Waiting with Hope

Opening Up

Chapter Nine: Opening Up

Naruto straightened up, panting, as one by one his remaining Kage Bunshin all dispelled. He wasn't just breathing heavily from the physical exertion of the fight – mentally he felt just about as tired as he could ever remember being and the genjutsu images were still at the forefront of his thoughts. It was only Hinata's encouraging words that were enabling him to think about Itachi's mind games without breaking into a cold sweat.

Naruto turned to look at the corpse of the man that had caused Sasuke so much pain and an indescribable feeling welling up inside of him. For some reason, he felt the urge to see the final expression of the Uchiha traitor. Would it be sad? Peaceful? As emotionless as always, even in death?

But when Naruto turned his gaze to the corpse's face, it wasn't Itachi's features that he saw. Instead, a man he had never seen before was staring back at him with dead, lifeless eyes, with a goatee and a veil of cloth covering the sides of his head. His facial expression was twisted in a rictus of agony.

"What the Hell is this?" Naruto shouted fearfully, stumbling hurriedly away from the corpse in his shock. "Where did Itachi's body go? It was him a second ago, I just saw it!"

Hinata and Kakashi looked equally as astonished, but Chiyo had recognised the body immediately, her wrinkled face drawing together in a tight frown of confusion. "This is impossible!" the Suna elder gasped. "This man is Yuura, an advisor to Kazekage-sama on the Suna Village Council! What kind of technique is this?"

"Could Yuura have been an Akatsuki spy?" asked Kakashi thoughtfully. "The way the Akatsuki infiltrated Suna so easily could mean they had a man on the inside…"

Chiyo shook her head vehemently. "That is out of the question! Yuura was a member of the Village Council for over four years and was a good, trustworthy man. It is unthinkable he would betray the village like that!"

"Then he must have been forced into helping the Akatsuki somehow," mused Kakashi, stroking his chin. "But that technique…"

"Ano…" Hinata spoke up timidly. "It w-wasn't a henge, whatever it was. My Byakuan showed that it was d-definitely Itachi."

"No henge could have replicated those Sharingan eyes," Kakashi agreed. "And that Katon jutsu was one that only the Uchiha clan uses. Whatever technique it was, it seemed to be a total copy of Itachi, rather than just an imitation… but I'm not sure it was a perfect likeness by any means. It seemed weaker than the Itachi I remember facing back in Konoha."

Hinata barely suppressed a gasp at Kakashi's statement. 'That was a… weakened Itachi?' she thought incredulously. 'But he was still so strong! The Akatsuki… can I really measure up to people like that?' She stole a glance at Naruto, who was staring down wordlessly at the broken body of the Akatsuki member, and tried to strengthen her resolve. 'No, I can't get discouraged and give up without even trying. Maybe I can finally prove myself to Naruto-kun by fighting alongside him. I have to help him, however I can!'

Hinata was distracted from her thoughts by Chiyo's serious voice. "Whatever the technique the Akatsuki used, there can be no doubt about their tactics. He was trying to stall us. If he had been serious about attempting to kill us, he would have attacked right from the beginning. That means only one thing – the Akatsuki have already started to extract the Bijuu from Kazekage-sama!"

"B-Bijuu?" Hinata repeated worriedly, as she saw Naruto tense up. "What's that?"

Hinata had asked the question to Chiyo, but, to her surprise it was Naruto who answered her. "Bijuu are tailed demons that have a huge store of chakra held inside of them," he said in a low, slightly strained voice. "The Akatsuki want to harness that power for their own greed."

"But Chiyo-baasama said something about t-taking it f-from Gaara-sama?"

Naruto swallowed. "Do you remember Gaara from the Chuunin Exams?"

"Y-Yes, I remember," Hinata answered, shivering at the memory. Back in the Forest of Death, where the Second Exam had taken place, her team had ran into Gaara's squad as he ruthlessly slaughtered a group of ninja from the Village Hidden in the Rain. The deranged look in Gaara's eye sent a jolt of fear through her heart even now and she dreaded to think of what would have happened to her teammates and herself if they had been discovered.

"Well, when he was fighting Sasuke-teme in the Third Exam, he got hurt and went completely crazy. There was something sealed away inside of him, something evil… It was this Tanuki monster thing called the Ichibi… and it wanted to get out. But I fought against him as the demon was breaking loose and managed to get through to him, to show him that even though he had a monster inside of him, he wasn't alone…"

Naruto clutched his stomach as he spoke, his voice trailing off towards the end, but Hinata caught every word. The pain behind his voice was unmistakeable. She didn't know what was causing him to feel so downcast, but the way he had said 'alone' in such a hollow tone made Hinata feel a sharp pang of sympathy and she thought back to their days at the Academy. Naruto had always seemed to be on his own there, without any friends to talk with… She had wanted to talk to him herself more than anything, but she had been so shy and afraid that she just froze up whenever she had tried.

"Anyway," continued Naruto, in the same, low voice, releasing his hold on his stomach. "The Ichibi is what the Akatsuki are after. They just see Gaara as the container, but he's a person, dammit! And that's why I need to save him – because he's my friend. He's had to suffer through so much and be on his own for so long, I just want to show him that people really do care about him and let him see that he's not alone any more!"

Naruto's voice had risen throughout his explanation and by the end his hands were shaking slightly, and he was breathing heavily. Before Hinata could recover from her surprise at his passionate response, Chiyo spoke up again. "There are certain methods of sealing a Bijuu inside of a human to contain the tailed beast's vast power, creating a demon container known as a Jinchuuriki. Jinchuuriki have incredible chakra at their disposal and can be used to control the raw power of the Bijuu, making them a hugely valuable asset for any village. In fact, it is likely that the Akatsuki are trying to seal the Ichibi inside a new vessel of their choosing."

"So… does that m-mean the Bijuu can be removed from the Jinchuuriki?" Hinata asked, trying to grasp the concept. The huge scale of such a revelation was making her head spin. Human containers for creatures made up of raw chakra? A criminal organisation trying to collect these powerful, ancient demons? The notion seemed ludricrous from a logical standpoint, but she had seen so many things that she would have thought to be impossible in her missions that she knew not to rule out any possibility, and she liked to think that she was open minded enough to accept new ideas.

Chiyo nodded, but her eyes were downcast. "Yes, but it comes at a price. To remove a Bijuu from its Jinchuuriki, the human it is contained in must die. If we don't reach Kazekage-sama before the Ichibi has been extracted from him… then we will have failed."

The finality in Chiyo's voice was clear, and the seriousness of the topic weighed down heavily on the group. No-one spoke for almost a minute after her words, before Naruto broke the silence with a forced laugh.

"Well, that just means we have to go as fast as possible then, right?" he said with a fierce determination, cracking his knuckles. "I'm definitely going to get Gaara back, if it's the last thing I do!"

-o-o-

Itachi and Kisame both blinked as their pseudo-bodies died and Pain, observant as ever, picked up on it immediately. "Itachi and Kisame have returned. The Shouten no Jutsu bodies have both been defeated," he announced, analysing the faces of his subordinates closely and waiting for their reactions.

Sasori growled. "It was my underlings that were used as sacrifices for this technique. What a waste. You didn't hold them up for very long, Itachi, Kisame. You two must be getting soft."

"Soft?" Kisame hissed, narrowing his eyes. "I only used a fraction of my true power against those ants. Maybe you'd like me to show you what I can really do with Samehada?"

"We carried out our task of stalling the Konoha ninja, as was ordered," interrupted Itachi, not even attempting to hide the boredom from his voice. "Therefore we succeeded in our objectives."

"But both groups broke through sooner than expected, yeah," taunted Deidara. "You two failing to hold them up might mean they arrive before the ritual is over."

"That is enough, all of you," snapped Pain, a hint of irritation present in his usually flat voice. "If the Konoha squads reach our location before the extraction process has ended, we have other precautionary measures in place. Our plans shall not be hindered. Now, Zetsu, dispose of the bodies used for the Shouten no Jutsu."

Zetsu, Sasori, Deidara, Kisame and Itachi inclined their heads respectfully towards their leader, who returned the gesture without looking at them. He had more important matters to be concerned about than mere courtesy; matters to which a god must attend to.

The red light surrounding Gaara continued to ebb and flow, and the eye of the stone face slowly inched open. Pain kept his face completely impassive, but couldn't quell the faintly rising anticipation he felt. 'Soon,' he thought to himself. 'Soon the whole world will know my pain.'

-o-o-

Hinata couldn't quell the faintest sense of unease as the group ran through the forests of Kawa, alongside a large river. So far they hadn't come across anything else to hinder their progress, but Hinata could tell that Kakashi was worried – he had kept his Sharingan eye activated ever since the fight with Itachi. Did the lack of any extra impediments indicate that the Akatsuki were confident enough that their first trap would keep any intruders away from their base? Or had the stalling methods of the fake Itachi allowed them to achieve their goal of extracting the Ichibi already? Hinata wasn't sure, but she tried to banish those thoughts from her mind. There was no use worrying over something that might not even be true, after all, and she had to stay focused.

However, on top of the uncertainty of how close the Akatsuki were to extracting Gaara's Bijuu, Hinata was worried by Naruto's attitude since they had started moving again. After his initial determined outburst he had slowly withdrawn into himself more and more, answering any questions or commands directed his way with little more than a grunt. Rather than his ever present, cheery smile, his face was fixed in a sullen scowl, so completely unlike his usual expression that it made him look almost like an entirely different person. His downcast, brooding gaze made Hinata want to reach out and touch him, to show him that she was there for him in the same way that he was for Gaara, but she wasn't really sure what she could say to him when he was in this mood. His confidence and friendliness seemed to have vanished and Hinata's own confidence was faltering too. She was shocked at just how much she relied on his fearless bravery – even when he had been on his long training journey she had still used his faith and courage as her motivation to improve herself as both a kunoichi and a person and without it she felt exposed and vulnerable.

Based on Naruto's reaction, Hinata could only assume that his thoughts were still dwelling on the genjutsu. She wasn't sure what exactly he had seen in it, but it was clear to her that Naruto wasn't his usual self. She wondered if her earlier words, in the middle of the battle, had really helped him at all. He seemed to have recovered back then, but now he had withdrawn into himself and didn't seem to want to let anyone talk to him. Hinata had hesitantly attempted to start a conversation with him earlier, but his answers had all been monosyllabic and he had looked very uncomfortable speaking, so she had decided, with a heavy heart, to drop the matter. Hopefully Naruto would talk to her when he had thought about it for a while. Maybe then she would be able to help him.

The closer they got to the Akatsuki base, the more distant Naruto seemed to become. He increased his speed so that he was at the front of the group, avoiding any possible conversation with Hinata, Kakashi or Chiyo, and he was flying through the trees so fast that the elderly Suna kunoichi was having difficulty keeping up.

"Naruto, slow down!" called Kakashi eventually, as Naruto leapt off a branch with so much force that the bark surrounding it shattered, sending wood chips flying. "We have to stay in formation!"

Naruto landed sideways on the side of a thick tree trunk, anchoring himself in place with chakra. He glanced darkly at the silver haired jonin, nodded curtly, then jumped back to the front of the group, barely any slower than before.

Hinata dropped her gaze, saddened by Naruto's physical and emotional distance, and Kakashi let out a sigh, shaking his head. "Something's definitely not right with Naruto…" He paused for a moment before asking casually, "Hinata, do you think you could speak with him?"

"What? M-Me?" Hinata asked, shocked by Kakashi's question. "I d-don't understand. Why me?"

Chiyo, who was listening on with interest, raised an eyebrow. "Oh? It seems to me that he listens to you – more so than to either of us at very least. Both Kakashi-san and I can't connect with him in the same way that someone of his own age would be able to."

Kakashi smiled encouragingly behind his mask. "Hinata, Naruto needs someone to talk with, someone that will listen to him and try to help him with whatever's on his mind. Do you want to help him?"

"Well… y-yes," Hinata answered uncertainly, torn. Kakashi's suggestion had come completely out of the blue and although she wanted to get through to Naruto, it seemed blatantly obvious that he wanted to be alone at the moment. "B-But what if he doesn't w-want to talk to me? What if–"

"Then it's settled," interrupted Kakashi, an air of finality in his voice. "I'm trusting you to snap Naruto out of whatever mood he's in, so good luck!"

With that, Kakashi and Chiyo dropped back slightly, leaving Naruto at the front of the group and Hinata behind him. Hinata took a shaky breath. 'I have to do this,' she thought to herself determinedly. 'Naruto-kun needs someone now, so maybe I can do something for him. I have to at least try. I know Naruto-kun would for all of his friends.'

Steeling herself, Hinata forced chakra into her feet and leapt forward, catching up to Naruto within a few seconds, running alongside him and matching his speed. Naruto glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, but other than that gave no indication that he had acknowledged her closeness. Hinata felt her resolve weaken for a second at his indifference to her presence, but forced herself to speak as steadily as she could.

"N-Naruto-kun… would you… would you like to talk? You seem a little distant…"

Naruto's reply sounded forced. "I'm fine."

"Oh… it's j-just that I thought –"

"I told you, it's fine!" interrupted Naruto sharply. Hinata flinched at the anger present in his voice, and Naruto instantly regretted his words. He felt a little ashamed of his outburst. It wasn't her fault that Itachi's genjutsu was still ingrained in the back of his mind, festering like an infected wound. It wasn't her fault that Gaara had been kidnapped. Hell, she was trying to help him, he shouldn't be losing his temper at her like this.

"Naruto-kun…" Hinata whispered, her voice cracking slightly. His harsh words had made her feel like things were the same as they had been at the Academy and in their early days as genin, when Naruto hadn't even noticed her. No, it felt even worse than that – at least he hadn't snapped at her then. But at the same time, Hinata knew she had to talk to the blonde haired ninja – she had never seen him act like this. Even on the rare occasions that he was angry, Naruto never vented his frustrations on people he knew.

Naruto softened his voice. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to yell. But I really don't wanna talk right now."

"Why? Why w-won't you talk to me? Is it that… is it that you don't trust me?"

"What? No, no, that's not it at all!" answered Naruto desperately, waving his arms defensively. Hinata had turned her head away from him, blocking her face from view, but he swore that just before she had shifted her head he had saw tears glistening at the corners of her eyes. He didn't feel ashamed of himself anymore – now he felt sick to his stomach at hurting one of his friends. She had only wanted to talk to him, and he had brushed her off without even thinking. 'I'm such an idiot!' he thought to himself angrily. 'She was trying to help and I just bit her head off for no reason!'

"Then why?" asked Hinata softly, in an almost inaudible voice.

After a long pause, Naruto mumbled uncomfortably, "Because… because it's my problem. I don't want to burden anyone else with it."

"Naruto-kun, you d-don't have to do it all on your own," said Hinata quietly. "You have people that want to h-help you. You don't have to bear this b-burden by your self…" She reached out timidly to touch him, but after just barely brushing his fingers she withdrew her hand, blushing.

Naruto didn't answer for a few long moments. "Was it s-something to do w-with Itachi's genjutsu?" asked Hinata intuitively, turning back to face Naruto again.

Naruto almost lost his footing on the tree branch he was jumping from. "H-How did you figure it out so quickly?" he gasped, astonished. "Was it really that obvious?"

Hinata nodded shyly, and Naruto chuckled, the first time since the fight against Itachi that he had done so. "Heh, I guess I'm not very good at hiding my emotions. Some ninja I am, huh?"

Hinata smiled self-conciously at Naruto, relieved to see that he was almost back to his old self again. "Do you… still not want to talk about it, N-Naruto-kun?" she asked, not wanting to encroach on Naruto's privacy any further, but still wishing to help. "If you do, I'd b-be happy to l-listen."

This time, Naruto seriously considered Hinata's offer. A large part of him was sorely tempted to tell her everything – her suggestion had been so warm-hearted and kind, and she was being so patient with him that he was finding it difficult not to just blurt out everything, all at once. But one thing was holding him back; if he told her about the genjutsu, then he would also have to tell her about how her image had appeared in front of him and called him a monster. And that meant that he would have to explain to her about the Kyuubi.

The thought of telling her his darkest secret made Naruto feel almost frozen with indecision. What should he do? Hinata would understand, right? She was his friend and was always so nice to everyone, surely she would recognise what he really was… But then the image of the terrified Hinata in Itachi's genjutsu, shouting, 'Monster,' echoed in his mind and his whole body shivered.

Finally, Naruto came to a decision. "I… I'll tell you. Everything. But after the mission's over, ok? Please?"

The pleading tone of Naruto's voice was so forlorn that it made Hinata want to cry all over again, but instead she nodded and smiled as tenderly as she could. "Ok, I d-don't mind. I'll wait for you… until you're ready."

-o-o-

Pakkun landed on the water's surface, the other ninja just behind him. "We're here," the small pug dog announced to the group, sniffing the air. "The Akatsuki are behind that boulder in the cliff face."

"Ah, many thanks, Pakkun," said Gai enthusiastically, crouching down and giving the tracking hound a pat on the head. "Though it may not look it, your small body truly does burn with the fires of youth!"

"… Yeah, sure. Anyway, I'm not much of a fighter, so I'll leave it to you guys now. See ya." A small puff of white smoke announced Pakkun's departure.

Gai straighted up and turned to Neji. "We need to see what is happening inside that cave. Neji, would you mind?"

Neji nodded and muttered, "Byakugan!" His vision faded to shades of grey, and he scanned the area beyond the boulder blocking their path. His eyes widened as he saw what was happening inside.

Cancelling the chakra flow to his eyes, he sighed and tried to explain exactly what he had seen. "Pakkun was right, Gaara-sama and the two Akatsuki members are indeed inside the cave." Temari gasped and took a step forward, but Shikamaru placed a hand on her shoulder and shook his head, waiting for Neji to continue. "However… there seems to be a… ritual of some sort going on. There is a statue… and Gaara-sama's body is floating… I can't describe it."

Gai grimaced. It was almost unheard of to hear the Hyuuga prodigy left lost for words. Whatever was going on inside that cave must have been serious.

With a shout of aggression, Gai launched himself forward, right arm outstetched in a devastating straight arm punch. However, before his fist could connect with the rock face he felt resistance and his punch, rather than connecting with the boulder, stopped just short. Gai frowned. The air seemed to be rippling where he had struck, preventing him from reaching any further. An experimental push against the invisible barricade didn't seem to weaken it at all either. "Is this a barrier technique of some kind?" wondered Gai aloud, withdrawing his fist and scratching his chin thoughtfully.

"Most probably," came the reply… from a very familiar voice.

"Yosh! Kakashi, my eternal rival, you have arrived!" shouted Gai, his eyes glinting. "And the rest of your team too! You are just in time!"

Lee turned around at his sensei's greeting, and he smiled widely as he saw who else had arrived. "Naruto-kun! You have returned from your training mission!"

"Hey there guys," Naruto greeted, smiling widely. "Miss me whilst I was away?" Behind him, Hinata shyly raised her hand to wave her own greeting at them, to which her cousin nodded his acknowledgement and Tenten returned cheerfully.

"I trust your training went well, Naruto?" enquired Neji. "We have all improved in the time you were away."

"Definitely!" grinned Naruto. "I've been working non-stop for the last two-and-a-half years and I've gotten way stronger than I was before!"

Lee gave Naruto a thumbs up sign. "Yosh! It is excellent to hear that you have not lost your fiery spirit, Naruto-kun! After we have completed this mission we must engage in combat and show each other the fruits of our youthful labour!"

It took Naruto a second or two to realise that Lee was asking him to train with him, in his own round-about way. "Huh? Oh, right, training together sounds great! I want to spar with as many people as possible, so I can keep getting stronger! But you'd better be prepared, Fuzzy Brows, or I'll kick your ass!"

Seeing Lee's eyes light up at Naruto's competitive challenge and hoping to avert another one of Lee's sermons on 'the power of youth,' Shikamaru quickly changed the subject. "So Naruto, who's the old lady?" he asked hastily, nodding at Chiyo. "Is she from Suna?"

Before Naruto could answer, Temari stamped down on the Nara's boy's foot, hard. "Show some respect!" she hissed out of the corner of her mouth, as Shikamaru cursed at the pain. "Chiyo-baasama is one of the most important and distinguished advisors in Suna! She's not just some 'old lady,' idiot!"

Chiyo chuckled at the praise. "Oh stop, you're exaggerating, Temari-san. I am semi-retired, after all."

Kakashi and Gai, who had been whispering together separately from the others, rejoined the rest of the group. Gai was grumbling, "I suppose you're trying to be 'hip' and 'cool' by arriving as late as usual…"

Kakashi repressed the urge to say, 'Did you say something?' and instead rolled his eyes, before getting down to business. "Alright everyone, see at that tag on the rock? It has the sign for 'forbidden' written on it, which means it's a Five Seal Barrier. In the near vicinity there will be four other tags just like it. If we want to break the barrier, all of these tags will need to be removed at the same time."

Naruto scrunched his face up in confusion. "Other tags? Where are they then?"

"Let me worry about that, Naruto," said Neji, stepping forward and activating his Byakugan. After a moment of silence in which he made quick scan of the surrounding area, Neji spoke up again. "Found them. One is located on a large, flat rock five-hundred metres north-east. One on a tree trunk, next to a river, just over three-hundred metres south-east. Another on a rock wall six-hundred-and-fifty metres north-west. And the final tag is approximately eight-hundred metres to the south-west, in a grove of trees."

Gai nodded, pleased. "Excellent work, Neji," he announced, reaching into his kunai pouch. From the small pocket he withdrew five portable radio sets, handing one each to Tenten, Lee, Neji and Kakashi. "I don't have enough radios for everyone, but those of us that are going to be targeting the tags will need them, so that we can remove them all at the same time. Now, everyone, let's go!"

Gai, Tenten, Neji and Lee split off from the group, all heading in separate directions to find and remove one of the tags. Kakashi quickly attached his radio to the collar of his jacket before leaping up onto the boulder blocking the entrance to the Akatsuki's lair.

"In a few seconds, we will be engaging the Akatsuki to recapture the Kazekage," said the copy nin authoritatively, gazing down at the shinobi positioned beneath him. "Is everyone fully prepared for the battle ahead?"

Temari smiled grimly, unfurling her fan and taking a firm grip on it. Shikamaru straightened slightly from his slouched posture and nodded in response, his customary laziness nowhere to be seen. Chiyo stepped to the side slightly, making certain she would be out of the way of any falling rubble. Hinata pressed her index fingers together, but activated her Byakugan determinedly, a hint of steel in her gaze. Naruto tightened the kunai pouch attached to his leg and called up, "We're good to go, Kakashi-sensei!"

Gai's voice came through the speaker of Kakashi's radio, sounding tinny and slightly fuzzy. "Kakashi, my team and I are all in position. Is your squad ready?"

Kakashi surveyed the ninja standing below him. 'They're all so different,' he thought to himself. 'A mixture of backgrounds, ages and personalities. But they all know what to do.' "Yeah, they're ready," Kakashi answered, a hint of pride in his voice as he gazed down at Naruto.

"Good," Gai replied. "Everyone, remove the tags on the count of three. Ready? One… two… three!"

Simultaneously, Gai, Lee, Tenten and Neji ripped the tags from their respective surfaces. Kakashi was a lot less subtle. With a shout of, "Raikiri!" Kakashi slammed his hand down onto the paper tag, incinerating it and smashing through the boulder blocking the entrance of the cavern. The rock fractured and split, tumbling down into the lake, and the second the boulder had stopped collapsing Naruto leapt forward, through the dust cloud and into the cave itself.

In the time that he was poised in mid-air, time seemed to slow down to a crawl. The first thing Naruto noticed was that it was surprisingly light in the cave considering that there was no entrance to the outside world other than the opening he had just entered by. The gigantic statue that dominated the entire cavern was the next thing to catch his attention, with its hideously ugly face and two hands spread upwards. He couldn't see clearly, but what looked like a large, white bird was nestled on the floor and Naruto could see some sort of shadowy figures standing atop each finger of the statue's hands. Then he spotted the prone figure floating in between the two hands, with some sort of light, which explained why it wasn't dark, being sucked out of his mouth. With a start, Naruto realised it was Gaara, and a murderous rage overtook him.

Before he even realised what he was doing and still in mid-air, Naruto drew two kunai from his weapons pouch, each with an explosive note attached. He assumed that this was how the Akatsuki were extracting the Ichibi from Gaara and although he had no idea how they were doing it, blowing the statue to pieces sounded like a good idea to him.

With a shout of "GAARA!" Naruto flicked each wrist and hurled both kunai into the hands of the statue. Before the shadowy figures could do more than look up at the blonde haired shinobi in surprise, the tags flared and all Hell broke loose.

Author's Notes: That's Chapter Nine, folks! This chapter was sort of a set up for the next one, but the interaction between Hinata and Naruto was definitely important. I've tried to make out Naruto's reaction to be one of delayed shock – often, when seeing something traumatic, the human mind pushes it to one side at first, with the main reaction later. I tried to make it show that Naruto's trust in Hinata is growing, but he is still very insecure about the Kyuubi, something I don't think was focused on enough in the manga. The fear of not being liked and being alone is something that everyone shares, and when you've got an ancient demon sealed in your belly I'd guess that the fear of rejection would probably be enhanced a bit. Some good news on my end is that I now have a second opinion for the story as I write it – my brother has offered to be a 'sort of' beta reader. He hasn't written any fanfiction of his own, but the second opinion on a couple of issues is nice to hear, and he's not a bad writer in his own right too. Plus he's into NaruHina himself, which is always nice! Oh, and also I got my first big piece of constructive criticism in a review about last chapter, from someone called Der Perko, which is great – I don't mind criticism that tells me how they perceive something and offers suggestions for improvements. I'm by no means saying that my way of writing the fight scenes with Itachi and Kisame was perfect but I'm going to explain my reasoning behind the way that I wrote it out. Firstly, I split the fights into two sections, rather than just having the entirety of one battle followed by the other, in order to attempt to build up the tension. My reasoning was that having two fights at the same time built up the suspense more than just listing off the two battles one at a time, and having one fight right after another would put the reader out of 'action mode' (if you know what I mean!) and cause them to relax, only to be plunged straight into more conflict, which may have been a little more awkward and jarring, preventing the scenes from flowing more naturally. The other criticism, that Naruto's reaction wasn't 'angry' enough at Itachi, was because I tried to make it so that his terror was more powerful than his rage, due to Itachi manipulating him. I thought of it like this – say you were terrified of snakes, and your worst enemy simultaneously insulted you and threw a snake at you. Chances are you'd probably be more worried about the snake than angry about the insult, right? Yeah, that's some pretty twisted logic I've got there, I know! Anyway, next chapter is going to include the start of the fights against Sasori and Deidara, so more action scene writing for me to get done, though I do already have a vague plan of what's going to happen. I think that's it for this chapter, bye!

List of Jutsu:

'Shouten no Jutsu' = 'Shape Changing Technique'

'Raikiri' = 'Lightning Edge'

Joke Corner: When mating, a blue whale ejaculates approximately forty pints of semen, but only 10% actually enters the female… and you wondered why the sea was salty?

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