64 63. Sunagakure and the Godaime Kazekage

"Ugh, finally…" Anko mumbled to herself.

It had taken eight days for Anko, Zabuza, and Kahyō to arrive at a port on the Hi no Kuni border. Upon arrival, they had immediately made contact with a local contact of Zabuza's at the port. They were now boarding the contact's boat.

"You do realize that we were all the way around Kusa no Kuni, right? It would naturally take this long to get here." Zabuza replied sternly.

"Ehh. I realize. It's just 'patience' isn't my strongest virtue." Anko admitted with a shrug.

"Well, we'll be at Mizu no Kuni in roughly two days and it'll take us one more day of travel from there to arrive in Kiri." Zabuza stated. "Hopefully during this time, you can practice on that virtue."

"Bah." The Konoha jōnin shook her head. "Me being impatient means I only complain to myself from time to time."

"Precisely. And it's annoying." He stated.

"Hey!" Her eyes narrowed on the man.

"Calm down you two." Kahyō said with a chuckle as she stepped between the two. "I understand your impatience, Anko-san. I, too, am rather anxious to get back to Kiri: both for the 'induction ceremony' and to see my boy again."

"Oh yeah." Anko's eyes widened in recognition as a smile graced her lips. "Excited to see him again, aren't ya?"

"Bah." Zabuza snorted. "She gets like this every time she's on a mission away from Kiri for 'too long'."

Kahyō proceeded to laugh sheepishly in response: "Well, Hakuhyō is still a kid, you know? I can't help but be worried."

"He's ten now, isn't he? And he's got his brother looking after him and I know Haku volunteered to watch him as well." Zabuza stated. "He's alright."

"I know, I know." The Yuki acknowledged with a smile. "It's just, well, I'm still his mom. I can't help but feel a little worried and want to make sure he's alright, regardless of who is with him or how old he is. You'll understand when you have kids yourself one day."

"Ha!" Anko proceeded to snort. "Zabuza? A parent? That's a laugh."

The man's eyes narrowed in on the Konoha jōnin. "And what's so amusing about that?"

"I dunno. I just can't imagine you with kids." She shrugged in response. "Like, do you even want that kind of lifestyle? Like, to settle down and have kids?"

"… I don't want to settle down. I'm content with my life." Zabuza admitted. "Despite that, I wouldn't mind having a son or daughter I could teach."

"Wait, really?" Anko nearly gaped in response.

"Why not?" It was his turn to shrug his shoulders. "Haku and I were able to take care of each other. What'd be so surprising about me taking care of a child of my own?"

"I… guess you have a point." She noted.

"Well, since this topic has now been brought up, what about you Anko-san?" Kahyō questioned. "Do you see yourself wanting to have kids?"

"… Eh, I don't know." Anko admitted with a sigh. "The thought's occurred to me, but I don't really want to just settle down with a man and live the life of some housewife." A small chuckle escaped her lips. "Nah, I'd be a bad wife and an even worse mother. My life is best as a shinobi."

"Hmm." A small grin developed on Kahyō's face. "It sounds as if you and Zabuza-san have the same view of your ideal situation, though. Maybe having a child, but not wanting to settle down?"

"Ha!" The Konoha jōnin snorted. "Yeah, and Zabuza would probably be a shit spouse and parent in the exact same way." She then looked at the Kirigakure shinobi in amusement. "So yeah, trust me Zabuza; it might be for the best to not bother."

"Hmph. I suppose." He admitted with a slight chuckle.

"Well, all I'm saying is that being a parent is rewarding. I don't think it's mutually exclusive to be one and a good shinobi." Kahyō stated. Her eyes then turned icy as she glared at both of them. "Unless you doubt my abilities. In which case, I'd be curious to know – do you two doubt me as a mother or as a shinobi?"

The air itself around Zabuza and Anko began to turn cold. Both shinobi could see Kahyō's breathing, as if it were many degrees colder than it actually was. They both immediately shook their heads.

"I believe Anko and I are speaking of our own abilities. We were not making assumptions about you, Kahyō." Zabuza stated.

"Yeah. What he said." Anko quickly spoke-up.

Instantaneously, the icy atmosphere vanished. A warm smile developed on Kahyō's face.

"Good to know." She said cheerfully. "Anyway, it's about time to head out. I'll ask your contact, Zabuza-san, if it's time to head off towards Kirigakure."

"You do that." Zabuza nodded his head. "I'm going to place my belongings in my room on the boat."

"I'll do that later." Anko shrugged her shoulders.

With those words, the three shinobi walked off in separate directions on the boat. Anko remained still, right by the entrance of the boat. Her eyes were focused on the mainland of Hi no Kuni.

'I don't have any kids like Kahyō does, but I have a few brats who mean something to me back in Konoha and one of them got a set of his own, and I haven't heard anything about them or how everything's going over there.' She noted to herself. A small smirk developed on her face as she thought about a certain blonde jōnin and his students. 'Naruto, I hope you and your brats are doing alright. I want to meet them when I get back to Konoha!'

"Ah! This is Sunagakure?" Hanabi questioned.

Team nine, along with Lee and Tenten, approached a large cliff-like structure in the middle of the desert. The rocks were raised high into the sky and formed what resembled 'walls' around a structure, surrounding it and keeping it safe. The only visible opening was a small cleft that left between two 'walls' of the surrounding rock.

"Oh man. This is so cool!" Katsumi nearly squealed as her eyes lit up. "What's inside? What's Suna going to be like?"

"Probably a pretty cool place." Naruto stated. "I've never been, but I've been in Kiri and I really liked the place after the Civil War ended. I have to think Suna is probably just as nice."

"You've been to Kiri?" Kanji looked at Naruto in curiosity.

"It's not strange for shinobi to travel like that." Tenten noted. "Lee and the rest of our old team had a mission once in Taki."

"And I know quite a few shinobi have received missions in Iwa after our villages have repaired relations." Lee offered.

"Huh." Kanji mumbled in thought.

"This is so cool!" Katsumi continued to cheer. "I can't wait to see what places I'll get to see later!"

The Konoha shinobi continued to walk forward towards the opening between the 'walls'. As they approached, a Sunagakure shinobi jumped directly in front of them. He was a man wearing the traditional uniform of Suna shinobi with spiky brown hair and dark colored eyes. He eyed the Konoha shinobi suspiciously as he held out his hand.

"Konoha shinobi, what business do you have in Suna?" He questioned.

"We are here on behalf of two missions that were requested here in Suna." Naruto spoke-up. His eyes were narrowed slightly as he reached into a pocket on his flak jacket. He then pulled out a scroll and held it out. "My team has been assigned a mission by a local merchant here in the village. This should be the proof."

"Similarly, we have been tasked with a mission proposed by your Kazekage." Lee stated. He pulled out a scroll from his flak jacket and held it out as well. "You may use this as proof, as well. Thank you for your time!"

The brown-haired man nodded in acknowledgment. He walked forward and looked at the two scrolls, one at a time, for a minute each. Upon completion, he returned the scrolls and nodded his head at them.

"I understand. Welcome to Sunagakure, then." He stated, bowing his head slightly in respect. He then turned his head and started to walk off through the opening. "If I may ask, wait here. I will find someone to escort you to the Kazekage's office to discuss your arrival."

"That won't be necessary, Mukade. I can take them in." A voice spoke-up.

The Konoha shinobi, along with the Sunagakure shinobi, Mukade, turned around. Approaching the entrance to Sunagakure was a young man wearing a black long top and black trouser pants with a white sash around his waist. Attached to the back of his top were three scrolls. The man also wore purple face paint in a pattern that went from his cheeks across his face, directly above his nose, along with face paint over his eyes and his lips. He also wore a black hood over his head, covering his hair. His hood contained the forehead protector for Sunagakure sewed onto it. The man was also carrying a brown basket in his hands filled with wrapped items.

"Ah!" Naruto's eyes widened in recognition of the man. "Y-You're-"

"I was unware you were not in the village!" Mukade looked at the man in surprise.

"I wasn't gone for long. I just went to a small civilian village to buy some steak they were selling cheap." The young man stated. He then looked over at the group of Konoha shinobi and smirked. "Hey. Been a while, huh? Remember me, kid?"

"I don't think you can call me kid, you know?" Naruto replied with a smirk. "But yeah, I remember you. Kankurō, right?"

"Heh. I wasn't sure if you remembered my name, Naruto. It's nice to see you again." He said with a chuckle. He then turned to look at the two Konoha chūnin. "You two… Lee, was it? And Tenten?"

"Yes, that is correct." Lee nodded his head. A wide smile developed on his face. "It is a pleasure meeting you again, Kankurō-san. It has been a while."

"It has been years since back then, hasn't it?" Tenten admitted with a chuckle.

"Naruto-sensei? Tenten-san? Lee-san? Who is this?" Hanabi questioned.

Naruto turned his attention away from the Suna shinobi back to his students. He had a grin on his face as he pointed back at the man.

"This, right here, is Kankurō. We met him once back when were genin during our Chūnin Exams. He's actually a really good puppeteer." Naruto said. "Kankurō, these are my students: Hanabi, Katsumi, and Kanji."

"Yo." Katsumi waved her hand at him, speaking for the three genin.

"Students, huh?" Kankurō noted with a smirk. "Guess you made it to jōnin too, huh?"

"'Too?' Are you a jōnin as well, Kankurō-san?" Lee questioned.

"Hell yeah I am." The Suna shinobi nodded his head. "Both Temari and I received promotions very quickly."

"Temari… that was your sister, right?" Tenten questioned. "The one with blonde hair and the fan?"

"Yup. That's the one. Same temper and all." Kankurō noted with a chuckle.

"How about Gaara?" Naruto questioned cheerfully. "How's Gaara been doing these days? Is he a jōnin too? Or a chūnin?"

"You don't know?" The puppeteer questioned.

"Know what?" Naruto tilted his head slightly in confusion.

"… Heh." Kankurō let a small chuckle escape his lips. He shook his head as he started to walk forward. "Well, I'll tell you how Gaara is doing a little bit later. You guys just got here though and need to meet with the Kazekage, right? I'll take you too him."

"That'd be really appreciated, Kankurō-san." Hanabi said politely. "Thank you very much!"

"No need to thank me." Kankurō shrugged in response. "Anyway, let's get moving. The Kazekage is a busy man, after all!"

With those words, the group left the area. They rushed into Sunagakure, heading directly towards the Kazekage's office.

When they were all gone, Mukade allowed a grin to develop on his lips.

'Kankurō, you were actually out of the village this morning to buy meat? Oh, you make this almost too easy!' He realized.

After roughly twenty minutes of walking through the village, Kankurō led the group of Konoha shinobi to a large, round, sand-colored building with the kanji for 'wind' painted on the outside. The top of the building appeared to be flat, suggesting that it had a tiled roof.

"That's the Kazekage's office?" Kanji questioned as the group approached.

"Yup. Well, and it has a couple of other important stuff here too." Kankurō stated. "We have pretty much all business go through this place, such as the shinobi council meetings." A smirk developed on his face as his hands went to one of the scrolls attached to his back. "It's also got a puppet workshop there that I go to a lot. I spend most of my time over here at that place."

"You're a puppeteer shinobi, yes?" Hanabi questioned. "What exactly is that like?"

"I'll say it's not for everyone, but if you have the patience for it, I think it's probably one of the most rewarding types of ninjutsu out there." The Suna jōnin said with a chuckle. "It's common knowledge here in Suna that a puppeteer that knows what they are doing is one of the most dangerous opponents you could ever face on a battlefield. That's why the art is encouraged so heavily in our village!"

"So cool." Katsumi stated, her eyes glowing slightly.

As the group approached the entrance to the building, they saw someone leaving the building. They were a girl with chin-length brown hair and dark brown colored eyes. She wore a maroon colored shirt and skirt with a Sunagakure flak jacket over her shirt. She also wore a Sunagakure forehead protector around her neck. The girl had a large smile on her lips and her eyes were focused on nothing in particular, suggesting that she was off in her own little world.

"Yo, Matsuri." Kankurō spoke-up. His words caused her to leave her thoughts as she frantically looked in his direction. A small blush developed on her face, which caused him to snicker. "Didn't mean to spook ya or anything."

"K-Kankurō-sama, it's fine. I-I was just… thinking… about stuff…" The girl, Matsuri, said with a stutter, her voice starting to fade slightly. She proceeded to shake her head, composing herself as she turned her full attention to him and the Konoha shinobi. "Are you bringing these foreign shinobi to Gaara-sama?"

"I'm bringing them to the Kazekage." He answered.

"Gaara?" Naruto's eyes widened at the name of the jinchūriki. "Is he here?"

"You could say that." Kankurō said with another snicker. "Just follow me!"

Naruto's eyes narrowed at the Sunagakure jōnin in confusion: 'Why is he laughing so much? He's been doing that for a while now!' He then closed his eyes as he thought about it. 'This obviously has to do with Gaara. He's been super vague about him ever since I first asked about him. And Gaara's here at the Kazekage's place. Maybe he's an advisor? Or like the head jōnin for Suna? Or could he actually be the-'

"Hey, let's not dawdle too long." Kankurō spoke-up, interrupting Naruto's thoughts. "Let's get moving, shall we?"

With a shrug of his shoulders, Naruto followed behind, pushing his thoughts to the side. Lee and Tenten, along with his genin team, followed behind.

"The Konoha shinobi with the whiskers knows Gaara-sama?" Matsuri mumbled to herself. "I wonder how…"

She pondered that question for a little while as she walked away from the building, her mind slowly becoming more relaxed and entering the same relaxed, 'world' that she had been in prior to Kankurō startling her.


"Well, here we are; the Kazekage's office." Kankurō stated as he opened the door to the room. The group proceeded to walk in and look around the room.

The Kazekage's office appeared very similar to the Hokage's office; it was a large building with a desk in the center with many windows along the walls, which gave a good look at the village from different vantage points. The building's walls are colored a sandy brown color while the floor was made of a darker brown-colored tile. There were a few potted plants scattered throughout the room – most of them being different types of cacti.

Standing in the corner of the room, overlooking the village, was the Kazekage. The leader had their back away from the door and was looking out from a window towards the village. It was impossible to get a good look at them.

"Yo, Kazekage-sama; I have visitors." Kankurō called out to them.

"Thank you for allowing us the pleasure to visit!" Lee exclaimed, walking forward from the group and bowing his head.

Tenten, Hanabi, Katsumi, and Kanji all followed suit, bowing their heads in respect. Naruto was about to do the same, but the Kazekage turned around, revealing their face. The jinchūriki's eyes widened.

Standing in front of him, dressed in the Kazekage's robes and wearing the green hat of the Kazekage, was the jinchūriki for the Ichibi no Shukaku – Sabaku no Gaara.

"Uzumaki Naruto, it is good to see you." Gaara spoke softly. His tone of voice was different than Naruto had ever heard of it; while still monotone, it lacked any of the hostility it had in it in the past. It was actually gentle sounding.

"So, you did it…" Naruto's eyes softened and a large, wide grin developed on his face. "Good work, Gaara. Great job!"

"Naruto-sensei?" Katsumi's eyes widened as her eyes moved back-and-forth from her jōnin sensei and the Kazekage. "You know the Godaime Kazekage?"

"I… guess I do." Naruto rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. 'I'm the godson of the Hokage, and am acquainted with the Mizukage, Tsuchikage, and now the Kazekage… damn. I'm well connected dattebayo!'

"'Sensei?'" Gaara repeated the word before looking at Naruto in curiosity. "I assume that the three genin here are your students?"

"Yes. They are." The Uzumaki nodded his head as he gestured at them. "These are Hyūga Hanabi, Yamanaka Kanji, and Inoue Katsumi. Guys; this is a friend of mine I met at the Chūnin Exams – and I guess the now acting Kazekage of Suna – Gaara."

The Konoha genin were staring at Gaara in awe. The Kazekage was their jōnin-sensei's age; a Kage so young? They stared for a few more seconds before Hanabi broke out of her trance with another bow. The snake on her shoulders bowed his head in unison as well.

"It is an honor to meet you, Kazekage-sama." She greeted formally.

"Yeah. A real honor." Katsumi bowed her head as well, and in the process, hid the large the grin on her face. 'My sensei knows the Kazekage! I have the coolest jōnin-sensei ever!'

Kanji, however, stayed still staring at the man: 'He's so young. Three years older than me, and he's leading a village. He must have really been something. Says a lot about where I am at if that's what I could-'

He was pulled from his thoughts as he felt a strong push. He turned his attention to Katsumi, who was glaring at him slightly and eyeing the ground. He caught the nonverbal hint and proceeded to bow as well.

"No need to be so formal. Any student of Naruto is a friend of mine. Gaara will suffice." The Kazekage stated as his eyes looked at the genin in amusement. They then moved towards the Konoha chūnin. "Lee and Tenten, correct? I recall meeting you both at the Chūnin Exams."

"Yes, that is. Well met, Gaara-san!" Lee bowed his head again.

"You've sure made a name for yourself, huh." Tenten noted. She then turned her attention towards Kankurō, glaring slightly. "You could've let us know, you know."

"Oh bite me." Kankurō said with a snort. "You all hadn't heard yet; I thought it would be fun to see you all shocked about who the Kazekage actually was."

"It's not surprising, by the way. This is a new title. I have not been Kazekage for too long." Gaara admitted.

"It suits you, though." Naruto spoke-up, giving his fellow jinchūriki a thumbs-up. "I know you'll do great, Gaara."

"I appreciate it. That's all I can hope for." Gaara nodded his head. He proceeded to walk over to his desk and sat down. "We can reminisce later; since Kankurō was leading you all to my office, I assume you have business you need to discuss with me."

"Yeah, we do." Naruto nodded his head. He pulled out a scroll and showed it to Gaara. "My genin team was assigned a mission to deliver supplies to a local merchant who had ordered goods from Konoha. We are to deliver them to his shop and help organize it for him."

"Tenten and I are also here for a mission!" Lee spoke-up as he pulled out his own scroll. "We are here as part of the mission proposed between you and Hokage-sama to have Konoha shinobi involved at your academy. We would like to discuss with you the specifics of this mission and get working as quickly as possible!" His eyes proceeded to light up, a metaphorical – and literal! – fire developing in both pupils. "It is a great honor to help fan the flames in the youth of the next generation of shinobi in Suna!"

"I see." Gaara nodded in understanding. He then walked back to the window he was looking out through and opened it. "Temari, I assume you heard that."

"I did."

Gaara took a step back as another figure entered the room from the window. It was a young woman with blonde hair tied up in four consecutive ponytails. She wore a black short-sleeve kimono with a red sash tied around her waist and had the Sunagakure forehead protector tied around her forehead. She wore black fingerless gloves and had a black fan attached to her back.

"Naruto, Tenten, Lee; I presume you remember Temari, my sister." Gaara stated.

The three shinobi nodded their heads. Tenten walked forward slightly, smiling at the blonde.

"Nice to see you again, Temari. I trust you've been doing well." She said cheerfully.

"I have. And I assume you all have as well." Temari replied with a smile of her own. Her eyes moved back-and-forth between Lee and Tenten. "I will be the one to fill you in on the information needed to help out with your mission at the academy."

"Really?" The weapons-specialist questioned. "Are you an instructor at the academy?"

She shook her head: "No, I'm a jōnin and someone better suited for missions than full-time teaching. It's just a 'hobby' of mine when I'm in the village and not on missions. I'm trying to help strengthen our academy as much as I can."

"A noble goal, Temari-san!" Lee cheered.

"In any case, Temari can escort you two to the academy, where you can meet the instructors and plan something." Gaara stated.

"Understood!" Tenten and Lee both declared.

With that suggestion in mind, they both turned their attention to Temari. She nodded in acknowledgement at her brother's suggestion and started to walk out of the room. Both Lee and Tenten followed behind, heading after her.

"As for your mission, Naruto, which merchant requested the mission?" Naruto questioned.

"Um…" Naruto unraveled the scroll and looked at its contents. "A man by the name of Hideo. His shop is titled 'Wonders of the Elemental Nations'."

"Kankurō, do you know where this shop is?" The Kazekage asked his brother.

"I do. Sorta in the center of town." He responded.

"Please escort Naruto's genin over to the shop so they can start the mission." Gaara requested.

"Wait, you want me to stay with you?" Naruto questioned.

"I have a few things I'd like to discuss with you, if you don't mind. I would also like to help establish your sleeping arrangements for you and your team, as you will at the very least be staying the night in Suna tonight." He answered. He then smiled lightly. "Plus, I would like to reconnect a little with you."

Naruto returned his smile. To him, it seemed as if Gaara did in fact, take his words to heart. Gaara had changed a lot since the time they had last met and he was excited to see how much he had changed.

"Of course!" Naruto nodded his head in understanding. He then turned his attention back to his students and pulled out another scroll. He tossed both of them to Hanabi. "The one I just pulled out contains all the goods that Hideo had ordered. The other is proof that you were the ones who accepted the mission. Make sure to show it to hime!"

"Understood." Hanabi, Katsumi, and Kanji said in unison.

"I'll meet up with you all sometime during or after your mission. Have fun with it!" Naruto said with a chuckle.

The three genin said farewell to their jōnin-sensei as they followed Kankurō out of the room. Gaara and Naruto were now alone. With the two by themselves, Naruto's facial expression sobered up; he looked at the Kazekage seriously as he reached for another scroll.

"I have a scroll from the Hokage on information on Akatsuki." Naruto said. "I don't know if you want to discuss that right away or not, but since you just shooed me away from my team, I assume you and I should discuss that while they are on their mission."

"That is true; I did buy us time to discuss the information. However, I was also sincere when I said I wanted to talk about other things with you." Gaara commented. He then started to walk towards the door. "Shall we move somewhere else? We can continue our conversation when we reach where you and your students will be staying."

"Sure." Naruto nodded his head. He then raised an eyebrow at the Kazekage as he started to follow him. "Where exactly are we staying?"

"I hope this will suffice." Gaara stated.

Naruto's eyes were wide in shock from the moment he eyed the large, onyx-colored building that was marked with the kanji for 'wind' on it. His eyes proceeded to widen further as he saw all of the elaborate décor inside; elaborate tables and other furniture, chandeliers, bookcases, and a variety of cacti were scattered throughout the different rooms. Every inch of the area was spotless and perfectly clean. It was perfectly well-kept in every aspect – a difficult feat, considering it was three-stories with multiple rooms on each floor.

It did make sense though; it was the Kazekage's Mansion, after all.

"I can't believe you are letting us stay here with you…" Naruto mumbled, his eyes moving around.

The two were currently walking through a long hallway on the second floor. The floors were made of a sandy-brown colored tile and there were a few busts, depicting prominent shinobi throughout Suna's history along the hallway. Naruto's eyes moved from each bust to the other as they kept walking through the hallway.

"Why would I have you stay somewhere else? Once again; you are a personal friend of mine, and by association, so is your team and Lee and Tenten. I see no reason to not welcome you to my home." Gaara informed him.

"Well… thanks." Naruto blushed slightly at the honor, rubbing the back of his head sheepishly. "Your place is so much nicer than mine, and I just got the Uzumaki Clan compound looking good too!"

"I can't take full credit for this; most of the décor is the work of the Kazekage before me: my father, especially. He was a man who had an eye for art and wanted to make the mansion look glorious." The Godaime Kazekage admitted.

Naruto noticed a slight change in Gaara's monotonous voice; a tinge of sadness. A frown developed on his face.

"Your father-" Naruto began to speak, but Gaara shook his head, causing him to stop.

"There's no reason to focus on him; even though I have only had the title of Kazekage for a short while, having the responsibility has caused me to understand his actions." He stated. "I understand the motivation behind sealing the Ichibi inside of me and why I was raised as a tool. As a result, I am not bitter at him."

Naruto's frown deepened. 'Bullshit!' He almost verbally expressed his thoughts, but he shook his head and pushed them away. '… It's not my place. This is the first time in years I've seen him; I'm not going to start questioning things like that.'

"So, how's that hat been treating you?" Naruto, instead, asked, grinning as he eyed the green hat on the man's head.

Gaara took off the hat, for a moment, and held it tight in his hands: "It's… a responsibility. Suna needs a strong leader and I am doing my best to fill those shoes."

"What do you mean?" The blonde questioned.

"Ever since the Chūnin Exams three years ago, we've been leaderless." Gaara answered. "There were many people vying for the title of Kazekage and no one was willing to compromise on who it should be. Every person of authority had a different agenda for how Suna should be run. As a result, the village was leaderless, with the council making decisions for the village as a collective whole until the village could rally around one leader." A frown developed on his face. "But the village needs a figurehead, and our village suffered those three years. So now they have a leader – the leader that was needed for all of this time."

"And it's you." Naruto stated.

The Kazekage nodded his head: "A lot needs to be done. I need to do my part in repairing bad blood between my village and other villages… including yours." The redhead looked at Naruto intently. "This was the motivation for Jiraiya-san and I to decide to allow shinobi to teach at each other's academies. It would benefit us greatly if we can change the perceptions of our village's respective shinobis through small actions such as these."

"I see…" The Kyūbi jinchūriki nodded his head in understanding. He then smiled slightly. "Well, just for clarification, Iwa and Konoha have repaired its bond, even after the massive Third Shinobi World War. I've no doubt that you and Ero-sennin are on the right path."

"I hope so." The Ichibi jinchūriki mumbled. The redhead then turned to Naruto and smiled. "How are you, though? I can see you are a jōnin-sensei. Is that enjoyable?"

"It is! I love my students." The Uzumaki exclaimed, his smile turning into a grin. "I'm having a blast training with them. I think they're a good group and I think they'll make awesome shinobi soon!"

"Good to know." Gaara nodded his head before giving his fellow jinchūriki a curious look. "Are you going to recommend them for the Chūnin Exams this year?"

"Er, I don't know." Naruto shrugged in response. "I need to see how they develop. This is their first C-rank mission, after all, and it's not really a difficult one. I think they'll need to get tougher if I want them to go through with it." His face then stiffed slightly. "It also doesn't help that the country hosting the next Chūnin Exam is Kumo."

Kumogakure – the Village Hidden in the Clouds. As the rest of the four major shinobi villages of the Elemental Nations have gotten closer to each other, Kumo has become distant. The Yondaime Raikage, Ē, has expressed wariness about the bonds of the other villages and is showing more hostility towards any shinobi that steps foot into Kumo or Rai no Kuni.

'And considering the Hyūga's relationship with Kumo after what they did to Hinata, I don't know if I can send Hanabi over there…' Naruto shook his head. 'Yeah… I'm probably going to have my team wait till the next.'

"I understand." Gaara spoke-up, interrupting Naruto's thoughts. "If you do go, however, I will most likely see you there. I will be attending the exams, as my first Chūnin Exams as Kazekage."

"Heh." Naruto smirked. "You'll make a good impression. Show the other Kage whose boss!"

A small noise left Gaara's mouth, something that sounded akin to a laugh! Naruto's grin grew wider at that.

After some more small talk, the two shinobi reached their destination; a room on the left-side of the hallway. Gaara opened it and the two walked in.

It was a comfortable bedroom with a large bed with purple bedsheets. There was more elaborate furniture in the room – drawers, dressers, a desk with the kanji for 'write' carved onto it – and a window that faced towards the center of the village.

"Hope you don't mind staying here. It is quite cozy, if I must say." Gaara commented. "Your students can take three other bedrooms near this room."

"I really appreciate this Gaara. Thank you." Naruto smiled. He then laid down on the bed and sighed. "Oh God, this is comfy! I could sleep for days. Hinata would totally love this bed."

"Do not take this personally, but I am thankful that she is not here." Gaara commented, a small frown developing on his face as he recalled a memory from a month ago. "The last time a previous girlfriend of Kankurō's came over for the night, they made enough noise in one of these rooms that I could not sleep. And I do not even sleep on this floor."

Naruto's face immediately reddened: "W-W-W-We would n-never!"

"Oh?" Gaara gave the blonde a disbelieving look. "Kankurō told me something similar. I know how couples work and-"

"Stop. Let's not talk about this right now, okay?" Naruto interrupted, still blushing. A few seconds passed by and the blush faded away. A serious expression developed on his face as he pulled out the scroll again. "I guess now would be a good time to discuss this. This mansion is secure, correct?"

"It is." Gaara nodded his head. He then took the scroll from Naruto's hands and began to read.

"Ah! Careful! Careful!" An elderly man with only a patch of grey hair cautioned Katsumi as she placed a vase down on a mat. "Don't be so rough when putting it down!"

Katsumi grumbled to herself as she placed the vase down. Her eyes wandered around as she watched Kanji and Hanabi setting objects down too, on display on mats.

Team Nine had been led over to an outdoor store named 'Wonders of the Elemental Nations', which was simply a large tent that had items scattered neatly on mats, so they would not be placed directly on the sand. They had met the owner, Hideo, and after confirming the delivery, they unsealed the items and began assisting with the organization.

The only problem was that Hideo was a rather fickle, fickle person.

"Er, excuse me, Hanabi-san?" The man told the Hyūga. "Could you move those scrolls? I thought it would be nice to put it with the other scrolls from the other nations, but it's a little more valuable! I think it may be better with items around its price range! Maybe move it next to those tomes from Rai no Kuni?"

"Of course." Hanabi nodded her head in understanding as she picked up the scroll.

"Wait, never mind." Hideo shook his head. "It should be with the other scrolls. There's a theme, after all! Set it back down!"

"Um… okay." Hanabi nodded her head again and placed the scroll down once more.

"Oh, and Kanji-san?" Hideo turned his attention to the Yamanaka. "Would you mind moving those drawings of the Shodai and Nidaime Kazekage?" He then gestured towards a mat that had nothing set down on them. "I am thinking of possibly making a stand where I sell portraits of all the Kage from all the elemental nations! Once I obtain them, I can start selling them as collector's items."

"Um…" Kanji looked over at the pictures before he turned his attention back to the merchant. "We didn't bring those with us, did we?"

"No, but that frees up space on that mat for something else." Hideo answered with a chuckle.

Kanji shrugged his shoulders before he walked over and moved them, just as he was told. He later moved them back, as Hideo realized that it was 'pointless to have a section for pictures of all the Kage if he only had two portraits of two former Kazekage'.

'Ugh…' Katsumi shook her head. 'This is no C-rank mission! It's a D-rank mission in the sand!'

"Hey Katsumi; you might want to stop thinking of random things and get back to the mission." Kanji spoke. The brown-haired girl turned her attention back to him. He was, once again, holding onto the pictures of the former Kazekage – Hideo had changed his mind again. "The Suna you get back to work, the Suna will we be done and can go meet up with Naruto-sensei again!"

"Kanji…" Katsumi seethed quietly to herself as she went back to set down more items.

In the distance, Kankurō watched the three genin moved around the 'store' in amusement. He noticed the annoyance and boredom on all their faces. It was especially noticeable through the snake, Hebihiro. While the snake had rarely talked since he met him, it was so outright bored and done with the mission that it fell asleep around Hanabi's neck. The puppeteer could hear his snoring, which only seemed to annoy the three genin, who could not afford such a luxury.

"God, this is good. Wish I had something to snack on." Kankurō mumbled to himself with a snicker. "Maybe I should pick up some bratty genin to watch do errands like this."

"Kankurō-sama, I did not know you were out here."

The brother to the Kazekage turned his head at the sound of the voice. He smiled as he watched Yūra approach him.

"Well, how are you doing Yūra?" Kankurō greeted, extending his hand outward. "And enough of the –sama crap. I tolerate from most people, but you out-rank me; I'm not taking it from you."

"True, but it's a little difficult. You are the son of the Yondaime and the brother to the Godaime, after all." Yūra noted with a chuckle.

"True. But still; don't call me –sama until I earn the title." Kankurō requested as a cocky grin developed on his face. "Trust me, you will one day. I'll earn that honor soon enough!"

"Proud as ever, I see." The councilman noted, chuckling again. A curious look developed on his face. "Well, Kankurō-san," he made an effort to use a different honorific, "I have a small question for you; what were you doing last night?"

"Huh?" The puppeteer gave the man a confused look. "Why do you need to know?"

A somber look on the black-haired man's face developed as he shook his head: "The council is looking into something. I need alibis for all puppeteer shinobi."

Kankurō's confused look turned into fear: "Is there something I should be aware of? What's going on?"

"I'm not at liberty to speak of it yet; I will inform you tomorrow, I promise." Yūra stated, shaking his head. "However, I do need to know what you were up to last night?"

"I was at a bar – Sabaku no Oashisu – drinking with a few friends from nine until midnight. I then went home and fell asleep, cause I was gonna get up early the next day to pick up some meat from a nearby village." Kankurō answered. "Is that satisfactory? You can go to the bar and talk to the manager and later talk to my brother if you want both alibies verified."

"I will." Yūra nodded his head before he turned away. "I will have all of this cleared up and inform you of what's going on tomorrow, Kankurō-san. Have a good rest of the day!"

With those words, Yūra walked away. Kankurō stood still, watching the councilman leave with a frown on his face.

'What's going on?' He shook his head. 'I need to talk to Gaara about this later.'

"… I see." Gaara commented as he finished reading the scroll.

Jiraiya's scroll contained a lot of information: the identities of all known living and deceased Akatsuki members, a list of the various known 'missions' they have undertaken in various Elemental Nations, the attacks they have made against known jinchūriki, and a list of known hideouts. It also included some notes from Jiraiya of potential actions that he suspected Akatsuki to attempt in the next couple of years.

"What do you think?" Naruto questioned the redhead.

"It's… concerning. I had no idea that the man that had killed my father was a part of this organization. Nor did I know that Akasuna no Sasori was involved." The Kazekage shook his head. "This calls for changes to our village's security. Sasori knows Suna well. He could attempt something quite easily; I have no doubt that he could sneak his way into the village unless if we change protocol in how we handle village defense."

"What… do you think of Jiraiya's other suggestions?" Naruto questioned, softly.

Jiraiya had also included a few potential suggestions to the Kazekage, including a joint alliance between Konoha, Iwa, Suna, Kiri, Kumo, and Taki – as they also have a jinchūriki in their village – to combat Akatsuki. This alliance would involve sharing of information and various shinobi instructed to wander the other nations, looking as units for potential Akatsuki agents and hideouts.

"I agree with Hokage-sama's idea of a joint alliance. Suna will assist in any we can." Gaara declared. "Has he confirmed with the other villages?"

"He has gotten an agreement from Kiri and Iwa from what I have heard." Naruto stated. "Taki has not responded back yet, but it is most likely going to be a yes; our villages have a good relationship. Kumo, however…"

"I assume they sent back the scroll without reading it." The Ichibi jinchūriki noted, shaking his head. "The Yondaime Raikage is a stubborn fool."

"More stubborn than that old man Ōnoki, and that's saying something!" Naruto said with a slight chuckle.

His laugh released some of the tension in the room. Gaara returned the scroll to Naruto and nodded his head.

"Suna will assist Konoha and the other villages involved in any way we can." He told him. "You have my word.

"And you have mine that Konoha will have your back." Naruto replied as he took the scroll back.

The two jinchūriki stood still for a moment before they shook hands, cementing the alliance. A deal was struck between the two villages – a deal that would hopefully be a step in the right direction to making the bond between the two villages stronger than ever.

Hours passed by. Naruto and Gaara used the time to get to know each other better and connect on different topics. They talked for hours on various topics. It was honestly a surprise to the blonde; he had never imagined Gaara as someone who had a lot to say. However, it seemed as if the redhead appreciated the opportunity to freely talk about various things.

After enough time had passed by, the doors to the mansion opened up. Tenten, Lee, Temari, Kankurō, and the genin of Team Nine entered the building. The Konoha shinobi were escorted to their residence. After they placed their belongings, they all met in a large dining room on the first floor to eat and discuss things.

"So, did the mission go well?" Naruto questioned his squad as he took a bite of his dinner – the steak that Kankurō had received earlier that morning. He then turned to face the puppeteer and smirked. "By the way, Kankurō, the meat is delicious! Good choice!"

Kankurō returned the smirk with one of his own. He was about to respond, but was unable to as Katsumi started to speak.

"Horrible! Naruto-sensei, you literally sent us on another damn D-rank mission!" She groaned as she stuffed her face with steak.

"It was relatively boring. And tedious, since Hideo kept changing his mind about things." Kanji admitted as he took a bite of his own meal. "I was actually super close to becoming a turncoat and deserting the mission all together."

Katsumi's eyes twitched in response. Hanabi and Hebihiro giggled in response while Naruto and Kankurō laughed loudly at the joke. This in turn caused the brown-haired genin to shake her head and focus solely on her own food, mumbling something about 'stupid jokesters' to herself.

"Was the meeting with the academy instructors satisfactory?" Gaara questioned Lee and Tenten.

"Indeed it was!" Lee nodded his head. "We will be assisting for the next five days!"

"We have a schedule set up, where we will introduce ourselves to the different academy students in all age groups, answer any questions, show off a little bit of what we are capable of, and then assist in any way we can with their training." Tenten added.

"I see." The Kazekage nodded in understanding. "That is good. I do sincerely appreciate the help with the program. I do believe it is a good first step in developing a stronger bond between our villages. Your Hokage and I have agreed that I will send shinobi over to Konoha as well soon."

"This'll be like a 'shinobi exchange program' or something. Kinda cool actually." Naruto noted as he rubbed his nose slightly.

"Wait, did you say you two were helping for the next five days?" Kanji questioned Lee and Tenten. The two chūnin nodded their heads. "Does that mean we will be here that whole time as well? Our mission is complete already, after all."

"Hmm…" Naruto brought his hand to his head in thought. He had not actually thought about that.

"If you wish to stay, you have my blessing to stay here for another five days here in my home." Gaara offered. "Or you can leave whenever. It is your choice."

"Maybe we won't stay the whole five days, but we might stay for a day or two." Naruto suggested, shrugging his shoulders as he looked at his students. "It might do you all some good to spend more time in another shinobi village. Maybe find some of the genin and ask to spar."

"That's not a bad idea, actually." Katsumi nodded. "We can see how we stack up against a couple of foreign shinobi!"

"Technically, we're the foreign shinobi in this scenario, Katsumi." Kanji stated.

The response he received was a fork tossed in his direction. He proceeded to catch it with his left hand. He then pointed it back at his teammate, grinning widely.

"What the fork was that for?" He questioned.

"Screw it; I'm done with dinner." Katsumi said as she stood up abruptly from the table. She hastened her pace out of the room at the sound of laughter from everyone at the table – including Gaara!

"Well, I guess dinner's officially over." Kankurō noted with a shrug. "Hey Gaara; mind if I ask you something really quick in the kitchen? I'm a get myself something to drink."

The Kazekage nodded his head in understanding. He and his brother left the table and walked into another room – the large kitchen in the mansion. Kankurō immediately rushed towards a cooler and opened it, pulling out a bottle of sake.

"So, Gaara, do you know about what's going on with the puppeteer division here?" Kankurō questioned as he opened the bottle.

"Is there something going on?" The Kazekage asked.

"You don't know?" The jōnin's eyes widened slightly. He took a drink of the bottle, drinking quite a bit before pulling away and continuing to speak. "I talked to Yūra today. He said the council was investigating something related to puppeteer shinobi and that he needed alibis for the previous night."

"This is the first time I've heard of this." Gaara commented. His eyes narrowed on his brother. "Kankurō, do you have any idea what this is about?"

"No. I tried to talk to some of the other councilmembers about this already and there be tight-lipped about it, cause 'I'm a puppeteer'. Bah." Kankurō rolled his eyes. "I have no clue what's going on, but I'm admittedly a little nervous now that I know you knew nothing about this."

"The council is investigating something without informing me of it at all. I realize that I have been Kazekage for only a short while so far, but I do not appreciate this lack of communication." Gaara crossed his arms over his chest. "I will bring this up with Yūra tomorrow. I will make it clear my personal opinion on these actions."

"Heh." Kankurō chuckled as he took another drink. "Just let me know what's going on when you find out; if there's something serious going on that I should know about, I'd like to know and do something about!"

His younger brother nodded in understanding.

"It's been awhile since we've done something like this without Naruto-kun or Anko-sensei, hasn't it?" Hinata questioned her teammate.

"I suppose so." Shikamaru shrugged his shoulders. "Still, did it have to be ramen?"

Back in Konoha, Shikamaru and Hinata proceeded to meet up for a late dinner. The two met up at Ichiraku's Ramen and placed their orders with Teuchi. They were now waiting for their first bowls so they could start to eat.

"It didn't have to be; I was just craving ramen, I guess." Hinata shrugged her shoulders as well.

"I swear, Naruto got you addicted to the food, didn't he?" Shikamaru questioned, chuckling slightly.

"You eat it too, Shikamaru-kun. Don't lie; I know you love it too!" The Hyūga heiress replied, giggling.

"Eh, guilty." He admitted.

The two best friends shared a life together as they fell into a small period of silence. They watched Teuchi work on their bowls of ramen for roughly a minute before the Hyūga let out a small sigh.

"It's weird not having Naruto-kun here." She mumbled.

"Well, he's on a mission. He'll be back soon." Shikamaru replied.

"I know that. I'm happy that he gets to take his team on a C-rank mission and all! It's just… I don't know, I miss seeing him." Hinata admitted, sighing again. "Naruto-kun is so much fun to be around. I just really wish he was here."

"… Heh." The Nara heir let out a snort as he shook his head. "Now you know how I feel with Kurotsuchi."

"…Oh. Oh!" Hinata's cheeks brightened red and she immediately shook her head. "You're right! You do experience this with Kurotsuchi-san and it's much worse for you two! I am so sorry! I'm sure that this little rant of mine probably sounded pathetic to you!"

"Hinata, it's fine. I was kidding." Shikamaru replied, his snort turning into a small fit of laughter. "Trust me; feel however you want to feel. I've come to the realization that the heart is needlessly troublesome at times. It's best not to think too much about it."

"Agreed." Hinata nodded her head. She then gave him a curious look. "Speaking of that, though, are you going to be seeing her soon?"

"Hopefully within a month or two, we can arrange missions that overlap. Then we can meet up somewhere for a night or two." He answered.

"That'll be nice." The Hyūga heiress noted, smiling. "That sounds incredibly romantic!"

"I suppose." Shikamaru mumbled in response, rubbing the back of his head and blushing slightly. He then gave her a questioning look. "What about you and Naruto? When are you two moving in already? It's been years already."

"Soon." She answered, her eyes lowering slightly. "It'll have to be after we finish with the new seal for the Hyūga Clan and after the divide between the families gets fixed."

"Oh." Shikamaru's eyes lowered as he laid his arms down on the table, his hands moving to his chin. "Is that going alright? If you think Naruto and you will be moving in 'soon', does that mean that the seal is going just fine."

"Well, that's the thing; Masakado-san has finished the new seal. It'll allow us to mark new Hyūga with a seal that will destroy the usefulness of the Byakugan eyes if the person dies from non-natural causes. It also would have no risk of causing bodily harm to the person marked and has no possible way of being used by 'Main Branch' families to harm those marked." Hinata explained. She then sighed as she brought her hands to her chin, closing her eyes in thought. "The problem is that, besides the fact that my father has to find some way to introduce the concept to the Main Family elders in a way to convince them to use it, we also have to find a way to safely re-mark those with the already-existing 'caged bird seal'."

"Re-mark?" The Nara repeated the word.

"We need to be able to put the new seal on top of the old seal, because we can't just unseal it. Masakado-san that the old seal is too connected to the brain that trying to remove it might cause serious harm to them. He thinks that nobody would be able to actually remove it; not even any of the previous Uzukage! So, the better alternative is to apply the new seal in a way that it'll overpower the previous one." She continued to explain. "However, that's easier said than done. That's what we are waiting on."

"And then after that, you and your father and Neji can worry about the politics with the elders." Shikamaru commented. Hinata nodded her head, which caused him to sigh. "That's such a pain in the ass."

"Tell me about it." Hinata sighed as well. Her eyes ten filled up with determination. "But if it eliminates the caged bird seal and helps unite the two families, then all the stress is worth it. Father has a plan that may work, and once Masakado-san finishes his work, Neji and I will do what we can to make this look appealing to the elders!"

Shikamaru smiled at his friend's words. He opened his mouth to respond, but stopped as the sound of a bowl being set down. He and Hinata turned their attention to Teuchi, who had sat down their ramen by them. The old ramen chef had a gentle smile on his lips.

"Well here you both go." Teuchi told them. He then looked over at Hinata and nodded his head, his smile widening slightly. "Sorry to eavesdrop, but I just wish you good luck with everything. You're a good person, Hinata, and I wish you well. Ayame and I are rooting for you!"

"Th-Thank you!" Hinata blushed slightly in response, but she now had a wide grin on her face.

"As does your boyfriend." Teuchi commented as he walked away to leave his customers to eat.

Both Hinata and Shikamaru started digging into their food, eating quickly. Ichiraku's Ramen was always delicious and tonight was no exception! Still, there was something missing from their dinner tonight.

'Naruto.' Hinata realized, shaking her head slightly after she finished another bite of her food. 'It's delicious, but just not always the same without him. At least, not here.'

Nevertheless, the two friends continued to eat. Still, the thought of the blonde was back on their minds again.

'I hope he's okay…' Hinata mentally prayed.


Naruto was awoken in the middle of the night by a large amount of noise outside his room. He heard footsteps, initially, but it was eventually replaced by raised voices shouting at each other. He did not recognize any of the voices at first, as he was still slightly groggy from waking up, but his mind sobered up the moment he recognized two of the voices as Kankurō and Temari.

"This is bullshit and you know it!" Kankurō hissed loudly. "I haven't done anything wrong!"

"He gave you all an alibi; you should have looked into it all. He's telling the truth!" Temari shouted as well.

"Maybe he is, maybe he isn't. But it does stand that Kankurō-san is the only who could have committed these actions!" Another voice shouted back.

'What's going on?' Naruto questioned as he shook his head.

The Uzumaki quickly pulled himself out of bed and ran out the door. In the hallway with the bedrooms, he noticed a group of ten Suna shinobi, all carrying weapons and poised to attack. On the other side was Temari and Kankurō. Both were still wearing their night clothes; Temari wore a purple nightgown that looked moderately revealing to some degree while Kankurō wore solely a black pair of pants with no shirt. The puppeteer also did not have on his black hood or his face paint, giving Naruto his first look at the brown-haired man's natural face.

"What are you all doing?" Naruto spoke-up, as he brought a kunai into his hands.

The attention was brought over to him. However, attention moved slightly as more doors opened up. Lee, Tenten, Hanabi, Katsumi, and Kanji all woke-up and gazed at the scene in confusion.

"What's going on?" Hanabi questioned nervously.

"What are you all doing here?" Katsumi questioned, eyeing the weapons. "And why are you all armed?"

"I would like to know the answer to that as well."

Attention shifted again. Walking towards everyone was Gaara. Unlike the other inhabitants of the mansion, Gaara was fully dressed and seemed ready to attack. He had his gourd of sand on his back and sand was starting to leak out, ready to attack at a given moment if necessary.

"Kazekage-sama." One of the Suna shinobi bowed their heads. "We apologize for intruding on your private property, however-"

"Enough platitudes." Gaara shook his head as he turned to one Suna shinobi in particular. "Yūra, what is the meaning of this?"

"Kazekage-sama, the council has ordered the arrest of your brother." Yūra answered bluntly.

"Why was I not informed of any of this?" The redhead questioned, his eyes narrowing intently at the councilman. "I am the Kazekage. As ruling authority of this village, I have a right to know if you are looking into any manners."

"While I understand your rank and respect it, you must realize that one of the people being investigated was your brother. And, as such, it is imperative that we did not involve you, to make sure you would not cover for him." He replied.

"What kind of person do you take me for?" Gaara asked as more sand started to leak out from his gourd. "I have authority in this village and I will not permit an arrest of someone, my brother or otherwise, without any knowledge on the circumstances-"

"Kazekage-sama, you have only been our kage for a short while. Less than a month, to be exact." Yūra spoke-up, interrupting the ruler. "Forgive us for jumping the gun and not discussing it with you, however we have a right. We've gone long enough without a kage that the council does have a say in things. You can have your own opinions and can investigate and prove our accusations wrong, but you cannot stop us from arresting your brother."

The two men glared at each other. Gaara's sand continued to leak out, but Yūra did not seem to react. He only seemed to glare at his Kazekage. A few seconds passed by before Gaara finally calmed down and gestured with his hand. The sand rushed back into his gourd.

"Fine, I'll allow this 'arrest'. But I'll be handling my own investigation." The Kazekage stated. His eyes narrowed further on the councilman. "Neither you nor any other councilmember will do anything to him until I complete my own investigation and make no mistakes; if I find Kankurō innocent, he will be released."

"Understood, however, understand we would not have arrested your brother without reason to suspect him." Yūra commented.

"What specifically is going on?" Tenten questioned, speaking up on behalf of the Konoha shinobi.

The Suna shinobi did not seem to pay attention to her or the Konoha shinobi in general. Yūra walked forward to Kankurō. He placed two sealing papers on his hands.

"This is still bullshit and you know this Yūra. I have no clue what you or the council is thinking, but I've done nothing wrong." Kankurō continued to hiss.

Yūra proceeded to shake his head: "Kankurō, you are under arrest for grave-robbing, unethical experimentation on remains, and treason."

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