Waiting with Hope

Friends, Foes and Ramen?

Chapter Three: Friends, Foes and Ramen?

As the last two shadowy, flickering figures merged into existence onto what looked like a giant stone hand, the meeting could finally begin. Even though only two of the people in the huge, shadowy cavern were physically present, the tension in the room could be cut with a kunai.

At first glance it would seem as though the people in the room had very little in common. They were all of very different ages, backgrounds and nationalities. None of them particularly liked each other. Some of them outright hated each other. But all of them respected each other.

They were the Akatsuki. Each of them had unimaginably powerful abilities and none of them were afraid use them. They were all at the top of their respected fields and feared throughout the ninja world. The idea of anyone standing in their way was laughable.

Their leader spoke first. "It is time to act. Our objective is the Ichibi. A pair will be sent to capture it."

The toneless, flat voice in which their leader spoke may have been seen as intimidating by some, but none of the Akatsuki members made any noticeable reaction.

"Hey Itachi, we should do it," Kisame's voice cut into the gloom. "Samehada and I have been dying for a good fight for a long time now, and we're getting –" a feral smile flashed across the shark-like man's face, showing his sharp, pointed teeth "– Hungry."

Itachi didn't even look at his partner, his cold, dead eyes still. He shook his head in an almost imperceptible motion. The movement may have been slight, but the authority he exuded was clear. There would be no argument from Kisame.

"I'll do it then, yeah. I want to find out if this Ichibi is anything compared to my art." Deidara's voice was the next to cut in, prideful and arrogant in his artistic ability as always.

The leader turned his head towards the former Iwa nin. "You should not underestimate the Ichibi. Its host is none other than Sabaku no Gaara, the Fifth Kazekage."

Deidara just scoffed at that. "Pfft, it doesn't matter who he is, my art's gonna blow him away, yeah!"

The leader scrutinized him minutely for a few seconds, like a lab specimen, before turning his gaze on Sasori. "You are aware of the difficulties of this assignment?"

"Of course," the harsh, grating voice of the puppet master answered stoically.

"And you have no emotional ties with your old village?"

"I would hardly have joined the Akatsuki if I had."

The leader actually smiled at that, but it was a cold, mirthless smile. "Then we shall reconvene for the extraction process when Sasori and Deidara have captured the Ichibi. You are dismissed." There was no question of 'if' the Ichibi would be captured. For he was Pain, and his will would be done.

One by one, the flickering figures slowly vanished, until Deidara and Sasori were the only two left in the cave, in their physical bodies.

Deidara glanced narrowly at the bulky puppet of Hiruko that Sasori contained his real body in. Sasori stared solidly back at Deidara, before uttering a gruff, "What?"

Deidara continued to glare at him. "You'd better not be planning to upstage my art, yeah. Your ancient, rickety finger puppets are worthless compared to the sheer artistic joy of an explosion!"

"That's what you think, is it?" Sasori sneered back. "True art is eternal, a beauty that lives on beyond the artist. What could your pitiful fireworks display possibly get you remembered for?"

Deidara growled at the insult, but chose to ignore it. Anyone other than Sasori would have had impacted clay blasting a hole through their face if they had spoken about his creations like that, but Deidara had to admit that, however grudgingly, he respected the former Suna nin's artistic views and enjoyed their arguments over what constituted fine art. The Akatsuki were hardly a cultural group, so it wasn't as if Deidara had anyone else to talk to about artistic merit anyway.

Sasori began walking towards the cave's exit, readjusting his kasa hat on his head. "Come on, we don't have all day. You know how I hate waiting."

Deidara jumped down from the stone hand onto the cold, damp floor and followed his partner. He smiled. It would soon be time to showcase his art to the world.

-o-o-

Hinata took deep breaths, willing herself not to pass out. She thought she had gotten over her faintness around Naruto, but she had hardly been able to test this theory in the two-and-a-half years he'd been gone. Seeing him again had brought back all her childish insecurities and she had to force herself not to poke her index fingers together by clenching her hands into fists.

Naruto was walking towards her, a big grin spread across his face, and Hinata was able to get a close-up view of him for the first time since he was twelve. He was certainly taller – he had clearly grown a good few inches in his time away – and his clothing was different too; gone was the bright orange jumpsuit that she had secretly loved, replaced by a more mature jacket of a darker, more subdued orange and black. His face had lost all of the puppy fat of youth as well, hardened by years of intensive training, and his jaw line was square and firm. His hair was longer than she remembered it too, reaching down almost to the nape of his neck now.

But despite all of this, what Hinata noticed more than anything else was the way that he didn't seem to have changed at all from the boy she had loved. The same warm, blue eyes, sparkling with mischief and happiness. The same adorable whisker makes on his cheeks. The same assured, self-confident steps he took towards her… towards her! Hinata let out a small, "Eep!" as she realised how close Naruto had gotten, standing just a few inches away from her… within touching distance!

"Hinata! It's great to see you again!" Naruto beamed at her, bringing forth a timid smile on her own face too. "I'm back now, I'm back home!"

Hinata couldn't help but giggle at Naruto's antics. His enthusiasm had always seemed infectious to her; it brought out the best in the people around him. He seemed to make it his own personal mission to make sure that everyone around him was happy and entertained, even if he wasn't.

Naruto's grin grew even wider at the sound of her quiet laughter. "So, Hinata, what're you doing way out on the edge of the village? You can't be doing a mission if Kiba and Shino aren't here and I don't remember any training areas near this part of the village, so…?"

Hinata's breath caught in her throat as Naruto trailed off, waiting expectantly for an answer. She wanted nothing more than to tell Naruto that she had been waiting for him because she loved him, but her voice didn't seem to be working. She took a shuddering breath and tried her hardest to get the words out.

"I c-came here b-b-because I was… I w-was… I was w-waiting for you!"

Hinata blushed scarlet as she revealed the reason for her presence, but didn't regret it for a second. It wasn't exactly a confession of her deepest feelings, but it was a start, and she had learned from watching Naruto that even the smallest steps forward could make all the difference.

Naruto looked nonplussed for a second, his eyebrows rising. "Waiting for me? How did you know when I was getting back to Konaha?"

Hinata felt anxiety welling up inside her. Did he not want to see her? Had her decision to wait for him at the gates just made him angry? "I-I'm s-sorry, N-Naruto-kun, I didn't m-mean to make y-you mad," she whispered, looking down at his feet and avoiding meeting his gaze. "Hokage-sama got a l-letter saying that y-you would b-be back t-today and I… I w-wanted to s-see you again!"

Hinata could feel the sharp prickle of tears welling up in her eyes as Naruto remained silent for several seconds, but she shut her eyes tightly and forced them back before they could fall. Even if she wasn't welcome here, she didn't want Naruto to think she was weak.

But Naruto's reply sounded almost unsure, when it finally came. "You came here because you wanted to see… me?" he asked, smile disappearing to be replaced by a look of uncertainty… like he thought she wasn't telling the truth?

"Y-Yes!" Hinata mustered as much force as she could into her answer. Naruto's eyes looked confused and downcast, quite different to their usual sparkling lustre. She still felt upset and wondered whether it would be better if she just left, but she could only remember Naruto's eyes ever looking the way they did at the moment on one other occasion.

On the day of his fight against Neji in the Chuunin Exams, all those years ago.

After a few more awkward seconds, Naruto's smile came back in blinding fashion, making his face crinkle up as he grinned at her. "Thanks Hinata, that's really nice of you! You didn't have to wait here if you didn't want to, you know!" The blonde boy had said it in a light-hearted tone, but the thankful edge to his voice was clear and for the briefest instant his face had seemed totally open, with a mixture of emotions displayed all at once. She couldn't be certain of what they were in such a fleeting instant, but she guessed happiness, gratitude and… shock?

The Hyuuga heiress let out a small sigh of relief. His exuberant answer showed that Naruto was at least back to his usual self again, but she couldn't stop thinking about the raw emotion she had flashed across his face that moment. The idea that she was the cause of his happiness and gratitude made her heart swell and her cheeks heat up, but the thought that she had shocked him just by waiting for him felt… wrong. He was the kindest person she knew – in her opinion he deserved much more than just her feeble presence to welcome him back to Konoha. But he was genuinely amazed at seeing her welcome him home. This thought made Hinata's chest clench as she remembered all the times she had watched him when he was younger, back when he was at the Academy. He had lived alone. He had been avoided by almost all the villagers. He was glared at by those same villagers, the villagers that he chose to protect by trying to become a ninja and risk his life for Konoha. For a fleeting moment, her eyes hardened.

Meek, shy Hyuuga Hinata was angry.

But her outrage at the residents of the Hidden Leaf Village was pushed to the back of her mind when Naruto spoke again. "Hey, you've never been to Ichiraku's before, have you? D'you wanna come with me? They do the best ramen in the world there! I wanna see if it's all still the same and meet up with Teuchi-ojisan and Ayame-neechan again. You can show me 'round the village again as well, if you want – I want to see how much has changed!"

Before a shocked Hinata could do more than nod quickly, as though the offer would be rescinded if she took even a moment to decide, Naruto grabbed her hand and started pulling her towards the village centre and the Ichiraku Ramen Bar. Hinata's face went red at the way he was holding her hand, but she nearly tripped over her own feet when she heard his next words.

"Thanks, Hinata, you're the best!"

-o-o-

Jiraiya was doing his best not to laugh at the antics of his student and the shy girl that had greeted him. It was obvious to him within seconds what was causing her to blush and stutter around the boisterous blonde ninja, but it was just as clear that his student had no clue whatsoever. Still, this just added to the drama and as the conversation between the two adolescents continued Jiraiya was sorely tempted to get out his notebook and start jotting down some new ideas for stories. He always had to be on the lookout for inspiration for his Icha Icha series after all…

Both of them had clearly forgotten all about him and when Naruto had offered to take her to Ichiraku's Jiraiya had wondered if he should interject with the suggestion that they go and see the Hokage to report their return first. However, after a second's deliberation he had decided not to. Naruto deserved a little break now that he was back home and he didn't think he had the heart to see the Hyuuga girl's face fall in disappointment.

Plus there would be some excellent material for new books if he just let them keep talking.

As Naruto ran off with her hand held firmly in his, half-dragging the poor girl along, Jiraiya thought for a moment. 'I think I'll need a second notebook to fit in all of the material that they're going to give me.'

-o-o-

Hinata's mind seemed to have completely frozen as she thought of the way that Naruto was actually touching her, holding her as they wound their way through the village. The blonde haired boy pulling her along stopped every couple of seconds to take in a new sight, pointing out even the most mundane changes, like the bakery that had changed the colour of its door, or the clothing shop that had altered the font of its lettering. Hinata had barely even noticed such minor alterations at the time, but Naruto seemed to view these differences with a childlike glee. Hinata couldn't help but get as enthusiastic about these changes as Naruto and before long she was shyly pointing out any differences from his time away that he had missed, much to his obvious pleasure. His enthusiasm was heartening to her and she absorbed as much of it as she could, like a plant opening its leaves to the sun. Yes, that comparison seemed fitting to her. Naruto was certainly as bright, cheerful and bold as the heavenly orb that was slowly setting in the background, and she was just a small wallflower that bloomed quietly, only getting an occasional glimpse of sunlight as the larger plants around her put her in the shade. But Naruto was at least talking to her now. That had to count for something, right?

Hinata was brought out from her reverie by Naruto's delighted shout. "Yeah, I knew this place wouldn't have changed! Ichiraku's is the same as ever!"

Naruto had stopped outside a fairly large stall, with a set of stools positioned under a cloth roof to protect any customers against the elements. A savoury smell was wafting from a giant pot on an equally enormous stove, and Naruto breathed in deeply, nostrils quivering. His eyes were half closed and his face was in an expression of almost religious serenity.

And then he shattered this peaceful image by shouting through the cloth cover, "Oi, Ojisan, I'm back! Whip me up the biggest bowl of miso ramen you've got!"

Hinata blushed as all the people in the street stared at Naruto, but couldn't fail to notice that some of the looks towards the boy that she cared so much for were more angry and hateful than surprised. A low muttering had started up, and Hinata thought she heard the words, "Fox," "Back," and "Demon," before Naruto, apparently oblivious to all of this, ducked under the cloth curtain and walked towards the stools. Hinata swallowed the indignant words that she suddenly wanted to yell at the top of her voice to the people that were looking at him with such cruel eyes and followed him in, taking a seat next to him.

The man behind the counter, stirring the massive pot with a large pole, looked up when he had heard Naruto's voice and a broad grin appeared on his lined face.

"Naruto! I didn't know you were in Konoha again!" said the ramen stall owner, laying down the stirring pole and walking over to the counter, before giving Naruto a hearty pat on the back. "Ayame! You'll never guess who's here!"

A young, brown haired girl appeared from the back of the stall, where she had evidently been slicing vegetables, judging by the small knife in her right hand and the stick of celery in her left. She let out a squeal as she saw Naruto, who gave her a toothy grin in return.

Hinata felt extremely awkward as a spectator to this touching reunion. The way Naruto was talking animatedly to the two of them made her feel out of place, like she was seeing something she shouldn't, something that should have remained private. The way that they all seemed to be laughing and joking together was almost like a family.

Naruto was telling the old man the severe lack of quality ramen he had encountered whilst on his travels, when a look of slight embarrassment clouded his face. He put his arm up behind his head to scratch his back, grinning sheepishly.

"Ah, sorry, I got so caught up seeing you guys again I didn't introduce my friend. This is Hinata; she's a ninja like me. She has these awesome Byakugan eyes and this cool Jyuuken thing and–"

"Whoa there Naruto," said the owner of Ichiraku's holding up his hands. "Slow down, slow down!"

"Heh, sorry. Hinata, this is Teuchi-ojisan and his daughter, Ayame-neechan, they make the best ramen ever!" Naruto grinned.

Hinata blushed as both Teuchi and Ayame nodded their welcomes, and she managed to stutter out a greeting of her own, causing both Teuchi and Ayame to grin.

"So Hinata," Ayame asked innocently, "How did you meet up with Naruto? He only got back today, right?" Hinata blushed bright pink at the older girl's words, worried that yet another person seemed to be clued in on her feelings for the blonde haired boy sitting beside her.

"He'd better have," laughed Teuchi. "If he didn't come to get some of my ramen on his first day back it must mean his taste buds have matured and I'll lose my best customer. We'll go out of business!"

Naruto chuckled heartily and grinned at both Teuchi and Hinata, coaxing a shy smile from the Hyuuga girl too. Then Ayame cleared her throat and as he saw Hinata's blush grow an even darker hue he decided to step in and help the indigo haired girl.

"Hinata knew the day I was coming home from a letter that Tsunade-baachan had. She was waiting for me at the gates to say hi and she even agreed to give me a tour of the village when we've finished eating here. Wasn't that awesome of her?"

The fact that Naruto had been completely earnest and sincere as he had said this, not trying to poke fun at her at all, made Hinata's heart melt inside her chest. He always tried so hard to make all of his friends feel special and wanted, even her, dark, quiet and timid as she was. The broad smile he sent in her direction made her feel certain that, had she been standing up rather than sitting on her stool, her legs would have been unable to support her.

"Oh I see, that was nice of you, Hinata," Ayame cut in, a small smirk on her face. She found the Hyuuga girl's quite obvious infatuation with the ramen loving blonde absolutely adorable and the younger girl just looked so cute when she was blushing. Ayame resolved herself to see what she could do abut nudging the two together. All young love needed a little push in the right direction, just to get things started, right? And it was hardly like the dense Uzumaki boy or the shy Hyuuga girl was going to be the one to make the first move, at any rate. She doubted Naruto knew that there was even a 'move' to make.

"Yeah, Hinata's always like that. She's the kindest person I know!" proclaimed Naruto, throwing one of his arms around her shoulder and pulling her closer, unaware of Hinata's wide eyed gasp, rosy red cheeks… and the fact that she was now balanced precariously on her stool.

With a muffled scream, Hinata lost her balance and fell towards Naruto, who was still pulling her in closer to him. Hinata's weight on top of him caused Naruto's stool to overbalance too. She could hear Teuchi shouting out a warning, but before the blonde ninja had a chance to regain his balance both he and Hinata had fallen to the ground with a thump in a flurry of entangled limbs.

Hinata shut her eyes tightly, trying to brace herself for the impact that she was about to have with the hard ground, but when it came it was a lot softer than she had imagined it to be. She felt a pair of strong arms surrounding her and as her eyes fluttered open, she could see that she was lying on top of Naruto, and his arms were around her, protecting her from the fall. She went completely still in his firm, comfortable grip, her cheeks going both white as a sheet and bright red at the same time, making her face rather blotchy. He had moved so quickly to get between herself and the floor, was that a result of his training with Jiraiya-sama? She couldn't help but notice how warm his body was, even through his orange and black jacket, and she had the almost overwhelming urge to just cuddle up to him and bury her face in his chest…

Scandalised by the thoughts invading her mind, Hinata leapt away from Naruto as if he was too hot to touch, stammering out apologies as she did so. She didn't want him to think that she was some sort of perverted girl – she didn't know what she would do if Naruto thought less of her after falling on top of him like that.

"Hey, are you kids both alright?" Teuchi asked worriedly, peering over the top of the counter, as Ayame hovered over his shoulder, equally concerned.

As Hinata continued to apologise desperately, Naruto slowly rose to his feet, rubbing the back of his head and grimacing. "Ow, that hurt!" he whined in a childish voice, sticking his lower lip out in what Hinata thought was an adorable pout. "Are you ok, Hinata? It was my fault you fell, I'm really sorry." Naruto turned his eyes downwards and Hinata could tell that he was feeling guilty about the accident.

"N-No! I-It wasn't your fault, N-Naruto-kun. I should've b-been more careful…"

Hinata was surprised when Naruto shook his head firmly, his pain forgotten. "Ne, Hinata, you shouldn't put yourself down like that," he lectured, in a tone that Hinata found strangely similar to the voice she remembered Iruka-sensei using on misbehaving students at the Konoha Ninja Academy. "It was me that caused you to fall over and if you'd been hurt it would've been my fault." Naruto brightened as an idea came into his head. "Hey, I'll tell you what, to make up for it I'll pay for your serving of ramen! That's fair, right?"

Hinata's silvery eyes widened and she started to feel a little faint again. Naruto-kun buying her ramen was almost like a… like a date! She knew he was only paying for her because he felt guilty, but she couldn't stop her quickened pulse or the urge to cheer out loud.

"A-Are you s-sure? I wouldn't w-want to be a burden…" Hinata twiddled her index fingers together in the way that she always did when she was nervous, anxiously awaiting Naruto's response. She enjoyed the idea of Naruto treating her to a meal more than almost anything she could think of, but she didn't want him to think that she was manipulating him or trying anything underhand. She admired his honesty and held herself up to his standards.

"It's no problem Hinata, I'd be happy to. You've never tried Ichiraku ramen before anyway, right? So I'd have paid for your first bowl anyway, just to give you a taster!"

Hinata blushed at his kind words; he always seemed to know exactly what to say to cheer her up. But, there was one small problem…

"Ano… actually, Naruto-kun… I-I've never t-tried any sort of ramen before."

After a moment of deathly silence, there was a high pitched shriek of, "WHAT?" that could be heard all across Konoha.

-o-o-

Hinata and Naruto left the ramen stand to a cheery wave and 'goodbye' from both Teuchi and Ayame. After feeling so hungry earlier in the day, Hinata's stomach was now full to bursting point after Naruto had insisted she try as many flavours as she could. After sampling three different bowls of ramen Hinata had felt completely bloated, but oddly satisfied too. As a Hyuuga, she had only ever eaten the finest, most expensive dishes that money could buy, and the ramen had been as different to the refined meals she was used to as night from day. However, she would have been lying if she said she hadn't thoroughly enjoyed it. The noodles were just the right thickness and texture, the broth had been fragrant and savoury and the vegetables and meat had obviously been prepared with a skill and technique that made the flavours seem to explode in her mouth. She had nearly coughed out her first mouthful, spraying broth all down her chin, which had made her horrified at her unladylike manners and caused Naruto to crack up laughing.

The company had been just as good, if not better than the food. Teuchi and Ayame had been genuinely interested in her and what she had been doing, happy that their favourite customer was evidently comfortable enough to bring one of his friends along to meet them. Naruto had also been interested in what she had been doing in his absence and when she had shyly agreed to talk about some of the more difficult missions that she had been on and some of the battles she had fought in, Naruto had listened avidly, bouncing about on his stool to every attack, block and dodge. When she had timidly described a fight her team had taken part in against a chuunin level missing nin from Suna and how she had been the one that had landed the finishing blow, Naruto had cheered aloud, drawing yet another blush from the Hyuuga girl. The wink Ayame had given her as she had left with Naruto had also made her cheeks flush pink. Why were she and her father being so kind and supportive to someone they had never even met before?

They walked down the street together in companionable silence, with Hinata sneaking looks at Naruto out of the corner of her eye before blushing and turning away if he tuned to look at her. Naruto was rubbing his stomach contentedly – his own meal of eight bowls of ramen had dwarfed Hinata's, and she had watched on wide eyed, gazing at him in something close to awe as he shovelled the contents of bowl after bowl down his throat without even breaking a sweat, somehow still managing to talk even with a mouthful of noodles. His appetite was so large it was almost frightening.

As they turned a corner Hinata spotted some faces she knew walking towards them, though it was clear they hadn't spotted herself or Naruto yet. On the left was a tall boy with his hair pulled up into a top-knot, wearing a standard green chuunin vest. On the right was an almost equally tall blonde girl with hair separated into four bunches, wearing thick leather body armour and carrying a massive fan that was strapped to her back. Of course, it was Nara Shikamaru and the Suna kunoichi Temari, who was present in Konoha as the representative of Suna in the discussions for the upcoming Chuunin Exam. Both of them were talking animatedly, even the usually languid Nara boy, and judging by the hand gestures he was making he seemed to be arguing with her, though it didn't seem bad tempered.

"Look, you troublesome woman, it's simple. You take their knight with your queen, sacrifice your bishop and that gives your rook a chance to attack their king, forcing it to retreat. Why is that so difficult for you to comprehend?"

Temari wrinkled her nose, snorting back, "You're being far too reckless with your pieces. You don't win a chess match with all out offense you kn– hey, isn't that Naruto?"

Shikamaru looked around, surprised, and Naruto, hearing the sound of his name, saw the two ninja walking side by side. A broad grin broke out across his face as he recognised them and, grabbing Hinata's wrist as he had done earlier, he ran over to meet them.

Both Shikamaru and Temari arched an eyebrow in almost identical fashion at seeing Naruto's companion and the way he was holding her, but before either of them could do more than glance at each other Naruto had reached the two of them, with a blushing Hinata in tow.

Even though she was considerably… distracted by the physical contact with Naruto that was making her skin burn, Hinata was still very observant. She couldn't help but notice that Shikamaru and Temari were standing rather close for two shinobi that were just acquaintances. Then again, she reflected ruefully, she could hardly judge others on being too transparent with their feelings when Naruto's touch was making her see fireworks whenever she closed her eyes.

"Yo, Naruto, it is you!" Shikamaru drawled in his usual bored tone of voice, though his languid smile suggested that he was pleased to see his former classmate again. "Hinata, good to see you too," he commented, nodding at her, which she returned politely. He turned back to Naruto. "There go my peaceful afternoons of relaxing and watching the clouds though… with you around I know I'll never get a moment's quiet ever again."

Hinata had been a little worried that Naruto would lose his temper at that comment and start an argument, so she was pleasantly surprised to hear him laugh Shikamaru's words off. "Yeah, but you know that you like getting in on the action! At least when I'm around it's never boring!"

The shadow user's mumbled, "How troublesome…" seemed to be a fair indication that perhaps Naruto was being overly optimistic when thinking that the Nara boy would care for any sort of 'action' at all, but Shikamaru was smirking slightly nonetheless.

"So, what're you and Temari doing together?" Naruto asked, cocking his head to the side slightly. "Are you on a date?"

"With this lazy ass? Don't be ridiculous!"

"With such a troublesome woman? You must be joking!"

The overly defensive replies of both ninja made Hinata wonder whether they were really so against the idea. It might have been her imagination, but she could have sworn that both of their eyes had flickered to their partner, without being noticed by the other, before they had spoken.

Naruto's forehead scrunched up into a frown. "Huh? Then what're you two doing together?"

Temari huffed irratatedly. "We're doing work, idiot. The two of us are finalising the remaining details of the chuunin exams that are coming up soon. I'm the envoy from Suna, so it's up to me to confirm how many genin teams we'll be entering, gauge the level of danger they will be put in and –" she jerked a thumb at Shikamaru "– Get this lazy ass to do his share of the work too!"

Shikamaru gaped at her. "Are you serious? I've been back and forth from the Academy to the Hokage's office four times today passing on messages and confirming entries and so on. I'm dead on my feet!"

"So have I you know. And I've done it with a lot less complaining than you, even though I've had to put up with your moaning all day!"

"Ugh," Shikamaru grunted, rolling his eyes. "Do you have to be so loud? You're impossible… Anyway, we'd better go, we've still got to do at least one more run between the Hokage and the Academy. Good seeing you two again."

With lazy wave, Shikamaru ambled off, not looking even remotely likely to 'run' anywhere. Temari muttered something under her breath that sounded suspiciously like, "Troublesome…" before waving goodbye to Naruto and Hinata herself and catching up to the lazy chuunin, where the debate they had been having before they had seen Naruto flared up in full force, both bickering good-naturedly as they turned off into a side street.

-o-o-

"So, Hinata," Naruto said, as he watched Shikamaru and Temari leave. "Would you mind giving me that tour now?" Hinata hesitated for the briefest of moments – the sun had almost completely set, with its last few rays piercing the top of the horizon tiredly – but she didn't want this day to end and quickly nodded her consent. Naruto grinned delightedly at her and, blushing, she showed him around some of Konoha's main attractions.

He had been thrilled when he had seen Tsunade-sama's face carved onto the Hokage mountain, making Hinata giggle with his comment that, 'They didn't get her face right – Baachan's got way more wrinkles than that!" His subsequent impressions of just how old the Godaime really was had made her laugh even more. His determined claim that, "Someday they'll carve my face onto that mountain too," was one that Hinata entirely believed in as well. She believed he would make a fine Hokage with his kindness, charisma and dedication to his beliefs.

The next stop was the Konoha Village Park, which was much larger than when Naruto had last been in the village and now possessed a lake. Naruto had taught her how to skim stones along the surface of the water, something he admitted sheepishly had taken him a long time to get right after being given a demonstration whilst away on his training mission by Jiraiya (of whom Naruto had referred to throughout this brief explanation as 'Ero-Sennin,' which had simultaneously caused Hinata to blush in mortification and laugh softly at Naruto's brashness). After a little while, with the help of Naruto's demonstrative throws and description of his technique, Hinata had finally been able to skim one of the flat rocks a small distance out into the lake before it had sunk. Naruto had clasped her hand within his and held it into the air above their heads, calling her the 'stone skimming champion,' which, combined with the physical contact, had caused her to blush so red that Naruto had thought she had a fever before her timid assertions that she wasn't feeling ill at all had convinced him otherwise.

Hinata had led him to some of the newer training areas set up on various forms of terrain as well, which Naruto had been very interested in. He seemed to particularly like the training area with ropes criss-crossing at varying heights above the ground, where the aim was to stand on them without using chakra, to test balance. Naruto had given it a try, even though it was almost dark by this time, and had fallen flat on his face on his first attempt, as the rope was slacker than he had been expecting. However, soon enough he had been hopping and leaping from one rope to another, even doing a 'victory dance' much to Hinata's amusement and worry, as he nearly lost his balance once or twice.

Finally, the two of them ended their trip around Konoha back outside Ichiraku's, which was now shut for the night. Hinata had enjoyed the day so much; she couldn't even remember the last time she had felt this happy and Naruto had been nothing short of perfect to her throughout the day. Even twenty-four hours ago she found it hard to believe that she could love him any more than she already did, but seeing him again had only served to intensify her feelings.

Naruto stretched his arms above his head, yawning widely, before realising he had company. He belatedly covered his mouth with a hand, but Hinata didn't seem to mind, just gazing up at him with a shy smile.

"Well, I'd probably better get back to my apartment now," sighed Naruto, scuffing the dirt with one foot. "I've got two-and-a-half year's worth of dust to clean!"

"Oh, ok…" Hinata felt torn. A small part of her mind was screaming at her to admit her feelings to the blonde shinobi, telling her that this was a perfect opportunity. On the other hand, the idea of doing something so drastic terrified her beyond belief. She hadn't even seen Naruto for so long before today, how could she just tell him she loved him out of the blue? She had no idea how he would react, whether he would even want her affections. He might just ignore her, or throw her emotions right back in her face, or–

"Hey, Hinata, are you ok?" Naruto's voice cut through her increasing panic, bringing her back to reality. "You kinda spaced out there…"

"Oh! I-I'm f-fine, Naruto-kun, thank y-you."

"Are you still upset about me knocking you over at Ichiraku's earlier? I'm really sorry."

"You don't n-need to be s-s-sorry, Naruto-kun," said Hinata, worried she was causing him to feel guilty. "Please don't b-blame yourself…"

Naruto smiled broadly. "Thanks Hinata. It's been really fun hanging out with you today. You know, now that I think about it, the old Hinata probably would have fainted if I'd knocked her off her stool. I still liked you before, but you really have changed a lot since I left!"

And with that, Naruto gave her an awkward, clumsy, but heartfelt hug. The contact was very brief, but it made Hinata's cheeks flare up all the same. As Naruto released her, he turned around and ran towards his apartment building, shouting, "Take care, Hinata-chan. See you soon!" over his shoulder.

Hinata remained standing completely still in that same spot outside Ichiraku's for a good five minutes before her feet would obey her and she could finally walk home. Even then her cheeks were still flushed a vivid pink that wouldn't die down, the thought of Naruto's arms around her impossible to forget. But as well as embarrassment there was a hint of pleasure in her blush too. If Naruto thought she had changed for the better she would keep trying to improve herself. For him.

Author's Notes: This chapter is absolutely massive by my standards, it's bigger than Chapter One and Chapter Two combined! There was a lot to pack in, but I hope I didn't lessen the overall quality of the chapter just by adding more quantity as well. The dialogue was surprisingly difficult to write for Naruto, as I was trying to keep him goofy enough to still be himself, but mature enough to show that he has grown up whilst away on his travels. Next chapter will see the first fight scene and some more Akatsuki action, as well as more NaruHina moments, so plenty to look forward to. If you're wondering why he doesn't meet some of the character he does on his first day back home in canon, such as Konohamaru and Sakura, it's because by going straight to Ichiraku's there is a shift in the timings. He still sees Shikamaru and Temari because they have been back and forth across the village liasing between the Academy and the Hokage to organise the forthcoming Chuunin Exams. I hope you enjoyed this chapter, and I'd like to thank everyone that has read up to this point. Maybe I'm gathering my own little fan base! Oh, and this chapter was helped along by MistressWinowyll, a fellow NaruHina fanfiction writer. If you don't know about her already, I'd recommend you check out her work, it's very good. So yeah, this chapter is dedicated to her. Just so you know, a kasa is a peasant's headgear and the type of hat the Akatsuki typically wear. Any queries, encouragement, ideas and criticisms are all welcomed if you want to review, so I'll see you next chapter!

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