in the room. Despite that there were just enough people–Genin, Jounin-sensei, random assistants and the like–to make getting to the corner that she was headed for a pain.
Managing to reach it at last, her lips fell apart slightly in shock as she saw the heavily bandaged form of Neji causally talking to Gai. Despite the weakness that her own body had been feeling, the feeling of dread which began to skyrocket when she laid eyes on her cousin, and the several obstacles still in her way, she promptly skipped over to them. She cursed absentmindedly as she realised that she did not have any of her medicinal cream on her. It was a shame... it looked as though he hadn't changed those bandages in the last few days.
Amidst all her worry, Hinata had no time to pay attention to her two other teammates, who merely looked on in surprise as she buzzed past them . It sounded mean, but she didn't care, she just wanted to thank Neji for being... there. After all the verbal slander that she had received from the branch-member for being too "soft" and the like, it felt so unreal to know that he had stood between a great ninja with ill intentions and her.
"Hinata?" Gai's eyes widened as he turned away from his student, "Kurenai said that you'd be out for a little longer."
"I woke up," said Hinata sheepishly as she turned her attention back to the bandaged boy in front of her. "Neji!"
The elder Hyuga slowly turned around, the mark of what could only be a sharp kunai cut visible on his left hand had been bandaged, and by the dried blood visible on the inside of it, Hinata could tell that he had just taken it off. However her eyes were soon drawn towards the rest of his body as he dropped down onto one knee and bowed slightly. "I apologise for failing, Hinata-sama."
Hinata bit her lip, unsure of how to respond. What little hope she had that the boy had changed his view towards her was washed away by the gritty tone of his voice, it was clear that he resented every word that he was saying. Sputtering slightly, she gripped her wrists hard to make sure that it didn't turn into a sob.
"Don't be like that Neji," said Gai condescendingly. "I have no doubt that you did your best."
"Only as much as fate would allow me to," he answered bitterly as he looked towards the ground. Though there wasn't the ironic smirk Hinata almost expected, there was still a slightly proud undertone to the boy's voice, "it seems the tables of fate have flipped once more. Now, the one that escaped being sealed at the mere age of five has been branded with a much worse seal."
"Please don't mention that to anyone," said Hinata as one of her hands quickly lifted up to cover the seal in question, in case the jacket she was wearing wasn't enough.
"I shall not speak of it voluntarily," said Neji with a nod as he stood up. "However I cannot promise that I will not add my own input. Should the topic arise, of course."
"You shouldn't be so ashamed of it," advised Gai. "Don't waste your youth living in fear, instead embrace the fact that you are the person that you are and always will be that person."
"Fate has made it so," Hinata couldn't quite tell if Neji was agreeing with Gai, but she did realise that he didn't seem to agree with what he was saying.
"O-Okay," she nodded, unsure of what to say as the ground suddenly became a lot more interesting.
"So Hinata, what do you hope to achieve from these exams?" asked Gai, "The opportunity to have your flames of youth fanned in such a way is something unique to the Chunin Exams. It leaves those who still drink from the fountain of youth with a choice: to either have their flames extinguished and wait until they are rekindled, or to roar with an even greater ferocity."
"I see you're stuck between these nutcases again," laughed Tenten as she approached the trio. "Youthful flames of fate, huh?"
Hinata merely nodded, shortly making eye-contact with the bun-haired girl as Neji shot daggers at her. "T-They have good advice," she stuck up for the pair as Tenten merely shrugged.
"To each their own, I guess," said the brunette as she fiddled with a kunai. "So have you heard the rumours about what they're holding this meeting for?"
"Rumours?" questioned Hinata, having not heard anything of the sort as she had spent the last few days in isolation.
"Oh yeah, that's right, you've been in bed for a while," nodded Tenten. "Well they say that since the weird snake guy, Orochimaru, broke into the exams and screwed around with everything they're going to call them off."
"I suppose we cannot do much more than simply accept it," said Neji, curtly. "If fate has decreed the exams to end early, then it will be so. It's simply my destiny, I suppose, to remain apart of the weak branch clan."
"That's not true Neji..." said Hinata, a remorseful tone to her voice. "You don't need to suffer anymore."
"I wouldn't expect you to understand, Hinata-sama," he said coldly. "Someone who has grown up sheltered in the main house such as yourself could not understand the burden I have."
"We're not that different now, you know?" said Hinata meekly, yet her body was anything but.
"They are two different seals," said Neji as he frowned slightly. "However I suppose you do have a point."
"That's interesting," said Tenten lamely, unsure of what exactly the two were talking about. "So are we going to get back to how they decided to cancel the exams or what?"
"Actually, while I have not been inside the fiery circle of youthful gossip for many years now," said Gai, "I do know that the exams aren't being cancelled today."
"Whaddya mean?" asked Tenten, "I could've sworn Ino said she heard that, that weird Kusa chick got a message from their Kage."
"Interesting," commented Neji. "I was not aware that Kage from other nations were present."
"I think they said a few were coming," recollected Hinata, looking up to Gai as the eccentric man spoke.
"Well, why don't you find out for yourself?" asked the green-clad Jounin as he raised a finger to the centre, where a man that was clearly an official began gathering a crowd.
"Should we head over there?" asked Neji of his sensei.
"Nah," answered Tenten in Gai's stead. "They've got this voice projection Jutsu, it's cool."
"V-Voice projection?" repeated Hinata, perplexed by it as she shook her head. The weakness that she had woken up with had faded for the most bit and while she could put together coherent sentences once more, she was still far from feeling great.
"Now, I'm sure many of you are wondering why you have been rounded up here," said the proctor in the middle of the room, someone that Hinata had not yet met. "It is so that the second stage of the Chunin Exams can be officially ended. We are aware that the exam has ended a few days earlier than contestants had been told earlier, but understand that this is because it has been finished in record time."
"R-Record time?" asked Hinata questioningly as she looked to the three people standing with her.
"All the scrolls that were handed out at the start of the exam made their way back," explained Gai quickly.
"So basically a fancy way for saying that there were barely any competitors," said Tenten.
"It's to be expected," stated Neji omnisciently. "Many people dropped out during the first exam."
"As such, you shall all get extra rest between this stage and the next. For those who are worrying about those still in the exam grounds for the second stage, they shall leak out in the next few days if they are alive. However, as all scrolls are in the proctor's possession, this means that all those who are not present here have failed."
"A most unfortunate circumstance," sighed Gai. "Despite the strong failure rate of the exam, I truly believed that the second stage would provide the strongest gusts of winds for your youth to combat."
"For the third stage, contestants will participate in a one-on-one tournament, more details will be explained in the next few days. Understand that the victor will not necessarily be one of the ones promoted to Chunin rank. The third stage will take place approximately a month away, so as to give you time to train for your first opponent."
Though no-one immediately around her opened their mouths, Hinata could still hear almost everyone in the room burst into chatter at that.
"Naturally, in order for you to properly do that you will have to know your opponents. Listen, carefully because I'm not going to repeat this," the man unrolled a scroll and read from it. "We have Shino Aburame vs Kiba Inuzuka, Ino Yamanaka vs Hinata Hyuga, Gaara of the Sand vs Neji Hyuga, Temari of the Sand vs Shikamaru Nara, Kankuro of the Sand vs Kin Tsuchi, Rock Lee vs Tenten of the Leaf and Dosu Kinuta vs Zaku Abumi while Choji Akimichi receives a rest."
Kakashi couldn't really believe the skill that his students had in convincing the member of the Sannin to join them on their return journey back to Konoha. More likely than not he would guess that it just came down to the ridiculous amount of luck that they seemed to have. That was also the excuse he still had for how both Sasuke and Naruto had managed to free him from Zabuza water prison back during the mission to Wave.
They had spent the night in a small inn (Jiraiya had vanished during the night but for whatever reason decided to come back and not bail on them) and had set off at first light back to Konoha. Kakashi looked around at his team and took in some of the small differences they were showing in comparison to when they had been removed from the Chūnin exam a few days earlier.
While the topic of the exams seemed to have become taboo since the removal of Team Seven, Kakashi had been informed of the situation by Sasuke and Sakura when they had found him before Naruto had entered the equation. He had taken all of this information in and almost instantly knew that one of the Chūnins who had been monitoring the exam would have sabotaged Naruto, for either hatred of Naruto or the demon inside. It wasn't quite clear but Kakashi wouldn't dwell on the moment but rather focus on the good things which had come from such an experience.
Team Seven had truly begun to bond as a team, as could be seen at this moment by Sakura and Naruto having a good hearted conversation with one another; such a thing a few weeks earlier was less likely to happen then the former Hokages rising from the dead. "Good team you got here," noted Jiraiya as he walked alongside the Copy-nin.
"They weren't like this in the beginning," mused Kakashi nostalgically.
"No team ever is," chuckled Jiraiya.
"So what made you decide to join us?" asked Kakashi. "From what I was informed of last night they bribed you with hot springs and other things which provide good source material for you, but there are hundreds of other places across the Elemental Nations where you could find such things." There was silence between the two of them as Naruto broke out into laughter nearby. Kakashi followed Jiraiya's line of sight to see that the member of the Sannin was staring directly into the back of Naruto's head. "I see," said Kakashi as he connected the dots.
"Little bit nostalgic, don't you think?" asked Jiraiya. "I imagine you have the same feeling every time you look at him."
"More than you know," said Kakashi.
"Anyways, do you know why it is that I'm being summoned back to Konoha?" asked Jiraiya, wondering why his research time had been shortened.
"Here," said Kakashi as he pulled out an envelope that the Hokage had given him at the start of the mission. Handing it to Jiraiya, the white haired sage didn't take long in opening it and reading at the contents inside.
"I see," said Jiraiya as he read the letter his old sensei had directed to him. "So Hiashi's eldest has been given the cursed seal."
"Hiashi, isn't that the leader of the Hyuga clan?" asked Sasuke as his ears picked up on the small details.
"What's happened to Hinata!" exclaimed Naruto as he quickly put the dots together.
"She's been attacked by my former teammate," said Jiraiya as he cast a small fire jutsu and incinerated the message he had been holding. "He gave her a seal which affects her chakra and is menacing in nature."
"What kind of seal, is there anyway to remove it, is there anything we can do to help?" asked Naruto at a rapid rate.
"You of all people Naruto should know that seals are a serious business," said Jiraiya which silenced the blonde almost instantly. Sakura and Sasuke quickly shared a glance between each other, not quite sure of the message that had gone unspoken between the two of them as Jiraiya continued. "I've probably got the best knowledge of seals going around and I'm going to do my best to ensure Hinata is not subjected to the negative effects this seal has."
"That's good to hear," said Naruto relieved. "Let's hurry, we need to get back to Konoha as quickly as possible." Without another word leaving his mouth he started sprinting down the dirt road.
"Naruto!" called out Sakura as the rest of the group got left behind as the blonde created more and more distance between them.
"You two follow him," stated Kakashi to his other two students. "I'm not sure how the progress of the second exam is going but it's possible that the rest of the teams have finished. It might be beneficial in the long run to talk to them and see how they did progressing."
"Yes sensei," said both Sakura and Sasuke in synchronicity before the two of them gave chase to the third member of the team.
"I wouldn't doubt you having the best team of Genin imaginable right here," pointed out Jiraiya. "I'd be proud if they were my students."
"Well I still have a lot to teach them," replied Kakashi.
"Now that we're alone," said Jiraiya, a mischievous glint in his eye, "would you be able to answer some of my questions?"
"You wouldn't happen to know the average bust size of the Konoha kunoichi would you?"
Hope you enjoyed.