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

Chapter 24

Hinata looked up from the scroll she was reading. The muscles along her spine protested as she straightened up. She’d lost track of time again and she was only halfway through Tsunade-sama’s notes on chakra-stimulated nerve regeneration. Her new teacher was re-writing the book on what could and could not be done. With what she was reading now, many injuries thought to be career-ending could become mere inconveniences. She slowly stretched as she made a note of her place in the huge scroll.

The door opened and Shizune-sempai stuck her head in. “Still at it?” she asked. “You need to take a break, Hinata,” she chided in a kindly tone.

“My apologies,” Hinata said quickly. “I lost track of time. This work with regenerating nerve cells… it’s amazing!”

Shizune smiled. “Yes, a little too amazing, sometimes.”

“I’m sorry,” Hinata said quickly, “I don’t understand.”

Shizune motioned for Hinata to follow her, and spoke as they left the classroom. “These more advanced techniques are highly effective, but they require extremely good chakra control, not to mention large reserves to sustain them. Tsunade’s best work gave birth to techniques that only she and a handful of other people will ever be able to use. That’s great for special cases, but for the overall population the impact will be minimal.”

“I’ve heard her talk about the lack of qualified medic-nins,” Hinata replied.

“That’s part of it,” Shizune agreed. “There is also an element of… well, you know the saying about how it’s easier to destroy than to create?”

Hinata nodded.

“Well, it’s also a lot easier to destroy than to repair,” Shizune declared with a grimace. “Most shinobi can spend much less time training with their elemental affinity and see a lot more progress. If Tsunade had taken her natural chakra reserves and control, and spent all that time working on lightning jutsu, she could easily have humbled the best lightning users in Kumo. That’s one reason there aren’t more combat medic-nins… most active-duty shinobi concentrate on things that increase their combat effectiveness.”

Hinata frowned. “But if treatment is delayed until after the patient is evacuated, the prognosis is usually so much worse!”

“That’s true,” Shizune agreed, “which is why we’re starting this program. Tsunade thinks the improved treatment outcomes are worth the extra training required. But some would argue that having more combat-oriented ninja is the better strategy.”

Hinata thought about this for a moment as they made their way down the hall. “Who do you think is right?” she asked after a moment. One thing she admired about Shizune-sempai was that while she was utterly loyal to Tsunade, she wasn’t afraid to disagree with her mentor.

Shizune smiled. “I think that combat medics may not be needed as much in peace-time, or when there is only light skirmishing. Injuries may occur, but they are not as common, and highly skilled shinobi focused on offensive techniques can eliminate their enemies quickly enough to avoid injury. However, in war-time or extended operations in hostile terrain, mistakes are more common, and injuries will occur with greater frequency. Highly skilled shinobi can suffer mortal or career-ending injuries, but the availability of highly skilled, immediate medical care can often reverse that. I think, in the long run, Tsunade’s plan will save far more resources than it costs Konoha.”

Hinata nodded as she digested this train of thought, but Shizune wasn’t done.

“So,” she continued, “from a resource use perspective, it’s more effective when the need is most dire. But that doesn’t even address what Konoha stands for. You’ve heard the Third Hokage talk about the Will of Fire before, right?”

Hinata nodded. The old Hokage made a point of addressing each Academy class in their first year.

“That idea was really introduced to Konoha through the Senju clan, Tsunade-sama’s ancestors. They saw the village as being like one big family, and everyone should love the village they fight to protect. But that idea goes both ways. If we are like one family, then that means that we should value the lives of individual shinobi, no matter their skill. If that means reducing our overall firepower to prevent unnecessary deaths, then that it a price we should be willing to pay.”

Hinata thought about her own family for a moment. For once, it didn’t bring a sudden stab of shame. “I’m not sure everyone sees it that way,” she said quietly.

Shizune laughed. “They’re wrong, or at least the Hokage thinks they are wrong, and her opinion carries a lot more weight now. Of course, it helps that Sarutobi-sama is helping her manage the council.”

Hinata nodded. She hadn’t seen much of the former Hokage recently, but when he came in for his medical follow-ups he seemed much more relaxed than Hinata remembered. Despite losing an arm, the shadows under his eyes were lighter and he moved like a weight had been removed from his shoulders. Hinata was glad that his retirement seemed to be good for him, but she wondered just how heavy a burden it was to be Hokage. Tsunade herself seemed perpetually grumpy, and Hinata hoped that Naruto didn’t ever come to regret his life’s ambition.

The two kunoichi were quiet as they made their way out of the building. Shizune squinted at the bright afternoon light and fished a scrap of paper out of her sleeve. “Well, here is what we will need from the apothecary for next week. Can you pick it up while you are running errands?”

Hinata nodded. “Of course, Shizune-sempai.” This would also give her a chance to visit Kurenai-sensei’s house and water Naruto’s plants.

Shizune smiled. “Oh, and a question came up. There is another chuunin exam scheduled in a little over a month, not too long after Naruto is due to return. We are thinking about sending your team, but Tsunade reviewed everyone’s file and there is a potential complication. This exam is to be held in Kumogakure.”

Hinata froze in place for a moment. “I think that my father would raise some objections to that, even if I had my eyes sealed against theft.”

Shizune coughed. “Sealed? No, wait Hinata, let me start over. Normally, we wouldn’t send a team, let alone several, to a Kumo exam. They’re pretty suspicious of other villages, even in peace time, and you saw all too well how an exam can serve as cover for an invasion. We haven’t been invited in the past.”

Hinata nodded. Konoha was only just now repairing the last visible reminders of the Sound and Sand invasion.

“Well, this year it’s different. The Raikage himself has extended invitations to Konoha and Suna to send teams to their exam.” Shizune lowered her voice a little, eyeing the foot traffic passing them on the the street. “We think it’s because the invasion went so poorly.”

“Poorly?”

Shizune nodded. “With the forces at hand, and struck with surprise, Konoha still fared pretty well. Sarutobi-sama being forced to retire was the worst thing to happen, but with Tsunade’s assumption of the office, Konoha still has a strong Hokage. We think the Raikage is curious, especially since rumors state that some of the exam contestants played a key role, yet none of them were promoted.”

Hinata suppressed a sigh. She knew she wasn’t included in that number, but from things she had overheard, she knew the village council cancelled the examination while the Third was incapacitated. Otherwise, she was sure her teammates would have been promoted. While it did mean she would have another chance to test with them, she didn’t wish to benefit from their misfortune. What made it worse was that she was fairly certain her father had a hand in that injustice. She had the impression that very little happened on the council without his input. “So you think he wants to get a look at our shinobi to see if the rumors are true?”

Shizune nodded. “Yes, enough so that the Raikage is willing to personally guarantee the safety of our candidates travelling to and from the exam.” Shizune put her hand on Hinata’s shoulder. “He has specifically repudiated the clan he said was behind the attempt to kidnap you years ago.”

Hinata resisted the urge to wring her hands. That was quite a concession, she had to admit. If anything was attempted, the Raikage would suffer a huge loss of face. Wars were started over less. “What does Hokage-sama think?” she asked quietly.

“She thinks that, with those guarantees, this is an opportunity for Konoha to make an impression on potential allies, enemies, and clients.”

Hinata nodded. She remembered the Third Hokage explaining the true purpose behind the chuunin examinations before the preliminary round. “So she is accepting the Raikage’s invitation?” she asked.

Shizune nodded. “She is, but remember that participation in the exams is strictly voluntary. You do not have to go if you don’t want to,” she explained. “In fact, given your history, I would not blame you at all if you decided to wait for the next one.”

Hinata shook her head. “If Shino and Naruto-kun are ready for the exam, I will go with them,” she said quickly.

OoOoO

Shino found himself gaining new respect for his missing teammate’s mental fortitude. This happened, not coincidentally, every time he was attached to Team Gai for a mission.

While he had entered a cautious détente with Hyuuga Neji, and Tenten was a pleasure to train with, the third member of Team Gai, along with their sensei, was another matter entirely. While he could not deny Maito Gai’s proficiency in taijutsu and overall skill as a shinobi, the sheer amount of noise the man generated was ridiculous. When you added Rock Lee to the mix, it was even worse.

This, of course, made him question his own sanity when he found himself attending their so-called morning warm-up sessions. Maito Gai had requested that Tenten join him and Lee in the mornings, as he wanted to increase her training tempo. Tenten, who was not pleased with her showing in the previous chuunin examination, reluctantly agreed. She mentioned this to Shino after one of their practice spars, and added that he had been invited as well. Apparently, her jonin-sensei was aware of their training together and approved. Unfortunately, morning was when his mother Misato was usually available for training. While he had learned much of her signature two-kama praying mantis style, she still had more advanced techniques to teach him. When he explained this to Tenten, she accepted his decline without rancor, which he appreciated.

He apparently made an error of some sort when he mentioned this to his parents at dinner that evening. His father said nothing, but a minute wince was visible to Shino’s trained eye. His mother, however, quickly informed him that she would soon not be available for morning training. This was likely to be for a while, so he might as well attend the morning sessions. When Shino questioned the reasons for this unavailability, his parents’ reactions suggested that this was not a line of inquiry that should be pursued if he wished to avoid severe cognitive dissonance.

Not even the most stoic Aburame son wished to learn details regarding maternal fertility schedules. Hopefully, a younger sibling might provide a useful distraction at some point in the future.

Tenten seemed unusually pleased when he informed her of his schedule change, and that he would be able to join her after all. The reason for this became all too clear during the first session he attended. She did not want to be the only sane person there.

Maito Gai and Rock Lee’s proclivities were already known to Shino. What was less apparent was the degree to which Hinata had internalized those philosophies. When she mentioned sparring for a couple of hours, Shino thought that meant taking turns, with time to cool down between and analyze how each match had gone. Like sane people. He did not realize “sparring for a couple of hours” meant fighting continuously for one hundred and twenty minutes, going all out the entire time. The only time he saw either her or Lee even pause was when they were knocked down or half stunned from a glancing blow.

As he squared off with Tenten, he realized that she desperately wanted someone else there with more than a minimal degree of sanity. By the end of Gai-sensei’s ridiculously-difficult cool down exercises, Shino began to understand how Naruto’s taijutsu had evolved so quickly.

OoOoO

By the time Naruto was comfortable pulling up one tail’s worth of chakra and manifesting a weak chakra cloak, Jiraiya was antsy to head back to Konoha. He’d been exchanging messages with Tsunade, so he was aware of the Raikage’s offer. It made him a little uneasy when a potential enemy offered something you wanted to do anyway.

Jiraiya could understand why the man might want to get a look at potential future competition. However, the leader of Kumogakure might not anticipate how this could blow up in his face. Other people, including Kumo’s favored clients, would be attending as well. Jiraiya had always been a little leery of his sensei’s vision of the chuunin exams as a proxy for outright warfare. But if ever there was a chance to put this theory to the test, it was now. A strong show of force by Konoha’s genin could make their enemies reconsider future plans. Jiraiya smiled when he remembered debriefing the Sand genin Temari after the invasion. She was convinced by that point that her father had been insane to even consider attacking Konoha. Fostering that belief in Kumo and their allies was, in his opinion, worth a little risk.

Now he and his apprentice were practicing one of Jiraiya’s specialties: how to travel quickly without anyone noticing. Any idiot can leap from tree to tree in order to cover ground quickly. That also means any idiot can detect them, or find the traces. There was a whole science dedicated to examining the scuff marks left on various kinds of bark by sandals. That sort of thing wasn’t Jiraiya’s specialty. He preferred infiltration and social engineering, but as a Konoha spymaster, he kept up on what his opposition might be up to.

Joining a suitably-equipped merchant caravan under a well-rehearsed identity allowed you to avoid all sorts of attention. Picking the right one, in other words fairly prosperous and transporting perishable goods, meant you would be moving quickly by civilian standards with no one questioning why. It also gave him an excuse to drill Naruto on altering his distinctive appearance without resorting to Henge no Jutsu. He’d been pleased to note during the search for Tsunade that Naruto’s former sensei had at least trained her students in the basics. But this was one area where small mistakes could lead to grave consequences, so Jiraiya wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to drill Naruto on his disguise skills.

When the time came to part ways from the caravan, Naruto also showed that Kurenai’s efforts to get him to think had not been wasted. He suggested that he leave behind a couple of over-charged shadow clones, disguised as himself and Jiraiya in their travelling identities. That way, if someone was tracking their movements, especially after the fact, they would have no way of knowing exactly when they did leave. At the rate the caravan was heading for Wave Country, even half a day would really throw off a potential tracker.

Jiraiya was a little dubious at first. He wasn’t sure the clones would last long enough to be worth it. He tried not to notice how smug Naruto was, a full twenty-four hours later, when he informed him that the clones had finally slipped away into the woods near the caravan’s campsite and dispelled themselves. Instead, Jiraiya just grunted and picked up the pace. Their six months was almost over, and back in Konoha there was a large bottle of sake with his name on it.

OoOoO

Tsunade squeezed the bridge of her nose as Hyuuga Hiashi left her office. The leader of the Hyuuga clan had not been pleased to learn of the invitation to Kumo’s chuunin exam, but in the end the Raikage’s guarantees had been enough to make him relent. In truth, he seemed unusually interested in that aspect, and her more suspicious side wondered if he was planning something underhanded.

She sighed and opened her bottom desk drawer. Of course he was planning something underhanded, that was a given. But she didn’t think he’d try anything aimed at making the Raikage publicly lose face. There was too much at stake, and the consequences if someone leaked the plot too severe. At the least, the Raikage would demand his life, and Tsunade would gladly give it to her fellow kage. She extracted the bottle of sake and took a sip, savoring the burn as she contemplated sending the arrogant clan leader to the gallows with a song in her heart. It wasn’t terribly professional, but the Hyuuga had made of habit of subtly reminding her of how unqualified she was to lead.

She was just glad Hiruzen’s retirement gave him the time to run interference for her with the council. Her lips twisted, even as she took another sip. It still felt strange, calling her old sensei by his given name, but he had insisted once she became Hokage. They were of equal rank now, and shared an understanding of how heavy that hat could really be. Retired or not, The Professor continued to teach.

She’d been more than happy to send her predecessor’s advisors, Homura and Koharu, off to their own retirements “with the gratitude of Konoha”. Most of their status derived from long service and being Hiruzen’s teammates back in the dawn of time. Danzo, however, was too well entrenched. He was allied with, or had dirt on, a goodly portion of the Village Council and was reputed to have contacts in the court of the Fire Daimyo. How much of that was rumor, she didn’t know, but it was enough to make her handle him with care.

Being a wandering alcoholic was so much easier than sorting out all this political crap.

Still, there were compensations. She now had the power to push through a comprehensive medic-nin training program. Hyuuga Hinata had the potential to be, dare she say it, a medical prodigy. Imagining the look on Hiashi’s face if she announced that got her through several very dull meetings.

The progress reports from Maito Gai and Aburame Shibi, along with Jiraiya’s messenger toads, were equally encouraging. Accepting the Raikage’s offer was a risk, but a calculated one. Tsunade took a third, smaller sip and sighed as she re-sealed the bottle and placed it back in the drawer. She paused and extracted a thick file folder. Yuuhi Kurenai submitted such detailed reports that she wondered if the woman wasn’t exhibiting some kind of compulsive behavior. She opened the folder to the piece of paper she’d left sticking out to mark her place and sighed. If the jonin were still alive today, Tsunade would be torn between leaving her with her team and reassigning her to take command of the Academy.

She was betting a lot on the former Team Eight, but she liked the odds.

There was a knock at the door and Tsunade looked up. The list of people allowed to do that by the chuunin guards was very small. “Come in,” she said.

Sarutobi Hiruzen walked in, trailed by his ever-present shadow. For a man who’d lost an arm and nearly died a few months ago, he was looking surprisingly healthy. He attributed it to enjoying his retirement, but Tsunade wasn’t taking any chances. That was why she’d agreed to Haku’s request to be assigned as the Sandaime’s assistant. Part of his unspoken orders was to monitor the old man’s health and make sure he was taking care of himself. Sentimentality aside, the village still needed his wisdom and political acumen. More, Tsunade needed him. She shuddered to think how many headaches the council would be without him acting as a buffer and advisor.

The old man had a faint smile on his face as he sat down in the chair beside her desk. Haku, as always, stood behind his right shoulder. Watching his back and protecting his weak side. Tsunade wondered if the ridiculously pretty young man realized he was doing it automatically. Hiruzen fumbled in his robes for a moment before frowning. The only argument she’d won with him was to get him to stop smoking. The risks after recovering from pneumonia, coupled with his age, were too great. It probably helped that his estranged son, Asuma, had also given up smoking cigarettes for some reason, and that gave the two something in common to complain about. Now that the father was no longer Hokage, the two would sometimes be seen together playing shogi. As someone that had lost her own family, Tsunade had bitter feelings toward anyone who squandered opportunities she no longer had. She pursed her lips. “You’re looking well,” she observed.

“I’m feeling well, all things considered,” the old man said. “I haven’t seriously coughed, aside from when I first wake up, in over two weeks.”

Tsunade nodded. “We can schedule another scan next week then. I’d like to make sure all the pulmonary scarring is gone. But you didn’t come here, voluntarily, to discuss your health.”

The Professor smiled. “No, I was wondering what you thought about the Raikage’s proposal.”

Tsunade sighed. “I don’t suppose I should even ask how you already know about that.”

“People talk, even in a Hidden Village,” he replied. “Hiashi did not look happy as he was leaving the tower, so I assume you are going ahead with this?”

“Hiashi is never happy,” Tsunade observed sourly. “But the Raikage’s guarantees seem solid. He really wants to get a look at my cards.”

Hiruzen nodded. “And not just him,” he added. “If Suna sends Baki’s team, his brother will get a chance to meet or at least observe two people of personal interest.”

Tsunade nodded. He hadn’t spelled it out in front of Haku, no matter how trustworthy the boy was. But she knew the Raikage’s adopted brother was the jinchuuriki of the eight-tails and mentor to the jinchuuriki of the two-tails. Rumor had it that Killer B both exerted an unusual degree of control over his bijuu and was extremely loyal to his brother, the Raikage. “I hadn’t considered that,” she admitted. “Do you think it will be a problem?”

“I think,” Hiruzen answered, “that there will still be more to gain than to lose. I don’t think we have any reason to be concerned about loyalties.”

“And Suna?” Tsunade pressed. If Konoha sent even one team, Suna likely would as well.

“That’s an interesting situation,” her predecessor observed with a small smile. “You may want to give Naruto some official recognition for asking Jiraiya to take a look at young Gaara’s seal. The difference after he repaired it is quite remarkable. I have even heard that young Gaara has decided to adopt Naruto’s grand ambition for his own.”

“He wants to become the Kazekage?” Tsunade asked, a little incredulous.

“As his father was before him,” Hiruzen reminded her. “His siblings are also making it publicly known that he was previously suffering from a damaged seal. There haven’t been any incidents since he returned, so people are slowly coming to accept this.”

Tsunade leaned back in her chair. “You’re awfully well informed,” she observed.

Hiruzen smiled. “People know I’m your advisor,” he said, “and they are used to me having the highest clearance. Please don’t take it as a slight directed toward you.”

“I’m not,” she assured him. “I just wonder how many others enjoy such access.”

“Homura and Koharu are officially, and unofficially, retired now,” Hiruzen said with a sigh. “They knew this was likely, since they never really got on well with you or Jiraiya. But they still supported either of you as the strongest candidates to lead Konoha.”

“I know, and I never doubted their patriotism,” Tsunade assured him. “But you haven’t included Shimura Danzo in that category.”

Hiruzen shook his head. “He has always done what he thought best, damn the consequences.” He paused. “That’s one reason I came to see you. I think participating in this chuunin examination is a good idea, but I don’t think you should leave the village unattended right now.”

“What do you mean?” she asked. “Wouldn’t that be a huge sign of disrespect if the village kage doesn’t attend?”

“Not as long as a Hokage attends,” he replied. “I could say I asked a personal favor since I know most of the genin involved, and missed the chance to see them advance.”

Tsunade mulled this over. “This has some possibilities,” she conceded. “I was worried what they might get up to while I was away.”

“Aside from that, you definitely don’t want to let the paperwork build up,” Hiruzen reminded her, earning him a very dirty look.

OoOoO

Naruto could barely restrain himself as he fidgeted next to Jiraiya. They stood in a slow-moving line queued up to a large gate. Part of him wanted to leap on top of that gate and shout that he was back. Two things stopped him from doing this.

One, people would think he was an idiot, and might attack him since he was dressed as a nondescript traveler. No sense giving the chuunin gate guards something to be nervous about. The second was that Jiraiya offered to handle the initial report and debriefing solo… If, and only if, Naruto could avoid breaking cover the rest of the way home. Just his luck the old degenerate would count such an action as a failure.

Naruto wasn’t dumb. He knew Jiraiya wanted to discuss some things privately with the Hokage. But he had things he’d rather do than cool his heels in the hallway while they did that. Hot showers, Ichiraku Ramen, and finding his friends were all on his list, in no particular order.

Besides, the stuff concealing his whisker-shaped birth marks was staring to itch!

So he fidgeted quietly, looking around like any young man visiting a hidden village for the first time might do. Finally, their turn came and Jiraiya shuffled closer to one of the chuunin manning the checkpoint and briefly showed him something Naruto couldn’t see. Whatever was concealed by Jiraiya’s bulk got the guard’s attention in a hurry. He wasn’t screaming, so Naruto assumed he hadn’t been flashed. What the guard did do was escort them through the gate with no more questions.

As they passed through, Naruto looked around again, relaxing a little. It was gratifying that he couldn’t see a single trace of the botched invasion anymore. Most of the major damage was repaired before he left, but now he couldn’t see anything to indicate the battle had even occurred. Even the repaired sections of wall had been weathered to match the rest. He smiled and cleared his throat.

“Yeah, kid, I heard you,” Jiraiya drawled lazily. “You managed not to foul it up too badly, so I guess you can go.”

Naruto made a hurt face. “So mean!” he huffed. “I guess Clothahump-sama was right about you after all…”

“What did that ambulatory soup bowl say-“ Jiraiya’s howl of outrage was cut off when he realized he was addressing the rapidly receding backside of his apprentice. Instead, he chuckled and shook his head as he turned and strolled toward the Hokage’s tower.

Naruto scratched at his cheek as he weighed his options. He really need to stow his travelling pack and disguise, and his face itch was getting worse, so he decided to go home first. Then he could hit Ichiraku’s and keep an eye out for his team. If that didn’t work, he was sure he could ask at the Aburames. He smiled when he remembered the first clan to openly support him. It made him wonder if his parents would have been anything like Shibi and Misato. His mother teased Shino a lot, but it was always playful, and anyone could see that she adored both him and her husband. Naruto couldn’t help but envy the taller boy, just a little bit. Fortunately, he could also sense that Shino was aware of just how lucky he was.

His mood was already a little melancholy by the time he reached the residential district, and the sight of the Yuuhi homestead added a pang of sorrow. He was quiet as he fished out his keys and let himself into the silent abode. The house was still, but not as dusty as he feared. He hoped Hinata was able to stay here if Tsunade gave her a break. Of course, that didn’t sound too likely from Jiraiya’s words. He was relieved to see Mr. Ukko and the other house plants were doing well, thriving even.

Naruto smiled as he unpacked and stowed his equipment. He knew that if he asked Hinata to look after his plants, they’d be fine. If it also got her used to coming around when she otherwise felt she would be intruding, all the better. Kurenai-sensei meant for this to be a haven for her as well.

He thought again about his sensei’s last letter as he ran a shower as hot as he could stand. Sensei’s words regarding Hinata’s feelings haunted him. She… loved him? Really? Every time he contemplated that, his stomach dropped towards his feet. It was such a… big thing. He had no idea how to even think about it. Did he love her back? He didn’t know. Couldn’t know. He’d never had anyone love him before, at least not that he was aware of. He knew Kurenai-sensei cared about him. She cared about all of her genin. Could you love more than one person? Or was it just really strong like? He loved Ichiraku’s ramen, but he wouldn’t trade someone’s life for it. Well, maybe Orochimaru’s.

Why the hell didn’t they teach people about this in the Academy? Why hadn’t Kurenai?

But even as he rinsed the shampoo away, ignoring the tears of frustration, he realized he already knew the answer. Normal kids, ones with parents and families, didn’t need to be taught this stuff. Their families taught them. He growled and smacked his head against the tiles in frustration. This all came back to the Kyuubi and the way he’d been isolated all his life. Well, he wasn’t going to let that get him down. He’d just have to get the answers himself.

After all, he’d kept Iruka’s Secret a secret, so his former instructor owed him one. Or two.

Cheering up at actually having a plan of action, Naruto finished rinsing off. He dried off and took great pleasure in dressing in a clean uniform. But as he exited the bedroom, he stopped. The front door was standing slightly open, and there was someone laying on the floor of the foyer. He edged cautiously forward and his heart gave a lurch when he realized it was Hinata.

In a flash, he was kneeling beside the fallen kunoichi and scooping her up. There was no sign of blood or injury. He had her deposited on the couch before she began to stir. He gently shook her shoulder, but flinched back when her eyes snapped open.

“N-Naruto-kun?” she gasped.

“Er, yeah. I’m back,” he announced lamely. “Jiraiya is reporting to the Hokage, so I came here for a shower before I went looking for everyone. Looks like you found me first!” he added. “Um. What happened though?”

Hinata’s face flushed red. “Oh. I was c-coming to water the plants when I thought I heard someone, so I activated…” her voice trailed off and if anything her face went even darker.

“Oh? Oh!” Naruto said, looking left and right, anywhere but at his mortified friend. “I noticed you did a really good job. Mr. Ukko has never looked better!” he babbled. “Want to get some ramen?” he added after a moment. “My treat? You can tell me what everyone has been up to…”

Hinata nodded quickly.

But before they left, Naruto had a small task. Hinata watched as he quickly prepared a pot of green tea and brought it to the study. Hinata trailed behind him, mystified, carrying a tray and a single cup at his request. They placed their burdens on the small table next to an overstuffed chair and a set of overflowing bookshelves.

Then Naruto knelt and with his palm on the floor, molded a shockingly immense amount of chakra. “Summoning no Jutsu: The Elder,” he called out as mist burst forth from under his hand. When the mist cleared, they were joined by a short, stooped figure.

“Clothahump?” Naruto asked. “I’d like you to meet Hyuuga Hinata, my friend and teammate.”

“Ah,” the old turtle rasped. “I have heard so much about you. It is a rare pleasure to finally make your acquaintance.”

Hinata bowed deeply, her face coloring again. “I am honored to meet you.”

“Such a polite young lady,” Clothahump murmured approvingly. He looked around, rheumy eyes peering through the enormous tortoiseshell spectacles. “So is this your home, Naruto?”

“It is,” Naruto confirmed. “We are back in Konoha now. This is the house that was left to me by Kurenai-sensei. When we discussed her… her love of books, you said you wished you could have read some of them. So I thought…”

Clothahump smiled, looking over at the bookshelves and the steaming pot of tea. “Bless you, my boy! This is a rare treat. I haven’t had any new reading material since Jon-Tom’s last visit.”

Naruto squirmed, a little uncomfortable at the praise. Then he glanced at Hinata, and her approving smile made him feel… smart. Like Kurenai-sensei used to do. He smiled back.

OoOoO

Teuchi was really happy to see Naruto had returned. So happy, in fact, that he left his broth unattended to come out from behind the counter and hug the embarrassed genin.

“It’s so good to see you back!” the ramen chef beamed. “I have a bunch of new ideas I want you to try out!” He coughed a little when Ayame elbowed him. “Once you’ve gotten settled in, of course.” He added.

Naruto laughed out loud. “You’re right. I’m so happy to be back here, you could serve mop water and I’d think it was great.” He paused. “You have no idea what passes for ramen in some of the places I’ve been.” He added with a shudder. “I even had it at the one place where they served it ice cold. I thought I was in hell.”

“That’s an abomination!” Teuchi agreed.

“Jiraiya called it HiyashiChuka,” Naruto added, “but I just called it nasty. They said it wasn’t supposed to be warm. I mean, what is the point? I don’t care if it’s hot outside, Ramen is supposed to be hot!”

“Some people will never understand,” Teuchi added in a solemn tone. “Sounds like you need a Naruto Protein Special, on the house!” he added.

“A Naruto Protein Special?” Naruto asked, his eyes going wide.

Ayame smiled. “Hinata had some suggestions a couple of months ago, so we incorporated them into a new dish.” She winked. “The name was her idea.”

Naruto turned toward his teammate. “Hinata?”

The Hyuuga was turning decidedly pink again, but her voice was steady. “Tsunade-sensei and Shizune-sempai had me reviewing the basics of nutritional theory,” she explained. “I realized that while you do need carbohydrates, you were not getting enough protein and other nutrients with your preferred diet. This is especially true when you are training. I explained my findings to Ayame and we came up with some extra toppings to address this, while also reducing the overall sodium content. Once we worked this out, we brought it to Shizune-sempai and she approved it as being a healthy meal-substitute for active-duty Konoha shinobi.”

“That means we get to put a little stamp next to it on the menu,” Ayame added. “And word got around. It costs a little more because of the ingredients, but our ninja customers are more than happy to pay a small premium. And civilians who want to eat healthier ramen have picked up on this as well. It’s one of our best-selling items now.”

Naruto turned back to Hinata, eyes wide and mouth opening and closing soundlessly.

“Naruto?” Hinata asked in a tremulous voice. “Is it all right that we named it after you?” All the confidence she’d exhibited when discussing the nutritional content of the new dish was gone. In fact, she looked almost on the verge of tears and Ayame was starting to scowl.

“All right?” Naruto asked. “All right? Hinata, you got a new type of ramen named in my honor! You absolutely rock!”

Hinata let out a sigh of relief, but added a sudden squeak when Naruto hugged her hard enough to lift her off her feet.

“Best. Homecoming. Ever.” He whispered in the shivering girl’s ear, still grinning like a loon.

OoOoO

Naruto was just finishing his Protein Special when Hinata sat up with a smile. A moment later, a familiar voice rang out.

“Naruto! You have returned! Have you been fanning the Flames of your Youth?”

Naruto slurped down the last of the broth. “Hai! Gai-sensei!” he called out after wiping his mouth. As he turned on the stool, Team Gai, along with Shino, stepped up to the counter.

“We can take a break now,” Maito Gai announced. “Five Naruto Protein Specials for my most excellent team and their equally excellent addition!” he boomed as he stepped up to the counter. The rest of his team shuffled after him at different speeds. Rock Lee was only half a step behind his sensei, and brimming with energy as usual. Neji, Tenten, and Shino all looked rather worse for the wear. Tenten let out a low moan as she finally sat down, and began kneading her right thigh muscles with one hand, wincing. Neji had bruises visible on his unbandaged arm and Shino leaned forward resting his elbows on the bar, back sagging in obvious exhaustion.

“Tough mission?” Naruto asked sympathetically.

“Tora,” the genin announced with a groan.

Naruto’s eyes bugged out. “The Fire Lady’s cat?” he asked incredulously. Sometimes it was a pain to retrieve the furball, but… “Seriously?”

“Gai-sensei comes up with the best ways to make a mission challenging!” Lee crowed proudly.

The look Tenten gave her teammate should have shaved years off his life.

Naruto ordered a miso ramen as he listened to their story. He shuddered several times at their collective tale of woe. Gai was silent, concentrating on his food as they talked. But when they finished, he spoke up. “Naruto,” he asked, “have you been keeping up with your taijutsu training while you were on your trip?”

Naruto nodded solemnly, glad that he’d anticipated this question. “I took Kabuto’snaginata away from him last week. He says that I will be ready to spar with The Four soon.”

Gai’s eyes widened for a moment, then he gave an enormous grin and a thumbs up. “You are truly exploding with youth! I look forward to you rejoining us in the mornings!”

Neji slumped as Hinata patted him sympathetically on the shoulder. Tenten groaned aloud and thumped her forehead against Shino’s arm.

Shino merely sighed and adjusted his sunglasses. “Physical discomfort aside, it is pleasant to see you safely returned from your training sabbatical.”

Naruto grinned. He’d missed Shino too.

OoOoO

Umino Iruka had already heard that Naruto had returned to Konoha. Konohamaru was bursting with the news from his grandfather that his “eternal rival” had finally returned to the village. But he himself was ambivalent about running into his former student. Of course, it would be great to see him again, and he wanted to hear all about his training trip. On the other hand, he was well aware that Naruto had kept quiet about Iruka’s embarrassing acquisition. The news hadn’t broken until a good three months after the boy had left. Someone noticed something on the tax receipts, and it was forwarded up the line, culminating in the single most embarrassing meeting with a Hokage of the young chuunin’s career.

Fortunately, Tsunade-sama possessed a sense of humor, and was willing to let him explain how the whole thing came about. Of course, it didn’t help that she was clearly struggling to keep a straight face by the time he finished. She just asked him to let her in on the action next time. But the damage was already done. Yugao wouldn’t even acknowledge his existence for the better part of a month, until Hayate-sempai explained that Iruka hadn’t really done anything wrong. Worse were the reactions of his former students. Yamanaka Ino found the whole thing hilarious, and never missed an opportunity to bring it up. Inuzuka Kiba had entirely the wrong idea, and worse, his older sister had taken to eyeing Iruka in a very unsettling manner.

But no matter how things turned out, Iruka had to admit that Naruto had kept his mouth shut. And as a former prankster, Iruka knew sitting on something so juicy meant that he owed Naruto a favor. And the most unpredictable ninja he knew just had six months to think about it.

Iruka knew nothing good could come of this.

So he was resigned to his fate when he saw Naruto waiting for him after classes had let out for the day. “Good to see you back, Naruto,” he said brightly. Obligations or not, the blonde terror still held a place in his heart. Even if he was likely to end up defacing the Hokage monument before the day was out.

“Want to get some ramen?’ Naruto asked, “My treat?”

Iruka had faced death before on missions, so he suppressed the sudden spasm of fear with a stoicism borne of hard experience. “Sure… what’s the occasion?” he asked nonchalantly as they left the Academy grounds.

“Well, I’m back… and Kurenai-sensei said I shouldn’t take advantage of peoples’ generosity, so I figure I owe you more than a few bowls…”

Iruka frowned. He reached out and carefully laid a hand on Naruto’s shoulder. “You know, while what she said may be generally true, she was wrong.”

Naruto’s head snapped around in surprise. It took no small amount of will for Iruka not to react. “Yuuhi Kurenai was an excellent jonin,” he said slowly, “and a great sensei. But she had her own ideas about things, and I don’t think she was always right about everything. I wasn’t just being generous, Naruto. If I offered to buy you ramen, it was solely for the pleasure of your company.” He took a deep breath, noting Naruto’s expression growing troubled. “I’m not saying you should question everything she said, but you should keep an open mind and make your own decisions. All right?”

Naruto nodded as they continued walking. “I guess that’s part of why I wanted to talk to you,” he said after a moment. “I need some advice about something, sensei.”

Iruka was touched. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all. “Naruto, I’m always here for you,” he said quietly.

Naruto nodded. “What is love? How do you know if you love someone? And what if one person loves someone that doesn’t love them back?”

Iruka stumbled. He realized that defacing the monument wouldn’t have been so bad after all.

OoOoO

Iruka picked at his pork ramen as he considered Naruto’s dilemma. Part of him couldn’t help being irritated at Yuuhi Kurenai and the problem she’d dropped in his lap. From what he’d gathered, she’d ‘spilled the beans’ to Naruto in some form of posthumous letter to be opened in case she died. He was familiar with the concept of ‘dead-mail’ – his own will contained a few sealed personal messages. One was even addressed to the young genin sitting next to him.

But Iruka wondered why she would leave such a message without laying any ground work for its comprehension. Maybe she’d planned to do so, but hadn’t the time. However, such an oversight didn’t really mesh with the unflinching realist that he remembered. It wasn’t that she was a pessimist so much as she didn’t believe things would work out in the end if she didn’t make them. What would make her break the news to an unprepared Naruto? Everyone else who knew of Hinata’s crush was willing to let it develop on its own schedule, to let her develop the courage to tell Naruto on her own.

Looking at it that way made Iruka wonder what she knew that he did not. He sighed. Waiting wasn’t going to make this any easier.

“Love is one of the strongest emotions people can feel,” he began in a low voice. “It happens when you care about someone so much that their well-being and happiness is more important to you than your own. It’s a powerful force in peoples’ lives. It can inspire someone to incredible heroics. It has also been the root of some of the most depraved evil ever committed.”

Iruka realized that he’d fallen into his lecturing cadence, but for once Naruto seemed totally focused on his words. “As for how you know, it comes down to the definition I gave you. If you had to make a decision that would make you miserable, but would lead to her happiness, would you do it?”

“I… I think so,” Naruto mumbled.

“You need to know, Naruto,” Iruka reminded him gently. “Say… her family was relocating to Suna. Would you tell her to go with them, or ask her to stay in Konoha, even if you knew she would miss them?”

“I don’t think she’d want to go with them,” Naruto replied. The certainty in his voice resounded with other things the chuunin had heard, or guessed. It was leading him to some unpleasant places.

“Assume she gets along with them better,” Iruka suggested, “and you know she would miss her sister horribly if they were parted.”

Naruto stared off into space, his miso ramen cooling. “Suna is an ally again, so it’s not likely we’d ever have to fight,” he said slowly. Iruka was impressed that he’d considered that for a hypothetical exercise. “I guess I could send a message to Gaara… ask him if he and his brother and sister could watch out for her,” he said slowly. Naruto’s face was slowly crumpling into a study in misery, and Iruka was ashamed to realize he was a little shocked. “I guess I’d tell her to go be with her family,” the boy concluded.

Iruka looked down at his food. He honestly hadn’t thought Naruto capable of that depth of feeling. Clearly his former student was growing up faster than he’d realized. “Well, it’s a good thing that’s not the case,” he reminded his friend. “Because if that’s true, then you do have some deep feelings for her. But there’s all kinds of love, Naruto.”

“There’s different kinds?” the genin asked, clearly dismayed.

Iruka nodded and took a bite of his cooling ramen. “Don’t you think a mother can love her child? Do you think that’s the same kind of love she feels for her husband?”

Naruto shook his head. “No, but this is more complicated than I thought.”

“That’s all right, Naruto,” Iruka assured him, “I think you’ve already done the hard part. You do remember the special seminar you attended with the other boys in your class?”

Naruto nodded, visibly shuddering.

“Good,” Iruka said quickly. He gave a small grin. “If I told the Hokage you’d forgotten, she would likely send you to refresher training… I wonder if that’s something she’d assign to her junior apprentice?”

Naruto’s face turned crimson and he shot Iruka a look of pure betrayal.

“All right,” Iruka replied calmly, “so you do know she’s a girl. Do you find her attractive?”

Naruto slowly nodded, still silent.

Iruka frowned. “What do you find most physically attractive about her? Take your time, and don’t be crude,” he warned.

Naruto’s face molded into a thoughtful frown. Finally he said, “I like the way she moves,” in little more than an embarrassed whisper.

“The way she moves?” Iruka asked.

“Yeah… she’s… when she walks, it’s like she’s barely touching the ground,” Naruto said, “and when we spar, she’s so graceful, it’s like she’s dancing and nothing can touch her… and then she lays a fingertip on you and BOOM, you’ve been Jyuuken-blasted across the clearing.” His words sped up as he warmed to the topic and found his voice. “It’s like that with everything she does. She can stick hunks of deer on a skewer when she’s cooking, but when she does it she’s so delicate and so precise.” He lowered his voice. “Sometimes I think I could watch her all day long.”

Iruka swallowed. He’d started this conversation worried that Naruto had never really noticed Hinata. Shows how much he knew.

“But it’s not just physical,” Naruto continued. “It’s like… she’s graceful in everything. She doesn’t want her friends to fight, so she’s always playing peacemaker. She didn’t want me to be embarrassed when we met Shino’s parents, so she showed me exactly how to act. She doesn’t want anyone to hurt, so she’s always carrying around this balm she makes for when we train. And now she’s training to be a medic-nin, because she’s… she’s always trying to ease the path for others. She’s amazing,” he concluded.

There was silence as they both looked away, then ate some more of their dinner.

Finally, Iruka broke the silence. “Naruto?”

“Yes?”

“Feelings may change over time, but I think it’s safe to say that you love her.”

“Oh. Good. Thank you, sensei.”

Iruka nodded and patted his friend on the back. He couldn’t really call him a boy anymore, could he?

Naruto finished his ramen first, of course. He nodded to Iruka in a distracted manner before leaving enough money for both their meals and slipping away into the evening foot traffic.

Iruka jumped a little when Teuchi retrieved Naruto’s bowl for the wash. “I heard everything with the burners turned off,” he said, “Nice talk.”

Iruka shrugged, a little embarrassed in spite of himself.

“As the father of a very pretty girl,” Teuchi said with some authority, “I wish every boy she meets had someone give them the talk you just did.”

Iruka didn’t even try to stop the pleased flush that rose up his neck.

OoOoO

Shino wasn’t surprised to see his teammate lingering near the boundary of the Aburame complex. He knew that Naruto was not on the mission rotation since his return, ostensibly so he could refamiliarize himself with Konoha and any changes that may have occurred in his absence. It was also entirely possible that his new teacher was in need of prolonged downtime after a sustained interval of intensive instruction.

If that meant Naruto had the opportunity to greet former comrades while Jiraiya went on a bender, he was not one to judge. His mother was more than up to the task.

However, he had already spoken to Naruto at length the evening of his first day back. He had also witnessed a green blur that answered to the name “Naruto” during Gai’s morning training sessions. Those facts left him unsure as to why his teammate would seek him out at this point in time.

“Naruto,” he greeted his teammate.

“Hey Shino,” the blonde replied in an unusually subdued tone. “Can we talk a minute?”

“I was assigned to team Ten today,” Shino said, “so I am not in immediate need of sustenance or rest.” His temporary teammates complained bitterly about Asuma becoming a ‘slave driver’ after the chuunin exams. Shino, having experienced the Madness of Gai, begged to differ.

Naruto nodded, but Shino doubted he had fully processed the words. Something of serious import seemed to be occupying his comrade’s mind.

“I… I’ve been doing some thinking,” Naruto began.

“An admirable occupation,” Shino remarked in what he hoped was an encouraging manner.

“About Hinata,” Naruto clarified and Shino went very still. “I… I’m pretty sure I like her.”

“Like?” Shino asked. “What is not to like? She is a skilled kunoichi with an extremely pleasant demeanor. Her training in medical ninjutsu will make her an extremely valuable comrade to have.”

“No, no,” Naruto interrupted, waving his hands, “Not like that. I mean, yes, she’s awesome, and I know she’s been working hard and-“

“Then how do you mean it?” Shino asked, interrupting him back.

“I… I’m pretty sure I love her,” Naruto said, looking down. Shino wondered if he was expecting some sort of approbation.

“I see. How do you intend to make use of this… revelation?”

“I’m not sure,” Naruto admitted, “I’m… you’re not mad?”

“Why would I be angry?” Shino asked.

“Well, I didn’t know if maybe you liked her too,” Naruto explained, shrugging his shoulders defensively.

“While I hold our teammate in high esteem, and value her contributions to the group as a whole, I am not given toward fruitless pursuits,” Shino replied.

“Fruitless?” Naruto asked, clearly confused.

“Are you aware of her feelings toward you?” Shino asked carefully.

Naruto blushed and nodded.

“I was aware of her preference from the start,” Shino said. “As such, while I valued the friendship that developed, I knew that desiring anything more from her would be a hopeless endeavor.”

“You knew?” Naruto asked.

“Naruto, I am fairly certain that everyone in our Academy class knew,” he clarified.

“You all knew?” Naruto gasped. “Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

“Most did not feel it was their place,” Shino explained. “Or they hoped Hinata would overcome her shyness enough to be able to tell you herself. Her feelings seemed to be fairly obvious, so many took it as proof that you were extremely clueless or simply did not care. I have since concluded it was more the former than the latter.”

Naruto sighed. “Shino, I grew up alone. I had to have Iruka-sensei explain to me, just now, how to tell if I liked her that way .”

Shino paused as he considered this. “That is not something I had fully realized the ramifications of, relevant to this situation. I can only offer that myself, like many others, hesitated to intervene because we feared to make an already uncomfortable situation worse.”

Naruto cocked his head. “You were worried about Hinata getting hurt? I guess I can understand that. So are we cool?”

Shino nodded, and felt the tightness in his shoulders relax. He had not even registered tensing up during this conversation, which he found odd. “What are your plans going forward?” he asked.

“Well, I need to talk to Hinata,” Naruto said. “Things have been messed up long enough because no one was talking. That needs to stop.”

Shino nodded. “I think she will be pleased at this course of action.”

OoOoO

Tsunade leaned back in her chair as all of the active Jonin-sensei filed into the conference room. They were quiet, for the most part, so word had probably spread that this was going to be a serious meeting. When they were all in, the door shut. Tsunade stood as Jiraiya activated the room’s security seals.

“Jonin,” she began, “we have a rare opportunity before us. The Raikage has extended a personal invitation for Konoha to attend the Kumo chuunin exams in two weeks. His offer is phrased as an offer to foster good relations after our own examinations were disrupted, but we think his primary objective is first-hand observation of our new crop of genin.”

“Then why give him a peek?” Kakashi drawled, not looking up from his book. His legendary tardiness was in steep decline after the last chuunin exam, and Tsunade knew when to pick her battles. At least his bad habits weren’t interfering with training his team anymore. Her reports indicated the last Uchiha was also training on his own at an almost obsessive pace, but he wasn’t completely leaving his teammates in the dust anymore.

“Deterrence,” Tsunade replied with a smirk, “and marketing. Kumo’s best clients will be watching the finals. If our genin can make a strong showing, we can set the tone for interactions between Konoha and Kumo for the next decade.”

“Won’t the Raikage know this?” Asuma asked, frowning. “I’ve heard he’s kind of a musclehead, but I’ve never heard him described as stupid.”

“Our best psychological assessment,” Nara Shikaku replied, “indicates that’s he’s more comfortable with known threats. He’d rather hand us a potential advantage if it reduces the chance of us blindsiding him in the future.”

“That said,” Tsunade continued, “we need to make the most of this opportunity. I want every jonin-sensei to think long and hard. Do not nominate your team as a learning experience for them. Your teams did well in the last exam, but we want to make a show of strength. I only want teams that you honestly think can dominate the opposition.”

“My brats are ready,” Kakashi said. “We’d have to lock them up if they found out they weren’t going.”

“I think Team Asuma will sit this one out,” SarutobiAsuma said. “They’re not all quite where I’d like them to be. I think Shikamaru is ready for the responsibility, but his tactical acumen won’t play that well for a crowd of civilians. Shinobi would see too much.”

Tsunade nodded, ignoring the small sigh of relief she heard from Shikaku’s direction.

Maito Gai was next. “Team Gai is more than ready to demonstrate the Power of Youth!”

Jiraiya cleared his throat, garnering the attention of many in the room. “And I will nominate Team Jir-… ah, the hell with it. I nominate Team 8.”

Tsunade ignored the shocked, but approving looks her old teammate was getting. “Very well. I’d like to inform you of another break from tradition. My predecessor, the Sandaime, has petitioned to be allowed to take my place at the Kumo examinations. After due consideration of the security and political ramifications, I have decided to approve this petition.”

She was surprised to see Asuma look surprised. Evidently, Hiruzen hadn’t even discussed this with his son, which impressed her a bit.

OoOoO

Jiraiya was waiting for them as Gai-sensei was finishing his latest version of cool-down exercises. He strode up as their morning Taijutsu practice ended. “I need to see all three of you,” the older man rumbled, then turned and left the training ground – clearly expecting them to follow.

Naruto didn’t say a word. He knew Jiraiya was not a morning person, and when circumstances forced it, better to not give the Toad Hermit any arguments. He led them to a small tea shop that was just opening. Naruto didn’t know if the owner would have objected to his presence if he’d come alone. Fortunately, he wasn’t the only person smart enough to not argue with a grumpy Jiraiya.

The first cup of hot tea didn’t seem to improve the older man’s mood very much, but he started talking anyway. “There’s a mission. There is a chuunin examination coming up in Kumo in two weeks. The Hokage thinks you’re ready. I think you’re ready. If you think you’re ready, we’ll go there and you’ll kick the crap out of everyone in your way and come back with three flak vests.” He coughed and took another long sip of his tea. “Are you up for it? I have to ask.”

Naruto and Shino turned toward Hinata, who was already nodding. They turned back and nodded as well.

“If you keep doing that in unison, I’m going to hurt you,” Jiraiya groused.

OoOoO

After they were dismissed, Naruto walked with Hinata to the Hokage’s tower. She was just finishing her six months of “indentured servitude” to the Hokage, so this trip to Kumo had come just in time. Her break from living in the Hyuuga compound was nearing its end, so she welcomed any excuse to postpone returning.

She glanced over at her teammate. Naruto was unusually quiet today. In fact, after his first day back, he’d seemed… rather pensive. She wondered what was bothering him. He’d appeared pleased about the Naruto Protein Special named in his honor. Had she done something wrong?

So lost in thought was the Hyuuga that she almost flinched away when she felt warm fingers wrap around her hand, interlacing with hers. She turned her head toward Naruto, who was looking away and blushing in a manner that she found absolutely adorable. “N-Naruto-kun?” she asked, damning the quaver in her voice.

“I, uh, I missed you, a lot, you know, when I was away,” Naruto said, ducking his head and looking down.

Hinata felt her heart hammering in her chest. She was amazed it wasn’t drowning out her own voice. “I missed you too,” she managed to say.

“I’m not really sure how to say this,” Naruto admitted, “but I really like you.”

“I like you too, Naruto,” she replied without thinking. How had she done that so easily? Did he really mean it like it sounded?

Naruto swallowed. “Would you like to, you know, date, I guess? I mean to say, would you like to be my, er, girlfriend?” Naruto was obviously struggling with his words, and the last one came out as little more than a whisper.

Hinata felt her eyes bulge as her face heated. She’d wondered, dreamed, even, about this happening. But now that it was happening, she felt her doubts multiply. Could she be a good girlfriend? What if her father found out? What if Naruto grew tired of her? Would she drag him down to her level?

But as she hesitated, Naruto looked up, and she found herself lost in the blue of his eyes. She saw someone she knew was just as alone as she was, and she knew she could deny him nothing. “Yes, I would,” she said softly.

Naruto pulled her into a hug, softer than his previous, more exuberant ones, and time seemed to stop. His warmth melted all her doubts away, so why did she feel like crying?

Author Notes:

I know it’s been a long time coming – I hope you found it satisfying to finally hear it. Yes, Naruto took a long time to think about it, but he had to deal with the grief from Kurenai’s death before he could even begin processing the contents of the letter.

I’d like to thank Runsamok, Tempest, and Torbin for their feedback and support. I’d also like to thank my patreon supporters for making the debut of Rhiyen’s Deal work. Someone suggested that I create a teaser blurb for it, so here goes:

When a teenage malcontent is targeted by a corrupt principal, he makes a deal with two nerdy classmates. He protects them from bullies, they help him pass his classes. But soon his problems expand from staying in school to solving the mysterious disappearances that plague Glenridge. Can a trio of outcasts discover the truth before they vanish into the night?

As mentioned before, this original story is available only on my Patreon site: https://www.patreon.com/viridiandreams

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