Operation: Bring home Naruto

XVI. Mission accomplished

Naruto was twenty minutes into the woods when the thought of Gamma Bunta suddenly occurred to him. Why hadn't he tried to summon the toad lord before he'd used up so much chakra on this run to Konoha? Gamma Bunta could have gotten Hinata safely back to the village. Damn, why did he always act first and think second?

It was too late now. He didn't think he had enough chakra left to summon any toad bigger than Gamakichi or worse yet Gamatatsu. He just had to get to Konoha as quickly as possible under his own steam. He put on another burst of speed almost missing the search party combing the woods near him. It was Akamaru's barking that drew his attention to the group running in his direction.

"Sakura! Kiba! Shino! Neji!" he greeted them with relief as they ran up to meet him.

"Where's Lady Hinata?" Neji asked getting down to basics immediately.

"She's been hurt. I was coming for help," Naruto explained hurriedly.

"You let her get hurt?" Kiba demanded his fists doubled up threateningly.

Naruto flushed. "The guy had poison darts. Before we knew it, she'd been hit."

"Poison? Naruto, why didn't you bring her with you? We can't waste any time if poison's involved." It was Sakura's turn to make him feel like a failure.

He waved his hands in denial as the three pairs of accusing eyes bored into him. "No! Wait! I think it's okay. She took something for the poison. It's the broken rib that worried me. I was afraid of doing more damage if I carried her. We need a stretcher," he continued to rush his explanations which seemed to somewhat mollify his audience.

"I'll go back and get a few medics with a stretcher," Shino offered.

"Wait! You don't know where to go. How will you find the right place?"

"Don't worry. I have my ways," Shino promised solemnly and took off the way he'd come.

"Damn you, Naruto. Why didn't you protect her? You're the stronger ninja," Kiba accused.

"You under estimate Hinata's abilities if you think she can't take care of herself. She was awesome on this mission. It was just bad luck that the guy after me only wanted to fight me," Naruto told him hotly. Unfortunately, Kiba's accusation had hit him right where his sense of guilt was alive and well. He would have given his own life to have spared Hinata from the pain she'd suffered. He'd just never been given the opportunity. But he couldn't say any of that to Kiba. It wasn't any of his business.

Before Kiba could rebut, Sakura interrupted. "We've got no time for recriminations or accusations. I can set the broken bones, and numb the pain. If Naruto's right about the antidote, she'll be fine. Come on."

"Yeah, let's hurry," Naruto agreed before Kiba could open his mouth again and turned to lead the way running as fast back to Hinata as he'd come. He didn't know if he still had some of the fox's chakra or if he was running on his own adrenalin, but the others had a little trouble keeping up. He had to stop a few times to wait until he was certain Akamaru was still on his trail so the others wouldn't get lost.

He managed to reach the clearing where he'd left Hinata in under twenty minutes. He looked anxiously around, but all his defeated enemies where still trussed up in the same places they'd been dropped. He dismissed any threat they might have been and turned to kneel at Hinata's side. She looked as pale and lifeless as when he'd left. He felt her pulse. It was still throbbing weakly but steadily. He breathed a sigh of relief.

"Hinata," he spoke softly near her ear. "Help is on the way. It shouldn't be long. Sakura, Neji, Kiba and of course, Akamaru will be here any minute. Sakura seemed confident that she can heal you and Neji can use his Byakugan to help her. I don't know why Kiba came along except for Akamaru's ability in finding us by our scent. Oh yeah, and Shino was with them, but he went back for a stretcher. We're going to get you home as soon as possible. I promise."

He held the hand of her unbroken arm and sat down beside her. He didn't know what else to say so he anxiously watched her face for signs of returning consciousness. Occasionally, he'd gently squeeze her hand, and then he'd say her name always hoping for some reaction to let him know she'd be all right. However, no obvious sign was forthcoming.

It was a long five minutes until Sakura, Kiba and Neji arrived in Akamaru's wake.

Sakura shooed Naruto out of the way. He stood at Hinata's head watching Sakura work, uncomfortably aware of Kiba standing at Hinata's feet glaring at him as often as he watched Sakura and Hinata.

She examined Hinata's ribs first. "Only one rib's broken and it hasn't punctured her lung. I can set that now." She worked her chakra over the break starting the healing process. With Neji's assistance, she wrapped a bandage around Hinata's chest to hold the rib in place.

Next she set the arm and started that bone knitting with her chakra. She sat back on her heels when she'd finished.

"Will she be alright? I don't see any difference," Naruto asked after Sakura tied Hinata's healing arm carefully in a sling and laid it gently against her chest.

"I could completely heal both breaks, but it takes an enormous amount of chakra and can be debilitating. I'm not authorized to expend so high a quantity that I could endanger myself except in emergency situations. She should be able to heal quite well on her own now," she told him to explain her inability to effect an immediate change in Hinata's condition. "Neji, how's the antidote working against that poison in her system?"

He'd already used his Byakugan to examine Hinata's wounds for Sakura, and had been watching the poison as she worked. "I can see the path of the poison. It moved quickly into her bloodstream. The antidote is only now beginning to consume it. The poison isn't making any further progress. It should only be a matter of time before it's completely absorbed."

"Why is she still so pale and lifeless?" Naruto asked anxiously.

"It must be some effect of the poison. Her wounds of themselves aren't too bad. But you were right not to move her, Naruto. That broken rib could have punctured her lung if she'd been jostled too much."

He was gratified to hear that his judgment hadn't been wrong at least in that case. He shot Kiba a superior smile. Kiba had been frowning blackly at him over Hinata's prone figure throughout her treatment. It was only Sakura's assurances that had kept him from decking Naruto.

"How did Hinata happen to have an antidote for this particular poison? I'm not familiar with its effects."

He shrugged. He had his suspicions but he didn't want to go into the whole Tsubaki episode. It was Hinata's story, and they probably wouldn't believe him anyway. "She had a glass vial in her pocket and told me to pour it into her mouth before she lost consciousness. That's all I really know."

"Where's the guy with the poison darts?" Kiba demanded shifting his anger to a worthier object.

Naruto gestured behind him. "The one across the clearing tied up with my jacket."

"Who is he? Why was he attacking you?" Neji asked.

"I don't know his name, but it had to do with my mission overseas. I killed his son after he'd kidnapped my client," Naruto explained briefly. He wasn't in the mood to go into the whole story. He'd officially debrief when he faced the Fifth back in Konoha. He wasn't proud of the fact that he hadn't taken Hinata's mission as seriously as he should have. Maybe she wouldn't be lying there looking so frail and ill if he had.

"Who are the other guys?"

"I don't know exactly who they are either, but they're ninja hired to slow me down. Hinata gave them a lot of trouble. I think that's why the old guy poisoned her." Naruto didn't feel he owed Kiba anything but the briefest explanations. He could feel Kiba's hostility because of what happened to Hinata, but he was feeling a little hostile himself. He remembered all too well that Hinata had gone out with Kiba. He hadn't liked the idea when he'd heard it originally, and he liked it even less now that he witnessed Kiba's concern. He was beginning to see Kiba as a major rival not as a friend—and Kiba's attitude did nothing to alter those feelings.

Uncomfortably he realized that he'd felt that same way with Sasuke over Sakura years ago. He'd always known how Sakura felt about Sasuke so it was just one more dimension to the rivalry he'd always felt with Sasuke. But Sasuke had never shown any particular interest in Sakura so that aspect of the rivalry had been completely one sided. However, in this case he was fairly certain how Kiba felt, but he wasn't at all certain about Hinata's feelings. Until this mission of hers, he'd never been conscious of her as potential girlfriend material. She hadn't stood out from the kunoichi pack the way Sakura always had. Girl and friend had been two separate and distinct words in his mind if he ever thought of Hinata in the past.

But now everything was different. He was aware of her in so many different ways. She'd made him see her as an attractive, desirable woman. She'd grown so much from the shy, timid girl of the past. He'd seen her courage, leadership skills and fighting abilities as he'd never witnessed them before. And there was so much more he wanted to know about her.

But would she give him the opportunity? Or would Kiba be even more of a rival than Sasuke had ever been? Once she was well, he was determined to find out. He didn't think Hinata was the type of girl to play games. She'd be honest with him. He had no problem competing with Kiba if that's what it took. She was worth fighting for.

He sat down again beside Hinata to wait for the medics. He wanted to take her hand, but he didn't want to get in a fight with Kiba about it when Hinata needed rest and quiet. Instead, he watched as Kiba plopped down across from him. He had to suffer once more Kiba scowling at him again along with Akamaru lying down at his master's side growling at him.

In the meantime Sakura and Neji examined the prisoners performing a little healing and tightening of bonds. Eventually they too, sat down around Hinata.

And so they all waited the next two hours for Shino and the medics to arrive.

Hinata felt as if her eyelids were glued shut. Panicking she croaked out, "Naruto?" but received no response. In frustration her eyes welled with tears which finally enabled her to tear them open and blink up at her surroundings. However before she could focus on anything recognizable she had to close her eyes again and rub them with her knuckles.

Her last memories were of the forest clearing where she had fallen after the poison dart had hit her neck with Naruto had bent over her as she told him about the glass vial Tsubaki had given her. She remembered nothing after that, but everything that had happened before that began to crowd into her head—the fight with the four ninja, the feel of the poison entering her bloodsteam and Naruto calling her name.

"Naruto," she said again in a stronger voice as she looked around.

There were no trees, no clearing and no Naruto. She found herself in a darkened hospital room. The blind covering the window had the muted glow of sunlight glaring just beyond its shade. She heard a noise and turned her head to find Shizune sitting beside her bed dozing fitfully in a chair.

"Naruto," she said again more loudly which finally woke Shizune mid-snore.

"Hinata! You're finally awake," she smiled with relief.

"Naruto," Hinata demanded again.

"He's fine. He was being such a nuisance, Tsuande sent him on a mission. Are you thirsty?"

Hinata nodded and Shizune lifted her head and held a glass of water at her mouth. She gulped the water thirstily. She hadn't realized how dry she felt until Shizune had suggested water. And she felt so weak. If Shizune hadn't held her head she didn't think she'd have been able raise it on her own.

"How?" was all she could think to ask. There were so many hows she wanted to know the answer to, she couldn't choose just one.

"How long have you been unconscious? It's been three weeks. That poison you were given was more insidious that it first appeared. Once Tsuande was able to discover what it was we made more of the antidote for you. It took longer than we first thought to rid your system of the poison's effects. You should recover quickly now that you're awake."

"What?" she tried again but hadn't the energy for a complete question.

"What happened? I'll let the Fifth tell you about that. She had the entire story from Naruto. If you think you're up to it, I'll get her now. She wanted to see you as soon as you're awake, but I can let you rest a little longer if you'd like."

"Now," she answered. She couldn't rest until she knew more and was certain that Naruto really was fine.

"Okay. Hang on. She's here at the hospital. It should only take a few minutes." She stood up, stretched then left the room.

Hinata desperately needed to know what happened. She hadn't even seen the man who'd shot her with the poison dart, but she'd heard his voice and his laugh. Just that much of him had frightened her. She'd felt such a desperate sense of failure as she'd slipped into unconsciousness—and dread—dread that she'd left Naruto to face that evil man alone. It was only Tsubaki's assurances that Naruto wouldn't need the antidote that caused her to take it herself. What if Tsubaki had lied to her because she hadn't liked Naruto? What if Naruto wasn't fine at all? What if Shizune was lying to her now just because she'd been ill and shouldn't be alarmed?

Luckily, it really was only a few minutes before the Hokage breezed into the room. If Hinata had had any more time alone she would have worked herself into a major panic.

"Well, my formidable young kunoichi, you're finally back with us," she greeted Hinata as she sat down on the edge of the bed.

"Yes," Hinata made her usual one word response. More than that was too great an effort.

"Shizune told me you were asking about Naruto. He really is none the worse for wear after your adventure. He has wonderful recuperative powers. You really don't need to worry about him."


"I sent Naruto off with Kakashi, Lee and Gai to return all those villains you and Naruto left strewn about the forest. He was pestering the hospital staff so much that I really had to give him something to do. He was quite worried about you—as we all were. I don't know where you obtained that antidote, but it saved your life. Even if I hadn't been able to make more, you would have recovered nicely. It would simply have taken a little longer."

She continued without giving Hinata an opportunity to reply. "You might not believe this, but every one of those villains you and Naruto took down had a price on his head. The two of you wracked up quite a tidy sum of reward money. Even the village you helped with the kidnapping sent along a nice little reward. This was one of the most profitable missions Konoha has had all year."

Hinata gave her a weak smile in response since the Hokage didn't seem to require a verbal acknowledgment.

Tsunade took her hand and squeezed it. "You did a good job, Hinata. You brought Naruto home safely. Don't argue! I know you don't feel that way since it was actually Naruto bringing you home on a stretcher, but he told me the entire story. I know exactly what part you played in his return. Trust me. Without you, he would have fallen to his enemies back in the city—and there would have been a lot more to contend with. By getting him as close to Konoha as you did, there were fewer to fight. Believe me, that man who poisoned you, had spread out his hired thugs all over to find you. We discovered several groups of them in the environs of Konoha. They didn't know what direction you'd taken to get back. It was simply mischance that he chose the same path you did. The outcome would have been different if you hadn't faced him, but he would still have been out there waiting for an opportunity to pounce on Naruto. This way we have him in custody, and will be collecting a nice fat reward for his apprehension."

She squeezed Hinata's hand again. "I have some further good news. Your father has arranged for your recovery with a trip to a seaside resort. You'll have plenty of sun and relaxation to recover your strength. Now that you're awake and able to eat, we can have you on your way in a few days."

"Naruto?" Hinata asked. She really wanted to see him.

"Now, I told you not to worry about him. I'll keep him busy until you get back. You'll be yourself again in no time. A month at the seashore should do wonders." She stood up and patted Hinata's hand. "I'll have some nourishing soup sent to you before you fall asleep again. Once you start eating solid food, you'll regain your strength in no time."

She left Hinata's room as breezily as she'd entered.

Hinata had no strength to protest their arrangements. She especially wouldn't refuse her father's gift—he offered her so few. The Hokage must have impressed him with her success, although it didn't feel like a success. But maybe it had been foolish of her to dream of returning to the village triumphantly with Naruto whole and healthy at her side. The mission hadn't gone exactly smoothly from the beginning. Too many things had happened that she'd never foreseen. The most important being—she'd fallen more deeply in love with Naruto than she'd ever dreamed possible.

He'd been so perfect on this trip. He'd followed her direction. He'd allowed her to take the lead when he could easily have overridden her. He'd allowed her to protect him. He'd been sweet and caring and admiring and concerned—everything she'd ever dreamed he could be.

But it was over now. They were back in the real world. She wasn't his girlfriend. He probably still liked Sakura despite her engagement. They were on separate teams and would go their separate ways. And besides all that—she wouldn't even see him for a whole month while she recuperated by the sea.

He'd forget all about her. She'd go back to being that weird, timid Hinata. The next time they met, she'd be shy and tongue-tied again and he'd treat her like he did everyone else. Just thinking about it made her want to cry. She'd had her dream mission and now it was over.

Before her soup could arrive, she cried herself back to sleep. She was too weak and tired to think of a positive solution to her dilemma. That would come another day, because after all, she wasn't the same Hinata who'd left on this mission weeks ago. She'd grown considerably in just a short time. She was a much tougher, stronger, and bolder woman than she'd been before. She'd remember that when she was more herself. Then she would show Naruto what she was really made of. Just wait and see.


The story continues in PART TWO tentatively titled:

"Elementary, my dear Naruto."