Waiting with Hope

Sai Language

Chapter Fourteen: Sai Language

Heels clacking sharply against the polished surface of the hospital floor, Tsunade stormed through the corridors in a foul mood. Her thunderous expression sent medic nins scurrying out of her way in fear and her dark haired assistant was struggling to keep up.

"Tsunade-sama, please don't overreact!" Shizune begged, repositioning a sleeping Tonton in her arms as she tried to meet the Godaime's furious gaze. "The requests made by the elders were reasonable and they even agreed to form a compromise with you!"

Tsunade barged through a pair of swinging double doors, nearly knocking them off their hinges. "They wanted Naruto, one of our village's most important assets, to stop taking missions outside the village! I don't care how influential Homura and Koharu are – those dried out old buzzards aren't going to push me around so long as I'm Hokage! It's bad enough that I had to agree to let Danzo –" Tsunade's mouth pursed with distaste at the ANBU leader's name "– choose a member of Naruto's team from the Root division, but that's all the leeway I'm giving them."

"But Tsunade-sama, you know that Naruto-kun is a special case. Now that he's been targeted by the Akatsuki is it really wise for him to leave the safety of Konoha, even with the support of a team?"

The female Sannin came to a halt in the middle of the corridor, taking a deep breath to calm herself down. Talking with the village elders always made her blood boil – they were just so damn stubborn! Danzo in particular was infuriating; whenever he spoke Tsunade always felt on edge, as if there were an ulterior motive behind every word that left his mouth. The Sandaime's old rival was a cunning one without a doubt. And even worse than being forced to relent to the inflexible elders, she hadn't even been allowed any sake in the meeting with them!

After regaining her composure she refocused on Shizune's question. "You didn't have any objections to me choosing Naruto for the mission to rescue the Kakezage," the blonde haired woman pointed out, watching her assistant beadily out of the corner of her eye.

Shizune shifted uncomfortably. "Yes, but Naruto-kun had Kakashi-san with him, one of the most powerful ninja in Konoha, and with a backup squad sent to Suna as well the risk of him being isolated and captured was low. And even then I had some reservations with sending him on a mission with the Akatsuki directly involved…" The younger woman bit her lip, staring down at the floor in an effort to avoid Tsunade's piercing gaze.

The Hokage smiled wryly at her assistant's obvious discomfort at admitting her doubts. "Shizune, I have the exact same worries, but we can't wrap Naruto up in cotton wool. He's not a child anymore. Besides, the Akatsuki situation was precisely why I sent Naruto in the first place – he understands the pain of being a Jinchuuriki better than anyone, which made him the best choice for saving Gaara."

Shizune considered the Godaime's words carefully. "Yes, I suppose that makes sense," she admitted after a few seconds deliberation. "But it still doesn't explain why you're so keen on sending Naruto-kun out of the village again into what could well be an Akatsuki trap. According to the mission report we only have Sasori's word that this could be a lead to Sasuke… Is it really worth the risk of letting one of the Bijuu fall into the Akatsuki's hands?"

Tsunade laughed humourlessly. "Do you think the Akatsuki are just going to ignore Naruto if he stays in Konoha? The Kazekage was captured in his home village – who's to say that the same won't happen to Naruto? As far as I'm concerned, the less time he spends in one place the better. It'll be harder for his enemies to pinpoint his location if he's always on the move."

"But with the Akatsuki potentially involved this situation is still very dangerous," said Shizune quietly, after a momentary pause. "If Naruto-kun were captured, what if they're able to use the power of the Kyuubi against the village because of your decision?"

Tsunade drew her back up straight. "If that happens… if the worst case scenario really does unfold… then I will protect the residents of Konoha with my life, like all of my predecessors – because I am the Hidden Leaf Village's Hokage!"

"Tsunade-sama…" Shizune breathed out, lost for words at the Slug Sannin's fiercely proud response. Tonton let out a sleepy grunt in her arms, trying to find a more comfortable position in which to doze.

The blonde haired leader of Konoha winked at her fellow medic nin. "Impressed? I used those same lines on the elders earlier. It seemed to win them over too!"

Shizune laughed at Tsunade's ability to go from serious to teasing in a matter of moments. "Ok, I'll trust in your judgement even if it goes against my own," she agreed, smiling contentedly. "After all, you are the Hokage for a reason… though what reason that is exactly I don't really know!"

The Godaime joined in with her assistant's laughter and began walking again, though at a more reasonable pace this time, and Shizune fell into step behind her. After a minute or so of companionable silence, the two kunoichi eventually stopped outside one of the hospital's many rooms. Through the small window of the door the resting form of Kakashi could be seen, his face hidden behind his ever present Icha Icha book.

Tsunade entered the room, not bothering to knock, but the masked jonin heard her presence anyway. "You're late for the check up," he announced, turning a page in his book and not even looking up. "Before she left, Sakura said you'd be here ten minutes ago. Problems with the elders?"

The Hokage snorted. "Calling me late, Kakashi? That's a good one. I can't remember you ever being on time when I've ordered you to report to my office."

The copy nin shrugged. "Point taken."

"Kakashi-san, you said Sakura was here earlier?" Shizune intervened. "Shouldn't she still be here looking after you?"

"I think she said something about going to get Naruto so he could come see me," Kakashi answered lazily. "Nothing like a visit from the number one hyperactive knuckle-headed shinobi of the village to help me get better."

Tsunade frowned thoughtfully. "If she isn't here, then now's the perfect opportunity to ask some… sensitive questions about the mission you were just on."

Kakashi lowered his book at the Hokage's serious tone of voice. "By sensitive, are you talking about Naruto's… tenant?" he asked cautiously, his face unreadable behind his mask.

The Godaime nodded shortly, eyes fixed on Kakashi.

The silver haired sensei let out a sigh. "I can tell that Naruto has improved at controlling his emotions over the past two-and-a-half years, but even so there were still a few… incidents… where the Kyuubi was dangerously close to the surface. When we saw the fake Itachi his chakra noticeably spiked and when we were chasing the clay user I thought I sensed something too. The trigger seems to be rage – whenever Naruto's anger rises, so does the Kyuubi's presence."

"What about Jiraiya?" Tsunade asked. "Did the old pervert say anything about it to you before he left Konoha again?"

Kakashi reached across to the table beside his bed, where his clothes were neatly laid out, and rooted around in the one of the pockets of his green vest. After a second or two he pulled out a small slip of paper and Tsunade's eyes widened. "A repressive seal…" she murmured, impressed. "For a no-good womaniser, the old goat certainly knows his stuff…"

Kakashi nodded. "Yeah, before we left for Suna Jiraiya-sama pulled me aside and gave this to me, just in case. Luckily I didn't need to use it, but next time we might not be so fortunate. Naruto's emotions are his greatest strength in many ways, but they're also very, very dangerous. He wears his heart on his sleeve, which makes him vulnerable to enemies that look to get to him with taunts and threats. If he were ever to lose control without someone to place the seal on him…" Kakashi visibly shivered.

"What makes it even worse is that the Kyuubi's chakra is poisonous," added Tsunade in a low voice. "Whenever Naruto draws upon the fox's power, not only does he risk hurting those around him, he's damaging his own body too. And although the Kyuubi's chakra does grant him rapid regenerative powers, the strain on his cells would be too great… He would be shortening his own life span."

After a short pause, Kakashi spoke up again, his voice sombre. "Jiraiya-sama told me that he attempted loosening Naruto's seal whilst they were away on the training mission."

Shizune gasped, placing a hand over her mouth and nearly dropping the snoozing Tonton in the process, as Tsunade froze, her eyes narrowing dangerously. "What happened?" she snapped. "What did he say?"

A little nervous at being confined to bed in the same room as the suddenly enraged Godaime, Kakashi continued, albeit slightly hesitantly. "I'm afraid I don't know all the details, Hokage-sama, but from the sounds of things whatever Jiraiya-sama was attempting didn't work. Naruto transformed into a… well, what sounded like a 'miniature Kyuubi,' based on the description I was given, and went on a rampage. Only four tails sprouted, but Jiraiya-sama showed me the scar that the beast gave him. It wasn't pretty."

"Damn pervert!" Tsunade muttered under her breath. "He never said anything about that to me in his report on Naruto's training. He's lucky he wasn't killed!" Shaking her head, Tsunade lapsed into silence, brows furrowed.

"Ano… Tsunade-sama?" said Shizune, tapping the Slug Sannin lightly on the shoulder. "I don't mean to interrupt, but aren't we here to check up on Kakashi-san?"

"Oh, yes, that's right." Tsunade picked up the clipboard on the end of Kakashi's bed and scanned it briefly. "Hmm… well, I'm afraid that you're going to be out of commission for at least a week, Kakashi. You have extremely acute chakra depletion and unfortunately the only way that you'll fully recover is by getting lots of rest."

"A whole week?" Shizune queried, crestfallen. "But that means that Kakashi-san won't have recovered in time for this new mission to the Hidden Grass Village. Does that mean you won't be sending Naruto-kun or Sakura-chan, Tsunade-sama?"

The Godaime opened her mouth to answer, but before she could a shout was heard from outside the room. "Hey Kakashi-sensei!" a voice yelled, echoing down the corridor and accompanied by running footsteps. "We're here to visit!"

The voice was cut off by a muffled thump. "Naruto you idiot, no running in the hospital!" yelled an irate female voice. "People are trying to rest here!"

"Oww, Sakura-chan, you could have just said so," whined Naruto's voice. "And if me running is disturbing people, how come you get to shout?"

Shizune and Kakashi simultaneously winced as another yelp of pain and a roar of, "Idiot!" could be heard from just outside the room. Just a few seconds later the two members of Team Seven walked through the doorway, Naruto clutching the back of his head and Sakura glaring at him. Her irritated expression quickly changed to one of guilt, however, when she noticed the Hokage's disapproving expression. "Um… Tsunade-shishou…" she laughed nervously. "I didn't know you were here…"

The blonde haired Hokage's frown deepened and she crossed her arms severely. "It appears you need to follow your own advice, Sakura," she stated, arching an eyebrow. "This is a hospital, as you so clearly pointed out to Naruto, and should be treated as such. The rules apply just as much to staff as they do to visitors. No more shouting."

"O-Of course, Tsunade-shishou," stammered Sakura, red faced at being caught out by her superior. "I promise it won't happen again."

"And you, Naruto," Tsunade continued airily, noticing the blonde haired ninja's relieved grin at not being reprimanded himself. "If you run in the corridors like that again, I'll assign you nothing but D-rank missions for the next year. Is that understood?"

Naruto's smile was wiped of his face at the Godaime's words and his eyes widened with horror. Memories of all the times he had been forced to do gardening, litter-picking and all sorts of other menial, mundane tasks back when he had first become a genin flashed before his eyes. "No, please, anything but that! I won't do it again, I swear!"

Tsunade had to force back a grin. It was so much fun to mess with the heads of her subordinates! "Make sure that you don't, both of you," she said in the sternest voice she could muster, trying to keep her face straight.

The subdued nods from both of the teenaged ninja in front of her made her chuckle inwardly. 'Maybe I'm finally getting the recognition I deserve!' she cheered inside her mind. 'It's about damn time!'

Unfortunately for Tsunade, Naruto brought her back down to earth with a bump. "Ne, Baachan, how's Kakashi-sensei doing?" he asked, peering over the blonde haired woman's shoulder at the silver haired jonin, who waved wearily at his student. "Does he have to stay in bed? Will he be ok soon?"

A vein bulged in the Hokage's forehead as she let out a frustrated sigh at Naruto's incessant questioning. 'Who was I kidding?' she thought gloomily. 'The chances of Naruto showing me some respect are about the same as Jiraiya becoming celibate.'

Seeing the Slug Sannin's expression, torn between righteous anger and tired resignation, Shizune stepped in to answer the ramen loving shinobi's question. "Kakashi-san should make a full recovery soon, Naruto-kun, but for now he needs rest. He won't be able to take any missions for at least a week, which means we might have to change how we approach the Hidden Grass Village."

"Huh?" frowned Naruto, his head cocked to one side. "But you have to send our team! This is our chance to find Sasuke again; there's no way we'll fail this time! We can't just –"

"I can't send an incomplete squad, Naruto," interrupted Tsunade. "Kakashi is in no state to even get out of bed, never mind lead a vital mission, and sending just the two of you on your own into what could possibily be an Akatsuki trap would be far too reckless." Raising a hand as she saw Sakura and Naruto both open their mouths to protest, she continued firmly, "However, that doesn't mean that I think your team is unsuited for the task. Naruto was right; because of your bonds with Sasuke, you'll both be doing everything in your power to make this mission a success. That sort of motivation and drive is precisely why I think that the two of you are the best possible candidates."

Sakura cracked her knuckles and smiled confidently as Naruto gave an embarrassed grin at the Hokage's words and rubbed the back of his head, not used to such praise. In the past he had been forced to work himself to the bone to get any sort of acknowledgement at all, so he still felt a little awkward being complimented. On the rare occasions anyone spoke highly of him it felt almost as though he were naked, his bravado and confidence stripped away from him to leave him exposed and vulnerable, but he couldn't deny that it made him feel warm inside as well.

Attempting to brush of the disconcerting feelings, Naruto spoke up. "So what's gonna happen with this new mission, Baachan?" he asked, staring up at Konoha's leader questioningly. "Are we gonna have another jonin-sensei in charge?"

Tsunade shook her head. "Your new team hasn't been confirmed yet," she replied, a small frown creasing her forehead slightly. "I'm still being… advised on the best candidate for your new squad leader and teammate." Her grimace after she had spoken showed that she was clearly still unhappy about being overruled by the elders and Danzo.

"Oh, so we need a new team member as well?" Naruto questioned eagerly, face lighting up. "Leave it to me, Baachan!" With that, the spiky haired ninja sprinted out the door, ignoring Sakura's angry yells not to run in the hospital.

Tsunade shook her head. "Honestly, I despair with that boy sometimes… He never seems to slow down."

However, halfway down the corridor Naruto suddenly remembered something and screeched to a halt. Turning around he ran back into Kakashi's room, not even pausing to knock as he entered, and dashed past Shizune to the side of Kakashi's bed. Ignoring the mixed reactions of everyone present – Tsunade rolled her eyes, Shizune peered concernedly at the silver haired jonin, wondering if Naruto was disturbing him from his rest, Kakashi arched an eyebrow quizzically and Sakura huffed with annoyance at Naruto's relentless energy – the orange clad ninja rummaged in his pockets for a moment, before grinning widely as he found what he was looking for. "Oh, Kakashi-sensei, I almost forgot, I have a get-well-soon present for you!" he beamed, thrusting a hastily wrapped package into the masked copy nin's hands. "Here, take it!"

Surprised, Kakashi received the parcel from Naruto and shook it, attempting to figure out its contents. As Naruto's smile grew, becoming mischievous, the copy nin shrugged and tore through the messily wrapped paper. As he saw what was underneath Kakashi's one visible eyes widened. "Is this… what I think it is?" he asked hoarsely, not tearing his eyes away from Naruto's present for even a moment.

"Yep," grinned Naruto, enjoying Kakashi's shock. "The brand new book in Ero-Sennin's series, 'Icha Icha Tactics'! It's boring as Hell, but I thought you'd enjoy it!"

"But… this isn't even out in the shops yet…" said Kakashi faintly, clutching the book as if it would disappear if he put it down.

"Yeah, I know, it's a pre-release version," Naruto nodded importantly. "I thought it'd give you something to do whilst you're stuck in bed. This is Ero-Sennin's first novel for three years so it'll probably be a big seller too, even though I have no idea why." The Uzumaki boy scrunched up his face with thought as he tried to figure it out.

"Thank you, Naruto… but how did you get hold of this?" Kakashi asked, perplexed. "I know people that would pay a small fortune to get their hands on this book!"

"Oh, that. Ero-Sennin's made me be his proof-reader," replied Naruto sourly. "The old pervert wouldn't train me unless I read through his stupid books for any mistakes."

Kakashi gazed up at Naruto with something close to awe, tears of happiness in his eye. "You're Jiraiya-sama's proof-reader? Oh, Naruto, you've grown up so much! I'm so proud of you!" The silver haired jonin sniffled, patted Naruto on the shoulder and without any further ado opened the book and began to read, oblivious to the world around him.

Shrugging his shoulders at his sensei's weird behaviour, Naruto was about to leave, but was stopped when he saw Shizune running for cover and felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. Turning slowly, he saw both Tsunade and Sakura looking as though they were about to explode with anger.

"You were reading porn on your trip?" shouted Sakura incredulously, hands balled into fists. "You pervert!"

"Sakura-chan, c'mon, I had no choice," Naruto pleaded, turning to the Hokage for help against his teammate's wrath. However, Tsunade appeared, if anything, even more enraged than her pink haired pupil.

"Let me get this straight…" the Godaime hissed in a deadly whisper. "Not only did Jiraiya write that filth in front of you… he also deliberately forced it on to you? Naruto, tell me everything about it right now! As soon as that depraved old man gets home I'll castrate him!"

Naruto's face paled as both student and teacher closed in on him. "Er, I think I'm gonna find someone for our team now," he said nervously, looking around desperately for an escape route of some sort. "See ya later!"

With a bend of the knees, the orange clad shinobi jumped through the window, ignoring the shouts for him to come back. Landing in a crouch on the roof of the closest building to the hospital, Naruto breathed a sigh of relief at his close shave. 'Man, Sakura-chan and Tsunade-baachan are scary enough on their own – when they're together…' Naruto shivered, then smirked. 'Oh well, at least Kakashi-sensei seemed to like the book.'

Thoughts resolved, the blonde haired ninja tightened his hitai-ite around his forehead and prepared to begin his search.

-o-o-

With infinite precision, Choji picked up a small chunk of meat on the end of his chopsticks and inhaled deeply, the wonderful aroma wafting into his nostrils. Salivating, the Akimichi boy closed his eyes dreamily and deposited it into his mouth, chewing slowly to savour the delicious mix of sauces and the wonderfully crisp texture of the pork. Swallowing, he let out a quiet sigh of contentment. Konoha had all sorts of great restaurants that specialised in anything from vegetarian food to fish, but the barbequed pork was his favourite, hands down.

"Choji, seriously, we have to go now or we're gonna be late for Asuma-sensei's team meeting!" called a shrill voice from across the table, shattering the image of Choji's tranquil dining experience.

"Relax, Ino," Shikamaru yawned lazily from his seat next to the rotund chuunin. "I'm sure he can wait a little while longer. Anyway, Choji's almost done now, right pal?"

Nodding, the brown haired boy popped the final slice of meat into his mouth. "Yeah, that ought to do as a light snack," he commented, his mouth still full.

"Snack?" Ino screeched. "That was your third helping! How can you possibly eat so much?"

Choji looked slightly hurt. "I need to eat to keep my chakra levels high so I can use my family's jutsus. And besides, I can't help it if I'm big boned."

Seeing Ino about to press the point further, Shikamaru quickly stepped in to avoid a confrontation. "We'd probably better get going now," he said hastily, throwing down a few coins to pay for his share of the food. "No need to keep Asuma-sensei waiting any longer, right?"

Ino sighed impatiently but nodded her assent, much to Shikamaru's relief. The last time she had made a snipe about Choji's weight the end result had been a training field so completely destroyed that a shell shocked Asuma had been forced to pay for the rebuilding works. Needless to say, the Yamanaka girl had apologised immediately afterwards.

Placing a scattering of coins on the table top herself, alongside a far larger mound of Choji's money, Ino exasperatedly exited the restaurant, her teammates trailing behind her as usual.

"Ino really needs to lighten up," murmured Shikamaru in a low voice, making certain that the blonde girl ahead of him was out of earshot. The streets may have been busy and noisy, but Ino had a habit of hearing anything that he wanted to keep quiet.

Choji nodded in agreement. "I guess, but it's still nice for us to hang out as a team like this. We don't really get to meet up with each other or Asuma-sensei as much as we used to."

"Yeah, I never seem to have any free time any more. The mission I was just on was really tiring and Hokage-sama's always setting me some new task or another – preparing for the Chuunin Exams was so troublesome."

"Really?" Choji asked, smiling teasingly. "From what I could tell, you were enjoying hanging out with Temari…"

Shikamaru's face flushed slightly as he weaved his way around a group of children running in the street. "What's that supposed to mean?" he asked defensively, glancing narrowly at his long-time friend.

Choji shrugged, holding his hands up placatingly. "Nothing, nothing, just an observation. I didn't mean to be pushy or anything."

Shikamaru grinned wryly, relenting. "Don't worry about it. Being pushy is Ino's job." The Akimichi boy stifled his laughter, not wanting to anger his blonde haired teammate. "But yeah, I guess working with Temari was more fun than I'd expected," the shadow user continued grudgingly. "And, as much as I hate to admit it… I think I'm gonna miss her."

Choji considered Shikamaru's words carefully. "Y'know, I think Temari really appreciated your help when she was staying here in Konoha," he remarked casually.

The Nara boy raised an eyebrow curiously, waiting for Choji to continue.

"I mean, coming to stay in a new village and hardly knowing anyone must have been pretty tough for her, right?" said the brown haired boy reasonably, following Ino down a side road as they headed for their team's usual training ground. "I bet a lot of people would have felt lonely in that sort of situation, far away from their friends and family."

Shikamaru snorted. "You really think Temari's the type to get homesick?" he asked, disbelief written all over his face.

"Maybe," answered Choji defensively. "But even if she wasn't I could see that she was kinda happy that you were introducing her to friends and showing her around and stuff. I'm sure she only enjoyed her stay in the village so much because you were helping her fit in."

"Hmm…" Shikamaru frowned thoughtfully. "I'd never really thought of it like that… When did you get so observant, Choji?"

The larger boy laughed. "I guess when you hang out with a genius you pick up a trick or two!"

Shikamaru let out a chuckle of his own, but stopped as he noticed Ino had come to a halt up ahead in the middle of the street and was staring upwards at the building opposite the hospital. "Hey Ino, what's up?" he called, puzzled.

"There's someone standing on the roof over there," Ino answered, confusion apparent in her voice.

"So?" Shikamaru shrugged, following her gaze. "It's probably just an ANBU member on patrol or something."

Ino shook her head. "I can't see the guy's face but he's definitely not wearing a mask," she said, pausing for a moment as she squinted up, trying to distinguish any closer details. "And besides, what kind of ANBU member wears orange?" The Yamanaka girl huffed dismissively. "Total fashion disaster."

"Orange?" Choji repeated, bewildered. "Do you know any ninja that wears orange, Shikamaru?"

The shadow user snorted. "You're seriously saying you can't think of anyone?"

"… Well, I guess there's Naruto," said Choji uncertainly. "But isn't he still away on his training assignment?"

"Nah, I saw him with Hinata back in Konoha a couple of days ago and he was on the mission with me to rescue the Kazekage too," answered Shikamaru, scratching the back of his neck idly. "He's still an idiot, but his heart's in the right place and he's definitely improved."

"Wait, you met up with Naruto?" Ino interrupted, noticeably irritated. "And he was on the same mission as you? Why didn't you tell us?"

Shikamaru shrugged lazily. "You never asked."

Ino rolled her eyes at her teammate's customary laid back attitude, then paused for a second, realising just what Shikamaru had said earlier. "Wait, you said Naruto was with Hinata, huh…?" She rubbed her hands together as a crafty grin slowly spread across her face. She could smell gossip.

The Nara boy felt an ominous shiver of foreboding. He knew that look from a mile away. Ino was scheming something, he was sure of it.

Taking a deep breath, the ponytailed girl shouted, "Hey, Naruto! Down here!" and began waving her arms to attract his attention.

From his vantage point overlooking Konoha, Naruto heard her voice and looked down with surprise, noticing the members of Team Ten were waiting in the middle of the street and peering up at him. He grinned widely at their presence and dropped to the ground alongside his former classmates.

"Hey, Choji, Ino, how've you been? I haven't seen you both in ages!" he exclaimed, taking in their new appearances. Choji was wearing some sort of thick body armour, which combined with his huge size would have made the Akimichi boy look threatening if it weren't for the friendly smile and slight smears of what looked to Naruto like barbeque sauce spread over the markings on his cheeks. Ino's purple outfit, on the other hand, made the ramen loving ninja wonder just how he hadn't seen her from the rooftops – it clashed vibrantly with her long, blonde hair and could hardly fail to be noticed.

"Hi there Naruto, welcome back to Konoha," Choji greeted him. "I bet you've already been to Ichiraku's, right?"

"Yeah, it hasn't changed a bit," Naruto grinned. "The ramen is as good as ever! You guys should join me there for lunch some time."

Seeing Choji's eyes light up at the thought of more food, Ino interrupted, wanting to steer the conversation in a different direction. "So, Naruto, Shikamaru tells me that you were with Hinata on your first day back in the village," she said in the sweetest voice she could muster. "How did that go?"

"Oh, yeah, it was good," replied Naruto, smiling lopsidedly as he thought back to the fun they'd had. "We had some ramen and she showed me around the village. She was waiting for me at the gates as well, which was really nice of her. I don't really get why she did that, but I enjoyed hanging out with her."

Ino's smile became a smirk. 'Yes! I knew there was something going on!' she thought triumphantly. 'Next time I see Hinata I'm gonna have some interesting questions to ask her…'

However, before she could respond to what Naruto had said the spiky haired ninja spoke up again. "By the way, speaking of Hinata-chan, have any of you guys seen her around today? I was just about to try and find her to ask her something."

Ino blinked, surprised by this new turn of events. "Oh? What do you need to talk to her about?" she queried, genuinely curious.

"Tsunade-baachan's just given me another new mission," said Naruto proudly, poking a thumb at his chest importantly, "And I wanted to see if she could be a part of the team too." He paused and scratched his chin thoughtfully. "I dunno why, but when I was thinking about people I'd want to have on the mission with me, for some reason I thought of her first."

"Why're you asking for Hinata and not someone else?" asked Choji, puzzled. "If you want someone with the Byakugan wouldn't Neji be the better choice?"

From the expression on Ino's face Naruto could tell that she was equally as sceptical and the orange clad ninja scowled at the insinuation that Hinata was weak. It reminded him of how Neji had treated her back in the Chuunin Exams, as though she was too feeble to stand up for herself and fight, and he didn't like it at all.

Naruto opened his mouth to yell at Ino and Choji, but to his surprise it was Shikamaru that spoke up first. "Y'know, in the mission that Naruto and I just came back from, Hinata fought against an S-rank missing nin from the Akatsuki," he commented idly, hands clasped behind his head. "Just the fact that she's still alive shows she must be stronger than you think."

Naruto felt a sort of fierce satisfaction as he saw Ino's eyebrows shoot upwards with blatant surprise and Choji's jaw drop. In his opinion people that underestimated his friends, especially someone that tried as hard as Hinata did to become stronger, should be put straight.

The Akimichi boy shuffled his feet awkwardly and looked up at Naruto apologetically. "Ah, sorry. If you saw her in action on the mission then I guess you have a better idea of how strong she is than I do."

Seeing that Ino looked suitably regretful as well, Naruto laughed it off. "Nah, it's no big deal. I just think us rookies should stick up for each other, y'know?"

Choji nodded. "Yeah, that's true. I guess we've all been underestimated at some stage or another, but we've risen above it. Plenty of people have thought that a big boned guy like me can't be a great ninja, but I'm gonna prove them wrong!"

Ino snorted as both Naruto and Shikamaru chuckled. "You guys are so immature…" she muttered, brushing a loose strand of hair out of her eyes. "I really don't see what's so –" the blonde haired girl paused mid-sentence as a thought struck her. "Oh, wait a second, I've just remembered something. You said you were looking for Hinata, right Naruto? I don't know where she is at the moment, but I think I saw Shino walking past the barbeque restaurant a little while ago; maybe he'd know. He was probably on the way to his team's usual meeting point, at the crossroads just a bit further down the high street, so you could ask him."

Shikamaru groaned. "Ino, were you watching everyone whilst we were eating? You can be such a troublesome busybody sometimes…" Seeing his teammate whirl around angrily, he raised his hands defensively. "Hey, it's not a bad idea though. Hinata might be there with the rest of her team and even if she isn't then Kiba or Shino will probably know where to find her. It's a good place to start, at the very least."

"Yeah, that makes sense," said Naruto enthusiastically, grinning widely. "Thanks guys, I owe you one! See you soon!" With that, the blonde haired boy ran off, waving over his shoulder briefly before disappearing around a corner.

Ino shook her head as she watched him go. "Does he ever slow down?" she asked rhetorically, turning to face Shikamaru and Choji again. "I thought he would have grown up at least a little bit whilst he was away."

The Nara boy smiled wryly. "This is Naruto we're talking about. The chances of him ever growing up are practically zero." He paused for a moment, looking up at the wispy white clouds floating gently across the calm, blue sky. "I'm kinda glad he hasn't changed though. If he were any different, he just wouldn't be Naruto."

Choji nodded sagely. "He's our friend," he said simply. "That's all that matters."

"I suppose so," Ino conceded, sighing. "He's still an idiot though. And, more importantly, we still have to meet up with Asuma-sensei! Now come on, no more talking!"

Ignoring the reactions of both her teammates, the ponytailed girl grabbed them by the arm and began dragging them in the direction of the training ground, fretting about how late they were and how angry Asuma-sensei was going to be. Choji opened his mouth to protest but Shikamaru shook his head, still staring up at the sky. When the Yamanaka girl was in this sort of mood it was best to just go along with it, just like the clouds he envied so much.

-o-o-

Hinata smiled as she exited the Hyuuga complex, nodding politely at the austere gatekeepers on guard duty. She was looking forward to the day ahead of her; today was her first full day back in Konoha after returning from the mission to Suna yesterday and she was anticipating reuniting with the rest of her team. 'It will be nice to see Kiba-kun and Shino-kun again,' she thought fondly to herself as she slowly walked through the streets of Konoha, enjoying the morning sunshine. 'And I hope Kurenai-sensei is feeling better now.'

As she thought of those that she considered her second family, her thoughts drifted back to the reactions of her real family when she had arrived back home. After she and Neji had said their goodbyes and separated from the rest of their group once they reached the gates of Konoha, they had both entered the Hyuuga complex. As Hinata had walked through the wide doors of the main hall her younger sister, Hanabi, had greeted her formally, but had laughed when Hinata had pushed decorum aside and swept her up in a hug.

"Neechan, you stink!" the younger girl had giggled, wrinkling her nose and fighting her way out of her sister's grip.

Hinata smiled tenderly. Although she had been forced to compete against her sister in the past, she still loved Hanabi dearly and always missed her whenever they were separated. "Hanabi-chan, how are you?"

"Father's been teaching me some new Jyuuken moves and I've been on a few minor D-rank missions with my team, but it's been so boring," Hanabi complained, scowling. "And, even worse, next week sensei said my genin team and Ebisu-sensei's squad are doing a survival exercise together."

"With your skills, that assignment appears relatively straightforward," Neji commented. "Are you objecting to the extra training?"

"It's not the survival exercise, it's that complete idiot on Ebisu-sensei's team that I have to work with, Konohamaru," replied Hanabi, her scowl deepening. "He was such a clown back at the Academy, I don't know how he graduated at all. He scraped through with the lowest marks in the whole class."

"Isn't Konohamaru-san the grandson of the Sandaime?" asked Hinata cautiously, mindful of her younger sister's stubbornness.

Hanabi snorted. "That makes him even more annoying! He has a noble background, but chooses to ignore it and never shows anyone any respect. I've no idea how Iruka-sensei managed to put up with him in lessons."

"Hanabi-chan, you should at least try to get along with him," said Hinata reproachfully. "You'll need to work with him for the training exercise to be successful. And who knows? Maybe if you g-get to know how a little better you'll find he's not as bad as you thought."

"Hmph! Somehow I doubt that!" grumbled Hanabi. "I'll work with him because I have no choice, but I definitely won't like it!"

Hinata smiled at her sister's inflexibility. Hanabi may have been raised as a Hyuuga, and at times she could certainly be refined and precise, but underneath it all she was still very much a pre-teen girl.

Hinata hugged her sister once again and was about to head for the bathroom – Hanabi was right, the return trip from Suna had left her tired and dirty and she was looking forward to a long, relaxing shower – when a voice behind her made her stop in her tracks.

"Welcome home, Hinata, Neji."

Hinata's eyes widened with surprise and she quickly turned to face the speaker, bowing low. "Thank you, Otou-sama…" she answered, a little embarrassed at her failure to notice him immediately. Her cousin also inclined his head at the Hyuuga clan's leader respectfully.

Hinata felt awkward in the presence of her father still wearing her dirty mission clothes and planned to slip away as quickly as possible, but her hopes were dashed when Hiashi had asked, "Neji, Hanabi, may I ask that you excuse us for a moment? I wish to speak with Hinata alone… so long as she is willing, of course."

Hinata blinked with surprise at her father's words. She knew that since Naruto's fight against Neji he had become more open around his daughters and his nephew, but asking for her to talk with him rather than ordering? It seemed very out of place. Seeing her father raise a questioning eyebrow at her silence, she blushed and nodded hesitantly, shooting a panicked look in her sister's direction, who merely shrugged minutely, seemingly as confused as she was by the Hyuuga clan head's sudden interest in her.

Not wanting to keep Hiashi waiting, Neji and Hanabi bowed and exited the hallway. As the sound of their footsteps slowly receded into the distance, Hinata bit her lip, feeling a little apprehensive now that she was alone under the keen eye of the clan leader. Trying to hide her nerves, she started to walk down the corridor to her father's study, where all private meetings normally took place, but upon hearing Hiashi cough meaningfully at her she realised that they must be discussing matters here in the hallway instead. Now even more confused, she almost opened her mouth to ask about this surprising new setting for their conversation, but upon thinking it over for a moment she decided that perhaps it was for the best. All the previous times she had been summoned to her father's study had been on occasions when he had been dissatisfied with her private training and the room was imposing even on its own; full of Hyuuga family heirlooms and ancient scrolls depicting the family's traditional taijutsu style. Maybe a discussion in a more informal setting, without the overbearing atmosphere that she was so used to, meant that she wasn't being judged against this time?

However, as the silence grew, Hinata had to fight the urge to press her index fingers together. Hiashi was staring appraisingly at her, his gaze not faltering even slightly and his white Byakugan eyes impossible to read. She wanted to shuffle her feet at the sensation of being scrutinized so thoroughly, but instead she straightened her back slightly and met his gaze. 'I'm not a little girl anymore,' she reminded herself as firmly as she could, staring levelly back at him. 'I don't need to feel intimidated in Otou-sama's presence.'

Hiashi smiled almost inperceptibly at Hinata's newfound boldness. "You seem… different," he commented lightly, studying her closely. "Your mission went well, I trust? Being included in the team to rescue the Kazekage was a great honour."

"Yes, the m-mission was successful," Hinata answered, keeping her voice as steady as possible. "We managed to recover Kazekage-sama and return him to Suna safely. There was s-some conflict with the Akatsuki, though…"

Hiashi jerked his head up, eyes alert, and frowned. "The Akatsuki were involved in this mission? You mean to say that they were the ones responsible for kidnapping the Kazekage from Suna?" Seeing his daughter nod, Hiashi's frown deepened. "No wonder this was an S-class mission… It was common knowledge that the Kazekage was captured and I knew the kidnappers must have been highly skilled to defeat a Kage in his own village, but to think that they were part of that organisation…" Hiashi shook his head, the lines in his face shifting slowly, like continental plates.

"I'm sorry I couldn't tell you about it before we left…" said Hinata in a small voice. "But the mission was classified…"

Hiashi waved away her concerns. "I understand, even the Hyuuga clan is bound by the codes of conduct for all Konoha shinobi. And besides, perhaps it is for the best that you did not inform me of the Akatsuki's influence in proceedings. I would have worried about your safety more than ever if I had known that criminals of that calibre were opposing you."

Hinata's eyes widened and she had to stifle a gasp. "You were… you were w-worried about me?" she asked hesitantly. Her father may have become less cold over the years, but he had never said anything like this to her before, not even once. He had always seemed firm and immovable, like a craggy, snow-capped mountain; hearing him admit that he worried about her left Hinata momentarily speechless. As his words slowly sunk in her heart swelled up with joy. 'Otou-sama…he cares!' she thought, delighted. 'He really does care!'

Hiashi furrowed his brows, confused by her reaction. "Of course I was worried. You are my daughter; it is only natural that I worry about you. I –" Whatever else Hiashi was about to say was lost as Hinata threw her arms around him, sniffling tearfully but smiling as widely as she could ever remember. The Hyuuga clan head went stiff and blinked with surprise, unsure how to react at first, but after a moment he softened and smiled tentatively, hugging his daughter back for the first time in many, many years.

"I am sorry, Hinata," he whispered as she drew back, his own eyes slightly moist. "I should have been a better father for you in the past. After your mother…" He swallowed and continued hoarsely, "After your mother… died… I acted as the Hyuuga clan's leader, at the time when you most needed me to be a father. It was wrong of me to expect so much from you at such an early age. I should have let you develop at your own pace." Hiashi let out a sigh and gazed at his daughter with sad eyes. "A daughter should never be forced to prove her worth to her family. After all, I can see your worth right now, standing before me. And despite all the mistakes I made, all the loneliness I put you through… I couldn't be more proud of you. Please don't ever think otherwise."

Hinata wiped her eyes and shook her head vehemently. "Otou-sama, thank you… but there is n-nothing to forgive," she said, her voice quivering slightly but her eyes bright and shining. "I could never be angry with you. You believed you were doing the right thing. And I think you have been a f-fine leader of our clan."

Hiashi gazed at her in silence for a moment, absorbing the features of her honest face. "Thank you, my daughter," he said softly. "You have a heart as kind as any I have ever known. The only person I can think of that could equal you would be your mother…"

Hinata nodded wordlessly, a lump in her throat. Unbidden, a memory of a family portrait popped into her head, in which her father had an arm around his wife, holding her close to him as she held a very young Hinata in her arms. She still had the old album in which it was kept, enclosed in the faded pages of the past, and it was one of Hinata's earliest memories. It was also one of the few times she could ever remember Hiashi smiling as openly as he was now, as though he was at peace with both himself and the world around him.

Lost in her memories, Hinata jumped as her father spoke once again. "If your mother could see you now, I'm sure she would be very proud of you too…" He smiled wistfully at the memories of his wife, then clicked his fingers. "Ah, but we were still discussing your mission, correct? Please, continue."

Her heart feeling as light as a feather after her father's newly revealed feelings, Hinata began summarising the rest of the events of the mission. She felt a little awkward speaking in front of him at first, especially after his admission of his past mistakes, but as she relaxed the words seemed to tumble from her mouth without pause, like a bubbling spring. Admittedly she stumbled over the moments that involved Naruto as briefly as she could, unable to prevent her blush as she told her father about the blonde haired boy's enthusiastic encouragement, but aside from that it was surprisingly easy to let the words flow naturally. Hiashi didn't interrupt her at all, letting continue her tale at her own pace, though Hinata noticed that when she described Chiyo's demise and her brutal fight with Sasori he seemed to be forcibly restraining himself from speaking out. However, he managed to prevent himself from talking over her, much to Hinata's relief; now that she had started talking it was a massive load off her mind just to let it all out. It felt like now that she had started she couldn't have stopped even if she tried.

"… And then we returned home," Hinata finished, gazing down at the floor and waiting for her father's response. Her whole body felt as though it was faintly buzzing with a thousand different emotions now that she had explained everything and she felt the urge to fidget, but she tried to remain calm – after everything the Hyuuga clan head had said, it would be disrespectful to show any sign of impatience.

Hiashi pondered over the description of the mission for a few moments, eyes clouded over, before shaking his head, bewildered. "Hinata, engaging in combat with a missing nin of Akasuna no Sasori's standard was incredibly dangerous; his reputation is almost legendary, even here in Konoha. You could have been killed. If the Kazekage had been even a second or two slower in recovering, you would have been killed. When Chiyo offered you a way out, what on Earth possessed you not to take it?"

"I couldn't have just left Chiyo-baasama alone!" Hinata protested, hands gripping the hem of her jacket tightly. "She n-needed my help… I could never bring myself to run away when someone is depending on me…"

Hiashi sighed. "Somehow I knew you would say that…" he said tiredly, his forehead creasing with frown lines. "But I hope you don't ever change." Seeing his eldest daughter blush at his additional praise, he laughed shortly. "Though it may be inadvisable to fight an opponent that outmatches you, I admire your newfound determination, Hinata. I take it that this inner strength stems from Uzumaki Naruto's influence on you, yes?" The Hyuuga clan head smiled knowingly as Hinata's blush darkened. "Well, I must return to my study now. I will see you at dinner."

Nodding a goodbye, Hiashi had turned and walked out of the hallway, leaving Hinata with endless questions and feeling just as confused as she had at the start of the conversation. In spite of his enigmatic exit she had received no further answers during their evening meal, with Hiashi making small talk with his daughters and nephew, and Hinata didn't feel even remotely ready to bring up Naruto's name in front of him herself. Even thinking about it that night, as she tried to sleep, had done her no good. Her mind was overloaded with queries that she couldn't even begin to answer. How did her father know about her affection for the orange clad boy? And did he know how far her feelings extended? Did he approve of Naruto? If he did approve, was he basing his view on from what he had seen of Naruto with his own eyes, such as the fight against Neji in the Chuunin Exams, or had he figured things out from what she had said about the mission to Suna? Hinata honestly didn't know. Even now, walking towards her team's usual meeting point, she had many more questions than answers.

'Maybe Otou-sama was teasing me?' she wondered. 'But I don't understand how he knew about Naruto-kun in the first place… It's so embarrassing! I –'

Hinata was jerked from her thoughts as she heard a shout of, "Oi, Hinata, I didn't know you were back!" followed by a loud bark and the fall of footsteps from behind her. The quiet Hyuuga girl turned as she recognised the voice of her teammate, Inuzuka Kiba. The dog user was jogging down the street to catch up with her, Akamaru padding faithfully by his side as always.

"Oh, good morning, Kiba-kun, how are you?" she greeted him as he caught up. Bending down, she gave Akamaru a quick scratch behind his floppy ears and the large dog whined pleasantly.

Kiba grinned, his sharp canines showing. "Not too bad. I did a couple of C-rank missions whilst you were away and managed to fit in some training. Oh yeah, and I kicked Shino's ass when we were sparring the other day as well."

"Shino-kun wasn't angry, was he?" Hinata asked worriedly. Despite the Aburame clan member's stoic attitude, she knew that he was more competitive than he let on and disliked losing.

Kiba shrugged. "Kinda. Well, I think so – I couldn't really tell, what with that big collar he wears." The Inuzuka boy smirked at Hinata's questioning look. "Akamaru used the Dynamic Marking technique and splashed his glasses so he couldn't see," he explained, grinning devilishly. "Then we sent him flying with a Juujin Bunshin, right boy?"

Hinata hid a smile behind her hand at Kiba's boasting, not wanting to laugh at her bug using teammate's misfortune, as Akamaru let out a bark of confirmation. Kiba ruffled the large canine's sleek, white fur absently as he turned off the side road and onto the high street, with Hinata walking alongside him as they neared their usual meeting point.

Suddenly Akamaru began snuffling at the ground and nudged Kiba with his nose, his tongue hanging out in what looked like the canine equivalent of a silly grin. Kiba frowned and sniffed at the air himself, puzzled.

"Is something wrong, Kiba-kun?" asked Hinata, watching her teammate pause and continue to sniff at the air, clearly trying to catch a scent of some sort.

"Dunno," Kiba replied, bewildered. "Shino's scent is up ahead, like always, but there's someone else with him and it's not Kurenai-sensei. It's really weird – I thought I knew every person's scent in the whole village, but this one I can't quite put my finger on. I know it, I'm certain, but I can't remember where from…" Kiba scowled momentarily before his eyes lit up with recognition and he slapped a palm to his forehead. "I should have known," he groaned. "He's the only guy I know that smells like ramen! C'mon, let's go, Akamaru! Oh and try not to faint around him this time, Hinata!"

With a teasing grin he leapt onto the shaggy dog's back and the canine ran down the street towards Team Eight's usual meeting point at the crossroads, yapping enthusiastically. Hinata hovered uncertainly for a moment, but then her eyes widened as she realised who the Inuzuka boy was talking about.

"Kiba-kun! I w-won't be like that around him any more!" she called after her departing teammate desperately. "I'll be fine this time, r-really!" A hearty bark of laughter from Kiba was the only response she received.

She was about to follow her teammate, but before she did she hesitated for a moment in the middle of the street, taking a deep breath to compose herself. "Naruto-kun… here?" she whispered, torn between a mixture of confusion and pleasure. Having the chance to see him again, especially so soon after their mission together had ended, was a big surprise, but she was hardly going to pass such an opportunity up, so she hurried after Kiba as quickly as she could.

As she got closer to the crossroads, Hinata recognised the sound of Shino's clipped voice speaking. "It is not right to forget the faces of your comrades," she heard him say tersely, sounding surprisingly agitated when considering his usual attitude "And why is that? It is because it implies that you have also forgotten the faith and trust your allies have placed in you on various missions… and it is disrespectful to the one that remembered you…"

The Hyuuga girl couldn't help but smile as she heard Naruto's typically tactless but honest response. "I've already said I was sorry! And besides, how was I supposed to recognise you when you're hiding behind that cloak and those glasses? I can't even see your face!"

"You miss my point," Shino countered sullenly. From his tone of voice Hinata wondered if he was sulking; he sounded slightly petulant at the very least. "It is the principle that must be adhered to. In the spirit of comradeship and teamwork, allies should not forget other allies."

Before the argument could develop any further, Kiba chose to announce his presence. "Hey, Naruto, stop annoying Shino," he grinned, gazing down from on top of Akamaru. "That's my job!"

Naruto's jaw dropped as he turned to face Kiba and caught sight of his canine companion. "Oh, hey, Kiba! And… no way, is that Akamaru? He's huge! How did he get so big?"

"Huh?" Kiba frowned, jumping off his dog's back and staring at the shaggy white hound. "What d'you mean by that? Akamaru's always been like this."

Naruto gaped at the Inuzuka clan member incredulously. "Are you kidding? He used to sit on your head when he was a puppy! Now you're the one riding on top of him!"

"Oh yeah, that's right…" said Kiba, scratching his chin thoughtfully. "I guess I've been hanging around Akamaru for so long I hadn't really noticed the difference."

"How can you not have noticed?" Naruto asked, disbelief written all over his face at Kiba's answer. "Akamaru's like a horse now!"

Akamaru let out a friendly bark as Shino scowled darkly under his collar. "You recognised Kiba straight away, Naruto…"

Naruto raised his hands defensively but before he could say anything he heard a soft but insistent voice speak up first. "Ano… I'm sure N-Naruto-kun didn't mean it, Shino-kun."

Hearing the voice, Naruto craned his neck and noticed Hinata standing a short distance behind Kiba, her worried eyes flickering from Shino to himself. "Oh, there you are Hinata-chan!" he called cheerfully, his previous irritation forgotten as he waved at her, not noticing her blush as she shyly waved her own greeting. "I was just about to ask Shino where you were."

Hinata's blush deepened as she noticed Kiba smirk at her, wiggling his eyebrows in her direction. "You were… l-looking for me, Naruto-kun?" she asked, trying to keep her heartbeat steady as she spoke.

Naruto grinned. "Yeah, I wanted to ask you somethi –"

The blonde haired boy's words were cut short as something black and white leapt through the air, with what looked like a pair of razor sharp claws outstretched and ready to slice into him. Hinata's eyes widened and she shouted a panicked warning, but it was too late – the strange creature bounded forward before Naruto even had a chance to raise his arms in defence and made a vicious slash at his face.

However, before the creature could connect Kiba dived forward and shoved Naruto out of the way. The orange clad boy was sent sprawling to the floor but the creature's swipe passed harmlessly over his head. Landing on all fours it veered sharply and charged at Naruto once again, racing forward with long strides, but before it could reach him a droning swarm of insects emerged from Shino's cloak and buzzed incessantly around the creature's eyes to obscure its vision.

Naruto and Kiba scrambled back to their feet as the strange animal tried to swat the insects away with a mighty forepaw. Looking closer, Naruto realised that the creature was a lion of some sort, with a long, shaggy mane and a set of sharp teeth in between its powerful jaws, but the lack of colour meant that it surely wasn't a real, living animal. Could it have been summoned somehow?

Shino's insects continued to swarm around the creature, biting and stinging without pause, and it stumbled, falling to the ground. Immediately Akarmaru was on top of it, digging his claws in and growling ferociously as he savagely bit into the monochromatic lion's neck. The creature stiffened, twitched feebly… and then dissolved into a puddle of black ink, staining Akamaru's white fur and pooling in the middle of the street. Shino's bugs retreated back to their host and Akamaru shook himself dry, trying to shed some of the excess ink.

"Hinata!" Shino snapped, taking command of the situation "This creature is a construct of both ink and chakra. Where is the one that summoned it? We need to detain the perpetrator before he or she can cause any further damage."

The Hyuuga girl's Byakugan was already active as she swiftly scanned the surrounding area for a sign of its summoner. "Over there!" she exclaimed, pointing down the street to the top of a fence, where a dark haired boy of maybe a few years older than herself was perched, appearing totally unconcerned. He was wearing a shirt that came down to his midriff, with a short sword strapped to his back, and had skin so pale it almost looked unhealthy, as though he had lived his entire life without ever going out in the sun. In his left hand he carried a scroll, unfurled across his knees, and in his right was a brush, and he appeared to be sketching something, judging by the way the tip was moving rapidly across the page.

"Hey, you're wearing a Konoha hitai-ite!" shouted Naruto, staring angrily at the boy. "What's the big idea, attacking us like that?"

The dark haired boy smiled pleasantly at Naruto. "Hello, it's nice to meet you. I think I'm going to call you… Dickless."

Hinata let out a mortified squeak at his choice of nickname as Naruto flushed a dark shade of red at the insult. His face burned even brighter as Kiba bit back a snigger and he turned on his friend, painfully embarrassed. "Can it, dogbreath!" he yelled fiercely, trying to hide his humiliation. "That wasn't funny and you damn well know it!"

Kiba smirked. "Yeah, but it was accurate. 'Dickless,' huh?"

Naruto snarled and raised a fist threateningly, but he felt a hand on his shoulder before he could strike at Kiba. "N-No, Naruto-kun," Hinata whispered, her eyes worried but her tone of voice leaving no room for argument. "We all need to work together, remember?"

Scowling darkly at Kiba, but nonetheless pausing momentarily to consider her words, Naruto sighed with frustration before taking a deep breath to keep a hold of his temper and reluctantly lowering his fist. Noticing Hinata still looked slightly anxious that he might raise a hand against her teammate again, Naruto flashed a reassuring grin at her, and she smiled hesitantly back at him and let go of his shoulder, her face reddening slightly as she released him from her grip. Noticing that Kiba was still smirking, she stared reproachfully at the Inuzuka boy, who merely shrugged apologetically under her gaze.

The mysterious Konoha ninja turned his focus on Kiba next, observing him appraisingly. "And I think I'll call you… Pussy."

The dog lover's jaw dropped and his hands clenched into fists as Akamaru growled fiercely, hackles rising. "That's it, this guy is dead!" Kiba hissed, the war markings on his face appearing even more feral than usual. "No-one gets away with insulting us like that, right Akamaru?" The big dog let out an answering bark so loud that it made the hair on the back of Hinata's neck stand on end.

Seeing that Naruto and Kiba now looked reunited in their desire to capture the dark haired boy, both glaring at him hatefully, Hinata refocused her attention on the ninja perched atop the fence, gathered her courage and stepped forward to face him. "You shouldn't say such things to Naruto-kun and Kiba-kun!" she said fiercely, with as much authority as she could muster. "They have done nothing to provoke you and Naruto-kun is not dickless!"

Realising that she had almost shouted the last word she clapped her hands over her mouth and blushed scarlet, glancing over at Naruto with embarrassment. The blonde haired boy was staring at her with obvious surprise, eyebrows raised at her unexpected outburst, but unless she was imagining it Hinata could have sworn that he looked ever so slightly pleased too, as if he were happy that she was sticking up for him. The thought made Hinata's blush burn even brighter, but she tried to keep her composure and turned back to face the boy to question him. "Who are y-you? Why did you start attacking us just n-now?"

The dark haired boy smiled again, but studying his face closely with her family's kekkei genkai Hinata could tell that it looked as though it was… fake. It didn't quite seem to reach his eyes and his face was twisted in a way that appeared ever so slightly unnatural, as though his muscles weren't quite used to it. "Hmm…" he pondered aloud, tapping his brush against his chin thoughtfully. "I think your nickname can be… Weirdo."

'Weirdo.' The word echoed hollowly in Hinata's mind as her face drained of colour, remembering how Naruto had once called her the exact same thing. She felt like she wanted the ground to swallow her up. Did this strange boy's observation of her character mean that she hadn't changed at all over the years, despite all the effort she had put into trying to become stronger? That she was still a 'weirdo,' just like she had been when she was younger?

However, before she could let her insecurities take a grip on her, Hinata noticed the expressions of her friends. Shino's eyes were narrowed fractionally behind his glasses as he stared up at the strange Konoha ninja, his disapproval obvious despite his usual secrecy when it came to displaying emotion, and Kiba's teeth were bared in an angry snarl. But most striking of all was Naruto's reaction. "Shut up, you bastard!" he yelled vehemently, pointing at the boy. "What makes you think you can just sit there and just pass judgements like you know us?"

"Damn right!" Kiba grinned ferally. "When I get my hands on you, I'm gonna shove those words down your throat!"

Shino nodded his assent. "Though the method of communication chosen by both Naruto and Kiba is unnecessarily crude, I share their sentiments. You have no right to belittle any of us."

Hearing the reactions of her friends, Hinata shook her head, annoyed by her sudden insecurity. No, she knew she wasn't the same girl that she had been in the past. She was a chuunin now. She had practiced hard in training and completed many missions successfully. She had even gained her father's respect and affection. And, most importantly of all, Naruto had said that he thought she had changed.

"Belittle?" the boy queried politely. "Oh no, I think you misunderstand me; I was making an honest observation. I've heard that calling people a nickname based on either their personality or their physical appearance creates a closer relationship with them."

"Enough talk!" Kiba grunted impatiently. "Let's finish this guy! Go, Akamaru! Gatsuuga!"

The large canine and its owner both dropped down to all fours, teeth bared, and launched themselves forward in tandem towards the fence, spinning like drills. The pale boy quickly scrawled something on the scroll he was holding and muttered, "Ninpou: Chojuu Giga!"

Immediately a series of black and white outlines burst from the page, solidifying into a dozen lions similar to the one summoned earlier. Kiba and Akamaru each barrelled into one of them each, dispersing them into a cloud of ink, but were immediately surrounded by the others as the summoned beasts closed ranks, trying to isolate the Inuzuka clan member from his trusty companion.

However, before Kiba and Akamaru were cut off from each other Naruto and Hinata both ran forward to help. The Hyuuga girl pivoted around a fierce slash from the forepaws of one of the creatures and jabbed at its shoulder joint with her Jyuuken, following up with a chakra infused strike to the beast's forehead that dissolved it into a pool of black. Naruto, meanwhile, quickly summoned a shadow clone and began to spiral his chakra at his fingertips, with the Kage Bunshin's help. As one of the lions pounced at him a large, compact ball of blue light materialised in the palm of his hand and he rammed it right into the creature's face with a roar of, "Oodama Rasengan!" The force of the jutsu made the lion explode in a shower of ink, splattering his orange jacket and soaking him almost from head to toe, but Naruto quickly wiped his eyes and pulled a kunai out of his pocket, re-joining the fight.

As he slashed at another of the beasts with the blade, driving it back, Naruto heard the sound of frenzied growling and felt something barge into the back of his legs and knock his clone over too, causing it to dispel. Losing his balance and falling heavily to the floor, he turned to see Akamaru and one of the ink creations thrashing across the ground right behind him, locked together and both biting and clawing at each other without conceding any ground. Rubbing his elbow, where he had landed painfully, he looked up, only to see the creature he had just been fighting before the interruption rear up on its hind legs, about to crush him under its weight. Panicking slightly, Naruto tried to get out of the way, scrambling backwards on his hands and knees, but in the chaos of the fight there was no room to manoeuvre. Its paws spread wide, the colourless beast began to fall, mouth agape in a noiseless snarl… but then it was knocked to the ground and ruptured as Hinata slammed a Jyuuken palm strike into its side.

"Naruto-kun, are you ok?" she asked anxiously, standing over him as he got back to his feet.

"Yeah, I'm fine, thanks Hinata-chan," he grunted, scowling at his momentary lapse in concentration and picking up the kunai he had dropped when he had fallen. "Where's the guy that keeps summoning these damn things?"

Hinata took a second to refocus her Byakugan and her vision became an overhead view. "He's still on the fence," she replied, pointing, "But he's drawing some m-more shapes onto his scroll, so he m-must be forming more creatures."

"Crap!" Naruto cursed. "We've gotta stop him, or else we'll never win at this rate!" He forced his way out of the melee, throwing a cluster of shuriken to clear a path for himself between the remaining lions, and reached for another handful to hurl at the dark haired boy. However, before he could, a cloud of insects flew out of Shino's sleeves at the artistic ninja, forcing him to abandon his sketches and drop down to the ground, where he would have greater manoeuvrability and more of a chance to defend himself from the swarm without losing his balance. He unsheathed the ninjato blade on his back and settled into a defensive posture with his back to the wooden fence as the Aburame boy stepped towards him. Shino's bugs were buzzing ominously around his cloak, but the pale skinned boy didn't look particularly worried about being backed into a corner.

"You are finished," intoned Shino monotonously. "Mushi Dama no Jutsu!" The ground beneath the strange ninja began to fracture slightly and out of it poured quite literally hundreds of kikaichu bugs, which swarmed over the startled boy in a matter of seconds, surrounding him in a whirling, buzzing sphere for a few seconds before tightening around him like a net. At first the unknown Konoha ninja tried to swat them off with the blunt edge of his sword, but realising it was hopeless he sheathed his blade and stood perfectly still, allowing his ink creatures to dissipate as well. Naruto, Hinata and Kiba looked around warily at the newly formed puddles of ink where the beasts had stood moments before, but relaxed and gathered around Shino as they noticed the boy was captured, with bugs totally covering him from the neck downwards.

Kiba whistled with admiration. "Wow, nice one Shino. He's not going anywhere."

"Hmm, this is an unusual technique," the boy commented, ignoring Kiba and casually addressing his captor. "I take it you planned all along to force me away from the fence and onto the ground beneath it, where you had your insects waiting to burrow through?"

"Correct," Shino replied, adjusting his dark glasses. "Now, you shall accompany us to Hokage-sama's office. I am sure that the Interrogation Squad will have multiple questions for you after this public display of aggression."

The boy shook his head. "I'm afraid not," he said pleasantly. Shino's eyebrows furrowed darkly and he waved a hand, allowing his bugs to scuttle up his neck and onto his face, but the dark haired boy didn't elaborate any further or show any sign of squeamishness, instead turning his gaze to Naruto. "I'll see you again, Dickless," he announced, smiling in the same, lifeless manner as before, despite the bugs that were crawling over his bare skin. "Sumi Bunshin no Jutsu!" And as the bugs slowly began to creep across his face, leaving only his smile visible, he vanished into thin air, leaving behind only a wispy trail of ink.

"What?" shouted Naruto, looking around wildly. "It was an ink clone? Where'd he go?"

Hinata scanned the surrounding area with her Byakugan, before turning to her friends, crestfallen. "I d-don't see him anywhere. He's gone…"

"Damn it!" growled Kiba with annoyance. "How the Hell did he fool us all with that clone? Even with my nose I never realised. What about you Shino, did you see any difference?" He turned to his bug using teammate expectantly, but the Aburame clan member remained silent.

"Uh, Shino?" Kiba questioned curiously. "Are you sulking again?"

"… He never gave me a nickname…" Shino muttered disappointedly.

Author's Notes: Well, I don't know about you guys out there, but this chapter was great fun for me! Adding in the members of the Konoha Rookie Eleven that I hadn't given much time to, such as most of Team's Eight and Ten, was really enjoyable – it's a pity they don't get more panel time in the manga because they really do have some awesome potential for interaction and are just genuinely great characters. Onto the notes for this chapter, Sai's introduction was difficult because I didn't quite know how to gauge Hinata's reaction to his 'friendly nicknames.' Originally I had planned for her to be far more embarrassed, but a few reviews made me rethink things a little. A couple of people said they expected Sai to, and I quote, "Feel Hinata's wrath!" so I reconsidered how she would react, making it a bit more balanced with elements of both her shyness and her protective attitude towards anyone looking to hurt her friends coming to the fore. I wasn't certain at first, but looking over it I'm much happier with this version, it feels much more natural and realistic to me. Not to mention the idea of innocent, quiet Hinata shouting out 'dickless' was just hilarious! However, it wasn't just because of Hinata that I chose the confrontation with Sai to be with Team Eight rather than canon's version with Team Ten – I wanted to make it work as a whole scene, not focusing solely on Hinata. Sai's insult to Kiba made me chuckle when I thought of it (yay for double meaning puns!) and, of course, poor ignored Shino! Hanabi and Hiashi were tricky to write out as well – I've been debating for a while whether I should put them into the story now or later, but the moment just felt right to reveal a bit more about Hinata's home life and add some closure to her past family problems. I don't really know how well I did at keeping them in character though, seeing as they've both had so little development in canon; Hanabi is basically an open book and Hiashi hasn't really got much to build on either. I tried to show Hanabi as a slightly snobby but otherwise relatively normal girl, with a competitive streak but also a softer side, and Hiashi as a stern but caring father figure. They were very difficult to write out though, so if you feel I could have done better then feel free to say so. As for the people that are asking when Naruto and Hinata will finally get together, I can only ask for patience. Rest assured that I've got it vaguely planned out, but there's still a lot more development to come and I really don't want to rush it – I've seen some otherwise really good fanfics ruined by awkward, hurried romance. Having the two of them become more and more open around each other is a slow process – Hell, Naruto's only just started seeing her as an attractive girl in the last couple of chapters, that's how dense he is! There will still be plenty of NaruHina moments to look forward to though, so please don't feel like I'm dragging it out just for the sake of it. Oh, one last thing, I'd like to thank my fellow NaruHina fanfiction writer, NessaMoon, for helping this chapter along; she gave me some general input about writing styles and was just an all-round nice person. Her writing is really good too, so I'd highly recommend her work. Well, I think that's all I wanted to say for the Author's Notes, so that's goodbye for now and I hope you're still enjoying reading!

List of Jutsu:

'Gatsuuga' = 'Dual Piercing Fang'

'Ninpou: Chojuu Giga' = 'Ninja Art: Super Beast Imitation Drawing'

'Oodama Rasengan' = 'Big Ball Spiral Sphere'

'Mushi Dama no Jutsu' = 'Insect Sphere Technique'

'Sumi Bunshin no Jutsu' = 'Ink Clone Technique'

Joke Corner: The police arrested me the other day because I was in possession of a starting pistol. They claimed I was encouraging race crimes.

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