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

Chapter 5

Hinata was still a little shaky when she arrived at the Hyuuga compound. Kurenai-sensei suggested that they should forgo their normal evening training and make sure they got a full night’s sleep. Depending on their assignment, they may have to set out immediately. Though she understood the reasons, Hinata was disappointed that she and Naruto wouldn’t get to eat the dinner she’d packed that morning. She thought the shitake udon had come out rather well, and she wanted to see Naruto’s face when he tasted it. Perhaps she could pack some for their journey to the border.

Though she’d come home earlier than usual, the main house was still quiet. Her father must be occupied with the village council again. She felt herself relax for a moment before she realized what she was doing and chided herself for her disrespect. He was still her father, and it was… unseemly… for her to be glad at his absence. Worse, he would probably detect her disloyal feelings when he returned, and it would be his duty to punish her for failing to show proper respect.

“Hinata?” her father’s voice interrupted her thoughts, and she hated herself for the way she jumped. Her fear was unworthy of a Hyuuga.

“Yes father?” she replied in a quiet, but precise voice. If she could take down an enemy spy, surely she could talk to her own father.

“You will follow me to the training room,” he said, walking down the hallway without another word.

Hinata followed, her bare feet silent on the polished wood. When she reached the Dojo, Father was waiting for her, along with her cousin and younger sister. Neji was as impassive as ever, though she wondered if his eyes smoldered with resentment when no one else could see. Hanabi was openly glowering, the expression on her face at odds with the graceful features she’d inherited from their mother.

Hinata’s own face seemed to be a mixture of her father and mother, in varying amounts. There was a touch of the clan leader in the line of her brows, and the angle of her jaw… the latter of course rarely visible given the way she tended to duck her head around others. Hanabi, on the other hand, was the very image of their mother, a woman the younger girl had never known. Hinata remembered that beloved face though, and savored the memories of the kind-hearted woman who’d treasured her only daughter.

Of course, that made it difficult to fight with Hanabi. One look at those eyes, no matter how angry they seemed, always softened her hands. Her heartache and longing for the only person who seemed to understand her, to treasure her, had no place in the sparring ring. Nevertheless, they intruded constantly, sapping her will to fight. No matter how disappointed her father became with her, Hinata couldn’t force herself to hate her sister, to strike her down as he demanded during their sparring matches.

So it was inevitable that Hanabi would triumph against her larger, but mostly passive, sister. Father had first been amazed at Hanabi’s prowess, and it lifted Hinata’s heart a little to see her sister smile as she basked under Father’s praise. But eventually his surprise turned to disappointment in his oldest daughter, who could not hold her own against a girl several years her junior. Hanabi continued to work hard, thriving under Father’s amazed tutelage, while Hinata was always more and more of a disappointment.

Today was no different from any other, though perhaps Hanabi’s expression was a little more fierce than usual. Hinata briefly wondered about this, before her father’s voice derailed her train of thought.

“I am to understand,” he said in a low voice, “if certain members of ANBU are to be believed, that you played a role in the capture of a spy today?”

Hinata’s heart contracted into a hard lump at the patina of frost that overlaid her father’s words. She’d thought about telling him herself when she saw him, hoping he would be proud of her. But he’d already heard about it, and did not seem happy at the news. “H-hai,” she said in a faltering voice.

“I am told,” he continued, emphasizing the last word, “that you utilized an advanced technique to disable your opponent.”

“A-ano, my teammates also–“ She began.

“I do not care about them,” her father snapped. “And you will not speak of that low-born trash again. It is your behavior that reflects on our clan, not theirs. Hanabi, assume a guard position.”

Hanabi made a half-turn, moving smoothly into a basic Jyuuken defensive stance. Her eyes bored into Hinata’s and Hinata knew her sister did not like the news she had heard.

“Hinata, you will now demonstrate this technique of yours,” her father commanded.

Hinata stared at her sister and swallowed. She remembered the state of mind she’d been in, the determination to stop her foe or die trying, the determination to not let her team down, the determination to show Naruto what she could do. She felt none of that now, in front of the cold eyes of her family, quailing before the rage and… something else burning in her sister’s eyes. Was it fear? Hinata did not want to hurt her, even for Father. “Otou-san, I…”

“As I suspected,” he said coolly, “your role in this was exaggerated, possibly in a misguided attempt to curry favor with the clan. I knew you were weak, Hinata, but to find that you lack honor as well? This is very disappointing.”

“Gomen, Otou-san, but I… I did not know you were told of…” Hinata’s voice trailed off. She didn’t want to lie, but she also didn’t want to have to attack her sister’s Tenketsu points. Hinata wasn’t even sure she could do it now if she wanted to. That moment in the street… she’d briefly possessed a moment of sublime clarity. And now… now she felt like she was veiled in heavy fabric, closing in her vision, muffling her voice, stifling her breathing. Maybe it was better that her father didn’t know of it. Her moment was brief and had now passed. She let out an inaudible sigh and hung her head. Hanabi’s quiet snort of contempt was all the more noticeable.

“Perhaps you did not know of that,” Hiashi allowed. The constriction in her chest loosened a little and she dared look up again. “But it is important that you and Hanabi be made aware of the differences between the basic Jyuuken techniques you use, and the truly advanced moves used by those who mastered more of our clan’s style. Neji will assist me in demonstrating some of these techniques for you.” His eyes hardened. “We will take all night if it is necessary.”

“A-ano, Otou-san,” Hinata said quickly, tightening her fingers on the hem of her jacket to keep them from shaking, “I have been instructed to prepare tonight for a mission of at least a week’s duration.”

The Dojo was deadly quiet, and in the stillness, Hinata thought she might have sensed Neji’s left eyebrow move a millimeter upward.

Her father’s voice was as hard as a kunai and would brook no compromise. “Then you had better learn quickly,” he said in an emotionless voice, that to Hinata’s practiced ear carried the overtones of a snarl.

OoOoO

Aburame Shino returned home to find his father and mother waiting for him. As it was a little early for his father to be home, he regarded them with a raised eyebrow. “Mother, Father,” he greeted them with a deferential nod.

Aburame Shibi regarded his son with a neutral expression, his eyes hidden behind equally dark glasses. “One of my colleagues,” he said quietly, “informed me of your actions earlier today.”

“I see,” Shino said.

“The ANBU were quite impressed,” his father continued. “Your Kikai-Bunshin was apparently flawless, and proved capable of deceiving a Jonin. The direction of your allies afterward was precise and timely, and their positioning above the thoracic vertebrae made quick removal impossible. Our relatives are quite impressed with your skill.”

“More importantly,” his mother interrupted, smiling broadly, “we’re proud of you.” Misato was not a typical member of the Aburame clan. This made sense, as she was a kunoichi his father had met on a diplomatic mission to the Hidden Village of Mist. She was, however, as fascinated with insects as the rest of his relatives, and her ‘mantis-style’ fighting, using twin serrated blades that mimicked the claws of a praying mantis, had evidently intrigued the enigmatic Konoha shinobi.

Despite common interests, Misato was different. She actually smiled occasionally, and was far more emotionally demonstrative than the other members of a very reserved and dignified clan. Shino noted that his father neither encouraged nor discouraged these displays of sentiment… but his attention always seemed fixed upon her while they were happening, which was probably enough by itself. From listening to conversations he was supposedly too young to understand, Shino realized that many Aburames were less than sanguine about having one of their clan’s most gifted practitioners marrying someone outside the bloodline. However, Shino’s rapid development banished their fears, and led to his father raising a mildly sardonic eyebrow and remarking upon “hybrid vigor”.

But Shino had better things to do than bask in his parents’ regard, no matter how pleasant. Unanswered questions nagged at the back of his mind, like splinters embedded in flesh, and only answers would give relief. “I appreciate your sentiments, but the role I played in the capture was largely peripheral. While I did drain the subject’s chakra reserves, Uzumaki Naruto made the original interception and assault, while Hyuuga Hinata performed the actual takedown.”

“Your modesty and sense of teamwork do you credit,” his father observed.

Shino nodded almost imperceptibly. “Perhaps. I have been surprised at Naruto’s progress in his training, especially with the expectations I had gleaned from others, both in and out of the academy,” he observed coolly.

As expected, both of his parents flinched a little at the import of his words, and glanced at each other. “If you have first hand knowledge of something,” his father said carefully, “it is probably better to rely upon that, instead of second-hand observations.”

“My question is the source of those second-hand observations,” Shino replied, bearing down on the cause of his mental distractions of late.

His mother grimaced and rolled her eyes. “I think I’ll see about dinner,” she said as she left the room, shaking her head.

Shino was left with his father, who seemed unusually agitated… for an Aburame, at least. Finally, he sighed and actually grimaced himself, the rare expression curling his thin moustache. “There are… restrictions placed around certain pieces of information. As a resident of Konoha, I am required to honor those restrictions. In light of your… observations these last few weeks, I will allow that the implications of… certain facts… may have been misinterpreted or exaggerated.”

“You are picking your words with great care,” Shino observed.

“Correct,” his father agreed. “I am attempting to avoid committing a capital offense.”

Shino didn’t even bother trying to keep his eyebrows from rising above his glasses. Unlike some hidden villages, there were not a lot of laws in Konoha that carried a death penalty. Outright treason could merit such a punishment, but what would that have to do with his teammate? None of this made sense, but it wasn’t surprising that he couldn’t puzzle out the meaning – not if he wasn’t even allowed to see all the pieces. “Given what you know, that I do not,” he asked, “what would you do in my place?”

His father seemed to relax a little, though an outsider would have been hard-pressed to notice the difference. “I would continue as you have, keeping your eyes open. If you perchance discover something… unusual… remember what I said about first-hand knowledge being superior.”

“I will… attempt to keep that in mind,” Shino promised.

OoOoO

Naruto stayed behind for a moment as his teammates left. Kurenai looked at him curiously as he cleared his throat. “Ano, Kurenai-sensei, I was wondering about our pay for… for this afternoon.”

She nodded toward the opened envelope in Naruto’s hands. “Yes, that is normally done for higher-ranked missions. Given their simplicity and lack of risk, D-rank missions are usually paid out of the Hokage’s petty cash. But for higher-ranked missions, they often do not have the funds on hand required to pay the shinobi. So they use vouchers like you have there. It’s just a slip of paper, stamped with the Hokage’s seal, but any bank or moneylender in Konoha will redeem it for the amount listed. A simple jutsu bound to the seal will consume it instantly if anyone tries to alter it.”

Naruto nodded intently as she explained the reasons for the vouchers, but as she finished he sighed and his shoulders seemed to slump. “I wonder if Old Man Ichiraku can…” he muttered.

At that point, Kurenai made the connection and mentally kicked herself. If she’d been thinking ahead, she could have already dealt with this in a manner less embarrassing for the boy. “Ah, you still need to set up a bank account, don’t you?”

Naruto nodded, his face flushing a little. Kurenai actually found the normally brash genin to be a little more appealing when he was flustered like this. She idly wondered what effect that would have on Hinata, and how she could bring such an event to pass. Perhaps later, in a year or two… She abandoned that train of thought for the issue before her. “Well, I need to go deposit my voucher, since the Hokage saw fit to reward me for doing little more than watching you three fight. Come with me and I’ll show you how to set up a bank account.”

Naruto nodded gratefully, and Kurenai congratulated herself for finding a way to help him that didn’t seem like a large imposition on her part. As they left the Hokage’s tower and made their way through the rising dinner-time foot traffic, Kurenai increased their pace to a fast walk. The bank she used typically stayed open until dinner in order to accommodate the tradesmen who were the bulk of their clientele.

Their first significant delay occurred outside the bank itself. Two large, brawny men in heavy armor and carrying naginatas were on duty at the entrance. Their size and equipment were intended more to deter casual thieves than real shinobi, but their bladed pole arms were blocking the entrance. “You are still open,” she observed coolly, “I can see customers inside.”

“You may enter,” the one on the left said gruffly, “but not him.

Naruto flinched a little, seemingly in spite of himself, and Kurenai felt even more ashamed of her village. But now was not the time for softer emotions. “You tread a dangerous path,” she hissed. “This boy was just rewarded by the Hokage for intercepting an enemy jonin that had outrun the ANBU. The spy is now back at the tower, entertaining Ibiki.” She used the interrogation specialist’s name quite deliberately, and was gratified to see the grown men shudder at her words, even as Naruto scratched his head.

“Be that as it may,” the older one on the right said slowly, “we have specific orders regarding the boy.”

Kurenai frowned. These men could lose their positions if they disobeyed a direct order, but who would issue such a command? Previously, the animosity toward the Jinchuuriki seemed to be more personal and unorganized. Was someone attempting to provoke Naruto into doing something that would discredit him in the eyes of the village, and perhaps cost him the Hokage’s protection? “I think I understand,” she said slowly. “Your superiors may be concerned about a prank of some sort. I can assure you that this is a legitimate task, and that he will perform no pranks within this building. You have my word as a jonin that I will assume full responsibility for his behavior inside.” She hoped they would seize upon this pretext to placate their superiors.

The two guards glanced at each other for a moment. Then the older one nodded and they each moved their naginata aside, breathing a sigh of relief. Noting that, Kurenai realized that she’d been bringing considerable amounts of killer intent to bear on them. Her anger at Naruto’s treatment had become stronger, rather than weaker, over time, but she was still mildly surprised at this lapse in control. Even if it had made convincing them to accept her word easier, it was still unprofessional.

Naruto was on his best behavior as they entered, looking around curiously. The décor was understated, but a bit nicer than most of the stores he’d likely seen. She guided them toward the counter when the second delay, in the form of the manager, stepped into their path.

“I am sorry, Madam Yuuhi,” the unctuous middle-aged man said, using a form of address that Kurenai did not appreciate, “but as it is late in the day, we are not opening new accounts at this time. I understand that there is another bank, not far from here, that remains open-“

The man’s smile was just a little too smug, and Kurenai could already guess where this would go. They would get re-directed from bank to bank, branch to branch, until they were left with a seedy moneylender who charged usurious rates, or simply gave up in disgust. “Very well,” she snapped, “clear out my account, bring me the funds, in cash, and I will return to the Hokage’s Tower to inform him that his vouchers are no longer accepted at your bank.”

The manager paled suddenly. As a moderate workaholic with modest tastes and a house she’d inherited from her parents, Kurenai’s savings were considerable. In cash, it would be an inconvenient mass, but she didn’t really care at this point. Besides, people walking out of a bank with unusually large amounts of coin tended to spawn rumors that there was something wrong, rumors that could become self-fulfilling prophecies if they started a run on the bank. Especially if the other shinobi heard he had refused a voucher…

Now the man looked trapped, and Kurenai really wanted to know why. “I’m sure that will not be necessary,” he said quickly.

“Then we should get started immediately,” Kurenai replied in a deceptively mild tone. “I don’t want to keep your subordinates here too long, but we both leave for a mission in the morning.”

The manager appeared to be thinking for a moment, but then nodded suddenly. “As all of my employees are helping customers, I will assist you myself.”

Kurenai was suspicious of his suddenly cooperative mood, but allowed them both to be lead to his office. The actual process to set up a basic account was fairly simple: Naruto just needed to sign several legal documents, none of which he bothered to read first. While Kurenai supposed she should be touched by his trust in her, she resolved to discuss with him the proper way to analyze a legal document – preferably before signing them. If, no, she corrected herself, when he became Hokage, he would need to be very careful in what he signed.

As they finished the documents, Naruto reluctantly handed over the pay voucher that had prompted this entire expedition. The manager’s eyes widened a little when he saw the sum written by the Hokage’s hand. The Sandaime had been generous, but he was correct that it was less than he would have expended on a Hunter-Nin squad if the spy had escaped. Looking at the manager, she decided to grind the kunai into the bone a little more. Taking out her own voucher, she left it on his desk while she plucked a deposit envelope from the stack. Seemingly of their own volition, the man’s eyes wandered over to her slip, allowing him to see that it was the same size as Naruto’s.

Smiling sweetly, Kurenai nodded. “The Hokage was quite generous, but Naruto and his team did intercept a jonin who’d stolen scrolls from the Hokage’s tower, and was successfully evading an entire ANBU squad. Naruto intercepted him, and his teammates finished him off well before the ANBU arrived.” Looking directly into the man’s eyes, she gestured at her voucher. “All before I could do anything. I got that just for training them, the Hokage was so impressed… he didn’t even care that they’d beaten me to the punch.”

The manager now looked almost nauseous with fear. Kurenai was tempted to arrange for a loud, sudden sound – just to see if he would flee in terror. She glanced over at her student. Naruto’s prankster spirit appeared to be rubbing off on her in some ways she hadn’t anticipated.

For his own part, Naruto’s face was pink from her words. He scratched at the back of his head and cracked a nervous grin. “Ano, Sensei, you say too much. All I did was-“

“All you did,” Kurenai interjected, “was volunteer to make the initial interception. Facing a fresh enemy, that’s the most dangerous role. Not only did you stop him, but you also damaged him so he could no longer get away from us or the ANBU.”

Naruto shrugged. “I’m supposed to protect my teammates, right?”

Kurenai smiled at her student. He’d embraced his role within the team to a greater degree than she’d hoped. Hinata was inevitable, she supposed, all her machinations aside, but he was also seeking to protect Shino as well. “You are exactly correct, Uzumaki-san,” she replied in a formal tone, making the boy blush again. Turning to their somewhat dumbstruck audience of one, her voice lost some of its warmth. “Is there anything else?” she asked.

The manager shook his head quickly, but Naruto spoke up. “Sensei, this puts all of the voucher-thing in my account, correct? What if I want to keep some of the money myself?”

“The money in your account belongs to you as well,” Kurenai clarified. “And you can pull out as much of it as you want at any time. When you deposit a voucher, you can request that a portion of it be given to you as cash.”

“How much should I deposit and how much should I keep?” he asked. Kurenai noticed that when he was trying to wrestle with an unfamiliar concept, Naruto tended to tune out everything else. Right now he was totally focused on her, ignoring the manager who’d angered them so much earlier. Kurenai found it a particularly satisfying experience as a teacher, to have such an attentive student hanging on her words. Those fools at the academy… she mused.

“You should, at a minimum, try to save at least a third of what you make, and try not to touch it except for emergencies. If you can, save more…” Kurenai answered, her voice trailing off as she wondered how best to explain what she wanted to say. “It’s like carrying kunai,” she continued after a moment. “How many is a Konoha shinobi required to carry?”

“Three for active duty,” Naruto replied automatically, his voice taking on the sing-song tone of a well-memorized fact.

Well, Iruka would at least make sure he was well-grounded in the basics, she mused. “And how many do you carry, Naruto?”

“Er, well…” he hesitated, glancing at the manager, “a lot more.”

Kurenai smiled slightly at his caution with an operational secret. Another test passed. “And why is that, Naruto?”

“Because you never know when you might need more than three,” he said, shrugging. Then his eyes widened as he made the connection. “So money is like kunai?” he asked.

She nodded. “Correct, it’s better to have more than you need than not enough. And since we are leaving for a mission tomorrow, you likely will not need much money in your pockets, will you? I would deposit all of that, and then when you return, you will have another voucher waiting for you. I imagine you’ll be eager to visit Ichiraku at that point, yes?”

Naruto nodded eagerly as he filled out the deposit slip and slid his voucher into the stiff paper. When he finished, he looked up expectantly.

“Very good, Naruto,” Kurenai said approvingly. “When we return to Konoha, I will show you how to use an account register so you can keep track of your money. For right now, I need to have a few words with the manager about my account. You should probably have a good supper and try to get to sleep early. We’ll be getting an early start tomorrow, remember we are meeting at the Hokage’s tower at nine. Don’t be late.”

When the genin left the office, Kurenai returned her attention to the manager, who had partially regained his composure. “Explain yourself,” she snapped.

“I… I do not know what you mean,” the man stammered, taken off guard by her abrupt change in demeanor.

“You attempted to refuse service to a Konoha shinobi who has done nothing to you and yours. He was nearly killed this afternoon protecting shopkeepers and merchants from an enemy jonin who was entirely too careless with explosive tags. Now, when he’s trying to cash in his reward, given directly to him by the Hokage, you try to turn us away. Rudeness and abuse he is all too familiar with, but this is different, isn’t it? You knew if he went to another bank, he’d get the same treatment, didn’t you?” Kurenai’s red eyes bored into the watery brown ones possessed by the manager, and below the edge of his desk, her fingers quickly formed the seals she needed.

The genjutsu she cast was a fairly subtle one, designed to get the truth from those who did not wish to reveal it. It didn’t force the subject to speak, but it inspired a certain terror of the caster, and a profound fear of being caught in a lie. Its effectiveness was inversely proportional to the subject’s strength of will, making it nearly useless on shinobi, and she knew someone like Ibiki would consider it an effeminate substitute for his interrogation skills. On the other hand, if the seals were concealed from view, the subject might not even be aware he’d been placed under a genjutsu.

Of course, using it on a Konoha citizen was rather questionable, and something that could have earned her a long explanation with the Konoha Military Police, before they were decimated. At the least, it would still earn her an interview with the Hokage if it were discovered. On the other hand, she felt that her observations gave her probable cause to expect that there was some sort of organized resistance to Naruto’s presence in Konoha. As that was an attempt to subvert the spirit, if not the letter of the Hokage’s law concerning the boy, she felt that she could skate on that issue if it came down to it.

The manager’s words dispelled these concerns in an instant. “I didn’t know for sure, but I did suspect,” he answered nervously, looking like he wanted to be anywhere else but talking to this furious kunoichi. “T-there was a gathering of the bankers and moneylenders after the last Village Council meeting. Our representative to the Council of Elders said that we were to… discourage… the boy from patronizing our establishments. If he became violent in any way when refused service, we were to call ANBU immediately.”

“I see,” Kurenai said, but she really didn’t. “And why this sudden change in policy?”

“I do not know,” the man said, sagging fearfully. “Many people in our guild would prefer not having him in Konoha,” he said hesitantly. “But I think this originally came from the Council,” he added.

“Very well,” Kurenai said, releasing the subtle genjutsu as she stood up. “I would carefully consider whether you wish to involve yourself in this vendetta some Elder seems to have against the boy. He’s ambitious, he works harder than anyone his age, and he’s gained the attention of the Sandaime and several senior shinobi with his actions today. He swears he will be Hokage someday, and damned if I don’t think he might realize his dream. That will not bode well for anyone that stood in his path to the tower. I will be showing him how to keep track of his account, and for your sake there had better be no ‘irregularities’ in his balance, or I will personally destroy you. Have I made myself clear?”

The man nodded quickly, so Kurenai spun on her heel and stalked out of the office. After dinner, she’d likely be throwing kunai at the old stump behind her house for an hour before she would be able to sleep. That actually wasn’t a bad idea, she reflected as she stepped out onto the street. She needed to do some thinking. Something had changed in Konoha, and she needed to understand what it was, how it would affect her charges, and ultimately her own plans.

OoOoO

The manager, his mind still reeling from the aftereffects of terror, could only nod dumbly at the jonin’s warning. He breathed a sigh of relief as she left his office. After several minutes regaining his composure, he shakily rose to his feet. Clutching the documents the two had signed like a life preserver, he made his way to the central counting room to make sure both transactions were entered into the books accurately. He would just report that the boy’s jonin hadn’t given him any choice in the matter and threatened to report him directly to the Hokage. No one would blame him in that case. And he would also make sure that Yuuhi Kurenai never had cause to speak to him again.

OoOoO

With no evening training scheduled, Naruto decided that a leisurely dinner at Ichiraku’s was just what the medic-nin ordered. Surprisingly, the old man had heard about the disturbance downtown, and knew his best customer had been involved. Naruto blinked at the idea of villagers talking about him, and not in the hateful manner he was accustomed to.

At that point, there was nothing to be done but to give a blow-by-blow account of the battle. To his credit, he dwelled as much on his teammates’ exploits as his own. In particular, he was impressed by whatever the heck Hinata had done. He’d rolled out of the wreckage right as the jonin reached her, so he’d seen clearly what she did, but that didn’t help him understand. He’d never seen her use a technique like that before. Even as hyped up and excited as he’d been from the fighting, her hands were still small white blurs to his eyes. And when she was done, the jonin just dropped to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut.

Old man Ichiraku smiled as the boy described his teammate’s attacks with wild gestures, sound effects, gushing praise. “You know,” he observed, “times have changed. When I was your age, girls impressed boys with a pretty kimono, or an elaborate hairstyle with bejeweled pins. Now they do it by beating the hell out of people.” He sighed theatrically, suppressing a laugh as Naruto’s eyes bulged out comically. “Maybe it’s different for kunoichi,” he continued. “It’s probably cheaper than spending all that money on finery,” he laughed, earning a dirty look from Ayame as she set another bowl down in front of blushing Naruto.

“It’s not like that,” Naruto protested. “She’s really good. She works super hard and will do whatever it takes to improve herself. She’s probably upset we didn’t get to train tonight. It’s like…” his voice trailed off as he thought for a moment, chewing the hot noodles. Kurenai was trying to teach him how to look ‘underneath the underneath’, but it was awfully hard to do it all the time. “It’s like she has something to prove,” he finally said. Then he nodded. “I think that’s exactly it, but I don’t know what she’s trying to prove, or to who.”

The old man gave him a vaguely superior smile that made Naruto nervous for some reason. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out, eventually, Naruto. Another bowl of Miso?”

Naruto nodded as his chopsticks moved in a blur. A few moments later he put them down and lifted the bowl, draining the savory liquid. He looked up as a familiar presence sat down next to him.

“Ohayo, Iruka-sensei!” he said, greeting his former teacher.

“Hello, Naruto,” the chuunin said with a smile. “I see you got started without me.” He’d treated Naruto to a few bowls of Ramen since their ordeal in the forest with Mizuki. They didn’t talk much about what had been said that night, but they didn’t really seem to need to.

“My treat tonight, sensei!” Naruto said happily. Kurenai’s lessons on propriety and etiquette were not completely wasted on the genin. He understood that it wasn’t appropriate for him to empty Iruka’s wallet every time they met.

Iruka’s eyebrows raised in surprise. “What is the occasion?” he asked curiously.

Naruto shrugged. “I just felt like I should pay sometimes. Besides I got a good bonus today.”

“Oh?” Iruka asked.

“We were coming back from our first d-rank mission, and we saw some ANBU chasing this guy…” Naruto’s voice lowered as he launched into a re-telling of the day’s battle, this time using more ninja terminology that Iruka would understand.

When he was done, the young man sat on his stool in shock, a bowl of beef ramen cooling untouched before him. “I heard that Kurenai-sama had been involved in the capture… but not her genins…” he whispered, his voice trailing off. Then his eyes hardened, drawing the scar across the bridge of his nose tight. “What the hell was she thinking, letting you fight a jonin?” he demanded, suddenly furious.

Naruto blinked, eyes wide, he’d rarely seen Iruka really lose his temper like this – not the mock-exasperation he used on recalcitrant students at the Konoha Ninja Academy. “Sensei… we… she didn’t order us to attack. She was going to have us hide behind a genjutsu, but we were already moving before she realized…” he explained, his words stumbling over each other.

“Then this was your idea?” Iruka demanded, but his voice had lost most of its harshness. “What were you thinking? He could have killed all of you!”

Now it was Naruto’s turn to frown. “Not really,” he claimed. “It was actually pretty easy, since we’d worked it out ahead of time.”

“Easy?” Iruka asked incredulously, “you could have been incinerated when those tags went off!”

Naruto shook his head. “I knew that guy liked to make explosions, so if I couldn’t get clear, I was ready to do a Kawarimi no Jutsu and swap with one of my Kage Bunshins.”

Iruka’s eyebrows went up. “You can swap with one of your clones?” he asked, clearly impressed.

Naruto nodded. “It’s pretty easy,” he answered, “since we’re already the same shape.”

“Yes, but usually the jutsu will disrupt the clone before it can complete,” Iruka clarified. “Your Bunshin must be very sturdy,” he observed, frowning.

Naruto shrugged. “If I’m concentrating the right way when I mold the chakra, it takes a pretty solid blow to destroy them.” He nodded thanks to Ayame when she replaced his bowl. He took a big bite of noodles while they were still hot, enjoying the texture while Iruka sat staring into the distance. After he swallowed he poked his former teacher in the shoulder, startling him. “Your ramen is getting cold,” he reminded him with a cheeky grin. “Besides, everything went according to plan.”

“Plan?” Iruka asked as he began eating his ramen.

“Shino, Hinata, and I worked out ahead of time how we would stop someone who was carrying vital information. I would intercept and slow him down, Shino would drain off his chakra, and Hinata would take him down with her Jyuuken,” Naruto explained, smiling. “That was the plan and it worked out just right.”

Iruka shook his head as he swallowed. “I still have trouble believing you attacked a jonin head-on,” he admitted.

“Well, my clones did the first attack,” he admitted. “This guy wasn’t a big taijutsu specialist, not like Gai-sensei or Lee. I understand he was more of a sneaking-around guy.” He shrugged. “If he’d handled my clones like Gai, or even Lee, I’d have had to improvise, you know?”

“Yes, Naruto, but even a chuunin should have been… “ now Iruka’s eyes narrowed again. “You mentioned doing some extra training with Gai and Lee… how much have you been training?”

Naruto shrugged as he drained the broth from another bowl. “Three hours every morning since the day after I left the academy. Gai explains Taijutsu a lot better than Mizuki ever did,” he answered, his mouth twisting with distaste at the mention of the traitor who’d deceived him and nearly killed both of them.

Iruka’s eyes had gone wide. “How do you have time to train with your team, or do missions?” he asked incredulously.

As Naruto matter-of-factly explained his daily routine, Iruka’s ramen was left untouched as his eyes grew wider. When he was done, the chuunin, stood abruptly, excused himself and left. “I’m sorry, Naruto,” he said, “I just remembered something I forgot to do, and I need to take care of it immediately,” he explained. “Thank you for the ramen.” He marched off with an angry expression on his face that confused Naruto.

Then the blond-haired boy shrugged and ordered a bowl of pork ramen. He needed to fortify himself for a very long period of ramen-less patrolling.

OoOoO

Kurenai managed to vent most of her frustrations on an unoffending stump in her backyard when she heard the bell at the front gate to her property. The cottage on the outskirts of Konoha was fairly modest – her parents were middle-class merchants before they were killed in a fire while staying at an inn – so it only took a few moments for her to walk around to the front. It wasn’t hard for her to recognize the shadowy figure standing under the lantern hanging from the gate post. She’d wondered when he’d be showing up.

“Umino Iruka,” she said by way of greeting.

“Kurenai-sama,” the chuunin said shortly.

“What brings you here?” she asked. If he was going to be that way, she’d match his directness.

“Naruto,” he said coldly.

“Ah,” she replied. “Would you like to come inside?” she asked.

Iruka nodded, and she opened the gate and led him up the stone-lined path to the front porch. They were silent as they removed their sandals at the door, and Kurenai hung the bandolier of practice kunai on a hook. Iruka accepted a seat in her living room, while she retired to the kitchen to prepare tea. While her parents had preferred western-influenced architecture for their home, Kurenai grew up in a household with very traditional customs. As such, a guest was not entertained without some offer of refreshment.

Besides, making tea gave her a chance to think, even as it gave Iruka a chance to cool off. The chuunin did seem somewhat more composed as he accepted his tea with a polite nod.

Kurenai decided to wait him out. That put her into a marginally stronger position and increased the odds that she could convince him to cooperate, or at least not interfere. She knew Naruto was close to his old teacher, one of the first adults to accept him for what he was, instead of what they feared he was. Her interview with the man shortly after her team was assigned revealed that his feelings for the boy were genuine, and not feigned. But… he was also a worrier. He knew Naruto had not received the best training at the Konoha Ninja Academy, and practically begged her to take it easy on him, and not expose him to undue risks. Knowing this, she knew he could not have been happy with Naruto’s involvement in the skirmish earlier that day.

Kurenai knew she needed this man on her side, with regards to Naruto’s training and development. She knew from her studies that the boy needed some sort of male role-model. The Sandaime was far too remote to serve in that role, and Iruka was far more suitable than Maito Gai. If she could not convince him of the rightness of her actions, his influence on Naruto would act counter to hers, perhaps sapping the boy’s determination to succeed, and she could not have that. So she waited, observing his demeanor from the corner of her eye, and silently marshaled her arguments.

“Naruto treated me to dinner tonight,” Iruka began. “He was quite proud of himself after he and two other genins fought a jonin.” His emphasis on the last word made it sound like a particularly vile epithet.

“They nearly stopped my heart when I realized they were not behind me,” Kurenai admitted in a wry voice, visibly startling Iruka. “Like you,” she continued, “I did not think they were ready for such a challenge. Usually, when I have those thoughts, I am quickly proven wrong, but I would not casually gamble with their lives. They were already moving to engage before I could stop them.”

“I see,” Iruka murmured. “I am glad that you were not encouraging them to take such risks. But when I asked Naruto why he was so confident, he mentioned his training schedule. Is there a reason to work the boy so hard?”

Kurenai nodded. The question was valid, and she needed to answer it if she wanted the chuunin’s support. “What would he be doing if he is not training?”

Iruka started to answer, but then stopped. Kurenai knew that most genins liked to spend time with their families, or with their friends. But Naruto didn’t have the first and possessed very few of the latter. It was no wonder he’d begun pulling pranks – he’d had no other way to occupy his time. Iruka sighed and changed his approach. “Aren’t you afraid of burning him out with all this?”

Kurenai nodded. “If he were any other genin, I would say yes in a minute. But for the first time in his life, he has people explaining things to him, showing him exactly how to do things, and he is seeing daily progress instead of redoubled frustration.” She held up her hand as Iruka scowled and opened his mouth. “I know you actually tried to help him, but you were only one of many teachers, in a place he’d already learned to associate with boredom and ridicule. I’m amazed he learned as much from you as he did, under those conditions.”

Iruka nodded slowly as he seemed to consider her words with care. “But will making him stronger really make him happy?” he finally asked.

Kurenai let out a sigh of her own. “I hope so,” she said with a bit more candor than she’d intended. Iruka’s unexpected open-mindedness prompted a more frank response than she might have preferred. But trust was a two-way street between shinobi: it had to be given as well as received. “You know of his grand ambition?”

Iruka nodded, smiling faintly.

“The first step to achieving that goal,” she said calmly, “lies in becoming as proficient a shinobi as possible, and as quickly as possible.”

Iruka’s eyebrows lifted in an almost comical fashion. “You really think Uzumaki Naruto will become Hokage?”

“Eventually?” Kurenai asked. “I think anything is possible. Someone will have to follow Sarutobi. He’s very wise, but he won’t live forever. I don’t see any strong candidates for his successor, do you?”

Iruka slowly shook his head. “Not like the Fourth was. No one stands out the way he did.”

“I think Konoha could do much worse than someone like Naruto,” Kurenai said quietly. “He has a kind heart and a determination to do the right thing. I have seen this in the way he trains, and the way he treats his teammates. The only thing I am unsure of is whether he will even want to be Hokage by the time he is ready… or if he will have come to hate the village by then.”

Iruka looked crestfallen as Kurenai related her experiences trying to get Naruto properly equipped. He was visibly shocked as she related the Hokage’s words about the recalcitrant villagers, and how they circumvented the spirit of the Hokage’s law, even while conforming to the letter. He rubbed his chin as she related what she’d learned at the bank, not even reacting when she mentioned using the interrogation genjutsu on the manager. “I will investigate this while you are gone on this patrol mission,” he said absently. “Maybe I can uncover who is trying to drive Naruto from Konoha. If this action did originate on the Village Council, then the identities of the plotters should be difficult to conceal.”

“That would be good to know,” she agreed. She was a little surprised that he’d come around to her viewpoint so quickly. He displayed an unusual degree of mental flexibility, especially for a man.

“Well, I’d better be going. I have class in the morning, and you have a mission to prepare for,” he said, standing up. “Thank you for the tea,” he said formally.

“I’m glad we had this talk,” she said as she led him to the front door.

With his sandals on, Iruka lingered in her doorway for a moment. He opened his mouth a couple of times, only to close it. “Please, take care of Naruto,” he finally said in a small voice.

“I will do all that I can,” she replied. She wished she could make a more positive reply, but past experience had shown her that good intentions and a strong will couldn’t guarantee anything, no matter how desperately one might want them to.

“Good night,” Iruka said in a somber voice, bowing slightly.

Kurenai watched him turn and walk off into the darkness.

OoOoO

Naruto had gotten to the point where he awoke before his alarm more than half the time. Avoiding painful shocks seemed to be a more than sufficient motivator for his subconscious. He dressed quickly and hefted the heavy backpack he’d so carefully loaded the night before. Then he locked up his apartment and headed for his daily meeting with Gai-sensei and Lee.

Maito Gai had already heard about the previous day’s fight, but asked that Naruto tell it again from his viewpoint. By the time the blond shinobi had finished, Lee was practically vibrating.

“Yes! Naruto-san, you have shown everyone the power of your youth!” the genin with the bowl cut shouted, leaping up with one fist punching the air.

Naruto winced and rubbed at his ear. “Yeah, I guess we did, a little,” he agreed with a grin.

Lee’s eyes were lit with a strange fire when he turned to his teacher. “Gai-sensei? Do you think there will be another attempt to steal the Hokage’s scroll? Maybe we could patrol around the tower and catch the next one…”

Gai looked a bit alarmed at this, and Naruto quickly cleared his throat. “Er, Lee, I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” he said quickly. “If a stealth-specialist was caught, they might send someone who’s more of a generalist or heavy combat type next time. Also, remember I was with my whole team at the time, and they did a lot of the work.”

“Yes!” Gai exclaimed, giving Naruto a thumbs-up. “Naruto has demonstrated that he knows the true meaning of teamwork, Lee.” Then his brows lowered dramatically as he turned fully toward Lee. “He understands that a team can do far more than an individual alone. Do not seek the path of false glory, Lee! Trust your sensei to steer you correctly!”

Lee immediately burst into tears and began sobbing apologies to his teacher as Naruto broke out into a cold sweat. After two overly-passionate choruses of “Gai-sensei! Lee!” Naruto loudly cleared his throat.

The green spandex-clad shinobis looked up from their tearful embrace.

“Er, the Hokage said he’s going to send us on a C-rank patrol mission now, and I need to report to the Hokage’s tower by nine. I wanted to let you know that I’ll be out of the village for at least a few days,” Naruto said, struggling to keep his voice even.

Gai nodded thoughtfully as Lee regained his composure. “We will await your return. Try to train as much as you can while you are away. You’ve made good progress here, Naruto, and it would be a shame to see you lose your edge while you are gone.”

Naruto barked “Hai!” and made a quick bow to the man who, however odd, had nonetheless demystified taijutsu for him.

Gai smiled at the genin. “I understand that you may have a long journey, so we will do something different today. I will discuss tactics for dealing with multiple opponents, and afterward, perhaps you can help Lee with your Kage Bunshins?”

Naruto hadn’t had a chance to use any jutsu’s in his matches with Lee before now, so his grin was just a bit feral. Lee looked from his sensei to his sparring partner and swallowed.

OoOoO

Naruto was still smiling as he walked toward the Hokage’s Tower. The lesson had been good, and he’d be thinking about what Gai said about fighting multiple opponents for a while. The tactics varied… using terrain, using your opponents themselves… but usually they involved arranging things so you only fought a few enemies at a time.

It was also fun to let Lee see him do something he was really good at. The genin’s eyes practically popped out of his head when thirty Narutos charged him with a chorus of battle cries. Even Gai had seemed a little impressed. According to him, Naruto coordinated exceptionally well with his Bunshin. Naruto enjoyed the praise, but tried not to let it go to his head. Kurenai-sensei would be sure to notice and bring it to his attention before she deflated his ego.

Gai let him leave at eight, so he’d have plenty of time to meet with his team. Naruto reached into his pocket and hefted his frog-shaped wallet. He’d even have time for a quick breakfast, and there was still plenty of money left from running all those D-rank missions. Kurenai-sensei had been right about how the money would accumulate if they kept doing those twice a day. He was nearing his destination, his mind weighing the pros and cons of having miso soup versus grilled sardines with his rice, when he saw a familiar figure.

“Ohayo, Hinata-san,” he called out, breaking into a trot. But the words of his greeting seemed to stick in his throat as he realized something was wrong.

Hyuuga Hinata, though she wasn’t very dynamic in her body language, always moved with a certain grace and precision. Naruto was impressed by the way that carried over to her taijutsu, as she seemed to float when they sparred, evading his attacks with an effortless ease that he both admired and envied. Of course, the last time he tried to explain that to his teammate when he complimented her, she looked down and promised to put more effort into her sparring. Naruto didn’t know if it was her ears or his mouth, but somehow every time he tried to say something nice to her, it always came out negatively.

But none of that grace and ease was evident today. His teammate stumbled along the sidewalk in a daze. Her jacket was creased like she’d slept in it, and her backpack hung off one shoulder with the ties half-undone. At the sound of Naruto’s voice, she flinched and the strap slipped off her shoulder. She caught it before it slid down too far, but the top of her bag opened, spilling out a haphazard tangle of clothes, weapons, and supplies on the sidewalk.

Without even looking back, Hinata slumped to the ground, kneeling on the hard pavement as she mechanically began stuffing things back into her bag. Naruto rushed over, wondering what was wrong with his teammate.

Hinata’s face was lowered, and he could barely see her nose as her lank hair hung forward across her forehead. “Hinata?” he asked cautiously.

She shook her head, but did not answer. Naruto knelt down and handed her a kunai that had skidded out of her reach. He noticed that her hands were shaking as she grasped the handle with murmured thanks.

Uzumaki Naruto would never be mistaken for a genius of perceptive talent, but even he could tell that something was wrong, drastically wrong with his teammate. He remembered old man Ichiraku’s words. It was true that Hinata and Shino were becoming friends as well as teammates. But now, that once-happy thought filled him with dread. Had she somehow found out about his prisoner? No, her manner seemed more painful and despairing than fearful. She hadn’t been afraid to accept the kunai from his hand, either. Naruto frowned as his thoughts chased each other around, with no clear resolution in sight. Something was wrong with his friend, and he needed to do something.

Naruto knelt down a little lower, trying to make contact with Hinata’s palest lavender eyes. “Hinata-chan?” he asked nervously, and immediately swallowed.

Hinata’s head jerked up like she’d been struck, and Naruto saw that she indeed had been. There was a large angry bruise on her left cheek, and another along the right side of her jaw. There were smudges of dirt here and there and dried blood near one nostril and at the corner of her mouth. The skin around Hinata’s eyes was dark from fatigue, and at this range he could see tiny red blood vessels along the edges of the eyes themselves. Naruto felt his mouth drop open and Hinata immediately ducked her head back down. At least she hadn’t hit him for using the familiar form of address, like Sakura used to… not that he wouldn’t prefer that reaction to this, when he thought about it.

Naruto helped her gather the last of her possessions, gradually becoming aware of the increasing foot traffic around them. The merchants and shopkeepers were getting ready to start another day in Konoha, as he racked his brain for something to say. “What happened to your face?” or “Why do you look like you got beat up?” did not seem appropriate, not when he thought about that anguished look.

Hinata stuffed everything back into her bag, and painstakingly re-did the ties, even though her fingers still shook a little. Naruto fidgeted uncomfortably while she did this, looked around, and stuck his hands into his pockets. Touching his frog-purse reminded him of his earlier debate. “Neh, Hinata? Have you had breakfast yet?” he asked cautiously.

She shook her head, but did not speak.

“Come on then,” he said, in what he hoped was an encouraging tone of voice, “Ichiraku’s is on the way to the Hokage’s Tower, and we still have plenty of time.”

Hinata’s shoulders slumped, but she began trudging forward. Seeing her like this made Naruto feel anxious, almost sick in a way. Not the ‘expired-milk’ kind of sick, but… unsettled. ”Tell you what,” he said suddenly, trying to sound cheerful, “since I made you spill out your bag, I’ll buy you breakfast!”

“Naruto, you don’t have to do that,” she said, her voice little more than a tired whisper.

There was a dead, defeated undertone to her words that Naruto had never heard from his teammate before. He didn’t know why, but he found that even more alarming. “After all those times you fed me dinner?” he scoffed, trying to maintain a jocular tone, “I think I owe you more than a few breakfasts!” Seeing no reaction to his words, he leaned toward her and dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. He didn’t want anyone to overhear his next words. “Actually, it’s not fair even then. Overall, I think you cook better than Old Man Ichiraku does… but don’t tell him I said that!” he hissed dramatically.

Hinata stumbled a little when he said that, and Naruto automatically reached out to steady her elbow. His fingers barely brushed her upper arm, but she flinched away like he’d struck her. He saw her lips press together as she tried to bite back a hiss of pain. “Hinata, are you okay?” he asked before he could stop himself.

She nodded, and then spoke when her breathing returned to normal. “I had… training last night,” she said. “It was very strenuous.”

“Ano,” Naruto said, “didn’t Kurenai-sensei say to take it easy and get to bed early last night?”

Hinata nodded. “This was a special family training session. Father had something he wanted me to learn before I left.”

“Really?” Naruto asked eagerly. “Is it a new technique, or a special jutsu? Can you show me next time we practice?” He figured anything that tough to learn had to be pretty spectacular.

But Hinata just ducked her head down until she was almost completely facing the ground.

Naruto really had no idea what to say that couldn’t make things worse, so he was silent until they reached Ichiraku’s. The old man was polishing the counter top with a folded cloth as a fat merchant in a silk robe got up and left, leaving some coins next to his empty plate. “Hey, Naruto! One more for the road until you’re off on your mission?” he asked. But his smile faded a little when he saw Naruto’s companion.

They both settled on stools, though Hinata was still moving stiffly. Naruto glanced at his teammate out of the corner of his eye. “Do you know what you want?” he asked, gesturing at the menu. When Hinata didn’t answer, Naruto frowned, scratching at the back of his head. Where was Kurenai-sensei when he needed someone smart to unravel the mysteries of kunoichi? “Would you like to just get what I’m having then?” he asked cautiously.

Hinata nodded wearily, seeming to droop on the stool.

“Okay, I’d like miso soup, rice balls, and pickles for both of us,” he said, digging out his wallet and checking its contents. “And some of those dumplings with the bean paste for my friend,” he added. He knew from the dinners that was one of her favorite treats.

“A-arigatou, Naruto-san,” Hinata said in an uneven voice.

“Good morning, Naruto!” Ayame said as she emerged from the back room with a broom. She frowned a little when she saw Hinata, but Naruto had no idea why she then looked over at her father for a moment. “Hello, Hinata-san,” she said after a moment. “I… er, we’re planning to get some new tiles laid in back, and I was hoping I could get your opinion on the patterns. Father has his heart set on this one design, but I think it would clash horribly. I’d like to get another woman’s opinion on this, since we all know men are hopeless at such things.”

The old man, of course, took loud exception to this, and father and daughter began a spate of good-natured bickering that sounded like a well-rehearsed skit to Naruto’s ears. Somehow, halfway through it, Ayame was on the other side of the counter, gently taking Hinata by the shoulder, and leading the weakly protesting girl away.

“I’ll watch your bag,” Naruto volunteered, helping her ease the strap off her shoulder.

Minus the weight, Hinata seemed to straighten up a bit more. Naruto knew she must have been very tired for it to have affected her so much – her arm and leg weights had been added to several times after Kurenai had procured a set of braces that would fit the slim girl’s wrists and ankles.

Naruto fidgeted as the old man prepared their food. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe Hinata so much as that he suspected she wasn’t telling him everything. He needed to see ‘underneath the underneath’ but he didn’t have any idea what he should be looking for in this situation. He frowned as he tried to think, but nothing seemed to make sense to him.

“What happened to your friend?” the old man asked in a low voice as he began to lay out the porcelain squares with their food.

“I wish I knew,” Naruto said in a miserable voice. He was getting really sick of being confused and always doing the wrong thing.

“Well, I think Ayame is helping her get cleaned up a bit. One thing I have learned being married and raising a daughter: A woman having a rough day will feel twice as bad if she looks rough as well,” the old man confided.

“Arigatou,” Naruto said gratefully. Ayame was a girl, so maybe Hinata’s problem, whatever it was, would make sense to her.

“Think nothing of it,” the old man said in grand voice. “A good chef knows to take care of his regular customers! Besides,” he added, “you kids are good people. If I could make a living just cooking for shinobi, I’d ban those cheap, whiny, self-satisfied merchants from here in a minute. Just don’t tell them I said that, at least until I retire.”

The old man’s rant brought a smile to Naruto’s lips, and he began to relax a little and had a sip of his tea.

A few minutes later, Ayame’s voice came echoing from the back of the ramen stand. “I think you are right about the patterns, Hinata-san! If we use that design, but reverse the colors, it won’t look so bad, and it won’t overpower everything else.”

When she led the girl back around to the front, even Naruto could see the changes. Hinata’s hair was a little damp, and had been recently brushed. Her face was clean, and the bruises seemed much fainter than they had earlier. While she still had dark circles around them, her eyes didn’t seem to be as red, either. When she sat down, she still wouldn’t meet Naruto’s eyes, but she didn’t seem as beaten down as before.

Her eyes darted toward Naruto’s chopsticks, poised above his untouched food, and she ducked her head in apology. “Gomen, Naruto, I did not mean to make you wait to eat.”

Naruto snorted. “Kurenai-sensei has been trying to teach me manners. It’s hard enough to remember the complicated things, so I might as well do the simple ones right, eh?” He smiled at his teammate, but she did not look up. “Well, now that you’re here. Itadakimasu!”

With that, they started breakfast. Naruto noticed that Hinata, for once, was eating almost as quickly as he was. He wondered if that ‘special training’ had made her miss supper, as well as breakfast. He also wondered if he should ask Kurenai-sensei about this ‘special family training’, especially if they were going to make Hinata do it right before a potentially dangerous mission. The formerly-dormant part of his brain that he’d discovered during their team’s first mission planning exercise decided that Hinata was probably at less than fifty percent of her normal effectiveness. If they ran into problems, he’d have to make sure he was backing her up immediately. As tired and sore as she was, he doubted she’d be able to defend herself for long in a real fight.

Fortunately, the food seemed to restore her a bit as well, and she was able to shoulder her bag without straining as they prepared to leave. Naruto left the money on the counter, along with a large tip for Ayame. The old man’s eyes darted toward Hinata as she adjusted the straps on her bag. “You two come back safe,” he said gruffly.

“We will,” Naruto assured him.

OoOoO

Kurenai was pleased to see her genins already waiting for her as she approached the Hokage’s Tower for their assignment. The horror stories she’d heard from Asuma and the others about irresponsible students seemed to be just that – stories. She smirked. Or maybe they took after their jonins, at least in Asuma’s case. Team ten had done less than a third as many missions as team eight, and Kurenai had yet to see them do any really serious training. Asuma-baka was relying far too much on the Akimichi-Yamanaka-Nara synergy and not enough on hard work and preparation.

Kurenai’s musing cut off as she approached the bench. Shino was standing next to it, staring at her. Naruto was sitting, as was Hinata. Or more accurately, Naruto was sitting there, petrified. Hinata was asleep, her head resting on her teammate’s shoulder.

While one part of her found the scene to be rather cute, and wished she’d had a camera to record the moment, for the most part she was concerned. This was not normal behavior for the kunoichi, who always took care to ensure she was prepared for the day’s activities. Had she and Naruto ignored her orders about getting a full night’s sleep and decided to train anyway? Was she sick? If the latter was true, they’d have to delay their mission or leave her in Konoha. Either outcome would not be good for the girl.

For that matter, Naruto looked unusually nervous as well. Did he know something? Or was he partially to blame for her condition? Kurenai pondered things she’d been hoping to put off for a while when she noticed a far simpler and more likely cause. Of the people walking past the bench, shinobi and villagers alike, a fair proportion were giving the boy a dirty look, like he’d done something wrong. That probably accounted for his guilty expression – or at least she hoped it did.

Kurenai came to stand before her students. It took no more than a raised eyebrow to get Naruto talking in a strained whisper. She noted that, despite his agitation, he took great pains not to move his shoulder a millimeter as he talked.

“I ran into Hinata after I left Gai-sensei and Lee. She was really tired and could barely walk. When I said hello she dropped her bag and I had to help pick her stuff up. She’d said she had to do some special training with her family. I think they kept her up all night. We had some time, so I bought her breakfast at Ichiraku’s. From the way she ate I don’t think she’d had anything to eat since lunch yesterday. When we got here, we were still a little early, so we sat down to wait, and next thing I know she’s asleep on my shoulder, and honest, I didn’t do anything!” the blond genin whispered, without pausing for breath.

Kurenai held up her palm to forestall any further explanations. Naruto might pass out from oxygen deprivation if he continued. “You did the right thing, Naruto,” she reassured him.

“This ‘family training’ is quite troubling,” Shino said.

Kurenai wondered if he really meant ‘troublesome’ instead, since it could interfere with their mission. But then she looked at the expressionless boy and remembered how seldom he misspoke himself. It was good to see he wasn’t as cold and uncaring on the inside as he appeared on the outside. “I agree,” she replied, nodding. “I hope she isn’t coming down with something,” she said as she carefully rested the back of her hand against the girl’s forehead.

The skin was cool at first, but at the slight touch Hinata’s eyes popped open and she made a small, indistinct noise as she stiffened. A moment later her forehead threatened to scorch the back of Kurenai’s hand as her face was enveloped in a rosy blush. “G-gomen!” the girl squeaked as she almost leaped away from Naruto and stood at attention.

Kurenai smiled down at the girl, even as she seethed inside. Special Family Training, was it? Hiashi should have been proud of what his daughter had accomplished yesterday. Was he so personally invested in her being a failure that he’d punish her for attempting to grow beyond it? Even with all she knew of the man, it seemed impossible. Well, monstrous people did monstrous things, and she already knew of one, even if she lacked the proof. But Hinata was not her father. Revenge against one did not justify injustice toward the other. Perhaps, even, the opposite was true, and one would require the other? That would remain to be seen, as it depended on another’s strength… and right now she appeared to be a very slender reed indeed.

Nonetheless, Kurenai smiled down at her subordinate. “Hinata, I am glad you still made it here, even if you are not feeling well. Your determination not to miss this mission briefing is noted and appreciated. I see that it is five minutes before the hour, are you ready to proceed?”

Hinata nodded, ducking her head. Naruto just looked confused, and Kurenai hoped he didn’t interpret Hinata leaping away from him as a rejection. She squeezed the bridge of her nose as Hinata and Naruto moved toward their appointment. When she looked up, she saw Shino, and had the oddest impression that he was smiling at her behind his high collar.

OoOoO

Hinata looked down and concentrated on placing her feet correctly. She would not stumble and humiliate herself further. Fortunately, the meal and the brief rest had temporarily restored some of her energy, and she moved with much greater ease.

Thinking about that ‘brief rest’ brought heat rushing back to her cheeks. She didn’t know what had possessed her to do that. They’d arrived at the tower with fifteen minutes to spare, so Naruto suggested they sit on one of the benches. The morning sunlight was warm, and combined with her fatigue and the fine breakfast she’d just eaten, she hadn’t stood a prayer of staying awake. But why did she have to wake up leaning on Naruto? Of course, if she’d leaned the other way she might have toppled over, or even fallen off the bench, but that might have been preferable. At least he hadn’t complained or shoved her off of him. Naruto was too nice to do that anyway.

For that matter, why was everyone being so nice to her? First Naruto, stopping to help her with her things, and even calling her ‘Hinata-chan’ at one point, though she thought her ears were probably deceiving her, telling her what she wanted to hear. Instead of losing patience with her bumbling, he’d even offered to buy her breakfast! That was almost like a date, in a way, since he even paid for her food. It wasn’t really like that – he’d just offered to pay her back for the dinners she’d shared with him – but if it had been Uchiha Sasuke who’d bought her breakfast, Hinata knew that most of the village girls her age would have been wishing for her violent death. So even if it wasn’t a real date, it had to count for something, didn’t it?

And then Ayame-onee-san, on the pretext of asking her about the tiles, had taken her into Ichiraku’s small back area and bathroom and helped her get cleaned up. To her horror, the first thing the older girl had asked her was if Naruto had put the bruises on her face. The angry look on the young woman’s face nearly reduced her to tears, and she knew she was babbling a little as she assured her that Naruto had done no such thing. She didn’t want Naruto to be blamed for her condition, not by some of the only adults in Konoha that didn’t seem to hate him for no reason. Even when they sparred, she could tell Naruto was fairly careful not to hurt her. Father and Neji did not choose to coddle her that way.

Once Ayame reassured her that she believed the kunoichi, she helped her get cleaned up, and even showed her how to minimize the bruises with a light dusting of makeup. Hinata had never worn cosmetics like that before, and was amazed at the difference when she looked in the mirror. As they finished, Ayame ran her comb under the tap and used it to smooth out her hair. Hinata was too tired to continue protesting the kind girl’s ministrations. Having someone else tend to her hair was unexpectedly soothing, something that brought back happier memories of her mother. So she was a little off guard when Ayame asked her that question.

“You like him, don’t you?” she asked.

Hinata’s eyes flew open with an audible snap. “G-gomen?” she stammered.

“Naruto. You like him, don’t you?” Ayame asked with a smile.

“A-ano…” Hinata temporized, her embarrassment warring with the relaxing feel of the comb in her hair.

“Father told me about the way you told off that Sakura girl who insulted him,” Ayame continued. “He’s a good kid, and it’s nice to see someone his age who will stand up for him. He deserves better than he gets, doesn’t he?”

“Hai!” Hinata agreed, but when she tried to elaborate, her tongue refused to move as she felt her cheeks heat up again.

“All done,” Ayame said. “Doesn’t that look better?” she asked, gesturing toward the small mirror.

“Arigatou,” Hinata said, nodding.

“You’re welcome. Just back me up when I speak to my father,” Ayame answered with a smile. “That man has no taste whatsoever.”

As they made their way back toward the front area, Ayame added quietly. “You know, Naruto’s always been a little low on money. You and his old teacher, Iruka, are the only people I’ve ever seen him buy a meal for…”

Of course that made it even harder for her to eat, despite her hunger. Naruto shouldn’t be spending his money on her! But when she arrived the meal was already prepared and her protests died on her lips when she saw him smiling.

And then Ayame’s father had wished them both a safe return, and she could see his sincerity, beyond his concern about losing a regular customer… and it extended to her, as well.

Why was everyone being so nice to the Hyuuga reject? Her own father couldn’t stand her constant failures, so why were complete strangers being so kind? Was it pity? Were her shortcomings so obvious that people who didn’t know her would feel sorry for her?

Hinata felt her stomach turn over in disgust and self-loathing as they climbed the stairs. No more. Her brows knitted as an unaccustomed expression drew over her features. She was tired of being a failure, and she would do whatever it took to change. It was her weakness that Father hated, that Father punished, so she would cut it out of her if she needed to.

But her rebellious eyes glanced over at Naruto, and Hinata wondered if she would really be able to do it.

++++++++++++++++

A/N: The next chapter is already in progress – I decided to split this up before it became overly large.

Please stop asking me if this story had been discontinued. If I ever have to completely stop working on this story, I will post my outline so you all can see how it ends.

While it has been a while since the last update, chapter four was monster-sized, and I’ve also been building toward the climax of year 2 in Harry Potter and the Nightmares of Futures Past. I generally plan to alternate between the two stories, but if I only feel inspired to work on the one that just updated, I’m not going to stare at my keyboard and be unproductive.

Please address any questions or concerns to my yahoo group, Viridian Dreams. The link is in my Author Profile.

-Matthew

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