Seventeen Magazine is holding a writing contest on figment dot com. It's a short story contest—500 words or less. In attempt to try something different, I wrote a small one-shot about a girl who had a heart transplant and is now having strange and beautiful dreams.

Why am I telling you this? Besides wanting you to read and "heart" it:

Figment dot com(forwardslash)books(forwardslash)490792(dash)Nobody(dash)s(dash)Heart

or link in my profile

I just want to say that this little original one-shot inspired me to write this chapter. I spent the whole day writing this, from 9 in the morning to 10 at night. That's about 10 hours, since I took an hour or two to eat and exercise. It's 23 pages long. More than 10,000 words. It's crazy.

I'm a little buzzed and tired right now, so I hope this chapter's worth the wait.

Happy reading!

P.S. Sorry about the self-promotion at the beginning, but just wanted to see what would happen. I never do it, so this is new! :D


Part Four: The Rookie Nine

Chapter Five

Her feet dug rivets into the sand as she spun to avoid the hit. Unlike her teammates—brains and brawn—Hinata had only her agility and quick instincts to guide her body during a battle. With a quick inhale, her palm came forward to press aside Shino's fist while her other hand gently redirected Kiba's kick. A sharp exhale and she jumped back, evading Akamaru's tackle and effectively clearing the way for the dog-nin to crash into the boys.

Shino was quick enough to avoid the dog.

Kiba… not so much.

"What the-!" That was all the Inuzuka could get out before being barrelled down by his best friend, sending them both rolling, tussling, colliding into the ground.

Shino and Hinata paused from their sparring to watch their teammates make a mess of the battleground, sand spraying through the air, sticks flying every which way, and grass fraying along the edges. Unfortunately for Hinata, who was distracted by the adorable way Akamaru was sand-sneezing, she soon found herself on her back, Shino pressing a blunt kunai to her neck. She had felt him coming, but a little too late.

Gratified and light-hearted from her teammates' success (Shino) and hilarity (Kiba and Akamaru), Hinata smiled up at Shino in congrats. In response, Shino nodded at her acknowledgement, his happiness masked only by his high collar, but not in the way Hinata and Kiba could read him. While Kiba was busy spitting sand and debris from his mouth, Shino withdrew his kunai and helped Hinata to her feet. For Team 8, Hinata's defeat was not new, and neither was Kiba and Akamaru's lack of frequency. But the length of the spar before it came to an abrupt and light-hearted end was new—they were becoming better and better at holding each other off.

Hinata glowed at their progress.

She was roused from her thoughts when Shino chuckled, quiet and almost inaudibly, at Kiba. The Inuzuka was cursing, albeit in hasty whispers as no one wanted Hinata to catch them, as he shook his head violently to rid his tresses of sand. This was, of course, followed by a mimicking Akamaru, shaking his whole body and sending a sand-cloud up into the air. Shino found it funny when the sand from the dog-nin's fur landed promptly, and predictably, into Kiba's hair.

"Hey!" Kiba complained, scowling and scratching his head like mad. When he retracted his hand, a small pile of sand sat innocently in his palm. He winced, and then looked to Shino and Hinata for help. "Mom's gonna kill me for this mess."

Hinata gave a sympathetic smile and rushed over to help Kiba comb the sand from his hair. Akamaru stepped back, grinning with his tongue lolling from his maw. He didn't think he did anything wrong.

Shino fixed his sunglasses—off by a millimetre after the spar—and glanced at the empty spot below one of the oak trees. It stood on higher ground, a beneficial position that gave the observer a good vantage point over the beach and brook. The one who usually claimed the spot was not yet present, which discomfited Team 8, although they did not show it to each other.

They felt it nevertheless.

"Kurenai-sensei should be here by now." Kiba was unafraid to give voice to their concerns, shifting the accepted disquiet to chafing anxiousness.

"I-It has been a half an hour," Hinata agreed, eyebrows furrowing. When they had met for training that morning, Kurenai hadn't shown. Out of loyalty and trust, Team 8 had decided to continue with their stretches and spar, hoping that their sensei would arrive. But she had not. Hinata knew that if anything had truly gone wrong, Shino would have signalled for it. He had planted kikaichu on all their persons.

Shino shifted, however slight, and informed, "She is coming. She has been with the Hokage and the other jonin-sensei of The Rookie Nine. I believe that we have a mission. Why? Because Kurenai-sensei is troubled."

Kiba sucked in air, excited at the prospect of another mission. He only hoped it was not a D-rank that required weeding, garbage collection or hunting down Tora. They really didn't want to find that cat again… and again, and again, and again…

His curiosity was soon quelled when they spotted the figure of their sensei. Hinata perked at once, even standing up on her tippy toes to get a better look. Her Byakugan was, obviously, forgotten and deemed irrelevant for such a happy venture. The only one who was not outwardly affected by their sensei's presence—even Akamaru was running circles around Team 8 out of enthusiasm—was Shino. A mission was to be had, after all, and it must be regarded with gravity and importance.

When their sensei was close enough for her expression to be visible, the genin of Team 8 immediately stilled. They had never seen their sensei so serious and withdrawn. A kikaichu brushed against Hinata's ear and Akamaru pressed his nose to her ankle. Instinctively, Hinata's hands found Shino and Kiba's, reciprocating their uneasiness and comfort.

Kurenai-sensei, spotting their tells of distress, softened her expression as she came to a halt in front of them. She was no less confused or perturbed by their new complication. "Team 8, you have a new mission."

The genin had gathered as much, but they refused to look at each other. They refused to let their sensei know just how anxious they were, or how affected they were by her moods. They really should have better control, Hinata realized.

"Or should I say," Kurenai retracted her words, "that The Rookie Nine has a mission."

This time, the genin broke structure and shared curious looks between them—including Akamaru.

Kurenai tried to hide her amused smile, but she forgot all about it when all three of her genin raised a brow, even Shino. With a deep inhale, Kurenai shook the last remnants of her doubt, and explained, "Well, it's like this…"


"There's a thief!" Naruto declared with gusto, one foot propped on a park bench and one fist shaking in the air, his body brimming with (clearly) justice. "And we'll catch him!"

Hinata blushed at the small flex of muscle on Naruto's upper arm and couldn't help but imagine that small flex of muscle wrapping around the small of her back, his warmth pressing against her spine. She squeaked when his big, bold and beautiful eyes met hers briefly before moving on to catch the next Rookie Nine member. By the gods! How could someone so lovely be mortal?

Taking deep breaths, Hinata braced herself for more Naruto exposure when Shino casually took her by the arm and led her to the back of their gathering. Kiba, not casually and rather blatantly actually, stepped boldly forward to block Hinata from Naruto's much-too-forward-and-dumb look, even giving the blond a dirty look.

As for Hinata, she was so, so very grateful for her teammates. She was also very, very grateful that Ino was currently locked in a glaring contest with Sakura and not noticing Hinata's recent girl failure. Otherwise, Hinata would've never been able to cope with Naruto's presence and the Yamanaka's teasing looks.

As if in tune with Hinata's thoughts, Ino growled, "Forehead…"

"Pig…"Sakura returned with grit.

The girls were not going to ease up on their glaring anytime soon.

"…so we'll just lie in wait and then—BAM—we catch him!" Naruto announced. Apparently, he had been relaying his plans… but no one was really listening. Being the self-appointed leader was hard.

Shikamaru sighed, Chouji popped a potato chip into his mouth and Sasuke exhaled a "dobe." Naruto, being Sasuke-sensitive, heard the Uchiha's insult at once and promptly challenged the Avenger to a duel. Spurred by Sasuke's annoyance and the need to punch something (preferably blond and orange, of all colours!), Saukra and Ino immediately turned to Naruto, screaming, "Don't be so annoying, Naruto!" and "You're so stupid, Naruto! No one can defeat Sasuke!"

This screeching continued, interspersed with Naruto's high-pitched defence at challenging Sasuke and Sasuke's pretentious smirks and intelligent counters. By the time Naruto threw the first punch–or was it Sakura aiming for Naruto? Hinata was too star struck to pay proper attention–Chouji and Shikamaru had taken residence on another park bench and Kiba was restlessly trying to get himself in on the action.

Just as Kiba was going to fling himself, fists leading the way, at the duelling Sasuke and Naruto, Shino had had enough. To the Aburame's credit, he had kept his patience a lot longer than what was expected. If either Kiba or Hinata had been paying attention, then the following would not have happened. But seeing as how the other members of Team 8 were preoccupied (Kiba with the duel and Hinata with Naruto's "muscle"), no one could be blamed for what was to come.

All that could be done was Sakura and Ino's horrified screams when the cloud of kikaichu descended upon the males of Team 7. A minute later, both the Uchiha and Uzamaki were incapacitated, annoyed and sporting an impressive amount of bug bites. Both were sitting on the ground, glaring up at a nonchalant Shino, not particularly hurt, but certainly understanding that further fights were not to be tolerated. All in all, the ordeal proved Hinata's affection because, even black-eyed and covered with red bug bites, she still found Naruto alluring.

Instead of being bereft of Shino's putting a stop to the fight, Kiba burst out in cackles at the dissatisfied Uchiha and pouting Uzumaki. Chortling, the Inuzuka hugged his stomach as he fell to the ground in laughter. "O-Oh god!" Kiba gasped as Amakaru lopped around the group in hilarity. "Y-You should look at y-yourselves!" Snort. "Man, Shino! B-Best. Move. Ever!"

Shino adjusted his glasses and nodded. "Thank you, Kiba."

That only pissed Sasuke and Naruto off even more. Added with Sakura and Ino's indignation at seeing Sasuke's stunning visage dotted with bug bites, Shino's days would've numbered few if it hadn't been for Shikamaru's strategic interruption.

"Troublesome," the Nara quipped from his bench, Chouji nodding in agreement beside him. "If Shino didn't stopped the fight, we would never finish this mission—much less start." Shikamaru and Shino exchanged a look. It was the silent ones that were the true leaders.

Ino glared at Shikamaru, growling at her teammate. Sakura was torn between agreeing with the Nara and helping Sasuke, even if he clearly did not want her help. Seeing Ino about to rip a new one into Shikamaru, Hinata gracefully intervened. As Hinata, she was distracted by Naruto. Given the situation and the necessity of the mission, Hinata conjured a bit of Zero—the part of herself she never thought to see again, not so soon—to establish some equilibrium to their group.

"P-Please," Hinata stuttered, shuffling a little forward. A little courageous. A little assertive. A little of Zero."W-We need to s-stop fighting."

"Hinata is right," Shino said, diverting the attention from her to him. Hinata did not like a lot of attention. She flashed him a thankful smile. "Why? Because the village is in trouble. Why? Because there is a thief about. As Konoha-nin, we have the responsibility of finding and capturing this criminal."

"Why?" Kiba prompted, smirking—giving Team 8 the last word.

Shino's glasses glared in the afternoon sun, sinister and omnipotent. "Because we are The Rookie Nine."


At a distance, situated awkwardly on a curved pagoda roof, a trio of jonin-sensei watched their genin with some doubt. For Kurenai, she had very few misgivings surrounding Teams 8 and 10. For Asuma, he was pretty confident in his Team 10 and their association with Team 8. For Kakashi… he had no hope whatsoever for his Team 7. Neither did Kurenai and Asuma—Team 7 was just too boisterous and unpredictable, too gritty and chafing to work well with the other teams.

When Sasuke and Naruto started throwing fists at each other, Kakashi wordlessly produced a (perverted) orange book, pretending that nothing was out of the ordinary. In truth, Sasuke and Naruto fighting was the norm for Team 7. What Kakashi was trying to ignore was, of course, Asuma's judging amusement and Kurenai's pointed disapproval.

When Shino released his kikaichu, Kurenai almost wanted to hide from Kakashi and Asuma's looks. And here they thought Team 8 had the best control… Of course, Kurenai's pride was left intact after the Aburame effectively subdued both the last Uchiha and the jinchuriki. Kakashi's book almost fell from his hands. Asuma's cigarette did slip from his lips, falling off the roof and very nearly hitting some innocent bystander in the eye.

Kurenai only preened at her student's impeccable skills.

When Shikamaru intervened the dark cloud between Teams 7 and 8, no one was more surprised than Asuma. The lazy Nara could actually care about a mission after all. Upon further speculation, with binoculars to their eyes, the three jonin-sensei saw the stare-exchange between Shikamaru and Shino. What The Rookie Nine did not notice was the way the two silent alphas flickered their gazes to their teammates—in both Teams 8 and 10.

Shikamaru to Ino and Kiba. Shino to Hinata and Chouji.

"Daaamn," Asuma whistled, taking out another cigarette.

Saddened, and a little proud that her boy and Asuma's knew how to prioritize, Kurenai lowered her binoculars and gave Kakashi a sympathetic look.

Kakashi shrugged them off and returned to his book. Team 7 never belonged.

Finally, when Hinata stepped forward, the senseis paused in their ministrations to watch, impressed and curious, as Team 8 came together in a way Kakashi and Asuma envied. Asuma lowered his lighted cigarette. Kakashi casually turned a page in his book. Kurenai smiled.

No words were needed.

Team 8 was just too in sync and good to each other to be divided. Not even Shino interrupting Kiba's fun for a duel could cause animosity between the boys. Not even Hinata's shyness around Naruto could cause the boys to regard her in any way less than their respected teammate. If anything, the boys regarded Naruto as the pest, not Hinata.

Satisfied, Kurenai sat back and watched how the rest of the mission was going to progress. She had thought the Hokage mad when he had cooked up this scheme, but in forethought, this might be the best thing to ever happen for The Rookie Nine.

It wasn't just the mission at stake.

It was the upcoming Chunin Exams.


"So, like I was saying," Naruto pressed, his expression exuberant, eager and energetic. He wanted this to work. "We'll lay a trap and wait for the thief to come. Like, put it out in the open and, just when he's not looking—BAM—we snatch 'em!"

A few steps to his right, Sasuke felt a migraine coming on. The kikaichu bites were itchy, and Naruto's intelligence (or lack thereof) was irritating. His annoyance must have shown on his face because Sakura and Ino were quick to catch on.

"And how, Naruto," Ino scoffed, crossing her arms, "are we sure that the thief will fall for your trap?"

"We're not even sure what he's after," Sakura said, sighing heavily. "How can we prepare a trap when we don't even know what he wants?"

"Panties," Shino supplied.

The Rookie Nine paused. Hinata's face went red. Kiba choked. Shino and panties didn't equate. Evidently, it wasn't only Team 8 who believed it, but also Teams 10 and 7. Shikamaru rolled his eyes at their level of maturity.

He did not want their teams to be too mixed up in the particulars of the mission. The focus should be on the capturing of the thief… the panties thief. Hinata was not built for talks of panties, Shikamaru thought, and Ino was too built for talks of panties. Teams 8 and 10 should really just do this themselves. Team 7 was too volatile. Shikamaru did not voice this. It would only lower their "team's" morale.

"From the reports," Shikamaru explained, bland and disinterested, "the thief has exhibited an interest solely in women's underwear."

Naruto opened his mouth to speak, but Shikamaru didn't give him a chance. He silently thanked Shino for keeping Kiba and Akamaru still. A kikachu was enough to tame the Inuzuka to a respectful quiet. He was also glad that Hinata was giving Ino understanding looks; this soothed the Yamanaka's ruffled feathers.

Sakura was not good for Ino.

"As such," Shikamaru concluded, "we should use the thief's interest against him. If we are, indeed, setting a trap, we should use a pair of panties. For effectiveness, we need to set several of these traps at different locations around the village. I want to get this over and done with as fast as possible."

He wasn't the only one who wanted to finish this mission. Kiba was getting restless with Sasuke's natural broodiness and pretentiousness. Chouji was getting uncomfortable with Sasuke's judging and uncaring stare.

Sasuke was not good for Kiba and Chouji.

"Well," Ino said decisively with a nod. "If we're going to need panties, then we should definitely use mine!"

(On the roof several miles away, Asuma nearly coughed up a lung. Trust Ino to be dramatic and shameless about her underwear.)

Hinata blushed in Ino's stead since Ino did not know modesty even if it hit her in the head—hard.

"Why?" Naruto sounded dumbly.

Shikamaru almost groaned, but held himself back. Hinata was blushing even harder at Naruto's curiosity.

Naruto was not good for Hinata.

"Because," Ino growled, offended and on the defence. "Mine are the sexist!"

"Nuh-uh!" Naruto protested with great surety and a hard shake of his head. "Sakura's is the sexiest!"

Both Sakura and Hinata were horrified at Naruto's statement. Shino even broke under Naruto's idiocy, letting out a quiet sigh. Shikamaru wanted to bang his head on something hard.

"Excuse me?!" both Sakura and Ino shrieked.

Naruto was not good for Sakura.

As Naruto tried to explain, under great duress, as to why Sakura's panties were the best and that Sakura really shouldn't be so modest, Sasuke finally let out a belittling scoff. Naruto caught on immediately and announced another challenge. A few fists flew between the boys, Sakura pounding Naruto once or twice for her beloved Sasuke, and Sasuke's Sharingan flared at Naruto's insults.

Sasuke was not good for Naruto.

Teams 8 and 10 watched, unsure and horrified, as Team 7 ripped a new one on the park. It wasn't even a training area, but a civilian park. Hinata gasped, heartbroken when the swings collapsed and a fire jutsu melted one of the slides. Ino, having been ready to help her Sasuke, immediately withdrew from the challenge to comfort Hinata's broken heart. All the boys of Teams 8 and 10 were relieved that Ino's friendship with Hinata was stronger than her obsession with Sasuke. No one wanted to drag a screaming, angry, bitchy Ino from a fight. She knew how to use both her nails and teeth.

(Shikamaru and Chouji had stories about Ino's wrath.)

Sakura tried to keep Naruto from Sasuke, which only annoyed Sasuke.

Sakura was not good for Sasuke.

Finally, when the whole play structure collapsed in a brutal pile of melted metal, broken screws and bent plastic, Hinata nearly fell to her knees in agony. It didn't help when the children watching on the sidelines broke into tears when their beloved playground fell to smithereens. How could Team 7 be so careless — and heartless — and evil?

"P-Please stop," Hinata whimpered.

Ino caught her plea and grew angry on Hinata's behalf. Hair raised and fingers clawed, Ino bellowed with all her might: "ENOUGH!"

The park went still. Naruto and Sasuke had one hand grabbing the other's collar and one hand raised ready to knock each other out. Sakura stood between them, hands pressed on each shoulder in hopes of prying the boys apart.

Enough, indeed. Hinata was close to tears and, damn it, Teams 8 and 10 were not going to sit idly by as Team 7 broke one of them. Chouji pulled Hinata into a hug, hiding her view of the broken playground and the sobbing children. Kiba and Ino stepped forward, gazes cold and furious as they glared at Team 7. Shikamaru and Shino, both silent and sturdy, looked ready to end things in that quiet and ominous manner that experienced assassins were particularly good at.

Suddenly, all the animosity of the past few months, all the apartness and forgetfulness, came crashing between the teams. There had been very little that connected Team 7 to the other Rookie Nine members. Sakura and Ino had a friendly (although it may not seem like it) rivalry, but they were never ones to sit in a café and chat like best friends. Sasuke had always been an outsider by choice. Both Sakura and Sasuke were not threads strong enough to tether Team 7 to Teams 8 and 10.

But Naruto, their Naruto, should have been enough. Sasuke's rival and brother. Sakura's admirer and friend. Kiba's only friend capable enough to keep up with his energy and mischievousness. Chouji's only friend who encouraged his happy eating habits by sneaking cookies to him in class. Shikamaru's only friend who did not see "genius," only kindness.

One of the boys.

One of the boys who had not answered their calls. One of the boys who had not replied to their invitations. One of the boys who did not play, hang out, party with them. Not anymore. Not after he had joined Team 7. Besides Kakashi, Sasuke and Sakura, Naruto cared for little else. Not when Kiba tried to strike up a sparring match. Not when Chouji asked him to come along on one of their barbeque lunches. Not when Shikamaru hinted that there would always be a spot under his tree for him. Not when the boys made it loud and clear that he was always welcomed and wanted him to join in on the fun—soon, close, now.

They tried.

Naruto had not.

Something broke. Hurting one of the boys was fine. They were boys. Boys didn't cry. But upsetting one of their girls (Ino) or breaking one of their girls (Hinata) was not acceptable. They were girls. Girls cried. As boys—as men—they would not tolerate the hurting of one of their girls. It was why they had never wanted the girls to participate in their pranks (too dangerous), their talks (too sensational), their habits (too rough).

They were girls and the boys always them.

Naruto had crossed the line.

Quietly, saddened, Chouji led the hiccupping Hinata away from the park. His shirt was soaked with her tears. Ever on the same wave length, Shino took the raging Ino gently by the wrist and carefully pulled her away from the scene as well. Kiba and Shikamaru stayed long enough to meet Naruto in the eye and relay just how disappointed, how hurt, how sad they were with how they ended up.

As dense as he was, Naruto was still one of the boys. He was on their wave length and knew that something had shifted. Something was different, and he was no longer on the inside. There was now a wall he did not comprehend.

With a nod from Shikamaru, he and Kiba left the park at last, leaving a confused Sakura and an irritated Sasuke. Finally, Naruto released his hold on Sasuke and frowned, troubled and hurt. He did not understand, but he was never one to give up.

He would need to talk to Shino.


Lowering their binoculars, Kurenai and Asume could not look at Kakashi. The copy-nin was the only one who did not remove the lenses from his eye. He watched, careful and meticulously, as his sensei's son displayed a surprising amount of intelligence in that brief exchange between the boys. There had been no words, only looks, and everything changed.

Kakashi hadn't known that Naruto was so close with Teams 8 and 10. He knew that Naruto had used to sneak out of the classroom with Kiba, Chouji and Shikamaru. But such friendships usually dwindled, sizzled, snuffed once ninjas became immersed in their genin teams. And yet, the copy-nin realized, Teams 8 and 10 continued to socialize and become closer than ever.

Why had Naruto faltered?

He lowered the binoculars as he contemplated this.

"The Uchiha and Haruno take too much of his attention," Asuma stated, his bored tone seemingly unhelpful.

Kurenai cringed at Asuma's bluntness, but did not contradict him.

Ahh, of course, surmised Kakashi. Sasuke had no one else; he did not care for Sakura. Sakura had no one else; Sasuke did not care for her. They relied on Naruto for company, genuine company, and the Uchiha and the Haruno took too much of his attention. They did not leave him with enough time or energy for others. They made Naruto acknowledge them as his only world, that his focus should be Team 7's and Team 7's only.

There was no one and nothing else.

"They will consume him," Kakashi concluded, disturbed. Albeit unconsciously. Albeit unwittingly. Unknowingly, Naruto will be driven by Team 7 for Team 7. Kakashi saw, immediately, that this would be a weakness. It was the same weakness that had consumed Kakashi after Obito and Rin had passed away. He had not been able to let anyone in, had not been able to be versatile and lively.

He had to save Naruto.

Or the Uzumaki would end up chasing shadows for the rest of his days.


Hinata's smile was brittle when she accepted the tea from an encouraging Chouji. No one said anything when they took refuge at The Tea Emporium. Kiko had taken one look at them, a frown at Hinata's reddened eyes, and presented them with pu-erh tea immediately. A bitterness that went well with their sadness, but a bitterness that cleansed for a new beginning.

As upset as the girls were, the boys were even more wounded. Even Shino, who had never been one to participate in the boys' excursions outside of the classroom, was unexpectedly chafed. The Aburame had never played the pranks, joined the solicitous talks or mimicked the rough habits, but he was still a boy. He was on their wave length and adhered to the boys when the girls were not around. He was with the boys when the girls were not, knew their secrets by heart and was one of them.

He also knew that Naruto would make amends.

They had not worked so hard to come together only to be so easily torn apart.

Hinata sipped her tea, to appease her boys, and then leaned against Ino's shoulder. The blonde patted the ebony on the head, and the girls started to talk about flowers and shopping. Well, Ino talked about flowers and shopping; Hinata just listened. It was all an act. Ino was good at acting. They acted to soothe the boys.

The boys were out of sorts and uneasy.

It was not going to be an easy fix.

A rattle against the windows and Hinata recognized the chakra signature. She could tell that the others haven't sensed it yet. Naruto stayed just far enough not to rouse any attention. He wasn't ready to confront them yet, too confused, too guilty, too edgy. Naruto did not know where he had erred, only that he had erred and that he wanted to fix it.

Hinata did not give any indication that Naruto was nearby, only slowly straightening in her seat to drink her tea. It was a guise to subtly retreat from the booth. She wanted to take Ino with her, to give the boys their space. One day, she thought with a hopeful smile, there was going to be an all-girls club. She just had to wait, or build one herself… or let Ino as Ino was good at such things.

"Ino?" Hinata enquired.

The blonde stopped in the midst of her talk. She had been recounting the details of a stunning dress she had seen the other day and how much she really, really deserved it.

"I-I want to go s-shopping… for a little while," Hinata hinted.

Ino was incredulous and Shikamaru looked to Hinata. Hinata refused to meet him in the eye. No one truly believed Hinata wanted to go shopping, but most assumed that she wanted some girl time with Ino. The boys were no fun at the moment.

Shino's chair slid back as he stood. "I will go with you, Hinata."

"Wait!" Ino was quick to slam Shino's idea down. "Girls only."

Shino made the act of thinking, seen through by Hinata and Shikamaru. Finally, the Aburame said, "There is a new breed of larvae at the pet shop I would like to procure."

That was all Ino needed to allow Shino to leave with them, but not under any circumstances shop with them. They would part ways once outside the tea house. She was adamant about that. With an imperial nod from Ino, the trio departed, allowing the rest of the boys time to themselves. Hinata smiled at Shino as he detached himself from the girls and made for the opposite direction.

"There!" huffed Ino, smiling brightly. A little forced, but after all the cloudy moods around the boys, one couldn't but force some happiness. There was so little to be had back at The Tea Emporium. "Let's go see the dress first-"

"Ino," Hinata started, watching Shino turn the corner… towards Naruto. "We're not here to go shopping."

Ino startled, owl-eyed. "We're not?"

Hinata shook her head. She was so sure that Ino had to retrace her steps. "No," the Hyuga said with a confident smile. When a little mischievous light gleamed in Hinata's white eyes, Ino suddenly got very, very interested. "We're here to spy on the boys."

Ino was always up for spying.


"Huh," Asuma sounded, a little impressed, a little disturbed. "Who would've thought Hinata was one for spying."

Kurenai placed a hand over her mouth to cover her smile. There were a lot of things they did not know about Hinata. Even Kurenai, herself, did not know all the sides to the Hyuga. Every day, Hinata was becoming more and more surprising. The Hokage would only smile at her theories, smoking that pipe of his with laughing eyes. Never mind. Kurenai was only happy to see Hinata getting along so well with Ino. Hinata needed more girlfriends.

Kakashi was oddly silent, watching his blond genin as Kurenai's Aburame snuck up on him. Predictably, Naruto gave a yelp in shock, turning immediately to meet Shino with a defensive stance, arms upraised to block any attacks. It was impressive, but wholly unnecessary as Shino had no plans of attacking Naruto any time soon.

Still. Impressive.

Unbeknownst to Naruto, for certainly Shino must have known, Hinata and Ino had snuck up on him. The two girls were up on the roofs, hidden in the shadows and listening intently on the boys. Ino was looking ready to burst with giddiness, always one for gossip. Hinata, however, was more curious, more serious. She, above all others, wanted everything to be okay again. For the boys to be happy.

The jonin-senseis could see that the Hyuga worked hard to keep their group happy and at ease. She wanted her friends to be the opposite of the Hyuga. It was both admirable and foolish. Nothing was perfect.

But The Rookie Nine was nearly there.


"Eh, heh, heh," Naruto chuckled awkwardly, scratching the back of his neck in his telltale sign of being nervous. He faced Shino with a large and uncomfortable grin. "Hiya, Shino—didn't see ya there!"

Above, on the roofs, Ino cringed and nearly face-palmed. Naruto was not one for espionage.

Hinata, on the other hand, found it endearing. Naruto was not one for lying.

"Naruto," Shino acknowledged, neither upset nor happy to see the blond.

Naruto face-faulted, and then coughed to cover his disappointment. It was not a very good cover. "Um… Shino?"

The Aburame gave no indication that he heard Naruto.

The blond jinchuriki continued nevertheless, in that reckless way of his. "I… I'm not sure what happened back there…" Naruto waited for an answer. There was none forthcoming. "I mean," Naruto tried again. "Did I do something wrong? I've-" Here, Naruto halted and winced, his heart scraping against something rough and painful.

Hinata placed a hand over hers in response, knowing exactly what it felt like, knowing exactly what Naruto was going through. Wanting to know. Wanting to understand. Wanting to fix. Wanting to reach a hand out to him, the blood of her blood, and make that connection again—tag in the courtyard, lantern-ships on the pond, daisies in his hair. But unlike Naruto, she knew exactly why Neji despised her.

Unlike Naruto, she did not know how to repair them.

Hinata backed away from the roof and closed her eyes, willing the pain away. She wanted Hanabi. Her blood to reassure her that they still wanted her. She wanted Tora. Her spirit to reassure her that they still needed her.

She wanted the boys to be all right again.

Because she could not bear it if the one thing in her life—not riddled in duty and obligation—was to unravel before her very eyes.

Ino placed a hand on Hinata's arm and they shared an understanding look. Ino knew how important their friendship was. They grew up together, would fight together… maybe even die together. But they had to be together for that to happen, otherwise it would be too lonely, too stark, and too painful to live.

"Come, Naruto," Shino said, turning towards The Tea Emporium. "The others are waiting."

"Wha-" Naruto blinked, taken aback. Shino hadn't given him an explanation, and Naruto hadn't even finished with his question. He had come to Shino in hopes of making amends, but Shino wasn't making it easy for him. As a boy, Shino understood the problems they were having. As a boy who was never a part of their pranks, talks and habits, Shino was able to observe their problems with an objective view. He was an honorary member.

Naruto knew this. Which was why he had sought Shino out in the first place, only Shino was not giving him the proper answers.

"Your error, Naruto," Shino explained, "is that you never come."

Naruto frowned, trying to decipher Shino's enigma.

"Kiba has offered to spar with you," Shino clarified. "Chouji has invited you to lunch. Shikamaru has asked you to come and sit by our tree. However, you have not responded. It has been months, but you have not come to us. Why? Because you do not see us any longer."

"That's not true!" Naruto was quick to defend, upset that his friends would think so little of him.

"Then why have you not come?" Shino enquired.

Naruto backtracked. "I… have to train with Team 7."

"We have all been training with our respective teams," Shino agreed. "However, for us, there is not just Team 8 or 10. There is Team 8 and 10."

The blond let the words sink in, a creeping vine that threatened to choke him.

"There is not just Team 7," the Aburame declared. "There is only The Rookie Nine."

Naruto's eyes went wide, as if seeing for the first time in his life.

Hinata smiled to herself and Ino rolled her eyes at the sentimentality. But the Yamanaka understood perfectly. Otherwise, Ino wouldn't have been able to deal with Shikamaru and Chouji. She continued at the mere thought of being on a team with Hinata, the only sensible one in their group.

"Come," Shino invited again, already making his way back to the tea house. "They are not known for their patience."

Naruto hesitated at first, not sure how he could make it up to the others, but then hurried to chase after the Aburame.

"Also," Shino added.

Naruto skid to a stop, fearing the worst.

"You have made Hinata cry," Shino said. It not an accusatory tone, but it was pretty damn close for an Aburame.

On the roof, Hinata held back a squeak. She couldn't believe that Shino would bring her up!

Naruto faltered at once. "Shit," the blond swore. "Not good." He cringed. "We… did take it a bit far, didn't we?"

"You destroyed a children's playground," Shino stated.

Naruto nearly banged his head on the nearest wall at his rash and unacceptable behaviour. Sasuke brought out the worst and best in him—his temper and strength. It didn't help that Sakura was always taking Sasuke's side. Sakura would never look at him the way she looked at Sasuke.

With that decided, Shino continued the trek down the street. As for Naruto, he sighed, and then followed the Aburame. As they turned the corner, Ino was ready with a rant on how stupid and dumb Naruto was and how Shino was always so melodramatic with his speeches. Of course, Ino couldn't get any of that out because Hinata had quietly tugged on her hand and led her down the roof.

The girls were quicker than the boys. Shino let Hinata decide the pace.

As the boys turned another corner, they found Hinata and Ino waiting for them. Hinata was as quiet and serene as always, and Ino was her usual cranky and impatient self. Shino stopped just a few feet before them and Naruto cast his gaze guiltily to the ground. He had made Hinata cry, and that was just wrong.

Hinata's tears were not like Ino's—fake and overdramatic. Hinata's tears were not like Sakura's—whiney and pleading. Hinata's tears were real—heart-breaking and suffocating.

"Hinata-" Naruto made to apologize, but Hinata wouldn't allow it.

"It's fine," she assured him. She did not stutter. She surprised Naruto. She was not even blushing. She surprised Ino. Shino was not surprised. "I'm just glad that everything is all right now," Hinata said.

Sheepish and ashamed, Naruto ducked his head and said, "Not yet… I haven't said anything to the boys yet."

"It's fine," Hinata asserted, gentle and soothing. "Your intent is good enough. They will see. I only ask, Naruto, that you will answer when they call for you."

She wanted everything to be and stay all right.

Naruto met her in the eyes and noticed how steady and piercing her gaze was. No wonder Shino did not want to disappoint her. No wonder Kiba did as she told. No wonder Shikamaru and Chouji ensured that she was content. Her eyes could see through him.

She knew every part of them, even the ones they did not know in themselves.

And she would hold them close.

No wonder Ino was always on her side. Hinata understood her like no one else…

"I will," Naruto promised, his countenance serious and brave. "They—you—are my friends."

Hinata smiled. That was all she needed. Tugging at Ino's hand again, she said to her friend, "Let's go get that dress of yours."

Ino was a little incredulous at how easy Naruto had it. No one was going to give him a resounding scolding for skipping out on them, for making her upset or Hinata cry. Ino wondered how Hinata could be so forgiving—so forgiving of Naruto.

In Hinata's eyes, it wasn't that Naruto could do no wrong, but rather she had faith in him.

Hinata exchanged a smile with Shino and led Ino away to the dress shop.

She had shown another side of herself that Naruto and Ino had never seen before, but Shino had seen from the start.

Hinata brought people together.


"That was easy," Asuma quipped, watching the majority of The Rookie Nine having tea at The Tea Emporium. They were seated by the window, allowing the jonin-sensei an unobstructed view of Kiba giving Naruto a noogie as punishment.

But that was that. They were okay again.

Kakashi didn't know how to feel. On one hand, he was surprised with how seamlessly Naruto fit into the group, like a missing puzzle piece sliding into place. Again, he hadn't known how close Naruto was with Teams 8 and 10. On the other hand, he was apprehensive on how this would change Team 7's dynamics. After the mission in the Wave Country, Sasuke and Naruto had started to acknowledge each other as shinobi, and Sakura made a conscious effort to work harder—to catch up, especially to dead last.

What would happen to Sasuke and Sakura when there were others who had Naruto's time and attention?

"'There is only The Rookie Nine,'" Kurenai quoted her genin, troubled and happy at the same time. Never had a generation of genin been so close and connected. She wondered what it would mean for the Chunin Exams.

"Impressive," Asuma admitted. Again, he was delightfully surprised to see Shikamaru contributing to the conversation among his group of friends, Chouji laughing up a storm with Kiba and Naruto. "Strange, but impressive."

They had never been like that.

"Oh," Asuma perked. "Ino and Hinata have returned."

Indeed, the Yamanaka and Hyuga were walking down the street towards The Tea Emporium, each holding a bag of their own.

"Ino's dress," Kurenai surmised.

They did not know what Hinata had bought, but whatever it was, the Hyuga was blushing like mad.

"Interesting," Kakashi mused.

The senseis raised their binoculars once more.


Hinata shifted her feet uncomfortably as her grip went even tighter around the shopping bag in her hands. The boys had affably stopped their roughhousing at the sight of the girls, a little curious as to what Hinata had bought. It was obvious as to what Ino had purchased—her dress! It was made even more obvious with the way Ino had drawn it out of the bag and started to parade it across the tea house.

"What 'cha get, Hinata?" Kiba asked helpfully. He thought that perhaps Hinata would like to parade it around the tea house too. Akamaru nudged her leg in support.

Hinata squeaked and her face went really, really red. Now the boys were curious.

"Yeeeah, Hinata," Ino drawled, elbowing the Hyuga in a jesting gesture. Ino looked ready to burst with hilarious news. "Tell the boys what 'cha got." She wiggled her brows for extra emphasis.

Although Kiba wanted to tell Ino to knock it off, seeing as how her words were making Hinata uncomfortable, he really wanted to see the contents of Hinata's shopping bag.

Shaking, embarrassed, Hinata quietly dropped the small shopping bag on the table, in the middle of all the boys, and then promptly, stiffly, fast-walked to the washroom.

Ino held back a giggle, hand to her mouth, eyes in crescents of glee. The boys eyed the package suspiciously, Naruto and Kiba flashing looks at one another. Someone had to check it. After all that build-up, someone had to check it. Whoever got to the contents first, won. Or so the boys liked to contest.

"You can check it," Naruto offered Kiba. After just mending their friendship, Naruto didn't want to test it.

Kiba raised a brow, and then graciously declined. "No, that's okay. You check it, Naruto."

A pause. Naruto and Kiba narrowed their eyes at each other, summing the other up. Then, almost at once—Shikamaru muttering a "Troublesome"—both Naruto and Kiba launched from opposite ends of the table at the bag. They grabbed it at the same time—pulled—jerked—tore the bag in half and-

They both immediately dropped the remnants of the bag when the panties spilled forth in pinks, lavendars and baby blues.

"Holy shit-!" exclaimed Naruto, eyes as wide as saucers.

Immediately, Ino cracked and fell to the floor, laughing her head off.

All the boys were stunned and breathless. They didn't know—That was to say—Hinata

Suddenly realizing that they were Hinata's, Kiba scrambled to scoop the lace, cotton and—FUCK—silk into a pile and back into the ripped bag. They were, obviously, not meant for the eyes of boys—or even men. Shino and he would need to give Hinata a talking to!

By the time Hinata had calmed down and returned to the table, all the boys were blushing and looking every which way that was not her. Ino had finished laughing, sipping casually at her tea, though her eyes were still chuckling. The quietness was not what Hinata had been expecting.

"A-Are they o-okay?" she asked nervously.

The boys blanched.

"W-What d-do you mean?" Kiba asked, trying to brush her query aside.

Even Shino was having a hard time holding his blank stare.

Hinata knew that something was amiss when Akamaru was hiding under the table. The dog would usually be nudging her or leaping around her. Something was strange…

"T-The," she stuttered, looking away. Then, quietly, she whispered, "panties."

"STOP RIGHT THERE!" Kiba burst, startling the patrons of the tea house.

Kiko, the owners' granddaughter, sighed at Kiba. She was getting used to Kiba's volume, for she merely shook her head and slipped back into the kitchen to complete another order.

"Wh-Wh-Why?" Hinata trembled. "W-Were they n-not g-good?"

Ino squeaked, choking back laughter.

The boys blushed at Hinata's question.

Shikamaru coughed uncomfortably and tried to reason with Hinata, "I..." He cleared his throat. "Hinata, I do not think you need our… approval for something like this."

Hinata was confused and Ino finally let out a bark of laughter.

"I-I don't understand." Hinata furrowed her brow.

Naruto frowned and hoped that Hinata was not going to pound his skull in like Sakura. "Um, Hinata?" The Hyuga turned to him, nervous and uncomfortable. He knew exactly how she felt. "We, um, don't really, um, care what you wear, ya know?"

Hinata went pale and then red. Ino burst into uncontrollable laughter. Shino wanted to kick Naruto. If it had been anyone—anyone else—who had said those words, they wouldn't have effected Hinata as badly as they were coming from Naruto. Indeed, a few seconds later, Hinata dropped in a dead faint.

Ino stopped laughing long enough to cushion Hinata's fall with Chouji, but really, boys were so dumb.

"What happened?!" Naruto exclaimed, hoping that he hadn't made her cry and faint on the same day.

Ino snorted as Kiba was about to dig a new one into Naruto. The Yamanaka flipped her hair back and got the boys straight at once. "They're not Hinata's panties," she scoffed. "They're for our mission, you idiots."

The boys wore dumb expressions.

"Ooooh," Naruto and Kiba chorused in comprehension.

Ino snorted in disgust. Boys were so stupid, but, daaamn, were they hilarious!


Asuma broke in guffaws and Kakashi chuckled in amusement. The cigarette and book long forgotten for this awkward and drama-filled show. For Kurenai, she simply sighed, held a hand to her forehead, and shook her head. So dumb. Men were so dumb.

"Did you see-?!"



The men laughed again. Kurenai wanted to throttle them. They were supposed to be in hiding, watching over and gauging their genin, not make enough raucous to leave the whole village looking at them. Men were so dumb.

"Can we focus?" Kurenai hissed, embarrassed at their antics.

"Calm down, Kureani," Asuma said, giving her a leer. "Don't get your panties in a knot."

Kurenai wanted to scream as the men burst into another round of laughter. She had expected this behaviour from Asuma, but not Kakashi. She supposed the copy-nin was actually happy to see the jinchuriki being accepted for once.

Blowing a stray hair from her face, Kurenai focused on their genin again and saw that they were hard at work, no longer averse to looking and touching the undergarments.

"They're setting the traps," Kurenai announced.

Kakashi and Asuma stopped their laughing to get a look.

The genin were, indeed, setting the traps.



"—and then—BAM—we nab him!" Naruto punched the air for emphasis, grin wide and unrestrained.

Sakura raised a sceptical brow and stepped aside to let Chouji by. Team 10 were setting the fourth trap. Team 8 was elsewhere finishing the third. The sun would start to set soon; they would need to manage their time well in order to take advantage of the light. By nightfall, the traps had to be ready for the thief. Of course, this depended on the thief being out that night and foolish enough to fall for such obvious traps.

Sakura rubbed her temples with a sigh. Naruto's plans had always been simple, but this time it was outrageously stupid. Moreover, she couldn't believe that Teams 8 and 10 were actually going along with Naruto's idiocy. After suggesting the plan three times, Sakura supposed that Naruto had finally annoyed the other teams long enough for them to cave to his idea.

Sasuke was just as annoyed. Instead of tracking the thief and hunting him down, they were setting down traps and just hoping to get lucky. Disgusted, Sasuke exhaled sharply and turned to leave. He didn't have time for this farce.

"Stop, Sasuke," Naruto's tone broke no argument. He had already worked this plan out with Teams 8 and 10, and he really wanted his team to support them in their decision. There wasn't just Team 7. There was The Rookie Nine. He wanted them to be cohesive.

"I only ask, Naruto, that you will answer when they call for you."

That was what Hinata had said, and in that one sentence, she had shown Naruto that they, too, would come to him if he called. He wanted that sort of relationship with Team 7—that sort of relationship between The Rookie Nine.

He wanted Sasuke and Sakura's approval.

"Che," Sasuke sniffed, hands in his pockets. "This isn't going to work, dobe. It's too simple. I can't understand why Nara would go for it. Inuzuka, I can understand. But not Nara."

It was the most insightful thing Team 10 had ever heard from Sasuke. It showed his character, his distrust in Team 8 and 10's abilities. It rubbed them wrong, and even Ino was not impervious to Sasuke's insult. Naruto felt offended for his friends, for Sasuke's lack of faith in his choice of friends.

"Then go," Naruto said, the hurt straining against his heart.

Sakura gasped. After the Wave Country, she had thought Team 7 would always be together, but now Naruto was letting them go so easily? She was confused and hurt. Naruto could not hope for her to stay if Sasuke left, did he?

Sasuke shrugged. He refused to be hurt. Not giving them another glance, he left.

Sakura looked from Sasuke's retreating back to Naruto's determined expression, and then back to Sasuke. Sasuke would need her. Naruto had Teams 8 and 10. Glaring at Naruto, Sakura shot, "You big dummy, Naruto!"

And then she, too, left.

Trembling, Naruto lowered his head, letting his bangs hide the pain on his face. It was so trivial. The mission was trivial. It was only a thief. It was only a D-rank mission. It was not something worth causing chaos within his team. It was not worth losing Sakura and Sasuke. It was not worth starting over again.

And yet…

"N-Naruto?" Hinata called, ducking a little to try to catch his eyes.

She was blushing and stuttering, but in her shaking nervous hands was a can of orange soda. His favourite. She knew this as she pressed the cool and sweating can to his hand and said, "I-It's g-going to be okay. T-They will come b-back."

Naruto startled at her words. He did not understand how she knew what he felt—abandoned, rejected and hated. When he met her in the eye, her blush turned a rose that matched the sunset.

"T-They're your f-friends," she explained, lowering her eyes for she could not keep up with his beautiful gaze. "F-Friends always c-come when you c-call."

And yet… Naruto needed to know that they would come if he called.

Naruto smiled, taking the offered orange soda from her. "Thanks, Hinata."

She smiled shyly as Naruto turned to the others of Team 8.

"We're heading out to start the fifth trap," Kiba updated Naruto and Team 10.

Chouji nodded. "We'll get the sixth going."

"I'll finish it with the seventh," Naruto decided.

"Are you sure?" Ino asked. She had been hurt by Sasuke's leaving; she could not imagine how it was affecting Naruto. She never liked the blond idiot, but he made Chouji laugh and Shikamaru smile. He made Shino lighten up and Kiba energized. He made Hinata act like a girl, something Hinata never truly got the experience growing up.

"Yeah." Naruto opened the can and took a deep gulp. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and sighing at the refreshing drink, Naruto grinned as wide and deep as the earth. "I know the Kage Bunshin, remember? I can do this with my eyes closed!"

Kiba rolled his eyes, but let Naruto have the one boast. He knew that he wouldn't have taken his team abandoning him with such grace and nerve. Only Naruto knew how to grin and bear it like no other.

But Hinata's words had strengthened Naruto's resolve. It was not just Team 7. It was The Rookie Nine. They were her teammates too. His boys. Only Kiba knew how to keep up with him in his pranks. Only Chouji had the best snacks on hand. Only Shikamaru knew the best places for cloud watching. Only Shino knew what the hell was going on and letting him in on the updates.

His boys.

And he was one of them.

He glanced at Ino and Hinata.

Their girls.

May they never cry.


Kurenai leaned back, admiring the traps from afar. She hated to admit it, but Asuma's Nara knew exactly what he was doing. Coupled with her Shino's quick adaptability, the two knew how to predict an enemy and incapacitate them—thoroughly and without remorse. They all wanted to get home as early as possible. It had been a long and draining day for everyone.

Beside her, Asuma smiled at how beautiful the traps were. He was rather proud of his genins. As for Kakashi, he was troubled by Sasuke and Sakura's lack of faith in Naruto. The blond jinchuriki had proved himself to be something else that day, something that already had the copy-nin devising a new training regimen for him.

"Hinata's good at the pep talks," Asuma observed.

This did not surprise Kurenai. She had known the girl held a certain… position in Team 8, with a small extension on Team 10. Kurenai supposed that it was Asuma and Kakashi who were surprised. The girl was showing more of herself that day than any previously combined. It was Naruto, Kurenai concluded. Naruto brought out Hinata's protective and assertive nature.

It was cute.

"It's about to begin," Kakashi studied, putting away his book.

The jonin raised their binoculars simultaneously. They had been waiting for a long time.

Kakashi hoped that Sasuke and Sakura did not disappoint. Otherwise, they were seriously going to hinder their chances for their next great obstacle.


Hinata felt the hairs on her arms stand on end and that familiar thrilling chill run down her spine. Quiet and still, she had her Byakugan activated, scanning the area in perfectly timed intervals. Her senses were heightened at the anticipation—her hearing superb, her smell sharp, her taste sensitive and her touch splendid. Her sight, of course, was at its best.

No one could contest her in terms of her professionalism, her skills, on a mission.

She was just good at them—period.

The night breeze picked at her hair, but she moved not a muscle. On Shikamaru's orders, she had been placed with him and Kiba. Two trackers at his side gave him a further and more accurate read of the plan at work. Together, they were situated on one of the highest roofs in Konoha, the moon to their backs. Chouji and Ino were waiting at the seventh trap while Shino and Naruto were placed at the first trap.

The panties were perfectly placed, an enticing line that lead to the first trap.

Shikamaru had long surmised that the thief was intelligent, but also confident and liked a challenge. The thief enjoyed laughing at the shinobis and their attempts at catching him. Every time he pilfered an article of clothing, he left behind a mocking note. Once or twice, he even blew a raspberry at the ninjas chasing after him. The thief would follow the line of panties, relishing at the idea of defeating a couple of genins who made their traps so "blatant."

"He's here," Shino reported through their ear pieces.

Hinata swept her gaze down by the first trap and nodded to Shikamaru, confirming the thief's presence.

"One," Kiba said. "No allies."

"Chunin," Hinata added, recognizing the thief's movements to be far too advanced for genin. "Or perhaps skilled genin."

Shikamaru contemplated this before issuing orders. "Shino. Naruto. Chunin level. Don't drag this out. It'll be troublesome."

"It's always 'troublesome' for you, Shikamaru," Ino's scoffing tone filtered through the ear pieces.

Hinata cringed at Ino's lack of respect in regard of Shikamaru's leadership. Someday, Shikamaru would catch up and even surpass Shikaku. Hinata could see it in the way of Shikamaru being more active as of late. He had people he cared about, wanting to protect, wanting to devise plans that allowed for more success and living. He wanted his teammates to survive.

Hinata nearly sprinted forward when saw Shino and Naruto engage the thief. Chunin. The thief was definitely chunin, judging by how quick and sure-footed he was. As agile as Shino was, as unpredictable as Naruto was—they couldn't land a hit on him.

Kiba was agitated, wanting to fight, but Shikamaru's orders were absolute. They had to trust their teammates. As for Shikamaru, he could not see anything, but he could tell from Kiba's reactions that the mission was not going to be as easy as he thought. Shikamaru tried to read Hinata, but she was careful in what she showed him. She was no stranger to his speculation—to a Nara's speculation. He would have to ask his father some tricky questions in the future, but not today.

Hinata swallowed and Kiba bolted up when the thief drew blood from Naruto's arm. Hinata compelled her body to relax and to be steady. This was a mission. Operating outside of orders could endanger the whole team. With grit and hard training, her body calmed and she eased back on the roof.

She finally let herself breathe easy when she saw Sasuke and Sakura rushing to get to Naruto's side. They did not disappoint. Hinata had faith in their friendship with Naruto. Naruto was like the sun, and everybody was just revolving around him. They always came to him when he needed them.

"Sasuke and Sakura have entered the fight," Hinata reported dutifully.

"What?!" Ino sounded incredulously. "That forehead-"

"Good," Shikamaru cut Ino off. He turned to Hinata, turning the microphone off. "Just as we predicted."

Hinata was taken aback by his confrontation. Besides her and Shino, Shikamaru was the other in their group who could read people well. Her memory of the band aid, of the look he had exchanged with Shikaku that one rainy day… One day, Shikamaru would know everything.

Today was not that day.

"A little late, don't 'cha think, teme?!" Naruto's high-pitch disturbed her thoughts and Hinata turned back to the fight.

"Shut up, dobe," Sasuke returned coolly, like the perfect, nonchalant prince he was. He was close to Naruto if the mike was able to pick up his voice.

Before Team 7 started squabbling again, Shino reported, with certainty, "We got him."

Indeed, they got him.

Hinata watched, amazed and wide-eyed, as Sakura sent the thief flying towards the first trap. Just like that, once the thief hit the netting, the trap was set. A giant fly swatter popped up from the ground and thoroughly trounced the thief three times before it sent him flying down the street. As the thief crossed the third intersection, the second trap activated, a small trace of electricity that rendered him senseless.

The third trap stuffed bread into his mouth so that he could not evoke any jutsu. The fourth trap was a sticky substance that glued his hands together. The fifth trap was a ball and chain that locked his feet to stop him from running. The sixth was, as per Naruto's request, glue and feathers, reducing the thief to a human chicken.

The seventh and last trap bound the thief indefinitely, with Chouji and Ino waiting at the end to hinder the thief even further if he had found a way out of the glue and chains and binding. He didn't. The thief couldn't have found a way out of the traps because he had been knocked quite senseless after the first two traps—beaten by a giant fly swatter and electrocuted.

It was the ultimate prank.

"Whoa," Kiba breathed in admiration, his eyes shining with amazement.

Akamaru let out a triumphant howl and Shikamaru smirked. The boys turned to see Hinata's reaction, but she was already off the roof and running down the streets. Shikamaru chuckled, knowing exactly where she was going. Kiba rolled her eyes, muttering, "Troublesome."

"That's my line," Shikamaru jibed.

"It's not copyrighted, right?" Kiba snipped.

Shikamaru didn't reply. The Naras were working on that…


"That was…" Kakashi searched for the appropriate term.

"AWESOME!" Asuma supplied, barking with laughter.

Kurenai slapped her forehead, but she could not say that it was not wonderfully executed, with the right amount of shock factor that was so like Kiba and Naruto (and a little of Chouji). She laughed as The Rookie Nine gathered around the thief and compared the criminal to a rainbow chicken. They had not been picky about the colours of the feathers… or the amount either. The village was going to be spending the next few days cleaning up after their genin.

It would be a good D-rank for them.

"Well?" Kurenai posed for her jonin colleagues.

Asuma and Kakashi watched their genin in contemplation. Kurenai had already made her decision, a few days before this mad mission. For Asuma and Kakashi though, this escapade was needed. It tested their genin's resourcefulness, their priorities and, most importantly, their teamwork.

"Yosh!" Guy landed on the roof with sparkling teeth and a thumbs up. "How are things here, my friends! Kakashi, my eternal rival-"

"We're in," Kakashi decided, ignoring Guy altogether.

None were phased by Guy's sudden arrival. It was just his "thing" to do.

Kurenai nodded while Guy was confused.

"Well, if Kakashi's in," Asuma smirked, "then I have to be in. I mean, look at his team. Tsk, tsk. So chaotic."

Kakashi shrugged, but did not refute the Sarutobi. Team 7 was chaotic. It was sort of their… "thing."

"I don't understand," Guy interrupted. "What are you talking about?"

Kurenai watched, with sweet eyes, as Hinata placed a tube of medicinal cream into Naruto's hand. The Hyuga was explaining to the Uzumaki that it was for his arm. Naruto accepted it with such a bright smile that Hinata was left swaying precariously on her feet. Heart-warmingly, Shino, Kiba, Chouji and Ino shot forward to support the girl.

Hinata had fainted again. Naruto was being scolded again.

And the world continued its spinning around the sun.

"The Chunin Exams," Kurenai explained for Guy. "The Rookie Nine will be participating this year."

Guy was taken aback by such an announcement. The Rookie Nine were rather young, but he could not disagree with the three jonin-sensei. They knew their teams best.

"Ah," Guy hummed in agreement, unable to meet Kurenai in the eyes. "We will be too. Tenten, Lee and… Neji," Kurenai stiffened, "will be in this year's Chunin Exams as well."

Asuma grinned, waving aside Kurenai's uneasiness. "Let the best team win!"

"Yosh!" Guy agreed. "Let our protégés show their youthfulness in energetic spars and portray their skills in-"

"I'm going home," Kakashi announced.

Kurenai chuckled as Guy ran after the retreating Kakashi, spouting challenges and the like. They were never going to change.

Asuma watched her smile and laugh. Even when laughing, she was graceful and elegant. No wonder their male colleagues couldn't get her out of their minds. Perhaps it was genjutsu?

"You look nice when you smile," Asuma said, almost offhandedly, a little embarrassed.

Kurenai blushed and coughed, ignoring his comment as the genin below attempted to rouse Hinata from her faint.

They were never going to change.


the point

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