They were preparing to sleep.

Neji noted this as he watched Team 8 from a distance.

Stalking a team consisting of an Inuzuka, Hyuga, and an Aburame was an exercise in insanity. One could smell you coming from a while away, another could see you regardless of how well you hid, and the last possessed an exorbitant amount of bugs surrounding the area, ready to warn him if they sensed anyone.

How could you hide from them? And for those with a nefarious purpose, how could you hide from the numerous cameras that littered the forest?

Neji produced a senbon, and shot it towards another camera he noticed. They were the easiest to deal with.

Kiba Inuzuka? All Neji had to do was mask his scent. Rolling around in mud and grass to smell like the forest did the job perfectly fine.

Hinata Hyuga? Despite lacking a dojutsu of his own, Neji knew the workings of the byakugan more than anyone else. Days slaving away studying prepared him. Staying in Hinata's blindspot was a simple affair. He couldn't describe it as easy, however, but Hinata was as pathetic as ever.

The proper way to utilize the byakugan was to periodically turn your head. This would allow you to be aware of what was hiding in your blindspot. The stupid girl didn't bother, however, trusting in the byakugan's superiority.
Well, Neji prepared for killing the Main Family for years. Learning the byakugan was infallible was something he drilled into himself.

Shino Aburame? Now he was a tougher challenge. His disgusting amount of bugs were a chore to avoid. At any moment, Neji could be stepping on one of them.

But he had two months to plan against Aburame's capabilities. In that time, he devoted himself to learning some rudimentary sensing. It was a difficult field to learn, especially on his lonesome, but he succeeded. He would never be the best, but he learned enough to cover a few feet around him. Any bugs that neared, he could sense.

A distance away from Team 8's position, Neji watched and waited. The Inuzuka and Aburame gave the first watch to Hinata, trusting in her sight.

If only Neji had the byakugan. He would know without a shadow of a doubt exactly when they fell asleep. As it stood now, he could only guess and hope for the best.

But he needed to end this soon. If this lasted too long, Tenten and Lee would become suspicious. They had stolen the scroll they needed within a few hours, and had been ready to head to the tower. Panicking, he managed to convince them not to, using the excuse of stealing more scrolls to cut down on the competition. They had reluctantly accepted.

But his time was running out. Only half an hour at most left.

Waiting a few more minutes to ensure they were asleep, he produced another senbon. Another craft he was forced to learn, but, unfortunately, the only way he could bypass Hinata's byakugan. He could hide within her blindspot, but if he got too close, the blindspot would be far too small to hide in. Focusing, he sent the senbon barreling towards Hinata. He felt a surge of glee when she collapsed.

Neji's body disappeared from sight with a burst of high speed, reappearing in front of Hinata a few seconds later. Inwardly grinning, he promptly tore her eyes from its socket. Pulling out a cylindrical container, he carefully placed the eyes inside. He pulled out a seal from his pouch, and stored the container inside.

He would never be able to understand how exactly fuinjutsu worked, but one thing everyone knew was that storing something inside a seal suspended it in time.

He could wait years to unlock the seal, and the eyes would be in the exact state he left them in.

Finished with his work, Neji grimly stared at his cousin. The senbon had cleanly pierced her neck. As long as it stayed there, she would stay knocked out. He placed his foot on her throat.

He could so easily kill her now. The other members of her team were still asleep. He had destroyed all the cameras nearby.
No one would know it was him.

Neji's breath quickened. His eyes lit up, and a malicious smile adorned his face as he stepped on her throat, restricting her breath.

For years he relished the thought of finally ending her existence. How many times he dreamed of her bloody corpse lying pathetically beneath him was too many to count.

And that was how Neji saw her–just a pathetic waste of life. Fate had practically guaranteed her a life of success if she applied even a modicum of work. Instead, she was a quivering mess, afraid of her own shadow.

And far too weak–both physically and mentally. Often, he would gaze upon her bouts with Hanabi, and often would she hold back her strikes for fear of hurting her sister, but all that achieved was her never being able to truly improve - never being able to truly progress.

As a Hyuga, Hinata was expected to excel. When it was painfully obvious she could not, the title of heir was thrust from her and given to her far more dedicated sister.

A life of success - lost to another.

In time, Hinata would be branded as a Branch Family slave… that was her new fate, and she would never fight it.

That was what disgusted him the most.

Neji increased the force he applied on her windpipe.

Fate was a disgusting thing. It could move in strange and unpredictable ways. But the hand fate dealt you could be fought.

Neji could've accepted his lot in life as a slave to the Hyuga. He could've been such a good little Branch member, showering the clan with riches when he exceeded as a shinobi.

Even now, Neji far surpassed the rank of genin. If he truly wanted to, he could become a tokubetsu jounin, jonin, a year later, and Anbu Captain soon after. Even becoming an Anbu Commander was a feasible goal.

It would give so much renown and prestige to the Hyuga clan. They'd pet their little dog, happy their careful breeding had achieved such a good yield.

If he was Hinata, he would accept this. He'd rail and rage inside his mind, of course, but he'd begrudgingly allow himself to be caged.

He wouldn't fight the hand fate had dealt him.

But Neji was not Hinata. He wouldn't accept his wings to be clipped. He would fight fate so his life would be his own.

The pathetic weakling under his grasp could never manage this.

Neji growled. Just a few seconds more, and she would die, having never known of her death.

Gritting his teeth, he removed his foot.

That was a fate too kind for her.

Why end her suffering now when he could prolong it? His horrible smirk returned.

Imagine how she would feel after he killed the main family–her father and sister included. All that would remain was a part of her family that despised her existence.

Would she break? Or would she kill herself because she had nothing left?

Or would she flourish and escape her cage of mediocrity?

Itachi Uchiha flashed through his mind.

Now that would be far more interesting…

Neji disappeared from sight.

Kurotsuchi and her newfound Otogakure allies were hidden amongst the trees, waiting for the opportunity to strike. But her allies were getting impatient.

"Why don't we just attack them already? All this waiting around is pissing me off," the one named Kin grumbled.

Kurotsuchi let out a weary sigh. "Because, you moron, he's going to sense us if we get any closer. How many times do I have to explain this?"

The Otogakure genin huffed, leaving Kurotsuchi to her devices, whispering quietly to her teammate, Zaku.

The only one Kurotsuchi respected was Dosu. His quiet and accepting demeanor of her leadership was far more appealing to her. If they were going to work together, she'd rather they all be like him, but it was unfortunate that wasn't the case.

If she had known that from the start, she wouldn't have agreed to the alliance Otogakure had proposed.

They had intercepted Kurotsuchi and her team while they were looking for Team 7. Kurosutchi was close to attacking them until they hurriedly explained themselves.

The Otogakure genin were fixing to kill Sasuke Uchiha, and - after learning of her team's mission - they felt partnering together would be ideal.

They had not felt inclined in explaining how exactly found what their mission was.

Kurotsuchi wanted to turn them away, but one of the many things her grandfather had drilled into her the past month was the importance of strategy. Working with another team was unpleasant, but if it guaranteed their victory against a team that consisted of the last Uchiha and the Nine-Tails Jinchuriki, she should take the opportunity.

So with a heavy sigh, she agreed, but after hours in their company, she regretted it immensely.

But soon they would pick up their weight. They were almost upon Team 7.

She just had to figure out what jutsu Naruto was using…

The panic she had experienced when her team was close to stepping on a faint sense of chakra was palpable. The dissent she received from Otogakure after she suddenly stopped them, after they were so close to their target, increased to an unbearable crescendo, and she'd been feeling the pressure for the past few minutes while she tried to discover how they could sneak up on Team 7.

For a radius of a few hundred meters, Naruto's chakra scoured every inch of the ground, reminiscent of the Earth Movement Jutsu - the technique that allowed one to travel through the earth. A secondary function of the technique allowed the user's chakra to travel through the earth, granting awareness of their enemies' location aboveground.

Considering she could sense him, he was definitely not underground. So a technique must have existed that allowed the sensing abilities to remain even while the user was above the ground. The chakra he had to have been burning to maintain it was impressive. It was either that, or he had exemplary chakra control.

Focusing her attention once more on his chakra signal, it had to be the latter, because there was no way he could make his chakra as faint as he did without having trained extensively for that kind of control.

Kurotsuchi opened her eyes, ready. The ground was under his watch. They couldn't pass without him knowing, no matter how hard they tried to be silent and unassuming. The tiniest step would alert him.

But the air? It took her a while to confirm if his chakra truly only encompassed the ground, but now she was sure of it–there was no hint of his chakra in the air.

She grabbed her kunai from her pouch, applying a seal to the back of the knife. With as much strength as she could muster, she threw the kunai towards her target's location. It sailed through the air with great speed, the seal on the back beginning to light up. The kunai disappeared in the brushes, but a second later, a large explosion sounded.

Kurotsuchi turned to her team with a cold gaze. "That should disorient them. They won't know where we'll come from. Make sure you're ready."

Every cell in Sasuke's body wanted to give in to the temptation of falling back asleep, but when they were met only with pain, they grew frustrated. Much like how he was feeling right now.

To be awakened by an explosion was not what Sasuke was expecting, but his training paid off. He and his team positioned themselves on the top of the trees, so when he heard something resembling an explosive tag lighting up, he threw himself out of his tent and into the forest floor. Unfortunately, the explosion drastically increased his momentum, causing him to land painfully on the ground.

As much as Sasuke's body protested against it, he carefully pulled himself up. Control of his body right now was shaky, but it was better than nothing.

He breathed a sigh of relief when Naruto and Sakura landed beside him. He happily leaned into Sakura when she lifted her hand, pulsing with green aura, to heal him.

Naruto's face was the everpresent void it usually was under times of stress. But his eyes belied the turmoil underneath. After years of knowing him, Sasuke could interpret them easily. Guilt, shame, and white hot rage boiled inside his friend.

Naruto clenched his fists. He spoke quickly as he informed them of the situation. "I'm sorry, guys. I had to reduce my coverage so I could conserve chakra, and somehow six guys knew exactly what my range was. They also know I can't sense things that are in midair." His fists turned white as he clenched them tighter. "Now, they're surrounding us. They'll be on us in a few seconds."

Satisfied with her work, Sakura stopped healing Sasuke. He wasn't in the best shape, but he could fight if needed.
She moved to speak, but when they heard the telltale sound of a kunai sailing through the air, they dispersed.

Sasuke activated his sharingan, his perception of the world becoming far clearer. He positioned himself on a branch high off the ground, his sharingan boring down on the six genin below them, staring up at team 7 with leering expressions on their faces.

By their headbands, they were being attacked by Otogakure and Iwagakure–

Sasuke frowned. Now that was interesting. It was the same Iwagakure genin team from their first mission. The Tsuchikage's daughter stared at them with boiling rage.

He could hear Sakura shout from a distance away. "We don't have to fight–"

She was interrupted once more.

"Hurry up and finish them!" Kurotsuchi ordered. Flashing through hand signs, a large fireball soared towards them, streaking towards.

Sasuke had to give her props. The speed she propelled her jutsu far surpassed even his. Unfortunately for her, he was more attuned to speed. His body disappeared in a blur of motion, appearing far away from his earlier position.

It was for naught, however. Sasuke could hear rustling behind him. He darted through the trees until he found a good spot. Fluidly weaving signs, he transformed into the illusion of a rock. His pursuers were revealed to be the Otogakure genin team.

As they passed him, he heard the bandaged haired one gruffly speak, "Kin, Zaku, whatever you do, make sure you ignore the others. Focus on the Uchiha."

The girl huffed. "Not like we're going to forget, Dosu!"

So, they were after him, were they? They had to be hunting him for his sharingan. Sasuke inwardly snarled. They attacked his team, almost killed him, and now were chasing him like a dog.

Oh, he was going to make them regret ever coming after him.

"Guys, stop!" the last, no doubt the one referred to as Zaku, shouted. They landed on one of the branches, impatiently bidding their teammate to explain himself. Zaku examined his surroundings with a suspicious gaze. "I think he's here. I hear breathing."

Seeing no point in continuing the ruse, Sasuke dispelled his transformation. He was already midway through a series of hand signs when the Oto genin hurriedly turned to him. He sent them a smirk before he unleashed a stream of fire barreling towards them.

"You want me?!" He challenged. "Come get me!"

Sasuke moved so quickly that he became a blur, his form disappearing into the trees.

If they were after just him, he could distract them while Naruto and Sakura fought the Iwa genin. Together, they should be able to handle anything thrown at them.

Now Sasuke… he had a far more difficult fight. Fighting against three enemies wasn't an easy fight by any means, but he always did love a challenge.

Time to test how far he had come.

Naruto blinked at the maelstrom of burning death flashing towards him. He backflipped away, using the trees as a cover against the fire. He ran as fast as he could away from the forest.

When he caught a flash of pink, he stopped. Sakura joined him in a nearby tree. He flashed her a grim look when she ripped off parts of her dress that were flaming.

She sent him a smile. "It's fine. I didn't have enough cover. Where's Sasuke?" she asked, worriedly looking around.

Naruto shook his head. "Gone. Three went after him." He pointed in the rough direction he last saw his friend. Naruto didn't know where he was heading, but he couldn't focus on that now. Sasuke could take care of himself.

Naruto and Sakura, however, needed to handle Kurotsuchi and her team–and they didn't have enough time before they would soon catch up. "They're coming, Sakura. We have to prepare."

She gave him a nod, placing a hand on his shoulder. Despite how unpleasant it was, he welcomed the feeling of his chakra being sucked away. It meant she would be able to handle herself.

He frowned when she pulled her hand away. He grabbed her wrist, stopping her. "Take as much as you can, Sakura-chan. You need it more than me."

She could have all of his chakra if it guaranteed she'd be safe. Naruto couldn't risk anything happening to her.

Sakura carefully escaped his grasp, sending him an apologetic look. "My jutsu doesn't work like that, Naruto. My body can't handle too much excess chakra."

As much as he wanted to, he wasn't able to question further when he sensed Kurotsutchi and her team close to descending on their location.

"Get ready," he ordered.

They split into different directions when a dozen spears made of earth soared towards them.

"Stop running and fight us, tree huggers!" one of the Iwa genin shouted. It was a high pitched sound that sounded very unlike Kurotsuchi or her hulking companion. It had been their other teammate, the one who was skinnier than the two combined.

"Stop yelling, Ishikoro! I can sense them nearby!"

She was a sensor, too, huh? he thought. There was no point in hiding then. He could sense exactly where they were as long as they touched the ground, and she could sense where he was. He didn't know the specifics of her ability, but it was best to assume she was a natural sensor, meaning she didn't have the same limitations as he did.
He clenched his fists, allowing his lips to quirk upwards just the slightest bit. Time to see how far he had come.

Hiruzen fingers moved fluidly, working through the mountain of paperwork before him with fluid ease. Paper after paper was moved to the ever increasing 'completed' pile.

If this was all he was expected to work on, Hiruzen would enjoy paperwork. They allowed his mind a chance to rest, to take a backseat. Of course, he allowed a fraction of his attention to focus on the content of what he was signing. He didn't want to accidentally sell Konoha to some merchant off the block, but he was experienced. It didn't require a significant amount of attention.

Unfortunately, his assistant would be back with another round of paperwork soon. For the next few hours, this would repeat, and his work would never be finished. It was a trap meant to drain his will to live, and every day he donned his hat, he fought bravely for his village. The people would never understand his true sacrifice - fighting against the impulse of allowing his heart to finally stop beating, to allow it the rest it begged for over a decade now.

Hiruzen's eyes dashed towards the clock, frowning when he saw it was the middle of the night. He pursed his lips in frustration.

Never let it be said that Hiruzen did not love when the Chunin Exams were held in Konoha. The excitement twinkling in peoples' eyes was a delight to see, and he wanted nothing more than to encourage it. And the economic benefits were immense. Konoha would have its coffers full for quite a while because of this.

But the paperwork! Oh, how he lamented the never-ending pile of documents. This was the fifth time he was forced to work through the night to finish everything.

Hiruzen sighed, stretching to work out the cramps in his muscles. He rubbed his eyes, preparing himself to delve back into the monotonous routine.

A knock sounded on his window. Hiruzen almost melted in relief when he heard it. An honest to goodness distraction was just the thing he needed.

He gazed at the window, watching as Jiraiya opened it, leaping through to land gracefully in front of Hiruzen's desk.
Hiruzen wanted to cry tears of joy and shower his favorite student with endless praise, but he fought the impulse, maintaining his grandfatherly demeanor.

"Jiraiya," he began, pulling his beloved pipe out of his drawing. He carefully breathed out, his breath containing just a touch of fire. Now lit, he blew on his pipe, enjoying the rush of relaxation that washed over him. "How can I help you, my old student?"

Jiraiya had a grim look on his face, but he managed a small grin in greeting. "Sensei! Long time no see. It took me a while, but I finally found some information on Amegakure."

Hiruzen raised an eyebrow in response. "You know, Jiraiya, you don't need to visit my office every time. Not that I'm not pleased to see you, but a message would have sufficed if all you had was information."

Jiraiya crossed his arms. "Well, I actually didn't come here just for information. I promised I would train Naruto when he completed the Second Task, didn't I? He should be finished in a few days, right?" At Hiruzen's nod, he grinned. "I'll spend that time brainstorming what we'll be working on." He shook his head, his demeanor becoming grim once more. "But I'll focus on that later. That's not important right now. My report is."

Hiruzen nodded, wordlessly ordering him to continue.

"Okay, so after I left to find some more info on Ame, I got my best spies to work on infiltrating it. And the majority of the time, they. Just. Could. Not." Jiraiya pinched his nose. "It was aggravating. Infiltrating a country has never been a problem for them, but they kept getting caught. I wracked my brain and finally figured out how."

Jiraiya placed his hands on Hiruzen's desk, leaning forward. "The rain." He shook his head, his eyes showing amazement. "I don't know how the Amekage managed it, but he can sense you through the rain. And that place is practically covered by it!" Jiraiya straightened, and paced around the room in frustration.

"Jiraiya, you did say you had information. I'm assuming that, despite the challenge, you still managed to infiltrate?" Hiruzen asked, forgoing another puff on his pipe to focus completely on his student.

Jiraiya stopped his pacing. He gave Hiruzen a sheepish look. "That… kinda was all my information." At the baffled look he received, he hurriedly continued. "Well, no! That actually isn't all of it. One of my team has a bird summon–an owl. It's the most beautiful thing, honestly–and he managed to fly above the rain. He couldn't see anything, though, so he risked a glance under the rain."

Jiraiya shook his head. "He could just fly away if he ran into trouble, so it was worth the risk. Anyway, he caught a glimpse of the village, and it was mind-blowing. The buildings were taller than anything you've ever seen." Jiraiya's eyes sparkled as he described it. "And you wouldn't believe the streets! They were so clean it looked like they'd just been scrubbed by hand!"

Hiruzen leaned forward, his eyes widening. "Taller than anything we've ever seen? Clean streets like they were just scrubbed by hand? How is that possible? The streets are one of the hardest to maintain. Not even Kumogakure's streets can be described in such a way."

Jiraiya shrugged. "I don't know, sensei, but that's what he said. He even talked about machines that can carry people from place to place without horses or walking."

Hiruzen leaned back in his chair, his mind racing. "Machines that carry people? Without horses or walking? Jiraiya, this is both incredible and frightening." He gestured to the corner of the room. "Only recently have TVs been invented, and they've been invaluable in maintaining security." He had the camera installed only three years ago. That was how recent they were. "If what you describe is accurate, this small village is far more advanced than we are."

Jiraiya scratched his head in frustration. "And that pisses me off. They have jutsu we've never seen like the likes of before, and technology more advanced. Sensei… they could become just as bad as the last one."

Hiruzen pursed his lips, closing his eyes. "We can't let them, Jiraiya. That nation was destroyed for a reason. I personally made sure every scrap of technology they invented was lost to mankind. We can't have another country become like them."

Hiruzen straightened himself, boring his eyes down on Jiraiya. "The Akatsuki is no longer our only threat. Focus on training Naruto this month. After that, the village needs to prepare. Just in case." While he wasn't hasty enough to declare war so suddenly, Hiruzen would keep his eye on Amegakure. "I need you to be my guard during the Finals, Jiraiya. We'll meet the Amekage together."

Jiraiya adorned a somber look on his face. "Whatever needs to be done, sensei."

Author's Note:

I'm very happy with this chapter. Please tell me what you thought of it - reviews are very encouraging.