Waiting with Hope

There's No 'Sai' in Team

Chapter Fifteen: There's No 'Sai' in Team

Yuuhi Kurenai wasn't easily caught off guard; expecting the unexpected was part of her job as a Konoha kunoichi, after all. But arriving at her former genin team's usual meeting spot to find that what looked like a small war had taken place, with shuriken scattered everywhere and the street covered in pools of what appeared to be ink, was somewhat surprising to say the least. The red eyed jonin was left momentarily speechless as she surveyed the damage in front of her.

As she quickly glanced over her former pupils, relieved to see that none of them appeared to be injured, a flash of orange caught her eye and her forehead creased with even more confusion. For some reason Uzumaki Naruto was standing with her team, splattered with the same ink that was soaking the middle of the road and talking animatedly.

"I still don't understand why he just attacked out of nowhere like that!" the blonde haired boy was saying, gesturing wildly. "I mean, none of us even know him and that headband showed that he was a Konoha ninja too, so we're supposed to be allies. I just don't get it!"

"This is indeed concerning," replied Shino in a monotone, "But whatever his true motives were, I suspect that he was not serious in his attempts to defeat us. After using his ink clone as a decoy he had a perfect opportunity to strike, but he chose not to… which is perhaps even more worrying, as it means he is still on the loose…"

"So he was just toying with us the whole time?" Kiba growled. "Damn it! When I find that slippery little bast–"

Clearing her throat disapprovingly before Kiba could complete his curse, Kurenai attracted the attention of the young ninja. Kiba jumped with surprise and mumbled awkwardly under his sensei's firm gaze as Akamaru sat up and wagged his tail happily in greeting, Shino inclined his head as he noticed her presence, Hinata uttered a slightly embarrassed, "Good morning, Kurenai-sensei," conscious that she was covered in ink, and Naruto stared at the red eyed jonin inquisitively.

Kurenai gestured at the street behind her, getting straight down to business. "What exactly happened here?" she asked authoritatively, though she couldn't quite keep the tiniest hint of curiosity out of her voice too. "You were talking about being attacked?"

"Yeah, some weird guy around about our age with a Konoha hitai-ite picked a fight with us," Kiba explained, scowling. "He used some sort of ink jutsus and summoned a whole bunch of lions from a scroll, but we all thought Shino managed to trap him with his bugs… until he made us look like idiots with an ink clone and got away. I didn't even get the chance to pay that little rat back for that 'Pussy' wisecrack, too…"

Kurenai's eyebrows rose with surprise. Her squad were highly regarded for their tracking abilities – even an experienced team being able to escape from Shino's bugs, Kiba's nose and Hinata's eyes was unusual enough in itself, but a lone, teenage boy managing to give them all the slip? Knowing her team's skills as she did, the boy must have been extremely skilled, of that there was no doubt. And yet his actions didn't make sense; engaging in a fight in the middle of Konoha was reckless to the point of madness, but from the sound of Kiba's description it seemed as though his strategy had been to withdraw all along…

Seeing Naruto nod in agreement with Kiba's description of events, Kurenai abandoned her trail of thought and focused herself. "So, you were caught up in the battle too then, Naruto?" she asked inquisitively, curious as to the reason of the blond boy's presence.

Naruto laughed sheepishly. "Kinda. The pale guy attacked me first and Team Eight backed me up. We made a really good team together!"

Kiba grinned, showing his canine teeth. "We did more than just 'back you up,' dumbass. It was me that saved your ass from that first lion, remember?"

Naruto glared at the Inuzuka boy. "I could've handled it myself!" he said defensively. "And besides, I didn't hear you complaining when you were surrounded by all those summons and me and Hinata-chan came to help you out! If it hadn't been for us then you'd have been toast!"

Hinata's face went slightly pink at hearing Naruto compliment her and Kurenai caught her eye knowingly. Blushing even more brightly, Hinata looked down at the ground, fighting the urge to press her index fingers together.

Kiba snorted at Naruto's words but conceded the point. "Whatever."

"In any case," Kurenai interrupted, rolling her eyes at the typical male bravado on show, "You have my gratitude for assisting my team, Naruto. And it's good to see that you value your allies so highly." Seeing Naruto rub the back of his head, slightly abashed, she smiled slightly and turned to include Hinata. "So, how did your mission go?" she asked, addressing the question to both her student and the Jinchuuriki boy. "Did everything work out in the end?"

Naruto nodded emphatically. "Oh yeah, it went great! We got Gaara back and we fought a whole load of Akatsuki guys and we got to see Suna, it was awesome!" He paused and glanced expectantly at Hinata, waiting for her to continue.

Hinata shuffled her feet slightly as Kurenai, Kiba and Shino all turned their attention on her. "Ano… I don't know if I did that much… the mission…" She sent a hesitant glance in Naruto's direction, hoping that he would take on the explanation himself, but as she caught his eye she noticed him grinning encouragingly at her, waiting for her to speak, and she was struck by a thought. 'Naruto-kun could have talked about what happened on the mission himself,' she realised, her eyes widening. 'But instead he's letting me speak… letting me show them that I was… strong…' She felt her heart swell with affection for the blonde boy and began to speak.

She tried to downplay her own achievements at first, such as her role in taking the bell from Kakashi back at the start of the mission, but after Naruto had interrupted her and said, "Hinata-chan's just being modest – she was the one that got the bell all by herself!" with his typical wide grin she blushed and tried not minimize her own involvement. It was still difficult, with her natural shyness kicking in whenever she focused on herself, but with Naruto's lively interjections and the occasional prompt whenever he felt she wasn't giving herself credit it slowly became easier, little by little. In fact, it was probably even easier than telling her father about the mission, with Naruto's help and her teammates showing a genuine interest; even Shino put forth a few queries in his usual, succinct manner to show that he too was curious as to hearing of her success.

Hinata had been given a short break from telling her tale as Naruto had described his squad's brief struggle against Deidara, using lots of sound effects and arm gestures when it came to the part with the explosions, but soon it was her turn to talk once again about what had happened back in the cave. She couldn't help but notice that Naruto was listening to her description of the fight with enthusiasm and for a moment she wondered why, before realising that this was his first time hearing all the details. In particular, she noticed with a light blush that he grinned widely as she described her Shugo Hakke Rokujuuyonshou, as though he was witnessing the technique first hand. As she got to the part where Chiyo had fallen she paused for a moment in her narration and risked a quick glance at her other teammates – Shino was listening intently, his eyes hidden by his dark glasses but his forehead furrowed with evident concern, Kiba was staring at her with obvious surprise, his eyebrows raised at hearing her exploits, and Kurenai nodded encouragingly as she gazed at her only female student with approval. Taking heart from their reactions, Hinata continued with renewed confidence.

As she reached the conclusion of her story, no-one spoke for a moment or two, still absorbing what she had said. Then Kiba let out a bark of laughter. "Damn, how come I don't get to go on any cool assignments like that? Whilst you were off rescuing the Kazekage and fighting S-rank criminals I was stuck here doing boring C-rank missions!"

"Not only did you complete your assignment successfully, your own role in opposing the Akatsuki was highly impressive," Shino added, inclining his head at the Hyuuga girl. "Many shinobi would have been overwhelmed by such a powerful foe, but you showed admirable courage in battle, even when logic dictated that you were outmatched."

Hinata blushed at the praise of the boys but couldn't prevent a small smile from reaching her lips and whispered a quiet but heartfelt, "Thank you."

Kurenai couldn't help but smile herself as she watched the modest reaction of the Hyuuga heiress. 'Hinata… that mission was good for you,' she thought to herself. 'Your confidence has grown, I can tell. I wonder how much of that is down to Naruto's influence on you?' She mulled over this question for a moment as Naruto added how they had been treated like heroes in Suna when they had returned with the Kazekage and described some of the luxuries of the hotel room, a slightly smug grin on his face as a jealous Kiba gaped incredulously at him, but she decided it was time to get her team back on topic.

"Thank you for describing your mission to us, Hinata, I'm very impressed. You've done both yourself and your team proud with your role in such an important assignment." Hinata's cheeks went pink and she ducked her head at hearing the jonin's praise, accompanied by a bark of agreement from Akamaru, but she accepted it with a small bow to her sensei. Returning her student's nod, Kurenai turned so that she was facing Kiba and Shino too. "Now, as for today's mission –"

She was cut off by a loud cry from Naruto. "Oh, wait, the mission! I almost forgot! Kurenai-sensei, d'you mind if I ask you something?"

The red eyed woman frowned at the interruption, but nodded once, wondering where Naruto was going with this.

"I got a really important new mission from Tsunade-baachan earlier today and she said I needed a new teammate," Naruto explained. "So I wanted to ask if it's ok if Hinata-chan comes with me!"

Hinata let out a muffled squeak of surprise at the suddenness of Naruto's question. He'd been looking for her specifically? He wanted her to come on such a personal mission to him? She opened her mouth to confirm whether this was really happening and not just a dream, but she was left momentarily speechless.

Kiba glanced at Naruto narrowly. "You can't just expect Hinata to come with you just like that, Naruto," he snorted. "We have our own mission to go on too, y'know."

Shino nodded gravely. "Hinata's tracking capabilities are an important aspect of our team's dynamic. Her presence will be highly beneficial to the mission's probability of success."

"Aww, what?" said Naruto, crestfallen. "But I wanted her…"

Noticing Hinata's wide eyed blush at the blonde boy's words, Kurenai held up a hand to halt any further responses from either Kiba or Shino and pondered Naruto's question. She fixed her gaze on the orange clad boy, staring at him levelly. "Naruto, why do you want Hinata on your team?" she asked shrewdly.

"Huh?" Naruto asked, confused. "Does that mean you're gonna let Hinata-chan come with me?"

"I'm… considering it," she answered cautiously. "I'm still undecided at the moment, but if you can convince me that it would be beneficial for Hinata to go on this mission with you then I'll leave the decision up to her."

She cut Kiba off before he could interject again, eyeing the Inuzuka boy firmly and shaking her head to silently warn him to stay quiet. The dog user scowled mutinously but didn't interrupt.

Naruto furrowed his eyebrows with thought for a few seconds. 'Is Kurenai-sensei testing me or something?' he wondered, trying to work out what the jonin kunoichi was trying to make him do. 'It sounds like she wants me to try and persuade her, but I don't get why…'

Shrugging inwardly, Naruto tried to express what he was thinking. "Er… I guess I want Hinata-chan to come with me because… well, it's kinda like her part in the mission to Suna isn't over," he said awkwardly, stumbling over his words a little and hoping he was saying the right thing. Noticing Kurenai's curiously raised eyebrow at his remark, he continued hastily, "I mean, y'know how Sasori said how he was planning to meet up with Orochimaru? It was her that he told, not anyone else, so I kinda figured that after all the effort she put in fighting against him she deserved the chance to see it through to the end. And I already know how tough she is, after getting the bell from Kakashi-sensei and everything else she did on the mission, and I know she works well with me and Sakura-chan too, so I thought she'd be the best person to ask. With Hinata on the team, I know we can get Sasuke back this time…" He trailed off and glanced hopefully up at the jonin sensei.

Kurenai hummed thoughtfully at Naruto's words. They were blunt, and maybe a little tactless too, but he clearly meant what he said. She found his honesty refreshing and he made a persuasive argument; there was definitely an element of truth to what he was saying. Also, it was clear that the mission had made a positive impact on Hinata, so letting the Hyuuga girl continue on Naruto's squad might not be a bad idea… After all, Kurenai reflected, the more time Hinata spent around Naruto, the more confident she became…

The dark haired woman made a snap decision. "Ok Naruto, I accept your reasoning," Kurenai announced, smiling. "You have my permission for Hinata to be on your team." Naruto broke into a relieved grin, but before he could say anything she continued, "But you still need to ask her whether she wants to go. This is her decision, remember?"

"Oh, right!" Naruto realised, feeling slightly foolish for forgetting. A little embarrassed he turned to face the Hyuuga heiress, scratching the back of his neck sheepishly. "How about it, Hinata-chan? D'you wanna come with me?"

"Ano… I…" Hinata stuttered nervously, feeling torn between the other members of her squad and the object of her affections. Naruto had actually wanted her on the same team as him; how could she turn down an opportunity like that to hopefully get closer to him? And after everything he had just said the urge to help him was almost overpowering – the way he had said Sasuke's name, with hope and excitement in his voice, made the urge to help him get his former teammate back become almost overwhelming. But it wasn't fair to forget about her own teammates, was it? They were almost like family; she couldn't just abandon them…

Noticing his teammate bite her lip indecisively and sensing her increasing anxiety, Shino stepped forward. "Hinata, are you perhaps concerned about leaving Team Eight behind?" the Aburame boy asked perceptively. Seeing Hinata blush and nod, eyes clouded with indecision, Shino fixed her with his usual calm gaze. "You have no need to fear; participating on missions outside of general squad formations is necessary on occasion. And allies do not forget other allies, correct?"

Kiba grinned at her. "Yeah, like Shino says, if you want to go off on the mission with this idiot then we're not gonna stop you. We know you're one of us."

Naruto huffed at Kiba's insult but chose not to comment, instead gazing at Hinata questioningly. The indigo haired girl's face was still dusted with a faint tinge of pink, but she nodded her thanks to both of her teammates and took a deep breath, meeting Naruto's cerulean eyes. "I… I want to help you, Naruto-kun," she said quietly, smiling shyly up at him. "If you w-want me on your team then I would be happy to go with you."

"Really?" Naruto questioned eagerly. "That's great, thanks Hinata-chan!" The orange clad boy laughed, his grin so wide that it made him squint.

Seeing Hinata's cheeks turn pink at Naruto's praise, Kurenai smiled inwardly, proud of her student's loyalty to her team as well as her greater confidence around Naruto. Deciding to give the Hyuuga girl a little push, she announced, "Well, Kiba, Shino and I had better be off now; we still need to drop by the Hokage's office to report the attack before we leave for our mission. Naruto, why don't you and Hinata find somewhere to discuss your own mission together? Maybe over lunch?"

Hinata's eyes widened and her blush intensified at Kurenai's suggestion. For a brief moment she felt a whole host of irrational worries surface, particularly about the state of her clothes – her jacket was still covered in splotches of ink and she felt the absurd fear that Naruto wouldn't want to be seen with her in such a state – but realising that Naruto was in exactly the same state as her, if not worse, she calmed herself down as best as she could. She knew Naruto wasn't like that; why did she cause herself to worry so much over such silly fears? And besides, as long as she had his company, nothing else mattered.

Her anxieties resolved, she quickly nodded her assent to her sensei's subtle prompt as Naruto cheerfully agreed, already trying to choose what kind of ramen he'd ask for at Ichiraku's first. The pale eyed girl noticed Shino arching an eyebrow and Kiba sniggering out of the corner of her eye, but neither of them commented on Naruto's density, for which she was thankful – it might have led to a very awkward revelation of her feelings for him and she knew that she wasn't ready to face that yet. Just thinking about telling him made her stutter become ten times worse.

Wanting to say goodbye to her teammates before she left, Hinata quickly moved closer to Kiba and Shino. "Thank you for being so understanding," she said softly, smiling thankfully at the two boys. "I hope your mission goes well enough without me."

"Your gratitude is appreciated, but unnecessary," replied Shino gravely, adjusting the collar of his overcoat slightly. "As I previously stated, allies do not forget one another. As collective unit, we support you in all your endeavours and have every confidence in your ability to succeed."

"Ugh, Shino, do you have to be so damn wordy all the time?" grumbled Kiba. Seeing the bug user fix his gaze steadily on him, his face completely impassive, Kiba rolled his eyes. "What he basically means is, 'Go kick some ass, Hinata!'"

Hinata couldn't help but giggle at her two teammates and nodded, feeling more confident in herself knowing that she had their support. She was about to say her goodbyes to Kurenai as well when she felt Naruto's hand grab hold of her wrist and his voice whine, "C'mon, c'mon, let's go, Hinata-chan. The ramen's waiting for us!"

Unable to prevent her self from laughing at his silliness, which drew a pout from Naruto, Hinata looked back one last time for her sensei. The dark haired woman met Hinata's gaze and nodded fractionally, her red eyes twinkling. As a grinning Naruto tugged at her, still holding onto her wrist, Hinata was just about able to wave goodbye with her other hand without falling behind.

As Naruto ran forward like an orange tornado, chattering incessantly about the merits of the various types of ramen at Ichiraku's and the impossible choice of deciding which to have first, Hinata smiled, despite her slight embarrassment at the close contact and her occasional stumbles as she tried to keep up. Enjoying the blonde boy's company and giggling at his boundless enthusiasm, she soon forgot about everything other than the contact of his skin against hers, the 'almost-date' that they were about to share and the fact that Naruto had said he wanted her by his side. And emanating from the touch of Naruto's hand against hers a slow, comfortable warmth spread through her body, heating her up from the inside out with a steady glow of happiness.

-o-o-

Poking his head out from behind a wall, Konohamaru glanced from side to side furtively, keeping a sharp eye out for the distinctive dark glasses and bandana that marked out his sensei, before relaxing as he saw that Ebisu was nowhere in sight. Grinning widely at his success in giving his teacher the slip, the brown haired boy emerged from his hiding spot and grinned. 'Hah, I knew I'd lost him!' he thought to himself, smirking inwardly. 'All it takes is a quick diversion from Moegi and Udon and Naruto-niisan's Oiroke no Jutsu to distract him and I get the day to myself, away from those boring D-rank missions! Now for some real training!'

Feeling his stomach growl loudly, Konohamaru felt his resolve waver. "On second thoughts, I'm hungry," he groaned out loud, clutching his belly. "I need food! Training can wait until after Ichiraku's!"

Already savouring the taste of the ramen on his tongue, the scarf wearing genin jumped up onto the rooftops to avoid the crowds of villagers on the busy streets and leapt from building to building, making it to the family run stall in no time at all. Ducking under the cloth barring the entrance, he called out, "Hey, Ojiisan, I'm starved! I need three bowls of beef ramen before I collapse!"

The stall owner laughed. "You heard the kid, Ayame! Three bowls of beef ramen, on the double!"

The brown haired girl nodded cheerfully at Konohamaru and began stirring the big pot of broth as her father deftly prepared the noodles, whistling as he did so.

Grinning widely at the smells of his nearly completed lunch, the Sandaime's grandson was about to take a seat on one of the stools alongside the counter, but a severe voice froze him in his tracks.

"Ahem… what are you doing here, Konohamaru?"

Konohamaru whipped his head around, face pale as he recognised the voice of the person speaking. "Gah! Iruka-sensei!"

Sure enough, the scarred chuunin was sitting just a few seats away, a bowl of noodles in front of him, a pair of chopsticks in his hands and a disapproving expression on his face. The rookie genin shuffled uncomfortably. "What are you doing at Ichiraku's? Shouldn't you be at the Academy?" Konohamaru asked, a hint of hope in his voice.

"The morning classes are over and I'm on my lunch break," Iruka answered, gazing sternly down at the genin. "But more importantly, why aren't you with Ebisu and the rest of your team?"

Konohamaru laughed nervously. "Well…about that… You see…" Seeing Iruka's frown deepen, he gulped, desperately wracking his brain for a good excuse. Thankfully, he was saved momentarily by Teuchi's cry of, "Order up!" and he quickly moved to collect the bowls, moving back to his seat as slowly as possible in the hope that Iruka's attention would be diverted.

However, as he sat down again, wanting to change the subject of the conversation, Iruka casually spoke up first. "So, Konohamaru, like I was saying, would you care to explain what made you think it would be a good idea to abandon the rest of your squad?"

The scarf wearing boy froze just as he was about to take his first bite and cursed inwardly. So much for that hope; he should have known that Iruka wasn't the type to get so easily distracted. With a sigh he decided it would be better to be as honest as possible to try and avoid a punishment from the Academy teacher – Iruka may have been strict sometimes, but he was always fair and would at least hear him out.

"I wanted to get some proper training done, so I can go out on real missions," Konohamaru grumbled, in between mouthfuls of noodles. "Ebisu-sensei always has us going out on totally lame D-rank missions that don't teach us anything and I've had enough! I'd learn more practicing my own skills, so Moegi and Udon helped me catch Ebisu-sensei off guard – that way I could escape and get some real training done!"

Iruka shook his head. "Konohamaru, those missions are part of the learning curve every ninja goes through," he replied, going into his patented 'lecture mode.' "It's important that newly qualified genin have a thorough grounding in the basics of working in a team and following orders before they are tasked with the more dangerous assignments. You're not going to benefit if you rush off on your own and abandon your teammates, no matter what you think, and Ebisu is an excellent teacher, so I'm sure you can learn a lot from him."

"But he's a total pervert!" protested Konohamaru. "You should have seen his reaction to my Oiroke no Jutsu; he can't be that great a teacher if it was so easy to distract him with just a simple technique like that! C'mon, at least let me finish lunch before I have to go back with him again. Please?"

"Ok, ok," Iruka relented, unable to hold back a smile at his former student's pleading tone. "But I'm escorting you straight back to Ebisu as soon as we've finished here, understand?"

Konohamaru scowled but let out a reluctant, "Yeah, fine."

Seeing the brown haired boy's downbeat attitude, Iruka tried to cheer him up. "I'll tell you what, I'll even pay for your lunch today, seeing as it's been so long since we last had ramen together. How does that sound?"

Konohamaru's face immediately brightened. "Thanks Iruka-sensei, you're the greatest!" he beamed, his previous annoyance forgotten. With renewed vigour he wolfed down his meal, hardly pausing for breath. Smiling at the reaction of the Sandaime's grandson, Iruka refocused on his own bowl too.

For a short while Iruka and the Sandaime's grandson didn't speak, concentrating on their food, but after a minute or so the silence was broken as Teuchi leant over the counter and called out, "Oh, Naruto, good to see you again! And you've brought your friend with you too!"

Konohamaru's ears perked up as he heard the name and he immediately looked over to Iruka, who had also heard Teuchi's greeting. For a split second they made eye contact, both thinking the same thing: 'Did he just say Naruto?' In an instant, both of them twisted quickly on their stools to face the entrance where, sure enough, Naruto was just ducking under the cloth, his usual wide grin present on his face.

Naruto was just about to call out his order, but before he could all the breath was forced from his lungs and he staggered backwards as something grabbed him tightly around the waist. Looking down with surprise, Naruto saw a younger boy's face staring up at him with a huge grin. "Boss, you're back!"

Naruto's eyes widened with recognition. "Konohamaru, is that you? Wow, you've grown a lot!"

The younger boy's grin became even wider as he released the blonde boy from his enthusiastic hug. "Yeah, I'm – wait, how come you're covered in ink?"

Naruto grimaced at the reminder and a scowl flashed across his face briefly. "It's a long story. But more importantly, how've you been doing since I've been away? Have you been training hard?"

"Of course!" answered Konohamaru, crossing his arms across his chest to try and appear tough. "I've been practicing all my jutsu really hard whilst you were away!"

"That's great!" praised Naruto, reaching forward and ruffling the hair of the Sandaime's grandson. "Now that I'm back in the village I should be able to teach you some more new jutsu as well – maybe I could make a start on showing you the Rasengan or some of my other techniques!"

Konohamaru's eyes lit up. "Oh wow, really? Thanks Boss, that gets me even closer to becoming Hokage!"

Naruto snorted. "You? Hokage? Not whilst I'm around you won't! The only one that's gonna have their face carved into that mountain is me!"

Konohamaru's face hardened with determination at his rival's challenge, but he forgot his previous competitiveness as he noticed Naruto's companion for the first time. "Hey, Naruto-niisan, who's that?" he asked, pointing at Hinata, who had just followed Naruto in and was glancing curiously at him. "Is she your girlfriend or something?"

Hinata's breath caught in her throat and her face flushed cherry red as she let out a small squeak. 'Girlfriend?' she thought faintly, suddenly aware of her heart beating so fast that she felt like it would burst right through her chest. Seeing the scarf wearing boy's inquisitive eyes still on her she ducked her head down, hoping Naruto hadn't noticed her reaction.

"Nah, Hinata-chan's just one of my friends," Naruto explained, laughing. "We've got a mission together coming up, so we're just having lunch together."

Hinata let out an almost unnoticeable sigh at Naruto's words, wishing that what the younger boy had supposed had been the truth, but she nodded in support.

"Oh, ok," said Konohamaru, seeming to accept Naruto's words at face value as his confusion cleared up. "That makes sense."

Suddenly, Naruto noticed something and his attention was drawn to the genin's forehead. "Wait, Konohamaru, is that a hitai-ite?"

Konohamaru tapped his forehead proudly with his index finger. "Yep, I'm a fully qualified genin!" he boasted, crossing his arms across his chest. "I get to do missions and I'm on my own team now and everything!"

"Konohamaru, a minute ago you were complaining about the missions you were getting," said an amused voice. Looking up, Naruto's smile, if anything, got even wider. "Iruka-sensei! You're here too?"

Naruto's former Academy instructor nodded, smiling, and stood up as Naruto ran over, throwing his arms around the scarred chuunin in a warm embrace.

"Iruka-sensei, it's great to see you again!" beamed Naruto, so excited that he could hardly stand still. "I've got so much to tell you! I've been training as hard as I can whilst I was away and I've already had a really important mission since I've been back!"

Iruka smiled at his favourite student's enthusiasm. "It's good to see you again as well, Naruto, and you too, Hinata," he said, gently prising himself free from the blonde boy's grip. "You can tell me all about what you got up to on your travels over lunch if you want – my treat."

Naruto's eyes lit up. "Really? That's great!" he exclaimed, pulling up a stool. "I'll have my usual, Ojiisan – your biggest bowl of miso ramen, with all the extras! How about you Hinata-chan?"

The Hyuuga girl, who had been standing by the entrance, not wanting to interrupt Naruto's reunion with both his former sensei and his 'student,' jumped at the sound of his voice addressing her. "Ano… I'll have a miso ramen too, p-please."

Teuchi bowed low, eyes twinkling. "Whatever you say, Hyuuga-sama!" he chuckled, causing Hinata to blush at his joking formality and Naruto to laugh good-naturedly.

Ayame frowned and gave her father a cuff round the back of his head. "Tousan, don't tease our customers!" she scolded, giving Hinata a friendly smile as she went back to stirring the large pot. "You might offend Hinata-san if you say things like that."

"No, no, it's ok," Hinata interjected hastily as she took a seat to Naruto's left, not wanting to seem overly uptight in front of the jovial ramen stall owner. "I d-don't mind at all, it's fine, honestly."

As Teuchi and Ayame went back to bickering with each other good naturedly, Hinata turned to face Naruto, Iruka and Konohamaru. To her surprise, the scarf wearing genin was staring at her. "Ano… is there something wrong, Konohamaru-kun?" she asked, feeling self-conscious under his disbelieving gaze.

"Ojiisan just said you were a Hyuuga, but there's no way you can be one of those stuck-up, arrogant jerks," the younger boy said, scrunching his face up. "You're nothing like that snobby Hanabi girl I'm gonna be stuck with next week – I still can't believe Ebisu-sensei said that we're gonna have to team up with her squad for some stupid training mission! Like I'm gonna learn anything teamed up with a self-important brat like her!"

Hinata bit her lip and her eyes hardened momentarily; she couldn't help but feel the slightest flicker of defensiveness at anyone criticising her younger sister. "Please don't talk about Hanabi-chan that w-way," she said quietly, her head low. "She's my little sister. I know she isn't perfect, but she's very precious to me and I don't like it when my friends or family are criticised…"

Realising he had overstepped the mark, Konohamaru shifted on his stool awkwardly. A muttered, "Right, sorry," escaped his lips as he looked down, avoiding Hinata's eyes.

"It's ok," Hinata smiled, trying to repair the atmosphere between them. "She can be a little… umm… difficult sometimes, but she means well."

"But she treats me like she's so much better than me," Konohamaru scowled, poking moodily at his noodles with his chopsticks. "Just because I'm the 'dead last' of the Academy… No matter how hard I trained she still looked down on me like I wasn't important…"

Hinata felt a small pang of sympathy for the boy – he reminded her a lot of Naruto in the way that he seemed to want to be acknowledged – and Naruto spoke up himself. "The best way to be recognised by others is just to keep trying," he advised, his voice muffled by the ramen that Teuchi had just placed in front of him. Gulping the mouthful down, he added, "If you keep training to become stronger then no-one will look down on you, no matter who they are!"

Hinata nodded at Naruto's words, though suppressing a giggle at his lack of table manners. "Hanabi-chan doesn't understand the feeling of not being acknowledged, Konohamaru-kun," she agreed, trying to explain it from her sister's viewpoint.

"Huh?" Konohamaru frowned, not understanding. "You mean she gets attention all the time?"

Seeing the genin's confused expression Hinata was about to expand on her point, but she was interrupted as a smiling Teuchi served up her bowl of ramen, which she quickly responded to by turning and bowing her head in thanks. Blowing on the steaming noodles, she took a quick bite, enjoying the mix of flavours as Konohamaru cocked his head to one side, waiting for her to start speaking again. Swallowing, Hinata continued, "My sister has always been v-very gifted, even from an early age, so she doesn't know what it's like not to immediately be acknowledged or not be good at something, but she's not a bad person. If you keep trying your best, I know Hanabi-chan will recognise you – if you show her that you won't give up, then she will grow to respect you, I'm s-sure."

Naruto grinned impishly. "Some new jutsus wouldn't hurt either!"

Konohamaru frowned thoughtfully, taking another bite of ramen and chewing as he thought things through. "I suppose that makes sense," he admitted grudgingly. "So all I've gotta do is impress her with my awesome skills, right?" Seeing Hinata nod, he grinned. "Great! In that case, it'll be the perfect opportunity to show off my new and improved technique!"

"A new technique?" Naruto questioned eagerly. "That sounds great! Can I see?"

Konohamaru smirked at Naruto's enthusiastic interest and the curious glance Hinata was sending in his direction. "Sure! But you'd better be ready for it, or it'll blow your mind!" Clasping his hands together, Konohamaru jumped off his stool and focused his chakra, calling out, "Oiroke no Jutsu!" before vanishing in a puff of white smoke.

"Oiroke no Jutsu?" Teuchi repeated quizzically, leaning over the counter.

Iruka groaned, slumping on his seat. "You don't want to know…" he muttered, raising his eyes to the heavens as he remembered how Konohamaru and Naruto had both managed to catch him off guard with this technique at the Academy. Shaking his head wearily, Iruka waved his hand from side to side, trying to blow away the obscuring haze.

Hinata peered curiously into the cloud of smoke, wondering what technique Konohamaru had just performed. The hand seal he had used made her think it was a henge of some sort, though Iruka-sensei's tired, resigned reaction didn't quite seem to fit. The name of the technique was odd as well – strangely enough, Hinata could have sworn she remembered hearing the name Oiroke no Jutsu from somewhere before…

Then, as the smoke dissipated further, Hinata's eyes widened to the size of dinner pates and her mouth flew open as she saw the image of a shapely brunette girl, standing completely naked in front of her right where Konohamaru had been – though, much to Hinata's relief, at least the smoke still seemed to be hiding the girl's most private areas. Feeling the heat rise to her face, she quickly averted her eyes as the girl posed provocatively, crossing her arms across her chest, just in front of her breasts, bending at the waist slightly and winking. "How's this, Naruto-niisan?" she asked confidently, tossing her long, straight hair over one shoulder. "Pretty good, huh?"

The female version of Konohamaru was half way through a second pose, extending one leg forward to show off more bare skin, when Iruka rapped his knuckles firmly on top of the girl's head. Instantly the henge dissipated with another puff of smoke, leaving Konohamaru standing in its place and clutching his skull. "Oww! Iruka-sensei, that hurt!" he pouted, looking up indignantly at the scarred chuunin. "What did you go and do that for?"

Iruka just sighed and pointed at the reactions of everyone else. Hinata was blushing up a storm, Teuchi looked totally stunned, Ayame was staring open mouthed at him and Naruto was shaking his head with disapproval.

Konohamaru looked a little disappointed he hadn't got a more positive reaction. "What?" he mumbled, a little put out. "It was just a joke…"

"Konohamaru, you can't go around using jutsu like that," said Naruto, lifting himself up off his stool and walking over to the younger genin. "That sorta thing just isn't acceptable anymore."

Iruka raised his eyebrows at Naruto's words. 'Since when is Naruto so mature?' he asked himself, surprised. 'Did he really grow up so much whilst he was away on his training mission with Jiraiya?' He felt a strange mixture of pride and sadness as he looked at the orange clad boy in front of him – he felt proud that Naruto had grown up so much, but couldn't help but feel a little disappointed about it too. Seeing Naruto without his mischievous, childish side just didn't feel right somehow, and as he looked across to Hinata, Iruka thought she looked similarly upset.

Shaking his head, though unable to get the slight feeling of despondency about Naruto's newfound maturity out of his mid, Iruka refocused on the conversation between his two favourite former pupils as Konohamaru's face scrunched up. "But Boss…" he whined, gazing at Naruto imploringly.

"No buts!" Naruto interrupted, a fiery glint in his eye. "That sort of technique…" He paused dramatically, letting the tension build, before continuing in a yell, "… Isn't good enough!"

Iruka blinked. Surely that didn't mean he was about to…

Oblivious to his former sensei's impending realisation, Naruto posed heroically, hands on hips. "You'll have to do better than that, Konohamaru – I've developed perverted ninjutsu that are a thousand times more amazing than that! Now watch this!" Gathering his chakra, Naruto grinned devilishly and shouted, "Haaremu no Jutsu!"

With a series of high-pitched popping sounds, suddenly the small ramen stall was filled with Naruto's clones, all transformed into totally naked female versions of their creator. Teuchi froze, his jaw dropping as he saw the result of his favourite customer's technique, and Ayame was left speechless, words completely failing her as she opened and closed her mouth mutely. As for Hinata, she let out a mortified squeak, her face now so red that it was almost the same shade as Sakura's dress.

Iruka blinked, momentarily stunned, then shook his head, chuckling. 'Now that's the Naruto I remember,' he thought, grinning inwardly. Outwardly, however, he tried to put on the sternest face he could muster, though the effect was slightly lessened by the fact that he couldn't prevent the corners of his mouth from twitching slightly. "Naruto, Konohamaru, thank you for that little…" Iruka paused, searching for the right word "… demonstration, but that's more than enough," he scolded, raising his voice slightly to get the point across. "Now sit down, both of you, unless you want your ramen to go cold."

He laughed as Naruto immediately dispelled the jutsu, the clones popping out of existence, and both boys quickly dashed back to their seats upon hearing the reminder, shovelling ramen into their mouths at a frenzied pace. Naruto was just about to ask for a second helping, leaning back on his stool and patting his stomach as he finished his first bowl, but out of the corner of his eye he noticed Hinata tapping her fingers together, her face still ablaze with the same vivid blush.

"Ne, Hinata-chan, are you ok?" Naruto questioned, peering over at her. "Your face is kinda red… and you've barely touched your ramen!"

Despite her acute embarrassment, Hinata couldn't help but smile at Naruto's last comment – he'd spoken it as though it was some sort of sacrilege. "N-No, no, it's g-good, really. I just… umm…" Her blush intensified, but she just about managed to stutter, "Ano… w-where did you l-learn about… I m-mean…" She fell silent, unable to get the words out, but thankfully Ayame, overhearing their conversation, helped her out.

"Naruto you idiot, she wants to know where you got the idea to do something so… so suggestive!" she snapped, her own face still slightly flushed after seeing the nude forms standing so boldly in front of her. "And, for that matter, so do I, so spill it! Did Jiraiya-sama teach you that awful, perverted technique?"

"No, I did it myself! And it's not perverted!" Naruto defended himself indignantly. "It's just a great way to catch out the guys that are perverted. It's helped me out in loads of situations!"

Ayame crossed her arms, looking decidedly sceptical. "Oh yeah? Well where did you get the 'inspiration' to create a jutsu like that?"

For the first time, Naruto's own face heated up. "It's not like that…" he mumbled, embarrassed. "It was meant to be a joke… I wasn't peeping like Ero-Sennin would do, or anything like that."

Ayame couldn't help but soften as she saw his reddened face. "What do you think, Hinata?" she asked, grinning playfully at the younger girl. "Should we believe him?"

Hinata blushed at Ayame's teasing tone of voice, but sided with Naruto. "Ano… I don't think Naruto-kun would d-do something like that…"

Ayame smirked. "So you don't think he'd ever be tempted to look at naked women?" she asked innocently, grinning impishly as she noticed how Hinata's eyes flickered to Naruto for the briefest instant before jerking her gaze away. "Not even a little?"

If possible, Hinata's face went even redder – Ayame was sure that if the Hyuuga heiress had blushed any deeper then she'd have steam coming out of her ears. "W-Well… umm… I d-don't know…"

"Ayame-neechan, cut it out!" Naruto scowled, crossing his arms moodily across his chest and pouting. "I'm not like Ero-Sennin!"

Laughing, the brown haired girl relented. "Ok, ok, fine, you're not a pervert. Happy? Now, how about a refill?"

Nodding eagerly, Naruto handed his empty ramen bowl over. Thankful that Ayame had dropped the subject, Hinata went back to eating, enjoying the meal. Now that she thought about it, she was surprisingly hungry – maybe Naruto's love for ramen had rubbed off on her. She smiled at the thought and lifted the last of her noodles to her mouth, finishing just as Teuchi passed Naruto a second extra-large bowl to Naruto, who grinned in thanks and began devouring the contents in record time moments later.

Suddenly, Naruto heard a faint rumbling sound and paused for a moment, frowning. That sounded like his stomach had just growled, but it had come to his left, he was sure of it. And the only person sitting to his left was…

'No way! That was Hinata's stomach just now?'

Naruto's jaw dropped as he saw Hinata's cheeks turn pink at his incredulous gaze. "Oh, umm… I didn't think it was that loud…" she blushed, ducking her head down so that her dark indigo haired covered her face.

Naruto laughed with delight. "I can't believe that was you just now! I thought it was me at first that'd made that noise!"

Hinata raised her head a little, so that Naruto could see her face, still tinged with a faint blush. "I guess I'm still a little hungry," she said, smiling somewhat self-consciously. Feeling a little bolder, she took a breath and went on, "M-Maybe… this is just something else we have in common?"

"Huh?" said Naruto, cocking his head to the side with confusion. "I'd have said that we're kinda different. Y'know, I'm loud and always trying to be the centre of attention, and you're quiet and shy… er, not that it's a bad thing!" he added hastily, not wanting to offend her.

"O-Oh… ok…" Unable to hide her disappointment, even though what Naruto had said had been the truth, Hinata felt the urge to drop the subject. She had to admit, even to herself, that he was right – in some ways they seemed like total opposites and when she felt unsure of herself and any chance of Naruto noticing her, these exact same doubts had surfaced in her own mind too.

But despite her embarrassment she decided to press on with the subject regardless – she could hardly change the topic now that she'd brought it up and more importantly, she wanted Naruto to know just how much he'd influenced her. When she'd been feeling at her lowest and most worthless it was him that made her find the courage and determination to keep going, and she wasn't going to stop now.

"W-Well, because of you, I feel that I've maybe… changed a little. I feel like I've become stronger and m-more like you… because of your example…" She trailed off, heart beating rapidly, and began fiddling with the zipper of her jacket. "I remember seeing you back at the Academy, out on the training field, where you would p-practice for hours and hours…" Hinata almost lost her voice as she met his gaze, his wide, expressive blue eyes drawing her in, but she collected herself and continued as steadily as she could, "I admired you a lot."

Naruto, if anything, looked even more confused by her explanation. "You admired me?" he asked, bewildered. "At the Academy? But I was useless back then! I couldn't even make a stupid Bunshin!"

"You weren't useless!" Hinata protested, sounding noticeably upset. "P-Please don't ever think that! Y-You always tried your best, even when everyone else didn't acknowledge you! That was more than I could ever do…"

Seeing the honesty in her pale white eyes, Naruto blinked, nonplussed. "Ah… thanks…" he replied awkwardly, unsure of what to say. Back in the Chuunin Exams he'd gained some understanding of how Hinata had been looked down upon, just like him, and he remembered how she had referred to him as a 'proud failure' before his fight against Neji, but he'd never thought his training and struggles had been witnessed by anyone else. But in spite of the awkwardness of the situation he felt himself smile. Knowing that someone like Hinata had taken heart from his never-say-die attitude meant a lot to him.

Realising that Hinata was finding the situation just as uncomfortable as him – she was tugging nervously at the hem of her ink stained jacket as she waited for a response – he resolved himself to consider the similarities between them again. This time, he was surprised as a sudden memory of something Lee had once remarked, back in the Chuunin Exams, popped into his head.

'"The two of you are a lot alike…" That's what Fuzzy Brows said. But are we really that similar that he noticed so quickly?' wondered Naruto. 'I dunno…'

But as he continued to think about it, with more memories from before he had left the village with Jiraiya surfacing, as well as some more recent ones from the mission to rescue Gaara, Naruto had to reconsider. 'How come I never noticed that Hinata was like me in so many ways?' he asked himself, puzzled. 'Now that she's pointed it out it seems really obvious. We have different personalities, but we're a lot alike otherwise.'

Shrugging his shoulders at his lack of insight, Naruto grinned at the Hyuuga girl sitting beside him, who was still waiting for an answer. "I'd never really thought about it before, but yeah, I think you're right. We do have kind of a lot of stuff in common; we both work hard so that other people acknowledge us, we always do our best and never give up, we have the same nindo… I guess that means you're just as awesome as me!"

Hinata glowed inwardly at the compliment and, resisting the urge to duck her head down again, met Naruto's blue eyes and smiled up at him, whispering, "Thank you." Seeing his face crinkle as he grinned back at her, she fiddled with a stray strand of hair, feeling slightly flustered, and turned to face the counter. Teuchi and Ayame had both moved down closer to Iruka and Konohamaru and were laughing at their conversation; the scarf wearing genin was trying to persuade Iruka to buy him another five bowls, but Iruka was steadfastly holding out at four. From what Hinata could tell, he looked a little worried at just how much Naruto and Konohamaru had eaten already, having offered to treat them both – his salary as a teacher was hardly likely to be huge, so Hinata couldn't help but be impressed at just how far he had shown he was willing to go for his two favourite students already.

Clearing her throat to try and attract the ramen stall owner's attention, Hinata spoke up in a quiet voice. "Ano, Teuchi-san? Do you mind if I… umm… if I have a s-second helping, please?"

Teuchi smiled cheerfully. "I should've known that Naruto's friends would have just as big an appetite as him! Of course, coming right up!"

Nodding her thanks, Hinata turned back to face Naruto. The blonde haired boy blinked in surprise at her order for seconds, then grinned widely. "Heheh, we really do have a lot in common!" he laughed, stopping eating for a moment to blow on his noodles. Just as he put the food in his mouth, missing Hinata's slightly pink cheeks as a result of his praise, a thought occurred to him. "Hey, Iruka-sensei," called Naruto, attempting to swallow his noodles and attract his sensei's attention at the same time, with his voice slightly muffled by the food. "How come you didn't get all pervy when I used the Haaremu no Jutsu earlier?"

Iruka spluttered with outrage and nearly choked on his ramen. Coughing, he managed to swallow, then turned to face the orange clad boy. "What's that supposed to mean?" he asked, disgruntled.

"You used to in the past," Naruto pointed out, grinning widely. "Remember my third graduation test? When I used my Oiroke no Jutsu, you definitely reacted back then!"

Konohamaru frowned. "That's not fair, Iruka-sensei – you can't tell me not to use those techniques if you –"

"That's enough!" Iruka protested indignantly. "Naruto, you know full well that I was never affected by that jutsu of yours!"

"Yes you were," grinned Naruto mischievously, not perturbed even slightly by his former sensei's interruption. "You remember, right Hinata-chan?"

"Ano…" Hinata glanced up apologetically at the Academy teacher. "Iruka-sensei did react a l-little, I think…" Seeing Iruka's head drop as Naruto and Konohamaru both began laughing, she hastily tried to defend him, adding, "B-But it wasn't his fault – I'm sure he didn't mean to!"

Naruto laughed even harder at Hinata's answer as Iruka groaned, causing Hinata to giggle too. "Ok, maybe I reacted a tiny bit back then…" he admitted, scratching at his scar. "But that was a long time ago!"

"But if it worked back then, how come you weren't affected this time?" asked Naruto curiously, peering inquisitively at his former mentor's face. "Have you been reading Ero-Sennin's dirty books, like Kakashi-sensei does?"

"What? Of course not!" answered Iruka, irritatedly brushing the question off and taking a bite of ramen.

"Have you been spying on loads of girls at the hot springs?"

"No!"

Naruto frowned thoughtfully. "Well how else could you have become immune to my sexy techniques?"

"Wait, I bet I know what it is!" piped up Konohamaru. "Iruka-sensei must have a girlfriend!"

"Are you sure?" Naruto asked, somewhat sceptically. "I mean, I can't imagine Iruka-sensei…" But his words died on his lips as he saw the Academy teacher turn to try and hide his suddenly reddened face and Naruto's eyes widened at his former sensei's reaction. "… No way! You really do have a girlfriend, don't you Iruka-sensei?" he exclaimed eagerly, excited for his favourite teacher. "Who is she? What's she like? How long have you been going out for?"

"Yeah, come on Iruka-sensei, you gotta tell us!" added Konohamaru, just as enthusiastically.

"… Can we just drop the subject?" Iruka pleaded weakly, looking somewhat overwhelmed by Naruto's quick fire questioning.

Konohamaru grinned devilishly. "I knew it!" he exclaimed, jumping off his stool into an improvised victory dance. Together with Naruto, he cheekily began chanting, "Sensei's got a girlfriend, Sensei's got a girlfriend!" over and over, with Iruka steadily becoming more and more embarrassed as Teuchi and Ayame began laughing good-naturedly at the commotion.

Though she couldn't deny that a small part of her was curious about Iruka's potential love life as well, Hinata felt the need to speak up on her former sensei's behalf too and tried to calm Naruto and Konohamaru down. "Ano… I d-don't think it's fair on Iruka-sensei to tease him like this," she said worriedly. "It doesn't seem right to make assumptions, and if he does have a girlfriend then it's his concern, n-not ours."

"Aww, but it was just getting fun!" whined Naruto, still grinning at the scarred chuunin's discomfort. Seeing Iruka's mock glare he backed off, laughing, and returned to his ramen.

About twenty minutes later, with several extra bowls stacked up around both Naruto and Konohamaru, Iruka paid the bill, wincing as he saw just how much it had all cost, and the four of them left Ichiraku's together, stepping out into the early afternoon sunlight and waving goodbye to Teuchi and his daughter.

Trying not to think about how much lighter his wallet now was, Iruka sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. "Well, I'm afraid I can't stay longer. Afternoon lessons at the Academy start in fifteen minutes or so and I still have to find Ebisu. Isn't that right, Konohamaru?" Iruka turned to face the scarf wearing genin, expecting him to start pleading to be let off the hook, but to his confusion Konohamaru was nowhere to be seen.

"What the…? Where did he go?" Seeing Hinata and Naruto both looked just as surprised as himself at the young genin's sudden disappearance, Iruka groaned and craned his neck, scanning the crowd, before letting out a triumphant, "Hah!" as he spotted Konohamaru – the brown haired genin had already surreptitiously sidled halfway down the street, evidently trying to sneak away before Iruka noticed him.

"Konohamaru, get back here!" Iruka shouted with frustration. "I haven't forgotten about you abandoning your sensei!" Letting out a yelp of fear, the Sandaime's grandson realised that Iruka had spotted him and increased his pace to a run, weaving in and out of the villagers and ducking down a side street to try and lose his former teacher. Grumbling under his breath, Iruka waved an apologetic goodbye to a laughing Naruto and a giggling Hinata, before setting off in hot pursuit, shouting, "You can't escape from me, Konohamaru! I'm taking you back to Ebisu right now!"

Watching his former Academy sensei leave, hot on Konohamaru's heels, Naruto grinned reminiscently. "Man, I remember when it was me that Iruka-sensei would chase all across the village. Those pranks I pulled seem so long ago now…It makes me feel old, like Tsunade-baachan!"

Hinata smiled as she thought back some of Naruto's more exuberant jokes – who could forget the time he'd had the sheer nerve to spray-paint the entire Hokage monument? "You're not old, Naruto-kun," she giggled, trying to reassure him. "You're just… m-more grown up."

Naruto laughed. "So long as I'm not old! I've still got too much I want to get done before I have to retire: train to be the best ninja in the village, become Hokage, beat the Akatsuki…" He paused for a moment and his eyes dimmed slightly as he added, "… And bring Sasuke back…"

Hinata hesitantly reached out a hand and rested it on his arm in an effort to comfort him, a light blush staining her cheeks. "Naruto-kun… you don't give up… and y-you always try so hard to reach all the goals you've set your heart on… I'm s-sure you'll achieve all of those ambitions. And you can start on finding Sasuke-san with the mission tomorrow, right?"

Naruto's features softened at her words and he smiled at her – not his usual ear-to-ear grin, but a small, thankful twitch of his lips. "Thanks, Hinata-chan…" he said quietly. He shook his head like a wet dog in an effort to banish his doubts and continued more confidently, "Yeah, with my friends helping me, I know I can do it! If this mission gives us a lead to Orochimaru then we'll just have to grab it with both hands so that Sasuke doesn't get away!" Hinata nodded, pleased to see Naruto was in better spirits again, and released his arm, taking a step back to try and avoid the temptation to keep hold of him for longer that had suddenly just popped up in her head… which was quickly followed by wondering just how Naruto's bare arms would feel wrapped around her.

As she tried to fight back her blush at the thoughts now rushing through her mind – the memory of Naruto shirtless on the way to Suna was particularly vivid – the boy in question began speaking again. "Well, I'd probably better get changed out of these messed up clothes and start packing for the mission now, so I'll see you tomorrow at the village gates to meet Sakura-chan and our team leader, ok?" Seeing the shy Hyuuga girl nod, though not noticing her slight disappointment that he was leaving so soon, he grinned. "Great! See ya later then, bye!"

Giving her one last grin, Naruto waved a carefree arm and began walking down the street back to his apartment, hands clasped loosely behind his head. Smiling at his departing form, Hinata let her feet lead her home.After all he'd done to help her become stronger, knowingly or not, now it was her turn to help him.

-o-o-

"Hey! You're that bastard who attacked me yesterday!"

Seeing Naruto pointing angrily at the boy that had just arrived a minute or two later than the two girls and himself, Yamato let out a sigh. This must be the Root member that Tsunade had mentioned Danzo had forcibly pushed onto her. He had originally been looking forward to the chance to work with the students of the revered Hatake Kakashi; the copy nin's exploits from back when he had been in the ANBU were almost the stuff of legend, so when the Hokage had called him into her office to tell him that he was going to be the masked jonin's temporary replacement he had been honoured. With the Sharingan weilder's squad in his command he had also felt confident in the capabilities of his team and the likelihood of success for the upcoming mission – although he had never met Kakashi's subordinates before he had heard of how strict the silver haired jonin was when it came to deciding whether a squad was up to scratch or not, having sent multiple genin teams straight back to the Academy. But now, upon having the harmony of the group disrupted already, he was beginning to have his doubts.

Temporarily pushing his misgivings to one side, Yamato looked from the blonde haired boy, who was glaring openly at the dark haired boy that had just arrived, to the newcomer, who was standing with one hand raised in greeting, smiling with his eyes closed. Turning back to Naruto, perplexed as to the reason for his anger, Yamato looked to his two companions to gauge their own reactions to the Root member joining their team, hoping their expressions would spread some light on Naruto's animosity. Standing to his left was the pink haired medic nin that had arrived first, who looked taken aback by Naruto's sudden outburst, but next to her a girl with pale eyes – a Hyuuga, Yamato guessed – was frowning, clearly recognising the pale skinned teenager.

"Attacked?" Sakura repeated, looking from Naruto to the new arrival, forehead creased with confusion. "By this guy?"

"Yeah, I was with Hinata-chan and the rest of Team Eight earlier when this guy set a load of ink monsters on us!" Naruto explained, shooting a dark glare in the direction of the smiling boy. Hinata nodded her agreement, keeping her gaze fixed intently on their assailant from earlier that morning, and Sakura's eyes hardened.

Not seeming even remotely perturbed by the unwelcoming atmosphere surrounding his new teammates, the dark haired boy smiled at them. "I apologise for startling you this morning," he said, addressing Naruto in an unconcerned voice. "I merely wished to gauge the capabilities of my new teammate. It's a good thing I did; I had no idea that they were putting me in the same squad as a prick with no balls like you."

"What did you say?" Naruto growled fiercely, stepping towards him threateningly as Hinata visibly stiffened with disapproval, but the orange clad teen's advance was halted by Sakura grabbing hold of the collar of his jacket and yanking him back. "Naruto, calm down," she hissed, jabbing at his chest with her index finger to accentuate the point. "He's our teammate for this mission, you can't just attack him." Seeing Naruto relent, albeit with reluctance, Sakura turned to face the pale skinned boy. "Still… you don't really seem all that nice. Insulting your new teammate is hardly the best way of starting a mission."

Hinata nodded, wanting to try and defuse the situation, despite her unhappiness at their new squad member's dismissive attitude towards Naruto and his earlier attack on the rest of her team. "Please, Sakura-san is right, we shouldn't be fighting," she said, trying to be more welcoming to their strange teammate. "I know you attacked us, but m-maybe we all just got off on the wrong foot?"

The boy considered their words for a moment. "I like friendly people like you, Hag," he smiled, addressing Sakura. "And yes, I think Weirdo is right – I hope we can get on better from now on."

There was a moment of total hush after the boy spoke, which was broken as an enraged Sakura shouted, "WHAT?" at the top of her voice, looking ready to spit fire. As the brown haired jonin in charge of the team moved across to try and calm her down before she tore the pale skinned boy limb from limb, Hinata frowned, struggling to come to terms with the total contrast between needlessly insulting words and his outwardly friendly appearance – aside from his ever-present smile, which felt eerily out of place. She wasn't quite sure what to make of him, in all honesty. Was he deliberately antagonising Naruto, Sakura and herself, or was he just painfully unaware of just how insulting his words were?

"Hey, hey, that's enough," intervened the brown haired team leader, waving his hands placatingly. "Let's all just take a deep breath and calm down, ok?" Seeing the ninja before him settle down, although Hinata's features were marred by a small frown and both Naruto and Sakura were still glaring with annoyance at the newly arrived team member, who was smiling back serenely, Yamato let out a sigh of relief – the mission briefing he had been given by Tsunade hadn't said anything about two of the team members having any sort of previous feud. "Ok, now that's all out of the way, let's introduce ourselves. My name is Yamato and I'll be your captain for this mission in place of Kakashi-san. Now, how about the rest of you?"

"Haruno Sakura," the pink haired medic nin introduced herself shortly, her fingers still twitching every so often; Hinata had the feeling that she was repressing the urge to ball her fingers into a fist and punch him into the middle of next week for the 'Hag' comment.

Naruto scowled, but grunted, "I'm Uzumaki Naruto," glaring at the ink user out of the corner of his eye.

"I'm H-Hyuuga Hinata," said Hinata quietly, looking up and meeting the artist's dark, unreadable gaze, hoping that their introductions had lessened some of the tension. Although her first impressions of their new squad member were unfavourable to say the least, she still wanted to make things work out with him – unfriendly or not, he was still their teammate, and in a mission as important as this then they would have to learn to work with him to have any chance of success.

With all eyes on him now that he was the last one to introduce himself, the boy smiled engagingly. "My name is Sai," he said pleasantly.

Naruto snorted. "Just Sai?"

"Just Sai," the dark haired ninja answered, smiling in agreement.

Noticing Naruto grind his teeth with frustration and not wanting the temporary truce to be broken, Yamato clapped his hands together to draw their attention. "Well, now that introductions are out of the way, we should get moving. The sooner we get to the Hidden Grass Village, the sooner we can begin our preparation for capturing the spy in Orochimaru's organisation. Is everyone ready?" Seeing Naruto and Sakura both sourly mutter an affirmative, Sai smile integratingly and Hinata nod, Yamato raised a hand, signalling for the group to head through the gates and out onto the dirt track leading into Konoha.

The first stage of the journey passed in near total silence, with Yamato out in front, Sai a few paces back and Naruto, Hinata and Sakura bringing up the rear. Hinata could hear Naruto still muttering under his breath, shooting angry glares at the back of Sai's head every so often, but Sakura seemed to have calmed down and was studying the older boy closely, her green eyes uncertain. After a few minutes she sighed, smiling reminiscently, though with a hint of sadness present too.

"Ano, Sakura-san, is something wrong?" Hinata asked, her curiosity getting the better of her as she broke the silence.

Sakura jumped slightly at Hinata's voice. "Huh? Oh, it's nothing…" she answered distractedly, fiddling with a loose strand of hair. "I was just thinking… I know Sai's manners are really offensive, but he reminds me a little of Sasuke-kun."

"What? No way!" Naruto exclaimed loudly. "Sasuke's nothing like this asshole!"

"But don't you think he looks quite similar in appearance? The dark hair, the pale skin…" Sakura sighed sadly once more.

Peering at the boy walking ahead of them in more detail, Hinata thought that Sakura had a point. The slightly aloof attitude and the way he held his head up did remind her of the brooding Uchiha.

Naruto scrunched his eyes up, conjuring up Sasuke's face in his mind and comparing it to the boy in front of him, tilting his head at different angles to try and find a resemblance. "I suppose they are a bit alike," he admitted grudgingly, after a few seconds of observation. "But I still don't want him here! The three of us and Yamato-taichou is enough for Team Kakashi – he's just intruding!"

Hinata couldn't help but smile slightly at the childish tone of Naruto's voice, coupled with his squinted eyes and the grumpy pouting expression on his face. To her eyes at very least, they made him look both surly and adorable at the same time. And the fact that he had included her in team Kakashi once again also made her feel warm inside.

At that moment, Sai turned his head slightly, staring back at Naruto from his position slightly ahead. "Is there a problem?" he asked pleasantly, smiling unconcernedly at the orange clad boy. "Your glaring is starting to become a little irritating and I'd rather not have to hit you."

"Goddammit, are you trying to piss me off or something?" shouted Naruto angrily, clenching his hands into fists.

Sai raised an eyebrow at Naruto's words. "I don't have any malice towards you at all," he said unconcernedly, meeting Naruto's gaze coolly.

"Liar!" growled Naruto, not believing him in the slightest. "All you've done since you've joined this team is try to piss me off as much as possible! Why the Hell are you even here?"

Hinata and Sakura both drew in sharp breaths, wondering if Naruto had gone too far with such an outwardly unfriendly outburst, and sure enough Yamato swiftly intervened from his position at the front of the group. "That's enough!" he interrupted sharply, staring severely at Naruto. "You certainly shouldn't be saying something like that in front of your captain. Kakashi-san is well renowned for his belief in the importance of co-operation and teamwork, so I'm sure he would have taught those key beliefs to his students too." The ANBU member shook his head with disapproval. "To think that someone like you is on the great Kakashi-san's team… Just what exactly is your problem?"

"My problem is that he isn't part of Team Kakashi!" Naruto shouted, gesturing wildly at Sai. "Sasuke is!"

Sai didn't visibly show any reaction to Naruto's loud claim, standing relaxed and motionless without trying to stop the blonde haired boy from speaking. Across from him, Sakura immediately went stiff at Naruto's words, her head bowed low so that her fringe was hiding her eyes, and next to her Hinata struggled with indecision, not sure whether to agree with Naruto, try to calm him down or take Yamato's side. She had always naturally tried to avoid conflict and now that she and Sakura were caught in the middle of such a heated argument she wasn't sure what to do, other than continue to stand uncertainly to the side and not get involved.

Unaware of the reactions of the two female members of his team, Naruto continued with his heated argument. "Sai's just some cheap replacement for Sasuke, isn't he? He's not a real part of Team Kakashi; he's just there to fill a gap! I bet he doesn't even care about being a member of Team Kakashi in the first place! So there's no way I'm ever gonna consider someone like him a part of this squad!"

Breathing heavily, Naruto ended his tirade, glaring at the ink user as if daring him to protest. Part of him knew that what he had said was ill advised and that he was being downright spiteful with his comment about Sasuke – for all of Sai's faults it wasn't his fault that he'd been chosen to be a stand-in for Sasuke, and the fact that he bared a resemblance to the renegade Uchiha was also an unfortunate coincidence – but Naruto really didn't care right now. The frustration caused by the ink user's attack earlier that day, combined with the offensive greeting, had pushed him over the edge, and in his current reckless state of mind he had made sure to tell the older boy exactly what he felt.

To Naruto's surprise, however, Sai didn't attempt to challenge his angry monologue. Instead he just smiled. "Well, I'm glad you think of me that way."

Naruto blinked with confusion. "Wait, you are?"

"Of course," Sai nodded, his smile growing slightly, twisting his facial muscles unnaturally. "I have no desire to be likened to a weak, pathetic pawn of Orochimaru, who only cared about power and betrayed his village without a second thought."

Naruto's face twisted into a snarl of hatred and he clenched his fists so hard that they quivered. "You bastard," he spat, his blue eyes narrowed with intense fury. "You're gonna pay for that!"

He took a step forward, intent on wiping that blank smile right off the pasty skinned boy's face, but before he could get any closer he was forcibly stopped; Sakura held her arm out commandingly in front of him, blocking his path and Hinata tugged insistently at the sleeve of his jacket.

"Naruto-kun, no!" the Hyuuga heiress whispered, keeping a firm grip on his arm despite the worry apparent in her pale eyes. "Please, you mustn't! Sai-san is going to be helping get Sasuke-san back on this m-mission, remember?"

Hinata's reminder of the aim of the mission made Naruto pause for a moment and his anger abated slightly as he felt his heart clench. The link to Sasuke, that had been almost completely severed for so long, was now within touching distance. Sasuke was so close now, almost back with the rest of Team Kakashi and part of their family once more, and Naruto refused to even consider the possibility that he might get away once more. To prise him away from Orochimaru's clutches Naruto would have done virtually anything; if that meant working with someone that mocked, belittled and insulted both him and his beliefs then he'd do it a thousand times over if it reunited him with the guy that he considered both a rival and a brother.

Slowly and carefully, Hinata let go of Naruto's arm, smiling sadly at him as she saw the momentary flash of pain across his eyes. She felt bad bringing such raw memories to the surface, but at least it had stopped him from outright attacking Sai, which would not have had a savoury ending for any of them. However, despite her interception of Naruto, she couldn't help but feel downright insulted by what Sai had said. Although she had tried to suppress it as best as she could, she had almost lost her temper at the older boy herself. His words had sparked an indignant fire inside of her and in her outrage she had nearly shouted a whole host of heated words right back at him. It was only the thought of the mission that had kept her from confronting the ink user – not only had she felt fiercely protective of Naruto after Sai's casual insults towards the blonde boy's best friend, she was also disgruntled by his attitude to someone he had never even met. What gave him the right to talk about Sasuke as though he knew him? Though Hinata couldn't condone the Sharingan wielder's actions, she trusted the judgement of both Naruto and Sakura and more to the point she was a firm believer that Konoha shinobi did not give up on each other, no matter what. To hear otherwise was almost like a personal affront for her.

As Hinata tried to force back her indignation as best as she could, Naruto was lost within his painful memories of Sasuke; training together in the tree climbing exercise, seeing him left helpless and drained by the cursed seal mark against the partially transformed Gaara, and, of course, the fight at the Valley of the End where he just hadn't been strong enough to break through to the Uchiha clan member. As other, more trivial memories all blurred into one another – first their days at the Academy where Sasuke had been number one and he'd been the 'dead last,' then eating with Sakura and Kakashi at Ichiraku's as a team, then the times when Kakashi would turn up late and Sasuke would just hide his annoyance with an impatient, "Hmph!" – Sakura's voice brought him back to the present. "Hinata's right," she said quietly, her hand still blocking Naruto's way to Sai. "If we want to succeed in our mission, teamwork is vital."

Naruto looked at her, surprise written all over his face, and from what he could tell Hinata looked equally astonished. Although he had calmed down now he was sure as Hell not just going to stand by and do nothing if any of his friends were insulted. Was Sakura really going to let Sai talk about Sasuke like that?

"Ano, Sakura-san, are you sure…?" Hinata asked nervously, letting the question hang in the air. Although she didn't want any more confrontations she had felt sure that Sakura would have been furious at hearing such damning words spoken about the boy she cared about. "After what he said about Sasuke-san…"

To the Hyuuga girl's surprise, Sakura didn't respond, instead turning to face the pale skinned boy. "Sai, Naruto said too much," she began in a controlled, calm, voice. "Please, he doesn't know you that well… Will you forgive him?"

Hinata shared a confused glance with Naruto, not sure what to make of the pink haired girl's uncharacteristically submissive reply. Was she just swallowing her pride to extend an olive branch to Sai, for the good of the mission?

Yamato, who had been watching on silently, let out a sigh of relief. "Well, I'm glad to see that someone is going to take responsibility here," he said, shooting a pointed glance in Naruto's direction.

Sai scrutinised Sakura carefully as she stood waiting for an answer, taking in her body language. After a second or two of deliberation he smiled, closing his eyes cheerfully. "Of course, think nothing of it."

"Thank you," Sakura smiled back at him, brushing a stray strand of hair out of her eyes… And then, with a grunt of aggression, she let loose a bone shattering punch to Sai's chin with so much force behind it that he was sent sprawling through the air, landing painfully on his side.

Yamato made a noise that sounded halfway between a gasp and a cough, staring at Sakura with open amazement, as Naruto's jaw dropped and Hinata let out a squeak of surprise at Sakura's sudden display of force.

'Damn…' Naruto thought faintly, gazing at Sakura with a combination of respect and the slightest tinge of fear. 'Sakura-chan really knows how to throw a punch…' Even from a distance he could see that Sai's chin had a noticeable bruise already, the purple colour contrasting angrily with the surrounding pale skin.

Picking himself up from the ground gingerly, Sai rubbed his chin carefully, not saying a word. Glaring darkly at him, her fist still extended, Sakura spoke in a low voice. "But on the other hand, you don't have to forgive me."

"You totally fooled me…" said Sai, sounding slightly dazed. "That smile of yours…"

Sakura straightened, cracking her knuckles. "Don't speak about things you're ignorant of!" she hissed venomously, emerald green eyes flashing dangerously. "You don't know anything about Sasuke-kun! If you bad mouth him one more time I won't hold back!"

"Ok then," answered Sai mildly, seemingly unconcerned by Sakura's threat. "I'll make sure not to say anything like that in front of you again." He paused momentarily, his face unreadable, as he met Sakura's gaze steadily before allowing his lips to reveal a small, admiring smile. "But that expression of yours just before you hit me wasn't real, was it?" Sakura didn't respond, her face stony. Unperturbed, Sai picked himself up off the ground and dusted himself off. "So… you know how to use a fake smile too…" he murmured, almost to himself. "I'll remember that…"

Naruto's eyebrows knotted with confusion at the pale skinned teen's nonchalant attitude to being floored by Sakura. "Why the Hell are you still grinning like that?" Naruto asked, the previous fury he had felt now replaced by bewilderment at his new teammate's lack of anything resembling anger. "You've just been attacked – didn't that hurt? Aren't you… y'know, mad?"

Sai glanced sidelong at Naruto and his smile changed slightly, becoming a more natural looking smirk; in fact, if Naruto didn't know any better he could've sworn that it seemed almost sly, as though the ink user was letting them all in on a big secret. "A smile is the best way to get out of trouble," said the artistic ninja seriously. "Even if it's fake, amazingly it can still fool everyone… I read that in a book once." Gauging the less than thrilled reactions to his statement from his teammates he shrugged his shoulders. "It doesn't seem to be working quite so well in this situation though."

Naruto, Hinata and Sakura all shared a glance at his additional comment. Hinata frowned slightly, feeling even less disposed to fully accepting their new teammate than before. He had practically admitted that he was using his facial expression as a means to deceive them all. For the first time, Hinata wondered whether Sai had an ulterior motive for coming on this mission. With her naturally forgiving nature she didn't want to think the worst about anyone, especially her new teammate, but after listening to him insult Sasuke so openly she couldn't help but worry about just how dedicated he was to their mission. Coupled with that little speech about avoiding trouble with his smile, which made her wonder just how much experience he had at disguising his true thoughts and emotions, Hinata was beginning to feel slightly uneasy.

However, her mild suspicions were pushed to the back of her mind as she saw a disapproving Yamato make some quick hand seals and cry, "Mokuton: Shichuurou no Jutsu!"

Immediately the ground began to rumble and out of it burst multiple thick, wooden poles which converged and grew straight upwards, forming a wall. Hinata took a step back, caught by surprise as she realised that the wooden beams were surrounding herself, Naruto, Sakura and Sai from every angle, penning them in, and sure enough the timbered posts formed what seemed to be a large, wooden box, trapping them all inside.

As the jutsu ended, creating a roof above their head that blocked out most of the light and plunged them all into a state of gloomy semi-darkness, Hinata could just about see Sakura walk slowly over to the wall and begin cautiously tapping the wooden posts that were keeping them from escaping and began mumbling to herself. "It can't be…" she murmured, forehead furrowed. "This wood… this is the Shodaime Hokage's one of a kind Mokuton ninjutsu, I'm sure of it… But then how can Yamato-taichou use it as well?"

As Sakura trailed off, seemingly mystified by their new squad leader's abilities, Naruto groped around in the dark for the wall as well. "Oi, Yamato-taichou, what's the big idea?" he yelled, banging his fist against the wooden surface. "You can't just trap us in here like this!"

From the other side of their wooden prison Hinata heard Yamato let out a sigh. "Until you four learn to get along then I'll just have to force you. We don't have time to put up with any more bickering between you. We have less than a week to get to the Tenchi Bridge, and although that's plenty of time I still want to see a vastly improved attitude from all of you. Is that clear?"

Taking the silence of the four ninja inside the cage as a sign of consent, Yamato released the jutsu and the wooden beams retracted with a creaking sound, twisting and shrinking before disappearing back underground in a matter of seconds. He tried to gauge their respective reactions to being released; Sai appeared disinterested, as though he had already known what the outcome of that little experiment would be, Sakura was glancing at him strangely and eyeing up the spots where the wood had sprung up from, Hinata was listening attentively, biting her bottom lip as she did so, and Naruto was scowling mutinously at being trapped in the first place. Yamato sighed inwardly. 'Nothing like a captive audience…' he thought to himself.

Smiling wryly at his small joke, Yamato clapped his hands together to grab their attention. "Ok, here's my proposition for you all," announced the ANBU member, face to face with his listeners this time. "I'm going to give you two choices. You can either stay inside that wooden cage overnight, or for as long as it takes for you to sort your differences, or –" he held up a hand to halt Naruto's protests as the orange clad boy opened his mouth to vehemently argue "– we can stay in a nearby hotel that I know about and relax in the hot springs there. So what'll it be?" Having set his ultimatum, Yamato leaned in closer and continued in a voice that was barely above a whisper. "I'd rather be nice and friendly about this little issue to try and create a strong, supportive team environment, but I don't have any problems ruling by fear. Remember, none of you guys really know me that well…"

His looming face and intimidating tone of voice made Hinata and Sakura both take a hurried step backwards, spooked by his threatening visage, and Naruto had to force back a shiver. 'Man, his eyes are seriously creepy!' he thought to himself apprehensively. 'He really wasn't kidding with that whole thing about ruling with fear.' He could feel his stomach clench involuntarily and in his experience that was never a good sign – Naruto always trusted his gut instinct and right now it was telling him to be very, very careful around Kakashi's temporary replacement.

Mustering up the nerve to speak on behalf of Hinata and Sakura, who had both edged even further from Yamato, he mumbled, "Erm… yeah, the hot springs sound good," in a rather feeble voice, trying not to look directly into Yamato's bulging eyes.

"Excellent," Yamato smiled, his ominous expression clearing to be replaced by one of satisfaction. "Now, let's get moving – if we want to reach the hotel before sundown then we've got a lot of ground to cover. And you know that I wouldn't want us to be… late."

Breaking out into a cold sweat, Naruto began walking quickly to the front of the group, a nervous grin on his face. "S-Sure thing Yamato-taichou, w-whatever you say."

Yamato nodded with approval at Naruto's newfound 'enthusiasm' and the blonde haired boy let out a sigh of relief, trying to keep his cool as the group set off again. Though Sai's scornfully muttered, "Spineless and Dickless," was almost more than he could take.

-o-o-

Sitting in the male section of the hot springs, Naruto submerged his head underwater for a few seconds before resurfacing, wiping water from his eyes. Shaking his head from side to side, sending stray water droplets flying in every direction from his spiky hair, Naruto smiled sleepily, allowing his eyelids to close, and sat back, basking in the steamy warmth of the bath and trying to relax as best as he could.

"Ah, there's nothing like a group of guys sitting naked together in a hot spring!"

Though the forcible reminder of the company he was keeping was making any hope of relaxation seem very, very unlikely.

Opening his eyes and suppressing a groan, Naruto turned to the left, where the jovial voice had come from, to see Yamato leaning back against the side of the stone wall with his arms spread wide, glancing at him expectantly. Naruto didn't respond, instead glancing out of the corner of his eye to the right, where Sai was sitting comfortably with only his head visible above the surface of the water.

The ANBU member coughed discreetly to try and attract Naruto's attention once more, and continued, "Yes, a hot spring really is the best place for men to bond with one another. It creates a feeling of true comradeship, no doubt about it!" As the blonde teenager didn't respond once again, still staring at Sai, Yamato frowned and dropped his voice to a whisper, leaning in so that he was only an inch or two from Naruto's face. "Wouldn't you agree, Naruto?"

The spiky haired ninja yelped, startled, and recoiled sharply at having Yamato so close to him. Regaining his composure, he stood up and laughed nervously. "Y-Yeah, like you said, no doubt about it."

As Yamato accepted Naruto's answer with a nod, causing the Jinchuuriki boy to let out a sigh of relief, Sai cocked his head to the side slightly and spoke up for the first time. "Oh, look," he smiled pleasantly, glancing down at Naruto's crotch. "I was wrong – it seems you do have one after all."

It took Naruto a moment or two to realise exactly where Sai was looking, but as he worked out the dark haired boy's line of sight his face turned bright red and he quickly submerged his body in the water again to try and hide his embarrassment. Face flushed with a mixture of mortification and anger, he shouted, "Will you shut the Hell up about my penis? Of course I damn well have one! And why were you even looking down there, anyway?"

Sai just smiled at him with infuriating calmness, only serving to wind Naruto up even more. Hearing the sound of tinkling laughter coming from over the fence in the female section of the bathhouse, evidently prompted by his outburst at Sai, Naruto let out a growl of frustration and lash out the surface of the water with his fist, only succeeding in splashing himself with water and humiliating himself even further.

"That's it, I've had enough," he grumbled sourly, shooting a dark glare at the ink user as he clambered out of the spring and grabbed a towel, rubbing himself dry. "I'm going back to the room."

Sai arched an eyebrow. "Did I say something wrong?" he asked mildly.

Naruto's eyebrow twitched as he forced back an angry retort. "No, of course not," he said sarcastically, towelling himself off with fast, jerky motions. "You always know the right thing to say."

"Oh, that's good then," smiled Sai, completely oblivious to Naruto's sarcasm. "For a minute there I thought you were unhappy with me."

As Naruto let out a groan at Sai's total cluelessness, nearly pulling his hair out with frustration, Yamato spoke up too. "Are you sure you really want to leave so soon?" he questioned, sounding surprised. "This was meant to be a chance for us men to really get to know one another and we can't do that if you go off on your own. I'm sure Hinata and Sakura are making an effort to bond."

Naruto grinned at Yamato's last comment, thinking about how Jiraiya might have interpreted it. The perverted sage would probably have dashed over to find a gap in the fence at a speed that would have put Gaara's ultimate sand defence to shame, notebook in hand and a pair of binoculars glued to his face. Naruto's grin widened as he imagined Jiraiya's drooling, lustful expression – he had seen it on a regular basis on his travels with the white haired hermit whenever there was a pretty girl in the toad sage's near vicinity and he knew that it was as predictable as Tsunade's 'sake breaks' from her paperwork. Much to the Kyuubi container's constant annoyance Jiraiya would often go off and leave his student to train on his own with the excuse of 'researching' the bars, brothels and hot springs of the nearest town, but Naruto couldn't help but smile reminiscently at the memories of their journey together. For all his bad qualities, the womanising member of the Sannin was still an excellent teacher and a kind, good-hearted man.

However, thinking about Yamato's comment from Ero-Sennin's perspective caused Naruto to feel his face heat up. Hinata and Sakura. Naked. In a hot spring. Surrounded by other naked women. 'Bonding' with one another.

'… Damn…' he thought faintly.

The blonde haired boy gulped as he heard another bout of giggling coming from over the fence and his treacherous mind went into overdrive; the gleaming, wet outlines of his female teammates, the tantalising steam, the –

Shaking his head forcefully, Naruto tried to get those thoughts out of his head before they were fully formed. Though he would never admit it to anyone, especially Ero-Sennin, he was now starting to see girls in a different light – well, he was a teenaged guy after all, it wasn't his fault! – but he didn't want to end up like either of his teachers and thinking in this sort of way was a definite warning sign.

'But just one small peek over the fence wouldn't hurt…' a wheedling voice whispered in the back of his head. 'You won't get caught, and it'll be worth it even if you do…'

Caught in two minds, Naruto wavered uncertainly and tried to convince himself to do the honourable thing. 'The girls wouldn't want to have someone spying on them like that,' he told himself uneasily. 'I should probably respect their privacy…'

As Naruto wondered whether it was normal to be arguing with himself inside his own head, his perverted side spoke up again. 'But think about how much Sakura-chan and Hinata-chan have grown over the years. They both seem much more… womanly now.'

That thought was enough to make up Naruto's mind for him. With Sakura's exotic hair colouring and toned body coupled with Hinata's pearly eyes and smooth, pale skin – not to mention the memory of how good she had felt pressed up against him at the beginning of their journey back to Suna – the spiky haired boy gave into temptation.

'Just one quick peek,' he told himself resolutely, trying to reason with his conscience. 'It's not that bad if it's only for a second or two, right?'

Naruto could almost hear his responsible side huff with annoyance. 'This is a really bad idea.'

'Can it!' was Naruto's eloquent response as he finished drying himself and secured the towel around his waist. Grinning to himself he stealthily began heading towards the female-only section.

Noticing the direction Naruto was sneaking in, Yamato shook his head with a faint smile and called him back. "Ah, Naruto, before you go there's something interesting I'd like to tell you. Have you heard the story about the time Jiraiya-sama of the Sannin came closest to dying?"

"Ero-Sennin?" Naruto asked, momentarily distracted from his previous course of action. "No, he never told me anything like that. Was it on a mission or something? Or in a battle in the Great Ninja War?"

Yamato's lips twitched. "Not exactly. When he was younger, he was involved in a certain… incident. He fractured six ribs and both of his arms were broken… and that's not even mentioning the ruptured internal organs …"

Naruto's eyebrows shot up and he winced at the painful description. "Whoa, how did Ero-Sennin get beaten up so bad?"

Yamato coughed. "Apparently, he was the victim of Tsunade-sama's legendary strength. He made the mistake of spying on her whilst she was bathing in the female section of a hot spring… and it looks to me as though you're about to repeat his mistake." Seeing Naruto gulp and try to stammer a denial, the squad leader dropped his voice to a whisper. "So, tell me Naruto, if you do go through with your little scheme… how do you think Sakura will react?"

Naruto's face went deathly pale and he let out a whimper. 'Oh man, if Sakura-chan had seen me…' he thought to himself, aghast. He shivered, horrified at how close he'd been to becoming nothing more than a stain on one of the walls. Yamato was right; if there was any sure-fire method of getting on Sakura's bad side and provoking her jaw dropping strength, this was it.

Yamato fought back a smile at the ramen loving shinobi's reaction. "Well, I think I'll be getting out now as well," he said, stepping out of the water and grabbing a towel of his own. "If anyone needs me, I'll be back in the room." With a nod and a casual wave, the wood element user departed, whistling cheerfully.

Brooding on his thoughts, Naruto couldn't help but feel guilty about what he had almost done. He had only told Ayame that he wasn't a pervert yesterday and she and Hinata had both believed him. He felt an uncomfortable twinge in his stomach. He knew that Sakura would have beaten him to a pulp if she had found him spying on her, but what would Hinata have done if he'd betrayed her trust in him like that. He doubted that she would have gotten angry at him, but he suspected that she would have been very disappointed… and for some reason, that made him feel even worse than the idea of Sakura punching him from here to Suna.

"I think I will be getting out now too," Sai announced, distracting Naruto from his guilt-ridden reflections.

"Fine," Naruto muttered, not really concentrating. "See you later."

After a few seconds, noticing that Sai still hadn't left and was staring at him once again, Naruto narrowed his eyes. "What d'you want?" he asked sourly, glaring moodily back at the dark haired teen. "It'd better not be about…" the Kyuubi container flushed with embarrassment, before muttering, "Y'know, your stupid 'nickname' for me…"

Sai chuckled lightly. "Oh no, like I said before, I don't think you're dickless anymore." Naruto grunted, which was about as close to saying 'thank you' as he was going to get in the current circumstances. Oblivious to Naruto's hostility, the artistic ninja continued, "Actually, before Yamato-taichou persuaded you not to enter the girls' side, if anything your penis seemed a bit bigger; I could see it poking against your towel."

Naruto let out a strangled gasp of horror, his face as red as any blush Hinata could have mustered up, and if looks could kill Sai would have been dead several times over by now. Unaware of his teammate's humiliation, the pale skinned shinobi stepped out of the warm water and grabbed his own towel from the side, wrapping it around his waist and heading for the exit. Turning around, he left the steaming Naruto with one final parting shot. "Then again, I'm not sure of the average size of a full erection, so maybe you are small after al–"

"JUST GET THE HELL OUT!"

Author's Notes:Wow, this chapter may not be the most action packed instalment, but the amount of material packed into it is nothing short of incredible! As I was writing I wanted to find a place to stop naturally, but I just couldn't find one, so I kept going… and going… and I couldn't stop! Eventually I reached the hot springs scene, where I finally found a way to end the chapter without disrupting either the plot or my flow of thought. The ending took a bit of fiddling about with to get right, as I wasn't happy with it at first, but now it's probably one of my favourites! Hopefully you guys like it too! Strangely, considering all that I've managed to squeeze in here, the most important section of this chapter for me was the conversation with Kurenai at the beginning, because it shows Hinata's bonds with the rest of her team; one of the most frequent 'anti-Hinata' arguments I've come across is that 'she only focuses on Naruto,' which I don't think is true at all; she has been shown to have strong connections with her friends, mentors and family and I wanted to show this side of her character. Anyway, back to the conversation with Kurenai, it also clarifies Hinata's position a little bit, because one of the things I was most worried about when I began writing this story was how to include Hinata in Naruto's adventures whilst still being realistic and having her own team involved. So yeah, in short she's still a member of Team Eight, but she's gonna be a part of Naruto's squad on this mission and she'll still be involved in both canon events and Naruto's life. How? Heh, you'll have to wait and see… On a lighter note, the Konohamaru and Iruka scene was fun to write, especially the female clones bit, and Sai's obliviousness and one liners are just a never ending stream of hilariousness! To answer a question from Fairo Neko's review of the previous chapter, which in all honesty I really should have cleared up earlier to avoid any confusion, this fanfic is based primarily on the manga in terms of events that take place, not the anime, but I'm using any jutsu that have been in the anime for some extra (not to mention necessary in a fanfic as long as this one!) variety, thus explaining how Hinata can do the Shugo Hakke Rokujuuyonshou in this story despite it being introduced in a filler arc of the anime and not being 'canon,' per say. I probably should've addressed that earlier, sorry! So yeah, I think that's all I have to say for now, so thanks for reading and feel free to leave any comments, questions and criticism, as always. I'll get the next chapter to you all as fast as I can, bye!

List of Jutsu:

'Oiroke no Jutsu' 'Sexy Technique'

'Haaremu no Jutsu' = 'Harem Technique'

'Mokuton: Shichuurou no Jutsu' = 'Wood Release: Four Pillar Prison Technique'

Joke Corner: In Britain, military heroes are awarded the Victoria Cross. Military traitors are awarded the Double Cross.

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