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Of course, keep in mind... they ARE twelve. Best to be patient...

Chapter Ten

As a rule, Naruto tried to avoid the Konoha General Hospital. He’d been there several times when he was younger, usually in conjunction with one of the many ‘accidents’ he seemed to be involved in at the orphanage. The sharp, astringent smell of the disinfectants brought back painful memories, as did the cold eyes of the nurses and doctors.

Let’s not even get started on the needles.

In any event, he was more than happy to let Hinata do the talking for both of them. The receptionist’s voice was pleasant in tone, albeit somewhat formal, when she told Hinata Iruka-sensei’s room number. She still shot Naruto a rather venomous glance, but broke it off when Hinata thanked her in a clipped voice.

Naruto immediately wondered if Hinata had issues with hospitals as well. Glancing over at his team mate, he saw the faint crease on her forehead. If he didn’t know better, he might have thought she was angry or something.  As they headed down the hallway, her features smoothed and she glanced over at him. Naruto quickly looked away, but not before she jumped a little as well.

“Sorry, Hinata,” he said quickly. “I guess visiting a hospital isn’t much fun on your day off, is it?”

“Ano, Naruto-kun,” she replied, “I would like to see Iruka-sensei as well.”

“Ah, okay then,” Naruto said, confused, as they continued down the corridor.

When they found room 205, Naruto started to pull it open, but stopped when Hinata shook her head. He shrugged and knocked on the door. “Iruka-sensei, are you decent?” he called out. He didn’t think he’d been that loud, but Hinata cringed nonetheless.

There was a low cough. “Come in, Naruto!”

Naruto grinned at the sound of the chuunin’s voice and opened the door.

Umino Iruka lay on a hospital bed, both of his lower legs wrapped in bulky casts. His ribcage was swathed in bandages as well, that extended below the line of the blanket draped across his lap. His left wrist was also in a cast, but his right arm appeared undamaged. He used this to wave the genin into the room. “I was hoping I’d see you again when you got back!” he said in a cheerful voice.

Naruto’s stomach dropped as he took in the extent of his important person’s injuries. He remembered Konohamaru shouting that Iruka was dead. For an instant, he recalled the feeling of his fist punching through Kazuyo’s chest and shuddered a little.

Iruka shook his head at his former pupil. “It’s not as bad as it looks,” he said quickly, “I have a few broken bones, but they’re all healing rapidly. I should be out of here within a week or so.”

“He’s right,” another voice added. One that made both Naruto and Hinata stand straighter. Sitting in a chair next to the bed, partially obscured by a curtain, was their sensei, Yuuhi Kurenai. She stood up quickly and nodded to her students. “I was just leaving,” she added, then turned back toward Iruka. “We can continue this conversation after you’ve been discharged.”

Iruka nodded, smiling faintly. As the door closed behind his sensei, Naruto turned toward Iruka with raised eyebrows. Then he gave the man a roguish smile. “Way to go, Iruka-sensei!”

Iruka’s face turned red and he sputtered as Hinata looked away. But not before Naruto noticed a small grin on her lips.

“I swear, if I wasn’t confined to this bed…” Iruka snarled. Then he grinned. “Konoha has been far too quiet without you around, Naruto!”

Naruto laughed and looked down, scratching at the back of his head.  He could have sworn that he heard a little chuckle from Hinata as well. 

OoOoO

Kurenai smiled to herself as she made her way out of the hospital. Her grin grew positively evil as she saw a squad of ANBU half-carrying, half-dragging an older, bespectacled man out of a comfortable-looking office. His muffled protests carried down the corridor, causing the hospital personnel to stare. Sarutobi was proving to be as good as his word; she’d only dropped off her report a couple of hours ago, before coming to speak with Umino Iruka.

Unfortunately, Iruka hadn’t had much time to investigate the suspicions she’d shared with him. Even before the kidnapping, he’d been tapped to help with the preparations for the upcoming Chuunin Exam. All the same, he’d managed to do a little digging while he was re-organizing the testing records.

An ANBU squad had been assigned to keep an eye on Naruto after he left the orphanage. Far too many ‘accidents’ were happening near the boy for it to be coincidence. The second time he’d been ‘accidentally’ run over by a produce cart, he was severely injured and was in a coma for the better part of a week. Given what she knew of Naruto’s recovery rate, Kurenai knew a normal little boy would likely have died from those injuries. Fear of the Hokage’s wrath was likely the only reason there were no ‘unfortunate accidents’ in the hospital itself.

Naruto’s injuries, along with the loud complaints he heard about how often ‘the demon’ had come to them with new wounds, led the Sandaime to assign guardians to keep an eye on the boy. Their reports were kept in a separate file, but it was one Iruka was allowed to see. He’d recorded the dates of various ‘incidents’ through the years, somewhat dismayed at how often someone had tried to hurt the boy. Naruto hadn’t said a thing, but it was too much to hope that he hadn’t noticed the ones that were foiled ahead of time.

Kurenai shook her head as she wondered, not for the last time, how her student still managed to be as… human, as he still was. In his place, she didn’t think she would have been able to ignore so much hatred.

Iruka’s notes did, however, reveal something interesting. There seemed to be a pattern to the incidents. They almost always happened within the first week of each month. This observation remained a statistical curiosity until Kurenai remembered that the village council always met on the last day of each month. If the bank manager could be believed, it was likely that some faction was using those meetings to plan things, or even just fanning the flames of resentment and then hoping others would take action. That would account for the timing of the attacks.

Umino Iruka was an optimistic man, one who tried to assume the best about people. That helped explain why he was able to give Naruto the benefit of the doubt when few else would, something for which Kurenai was very grateful to the man. At the same time, he was also resistant to the idea that members of the village council were actively working to subvert the Hokage’s will, and bring harm to an innocent child. But while the timing of the attacks was not direct proof of a conspiracy, he could not come up with a more innocent explanation.

In the end, he agreed that he would continue seeking proof after he was released from the hospital. Kurenai thanked him sincerely for his efforts – any allies she could gather in this cause were precious indeed – bringing a pleased blush to his face. She was gratified to note that the man was willing to ignore his better nature where a threat to Naruto was concerned. She also didn’t miss the happy smile that spread across the scarred chuunin’s face at the sound of the genin’s voice when her students arrived.

On the other hand, his injuries and workload made him of limited use for what she needed to do. She thought about Morino Ibiki, the interrogation specialist she’d come to know in the weeks of questioning after her team mates were killed. The special jonin had a sufficiently suspicious frame of mind – the timing of the attacks would speak volumes to him. On the other hand, she couldn’t be sure of his loyalties regarding Naruto. He was utterly loyal to the Hokage, but might he be one who sought to protect the old man from his own softer nature? She didn’t think it likely, but the consequences if she were wrong would be too severe.

If the danger were only to herself, she might have risked it. She’d done so before when she shared her suspicions regarding Mattai. Ibiki-san had given her good advice, words she had taken to heart. “If you are right,” he said gravely, “then this goes far too deep for an easy resolution. You are a small target, girl, and one that won’t be missed for very long if you start to worry the wrong parties. Gather your information as best you can, without revealing your purpose or what you know. Then present it all at once, holding nothing back. That way, they have nothing to gain by killing you.”

As wise as his words may have been, she couldn’t trust Naruto’s safety to an unknown factor. Morino Ibiki had a well-deserved reputation for ruthlessness, especially after the botched mission where he’d acquired those horrific scars. Kurenai didn’t know all the details, but she did acknowledge that Ibiki would do what he felt needed to be done, disregarding all else. If he thought Konoha’s safety was best guaranteed by murdering an innocent, she didn’t think he’d hesitate.

It was an uncomfortable realization for Yuuhi Kurenai, this acknowledgement that she could consciously place the welfare of her genin before that of her village. She supposed that the injustices inflicted by the villagers on her team made this almost inevitable, and Naruto was only the most obvious example. Hinata displayed the signs of chronic emotional abuse, most likely inflicted by her bastard of a father. Shino appeared to be well-treated by his clan, but, like most Aburames, he was rather isolated from his classmates who didn’t understand or were frankly disgusted by his family’s distinctive jutsus. Never mind how often the kikai bugs had proven invaluable in missions or open warfare, the Aburame were actively encouraged to keep to themselves.

Maybe that was why she’d taken Kobaru-sensei’s lessons on teamwork and emphasized them even more. Perhaps if they trusted each other enough, when one of their personal situations boiled over they would be able to help each other. Kurenai knew she’d do what she could, but an effective sensei works to make their own presence unnecessary. Some day, when she was gone, perhaps these three would still be able to rely on one another…

Kurenai shook her head, amused at her suddenly morbid train of thought. She would approach this situation like any other mission. She would gather her information, biding her time until it was time to act. And she would groom Naruto to become the village council’s worst nightmare – a Hokage.

OoOoO

Naruto and Hinata visited with Iruka-sensei for over two hours before the nurses asked them (with a polite nod toward Hinata and a scowl for him) to let Iruka rest.

Of course, Naruto had told Iruka everything about their mission and the ambush. Hinata wasn’t sure if this was allowed or not, but Iruka was a chuunin, and they hadn’t been expressly forbidden from speaking, so she remained silent while Naruto entertained his captive audience.

She worried that Iruka would be angry that she led Team 8 into such a dangerous situation, but his eyes were understanding when she finally gathered the courage to stop staring at the floor. A short while later, when Naruto revealed that she knew of his prisoner, the honestly grateful look Iruka gave her spoke volumes. She couldn’t remember ever receiving such a look of fervent approval before, and began to realize just how much Iruka worried about his most troublesome student.

She’d give anything to have her father look at her like that. Just once.

That realization soured her enjoyment of the visit, though she didn’t let it show. Naruto was so happy to see Iruka in good spirits that she couldn’t let herself do anything to spoil it.

Still, she was quiet as they left the hospital. After a minute, Naruto asked her if she wanted to go spar, as this was their normal team training time. Hinata nodded, but they had taken no more than three steps before Neji appeared out of the crowd, standing in front of her.

“Hinata,” he said, not even acknowledging Naruto’s presence. “You are to report to Hiashi-sama immediately.”

“Hai,” she agreed quickly, looking down. She didn’t raise her eyes until her cousin’s angry presence had departed. When she did, she was surprised to see Naruto frowning.

“I have to go,” she said.

Naruto nodded. “Do you think you will be done in time to meet Lee and Gai?” he asked quietly.

“I don’t know,” she said, biting her lower lip. “Father probably wants to discuss my performance on the mission.”

Naruto scowled fiercely, which surprised her. “If he gives you any crap,” Naruto whispered, “remember what sensei and the Hokage both said.”

She said her goodbyes somewhat mechanically, promising to meet early next morning, wondering what Naruto meant by that. He seemed to think her father would find fault in her conduct, which was depressing but probably accurate. But at the same time, he was telling her to recall the words of others.

Yuuhi Kurenai is not one to lightly praise another’s logic, the Hokage had said. The Hokage said that he agreed with Kurenai-sensei – she had done well. If father disagreed with that, did it make him wrong? Or did he just understand her better? Perhaps they did not hold her to the Hyuuga standard, which her father did. But if the head of the clan disagreed with the Hokage of the village, who was right?

These unsettling thoughts accompanied her all the way back to the Hyuuga compound.

The branch family servants directed her to the audience chamber, where she found her father sitting stiffly in his usual formal white robes. With scarcely a nod of greeting, the questions began. Off balance, Hinata began answering them as best she could, trying not to let a stammer creep into her voice.

Her father seemed unusually interested in their last mission, more than he’d ever been before. She answered as truthfully as she could, trying not to stammer when he scowled or frowned thoughtfully. The Iwakagure shinobi mistaking Naruto for the Fourth Hokage provoked a fierce scowl, accompanied by a visible clenching of the muscles along his jaw.

It wasn’t until she described fighting Hanabi’s kidnappers that his questions became slower and more… cautious. She puzzled over this as she groped for the answers. Her father wanted something from her, but didn’t want to tell her what it was. It wasn’t until he asked if Naruto had displayed any special abilities that the pieces all fit together.

“Not that I saw, Father,” she replied without missing a beat. While it was literally true, since he didn’t use the red chakra until after she was knocked unconscious, Hinata was still shocked at how easily the words left her lips. She next described waking up with Naruto cleaning off her face and Hanabi standing over her as she wondered why she had, well, not lied, but she had certainly not told the entire truth.

Father suspects something happened, she realized after he had fallen silent. Why does he care, unless he wants to use this information somehow? She remembered his reaction to her first mention of her team mate’s name. I think he wants to use it against Naruto somehow. Maybe he hates Naruto - like how the Hokage was worried Shino and I would if we found out the truth... He wants to hurt Naruto-kun!

With that the smoldering anger returned again, the frustration of failure and anger at her helplessness… but still she maintained her façade of apathy. It was this mask of ice she’d learned to don over the years around her family. It wasn’t perfect, but sometimes it made it hurt less when she spoke to her father. This time, for Naruto’s sake, she held it almost perfectly.

“Do you have any idea how Uzumaki was able to defeat his opponents?” her father finally asked.

Hinata tried to look thoughtful. “He trains very hard, in addition to what Kurenai-sensei does with our team. I-I am working extra as well, in order to keep up, so I don’t become a burden on my team mates,” she answered. It was a half-truth – Naruto’s improved taijutsu had definitely played a role in his victory, and she could see how his training with Gai-sensei had helped. She included that last part as an echo of her father’s admonishments to not drag down her team and embarrass the clan.

She felt vaguely uneasy about deceiving her father, but found to her surprise that she could do it for Naruto if she had to. The burn of shame in the pit of her stomach was drowned in her concern for her team mate. Had her father seen through her mask? Was he even now concluding that she knew more than she was telling? She knew he would find any deception on her part inexcusable…

Of course she was nervous under her father’s gaze, despite her efforts to mask her emotions. That made this interview no different than scores of previous ones, where she’d hoped against hope for his approval. And so Hyuuga Hiashi came to the only logical conclusion – his daughter hadn’t seen anything of use.

“Next time you return from an extended mission, you will report directly to me,” he said severely. “Return to your quarters and do not leave them for the evening meal. You are dismissed.”

Hinata bowed and rose to her feet as gracefully as she could manage with her stomach fluttering like a sparrow in a net. She left the audience chamber on silent feet, retreating to her quarters as quickly as decorum would allow.

As victories go, it wasn’t much. But it was a first. Being confined to her quarters was a small price to pay, especially since she had a packed bento in her bag. Her only regret was missing the celebration for Lee.

OoOoO

As he surveyed the ruins of the restaurant, Naruto was glad Hinata hadn’t been there. Things had started off badly and had deteriorated rapidly.

To start off, Hyuuga Neji was there, apparently at the insistence of Gai. The white-eyed genin was coolly formal with his sensei and Tenten, ignored Lee, and looked at Naruto like something to be scraped from his sandal. Recalling the way he’d acted toward Hinata, Naruto had to actively restrain his temper.

But at least he wasn’t the cause of the disaster.

Gai had led them in a series of toasts to Lee’s success, which had led to much amusement for the other genin. Tenten just smiled at the antics of her sensei and his protégé, but Neji was noticeably less subtle. Naruto saw Lee’s eyes narrow, but that might have been the end of it.

If it wasn’t for the sake.

Gai was drinking the traditional beverage for such an occasion, but he insisted that the underage genin drink non-alcoholic potables. Naruto didn’t have a problem with that – he didn’t want to become drunk, and he knew an alcoholic couldn’t become Hokage. He settled for water, since he was still slightly dehydrated from his afternoon training, Tenten had some fruit juice, and Neji drank coffee in the western style, a concoction that seemed to suit his bitter disposition.

Lee, however, had opted for a clear but spicy fermented ginger beer – it didn’t contain alcohol, but it came in ceramic bottles that resembled Gai’s sake containers. Naruto wasn’t sure that Lee’s mimicry of his sensei was entirely healthy, but he had no idea how much of a premonition those concerns would prove to be.

At some point in the toasts, Gai and Lee had evidently switched bottles. After the last “Kampai!” Gai frowned and looked down at the bottle he’d poured his drink from. Lee’s face, on the other hand, turned bright red and his normally wide round eyes were half-lidded. Naruto stared at his friend while Neji let out a quiet snort of amusement.

“Bashtard!” Lee slurred as he dove across the table at his team mate and rival. But what he’d done wasn’t half as surprising as how he’d done it. Naruto was used to the boy’s blinding speed, but what he saw now was comparable to what he’d been like after that ‘first gate’ thing.

Neji, the Hyuuga genius, was caught flatfooted by a right hook and sent tumbling to the floor. Tenten let out a squeak and shot backwards out of her chair, right before the table edge went through the space her lap had occupied a moment earlier.

Gai was only caught flatfooted for a moment before his hands shot forward to grab his student, but Lee twisted like an eel and was suddenly free, leaping from their table to an adjoining one before launching himself at Neji again.

The Hyuuga genin blocked three quick punches from the green-clad boy, and countered with a Jyuuken strike at Lee’s chest that was sure to incapacitate him… Except Lee bent backward almost ninety degrees at the waist, letting the strike pass harmlessly overhead. Then he calmly placed both palms on the ground behind him and, digging his fingertips into the hard wooden floor, shot up into a perfect handstand.

Of course, in doing this, his feet, complete with weights, whipped upward, catching Neji in the stomach and sending him flying backward. The Hyuuga bounced off another table, smearing his tunic with hoison sauce and sending fragments of the meat dish flying amongst the diners. He finally sailed through a window – accompanied by a cloud of shattered glass.

“Lee! You must stop this!”  Gai shouted, grabbing at the genin… but Lee just disappeared and reappeared next to Tenten. “Doan worry,” he slurred to the kunoichi as she jumped back in surprise. “Yer nishe. Doan wanna hit joo. Doan see why ya like dat cold fish doh. He’s not as nish as his coushin.” Just as Gai’s hands were reaching for Lee’s shoulders, Lee fell back into a somersault, rolling between Gai’s feet as smoothly as if they’d practiced that move.

“You wanna spar, shenshei?” Lee asked, hiccupping. Then his head turned and he saw Naruto. Lee peered at him owlishly as Gai pleaded with him to calm down and wait for the alcohol to wear off.

“Joo tink Hinata ish nisher than her coushin?” Lee asked.

Naruto nodded warily, testing his footing on the sticky floor. As Lee’s daily sparring partner, he was amazed he’d been spared so far.

“I tink she is nish. I tink she likesh you too,” Lee announced with a crooked smile. He rubbed at his eyes as he let out a laugh. “That’s funny becuz she sho quiet, and you sho loud. But joo quiet too. Never shay anyting about shtuff, even dat ting inshide joo, dat –“

He never completed his words because Naruto launched himself forward closing Lee’s mouth with his fist. Fortunately, the drunk genin seemed was distracted by his own monologue, or Naruto doubted he would have even connected. The impact sent Lee tumbling into another table that had already been abandoned by fearful diners. Before the last plate had hit the ground, Lee was being held down by half a dozen clones. The taijutsu specialist arched his back and kicked, sending the clones flying upward to explode against the ceiling.

But the distraction was long enough for Gai to get in close and tap two extended fingers against a spot on the back of Lee’s neck. The green-clad genin stumbled forward a step, rolled his eyes up in his head, and collapsed bonelessly to the floor.

Lee was still out cold when the ANBU patrol showed up. Naruto supposed he shouldn’t be surprised that the restaurant owner tried to blame him for the chaos, but it still rankled. Privately, he was just glad this wasn’t Moritake’s, otherwise Kurenai would never forgive him. Gai, however, accepted all the blame for the situation, and promised to pay the damages… which made Naruto profoundly grateful to the man.

In fact, the jonin just nodded distractedly while the restaurant manager ranted on about damaged furniture and lost business. His eyes were fixed on Lee, who dozed fitfully as he lay across a trio of chairs that Naruto had dragged together.

Tenten had re-entered the trashed dining room with a wobbly Neji a short while earlier. The Hyuuga’s eyes were unfocused and he seemed to have trouble standing up straight… but he still shook his head when Tenten offered him a steadying hand.

“A natural suiken fighter,” Gai murmured, almost too quiet to hear. “Who would have thought?” He straightened up when Tenten cleared her throat.

“Send me the total once you’ve added it up,” he said brusquely to the manager. “Tenten, please make sure Neji makes it home alright. Uzumaki-san and I will take care of Lee.”

Tenten nodded, ignoring Neji’s disgruntled expression as she took his arm. She gave Naruto a sly wink before turning away. Naruto helped Gai pick Lee up, who only shifted restlessly and hiccupped in his sleep. As they stepped outside, watching Tenten lead Neji out into the night, Gai lowered his voice as he spoke to Naruto. “You acted decisively to keep Lee from breaking the Hokage’s law,” he said.

Naruto shrugged. “I don’t want him to get in trouble because of me,” he said uncomfortably.

Gai shook his head. “He won’t. I had no idea he could possibly have such a strong reaction to alcohol. Probably he had an ancestor or two that were gifted Drunken Fist masters. That’s the only thing that would explain his hair-trigger reaction. We’ll have to ensure he never has access to alcohol, unless it’s an emergency.”

“I think him having alcohol would be an emergency all by itself,” Naruto said doubtfully.

“You didn’t notice?” Gai asked, raising an eyebrow.

Naruto wondered what sort of effort it must be costing the loud jonin to speak in little more than a whisper. He just shook his head in response.

“Lee has never been able to get a decisive hit on Neji, for as long as they’ve sparred together. Tonight that was not the case.” The jonin smiled. “I think the sake has revealed some of his true potential. Now all we need to realize that potential…”

“…is a lot of hard work,” Naruto finished the sentence, smiling.

“You’re catching on,” Gai said with an unsettlingly wide and shiny smile. “Kurenai-sensei must be very proud.”

Naruto looked down, his face reddening. When he looked up again, Gai and Lee were nowhere in sight.

OoOoO

Shino sat quietly as the Aburame elders filed into the meeting room. As a clan, the bug users were far less formal than most, but they still observed certain protocols. Normally, only adult members of the clan were able to call for a meeting or bring new business before them. As an active-duty genin, Shino’s status was unclear with regards to this rule – such a situation had never before arisen. But his father was more than willing to oblige him by calling for a meeting himself.

The eldest shinobi, Aburame Suba, brother to Shibi’s father, looked every bit the part of the elder statesman as he took his seat at the head of the table. “Aburame Shibi, may we know the reason you have called for this meeting?” he asked as the others sat along the far side of the long table, facing the chairs of the petitioners.

Shino’s father rose to his feet in a smooth and economical motion. “I have requested the attention of the council with regards to information acquired by my son.”

Shino rose to his feet as all eyes turned toward him. In some ways, he supposed this was considered to be intimidating. Fortunately, he was unconcerned by such peripheral matters. “It has come to my attention that a grave injustice has been perpetuated, and that both myself and my clan have been a party to this undertaking,” he began without preamble. “It is my intention to ascertain the degree to which this treachery was committed intentionally before I undertake further action.”

Suba stared at his long-dead brother’s grandchild for a moment. “Those are serious accusations. What is the nature of this betrayal? And who was the wronged party?”

“Ingratitude for services rendered unto the clan and Konohagakure,” Shino replied, “and the person involved is Uzumaki Naruto.”

Some of the council had obviously guessed at the purpose toward which he was in attendance, because the first objections were placed even as he finished speaking.

“Esteemed elder?” one of his older uncles, one Aburame Bataru, asked aloud.

“Yes, Bataru-san?” Suba replied.

“In light of Shino’s youth and… lack of knowledge… regarding the relevant facts, I move that we table this discussion to avoid breaking certain village laws,” Bataru continued, garnering several relieved nods from his fellows.

“If this lack of knowledge,” Shino replied in a flat voice, “is with regards to Kyuubi no Kitsune, you may rest assured that I am fully aware of its existence sealed within my team mate.”

“Who told you that?” Bataru demanded, anger evident in his voice. While even Suba’s eyebrows had lifted at Shino’s revelation, none of the others in the room had resorted to an outburst like that.

Shino idly wondered how long the man been a member of the council. “No one broke the Hokage’s law, uncle,” he replied coldly. “I was able to deduce the existence of Naruto’s prisoner through sparring and training with him. When Uzumaki-san indirectly broached the topic with me, he merely confirmed my deductions.” He paused. “As I told him at the time, I am neither stupid nor unobservant. Moreover, it is highly likely that, without the Kyuubi’s chakra to draw on, our battle with the missing-nin would have had a far less optimal outcome.”

Aburame Suba forestalled Bataru’s objections with a raised hand. “We are aware that the vessel itself is exempt from the Hokage’s law, if it wishes to allow the truth to be known. But what is the nature of our clan’s betrayal?”

“Your choice of pronoun speaks volumes, esteemed elder,” Shino replied, returning to his flat voice. “Naruto’s imprisonment of the Kyuubi no Kitsune, in accord with the Fourth Hokage’s plan, is the only reason Konoha survived the attack. Yet he is literally shunned within our borders. The rancor of the adults is all too apparent, and he is disparaged at every opportunity by the same villagers he protects from the demon’s wrath. I am ashamed to admit that I myself had acquired this low opinion of Uzumaki by listening to conversations between the adults as I matured. When it was announced that I was to be placed on a team with him, I accepted this assignment with only the greatest misgivings.” Shino had begun pacing before the table as he talked, which was the only visible indication of his annoyance. His voice continued in a perfectly even tone, even as his choice of words grew sharp enough to draw blood.

“Instead, I discover a shinobi who has labored under severe handicaps for most of his life. Yet, with the introduction of even minimal support from his sensei, begins to progress at a rate I find unbelievable. Except for the fact that he regularly works sixteen hour days, or longer, constantly training… now that someone is finally willing to give him a chance.” He stopped before the center of the table, straightening his dark glasses. “I find his actions to be well beyond the possibilities of a discontinuous variation in personality. He did not change like this overnight. I wish to know the reasons why I heard older clan-members openly disparaging my team mate, one of the most gifted and quite honestly the hardest working genin I have ever encountered?”

“He’s always pulling pranks!” Bataru snarled as more than a few eyes turned toward him. “Did you not see what he did to the Hokage Monument?”

“Such acting out, desirous of provoking a reaction or some acknowledgement, is not unknown behavior in someone who is being socially isolated,” Shino observed. “Given the fact that he has yet to engage in such behavior since leaving the academy, it seems likely that you speak about a reaction to this conspiracy of isolation, rather than one of its antecedents.”

“There are reports of theft from merchants, breakage and vandalism,” Bataru countered. “However well behaved he is now, he was a public menace when he was younger.”

Shino stared at the man. He remembered the way many of the merchants regarded his team mate, but more importantly he remembered how Naruto reacted… he looked away, avoided their hateful gazes, and otherwise tried to distract himself. “My apologies,” he replied, deliberately allowing a quaver to enter his voice. ”I was unaware of his past misbehavior. I’m sure his sensei will wish to deal with this personally.” When Bataru nodded indulgently, he sprung the trap. “That being the case, if you will provide me with an itemized list of the offended parties, Kurenai-sensei can deduct the damages from his mission payments.”

Bataru frowned. “List?”

“Of course,” Shino replied. “If you have knowledge of these crimes, then justice must be done. Since any merchant will keep close track of any thefts or breakage as business losses for tax purposes, we should have quite a list to set straight.”

“I don’t have this information,” Bataru snapped, the tightening skin visible around his glasses indicating that his eyes were narrowed.

“You don’t?” Shino asked innocently. “Then how do you know that these incidents occurred?”

“I heard about them at council meetings,” Bataru explained curtly.

“I see. Then as the clan representative to the council you can request the records from them,” Shino concluded.

“I- I am not sure they were actually recorded,” Bataru said quickly.

Aburame Suba was frowning visibly. “I was given to understand that the Uzumaki boy’s predations were a matter of public record, Bataru-san. Is this not the case?”

“I, they talked about him almost every meeting,” Bataru insisted, his stammering increasing and emotional equilibrium decreasing in proportion to each other. “Representatives from most of the guilds would voice their complaints, b-but everyone knew the Hokage favored the boy, and would hear no ill words about him. So some money was set aside in a fund to reimburse those who’d suffered losses, as long as they reported them to the council.”

Shino stared at the man. “And who investigated these claims?” he asked.

“I… don’t know,” Bataru admitted.

“So, to sum this up,” Shino said, beginning to pace again. “If representatives from one or more the merchants came forward with reports about Uzumaki Naruto stealing or damaging their merchandise, they would receive compensation from the Village Council. And you are unsure if the damage claims were ever investigated to determine their veracity. Uzumaki Naruto thereby acquired a reputation within the Village Council as a thief and criminal at a very young age. The various representatives attending these council meetings report this information back to their organizations, and soon everyone in Konoha knows of his reputation.”

Shino stopped pacing and spun on his heel right in front of Bataru’s section of the table. “But there appears to be no proof that any of these claims are truthful,” he spat, making his now least-favorite uncle flinch backward slightly.

“He’s still a damn demon,” Aburame Bataru snarled, completely losing control of his emotions.

“No,” Shino corrected. “He’s the demon’s jailor. We, of all people should understand that what someone holds inside themselves is not the sum total of their being. I’ve dealt with that issue among my peers, as I am sure each of you have done at some point. Many cannot look beyond our allies. The presence of kikai bugs hosted within our bodies makes it impossible for many to relate to us in any meaningful way. But just because I have two colonies of kikai,” he continued, ignoring the startled looks several elders shot his father, “doesn’t mean I am a kikai… just as Uzumaki Naruto containing the Kyuubi no Kitsune doesn’t mean he is the demon.” He shook his head in what was undoubtedly a somewhat theatrical manner, but meeting with the elders had tarnished his conception of them. Bataru was the worst of them, but they seemed far more emotional and far less rational than he’d expected. His father was a far clearer thinker than most of them, and he’d yet to be offered a seat at this table.

“Given what I have heard today,” Shino concluded, “I think it is clear how this deception was perpetrated. I will take my leave of you now, and will not trouble you further.” He bowed and turned to leave.

“What are your plans?” Aburame Suba’s voice stopped him as he approached the door to the chamber.

Shino stopped and turned back toward the gathered elders. “I cannot, in good conscience, remain a member of a clan willing to engage in such slanderous activities. As such, I plan to visit the Hokage’s offices and file papers requesting formal emancipation from the Aburame clan. I will move to an apartment within Konoha and trouble you no further.”

Shino had often wondered about the saying “you could hear a pin drop”, considering it an exaggeration at best. But the silence that followed his words appeared to a very close approximation to just such a condition.

Aburame Suba turned toward his nephew, Shibi, raising an eyebrow.

“Misato and I will support our son in whatever he considers to be the most honorable path for him to take,” Shino’s father replied urbanely as he opened up a portfolio and shuffled some documents around. Shino didn’t imagine his sire to be overly pleased at such a thing, but he found himself… oddly moved at this show of support.

The angry murmurs between the elders were increasing in volume, and Shino felt his colonies begin to react to the pheromones released by a considerable number of perturbed kikai.

“Silence!” Aburame Suba snapped, his voice cutting across the muttering like a kunai. “Aburame Shino, you have more than made your point. It appears, in all likelihood, that we have been party to something we never should have been,” the elder concluded, ignoring Bataru as he half-rose from his chair. “Rest assured that I will get to the bottom of this,” he continued, “and we will make amends as they are needed.” He paused. “I ask only that you take no precipitous action until we have concluded our investigation. Is that acceptable?”

Shino bowed deeply. This was a far greater concession than he had hoped for, thus it behooved him to be gracious. “I thank you for your consideration, honored elder,” he said in the formal manner.


After he left the chamber with his father, Shino found his hands trembling for some strange reason. From a physiological perspective, he supposed it was from nervous tension, but he hadn’t felt that nervous beforehand. This was highly curious, and something he noted to himself to pursue at a later date. “What do you anticipate being the outcome of their deliberations?” he asked his father quietly.

Aburame Shibi was quiet for a moment. “Some will argue that you are attempting to force them to action via threats, something which should not be encouraged. But I think Bataru will be reassigned to other duties in the near future, and someone with greater ability to detect deception will be in his place. Beyond that I can only speculate.”

Shino nodded. “Your support at the end was appreciated,” he said.

“Your mother would be highly displeased by such an occurrence,” Shibi observed, “but your commitment to correctness of action is commendable and must be supported whenever possible.”

They were silent the rest of the way back to their home.

OoOoO

Naruto was happy to see Hinata join them early the next morning at training area twenty three. He was half-afraid her father would have forbidden her to come once he found out. Or had he? Naruto decided to leave well enough alone and just not ask. Her manner was somewhat diffident, but she smiled slightly when he said good morning. Life was good.

Lee definitely looked somewhat worse for the wear that morning. He evidently strained several muscles the previous night when he’d trashed the restaurant, and was in no condition to do anything very strenuous until they had a day or so to recover. So Gai asked Naruto and Hinata to spar again, and worked with each of them on their forms.

To Hinata’s obvious surprise, Gai-sensei appeared to have learned a lot about Jyuuken from having Neji on his team. Naruto’s respect for his abilities as a teacher went up another notch when he began working on the subtle details of Hinata’s footwork – just like he’d done for Naruto. Hinata’s face seemed to run the gamut of emotions, ranging from shock that an outsider could be so knowledgeable about her clan’s unique taijutsu, to gratification that he was willing to spend so much time with her.

Naruto began to entertain some doubts about that ‘special Hyuuga training’ she’d gone through, but he kept them to himself.

Gai also suggested that Hinata might want to learn some basic goken forms as well. Not only would it improve her ability to defend against conventional taijutsu, but it would also give her something to fall back on if her chakra reserves were exhausted. The Hyuuga girl accepted this reasoning, and while she was a little awkward at first, working on forms in tandem with Naruto seemed to help her settle down.

At the end of the class, Gai presented Naruto and Hinata with some specialized inserts for their wrist and ankle weights. The metallic slugs had been graven with special seals, so if chakra was pushed into them in the correct manner, their apparent density and weight increased to a large degree.

“I was wondering what we would do after all the weights were in,” Naruto said as the light of comprehension dawned. “If these things got much bigger, they would start to get in the way.”

Gai nodded seriously. “Without these special weights, Lee would never be able to see his feet again.”

For some reason, Naruto found this image outrageously funny and nearly collapsed on the ground laughing. Hinata resisted the urge, but couldn’t help but smile at her team mate.

After a hurried breakfast, he and Hinata made a quick trip to see Tenten’s father and pick up some replacement gear. He’d managed to lose several kunai and almost half of his shuriken on the patrol mission, but he had more than enough money to replace his losses from the mission pay alone, let alone his share of the bounties.

Most of the bounty money had been deposited, he reminded himself as he tore his eyes away from the stacks of explosive tags. He really needed to learn a jutsu that made explosions, but he somehow doubted Kurenai-sensei would be teaching him that any time soon.

Even with their detour, they still made it to their designated meeting place with plenty of time to spare. Shino was there already, greeting them with a raised hand. Naruto couldn’t be sure, but his team mate seemed to be more… relaxed? At least more than he’d been the previous day. Naruto was curious, but knew better than to ask.

When Kurenai arrived, she made a point of checking their gear to make sure they’d followed instructions, and then told stories of several shinobi teams who’d flubbed important missions, in one case losing a team member, because they either didn’t bring the appropriate gear, or had a crucial item break at a bad time. By the time she was done, Naruto was carefully checking over the kunai he hadn’t replaced.

It wasn’t until they were halfway to the Hokage’s tower to get a mission that Naruto noticed the faint smile on her face. He bit his tongue, but wondered when he’d have the opportunity for another Lee-henge-style prank for his sensei.

Going back to regular D-rank missions was almost a let down, in a way. That didn’t stop them from working to make sure it was completed as quickly and efficiently as possible. Shino was the original driving force behind that, but Naruto and Hinata soon took it on as a challenge as well. Competing to see how quickly they could locate the Fire Lord’s wife’s cat gave them something to work toward, rather than simply becoming bored with the routine mission.

After the quickest cat-capture they’d managed so far—courtesy of Shino’s kikai bug that was still in residence under the cat’s collar—their second mission was a little unusual. They were tasked with demolishing an abandoned building on the outskirts of the village, outside the defensive wall. The decrepit structure might once have been intended as a livery stable, but now it was little more than an eyesore. Naruto was hoping Kurenai-sensei would take the opportunity to teach them a fire jutsu. But when he broached the topic, she reminded them that fires could burn out of control far too easily.

And so they were left with physically breaking down the structure to minimize the potential for collateral damage. As usual, each member of Team Eight found different ways to best use their abilities. Shino’s bugs immediately began eating away at the building’s remaining support members, turning the thick beams into sawdust. Naruto got to practice some of the goken power moves that he’d learned from Gai-sensei, while Hinata used her Byakugan to help locate load-bearing stress points within the structure that should be targeted first.

It was a dirty, nasty job, and even slightly dangerous when it came time to bring down the roof. But for all that it was over soon enough. When the building was flattened, Kurenai stared at her filthy subordinates. Each of them was smeared with sawdust, grime, and cobwebs from the old stable.

“I think that’s enough missions for today,” she said firmly. “We can pick up the pay tomorrow when we report in.”

Naruto frowned up at the sun. “Isn’t it a little early to quit now?”

Kurenai just rolled her eyes.

“Ano,” Hinata offered quietly, “I’m not sure we are really presentable anymore. Not to see the Hokage anyway.”

Naruto looked down at his jacket and frowned. He tried to brush off the worst of the mess, but only managed to grind most of it deeper into the fabric.

Kurenai left, saying she needed to check on something, as the three genin re-entered the village and trudged up the street.

“You know,” Naruto said after a while, “that was kind of fun.”

Shino nodded a fraction of an inch. “Overtly destructive behavior is normally frowned upon. Therefore, being placed in a situation where it is not only allowed, but encouraged, would be a pleasant contrast.”

“Er, right,” Naruto said dubiously. He leaned back, catching Hinata’s eyes behind Shino’s back, and making her smile as he rolled his eyes.

“A precise manner of speaking is not a liability,” Shino reminded them. His head hadn’t turned at all, nor had he given any other sign of noticing their byplay. “Though I suppose it might be considered out of character for some,” he concluded.

“Are you saying I’m stupid?” Naruto asked with mock belligerence.

“No,” Shino answered. “Merely imprecise.”

“Oh,” Naruto replied, nodding slowly. “That’s all right then.” He held his face in an innocently stupid expression long enough for Shino to glance toward him and sigh. The blond genin laughed out loud.

Hinata didn’t join in, but she did smile fondly at her team mates.

As inevitable as gravity, when Team Eight finished their missions early, they tended to end up at Ichiraku’s. The place was fairly quiet before the dinner rush began, and the old man who ran the place seemed to have developed a liking for Naruto and his team mates. It also didn’t hurt that Naruto’s work ethic and metabolism left him hungry, in varying degrees—typically from ‘quite’ to ‘very’—most of the day.

He was on his third bowl (the others barely into their first) when he looked up from his food and swallowed hard.

Limping down the street were the members of Team Seven, looking rather the worse for wear. All of them were covered with half-healed scratches and cuts, their uniforms ragged and frayed in places. Even the normally impeccably groomed Uchicha looked like he’d been thoroughly mauled at some point in the recent past.

Naruto swallowed and elbowed his team mates. Hinata gasped quietly when she saw them.

“Oi!” Naruto called out. “What happened to you guys?” Any rancor he might have retained toward his former classmates was overridden by his curiosity. Anything that could do that to Sasuke… 

Kiba’s head snapped around, nearly dislodging Akamaru from his perch. He smirked, and began walking slowly toward Ichiraku’s. Sasuke frowned, but Sakura appeared to persuade him to follow their boisterous team mate.

“We just came back from an A-ranked mission!” the dog-user announced in a loud voice. Old man Teuchi looked up from his broth pot and fixed the Inuzuka with a gimlet eye, making the boy duck his head.

“I understand that your team was given a C-ranked mission,” Shino observed.

“We were,” Sakura said as she joined them. When the old man’s glare shifted to her, she quickly sat down and ordered a bowl of vegetable-flavored ramen.

Kiba’s nostril dilated and his stomach growled, a high-pitched noise that made Akamaru peer down at his master. He quickly ordered a bowl of beef ramen, as did Sasuke. The old man filled their orders without a word, evidently having a long memory.

“Anyway,” Kiba continued. “Turns out the old drunk who hired us was lying about the mission. He had a missing nin after him, but he couldn’t afford to pay for an A or B-ranked mission, so he pretended he was just afraid of bandits.”

“You should be more respectful of Tazuna-san,” Sakura scolded her team mate.

“If he’d told the truth, he’d still be alive today,” Sasuke said coldly.

Kiba frowned. “Yeah, well, it was a mess. There were four of them, only one of them was just a kid our age. But the older one was this guy called Zabuza of the Mist. Kakashi says that facing someone like that automatically made it an A-ranked mission.”

“Ano, is that what happened to you?” Hinata asked in a sympathetic voice.

Sakura nodded and Kiba continued his tale. “They were pretty tricky. We fought two on the way down, but they were punks. Me and Sasuke held them off and Kakashi nailed ‘em. Some losers called the Demon Brothers. But that eyebrow-less freak was tough. He fought Kakashi-sensei to a standstill until he got sharinganed. Then that kid showed up and acted like he’d killed him.” He shrugged. “After he recovered, they came back and attacked Tazuna at the bridge.” Kiba opened up his jacket and rapped his knuckles against the thick leather armor underneath. “If I hadn’t been wearing this, Haku’s senbon needles would have cut me to pieces.”

Sakura nodded. “He moved so fast that Sasuke-kun was the only one who could catch him.”

Sasuke grunted.

Kiba shrugged. “We fought him while Kakashi-sensei had another re-match with Zabuza. This time, Zabuza didn’t get away. Kakashi-sensei did this assassination technique on him…” he shuddered. “He didn’t have a chance after Kakashi-sensei’s summoned dogs pinned him down. Haku surrendered after that. He was only fighting for Zabuza, and if Akamaru hadn’t latched onto his leg, I think he was going to try and throw himself between Kakashi and Zabuza to save his master.” Akamaru let out a yip when his name was mentioned, but Kiba’s frown grew darker.

“He said… he was just a tool,” Sasuke said in a quiet voice.

“When was this?” Sakura asked in confusion.

“When I was resting after the tree-climbing exercise,” Sasuke answered. “He approached me in civilian garb, pretending to be a villager. He mentioned having a precious person, and how he would do anything for them.” The Uchiha frowned. “I didn’t realize it was the same person until after Kiba broke his mask.”

Kiba shook his head. “That makes more sense now. After Zabuza died, the gangster who hired him showed up. One of his men shot Tazuna with an arrow and they were about to unload on us when Gatou spit on Zabuza’s body.” The larger boy let out a sigh. “Haku was standing in place, staring at Zabuza’s body. He didn’t say a word when Gatou’s men seized him. But the second Gatou degraded Zabuza, it was like he just disappeared. Suddenly men were dying left and right, then Zabuza’s sword disappeared and the next thing we know Gatou was spitted on it like a fish.” Kiba shook his head.

“And then Haku appeared in front of Kakashi-sensei,” Sakura said. “He said that Zabuza had once forbidden him to take his own life, so he asked Kakashi-sensei to kill him.”

Naruto eyes had grown wide at this tale. “Did he?” he asked.

Sakura shook her head. “No, he hit Haku on the neck and knocked him out.”

“We just got finished carrying him back,” Kiba said. “Kakashi-sensei said capturing someone like that would probably earn us a bonus as well.”

“But we failed in our primary mission,” Sasuke added darkly.

“At least,” Sakura added quickly, glancing at her team mate, “with Gatou dead, Tsunami and the others have enough money to hire a construction crew to complete the bridge. So Tazuna-san’s dream of finishing the bridge will be fulfilled, right?”

Sasuke nodded silently, then rose from his stool, leaving some coins on the counter. He stalked off without looking back.

“Man, he makes me want to smack him so hard,” Kiba muttered.

“Don’t!” Sakura said sharply. “Just… don’t. Please.” She turned back toward Team Eight. “Sasuke-kun is just upset that his first big mission wasn’t a total success. Kakashi-sensei said we did very well, but Sasuke-kun expects a lot from himself.”

Naruto nodded faintly.

“So,” Sakura added brightly, obviously trying to change the subject. “Anything interesting happen in Konoha while we were gone?”

Naruto opened his mouth, but then shut it. What was the use? “Nothing really. Just a lot of missions.”

Sakura nodded faintly, but her eyes appeared troubled.

Naruto ate quietly until Sakura and Kiba finished. As soon as they were gone, Hinata spoke up. “Ano, Naruto-kun, why didn’t you tell them about our mission.”

Naruto shrugged. “Why didn’t you?”

That question left Hinata speechless for a moment, but Shino stepped in. “She probably wondered why you were hesitating, and assumed you had a valid reason for doing so. Now, we would like to hear it.”

Naruto snorted, but then his face went serious. “I don’t know, it just… didn’t feel right. You know, to act like we were bragging when they were all so down about their mission.”

“These are the same people who picked a fight with you the last time you saw them,” Shino pointed out.

“Yeah,” Naruto conceded, “but it’s… different now, isn’t it? People died, you know. On both missions.” He broke off for a second when he realized that Hinata was staring at him. “I don’t know - it just didn’t feel right,” he concluded lamely.

There was no further conversation as they finished their meal.

OoOoO

Kurenai frowned as she approached the Hokage’s tower, thinking about the scroll Shino had slipped her between missions earlier that day.

She was slightly surprised by the degree to which the silent boy had taken the initiative in dealing with his clan. The anger she’d noted during their return to Konoha must have run deeper than she’d expected. While it was gratifying that at least on clan was revising their opinion of Naruto, his information regarding how those lies had been spread was far more illuminating. Someone with considerable influence on the Village Council was abusing their power in an attempt to subvert the will of both the Third and the Fourth Hokages.

She sat through the meeting of jonin instructors, preoccupied by Shino’s revelation, until she realized the purpose of the gathering.

“…and while it is allowed for newly graduated genin to compete in the chuunin exam, it is up to the individual instructors to determine whether they feel their students are ready or not,” the Sandaime continued. “Given the dangers, I suggest you give it a lot of thought.”

Kurenai’s mind raced as the meeting ended. Kakashi had returned from his mission, looking somewhat worse for the wear. He glanced at her, his single exposed eye crinkling in a manner that suggested he was smiling under that ridiculous mask. “I don’t know about you,” he said in a conversational tone, “but I’m going to give my team the option if they want to.”

Kurenai merely raised an eyebrow. “You think they are ready?” She challenged.

Kakashi’s manner went deadly serious with a speed that still caught her by surprise. “They faced death on their last mission, and had to deal with some very dangerous missing nins.”

Kurenai nodded. “As did mine,” she added with an enigmatic smile.

Of course, at that point they had little choice but to retire to Moritake’s for a mutual game of question and answer. Kakashi’s description of their fake mission was rather grueling, making Kurenai wince at certain points, but the infamous copy-cat ninja lost his fabled cool when she described the end of the melee with the kidnappers.

“You mean Naruto, Uzuamaki Naruto, the loudest ninja in the village?” Kakashi demanded. “The only person I ever saw who dressed worse that Gai? He took out two missing nins himself?”

Kurenai nodded, fighting to keep a smug grin off of her face. The battle had been a close thing, but the effort invested in her “special project” had more than paid off. “Both of them were listed in the Bingo Book as high-B / low-A in classification, so they were no pushovers.”

Kakashi leaned back in his chair, his eye staring into the distance. “It’ll be interesting to see how your students match up against mine in the Chuunin Exams,” he finally said.

Kurenai nodded, only then realizing that her mind was already made up. For at least two of her charges, becoming a chuunin might offer them some security from the forces acting against them. And taking the exam when it was held in Konoha also cuts down the potential dangers. And while she would not be there for the actual tests, for the most part they would have each other to rely on.

She would at least offer them the option, but she knew there was little doubt that Team Eight would go for it like they did most things. Together.

Author’s Notes:

I’d like to thank Runsamok and Bibliophile for excellent Beta-work.

Yes, I am finally getting to the Chuunin exam. The timing is about right, given how vague things are left in canon.

I references to the background on Ibiki and Idate given in the Great Race story arc – with the understanding that very little of the truth would be known to the general public.

I also hope I’ve sufficiently spelled out how Kurenai knows who Ibiki is in this story (when she didn’t at this point in the canon timeline.) It’s not a ‘canon error’ – it’s deliberate. The AU divergence point from canon is rooted in a single event that occurred before Naruto was even born. Everything else that has changed has been a consequence of a single decision that was made.

Just something to consider when reading.

-Matthew

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