0NARUTO IS PROPERTY OF MASASHI KISHIMOTO
Sooooo, as it turns out, this is the last chapter of this volume. You won't be seeing Naruto again until he grows up. Kind of sad, right?
"A NINJA'S LIFE"
"Tsunade-sama, new missions just arrived from Mist. I left them on your desk while you were on the meeting and they need to be ranked." Shizune said, walking briskly behind the Hokage, who had just got off the elevator with a frown on her face. The black-haired woman didn't take notice of her mentor's obvious bad mood and looked down on her clipboard, searching for the next important topic to inform.
Tsunade was barely listening. Half her mind was still going through what had happened at the Council meeting just now; the other half was reciting the contents of the latest report from Jiraiya again. He wrote about Akatsuki's members sightings on Takigakure, presuming their intentions to capture the jinchuriki residing there, but said that Naruto's demon was still in danger.
'Naruto needs to disappear while Akatsuki is not looking', finished the letter, along with a promise of coming back to Konoha soon.
" – Our ambassador from Suna informed that a Kazekage had yet to be chosen. Apparently the elders have decided to place a temporary leader while they sort out the former Kazekage's murder." She rambled on, almost tripping with a lamp near the wall. "Still looking for Orochimaru's trace, I suppose…"
The older woman grunted her agreement. Sunagakure is a very proud village, and its citizens do not forget easily. It will be a long time before they put that matter aside and move on with other issues.
"You have an appointment tomorrow at three o'clock with the sculptor. He says it will last at least two hours for him to make a small model of your face, take some pictures… I think that's it for today…" She trailed off. They had now entered the hall that lead directly towards the Hokage's private office and were now alone. "How did the meeting go?"
"As you would expect." Bristled the Hokage, clearly displeased. "Sensei's teammates gave an honorable speech about protecting our village's resources and history, referring to the Uchiha. They claimed that the kid was still young and didn't know wrong from right… He's still a Konoha ninja by our rules." Tsunade was still mad at herself for not putting enough enthusiasm against the decision as she would have liked.
'At least Naruto will be happy…' She mused as they approached her office.
"There's something else, Tsunade-sama…" started her pupil, turning her head forward and motioning to a girl standing in front of her office door. Tsunade raised an eyebrow. The pink-haired girl heard them coming and turned her head, greeting them with a bow.
"Haruno Sakura." The Hokage acknowledged, looking down at the girl. She sighed. "If this is about Sasuke, the official announcement will be made public tomorrow morning."
"It isn't." the green-eyed girl hurried to say, but it was clear that she still was concerned about the matter. "I came here to request something of you…"
This earned a look of curiosity from the Hokage. She looked at Shizune, who just shrugged her shoulders.
"I only have one minute to spare." The blond-haired woman said, opening the door. "Come on in."
"I thought I told you not to use Its chakra." Hissed the blond-haired Hokage, eyes closed tightly, trying to contain her anger so she wouldn't smack the blond in the head.
"What was the point on trying to control it if I can't use it when I wanna?" Naruto said happily, naked feet dangling from his bed back and forth. Iruka had finally been able to visit him and he brought him a bag full of his clothes. Naruto was glad he had given the teacher a copy of his apartment key.
The boy was shirtless and Tsunade had just removed the bandages from his chest when she noticed the abnormal improvement on his wounds.
"People might get suspicious!" She exclaimed.
"Every adult knows about the Kyuubi so it won't be a surprise. Besides, you are the best medic-nin in the world! I can say it was your doing!" Naruto said with a grin. He could move his arm a little bit more without wincing, as well as breathing easier, and the injuries on his chest and feet had already scarred. In a week or so the scar would no longer be there.
Tsunade was still glaring at him. Naruto's smile faltered.
"C'mon! All the other guys were already discharged." He pouted. Even Lee was running by now. The green clad genin had passed by his room and greeted him cheerfully. "I just don't wanna spend my birthday in here." Naruto finally said with a sigh. October tenth was in two days and Naruto itched to eat some birthday ramen.
Tsunade's eyes finally softened. She slumped her shoulders in defeat.
"I will let you out tomorrow." Conceded the big-breasted woman. Naruto whooped in response, jumping out of his bed. "But you will need to use a shoulder sling; I don't want you making any brusque movements with your arm." She sent a warning glance at the chuunin when he was about to protest. Naruto stayed silent.
"No shouting or screaming. I'll give you some pain pills just in case…" Tsunade was now writing something on the clipboard. "Come here again on Monday, to see your progress."
"When can I start training again?" Naruto inquired.
"Don't get ahead of yourself, Naruto. You're still weak."
"Fine. Sorry." The blond rolled his eyes.
"On that note…" started the Fifth Hokage, scratching out something on the paper absentmindedly. "Jiraiya will be arriving soon."
Naruto raised his head. "Took him long enough."
The older woman agreed with him. "You'll be resuming your training with him, although it will be different from before." Her words were careful and precise, attention resting fully upon him.
"What'cha mean?" The whiskered chuunin looked up at her warily, sensing something was up.
"It's not official yet, nor have we discussed thoroughly but it's very likely you will train with him away from the village for your own safety."
Her eyes studied his eyebrows knit together in confusion. He then sighed.
"Akatsuki, right?" Tsunade was glad he understood the reasons so quickly. "How long will I be training away from here?"
Tsunade pursed her lips, taking a deep breath before answering.
Naruto's eyes visibly widened at that.
"You will be turning back once he decides you're ready to fend for yourself against them." Finished the Hokage somberly, watching his expression carefully.
Naruto's blue pupils travelled towards the ground, where they stayed for a few seconds.
"Just when I was starting to get comfortable in here…" he said with a low tone.
"You have to understand that it's-"
"Necessary, I know." Naruto cut her off. Surprisingly, the blond sent her a soft smile. "I'll make the best out of it."
"We will talk about this some more when he gets here." The long-haired blond said, lowering her clipboard.
The other blond left in the room sighed, having mixed feelings about the whole thing.
'At least I'll be one step closer to becoming Hokage.'
The blond dressed himself up, careful not to move his left arm so much.
He couldn't be happier about leaving before noon. That meant he could have lunch somewhere else, and forget about hospital food for a good while. The blond was pacing around his room, waiting impatiently for his release papers. Gift cards, coupons and letters packed in his bag, along with a set of clothes he had used yesterday. Naruto's left arm was dangling inside a dark-blue shoulder sling; the blond scoffed at it but figured out there was nothing he could do about it. His ears perked up at the sound of laughter coming from the hall. The whiskered boy cocked his head, as he thought the voices sounded familiar but couldn't quite place who they belonged to. The Uzumaki didn't have to ponder for much longer since the owners of the voices entered his room and greeted him warmly.
It was Shizune and Iruka.
"What are you doing here?" his question was directed at his former Academy teacher, since he could figure out what Tsunade's assistance business was with him by looking at the sheet of paper on her fingers.
"I'm here to hand you your documents." Answered Shizune simply, a smile on her face, as she pushed the discharging papers on Naruto's hand.
"And I'm here to take you to Ichiraku for lunch." Proclaimed Iruka with a broad smile. Naruto grinned, glad that Iruka remembered his promise of taking him for ramen as soon as he got out. Before they exited the room, Shizune held them for five minutes to warn the boy about yelling, laughing or coughing too hard, for fear of damaging his respiratory organs.
"Am I getting my chuunin jacket back?" Naruto inquired, dismissing Shizune's health tips.
"Not until you're on active duty again." The young woman answered, pinning her pen on her left ear and saying farewell to both ninjas with a pleasant smile.
"Let's hurry. I wanna be there before it fills up." The blond prodded, walking in front of the teacher. It was Saturday after all, one of the busiest days of the restaurant. A few nurses greeted him as he passed by and Naruto responded with a wave of his hand. Most of them had been really nice to him, which made his hospitalization a little bit easier to cope with.
"Don't worry, I told Teuchi we'd be coming today, so he'll save us three spots." Iruka watched as the nurses smiled at the blond, pleased.
"Yup. Konohamaru didn't want to miss this. He's waiting by the reception." Iruka silently prayed that the little boy was behaving himself. Fortunately, the boy had busied himself with a magazine he found by a little table. As soon as he heard them coming, his head shot up and a toothy grin spread across his round face.
"Boss!" He greeted energetically, running up to him with the magazine in his hand. "Look! You didn't get to see my new henge the last time, but this kinda looks like her!"
Naruto glanced at the model he was pointing at; her hair reached the middle of her back and it was brown and slightly spiked. Whether she was wearing a bikini or underwear, he couldn't tell, but she seemed really happy to be walking around a backyard, showing off her well-endowed body and winking at the camera.
"See? My boobs are as big as hers!" called the eight-year old, proudly. Both Naruto's eyebrows were raised as he wondered how a magazine of that sort ended up on a hospital lounge. 'If his jutsu really looks half as good as this woman does, he might have already master it…'
"Naruto." Iruka seethed behind him. The blond gulped, remembering an Academy teacher was with them. "You did not teach him that jutsu." In that moment the whiskered kid wished he hadn't, since he could feel all the fury directed at him.
"That was a long time ago, sensei!" defended Konohamaru, stepping in between the two males. "Since chuunins don't have much time to spare, he could just give me a few tips from time to time, like checking on the public pools or going at the bathhouses and-"
"For the love of- shut it, Konohamaru!" the blond exclaimed alarmingly. Given his current state, he wouldn't be able to avoid being strangled by the older man, and Iruka's strained face told him that was exactly what he wanted to do.
"I just tried to help him with the henge no jutsu…" explained the blond nervously, holding up his hand. "I wasn't thinking and I did the sexy no jutsu by accident, and he wouldn't stop asking me to teach it to him…"
"He's eight!" spat Iruka. Naruto was sure there was a protruding vein under his headband. "And the grandson of the former Hokage! What would-"
"You shouldn't be shouting inside the hospital, sensei." Piped up the boy, timidly. He winced mentally at the angry look Iruka sent him but the man contained himself.
"You can thank Kami you're not my student anymore, Naruto."
Naruto did just that mentally.
"At least he'll have an easier time with the transformation techniques, eh?" The Uzumaki said, trying to ease Iruka's bad mood. Iruka ignored his comment.
"Konohamaru," Iruka's attention was now completely on poor Konohamaru, who seemed to shrink from his gaze. "If I ever catch you doing that technique, or going near the bathhouse or doing anything suspicious, I swear I'll have you clean the Academy's bathrooms for a whole year."
You could hear Konohamaru gulp from the other end of the room.
"B-But I go once a month to the bathhouse with my uncle." Naruto was impressed at Konohamaru's inability to recognize when it was time to shut up.
Iruka's eyebrow twitched. He sent a look at his student that clearly said 'You have been warned' and marched off towards the hospital exit. Naruto doubted they were still being treated to Ichiraku, but Iruka turned around and nudged his head towards the doors.
"Let's go, before I change my mind." He called grumpily.
Her knuckles raped the hard wood of the front door repeatedly. She waited, cross armed, but there was no answer from the other side.
"You sure he's home?" The girl asked, starting to feel annoyed and directing her gaze at her quiet companion. "I can't feel his chakra."
"I think he is, I mean… He likes to sleep until late." said Hinata, doubtful. She was beginning to worry he would be elsewhere, but she couldn't think of any other place he might be at this time.
"He better be inside, or this whole thing will go to waste." Ino replied, turning again for the entrance and knocking even louder. The door started to shake slightly under her knuckles. "Naruto! Open up!"
They stayed silent, trying to listen to any sign of life coming from inside. Hinata might have imagined it but she heard a faint sound from the other side of the door. The other girl also heard it.
Ino bellowed again, patience burning out, hitting the wood with her open palm and making even the walls tremble. Ten seconds passed and there wasn't any sign that Naruto was going to greet them. The Yamanaka frowned, eyes darkening for a second. She sighed. "Guess this can't be helped."
Hinata watched curiously as the golden-haired kunoichi took out what looked like a credit card from her pocket and inserted it in between the edge of the door and the wall.
"Hope this works…" muttered the female, sticking her tongue out as she pushed and moved the card around, eyebrows knitted in concentration.
"Ino-san," the Hyuuga called, hesitant. The indigo-haired girl looked around nervously, expecting a neighbor to show up unexpectedly and scold them for trying to break in an apartment. "I'm not sure Naruto-kun would like it…." Before she could even finish the phrase, a soft 'click' went out, and Ino swung the door open. Ino let out a triumphant 'ah!'.
"Huh, that wasn't too hard." she said to herself rather than to the other genin, letting herself into the apartment. "You worry too much, Hinata."
Hinata hesitated as she looked into the dark apartment. Ino was already making her way easily towards the only room inside. The Hyuuga, after thinking it over, stepped in.
The inside of the residence had been cleaned recently. Hinata could tell by the faint scent of floor cleaner still lingering around. There was a glass and a big bowl with remnants of popcorn on the sink, which made it easy to tell just what the Uzumaki had done yesterday night.
"Naruto!" Ino's yell snapped Hinata's attention back to her. They stood outside the half-open door of his room, listening to the blond's soft breathing. The bedroom was even darker than the living room, since the living room had two windows that lighted the whole area. But she could see the chuunin's body sprawled on top of the bed, sheets only covering his bottom and lower back.
Hinata saw one of the blond's leg twitch, but it became still again. She couldn't help to think Naruto was getting almost too big for his bed, since his toes already reached the edge of the mattress.
Ino, pissed that the chuunin was still ignoring her calls, stormed into his room and rooted herself besides his bed. The Hyuuga, unable to invade such a private space, just stood outside his room and watched attentively as the Yamanaka opened her mouth besides his ear. Hinata held her breath for what was about to come.
"Oi! Uzumaki!" she called one last time, looming over the male's sleeping form and glaring at him. This time the blond jumped out of his skin, ears throbbing, heart racing, clinging to his covers for dear life. His blue eyes were clearly disorientated with sleepiness, and his hair seemed wilder than usual.
"Shit!" The chuunin yelped, looking around his room for the intruder and finding her in between his night stand and his closet. "Ino?!"
He stared at her with dazed eyes for a moment, thinking this was some kind of dream, but discarded it at once since he'd never dreamt about the girl.
"The hell are you doing in my room?!" Out of everyone he knew, the Yamanaka would be the last person he would expect to be in his home.
"Getting you." The blue-eye beauty explained, satisfied with his reaction and moving towards his window to pull the curtains open, allowing the sunlight hit the room with full force.
"Gah." Naruto cringed at the sudden brightness. "Why did you enter without my permission?!" Naruto asked again, exasperated, placing his palm on his eyes to block the sun.
"'Cause you weren't answer!" replied the girl, throwing her hand in the air.
"I didn't want to answer!" spat the blond. "I was sleeping, if you hadn't notice already."
"It's almost noon…"
"So?" Naruto replied nonchalantly, his initial shock receding. He rubbed his eyes tiredly, slowly sitting up straight. He yawned and moved his shoulder gently; sleeping with the shoulder sling stiffened his shoulder a bit. "I'm off duty."
"Doesn't matter. Hurry up, we don't wanna be late."
"Late for what?" the blond asked, massaging his neck tiredly.
"Chouji's BBQ." Ino responded simply.
"Oh." The whiskered boy sighed sleepily. He yawned again. "Was that today?"
"Yeah, and people are already there." Said Ino, making her way towards the door. She almost tripped with a shirt lying on the floor, and also noticed a pair of pants discarded at one corner. "Are you naked?" she asked suspiciously, noticing Naruto's bare chest and legs.
"N-No!" Naruto answered indignantly. "I have my underwear… It's just that it was too hot last night, and it's hard to get dressed with the sling." He hurried to clarify, embarrassed. It was just then that he noticed the other individual standing under his door.
"Ah… you're also here…" Naruto said without thinking, his ears coloring at her presence.
Hinata, taking his words as a greeting, rushed to salute him as well, resulting in her stammering. "G-G-Good morning." The girl was already red from the mention of Naruto being naked and, even though it wasn't true, she could still see 80% of his bare body.
Nobody spoke for a while. Hinata was too busy biting her lower lip and searching her mind for something else to say, while Naruto was trying really hard not to look in the eyes of the person who had watched him cry like a baby. Ino, feeling the awkward environment hanging in between them and not really understanding the situation, opened her mouth.
"Yeah, so, are you coming or not?" She watched the blond expectantly.
"I… uh… had already planned to go to Ichiraku's." Naruto started. "It's kind of a tradition since it's my-"
"You can have ramen any other day." Ino said, bad mood rising again. "Besides, we even came to get you!"
"Ah…" the chuunin hesitated. He wasn't surprised that she didn't know today was his thirteenth birthday; very few people knew and all of them were adults.
"I-It will be fun, Naruto-kun." Came Hinata's voice. She stepped closer to the bed, her eyes clinging on to his. "I promise."
'Shit.' Naruto sighed. 'This is not how I imagined my birthday would be like… I already rented the movies for tonight!' The blond opened his mouth to say something but changed his mind at the last moment.
"If you don't wanna go, that's fine." Snapped the long-haired kunoichi, turning around, ready to leave. "Don't expect us to beg anymore. Come Hinata."
The blond saw a flash of deep disappointment within the Hyuuga's eyes. Ino tugged at her arm and forced her to walk away. Hinata seemed utterly crushed.
"Wait!" Naruto burst out, standing suddenly from his bed, covers falling freely to the wooden floor. Ino and Hinata turned at his words. "I'll go, just give me ten minutes?"
The blue-eyed girl nodded, a small smile on her face. Hinata wore a relieved grin on hers.
"You can take whatever you want from the kitchen, and the TV is yours. I'm gonna get ready." He then noticed he only had his boxers and hurried to close the door, leaving the two kunoichi alone.
"He's too predictable." Said Ino with a satisfied grin, heading for the couch. "Did you see his boxers?" They were white with black 'Z's stamped on them. "Kind of cute, huh?"
"You talking about me?" Naruto's muffled voice came from the other side of the walls.
"None of your business! Just get ready!" Ino yelled back, sitting on the far left of the black couch. She listened for the blond's footsteps around his room and, a while later, the shower coming to life.
He couldn't hear them now.
"Did something happen between you two?" Ino demanded to know, her face fully turned to Hinata's pale one. The Hyuuga had just claimed her seat on the couch and the question caught her off guard.
"W-What?" she asked, astonished at Ino's question. Lilac eyes meeting fierce, blue ones.
"Did something happen between you and Naruto?" She rephrased, talking more slowly but looking accusingly at Hinata, eyes suspicious. "I've never seen him act that way with anyone! I mean, he was acting shy, for Kami's sake! And that's usually your role. I swear he was blushing, Hinata, blushing!" the Yamanaka's hands shot up. Hinata cringed at her loudness, placing a slender finger in front of her lips and praying for Ino not to be so loud.
"Answer me." The taller girl prodded.
"Ino-san, nothing out of the ordinary has happened." The other girl affirmed, although the wave of her voice said otherwise.
"You're a horrible liar, Hinata." The kunoichi accused, a smug smile on her face. She inched closer to the Hyuuga conspiratorially. "Did you tell him you liked him?"
"I-I-Ino!" Hinata hissed nervously, face growing impossibly red. She was on the verge of hyperventilating. "D-Don't say it so loud! He m-might listen."
Hinata had already learned to cope with the fact that all the other girls (and possibly the boys) already knew about her crush on Naruto; and ever since she started to hang out more than usual with him the last few months triggered questions coming from the group of girls every time they saw each other. They basically wanted to be up to date on their relationship status (not that there was one, Hinata assured), but the Hyuuga still couldn't react as calm as she would like whenever they suggested stuff relating her and Naruto so openly.
Ino snorted at her reaction, but still pressed the subject. "Did you?"
"N-No." She looked anxiously at Naruto's bedroom door, fearing he might burst it open at any second. She breathed a few times to calm herself, making sure the shower was still running. "You know I would faint before I could confess."
"But there's something up with you two, I can feel it." Ino pouted, resting her chin on her palm. She looked at Hinata with the corner of her eye. "I think he likes you."
Hinata actually scoffed at her proposition. "Likes me?" She wanted to laugh out loud; that was ludicrous. She knew she got along well with the chuunin but she didn't hold any false hope of him reciprocating her feelings. 'Besides… it's not about just liking him anymore… He only sees me as a friend at most.'
She sighed dejectedly, eyes traveling to the coffee table in front of her.
"D-Don't be silly. That's-" her breath caught in her throat at the sound of the bathroom door opening and footsteps going around the bedroom. Indistinctive words swam to their ears and both girls strained to hear them better.
"Is he singing?" The female blond quirked an amused eyebrow to her friend.
"He's just talking." Hinata corrected. She didn't have a hard time believing Naruto spoke to himself; he lived alone after all. He was muttering something about a shirt.
"We're nothing more than friends." Hinata finally whispered, settling back on the couch and signalizing the end of their conversation. Ino shrugged, finally letting go of the subject and stretching her arms over her head.
"I'm just gonna get my shirt, then we can go." Said a neat Naruto, coming out of his room shirtless and walking briskly across the living room onto the small laundry room located besides the far end of the kitchen. The dark-blue shoulder sling on hand. He didn't spare them a glance, but Hinata's eyes did linger on his smooth back and waist, her face flushing brightly.
"Yum." Ino said into her ear with a smile, watching the Hyuuga stare at the blond. Hinata immediately jumped in surprise and turned her red face forward.
"You say something?" Naruto called from the other end of the room, struggling to get into a blue shirt. His left arm slid slowly through the sleeve opening. Hinata was tempted to offer help, but the thought of helping him dress might knock her out for at least an hour.
"Nuh-huh." Answered the other blond in the room.
"Finally." The blond grunted, flattening the creases of the fabric with one hand. 'Now I've to get this damned thing on.'
"Need any help?" Ino asked.
"No, no. I'm almost…" The blond answered, adjusting the sling clumsily. "There!"
"Let's go, then!" The blond-haired girl stood up swiftly, heading for the door and ushering the other two outside. Naruto barely had time to get his keys and wallet.
The rusty, old iron staircase vibrated as the trio made their way to the busy street. They had to maneuver their way slowly, trying not to bump into too many pedestrians. Naruto was aware he was attracting people's attention as he walked and kept his head down, not wanting to start a scene or an altercation with anyone. Not today.
"You need to change your door lock, Naruto." Ino commented, watching curiously a green necklace being auctioned by an old lady on a stand.
"Yeah, I noticed." The blue-eye Uzumaki replied, uninterested, halting his step to let a kid with his grandparent pass.
"No, seriously. It took me less than a minute to open it. Do you want to get robbed or something?"
Naruto shrugged. "Robbed? I only have an old TV with an even older couch, and thirty cups of ramen… there's nothing appealing about that." The only thing Naruto considered worth keeping safe was his kunai set; the one he had won at the Academy.
Ino shook her head at Naruto's logic but didn't say anything else. "This way." She hurried ahead and took a left on an old looking building. "We're not so far."
As they ventured further into North Konoha, the market stands and roaming villagers started to subside, leaving only occasional pedestrians strolling around the streets. But even after leaving the crowd behind, Naruto could still feel people making a double-take while they looked at him; some even went as far as to point their fingers at him as they recognized his blond hair and whiskered cheeks.
'Not now.' The blond pleaded in his mind, regretting he didn't had a jacket with a hood so he could pull it onto himself. 'Not with them watching.'
The people were getting bolder, snarling as he walk-passed them and sneering at him in disgust. The girls were conversing and apparently missed the villagers' behavior towards the shinobi, but they might pick up on it if they continued to look at him like that.
If he were walking around his neighborhood he wouldn't be glared as much as in any other place. His neighbors knew him and were accustomed to see the blond walking around, but Naruto barely ventured to the streets he now walked, much less on this special day, since it was the day to grief the victims the Kyuubi had killed.
"Isn't he…?" A woman snarled, peering closer at him. Naruto looked brusquely away from her.
"What is he doing here?" A man in his fifties demanded to no one in particular, as he sat on a stool beneath the shadow of a porch.
"The nerve of that thing!" Naruto heard another lady claim, five minutes later. Burying his good hand into his pocket and hunching his shoulders, the blond picked up his speed with short strides.
"You little bastard!" At last, a man found the courage to walk up to him menacingly from the other side of the street. Naruto had the intention to just keep going, ignoring the bald man, but Hinata and Ino immediately halted their steps and looked at the approaching forty-year-old curiously.
The chuunin cursed mentally, seeing that the two girls weren't moving. He turned around.
"Wait here for a bit. I need to settle something with this man." Naruto said rapidly, holding up his hands to further stress his wishes that they would not follow him. Ino and Hinata sent him puzzled looks, but Naruto trotted rapidly towards the incoming man and away from them before they could say anything.
"Are you trying to mock me?!" the man demanded with a raspy snarl, grey eyes full of hatred intended at the blond. The whiskered blond stopped short in his tracks, not bothering to look up. "You dare to show your face today of all days!"
"Hush." The blond said irritably, looking nervously at the girls. "You're gonna get in trouble if they hear you."
"You got yourself a couple of friends, don't you?" sneered the villager spitefully, ignoring Naruto's words; eyes turning to the girls. He then noticed Hinata's pupil-less eyes. "I don't believe it! You tricked a Hyuuga to hang out with you, you piece of shit."
"Is everything all right, Naruto?" Ino called, eyes falling cautiously on the unknown man. Hinata was staring at him suspiciously, not liking how he was throwing dirty looks at Naruto. The blond turned with a tense smile and waved dismissively, assuring everything was fine.
"If they knew… oh! if they only knew!"
"You better hold your tongue." Warned the blond darkly.
"I don't even know why they let you walk around like you've done nothing!" spat the man, ignoring the blond's words, taking a step forward but not daring to come closer to the offending blond, who had just turned his cold, blue-eyes to the man. The man's black eyes were dancing with rage and pain. "You're just a monst-"
"Finish that word, old man, and I'll assume you broke the Sandaime's law." Hissed the blond, raising his head so he could look at the man square in the face.
"Y-You pretentious fucker." Stuttered the villager, face flushed with anger, now thinking he was better off back at his shop. "I ought to break your neck!"
"You forget I'm a chuunin." Naruto glared ominously at the older man. "I have the authority to take you in. I can even carry out the death sentence if I deem it necessary."
The man spluttered incoherently, too mad to articulate any more words. But his face was steadily growing red. Naruto knew he wouldn't calm down.
The blond sighed, fearing this could get out of hand. He tried another approach. "Look, mister, I know you're in pain but this isn't the time to-"
Hard knuckles buried themselves on the blond's right cheek. The punch was strong enough to twist Naruto's head to the side; a throbbing pain inserted itself on his face. The thought of dodging the hit crossed the blond's mind, but another part of him told him that the older man would finally calm down if he let him discharge his rage on him with that punch.
"Don't you talk to me like you know what we went through! How could you know my pain? You killed my sister!" The man spat, eyes shining with tears of grief.
"Hey!" Ino yelled from behind. Naruto heard them hurrying towards him; he turned his hard eyes to the panting man. He now saw fear on his dark eyes; he knew he could be punished for touching him.
"Go away." The blond ordered, still feeling the shape of his fist on his face. "Leave me alone and you won't be punished."
The man looked from the blond to the girls and back to Naruto. He opened his mouth but, thinking it over, turned around and hurried back to his shop, his fist aching.
"Come back!" The Yamanaka called after the running man. "What's wrong with you?!"
"No. Let him go." Naruto said, turning around and stopping Ino from going after the man.
"Why did you let him?" the girl demanded as she frowned at Naruto. Hinata was also looking at him confusedly. "He can't just punch you and walk away."
"It's no big deal, I didn't even feel it." Assured the Uzumaki, waving it off. "I broke his window recently and he's just mad."
"Let's just go." This time his voice was serious. He was now thinking it definitively was a bad idea to come out today. 'Let's just get this over with.' Naruto told himself gloomily, starting off again towards Chouji's house, leaving the girls no choice but to follow him. "We've wasted enough time already."
Hinata frowned as she watched the blond's skin evolving into a faint bruise. Something was definitively wrong with Naruto today; he wasn't the type of person to walk away with his head down after such a confrontation.
"Is he okay? He's acting really weird today." Ino whispered to Hinata, who was watching his hunched back as he walked. The Hyuuga agreed quietly, a pensive look on her face.
"Don't worry." The other girl said, patting her back amiably. "He'll cheer up eventually."
Hinata sincerely hoped so.
Naruto didn't speak for the rest of the trip.
"This is it." Ino announced, guiding them through a small metal fence that surrounded the two story wooden house. It wasn't nearly as big as the Hyuuga mansion but it was ten times bigger than Naruto's whole apartment.
Just like Hinata's house, it had a well tended garden. Naruto walked towards the front door but was stopped by Ino, saying they would go all the way around towards the back of the house.
"How many people live here?" the blond asked, looking at the nicely furnished living room through a window as they walked.
"Just Chouji and his parents." Ino answered. Naruto looked surprised. "They need the space to work on their pills and practice their jutsus."
As they approached the end of the corner, the distinctive smell of roasted beef reached their noses. Naruto inhaled deeply, troubled thoughts quickly being forgotten as he realized just how hungry he was.
Hinata glanced at the now smiling boy discreetly. 'I hope he likes it.' She told herself slightly nervous for how the evening might turn out.
"Ino." Naruto turned around to face the girls as he walked, a slight frown settling on his face. "How many people did you say were going to be here?" As he recalled, Chouji had mentioned that he'd invite just the genins that participated on the chuunin exam. But as he focused more and more, he could feel at least ten individuals gathered at the other side of the house.
Ino smiled smugly. "I didn't." she replied simply, walking by past him and leaving him confused.
"Ah?" Naruto turned instead to Hinata. She, too, was wearing a smile. As soon as she reached the end of the wall she turned around and faced him fully.
"Happy Birthday, Naruto-kun." She pronounced sweetly, savoring the words she had been dying to say ever since she saw him today. Naruto could barely register her voice, since he could now see what was happening behind her. His eyebrows shot upwards as he read the fun-colored letters imprinted on the banner hanging across two lampposts.
Naruto had to double check the banner, as he was sure he hadn't read correctly.
Happy Birthday, Naruto. Said the blue glittered, uppercase letters. On either end of the banner were three thick, black short lines hand-drawn on the cloth, representing Naruto's ever present whisker marks on his cheeks. His inspection of the banner was violently interrupted by a set of thunderous voices chanting the same word.
"SURPRISE!" Naruto's unbelieving eyes turned to the people that had started to walk towards him, wearing wide grins.
"You're kidding me." Breathed the blond, sure no one could hear him over the loud chatter of congratulating words, multiple laughs and colorful blowouts tickling his face. His body was immediately recipient of hands clapping him warmly on the back and leading him closer to the grill and long table located at the center of the yard.
"It technically isn't a surprise party, since he knew we were going to be here." Shikamaru drawled from Naruto's right, a cup dangling from his fingers.
"He's surprised enough." Confronted Ino, scowling at her partner.
"How do you like it?" asked Chouji happily, with a white chef hat on top of his head. Naruto turned his eyes to him but was distracted by a cord being wrapped under his chin and a party-cone hat settling on his own hair.
"Here you go, Naruto-kun! Now you're all set!" Lee's voice boomed dangerously close to his ear. Both he and Tenten grinned at him as they took a step backwards to have a better view of him. They flashed him a thumps-up, both wearing hats resembling the Uzumaki's. Naruto's fingers tapped his makeshift hat, a smile growing on his face.
"C'mon, Neji. You're the only one missing a hat." Called Tenten, body turning at Neji walking cross-armed towards them.
"I'm not. I don't understand why our team is the only one using them." The older boy said, referring to the birthday hat hanging loosely off his fingers.
"We aren't the only ones." Defended Lee, placing both hands over his head protectively. "The kids are also wearing them."
"That's because they are kids, Lee. We are proper ninja." Countered Neji, rolling his eyes.
"Fine. Don't wear it if you don't want to but don't take the fun out of it." Tenten said harshly, glaring at her teammate. Neji shrugged mildly and turned his eyes to Naruto, who was very much entertained at their argument.
"Congratulations." Said the Hyuuga politely, offering his palm at the blond. Naruto took it, smiling in appreciation.
"Thanks. Glad to know you're alive."
"Same goes for you." Replied the long-haired genin as he smiled thinly. "Get better soon. You still owe me a spar." This earned a grin from the blond.
"Oh! Me too! I've always wanted to test your skills, Naruto-kun!" Lee interjected, eyes shinning brightly at the idea.
Unbeknown to them, Hinata was silently watching them interact, her eyes bright with happiness and relief that two of the most important boys in her life were being friendly to each other.
Kiba and Shino approached him a few moments later, the Inuzuka clapping him in the back and the Aburame offering a slight nod of his head.
"What took you so long?" Kiba demanded.
"He didn't want to come." Ino said eyeing Naruto accusingly. "It took us longer than expected to convince him."
Naruto sent an apologetic smile to the girls.
"How did you know?" He asked.
"Does it matter?" the Yamanaka replied before anyone else could, a grin on her face. The blond wanted to know but he knew immediately who was responsible, after seeing Iruka coming towards him with his arms extended.
"You told them, didn't you?" The blond commented, a grin spreading all over his face as his former sensei enveloped him on a one armed hug.
"Don't worry about that. Just enjoy your party!" Iruka exclaimed, wishing him a happy thirteenth birthday.
To his surprise, Chouji's parents also congratulated him, both awarding him warm smiles and handshakes.
"You didn't have to trouble." The blond commented, a hand on the back of his head.
Choza and his wife shook their heads. "Not at all! We love having Chouji's friends over. Besides, we should also celebrate that you came back alive."
They retired to the grill along with their child, helping him cook the meat.
Konohamaru and his friends took turns to congratulate him, more enthusiastic than any of the other party members. Flashes started to pop out of nowhere, blinding Naruto momentarily. It turned out that Moegi brought her new disposable camera and was determined to capture every moment of Naruto's birthday.
"Oh! Can I sign it?" inquired Konohamaru, dark eyes firmly positioned on Naruto's shoulder.
"Yeah! Me too!" exclaimed Moegi and Udon at the same time, the girl still clinging to Naruto's middle. The blond was surprised that Lee's voice joined them, appearing behind the youngsters and raising his hand to the sky.
"It's a sling, not a cast." The blond clarified, feeling the eyes of everyone on him.
"So?" the four chorused inching closer to Naruto, Udon taking out a black marker seemingly out of nowhere. The whiskered boy sweat dropped, stepping back.
"It's not made of something you can write on…" continued the blond, hiding his sling with his body. The three boys and a genin sighed helplessly, disappointment evident on their innocent faces.
"How about you help me hand out the drinks?" chimed in Hinata, placing a hand on both Konohamaru and Udon's shoulders. Udon flushed avidly, but didn't lower his eyes, as Moegi giggled behind him. He nodded.
"I bet I can serve more drinks than any of you." Called Konohamaru, already running towards the table where a set of filled plastic cups were gathered.
"It doesn't count if you spill them!" shouted Moegi, following closely and taking Udon by the wrist with her.
"Here you go, Naruto." Chouji said, a hand firmly falling on Naruto's shoulder and handing him a plastic plate with a sizzling hamburger on it. "The toppings are on that table."
Naruto's mouth immediately began to water at the sight of the sizzling meat and the smell it produced.
"Gather 'round, everybody. There's plenty for everyone!" the Yamanaka exclaimed for everyone on the backyard to hear. Boys, girls and adults quickly made their way towards the grill, where the Akimichi family was handing out hamburgers and hotdogs.
As Naruto was doubling the size of his hamburger with bacon and cheese toppings, Hinata offered him a cold glass of soda.
"I-Is coke okay?" She called, coming from behind and trying to smile through her blush. Naruto turned to her and nodded, setting his plate down so he could receive the glass.
"I can't believe I almost missed this." Said the whiskered boy.
"D-Do you like it?" The raven-haired Hyuuga asked softly, looking at his reddened cheek and wondering if it was hurting him.
"Like it?" Naruto laughed heartily, taking a swing of his coke. "This is great! I've never…" He trailed off, eyes resting on the laughing people enjoying their food. "I love it."
Hinata's heart grew twice its size as she watched his smile envelope his whole face, making his whisker marks widen.
"The best part is still to come." She breathed inaudibly.
"Huh?" The blond turned to her, but she acted as she didn't say anything. Images of her holding him flashed in his head but he pushed them away from his mind. He didn't want it to become awkward again.
"Sakura-chan, you made it." Hinata said, regarding the incoming pink-haired girl with a smile. Naruto noticed her face was much livelier than the last time she saw her, you could even say she seemed happy again, but once she approached them he could see a tinge of sorrow shadowing her eyes. He suddenly felt guilty as he noticed how he had been enjoying himself too much to worry or even think about his former teammate.
'If he had just waited a couple of weeks more… we could be sharing a burger right now.' Hinata watched crestfallen as the joy on her crush rapidly left his face, leaving only a false smile masking his young face.
"Hey Sakura." The spiked-haired chuunin greeted, turning his eyes to her.
"Sorry for being late." She said breathlessly, offering and apologetic smile directed to the Hyuuga. "Happy Birthday, Naruto."
"Thanks." Replied the blond. Hinata offered her a beverage and she gladly accepted it. Neither of them said anything after that, but the Haruno kept looking at the blond pointedly, which made Naruto lift an eyebrow in curiosity.
This didn't go unnoticed by the Hyuuga girl so she excused herself and left the two remaining members of team 7 alone.
"Guess what." She said, excitement filling her eyes in less than a second.
"What?" Naruto placed his cup on the table, turning his full attention to his companion.
Sakura smiled widely, eyes shining as she opened her mouth.
"Hokage-sama's going to start training me, starting next week." She said quickly, barely containing her excitement. "Isn't that great?"
"Tsunade's gonna train you? For what? Being the next Hokage?" The blond didn't mean it as a joke, as that was the only thought that came to his mind. Sakura rolled her eyes but didn't get mad at him; she was in such a good mood nothing he said today could upset her.
"She's a medic nin." Explained Sakura, patiently. "And the best one at that. I talked to her before coming here and asked her to take me under her wing. I'm starting next week."
Naruto's eyes glittered with comprehension.
"Isn't medic-nin training the longest there is? I mean, I think you're gonna have to learn medicine first, before you even start with chakra healing." 'Although she already knows a tad about healing chakra, only from reading books.'
"It takes years." Agreed the pink-haired girl, placing a hand on the table cloth and looking at Naruto's slinged arm. "But I feel it is the right thing to do for me."
She looked down at her sandals.
"I've realized I can't keep up with you two, since my fighting skills aren't very helpful, but I feel healing others is something I might be good at, you know? Even Sasuke-kun said so…" Her eyes darkened with remembrance at Sasuke's approving look at her new healing skills.
Not even the background music and the laughter of their friends could interrupt the silence that grew amongst them.
The blond sighed. "Jiraiya is gonna continue training me for some time."
"That's great!" Sakura exclaimed, clapping her hands, but she noticed his not-so-sure face and cocked her head. "Isn't it?"
"It is, but it's going to be away from here." He anticipated her incoming question. "I don't know for how long."
"It isn't that bad. Out of all of us, you're the one who needs to get stronger, you know?"
The blond sent her an inquiring look.
"There are people looking for you, after all…" Naruto praised her deduction skills; he forgot how smart she could be when her mind wasn't fussing over the Uchiha.
"I guess team 7 will be just you and Kakashi for a while." Said the blond.
The newly appointed Tsunade apprentice shook her head sadly.
"Learning not only with Tsunade-sama but also Shizune-san is a full time job, Naruto." Sakura said with half a smile. "She was going to talk with Kakashi-sensei and tell him to disband our team while we take care of ourselves."
"Disband?" Naruto repeated, confusedly. "Can she just do that? What is Kakashi-sensei going to do? We are his students."
"Technically not anymore." A voice answered from behind the two of them. "It'd be better for you to finish your training with your new teachers before you come back to me. I've decided to step back."
"But sensei! Our team! It'd-" Naruto started, turning around to face the masked man.
"Don't worry, Naruto. Tsunade-sama and Jiraiya-sama are far better masters than I am. I'm glad my students will be training with the best of the best." Kakashi answered cheerfully, winking an eye at them. Naruto realized that he didn't mean that just for the two of them; missing-nin or not, Orochimaru was still one of the three legendary sennins, and he was going to be Sasuke's new master whether they liked it or not.
'Funny how things worked out.' Naruto thought, wanting to laugh but only a smirk crossed his face. Tsunade got Sakura, Orochimaru got Sasuke and Jiraiya was stuck with him. Three sennins with three students from the same team, Naruto had to wonder if fate was actually involved in all this.
"What are you gonna do without us in your way?" Sakura questioned, turning her body to the older man.
"I'd like to say I'm going to enjoy a long vacation, but given how things turned out, I'll go back into the black corps and see if I can catch up with Orochimaru before he rots Sasuke too much." The jounin wasn't smiling anymore. "It's going to be a hard task since we have nowhere to start."
"I'd like to help you with that." Naruto interjected, eyes narrowed.
"First train, then you can help me out. Along with Sakura." They smiled. "Team 7 isn't finished, it's just on hold for the moment."
The three shared a smile.
"Yeah, sensei?" the blond asked, looking up.
"Happy birthday." Kakashi said, grinning under his mark.
"I really need to go." Said Kiba for the third time in five minutes; butt firmly planted on his white chair.
"Then go." Replied Shikamaru and Ino at the same time.
The Inuzuka grunted as he struggled to stand up, but his heavy belly made that a pretty difficult task. Right now the Inuzuka, the Uzumaki and the Akimichi were thinking they shouldn't have had participated on their food competition.
"Can't believe we finished all the meat." Whispered Chouji for the nth time, eyes a little disorientated.
"I can't believe we still had space for cake." Added the whiskered chuunin tiredly from his seat. He was more lying than sitting in it, with his legs stretched as far as they could go and his arms hanging lifelessly besides the arms of the chair. His eyes explored the darkened sky.
"Good thing we made two, right Hinata?" Ino winked at her companion on her right. The Hyuuga girl nodded with a smile, glad that everyone enjoyed the cake that she and Ino prepared the day before.
"I still can't thank you enough." The blond said sincerely, eyes flickering at every person remaining, as he stroked the scabbard of his new most prized possession. Kakashi had given him a tanto as a birthday gift; it was small enough to hide behind your back and to take it out fast and easy, but the steel was real solid and perfect for piercing hard materials, so it was better than a kunai for close combat. After everybody had a good look at it, the blond took it for himself and hadn't let go of it since; it had been resting on his chest for the past half-hour.
"I used to have one just like this when I was your age." The Hatake told him as he handed it to him.
But Kakashi wasn't the only one to give him something; in fact, every team had approached him with a present after eating cake.
He got a new radio kit from Neji, Lee and Tenten, which Naruto very much needed. From Team 8 he received a pair of black shoes, because:
"Shino insisted on something that served a purpose…" drawled Kiba as he scratched his head.
Naruto got several books. One handed to him by Ino on medicinal plants and flowers, on behalf of Team 10. Another one from Sakura, but this one was a specialized First Aid book with methods to treat most kinds of accidents, ranging from ways to treat scorpion venom to poisoned drinks; there was even a whole chapter dedicated to explain what to do in case you lost a leg/hand/foot. Iruka didn't give him a book but a scroll on middle ranked ninjutsu.
Team Konohamaru gave him a different kind of scroll; this one was white linen with a diagonal seal across the rectangular shape. He was instructed by the Sandaime's grandson that he could seal up to seven objects in there so he could carry them wherever he went, and by performing three hand signs he could summon them back to him again.
Just when Naruto thought he had collected all of his gifts, Shizune approached him with a big bundle on her arms. This one was from the Hokage, and it was a beautiful white cloak with red horizontal strips at the bottom. On the inner part of the cloak were two inscriptions: The first one read the directions to wash and dry the fabric properly, the second one was a reminder that the cloak was also fireproof.
These gifts were neatly stacked on top of each other on top of a table besides the grill. The blond would occasionally throw his head back to check on them and smile afterwards.
"You don't have to thank us." Kiba finally said, picking up a sleeping Akamaru carefully and placing him under his arm. "We all needed this to relax."
Shaking hands with Chouji and waving at the rest of them, Kiba left the house. With him gone there were only five persons left: Ino, Chouji, Shikamaru, Hinata and Naruto.
"Well." The Yamanaka said as she kneeled down to pick up a scattered plastic cup on the ground. "We should start to clean this up."
"We'll help." The blond said, after sharing a nod with Hinata, and stood up.
"You don't have to. You're the birthday boy after all."
"Then let me help." The indigo-haired girl offered.
"You acted like a waitress the whole time, Hinata." Ino scolded, crossing her arms on her. The blond-haired girl had to remove the tray and snacks from Hinata's hands, lead her to a seat and push her down so she could rest from her uncalled services.
"We got this." Finalized Shikamaru, stretching lazily. "It's a drag but we always clean up after one of Chouji's gatherings. If my mother found out I didn't help…" The chuunin grimaced to himself, unable to finish the sentence.
"My mom packed what was left of the cake for you, Naruto." Chouji added with a smile.
"Thanks, but I don't think I can carry everything back home." The Kyuubi container looked over at his pile of gifts worriedly. With his hurt shoulder he couldn't summon his clones, he was going to need a miracle to take all the gifts home with one arm.
Ino smiled in anticipation for what was about to come. The blond girl turned her head to the Hyuuga just as she was opening her mouth to speak.
"I'll h-help you with those." The girl said curtly, immediately aware that Ino and Shikamaru were looking at her knowingly.
Naruto grinned as he thanked her. Ino announced she was going to the bathroom, and took Hinata along with her, promising they wouldn't take long. Now only the boys remained on the yard.
"We don't have much time." The Akimichi said hurriedly, voice dropping so only Naruto and Shikamaru could hear him. The blond uttered a confused 'huh' but was quickly shushed by Chouji.
"Listen, we really shouldn't be telling you this…" started Chouji secretively.
"- Especially since Hinata asked us not to tell." The Nara pointed out, scratching his chin absently. "But Ino really thinks you should hear this."
"Hear what? What did she do?" Naruto's attention had suddenly spiked and his eyes had narrowed ever so slightly.
The pineapple-haired boy nudged at Chouji to continue, and Chouji did.
"This party… the whole thing was Hinata's idea." The tattooed boy whispered, stepping closer to Naruto conspiratorially. Naruto looked at both of them for a minute, and Shikamaru knew a few wheels were working on his mind… or not.
"Hold on… I thought this BBQ was your idea, Chouji. You were the one who invited me when I was in the hospital." Started Naruto, a frown forming over his eyebrows.
"Essentially, yes, but when I invited Hinata she suggested to make it a birthday party for you." The brunette answered.
"What?" The blond asked, incredulous. "How did she even know my birthday date?"
"Who cares?" The dark-eyed chuunin replied. "But the point is that she did and talked to everyone to be here on time. She even invited Iruka and those kids and Kakashi and-"
"Wait, so..." The blond pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes. "Iruka wasn't the one who told you it was my birthday?"
Chouji and Shikamaru shook their heads.
"The plan to come and get me from my apartment?"
"Hinata." Replied Chouji and Shikamaru at the same time.
"The surprise party?"
"The cake?" the blond continued to interrogate, recalling how the chocolate cake had had a simple imitation of his whiskered face drawn on top of the frosting.
"Hinata and Ino." They said. "Although it was Hinata's ideas… Tenten also helped baking it."
"And the gifts?"
"Well… we knew Iruka was going to give you something, so we thought that each team would give you a present, nothing fancy. But the point is that you should know who was behind all this. She really outdid herself."
"She…" Naruto then remembered the look on her face when she thought he wasn't coming with her and Ino; the look on her face could break anyone else's heart.
"Why? Why would she plan all this?" The blond demanded.
"You really don't know why? Can't you think of anything?" Shikamaru eyes searched Naruto's.
"I don't know." The blond threw his hands in the air, he suddenly felt interrogated. "But now that I think about it, it really doesn't surprise me that much. She's always looking out for me."
"Doesn't that tell you anything?" Chouji asked suggestively. The male members of team 10 felt they were about to see Naruto's breakthrough.
"Uhm…" the blond started, thinking really hard.
The two best friends leaned closer, waiting for Naruto to say something.
"I'm gonna say that she cares for me." The blond said slowly. "Isn't that what friends do for each other? Man, does that mean I have to organize a surprise party for her birthday too? I don't even know when it is!"
Shikamaru emitted a soft groan of frustration.
"Can't you think of anything else, Naruto?" Chouji tried one last time, but before Naruto could start thinking again, they heard the girls approaching from within the house.
"Leave it at that, Chouji. We tried." The Nara placed a hand on his friend's shoulder. He then turned to Naruto. "Don't tell her we told you."
Shikamaru's eyes bore into Naruto's, desperately making one last attempt to make him understand. The blond just raised an eyebrow, wondering why he was staring at him so weirdly.
"I won't." the Uzumaki finally spoke out.
"- And if you do, say it is all Ino's fault."
"These are v-very rare, especially to be found on a country like ours." Said the Hyuuga happily, running a careful hand over Tsunade's gift.
"Yeah?" the blond asked mechanically, barely paying attention to what she was saying.
"Uh-huh." The raved-haired beauty responded, examining the fabric. "They are very v-valuable on dry or hot places, like Suna, where fires are c-common."
"People also wear them in Iwagakure, w-where there is said to be caves filled with fire-breathing worms the size of horses…"
'She seems so happy.' The blond thought, watching the gentle coloring of her cheeks as she spoke. Hinata really seemed content as she walked, not showing the usual signs of nervousness she displayed when they hung out.
Naruto himself was oddly calm, even though he was still troubled by what Shikamaru and Chouji just revealed to him. Maybe it was because they were essentially alone; night had fallen already and people were at home praying for their loved ones who died so many years ago.
The air was cool but none of them felt cold; it was the perfect temperature. She continued to talk about how the cloak was also a good defense against some corrosive agents, but he only noticed how her lips rose into a small laugh at something she just thought about. His own lips formed a smile and his eyes softened, forgetting why he was so focused on her reasons to throw him a party.
The air around him was filled with an amazing sound that made his smile widen even more. He later found out it was her laughter.
"W-What?" It took Naruto ten seconds to find out that that question was directed at him.
"Hmm?" he asked stupidly, finding her eyes on him, and suddenly realizing how dumb he must look like to her: his head was tilted sideways, eyes resting on her face and a goofy smile all over his. He must have been looking at her like that for five minutes. His smile converted into a grin.
"You look funny." She said through her gentle flush. "Are you even l-listening?"
Naruto smiled guiltily, Hinata laughed again.
"Iruka-sensei always said I was a bad listener." Said the blond. "Maybe it was because I always fell asleep during his lectures."
"Lectures, classes, d-demonstrations…" the girl added. "I always wondered why y-you were so tired all the time. There were times I thought you w-would just fall when you were standing." The girl sometimes thought he might have had a condition.
"Actually…" Naruto chuckled at the memory of him tripping on the way downstairs towards the bathroom; his eyes had been heavy with sleep. "Nevermind."
"I'm just glad you s-started looking better after we graduated."
"Lots changed after we graduated." Mused the blond as he recalled his training to keep the Fox at bay.
"And it's been less t-than a year." Hinata said fondly.
"Yeah… Who would have thought I would become chuunin on my first try, out of hundreds of other shinobi?"
"I w-would." The girl answered sincerely, looking back at him and allowing her cheeks to flush another shade of pink. "Never o-once doubted it." She said the last part really low but still audible enough for Naruto's ears to get it.
"You might be the only one." The blond said, taking his left hand slowly to his face and nursing the already healed bruise from earlier today. "…But thank you." It felt good knowing there was someone cheering up on him when everybody else just wanted to see him fail. He turned his azure eyes to the girl and started to measure her up, deciding whether to bring up the topic that had been circling his mind since he left Chouji's.
"Wanna know what my favorite part of today was?" he asked with a fresh smile.
"The gifts?" The girl guessed, looking down at her left hand were Naruto's birthday presents were wrapped and stuffed into a bag. The blond shook his head.
"Those were cool, I've never had a proper gift before but I liked something even more."
"What was it, then?" Although the night was starting to get pretty chilly, the smile Naruto kept firmly placed in his face warmed her enough to fight the cold away. The blond hesitated one last time, but decided to go for it.
"That you had gone through all this trouble just to make this the greatest day of my life." Naruto spoke as he looked ahead of him. Only his footsteps echoed through the street; they had already entered his neighborhood and Naruto's building blocked the moonlight to reach their faces. The whiskered boy turned to find Hinata rooted on the ground a few meters away from him.
Her pupil-less eyes weren't seeing anything in particular. Her mouth had dropped as she tried to speak but her throat failed her. Naruto backed up and stood in front of her, waiting for her to react.
She finally did.
"I-I-I-I d-d-didn't…" How could he possibly have figured that out? She tried to deny it but if her profuse stuttering didn't rat her out, Naruto's knowing eyes already told her it was futile. Her face turned incredibly hot and her head dropped. "W-Who told y-you?" She asked at last, although the Hyuuga already had a good idea of who might be behind this. Right now Ino was in the list of her least favorite people.
Naruto grinned at her embarrassment, thinking it made her look really cute.
"Does it matter?"
The girl kept looking at the ground for a few seconds before answering.
"I-I'm sorry." Was the only thing Hinata could think of saying right now. Why was she so sorry about? Sorry she couldn't have congratulated him the way she wanted to? Sorry she had spent his whole party worrying if everyone else was having a good time and couldn't spend time with him? Or sorry that she had to rely on Ino to bring him to a party that had been her idea?
The blond got slightly irritated by her answer. He furrowed his eyebrows. "Really? You move so many people and plan such a great party and you're apologizing for it? Hinata!" He lunged forward and placed the best hug he could give with his pained arm on her frame.
The girl inhaled sharply at the blond's sudden motion. His bright, yellow hair tickled her face and blurred her vision. She found the tips of her feet barely brushing the ground and her ankles high in the air. Two things came to her mind in that instant, one, Naruto had grown a couple of inches since they graduated from the Academy, and two, placing his left arm around her waist meant that he was straining his injury more than he should be.
"N-Naruto-kun, your arm…" she said through a dense blush covering her face. Naruto wave her comment off.
"I'm very lucky to have you around, you know?" he whispered, knowing they were close enough for the girl to hear him clearly. His hot breath gave birth to an exquisite chill that ran all through Hinata's body. "No one has cared for me like you have, and I don't say it just because of today, but because you always treat me like I was someone special. That shows how great you are."
'You are more than special to me, Naruto-kun. I've fallen for you and I feel scared that I could love someone so much, and I just don't know when will my feelings stop growing for you because you're just perfect in all your ways.' Hinata scolded herself for not being able to convert those thoughts into words. She just lay mesmerized by his words in his strong embrace.
"- And I don't really understand why you would treat me as you do, but I'm not gonna question it 'cause I'm just happy that you've accepted to be my friend, and I don't think I can ever repay you for everything you have done for me to this day but I swear to Kami I'm gonna try." The blond paused to regain his breath. "So thank you for taking care of me and for making this day infinitively better." He opened his mouth just as another thing popped into his mind. "Oh! And I'm sorry I acted so weird after what happened at the hospital, I just didn't know how-"
Her arms, trapped to her sides, started to push him away. Naruto didn't know what to think of it so he just loosened his grip and let her down, wondering if he had gone too far on his speech and/or actions to make her uncomfortable.
"Hin?" He asked, cocking his head to one side and watching silently as the girl started to rummage inside the bag of gifts. The Hyuuga heiress didn't answer to his call, which made him even more restless to know what was going through her mind.
"I-I.." She stammered, head bowed as she looked at what she had on her hand. Naruto took half a step back to see just what she was looking at. His confusion escalated as he saw a large package wrapped in black and green paper, with a red ribbon on top.
His eyes fell back on her face, bewildered and looking for an answer. Hinata looked at him timidly, as she set the bag with the other gifts down and took the one she had on both hands. She could understand why he was at a loss; the present she had on her hands hadn't been opened by him. In fact he didn't know it existed, because she had been too shy to give it to him in front of everyone. So she waited for them to leave and, without him looking, mixed her package with the rest of the presents, decided to give it to him in private.
"Is that for me?" Naruto asked, attention falling back to the package. Hinata wet her lips, then opened her mouth,
"It b-broke the one g-gift per team rule…" She started, eyes darting nervously from gift to boy. "So I d-decided to g-give it to you later on."
The girl handed it to him without another word and Naruto took it carefully, noticing that it was much lighter than he expected.
"You're kidding." Naruto breathed. "After all you've done today you still-"
"It's m-my decision." Her face was getting darker by the second. "Open it."
Naruto looked at her. She nudged her head at gift. He then nodded. As he started to unwrap it he fought the excitement of getting yet another gift. 'This day just keeps getting better.' He tried not to damage the paper covering the gift but it tore open as soon as he pulled.
"Sorry." He said quickly, looking at the girl who just shook her head with an anxious giggle. As Naruto progressed, Hinata started to bite her lower lip nervously as she watched apprehensively.
"Is that a…" Naruto mumbled to himself as he let the paper fall to the ground. His fingers explored the fabric carefully, enjoying the softness under them.
The jacket was black with two blue stripes falling from the shoulder seams and all through the chest and back. It had the traditional red-swirl pattern on the back every ninja jacket possessed and a cotton hood hanging loosely from behind. The blond raised his eyes to her, perplexed.
"I-I thought you might n-need a new one a-after…" she trailed off, not eager to talk about how Naruto's last jacket, along with his chest, had been ripped through.
"Can I try it on?" The whiskered chuunin asked eagerly, fingers running through the smooth fabric. Despite Hinata's nervousness, she laughed openly at his question.
"I-It's yours, Naruto-kun." She placed a hand in front of her mouth and grinned at his excitement as he hastily tried it on. He had discarded the shoulder sling before she could tell him not to do so and had now slipped into the jacket.
"This is great! I mean…" Naruto twisted his torso and moved his arm as he admired it happily. "It's perfect, Hinata!"
"I'm g-glad you like it." She replied, shoulders loosing up in relief.
"How do I look?" The Uzumaki questioned happily, placing the hood on his head and looking at Hinata expectantly.
She opened her mouth just as a shadow exited Naruto's apartment. It was almost too fast to see but they noticed the motion behind them.
"Did you…?" The raven-haired girl glanced at Naruto worriedly. The boy had turned to face his apartment.
"Don't worry." Naruto called. "It's just Jiraiya. He's gone now."
"What d-did he want?" Hinata turned to him and noticed the joy his eyes had been holding was now gone; just a pensive look on his remained.
"I think I know." He turned around to grab the bag but Hinata beat him to it.
"Here. Y-You shouldn't take this off." She offered him his shoulder sling and Naruto smiled as he accepted it. But instead of placing it on again, he took her hand and led her forward.
"Let's see what that old pervert wanted." Hinata, too stunned to reply, followed him wordlessly, all too aware that his hand was very warm and it fit perfectly on hers.
"He's the third person to sneak into my home." The blond commented as he opened the door and pocketed the keys. Hinata was still speechless as his hand was still holding hers. Much to her disappointment, he finally let go and took the bag from her other hand to place it on the couch.
"Look." Hinata finally reacted, as she noticed a bag on top of the coffee table.
"That's not mine." The blond said, walking towards it with Hinata behind him. There was a yellow post-it clinging to the top of the bag and the blond took it. The girl took her distance and let the blond read it, not wanting to pry.
"I didn't want to interrupt the two of you so as soon as you read this start packing.
Meet me at the East Gate, we're leaving at midnight.
The bag is yours, Happy Birthday.
Naruto's eyes fell on the brand new red backpack lying on his table. It was ten times better than the old one he owned but he still found it hard to feel happy about Jiraiya's gift. He wanted to enjoy his duty-free week testing his new tanto and hanging out with the others, but he knew Jiraiya wouldn't be calling him so fast if it wasn't necessary. He sighed.
"Is s-something wrong, Naruto-kun?" Came Hinata's voice from behind. She had a feeling something was up.
"Well…" he started, turning to face her with apologetic eyes. "I was going to tell you this later but it seems my time's up."
"Y-You're leaving, aren't you?" Hinata asked, eyes casted downwards. It was pretty clear from the bag on the table. The blond nodded solemnly. "F-For how long?"
Naruto sighed a second time before answering, something Hinata found alarming.
"Two… Two years."
Hinata's lilac eyes widened painfully, a cold sensation growing from her belly and spreading through her body.
"Kakashi told us today our team was disbanded for as long as I was away." The shinobi said, turning to analyze the backpack further. "Sakura's gonna train with Tsunade, so she'll be busy enough…"
For as much as she'd like to listen to what he was saying, Hinata's brain failed to register any of his words. Her whole attention was in obliging herself not to cry at the terrible news she was listening to. Two years! How was she supposed to go through her daily life knowing she wouldn't be seeing nor hearing from him for twenty-four months straight? This was so unfair! They had been getting along so well and-
"Hinata?" Naruto's voice finally reached her, making her loose her train of thought. Her shaken eyes traveled to his worried ones.
"I… I just…" She was so shaken she didn't find the energy to stutter. Hinata sat on the couch without noticing. The blond took a wary step closer to her. "Two years is a really long time."
"I know." The blond agreed, sitting next to her and clasping his hands together thoughtfully. "I'm sorry I didn't break this to you sooner. I just didn't want to kill the mood. Please don't hate me." He said the last part half-jokingly, and turned to the girl with a hopeful smile, but Hinata's eyes were shadowed by her hair and she didn't say anything. Naruto started to think that she really was mad at him for keeping it from her, but Hinata suddenly leaned her body towards him and rested her head on his shoulder wordlessly. Naruto didn't know what to say or do, since she wasn't saying anything. The blond sat paralyzed, searching for the appropriate thing to do in this situation.
"I can't hate you, Naruto-kun." She breathed weakly on his neck, eyelids closed firmly. Tears were threatening to fall but she kept them at bay. She was too sad to worry over what he might be thinking right now. "I can't…"
Naruto's heart softened and, not even noticing the blush that crept to his face, placed a firm arm around her frame. Hinata scooped closer to him until she found a comfortable position in between his arm and shoulder and there she stood quietly, placing a hand on top of his chest. A lone tear ran down her face but the blond held her even more strongly, and there she found the support to fight the impending sorrow away. She undoubtedly was going to cry over him, but not right now. Right now she was going to enjoy whatever time was left.
The Uzumaki raised his head to the ceiling and wondered what would happen if he refused to meet Jiraiya today and just stay with her like that. Then he dismissed the idea, knowing the sennin would come looking for him and he would have to go whether he liked it or not. He breathed deeply, immersing his senses on the sweet aroma of the girl, and closed his eyes. 'There's still time.' He told himself.
If an outsider saw them, he might think they had fallen asleep, but he would be wrong. Even though their eyes were closed they were very much awake; they were just too engrossed in the moment to notice forty minutes pass.
Naruto was the first one to open his eyes. They fell on the clock placed on his wall. It was 11:42.
"Shoot!" Naruto cursed under his breath, snapping Hinata out of her trance and startling her enough to make her get away from him.
"W-What?" she asked confusedly, Naruto's arm still around her.
"I'm supposed to meet him in less than twenty minutes." The blond said apologetically.
"Oh…" Hinata was disappointed that their moment had ended so soon but at the same time she felt guilty that Naruto was going to be late because of her. "I better g-go, then."
As much as he would like to stay with her he still needed to pack. "I'll walk you out." They untangled themselves and directed for the door.
"The others are gonna hate my guts for leaving without saying goodbye." Naruto chuckled longingly.
"T-They won't hate you."
"They won't love me either."
Naruto opened the door for her and she stood looking at him, trying to form a smile. "P-Please, be careful."
"He might be a pervert but he's still a sennin. I couldn't be safer." The blond assured, smiling back at her. Hinata nodded and, sighing shakily, tossed herself at his chest, wrapping her own arms around his waist.
"I-I'm going to miss you." She confessed breathlessly. Naruto seized her back and returned the hug.
"Me too." The whiskered chuunin said; a content smile on his face. "But I'll be back before you know it, right?"
Hinata nodded forcefully against his chest, but wouldn't let go.
"Hey." The blond called, placing his hands on her shoulders and making her back away. With watery eyes, the girl raised her face inquiringly. Naruto inched closer to her and pecked her lightly on the cheek.
"You owed me that from the hospital." The blond said sheepishly. His blush was minimum compared to the one Hinata was exposing. "Now we're even."
She gaped at Naruto with eyes the size of the moon, a hand gently placing itself on her cheek.
"C'ya around, Hin." The blond said endearingly. "Thanks for everything."
Hinata didn't register as the door closed on her. It took her two full minutes to realize that she was already outside Naruto's apartment.
"Good grief, Hinata-sama! What happened to you?" Neji hurried to her as soon as she went through the entrance door. "I thought you would arrive an hour ago! I was just on my way to go looking for you!"
By now the full effect of Naruto's goodbye kiss had receded and the hard truth had fallen on her like a brick.
"Neji-niisan…" she started, voice cracking as she spoke. The long haired Hyuuga raised a concerned eyebrow and walked closer to her.
"What's the matter?" The male Hyuuga asked with alarm. He was taken aback when the heiress wrapped her arms around his neck and started to cry her eyes out on him. He had never heard his cousin cry like this and, no matter how much he urged her to tell him what had happened, she couldn't articulate one word.
Naruto was gone and she wouldn't see him again for a long, long time.
"What took you so long?" Jiraiya demanded angrily. "Did that girl keep you busy?"
The thirteen year old boy gasped for breath. "Shut up." Naruto breathed heavily, Jiraiya's gift hanging from his shoulders.
"So rude." The white haired man said reprovingly. "I should teach you some manners first. Maybe you will finally learn to respect your elders."
"I doubt it." The whiskered chuunin said, finally recovering his breath and standing up straight.
"Let's go, then." He said, walking through the open gate that led to the forest. "Did you have fun today?"
"I did, until I read your letter." The blond answered. "You ruined a perfectly good day."
"You'll get over it." The sennin said nonchalantly. "How's the arm?"
"Healing. It won't be long until I can fight again."
"Why so soon?" Naruto inquired, walking to catch up with him.
"A spy was supposed to arrive tomorrow morning to keep an eye on you. We needed to make our move before that."
"Huh… Thanks for the gift, by the way."
"Don't mention it." Jiraiya said amiably, placing a hand on Naruto's head. "Say, do you have some leftover cake with you?"
The golden-haired ninja rolled his eyes as he took out what was left of his birthday cake. Jiraiya grinned at him as he ate it.
"Nice jacket." The older man said through a mouthful of chocolate.
"Thanks." Naruto said, feeling a smile spread across his face.
Thanks to everyone that has supported this story along the way. It was a real blast to write!
I will be uploading the continuation under another story, so please stay alert, 'cause I don't know when that'll be.
Once everyone has grown, I'll start with an arc of my own invention, so don't expect the story to follow too closely the actual manga/anime.
Take care, all of you, and don't forget to review!