Chapter 3

Evening was approaching as Team Kurenai crested one of many hills in the woods of the Land of Fire. Naruto ran up a tree and looked around; he'd done this on several hills. He'd never really had time to just relax and enjoy the scenery on a mission before, and he was taking advantage of it. He'd taken Hinata up a couple times, but when he discovered she wasn't comfortable being that high up, he'd stopped taking her, simply leaving the invitation open to come with him if she so chose. He smiled at the view, the feeling of the breeze up there, and the sheer elation he felt at being so high up and so free. He saw something moving in the distance, something black, but he just ignored it, telling himself it was nothing important. In a different direction, he could see the forest ending and the desert beginning not far after.

Rejoining his new team, Naruto gave Hinata a grin; Hinata blushed, but returned it. Naruto had been doing this almost since they left. He'd go off a short way on his own, do something, then come back and give her a grin like they were sharing a secret or something. Hinata wished she knew what he was doing. Sometimes it was up a tree, others it was just moving a short distance off the trail they were following. She'd considered trying to see what he was doing with her Byakugan, but decided against it. Whatever he was doing, it didn't seem to be causing trouble, and he always came back with that same grin, so she figured it was something good. Now that he was back, the team continued on their trip.

Kiba had been wondering what Naruto was doing on his little side-trips, too, and he, unlike Hinata, wasn't just going to let it pass. "Okay, Naruto, that's like the twentieth time you've done that. I know you're up to something, so spill it, what are you doing?" he said.

Naruto turned to Kiba and grinned. "Nothing really. I just haven't had a chance to enjoy the scenery like this on a mission before, and some of these views are to die for!" Naruto answered. "If you want, you can always come with me, I'm not stopping you." Naruto said this last part while giving Kiba a look telling him to drop it for now.

"I may have to do that," Kiba said, deciding to give Naruto the benefit of the doubt for the moment. A short time later, he took Naruto up on the offer of following him; Kiba really was curious to see just what Naruto was doing.

Naruto ran a short distance off the trail, stopped, bent down, plucked a flower, then kept walking. He got out of Kiba's sight for just a minute and came back without the flower. By now, Kiba was really confused. Naruto noticed Kiba was looking at him like he was a new species or something. "What's up, Kiba?"

"That's what I was going to ask you. What's with the flower? And where did it go?" he replied, his voice betraying his bewilderment.

Naruto grinned. "I've been doing that this whole time," he said, then pulled out a scroll. "They're all in here. I'm saving them for Hinata."

Kiba grinned back, his canines showing a bit. "Oh, so you did notice her huh?" he said.

"Yeah I finally noticed her. I always thought she was just weird, I guess. But..." Naruto hesitated to tell Kiba this, both wondering why Kiba was so interested and distrusting him somewhat; after all, they weren't exactly best friends. "I had it pointed out to me that she likes me. I heard she likes pressing flowers, so I decided to get her some that weren't near the village," Naruto finished, deciding to take a chance and trust Kiba.

Kiba thought a moment, then turned serious eyes on Naruto. "Oh, I see, so now you know she likes you, what are you intending to do?" he said.

"Get to know her, of course," Naruto answered, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "I was heavily advised to get to know her, so that's what I'm going to do. This...well, I'm just trying to make it up to her for not noticing her sooner." Kiba looked doubtful, but he seemed to accept it.

"All right, well, don't wander too far off," he said, then turned and headed back to Hinata and Kurenai.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the two rivals, Hinata and Kurenai were talking while they set up camp. They had set up the two tents and started a small fire, all they'd need for the night, really, and were waiting for the two boys to return. Kurenai gave Hinata a small smile.

"Hey, Hinata?" she said. Hinata looked to her big sister figure with a shy smile on her face. Kurenai came closer to Hinata, her crimson eyes sparkling with mischief. She poked the shy girl softly in the side as she spoke. "I bet I know someone who's excited about being out on a mission with a certain blond knucklehead ninja."

Hinata gasped and blushed deeply. "K-K-Kurenai-s-sensei!" she stammered. Her teacher had never once given indication she knew about her feelings for Naruto, and now this! "You knew?"

Kurenai chuckled softly. "Of course I knew, Hinata. I doubt there's anything about you I don't know. I did see you give him that cream of yours after he fought Kiba, after all," she told her student, whose blush grew much deeper as she remembered the mentioned event. "I figured you had a crush then," she continued, poking her side again. Hinata tried to shy away, but deep down, she was enjoying this. "And I've watched you since, and I daresay it's more than that now, isn't it?"

Hinata blushed, but she couldn't deny it, so she nodded. "Y-Yes, it is," she said. "I-I l-love him."

Kurenai smiled. "I thought as much," she said, then settled herself in next to Hinata and made herself comfortable. "So, tell me what happened." Hinata looked at her sensei in confusion. "To make your feelings change, silly," Kurenai clarified. Hinata thought a moment, then nodded as she thought back to that day...

Flashback

Hinata was waiting for Kiba so they could go to the Finals together. He'd told her he'd meet her at these stumps. Granted, she probably would have come here anyway, since this is where Naruto had become a Genin, but still, she was here waiting for her teammate. She was lost in her thoughts of Naruto, his past, and his coming match with Neji, so she didn't notice at first that she wasn't alone.

"Hinata?" a voice said from behind her. She gasped and spun around to find herself looking at the blond himself! How he had gotten that close to her without her even noticing him was beyond her, but, really, she hadn't been paying that much attention. She'd been lost in her thoughts.

After a few moments of awkward silence, she decided she had to say something. "Why are you here, Naruto? The final competition starts soon, doesn't it?" she spoke quietly, which allowed her to not stutter for once.

"I just...it's nothing really," he answered. "This is the place where I became a Genin, so..." he trailed off this time, like he wasn't sure what to say. Hinata looked into his eyes, which he was trying to hide, and gasped. He was afraid!

Deciding to not bring it up and embarrass him, she asked, "But, why are you here now?"

Naruto looked at Hinata, his eyes full of the fear he was trying so hard to repress. "No real reason, it doesn't matter anyway," he said quickly.

Hinata knew he was worried, and she worried she had upset him. "Oh," she said. "Guess you're right. Sorry."

"Hinata," Naruto said. "Neji...he's a cousin of yours, right?" Hinata nodded, not sure what to say. "So, is he really strong?" Hinata wanted more than anything at that moment to say he wasn't, that Neji was weak, but she couldn't lie to anyone, especially not Naruto. Her face fell. "Great," Naruto muttered, obviously taking that as a yes.

Hinata felt a sudden jolt at that moment. Naruto was upset, worried, and alone. There was only one person who could help him feel better and be there for him at that moment, and it was her! She moved closer to him and rested a hand on his arm gently. "Naruto, it's all right, there's no reason for you to be so upset about this," she said softly.

Naruto looked at the shy girl before him, trying to figure out what to tell her. For some reason, he decided to tell her exactly what was bothering him. "Well, Hinata, the thing is, this isn't just a match for me," he said. "You know how I never go back on my word, right?" She nodded, not sure what that had to do with anything. "Well, if I lose this match, I'll have broken a promise I made. I'm not used to even thinking that might be possible, so I'm really worried about it."

Hinata thought about that a moment, then asked, "Why would you promise to beat Neji, Naruto? And to whom?"

Naruto sighed. He'd hoped she wouldn't ask that. "I made the promise to you, Hinata," he said. "And not just a promise, when he hurt you so bad, I vowed on your blood to win, to beat him for you."

Hinata gasped. He'd vowed, on her blood, to beat Neji, for her! Why would he do that? "Naruto, it's all right, I promise, I won't hold it against you if you don't win, so please, don't worry about me," she said. Naruto looked at her in surprise. "I'm just glad to have you as a friend, Naruto, nothing else matters to me about you. I know you always try your hardest and do your best, so even when you mess up, I know you use your mistakes to make yourself better. That's what makes you so strong, Naruto, and that's why I'm not worried about whether you win or lose." She watched as Naruto's eyes slowly lost their fear and became more confident. He finally smiled, and this time it was a true smile, not one of the fake ones he used to mask his pain. She felt her heart flutter.

"Wow, thanks, Hinata," he said. "I needed to hear that. You know, I always thought you were kind of weird, timid, scared or something, but you're really cool. I like people like you, Hinata. I'll see you after the Exams are over, all right?"

Hinata's heart was bursting with joy. He liked her, he wanted to see her again! She didn't hear anything else he said as he ran off, she was too happy to have heard that. Plus, she'd seen today that Naruto was much more than she'd ever believed. She might have had a crush on him before, but now she knew, deep down in her heart she knew, she loved him.

End Flashback

Hinata, her story finished, looked up into her sensei's crimson eyes and smiled. "Of course, after that, the Sand and Sound invaded, so I didn't see him again until we went to look for the Bikochu, but I knew after that that I loved him, and it hasn't changed at all, only grown deeper," she said, blushing lightly.

Kurenai put an arm around Hinata and smiled at her student. "I'm happy for you, Hinata," she said. Hinata smiled. "I saw you two talking the other day when we first met as a team. What was that about?"

Hinata blushed a little, then explained how the two had talked both the day of Tsunade's announcements and the following morning and how they had gotten along so well. "You know, Kurenai-sensei," she said. "I think I may actually have a chance with him after all. I'd given up on that ever happening, but now, he seems to be finally noticing me, not just as a friend, but as a girl, you know?" Kurenai smiled and nodded. She knew exactly what Hinata meant. "Well, anyway, you won't say anything to him about this, will you?" Hinata asked.

Kurenai smiled again. "No, Hinata, your secret is safe with me," she said. Hinata hugged her sensei tightly at that moment. Kurenai returned it. The two had just separated when Kiba returned to them, a goofy grin on his face.

"Hey, you two," he said. "You look like you had a fun time while I was off tracking Naruto." He said this last with a wink at Hinata to let her know he wasn't trying to hurt her crush.

Kurenai gave Kiba a glare, but she was smiling. "We had a nice talk," she said. "And I hope you were civil with Naruto, he is a part of our team now."

Kiba nodded. "Yeah, I was nice, I just wanted to see what he was up to out there. My curiosity got the best of me, I guess," he said, his grin never wavering for even a second.

Hinata knew exactly what he meant. She'd been wondering herself what the blond was doing out there, but the times she had followed him he hadn't done anything except what he said he was doing, looking at the views, so she'd stopped following him. She would have asked Kiba what he was doing, but it was at that moment that Naruto rejoined them. Hinata folded her arms over her chest and pouted.

Naruto, noticing Hinata's pout, and figuring he knew what caused it, came over to the girl and grinned. "Hey, Hinata, what's up?" he said. "As cute as you are when you're pouting, I'm sure you'd be prettier if you were smiling." Hinata, shocked that he'd say that at all, never mind in front of her sensei and teammate, dropped her arms and blushed deeply. Naruto, now that he knew the cause of Hinata's blushing, was beginning to find it extremely cute and just chuckled.

Kiba was surprised by the blond's reaction to Hinata's blush, considering he usually asked if she was sick or something, but he shrugged it off and told the others he'd find some food for the night. Akamaru barked from atop his head and the two disappeared into the woods. Kurenai also walked off a moment later; she was going to get water from a nearby stream for the rest of their trip to the Sand Village.

The result of this, whether intentional or not, was that Naruto and Hinata found themselves alone. Naruto grinned at the shy girl, who responded with a small smile and a blush. Naruto moved around the fire and sat beside Hinata.

"Having fun out here, Hinata?" he asked her, his voice low.

Hinata blushed deeply, then nodded. "I am, Naruto, and you?" she asked him back. He nodded. "Um, Naruto, what have you been doing off on your own all day?"

Naruto gasped and blushed. He'd been hoping he could get away with hiding this from her until they made it back to the Leaf, but here she was, asking him about it. "W-Well," he began, "I w-was afraid you'd ask me about that." He stopped and began to mutter to himself. "Oh, yeah, that's real smooth Naruto, tell her you were afraid of her asking, very nice." He hit himself on the forehead.

Hinata realized she'd put Naruto on the spot. "I'm sorry, Naruto," she said. "I didn't mean to put you on the spot, it's okay, really. You don't have to tell me." Even so, she couldn't help feeling a little disappointed that he didn't want to tell her.

Naruto smiled at her. "It's not that, Hinata," he said. "It's just I don't want to spoil the surprise, that's all." Hinata looked at him, confused. "What I'm doing, I'm doing for you," he clarified.

Hinata blushed. "He's doing it for me? I don't know what 'it' is, but he's doing something for me?" she thought to herself. "Wow, he's so amazing, and here he is doing something to surprise me!" With that, the girl's blush intensified ten-fold, and then she did what she always did when under extreme stress (pleasant stress in this case, but stress nonetheless), she fainted.

Naruto chuckled, then got up and gently lifted Hinata into his arms. Now that he knew why Hinata fainted like this, it was actually kind of adorable. He was surprised at how light she was. He looked into her face and got another surprise. He saw just how pretty she was; he had to admit, if only to himself, that she was far prettier than Sakura. He carried her into the tent she and Kurenai would share, gently tucked her into her sleeping bag, and stepped back out, smiling gently at her as he did.

Kurenai returned to the camp just in time to see Naruto stepping out of her and Hinata's tent. "And just what are you doing in there, Naruto?" she said.

Naruto, surprised at her voice, jumped and turned to her. "Oh, Kurenai-sensei, I was talking to Hinata and she fainted, so I was just tucking her into her sleeping bag so she'd be more comfortable," he said. Kurenai nodded; she had no reason to believe Naruto would lie.

"All right, well, we better all turn in soon anyway," she said, stretching a bit herself. Naruto nodded and smiled; he was glad she trusted him. Kiba returned shortly after that carrying two rabbits he and Akamaru had caught, and the three conscious shinobi ate a light dinner, leaving some of the meat for Hinata for the next morning. Then all three retired to their tents and were asleep within minutes.

When Hinata awoke, she felt well-rested. She saw Kurenai sleeping next to her and smiled. Then her stomach growled, so she softly crept from the tent to see about finding something to eat. She found the rabbit her teammates had saved for her laying by the fire; they had left it there so it would stay warm. The fire itself had almost burned itself out by now, but the rabbit was still warm, so she dug into it. With no one watching to scold her, she ate with vigor and was done within minutes. Checking the moon, she realized it must have been around three in the morning.

Being awake and energized, Hinata rose from where she ate and made her way toward the stream where Kurenai had collected water the previous evening. She washed up from her meal—the rabbit was greasy—then smiled at the peaceful spot she was in. She realized she probably had two to three hours before anyone would be waking up, so she stripped down to just her bra and panties. She loved training like this, and it had been a while since she did so. She stepped onto the water and began to practice her kata. Within moments, she was totally lost in the movements and in the movements of the water around her. She always felt so free like this, almost like she was dancing.

Naruto awoke suddenly, a cold sweat covering his face. He shivered; what a horrible nightmare! He got up and slowly crawled from his tent, careful not to wake Kiba. He looked up; based on where the moon was, it must have been around three-thirty. Remembering the nearby stream, he began to make his way there, thinking a drink and a cool dip would feel wonderful just now. Since he had been sleeping, he was in just his boxers, but he didn't bother dressing; after all, the rest of his team would be asleep another hour and a half at the very least. As he walked, he was remembering the dream that had awakened him; it wasn't pretty, to say the least. He shivered. Just then he heard the sound of running water and realized he was merely twenty feet from the stream. He could see the small stream clearly, its water flowing softly through the night.

Not thinking, Naruto ran forward and dived into the water, going as deep as he could. While under water, he opened his mouth and drank as deeply as he could of the cool, clear water. He began to swim upstream a ways, feeling very thankful that he had quite the lung capacity. After swimming upstream almost two minutes and covering probably three hundred feet, he surfaced silently and breathed quietly, not wanting to break the peace of this idyllic stream. He looked up and was suddenly glad he'd been quiet. Standing on the water, about twenty feet from him, and completely unaware of his presence, was her!

Ever since he had gone with Team 8 to look for the Bikochu, he had dreamed of the girl he had seen that night at the waterfall. He had started to wonder whether she was even real or not, but here she was again! Staring at the girl, Naruto couldn't help remembering that night.

Flashback

He had been awakened by nature's call. He went out and took care of business, only to hear water running nearby. Curious, he went to investigate. Sure enough, not far from camp, he found a stream at the bottom of a waterfall. There, standing on the water and seemingly dancing, the water mimicking her moves, was the single most beautiful girl Naruto had ever seen. Mesmerized, Naruto slowly walked toward her, trying to get a better view and to find out who this girl was. Unfortunately, he slipped on a rock and fell into the water. Looking up, he tried to speak to her, but he was surprised to find she was gone.

Flashback End

Naruto remembered telling Kiba about it and him saying it was just a dream, but here was the proof it wasn't. She was right here in front of him again! Quietly, he moved closer to her, not wanting her to get away this time without him at least being able to find out who it was.

Hinata was still practicing, never noticing she had an audience. She was practicing her Protective 8-Trigrams Sixty-Four Palms when suddenly two hands gripped her feet. She gasped and was about to kick the person who had grabbed her, but she didn't get the chance; her attacker pulled her into the water. She was left with just her head above water when her feet were released; she began to tread water. Then she was suddenly grabbed from behind, someone throwing their arms around her waist. She felt a head moving up next to hers and then she heard it.

"All right, I've got you now, you're not getting away this time," Naruto whispered. "Now, who are you?" It wasn't meant to be so, but, to Hinata, his voice, the way he spoke, the water, everything was very sensual and erotic.

Blushing heavily, Hinata turned just a little and answered in a whisper as well. "It's me, Naruto," she said.

"H-H-Hinata?" Naruto asked, shocked. "It was you I saw at that waterfall?" In his shock, he had let her go and backed away. Hinata turned and looked at him, her face bright red from what had happened.

"Y-Yes, Naruto, it w-was m-me you s-saw that night," she said.

Naruto thought about that, trying to assimilate this new information into what he already knew of Hinata. "So that's why you were blushing so red when I told Kiba about it, huh?" he asked. Hinata blushed and nodded. "I'm sorry I embarrassed you, Hinata."

"It's all right, Naruto," she said back. "You didn't know."

"Yeah, I know, but I still feel bad. Forgive me?"

Hinata giggled a little at how pathetic his voice sounded just then. "Forgive you for what, Naruto? For complimenting me? I hope you don't mean to take that back now that you realize it was me all along."

Naruto blushed this time. "No, not at all. I just mean forgive me for embarrassing you," he said. "I meant every word I said, Hinata, you are beautiful, I'm just sorry I never realized it before."

Hinata blushed, but then she did something no one, herself included, would have expected of her. She moved closer to Naruto and wrapped her arms around him, blushing when she realized he was shirtless. "Kiss me, Naruto," she whispered seductively. Naruto blushed, then nodded. The two slowly moved toward one another. Naruto put his arms around Hinata gently, snaking his hands up to her neck and playing with her hair. Hinata's arms, seemingly moving of their own accord, did the same and she ran her fingers through his hair. "Liquid gold," Hinata thought. Her heart was pounding, her breathing erratic, as Naruto slowly got closer. She could feel his breath on her lips. She slowly closed her eyes and saw as he did the same. It may have been five seconds since she spoke, but to both of them, it felt more like almost an hour. When their lips touched for the first time, both of them were transported to a level of heaven both had thought they would never achieve. Hinata was in shock that she was actually kissing Naruto. Naruto was satisfied with what was going on. True, he was sharing his first real kiss with Hinata, but in his eyes, she was now prettier than Sakura had ever been. When that was added to the fact that he knew Hinata was by far the nicest girl from their class, Naruto found himself quite satisfied with the current situation. The two held the kiss as long as they could, only separating when their bodies demanded they breathe.

Naruto still held Hinata in his arms after their kiss. He gently ran his hands up and down her arms, legs, and back, his touch reverent, chaste. Hinata blushed and smiled at his touch. She had never been happier. She thought this moment couldn't get any better, but then it did. "Hinata?" Naruto said quietly, not wanting to break the moment with talk. She smiled at him and nodded. "Will you be my girlfriend?" Hinata gasped at the question, then pulled Naruto to her tightly and kissed him this time, hard. She pulled back after a few moments and smiled at him. Naruto smiled and chuckled. "I'll take that as a yes." Hinata nodded vigorously. Naruto kissed her once more, gently, briefly, then the two moved to the shore and sat together.

Suddenly, Hinata had a thought. "Naruto?" she said. He turned to his new girlfriend and smiled. "What were you doing out here? I mean, I'm glad this happened, but what brought you out here so late at night?"

Naruto's face turned a little pale as he remembered what had woken him up. That damn dream! "I w-was having a nightmare," he said. Hinata took one of his hands in hers and stroked it softly. For some reason, this comforted Naruto. He smiled at her. For some reason, he decided to tell Hinata about the dream, all of it, as horrible as it always was. He thought maybe telling her would make it less terrible. "It's a dream I have a lot. Would you mind if I tell you?"

Hinata blushed. "I would be honored, Naruto," she said and smiled softly at him. She held his hand in both of hers now, letting him know she was there for him. Naruto smiled at her, thought a moment, closed his eyes, and began his tale.

"In my dream, I'm running, I'm never quite sure what I'm running from at first, but I'm running," he said, his voice slipping into an eerie monotone. Hinata tensed as he spoke. "All I know is there's something after me, and if it catches me, it's going to do something terrible. I'm never sure what, exactly, it intends to do, but I feel sure that it intends to do something horrible. I just get this vague dread, it tells me that if I don't stay away from this...thing coming after me, my friends, the village, and I are all doomed."

Hinata felt like she was on pins and needles by now. Naruto continued, "I keep running, my legs burning, my lungs heaving, my whole body feeling like it's on fire. I run and run, and eventually, every time, I trip on something. When I look to see what I tripped on, there's nothing there, but I can't get up, I'm too tired. Then I feel it approach and know it's going to take me to do whatever it is it's going to do. I scream, something lands on my chest, I can't breathe. I try to close my eyes so I don't have to see the horrible thing, but I can't, it's like my eyes are being held open, and then I see it. I see horrible greenish-yellow eyes, snake-like slits in them. I scream again, I feel it start to crush me, and that's usually when I wake up. This time, though, just before I woke up, I saw the snake-like eyes turn into the Sharingan and the face around them turned into Sasuke for just an instant before I awoke."

Naruto opened his eyes and looked at Hinata, who simply wrapped her arms around him and hummed soothingly to him. Naruto wrapped her in his arms; somehow she ended up sitting on his lap, which made Naruto feel extremely protective of his new girlfriend. He smiled down at her, deciding to file away his feelings of protectiveness for later. He held her tenderly and buried his face in her shoulder, letting the memory of his dream fade and fighting off the shivers that took his body every few moments.

Hinata, in spite of the deep blush she was sporting due to the extreme proximity of the boy she loved, had never been happier. She ran her fingers through his hair as she held him close and hummed comfortingly to help him forget his nightmare and only remember her. She felt his body tremble and responded by holding him tighter, humming and rocking him as best she could from her position on his lap. She could feel, in that moment, how strong and yet how fragile Naruto was. His arms around her showed her his strength, while his trembling and occasional sobs showed her his frailty. She held him, all the while contemplating the dichotomy her new boyfriend represented. His strength was tempered by frailty and vulnerability. His sadness and pain were masked by happy smiles. She shivered at that thought. "I promise, Naruto, I'll always be here for you, you won't have to mask your pain anymore, you can show me all of you, and I will accept it," she thought to herself. She wrapped him tighter in her arms and smiled when her action seemed to calm him.

Naruto was reliving his dream in his mind over and over. He kept wondering if his dream was some kind of warning that Sasuke would hurt him, but he shook that off. Just when he was about to sink further into his thoughts, he was pulled back to where he was by Hinata grasping him tighter. He relaxed in her arms; for some reason, he felt safe, protected, in her arms, even while his own instincts were to protect her. He lifted his head from her shoulder and smiled at her. "Thank you, Hinata," he said softly.

Hinata blushed deeply; she could hear the sincerity in his voice. She hugged him again, then sat up in his lap and smiled. "I'm just glad I can be here for you, Naruto," she told him. Naruto smiled at her, then the two wrapped one another into another hug, this one more tender and loving than passionate. Naruto laid back, Hinata following him. The two laid there on the shore of the stream, simply reveling in the feeling of being together, safe, and protected. Naruto in particular reveled in how right this felt, how complete he felt with Hinata in his arms like that. The two smiled peacefully as they each felt that there was nowhere else they'd rather be at that moment.

All too soon for either of their liking, Naruto and Hinata discovered the dawn was approaching. They rose slowly to return to camp. Naruto took Hinata's hand in his gently, causing the shy girl to blush and smile, and the two began their trek back. Shortly before arriving back, they separated. Neither wanted their teammates to know they were a couple just yet.

xxxxxx

Sasuke grinned as he looked around the small clearing. This was perfect. Considering the size of the group he'd been told to expect would be leaving the Sand Village, and the top speed they would likely be able to maintain as a result, he figured they would stop here to rest for a night at least. He checked his traps again, then nodded. They were ready. Now all he had left to do was wait. In another day or two, he'd have done what he came here to do.

xxxxxx

Gaara was laying in his bed, wishing he could sleep, but knowing he couldn't. He sighed and rose to begin his daily routine. He showered, dressed, then picked up his gourd and left his rooms. Taking a semi-secret passage only he and his siblings knew of, he made his way to the roof of his family home. He looked out over the village he had grown to want to protect and be precious to and smiled. It wasn't his old demented murderous smile, it was a true, heart-felt smile. He remembered, for the thousandth time, Naruto yelling to Neji that he would be Hokage and protect and change his village. Gaara chuckled at the thought of his friend, as he had grown to consider Naruto, and thought of his own dream now to be Kazekage. He smiled and nodded to himself. Yes, he would be Kazekage someday and make his friend proud of him. Gaara had no way to know he would have a chance at his dream much sooner than he thought. Suddenly, Gaara saw something entering the gates of his village. Generally, he would have ignored this, but this particular thing was orange with a splash of yellow on top of it. That just had to be Naruto! Gaara grinned and began to make his way toward the gate to meet his friend.

xxxxxx

Naruto grinned and looked around the Sand Village excitedly. Now all he had to do was find Gaara. He knew they were there on a mission, but, at that moment, he didn't care. He just wanted to see his fellow jinchuuriki. He was about to go running into the village or even create clones to look for the red-haired boy when he saw him coming straight for him.

"Gaara!" he yelled. Gaara looked up and smiled at Naruto as the blond ran over to him. "Hey, hold on one sec," Naruto said once he made it to Gaara. "Hey, Kurenai-sensei, will you guys be okay to deliver the scroll so I can catch up with Gaara a little bit?"

Kurenai smiled. "Tell you what, Naruto, why don't you take Hinata with you? Kiba and I can handle this, and we'll meet you at the hotel later," she said. "We're staying at The Four Winds hotel."

Naruto noticed Gaara shiver and turned toward the redhead, eyes questioning. Gaara turned to the team. "That's a pretty low-class hotel, tell you what, why don't you all stay with my family and me while you're here?" Kurenai hesitated a moment. "Let me put it this way," Gaara continued, "it's called The Four Winds because there's no way to keep any of them out of the rooms."

Kurenai shuddered at that thought. "All right, then, Gaara, we'll take you up on your offer, thank you for your hospitality," she said politely. "In that case, Kiba and I can go deliver this, and we'll see you three at Gaara's later. Before you take off, though, Gaara, where can I find Baki?"

Gaara turned to her. "Baki-sensei? Oh, he's up at the Kazekage Tower," he said and pointed at the tallest building in the village. "The top floor is the Kazekage's office; Baki-sensei is filling in until we can choose a new Kazekage."

Kurenai smiled. "I guess that's why it was meant for him," she said. "All right, see you three later." With that, she and Kiba took off to complete their mission, leaving Naruto, Hinata, and Gaara alone.

Naruto turned to Hinata. "You can trust Gaara," he whispered to her. "He might be a bit weird, but he's a good guy, deep down. Just don't let anything he says scare you." She nodded, and Naruto took her hand in his, deciding to trust Gaara with knowing they were together.

Gaara looked at the two. "Hey, Naruto, what's this?" he asked, gesturing at their linked hands.

Naruto grinned. "This is Hinata, my girlfriend," he said proudly. Hinata blushed deeply at his comment, but she nodded when Gaara looked at her questioningly.

"Girlfriend huh?" Gaara asked. They both nodded, smiles on their faces. "So, how's Kyubi?"

Naruto looked at Gaara, horrified he had said that. "Hinata didn't know..." he said softly. He turned to Hinata slowly, terrified he'd see anger, rage, hate, or fear on her face. She just looked back at him, confused.

"What does he mean, Naruto?" she asked him. "Kyubi's dead...isn't it?"

Naruto shuddered in fear. "No, Hinata, Kyubi isn't dead. I know that's what we were all taught, but the truth is, you can't kill the tailed beasts. Gaara here holds Shukaku, the one-tailed sand spirit, in him. I...well, when Kyubi attacked, it was sealed...into me."

Hinata thought about that a moment. It made everything that she'd seen Naruto endure through the years make so much sense, but she also realized the villagers were stupid to treat him like that. She stopped, which made Naruto stop and turn toward her. He looked at her in fear. "Naruto," she spoke softly. "You are a jinchuuriki, right? Both of you are?" Naruto nodded. "The people of these villages...abused you and treated you like garbage because you sacrificed yourselves to save them and protect them. They're idiots, and none of them deserve your sacrifices, much less your desire to protect and serve them." That said, she embraced Naruto hard. Naruto, shocked, slowly responded with a hug of his own. She pulled back and smiled at him, then held out a hand to Gaara. Gaara, confused, simply offered his hand. She shook it. "You two have my respect, and knowing this about you only makes it stronger and deeper. Thank you both."

Naruto smiled at Hinata, his heart feeling like it would explode in joy that she had accepted him. Gaara smiled as well, glad that his friend's girlfriend seemed to want him as a friend as well. The three continued their trek through the village. "So Naruto," Gaara said after a few moments. "You didn't answer my question. How's Kyubi?"

Naruto grinned this time, realizing Gaara asked it again as a sort of joke. "Belligerent as ever," he said back. "And how's Shukaku?" He grinned.

"Insane as ever. I still can't get a good night's sleep because of that stupid tanuki," Gaara answered. The three looked at one another, Naruto and Gaara both surprised at how casually they spoke of their demons, Hinata glad they both trusted her, all three loving how accepted they felt together. Suddenly, all three burst into laughter. It was several minutes before any of them could stand normally, much less walk. Soon, feeling bonded to one another and each feeling fully accepted by the others, the small group made their way back toward Gaara's home.

While Naruto, Hinata, and Gaara wandered the village, Kurenai and Kiba made their way to the Kazekage Tower. It was pretty easy to find, seeing as it was the highest building in the whole village, so they could always see it. They arrived at the tower after walking for about ten minutes and made their way up to the Kazekage's office to find Baki. Once they were let in, they found themselves in the presence of a man who sported visible clan markings on his right cheek and was wearing a short turban of sorts with a loose cloth covering the left half of his face, another strip of cloth framing his face, and his Sand headband, the sum of which was that only his right cheek and eye and the right side of his nose and mouth were visible.

"Lord Baki?" Kurenai asked. She figured that is who this man was, but she hadn't met him before.

"Just Baki, please, I'm no lord," he said back. "But yes, that's me. I see you are ninja of the Hidden Leaf Village. What can we of the Sand do for you?"

Kurenai smiled. "Straight to the point. I like that," she said. She handed the man the scroll. "We are on a mission from our Hokage to deliver this to you, actually."

Baki took the scroll, broke the seal on it, opened it, and read the contents slowly. In spite of his previously cold demeanor, everyone in the room, even Akamaru, could tell the man was getting more and more excited as he read the scroll. It showed in his eye, the small smile that began to curve his mouth, and he was having trouble staying still. Finishing reading, he set the scroll down and did something no one there expected of him: he burst out laughing. At the confused looks on the Leaf ninjas' faces, Baki asked, "Are you aware of the contents of this scroll?" Kurenai and Kiba both shook their heads. Baki handed the scroll back to Kurenai.

Kurenai read the scroll quickly. It spoke of a tournament to be held in the Leaf Village composed entirely of Sand ninja for the purpose of selecting their next Kazekage. The rules for said tournament would be the same as the ones for the Chunin Exam Finals, in other words none. Several dignitaries and so on would be invited to view the tournament along with any Sand ninja or villagers who wished to see it. Specifically requested were any Sand shinobi, active or retired, who would be involved in the selection process. The scroll was a proposition, aimed at Baki, for this to take place. The only Leaf shinobi who would even be aware of this tournament, should it occur, were Team Kurenai as the escorts of the Sand delegation, the Hokage, for obvious reasons and to assist in the selection of the new Kage as requested, and a few ANBU to assist in protecting the tournament contestants as well as the other Sand shinobi and villagers while they resided in the Leaf Village.

Kurenai looked up at the man before her. "And do you intend to accept this, Baki?" she asked him. The man simply nodded, seeing no reason to waste the effort to speak at that moment. Kurenai thought a moment. "In that case, we should be leaving the day after tomorrow, early in the morning, if that's acceptable to you?" At his second nod, she finished, "Well, in that case, if you could direct us to the home of Gaara and his siblings, we would be much obliged. He has offered us lodging for the duration of our stay."

As Kurenai and Kiba were being directed toward Gaara's home, Naruto, Hinata, and Gaara were arriving there. Naruto marveled at the grandiose home, staring at everything and being, for once, careful to not damage anything. Hinata giggled at him, while Gaara just shook his head at his friend and made his way into the home itself to find his siblings and let them know they had guests. He knew Temari would be glad to hear of Shikamaru, even if she'd never admit it, and Kankuro...well, any pretty girl was welcome as far as he was concerned, even if she was taken (Hinata) or way out of his age range and league (Kurenai).

"Temari?" Gaara said as he came into the kitchen, where he often found his sister doing one thing or another. It was her escape from Kankuro, really, as their brother avoided all "domestic" tasks like the plague. "Are you in here?"

Temari looked up from where she was sitting at the table working on some paperwork. "Right here, Gaara," she said back. He turned to her and the two smiled briefly at one another; it was their way of saying they were there for one another and precious to one another. That had started after Gaara fought Naruto, yet another gift he had given them, though they doubted he knew it. "What's up, Gaara?"

"We have guests," he answered. Temari looked shocked, to say the least. "From the Hidden Leaf Village." She perked up at that, as Gaara knew she would. "No, Shikamaru isn't one of them." Gaara had to chuckle as her face fell at that news. "However, Naruto is." In all reality, Gaara was fighting off gales of laughter as he predicted his sister's reactions exactly; she had perked up again at that one, knowing Naruto might be able to give her news of Shikamaru. "He and his girlfriend are in the main hall, the rest of their team should be here soon."

Temari surprised Gaara with her reaction for once: she looked royally pissed at that one! "You mean to tell me that pink-haired banshee said yes to him? She never cared for him, not even once," she said. Gaara couldn't take it anymore at that, he burst into laughter. Temari went from angry to confused.

"I forgot about that, apparently they changed the teams. No, Naruto isn't with Sakura, I believe her name is, the pink-haired banshee as you called her. He's with a raven-haired girl with pale eyes, and I've honestly never seen such sheer adoration as she showers on him with every look, even knowing about his demon," he said, smiling at his sister a little.

Temari thought about that. Raven hair, pale eyes? "Oh, you must mean that little Hyuga girl, Hinata, wasn't it?" she said. Gaara, looking a little surprised, nodded. "I saw her at the Chunin Exams, she was losing her match and then started fighting like one possessed when the blond cheered for her. Good for him, I'm glad he noticed her."

"Anyway," Gaara said, not wanting to get into another weird conversation with his too-observant sister, "why don't you come out and meet her?"

Temari grinned, then got up from her seat and put up her paperwork. "Yeah, that'd be a good break from this; don't worry, this isn't urgent," she said, adding the last part at Gaara's worried look. She stashed the paperwork in a drawer in the kitchen, then followed Gaara out to the entry hall. The two siblings arrived just as Kankuro was coming into the room from upstairs and Kurenai and Kiba, Akamaru on his head, were being let in by Naruto from outside.

Naruto, seeing Temari looking at Hinata, made a gesture to Gaara from himself to Hinata, then a shushing motion. Gaara leaned to Temari and whispered, "Don't mention Naruto and Hinata being together, they don't want their team to know just yet." Temari nodded.

Temari smiled at her guests. "Welcome, all of you," she said. "Naruto, nice to see you again. You must be Hinata." Hinata nodded. Temari turned to Kiba. "And Kiba, right?" He nodded. "I remember hearing about you from the Sasuke fiasco." She noticed that sent a shudder through the four Leaf ninja present, so she dropped that subject. She then turned to Kurenai. "And you are?"

"I'm Kurenai Yuhi," Kurenai answered, a small smile on her face. "As you're obviously aware, these three are Naruto Uzumaki, Hinata Hyuga, and Kiba Inuzuka. They are my team now."

Temari nodded. "All right, Hinata, Kurenai, you two come with me, we'll let these goofy guys have some time to themselves," she said. Within moments, the three kunoichi had disappeared into the kitchen.

Naruto turned to Gaara and Kankuro. "So, Gaara, now what?" he asked.

Gaara, who seemed to have entered a state of shock at Temari's take-over, looked at Naruto a moment in confusion, then nodded. "I'll show you two to your rooms, I'm sure your kunoichi teammates would appreciate it if you would take their things to their rooms," he said. Naruto took the hint and lifted Hinata's bag into one hand and Kurenai's into the other, thanking them silently for packing light. Gaara grinned and walked off to show Naruto and Kiba to their rooms.

While Gaara was getting their guests settled, Temari had taken Kurenai and Hinata into the kitchen. "Okay, now that we don't have to worry about Kankuro bothering us," she began, "let's see about getting some dinner for us all made, and we can all have us some girl-talk."

Hinata smiled. "Thank you, Temari," she said, remembering the girl's name from what Neji had told her about the Sasuke retrieval mission. Kurenai nodded her thanks.

"Don't mention it," Temari responded. "I wanted to get away from my idiot brother anyway." She turned a grin to the other two. "Just because I can beat his ass with my fan doesn't mean I like doing it." Her look belied her words, however.

Hinata giggled. "Temari?" she said softly. Temari smiled at the girl. "Are there any dishes you could teach me to make from here?" Temari looked a little confused. "You see, I love cooking, but I've had to teach myself what I know, so anything you could teach me I would really appreciate. I've always wanted to learn new dishes and so on."

Temari came over and put one arm around Hinata's shoulders and led her to the kitchen, away from her sensei. "Well, let's see what we can do for you," she said, grinning. It wasn't often Temari found a kindred spirit like this, and she wasn't going to waste the opportunity.

Kurenai poked her head into the kitchen a moment later. "Temari, could you direct me to our rooms, please? I'd like to freshen up a bit before dinner," she said. Temari told her where the rooms were, then directed Hinata to a spot where she could wash up as well.

Once the older kunoichi was gone, Temari turned to Hinata. "So, Hinata, how are you and your boyfriend getting along?" she asked and chuckled in satisfaction at the deep blush that colored Hinata's face. Hinata looked up at Temari, her eyes worried. "Don't worry, Hinata, I won't tell. Gaara told me before your teammates got here. But seriously, how do you two get along?"

Hinata smiled. "We just got together on the way out here, actually, but so far, it's been really great," she said. She sighed. "I just hope it lasts, you know?"

Temari rested a hand on Hinata's shoulder. "If there's anything I know about Naruto, it's that once he decides he wants something, he never lets it go. Clearly, he wants you, even I could see that in his eyes, so don't worry yourself," she said, smiling at Hinata, who returned it shyly. "Now, come on, let's get dinner fixed, and I'll show you how to make a few things." The two kunoichi smiled at one another and set to work making dinner.

xxxxxx

Sasuke sat and waited in a tree not far from his trap. He sighed; this was frustrating as all hell. Why did he have to get sent out here to do this? Anyone could do it, but of course, Orochimaru had insisted it be him. He looked at his work again, making sure the traps were where he wanted them to be. Sighing, he settled in to try to get some sleep. This was annoying, but it would still be better to be at his best and ready for a fight. Closing his eyes, his thoughts drifted back to his old home as sleep began to take him. His last thought before he fell asleep was of Sakura, though why, he had no idea.

xxxxxx

Naruto looked at the group of people before him and his team. The only ones he knew by name were Gaara, Temari, Kankuro, Baki, and Matsuri. He'd been told the two ancient ones were Chiyo and Ebizo. The rest were, to him at least, just nameless Sand ninja of various ranks. The group was about fifty large, and all of them were coming back to the Leaf Village with Naruto and his team.

Naruto was a little annoyed about what was going on, but he had hope for his friend. He knew Gaara had the same dream he did, of being his village's leader, so he hoped this event would see his friend's dream come true, but at the same time he wished it was him taking part in the tournament for a chance to be Hokage.

Naruto sighed, then smiled. He and Hinata had been told to watch the front of the group, and Gaara and Matsuri had both said they would walk with them, so he didn't have all that much to complain about. After all, he'd have hours on end to talk to his friend. They would be leaving in a few minutes now, and Naruto couldn't help watching as Kankuro made his way toward Kurenai. Naruto chuckled. This should be good.

Kankuro walked up to Kurenai. He'd restrained himself while she was in his home as a guest, but now that they were leaving, he figured he might as well do some flirting. "Hey there, beautiful," he said to the red-eyed kunoichi. She just looked at him like his puppets were more interesting than he was himself. Kankuro, undeterred, flashed what he believed was a winning grin and said, "Hey, once we get back to the Leaf Village, how about you give me a private tour?"

Kurenai gave a small smile, made a single hand sign, and walked away. Kankuro didn't seem to notice one of his puppets was now in front of him (how he could not notice when he was controlling it himself is anyone's guess). He continued as if he were still talking to Kurenai. He spent the rest of the trip flirting with Black Ant.

Naruto smacked himself on the forehead as he watched Kankuro putting an arm around Black Ant's waist and the puppet smacking him on the top of his head. Naruto shook his head and proceeded to ignore Kankuro, while everyone else who could see him sweat-dropped at least twice a minute as he hit on his puppet...and continuously got rejected by it.

And so the entourage left the Sand Village. Naruto walked beside Hinata at the front of the group, Gaara behind him, Matsuri behind her. Once they were a ways out into the desert, Gaara came up beside Naruto. "How you holding up, Naruto?" he asked.

Naruto grinned at his friend. "I'm all right. It's frustrating being this close to Hinata and not able to touch her or anything, but, other than that, I'm fine. Who's this Matsuri girl?"

Gaara smiled at the brown-haired girl, who simply smiled back. "She's my apprentice. Kankuro, Temari, and I were asked to teach the up-and-coming Genin, and she asked me to teach her," he said. "We've gotten along really well, and I'd like to think I can call her a friend." He looked at Matsuri who, having heard Gaara's words, nodded in response.

Hinata fell back a step so she was beside Matsuri, and soon the two were whispering and giggling like old friends. Naruto just shrugged in a "I'll never understand girls" way, which made Gaara chuckle and nod.

"So, anyway, Gaara, what's new out here?" Naruto asked after a little bit. He gestured at Matsuri and added, "Other than her, I mean."

Gaara chuckled at his comment about Matsuri, then answered, "Nothing much really until this tournament came up." He looked back at Matsuri. "I'm looking forward to showing her what I can do. She's only really seen me as a teacher before, now she'll get to see me fight for real."

Naruto nodded. He knew how that felt. He looked at Hinata. "She's always seen me fighting and training before, I hope I can show her a different side of me now. She deserves it," he said, his voice slightly bitter. Gaara nodded in understanding. The two friends mostly walked in silence after that, each simply enjoying the company and understanding of his fellow jinchuuriki.

xxxxxx

Hinata smiled at Matsuri. "Hey, Matsuri," she said, her soft voice ringing sweetly. Matsuri smiled shyly. "You like Gaara, don't you?"

Matsuri blushed, then said, "Yes, of course I like Gaara-sensei. He's taught me so much." Of course, Matsuri knew that's not what Hinata meant, but she hoped to evade the question.

Hinata was having none of it. "That's not what I meant. You like him, want to be with him, don't you?" she said, a small smile on her face to show she meant no harm.

Matsuri blushed again. "Yes, I do," she said after a moment.

Hinata smiled. "I thought as much. You see, I've liked Naruto there for a long, long time, so I know exactly how you feel," she said. She then proceeded to tell Matsuri about watching Naruto, wishing he would notice her, and how he had recently, finally, begun to do so. She decided not to tell Matsuri just yet that they were a couple.

Matsuri smiled. "He's like Gaara, isn't he?" she asked after a moment. Hinata nodded. "And even knowing he's a jinchuuriki, you still like him?" Hinata nodded again. Matsuri giggled. "Knowing they're strong enough to contain a demon just makes them that much hotter, doesn't it?" she whispered to Hinata.

Hinata giggled back, then whispered, "I didn't think about it like that, but you're right, it does." She looked up at the two jinchuuriki in question, then added, "Let's go join them, they're not talking at the moment anyway."

Matsuri nodded and the two moved up to walk beside their respective crushes, leaving the two jinchuuriki beside one another in the middle. Hinata gave Naruto's hand a small touch as she stepped beside him, and the two shared a private smile, but other than that, the four simply walked together in companionable silence.

Suddenly, everyone in the moving group heard Kankuro whining, "Come on, just give me a chance!" followed by the sounds of him getting smacked by his puppet AGAIN and his face landing in the sand AGAIN. Everyone, including Gaara, sweat-dropped. Kurenai just laughed.

The group soon found themselves leaving the desert and entering a forested area. Just as evening approached, they found a small clearing that would be a perfect camping spot for the night. Hinata and Matsuri set about helping set up the tents, while Naruto and Gaara kept watch from nearby. Suddenly, an explosion rang out from nearby, startling everyone. As it turned out, someone had stepped on a trip-wire which sent a kunai with an explosive tag on it flying at him. No one was hurt, just surprised. Then it happened.

Everyone heard a voice ring out from behind them (they'd all turned to look toward the explosion), "FIRE STYLE: FIREBALL JUTSU!" It was Sasuke! Naruto would know that voice anywhere! He turned just in time to see a fireball heading at all of them, large enough to incinerate the entire party.

Gaara simply raised his hands and a wall of sand appeared in front of the group, blocking the fire jutsu. Everyone was shocked when the wall began to turn into glass as the fire melted it. Soon, Gaara lost control of the wall as it had all become glass. The middle part of the wall melted again, causing the top, solid part to fall toward the group. Everyone dodged except two. Hinata and Matsuri, seeing the two left behind, ran in and shoved them out of the way, the result of which was that Hinata and Matsuri got slammed into the ground by the falling glass. Both were knocked unconscious and covered in cuts as the glass shattered on the ground.

Naruto, seeing his new girlfriend hurt, roared in rage. "SASUKE!" he yelled out, his eyes already turning red and slitted. Sasuke heard the voice and was simultaneously glad to hear it and scared by it. He recognized it as the voice of Naruto, so he was glad, but it was also the angry voice he had heard at the Valley of the End, so he was scared. Activating his Curse Mark, he stepped out into the open where the group could see him. He chuckled.

"Hello, Naruto," he said. He flashed a few hand signs, then called out, "FIRE STYLE: PHOENIX FLOWER JUTSU!" He spewed a huge group of fireballs at the group, shuriken hidden in them. Gaara again protected the group with his sand; it worked better this time, since the fireballs were smaller and less intense. The sand also blocked the shuriken, so no one was hurt by those either. Turning to Gaara, Sasuke snarled, "Stay out of this, or I will kill them."

Gaara nodded, deciding this wasn't the time to push the Uchiha. He'd leave this up to Naruto for now. Everyone else was either terrified by Naruto's rage or the Uchiha's obvious bloodlust, so no one moved to get between the two. Naruto, sporting three tails by now, growled out, "Sasuke, I promised I would bring you back to the village, and today, I WILL see that promise fulfilled, even if I have to bring you back in a body bag!" Sasuke looked at his friend in shock. Those would be the last words spoken for the duration of their fight, though neither knew that at the time.

Naruto charged, his speed even greater than what Sasuke had seen before. Even with his Sharingan eyes, Sasuke couldn't quite keep up with Naruto. Naruto's first strike landed on Sasuke's left cheek, sending him flying thirty feet. He came to a stop as he slammed into a tree. Before moving again, he advanced his Curse Mark to second state. Using his wings, he charged at Naruto, landing a kick on the blond's chin. Naruto flipped backward, but just before he got out of range, he used the momentum from Sasuke's attack to land a kick of his own straight into Sasuke's stomach. Naruto stopped his backward flight with his tails, while Sasuke did the same with his wings.

Naruto snarled at his former friend. Sasuke just glared, his Sharingan eyes active and trying to predict what the blond would do next. Naruto knew Sasuke would fight defensively, just as Sasuke knew Naruto would fight aggressively. As predicted, Naruto leapt forward. Sasuke prepared to dodge, believing that Naruto was going to try for a direct punch again. Just as Sasuke dodged backward, however, Naruto leapt into the air and flew downward at Sasuke. His feet landed in Sasuke's stomach at the same time his fists landed on his face. His left hit him square on the nose while his right hit him from the side on the jaw. As both landed on the ground, Naruto sprang backward.

Sasuke rose, breathing through his mouth as his broken nose spewed blood. His jaw hurt, but it wasn't broken. He spat blood, then, in rage, charged at Naruto. Naruto dodged the punch but the kick landed on his right leg, breaking the fibula. At the same time, Sasuke swung with both wings, the claws on the ends of which cut Naruto's chest to shreds. Naruto landed on his back, screaming in pain. Moments later, his bone and chest were healed, and he was on his feet again.

Naruto, beyond enraged now, held out one hand, forming a Rasengan in it. Sasuke, seeing what was going on, backed up a short way and formed a Chidori. The two charged at one another and slammed their attacks into one another. Waves of chakra flowed from the point of impact, red from Naruto's Rasengan, purple from Sasuke's Chidori. The two fought for dominance for a moment, then the Chidori failed and Naruto's Rasengan tore into Sasuke's arm, destroying it. Naruto followed it all the way to Sasuke's shoulder. Then he brought his other hand around, revealing a second Rasengan swirling in it. He plunged this one into Sasuke's stomach, leaving Sasuke with one arm and a hole in his gut. Naruto, spent, reverted to his normal form and fell face-first to the ground, unconscious.

Sasuke rose and began to make his way toward Naruto, his eyes full of Killing Intent. Gaara, seeing this, moved quickly. Before he knew what had happened, Sasuke was encased in sand up to his neck. Gaara grinned at him as his Curse Mark receded. "Any last words?" Gaara asked.

Sasuke thought for a moment, wondering what would have happened if he had stayed in the Leaf Village. He wondered if he could have achieved his dream of restoring his clan, and he thought of Sakura. "Could I have had happiness without revenge?" Then he realized that was all in the past, and he had no future now. "Yeah, I could have, but not anymore. Guess I'm the dead-last now." He gave a sad smile. "Tell Sakura I'm sorry," he said.

Gaara nodded and closed his hand, crushing the boy's body to pulp. All that was left was his head. Gaara picked it up and sealed it into a scroll to take to the Hokage. Then he formed a cloud of sand and placed Naruto, Hinata, and Matsuri on it and rose into the air. "I'll take them to the Leaf Village. They need help right away." Kurenai nodded, and, moments later, Gaara and his sand cloud were out of sight. The remnants of the group settled down to try to get some sleep so they could continue toward the Leaf Village the following morning.

Gaara moved as fast as he could. Just as dawn was breaking, he saw the gates of the Leaf Village. He sighed in relief, then rushed them to the Hokage's office. "Lady Hokage, these three need your immediate assistance," he said.

Tsunade looked up and saw Gaara there. Then she saw the three unconscious people with him. She had him lay them on the floor, which he did. "SHIZUNE!" Tsunade yelled.

The assistant entered the room and immediately began helping Tsunade. Tsunade concentrated on Naruto first, found he was fine, just exhausted, and set herself to work on Hinata. Shizune set to work on Matsuri. It only took the two medical ninja a few minutes to heal the two wounded girls; they would both need blood transfusions, but they would be fine.

Tsunade stood up from her kneeling position and looked at Gaara. She gestured at the three ninja on the floor and flared her Killing Intent. "Who did this?" she asked, her voice deadly calm.

Gaara, unfazed by the Killing Intent, laid a scroll on the floor and made a hand sign. A head that was all-too-familiar to both Tsunade and Shizune appeared from it in a puff of smoke. As both medics gasped and put their hands over their mouths in shock and disgust, Gaara spoke a single word. "Him."

Author Note: I was intending this chapter to be about the same length as the first two chapters of this story. Clearly, that didn't happen. This chapter just gained a life of its own and kept growing and growing. Not to say I'm not happy with it, I am, very much so, and I hope you all enjoyed it too. Just don't expect chapters this massive from me very often. This chapter is a solid 3,000 words longer than my longest chapter before this, so yeah, this won't happen very often. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed, and I'm looking forward to your feedback.