Chapter 7

It was the first day of the Kazekage Selection Tournament. Naruto and Hinata were sitting in the stands, waiting for the first match to start. Beside Hinata, Matsuri was there as well. The brunette was bouncing in her seat. Hinata giggled. She recognized the state Matsuri was in. "You're really excited, huh?" Hinata said.

Matsuri blushed. "Yeah, I am," she said. "I'm looking forward to seeing Gaara fight. He's going to be amazing, I know it."

Hinata smiled. "She's just like I was when I was waiting to watch Naruto in the Chunin Exams," she thought with a fondness for the girl. Reaching over, Hinata rested a hand on the brunette's shoulder. "He'd be a fool to not notice you," Hinata said with a small smile.

Matsuri giggled. "He's noticed me already. We've been spending a lot of time together ever since we got here," she said with a smile. "I think we might actually be a couple now, but I'm not sure yet." This last was said with a slight blush dusting the girl's cheeks. Hinata was happy for her new friend. Matsuri rested a hand on Hinata's and squeezed; she was glad the two had hit it off the way they had. It was really nice to have a friend who not only understood what it was like to crush on someone as unique as Naruto and Gaara, and it straight-up rocked that her friend wasn't crushing on the same unique person Matsuri was.

Hinata was about to say something else when a wave of cheering erupted. They looked and found that the Kazekage candidates had entered the arena. Leading the procession, Gaara was giving a small smile to the crowd. The sand-user wasn't used to all this positive attention. He was used to attention. Actually, he was used to being the center of attention. But all of the attention he had received in the past had been fear and hatred. This...this was different. This was admiration. Gaara had no idea how to react to this, but he decided after a moment that he rather liked it.

Gaara smiled up at the crowd and gave a small wave, which prompted everyone to burst out into yet another round of raucous cheering. Gaara couldn't help noticing that all this positivity being directed at him had caused the usually loud and angry voice in his mind to...stop. It hadn't done that at any time in Gaara's memory, and yet, now, there was...nothing. "Is this peace?" Gaara wondered to himself. He had heard the term before, but he wasn't sure what it meant. Was peace?

Gaara didn't have time to fully consider this new feeling, however, because the proctor called for everyone's attention so the tournament could officially begin. The proctor, Gaara's old sensei, Baki, was smiling at all of the candidates for Kazekage. "I would be honored to serve under any one of you," Baki said to the assembly. Gaara gave his old sensei a grateful smile. Baki continued, "Keep in mind, the winner of this tournament will not necessarily become Kazekage. This is just an aid to help those of us who will eventually select the next Kazekage to determine who is most worthy of the title."

A Sand Jonin raised his hand respectfully. Baki acknowledged the man, and he asked, "Are there any rules we should be aware of?"

Baki chuckled. "Just don't kill your opponent. This tournament is not meant to weaken our village any further than it already has been. Beyond that, no." The Jonin nodded. Baki turned to the audience. "We thank you all for coming, and for hosting this tournament in your beautiful village. We are honored to be here. Let the Kazekage Selection Tournament begin!" His proclamation was met with uproarious cheers from the seats.

Naruto smiled at Hinata. "This is really exciting, isn't it?" he asked rhetorically. Hinata nodded. "I hope Gaara becomes the next Kazekage."

Hinata giggled. "He's a good friend, isn't he?" she asked. Naruto grinned and nodded back. Hinata took Naruto's hand in hers. "No matter what, I know you'll be Hokage one day, Naruto."

Naruto looked at Hinata in surprise; she had read him like a book. In the back of his mind, Naruto had been thinking that if Gaara became Kazekage, it would prove that it was in fact possible for him to be Hokage. Hinata had said exactly what he needed to hear in that moment. Naruto gave Hinata a small smile and asked, "How do you do that?"

Hinata blushed at the sincerity in Naruto's voice, then stammered out, "D-Do what?"

Naruto laughed. "How do you always know exactly what I need to hear, exactly when I need to hear it?"

Hinata squeezed Naruto's hand gently. "I know you," she said simply. Naruto thought she might say more about this, but she didn't. In her mind, that's all that needed to be said. When Naruto thought about it, he agreed. That was really all there was to it; Hinata just knew him.

Naruto turned back to the tournament after this. To his surprise, they had already missed an entire fight. Gaara had managed to harmlessly subdue a Sand Chunin within seconds. Naruto chuckled. "If Gaara's fights are all like that, this really won't take long," he said.

Hinata giggled. "Yes, that's true," she said. Looking at the tournament bracket, she said, "There are only eight candidates, anyway, so it likely won't take too terribly long unless one of the fights drags on a long time."

Hinata turned to Matsuri then. She was about to say something, but Matsuri beat her to it. "Gaara's so cool!" Matsuri gushed. Hinata just smiled. "I always knew Gaara could win this thing."

As the three talked, a second fight began. It took a little longer, as the two Sand Jonin engaged one another in a mixture of taijutsu and kenjutsu. Naruto watched with rather rapt attention; the fight was interesting to watch, and he was impressed with just how fast the two Jonin were.

Naruto eventually lost interest when the fight had been going on for a solid five minutes with neither combatant landing a solid hit. Turning to Hinata, he asked, "Was it like this watching me and Neji fight?"

Hinata blushed as she remembered the fight Naruto mentioned. "Not for me, it wasn't," she said. "It was so exciting. I couldn't believe you were pushing Neji so far." Naruto smiled. Hinata then said sadly, "I wish I could have seen the end of it. My heart wasn't doing too well that day, and I passed out before it was over."

Naruto rested a hand on Hinata's shoulder. "It's okay," he said comfortingly. "I beat him for you."

Hinata blushed deeper. "Thank you, Naruto," she said sincerely.

Naruto laughed. "I never go back on my word."

Hinata smiled and kissed Naruto on his cheek. "I know," she said. "That's our nindo."

Naruto smiled with a slight blush dusting his cheeks. He scratched at the whisker marks on his face, a nervous tic he had developed somewhere or another. "Yeah, you're right. It is," he said. He leaned in then and kissed Hinata tenderly.

When the two separated, they were blushing but smiling. When they finally got their focus back on the tournament, they found that they had missed an entire round this time. Gaara had just finished his second fight and was waiting for the final round. The other fight of the semi-finals was just wrapping up.

Gaara was smiling as he approached his final opponent. "Are you going to give me a good fight?" he asked. "The other two were hardly worth my time."

The Jonin who had made it to the finals smiled back at Gaara. "I'll do my best, Gaara," he said. "But I believe we both know who's going to win this." The Jonin wasn't complaining. He was totally okay with how things were likely to go. He was just stating a fact.

Gaara gave a small chuckle. "Still, try to make it fun, at least, won't you?" he said.

The Jonin chuckled back. "I'll try," he promised. He wanted to show off his skills, too, not just be a punching bag for the jinchuriki. He would never get the chance to show off, however.

As soon as Baki called for the match to begin, huge pink crystals sprang from the ground between the two shinobi. Knowing this wasn't part of his opponent's skill set, Gaara jumped back quickly. Using his sand, he immediately began to remove as many spectators as he could from the arena and encased them in hardened sand. He didn't know what was going on yet, but he was determined to not let anyone die because of it.

As his own shell of sand hardened around him, Baki thought, "You really have grown up, haven't you, Gaara? The Sand Village will be just fine with you wearing the Kazekage Hat." He closed his eyes on that thought and began trying to get a sense of what was happening outside.

Gaara was standing in the middle of the arena in a defensive stance. A woman appeared from behind the crystals in front of him. Her spiky gray hair was up in a rough ponytail of sorts, and she was wearing bright red lipstick. Her black eyes were filled with hatred. "Who are you?" he asked, trying to remain calm.

"I am Guren, and I will avenge the intended vessel of Lord Orochimaru!" she yelled at Gaara. "You killed the intended vessel, and once I have done away with you, Lord Orochimaru will see that I am worthy of being his vessel!"

Gaara wasn't entirely sure who Orochimaru was or what Guren, as she called herself, meant by "being his vessel", nor did he care, really. He only cared that this person had attacked him and his fellow Sand ninja reason he could tell. "Whatever," Gaara said. "You attacked the shinobi of the Sand, and you endangered my friends. You have made a grave error this day, Guren."

Even as he spoke, Gaara sent his sand to try to capture Guren. She dodged it easily and responded with a volley of crystals aimed both at Gaara and at the horde of sand orbs around the arena. The sand orbs withstood her assault without so much as a dent, and Gaara's sand defended him from the ones coming toward him.

Gaara was angry now. This...woman had appeared from nowhere and tried to kill him, his fellow shinobi, and several innocent Leaf ninja for absolutely no reason. Gaara's sand began coming at her in bigger and bigger waves, trying to pin her down. Guren was dodging around fairly easily and launching counterattacks whenever she could, which Gaara was destroying with minimal effort.

This went on for what felt like a long time, but it was really only a few minutes. Gaara smiled. "It's over!" he said. Suddenly, a huge amount of sand appeared below Guren and sucked her down into it.

Before she was sucked completely into the sand, Guren realized Gaara had just been stalling her while he used his sand to break down the ground under the arena to turn into more sand. She screamed out in frustration at how useless she was. She wasn't good enough to be Orochimaru's vessel, and she hadn't even been able to avenge the vessel he had desired and lost! She really was just a broken tool, and she deserved to be discarded and destroyed like one.

Within seconds, Gaara had encapsulated Guren in a huge prison of sand. He pulled it out of the ground and solidified it as much as he could. Guren, deep inside it, couldn't move at all now.

Gaara's orbs of sand came down to the level of the arena floor and dispelled, allowing the shinobi within them to emerge. Baki was the first to speak. "Gaara, you have done your village proud. I believe I speak for everyone here when I say you have definitively proven yourself worthy of bearing the Kazekage Hat!" he said. Everyone in the arena cheered. Turning to the huge orb of sand that was still hovering in the arena, Baki asked, "What's that?"

Gaara explained briefly how he had captured Guren in the sand. "She can't get out of there. I believe we should extract her and interrogate her to figure out what in the world she was doing here," Gaara said as a finisher.

Baki smiled. "Is that an order, Lord Kazekage?" he asked.

Gaara blushed. He regained his composure after a moment and said, "Yes, it is, Baki. That's an order."

From her position on the arena floor, where Gaara's orb had dropped her, Tsunade laughed. "The Kazekage Selection Tournament is finished!" she announced. More quietly, she added, "Congratulations, Lord Kazekage."

Gaara simply smiled. "Thank you for helping us in our time of need, Lady Hokage," he said formally. "We will share any intelligence we manage to extract from the prisoner."

Tsunade smiled. "Thank you, Lord Kazekage," she said. "Please make sure no one hears of it but me. I will pass it on to the shinobi who need to know it."

Gaara nodded. "I will do that. We must return to our village now. We have much to do," he said.

Tsunade nodded back. "It has been an honor," she said. That said, the entourage from the Sand Village left. The Kazekage Selection Tournament was concluded. Despite a slight hiccup, the tournament was a smashing success.

A/N: Yeah...I know. It's been way too long since I updated this, and this is a short one. I just really want to get this up, and I really wanted to get this arc over. I'll figure out what to do with the story next and try to update it fairly soon. Thanks to all my readers who waited all this time for this update to come out.