Disclaimer:

I do not own Naruto, Kishimoto does. And no matter how much I wish otherwise, none of the characters in Naruto belong to me. (I will steal them someday…) Chapter 1; The Fox's Den

A girl wandered along the banks of a meandering river, lost in thought. Her midnight-dark hair cascaded in an ink-hued waterfall down her back to brush the patched elbows of her tan and pink jacket as she walked, silver eyes flickering with lavender as she focused on the ground without really seeing it. She had smooth, pale skin, and a look of innocence about her, as of something untouched, or unspoiled. The girl looked like she was about eighteen or nineteen years old, of medium height and slim build, her long black-clothed legs moving steadily to the rhythm of the tap-tap of her sandaled feet. Her body swayed adeptly, adjusting her balance as she moved over the uneven ground. The girl was Hyuuga Hinata of the main branch of the Hyuuga clan, of Konohagakure. She raised a hand to her throat, where her hitai-ate was tied loosely, the metal plate resting on her collarbone. Engraved with the swirling symbol of the Hidden Leaf Village, it calmly reflected the rays of the sun, but somehow that symbol seemed to mean more than what it had before. It had been a little over four years since Naruto's disappearance, and things had changed. With gentle fingers, Hinata touched the bruise that was gradually deepening to purple on her neck. One misplaced blow could mean so much.

Sitting high in an old dead oak tree, further upstream, another ninja was observing the village.

"It's been too long…" the boy was in his late teens, his tenor-toned voice clear, despite the obvious roughness of everything else about him. His tough black pants (made from the same material as Hinata's) were torn and patched, loose fitting and sun-bleached. His plain white tee shirt was also worn, though newer than the pants. Contrasting with the light fabric of his shirt, the boy's skin was a dark tan, his muscles lean and toned from years of training. His bright blue eyes scanned the surrounding trees, and the six whisker-like marks on his cheeks stood out, dark and prominent as he sensed something. Uzumaki Naruto turned toward the river, nose twitching. His once short, bright blonde, spiky hair was longer now, bleached a lighter by countless days in the sun, and now Naruto brushed his longish hair out of his eyes.

"What could that be?" he muttered to himself. Scars and calluses covered his hands and wrists, baring silent testimony to numerous missions and fights. Naruto grabbed his black and orange coat as he stood, searching for the source of that oddly familiar chakra. With a shrug, he turned back toward the village. Four years… too long.

Hinata was still walking, head down. Suddenly, a very familiar chakra signature flared at the edge of her senses. Surprised, the silver-eyed girl looked up, searching for the source of it. This was a mistake. As she looked up, distracted, Hinata's foot landed on a piece of wood, wet and mossy, that protruded from the semi-dry mud of the riverbank. Suddenly robbed of the traction it needed to support her weight, her foot slipped. Hinata, caught off-guard by her abrupt loss of balance, swayed, arms pin-wheeling as she fell toward the river. Her world became a swirl of icy water, pulling her under and away the warmth and the air. The river, delighted with its new plaything, tossed her dangerously close to boulders and deadwood trunks, sometimes letting her hit them. Panic rose up in Hinata's chest as the swift water threw her slight frame downstream. As soon as she got a decent lungful of air, she gasped, lunging for the nearest bank.

Naruto whirled, his heart skipping a beat or two. The breeze had brought him the scent of a woman. The faintly flowery smell was ripe with terror. Without a second thought, the blond ninja bolted for the river, from whence the scent had come. Leaping from tree to ground in a blur of speed, he raced down the river's bank, scanning the swift-moving waters for the woman. There! Naruto spotted a battered-looking girl trying desperately to swim for the bank, but she wasn't making any headway. She was obviously well trained, using the river's current to push her closer to the bank, but the water was working against her. Every time she came close to the bank, she would be caught in an eddying swirl or an under-current, pulling her light body away again. Dropping his coat, Naruto dived into the river, focusing chakra on the soles of his feet to gain traction on the riverbed. He grabbed for the woman's hand, and caught it, digging his heels into the rocky earth beneath the rushing water. The river wasn't very deep, but that was what made it so dangerous.

Hinata felt someone's hand close on hers, and pull hard, stopping her progress downstream. She couldn't see who it was. With a great effort, she forced her free arm against the current, latching onto her rescuer's hand.

"Don't let go!" Naruto heard the woman's yell, and the note of desperation in it. There was definitely something familiar about her, but he couldn't see her very clearly through the foam and silt that coated the river's torrential surface. He didn't reply, but redoubled his efforts, eventually managing to get both of them to the riverbank. He laid the woman (who now looked unconscious) out on the dry earth, away from the water, and got his first good look at her. Naruto gawked, disbelieving. The woman before him was Hyuuga Hinata. For a moment, he just sat there, staring. But when she began to cough, spitting up mouthfuls of water and gagging roughly, he touched her shoulder hesitantly.

"Are you ok, Hinata-chan?" Hinata gagged on the last of the dirty river water and propped herself up on one elbow, gasping as she struggled to breathe. She knew her rescuer was male, and that he knew her name. That was the extent of her knowledge.

"Are you ok?" she heard the man's voice above her again, and after she could breathe normally, she glanced up, intending to thank him. Her silver gaze met his blue one, and she froze. The recognition was instantaneous. Uzumaki Naruto was kneeling beside her, concern and relief mixed in his face. She didn't reply. She couldn't reply, she could barely even breathe.

Naruto is back. He's right here. He just saved my life… the thoughts wouldn't penetrate; her mind was numb with shock. But her heart raced, beating a painful tattoo against her ribs as she looked up into his blue-eyed face, not moving.

"Hinata-chan, are you alright?" his voice jolted her mind into action as he repeated his question a third time.

"Ye-ye-yes." She managed to whisper, still staring into his eyes. With a blush, she ducked her head, sitting up. "Yes… I'm o-ok." Naruto watched her, eyeing the gashes and bruises that covered her arms and legs, her coat in tatters, studded with glimpses of her much less-torn tee shirt beneath. Hinata seemed to notice the condition of her coat at the same time, and took it off, shivering as the wet fabric brushed her numerous cuts and scrapes. Naruto felt suddenly protective, and stood to retrieve his own jacket, which was still dry.

"Here." He offered his coat, smiling, "You're soaked through, and you must be cold." Hinata's face heated rapidly as a blush darkened her complexion from white to a pretty shade of dark pink.

"N-n-no! I-I-I couldn't!" the ebony-haired girl stammered, staring wide-eyed at the coat. The young man's blue eyes twinkled, his scarred hand still offering the jacket, as much as to say 'go ahead. Take it.' When she didn't move, he wrapped the jacket around her shoulders, making sure it was securely in place before leaning away again. Hinata looked down at the coat resting on her shoulders, taking in its color, the Uzumaki emblem on its sleeves, and the scent that saturated the fabric. Naruto's scent.

"I can't t-take your coat!" she protested, looking up at the blonde as her blush faded minimally, "You're wet too!"

"Yes, I am." He agreed as he stood, helping her to her feet, "But I'm not the one that fell in the river." Hinata's blush darkened so drastically at this comment that she could feel the heat radiating in waves from her cheeks. Naruto seemed to notice her blush for the first time, and he put a hand to her forehead, remembering the last time she had turned this shade of scarlet and fainted right in front of him. Now he knew better than to label it a fever, but there wasn't much else he could do without horribly embarrassing the girl.

"Your temperature is running high, too. No excuses, I'm carrying you home." And with that, the blond turned around, picking up the Hyuuga woman piggyback style. Hinata's body stiffened for a moment, then she relaxed, hands instinctively reaching up to hold his shoulders. "Comfortable?" Naruto didn't wait for an answer as he bounded off through the trees, trying not to think about it as Hinata's soft curves pressed against his back.

Darn you Ero-sennin.

Hinata's blush only darkened at her close contact with Naruto, but she didn't dare protest. The truth was, she had been purposefully getting away from her home, trying to escape the near-panic that had set in at the news that there was going to be an assassination attempt on the heir to the main branch. They had crossed the wall now, and she could see the Hyuuga complex. In a moment of weakness, she protested.

"N-Naruto-kun, I-" but she stopped herself, unsure of how to continue. How the heck was she supposed to tell Naruto that Hiashi might very well kill him on sight? She didn't really want this time with him to end either. But Naruto had heard. He stopped, coming to rest on one of the many hot metal roofs that made up the "high road" of Konoha. Setting her down gently, he turned to face her, noting that she was no longer blushing.

"Did you say something, Hinata-chan?" the fact was, he didn't really want to waltz into the Hyuuga complex, carrying the eldest daughter of the head of the clan. He had a nasty feeling that if he did he wouldn't live to see the sunset.

"I-I'm fine. Naruto-kun. Really, I'm ok." She bowed her head slightly, dark hair falling to mask her slight blush. Suddenly, she looked up, eyes closed but smiling brightly. "And you're back, Naruto-kun… I'm so happy."

Naruto studied her closely, curiosity in his gaze. She was telling the truth, he could see that much, but her posture and tone told a deeper story. Hinata's feet were tucked together nervously, her knees were locked and her hands clasped tightly behind her back. Yet her shoulders and back were relaxed, and she was leaning forward hopefully, that innocent happy smile on her face and a curious tilt to her head. He smiled inwardly.

"Yeah." It seemed her sudden cheerfulness was rubbing off on him. With a smile, he grabbed her hand, towing her toward his old apartment. "We should at least dry off though, come on." Hinata allowed herself to be pulled across the rooftops, her eyes slightly unfocused as she leapt from roof to roof. They stopped in front of the locked door of Naruto's old apartment, and the blond boy pulled out his key.

I hope it's still good for it. It wasn't. The lock had been changed, and Naruto paused. Where else could he go? After a moment of thought, the blonde remembered the second place—the little shack that he had stayed in during his brief visit five years ago. Grabbing Hinata's hand again, Naruto took off. Soon, they had arrived at a tiny house outside the village proper, hugging the wall under the Hokages' monument. With a grin, Naruto touched the chakra-lock he had installed on the door and heard the tell-tale click.

The door swung easily inward, and Naruto gestured for his still-dazed female companion to proceed inside. The black-haired girl smiled slightly and went in. Following her, Naruto glanced about, wondering briefly why his little place was so clean. All his possessions were there, but everything was neat and tidy, almost spotless. Hinata stood in the middle of the main room, looking about somewhat bemusedly. Taking advantage of her distraction, the blonde dug through his closet.

"Here." Naruto tossed a towel to the dark-haired girl. "Take off your clothes and dry off." Hinata caught the towel automatically, and gazed at it, blinking. What the blue-eyed young man had said finally penetrated, and she flushed bright scarlet. Looking wildly about the room, eyes wide, Hinata managed to stutter out a surprised,

"N-N-Naruto-kun!" The room was small, and offered no privacy. He immediately regretted his phrasing and tried to correct himself.

"You can use my bedroom." He pointed, and watched as the silver-eyed young woman dived for the offered sanctuary and slammed the door closed behind her. Naruto wanted to kick himself for saying it that way, but with a faint dismissive snort shrugged it off.

Hinata leaned against the closed door, her breath coming in unnecessary gasps as her heart rate gradually slowed and the dark red color faded from her cheeks.

Of course… Naruto would never actually ask me to… she shook her head violently, and slowly did as she had been told. Stripping down to her underwear, she exchanged her wet clothes for some of Naruto's old garments as he passed them to her through the laundry-chute. She found that, as she had remained petite, the clothes Naruto had worn when they were fifteen fit her reasonably well, though still little of baggy.

When Hinata emerged from the bedroom, her bundle of wet clothes in one hand, Naruto was already dressed. A faint blush colored her cheeks and she stared steadily at the floor.

"Th-thank you, Naruto-kun." The blond smiled, but didn't say anything. Instead, he took her wet clothes to hang them up outside the window to dry.

Ero-sennin… The blue-eyed man suppressed embarrassment as he rounded the corner of the tiny house, cursing himself inwardly as he stared down at the clothes in his hand. I can't believe I even thought of… The lecherous old man must have rubbed off on me more than I thought. Naruto finished hanging up Hinata's clothes, noting with a faint blush that her bra was among the discarded garments. When he returned to the living room, the dark-haired woman was standing by the couch, fidgeting with her hair. He paused for a moment at the door, indecisive, then smiled charmingly as he entered.

"So, are you hungry?" Hinata glanced up, startled out of her own thoughts by the blonde's cheerful voice. She remembered suddenly that she hadn't eaten since the day before, and nodded slightly, a faint, grateful smile playing about her lips, her eyes downcast. With a grin, Naruto pushed her gently down onto the couch, turning toward the kitchen.

"You just sit here and relax, I'll make some lunch." The black-haired young woman blinked, wordlessly surprised. Naruto's bright blue eyes missed nothing and he grinned again. "Didn't know I could cook, did you?" For the first time, a genuine smile broke across Hinata's face, and she shook her head truthfully. The blonde noticed with a start how sad and frightened she had looked before. In contrast she was now- relaxed.

Naruto quickly busied himself cooking, trying to avoid staring at the woman, who was gazing steadily out the window, a faint smile on her lips. Though he probably wouldn't admit it aloud, she did look really cute in his old clothes. Though he wouldn't mind if that shirt fit a little better…

Dangit Ero-sennin you perv! You rubbed off on me! It was the second time in as many minutes the thought had gone through his head, and it was still true. Shaking his head and silently cursing himself, Naruto busied himself again, hoping Hinata didn't notice the slight embarrassed widening of his already bold whisker-marks.

Hinata's thoughts wandered as she watched Naruto from the corner of her eye. He would pause every now and then, look at her for a moment, then shake his head and go back to work.

Oh, Naruto-kun… you've changed so much. But have you noticed? Have I changed too? She tilted her head slightly, allowing her hair to fall forward and mask her face once more. Am I stronger? Just then, Naruto set a large plate on the little table in front of Hinata, smiling as he picked up a piece of fish with a pair of chopsticks. She looked up, brushing her hair back from her face as she glanced up at him.

"C'mon, open up. I need an opinion from someone sober." Hinata obediently took the fish, and her eyes widened in surprise, as much as to say 'wow, this is actually good.' The man laughed, eyes sparkling as he pushed the chopsticks into her hand, pulling his own pair from a pocket.

You don't train for so long by yourself without learning to cook… He watched the dark-haired woman eat slowly, trying to stop his eyes from gravitating toward her chest. Well, not completely alone… Dang you, Ero-sennin! She had "grown", as Ero-sennin would put it, since the last time he had seen her. Naruto fought off a blush as he forced his thoughts away from that particular subject. He hoped fervently that Hinata didn't notice.

Even eating slower than usual, Naruto still managed to polish off two thirds of the meal as they both finished. Hinata smiled gratefully but shook her head when he asked if she was still hungry. As the blonde turned to put the dirtied dishes in the sink, he threw a question over his shoulder.

"I've been gone quite a while. How've things been here?" She followed his movements with her eyes as she answered.

"Quiet." After a moment, apparently seeing she wasn't volunteering any details, Naruto spoke again.

"What about your training? You're a chunin now, right?" Hinata blushed as he turned to face her, and looked away.

"Actually… I'm a jounin now." The blue-eyed man grinned, baring his sharp canines happily.

"Really? That's awesome! I bet Neji can't push you around any more!" Her blush darkened slightly, but her expression looked somewhat pained, and she poked her fingers together distractedly. Naruto tried to keep the suspicion and anger out of his voice, but in his mind, he was already strangling the silver-eyed Hyuuga boy.

"He doesn't push you around any more… does he?" Hinata ducked her head a little closing her eyes.

"N-no." The man stepped away from the sink, hurt and worry mixing with muted anger in his bright blue eyes.

"That bruise on your neck. That isn't from the river." The girl looked up, silver eyes flashing lavender with worry.

"No… but it was my fault!" She dropped his gaze again, embarrassed by her outburst. Naruto's heart melted, his anger fading. He moved a little closer, taking her hands in his as he spoke softly.

"How could anyone so beautiful be at fault?" Feeling foolish, the blonde paused. Then, on impulse, he bent down, ducking his head to kiss her swiftly on the lips before straightening again. He braced himself for a slap or a scream, an offended reprimand, maybe… but none came.

Hinata stood for a moment, frozen with her hands still in Naruto's warm hold.

What… what was that? But her heart pounded in her temples, fluttering excitedly with the answer. Even while her heart was excited, and her spirit was numb, her mind was a turmoil of emotions. Never in her wildest dreams had she ever even thought to hope for something like this- from Naruto, of all people! Confused beyond coherent thought, she looked up into his eyes. What she saw there confused her even more. A mix of emotions; tenderness, gratitude, admiration, gentle concern… even a flicker of nervousness. Her knees went weak, trembling under the pressure of keeping her off the ground. A very familiar fuzziness blurred the edges of her consciousness, and Hinata knew she was about to faint. But she surprised herself by forcing it back, staring into Naruto's eyes, unblinking. His intense blue eyes looked deep into hers, and she trembled. Without a word, she tore away from him, bolting out the window and over the roofs, black hair streaming behind her in a midnight-dark river.

Naruto stared after her, his fingers tingling slightly where her cool hands had rested for that brief moment. For a minute, he just stood still, watching her quickly vanishing form, inwardly cursing himself. He knew now that his absence had magnified his feelings for the young Hyuuga woman… but had he advanced too fast? Had he pushed her away? After several minutes of mentally beating himself, Naruto followed her. Slowly wending his way through the streets, he trailed her distinct scent toward the river's bank.

Hinata was seated on a fallen tree by the river's bank, her head in her hands.

Why did I run? What am I scared of? With a sigh, she closed her eyes tilting her head a little to look at the sparkling water as she opened her pale silver orbs again.

My heart's still pounding… Something stirred at the edge of her senses, but she pushed it aside, lifting her chin from her hands to look at the clear blue sky.