I have no excuse... Except, you know, depression's a bitch.

In any case, enjoy!

"Damn brats... Maybe... Maybe I'm getting old-eurgh!"

"He doesn't look too good," Sasuke quipped, standing some distance away from Kakashi, who was leaning against a tree with his back toward his students. His mask was down, and his free hand was clutching at his stomach while he emptied its contents. Sasuke looked to Hinata. "Think you went a little overboard?"

"S-Sorry..." Hinata mumbled, poking her fingers together. "I honestly thought he would dodge, so..."

"Speaking of which, you have gotten fast, Hinata," Sasuke praised, giving her a thumbs up. "Faster than Naruto without his Space-Time Ninjutsu, that's for damn sure. Should I be worried you might take my place as Team Seven's speed freak?"

"Thank you for your confidence in me, Sasuke-kun, but I don't think I'll ever reach your level of speed," Hinata said, before glancing over at Kakashi in concern. "Um, should we help him?"

"Leave him," Sasuke said simply, waving her off. "He knew what he was getting into when he asked for a two-on-one. The only reason I'd want to go over there now is to see what he looks like under that mask, but circumstances being what they are, it's-" Sasuke cut himself off as another violent burst of projectile vomit was unleashed from their Jounin teacher. "-gross..."

"Sensei!" Hinata called to the cyclops. "Do you need any help?"

"I'm fine!" Kakashi barked as he gave her a wave over his shoulder. "Training's over for the day... You guys can go into town and-ugh... get something to eat..."

"Should we bring you back something?"

"I'm fine..."

The two spared him a glance, then moved out of the clearing, heading for the nearby village they were staying in for the night. Sasuke patted Hinata on the shoulder.

"You're pretty inventive, Hinata. I didn't know Juuken could be used to do things like that."

"It usually isn't, but with my training with Tsunade-sama, I have gotten a good grasp of human anatomy and its functions."

"Still, making an enemy projectile vomit is a great way to stop them in their tracks," Sasuke said, then glanced back toward the clearing where Kakashi was, "for a long time, it seems."

"How do you think Naruto-kun is doing?"

"Probably training, getting stronger, acting cocky..." Sasuke's expression darkened as he listed off what he believed his best friend to be doing, "...talking shit, striking poses, insulting me... Damn it, Naruto, shut up already!"

Hinata blinked at Sasuke's outburst, but then smiled softly. He looked like he was actually hearing Naruto in his head, and talked as though Naruto could hear him.

Meanwhile, far, far away, on Myobokuzan, Senju Naruto gave a violent sneeze, then clutched his fist angrily.

"I really want to punch Sasuke right now..."

"Eh?"

Fukasaku was sitting in front of the standing ninja, blinking in confusion. They were standing in front of a large stone wall. A toad head carved into the wall was spewing a clear liquid like a waterfall in the fountain underneath it. All around them were giant stone toad statues, all sitting in a meditative position.

"Never mind, Pa," Naruto said, waving him off. Naruto wasn't much for honorifics, after all, and Fukasaku had been more than happy to have him call the old toad Pa. The old toad Shima, his wife, had been extremely happy to be called Ma. Apparently, it made her all nostalgic, like "having a little Jiraiya-chan" with them again. "So, what's this?"

"We'll get ta' that, Naruto-chan. But first, have the differences between Ninjutsu and Senjutsu been explained to ya yet?"

"Yeah, the old perv told me about it on our training trip," Naruto said with a nod. "He explained it as Ninjutsu using the chakra you have within yourself, while Senjutsu uses the surrounding chakra, the natural chakra from the very nature itself. He says I'm kind of a gray line, considering my Mokuton Ninjutsu actually naturally absorbs nature chakra on a microscopic level, so it's a bit of both."

"Good, good," Fukasaku nodded in approval. "But Senjutsu is so much more. By takin' the nature chakra within yerself, ya form a new, stronger chakra. It allows ya to perform some incredible feats, ta' be sure. Yer Genjutsu, Ninjutsu, and Taijutsu will be increased tenfolds. The techniques which use the chakra born from the spiritual and physical energies within ya, as well as the natural energy surroundin' ya are called Senjutsu."

"Can you use it?" Naruto asked, glancing over his shoulder at Gamakichi, who had decided to tag along for this training.

"Kinda," Gamakichi nodded. "I'm not good at it, but I can detect it same as any other toad."

"Kichi-chan isn't at mastery level yet, so I'll show ya what nature chakra can do," Fukasaku said, hopping over to one of the stone statues and clapping his hands together. "Naruto-chan, you keep yer senses sharp, lookit what I'm doin'."

Naruto furrowed his brow in concentration as he watched the old toad, who had clapped his hands together in focus. There was a strange feeling in the air, like Fukasaku had become a vacuum that was sucking something in.

"Oh! That's amazing, Fukasaku-sama!" Gamakichi exclaimed with an excited grin on his face. "The nature chakra is gatherin' quickly!"

"So that's what he's doing," Naruto muttered, rubbing his chin, only for his eyes to widen when the elderly toad slipped his hand under the large statue, which was easily over five times Naruto's height, and lifted it up with one hand.

"WOAH!" both Naruto and Gamakichi yelled, both clapping excitedly, which caused Fukasaku to give a small, cocky grin, despite straining under the weight.

"How's this, kiddos?" he asked, before setting down the statue again and fully turning to face Naruto. "That is the power'a nature chakra, boyo. As you are now, ya could probably lift this thing with one arm as well, but with nature chakra in yer system, you'll be able ta' lift a statue twice as big!"

"Awesome..." Naruto whispered, then looked to Fukasaku. "But how can I do that when I couldn't even sense the chakra?"

"Ya must become one with nature first, Naruto-chan," Fukasaku said, which made Naruto blink.

"Have you seen my Mokuton, Pa? I'm pretty one with nature as it is."

"What he means, Naruto, is that you have to die," Gamakichi supplied, making Naruto's eyes widen.

"Gamakichi, don't explain things weirdly!" Fukasaku barked, giving Naruto a reassuring look. "Don't worry, ya won't really die. In order ta' take in the nature chakra, ya need ta' be as one with nature, somethin' that's part of it. Humans're naturally separate from nature, always rushin' about, stompin' everywhere. Ya have ta' be the opposite in order ta' feel the energy and draw it into yerself."

"The opposite? Stillness?" Naruto asked, to which Fukasaku nodded.

"Yes. The first step ta' masterin' this volatile energy is ta' not move. You'll be able ta' feel nature chakra when ya stop yer flow as an animal and harmonize with the flow of nature."

"So, not move, at all?" Naruto asked, getting another nod from the older toad. "But even nature moves. Even a tree will sway in a heavy wind."

"Exactly!" Fukasaku barked, pointing at Naruto. "But that's not the tree willin' itself ta' move. It bends to the will o' the rest o' nature. Ya must be like a tree, Naruto-chan! Move with the wind when it urges ya to, not when ya want."

"I think I get it," Naruto said, crossing his arms. "Absolutely zero movement, become one, and so on. So, how do we get started?"

"It's easier ta' get started once you've had a first taste o' the stuff. That's what this is for." Fukasaku hopped over to the liquid spewing from the toad statue's mouth, making a gesture for it. "This is Myobokuzan's secret toad oil, a natural conductor of nature chakra. C'mere and gimme yer hand, boyo."

Naruto did as ordered. Fukasaku dipped his finger into the oil and dabbed some on the back of Naruto's hand. As soon as it touched his skin, his sensitive sensor skills immediately picked up on the chakra flowing into him. It was an intense energy to be sure. When Fukasaku had called it volatile, he hadn't been kidding! Getting control of this chakra was-

"WHAT?!" Naruto broke out of his thoughts when he noticed how webbing started growing between his fingers, warts appearing on the back of his hand. "The hell is this?!"

"Those who can't fully control the nature chakra will start turnin' into toads," Fukasaku said simply. There was the sound of something being summoned somewhere, and then a horrible pain erupted in the back of Naruto's head as a blunt instrument smacked into his skull.

"Ow!" Naruto yelped, whipping around to glare at the elderly toad, who was holding a black club in his hand. "That hurt, you old fart! You should be helping me, not killing me!"

"Naruto," Gamakichi spoke up. "Look at yer hand."

"Huh?" Naruto looked down and, sure enough, his hand was back to normal. "How the hell?"

"Ya need a perfect balance of all three energies, Naruto-chan," Fukasaku said. "It's incredibly difficult ta' keep everythin' balanced once ye've introduced nature chakra ta' the mix. If there's too little, ya can't use it. If there's too much, ye'll turn int'a a toad. An' that's permanent. Look around ya."

Fukasaku made a wide, sweeping gesture for the many, many statues around them.

"Those statues are the remains of those who failed in the past," Fukasaku explained, then grinned. "But don't worry, I'm here. If ya start turnin' into a toad, I'll use this staff o' mine ta knock the nature chakra right outta ya! But to tell ya the truth, not even Jiraiya-chan has got this technique down pat. He turns a bit into a toad when he uses it, but he's still able ta' do it. Are you, boyo?"

Naruto looked around at the statues for a moment, then grinned at Fukasaku cracking his knuckles in excitement.

"Anything the old perv can do once, I can do nine times!"

"So, I was thinking about something..."

Sasuke had been in the middle of sipping his tea, and paused when Hinata spoke up. They were sitting in a rather cozy little restaurant, snacking on dango and sipping tea while enjoying the warm summer sun.

"Something?" Sasuke asked curiously, raising an eyebrow as he set his tea cup down. "What about?"

"Do you... think me strange?" Hinata asked shyly. "I know Shino-kun isn't considered... you know..."

"I know word is that Aburame are strange and kinda freaky," Sasuke interrupted, a small smirk appearing on his face. "But then, they say Uchiha would be too arrogant to make friends outside the clan, and that Naruto is a dumb loudmouth who... Well, he is a loudmouth, but he's certainly not stupid... in most aspects."

Hinata nodded in acceptance to this statement. Stereotypes were sometimes right, but they were almost always ridiculously exaggerated.

"So, you like him?" Sasuke asked, snacking on his dango. Hinata ducked her head behind her teacup, which she was holding in both hands, and nodded shyly, which made the Uchiha smirk. "That's good. From what I've heard, Shino may be a bit quiet and stoic, but he's an honorable man."

Hinata nodded gratefully at that. She made to speak again, but before she could, a rather large, gruff-looking man had made his way over to them, glaring as though they were the most disgusting thing he'd ever seen.

"Konoha ninjas, huh?" the man asked. Sasuke calmly sipped his tea once before looking up at him.

"What about it?"

"I don't like Konoha ninjas," the man answered as he crossed his arms. Immediately, he was flanked by five other men, none of them wearing peaceful looks on their faces.

Sasuke could easily sense their intentions, so he sighed, setting down his tea cup. He looked to Hinata, who clearly knew what was about to happen.

"It's at times like this that I wish Naruto was here..."

Before Naruto could sneeze, he was once more smacked in the back of the head by Fukasaku, who looked like he was getting a bit tired. Seriously, grasping this natural energy was harder than Naruto had thought. It was easy enough to infuse it in his wood, but bringing it into his body was a whole other matter!

"Shit!" Naruto barked, rubbing his head, the angry bump being unrelenting in causing him quite a bit of pain. "Pa, isn't there a less painful method to get the nature chakra out of me?"

"'Fraid not, Naruto-chan," the old toad apologized, shaking his head. "But look atcha! Ye're makin' incredible progress! Ya can already sense nature chakra like a pro, and yer body is startin' ta' still itself."

"There's gotta be some better way, though," Naruto muttered as he crossed his arms. "I don't wanna have to rely on some unique oil in order to gather it."

"Of course, this's just fer the beginnin'," Fukasaku said, a grin on his face. "Now the trainin' wheels come off. Time ta' learn how ta' stay still or get hurt!"

"This is going to be painful for me, isn't it?"

"Yup!"

Five minutes later found Naruto and Fukasaku standing in front of a large gathering of stalagmites, reaching high into the sky, even taller than the stone statues at the oil well. At the base of the stalagmites was a large pile of stone plates. Fukasaku grabbed one and jumped up.

"Follow me, Naruto-chan!"

That was how Naruto found himself sitting in a meditative position on one of the stone plates, balanced precariously on the very tip of one of the stalagmites. It had looked easy enough. Fukasaku was sitting perfectly comfortably on the plate, while Naruto had to constantly adjust to counter-balance.

"Ya need ta' stop yer flow as an animal, Naruto-chan," Fukasaku lectured, shaking his head at his blond student. "Find yer balance and become utterly still, at one with nature!"

"Easier said than done!" Naruto barked back, glaring at the old toad. "I bet it took you longer than me to even get up here the first time!"

"That's neither here nor there," Fukasaku argued, glancing away with a somewhat uncomfortable look on his face. "Look, Naruto-chan, only once you've stopped moving will ya be able ta' absorb natural energy. Just keep at it, boyo. Jiraiya-chan has faith in ya, and so do I."

Back with the rest of Team Seven, Kakashi appeared at the dango shop, and his eye widened in shock at what he was seeing.

The entire shop was in ruins, fires burning here and there. Several men were strewn around the rubble, all of them unconscious, and sitting on a piece of rubble were Sasuke and Hinata. Somehow, it seemed Sasuke had managed to preserve his cup of tea, as he was sipping it slowly with a sort of amazed look on his face.

"Boy, that escalated quickly," Sasuke noted, blinking slightly to himself. He took a look around at the destruction as though he couldn't quite believe what they had done. "I mean, that got really out of hand fast..."

"What the hell did you do?!" Kakashi barked in shock, catching the attention of his two students. Sasuke reached up and scratched the back of his head.

"I'm not really sure. It started with some insults toward Konoha. Hinata and I were teaching the guys a lesson, then some Iwa ninja joined in, and... things escalated..."

"I can see that!" Kakashi barked, still in a state of shock. How long did he leave them alone? Half an hour? Maybe forty-five minutes? And this happened?! Tsunade was going to tan his hide for this, that was for damn sure! "You... I can't... How...?"

"In our defense, the Iwa ninja were responsible for at least half of this," Sasuke said, making a gesture for the damaged shop. "But they took off."

"I admit, this felt more like something Naruto-kun would do," Hinata confessed, sending worried glances at the owner of the shop, who was crying his eyes out at the destruction in front of him. Kakashi quickly made his way over to the man and bowed his head, scratching the back of it sheepishly with an awkward smile on his face.

"I'm sooo sorry for the actions of my students... If you send word to Konoha, you'll be compensated for the destruction..."

"No, but seriously," Sasuke muttered to Hinata, taking another sip of his tea, which was now cold, "that really escalated... How did that even happen?"

"I... think it was when that Iwa ninja insulted your hair," Hinata mumbled, rubbing her chin. "Or maybe when the porcelain cat got broken?"

"I really liked that cat..."

"I know... But you didn't have to try to set the man on fire for it."

"Well, things had already gotten out of hand when you broke the counter with that man's skull."

"I-I was only trying to knock him down!" Hinata protested. "I wasn't trying to break anything!"

"Except all of his internal organs. Naruto has really rubbed off on you when it comes to responding to insults," Sasuke quipped. "I'm sort of afraid of teasing you now. Making that other guy literally crap his pants was a nice touch, too. Shame about the smell, though."

"I wouldn't have had to if you hadn't broken his friend's pelvis..."

Kakashi, who had returned from placating the shop owner, heard the conversation between his two students. He stood behind them, blinking in confusion.

'From what I've heard, I really want to know how this started and what happened after, but at the same time, I kinda don't...' he thought, a sweat drop rolling down his temple.

"I think things went really crazy when that one guy started stripping."

'Okay, I really don't want to know,' Kakashi thought, before approaching the two. "Right, we'll be doing the rest of our training in Konoha. Clearly, you two can't be trusted to behave outside the village walls..."

Fukasaku sat on the stone plate, watching as his blonde-haired student sat completely still, steadily gathering nature chakra. A smile was on his face. 'Naruto-chan is progressin' faster'n Jiraiya-chan did. He's even learnin' ta' gather the chakra faster'n him. He's almost at my speed already.' His eyes widened when he saw markings appear on his face. The top whisker marks on Naruto's cheeks thickened and grew red, lengthening slightly, and another stripe appeared on his chin, almost going all the way up to his lower lip. Fukasaku couldn't help but realize how similar the markings looked to those on the Nidaime Hokage's face. 'Now ain't this a treat? That's a sign o' Sage Mode! And he's not transformin' in the slightest!'

While Fukasaku was admiring Naruto's Sage Mode, the blond himself was standing inside his mind, and Kurama could be heard chuckling behind him.

"Now isn't that special?" the old fox grumbled, and Naruto glanced over his shoulder to see him grinning. "Those markings sure make you look like the Nidaime Hokage. Funny. Here I thought your Sage Mode would look more like your great-great-grandfather."

"Now isn't that special?" Naruto repeated, a small grin appearing on his own face. "You're actually talking to me of your own volition, and you're not even flinging insults at me. Miracles do happen, don't they, Kurama?"

"Tch, it's too early for our usual banter. I must admit, though, I'm impressed you grasped the nature chakra so quickly. From what I learned from Mito, it took the Shodai Hokage three years to learn how to harness it. But then again, he didn't have a wart-covered old toad to teach him the secret."

"I won't have you insulting Pa, Kurama," Naruto said simply. "Now, how about you play ball for once and act nice? No one's this pissed twenty-four hours a day."

"What other source of amusement do I have?" Kurama asked with a shrug, laying down. "It's either sleep, look over some of your old memories, or bantering with you. In case you didn't notice, I can't exactly up and leave."

"I wish you could, that I do," Naruto admitted. Kurama pried open an eye to glance at the blond, only to see that he was being completely serious. "But I'm not intending to die anytime soon, so I can't let you out yet. Maybe on my deathbed."

"What's with you today?" Kurama asked, raising the fur where his eyebrow would have been if he were human. "You're unusually serious..."

"It's this Sage Mode," Naruto said, spreading his arms out with a smile. "I feel... completely at one with nature. My senses have peaked, too. That's why I know you're not really pissed."

"What?" Kurama growled. Naruto smiled as he stepped into the cage, once more showing how foolishly brave he was. He put a hand on Kurama's snout and grinned up at the large, menacing eye glaring down at him.

"I can sense your emotions pretty well by now. You're a pretty nice guy, aren't you, Kurama?"

The old fox gritted his teeth when he saw the blond's grin. He didn't answer, however. Instead, he changed the subject.

"I hope you're not planning to use Sage Mode in battle, kid."

This made Naruto drop his grin as he gave Kurama a confused stare.

"Huh?"

"How many chances do you have in battle to sit down and gather the chakra you need to enter it?" Kurama asked, glaring down at him. "I'm not gonna die because you needed to take a seat for a moment."

"Hm..." Naruto hummed and rubbed his chin, stepping back to lean against the bars of the cage. "But then, you can send me chakra, right?"

"Eh?"

Naruto grinned widely.

"Look, if I'm out there in the middle of a battle, and you're in here, you can gather the nature chakra while I'm out and moving!"

"Idiot!" Kurama barked. "How the hell do you think I'm gonna be able to gather that crap?! My chakra is completely incompatible!"

"Well..." Naruto muttered, scratching the back of his head. "Have you tried?"

Kurama twitched. He hesitated for a moment, then glanced away, scoffing.

"Yes..."

"What?"

"I SAID YES, YOU BRAT!" Kurama roared suddenly, sounding incredibly embarrassed. "I thought it'd help me break out of Mito's seal, so I tried it! It didn't work! End of story!"

Naruto noticed how embarrassed the fox looked, a shrewd grin appearing on his face.

"You didn't turn into a toad, did you?"

"Tch... Damn near turned into a goddamn tree..." Kurama muttered, scoffing. "My chakra is too volatile to mix with pure nature chakra. Maybe they can mix in your body, but not in mine."

"Hm... Your chakra and nature chakra..." Naruto mused, humming as he rubbed his chin. "That might be something worth looking into..."

Kurama rested his head against his paws again as the two lapsed into silence. Then, after a moment, the fox looked to Naruto again.

"So? Are you going to be ready when that Pein guy shows up again? He'll definitely have a plan this time."

Naruto sighed at that, scratching his head once more.

"I don't know. There are too many unknowns, yeah? I mean, will he attack when I'm on a mission, will he attack in the village, will he wait for me to come to him so he can set up an ambush? Variables everywhere..."

"At least you're thinking about it, not just going gung-ho," Kurama commented. "Well, if he ever shows up, I'll let you borrow my chakra if you need it. I'll be damned before I let myself get captured by the Akatsuki. At least in you my thoughts are my own, and I'm not a goddamn weapon..." He perked up. "In the meantime, the old toad is talking to you."

"Oh, I forgot where I was for a moment!" Naruto exclaimed, snapping his fingers. "Right, I'll talk to you later, Kurama!"

With that, the blond vanished from the mindscape. Kurama sighed heavily and rolled over on his back, gazing up at the ceiling.

"I have more freedom in the brat's body, but what I wouldn't do for a magazine or something..."

Five minutes later found Naruto sitting in Fukasaku and Shima's hut. Shima had left to go buy groceries (bugs were apparently a delicacy among the toads...), so it was just Fukasaku and Naruto sitting at the dinner table. Thankfully, they had proper tea that Naruto could drink without throwing up.

"Now that ye've mastered Sage Mode, there's one thing ya need ta' know, Naruto-chan," Fukasaku said, snacking on a larva of some kind. "Sage Mode is very risky."

"Risky?" Naruto asked, raising an eyebrow. "You mean the fact that I can't move when I gather the chakra?"

"Yep. If ya can't move, ye're a sittin' duck in battle. Use Sage Mode fer too long, the chakra drains from ya, and ye're reverted ta' yer normal self. Sage Mode only works proper if ye've got allies who can give ya time ta' gather the nature chakra. But that's what I'm here fer. If we fuse our bodies, it'll be okay."

"Fuse?"

"Yep. Spine ta' shoulder. Jiraiya-chan needs both Ma and myself when he enters Sage Mode. While you move, I'll be still an' gather the chakra fer ya! So, that's the next step o' our trainin'. Fusion."

"Alright!" Naruto barked, shooting to his feet in excitement, only to hit his head on the ceiling. "Damn it!"

"You alright there, Naruto-chan?"

"I'm fine..." Naruto muttered as he rubbed the sore spot on his head. "Anyway, let's do this!"

Tsunade was sitting in her office, the back of her chair facing the door as she stared at the picture in her hands. That blond boy of twelve, at that time clutching the collar of his teammate, the Uchiha doing the same. They looked like they were yelling at each other, both enraged. In the background one could see Kakashi and Hinata watching the scene, Kakashi looking bored, like he had seen it many times before, while Hinata was looking worried.

"Dan," Tsunade spoke to herself, a small smile appearing on her face. "Our grandson sure became something great..."

Tsunade loved her grandson, Senju Naruto. He was annoying, a loud-mouthed idiot, but he was still a man both she and her late lover could have been proud of.

Subconsciously, Tsunade reached up to grab the jewel hanging from her necklace, only to remember that she had given it to Naruto. She really didn't want to experience another loss. Dan and Nawaki had been enough. She believed in Naruto, yet she couldn't forget the necklace's curse.

"Tsunade-sama?"

The buxom blonde Hokage shook herself from her thoughts and turned around to see Shizune standing in front of her desk, an exasperated look on her face.

"Kakashi-san and his team are back..."

"So soon?"

"Apparently there were... complications..."

Tsunade nodded, and Kakashi entered. He was alone, and he had a somewhat ashamed look on his face.

"Hokage-sama," he greeted, standing at attention in front of her desk, and Tsunade couldn't help but sigh.

"How much?" she asked tiredly, and Kakashi held out a slip of paper, which Tsunade grabbed and read over. Immediately, her eyes widened. "What...? What did they do?!"

"Apparently, Hokage-sama, they ended up in an argument with some Iwa ninja, and... apparently a porcelain cat was destroyed, and someone took off his clothes...?"

Tsunade heaved a great sigh, rubbing her temples. Just another day in the life of Team Kakashi... She was almost too scared to think of the property damage that would have occurred if the always-eager-to-fight Naruto had been with them. The repair costs probably wouldn't have fit into the village's budget...

"Achoo!"

On Myobokuzan, Naruto sneezed, completely losing his concentration and accidentally cutting off his fusion with Fukasaku, sending the old toad flying off his shoulder.

"Naruto-chan!" Fukasaku barked as he impacted with the ground. "What're ya doin', boy! This ain't a time ta' be sneezin'!"

Ino heaved a great sigh as she leaned against one of the stumps on Team Kakashi's official training ground. Sakura and Hinata were both there, sparring, but they paused in favor of giving the blond girl a curious look.

"What's wrong?" Hinata asked, and Ino waved her off somewhat half-heartedly.

"I miss my blond idiot is all," she muttered. "Damn that man, bringing me on a dangerous mission against Akatsuki, and then he goes off to train with the toads without even taking me on a proper date first?! Just a damn bowl of ramen!"

"Well, you weren't exactly forced to go, were you?" Sakura teased, having heard of the mission from Ino herself as soon as the blond had left the Hokage Tower. "In fact, from the way I heard it, you insisted on going with him on-"

"Shut up, Forehead!" Ino barked, her face suddenly flushing a furious red. "I-I just did what my instincts as a Konoha shinobi told me to do!"

Hinata, meanwhile, just interlaced her fingers in front of her and smiled that gentle smile of hers that made both of the other kunoichi feel warm inside.

"Naruto-kun certainly inspires you, doesn't he?" she spoke, starking up at the clouds.

Ino groaned as she slumped over the stump. The blush remained on her face, despite the serious look on her face.

"He certainly does inspire..." she muttered. "One moment we're having a bowl of ramen, and the other..." Ino trailed off as the blush on her face deepend, and she wrapped her arms around herself. Sakura and Hinata stared at her in disbelief.

"You didn't...?" Sakura whispered, also blushing at the images that popped up in her head. From the look on Hinata's face, she was no different.

"Not yet," Ino said, waving them off. "But even with what little we have done... the things he can do with his hands..."

Ino gave off a very loud squeal and fell to the ground, starting to roll around in the grass. "Ahhh, I want my blond idiot back!"

"Someone's lovesick," Sakura muttered, watching the girl. Hinata nodded, before clearing her throat and getting into position to resume their spar.

At this point, Ino pining over Naruto was kind of an everyday thing.

Outside Konoha, on top of a tree, Pein was staring at the walls of the village, a dispassionate look in his eyes.

"Pein," came the voice of Konan, who was hovering behind him with her paper wings, "are you sure you want to risk this?"

"It would be easier to simply attack the Senju boy while on the way to a mission, but even I am afraid of his more devastating jutsu," Pein spoke, humming to himself. "Attacking him in a place like this will force him to limit himself."

"Our intel states that the boy isn't in the village..." Konan muttered.

"He will come," Pein insisted. "If the same intel is to be trusted, then he will come as soon as word reaches him that the village is in danger." A hint of a smirk appeared on the Akatsuki leader's face. "The boy is predictable like that."

A silence passed between the two as they just stared at the walls, and then Pein's gaze moved up to the Hokage Monument, proudly displaying the faces of the current Hokage and her predecessors. His eyes narrowed, a small hint of ancient bitterness entering his head as he saw Tsunade's face on the cliff.

"The time of hidden villages is over..." he whispered to himself.

Hope you enjoyed it! Don't know when I'll be able to release another chapter... Ah well, one enjoys what one has, yeah?