Chapter 8

Naruto sighed. It had been a frustrating week since the Kazekage Selection Tournament finished. He knew he wasn't ready to be Hokage yet, and he had accepted that he would probably have to wait a few years before he claimed the hat, but seeing Gaara become Kazekage, literally right in front of him, had thrown into sharp relief just how much further Gaara had come.

He was happy for his friend, but it was also frustrating to see Gaara be so much further down the road than he was himself. Hinata, standing by Naruto, where she had been for a while now and had sworn to herself she would be from now on, asked, "What's the matter, Naruto?"

Naruto turned to her. "Oh, I was just thinking," he said. "Gaara's Kazekage now. I'm happy for him and all, but it's frustrating to see him get so far ahead of me."

Hinata giggled. "I know what you mean," she said. "I've felt the same way about Neji and Hanabi at times." Smiling, she added, "Sometimes, we have to just be happy for those we care about. And other times, we can use them as benchmarks, we can promise to not be outdone by them."

Naruto considered this a moment, then he smiled broadly. "Yeah, you're right!" he said. "There's no way I'm going to be outdone by Gaara! I will be Hokage one day!" Turning toward the Hokage Mountain, he pointed at it and added, "My face will be up there, someday. Just you wait and see, Gaara!"

Hinata giggled again. "Naruto really is his own best friend, isn't he?" she thought to herself. She loved the blond, but even she had to admit it was funny seeing him psyche himself up like that.

Naruto smiled at his girlfriend. "She's just way too cute when she giggles like that," he told himself. Hinata's smile and her giggle were definitely the most adorable things in the world, in his opinion.

Naruto had spent the last week doing a lot of soul-searching. He had realized that it was almost entirely because of having Hinata with him that he was handling Sasuke's death so well. He worried how Sakura was taking it. At the same time, he wasn't sure how to bring this up to Hinata without worrying her. He had made his choice, he was with Hinata, but he knew how he had acted before, and he knew this must be worrying her, thinking that she might be his second choice. She wasn't his second choice in any way, shape, or form, but he wasn't sure how to reassure her of that.

Taking a deep breath, Naruto said, "I've been thinking. I'm really lucky to have you."

Hinata blushed, turning away. She said, "I'm the one who's lucky. You could do so much better than me." Her voice was sad but also sincere. She really believed Naruto could do better than her.

Naruto looked at her in surprise. She...really believed that? "Hinata, you are the sweetest girl I have ever met. Even if I wanted to, which I don't, I really don't think I'd ever find anyone better than you," he said, taking her hands in his and looking into her eyes.

Hinata blushed deeper. She smiled, though. "It's sweet of you to say that," she said. "Even if it's not even remotely true. You could easily get with..." she trailed off, her voice getting lower as she said something Naruto couldn't hear.

Naruto, far from oblivious to her discomfort, leaned in closer and said, "I didn't hear that, what did you say, Hinata?" He knew he was making his girlfriend uncomfortable, but he really wanted to know what she said. Her every word was like gold to Naruto.

Hinata blushed deeper yet. Taking a deep breath, she said, "I said you could easily get with Sakura or Ino or any other girl we know if you wanted to."

Naruto rolled his eyes mentally, but aloud he said, "I know I went after Sakura, but that was just a way for me to beat Sasuke. I never really...had feelings for her, not like that." Scratching his cheeks, he added, "You're not my second choice, Hinata. You're the one I chose, and I'm with you. Nothing is going to change that." He rubbed the backs of her hands gently.

Hinata smiled. She had tears in her eyes, but Naruto could easily tell she was happy. Before Hinata could speak again, a huge cloud of smoke suddenly appeared beside them! Naruto pushed Hinata back and stood between her and the cloud, taking up a defensive stance. He wasn't sure what was happening, but he would protect her if necessary.

After a moment, the smoke cleared and a huge man in a red top with an unruly mane of white hair was standing there in a ridiculous pose. Naruto relaxed. "Pervy Sage!" he said. "It's about time you showed back up!"

Jiraiya, the white-haired man in question, was Naruto's most recent teacher. He had claimed Naruto as his apprentice during the Chunin Exams, and Naruto had quickly dubbed him Pervy Sage when the man had revealed he was an enormous pervert. That said, Naruto paradoxically respected the man for his skills and looked up to him as a ninja. The nickname, at first said in scorn, had become more of an affectionate jab than anything over time.

Jiraiya smirked at the scene in front of him. "Who's your little girlfriend, Naruto?" he asked, expecting to embarrass his student.

Naruto just smirked back. "Her name is Hinata, and if I ever catch you making eyes at her, I will end you!" he said with a glare.

Jiraiya snickered. "You're a long way too young and inexperienced to be making threats like that at me!" he said. "And besides, I'm not into preteens."

Naruto snorted. "Your reaction to Sexy Jutsu says otherwise," he said back with a smarmy grin. "What do you want, you old perv?"

Jiraiya decided this wasn't the time or place to have an argument over his perverted nature. He took a breath and said, "I'm here to take you away from this place for a while. We have a little under three years for me to make you a real, full-fledged shinobi, and it's time we set about it."

Naruto glared at the older man. "No way am I leaving Hinata! We just got together, and I am not about to leave her for three freaking years just because you decided to take my training seriously!"

Hinata blushed and was about to try to stammer out that it was okay, she understood, but she didn't get a chance. Jiraiya burst into laughter. "I figured you might say that. That's why I talked to Tsunade. She told me she wasn't going to separate you two. She said that if I could get Hiashi's permission to take Hinata with us, I could take you both. If not, I had to stay here and train you. I talked to Hiashi an hour ago. He agreed to let me take Hinata. In fact, he said it would be an honor to have his daughter trained by a Sannin," he said, giving Naruto a smug smile.

Hinata gasped. "I...I'm going...with you?" she asked, unsure she had heard that right.

Jiraiya smiled gently at the blushing girl. "If you want to, yes," he said back. "I won't force you, but if you want to, you are welcome to join us."

Naruto was still trying to process what was going on. He often forgot just how well-respected Jiraiya was, given his perverted quirks and light-hearted manner. He had actually gotten the head of the Hyuga clan to agree to allow his daughter to go with them...knowing...wait...did he know? "Does Hiashi know you're taking me with you as well?" he asked.

Jiraiya laughed. "You really think he would have allowed it if he knew that?" he asked rhetorically.

Naruto sighed. "Probably not. I guess it was smart to not tell him that part," he said. "No one would want their kid alone with me."

Jiraiya glared at Naruto. "It has nothing to do with that, I'll have you know," he said. "Hiashi wouldn't have allowed me to take Hinata if he knew there was any male around other than me. He trusts me; he wouldn't trust any other man, especially not one Hinata's own age."

"Yeah, but it would have been worse than anyone else since it's me," Naruto said sadly. "I know, it's okay, I'm used to it."

Hinata took Naruto's hand in hers. "I wouldn't go if it was anyone else," she said with a small smile. Naruto blushed and smiled back. Turning to Jiraiya, she added, "Okay, we'll go. When do we leave?"

Jiraiya smirked at the two. "We leave first thing in the morning. Meet me at the main village gate at dawn tomorrow, and be ready to be gone for a while. I have all the camping equipment and such we'll need, so just pack your clothes and ninja gear. You never know what we'll run into out there," he said. Then he made a hand sign and vanished the same way he had appeared minutes before.

Naruto and Hinata grinned at each other. "Well, guess we better go get ready, huh?" Naruto said.

Hinata nodded happily. "I'll see you in the morning, Naruto," she said. The two separated after a brief hug and ran home. They had a lot of packing to do. Any thoughts of Sakura had long since left Naruto's mind in favor of the excitement of a new adventure.

The Next Morning

Naruto, Hinata, and Jiraiya stood in front of the main gate. Jiraiya looked up the road. "I wasn't sure if you would be here to see us off or not," he said. Coming up the road, her blond hair looking somehow more bedraggled than usual while not being any different in its style, was Tsunade.

"Did you really have to leave at dawn?" she grumped as she approached the trio. "You couldn't wait until noon?" Jiraiya just grinned at her, knowing her grouching was really said in good fun. Sighing, Tsunade said, "I expect you three to be on your best behavior. Remember, you represent the Leaf." At the three nods from her ninja, Tsunade smiled and added, "You three are hereby assigned a long-term A-Rank mission. Naruto, you are to train to be the best shinobi you can be while assisting Hinata in her training as best you can. Hinata, you have the same mission." Turning her full attention to Jiraiya, she glared at him and ground out, "Jiraiya, your mission is to train these two, not to spy on girls in bathhouses, do I make myself clear?!"

Jiraiya blushed a bit and waved her off, trying to look innocent. "Yeah, yeah, it's clear, crystal clear," he said.

Tsunade grinned at the three. "Good, then I'll see you guys in three years, I guess. Do your best, all of you!" she said, turning away and heading back off down the road, waving.

Jiraiya turned to the other two. "You two ready to go?" he asked. They nodded. Jiraiya smiled. "Then let's get this show on the road!" That said, the three of them turned and headed out of the gate.

None of them saw the head of pink hair that was watching them as they left. Sakura was glaring at the three as they began traveling a path where they couldn't follow. "So, Naruto," she thought. "First, you don't bring Sasuke back, and now you're walking a road I can't take, too. First it was Ino, and now you. Are all of my friends going to abandon me in the end?" She got depressed for a moment thinking about that, then her sadness translated itself into anger. "They can't abandon me if I abandon them first. To hell with all of them. They will pay for making me feel this way!" Turning toward her home, Sakura felt a deep sympathy for Sasuke. His obsession with revenge suddenly made perfect sense to her. His drive had gotten him killed. Now hers would push her to punish everyone who had ever hurt her or Sasuke. She would have her revenge. She swore it!

A/N: Dun dun dun! Yeah, I know, Sakura is going down a pretty dark road. This is the conclusion of Changes. There will be a sequel story that will cover the Shippuden era. Hope you guys come back for that.