A/N: (Don't worry, I'll try to avoid too many of these!) Just a little FYI for you - I'm including some Japanese words in this because it helps me with characterisation – I'm far too used to Naruto screaming "Nani?" as opposed to "What?" to let it slip. Translations for new words will be provided at the end of each chapter for the benefit of those who don't know them.
Disclaimer: Don't own Naruto or any characters mentioned therein. Writing for fun, and to share the Kishimoto-love.
That's all. Please read, enjoy, and have fun!
Shikamaru sighed softly as Tsunade finished briefly explaining the mission he was being set. "So if I'm the squad leader, that means we won't have a Jounin accompanying us?" he observed, more as a statement than a question. The answer was painfully obvious, after all.
"That's right," Tsunade confirmed. "This is only a reconnaissance mission, and if our information is correct, there shouldn't be any major difficulty on the way. I'm sure you're well aware of the condition of our village – we can't afford to use any Jounin on a B-rank mission. You've already proved your leadership abilities anyway, Shikamaru – I have no doubts that you'll safely lead your squad members."
Shikamaru sighed again. These missions always ended up being more troublesome than they first sounded. "So who else is in my squad?"
Tsunade smiled knowingly, bringing the tips of her fingers together and leaning back in her chair. "Two are on their way now. Kakashi's going to remind the third before he goes off on his mission."
Shikamaru closed his eyes and groaned inwardly. "Not that baka…"
The young girl froze as her father called her, flinching a little before turning round timidly. "H-hai?" she replied softly, her lilac eyes wide. She knew that tone meant her father was unhappy with her – it was a tone she seemed to hear at least five times every day. Everything she did, no matter how hard she tried, wasn't enough for him. It was as if-
"Where are you going? You're supposed to be helping Hanabi train today."
"A-ano… I'm being assigned a mission today, otousan," she answered, lowering her head as if she expected him to blow up at her for not putting her younger sister first. "I-I told you about it last week."
Hiashi frowned a little. "A mission?" He gave a soft 'hmph' before waving her away with one hand. "Very well. Try your best."
Hinata brightened up a little at this. "Hai!" she replied, a small smile on her face as she bowed to him. The young girl then turned and headed for the front door to the Hyuuga clan's house, adjusting the pack on her back as she hurried to make up what little time she'd lost.
The girl paused again, biting her lower lip as she braced herself for what she knew was coming. "Otousan?"
"Don't hold your team mates back."
The girl visibly drooped at this instruction. "Hai…"
"Sakura! Are you sure you haven't forgotten anything?"
"Yes, mum!" the pink-haired girl called back irritably, glaring at the open door her mother's voice floated through.
"Got your scrolls?"
"Got all your kunai and shuriken?"
"Got your clean under-"
Sakura made an irritated noise in her throat, almost a growl, and continued stuffing items into her pack. So it was her first mission since Tsunade-sama had trained her as a Med-nin – so what? That didn't make her any more likely to forget what she needed. If anything, she felt even more intelligent now than when she'd started as Tsunade's apprentice, given the amount of information she'd had to soak in during her training.
Snapping the clips on her pack shut, Sakura swung it onto her back, glancing around her room to make sure she hadn't left anything behind. Her gaze lingered momentarily on the picture of her, Naruto, Sasuke and Kakashi-sensei from their days as Team 7, before she turned her head away again, an almost pained look in her eyes. She missed Sasuke. She missed him badly.
That was why she'd taken that training though, she reminded herself. She didn't want to depend on Naruto any more. She didn't want to be a burden on missions, to get in his way all the time and screw his plans up. And this was going to be her first chance to truly test whether she was capable or not. If she couldn't complete this mission without getting in the way, she'd have to beg Tsunade to train her even more. Otherwise, she'd still be that same old burden to Naruto whenever they were sent out again.
Despite all these thoughts, Sakura left her house and bid her mother goodbye with a smile on her face. This was the first mission she'd truly looked forward to. While she had coped with all those she'd gone on in the past, there had always been a small hint of apprehension, even when she, Naruto and Jiraiya had scouted Orochimaru's sound village. There was always that fear that she'd just get in the way again, that she couldn't do anything to help, that she'd let her team mates down. This time, though, that worry was replaced with determination.
This time, she mused as she gave her forehead-protector one last tug to tighten it, she had a chance to do something right. This time, she wouldn't blow it.
"Seconds for free? Seriously?"
The owner of the ramen stall gave Naruto a wide grin. "You could practically keep our business going single-handed," he told the boy with a laugh. "You're our best customer, so I don't see why I can't offer you a little treat now and then."
"YATTA!" Naruto yelled triumphantly, punching both hands into the air as the bowl in front of him was refilled. "Thanks mister!" he added gleefully, scooping his chopsticks up again as he prepared to tuck in. "I guess the number one ninja in the village has to keep his strength up, ne?"
Naruto trapped a lump of pork and some noodles between his chopsticks and scooped them up, shaking them a little to let them cool off. "Itadaki-"
The blonde-haired ninja jumped violently as Kakashi called his name, fumbling with his chopsticks and almost dropping them on the floor. "Nani?" the boy cried indignantly as he spun in his seat to face his former teacher. "What was that for, Kakashi-sensei? I almost spilt my ramen!"
"You don't have time for ramen, Naruto," Kakashi informed the boy, folding his arms and bending forward so his head was at the same level as Naruto's. "The Fifth is waiting for you – or had you forgotten your mission?"
Naruto frowned a little. "Mission?"
The boy tried to recall when he'd been told he had a mission, mumbling away to himself as he strained his memory. "Mission… mission… mission… Tsunade no baachan gave me a mission…? What mission…?"
The grey-haired man sighed softly. "It doesn't matter when she told you about it, Naruto," he reminded the boy with a long-suffering air. "She's waiting for you, so go and see her."
"Fine, fine…" the boy grumbled. "I'll go and see her."
Kakashi nodded his acknowledgement of this and leapt away to continue with the mission he'd been set, leaving Naruto behind with his chopsticks still in hand. The loud-mouthed ninja grinned widely once he was sure Kakashi had gone, and turned back to his bowl. "I'll go as soon as I finish this!" he added in an almost conspiratorial tone, pleased he'd outwitted the Jounin. "Itadaki-"
Tsunade turned her attention away from the three youths in front of her as there came a soft rapping on the door to her office. "It's about time," she murmured softly, before calling louder, "Enter!"
The door opened, and a sulking, orange-clad, blonde-haired ninja slunk into the room, jamming his hands into his pockets and kicking the door shut behind him as he grumbled to himself about the ramen Kakashi had made him leave behind. He joined the end of the line that had formed across the front of the Fifth Hokage's desk, and only then deigned to raise his head, a sullen look on his face as he waited for Tsunade to speak.
The Hokage remained silent a moment as she cast her eyes across the line of ninja in front of her – Naruto, Sakura, Shikamaru and Hinata. Certainly by no means the elite ninja in the village, but she was confident they would suffice for the mission. "Let's get down to business," Tsunade began, picking a sheet of paper from the top of a pile on her desk. "I've summoned you all to me because I have a mission for you, as I'm sure you remembered." At this, she cast a pointed glance over the top of the paper at Naruto, who huffed softly and looked away without replying. It wasn't his fault he'd forgotten!
"First of all, you four are to form the squad for this mission. Shikamaru, as the only Chuunin among you, will be your squad leader. As I'm sure you all realise, this means that as of the moment you leave this village, he is in charge."
Three nods confirmed this was understood, but Naruto frowned softly. "Four of us?" he questioned, leaning forward to look down the line. "But I thought-"
Naruto fell silent as he set eyes on Hinata, his brow creasing in surprised confusion as he realised he'd entirely missed her, before turning to Tsunade again. "Ne, Baachan!" he hissed softly. "Wouldn't we be better having Neji in the group? I mean, he's so much stronger, and-"
A quiet, somewhat upset sound from the other end of the line cut Naruto off, and when he turned to see who it had been, he saw Hinata staring down at the floor, biting softly on her lower lip. Naruto's face dropped – he hadn't been loud enough for her to hear, had he?
"Naruto!" Sakura chastised sharply. "What was that for? You know that isn't fair!"
"Ne, ne, Hinata-chan," Naruto called hurriedly, waving nervously with both hands. "I didn't mean it like that. I just meant-"
"I-it's okay… Naruto-kun," the girl interrupted, her voice soft and subdued as ever as she stared at the floor, poking the tips of her index fingers together. "D-don't worry about it."
'I knew it' she thought miserably as Sakura continued to scold the boy Hinata idolised. 'He doesn't even look at me, and he thinks I'm weak too. All that cheering in the Chuunin exam must have been to try to make me feel good…'
"For your information, Naruto," Tsunade called to the boy sharply. "Hinata has improved a lot since the Chuunin exam, as I'm sure you'll see on this mission." Tsunade gave the girl a reassuring smile, which Hinata managed to feebly return. "Further to that, Neji's skills are currently required elsewhere. Further to that, I have already confirmed this squad with Shikamaru, and he agrees entirely that it's the best squad for the mission. If anyone is unsuitable, it's you and your attitude, but we knew you'd insist on going anyway."
"My attitude?" Naruto exclaimed indignantly, ready to give Tsunade a piece of his mind before blinking softly as the rest of the sentence sank in. "…I'd insist?"
Tsunade sighed softly through her nose, and picked the sheet of paper up again. "As I'm sure you're all aware, there are two major threats to the village at the moment – Orochimaru, and Akatsuki. We have been keeping scouts on both these parties, but so far nothing about Akatsuki has emerged. However, we recently made a breakthrough regarding Orochimaru."
Naruto visibly brightened at this, both hands clenching into fists at his sides. "You've found him? You've found Sasuke?"
"Not quite," Tsunade replied, much to the boy's evident frustration. "But we have received reports of a lair Orochimaru has recently moved on from, and in a hurry if current indications are to be believed. It is up to you four to locate the exact whereabouts of this lair and bring back anything that may serve as a clue to his current whereabouts."
"But Tsunade-sama," Shikamaru interrupted. "If he has moved on from his lair, surely he'll have taken anything that might give him away with him? Is it worth risking a mission that might not even have an achievable goal?"
Tsunade sighed again. "I had contemplated that possibility," she admitted, standing up and walking to the window to gaze out across the village. "But there's still that chance that something got left behind. They may not have been able to take everything, may have overlooked something, or may even have decided some things weren't worth taking. In any case, even the smallest clue could be beneficial…" Tsunade turned to face the group again, focusing particularly on Naruto and Sakura with a twinkle in her eye. "Don't you think it's worth the risk?"
Both Genin nodded definitely at this question, the steely look in their eyes indicating that now that they'd heard this, they would take the mission even if it were just the two of them – Naruto so he could keep to his way of the ninja and rescue his friend, and Sakura because there was the chance to see Sasuke again. This earned a tired sigh from Shikamaru, as well as a mumbled "So troublesome," but he questioned Tsunade's logic no further.
The Fifth Hokage smiled at their reaction, before pulling a rather slim dossier out of a drawer and dropping it on the desk in front of Shikamaru. "In there is all the information we have," she informed him. "Read through it carefully, but do not under any circumstances take it with you. You are to leave the village first thing tomorrow morning – and that means at sunrise, not after breakfast," she added, her eyes darting toward Naruto again.
"Na-… why are you looking at me like that?" the boy spluttered indignantly. "I can last days without food if I need to! Breakfast is nothing!"
As if arguing with this claim, Naruto's stomach rumbled right on cue, earning a giggle from Hinata while everyone else rolled their eyes. The boy blanched a little, and wisely let the subject drop there.
"I apologise to the two of you who have already packed your bags so carefully," Tsunade told the group courteously, referring to the two girls. "But at least you have plenty of time to pack with the mission in mind now, right?"
As the two nodded again, Tsunade waved the group away with a casual gesture of her hand. "Dismissed!"
Baka – idiot, moron,
Hai – yes
Ano – hesitation word (think 'uhm' or 'uhh')
Otousan – father (honorific term)
Yatta – Whoo-hoo, yippee, hooray etc
Itadakimasu – Phrase used before a meal in Japan
Nani – What
Baachan – Granny
Ne – Hey
Reviews for a hungry author, please? If I suck, please be gracious in how you tell me about it!