The Journey to the Borderlands
Of course, keep in mind... they ARE twelve. Best to be patient...
Naruto kept an eye on Hinata as they ascended the Hokage’s Tower. She seemed a lot steadier than before, which was good, but he didn’t want to take any chances either.
He also studiously avoided making any sort of eye contact with Shino. He was pretty sure the damn bug-user had been silently laughing at him since he’d arrived at the base of the tower that morning. He’d looked down at Naruto and the sleeping Hinata without saying a single word. Finally Naruto had whispered "She’s really tired," as quietly as he could.
"I can see," Shino replied, deadpan.
Unfortunately, with that high collar, Naruto couldn’t see the boy’s mouth to be sure. Nonetheless, he silently promised himself to kick the larger boy’s butt the next time they sparred.
And to top off the day’s weirdness, his shoulder still felt warm where her head had rested on it.
At least the chuunin guarding the Hokage’s office had retained their attitude adjustment from the previous day — though Naruto wondered if that would necessarily have been true if Kurenai-sensei hadn’t been bringing up the rear.
At least he knew the Hokage’s smile wasn’t feigned when they entered his office. "Hmmm," he murmured as they stood at attention before his desk. He held out a pair of scrolls for Kurenai. "The scroll with the blue seal contains the details of your assignment. You will be patrolling that section of the border with Earth Country for three weeks, starting three days from now. That should allow you plenty of time to travel and familiarize yourself with the area. The scroll with the red seal is to be presented to the leader of the team currently in place, a jonin named Dariketsu."
"We’re relieving Dariketsu’s team?" Kurenai asked, her voice holding a little edge.
"Yes," the Hokage answered, gesturing at the jonin with his pipe. "Do you know him?"
Kurenai nodded. "In passing. I am… surprised… he was put in charge of such a sensitive location."
The old man grunted, and a rueful expression passed over his face, disappearing so quickly Naruto wondered if he’d imagined it. "There have been a few incidents lately. Skirmishes that seemed to straddle the line between our two countries. It’s never really clear which side of the border it started on, so there have been messy diplomatic repercussions. There are a lot of people over there that are still angry about a war fought before your genins were born. To give our envoy to Earth something to use, he can now inform them that Dariketsu’s team of combat veterans has been replaced with a genin team, and request that they reciprocate. I’m explaining this because I want all of you to adopt a very… flexible approach to border intrusions."
"You want us to just let anyone through?" Naruto asked in disbelief.
"No," the Hokage said firmly as he shook his head. "But I do want you to make sure that if you intercept someone, it happens in a location that makes it very clear who violated who’s border."
Naruto frowned as he puzzled out his leader’s words. "So you want us to make sure the other side gets the blame if there’s a fight?"
The Hokage nodded. "Yes, although I hope there won’t be any confrontations, especially if Earth stands down their patrol as well."
Kurenai spoke up again. "We will make sure we always patrol a few kilometers back from the actual border, so any confrontations will occur on Fire territory."
The Hokage nodded. "Very well. Good luck and I will see you in about three and a half weeks. Your relief will have a scroll with a red seal like that one. Do not accept messages from anyone who does not have such a scroll. Understood?"
They all nodded, and with that they left the Hokage’s office. Starting his first C-ranked mission, Naruto wanted to jump into the air and shout "Yatta!", but two things stopped him. The first was Kurenai’s lectures to her team about proper decorum. Hinata already seemed familiar with all the rules, and while Shino appeared mildly interested, Naruto figured they were aimed primarily at him. The other was Hinata’s condition, the reasons for which he did not fully understand.
Team Eight moved through the streets of Konoha at a quick walk, heading for the nearest gate. Stepping through the portal wasn’t anything they hadn’t already done dozens of times, but somehow it felt different. He nervously adjusted the kunai holster on his right leg, and resisted the urge to pull one out and twirl it by the ring at the end of the handle.
They were on the trade road that led to Earth Country for over two hours before Kurenai called for a break. Naruto was still full of energy, but he noticed Hinata was faltering. Her apparent lack of rest the previous night was catching up with her. She slipped her bag off her shoulders, sat down at the base of a tree, and leaned back, closing her eyes.
Naruto frowned and sat down next to his teammate. "You may want to take your arm and leg weights off, if you’re still wearing them," he said quietly.
Hinata started at the sound of his voice, eyes popping open again. After a moment she self-consciously grasped her forearm through the sleeve of her jacket. "A-ano, that is all right, Naruto."
Naruto frowned. "But if you are tired, it might help," he said reasonably.
Hinata smiled. "But then I will just have more weight to carry in my bag."
Naruto shrugged. "We can stick them in my pack. I didn’t stay up all night, and I missed having you Jyuuken the crap out of me last night."
Hinata smiled wearily, and Naruto thought he heard a small snort of laughter. Her hand tightened around her sleeve again. "Seriously, Naruto, I will be all right. I won’t improve if I don’t keep the weights on, will I?"
"Well," Naruto said slowly, "it depends. Gai-sensei said that if you overuse the muscles in your arms and legs, you sometimes have to leave the weights off until you recover." Of course, the stabbing pains and muscle tears the man described to Naruto never seemed to last longer than a few minutes. But then again, he probably hadn’t ever really hurt himself that way.
Hinata looked thoughtful. "I am a bit sore, but not in that way. I should probably keep them on," she said firmly. Then she looked down at the ground between her legs. "I appreciate your concern," she added politely.
Naruto found himself scratching at the back of his head again. "Er, yeah. Well, you’re my teammate after all," he said. For some reason her shoulders slumped after he said that. "And you’re really fun to spar with," he added. Hinata nodded without looking up and Naruto decided to go see Kurenai-sensei before he said something stupid again.
Kurenai did not want to make Hinata any more self-conscious than necessary, so she was subtle in her attempts to keep an eye on the girl. She took note of the Hyuuga’s condition using her peripheral vision, and always when something else seemed to draw her attention. Naruto and Shino’s concern for their teammate was more obvious, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Kurenai hoped that the boys’ concern would make an impression on the girl. Naruto was as obvious as he was sincere, a felicitous combination in this situation.
After a couple of hours on the trade road, Kurenai called for a quick break. Hinata’s fatigue was becoming more and more apparent with every step, and it didn’t surprise her that Hinata, after a brief conversation with Naruto, had fallen asleep leaning against a tree.
Naruto walked toward Kurenai as she fished her canteen out of her pack and took a small swallow. He had an uncharacteristically grim look on his face, displacing his normal smile. "She’s exhausted," he said quietly. "I don’t think her father should have insisted on her training all night."
Kurenai bit back the first couple of things she wanted to say, and settled for just nodding her agreement.
The blond genin opened his mouth like he had more to say, but after a moment he just closed it, shaking his head as he walked off toward Shino. He deliberately scuffed his feet on the ground, kicking any loose pebbles or twigs in his path, and Kurenai didn’t need any special jutsu to read his frustration.
Ten minutes later, after they’d all had a drink and refreshed themselves, they were ready to resume their journey, but the girl was still sound asleep.
Kurenai was contemplating how best to wake her charge when Naruto and Shino walked up to their teammate in a fairly matter-of-fact manner. Naruto picked up Hinata’s bag and handed it to Shino, who in turn locked the straps with his own pack.
Naruto turned back to his teammate and visibly swallowed. Then he quickly bent over and wrapped one arm around Hinata’s legs, loosely grasping her shoulder with his other hand. He carefully straightened up and Hinata was neatly folded over his shoulder, still sleeping.
Kurenai recognized the Academy-taught method for carrying a wounded comrade who was stable enough to travel, but unable to walk on their own. What amazed the jonin was the fact that the girl slept through the entire process. That could only indicate acute fatigue, combined with almost total chakra depletion. It was surprising she made it as far as she did, Kurenai decided.
Naruto turned toward his sensei and slowly nodded. "I’m ready," he said quietly.
Kurenai frowned. Naruto was holding himself a little stiffly, and she remembered that he was wearing weights on his arms and legs as well. "Are you sure about this, Naruto?"
The boy nodded carefully. "It’ll be good training, I think."
Kurenai wondered if he’d been spending too much time with Gai and Lee.
Hinata awoke feeling painfully stiff.
She blinked up at the ceiling wondering how she’d arrived. The last thing she remembered was taking a short break on the side of the road, but now she appeared to be in a room of some sort.
Attempting to sit up was a mistake, she immediately realized, as her abused muscles punished her mercilessly. Her body felt stiff as a board, but far more tender. She stifled a low moan.
"Ah, you are awake," a voice said in the darkened room.
Hinata’s fingers slowly formed the seals under the coverlet as she whispered "Byakugan." She released her blood limit as soon as she sensed Kurenai-sensei was the only other person in the room.
"None of that!" Kurenai said sharply, making Hinata twitch painfully. "Your reserves are still very low," she continued in a kindlier tone. "Kindly restrict your chakra usage until you have fully recovered."
"G-gomen," Hinata stammered, her face flushing.
"Now, regarding this â€˜special family training’ of yours…" Kurenai began, letting her voice trail off. "Is there anything you’d like to tell me?" she finally asked.
"No, Sensei," Hinata replied quietly.
"Hinata, I put you to bed," her teacher said in a chiding tone, "I saw. You were covered with bruises and abrasions. Your chakra was so low, I was amazed you could even move, let alone walk for two hours! What kind of training leaves you incapacitated?"
Hinata opened her mouth to answer, but then closed it. "I am not permitted to discuss certain things with people outside my family," she finally said.
Kurenai sighed. "Be that as it may, you are still a ninja on active duty with the Leaf. As such, you are required to keep yourself in good health and that does not include letting yourself become disabled when you know you have a mission the next day."
"Gomen, Sensei, I told…" Hinata began, but then swallowed her next words. It was shameful to spout excuses for her failures and shortcomings.
"You told your father, didn’t you?" Kurenai asked in a shrewd tone. "Remember, Hinata, I was there when you left for the academy. Your father makes no secret of his contempt for the other shinobi of the village."
Hinata’s only response was a choked sound.
"Do not apologize for matters over which you have no control, Hinata," Kurenai continued in a kindlier voice. Then her voice changed, becoming more formal in tone. "But I will require you to refuse any training or exercises that could compromise your ability to participate in our missions. As your jonin, I have the authority to do that. Your responsibility is to convey that directive to your father if the situation ever arises again."
Hinata inhaled sharply at the thought of how such a conversation would go.
As if reading her thoughts, Kurenai sighed. "I know that will not be easy for you, but if something like this happens again, either you or your father will have to answer for it. If, after explaining my orders, you are still… forced… then it will not be your fault. Do you understand?"
Hinata nodded slowly, ignoring the ache. But the thought of refusing her father filled her with dread.
"Good…. And Hinata, if you ever need to… well, my door is open if you need to talk after we return to Konoha. This inn will be serving dinner soon if you are hungry. Your uniform is next to you on the floor. I’m going to go look in on Naruto and Shino." The door slid aside, and then back, and Hinata knew she was alone.
Shino was limping slightly as he followed his teammate back to the inn. They were only a day’s travel from the border with Earth, so their jonin decided to spend the extra day at a road-side inn that typically served merchants traveling between Fire Country and Earth Country.
Of course, sitting still for a day did not appeal to Naruto. Immediately after breakfast he began urging them to train. Kurenai wanted to keep an eye on the still-sleeping Hinata, so Shino followed Naruto out into the woods to spar.
Naruto had evidently needed to work out some of his agitation and frustration regarding their teammate, because Shino couldn’t recall ever getting the excrement kicked out of him this badly since he’d started at the Konoha Ninja Academy.
Fortunately, the blond genin remembered to pull his punches, so Shino only had some mild contusions to add to his puzzled embarrassment. The boy’s speed had increased to a remarkable degree, and the power behind his blocks and counters threatened to knock the larger boy out of his stances every time they clashed.
This isn’t to say that the bug-user hadn’t gotten in a few shots of his own, one of which he’d inadvertently landed at full force when Naruto tried to duck under it and go for a sweep. The result was a small mouse under the blonde’s left eye, and a throbbing wrist that bothered Shino more and more as the adrenalin wore off. The blow barely fazed his opponent, who merely came to his feet after a backwards roll and nodded acknowledgment of the point.
The changes wrought in Naruto’s fighting style by his supplemental training were all too apparent to Shino. Gone were the awkward, exaggerated versions of the basic taijutsu stances. Naruto’s footing was now sure and his movements exceptionally fluid. His attacks and counters were less straight-forward and more circular in motion.
Naruto still favored attacking from unusual directions, but his dependence on the terrain had lessened. He didn’t hesitate to launch himself into the air for a flying kick, confident that his speed would allow him to complete the move without being caught in the air. Indeed, the one time Shino managed to catch one of Naruto’s high kicks, the genin simply twisted in mid-air and used a scissoring motion to bring his other heel crashing into the side of the Kikai-nin’s head.
The worst part was that Naruto had done all this with nearly half of Shino’s colony attached to his back, steadily draining chakra until they let go, replete. That was something he’d rarely seen an individual Kikai bug do, let alone dozens of them at once. The amount of chakra they’d drained from the boy was amazing. The worst part of all was that Naruto didn’t even seem to have noticed.
Shino frowned at Naruto’s back as he followed the boy back to the inn. Chakra reserves that large were rare in a jonin, let alone a genin. Could it be linked to the mystery surrounding Naruto that his father was forbidden to discuss? His mind worked furiously as Naruto, still energized from the sparring, babbled happily about a dozen topics at once. The only thing that came to mind was his father’s words about relying on first-hand observations. Listening to his teammate wonder if Hinata was awake yet and if he could talk the cook into serving ramen, Shino decided to do just that.
Naruto bounced in his seat as he waited for their food to arrive. Sparring with Shino had really woken up his appetite, especially since he’d actually held his own against his taller teammate.
He was also happy to discover that the inn’s proprietors, a middle-aged couple who apparently rarely visited Konoha, didn’t seem to be aware of his prisoner and treated him so nicely it was a little disconcerting. The wife, who ran the kitchen, kept patting him on the head and saying how he reminded her of her son. She was quite a good cook, and boasted experience in many regional cuisines, so she seemed a little disconcerted when her favorite guest asked for ramen. Normally, she said, such a dish was a bit beneath her talents, but she couldn’t seem to say no when Naruto smiled and bowed apologetically with his palms together.
Naruto was working on his second bowl, trying to puzzle out the unusual spices the nice old lady had mixed into the broth, when a voice coming from behind him almost made him fall to the floor.
"Ramen again?" Kurenai asked in a disapproving tone.
"Er, yeah," Naruto said, ducking his head as he turned toward his sensei. "I’m going without for three weeks as it is," he continued in a slightly petulant tone.
Kurenai sighed. "Three weeks of trail rations and whatever we can gather on our own. All the more reason to eat nutritious food when you have the opportunity, Naruto. Not just bowl after bowl of noodles."
"I do not think there is any danger of Naruto becoming malnourished at this inn," Shino observed. "Not after the breakfast he was served."
Naruto turned back and glared across the table at his teammate. "You’re just mad because Obasan almost swatted one of your bugs when she saw it on your shoulder."
"The reckless slaughter of innocent and productive creatures is not something to take lightly," Shino insisted in a frosty tone. "She might have been more careful in her judgment if she had not been distracted attempting to sate your appetite."
Naruto stuck his lower lip out and scowled at his teammate. "I didn’t ask her to do that! It’s just, every time she came out of the kitchen and she saw my plate was empty, she put more food on it." He shrugged. "Maybe she had a lot of food that was about to go bad or something."
Shino didn’t respond to that, but Naruto did hear the muted buzzing that sometimes occurred when his teammate was displeased about something. Naruto figured it was his bugs reacting, but he really didn’t want to think too much about that.
Kurenai sat down next to Shino, and soon the cook was taking her dinner order as well. With a warm smile at Naruto, the older woman bustled back to her kitchen to prepare the jonin’s food. It had been a long time since Naruto had actively wondered what it would be like to have a mother. Normally, he was too busy for such thoughts, which was at least partially intentional.
But now, waiting for Hinata to recover so they could resume their journey, Naruto had an unusually large amount of time on his hands. He found himself thinking more and more about the innkeepers’ reactions. What would it be like to live in a village where everyone treated him like that? Konoha was his home, but what would it be like to not have people glaring at him all the time, praying for his death, or telling their children to stay away from that Uzumaki brat.
Those thoughts made him very uncomfortable, and he tried to suppress them without much success. Then he followed Kurenai’s advice from several weeks ago, and tried to logically examine his options. If he tried to move to another village, his new neighbors would want to know why. If they ever found out he had a demon bound within his stomach, Naruto knew his welcome would expire soon afterwards. Even if he came up with a believable story, he’d still need to be able to make a living. He knew a little about being a ninja, but not much else. He couldn’t join another Hidden Village as a shinobi for several reasons. One, he’d be hunted down as a missing-nin by the Konoha ANBU squads. Two, his new employers would probably be able to detect that stupid damn fox and he’d be back at square one with everyone fearing and hating him. Three, eventually he’d be sent on a mission where he’d have to fight one of his former classmates. While he wouldn’t mind kicking Sasuke’s butt, having to fight Shino, Lee, or Hinata for real was not something he could even consider without going into a cold sweat.
No, he was stuck with Konoha in much the same way Konoha was stuck with him. A small, perverse corner of his mind was pleased by that. It would make becoming the Hokage even sweeter. With a smile, he re-addressed himself to the oddly-seasoned ramen. But after a couple of bites, he noticed that everyone else was staring at something immediately to his left. He quickly swallowed and turned his head as well.
Hinata, a little pale and unsteady, was easing herself onto the bench next to him.
Naruto almost reached out to steady her, but something made him hesitate. Remembering her insistence that she could carry her own bag and wear her weights despite her exhaustion, he realized that trying to help her might make her feel even more self-conscious. So he refrained, and wondered if he was actually getting smarter about such things. Or was his sudden intuition merely dumb luck?
"Gomen," Hinata said quietly. "You were right, Naruto," she continued in a subdued voice, "about the weights, and everything."
Naruto just shrugged at his teammate, wondering if something else was wrong. "I’m just glad you’re feeling better," he said. "I missed you." Naruto coughed suddenly as Hinata’s eyes widened. "I mean, I missed sparring with you. Last night. You know. Like we always do," he added quickly.
Hinata just nodded her agreement, looking downward the entire time.
The next day, they were back on the road again, bright and early. Naruto was still a little groggy and yawned frequently for the first hour. The pallets they’d slept on were far softer than he was used to, so he had trouble sleeping at night.
Surprisingly, the innkeeper’s wife got up early as well, to send them on their way with a good breakfast. Catching Kurenai’s look, Naruto made sure to thank her and let her know how much he appreciated her efforts. The way the older lady just beamed at him made him feel very strange, and he found himself blushing as they left. After they left the inn, Kurenai-sensei walked beside him for a while, and thanked him for not taking advantage of the cook’s friendliness.
Naruto frowned at his sensei. "Why would I do that?" he asked.
Kurenai smiled thinly. "Why indeed. She doesn’t act like most of the other villagers you’ve known. I talked to her briefly the day before. Her son, a boy you bear a passing resemblance to, went to Konoha several years ago to attend the Ninja Academy."
"Really?" Naruto asked. "What rank is he now? Have we met him?"
"He died during his chuunin exam," Kurenai answered in a somber tone.
Naruto tripped over his own feet. "Oh," he said as he stumbled for a moment.
"I will admit," Kurenai continued, "that I was slightly concerned that you might… inadvertently… take advantage of the situation. But aside from asking her to make ramen for you," she continued, making him duck his head a little, "your behavior was entirely appropriate."
"I didn’t think it was that big a deal," Naruto grumbled. "She did ask me what my favorite food was."
Kurenai nodded at that. "As I said, I am glad you did not take advantage of the situation."
Naruto scratched the back of his head. "Ano… Sensei, if I do that when people are nice to me, won’t that encourage them to treat me like everyone else does?"
Kurenai nodded. "Very good, Naruto. You are thinking ahead and considering the consequences of your actions."
Naruto found his face reddening again. Kurenai nodded at him, and then turned to speak with Shino. Naruto took that as his cue to speed up a little so he was walking beside Hinata.
A good dinner, during which the nice old lady tried to stuff the weary kunoichi with as much food as she could hold, and another full night’s sleep had restored most of Hinata’s energy. She was still moving a little slower than normal, but she was out on point this morning, periodically activating her blood-limit to do quick scans of the area around them.
They walked together in a silence that was actually fairly comfortable. Naruto wondered if concentrating on the woods around them, scanning for an ambush, kept his teammate too busy to get nervous. They hadn’t discussed exactly how Hinata had been transported to the inn, and he wasn’t about to bring up that subject any time soon.
Naruto wasn’t completely sure why he’d been the one to carry the girl. Of course, if there was danger, it would be better if their jonin was unburdened. But he couldn’t say for sure if that had even occurred to him at the time. What he did know was that her arm and leg weights were contributing to her fatigue, and she wouldn’t even have been wearing them if he hadn’t shown his off. He realized that seeing her exhausted and full of pain made him feel worse than he would if it had been himself. He wondered if this was what it was like to have friends, this feeling that you’d rather be hurt yourself than see them in pain.
In a sudden flash of insight, Naruto understood why they’d been taught that shinobi should avoid friendships and close personal relationships with their comrades. The thought of his friend being hurt, or even killed, made him feel physically ill, like he’d drunk all the bad milk in Konoha in one sitting. But why had Kurenai-sensei urged him to become friends with his teammates?
Then Naruto remembered his role in the team. He was supposed to cover their escape if they were ambushed or overrun. In that situation, he supposed it was… useful… if he cared a lot about his teammates. Naruto glanced back at his sensei. Had she pushed him to make friends so he would be more likely to sacrifice himself for them?
That was a very uncomfortable thought, and it made Naruto feel very cold inside. He’d come to value Kurenai-sensei’s wisdom and all the things she’d taught him. The idea that she was doing so just to manipulate him… but she hadn’t really, had she? He needed to think this through, the way she’d taught him.
Naruto recalled their first conversation at Moritake’s. She’d already explained his role on Team Eight, and asked him how hard he was willing to work to achieve his long-term goals. She hadn’t really concealed anything from him, and her expectations were straightforward. If she really was just trying to get rid of the Kyuubi like the other villagers wanted, she wouldn’t have set up extra training for him, now would she? Naruto admitted to himself that when he first became a genin, his taijutsu had been awful. Training with Gai-sensei and Lee, he was much more likely to survive any situation they got into.
Naruto also remembered a conversation he’d had with the Hokage, many years ago, when the old man explained how the Hokage was the shinobi who protected everyone in the village, with his wisdom as well as his strength. That was the day that Naruto decided that he would become the Hokage some day. No one could ignore his existence then… Were his current duties all that much different? True, Kurenai-sensei was doing most of the thinking here, but wasn’t it Naruto’s job to help protect his teammates? Wasn’t that just like what the Hokage did? Or at least a little bit like it? Maybe he was trying to see â€˜underneath the underneath’ when there was no real underneath to see.
Naruto tried to think his way through this question as the sun climbed steadily in the sky. Around noon-time, Kurenai called a halt so they could eat some trail mix and drink from their canteens. Seeing as how there was no stream nearby, she also showed them a new jutsu for permanently summoning small amounts of water by collecting the humidity present in the ground and air around them.
Naruto was eager to learn any new jutsus he could, and watched Kurenai slowly form the seals with eager eyes. Hinata and Shino both performed the simple jutsu without much trouble, while Naruto frantically practiced the seals.
When it was his turn, Naruto was a little nervous, but managed to form the seals correctly as he said "Suiton: Condensation!" However, instead of a two-inch-wide spinning vortex of air appearing over the mouth of his canteen, Naruto summoned one nearly a foot across. The torrent of water that gushed down out of it not only filled his canteen, but it also knocked it over and splattered their sandals and pant-legs with mud. At the same time, the air became extremely parched, stinging his throat.
Naruto managed to grab his canteen before all the water poured out, and then smiled sheepishly at his teammates as they tried to shake the spattered mud off their legs.
Neither Shino nor Hinata said anything, but Kurenai finally broke the silence. "Should I assume that was an accident, Naruto? Or was that intentional?" she asked in a dry tone.
"I wouldn’t prank-" Naruto said and cut himself off. He’d been about to say he wouldn’t prank Hinata since she was just now feeling better, but she probably wouldn’t appreciate hearing that. "Not during a mission, Sensei," he said in a formal tone.
"I see," Kurenai replied. "Well, I think it’s safe to say that did not manifest as intended. Do you know why?"
Naruto shrugged, a little frustrated and embarrassed, but did not answer.
"A-ano," Hinata said, breaking the silence.
"Yes, Hinata?" Kurenai asked.
"Naruto… he always tries his best," the girl mumbled, looking down as a blush slowly crept up her cheeks. Naruto noticed her fingers clutching the hem of her jacket and he wondered why she was so tense. "He... probably put too much chakra into the jutsu," she finally said, lifting her head a little. "It didn’t go wrong, not really. He just gathered too much water for the canteen to hold."
Naruto stared at his teammate, gratified that she wasn’t rubbing it in. Really, she was just saying that he did it too well. He was still staring at her when she looked up, and her head shot back down so fast Naruto wondered if he’d just imagined it.
"That was a very astute observation, Hinata," Kurenai said approvingly. "Naruto," the jonin continued, "when using a jutsu, especially for the first time, it’s a good idea to use just the minimum amount of chakra to complete it."
Naruto frowned and scratched his head, forgetting for the moment that his hand was wet and a little muddy. "How do I know how much to use?" he asked, puzzled.
Kurenai blinked. "As you complete the seals, you should feel a draining sensation as the jutsu attempts to draw the necessary chakra. Release just enough chakra for the draining sensation to stop, and no more."
"Draining sensation?" Naruto asked quizzically. "What do you mean?"
Kurenai paused for a long moment before answering. "When you use a jutsu, don’t you feel a slight draining sensation as your chakra goes to fuel the technique?"
Naruto shook his head, his eyes widening.
"What does it feel like?" Kurenai asked carefully.
"More like relief," Naruto answered faintly, staring off into the distance. Then he blinked and nodded. "It’s like when you have to go to the bathroom really bad, and you couldn’t for a while, and then when you do, it’s really…" Naruto’s voice trailed off as he shook his head.
Hinata was blushing again, and Shino’s shoulders appeared to be quivering. Even the corners of Kurenai-sensei’s mouth were turning up. It wasn’t fair! "You did ask me what it felt like," Naruto finally said in exasperation.
"You are correct, Naruto," his jonin said with a nod. "While your choice of metaphor is unfortunate, it is also descriptive. You appear to have larger than normal chakra reserves, which would also explain your ability to use Kage Bunshin no Jutsu. While a large reserve is desirable in a shinobi, most do not develop so large a capacity until after they have mastered basic chakra control techniques. You need to practice limiting how much chakra you allow to… flow… into your jutsus, starting with this one. Water any plants along the roadside that appear to be dried out, and see if you can reduce your effect size until it is comparable to Shino and Hinata’s."
Naruto nodded, grateful that something useful might come out of this debacle, besides managing to embarrass himself.
"In the future," Kurenai continued, "when we learn new jutsus, I’ll try to give you an expectation of how much chakra to use, in relation to this one." She smiled. "We wouldn’t want you to destroy your clothes with a cleansing jutsu, would we?"
Naruto laughed at that mental image, and wondered why Hinata squeaked and looked away.
Following his sensei’s directions, Naruto spent most of the afternoon eroding various spots along the trail. Hinata watched him closely each time he paused to practice over some particularly parched-looking bush. Oddly enough, though, it didn’t make him self-conscious. He supposed he was used to her watching him when they practiced chakra-control exercises.
Since the water-walking exercise, he hadn’t had too many problems with the red chakra. According to Hinata, she could still occasionally see bits of it circulating through his coils where they ran close to the surface of his skin, but they didn’t seem to be interfering as much anymore. Given what he knew about the probable source of the oddly-colored chakra, Naruto wasn’t sure what to make of that. If the stupid fox was aware of what was going on, it might have figured out that ruining Naruto’s training just made it more likely they would both die on a mission. But this was a demon, after all, so he wasn’t sure he could ascribe normal logic to its actions.
Eventually, Naruto figured out how it should feel when he put just enough chakra into the jutsu. The first time he achieved this, Hinata gave him a broad smile, the first genuine one he’d seen from her since they left Konoha, and he promptly lost control of the jutsu and blasted the poor bush out by its roots. Hinata’s face grew so chagrined that Naruto couldn’t help but laugh out loud. Hinata looked down again, but eventually recovered and flashed a small grin of her own.
"You know," Naruto said, as they hustled along the road to get ahead of Kurenai and Shino again, "it’s nice to be out of Konoha, at least for a little while."
"Hai," Hinata agreed, nodding slowly.
"It’s one of the nice things about being a shinobi, I guess," he continued. "You get to travel a lot, going on missions."
"Naruto?" Hinata asked quietly.
Naruto turned toward the girl.
Her face had gone very still, and she regarded him with widened eyes. Her mouth opened and closed once, with no sound coming out. Then she swallowed and was able to speak. "D-do you ever think about leaving Konoha?" she asked quietly.
As Hinata asked the question he’d asked himself the day before, Naruto felt like he’d been punched in the stomach. He’d hoped she hadn’t noticed the villagers’ hateful eyes, and the way they acted. Their attitude was a little more subdued around his teammates than when he was alone, and he tried to avoid the meaner adults as much as possible when he was with them. He thought he’d pulled it off since neither Shino nor Hinata had asked him about it. But Hinata’s question, combined with the look on her face, told him that she knew all too well what was going on. For a moment, Naruto felt exposed, like he’d been caught coming out of the bath.
The blond shinobi didn’t need to ask if his face gave away some of his emotions, because Hinata abruptly turned her head. He understood she was trying to avoid embarrassing him, but the reminder that he’d lost control of his facial expression was unwelcome. "G-gomen," she said, studying a pine tree that appeared to have been struck by lightning at some point, "that is none of my business."
"You’re allowed to ask," Naruto said quickly. "I don’t know, really. Probably not," he reassured her. "Konoha is my home. I can’t become Hokage if I leave, can I? Besides, someone has to keep you three entertained with â€˜unfortunate metaphors’," he added, grinning as she turned back.
"Hai!" she said in a small voice, and seemed to relax a little. Naruto realized she was probably worried about having to break in a new teammate if he ran away from Konoha, which was understandable. Just their luck, they’d be stuck with an idiot like Sasuke who’d be too busy looking cool to actually watch their backs.
By the time the sun was setting, Naruto felt like he had a pretty good feel for both the water gathering jutsu and how to limit his chakra output. Kurenai led them away from the road for several minutes, until they found a small clearing in which they could pitch their tents. Hinata volunteered to gather stones for a small fire while the others ventured into the woods as Kurenai discussed how they would divide up the necessary tasks. With the assistance of Shino’s bugs, the three of them found some rabbits for their evening meal. Kurenai showed them the proper way to clean the animals. By the time they’d brought the dressed meat back to their camp, Hinata had a bright but smokeless fire going inside the sunken fire-pit she’d dug with the folding shovel from Kurenai’s pack. It was deep enough that the flames would be invisible from more than a few yards away.
Naruto was hopeful when he noticed that Hinata also had several handfuls of greenery that she’d collected. He hoped those were spices, because just eating burnt rabbit didn’t appeal to him that much… but with the way Hinata prepared things, he might be looking forward to dinner after all.
While Hinata tended the herb-stuffed rabbit sizzling on spits over the sunken fire, Naruto and Shino set up the tent they’d be sharing and Kurenai set up a tent for her and Hinata. By the time they were done, it was fully dark, and the appetizing smells were making Naruto’s stomach rumble loudly.
When they sat down to eat, Naruto was dismayed to see that there was a field ration bar set out for each of them. Kurenai seemed to note his expression, because she was looking directly at him when she spoke. "Eat the rations first, then the rabbit. I’m sure Hinata has done an excellent job, if the smell is any indication, but each bar is designed to contain all the nutrients you should need for a day of high activity," she said. "I don’t want to see any pieces of them left over. We’re going to be a long way from the nearest hospital, so we can’t afford for anyone to get sick."
"Hai," Naruto said in a resigned tone. He picked up the bar, unwrapped it, and crammed it into his mouth with little ceremony. He chewed slowly and, with frequent sips from his canteen, eventually swallowed the pasty mess. Then he let out a sigh and picked up the skewer Hinata had stuck in the ground before him. It smelled even better at close range, especially after the offensively bland ration bar. He paused, noting that everyone else was reaching for their skewers, and nodded toward Hinata and said "Itadakimasu!" with a broad smile.
The rabbit skewer lived up to his expectations, and he had to resist the urge to gobble it down. Instead, he ate it slowly, savoring the tasty meat. He glanced up at Hinata, who hadn’t touched hers yet, and was instead looking nervously at her teammates. Naruto was amazed when he realized she was worried they wouldn’t like it. "Hinata!" he said suddenly, making her jump.
"Hai!" she squeaked, and Naruto nearly laughed out loud at the expression on her face.
"What did you use on this rabbit?" he asked.
"Just some herbs I found," she answered hesitantly. "Did it turn out bad?" she asked, her face falling.
"No! No! No! It’s really good!" Naruto quickly assured her. "I wasn’t really looking forward to dinner until I smelled it cooking!"
"Naruto is correct, Hinata," Shino added, making Naruto jump a little when the normally silent boy spoke. "It is surprisingly flavorful."
Hinata just blinked, and a slow flush crept up her cheeks.
"They are correct, Hinata," their sensei added. But then she frowned. "But that does not mean you should always be stuck with the cooking. We should rotate tasks while we are on a mission."
Naruto frowned at his teacher for a moment. Then his eyes widened and he turned toward Hinata. "I’ll do the wood gathering and water collection when it’s your turn if you’ll cook when it’s my turn," he offered.
Shino turned toward Naruto and nodded after a moment’s silence. "I will take your turns setting up the tents and hunting," he offered.
Hinata’s blush grew darker, but Kurenai’s voice cut in. "I expected better from both of you," she said in a frosty tone.
"Ano, Sensei," Hinata said quickly. "It’s all right. I like to cook."
Kurenai didn’t say anything else, but she gave both Naruto and Shino several dark looks as they consumed the skewers in silence. As they finished, Naruto gathered up the plates and utensils, and then bowed formally to the seething jonin. "Sensei, with your permission, I will demonstrate that I have mastered casting the water gathering jutsu at an appropriate strength level."
Kurenai eyed him for a moment, but then nodded.
Naruto carried the plates off into the woods. As they stepped away from the camp, he said "I don’t want to get any of our equipment wet if it misfires or runs down the hill."
However, he led his teacher a lot further from the camp than was seemingly necessary. Finally, he stopped and set the plates down on top of an old log and turned back toward Kurenai. "Before we do anything else," he began, "I’d like to explain why I asked Hinata to trade tasks with me."
"There’s a reason besides feeling like she should cook for you?" Kurenai asked coolly, "Or is there something else?"
"I cook for myself almost every day," Naruto said, scowling a little. "But Hinata’s really good at it, and I think it’ll make her feel better."
Kurenai looked a little puzzled. "Explain," she said. It didn’t really sound like a request, either.
"I’m not really sure why," he admitted, "but it just seems to. Maybe because she’s so good at it, and she likes to do something she knows she’s good at? When we started training together in the evenings, she began bringing these really huge bentos and insisted on sharing her dinner with me. I figured out after a while that she always brought more than enough food for both of us. I never asked her to do it, but she seemed happy when I thanked her." He scratched his head. "I’m not sure what happened with her training the night before we left Konoha, but I’m hoping letting her do the cooking will make her feel better. We just need to make sure she knows we like what she makes."
Kurenai just looked at him for a long moment. "I owe you and Shino an apology, it seems."
Naruto just shrugged. "But it is true that she’ll do a better job than I will," he said, with a small grin.
Kurenai smiled as well at his small confession. "That was fairly perceptive of you, Naruto," she said approvingly.
The boy just shrugged, though his cheeks reddened a little. "Maybe, but I’m not perceptive enough to figure out what’s going on. There’s something… wrong, isn’t there?" he asked.
Kurenai took a deep breath. "Perhaps," she allowed, "but I am not permitted to say."
Naruto frowned. "I don’t know what to do," he finally said.
Kurenai thought about his obvious concern for his teammate, and wondered if Hinata had noticed it yet. "I think it will come to you," she finally said. "Now, you were going to demonstrate your mastery of a certain jutsu?"
Naruto shook his head suddenly. "Hai," he said as he turned toward the plates and spread them out on the stump. "Suiton: Condensation!" he barked as he finished the seals.
A stream of water an inch and a half wide shot out of the chakra vortex that appeared in front of Naruto’s palm. Though the stream did flow a bit quickly, it nonetheless rinsed off the plates and utensils without scattering them into the undergrowth.
"Much better," Kurenai said approvingly. "Was it difficult to keep it under control?" she asked.
"A little," Naruto admitted. "Is it because of… you know?"
Kurenai sighed and nodded. "I think so. But try to look at this positively. In the long run, I think it will be easier for you to learn to release chakra in smaller quantities than it would be for one of your classmates to build up a chakra capacity like yours."
Naruto frowned. "I suppose so," he said slowly. "Now I need to figure out the appropriate amounts of chakra to release for every jutsu I know."
"I can help you there," Kurenai assured him. "And if you are not overloading them every time you use them, you might find that they will misfire less often."
Naruto looked thoughtful as he gathered up the plates. "That’s why I couldn’t make a decent Bunshin for my genin exam, wasn’t it?"
"But you can produce a horde of Kage Bunshin with greater reliability because it requires much more chakra… and therefore you aren’t overloading the Jutsu as badly. That would make sense," she concluded in a thoughtful voice.
"Some times I want to just jam a kunai through that stupid seal," Naruto growled, "and see how that damn thing likes being messed with."
"I do not think that would be a good idea," Kurenai-sensei said in a very quiet voice. Naruto looked up and realized her face had become pale.
"I don’t mean I want to cut my belly," Naruto said quickly. "I’m just tired of this thing messing up my life."
"Then the best revenge is living well, isn’t it?" Kurenai asked.
Naruto looked thoughtful again as he shook the water off the plates and stacked them up. "I suppose it would be," he agreed.
By the time they returned to the campsite, Shino and Hinata had retired to their respective tents. With the watch rotation, Kurenai was to take the first shift, so Naruto went to his tent.
Shino was already in his sleeping bag, with only the top of his head visible. "Why exactly do you want Hinata to do all the cooking? I assume there is a reason aside from her considerable skill," the boy said, his voice slightly muffled.
"I think it might make her feel better," Naruto said as he removed his jacket and unzipped his patched bedroll. He didn’t bother to remove the weights. "Just make sure you let her know how good it is."
"It was unusually well-prepared, especially given the conditions," Shino agreed. "So this is intended to build up her confidence?"
Naruto was silent for a moment as he stretched out and tried to get comfortable. "I suppose so. Something’s bugging her though. That family training thing seems sort of messed up."
"The Hyuugas are a highly respected clan," Shino reminded him.
"Like the Uchiha’s were?" Naruto asked, thinking about their last encounter with Sasuke.
"Point taken," Shino agreed.
The night passed uneventfully, and in the morning they ate the rest of the rabbit. Oddly enough, it was even better cold, and Naruto noticed Hinata blushing a little each time he made a happy sound as they ate. He watched out of the corner of his eye, hamming it up a little, and wondered why he found it so fun to tease the quiet kunoichi.
After they broke camp and resumed their journey, Naruto asked his sensei for another jutsu to practice as they walked. After a moment’s thought, she agreed. But only if he could perform the water-gathering Jutsu ten times without a slip.
The first time, he failed on the ninth attempt, but after that he was able to produce ten without a hitch. Kurenai-sensei agreed that he had, indeed mastered the jutsu along with his teammates, and they took a short break from walking while she demonstrated a new technique.
"Now this is a combat jutsu," she said in a serious voice after showing them the seals. "Be very careful how you use it. This was supposedly developed in Cloud Country, by shinobi who were very impressed by the Jyuuken techniques. Rather than forcing chakra out of your hands when attacking, this allows you to convert a small amount of chakra into electrical energy, and keep it confined to your hands. If you strike an opponent while this is active, the electrical energy will arc into your target, causing some additional damage."
After asking her students some general questions, Kurenai sighed and launched into a lengthy explanation of electricity and how it behaved. Naruto found it a little confusing, but tried to take it all in. After all, he might have to fight someone using electrical attacks someday.
"So metal armor won’t stop it very well, unless it’s insulated," Naruto repeated back, "and don’t use it in water unless I want to shock myself."
Kurenai nodded. "I can’t believe they didn’t cover basic physics at the academy."
"Ano," Hinata asked, "is it that important for shinobi?"
"There is no such thing as useless knowledge," Kurenai said in a very serious voice. Then she smiled. "While we walk, I will tell you how a lack of such knowledge caused a jonin to be defeated by a very junior chuunin."
Naruto understood, as his sensei told her story, that she was trying to teach them all something — and probably him in particular. What he didn’t understand was why his previous teachers couldn’t make their lessons as interesting as she did. He tripped and stumbled twice over ruts in the road, barely catching himself before he hit the ground, as Kurenai described the desperate struggle.
When Kurenai’s tale reached its conclusion and the wounded female chuunin grabbed her opponent’s weighted metallic chain and shocked him unconscious, Naruto couldn’t help but leap into the air and cheer in a loud voice.
"I’m gratified that you found the story entertaining, but does anyone remember what we were discussing?" Kurenai asked acerbically.
"Your opponent was ignorant of the conductive properties of steel," Shino replied, "and did not understand that every time he attacked you with a metallic weapon, he was inviting an electrical counterstrike."
"I did not say the kunoichi involved was myself," Kurenai corrected modestly.
"You were not? I would find it hard to believe someone not involved in the fight could recall the pertinent details," Shino replied in a reasonable tone.
Kurenai inclined her head in acknowledgment, but did not speak further.
Naruto practiced the seals as they walked. According to Kurenai, the jutsu required a minimum chakra five times larger than the water gathering one. However, since the seals required both his hands to perform, Naruto had to discharge the electricity before he could try again. He accomplished this by stepping off the side of the path and slamming his palm into the trunk of the nearest tree.
The first time he did this, Naruto was disappointed by how little the tree reacted. The bark was totally unmarked, and he began wondering if he’d put the correct amount of chakra into the technique. So the next time he tried it, he increased the chakra, but it still left the bark unmarked.
Naruto frowned and pumped a little more chakra into the next attempt. There was a faint crackle when he slapped the next tree, but no other effect. Naruto scowled in frustration. "Raiton: Shocking Grasp!" he growled and really pushed some chakra into it this time. Now, the palm of his hand glowed with a bright golden light and a crackling that would drown out angry Kikai bugs filled the air. Naruto let out a whoop and slammed his palm into a tree trunk, even as Kurenai shouted behind him.
There was a bright flash, followed by a thunderous crack, and Naruto found himself picked up and flung bodily through the air. He slammed into the ground, knocking the breath out of his lungs as he slid through the undergrowth, wondering why his face hurt.
A few minutes later, Naruto was sitting cross-legged on the ground, being lectured.
"I can’t believe you could be so irresponsible!" Kurenai fumed. "You could have killed yourself!"
"Ano," Naruto said, wincing as Hinata pulled another splinter out of his cheek. The flash made him screw his eyes shut which probably saved his eyes. His heavy jacket, gloves, and forehead protector also blocked the majority of the wooden shrapnel. He was glad of that, because the few bits that lodged in his flesh hurt badly enough. "Sensei, why did the tree explode like that? Every time I hit one before that, I didn’t even leave a mark."
Kurenai stared at him for a moment. "Naruto, trees are grounded. Small electrical charges shouldn’t damage them at all."
"Then why did that last one explode?" he asked.
"Because you put far too much chakra into that technique!" she snapped. "So much electrical current passed through the wood that it super-heated the sap inside, converting it into steam, and made it explode! That’s what happens when lightning strikes a tree!"
"Really?" Naruto said, smiling despite the blood smeared on his cheeks. Hinata put away her tweezers and silently handed him a damp cloth. "That’s great!"
Kurenai spun on her heel and quickly walked away.
"It would be great," Shino observed, "provided you manage to avoid blowing yourself up in the future."
"Well, yeah," Naruto said as he wiped off his face.
Hinata pulled out a small jar of medicinal cream, but the tiny punctures appeared to have closed on their own. She frowned slightly as she put the jar back into her bag.
Naruto stood up and dusted himself off. "Arigatou, Hinata-chan!"
Hinata ducked her head and blushed at the familiar form of address.
"Perhaps you should refrain from practicing any more jutsus until we reach the border," Shino said as they donned their backpacks.
"What are you, sensei now?" Naruto grumbled. He thought the Raiton Jutsu had totally kicked butt. It wasn’t his fault he didn’t know trees would explode.
"No," Shino replied, "but our orders are to relieve Dariketsu’s team before nightfall today, and we’re going to be late if there are any more delays."
Naruto looked up at the late afternoon sun and cringed. "Oi! Let’s get moving!" he shouted and set off down the trail again.
The sky was beginning to darken in the East when Kurenai called a halt.
"What is it Sensei?" Naruto asked. He hoped she wasn’t going to announce that they had failed. They had to be close to the border by now!
"Something…" Kurenai said, looking around. "Hinata?" she called out.
Naruto spun toward his teammate who’d been on point. She was no longer there. "Hinata!" he yelled.
Kurenai cocked her head to the side. "It’s subtle, but… Naruto! Chakra Pulse!" she barked.
Naruto realized that his sensei must have sensed a Genjutsu and immediately began pushing his chakra inwards compressing it into a small, hard ball. Whoever had done this must have cast it between Hinata’s Byakugan scans. While removing Hinata before she could detect the Genjutsu made tactical sense, it still infuriated Naruto. "Naruto Higi: Chakra Pulse!" he snarled when he felt like he was about to explode. He released the pulse.
The trees around them wavered as the chakra shockwave passed through them. Three of the trees were replaced by figures in dark cloaks. An arm protruded from one of the cloaks, holding up Hinata, who sagged limply like she was asleep.
Naruto was about to charge forward when Hinata’s eyes shot open and her body twisted. Her hands flashed toward her captor’s arm and suddenly she was spinning through the air like a doll thrown by a careless child. Hinata twisted in midair, stabilizing her tumble, and managed to land in a crouch next to Shino.
Naruto stepped forward, his hands falling into a familiar seal. "Kage Bunishin no-" he began, but stopped when he felt Kurenai’s hand grip his shoulder. How had she gotten behind him so quickly?
"Aren’t you a little old for playing games, Dariketsu?" his sensei asked in a very disapproving voice.
The middle figure snorted and threw back his hood. Dark hair was drawn back into a short pony-tail and even darker eyes glared contemptuously. "They have you on babysitting duty, Yuuhi?" he drawled, smirking.
Naruto ground his teeth together, but felt Kurenai’s hand tighten even further on his shoulder and subsided. Her fingernails felt sharp.
"Hardly," Kurenai replied in a frosty tone. "You’ve been recalled to Konoha," she said as she pulled the red-sealed scroll out of her vest and tossed it to the shinobi.
The man’s eyes widened. "Is this some kind of joke?" he asked as he cracked open the seal with a small flash of chakra.
"No," Kurenai replied. "The Hokage is tired of your bumbling. You’re supposed to be securing the border, not provoking the Iwa ninjas for your own amusement."
"And you and these brats are going to do a better job? Have you lost your mind?" Dariketsu demanded, his face growing redder by the second.
"We are more than sufficient to achieve our objectives," Kurenai said coolly.
The man snorted. "The smallest Hyuuga I’ve ever seen, one of those bug users, and… is that, him?" he asked.
Naruto felt his stomach drop and he watched his teammates from the corner of his eye. He wanted to jump this idiot and pound him before he said any more, but Kurenai-sensei’s hand was like an iron band around his shoulder.
"Yes, this is the infamous prankster Uzumaki Naruto, though his pranking days seem to be over," Kurenai replied. "He understands that shinobi are bound by the Hokage’s laws, no matter where they are."
Dariketsu’s eyes narrowed as they flickered from Naruto to his teammates. He turned his head and spat. "Fine, we will report to the Hokage. Try not to get murdered in your sleep by some bloodthirsty animal," he said in a sardonic tone. "Brand, Chusei, let’s strike camp and leave these â€˜shinobi’ to their mission. The sooner we leave, the sooner we get some warm sake in us."
A wind sprang out of nowhere, causing their cloaks to flap in the mysterious breeze. Then they were gone, with only a swirling torrent of wind-blown leaves to mark their place.
"Baka," Naruto growled.
Many thanks to my betas, Runsamok and bibliophile20.
"Naruto Higi:"- Naruto’s Secret Technique (Yes, it’s a slightly grandiose title for a relatively simple technique, but remember who we’re talking about here.)
"Iwa" — Stone or Rock
Yes, this version of Naruto is already a bit more thoughtful than in canon (though there is some serious backsliding at times). Keep in mind how much time has been covered in previous chapters… he’d been training under Kurenai-sensei for approaching two months now. He’s also spent almost as much time with Gai.
Please address any questions or concerns to my yahoo group, Viridian Dreams. The link is in my Author Profile.