Yikes! Well, it was a long time in the making, but I think I'm finally getting back into the game.

For anyone who might be pissed at me about how long this took...yeah, I really don't have an excuse. Bash away, I won't fight back.

Chapter 9: A Day In The Life

Naruto sighed, and shifted his burdens slightly. Hinata was still feeling a little overwhelmed after the confrontation with the Iwa-nin, so Naruto had offered to take both of their prisoners to ANBU Section Three HQ. Section Three was the Torture and Interrogation branch; he had never been there before, but had met one of the members in the Chuunin exams. What was his name? Ibuki, Abike, Ibika…something like that. The scarhead guy…funny, he tried to scare us with his little tale of woe; in all honesty, the guy got off lucky. There are far worse fates than what he suffered out there.

The trip wasn't far, and the additional three hundred pounds of Iwa-nin and gear barely fazed him. Naruto soon found himself standing in front of an innocuous little building. Small, painted a soothing shade of yellow, it hardly looked like the kind of place where criminals and prisoners-of-war were questioned.

He opened the door and spoke to the secretary. "Vina tiudri (1). I am uninformed as to Konoha's current political status with Iwa, but please be advised that these two along with two more attacked myself and jounin Hyuuga Hinata. The ninja before you are the only survivors of the Iwa group, and as per protocol, Konoha has jurisdiction over all hostiles captured within its borders. Can you direct me to the holding cells?

The secretary, an unsmiling middle-aged genin with close-cropped black hair, nodded. "Hai, ANBU-san. This way.

They descended several flights of stairs. The walls were immaculately white, and gave the entire building a hospital-like appearance. Something – Naruto couldn't say what – gave it away though; some echo of the fear and pain that had been inflicted here had left an invisible mark. Unexplainable, yet eerie. Naruto ignored it. He had been in far worse places than this one.

Exactly seven stories beneath the ground, the blond Sunagakure jounin stood in front of a thick steel door marked 'G22'. The secretary placed his hand against the middle of the door, and a click was heard before it swung open with barely a whisper. "Chakra sensors," the man explained. "The latest from Konoha R and D, the doors only open when the chakra signature of a person already keyed in is applied to the sensors."

Naruto gave a low whistle. He'd have to get Tsunade to send Gaara a copy of the blueprints; these would be handy.

The first prisoner, Aramaki, was dragged unceremoniously inside. He was untied – hardly a threat, as over two thirds of his tenketsu were closed – and then shackled with chakra cuffs. These weren't as new as the doors were – Suna was already using a more recent version – but they still worked well enough. Any time the wearer attempted to use their chakra, it was absorbed by the cuffs, which then used the stolen energy to further fortify themselves. Given a total lack of chakra for twenty-four hours, they stopped working and opened. However, they were capable of leeching minute amounts of chakra simply by contact, and so were guaranteed to stay on either until removed, or the wearer died. Suna had discontinued using them after two different prisoners escaped their bonds; one by entering a near-death state until the cuffs fell off, and the other by pumping a massive amount of chakra into them, overloading the locking mechanism. Apparently, Konoha had had no such problems yet.

The nameless ninjutsu specialist was disposed of similarly, before the genin secretary turned to Naruto and bowed. "Apologies, ANBU-san, but could I trouble you with a favour?"

Naruto cocked his head to the side quizzically. "Depends what it is."

"I have to feed the prisoners in cells G5 through G19, but high priority prisoners require immediate preliminary questioning. Could I ask you to find Yamanaka-sama and direct her to these new prisoners?"

"Yamanaka…would her given name be Ino?"

"Yes, that is correct. She should be in her office, room B3. It would save me a trip."

"No problem. I'll send her down."


As he walked back up the stairs, Naruto pondered this new information. Ino, a torture and interrogation specialist? Huh…I never thought she had it in her. The entire Yamanaka clan is perfect for the work, but…I'm surprised she had the stomach for it.

It was warm, this deep. He took his mask off and rubbed an arm across his forehead before putting it back in place –

"…Naruto? Sakura said you were in town!"

Shit. "Ohaio, Yamanaka-san."

The young woman in question looked at him oddly. "Why so formal?"

"We were never exactly close, Yamanaka-san."

"Sure, but that never stopped you from using my name before. You sound like you don't like me for some reason."

Nah, just have a blanket distaste for most things Konoha. Nothing personal. "Of course not, Yamanaka-san."

"Ino. Please."

"Very well, Ino."

"See? That wasn't so bad. Now come on; I have fresh tea in my office and I really want to know where the hell you've been all this time."

"Sorry, but I was actually on my way up to look for you. There are two jounin from Iwa in cells G22 and G27 waiting to be interrogated; the secretary said it was your duty."

"Oh. Well that's out then…still, we should catch up some time. Come find me at – hang on a sec. Were you the one to capture them?"

"One of them. Why?"

"Just an old trick. If the person sees you again, the person who already beat them once – soundly, it seems, as you barely look dirty, let alone injured – then any hopes of escaping drop, along with morale. It makes my job easier. Would you mind?

"Sure, I suppose…although I need to leave soon."

"What time is it now…3:05. I'll be done by 3:30."

The mask hid his surprise well; he hadn't expected this brainless little fangirl to be so competent. "Well, let's get this show on the road."

True to her word, Ino had finished with both prisoners by 3:25. It had been quite something to watch. Her entire attitude and persona altered when she entered the first cell. Suddenly, Ino was replaced with a happy-to-the-point-of-insanity, joke-cracking bimbo – but every so often, a hint of a much darker, rage-filled psychopathic persona was visible beneath the happy-mask (2). It was far more frightening than if she had been overtly threatening. This new Ino, combined with a deft touch with genjutsu, eerie precision with certain…less than savoury…interrogation tools and her family's mindwalker ability, made her one of the most effective interrogators Naruto had ever seen. The fact that she was both young and pretty made the effects even more drastic; she was able to toy with the victims' lust in addition to their other emotions, further fogging their minds and making any sort of resistance to her methods even more futile. Mental note…recruit Ino. She's good.

As an added bonus, Naruto finally figured out why Hinata and he had been attacked. Apparently Iwa had been waging guerrilla warfare against the numerically stronger Konoha for the past two months. Any and all captives/corpses were explained away by the Tsuchikage or his aides as 'missing-nin', and when pressed, Konoha would receive too-small payments for the supposed rebels. Leaf and Stone would be in open war if only they could gather more concrete evidence.

The cell door closed behind them, and immediately the old Ino was back; the same loud, bossy, gossipy Ino he had attended the Academy with.

"So spill: what have you been doing all this time? And what's the deal with the Suna get-up? Last I checked you were a Konoha missing-nin. And for that matter, how long have you been in ANBU? Is Suna really so desperate that they would hire you?"

The last was a joke, and they both knew it. The ninjutsu guy had turned an interesting shade of green when Ino had told him that Naruto was free to 'play' with him some more. She knew that anyone who could have that much of an effect on a hardened shinobi wasn't to be trifled with.

Naruto leaned up against the wall and hooked his thumbs in his belt behind his back in an attempt to relax. "Let's see…Suna; I live and work there; five years, two of which as a squad-captain (3); they recruited me right after the jounin exams. I think that answers everything in order."

Ino blinked, and Naruto laughed inwardly. His 'baka' persona never had much of an attention span. "So why Suna? And another question," here her eyes twinkled mischievously, "how many departments did you get invites from?"

"Why Suna? Gaara, mostly…a few other reasons. And to answer the other question…I hadn't even left the arena when the first three divisions requested me. Almost everyone requested me at some point. The only departments that haven't sent me any offers are R and D, and C-Int (4).

Ino's eyes went wide at this, and for good reason. A new jounin was lucky to get one recruitment offer; usually the Corps waited a few years until potentials were more seasoned. Exceptional recruits sometimes got two offers; Ino herself had been propositioned by both Intelligence and Interrogation. Supposedly Hatake Kakashi and Uchiha Itachi had both received three offers, with Itachi getting one of those while still chuunin. More than that was unheard of.

Naruto took the look to mean she was sceptical. "Well, it's true…Combat, Black Guard, and Assassination all sent letters while I was still sweaty from my final fight. One from Tracking was slipped under my door, I found that one when I got home; Interrogation sent me theirs the next day; and Intelligence asked me to transfer to them about six months after that."

Ino still looked sceptical. "They wanted you in Interrogation? Why?"

Naruto chuckled briefly. "Worried I might take your job?"

"Haa, as if," Ino briefly huffed in response, before a curious little smile appeared. "Show me your trick. Everyone has one; what's yours?"

He grimaced beneath his mask. "Ino, I don't think this is the best idea."

"Naruto, just do it."

"Ino –"

"Please. I just want to see."

Naruto sighed. He really didn't want to show this to anyone he didn't have to. "Very well."

He took off his mask again, before bending slightly to stare Ino in the eyes. There was at least a foot between their faces, but she was sporting a slight blush; a response he tried to ignore.

Naruto began to channel small amounts of youkai to his eyes.

Ino gasped, and began to shake. He knew exactly what she was seeing; to her, the lights were getting dimmer, and his irises were beginning to turn red. After a few seconds, she would see nothing but utter darkness – except for his eyes, which would be glowing with an inner flame. It was at this point that his victims were weakest against his genjutsu and other skills, but he wasn't about to subject Ino to anything of the sort. He cut off the flow, and she finally snapped her head away, breathing heavily.

He looked away. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have –"

Ino clapped her hands together in excitement, which earned her a surprised look from her fellow blonde. "That was awesome! Can you teach me how? Please?"

Naruto couldn't help but laugh at his enthusiastic peer. "Sorry, but I'm probably the only person in the world who can use that particular technique."

She nodded. "Oh, that's right. The Kyuubi lets you do it, right?"

Naruto's eyes widened dramatically. "Uh…not exactly, but, uh…"

Ino inclined her head and looked up at him sympathetically. "Naruto, everyone knows about the Kyuubi now... the bingo book, remember?

Naruto opted to remain silent. Evidently Ino didn't hate him due to the whole Kyuubi incident; a welcome surprise. But he wanted to know why, and knowing Ino, she would talk to fill any gaps in the conversation. Sure enough…

"My dad knew the Yondaime, well enough to know he wasn't going to screw up a Seal."

"Uh, yeah. That's great then."

"…What's gotten into you? I thought you'd be happy."

Naruto faced his fellow blonde with a sombre expression on his face. "Well…I'm not sure exactly how to explain this, but I'm…not a Jinchuuriki anymore…"

No more than a minute after dropping that particular bombshell of a statement on Ino, Naruto stood in the middle of Training Ground 22 awaiting Hinata and the other members of his new genin team. The corpses of the two dead Rock nins had been removed, giving Naruto nothing to focus on, save for the conversation from moments before.

"WHAT?! How is that even possible? Naruto, what aren't you telling me?"

Shit, is that the time? Ino, we'll have to have this conversation later. Drop by the ANBU barracks tonight after 11:00 and ask for Kuroi. I gotta go."

"Naruto, wait just a second –"

The sound of her voice was instantly cut off as he disappeared into thin air, to reappear over a kilometre distant seconds later.

So now, he waited patiently for his 'team', and fretted over the upcoming…uncomfortable…conversation.

He wasn't left to his own devices for long, though. The Hyuuga boy walked into the clearing, stopped about ten metres from Naruto, and promptly turned his back.

Sasuke junior. Lovely display of preteen arrogance there; at least this one isn't an 'avenger'.

Shortly after Genji's arrival, Haruno Sayuri showed up, uncharacteristically quiet. Her face perked up when she saw her black-haired teammate, but she remained silent.

A small mercy. Kami, if you're up there, thank you.

So far, this team meeting had been eerily like one of his old genin training sessions, to the point that Naruto wondered idly if Hinata would show up late. It was not to be, though, as the distinct sound and puff of smoke announced her arrival via Shunshin.

"Ohaio, Hinata-sensei."

Genji and Sayuri started; apparently they hadn't noticed their teacher's arrival. Both turned around, Sayuri with a glare for him, Genji with a scowl directed at no one in particular.

"Ohaio, Hinata-sensei!"


The Hyuuga jounin smiled at her students. "Good to see you're all here. As you may or may not be aware, there is a final test that must be passed before you are officially made genin. This test is administered by the jounin-sensei of each team, and is different for everyone."

Sayuri broke in, an incredulous expression on her face. "But that's not fair, sensei! What if someone gets an easy test?"

"All the final exams have about the same level of difficulty; but you're right. Some will find it easier than others. It may be harsh, but life simply isn't fair. This is one of those instances. You have two choices: refuse to take the chance, or try your hardest. I know you all will make the right decision. (5)"

Sayuri pouted, but didn't have a snappy answer. Hinata passed out three pieces of coloured chalk, and then continued.

"The rules of my exam are simple. All you have to do is mark me at least once with your chalk before the end of the exam at sundown. If anyone doesn't manage to do so, they will be sent back to the Academy, after they watch any successful teammates eat the dinners I will provide."

Genji raised the first question. "Do we get extra credit if we hit you more than once?"

Naruto suppressed a smirk. The kid thinks it'll be easy…

Hinata appeared to think about it for a moment. "Sure, why not."

Sayuri's face lit up, and Genji gave a superior smile. Heh…good luck. You'll need it.

The genin hopefuls made moves towards their sensei, but she stopped them with raised hands. "You'll notice that each of you has a different colour. This makes it simple to tell who, if anyone, was successful."

Sure enough, when Naruto glanced around, he saw Sayuri with green, and Genji glowering at his pink. Naruto's own was the default white.

"And one last thing. Treat this as if it was a real mission, and me as if I was your enemy. Everyone ready? Ok…go!"

All three lunged at her. A split second before contact was made, Hinata vanished via Kawarimi.

A little over three hours later, the twitching forms of three children could be seen illuminated in the moonlight. All three were tied to stumps only a few metres from bento boxes filled to the brim with all manner of foods, but they might as well have been miles away. At least then, the delicious scent wouldn't be taunting them. Meanwhile, a young woman approached, and began to address the children.

"That's too bad. I hoped at least one of you would rise to the challenge. Instead, I have to leave you here overnight, and in the morning you will return to the academy. Good night. I'll see you in the morning."

She began to walk away, but then turned back, still with a highly disappointed look on her face. "And whatever you do, don't try to escape."

That said, the jounin then scooped the food into a bag, leaving them with empty trays, before departing for Konoha.

Sayuri glared. How dare this woman do this? They weren't even genin yet, how could they have been expected to keep up with a jounin?

It had all gone wrong from the very start. After Hinata-sensei escaped the first time, Genji was the first to track her down. Sayuri had watched in fascination as her true love charged. Then in a movement too fast for her eyes to comprehend it, Hinata-sensei grabbed Genji by the arm and flipped him into the dirt. He got up, of course, and tried again, and again. But the hand holding the chalk never came within a foot of Hinata's body.

Eventually, the jounin seemed to get bored with flattening her student, and disappeared in a swirl of leaves.

Takeshi came up to her shortly after that, claiming he had a plan, but that it needed all three of them to work together. Genji, naturally, had ignored the useless baka and went to try again. Sayuri made her own excuses as to why she didn't have to listen to the blonde – if she remembered correctly, she told him he was too far beneath the scions of families with REAL ninja to come up with anything useful, before following her beloved prodigy. Once again, though, Genji was humiliated. Was THIS really how strong jounin were? To be able to manhandle a prodigy like Genji-kun…

Takeshi had pestered both of them a few other times, so she started smacking him. Nothing too cruel, just the kind of thing Sakura-oneesan would do if someone annoyed her. Perfectly normal and acceptable.

He eventually took the hint, and walked away into the trees, disappearing from sight almost immediately. For a few minutes after that, Genji and Sayuri attempted to track down Hinata-sensei. Well…Genji did most of the tracking, and Sayuri was there for moral support. Yeah. That was it. Besides, she wanted to see him cut loose and show everyone what a real prodigy was capable of!

Unfortunately, Hinata-sensei had completely vanished. Wherever she was hiding, it wasn't visible, even to Genji's Byakugan. This lasted for at least ten minutes, before Takeshi appeared again in his latest attempt to annoy them with some nonsense about working together. Genji-kun poked him in the arm, though, with that amazing taijutsu jyuken thing of his, and Takeshi shut up pretty quick. Genji's power had that effect on people.

And then, for the last hour, they had repeated the cycle of Genji getting toyed with by Hinata-sensei while Sayuri looked on in horror, followed by a search for the elusive jounin, followed by yet more one-sided combat. By the end, Genji was extremely pissed off (or the less-emotional form of anger practiced by the majority of Hyuuga) because Hinata-sensei never hit him. Not once. All she ever did was dodge, or re-direct his attacks with throws or blocks. Sayuri knew he was mad because Hinata-sensei hadn't taken him seriously.

And then, seconds after the last sliver of sun dipped below the horizon, she was grabbed by the waist and hauled to the clearing in the middle of the training ground, where she was promptly tied to a stump beside her teammates.

So here she was, stuck for the night, tied to a stump. It was just so unfair!

She was startled out of her thoughts, though, when Takeshi piped up. "Can anyone reach their kunai pouch?"

Sayuri couldn't, and said as much. Genji's grunt indicated a similar predicament.

"Alright…Genji, can you reach my shuriken?"

"Just shut up, baka, my hands are tied and you know that."

Takeshi took a moment to answer; Sayuri got the impression that he was restraining himself. And so he should! No one gets to insult Genji-kun!

"If you slipped off one of your sandals, can you reach it with your foot?"

It was Genji's turn to be silent; apparently he hadn't thought of that. Or more likely, he HAD thought of it, and just didn't feel like doing it. Yeah Genji-kun!

The Hyuuga boy's answer eventually came. "I can reach it. Now what?"

"Pull one out with your toes and place it flat in my hand; be careful, though, I keep them razor-sharp."

A few tense seconds passed before Genji gave a relieved sigh.

The soft scraping sound of steel on rope was heard. It wasn't long before the sound stopped and Takeshi stood up and pulled out a kunai. He quickly cut Genji and then Sayuri free. The three of them gathered around the empty boxes Hinata had left, before Takeshi spoke again.

"Ok guys, Hinata-sensei said the gates would be shut, so I guess we're stuck outside tonight. It's going to get cold. I'll get some wood for a fire."

With that the blonde jogged off into the forest.

Sayuri and Genji exchanged glances, both feeling slightly intimidated by the calm practicality exhibited by their teammate, before settling down to wait.

Ten minutes later, he still wasn't back, and the chill was setting in. Both children were starting to shiver. Sayuri was about to ask Genji if they could huddle together for warmth when Takeshi returned with a pile of branches clutched in his arms. He dropped them on the ground with a slight grunt of effort.

Finally! Not wasting a moment, Sayuri began to break down some of the smaller pieces down into kindling.

"I can make a fire-bow," Genji commented. This got a slight smile from the blonde, who shook his head. He waited until Sayuri placed the kindling strategically about a few of the larger pieces before running through a series of handseals, ending on Tora.

"Thanks for the offer, but it'll take longer, and it's getting colder fast. Katon: Senkou! (6)"

A fist-sized ball of fire launched itself from his mouth to land in the midst of the dry grass and wood chips. Moments later, a healthy fire was crackling away.

Genji and Sayuri exchanged looks. They both knew from their respective families that elemental manipulation wasn't usually taught until chuunin.

Takeshi didn't miss much, it seemed, as he noticed the slight jealousy and anger in Genji's eyes. "A good friend of mine has been a chuunin for several years; he taught me a number of things. It isn't too tricky; if you want, I can show you later."

Genji gave an affirmative grunt, while Sayuri just nodded. The thought of learning elemental manipulation was exciting!

She got back to work and soon had three piles of wood; large, mid-size, and wood chips. Sayuri then stood up, only to find Genji gone. Her eyes darted around for him, and Takeshi answered her unspoken question. "I think he went to get water. Nice of Hinata-sensei to leave us with the cups, huh?"

Sayuri nodded, feeling slightly relieved.

Genji arrived back soon, and sure enough, he came bearing three cups filled with water. With his teammate back, Takeshi sat back from the fire and enjoyed the heat radiating outward from the merrily crackling red-orange flames, before offering to help Sayuri as she got up to get more firewood. She waved him away though, and he sat back down as she wandered off into the woods.

Sayuri decided that camping outside like this was kind of fun. It helped her take her mind off having failed her final genin test.

It didn't take long to gather up enough fallen sticks and branches, so she headed back towards the glowing fire and dropped everything beside the pile of wood they hadn't already used. She decided it would be more than enough to last them the night, so she sat down, her back against a tree.

After a while of sitting in silence, Takeshi spoke up. "If you guys want to sleep, I'll take watch for tonight."

Sleep sounded really good right now, but after everything he'd already done, Sayuri didn't feel right about making Takeshi watch over the camp all night. "You've done a lot already. I can do part of it."

Genji didn't say anything, just nodded his head in agreement.

"You sure? I don't mind doing it."

"Well…we were…going to be a team, right? Teamwork and all that?"

Suddenly all three children's heads whipped towards a particular section of the forest; all had heard something. Hinata-sensei stepped into the firelight, and she was…clapping?

"Congratulations, team. You pass. You are now officially genin of Konohagakure no Sato."

Sayuri stared, dumbfounded, at her former-but-maybe-current sensei. It took a moment for Hinata's words to sink in, but then… "YEESSSS!"

Genji and Sayuri were long gone, likely off to celebrate with friends. Naruto had dropped his Henge, and was standing beside Hinata next to the fire.

"So it's a good thing I didn't get a reservation, isn't it?"

Hinata blushed. "Um…I guess I ruined it, didn't I? I…I hope we can go some other time, maybe?"

She sounded so hopeful he couldn't help but laugh. "Why don't we go now? It's only a little past nine, and I haven't eaten since breakfast. I know you weren't eating anything while you sat there watching us."

Thrilled that her take on the genin test hadn't ruined her not-quite-a-date with Naruto, she simply smiled brightly and nodded.

Naruto grinned back and reached out to take her hand. "Let's ride."

Exactly three seconds later, the two were standing in front of the Azure Dragon.

Hinata looked at Naruto with some surprise. "How did you manage to put your mask on mid-Shunshin?"

He laughed. "Trick of the trade."

She, however, didn't think it was so funny. "Please, can you take it off?"

The mood grew sombre. "I will. Once we're inside our private booth."

The two were quickly seated. The dinner rush had ended a while ago, and there were only a few people still there, so their orders were taken immediately. The waitress was a brunette girl, perhaps a year younger than they were, so Naruto said he felt reasonably sure she wouldn't know any uncomfortable truths about him. He undid the mask and slid it under the table before taking a sip of the green tea the girl had provided them with.

"Mm, nice blend they use." Naruto put down the cup and gave Hinata a friendly smile. "So we haven't had much time to catch up. What have you been up to all these years? Aside from training, that much is obvious."

She blushed. I knew it would pay off! "Um…well, I made it to chuunin when I was thirteen at the exams in Kusagakure..."

"How'd that go? Were they anything like Konoha's exams?"

She looked slightly surprised. "All the villages do different things in their exams. I thought you knew?"

"Nope. Gaara figured I merited chuunin after Konoha's exams, so he promoted me on the spot."


The blonde took another sip from his tea, he then gave Hinata a brief look before answering, a hint of his growing curiosity visible in his eyes. "Yeah. So Kusa, huh…what was it like?"

"It was alright. Anko-sensei and Kurenai-sensei had me well prepared."

Naruto blanched; thoughts of what Hinata must have gone through left him feeling rather disturbed. "Hang on…you were trained by the crazed snake lady?"

Anyone else insulting Anko in Hinata's presence would be favoured with a Byakugan-based glare, but this was Naruto in front of her. Hinata didn't think she was even capable of glaring at him, regardless of reasoning. Still… "Mm, I wonder what Anko-sensei would do if she knew you called her that?"

Naruto grimaced and shook his head slightly as if trying to expel unwanted mental pictures. "I'd rather not think about it."

Hinata gave him a teasing smile, as she had a pretty good idea what was going on inside Naruto's head right now. "Then please be nice to Anko-sensei, even when she isn't around."

He grinned and rubbed the back of his head nervously, so very much like he used to do when he was younger. "Sure, you got it."

The food arrived just then and conversation dropped off as the two hungry jounin dug in to the veritable feast spread out on the low table before them. It didn't start up again until the various plates had been picked nearly clean and two bowls of anmitsu had been ordered.

Hinata took a sip from her tea before gently placing it back on the table. She covered a smile with her hand as she saw Naruto trying to scoop an overlarge piece of an unidentifiable vegetable into his mouth. Some things will never change.

Naruto suddenly noticed that Hinata was watching him and realized how awkward he must look. He tried to swallow everything at once, which made the situation only worse. He ended up choking, so he grabbed his tea bowl and gulped down its contents. Even as he was catching his breath, Naruto couldn't help but smile inwardly as he remembered an old conversation. I guess Temari might be right after all, my table manners could be the death of me one day.

Hinata laughed, but after seeing how Naruto handled his predicament she got that strange feeling this wasn't the first time it happened to him.

Naruto looked sheepishly at the female Hyuuga before him as he rubbed the back of his head again. "Sorry about that. That, ah, really wasn't me at my best, was it?"

Hinata leaned slightly forward and smiled kindly. "You don't have to apologize, I don't mind." You've changed a lot in the last years…you're stronger and more mature, but you're also harder…and colder. I'm happy because the goofy, fun-loving side of you hasn't disappeared. She then folded her hands in front of her, indicating that she was ready to continue the conversation. "So how about you, Naruto-kun? What have you been up to all these years?"

He laughed softly and leaned back against the wall, shifting his cushion slightly to make himself more comfortable. "Wow…where to start? Um…well after I left the village, I ran into Jiraiya-sensei and ended up blackmailing him…"

The two were laughing like the old friends they were when their desserts arrived, and this time conversation didn't cease with the presence of food. It did, however, become somewhat more garbled, as both Naruto and Hinata were laughing, eating, and attempting to talk all at once. Not much actual information was conveyed, but both left the restaurant afterwards feeling great – though Hinata did shoot Naruto a disappointed look when he buckled his mask back on before leaving with her to settle the bill.

Hinata had nursed a quiet hope that Naruto would walk her home, but the two parted ways just outside the restaurant.

"Night, Hinata. I suppose I'll be seeing you early tomorrow morning for 'training'; should be fun, huh?"

He turned to go, but Hinata grabbed him in a tight hug before he could walk away.


"I…I just want you to know, I'm really glad you're safe."

"Hinata…heh, thanks." He briefly pulled his mask to the side so she could see his genuine, grateful smile. For a moment she could feel her knees turn weak, but the feeling disappeared when the snarling black wolf covered his cheerful face.

"See you tomorrow, Hinata." He looked back at her over his shoulder and smiled again as he gave her a wave.

That night Hinata slept better than she had in months.

After arriving back 'home' at his quarters in Konoha's ANBU barracks, Naruto went almost directly to the bathroom, pausing only to speak briefly with Hiro about his day at the Academy. He hadn't had a shower since the morning, and was still covered in trace amounts of dried sweat, blood, and soot from the campfire.

He loved the feeling of the water, hot almost to the point of being scalding, pouring out in a steamy torrent onto his back. Over the years, his cave-house had been furnished with many modern contrivances, but hot running water had never been one of them. He made a mental note to check the Konoha library to see if they had made any more progress linking a four-point gravity generation seal with a seven-point self-sustaining kinetic energy manipulation array than he and Jiraiya had…

He shook his head. It was doubtful that more than five or six people in Konoha would even understand what he was thinking about, and even less likely that the library would have notes on such an obscure topic. He'd figure it out eventually. For now, it was just nice to savour the warmth.

Naruto didn't bother to put on a shirt for the short walk across the hallway back to his room, seeing as it would be coming off anyway when he went to sleep. And so it was that a bare-chested Naruto, body still glistening from residual moisture and smelling faintly of herbal soap, stumbled across Konoha's premiere interrogator, who he had completely forgotten about.

Ino eyed him up and down with an approving eye. "Wow, big guy, I don't know what they did to you in Suna, but it sure as hell worked."

Naruto took a couple of steps backwards and looked at Ino with wide eyes; the last time he had been half-naked and alone with a young, pretty woman it hadn't ended well. He had always thought of Matsuri as a surrogate sister…suffice to say, she hadn't felt the same way about him.

"Uh, Ino…what the hell are you doing in my room?"

She pouted slightly. "Forgotten me already have you?"

"Eh? ...oh. Right."

Both ninja turned serious. Ino spoke first. "So…you want to tell me what you meant about you not being a jinchuuriki anymore? I thought the Akatsuki method killed the jinchuuriki involved, and I haven't heard of any other methods with which to dispose of a bijuu. It hasn't escaped, or I'm sure Konoha would have heard about the Kyuubi wandering around – assuming it didn't try to get revenge on us immediately. So…gonna fill me in, or do I have to go inside your head and find out for myself?"

Naruto hit Ino with a glare so dangerous it made her take several steps back. "You will not be poking around inside my head without my consent. Consider yourself warned."

A wide eyed Ino nodded furiously. "Uh…sure thing. Sorry. But, ah…aren't you kind of overreacting?"

Naruto realized just then how much killing intent he was focusing on the pretty blonde in front of him, and immediately reigned himself in. Darn it, what's wrong with me? "I'm really sorry, Ino. But... my mind is…my mind is rather different than those you're used to. Even if you didn't simply die…without my consent, your soul would be irrevocably fractured. You could end up brain dead, crazy, or trapped in my mind until your body eventually gives out. Trust me on this one."

Ino nodded again. "Ok, no problem. So how come your mind is so lethal?"

He sighed. "Same reason the Kyuubi's gone. It's a long story. Actually…" he trailed off, thinking.

"Actually what?"

Naruto let out a short laugh. "I realize you're probably hesitant to enter my mind after all that, but that's probably the easiest way to tell you. You don't need to worry; so long as you're with me, you'll be fine."

Ino shot Naruto a quizzical look. "You can enter your own mindscape?"

He nodded. "Sure; done it so often, it only takes a second."

"And the mental traps will be disabled?"

"Well, no, but they will no longer register you as a threat."

Ino gave Naruto a bright smile that almost completely masked her apprehension. "Well then…what are we waiting for?"

He shook his head. "Nothing. Sit here with me; I need to be touching you when I start meditating."

The two sat on Naruto's bedroll cross-legged, touching at the knees. Naruto placed a hand on either side of Ino's face, and attempted to ignore the slight blush on her face. He then closed his eyes as his consciousness began to spiral inwards…

When Temari opened the door ten minutes later she was greeted with the sight of her shirtless captain sitting on his bed holding the face of a purple-clad blonde she recognized as Yamanaka Ino. Nice, taichou…you sure move fast.

She laughed quietly to herself upon realizing what was actually going on, before settling up against the wall with her book. She would wait until Naruto woke up.

Author's Notes:

(1) Vina tiudri – literally Good Afternoon. A semi-formal greeting.

(2) I watched The Dark Knight about four hours before I wrote this scene. Ino's new personality is inspired by the Joker. She doesn't act quite like he does, but the whole laughing, perpetually happy-yet-psychopathic side is all Joker. If possible, she's even more manipulative than he is, too; playing with emotions, toying with the innermost workings of the mind…it helps when you have mind control powers.

(3) Just to clarify the timeline… Naruto is 19. He made chuunin at 13, jounin at 14 with immediate ANBU recruitment offers, and was promoted to captain of his own hand-picked squad at 17. At 18, he was further promoted to Leader of Suna's ANBU forces, so he gets to delegate his paperwork when he's on a mission or training (virtually all of his time). He makes no secret of the fact that he is captain of his squad, but his position as chief of the forces is a fact known only to Suna. This position is semi-confidential, and he reveals it to outsiders only when absolutely necessary.

(4) R and D – Research and Development. Pretty self-explanatory… C-Int – Counter-Intelligence. These guys have an interesting job; find enemy spies, and then use them to feed enemy tacticians mis-information. For example, a counter-intelligence operative might let a spy stumble across 'secret plans' to attack Point A, and instead, have a team attack Point B, or attack Point A at a different date, or in a different way. It's a lovely little game of proverbial cat and mouse.

(5) I think this nicely reflects Hinata's view on life at this point in time. Hinata isn't a cynic by any stretch of the imagination, but she sees evidence of just how unfair life can be all the time, a trend that started early in her childhood. She is giving her students this talk to better prepare them for the hard, dangerous life of a ninja ahead, because the better prepared they are, the more likely it is that they will survive.

(6) Katon: Senkou – literally Fire Technique: Flash. D-rank technique of limited offensive use where the user spits out a ball of fire capable of travelling a short distance, usually not more than five feet. It is commonly used as one of four introductory techniques taught to experienced genin/new chuunin with a fire alignment to get them used to controlling the elemental aspect of their chakra.

About Naruto's new "teammates"… yes, they are quite similar to his original team seven, but with a few differences. Firstly, Sayuri can be worse than Sakura on a bad day. However, while Genji can be a stuck up prick, he was raised in a family where he WASN'T the top dog (that honour fell to Hiashi's family), and there were always people around stronger than he was, even if none were in his age group. Additionally, he doesn't have the avenger complex that caused so much trouble. Long story short, Genji is willing to respect someone if they earn it, and Sayuri will follow his lead. It'll still take 'Takeshi' a while, though.

So there we go. Another chapter is done, and I solemnly swear to you it won't take nearly as long before chapter 10 is published. As of this posting, I've got it about half-written. Yay me.