Team 8

What if Naruto had been selected for a different team? What if he'd had a different mentor? Who would guess the consequences would be so large?


3. First Mission

Hinata was the first to arrive at training area nineteen. She'd left home earlier than strictly necessary, but she was happy to be out of the Hyuuga compound. It was, she supposed, somewhat shameful that she felt happier away from her ancestral home. She knew that her father would see that as a demeaning lack of pride in her heritage. Hinata sometimes wondered what her mother would think, if she were still alive.

Shino arrived a few minutes later. The Aburame boy was quiet, merely nodding to her when she greeted him. At first Hinata wondered if he was angry with her for disagreeing with him at lunch yesterday. But as she watched him examine the base of one of the trees, she remembered how quiet he had been at the academy. Perhaps he just didn't have anything to say.

Kurenai arrived with another boy, and it took a moment for Hinata to recognize Naruto without the orange jumpsuit that had been his trademark over the last couple of years. He was frowning; making Hinata wondered what was wrong. Naruto was always smiling and joking, and for him to appear so grim…

As they approached, Kurenai-sensei put her hand on his shoulder and said something too quiet to hear. Naruto nodded and shook himself, like a dog with wet fur, and then he straightened up and let out a sigh. Naruto grinned at everyone and she felt her face begin to flush again.

"I'm glad to see you all got here early," Kurenai called out as they walked up. "Punctuality is important for what we do… or rather, being too late can be fatal."

Hinata felt her stomach tighten at the jonin's grim words, but tried not to let her fear show. Father would be mortified that any Hyuuga, let alone his own daughter, would show fear before others. Not that Hinata had done that well at abiding by her father's wishes.

Shino didn't visibly react to their sensei's words. Instead, he just continued to look at her through his ever-present dark glasses. Hinata envied his reserve.

Hinata did not know quite what to make of Naruto's new uniform. He looked rather good in it, she had to admit. It was also certainly more practical, but his orange jumpsuit had become such a part of him that it seemed strange to see him without it. The quiet way he approached with Kurenai-sensei was also at odds with his normal behavior. All of this made Hinata concerned for her teammate. She liked the Naruto that always smiled and tried again, and she didn't want to see that change.

As she became more upset, a sudden thought gave her pause. She liked the loud, brassy Naruto, but did he necessarily like it himself? He'd looked so dejected after the Genin exam, and her mind wandered back to other times that he'd been down. Were those truly the only times he'd been upset – or were they the only times he let it show?

Reading people was a high art among the Hyuugas, ever since one of her clan leader ancestors took his Byakugan to a new level. Hinaro-san was the first to actively read a person's intentions from the tension in their bodies and the way they moved. The observations he made were said to be devastatingly accurate, and the Fire Lord often hired him to evaluate his courtiers and to aid his spymaster in weeding out the disloyal. His eyes were said to be acute enough to detect variations in a shinobi's pulse rate by observing the vibrations in the skin over their carotid arteries. There is even a rumor that fear of this formidable skill was what led the Hatake family to begin wearing their traditional masks.

As with most of her family's arts, Hinata was not very adept with body reading. She could see the disappointment and resentment that festered in the eyes of the clan elders, but they also didn't bother to conceal their feelings. Her cousin Neji, on the other hand, was said to be able to see things that the adults wished to keep unnoticed. From most people, Hinata could merely guess at their mental state.

However, she had also spent a long time studying Naruto. She was no expert on his mercurial moods, but as she watched him approach, she didn't get a sense of sadness or anger from him. He was just… reserved, in an odd way.

At the same time, he also seemed very focused. When Kurenai-sensei spoke, Naruto took in every word. Not even Iruka-sensei at his angriest could command so much of Naruto's attention. Hinata found herself respecting the jonin even more now, though she wondered what she had said or done to Naruto to earn such respect.

Her curiosity became even stronger when the woman reached into the pouch at her waist and removed a pair of scrolls. She handed one to Shino and the other to Hinata. "These are some exercises I'd like you to perform on your own, outside of our team meetings. They are mostly speed and endurance-building exercises, though there are also activities that should build up your chakra capacity and control."

Hinata carefully placed the scroll in her weapons pouch. "Ano, sensei, uh… what will we be doing during team meetings?" Despite Kurenai-sensei's kindly demeanor, Hinata still found it embarrassingly difficult to speak out or ask questions.

"That's a good question, Hinata," Kurenai replied evenly. "I'd like this time to be spent working on things that would benefit from us all being together. For the speed and endurance training, I will leave it to each of you to make sure you are pushing yourselves as hard as you can. Remember, it won't just be you paying the penalty if you don't. But a team also needs to learn how to fight together. Sparring will let you test and improve your skills against one another, and it will also let you come to understand each others' fighting styles. From what I saw yesterday, they are quite different."

Kurenai smiled, perhaps a little grimly. "That knowledge will prove very useful when you fight together as a team. You will know how your teammates will react and be able to move with them smoothly to counter any threats. A well-trained shinobi team can move together like a well-oiled machine, and becomes much more effective than just the sum of its members. We call this extra bonus 'synergy'."

Hinata nodded slowly. She vaguely remembered something about that concept from lessons at the academy last year. Naruto frowned thoughtfully but didn't say anything.

With that, Kurenai put them to work. "We'll start with just taijutsu today. No other techniques for right now. Just hand to hand. Hinata, why don't you and Naruto start? Light contact only."

Hinata was a little nervous about sparring with Naruto first thing, but tried to control her reactions. Sensei was right, she needed to know her teammates as well as she knew herself.

Naruto moved a little stiffly at first, perhaps because of his new clothes. Hinata activated her Byakugan so she could see his Tenketsu points, but she didn't push any chakra out of her palms as she struck. This way she could tell if she struck true, which wasn't as often as she liked, but didn't disable her teammate.

Naruto jolted back on his heels when her palm slipped around his block and struck him flat on the chest. He smiled ruefully at her and shook his head. Her stomach gave an odd wobble as he dropped back into a ready stance. Naruto didn't seem to be upset that she'd scored on him. In fact, his look was almost… approving.

That thought made her falter and she almost missed a block. Naruto, of course, was pulling his punches at the last instant; neither of them was out to hurt the other. Nonetheless, his knuckles still jarred her shoulder.

Mortified at her slip, Hinata grabbed his sleeve, wrapping her fingers around his arm just above the wrist. She brought her other hand in low, aiming for the Tenketsu point right above the hara, between the navel and diaphragm.

Naruto twisted backwards to avoid the blow, but her hold on his arm limited his motion. Naruto purposefully fell backwards. Hinata let go of his arm so she could chamber a kick, but then realized that he had a handful of her jacket clenched in his fist now.

Her unpredictable teammate rolled onto his back, pulling his knees up to his chest, and Hinata was yanked forward off her feet. He let go of her shoulder as her stomach came to rest on his sandals. Hinata barely saw the pleased grin on his face before she was launched into the air.

Hinata found herself upside down, flying backwards through the air. She curled up to speed her rotation, and managed to get her feet under her before she landed, her back to Naruto.

"Good recoveries, both of you," Kurenai said, and with the Byakugan still active, Hinata could see her smiling without having to turn her head. She was embarrassed at her slip, and could see her father's disapproving glare in her mind, but no one here seemed to notice or care.

Nonetheless, Naruto seemed a bit more focused when they resumed their match. His attacks sped up and became more fluid, and Hinata had to fully focus her concentration to block him. Every time she blocked one of his punches or kicks, his grin became a little wider, and Hinata found herself smiling a little as well. He really should have participated in the after class sparring, she mused as she ducked under a looping roundhouse kick. She swept his supporting leg, but Naruto twisted sideways with the motion and landed in a hand stand. His waist twisted and the foot she'd swept came arcing towards her face. She leaned back to avoid it, and as it passed she struck the back of his calf with the heel of her hand.

This sent Naruto's lower body off-balance to the left. He should have fallen to the ground, but he'd anticipated this and flexed his elbows, throwing his upper body into the air even as his legs rotated to the ground. He ended up on his feet in a comically wide stance, but the rotation brought his upper half in close to Hinata and his left hand came up inside her guard. She tried to flinch back from the fist rising toward her jaw, but it was too late. She closed her eyes and felt her head jolt.

Instead of the expected pain of impact, her chin felt very warm. She opened her eyes, realizing that she'd dropped her Byakugan in her surprise. Naruto's hand was wrapped around the point of her chin, his fingers warm on her cheeks.

"Gotcha!" he said, chuckling happily. He withdrew his hand as she blinked at him. "I was moving too fast to be sure, so I opened my hand." He frowned. "It didn't hurt, did it?"

Hinata shook her head, not trusting her voice. She knew she was blushing, but also realized that her whole face was red from exertion, so it hopefully did not show. In fact, she was dripping with sweat and it was becoming difficult to keep her arms from trembling. Naruto's face was a little flushed, but that was it. She was a little disturbed that he wasn't even breathing very hard.

"Very good, both of you," Kurenai-sensei called out. "Adaptation, Improvisation. But your weaknesses are not your techniques. Experience will only improve you both."

Kurenai sparred with Shino next, to give them a breather. Predictably, her Sensei was noticeably faster and stronger than Shino. Hinata's attention, however, was focused more on the blond sitting on the grass next to her. He didn't even look like he'd been exercising now, and she wondered if he'd just been playing with her while they were sparring. I should have known I wasn't really that good, she mused reproachfully as she pressed her forefingers together.

She was jolted out of her thoughts by Naruto's elbow. "All those palm strikes were times you would have used chakra to shut me down?" he asked her.

Hinata nodded silently. Aside from Kurenai explaining the reasons why they trained together, it wasn't that like Jyuuken was that big a secret. Her family's famous techniques were described, in a general fashion, during the History lectures at the Konoha Ninja Academy.

Naruto rubbed at the back of his head. "Then I guess I got you twice and you would have demolished me at least a dozen. That's pretty good!"

Hinata turned and stared at the boy, but he didn't seem to be mocking her.

Kurenai smiled as she put Shino through the wringer. The boy was a little larger and physically stronger than his teammates, and for the most part he hadn't been challenged that much the day before. She had a feeling that the boy was actually a bit more talented than he let on. As reserved as the boy's father had been, she realized that she shouldn't be surprised that his son would treat the academy like an infiltration assignment.

In the back of her mind, Kurenai again wondered at how clueless the academy examiners seemed to be. If we are teaching children to be shinobi, she mused, then why should we expect straightforward tests of their abilities to be accurate? Some students would excel at those of course. The Uchiha boy, Sasuke, seemed to have something to prove, so he would of course push himself to become the top of his class.

But those might prove to be the exceptions.

She'd stayed after the meeting where the Genins were assigned and grilled Iruka for everything he could tell her about his charges. The chuunin was a little disconcerted by her attention, but gratified that she was actually interested in his observations, as well as the examination grades. In those, Shino was said to be merely average at taijutsu. He was more than capable of defeating someone without training, but was barely above the bottom third of his class at the academy.

But now, placed on the spot against a superior opponent, the boy was executing blocks and counters at a level of proficiency approaching that of a chuunin. "You've been holding out on us," she accused as she drove a spear-hand strike at his mid-section. He silently blocked with the edge of his wrist and sent a back-fist strike against her temple. Kurenai stepped into it and blocked with her forearm. She brought up an unnoticed knee and tapped Shino in the stomach.

He nodded, acknowledging her point, and stepped back into a ready stance again.

She sent a kick at his midsection, but when he went to block, she pulled her foot back, re-chambered the kick, and launched it again at his head. He ducked his head, but her heel clipped his shoulder on the way down. Shino drove two fingers into the hollow of her knee and she barely managed to pull her leg back before his nerve strike numbed it.

"You didn't learn that at the academy," she observed as he deflected a ridge-hand strike she aimed at his floating ribs. "Extra training with your family?" she asked as she blocked his counterstrike at her stomach.

Shino pushed back against her block and his feet slipped backwards a few inches on the grass. That evidently was his aim as that motion gave him enough room to bring his foot up and kick. She caught his ankle between her palms and gave his leg a sharp twist. He leapt upward and retracted his leg, pulling himself closer for a knife-hand strike at her face. The move was unexpected and well-timed, and she barely pulled her head back in time to avoid it. As it was, his fingertips ghosted across the skin of her forehead. She used her grip on his ankle to throw him back and he somersaulted backwards once before rolling onto his feet and rising into a low crouch.

"Very good, Shino," Kurenai said approvingly. "But if you wish to remain on this team, you will not hold back during our training sessions. I can understand your caution within the academy, but there should be no secrets between teammates." She saw Naruto give a guilty start out of the corner of her eye and knew he'd gotten the message as well.

Shino merely nodded at this, which she accepted with good grace. She'd get him talking. Eventually… Maybe.

After that, Naruto sparred with Shino, and had a noticeably harder time landing a hit than he did the day before. Kurenai also took the opportunity to work with Hinata on her blocking techniques. Kobaru-sensei had done the same for her, many years ago. There were ways to angle the arms and legs that increased one's leverage. These modified blocks were not taught at the Konoha Ninja Academy because they required superior speed and timing to execute properly. For an agile kunoichi who possessed less upper-body strength than her male counterparts, however, they were ideal.

Hinata took to the techniques avidly, and Kurenai could tell she was flattered to be getting any individual instruction at all. If she didn't already despise Hiashi, the Hyuuga girl's reactions would drive her to do so. When she explained why she was showing the girl the alternate techniques, Hinata just nodded thoughtfully. Kurenai was embarrassed to remember how she had given Kobaru a very hard time about his insinuation that she was weaker than Mattai or Nomaru.

After about half an hour of this, switching off sparring partners every few minutes, Kurenai found all of her genins to be somewhat worse for the wear. Naruto's new uniform was covered with dust and bits of grass from all the times he'd been knocked down. At the same time, he was also smiling broadly as he helped Hinata, who'd slipped to one knee after successfully blocking his last kick. The Hyuuga girl was red-faced and barely able to stand, and Shino's chest moved rapidly enough to inform his teacher that he was breathing hard.

"All right, that's a good start. We can walk to cool down and let our muscles relax. I can tell we definitely need to work on endurance training. Make sure you follow the exercises I gave you, and ask me if anything is unclear." With that, she led them out of the training area and through the outskirts of the village.

The villagers they passed had very different reactions to the genins placed in her charge. Hinata's eyes and unadorned forehead marked her as a member of one of Konoha's oldest and most powerful families. People who didn't know her gave her at least a respectful nod, and she returned those she noticed.

Shino's clothing and glasses marked him as an Aburame, and most people gave him a wide berth. A few glanced downward at their arms and legs, as if to make sure a bug hadn't crawled up onto them. Kurenai did have to wonder how commonplace it was for a member of Shino's clan to 'tag' the people around them with the scent-producing female kikai bugs. The one she'd worked with explained that it helped him differentiate his teammates to the 'allies' he'd stationed on guard duty. It also proved useful when a member of their team had been ambushed and wounded, and they needed to find him quickly. Of course, that didn't mean she was comfortable with the idea of someone ordering a bug to crawl onto her body and hide itself. She'd probably need to talk to Shino about that the next time she could speak to him alone.

While Shino seemed either uninterested or unperturbed by the villagers' reactions, the same could not be said of Naruto. Maybe it was his acceptance by Iruka; maybe it was her own agreement that his treatment was unjustified. In any event, as Naruto received his normal allotment of angry glares and muttered oaths, he began to glare back. Soon he was walking with his hands fisted at his sides, on legs stiff with anger and resentment.

Privately, Kurenai wondered if this wasn't a healthier attitude for him than his previous denial. At the same time, it wouldn't do for him to get into an altercation with random villagers. She resolved to let him work through his feelings on his own, but keep a close eye on him and offer advice if asked.

By the time they'd arrived at the Hokage's tower, everyone appeared to have recovered from the sparring. She led them up the stairs to the top floor, and told the chuunins on duty that they were "Team 8 reporting for assignment". At her words, she noticed Naruto straighten his posture with pride, and even Hinata stopped looking downward for a moment.

The Sandaime looked pleased to see them, and his eyes seemed to linger on Naruto's new clothes. His eyes then met hers, and she couldn't suppress a mild blush at the approval she saw in them.

"You're just in time, jonin Kurenai," the Hokage said. "We still have a few D-rank missions left." Kurenai inclined her head respectfully as the old man shuffled through a stack of papers on his desk. "There we are," he said, pulling one out. "I need you to report to Herbalist Yukitaza in the western district, near the river. He suffered a broken leg last week while working on his roof and needs some help."

Kurenai led her students down to the exit, trying not to laugh at the confusion on Naruto's face, and echoed somewhat on Hinata's. "As a new genin team," she began before they even had a chance to ask her, "you will be assigned D-rank missions until you have completed a good number of them." She specifically avoided saying how many, because she wanted to have the option of delaying their first C-rank mission until she was sure they were ready.

"D-rank missions," she continued, "are judged to be little or no threat, and should rarely, if ever, involve travel beyond the outer walls of Konoha. They are tasks that still need doing, will give you all an opportunity to practice working together, and will supply you with a little pocket money when you are done."

She paused on a street corner while they digested this. Naruto still looked a little rebellious, but resigned to his fate. She stepped up the pace a little as they made their way to the western quarter of the village. When she rang the bell at the door of the house described in the mission briefing, a voice called out for them to come around to the rear deck.

Herbalist Yukitaza proved to be a middle-aged unmarried man with a large cast on his left leg. He made a short double-take when he recognized Naruto, but didn't react in any other way.

Soon, Kurenai and Shino were working on the roof repairs, the Aburame boy having reluctantly mentioned helping his father perform a similar task last winter. Hinata and Naruto were put to work weeding the client's large garden plot, a task better suited to their smaller statures.

They'd been working for a few minutes when Kurenai was startled to realize that it was Naruto carrying the next load of wood up the ladder. She looked over at Shino, who just shrugged.

"Naruto," she said puzzled, "I thought you were going to help Hinata with the garden?"

Naruto grunted and laid the boards down on the shallow pitched roof. "There wasn't enough room," he said.

Kurenai frowned and looked out over the back yard. Hinata was working on the garden plot, along with about twenty Narutos.

Kurenai turned back to Naruto. "They can all work independently?" she asked. Bunshins were usually only capable of limited thought, following simple and straightforward commands.

Naruto shrugged. "Why shouldn't they?" he asked.

Kurenai wasn't quite sure how to answer that question. Naruto shook his head and turned to go back down the ladder. Unfortunately, he evidently forgot about the stack of boards he'd just put down, because he tripped over them and tumbled off the roof.

Kurenai lunged forward, hoping to catch the boy, but it was too late. She reached the edge of the roof just as Naruto hit the ground… and disappeared in a puff of smoke. She stopped, staring at the vapors that rapidly dissipated. I was talking to one of his Bunshin and didn't even realize it, she mused. What the hell is that boy? She looked out at the garden, where Hinata had just grabbed Naruto's arm to prevent him from pulling up a plant that wasn't a weed. He scratched at the back of his head, embarrassed, not even noticing how Hinata pulled her hands back from his arm like they were burned. Not did he notice her blush, for all that it was brighter than his own. He's Uzumaki Naruto, Kurenai reminded herself ruefully, and he breaks the rules without even realizing it.

Naruto and Hinata finished the garden in less than twenty minutes, with a clone starting at both ends of each row and Hinata using her Byakugan to supervise. With her ability to look in all directions at once, she could see if he missed anything or was about to pull something that wasn't a weed. The latter happened a little more often than Naruto would have liked, but Hinata didn't tease him about it. In fact, she seemed to worry that she wasn't doing her fair share of the work.

Naruto wasn't any expert on girls, or kunoichi, by any stretch of the imagination. But he suspected that most of his female classmates would have been glad of an excuse to not get their hands dirty, rather than worrying that they weren't doing enough. He tried to tell Hinata that he appreciated her attitude, but when the words came out of his mouth it sounded more like "I like how you're like a boy, instead of a girl" and she became very upset and then confused when he tried to explain.

"I mean, you're not like Sakura or Ino," he said quickly.

Hinata ducked her head down and looked even sadder. "I- I know," she said hesitantly.

"But that's a good thing," Naruto said quickly. Did she like Sakura and Ino? He wondered. I don't remember ever seeing them talk, but they are all girls – they're like some secret society.

"I-it is?" she asked. Her forefingers were pressed together so hard that the skin had turned white.

"I – I mean, they are nice and all… I'm not saying they are ugly or anything," Naruto added quickly. If they were all friends and it got back to those two that he said they were ugly, genin or not, he was a dead shinobi.

Hinata frowned, perplexed. "A-ano… I…" she swallowed. "Naruto-kun, I don't understand what you mean."

"I'm just saying… well… I'm glad you're on my team," Naruto said firmly. There. No one could interpret anything bad out of that, right?

Hinata stiffened like she'd been slapped, then quickly turned away.

Naruto's mouth dropped open. He started to step around her to ask what he'd said when she pointed at one of his clones.

"S-stop. He's about to pull a good plant," she said in a choked voice.

Naruto whirled toward the offending clone. "You heard her," he barked.

"Take it easy, baka," the clone said. "You're acting like she's your girlfriend or something."

An instant later the clone disappeared as Naruto's fist transited through the space its head once occupied. "S-sorry," he apologized. "Sometimes they get a little smart-mouthed when they know their time is almost up."

"We a-appear to be almost done, Naruto," Hinata said in a quiet voice, still not facing him. "I will go inside and help Yukitaza-san with the kitchen."

Naruto glared at the remaining Bunshin as Hinata silently walked toward the house. All of them stayed bent over, peering carefully at the ground as they finished the weeding.

After finishing outside, Naruto went indoors to help with the cleaning. Hinata was silent as he passed through the kitchen, very intently focused on dicing up some vegetables Herbalist Yukitaza had delivered earlier that day. After locating the cleaning supplies, Naruto created another set of clones and put them to work tidying up. Fortunately, this was something he knew quite well how to do, having had to clean up his own apartment for years. He finished as Kurenai and Shino came down from the roof. Naruto sent his clones out to put away the tools and the ladders.

Hinata was still busy in the kitchen, so Naruto and Shino were sent to make some deliveries to their client's customers. Kurenai-sensei decided she would help Hinata finish. She gave Naruto a piercing look as she announced this, and he felt the back of his neck grow hot.

As he ran down the street with a small bundle of herbs, Naruto tried to figure out what he'd done wrong. It wasn't like he'd asked the stupid Bunshin to mouth off. Maybe Hinata thought it was saying something Naruto was thinking, and that was why she'd been offended. It sort of made sense in a way. Sakura always hit him soon after he'd asked her out. Naruto realized that his attempts to be friendly with her seemed to always make her angry at him. Maybe it was something about him, maybe it was some aura given off by that bastard fox. Perhaps it was a side-effect of the seal used to imprison his unwanted tenant. Maybe a seal strong enough to repel a demon would also repel any girls he came into contact with as well.

He scowled as he knocked on the door of his bundle's destination. An old woman opened it and Naruto handed her the package before she had a chance to realize who he was. "This is from Herbalist Yukitaza. He broke his leg and can't make his own deliveries today." With that, he spun and was halfway back to the street before the woman had a chance to speak.

Naruto stuffed his hands into his jacket pockets as he made his way back to the Herbalist's newly cleaned and repaired house. It was bad enough how people hated him for something that happened the day he was born, but now he was pissing off everyone else – even when he was trying to be nice.

When he returned to the house, Hinata and Kurenai had finished up in the kitchen. With the deliveries made, the last tasks for their 'mission' were completed. The Herbalist thanked them for their help, and even looked Naruto in the eye, which impressed him a little.

"Not quite an hour and a half," Kurenai said after they made their goodbyes. "That was very quick. Good use of your Bunshins, Naruto, and coordinating with Hinata to make sure there were no problems. I'm very pleased with your teamwork, both of you."

Naruto felt the knot of resentment in his middle loosen a bit. Hinata's reaction, however, caught his eye. She looked down, pushing her fingers together as her cheeks turned red. When she noticed him staring, she turned completely away. He frowned and let out a sigh. Evidently she was still mad at him or something.

As they made their way back toward the center of the village, Kurenai peered up at the afternoon sun. "At this point, I doubt the Hokage has any missions left to give out. Let's get together a little earlier tomorrow. If we work as fast as we did today, we can probably clear two missions a day. I'll see you all at the training ground at ten, all right?"

Everyone nodded, and then Kurenai pulled some slips of paper from her pouch. "A friend of mine gave these to me, but I have something I need to do tonight, so I thought you three could use them." She handed one to each of her genins.

It was a coupon for Ichiraku, good for a large bowl at half price. Naruto's stomach rumbled, but the way things were going he thought he'd rather eat alone.

"Thank you, Sensei," he said, though he imagined his voice sounded a little subdued. His team-mates echoed his thanks, though he noticed Shino looking at him a little oddly.

Naruto also felt his sensei's eyes boring into him. "Well, you'd better get going before the dinner rush starts," she said. "You probably shouldn't stay out too late. Oh, before you go, Naruto, I needed to talk to you about your taijutsu training. You can catch up with the others."

Naruto let out a quiet sigh as Shino and Hinata headed off to Ichiraku's.

"Okay Naruto," Kurenai said. "I need you to let Gai know tomorrow morning that I'll be working with you all on genjutsu recognition week after next. He can send Tenten and Lee over to training area nineteen at noon, so they can participate. Got that?"

Naruto nodded and repeated back the relevant details.

"Good," Kurenai said, nodding her approval. "Now, would you like to explain why you are less than enthusiastic about sharing a meal with your team-mates?"

Naruto rubbed at the back of his neck. "I seem to have annoyed them at some point today."

"Shino seems to be acting normally towards you," Kurenai observed.

Naruto stayed silent.

"So it's Hinata," she surmised. "Did this happen after you paid her some complement?"

Naruto's mouth stayed shut, but his head betrayed him by giving a quick nod.

"I see," Kurenai said. She gazed down at him for several moments. "It probably isn't my place to say anything," she finally spoke, "but I've noticed that she doesn't always know what to do when someone says something positive about her. I wouldn't take it too personally, Naruto."

"Why is that?" he asked, genuinely puzzled.

Kurenai shook her head. "Why don't you ask her yourself?"

Naruto opened his mouth, and then closed it. It was obvious to him that Kurenai-sensei knew more than she was saying, but she wanted him to find out for himself. "Why are you making such a mystery out of things?"

Kurenai looked down at him and gave a faint smile. "I know things about you that you would probably prefer that I keep to myself. Please extend your team-mates the same courtesy."

Naruto's stomach lurched when the meaning of her words sunk in. "G-gomen," he said quickly.

Kurenai sighed and shook her head. "No need to apologize, Naruto. You are still learning how a team works, and what a sensei does for their students. Just keep in mind that I'm probably helping other people in ways similar to how I help you." She cocked her head, frowning, as the afternoon light glistened on her mane of black hair. "Naruto, this is usually hard for someone your age to really understand, but keep in mind that not everything that happens around you is about you."

Naruto frowned and scratched the side of his head as his mind raced. "So, what you're saying is that she didn't act that way because she's mad at me?"

"I'm saying that might be the case," Kurenai replied cryptically, "or more likely it's a combination of things, and who you are played only a contributing role in the outcome."

Naruto nodded slowly. "I think I understand, a little. I don't understand why this has to be so complicated though."

"People have been asking that question for a long time," Kurenai replied in a serious voice.

Naruto let out a sigh. "It's not going to get any easier, is it?"

"Probably not," Kurenai said with a slight smile. "But few worthwhile things are easy, are they?"

"I guess not. Thanks for explaining some of this," Naruto said, straightening. His stomach decided to lighten the mood by letting out a low rumble.

"That's partly my job, you know," his sensei said with a sad smile. "Real life examples of looking 'underneath the underneath' seem to work the best. But… you'd better get going before they eat all the ramen."

Naruto knew she was just teasing him, but his pulse still sped up at the thought. After a quick bow, he began racing off across the rooftops to catch up with his team. He heard the quiet laughter that followed him, but, recognizing her voice, he just smiled himself.

He caught sight of Shino and Hinata blocks before they reached the ramen stand. He landed lightly on the pavement behind them, but still they both turned as one to look at him. Well, we are supposed to be a reconnaissance team, he mused. "I, er, had to talk to sensei about my extra training," he said. It was technically true, and much less embarrassing to admit.

"Ano, what does your scroll say?" Hinata asked. "We've been comparing ours, and Kurenai-san has put a lot of detail into the plans."

"She didn't give me a scroll," Naruto said with a slight smile, "she arranged for me to work with another jonin in the morning. Some guy by the name of Maito Gai."

Shino looked at him, and Naruto swore the skin above his glasses began to draw together, like he was frowning. "I've heard of him, he's a renowned taijutsu specialist."

Naruto bit his tongue before it could start bragging. If Kurenai-sensei was correct, these were not the people around which he needed to put up a false front. In a heretofore rare flash of insight, he realized that Shino might interpret Naruto's morning training with another jonin as a sign of favoritism. "I hope so," he said with a theatrical sigh. "She said my taijutsu was such a mess that she didn't think she could fix it without help."

Hinata just stared at him as Naruto gave a sheepish shrug. Shino's brow, however, smoothed out and he gave a thoughtful nod. "Then it's good that you are both taking this so seriously."

Naruto shrugged. "How am I going to beat you down if I don't?" he asked innocently, then began to whistle tonelessly as he walked past his teammates. "We'd better get there before the noodles get cold," he said.

He turned back to see Shino and Hinata exchange a wordless glance before they began walking again.

The old man who ran Ichiraku always seemed pleased to see his best customer. "Hey Naruto, who are your friends?" he asked. Until recently, he and his daughter were the only people Naruto knew who were likely to even notice if he dropped dead in his apartment. At least, until the smell bothered the neighbors, he reminded himself.

Still, if anyone deserved a smile, the gracious man about to serve the noodles surely did. Shino and Hinata had silently walked up on either side of him, so he put a hand on each of their shoulders as he answered. "These are my team-mates, Ichiraku-san!"

"Well, why haven't you brought them here before?" the old man asked.

"Well, we just became Team 8 yesterday, and we had a practice, and…" Naruto explained until he noticed the man was smiling and waving his hand from side to side.

"Naruto, I was just joking with you. Seriously now, aren't you going to introduce your friends?"

"Gomen," Naruto said quickly. "This is Aburame Shino and Hyuuga Hinata."

"I'm pleased to meet you both!" he replied. "Have a seat and I'll get you some menus, take all the time you want to decide – we have a lot of flavors to choose from."

Naruto, of course, already knew what he wanted. He used Kurenai's coupon to order a large bowl of pork ramen at half price, and after checking his wallet ordered another bowl of miso-flavored ramen. Shino ordered a bowl of beef ramen, while Hinata eventually settled on miso ramen.

Everyone was quiet after the noodles arrived. Their labors seemed to have given them an appetite, because their mouths were kept too busy for conversation for a good while.

Surprisingly enough, it was Shino who finally broke the silence. "Our sensei was impressed by your Bunshin," he said without preamble.

Naruto frowned. "What do you mean?"

"The one that carried the wood up to the roof," the bug-user replied cryptically. "I don't think she expected to be able to hold a conversation with one."

"Why not?" Naruto asked. "If it's a copy of me, shouldn't it be able to talk?"

"Most Bunshin jutsus don't even produce solid copies," Shino explained. "And while there are some that do produce copies of the user that can touch things, those copies are usually not very self-aware. At first, we thought it was you talking to us."

Naruto stuck his lower lip out. "So you're saying I'm so dumb that you couldn't tell the difference between me and a mindless clone?" He thought he heard a sharp inhalation coming from the stool on the other side of him, where Hinata was sitting.

Shino looked at him for a long moment. "Your attempt at self-deprecating humor is noted, but not necessary. The thrust of my remarks was that your clones are unusually self-aware, a reflection of the degree of skill and energy used in their creation."

"Oh," was all Naruto could say to that. "Er, thanks, Shino."

The Aburame boy nodded gravely. Naruto finished his pork ramen and started on the miso-flavored bowl. He wondered why Kurenai-sensei hadn't said anything to him about the Bunshin. He concluded that she probably didn't want him to get a swelled head and start acting like Uchiha-teme. But that didn't explain why Shino decided to bring it up on his own. Then he remembered the boy's disparaging remark yesterday after his botched attempt at Kage Bunshin no Jutsu. Naruto supposed he might have felt the need to make up for his previous comment, even though Naruto had mostly forgotten it a day later. While the boy's reserve and exceptionally quiet and precise manner were a little unusual to deal with, that same precision and rectitude would also make him a very reliable team-mate. Oddly enough, Naruto found himself warming a bit toward the silent shinobi.

Of course, such an introspective mood was not meant to last. Naruto's train of thought was neatly derailed when he felt a spike of killing intent coming from the street behind him. He twisted on his stool to see what was happening.

Looking somewhat bruised and dirty, Kiba, Sakura, and Sasuke were walking up the street. Sakura was chattering happily about some test involving bells and Naruto felt his stomach quiver happily for an instant. Then he remembered her words on the park bench and the warm feeling died. The killing glare, of course, was coming from Sasuke. Naruto wondered if the famed Uchiha genius even figured out why Naruto had taken his place. Probably not, he concluded, for a genius, he doesn't have much imagination.

Naruto returned his rival's glare and bared his teeth. He knew his slightly enlarged canines sometimes made adults a little nervous, but he didn't fully appreciate why this was so until a couple of days ago.

The whole thing might have ended with an exchange of glares if Kiba hadn't asked Sasuke a question. When he didn't get an answer, the Inuzuka boy looked over at his team-mate and flinched at the facial expression he saw. Kiba frowned, evidently searching for the source of Sasuke's ire. Finally he seemed to notice Naruto, seated at the counter of Ichiraku Ramen, twisted around in his seat to return Sasuke's stare.

Kiba gritted his teeth and his spiky hair seemed to puff up as he stalked over toward Naruto. "Do you have a problem with my team-mate?" he asked in a voice that was little more than a growl.

Naruto didn't answer, but instead kept his eyes locked onto Sasuke's face. He did notice that the Uchiha boy's upper lip was curled, perhaps in annoyance at Kiba's interference.

"What is your problem?" Kiba asked again, a little louder this time.

"Mind your own business," Naruto said, glaring back at Sasuke. Sakura had also stopped, and looked back and forth between the two of them.

"Kiba," Shino said reasonably as he stood up, "Naruto and Sasuke have never really gotten along. We should probably just stay out of it."

The dog-user frowned at the bug-user. "Who are you to tell me what to do, Aburame? We just spent all day on Kakashi-sensei's stupid bell test, and we're the first team he's ever passed!"

Kiba threw out his chest with that last statement, and Shino's eyebrows became visible over his glasses. "Our teacher did not make us perform any additional tests beyond a basic skills assessment, so she must be confident in our abilities. Instead, we completed our first mission today."

Kiba snorted. "So? Just because you got an easy sensei… I got a look at her when she picked you up. She decided to go easy on you."

Shino stiffened as Naruto stood up from his seat. Naruto swore he heard a low buzzing coming from somewhere nearby. Sasuke scowled at Kiba's back, but he approached the ramen stand along with Sakura.

Fortunately, the Haruno girl stepped forward and grabbed Kiba's elbow. "Don't you dare insult their teacher just because she's a woman! Would you want your sister to hear you say that? Or your mother?"

Kiba winced, seemingly in spite of himself, and Naruto had to stifle a snicker. He was a little surprised when Hinata spoke up as well.

"A-ano," she said, "Shinobi are not allowed to fight in public. I, er, don't want to see any of us get in trouble so soon after graduating."

Shino's brow furrowed, but he gave a short nod and sat back down.

"Right Hinata!" Sakura agreed with the girl. "Leave it to the women," she sneered at Kiba as she emphasized the word, "to keep their heads in a crisis." She smiled at the Hyuuga girl. "It's not worth any of us getting in trouble, just because Naruto-baka is too stupid to leave Sasuke alone."

That last insult, so gratuitously added, was the last straw for Naruto. Sakura was playing the peacemaker here, but she still made time to insult him. Her precious Sasuke was glaring at him, while he was just trying to eat his ramen.

Well, to hell with it, and to hell with them.

He got up from his stool so abruptly that it fell over. He pushed past Kiba so brusquely that the larger boy took a half-step backwards. Kiba reached out for Naruto's shoulder, but the smaller boy used the heel of his hand to knock Kiba's hand loose before he even had a chance to get a grip. Akamaru let out a low growl as the Inuzuka boy leaned against the wall of the restaurant.

Hinata felt her jaw drop, along with her stomach, as her team-mate angrily marched away. She felt almost worn away by all the emotional reversals she'd been through that day. First Naruto's stumbling comments in the garden had mortified her, as if he was saying she made him think she was a boy.

When he tried to explain what he meant, it only got worse. He seemed to be saying that she wasn't pretty or nice like the other two girls in their graduating class… but that wasn't right, or else he wouldn't seem so confused. Then he finally said that he was glad she was on his team.

Hinata couldn't remember anyone ever expressing happiness at her presence, not since her mother died. His simple, heartfelt statement almost made her faint. As it was, she had to turn away because her face was blushing as red as a tomato. She'd had difficulty talking to him after that, and it wasn't until Kurenai-sensei came to help her in the kitchen that she began to organize her thoughts.

Kurenai was nothing, if not observant, and she soon had Hinata explaining the whole situation. The older woman chuckled a little when the genin repeated Naruto's words. She advised Hinata in a more serious voice that any future compliments she received from the Uzumaki boy were likely to be just as heartfelt and incoherent. It was funny how her sensei seemed so sure that would happen, but Hinata knew better.

She really didn't want anyone to get in trouble for fighting, especially Naruto. She suspected that he would receive more of the blame than he deserved if there was an altercation. Hinata did not miss the looks the villagers gave him as they walked together. She knew Naruto was often laughed at by the other students at the Konoha Ninja Academy. But she hadn't realized how the villagers in the street reacted to him. It seemed almost, familiar, in a way. It took a while before Hinata realized that she'd seen that degree of distaste before – in the faces of the Hyuuga clan elders when they talked of her failures.

Still, Naruto passed through it without comment, merely returning the more virulent glares. Hinata didn't know whether to be impressed by his fortitude in the face of such dislike, or to be heartbroken that the boy didn't seem to regard it as anything unusual. Nonetheless, she feared that a public brawl would make people hate him even worse, especially since it would have involved genins from several prominent families.

Between her and Sakura, they'd managed to remind the others of the rules, and at least partially defuse the tensions between the two teams. She was grateful to the pink-haired kunoichi, and started to shyly return the girl's smile when Sakura decided to insult Naruto and blame him for the whole situation.

Sakura's attitude toward Naruto was well known to Hinata, but the white-eyed girl was surprised to see her still lash out at him while supposedly in the role of a peace-maker. This hypocrisy wasn't lost on Naruto either, because he visibly flinched, then got up from his stool so quickly that she was afraid he was going to attack someone. Instead, he just brushed past Kiba, who was also standing closer than was strictly polite.

Sakura rolled her eyes and sighed. "He's always such a baby," she groused. Kiba scowled, shaking the hand that Naruto knocked away.

Hinata, who'd been staring after her team-mate, turned toward the other girl. The new emotion she'd started feeling on Naruto's behalf began to simmer within her. Her Byakugan activated on their own, and Hinata was surprised by a sudden desire to close all of the girl's Tenketsu points.

Close up, the distended blood vessels and enlarged pupils that characterized her family's advanced bloodline looked rather disturbing. Hinata had always been embarrassed about this before, but now she was secretly pleased when the Haruno girl stepped back suddenly. "What's wrong?" the girl asked.

"You should not say such things to Naruto!" Hinata said in a voice that was little more than a whisper.

Sakura gaped at her for a moment, but then her eyes grew canny. "I understand," she said. "But just because you like him doesn't mean he isn't-"

"I think you fail to understand," Shino interrupted, "that Naruto was wholly focused on his food until Sasuke made his presence known - his killing intent was noticeable to all of us. Your condemnation of Naruto is therefore illogical. I think you also fail to comprehend that it is possible to feel loyalty toward team-mates in the absence of romantic attachment." The bug-user looked from Sasuke to Kiba, ignoring the shocked silence caused by him actually speaking up. "You have my sympathies," he told the dog-user in a matter-of-fact tone.

Sasuke let out a "hmph", but didn't dispute anything Shino said.

Hinata wrapped her fingers around the hem of her jacket. "A-ano, Shino-san, I think I've had enough ramen."

Shino looked at her for a moment before nodding. He looked at the cooling remains of his beef ramen. "You are correct, it is best hot, and our meal has been interrupted." He turned to the older man and bowed, a motion Hinata quickly echoed. They left their money next to Naruto's and then Shino led the way as they left Ichiraku.

As Hinata and Shino walked side-by-side down the street, she could hear the man's voice carrying in the late afternoon air: "I would appreciate it if you young punks would not run off my customers!"

It was several minutes before Hinata found her voice again. "A-arigatou, Shino-san."

Shino's head turned toward her, even as he continued to walk forward. "My observations were accurate and relevant. No thanks are necessary."

Hinata absorbed this carefully as they continued down the street. "Gomen," she finally said, "but you seem to have changed your opinion regarding Naruto-kun?"

Shino was quiet for a moment, and Hinata worried that her question had offended the boy. "I am… re-evaluating my assessment," he finally said. "Kurenai-sensei seems to bring out qualities in him that were not apparent in his conduct at the academy. A skilled observer must always be willing to challenge his preconceptions if new data contradicts."

Finally, they reached an intersection where Hinata need to turn to reach the Hyuuga compound. "I will see you tomorrow," she said quietly.

"At ten," Shino agreed.

Hinata nodded and turned toward her home. She noticed the sky slowly darkening in the East as a warm summer evening approached Konoha. It seemed impossible that so much had happened in the span of a handful of hours, and she wondered if life would always be like that around her new friends.

That thought fortified her as she walked, steeling herself for her father's inevitable questions.


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