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Ash Remains

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''Gurehai?"

''Hmm.''

''Gurehai, honey, it's time to wake up.''

''I'm up, mother.'' The girl abruptly tore the covers off her body and sat up, rubbing her eyes. A thin layer of sweat covered her forehead and neck, while a long, paper-thin cut ran from her left bicep down to her elbow. Please don't question it, mother. Just don't. 

Gurehai's mother looked at her sadly and then patted her head, making her daughter sigh in relief. Grabbing her walking stick and standing up, the woman slowly made her way out of the room. ''Go wash up yourself up. I'll make something for you to eat before you leave.'' The girl just nodded, still facing away.

When the door closed behind Mrs. Soraku, Gurehai jumped down from her bed and went to the bathroom, staring at herself in the mirror. Her white hair fell down on her shoulders, covering her right eye, as always. Her ice blue eyes looked dull, as always. Her face was an expressionless mask, as always. Well, the latter was not entirely true. Lord Third seemed to continuously find a way to crack it.

Taking a shower instead of just washing up, and wearing her regular attire, which consisted of a dark grey, yellow and icy blue jacket over a black, tight tank top, black shorts and black sandals, she began to ponder. The graduation test was yesterday, and today teams were going to be announced.

It was the stupid Clone Jutsu, as always. They judged us by whether or not we could create a mirage.

She looked at her reflection one last time, before following the scent of freshly brewn tea into the kitchen. Three man cells, with no exception, since we are 27. Uzumaki didn't pass. Who will they pair me up with? Nara, Akimichi and Yamanaka will be one cell, the successors of the Ino-Shika-Cho. But for everyone else...

"Thank you, mother." She bowed her head slightly as she ate her toast and drank her tea. I don't even care who they will pair me up with. It won't change they way they'll treat me, or they way they look at me. I just have to get stronger... I have to prove myself.

"I'll be leaving now, mother. Please make sure you don't forget your walking stick when you go outside." Gurehai walked to the front door and drew her hood up, which stopped a little above her eyes.

''Good luck, honey. I have no doubt you'll be in a wonderful team.'' The limping woman wished with her weak voice, as her child exited the house. Reaching inside her jacket and pulling something out, she stared at her reflection on the cold metal plate and then tied the headband around her forehead. The white haired girl inhaled the fresh morning air and started walking, putting her hands in her pockets. Today isn't the day I show myself, as always.

Kids were slowly entering the Academy, heading to their classrooms, talking to each other. Gurehai simply went for the class assigned for the Genin meeting, and came into a halt when she saw Nara nearing it as well. Looking at him with a blank expression, and him responding with his usual bored look, the boy held the door open for her to pass.

''Morning.'' He greeted.

''Morning.'' She returned.

Shikamaru was a different case from... well, practically everyone else. He and Akimichi never joined in when the others mocked her. Understanding the reason the latter chose not to intervene, she never really questioned that or why he didn't stand up for her either. Why stand up for her? They barely new each other, and in the end, he'd be bullied as well. She again expect too much from others, as always. At first, she thought Shikamaru didn't take part because he was too lazy. But then she found out he and Akimichi were best friends.

Plopping down on the desk by Naruto Uzumaki's, she laid back in her chair, and watched as Nara and and the blond boy exchanged words. She still didn't understand how Naruto got his headband, but she didn't get into the trouble of asking, even though the boy came out of the examination room without one the previous day.

''Uzumaki Naruto!'' Iruka-sensei called, and the said student jumped up and entered the room with him. Not long after, he got back out with a frown in his face and no headband, anywhere. 

''Gur-...''

''I'm here.'' Gurehai instantly called, not giving the teacher a chance to properly announce her name. She didn't want the attention, but unfortunately got it, as always.

''Oi, looks like Gure is going in.''

''She's never going to pass. Not with those marks.''

''She'll probably cry to the senseis and beg them to promote her to Genin.''

When she got in the examination room, trying her best to ignore everyone, she stood in the presence of Iruka and Mizuki, who looked down on some papers and then back at her.

''Gurehai Soraku?" The blue haired man asked, and she nodded, eager to get it over with. ''You will be performing the Clone Jutsu for us. An average of three Clones, and you pass. Begin.'' Gurehai performed the hand seal and closed her eyes, reopening them when four perfect images of herself appeared, two on either side of her. They all looked at the senseis with their hands on the hips.

''Congratulations, Gurehai. You may come for your headband.''

Starting to doze off, Gurehai was surprised when she heard a herd of elephants start running down the Academy halls-eh? The door burst open once again and in came Haruno and Yamanaka, the people she least wanted to see at the moment. And, as always, they were fighting about Sasuke Uchiha. Today's topic: who will sit next to him. She almost felt sad for Naruto, who already sat on that spot. Almost.

''Move!" The pinkette yelled and pushed the blond out of the way, who ended up falling face first on the ground near Gurehai's feet. ''M-morning, Sasuke-kun.'' The Uchiha stared at her. ''Mind if I sit next to you?" And then her ears were filled with the obnoxious voices of every single girl in class, arguing about who would sit next to Sasuke because they got there first.

5 minutes, a kiss and a beating later, Naruto ended up sitting next to Sakura, who sat next to Sasuke, who didn't seem to care if the world was coming to an end outside the Academy walls. Or was that Shikamaru's thing?

''As of today, you are all full-fledged ninjas. However, you are still Genin. From here on, you'll be in a squad of three, or, with one exception, a squad of four, and carry out your missions with your Jonnin leader. The groups have been determine so that the strength of each group is balanced. Now...'' Iruka sensei went on and on, and Gurehai stopped paying much attention, until the names started getting called.

As she expected, Ino-Shika-Cho was one cell. Inuzuka, Hyuga and Aburame was another. And then...

''Now for Team 7. Uzumaki Naruto... Haruno Sakura...'' At this point, Naruto was flying high and Sakura looked depressed. ''Uchiha Sasuke...'' As the two exchanged moods, Gurehai sighed in defeat. Why with her, of all people? ''And Soraku Gurehai.'' Complete silence followed his words. Even Naruto, who previously looked as if he was about to say something, stared at the teacher like he had grown a second head.

''Eh?" He blinked, scratching his head. ''Who's that?" Said girl buried her face in her palm, before turning her attention back to Iruka.

Gurehai Soraku? That's... Gure? Sakura's brow twitched, and then she let out an exasperated cry.

Her? Sasuke stole a glance from his seat, and saw her staring at the board blankly. Another nuisance to drag me down. She's probably worse than Naruto and Sakura...

''IRUKA-SENSEI!'' Naruto bellowed, pointing at the Uchiha. ''Why does an exceptional student like me have to get grouped with him?'' Sakura glared daggers at her new teammate but stood up as well, sticking her nose up in the air.

''Furthermore, why does she have to be in this team? Since she's the extra, couldn't you put her alone?" Stupid hippo, will distract me from Sasuke-kun.

''Like I said, the groups are designed to balance themselves. Sasuke had the best grades among the class, while you Naruto, were at the bottom! Also, while Sakura has the best academic performance, Gurehai graduated with the greatest fighting skills!'' Gurehai's eyes widened, as slowly everyone started to look and glare at her. No, Iruka-sensei... why did you have to say that?

''Just don't get in my way, loser." Sasuke stated, making Naruto glare at him. Meanwhile, Sakura looked angrier by the second. She... has... better fighting skills... than me?

''What did you say?"

''Do you wanna fight me, loser?" Giggles irrupted from all around the room, making Gurehai inwardly roll her eyes. Her team really couldn't get any worse.

''I will introduce you to your Jonnin leaders in the afternoon. Until then, you are dismissed.''

Gurehai spent her afternoon reading a scroll about Chakra Natures, that she had already read thrice in the past. Lord Third had given it to her, and to achieve her dream, it was essential. When the afternoon came around, though, Team 7 was the only one without a Jonnin leader, and her fellow comrades didn't fail to complain about it.

''He's late!"

''Stand still, Naruto!" 

''But we're the only team without a Jonnin! All the other squads have gone off with their teachers, but not us!" He complained, again, and crossed his arms. For the past 2 hours, Gurehai had been sitting to the desk from before, three rows away from her teammates. And then, Naruto had the brainwave of setting up a prank... for the Jonnin. 

''That's what he gets for being late.'' He reasoned, placing the eraser between the door and the wall, so that it'd fall on his or her head.

''As if a Jonnin would ever fall for such a trick.'' Sasuke voiced Gurehai's thoughts, looking away from the scene.

''Exactly! You real-...'' Sakura's sentence was cut off when the door finally opened, and the eraser actually fell on the teacher's head. Gurehai's faith in Jonnin superiority had just been completely shattered, while Naruto went on laughing at the masked man's face. ''I'm s-sorry, sensei! I tried to stop him, but he wouldn't listen!" She instantly excused herself, making her female teammate sigh. Standing up, she joined her teammates, standing behind a sitting Sasuke.

''How can I put this?" Their new sensei rhetorically asked, scratching the back of his head. ''As for my first impression of you guys... well, I hate you.'' He bluntly stated, making 3/4 of the team sulk. You aren't bringing me down with that statement. Besides, my first impression of you is that you're possibly useless. ''Now, come on. Meet me up at the roof.'' Then he suddenly disappeared in a cloud of smoke, resulting to Gurehai walking wordlessly past the others and exiting the room.

Her teammates followed her, and soon they were seating in front of their sensei. Sakura on the left, with Sasuke on her side, who had Naruto on his left. The white haired girl chose to sit cross legged behind the boys.

''Lets see... first, I'll have you guys introduce yourselves.'' The man said, as the Soraku fiddled with the end of her sleeves. As if you don't know our names already... 

''Introduce ourselves?" Sakura echoed, frowning. ''What should we say?" The usual... What you ate last night, your favorite ant species, details on you criminal record...

''Your likes, dislikes, future dream, hobbies, stuff like that!" And then, after the complaints of both Naruto and Haruno, he introduced himself first, basically letting them in on his name. ''Now you, the blond one.''

''My name is Naruto Uzumaki, and I love instant ramen! But what I love more, is the ramen at Ichiraku Iruka-sensei treats me too! I really hate the three long minutes I have to wait after pouring hot water on the ramen cup, and my hobbies are eating and comparing ramen! And, my dream of the future is to surpass the Hokage! I'll make everyone in the Village acknowledge me, believe it!'' For the Village... to acknowledge you? Uzumaki, you...

''Okay, next.''

''My name is Sakura Haruno!" She chirped, bushing a bit. And then came nine seconds of torture. ''What I like, is... I mean, who I like... is... My h-hobbies...'' She stared dreamily at Sasuke, who seemed to find the color of the sky really interesting. ''My future dream... is... AAA!'' Gurehai tried not to wince at the girly scream and just buried her face in her palms instead. ''I hate NARUTO AND GURE!" Nobody cares besides you, bully. She didn't respond, listening in to Uchiha's introduction.

''My name is Sasuke Uchiha. I have lots of dislikes, but no likes in particular. Also, I don't feel like summing up my ambition as a dream, but I do have one. The ambition to restore my clan, and kill a certain man.'' If my assumptions are correct, the person you want to kill is an S-Rank criminal, previous Anbu of Konohagakure. Even though you're the least annoying out of this bunch, you still are stupid.

''Okay...'' Kakashi trailed off, narrowing his eye at him. ''At last we have...''

''I am Gurehai Soraku.'' She hesitated, contemplating of whether to reveal some information or keep it short and mysterious, like the sensei. ''I don't have any hobbies, likes or dislikes in particular, though I hate one thing... and that's others judging someone from what they see. As for my goal for the future...'' She paused, making sure to emphasize the way she replaced the word 'dream' with the word 'goal'. 

''Fire has always been a hard thing for me to grasp, you know, Hai?"

I'll do it father. I'll grasp it... for you.

''...I want to master all five Chakra Natures, and create my own Jutsus for each one of them.''

Chapter Text

Doing her best to be quiet, so that she wouldn't wake up her mother, Gurehai maneuvered though her house, picking up weapons and other equipment, as requested by her sensei. Team 7 was instructed to gather at 5 in the training grounds, for their first mission.  The mission was basically a survival exercise, in which her future as a Genin would be determined. Not showing her frustration, she wished they'd all pass. I have come such a long way, I have graduated. I can't let Lord Third down. I won't allow others looking down at me anymore. 8 more steps, father.

She finally tied her headband around her forehead and walked to the kitchen, ready o leave a note behind for her mother. Her eyes fell on a plate on the counter, and she halted. Gureki had made her toast, like every morning, accompanied by a cup of juice. She hesitated. Kakashi-sensei not to eat unless we wanted to throw up... but how are we supposed to do any exercise without eating first? And mother went into the trouble of preparing this...

She eventually grabbed a slice and munched on it, leaving behind her note. At the training grounds with the team, don't expect me home until lunch time. Gurehai.

The day before, the girl didn't get the chance to talk with her mother. After the afternoon meeting, she had gone to the Hokage building, in hopes of training with Lord Third. After being told he was busy, she was allowed into the library, where she found a book about Chakra control. If Hiruzen wasn't going to teach her, she'd have to try walking on trees on her own. He attempts were futile, and she ended up bruising her entire right arm. And so, the woman didn't know about her team, nor their sensei.

Arriving at the training grounds at 5 o'clock sharp, Gurehai saw her new teammates approaching, each looking more miserable than the other. Naruto seemed to still be sleeping, and Sakura like she couldn't see a foot in front of her. Sasuke looked slightly phased.

''Morning.''

''Hi.''

''Murnming.''

''Hn.''

Gurehai rested her weight on one foot, arms crossed. Aren't senseis supposed to be earlier than everyone, and then lecture them for being 42 seconds late?

But Kakashi didn't show up, not even 4 hours later. The white haired Genin was about to suggest leaving, since their sensei had obviously more important things to do than teaching, when she reconsidered and went to sit under a tree, emptying her pouch and taking out scroll. Sakura looked at her like she was crazy.

''What are you doing, Gurehippo?" She asked, watching her teammate attaching paper bombs to her kunais.

''Making the most of my wasted time, Sakura-san.'' She replied calmly, not looking up from her work. The other girl huffed and turned around, sitting down next to Sasuke, who refused to move from his spot. Gurehippo. Five years later, and she still thinks her words hurt. The reason Sakura and basically all girls in class called her that, was because she was one size bigger than them, with broad shoulders and a slim waist, which made her hips look bigger. 

Done with the kunais, she opened the scroll she had also acquired yesterday and started reading about Wind  Style Jutsus. This is the next step.

''Hello everyone, good morning!" Kakashi greeted, and instantly all eyes turned to him.

''YOU'RE LATE!'' Naruto and Sakura accused, pointing their fingers at him. Gurehai gathered her belongings and walked over to the rest of the team, standing behind Naruto.

''Well, a black cat crossed my path, so...'' He trailed off, earning an incredulous look from his students. ''Anyway, for today's assignment! This clock is set for 12 o'clock. All you have to do...'' He pulled three bells from inside his pocket, and held them up for them to see. ''...Is to take these from me by then. If you fail, you'll be tied to this post, get no food, and you will be forced to watch me eat my lunch in front of you.''

The children's stomachs growled, but not Gurehai's. She was looking at her sensei in thought. So that's what not eating breakfast was all about. And, if eating his lunch in front of us means he'll take down that mask, I should probably get Sakura to fail. Wait... three bells?

''But, sensei... you only have three bells.'' Sakura pointed out after a second, and the boys seemed to realize it as well.

''Correct. Best case scenario, at least one of you will be tied on a post. That means, they will immediately get disqualified, and return to the Academy.'' He smiled, resting his free hand on his hip. The Academy? No, I can't go back again. ''Come at me with intention to kill me. That's the only way you will actually have a chance.''

''But sensei, that's d-dangerous!" Sakura claimed, looking more as seconds flew by. For you, perhaps. You could be on the ground in less than a second and he'd only have to move his finger.

''Yeah, she's right! You couldn't even dodge that eraser yesterday!" Naruto pointed out. Gurehai had completely forgotten about how the Jonnin had crushed her dreams.

''Those who complain more, tend to be the weakest links. So, I'll just ignore the loser.'' Kakashi retorted, making his student angry. ''Begin when I say s-...''

Uzumaki charged at the sensei with a kunai in hand, and Gurehai anxiously waited for his reaction. When the man stopped the attack and backfired it, making the kunai point at its holders head, she started rethinking her actions. So he is a Jonnin after all. 

''Don't be so impatient. I didn't say 'start', yet.'' He stated, releasing the boy. ''At least you came at me with intention to kill, that's something. I think I'm starting to like you guys.'' The blue eyed female opened her pouches and slid her hands inside, grabbing hold of two kunais. ''Now, start!''

Gurehai back flipped on a tall tree, staying hidden between its branches. From there, she saw Naruto challenging Kakashi, who didn't even bother to take him seriously. Taking out an orange book from his pouch, the sensei began reading. That of course, angered the blond more. After pathetically trying to get a hold of a bell Naruto performed the Shadow Clone Jutsu. The Shadow Clone Jutsu? He can perform a Jutsu of that caliber? So that's how he passed the exam.

But, no matter how impressed she was with him, Gurehai kept herself from calling out to him when their sensei performed a Tiger seal. He's going to die... that's a Fire Style sign. 

''Leaf Village Secret Finger Jutsu!'' The Jonnin shouted, positioning himself behind Naruto. Everyone watched with wide eyes, but... ''A Thousand Years Of Death!" And into the air Naruto flies, his bum aching where Kakashi had buried his fingers. There goes my faith again...

Assuming her idiotic comrade was tied to the posts, Gurehai jumped down from the tree and began to wander, until she found a clearing, and her perfect chance for a trap. When she tied the last string of thread, a scream echoed through the entire forest, and she could only imagine what happened to Sakura. I hope she didn't die. A team can't be made up by just two people.

Hearing twigs snap nearby, she got into her battle position, holding her kunais near her face. Making sure to look around before turning to her sensei. 

''Ah, here you are, Gurehai. Are you going to attack as well?" Kakashi asked, still holding his book. Taking a closer look, the girl noticed it had an image up front, and the words 'Icha Icha Paradise' plaster on it. Wait... isn't that...  ''You know, 'Gurehai' is a bit long. Would you mind if I called you Gure? Hai, perhaps?" Her eyes widened a little at the second suggestion, before she regained her composure, and sent a kunai flying near his neck. The weapon lodged itself on the tree behind him with a loud thud.

''I expected more from the graduate with the best fighting skills. Your aim is a little off.'' He commented, taking a step forward. She inwardly smirked.

''Now, is it?" She asked, before pulling at the thread attached to the kunai, triggering the trap. A dozen shuriken came for the sensei's head but he quickly dodged, jumping into another thread. That one triggered another dozen of shuriken, and when he moved again to avoid them, he went exactly where Gurehai wanted him to go. Performing a series of hand signs, she slammed her hands on the ground. This is the second step, father.

"Earth Style:" She announced, and the Hatake's eye widened. ''Stone Spike Prison!'' All around him, spikes erupted from the forest floor, immobilizing the lower part of his body. The stone, spiky edges were so close to his face, that a single movement could draw blood. She's using Ninjutsu too? Her and Sasuke, who would have thought they had such Chakra... Before the Genin could make her next move, her sensei's body was replaced with a puff of smoke.

''That was a nice technique.'' She heard from behind her, and turned around just in time to see herself attacking her with a kunai. She blocked it with her own, only to find out the second her had an equal amount of strength. I got trapped in his Genjutsu... shit. Knowing she had to find an opening and break it, Gurehai tried to put herself in Kakashi's shoes. He made a fake, based on the abilities he knew I had. So the illusion...

Gure gripped the handle harder, slicing up, forcing her Chakra through the blade. Now covered in Lightning, the kunai broke through the fake's one and shattered it to pieces, giving her the opportunity to kick her impostor in the gut. ...Can't do this! Quickly performing the necessary hand sign, Gurehai closed her eyes.

''Release.''

When she finally opened her eyes again, she found herself on the same clearing, but this time completely alone, and panting. Just as she had caught her breath, and was ready to get back up on her feet, the shrill sound of an alarm going off filled the air. Her head dropped. Have I failed? Guess I'll just have to go to the post and meet up with the others.

Sure enough, when she got there, she saw Naruto tied tightly into the middle post, and the remaining two on the ground, pouting. Secretly satisfied she wasn't the only one with no bell, she walked over to them, hearing their stomachs growl, louder than last time. Her own felt normal, as she had eaten something in the morning.

''I can hear your stomachs growling!'' Kakashi said, looking down at them, once Gurehai had sat down between Naruto and a wooden post. ''And, as for this exercise, there's no need to go back to the Academy.'' He announced, and the white haired girl's breath hitched. I did it. I'm not going back. Maybe sensei decided my skills were- 

''But all I did was lay unconscious... Is that okay?" Sakura asked doubtfully, making her female comrade suspicious once again.

''Does that mean the four of us...!" Naruto grinned, while his crush jumped up and down, cheering.

''Yes... The four of you... should quit being Ninjas!" He snapped, gaining his students' attention. Gurehai stared at him hurt and dumbfounded.

''No, wait! I get the fact that we didn't take the bells, but why are you telling us to 'quit' like that?" Uzumaki shouted, trying to set himself free.

''Yeah... Doesn't effort matter at all?'' Gure asked, staring expectantly at Kakashi from the ground. ''I mean, most of us tried.'' Her words took a while to sink in, since no one had really heard her voice before, and was surprised by its smoothness. When Sakura got hint of the jab aimed at her, she went to argue.

''Well, you're all squirts who don't deserve to be called Ninjas, so...'' Soraku watched in confusion as Sasuke shot up from her right and attacked Kakashi, who effortlessly pinned him on the ground. ''I was saying you're all squirts.''

''Don't step on Sasuke-kun like that!" Sakura shrilled, balling her fists.

''You all think that being a Ninja is easy, huh?" Their sensei asked, earning surprised looks. ''Why do you think you're doing these exercises in teams?" That made her think. In three, four man cells. We had to use our numbers... we had to work as a team to get them. Kakashi only confirmed her suspicions. ''The reason is that you have to use teamwork. Nevertheless, it's too late, even if you realize it now. The four of you might have actually stood a chance, if you had worked together. Well, too bad.''

''Well then, wait. Why were there only three bells in the first place? Even if we succeeded in taking the bells from you, one of us was bound to fail, anyway.''

''Yes, Gurehippo is right. Wouldn't it create internal discord, if three members were to go all out and pass, while one had to hold back and inevitably fail?"

''That was the exact purpose. It's under these conditions, where one's own interests aren't the issue. The intention was to select those who could prioritize teamwork, however, you idiots... Sakura, you were only concerned about Sasuke, and you didn't even know where he was. You didn't care for Naruto, who was right before you eyes. Just like you, Gurehai.'' Her head snapped up when she heard her name.

''You didn't even try to find the others. You went on alone and set up traps, not caring if one of your teammates fell for them!" She hadn't even thought about it like that. What if Sakura had stumbled upon the threads, in search for Sasuke? There's no way she'd be able to evade all of them, and no matter how despicable she is, I wouldn't like to be named 'comrade killer'. ''As for you, Naruto, you only run solo. You...'' He pressed his foot harder against The Uchiha's head, making him grunt.

''You labeled the other three as hindrances, and acted on your own! Missions are carried out in squads! There's no denying that Ninjas need unsurpassed individual skills, but 'teamwork' is considered far more important than that.'' Gurehai's face fell, realizing he was right. ''Individual actions cause crisis and the death of comrades. For example...'' He took out a kunai, pointing it at his prisoner's head.

''Sakura, kill Gurehai or Sasuke will die!'' Kakashi commanded, and, even though he was just trying to make a point, the girl knew Sakura would probably obey if she wasn't in a daze. ''On top of having a hostage, you'll be faced with two impossible choices and and up dead.'' So basically... death, death... death? ''Every mission is life risking.'' He abruptly stood up and put the kunai away. Sasuke stood up, as the sensei turned his back to them. 

''All the names in this stone are the names of Konoha heroes.'' He said, and Gurehai finally realized what the monument was.

''The KIA stone... Every shinobi's name killed in action is engraved in that monument, right?" She asked, not really waiting for an answer. 

''Yes. This is a memorial. My friends' names are also written here.'' At that, the Earth Style user looked down. Your name is somewhere among the ones of Kakashi sensei's friends, isn't it, father? ''I'm giving you four another chance.'' He announced after a few seconds of thought. ''However, it'll be a tougher battle for the bells. Those who want to challenge me can eat lunch. But don't give any to Naruto. That's your punishment for breaking the rules and attempting to eat on you own. If someone lets him eat, they'll be disqualified instantly.''

With that he left, and Gurehai stared at the bento box in her lap in disdain. He didn't say anything about Naruto being able to challenge him as well. That means, he can. If he's the only one who doesn't eat, he'll have no stamina, and drag us down. So... Kakashi-sensei is basically daring us to feed him. He wants to test our teamwork.

''Here.'' She said, holding up her chopsticks to Naruto's mouth. He, including her remaining two teammates, stared at her, shocked. ''The rice is really tasty.'' 

''Are you dumb, Gurehippo? Sensei just said you'll be disqualified if you give him food!"

''No, she's right.'' Sasuke argued, offering the blond some of his lunch too. ''If we're going to challenge him, we'll need every ounce of strength we can find.'' Hiding the fact she was surprised the Uchiha had agreed with her, the girl forced Naruto's mouth open and made him chew. The poor lad had tears running down his cheeks.

''You guys...'' He sniffed, accepting Sasuke's offer as well. When the pink haired Kunoichi held her chopsticks up for him as well, Gure thought Hell had probably frozen over. ''S-Sakura-chan..''

''Come on, eat it. I'm on a diet anyway.'' She mumbled, looking away. Or rather, you can't bear not agreeing with Sasuke.

''YOU!!!" Kakashi's booming voice echoed around them, and the Jonnin was suddenly standing above them. Soraku eyed him, intimidated. ''YOU IGNORED MY ORDERS! NOW YOU-...''

''No!'' Gurehai interrupted, standing up. ''We did exactly what you wanted us to do, didn't we? In order for the four of us to take you on, we need to be at full strength. So, we had to feed Naruto!" He's still trying to trick us. Kami, I hope I'm not wrong. Finally realizing this, the others stood up too. 

''We are a team!" Sasuke added, and the girl looked at him, satisfied.

''The four of us, are one!'' Sakura stopped cowering in front of the frightening sensei, and Naruto shook his head violently.

''You are one, huh?" Hatake contemplated, silently judging them. His eye met Gurehai's blue ones, that were challenging him wordlessly. ''Then all of you...''

The four Genin waited anxiously, to see if their point was right. We are one... but he could also disqualify us all as one...

''PASS!" Not able to hold her smile back, the white-haired teen pumped her fist in the air. ''Up until now, no one would actually listen to what I said. A ninja must see through deception, and you did.'' The sensei stared off at the sky. ''In the shinobi world, those who break the rules are trash. But those who abandon their comrades, are even worse than trash.'' That was really cool.

''That's it for the exercise, everyone. Team 7 starts its first mission tomorrow! You can all go home now.'' Gurehai was so happy, she tore through Naruto's restrains and helped him up.

''Do you guys fell like eating some ramen?" She asked, her suggestion met with hesitation.

''Not today. I have things to do.'' Sasuke replied, and walked off. Sakura declined as well, saying she was on a diet, as always.

''Gure-chan...'' Naruto started, and the girl's eyes narrowed. ''Did you just say...'ramen'?" He asked, his eyes gleaming. She awkwardly nodded, absolutely sure she had heard the boy's life revolved around the food. ''I LOVE YOU, GURE-CHAN!" He exclaimed, hugging her around the neck. Unsuccessfully trying to push him off, she slightly blushed when she realized Kakashi was still present.

''Not so fast, Gurehai.'' He said, making her freeze. What could he possibly want to talk to her about? She didn't do anything, did she? ''I need to talk to you for a moment. Naruto, would you be kind enough to get a head start? I'm sure Gurehai will like anything you order for her.'' The blond eagerly ran off, and the Soraku stared up at her teacher in worry.

''What did I do?"

Chapter Text

"What did I do?"

Kakashi stared at his student, hiding his amusement.

"You have two Chakra Natures that you can control already. That's impressive. That Earth Release Jutsu... I've never seen or heard of it before." He narrowed his visible eye at the girl, who was nervously listening to him.

"That's because it's mine." She admitted, hands in her pockets. "I created it, after I mastered Doton." Gurehai felt really nervous, discussing this with Kakashi. The only one who ever made her open up and talk about anything in particular, was the Hokage. 

"Oh? A Genin like you, mastered Doton? So you know more Jutsus than that, am I right?'' He inquired, his tone almost sarcastic. Does he seriously not believe me? Oh, that's right. I made Lord Third promise me he wouldn't mention anything to anyone... But now I have to tell him.

"My sensei was always the one to motivate me to become stronger. Without him, I don't think I'd ever find my purpose. Without him, I wouldn't have a dream. One day, you'll have a sensei too, Hai. Trust him. Trust him with anything, trust him with your life. An exceptional shinobi will never fail his mission, an exceptional man will never let his comrades down, but an exceptional captain will somehow manage both, no matter the cost.''

''...A bunch of them, yes. Lord Third trained me.'' Her blue eyes ran over the green grass, like it was the most interesting thing in the world. ''I did say I was going to master all five Chakra Natures, didn't I? Those were the first two steps.''

''And what's the third?" He asked, satisfied with the new information. Just as I thought. Lord Hiruzen passed his Doton knowledge to her . And I have an idea of what the third step is, he thought, recalling her reaction to his Genjutsu.

''Raiton, she answered simply, starting to feel like she was being interrogated. ''It needs a lot of work I need to do on my own, since Lord Third doesn't possess that kind of Chakra Nature.'' If he says he has it next, I think I'm going to scream. Looking up at him with hopeful eyes, she was met with his back.

''You know, I could help you with that.'' He commented, his mask hiding the smile on his face when he felt her grin. ''But first, you have to tell me the extent of your Doton abilities.''

''I use E and D Rank Jutsus for defense, like the Earth Clone.'' Making a hand seal, the ground next to her rose ans swelled, slowly morphing into Gurehai. ''And I create stone armor using dirt.'' The original body shrugged off its jacket, knelled down and grabbed a handful of dirt. She rubbed some on her forearms and biceps, then spread the rest from her calves all the way up to her shorts. The dirt hardened as she molded Chakra into it, taking the form of large scales. ''Doton: Stone Bracers.''

Kakashi watched as the Earth Clone cracked and turned into a pile of dirt, and his student looked disappointed. ''You are exhausting your Chakra. In time, I'll need to test all of the team's Chakra control. Undo your Jutsus. Now, what about offense?"

''C Rank Jutsus, and a D one. The Earth Fist, Rock Spear, Earthen Rising Spears, and Stone Shuriken, respectively.'' Gurehai's hand flew up to her chest, as a sharp pain erupted from it when her armor dissolved.

''Your Chakra control needs work. But still, performing Jutsus like that takes skill. Lord Hokage found a very promising student.'' Gurehai was shocked by his praise, but focused on catching her breath. ''Now, off you go to Naruto. Eating will replenish your Chakra.''

''See you soon, sensei.''

''On a second thought, before you leave.'' He stopped her a few seconds later, when she had put on her jacket. ''Do you have any other skills I should know about?" He asked, resting his hands on his hips. The white haired girl hesitated. It wasn't perfected, and she didn't want to mess it up in front of him. 

''One day, you'll have a sensei too, Hai. Trust him. Trust him with anything.''

''Genjutsu. One, to be exact. Lord Third said it has much potential, but... I'm really nowhere near perfecting it.'' Last time she had tried to use it, she ended up messing her thoughts up, and traumatizing herself instead.

''That's all right. What am I your sensei for? We'll work on that together.''

''Thank you, Kakashi-sensei. Thank you for everything.''

---- ---- ---- ----

''Gure-chan! What took you so long, ttebayo?" Naruto asked with his mouth full, when she finally got to Ichiraku Ramen. The pain in her chest had subdued to a dull aching, but it was still there. The blond had one empty bowl already in front of him, while another, steaming one, waited by his arm.

''I'm sorry, Naruto. I hope I didn't make you wait for long.'' She excused herself and sat down on a stool next to him, in front of the extra bowl of ramen. Miso pork... is he psychic or something? Avoiding to mention the reason she was late, she grabbed a pair of chopsticks and dug in.

''What did Kakashi-sensei want with you anyway?" He asked, before his eyes widened, and he struggled to wipe the ramen running down his chin. ''You're not into trouble for helping me, are you?" Gurehai was a bit surprised at his concern.

''No that's not it. Besides, we all fed you back there. Sasuke and Sakura didn't get called back, did they? Don't worry.'' She chewed on some pork, pretending to not see the stare coming from her teammate. Don't ask why, Naruto. Not yet. ''Say, Naruto.'' She turned to look at him, and noticed he was frowning. ''Uh? Why are you frowning?"

''Eh?...Ah, no, it's nothing! Just... I don't really recall hearing your voice ever before, not even in class. Why did you never speak up? Your voice is really nice...'' Gure raised an eyebrow at that, before Naruto realized what he'd said. 'No, no! I-I didn't mean it like that, Gure-chan! I-I- I mean... I LIKE SAKURA-CHAN!" He suddenly burst out, his face red like a tomato. His teammate laughed slightly.

''It's alright, Naruto. I think you have a really nice voice too.'' She stated, and he calmed down, eyes litting up. When you aren't throwing a fit or yelling at people's ears as always, that is. ''Anyway... what you said up on that rooftop... yesterday, in the team meeting... about your dream becoming the Hokage... was it true?"

''Of course it was! I'm going to be the best Hokage to ever live!''He pumped his fist in the air, nearly knocking his bowl down. Gurehai looked down.

''But...why? A Hokage has responsibilities, a lot of them. He has the weight of all the villagers' lives on his back, their safety, Konoha's welfare and alliances to take care of. He must be on a constant lookout for war, ready to give his life, everything. He has to make difficult decisions, even if others hate him for it.'' She looked him in the eyes, and saw the awestruck expression on his features. ''So...why?"

''I'd do anything to save my friends, you know? So doing all that, is my dream. In case you haven't noticed, everyone pretty much hates me already... So I'm going to prove myself to them.'' The Soraku's eyes widened.

Gurehai and an older, black-haired man sat on top of the Hokage monument, gazing at the Village during sunset. The tall, muscular man had the small girl between his crossed legs, her head resting on his chest.

''Father?" She asked, gaining his attention. ''Who were the Hokages?" She pondered, turning her head to see the part of the First's head that was visible in the limited light.

''Ah... I was wondering when you'd ask that. Well, so far, the Hidden Leaf Village has had four of them, Lord Hashirama, Lord Tobirama, Lord Hiruzen, who is currently the Hokage, and Lord Minato, who passed away a few years ago.'' The man, Gure's father, patted the stone next to him. ''A great one, Minato Namikaze was. We are sitting on his head right now.''

''He passed away? You mean, he died?"

''Yes. He laid his life on the line, protecting you, me, and the entire Village. It was his duty as the Hokage, after all.'' He stared off into space, watching the sky turn orange and red.''

''But, why would he do that?" Gurehai cried, turning fully around to look at her father. ''If the duty of the Hokage is to definitely die at some point, then why become one in the first place?" The black haired ninja turned her back around, to allow her to see the sunset.

''Everyone has to die at some point, Hai. But, there are certain people, like Lord Fourth, who would rather die early, to protect something they love. That's why he became the Hokage. To protect the Village and its people, that he held so dear, and give everyone the chance to live a long life.'' The sky was now slowly turning black, stars littering the dark blue veil. ''When I was your age, or perhaps a little older, I wanted to become the Hokage too.''

''Really?"

''Really. But then, after a lot of thought, I changed my mind. That was because I realized a Hokage has responsibilities, a lot of them. He has the weight of all the villagers' lives on his back, their safety, Konoha's welfare and alliances to take care of. He must be on a constant lookout for war, ready to give his life, everything. He has to make difficult decisions, even if others hate him for it. I wasn't looking forward to any of that. And that's how I found my real dream.''

''To use all five Chakra Natures!"

''Exactly. And I have to say, I've done a pretty good job so far. But, fire has always been a hard thing for me to grasp, you know, Hai? I hope I get it, sometime soon.'' The sky was now black. Bellow, Konoha's streets were all lighted, by both lamps and stars alike.

''Your friends don't hate you.'' Gurehai pointed out, after a short pause, letting her chopsticks fall on her bowl. That was just a year before he... ''I don't, either.'' Naruto's head snapped up at that, mouth wide open. She reached forward and closed it, chuckling. When she pulled back, the boy gulped and gaped again. 

''You don't... hate me? Really?" He asked, eyes full of hope. The girl had never noticed how sad his blue eyes looked. She shook her head.

''No, I don't. I understand your dream now. If you remember, I have one too.'' She paused, pushing away her bowl of ramen, and looking at her teammate. ''But I didn't always have it. It was my father's.'' Catching glimpse of the shock in his face again, she handed the owner a few Ryo and stood up. The boy in the jumpsuit followed her outside. Was. ''Doton, Raiton, Suiton, Fuuton... Katon. Originally, it was him who wanted to master them. He's dead now, and his dream is mine.''

''I didn't know-...''

''It's okay. I know you don't have your parents, either. By the way, I'm sure Mother would like to meet you one of these days, seeing that you are my teammate. She's going to make such a big fuss about it...'' She trailed off, noticing that they had reached a crossroad, and her house was one way. ''You'll be forced to eat her creations.''

''I-I don't mind, at all!" He smiled, as if the subject of their late parents was never even brought up. With his hands behind his head, he looked so carefree.

''By the way.'' She called, before any of them could walk away. ''You shouldn't think of yourself becoming Hokage as just a dream. I think it's more of a goal, actually.'' His lips parted in surprise. ''And I know my dream is different than yours. But...'' She turned her back to him, and started to slowly walk away. ''It would be my honor to help you achieve it. See you soon, Naruto.''

''See you soon, Gure-chan.'' She heard after a while, and footfalls going the other way.

I'm getting closer and closer to our dream, father. And I've made a friend. An incredible one.

Chapter Text

''Come back safe, honey.'' Gureki kissed her daughter's forehead, and then tied her headband around it.

''I can't make any promises, mother.'' She replied, fidgeting with the strap of her blue backpack, which contained, weapons, scrolls, and a change of clothes. The limping woman supported herself with her walking stick and smiled down at her, not able to help the tear running down her cheek. 

''Soshimo would have been so proud.''She commented, making Gurehai's eyes widen. In order to avoid further emotional breakdowns, she leaped away from her mother and out of the fence. He would?

Reaching the gates, the girl found her entire team and the man they were supposed to escort already there. Here's what happened, in order for the Hokage to assign them an C-Rank:

After completing yet another D-Rank, team 7 reported back to the Hokage's office. There, Naruto complained they only got boring missions, in which Gure agreed. After some thought -4 seconds, really- Lord Hiruzen let them on to an C-Rank, because of which they had to guard old-drunk Tazuna, the bridge builder.

''Alright, lets go!" Naruto yelled excitedly, ten feet ahead of everyone already.

''What are you in such a big fuss about?" Sakura scrunched her face up, scooting closer to Sasuke. Gurehai stood behind Tazuna, next to Kakashi.

''Well, it's my first time to ever leave the Village.'' Mine isn't.

''Hey, are you sure I'll be okay with this squirt?" The builder asked, pointing at the Uzumaki, who couldn't stand still. Gurehai glared slightly at him, but kept silent. Kakashi assured the client that everything was going to be alright, especially with him there, and then they set off.

As Sakura engaged Tazuna into a conversation, which led their sensei onto five minutes of explaining the Hidden Villages and their leaders, the Soraku noticed something suspicious.Tazuna, their client, visibly started to sweat at the mention of fighting in C-Rank missions. That got her thinking. Could he possibly be lying? No, that's not right... Lord Third would never risk our lives like that.

But as they walked, the unsettling feeling of being watched wouldn't leave her. Discretely looking around, and not seeing anything, she marked the sensation as just her imagination. But then, something was heard from behind them, and the girl turned her head just in time to see her sensei wrapped in chains.

''Sensei!" Her eyes widened, and in less than a second, his body was torn apart. No... that's not possible... he's a Jonnin... we're in a C-Rank! Quickly snapping out of her daze, and seeing the enemies move towards the rest of her team and Tazuna, she performed the necessary hand sign, and a spear protruded from the ground next to her, reaching her height. Grabbing it and breaking it from the ground, she turned around to see the ninjas, who Sasuke had pinned to a tree, rushing towards Sakura and Tazuna, and the other towards Naruto. ''Doton: Rock Spear!"

The mission always comes first. Protect the bridge builder. Sakura is on that. But Naruto... The boy stood frozen in front of the attacking shinobi, wide eyed. Something snapped inside Gurehai, seeing the enemy lunging at her friend like that. Suddenly, she stood behind him, spear quickly coming down to prevent him from clawing Naruto. Rock pierced clothes, skin and bones, and then came out from his chest, immobilizing him. 

Below them, Naruto stared with fear in his eyes, and he didn't even blink, even when a drop of blood fell from the point of the spear down his face. The kid that was previously admiring Sasuke for his immediate response to danger, was now trying to take in the fact his friend had just killed someone.

The pair didn't even notice Kakashi was alive, and holding the ninja that had gone for Tazuna and Sakura by the neck, back turned. The Uchiha and the Haruno, failed to see the position their teammates were in.

''Naruto, sorry I didn-...'' Kakashi started, turning around, but stopped when he saw his one student slowly standing up from the ground, blood on his face, and the other, frozen on her spot, holding the spear she had shoved through the enemy's back. ''...Help you right away. Gurehai?'' He finished, as Gurehai blinked. Her right eye, the covered one, stung, as if someone had poked her with a stick. She shook her head when the sensation disappeared after a couple of seconds. 

The girl ignored the wide eyes of her teammates, and pulled the spear out with a swift movement. The ninja fell down as she tossed the weapon to the side, and dissolved into a bloody pile of dirt. ''It's okay, sensei.'' She said, not so fazed anymore. ''I got him.''

''Well then, let me just say. Good job, Sasuke. You too, Sakura.'' Meanwhile, Naruto gaped as Gurehai offered a hand to help him up. I couldn't do anything. This was our first real battle, but Sasuke and Gurehai... even Sakura-chan...

''Oi...'' Sasuke called, looking at Naruto with a bored expression. '''Are you hurt... scaredy cat?" Naruto seethed in anger, while their white haired comrade stepped away from the corpse their sensei was picking up.

''SASUKE!!!''

''Naruto!" The sensei called, distracting the boys from each other. ''You need to clean the wound from the poison these guys had in their claws, or else it'll spread. And, Tazuna-san, we need to speak.'' When the ninjas were tied to the tree, one unconscious and the other dead, Kakashi began talking.

''These are Chunin from the Hidden Mist Village, known for continuing to battle no matter what.'' He paused and looked at his white-haired student, who looked at the two with an indifferent expression. ''I detected their presence when I saw that puddle of water. Since it hasn't rained for days, it was only natural that it was a trap.''

''But why would you let the kids fight, if you knew that?" Tazuna asked, still shaken up.

''It's simple. I could have killed these guys instantly, but first, I wanted to know who their real target was.'' Their client looked surprised... and nervous. ''Was it you, or one of us shinobi? But I got my answer. This situation is beyond the scope of our mission. You were supposed to only need backup during building the bridge, and nothing was mentioned about enemy shinobi. Or else, this would be marked a B or higher ranked mission, and we wouldn't be taking it.''

''This mission is too early for us...'' Sakura mumbled, while Gurehai argued with her in her head. No, for me it's not. She thought, before deciding she was being stupid. Looking down at her hand, she noticed it shaking a little. I can still sense how the spear broke through his ribcage, the flesh... But why don't I feel anything? ''We need to turn back to the Village, and get Naruto to a doctor. Let's give it up.'' She suggested.

''Hmm... This sure is a burden... Should we head back, since someone needs to treat Naruto's wound?" He questioned, causing Naruto to grit his teeth. Then he stabbed his hand, letting the blood flow freely. Even Kakashi looked surprised at his choice of actions.

''Naruto! What are you doing?" Sakura shrieked, approaching him.

''Old man, I'll protect you with this kunai!" He claimed, turning around to look at them with a determined look on his face. ''This mission continues!"

''Naruto... that's cool and everything... but unless you patch that up, I think you're going to bleed to death.'' Gurehai calmly informed him, gesturing to his bleeding left hand. His expression immediately changed into one of fear.

''Ah!No,no,no! I don't want to die like this, Gure-chan, help me!" He shouted, and Kakashi knelt next to him.

''Come on, show me your hand.'' Bandaging it when he saw the wound was closing up, the Jonnin waved him off and stood up. ''Come on, everyone. Let's go.''

---- ---- ---- ----

At night, the six travelers set camp on a small clearing in the forest, and, as Kakashi had the boys and Sakura prepare the meal, he sent Gurehai out to scout. The girl came back with good news, giving her report.

''No enemy presences. I've set traps all around camp, in a 20 meter radius. As long as Naruto doesn't sleep walk out of the perimeter, we'll be fine.'' Her sensei nodded in response, knowing fully well how effective her traps could be. They were the reason he originally failed her, after all.

Meanwhile, Sasuke blocked off Sakura scolding Naruto, and glared at Gurehai from afar. How in the world does she get to scout while I was stuck here with these idiots, making rice? I thought she was as bad as Naruto... and she killed a man today. A Chunin. Could she possibly... be above me?

''All right, everyone listen up.'' Kakashi called, gaining everyone's attention. The food had just been passed around, and Naruto had somehow managed to finish his portion up. ''Sasuke will be first watch. I'll be second, and Gurehai third. Next up is Naruto.  Make sure you rest. Also, no walking around at night. Traps have been laid out for safety reasons, so stay put, unless you want to die as a shuriken target on your first mission.'' The Uzumaki opened up his mouth to speak with a frown on his face, but the Jonnin held a hand up and silenced him. ''That tree over there will suffice for your bathroom needs. Now, good night!" 

Everyone lied down and closed their eyes except from Sasuke, who rested his back against a tree. 

Two and a half hours later, just as the boy felt his eyes close, Kakashi put a hand on his shoulder and told him to go sleep. The boy complied, and lied down, a few feet away from his white haired teammate, who he couldn't tell was asleep or staring at the stars. Shaking his thoughts away, he turned his back to her, and came face to face with a drooling Naruto.

About thirty minutes later, when she assumed Sasuke was asleep, Gurehai stood up and slowly approached Kakashi, who was quietly giggling to himself, reading his favorite book under the light of his flashlight.

''Uh?'' Hatake looked up, seeing the perfectly awake face of his student. ''Gurehai? Don't tell me my watch's over already?" He whispered, but she shook her head.

''No, sensei. I just couldn't sleep.'' She informed him, sitting cross legged in front of him. ''I know I should sleep to rest and replenish my Chakra.'' She said, before he could make a comment. ''I just can't.''

''That Mist Chunin is troubling you, am I right?" The girl nodded, looking at the ground. ''First kills are always quite a shock, especially to younger ninja. But you aren't the first, and definitely not the last. You handled the situation well, saving Naruto like that.''

''That's not what I was aiming for, you know. I just wanted to drive him away from Naruto. But when I saw him about to claw his face off like that...'' She trailed off, replaying the memory in her head. ''But that's not it.''

''Do you feel bad, taking another person's life?'' Gurehai didn't respond for a second. Then, she looked up to meet his black eye.

''Quite the opposite, actually.'' She eventually said, and Kakashi's eye narrowed. ''It's that I didn't feel anything.'' Her sensei stared at her with a blank expression. ''No shock, no sadness, no remorse. Is this truly how a shinobi must live? To be merciless? Kill or be killed? I think I'm just telling myself I did it for Naruto. That way, my actions are somehow justified.''

''A shinobi must not feel. His only goal is to accomplish his mission, successfully. No matter the cost.'' Kakashi told his apprentice.

''My hand is still shaking, when I look at it, I remember the sensation. It remembers. How the rock tore through his flesh like paper. They way it broke through his bones. How his body fell limp. But I don't feel. Does that make me a bad person?"

''No. That makes you a step closer to becoming an exceptional shinobi.'' An exceptional shinobi will never fail his mission. Isn't that right, father?

''I wonder if that's what Sasuke will feel one day as well. Or, rather, what he won't.'' The Soraku said next, making Kakashi perk up. After asking her what she meant, the girl looked over her shoulder at the Uchiha's back. ''When he kills his brother. You see, I try to believe all of us will eventually reach our goals, fulfill our dreams. If that's what he wishes for, well... who am I to tell him otherwise?" The conversation stopped after that, and all that could be heard was crickets jumping around.

How did she now it is him I want to kill? I never mentioned his name, not on that day... Sasuke thought, eyes wide open, recalling the day of the team meetings. ''I want to restore my clan, and kill a certain man.''

Dawn seemed to come only minutes later, and the company was back on its way to the Land of Waves.

Chapter Text

''Naruto, please stop throwing your kunais around. You'll hurt a squirrel or something.'' Gurehai pleaded boringly, glancing at her friend from over her shoulder. They had just gotten off from the boat transporting them to the Land of Waves, and the boy was trying to prove his superiority over Sasuke.

''No,no, I'm serious! I'm sensing a presence over there!" He argued, throwing another kunai towards a bush. Something squealed and a thump was heard, and Naruto ran over, discovering the snow white rabbit he had almost impaled.

''Naruto! Look what you did!" Sakura rushed over, while the Uzumaki hugged the life out of the scared animal, that was about to have a heart attack.

''I'm sorry, I'm sorry bunny! I didn't mean to, I swear!" Naruto cried, when suddenly Kakashi's voice interrupted him.

''Everyone, get down!'' He shouted, and Gurehai jumped on Tazuna, tackling him. From above, a gigantic sword came for their heads, flying to a nearby try and lodging itself there. A man suddenly appeared, standing on its equally long handle. His headband, a Hidden Mist one, revealed he was a ninja.

''Well well. If it isn't for Hidden Mist's Rogue Ninja, Zabuza Momochi.'' The Leaf Jonnin commented, stopping Naruto from engaging him. ''He's on a totally different level than the guys from the other day.'' He added, and Gurehai slipped her hands inside the pouches strapped on each of her legs.

''You, Kakashi of the Sharingan... I'll have you turn over the old man.'' The stranger said, as the sensei moved his hand to his headband. Sharingan? What does he mean? Sensei... sensei isn't an Uchiha!

''Guys... get into Manji formation, and protect Tazuna. Don't get into this fight. It's the teamwork of this situation.'' He instructed his students, who quickly obeyed and surrounded their client, holding out kunais. When Kakashi uncovered his left eye, even with his back turned, Gure felt a chill running down her spine.

''Oh. This is the Sharingan. I feel honored to see it so soon.'' That Zabuza guy turned around, taking his opponent a little more seriously.

''Sharingan, Sharingan... what's this thing everybody's saying?" Naruto demanded, frustrated, and Gurehai glanced at him from her spot next to the bridge builder. 

''The Sharingan is a Dojutsu, a visual power. It's an ability only members of the Uchiha clan can unlock. Well, could.'' She explained, making Naruto look at her weirdly.

''It is said to be able to see through Genjutsu, Taijutsu and Ninjutsu, and deflect them. However, that's not its only power.'' Sasuke continued, a little lost. He's probably wondering the same thing as me.

''You're right. The other thing it can do, is a frightening ability. The ability to copy an opponents technique.'' Zabuza added, and out of nowhere, mist filled the clearing they were standing on. He's causing it. It's a technique to blind us. ''When I was in the Anbu Black Ops, I had information on you. The Copy ninja, the man who copied over a thousand Jutsus. But that's enough talk.''

Sensei... sensei is that guy Zabuza'a talking about? Gurehai stared at Kakashi, trying to comprehend the facts. He's such an amazing ninja... wow.

''Let's end the talking here. I have to kill that old man." He drawled, and forming a seal, the mist around them grew thicker.

"He will probably come for me first. He is Zabuza Momochi, a former Anbu of the Hidden Mist and expert in the silent killing technique." Their sensei said, trying to pinpoint his location.

"Silent?" Gurehai mumbled, suddenly feeling weak and small. That guy has both experience and the advantage of the location. I know Kakashi-sensei can handle him just fine, but what are the rest of us supposed to do? How can we protect Tazuna, when we couldn't even catch a stupid bell?

"Exactly. As its name suggests, the user can complete it in absolute silence. By the time you realize it, you can find yourself in the after life. So be careful. I haven't mastered my Sharingan yet, so don't lower your guard.'' The Hatake instructed, and, Gurehai watched in worry as the mist grew even thicker, making it impossible to see a few feet ahead. Shit. I can't even see Kakashi-sensei. At least I know the other three and Tazuna are next to me.

''Eight points.'' Zabuza's voice echoed all around, sending chills down her spine. ''The larynx, spine, lungs, liver, jugular and subclavian veins, the kidneys and heart. Now, which vulnerable spot should I go for?" He explained, making the Genins' blood freeze. I hit his heart... through his lungs.

The mist suddenly disappeared all over around them, and the girl turned to see that it was Kakashi's doing. But with that, she also felt an old familiar feeling, she didn't look forward to feeling again. Bloodlust... one of the most suffocating feelings in the world, and this isn't the first time I'm experiencing it. She saw Sasuke pointing his kunai to his stomach, eyes wide. She put her hand on the blade and stopped it, making the boy slowly turn and look at her. Sensei's bloodlust is too much for him.

''Don't worry Sasuke.'' Their sensei interrupted, catching glimpse of what was going on. ''I'll protect you with my life. I will not allow my comrades to get killed.'' He assured them, managing to calm his female student down, even a little. 

''An exceptional shinobi will never fail his mission, an exceptional man will never let his comrades down, but an exceptional captain will somehow manage both, no matter the cost.''

''It's over.'' She suddenly heard from behind her, and just as she recognized Momochi's voice, she was pushed back, and met with the image of the grey-haired Jonnin stabbing the enemy in the gut. Before relief could wash over her, Gure saw the stabbed body turn to water. A Water Clone? Zabuza swung his sword at Kakashi, who also turned to water. Along with the swordsman's, her eyes widened as well. He managed to copy it in less than seconds... my sensei is awsome.

''Don't move.'' He warned, pointing a kunai at his neck. ''It's over.''

And then Zabuza started laughing. ''I must say, you are good. You managed to copy my Jutsu, at that time. But you stand no chance.'' He stated, and dissolved into water, reappearing behind Kakashi. Another clone? Zabuza kicked him hard, sending him all the way into the lake. There, trying to stand up, the Jonnin realized his mistake. 

''Sensei!" Gurehai called, but was too late, as said man was suddenly trapped in the enemy's water prison. After making another clone to take care of them, the Genin had no choice but to fight. Shrugging her jacket off, and revealing her bare arms and legs, Gurehai reached into a small pouch, attached to the bigger one on her right hip, and pulled out some damp dirt, rubbing it all over her.

''You think you are ninjas, but true ninjas have hovered between life and death many times before being called that. As for me, I call worthy of being shinobi only those written on my bingo book. And you aren't.'' He disappeared in the mist and then Naruto was kicked back, staring up at him fearfully.

''Doton: Stone Bracers.'' The Soraku felt the dirt morphing and hardening against her skin, creating her reliable armor.

''Naruto!"

''You four, take Tazuna and run away! As long as he has me trapped in his Jutsu, he won't be able to move from here!'' Kakashi yelled, making Gurehai frown. He wants us to abandon him? 

''Hai! Get away from here, now!"

''But fath-...''

''No, I said leave! Run back to the Hidden Leaf!"

She pulled out two kunais, and held them in front of her face. I'm never doing that again. Sasuke lunged forward first, throwing shuriken at him, before jumping at him with a kunai in hand. Seeing that, Gurehai also took off, aiming to get Zabuza while he was being distracted. Her plans changed though, when the man grabbed the Uchiha by the neck and tossed him back, right onto her. The two crashed on the ground, the girl catching Sasuke before his head hit the forest floor.

I promised on the pain on my left hand. I won't loose to Sasuke, and I won't fall behind Gure-chan! Naruto stood up as well, not listening to the cries of his sensei and Sakura. I won't run away!

''You, with no brows. Record on your bingo book, the man who will one day become the Hokage of the Hidden Leaf. I, Naruto Uzumaki!" He declared, tying the headband he had risked his life to take back around his head. That's him. That's the boy I admire. That's my first friend.

''Alright. Naruto, Sasuke, come over here and lend me you ear. I have a plan.'' Gurehai called, and upon seeing her determination, the two rivals did as told. They carefully listened in on her instructions, and Sakura watched her teammates in awe.

''Alright! Let's get wild!" Naruto cheered, and the white-haired girl slipped her kunais back into her pouches, the seal she was starting to form behind her back not going unnoticed by the green eyed Kunoichi.

''Sakura. Protect Tazuna. No matter what it takes. We've got the rest covered.'' She glanced at her bully from over her left shoulder, as her right eye was covered by her hair.

''I told you to run! What are you four doing? Our mission is to protect Tazuna, have you forgotten that already?" Kakashi yelled again, making them reconsider. But, upon the bridge builder's consent, they were back in the game.

''So you still believe you are ninja.'' Zabuza drawled, looking at his hand. ''When I was your age, this hand was already stained in blood!" Mine is as well.

''Zabuza the Demon. Long ago, when the Hidden Mist was often called the Blood Mist, young ninja had to face their biggest hurdle.'' Their sensei said.

''Oh, so you know about the graduation exam, too. The one where we had to kill each other.'' Zabuza commented as if it was nothing, giving Gurehai, and basically everyone, cold feet. ''Students that had eaten from the same pot formed teams and killed each other off. It was never over, until one of them was dead. Those partners had talked about their dreams together, and were slaughtered.''

''Ten years ago, the graduation exam underwent a drastic reform. That was when an evil demon appeared. A young boy, who had no qualification of being a ninja, killed over a hundred examinees by himself.'' The one who did it... was him?

''That sure was fun.'' The Demon said, recalling the memories. Charging at Sasuke and knocking him down, he turned around to see himself surrounded by Naruto's Shadow Clones. The clones jumped at him, armed, but he skillfully deflected all of their attacks.

''Sasuke! Catch!'' The blonde tossed something at the ravenette as agreed, who caught it and smirked. 

''Demon Wind Shuriken: Wind Mill of Shadows.'' Sakura fangirled, as he threw it with all his might towards the Water Clone.

''A shuriken won't work on me!" Zabuza braced himself for the shuriken, but was instead met with Gurehai's blue eyes right in front of his face. 

''That shuriken is not your concern!" She stated, attempting to kick his neck. The man ducked and then blocked her kunai, before forcing her hand away and sinking his sword in her abdomen. The girl halted, dropping the kunai and gripping the edges of the Throat Cleaver, eyes wide.

''Gurehai!" Kakashi yelled, as Zabuza smirked.

''Gure-chan!" ''Gure!"

Instead of leaving her last breath, though, she looked up with a smirk on her face, making the Rogue frown. In the next two seconds, the Genin in front of him had turned into a pile of dirt on his blade, and the ground behind him cracked up, as the real one jumped out and stabbed the back of his head with a kunai. ''Got you.'' Water fell on the ground, where he once stood.

''What?!"

Realizing what happened, the Zabuza that had Kakashi trapped grabbed the demon shuriken mid air, before seeing another one coming his way and widening his eyes. A demon shuriken in the shuriken's shadow? Still... He jumped up and dodged it, but failed to see the smirks in the three Genin's faces nonetheless. The shuriken transformed into Naruto with a puff of smoke, throwing his kunai at him.

This time, the enemy had no choice but to let go. The sensei, finally free of the water prison, stopped Zabuza from attacking Naruto. Momochi is fucked. ''Naruto, Gurehai. Your strategy was outstanding. You've grown up, the three of you.'' He praised them, eyes never leaving his opponent.

''He,he. The purpose of my Shadow Clones was to put my transformation on the Demon Wind Shuriken, not to attack Zabuza.'' Naruto explained, happy that their plan had worked out. ''I left one clone behind, and then transformed into the shuriken.''

''In the seconds you were trapped by the clones, I created an Earth one and hid myself underground. Then, with my attack, I distracted him, and made sure the Water Clone wouldn't try to save the original from the shuriken, or its shadow.'' Gurehai went on, now standing next to Sasuke. 

''Of course, I didn't think I could defeat Zabuza. I was aiming to destroy the Water Prison! It was a huge success!"

''So you distracted me and made me break the Water Prison...''

''No, that's not it.'' Kakashi cut him off. ''You didn't break the Jutsu. They forced you to break it.'' He added, and Gurehai smirked in delight. Now that their sensei was free, Zabuza was a goner. They jumped away from each other, and started forming hand seals. They were so many, Gure got lost. She suddenly realized that her sensei was copying the Rogue.

''Naruto! Get out of the water, now!" She shouted at her friend, who was floating on the cold lake. The water started rising, as the two Jonnin exclaimed in unison. 

''Suiton: Water Dragon Jutsu!" The huge dragons that were created canceled each other out, sending waves crashing all over the field. In seconds, Gurehai and the others were soaking wet.  Next up, Kakashi copied his movements. The Mist nin started loosing it.

''Suiton: Giant Vortex Jutsu!" The technique blasted Zabuza away, and on a tree. The terrain was widely affected. Trees were uprooted, dirt had turned to mud, and Gurehai found her leg feeling extremely heavy. She released the Jutsu of the Stone Bracers, which resulted to mud sliding down her limbs. The aching in her chest began.

Hearing her teammates gasp, she turned to her sensei and enemy and saw two senbons sticking out of the latter's neck. Wha- Who did that? She saw a figure on top of a nearby tree, wearing a mask. 

''You were right. He died.'' The newcomer said, and Kakashi flashed next to the body and checked its pulse. Narrowing her eyes, she saw her sensei confirm the masked person's statement. The pain in her chest became unbearable. She clutched it, gritting her teeth. Not again... damn it, I should have slept last night.

Gurehai heard her team chatter, as her vision grew blurry. Damn Chakra... I should have trained with Lord Third more... ''Hey you! What the hell are you? That guy Zabuza... he was so strong, and he was killed like that, by a kid like me?'' Naruto threw a fit, making the Soraku blink rapidly. Next to her, Sasuke noticed her condition. ''We are pathetic! I can't-I can't accept that!" 

''Well, I-stand-this... reality.'' Kakashi spoke, but the white haired Genin couldn't make out the words. ''This world-younger- stronger th... me.''

''Your battle is over now. I have to destroy his body, for it contains many secrets.'' The Hunter nin appeared next to Zabuza, taking his limp body and forming a hand seal. ''You should take care of your teammate. She doesn't look very well.'' he commented, before bowing his head. ''If you'll excuse me.'' And disappeared. Team 7 immediately turned to look at Gurehai, who was trying her best to stay standing, but failed, as her knees gave out.

''Our mission is still not over.'' Kakashi said, walking to his fallen student, who clutched her chest and breathed in and out heavily. ''We have to take Tazuna home. Now, I'll carry Gu-...'' He suddenly stopped, his eye widening, his body collapsing to the ground. Gurehai clutched her chest one last time, before falling unconscious as well.

''Gure-chan!''

''Sensei?"

''KAKASHI-SENSEI!"

Chapter Text

He's not coming back, is he?" The Hokage turned at the sound of the small voice, and saw an eight year old Gurehai peeking from behind the door. He stared at the weeping woman in front of him, who nodded, and the Hokage stood up

''Come here, Gurehai. Let's go outside for a walk.'' He urged her, looking down. The girl nodded and put on her sandals, then opened the door for the elder man to exit first. Hiruzen stared at her in silence, noting how her yes were slightly red. ''Soshimo was killed by an organization, called the Akatsuki.'' He bluntly stated, smoking his pipe. Waiting for a reaction, he was slightly surprised when he saw none. ''Tell me, Gurehai. Do you seek revenge?"

She stayed silent for a few seconds, hands forming fists. The she looked up at him. ''Why would I? He is-...'' She cut herself of, sighing in defeat. ''...was a shinobi. Shinobi die. I loved him, yes. But why go after someone who is obviously stronger than me? So that I die as well? Then mother would be alone. I can't leave her alone.'' She glanced back at her house, that was starting to disappear as the walked further and further away.

''You are wise for your age, and knowledgeable about the shinobi life. I guess you got that from your mother.'' He commented, but said nothing after that. ''How are things at the Academy going?"

''Boring. Father always told me stories about fights, and showed me a variety of Jutsus. In the Academy we just read, and write, and... the only thing exciting is the shuriken practice. That, and sparing. Last week, I won against all three girls I was up against, as always. But Iruka-sensei won't let me fight the boys.''

''Hmph.'' The Hokage mumbled. She is a fighter, like her father. ''Would you like to learn some Jutsus, then?"

''Not just some!" She suddenly grinned, coming to a halt in front of him. ''I'm going to learn all of them!" She added, making Hiruzen's eyes widen slightly. The last person who wanted to do that... ''Just like father, I'll achieve all five Chakra Natures! Even... even Fire.'' She went on, making the Hokage relax.

''You should start with a Nature, then.'' He pointed out, blowing a cloud of smoke. ''Soshimo started with Earth, if I am not mistaken.''

''That's what I started with, too. Father taught me.'' She explained, and started forming hand seals. Ram, Hare, Boar, Dog, he recognized, and his eyebrows rose. ''Doton: Mud Wall.'' She slammed her hands on the ground, and indeed, a wall, barely four feet tall, was formed. She scratched her head when she saw it was about the same height as her. ''It still needs work, though.''

''Oh, that's impressive. How long have you been working on it?" He asked, genuinely curious. 

''That's what he was showing me when they...'' She trailed off, the frown coming back to her face once again. ''So I haven't had any time to practice it.'' She excused herself, staring blankly at her creation. That was two days ago. She remembers hand seals she saw once?

''That's alright. You know, Gurehai, Doton is kind of my specialty as well.'' The Hokage retorted, trying to sound like he was randomly bringing it up. ''I could teach you, if you'd like.'' The girl's eyes widened.

''Really?" When the man nodded, her lips broke out in a sweet smile. ''That's awsome, grampa Hokage! Ahem.'' She coughed and came down to earth, blushing slightly. ''I mean, thank you, Lord Third.'' She bowed her head, and the Hokage laughed.

''Come to my office tomorrow afternoon, after the ceremony. We can make that wall a foot taller.''

Gurehai opened her eyes slightly, but shut them again instantly, as they were met with blinding light. Her chest didn't hurt anymore, but her limbs felt heavy, almost impossible to move. Trying to lift her arms, she realized she was covered with a blanket. Her head was also resting on a pillow, and she was lying on her back. Blinking rapidly, she finally opened her eyelids and saw a wooden ceiling. I'm probably in Tazuna's house. She concluded, turning her head to the right.

''You are finally awake, Gure-chan!" Naruto yelled at her face, making her wince.

''Baka!" Sakura punched his head, sending him to the ground. ''Don't shout next to her ears!" She also yelled, making the girl want to hide under the covers.

''Good, you're awake, Gurehai. We were just talking about how Zabuza is still alive.'' The girl's eyes closed with a sigh, failing to sit up.

''What is it with ninjas being so tricky and troublesome all the time? Damn it. We'll have to fight him again and I can't even stand up.'' She complained, surprising everyone. ''Well, it figures. That hunter nin took him with him, didn't he? I was dizzy, but I managed to see that. That means they're probably allies.''

''Right. So we have to make preparations.'' Their sensei said, looking his students one by one. ''I'll assign you training.'' Gurehai's eyes widened. Oh, no. He'll train us, but I can't even move properly. Damn it, I really should have slept that night. Now I'll fall behind, and delay my goal, as always.

''But sensei, what good will training us do up against the man you had such a difficult fight with? Anyway, how can you train us in your condition?" Sakura inquired, as her female comrade finally managed to sit up.

''Yeah, yeah. What about Gure-chan? We can't train without her!" Naruto pointed out, making his friend inwardly smile. Thank you for the support, Naruto. But I brought this to myself. But when Kakashi spoke next, her hopes were brought up once again.

''Oh, but me and Gurehai will be just fine.'' He said, and motioned for the bridge builder's daughter to come forward. ''Tsunami-san, if you'd like to pass me that cup.'' He took the one the woman passed him, and then placed it on his student's shaky hands.

''What is this?" The Soraku scrunched up her nose, sniffing the steaming beverage.

''Something I knew would come in handy. It's tea, made from a plant that has unbelievable Chakra replenishing properties. I got the feeling I should bring it with me, and turns out, I was right.'' Kakashi explained, smiling with his eyes closed. Don't tell me he brought it because he knew I would do something stupid like this? Kami this is embarrassing... She took a sip but gagged, the taste awful. ''Drink it all. Then we can go to the woods to train.'' He said, and stood up, holding on to crutches.

The girl downed the cup, much to her dismay. It was bitter like grass, and made her tongue numb, like she was tasting dirt. But, after drinking it, she felt warmth flowing from her chest to her arms and feet, and every hint of pain or soreness vanished. What in Konoha's name? She stood up like she hadn't been unconscious for two days, and flexed her fingers.

''Let's go.''

---- ---- ---- ----

''So, none of you can use chakra efficiently.''

''WHAT?" Naruto demanded, obviously offended by his sensei's statement.

''Listen up.'' He shot the blond a look, waiting for him to shut up. ''Combining chakra means picking up both physical and spiritual energy and combining them. Right now, you can't use it efficiently. Even if you can muster a large amount of chakra, if you don't know how to control it, both the effectiveness of the Jutsu and your stamina will decrease.'' He explained, before continuing in a serious voice. ''You need to learn how to control it within your body, and that's training you have to lay your life on the line to master!'' Anything. I'll do anything. I can't back down on some stupid tasks...

''So, what are we going to do?" Sakura asked, gulping.

''Huh?'' Kakashi thought about it a little. ''Tree climbing.''

''Tree climbing?" Gurehai exclaimed in unison with her teammates, frustrated. I want to be able to perform Jutsus without fainting ten minutes later. Even if I couldn't do it on my own before, walking on trees can wait. I need... I need to... I need to trust my sensei.

''If you think that's easy, well, let me tell you.'' He cut them off. ''You won't be using your hands. Watch.'' Then he proceeded to climb a tree, with his crutches, surprising his students, but also making Gure grit her teeth. ''Focus chakra on your feet, and try sticking them on the tree.'' Try? You, the sensei, are supposed to be teaching us how to do it!

He threw a kunai at each of the Genin, telling them to use it to mark the spot where they can climb up to. The white haired girl took it hesitantly, and approached a tree. It was tall, and had a big and thick trunk. She gripped the kunai, and turned to look at the others. They all got a running start. Naruto didn't set his foot on it a third time, Sasuke climbed high up, in comparison to the other.

Gurehai took a deep breath and took off running, fixing her eyes on the trunk. Chakra on the bottoms of my feet, chakra on the bottoms of my feet. It needs to be enough for my feet to stick to the bark, but not too much, or it'll break. Chakra on the bottoms of my feet... But when she jumped on the tree, she started slipping, after five or six steps. She saw she was about to fall and stopped, trying to maintain her balance horizontally on the bark.

I got, I got it... Just calm down... But she started falling again, and in a desperate attempt to remain standing, she sent a big amount of chakra to her feet. The wood cracked under her, and she was pushed off almost immediately. She back flipped to the ground, cursing. Before she could get mad at herself for not marking her progress, a crack echoed through the clearing, and the spot where she had last touched with her feet caved, and the upper part of the tree detached from the lower and crumbled to the ground.

''Damn it.'' She hissed, watching it fall. Next to her, Naruto looked at her with his mouth agape. Meanwhile, Kakashi stared down at her, troubled. This is going to be harder than I thought. He pondered, when the other female of the group laughed in joy. 

''It looks like the one with the best chakra control is Sakura.'' He commented, catching glimpse of Gurehai moving on to another tree with her fists clenched. ''But, not only is her control perfect, but she has knowledge and stamina as well. Looks like she is closer to becoming the Hokage, unlike someone else.'' He praised, angering Naruto. ''It seems that the odds of her mastering Affinities are in her favor, too. And the Uchiha clan doesn't seem so great, after all.'' He provoked them, and Gurehai ran on the tree again.

''Shut up, sensei!" Sakura yelled, from her spot on the highest branches. I want to prove that I'm far greater than Gurehippo, but Sasuke won't like me if he keeps saying things like that!

This time, Gure managed to climb up 8 feet, before falling back down. She brushed the hair out of her left eye but not the right one, and tried again.

Twenty minutes later, and she had gone to 12 feet, but that was still less than Sasuke and Naruto. Sakura watched them, panting heavily. I'm completely wasted... How can these three keep going like that?

Three hours later, and she had reached 25 feet. Their sensei had long since left along with the pink haired girl, who was assigned to guard Tazuna at the bridge. Gurehai was finally catching up to Naruto, but the casualties were two more broken down trees.

Six hours later, and the sun was begging to set. 40 feet, and no trees lost. The Soraku had started to pant, but was happy she had found the way to fall back without splitting the woods in half. She had reached Naruto, but the Uchiha was still too far up. Getting back up, she felt a wave of nausea wash over her.

''What's wrong, Gure?" Sasuke asked sarcastically, covered in dirt and sweat. ''No more knocking down trees?" He asked, breathing in. The girl turned to look at him with a slightly annoyed expression, narrowing her eyes. I'm never trying to save his ass again.

''Keep your opinions to yourself and respect your elders, Uchiha.'' She fired back a little harshly, and failed to see the looks of confusion her statement received. ''What?" She asked Naruto, who was also dirty.

''What do you mean by 'elders', Gure-chan?" The Uzumaki scratched his head, fortunately with the hand that he wasn't holding the kunai with.

''I am a year older than the lot of you, turning 15 in a couple of months.'' She simply replied, but didn't manage to erase the shock from their faces. ''What's up, 13-year-olds? It's not that big of a deal.'' She finished, turning away from them and making her way up the tree. Of course they wouldn't know. Why would they? No one asks about me, and I don't talk to others about me, as always, so what did I expect?  41 feet.

After a while, they had to eventually go back to Tazuna's. His daughter had cooked a lot of food, but judging by the looks on the Genin's faces, it wasn't about to go to waste. The boys soon started to stuff their faces, swallowing rice like it was water.

''Man, it's been a while since we had people over for a meal like this!" Tazuna laughed.

''More, please!" The boys exclaimed, before immediately hunching over and throwing up. Sakura started yelling at them, while Gurehai looked away. That was the reason she ate slowly. From the opposite side of the table, Inari, the bridge builder's grandson played around with his food, looking miserable. She remembered him from this morning, saying that their efforts were for nothing, that ninja are nothing, that there were no heroes anymore. Upon that, she decided to do something, and the fact that he made her go into the trouble scared her.

''We need to eat, so that we can get stronger!" Naruto explained, smiling like a child.

''Well, I don't see Gurehippo scarfing down and then vomiting Tsunami-san's efforts!" Sakura yelled, making Inari raise his head. Looking at the white haired girl, who was slowly finishing up her food, he frowned.

''Gurehippo? What kind of name is that?" He asked, and the girl looked at him with a calm expression. The rest of team 7 waited for her reaction.

''My name is actually Gurehai, Inari. 'Gurehippo' is jut a nickname Sakura-san gave me, a few years back.'' She informed him like he was the only one in the room, aiming to make her teammate feel guilty. Indeed, the other Kunoichi's face fell a bit. ''Now, if you'll excuse me. I'm going to the woods.'' Naruto opened his mouth to protest, and tried to stand up, but his sensei stopped him, putting a hand in his chest.

Walking out of the house, she passed the jetty with a slow pace, but came to a halt when someone bumped on her from behind. She turned around and saw Inari, looking up at her with tears in his dark eyes. Behind him came his mother, running. She looked ready to scold her son for falling on their guest, but Gurehai gave her the most sincere smile she could muster.

''It's okay, Tsunami-san. I actually wanted to talk with Inari. He'll be with me, here on the jetty. You can go inside.'' She said, but the woman got he hidden meaning, that her son would be safe with her. I wouldn't be surprised if Tazuna told her I killed someone protecting him.

''Why do you let her talk to you like that?" He asked, when his mother was out of sight. ''That teammate of yours. Can't you tell she's mocking you?" The kid was starting to get emotional again. This is my chance to talk to him.

''Of course I know. For years now, actually. But, you should know Inari, that getting mad at others obviously lower than you, just because they choose to express their envy for you in such way, is not worth it. They aren't worth it.'' She said, not hiding her true feelings about Sakura. ''Now, tell me why you're crying. Surely you didn't get upset like that because of me.'' She suggested, sitting down next to him, legs dangling off the edge.

''They began talking about him. The man in the photograph.'' He cried, and she realized what a sensitive matter it was to him. The torn one? So there was a man in it as well, but got erased. He died, perhaps? The one Tazuna mentioned as the village's hero.

''The man, was he your father?" She asked, making his teary eyes widen. ''And he died.'' She figured, but the child didn't try to correct her.''But that still doesn't explain why you hate him.''

''I-I don't...-''

''It's alright. You don't have to tell me anything. I, on the other hand, will tell you a story.'' She began, and Inari looked down on the water. ''My father is dead too.'' She admitted, and her companion gasped. ''This is something I haven't told anyone. Not even my team members, so you have to promise not to tell a soul.'' When he nodded, she stared at the calm sea. ''I was a bit older than you when it happened. The two of us were on a small trip, outside our Village. That day, he taught me my first Jutsu. But, as fate would have it, it would also be the last one.''

''I remember us on a field. It was green, and a small breeze messed my hair up. But it didn't really matter. Then, two men came. They both wore long black cloaks, with red clouds on them. I had never seen them before in my life, but father seemed to recognize them. He shouted at me and told me to run, and head back to the Village, as fast as I could. That's when I figured out they were dangerous. My father would never yell at me in such a manner, so it was probably an emergency.''

''I can also recall their faces, clearly. One was short; not really muscular.  He had pale skin, like paper, and hair in the color of the deep sea. He had many scars on his forehead, tiny little things. He looked extremely pissed at his partner, the other one. He was taller than his companion, and had tan skin. His face was covered by a mask, and his head by a hood. But his eyes... oh, those yes. Hunting, they still are. A shade of green, a sickly, pale green. His voice was gruff, the crossed out symbol of his headband showed he was from a ninja village. I don't think I will ever forget them.''

''Why are you telling me this?'' Inari asked, his eyes wet.

''To show you you are not the only one suffering. My father died in order for me to not be harmed, and I think of him as a hero. What should yours be called, when he protected the entire village?" She inquired, getting him to think. ''You shouldn't be mad at him for dying.'' But I am mad at myself, for leaving him to die. ''You should respect him, and anyone like him. People like us, ninja.'' Even though I can't respect myself.

''Thank you a lot, Gurehai.'' He abruptly stood up, hiding his face. ''I'm sorry about your dad.'' He said, and then sprinted back to the house. The white haired girl followed his lead and got to her feet, but turned her back to Tazuna's residence.

''Listen carefully, Hai. What I'm about to teach you, is a highly advanced technique.'' Soshimo announced in a stern voice, but failed to hide the smile on his face as Gurehai realized he was joking. ''It's called the 'Mud Wall'.''

''Is it hard?" The little girl asked, with stars in her eyes.

''It needs work.'' The man retorted, pushing his long hair out of his face. ''The hand signs are: Ram, Hare, Boar, Dog.'' He explained, forming them in the process. Slamming his hands on the ground, he yelled. ''Doton: Mud Wall!" A wall taller than the two of them combined rose up.

''Wow!" The eight-year-old exclaimed, touching it. ''Will I be able to do that?"

''You will be able to do anything, Hai. Gureki and I believe in you.'' He patted her head, before stiffening. His head snapped to the side, pushing the white haired girl protectively behind him. There stood two men, watching them from not too far away. Soshimo lowered down to her eye level, gripping her shoulders. ''Hai! Get away from here, now!''

''But fath-...''

''No, I said leave! Run back to the Hidden Leaf!"

Gurehai retreated to the woods, where she found the tree she had marked dozens of times. She pulled a kunai out of her pouch, focused chakra on her feet, breathed in, got a running start...

And climbed it to the top.

 

Chapter Text

''Should I have stayed behind to watch over him?" Gurehai asked, thinking about Naruto. Last night, he and Sasuke had come back from the woods, announcing that they had made it to the top. Shortly after that, he collapsed, and he still hadn't shown any sign of waking up.

''No, he'll be just fine. Tsunami-san will take care of him.'' Kakashi replied, as they made their way across the bridge. Suddenly, Tazuna gasped.

''What's this?" He exclaimed, upon seeing his coworkers fallen on the ground, most of them unconscious. After that, mist began forming all around them, signaling the awaited return of the one and only...

''Zabuza's here.'' Gurehai stated, pulling some shuriken out, placing them between her fingers and taking her place behind Tazuna, as the rest of team 7 circled him. 

''Sorry to have kept you waiting, Kakashi.'' The Demon's voice echoed, and the Soraku held the blades close to her face. ''I see you still have those brats around. Look at that poor little thing. He's trembling.'' Next to her, Sasuke really was shaking, but Gurehai knew not to mistake his excitement for fear. In the blink of an eye, they were surrounded by the Rogue's Water clones.

''I'm trembling with excitement.'' Sasuke said, cutting through all of them. First chance I get, I have to activate the Stone Bracers. The Genin thought to herself, as Zabuza and his savior appeared in front of them. They kid -a boy, presumably their age- still wore a mask. Me and Sasuke will probably have to deal with him, while sensei fights Zabuza. Sakura will have to stay behind and guard the bridge builder, since she can't fight either of them.

''Oh, he can see through the Water clones. It seems that you have a rival, Haku.'' The enemy commented, and his companion agreed.

''I'll fight him. I hate brats who think they are cool like that.'' Sasuke said, and Sakura stared at him lovingly. His other teammate, though, seemed to have objections. 

''Don't be hasty, Sasuke. You don't honestly believe you can take him out on your own, do you?" Gurehai spoke lowly, so that only her team and Tazuna could hear. ''We have to do this together.'' The Uchiha glared at her.

''Gurehippo! Stop holding Sasuke-kun back! We all know you can't keep up with him.'' The pink haired girl claimed, but she ignored her. That's right. I only told Kakashi-sensei that I managed to reach the top of the trees before the boys.

''Listen to me! That boy is extremely fast, judging from the way he disappeared the day Zabuza was 'killed'. We don't know if you can counter his speed, though. You need me to back you up. Even though he is a fake Mist Hunter nin, he still is from the Hidden Mist, like Momochi. That means he probably uses Suiton, and so, I can overpower him with my Nature.'' She explained, stepping forward to stand next to him.

''If that's what you really believe, then you are probably as stupid as I originally thought. Your chakra Affinity is Earth. It may be strong against Water, but in this battle field, the only thing it would accomplish would be mud everywhere, slowing us down.'' He retorted, glaring at her with the corner of his eye. She glanced at him, and put the shuriken she was holding back in their place.

''I wasn't talking about my Earth Release.'' She simply answered, reaching both hands into her pouches. The two Genin looked at her in shock and confusion, as she pulled out two kunais, and twirled them around her fingers. When she stopped and gripped their handle, the blades were enfolded in lightning. ''Doton is only one of them.''

R-Raiton? Sakura's eyes widened, as she was staring the turned backs of her teammates. The boy, an Uchiha, considered the most skilled one on the group. The girl, a nobody, with knowledge not even near her own, but using two Natures, and having killed a man. But she couldn't even catch up to Naruto during tree climbing... what... what have I been doing? Can I- can I even compare to her?

Sasuke seemed to hide his shock well, as the masked kid fast approached him. Blades clashed, and Gurehai saw the enemy was using senbons again. He is fast, like I predicted. That idiot, he didn't listen to me. He's underestimating me, as always.

''Sakura, protect Tazuna. Don't move away from me and Gurehai!'' Kakashi ordered, and the girl did as told me. ''Gurehai, don't engage Sasuke's fight. He has to battle on his own.'' The white haired Kunoichi glanced at him, ready to disagree. ''I might need your help with Zabuza, after all.''He added, and she looked taken aback. He wants my help? 

The two boys were face to face, when Sasuke's opponent started forming hand seals... with only one of his hands. How is this even possible? This is worse than I imagined. Can he even come out alive? But the needles that were produced by the scattered water didn't hit the Uchiha. He jumped up and avoided them, before kicking the kid to the ground, near Zabuza's feet.

''To think that Haku would loose in speed...'' The Rogue stared at Sasuke, and Kakashi smiled.

''And you were mocking our team, calling them brats... I'll have you know, that Sasuke is Konoha's number one Rookie.'' Their sensei told Zabuza, internally smirking. ''Sakura is our sharpest...'' He added, and then turned to Gurehai. ''... And Gurehai is the most promising Kunoichi I've ever met.'' The girl's eyes widened, but she smiled at Kakashi nonetheless. ''As for the last one... he's the number one hyperactive knucklehead ninja, Naruto Uzumaki!" 

But Zabuza didn't seem to care about the last statement. He was instead staring at the Soraku, like he had seen a ghost. ''What did you say? 'Gure'-hai?" Wide-eyed, he looked at her up and down. ''You're from the Aoyo clan, girl?"

''What is he saying, Kakashi-sensei? Her last name is 'Soraku'. Isn't it?" Sakura frowned, as her female teammate looked at the ground, her jaw slack. I shouldn't have said that. Kakashi growled under his breath.

''My mother hails from that clan.'' Gurehai spoke up, pointing her kunai at the rogue, as Haku started to get back up. ''What is it to you?'' She harshly asked, uncomfortable by where the conversation was heading.

''The Aoyo clan not only is from Sunagakure, but is also nearly extinct. The only two survivors are said to be males, both of whom are to young to have a daughter your age. Which begs the question: How is it that you are a Konohagakure Ninja, or even exist in the first place? Your eyes may be blue, just like the clan's symbol, and your name may be 'Gure', but the fact you have a mother contradicts everything. The last Aoyo female, the fierce Tiger of the Blue Sun, who had the honor of being written in my Bingo book, passed away almost sixteen years ago!"

What is he saying?How does he know so much about mother's clan? And why is he even worried? They were a clan of commoners... mother and father would never lie to me, they wouldn't... never like that...

''Enough!" She snapped, gaining everyone's attention. ''I don't care about what you say, what you know, or what you think you know. You are here to kill this man, and he is under my protection.'' She pointed at Tazuna, who looked something between amused and terrified. ''Me and my team can't let you get away...''

She threw the kunais high in the air, and as fast as lightning, shrugged off her cloak. She dug her hand in the smaller pouch in her leg, and rubbed its contents on her bare limbs. As always, the dirt molded with her chakra hardened against her skin. The two kunais came crashing down, and she caught them, as her armor attained its scale-like pattern. Lightning erupted from the blades. ''...we won't. Doton: Stone Bracers!"

''An impressive youth. Maybe I should take care of you myself.'' Zabuza laughed, grabbing his Throat Cleaver. ''Haku, you know what to do.'' With that, his younger companion, performed a hand seal, and ice surrounded Sasuke, forming what seemed to be mirrors. Kakashi rushed forward, but Zabuza appeared in front of him.

''I'm your opponent, aren't I? Anyway, since that Jutsu has appeared, he's done for.'' He stated, and the bridge echoed with Sasuke's screams. Before she could take in what was happening, Gurehai saw Sakura pass her, throwing a kunai at Sasuke. It was caught by Haku.

Then, a shuriken flew through the air, knocking the masked boy down. With a puff of smoke, Gurehai turned around to see Naruto, posing. That idiot... Does he have any idea how much more useful he would be if he hadn't announced his presence like that?

''Naruto Uzumaki, is finally here!"

''You idiot! You could have caught them off guard!" The girl shouted, making Naruto shrink back.

''But heroes always come during moments like that, and take out the enemy in no time!" He argued, bringing his hands up to his chest. ''Anyway, it's time to fight! Shadow Clone Ju-...'' Zabuza threw shuriken at him, but two pairs of senbons collided with them, and fell to the ground. Why would Haku do this?

''Baka! What were you thinking, casting a Jutsu in front of the enemy like that? Ninjas are supposed to use the element of surprise, and deceive their enemies. Coming out like that, you just made your self a target!'' Kakashi scolded, and his student's face fell.

''What's the idea, Haku? You want to fight him your way? That's naive of you, but that means no interfering, right?" The Rogue questioned, and Haku lowered his head in shame.

''Well, I don't care, cause I'll take you out first!" Naruto announced, pointing his hand at the boy.

''Don't get any ideas.'' Zabuza warned, when Kakashi looked like he was about to make a move. ''You know what will happen to that old man if you move, right?" The sensei halted. He's right. He thought, glancing back at the bridge builder, Sakura, and lastly Gurehai. There's no way Sakura can protect Tazuna on her own, and if Gurehai goes, then I will have no back up against Zabuza. This is embarrassing, but in my condition, I don't think I can fight him at full power.

This situation is really bad. Gurehai contemplated. Sasuke is trapped, Naruto is dragged into a fight with Haku, Tazuna needs protection Sakura can't provide, and something tells me sensei can't handle Zabuza on his own. What am I going to do? She bit her lip, helplessly watching as the boy stepped into the mirrors and attacked Sasuke again. But then...

Naruto jumped in the ice prison, next to his comrade. Is he seriously that daft? That idiot... They should be launching attacks from both the inside and outside! Now there's only one thing left to do... But how can I attack with Raiton, when I only know how to pass chakra through the blades?

Kakashi stared at his two trapped students, and cursed when he saw that Sasuke's Fireball Jutsu didn't melt the ice. Shit... Fire can't destroy them, at least not on that level, and I can't attack... There's only one thing left to do... ''Gurehai!'' He called, just as the girl was about to rush to the mirrors. Her head snapped to his direction, surprised. ''Ox, Hare, Monkey! Release the Stone Bracers, and focus all your lightning chakra on your right hand!"   Lord Third, I'm trusting your words.

''Come in, Kakashi.'' Hiruzen Sarutobi called, and the grey haired Jonnin stepped into his office. ''We need to talk about your new team. And more specifically, Gurehai.''

''The daughter of Soshimo Soraku.'' He stated, and the Hokage nodded slowly. ''She is an interesting individual.'' He commented, recalling the information she gave him and the others earlier that day. ''I heard that while Sasuke was the top Rookie, she graduated as the one with the best fighting skills. She barely managed with written tests, though.''

''That's right. Throughout her years in the Academy, she hadn't shown any signs of being anything different from average. You must know, that that is not true.'' Hiruzen went on, smoking his pipe. ''She is, believe it or not, a genius.''

''What do you mean, Lord Third?"

''The day of Soshimo's funeral, I took her out on a walk, and talked to her about his death. Can you imagine what she told me?" He asked and stood up from his seat, but didn't wait for an answer. ''She said that right before the Akatsuki found them, Soshimo showed her the Mud Wall. When I asked her if she'd like to learn Jutsus like him, she said she already knew one. And she performed the Doryuuheki.''

''But that's...'' Kakashi trailed off, his visible eye wide.

''Incredible? Yes. An E-Rank Mud Wall is supposed to be 5 feet tall and 5 feet wide, and hers was four.'' At that, the Jonnin gasped. ''She remembered hand signs she had seen once two days ago, and activated the Jutsu without being told how to mold the chakra. That's why I took her under my wing.''

''You have been training her, Lord Third?" The Hatake asked, more than surprised that the Hokage had trained someone rather than the Legendary Sannin.

''I did it for her father as well.'' He admitted, staring outside the window.

Hand signs she had seen once two days ago...

Don't let me down, Gurehai. Kakashi recalled his encounter with the Hokage, ready to stop Zabuza, in case he tried to get in her way. Luckily, the girl seemed to realize why he was telling her this, and let the rock around her arms and legs fade into dust. Performing the signs, and gritting her teeth, Gurehai grasped her right hand.

Sparks started appearing in her outstretched palm. The sparks turned to little bolts, and the bolts to waves. A thousand birds chirped in everyone's ears, as the girl thrusted her hand into one of the mirrors.

Chapter Text

Sparks started appearing in her outstretched palm. The sparks turned to little bolts, and the bolts to waves. A thousand birds chirped in everyone's ears, as the girl thrusted her hand into one of the mirrors.

Lightning collided with ice, and Kakashi held his breath. A crack was heard, the lightning disappeared, and Gurehai raised her burnt hand to block Zabuza's Throat Cleaver.

''What?!" The leader of team 7 gasped, and saw the man in front of him smirk. The ice mirror Gurehai had attacked was cracked severely, but upon her struggle with the Water Clone, it seemed to heal itself. ''That's... the Kekkei Genkai!"

''The Kekkei Genkai?" Sakura asked, looking from the sensei to her teammate, the dome of ice and Zabuza.

''It's the same as my Sharingan. I can't copy it, and it can't be destroyed, either.'' He explained, as the Soraku managed to throw the clone off her and stab him. She jumped back behind Sakura, clutching her right hand and breathing heavily.

That Jutsu... it was so strong... my skin has peeled off! Gurehai looked down, able to see the raw flesh below her skin. And it couldn't even break one of them... If what sensei says is true, then there's little hope for these two... I can't help them anymore... She felt her hand burning, and the pain in her chest didn't help the situation either. It used up so much chakra, I don't think I can activate any other Jutsus.

''Sasuke-kun! Naruto! Don't loose to a guy like that!" Sakura yelled loud enough for the boys to hear, but her sensei stopped her.

''Don't encourage them like that, Sakura. Even if they managed to destroy the Jutsu, they wouldn't be able to defeat that boy.'' Kakashi said, glancing at the two girls, and, in particular, the older one's injured arm. ''They don't have the mentality to kill someone like that!"

''But Gure-...''

''Gurehai did that under different conditions, she may even have done that on impulse. They can't kill off their emotions and kill him, and he knows that. He knows what being a shinobi means, while Sasuke and Naruto don't.''

The white haired girl struggled to keep herself awake. That technique took a huge toll on my chakra reserves, and I don't think I can move my right hand below the elbow... Now I can neither help sensei, nor protect Tazuna properly... Shit... how did we end up like this?

Zabuza started explaining about Haku's training and mindset, how he could kill with no remorse. Is that what I'll become? A mindless machine? She stood up, wobbling. Haku began attacking the boys with senbons again. But if he wants to kill them, why is he randomly attacking, and not aiming for the vital points? If he's like Zabuza describes him, then he should have no trouble aiming for the larynx, spine, lungs, liver, the jugular or subclavian veins? And the kidneys? What was the last one?... That's right... the heart...

Gurehai heard Sakura gasp and turned to her, and where she was looking. She saw Zabuza stab Kakashi's right hand, that was just over his eye. He wants to activate his Sharingan... I have to help him.

Damn it... It's been a while since I've fought in such conditions... I have to think, what will he go after first? Kakashi thought, when Zabuza activated the Hidden Mist Jutsu. The enemy had rendered his Sharingan useless, and since he was a genius in silent killing, he didn't have to use his eyes to track his victims. Upon that, his eyes widened.

The Rogue had just appeared behind Tazuna, ready to strike, when Sakura turned her head and saw him. Before anyone could react, Momochi brought down his sword, to kill the bridge builder. But the Throat Cleaver buried itself in something else, and the Haruno's scream filled the air.

Tazuna stared in shock in front of him, where Gurehai had jumped, resulting to the blade to slash through her entire chest. Her burnt hand was gripping the metal in a familiar way, just like that time mere days ago. But just like that time, her body turned into dust and dirt as well.

Zabuza jumped back in surprise, and was met by Kakashi's kunais. He deflected them and then hid in the thick mist, vanishing from sight.

The Hatake approached his team and looked down, to the pile of dirt that used to be Gurehai's Earth clone. She created a clone to distract Zabuza and protect Tazuna, giving me a chance to attack... but where is the real one? He looked around and spotted a figure laying on the spot she had previously landed, and rushed over. He saw her lying on her back, with her injured arm over her chest, and blood running down her torso, oozing from the wounds on her palm and fingers.

''Gurehai!" He knelt down next to her, and her eyes narrowed and focused on him. She drew in a shaky breath. ''Hang in there!''

''It's okay, sensei. I don't suppose you have any more of that tea on you, huh?" She coughed, wincing. She clutched her hand closer to her chest. ''That was a really cool Jutsu you taught me back there. I wish... I wish I had more time to practice it... What's it called?"

''Chidori... It's name is Chidori! But you'll have plenty of time to practice it, once this mission is over!" He said, loosing his calm by the second. ''It'll be the third step. And then we can move on to Suiton, and I'll teach all of you how to walk on water! Just don't talk, and hang in there!"

''I'm such an idiot, as always... I promised myself... I promised mother... I promised Lord Third that I would attain all five Natures... But now I'm dying of stupid chakra depletion, and I don't even feel my hand...''

''That was my fault.'' He watched as her eyes slowly closed. What were you thinking? He screamed at himself. Just telling her how to perform it, and expecting that much of her?! What were you thinking? ''I shouldn't have told you to do that. And if you don't want to train with me anymore, that's fine, really! Lord Hiruzen will-...'' His voice cracked, as she coughed once more.

Obito, Rin, sensei... I'm loosing her too...

''Damn chakra... Failing me, as always.'' She growled, as the pain in her chest became unbearable. ''I should have trained... with Lord Third... more...'' And her head fell back on the cement.

''GUREHAI!"

---- ---- ---- ---- 

''Doton: Rock Spear!" The duo exclaimed in unison, breaking the poles off the ground. Blue met brown, and their weapons clashed.

''Your Rock Spear is sturdier than ever, Gurehai.'' Hiruzen Sarutobi commented, pushing forward with his own, as the girl in front of him pushed back with equal strength. ''I think it's time to move on to the next level.''

''No, not yet!" She pleaded, jumping away from him. ''Doton: Earthen Rising Spears!" She announced, and the Hokage jumped in the air, as long spikes broke the surface of the training ground beneath his feet. He twirled his spear around his hands violently and then sent it barreling to he ground, breaking in half his student's new creations. ''See? They're still weak. No way the Stone Spike Prison can hold anyone rather than a toddler if the Rising Spears can break that easily.''

''Gurehai, the Rock Sear I created was an A-Rank.'' He told her, and her mouth fell open. He laughed, nonetheless. ''You are really serious about this, aren't you?"

''I am.'' She said, letting her weapon dissolve into dust. ''I must, because I will attain them all... Without fail.''

----

''Gurehai!'' Gureki called, seeing the girl about to exit the house. Supporting herself with her walking stick, she neared the front door. ''Come and sit for a minute. I need to talk to you.'' She said, and the 11 year-old complied.

''Is this about the gash on my leg yesterday?" She asked, avoiding her mother's blue eyes. The woman's  eyes narrowed in a playful manner, but she didn't interrupt her. ''I just tripped... and fell... holding some Stone Shuriken...''

''What gash on your leg?" She raised an eyebrow, and the girl's head snapped up. 

''What-You didn't... Bu-...''

''I wanted to talk to you about my night shifts this weekend. Do you think you can stay on your own for a couple of days? I'll sleep on the hospital, so you'll have to cook for yourself tomorrow.'' She explained, and Gurehai's face visibly relaxed.

''That's-that's fine! I don't mind.'' She stated, relieved that her mother didn't question her injuries. ''I can make something easy when I get back from training, like soup... Or some ramen.

''Training again, huh?" Gureki smiled at Gurehai, as she stood up.

''Yes! Me and Lord Third are working on my new Jutsu these days! And in the end, when I have all chakra Natures, I'll show you all my creations!" She practically ran to the door, and gave the woman a last smile before she closed it behind her.

----

''No, I said leave! Run back to the Hidden Leaf!"

And she ran.

She dashed away from the scene, jumping clumsily from tree to tree, not caring about the branches that were hitting her in the face. After she almost tripped and fell down twenty five feet, after the seconds felt like centuries, she heard it. She heard her father's scream.

She almost stopped. She almost fell. She almost turned around. She almost disobeyed his words. She almost cried.

He told you run back, Gurehai. Yes, run back, and bring help. That way you can help him, and when everything is over, you will show him you Mud Wall, and he will smile, he will encourage you to make it taller, stronger, and he will tell you that he's proud of you, and he...

He will tell you he loves you.

And you will say it back. You'll say that he's the best father in the world, taking on both of those bad guys on his own and coming back alive. You'll tell him you will one day become like him, a powerful ninja, that you will achieve all of the chakra Natures, just like he wants to, that you will do it...

That you will do it for him. No matter what it takes.

---- ---- ---- ----

She blinked, trying to adjust to the sunlight. The first thing she saw, was grey hair. Then, a green flak jacket, and trees. She fully opened her eyes, and saw Naruto, walking a little further from her. But she was looking down at him. Why was she looking down at him that much?

A few seconds passed, and she realized she was moving. Moving, but not walking. There was green all around. But how? The Land of Waves didn't have any green. I'm alive. I'm alive, and we're heading back. The mission... the boys... are they safe?

When she tried to talk, the only thing that came out was a choking sound. Fortunately, Naruto noticed, and a grin broke out on his lips.

"Gure-chan, you're awake!" He yelled, gaining everyone's attention. The girl felt the moving stop, and suddenly two more faces appeared next to the blond Genin. One was Sakura, and the other Sasuke. He came out alive, after all... that means Zabuza and Haku are dead.

''Are they dead?" She asked, attempting to rub her eyes, but realizing she couldn't. She stretched her neck a little, and saw her right hand wrapped in a lot of bandages, and in a small cast. That'right... the Chidori. 

''What are you talking about, Gure-chan?" The Uzumaki scratched his chin, narrowing his eyes at her.

''Haku... Zabuza... is the mission over?" She managed to say, clearing her throat. How many days was I out, without water? ''Is Tazuna safe?'' Next, her eyes widened slightly, remembering the pleas of her sensei. ''Where is Kakashi-sensei?''

''I'm right here, Gurehai.'' A voice near her answered, and putting two and two together, the grey hair seemed to fit in. ''Good thing that you're finally awake.''

''You've been out for three days, Gurehippo. We thought you'd stay comatose forever.'' Sakura crossed her arms over her chest, turning her head away. The pout in her face, showing her worry, was more than evident. 

''You've been carrying me like that... for three days?" The white haired girl questioned, when the Jonnin set her down. It didn't take much thought to figure out he had been carrying on his back.

''No, just for a few hours. After the battle, in which Zabuza and Haku died, we stayed at Tazuna's for a couple of days. When you didn't show any signs of waking up, and we had to turn back to the Village, I improvised.'' He gave her a close-eyes smile, scratching the back of his head. It was the least I could offer, after what I did. ''You weren't heavy at all, don't worry.''

''I'm glad the mission was successful.'' She said, looking at her bandaged hand. ''How serious is it?''

''Nothing vital. Once we get you to your mother, it'll be as if you were never injured in the first place!" Kakashi assured her, but panicking on the inside. I don't want to be in front of Gureki-san when she sees that. ''She is one of our best healers, after all.''

''I can walk on my own now sensei, thank you.'' She stood up, and noticed she was wearing her jacket. Looking around again, she saw Sakura still staring everywhere but her, with a blush on her cheeks. She inwardly frowned. I find no reason for her to pick it up in the first place, but... better not push my luck any further. 

''Well, now that the mission is accomplished, we have to return and give our report.'' The sensei announced, as Naruto passed Gurehai her backpack. ''Team 7, heading off!"

Chapter Text

Of course, Gurehai didn't tell her mother that during her mission, she almost died of chakra depletion-twice. But even without that, Gureki almost fainted when she saw the condition of her daughter's hand. She unwrapped the bandages quickly, and took a long hard look.

''Do I want to know how you managed to do that?" She asked, examining the burn marks and the patches of peeled off skin across her fingers and forearm.

''A Raiton Jutsu.'' She replied, not looking the woman in the eyes. The healer took the girl's hand in her own and placed her other over it, starting to heal the wounds. She knew how fixated she was on the five chakra Natures. Thinking back, this injury wasn't the worst the white haired girl had come back home with.

A few seconds passed, and Gurehai watched the green chakra closing up her wounds. I will never manage t do that. The control mother has... I will never attain it. Stealing glances at Gureki, she thought about Zabuza's words. Can they be true?

''The Aoyo clan not only is from Sunagakure, but is also nearly extinct. The only two survivors are said to be males, both of whom are to young to have a daughter your age. Which begs the question: How is it that you are a Konohagakure Ninja, or even exist in the first place? Your eyes may be blue, just like the clan's symbol, and your name may be 'Gure', but the fact you have a mother contradicts everything. The last Aoyo female, the fierce Tiger of the Blue Sun, who had the honor of being written in my Bingo book, passed away almost fifteen years ago!"

''Mother?" She spoke up, deciding to take her chances. ''While on the mission, we came across a man... a ninja, actually... and he... said some things about your clan.'' She hesitantly continued, and Gureki's eyes widened, even though not visible, due to her lowered head.

''Oh? The Aoyo clan?'' She faked surprise, not looking up to meet her eyes, but keeping on healing her hand.

''Yeah, but... I don't know if they are true. He spoke of some of them as shibobi, but, from what you've told me, they were just commoners.'' She explained, and the older woman inaudibly sighed. ''He also...'' She trailed off, her voice unusually small.

''What is it, honey?" Gureki now looked at her, worried.

''He said that the last Aoyo female died sixteen years ago.. but that can't be right... you are alive, and I'm fourteen.'' She said, sighing. ''You know what? Never mind. Forget that I said anything.'' She eventually shook her head.

''No it's alright. It's about time I told you about our clan, anyway.'' With that, the girl's head snapped up.

''But... you said they were commoners! Why would you and father lie?" She asked, her voice rising slightly. The black haired woman smiled.

''As you're about to find out, we did it because we didn't want to make you sad. You see, I'm one of the last three remaining members of the clan to be alive.'' She admitted, making Gurehai's eyes widen. ''You're probably wondering why that man said our last female died all those years ago. Truth is, a great woman did die around that time. Her name was Guretora Aoyo, and she was a dear friend of mine.'' Gureki's face fell. ''But first, I have to explain something else. Do you know how I lost my leg, Gurehai?"

The Soraku glanced down at her mother's missing leg, her left one. ''Not really. You once told me you lost it on a mission. That, and that you have a prosthetic for it.''

''Exactly. It all goes back when I was seventeen, when me and Soshimo first met.'' She smiled to herself. ''I lived in Suna, just like the rest of the Aoyo clan. I had the honor of being the student of the great Lady Chiyo, advisor of the Kazekage himself.''

''The famous puppeteer? I remeber you telling me abut her when I was little.''

''Yes, that Chiyo. A famous puppeteer, poisons expert, healer and terrible joke-teller.'' She laughed. Some of the scratches had started to disappear. ''I trained under her for five years, but I didn't become a puppeteer myself. I wasn't made for it, you could say.'' She turned the girl's hand around. ''We weren't that big of a clan, but I did have some really distant cousins, whose names I don't even remember. Guretora, the best and probably only Kunoichi our clan had seen in a very long time, was a cousin of mine as well.''

''The members had two really distinctive features; Our black hair, and blue eyes. Just like our symbol, the blue sun.'' She said, pointing to the small symbol on the back of a robe hanging nearby.

''That man called Guretora 'the fierce tiger of the Blue Sun'. All members had a name starting with 'Gure', and then a second word, representing them, right?" Gurehai inquired, and the woman nodded.

''Exactly. 'Ki' means energy. I was a really loud baby.'' She laughed, and caressed Gurehai's hair. ''When you were born, your hair was a beautiful ashen color, that turned white as you grew up. And since 'Hai' means ash, we thought it was a fitting name as well.''

''Guretora had a very peculiar birth mark. It was the fangs and face of a roaring tiger, right on her hip. It couldn't have been more accurate. She grew up to be an amazing Kunoichi, and even though our age gap, I looked up to her as a sister. I also became a healer because of her. Who was going to treat her wounds every time she came back from missions, anyway?"

''Now, what was I saying? That's right. When I was seventeen, and I had just become a Chunin, when a dispute tore our clan apart. Members turned against each other, and in the end, very few of us were left. Guretora, me, and my mother Guretori, took refuge into an underground cave. On one of the days of our hiding, the others found us, and attacked.'' Her blue eyes were clouded. ''During the battle, I lost almost everything. I lost my mother, my leg, two cousins and an uncle. I almost lost Guretora too. She was wounded heavily, when all three of our enemies attacked. Just in time, two Konohagakure ninja came to our rescue. One of them, was Soshimo.'' A smile appeared in her face, but disappeared instantly, as she recalled the memory.

''Thank you, dear.'' An old woman bowed her head slightly, as a 17 year-old Gureki passed her a cup of tea. The lights were dim in the cave, and the walls had a red tint on them.

''There's a sand storm outside.'' A different voice announced, and a woman appeared on the other side of the room. ''I can't go out to get supplies today.'' She pulled her hood down, and revealed a set of icy blue eyes and long wavy locks, some tied back. 

''There's always a sand storm outside.'' Gureki commented, filling a cup for the new comer as well.  ''We're running low on food pills, and more importantly, water. I don't think mother can go on like this for long.'' Just like she had said, the elder woman sat with her back on the wall, eyes closed, cheeks thin, and wrinkles one her once stoic face. Nobody could have ever guessed she was only forty.

''I can't risk leaving and coming across the others on my way to Suna. Even more so, leaving you two alone and them finding you.'' She sipped her drink, savoring its taste. Suddenly, she dropped the cup on the ground, and threw her long cloak off her shoulders. ''Quick, hide Guretori-san! They're here!" She whispered hastily, drawing her twin katanas from her back.

''Will you use...''

''No, I can't. I may hurt you in the process.'' Guretora's face softened, before running towards the entrance of the cave. As the young healer did as told, sounds of metal clashing and grunts filled the air. She heard a male scream and blood splutter, and then her friend appeared again. 

She had a cut on her face and she was battling two more men at once, deflecting their swords. She pushed them back and threw the katana she had left on the air. Taking a few shuriken between her fingers, she blew on them. 

''Fuuton: Vacuum Blades!" They flew in terrifying speed towards the men, and pierced one completely through. The other used the body of his partner as cover, and before Gureki could realize what was happening, she was thrown on the wall, and her uncle was in front of her, sword raised. Her eyes widened, and she shut her eyes closed.

The sound of the weapon coming down was heard, but was then replaced by two simultaneous thumps. Looking back up, the Chunin saw Guretora towering over her, with the edge of a sword protruding from her back. A small gasp left the younger Aoyo's lips, as she saw that her friend had jumped in front of her, stabbing the man with her own sword.

''Your own... father?" The man spat out blood, slowly raising his head to look at his offspring.

''You are not my father.'' Guretora viciously stated, twisting her katana and bringing it up, cutting though his flesh from the chest to the shoulder like paper. ''I killed him as well.'' She pulled the blade out, and his body dropped to the ground next to her. She then proceeded to take out the sword in her chest, but Gueki beat her to it. No one saw the third man, their cousin, stumble in the scene and raise his weapon above their heads.

A grunt was heard, following the sharp sound of a kunai flying. The attacker fell down on top of his relative, and two shadows appeared on the entrance of the cave.

 

''That's how you met? He literally arrived late in the scene and saved your life?" A curious Gurehai shook her head, remembering Naruto's claim about heroes.

''Yes, he saved me. But Guretora was fatally wounded, and died a few painful weeks later. I mourned deeply for her. With her gone, I had no family member to rely on. Lady Chiyo gave me the prosthetic you seem from time to time as a gift. I haven't see or heard of her ever since. In the end, Soshimo and I got married, and I came here in the Hidden Leaf.''

''But what about the last two? Where are they now?"

''Those distant relatives of mine were only a little older than toddlers when all this took place. I learned that they were alive three years later, a while after you were born. I don't even remember their names. Gurehachi and Gureshai? I can't quite put my finger on it.'' The only thing left of her burns were small red patches on her skin.

I don't really blame her for not telling me anything, after all. The Genin thought, staring at her completely healed hand. I would have never imagined something like that had happened, or I wouldn't have asked in the first place. Now she looks sad.

''Well, thank you mother. About my hand, and about the story. Guretora sounds like quite the fighter.'' She added, standing up. ''I think I will head out now. I have to work on the new Jutsu, with or without Kakashi-sensei.''

''Should I expect you to come back in the same condition?" The healer raised an eyebrow, but not holding her back. 

''Definitely.'' The white haired girl sighed, and exited the house. 

Guretora was quite the fighter indeed, Gureki smiled, using her walking stick to stand up. Staring at the blue sun on the back of the robe one last time, she headed for the kitchen. Just like you are now.

Chapter Text

Today, team 7 had a meeting in their usual spot, on the bridge, at 10. Knowing that their sensei was going to be at least two hours late, Gurehai left her house at nine and went to the woods, just like she had done every morning the last couple of days. 

Finding the small, hidden clearing she had discovered, she looked around at all of the damaged and broken down trees. Let's hope that I can get it right before I demolish the entire forest. Ox, Hare, Monkey.

''Chidori!" She held her hand, where lightning danced around in amazing speed. The technique had earned its name righteously, and a smile never failed to find its way to her lips every time the Jutsu was activated. After six days, she had become able to perform it without her hand getting burnt, and she was extremely proud of herself, especially since Kakashi hadn't helped her at all.

Now, for attack. She took a running start and then jumped, bringing her right arm back. When inches away from the tree, she thrusted it forward, splitting the wood in half. When the electricity faded away, she saw that her hand had completely penetrated the bark, and had created a nearly perfect hole. She pulled her hand out and smiled, admiring her work.

She felt her hand itch, and stared at it. Her palm was slightly red, but that didn't bother her. As long as she didn't have to get her mother to heal it, she was fine. The girl grabbed her cloak and put it back on, liking how long sleeves no longer bothered her. Today, she had exchanged her old one for one similar to Gureki's, which had equal length, but short sleeves, unlike the previous one. There was also no hint of yellow on it, but only grey and icy blue instead. The Aoyo clan's blue sun rested on its back, between her shoulder blades, and above her heart.

She sat down on the ground cross legged and began wrapping her right hand with bandages, up to her forearm. She didn't want her teammates to see the marks Chidori had left behind. 

The thing that annoyed her about the new technique, was that so far, she could only do it once. After that, her chest would begin to ache, and that was never a good sign. I have to get Kakashi-sensei to help me with it, just like he promised. The memory of her near death experience back in Tazuna's bridge came to her mind, and she felt bad.

''Chidori... Its name is Chidori! But you'll have plenty of time to practice it, once this mission is over!" He said, loosing his calm by the second. ''It'll be the third step.''

Their sensei really cared about them after all, even though he acted so laid back. She sighed and rested her hands on her knees, closing her eyes. Now, what did mother say? Meditation? First, concentrate. Then... concentrate... again?

Her brow twitched. Why is this so hard? I'm supposed to be relaxing and controlling my chakra flow. She heard the forest sounds all around, the animals, trees and felt the sun on her face. Sighing, she tried to focus on her chakra. Stupid birds, stupid trees, stupid wind...

''I give up!'' She announced to no one in particular, fed up. But when she opened her eyes, she noticed that the sun wasn't where she had left it. ''What in the...'' She stood up, and gasped. At least three hours had passed from the time she had sat down, judging from the position of the sun between the trees. ''The meeting!'' She suddenly remembered, and took off as quickly as she could.

How did that happen? She wondered, jumping from tree to tree. I only closed my eyes for a few seconds... how could time pass so easily? Does that mean I did it right? Kami, please don't let Kakashi-sensei be there before me. Why do thing like this always happen to me?

When a little away from the meeting place, she slowed down to a jog, and then an almost relaxed walking pace. When her teammates came into view, she inwardly sighed in relief. Kakashi wasn't there yet. When Sakura laid eyes on her however, the whole Village may have known about her turning up late.

''WHERE IN THE WORLD HAVE YOU BEEN, GUREHIPPO???" She yelled, making the boys cover their ears, and Gurehai hide her wince. ''As if sensei being two hours late every day wasn't enough, you are going to be tardy as well from now on?" She pointed a finger at her face, which she simply avoided.

''Morning Naruto, Sasuke.'' She greeted, deciding to mock her female comrade a little. You may have picked my cloak up back in our mission, but that still doesn't change anything. She then proceeded to rest her back against the railing, and cross her arms. A few seconds later, which consisted of the boys nodding in response and the Haruno staring at her like she was mental, Gurehai slowly turned her head to her and faked a small frown. ''Oh, hello Sakura-san. Didn't see you there.''

''Good morning, everyone!" Their sensei's voice chirped from above, before the pink haired girl could throw herself at the Aoyo. Heads snapped to his direction, and eyebrows rose. ''Today, I got lost!" He stated, taking the spotlight away from Gurehai.

''That's a lie!" Sakura and Naruto accused, and he scratched the back of his head. Jumping down, the change of Gurehai's attire didn't go unnoticed. So Gureki told her about the clan. He pondered, catching glimpse of the blue sun on her back. When his eye fell on her right arm, bandaged, but not in a way that indicated she was injured, he was taken aback. She's been working on Chidori... on her own? After what happened to her? She gave her one last glance, and approached them.

''Now, sensei.'' Naruto started, getting closer to him. ''We've been doing only lame missions lately. Isn't there one more exciting for us, so I can show my talent?" He asked, making Gurehai secretly wish their sensei would say 'yes'. To do serious missions, they needed to train, and if they trained, she'd be closer to mastering Raiton, and therefore, over with the third step. He promised, after all. 

''I actually get what you're trying to say.'' The Jonin nodded, getting the white haired girl's hopes up.......

.......Only for them to get demolished, when the three D-Rank missions were over. Somehow, Naruto had managed to screw something up in each and every one of them, even in the dog walking one. So much for exciting missions.

She was currently holding up her blonde friend, while Sakura stayed close to Sasuke, and Kakashi walked behind them. ''Zazuge!" He suddenly growled, barely able to speak.

''Stop it!" Gurehai hissed under her breath, struggling to keep him standing.

As the two boys started arguing, as always, she turned her head to their sensei, contemplating on whether she should remind him of his promise back on the Land of Waves. She was about to open her mouth, when a hawk screeched from above them.

''Well, it seems like I have to head to the Hokage's office and hand in this mission's report.'' He closed his book shut, and gave them a salute. Why can't he jut tell us the truth? Hawks are sent to assemble Jonin, for a meeting. Does he think we are that immature? ''See ya!" And he disappeared in a puff of smoke, as always. 

Since Sasuke has left, should I go to the woods and work on Chidori? She crossed her arms, slowly walking away from Naruto and Sakura, who seemed depressed all of a sudden. I know one is supposed to be my current limit, but after that meditation thing earlier, I feel like my chakra has completely been restored. It wouldn't hurt to try... and mother is at home, in case anything happens...

She suddenly heard laughs from behind her, and saw three short kids standing next to her teammates. Squinting her blue eyes, she recognized the Third Hokage's grandson.

''Huh?" She smiled, walking back to the five. ''If it isn't for Konohamaru, our future Hokage.'' She praised, knowing it would annoy Naruto, and the kid turned to her with a gigantic grin on his face.

''Gurehai nesan!*'' The little boy exclaimed, running towards her and wrapping his arms around her waist -that's only where he could reach- and looked up at her with gleaming eyes. ''Where have you been, huh? You promised to spar with me four days ago, but I haven't seen you ever since!" He pouted, resting his hands on his hips.

''Nesan?" Naruto blinked, before the Aoyo could reply. ''How do you know Gure-chan, Konohamaru?"

''What do you mean how do I know her?" The smaller boy asked, like it was obvious. Gurehai saw her secret about to be spilled out, and had to protect it. ''She's my granpa's-...Mfhsmmht.'' She put her hand on his mouth, preventing him from revealing any piece of information.

''-Biggest supporter.'' She finished his sentence, sending him a death glare that somehow went unnoticed by the others. ''His granpa's biggest supporter. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have training to do. I'll see you all soon.'' She turned her back to the five and started walking away, when she heard a screech and a loud crash, and Konohamaru yelling 'ugly wench'. Oh no. I hope that wasn't meant for Sakura, or else Lord Third will be one grandchild short. What am I saying? As if I'd let her. 

She turned around just in time to see the Sarutobi running away from her, but bumping onto a much taller, dark clothed stranger. The ninja, who wore a Sunagakure headband, looked a bit older than Gurehai, and had purple markings all over his face. He looked intimidating enough, and his cold brown eyes that looked down to the kid, didn't help the situation. 

Behind him was a girl with blond hair and green eyes, carrying a large fan. A protector adorned her neck as well, marking her a ninja of the Land of Wind. When the boy grabbed Konohamaru and held him up by the collar of his shirt, Gurehai began making her way to them.

''Hey, stop that.'' The blonde girl mumbled. ''You know you'll get scolded later, don't you?" She looked away, as Sakura apologized hastily.

''I think I'll have some fun before the strict one comes. This little punk is really lively.'' Her companion retorted, tightening his hold. These are Konoha's Genin? He smirked, eyeing Naruto and Sakura's head bands, when suddenly, another person came into view, from behind the others. Upon seeing her cloak, his eyes widened.

''I suggest you let go of him, before have some fun with your face.'' Gurehai threatened with a calm voice, snapping the Suna ninja out of his trance, and making the blonde girl turn her head towards her. She gasped as well, staring at the symbol above her right breast. ''And seeing that it looks bad as it is, I wouldn't take any chances, if I were you.'' She unfolded her arms, allowing the to see the Aoyo clan's symbol better. Well aware of what they were thinking, she made sure her hood fell back slightly, in order for them to see the Konohagakure head band around her forehead.

Naruto, who was about to charge at the older boy, stayed back when he saw him slowly lose his hold on Konohamaru, while staring at Gurehai like he and his companion had seen a ghost. A pebble suddenly flew though the air, hitting the stranger, surprising everyone, and making the new comer let go of the kid.

''My teammate told you something.'' Sasuke said from a tree nearby, crushing the second stone he was holding in his hand. Show off. Gurehai almost rolled her eyes, but was thankful he had drawn their attention off of her.

''Why you...'' The Suna boy seethed in anger, and started to unwrap the item he had been carrying on his back.

''Hey!" The girl next to him warned. ''You're not seriously going to use Crow for this, are you?" Her eyes widened, making Gurehai's narrow. Crow? That's what he has probably named his weapon. And it's wrapped up... is he a puppeteer? If yes, we are doomed.

''Kankuro, stop. You are an embarrassment to our Village.'' A new voice stated, sending chills down her spine. turning her head to its source, she saw a redhead hanging upside down next to Sasuke. How long has he been standing there? Did he appear out of thin air? Four seconds ago, he wasn't there! The other two, who seemed to know him, were just as taken aback as well. ''Why do you think all the way here to the Hidden Leaf for?"

''Gaara.. p-please, listen to me...'' Kankuro almost begged, bringing Gurehai to the conclusion he was stronger than the both of them, and afraid of him, too. ''T-they lashed out first!'' He accused, in a lame attempt to excuse himself, like Kakashi.

''Shut up.'' Gaara cut him off, squinting his eye at him. ''I'll kill you.'' That's all it took for the other one to become a stuttering mess, and stop talking. ''I apologize for that.'' The redhead said, and disappeared in a gust of wind, leaving sand behind him. When he reappeared next to his teammates, the Aoyo got the chance to get a closer look on him.

He had turquoise eyes, that were framed by terrible dark circles, and a red tattoo over his left eye, reading 'love'. Is that supposed to be sarcastic? That boy's as cold as ice. He also carried a large gourd, with unknown contents. I think I'm taller than him. 

''Wait a minute.'' Sakura suddenly exclaimed, making them halt and turn around. ''Your head bands show that you are from the Hidden Sand. Even though the Land of Fire and the Land of Wind are allies, shinobi of each nation aren't supposed to enter without permits. So state your purpose.'' Seriously, Sakura? Couldn't you have asked Kakashi-sensei that? Now their attention is back on me. Sure enough, the two were back at staring at her, but this time, Gaara joined them.

No way... He thought, looking her up and down, noting her blue eyes and the the sun on her cloak. An Aoyo our age, here in Konohagakure? How is that possible? His train of though was caught off by Temari.

''Here's my permit. And, we are obviously here for the Chunin Exams.'' The blonde girl explained, making the other Genin frown.

''What are the Chunin exams anyway?" Naruto wondered, and Gurehai kept herself from sighing. 

''Genin take them to be promoted to Chunin, like the name suggests.'' She answered, glancing back at him over her shoulder. 

''Then I'll try taking them! That'll be awsome!" The Uzumaki laughed, nudging Konohamaru. Sasuke jumped down next to Gurehai, who held Gaara's intense stare, without blinking.

''Hey you, with the gourd.'' The Uchiha called, gaining Gaara's attention. ''What's your name?"

''I'm Gaara of the Desert.'' He replied, looking at the black haired boy for a while. ''I'm curious about you as well. Who are you?" He asked back, making Sasuke smirk.

''My name is Uchiha Sasuke.'' After that, Gaara's attention was back on the Aoyo.

''What about you?" He asked, nodding his head at her. As if you don't know already.

''My name is Gurehai Soraku. Or perhaps, you would want me to say 'Aoyo'?" She narrowed her eyes, when a slight shock appeared on Kankuro and Temari's faces. ''You Sand nin might be more satisfied with that.''

''So, 'Gure'. You are the daughter of Guretora, the Tiger of the Blue Sun?'' Gaara questioned, as everyone held their breath. ''Why would you keep the name of a commoner?"

''Guretora was my aunt.'' She replied, before Kankuro could open his mouth. ''My mother's name is Gureki. You'd think that Suna keeps records of its clans' members, alive, deceased, and married off.'' She commented, angering the puppeteer. ''I keep my father's name, because I respect him.'' Or rather, his memory.

''I see.'' The readhead didn't say anything else, but narrowed his eyes at her. ''I look forward to our next meeting.'' He said, and they started walking away again.

''What about my name?" Naruto chirped, with a smile on his face. ''Don't you wanna know what it is?"

''Not interested.'' Gaara replied, not even glancing back. When the three disappeared from view, Gurehai put her hands in her  pockets and bid her teammates farewell. Heading for the woods, she decided to work on the Chidori after all.

Gaara of the Desert, huh? She thought, as she destroyed another tree. I guess we will meet again, whether I want it or not.

Chapter Text

''Good morning, everyone. Today, I am afraid I got lost in the path of life.'' Kakashi Hatake greeted his students, an hour after the time he had called them to their meeting spot. Gurehai didn't even bother to look at the scene Naruto and Sakura were about to make, and waited anxiously for her sensei's next words, that would hopefully be...

''This is sudden, but I have recommended you four for the Chunin Exams, so... here are your applications.'' the girl gladly took hers, and read it quickly. This is real... I'm going to the Exams... and I'm going to pass them. ''If you want to participate, then turn these in on classroom 301, at 3 o'clock in the Academy, five days from now.''

Five days? I have to work on my Genjutsu... and quickly. But... with who? She stole a glance at her sensei, as the other three walked away. Before he could vanish, she called for him.

''Sensei.'' The Jonin turned her way. ''I need a favor.'' She hesitated, before remembering that it wasn't a favor in the first place. He'd promised. ''I need to work on my Genjutsu for the Chunin Exams, and I need a partner.''

''The one you told me about back on the bell exercise?" His eye narrowed, and she nodded. ''Why don't you ask Naruto to help you? I thought you were pretty close as teammates.'' He suggested, even though he knew the Uzumaki was hopeless with Genjutsu.

''Like I said, I need help with it.'' She pointed out. ''If something goes wrong, it could fry his brain.'' Kakashi's face fell.

''I feel so appreciated all of a sudden.'' He mumbled, looking away.

''Obviously, that doesn't mean I am okay with damaging your brain and messing with your mentality. But I assumed a Jonin would have more endurance, and be more experienced in such matters than a Genin.'' She shrugged, secretly hoping her smooth talk would work. ''And besides, it was you who put me in a Genjutsu in our first exercise, so I know you are good with it.''

''Mmm.'' Kakashi thought about it. It'll be my chance to see her capabilities. If it's as dangerous as she says it is, then she needs training to be able to handle it properly.''Okay. Let's see what you got. Meet me in the training grounds.'' He saw her roll her eyes, before he disappeared in a puff of smoke.

''Vanishing like that, as always.'' She murmured, and headed for the instructed location.

Surprisingly, he was there when she arrived, reading his orange book, which she still thought reminded her of something. 

''Now, tell me about that Gen-...'' The Hatake started, walking towards his student, when she suddenly disappeared. When he turned around sharply, she was there, holding her palm out towards his head. The Jonin froze, eye widening. He slowly fell on his knees, with Gurehai's outstretched palm inches away from his forehead.

His body started shaking, after what seemed like seconds. A gasp left his lips, before his hand flew up to to the side of his head, gripping his hair. Sweat ran down his temples, and his wide eye was focused on the ground. 

''N-no...'' He whispered, wincing. His head was throbbing, his eyes stinging, his breath uneven. Faces he hadn't seen in a long time flashed before his eyes, yelling and crying and mocking for hours on end. He couldn't see Gurehai tear up, her concentration wavering.

When she finally stumbled back and opened her eyes, the Aoyo lost her balance and fell on the ground, the breath knocked out of her. Hair sprawled out all over around her head, but she made no move to stand up. 

The Jonin seemed to wake up from his trance and shake his head, looking at the ground around him to convince himself that it was real. When he looked up, he saw Gurehai stare up at the sky, on the brim of tears. He stood up and walked over to her, his eyes immediately falling on her uncovered right eye. She turned her head to look at him slowly, before looking away again.

''Told you I needed help with it.''

''This Genjutsu needs a direct link to the enemy's memory's to be activated, and that's exactly why I had to sneak up on you, sensei.'' Gurehai explained, ten minutes later. ''If you knew what I was about to do, you would've concealed your thoughts, blocked your memories, and put up a fight when I was trying to reach your subconscious, giving me even more hard time.''

''You saw all that?" Kakashi asked, recalling everything he saw. ''That's why you cried?"

''I didn't cry.'' She snapped, and then calmed down. She looked away from him, giving him view of her now covered eye. ''I got... upset. It backfired, as always.'' She gritted her teeth, trying to shake the images of her head. ''I saw the man with the green eyes... I always do. When I practiced it with Lord Third, I used to fall unconscious. So today's attempts, I found easy.''

''Who is he?" The man asked, but Gurehai hesitated. ''Come on, you saw everything- and everyone- I saw. It's only fair you tell me about him, don't you think?" That made her reconsider. Who were those four, anyway? The only one I recognized... was he the Fourth Hokage? ''What did you see?"

''The man with the green eyes, he... He is one of the two that killed my father.'' She finally admitted. ''And this... thing keeps replaying in my mind... a memory that doesn't really exist.'' She raised her hand, and touched her right eye softly. ''In it, I never ran back to the Village, that day. I went back to him, and saw his body. The two in the red and black cloaks tried to attack me too... and he...'' She trailed off, letting her hand fall.

''Little brat.'' The tall man said from afar, and something detached from his arm, and came after her, looking like black vines. Her eyes widened, and somebody pulled her backwards.

''I don't know why.'' Gurehai said. ''That never really happened. But as I said, it backfires. I see some of my worst nightmares, and he is in them. His eyes are.'' She glared hard at the grass, like it was to blame for everything. ''I need you to train me, so that I don't see him everytime I use Genjutsu.''

''You'll have it.'' Kakashi replied, and stood up. ''Before the Chunin Exams, you'll be all set.'' I would help you train. That was my promise.

---- ---- ---- ----

And the Hatake's words became actions, as, five days later, Gurehai stood in front of the Academy doors, waiting for her teammates to show up. 

''Gure-chan! You came!" She heard Naruto's voice from behind her, and turned around to see him and Sasuke walking towards her. She chuckled.

''Of course I came. Who else would look after an idiot like you during the fighting phase?'' She asked, and the boy pouted. ''I got a bet for you: If I become a Chunin in this Exams, you have to treat the entire team at Ichiraku's. If you become one before me, then it's my treat.''

''You got it!" The Uzumaki pumped his fist in the air, grinning like an idiot. Sasuke scoffed.

Now that I have him motivated, I can rest assured he will do his absolute best. As for Uchiha, I don't need to question his spirit. But Sakura... if she does eventually turn up, then we might end up protecting her.

''Sakura-chan! You're late!" Naruto exclaimed, and indeed, the Haruno was approaching them with heavy footsteps. Looking at her, Gurehai could tell something was off. 

''I'm sorry.'' She mumbled, and raised her head. ''Good morning, Sasuke-kun.'' She greeted, with no excitement in her voice whatsoever. Is she sick?

''Come on, it's almost time. Let's get inside.'' She urged team 7, and walked in the Academy with Naruto on her heels. Reaching the second floor, they were met with a large crowd, that didn't seem to be moving. ''Why has everyone stopped here?" She asked no one in particular, and pushed some kids aside to see what all the fuss was about. Two kids their age stood in front of the door leading to the third floor, blocking the entrance. The weird thing was, that the sign showed the numbers '301', and not '201'.

''-Becoming Chunin involves leading missions, death and injuries of comrades, and a lot of pressure. We don't need weaklings like you in those positions.'' One of them said, looking down, where a boy wearing a green bodysuit and a girl with buns were. The Aoyo stepped forward, itching to get to room 301 for the Exams.

''Well, maybe you're right.'' She said, standing in front of them, and everyone present turned to look at her, including the fallen kids. ''Perhaps Konoha doesn't need people who can't detect a Genjutsu of the lowest rank as Chunin.'' With that, she heard gasps, and the two boys blocking the way seemed surprised. ''But please, let me and my team pass. We have some important business on the third floor, and we can't afford to be late.''

''Impressive.'' One of them said, releasing the Genjutsu with a hand seal. The sign morphed into one that said '201'. ''But still, all you did was catch on.'' He smirked, and Gurehai felt a hand on her shoulder, as Sasuke passed  her and sent a kick the other Genin's way. Their attack felt short, however, when the boy in green from earlier jumped between them and stopped their kicks.

What? The girl raised her eyebrows at the scene. Wasn't he the one being pushed down by the same person earlier. His speed... is incredible...

''Hey.'' A new voice came from her right, as Sasuke stepped away from the kid. ''That's not what you promised.'' A boy her age with long brown hair said, approaching his teammate. ''You were the one who said not to attract attention.'' She noticed he had eyes like her former classmate, Hinata. He's a Hyuga. And... they agreed to lay low. That's a smart move for these Exams.

''But...'' The boy protested, looking at his teammates. He had a shiny black bowl cut, and bushy eyebrows. His cheeks suddenly reddened, as he turned towards team 7. Behind him the boy and girl groaned. Within the blink of a eye, he was in front of her. ''My name is Rock Lee.'' He announced, looking at her in the eyes. ''Your name is Gurehai, right?" He asked, earning a raised eyebrow.

''Yes.'' She simply replied, uncomfortable with where the conversation was heading. 

''Please go out with me!" He smiled, giving her a thumbs up.''I'll protect you until I die!" Behind her, Sakura's face fell, as Naruto and Sasuke looked at him like he was mental. The white haired girl didn't even flinch.

''Genin like us should be focused on becoming Chunin, not dating.'' She smartly retorted, making Lees face fall. Even though she believed what she said, the truth was that she didn't like him either. That was also a jab directed towards Sakura, who took a minute to understand what was happening, due to her shock.

''What was that, Gurehippo?" She demanded, raising her fist in the air. Gurehai dismissed her, and kept looking at Rock Lee. 

''I got to give it to you, though.'' She started, and his facial expression turned into one of surprise. ''Your tactic to not attract unwanted attention, and therefore enemies, is extremely smart. Your speed is very impressive too.'' His face lighted up. ''You managed to stop the fastest person in our team with little effort.'' Sasuke scoffed.

Meanwhile, the Hyuga approached him. ''You there.'' He called, and Sasuke stared at him. ''Identify yourself.'' As if.

''When asking someone their name give your own name first.'' He retorted, hands in his pockets. The long haired boy didn't back down.

''You're a Rookie, aren't you?" He asked. ''How old are you?''

''Again, I am not obliged to answer.'' The Uchiha smirked, and they all walked away.

The Exams will be harder than I thought. Gurehai pondered. First the Sand, then that guy, with the impossible speed... And I might get to fight them all. It doesn't matter, still. They won't stop me from becoming Chunin, or reaching my goal.

''You, with the unpleasant look.'' A voice was heard, when they were meters away from their destination. I hope he's not referring to me. She turned around to see Rock Lee. ''My name is Rock Lee. When asking a person their name, you are supposed to give you own first, is that right?" He pointed his hand at Sasuke. ''Why don't you fight me right now, Uchiha Sasuke?"

''You are naive, knowing the name of my clan and still challenging me. Are you sure about this?" Sasuke asked from next to her. You are the naive one, Uchiha, for thinking he'll be an easy fight. I have the feeling that earlier, he wasn't even showing his real speed.

''I want to test my techniques.'' He said, and then glanced at Gurehai. ''Also... Gurehai. Love.'' He daydreamed, making the girl sigh. 

''Wait!" Naruto yelled, out of the blue. ''I will take out Bushy Brows, in just five minutes. I got this.''

''I don't want to fight you.'' Lee argued, getting into his fighting stance. ''My battle is with Uchiha.'' Naruto didn't like that response, and charged at him. The result, as expected, was for him to be thrown to the wall, in less than five seconds. Just like I imagined. With those skills, he might as well be...

''I am the strongest Leaf Genin right now.'' He announced, as Sasuke stepped forward, and charged at him. He was struck down. Repeatedly. Even with his Sharingan, that made Gurehai curious of how and when he awakened it, he was no match for him.  On our mission in the Land of Waves? I was out for days, after all.

The Aoyo couldn't believe in her eyes when he saw the two suspend in mid air, bandages slowly wrapping around her teammate. This is getting out of hand. She though, torn between trying to help her comrade, and letting him fight his own battle. If it was her in his place, she knew she wouldn't want any of them interfering. But, as it turned out, she didn't have to do anything.

''LEE.'' A voice boomed, and the two boys were seperated. ''That technique is prohibited, you know.'' A turtle scolded the bowl cut boy, as Sakura ran off to catch a falling Sasuke. Wait.. a turtle? What in the-...

''Hey.'' Naruto gained her attention, face confused. ''That guy's getting scolded by the turtle, right? That's a turtle?" He asked, trying to take it in. ''Can a turtle even be a Ninja teacher?"

''No, of course not.'' Gurehai told him, half glancing at their direction. ''Only Jonin can lead Genin teams. A turtle can't be a Jonin!" She said, a bit confused herself. Then, from a puff of smoke above the turtle, a man appeared. Man, what is it with Jonin appearing and disappearing like that? Just like Kakashi-sensei... Then the smoke cleared out, and her face blanched.

He looked.. exactly like Lee. Or rather, Lee looked exactly like him. He had bushy eyebrows, and a black shiny bowl cut.  His green bodysuit was accompanied by the Konoha flak jacket, and his cheekbones... Kami, those cheekbones... too intense.

''Look at those eyebrows... they're raging...''

''What about the intense bowl cut? It's-it's...''

''Those eyebrows look alive..''

''HEY, DON'T MOCK GUY-SENSEI!" Lee yelled, face red. 

''Drop it, Lee.'' The Jonin demanded calmly... before throwing his arm back and punching his student so hard, he started bleeding.

''What in the world?" Gurehai exclaimed, supporting herself by holding onto Naruto's shoulder. I am so glad to have Kakashi as our sensei right now... I am never complaining about him again in my life...

''Lee... you...'' Guy approached the boy again, getting down onto one knee. Lee slowly stood up, staring up at him with tears in his eyes.

''S-sensei!"

''LEE!"

''SENSEI!"

''THIS IS ADOLESCENCE, LEE!'' They cried on each other's shoulders, sobbing. I can't believe that Sasuke lost to a guy like that... I am also never complaining about our relationship with Kakashi, ever again... This is too weird. ''Now, run a hundred laps around the Academy, towards the setting sun! Let's go!"

''Wait a minute!" Gurehai stopped them, glancing at the clock. 2:56. ''What about the Exams? They start in less than five minutes! Which reminds me...'' She trailed off, grabbing both Naruto and a scowling Sasuke by the back of their collars. ''We have to get going too.''

With that they walked away from the strange duo, who kept talking. So weird... She thought, as they approached the doors of room 301. There, they found Kakashi waiting for them. He was standing with his back against the wall, reading his book- as always.

''You guys!" He greeted, giving them a close eyed smile. ''I'm glad you came, and especially you, Sakura.'' He told them, making them frown.

''What do you mean, sensei?" The Haruno inquired, nervously glancing up at the Jonin. What? There's no way we... The man seemed to understand Gurehai's thinking, and nodded.

''Exactly.'' He said. ''If Sakura hand't come, then none of you would have been able to take these Exams.''

Chapter Text

''What do you mean we wouldn't have been able to take part in the Exams without Sakura?" Gurehai was at loss of words. ''We'd still be a three-man cell, wouldn't we?" She asked, even forgetting to add the Haruno's mocking honorific.

''But you wouldn't be a team.'' Kakashi pointed out, looking at her, a little disappointed. If she doens't consider Sakura her teammate, the entire team might not be able to make it through. ''You see, telling you that you had a choice to take the Exams, I was testing your teamwork. If Sakura didn't want to enter, but the others persuaded her...'' He stole a glance at Sasuke, who was gaping. ''She would, no doubt, comply.''

The boys looked at their pink haired teammate, while the Aoyo glared at the ground. I was so close... I was almost not allowed in.

''So... If it only had been Naruto, Sasuke and Gurehippo here today...'' Sakura trailed off, eyes wide.

''I would have stopped the exams right here.'' The Jonin confirmed, and Gurehai breathed in sigh of relief. I can't think about what would have happened. She is here, and we can proceed, and that's all that matters. ''But you are all here, on your own free will. Sakura, Naruto, Sasuke and Gurehai...'' He looked at his students one by one. ''I am glad you are here. I'm proud of you.'' He added, and the Aoyo fought back a smile. ''You may go in.''

She had a new feeling of optimism around her, but, as they walked through the double doors of room 301, it vanished. Before her stood about a hundred more Genin, all of them older than her, and all of them glaring at her. She didn't believe things could get any worse either, until...

''Sasuke-kun!" An overly enthusiastic voice chirped, and Gurehai saw her former classmate, Ino Yamanaka, jump on Sasuke's back with a wink. She kept silent, staying a few feet behind the rest of her team. 

''Get away from him, Ino Pig!" Sakura screeched, pointing her finger at the blonde. I see she's very creative over nicknames with others too... and very talented at attracting even more attention as well... She sighed, closing her eyes.

''Huh?" She heard a new voice say. ''You guys are taking these troublesome exams too?" Shikamaru appeared from behind Ino, with Choji by his side. 

''Oh look!" Naruto laughed, wrapping his arm around Gurehai's shoulders, who mentally cursed the Uzumaki's personality. ''It's the three idiots!"

''Don't call us that!" The Nara snapped back, putting his hands lazily in his pockets. ''What? You guys too?" He said after a second, as three more people approached the group. Perfect... more Genin... more classmates...

''What'ya say? All ten Rookies are here!" More noise. Kiba Inuzuka said, carrying his dog around on top of his head. ''This will be fun, right Sasuke? We've trained a lot, and there's no way we'll loose!" He smirked, and turned to the Uchiha.

''You are too confident, Inuzuka.'' He said, and Naruto interrupted him, shaking her in the process.

''Heh. I don't know about Sasuke, but I will never loose to the likes of you!" He practically screamed, making her covered eyebrow twitch. She sighed and got out of her friend's grip, when another boy walked up to them.

''You guys should be more quiet.'' He commented, pushing up his glasses. He had long silver hair, tied back, and a Konohagakure protector. He looked older than the Genin surrounding her. ''You are the rookie ten, straight out of the academy, aren't you? Well, I should expect that. But look around you.'' Gurehai didn't have to to as told to see all the other Genin were looking at them hatefully, from Konoha or not. How does he even know who we are? She glanced suspiciously at him, as he pulled out a deck of orange cards, and started spreading them over the floor. Even we didn't know the other teams would be participating.

''Show me Rock Lee, and Gaara of the Sand.'' Sasuke said, and even from behind everyone, Gurehai kept her ears open. Every piece of information is valuable. 

''Rock Lee. Mission experience, 20 D-Rank and 11 C-Rank. He seems to be a year older than you.' His team is Tenten, and Neji Hyuga.'' My age, then. She corrected in her head, and looked around the room, avoiding hateful glances and focusing her eyes on the boy in green, who saw her and blushed immediately. She could swear she saw him mouthing something like 'Gurehai. Love', but didn't respond.

''And last, Gaara of the Sand. He's a Rookie, like you guys, and his mission experience is... eight C-Rank and one  B-Rank.'' Whispers erupted from around her, but what she heard next, made her eyes widen. ''And hear this: He came out of every single one of his missions unscathed.''

What? She searched the room for him and his teammates, and eventually found them. Kankuro was looking back at her with a smirk on his face. He went on a B-Rank as a Genin and didn't even get a scratch? When the redhead's eyes met hers, she didn't turn away, despite of the chill running down her spine. Well, I went on a A-Rank, and came back alive. Perhaps that makes us even.

''That means... not just the two of them, but everyone in this room, is the elite Genin selected from each Village. They'll be hard to take down.'' Kabuto commented, and Gurehai looked at the ground. He is telling the truth. Every Hidden Village sent their very best in these exams... and we are just Rookies. If only Lee can take down Sasuke on his own with little to no effort, using only Taijutsu, I can't even begin to imagine what everyone else can do. And to think that was only his Taijutsu skills... I wonder how good he is at Ninjutsu or Genjutsu...

''YOOUU!" Naruto suddenly yelled at the top of his lungs from next to her, scaring the crap out of her. She snapped her head at him with a murderous look, only to see him pointing his finger at the entire room. ''My name is Naruto Uzumaki, and I won't loose to any of you! Got it?" He shouted, earning glares. Gurehai came at him from behind and grabbed the back of his neck, lifting him up with ease. Meanwhile, Sakura pathetically apologized to the other Genin, waving her hands around.

''You idiot!" The Aoyo hissed at her friend's face, who looked as if he was about to pee his pants. ''What do you think you're doing, provoking everyone like that?" She shook him, making him gulp. Now everybody has their eye on not just him, but the whole Ten Rookies as well. They will no doubt come after us, the moment there is a chance to fight.

Her train of thought was cut short when a figure appeared in her line of sight, swinging his fist at Kabuto. She quickly let go of Naruto and turned her body around and got ready for a fight, but was relieved to see that her fellow Genin dodged in time, jumping back. The attacker was a Sound ninja, judging from his headband, who had his entire face covered with bandages, except from one of his eyes. 

''He dodged it!" She heard Naruto exclaim in relief, but then, the older boy's glasses cracked, and he fell to his knees, puking. He puked? Gurehai gasped, just like her former classmates. But he clearly dodged the attack... and even then... He didn't perform a Jutsu... How could he do that to him?

''SILENCE!" A new voice demanded, and smoke filled the classroom. More smoke... let me guess... Jonin? ''Sorry to keep you waiting.'' The smoke cleared out, and a group of adults dressed in grey, led by a scary, scarred man, appeared. ''I am the proctor of the first test of the Chunin Exams, Ibiki Morino.''

He had scars running along his face, and Gurehai suddenly felt her covered eye itch. His eyes were black and emotionless, his lips a thin line. Next to him, two men smirked at the crowd of Genin. One had spiky blue hair, and the other straight, brown. They look oddly familiar...

''No doing as you please in the Exams. You there, from the Sound!" He called, and the three Sound ninja turned around. ''No fighting!" As the masked kid apologized shortly, the Aoyo started to panic. There are so many proctors... and so many desks. Please tell me... please tell me we won't... ''Now, turn in your registration forms. In exchange you will be given one of these numbers. The number you get, is the seat you have to take. When you all settle down, the proctors will hand out sheets of paper for the test.''

Not that, for the love of Kami! She internally screamed, watching Naruto pale next to her as well. We are going to get disqualified! ''We are screwed.'' She whispered, holding dramatically onto the blonde.

Taking a number from the proctor that approached her and took her application, she looked at it and walked away from the Uzumaki. Sitting down, she saw a boy about two years older than her on her left. He had light brown hair, honey colored eyes and a smug expression, and his head band showed he was from the Village Hidden in the Waterfall. He had a katana strapped on his back. She turned the other way before he could catch her looking at him, and almost froze.

On her right, with his usual stern expression, sat Gaara of the Sand. He still carried a large gourd around, and his arms were crossed over his chest. Remembering how he and his partners reacted to her appearance, she calmed down. Kankuro and Temari... they almost looked afraid of her. But they knew nothing, neither of her, nor her abilities. It is strange how much a simple name affects people. 

With that she glanced away, trying to spot the rest of team 7. When she saw they were all scattered across the room, she inaudibly sighed. No help was going to come from them.

''Aoyo Gurehai.'' A voice called slowly from next to her, and she turned her head to the side, half confused and half surprised. With her face its usual expressionless mask, she locked her blue eyes with the boy's.

''Gaara of the Sand.'' She nodded slightly, recalling what Kabuto had said about him. A B-Rank as a Genin, and he came out of it unscathed. She couldn't deny she was intimidated by him. Even without his chilly stare, his own teammates were scared the crap out of him, and they were older than him. And he insists on calling me 'Aoyo'. The Sand's pride, perhaps.

They exchanged no words after that. Ibiki stood in front of a big chalkboard, gaining the Genin's attention.

''There is a number of rules you have to follow, and I will take no questions, so listen carefully.'' He almost growled out. ''Firstly, the test has ten questions. Each Genin has ten points. For every wrong question, you are deducted one point.'' So if I get all of them wrong, I have zero points... awsome. ''Now, for the second rule: pass or fail will be determined by the total score of the teams.''

WHAT? She kept herself from gasping, balling her right hand to a fist instead. With both me and Naruto on the team, we are doomed. All right, lets see... Her eyes searched the test in front of her, but after reading the questions, she wished she had never set eyes on them. Were we ever taught that in the Academy? Her mind went completely blank, as the only thing she could remember was Iruka rambling on about... about...

''Lastly, there's the third, and most important rule. If the proctors catch you cheating, your are instantly deducted two points. That means, some of you might get disqualified, before the tests are even graded.'' I'm not able to cheat either... these guys are Chunin and Jonin! ''Those who do awkward cheating, will bring doom upon themselves.'' Awkward? What does he mean 'awkward'? So we are allowed to cheat? ''If even one member of the team scores zero points, the entire team is disqualified." That's terrible. Even if I can get at least one question correct, Naruto...

"The last question will be given during the last forty five minutes of the test. The test will last one hour. Begin!" 

Gurehai grabbed a pencil and focused on her sheet of paper, going through the questions. Seeing that they were all too hard, she sighed. What am I going to do? The first one looks simple enough... But the others... They're Sakura-level! How am I supposed to do this?

Answering the easy one, to make sure she at least had one point, the girl closed her eyes and relaxed. Okay, think. Ibiki said that awkward cheating will bring doom upon us... And that means... That non-awkward cheating will save us? And the other thing... 'Shinobi must act like exemplary shinobi. If you want to become a Chunin, keep that in mind.' Shinobi are known for their stealth, and ability to deceive their enemy... So... Does he want us to cheat, but not get caught?

From a few desks over, she saw Sasuke looking back at her, confused. She remembered his Sharingan, and what it can do. The Sharingan copies other people's techniques... So why not handwriting as well? She pointed her fingers to her eyes and then widened them, hoping he would get the message. Then, she started writing on her paper.

Cheat, don't get caught. "Exemplary shinobi." I have one question right. 

Putting her faith in him, and trusting he would figure a way to cover for her lack of points, Gurehai spotted Naruto, who looked as if the world was coming to an end. I don't like saying this one bit... But Sakura, I know you can do it.

That's how the rest forty minutes passed. When the first team was disqualified, due to having points deducted because of careless cheating attempts, the Aoyo felt a lump forming in her throat. No, we are alright. Naruto isn't that foolish. He can make it. We can make it. Then came the second. And the third. There was grunting, cursing and heavy footsteps, but neither her not her teammates were called out. 

''Pens down. It's time for the tenth question.'' Ibiki announced, and everyone inhaled. They had come so far. ''There is one simple condition for this question. You have to choose whether to answer it or not.''

''Choose?" She heard Temari gasp from a few desks behind. 

''Let me finish.'' The proctor raised his voice, and the room quieted down. ''The reason you have to choose is this: If you decide not to take the question, you and your team will be disqualified. However, if you choose to take it, but answer it wrong, you will be banned from taking the Chunin Exams for the rest of your life.'' Whispers and worried voices echoed through room 301, and Gurehai tried to find her teammates.

This is risky. If I take it, and answer it right, everything is fine. However, there's not telling what the others will answer. On the other hand, if I decide not to take it, Sasuke, Naruto and Sakura will be also disqualified. Man, this is awful. I get myself in difficult situations, as always. And let's not forget, that there is a chance we'll be stuck as Genin forever.

''If you want to take the tenth question, the stay as you are. Everyone who doesn't want to take the risk, please raise you hand. You and your team will be shown outside.'' He said, and once again, one by one, teams started exiting the room like flies. Gaara on her right, and the Takigakure boy on her left, stayed motionless. There's no way Naruto and Sasuke will quit right now, and neither will I... But Sakura... she might chicken out, or think it's for the team...

And, as cue, she saw the Haruno, somewhere to the left, slowly raise her hand. Before the Aoyo could react, or even try to alert her, she was shocked to see Naruto raise his hand high in the air. No way! He would never back out!

''Don't underestimate me!" He shouted, slamming his hand back on the desk. That's it! Naruto, my first friend... I knew you would never back down. ''I won't run! Even if I'm stuck being a Genin forever, I will become the Hokage!" Wait... he wasn't thinking of me, Sasuke and Sakura at all... as always, weird little thing...

''I am going to ask one last time.'' The scarred Jonin warned. ''Do you quit?"

''I will never go back on my Ninja Way!" The blonde said, sitting back down with a frown on his face. Gurehai sighed. So, this is it... the final question...

''Alright then. For everyone that is here... the First Exam... You have passed it!"

Chapter Text

''Did you just hear someone... scream?" Sakura shivered, looking around the dark woods. Indeed, a scream had echoed all around them, not helping the situation. The gigantic forest with the tall, ancient trees had little sources of light, adding to team 7's nervousness.

Shortly after Ibiki Morino had explained to them how and why they had passed the first round of the Exams, a woman had burst through the windows, making a scene. The same woman turned out to be the proctor of the second test, Anko Mitarashi. At least she didn't appear in a puff of smoke, like every other Jonin I've ever met. All 79 of them were to meet her again outside Training Ground 44 the next day, and when they did, they were met with a horrible sight.

''Let's just keep going.'' Gurehai urged her teammates, taking the lead. ''We have to get to the Tower as soon as we can.''

All 26 teams were given a scroll, which read either 'Heaven' or 'Earth' on it, and were asked to find its match, by fighting other teams and getting their scroll. That had to happen within a time limit of 120 hours - five days. Gurehai was more intimidated by the Forest they had to pass through to get to the Tower than the teams they had to possibly fight. She had a strategy as well.

''But Gure-chan... we don't have a second scroll yet.'' Naruto rubbed the back of his neck. 

''I know. But since everyone will be heading towards the Tower, afraid of the time limit, it will be easier for us to catch a team off guard and capture their scroll.'' The girl explained, crossing her arms over her chest.

''Guys, I need to pee!" The Uzumaki exclaimed, quickly turning around and hiding in the bushes. It's been 5 minutes since the start of the Exams. She mentally sighed, and turned around, going over her plan on her mind.

I have to make sure not to use Ninjutsu until we are close to the Tower, or else I might collapse. Worst case scenario, in which a strong team attacks us, I'll have to use Kiokugomon*

She was brought back by Sakura's voice, and a loud thud. When she turned around, she saw Sasuke attacking Naruto continuously, not leaving him a chance to defend himself.

''What are you doing, Sasuke?" She demanded, gaping at the Uchiha. He looked at her over his shoulder.

''Take a closer look at him, Gure! That's not the real Naruto. The scratch on his face has disappeared, and his holster is on his wrong leg. He's a fake!" The Aoyo realized he was right, especially when she took a second to observe 'Naruto's' movements. His fighting style was nothing like what she was used to seeing. Holding her two kunais in front of her, she jumped next to Sasuke.

''Unlucky!" Their teammate's image changed to the one of a Kirigakure ninja. ''You noticed. Now, you'll have to give me your scroll!" He charged at them, but Sasuke attacked him with his Katon Jutsu, making him jump back. 

Following close behind him, the white haired Kunoichi threw her kunai at him, but he blocked it, sending shuriken fly her way. She ducked behind a tree to avoid them, but gasped when she saw the paper bomb attached to them. She got away just in time, only to fins the ninja right behind her, threatening her with a knife. Sasuke came to the rescue, kicking him away.

When she got back up, the black haired boy was chasing away the enemy Genin, who was bleeding. Naruto appeared next to her, finally free of his restrains.

''He got away?" She asked when Sasuke came back, Sharingan deactivated. Nodding, the boy motioned for them to sit down.

''To avoid falling into a trap like this again, we have to find a password. That way, even if we see someone who looks like a teammate, we'll be sure it's them. The password is: 'The chance to sneak up when a large number of enemies are making a scene. The quiet place has no secret hideout. It is important for a shinobi to know the right time, the time when an enemy drops his guard.' That's it.'' Gurehai gave him a blank look, struggling to remember. 

A password like that, really? Naruto can't even remember what he had for dinner last night. She sighed, shaking her head. And I'll just say... something no one but me could know about them. That'll work. 

''Can you repeat it one more time?" Naruto pleaded, his face confused. ''I mean, it's not that I couldn't memorize it, but I thought that if I heard it once more, I'd be more certain...''

''No, I said it once. Now let's go. I'll carry the scroll.'' He said, standing up. Why is he announcing our plans like that? Enemies could be listening- Oh. Enemies are listening.

''Move!" She yelled when she felt a large current of wind heading straight towards them, destroying everything in its path. She backed away as quickly as she could, but eventually got caught in the vortex, and was swept away.

When Gurehai regained her balance, no one was around. Her team had disappeared, along with whoever attacked them. I have to find them as soon as I can. Being separated won't do us any good, especially with enemies lurking behind every corner.

But when she jumped on a tree branch to get a better view of the terrain, she stumbled back immediately, backing away from the huge snake that snapped its jaws at her. She back flipped on another tree, taking her kunais out. The snake followed, trying to hit her with its tail. She ducked at the last second, with the wood splitting in half below her feet. 

She landed on her feet, bracing herself for the next attack. The serpent hissed and came for her again, opening its large mouth. She waited for the right moment and then jumped up, the snake's head right below her. It slammed to the ground, and before it could find time to recover, she coated her kunai with lightning and threw it, hitting it in the eye. The animal hissed and trashed around frantically, before screeching one last time and dropping dead.

''That was close.'' She inhaled sharply, inspecting her attacker. It was twenty times bigger than the largest snake she had ever seen in her life, and had fangs as long as her arms. Is it a Summoning? It looks too big to be just an animal. Perhaps it's one of the traps that have been laid out for the Genin. 

Above her head, an orange blur flew quickly, going towards the opposite direction. ''Naruto!" She exclaimed, but was too far away to be hear by her teammate. She climbed the trees quickly, like Kakashi had taught them, and tried not to lose him.

She almost slipped when something hit her in the face, running down her cheek. Is that... gastric acid? She wiped her face with the back of her hand, glancing at the small trails her teammate left behind. Sounds of battle echoed up front, and the girl knew she had found her team, when she heard Sakura scream.

Landing on a tree branch near Naruto, she looked down, and saw... the Grass ninja that made a scene earlier, when all the teams were gathered outside the Forest of Death? Her body resembled a snake's, the way it was wrapped around a tree. She's creepier than before... 

''I'm sorry Sasuke.'' Naruto smiled, and Gurehai knelt down on the branch. ''I forgot the password.''

''Naruto, Gure! I know you came to save us, but don't engage! This woman is on an entirely different level. Run away, now!" Sasuke yelled, with his Sharingan activated. An image of her father passed quickly before her eyes, and she shook her head, grabbing a kunai. Never again.

''Stop talking nonsense, Uchiha!" The Aoyo growled, as Naruto nodded. ''We are a team. You think I can let you to fight that thing on your own?" She stole a glance at the grass ninja, whose body was twisted in very disturbing ways. Looking at her, the scary woman smirked and licked her lips.

''Naruto-kun, Gure-chan. I see you dealt with those snakes just fine.'' She commented, making Gurehai narrow her eyes. So they were summonings after all. She sneered.

''My name's not Gure-chan, not for you.'' She spat, jumping next to Naruto. ''He's the only one who gets to call me that, snake.''

''Aye,aye!'' The blonde grinned. ''And it seems that you have been bullying the weakling. But, now that were are here, we're going to wipe the floor with you!" I wouldn't go so far as to say that... that woman can summon snakes as big as our houses, Naruto.

Just as the duo was ready to attack, Sasuke cried out.

''Wait! Please, take this and leave!" He said, taking the heaven scroll out of his pouch. The girl's eyes widened. He can't possibly be serious about this! We can fight! Why does he want us to quit? 

''Sasuke, are you mental? Why would you hand over our scroll to our enemy like that?" The Uzumaki shouted, as upset as her.

''Shut up, Naruto! Can't you see this is the only way?" He yelled back, surprising the girl even further. He doesn't have a plan... he isn't faking this because of a strategy. He's seriously afraid.

''I see, you are the sensible one.'' The snake-woman said, smirking. ''The only thing the prey can do when the predator appears, is to offer food and hope they'll be spared, is that it?"

When the boy tossed the Heaven scroll away, Gurehai gasped. Thankfully, Naruto was quick to ran off and snatch it mid air, before it fell on the enemy's hands. Is that Uchiha idiot for real? We would have been disqualified, before we even got to the final test!

''Who are you?" Naruto asked, disgusted. Punching his teammate hard in the face and throwing him down, he seethed with anger. ''You must be an impostor. You have to. Where is the real Sasuke? The one I know isn't a stupid coward like you, and who wouldn't give up so easily?"

''I don't care how strong she is, you idiot. We are supposed to fight her together!" The Aoyo called, her cloak swishing behind her as she jumped down several branches.

''How do you even know she would let us get away after we handed her the scroll, huh?" The blonde Genin asked, as the Grass ninja stood up.

''You are right, Naruto-kun.'' She licked her lips once again. ''I could just kill you all and get it!" With a flick of her wrist, on which she spread her blood, another gigantic snake appeared, and it seemed to be thrice as large a the one that attacked Gurehai. 

''NARUTO!" She screamed in despair, as the snake, with the ninja on its head, attacked her friend. His body smashed through several branches, landing dozens of feet below. She rushed to his side, watching as the head came down to hit him. She performed the hand signs on her way there, and drew her hand back as neared the serpent.

I wasn't supposed to use Ninjutsu so soon. She thought, as she felt her arm grow heavy. But there's nothing else left to do in this situation. She's threatening our lives!

''Doton: Rock Fist!" She announced, slamming her stone, enlarged limb against the snake's jaw. She managed to buy some time, but not enough to see its tail coming for her. The tail collided with her back, and Gurehai was sent flying.

When she hit a tree, the breath was knocked violently out of her. By the time she recovered, and tried to stand back up while panting, Naruto had started attacking her with vicious punches, alike the girl had ever seen before. What's wrong with him? She wondered, feeling uneasy. His strength is monstrous... and, oh Kami- what's going on with his eyes?

They were glowing red, as he put his body in front of Sasuke, to protect him. The Aoyo girl had to get up and help them, and she had to do it now. Going as fast as her body would allow her, she reached the remains of Team 7, just as Naruto was tossed away by the tongue of the enemy like a rag doll. She threw a kunai to stop his fall, and succeeded.

''What in the world are you?" She hissed at the creepy woman, who only smirked in return. She held their Heaven scroll, and Gurehai didn't like it one bit. ''Give us the scroll back, you snake!" She spat, coming at her with lightning-covered kunais. She rolled to her right to avoid the snake's tongue, and then threw one of the kunais, penetrating it. Unfortunately, the woman turned her head to the side and avoided both it and the one she threw after.

Next thing she knew, instead of stabbing her like she intended, Gurehai found the woman's abnormally long tongue wrapped around her right arm like a shackle. Gasping, and trying helplessly to get away, she felt the tongue cover her arm up like the bandages she was wearing.

''My, my.'' The Grass ninja said, almost adoringly. ''You are just like him, aren't you?" She asked, making the girl freeze. ''You are just like your father.'' She started struggling again. She's lying... she can't know him.

''What do you know about Soshimo Soraku?" She hissed, briefly meeting her eyes. They were cold, empty and taunting. 

''Oh, but he was a close ally of mine.'' She laughed, confusing the girl even more. ''We made quite the team.'' She added, causing her blue eyes to widen. 

''Stop lying! Who are you?" She yelled, not recognizing her own voice. I have to do something. Personal feelings aside, she's about to either snap my arm in half, or eat me whole, and I don't know which one is worse. I wonder... can I possibly do it without hand seals?

Taking deep breaths and flexing all the muscled in her right arm, she gathered every ounce of Lightning chakra she could, knowing she may regret it later. To her relief, sparks danced around her fingers.

''Chidori!" She yelled, as her hand erupted in pure white bolts of lightning. The woman instantly let go, her burnt tongue hanging outside her mouth. ''Sasuke, snap out of it!" She demanded, holding her hand. The Uchiha seemed to respond to her voice, shaking his head. When he opened his eyes, the Sharingan glowed like embers.

''The Uchiha blood has stirred.'' The woman said. ''Let's see your true potential.'' 

When the boy charged at her, kunais at hand, Gurehai stayed behind, waiting for an opportunity to strike. First chance I get... I'll impale her, just like those trees. The Chidori in her hand started burning. Quickly, Sasuke. I can't hold it much longer.

Fireballs were thrown all around the enemy, and the Aoyo rushed towards the scene, thrusting her hand on the smoke. It only collided with wood, as the woman merged with the tree and ran towards Sasuke once again. The white haired girl pulled her hand out with a hiss, turning to look at the attack. The battle continued, and eventually resulted to the boy getting punched in the face, and falling down.

''Sasuke-kun!" Sakura screamed, and Gurehai suddenly remembered she was there too.

''Sakura!" She yelled, gaining her attention. ''Don't worry about him, I got it covered! Watch over Naruto, until this is over! If he falls from the that height, he'll die!" She said, jumping down to reach the same branch her male teammate an the enemy was.

''Katon: Dragon Flame Jutsu!" He yelled, releasing a huge wave of fire towards the snake woman. Her shrill scream filled Gure's ears, as she slid down the bark of a tree to stand next to Sasuke, who wobbled.

''I got you.'' She mumbled, catching him before he fell. ''It's alright, Sasuke, you got her, you did it.'' She assured him, holding him up by putting his right arm over her shoulder. He lost a lot of chakra, performing those three Fire Jutsus the one after the other. We need to find a place for everyone to rest. Her knees suddenly began to give out, as an overwhelming feeling filled her every bone.

''I didn't expect you to be able to use the Sharingan so much, at this age.'' A voice said, different from the woman's, as both Genin crumbled to the ground. ''I do want you after all.'' It said, and Gurehai tried to look up. Is this... murdering intent? I can't move... but it doesn't... I don't...

''You are definitely his brother.'' The new, chilly voice commented, coming closer ans closer. ''Your eyes hide so much more ability than Itachi's.'' Gurehai gritted her teeth. He's talking about Sasuke's brother... He knows him too? Who is she? Or rather... he? The face of the snake woman had partially melted off, revealing another, paler face underneath. The new eye was yellow, like a snake's.

''Who the hell are you?" The boy growled from next to her, obviously upset by the situation.

''My name is Orochimaru.'' The man said, and Gurehai gasped. That name... it reminds me of something, but what? Could it be... that he was saying the truth? Do I know him? ''If you want to meet me again, the run quickly to the top of this test, defeating the three Sound ninja under my control.''

''Stop it!" She shouted, seeing him burn their Heaven scroll to ashes. There's no way we can make it if he destroys that scroll too. 

''Oh, but I'm not over yet.'' He taunted, and in a flash, his neck expanded so much, it reached both her and Sasuke, sinking his fangs on the boy's neck. The Kunoichi gasped, seeing the Uchiha's face contort in pain. She quickly stood up and threw a kunai at his neck.

Twisting in order to avoid it, his neck twitched, and his head suddenly came to hit her. She gasped and put her arms in an 'X' formation in front of her, but the force of the blow knocked her back anyway. Her back collided with a tree and broke through it, her body buried in the bark. Knowing he would come after her again, she made a hand seal and got out, connecting her feet with the bark, and sticking on it horizontally.

''Don't think I forgot about you, Gurehai.'' He said, his neck connecting with his shoulders once again. He was just a tree away from her. I can do it. I can. She thought, as Sasuke's screams urged her to perform hand signs faster. 

''Doton: Stone Spike Prison!" She slammed her hands on the bark, and instantly, stone spikes surrounded Orochimaru, holding him in place.

''Sasuke-kun!" She heard Sakura scream again. She wasn't surprised. The boys screams were so agonizing, they broke her heart. 

''What did you do to him, snake?" She hissed, running towards the man with a kunai in hand. Before she could cover it with lightning, and bury it in his neck, Orochimaru grunted and flexed his muscles, breaking the spikes to pieces. The force threw her away, but a second before her body hit the tree, an arm wrapped around her neck.

She felt herself being dragged forward, and she opened her eyes to see his extended arm, bringing her body to him. Desperately trying to free herself by clawing at his arm, she kicked the air, to no avail. She collided with his chest, and looking up, she saw his deformed face.

''You rival Sasuke-kun's strength as you are right now.'' He praised, caressing her cheek with his free hand. ''I can't wait to see the power your Taorigan will unlock.'' He cooed, as her body trashed in his grip. ''You will make a powerful servant.''

''GUREHAI!" Sakura screamed from afar, seeing the man bite down on her teammate's neck.

Chapter Text

 

''GUREHAI!" Sakura screamed, seeing the man bite down on her teammate's neck.

Gurehai fell on her knees, grasping her neck in agony. Stinging tears of pain had started to form in the corners of her red eyes, as Orochimaru smirked, staring down at his achievement. Sakura took of running towards the white haired girl, and the snake man slowly sank to the ground and merged with the tree, leaving behind a disheveled team 7.

Sasuke had long since blacked out when the Haruno reached him, his hands grasping the bite on his shoulder. She didn't know what to do. Around her, her teammates were all out, Naruto hanging by a nearby tree, Sasuke lying on her feet, and Gurehai, the girl she had always been jealous of, the one that risked her life to not only protect her, but her beloved too.

"Gurehippo..." She sobbed, kneeling down and taking her body partially in her arms. The Aoyo was growling in pain and agony, struggling to take a breath. Before Sakura could say anything else, her female comrade gasped, her body slowly dissolving to soil. The dirt run down her legs and slipped between her fingers, forming a pile on the wood under her.

Sakura exclaimed in surprise, hastily standing up. That was an Earth clone... She's alive, she's not hurt! Where are you, Gurehai? 

Right on cue, a limping figure appeared in her line of vision, approaching her with unsteady footsteps. Turning her head to welcome her with a grin, Sakura's face fell instantly when she saw the girl's condition. Her face was full of scratches, and she was clutching her right arm, where not only her bandages were torn, but her skin was burnt as well. But that wasn't nearly the worst part. Her left leg was almost entirely covered by blood, oozing from a wound on her thigh. A large splinter of wood was sticking out from the wound, painted red.

"S-Sakura-..." She whispered, trying desperately to reach her and the fallen Sasuke a few feet away, but failing as her legs gave out. She hit the wooden branch with a thud, and tears ran from Sakura's green eyes.

''Naruto!'' She snapped, not knowing what to do. ''Naruto, please!" She begged, sobs racking her body. ''Sasuke, Gurehai... they're... they're...'' 

----

I can't wait to see the power your Taorigan will unlock...

Gurehai...

You will make a powerful servant...

Run...

Gureki and I are proud of you, Hai...

Little brat, come back here!

I am here...

I don't mind at all... Lean on my pride... I'm a lion...

The Taorigan...

Gurehai...

DIE!

When she opened up her eyes, all she could see was grey. Blinking rapidly, she acknowledged the hot pain on her leg, and hissed. She saw a flash of pink, and a flash of blue, and then an agonizing scream filled her ears, making her eyes widen in surprise. 

Her back was against a tree, her legs sprawled out, her left one bandaged, up to her shorts. Her right hand was wrapped in some kind of cloth, and stung like hell. Her head ached. Her chest ached. On the grass in front of her feet, lay an unconscious Naruto, his face peaceful, as if he was asleep.

Looking up, her eyes focused on both familiar and unfamiliar figures, confusing her even more. Sakura was hugging Sasuke from behind, with an unidentified body down on the ground; A terrified Sound ninja stood in front of them, reminding her the one that attacked during the first test; She could see another body, a small mass of green, really, not too far off.

-Wait... Sasuke... That's Sasuke... He's okay, Orochimaru didn't kill him, he's alive, they're... they're fighting, with me and Naruto down. I have to get up. Wait a minute... That's Lee over there... what in the world...

She hissed as her thigh send a wave of pain through her entire body. She heard voices, and murmurs, and finally, as her eyes began to close again, two shadows loomed over her, one standing above Naruto, and the other, a smaller one, sat down next to her feet. 

''Gurehai...oi, Gurehai.'' A familiar voice called, urging her to reopen her tired eyes.

''EVERYONE, HIDE! WHERE IS THAT WOMAN?" Naruto bellowed, too loud for her sensitive ears to tolerate. She winced and shuddered, which resulted to another wave of pain to make her eyes widen.

She saw Shikamaru a few inches away from her face, looking at her half-bored, half-worried. She carefully raised her left hand and rubbed her eyes, her vision instantly clearing.

''Nara?" She wondered in a raspy voice, blinking. ''What the hell is happening?" She inhaled, and he stood up, allowing her to take a look at the others. Choji was standing not too far away, looking down at the Uzumaki, who was crawling on the ground, confused. Ino was approaching them slowly, with Lee's arm draped over her shoulder, holding his limp body up. Sakura and Sasuke were on the ground, looking back at them in confusion.

Sakura looked awful. Before Gurehai had fallen unconscious, she wasn't harmed, at all. Now, her skin was adorned with cuts, scrapes and bruises, her left eye was swollen and purple, and her hair... Oh Kami... what happened to her hair?

''You look like you are about to die.'' She heard Akimichi's voice comment, and she snorted.

''Well, I almost did, so I am not that surprised.'' The Aoyo told him, and raised her left hand, waiting for either of them to help her up. Shikamaru grasped it, and she stood up with a growl. ''Who were those people?"

''Sound ninja. We kind of fought them off. But Sasuke...'' The boy trailed off, when the Uchiha's eyes looked away from Sasuke and fell on Gurehai. ''He beat them.'' 

''I'm glad. Help me over there, will you?" She said, pointing towards her teammates, who were now sitting together, as Naruto made a fuss about Sakura's hair. 

''Gure-chan!" The blonde exclaimed, rushing to her side. ''You're hurt! When did this happen?" He gasped, seeing her leg, and her arm. She smiled tiredly, detaching herself from Shikamaru.

''I think I'll be fine... In about a month.'' She hissed again, touching her thigh. Then she looked at Sakura. ''Thank you for wrapping them up, Sakura-san. Did you get all of the splinters out?" She asked, referring to her wound on her leg. When the other Kunoichi nodded, she glanced at her tight hand. The cloth was a light grey color, with icy blue details here and there. She realized it was a part f her cloak.

''Gurehai. Love.'' She heard from her left, and turned to see Lee, finally awake. His female teammate was by his side. Instead of rolling her eyes, like she would have done in every other situation, she gave him a small smile.

''Lee, thank you.'' She said, and the boy blushed. ''Even though I wasn't awake, I can tell that you fought to protect me and my teammates, and for that, I am grateful.'' She bowed her head slightly, as much as her body would allow her, and saw him tear up. ''I hope that one day, I can return the favor.''

''Gurehai-san.'' He swallowed the lump in his throat. ''Sakura-san. This time, my efforts weren't enough. But the Lotus of the Hidden Leaf blooms twice. Next we meet, I'll be a stronger man!" He promised, and she nodded. ''Sasuke-kun. I have to say, that that was expected of the Uchiha clan. You beat them, while I was beaten to a pulp.''

What? Gure thought. He was beaten to a pulp? But he completely humiliated Sasuke back in the first test... What did that snake do to him?

''Sakura! Come over here!" Ino shouted, waving a kunai in the air. ''I'll fix your hair!" The girl reluctantly walked over, and Gurehai used Shikamaru to sit down, but not without biting her lip. She looked at the tear in her cloak, and sighed in relief when she saw it was on the right side of it. She bit her left thumb and pressed on the inside of the fabric, on top of an intricate design. With a puff of smoke, a large roll of bandages appeared, falling on her hand.

''Sasuke.'' She called, starting to unwrap the cloth from around her right hand. ''Could help me out? I can't do it with one hand.'' She pleaded, and he knelt down to her level. When the wrapping fell completely off, she was relieved to see that the burn marks were a lot better than she thought they'd be. She reached on the top of the roll of bandages, and pulled off the tap, slowly letting water slide down her injured fingers.

Team 10 departed shortly after, along with Lee and his teammate, who jumped on the trees to join the last member of the team, the Hyuga, who was watching from above. His eyes met hers, and she turned away, to thank Sasuke for wrapping up her arm.

Next up was her leg. She dreaded the second she would lay her blue orbs upon the wound, fearing that it would be beyond her abilities to cover up. It started bleeding the moment she unwrapped it, and the girl hissed, as Naruto gasped. The wound was about the size of her thumb, and covered in both fresh and dried blood. It took a while to clean it with the water that was steadily disappearing, but when she, with the Uchiha's help did, she immediately knew she would have to sew it up.

''Sakura-san, can you please come over here?" She said through gritted teeth, and hoped the others would mistaken it for pain, and not annoyance. I can't believe I'm asking for her help. But I can't help it. She has the smallest hands. The pink haired Kunoichi approached wearily, and grimaced when she saw the wound. ''I need you to stitch the wound.'' She said, pulling a shenbon from her left pouch.

''Eh?" Sakura shrieked, as Gurehai handed her the shenbon, and wrapped wire around its edge. ''I can't do that!"

''You'll have to, Sakura.'' Sasuke interfered, to everyone's surprise. ''Gure's hand is injured, the other is shaking, and me and Naruto have large hands. You have to do it, or else she won't be able to walk, and we'll be stuck here forever.'' After her crush's words, the girl complied. The procedure was painful, but the Aoyo refused to shed any tears. She wouldn't cry, not in front of them.

When everything was over, they made their way away from the clearing, wandering towards the direction of the Tower, like her original plan was.

And that's what they kept on doing for the next hours. Wandering. When they reached a stream, they decided to settle down and rest, and eat some food. While the boys left to catch some fish, Gurehai and Sakura stayed behind.

''Sakura-san.'' She started, from her spot on the grass. ''I have to do something in order to restore my chakra. If I don't, I'm afraid I will collapse, and that won't do as any good. Our time limit is coming to an end.'' She explained, and carefully crossed her legs.

''What are you going to do?" She asked suspiciously, gathering wood for their fire.

''Meditate. Trust me when I say, that it will take a lot of time. Tell the boys not to wake me up, and I suggest you wouldn't try either.''

''A lot of time? But you have to eat!"

''I will, once I am done meditating. Don't wake me up.'' She repeated seriously, and rested her hands on her knees. Most sounds around her faded. She could hear the leaves rustle in the wind. She could hear the stream, the water gurgling. She could hear the grass sway. She could feel the sun on her face, the breeze on her skin.

It felt as mere seconds had passed, when she opened her blue eyes, and looked around. Eight pairs of eyes looked down at her in wonder. Eight? Wait... what in the world is that Kabuto guy doing here? ''What are you doing here?" She deadpanned, her muscles relaxed, but her stomach aching.

''Gure-chan, Gure-chan!" Naruto chirped, getting in her face. ''Kabuto is going to help us get to the Tower, ttebayo!"

----

Gurehai couldn't believe in her eyes, when team 7 finally reached the doors of the Tower. After nearly dying-once more, that is, they had gotten the Heaven scroll, they had lived, and they had reached their destination before the time limit. This is it. The second test, it's over. We are here. We have passed.

''What are we supposed to do now?" Naruto asked, walking inside the doors. The large room before them was completely empty, apart from some writings on the wall and stairs. No more stairs...Please. She mentally groaned, as she was physically being held up by her blonde friend. Although her chakra was replenished, and the aching in her chest had subdued, her left leg didn't hurt any less when she walked.

Hmm... The writing makes no sense at all. Words are missing. Are we supposed to fill them in, somehow? Heaven... Earth... Wait, our scrolls...

''I think we are supposed to open the scrolls now.'' She looked at her teammates, taking the Heaven scroll out of her pouch. ''See over there? Words are missing, so we have to probably open the scrolls to find out.'' Naruto took out the Earth scroll from next to her, and gulped. Kabuto said that those who opened the scrolls too early, were put under a Jutsu, and missed the end of the Exams... But we are here, and we have both... Please Kami, let it be over...

The two Genin opened them simultaneously. At first, nothing happened. No Jutsu, no explosion, no anything. But then, when she was about to speak, smoke appeared around her hands, coming from the scroll, and she quickly tossed it away, the Uzumaki following her lead. This is a Summoning Jutsu. A large puff of smoke momentarily blinded her, and she sweat dropped. Freaking adults.

''Hi guys.'' Iruka-sensei greeted. ''It's been a while!"

Chapter Text

''First of all, congratulations on passing!" Anko announced, when all eight teams had gathered before the Jonin, proctors and Hokage. A wave of relief washed over Gurehai when she laid eyes on the Third, somehow assuring her that Orochimaru was away, and that he had no power there.

She saw a lot of people, both familiar and unfamiliar faces in the crowd. Amongst the Jonin were Kakashi and Guy, standing side by side, confirming the latter's statement all those days ago. The leaders of teams 8 and 10 were also next to them. Anko stood next to Ibiki and another man, who looked sick. Iruka stared at them with a proud look on his face.

She also noticed ninja from other Villages, and assumed they were the other teams' leaders. Sand, Waterfall... Sound. The Sound Jonin had sharp eyes and a pale complexion, and reminded her awfully of the snake man that attacked her, Sasuke, and almost killed them both. Her injuries still slowed her down. Her left thigh hurt like hell, so much, that she created a Rock Spear and used it as a walking stick. She couldn't hold on to Naruto either, since they had to stand in lines, the one behind the other.

Naruto was up front, with Gurehai behind him, Sasuke and then Sakura on the rear. 

''Look! All Ten Rookies have made it!" The Uzumaki pointed out, looking around. Indeed, the Aoyo saw Ino, Shikamaru and Choji, Inuzuka, Hinata and Aburame, standing not too far away. She also didn't miss Lee and his team, as well as the Sand. Gaara had his arms crossed, as always, and... not a single scratch on him. He really is something else. She turned around before their eyes could meet, and glanced at the three Sound nin next to her. They made it too. They are the three Sasuke beat. One of them had his arms broken.

At last, she saw Kabuto and his team, two masked, tall boys, dressed in identical manner. Next to them, were a team of Waterfall ninja. They all looked at lest three years older than her, and she immediately recognized the brunette boy who was seated next to her during the First test. He had a long katana strapped on his back, and a tattoo on the right side of his face, resembling the left half of a heart. He had a honey-blonde girl on his arms, seemingly unconscious. She had severe injuries, and the right half of a heart tattooed on the left side of her face.

Anko wasn't kidding when she said she would drop our number lower than half. From the 79 that entered the Forest of Death, only 25 remain, and two look like they're about to die.

''I don't know if that's a good or a bad thing.'' She whispered back, shifting her weight slightly. She didn't know what the third test would be, and, if it involved fighting, in her condition, the more the Genin, the slimmer her chance to make it through.

''Now, we will explain the third exam!" Anko said, bowing to the Hokage. Gurehai fought the smile from forming on her lips. ''Lord Hokage, if you will.'' Hiruzen stepped forward.

''Before the third test that is about to start from here on, I want to tell you all something.'' He began, finding Gure's eyes. ''It's about the true purpose of these Exams, that are, in fact, a microcosm of battle between the allied nations.'' He stated, but the white haired Kunoichi wasn't surprised, unlike her surroundings. It was just like Kabuto had said: Nations use the Chunin Exams to test each other's military strength.

''But, aren't this exams to select Chunin?" Naruto asked, obviously baffled by the new piece of information.

''There is no doubt that the exams are held for that purpose. But at the same time, it's a venue for shinobi who carry their nation's pride to fight for their lives! Feudal Lords and other people of importance are invited as guests to the third exam, in order to see the shinobi they hire for work. The Head of each nation will also be there to watch your battles.'' So we'll have to make a show for them... Still, I don't see anyone here besides ninja. 

''Still.'' Inuzuka snapped from next to her, with his dog hidden inside his coat. ''Why is it necessary to fight for our lives?"
''The nation's strength is the Village's strength.'' The Hokage replied, as Gurehai had saw coming. ''The Village's strength is the shinobi's strength, and a shinobi's true strength is only created in a fight for one's life!" She had heard that line before, during one of their training sessions. ''The exams show the abilities of our shinobi, but display them as well.''

''Then, why use the word 'friendship'?" She heard Lee's female teammate ask.

''I said it at the start, didn't I? I don't want you to mistaken the true meaning of the exams. This is the friendship of the shinobi world. A fight for one's life with the Village's pride and their own dreams on the line.'' Dreams... I promise father, I'll make Chunin. And then, then comes the next step.

''Now, tell us the content of the fight-for-one's-life test.'' Gaara urged, his voice low and chilly, as always. He is giving off a dirty vibe... Is it killing intent?

''Nice to meet you, everyone.'' The sick man from before said, landing in front of them, and coughing. ''There's something I want you all to do, before the third exam...'' He coughed again, making her frown. ''...And that is a preliminary to the third exam, with participation in the main battle on the line.'' What? No! I can't fight anyone like this...I'll... I won't make it...

''What do you mean a preliminary exam?" Shikamaru shouted from behind her, making her turn her head. Sakura frowned as well.

''I don't understand the point of the preliminaries. Why can't we take the exam with the remaining Genin, as we are?"

''This time round, perhaps because the first and second exams were too easy, there's's too many of you left.'' He said, and the Aoyo inwardly gasped, not waiting for that answer. I thought it was because the Feudal Lords would have to travel in order for them to watch the matches...Not this. What in the world does he mean by easy? We almost died... ''And like it was explained before, may people of importance will be watching the final exam, and so, our time is limited. The preliminaries are held to shorten the number of people advancing, and tiring them with boring matches.''

A show we will be, indeed. Gurehai thought, shifting her weight with the help of her Rock Spear. I have to fight someone easy. I hate to say this, and bring myself down, but in order to be promoted to Chunin, I have to be in good health... in the final round. 

''Therefore.'' Hayate continued. ''Those of you not in top physical condition...'' He coughed again, making everyone wonder if he was okay himself. ''Those of you who want to drop out, now is the time. The preliminaries will begin at once.'' He said, making the crowd of Genin restless.

I am in really bad condition. She winced, as a new wave of pain erupted from her leg. But there is no way I am forfeiting. Even like this... Even like this I have to fight. Hearing Sasuke gasp, she turned around. To her worry, he was clutching his shoulder, where Orochimaru had bit him.

''Sasuke... Are you alright?" She carefully asked, knowing he wanted to keep the mark a secret. He looked up at her in pain, and nodded.

''Sasuke-kun, you should quit the preliminaries.'' Sakura told him, making the Uchiha and the Aoyo look at her sharply. The two engaged in a heated conversation, in which she didn't take part. Feeling eyes on the back of her head, she slowly turned around. To her surprise, after searching the crowd of people, she met the gaze of the Sound Jonin. She halted, half-confused and half-worried. He was looking at her... almost as if he was angry. Angry. But why would he be angry at her, since he didn't even know her? An uneasy feeling appeared in her stomach.

''Gurehai, you should quit too.'' The Haruno's voice came from behind her, and made her narrow her eyes. Did she just call me by my name? ''You are in no condition to fight. Going against someone right now, would only make matters worse.'' Her gaze was almost pitying. ''If you don't raise your hand, then I can do it for y-...''

''Shut up.'' Gurehai snapped, slapping her teammate's hand down with a swift movement. She didn't even realize when she had gotten in front of her, and next to Sasuke. ''Sakura, I saved your god damn life.'' She growled, letting go of her dirty hand. ''So do me a favor, and don't interfere with my own.''

''But you are in no condition to fight! I know that the two of you have been enduring pain this whole time! I need to tell the teachers about Sasuke's bruise, and the only way to do it...'' She began to raise her hand, but before either of them could stop her, a voice echoed through the room.

''Me.'' A tired voice said, and all heads turned to see the previously unconscious girl from the Waterfall. ''I want to quit.'' She said through gritted teeth, obviously not happy about the decision she had to make. Taking a closer look, she saw that her eyes were a soft brown color. Seeing her right next to her teammate, the brunette with the katana, she realized they had matching tattoos, the one completing the other, to form a heart.

''Hachimi Hidari of the Waterfall Village, right?" Hayate inquired, coughing. When the girl nodded, she stumbled, almost falling back down. The boy with the katana caught her. ''You may step back.'' Her teammate scooped her up in his arms and carried her away bridal style, until a pair of medics came and took her. ''Now, if no on else wants to quit, we will begin with the preliminaries. They will be one on one individual battles.''

24 of us left. That means, only twelve will advance to the actual third exam, and I have to be one of them. Lord Third is here. I have to show him how far I'e come. And Kakashi-sensei... I think I just might put your efforts to the test.

''The winners of those battles will advance to the third exam. There no rules, at all. You will fight until someone collapses, admits defeat... or dies.'' He explained, and Gurehai's eyes narrowed. No rules at all. Which means... ''I suggest you admit defeat if you don't want to die. If I judge that a match is over, I will stop it. I don't want to increase the number of dead bodies.'' Wonderful. 

Behind him, a large board was revealed. Just then, the Aoyo noticed the large sculpture next to it closely, and saw it was a wrong Ram seal. The architect needs a smack on the head. 

''The names of two random foes will be selected, and shown on this electronic signboard. So, let's get down to it. The first two names...'' She held her breath, as the board mixed the names up. ''Yoroi Akado vs Sasuke Uchiha.'' Hayate announced, and Gurehai turned around to pat her teammate on the back.

''I don't know who he is, and I don't what he can do.'' She started, giving him a light squeeze. ''But you will beat him. I know what Orochimaru did to you... He tried to do it to me, too.'' For the first time in her life, she saw the boy's eyes widen in surprise. ''But don't let him control you. Don't let it control you.'' She pointed to his neck, and walked away when the proctor told them to move to the upper area.

When she reached the stairs, she sighed and bit her lip. Naruto appeared at her side out of nowhere, and placed her arm around his shoulders. ''I got you, Gure-chan!" He smiled at her, as their sensei walked to her other side. The three climbed climbed the long staircase, along with the Rookies and Lee's team. She asked from Naruto to help her sit down with her back against the wall. ''Don't you wanna see Sasuke's fight?"

''I don't need to watch to know that he will win.'' She assured him, and with on last smile, he left to stand next to Sakura.

And indeed, she didn't watch, but heard. Kakashi left their side at once when the match was over, and took Sasuke away. I hope he and the medics find a way to make him feel better. Next up, was one of the three Sound ninja, the one with the broken arms against Shino Aburame. She had no idea what Shino could do, but judging from the girls' squeals, she guessed he used the same techniques as the rest of his family, and came out victorious.

Next was Misumi Tsurugi, Kabuto's other teammate, and Kankuro of the Sand, the boy who trembled at the sound of her last name. To her satisfaction, she was proven right when she thought he was a puppeteer, and a good one, since he won.

''Gure-chan...'' Naruto gasped, as everyone around her turned to look at her. Kakashi, who had returned to his team without Sasuke, offered his hand to help her up. When she did, with the support of her Rock Spear, she grasped the railing and looked at the signboard.

''Yopparai Migi vs Gurehai Soraku.'' Hayate announced, and the girl watched as her opponent jumped down from the balcony on the opposite side of the room, right in front of the proctor.

''Are you sure you are okay, Gurehai?" Shikamaru pipped from behind her, with Choji and Ino at his side. He had his hands in his pockets. ''You look like you can't feel your leg.''

''That's because I can't.'' She looked nervously at her sensei, who didn't try to hide his own nervousness really hard. "This has to be over in twenty seconds." She said quietly so that only Kakashi would hear, quickly doing the math. "After that, my legs will give out, and I'll be at his mercy." She didn't wait for a reply, and walked over to the stairs with steady footsteps. Gripping the Spear so hard she thought it would break, she made it to the bottom, and made for her opponent.

Once a good deal of meters away from him, she tossed her creation aside, and it dissolved to dust and dirt. The older boy wouldn't stop watching her with his smug expression, touching the hilt of his katana slightly. I am just easy prey in his eyes. She thought as Hayate asked if there were any objections. Well, I have about half of my chakra, and I can only limp. Still, that's more than enough for my plan.

"Come on, Rai!" A male voice called from above, and the girl saw Yopparai's black haired teammate grinning like a mad man. "Do it for Hachimi!" He yelled again, making the Aoyo want to cover her ears. He's louder than Naruto.

"Don't listen to him, Gure-chan!" The Uzumaki bellowed from the balcony, ad she glanced over her shoulder to see that Lee had joined him, waving his hands around and blushing. "Send him to the medics!" I take that back.

''Then.'' The proctor announced, taking a few steps back. ''Let the fourth match begin.''Άγνωστο Αντικείμενο

As fast as lightning, she performed four hand seals, and slammed her hands on the ground with a grunt. She felt her stitches rip. 

"Doton: Tajuu Doryuuheki!" She said, her voice echoing throughout the gigantic room. All around them, mud walls sprouted from the ground, creating a maze. Ranging from five to ten feet, the walls surrounded them, even keeping the proctor away.

From above, the Genin and Jonin could see everything. They saw how Gurehai merged with the walls, and how Rai unsheathed his katana, looking around him carefully.

"So this is the way of the Leaf, huh?" He provoked her, searching for her among the walls. "Hiding, cowering and not dealing with your enemies face to face?" He shouted the last part, and, if possible, his smirk widened. He turned around sharply and raised his sword, burying the blade through his opponents stomach.

She had intended to jump on him, but he had stopped her mid air.

The girl gasped, and the kunai she had been holding fell on the ground with a loud thud. She slid along the slim blade and her nose almost touched his, while the Konoha Genin started throwing a fit upon the balcony. The sword came out from her back, and the Mud Walls came crashing down.

"Gurehai!"

"Gure-chan!" 

"Gure!"

"No!"

She heard, as the boy smirked evilly. Just as he was about to open his mouth, though, his gaze fell on his fingers, where streams of dirt ran down his wrist. "What the-..." He muttered before Gurehai's body burst open, and particles of dust and dirt entered his eyes.

He cried in pain and dropped his sword on the ground, above the pile of soil that had formed upon the destruction of the Dust clone. His hands flew to his eyes, trying to ease the burning. When he tried to open them, they were bloodshot and teary.

Though, all his screaming ceased when the real Gurehai rose from the ground in front of him, her left hand forming a seal, and her right palm inches away from his forehead. Yopparai halted, his hands sliding down his face, and falling limp at his sides. Falling down on his knees with a bemused expression, his honey colored eyes focused on his opponents feet.

''What's going on?" Naruto asked, dumbfounded. Not a single sound could be heard in the arena. The Sand siblings looked at each other warily, before paying attention at the match. Kakashi gripped the railing with his hands, as Kurenai and Asuma joined his side. They were all staring at the duo with wide eyes, waiting for some kind of movement.

Gurehai's eyes were closed, her lips quivering like she was whispering something. In front of her, the older boy started shaking.

''No...please, no...'' He cried, his small voice cracking. Tears started flowing freely from the corners of his eyes, and his face contorted in pain. ''Stop it... Stop it please...'' He pleaded a little louder, enough for everyone to hear. Gurehai's thigh was bleeding. ''I-...'' An agonizing scream broke the silence, and the boy's hand flew up to his head, pulling at his hair in despair.

''Say it, Yopparai. All you have to do, is say you give up.''

''STOP IT! I BEG YOU, STOOOOP!" He wailed, his eyes bulging out, veins popping on his forehead. The Genin watched with terrified expressions, as the Waterfall ninja shuddered and his body trashed on the ground, but never escaping the vicinity of the inches Gurehai's palm was way from his forehead.

''What is she doing to him, Kakashi?" Kurenai gaped along with everyone else. The remaining Rookies didn't want to believe in their eyes. Their comrade was torturing him. ''Is it a Genjutsu?"

''Kiokugomon.'' He answered lowly, watching as the Aoyo's legs wobbled.

''NOOO!" Yopparai screamed again, his face red where blood oozed from the wounds his nails had opened. ''MAKE. IT. STOP!"

''Stop the match!" The voice of Rai's teammate managed to be heard over his screams. ''Proctor, stop the match! She's killing him!" As Hayate was about to flash next to them and force the white haired girl to stop, another heart-wrenching scream left the brunette's mouth.

''I GIVE UP!" The boy screamed at last, his voice cracking. ''I GIVE UP, MAKE IT STOP, I GIVE UP!'' And just like that, Gurehai broke her hand seal, and stepped away from his body.

The Waterfall ninja jumped down to his friend and took him in his arms, not knowing if he should wipe away his tears or blood first. Gurehai stumbled back and opened her blue eyes, clutching her leg. Team Guy watched the scene unfold with stoic expression, with the exception of Lee, who looked more than shaken up.

''I declare the winner of this match.'' Hayate coughed, extending his arm towards the Kunoichi, who fell down onto one knee with a grunt. ''Gurehai Soraku!" No cheers or comments were heard as the medics rushed in to take Yopparai away, or when Kakashi left his spot on the balcony to kneel down next to his student.

''You did great, Gurehai.'' He told her, taking her in his arms and carrying her away. He glanced down at her as her body tensed due to the bleeding wound, and walked as quickly as he could without causing her more pain. ''But it took you twenty three seconds.'' She closed her eyes with a sigh.

''I don't really care.'' She told him, and blacked out.

Chapter Text

I can't wait to see the power your Taorigan will unlock... You will make a powerful servant...

''Doton: Stone Shuriken!" Gurehai heard herself say, but her lips did not move. There was a sound that reminded her of metal and stone clashing, and she sat up. She tried to look around, and her gaze fell on her hands. They were pale, almost transparent, nowhere near the fair skin she was used to seeing. With no difficulty, she stood up, and wandered towards the direction of the clashing sounds-and her voice.

She passed long hallways, made of stone and marble, while torches lighted her way. The ground under her feet was cold, and she wore no shoes. In fact, she wore nothing but a long white cloak, with a thick purple rope tied around her waist. Frowning upon her strange attire, she reached a large pair of double doors. They were wooden, with intricate patters that resembled snakes carved all over.

Snakes, she thought, shiveringNot my favorite animal. She then heard a voice that made her halt.

''Is that all you can do, Hai?" Soshimo Soraku laughed from the other side of the door, making her heart skip a beat. She pushed the doors with all her might and opened them, entering the new room with no hesitation. It was taller than the hallways, with columns and shelves filled with books over its furthest corner. Two ninjas were fighting in the middle of it.

''Raiton: Storm Current!" She heard herself exclaim again, as the man avoided her attack. Her father looked the same as the last time she had seen him. He wore half of his graying black hair in a ponytail, while the rest of it cascaded down his back. His usual red and grey attire had been exchanged with long grey robes and small pieces of red armor adorning his arms, chest and sides, and his feet protected nothing but bandages.

In front of him, quickly forming hand signs, was a girl. She was definitely younger than Soshimo, but still older than Gurehai by a couple of years, and coincidentally, wore white robes with a purple rope tied around her small midsection. Her white hair flowed freely on her shoulders, with only two strands of it tied back.

''Suiton: Water Bullets!" Her velvet-like voice said, reminding her so much of her own, that she curiously stepped forward to see her face. When Gurehai did, she gasped. The girl had icy blue eyes and high cheekbones, with plump lips... and a strand of hair covering her right eye.

She was staring at herself.

''Doton: Mud Wall!" Her father said and a wall rose from the ground to protect him. That's... that's me... I am using Suiton. But what... what is going on? She felt tears threatening to fall from the corners of her eyes, but kept on staring at the duo.

With a sharp flick of her wrist, a blade made of wind appeared in front of her older self, and was hurled towards her father, who had to jump up to evade it. Fuuton... Fuuton too? Someone started clapping, and both her and and her double turned to look at the tall figure resting his shoulder against the door frame.

''Well done.'' Orochimaru praised, approaching them with a smirk on his pale lips. She watched flabbergasted, as the other Gurehai didn't react to that action. She only chuckled. When she blinked, she found herself staring through the eyes of the older girl.''You two make quite the team.'' With that the two men disappeared, a mirror taking their place.

Looking in to it, she took in her appearance. Her pure white hair that rested on her shoulders looked smooth, and smelled like herbs and flowers. Her big eyes were framed by long, dark lashes. Her cheekbones were high, her lips plump. Her gaze fell down to her body. She was taller, her legs longer, her waist slim. Despite her robes, she could see the outline of her bust, which was large, like mother's.

Taking a closer look, she pulled her collar aside to see the black mark on the skin of her neck. It looks just like Sasuke's. When she tried to touch it, a hand clasped gently on her shoulder.

''Come on, Hai.'' Kakashi smiled at her through his mask, their height difference not so big anymore. ''We need to work on your Katon Jutsu.'' And then everything turned black, like his eyes.

This can be your future,  Orochimaru whispered in her mind.  All you have to do, is join me... Come with me, and it can all be yours. Accept it, accept the Curse Mark.

When she opened her eyes, it felt like hours had passed. Her vision was blurry, and her body warm. She could feel her right leg was wrapped in bandages, but her right hand was completely fine. She brought it close to her face and examined it. It was spotless, not a burn mark in sight.

''It's good to see you're awake.'' The Hokage said from next to her, smoking his pipe. She turned to look at him with a tired smile in her face. ''The wound in your leg is almost completely healed, and your hand was treated the first day you came here. How are you feeling?"

''Like I've been sleeping for days.'' She sighed, running a hand through her hair. How many days have I been out? She thought, and stared at her teacher.

''Three.'' The man replied, and she realized she had spoken out loud. ''Congratulations on winning your match.'' He added, giving her a suspicious look. ''Did you work on your Genjutsu with Kakashi?" When she nodded, he stood up from his seat and walked to the corner of her bed. ''You'll probably want to know that the poor boy is alive, despite the brain damage. The medics say that he will be able to go back to his ninja duties in a few months.''

''I am glad I didn't fry his brain.'' She genuinely replied, recalling his screams in both her mind and ears. ''It didn't backfire, either. I think I'm getting the hang of it.''

''That's a good thing.'' They stayed silent for a while, staring out of the window. ''Do you want to know how the rest of the matches went?"

''Yes, that would be nice. Did Naruto and Sakura pass?" She asked, shifting in order to sit up.

''Naruto won against Kiba Inuzuka. Sakura and Ino Yamanaka knocked each other out.'' He told her, smiling. ''Kabuto Yakushi lost to Risuki Warai. Neji Hyuga won against his cousin Hinata, and his teammates Tenten and Lee lost to Temari and Gaara of the Sand, respectively.''

''Lee fought Gaara?" She interrupted the old man, eyes widening. ''Tell me.'' Hiruzen gave her an apologetic look.

''Gaara injured Guy's student badly. The boy was admitted to the hospital with serious injuries all over his body, and still hasn't woken up. All of our healers say...'' He trailed off, sighing in defeat. ''He can't continue his life as a shinobi anymore.''

''What?" She gaped, her heart skipping a beat. ''What... what did Gaara do to him?" She couldn't believe in her ears. Rock Lee, the boy who won against Sasuke, the one who protected Sakura and her unconscious body with his life... she heard that he could use neither Ninjutsu nor Genjutsu. That becoming an exceptional shinobi using only Taijutsu was his dream.

''The gourd the Sand nin carries in his back... It's filled with actual sand, which he can control. I am certain the sand itself protects him, as well. He used it to break the bones in his opponent's arms and legs.''

''And they are sure nothing can be done about his condition?" She whispered, sadly looking down at her hands. When the Hokage nodded, she sighed. ''Tell me about the others.''

''Shikamaru Nara won his match, but Choji Akimichi lost to Dosu of the Sound Village.'' Gurehai was relieved to hear that at least Shikamaru had advanced to the third round, but her eyes narrowed when she heard about the Sound. 

''Lord Third...'' She started, staring at him hesitantly. ''You know that me and team 7 encountered Orochimaru in the Forest of Death, right?" He nodded in response. ''He bit Sasuke. He gave him the Curse Mark. I know this, because he tried to bite me too.'' At that Hiruzen, tensed. ''When he introduced himself to us, I just knew that I had heard his name before, somewhere. And then, at some point, I realized...'' She trailed off, and them man averted his gaze from her.

''He was my student, yes.'' He said, blowing smoke from his pipe. ''A Legendary Sannin. My heart still aches for his actions.''

''But why would he want Sasuke? Why would he want me? He said...He said he knew my father. That they were quite the team.'' She clenched her fists, letting her head fall back on the pillows. Realizing she didn't really want an answer to that, she tried to change the subject. ''And he said something else, too. He mentioned a thing called 'Taorigan'.''

''That really is curious.'' He agreed. ''Do you know what the Taorigan is, Gurehai?" He asked, wondering whether or not Gureki had told her along with the truth about the Aoyo clan. He hadn't let the fact that she wore the Blue Sun on her cloak slide.

''I do not.'' She confessed. ''But if I had to guess, I'd say it's a Kekkei Genkai. By 'gan', I think it's a Dojutsu, possessed by the members of the Aoyo clan.'' Gurehai became upset. If it really is a Dojutsu, and if it really belongs to our clan, then why didn't mother say a thing about it? 

''You are probably wondering why Gureki didn't say something about it when she explained the history of your clan to you.'' He chuckled, just as if he had read her mind. ''From what I know, your clan possessed a Dojutsu. Not many members awakened it, and that's because it was said to be dangerous.''

''Was?" She questioned.

''Even before the clan was torn apart, and lived in Sunagakure like the Uchihas lived in Konoha, there was no one, not even one member, to awaken it, in many decades.'' The Sarutobi said, surprising his student. ''But I think I have said enough. It would be more appropriate for an actual member of the clan to explain the rest.''

''Is mother here? At the Hospital?"

''I am afraid she returned to your house a few hours ago. She'd been in charge of Sasuke Uchiha for the weekend, so she needed rest.'' Suddenly, the girl's eyes widened.

''Sasuke!" She exclaimed, fisting her covers. ''What happened to him? Is he okay? Is the Curse Mark causing him health issues?" She received a laugh in response.

''The Uchiha is back on his feet, and the Curse Mark has been sealed.'' He told her, and she visibly relaxed. ''Currently, he is packing his things.'' Before his apprentice could interrupt him and ask for what, he held up his hand. ''He and Kakashi Hatake are leaving, to train. I can not let you in on the location. He has to train for the upcoming third Exam, which reminds me... you are fighting as well. Risuki Warai, of the Hidden Waterfall.''

''Yopparai's teammate.'' She nodded. ''When?"

''In about a month from now, on August 7. There will be five matches, the winners of those, will fight against each other, and so on. Naruto against Neji Hyuga, Sasuke against Gaara of the Sand, Shikamaru Nara against Temari, Shino Aburame against Kankuro. And of course, you versus Risuki.'' Naruto and Lee's teammate, huh... and Sasuke... Sasuke has to fight the guy that almost killed...Lee.

''What happened to Dosu of the Sound? You said he advanced, that Choji lost to him.'' She pointed out, confused.

''Dosu Kinuta was found dead two nights ago.'' He said, and her eyes narrowed. ''The causes remain unknown.''

''Well, I have to train for the final exam, and Kakashi-sensei is gone.'' She pouted, leaving the matter of the Sound nin's aside. ''What am I and Naruto going to do?"

''Naruto is training under an elite Jonin, picked especially for him by your sensei. As for you...'' He began, turning to face her with a small smile. ''We will train together, just like before, when I finish all the paperwork for the Exams this weekend. I think it's time we develop your own Raiton Jutsu.''

''We-develop-Raiton?" She stuttered, shaking her head in confusion. ''Together? But, sensei, you said that Raiton wasn't...'' She trailed off, seeing the smirk on his face. ''Why would you lie about your chakra Natures in the first place?"

''My dear Gurehai.'' He laughed, walking away from his spot next to the window and nearing the door. ''I am a user of all five basic chakra Natures.'' He paused, watching her reaction. ''I think that the reason I lied is obvious. You need to bond with your team and not continue to train with me, the old geezer. I was trying to push you towards Kakashi.''

She was at loss of words. Not only had the old man tricked her, but he had all chakra Natures as well. All of them. He had... he had reached her goals before her. When the Hokage went for the door, she called for him, remembering her vivid dream.

''Lord Third. I need... I need to tell you something.'' She started, meeting his brown eyes. ''About Orochimaru.'' At that, he turned to face her completely. ''I had a dream, a little while before I woke up. I think he made me see it.'' She said, hoping her teacher would believe her.

''What did he say to you?" Hiruzen asked, serious.

''He showed me, rather than said something. I think he was trying to show me how my future would be, If I... If I joined him.'' The pipe almost fell from the man's lips. ''I was older. I had his Curse Mark. But that's not it. F-Father was there. We were training, together, as Orochimaru watched over us.'' She closed her eyes, and the image of her smiling father popped up in her mind. ''He said that he could make that reality, If I joined him and became his servant, if I accepted the Curse Mark.''

''Well...'' The Hokage inquired, secretly worried beyond imagination. ''What do you think about his proposal? Will you take it?"

''Of course not. My place is here, in Konoha. Besides...'' She replied calmly, a little offended he had thought she even considered the offer. ''Father is dead. Orochimaru can't bring the dead back to life. Nobody can.''

He merely nodded at her words, but on the inside, he breathed a sigh of relief. ''You should rest, for now. I will send for the medics to heal your leg completely.'' Gurehai nodded, and the Hokage walked away from her.

The door closed behind him, and she lied back on her hospital bed.

Chapter Text

''Mother.'' Gurehai asked, two weeks later, sitting cross legged on her bed. ''What is our clan's Taorigan?" She bluntly added, making Gureki freeze. The woman turned around and smiled at her, taking a seat next to her. ''I know it's a Dojutsu, and that not many Aoyos had it, but... what can it do?"

''There is a variety of Dojutsus.'' Gureki started, holding on to her walking stick. ''The Sharingan can copy other techniques. The Byakugan can give the user a detailed image of one's chakra flow and chakra points. The Taorigan, however...'' She explained, staring off in the distance. ''The Taorigan can absorb chakra, and that's why it's dangerous.''

''Absorb?'' The girl's eyes widened, as she tried to remain calm. Orochimaru wants me to awake the Taorigan, and join him. He wants Sasuke, who has the Sharingan... And he has the Curse Mark. That snake wants Sasuke to join him. 

''Exactly. But that's not why it is so terrible.'' A sad look made Gureki's face fall. ''The reason no one had awakened it in nearly sixty years, is the way you awaken it in the first place. Three others have to die.'' Gurehai gasped, not expecting that revelation in the slightest. Kill people? But still, ninjas...

''But shinobi kill people. How could have no one...'' She paused, thinking back to her mother's words. ''Wait... had awakened it?"

''Yes, had. Someone did, about seventeen years ago. The Aoyo clan used to be a clan of both ninjas and commoners, until some decided that the Taorigan should be possessed by every shinobi in the clan. Like I said, in order to attain it, three others have to die. Someone has to be killed by you, someone has to die for you...'' She stopped there, taking a deep breath. ''And you have to kill someone you love.''

''That's horrible!" The white haired girl exclaimed, her face showing disgust. ''That means... the person to awaken it seventeen year ago... was it Guretora?"

''Yes.'' Her mother replied, looking away. ''If you remember, she was a ninja, something rare for our clan members at the time. Sixty years ago, the shinobi in our clan started killing each other off, in order to awaken the Taorigan. It was a slaughter, that thankfully ended quickly. After that, the members agreed not to seek out their Dojutsu.''

''And nobody became a ninja.''

''That's right. Guretora... As a ninja, it was only natural she killed someone. The second person, though... Somebody had died for her, before she even learned to speak.'' She received a confused face in response. ''During childbirth, Guretora's mother was met with a difficult choice. The baby was coming down on its feet, and that caused many complications. My aunt had to choose; Either she lived, and the baby died, or the baby lived, and she risked giving her life on the process.''

''I can imagine what she chose.'' Then realization downed on her, and Gurehai turned to her mother with a fearful expression on her half covered face. ''Mother... I-I have killed somebody too...'' That caused Gureki to take her in her arms and caress her hair.

''That doesn't mean anything, honey, do you hear me? You are a shinobi. You will kill many in your lifetime, but I know one thing for certain: You won't sacrifice who you are for power, and who you are is a girl who loves her family and protects her friends. Nothing is going to change that.''

Gurehai buried her face on the crook of her mother's neck. Here she is, telling me about her tragic past, reliving her darkest memories, supporting me, and all I do... All I do is keep secrets from her. How can I tell her what Orochimaru wants from me? How do I tell what he offered me? In the end, it's quite simple...

''I have to go now. Lord Third has a few hours to spare before a meeting about the Exams, and we are going to test my new Raiton Jutsu against his defensive techniques.'' She stood up, kissing Gureki's cheek softly. ...I simply won't. 

''So you created it.'' The healer mused. ''I am still waiting for the day you show me your Jutsus, you know that?"

''I know. But I will, only when I have all five.'' She wore her cloak and sandals, letting the hood fall a little above the Leaf symbol on her headband. ''Bye.'' With that she ran off, exiting the house.

My match is the fourth one, after Aburame and before Shikamaru. And that Risuki guy... I don't know a thing about his abilities. Lord Third said he beat Kabuto with only Taijutsu and Bukijutsu, but that can't possibly be the extent of his abilities. He's hiding something. A special Jutsu, a dangerous technique? She pondered, walking through the streets of Konoha. Around her, children ran, women walked from shop to shop and various ninja of different Ranks headed for the Hokage's office, to give their mission reports.

Whatever fighting style he uses, I can counter it. I no longer have injuries, so Taijutsu is in the picture. Ninjutsu has always been my area of expertise. As for Genjutsu... I don't think he will take any chances challenging me after what I did to his friend.

And, whatever fighting styles we end up using, one thing's for certain: I have to make a show out of it. Display at least half of my abilities. That way, even if I loose to him, and not advance to the next match against another winner, the Feudal Lords and judges will have seen me fighting, and I will have a chance to be promoted to Chunin after all. She stopped in order to let a couple of kids pass, and then sighed and started walking again, her cloak swishing behind her.

And then, there's Orochimaru. There's no telling whether he has left Konoha or not, and he might even try to get Sasuke... and me, during, or even before the third exam. Lord Third is here, his master, and he will never let him take us, but still...

''Excuse me, miss.'' A voice interrupted her train of thought, and she turned her head to see a young man, about twenty years old, smiling down at her. Behind him stood another boy, and for a second, Gurehai felt the urge to rub her eyes. They looked exactly the same. They had the same height, the same black hair and light blue eyes, the same facial features and posture. Identical twins, she realized after a second. She halted.

''Yes?" She replied, looking up at him slightly. They wore travelling cloaks, and had backpacks on their shoulders. Travelers, here for the Exams? When she noticed the second twin looking at the crest on her cloak, she awkwardly put her hands in her pockets.

''Could you tell me and my brother where Mintori's Inn is? You seem to be from around here.'' The first one inquired, showing her a poor excuse of a map representing Konohagakure's streets. When he glanced at her again, his eyes fell on the headband around her forehead. ''Oh, that's right. You are a ninja.''

Trying to hide her suspicious gaze, she looked away from the map and pointed at something behind his head. Turning around to see where she was pointing at, the boy let out an awkward laugh. Behind him, two blocks away on top of a tall building, was a large red sign that read 'MINTORI'S INN' with bright yellow letters. His brother face-palmed, shaking his head.

''Forgive my brother. He can be an idiot at times.'' The other boy said, approaching them. The Aoyo remained expressionless. They have the exactly same voice. That's creepy.  ''Anyway, thank you for your help. I am Ni, and that's my twin brother Ichi.'' Gurehai mentally sweat dropped. Their names are 'one' and 'two'? Their parents must be really creative. Noticing Ni's outstretched hand, she almost frowned. Is he expecting me to introduce myself? 

''OI! GURE-CHAN!" A familiar voice bellowed before she could decide what to do, making her sigh. Naruto appeared next to her, causing her to turn to him. He was followed by a tall man, who had white hair and black eyes. The head protector on his head read 'Oil'. ''Here you are! I was wondering if you wanted to-...'' He caught himself off, peering above his teammate's shoulder at the brothers, who waved at him. ''Who are they, Gure-chan?"

''Just two travelers, asking for directions.'' She replied, mentally cursing the blond for revealing the most important part of her name to the strangers that stared at the Blue Sun on her cloak a little too much. She missed the look the twins gave each other at the mention of her name. ''Who's the old man?" She asked, and the tall man, barely fifty years of age, cringed.

''Oh, that's Pervy-Sage!'' Naruto said, and she raised an eyebrow as the man panicked. ''He's training me for the Exams, you know!'' Pervy... Sage? She stared at him, trying to remeber where she had seen him before. 

''Is he the special Jonin you were assigned to?" She gave up on trying, recalling her teacher's words. The man was tall and well-built, but he didn't wear a Leaf headband or flak jacket, which made her suspicious.

''No, he's even better than the Jonin I was supposed to have! He's teaching me how to Summon toads!" That got her attention. He's learning how to Summon animals? And, toads? That's interesting. ''Who are you training with, Gure-chan? A special Jonin? Kakashi-sensei ditched us for that Sasuke-teme, and I haven't seen him since the preliminaries.''

''Oh, I'm training with a special Jonin too.'' She smirked, not giving away her little secret. Technically, I'm not lying. Lord Third was a Jonin before he became Hokage, was he not? She then remembered her manners and approached the white-haired man, bowing her head slightly. ''Well...um... Pervy-Sage. My name is Gurehai Soraku, and I am one of Naruto's teammates. It's nice to meet you.''

The man froze for a second, and his face paled. I guess his real name is not Pervy-Sage. ''I am Jiraiya the Gallant, the Toad Sage!" He cried, posing for no particular reason. Aha... so he is a Sage after all. Naruto attracts peculiar individuals, as always. Wait... wait a minute... JIRAIYA?

''Oh.'' She exclaimed, finally realizing what the man reminded her of. ''You are the Jiraiya, student of Lord Third. I knew your face reminded me of something.'' The Toad Sage seemed very pleased with her praise, and started grinning just like Naruto when he was about to order ramen.

''Yes, that's me! Though, if you happen to come across him, do not mention I am here in Konoha. I want it to be a surprise.'' He leaned down and whispered the last part, making the girl wonder if he had caught on on the fact that she was being trained by him. A Sannin... did he know father as well? Hiding her surprise, she nodded at him, and turned to her teammate. 

''What did you want to ask me, Naruto?"

''Oh, yeah! Me and Pervy-Sage are going to Ichiraku Ramen! Do you wanna come with us?" He suggested enthusiastically, eyes gleaming with joy. 

''I aim afraid I have to refuse. I was just heading to my training, which reminds me, I'm late.'' She explained, patting her friend on the back. ''I also have to go to the Hospital. I've been meaning to visit Lee for days now.'' She added, causing the boy's eyes to widen.

''Bushy Brow?" He mumbled, dozing off. ''Well, give him my 'get wells'!'' He said, taking his trainer by the arm and pulling him away. Is that even an actual sentence? ''See you, Gure-chan!" He waved at her, ignoring Jiraiya, who hissed at him to let him go.

''Ahem.'' She heard from behind her, just as she was about to walk off. She turned her head to see the twins. They're still here? They heard the entire conversation? ''Like I said earlier, thank you for your help. Uh, we will make sure to look out for your match in the Third Exams. Good luck!" The one that must have been Ni told her, taking his twin by the collar of his cloak and dragging him away. When they were a good twenty feet away, she narrowed her eyes at their backs and made her way to the Hokage's office.

I am thirteen minutes late because of them, damn it. That means less training time testing the Raiton Jutsu. She glared at the ground, walking faster. I hope I don't burn my hand this time around too.

When she reached her destination, she passed the office and jumped down on the garden behind the building, and saw the Sarutobi waiting for her with his pipe, as always. The man stood up from his seat and took off his hat, giving her a disapproving look.

''You are late, Gurehai.'' He stated, as they both shrugged off their cloaks. The Aoyo wanted to open her mouth and tell him about her encounter with his dramatic and eccentric student, but held her tongue. Jiraiya had asked her not to tell him politely, and just like she didn't like lying, she didn't like braking promises, however small they were.

''I'm sorry, Lord Third.'' She apologized, throwing her pouches aside. ''I was held up by some travelers asking for directions.''

''I don't need excuses, Gurehai.'' The Hokage replied with an amused expression on his face. He knew that his student never lied, but was worried they wouldn't have enough time before his meeting. ''Now, enough talk.'' He got in to his fighting stance, ready to create a Mud Wall.

The girl formed a series of hand signs, and then outstretched her hand. As lightning began to take shape, she rushed forward, charging at her teacher.

Chapter Text

Gurehai was growing more impatient by each second, as she stuck by Shikamaru's side. Apart from the fact that everyone had their eyes on her and the other contestants, watching them from the spectator seats above, all Genin were there, except from Naruto and Sasuke.

She could see her mother, sitting next to Sakura and Ino, the Hokage, sitting on a balcony away from everyone else with the Kazekage next to him, and her eyes even fell on the suspicious twins from the other week, still wearing traveling cloaks. When their eyes met, they both smiled and waved at her, causing her to turn away awkwardly. Jiraiya, the man Naruto trained with, was nowhere in sight either.

Around her, Genin from the Leaf, Sand and Waterfall waited impatiently for the last of them to arrive, in order to begin. Gaara, Temari and Kankuro stood close together, while Risuki, the Waterfall ninja, waited by himself a few feet away. Shikamaru, Shino and herself sat in silence, as Neji Hyuga, who had folded his arms over his chest, had turned his back to them.

Where in the world are those two? She glanced around and towards the entrance of the arena, expecting for them to show up. You are telling me that Shikamaru bothered to come, and they didn't? 

''Gather around.'' A voice said from behind them, and she turned to see a man, probably A Jonin, signaling for them to go near him. He had brown hair and wore his headband like a bandana, and was biting down on a straw. Wait a minute... This isn't Hayate, the proctor from the preliminaries, who said he was going to be in charge of the third round... What happened to him?

Just as she was about to open her mouth and say they were two Genin short, a loud scream was heard. In alert, she whipped around, only to see her blonde teammate sliding towards her on the ground, with a dazed expression. For the love of...

''Naruto, what do you think you're doing?" She demanded, while forcing him up by the back of his shirt. Shikamaru rolled his eyes from next to her, mumbling something that sounded like 'what a drag.'

''EVERYONE, RUN! THERE'S A HERD OF STAMPEDING BULLS-...'' He cut himself off, looking frantically around. When the only thing he saw was the faces of his opponents, he frowned and turned to look towards the entrance. ''I swear, there was a herd of stampeding bulls chasing after me... Wait a minute... Where's Sasuke?" Gurehai shrugged.

''I don't know, but that Dosu guy I'm supposed to fight isn't here either.'' The Nara said, and the girl's muscled tensed. That Dosu guy you were supposed to fight is dead. She wanted to tell him, but kept her mouth shut. That was confidential information from Lord Third.

''Hey guys.'' The proctor said in a bored tone. ''Don't be so restless. Puff out your chest and show your faces to the spectators.'' Did he just say that to a girl? The Aoyo thought, slightly glaring at the roaring crowd. Remember, the only thing you have to do... Is make a show at of it for them. Her blue eyes met with the twins' again, and she quickly averted her gaze, looking at her mother. She waved and smiled broadly at her, and she fought a smile of her own, keeping her stoic expression. ''You are the stars of this final round.''

''Everyone, thank you for coming to the Village hidden in Leaves Chunin Exams.'' The Hokage's voice boomed, making all chatter stop. ''We will now begin the final round matches with the ten that made it through the preliminaries!" Gurehai stepped forward and stood between Naruto And Shikamaru, not missing the look Risuki, who stood on the Uzumaki's other side, gave her. ''Please, watch until the end.''

''I need to show you something before we begin.'' The Jonin in front of them called, taking a paper out of his jacket. It showed the matches. ''Some changes have been made. Take a closer look at who you're fighting.'' Squinting her eyes, she saw that Dosu wasn't on the names, and that Shikamaru was fighting Temari instead. That's kind of convenient. With Dosu, we'd be eleven, and someone would probably have to fight twice. 

''Excuse me.'' Naruto said from next to her. ''Sasuke still isn't here. What's going to happen?"

''In case a contestant does not arrive by the time of his match, he or she will loose by default.'' The Jonin explained, making her bite the inside of her cheek. What is that idiot thinking? He's going to loose, and not even get a chance to display his abilities.

''Now listen up. The terrain might be different, but there are no rules, just like in the preliminaries. The matches will continue until one or the other dies or acknowledges defeat. However, if I judge it has been settled, I'll stop the match there.'' Gurehai and Risuki spared each other a quick glance. ''Now, for the first match. Naruto Uzumaki and Neji Hyuga. The rest of you move up to the waiting room.'' 

''Send him to the medics.'' Gurehai patted her teammate's back, smirking at the look on his and the Hyuga's faces when she repeated his words from the preliminaries. Then she followed the rest of the Genin up a few flights of stairs, to a balcony merged with the walls of the arena.

''The first match... Begin!" Genma announced, as a strong gust of wind nearly knocked her hood back. 

I didn't stick around in the preliminaries to see the two Hyuga's fight, but I know a thing or two about their clan. Naruto just has to fight him from a distance. If he tries to engage him with Taijutsu, he's an idiot... and a goner as well. 

She gritted her teeth in anger when the blonde did just that, Neji throwing him on the ground. She wanted to shout at him, tell him what to do and help him, but she also knew that the boy needed -and probably wanted- to get through this alone. If she were him, she wouldn't want people screaming her advice too.

The Shadow Clones he sent next, although impressive, made no difference. They were destroyed, one by one. He needs to use Ninjutsu against him, but how is that even possible, when he only knows the Shadow Clone Jutsu? His kunai are blocked, his punches and kicks turned against him, the enemy's defense absolute. She watched, as the long haired boy repulsed the attack of eight Shadow Clones, and started hitting Naruto's body repeatedly.

His chakra points... he can't stand anymore. Naruto lay on the ground, when Genma loomed over him to see if he was unconscious. No, not yet... he has-he must get up. ''Pull yourself together, Naruto!'' She yelled, and the boy stood up, as if a miracle had occurred.

He did pull himself together, releasing some of the terrifying chakra she had seen once before, in the Forest of Death. And he came out victorious, really sending his opponent to the medics. That's my best friend. 

''Winner of this match... Uzumaki Naruto!" The crowd erupted in cheers and started clapping, while Gurehai smiled brightly and hugged him around the shoulder when he climbed the stairs and stood next to her. She leaned down.

''I knew you could do it.'' She said, and they both walked over next to Shino and Shikamaru. The crowed started growing impatient after a while, as Sasuke had yet to arrive. What is he doing? He's still not here... Just like Kakashi-sensei... Perfect.

''Since the candidate for the next match is not here yet, we will move on to the next one.'' The proctor announced, and they Leaf Genin glanced at one another, knowing that that meant their matches were drawing near. ''The next match: Kankuro and Shino Aburame!" 

''Proctor, I abstain!" The puppeteer shouted from next to them, just when the Aoyo was about to wish her former classmate good luck. Everyone turned to him in surprise. ''I abstain! Please advance the matches!" He added, and the girl gripped the railing tight, realizing that next match, was hers.

''Due to Kankuro's abstention, Shino Aburame wins this match by default!" Genma sighed, making the crowd complain. ''The next match: Risuki Warai and Gurehai Soraku!" Just like magic, deadly silence fell over the previously raging spectators. Naruto and Shikamaru looked around curiously, only to find the majority of them looking at the waiting balcony, and more specifically, at the white haired girl wearing the Konohagakure headband. Ignoring the stares, she accepted a pat on the back by her teammate and a couple of 'good luck's from the other boys.

When she grabbed the railing with both hands, Risuki had already jumped off and slid towards the arena, leaving dust behind him. She jumped off and fell towards the ground again, performing a flip when she neared the ground. I only have to make a show out of it. She thought, making her way towards her opponent and the proctor, the spectators going crazy behind her.

My father's name. Soshimo Soraku was one of the best Jonin Konoha had ever known. They're cheering for his name, not mine. Not yet. But this is the day I show myself, in front of the entire Village... and not only them. Her eyes flickered towards the identical twins for a second, before falling on her opponent's face. He looked determined, angry and impatient.

''Are you scared?'' He asked, clearly trying to mess with her psychology. ''Perhaps you should.''

''I'm here neither to scare nor to be scared, neither to win nor to loose. I am here to become a Chunin.'' She smartly replied, digging her hands into her pouches. ''We just have to make a show out of this for them.'' She added, nodding towards the Kage and Feudal Lords, and missing the amused look Genma sent her.

''Hachimi is watching. My sensei is watching. We haven't forgotten what you did to Rai.'' Risuki growled, his hand moving back to touch his sword. ''Was that a show too?" He asked, his brown orbs glaring at her blue ones. She noted how he was a head taller than her. He's even taller than his teammate, and doesn't appear to be as cheerful as the last time we saw each other. 

''No, it wasn't.'' She replied, her voice calm. ''It was kill or be killed.'' The proctor pressed his lips together and sighed, secretly hoping he could have seen the Genjutsu she was rumored to have casted on the  Waterfall Genin, putting him in a coma. Perhaps, he would get to see it today.

''Well then.'' He stated loudly, in order to be heard over the noise. ''Let this match begin!"

The two Genin clashed with a loud noise, kunais against kunais. They glared at each other's eyes, before the girl used one blade to swing at his neck. He pushed her away and threw his weapons to her, which she deflected. With amazing speed, he pulled out a dozen of shuriken, that came flying for her head. With wide eyes, the boy watched as she ran towards them, bending her body backwards at the last moment, and sliding in front of him.

He didn't have enough time to move when a kunai coated in lightning came at him, and it grazed his cheek. As the crowd gasped and cheered, he touched his small wound and gritted his teeth.

They engaged in hand-to-hand combat, occasionally swinging a blade at each other. Blocking, jumping and side-stepping the other's attacks, the moment came when Gurehai deflected a punch aiming at her neck, and back-flipped away.

Now that I have measured his speed and reflexes, I have to move on to Ninjutsu, she thought, when she suddenly heard someone shout. 

''Gure-chan, look out!" Naruto screamed, and only then did she notice the paper-bomb attached to her right shoulder. Her eyes widened, but it ignited a second later. The audience gasped and yelled, while Risuki smirked, and the Leaf Genin waited anxiously. The smoke from the explosion started to clear, and then, it was the boy's turn to gasp. 

The only thing left on the spot his opponent previously stood was a half-destroyed cloak, slowly falling to the ground. He barely had a second to turn around and place his arms in 'x' formation, because Gurehai drew her arm back and punched him with her gigantic Rock Fist.

Risuki was pushed back to were she used to stand, panting as his arms bled. Angrily, he spat on the ground next to him. She was behind me for a good five seconds... Why didn't she use her Genjutsu on me? He growled, and the white haired girl's Jutsu retreated to her normal skin. With her cloak off, she was now dressed in all black. Is she... is she holding back?!

''Damn you.'' He hissed, looking down at his injured arms. I guess it's time... I guess it's time to bring him out... ''You really are making this a show. But I'm not done. I have... I have...'' He said, and slowly dragged his thumb on his raw flesh, drawing blood. ''Rai was always the fast one.'' He brought his hands together. ''And Hachimi, Hachimi was always the smart one.'' He glanced at his blonde teammate, who was watching him, and who nodded with a smile on her face. ''But I... I always had something else, something they didn't.''

The Aoyo carefully observed him as he made hand seals, finally slamming his hands on the ground. ''Summoning Jutsu!" Smoke surrounded him, hiding him from view. Everyone held their breath, and seconds later, Gurehai took a step back in surprise.

Looming over him from behind, was a 15-foot tall, two headed caterpillar. Women screeched in the spectator seats, and children wailed. The creature let out a shrill scream and spread its 6 pairs of legs-arms, each holding kunais. Gurehai frowned and took out another couple of kunai, instantly attacking the Summoning. She was thrown back seconds later, her legs scratched.

''How do you like my sweet Fugatama?" The Waterfall ninja smirked, seeing her distressed state. ''Born and raised, in the Village Hidden in the Waterfall.'' Then, a laugh rang through the air.

The boy furrowed his eyebrows as his opponent, who chuckled shamelessly. He growled when she placed her kunais in her pouches, the smirk never leaving her lips.

"I'm sorry." She shook her head, staring at him in... amusement. "It seems that I'll have to use a few extra pairs of arms as well." With that, she performed a hand seal, and the ground around her rose and swelled, until three tall figures took shape, morphing into her. All four Gurehais gave him the same look, while the crowd above them went wild. 

I am finally showing myself. And this... this is still the beggining. My chakra reserves have almost doubled in size, and the pain in my chest won't hold me back anymore.

She forced Risuki out of the way with one Earth Clone, kicking him in the air and onto the walls of the arena. Genma had to step aside in order to not get hit with the caterpillar's legs, which were chopped off one by one by the Aoyo and her Clones. 

"YES! GO GURE-CHAN!" Naruto yelled from the balcony of the waiting room, just like the rest of the audience, as Sakura and Ino gaped from beside Gureki.

"That's... Gure?" Ino couldn't help but let her jaw drop, as the three Clones of the white haired Kunoichi pushed the Summoning further and further behind, and against the wall next to its summoner.

"Yes." Sakura replied, depressed, as her teammate made her and her abilities look like litter at the side of the road. "That's Gurehai."

When the caterpillar's back hit the concrete, the real Aoyo jumped back and took a breath, concentrating. Monkey, Hare, Ram, Hare, Ox, Monkey. She inwardly chanted, and then, lightning began taking shape in the palm of her outstretched right hand. Unbeknownst to her, the twins smiled from their seats. The Earth Clones around her dissolved to soil.

"Raiton: Storm Trident!" She stated, loud enough for everyone to hear. In her hand, lightning bolts crackled, forming a long, thick trident. Taking a running start, she threw it with all her might, at the insect's head. Fugatama the caterpillar shrieked as both his heads were now trapped between the ends of the Trident, unable to escape. With all his arms cut off, he could only trash around.

Risuki recovered from the blow and shakily stood up, eyes widening at the sight of the insect. She thinks she has beaten us... But we are strong, stronger than she thinks. He let out a loud, strange sound from his throat, at which the insect responded by tensing, and making its lost body parts grow back. With their help, it gripped the Trident tight and pulled at it, freeing itself.

Gurehai couldn't say she expected that, but didn't back down anyway, as the ninja and Summoning stood side by side again. Instead she shook her head with a small chuckle and locked her blue eye with his brown ones.

"I have to say, I really am impressed." She commented, and the crowd fell silent in order to hear what she was saying. "I didn't think that I would have to use it so soon, but it seems that I have no choice but to... make things a little more fair." Then she bit down on her thumb, forming her own hand seals.

From above, Hiruzen smirked, on the edge of his seat. Next to him the Kazekage frowned, recognizing the signs for the Summoning Jutsu.

"Summoning Jutsu:" Gurehai announced, slamming her right hand on the ground. With a 'bam', a large cloud of smoke enfolded her, hiding her from sight. She heard the spectators gasp, shout for their friends to look, and exclaim in surprise. As the smoke began to disappear, everyone's eyes fell on the large, tall and intimidating shadow behind her.

"Monkey King, Enma!"

Chapter Text

''Summoning Jutsu:" Gurehai announced, slamming her right hand on the ground. With a 'bam', a large cloud of smoke enfolded her, hiding her from sight. She heard the spectators gasp, shout for their friends to look, and exclaim in surprise. As the smoke began to disappear, everyone's eyes fell on the large, tall and intimidating shadow behind her.

"Monkey King, Enma!"

The crowd went wild as the ape appeared, arms crossed, expression stoic. Gurehai herself couldn't fight back the smirk from forming on her lips, when Risuki's face fell. The Kazekage turned to his fellow Kage and stared at him in disbelief, holding back his true emotions.

''You little-...'' The Waterfall Genin spat, ready to pounce at her, when a booming voice interrupted him.

''Gurehai.'' The Monkey King called, clearly not amused by what he was seeing. ''What is going one here? Where is Hiruzen?" He demanded, looking down at the girl, who didn't expect that reaction at all. Damn it. Couldn't he just act cool and help me out?

''We are in the Chunin Exams.'' She explained, trying to lower her voice so that only he could hear. ''I am the one who summoned you, not Lord Third. Could you please not yell and help me out?" She pleaded, ignoring the glare Risuki was sending her.

''The Chunin Exams?" The ape wondered out loud, looking around, before his eyes finally settled on the girl's opponent and his horrendous Summoning. ''I see. Still, I don't understand why you would summon me. I thought you would be strong enough to deal with that... thing.'' He narrowed his eyes at the caterpillar. 

''I thought I would be too.'' She said, taking out kunai blades from her pouches. ''But its limbs grew back out when I chopped them off with the help of my Earth Clones, and I have almost exhausted my chakra. Besides, I had to make a good impression on the Feudal Lords. What's better than the Hokage's very own Summoning?"

The ape scoffed but smiled nonetheless, getting onto his fighting stance. ''If I am not mistaken, this is our first battle together... I look forward to seeing how we cooperate... and of course, the skills of Hiruzen's successor of the Will of Fire.'' His eyes ran over the enemies. ''I take the Summoning, and you take the boy. You said its limbs grew back?"

''Only when the Summoner gave some kind of signal to it. I'll keep him occupied while you take the caterpillar down.'' They agreed, but before they could charge at their targets, Risuki spoke.

''Is that white haired monkey your brother, Soraku? You certainly look like each other.'' He mocked, Fugatama creeping closer to his master in order to protect him. 

''Oh, I wasn't aware we were Summoning close family members.'' She called back just as sarcastically. ''In that case, is that thing your mother? You certainly have the same... charm.'' That made their audience holler with laughter, but the boy growl. Simultaneously, the two pairs of fighters charged at each other.

Enma pushed the caterpillar back with his mighty strength, swiftly avoiding its small but sharp talons. Gurehai engaged in to combat with Risuki once again, her speed clearly overwhelming the older boy, who could neither properly block her attacks, nor hold weapons, due to the wounds on his arms. The fact that she didn't finish him off, even though she could, angered him more.

A sudden screech made him loose focus, giving the Aoyo the opportunity to collide her fist with his jaw, sending him flying back. The screech belonged to Fugatama, whose left neck had just been impaled by a small, slim adamantine staff. The staff had pierced the creature entirely through, pinning his throat to the concrete arena wall behind.

Noticing that the boy had opened his mouth and was about to produce the same sound from earlier, Gurehai concentrated chakra on her feet, trying to reach him faster. The people of importance in these exams had seen plenty, and she had to save a couple of techniques for her matches to come.

She connected her foot with his head, sending him flying towards his Summoning. He hit its stomach, sliding down its long body, his head falling to the side as he was knocked out. Fugatama let out another wail, while the white haired girl and the ape joined each other on the other side of the arena, the human kneeling down, the animal standing protectively behind her.

''What do you say, King Enma?'' She suggested, addressing him respectfully. ''I put in the Earth, and you the Fire element?" Catching on to what she was proposing, Enma nodded, and they both began weaving signs. ''Doton: Soil Flow!" Soil from around the arena gathered around Risuki and his Summoning in an instant, burying the animal up to the neck, and leaving the boy's head out of the mud prison.

The Monkey King breathed in deeply and then exhaled, sending a wave of fire towards their opponents. The fire molded with the soil, creating a hard, stone-like substance, which trapped the Waterfall ninja. The caterpillar finally fell silent, and cheers erupted among the spectators.

''Winner of this match...'' Genma snapped out of his trance, shouting in order to be heard over the nose. ''Gurehai Soraku!" The victorious girl turned with a grateful smile and looked at the smirking ape, bowing her head.

''Thank you with all my heart, King Enma.'' She locked eyes with him, standing straight. ''You can return home.''

The moment he disappeared, the young Aoyo was tackled from behind and nearly fell down, but found her balance in the last second. Glancing down to see who had hugged her, she saw Naruto with his arms wrapped around her shoulders. She smiled at the sight of his grin, and decided not to tease him about his height.

''Gure-chan!" He complained, suddenly pouting. ''You didn't tell me you could summon animals too!''

''Well, since you told me you could summon toads, I thought I'd learn how to as well. Though, apes seem to be more like my thing.'' She shrugged and ruffle his hair, earning herself a playful glare.

''Well then, who taught you? I had to sign a contract with Pervy-Sage, ya know, and at first, the only thing that came out was a tadpole!" He frowned, recalling his training.

''Who taught me...'' She echoed, turning her head towards the tallest balcony, where the Hokage and Kazekage sat. Hiruzen was looking at her with a proud smile on his lips. ''Well, it was that special Jonin I told you about.'' Following her gaze, he saw the Third, and his jaw almost hit the ground. Ignoring his reaction, she patted his back and urged him to walk. ''Come on, we should go up to the waiting room. Someone will come to get Risuki out of that thing, and the next match will begin.''

Together they climbed the stairs, and Gurehai put her stoic expression back on. Two of the three Sand Siblings gaped at her with wide eyes, while the third remained emotionless, arms crossed over his chest. To think I could intimidate them even more... it seems that I lived up to both the Soraku and Aoyo name today.

When Shikamaru's match rolled up, Gure was skeptical. She wanted to believe that one of the few boys that never bullied her was going to win, or that he even actually had chance. But with the angry-looking Suna girl as an opponent, who was a Wind Style user, his chances were pretty slim. True, Gurehai had never seen him fight. She didn't know his fighting style, his tactic. But from what she remembered from their Academy years, she couldn't recall a time he did something else rather than sleep or talk to Choji.

So, when he actually began to get the upper hand, the Aoyo was ecstatic. Never in her life had she thought that he would have such a high IQ level and so efficient strategy plans. Above all, she never thought he could outsmart anyone like that. He used the holes Naruto made earlier to expand the length of his Shadow Paralysis. He had me worried for a minute, that idiot.

And when he had her in the palm of his hand, and she was just about to admit defeat...

''I give up.'' He announced, baffling everyone, from the Genin to the spectators. The white haired girl let her jaw drop, and then, she collected herself, slightly smirking. In the end, he didn't loose. Everyone saw his abilities, his strategies. He made everyone cheer for him, the same people who previously yelled at him to get the match over quickly, he got them hooked on his actions. No second match is necessary. But, that means... I might be fighting either her or Sasuke next.

Next, was Sasuke and Gaara. The crowd was growing restless as the famous Uchiha didn'y show up, and even more, during the ten minutes he was given to arrive. Damn it. If he's beggining to take after Kakashi-sensei and his tardiness, I swear I'll start showing up in team meeting two hours late too.

''Because the time limit has expired, the next match is-...'' Genma began, the dreaded moment of Sasuke loosing by default near. But then, a strong gust of wind made her hair whip around, and leaves started dancing around her and Naruto, who had jumped down to lecture Shikamaru. Making sure her right eye wasn't exposed, she turned with narrowed eyes to her sensei and teammate, who had suddenly appeared.

''Huh. You are pretty late!" Naruto laughed, as the spectators cheered for their long awaited champion. ''I thought you weren't coming because you were afraid to take me on!" As if. They probably wanted to turn up late to make a flashy entrance, just like this.

Sasuke smirked, his eyes falling on his male and female teammates. ''Your matches... Did you win?" He asked, referring to the both of them. Gurehai nodded, a little disappointed the two members of her team weren't there to see her fight. Then again, it was a good thing Sasuke didn't know of her abilities.

''Of course we did!" The Uzumaki grinned. ''You should have seen Gure-chan! She summoned this big Monk-...'' The Aoyo clasped her hand firmly over the blonde's mouth, muffling his words.

''Idiot, stop spilling my secrets.'' She snapped, avoiding the curious gaze of her sensei. ''When Sasuke wins his match against Gaara, I'm fighting him next. Don't reveal my fighting style.'' She withdrew her hand, making Naruto pout, and Sasuke raise his eyebrows.

''Well, I know it's somewhat rude to show up late like this...'' Kakashi rubbed the back of his neck addressing Genma. You know it. ''But was Sasuke... disqualified?"

''No, it's alright. Sasuke's match has been postponed anyway.'' The proctor replied. ''You arrived barely in time... But he hasn't been disqualified. Gaara, come down here!"

''Good luck.'' Gurehai said, before turning around and walking towards the ground underneath the waiting room, and jumping up next to Shino. Naruto and Shikamaru decided to take the stairs, while Gaara had already started making his way down. ''Aburame.'' She called, making the boy's head turn. ''You saw Gaara fight in the preliminaries. Will Sasuke win?"

Shino took a moment, staring at the arena, where the two boys stood, face to face. Then, he exhaled. ''If he is anything like you, he will.'' He replied, and then fell silent. Gurehai was a little surprised. This must be the first time we speak to each other, despite our years at the Academy together. 

And the match began. Sasuke immediately overwhelmed his opponent with his speed and combat style, resulting to him using his sand to hide in an unbreakable sphere. Gaara of the Sand... can use sand as a weapon? Ironic.

 The Uchiha jumped back, and preformed three all-too-familiar hand signs. As lightning began to form in his hand, Gurehai turned to where her mother, Ino, Sakura and Kakashi were, only to see Lee and his sensei there as well. Lee is up... that's good... but what Lord Third said, about him and his shinobi life... She shook her head, focusing on the ongoing match. Kakashi-sensei taught him the Chidori. She thought, as the Uchiha thrusted his hand in the sphere.

Shortly after, it fell apart. The sand dispersed to reveal a wounded Gaara, who was clutching his bleeding shoulder. But Gurehai didn't have time to celebrate her comrade's achievement.

She saw feathers float all around her and the remaining Genin of the waiting room, and her eyes started to grow heavy. Impossible! She held them wide open, forming a hand seal. Genjutsu? Who in the world is performing it? ''Release!" She blinked, now completely awake, only to see someone had threw a smoke bomb where the Hokage was seated.

''Lord Third!" She yelled, jumping out of the balcony and running along the concrete walls, trying to reach him. Masked Anbu got there first, but were too late. Shocked, Gurehai saw the Kazekage hold her teacher by the neck, pointing a kunai at his throat. No... what is going on? Almost everyone is under a Genjutsu... and the Sand... the Sand... Mother...

''Gurehai!" She heard Kakashi's voice from afar. ''Do not engage! The Anbu have it covered!'' She snapped her head towards him in despair, but saw they were surrounded by enemy ninja. Sound shinobi? Wha-... Above her, a purple barrier rose, trapping the Hokage and Kazekage. One of the Anbu that attempted to get through, burned alive.

Catching glimpse of a flash in her peripheral vision, she outstretched her arm, blocking the kunai aiming for her head with one of her own. The attacker was a Sound ninja, wearing a mask and purple and grey attire. Glaring at her, she slashed at her, cutting off a few hairs.

''Little brat... You are no ordinary Genin, are you? No wonder Lord Orochimaru wants you.'' The ninja growled, making her gasp. Orochimaru? He is here? Instinctively, her head turned towards the Hokage and his captor, only to see that Orochimaru had taken the Kazekage's place. No! He's trapped in there with that snake!

She growled at her attacker and pushed him back, throwing her now lightning covered knife directly at his chest. The blade penetrated him and he fell from the height they were standing straight to the ground, about twenty feet below. A sudden stinging pain erupted in her right eye, causing her to almost loose balance.

She landed next to the body of the Sound ninja and touched her covered eye, slowly feeling the pain go away. The second it stopped, a rain of shuriken flew towards her, and she took out two kunais, one in each hand, deflecting them. Instantly, another ninja attacked her, and they began dancing to the lethal song of clashing metal.

Soon after, a second enemy joined him, and Gurehai was suddenly battling the two of them. Barely managing to block their attacks, she didn't see the first one forming hand signs, and she was thrown back by his Suiton Jutsu. Her back it the concrete wall, her clothes soaking wet.

''You are coming with us!" They yelled, charging at her with their fists raised. Too weak to raise her arms to block their attack, she gritted her teeth end closed her eyes, waiting for the impact.

But it never did. Hearing a grunt and a thud, she hesitantly opened her eyes...

...And saw two tall figures standing protectively in front of her, both with black hair, and the same posture. Her eyes widened when they turned their heads slightly to look at her, identical smiles on their faces, identical shines in their blue eyes. She took a shaky breath.

''You... you are the strangers from the other day...'' She finally said, as they pulled out kunais from their clothes. ''The travelers... you are... why are you...'' She mumbled, as another pair of Sound ninja approached them menacingly. Ichi and Ni smirked, getting ready to fight back.

''Yes, that's us.'' They laughed simultaneously, taking hold of their cloaks' collars, and pulling at them. ''You...'' They threw their grey traveling cloaks away, revealing the black and grey tunics they wore underneath, as well... as well as the blue suns they had on their backs.

''...You may call us your cousins.''

Chapter Text

"You may call us your cousins."

Gurehai could only stare at them in disbelief, as they battled the Sound shinobi. She wanted to laugh at them, she wanted to yell at them, she wanted to smile and say she was glad she could finally meet them... But she only stood up, with a determined expression on her scratched face, and helped them take out the enemies.

They don't kill them, she noticed, as her breathing began to get labored. They knock them out, they injure them, but they don't kill. But why? They are our enemies. She formed hand signs quickly and jumped, stepping on her opponents head. Launching herself in the air, she avoided the stone spikes that protruded from the ground and pierced right through his and one of his comrade's bodies. Wait a minute... they are Aoyos... they are from he Sand... why are they helping out, when the Sand and Sound have obviously formed an alliance to destroy us?

She fell down with a grunt before she could question them, clutching her right eye in pain. It stung, even worse than before. She hissed when one of the twins jumped in front of her, kicking a Sound nin away. Why is this happening to me? What are these waves of pain? And why only in that eye?

''Gurehai!" The twin that had jumped in front of her called out, glancing at her from over his shoulder. ''Don't kill them, only knock them out! Taking their life will only make the pain worse!" He said, and disappeared to fight the man he had kicked away. The girl shakily got to her feet, deflecting the shuriken that came her way.

How does he know that? Could it be... Is it the Taorigan? 

''Duck!" The other boy shouted, and she barely managed to do so as a fireball flew above her head, slamming the ninja that was about to attack her from behind on the wall. Getting back up, she saw another flying for her cousin's head, and took a running start.

''I need a push!" She yelled at him, and the brunette quickly elbowed his opponent and folded his hands together, for her to step on. Then she launched her in the air, where she collided with the attacker, and they barreled together downwards. At the last second, she kicked him off, and he hit the ground with a gasp. Back flipping away from his body, the three Aoyos were now standing back to back.

''Why are you doing this?" Gurehai asked, but didn't gave them time to answer. ''You are with the Sand, and the Sand is attacking the Leaf. If you really are from the Aoyo clan, then-...''

''Our names are Gureichi...'' The one on her right cut her off.

''...And Gureni. We aren't here with the Sand. We are here for it.'' The one on her left finished, pushing away more enemies. ''Orochimaru tricked them. He tricked everyone.''

''Unbeknownst to them, he killed our Kazekage, and took his place... and face.'' Gureichi added, sending two ninja away with a Fuuton Jutsu. ''Of course, we couldn't tell anyone that. They would report to Orochimaru, pretending to be Lord Rasa, and we'd loose our heads, before we could inform anyone else-...''

''And before we could meet you.'' Gureni said. ''That would probably be worse.''

''Wait-stop. What are you saying? How did you even know about the Kazekage's murder? You know what? I don't really care. But now he's up there, fighting Lord Third!" She cried, ignoring their advise, ignoring the dead body that fell on her feet, ignoring the pain in her eye. She ran away from them and looked away, at first towards the spectator seats.

She saw Kakashi and Guy, fighting side by side. Her mother lay near them, asleep on the benches. Please, don't let anything happen to her. Then she turned to the purple barrier that had been created around her teacher and the snake. Inside, she saw the Hokage in his battle attire, fighting two unknown men, who previously weren't in there with them.

Who are they? One wears red, the other blue... dark brown and white hair... no, it's red and blue armor... No way... They have Konohagakure headbands... The First and Second Hokage! They are alive!?

----

Hiruzen struggled to breathe as the branches of Hashirama's Jutsu wrapped around his chest and neck. He had drown the blood, he had formed the signs, now the only thing he needed... was to touch a solid surface. 

''You are finally caught, eh, sensei?" Orochimaru taunted, with the two Hokage by his side. ''Now, it seems that it won't be long until young Gurehai comes with me... I see she has already killed a handful of those ninja, too... My, my, the power I'll have in my hands!''

''You will never get her, Orochimaru!" The Sarutobi shouted, lamming his hand against the wood that was keeping him in place. ''Summoning Jutsu!" Smoke surrounded him, and the Sannin growled. ''Come forth, Monkey King Enma!" Once again, the king with the white fur appeared.

''Sarutobi...'' The ape said, looking down on their enemies. ''I knew this day would come... And it's all because you didn't kill him back then!" He growled, before transforming into the Adamantine Staff, and braking the current Hokage out of his restrains.

''Let's go, Enma... I'll kill him now, for the Village... and Gurehai!"

----

''Lord Third.'' A young Gurehai called, making Hiruzen turn to her slowly. They were both at his office, waiting for him to be over with his work so they could train. She pointed to the wall of his office, were four framed pictures hang. ''They are the Hokage, aren't they?" She asked, squinting her eyes. ''They look like the Stone Faces, a lot.''

''Exactly, that's them. My teachers, Hashirama and Tobirama, and one of my student's apprentices, Minato.'' The old man explained, pointing to each picture respectively. ''The third one, of course, is me.'' He added, smoking his pipe with a proud smile on his face, which disappeared soon after.

''You look too old compared to the others.'' The girl commented, making the Hokage cough. ''But, anyway... If you were taught by Lord First and Lord Second, and Lord Fourth was your student's student... Does that mean that I will have to become Hokage one day as well, seeing that I am your apprentice?"

The man was intrigued by that question, and her facial expression while saying it. She looked almost... worried. ''Well, that depends on whether or not you want to become one.'' He told her, watching her carefully. ''Do you?"

''Well, not really...''

''Oh? And why is that?"

''It's... it's just something father once told me.'' She replied, a little uneasy. ''About the Hokage and his responsibilities... we were talking about them on top of the Stone Faces, and it didn't really appeal to me. It still doesn't, to tell you the truth.''

''Oh, that's alright.'' He laughed, trying to get her out of her uncomfortable position. ''Anyways, you said you had a different dream. I wouldn't want you to get distracted and leave it aside, now, would I?" His student's face lit up.

''No, of course not!" She laughed, turning her back on the pictures. ''Now, stop talking. You have all that paperwork to finish before we can train, and mother said to be home before 8!"

''LORD HOKAGE!" A shout snapped her out her daze, and she quickly shook her head and focused her attention on top of the roof Hiruzen was. Huge branches and roots had covered the entire inside of the barrier, making it difficult to see what was happening inside. Gurehai took out another kunai and made for the concrete wall, in order to reach her teacher.

''Gurehai, don't!" Someone grabbed her wrist from behind, stopping her from climbing. She turned her head angrily, and saw one of the twins, looking down at her with a warning look. ''You can't go up there!" He almost pleaded, but that only made the girl more upset.

''Let go of me.'' She hissed, swiftly taking her hand out of his grasp and jumping away. He tried to go after her, but had to turn around and block one of the Sound ninja's attack.

Gurehai ran up the tall wall while focusing chakra on the soles of her feet, jumping on the balcony the Kage previously observed the matches from. There she came face-to-face with another enemy, who, upon her rage, was mercilessly kicked away, and crashed on the white wall behind him, cracking it.

She then grabbed hold of the roof's pediment, and swung her body up. Landing on the golden roof, she saw three masked and hooded Anbu, watching the battle unfold carefully. One turned towards her, and she could hear the surprise in his voice.

''Hey! You are th-...''

''What's going on in there?" She cut him off, kneeling down next to him and his comrades. ''How are the previous Hokage here?" She asked with worry in her blue eyes, trying to make out what was happening inside the barrier. Her teacher had created two Shadow Clones, and they were currently holding on to Hashirama and Tobirama, who had started turning to ash.

''Orochimaru performed a Forbidden Jutsu. The Reanimation Jutsu, which brings a soul into a dead body. The First and Second Hokage were summoned, and have been fighting Lord Third ever since.'' One of the Anbu explained, making the girl's eyes widen.

She remembered her dream, from back on the day she woke up in the hospital. Orochimaru had showed her her 'future', the one she could have if she joined him. Her father was there, but her father was dead, and there is absolutely no way anyone could bring the dead back to life... unless. That snake was telling the truth... he... he could bring him back, and we could be together...No! Snap out of it, Gurehai! He is the enemy, and Lord Third is dying!

A pained grunt was heard and she blinked rapidly, her eyes widening when she saw her teacher, who had taken hold of his former student, being impaled by a sword.

''Lord Third!" She yelled, stumbling to get up and approach the barrier. From the inside, the man turned his head to her slowly and gave her an apologetic smile. ''King Enma!" She then exclaimed, seeing the ape on the ground, trying to pull the sword out of his summoner's body. ''Help him, please!" She received a grunt in response, making her even more distressed.

Growling, she jumped past the cowering Anbu, standing at the opposite side of Orochimaru. 

''What are you doing, girl? One of us Anbu that tried to pass through, burned alive!" The Anbu yelled at her, making futile attempts to stop her. She set her legs a few feet apart to gain balance, and performed the hands signs. Ox, Hare, Monkey.

She growled as lightning began forming in her right hand, becoming brighter, and brighter. Her mind traveled to the people she killed, when she felt her chakra being drained. ''Come on!" She screamed at no one in particular, frustrated with the lightning that was starting to fade. ''Come. On!" With a blinding flash of light, the blots turned pure white, crackling with the sound of a thousand birds.

''Stop!" She heard someone shout, but focused even more chakra on the technique. Her right eye, still covered with her white locks, began to burn uncontrollably.

''If this thing once cut through a bolt of pure lightning, then it sure as hell can cut through this stupid barrier!" She yelled, trying to keep her lightning chakra stable, and ignoring the stinging pain in her eye.

From bellow, Kakashi stared up at the rooftop in shock, with Guy by his side. He could see the faint outline of his student's body, almost completely surrounded by pure white lightning. What is she doing? And where is getting all that ridiculous amount of chakra from? I thought she was almost drained! Everyone gasped in shock when a thunder boomed around them, and bolts started escaping Gurehai's control, destroying the golden tiles below her.

''CHIDORI!" She bellowed, thrusting her hand upon the purple barrier. 

A blinding flash of white, blue and purple made the shinobi around her close their eyes, as she completely destroyed the Sound Four's formation. The four Sound ninja instantly jumped away, heading for their master, whose arms had started to decay. 

''You snake!" Gurehai hissed at the Sannin in disgust, when she saw her teacher fallen on the floor. ''I'm going to kill you!" And she ran towards him, aiming her lighting covered hand at his head. The man's eyes widened, a horror-stricken expression on his pale face. 

But her hand collided with something else.

One of Orochimaru's soldiers, the one with six arms, jumped in front of her and his master, and made the Chidori pierce him instead. One of his left hands fell down with a sickening splutter of blood, and his fat teammate grabbed Orochimaru and ran away. She was kicked back slightly by another, grey-haired man, who glared at her and sent her down.

Gurehai made no move to go after them, but the Anbu did. Instead, she inhaled shakily and tried to control her erratic breathing, hurrying to her teacher's side. Kneeling down, she blinked away the tears in her eyes and placed her hands softly at his chest, looking at the seal that had formed on his abdomen.

''Lord Third... no,no you can't... you can't die, please!" She cried, but forced her tears back. ''Please, please, please, I already... I've already lost one father...'' Her voice cracked, and sniffed. Her vision grew blurry. ''No! You were supposed to be there, you were supposed to be there when I became Chunin! You were supposed to hand me my Chunin vest, and congratulate me, and... and be there to see me attain them all...''

''My dear Gurehai...'' A hoarse voice said, making her snap her head up. She saw her teacher looking at her with his tired brown eyes, that were half-open. He coughed up blood. ''My dear Gurehai... to me... to me you were a Chunin the day we created your first Jutsu together, all those years ago...'' He coughed again, giving her an exhausted smile.

''Sensei..'' She whimpered, staring at his warm eyes.

''It really... it really is a shame... you won't become my successor.'' He manged to say, taking a look at her for the last time. ''Y-you would have been... a great Hokage...'' He coughed again, and the white haired girl wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. ''I am... so, so proud of you.'' And his eyes closed.

The young Aoyo felt cold, and empty, and tired all at once. Her body felt numb, her head heavy, her heart shattered to a million pieces. She hadn't even noticed when her hands had began to shake, but they stopped, too.

Gurehai closed her eyes shut and took a deep breath, as silence fell around her. Enma, who was still laying on the ground a few feet away, remained silent as well. She let her hands fall on her lap, and lowered her head. Not letting a single tear fall, she stayed close to her teacher's body.

And that's how the Anbu and Jonin found her, a few minutes later.

Chapter Text

Hiruzen's gentle face was pale and cold, too stiff, his expression too blank. She could feel the Jonin's eyes on her back and head, filled with pity, sympathy, sadness. She started to grow aware of a tingling sensation on her right arm. Looking down, she saw her skin riddled with burns marks, all the way up to her bicep. The were long and narrow, shaped like lightning.

But she didn't really feel.

She heard voices. They were probably calling her name, telling her to get up, or that it was time to go. She blocked all noises out, and kept on looking at him. Kept on looking at her other, dead father.

Am I cursed? She clenched her left fist, noticing a flash of short grey, and long white hair. First father, who I abandoned, and then Lord Third, who I failed to save. Everyone is slowly dying. Who will be next? Naruto? Kakashi-sensei? Mother?

Suddenly, the man's face began... melting away. Underneath, pale skin and high cheekbones started showing, as dark, greasy hair flowed out of the helmet the Hokage was previously wearing. She stood up as fast as she could, stumbling back. 

Orochimaru's perfectly still face taunted her from below, his sadistic, snake-like eyes staring at her blue ones. With a sick grin on his lips, he looked almost happy. She stared at him in fear and disgust, slowly backing away. A gentle hand rested on her shoulder. Looking up, she saw the same long white hair as earlier, and red markings.

''He's not real, Gurehai.'' Jiraiya assured her, the sorrow in his black eyes equal to her own. She only looked back at him with tears threatening to spill from the corners of her eyes. Slowly, she turned to the body that used to be her teacher. When she did, she gasped.

Pale green eyes were staring back at her.

----

Gurehai opened her eyes slowly. She was in her room, and it was dark, the shutters closed. She lay there, staring at her grey ceiling. It was a dream. Orochimaru isn't here. He isn't here. But... but Lord Third is still dead. 

She threw the covers off her body and sat up, letting her feet touch the wooden floor of her bedroom softly. Rubbing her eyes, she walked to the bathroom. Splashing water on her face, and gripping the edges of the sink, she bowed her head, letting the droplets drip down her chin and nose. Looking back up, she was met with the image in the mirror.

How many times have I done this? She asked herself, tucking the hair that was hiding her right eye behind her ear. Her white hair fell down on her shoulders, as always. Her icy blue eyes were dull. But her face wasn't the usual expressionless mask. The mask was sad, and tired. And Lord Third wouldn't be there to crack it. Never again.

She then looked at her raised, right arm. Her skin was bare, but not scarred. Her mother had made sure of it, immediately after she and the rest of the spectators were woken up. They day before the funeral.

Oh, the funeral.

She wanted to tell her mother she didn't want to go. She would surely understand, when she'd tell her that she would rather stay home, grieve by herself. But she didn't. She wore her black kimono, and followed her friends on top of the Hokage building.

She didn't miss Sakura's look of pity, or her mother's look of concern. She ignored the Jonin around her, looking at her like she would break at any minute, and she ignored Konohamaru's sobs. She focused her gaze on her teacher's photograph, even ignoring the ones of the fallen shinobi around his. 

Her mind was clouded with thoughts, unwanted scenarios of situations and conversations. One I have to kill. I have killed many. One has to die for me. Did Lord Third die for me? No, he died for the Village. He died so I would not go with Orochimaru, who would abuse my power and destroy everything.

Did father die for me? I don't know. He told me to run. And I did. But why were those Akatsuki members there? What are they, even? Are they dead? Are they alive? What is the Akatsuki's purpose? Lord Third failed to mention that, and, as always, I would never ask.

One I love, has to die by my hand. And that's exactly why I will never seek to awaken it. Enough people I love have passed away, and I don't want to lower their number.

Taorigan... why are you doing this to me?

''Honey?" She heard a knock on her door, and blinked. How long had she been standing there? ''Could you come down for a minute? Someone... someone is here to see you.'' She added, making the girl frown. Who could it possibly be? Naruto? Her team?

But when she climbed down the stairs and stepped foot in the living room, she saw the person she expected the least. 

''Jiraiya-san?" She asked, confused. The tall man smiled at her and his eyes twinkled, with a light she hadn't seen from their first encounter. And to think I saw him in my dream.

''Oh, Gurehai, good morning! And please, just call me Jiraiya.'' He greeted, and the girl noticed he was carrying his usual gigantic scroll on his back, as well as a backpack. ''If you wouldn't mind, I would like to speak to you for a while. I hope, Gureki-san, that you don't mind, do you?"

''No, no. You two can sit outside, on the porch. I'll bring you a cup o tea, in a little while.'' Gurehai was about to protest, when she saw she was wearing her prosthetic, and not walking around with the help of her stick. She spared one last glance at her mother and turned around, opening the door for the Sannin to pass.

Once outside, the Aoyo sat down on the wooden porch and and motioned for Jiraiya to sit down as well. When he did, now in front of her, she sighed. She opened her mouth to ask what he wanted to talk to her about, but he spoke first.

''First of all, I want to tell you that it wasn't your fault.'' He said, surprising her. ''The Hokage knew what he was getting himself into, the moment he stepped into the fight with Orochimaru. I don't think I would have been able to do anything, as well. Risking his life in order to stop him, was his own choice. So, don't blame yourself. It wasn't your fault.''

''Huh.'' She chuckled humorlessly, looking at her hand. Her healed hand. ''It's kinda difficult not to.'' She stated truthfully, making the man frown. ''A part of me knows no one is going to blame me. Especially when no one tried to save him, too.'' She looked up to meet his eyes. ''The other, wants them to blame me. Even a little, for not being better, faster, stronger. And...'' She trailed off. ''...I certainly didn't expect someone like you to be so calm.''

''Someone like me?" Jiraiya raised an eyebrow.

''You were his student, just like me. If I were you, I would probably be a little mad at the girl who failed to save the man who made me a shinobi.'' Her eyes fell on the round again, the Sannin watching her carefully. Finally, he sighed.

''I could never be mad at my goddaughter, now, could I?'' He breathed out, and laughed at her dumbfounded expression. ''Yes, that's right. How could you know. I was never really around, anyway.'' He mumbled to himself, giving her a smile. ''You probably don't even know this, but me and Soshimo... we were close friends.''

''Close friends... and partners?" She suggested, hesitating. ''Oroch-...'' She cut herself off, taking a deep breath. ''Orochimaru once mentioned to me that he and father used to be close allies, and that they made 'quite the team'. You are a Sannin, and so is he. It's only logical that you went to missions together, along with my father.''

''Thank you, Gureki-san.'' The Toad Sage nodded when the older Aoyo placed a tray with two cups between them, smiling. She then backed away and entered the house, looking at the two white-haired ninja sitting cross-legged on the floor. ''And, not only that, but were were dear friends as well. Despite our age gap, we got along very well.'' He said to the girl, taking a sip of his tea.

''Age doesn't really mean anything, when it comes to human relationships.'' She chuckled, drinking from her cup as well. ''Mother and father had an age difference of nearly fourteen years, but, from what I've been told, and from what I remember, they were a loving couple. How old are you, Jiraiya?"

''Turning 51, this very November.'' He replied, feeling a little old.

''Then, you were four years older than him, and thirty six older than me.'' He would have been 47 this year... huh. ''How did you come up with the name Gurehai, anyway? I mean, it's so creative.'' She jabbed at him, sipping her drink with a small smirk on her lips.

''Now, that...'' The man sweat dropped. ''Grey Ash? Well, it had to start with 'Gure'. And your hair was grey, like ash, too, so...''

''I know, I know. Don't apologize.'' She seemed to get lost in thought, and then her face turned serious again. ''Anyways... you said you wanted to talk to me about something... what is it?" Jiraiya paused, buying some time by drinking his tea.

''First of all, I wanted to see you. As your godfather, I've missed on more than enough birthdays, so I figured I'd give you something... or rather, some things.'' He took of his backpack, and opened it carefully. ''Here, for starters.'' He said, handing a book to her without looking, but searching inside his backpack instead.

Gurehai eyed the small book carefully and then took it, examining its orange cover with a suspicious gaze. Turning it in order to read the hypothesis, she was met with a big, red prohibition sign. She frowned. Icha Icha Paradise? Wait...

''Isn't this the weird book Kakashi-sensei is reading all the time?" She asked herself quietly, but the Sannin heard. Terrified, he stopped searching in his backpack and raised his head, just as the girl was about to open it to the first page. His eyes widened, face turning red.

''NO!" He yelled. ''NOT THAT ONE!" He snatched the book from her hands quickly, his scream making birds sitting on nearby trees fly away. He immediately put another book in her empty hands, this time with a brown cover. 

''The Tale Of The Utterly Gutsy Shinobi?" She read out loud, the title actually picking her interest. ''I've never heard of it before. Who is the writer?" She wondered, skipping to the last page of the book. There, she was met with Jiraiya's smile. ''What? You wrote it? I didn't know you were a writer.''

''Well, this one didn't sell many copies. But I thought you would enjoy it.'' He scratched the back of his head, still flushed from his earlier mistake. Saved at the last moment... He prayed in his mind, pulling another, larger package from behind his back. ''And now, this one.''

The parcel was white, with a bright red ribbon over it. She took it and placed it between her legs, opening the lid. Inside, she saw a grey and light blue fabric. Her blue orbs widened, and she picked the item up.

''Where... where did you get this?" Her eyes watered, and she stood up, holding up the cloak in order to inspect it closely. It looked identical to her previous one, the one destroyed during the Third Exam, but something was different. The light grey color was replaced by a much darker shade, one which she could never forget. ''This... this is...''

''...Made from the Third's battle attire, yes.'' The Sannin smiled at her reaction, noting how her eyes lit up at the sight of the garb. It was grey almost everywhere, besides the trimmings, which were all an icy blue color, like her eyes. The hood was also mainly blue, with a thick stripe running down to it. On its back, between the shoulder blades, was the proud Blue Sun of the Aoyo clan. ''I had it made, and brought it as soon as I could. Let's say... Happy late birthdays?"

''Thank you.'' She could only say, holding her present close. ''Also... what's with the large backpack? These two alone couldn't possibly need so much space.'' She pointed out, holding the book on her left, and the cloak on her right hand.

''Hmm, you are very observant.'' Jiraiya hummed, standing up next to her. ''You are right, yet again. This backpack contains my belongings. Me and Naruto are leaving the Village for only a few days, hopefully.'' He shrugged at the last part.

''Leaving? For what purpose, if I may?" 

''To bring the Fifth Hokage in the Village, of course.'' He stated, with a proud smile on his face. 

''The Fifth Hokage?" She echoed, furrowing her eyebrows. ''They aren't here, in Konoha? Who is it going to be?" She asked, curious. It really... it really is a shame... you won't become my successor... Y-you would have been... a great Hokage... She shook her head, trying to get the previous Hokage's last words out of her head, and waited for her godfather's response.

''She's been away, just like me, for quite a few years.'' He stared off in the distance, looking at the bright blue sky, which in no way reminded the day of Hiruzen's funeral. At the mention of the word 'she', Gurehai's expression changed into one of surprise. ''She is Tsunade, my fellow Sannin.''

''The third Sannin, huh?" She looked at the sky as well, lost in her memories. ''Why weren't you recommended? I mean, Orochimaru can't be the Fifth for... obvious reasons, but... you are a Sannin too.''

''Oh, but I was asked to become the Hokage.'' He said, shrugging once again. ''But I denied. As a writer, I have to travel, and being the leader is not really my specialty. Tsunade will be perfect for the position, I assure you.'' He explained. ''She will want to meet you, as well.''

''Me?"

''Of course. She knew Soshimo as well, and, you were taught by our sensei. I have no doubt she'll be interested in you and your abilities.'' She might even be the one to make you a Chunin, the tall man thought, looking at his goddaughter without her noticing. 

''I want to meet her as well.'' Gurehai said, turning to face him completely. ''Again, thank you for the gifts.'' She added, glancing at her knew cloak once more. ''Tell Naruto I wish him good luck on your journey. I hope the two of you and Tsunade come back safe.''

''I will make sure to remember that.'' He laughed, skipping the few wooden stairs in front of them, and heading for the exit of the two Aoyos' property. ''See you soon, Gurehai!" He shouted, waving at her from afar.

''Yes.'' She mumbled, watching him disappear slowly at the end of the road. ''See you soon, Jiraiya.''

Chapter Text

It really... it really is a shame... you won't become my successor... Y-you would have been... a great Hokage... 

Thump.

I am... so, so proud of you...

Thump.

You will be able to do anything, Hai. Gureki and I believe in you.

Thump-thump.

Today, we will begin the creation of your very own Doton Jutsu, Gurehai. Pay close attention, to what I am going to say.

Thump.

I wouldn't want Gureki-san to scold you, now, would I? Go home. We will continue tomorrow.

Thump-thump-thump.

''Damn it.'' Gurehai hissed, as none of her kunai found their mark. She had been practicing for over an hour, and none of her shuriken seemed to want to hit the target. ''What's wrong with me?" She looked down at her right hand. Her healed hand. For a second, pure white lightning flashed in her memories. ''I've been at it for days.'' She glared at her missed shots and huffed, falling down from the branch she was sitting upside down on.

Days had passed since the Third passed away, almost a week. Konoha was still in shambles, the citizens barely keeping it together, trying to build everything that was destroyed. She had been leaving her house every morning a little after sunrise for the last three days, and she hadn't talked to any member of her team, either. She knew Naruto was going to leave with Jiraiya any day now, and that Kakashi, as a Jonin, had missions, but she had no clue about Sasuke and Sakura. For the latter, she didn't really care.

Her knew cloak pooled around her, as she landed onto one knee. She had her hood drawn back, her protector around her forehead. The cloak's dark grey color caught her eye, and for a moment, she thought she'd seen her teacher, waiting for her to make the first move on their sparring match.

Blinking the mirage away, she closed her eyes and sighed, feeling a lump form in her throat.

''What to you want?" She growled, swallowing. ''Do you... do you want me to cry?" She demanded, clenching her fists. ''Weren't you the one who taught me that a shinobi must never cry? Weren't you the one who I promised... who I promised I would never cry like a pathetic little girl in my life? WEREN'T YOU?" She yelled, opening her eyes, in order to stop his image from appearing in her mind.

But when she looked up, he was still there, right in front of her. Hiruzen Sarutobi stared at her with his small, amused smirk, and as always, smoking his pipe. He had a ghostly glow around him, like he was emitting strange chakra. She inhaled sharply, balled her fist, and charged at him.

''Do you want me to say I'm sorry? Sorry I couldn't get there in time? Sorry I couldn't save you?! I'VE NEVER BEEN MORE SORRY ABOUT ANYTHING BEFORE!" She came to a halt when her fist was an inch away from his face, and her shoulders shagged, as she let her hand fall down to her side.

''Do you want to know why I didn't grieve? Why I didn't weep during your funeral, like everyone else? Like your son, and your grandson, and the rest of Konoha? Why I acted so calm, so collected, while on the inside, I was falling apart, all over again? That was because I didn't deserve to! BUT I CAN'T TAKE IT ANYMORE!'' The Third Hokage kept looking at her as she sank on the ground and on her knees, hitting the forest floor with her fists.

''DO YOU WANT ME TO BE HAPPY, AND SAY IT WAS YOUR CHOICE? TO GO ON, AND LIVE MY LIFE, LIKE YOU WERE NEVER A PART OF IT, JUST LIKE HIM? I WON'T!" Letting the hot tears in her eyes ran down her face, she grabbed a handful of fallen leaves and grass,clenching her fists. ''CAN YOU SEE ME CRYING NOW? CAN YOU SEE HOW I HATE MYSELF? DO YOU WANT TO KNOW WHY, WHEN I'VE NEVER HATED ANYONE BEFORE IN MY LIFE?" The girl took deep, shaky breaths between her sobs, her chest heaving.

''IT'S...IT'S... it's because I loved you!'' Her voice cracked, hoarse from the continuous screaming, her throat dry. ''I loved you, more than him, I mourned for you, more than I did for him, because you were there for me, more than him! You were there when he died, and you were there when I was alone, and when I was bullied at the Academy, and when I wanted to become like him... But now... now...''

She sobbed, raising her head, her white locks falling in front of her eyes. The sky was clear blue, and the sun burned bright, as always. She didn't like the sensation of her eyes stinging and her face being wet with tears.

''But now... what if I want to become like you?" She finally whispered, a soft breeze blowing through her hair, making her right eye visible. She instantly lowered her head and chuckled dryly, slowly standing up. "No, that's not right."

She shook her head, walking out of the partially destroyed clearing she had found all those months ago, training on the Chidori and Raiton by herself. Letting her cloak swish behind her, she made for the outskirts of town, to take a walk around the lake. Wiping her eyes to rid them from tears, she inhaled, and put her expressionless mask back on her face.

''That's Naruto's dream.''

----

Moving at a slow pace, the girl finally reached her destination, hands in her pockets. The lake was calm, her reflection visible when she bent slightly over the railing and stared at the water. Small ripples messed the image of her white hair and shiny protector up, and she rested her elbows on the railing.

I cried, she thought, inspecting her reflection in order to see if her eyes were red. I cried for you, Lord Third. I let it all out, and it hurt. So I don't think I will ever do it again. I think... I think I'll just stick to our memories together, from now on.

She stayed like that for a few minutes, watching tiny little fish occasionally jump out of the water, and then fall back in again. She sighed.

Naruto and Jiraiya will soon be leaving for their 'mission'. How will Tsunade be like? Like Jiraiya? She is a Sannin, so she must be powerful, smart, wise and collected. Though, I don't know how much of these qualities add to her white haired teammate. 

Will she be anything like Lord Third, as the Hokage? And, Jiraiya said she'd want to meet me. Perhaps...perhaps she will make me a Chunin? True, the Exams were cut short. But every participant got to fight, at least one match... I want to... I want to make him proud... him, and mother... and father.

Suddenly, a crash from far away was heard, and the calm surface of the water was disturbed. Frowning, she turned her head towards the source of the noise, and squinted her eyes. Half way around the lake, she could make out six figures.

''Why have you shown up, too?" Asuma asked his fellow Jonin, chakra blades in hand. Kakashi sighed from in front of him, were he had just blocked the enemy's Jutsu with one of his own.

''Well, I know I asked you to take care of them.'' He said, while his Shadow Clone stood behind the second intruder. ''But I felt kind of uneasy.'' He finished, holding a kunai against the Rogue Ninja's back. 

''Sensei?" A new voice called, and the all of the Jonin leaders' eyes widened. Gurehai stood behind Asuma, hands itching to grab her weapons inside her pouches. ''What's goin-...'' She cut herself off, as the Sarutobi stepped aside and turned his body around, in order to see her, and giving her full view of his opponent in the process.Her blue eyes fell on the cloak first. It was long, and black...

...And decorated with bright red clouds.

Her breath hitched in her throat, as she took a step back. The Akatsuki member frowned upon her reaction, but recoiled soon after, when he took a closer look at her. Gurehai couldn't form proper words, and her mind was blank. That cloak... he... he is...

'Hai! Get away from here, now!''

''But fath-...''

''No, I said leave! Run back to the Hidden Leaf!"

''Akatsuki...'' She breathed out, her heart aching with the memory of her last seconds with her father. Turning her head slowly, she saw the remaining three figures, that turned out to be Kurenai-sensei, Kakashi... and a second Akatsuki member. It was just like that time. Two men, wearing black and red cloaks, one tall, the other shorter, and her... Although this time, the men were different.

''Gurehai...'' Kakashi sighed, not taking his eyes away from Kisame. ''This really isn't the best time for you to be here.'' Kisame's partner focused his eyes on the girl, his attention attracted by her name. He shared a look with the Hoshigaki, who slightly nodded. ''What is your goal here?"

''We... just came to find something we're looking for.'' The black haired Rogue replied, as Kisame's eyes momentarily flew to the Aoyo.

''Something you are looking for?" Kakashi questioned again, countless scenarios passing through his mind. ''The thing you are looking for... what is it?" Already fearing the worst, he raised his kunai.

''I am different from Kisame.'' The man replied instead. ''I won't take time.'' He completely ignored her sensei's last statement, taking out shuriken. As the Hatake jumped back to avoid his opponent's Jutsu, Gurehai gaped.

His... his eyes... they are just like... just like...

''Sasuke...'' She breathed out, gaining Asuma's attention. ''He has the same eyes as, Sasuke, the Sharingan. Is he... is he...''

''Uchiha Itachi.'' The Sarutobi nodded, standing protectively in front of her. ''Listen here, Gurehai.'' He added next, a little more quietly, so that Kisame couldn't hear. ''You have to get away from here. I know you probably think I'm treating you like a child, but you have to trust me on this one...'' He gave her a warning look. ''These guys are Rogues... murderers... they won't hesitate to kill you in order to achieve their goal... and we don't even know what that is.''

''But, Kakashi-sensei...''

''Kakashi can handle this, especially with our help. We outnumber them, so we have the upper hand. Now, first chance y-...''

''BEHIND YOU!" The Aoyo suddenly exclaimed, jumping back along with the older man. The Akatsuki's sword came crashing down, creating cracks on the ground where Asuma previously stood. At the same time, an explosion was heard from the spot Kurenai and Kakashi were, making the lake water rain down everywhere.

''KAKASHI! KURENAI!" The Jonin carelessly looked away. ''Gurehai, ran away, now! Bring back reinforcements!"

''Hai! Get away from here, now!''

''But fath-...''

''No, I said leave! Run back to the Hidden Leaf!"

The man then jumped away and into the waves the explosion had caused, to join his fellow Jonin leaders. The girl stayed down onto one knee with her eyes wide, terrified. No... it's happening all over again... Kakashi-sensei? Damn it... How are they expecting me to run away, when he might die?

''Damn you, Akatsuki!" She growled, her body spinning around in a flash, her wrist flicking as she threw a kunai at Kisame's head, who was about ten meters away from her. He simply craned his neck to the right, avoiding it. 

''Oh, you seem to know us.'' He commented, the fake undertone of surprise in his voice evident. ''You wouldn't happen to be the little brat that was with Soshimo Soraku that day six years ago, when my teammates attacked him, would you?" Gurehai seethed in response, giving him the answer he already knew. Drawing her hand back, a sharp sound of wire being pulled at was heard.

''Little brat, come back here!''

''DIE!"

The Rogue could only gasp as another cut appeared on his left cheek, where the kunai she had previously threw at him, and had wire tied to it, nicked him. The blade returned to her hand, and she twirled it around hr fingers before gripping it tight.

''That wasn't very wise, girl.'' Kisame smirked, showing off his sharp teeth. Before she could even blink, he disappeared completely, making her gasp. She barely had time to turn around and look at him, when he took hold of his sword once again. Samehada was swung, and the Aoyo's scream filled the air.

''GUREHAI!" Kurenai and Asuma cried, struggling to keep their eyes closed, as the Hatake had instructed. The silver haired man himself wasn't in the best condition. He had just spent three days inside Itachi's Tsukuyomi. Kneeling down on the water, trying not to sink, he growled. What's happening to her? What did Hoshigaki do?

''Whoa...'' The shark-man commented, appearing next to his partner in a flash. His sword was strapped against his back like before, and he had Gurehai in a headlock against his side. ''To take that Jutsu without causing his spirit to collapse... But, Itachi, it's also dangerous for you to overuse those eyes. We can leave now.''

''The thing you are looking for... is Gurehai?" Kakashi held back his tears, his body about to collapse from both exhaustion and pain. The white haired Genin was held against Kisame's body, her feet not touching the ground. With a second look, he saw they were covered in blood, oozing from a nasty wound on her right leg. She was grunting in pain, trying to get him to let go by pulling at his arm.

''Not only her... the legacy of the Fourth Hokage, as well.'' The Jonin all gasped, and could no longer keep their eyes closed. They opened them, and gasped at the sight of the girl.

''What are you planning?" Kurenai demanded, avoiding Itachi's eyes. 

''The Nine-Tailed Demon Fox inside Naruto is your target, isn't it?" Kakashi panted, recalling his conversation with Jiraiya. ''I know you aren't the only one's on the move... You are the Akatsuki, right?" The Konoha shinobi gasped at that, while Gurehai struggled to reach up to his shoulder.

''Kisame! We'll take Gurehai and Kakashi. Erase the other two.'' The Uchiha ordered, eager to wrap the situation up and leave.

''Bastards...'' The Genin winced, her left hand slowly creeping up at the Mist Rogue's neck. I won't... I won't let them take me without a fight... and I won't let them hurt Kakashi and my senseis. The shark-man grunted as her hand started pushing his head away, assuming she was trying to escape and make him let her go. When her palm finally faced the side of his temples, she outstretched. 

His eyes widened when her other hand, which she had managed to bring close to her face, formed a seal.

''Kiokugomon.''

Chapter Text

''Kiokugomon.''

Gurehai saw vague flashes of memories. She saw Kisame, looking younger, wearing something that resembled an Anbu uniform. He was surrounded by other individuals, also wearing the same attire. She then caught glimpse of a big shadow, carrying a large, wrapped item, that could only be the sword he now wielded. Everyone around him was wearing unscathed Mist protectors...

''Kisame, drop her!'' She heard a faraway voice shout, so distant, like someone was yelling at her through a brick wall. That was all the memories she managed to gather, before she felt herself falling towards the ground. Before she could open her eyes, someone took hold of her once again.

The person's fast movement made a wave of pain erupt from her right leg, where she could feel the air against her raw flesh. Samehada had come down with such speed, she had only managed to move her body to the left before it hit her. From what she had seen, there was a whole chunk of her thigh missing. And that wasn't good.

She heard voices again, becoming louder and louder. Her failed attempt to use her Genjutsu on the Hoshigaki had certainly taken its toll on her, especially since she was neither calm nor concentrated the moment she performed. She just had to get him to release her, and weaken him, so that the Jonin could have a chance of winning.

''Kurenai...Shadow Clone... get them to the... team...'' She could only make out, her mind hazy from the image of the pale green eyes that backfired to her. The voice... I know that voice... I've heard it before... Open up... I have to open my eyes... Putting an even bigger strain on her body by tensing her muscles, she finally succeeded, and her icy blue orbs were met by two pairs of ninja sandals.

''N-no...'' She coughed out, blinking rapidly. ''Let me down...'' She pleaded the person carrying her, squirming out of their grip. She saw green and orange, and then she forced her feet to balance on the water's surface. To her right, she saw a familiar bowl cut. ''I... h-have to fight them...''

''Gurehai, I admire your spirit and burning passion...'' Guy looked a her kindly. ''...But I can't let you fight like this. You are injured, you can barely stand!'' Slowly raising her head, she glanced to her left, and saw a sight that made her grit her teeth. Her sensei was obviously passed out, his face scrunched up in pain, much like her own. Kurenai had one of his arms draped around her shoulders, holding him up.

She turned the other way, and fought to keep her tired eyes open. The pain coming from her lower limbs made her wince once again. She met the gaze of the younger Akatsuki, and glared with all her might. The Uchiha didn't look more than three or four years older than her, which made her feel strange. How old had he been when he killed his family?

How dare you? She wanted to say, as she slowly reached for the weapons inside her pouch. How dare you attack him, how dare you hurt him? Hasn't your organization of murderers done enough already? The haunting image of the man with the pale green eyes flashed in her mind, as she held a kunai close to her face. Haven't you already killed my father?

Another wave of pain caused her to drop the kunai and grasp her head. She saw Kisame's memories, mixed with some nonsense of her own. Her father's dead eyes were looking back at her, his face unmoving, his body laying on soft grass. But that wasn't right. It's messed with my brain. I never saw his face, not when he died. Not on that meadow. I ran. I ran away.

Then she felt a ghost of a dull ache in her left eye, the one she used to meet the Hoshigaki's gaze. He too, was softly touching his left temple. How much has he seen? How much... how much have I showed him? A final wave of pain made her double over, and close her eyes shut. She tried to open them again.

The last thing she saw before she passed out, was Guy bending down to pick her up again.

----

''Hai! Get away from here, now!''

''But fath-...''

''No, I said leave! Run back to the Hidden Leaf!"

She took off with shaking legs, as fast as they could carry her. She lowered her head and let her arms fly behind her, heading for the woods on the far end of the meadow. Behind her, metal clashed against metal, and an overwhelming feeling made her lungs burn, and her head ache. She had just reached the tree-line, and almost tripped over her feet. 

What is this? Her blue eyes bulged out, her chest feeling like it was about to be ripped apart. Is it a Jutsu? No... father has talked about it before... inhaling with a cry escaping her lips, she forced her body to move forward, and jump from tree to tree. It's a shinobi's bloodlust.

She hated it. She hated leaving him behind. She hated being weak, running away. But he had told her to leave. He had shouted. And he never shouts. She was steadily putting more and more distance between her and the assailants. Between her and her father.

No, no. Everything is fine. He told me to run back. Yes, run back, and bring help. That way I can help him, and when everything is over, I will show him my Mud Wall, and he will smile, he will encourage me to make it taller, stronger, and he will tell me that he's proud of me, and he...

He will tell me he loves me.

And I will say it back. I'll say that he's the best father in the world, taking on both of those bad guys on his own and coming back alive. I'll tell him I will one day become like him, a powerful ninja, that I will achieve all of the chakra Natures, just like he wants to, that I will do it...

That I will do it for him. No matter what it takes.

But her resolve completely shattered, when a scream echoed through the air, and made her halt. With wide eyes, she slowly, and fearfully, turned her head towards the direction she had come for. That voice... that voice belonged to her father.

Without a second thought, she turned around sharply and made her legs go even faster than before. He was in pain. He was loosing. He was dying. Come on, come on, come on... Faster, go faster, I have to get to him, I have...

She landed ungracefully on the ground, her open sandals letting the grass of the meadow tickle her toes. Somewhere in the middle of it, there were three figures. At least, two of the were standing. Quickly coming closer, she noticed that one of the strangers, the one with the blue hair, was lying on the ground, unmoving, with his eyes wide open. Close to him, her father was struggling to keep up with his opponents movements.

His grey and red clothing swished behind him as he jumped, parried and avoided the Akatsuki's attacks. His entire back was covered in blood, flowing from a large slash on his right shoulder blade.

''Father!" She yelled, approaching them with quick movements. In an instant, the enemy locked eyes with her, and abandoned her father, appearing in front of her. His hand was drown back, ready to strike. She barely had time to widen her blue eyes, when he attacked. The sickening sound of flesh being ripped open was heard, and she felt blood splashing her face.

''H-hai...'' Soshimo coughed out blood, falling on his knees in front of her. Kakuzu drew his hand back from inside the Leaf Jonin's rib cage, with a furious expression on his face. Gurehai watched her father fall on his back, staining the short green grass with red. N-no... She gasped, as his dead, dark orbs blindly stared up at the sky. 

With a whimper, her hand flew up at her left eye, where an almost unbearable pain made her double over. It burned, it burned so much, just like someone was poking it with a lit match.

''Little brat!" The man about ten meters away from her exploded, his right hand detaching from his wrist, and falling on the ground, connected to wires. ''DIE!" He thrusted it forward, making it fly towards her direction.

She felt an equally sharp pain very close to her right eye, and it started bleeding. The last thing  she felt before passing out, was someone dragging her backwards, before the Akatsuki's hand could break her skull.

 

Her eyes opened once again, this time met by obnoxiously bright sunlight. She half-closed them, tying to adjust. Then she became aware of the unfamiliar white walls of the room she was in, and the slight smell of bleach and... hospital.

''Good morning.'' She heard a groggy, familiar voice coming from her right, and she craned her neck carefully. ''I was wondering when you were going to wake up. I haven't been conscious for long, myself.'' Kakashi rambled on from the bed next to hers, the covers drawn up to his neck. His face, as always, was covered by his black mask. Gurehai purposefully pressed the right side of her face against her pillow, so that her eye would be covered by her hair.

''How long has it been?"

''A week.'' He answered, and she tried not to gasp. ''And a couple of days.'' At that, she sighed in defeat. ''You were really careless back then.'' He immediately scolded her, narrowing his open eye at her. ''You tried to use Kiokugomon, while you were hurt and not focused. Do you know how bad it could have turned out?"

''I'm sorry, sensei.'' She apologized, blinking when her head suddenly filled with images of Mist shinobi. ''But I had to get away from his grip.I had to weaken him, in some way... they were about to hurt you and the Jonin.'' She remembered Itachi's Sharingan, and exhaled through greeted teeth.

She was worried about us... Kakashi thought, watching her with tired eyes. And not herself, when a whole chunk of her flesh was missing. He sighed when he noticed how she was hiding her eye from him.

''How much do you know about them?" She then asked. ''The Akatsuki?"

''Probably as much as you do.'' He tried to keep talking despite is aching body and the strain in his voice. ''They are an organization, whose goal is, for now, unknown. They are after you... and Naruto.'' He added, confirming her suspicions. Before passing out that day, she had heard them talk about things. Something called the Nine-Tailed Fox included.

''The Nine-Tailed Fox...'' She started, struggling to remember. ''...Inside Naruto? Correct?" She corrected the Hatake, who stared at her hesitantly. He nodded. ''What is that?"

''One of the nine Tailed Beasts. Beings, made purely out of chakra.'' That got her thinking. So, back then, in the Forest of Death... it had something to do with the Nine-Tailed Fox. That's what I felt... that's what I saw. The immense amount of chakra, that was it.

''Interesting.'' She murmured, thinking about her friends. Where was he now? Probably with Jiraiya. But how was he? She had that feeling... the feeling that something was off. ''So, what are they planning to do with us?" She asked, looking at her right leg. It was her only limb that wasn't covered by the blanket, but was wrapped in bandages, all the way down to her ankle, and on a sling hanging from the ceiling. 

''We are waiting for Lady Tsunade to come back, hopefully.'' Kakashi replied, feeling his consciousness drift away by the second. ''She is the only one able to heal us properly.'' With one last attempt to stay awake, he turned his sore neck towards the left more, and stared into her eyes. ''You know...'' He began. ''You don't have to hide your eye around me. I have already seen it before, remember?" He asked gently.

''Says the man wearing a mask.'' Gurehai chuckled, touching her bandaged leg softly. Turning her head away, she let her white locks fall back on her pillow, and uncover the right side of her face completely. With a sigh, both of them closed their eyes, falling back to sleep.

----

''Itachi.'' Kisame called, miles upon miles away from Konoha. ''You knew what our mission was.'' He started, seated on a rock by the side of the road, Samehada strapped on his back. ''Why would you tell me to drop her?" He questioned, genuinely curious about his partner's decision.

The Uchiha didn't reply for a while. Instead, he stared off in the distance, letting the wind mess with the few strands of hair he had around his eyes. ''When she pointed her palm at your head, what happened?" He simply asked, with his arm resting on his knee.

''My body froze for a second.'' He cautiously said. ''Then flashes of memories started to swarm in my brain. They weren't mine.'' He took a moment, closing his eyes, as if trying to remember. And there they were. ''It was her. But only, younger. On the day she and her father were attacked. I saw Kakuzu and Shinhan through her eyes. Then she started running away.''

''She tried to put you under a Genjutsu.'' Itachi nodded his head, closing his eyes. ''She was planning on using your memories to put you in your worst nightmare, and then slowly destroy your mind by making you go mad. If I hadn't shouted, and woke you up from the temporary trance you were in, you'd be at her mercy, and your brain cells would have been fried one by one.'' With a deep breath, he raised his head, and looked at his partner.

''She'd have to dig pretty deep in order to do that.'' The Hoshigaki joked. Touching his temple. Despite his calm demeanor, he was starting to grow worried about the scene, that wouldn't stop replaying in his head.

''A few more seconds, and you'd be trapped. I would probably have no choice than to leave you behind.'' Sighing, he looked away again. ''The wound you inflicted her earlier, made everything harder for her. She couldn't concentrate properly, so she messed up, and memories leaked inside your mind, like your memories leaked inside hers.''

Weirded out, the shark-man narrowed his eyes at the brunette. ''How do you know so much about it?" He asked, staring at him. ''I know your intellectual skills more than anyone, but surely, even you couldn't have gathered so many details from only observing.''

''The reason I know so much about it...'' He trailed off. ''This... Kiokugomon... is because it was the base of my Tsukuyomi...'' Kisame raised a thin eyebrow, waiting for the Uchiha to finish his sentence. 

''...Taught to me by Soshimo Soraku.''

Chapter Text

''Hai! Get away from here, now!''

''But fath-...''

''No, I said leave! Run back to the Hidden Leaf!"

She was in a meadow.

A green, sunlit meadow. In front of her, the battle went on, and, just like the dozens of times before, she heard herself exclaim.

''Father!" Then he died. As always, he fell dead on her feet, his body adorned by bleeding wounds. Then the Akatsuki attacked her, injuring her right eye. She was yanked back, and the dream-no, the memory was over, letting her mind wander in its dark depths.

I saw him die. I saw him die, but I wasn't there. That man attacked me, but I never ran back to him. I have the reminder of his detached hand on my face, but what caused it was a branch. Only a branch, a branch split in half I ran into while I was running away. Away.

Lord Third said they found him dead, that he had been dead for hours when the Anbu found him. And I was miles, miles away. I didn't see the fight. I didn't see him die. I didn't ran back to him. I didn't feel the pain.

But if I didn't...

What are these memories?

 

She opened her eyes slowly, adjusting to the bright light of the sun. She was facing her sensei, who was currently sitting up on his hospital bed, rubbing his eyes. If he's healed, and able to stand up, that means... She let her hand wander on her right side, where she finally found her leg. It was no longer wrapped in bandages, and, more importantly, she could move it.

''Gure-chan!" She heard a happy voice chirp, and she was suddenly hugged from her left side, arms wrapped around her neck. Sitting up slowly, she turned to see Naruto with a wide grin on his face. Blinking tiredly, she saw three more people in the room. Two young women, and Guy. The women stood there with smiles on their faces.

The first one, whit dark hair and dark eyes, was holding a small pig in her arms, and looked a little shy. But the other... The other made her blue orbs widen slightly.

''Look who I brought, Gure-chan, look who I brought!" The Uzumaki laughed, allowing her to take a good look around her. There was no mistake. The honey-blond hair, the whiskey-colored eyes, the large chest... Yes. That was definitely Tsunade, the third Sannin.

''Lady Tsunade.'' She breathed out, not feeling tired at all anymore. She healed me. My leg is fine. My head doesn't hurt. ''Or, perhaps, should I say 'Lady Fifth'?" The woman only nodded. ''Thank you for healing me.'' The Sannin stared at her with a soft expression, at loss of words for a few seconds.

''Gurehai, huh. It's nice to finally meet you.'' She commented. ''Though, I would rather it happened while you weren't unconscious.'' Behind her, Guy looked ready to piss himself with anticipation. ''I would like to talk alone with you some time. When you have fully recovered, I'll be expecting you in my office.''

''COME ON, LADY TSUNADE! NEXT UP IS MY STUDENT, LEE!" Guy exclaimed, pumping his fist in the air. The healer chuckled and turned around along with her assistant, walking towards the door.

''Oh, and, Gurehai.'' She said softly, her eyes sad. ''You should know.'' The girl frowned, curious about what got the woman to act like that. ''I also treated your mother, Gureki. She had an accident in your house a few days ago, from what I was told, and she is now hospitalized.'' At the sound of that, the Aoyo's jaw slacked and she shot up from her bed, sprinting outside the door.

''Gurehai-san!" Shizune gasped, attempting to stop her. The new Hokage raised her hand in a warning manner and made her halt. With a shake of her head, the blond followed the Jonin and Genin on an entirely different hospital wing, where they reached Lee's room.

Meanwhile, Gure's bare feed padded on the floor as fast as lightning. She ignored the soreness of her legs, that she hadn't used for at least a week, and kept running, taking sharp turns, and avoiding nurses and patients. When she reached the front desk, she slammed her hands on it, shocking the secretary.

''Gureki Soraku, the medical nin!" She stared at her straight in the eyes, making the other woman cower back. ''Which room is she in?"

''I'm sorry, young lady, bu-...''

''I am her daughter, Gurehai!'' She snapped again, agitated. She is obviously new here. Everyone else knows me, since I've been visiting mother during her shifts for years. ''Please, tell me!"

''Oh, um... Room B-19-...'' The white haired girl had took off again before the secretary could finish her sentence, maneuvering around a pair of kids. All rooms in the east wing are B- ones. She's there. Oh, mother, what have you done this time?

Throwing the door open, her eyes fell on the older woman, lying on her bed with her eyes closed. Her face looked to be in pain, her breathing pattern unstable. The covers didn't hide her left leg, which didn't have its prosthetic on.

''Mother...'' Gurehai mumbled, approaching her slowly, kneeling down next to her bed. Her mother looked up at her with half-closed eyelids, trying to smile.

''Honey...'' She whispered hoarsely, attempting to raise her hand to cup her daughter's face. The girl touched it and placed it back down on the bed, cupping it with both her cold palms. ''You are awake...'' 

''You are such a klutz for a ninja, you know that?" The young Aoyo fought back the tears, breathing in sight of relief instead. ''I'm not around for just one week, and you get injured? I don't want to know what will happen when I leave for missions in the future.'' She took deep breaths in order to calm down her heart hammering against her chest, and bowed her head, bringing Gureki's hand on her forehead.

''Where did you think you'd go without your walking stick?''

----

The first thing Gurehai did when she got home, was to get in the shower and stay in it beneath the steaming hot water for about half an hour. She then got out and combed her white hair, letting it fall down to her shoulders as always. The second, was to put on a fresh change of her usual attire, put on her cloak, and ran back outside, heading for the Hokage building.

''Enter.'' Gurehai was given permission to come in the Hokage's office, and she turned the doorknob, opening the wooden door. Inside, behind her new office, stood Tsunade, the red and white hat with the symbol of 'fire' still on her head after her introduction to the Village.

''Lady Fifth.'' She bowed her head, at which the Sannin chuckled. ''You requested my presence.''

''Damn it, why is everyone acting so formal? I am not an old woman, like that geezer, counselor Koharu.'' The blonde sighed, her shoulders slumping. 

''Well, you are the Hokage.'' The girl retorted, pointing to the large hat she was wearing. Glancing up at it, Tsunade immediately took it off and placed it on her desk.

''Tell me, Gurehai, how is Gureki?" She asked, changing the subject completely.

''Still in the hospital. The medics say she needs to rest, and I couldn't agree more with them.'' Gurehai replied, holding her hands behind her back in military-fashion. ''She only works shifts, while I'm not home most of the time, and that means she has to take care of the chores as well. Her leg only makes matters worst.''

''I see.'' Tsunade hummed. ''How is your leg?"

''Perfect.'' They both nodded. ''I am glad I can walk properly again, and the fact that it doesn't look like a part of it was missing is also very convenient. Thank you for healing me, once more.'' The healer ran her eyes over her, analyzing, before stopping at her covered eye.

''I also took a look at your eye.'' She stated. ''Unfortunately, the scar is too old and too deep for me to heal.'' Gurehai shook her head lightly. She new it couldn't be healed. It would never be like it was before, and, perhaps, she didn't want it to be. ''You still can see clearly through that eye, right?"

''Of course.'' She said, brushing away the hair that fell over it, in order for the older Kunoichi to take a look. ''Only the area around the corner of my eyebrow was wounded.''

''You should know...'' The Hokage started, as she let her hair cover it again. ''...Whatever happened to earn you that scar, is a reminder that you lived through it. You shouldn't hide it. Every scar is beautiful.'' Gurehai chuckled.

''With all due respect, Lady Fifth... I thinks it's as beautiful as your chest is small.'' She hesitated for a second, but then met her superior's eyes. ''Also, Lady Fifth... I need your help.'' Tsunade nodded, and she took a deep breath.

''In the days that I was unconscious, I kept reliving a certain memory. That is not what concerns me, though. This memory... I don't remember ever living it.''

The Hokage perked up. ''Oh?" She frowned. ''What kind of memory?"

''On the day my father died... I was with him. When the Akatsuki attacked, he told me to run away, and head back to Konoha, seeing as we were miles from the Village. I did as told, and, on my way back, I got injured...'' She trailed off, touching her covered eye. ''I was told that it was a splinter of wood. It buried itself deep in the corner of my eye, and needed many stitches. At some point, I passed out from the pain. When I woke up, hours had passed, and I was back in Konoha. Lord Third visited me and my mother, and informed us of father's passing.''

''And...'' The Sannin urged her, curious about where the conversation was heading.

''That's what happened. Or that's what I think happened. In the memory that keeps resurfacing in my mind, I never reached Konoha. I ran back to father instead, after hearing him scream. There, I found one of the two Akatsuki dead, and father severely injured, about to die from the remaining attacker's hand. I called out to him. The Akatsuki turned his attention to me. Father had to jump in front of me and him, stopping him from killing me.''

''He fell dead on my feet. I remember my left eye stinging. Then, the Akatsuki attacked again. His fist detached from his arm, and came at me, connected to black wires. In the memory, the wires were what caused this...'' She once again caressed her eye. ''...The last thing I remember in it is someone yanking me backwards, before more damage could be done, but... that's it. After that, I wake up at my house, and I head downstairs, where Lord Third is talking with mother.''

''What is troubling you, then?"

''I don't know which memory is real.'' She gulped, waiting for Tsunade's reaction. ''I don't know... I don't know if he died because of me. And... if he did, then the pain I felt was coming one step closer to the Taorigan. Something I am not looking forward to happen.''

''The Taorigan, huh. Can't say I haven't heard about it before.''

''Then you know what must happen in order for an Aoyo to attain it. I have killed. If the second memory is real, someone has died for me. That means, the only thing standing between me and my clan's Dojutsu, is the death of someone I love... by my hand.'' 

''I can contact the Intelligence Division.'' The Sannin told the Genin, after a minute of thought. You would have helped her, wouldn't you, sensei? ''Inoichi Yamanaka, head of the Analysis Team, can take a look at your memories, and sort things out. Just like our interrogations work. I will be there to supervise the procedure, if you'd like.''

''Thank, you Lady Fifth.'' Gurehai bowed her head, not knowing what to say to express her gratitude. I will find out the truth, father. Once again, I ask for your forgiveness.

Silence fell over them for a while, and when the Sannin looked at her guest, she saw her glancing around, and averting her gaze when it fell on the Third's picture. ''He was an amazing sensei, don't you think?" She then asked, making the girl snap her head towards her in surprise. Then, she smiled.

''Yes.'' She exhaled, letting her arms fall at her sides. ''Kakashi-sensei will have a hard time trying to surpass him, that's for sure. On a second thought... Don't tell him that. I am still waiting for him to teach me Suiton techniques, and that won't happen if he's sulking.''

''Suiton? That's your chakra Nature?" Tsunade inquired, at which Gure smiled and shook her head. 

''One of them, yes.'' She corrected, and the Hokage gave her an impressed look. ''First it was Doton, then Raiton. I am proud to tell you that I have mastered the first, and close to mastering the latter, as well.''

''Just like Soshimo.'' She praised, causing the white haired Kunoichi's eyes to widen. 

''His dream is mine, after all. I am afraid I am nowhere near his level, though. At least not yet. Jiraiya told me a few things about the fighter he used to be, and I promised I would surpass him.''

''So you have met Jiraiya? I hope that perverted idiot didn't do anything disturbing.'' With an amused smile, Gurehai shook her head, deciding not to mention what Naruto had told her about him. Also, I still haven't found out about the book he almost gave me. I have to ask Kakashi-sensei about it, next time I see him.

''He was the second Sannin I had the... honor to meet. I am afraid you are in third place, Lady Fifth.'' Tsunade's muscles tensed, even though she knew of the girl's encounter with Orochimaru beforehand. ''He said that you knew father as well, and were pretty close.''

''Yes, me and Soshimo were friends. I take it that Jiraiya told you about how he is your godfather.'' The girl nodded. ''But did he tell you that it was me that helped your mother deliver you?"

Gurehai was taken aback by the statement. So one Sannin named me, and the other helped mother give birth. What should I expect the snake did? Babysit while mother and father went out for drinks?

''No, but he did say the baby would be a girl before everyone else.'' The older woman ruined her train of thought, and made an inconceivable hue of pink appear on her cheeks. I seriously need to stop thinking out loud. ''Even though you probably aren't happy to hear this, Konoha's Sannin were all close to Soshimo Soraku. At least, before we took seperate ways.''

Gurehai was about to say something, when a sharp knock on the door made both their heads snap towards it. 

''Lady Hokage?" A hesitant voice called, reminding the Aoyo of someone.

''Come in.'' The Sannin said loudly enough to be heard from the other side of the door, sitting down on the wooden desk in front of her. The wooden door opened to reveal Shizune, the girl that had accompanied the healer to the hospital the day of her recovery, and that held a pig in her arms. Behind her, came six more people.

First was Ibiki Morino, the scarred Jonin that had been in charge of the first round during the Chunin Exams. After him was Anko Mitarashi, the woman from the second round, in the Forest of Death. Behind her came Genma, the man who supervised the matches in the final round of the Exams. He still had a long tooth pick in his mouth. The proctors from all three of the Exams? Don't tell me...

The three of them walked to Tsunade's left, standing there with small smirks in their lips. Shizune stood behind the Hokage, and then the three last ninja came in.

Dressed in gray outfits, like the ones they wore as proctors in the written exam, the man with spiky black and the man with straight brown hair walked in and stood in Tsunade's right, looking at her with similar, smug expressions. When she turned back around to see who the sixth person was, her visible eye widened.

''Shikamaru?" She furrowed her eyebrows, as the Nara also looked surprised to see her.

''Oi, Gurehai.'' He greeted, walking next to her with his hands in his pockets, as always. ''What did they bring as here for? Man, this is such a drag.''

''Silence!" The Hokage raised her voice, and the two kids turned their attention to her. She rolled open an empty scroll, and placed it next to a small ink container on her desk. ''There were opinions that, with the final exam being suspended, no one should pass in the Exams this time around.'' Her voice was a bit more strict than a few moments earlier, when they were alone.

''But, I hear that the late Third Hokage, as well as the other lands' Feudal Lords, highly praised your matches. It seems that he planned on recommending you for Chunin.'' It's happening... ''All the proctors are of the same opinion as well, so...'' 

Izumo and Kotetsu left from their spot next to Shizune and walked behind her and Shikamaru, but she didn't pay them any attention. It was all focused on Tsunade, who started writing on the scroll in front of her. ''From now on, strive to perform in a manner that is worthy of that headband and jacket!" Two hands appeared in her line of view from her right, holding out something for her. She turned her head to see the spiky haired man, smirking down at her.

''Congratulations!'' She took the green vest in her own hands and stared at it proudly, while the Nara did the same to the one Izumo had handed him. 

''Shikamaru Nara, Aoyo Gurehai...'' The girl was so happy, despite of the lack of a smile in her lips, that she didn't mind the Sannin altering her last name. ''As of today, the two of you are Chunin!"

Chapter Text

''Lady Fifth.'' Gurehai bowed her head upon entering her office, and walked to stand in front of her desk. ''You called for me.'' Indeed, around five minutes earlier, while she was sitting by her sleeping mother at the hospital, a masked Anbu had appeared outside the window, told her that the Hokage wanted to see her, and disappeared again.

At least the Anbu don't disappear and appear out of thin air in a puff of smoke, like the Jonin, she had thought, before kissing Gureki's temple and heading out, jumping from rooftop to rooftop towards the Hokage building.

''Gurehai.'' The Sannin gave her a slight smile. ''I'm glad you could come here so fast. And I'm also glad to see you wearing your vest.'' She added, nodding at her direction. The girl chuckled in return, looking down at herself. 

''The only time I've taken it off since yesterday evening was when I went to sleep.'' She commented, patting her Chunin identification mark. ''What did you call me here for, Lady Fifth?"

''I'll get straight to the point, then.'' She smirked, resting her chin on top of her intertwined fingers. ''You are a Chunin, and from what I know, a very skilled one, and Chunin lead basic platoons. You are here for your first mission as a captain.''

The Aoyo's eyes widened. Sure, she knew that, sooner or later, the time would come for her to lead a team on missions. But, she never thought that time would come on her first one.

''The mission is an C-Rank.'' She started again, handing out a paper for her to take. She took it in her hands, and started reading. ''Requested by a small village in the outskirts of the Land of Fire, you will have to travel south. The village is a regular target for a group of bandits, and has, until now, been protected by its men. But now, for them is hunting season, and they will all have to travel to bring months' worth of food back to the village. Its population reaches only the a hundred and fifty mark, and that now the males are gone, about a third of that remains. That mean the women and young children are defenseless.''

''In other words...'' Gure looked up, meeting Tsunade's light brown orbs. ''... me and my team are to protect the village from the bandits until the men return?"

''Not just that. Upon a recent attack, which happened during late at night, half of it was destroyed. You will help the remaining villagers reconstruct it. The mission is expected to last a week and a half. Pack your things accordingly.''

''Any details I should know about?"

''There aren't any. A blind old man came and requested them mission yesterday morning, accompanied by a younger man wearing an eye patch. They said he was the village's elder.''

''I see. What about my subordinates? Who will they be?"

''That's up for you to decide. They have to be Genin, of course. Three of them.'' The Hokage said, taking back the paper from the Chunin. ''Remember, Gurehai.'' She told the girl. ''This mission will test your leadership skills and tactical powers. I want you to do your best.'' The white haired Kunoichi nodded, now deep in thought. ''I will give you a few hours to decide which Genin you want, and then I will call for them. You will depart as soon as possible.''

''That won't be necessary, Lady Fifth.'' She breathed in, faces of all the Genin she knew flashing through her mind. ''I already know who I need.''

----

''Man, what did they drag us here for, so suddenly?" Naruto whined, an hour later, hands behind his head. ''I was enjoying my ramen at Ichiraku, and then that bird came in and I had to go home as quickly as I could to pack.''

''Don't complain, you loser.'' Sasuke put his hands on the pockets of his shorts, after securing the backpack on his back. ''They send a bird for me to get ready too. It's obviously a mission.''

''A mission it is.'' Neji agreed, crossing his arms over his chest. ''But who is leading it? And what is the scope of it? The message the bird delivered said to pack clothes and weapons for a week, gather at the Village Gates in an hour and wait for the last member of the cell there. Nothing more.''

''Oh, wait!'' The Uzumaki suddenly exclaimed, peeking over Neji's shoulder with a grin. ''There he is! Kakashi-sensei is coming! OI, KAKASHI-SENSEI!" He yelled, waving his hand frantically in the air. ''Wait a minute... why is he here so early? He's Kakashi-sensei! Shouldn't he be an hour late or something?" He mumbled to himself.

The Jonin sighed and approached them, hands in his pockets. Standing tall in front of the three Genin, who formed a small triangle, he pulled out one of his hands, and gave them a bored wave. ''Hi, everyone.'' He greeted, inspecting their luggage. ''Are you ready for the mission?"

''Damn right, we are!" The blonde of the group pumped his fist in the air. ''Now, what's the mission? A B-Rank? Are we going to guard someone special? With the three of us exceptional shinobi here, that must be it, right? Right?" He pointed between himself, Neji and Kakashi, making Sasuke, who was purposefully left out, huff.

''Oh, but how should I know?" He asked in a fake surprised voice, and the boys frowned. ''I am not taking part in this mission, at all. I just came here to see my students and Neji, off.'' 

''Eh?" Naruto scrunched his face up, squinting at the man in front of him. ''What do you mean by that, ttebayo? Also, where's Gure-chan? I know where Sakura-chan is, but I haven't seen her at all since the time she woke up at the hospital, two days ago.''

''I'm here.'' A new voice came from behind Kakashi, who moved to the side, allowing the boys to see their teammate. ''Sorry I'm late. I had to stop by the hospital before I left.''

''Gu-Gure-chan?" The Genin gasped, as the white haired girl came into view. ''You are the last member of our team? And... what are you wearing?" Sasuke and Neji gaped at her appearance, while Kakashi smile behind his mask at her attire. She wore her black shorts and new cloak, as always, but over that, was a zipped-up green flak jacket.

''Oh, that's right.'' The Hatake said, resting his hand on the shoulder of his female student. ''I didn't get to congratulate you for your promotion.''

''Thank you, sensei.'' Gurehai nodded at him, before narrowing her eyes at him slightly. ''I am still waiting for those Suiton Jutsus, when I get back.'' She reminded him, and he scratched the back of his head with an awkward laugh. 

''Yeah, yeah, I'll remember that.'' He then gave them a salute. ''Good luck, you guys!" He smiled, and disappeared in a puff of smoke. As always.

''Chunin?" The Uchiha and the Hyuga mumbled at the same time, and Gurehai turned to them.

''I guess the feudal lords and proctors found my match very impressive.'' She shrugged. ''Oh, that's right. The two of you didn't get to watch it. Never mind that. You'll probably have your fair share of demonstrations during our mission. Which reminds me... is an C-Rank. We will travel south, to a small village. We have to protect and help the villagers rebuild it, while looking out for the group of bandits that destroyed it. They are expecting us to arrive in three days, so we will make it even if make many stops along the way.''

''We get to fight bandits? ALRIGHT!" Naruto grinned, but the girl shook her head. 

''There is a chance we will, yes. But please, don't seek it out, Naruto. Our mission is not to take them down, but protect people from them. Also, I want to say something.'' She paused, looking each one of them in the eyes. ''This is my first time as a team Captain. I imagine that if you were me, you wouldn't want to screw up either. So, please try to cooperate.'' Her gaze fell on her fellow team 7 members. ''Especially you two.''

''We have to help build the village, huh?" Neji thought about it, looking at Gurehai. ''I see. That's why you chose the three of us for the mission.''

''Exactly.'' The Aoyo nodded. ''Naruto can create a large number of Shadow Clones, that can either surround the village as we work, or help out with their large number of working hands. You are a sensor, user of the Byakugan. There isn't a better scout. As for me and Sasuke, we are respectively a Doton and Suiton user, and...''

''A Katon user.'' The Uchiha finished, secretly admiring her thinking. 

''Perfect for building houses and other facilities from natural resources.'' As if she had suddenly remembered something very important, she turned completely to her dark-haired teammate. ''Oh, and, Sasuke.'' She called, and he stared at her expectantly. ''I'm glad to see you're okay. I heard you were admitted to the hospital as well.''

''Yes.'' He simply replied, tightening his grip around the straps of his backpack.

''At least you are alright now.'' She absentmindedly repeated once more, trying to assure herself more than the others. ''He and his partner did a number on us, didn't they?" She didn't say his name but he obviously understood, his eyes widening. He didn't know what had happened to Gurehai. Just that she was also healed by Tsunade.

Not waiting to see his reaction or hear his response, she walked to the front of the group, stepping outside the Village Gates. 

''Now, team Hai, heading out.'' And they all took off running.

----

As expected, only two days later, they reached the wrecked village, not even panting. Neji deactivated his Byakugan, and walked alongside his Captain. ''It looks deserted.'' He commented, looking around the small plain grassland on which a poorly-made fence was rising up from the ground, barely a head taller than them. 

''The remaining villagers are probably all behind this fence.'' Gurehai guessed, approaching what looked like a door. It had a thin opening running horizontally to it, serving as a peephole. A single tree grew next to it, providing some shade. ''I am going to knock.'' The four stopped and she stepped forward, knocking loudly on the wooden planks, that almost split apart. Naruto, curious, stood next to her.

''Who's there?" A voice came from the other side of the door a few moments later, and the girl saw a pair of hazel eyes through the slit in the wood. Judging by the voice, it was probably a boy, around her and Neji's age. Didn't all the men leave to hunt?

''We are ninja from Konohagakure.'' She answered, not looking away from the pair of eyes. ''The elder of your village came and asked for protection, a few days ago.'' The boy didn't answer. Instead, a few whispers were heard, and he looked away. He disappeared from the peephole a second later.

''What's going on?" Sasuke inquired from behind her, a frown still on his face. ''Why are they not letting us in?''

''I say we break down these toothpicks.'' The Uzumaki pouted, flicking the fence with his fingers. ''They seem so weak, a simple poke would suffice.'' Before the Aoyo could order him to back away, the hazel pair of eyes reappeared.

''How many eyes does the bird have?" The voice asked, eyes narrowing suspiciously. Team Hai was taken aback. How many eyes... does the bird have?

''Oh, oh, is that a riddle? I like riddles!" Naruto chirped, pushing Sasuke and Neji aside and staring into the slit. ''Lets see... the bird as in the bird, right? Birds have two eyes, so, the number is two, right?" He asked excitedly, before frowning. ''No, no, no, it can't be that easy... Perhaps-...''

''Shut up, loser!" The Uchiha snapped. ''You are going to lock us outside!"

''Both of you, silence!" Gurehai snapped, making the two boys stop bickering immediately. Then, she glared at the ground, thinking hard. The eyes of the bird... the eyes of the bird... what could it be? Suddenly, her ears focused on a sound she had, until now, been ignoring. She turned her head towards the source, and gasped silently. 

On the tree, a flock of thrushes sat all over its branches, jumping around and chirping in sync. Waiting a few more seconds, she noticed more birds coming from inside the 'gates', joining their friends. Thrush... thrush... the village is named Tori...

''How many eyes does the bird have?" The boy repeated again, a bit more agitated. Gurehai inhaled shakily. 

Bird... Tori... eyes... how many eyes... does Tori have? Thinking back to her meeting with Tsunade, she remembered her words. Blind village elder, accompanied by a man in an eye patch... a hundred and fifty residents... that makes...

''Two hundred and ninety seven.'' She finally stated, causing her subordinates to look at her in confusion. 

''W-what?" The boy behind the door stuttered, obviously surprised. Sasuke, Naruto and Neji gazed expectantly at her, while she just put her fingers on the small slits on her vest, resting her hands there. 

''You heard me. The bird has two hundred and ninety seven eyes. Aren't you supposed to let us inside now? Your riddle is solved, and we have to take a look around the damage that has been done in order to repair it.'' The boy gritted his teeth and a few seconds later, the door was thrown open.

Inside the fence, they were met with the curious eyes of the boy... and many, many women. Small girls, mothers, grannies and infants. With a second glance, the Leaf ninja noticed a few boys as well, though not older than five years old.

All around, the huts were the villagers obviously slept were disheveled. Some seemed burnt down, others had broken roofs and windows, but they all had people in them, trying to repair small things in them.

''What is this?" The same voice from before called from next to Neji, and she turn to the boy with a frown. ''We asked for ninja to protect us. These four are kids!" The hazel eyed boy turned out to be a teenager as tall as Neji, with shaggy light brown hair and a slender frame. Both his hands were wrapped with bandages, up to the end of the short sleeves of his kimono shirt.

''Kenki!" A woman gasped from behind him, and Gurehai looked at her to see she was probably in her late twenties, and several months pregnant. ''Don't talk like that! They are our guests!" 

''But aunt Haana, I'm stating the truth! What good are they supposed to be against Kuro and his gang? The walls I built will do a better job protecting us than them!" Kenki complained, pointing at the wooden fence in frustration. That tiny layer of branches? The Chunin thought bitterly. Naruto could have knocked it down with a flick of his wrist, if it weren't for me.

''Naruto.'' She raised her voice, attracting everyone's attention. The blonde looked at her curiously. ''I want ten of your Shadow Clones around the village, guarding the wooden fence. Tell me immediately if something suspicious moves along the treeline. Neji, please keep an eye out for strange chakra signatures. We don't know if the bandits are ninja.'' 

''Yes, Captain!" Naruto grinned, forming a hand sign. ''Shadow Clone Jutsu!" Ten identical pops echoed around them, and the Shadow Clones appeared, making the villagers and the brunette boy gasp. ''Heading out!'' And they all jumped away, to their posts.

''I am sure our Hokage will accept your complaints, whatever they are.'' She told Kenki, staring at him with an indifferent expression. ''Now if you'll excuse me and my teammates, we'd like to speak to the village elder about the mission. Ma'am, could you show us the way?" She asked the pregnant woman, Haana.

''Oh, yes, of course!" She smiled, resting a hand on her belly. ''Follow me.'' She turned around and walked towards the center of the village, the ninja and many curious children following suit. In the middle of Tori, buildings seemed to be in better condition. The bandits probably didn't come so far inside.

Reaching a large house exactly in front of a small well, they found an old, close-eyed man sitting on its porch.

''Is this Gurehai and her team?" He asked in a tired voice, and when his eyes opened, she could see they were pale and clouded, as if a veil was draped in front of his irises. ''Lady Hokage told me about you. Thank you for coming, dear.''

''Village elder.'' The girl bowed her head in respect slightly, even if he couldn't see her. ''Me and my teammates will do anything in our power to protect you and your villagers. We can begin repairing the houses as soon as we settle down and unpack our things.''

''Oh, no, no, don't worry. You can start tomorrow, it's already evening.'' He insisted, dismissing them with his bony hand. ''Tsubaki, Rozuu.'' He called, and two kids came running from inside the house, a boy and a girl, with dark brown hair and identical green eyes. Twins? ''Show them to their rooms, please.''

''Yes grandpa!" They mused, and walked to the four teens. ''Come this way, ninja! We helped aunt Haana prepare your rooms!" 

They followed the twins a little further into the village, near the fence. There, two terraced huts stood, their doors decorated with yellow flowers. The girl, Tsubaki, grabbed Gurehai's hand without warning, and dragged her towards the second door. When she reached the door she opened it quickly, motioning for the Aoyo to enter. When Sasuke and Naruto attempted to enter too, Rozuu jumped in front of them, a furious expression on his small face.

''Where are you going, you perverts? That's Gurehai-neesan's room!" He screeched, pushing them towards the other door. ''This one is yours!" The Chunin chuckled at the scene, and thanked the little girl, who then skipped away to the direction of her grandpa's house with a small grin. When Rozuu left as well, she looked at her subordinates.

''Good night, boys. See you tomorrow.''

''Night.''

''Hn.''

''Sleep well, Gure-chan!"

She closed the door behind her and sighed, zipping down her vest and placing it on a chair next to the door. Looking around, she saw a futon mattress on the floor, and a small desk on the corner of the room. She took off her sandals and tossed them next to the chair. Taking off her cloak, she dug her hand in her pocket and took out a black hair tie. When all her clothes were off, she tied her white locks back, and fell face-first on her pillow.

Goodnight, mother.

Chapter Text

Team Hai started reconstruction early the very next morning. Or rather, more specifically, Naruto's Shadow Clones and Gurehai's Earth Clones did. The Uzumaki's creations were still patrolling around the village, while another dozen of them helped five of the Aoyo's clones rebuild the destroyed huts. The village's women had offered to lend a helping hand as well.

The real members of the team were gathered in a circle close to the well in the center of Tori, discussing their future plans. Many children and women stood and sat around them, listening in to their conversation with awe. Among them were the green eyed twins from yesterday, not taking their eyes off the four ninja.

''Last time, they hit when everyone was asleep.'' The Captain explained. ''Even if the men were still around, the bandits didn't seem to have trouble attacking. Judging from the damage that has been done...'' She trailed off, inspecting the buildings. ''I'd say there were at least forty of them. That, or they were fewer in numbers, but users of Ninjutsu. That way, the men of the village couldn't stop them.''

''Their goal must have been to only steal goods.'' Neji pointed out, and she nodded. ''Although many huts were burned down, I heard no one got fatally injured. They want the villagers alive, in order to terrorize them and force them to provide the bandits with food-...''

''That's not true.'' An irritated voice cut in, and everyone turned to see Kenki clenching his fists. ''What you said, about no one getting fatally injured, isn't true!" He yelled, eyes glaring at them with all his might. ''People died! Stop assuming things!"

People died? Gurehai frowned, looking at him curiously. That wasn't in the report. What is he talking about?

''Kenki!" Haana's voice cut in, the woman standing up from her seat and resting her hand on her stomach. ''Stop it! I know it hurts, but, please, stop it!"

''What are you talking about?" The Chunin cut in, before the fuming boy could reply. ''The report we received didn't say anything about someone dying. Explain yourselves.''

''We don't need to explain ourselves to outsiders! We don't want you here, you aren't needed here! What do you think you can do against those monsters, when he was completely powerless?" He growled, his hazel eyes gleaming with tears threatening to spill. ''When Ame and everyone else comes back, everything will be just fine!''

''Kenki, this isn't the time to be throwing a fit!"Haana scolded, tears welling up in her green eyes. ''They are here to help! Without them, we'd be completely at Kuro's mercy!''

''They are a bunch of kids!" He argued again, pointing a finger at their direction. ''Just because they can multiply, doesn't mean they cans save us! He was a grown man, damn it!"

''ENOUGH!" Gurehai snapped, making fearful eyes turn to her. Kids and women alike stared at her in suprise, while Kenki took a step back. ''Listen here, kid.'' She then said in a terrifyingly calm voice, settling her gaze on the brunette boy. ''You obviously lost someone close to you on the attack. Was it your father? An uncle, a brother? Well, guess what?" She inquired, leaning close to him. ''We don't care.'' That made Kenki freeze.

''What?"

''We don't care. We've lost people too. Each and every one of us.'' She continued, pointing between herself, Naruto, Sasuke and Neji, who she knew had lost his father when he was only four. Something she learned during the Exams. ''Some of us, have lost more people than you could possibly imagine.'' She went on, referring to Sasuke, who looked at the ground. ''Do you see us wailing about it?"

''B-but... but...''

''No, you don't. And that's because we stayed strong, and we moved on. Now, we have to protect you, your family and your neighbors, so that no one looses a loved one to those bandits again. Get your shit together, and help us out.'' That made everyone within hearing distance fall silent. Tsubaki and Rozuu, who sat next to each other between Naruto and Neji, gasped, giggling.

''She said a bad language word.''

Kenki hung his head, shaggy hair falling in front of his eyes. His fist clenched and unclenched twice, and he exhaled shakily.

''They... some of them... they blew fire out of their mouths.'' He finally said, raising his head, defeat evident in his face and eyes. ''And they carried weapons, Kuro in pouches like the ones all of you carry around.'' That made team Hai glance quickly at each other.

''Kuro is their leader, yes?"

''Yeah.'' 

''Come here, Kenki.'' Gurehai paused for a moment before calling out his name. When the boy joined them in their circle, she turned to the twins and knelt down. ''Rozuu, Tsubaki. Could you please bring us some water? We will be talking for quite a while here, and our throats will go dry.'' The kids stood up, excitement in their green eyes. Glad they could help out, they ran off without another word. ''Sasuke?"

''There is no doubt. They used Katon Jutsus.'' The Uchiha nodded. ''The majority of them requires chakra to pour out of the user's mouth, so they must be...''

''Rogue ninja. Or at least, their leader is. He could have taught the others, if their chakra levels were even a little below average.'' Neji added, crossing his arms over his chest. ''We have a Suiton user.'' He then said, looking at his Captain.

''No.'' The Kunoichi argued with a sigh. ''My Water Release is not strong enough to properly counter one Katon technique, much less a bunch of them. Sasuke's Katon has more chances of besting theirs. I can only create walls around the village, and hope for the best.''

''Then, do that.'' Sasuke said. ''We have to make battle plans as well. We don't know when they'll strike next.''

''I have that covered.'' Gurehai stated, picking up a nearby twig and using it to draw on the soil. ''Naruto's Shadow Clones and my Earth Clones will keep on rebuilding the village. We have to get that part of the mission done as quickly as possible. On a second thought, I'll have to dismiss the Earth Clones.'' She pondered, closing her eyes in order to concentrate. ''In order to create the walls around the village, I need all the chakra I have.''

''Neji, in case of an attack, you will be our asset. Use your Byakugan and Gentle Fist to take a bandit hostage. That way, we can interrogate him and hopefully get some information on Kuro and his abilities, so we know how to best protect Tori.''

''Naruto.'' She called next, and the blonde's eyes snapped to hers, as he was eager to help out. ''Thanks to you, we can outnumber them. And I repeat, please, do not seek out a fight. Our duty is to protect the villagers. Nothing more. Don't try to take on anyone whose true strength you don't know.''

''Sasuke, your Sharingan is powerful. Read the enemy's movements, evaluate their skills and test their fighting style. If it it matches that of a trained ninja, then some of them or just the leader are Rogues.''

''I will be completely honest with you.'' She then lowered her voice, in a way that only her teammates and Kenki could hear what she was saying. ''This mission is not an C-Rank. You must have noticed something is off, too. The scope of our mission was to protect the village against bandits, mere thieves. This situation here, is forcing as to deal with Chunin level Ninjutsu users, enemy shinobi.''

''It's a B-Rank...'' Naruto realized, mouth hang open.

''I am neither underestimating your skills nor my leadership abilities, but I think it might turn out to be too much for us. I know none of you three are ordinary Genin, but I have to be realistic. Genin are not supposed to carry out B-Rank missions, and newly-promoted Chunin like me are not supposed to be leading them.''

''What are you saying?" Kenki interrupted, abruptly standing up. Anger was showing in his face again. ''That you are abandoning us? You made me accept you, and said you would help us out, and now you are leaving? I knew it! I knew I shouldn't trust you!" He spat, earning glares and cold looks from team Hai.

''Once again, I am telling you to shut up.'' Gurehai demanded with her icy blue orbs fixed on him, daring him to make another move. ''I never said we'd abandon the mission, or you. I simply stated that it might turn out to be more than we can handle.''

''You are calling for back-up.'' Neji smirked, realization raining down on him.

''Exactly. I am going to write to Lady Fifth, as soon as we are done discussing battle plans. I'll ask for reinforcements, which will hopefully arrive the day after the letter is delivered. We reached Tori withing two days, so a couple of Chunins should cover the same distance in about twenty hours of running. We'll-...''

Her speech was cut short, when Naruto gasped, his hand flying to his chest. The twins came back with two trays in hand, containing glasses of water and cups of tea.

''Naruto, what's wrong?"

''My Shadow Clones... they are getting destroyed!'' He exclaimed, and a worried expression washed over the Aoyo. 

''Neji!" She called, turning to the Hyuga. ''Enemy presences!"

''Byakugan!" The boy squinted his eyes, veins popping around all around them. ''Eighteen, no, twenty, twenty one of them! Over the village gate!" He listed, and Tsubaki gasped, letting the tray she was holding fall on the ground with a loud clatter. 

''Naruto, make the Shadow Clones take all the women and children to the center of the village, at the main House! Kenki, you take Tsubaki and Rozuu and go! This is no place for the three of you right now! Neji, just like we discussed!'' She ordered, taking two kunais out of her pouches, coating them in lightning. ''Earth Clones, I want you around the main House, in Manji formation!''

''Oi you, Captain or whatever.'' Kenki argued, shielding the twins behind his back as the Earth Clones that had gathered around them jumped towards the instructed location. ''I am not staying with the children! They left me behind to protect the village!"

''You aren't a ninja, Kenki. You don't stand a chance against them! Do as you are told, or you'll die and take those two with you!" She hissed, nodding her head towards the five-year-olds. Without waiting for a response, her words final, she ran off. ''Team Hai, with me!"

The four of them ran towards the gates, which had been completely destroyed, wood cracking under the bandits' feet. They were all dressed in black. They looked threatening, all of them adults, holding weapons. One of them laughed evilly, holding a young girl by her hair. Gurehai didn't hesitate to throw him the kunai she was holding. He cried out when it lodged in the back of his palm, and he let the civilian go, falling down while clutching his hand.

''Ran back to the main House.'' The Aoyo told the little girl, who nodded, with tears in her eyes, and took off as fast as her short legs could carry her. ''Who are you, and what is your business with this village?" She demanded, holding up another blade. ''If you don't answer, I am afraid we'll have to make you.''

''No way!" One of the men laughed, a crazy, wide grin almost splitting his face in half. ''Hear that boss? That girl wants us t-...''

''I heard what she said, baka.'' Someone else growled out, and Kuro stepped forward, staring at the Chunin with an amused expression through his one visible eye. His was taller than most, with greasy black hair, and... a crossed out Leaf protector around his neck. ''Don't take her lightly. That brat is a Chunin of Konohagakure.''

''You must be Kuro, the leader.'' She stated, inspecting him. ''Like I said before, if you don't tell me what your business here is, I will have to force it out of you. No one passes past this point, not with us here.'' Kuro glared hard at her. Then, he slowly took out a sword. 

''Men...'' He started, raising it above his head. The Leaf ninja tensed, getting into their fighting stances. With one final smirk, the leader brought his sword down. ''SCATTER! I WANT THE CHUNIN ALIVE!"

She could see Neji near her, using his unique fighting style to immobilize the bandits and knock them out. She mainly used Taijutsu too, slashing at them with her kunais. Some of them proved harder to defeat than others, forcing her to use Ninjutsu.

Her Rock Fist collided with the jaw of the man who had mocked her earlier, efficiently sending him flying through the air, and into the woods were they had come out from. When her right eye started to sting behind her white locks, she knew the force had snapped his neck.

Suddenly, the corner of her eye caught some strange movement, and she pushed the bandit attacking her back violently, turning to look. She saw one of the men pointing a crossbow towards the direction of someone, who was struggling against a bandit himself, defending himself with a bo staff. 

''KENKI, YOU IDIOT!" She bellowed, running to him with all the speed she could. The crossbow was fired, and blood spluttered around the boy's clothes. ''I told you to stick with the others... Baka...'' She winced, kicking the man he had been fighting away with a grunt. Taking the arrow out of her shoulder and throwing it back at the archer's chest, she ignored the pain in her eye once more.

''You...you...'' The brunette stuttered, looking at her bleeding wound in shock. ''You're b-b-bleeding!" He managed to say, letting his bo fall on the ground with a thud.

''This? This is nothing. Don't you know you could have died if it hit you?"

''I-I don't care!" He yelled back, clenching his fists. ''Father died too! He died protecting me, protecting the village!" Now panting, he closed his eyes shut, in order to stop the tears from falling. ''I have to die like him to! I have to protect everyone! I HAVE TO HONOR HIS DEATH, BECAUSE NOBODY ELSE DOES!" That made Gurehai gasp. Her expression changed, eyes clouding with memories.

''Hai! Get away from here, now!''

''But fath-...''

''No, I said leave! Run back to the Hidden Leaf!"

I told him to ran away and hide, she realized, pressing a hand on her wound. I told him to abandon the fight, and save himself, just like he said to me...

''I said it once, and I will say it again.'' She sighed, putting pressure on her shoulder. ''You are an idiot.'' Kenki opened his mouth to protest, but she silenced him. ''A big one, at that! Why die like him, and honor his death, when you can make him proud by living the life he would have wanted, and fulfill his wishes?" The boy had obviously never thought about that. ''You never thought he wouldn't have wanted you to throw your life away like that, did you? That's why you are an idiot. What kind of parent would have expected that from their kid?"

''GURE-CHAN!" Naruto's voice hollered, before the hazel eyed boy could answer. Turning sharply to see what was wrong, her eyes nearly bulged out.

On the tree line, half a mile away from where they were standing and Tori, Kuro and six more bandits stood side by side, exhaling simultaneously... fire. The humongous Katon Jutsu had taken the form of a gigantic Fireball, that was heading straight towards the Leaf shinobi... and the village.

''Shit.'' She cursed loudly, pushing Kenki behind her. ''TEAM HAI, BEHIND ME! NOW!'' She shouted, running a few steps forward and kneeling down. This is bad... this is really, really bad, she contemplated, watching as the Great Fireball approached. If it hits, we will most certainly burn alive, and even we jump out of the way, it's gonna destroy half of the village, no doubt. I have to... I have to...

She closed her eyes, amassing every ounce of chakra she could grasp inside her body. But it wasn't enough. She felt her Earth Clones disperse, and her head ache. Her right eye was burning, but she didn't care.

''Gure, what are you doing?" Sasuke's voice called from behind her, and she spat. 

''Shut up, Uchiha!" 

Lord Third, you taught me this, she panted, bringing her hands close to her chest. You taught me this, but I could never do it. But I have to, or else, all these people will die, and it will all be on me. So now... She opened her left eye, the right one burning with a fire that clouded her mind. I WILL DO THIS, JUST LIKE YOU WOULD HAVE!

Ram, Hare, Boar... Monkey, Dog.

The world seemed to explode around her, as she slammed her hands on the ground. The ground beneath her cracked, and the earth shook, rumbling with the enormous surge of power. She looked at the fire about to consume her, and screamed.

''DOTON: GREAT APE MUD WALL!"

Chapter Text

The world seemed to explode around her, as she slammed her hands on the ground. The ground beneath her cracked, and the earth shook, rumbling with the enormous surge of power. She looked at the fire about to consume her, and screamed.

''DOTON: GREAT APE MUD WALL!"

Before her, the familiar dark brown surface of her Mud Walls rose. The noise it made, breaking through the ground, made it hard not to cover her ears. She didn't know what the others were doing, and she couldn't bother herself with it. She could only force more and more chakra from her hands through the ground, and make the Wall grow taller, thicker, stronger.

She immediately felt when the Fireball made contact, and not by the thundering explosion that occurred. She felt it deep in her bones, in her trembling arms, that were desperately trying to stay attached to the ground, and continue to push chakra through it.

It hurts... it hurts.... so badly.... It feels like my arms are on fire... and being shattered by boulders, at the same time... Pull through, I have to pull through... Keep it up, and in a few seconds, it will all be over... and perhaps, I'll get to lie down afterwards, and replenish all this chakra...

''GUREHAI!" Neji's voice came from next to her, before the dust settled. His hands rested on her shoulders, and she knew it was over. She allowed herself to take the deepest breath she could master, and then fell back, lying on the ground with her hands limp on her sides. The smoke cleared, and everyone gasped.

In front of the village, 85 feet above the grassy meadow, stood a perfect block of hardened soil. But, what made it truly terrifying, was the gigantic ape trying to break free from inside it, visible from the waist and up in both sides of the Mud Wall, hitting its fists on its chest. Sculpted intricately in a way that showed the rage on the animal's face, its jaws were parted, representing the ferocious roar that would have been let out if it were alive. 

Naruto backed away in fear, falling on his butt. From the other side of the Wall, the bandits looked up with wide eyes. The Great Ape looked almost alive. Kuro gritted his teeth and grabbed one of his men that attempted to run away by the back of his neck.

''Where do you think you're going, scum?" He growled at his face, and the man whimpered. ''I said I wanted the Chunin. Do you see her unconscious, on our side of the field?"

''But... boss... our Fireball... our Fireball didn't even scratch that... t-that thing!'' The bandit stuttered, gulping down the lump in his throat... that Kuro snapped, a second later.

''I don't want cowards under my command.'' He spat at him, tossing him on the ground. ''IF THE FIREBALL DOESN'T SCRATCH THE WALL, THEN WE PASS IT AND ATTACK FROM THERE!" He then hollered, attracting his men's attention. ''GO!"

The yelling didn't go unheard by the Leaf ninja, and especially Gurehai. She took one last breath and sat up, and accepted Neji's outstretched hand, standing up. ''They are coming again.'' She said, panting. Her chest had started to ache, and from all her past experiences, it wasn't a good sign. ''This time... this time, when they come, attack with the intent to kill.'' Sasuke and Naruto had joined the two, now listening in on her instructions. ''I know it's probably a lot to ask... but they aren't going to stop. And for some reason, they want me alive.'

''Got it.'' The Uchiha nodded, activating his Sharingan. Then he and the Uzumaki ran off, engaging the enemies that had gotten around the Wall. 

''Gurehai, I don't think it would be wise for you to continue fighting.'' The Hyuga said, and the Aoyo turned to see his Byakugan was activated. ''Your chakra flow... it's been disturbed... your chakra is almost depleted.''

''I appreciate the concern.'' She told him, and took out two kunais. ''But I know my limits. I'll keep going, just not using Ninjutsu. We have to keep them off the village.'' The boy looked at her expressionlessly, hiding his emotions. She was his captain. He couldn't order her around. ''Did you get a bandit?"

''Yes.'' He replied, nodding towards a limp body on the ground, a few feet away. Then his head snapped up, alarming the Chunin. ''They are coming from the left, seven of them. The rest are going for Naruto and Sasuke.'' He paused, glancing at the wound on her shoulder. ''Don't die.''

''Wasn't planning on it.'' She sighed, and attacked the bandit closest to her.

On the other end of the Wall, Sasuke was fighting Kuro. Despite his Sharingan flickering back and forth, left and right, he had trouble blocking the Rogue's attacks, that were slightly faster than he had expected, and had started to become even faster. He had already used some Katon Jutsu, and he knew his chakra wouldn't last much longer, especially with the Dojutsu activated. Letting his eyes fade to their normal black color, he pushed the man back with all his strength and put some distance between them.

''What's wrong, boy?" Kuro sneered, slowly advancing. ''Tired already? Those eyes are the Sharingan... are they not? Don't tell me that's all the power of the Uchiha clan!" Then he feigned regret, oblivious of Naruto and his two Shadow Clones creeping up on him. ''That's right, I forgot! THERE IS NO UCHIHA CLAN!"

''RASENGAN!" Kuro's eyes widened and he turned around sharply when the Uzumaki's voice erupted from behind him, making Sasuke relieved and angry at the same time. Sure, he had probably saved him, but then again, he intervened with his fight. His fight. His tired face changed into one of irritation, but it all went away... It all went away when the Rogue brought his fingers to his chin in a seal, and flickered away.

The two teammates gasped as the spiraling blue orb came closer and closer to Sasuke by the second, aiming for his chest. The brunette didn't have any time to back away, and the blonde didn't have any time to redirect his hit, as he was suspended in mid air. He could only struggle to cancel the technique as quickly as he could, which, in the end, was not quickly enough.

''Sasuke!" Gurehai yelled, as the half-completed Rasengan hit her subordinate in the chest. She threw the knife she was holding at a bandits heart, who had engaged in hand-to-hand combat with her only a few seconds later. The pain in her eyes distracted her from the fight, and if it weren't for Neji, who jumped between her and the enemy that came at her, sword raised, she would have probably been taken away unconscious. The boy buried his palm on his chest, and sent him on his knees.

''He isn't dead, Gurehai!'' The Hyuga assured her, stopping her from running towards the injured Uchiha. She hissed and took out more shuriken, getting into her fighting stance as more bandits came for her. 

''Naruto!" She yelled at the Uzumaki, who was looking at the unconscious Sasuke with wide eyes. ''Create Shadow Clones to take him to the Main House, now! Don't distract yourself from the battle!" Not waiting to see if he did as told, her attention was attracted by something else... or rather, a scream.

Her head turned to see Tsubaki, crying in the rough hands of Kuro, who was dragging her away from Rozuu. Kenki appeared behind them, raising his bo to attack and get him to let go the little girl. Kuro snarled and backhanded him, sending him face first to the ground next to Tsubaki's twin.

''Tsubaki! Damn it!" She cursed, but drifted further away, deflecting the hits of a long haired man. 

''MEN! RETREAT! RETREAT!'' The leader's voice echoed through the entire meadow, and instantly, the bandit she was fighting landed a kick on the back of her left knee and jumped away, leaving her on the dirt next to the Hyuga. ''YOU HEAR ME, CHUNIN? I AM GIVING YOU UNTIL NIGHTFALL! TURN YOURSELF OVER IN EXCHANGE FOR THE LITTLE BRAT, OR SHE'LL SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES!" 

It seemed only seconds later, that her eyes closed shut.

----

When she was finally awake, she was met with the wooden ceiling of her hut. She groaned but quickly sat up, the thin covers falling on her lap. She traced her body with her hand, and noticed bandages were wrapped all around her chest and shoulder. Besides that, she only wore her black shorts. Praying that it was someone like Haana who wrapped her and her wound up, she gritted her teeth and stood up.

The thing that surprised her most was that besides a dull ache where the arrow had hit, she didn't feel ill. Not even light headed, a usual feeling after chakra exhaustion. Then she looked outside the window, and her blue orbs widened. The sky was orange, sign that there was less than an hour for the end of her deadline. Hearing voices outside, and recognizing Kenki and Naruto's she angrily put on her tattered sandals. Throwing on her cloak and nothing else over her wrapped chest, the girl thrusted the door open and stepped outside.

A small crowd was gathered around the fountain, and several sobs could be heard. As she got closer, she saw Sasuke lying on a blanket next to the fountain, a wet cloth around his forehead. Haana sat by his side, wetting it from time to time, with a red faced Rozuu on her knees. 

Naruto and Kenki were indeed there, arguing amongst themselves. One was shouting and pointing, the other shouting and pointing with tears in his eyes. With an angry expression almost cracking her usual mask, Gurehai approached with a quick, long strides. Neji, who wasn't far away himself, standing with his arms crossed next to Haana, was the first to notice her.

''Gureh-..'' His greeting was cut off by the sound of flesh slapping against flesh, and all noise subsided as the Konoha nin and the Tori resident turned to face her with wide eyes.

''Oi! What ar-...'' Kenki started, holding his tear streaked cheek, where the Aoyo had slapped him. Hard.

''Shut up!" She growled, anger evident in her eyes. ''I told you to take the twins and go to the Main House, or else your lives would be in danger. You disobeyed me, and look what's happening now! Tsubaki has been taken, and if I don't come up with a plan within the next forty minutes, they'll probably kill her!''

''Gure-chan...'' Naruto started, but was instantly interrupted.

''Don't get me started on you, Naruto. I told you to fight with the intent to kill yes. But I also said, before all of this had even began, that you shouldn't go for enemies whose true strength you didn't know. It doesn't matter how special the technique is. It almost killed Sasuke!" She scolded, finally pausing to take a breath. ''Haana-san.'' She addressed the woman, in a perfectly calm tone. ''How is he?"

''Stable, for now.'' She replied, soaking the cloth around his head again. ''But I am afraid the water of the fountain won't do much. It's only for energy replenishment, and his injuries are physical.''

''Water with energy replenishing properties?" The Chunin mumbled, figuring it out. ''That explains why I don't feel tired.'' She then turned to the Hyuga, who had been watching the scene unfold silently.

She told us, he thought. She told us about the mission, how it was her first as a Captain, and how she had worries. It didn't show, no. But she had. She said that we wouldn't want to mess it up, either, she gave us advice. And now, not only did the mission turn out to be of a different level, herself and her subordinates are injured, and one of the people she was supposed to be protecting has been captured. She probably thinks that she has failed, that the situation has gotten out of hand, that this is out of her league...

When he looked into her blue eye, he only saw determination.

...But it isn't.

''Neji.'' She called. ''Where is the bandit you knocked out?" The boy turned his head and motioned to a spot behind the fountain, which she hadn't noticed upon her arrival. There, tied to a wooden post, sat a man dressed in black, like the rest of his comrades. 

His pale head was shaved, and he was older than the others she had fought. He had a strong jaw, and... and he wore an eye patch. His remaining eye glared at her, his mouth not even covered. An eye patch? Just like the man that accompanied the village elder to Konoha? Don't tell me...

''Haana-san, have you ever seen this man before?" She asked the pregnant woman, who shook her head no immediately. 

''He was the first trying to get into the village.'' Neji informed the Chunin, who lowered down on the man's eye level. ''He was probably trying to reach-...''

''The Main House.'' Gurehai didn't blink, watching the prisoner's reactions. ''Where is the Elder now?"

''Father is asleep.'' Haana replied with a sad smile. ''He hasn't been well these past two days. At least, not more than usual.''

''Kenki, Rozuu.'' She then addressed the boys. ''You are the Elder's grandchildren, so you pass a lot of of your time with him at the Main House, am I right?" Met with hesitant nods,she sighed. ''And you, too, have never seen this man before now?" Negative responses. ''Then... people of Tori, I am afraid you have fallen for a sick trick.'' The women around gasped.

''You.'' She snapped at the bald man, who glared at her. ''You have been messing with the Elder's head behind everyone's back, haven't you? Genjutsu traces are all around you." His black eye widened slightly, almost not enough for her to notice. ''When I was asked the question 'how many eyes does the bird have', I was confused. After some thought, though, the bird turned out to be the village itself, Tori. The eyes should represent the eyes of the villagers.''

''Recalling a meeting with the Hokage, I estimated the number. A hundred and fifty residents. The Elder is blind, but the man guarding him wore an eye patch, and was bald. Assuming he was blind in one eye, I answered what I thought was correct. But, in reality, I was just lucky.''

''What?" The Hyuga and Kenki exclaimed in unison, and the girl held up a hand, telling them to wait.

''You, Kenki, were supposed to let in only the shinobi that answered your riddle correctly. I am grateful that you thought about how we probably wouldn't know that your father had passed away, and let me in under the impression that I counted him in, as well. Truth is, I didn't. I counted this man, right here.''

''What is the meaning of this?" An older woman shrieked from next to them, keeping away from the bandit in the process. ''Explain!"

''I will, ma'am. But first, I want to ask all of you something. Kenki's father, the Elder's son... he was blind in one eye, was he not? And, furthermore, he was bald, just like this man?" Silence fell over the villagers. A few seconds later, they nodded. ''I thought so. He was also escorting the elder to Konoha, in order to request this very mission?" More nods. ''When did he die?"

''W-we... we heard him scream, a week after they left for Konohagakure. Our men, who were still here at the time, ran out of the village... only to find Akano dead... by the bandits, who were targeting the Elder...'' Haana said, with tears in her green eyes. Gurehai waited a moment and the sighed deeply, rubbing her temples. This is not going to be easy.

''Once again, I am sorry to announce bad news. The Elder's son, Akano, died long before then.'' That made everyone upset. Gasps and whispers and protesting erupted all around. ''Akano wasn't the man that arrived in Konoha along with the Elder. It was this one, here.'' She pointed at the bald man, who squirmed a little.

''But, why?" Neji asked, confusion evident in his pale face.

''That's what I don't know yet. But, my gut tells me that it's linked to the fact that Kuro wants me.'' She then averted her eyes from her teammate, and trained them on the hostage. ''Why does he want me? Your leader, the Rogue? Why did you and Akano swap places?"

''Gurehai, he can't speak.'' The long haired boy butted in, making her frown. As to prove the boy's statement, the bandit stuck his tongue out. An ink black tattoo shaped like a sword was there, its blade pointed towards his throat. ''It must be a Curse Seal. If he tries to say anything about his gang, he dies.''

''I see.'' She hummed, and a small smirk appeared on the man's lips, which instantly disappeared after her following words. ''You think that's gonna stop me from getting the things I need?" She rhetorically asked, waving for Neji to come close to her. ''Neji, come here. Hold him down, please. I don't want him trashing around while I get the information out of him.''

''Gure-chan, don't tell me...'' Naruto said, finally speaking after all this time. The Chunin only nodded, and placed her left hand in a seal near her chin. The other palm outstretched and came close to the outlaw's forehead. He could only try to break free from his restraints and the Hyuga.

''Kiokugomon.'' His eye widened, and hers closed.

She saw memories upon memories, feelings, dark situations. Above all she saw the bandits, Kuro and his instructions, the baldy's individual mission. She saw a man with a single, green eye, looking an awful lot like Kenki. When her eyes opened once more, the man was out of the Genin's hands and on the ground, dead. She felt no remorse.

''I am sorry for that. But, I have every piece of information we need.'' She was unaware of the screams that had been ripping the bandit's lungs apart, mere seconds ago. Nobody told her, either. The pain in her right was almost non existent. ''This will be a long explanation, but I have about fifteen minutes, so...''

''... The bandits, with Kuro, a Konohagakure Rogue as their leader, wanted to grow stronger, not just survive based on what they stole for villages like yours. So, the ex-ninja drew on the information he had during his time in Konoha, and remembered that Chunin, like me, have scrolls in their vests, like the one I wear. They include Sealing Techniques, Jutsus, and Sealed Equipment, maps. They had to get their hands on it, but, of course, they couldn't attack the Leaf, or a platoon of Chunin, on that matter. So, what was left for him to do? Go for an easy target, a team of Genin, led by a Chunin.''

''He knew their status, as Rogues and bandits, would rank the mission Tori would request a B- or higher rank. They didn't want that. So, they waited for Akano and the Elder to exit the village, and attacked. The couldn't harm the Elder, obviously. Instead, they took Akano hostage, and presented an exact look-alike of him to Konoha. The Elder was put under Genjutsu by him, and spoke the words he wanted to, requesting a C-Rank mission.''

''They couldn't let the Elder go back to Tori with him at his side, nor could they let Akano simply go. So they killed him when the two had returned, and made it look like he was killed on the way home, protecting his father. The Elder could say nothing, under the Genjutsu, so he said nothing. Then we came. I answered the riddle correctly, like I explained before. And then it was time for Kuro to attack, and take me and my vest with him.''

''It didn't turn out like he wanted to, so he took Tsubaki, the Elder's granddaughter hostage, and demanded a trade. Me, for her. Who could refuse?''

''But now, they are coming. What are we supposed to do?" Kenki cried, shaken up from the new information. 

Gurehai fell silent for a while, turning to look at her hut. From afar, and through the door she had left open, her Chunin vest could be seen on the chair next to the door. She stared at it skeptically, and then looked at the fountain a few feet away. Finally she glanced at Naruto.

''Naruto.'' The blonde looked at her. ''I need you for the plan. Also, Haana-san, can I have a cup of that water?" Not even a minute later, when the plan had just managed to be discussed, loud voices and yelling echoed from the broken down gates.

''COME OUT, CHUNIN! WE'RE HERE!" Kuro bellowed, and the villagers and Leaf ninja looked at each other. When Gurehai began heading for the bandits, a small hand on her wrist stopped her. She stared down at Rozuu's green orbs, and took her green vest, which he was offering to her with tears in the corners of his eyes.

''We'll bring her back.'' She just said, motioning for him to stay put. Haana wrapped an arm around his shoulders keeping close to Sasuke. Naruto and Neji walked up to her, the first forming a seal.

The last few rays of sunlight danced across the grassy terrain, when the three walked past the Great Ape Mud Wall and stood several yards away. The sky, painted blue and orange, seemed to stall the setting of the sun, waiting for the exchange.

''What's it gonna be, Chunin?" Kuro asked tauntingly, holding up Tsubaki by the back of her shirt. On his left and right, only eight bandits remained. ''Will you come over to me willingly.... or will I have to get my hands dirty?" The Aoyo gave him a hard stare, and then untied the weapon pouches from around her thighs.

''Let her go. I won't hesitate to choke you with my bare hands, if I have to.'' She said, slowly advancing towards him. He chuckled and his face changed into one of delight. ''Tsubaki, look at me.'' She then said, attracting the crying girl's attention. ''I want you to walk over to Neji, and he'll take you to Haana. Don't look back, okay? I'll be just fine.''

When she reached Kuro, the man finally let the five-year old go. She stumbled slightly and then took off running into the Hyuga's arms. Even as a Rogue, at least he has a shred of dignity left. But still.... he's a Rogue, who killed and tortured.

''Now...'' The leader smirked maliciously, raising his weapon above her head. ''...I'll just go ahead and do my thing.'' With that, he let the hand that was raised above his head fall. Gurehai didn't even brace herself for the impact.... that never came. 

Quick sounds of earth splitting apart came from all around the party, and nine identical gasps were heard, followed by curses and grunts.

''Bitch!" Kuro spat at her face, when she slowly turned around to face him. Her two Earth Clones, that had risen from underground, along with sixteen of Naruto's Shadow Clone's, looped their arms around his biceps and forced them backwards, making him gasp for breath. Two Shadow Clones did the same for each bandit around them, and immobilized them.

''You abandoned Konoha, robbed, tortured, kidnapped, killed. Kuro, leader of the bandits, did you seriously think that you could best us? A united team?'' Her eyes had transformed to slits, glaring down at him in disdain. Then, she glanced at Neji from over her shoulder, and, in a painstakingly slow pace, formed hand seals. ''Neji... cover her eyes.'' The boy obeyed with a nod and pressed Tsubaki's head on his shoulder, making her look at the Mud Wall behind them instead.

''Chidori.'' 

---- 

The week passed by quicker than anyone would expect. Every hut and house was now inhabited, just like before the attack. The Elder, although tired, had a clear head, and apologized for the trouble from the depths of his heart. When the men returned, bearing gifts and most importantly food for the autumn and winter to come, team Hai were treated like kings and queens. The night of the return, the feast and celebrations were inevitable. 

The teens, with Sasuke still unconscious, decided to leave the day after. Carrying flasks full of the fountain water, and with whatever minor injuries they had healed, the waved the twins, Haana and Kenki, who blushed profoundly during his exchange of 'farewells' with Gurehai, goodbye. 

The roaring Great Ape watched after them for the miles to follow, a reminder of their feats. As they left the newly named village Sarutori* behind, the Chunin breathed in relief, for the success of her first mission. She, however, would never find out that when Haana gave birth to her child later that month, she named her little boy Shirohai*.

Now, with Sasuke travelling on the back of one of her sturdy Earth Clones, they moved with a steady pace through the Land of Fire's forests. The boy, dazed, opened his eyes, and was met with a waterfall of white hair.

''Gure?" He groaned, black eyes half-open.

''Sasuke.'' The real Aoyo exclaimed, purposefully falling behind a bickering Naruto and Neji to walk alongside him and her Clone. ''It's nice to see you woke up, but you should probably rest again. The mission is over. We'll reach Konoha in about two days, and Lady Fifth can take care of you then.''

''We're going back home.''

Chapter Text

''Soraku Gurehai, Captain of Team Hai for the mission in the village Tori, reporting.'' The white haired girl recited, standing with a nervous Naruto and a stoic Neji a few steps behind her in the Hokage's office. ''Mission, successful. The village was rebuilded completely, and the villagers protected. The bandits, all eliminated. Kuro of Konohagakure, Rogue ninja and leader of the gang, is dead.''

''Of Konohagakure?" Tsunade asked with hard stare, as if to verify the new piece of information.

''Yes, Lady Fifth. The man wore a head protector with a crossed out Leaf symbol on it. Inspecting it up close, I was convinced it was authentic.'' Gurehai added, her gaze on the Hokage unwavering. She's going to question his position, and his role on the mission. She'll want to know why I didn't write back to the Village for back up, and my argument is going to look like plain excuses.

The Sannin stayed silent for a few seconds, staring at the three teens with her chin resting on her intertwined fingers. Then, her eyes narrowed. ''You are one Genin short.'' She commented, and Naruto gulped.

''Sasuke was admitted to the Hospital the moment we arrived at the Village. I wanted to report to you, and ask you to take a look at him and his case, which I am afraid is not a normal one. He was hit by a Rasengan in the chest.''

''A Rasengan?" Tsunade gasped, her eyes switching from the Chunin to Naruto in less than a second. 

''A half-completed one, yes.''

''Granny Tsunad-...'' The Uzumaki started, already determined to explain the situation to the woman and take the weight off Gurehai's shoulders. But, he was immediately cut of by the Aoyo herself, who didn't hesitate to raise her voice over his.

''I take the full blame and responsibility for it. Sasuke wouldn't have suffered that injury if it weren't for my poor battle tactics.'' She said, bowing her head. ''Now, since the report is over with, will you excuse me? I have to stop by the Hospital on the way home.''

She didn't have to specify who she was going to visit to the Hokage, who new it was about her mother. The boys, assuming it was Sasuke, didn't question it. When given permission to leave, she quickly exited the office and building, rushing to the Hospital.

First, she stopped by Sasuke. When she and the boys had brought him there, the nurses had taken him, and he had gotten a room by himself. Stopping by the front desk to inform them of her visit, with her Chunin vest not causing delays anymore, she took the necessary twists and turns and found herself outside his door. When she opened it, she wasn't surprised to find two more visitors there.

Sakura and Ino sat by his side, watching his sleeping form. A vase with flowers had been placed on the table by the window, obviously by them, since it hadn't been there when she had dropped him of. Four flowers were in it, brightening up the atmosphere. The Genin noticed her instantly, and raised their heads. First in their eyes, was curiosity, to see who it was. Then, realization. After that, shock.

''Gure?" The Yamanaka gasped, inspecting her head to toe. Just like with Shikamaru, she was more than surprised to see her change in attire. The green Chunin vest couldn't stand out more against her white hair, the way it fell on her shoulders in waves. ''What are you wearing?"

''Y-you made Chunin?" Sakura added, green eyes widening. Gurehai didn't answer to either of the questions, despite wanting to rub it in their faces deep inside. Instead, she closed the door behind her with an indifferent expression and approached the patient's bed, staring down at him with sadness in her blue eyes.

''Has he woken up at all the past hour?" She asked the girls, who looked at her curiously. When they shook their heads no, she sighed and kept staring at his peaceful face, as if waiting for him to suddenly wake up and tell her he was alright. ''Lady Fifth should be coming, any minute now. She'll take care of him.''

''What even happened? He just got out of the hospital, and then he was off to some mission a few days later. You were together, weren't you? You, and Sasuke, and Naruto?" Sakura demanded, and the Aoyo glanced at her through her heavy lidded eyes. What was she supposed to tell them? That Naruto hurt him? That he almost died because of him? Or should she shoulder the blame, just like she had in front of Tsunade? It was her fault, after all, and in the end, the answer was clear.

''The three of us and Neji were on a mission. Sasuke got hurt because of my poor battle tactics, there's nothing more to it. As the Captain of the mission, the blame is mine to bear.'' Are you going to yell at me? Are you going to make me feel even more like shit, as if I don't know what I've done? Well then, Yamanaka, Haruno. Do it. It will make no difference. Do it, so I can go visit her.

''So you just let him get hurt under your watch, huh?" The blonde exploded, like she had read the girl's mind. ''Team Captains are supposed to watch over their subordinates! And to think I considered you to be strong after the Exams! What if Sasuke-kun died because of you?"

''Ino, st-...'' Sakura tried to make her rival to calm down, even though she too, was upset. 

''Don't tell me you aren't angry, Sakura!'' Ino snapped again. Gurehai wasn't even looking at them. She continued to stare at the Uchiha, memorizing his breathing pattern. Their voices were going to wake him up. ''Don't you know what could have happened to him? And she couldn't even protect him! In the end, you are just Gurehippo. Why did they even made you Chunin for? " With that one last angry comment, she swung her fist at Gurehai, who caught it effortlessly.

From her perspective, she is right. Even from my perspective, she's partially right. I know what could have happened to him, and that I couldn't protect him. But it wasn't me, it wasn't. I'm not going to let you touch me, bully. Not when you're lower than me. Not now, when I've showed myself to you.

''You are right, I let him get hurt. I was supposed to watch over him, but I failed. A little more, and he would've probably been dead. I agree, I agree with what you say, and I'll accept it. But if you dare raise your hand against me again in the future, Yamanaka, I won't hesitate to break it.'' She threatened with her usual, terrifyingly calm tone, and pushed her hand away with a little more force than normal.

''Gureh-...'' The pink haired girl started again, watching the scene with sad eyes. The Chunin simply turned her back to Ino and the sleeping Uchiha, ready to leave.

''Try not to wake him up by yelling. Lady Fifth will come to see him, but until then, he needs all the rest he can get. I might pass by later.'' Hopefully, you'll be gone until then, she wanted to add, but sighed and took a step forward. She was stopped taking a second by a hand clasping around her wrist.

''Gure...'' Sasuke's raspy voice reached her ears, and she turned around to face him, hearing the two other visitors gasp. She looked down at him softly and he let go of her hand, trying to open his eyes up more. ''Wh... what's...'' Realizing he wasn't going to form a full sentence, she spoke on her own.

''Naruto, Neji and I brought you to the Hospital. Don't worry, the Hokage will be here soon enough, and you'll be back on your feet in no time.'' How long has he been awake? ''I'm sorry, but I can't stay.'' She didn't care if the two girls took that as an offense, and let the boy come to his own conclusion. ''The girls will bring you some water. We'll talk later.'' Holding back the already forced smile she would have given him if they were alone, she placed his hand back on his side and turned around, exiting the room. The door closed behind her, and she made her way to her next destination.

The door to her mother's room was closed. Opening it and stepping inside, her eyes filled with sorrow upon  falling on the woman. She was pale, despite the sunlight lighting the room up, and her body had thinned out, ever so slightly. Even with her eyes closed, the dark circles around them were evident, and they hadn't appeared due to the lack of sleep.

''Mother.'' She mumbled, kneeling down next to her and taking her hand into hers, cupping it with both her palms. ''They told me you were still asleep, but... I didn't think it would be like this. What's wrong? I heard you woke up, that you were asking for me. I'm sorry, I really am. It was a long mission, like I had predicted. But, it was successful.'' She talked and talked, rubbing circles on the back of Gureki's hand with her thumbs.

''Well, Sasuke got hurt. Lady Tsunade promised she'd come and see him, so I know he'll be alright. And on our trip, I met plenty of people. I made... friends. A little girl called me 'Gurehai-neesan'. Hadn't heard that since I last saw Konohamaru.'' She laughed awkwardly, trying to blink away her tears. Letting silence fall around them, she lowered her headband and let it fall on her neck, bringing her mother's hand to her forehead.

''You really have to wake up, mother.'' She then said, closing her eyes. ''I don't like staying by myself in an empty house, and you know I'm not a good cook. I don't want to end up eating ramen three times a day, like Naruto.'' She sniffled, but held the tears back. A gust of wind blew through the open window and the curtains rustled, making her raise her head. Seeing the empty table under them, she blinked. ''That's right. I'll bring some flowers tomorrow, and put them in a vase. I'll go to that small clearing by the training grounds and pick them up... I'll pick the up myself.''

''I just... all I need you to do, is wake up.'' She finally whispered, bringing the woman's hand to her lips and placing a soft kiss on it. ''I'll be back again, tonight... see if you're awake... I love you.'' The white haired Kunoichi stood up quickly and gave the older Aoyo a smile, before turning around to leave. She quickly came to a halt, when she saw Sakura in front of the door she had left open.

''Gurehai...'' She exclaimed, her eyes having the same sad look they had with Sasuke earlier. Looking closely, a few tears could be seen glistening on their corners. ''I.... I wanted to...'' She paused a bit, her gaze falling on the unconscious woman behind her teammate. ''I wanted to... apologize...''

Apologize? Gurehai's mind went wild, with a variety of emotions that didn't show on the outside. She wants to apologize? And how... how long has she been standing there, watching? That's not like her... that's just not like her... at all.

''I don't need anyone's pity.'' She just said, walking out of the room, and away from her mother. ''And especially, not yours. Don't assume you know about me, because you know about my mother's condition, because you saw that.'' She then walked past her without looking back, leaving Sakura behind, secretly ashamed. ''Just because you started calling me 'Gurehai', because you decided to use my name, doesn't mean all you've done is forgotten.''

And she headed towards her empty house.

----

Four shadows stood behind Tsunade in her office, two close to each other, the other two in the corners of the room, as if to keep away from them. The Hokage had her back turned to all of them, staring with a tired expression outside the windows.

''Naruto is ready.'' The biggest one claimed, arms crossed over his chest. With long hair flowing down to his hips, he had his back against the wall with Tsunade's desk in front of him. ''It won't be long now until he has to leave.''

''It is certain that the Akatsuki will be coming for him, then?" The woman closed her eyes, secretly envying the free birds flying in the blue skies. ''For the Nine-Tails inside him?"

''Yes, I am afraid there's no other choice but to help him draw on his inner power, control it as much as he can, and get stronger. We don't know the exact reason they want both him and Gurehai, so the only thing we can do is defend ourselves.''

''She will be leaving too, then? The lot of you, you are taking my students away one by one.'' Another voice complained dramatically, hoping to break the ice between the other four. ''When will they leave? Aren't her duties as Chunin in the way?"

''I'll keep her here for another couple of months.'' The blonde Sannin turned around, her light brown eyes traveling from the first guest on her left and the last on her right. ''Despite the success of her latest mission, she has to gain more experience. Both as a Captain and platoon member. I have created one made up by four Chunin, one of which is Gurehai herself. I have special B-Ranks destined for them. Other than that, she's more than ready.''

''More than ready?B-Rank missions? Despite my status and relation to her, I have yet to see her performance and true skills. How am I supposed to give my consent?"

''We don't need your consent, old man.'' Someone else snapped, fed up. ''The rest of us have seen extraordinary things, and agree. The Hokage has said it herself. You are really thinking of going against her word? What a teammate you are.''

''It's the truth.'' The grey-haired Jonin interrupted, before things got worse. ''She excels in Ninjutsu, her reflexes are quick, her Genjutsu can kill a man, and no one can deny her leadership abilities. She made Chunin, she was Lord Hiruzen's student. What is there left for her to achieve, before she leaves Konoha? We are working on perfecting her Raiton, and she has already started to learn Suiton Jutsus.''

''Why are you encouraging them, Kakashi?" The other man asked, worry evident in his voice.

''Because he's right.'' The fourth voice finally spoke, all eyes on him. ''You think we don't know she has started to learn how to tap on her growing chakra reserves as well? What that White Chidori on the day of Orochimaru's attack was? She has killed, she had killed many times. It may only be a matter of time before she awakens the Taorigan, and she's going to need guidance.''

''The Taorigan? Tsunade, you are going to allow this? After all the things she's lost, you are going to let her kill the ones she loves?'' The older ninja demanded, looking at the Hokage with fire in his dark eyes.

''You mean the people that have been lying to her her entire life?'' The previous voice said before the woman could reply, eyes blazing. ''Just because the remaining members of her family didn't awaken it, doesn't mean she can't. The Akatsuki might be preparing for war, Sannin.''

''I didn't bring you all here to argue like this!" The Hokage shouted, making all noise in the room subside immediately. ''I have made my decision, and it is final. Gureki has also given her consent, so there's nothing left to discuss. Gurehai's latest achievements are proof of what she is capable of, and it's not only her successful mission.''

''What do you mean, Lady Fifth?"

''Her subordinate, Neji Hyuga, stayed behind after the mission report earlier, and conveyed everything that happened. Everything. Her approach to the villagers, her battle plans, her tactics. The way she thought every situation through. Unbeknownst to me, the mission was in fact a B-Rank, with the bandits aiming to take her and the scrolls she carried. Their leader was a Rogue.''

''Was?'' Kakashi walked from his spot near the windows to Tsunade, watching as she opened a drawer and pulled out an all-too-familiar book, that everyone in the room recognized. ''Explain, Lady Tsunade.''

''The bandits were all eliminated, and few escaped. Having lost their leader, seeing him defeated in front of their eyes like that, I don't worry that they will get into the criminal life ever again.'' She opened the Bingo Book, and searched for the right photograph. After turning a few pages, she threw it on the wooden desk and it slid to the other end, showing to the others Kuro's pale face, with his greasy hair falling in front of his eyes. A large, red 'X' was drawn over it.

''She assassinated a Jonin.''

Chapter Text

''Another mission? Already?" Gurehai questioned, the very next day. In front of her, Tsunade narrowed her eyes, with her her chin on her hands, as always. 

''It's a B-Rank. This time, for sure.'' She commented, taking a scroll out from under her desk. ''An escort one. Of course, you won't be alone. Get in here, you two!" She raised her voice, and quick footsteps followed, as two pairs of feet hurried to enter the office. From the open wooden door, in came two Chunin, judging from their attire, and stumbled next to her.

''We're here, Lady Tsunade!" They simultaneously exclaimed, standing straight in front of the woman's unwavering gaze. Gurehai's eyes narrowed. She remembered them. Vividly. 

''Hagane Kotetsu, Kamizuki Izumo.'' The Sannin introduced, waving her hand between the two respectively. ''Meet your Captain, Aoyo Gurehai. The three of you, are going on a B-Rank mission.'' She added, opening the scroll she had previously taken out. The girl didn't turn to her subordinates in order to greet them.

''Captain?" She protested calmly, slightly upset on the inside. ''Lady Fifth, is that really wise? I mean, the last mission-...''

''The last mission was a success.'' Tsunade snapped, not getting into further details. ''Besides, the Feudal Lord specifically asked for you.'' At that, the white haired girl nearly choked. The Feudal Lord? ''Like I said earlier, this is an escort mission. You are to travel to the Feudal Lord's palace and then escort his nephew, Assu, back here, in Konoha.''

After a few moments of silence, the female Chunin sighed, rolled the scroll shut, and bowed her head.

''Yes, Lady Fifth.'' She said confidently, resting her hands on the little loops of her vest. ''We will depart immediately.'' And the two men followed her outside.

----

It didn't take more than three hours of a fast-paced jog to reach the Feudal Lords residence in the Land of Fire, outside of the safety of Konoha. Along the way, the Aoyo and her teammates exchanged little words, some of which concerned her performance on the Exams, an how she remembered them as proctors, clear as day.

The walked with confidence in their step with the female on the lead, passing through long hallways and gardens, being stared at by maids and guards. Shortly after, two gigantic double doors opened, and they entered what looked like the Feudal Lord's throne room. There he sat, on his magnificent chair, holding a small, delicate fan in front of his face. Gurehai and her subordinates bowed their heads respectfully.

''Welcome, Gurehai of the Blue Sun.'' The man said with his strangely feminine voice, and his dark eyes showed amusement, even from afar. ''And her subordinates, of course.'' He added, making Izumo and Kotetsu fangirl on the inside. ''My nephew will be delighted to have you as his escorts. He has been begging me to let him visit Konoha for months now!" He chirped, and waved his free hand in the direction of his servants. ''Bring him in.''

Another, smaller pair of wooden doors opened on the opposite side of the room, and in came a boy in his late teens, dressed in robes, and followed by two girls. The Aoyo bowed again and so did the other two Chunin.

''Lord Assu.'' She said, standing straight again and giving him the most polite smile she could muster. ''It will be our honor to protect you travel with you to Konohagakure.'' But when she looked back up at the tall boy, he gave her an awkward, nervous smile, and stepped aside. 

''Uncle, she's pwetty!" A voice called, which didn't match the boy's looks at all. Then, from behind him, appeared a much shorter person, grinning like a mad man. Gurehai had to keep her face from scrunching up. The boy couldn't be older than ten, and barely reached her shoulder in height. He had drool dripping from the corner of his mouth, and a glint in his eyes that reminded her of Konohamaru around Tsunade. ''Hellooooo.'' He waved, looking up at her with closed eyes.

Behind her, Izumo and Kotetsu paled. Sweating bullets and trying not to laugh, they looked away dramatically. I am wasting my time being away from mother and Sasuke for this? She mentally growled, keeping the strained smile on her face successfully.

''Hello, young Lord. My name is Gurehai, and these are my subordinates, Izumo and Kotetsu.'' She almost growled out the last part, and glared at them with the corner of her eye, giving them signal to bow and stop laughing. ''The three of us will be escorting you to Konoha. We'll leave, when you're ready.'' 

The little boy grinned again and looked up to his uncle, who nodded. Then, without a warning, he jumped up and wrapped his small body around Kotetsu's arm. ''Let's go, my loyal stallion!''

 

The way back to the Leaf Village did not take double the time they spent in order to reach the Feudal Lords palace, like Gurehai had imagined. Instead, when the five-hour mark had passed, the four hadn't even reached the middle, and the sun was going down quickly. Young Assu wanted a short pause every ten minutes, and he often interrupted that pattern, saying he wanted to 'use the bathwoom'. And since no bathroom was remotely close to the path they were following, the males had to take him somewhere in the woods, while the Aoyo kept watch.

The worst thing, though, came at night. Realizing they couldn't possibly reach Konoha before around two hours after midnight, the Lord's escorts set up a small tent and ushered the boy inside, who fell asleep instantly and started snoring. Agitated, Gurehai called her teammates around her.

''The two of you will go inside the tent and sleep next to him. I don't want you stumbling from the lack of sleep tomorrow. I'll stay up and watch out for anything suspicious, and set a few traps around the perimeter. We'll set out again at dawn.''

And when the two complied, she sat down with her back against a tree bark and crossed her arms.

I didn't even get to ask Lady Fifth if healing Sasuke went well, with all this going on. With my luck, and that kid making us stop every god damn second, I'll be twenty by the time we reach the Leaf. She frowned, and exhaled angrily. From what she could see inside the tent, Izumo had lied down on Assu's left and right. Then, the light went out. What if Sasuke and Naruto get into a fight? I don't know id Naruto apologized, and I certainly don't know if Sasuke will accept it, anyway.

Damn it, that was all my fault! She growled. Why would I pair them together, while knowing how they can be? I have a feeling this is going to turn out bad, really bad, and as always, I am only right when I don't want to be. The minutes passed slowly, with the girl scolding herself nonstop. And mother? I didn't have time to get her flowers today, and if this mission goes on any longer, she might get worse, and I won't even know.

Her train of thought was cut short a few seconds later, when an abnormal wave of sleepiness washed over her, making her eyelids grow heavy, and her mind hazy. Her feet failing to move, like she ordered them, her blue eyes fluttered shut, and her hands fell on her sides.

What woke her up, after what felt like mere seconds, was a shrill, girly scream, followed by a different, but identical in pitch one. And then, as if by magic, she managed to stand up, and face the tent, where a few snorts managed to be heard over the screaming. Before she could rush over and see what had happened, the tent fell down instead, and two figures crawled out.

''HELP!" The first voice that screamed exclaimed, and Gurehai's eyes widened... when she saw a topless young woman, with her hands covering her bare chest, running towards her with tears in her rolling down her red face. ''GUREHAI-TAICHOU*, HELP!" Captain? Who in the world is that woman? Wait a minute... that hair... ''THAT LITTLE KID-...'' She suddenly stopped, opening her eyes and blinking her tears away. When her vision cleared, the woman's jaw dropped, and her spiky hair moved wildly around her as she shook her head, screaming once again. ''NO! IT'S ANOTHER PERVERT! WHAT DID YOU DO TO OUR CAPTAIN, YOU JERK?"

''Oi, what are you talking about? I am Gureha-...'' She suddenly stopped talking, finally realizing how weird her voice sounded. Raising her hand up to her face, and inspecting it closely, she nearly did a double take. I... have the hand... of a boy... what? Using both her hands to undo her vest and letting it fall on the ground, she looked at her torso... which was flat, and her abdomen... had abs.

''What did you do, kid?" The voice that screamed second inquired, and they both turned their heads to see another young woman, with straight brown hair, wearing... the standard Leaf ninja attire, without the vest? And her dark brown eyes...

''Izumo?" Gurehai gasped with her hoarse voice, taking a cautious step forward. The woman responded, and her eyes  widened. Out of the fallen tent crawled Assu... grinning like an idiot. ''Then, that means...'' She turned to the first girl, who had still tears in her confused face, and shivered like a fish out of water. ''Kotetsu? What in the world is going on, damn it?" She growled, tossing him her Chunin vest she had earlier taken off. 

''Oh, no.'' Assu pouted, drool still in the corner of his mouth, threatening to drip down. ''I wanted to make those smelly boys twansform into giwls, but I changed my white pwincess as well!'' He lowered his head, but it snapped up a second later, when Kotetsu stomped his- her foot on the ground and held a fist up in the air.

''What kind of Transformation Jutsu is this, brat?!" The spiky haired Chunin demanded, chasing the laughing kid around. ''Undo it, NOW!" Completely brushing aside their client's status, he began dodging branches and rocks in order to catch him. ''COME HERE!"

Would it be really bad for the mission and Konoha if I bashed his little drooling face against those rocks? Gurehai seethed, taking out a kunai and holding it up close to her face, wanting to see her reflection. She saw a face more narrow than her original, with shorter white hair and boyish features. The eyebrows, although the same color, were thinner, and the lips weren't as plump. Grateful there was still a thick strand covering her right eye, she huffed.

''I think it would, since he's the Feudal Lord's nephew and all.'' Izumo's feminine voice said from next to her, and she mentally cursed herself for thinking out loud... as always. With an agitated grunt, she tucked the kunai back in her pouch, and crossed her arms.

''Can someone take over this mission, please?"

----

Things became even worse, when they came close to Konoha, the very next morning. Noon was approaching when they reached the Gates, and the Captain was almost certain they would have trouble being recognized by the guards. She had taken off her cloak, putting it in a scroll inside her vest, and only wore that over her black attire.

''Hold it, the four of you!" A different Chunin yelled the moment  they stepped foot inside the Village, approaching them with quick strides. ''Who are you, wearing these Chunin vests? Your faces are unfamiliar!" The ninja sighed simultaneously, while Assu cracked an evil smile.

''I am Gurehai Soraku, leading Izumo Kamizuki and Kotetsu Hagane in an escort mission, guarding Lord Assu, nephew of our Feudal Lord.'' She explained through gritted teeth, pointing respectively at herself and the three boys. 

''Ha! As if! I've seen Gurehai Soroku before, in the finals of the Exams, and she's a girl, baka!'' The man laughed. ''And... Izumo and Kotetsu... these too?" He cackled, pointing at the two best friends who were glaring at him with all their might. ''They can't even get girlfriends like this! So now, leave, or I'll have to force you.''

''Look, whatever-your-name-is.'' The Aoyo tried again, calmly. ''We've been put under some strange Transformation Jutsu, and we need to escort Lord Assu to Lady Fifth.'' She waved her hand in the boy's direction, who was not-so discretely trying to grab one of the females' butt. Izumo quickly slapped his hands away, without his friend noticing. ''If you don't believe us, I'm afraid you'll have to bring her here yourself, and I don't think she'll be happy.''

''Like I said before, as if!" The Chunin went on, the look of terror after the thought of an angry Tsunade vanishing from his face. ''Lady Tsunade wouldn't have time for such nonsense, anyway.'' Crossing his arms, he looked away. ''She's too busy dealing with that Uchiha boy leaving the Village, ever since dawn.''

Gurehai went pale at the sound of that. Body completely frozen, she missed her subordinates' worried glances. What... what did he... say?

''Siw...'' Assu started, finally stepping forward. ''If you don't let us thwough this instant, I am going to tell my uncle!" He pouted, standing too short in front of the grown man. ''And then-...''

''What did you say about Sasuke Uchiha?" The Aoyo cut the boy off, grabbing the guard by the collar of his vest. Seeing the white haired boy's angered face, and the strength with which he was subconsciously holding him up, he caved in.

''He-he left the Village... I heard it was last night, around midnight... Rumors... rumors say that he got into a fight with his teammate, that Nine-Tails brat...'' That was the only hing Gure needed. In less than a second, she had released the man, and had span around to face her team.

''Izumo, Kotetsu! Bring Assu to Lady Fifth. I don't care if you have to knock this guy out!" She ordered, and, faster than their eyes could see, leapt away on top of nearby roof tops.

Sasuke... what happened? What did you and Naruto do? And why... why would the two of you fight like that? Please, please don't let it be what I think it is... Please, let all this all be a misunderstanding... Please... tell me all this isn't  my fault... as always.

She didn't even realize when she got to the Hokage building, or rather, the bottom of it. Without any hesitation even passing through her head, she jumped up and reached the windows of Tsunade's office. Getting inside, and skidding to a stop next to her desk, she didn't even wait to acknowledge the rest of the people in the room.

''Lady Fifth!" She exclaimed, still with her deep voice. The blonde woman, and her assistant Shizune, were taken aback by the sudden entrance. ''I know it's really strange, but it's me, Gurehai! The Feudal Lord's nephew performed some kind of Transformation Jutsu on us!" To prove her point, she took the stray strand of hair that his her eye and pushed it completely aside, showing her the scar that hadn't been erased, simply because Assu didn't know it existed.

''Gurehai?" The Sannin gaped, her eyes serious. Upon seeing her eye, thought, her disbelief turned to belief, and she began looking her up and down. ''I believe it's you.'' Then, her expression changed. ''You heard...'' She trailed off, and the white haired Chunin placed her hands on her desk, leaning forward.

''What happened to Sasuke?"

Chapter Text

''Gurehai?" The Sannin gaped, her eyes serious. Upon seeing her eye, thought, her disbelief turned to belief, and she began looking her up and down. ''I believe it's you.'' Then, her expression changed. ''You heard...'' She trailed off, and the white haired Chunin placed her hands on her desk, leaning forward.

''What happened to Sasuke?"

Tsunade stared at the Chunin with an almost sad expression. The girl who was always strong, collected and calm, was slowly falling apart before her very eyes. 

''I was told that he and Naruto had a fight on the Hospital's roof, while you were gone. They aimed a Rasengan and a Chidori at each other, and while Kakashi got there in time to stop them, Sasuke left the scene, without a word. All that happened at noon. The next thing I heard from him, was from a guard that was patrolling the outer streets of the Village. He found Sakura, unconscious.'' At the mention of Sakura, the Hokage raised her hand and pointed at something behind Gurehai. When she turned around, she saw her pink haired teammate, sitting on a chair and watching the scene with wide, teary eyes.

''H-he left...'' The girl sniffled, lowering her gaze on her lap. ''It was really late at night... I-tried to stop him... he left!" She sobbed, clutching the fabric of her shirt. With her own wide eyes, the Aoyo turned to her superior once again.

''He left...'' She whispered, her voice hesitant. ''He left the Village... to go where?'' She questioned, the gears in her mind turning frantically.

''He's heading towards the Sound.'' The Sannin replied, as shock flickered in the Kunoichi's eyes. ''I believe he intends to join... Orochimaru.'' At that, Gurehai's fists clenched, and her eyes darkened.

Orochimaru? She growled in her head, the image of his pale face and his yellow, snake-like eyes passing through her mind without wavering. Orochimaru? Why... why would he go to that... to that snake? What got into him? And why in the world would they fight? I know... I know their relationship isn't the most civil... and that there's been a tension between them lately...  but why... why would they fight like that? Why would they use techniques... to kill each other?

''Where is Naruto now?" She asked after a few seconds of silence, keeping her down. They already knew she was upset. They didn't have to see the look in her face as well, though. 

''I sent him after Sasuke, this morning.'' The Hokage said, and, once again, shock ran through Gurehai's every  bone. ''With Inuzuka Kiba, Akimichi Choji, Hyuga Neji, and Shikamaru as their leader, they went after him, in order to bring him back to the Village. If they do not succeed, then Sasuke Uchiha... will be declared a Rogue Ninja of Konohagakure.'' 

Tension started to immediately grow in the room, so heavy, the Aoyo could feel it on her shoulders. With a determined expression on her pale face, and the fire of desperation burning in her visible eye, she looked up at the Fifth Hokage, taking her hands of her desk.

''I request permission to go after him as well.'' She stated, resting her fingers in the loops on the bottom of her vest. ''The closer they get to the Sound, the more of Orochimaru's subordinates there'll be. If that's the case, then the five of them will be in trouble.''

It seemed as if nobody dared to take a breath as Tsunade contemplated on her answer. After what felt like a century of an intense stare-down between her and the blonde Sannin, Tsunade sighed.

''Permission denied.'' She said, and the Aoyo nearly gasped. Before she could protest, the woman spoke again. ''I can't let you go after Sasuke, not when he is nearing Orochimaru's lair.''

''Tsunade-sama!" Shizune exclaimed, holding her pig in her arms. 

''But, why?" Gurehai asked, frustration building up inside her. ''We need to convince him to come back, before he is too far gone! And if Naruto and the others find themselves into an ambush, there's nothing stopping him from falling into Orochimaru's clutches! Please, Lady Fifth!"

''The reason I am not allowing you to go is because of your emotional state!" Tsunade raised her voice, making the girl recoil. ''You are too upset and unstable to be allowed on such a mission. Also, don't tell me you don't know that Orochimaru wants you too! I know all about it. From your senseis, both your old one and the new.'' That made Gurehai stop again. After a deep breath, she shook her head. ''I can't risk him taking you.''

''My team... my team is falling apart.'' The white haired Kunoichi said through gritted teeth, trying to calm herself down. ''And it's happening, probably because of our last mission. The one in Tori, in which was the leader. I have to fix up my mess, before it's too late.'' She stared pleadingly into the Hokage's honey colored orbs. ''He's heading towards Orochimaru. Orochimaru. I won't say I know him, and especially not more than you, Lady Fifth. But he killed Lord Third!'' She exclaimed, her voice almost breaking... like her mask. ''I can't let that snake corrupt my teammate, and I won't. At least, not without trying. So, I will go after him, with or without your permission.'' With her mind set, she took a step back from the desk. ''I don't fear the consequences.''

More silence followed, this one accompanied by the worried glances of Shizune and Sakura, glancing back and forth between the females. Blue challenged brown, stubbornness against authority. She's going to say 'no', Gurehai couldn't help but think. She's going to say 'no', and I will have to make a run for it... the North... the Sound is in the North...

''Go.'' The Sannin said without blinking, waiting for the girl's reaction. When her eye widened with surprise, and then softened with relief, she chuckled. ''You'll have to hurry.''

''I'll run faster than the wind.'' Gurehai promised, letting her hands fall to her sides as she bowed her head. Behind her, and next to Sakura, the door opened, and giggles were heard. Turning around, the Aoyo's eyes shone in recognition. ''Lord Assu!" She exclaimed, kneeling down next to him, and to his height... as he was wrapped around Kotetsu's leg. ''I beg of you, please, release your Jutsu!"

Inwardly seething for the tone she was using, she kept a straight face. I should be holding the little brat by the collar right now, 'Lord' or not, she thought. 

''My friends... they are in danger.'' She finally whispered, glad the boy looked around to see the upset and saddened faces of the Hokage and her guests. ''I need to go help them.'' With a confused look in his dark eyes, Assu finally caved in, raising his small fingers against her forehead. A second later, Gure felt cold wind brush against her skin, as the boyish features melted off of her. When his hand fell back down, she nodded in appreciation, and stood up.

Taking a scroll out of her vest and opening it, she pushed back her shoulders, letting her Chunin identification mark slide off her arms. Her previously sealed cloak waved around her as she effortlessly put it on, and her hair fell down on her shoulders and over her eye, as always.

''I hate making promises I can't keep, and I hate not keeping them even more.'' She commented, lingering on the window sill for a second. ''But I will do everything I can to bring them back, safe.'' She looked over her shoulder at the pink haired Haruno, whose green eyes filled with tears again.

With that, she jumped off.

----

Naruto had been having a hard time fighting one of Orochimaru's minions, the white haired Kimimaro. Even though he kept on making Shadow Clones the one after the other, the older boy, using his peculiar Kekkei Genkai, demolished them all. Wielding a sword of his very own bones, and with his Taijutsu skills, he not only managed to defend himself, but also gained the upper hand.

''Damn it!" The blonde boy cursed loudly, sending five more against his opponent. With one, swift move, all five turned to smoke, and he emerged from inside it. Behind them, the casket in which Sasuke was held, was smoking purple.

''A little more to go...'' Kimimaro drawled, sword secure in his hand. ''It's about time, and I've been eagerly waiting... Lord Orochimaru's ambition... the first step...'' With these last words, the paper seals keeping the casket closed ripped open, and the container exploded in one, big bang. 

Naruto's red eyes widened, and his breath hitched. Sasuke... Sasuke was back. But what came out of that smoke, was nowhere near what the Uchiha looked like. Its long, purple hair retreated after a few seconds, as well as its claws and tan skin, that turned out to be the Curse Mark. The being, that now looked like Sasuke, stared at his hands.

''Sasuke!" Naruto laughed, his gleaming eyes now their usual, cerulean shade. ''What are you doing with these guys, huh?" He asked, trying to ignore the bubbling feeling inside him. ''Come on, let's go home now!" He called next, lips forming a large grin.

His proposal was met with laughter. Cold, sarcastic laughter. Taken aback, the Uzumaki tried again. ''Sasuke... hey... hey, we're going home!" It didn't feel right. They were supposed to go back home together, weren't they? Just like that time in the Land of Waves, where the two of them climbed those trees together... or when... when in the Chunin Exams, they said they wanted to fight each other... he had said so... and when they fought back to back against those bandits... ''Everyone's worried about you... so...''

Laughter. All he got in return... was laughter. Cruel laughter. ''SASUKE!" He finally exclaimed, no longer able to ignore the feeling that something wasn't right. ''Let's get back, ttebayo! You can hear my voice can't you?" Sakura's trembling voice came to his mind, and he remembered his promise. ''And Gure-chan... Gure-chan didn't get to see you out of the Hospital! She has to see you're alright!"

The black haired ninja looked at the ground, and stepped on the leaf that landed next to his feet. With that, he shook his head, and leapt away.

''WAIT, SASUKE-..'' His eyes widened hopelessly when he made for his friend, after he realized that Kimimaro was behind him and about to attack him once again. He didn't have enough time to even turn around, as the Sound ninja raised his weapon above his head. 

''It's futile.'' He stated, swinging down. ''Die!" But the pain the Genin expected to feel when the sword would rip his skin apart, never came. Instead, he heard the bone clash against something equally as hard, and then the unmistakable thump of someone hitting the ground. 

''Sasuke!" A commanding, imposing voice echoed throughout the grassy field, making the Uchiha stop dead in his tracks near the tree line. Without turning his head around, he could feel the presence of who it was... as the voice rang in his ears. ''Where do you think you're going, you idiot?"

Gurehai stood in front of Naruto protectively, the Rock Spear with which she blocked the Kekkei Genkai user's hit in hand. The wind blew her shoulder length hair around, but hid her eye from view successfully. She twirled the Spear around and then buried it in the ground next to her. "Konoha is the other way around."

''...I have to say... I didn't expect you to come here, Gure.'' The Uchiha spoke for the first time after his emergence from his sealed carriage, his voice colder than usual. ''...But that... it doesn't really change anything. I will not be returning to Konoha with you. My path... my path is a different one.''

''Your path?" The Aoyo echoed, not wanting to believe in her own ears. ''Your path with whom? Orochimaru? The snake that almost killed us all, and nearly destroyed Konoha, our Village? Our home?'' She raised her voice, emphasizing her last words. ''We thought you died when he bit you, when he took a gamble on whether you'd survive or not!"

''He... he can help me get stronger. He is the only one who can give the power I need... the power I need in order to kill him.'' The Uchiha argued, clenching his fists. ''There is no other way. Konoha isn't my home anymore. It hasn't been... for a long while.''

''Listen to yourself!" She almost laughed, understanding his reference to the slaughter of his clan. ''Konoha is not your home? And you can't get stronger by staying there? Is Team 7 not your family? Aren't we supposed to grow stronger together? You know... you knew it from the very first day we became a team, that I was with you in your goal to kill your brother. I still am. I wish to kill the man who murdered my father as well, but you don't see me succumbing to Orochimaru's will like he wants me to do, do you?" She asked, not caring that she had revealed her hidden goal.

''You never found out... but he tried to bite me too. He promised me great things, he said he'd give me back my father... But only the gods can bring the dead back to life, Sasuke, and he's not one. And when I refused, do you know what he did then?'' She questioned, taking a step forward. ''He killed Lord Third, the man who became a second father to me! He's evil, and he won't stop being, whatever you do. If you join him, he'll simply corrupt you!'' 

''Gure... nothing you say now will change my mind.'' Sasuke replied emotionlessly. Truth to be told, he didn't know about the Sannin wanting to recruit his white haired teammate as well. But that didn't matter to him, at all. He didn't care if she was left behind, he didn't care if he joined him in his way to the Sound... he didn't. ''I think you're smart enough to understand that.''

The girl masked her anger, frustration and desperation, instead taking a deep breath, closing her eyes. 

''I get it. I really, honestly get it, Sasuke. Your family died, your family was killed. You want revenge, and I know that it can't compare with what you've been through, but I've lost family too. I still am loosing. And I would have no problem with you choosing a different path, a different place to grow stronger to avenge those deaths. But... he is Orochimaru. It's probably of no significance to you... But he killed Hiruzen Sarutobi, our Hokage, the man that helped me through the pain in the years of my childhood!''

''I was in pain... I was a mess. But he was there! He stayed by my side, even though he wasn't my real family, and helped me get through it. And Orochimaru murdered him, just like that!" She called out to him, in one last attempt to hold her team together. ''So how... tell me how would you feel if after everything you've been through, after everything you've felt, I mercilessly killed the one person that was there, and made things a little better? The one person, that didn't look at you as if you were a pest?"

She hated the silence that followed. She hated how the wind was the only thing that moved around them, the only thing that made a sound. Grateful in the back of her mind, because Kimimaro hadn't attacked and disturbed their exchange, she exhaled shakily. Then, Sasuke raised his head, and stared at the forest in front of him.

''I am sorry, Gure...'' He said, the breeze messing with his spiky hair. She didn't really know what he was apologizing for, since he had already made a decision. She didn't even know what he wanted to say. Until...
''...But... I don't really think you'd ever commit suicide.'' 

''What?" She could only exclaim breathlessly, as he made his way inside the woods.

She had no time to do anything more, as Kimimaro came at her with his sword raised from behind.

Chapter Text

''So how... tell me how would you feel if after everything you've been through, after everything you've felt, I mercilessly killed the one person that was there, and made things a little better? The one person, that didn't look at you as if you were a pest?"

''I am sorry, Gure...But... I don't really think you'd ever commit suicide.'' 

''What?" She could only exclaim breathlessly, as he made his way inside the woods. She had no time to do anything more, as Kimimaro came at her with his sword raised from behind.

All her shock disappeared for a moment, as she span around and collided her foot with the bone, instantly regretting it. It was hard, and made her entire leg tremble. Masking her pain, she pressed against the sword and back flipped, grabbing her Rock Spear in the process. When her feet touched the ground, she raised it and deflected another of Kimimaro's hits.

''Naruto, go after him!" She shouted, pushing against the boy. ''I'll take care of this one as soon as I can, and follow you. Go now, before he passes the border!" With that, she pt all her strength in her arms, and threw him backwards.

She only saw his orange figure ran past her vaguely, before her attention focused on the Sound ninja, who stared down at her in confusion.

''You seem very confident in your abilities to hold me back, let alone defeat me.'' He commented, their weapons once again colliding within the blink of an eye. ''Are you sure you aren't just recklessly throwing your life away?You don't look more of a challenge than that blonde boy earlier." He went on, as they clashed again.

''I may not be.'' She said, backing away after a quick thrust of her Spear, with her back turned to him. The boy narrowed his eyes. ''But, you must have not heard my words earlier. Your Lord Orochimaru, intended to give me the Curse Mark, and make me join him. So, perhaps, I should give you my name...'' She said, letting the wind mess with her cloak, and reveal the azure crest on her back.

''Aoyo...'' Kimimaro whispered, as the girl turned around, staring at him with her sharp, ice blue eye.

''...Gurehai. Tell me, will your master be mad at you if you hurt me? Or has he made peace with the fact that I will never fall under his control, and no longer has use of me? If the second statement is true, then I will enjoy crushing you at your full power, before going after Sasuke and bringing him back to our Village.''

''Those are big words coming from someone who is about to loose.'' The Kaguya said, bending his body forward. Then, letting his weapon retreat inside his body, he snapped his eyes up and stared at her dead in the eyes. ''Larch Dance.'' He exclaimed, and several needle-like bones grew out of his upper body, forming an armor around him.

Gurehai stood her ground and observed closely the new transformation, hiding her surprise. There are bones growing out of his body, she thought, tightening her grip around her own weapon. Is this... a Kekkei Genkai? And those markings spreading from his chest... they look like a Curse Mark. This might take a little more time and effort than I originally thought. Turning her head towards the spot were both her teammates had disappeared, she took a deep breath. Do your best, Naruto.

Then, as quickly as she could, she rushed at Kimimaro and raised her foot, aiming for a kick at his side. The bones around that area grew longer and looked as if they were trying to either pierce or trap her foot inside them, so she tossed the Rock Spear from one hand to the other behind her back, and thrusted it towards his abdomen.

Noticing that, Kimimaro stopped the bones in his side and focused on the ones in his belly, using them to cage the Spear inside them. Gurehai instantly jumped away and landed many feet behind, seeing her weapon break into pieces. She raised her hand to touch her face, when she felt something trickle down her cheek. Bringing it in front of her eyes, and recognizing the substance as blood, she grunted. I can't engage him with Taijutsu without risking getting pierced by those bones. That leaves Ninjutsu, and... Genjutsu. But I don't think I'll be able to stall him long enough to get that close to him.

''Your defense looks absolute.'' She praised him, wiping the blood away. ''But it probably isn't. So I guess I'll do my best and protect myself as well.'' She grabbed her cloak and took it off, effortlessly sealing it in the scroll inside her pouch. With that, she dug two fingers in each of her secondary pouches attached on her legs, and almost hugging her arms in front of her chest, she spread it from her biceps to her wrists, and then across her collarbone, right were her top ended. Last came her legs, which she applied dirt to by kneeling down.

When she stood back up, the soil had spread and hardened around her limbs and chest, creating the scale-like pattern that always protected her. ''Let's dance.''

Punch after punch, kick after kick, every time her forearm and knee came in contact with his bones, she came closer and closer to breaking the code, finding his weakness. She started memorizing his movements, his patterns, and, eventually, the right moment came.

While in the air, spinning around to kick his head, and facing away from him, she brought her hands together in a seal. Unbeknownst to him, an Earth Clone rose from the ground behind him, and attacked when Kimimaro swung his arm to push Gurehai away. The Rock Fist sent him stumbling forward, and the girl threw herself at him, intending to punch him again. The white haired boy frowned and raised his hand, piercing her stomach with one of his elongated bones. The Clone slid forward and then exploded in a wave of dust and dirt, momentarily blinding him. But that was all the Aoyo needed.

''Doton: Stone Spike Prison!" The real Gurehai exclaimed, slamming her hands on the grass. Now having him trapped between the thick, large Spikes, and not giving him room to move his head, she took a second to inhale and then exhale, before approaching him with her hand forming a seal. I have him now, she thought, but immediately tensed when she got near him.

The overwhelming feeling of large chakra quantities being released all at once had her take a step back, and then jump away in a series of flips, as Kimimaro broke the stone apart. The force made her feet skid along the grass, and bring her hands in front of her face protectively. He broke... He broke the Stone Spike Prison? That was... an A-Rank technique!

When her eyes finally fell upon her opponent, they widened. The vile chakra signature that had began standing out, now seemed to perfectly fit the image of the boy, who came out of the ruins when the dust settled.

He had taken on a monstrous appearance. His skin, previously pale and littered with the black lines of his Curse Mark, was now dark grey, and animal-like. Six large bones had grown out of his back, and a bone-spiked tail swished in the air behind him. His face seemed to hold a permanent frown, the way two black markings curved around his eyes, which were yellow, with the sclerae completely black.

A growl escaped his throat as he raised his head, and his eyes meeting hers. He came at her, unlike their previous brawl, where only she was the one pursuing an attack. He's planning to slam into me with those bones. She figured, slightly panicking, and infusing more chakra on her Stone Bracers. The action proved to be just in time for the hit, that made her entire left side throb.

She found herself flying in the air, and falling down with terrifying speed. Getting over the hit she took, Gurehai managed to land on her feet, holding her left shoulder. The scale-like stone pattern on her left arm had cracked and partially fallen off, revealing the scratched that were soon to bleed underneath. He destroyed it... what is that form? And his bones... they're even harder than before. Am I... am I going to loose?

''You are starting to doubt yourself, your abilities and techniques.'' Kimimaro commented, bending forward, just like before, with his Larch Dance. ''Have you began to regret your earlier words?" He asked, moving his right hand behind his head, close to the bones protruding from his back. Before doing anything else, he looked at her, as if waiting for a response. 

''I doubt myself all the time.'' She admitted, ignoring her aching limb. ''But you're wrong in one thing; My techniques. A Jutsu is only as powerful as the person using it. Everyone knows that.'' Lord Third taught me everything I know about Doton. And I am going to use that knowledge to defeat you.

''That's indeed correct.'' He said, and suddenly, a popping sound echoed around them. Looking closer, she noticed something was emerging from his body, slowly, but clearly made of bone. To her horror, she realized what it was. ''Let's see how powerful this one is.'' With one swift move, he brought he hand forward, fully extending his new weapon. ''Clematis Dance: Vine!"

He pulled out his own spinal cord! The Aoyo grimaced, and formed hand seals as fast as lightning. Finally extending her right hand, and letting her left one almost limp, she tightened her fingers around the new, stronger Rock Spear that had rose next to her. Breaking it off the ground, she braced herself for his next attack.

He rushed at her, his sword raised. When he brought it down to collide with her skull, she quickly raised her Rock Spear above her head with both hands, stopping it from hurting her. Relief washed over her, but only for a mere second. Then, her left arm caved under the pressure, and the Spear broke in half.

She sidestepped just in time, the Vine crashing on the grass next to her right foot, but not without grazing her shoulder as well. She pushed him back with a last-moment kick effectively, and shuddered. The armor in her arm got destroyed too, and it took everything in her not to fall down onto one knee. The bone sword was coming at her again before she could even blink. He's aiming for my chest, she concluded, and, with the energy she had left, focused the little chakra she could in time in front of her rib-cage and lungs.

And then, blood poured out of her mouth, spilling on Vine, which had penetrated her abdomen.

Her eyes bulged out, and her hand instinctively wrapped around the spiky spinal cord. Kimimaro looked down at her from many feet away, never loosening his hold. ''I had already found your weakness by the time we battled each other in close, hand-to-hand combat.'' He revealed, as more blood came out of her mouth. ''Despite the many hits you took, which had no effect at all, due to your armor, you always, subconsciously, covered your lower stomach. My first guess, which was that you protected that area because that's were your armor ended... was correct.''

She could barely hear him talk anymore. She didn't care. She could only focus on her hammering heart, and the throbbing in her ears. She wouldn't be able to talk, even if she wanted to. The blood had pooled in her mouth, and seeped out slowly, dripping down her chin, chest and lastly, hands. All over her body, the Stone Bracers dissipated to nothing.

Move... I have... I have to move... the wound is deep... I can feel the end of his Vine coming out of my back... it hurts... but it didn't hit my own spinal cord... it isn't fatal... I can move... I have to move, before he delivers his last hit.

Her hand slowly gripped the sword tighter, and was soon joined by her other one, resting a little closer to her body. ''You never stood a chance, Aoyo.'' He said, outstretching his left hand. ''Not when I battled you in this form, the second stage. You were a fool not to accept the Curse Mark, just like Lord Orochimaru said. You could have been... you could have been like me.''

Gurehai looked up from her lap, meeting his yellow eyes. Then, she amassed Lightning chakra from all over her body. ''I would... never... willingly bec-come... a monster like that...'' She coughed, feeling the blood in her mouth trickled down her neck. With a burst of her last energy, she held the sword with both hands. ''Raiton... Storm Current.''

Lightning shot out from her hands and traveled towards Kimimaro, dancing around the bone in rapid speed. The boy, with his yellow eyes wide, abruptly pulled the Clematis Dance out of her. He made the whip snap, and the lightning disappeared in the air, leaving behind soft, chirping sounds. With another flick of his wrist, it wrapped around her, forcing her injured arms to her sides. Gasping, she fell down on her knees.

Damn it... I didn't know it could be used like that... as a whip... Her mind was swarming with thoughts, as her opponent outstretched his left hand. It wasn't supposed to go like this... I was supposed to get past him, and join Naruto... ask Sasuke... ask him what in the world he meant by that, earlier... and then, we'd bring him back, and make him realize how stupid what he intended to do was... But now...

Lord Third... I'm going to fail... Mother, I'm sorry... Naruto, what can I say to you? Father... I wasn't supposed to come to you so soon, with only three of them... I was supposed o be better than this... Blinking, she inhaled through her nose.

''Lord Hashirama and his brother, Lord Tobirama, both died in battle, didn't they?" A young Gurehai asked her teacher, as they sat upon a boulder, resting after their training session. 

''Yes, indeed, they both died during the First Shinobi World War.'' Hiruzen replied, his eyebrows furrowing. ''Why the sudden interest, Gurehai?" He took his pipe out of his clothes, and started smoking, as always.

''It's something father once told me, while we were talking about the Hokage.'' She said, letting her body fall back, lying against the rock with her hands behind her head. ''He said the Hokage must be in the constant lookout for war, and be ready to give his life. The two first Hokage did so, and the Fourth did, too. I asked father about it. He said he sacrificed himself in order for Konoha to be safe.''

''He did that, yes.'' The Hokage's brown eyes searched the blue skies, settling upon a flock of birds. 

''If all of the Hokage gave their life on the battlefield, then that means that one day, you will too?" The white haired girl asked then, making the man beside her choke and cough dramatically.

''Should I be concerned that you want me out of the picture, Gurehai?" The old man narrowed his eyes, and she laughed. Laughed, like she only did with him. ''I thought you said you didn't want to take my place...'' He trailed off suggestively, and she sighed.

''No, I was just wondering.'' She breathed after a while, her blue orbs following the birds, until they became small, barely visible black dots in the horizon. ''I just don't want you to leave, too.'' The ten-year-old closed her eyes, and Hiruzen blew out a puff of smoke, that swirled around them.

''Clematis Dance:" Kimimaro's voice made her vision clear, and she helplessly watched as his hand morphed into something else. ''Flower!" Several bones took shape around his left limb, creating a huge spear-like weapon. With a growl, he ran at her, hand stretching forward.

She refused to close her eyes, as he came closer and closer. The sky was blue, just like that day. She saw no birds, but she didn't mind. Her eyes remained open. And that's how, in the corner of them, she saw specks of sand dancing around her, caressing her skin.

''Ultimate Defense: Shukaku's Shield!''

Chapter Text

She refused to close her eyes, as he came closer and closer. The sky was blue, just like that day. She saw no birds, but she didn't mind. Her eyes remained open. And that's how, in the corner of them, she saw specks of sand dancing around her, caressing her skin.

"Ultimate Defense: Shukaku's Shield!"

A wall of sand, thrice her size, formed mere feet in front of her body, making her gape. Blinking a few times, as if to make sure that it was real, that someone was helping her, that it wouldn't end like that. And when her thoughts cleared, she realized who the only person that sand could belong to was.

''Gaara... of the Sand?" She questioned, turning her head to the right. 

''Aoyo Gurehai.'' The boy called back, arms crossed. She heard cracking noises coming from the other side of the Shield, which had both hands and a head. Then, she felt the sharp bones around her loosen up, and slowly dig out of her skin, being replaced by sand. ''By your performance in the Exams, I thought you'd be better than this.'' He commented, as she breathed a sigh of relief.

''That Waterfall boy didn't have a Kekkei Genkai.'' She said, completely breaking free of her restrains, and standing up as much as she could beside him. I remember people talking about what happened to him the day of the Finals, she thought, staring at his light green eyes. They talked about a battle between two monsters... but I didn't care about what I heard, for that and many days that came. If he's here, that means Konohagakure and Sunagakure have made peace... and Lady Fifth asked for their assistance.

And if we made peace... that means what the twins said, about the Sand being deceived by Orochimaru, was true, Gurehai concluded, the image of Gureichi and Gureni coming back. Where could they be now?

''By your performance in the Exams, I have to say I am glad I have you as an ally.'' The Aoyo said, before a wave of pain shot through her body, and her knees almost buckled. The hole in her abdomen was bleeding, staining her black attire, while blood trickled down her chin from the corner of her mouth. ''I'm afraid I won't be of much assistance in my state.'' 

That's when the boy fully turned to look at her, and saw her injury. With his brow furrowing, he turned towards the Shield he had created, and the enemy hiden behind it.

''It's hard.'' Kimimaro growled, when his second part of the Clematis Dance, his Flower, completely fell apart.

''I collected the minerals with the highest tensile strength from the ground, added pressure with my chakra and then mixed them with the sand.'' The Kazekage's son replied. ''Your Kekkei Genkai is rare. You must be the last of your clan. If that's the case... then that clan will become extinct, today.''

''You are right...'' The white haired boy admitted, much to Gurehai's surprise. ''That could happen. Due to my illness, my body won't hold out for much longer.'' Illness? What's he talking about? ''However, it won't be destroyed... because I am not alone.''

''Not alone?" Both Gaara and his ally questioned.

''Exactly. As an existence that's part of Lord Orochimaru's ambition... I will remain in his heart... forever.'' That snake has corrupted more people... kids, like myself, Naruto... and Sasuke, who wants to willingly join his side... Sasuke... can't you see what he's doing?

''Orochimaru's brainwashing, huh?" The redhead mumbled, his hands forming a seal. The finishing blow. ''How empty you are.'' And with that, Kimimaro started sinking into the ground, feet stuck in the quicksand Gaara had created. ''You will sink 200 meters underground and be held there. With the pressure of the sand glued to your body, you won't be able to lift a finger.''

The Shield of Shukaku dissolved and seeped in the grass, and Gurehai watched as the quicksand turned into a whirlpool, completely covering the Sound ninja, before finally stopping. The girl inhaled shakily and put pressure on her wound, glancing at Gaara sideways. 

''You did it.'' She whispered, allowing herself to close her eyes for a moment. ''It's...over.'' I almost died fighting that brainwashed monster, she sighed in her head, staring at the white haired boy's tomb in front of her. And Gaara... Gaara was done in minutes. No, no, don't think about that. Kimimaro has been defeated. Now I can go to-

''Bracken... Dance.'' The voice surprised both her and the Sand ninja, and she took a step back, the pain in her gut bringing her down to one knee. Suddenly, where she once stood, rose a sharp, six-foot bone, followed by multiple cracking noises. The same bones erupted all over the ground around them, and she saw Gaara look around frantically.

''Gaara!" She shouted, and, just in time, the boy moved aside, avoiding the deadly blade about to pierce through him. He's still alive... how is he still alive? She tried to stand up but stumbled when the bleeding hole in her body started stinging in protest, and she felt the soil beneath her feet stir. 

Gasping, she found herself hovering in the air, when thousands of sword-like bones split the ground apart at the same time. Looking down, she saw the sand had formed a platform, and she and her savior were sitting on top of it. ''He was very persistent.'' The boy told her, eyes searching the ground below. ''But he won't bother us any more. It's over.''

''Yes...'' Gurehai agreed, temporarily forgetting the state she was in.

''Now, let's get off. I have to get you back to Konoha as soon as possible. Your wound looks back, and someone needs to heal you.'' He commanded rather than stated, and she was about to protest, say she had to follow Naruto and Sasuke, but then, her eyes widened.

''It's not brainwashing!" Kimimaro's voice growled from behind them, and the Aoyo turned around, only to freeze at the sight of the Sound ninja, who was holding his Clematis Dance, Flower, above Gaara's head. ''He is... Lord Orochimaru is the only one who understand me!" He exclaimed, raising his weapon. ''How could you... HOW COULD YOU POSSIBLY KNOW?" 

Damn it! Gurehai screamed in her mind, watching as the gigantic bone slowly came down, towards the wide-eyed Gaara. If he hurts Gaara right now, his concentration... we will fall to our deaths! I have to... I have to... Faster than she thought was possible, and while the Flower started coming down at the redhead's skull, she brought her hands forward in a seal. Filling her lungs with air by inhaling sharply through her nose, she took the chance when Kimimaro hesitated, an inch away from Gaara's eye.

Suiton: Water Bullet! She recited in her mind, as water shot out from her mouth, hitting the boy... directly at the center of his forehead.

Blood oozed from the Kaguya's mouth, and his hand stayed frozen in the air, as the wind messed with his hair. Gurehai was ready for the stinging pain in her right eye... but it never came. Instead, she almost doubled over from the one coming from her abdomen.

''He's dead.'' Gaara mumbled, slowly backing away fro the point of the lethal weapon. ''You saved me.'' He said, and looked at her. ''Thank you.''

''No.'' The Kunoichi disagreed, as the boy lowered them to the grass, away from the garden of bones Kimimaro had created. ''He mentioned a sickness, that wore down his body... he was already dead when I shot him.'' She admitted, eyebrows furrowing. ''And besides... you saved my life more than once today.''

''Let's go back now.'' Gaara nodded, and her head snapped up. ''I have to get you back to Konoha, and-''

''No!" She interrupted, struggling to get up. I can't go back now... I need to... I need to get to them. Her words were cut off by a sudden overwhelming feeling, that made her skin tingle. What kind of chakra is this? She shuddered, head turning to stare at the horizon above the forest. It's sinister, and angry... I'm not a sensor... and I can still feel it like that... Naruto's face appeared before her, his red eyes glowing. ''I have to get to Naruto and Sasuke!"

''Don't be reckless!" Gaara warned her, keeping her down by her shoulders. ''You can't go anywhere in your condition! You are loosing too much blood!"

''Please... I have to reach them... I have to reach him...'' She said, struggling against him, her hand on his own shoulder. She began growing lightheaded. Damn blood loss... I can't leave Sasuke... I have to get to him, I have to convince him to come back, before it's too late! I have to go... I have to keep my Team together... ''No...'' 

With one last squeeze of his shoulder, her eyes rolled in the back of her head, and her body fell limp against his.

----

She saw a dream. 

It must have been one.

Why else would her mother, who she left unconscious so many days ago, be awake, and hugging... hugging... Gaara? That must've been him. With that blood red hair, and the unmistakable gourd in his back, it could be no one else. Why? And then behind them, she had seen two more figures. They had black hair, and stood at the same height, above the woman and the boy... were they...

Had the twins come back? But, it was a dream. Gureichi and Gureni, her cousins, had no reason to be there, even if it was just her subconscious. They somehow knew Orochimaru had killed the Kazekage, and still let him go undercover and get close to Lord Third. If they had said something, then...

The second she woke up, she could tell she was at the Hospital. The white ceiling was proof of that, as well as the grey walls. But that, didn't explain the strange pressure in her hand. She craned her neck and took a look, and her breath hitched at the sight.

A mop of black hair was splayed on her side, a hand emerging from underneath it, fingers wrapped around her own, squeezing lightly. The person was sitting in a chair, with their body in an awkward angle, as they laid their head on her bed. Under the waterfall of ebony locks, an all too familiar blue cloak pooled around the woman's feet. Gurehai tightened her grip, resulting to her visitor to stir from her sleep.

''Mother?" She whispered, as the woman raised her head, and opened her eyes. Blue met blue, and a gentle smile tugged at Gureki's lips, as her eyes watered. 

She didn't respond, instead shifting to immediately wrap her arms around her daughter's neck. Gurehai closed her eyes and didn't move. She had missed her scent. She had missed her face. She had missed her mom.

''You are alright... When did you wake up?" The Chunin asked, when the healer pulled away. ''I... I didn't even know what happened to you... I got back from my mission, and they said you were still asleep, that you were unconscious... and then I had to leave, right when I got back...'' Which reminds me... Sasuke... what happened with Sasuke? 

''I woke up the night you were gone.'' Gureki explained, running her thumb across the back of Gurehai's hand. The night I was gone, escorting Assu? ''I was all healed up, the following day. I was worried... Honey, I was so worried when they brought you back like that...'' She sniffled, glancing at the teen's abdomen. She looks healthy... how long have I been out? ''But Lady Tsunade said she could heal you, and that you were going to be okay...''

''Gaara... he brought be here, didn't he?" She asked, in order to confirm her suspicion. If the dream was just something I happened to see while momentarily opening my eyes... then they are really here. ''The redhead, from the Sand?"

''Yes, yes.'' Gureki nodded. ''You were bleeding heavily when the two of you arrived, in that cloud of sand. I helped you the best I could, while the medics called for the Hokage. Oh... I couldn't find enough words to thank him. He and his siblings left two days ago. They helped Shikamaru, and brought back the injured Genin that had gone to that mission.'' Kiba, Choji, Neji, Shikamaru... and Naruto, they all went after him... I knew Orochimaru would sent his minions after them.

''Is everyone okay?" She asked, secretly hoping she would also mention Sasuke's return.

''Some of them were in critical condition... but they are all alive, and well.'' She informed her, and, seeing as she was about to say something else, Gurehai didn't ask further questions. ''Everyone was worried about you, too. Your teammates, your sensei... Jiraiya also came by, but... he had to leave.'' She added the last part with an almost bitter tone in her voice, but the young Aoyo dismissed it. ''You also have some visitors... they said you'd met them alread-...''

The door burst open that exact second, revealing a grinning Naruto... and a head sticking out from behind, with grey hair pointing at every direction. ''Gure-chan!" The Uzumaki exclaimed, running at her and her mother's side. She noticed he had a bandage wrapped around his forehead. Behind them, she failed to see a flash of pink hair pass by. ''You had me worried there for a while, ttebayo!" He complained, placing his hands on his hips. ''But Gaara said you and him defeated that annoying bone-user! Hey!"

''Yes, we're glad you are okay, Gurehai.'' Kakashi slapped his male student at the back of the head, giving her the close-eyed smile she had grown accustomed to. ''Now that you're all patched up, we can continue our training, huh?''

''Yes...'' She agreed, slowly getting anxious. Where is Sasuke? Mother... mother said my teammates were worried. But, when she had just finished her thought, more people came through the door of her room, smiling... and groaning.

''You were the one who said you wanted to come and visit, baka!" Izumo pointed his finger at his companion accusingly. ''Stop sulking, and greet Gurehai-taichou properly!''

''You woke me up by splashing water on my face, Izumo! I said we'd visit her in the afternoon, when guard duty was over!'' Kotetsu spat back, eyebrow twitching. 

''It's afternoon now-... Hello, everyone!" The brunette waved awkwardly, when he noticed they were being watched. ''Gurehai-taichou, why did you leave us like that? We almost lost it when that Sand kid came flying through the Gates of the Village, with you bleeding on his side!"

''Izumo, Kotetsu... Thanks for the concern.'' The Aoyo answered, having sat up, with her back against her pillows. ''But, that reminds me... How long was I out? It must have been... days?"

''Four days.'' Gureki replied, and the others around her nodded in agreement. ''It's September the sixth, today.'' Her visitors let her think to herself for a bit, as the white haired girl's gaze fell on her lap. Another four days, wasted... Time is passing by so quickly, ever since the attack of Konoha, and... all that's been happening, is me losing things and people. What am I doing... what am I doing?

''Naruto.'' She finally spoke up, and met her teammate's cerulean eyes. The blond boy looked at her, and saw the sadness in her tired, icy orbs. ''Sasuke... Sasuke didn't come back, did he?" Silence fell over the room instantly, and the Genin lowered his head in shame.

''No, Gure-chan.'' He admitted, feeling guilty. ''He didn't.''

''I see.'' Was the only thing she said, and, feeling the tension in the room, the two male Chunin that had come for a visit, said 'get well' to their Captain, and made their way outside. If after all I've said, and after everything we've all been through as a Team, you decide that... then, I'm sorry Sasuke, whatever your feelings are...

I encouraged you to find your own way, to achieve your goals and fulfill your dream... to get your revenge, even if others would consider it wrong. You said I stood by your side, even though we were as good as strangers before graduation, and, as members of the same Team, I acted the way I did because I would never let my comrades down. No matter what the case was. But you chose him, that snake, after I let my feelings out to another person... for the first time in my entire life. So, I am sorry, Sasuke...

But I will no longer fight... or care for you. 

Chapter Text

The very next day, Gurehai was up and ready for work. The only reminder of her near-death experience, was the steadily fading scar on her abdomen. But, she didn't mind the scars. After all, she had more.

She and Naruto had talked one more time after her exit from the Hospital, and it ended in the girl announcing her decision to him. The decision, that Sasuke meant as much as nothing to her, after all that happened.

''I get that he was your best friend. I get that Sakura... loves him.'' She had tried to say the second part without sounding sarcastic and mean, and she barely managed it. ''He used to be a valuable comrade, a friend, a teammate, to me too. But he chose Orochimaru. We tried to reason with him, and he, on his own free will, decided to leave both Konoha and us, even though there were alternatives for him to get his revenge. He almost killed you. Yes, don't think I wouldn't find out. Sorry... I am really sorry, Naruto... But I won't waste any more of my time and emotions... not for him.''

Her words had been followed by a deafening silence. On the inside, she felt awful for saying such things to him, for telling him she gave up. But then again, she didn't give up. Sasuke had given up first, and left her with no choice. The boy's sad eyes, the same sad, blue eyes, lit up a few seconds later, followed by his usual grin of a mad man.

''It's okay, Gure-chan. I'll bring him back, and make that teme apologize to you. I'll kick his butt, and drag him back here, to realize his mistakes.''

The Aoyo and Uzumaki had parted then, with a strained smile and a thumbs up respectively. He had left for his usual training session, and she had stepped away from her house, heading towards the center of Konoha, in order to later reach the Hokage building.

Amongst the chattering women and men reconstructing some buildings, she stopped by Ichiraku Ramen, and ordered a bowl of ramen. She had been summoned in front of Tsunade, and since it was most likely a mission, she didn't want to waste time.

When the steaming hot miso pork arrived, she grabbed a pair of chopsticks and opened them, before frowning and setting them down next to her bowl. The curtains behind her parted, and two people stepped in. With a kind voice, one of them greeted the owner, and then they both sat down on either side of her, traveling cloaks hanging from the stools they occupied. Gurehai closed her eyes and took a breath, intending to calm herself down. 

''It's good to see you're doing well, Gurehai. We stopped by the Hospital while you were still asleep and talked with Gureki, but we missed your awakening.'' Gureichi smiled from her right, and the Kunoichi had a hard time trying to trace hints of it being fake, before giving up.

''And we also attracted some strange looks from your comrades... A couple of girls stared at us very intensely...'' Gureni added from her left, running a hand through his jet black locks with a playful look in his face. ''It must be the Aoyo genes, since I've always been a looker.''

Gurehai buried the visible part of her face in her palm, and mumbled some incoherent curses. When she looked up, she turned towards the more mature twin, and he eye narrowed. ''Why are you here?"

''Well, we wanted to talk to you, and since we found here, we figured we'd order somthing to eat as well.'' Ni pipped up from behind her, as Teuchi and his daughter set two bowls down in front of them. They didn't even order anything... at least verbally. That must mean they're usual customers here... how long have they been around?

''I meant why are you here, in Konohagakure.'' She added, not commenting on the earlier statement. ''I thought that since you had come 'for the Sand', and not 'with it', you lived there, and decided to come and help. Shouldn't you be back in the Land of Wind, deciding on the new Kazekage with the other residents or something?" She grumpily took a bite of her food, gulping down some ramen.

''That's were you're wrong. Everyone knew who the next Kazekage would be, whether they wanted it or not, when the news of Lord Rasa's death first spread.'' That piqued her interest, and she glanced sideways at the boy who was no serious. ''His son, Gaara, is to take the position, upon his own wishes, as well.'' With that, he picked up his chop sticks.

Gaara will? Gurehai pondered, surprised. I would have never imagined... and I never knew his father was the Kazekage... he'll become...the Fifth Kazekage... huh?

''That still doesn't explain why you've come, or rather, why you've stayed.'' She commented. ''Perhaps you heard that mother was ill; In that case, it would make sense for you to visit. Other than that, I don't see why you would want to speak with me.''

The twins glanced at each other from behind her back, and Ichi sighed. ''We came because we heard of Gureki's condition. We stayed because you got hurt. We sent the order for the Sand siblings to depart, and then we took action, too. Who do you think has been handling the alliances and councils between the Sand and Leaf?''

''You... the two of you, are the ambassadors?" She asked, an uneasy feeling in her gut telling her to drop the subject as soon as possible. But she couldn't stop there. ''That day, you told me you knew about Orochimaru's deception. If that was the case, then why didn't you say something? Warned someone? Lord Third is dead, now.'' She couldn't help the bitter tone at the end of her sentence.

''Like we also said that day, we couldn't rely on anyone but ourselves. Everybody believed the Sannin to be the Kazekage, and if he found out, we'd be killed. Think of it the other way around, before you hold a grudge against us...'' Ni proposed from the left, having already finished his meal. ''Would you risk your and Gureki's lives, in order to protect another Land's Kage?"

She fell silent. They were right. They only had each other, and she basically had demanded why they didn't try to save someone they didn't even know. I would never allow her to die, she thought, as her mother's smiling face from that very morning came to her mind. And they wouldn't allow each other to die.

''You got promoted to Chunin. That's good. Congratulations.'' They said the last part in sync, and she looked down at her vest. ''But doesn't it hide your cloak?" She shrugged almost unnoticeably.

''I don't wear it to be seen, or to show the Blue Sun around.'' She stated, caressing the part of her cloak that escaped the zipped up vest and reached her knees. ''I wear it.. for the material.'' The dark grey reminded her of the time Hiruzen had worn his battle garbs to fight her. She had been ecstatic. ''It was Lord Third's battle attire. Jiraiya, my godfather, gave it to me.'' Why am I saying all these things to them? Is it because... they're... family? ''I am afraid I'll... I'll have to go now.'' She announced, and set some coins on the counter in front of her. ''I have a meeting with Lady Fifth, and I'd hate to be late.''

The twins turned around to stare at her as she pushed aside the curtains to leave, and she paused before exiting. ''I apologize for earlier.'' She said, not looking back at them. ''You can come by our house whenever you want. Mother won't mind, I'm sure. If I'n not on a mission, I'd like to continue our conversation.'' 

''We will.'' They said in unison, smiling, ans sharing a knowing look. They got up soon after she left, and payed for their ramen. They walked outside just as she disappeared behind a building, catching sight of her swishing cloak. 

''Let's go see our sister.'' Gureichi told his identical twin, and they both headed the other way.

----

''Like you already know, our Village is going through some difficult times. We are doing everything we can to repair anything destroyed, and defend Konoha as best as we can, despite our recently reduced numbers. Missions of every Rank are very important to be carried out, as to not alarm the other Lands of out weak state.'' Tsunade paced back and forth in her office, as Gurehai stood a few feet away, hands in the loops of her vest.

''That's why, days ago, around the time of your injury, I had an idea. I decided to form a cell, a team of four, to send them in specific, B-Rank missions. Above that, is the work of Jonin. And as you've already guessed, by your presence here, you are a member of that team.''

''Four, four Chunin?" The girl wondered, processing the new information, and orders. A new team, huh? Naruto, Kakashi, and even Sakura... our team is undergoing some serious changes. 

''Look, Gurehai.'' The Hokage's voice interrupted her thoughts, with a surprisingly soft tone. ''I understand that things have been rapidly changing these past few weeks. Your team, Team 7, is damaged. You are a Chunin now, you have different duties than your teammates, which is why you might be driven a little apart.'' She stopped, seeing the slight, half hearted smile on the girl's lips.

''Don't tell me you've been worrying about me, Tsunade-sama.'' She said, and the woman froze, before also smiling. The Aoyo had started addressing to her less formally, just like she wanted, and she appreciated that. ''I am a Chunin, and I have to adapt to my new obligations. So...'' She stood straight, her hair only covering half of her small smirk. ''...I await my orders.''

''Very well.'' The Sannin nodded, and motioned for Shizune to go towards the door. ''Call them in.''

The brunette, still holding her little pig, hurried over to the appointed spot and placed her hand on the handle, turning it. When the door opened, three people stepped inside, and she didn't even have to turn around to figure out who they were. She shook her head with a smile.

''Gurehai-taichou!" Kotetsu put his hand on her right shoulder, and she had to look up slightly. Izumo appeared next to him, smiling through his hair. From her other side, a sigh was heard.

''This is such a drag.'' Shikamaru muttered, earning himself a warning glare from Tsunade. ''Those two came and interrupted my cloud watching. It's not even noon yet.''

''It's almost 1 pm.'' Gurehai announced, as he glanced at her with his brown eyes and bored expression. ''I never thought of you as an early bird, Shikamaru. So full of surprises.'' She joked, and he pouted. 

''Now, I declare this cell, consisting of Kamizuki Izumo, Hagane Kotetsu, Aoyo Gurehai and Nara Shikamaru...'' Tsunade stated in her full-of-authority voice, calling out their names from left to right, as all four stood shoulder to shoulder, wearing their identical green vests.

''...The Chunin Four.''

----

Not over five days later, the three boys and their only female comrade were inside the Hokage's office once again, having just returned from a mission. The Aoyo set two scrolls in front of Tsunade, who sat in her desk, chin resting on her hands. A proud look rested on her features, as she looked at the seal that kept the documents closed. 

''The Chunin Four, reporting for the mission in the Land of Wind, and the meeting with the potential Kazekage and the peace ambassadors...'' Shikamaru recited, his eyes almost closed. Gure rolled her eyes from next to him, deciding to take the task in her own hands. Putting her hands on the loops of her vest, as always, she took a step back, placing herself between her teammates.

''...A success.''

 

Chapter Text

''Izumo.'' Gurehai called, squinting in the dark with her tired eyes, in order to see her teammate clearly. ''How far is the cave you mentioned earlier?" She asked, not daring to move her hand in order to push her wet hair away from her eye. The rain had been pouring for almost an hour now, and the two had been wondering the seemingly endless forest before since. 

''It's kind of hard to tell wth all this rain.'' The brunette stopped a few feet in front of her, catching his breath. Kotetsu's body on his back was growing heavier and heavier by each passing second, and mud had started to form beneath their feet, making the process of walking harder. ''We should be seeing two trees with their barks wrapped around one another soon. After that, all we need to do is keep an eye out for the entrance.''

With that, he inhaled a shaky breath, and hoisted his spiky haired friend up, hands under his thighs. The girl swallowed the small amount of blood that had pooled in her mouth and momentarily squeezed her eyes shut, trying to blink the rain water away. Following the older boy's footsteps, she took careful steps.

''Hang in there, Shikamaru.'' She whispered to the Nara, whose head rested limp on her right shoulder. She secured her hold on him, his left arm hanging over her neck, and looked ahead.

----
Five Hours Earlier
----

''Orochimaru's hideout is rumored to be a few miles north-east of the Leaf-Sound border, close to Yugakure. Our job is to find it, investigate it, and get as much information as possible.'' Gurehai explained, as the Chunin Four jumped from tree to tree, closing in on the Land of Sound.

''What about enemy ninja? Do we know if it's guarded?" Izumo asked, side by side with Kotetsu. This time, Shikamaru spoke up, from next to Gurehai.

''That's what we are not certain about. Orochimaru is known to have many hideouts and bases, but we have yet to find one which he, at that time, occupied. That leads us to believe that he switches from one base to another frequently, leaving it abandoned, or even destroyed, as to not leave traces behind. That also gives the impression that he has bases like that in other Lands, too.''

''Exactly. He'd been a Rogue for years, hiding. But now he has attacked Konoha, and killed two Kage. It's crucial for us to have even the smallest of hints about his next move, because it might concern a future attack. Supposing the base is intact, and that we get in without difficulties, any information we can gather is important. It could concern experiments, other hideouts, plans on attacks or even Sound ninja. Orochimaru is the founder and leader of the Sound, after all.'' The Aoyo went on, before signaling for the other three to stop.

When they landed on the ground, they stayed still, kneeling on the grass. Around them, the forest sounds never ceased echoing through the tall trees.

''We are in Otogakure now.'' Kotetsu realized.

''We'll continue moving on the ground. Our cover will be better, and it'll be easier to spot any entrances or buildings.'' The Kunoichi instructed. Then, she paused for asecond, and closed her eyes. ''We... we'll split up, two miles from here. Izumo, Kotetsu, the two of you obviously go together. You know each other's strengths and weaknesses, and have been partners for a long time. Then, it's me and Shikamaru. We'll cover the southern area, and you the northern.''

''And in case of an attack?" Kotetsu inquired, as they started again on a fast-paced jog.

Gurehai brought her hands together in a seal, and a pile of soil rose from the groun next to them, gradually becoming taller and taller, and taking shape as it moved alongside them. ''My Earth Clone will go with you. If someone attacks us, or we find the hideout, I'll have her tell you. If someone attacks you, or in case you find the hideout first, then strike it. I will know if it gets destroyed.''

The two simultaneously nodded, moving to the left. ''Let's decide on a meeting spot.'' Shikamaru suggested, looking around. ''That boulder over there, the white one. Two hours from now?'' The proposal was met with agreement, and, after a minute, the Chunin Four split up.

The ground beneath their feet was damp, and the leaves that brushed against their skin as they rushed by were wet. The spiky haired boy took the lead, with his teammate following close behind, searching the trees with cautious eyes.

Izumo and Kotetsu will be fine... they'll be fine. Both pairs will scan the area, find the base, and investigate it. Nothing is going to happen to them, not like it happened in Tori... it won't. Don't think like that. You made a decision. What's done, is done.

''Gurehai?" She heard Shikamaru's voice, which snapped her out of her trance. ''Gurehai?"

''Mm.'' She let out, showing she could hear him.

''They'll be okay. You know that, right?" He said, making her turn around and look at him in surprise. ''Izumo and Kotetsu. You're worried that you didn't make the right choice by splitting us up, aren't you? Well, let me tell you this. Those two have been Chunin longer than us. I'm sure they know a thing or two about danger, don't you agree?''

She stayed silent after that, and also stopped walking. After focusing on the ground for a while, she raised her head. ''You're right about the last part. But I can't help being nervous. Last time I made a quick decision like that, Sasuke ended up getting hurt, fighting with Naruto, and leaving. What am I supposed to do if either or both of them get killed?"

''Seriously, you need to stop blaming yourself for everything.'' The Nara commented calmly, and the girl couldn't meet his eyes. ''Look, I'm not good at comforting people, and it's a drag, but don't beat yourself up. I heard things, I saw things. I have been doing so, for years. You didn't let the Hokage to die. Sasuke leaving wasn't your fault; wasn't it obvious that he'd been having such feelings for quite a while? I was sent after him, with the guys. They all got hurt, fighting enemies, and I just waited for news on their condition in the hospital, not sure if some of them would survive or not. Tsunade-sama had given me a mission, the mission to bring him back before he could be ranked Rogue, just like you. If anything, I failed in more aspects of my mission than you.''

She finally sighed and glanced at him, her blue eye meeting his intelligent brown ones. I didn't know that had happened. She thought, as she turned away and focused her gaze on their sourroundings. Neji, Choji and Inuzuka? With near-fatal injuries?

''Let's get going. We have to cover as much ground as possible before it's time to make our way back.'' She said, and started walking again. Hearing the boy's footfalls after her a few seconds later, she knew he was following.

They had been wandering for over fifty minutes in silence, when, in the distance between the trees and plants, the boy's eyes caught sight of grey and purple, stone material. Abruptly stopping, he waved for the Aoyo to stop and look towards the direction he was pointing at.

''Found it.'' She whispered, and, concentrating, she created another Clone. ''I'll leave this one here, to watch over the entrance from afar, out of sight. We should get back to the boulder and meet up with Izumo and Kotetsu. I'll send them a message through the Earth Clone that accompanies them, and tell them to go back to the meeting spot, if they aren't already there.'' 

From next to her the second Clone nodded, and hid behind some nearby trees. The two teenagers backed away and then left, running at a faster pace than before.

''Those two defenetily have some joined techniques, like you have with your teamates.'' Gurehai pondered, also focusing on the path they had previously followed. ''First is probably Choji, destracting the enemy. Then comes the Shadow Paralysis, imobilizing them. Then, Yamanaka takes them out, am I right?"

''Yes.'' Shikamaru admitted.

''If I can do the same with something similar to the Rock Fist, then you will have the chance to trap them, won't you? We can try that out, in case the base isn't empty.'' She thought, jumping over a fallen branch. 

''I don't about inside of the base. If it's dark, I can't use the shadows. I need some source of light. One of your Raiton Jutsu, perhaps? Can you make them bright enough?"

''No problem.'' She nodded. A basic battle plan is also ready, supposing something goes wrong. When we get to the others, we'll immediately head to the base. The sooner we investigate it and find information, the better.

----

''Damn it Izumo, you're such a jinx! You said they'd find the hideout before us, and they did!'' Kotetsu pouted, checking the two blades he had strapped on his back, as they made their way to the place Gurehai and Shikamaru had found.

''You were the one who asked me who I thought would find it first, baka! I was just giving my honest opinion.'' The brunette fired back, shaking his head. ''Anyways, we didn't encounter any threats, either. I only came across a cave entrance, about forty minutes away from the white boulder. It was small, and the limited sunlight enabled me to see the inside. It was empty. Other than that, nothing.''

''I see.'' Gurehai muttered to herself, ahead of the others, leading them. When she suddenly stopped, falling behind, the three males also followed suit, coming to her side. ''The Eart Clone I left behind...'' She instantly said before they could ask, looking at Shikamaru. ''...Got destroyed. Someone is there.'' The Chunin Four glanced at each other quickly before nodding, wordlessly deciding on their plan.

The four approached the scene slowly and cautiously, weapons at hand, and eyes sharp. But, no matter how close the got, no matter how they strained their ears, they neither saw or heard anything. Upon arriving at the entrance, the paused.

''I don't feel any strange chakra signatures.'' The Nara said, investigating the broken down double doors. 

''This is what's left of the Earth Clone.'' The Aoyo noted, kneeling down by a small pile of soil. Then, slowly turning around, she searched the ground with her eyes. ''There are also no signs of struggle or proof that she fought with someone. It's as if... she dispersed by herself.''

''Should we go in?" The Kamizuki wondered, squitning to catch a glimpse of something inside the base. 

''Yes, let's go. We came here for information, after all.'' Shikamaru's words urged them on, accompanied by the sound of skin slapping against skin. Everyone turned to look at him, and saw him with his hand hovering above his collar bone, indicating he had hit himself. ''Must have been a mosquito. Man, what a drag.'' He complained, before entering the hideout first.

Inside, the halls were almost so dark, they could see each other. They wandered seemingly empty rooms for a few minutes, before Kotetsu bended down, and then extended his hand in front of Gurehai. ''Here.'' He said, and the girl saw it was a candle. She put her finger next to the wick and zapped it with lightning, making it light up.

Around them, the candle light reflected on multiple glass surfaces. Gigantic tubes, cords, broken pieces of wood and tables. Lights suddenly started flickering from above, and three of the four slightly jumped, startled. When they got over it, they saw Shikamaru with his hand on a small lever.

''There are no windows.'' He pointed out, and moved along the tables, examining them. Doing the same, Gurehai approached the big tubes. 

They look big enough to fit a short person. She contemplated, her mind momentarily travelling to Sasuke. And the entire laboratory itself... the walls, the floor, the air... why does it... why does it remind me of that dream? The one... the one I saw at that time, when I woke in the Hospital after the Second Exam?

''There are some kind of documents, over here.'' Izumo announced from nearly the other side of the room, and some suffling was heard. Both her and Kotetsu joined his side, and ran their eyes over the minimal variety of papers, and... maps? ''Northern Hideout? And some coordinates over here... that's... that's around the Land of Earth, isn't it?"

''Not around... in its borders.'' The white haired Chunin commented, grabbing the scroll. ''Test subject 3C, test subject 4C... experiments. But, they date back... a couple of years ago.''

''This talks about another hideout in the Sound.'' Kotetsu pipped up, bringing another scroll close to his face. ''Something about the... Sound Five? Kimimaro... Kaguya, Tayuya... Names of ninja?" 

''Did you say Tayuya?" Shikamaru exclaimed, coming closer. ''Tayuya, and the Sound Five? She's one of the five bearers of the Curse Mark we encountered on our way to retrieving Sasuke. The only woman amongst them. Thi-''

A sudden noise cut the boy off, echoing like thunder around the underground base. All heads snapped towards the entrance of the room, and, as Kotetsu hurried towards the nearby wall, where the lever that had turned the power on was located, Gurehai quickly took out a smaller scroll from the pocket of her vest, opening it and throwing it above the ones about the hideouts. 

''Get down!" She commanded, her voice a hushed whisper. Everyone hit the ground in an instant, hiding behind the cubes, the dark cloaking them once again.

''I told you, Daikichi god damn it!" A woman's high-pitched voice bellowed, coming closer and closer, accompanied by heavy footfalls. ''The little brat said he saw a girl near the entrance about an hour ago! She had white hair, and a fucking flack jacket! There are ninjas here!''

''SHUT YOUR BIG FAT MOUTH UP, WOMAN!" Another voice demanded, just outside the door. This one belonged to a man, and one with big lungs, at that. ''The 'little brat' has a name, and it's Koja! And if you had half his brains, you'd realize that he said the girl turned into soil when he shot her! Soil! It was a Jutsu, woman!"

''My name's not 'woman', Daikichi god damn it!" The female protested again, and, this time, the voices could be heard inside the room. 

''Both of you, be quiet. I'll kill you, and tell Lord Orochimaru you choked each other to death.'' Another male voice, though hoarse and raspy, said, and the lights turned back on. Hiding her body better behind the object, Gurehai pressed herself against the metal.

''What's this?" The voice of the irritating woman shrilled, closer to their hiding spot than ever. Shit, they reached the table with the papers! ''Daikichi, Kimi god damn it! There are scrolls, there are scrolls missing!" Panic met her revealment, as both her companions ran over to see if she was telling the truth.

The Aoyo took a deep breath and then turned to her teammates, all hidden behind similar tubes on her right. 'Make for the door' she mouthed, and helf up three fingers. Counting down to one, she abruptly spinned on her heels and pointed her hand on the ceiling.

''Raiton: Storm Current!" She yelled, and a blinding stream of lighting shot out towards the lights, shattering them, and making sparks fly everywhere. Then, she followed the rest of the Chunin Four, spritning towards the door.

''Daikichi, Chimo! After them, you idiots!" The second man's voice commanded, and the Kunoichi caught glimpse of bright orange hair, before darting outside. 

She didn't expect to find herself and the others surrounded the moment they stepped foot outside. A three-foot tall boy and five identical, orange-haired women stood in a circle near the tree line. Bhind them, the three from before emerged. The woman with the shrill voice was also identical to the ones already outside. Shadow Clones? No, she couldn't possibly be able to create that many. Throwing a kunai at one of them, it passed right through her.

''They're all simple Clones!" She informed the others, standing next to them, back to back. The other two men matched their voices very well. The first one was very tall, and could be described as fat, and a bald, big head. The other, tall himself but obviously shorter than his partner, had a shaved head and drak bags under his beady eyes.

''Who do we have here? Konohagakure shinobi? My, my, you must be at least Chunin.'' The latter teased, eyeing their attires. ''Kojo, is that the girl you mentioned?" The little kid nodded twice and then glared at them, placing a dart between his fingers.

''We don't have time for this.'' Gurehai mumbled, noticing that none of their enemies wore head bands... and then, she saw them stiched on their clothes. ''Attack, before we loose whatever portion of the element of surprise we have.'' With that, she threw a kunai at the manwith the shaved head, Kimi.

He avoided it, and before he even had the chance to look up, she was jumping at him, Rock Fist on the ready. He raised his arms at the last second, blocking it. And then while distracted by Gurehai's strength, he completely froze, eyes wide.

''Shadow Paralysis Jutsu, a success.'' Shikamaru stated, several feet away, and with Izumo guarding his back. Said Chunin formed a hand seal, and spewed a water-like substance out of his mouth. The moment Chimo, the orange-haired woman and the short boy, Kojo, stepped on it, they could move an inch. Kotetsu came at them, his mace raised.

''What?... G-G-....'' Gurehai heard the Nara stumble over his words. Turningto look at him, her breath hitched in her throat. The boy's eyes suddenly rolled in the back of his head, and he fell backwards, his Jutsu breaking.

''Shikamaru!" She shouted, but was instantly forced a couple of steps back, when a humogous fist collided with her jaw. She heard a crack, and grabbed her face, watching as Daikichi hovered above her. Behind him, Kimi threw a kunai at Kotetsu, who was just bringing his weapon down on Chimo.

''Kotetsu, watch out!" Izumo hollered, noticing the pare bomb attcked to the blade. But it was too late. The kunai hit the mace, exploded, and the spiky haired man was thrown backwards with a grunt. His back and head hit the wall of the hideout, and he passed out. Shit... how did this happen? What in the world happened to Shikamaru?

''You're not the only ones who can fight in sync, bratts!" The big man laughed, ready to hammer Gurehai's head. She rolled out of the way quickly, spitting out blood. 

I broke a tooth... that idiot. She complained in her head, glancing at Shikamaru's direction once again. ''Izumo! Grab Kotetsu, quickly!" She yelled, placing both hands on the ground as fast as she could. ''Doton: Soil Flow!" Both men shouted as the muddy current threw them in the air and then entirely buried them, leaving the woman and kid stuck on the Syrup Field.

The Aoyo then rushed at her fallen comrade and threw his arms around her shoulder, taking out two, dark purple orbs from her pouches. Throwing them on the ground, they exploded with a bang, and made the Sound nin choke on purple smoke.

----
Present Time
----

The cave was small, and they had no room for everyone to both fully lie down comfortably and put their things away because of how narrow it was, but at least they all fit in, and it was dry. The rain still raged above their heads, creating large puddles of mud just outside the entrance.

''I am so, so terribly sorry, Ginhane.'' Izumo muttered continuous apologies to the small eagle that was perched on his wrist, and that had a small tube attached to its leg. ''I know the rain is awful for you. I don't like it either. But when I return to the Leaf, I swear I'll buy you the best seeds the market has, okay, budy? But I need you to fly to Konoha. Do this for me, alright?"

The bird let out a screech and flapped its wings, before disappearing outside the cave, their eyes loosing him in the dark. The message he carried was as short and specific as possible, and called for back up.

5 miles north-east V of End, Sound. Cave. Two unconcious. Heavy rain. Followed by four. Requesting backup. Chunin Four.

''Kotetsu should be waking up, any minute now.'' Gurehai said, trying to ease her teammate's mind. ''Eat.'' She then told him in a stern voice, tossing him a small pouch of dark red food pills.

''How quickly do you think they'll come?" He asked, taking a bite out of the strangely colored pill. His face immediately lit up. ''They taste like fruit!" The girl smiled, and focused her attention on the weather outside.

''If Ginhane reaches Konoha in two hours' time, it will already be nightime. After that, the time the backup will need to find us depends on their rank, and classification. Though, they'll probably sent trackers. Best case scenario, someone finds us by tomorrow morning, and we set out for the Leaf right away.''

''Won't you eat?" He asked, giving her back her supplies. 

''I will, don't worry. You should rest, too.'' She suggested, pointing with her head at Kotetsu, who was leaning on the wall next to his friend, and Shikamaru, who was lying down next to her feet. ''I'll explain everything to Kotetsu if he wakes up before you, and tell him to keep watch while a rest, too. Shikamaru... Shikamaru hasn't shown any signs of waking up, anyway.''

Indeed, besides occasionally stirring slightly, the boy had shown no signs of recovering from his sudden... slumber.

''Thank you.'' Izumo said, letting his head fall back on the cave wall, as well. ''Wake me up whenever you need something.''

He was snoring a minute later, drooling on Kotetsu's spiky hair. The blue eyed girl looked outside once again, munching the home made food pill her mother had made. 

Time passed by so quickly, she thought she had, at some point, fallen asleep. But the Nara was still unconcious next to her, and the rain was still pouring, though not as much as heavily as before, despite the sun making the forest a little brighter behind the clouds.

Kotetsu woke up mere seconds before Izumo, keeping himself from yelling about the drool in his hair. She told him everything, and, upon hearing help was on the way he relaxed, him and the brunette telling her to rest, and that they had everything covered.

It was all calm and silent, until the sound of a bark ran through the air, above the sound of the rain whiping at the stone. Then, another, louder. And then a third.  Gurehai was up on her feet at once, kunai at hand and near her face, still cautious, despite her hopes of the newcomers being allies. Behind her, the two older Chunin watched carefully, hands itching to grab their own weapons. 

But when two heads popped out from the side of the cave's entrance, and her hand fell on her side, a sigh of more surprise than relief escaping her lips.

''Sensei?"

Chapter Text

''Sensei?" 

Kakashi Hatake and the Hokage's apprentice, Shizune, entered the cave at once. The woman knelt down next to Shikamaru and ran her glowing green hands over him, searching for the source of his unconsciousness. Izumo and Kotetsu sighed in relief in the back of the hiding place, while grey haired Jonin walked to stand next to his student, who looked down at the healer, anxious.

''He was injected with some kind of drug.'' She said, reaching a small nick on the side of his neck. ''Fortunately, it isn't poison. It only ment to make him pass out, and keep him that way for a long time.'' The mosquito bite... right before we entered the hideout. ''It seems that it was designed to take effect the moment his chakra spiked.''

''He fell unconscious when he used his Shadow Paralysis on an enemy.'' Gurehai informed Shizune, recalling the incident. ''It all took a turn for the worse after that.'' She felt her broken tooth with her tongue, and tasted the bitter taste of blood coming from her wound. ''No serious injuries, though. Worst case scenario, Kotetsu has a concussion. We managed to take some scrolls from the base before we got attacked, containing information about his other hideouts and experiments. The mission is complete.''

''The rain has nearly stopped.'' Kakashi noted, as Shikamaru began to stir in his sleep. ''I'll have Bull carry Shikamaru, until he's conscious and stable enough to move on his own.'' At the mention of the name 'Bull', a gigantic bulldog walked into the cave, his dark brown appearing almost black in the limited lighting. The dog, bigger in size than the Nara, lowered down in order for Shizune to place the boy on his back.

''Your head appears to be fine, Kotetsu-san.'' The brunette diagnosed next, taking her hands away from the Chunin's hair. With a 'thanks', the Chunin Four picked whatever equipment they had taken off up, and along with their backup, exited the cave, and made their way through the muddy forest.

Shikamaru woke up about half an hour away from the Village, with his bored expression settling on his features the moment he opened his eyes. Nearly falling of Bull's back when he realized who was carrying him, he stood up and stretched his arms, insisting that he would walk by himself.

The dog continued to ran alongside Gurehai for the rest of the way, resulting to Kakashi sending him a comical, offended look. The girl kept her smile to herself and winked at her new companion, who somehow seemed to understand her gesture.

The Gates of Konoha were wide open, waiting for them, as always. Shizune waved at all of them and ran off, saying she needed to get to Lady Tsunade before she could sneak away to drink. Bull slightly rubbed his big head against the Aoyo's side before disappearing in a puff of smoke, leaving her a bit weirded out by the strange display of affection. Then she paused, and though quickly.

 ''The three of you can go home if you like. I'll head to the Hokage's office and do the report on my own, don't worry.'' She said to her three fellow Chunin, hiding the nervousness that was bubbling up in her gut. I can't let them enter her office with me today. 

The Kamizuki and Hagane's faces lit up instantly, and they pumped their fists in the air. ''Yes, Taichou, thank you!" They both simultaneously laughed, and then immediately walking off. ''Let's go for a bite to eat before Tsunade-sama sends to Guard duty again, Izumo!" Was the last thing she heard before they took a turn, and hid from view. 

''Alright then, I'll be going too.'' Shikamaru said, but not hesitating to shoot his female comrade a slightly suspicious look. ''I promised Ino and Choji I'd join them for some barbecue when I got back. See you.'' He mumbled and also took his own path, towards the shops. Gurehai had almost let out a relieved sigh, when she remembered her teacher was still there.

''Let's get going, then, Gurehai.'' The Hatake urged, taking the first steps towards the center of the Village. ''As leader of the backup team, I have to give in my report too.'' The girl new she couldn't press on the matter without making him suspicious anymore, so she nodded and followed him. Not ten steps later, though, a yell made them stop in their tracks.

''GURE-CHAN! KAKASHI-SENSEI!" The hyperactive Uzumaki shouted, approaching them with a fast pace. He skidded to a stop a few feet in front of them, grinning like a mad man, as always. Not giving much thought to his hands, which were hidden behind his back, she greeted him, too.

''Oh, Naruto. How are you doing?" She asked, with Kakashi smiling from next to her.

''I'm awsome!" He replied, taking one of his hands from behind his back to point his thumb at his face. ''I got back from a mission too, a few hours ago.'' He said, glancing at the direction she and their sensei had come from. ''How are you two today?" He asked, but then immediately began talking again, not giving them a chance to reply. ''Which reminds me...'' He trailed off, before... bringing his hands forward, along with the red box he was holding. 

No way! Kakashi grew frantic in his mind, eyebrows twitching on the outside. He couldn't possibly... How did he found out? Should I.... Not seeing his surprised expression, Gurehai sighed.

''Happy Birthday!'' The blonde wished, giving another of his famous smiles. The Jonin's surprise turned into akward laughter, while the girl couldn't help but smile a bit, too.

''Who told you about it?' She asked, taking the present in her own hands. Kakashi turned his confused eye to her. Wait... what? ''It was mother, wasn't it? I should have known.''

''Yes! I went to your house right after my mission, to ask you if you wanted to go eat some ramen at Ichiraku, but I only found Gure-san cooking, and she said you were on a mission, and that she was making something for your birthday!" He rambled on, urging her to open the parcel. ''I didn't know what to get you, so I just went with something I know you enjoy, ttebayo!" 

''I think I'm going to open it when I get home.'' The girl smiled genuinely. I think I am going to bet it's something related to ramen, she thought, and handed it back to the boy. ''I'll also take you up to your offer. I'll meet you at Ichiraku's in fifteen minutes, once I'm done with my report, okay? Sensei, what about you? Will you come with us?" She turned to Kakashi, who scratched his neck and looked down at his students.

Naruto's eyes widened, and he stifled a gasp. Yes, yes, yes, yes, YES! If Kakashi-sensei comes for ramen, then he'll have to take off his mask to eat, and we'll finally take a look at his face! Gure-chan, you're so smart!

''Ramen, huh?" The Jonin muttered, more to himself. ''We'll see. First, me and Gurehai have to go to the Hokage's office and give our report. Let me give you an answer after that, alright?" Naruto grinned again and saluted them, running off again, towards his favorite shop in Konoha. The duo then headed for their original destination, fortunately for Gurehai, in silence.

The Aoyo secretly dreaded them moment she would step foot inside Tsunade's office, especially with her entire team, and that's why she had convinced them to leave the aftermath of their mission to her. And her intuition turned out to be correct after all, when she and her teacher got to her office.

''The Chunin Four, reporting for the mission in Otogakure. A success. We retrieved scrolls upon investigating the hideout Orochimaru has left behind, and encountered some of the Sound's ninja. A team of four. Two men, a woman, and a little kid, no older than ten. They appeared to be guarding the base, even though it was half-destroyed. Their names... their names are Kimi, Daikichi, Chimo, and Koja, respectively. Kimi died when we and them crossed blades.''

Crossed blades is one way to put it. She pondered, remembering how her eye burned when she hit them with the Soil Flow. It must have thrown him on the wall. She took out the scroll in which she had sealed the documents, and placed the two new scrolls in front of Tsunade.

''They both contain information on Orochimaru's bases. On located in the Sound, and the other, named the 'Northern Hideout', on the border of the Land of Earth. There are also some details on experiments he conducted on the Sound Five, the team of ninja Shikamaru's team and I encountered on our way to retrieve Sasuke. All five were bearers of the Curse Mark.''

Tsunade's eyes skimmed the paper, the things she read confirming the Chunin's words. Then she set down the documents, intertwining her fingers, as always. ''And where are the rest three of the Chunin Four?" She asked, eyebrow raised, a signal that she probably already knew what had happened to them.

''I sent them home.'' Gurehai honestly replied, sighing. ''They seemed... tired.'' 

The Hokage's eyes narrowed. ''I'll believe that.'' She commented, leaning back on her chair. I knew it. ''Now, since the report is over, you can leave. I'll give you the rest of the day off, too. Consider it a birthday present.'' At that, Gurehai inwardly gave the most exasperated eye roll she could muster. ''Dismissed.''

She exited the office with Kakashi following close behind, and sighed once again. 

''You told the others to go home because you didn't want them to know about your birthday, didn't you?" The man asked, his mask hiding the small smile he had on his lips.

''Mmm.'' The Aoyo mumbled in agreement, keeping herself from glaring at him. He didn't have a report to do. He just wanted to see why I didn't want the others to come with me to the Hokage's office. Sly Jonin. ''Izumo and Kotetsu would make a fuss about it, and it's not like I celebrate it, anyways.'' She added, thinking about what was awaiting her when she got home. Are the twins still in Konoha? ''What will you do, sensei?"

Kakashi halted, momentarily thinking that his secret was finally out. ''Eh?"

''For ramen. Will you go with me and Naruto?" 

''Ah, no, sorry. I think I'll have to pass.'' He apologized, once they reached the street where Ichiraku Ramen was located. ''But I'll arrange a meeting for Team 7 one of this days. We can't fall back on training, now, can we?" He scratched the back of his head and then waved at her, disappearing, as always, in a puff of smoke.

The girl continued walking towards her destination, hands in the loops of her vest. What are the odds of that? She smirked to herself, passing by the barbecue place. I should probably invite Naruto over, instead of eating ramen. Mother was cooking... she must be expecting someone more than me. In that case, even if Naruto has already eaten, he won't refuse seconds.

''Gurehai!" A familiar voice called for her, and she turned her head to the left. There she saw Team 10, with the exception of their Jonin leader, about to enter the restaurant. Shikamaru slowly approached her, while Ino and Choji, who was munching on a bag of chips, stayed behind. ''This is such a drag...'' He began, looking away. ''...But I just wanted to say thank you. Izumo... Izumo told me what happened back there, outside Orochimaru's base.''

''What do you mean? You were there, when they attacked us. And we told you about the drug.'' She frowned, not really knowing where this was going.

''That's not what I'm talking about, you troublesome woman.'' The boy muttered to himself, making Gurehai strain her ears. ''He told me about how you carried me all the way back to the cave on your own.'' He said, almost pouting. ''I just wanted to say thanks.''

''Don't be an idiot.'' She commented. ''Could there possibly a chance that I wouldn't carry you? You were injured, idiot. An injured comrade. Do you know many people who wouldn't have helped you? Wouldn't you have done the same?" She tried to make her point, eventually succeeding.

''Still...'' Shikamaru added, hands in his pockets. ''Men should be the ones saving girls, not the other way around.'' He huffed, making Gurehai's eyebrow unnoticeably twitch. Is he calling himself a man, and me a girl?

''Oi, Nara.'' She suddenly snapped, almost annoyed. ''Respect to your elders.'' She demanded, turning her head away. 

''Oh, that's right.'' He remembered. ''Happy birthday, by the way.'' His teammate sighed for the umpteenth time that day. ''Naruto ran into Choji a while ago, saying he was in a hurry to buy you a present. So, yeah...'' 

''Thank you.'' She finally said, and walked away. If I am any more late, Naruto will start throwing a fit. ''See you in our next mission.'' The other Chunin agreed, and they both went seperate ways.

The blonde Uzumaki sat on his usual stool, inhaling his second bowl of ramen, with the bright red box sitting  on the stool on his right. Gurehai pushed the curtains aside, and, after begrudgingly accepting another set of 'happy birthday' wishes from the owner and his daughter, placed a gentle hand on her friend's shoulder. 

''Naruto... wanna come over to my house today?"

----

The front door of the two Aoyos' household opened slowly, and Gurehai let her companion enter first, before following his lead and closing it behind her. Not even a second later, a figure jumped out from the corner next to them -also known as, the stairs- and tackled the poor Uzumaki, wrapping their entire arm around his neck. The boy let out a startled cry, and started hitting the person's bicep, trying to get them to let go.

''Eh? You're not Gurehai!" Gureni mumbled in a disappointed manner, instantly taking his arm back. 

''Of course I'm not, teme!" The Genin shouted up at the taller male, who narrowed his blue eyes at him. Rubbing his irritated skin, Naruto pouted. ''I'm Naruto, Naruto, ttebayo!" You should be happy it wasn't me, the girl thought. I would have punched you out of reflex.

''What? Our cousin already brought a boy home?" Ni gasped, now glaring at the guest. A hand appeared next to his head and smacked him, as Gureichi made his appearance. 

''He's Naruto, her teammate from that day, idiot.'' The boy stated, urging his brother to remember the day they had approached Gurehai as travelers asking for directions. ''Think before you talk. Also, happy birthday, cousin.'' The blue eyed boy smiled, handing her something.

''It's from the both of us!" The other twin added, also giving her an identical, to his brother's, smile.

The item she was handed, was a weapon. Taking it in both her hands, she admired its shape. It was two kunai blades, that seemed to be connected on the handles, and shared a single, regular sized hole. Together, they made one long kunai, around the length of the space between her elbow and palm. The Kunoichi wouldn't have been able to hide her smile, even if she had tried.

''You can pass both Lightning and Wind chakra through it, to help you with your future attacks.'' Her head snapped up at that. ''A little bird told us about your goals for the future, and the idea forced itself in our heads.'' They smirked knowingly, and right on cue, Gureki came in the room herself, supporting herself with her walking stick.

''Happy birthday, honey.'' She embraced her daughter, who had handed her new weapon back to her cousins in order to not harm her mother. ''I know we don't usually celebrate it... but this year we have special guests, wouldn't you say?" She asked, and turned her kind expression to Naruto, who just stood there dumbfounded. ''It's good to see you again, Naruto.'' She told him, snapping him out of his gaze.''

''Hi.'' He said, looking back and forth between Ichi and Ni, frowning more every time his eyes flickered from one to another. 

''That's right, Naruto.'' Gurehai explained. ''This is Gureichi and Gureni, my cousins. You probably won't find a way to tell them apart, even if you try.'' The blonde nodded his head, but kept a confused expression on.

''Honey, you should now that Jiraiya couldn't make it.'' The woman quietly informed her daughter, as the twins listened to the Uzumaki's questions. ''He had to leave for some matters the he and Hokage discussed... he couldn't get into detail.''

''It's okay, mother. I'll probably see him soon, anyways.''

''Now, we should all head to the kitchen. My present for Gurehai awaits us there.'' Gureki announced, pointing to a nearby room. ''I made something special.'' Knowing exactly what the older Aoyo was talking about, Gure took her teammate by the arm and showed him to the kitchen.

''Naruto, you're about to eat the best dessert you've ever tasted in your entire life.''

----

Kakashi arrived home a little late at night, when the dark blue sky was completely littered with tiny little shiny stars. He closed the door of his apartment and took off his sandals, before slipping out of his vest and untying his Konohagakure headband from around his forehead. Then he fell with a dramatic sigh on his bed, staring at his ceiling with his grey hair hiding his Sharingan.

Suddenly he frowned, instantly sitting up and narrowing his one open eye.

He shot up from his resting spot and walked to his window, at the opposite side of the door, bare feet padding on the wooden floor with soft thuds. There, on the other side of the windowsill, sat a thin blue box, with a note stitched on the lid. The Jonin opened the window slightly and took the box in his hands, immediately after closing it and resting against the glass. Taking the note in his hands, he realized he couldn't recognize the handwriting.

Happy Birthday, the loopy handwriting said, covering the entire front side of it. Turning it around, he noticed another message in the lower corner, written in smaller letters.

Your hand jerked towards that present.

His black eye widened at the words, instantly knowing who it was. His gaze then fell on the box, which was probably a present, too. He set the note carefully aside on his desk and then opened it, reaching inside to take the packaged item out.

He held the soft but elastic fabric between his fingers, inspecting its dark color carefully. The mask was almost identical to the one he was wearing, with the only exception being its color. It was a shade of dark grey, and it reminded him the metal of kunai blades.

He put it back on its box and closed the lid, setting it down next to the picture of him and the rest of Team 7 with a smile never leaving his features. He glanced outside the window, eyes skimming the Village lights even though it was almost impossible to pinpoint her house.

''Happy birthday to the both of us, then.''

Chapter Text

''A tournament... in the Land of Rivers?" Gurehai questioned, holding the long piece of parchment in her bare hands. The mission seemed simple. But why did she have the feeling it was going to be anything but that?

''The young man who requested it is a guard of the Feudal Lord's palace. He said that one of the lords in the Land of Rivers is holding the tournament, and that only the winner will be considered worthy enough to marry his daughter.'' Tsunade explained.

''But it says here that the tournament will have four phases.'' The girl frowned, reading the details once more. ''A battle of weapons; A battle of fists; A battle of Jutsu; And a battle... a battle of... spirit?" She squinted, having absolutely no idea as to what the latter was referring to. ''If the winner is supposed to mary the princess, then what am I and my team going to do there? And what about the man that requested it?"

''Asano-san explained everything to me, but left immediately after, saying he couldn't afford to have his lack of  presence in the palace be discovered. He intents to marry the princess, but he doesn't want anyone to know. Every participant won't actually be participating himself. He has to have four champions, one for each battle. They will fight on his behalf, and ascend to the final competition, the Brawl, if they win. Whoever comes out of the Brawl victorious, gives his master the right to ask the hand of the princess.''

''So I am to pick three Genin, one for each battle. I will fight in one of them, correct?'' The Hokage answered her question by nodding. ''Three Genin... I have an idea already. But what about the battle of spirit? What kind of skills is the champion supposed to have?''

''Mind Jutsu.'' Tsunade simply retorted, bringing another stack of papers in front of her with a sigh. ''Or, a sensor. Someone like...''

''...Ino Yamanaka.'' 

----

''Now that we've all gathered here, I'd like to let you in on some details concerning the mission.'' The Chunin said, her blue eye glancing back and forth between her three subordinates. ''You know about our role in it. We will meet our client, Asano, in the palace grounds where the tournament is going to be held, tomorrow. We will be provided with accommodation, as well as nutrition, throughout the days of the tournament. Also, I assume that you have already guesses in which battle you are going to participate, am I right?" 

''The spirit battle.'' Ino blew a strand of her out of her face, only for it to land on the exact same spot, in front of her eye. ''With the Mind Transfer Jutsu.''

''The battle of weapons!" Tenten smiled, clearly the most energetic out of the three. She had probably hidden sealing scrolls all over her body, each one containing an array of different weapons.

''Th-the b-battle o-of... f-fists...?" Hinata blushed, fidgeting with her fingers. The shorter girl had almost lost it when Neji had come over to were she was sitting in her garden, about to prepare some tea for him and her father to drink, to tell her the Chunin was there, asking to see her.

Gurehai heard the two Hyugas fight before she saw them. Nearing the Hyuga compound, a place she didn't recall ever visiting before, the sound of thuds and familiar grunts echoed all around, alerting her of Neji's presence. She approached the open gates with confident strides, and stood in the middle of them with her posture straight.

Indeed, the long haired boy was sparring with an older man, whose hair was also long but slowly graying, tied back in the same fashion as his partner. The had their Byakugan active, and their pairs of lavender eyes challenged one another as they clashed. Shortly after her silent arrival, the Genin backed away, getting out of his fighting stance.

''Gurehai?" He asked, panting. The older man, who the Aoyo knew as Hiashi, the head of the clan, turned his unwavering gaze towards the newcomer, and his eyes immediately fell on her Chunin vest. ''What are you doing here?"

He's acting strict when around his uncle, she noted, and kept her expression blank.

''Lord Hiashi, please excuse my intrusion.'' She slightly bowed her head in respect, and then looked back up. ''I have come here on duty. More specifically, to recruit someone for a mission. Could you please tell me where to find your daugther, Hinata?" She asked, surprising both males.

''Of course.'' The older man nodded, and glanced at his nephew. ''Neji, go get her.'' The boy hurried off with a bow of his head, disappearing inside the building. ''What kind of mission is it going to be?"

''Hinata, myself and my other subordinates will be participating in a tournament of power, held by the Feudal Lords of the Land of Rivers. Our client will claim the hand of the Lord's daughter, and we will help him by taking out other champions of the suitors. Your daughter will enter a battle of Taijutsu, and that's why I need your consent.''

''You have it.'' The man replied, hiding his hands in his long sleeves. ''You should now that she has many weaknesses. Her body might give up on her.'' He commented, in a warning tone. But Gurehai, having heard   everything that had occurred during the second phase of the Exams, knew better.

''I have no doubt that her spirit will not, Lord Hiashi.'' She said, and watched as Neji and Hinata entered the yard from the corner of her eye. ''And neither will her team.''

''Exactly.'' The Chunin nodded, as the four reached the Village Gates. ''I will be taking part in the battle of Jutsu. There will probably be many suitors with champions there, which means that since at least one Jutsu user will be entering, the tournament will have more ninja like us, as well. Ninjas that have been hired, like us. What I ask from the three of you, is to not give up. We might come across difficult opponents, some of us might lose. But at least one must make it through to the Brawl. I don't care if it's you, Hinata, or you, Tenten. But as Kunoichi, our duty is to complete the mission. So we'll make it to the Brawl, and win, and come back here, knowing that Asano is going to get married. Am I clear?"

Silence followed. Then, Hinata looked up with her lavender eyes full of determination. ''Y-yes, Gurehai-san!" She exclaimed, a small blush coating her cheeks. I heard you talking to father, Gurehai. I heard what you told him about me. So I won't let you down, and win the battle of fists... No matter what!

----

''What are you four girlies doing here?" A man grimaced, looking down at them with a cigarette hanging from his open mouth. ''Are you the new maids Asaki said would come to help for the tournament? You must be them.'' He scratched his almost bald head, his gaze falling on a particular Hyuga, who cowered behind Tenten. 

Gurehai hid the scowl that was desperately trying to escape and rested her hands on her vest, staring at the guard with an almost bored expression. They were just outside the palace grounds, talking with a man who only seemed to let people affiliated with the tournament pass. Behind her, Ino was fuming. ''You listen here, you old bald oaf-...''

''We are here to participate in the tournament, not help out with it.'' The Chunin raised her voice, adding a more demanding tone to it. ''My name is Gurehai, and I'm the leader of this group. Could you tell me where I could find a guard named Asano, sir?'' 

''Well, you're certainly more polite than the blonde one...'' He trailed off, while the Yamanaka balled her fist threateningly a few feet away. Then he abruptly paused, his brown eyes widening.''Wait... you are the ninja Asano hired?" And then, without an answer, he put two and two together, and started laughing. 

The sound boomed all around and resulted to more people turning to look at him, the gigantic man clutching his chest and disrupting the monotonous exchanges they were having until then. 

''USHIMA!" A new voice hollered, and a spear came down from behind the guard and hit him in the helmet, making him grunt. ''Stop yelling about my entrance in the tournament, you bastard! And quit mocking my champions!" A shorter man grabbed Ushima's shoulder and hissed in his ear, earning a cheeky grin in return.

The man was younger than the first one, and packed a considerably smaller amount of muscles. His hair was long and light brown, hidden inside his own helmet. When he turned his head to look at the team of Kunoichi, they saw his eyes were a gold color, just like the molten precious metal.

''Excuse my friend, he's just a big. Rude. Idiot'' He laughed, punching the taller guard in the shoulder at each one of his last three words. Nobody noticed Ino's jaw hitting the ground from behind Hinata, and her blue eyes turning into mirrors of admiration. ''I can tell you really are Kunoichi by your attire and headbands. I am Asano. If you'll please follow me, I'll take you to your living quarters.''

The living quarters turned out to be a two-storry wooden house, outside the premises of the palace grounds, and into the village surrounding it. Letting the girls enter first, he closed the door behind them, and smiled as they took off their shoes.

''Grandma, I'm home!" He shouted, before turning to his guests with an awkward smile. The smell of herbs filled Gurehai's nostrils. ''Unfortunately, only those of other villages are allowed into the palace. The suitors living here must provide accommodation to their own champions, so... here you are. I am afraid you will all have to share a room, since-...''

''Stop blabbering nonsense, young man!" An old woman's voice said and a large wooden spoon instantly collided with Asano's leg, making him jump. The possibly shortest woman Gurehai had ever seen in her life appeared from behind the boy, her face wrinkled, and her eyes squinting so much they looked like just another set of lines on her head. ''You and Ushima are sleeping on the floor, by the fire place! I have already laid out your beds! The girls will split up and take your room!"

Her wooden spoon turned to point at a nearby corner, where two mattresses lay in front of a beautiful stone fire place. On the left, a space decorated with counters, pots and other cutlery hosted a table, indicating it was the kitchen.

Isn't Ushima?... 

''Come with me, girls.'' The old woman then smiled sweetly at her guests, tossing the spoon at Asano, who barely caught it. ''Let's get you to your rooms. I am Mihime, but you can just call me grandma.'' The four, baffled with the fast turn of events, nodded, and trailed after her.

''My name is Gurehai.'' The Aoyo said, pointing to herself. ''And the are my teammates Hinata, Tenten and Ino.'' She tries her best not to call the blonde a bitter 'Yamanaka', and succeeded. The climbed a staircase, and came into a hallway hosting three identical doors, two on the right, and one on the left.

''Your rooms are the one on the left, and the second on the right.'' She suddenly frowned, looking down at her empty hands. ''Where's my spoon? Oh, I must have left it down in the kitchen... Now, the four of you, split up however you like. I will serve dinner when Ushima gets back, in a little while. Come down soon, okay?" And with that, she left them, making her way downstairs.

She didn't remember what she did with the wooden spoon, the white haired girl noted, and faced her comrades. ''Me and Hinata will take one room. Are you okay with it, Hinata?" She asked gently, and the blue haired Hyuga nodded. ''That settles it then. Unpack your things, lied down for a while, if you want. We will discuss more details about the tournament with Asano, during lunch.''

''Yes, Captain!" Tenten winked, quickly opening the door to the left, dragging Ino with her.

The room Gurehai and the lavender eyed Byakugan user shared was small, with a mattress laid out on each of its furthest corners, and a space of one more separating them, underneath a window that poured sunlight into the the room. She took off her Chunin vest and folded it, setting it down on her bed. Now her dark grey cloak only fell above the rest of her black attire, with only the icy blue trimmings adding some colour. Next, off came the protector around her forehead, being placed on top of the jacket.

''Are you coming, Hinata?" She asked, and together, they joined Asano and his grandma downstairs.

 

The soup Mihime served was the most delicious chicken related food she had ever eaten before in her life. She sat cross legged between Asano and the grandma, with the latter on her left. Ino sat on the head of the table next to Asano, glancing at him every now and then, and Ushima sat on her other side, with his coal black moikana giving him more height, even if sitting. Tenten looked like an ant next to him, with the Hyuga heiress, on the opposite side of Ino, closing the circle.

Ushima, as Gurehai learned during that meal, despite being extremely irritated that he had to sleep out of the comfort of his room, was also Asano's childhood friend, and Mihime's true grandson. The client had moved apparently moved in with them many years ago, and the old woman had no problem at all.

''Mihime-san, I have to say that your soup really rivals my mother's cooking.'' Gurehai commented, close to finishing her bowl. The woman, turning to her with her usual, close eyed smile -that she only seemed to direct towards her guests- nodded in appreciation.

''Thank you, dear... dear... Would you mind telling me your name again?" She asked, still laughing.

''Gurehai. But if it seems to long for you, you can call me Hai.'' The white haired girl quickly added, gulping down another spoonful.

''Gurehai, Gurehai... you have a very pretty name, my girl. A pretty name, for a pretty girl. Was it your mother who named you? I am sure it was because of your hair.''

''It was my godfather, but yes, the last part is true. Once again, I compliment you for your amazing cooking.'' With one last smile, Mihime turned to the shy Hinata, engaging her in a conversation about healing herbs.

''She has started forgetting things quicker than before.'' The brunette guard told her, with a sad look in his gold eyes. ''I guess it's normal, for her age. But that's why I want to make her a great-grandchild. So that she can learn their name before it's too late. If I can do that, then, I will be able to rest assured that I have made at least one of her wishes come true.''

''A grand-child, huh? But why with the princess of all people, if I may?"

''Believe it or not, Kira-the princess, myself and Asaki, my little sister-who is her personal handmaiden, were all very close, as children. That was before my teens, when I met Ushima. Back then, my sister and I lived on our own, and visiting the palace as many of the orphans did wasn't uncommon. She and the princess became fast friends, and as for me... I fell in love.''

From the corner of her eye, the Aoyo saw Tenten waving her hands around, as if swinging a mace, and Ushima laughed, patting her head. ''Falling in love with the princess must have been hard.''

''I realized that, a few months later. Asaki was taken into the palace, to work as a maid, and I was no longer so casually accepted into the gardens. That's when grandma took me in, and Ushima became the brother I never had. I was hopeless. I joined the guard squads, and was assigned to the palace. But seeing Kira, let alone my sister, was hard. I was almost ready to turn my heart to stone and give up, when...''

''The tournament and its purpose was announced.'' Her companion nodded his head with a goofy grin.

''Apparently, the princess refused to marry anyone who isn't worthy. Somewhere deep down, I hope that she did it, so that I could have a chance. And I would never have grasped it, if it weren't for merchants and travelers talking about shinobi, and the big event that had recently taken place in the Land of Fire. The Chunin Exams, and the extraordinary participants.'' His suggestive glance made her internally chuckle.

''You mean to tell me that you personally heard about me?" She was met with agreement, and shook her head, thinking about the Hokage, somewhere back in Konoha. ''Even if so, you should know that none of the people I have brought here with me made it through to that 'big event'. I am not, in any sense, undermining their abilities, but, are you still confident?"

''You are the Captain. You chose them. If you really were the one who brought them here, as you say, then I have no doubt that I will soon be holding Kira's hand in mine.'' That made her look away and focus her attention back on her bowl, and finishing its contents.

After everyone was finished, and the old woman almost beat her boys outside, for some reason, Gurehai told the other three girls to head upstairs and lie down if they wanted, and that she would be upstairs soon too, after she helped Mihime with cleaning up. Despite Hinata quietly protesting, she managed to usher her team to their rooms.

''Thank you for letting us stay, Mihime-san. Asano explained us the situation, so I hope it's not too much trouble.'' She took a tower of bowls out off the woman's hands and took them to the sink, where the spoons had already been washed.

''Ushima and Asano are grown men, dear! Nothing will happen to them if they spent a few nights on a mattress! Anyways, I like having more people here, too. It's getting boring with these too baboons only, day and night!'' Taking another set of plates away, the ninja smiled.

''What's your name, dear?" Mihime questioned after a while, when the two of them had started sweeping.

''Gurehai.'' She simply answered, never losing her smile. ''My name is Gurehai, but if it's too long for you, you can call me Hai.'' She put the broom aside, and watched as her host walked to the fire place, kneeling down in front of it.

''Oh, Gurehai. That's a pretty name!'' She giggled, throwing a log in the fire. ''You know what I always say. Pretty names, are for pretty girls! But now, you should go to sleep. I'll head upstairs too, when I finish here. Goodnight, my dear!"

''Yes.'' Gurehai turned her back to the living room, silently climbing up the stairs. ''Goodnight, Mihime-san.''

Chapter Text

The tournament was to begin at noon the following day, and so, at 7 a.m sharp, Mihime burst through Gurehai and Hinata's door, waving around two sets of white towels threateningly. The white haired girl caught the one she was thrown and wrapped it around her nearly bare chest, and waited for her roommate to also get up, before following their hostess outside. 

Once in the hall, she saw Ino rubbing her eyes, and Tenten yawing next to her, her messy brown hair pulled up in two pig tails instead of her usual buns. They had identical white towels hanging from their arms and shoulders, and, much like their teammates, stumbled slightly.

''You have to get cleaned up before the start of the tournament!'' The tiny woman ushered them down the stairs, hitting them with her wooden spoon every time someone fell behind. ''I had Asano and Ushima scrub themselves raw last night!'' She said, and led them to a door near the kitchen, which was probably the back one. There, spreading throughout almost the entire yard, was a hot spring-like pool, with wooden buckets waiting for them at its sides. A tall wooden fence stood all around them, and for that, they were grateful.

After practically stripping them naked and listening to none of their objections, Mihime pushed them in, and started scrubbing their backs with a gigantic brush. Gurehai had made sure to get in first during the commotion and sink down until the steaming hot water reached her collarbone, letting a few strands of hair fall in front of her eye, while the rest of it was tied back in a bun.

Mihime passed by each of them, splashing them with water, scrubbing their backs and making occasional comments like how Hinata's chest would grow big, how Ino's hips would help her during childbirth in the future, and how Gurehai would become taller than all of them. After almost two hours of seemingly endless torture, they dressed in their ninja attires and had breakfast.

Immediately after that, they headed to the palace grounds, and met up with Asano and Ushima, who weren't dressed in their usual guard armor. The first wore a strange dark blue cloak with the hood up, while the latter sported regular, every day clothes.

''What's with the get up, Asano-san?" Tenten questioned, examining the garb.

''I can't let anyone else outside this group know about my entrance in the tournament.'' He explained, looking down. ''Until 11, when the suitors have to take their champions and register their entrance, I don't want anyone to know. Even then, I'll keep my face hidden.''

''But, doesn't that mean that any group of five can participate?" Ino frowned, arms crossed. ''Four for the battles, and one as their master?''

''In a sense, yes.'' Ushima butted in, towering over all of them. ''The suitor can be anyone, but, as for the champions... one has to be able to perform Jutsu, and one has to be able to use some kind of Mind Jutsu. That means, at least two out of the four have to be ninja, or at least people able to wield chakra.''

Around them, coming in and out of the gates and other entrances, all sorts of people started to appear. Men, women, children and older citizens, merchants, dancers and singers, cooks selling their creations, people dressed in both expensive garbs and peasant shirts, warriors, guards, palace maidens and Lords of importance. They all headed towards one direction; The great wooden bleachers built around a wide arena.

''That's bad.'' Gurehai mused out of the blue, processing Ushima's words. ''That might be really, really bad. If anyone can enter the tournament, as you say, then there's no doubt that Rogue's, or people who hired them, will be here too.''

''R-Rogues?" Hinata cried, looking around in concern.

''Yes. Some of the rich Lords might have hired them, or they could even be here on their own. Why would they miss up on the chance of claiming a princess's hand, especially if their abilities measure up to the challenge?"

''Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!" Asano panicked, his gold eyes darting around, as to pin point said people. ''What do we do? What do you do?''

''Relax, Asano-san.'' Gurehai tried to calm the young man down, despite noticing that her team was in distress. ''If it gives you any consolation, then you should know that I've dealt with Rogue Ninja twice before. Personally.'' She added with a sigh, recalling both Zabuza and Kuro. ''They might know Jutsu, and they might be skilled in martial arts. Some might even be Jonin level. But remember, even if only one of us makes it to the Brawl, then we have chances to win, and no one will risk killing someone in this kind of event. And neither my team nor I will back down now, or in the arena. Isn't that right, Team Hai?"

''Yes, Captain!''

''Y-Yes!"

''Humph.''

''Now, let's go and give our names to those secretaries. We don't want to miss the registrations, do we?"

----

''Ladies and gentlemen, dear travelers and Lords, contestants and masters...'' A man coated in different kinds of make up and dressed in a variety of materials called out, standing in front of a platform different that the audience seats, obviously made for the Feudal Lord and his daughter. ''...I welcome you to our humble event, and wish you all a great time! Please welcome, our Lord and his daughter, princess Kira!" 

From above, the deafening roar of people yelling and applauding pierced her and her team's ears. Asano, Ushima and Mihime are somewhere in that crowd, she thought, looking at the spectators as closely as she could from her spot outside the arena. Team Hai, along with every other group of four representing their masters, impatiently waited in their assigned waiting spot. 

''And now, please welcome our... GLADIATORS!" He bellowed, and another wave of cheers, perhaps louder than the first, shook the wooden structure to ts core. Along with the four girls, dozens of contestants rushed inside the wide arena, some yelling, some hitting their chests in anticipation, some kept quiet, their sharp eyes analyzing their future opponents, just like the Konoha ninja. The were nearly pushed to the ground by the older fighters.

The fact that they were all men, didn't help either.

The man went one calling out the names of some masters and their fighters, who, she figured, all had code names. That made her glad for her last-minute decision in front of the secretaries earlier. Finally, the man called out theirs, and they seemed to be the last ones.

''And, at last, we have our lone, four ladies.'' Obvious laughter was heard from some spectators, making Ino's blood boil. ''Red, Blue, White and Violet, all respectively taking part in the battles of weapons, fists, Jutsu and spirit! Which reminds me, I have to let you in on some details.''

''Each battle, is a tournament itself. A total of twenty four are participating in each, and they will all have to fight against each other, and the against each other again and again, until only one, sole gladiator remains. That means, that only four will ascend to the most glorious of battles, The Brawl!" After another set of cheering and clapping, the man continued.

''At last, let's lay down some rules. Each contestant is to defeat their opponent by only using their appointed skill, which means... Only weapons, only hand-to-hand combat, only Ninjutsu, and only Mind Jutsu! Another simple thing... injuries are allowed, but killing is not. Anyone who disobeys, will suffer the consequences. Touch the surrounding wooden wall, and you are considered out of bounds. I have nothing left to say. Let the Battle of Weapons begin! Everyone but our two first fighters, Bull and Sun, please resume to your earlier positions.''

Matches upon matches, injured contestants, angry masters, yodeling crowds. It didn't take long for Team Hai to realize that the audience was placing bets on them, either. Lords and commoners placed their money on the gladiator they thought would win the match, or even the battle-therefore making it to the Brawl. Pouches of coins started getting passed around, and if it weren't for some guard, a second battle field would have been created in the bleachers.

The first member of the Konohagakure ninja to participate, was Tenten, despite her fight being a little late. ''And now, for the last match of the first round... Sen and Red, come forth!"

''Remember, you don't have to drag the fight out. Our main aim is to finish them quickly, so just focus on making them touch the fence. That'll get them out of bounds.'' Gurehai advised her comrades, and gave Tenten an encouraging pat on the back. The girl ran off, her brown eyes smiling, as always.

All four Kunoichi had left their head bands at Mihime's house, as to not cause any fuss. Gurehai also left behind her Chunin vest and Aoyo crest cloak, settling for only her black shorts and tank top, that made her snow white hair stand out even more.

''Begin!" The command came after the two opponents had barely stood opposite of each other.

''I'm gonna nail your pretty clothes on the wall!" The grown man cackled, pulling out two senbon in each of his hands. Tenten merely raised her eyebrow, and, a puff of smoke later, a chain staff twirled in her hands, making gasps echo throughout the crowd.

''I interject!" A man screamed, waving his fan around. Obviously being Sen's master, he pointed at Tenten accusingly.''She used a scroll! Only weapons are allowed!"

''Then I interject to your interjection!" A louder voice came from nearly the other side of the arena, and Ushima stood up as well, crossing his muscular arms over his chest. ''The presenter said that only weapons are allowed, in order to defeat the opponent. As long as she doesn't use the scroll itself against him, then's she's clean! Isn't that right, presenter?"

The man had to turn his confused gaze towards the Feudal Lord, who gave a sharp nod in return. ''The Feudal Lord agrees. Continue the match!"

And the match continued, with Sen's senbon all deflected, and the weights on the ends of Tenten's chains hitting him in the face. He was thrown directly on the wooden fence, knocking himself out in the process. Everyone was speechless. And then, everyone clapped. 

Slowly, from the remaining 12, only 3 remained. It was no surprise that the brunette was among them. The presenter later announced that since there were three of them left, the last match in order to determine who would advance to the Brawl, was going to be a small battle royal. The one out of the three that would manage to best his opponents, would be the winner.

Tenten reentered the arena with confidence, as she had completely wiped the floor with her previous opponents.

Things however turned out to be more complicated, when the other two contestants, Spirit and Ken, seemed to join forces against the girl. Ken was a lean young man with a very long golden beard, who used twin axes. Spirit, on the other hand... he was a mystery. He wore shiny silver and black armor, reminding Gurehai of a samurai, and wore a similar helmet. His posture was straight, he handled his many weapons with extreme efficiency, and his speed was remarkable. 

At first glance, the Aoyo had no doubt that her teammate had them. She carried many scrolls, and was a trained shinobi. But, all that, unfortunately didn't help her out against the furious Ken... when she cut off his beard.

The intricately braided hair hit the ground with a soft thud, and the entire arena froze. Tenten stood a few feet away, holding the staff close to her, with its chains dangling from her hand. Spirit seemed to halt for a moment, watching his blonde opponent slowly look down at his pride and joy. Then he charged at the Kunoichi again, blades clashing.

She caught his blade with the chain, but he forced his hand backwards, ripping the weapon off her hands, and into the wood behind them. In that moment of panic, Spirit surprisingly side stepped to the right and rolled to the side. Before the girl had time to register what he had done, Ken's ferocious growl sent goosebumps across her skin, as he came at her with his axe pointing forward.

The ninja gasped but kept her cool, jumping up. Suddenly, the older man was below her, his dark eyes widening. Next thing he knew, Tenten stepped on his extended axe, making him stumble forward, and then do a single flip, and kick the back of his head with her heel.

The axe-wielder's body was slammed on the fence, face first. The weapon fell from his hand, and then, so did he, on the ground.

That was the coolest thing I've ever seen another girl do, Gurehai smiled at her teammate, who landed effortlessly on her feet. I guess their entire team has a thing for Taijutsu, she concluded, thinking back at what she had seen both Lee and Neji do.

''HELL YES!'' Ushima bellowed, shooting up from his seat, with a tiny Mihime on his shoulder. ''Go Te-RED!'' He saved it, pumping his fist in the air. Next to him, Asano kept his face hidden, but the large grin on his face couldn't go unnoticed. Many people exclaimed in joy too. After her first two matches, the girl had gained many supporters, and so, many bets were placed in her favor.

The brunette smiled widely at the crowd, before being forced to focus back on the battle by her now only opponent, whose twin katanas danced her way. The fight was back on, and now the spectators seemed to be split in two large groups; The master and supporters of Spirit, and the master and supporters of Red.

She can do it, Gure chanted in her mind, from her spot with Ino and Hinata at her sides. Contestants eren't allowed to watch the matches of their fellow battle participants, so they wouldn't know the techniques they used. But, the remaining members of Team Hai could watch, and they made sure to encourage their comrade.

Tenten now pulled out another, larger scroll and tossed it in the air, making smoke enfold her. Spirit halted, suspiciously waiting for her next move. Then, she finally appeared, wielding her own sword. She gripped it with both hands and got into her fighting stance, charging first at the samurai.

She seemed to be managing well blocking and avoiding both of her opponents blades, achieving a few smart hits, disorientating him. And then, when she found an obvious opening, she flipped her weapon, thrusted the pommel towards his stomach...

...and was met with thin air.

She was barely able to raise her gaze upwards, were Spirit now was, foot sticking out in order to kick her. She quickly raised her weapon and the dull side of it was met with his boot, forcing him away. Next, she parried the hit of his left katana, and ducked to avoid the right one. Sweat had started glistening on her forehead.

Impossible... Is he growing faster? How can that be? And he's not giving her any chance to fight back... Tenten... do your best.

Her best, was unfortunately not enough. The metal was growing heavier and heavier in her hand, and her opponent now seemed to keep a steady, fast paced combination of movements. In the end... he had her backing away, closer and closer to the wooden fence.

''Don't let that iron-clad idiot get you, RED!" Ino cupped her hands in front of her mouth, urging her friend on. Tenten winced as another hit made her wrist ache, and let go of her sword. It felt with a clang on the ground next to her, as one of Spirit's katanas came to hover just a centimeter away from her neck. Her brown hair was touching the fence, and her ragged breaths she took made her chest rise and fall violently.

''It is over.'' The presenter's voice rose above the audience's ruckus, and Tenten's knees buckled. 

''Spirit advances to THE BRAWL!"