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

Chapter Seven

Because they were to patrol a couple of miles within the border, Team 8 was required to set up their own camp well back from the boundary with the Land of Earth. Kurenai merely shook her head when their first patrol discovered the subtle traces of Dariketsu’s camp. They had claimed a small clearing within sight of the actual border. Naruto supposed the Hokage had been right… those bakas were spoiling for a fight if they did that.

Naruto tried to pay close attention to how Kurenai-sensei had them do things, because there was almost always a reason behind it… like the way they randomly varied their patrol patterns to make it harder for someone to slip by them undetected. It was embarrassing, but sometimes he did have to ask her why. At least she didn’t berate him for being stupid when she answered his questions.

Instead, she seemed pleased that he wanted to know. Not knowing why she did this began to bother him until he finally had to ask her about that as well. Some instinct made him wait until Hinata and Shino were sparring after dinner, because he wasn’t sure what the answer would be.

Kurenai kept her eyes on her students as they fought. Running the patrols was helping their speed and endurance, but she said she still wanted them to train a little when they took breaks. If their bodies were too tired, she would go into what Naruto recognized as her “lecture mode” and talk to them about things they needed to know. Those were usually interesting, but it was another time when she also welcomed questions. Why was this so?

“Ano, Sensei,” Naruto said in a low voice as Hinata slapped aside Shino’s punch and made a strike toward his midsection that forced him to quickly backpedal. She still wore the weights, but they were slowing her down less and less. He wondered if she even noticed this.

“What is it, Naruto?” Kurenai replied.

“Er, I’ve been asking a lot of questions lately,” he said, but his voice trailed off. How could he say this without sounding like a baka?

“Yes,” she said, her eyes still on the combatants, “I’m glad you’ve been taking a more active role in learning strategy and tactics.”

“But that’s just it,” Naruto said, the words tumbling out easier now. “Why are you so happy that I’m asking all these questions? Almost all the teachers at the Academy got mad when I ask questions!”

“Everyone but Iruka?” she asked softly, Shino used his greater reach to force Hinata to retreat again.

Naruto shrugged. “Iruka’s different. He grew up without parents like I did, so he cuts me a break.”

“No,” Kurenai said firmly, “he’s not. He’s doing his job properly. Evidently, he’s one of the few instructors that is.”

“Nani?” Naruto asked, his eyebrows drawn together in confusion.

Kurenai sighed. “Naruto, why do you ask those questions? Are you seeking attention? Are you trying to delay me so I don’t start talking about a new subject? Or are you simply trying to irritate me?”

“No Sensei!” Naruto said quickly, “I just asked because I wanted to know!”

“Exactly,” Kurenai murmured as Hinata leapt over Shino’s leg sweep. “A student that actually wants to learn is a blessing to a teacher. Why should I want to discourage that?”

“But… why didn’t the instructors want…” Naruto’s voice trailed off. “It’s because of me, isn’t it?” he asked coldly.

“Not precisely,” Kurenai said in a voice little more than a whisper. “Naruto, I’m not going to excuse their behavior, but I think it might help you to understand. When the Kyuubi attacked, it was like a natural disaster. It was unstoppable. I was miles away from the battle and I could still feel… it. More chakra and killing intent than I’d ever imagined was possible to exist. I’d never been more afraid in my life, and I imagine that was true for everyone else in Konoha. Then it was defeated, but at the cost of the Yondaime’s life. It’s hard explain how much we all loved the Fourth Hokage, but I think any one of us would have given their lives in his place, were it possible. But then he was gone, and so was the demon responsible for his death. Everyone was angry and grieving for the Hokage and everyone else who’d died… and there was no real outlet for that grief and rage. I know the Third and Fourth Hokages wanted you to be seen as the savior of the village, but I don’t think it was possible, not with everyone still full of rage. Especially since there was really only one obvious outlet for that rage…”

“Me,” Naruto finished her sentence dully. After another quick exchange of blows, Hinata and Shino sprang apart, panting.

“It’s hard to break an ingrained habit,” Kurenai said, slipping into her lecture-mode for a moment, “but once someone does manage to see the real Naruto, they don’t go back to seeing you as a demon, do they?”

“No, they don’t,” Naruto said with a sigh. “But I was at the Academy for years, and it seems like Iruka is the only one that bothered. All of the other instructors were just trying to get back at my prisoner by making me feel stupid.”

“As I said, I will not excuse their behavior,” Kurenai agreed, “but I also know that Iruka really does care about you. When he heard about the spy, he thought I’d ordered you to fight… until I explained, he looked like he wanted to kill me.”

Naruto was mortified that Iruka almost attacked another shinobi because of him, especially a jonin. Oddly enough, he also felt a strange warmth to know that the man cared about him that much. “G-gomen,” he choked out, apologizing.

“No need for apologies,” Kurenai said. “I’m glad to see the truth of his feelings. We had a very productive conversation, and I think I may be able to call him a friend in the future. But do you realize why my attitude toward questions may be somewhat at odds with what you have previously experienced?”

Naruto looked puzzled for a moment and then nodded. “Because the others wanted me to stay ignorant and fail as a ninja… that was the only means they could see for getting even with the Kyuubi.”

“That is an accurate summation,” Kurenai said as Hinata landed a solid hit on Shino’s shoulder, making him stumble backwards. “Understanding and teasing apart the motivations of others, based upon indirect observations, is a valuable skill to cultivate for a shinobi. Even more so for a Hokage.”

“Everything is a lesson with you, isn’t it?” Naruto asked, half-jokingly.

“Of course,” Kurenai replied softly as she stood up. “We have a lot of ground to make up, and I am responsible for your education now.”

Naruto blinked as he absorbed that statement. He barely listened as Kurenai gave a detailed critique of the sparring match they’d just watched together.

OoOoO

Things were quiet, at least at first. When Kurenai was satisfied that their stamina and chakra reserves were up to the task, they began following their patrol routes through the tree cover rather than on the ground. After mastering the water-walking exercises, using chakra to keep their footing on tree branches was easy.

Before the day was over, they were leaping from tree to tree, subtly boosting their leg strength with small amounts of chakra to improve their leaping distance. Even with his weights, Naruto could make a twenty meter jump from a standing start, without really straining himself. He did, however, make sure he aimed for branches that were sturdy enough to handle his extra weight. Getting dumped on his head once was enough.

While this method was faster, Kurenai cautioned them to not use it in hostile territory, or when they feared they would be ambushed. It was damned hard to dodge a thrown kunai when you were in mid-leap, and landing on an explosive tag can ruin your whole day.

With a little subtle begging, Naruto also persuaded Kurenai to show them some more jutsus. It had been embarrassing to admit it at first, but she also showed him why he had so many problems using the body substitution technique, Kawarimi no Jutsu. It worked some times, like when he ambushed Sasuke-teme, but it failed more often than not.

As he suspected, he’d been throwing far too much chakra into the technique, which surprised him at first. He thought moving your body in the blink of an eye, and replacing it with a nearby object would take a lot of energy. Kurenai-sensei merely shook her head and explained that if the common shinobi technique required as much chakra as he used, it would kill anyone weaker than a jonin who tried it.

It was a little disturbing to realize just how much more chakra he had available than other… well, normal ninjas. Of course, as Kurenai pointed out, as bad as his chakra control was, he wasted so much that it wasn’t that obvious. But in the same breath she promised to work with him until he was as efficient as she was. Naruto couldn’t wait… he wanted to show everyone that he wasn’t just empty boasts.

Kurenai’s repertoire of ninjutsu seemed somewhat eclectic. She seemed to know techniques from a variety of styles. Sensei reiterated her motto of “there is no such thing as useless knowledge” when Shino asked her about it as she introduced them to a Doton jutsu. “Doton: Wana” let one mold chakra to influence the ground around their target. It required you to touch the ground as you released the molded chakra. But making the earth flow up around the target’s feet, slowing them down or trapping them, was really useful if used correctly.

This jutsu was especially tricky for Naruto, because if he molded too much chakra into the technique, the ground would liquefy around Kurenai’s feet, letting her merely step out of it. Fortunately, all the practice he’d had getting Suiton: Gyoushuu under control paid off here, and he mastered it almost as soon as Shino and Hinata.

He was a little puzzled when he finally got it right. Hinata was trying to apologize for something, but when he asked her what she did wrong, she wouldn’t tell him. Remembering Kurenai’s words, he just shrugged and smiled at her. “Whatever you did, I’m not mad at you. You’re a good person, Hinata, so I know you’d never do something to be mean.”

For some reason, she spun around and quickly walked away. Naruto turned to Shino with a questioning expression, but the bug user wouldn’t say anything. Again, Naruto had the oddest feeling that Shino was smirking at him. He hoped Kurenai introduced a Katon jutsu next, so he could ‘accidentally’ burn the collar off of Shino’s jacket.

OoOoO

On the second week of the patrol, Hinata’s Byakugan caught traces of swift movement at the edges of her range. They changed courses to track what had to be a shinobi and followed it all the way back to the border. As quick as they were, it still crossed back over the border before they could catch it, and Kurenai called a halt when they were still several meters short of the invisible boundary. Naruto noticed they were standing near the clearing that Dariketsu’s team had used as a campsite.

At the other end of the clearing, on the Earth side of the border, were four figures that seemed to be around Kurenai’s height. Naruto wondered which one had violated their border to lead them here. He looked left and right, his nostrils flaring, wary of an ambush. Hinata’s Byakugan were active, and some slight motion in the grass around Shino’s feet meant his bugs were deploying as well. A few seemed to have taken to the air after moving well away from their host.

“Have we satisfied your curiosity?” Kurenai called out.

“Somewhat,” the largest of the four Rock ninjas replied. They were all dressed in tans and neutral grays, and the lower portions of their faces were covered as well. “I’m somewhat insulted that Konoha sends a group of children to match us.”

“We are not here to contest with you,” Kurenai said firmly. “The Hokage does not want any more incidents along this border. Dariketsu was recalled for that reason.”

“That’s too bad,” the Rock leader yelled back with an evil laugh. “He was fun to bait, if a bit too predictable.”

Naruto didn’t really want to draw attention to himself… but he’d become rather warm during the extended chase through the trees. He slowly unzipped his heavy jacket so the cool morning air could cool him down.

As slight as that motion was, it still drew the attention of the Rock shinobi. Naruto froze as he felt sudden spikes of killing intent, radiating from across the clearing. His ears strained to catch the whispered words exchanged between the Iwa ninjas, but he could barely make out a few, such as “bastard”, “flash”, and “yellow”. It really didn’t make a lot of sense to him, but he froze in place, not wanting to provoke anything more until Kurenai said the word.

“I see your mission is not as innocent as I would have believed,” the Rock leader called out as they split up and disappeared into the trees. “You will not catch us unaware when you come for our blood.”

“Back into the trees,” Kurenai hissed. Naruto waited until Shino and Hinata were halfway there before he began backing out of the clearing. His senses seemed extraordinarily sharp, and he could almost hear the individual blades of grass flex under his sandals.

As he slipped through the trees, Kurenai caught his eye. Her frown faded as he quickly glanced at Shino and Hinata, verifying their positions. She nodded and motioned for them to follow her. As previously arranged, Hinata sped up until she was even with Kurenai. Her Byakugan was active and checked their path for ambushes or traps. Shino trailed behind them, and Naruto was a little farther back. If any of his team were attacked, he was in a position to see it immediately and counterattack. If he was targeted, Hinata’s all-around vision would let them know as well.

Kurenai-sensei led them on a circuitous route, doubling back many times to check for pursuers. Nothing more dangerous than a frightened deer was found, so eventually they returned to their camp.

“A-ano, Sensei,” Hinata said as soon as they stopped. “What happened back there?”

“I’m not completely sure,” Kurenai said, frowning.

“Their sudden aggressiveness is worrying,” Shino said gravely. Naruto could only nod in agreement.

“I could read their lips, a little, through their masks,” Hinata said, blushing. “What does ‘Yellow Flash’ mean?”

Kurenai stiffened at Hinata’s words, and then she turned and peered closely at Naruto. “I suppose… if they saw him at a distance… and no real clues for gauging his height…” she murmured. She let out a sigh as all three of her genins frowned at her in confusion.

“All right, I think I know what that was,” the jonin said. “You’ve all seen the carving of the Fourth Hokage on the cliff overlooking Konoha, right?”

They nodded.

“Well, from a distance, Naruto bears a passing resemblance to the Yondaime,” she continued.

“Did he have yellow hair like I do?” Naruto interrupted.

“Yes,” Kurenai replied. “And because of that, and a special jutsu of his, he was often known as ‘The Yellow Flash of Konoha’.”

“But why would Naruto’s resemblance to the Fourth Hokage cause such a reaction?” Shino asked before Naruto could.

Kurenai took a deep breath and sat down on a log they’d moved near the fire pit. “Well, as you know, there was a war between Konoha and the Hidden Village of Stone back before you were born.” She paused for a moment while they all nodded. “Before becoming the Hokage, the Yondaime was a jonin who fought in many battles. He was known for his clever plans and skillful leadership. It is suspected that the Rock leaders knew of this and wanted to draw him out. Shinobi historians don’t know for sure that the Iwa ninjas specifically targeted his students, but we do know that one was killed, an Uchiha named Obito.”

Kurenai paused, taking a deep breath. “Whatever they hoped to accomplish by killing the Fourth’s student, it did not succeed. After his remaining students returned to Konoha to recover, he returned to the battlefields and… well, by the end of the war, over half of the Shinobi of Iwagakure had fallen to ‘The Yellow Flash’ and the attacks he led.”

Naruto felt his mouth drop open in shock. That wasn’t something they’d lectured about at the Academy. “H-he killed half of the whole village?” he asked in shock.

“The shinobi, yes. We were at war,” Kurenai said gravely, “and that’s what happens in a war. Some people think the Sandaime is weak because he favors peace… I call them fools.”

Naruto shook his head. “They can’t really believe I’m the Fourth Hokage, can they? I mean, that’s crazy!”

Kurenai shook her head. “No, though scared people often believe irrational things. But they may think you were sent specifically to intimidate or provoke them. I don’t think the Hokage anticipated this reaction when he assigned us this mission. Hopefully, they will be encouraged to stay on their own side of the border for now.”

“If they do not, I will know,” Shino added. “They stood there long enough for at least one of my allies to climb onto each of them. Those were female kikai bugs, so I will quickly know if they get within scent range of one of my sentries.”

“Very good, Shino,” Kurenai said with a smile. “While they initiated this encounter by crossing over into Fire Country territory, we have gained far more than they in the exchange.”

Naruto remembered Kurenai’s words and tried to stay optimistic as he gathered wood for the cook fire. The thought of the heroic Yondaime killing people made him feel ill, but Kurenai was right… it was a war, and he supposed he didn’t have much choice. And neither would he, if war broke out again. He wondered who those fools were that Kurenai had talked about, and resolved to be a little nicer to the Hokage next time he saw the old man.

The blond-haired genin went about his chores, but he would think back on this conversation many times in the years to come.

OoOoO

The first hint of trouble came from Hinata, whose head snapped around while they were on a routine patrol.

“Sensei!” she hissed.

Naruto, who was in the process of leaping toward the next tree, caught himself with one foot still touching bark, so he increased the chakra in that foot and awkwardly recoiled back onto the bough. Hinata was looking to the right of their current course. “They are under a genjutsu,” she said as she shook herself and suddenly launched forward. Naruto watched four dark objects drop toward the forest floor from where she’d been standing and knew she’d discarded her weights.

“Hinata!” Kurenai barked, reaching toward the Hyuuga genin.

Naruto wanted to follow, but he knew he needed to see what was going on. “Naruto Majutsu: Chakra Pulse!” he growled as he hurriedly crammed chakra into his hara, and then practically hurled it in the direction Hinata had jumped.

The recoil nearly blew him backward out of the tree, and the bough his feet were chakra-glued to creaked alarmingly. But the ripple sped outwards, knocking a few leaves from the trees like a stiff breeze, and making several figures shimmer into view under a tree in the distance. Three adult-sized shapes swam into view, two of them carrying large bundles.

Naruto had no idea who these men were, or why Hinata was attacking them, but he wasn’t going to let her go alone. He jumped after her, Shino and Kurenai barely a step behind.

“Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!” Naruto called out, his hands forming the familiar seal sequence as he dropped toward the men. The three of them were joined by a score of clones.

The man on the left dropped his cloth-wrapped burden and began making seals, his fingers a blur. “Katon: Gurando Fenikkusu Kachuu!” he snapped, and a trio of fireballs sprang from his fingertips. They spiraled outwards, leaving trails of fire that grew ever wider as they spread. Shino and Kurenai avoided the worst of it, but the vortex of flames had been aimed directly at Naruto and his clones. Naruto threw his arms in front of his face at the last moment and tried to shift his chakra to protect his face. The heat that washed over him was intense, and he didn’t need to hear the multiple pops to know his clones had been destroyed. When he broke through the funnel of fire, the cool air beyond was incredibly sweet. He dropped to the ground in a crouch as he spread his arms again. His face felt tight and hot, and the smell of scorched hair was unbelievably foul, but he was basically in one piece.

“Damn, Kouro, you’re slipping,” the largest of the strangers said, “I thought you were going to cook that little bastard for dinner.” He was tall and heavily muscled, and wore only loose pants and heavy boots. His shaved head shone in the sunlight that filtered through the trees, and his cold black eyes gleamed like chips of obsidian.

The man on the right wore a blue and black uniform that contrasted with the fire-user’s red and black one. He was fending off Hinata with a staff made of gleaming ice, but was having some difficulty handling the weapon while trying to juggle the large bundle he was also burdened with.

Finally, he growled in exasperation and threw his bundle into the air and swung the staff at Hinata crosswise with both hands. The staff was little more than a blur, but the Hyuuga was even faster as she leapt upward, grabbing onto the bundle with both hands and swinging it onto her back as their combined momentum spun her into a tree trunk. Naruto gaped as her feet found purchase on the rough bark and she ran up the trunk in a continuous motion. She angled toward a large branch and began running along the underside of it without even slowing down.

“Dammit, we can’t let them delay us. Kill them all,” the large shinobi barked. An instant later, his hand flashed upward and deflected the kunai Kurenai had thrown at his face.

“With pleasure, taishou!” Kouro snarled, his hands flashing through seals again. “Katon: Kaenhoushaki no jutsu!” he said and a blot of flame shot from his hands toward the still smoldering Naruto.

“Suiton: Gyoushuu!” Naruto snapped as he ran through the seals. It was a little tricky, trying to align the condensation vortex along a vertical plane instead of a horizontal one, but he didn’t have to worry so much about holding back his chakra this time.

A spinning chakra vortex a foot wide opened up and the air around them became parched of moisture as a blast of water erupted like a fire hose, intercepting the flame blast.

Naruto looked away, blinking rapidly, as steam blasted across the battlefield. There was a loud grunt of pain that brought a fierce grin to his lips. He hadn’t missed. A flash of motion drew his eyes to the side.

When Hinata reach the end of the bough, she didn’t even slow down and instead launched herself toward the ground. She twisted in midair so that she absorbed the impact with her legs, cradling the bundle as she sank into a low crouch. A kunai flashed and the fabric parted to reveal a young girl, bound and gagged, with furious white eyes like Hinata’s.

“The other bundle is Konohamaru-kun,” Hinata said as she quickly cut her sister’s bonds. Kurenai’s eyes widened and she turned toward the package Kouro had discarded, but Naruto was even faster. His fists snapped up and he struck himself a sharp blow on each shoulder, and then threw his arms forward. From under the sleeves of his jacket, his forearm weights flew forward and struck the large ninja in the face, staggering him backward. The discarded weights fell to the ground, where they embedded themselves in the soft forest loam.

In a flash Naruto was running past the leader, whose fist made a crater in the ground inches behind him. Naruto silently thanked Gai and Lee as he grabbed the other bundle and slung it toward his sensei. Kurenai caught it without missing a beat, her kunai already moving.

Things were moving rapidly, too rapidly for him too keep track of. The guy with the ice staff was closing in to reclaim his prize, but Hinata stepped over her sister, leaving her a kunai to finish freeing her legs, and set herself in his path.

The staff flashed forward, but this time she was ready, and shattered it with a Jyuuken strike. A sharp shard left a line of blood along her cheek and Naruto bared his teeth in a feral snarl.

A ball of chakra-enhanced fire struck him in the back, knocking him to his knees as it tried to ignite the tough jacket material. Naruto somersaulted forward, feeling blisters rise on the back of his neck. He raised himself into a handstand, looking behind him. Kouro was starting another set of hand seals, but a volley of kunai from Kurenai made him abort that attack and leap backwards. Naruto saw the thrown knives imbed themselves up to the rings in the earth and silently reminded himself never to get his sensei mad. He flexed his arms and launched himself into the air, marveling at how much easier this was with half of his weights gone. He struck the quick-release catches for the leg weights as he tumbled, and then snapped his legs out straight to launch them at the flame user.

Kouro jumped backward to avoid those as well, hissing in frustration. But his annoyance was brought up short when a mass of kikai bugs swarmed up his legs and Shino’s right arm wrapped around his neck, laying a kunai across the front of his throat. The fire-user’s eyes widened and he froze in place.

“Good one, Shino!” Naruto crowed, then turned back toward the big guy. The leader was moving to help the ice-nin with Hinata. “Hey teme! I ain’t done with you! Doton: Wana!” He slapped the ground and the soil under the large man’s feet writhed and flowed up over his boots.

The largest ninja caught himself as he started to stumble. Then he turned toward Naruto and smiled. His skin took on a metallic sheen and his feet began to sink inches deeper into the ground. With a heave, he tore his feet free of the earth-snare and began striding toward the much smaller green-clad shinobi.

“Naruto! No!” a shrill voice yelled. Roughened as it was from the gag and whatever else he’d been through, Naruto could still recognize Konohamaru’s voice. “Don’t! He, he killed Iruka-sensei!”

Naruto froze in place. He couldn’t move, could breathe. He didn’t just hear that. He couldn’t have. It was impossible. He felt the blood rushing in his ears as his fingers curled into claws. His blood was turning into fire in his veins as his mind shut down.

He saw Hinata hesitate, jumping back from the ice user and turning toward him, her eyes wide. A quick jutsu from the blue-clad ninja launched a volley of ice shards at the Hyuuga. Her Byakugan still active, Hinata avoided or blocked most of them, but the last one struck the side of her head. She dropped to the ground.

Kurenai hands were a blur as she launched a volley of kunais. The ice-nin dodged and blocked, but still ended up with one jammed into his shoulder. Kurenai charged at him a blade in each hand. “Get out of here! Run!” she shouted at the children who were gingerly climbing to their feet. Konohamaru grabbed the Hyuuga girl’s hand and they ran into the forest.

“Now!” the leader said as he stomped toward Naruto, beginning to pick up speed.

A sudden roar of flames from behind him made Naruto turn, even as he spun away from a fist that nearly flattened him as it drove into the ground.

“I don’t need to use seals to do this one, boy!” Kouro smirked as his body was wreathed in flames. There was a loud crackling sound as Shino’s kikai bugs were incinerated. Shino himself was blown backwards off his feet, his right arm a mass of flames. Naruto continued sidestepping, trying to keep both of the bastards in front of him, and lead them away from Shino and Hinata. The fire user didn’t seem to be that interested in Shino, because he began flicking small fireballs at Naruto, making him jump to the side as they ignited the parched grass.

Shino rolled over and over in the grass, eventually smothering the flames as he rolled away from the clearing. The right sleeve of his jacket was burned away, and what Naruto could see of his arm was a mass of red that didn’t look good at all. Against all reason, Shino tried to struggle to his feet, holding himself up with his good hand. The ever-present sunglasses gone, the Aburame boy locked gazes with Naruto for a moment. Then his hazel eyes rolled back into his head… he slowly toppled forward and was still.

“Come on,” the leader said. “Cook this little brat and then we can triple team the jonin and get out of here.”

“I’d like to take my time with her and the girl,” the flame-wreathed ninja leered, “but it shall be as you command. Stand still, boy, and I’ll make this quick.”

Naruto froze in place. The thought of these two hurting his sensei and Hinata finished a process that began with Konohamaru’s shout, and gathered momentum as he watched Hinata and Shino fall. He felt something snap inside.

“I’LL KILL YOU!!!” he screamed and charged toward Kouro, whose eyes were suddenly wide. Everything seemed to be covered by a red haze, and Naruto vaguely realized that the Kyuubi’s red chakra was exploding out of his skin. He wondered if this meant the seal was breaking, but he didn’t really care as long as it meant he could stop them from hurting his friends.

The fire-user hurled fireball after fireball at the short ninja, who suddenly didn’t seem so ridiculous an opponent. The pronounced whisker-marks the boy could feel etching deeper into his face probably had something to do with that, along with the pronounced canines that were starting to draw blood from his lower lip. Naruto batted the flaming missiles aside with contempt, ignoring the sting in his palms that disappeared almost as soon as it registered.

As he leapt onto him, Kouro finished a series of frantic seals. “Katon: Okibi Shounetsujigoku!” he screamed as flames exploded outward from his body.

Naruto crashed through the flaming shockwave, feeling it as little more than a warm breeze through the haze of rage and the red chakra that seemed to feed it. He landed on Kouro and drove the shinobi to his knees as his hands locked around the bastard’s throat. The man’s hands tore at his wrists, but Naruto’s arms could not be moved. The fire storm around them gained in strength as the man’s struggles grew more frenzied. Naruto grinned, enjoying the weak man’s terror, but a flash of light grey in the corner of his vision seemed to nag at something in his mind. With a wrench, Naruto turned his eyes away from the intoxicating terror in the man’s eyes and looked to his left. The firestorm jutsu, heightened by mortal terror, was still expanding. Kurenai and the ice-nin, still locked in mortal combat, were forced to move away, but the flames were also creeping toward Hinata’s unconscious body.

Naruto felt like he’d been dunked in ice water. His head snapped back around and he snapped the fire-ninja’s neck with one quick motion. He turned toward Hinata, but the metallic ninja was in his way, his face twisted into a rictus of hate.

An enormous fist cocked back and rocketed toward Naruto’s face, but he simply raised one hand and caught it. The man grunted and slammed his foot into Naruto’s stomach, picking him up and throwing back backward into a half-burned tree trunk.

“I don’t know what kind of freak power you have,” he snarled, “But I can turn my skin into solid steel! You have as little chance of defeating me as that stupid teacher that tried to protect those brats. I’m going to crush you, and then your leader, and then I’ll kill your little friends before I collect my prize… and there is nothing you can do to stop me.”

Rather than standing, Naruto raised himself onto all fours, balanced on his fingertips and the balls of his feet. In a flash, he drove forward, sending gouts of churned earth flying into the air behind him. The metallic ninja laughed and launched himself forward as well, his fist poised to crush the runty brat who dared kill one of his men.

There was a loud crunch as the two collided, and dust and debris filled the air around them. As it settled, one could see where a huge fist had smashed into the ground, flattening everything under it as it made a crater nearly six feet across.

A much smaller fist could be seen protruding from the broad metallic back. Blood poured out of the wound, joining the growing pool beneath the crouching giant.

Smeared with blood and dirt, Naruto levered himself out from between the dead man’s arm and his legs. He’d managed to beat the punch, letting it land harmlessly behind him as he slammed his fist through the bastard’s chest… but he hadn’t changed back from steel with death, and he was heavy as hell.

The blond genin finally squirmed free and looked for his sensei.

OoOoO

The ice user, whom Kurenai recognized from the Bingo Book as Lisuke the Ice Knife was surprisingly skillful with his created weapons, and they’d exchanged over a dozen blows before Kurenai was fatally distracted by the burst of killer intent radiating from her genin. Was the Kyuubi about to break free after all?

Seizing his chance, the ice user bound her feet in ice. She instantly threw her kunai at him, but he’d anticipated that and ducked them easily. Another Hyoton jutsu bound her arms at her sides, rendering her helpless.

But rather than immediately kill his helpless opponent, the ice-nin watched in shock as the blond brat exploded with a ferocious red chakra and killed both Kouro the Flame and Kazuyo the Anvil. Turning toward the boy’s jonin, and now his best ticket to getting out of this alive, he laid the point of his ice-sword alongside her throat and hoarsely asked her the question burning in his mind: “What the hell was that?”

The answer came from an unexpected direction, a whisper from behind his ear as the helpless jonin in front of him wavered and disappeared. “Kyuubi no Kitsune,” was all it said, sounding almost scared. It was the second to last thing he ever heard.

The last was the dull scrape of sharp steel on bone as a kunai was rammed into the base of his skull.

OoOoO

Naruto breathed a sigh of relief as Kurenai-sensei’s genjutsu wavered and faded out… and the last of the kidnappers fell like a puppet with its strings cut. As the red haze disappeared, he suddenly felt horribly tired and sore. After a moment, it was all he could do to stay on his feet.

“Naruto?” Kurenai asked in a quiet voice.

“Hai, sensei,” he answered. “Something weird happened. I… I think it started to get out or something.” He shuddered violently. If Kyuubi was in danger of breaking out… He jumped when Kurenai put her hand on his shoulder. Why was she willing to stand so close to him?

Kurenai looked him in the eyes as she slowed her breathing and seemed to gather her thoughts. “Naruto,” she began, “from what the Hokage told me, your seal was designed to let some of Kyuubi’s chakra filter out into your own. Apparently you drew on that when you became afraid.”

Naruto nodded, not bothering to correct her. He hadn’t been afraid, he’d been furious. “If I’m not going to go insane and kill everyone, can we check on Hinata and Shino?”

“I’ll take care of that,” Kurenai said as she knelt down next to Hinata. “Can you track down Sarutobi Konohamaru and Hyuuga Hanabi?”

Naruto nodded and took a deep breath. “Konohamaru!!!” he yelled.

“Yeah?” a voice echoed from the trees nearby.

Naruto shrugged at Kurenai who had turned toward him, scowling. “He never does what he’s told to do,” Naruto explained.

“All right,” Kurenai said. “If you know him, reassure him that everything is all right, and keep an eye on Hinata. I think she’s just stunned, and I need to see to Shino.”

Naruto nodded and slumped down next to his teammate. He was worried about Shino’s arm, but Hinata looked so still, lying there like that…

“Naruto?” Konohamaru whispered. Naruto looked up, but he couldn’t immediately see the little brat. Maybe he wasn’t so bad at the camouflaging art when it was for real.

“It’s safe to come out,” Naruto said wearily. “We… we got them. We got them all. They won’t be hurting anyone ever again.” He tried to push Iruka-sensei out of his mind, but it wouldn’t cooperate. He’d never get to treat him to ramen like he promised himself he would, dammit.

The bushes to his left stirred and Konohamaru cautiously stepped back into the clearing, still leading the little girl who must be Hinata’s sister. The white eyed girl looked at Hinata’s unconscious form with a curious lack of interest. “She’ll be okay,” Naruto reassured her, “she just got hit on the head.”

“I’m not surprised she was defeated,” the girl said in a clear voice. Her accent was cultured like Hinata’s, but the coldness of her words made Naruto scowl.

“She. Was. Not. Defeated,” Naruto snarled, angrily biting off each word. “She charged in there and rescued you, achieving her objective. The ninjas that kidnapped you are dead and we’re all alive. We won.”

Konohamaru glanced uneasily from his rival to his fellow kidnapping victim. “Ah… that’s good, Naruto-san. I’m glad Kurenai-sama was able to defeat them.”

Naruto sat for a moment, looking down at Hinata. “What happened to Iruka-sensei?” he asked quietly.

Konohamaru looked down. After a moment he sniffed loudly. “I’m sorry, Naruto. They grabbed me at recess, but I saw them at the last moment and called out. Sensei tried to stop them, but… the big one hit him so hard, I heard his bones break. But Sensei kept trying to get up again…”

Naruto closed his eyes, remembering how Iruka fought so hard to save him from Mizuki. “That sounds just like him.”

“The b-big one kept hitting him until he stopped moving. I was tied up and couldn’t do anything, but they made me watch before they put me in the sack. Sensei w-wasn’t breathing,” the boy sobbed.

“He should have been stronger if he was going to interfere,” the girl snapped. “If he’d been properly trained, he would have stopped them and they wouldn’t have gotten away with either of us.”

“You shut your mouth!” Konohamaru shouted at the younger girl, making her flinch back like she’d been slapped.

Her face went red and her eyes narrowed. “How dare you! Do you know who I am?” the girl snarled.

“He’s the Hokage’s grandson, so I believe he outranks you,” Naruto snapped, “not even counting the fact that you are an awful brat. I can’t believe you are Hinata’s sister, or that she’d even bother to try and rescue you.” His revulsion and grief at what had happened was rapidly turning into anger, and this spoiled brat who badmouthed Hinata and Iruka-sensei was really asking for it.

He swallowed his anger with great difficulty and looked down at Hinata. Her breathing was slow and even. Concentrating on that seemed to calm him. He failed to protect his teammates, but at least none of them had died. Shino might be badly hurt though.

As his stomach twisted with worry, he heard footsteps approaching. Naruto silently rolled to his feet, bringing his hands up in a taijutsu stance. Konohamaru inhaled sharply, staring at Naruto’s right arm. Previously concealed behind the genin’s torso, it was coated with drying blood up to the shoulder.

Naruto wearily released his breath and nearly dropped to his knees when Kurenai helped Shino limp into the clearing. There were bandages wrapped around his right forearm, and the sleeve of his red shirt was scorched and seared where it protruded from the right arm hole of his jacket. Naruto blinked. Seeing that unexpectedly bright red shirt at a distance, he’d thought Shino’s arm had been burned far worse than it was. He felt a small smile tug at his mouth, the first since they’d left for patrol that morning.

Hinata stirred at last, rolling onto her side and clutching her head. Naruto carefully pulled a cloth from his belt with his left hand, wetted it down with his canteen, and wiped at the clotted blood along Hinata’s hairline.

His teammate’s eyes shot open and she winced in pain.

“It’s all right, Hinata,” Naruto said. “We got them. Your sister and Konohamaru are safe.”

Hinata seemed to relax slightly at this news.

“My name is Hanabi,” the younger girl snapped irritably.

“Your name will be face-in-mud if you don’t shut up,” Naruto replied with a glare.

“I-it’s all right, Naruto,” Hinata said quietly. “Hanabi, were you injured?”

“No, no thanks to you. Father will be furious when he finds out you were the first to fall.” Naruto thought the girl derived some weird sort of satisfaction from this pronouncement.

Hinata sat up quickly, and Naruto noticed she bit her lower lip and shut her eyes for a moment. He glared at Hanabi, but the girl didn’t comment. What the hell was going on with these two?

Hinata slowly climbed to her feet. Naruto thought she was barely keeping her balance, but some impulse kept him from reaching out to steady her. “If you are unhurt, we should probably return to our camp to regroup,” she said.

“That might be a good idea,” Kurenai said, glancing over at Naruto. “But we should moderate our pace for our guests.”

They set out for their camp, walking slowly along the forest floor. After a few minutes, Naruto felt his energy returning and he no longer had to concentrate to avoid stumbling. Of course, putting his weights back on didn’t help the situation.

Shino was right in front of him, along with the two young children, both of whom seemed to be a little afraid of the quiet bug-nin. Hinata was in the lead with Kurenai.

“Hinata,” Kurenai said, her voice carrying through the still air. “I understand that you were concerned about rescuing your sister, but do you think it might have been better if we devised a plan before attacking the kidnappers?”

“G-gomen, Sensei,” Hinata said, ducking her head apologetically. “I would have preferred to have done that,” she continued, her voice clearer than it usually was when she was embarrassed and apologizing. “But there wasn’t time. As fast as they were moving, if we didn’t immediately intercept them, they might have outrun us to the border with Earth Country.”

“I see,” Kurenai said thoughtfully. “I agree with your reasoning, Hinata. Your decisive action not only saved two lives, but it also prevented a diplomatic incident, if not a war.”

Hanabi let out a snort. Konohamaru shushed her, glancing worriedly back at Naruto.

Naruto didn’t say anything, but he could feel his upper lip curling. Hinata really had saved their butts… so why was her sister being such a brat about it?

OoOoO

The sun was setting and Naruto was very happy when they reached the camp so he could sit down for a moment… even if Hanabi didn’t seem to think much of it.

Konohamaru, on the other hand, thought it was ‘really neat’. Naruto knew he was training to become a ninja of the Leaf. Maybe this was a preview of what he might be doing in a few years when he’d have missions of his own. On the other hand, there was no telling what Hanabi’s problem was.

After a moment, he rose to his feet and made his way to the nearby stream. The blood came off his hand fairly easily, as did the bloody mud that stuck to his pants. But the blood in his jacket had soaked in, and he really had to scrub to get it out. The heavy fabric was waterlogged before he was done. He grimaced and carried the folded jacket back to the tents, planning to dry it by the fire.

The evening air was cool on his skin, and the breeze ruffled his black t-shirt as he walked toward the fire. Konohamaru looked up and peered at him curiously. “What’s that, Naruto-san?” he asked, pointing at Naruto’s wrist.

Naruto peered down at the rounded bracer of leather and metal. “Ah, that’s my wrist-weight. It helps me increase my speed and strength.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Hinata look up suddenly, her expression chagrined. Kurenai wordlessly reached into her bag and handed Hinata her weights. Hinata accepted them with a blush.

Hanabi peered at him curiously. “What’s the point of slowing yourself down with those?” 

She hadn’t noticed Hinata, for which Naruto was quietly grateful, so he answered her question, ignoring the tone. “If I wear these all the time, my muscles get used to moving with the extra burden… then when I really need it, I get rid of the weights and I move that much faster. Wearing these when you train is also good for building up your endurance.”

“You spar with weights on?” Konohamaru asked, eyes wide.

“Yeah,” Naruto said. “I learned about them sparring with an older shinobi named Rock Lee.”

Hanabi let out a laugh. “I know him. He’s that loud crazy baka that Neji-nii-san is saddled with on his team. I wouldn’t do anything he told me to do.”

“It was Gai-sensei’s idea,” Naruto said coldly, “who is Lee’s sensei and must therefore be this Neji’s Jonin sensei as well. Why don’t you ask your ‘Neji-nii-san’ if his Sensei is a fool? That man knows more about taijutsu than almost anyone I can think of.”

“NARUTO!” a loud voice cried out, making him cringe reflexively. “It warms my heart to hear you defend my teachings! You have truly not forgotten the fire of youth!”

“Gai?” Naruto gasped.

“Yosh, Sensei!”

“Lee…” Naruto said, rubbing at his eyes.

Gai and Lee leapt into the clearing, obviously practicing their “Dynamic Entry” jutsu. They were followed - less dramatically - by several ANBU in their distinctive animal masks, a large, rough-looking woman with red marks on her face and shaggy hair, a huge black dog, a man with long hair and white eyes, and a tall man with sunglasses and a large concealing full-length coat that had to be related to Shino. Tenten and a boy with the distinctive Hyuuga eyes rounded out the crowd.

Hanabi immediately ran toward the white-eyed man in long, flowing white robes. She quickly bowed before him and he nodded his acknowledgement. Hinata shakily rose from her seat and presented herself similarly… but her bow did not receive any acknowledgement.

The tall woman grunted and scratched the black dog’s ears. “I told you the kids had been released,” she grumbled. “Their scent trails held no hints of duress, and Kuromaru can always tell the difference.”

“I am… surprised that those three were bested by a team of mere genin,” the white-eyed man said. “It would be more likely that they had their prize stolen by Iwa-nin taking advantage of the Hokage’s laxness.”

Naruto scowled at that. Their counterparts across the border only tried something once… well, that they knew of. Still, they didn’t seem eager to test them after that first confrontation.

“However unlikely it may seem, Hiashi-sama,” the man wearing sunglasses replied in an urbane tone, “it would appear that those three missing-nins were, in fact, defeated by a genin team.” The man turned toward Shino. “To what extent were you injured?”

“I sustained first degree burns to my right forearm, with some second-degree tissue damage in one spot on the top of my wrist, along with mild smoke inhalation,” Shino replied in a curiously detached voice. But then he frowned enough for his eyebrows to become visible. “Unfortunately, I was surprised by a seal-less fire jutsu and sustained significant losses to my colony. I estimate my kikai-jutsu capacity has been decreased by sixty percent.”

The older man nodded slowly. “It was fortunate that you had not committed more of your reserves. However, when you accompany us back to Konoha, you can bind more to your queen to restore your colony.”

But Shino shook his head. “Unfortunately, our relief is not due for another three days.”

The large woman let out a loud bark of laughter. “I think the ANBU can cover for you for a couple of days. Your team looks like it went through a meat-grinder, you most of all.”

“A-ano,” Hinata said hesitantly, drawing annoyed glares from the two Hyuuga men that made her falter for a moment. “The Hokage ordered us to stay here until we received a specific written message,” she continued quickly, ducking her head.

Naruto blinked. He was honestly surprised that she’d managed to get that out… not to mention a little proud of his shy team mate. “Hinata’s right,” he said loudly, drawing the attention of the angry Hyuugas. Not that he cared – they were probably idiots like Hanabi, anyway.

Gai-sensei frowned. “Kurenai?” he asked. 

“My genin have accurately summarized our orders,” she said, and the pride in her voice was unmistakable. “We would be failing to complete our assigned mission if we left the border now… unless you have specific orders from the Hokage?”

“Are you openly defying my authority?” the elder Hyuuga asked in a dangerous tone.

Kurenai lifted her chin. “Not at all,” she said coolly. “But our orders came from the Hokage, and only he may countermand them. You, Hiashi-sama, are not part of that chain of command.”

“No one wishes to usurp your mission, Kurenai-san,” Shino’s father said quickly, cutting off Hiashi and earning a glare of his own. “We merely thought your team was not in a condition to complete it.”

“Your concern is appreciated,” Kurenai replied politely, “but Hinata and Naruto are basically uninjured, and Shino’s mobility is unimpaired. Additionally, the Rock ninja appear to be… less than eager to test our defenses.”

“Were they scared off when we all arrived, sensei?” Lee asked Gai.

“No,” Shino answered, shaking his head, “they think Naruto is the Fourth Hokage and are therefore terrified of him.”

Naruto wanted to sink into the earth – without using a Doton jutsu – as the adults all turned toward him in shock. One of the ANBU snorted behind his mask. Naruto supposed Shino was getting payback for all the times he’d knocked him around during their latest sparring sessions. “Hey! They were standing a long distance away!” he grumbled.

“A very long distance,” the wild-haired woman agreed, laughing coarsely, “if they though you were the Yondaime!”

Naruto scowled and stuck his lip out. The patient, watchful corner of his mind that Kurenai-sensei had been encouraging him to develop noted the way his antics had dispersed the tension in the air. Most of the adults were smiling slightly, except Hiashi-teme, who was glaring at him, and the other genins looked bored. At least no one was glaring holes in Hinata, or acting like they were going to try to force them to abandon their mission.

“However,” the older version of Shino continued after a moment, “my son will still be operating with a significant handicap with his depleted kikai swarm.”

“My sentries are still in place,” Shino replied calmly. “While I may not have as much directed capacity, Naruto and Hinata’s capabilities have grown well beyond my projections. They will more than offset the deficit.”

Naruto was a little embarrassed that Hinata puzzled out their teammate’s words before he did, and was the first to turn toward Shino in mild shock. Was he actually praising their strength, in his own weird way? He found himself anticipating bragging about such an unexpected development the next time he saw Iruka-sensei… then his stomach tried to turn itself inside out and it was all he could do to control his facial expression.

“I am gratified that your first-hand observations have proven to be superior in terms of accuracy,” Shino’s father replied. “However, there may be another option. I will leave one of my smaller colonies with you, and replace it when I return.”

“A-a second colony?” Shino said, stammering for the first time Naruto could remember.

“Yes,” the man replied. “You are due to begin hosting a second group, as you are well beyond my own projections regarding your development. I commend your sensei for her suggested training regimen.” He paused to nod slightly toward Kurenai, who returned the acknowledgment, blushing slightly. “We have already discussed the theory behind managing multiple queens,” he continued, “just make sure their reproductive cycles do not conflict and you should do well.”

“Thank you,” Shino said as his father put a hand on his shoulder. Naruto tried not to make a face as a large number of bugs crawled out of the man’s sleeve and flowed over Shino’s collar. Just watching it made him itch between his shoulder blades. He knew Shino probably had him bug-tagged as a precaution – he just preferred not to think about it.

Naruto decided to casually look away before the compulsion to scratch became too strong. Gai-sensei caught his eye and nodded gravely. “I hope you are keeping up with your training,” he said. “Lee has already increased his weights again.”

Naruto grimaced. Crap…“I’ve sparred as much as I am able, but we’ve been working more on Jutsus and chakra control.”

Gai planted his fists on his hips and struck what he probably thought was an encouraging pose. “That’s all right, Naruto. You can practice those while you are away. Lee and I will get you back in shape when you return. I’ll also want to hear about your battle. Those missing-nins were serious opponents, and I’ll want to hear about your contributions to your team’s victory.”

Naruto made a face, but nodded and quickly changed the subject. There was a question that was eating at him anyway. “Er, do you think the, uh, funeral will be held before we return.”

Gai frowned in confusion. “We won’t hold a funeral for those criminals, Naruto. The ANBU will retrieve their bodies for study, but they deserve no better than that for what they did.”

Naruto shook his head. “No, I mean for I-Iruka-sensei,” he said in little more than a whisper. His throat was trying to close for some reason. Just saying it made it all too real.

Gai let out a laugh, which sparked a momentary rage in Naruto. “Iruka was badly injured, but he was found in time and brought to the hospital. Before the ANBU located the kidnappers’ trail, I was told that he is expected to make a full recovery.”

Naruto’s eyes widened. “YATTA!” he screamed as he leapt into the air, pumping his fists. All the others were staring at him, some of them with obvious distaste, but he couldn’t care less.

OoOoO

Gai, after a quick consultation with Kurenai, led his team on a quick circuit of the border zone “for practice” as Shino’s father, Aburame Shibi, finalized the colony transfer to his son. Hiashi stood at the edge of the camp, his arms folded in obvious impatience, as the rough-looking woman (who’d been introduced as Inuzuka Tsume, Kiba’s mother!), stood next to him, telling jokes to the silent ANBU; of course, she might have received more reaction if they had been good jokes.

Konohamaru joined Naruto in a relieved mixture of crying and laughter when he realized that he’d been wrong about Iruka. Hanabi looked like she was about to say something when Hinata suggested that she should report to their father. The younger girl looked sharply at her sister, her eyes widening slightly in surprise, but she didn’t say anything before she stalked off.

“I’m glad Iruka-sensei will recover,” Hinata said in a quiet voice.

“Yeah,” Naruto said. “I’m sorry I kind of went nuts when Gai told me.” He scratched at the back of his head as his face colored a little. Recalling the contempt of the Hyuugas’ faces made him scowl.

“Is... is it a bad thing to care about people, Naruto?” Hinata asked. “It’s not something… something you should be ashamed of, is it?”

Naruto frowned. Was she asking him or telling him? He wondered if she thought about that a lot. “I don’t know, Hinata. We were told in the Academy that shinobi are supposed to be emotionless, but Kurenai doesn’t seem to feel that way.” He recalled how she encouraged him to think of his teammates as friends to be protected. Even if that was his role on Team Eight, she didn’t seem to just think about it in that way. “That’s good, too,” he concluded after a moment, “because I don’t want to be a ninja like that, do you?”

Hinata smiled shyly, shaking her head as her eyes veered downward.

“You were worried about your sister, weren’t you?” he asked after a moment’s thought. Konohamaru still sat off to the side, listening quietly.

Hinata hesitated before nodding.

“When you grabbed her from that missing-nin… you should have seen how you moved, Hinata. You were incredible!”

“I was?” she asked. “I don’t remember… I just remember being scared she would be hurt.”

Naruto shook his head. “You grabbed her and ran up that tree so fast I could barely see you. In a flash, you had her behind Kurenai and were cutting her free. Do you think you would have done as well if you didn’t care?”

Hinata shook her head slowly.

“Good!” Naruto said, “and if caring about people is not the regular way for shinobi… well, we’ll just make our own way of the ninja, right?”

Hinata looked up, meeting his eyes for once. “Right!” she said, her normally velvet-soft voice carrying a hint of steel.

Naruto couldn’t help but smile at her fierceness, and she immediately looked away and excused herself, saying she needed to see about dinner. He frowned at her back as she walked toward the fire. What had he said wrong now?

He looked down at Konohamaru, whose face was scrunched up in a frown. “I like that nin-do, Naruto-san. I’m going to tell Oji-san that I want to follow that nin-do as well!”

Naruto made a chagrined face as Konohamaru stood up and walked over to get a better look at Tsume’s enormous nin-dog, Kuromaru. He didn’t want to think about all the trouble he would be in if people thought he’d corrupted the Hokage’s grandson into following some heretical nin-do. Of course, the aggravation it would give that stuck up ero-baka, Ebisu, might be worth it.

The blond genin sighed as he stretched before leaving to gather more wood to build up the fire. Hinata was preparing most of their stored meat and dipping heavily into the rice bag, using the largest collapsible pot to boil it. He supposed she was right to do so, if she planned to feed this many people.

Kurenai gave Naruto a pointed look as he returned with an armload of dead wood. She cut her eyes toward a very industrious Hinata and smiled slightly. Naruto nodded and left to get more wood. A lot more.

OoOoO

The campsite smelled rather appetizing when Team Gai returned.

“Your system of semi-random paths is very devious,” Gai announced in a grand voice. “It would be quite difficult for an intruder to anticipate your position at any particular time… especially if young Shino has made good use of his ‘little friends’, ha ha ha!”

Naruto did his best to show respect and not wince at Gai’s… humor. Shino and his father nodded at each other and stood up. Naruto’s ears could almost make out what sounded like a faint buzzing sound coming from them, but he couldn’t be sure.

Hinata was setting out their entire store of eating utensils, and Tsume was eagerly walking toward the fire when Hiashi’s voice interrupted them. “If the Aburames are done, we should leave now,” he said.

“Hey, she just fixed dinner for us!” Tsume objected.

“It will soon be dark,” Hiashi said in a patronizing tone. “We are very near a semi-hostile border. You may risk the Hokage’s grandson if you wish, but I do not want my heir to linger here any longer than necessary. Now that the Aburame is finished with his son, I insist that she be brought back to Konoha. With a full escort. Immediately.”

“Hiashi-sama is within his rights to make such a demand,” Shino’s father said in a very bland tone. Naruto glanced at Shino out of the corner of his eye. He had some suspicions about when Shino talked like that, and they were now being confirmed. “We will return now. Kurenai-san, we will report to the Hokage as soon as possible. Understand that I will advise him to recall your team immediately for a thorough debriefing. Try to record any words the kidnappers may have said or any clues as to the identity of their employers. The direction of their flight may not be a completely reliable indicator of their objectives.”

Kurenai nodded as the visitors all stood up. Naruto noticed Hinata hurriedly placed some of the rice balls and seasoned deer skewers into a folded cloth and quickly handed it to Tenten. The weary kunoichi smiled and bowed to the girl, as did Lee, whose stomach let out a low growl.

Naruto guessed they would be traveling fast, because the Hyuuga boy, Neji, picked up Hanabi and Gai lifted a protesting Konohamaru into his arms. They leapt into the trees, surrounded by most of the ANBU squad. Shibi, Hiashi, and the rest of Team Gai followed. Tsume scowled after them, but smiled when Hinata handed her another bundle of food. The jonin playfully mussed the girl’s hair as she thanked her, then she followed the others into the trees, Kuromaru loping into the woods below her.

Still, when she turned back around, the blushing Hinata looked at all the remaining food she’d worked so hard to prepare and her face fell.

“Well…” Naruto said, racking his brains for something to say to her. “More for us! I’m really starving, and Shino is eating for three now!”

In all honesty, the fight had taken a lot out of him, so he joined his team at the cook fire and proceeded to stuff his face. Shino and Kurenai also seemed unusually hungry as well. In the end, his stomach hurt, a little, but there weren’t any leftovers from the large meal. Hinata’s eyes had gone a little wide as Naruto continued to eat the simple, but well-prepared food.

When he was finally done, Naruto leaned back and patted his slightly distended stomach. He could barely move, and they’d have to hunt tomorrow, but Hinata was smiling, a little ruefully, at her teammates.

That night, as Naruto struggled to find a comfortable position to sleep in, he wondered about this new nin-do he and Hinata were going to follow. He’d need to think about this. A lot.

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

A/N:

Many thanks to my betas, Runsamok and bibliophile20.

It’s a lot easier to get this done, now that my home computer is working again!

In case there was any doubt, nice, meaty reviews do motivate me to update sooner. Tell me what you liked about the chapter, which one-liners or cool moments really “made” it for you. Not only is it a motivator, it also helps me fine-tune my storytelling, and lets me know which jokes and references people are actually getting and what might be too obscure. Likewise, if something strikes an off chord, let me know too…

In response to some feedback, I’ve been playing around with a translator to get better Japanese names for my jutsus…

“Naruto Majutsu:”- Naruto’s Special Technique (Sorcery)…  Yes, it’s a slightly grandiose title for a relatively simple technique, but remember who we’re talking about here…

“Iwa” – Stone or Rock

“Doton: Wana”  - Earth Release : Snare

“Katon: Gurando Fenikkusu Kachuu” – Fire Release: Grand Phoenix Vortex

“taishou” – boss

“Suiton: Gyoushuu” – Water Release: Condensation

“Katon: Okibi Shounetsujigoku” – Fire Release: Blazing Fire – Burning Hell

“nin-do” – literally ninja-way or way of the ninja

On a side note, some people seem to be equating “Raiton: Shokkingu Haji!” (Shocking Grasp) to the Chidori. Not even close. The chidori is a piercing (heck, armor-piercing) attack formed out of something that looks like electrical energy, but is bound into some sort of sharpened blade around the hand. Shokkinggu Haji is simple electrical generation. If you slammed one of those into Gaara’s ultimate defense sphere, it would simply ground out into the earth.

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

-Matthew

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