Chapter Eight

Naruto did not sleep well that night. Of course, that was like saying that Uchiha Sasuke was a little stuck up, or that Sakura was slightly enamored of him.

In other words, a massive understatement.

He tossed and turned until dawn, sleeping fitfully for only a few minutes at a time. Each time he managed to drop off, he'd have such disturbing dreams that he'd thrash himself awake in short order, barely avoiding hitting Shino as he slept next to him.

He pondered the new ninja's way he and Hinata were going to follow as he first dozed off, but then he abruptly found himself reliving that fight again. He was strangling the fire-ninja, what was his name, Kouro? He could still feel the man's throat under his fingers, but it was the terror that shone in his eyes that Naruto couldn't forget. The man had been afraid of him, and worse, he'd enjoyed that fear… he'd lapped it up like his landlord's cat with a saucer of milk. He'd been disappointed when the fire grew too close to Hinata and he had to break the man's neck to stop his fire jutsu.

Naruto knew that a shinobi would sometimes be required to kill an enemy in order to complete his assignment. They even talked about it at the Academy, and an old man from the Hospital came and talked to each student privately after that lecture. Naruto grimaced. When he'd met with the man, oji-san said before dismissing him was that he doubted Naruto would have any problems. At the time, he'd thought he'd been praised and left with a smile on his face. Now, Naruto knew the man was making an oblique reference to the Kyuubi. After all, demons enjoyed killing, didn't they?

So in the depths of the night, Naruto stared up at the darkness inside the tent he shared with Shino and wondered if the villagers had been right all along. Only a monster would savor someone's fear like that. He already had the demon's red chakra running through his body… was it corrupting his mind as well? For a moment, he cursed Kurenai for teaching him to think things through, because now he could only lay there as his mind and emotions churned. It was said that power corrupts… How much more would that be true for power that flowed from a corrupted source? Inside him was the demon that wrecked Konoha and stole the life of its greatest leader. If it was corrupting him, shouldn't he try to do the honorable thing while he was still capable of feeling loyalty to Konoha?

At one point, he began to think about reaching for a kunai, but then he remembered the mission they were on. Shino was still injured, and most of their group tactics depended on Naruto, as back-up if nothing else. Also, if the Iwa-nins were afraid of him, they wouldn't press Team Eight for the last few days of their patrol. They needed him alive, at least until they made it back to Konoha. Then he could figure out what he needed to do. If something happened to him after they returned, the Hokage wouldn't send them on another dangerous mission until a replacement had been assigned. Maybe someone who wasn't stupid.

Naruto slipped the metal ring off of his finger a couple of minutes before his alarm was due to shock him awake. He wearily climbed out of the small tent, gritty eyes blinking at the gray light of dawn. He shrugged into his jacket, trying to ignore the small flecks of dark brown amidst the green of his sleeve. He'd need to take a trip to the laundromat when they returned, or would he? Naruto shook his head. He'd been up all night thinking, but he still didn't know what to do.

He gathered more wood for the fire, moving as silently as a wraith through the early-morning stillness. When he returned to the camp, Kurenai-sensei was awake, sitting near the fire with a folded map in her lap. Her red eyes were expressionless as she studied him. "How did you sleep?" she asked, the concern in her voice evident, even to him.

Naruto shrugged, not trusting his voice.

OoOoO

Hinata was a little sore when she awoke; for all that, she'd slept soundly. It was hard to believe that yesterday hadn't just been some elaborate fever-dream. She still couldn't recall what she'd been doing or thinking when she rescued Hanabi, but Naruto-kun said she'd been 'incredible'. The way he'd smiled when he said that made her stomach ache a little… mainly because she knew she was making more out of it than was really there.

Still, he wanted her to join him in his nin-do, that had to count for something, didn't it? Maybe one day, when he became Hokage, she'd be able to teach others his ninja way. It was doubtful that she'd ever qualify for ANBU, but maybe she could become one of the chuunins that guarded his office. That way she'd be able to see him almost every day. Surely he'd still have a smile for his old team mate, even after he became Hokage?

She smiled at this pleasant fantasy as she sat up and stretched. She had a few bruises and some stiffness, but she should be more than able to perform her duties within the team. She carefully pulled on her sandals and slipped out of the tent.

Kurenai-sensei was already awake, but Shino-kun was just emerging from the other tent. She offered to look at his arm, but he merely shook his head. "The pain is manageable, and it retains the necessary mobility. I am fine for now."

Hinata nodded, and then began pouring out some rice for a quick breakfast before their next patrol. She frowned as she set the pot on the embers.

"Ano, Kurenai-sensei," she said in a quiet voice, "is Naruto still asleep?"

"No, Hinata, he's been up for a while now," Kurenai said, frowning slightly. "I heard him several times in the night, so I don't think he slept very much at all."

"Is it because he ate too much?" Hinata asked, feeling slightly guilty. She had a feeling he'd eaten more than he really wanted so she wouldn't feel awkward about dinner. It wasn't fair if he suffered because her father was displeased with her performance in the battle. She was growing weary of her constant failures, especially when others paid the price.

"No," Kurenai said, shaking her head. Then she sighed. "He is… troubled by yesterday's battle."

"Why is that?" Shino asked, startling Hinata a little. He was so quiet at times that one almost forgot he was there. "He performed the best out of the three of us," he continued.

Kurenai took a deep breath, something Hinata had learned usually meant she was about to discuss something she didn't really wish to. "Naruto was forced to take a life yesterday, and I believe it was his first time."

"Naruto killed one of the kidnappers?" Hinata gasped.

"Actually, he dispatched Kouro and Kazuya both," Kurenai gently corrected her.

The camp was cloaked in utter silence for a long moment.

"That is… impressive," Shino finally said.

"Yes," Kurenai agreed, "but I think he still needs to come to terms with that. We should leave him alone while he works this out. You remember when this… issue was discussed at the Academy?"

Both genin nodded.

"Good," Kurenai continued, "then you know it will likely take a little while for Naruto to work through this. But he knows that he did what was necessary to preserve lives and insure the successful completion of our mission. I don't think he will forget that, but if he is quiet for a while, we shouldn't make a big deal out of it, all right?"

Hinata nodded along with Shino, though her stomach churned at the thought of Naruto in turmoil. Sensei was right, they just needed to leave him alone until he could work things out and recover his focus. The old man had told her that the first time was usually the hardest by far. It wasn't good to become callous toward killing, like many did, but one grew better at regaining focus afterward. Naruto worked so hard at everything he did that she had little doubt he would bounce back from this and be his normal self in no time.

OoOoO

Unfortunately, Naruto did not return to his normally cheerful self that day. He was unusually taciturn as they ran their patrol route, responding to his team mates with little more than a grunt. Under other circumstances, Hinata might have been crushed, thinking she had angered him in some way, but he was so obviously distraught that, for once, such thoughts didn't even occur to her.

After they returned to camp, Kurenai mentioned that they should probably hunt so they will have some meat for dinner. Naruto curtly said that he would see to it. He left their camp so quickly that Hinata wondered if he really just wanted an excuse to be alone.

Naruto returned half an hour later, carrying an entire deer across his shoulders. He dumped it next to the fire without a word and stalked off. Hinata stared at the bloody offering. Kurenai gripped the kunai that was imbedded in the animal's skull, but she could only pull it out with obvious effort. The scrape of steel on bone was very loud in the otherwise-silent camp.

Hinata was annoyed to discover that she was pressing her index fingers together again.

"I will help you dress the meat, sensei," Shino said quietly, but Hinata looked up to realize that he was facing her, rather than Kurenai. As the two of them dragged the deer away from the camp to attend to this task, Hinata looked down at the gathered herbs she'd been organizing for dinner.

Hyuuga Hinata knew that she had many faults. She lacked confidence and the forcefulness her father said was essential for a strong leader. She was an inferior shinobi that inevitably dragged down the performance of her team, and she was indeed fortunate that they did not despise her for it. But she was not incapable of taking a hint.

She followed the path Naruto had taken from the camp. While she had been trained to follow people by noticing traces of disturbed vegetation or trampled grass, this was hardly necessary. All she had to do was follow the splashing sounds.

She found Naruto squatted by the small stream, scrubbing vigorously at his hands, which were already reddened from the rough treatment. He was muttering something under his breath that she couldn't quite make out, something about "over and done with".

For an unhappy moment she wondered if he resented her and Shino for not doing more during the battle. Perhaps if they had, he wouldn't have been forced to kill. Her steps faltered and she almost turned around.

But then she remembered that Naruto was seldom quiet when he didn't think something was fair. When they trained together, he wasn't cruel, but he also didn't mince words the few times he didn't think she was doing her best. He said he'd learned that from Gai-sensei, but after seeing the jonin's 'Dynamic Entry' technique, she wondered what else Naruto had learned.

At least her confidence in Naruto kept her moving forward toward the stream bank. As she approached, the blond genin's head swung around so fast that Hinata flinched back in spite of herself.

Naruto's scowl vanished in an instant as he looked chagrined. "Sorry," he muttered.

Hinata tried not to think too hard about what she was doing. "A-ano, Naruto… you don't… seem yourself today," she finally said

Hinata didn't understand how what she said could have struck a nerve, but Naruto's face immediately shut down. "Maybe because I'm not," he snapped.

Hinata was glad that her feet seemed frozen in place at his obvious signs of temper. That made it easier for her to stand her ground. "Ah, at the academy, the doctor who came in… he told me that the first time is usually the hardest," she said, looking downward.

"Really?" Naruto asked in a darkly sarcastic tone she'd never heard him use before. "Well, he told me he didn't think I'd have any problems at all… like I'm some monster that would probably enjoy killing," he added bitterly.

Hinata felt her stomach contract into a ball of ice, as much for his tone as for the words themselves. Why had the old man told Naruto such a cruel thing? The rage she'd felt burning in her heart when she faced the spy was back, blazing even hotter than before. "Did he really say that?" she asked in a quiet voice, her hands shaking as she clenched her fists as her sides.

Naruto nodded wearily, his expression puzzled.

"That's bullshit!" she yelled at Naruto, using a word she'd picked up from him in their training sessions.

Naruto flinched back like he'd been kicked, lost his balance, and fell into the stream. Hinata's hands flashed to her traitorous mouth as her eyes widened in horror. How could she have done such a thing?

Splashing and sputtering, Naruto struggled to his feet, water streaming out of his uniform. Hinata felt her heart breaking as she realized what she'd done. He'd never forgive her for this. He might even ask to be transferred to another team. He'd definitely never train with her again.

Hinata began trying to formulate an apology of sufficient magnitude to salvage her friendship with her team mate as he wiped at his face, spat out some muddy water, and snorted.

And then he laughed.

It was more of a rusty chuckle at first, but it grew smoother and louder until he was halfway bent over, holding his knees for balance and whooping like a madman at the tops of his lungs.

Hinata was still frozen in place as Naruto sloshed back up onto the bank. He took off his jacket and began trying to wring it out. "And I just got this thing dry too," he muttered.

That statement seemed to snap Hinata's shocked awareness back into her body again. "I-I'm sorry, Naruto, I didn't…" she tried to apologize.

He waved off her apologies. "It was my own fault," he said. Then he cleared his throat and did a rough imitation of Iruka-sensei's voice. "But I am just shocked… shocked I tell you, at such coarse language!"

Hinata felt her face reddening. "I-I didn't mean to, I mean, I was just…" Her voice trailed off and she took a steadying breath. She raised her chin and looked Naruto squarely in the face. "He had no business saying something like that to you, Naruto-kun. That is what I meant to say."

Naruto looked up from plucking the soaked t-shirt away from his chest. "Maybe you were more accurate the first time," he said with a sigh. Then he peeled off the sopping-wet fabric.

Hinata abruptly turned and looked away. She listened to more water droplets hit the grass behind her as he slowly wrung out his shirt. He wasn't doing anything… provocative… but she was still intensely uncomfortable. This made her feel faintly ridiculous, as they'd been camping along the border for weeks now. Trying to distract herself, she thought about his ominous words as she arrived. "What did you mean about not being yourself?" she asked him without thinking.

Naruto did not answer at first. Worried about having given offense again, Hinata turned back around. Naruto was lost in thought, the t-shirt dangling from his fingers. He looked up at her after a moment, and then pulled it back on.

When he met her eyes again, Hinata was stunned to see something she hadn't expected to see. Fear. Her team mate, who killed two missing-nins to protect them the day before, was showing more fear than she'd ever seen in him before. Was it possible that the old man had been right, and that Naruto was some how destined to become some kind of mentally unbalanced killer? Something about that just didn't ring true though… this had to be bigger, much bigger to scare the future Hokage of Konoha.

Somehow, thinking about things bigger than Hokages let something begin to fall into place in her mind. "Does this have something to do with the red chakra?" she suddenly asked.

Naruto slumped to the ground like his legs could no longer bear his weight. He sprawled next to his damp jacket. "Yes," he whispered.

Hinata felt uncomfortably like an inquisitor, standing over him like that, so she gracefully knelt on the grass next to him. "I noticed the seal on your stomach, the first time you used your chakra pulse technique," she said slowly. "At first I thought it was some training method you used to build up your chakra. But I consulted all the scrolls I could find on seals, and the only things I could find that used seals that complex were-"

"Prisons," Naruto said quietly, cutting her off. He stared at her for a long moment, his expression indecipherable.

Hinata was almost afraid to breathe, wary of breaking this fey mood he'd fallen into. This was important; she knew it the same way she knew Naruto would find a way to become Hokage some day. But why was she almost shivering with fear?

"They never celebrate my birthday," he said slowly, his eyes never leaving hers.

"Why?" she asked in little more than a whisper, even as her heart wrenched with pity and that cold voice in the back of her mind told her that she didn't really want to know the answer to that question. Better to let things go on as they were…

Naruto sighed. "I was born on October tenth, twelve years ago," he said.

Hinata had always been the fact-checker for their group planning sessions, but everyone in Konoha knew what day that was. "That's the day the Kyuubi…" her voice trailed off as her eyes went wide.

Naruto looked down, but not before Hinata saw the light go right out of those bright blue orbs. "The Fourth Hokage couldn't kill it. No one could. So he sealed it into a new-born infant."

"You," Hinata whispered. It was an effort to even move her lips, as the enormity of what she'd just had confirmed crashed down on her.

"Yes," he said in a dead voice. "The Third Hokage made a law forbidding anyone from revealing that secret except me, so you can't say anything. But our mission will be over in a few days. After that, you guys can get a new combat specialist."

"Why…?" she choked out. Was he angry that she'd figured out his secret? Or had she pressed him too hard for answers? She clenched her jaw to keep from crying out in dismay.

Naruto shook his head like she was an annoying fly. "Why?" he asked in a puzzled voice. "Hinata, there's a demon inside of me! It almost got out when I was fighting those guys - I could have killed all of you!"

"Did you try to let it out?" Hinata asked, trying to suppress her revulsion at what had been done to him. To be honest, there was some fear as well. Her clan had suffered heavy losses when the Kyuubi attacked, losses they had yet to recover.

"No!" Naruto said quickly. "But… when I got the drop on Kouro… I was," he swallowed thickly, "strangling him, and he was terrified of me and all this red chakra that was pouring out of me. And I was enjoying his fear. He was blasting out all this fire, but it couldn't stop me. I kept squeezing until I saw the fire was about to reach you, then I broke his neck to stop it…" his voice trailed off and he raised his haunted eyes to hers.

Hyuuga Hinata had watched Uzumaki Naruto for years before they were placed on the same team. She thought she'd seen all his moods: happy, angry, frustrated, mischievous… but nothing like this. He looked… sad… and old, in a way. He seemed so lost and alone that she realized that much of what she'd admired before this day had been merely a mask. In a sense, she felt betrayed that her idol of confidence and determination had been revealed to have feet of clay. At the same time, her heart ached as she wondered how many people, if any, had ever seen this side of him.

"Naruto," she said gently. "I don't think a demon would care if I were burned or not."

"But that just means that our personalities may be mixing," Naruto insisted. "I care about what happens to you now, but what about next mission? Will I stop caring then and let you die?"

Hinata just shook her head violently, making her bangs rearrange themselves. "Not you," she insisted, "Never."

"You don't understand," Naruto insisted. "I was scaring him and I was enjoying it like some sick freak."

"Ano," Hinata murmured as she tried to get her emotions back under control. What she'd learned was huge, but she'd have to digest that later. Naruto needed her to be calm and rational right now. "Kouro is the one who burned you?"

Naruto nodded, but didn't say any more.

"Did he do other things to anger you, besides hurt you and Shino?" Hinata asked shrewdly.

Naruto's face reddened, but he just nodded and did not otherwise answer.

"Naruto, the old man told me that such feelings are normal in a violent confrontation," Hinata continued in a voice that was almost serene compared to earlier.

Naruto blinked. "Really?"

Hinata nodded.

"So you don't think…" Naruto began, but let his voice trail off as Hinata shook her head. "Are… are you okay with this, Hinata?"

She looked up at the almost pleading tone in his voice. Whether it was that or the haunted look in his eyes… something gave her the courage to lean forward and put her hand on his forearm. The skin was cool and damp from his recent dunking, but it warmed rapidly under her fingertips. "I… I would rather have you stay with Team Eight, N-Naruto-kun," she managed to choke out before her throat completely closed off.

Naruto gazed at her with something akin to wonder in his eyes, and it thrilled her to the core that she had made that dead look go away. She had made Naruto happy again, with just a few words. She was more proud of that than any of the pitiful few triumphs of her life thus far.

"Thank you, Hinata-chan," Naruto said, smiling as she reddened even further.

His stomach made a hollow grinding sound, so long and so prolonged that it utterly shattered the mood. Naruto ducked his head sheepishly as Hinata quickly withdrew her hand from his arm. Her hand covered her mouth, concealing a shy smile. "I should be getting dinner started," she said as she gracefully rose to her feet.

Naruto grabbed his jacket as he rolled to his feet. He carried the damp fabric as he followed Hinata back to the camp.

"We have sufficient meat to last for the remaining duration of our assignment," Shino reported as Hinata rejoined them around the smokeless fire. He was carefully unwinding the bandages on his forearm.

Hinata nodded and began preparing skewers as Naruto ducked into the boys' tent. "Sensei," she said quietly and Kurenai looked up from the kunai she was sharpening.

"Yes Hinata?" Kurenai asked.

"I-I think you should talk to Naruto," she answered calmly, though she was still seething inside, "the counselor who spoke to him at the Academy gave him extremely poor advice."

"Why would he do that?" Kurenai asked, peering intently at her.

"A-ano…" Hinata said, her eyes flickering over at Shino for an instant, "I am not permitted to say," she replied.

"Does this have to do with the Kyuubi?" Shino asked in a perfectly normal tone of voice. Hinata froze in place.

Naruto's head shot out of the tent at the word 'Kyuubi'. He frowned at Hinata, who began stammering denials of having broken the law as he crawled out of the tent in a pair of shorts and a dry t-shirt.

"I am not stupid, Naruto," Shino said evenly, turning toward the boy and beginning to tick off points on his fingers. "You have a chakra capacity exceeding that of most jonin, even thought you have just become a genin. You can master highly chakra-intensive techniques with far more ease than you can master less demanding ones, suggesting that your chakra capacity is literally filled to overflowing most of the time. Even the most forthcoming adults of Konoha are strangely unwilling to discuss the reasons why you are shunned by most. There are no physical relics from the nine-tailed fox, even though our history texts state that it was slain by the Fourth Hokage. Your physical stamina is superhuman and you recover from minor injuries at a rate unprecedented for someone not under a physician's care. Your birth date is a matter of public record, as are the unusual birthmarks on your face. And finally, when we spar, I can have half my colony feed off of your chakra until they are replete and you do not even notice." He closed his hands and seemed to look Naruto squarely in the eyes. "I am neither stupid nor unobservant."

Hinata's mouth was hanging open, though she was relieved that Naruto knew she hadn't revealed his secret. Their sensei looked both proud and amused. The last member of their team was neither.

"You stuck your bugs on me when we sparred?" Naruto demanded, outraged. "That's cheating!"

"I was curious as to whether your increased speed was from chakra or purely physical conditioning," Shino replied.

Naruto made a face. "I am so smashing them if you do that again," he threatened.

"It would be useless to do so," Shino replied, "since you seem to have inexhaustible chakra reserves. It is also not good for the kikai to gorge on chakra."

"You get fat bugs?" Naruto asked, and then gave a shudder. "Nevermind, I don't want to know. Er, how long have you…?"

"I have suspected for a while. Our last sparring session at the inn was the last data I needed. I finalized my conclusions and eliminated the alternative hypotheses after we established our camp here. The only possible explanation for the observed facts was that the Kyuubi had been sealed to you or merged in a similar fashion." The bug-user looked down and began smearing a clear ointment on his burned wrist.

Naruto came out of the tent to sit down by the fire. In his black t-shirt and dark orange shorts he looked… younger, in a way. His weights were still visible on his arms and legs, but Hinata almost didn't even notice them anymore. He rubbed at his eyes and Hinata remembered sensei saying he hadn't slept well the previous night. "So Shino… do you have a problem with this? It being sealed inside me?" he asked.

"The Hokage would not have placed you on a genin team if you were dangerous in any way," Shino responded. "Our sensei is unusually solicitous of our physical safety, and she does not seem apprehensive regarding your presence. Your more unusual attributes, which I surmise are effects of the Kyuubi being sealed inside you, have proven to be an asset, both in training and during confrontations."

Naruto nodded slowly at this, but Kurenai-sensei spoke up. "You have spoken about the Hokage's motivations, as well as my own, Shino," she said. "What are your… personal observations?"

Shino glanced at their sensei with what Hinata might have considered annoyance, had it come from another. He paused briefly, and adjusted his glasses before speaking. "Based upon my interactions, I find the reactions of the villagers to be illogical and poorly thought through. Naruto bears them far less ill will than many others would in his position, something that would be impossible if he were being influenced or possessed by a demonic entity. Also, his solicitude toward certain of his superiors and colleagues is at odds with such a negative characterization of his personality."

Naruto just blinked at their team mate. The he turned toward Kurenai-sensei.

"He's saying that you're too nice a person for him to worry about that," the jonin said with a sigh.

"Oh," Naruto said. He turned back toward Shino. "Why didn't you just say so?" he asked.

Shino did not answer, and instead began re-wrapping his bandages. Hinata moved to help him, but he waved her off, proving to be surprisingly dexterous with his left hand. Hinata went back to preparing the skewers while they all sat in silence. Naruto propped up his jacket and pants to dry near the fire, flashing a grin at her embarrassment, then began feeding small twigs into the flames. Kurenai took out a kunai and began slowly filing a nick out of the blade.

"Hinata?" Kurenai asked after a few minutes.

"Yes, sensei?" Hinata answered as she packed fragrant herbs around the sliced fragments of meat. Another pot of rice simmered over the coals.

"Why did you say I needed to talk to Naruto?" the jonin asked as she tested the edge of the kunai she'd been sharpening.

Hinata swallowed. She gave Naruto an apologetic glance. "Sensei, I do not believe Naruto received the proper… instruction at the Academy. On the subject we discussed this morning."

Kurenai-sensei's eyes widened as she seemed to understand what Hinata was hinting at. Hinata didn't want to repeat Naruto's painful words if she could help it. The idea of anyone saying that to someone training to be a shinobi was awful… but saying it to someone like Naruto-kun was just… unforgivable.

Sensei seemed to share her opinion because her eyes narrowed and the air suddenly felt much colder. The three genins froze in place as the killer intent swept over them. It was fortunate that all of them knew they were not the target of this rage.

"Naruto, come with me," Kurenai snapped.

Naruto jumped to his feet and followed their sensei out of the clearing without a word.

Hinata swallowed and resumed preparing dinner, hoping that the familiar task would soothe her taut nerves.

OoOoO

Naruto was thoughtful as he and Kurenai returned to their camp, following the appetizing smells of Hinata's handiwork. He was a little embarrassed that he hadn't really considered that the old man might have sought to sabotage him as much as the instructors who hated him. The old man was an expert on human psychology, which was why he conducted the counseling sessions… and he'd known his own subject well enough to know how to conceal his distaste for the Kyuubi's jailor. That's what made his false advice and assessment so effective.

But it didn't make Naruto feel any less stupid.

Kurenai's anger had been awe-inspiring, not to mention a little frightening. When they'd withdrawn far enough from the camp for a private discussion, she made him sit on a fallen log and tell her everything that was said during the counseling session. Before he was even halfway done, she was up and pacing as he talked. When he was finished, she turned away from him for a moment. Her hands moved too quickly to see and a trio of kunai imbedded in the trunk of the tree she was facing. That wasn't so unusual, but the fact that they'd penetrated halfway up the handles was.

After retrieving her kunai and taking several deep breaths, Kurenai-sensei explained what he should have learned at the Academy, before ever graduating, before even thinking about going on a mission.

As a shinobi of The Leaf, he would sometimes be placed into mortal conflicts, and inevitably would have to take a life. That was part of the job, and it didn't make him a monster to have done so. More important were the details. Was it possible for him to have avoided killing? Would avoidance have placed his team mates or his mission at risk? Or was he looking for excuses to kill? Was he antagonizing potential enemies in order to have an excuse to fight and kill them?

In that context, yesterday's battle appeared quite different. The enemy had struck the first blows, attacking Iruka and kidnapping Konohamaru and the bratty Hanabi. There was no question of letting them escape with their captives, even if Hinata hadn't already engaged them. With Hinata and Shino down, he and Kurenai were outnumbered… he just wished he hadn't been quite so gleeful with Kouro.

Kurenai-sensei seemed to share Hinata's intuition. "What did he say?" she asked. When Naruto just stared at her, she continued, "I was concentrating on a genjutsu, but I could hear that they were talking. I don't think you would have experienced such strong emotions in a combat situation without provocation; Gai and I both taught you better than that."

Naruto was silent for a moment. "The big one told Kouro to cook me so they could gang up on you. Kouro said he'd rather take his time with y-you and H-Hinata," he whispered as his nails dug into his palms. His hands still shook.

Kurenai quickly leaned forward, grabbing his shoulder and shaking him. "Naruto!"

"What?" Naruto asked, shaking his head to clear it of those memories.

"Try to calm down," she said. "Your chakra was spiking very strongly, and I could see a faint red glow around you. As I said before, you seem to tap into its chakra when you are feeling strong negative emotions."

"I'm sorry, Sensei," Naruto mumbled as he looked down. "I was just-"

"You were just acting in your role within the team," she finished for him. "A role I set for you and a role you fulfilled beyond my expectations yesterday."

"But Shino and Hinata got hurt!" Naruto protested.

Kurenai frowned. "I do not expect you to intercept every blow aimed at your team mates, Naruto. That would be an unrealistic, not to mention unfair, expectation to place upon you. I apologize if that was the impression I had given. Do you think Shino and Hinata are weak?"

"No sensei!" Naruto said quickly. He'd wanted to smack that brat Hanabi when she said that about Hinata.

"Good. They are shinobi of The Leaf, the same as you. Do not insult them," she replied. "They know the risks the same as you. While your abilities seem to be better suited for a direct confrontation, they are not helpless."

"But…" Naruto choked out as he struggled with his emotions. "They're my friends," he said in little more than a whisper. He looked up as he felt a hand on his shoulder.

Kurenai was sitting on the log again, smiling at him. "Was that so hard to admit, Naruto? You care about your friends. That doesn't sound like the behavior of a demon, or a hardened killer, does it?"

Naruto slowly shook his head. "I don't want anyone on Team Eight getting hurt," he said.

Kurenai gave his shoulder a squeeze, startling him as she removed her hand. "I know how you feel," she said quietly. "I felt the same way about my team when I was a genin. Killing an enemy is never something to be taken lightly, but when it is done in defense of another life… no one will fault you, Naruto."

"But I was… enjoying…" Naruto protested.

"Their threats made you angry, didn't they?" his sensei asked.

Naruto took a deep breath and nodded. He didn't even want to think about that again.

"That… person… also taunted you as we fought," Kurenai added. "While you did not allow him to goad you into making a mistake, it is understandable that you might feel a sense of… vindication… when you were finally able to come to grips with him. Does that make sense to you?"

"I suppose…" Naruto said in a dubious voice.

Kurenai sighed. "Given that you seem to tap into the red chakra easier when you are feeling strong emotions, there is a possibility that your prisoner will attempt to influence you at such moments. However, your behavior during that skirmish was well within the bounds of acceptable behavior for an active-duty shinobi. Stay on your guard the next time this happens and I am sure you will continue to make me proud to have you as a student."

Naruto felt like he'd been clubbed. "P-proud?" he stammered.

Kurenai just stared at him incredulously. "Naruto, you defended your team and defeated two enemies of higher rank. I am not sure I would have been able to defeat all three at once, so you quite possibly saved several lives yesterday. Do not let your concerns blind you to the fact that you performed your role well above my expectations."

Naruto felt like an idiot, sitting there with his mouth hanging open. But he was completely numb. An hour ago, he'd been thinking about… well, nevermind. Now, his sensei was telling him that what he'd done yesterday made her proud of him, and that he had done nothing he needed to worry about. It was almost too much for him to deal with.

Kurenai sniffed the air. "I think Hinata has dinner almost ready. We'd better get back or we'll hurt her feelings, right Naruto?"

He nodded dumbly and stood up to follow his sensei back to the camp. His mind was still trying to catch up, but he knew it would. Eventually.

OoOoO

Shino carefully flexed his right hand, feeling the dull ache as the skin pulled taut under the bandages. The medicinal cream Hinata loaned him was surprisingly effective at dulling the pain. When he asked her where she had purchased it, she shyly admitted that she'd made it herself. He wondered how she had become so adept at medicinal preparations, but he wasn't sure he really wanted to know.

While Naruto wasn't the most perceptive of shinobi, he had been able to sense that something… was not right with Hinata and the other Hyuugas. It was hardly his place to pry into the workings of another Konoha family, let alone a clan with the influence and secretive nature of the Hyuugas. However, once Naruto had raised his suspicions, it was almost impossible for him to not pick up on any clues that presented themselves.

He wondered if his team mate had done that on purpose, but that seemed unlikely. Naruto was hardly manipulative; he lacked both the awareness and the inclination to make use of others in such a way. He was, for example, still ignorant of Hinata's feelings for him, which was an impressive feat in and of itself.

He might have compared the Hyuuga girl's affection for Naruto to the behavior of Uchiha Sasuke's fan club, but for several key differences. Hinata's behavior was far less forward than that of the kunoichis who pursued the last Uchiha of Konoha. She funneled her energies into improving her abilities by training with the object of her affections, a far more useful activity than pointless histrionics and bickering with 'rivals'. Not that Hinata had too many rivals, of course. And that brought him to the last major difference.

Given what he had seen of Uchiha Sasuke's behavior, he seemed less than interested in any of the kunoichis chasing him. As an object of romantic attentions, he was far too self-absorbed and taciturn to make an ideal partner. Rather, they seemed to be chasing an impossibly idealized mirage they had built up in their minds and dubbed 'Uchiha Sasuke'. They pursued the boy because they didn't really know anything about him. Hinata, on the other hand, seemed to understand Naruto better than anyone else… and it was only after being on the same team with them for months that Shino was starting to realize that.

Aburame Shino had always prided himself regarding his observational skills. He liked to think that he saw things as they were, rather than letting emotions or prejudgments cloud his vision, so this was a particularly galling conclusion to reach. Nonetheless, correct behavior required that he admit his error.

"Hinata," he said quietly, watching her turn the fragrant skewers over the coals.

"Yes, Shino?" she said, looking up.

"Do you recall our conversation at lunch the day we were assigned to Kurenai-sensei?"

Hinata didn't answer, but merely nodded, her eyes curious.

"Upon further consideration, I am forced to conclude that you were accurate in your initial assessment of Uzumaki Naruto, and I was incorrect," Shino said, trying to maintain his normal, precise diction.

Hinata frowned at him, which was somewhat unexpected. "Are you saying that because of… what you had confirmed today?" she replied, her voice somewhat sharp, which was even more surprising.

Shino paused to gather his thoughts before formulating a response. Hinata's friendship with Naruto was having an even stronger effect on her personality than he expected. It would remain to be seen if this would be fortuitous or not. "Not directly. However, I am beginning to realize the degree to which his learning environment was compromised by the rancor of the adults at the Konoha Ninja Academy. It was the subtle discouragement and negative feedback he received from the instructors that retarded his development, not a lack of focus or an unwillingness to apply himself. Observing his progress after he began working with jonins like Kurenai-sensei and Maito Gai has given me a much more accurate conception of his work ethic and overall capabilities. This has, in turn, drawn me to new conclusions."

Hinata's pupil-less eyes seemed to look right through him, even without the Byakugan active. Shino found himself somewhat uncomfortable under that gaze, which was another first. While he'd hoped Hinata would be able to coax Naruto out of his funk, he had no idea what passed between them while he and Kurenai dressed out the deer. Whatever transpired, it seemed to have had a significant effect on both of them. Naruto had revealed his secret to someone, probably for the first time, and it seemed to have galvanized the normally shy kunoichi. "What are your conclusions?" Hinata asked, snapping Shino's mind back to the present.

"I think you may be correct regarding his potential. With help, he may well become Hokage some day," Shino said.

Hinata's eyes widened slightly, and then she nodded. "With our help," she added.

Shino computed the probabilities of him recovering consciousness yesterday before one of the kidnappers killed him. Without Naruto's presence, they were marginal at best. "With our help," he agreed.

"Thank you, Shino-kun," Hinata said, smiling.

Shino straightened his glasses. "Konoha will prosper with a strong Hokage," he said.

OoOoO

Naruto felt almost giddy with relief as he sat down next to the fire. Shino and Hinata looked up as he and Kurenai returned, but Hinata just smiled and returned to her cooking while Shino… did whatever he did behind that collar of his.

"I'm sorry I was acting like a jerk earlier," he said.

Shino made a small noise that almost sounded like a snort.

"A-ano, Naruto," Hinata said as she carefully laid the hot skewers on the plates, "we understand now."

He smiled and scratched at the back of his head. It was a little uncomfortable, being around them after the conversations he'd had with Shino and Hinata. It was strange: he'd been dreading revealing his secret for so long, but once it was done, and nothing bad had happened, he still felt oddly exposed.

He slowly began to relax as they ate. Hinata had outdone herself again. He didn't know how she'd managed to gather so many fresh greens to go with the rice and meat, but they added a nice touch. It wasn't ramen, but it was really good. Maybe she used her Byakugan while they were patrolling…

As they ate, Kurenai discussed their plans for the remaining three days of their assignment. They would need to keep an eye out for their relief, but any shinobi without a properly-sealed scroll should be treated as potentially hostile. It was not unknown for an infiltration team to take advantage of the changing of the border guards.

When they finished, Naruto jumped up to collect the plates. When he bent over to get Hinata's, he gave her a big smile. "That was really good, Hinata-chan!"

While she blushed, for once Hinata didn't look away when he said something nice to her. "T-thank you, Naruto," she replied in a small voice.

He gave Kurenai-sensei a big grin when he grabbed her utensils, which she returned with a raised eyebrow.

Shino's plate still had a little rice left on it. "You sure you ate enough for all those extra bugs?" Naruto asked him in a worried voice. "I don't want them chewing on me in the night if they get hungry."

Shino made an exasperated sound. "My allies receive more than adequate nourishment, Naruto. Furthermore, they are incapable of attacking humans in the absence of specific instructions from their host. The Aburame family has spent years breeding their kikai bugs for absolute obedience, and there have been no fratricidal incidents since they were introduced…" Shino's voice trailed off as Naruto's laughter could no longer be contained. Shino silently handed him his plate as Naruto got himself back under control again. "Idiot," he said as Naruto turned to walk away.

Naruto's laughter carried all the way back to the camp as he carried the dishes down to the stream.

OoOoO

The following day's patrol was fairly routine. The Rock ninjas seemed just as reluctant to test their vigilance again, a fact that never failed to bring a smile to Naruto's lips. He wondered how badly they would freak out once he became Hokage…

Thinking about why they feared the fourth Hokage wiped the smile from his face. As he leapt from tree to tree he remembered his shock at thinking the fourth Hokage had killed people. Kurenai said that things seemed to have gotten more serious after one of his students was killed. Now he had at least some idea of what they'd been talking about.

If he'd been willing to kill to protect his team, how would it be for the Hokage, who was supposed to protect the entire village. Would he be ready to do what was necessary to protect everyone? Would he even be able to live with himself if was forced to wage war to protect his people?

Since the ambush, Naruto had fallen into the habit of keeping an eye on Hinata as they traveled through the trees. It only made sense, given that she was usually the first to sense danger with her eyes. But watching the Hyuuga girl leap from branch to branch also supplied him with his answer. He remembered how relieved he'd been when he realized that Shino and Hinata were all right. Yes, he could do what was necessary to keep his precious people safe.

As they were looping back toward camp, Hinata stopped suddenly. Naruto's hands were already forming seals as her head snapped to the side. She held one hand behind her back, with three fingers extended. Shino dropped silently to the ground and Naruto knew his bugs were already in motion. Hinata and Kurenai changed directions and leapt into a tree to the left of their original course.

Naruto followed them; accelerating so he was able to land next to them when they touched down to confront the trio of interlopers.

They wore the masks and hooded robes that just shouted "ANBU" to any resident of Konoha, but Naruto didn't relax at all. Kurenai said they needed to beware imposters, and she and Hinata would be right in the middle if a potential battle broke out.

"Can we help you?" Kurenai asked coolly. Naruto noticed a couple of kikai bugs pass by his feet, heading toward the intruders.

"We're your relief," the middle ANBU said in a bored tone, his voice slightly muffled by the boar mask.

"You're early," she observed.

"Hokage's orders," the ANBU replied laconically.

"Do you have proof?" Kurenai asked.

The boar-masked ANBU slowly pulled out a scroll tube and tossed it to the jonin.

Naruto blurred into motion, snatching the scroll out of the air and pivoting so his body was between it and his team. "Hinata!" he barked.

The ANBU dropped into defensive stances as Naruto braced himself for an explosion or attack.

"It's all right," Hinata said quickly, her pale eyes glowing in the afternoon sunlight. "Just paper and ink. No chakra."

Naruto relaxed slightly, and handed the scroll to Kurenai. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her closely examine the seal before breaking it and scanning the message.

"Suspicious little bastard, aren't you?" the boar-masked ANBU asked in a conversational tone. "But you'd do well not to startle us. Someone could have gotten hurt."

"It's authentic," Kurenai said after a moment. "And it's probably not a good idea to startle us, either." She nodded her head toward the thirty or so Narutos dropping out of the trees behind the ANBU.

"We sensed them," the crow-masked ANBU spoke up. "It's a lot of Bunshin, but they're hardly likely to distract us from you."

Kurenai smiled sweetly as they turned to leave for their camp. "Not Bunshin," she corrected. "Kage Bunshin."

One of the clones, smirking, smashed his fist into a tree, splintering the bark. The ANBU twitched at the sudden sound.

OoOoO

It only required a handful of minutes to break down the tents and pack up their equipment. Hinata left most of the meat and gathered greens for the ANBU to use, but Naruto made a special point of gathering the leftovers from Hinata's cooking. She blushed a little when he said that it was too good to leave for strangers. He was starting to get an idea of why she acted so weirdly when he complimented her, but he didn't like where his thoughts were taking him. So he left it alone for a while.

Within the hour they were on the road back to Konoha. Naruto felt some of the tension flow out of his body as they left the borderlands. It would be good to return home, where hot showers and ramen could be found; the latter in large quantities. As he adjusted his heavy backpack, he glanced over at Hinata. She didn't seem to be as eager to return.

Naruto thought about that a lot as their steps carried them home.

A/N:

Many thanks to my betas, Runsamok and Bibliophile20.

Well, he finally told them… but Naruto isn't the only one with secrets now, is he?

For all the people wondering why Naruto didn't angst out over killing people in chapter 7… Normally people don't get react to traumas like that immediately, especially if there is a lot of adrenalin involved. Between the combat and hearing about Iruka being dead, and then 'not dead', he had a lot on his mind. It's later, when he has time to reflect that it will start to bother him. Psychologically, that is much more realistic than the instant angst-fests you see in bad melodrama.

Please address any general questions or concerns to my yahoo group, Viridian Dreams. The link is in my Author Profile.

-Matthew