I want to start off by thanking each and every person who has stuck with this story and/or is a new reader. Seeing new alerts for me or my stories is really inspirational to me and keeps me writing! I apologize for the long wait, I have a very hectic life. When I do get time off I usually just want to sit and relax and not be creative. I just want to let everyone know that is probably going to be my last chapter until the end of April/beginning of June area when my term ends and I'm free for a few months from university. So, enjoy, and hopefully you'll see more from me soon!
Naruto stood tall and proud as he looked over the small hilly village that was hidden in the grass. Its name didn't lie and as Naruto soon found out, the grass that they had to walk through to find the main village was nearly double his height. Every few seconds he had to wipe pollen and leaves off of his face and he just knew that before he made it to the village he would be full of small cuts where the leaves had scraped against his skin. Glancing behind him Himawari was having the same difficulty, albeit her eyes were swollen and tearing and she sniffled every few minutes. She didn't realize that she had been allergic to grass until she had been surrounded by so much of it. Poor girl. Facing forward again, Jiraiya seemed unaffected, much too intent on the map in his hands. There was no trail to follow, and it was too difficult to see the sky through the tops of the grass. Kusagakure didn't seem like a well-defended village on paper, but Naruto was realizing that traps would be next to impossible to detect in this. Himawari sneezed and Naruto handed her a travel pack of tissues.
It had been almost six months since Naruto had been discharged from the hospital and only four since he had been allowed to resume strenuous exercise on the condition that his doctor was allowed to poke and prod him and find out why his healing time was so much faster than a normal persons. His doctor was nice and taught him some healing techniques that were taught to beginner medic-nin. Never again would he be injured that greatly and not be able to do anything about it. Kushina had relayed how panicked she was that he wouldn't survive because she knew nothing about healing whatsoever. She had told Naruto what she had done, although she didn't say anything about Kyuubi. The blonde knew that he would have to talk to her one day about it.
Jiraiya on the other hand was always available for questions when he was not away on a mission and after the blondes retelling of his life's story he had been slowly but surely asking him questions intent on getting him to expand on nearly everything. It was such a relief that he had someone to talk to without hiding who he was. Naruto hadn't slept so well in a long time.
All of this had led up to just a week prior to his current situation; he had been rounded up and told about a very important mission.
Naruto walked up to the red bridge that he held so many memories of and was surprised to see Himawari gazing over the railing into the river as it lazily swept under the bridge. Her choppy indigo locks fell just down past her ears and her hiteate shone brightly on her forehead. Naruto raised his hand and said, "Yo." Himawari jumped but smiled brightly when she saw who it was.
"Oh Naruto-kun! What are you doing here?" She asked, and Naruto replied that he could have asked her the same. "I'm actually going on a mission with Kushina-san! I'm so excited!" Naruto put his hand to his chin.
"That's strange. I'm meeting my brother here to go on a mission with him as well. Oh! Maybe we're all going on a joint mission!" Himawari smiled and said, "Oh how fun that would be!" Any further conversation was cut off at that point by the mentioned couple arriving seemly out of nowhere.
"Aw I didn't know both of you could do that. Can you pleasssssseeeee teach me?" Minato laughed and Kushina smiled. "One day." Minato answered. Kushina then clapped her hands together and said, "Alright kids listen up. I need you guys to read these and sign them." She produced two pamphlets and handed them to each of the genin.
Naruto's mouth stretched into a grin so wide Minato thought his cheeks would crack. If he had looked to his right he would have seen Himawari frown for a split second before she regained composure and her face remained neutral. Both of the adults saw the change but figured it was her own business.
"I didn't know Kusagakure was holding chuunin exams." Naruto said, signing the pamphlet before he even read it. "Who's going to be our third?"
"This is Kusagakure's very first exams and they would like to do it the way they test their own genin in their village. Kusa is not a very big village and most of the teams are partners rather than squads of three, so the Hokage saw this as an opportunity for the stragglers and apprentices to get a promotion. Until about 15 minutes ago Kushina and I were to be your teachers but we just got called on an emergency mission so Jiraiya-sensei will be taking over for us. He's also a judge so you guys will be responsible for your selves for most of the exam. I trust you two to give Konoha a good name and keep your hands to yourselves." Naruto sputtered and Himawari's face turned beet red. Kushina had to wipe tears from her eyes from laughing so hard. After Naruto had regained composure and shot his brother the nastiest death-glare he could muster he looked down at his pamphlet and spoke.
"So how many other Konoha teams are attending?" Minato shrugged and Kushina, still snickering, said, "Four. Now I'm pretty sure you both know the rules of this thing, if you wish to participate be sure to bring that pamphlet in, signed, tomorrow to the Hokage. Any questions?" Both Himawari and Naruto shook their heads.
"Ahh, this way! We're nearly there!" Exclaimed Jiraiya. Himawari muttered something that didn't sound terribly friendly and Naruto just grinned. In his past life he hadn't been able to ever enter into another Chuunin exam and became the first unofficial Hokage to ever attain the title still ranked a genin. He doubted there was anything like crazy snake themed pedophiles wandering around in the grass, although he wasn't going to rule it out. Naruto grit his teeth to keep the sudden dread creeping into his gut away. Nothing would go wrong and he would get promoted. He had done far more dangerous missions with his brother and with the exception of his last major mission, nothing had gone wrong.
At mention of his last mission, Naruto's chest started to itch and blonde scratched it softly. The skin was still pink and sensitive in some places.
Despite Jiraiya proclaiming that they were close, they didn't stumble out of the tall grass until nearly sunset. Kusagakure appeared to be a modest sized village with a few hundred permanent inhabitants and almost a hundred more various merchants and peddlers that owned property. For those that could find their way through the grass Kusa was a bustling little site of business opportunities. Two Jounin were waiting for the trio as they fell out of the grass and tried to dust the pollen, dirt, and dust off of themselves.
"Welcome to Kusagakure, please state your business." They both said in unison, making the hair on Naruto's neck stand up. Jiraiya smiled and handed the guards their passports.
"We are here to attend the Chuunin Exams. This is Namikaze Naruto and Hyuuga Himawari." Jiraiya waved his hand over the pair and they both tried to look dignified, although Himawari looked more like death walking. The guards nodded and one of them raised a concern about Himawari. The girl waved her hand and quietly said, "Allergies."
"Well your papers check out and we have been expecting you Jiraiya-sama. There are rooms booked for you and your students, although due to our rules, judges and competitors cannot stay in the same building. There is a room booked for you in the Taicho's guest building." He handed Naruto and Himawari a booklet each. A quick glance at the cover had the kanji for the village and a little number 1 had been printed on the bottom of the cover.
"There is a map in there that will direct you to your building. Just give the inn keeper your names and she'll take care of the rest." The guard who expressed concern over Himawari leaned in and said in a quieter voice, "There's a pharmacy about 3 streets farther down the road from the inn. More people in Kusagakure suffer from allergies than you might think." Himawari gave a thankful short bow and the two Ninja saluted them off into the village.
Despite it being nearly sunset the roads still had a fair amount of people in them, especially as they neared the restaurant district. Jiraiya ditched them as soon as he saw a bar that looked like it had dancers in it. Naruto rolled his eyes and escorted Himawari to the pharmacy that proved to be very simple to find.
The room that had been rented to them was of modest size, two futons had been folded in the middle of the room for them and they had their own private bathroom. Naruto opened his travel bag and sorted through his stuff to make sure everything was in order while Himawari tried to wash the pollen out of her hair in the shower.
"A-ah, Naruto-kun?" Naruto turned his head and promptly blushed. Turning back to face his stuff he answered in a squeaky voice. "Y-yes?" Himawari had just poked her head out the door, but Naruto could see the outline of her very shapely body squeezed into a towel that appeared too small for her. Her hair was plastered flat to her forehead and face, and he knew that her curse seal would be imprinted there, although his eyes didn't make it up that far.
He didn't have to look at her to know she was struggling with her words much more than Naruto was. He could hear it in the way she had to force her words out. For some reason that made it even worse to the blonde.
"C-can you p-pass me my bag? I d-didn't grab c-clean clothes…" Naruto scrambled to grab her bag and tried to, as respectfully as possible, push the bag into her hands without actually throwing it at her, but he ended up both pushing and throwing and missing terribly. It hit the wall next to her and she had to bend down to pick it up, pushing more of her cleavage out of the too-small towel. She snaked her way back into the bathroom and didn't come out for nearly an hour. Not that Naruto minded he had other problems to deal with in the corner of their room.
When the Hyuuga finally slipped out of the bathroom, Naruto was reading the booklet the ninja had given him. The exam didn't start for another 5 full days, not including this one. The sun had set but it was still early in the evening and the nightlife was going full swing. The booklet appeared normal by all means. It had a map that pointed out popular tourist destinations. It had a list of restaurants with price guides and lists of stores and attractions. Konoha had one of these, albeit it was much bigger. Hell he had even been given one in Iwagakure, although, laughably, Iwa's was much smaller than Kusagakure's. Either they didn't care or they didn't know how to have any proper sorts of fun. Naruto rubbed his chest again. Definitely the latter.
"Anything interesting?" Himawari said, sitting down beside him against the wall, but keeping a respectful distance. He could see that her face was started to redden again but he ignored it. He learned from experience that when a girl was embarrassed better to ignore it and pretend nothing happened.
"Well there are a few ramen bars I want to visit, but other than a written greeting for competitors it's pretty much just a standard visitor's guide." Himawari extended her hand and Naruto handed the book over. She flipped the first page open and read the written note out loud.
"FirsT and foremost, I wish to welcome All examiNees and wish yoU much lucK in the upcomIng exams. Please feel fRee to explore the city As Much as you want, wE are a very peaceful aNd friendly village! There are however, a few ground ruleS that we must all follow if the combination of villages is to be tolerated! No fighting outside of the exam! Any such behaviour reflects badly on your resPective villagEs and you will be disqualified, no Chances. Once the exam starts, you will not be allowed unsupervIsed visits with Any of the judges. I reaLize that some of the competitors travelled with judges, so we have set up a supervised forum that the judges are required to attend every day for three hours between 2pm and 4pm. Please enjoy your stay in Kusagakure and good luck! Signed, Kazuo Takeshi."
"Who is Kazuo Takeshi?" Naruto asked after Himawari finished. Himawari answered distractedly, as she was reading the passage again. "He's the leader of the village. Something like a Hokage, but more like a mayor. Huh, that's weird." "What is?" Himawari didn't answer back right away but when she finally did she moved the book so she could Naruto could see the passage.
"See these characters here? Either this person has horrible grammar, or these characters were changed on purpose." Naruto's interest was instantly perked. "What do they say?" He asked. Himawari dug in her bag and pulled out a pen. Under the paragraph she wrote down the characters that had been changed. Naruto nearly laughed.
Tanuki Ramen Special
"Is there a place called Tanuki Ramen listed in there? I think this was a really obvious cryptograph. Maybe the writer's way of telling us all about his favourite restaurant? He sounds like he might be similar to you." Naruto laughed again and Himawari blushed. She almost couldn't believe she had been that forward with him. He didn't even look like he minded either! This was a success!
"I didn't see one listed but I didn't get very far into it. Here let's look. The ramen places start on page 46." The Hyuuga couldn't help but send her partner an exasperated look. He wasn't even fazed. Ramen was his one true love. Flipping to page 46 they skimmed the pages until they eventually came upon a place called Bake Tanuki. Naruto smiled and put his jacket on. Himawari had been hoping for something other than ramen for dinner. Maybe they sold sandwiches.
Bake Tanuki was surprisingly hard to locate, although after nearly 2 hours of looking they finally found it. It was tucked down in the back of an alley and it was tiny. The entire shop was maybe 4 by 4 metres wide. There was only enough room for 4 stools, two for each corner of the half-square counter. There was enough space for the cook to stand or sit and the rest of the space was taken up by cooking equipment. The place was clean enough that Himawari didn't feel too uncomfortable eating there.
The décor of the shop was cluttered in Himawari's opinion. Naruto didn't really have an opinion because it was ramen and who the hell cared what the store looked like. A stuffed Tanuki sat in the corner high up near the ceiling, wearing a large hat and was holding a bottle of sake. Its fake eyes were freaking Himawari out only a little bit.
"Yo, Oya-jii! I heard you sell ramen! I heard you had a special, what's it all about?" Naruto said loudly as he sat down on the far seat, allowing Himawari the seat that nearly hung out in the alley way in case she needed to escape. The old man rubbed his hands together and said, "Boy I gots me the best special ramen in town. Tanuki soup! Does ya like chicken or beef broth better?" Naruto raised his fist over his head and said, rather childishly, "Chicken!"
"And you little miss? What can I get ya?" Himawari looked around for a sign that he cooked anything other than ramen and didn't see any. She sighed. "I'll have just a small bowl of miso ramen please." The old man saluted her and smiled a smile full of broken and yellow teeth. The Byakugan user repulsed the urge to grimace. She was better than that.
She didn't, however, have the composure to keep her face straight when Naruto was handed his bowl almost ten minutes later. Sitting in the middle of his brother, noodles, eggs, and various vegetables, were two large round balls of meat. She really hoped it was ground beef or even ground tanuki. As long as it's some kind of ground meat. Naruto clapped his hands together and chorused, "Itadakimasu!" and dug in, taking a large bite of one of the meat balls. Himawari nearly gagged. She wasn't sure if he was just that oblivious, or if he didn't care and overcame any comprehension with his love of ramen.
As her own much smaller dish was placed in front of her, she almost decided to not eat it, but her stomach betrayed her and gave a small but annoying twist to let her know it was hungry. Tentatively she took a small bite of the noodles and was pleasantly surprised. The ramen was actually delicious! Not the best she's ever had, that was reserved for the new Ichiraku ramen back home, but it was very good. She could understand how Naruto was on his through a second bowl before she was even halfway done her first.
When Naruto had his fill, and Himawari was mystified as to where all of his food had gone, as usual, the old man whom Himawari had found out to be rather pleasant and cheerful pulled out their bill and wrote on the back. Handing it to Naruto he cheerfully paid for their meals and read the back.
"The Beckoning Cat? What does that mean?" The old man sat back down on his stool and stashed the money in a bag hanging on his belt. "It's a small shop that sells mostly lunchtime meals. The beautiful woman who runs it is ma' wife. Tell 'er I sent ya and she'll make ya the best sandwich ya've ever had! It's closed now but she opens up at about 9 in the a.m. and it's open until just before the dinner rush." Himawari silently thanked the old man. Now she'd have real food! "Wow thank you Oya-jii! I'll definitely go there!" The old man smiled his broken smile and waved at them as they left.
The streets had emptied after the dinner rush and only a few people were quietly walking back to their own homes. The only people who even made eye contact with Himawari and Naruto were a pair of ninja from Kumogakure. One of them had a vicious burn scar that he tried to cover his shirt and a scarf. Both teams held each other's eye contact until they passed each other. Himawari used her Byakugan subtly to see that they had turned down the same alley that they had just come out.
"It looks like someone else solved the little riddle in the book." Himawari said when they were out of earshot. "Hmm?" Naruto said; his eyes were starting to show the little sleep he had attained during the trip here. Himawari smiled and shook her head. She cautiously threaded her arm around Naruto's and when he didn't pull away she relaxed and enjoyed the contact.
End Chapter 17