MERRY CHRISTMAS AND HAPPY HOLIDAYS! CONSIDER THIS CHAPTER (AND THE MUCH NEEDED TOUCH OF NARUXHINA) MY GIFT TO ALL OF YOU FAITHFUL READERS WHO'VE FOLLOWED MY STORIES THESE PAST FEW YEARS! READ AND REVIEW! JA NE!

Team + Stranger= Trouble

"EH?!" Naruto's disbelieving shout and Hinata's startled gasp of surprise, both echoed loudly throughout the classroom. And of course, everyone stared, which certainly didn't help the matter any. Confused as to why Naruto had just hollered at the top of his lungs, Iruka just had to ask:

"What's wrong?"

"I..." Naruto ground his teeth together silently for about five more seconds. "Iruka-sensei...could I be on another team?"

"Nope." The Special Jonin replied cheerily taking due note of Naruto's discomfort in the situation. "I think this team suits you just fine." After a few tense moments, Iruka coughed into his fist, as if nothing had ever happened.

"Well, then if you'll all just wait here, your sensei will be in shortly."

"This...is... bullshit!" Naruto, apparently VERY discontent with this, snorted, folded his arms, and leaned back in his seat, until he was gazing up at the ceiling. Everyone else fell away into the white noise of chatter that began once Iruka left. His day had just worsened considerably, and to anyone else, it looked as if nothing could drag the jinchuuriki from his foul mood.

And yet one individual dared to try.

"Ano...Naruto-kun?"

"What?" He grumbled, trying to keep his gaze averted to the ceiling, but his eyes strayed toward Hinata as he said it. His friend of three years just had that way about her, and truly, he didn't want to upset her, especially when he had the feeling that it was because of his recent spazzing out session.

"Is..." Unable to meet his gaze for more than those five meager seconds, Hinata began to tent her fingers again, and Naruto blew a tuft of hair away from his nose in silent annoyance until she found her voice once more, only for his eyes to widen moments later. "Is it really that bad, being on the same team as me?"

"Eh?"

"Is-

"I heard," He growled quietly, and suddenly, Naruto was upright again, hand raised for silence about whatever she had been about to say prior to his interruption, "you the first time." Now, he glared at her, and for a moment, just a moment, Hinata stared into those matchless cerulean orbs and lost herself all over again.

"Don't you dare say that it's your fault."

"What?" Hinata found herself mumbling, only to wince as the blond angrily slapped a palm down upon the desk, eliciting a sharp popping sound as the wood splintered beneath his fingers. Everyone paused, looked up, and caught every last word of what the youth said next.

"Didn't you hear me before?! I said it's not your fault, Hinata!"

By now, a dozen eyes were fixated upon their little scene.

Tsking, Naruto grabbed his best friend by the wrist, and with a warning glare that clearly said 'follow and die' unceremoniously dragged her outside, further making a scene, much to his charign, as the door to the classroom slammed shut behind them.

"Na-Naruto-kun!" Hinata protested, wincing once more at his iron clad grip, her face turning an impossibly bright pink as they passed by several chunin, and even a few jonin, on the way to their destination. "M-My wrist!"

Finally, Naruto did let her go, but only after they had arrived on the roof and left everyone else behind. And even then, he made sure to walk the entire way across, before finally exhaling sharply, and whirling back around to face her, with a decent distance between them.

When he spoke, he was suddenly, unusually, serious.

"Hinata...why do you keep doubting yourself?"

Taken aback, Hinata could only stare, and when his gaze once again proved to intense to endure, she could only hang her head and fidget silently, hoping that he didn't think any less of her for it.

Naruto remained silent for a moment longer.

"Is it because of your family?"

"I-Iie!" She cried suddenly, surprising him with her forcefulness. "It...It doesn't have anything to do wit them!" Naruto waited for about ten seconds, and when no reply was forthcoming, he exhaled again, but softer this time.

"Hinata...we're friends, aren't we?"

At that moment, Hinata Hyuuga nearly burst into tears. Friends. Did he have any idea how much it hurt her whenever he said that terrible word? Was he really that oblivious to her feelings? Would she ever be able to tell him how she felt? No, she'd rather die than ruin their friendship, than lose him forever. But...

"You can tell me anything, you know that, right?" Naruto-kun was being honest, he was being genuine, he was being...her friend. And it only hurt her all the more, for though he was always honest with her, she could only lie to him.

A slightly crestfallen look replaced the smile, and Hinata choked back a sob as she realized she'd hurt him, she'd hurt her Naruto-kun once again. Friends weren't supposed to hurt one another, but she hurt him so often, that she wasn't sure if she really was his friend.

"Look....You wanna know why I'm pissed, right?"

"...."

"It's the setup of our team. And quite frankly, I don't like it." Naruto explained, sitting down on a nearby bench, and patting the spot beside him, which Hinata took, albeit nervously, careful not to let him brush up against her. "You and Kiba are trackers, but think, what am I good at?"

"Um...taijutsu?" Hinata spluttered nervously, trying to ignore their close proximity. She didn't want to say that she knew this because she'd been watching him practice almost every night, so this was the best that her misery addled, muddle mind, could come up with at the moment.

Thankfully, Naruto didn't seem to pick up on her little white lie.

"Right." Naruto nodded sharply, as if he'd just had an epiphany. "You and Kiba are better suited for tracking. Me? I can't even smell my own two feet. See?" He kicked up a leg and wiggled his toes for emphasis, leading Hinata to blink in surprise and confusion. "For all I know, these guys could be covered in mold."

A shy smile suddenly flickered across Hinata's lips, then stubbornly refused to leave.

"Hey, hey!" Naruto declared suddenly, the grin returning en masse, relighting his whiskered face once more. "I just made you smile. I haven't seen that in awhile, Hinata. Anyways-

"Charming your comrades?" A woman's voice interupted, "That's one of your many talents, isn't it, Naruto?" Said genin prickled slightly, his blue gaze sliding across the rooftop, falling upon the ruby red eyes, belonging to that of a young woman, who was now sauntering over to them. Her attire, much like her blood red gaze, was nothing short of odd.

And in the eyes of Uzumaki Naruto, odd equaled dangerous.

"Who're you?"

"Now now," The woman pursed her lips, hands instantly shooting to her hips, as if she were scolding an insolent child, which in a sense, she actually was. "Is that any way for a genin to talk to his sensei?"

Naruto bit back a retort, but clealry it took some effort, something the Jonin woman smiled at. Suddenly, she smiled and extended a hand, surprising both genin, including Naruto who stared at her blankly.

"I'm Kurenai YĆ«hi. It's nice to meet you, Naruto."

--

(Meanwhile)

The man rolled out of bed with barely a grunt.

"Damn...Morning already?"

After a few moments of fumbling around in the dark, he finally found his kimono and haori, and after a few seconds of terse silence, there was a soft swishing sound, indicating that he had donned said garments.

He doused his face with cold water, strapped the large, cleaver-like blade to his back, and groaned as the lights flickered on, nearly rendering him blind from the intense glare.

The face that greeted him in the mirror was a worn one, chestnut brown eyes lined with stress, strawberry blonde, spiky hair, matted down, in the classic form of a bedhead.

"Kurosaki Ichigo-taichou!" The loud sound of knocking, accompanied by a cheery female voice called. "It's time to get up! We have our mission in the real world today!" Again, the man winced, futilely clasping both hands over his ears when the incessant din did not cease.

"Yare, yare, keep it down, will ya, Hinamori?! I'm up! Just gimme a cup of coffee! AND STOP BANGING ON THE DAMN DOOR!"

"Hai!"

When the pounding quited, and her footfalls faded away in the opposite direction, the captain groaned once more. Briefly glancing over his lavish quarters, he allowed himself a soft, nostalgic sigh as his gaze rested upon his most cherished possession.

A faded, worn photograph of him and his friends, filled with so many memories, both happy and sad, but mostly sad, as he recalled what the war had taken from everyone. They weren't dead, but with the war tilting in Aizen's favor, and with their hometown in shambles, it really felt as if they were. Quietly, Ichigo approached it, frowned, and rubbed off a spot of dust on its glass frame. Silently, he set it down, exhaling angrily as he did so.

"Damnit Renji, you better be right about this kid....

"Ichigo-taichou!"

A throbbing vein appeared on the captain's temple.

"DAMNIT MOMO! I'M COMING!"

Next time: Deepening a bond, Losing another. Sayonara, Amagai Shusuke???