Again, to "Guest": I sincerely appreciated your review! Basically, you're MY Iruka-Sensei (insert smiley face). You were the first to acknowledge my work.
Chapter 1: Happy
Naruto looked over the horizon, watching the sun slowly rise. It was still dark, only a sliver of the sun peaked beyond the mountains. He smiled slightly. He hadn't meant to turn it on, but he could feel the orange glow of his sage mode lingering around his eyes. He'd only meant to lean back and relax against the tree as he finally found a comfortable position on the sturdy branch he'd chosen. In his stillness, natural energy flowed into him as he'd try to let the heat of the rising sun warm up his cold body.
Might as well keep it on, he thought. He was on watch duty, after all. His friends' lives were in his hands.
He glanced down at the base of the tree. Rock Lee and Sai were still sleeping peacefully—as much as they could on the hard, solid ground, blankets thrown over their tired bodies.
A bird flew up in the distance. Lee turned over in his sleep but didn't wake. It was still too early to start out. They were camped on a ledge, overlooking a small village hidden in a deep valley. That was their destination for this mission. It shouldn't take more than another hour or two to get there once they got going.
As Shikamaru and the sixth Hokage, Kakashi, had explained, the three had been chosen for the mission because of their stamina. It was going to be a test of their endurance. Standing before the Hokage, they looked at each other and understood. Lee kept up a daily training regimen that was rigorous. Sai had his former ANBU Root experience. And of course, Naruto brought his enormous chakra reserves.
"Just getting to the Village of Setsunai will be tough," Shikamaru had cheerfully said. "You'll be crossing mountains, rivers, and wild forests. It's going to kill you—and then some."
"But come back, okay? I don't care if your bodies are in pieces, but haul your butts back to Konoha when you're done." Kakashi said, his eyes glinting above the mask hiding his smile. "We're counting on you guys!"
They'd laughed at the joke then, but nobody was laughing now.
It had been a hard climb up steep mountains to find this remote village—the paths so rough and narrow that a slip of the foot led to certain death over the cliff. Halfway, though, Sai's giant ink birds had provided some relief as they flew through air. But even that was short-lived when the weather turned cruel, pelting them with unrelenting rain, and they'd had to abandon that option. They trudged along, the ground wet, cold, and muddy.
Sai, usually calm and unflappable, kept cursing every step of the way, his sharp eyes occasionally glancing up at the dark sky. "I wish the sun was still out. We could be flying right now."
Even the normally placid Lee, his large, round eyes drooping from exhaustion, had been forced to lose his stoicism and utter an uncharacteristic complaint: "I don't like this rain."
Normally, it would have been enough to make Naruto cry, too. But he'd had a talisman against the unpleasantness: he carried the warmth of Hinata in his heart.
"I'll see you when you get home," she'd promised and then a soft press of her lips against his.
Just remembering her face was enough to keep him upbeat and insufferably cheery all throughout the journey.
"Come on! We're shinobi, right?" Naruto had said, as he marched resolutely ahead, his grin fixed firmly on his face. "We endure. So keep on walking!"
Sai, who'd been trained by the ANBU Root since childhood to hide his feelings, clearly looked like he wanted to hit him.
Lee glanced at him morosely, puzzled by Naruto's unrelenting cheerfulness.
"Fuzzy Brows, where's your smile? We're almost there," he said, his voice jaunty, ignoring their crabby mood.
Lee saw Naruto's bright blue eyes gleaming at him with his usual easy grin. It was a simple encouragement, but it was enough to banish his fatigue and fire him up again.
Lee's eyes began to burn with its usual fervor.
"Yeeeeaaah!" he yelled, pumping his fist in the air.
"That's right, Naruto! We march on because it's all training to make us stronger ninjas!"
He then ran to the front of the group, pointed a finger at an imaginary finish line and said, "Double, no, quadruple step! This is our springtime of youth!"
Even Sai chuckled. "All right. Let's increase the pace, then."
Hours later, they came to their current location, chosen for its view of the village and the surrounding area. It was a good place to observe and strategize. It was also suitable enough for a night's rest. The weather had cleared, but the path down the mountain was slippery. It was too risky to try it at night.
"Tomorrow, we'll reach the village," Lee said. "Let's get some sleep."
Sai took the first watch. Lee rolled out his gear and promptly fell asleep.
"Thanks, Sai," Naruto said. He laid his head on his makeshift pillow, looked up at the night sky, watched the stars twinkle and wondered what Hinata was doing.
He missed her.
He sighed, thinking back on the days before he left for this mission…
She was standing in front of him, her bags outside the door to his apartment. He'd been surprised to see her when he'd opened the door.
"Hinata," he said as he pulled her into a hug.
She squeezed him back, but drew away, and her index fingers went up into that triangle position, lightly tapping at each other. In the weeks since they'd started their relationship, he'd finally figured out that it meant she was nervous about something and was very anxious about his reaction.
He waited with a smile, hoping that would calm her.
"I know this is sudden, but can I stay with you for a few days?" she asked, looking up at him with uncertainty. In a rush, she went on to explain, "My father and Hanabi had to travel outside of Konoha on clan business. Since Hanabi's the official Heir to the Hyuuga, I didn't need to go. They invited me to come along, but it didn't feel right if I went. I wanted to stay home."
She shook her head.
"No, that's not it. I wanted to be with you, really. And I don't want to be by myself…"
His smile widened.
"Yes! Stay!" he yelled as he suddenly pulled her into the entryway, her small cry of surprise was drowned out by his mouth as he kissed her.
A little while later he grinned at her, so happy, he could imagine his fox tails whipping excitedly behind him. She slowly opened her eyes and smiled back.
It was ridiculous, but his feelings for her hadn't seemed to calm down even as he got to know her better.
"I don't want you to be by yourself, either," Naruto said.
"Thank you," she said as he grabbed her things and ushered her inside.
"Are you sure it's okay, though?" she asked, as she stood in his hallway. "It's really just only for a few days."
Naruto stopped on his way to the living room and looked back. He thought she'd been right behind him, but she was still standing a foot away from the door. Something about her voice triggered his concern.
He came back to hug her then drew back to look at her face, her trembling mouth.
"Hinata, is everything okay?"
Her lavender eyes filled with tears.
"I've never told anyone because I thought I would be okay…but I'm still a little sad that Hanabi gets to go every time because she's the heir—even though I'm older. I love her, and I genuinely understand why Father made his decision years earlier. I don't begrudge her the role. Truly, I don't. She's an excellent shinobi and will be a great leader of the clan someday…But part of me still hurts."
He held her hand as the tears started rolling down her cheeks.
She drew a ragged breath and wiped her tears. She looked him squarely in the eyes and he could see the pain of rejection she'd been trying to hide from her family all these years.
"I guess I haven't come to terms with everything, yet?"
"Not yet," he agreed gently, wrapping his arms around her again and pressing a kiss on her forehead. He knew exactly what she was going through. She shook her head sadly then rested her head on his chest, breathing in the scent of him.
He rested his chin on top of her head and gave her another reassuring squeeze.
"When I'm Hokage, I really want to change that system. I promised Neji. You Hyuugas are too rigid with your traditions," he said. "But I think the younger generation will try to make things work. Hanabi isn't the type to be so inflexible. She's still young. And I think part of her feels awkward about the whole thing. I know she loves you."
She nodded, her hair tickling his skin.
"But we don't need to wait until I'm Hokage, you know. At this rate, since Kakashi-sensei's doing such a great job, I won't get the position until I'm muuuuuuuuch older," he said without rancor.
"Besides," Naruto added with a grin. "I want you to be happy now. If it helps, I'll go with you and we can talk to your father about it—but only if that's what you want."
"Thank you," she said hugging him tighter and burrowing her face into his chest. "But you already make me happy."
He sighed as he felt his chest tightening. "Stop saying that."
He cradled her jaw in his hands and gently lifted her face up to meet his gaze. "That's my line. I'm the one who should be saying that to you."
She laughed softly, her eyes losing their sadness. "Okay, go ahead and say it, then."
"Hinata, you make me very happy," he said.