Disclaimer:

I do not own Naruto, Hinata, Neji, Ino, or any of the others. *is trying to get the Doberman off of her arm* My attempt to steal them didn't work out as planned. So, it's back to square one. *puts steak on black eye* Misashi Kishimoto gets all the credit for his characters. Ayame, Kisume and Luna belong to me though. You can't steal them.

Chapter 9; A New Mission

Naruto stopped for a moment, scanning the faces on the street below one more time. The shadow of the Hokage's tower inched across the rooftops away from the hills as the sun gradually rose toward its zenith. The sunrise was but ten minutes gone, and already the street was busy with the venders and their goods. The blonde eventually relaxed and sighed unhappily. There was still no sign of the indigo hair and lavender eyes that he so longed to see again. He hadn't seen her in almost four days now, and he was worried. But now there was a mission to attend to, and he didn't have any more time to spend on looking for her. Was she avoiding him? Or maybe he had scared her off? Neji seemed to know something, but he wasn't telling. With a shake of his spiky blonde head, Naruto continued across the roofs, entering the enormous shadow and approaching the base of the Hokage's tower swiftly. Today he would set off for Sunagakure. To see Gaara again would be nice. With that cheering thought, the blonde launched himself into the air, using his formidable chakra to latch onto the tower's smooth side, then race up it with ease. There was a time when he had struggled with even this simple task.

He ran straight up until he found the window that he was searching for. The one that opened into the waiting room adjacent to the Hokage's office. Naruto slipped quietly over the sill, and noted three pairs of alert eyes found his face as he straightened. Sakura was by the door, and after a glance at him, she turned to continue peering agitatedly down the hall. Shikamaru wasn't far from where she stood, leaning against the wall and looking half asleep- but his dark eyes were never still under his half-closed eyelids. Ino was the closest, and she grinned at him, looking far too awake to have woken up recently.

"Hey Naruto!" Ino was the only one to greet him audibly. He let a smile show in his eyes, and he nodded slightly.

"Good morning," he said cheerily. The Yamanaka woman looked pleased that she'd found someone else willing to actually try to be cheerful in the morning. After the greeting, the room was silent again. Naruto took a seat on the floor, right beside the window, carefully watching both entrances. Over the next half hour or so, the rest of the team filtered into the waiting room, some more awake than others. Slowly they came; Choji, munching a fresh apple for breakfast, Lee, sparkling with his signature "youthful" energy, Tenten, silent as usual, and a younger girl by the name of Ayame, with brilliant red hair. Shino and Konohamaru entered together, talking quietly about the benefits of a swarm, both of them pausing to greet Naruto. Soon they were all present, with the sole exception of Hinata. Naruto frowned faintly, glancing toward the door as Sakura left to alert Tsunade. Neji and a tall, athletically built Hyuuga female had been the last to arrive, and stood close together, looking alert and unhappy.

The second door slid open, and Tsunade gestured at the group to follow her into her office. The blonde woman took up her seat behind her desk and folded her hands pensively as the young shinobi filed silently into their leader's office.

"You are all aware of a disturbance on our northern border," Tsunade began, not waiting for questions. There were nods of consent around the group. "You will all be part of a mission, gathering information on that disturbance. Your first goal will be to reach Suna-" movement by the main door interrupted Tsunade. All eyes found the figure that pushed the door aside and stepped in. Long, dark hair and lavender eyes made at least three of them stiffen. Hyuuga Hinata bowed slightly to Tsunade, her expression slightly pained.

"I apologize, Hokage-sama, for my lateness," she murmured softly. Neji approached her swiftly, followed by the other Hyuuga. Neither of them looked pleased.

So something is going on… Naruto watched, confused as Neji touched her arm, whispering something. Then Hinata shook her head, pulling away, then joining her team. What was happening that he didn't know about? Tsunade waited for the fuss to die down, then continued to explain their mission.

"You will set out for Sunagakure in an hour's time. The Kazekage has information for you." Tsunade's eyes hardened slightly as her gaze traveled from face to face. "Once you have that information, you will split into the teams that I will assign you now, and travel secretly into Rock Country. This is a recon mission, and nothing more. Don't get yourselves caught." A grim mood settled across the group. They knew what capture meant. And excuse for an all-out war. This was a deadly serious mission, far more than was the custom.

"Naruto, Ayame and Shino; #4. Lee, Kisume and Sakura; #3." And so the list went. One healer, one fighter, and one tracker per team. Four teams. Team #1 was made up of Shikamaru, Kiba, Tenten and Neji, and they would lead the teams until they split. Naruto was surprised to learn that Shikamaru had learned healing arts on the side during his absence. Hinata was on team #2, with Choji and Konohamaru. Naruto longed to speak with her, but he didn't have time as Tsunade dismissed them and they all shot off to get their supplies. In half an hour's time, they were gathered in front of the northern gate and ready to leave.

With a feeling of urgency in the air, they left early and traveled with all speed. The thirteen shinobi stayed off the main path, and moved as quickly as stamina would allow. After two day's travel, they would arrive at Sunagakure if they had no delays. Hinata kept up with relative ease, but knew that there was little chance that she would be able to reach the Sand Village without some kind of assistance. Already, her half-healed injuries were protesting, and they had only been going for five minutes! The pain in her heart was more than just physical as well; the glances that Naruto was sending her way let her know that he was worried about her. But she couldn't let him know! Not if it would make him need to protect her. It would only make things harder. Hinata saw him make his way toward her, and blushed furiously, looking away again. How could she hide it from him? She had become adept at hiding physical pain from prying eyes, but he was sure to be able to read her.

"Hinata?" his voice made her heart skip a beat and ache fiercely. But the raven-haired female couldn't bring herself to answer. Concentrating on moving through the trees, Hinata stared at her feet.

"Hinata? Are you alright? I haven't seen you recently…." His tone was concerned, and Hinata looked up at him, meeting his bright azure gaze falteringly.

"N-Naruto-kun…" she murmured, and felt her cheeks heat up again. Her blushing and stammering were back to their old strength. This was what she got for trying to hide things. "I'm f-fine. I j-just had t-to run e-errands… I'm s-sorry th-that I couldn't s-see y-you."

Naruto watched her, his feelings of concern growing. Errands? For four whole days? He could tell that she wasn't telling the whole story, but why would she hide something without a good reason? Deciding to give her the benefit of the doubt, Naruto asked about her welfare, her family, and other things that he had been curious about. Her answers were halting, embarrassed, and sometimes non-existent.

"G-gomen nasai, N-Naruto-k-kun. I g-guess I'm a l-little d-d-distracted," her lavender eyes were full of something that looked like pain now. Was something stopping her from telling him what was going on?

"Hinata… if there's something that you need to tell me-" he saw shock and fear in her expression before she looked away from him. They were at the back of the group now, and no one nearby seemed to be interested in their conversation, all readily engaged in their own time-consuming talks. Was she afraid of someone hearing her?

"N-no, Naruto-kun. Th-there's n-nothing that you need to kn-know r-right now." Her tone was flat, and she wasn't even looking at him. Naruto was sure now that she was lying to him. But why? Perturbed and confused, Naruto let the subject drop, and the two of them traveled in silence.

Hinata inwardly cursed herself. She was a horrible liar, if she was nothing else. He knew, and there was nothing that she could do about it. The former heir to the Hyuuga clan felt like a failure, ashamed of herself and her abilities as a ninja. How could she manage to protect those that she cared for, if she couldn't even leave them out of problems that weren't theirs? Now Naruto would know that she had lied to him, and he would never trust her again. Tears stung her eyes, but Hinata managed to push them back down, not trusting herself to shed them now. Pushing herself to go faster, the lavender-eyed woman caught up with the rest of her assigned team and traveled silently with them, leaving a bewildered Naruto behind.

The blonde in question could only watch as Hinata moved away from him. This exchange had cemented his suspicions and brought him to the conclusion that he had acted too rashly on his first day back. Internally, he cursed himself, and the demon inside him reveled in the pool of self-hate collecting in his belly. The icy emotion solidified Naruto's resolve, never to make the first move again. He was positive that if he hadn't kissed her- just that kiss… he had ruined everything. He had pushed away the only chance he had ever had to be loved. Wallowing in his self-hate, Naruto was silent for the rest of the day.

It was sundown of their first day of travel when the group came to a halt. They were deep in the forest now, and had parted with the path early that afternoon. Neji took charge, delegating groups to cook, gather wood for a small fire, fetch water, and find well-hidden places to sleep. He joined the party looking for water, along with his cousin. Sakura approached Naruto as they both moved off to find sleeping spots.

"Naruto, are you ok? You've been awfully quiet today," the pink-haired medic was confused by her old teammate's response. He nodded a little, his expression distant. This wasn't the blonde, hyperactive ninja that she knew. Concerned, she stopped him with a touch on his arm. He turned to look at her, his blue eyes faintly surprised.

"Naruto, I know you. When you're like this, either someone just died or you gave up," Sakura tried to make her tone light, but it didn't work. The worry still came through loud and clear. Naruto stared at her as though she'd just hit him with something heavy and blunt. She'd hit the nail on the head, and Sakura regretted it deeply.

"It's not you're problem," the blonde muttered, looking faintly disappointed. Sakura shook her head.

"You're my friend, Naruto. Is it Hinata? Did something happen?" That dumbstruck stare again. Inwardly, Sakura wished that her guesses weren't quite so accurate.

"She's hiding something. I don't know… I think it's my fault," Naruto suddenly confessed, his blue eyes pleading. Sakura could only assume that she was the first one to inquire. She'd seen the same thing in her patients. With a sigh, she pulled Naruto along behind her. They would talk about it as they worked.

"Tell me, Naruto. I'm listening."

PS

Sorry for the wait, and the short chapter. I wasn't really sure what to do here, and the transition was bothering me. Yes, there are hints of Narusaku here, but trust me, they'll come to nothing. Don't even think about me changing my mind now. Naruhina all the way, baby! R&R, please and thank you!