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Three hours after she had received it, Tsunade read the letter in front of her for the fifteenth time. And every time she did, it made her feel sick inside. She sat down on the couch and let out a sigh. "I wish I knew what the hell to do," she thought. She was suddenly brought out of her reverie by a loud voice.
"Granny Tsunade!" Naruto yelled cheerfully as he bounded into Tsunade's living room.
Tsunade's eyes widened as she quickly put the letter under the stack of books on the coffee table in front of her.
"It's five o'clock!"
Tsunade glanced at the clock on the far wall. "So it is." She stood and walked over to the Chuunin guard standing next to the doorway. "Shikamaru. I'm taking Naruto down to the training field. Let me know if I'm needed."
Naruto waved to the boy as he walked out the door. "Later, Shikamaru!"
"Yeah," Shikamaru answered with a small smileNaruto leapt to the top of the first metal ball and then to the top of each one after that. After landing on the platform on the other side he shot downward, grinning as he saw a large, cement circle on the ground with the symbol of the Leaf painted on it in red.
He pushed off the branch he was on, made a flip in the air and landed on the Leaf symbol in triumph...just before the entire circle fell inward, dropping him into very deep pit with sharp spikes at the bottom. "AHHHHHHH!" he yelled.
He twisted his body so he was facing downward, bit his finger and made the seals for frog summoning. "KUCHIYOSE NO JUTSU!" There was a puff of smoke, followed by an ear shattering explosion of dirt and cement. When the smoke cleared Gama Bunta sat in the middle of a huge crater, looking very irritated.
Tsunade's eyes were wide in shock. She remembered the tiny frog he had summoned when they battled Orochimaru. Of course, she had had no idea that Naruto had summoned Gama Bunta before. "How in the Seven Hells did he summon him!"
Gama Bunta rolled an annoyed eye up towards the thirteen year old boy on his head. "Hey, Brat! I don't like being summoned in the middle of a fall!"
A vein popped on Naruto's head. "I'm your subordinate aren't I!" he yelled indignantly.
Tsunade's eyes re-widened. "Naruto is his subordinate! When did this happen!" She suddenly decided she didn't like not being part of the conversation. "OY! GAMA BUNTA!"
The giant frog turned his head toward the voice that had just called to him. "Hmm?" He gave her a wry smile when he saw Tsunade. "Tsunade, you're loud as usual."
Tsunade's eyebrow twitched, but she smiled. "When did Naruto become your subordinate?"
Gama Bunta cocked an eye ridge. "About eight months ago."
A confused look crossed the face of the Fifth Hokage. "Then why couldn't Naruto summon him back then?" she thought, thinking of the battle with Orochimaru. She looked up at Naruto. "You overdid it, Brat!"
Naruto flashed a foxy grin and made several jumps before landing on the ground in front of Tsunade. "I did it though!" he said happily; obviously proud of himself.
Tsunade smiled warmly. "Yes, you did. Good job, Brat," she said as she ruffled Naruto's hair.
Gama Bunta eh hemmed. "Since you don't seem to need me anymore, I'll be going now," he said as he stretched and cracked what little neck he had to one side. "Later," he said as he disappeared in a puff of smoke.
Tsunade turned to Naruto. "Well then. Let's go back to the house," she said.
"Yeah," Naruto replied as he looked at the sky.
Tsunade cocked her head to one side. "Naruto? Are you okay?"
Naruto blinked back his thoughts. "Yeah. Just thinking."
Naruto turned his gaze back to the sky. "It's kind of embarrassing."
"What? Did a girl ask you out?" Tsunade quipped.
Naruto made an odd sound and flinched.
Tsunade cocked an eyebrow. "I see."
"Well...not exactly asked me out. But she said something that made me realize she likes me," Naruto replied as he rubbed the back of his head.
"Who is it?" Tsunade asked, genuinely interested.
Naruto was suddenly defensive. "Hmpf. Like I'd tell you. You'd just make fun of me," he said as he stuck out his tongue.
"It's Hinata, isn't it?" Tsunade said with a self-satisfied smirk.
Naruto nearly bit the tongue that was still sticking out. "H...how did you...?
Tsunade started laughing. "Brat. I swear you are the only one who didn't know she likes you!"
Naruto simply looked down and grunted in irritation at having been laughed at for not having common knowledge.
Tsunade cocked her head to one side thoughtfully. "So?"
"So...what?" Naruto asked as he looked at Tsunade in question.
"So what are you going to do about this?"
Naruto looked away again. "I don't know. I guess I'll just hafta tell her I like Sakura-chan."
Tsunade frowned. "Naruto. Does Sakura like you that way? Even a little bit?"
Naruto looked crestfallen. "No..."
"So why not give someone who does like you a chance?"
Naruto crossed his arms and twisted his face in thought.
"I'm not saying ask her out, but you could spend more time with her and see what happens," Tsunade said with a warm smile as she placed a hand on the boy's shoulder.
"Hmm," was Naruto's only reply.
"You don't have to decide now, Brat. Anyway, come over here and sit with me. I need to talk to you about something," Tsunade said, gesturing to the picnic table.
Naruto shrugged and sat down. They sat there in silence for a full minute before Tsunade spoke. "Naruto. I've been thinking about your situation a lot lately."
"Simply put...the fact that you live alone at your age bothers me," Tsunade said with a somber look on her face.
"I can take care of myself just fine!" Naruto rebuttled.
"That's not what I was referring to. I meant that you have no one to be there for you when you're home. I worry that you're lonely."
Naruto shrugged. "Eh. Maybe a little. But it's not like it's a new thing, ya know?"
The casual way Naruto spoke about loneliness made Tsunade feel like she'd been punched in the stomach. "I was wondering if you would like to change that," she said carefully.
Naruto looked at her strangely. "Huh?"
Tsunade let out a long breath. "Would you consider staying at my home permanently?"
"What?" Naruto said in confusion.
"I'd like to adopt you..." Tsunade said with hope in her voice.
Naruto, for his part, froze in place. These were words that he had never expected to hear in his lifetime. (("I'd like to adopt you..." "I'd like to adopt you...")) They echoed in his mind for what seemed like an eternity before he spoke. "I don't need to be pitied," he said sadly.
"It's not pity!" Tsunade replied, raising her voice a bit as she used her hands to raise herself up by pushing on the top of the table. She let out a sigh and sat down heavily. "It's not pity. You're like a younger brother to me. I care about you like family. That's why I want to adopt you. You don't have to decide now, but I want you to know that even though I'd legally be your mother I wouldn't treat you like a baby. You'd have pretty much the same life you did before...just more people to share it with," she finished with a smile.
Naruto considered this for a moment. "I'll think about it," he said, a barely noticeable smile tugging at one corner of his mouth.
Tsunade smiled warmly. "Good. Let's head back to the house."
Naruto nodded and followed the Fifth Hokage through the dense trees.
When Izumi reached the dining room Naruto was just finishing his ramen and was about to ask for seconds.
Naruto noticed she looked distracted. "Hey."
Izumi turned toward Naruto. "Yes?"
"Are you okay?" Naruto asked.
Izumi made a half-hearted smile. "Yes, I'm fine."
"Okay," Naruto replied as he went back to eating.
Izumi watched the boy sitting at the table. She'd had a lot of time in the past few days to think about how she had acted toward him. She had always considered herself to be a kind person and knowing that she had willingly made an innocent boy feel so badly make her sick inside. It was time to set things right, even if it wasn't easy for her. "Naruto?" Izumi said.
Naruto looked up at the woman, his cheeks stuffed full of ramen. "Mrah? (Meaning 'yeah')"
Izumi grimaced at having seen some of Naruto's ramen as he spoke with his mouth full. She cleared her throat. "I...wanted to apologize."
Naruto swallowed. "Huh?"
Izumi looked as though she were trying to find the right words. "I...I was...mean to you. I...thought you were the Kyuubi. I...I'm sorry," she said as though the words were hard to get out.
Naruto simply stared at Izumi, confused. None of the adults had ever apologized to him before. "Th...thank you," Naruto said, his eyes becoming misty.
"Maybe we could start over?"
Naruto wiped his eyes and smiled. "Yeah!"
Izumi made a small smile, turned around and went into the kitchen. Tsunade smiled warmly as she looked at Naruto. "Someday brat. Someday all of them will apologize."
The moonlight that cascaded through his window suddenly made him think of nothing, but visiting Hinata; simply for the fact that the source of that light reminded him of her eyes. "What should I do?"
Naruto let his head fall to the side so he could see the moon better. He could have sworn he saw her face appear on it's luminescent surface. "Okay," he said decisively. "I'll go talk to her." With that, he jumped up from his bed and left for Hinata's house.Hinata lay on her bed, thinking. "How can I face him now that he knows?" A knock sounded on her door. She pushed herself to a sitting position. "Yes?"
The door opened and Neji's head poked through. "Hinata-sama. Naruto is here to see you."
Hinata made a high pitched, short squeak as her eyes went wide as dinner plates. "P...please tell him I'm n...not available!"
Neji sighed and walked into the room. "Hinata-sama. Hiding from the man who is the object of your affections is not becoming for a future leader of our clan." He stood in front of her, arms crossed. "It displays cowardice. The clan will not follow someone who can not face their fears."
Hinata made her usual tented fingers gesture. "B...but..."
Neji's expression became one of irritation as he pulled Hinata's fingers apart. "And stop doing that! It makes you look indecisive and weak!"
Hinata gulped and nodded. "Hai, Neji-Nii-san."
Neji pointed at the door. "Go," he commanded.
Hinata started to bring her fingers together, stopped herself and stood up. "Okay," she said as her face took on a determined look. She walked out the door leaving behind a very self satisfied Neji.
"Good luck, Hinata-sama," Neji thought with a smile.
Naruto kicked the pebble he'd been beating up for the last eight minutes, for the hundredth time. He heard a noise behind him and turned around to see Hinata standing just beyond the light of her open front door. He was struck by how she looked. He was so used to seeing her in that bulky jacket of hers that the sight of her in denim shorts and a t-shirt made quite an impression. "Hinata-chan is so...cute," he thought before he could stop himself. "Whoa. Where'd that come from?" he thought as she walked up to him.
"N...Naruto-kun?" Hinata repeated.
Naruto shook his head and blinked back his thoughts. "Yeah. Sorry, Hinata-chan. I just kinda spaced out there for a minute."
Hinata smiled. "Th...that's okay. What d...did you want to talk to me about?"
Naruto eh hemmed. "You wanna go get some ramen?"
"I'd like that," Hinata said, surprised by the fact that she had just completed a sentence without stuttering while talking to Naruto.
"Great!" Naruto said as he started walking.
A few minutes into their walk Naruto spoke. "Hinata-chan. Do you remember what you said this morning?"
Suddenly the blue/black-haired Hyuuga wanted to run back to her room and dive under her bed. "Y...yes," she replied nervously. She nearly made her finger tenting gesture when a vision of Neji entered her mind. (("It makes you look indecisive and weak!")) She quickly put her hands back down at her sides.
"Well...I came to tell you that I don't feel the same way," Naruto said, his voice filled with apology.
"Oh..." Hinata said, as her eyes misted over.
"But..." Naruto continued.
Hinata looked up at Naruto with a glimmer of hope in her eyes. "There's a 'but'?"
"We can hang out more. And maybe after a while I'll change my mind," Naruto said with a smile.
Hinata smiled widely. "Really?"
"Yup. No promises though. Do you mind just being my friend for now?" Naruto asked.
Hinata's smile was bordering on a grin. "No. Th...thank you, Naruto-kun."
Naruto flashed her a foxy grin. "Now let's go get that ramen!" he said as he grabbed her hand and ran with her toward his favorite ramen stand.
Naruto slurped up the last of his ramen and paid his bill. He turned to Hinata. "I don't feel like going back to Granny Tsunade's house yet. You wanna hang out for a while?"
"Sure," Hinata answered with a smile.
They stepped out of the ramen stand and began walking down the quiet street. Hinata looked up at a large clock hanging from a building. It read nine-o-clock. "I hope father won't be angry with me for staying out this late," she thought.
Naruto and Hinata wound up near a pond not far from the base of the Hokage monument. "Hey, Hinata!" Naruto said suddenly as they neared the water's edge. "You know how to skip rocks?"
"Uh uh," Hinata replied, shaking her head.
Naruto began scanning the ground for an appropriate rock. He found two of what he was looking for and handed one of them to Hinata. "Just curl your wrist and then flick it like...this!" he said as he made the rock jump over the surface of the water eight times. "See? Not much harder than throwing shuriken."
"That was great, Naruto-kun!" Hinata said in admiration.
Naruto grinned. "Try it."
Hinata squinted her eyes in determination. She threw the rock. It skipped twice. "I did it!" she said excitedly.
Naruto was taken by surprise at this sudden outburst from the normally quiet girl. "Nice, Hinata!" When she turned to smile at him this time he was surprised when his heart skipped a beat.
"Naruto-kun?" Hinata questioned, noticing the stunned look on the boy's face.
"Nothing," he desperately tried to think of something to change the subject. "So...are things with Neji any better?" he asked as he sat down on the ground.
Hinata joined Naruto. "Yeah. He's b...been much nicer to me since the Chuunin exam. How about you? I h...heard you have been staying at Tsunade-sama's house."
"Yeah. You wanna hear something crazy?" Naruto asked.
"Okay," Hinata replied, sounding unsure of Naruto's question.
"She wants to adopt me..." Naruto said in a slightly more serious voice.
"Naruto-kun, that's wonderful!" She saw Naruto's serious face and her enthusiasm melted. "It's n...not wonderful?" she asked in confusion.
Naruto let out a long sigh. "I don't know. I mean, I like my apartment. It's nice to know she cares about me, but..."
"Naruto-kun...I th...think you should tell her yes. I would be s...so happy to know that you aren't living alone anymore. I h...hate seeing you go home and not have anyone to welcome you," Hinata said with some sadness.
Naruto looked at the ground. "I guess that'd be nice." After a moment of silence he spoke again. "Thanks, Hinata-chan," he said as he turned his face up to look at her.
The combination of Naruto's warm smile, the moonlight making his face glow and the beauty of the setting around them made Hinata nearly dizzy as her heart pounded in her chest. "N...no p...p...problem," Hinata answered, blushing a furious bright red. She suddenly made a small gasp. "Naruto-kun. What time is it!"
Naruto pulled back his sleeve to reveal a watch. "Aw, don't worry. It's only ten thirty."
"What!" Hinata yelped. "I'm s...sorry! I have to go! Father will be angry!"
"Okay," Naruto said as they both got up. "See you tomorrow?"
"Mm!" Hinata said just before she turned and ran in the direction of her house.
Naruto watched her go, hair bouncing as she ran. He realized he'd been staring and turned his gaze back towards the water. Now he was more confused about his feelings than ever.
...TO BE CONTINUED