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Enjoy!

Humbly yours,

--K

Disclaimer: I don't own anything. Obviously.

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Hinata sighed. She was dead tired. Team 8's last mission was a success, but at a cost. Shino, Kiba, and she were all on the verge of chakra exhaustion. Kiba had a long gash across his cheek, and she had ice shards stuck into the palms of both hands. Shino, of course, had escaped the fight virtually unscathed, minus near chakra exhaustion.

She shook her head. That last mission wasn't a C-rank; it was at least a B-rank. When Tsunade-sama had assembled Team 8 to flush out some bandits from the Wave Country, Hinata had assumed that they were ordinary thieves.

Tsunade had guessed that a team of three gennin would have been enough for the mission. Tsunade hadn't guessed that the thieves were really missing-nin.

Missing-nin deserted their villages, usually turning criminal and using their jutsus to rain havoc on the surrounding countryside. A mission concerning missing-nin was considered B-rank for two squads of highly trained Chuunin – at least.

Hinata grimaced, remembering the fight that had followed when her team had caught up with the bandits –and her surprise to see forehead protectors bearing the Mist Village insignia.

Luckily, the missing-nin from Mist had been only lower Chuunin level. The fight had been one-on-one; Kiba with Akamaru and Shino had each defeated their opponents after short, but intense struggles.

Hinata had taken slightly longer. Her enemy had excelled at long-ranged attacks, always beating her back with his ice jutsus before she could get close enough to strike him with her Jyuuken. He was always just out of reach, taunting her almost, and exhausting her chakra.

"Ice Shard Explosion!" the ex-Mist ninja had yelled, forming a complex string of seals. A wall of ice had grown between Hinata and her opponent, sprouting jagged icicles. One more seal from her foe had shot the serrated spikes of ice directly at her. Hinata had fended off most of the ice shards with a kunai, but after one of the shards slipped past her guard and into her hand, she accidentally dropped her only weapon leaving her exposed with only her naked hands to fend off the rest. Luckily for her, the jutsu had nearly ended, and only short shards of ice had entered her palms.

"Hinata!" She heard Kiba and Shino yell, rushing to her defense, but she held up a bloody hand.

"No," she had told them. She had grit her teeth and pulled the longest shard of ice out of her palm. It was infused with her opponent's chakra and refused to melt. "I-I need to do this myself."

She needed to prove to herself that she had improved since Naruto-kun had left. She had looked up at her attacker, her eyes flashing with new fire. Naruto-kun. He wouldn't have given up. So neither would she.

Her teammates had nodded and backed off, but had still been ready to rush in and defend her should she fail. Hinata had no intention of failing.

Naruto-kun, Hinata had thought, If I do not win this battle, then I am not worth your attention or love.

That had put the battle in a new light. With her opponent throwing curses and threats and taunts at her, Hinata had come up with a plan – a tribute, almost, to Naruto.

"Bunshin no Jutsu." Hinata and three of her clones melded together to confuse the missing-nin. He sneered.

"When I heard that you were a Hyuuga, I was expecting a better challenge. You're such a disappointment," he said, shaking his head.

Hinata and her three bunshin clones formed a seal. "Byakugan!"

The veins on the sides of her forehead stuck out, and her vision suddenly improved a thousand fold. Three Hinatas ran forward towards the missing-nin, throwing a spattering of kunai. The ninja responded by performing another ice shard jutsu. The two nearest Hinatas froze in fear as ice shards impaled them, and then disappeared in twin plumes of gray smoke.

A lone Hinata faced the missing-nin.

"Did you really think that your stupid tricks could beat me?" he scoffed at her.

"Hinata!" Kiba stepped forward, ready to protect her, but Shino put a hand in front of his teammate to stop him.

"She needs to do this alone."

"Then she'll die alone!" the enemy shouted in his glee, forming another set of seals. "Ice Shard Explosion!"

This time, the shards pierced more than Hinata's hands. Kiba watched in horror as a great spear of ice ran through her chest and passed through to the other side. Hinata was thrown backwards from the impact, her eyes frozen wide.

"Hinata!" Kiba yelled, running towards his fallen teammate with Akamaru on his heels. The missing-nin laughed triumphantly.

Suddenly Hinata disappeared in a puff of smoke.

Kiba stepped back."Another bunshin?"

"Jyuuken!" Hinata suddenly leapt from behind her opponent and slammed her open palm into his back. The ex-Mist ninja pitched forward, coughing blood. He collapsed on the ground, blood pooling from his open mouth.

Kiba and Akamaru ran forward, Shino following closely behind. Hinata rested her hands on her knees. She had done it! She had proved, not only to her teammates, but to herself also, that she was capable and was not a burden.

"Hinata, how? I thought you were a goner for sure!" Kiba smiled, and Akamaru yipped in agreement.

"All three out front were bunshin," explained a more reserved Shino. Hinata nodded.

"I-I snuck around back."

Kiba smiled broadly, "Good for you, Hinata!"

Hinata smiled shyly in return. She had proven herself to them and to herself. She had proven herself worthy of Naruto-kun's love.

"Let's start heading back home then," Shino had turned, and began to walk away. Kiba and Akamaru had followed. Hinata had come last, pulling a shard of ice out of her palm.

Remembering the battle, Hinata smiled. She had proven that she wasn't worthless in battle. Her intense training sessions with Neji-nii-san were beginning to pay off. She was no longer the helpless damsel-in-distress that she had been when Naruto-kun had left.

Naruto-kun, she thought as she leapt off another branch and followed Shino and Kiba through the woods. What would he have made of the C-rank mission that was truly a B-rank?

She smiled. He probably would have complained for a bit, then tackled his opponents head on. She could almost hear his, "What was Tsunade Obaa-chan thinking?" or his "I won't forgive you for this!" that spelled disaster for his enemies. Her cheeks tinged slightly.

Actually, something this exciting – or dangerous – hadn't happened since Naruto-kun had left to train with the legendary San-Nin, Jiraiya-sama. Hinata sighed. She missed the loud shinobi as much as air. Or, she thought with a grimace at her splinter-afflicted palms, a pair of good tweezers and a medic-nin.

She sighed. She didn't know how she had stood almost a year and a half without seeing him even once. How much longer would she have to wait before she got to see him again?

Patience, she told herself. You've lasted this long. You can wait a little more.

"Oi, Shino, how much longer until we stop? I'm dead tired," Kiba shouted, leaping across to another branch. Hinata stumbled, her train of thought broken.

Shino paused, and glanced at Hinata and Kiba. Akamaru barked an agreement from his stance beside Kiba. Akamaru almost reached Kiba's waist, no longer small enough to fit inside his master's sweater.

"Hinata, are there any towns nearby?" Shino asked.

Hinata formed a seal with her hands. "Byakugan!" She paused, searching. Kiba shifted his weight from one foot to another. She nodded. "There's a small town in that direction," she said, pointing. "It has a bath house too."

"Alright, let's go!" Kiba shouted gleefully, and with renewed energy bounded away through the trees. Shino and Hinata followed.

"Stop," Shino held up a hand, and Kiba and Hinata instantly froze. Shino usually had an uncanny sense of danger – mostly because he had a dozen of his Destruction Bugs fanned out, scouting in all directions. Now he carried one on his fingertip, and he seemed to be communicating with it. He nodded to it and let it fly away.

"There seems to be a battle up ahead. Lots of chakra. It doesn't seem good, considering the state that we're in. We're going to head around."

Kiba and Hinata nodded. They agreed with Shino. Neither was up for a battle, especially one with unknown opponents.

Kiba and Akamaru followed Shino as he veered to the right. Hinata leapt off her branch to follow them. Shino formed a wide circle around the unknown ninjas' battleground, following his insects' directions.

Suddenly Hinata stopped, frozen on a branch. A breeze blew from her left, carrying voices. One of the voices sounded oddly familiar. No, she thought, shaking her head. It couldn't be. You're imagining things.

She looked up, ready to continue, but she noticed that Kiba and Shino had stopped as well. Akamaru looked up at his master and yipped something. Kiba frowned.

"What's wrong?" Shino crouched on his branch and turned towards the rest of the group.

"Akamaru, don't be silly," Kiba replied to his dog. He looked up, cautiously smelling the breeze blowing from the direction of the battlegrounds. He frowned again. "I guess you're right, Akamaru."

"Kiba-kun?" Hinata leapt from her branch to stand next to her teammate.

"Akamaru says that he remembers that scent. We know one of the people who's fighting over there," he said, pointing. Shino joined the rest of his team.

"Who?" Shino angled his head slightly towards the battlegrounds. Kiba shook his head.

"I never forget a scent. But I can't place this one. It's weird. It's someone I remember, but it's mixed with something else – something more wild."

"Hinata," Shino ordered. She nodded and formed the seal with her hands.

"Byakugan!"

Her world instantly melted away into the familiar layers of Byakugan. By concentrating her chakra, she focused her Byakugan towards the avoided battlefield. She could make out seven figures. Five were lying on the ground. Four were dead – she could tell by their empty chakra systems. The fifth lived – but not for long because the person's chakra was slowly dwindling away. The two left over leapt towards each other – engaging in combat, she assumed. One person's chakra was deteriorating – probably from using a constant jutsu. But the last one…

His chakra system was out of control. Wildly high amounts of chakra leapt like flames around his body. But instead of normal blue streaks of chakra –

Hinata gasped, ending the Byakugan. Could it be?

Shino and Kiba's worried faces and questions faded from her sight. She could only picture one person. His chakra signature was unforgettable. Wild fire-like flames danced through his system. She would recognize his chakra anywhere. The chakra of a certain loud, blonde, ramen-loving ninja.

"Naruto-kun," she whispered, shaking her thoughts away. She stood slightly straighter. It was Naruto-kun fighting another enemy. Finally reengaged with reality, she noticed her teammates standing beside her on a broad branch. Shino and Kiba had been bombarding her with questions, but in her troubled reverie she hadn't noticed.

Kiba put a hand on her shoulder. "Hinata, what happened? What did you – "

"I-It's N-Naruto-kun. H-He's in trouble," she said, interrupting Kiba. Her nervous stutter surfaced for the first time in over a year. She shook her head to gather her wits. "We need to go help him." She turned to Shino, the mission's captain.

Shino raised an eyebrow at her, as if questioning her real motives. Shino had always noticed her crush on Naruto-kun – same as Neji-nii-san. Kiba hadn't seen it at all. But he desperately wanted to show Naruto his new moves, matching his "rival"'s competitive spirit.

"Shino! What are we waiting for? Let's go!"

Shino looked over at the trees baring them from the battle, then back at Kiba's excited expression and Hinata's slightly flushed one. "No."

Hinata's heart fell. Her whispered, "Shino, why not?" was overpowered by Kiba and Akamaru's protesting shouts.

"But I need to show him how great I've gotten! I have this new move and Akamaru's gotten so much bigger and – "

"I'm not going to jeopardize this team's safety for the sake of someone that we aren't even sure is Naruto," Shino said coldly, turning back towards their original path to the village. Kiba and Akamaru whimpered a bit, then followed Shino.

Hinata felt as if she were frozen. Something that she had not told the others was that Naruto's chakra was out of control. The red flames had licked their way through his body, infusing it with more chakra, but also overpowering his own. Something was wrong. Terribly wrong. She couldn't leave Naruto-kun to face it on his own.

"Oi, Hinata? Are you coming?" Kiba shouted at her. He wiped the blood off his cheek. She had forgotten about his wound. But Naruto-kun needed her help. They could just go on without her.

Hinata clenched her hand into a fist, the ice shards digging themselves deeper into her skin. She felt a trickle of blood roll down her palm. She turned her back to them.

"No."

Hinata could feel Shino's hard stare burning itself into her back. She was always the first one to follow his orders. She had never defied him before. She had never deserted her team before.

She could almost hear Shino telling her. Naruto is only a hindrance to you. She gripped her fist tighter. He's not a hindrance. He… he's… Her thoughts swirled and spiraled around her head. But her decision was firm. She had to help Naruto-kun.

"Go on to the village. I'm going to help Naruto-kun. I'm sorry Shino. Kiba. Akamaru."

Hinata leapt off her branch towards the battle.

"Damn it," Kiba muttered, his gazing sweeping from Shino to Hinata's diminishing figure in the distance. Akamaru barked. Kiba nodded.

"Don't, Kiba. Hinata's made an individualistic move. She's only a danger to the team now. If we follow her, then the entire team will be endangered," Shino's hard voice matched the cold gleam off of his glasses. "I'm only thinking of what's best for the team."

"Well, there goes one fourth of your team Shino. She might die out there. What are you going to tell Tsunade-sama? That you just let her go? Hinata - who's never resisted anything that you've said, who's like our team's glue, who we can't track or scout or do our job properly without.? You're going to tell Tsunade-sama that you just let Hinata go, just like that, because you're too afraid of endangering the rest of us?" Kiba growled. Shino dipped his gaze for a moment, then stood up straight. Kiba looked away.

With a growl, Kiba launched himself off the branch to follow Hinata. Akamaru bounded after him. Kiba called back to Shino over his shoulder.

"You're not only guilty of letting Hinata run off to her death without backup," he said, his voice fading. "You're also guilty of being a coward."

Shino looked after his teammates. Was Kiba right? Was he really being a coward? Wasn't he really thinking about the safety of the group? Didn't he really care about bringing his entire team home, safe and alive?

Shino followed after his teammates, his insects buzzing around him. He was just following protocol. But, insisted the tiniest part of his mind, maybe you are a coward. Was death more painful than living - knowing that you could've saved your friends, but you didn't?