Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto. So if you recognize anyone or anything from the anime, I'm just borrowing.

Takes part sometime before Shippuuden.

Special Thanks to everyone who reviewed the one-shot "Unexpected Warmth." Your encouragement has helped me to be brave enough to post my big, long stories.

Chapter 1

Tsunade looked up from her stacks of papers. "As you probably already know, Shino is on a mission with his father. We're extremely short-handed, so you two will be going by yourselves. You will be doing two missions in a row, but you should be fine because they're C-rank missions. The first is to escort the representatives from the Land of Waterfall to the Land of Grass. Every year the two countries exchange gifts. You are to ensure the safe transportation of the gift to the Land of the Grass and then escort the representatives from Waterfall back home in time for the Festival. That is the first mission.

The second mission is to help with the Waterfall Festival. It is a very busy time of year for them, so we usually send a team to help out. Though you will be expected to help out with a variety of duties and will be gone for at least a month and a half, it is a celebration and the shinobi that go on this mission usually have a good time. Here are the details of where you will be meeting the representatives from Waterfall."

Tsunade handed Hinata a scroll. "You should leave first thing tomorrow morning. Understood?"

"Hai!"

OOOOO

"Double-Feature Mission. At least a month and a half," Kiba whistled as the two walked through the streets of Konoha. Suddenly, he grinned. "Think Shino and Kurenai-sensei will miss us?"

"Probably. We should get them something nice from the festival."

"Ha! Hinata, you're too nice. You're always thinking of other people. My mom and sis will be happy to have me out of their hair."

"I'm sure they'll miss you, Kiba-kun."

Kiba shrugged. "I should get Hana to take a look at Akamaru before we leave. Hinata, I'll see you tomorrow morning, okay?"

"Mm! Bye, Kiba-kun."

OOOOO

"Hanabi-chan?" Hinata called as she stepped into her sister's room.

"What is it, Hinata-neesan?" Hanabi looked up from her studying.

"Oh, you're working so hard, Hanabi-chan. I'm very proud of you," Hinata smiled.

Hanabi grinned back. Though the Hyuuga household was a place of solitude and solemnity, and despite the family tension arising from Hiashi's high expectations, the two sisters cared for each other.

"I have to make sure I get as high marks as you did during your Ninja Academy training," Hanabi explained.

(A/N: Hinata's smart because she actually answered the questions on the Chunin written exam!)

"I'm sure you'll get much higher marks than I did," Hinata replied with a grin and without a trace of bitterness. "You're much smarter than I am."

Hinata always praised Hanabi sincerely, as a big sister should. The other members of the Hyuuga household, if they praised Hanabi, usually did so because they felt unsure about her status. According to Hyuuga tradition, Hanabi should have been made a Branch family member already. Hiashi, however, seemed to have other ideas.

Hiashi had given up on Hinata a long time ago. His greatest expectation was that she at least not be an embarrassment to the family. Every day the members of the Hyuuga household watched as Hiashi trained his nephew, Neji—the genius heir he had always wanted, and the living legacy of his twin brother—while Hinata was invited to do no more than serve them tea.

Even Hanabi had regular training with Hiashi. But Hinata had not trained with Hiashi since before she became a Genin.

"Hanabi-chan, do you want me to braid your hair?"

"Hai, Nee-san!"

As Hinata ran the brush through Hanabi's hair, she explained about the long mission she was leaving for.

"Gone for more than a month and a half?" Hanabi gasped.

"Hai."

"Will you be back before the Ninja Academy Family Day?"

"I should be."

"Does Father know?"

"Yes." Though I'm not sure he was paying attention, Hinata admitted to herself. She'd only just explained that she was going on an extended mission when he shooed her out of the way, claiming he had an important meeting with a member of a noble family from another village.

Hinata finished tying the braid and tucked a wayward strand behind her sister's ear. "I'm going to pack and go to bed early because I have to leave first thing in the morning. Take care of yourself while I'm gone, ne?"

"Hai. Goodnight, Hinata nee-san."

"Goodnight, Hanabi-chan."

OOOOO

Hinata sat back on her heels to survey the small piles in front of her. Though she descended from the most powerful noble family in Konoha, she really didn't own much. Perhaps that is just the way of ninjas. You need to be able to carry the things you really need.

The next morning, Hinata finished her last minute packing and went to the kitchens to add the food she had prepared.

Kiba was leaning casually against the front gates of Konoha when Hinata showed up. Akamaru barked cheerfully at her.

"Hm, hm," Hinata giggled. "You can always tell when I bring food for a mission."

"That's our Hinata, all right!" Kiba grinned.

The two turned back one more time to take in the majestic carved faces on the mountainside and the peaceful stillness of the early morning of Konoha. Then they took off running through the forest.

It took them almost a full day to reach the border between the Land of Fire and the Land of Waterfall. As they left the shelter of the dense forest, a small area of rolling foothills met them. The small caravan was right where it was supposed to be, and the representatives from Waterfall had already set up camp.

Kiba and Hinata went to introduce themselves. The representatives turned out to be a cheerful old man and woman and their 8-year-old grandson, along with a few young men from their village.

The Takihata's were from a noble family of the Land of Waterfall. Most of all, they were very friendly. After a simple and filling stew, everyone turned in for the night.

(A/N: I have not seen the OVAs, so if the physical description doesn't match up, or if I've butchered the Land of Waterfall and its village, I'm sorry. I needed a Village that didn't have too much entrenched cannon, or what have you.

Heh heh. Well, I watched the OVA about the Land of Waterfall. Gomen, Gomen! I'm still going to make liberal use of artistic license. It was that or make up a bunch of stuff about one of those grayed-out countries on the map. Gomen! Enjoy! )

Kiba and Hinata lay in their tent, listening to the sounds of the crickets. Simultaneously they turned their heads toward one another.

"Were you thinking what I was thinking?" Kiba asked.

"That it feels strange not to have Shino-kun here?"

"Yeah. I'm not used to looking over and seeing you."

"I suppose we always sleep in the same positions, don't we?"

"Yeah." Kiba smirked. "Shino does love his order."

Henge.

A few moments later, Kiba happened to glance over. "Hinata!"

"Kiba," stated the Shino look-alike lying beside him. "It is time to sleep now."

Kiba stared in absolute shock for three more seconds before erupting in a fit of laughter. Even Akamaru opened one eye and snuffled at Hinata's disguise, not that it fooled either Akamaru or Kiba's noses.

"Shh! Shh! Kiba-kun! You'll wake everyone up!" Hinata whispered frantically, trying to muffle his mouth with her hand.

A chuckle escaped Hinata's fingers, but Kiba seemed to have settled down. "I've got to remember to tell Shino about that one."

"No! Kiba-kun, he might get mad at me!" Hinata pleaded.

"Shino would never get mad at you, Hinata," Kiba yawned. "That was pretty funny, though. You've really loosened up, Hinata."

"Thank you, Kiba-kun," Hinata grinned up at the top of the tent.

OOOOO

"So, you're a ninja of Konoha?" asked the 8-year-old Takaro, looking up curiously at Kiba.

"Yup." Akamaru also barked a reply. Kiba and Hinata walked side by side in front of the wagon, while Takaro jumped and jogged in circles around Kiba's legs.

"I'm gonna be a powerful ninja real soon! I start my Academy training in Takigakure this year. Maybe I'll even train with Shibuki-sama!"

"That's great. You better work hard," Kiba stated.

"I will!" After a few moments, Takaro looked up at Kiba and asked, "Hey, how come you brought your girlfriend on your mission?"

"Ch-chigau!" Hinata squeaked, her face flushed bright crimson.

Kiba froze for a moment before bursting out laughing. "Hinata's not my girlfriend," he explained as he wiped a few tears of laughter from his eyes. "She's a ninja herself and she's my teammate."

Takaro shrugged unconvinced. "If you say so."

"I do say so."

"Everyone knows girls can't be real ninjas!"

"Eh!" Hinata exclaimed.

"That's not true. What blockhead told you that?" Kiba wondered.

"It is true. All the girl's at my village ever do is flirt with my big brother. I've never seen a girl ninja train. It's always 'Takamaru-sama, help me! I've twisted my ankle!" or 'Takamaru-sama, there's a scary snake over there!'" Takaro explained as he pantomimed the squeals and hand gestures of the girls, "or 'Takamaru-sama, you're so wonderful!' I guess that part makes sense because Takamaru-niisan is the best ninja, but those girls are still annoying."

Kiba thought about Sasuke and his fangirls. And then he thought about Hinata. Hinata was nothing like those girls. Well, to be honest, she did have a tendency to fall apart around Naruto, but her admiration had inspired her, had driven her to train hard to become the kunoichi she was today. And she would never pretend to be weak to get a boy's attention.

"Hinata's not like that," Kiba assured her.

"Arigatoo, Kiba-kun," Hinata said quietly with a little smile on her lips.

Takaro looked up guiltily, as if just realizing she was there, but relaxed when he saw Hinata's patient little smile. Mei-san would have hit me and called me an ignorant loudmouth by now, he pondered to himself. With a new curiosity he watched Hinata as the three ambled down the road.

OOOOO

Hinata, ever-cautious, quietly activated her Byakugan and scanned ahead periodically. They were just about to reach the edge of the Land of Grass. The road wound its way through a wooded area just at the border between the two countries.

There was something in the road ahead. Lines of chakra led from the trees at the edge to…an Exploding Note!

"Kiba-kun! Everyone! Stop!" Hinata commanded.

"Hinata, what's wrong?" Kiba asked. Inwardly he was marveling that Hinata had made such a loud and confident noise.

"There's a trap up ahead. I'm going to go and see if I can disarm it. I don't sense any people, but keep watch anyway."

"Roger! Akamaru!" Akamaru yipped in reply and the two split up to guard the right and left sides of the caravan.

Hinata followed the lines of chakra. Fortunately, after the event with Gennou, she now had lots of experience in disarming bombs.

After the bomb was carefully disarmed, Hinata scanned the area once more. Whoever had left the bomb hadn't bothered to stick around to see if it worked.

"I think it's safe to move out, Kiba-kun, but we need to be extra careful."

Kiba nodded his assent, all the while sensing for danger.

The journey was deceptively quiet for several hours, but everyone had their guards up. Suddenly, Hinata paused.

"What is it Hinata? I don't hear or smell anything."

"I don't see anything, but I've got a bad feeling. Takaro-kun, I want you to sit with your grandparents."

"I'm not a baby!"

"If something happens, you need to be close so you can protect them," Hinata said patiently.

Takaro was still suspicious, but he got up into the wagon anyway.

"Hinata…?" Kiba whispered.

"Something's wrong…THE GRASS!"

"Wha-? ARGH!" Kiba disappeared as a hand reached up and pulled him underground.

"Kiba-kun!"

Hinata just barely skipped out of reach as the pair of hands came up to grab her.

A figure materialized in a whirl of green.

"So they're sending weak little children on missions? Konoha must be really desperate," chuckled the man before her. His face was covered with a light green cloth, and his green eyes glittered greedily under his blond hair. His face cloth matched the rest of his ninja outfit. "Hand it over."

Hinata said nothing, merely prepared herself.

"What do you want?!" yelled Grandma Takihata.

"The gift from Waterfall," returned the man. "I've been ordered to intercept it and I am not a patient man. Hand it over!"

"No! The peace between Waterfall and Grass relies on the gift exchange. If we aren't there on time, it could start a war!"

"That's the general idea," chuckled the green-masked man. "Just hand over the treasure. I don't really have time to kill you all, but I will if you decide to be troublesome."

"I will never let you hurt these people!" Hinata shouted from directly behind him, causing him to turn away from the people in the wagons. Three kunai flew in his direction, but the green-clad man easily dodged.

"What a stupid little girl you are. Fine. It seems you have a death wish, so I'll oblige you. Rain of A Thousand Arrows!" Needles of grass flew through the air to pierce Hinata's body.

Hinata was ready and immediately activated her Shugohakke Rokujūyon Shō (Protection of the Eight Trigrams Sixty-Four Palms). It was impossible to see Hinata clearly through the cloud of green and chakra. Shards of grass drifted to the ground until the all of the needles were broken.

"Hoa…. That's a nice little trick. Not bad for a little girl, but you'll never be able to-"

"GATSUUGA!" Kiba shouted as a small tornado shot up from the ground under the enemy's feet.

A few minutes later, Kiba and Hinata were securing their prisoner.

OOOOO

Upon entering Kusagakure, Kiba and Hinata were able to turn over their prisoner to the Grass Ninja authorities. Apparently he was a rogue-nin from Grass, so they were very pleased to have him returned.

"Kiba-niisan! Hinata-neesan!" Takaro called from a doorway as they passed. "You're staying with us over here!"

"Arigatoo, Takaro-kun," Hinata smiled.

Kiba glanced at Hinata out of the corner of his eye as they approached the house and couldn't repress the grin that split his face. Hinata, you really have changed. Shino, our little butterfly is leaving her cocoon.

OOOOO