Waiting with Hope

The Bonds of Teamwork

Chapter Five: The Bonds of Teamwork

Hinata found herself totally unprepared for Naruto's offer to join him. Her whole body just wouldn't respond. She felt as though her tongue was paralyzed and she was completely unable to utter a single word. Even if she could have spoken, there was no way that her brain had the capability to form a coherent sentence.

Naruto just waited, grinning expectantly as she struggled to regain control over her rebellious body. She wanted to scream out, "Yes!" as loud as she possibly could, she wanted to say that there was nothing in the world she wanted to do more than have an opportunity to prove herself strong to him so that he would admire her. If only her body didn't feel as unresponsive as a block of wood!

"Ne, Hinata-chan, are you ok?" Naruto asked, cocking his head to the side in that way she found almost unbearably cute.

"I… I…" Hinata tried her hardest to answer him, but the words just wouldn't come. It was frustrating and humiliating all at once, and she could feel the heat rising in her cheeks. She felt ashamed of herself. She had vowed that she would change to become more like the one she loved, but right now she couldn't even speak to him.

Naruto could see the Hyuuga girl's growing discomfort and tried to take some of the pressure off her. "If you can't come on the mission with me it's ok, Hinata-chan," he said kindly, placing a hand on her shoulder. "You don't have to come if you don't want to. I don't want you to think that you'll hurt my feelings or something if you say no."

Hinata could tell Naruto was joking, but just the thought that she might cause him pain in some way, even slightly, was enough to jolt her into action.

"N-No!" she cried out in desperation, as forcefully as she could. Surprised at the volume of her voice, Naruto flailed his arms backwards comically, before losing his balance and falling flat on his behind, gazing up at her incredulously.

Hinata put her hands over her mouth in shock, horrified by what she had done. She hadn't meant to startle him like that! He must be angry at her for making him fall over like that. He might never want to see her again. There was certainly no hope of him wanting her to join him on his mission now.

"N-Naruto-kun! Oh, I'm so sorry," she squeaked, turning her face away so he wouldn't see how red it was. "I didn't m-mean to…" she trailed off anxiously, biting her lower lip.

Naruto just sat on his rump where he had fallen, a shocked expression on his face – and then laughed. It started off as just a few small chuckles, but soon he was rolling about on the ground, clutching his sides as he whooped with laughter. Hinata stared at him, confused. Did this mean he didn't mind her knocking him over after all?

Eventually, laughing fit over, he stood up again, brushing himself down – he was just as dirty as Hinata now – and gave her a big grin.

"Heh, I never knew you could be so loud, Hinata-chan!" Hinata blushed, abashed, but smiled timidly, feeling very relieved that Naruto hadn't been angry at her, whilst at the same time inwardly chastising herself for thinking he wouldn't want to see her again. She knew he always stuck by his friends, even if they had wronged him in some way – his continuing loyalty to Uchiha Sasuke was testament to that.

Naruto pulled at one of the sleeves of his jacket, trying to straighten it out after his fall. He looked up and beamed a smile at her again. "I think I'm gonna have to be more careful around you, Hinata-chan. That's the second time I've fallen over around you in two days!"

Naruto moved his face closer to hers, and she realised that he was still expecting an answer on whether or not she wanted to go on the mission. Blushing bright pink at his close proximity, Hinata took a deep breath. She could do this. This was her chance. She couldn't blow it!

"I w-w-would l-l-love to g-go with y-you on your m-mission, N-Naruto-kun," Hinata stammered, cheeks flushing an even darker shade of red at the word 'love.'

The smile Naruto flashed at her was enough to dim the sun in Hinata's eyes. "Thanks, Hinata-chan, I knew I could count on you!"

-o-o-

After swiftly packing with Naruto's overenthusiastic 'help' and getting permission from her father, Naruto and Hinata met up with Kakashi and Sakura at the village gates. Just before she had left the Hyuuga compound, Hinata had remembered that she was due to meet up with Kiba and Shino later that day, and had shyly asked Neji to tell Kiba and Shino where she was if they asked for her.

With Hinata and Naruto present, Kakashi quickly mapped out their route to Suna, and without any further ado they set off into the forest surrounding Konoha. The four of them kept in tight formation as they travelled towards Suna, moving as quickly as they could through the dense forest. Hinata was at the front of the four man cell, scanning the area ahead of her with her Byakugan periodically, not keeping it active the entire time to save chakra. Kakashi-sensei had already told them all that they were going to be setting the fastest pace they could manage in order to reach Suna in the minimum possible time, so she didn't want to tire herself out unnecessarily. All four of them had taken soldier pills in order to maintain the punishing speed the silver haired jonin was setting.

Despite the gruelling pace Naruto was still his usual self, laughing, joking and generally keeping the mood of the group light. He seemed to be taking it upon himself to keep the team's morale up and Hinata was thankful for it. She knew that she was almost an interloper into the regular activities and dynamic of Team Seven and felt out of place. Sakura, Kakashi and Naruto all knew each other's mannerisms and abilities, whereas she was an ignorant outsider by comparison. In particular, Hinata felt a little intimidated by the aloof, silver haired jonin-sensei leading the team, but as they had taken a quick break for lunch and she had shyly admitted her apprehension to Naruto, he had laughed.

"Don't worry about it, Hinata-chan," he had said, leaning in conspiratorially and speaking in an undertone. "Kakashi-sensei may act all cool and stuff, but he's really weird in his own way too. He's never on time for any of our team meetings and he has this strange rivalry thingy going on with Gai-sensei. He has his quirks too, same as everyone else."

Hinata's fears had been soothed by Naruto's kind words, though the blonde headed ninja's impish whisper of, "Oh yeah, he also reads a load of porn!" had been scandalizing.

Throughout the journey, Hinata had been sure to keep an eye on any interaction between Naruto and Sakura. She knew that, in the past at very least, Naruto had been very much enamoured by the pink haired medic nin and was worried that Naruto may still like her. However, from what she could judge Naruto didn't appear to be showing Sakura any undue amount of attention. He was certainly talking to her, asking her questions about what she had been doing in the time he had been out of the village, telling her about his training and reminiscing about the past, but he was doing the same to Kakashi-sensei and, to her pleasure, herself as well. In fact, perhaps Hinata was imagining it, was he talking to her most? Surely not, she must just be fantasising it.

Either way, Hinata was fairly confident that Naruto was at very least not outwardly showering Sakura with affection, much to the shy Hyuuga girl's relief, and after travelling a long distance that day they finally stopped for the night in a clearing, under a clear night sky. The twinkling stars were shining brightly against the dark heavens and the moon was like a dimmed spotlight, bathing the forest in a pale, mystical glow.

Kakashi sat down on a blackened tree stump that looked like it had been hit by lightning at some stage in the fairly recent past. "Alright, this should do for camp tonight," he said, putting down the large pack of supplies he had been carrying on his back and flexing his shoulders to work out the stiffness. "Naruto, you take first watch, Sakura, you go after him. Hinata and I will take turns watching tomorrow night, if we haven't reached Suna by then. I don't think we should have any problems, but you never know, so stay alert."

"Right, Kakashi-sensei," Naruto barked, snapping to attention and saluting. The wink he sent in the direction of the girls showed that he wasn't taking it completely seriously, causing Sakura to roll her eyes and Hinata to stifle a giggle.

After quickly collecting some firewood for a small campfire, Hinata hurriedly ate a ration bar from her pack, unfurled the sleeping bag she had hastily packed before she had left and tried to get some sleep. After lying silently for over half an hour though, listening to the deep, steady breathing of Kakashi and Sakura, she realised it was hopeless. The aftermath of the soldier pill was still having a faint effect on her body and the ground she was resting on was uncomfortable, but the main thing that was keeping her eyes wide open was knowing that Naruto was sitting so close to her. She felt very warm and safe knowing that he was watching over her like a guardian angel, but not in the least bit drowsy.

She turned in her sleeping bag to face him. Opening her eyes to squint, she saw his silhouette sitting on top of his own sleeping bag with his back to her, gazing into the dying embers of the fire. However, he evidently must have heard her turning over, as he turned around to face the shy Hyuuga girl and grinned at her. He stood up and walked over to her, squatting beside her and whispering, "Can't sleep?"

Hinata blushed and shook her head, very aware that Naruto's breath was faintly tickling her skin.

"Do you wanna talk?" Naruto offered, speaking in an even quieter voice to avoid waking the sound asleep Kakashi and Sakura. The vibrations of his deep, masculine voice made Hinata shiver from the pleasurable sensations it made as it brushed against her ear.

"Um, y-yes, I'd l-like that, Naruto-kun," Hinata breathed out, wriggling out of her sleeping bag and walking with Naruto to sit around the campfire, away from the sleeping forms of Kakashi and Sakura. She couldn't help but wonder why Naruto wanted to talk to her though. Was he just looking for company, or was there another reason? She blushed as she thought of the motives she hoped Naruto wanted to talk to her for, but maybe it wasn't quite so strange for him to want to engage her in conversation after all, bearing in mind how he had been speaking with her a great deal over the last two days, and he seemed to be enjoying it, too. He had even been talking to her more than his old teammates today, which made her feel very warm inside.

"Ano… N-Naruto-kun…" Hinata started, her voice a little unsteady, but curious. The more she thought about it, the more she felt a burning need to know why Naruto was showing her so much attention and she resolved herself to overcome her shyness and ask him.

"Yeah?" Naruto replied comfortably, lying back on the ground with his hands behind his head. The shadows cast by the last remaining flickers of the fire made played over Naruto's face, making him look very mature to Hinata. She could imagine his face under the Hokage's ceremonial hat and smiled at the image. As she gazed into his deep blue eyes, full of happiness and warmth, she thought she saw something else there too… was it wisdom? That was something she had never associated Naruto with in the past, but she was nearly certain of it. It looked almost as though… almost as though he knew what she was going to ask him! The image of Naruto as the Hokage some day strengthened in her mind and, feeling slightly bolder, she spoke a little more firmly, trying to repress her stutter as best as she could.

"Ano…why were you talking to me so much today? I d-don't mean I didn't like it," she hastily added, not wanting to give the blonde boy the wrong idea, "B-But I don't understand. You were speaking to m-me even more than you were to Kakashi-sensei and Sakura-san, even though you're their teamamate… I was just w-wondering…"

Naruto's smile grew, and he looked thoughtful for a moment. "I think it was partially 'cos I was trying to get you to be a bit more open around Kakashi-sensei and Sakura-chan. They don't really know you that well, so I was trying to show them the real you. I know you're a bit shy, but once you open up you're really fun to be around and I wanted Kakashi-sensei and Sakura-chan to see that as well. I guess it must be tough being thrown onto a new team with people you don't know very well, so I wanted to give you a helping hand!"

Hinata blinked with surprise. She hadn't been expecting Naruto to be thinking ahead like that, but then again she hadn't expected him to think about her feelings at all either. A rosy blush spread across her cheeks. Naruto had been trying to help her for the entire day, and she hadn't even realised! She felt like such a fool!

"I d-didn't know, Naruto-kun," she stuttered, upset that she had underestimated the object of her affecions. He had proved himself to be kind and considerate so many times before that she felt as though she had betrayed his confidence by not trusting in him. "I should h-have r-realised, I'm s-sorry. I didn't w-want to b-be a b-burden for you…"

Concerned by her sudden low spirits, Naruto instinctively put an arm around her shoulder. He felt Hinata tense up beneath him, but slowly she relaxed into his touch. "Ne, Hinata-chan, you don't need to worry about being a burden. When you were gone to get the firewood I heard Kakashi-sensei say how impressed he was by you! You kept up with us the whole way without complaining or slowing us down once, and your Byakugan is amazing! You must have trained really hard whilst I was away, you've definitely gotten stronger!"

Hinata was sure Naruto was exaggerating, but she felt her heart swell up all the same. She smiled shyly up at Naruto's grinning face.

"Thank you, N-Naruto-kun," she whispered, feeling very secure with his arm around her. She shifted position slightly, so that her face was leaning against his chest, allowing her to listen to his heartbeat and letting the warmth of his body seep into her. She yawned, covering her mouth with a hand. All of a sudden she was feeling very drowsy, and her eyelids were heavy.

Naruto chuckled, his chest moving under Hinata. "You don't need to thank me, Hinata-chan. You're really strong and cool – Kakashi-sensei and Sakura would have to be blind not to notice! Besides," he grinned cheesily, "The main reason I talked to you was because I wanted to!"

The battle to keep her eyes open any longer was futile, and Hinata feel into a deep slumber, with Naruto's arm still pulling her close. The last thing she saw before sleep overcame her was Naruto's kind, caring smile, stretching endlessly across his face and into her dreams.

-o-o-

Pain made some elaborate seals in his astral projection body. "Fuuin Jutsu: Genryuu Kyuu Fuujin!"

Nine beams of light blasted into Gaara, who slowly rose into the air, levitating spread-eagled between two stone hands. A strange red light that appeared almost liquid-like was surrounding him and it seemed to be emanating from the sand user – or rather, being sucked out of him. A shadowy figure stood on each of the stone hand's fingers in deep concentration, watching as Gaara's unconscious body lay limp, his head rolling on his neck as the red light flickered, waxing and waning at irregular intervals.

A huge, hideous stone face watched over this procedure. Its mouth was filled with craggy teeth and the features hewn onto its face looked deformed, as if the person that had carved it had only the vaguest idea of what a human face looked like. The face had several eyes, making it appear even uglier, though all of them were shut. However, one of its eyes was ever so slowly inching open bit by bit as the red light was drawn out of Gaara's eyes and mouth. The half open eye revealed a blurry, manic pupil, filled with the deranged look of insanity.

"How much longer do you suppose this sealing technique will take?" asked Kakuzu in a low, malicious voice. "I have people to kill and bounties to collect."

"Patience," Pain replied in a monotone, maintaining his focus on the body of the Jinchuuriki floating in the air. "Without Orochimaru it will take longer than our original estimations. I would predict approximately three days will be needed to fully extract the Ichibi from its host."

Kakuzu scowled darkly, but didn't respond.

Sasori spoke up next. "What is our plan to prevent any unwanted… intruders?"

"Zetsu will keep us informed if there is any possibility of an interruption," Pain answered. "For now, we must continue the extraction process."

The voices in the cave died down, so that the only sounds were the flickering of the astral projections, the steady breathing of Deidara and Sasori and the pulsing of the red light being sucked out of Gaara's helpless body.

-o-o-

Hinata awoke the next morning to find herself tucked securely into her cosy sleeping bag. She wondered how she had gotten there – she hadn't fallen asleep in it, had she? No, she distinctly remembered being unable to sleep at first, and then she had…

Hinata blushed bright pink, remembering the events of the previous night. She must have fallen asleep lying against Naruto! Oh God, how embarrassing! What would he think of her now?

Before Hinata's worry could increase into panic, Sakura noticed she was awake.

"Good morning, Hinata," she greeted the Hyuuga heiress politely. "Would you like some breakfast now? Kakashi-sensei says we should leave in about half an hour. He and Naruto are washing in that stream we passed a little while back yesterday evening."

Hinata blushed at the thought of Naruto washing and stammered her thanks to the offer of a morning meal. Sakura had already rekindled the fire and begun cooking what looked like a broth of some kind in a large, collapsible pot. After letting it simmer for a short while, Sakura ladled equal portions out into four bowls, taken from Kakashi's rucksack, just as Naruto and Kakashi returned.

The fact that Naruto was shirtless as he walked back into the clearing made Hinata blush scarlet, her eyes taking in the little rivulets of water dripping down his chest. She could faintly hear him arguing about something with the silver haired jonin, but seeing Naruto like this had made all her other senses hazy and indistinct. His muscles looked so defined and toned…

Hinata was snapped out of her dreamy reverie by Kakashi's annoyed voice. "Look, Naruto, I know that teamwork is important, but the Hokage explicitly told us to get to Suna as soon as possible. We can't afford to waste any time."

"But that's just it, Kakashi-sensei; this isn't a waste of time! What happens if we get to Suna and our teamwork isn't right? What if we fail the mission because we weren't –" Naruto frowned for a moment, struggling to find the word he was looking for "– Synchronized? Yeah, that's it, synchronized! Besides, it's not just for Hinata-chan – I haven't teamed up with you or Sakura-chan for over two years now so I'm probably a little rusty too. I just want us to save Gaara, and we can't do that unless we work well together!"

Kakashi shrugged lazily. "I'd forgotten how persistent you were Naruto. Ok, fine, we'll do a quick team building exercise before we leave camp. How does that sound?"

"Alright!" Naruto crowed triumphantly. "Thanks Kakashi-sensei, we won't let you down!"

As Naruto settled down and grabbed a bowl of the broth, Hinata tore her eyes away from his torso and gripped the hem of her jacket; she had mixed feelings after listening to the end of the conversation between student and teacher. On the one hand, she was flattered that Naruto was still looking after her and making sure that she was integrated into the team as well as possible, but on the other she felt very nervous about any team building exercise she would be taking part in. She had never really worked with Naruto, Sakura or Kakashi before this mission. What if she messed up in some way that caused them to fail this test? Or, even worse, what if she did so badly that Kakashi-sensei didn't want her on the team anymore?

She ate her breakfast in a worried silence, sitting opposite the now fully clothed Naruto, anxiety gnawing away at her gut, before Kakashi explained the task that they would be set.

"Ok, this is what you'll have to do. The three of you will work together to capture –" he pulled a small bell attached to a piece of string out of his pocket "– This." Hinata was puzzled, but Naruto and Sakura both groaned. That was ominous.

"Kakashi-sensei, do you carry that damn bell around with you everywhere?" Naruto grouched, folding his arms across his chest moodily.

Kakashi paused for a moment. "… Did you say something?"

Naruto ground his teeth in annoyance, eyes narrowed. Kakashi ignored him and continued as though he hadn't been interrupted.

"If any one of the three of you succeeds in taking the bell from me, within an hour, you all pass. Any ninja techniques are allowed, and I recommend you come at me full force if you want to succeed, because I won't be holding back either. Oh, and none of us are allowed to travel further than three miles from the camp. Knowing Naruto, he'd probably get lost if we went any further than that."

"Hey!" shouted Naruto indignantly.

Kakashi ignored him again, pulling up the hitai-ite that covered his left eye. Hinata was surprised to see a brutal looking scar running down though his socket, but was even more shocked to see that instead of an eye with a dark pupil to match his right, he possessed the Sharingan, the legendary kekkei genkai of the Uchiha clan. "Good luck," he said cheerfully, before vanishing in a swirl of leaves.

-o-o-

Kakashi reappeared perched on the branch of a thick tree, only about two metres from the edge of the camp. His aim in this test wasn't just to see what techniques three ninja used in their attempts to achieve their goal, or the teamwork they displayed. What he was really curious about was what sort of strategy they would use to find him and dispossess him of the bell. The old Naruto would be overly headstrong and rush into things without thinking, the old Sakura would have been overly confident in her own intelligence and from what he knew about Hinata's personality after viewing her yesterday, she would be too shy and passive to voice her own opinions. It would be interesting to see if they were all able to work past their respective dispositions to function well as a unit.

The copy nin watched as Naruto tightened the headband of his hitai-ite, Sakura pulled on a pair of fingerless gloves and Hinata prodded her fingers together nervously. Kakashi remained hiding in wait.

He sighed behind his mask. 'This could take a while…' he thought, and promptly used the shunshin transportation technique again, disappearing in an instant.

-o-o-

Now ready for action, Naruto turned to the two girls. "Ok, what's the plan?" he asked excitedly.

Hinata blushed a little as her heartbeat sped up at his question. 'Naruto-kun actually wants my opinion?' she thought. If Naruto wanted her take on the situation, he must have been honest when he said that he thought she had changed. 'He's acknowledging me… and he's being so kind as well…'

Sakura's eyebrows rose. "Plan? Since when did you care about making a plan? You always used to charge headlong into things without even considering the consequences."

Naruto smiled wistfully, remembering the old missions that Team Seven had been on, and the loud-mouthed defiance that had gotten him into trouble on multiple occasions. "Yeah… but I guess I'm a bit more mature now Sakura-chan," he said earnestly, a thoughtful look on his face. "Though not by very much," he added impishly, grinning at both Hinata and Sakura and earning a blush and a roll of the eyes respectively.

Sakura cleared her throat. "Ok, well it's great that you're a fully fledged, responsible adult now," she said sarcastically, causing Naruto to scowl good-naturedly. "But we need a plan to find Kakashi-sensei and get that bell off him. Do you guys think it'd be best if we split up or stayed together?"

"Maybe I could separate from the two of you and use a bunch of Kage Bunshin to lure Kakashi-sensei into a trap," mused Naruto. "If you two set it up, he wouldn't know what hit him!"

"Ano… w-with my Byakugan, I can t-track Kakashi-sensei," Hinata offered tentatively. "If we d-did set a trap, I would know when he came into r-range s-so we could implement it."

Sakura nodded slowly. "Yes, that could work. It relies a lot on Naruto's taijutsu and pursuit skills though. If Kakashi-sensei works out what Naruto is trying to do or manages to give you the slip, the plan will fail. And if Kakashi-sensei is strong enough to fight off all your Kage Bunshin, he's not going to be directed towards our trap. We need him on the run. Can you really do that Naruto?"

Sakura's voice sounded sceptical, but before Naruto could argue with her Hinata stepped in. "Ano, S-Sakura-san, I t-trust N-Naruto-kun. I-If he s-says that h-he can do it, then I b-believe him."

Hinata had spoken quietly, but there had been an unmistakable hint of certainty in her voice too. Naruto smiled gratefully at her, causing her cheeks to turn pink.

After mulling it over for a few seconds, Sakura agreed to the plan, and using her Byakugan Hinata quickly located Kakashi, just over a mile away to the east.

"Nice work, Hinata-chan!" Naruto praised, looking in the direction she had pointed and missing the Hyuuga heiress' blush. "Ready or not, Kakashi-sensei, here I come!"

-o-o-

Kakashi rammed a kunai into Naruto's stomach as hard as he could, twisting it viciously. Naruto dropped to his knees, shuddered, made a choking sound… and vanished in a puff of smoke.

Kakashi let out a grunt of irritation. So far he had only been attacked by a few groups of clones, but the speed they moved at and the co-ordination they demonstrated with each other was impressive. They seemed sturdier than he remembered too – it was taking a strong hit to dispel the Kage Bunshin and a light tap wasn't enough to dissipate it like it had been in the past.

Another hoard of clones jumped through the air, attempting to pile onto the silver haired jonin. Kakashi made a few quick hand seals. "Katon: Goukakyuu no Jutsu!" he shouted, drawing a hand in front of his mouth. A huge stream of fire jetted out into a flaming ball towards all the Kage Bunshin in mid-air. A screen of smoke prevented Kakashi from seeing whether his attack had been a success or not, but a series of high pitched popping sounds confirmed that his technique had been on target and he smiled grimly under his mask.

'Naruto has improved,' he thought, pushing chakra into his legs to jump from tree branch to tree branch, trying to put some distance between the blonde haired ninja and himself. He had already had to use the Sharingan eye more than he had anticipated in order to keep himself out of trouble.

In mid leap he heard a rustling of leaves. He looked down quickly to see Naruto running up the trunk of the tree that Kakashi was about to land on, fist drawn back ready for a powerful punch.

Kakashi threw a handful of shuriken at the blonde ninja, forcing Naruto to jump backwards to avoid them and allowing Kakashi to land on the tree branch safely. But then his Sharingan eye picked out a flash of chakra at his feet, and he realised he was standing right next to an explosive tag on the end of a kunai. Naruto must have thrown it, anticipating where Kakashi would land!

"Oh shi–"

A large explosion ripped a hole in the tree branch, leaving a smouldering hollow… and a charred log.

"Stupid Kawarimi," muttered Naruto sourly, jumping up to the blackened tree branch where he had triggered the explosion. "Where the Hell's Kakashi-sensei now?"

"I'm right here, Naruto," called Kakashi's voice. "That was a good try, but you'll have to do better than that."

Naruto looked around in frustration. Where was his sensei? He couldn't see him anywhere, but his voice had been so close.

"Down here, Naruto," Kakashi spoke again, rolling his eyes.

Naruto looked down, and was disheartened to see that Kakashi was still standing on the same bough as him. The copy nin was hanging upside-down on the underside of the branch like a silver haired bat, using chakra to hold himself in place right underneath where Naruto was now standing.

"You'd better hurry up, you know," said Kakashi conversationally. "You've already used more than fifteen minutes. And if Sakura and Hinata aren't here at the moment, that means it's all up to you."

Naruto's dismayed look turned to one of determination. "I'm definitely going to get that bell, Kakashi-sensei," he warned, a stubborn smirk on his face. "You'd better be ready. Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!"

A swarm of blonde haired, orange clad Naruto's puffed into existence. With a collective shout of, "Get him!" they charged towards the jonin sensei. Kakashi was very glad he had his Sharingan activated, as dodging and countering the attacks of the multiple clones was extremely difficult. Whenever Kakashi actually managed to destroy enough clones to make it easier for himself, the real Naruto would just summon forth another group.

With the clones serving as highly useful distractions, Naruto came extremely close to grabbing the bell hanging from Kakashi's belt on a couple of occasions. Kakashi just about managed to either jump back, pivot his hips away or block Naruto's lunge forward, but he was forced to remain on the defensive almost the entire time.

Eventually, one of Naruto's clones caught Kakashi with a knee to the stomach. Kakashi grunted at the force of the impact and lost his footing on the tree branch. However, Naruto saw too late that this was exactly what Kakashi had wanted, as the jonin rolled off the tree bough, away from the hoard of clones, and landed on his feet on the forest floor, bending his knees to absorb the impact. Moving quickly, a group of clones blocked off Kakashi's passage straight ahead, so the jonin sensei veered to the right, running through the undergrowth.

Naruto grinned. He had done his part by herding Kakashi into position for the trap to be sprung. It was up to Hinata and Sakura now.

-o-o-

After getting into position in a small coppice, Hinata and Sakura had a while to wait. The plan could only take effect when Naruto managed to manoeuvre Kakashi into a more open area, free from densely packed trees. Until then, they had no choice but to remain hidden and stay alert.

With Hinata's Byakugan active, she could keep track of Kakashi's progress and see how Naruto's part of the plan was panning out. She was very impressed by what she had seen from Naruto so far. His Kage Bunshin were manoeuvring Kakashi closer and closer to the trap zone and his taijutsu was both powerful and precise, keeping the copy nin on the back foot.

"How's Naruto doing?" asked Sakura, breaking the silence.

"He's d-doing very well," answered Hinata. "Kakashi-sensei is getting closer. I think he should be here in a f-few minutes."

Sakura smiled. "Thanks, Hinata, keep me updated."

"Ok," the Hyuuga girl agreed, as the two kunoichi lapsed into silence once more.

A minute later Sakura spoke up again. "Hinata?"

The Hyuuga heiress jumped. She had been so focused on watching Naruto and Kakashi fight – Naruto had just used an explosive tag in an attempt to catch the jonin off guard, but Kakashi had manage to evade it by using Kawarimi no Jutsu at the last second – that she had almost forgotten about her pink haired ally.

"Um… y-yes, Sakura-san?"

"I just wanted to know… what do you think of Naruto?" Seeing the Hyuuga girl's eyes widen fearfully, Sakura hastily added, "Sorry, you don't have to tell me if you don't want, I was just curious, that's all."

Hinata took a deep breath, trying to overcome her fear. If she could admit her feelings to someone else, maybe she would find it easier to tell Naruto himself someday. "Ano… I d-don't mind, Sakura-san. I… I admire N-Naruto-kun very m-much. I want to f-follow his example and his nindo. And I… I c-care about him…"

Hinata blushed a vivid red as she spoke her deepest secret out loud, feeling very fearful as she watched Sakura ponder her answer. She knew Naruto had at very least once had feelings for the young medic ninja, but she didn't know whether Sakura reciprocated these feelings or not. If she was interested in him romantically, how could Hinata possibly compete with her? She was so confident and beautiful and she had studied under none other than the Godaime herself – no wonder she was recognised as one of the rising stars in both the hospital and on the battlefield.

As Sakura remained silent, the tension and worry inside Hinata rose further and further, until she felt she had to ask the question. "S-Sakura-san… do you l-l-love Naruto-kun?" Hinata waited with baited breath for the other girl's answer, dreading what the medic nin might say.

Sakura sighed and her eyes were downcast as she spoke in a very quiet voice. "Naruto is important to me… like a brother… but the one I t-truly love with all my h-heart is…" her breath hitched, and she fought back tears. "… S-Sasuke-kun…"

Hinata felt two equally powerful conflicting emotions that tightened her chest. Firstly, there was an indescribable feeling of intense relief that Sakura didn't love Naruto. She could remember watching the blonde ninja when he was younger and feeling a crippling sense of anguish whenever he had asked Sakura on a date, followed by an even greater feeling of torment whenever she flatly, and sometimes violently, rejected him. She wanted Naruto to be happy more than anything else, and seeing the look of disappointment on his face whenever Sakura turned down his advances was a crushing blow to her as well as him, even though a small, selfish part of her mind secretly cheered whenever he was cast aside by his pink haired teammate.

But also, Hinata felt a sense of empathy with Sakura. She knew how much it could hurt to love someone that didn't love you back, but she could only imagine how painful it must be to love someone that abandoned, deserted and outright rejected you. The thought of Naruto betraying Konoha and seeking power for his own gain made Hinata feel hollow inside, as though her heart had been ripped out.

"Ano… Sakura-san… why d-do you l-love Sasuke-san?"

Sakura looked shocked for a moment at Hinata's question. "Why do I love him…? I… I just do. I love everything about him. I remember what he was like when he first joined the Academy, before the… incident. He was so cute and he had the happiest smile, but then he stopped smiling… he became sullen and brooding… he focused only on his revenge. I… I just want to be the one to bring out that smile again and make him happy, that's all."

"I understand, S-Sakura-san," said Hinata softly, prodding her index fingers together. "I hope that s-someday you can f-find Sasuke-san, save him from the d-darkness and make him h-happy again."

Sakura smiled at the Hyuuga girl. "Thanks, Hinata," she said appreciatively, "That really helped. And good luck with Naruto, you two deserve someone that will make you happy. Though knowing him, you'll have to spell it out in bright lights before he realises!"

Hinata giggled slightly at Sakura's words, then gasped as her Byakugan eyes picked up Kakashi's movement. "S-Sakura-san, Kakashi-sensei is h-heading this w-way!"

Sakura's eyes glinted with purposeful intent. "Alright Hinata, get in position. Let's show Kakashi-sensei the power of the fairer sex!"

-o-o-

Kakashi felt tired. More than just tired, he felt battered, bruised and downright beaten. Naruto's taijutsu was formidable, even with the Sharingan. He picked his way stealthily through the undergrowth towards a small clearing, making as little noise as possible. He smiled behind his mask as he realised that he couldn't see Naruto or his clones, though he could hear them tramping though the bushes and ferns in an attempt to find him. Kakashi relaxed a little, deactivating his Sharingan. It took a lot of effort to maintain the legendary kekkei genkai for too long and as this wasn't a mission situation Kakashi thought it best to conserve both his chakra and stamina. The noises from the clones was getting fainter and fainter – they had clearly lost track of him, and the fact that he hadn't seen either Sakura or Hinata must have meant that they had chosen to split up to find him, and Naruto had been the one lucky enough to spot him first. Now all he had to do was find a place to hide for the remaining time and come out when the exercise had finished. He might even be able to read a little Icha Icha if he was lucky…

Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, Kakashi saw a blur of movement sprinting towards him. It was Hinata, her right arm pulled back ready for a Jyuuken strike. Thinking quickly, Kakashi leapt backwards. He knew that Jyuuken strikes were very difficult to block successfully, as there was always the risk of having his tenketsu shut. But as he jumped back to avoid the strike, he saw Hinata's strike change direction; her fist was now dipping downwards, towards the ground. With a roar of aggression that sounded nothing like the softly-spoken Hyuuga, the girl's fist hammered into the soil, causing the ground to shake and sending clods of dirt flying in every direction, temporarily blinding Kakashi.

Trying to wipe the dirt out of his eye with one hand he looked around, confused. Suddenly, Kakashi realised that the person he'd thought was Hinata had been Sakura all along. She must have used Henge no Jutsu to disguise herself as Hinata, knowing that he would try to avoid the obvious Jyuuken attack by jumping backwards. By blinding him for a short time, she must be ready to hit him with a follow up attack of some sort. The most galling thing for Kakashi was knowing that if he had maintained his Sharingan vision he would have spotted the Henge instantly and known it was Sakura. But regardless, he was impressed with the pink haired girl's cunning. He had fallen for her ploy like a sucker and had been left helpless for a few seconds.

He expected Sakura to continue the attack immediately, before he had a chance to recover, but she made no move to attack him, instead straightening up from her punch and grinning confidently. "It's over, Kakashi-sensei," she said in a teasing voice.

Kakashi frowned, reaching for the bell attached to his waist. His eyes widened as he grabbed only air. How had he lost the bell? He had had it on his belt just seconds ago, he had heard it chiming! It must have been when he closed his eyes, but they had only been shut for a few seconds and he had been in mid-jump at the time. Unless…

Groaning, Kakashi turned around, already knowing what he was about to see. Behind him stood Hyuuga Hinata, a light blush on her face and a small silver bell in one hand. "Ano…" she asked hesitantly, "Does this m-mean w-we win?"

-o-o-

The three ninja quickly found Naruto, who had cheered loudly at the news that Hinata had successfully robbed Kakashi of his bell and praised the Hyuuga heiress for being what he called 'super sneaky,' to which Hinata had blushed rosy red and stammered a denial, stuttering that it had been Sakura that had done most of the work. Kakashi ordered his three young charges to begin packing for the trip to Suna, as he wanted to be back travelling within at very most an hour. As they prepared to depart Kakashi debriefed the team.

"So," he said, grunting as he stuffed his sleeping bag into a bulky rucksack, "Tell me about your strategy. Did it work as planned?"

Sakura smiled smugly. "You bet it did! The idea was for Naruto to wear you down enough that you wouldn't want to use your Sharingan, whilst at the same time manoeuvring you towards Hinata and myself. With her Byakugan, Hinata could keep track of you and tell whether or not you had your Sharingan activated by looking at your chakra flow. We knew that the Henge part of our plan would only work if your Sharingan was deactivated, since you'd be able to see the chakra I used otherwise. By comparing the different fighting styles that Hinata and I use, we could predict how you would defend against them too. The best way to defeat a Jyuuken user is at long range, so by pretending to be Hinata I was able to catch you off guard and blind you momentarily. Meanwhile, Hinata was hiding, waiting for you to be distracted so that she could swipe your bell! Simple, right?"

Kakashi sighed. "Yeah, you three all did a really good job. That plan was executed flawlessly. What would you have done if I'd still had my Sharingan activated though? That Henge would never have worked and your plan would have failed."

Naruto laughed as he rolled up his own sleeping bag. "Easy, Kakashi-sensei. Hinata-chan could keep tracking you with her Byakugan, so we'd still know where you where even if you managed to give us the slip and I could just keep beating you up until you turned your Sharingan off. There was no way you were going to keep it on all the time and tire yourself out just for a training mission!"

Kakashi nodded, satisfied with the answer. "Well, I have to hand it to you three, you worked excellently together. You shouldn't have any issues with teamwork, that's for sure."

Naruto's flung his arms round the shoulders of Sakura and Hinata, one on each side. "Yeah! With our awesome teamwork, the new Team Seven is gonna find Gaara, bring him home safely and kick some Akatsuki ass!"

-o-o-

The rest of the journey to Suna was uneventful, though very tiring, as Kakashi set an even more gruelling pace than he had yesterday. By mid afternoon the terrain had changed from tall, leafy forests to barren, arid scrubland, which soon became devoid of all but the hardiest plants. The temperature increased too, with the desert feeling like a giant furnace, and Hinata was glad that they had all refilled their canteens from the stream in the forest before they left their campsite behind. All four of the group were sweating profusely – Kakashi's spiky silver hair was noticeably drooping and Naruto had taken off his orange jacket in an attempt to cool down, slinging it over his shoulder.

She thought about what Naruto had said just before they had left the camp. He had called the group 'the new Team Seven,' so he must be including her. Did that mean… he was happy to have her on the same team as him? Maybe even… that he wanted her to stay on his team even after the mission was over? Just the thought made Hinata want to squeal out loud. Being around Naruto every day, training with him to get stronger, doing missions with him; that was her idea of bliss. It seemed like an impossible dream to her, but she had learned from watching Naruto that impossible was meaningless so long as she tried her hardest. But she still had her own team; she couldn't just abandon them… Hinata shook her head, trying to get those thoughts out of her head. Maybe she was just reading into the situation too deeply.

Finally, as the sun was beginning to set, the village of Suna came into view over the sand dunes. It was an impressive sight, with imposing walls made entirely out of sand and towering buildings rising into the sky. In Konoha it was rare to see anything taller than two stories, simply because there was so much space available, so the buildings in Suna looked like they belonged to giants by comparison.

As the bedraggled group finally reached the gates, a pair of nervous looking chuunin poked their heads over the wall.

"Halt!" one of them shouted, raising a shaky hand. "State your names and purpose for entering Suna."

Kakashi shielded his eye from the setting sun and looked up at them lazily. "We are the team sent from Konoha to assist you in the search for your Kazekage. I am Hatake Kakashi, and this is my squadron, Haruno Sakura, Uzumaki Naruto and Hyuuga Hinata."

After a hurried discussion between the two Suna ninja, the gate was quickly opened and Naruto, Hinata, Sakura and Kakashi entered the Hidden Sand Village. The village looked almost deserted from what Hinata could see. There was no sign of anyone other than the two chuunin, and the village was as quiet as a grave.

One of the chuunin dropped down from the wall to land beside the Konoha ninja, his face pinched and drawn.

"Thank goodness you're here! The village is in a state of panic! Most of the residents are so afraid of the Akatsuki returning that they won't even come out of their houses."

Kakashi got straight to the point. "Who is in charge here?"

"That would be Baki-sama – he is most likely in the hospital, caring for Kankuro. He hasn't left his side except for emergency council meetings."

"What is Kankuro-san's condition?" Sakura asked urgently. "I'm a medic nin, maybe I could help."

The chuunin shook his head sadly. "I'm afraid it's no good. He's running a terrible fever and we can't seem to bring it down. Our medics have tried everything, but they've never seen a poison anything like this. It's hopeless…"

Sakura's voice went frosty. "Not only am I a medic nin," she said coolly, "I am a kunoichi of the Leaf. I am not in the habit of giving up. Now, take me to Kankuro-san."

The Suna chuunin, clearly slightly intimidated by this strange pink haired girl, bowed low to the group and led them through the empty streets. It all felt very alien to Hinata. In Konoha you couldn't walk down a street without hearing the sound of children laughing and playing, or stall owners at the market shouting out the prices of their produce, or customers bartering for a good deal. But here there was no sound at all other than the footsteps of the group, muffled by the sand and the swirling, mournful wind.

The chuunin led them into the hospital, a tall, dome shaped building, and gave them Kankuro's room number, before leaving them to return to his post.

Naruto looked around the reception of the medical centre distastefully. It was all so white and sterile – it just felt too clean to him. He sniffed the air, almost gagging at the smell of disinfectant. "I hate hospitals," he muttered under his breath.

After asking the receptionist for directions to Kankuro's room, Kakashi led the way down the brightly lit hospital corridors towards Kankuro's room. According to the receptionist, he had been placed in isolation from all other patients. Because this poison was completely new to them, they had thought it safest to treat it as though it were infectious, just in case. Not to mention the fact that it was bad for the morale of the village if civilians were to see the extent of his injuries from fighting the people who had kidnapped their Kazekage.

They came up to the thick door of Kankuro's hospital room. Knocking once, without waiting for an answer, Kakashi led the way in, Naruto, Hinata and Sakura following behind him.

Kankuro was lying on a hospital bed, minus his face paint, and there was a thin sheen of sweat over his pale, clammy skin. A team of three healers surrounded him, their faces strained as they pushed a continuous stream of chakra into their hands which they ran over the sleeping puppet user. A thickset man with a veil covering half of his face was watching over the process, a worried frown on his face. He looked up as he heard the Konoha shinobi enter, and a look of relief spread across his face.

"You are the team sent from Konoha?"

"That's us," Kakashi confirmed, studying the unconscious form of Kankuro. "Have you had any luck so far in finding an antidote?"

Baki shook his head slowly, despair etched across his face. "Our healers are doing their best, but we don't know what we're dealing with here. The venom seems to be breaking down Kankuro's red blood cells, and we can't stop it."

Sakura's eyes lit up. "I've heard about that sort of toxin before, in theory at least, from Tsunade-shishou. Let me study Kankuro's condition, I might be able to help."

Baki looked surprised. "You've studied under the legendary Slug Sannin Tsunade? Please, by all means take a look. If you can do anything to save Kankuro I'll be eternally grateful."

Sakura walked quickly over to Kankuro, running a few quick diagnostic jutsus, and within less than a minute she was ordering the other medic ninja around, in complete control of the situation.

"Wow…" Naruto whispered to Hinata. "She really knows her stuff…" Hinata nodded in agreement, slightly in awe of the command Sakura was demonstrating. The pink haired girl was bossing around a team of highly skilled medic ninja over double her age without any argument whatsoever.

"I think we should leave her to it," said Kakashi in an undertone to Baki. "She seems confident enough, at least. It would be best if we talked about any information you have on the Akatsuki now."

Baki nodded wordlessly and led the way out of the door.

Author's Notes: Ok, after a minor drought of NaruHina moments in the last chapter, I hope this makes up for it. The 'bell test' scene was a tricky one to write, but I think I did an ok job of it, though fight scenes with multiple people in it are even harder than one-on-one fights. Also, as the interaction between Sakura and Hinata showed, Sakura does have a role to play in this fanfic, even though this story is NaruHina. I'll try to update and write up the next chapter as soon as possible, and if you have any questions or comments feel free to review. If not, that's fine too! Finally, a big thank you to everyone that has read this story so far – if people are still interested at Chapter Five I must be doing something right! Ok, that's all for now, I'll be back as soon as I can, peace out!

P.S. Oh, one last thing, now that I've started doing the jutsus I thought I'd better do the translations here too. I'll put any new ones that I haven't included in a previous chapter translated at the end of every chapter

List of Jutsu:

'Fuuin Jutsu: Genryuu Kyuu Fuujin' = 'Seal Jutsu: Complete Nine Illusionary Dragon Seal'

'Katon: Goukakyuu no Jutsu' = 'Fire Release: Great Fireball Technique'

'Kage Bunshin no Jutsu' = 'Shadow Clone Technique'

'Kawarimi no Jutsu' = 'Change of Body Stance Technique' (ie substitution)

'Henge no Jutsu' = 'Transformation Technique'

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