Content Harry Potter Naruto
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Of course, keep in mind... they ARE twelve. Best to be patient...

Chapter Nine

Yuuhi Kurenai couldn’t recall ever being quite so relieved to see the familiar skyline of Konoha again. The only time that even came close was when she returned alone that time… but she’d been too numbed by the death she had seen to feel much of anything. She was annoyed to find herself unconsciously smoothing her sleeve, but the fabric wasn’t stiff with Mattai’s blood.

Perhaps Sarutobi was correct about her living far too much in the past.

She glanced back at her genin team, proud of the way they maintained their formation and remained alert. Only the occasional smile from one of them indicated that they weren’t still in the border zone.

Shino, of course, was as reserved and taciturn as usual, even disregarding how little of his face was visible. Hinata had been quiet since they’d received orders to return to Konoha, and her face seemed to settle into a mask as the gates appeared in the distance.

No, it was Naruto who was different. The blond genin had changed since the day he’d finally revealed the truth to his team mates. Kurenai wasn’t normally one to become overly smug, but she’d been exactly right about the effects of him opening up to Shino and Hinata. A weight, present for as long as she’d known him, seemed to have lifted from his shoulders. She knew that her acceptance of him had made a difference, but the acceptance of his peers, especially given the implications of the Hokage’s law, seemed even more crucial.

Rather than rejecting or fearing him, as the Sandaime seemed to fear, Hinata and Shino had accepted the presence of the Kyuubi within Naruto in as positive a way as Kurenai could have hoped. Indeed, if what she’d pieced together was correct, Hinata had reacted in a rather… violent… way to the implication that Naruto was a monster. Nothing else could explain the distant shout that had carried up from the stream.

Kurenai grew more concerned for her other students now. After her father’s abominable behavior at their camp, she wasn’t surprised that Hinata seemed to dread returning to Konoha. More surprising was the undercurrent of anger she seemed to sense in Shino. The boy was as quiet as ever, but his forehead, the only portion of his face fully visible, seemed to be furrowed with a frown more and more often. When she’d asked him if anything was the matter during a rest stop, he’d merely said that he was “being forced to re-evaluate his assessments of a large number of parties”. This was unusually opaque, even for an Aburame, but he seemed to be feeling an echo of her own anger regarding how Konoha dealt with… certain issues.

All the same, she needed to caution the boy to be circumspect. If her suspicions were true, there might be a deeper issue than simple bigotry – not something a genin should be directly involved in, no matter how talented he might be. She supposed she might be hopelessly paranoid, but she’d rather that than to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Maybe Umino Iruka would be ready for a visitor after they reported to the Hokage.

OoOoO

Aburame Shino let his body move automatically, his team mates and allies alert for danger, while his mind composed a list of people.

At the top of the list, of course, were his parents, especially his father. While he appreciated the strictures the Hokage’s law forced him to operate under, Shino did not appreciate the paucity of hard information that his clan had acquired before formulating their opinion of Uzumaki Naruto. He hadn’t missed the concerned silence among many of his relatives when his team assignment had been announced. Even more galling was the realization that he’d allowed their unreasoning distaste for the prankster to color his own opinions while they were both students at the Konoha Ninja Academy.

Shino did not know whether it was more annoying to realize he’d been wrong, or that he’d picked up their attitude without realizing it. Either way, it was past time for him to realign some peoples’ attitudes to make them more congruent with the reality of the situation.

In short, he was highly offended.

That was the only word that really fit. His clan had compromised the integrity of his logic and his objectivity. And that was completely unacceptable.

Not for the last time, Shino heard the low buzz as his new colony became agitated. He forced himself to let his aggravation abate. It would not do to upset his new allies.

OoOoO

Hinata felt her stomach contract with dread as the gates of Konoha appeared in the distance. She loved her village, but in this situation, she dreaded what the sight of it symbolized. Their mission was coming to an end.

The border patrol had been a dangerous, dirty, strenuous job. Her muscles still ached, with or without the weights, from the endless patrols they’d run. Despite bathing in the stream as often as possible, she still felt grimy, and her jacket was several shades of grey darker than when she left, due to the build-up of ground-in dirt. She’d been in dangerous situations more than once, and if it hadn’t been for Naruto, she would likely have died trying to rescue Hanabi.

Yet, it had also been one of the happiest times of her life.

It was puzzling at first, the joy she’d taken in such a difficult mission. It wasn’t until she thought back on her father’s visit to Team Eight’s camp site that it began to sink in. It was reasonable for him to join the pursuit of Hanabi’s kidnappers, and to make sure every means was used to secure her freedom and guarantee the safety of the Hyuuga bloodline.

Nonetheless, it had felt… wrong… for him to be there. The camp site that they had spent so much time preparing, the camp that had witnessed so many meals and idle conversations with her team… it felt violated by her father’s presence. When Hinata realized that she didn’t want him to be there, she was initially scandalized by her blatant disrespect. He was her father, and more importantly the head of the clan. She should have felt honored by his presence, however fleeting.

She tried to make him and the others feel welcome, preparing as good a meal as could be managed in such rustic surroundings, but she was too slow and that had been thwarted as well. Even now, her face burned at the thought of all the wasted food – the sign of a foolish host. She regretted it later, but she’d been gratified that Naruto and Shino ate so much, even as she realized that they were doing it solely to save her feelings.

Just thinking about her team mates made her wish they were leaving for another patrol, rather than returning from one. She knew she’d sleep better in the small tent she shared with Kurenai-sensei than in her soft bed in the Hyuuga compound. A place where no one wanted a failure like her.

OoOoO

Naruto’s heart sped up when he saw the gates of Konoha. Their mission was coming to an end. More importantly, everyone was returning under their own power. Shino’s burned wrist was hardly more than an annoyance at this point, and the larger boy made a point of sparring with Naruto more than once on the way back. Shino was a little careful how he blocked with that arm, but when Naruto found himself unconsciously easing up on his team mate, the bug user blew him off his feet with a side-thrust kick that drove the air from his lungs.

Naruto shook his head at the memory of rolling to his feet, gasping, only to see Shino standing in a taijutsu stance, right arm extended and making a “come here” gesture with his fingers. After that he relaxed and went all out against his friend, and they were both thoroughly bruised within half an hour.

Friend. That word again. He wondered if Kurenai-sensei ever got tired of being right all the time. It made a huge difference to know that Shino and Hinata knew about the Kyuubi, and just didn’t care. Moreover, Shino figured it out on his own, and Hinata had guessed. His team mates would have to have been extremely dense or self-centered for him to be able to conceal his differences for much longer.

But they knew, and more importantly, they accepted him. He didn’t think he’d ever forget the shock when Hinata had just exploded like that. He never imagined that she could ever get angry like that, but watching her get absolutely furious on his behalf – that was an odd feeling. Unsettling… but nice.

However, as they returned to Konoha, the kunoichi became increasingly quiet and withdrawn. Naruto wasn’t the most perceptive shinobi in his class, but the change in her demeanor was more than obvious to him. It was puzzling, especially in its timing. They were leaving the danger zone now, and returning to a safe area – as safe as any village full of shinobi, that is. Naruto was looking forward to some civilized amenities involving heated water – ramen and showers – and he would have thought Hinata would as well. At least the showers anyway.

Instead she looked increasingly uncomfortable as they approached the gates. He wondered about some things he’d learned during their mission. Hanabi was a brat, of that there was no question. Naruto had no siblings, but he’d heard Kiba complain about his older sister often enough to realize that brothers and sisters didn’t always get along.

On the other hand, her father should have been proud of the way Hinata had rescued her sister. Instead, he and that jerk cousin of hers looked at Hinata like it was her fault Hanabi had been kidnapped in the first place. Naruto didn’t understand it. But he didn’t have to understand it to know he didn’t like it.

Uzumaki Naruto rubbed at the back of his head as he thought it over. Thinking like this wasn’t one of his strengths, but Kurenai-sensei had been pushing him more and more to see ‘underneath the underneath’. It was a really goofy phrase that meant trying to understand all the subtle undercurrents in a situation. It was a good skill for a shinobi to develop, because on a mission, unseen things could end your life. On the other hand, Naruto didn’t think it was supposed to be applied to understanding kunoichis.

But for all that, it wasn’t too hard to put together. He remembered how tired and sore Hinata had been from that special Hyuuga training, and how she seemed to revive once they were out in the woods. He remembered the long hours she volunteered to do extra training with him, and her embarrassed silence when he’d asked if her family wouldn’t object to her working so late and missing dinner. Combining that with the cold way her father had treated her at the campsite led Naruto to only one inescapable conclusion.

Hinata’s family sucked worse than cold ramen.

Naruto was about to congratulate himself on his perceptiveness when the natural follow-up question left him stumped. What could he possibly do about it? He didn’t think beating the crap out of Hyuuga Hiashi would help, even if he were capable of such a thing. Puzzling over this eroded any sense of triumph he’d gleaned from his realization. Furtive glances at his team mate seemed to confirm his guess, as her gaze seem to sink lower and lower toward the ground as she approached the walls of Konoha.

Naruto’s mood sank as well. Even though he thought he knew the source of the problem, he couldn’t think of anything he could do to help. He hated feeling helpless, especially when one of his friends was hurting, but how could he protect her from her family? He let out a sigh as they passed through the gates, causing Yuuhi Kurenai to glance back at him.

Maybe Kurenai-sensei will know what to do, he mused. A little weight seemed to lift from his shoulders at the thought. He’d never seen her at a loss before.

Well, maybe except for that one time with the Lee-spandex-Henge.

OoOoO

In accord with standing orders, no sooner had Kurenai reported to the Chuunin guarding the Hokage’s door than they were ushered into his office. The old man was concerned, but he still smiled as Team Eight filed into the room and stood before him. They stood at attention, but he waved over one of the Chuunins and folding chairs were brought for all of them.

“This may take a while, he explained. “But before we begin your official debriefing,” he began, setting down his pipe, “I want to personally thank you for my grandson’s safety. Konohamaru still grumbles about having to be saved by his ‘eternal rival’,” the old man paused, smiling as Naruto rolled his eyes, “but I can tell from his eyes that it was a very close thing. I can’t tell you how relieved I am, or how proud I am that you are all shinobi of The Leaf.”

The three genin all looked down, clearly embarrassed from his praise.

The Hokage cleared his throat and asked Yuuhi Kurenai to make her official report. He listened intently as she summarized the events of the last few weeks, but he did stop her at some points for clarification.

“They mistook Naruto for the Yondaime?” he asked, both startled and alarmed at that revelation.

“That is correct, Hokage-sama,” Kurenai confirmed. “The Iwa shinobi grew quite alarmed at his presence, but they did not seek to test our vigilance again after that initial confrontation.”

Sarutobi rubbed at his chin as he pondered this. “A quiet border is a blessing, but I will send a communiqué to our representative in Earth Country to explain their mistake. I would rather they did not feel that we were provoking them in such a fashion.”

“Send them my grades from the Academy, oji-san,” Naruto said with a grin. “Let them know they were scared of the ‘dead last’ in his class.”

The Sandaime was shocked by two things. The first was the fact that Naruto would make a joke about his poor grades in the Academy, something that had previously been a sore point with him. He couldn’t imagine him bringing that up, even for the opportunity to make someone else look foolish.

The other was the reactions of his team mates. The little Hyuuga girl turned toward Naruto, eyebrows drawing together and mouth half-opened. She hesitated, and the Hokage imagined that his presence was the only thing preventing her from protesting Naruto’s words.

Even more surprising was the Aburame boy’s reaction. He merely turned his head and glared at Naruto. Well, it was impossible to see his eyes, but his body language was unmistakable.

Naruto’s reaction supported the Hokage’s assessment as well, for he immediately flushed and scratched the back of his head, smiling sheepishly. “I was just kidding,” he mumbled. Beside them, Kurenai kept her face immobile, but her eyes were dancing with a mixture of pride and vindication. Sarutobi gave her a small nod of agreement. He was gratified to witness that Naruto was less defensive, and that he had made such loyal friends of his team mates. Perhaps one day the boy would be able to share his secret with others of his generation.

The light mood darkened as Kurenai began to describe the battle against the kidnappers. He was a little surprised to learn that the Hyuuga Hinata initiated the engagement, but her sensei made a point of explaining the rushed nature of the interception and how she fully supported Hinata’s reasoning. He also noticed Naruto nudging the girl, who was looking down and blushing.

“Yuuhi Kurenai is not one to lightly praise another’s logic,” the old man observed, making Kurenai grimace as the girl’s blush deepened. “The ability to make sound judgments on the spur of the moment is not one to take lightly.”

“Arigatou, Hokage-sama,” the girl said in a quiet voice.

As Kurenai described the battle, which had been as brutal as it was abrupt, the Hokage’s tension was only visible in a slight tightening of the weathered skin around his eyes. One of the hardest parts of this job, at least for him, was hearing about the battles of his shinobi after the fact, too late for him to do anything about it. The blood was already drawn, the lives ended. The only thing he could do now was try to draw as many lessons as possible from the now-concluded missions.

He winced internally when he learned of Shino’s burns, but the bandages on his arm were compact, and he did not seem to favor it. He grew alarmed for other reasons when he heard how Hinata was stunned by a lucky hunk of ice. With only Kurenai and Naruto facing three opponents…

“At this point,” Kurenai continued, “I heard Naruto shout as I fought Lisuke. He successfully drew on the Kyuubi’s chakra and used it to shield him from the flames so he was able to close with his opponent and…”

She stopped as the Hokage’s hand slammed down upon the desk. He stared at his jonin, wondering what had possessed her to break the law concerning… and then he noticed that her genin were all staring at him. And while they might have been startled by his outburst, they didn’t seem to have reacted to her casual mention of the nine-tailed fox.

“They already know,” Naruto said quietly, his voice sounding far too old for the energetic prankster he knew. “Shino figured it out on his own, and Hinata mostly guessed it. But I confirmed it, so no one broke your law.”

“And we did not run screaming into the night,” Shino murmured. Hinata frowned, and Sarutobi noticed her hand twitch, like she wanted to reach out to her team mate, but the motion ended almost as soon as it began, and he doubted anyone else even noticed.

“Naruto… “ the Hokage began, then stopped to consider his words. “It’s good to know that they accept you. Perhaps I was being too cautious when I made that law, but I decided to err on the side of caution regarding your future.”

Naruto looked up and locked eyes with the Third Hokage. “I understand,” was all he said, but it still shook the old man to his core. The boy’s eyes were an odd mixture of emotions: anger, sadness, and loneliness so poignant it shriveled his soul. But overriding all the rest was another emotion: forgiveness. Maybe there were better ways the whole situation could have been handled, but Naruto acknowledged that he’d tried his best.

It was both a liberating and a humbling experience. He wondered what else the boy had gone through during the mission.

Kurenai continued her narrative. He was a little shocked and saddened that Naruto had been put in the position of having to kill two of the kidnappers. But all that was forgotten when he heard the words “…and I learned that his psychological preparation at the Academy had been sabotaged. However, we were able to discuss what he should have learned, and…”

“Sabotaged?” he asked sharply.

“Yes, Hokage,” she replied. Her voice was calm, but her eyes were not. Naruto looked somewhat uncomfortable, but his team mates were staring at their Hokage, almost daring him to speak.

“Give me a written summary of his actions,” he said in a hard voice. “Once I have reviewed it, I will have him brought to Ibiki.”

“Thank you, Hokage-sama,” Kurenai said. Naruto and Hinata looked mystified, but the Aburame boy merely nodded approvingly. Sarutobi had little doubt that Aburame Shibi had acquainted his son with the names of Konoha’s important shinobi. The chief interrogation specialist would definitely be on his list, the old man mused as Kurenai resumed her report.

When she was done, the Hokage gave each of them a labeled envelope. “Here is your pay for an extended C-class mission,” he said. He then took out three more envelopes with official Konoha seals on them. “These are for the three missing nins that were eliminated,” he continued. “There were substantial bounties placed on their heads by their home villages, as well as other people they’d committed crimes against.” He gave one of the envelopes to Kurenai, and tried to hand the other two to Naruto, but the blond boy shook his head.

“Naruto,” Kurenai said gently. “You’ve saved some people a lot of trouble by your actions. It’s all right to accept this reward. For many of their victims, offering a bounty is the only way they can strike back at someone who had hurt them or their family.”

“That’s not what I mean, Sensei,” Naruto corrected her, his voice grave. “I understand the rewards, but these two shouldn’t be for me alone. We fought as a team. I mean, I wouldn’t even have seen them if Hinata hadn’t spotted them through their genjutsu, right?”

“Ano, Naruto, it’s all right,” the girl said hesitantly. But the boy just shook his head stubbornly.

“By the rules, Naruto struck the killing blows,” Kurenai observed. “But that means the money is his to do with as he will. If he wishes to share with his teammates, then so be it. I can get all three of these vouchers cashed and we can split the rewards.”

“Ah, sensei,” Naruto said quickly, “I didn’t mean you had to-“

Kurenai cut him off with a gesture. “I just happen to agree with you, Naruto. And am I not a member of the team as well?” She turned back toward the Hokage. “You will have a written report of my observations by tomorrow morning,” she promised in a tight voice.

The Third Hokage of Konohagakure dismissed Team Eight with a bemused smile on his face. He really should have talked Kurenai into taking a genin team long before now. He hadn’t seen a team that seemed so in tune with each other since…

It was hard, dreadfully hard, not to let other faces over-shadow the young ones before him. His own genin, that grew up to become the Sanin, the Yondaime’s first--and last--genin team, the Nara-Akimichi-Yamanaka trios that seemed to crop up in each generation… They were all unique, really. The human mind just tries to find patterns to make sense of life, even when there are none to be found.

But it didn’t require a historical perspective to realize that Kurenai’s genin had grown together as a team, and had done so to a greater extent than many experienced shinobi even realized was possible. Hatake Kakashi might understand, when he wasn’t too distracted by the ghosts of his past.

And while Kurenai had done an excellent job assembling her team, much like a skilled mason might build a brick wall capable of withstanding anything, the Hokage also realized something else. While Kurenai was the mason, Naruto was the mortar that held them all together. Their acceptance had given him something he’d always craved without even being able to understand why. But at the same time his awkward and often foolish demeanor masked a drive and a… wisdom… of a sort that the Sandaime only caught rare glimpses of during their infrequent talks. For someone with few real friends, Naruto was amazingly open and accepting. As he’d anticipated, once someone showed the boy some simple kindness, they discovered they’d also made a friend for life... one of surprising loyalty and determination.

The Third Hokage sighed and rubbed at his eyes. He got up from his chair and paced around his office, wincing at the pops and crackles as his old bones realigned themselves after sitting too long. He paused near the window and looked out across his beloved Konoha, toward the Hokage monument. His eyes lingered on the stone visage of his successor, and, sadly enough, predecessor as well.

“You did better than you knew,” the old man whispered before returning to his paperwork.

OoOoO

Oddly enough, Kurenai did not immediately dismiss them once they left the Hokage’s office. Naruto frowned a little when she said they had one more task to perform as a team, but that ended the moment she said it was a tradition she’d learned from her old sensei.

It didn’t take a genius to realize that Kurenai-sensei never talked about her original team, except in the most general of terms. Having been around shinobi much of his life, Naruto noticed how many of them would mention their old teachers or team mates. According to Shikamaru’s complaints, his father did little else when they talked, much to the lazy boy’s annoyance. However troublesome such habits might be for others, it only made the exceptions to the rule that much more noticeable. Naruto was curious as to why Kurenai never talked of them, but he hesitated to ask. Kurenai was a very private person in some ways, despite her forthright nature, and he suspected that her reasons for not speaking of them were sad ones.

It wasn’t that Naruto ever forgot that they were all shinobi, trained assassins who could be assigned any mission, no matter how dangerous, for the good of their village. But after a while the dangers just seemed so normal, that it was hard to keep them in the forefront of his mind. And perhaps that was for the best, because every time he even considered the possibility of losing his team mates on a mission, his mind sheered away from the enormity of that potential loss. Not for the first time, he realized that he literally would rather die than suffer the loss of one of the few people that cared for him. Kurenai-sensei said that she never expected Naruto to intercept every attack aimed at Shino or Hinata, but that was exactly what he wanted to do. He’d do whatever it took to keep his friends safe. Anything at all.

Naruto felt the hairs on the back of his neck begin to rise and realized with a start that the unnatural chakra he’d felt during the battle was returning. Remembering Kurenai’s words, he took a deep breath and made an effort to calm himself. He clenched and unclenched his hands, trying to ignore how sharp his fingernails were becoming, and hoping that his canines didn’t look as large as they suddenly felt. He looked up at his team mates, to remind himself that they were all right. Shino was walking silently beside Kurenai, hunched inside of his spare trench coat. Hinata was walking beside Naruto, seemingly lost in thought.

Though she walked with her eyes downcast, Naruto noticed that she’d fully adapted to her weights, and walked as gracefully as ever with their mass added to her arms and legs. Somehow the sight of her seemed to calm him, quelling the rising tide of anxiety about the future that wanted to overwhelm him.  He could feel his body returning to what, for him, counted as normal.

Almost as if she were sensing his thoughts, Hinata glanced toward Naruto, only to jump a little when she locked gazes with him. Her face turned red and she clasped her hands together. “A-ano?” she asked hesitantly.

“Looks like you’re ready to increase your weights again, Hinata-chan,” Naruto said brightly, relieved that the anxious pressure building inside of him was draining away.

“Oh!” Hinata said, looking crestfallen. “S-sorry,” she stammered, “I should have noticed sooner, a-and-”

Naruto frowned and her words cut off suddenly and she looked away. Why was she always apologizing for things that were not her fault? “Er, you know, Hinata, we’ve been out in the woods for several weeks. It’s not like you could buy extra weights from a squirrel.”

The kunoichi didn’t respond to his lame attempt at humor, and just looked down at her feet as they walked.

Naruto sighed. He didn’t know why his words always came out weird when he talked to Hinata, but he was getting tired of it. “Look,” he said. “I was just trying to say that you’ve fully adapted to wearing the weights, probably because you work really hard and probably slept with the damn things on. I need to get more weight added to mine as well. I’m sorry if it came out wrong, but I was trying to say ‘Nice work.’ And I’m really glad you’re on my team, too. I can’t picture Ino or Sakura working as hard as you have.” There, he thought with some satisfaction, no way can she take that wrong. He smiled at his team mate.

Hinata was left several paces behind as her legs momentarily froze in place. Her face turned bright red and Naruto wouldn’t have been surprised if her hair started to smoke and frizz up. He blinked, then ran back and waved his hand in front of Hinata’s eyes, startling her out of her daze. She ducked her head down with a small smile and they turned to follow their team mates…

Only to discover that Kurenai and Shino had turned around as well, and were staring at them.

Naruto shrugged and scratched the back of his head with a sheepish grin. At least he’d made himself understood properly. It was about time.

OoOoO

Hinata managed to get her face back under control by the time Kurenai-sensei led them to their destination. She found it difficult to concentrate after Naruto’s blunt, but honest words. She realized he was mirroring her words to him when she reassured him that she still wanted him to stay on Team Eight, Kyuubi and all, but it still shocked her when he said that he’d rather have her on his team than Ino or Sakura. Especially when she considered all the times he’d tried to ask Sakura out when they were in the Academy.

Naruto was glad she was his team mate. Her. The Hyuuga reject, who failed everything she ever tried to do… except maybe at being Naruto’s friend? She knew she’d helped him, at least a little, that day by the stream – even if she had gone about it all wrong. She supposed she should be grateful to the fates: if she were only going to be allowed to do one thing right, then this would be the one that she would pick. 

Hinata’s bemused thoughts cut off in surprise when Kurenai led them to Moritake’s for their last task of the day. The jonin’s face was even more somber than usual as she explained that her jonin sensei always brought his team here after a long mission away from Konoha to discuss the mission, plan what they would work on next, and generally celebrate their success.

Hinata knew from the way their sensei always spoke of them in the past tense that Kurenai-sensei’s team was no more. She was nowhere near as skilled at reading people as a proper Hyuuga should be, but she didn’t have to be to know that something dreadful must have happened to them. Shino and Naruto seemed to pick up on this as well, because they were silent as Kurenai led them inside, greeted the owner with a nod, and settled them at a table in a darkened corner.

Despite their stated purpose of celebration in coming there, they were all silent as they waited for their orders to arrive. Kurenai seemed extremely distracted by something, and frowned off into the distance. Hinata noticed Naruto fidgeting nervously. If she wasn’t used to the frequent formal dinners at the Hyuuga compound, she’d probably do the same. Finally, Naruto could no longer contain himself and spoke up.

“Sensei?” he asked, “what was your jonin-sensei like?”

Kurenai froze with her sake halfway to her lips and Hinata held her breath. While she was equally curious, she couldn’t believe Naruto had just asked their sensei like that.

“Why do you want to know?” Kurenai asked in a far-too-quiet voice. Hinata had only seen Kurenai become really angry once, after speaking to her father. She’d come out of the conversation possessed by a cold fury that was frankly terrifying. She didn’t understand what her father had said to provoke such a reaction, but she knew she never wanted to see such rage in her sensei again.

Naruto’s voice took on an unusually thoughtful tone as he stared into the distance. For an instant, Hinata pictured his unusually somber expression under the Hokage’s traditional hat and felt a shudder of premonition. Was she watching fates change before her eyes?

“He was your sensei,” was all Naruto said after a moment.

To their surprise Shino spoke up as well. “If he’s had anywhere near as large an effect on you, as you have had on your students, then a desire to know more about him is only logical.”

“Yeah,” Naruto added, nodding, “That almost makes him our sensei as well, doesn’t it?”

“I would be honored to hear of him as well,” Hinata heard herself adding. She was horrified at the thought of prying into potentially painful memories, but Naruto and Shino’s reasons had moved her. And she had to back up her team mates as well.

Kurenai-sensei was quiet for a moment as the waitress brought out their orders. After she left though, the jonin began to talk. “Kobaru-sensei was not the sort of person you would picture as a shinobi. He was even stockier than Sarutobi Asuma, who works with your class mates on Team Ten, and Kobaru was nearly a head taller; as… a team mate… once said, he looked like a boulder that had grown legs and gone for a walk.. With his size and strength, he was formidable with taijutsu, but he always said “only a fool hunts with one arrow in his quiver”, so he made a point of learning…”

Hinata sat, utterly still, as her sensei’s voice painted a vivid picture of the man who’d played a major role in making her the kunoichi that sat before them. Their food sat, cooling and forgotten.

OoOoO

It was after dark before they left Moritake’s. It was odd for Naruto, to feel like he’d come to know someone he’d never met, but it was a good sort of odd. He could see where Kurenai-sensei had learned a lot from the man, but added her own spin to his lessons before she passed them on. He wondered what he would teach his genins when he was a jonin. Hopefully by that time everyone would have forgotten about ‘Sexy no jutsu’; if they didn’t, he was going to have to have a little “talk” with Konohamaru...

Naruto shook his head at that thought. When Kurenai dismissed them, the pensive jonin gave them the next day off to rest and replace any damaged or worn gear. It was well past visiting hours at the hospital, but he’d make time to visit Iruka-sensei tomorrow. Naruto grimaced at the thought of all the laundry he needed to do before he went to sleep. The sooner he resumed working with Gai and Lee, the less pain would be involved in catching up. Tomorrow morning he would seek them out again. Maybe Gai would have some heavier weights he could borrow…

Naruto’s musings were interrupted as Shino and his sensei made their goodbyes. He turned toward Hinata, but the slump of her shoulders suggested that she was less than enthusiastic about going home. Naruto frowned as he wondered how accurate his conclusions about her family were. If he wasn’t delusional, that might explain why she lingered outside the restaurant instead of immediately going home.

“Er, Hinata?” he asked.

Hinata jumped and looked up from the fingers she was absently pressing together. “Y-yes, Naruto?”

“I’m going to do some extra training tomorrow with Gai-sensei and Lee, if they aren’t out on a mission. Would you like to come as well?” he asked.

“A-ano,” she said hesitantly as her cheeks reddened slightly, “wouldn’t that be rude? To come uninvited?”

“Nah,” Naruto said. “I’ll just tell Gai that you were so impressed with my progress that you wanted to see his training methods… He’ll go crazy, so just nod politely every time he says something about that ‘Power of Youth’ thing.”  He shook his head.  “And don’t look at their teeth when they smile or you’ll be rubbing the spots out of your eyes for a while.”

Hinata’s eyes widened at Naruto’s open duplicity. “I-I- I mean, I can’t-“

Naruto nodded quickly bouncing on the balls of his feet. “Sure you can. He’s actually nice, in his own weird way. And Lee really wants to beat your cousin, who is his ‘eternal rival’, and practicing with another Jyuuken user can only help him, right?”

Hinata nodded slowly.

“Great!” Naruto said with a smile. “But you better get some sleep. Those two keep some really early hours. Can you meet me in front of Ichiraku’s at five thirty?”

Hinata smiled a little this time, and Naruto felt an odd sense of accomplishment. “Hai!” she said, agreeing.

“See you in the morning, Hinata-chan!” he called out as he raced toward his apartment. He needed to get his laundry going, take as hot a shower as he could stand, and then reacquaint himself with his bed.

OoOoO

Hinata stared after the boy as he left, wondering what she’d just gotten herself into. If Naruto actually wanted her there, she supposed she could deal with the awkwardness. If Gai and Lee didn’t want her around, she doubted they’d be shy about letting her know. No one else was.

She tried not to dwell on where she was going as her feet carried her home. The branch family member on duty acknowledged her return with the barest of nods as she entered the compound.

Hinata was relieved she was able to slip into her father’s house without encountering anyone. Once in her room, with the door shut, she let out a shuddering breath and tried to relax. She unpacked her bag, setting out the items that desperately needed cleaning. The uniform she was wearing was definitely in that category as well, so she changed into a bathing robe and, after setting out her laundry, crept into the bathroom for a long soak.

The hot water soothed her muscles, but just being in this house was increasing her mental tension. She wasn’t wanted here. She didn’t belong here. She was a failure in a clan that didn’t tolerate failures. The realization she’d come to on the way back to Konoha burned ever brighter in her mind.

She didn’t want to be here.

OoOoO

Naruto’s fingers were still tingling from his shinobi alarm clock when he arrived in front of Ichiraku’s. Hinata had evidently arrived a little early, and was watching the old man fuss over his stove as he prepared for another busy day.

He waved goodbye, promising they’d be back for breakfast, and led Hinata to Gai and Lee’s favorite training ground.

“Ah, Naruto!” Gai called out as they entered the clearing. “I heard your team had returned to Konoha, flush with victory and the fire of youth! Are you ready for more steps on the path to become a Genius of Hard Work?”

“Er, yeah,” Naruto said, rubbing at the back of his neck while Hinata stared at the odd duo. “And I brought someone who works even harder than I do.”

“Yosh!” Lee cried out. “My favorite sparring partner and rival of hard work has returned to Konoha!” Naruto wasn’t sure if it was possible, but his eyebrows seemed even thicker than he’d remembered.

“Lee! You are so passionate! You are truly my student!” Tears were streaming from the jonin’s eyes, making them sparkle unnaturally in the dim morning light.

“Gai-sensei!”

“Lee!”

“Gai-sensei!”

“Lee!”

“Uhm,” Naruto said, interrupting the happy duo; he could have sworn that he heard music off in the distance. “This is Hyuuga Hinata,” he said, nudging the dubious-looking girl forward.

“Ah!” Gai said, distracted from their cacophonous duet. “You must be the cousin of my student Neji.”

“Hai!” Hinata said, bowing quickly. Naruto thought she looked like she wanted to bolt out of the clearing and hide.

“She’s heard me brag about your incredible training techniques,” Naruto said quickly. “And she wanted to see for herself. I think they are probably superior to the Hyuuga methods, but only Hinata can judge that for certain.” Hinata spun toward Naruto, her mouth hanging open in shock.

The blond shinobi had been a little worried about laying it on too thickly with the green-clad jonin. He shouldn’t have wasted the energy.

“Yosh! The fire of youth extends even into the cold Hyuuga clan!” Gai exclaimed happily. “Neji is a genius, but he lacks Lee’s fire and enthusiasm! I will be more than happy to fan the fires of her determination to excel!”

Hinata gaped at the jonin as he and Lee broke into another chorus. She turned to Naruto, her expression puzzled.

“That means you are more than welcome to train with us, Hinata-chan,” Naruto translated with a grin and a roll of his eyes.

As they set to work, Naruto braced himself for an unpleasant task – getting caught up to Lee again. The spandex-clad genin was even faster than he remembered, and while Naruto wore his weights on the border patrol mission, he couldn’t afford to train himself to exhaustion in hostile territory.

At first, all Naruto could see were green blurs as he tried to block a typhoon of kicks and punches. Even when he did successfully block, Naruto had to lock his stance to avoid being blown off his feet. He could feel his sandals skidding backward on the grass.

He grew frustrated enough to anchor his feet to the ground with chakra, only to have Lee go aerial on him, and send him flying with a spinning jump-kick that went over his block.

Naruto tumbled when he hit the ground, finally skidding on his shoulders and back as he tried to get his eyes to focus. Then he pulled his knees up to his chest and did a kip-up. He was a little dizzy, but his feet were steady. “I see you got soft while I was away,” Naruto said cockily, even as his vision swam slightly. “That should have knocked me out!”

“Yosh!” Lee shouted and came at him again. As Naruto’s blood got moving, his aches faded away in the excitement of combat. Lee scored three more solid hits, but Naruto sprang to his feet even faster and returned to the battle.

Finally, he successfully ducked away from one of Lee’s palm-heel strikes, and managed to grab the boy’s elbow before he could pull back. Lee chopped at Naruto’s elbow, but the blonde’s other hand grabbed that wrist before it could connect. Naruto forced his hands apart, yanking Lee temporarily off-balance and right into the knee Naruto slammed into his stomach, even as his forehead cracked into Lee’s jaw.

Lee staggered back, gasping for breath and rubbing at his jaw. “It’s great to have you back, Naruto-san!” he exclaimed happily. He turned to Gai. “Sensei, do you think I can attempt that move again?”

Gai frowned thoughtfully, his eyes wandering over Naruto, and then Hinata. “With me here to supervise, I think it will be safe. Naruto, Hinata, Lee has been working hard to perfect a special finishing move. He would like to work with Naruto for his first attempt, but it is important that no one mention this move with others. It is to be Lee’s secret weapon!” His voice rose at the end, and he gave one of those “nice-guy” poses that made his teeth shine with unnatural brightness.

“All right,” Naruto said dubiously. Then he shook his head. Gai wouldn’t let him be injured, even if this was a ‘finishing move’ – Kurenai-sensei would kill him. For all his quirks, Maito Gai didn’t appear to be suicidal.

All the same, Naruto couldn’t help but gulp as he dropped into a defensive stance. Lee had his hands clasped together and gasped “First Gate: Open!”

Then he disappeared in a blur of motion.

Naruto’s eyes had just begun to track downward when Lee’s foot drove upward into his stomach, launching him into the air. He heard Lee shout “Kage Buyo” and suddenly he could see his sparring partner out of the corner of his eye, leaping into the air behind him, in a parallel arc.

Naruto felt something wrapping around his arms. He looked down as he struggled to free himself. It looked like Lee’s arm bandages. Then the boy’s arms wrapped around his upper arms in a grip of iron. “Omote Renge!” Lee shouted as they began to spin rapidly. As he struggled to break free, a corner of his mind observed that he was very lucky to have not eaten breakfast yet.

It was hard to tell with all the spinning, but Naruto thought they had passed the top of their shared trajectory and were now shooting toward the ground at high speed. As he frantically tried to break free, he realized the purpose of this strange attack. With the way Lee gripped him, his head would strike the ground first – with their combined momentum behind it. Truly a deadly technique.

Naruto’s appreciation of the technique was, of course, marred by the fact that he was about to become its first victim. He was seriously considering calling on the red chakra when the two of them jarred to a halt.

“That’s enough!” Gai shouted as he caught the two of them. With Lee’s grip relaxed, Naruto was able to burst out of the bandages. He tried to turn around and immediately fell to the ground, too dizzy to walk.

“Did I do it right?” Lee asked in a worried tone as leaned forward, resting his hands on his knees.

“If you didn’t, I don’t ever want to see the right version,” Naruto groaned as he tried to swallow. Empty or not, his stomach was feeling rather delicate at the moment; that launching kick certainly hadn’t helped either. He saw Hinata, out of the corner of his eye, watching anxiously. He gave her a small wave and she looked down with a sigh of relief.

“Yes, Lee…” Gai said, pausing dramatically. “You have mastered the Omote Renge!” he shouted.

“Such a flowery name for a move that plants your opponent like a turnip,” Naruto groused as he tried to climb to his feet, sternly addressing his rebellious inner ear; how Lee was able to stand up at all was completely beyond him.

“Yes, Naruto,” Gai said as he helped the genin stand up. “It’s a very dangerous move, and only to be used in extreme circumstances. Is that understood, Lee?”

Lee nodded, and then pulled out a small notepad and pencil and began writing. “Yes, sensei. Now that I know I can do it, I will only use it in ‘extreme circumstances’.”

“When I tell your team mates of your success in the first phase of your initial training, they will be so proud!” Gai exclaimed.

“Yosh, Gai-sensei!” Lee agreed.

“Lee!”

“Gai-sensei!”

At this point Naruto’s stomach had enough and he vomited on Gai’s sandals. “Sorry!” he murmured as he stumbled backwards, still feeling like the world was spinning around him.

“Ah, the aftereffects were more severe than I anticipated!” Gai exclaimed, raising one be-smeared foot and frowning at it. “Make a note of that, Lee.”

“Yes, Sensei!” Lee replied with a serious expression, notepad in hand.

Paradoxically, Naruto felt better after puking, which didn’t make much sense to him. A light touch on his shoulder made him turn his head. Hinata offered him a clean cloth and a cup of tea from her thermos. Naruto accepted both gratefully, realizing that she seemed to always be prepared for any emergency with her bag – something he would do well to emulate.

“While Naruto-san recovers, would you do us the honor, Hyuuga-sama?” Gai asked politely.

Hinata’s face immediately reddened, but after an encouraging smile from Naruto, she nodded.

Watching Hinata spar with Lee was interesting, and soon Naruto’s spasming stomach was forgotten. Lee was still pretty fast, but doing the Omote Renge seemed to have taken a lot out of him. Nevertheless, after the first few exchanges with the Hyuuga girl, he started to go all out again.

Naruto noticed Hinata doing many of the things she used against him when they sparred. He supposed his personal taijutsu style had been influenced by Gai and Lee’s goken, but it was still illuminating to see his team mate flow around Lee’s attack and make delicate-seeming jyuuken strikes that left the boy moving slower and slower.

Finally, she got through his guard and scored a glancing blow to his left shoulder that made the whole arm freeze up. Lee jumped back with a frown, rubbing at the joint. “Ah! Just like with Neji,” he groaned.

“Lee! Do not let yourself become discouraged!” Gai said in a serious voice. “Naruto-san, you regularly spar with Hinata, do you not?”

“Hai!” Naruto agreed with a nod, ignoring the way Hinata’s fingers were pushing together again.

“How do you defend against her Jyuuken strikes?” he asked.

“Well,” Naruto said slowly, trying to ignore the way Lee had his notepad out again, hanging on his every word. “I usually can’t block them directly without getting zapped, and slowing down until she has me at her mercy.” He said the last bit with a straight face, but grinned at her blush. “I have to dodge more and block less. In fact, unless I am close enough to block her upper arms, I don’t block at all. Otherwise, she pushes chakra into my arm muscles or one of my tenketsu points and that hurts.” He shrugged. “I have to come in at odd angles a lot more. And I have to be ready to re-open any tenketsu that get closed.”

“Re-open?” Gai asked sharply.

Naruto nodded. “Yes, if I push a hunk of chakra towards that point on my body, it usually pops back open.”  He shrugged.  “Hurts like hell, though; like that pins-and-needles feeling, only about a hundred times worse.”

“I see…” Gai said dubiously.

Lee’s eyes had gone wide however. “Sensei! Can I learn to do this?”

Naruto shrugged. “Hinata helped me figure out how,” he said.

Now the jonin and both genin were staring at the Hyuuga girl, causing her cheeks to glow a bright red. “A-ano,” she said hesitantly, “Naruto did most of it out himself. I just told him when it seemed to be working.”

Still, Lee’s enthusiasm would not be deterred. After fifteen minutes of effort though, Lee’s shoulder was just barely able to flex. According to Hinata, his chakra couldn’t push quite hard enough to re-open the tenketsu point she had closed.  Lee looked downcast as he told them that the reason he concentrated so much on taijutsu was because his chakra coils were severely underdeveloped.

Hinata looked mortified that her technique had forced the proud young genin to admit to his weakness, and Naruto didn’t miss the way her hands bunched into fists holding the hem of her jacket.

“Hey,” he said quickly, causing Lee to look up, “at least you didn’t fail the genin exam three times like I did.” He smiled ruefully. “If Mizuki hadn’t been a traitor, I might still be at the Academy.”

Of course, after saying something like that, he had to explain the whole mess that ended with him wearing Iruka-sensei’s hitai-ite. Naruto hadn’t had much experience telling stories before, but with this audience it was easy. Both Hinata and Lee seemed to hang on his words, and even Gai-sensei listened quietly, nodding thoughtfully.

It wasn’t until halfway through the tale that he hesitated, wondering how he should handle Mizuki taunting him about the kyuubi. Gai, of course, already knew, as did Hinata. Only Lee was ignorant, but Naruto knew Lee would follow Gai’s lead. He’d been right to trust Hinata and Shino, maybe telling Lee would turn out as well…

“So Mizuki started taunting me about the village’s secret law, which made Iruka-sensei really mad. He continued, though, telling me about how when the Nine-Tailed Fox attacked Konoha, the Yondaime wasn’t really able to kill him – no one could. Instead, the Hokage sealed the demon up inside a new-born baby, namely me. Well, suddenly things started making a lot more sense – like how all the adults hated me, because I was holding the demon that killed their loved ones, including Iruka-sensei’s parents. I was so shocked I could barely move when Mizuki hurled this huge fuuma shuriken at me. Next thing I knew, I was on my back, and Iruka was crouched over me, with that big shuriken stuck out of his back.”

Naruto paused to catch his breath and check his audience. Lee’s unnaturally round eyes were practically bulging from the sockets, and Hinata looked to be on the verge of tears. Gai nodded grimly, though his eyes were bright as well.

“Iruka told me that he didn’t blame me at all, and that he could tell I wasn’t a demon. He said we were both alike, in that we grew up very lonely…” Naruto’s voice trailed off, as he hadn’t originally intended to go into that part.

“Anyway,” he continued after a deep breath. “Mizuki came after us again, only this time I was more mad than anything else. So I tried the new technique I’d learned from the forbidden scroll, Kage Bunshin no Jutsu.” He grinned. “Iruka looked like he was going to have a heart attack, but Mizuki just started screaming as all my clones jumped on him and beat him down. Then Iruka-sensei stood up and told me to close my eyes. When I opened them, he’d tied his hitai-ite onto my head and told me that I’d passed.”

“YOSH!” Lee roared, making Naruto and Hinata both jump. “Naruto-san,” he continued in a slightly quieter voice, “you are such an inspiration! Surely you are an incarnation of the Power of Youth!”

Naruto wasn’t so sure about that, since it sounded a little painful. But at least Lee wasn’t making his ears ring anymore, so that was something.

“Lee is correct, Naruto,” Gai added in a more reflective tone as he nodded at the blond genin. “That was no doubt a very difficult tale to share. Thank you for using it to inspire Lee.”

“If Naruto can overcome such obstacles,” Lee declared, his eyes seeming to catch fire, “then a lack of chakra is nothing. I will find a way to defeat Neji, even without chakra!”

“You ever catch him with that turnip-planting move, you’ll kick his ass,” Naruto agreed, his stomach rolling slightly at the memory.

“Lee has indeed worked very hard to perfect that move,” Gai agreed. “Tonight, we will celebrate his success!” he declared. “You two are both invited, as well.”

Hinata’s eyes widened, but Naruto answered for both of them. “We’ll be there,” he said.

“Good, good,” Gai said punching the palm of his hand. “Hinata-san, you are welcome to join us any morning you wish. Any assistance you can give Lee, will be most welcome. However, I would ask that you not mention any of this to your cousin, Neji. He is highly skilled, but I think it would be good for his training if he were to receive some ‘youthful surprises’ when he spars. It will demonstrate how he should never underestimate his opponents. Is this acceptable to you?” he asked politely.

Hinata nodded, eyes wide.

At this point, Naruto and Lee were both recovered, but Gai had Naruto and Hinata spar while he and Lee took copious notes. Hinata seemed a little self-conscious at first, but they soon settled into a quick rhythm of attack and counter-attack.

Naruto slipped first, and felt a spike of chakra blast through his elbow, locking the joint as capillaries ruptured and the muscles cramped painfully. But he was able to grab Hinata’s forearm with his good hand before she could pull back. Naruto rolled backward, planting his feet in Hinata’s stomach like he’d done before and launching her into the air. His working hand flashed toward his kunai pouch and he sent a trio of blunted shuriken toward his team mate. Hinata’s kunai appeared in her hand like magic and she deflected the two shuriken that would have hit her. She tucked her legs up to speed her rotation so she would land feet down.

But no sooner did her feet touch the earth than Naruto was right on top of her, a flash of yellow on his palm as his hand brushed the sleeve of her jacket. “Raiton: Shokkingu Haji!” he said as the jutsu discharged.

Hinata flinched violently at the shock, but Naruto had summoned just enough electricity for her to feel it, but not enough to hurt.

Naruto stepped back, proud of scoring a hit, as well as the proof of his hard-earned chakra-control. Then he saw Hinata’s head and the grin froze on his face. The electrical discharge left Hinata’s hair standing on end, forming an indigo cloud around her head. It was pretty funny, but Naruto refused to laugh at her expense as he massaged his bruised elbow.

As the kunoichi settled back into a ready stance, Naruto hesitated. He knew Hinata was easily embarrassed, and the condition of her hair would probably mortify her, as funny as it might be. He was tempted to just not say anything, but Gai and Lee were watching. Finally, it came down to the fact that she was his team mate. If he let it go without saying anything, he was turning his back on that.

“Hey Hinata?” he asked.

 Hinata frowned. But she didn’t make a connection between her hair and the vague gestures Naruto was making over the top of his own head. Finally, he just gave up and stepped forward, rapidly patting down her static-raised hair. Unfortunately, individual strands wanted to cling to his fingers, so he had to stroke the dark blue hair a couple of times before it would lie flat.

He’d been hoping to save the kunoichi some embarrassment, but her face was bright red when he stepped back. “Er, your hair, it was sticking up from the jutsu,” he explained.

“Oh,” was all Hinata said. Then she dropped into a Jyuuken stance and came at him again.

OoOoO

By the time they left Gai and Lee, Hinata was as tired and hungry as her team mate professed to be. Even her stomach growled once as they walked back toward town, making Naruto crack up as she looked horrified.

“Neh, Hinata,” he reassured her, “you’re hungry because you’ve been working hard all morning. No one’s going to think you’re rude because you want to improve!”

Hinata tried to draw encouragement from Naruto’s words, but she could still feel scourged by her father’s contempt for crude behavior. Her face was downcast as she tried to banish his hateful words. “Ano,” she asked after a moment, “where are we going?”

“This is the other half of my morning routine,” he explained. “Gai and Lee train too early for me to eat breakfast first, and they work me hard, so I always have a healthy appetite… and here we are!” He gestured grandly and Hinata realized that they were standing in front of Ichiraku’s. “I get something to eat before I meet with Team Eight! Go to make sure I don’t pass out when we’re looking for that damn cat again!” Naruto said enthusiastically. He quickly looked left and right and then leaned forward. “It’s not quite as good as yours, of course,” he whispered confidentially, “but nice and quick.”

Hinata found herself blushing again. It was nice how Naruto, and even Shino, always complimented her on cooking, especially when she wasn’t that good. She’d prepared a few meals for her family on special occasions and none of them had remarked on their quality. Still, it was nice that her team mates tried so hard to make her feel better, so she obliged him by smiling a little.

A couple of villagers got up from the counter at that moment, and Naruto grabbed her hand and hauled her forward before someone else claimed the vacated stools. Hinata thought her knees were going to collapse when his fingers closed around hers, but she managed not to squeak. She knew her team mate was just concerned about filling his stomach, not that she wasn’t hungry as well, but it was pleasant, for a moment, to pretend that he was holding her hand for other reasons. Futile, but pleasant.

“Oi! Old man! You have no idea how much I missed this place!” Naruto called out as he plopped down on one of the stools. Hinata was a bit quieter as she sat down as well, a little disappointed when Naruto let go of her hand.

“Hello Naruto!” the old man called out happily, “it’s been far too quiet these last few weeks. Hey Ayame! Look who’s back!”

The cook’s daughter looked up from the vegetables she was chopping. She smiled and waved at Naruto, and to Hinata’s surprise the young woman winked at her when Naruto had turned back to her father.

“So what’s the special today?” Naruto asked eagerly.

“Himono with rice, miso soup, and pickled daikon,” the old man replied with a smile.

“That sounds perfect,” Naruto said as he pulled out his bulging gama-chan wallet. Before they went to Moritake’s sensei had stopped at the bank and cashed in all three Bingo Book vouchers, splitting the money between the four of them. Hinata wanted to refuse at first, but after distracting Naruto for a moment, Kurenai-sensei had whispered to her that sharing the reward was one way for Naruto to lessen his anguish at being forced to take two lives. She didn’t think he’d be able to enjoy any of the reward unless it was shared with his friends. That had effectively stifled any of Hinata’s objections – she’d do anything to make him feel better.

That said, she still didn’t want him spending his money on her now. “Ano, Naruto,” she said quickly, “I can pay for my own,” she objected.

“That’s okay,” he said with a grin. “You can pay for tomorrow’s.”

Hinata opened her mouth and then closed it again. The strange jonin and his student had invited her to train with them any time she wanted, but she was sure he was just being polite. Or perhaps he was just being courteous to Naruto, who they both seemed to respect. She was happy to see others who appreciated her friend’s positive qualities, but she didn’t want to presume upon that either.

On the other hand, they did seem interested in studying her Jyuuken techniques. Lee’s commitment to defeating her cousin was laudable, and reminded her of Naruto’s unflagging determination. While she was nowhere near Neji’s level, perhaps she could help in some small way. But did that make her disloyal to her family? Gai said it would be good for Neji to be surprised occasionally, as it would make him less likely to underestimate a real opponent.

At first she’d been a little dismayed to see how easily Naruto revealed his secret to Lee, in comparison to the difficulties he had telling her. In truth, he hadn’t told her so much as give a few hints and then confirm her guesses. It… hurt… to think that he could be so much more open with Lee. But then she noticed how he was smiling at her when he paused for breath in the middle, like they were sharing some secret joke. It made her very warm inside, this inclusive feeling. It was then that she realized that it was her and Shino’s acceptance of him that made it easier to him to tell Lee. That alone had made the whole morning worthwhile.

Lost in thought, Hinata was slow to notice as Naruto’s face fell, but his words captured her attention. “Don’t worry about it, Hinata,” he said in a falsely cheery voice that she was only lately able to detect, “I know I keep some ridiculously long hours with all this training, so…”

Hinata shook her head. “I would be honored to train with the three of you, but will I not be more of a bother?” Whether she attended or not, she wasn’t about to let Naruto think it had anything to do with him. She almost cringed when she realized he was hiding his true feelings again. That would not do at all.

Naruto shook his head firmly. “Did you see all those notes Lee took? When they were assigned to Gai, he and Neji were put on the same team because Neji had the highest scores in the Academy, while Lee barely passed. He doesn’t talk about it, but I think your cousin said some things that first day that really ticked Lee off. He’s been dying to find some way of defeating his ‘eternal rival’, and Gai wants all his hard work to pay off in the end.”

Hinata’s eyes went wide at that explanation. Naruto didn’t show it often, but she was occasionally surprised by how much he picked up on. Of course, training with someone three or four hours every day would doubtlessly give you a lot of insight into their character, but still… “I see,” was all she could say to that. “I don’t think it would be disloyal to my family to assist in training my cousin’s team mate.”

The grin that split Naruto’s face was genuine this time, much to Hinata’s relief. The fake one made her feel slightly ill, wondering how long he had worn it to make the disguise so seamless. “You’re the greatest, Hinata-chan!” he beamed.

Hinata ducked her head down instinctively, even as her cheeks reddened again. Fortunately, her embarrassing moment was cut short as the kindly older man set a pair of plates down before them.

“Itadakimasu!” they both said, Naruto in a far louder voice, and then they fell on their food like a pair of starving wolves. Hinata, as a Hyuuga, of course maintained perfect table manners at all times – but her chopsticks moved rather quickly nonetheless.

OoOoO

Aburame Shino awoke and performed his morning ablutions with the same precision he always followed when at home. He moved through the house like a soundless wraith, and was soon tending a rather promising-looking colony of winged kikai bugs. Their ability to fly at an extremely high rate of speed gave them exceptional maneuverability, but they performed somewhat erratically under stress. It was thought that the enhanced speed with which they moved made that inevitable, but he and his father were testing that hypothesis by crossing them with more phlegmatic ground-borne strains. Only three of the resulting sub-strains retained their wings, and only this one showed any signs of improved responsiveness or obedience.

Despite his concentration, Shino was fully aware of the opening and closing of the door behind him.

“Is there something you’d like to discuss?” his father asked in a low voice as he looked over his shoulder at the armature-mounted magnifying glass Shino was using to observe the queen’s egg production.

“Perhaps,” Shino allowed. He’d said barely three words since arriving home late the previous night. He was highly annoyed regarding some issues, but that was not sufficient reason for him to behave in an overly emotional manner. Shouting at his parents and the clan elders would be highly counterproductive, even if it would entail a certain, visceral, satisfaction. “I know the secret behind the Hokage’s law regarding Uzumaki Naruto,” he finally said.

“I see,” his father said with a quiet sigh. “I suppose I should see the Hokage about getting you assigned to another team?”

Shino turned toward his father. “Why would I desire such an irrational action to be taken on my behalf?” he asked in a clipped monotone.

Aburame Shibi opened his mouth, but then closed it without speaking. After a moment he began again. “I assumed that your anger was related to the secret being revealed. As this is apparently not the case, I will await your interpretation of the situation.”

Shino adjusted his sunglasses. “My dissatisfaction with the situation stems from the attitude of the elders toward my team mate, a shinobi who had borne a large burden, practically since birth, with a dignity and aplomb that leaves me embarrassingly humbled,” he said in a tight voice. “Despite this, the elders of our clan openly disparaged him throughout his childhood. This attitude, promulgated through the elder generation, infected the thinking of myself and others of our cohort, to the extent that their distaste for Uzumaki Naruto was communicated, in full, to practically everyone he came into contact with. I now find myself questioning the judgment, rationality, and fitness to lead of the elders, as well as the rest of their generation. I find myself questioning the Aburame clan’s commitment to logic, and whether I still have a place within it.”

Shibi’s eyebrows were completely visible above his sunglasses. Shino’s statement was the equivalent, in Aburame terms, of shouting himself hoarse and setting all their houses on fire. “I… see,” he said slowly. “I admit I have had little to no contact with the boy; most of my opinions were likewise formed listening to reports from our representative to the village council. I believe he is known as a chronic prankster, and many have petitioned the Hokage to have him removed from the Academy or censured in other ways.”

“Naruto’s… eccentricities…” Shino said, choosing his words with care, “are somewhat understandable when viewed in light of his almost total social isolation. It is also a matter of public record that since he began working with Kurenai-sensei and Team Eight, Naruto has yet to pull a prank on any of the villagers.”

Aburame Shibi stared at his son for a long moment. “What do you intend to do at this point?” he finally asked.

“I would speak with the Aburame elders regarding Naruto,” Shino answered. “Loyalty to my team mate and a fellow shinobi of The Leaf demands no less.”

“And if they refuse to ameliorate their attitudes?” Shibi asked.

“I believe one of Uzumaki’s sayings comes to mind,” Shino replied. “We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.”

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

A/N:

Many thanks to my betas, Runsamok and Bibliophile20!

A personal note to a thankfully small portion of my readers:

Positive, thoughtful reviews encourage me to continue the story and work on the next update. Obscene, threatening, and insulting messages, emails and reviews from readers angry at me because I don’t update faster have the opposite effect.

When you are paying my salary, you have the right to impose deadlines… and not until then.

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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