Hey, a quick question...with a name like 'jawbreakers', how did they ever become popular?

Hello, this is AProcrastinatingWriter and no, you're not imagining things: it really has been that long since I last updated. Well, can't say I didn't warn you. On the other hand, the next chapter should be out pretty quick since it contains a battle for most of it, and I'm good with battles if not anything else.

But none of that matters right now. Right now: we have a new chapter to get to; a chapter in which Shino acts very out-of-character. I wrote him this way on purpose, unlike how I usually write characters out of their charaters, so don't worry too much about that. I even draw a lot of attention to that fact. As to why he's out of character, you're going to have to wait at least one more chapter to find out, at most three.

But once again, that's not the most important part. The most important part is this: I snuck in a reference to One Piece in this chapter. I'm not saying to review if you do find it, I'm just saying it's there if you want to find it. Be careful; it's obvious.

Well, now that all that absurdity is over with, let's get to the chapter itself, shall we?


CHAPTER TEN

SHORT FUSES, DUD EXPLOSIONS

-OR-

HOW TO DELIVER A PACKAGE


With a tick and tock or two, the second, the minute, the hour hand, made their repeated rounds throughout the numbers of the clock. To put it simply, time passed. And so, the next day. Still beautiful weather, perhaps a little overcast, but nowhere near enough to blot out any of the sun. Basically, the edge of the sky was cloudy.

Logic would indicate that, going by time-traveling standards, this would be the last day. Five people, four of which awoke in the past three days. The fifth one should naturally wake up today, of all days.

Yet, across the great nations, not a peep of surprise from anyone waking up anywhere they shouldn't be waking up. No one trying to gain their bearings in a time not their own.

Gaara wasn't there yet.

Or at least, that's what Shikamaru could surmise, waking up early in the morning (-Man, what has time travel done to me?-) and keeping vigilant watch since for word from the Sand. He figured, since Gaara didn't sleep in this timeline, he'd just kind of...pop up sometime in the middle of the night. Closest thing he could figure to reality, anyway. And then once Gaara was really awake, he'd talk to his brother and sister, and they'd send word, since he'd specifically asked to send word to the Leaf once the Sand's resident demon container started acting strangely.

...well, maybe 'acting strangely' wasn't exactly the most specific of all the messages he could have given them. But then again, anything more specific would be disobeying the Hokage's orders. -Still,- Shikamaru thought, -I wonder if they really got the message.- He thought a few more moments, then looked at the sun. -Ah well,- he thought with a yawn, -Gotta go train with dear old dad. Maybe I'll hear word later. After all,- and here he jumped down from the top of the wall and onto the staircase leading down it, -It's not like he can't come back sometime in the afternoon, right?-

0-0-0-0

And so, the scene moves from one staircase to the next, this set of stairs being the ones just outside of the Hokage's tower, the ones wrapping around that tower. "A mission? Really?" asked Sakura, smiling. Every kunoichi should be happy to get a mission, after all. Not that they should show it when actually given the mission, but still.

"Yep," said Kakashi, looking back. Dangerous when on stairs. "Looks like your long string of days off is finally over."

"That's a relief," said Sasuke, subconsciously trying to figure out what the most natural distance between him and Sakura would be. Not that he need have bothered; Sakura was still too creeped out by memories of Kakashi talking with the two to make much of a move today. "I've been itching to get some action in."

"Speak for yourself," Naruto grumbled. "I was actually looking forward to another day off," he opened one eye and grinned at his Team's leader, "And with Kakashi here as our sensei, I was looking forward to three more days off, too."

"Ouch," laughed Kakashi, "Come on, Naruto. Give me a little credit!" He appeared to think for a moment. "By the way, out of left field, how did your date last afternoon go?"

"Ah, it was great!" Naruto said, sincerely not catching himself. "Man, me and Hinata...wait." He stopped in his tracks, and one could almost watch the wheels in his head turn. "GAH!"

"Naruto!" Sakura turned, shouting at him. Sasuke looked on, bemused. "You mean you were out yesterday with Hinata when you were supposed to be in bed resting? IDIOT!"

"N-now, Sakura, wait, please! I couldn't help it!" Naruto tried to plead the best way he might have at the age of twelve, knowing he was in for 'light tap' on the head all the while. Sasuke, still bemused, leaned up against the wall, smirking and just waiting for the executioner's axe to fall. "I mean, Hinata's just so pretty!"

Kakashi laughed softly. -Ah, sweet revenge.- he thought, not looking back at his students at all as he continued walking, even though he was also partially relieved that they were acting like their old selves. -It looks like everything's finally starting to go back to normal.-

0-0-0-0

Meanwhile, at the exact same time Kakashi was saying this, Neji was wearing a party hat. It was a bright blue in color with little stars on it.

Lee had apparently needed much more rest than Tsuande had originally thought, because when they came back in to check on him, he was sound asleep. It had taken a lot of effort to keep Might Guy from waking his pupil. Not that Guy was trying to wake Lee or anything, that's simply the boisterous way Guy stated the obvious for ya.

But Lee was awake now, and so in lieu of actual training or a mission, his team was celebrating his being well again. Of course, Guy overdid everything, thus the party hats. Not that this was an actual party (Neji, even as a more mature and emotionally stable adult, had vehemently shot down any suggestion of such an event after the basically-a-rave a few nights ago), but still, Guy was treating it as such.

"We're glad to have you back on the team, Lee!" the Green Beast finally wrapped up his speech, nice-guying at Rock Lee with all his might.

"Thank you, Guy-sensei," Lee smiled, uncertainty at the corners. An odd expression to find on the youth's face. "But, to be perfectly honest, we can hardly say I am back on the team as of yet."

"That's non-" began Guy,.

"That's not true at all," Tenten interrupted without even realizing she had, pulling Lee into a half-headlock, half hug.

"Gah!" Lee shouted. Not because she was hurting him (she somehow managing to be both tough and gentle with Lee at the same time), but because he was startled.

"You're back on the team whether you like it or not!" Tenten exclaimed happily.

"That's right!" Guy jumped in, thumbs up, somehow popping up on the other side of Lee, without being in his bed, even though Lee was lying close to the edge of a bed opposite the edge up against the wall. "And you'd better make sure to get better as quickly as possible, because as soon as you are, your training is going to intensify a thousand-fold!"

"Sir, yes sir!" Lee eagerly saluted as best as he could, considering Tenten still had him off his center of gravity.

"Uh, oh," Tenten said, worried, but still with a smile on her face. She finally loosened her grip on Lee, though she didn't let go entirely, and turned to the room's occupant of Hyuuga descent. "You hear that, Neji? Guy's gonna work us even harder from now on."

Neji closed his eyes. "I suppose," he shrugged his shoulders, arms remaining crossed, tone rather neutral.

"Same old emotionless Neji," Tenten sweatdropped, finally letting go of Lee entirely. "What are we going to do with you?" -And here I was hoping something might stick after yesterday,- she thought.

Unbeknownst to her, however, Neji was nowhere near emotionless at the moment. Quite the opposite. -She was hugging him.- he thought, astonished. Also quite angry. -Tenten was hugging Lee. Does that mean that she...- he blinked twice, his restrained version of rapidly shaking one's head to clear the mind. -No. Of course not. You know, and Tenten has told you, that she has never held any interest in Lee. Well, except perhaps a short phase when she was a...- His eyes widened slightly now. -A young teenager! As she is right now! I must...stay calm. I must stay calm. Even if that is what is happening, do not react. As long as Lee shows no interest in her, her crush will eventually go away. As it did the first time.-

"So, Lee, what would you like for breakfast?" Guy asked, placing his hand on his young ward's shoulder. Neji was thinking fast; only a second or two had passed between Tenten's last sentence and the one Guy had just spoken.

-But, what if it becomes more than a crush this time?- Neji worried. -What if I do something stupid?- His hand involuntarily clenched, driving his nails into his skin. Not hard enough to bleed, but enough to hurt. -Or what if my attitude at the party turned her off to the idea of dating me, or perhaps if Lee's moves made her...- Neji's brain suddenly acknowledged the pain his arm was in, which snapped him out of things quite handily. -That is quite possibly the stupidest thing you have ever thought. Lee? Making a girl swoon? By dancing? That is simply ridiculous.-

"No, thank you, Guy-sensei, I am not that hungry," Lee waved off his hero's question.

"Lee! Guy cried, drawing his hand back in horror. "How could you ever forget that breakfast is the most important meal of the day for a young man's health and nutrition?"

-Almost as ridiculous as the thought of my dancing making a girl swoon,- Neji thought, poking fun at himself. He could not suppress a smile at thinking the aforementioned thought. -Yet for some reason, Tenten always loved dancing with me. Slow dancing, usually. Despite my two left feet, and similarly paired arms.- His smile turned back into a frown. -I really need to suppress these hormones. I did it the first time, I can do it this time as well.- He concentrated. -I will not let these things control me. I will not have thoughts like...- He blushed, eyes snapping open. Thankfully, no one noticed. -...like that distracting me.-

"Oh, of course!" Lee cried as well. "Please forgive me, Guy-sensei! I was not thinking clearly!"

"Of course, Lee, I understand completely," Guy said with his weird inflections, "You have a lot on your mind, after all."

"For my punishment, I will run around the hospital fifty-" Lee began.

"I believe that we can skip the punishment this time around, Lee" Guy said, hastily cutting off his students before he could promise anything, "These are special circumstances, after all. Now, then, what say we put a big, delicious, healthy meal in your stomach, huh?"

"Yes sir, Guy-sensei!"

Tenten giggled at the two, then turned back to Neji again. The smile dropped off her face, but she looked quizzical in replacement of it, not saddened. She blinked a couple of times, then walked over to the man who might very well be her husband one day. "Hey, Neji? Are you alright?"

"Perfectly," Neji half-lied. As in, he wasn't sure whether he was lying or not, at least not at the moment. "Why would you ask?"

"Just a look I saw in your eye," Tenten said, placing one hand on her hip and drumming her side with her fingers. An absent-minded approximation of a real absentminded habit of hers, in which she would place a hand on her side and twirl a kunai around her other hand's fingers. Not finger, fingers. Made people nervous to see at first, but eventually they got used to it. Some took longer than others. "It's gone now." She thought for a second. "Then again," she laughed, "I guess any look in your eye at all is different enough for me to get worried, huh?"

"Indeed," Neji responded, nodding. He paused for a moment. "I'm...sorry."

"Huh? Why are you sorry?" Tenten asked, confused.

-For having to lie to you,- Neji thought. Out loud: "I have trouble expressing myself. I...wish I didn't." He was pausing a lot when he spoke. He wasn't sure himself whether this was natural or whether he had simply...that phrase was...immersed himself in the charater.

Tenten smiled. "Aww, that's okay, Neji." She outright grinned, grabbing his cheek and pinching. "We still love you, don't we, guys?"

"Please stop," Neji said emotionlessly, looking up to see if Guy and Lee were watching. Thankfully for him, they weren't, and were instead perusing the contents of the hospital's menu for the day. After a sigh and a moment or two of struggle, Neji managed to wrest himself from Tenten's iron grip, much to her giggling amusement. "Guy-sensei?"

Guy looked up from his task while Lee drooled over some entree or another. Only Lee would drool over hospital food. "What is it, Neji?" Guy asked.

"Can I please take this hat off now?"

0-0-0-0

Tsuande was not used, in her currently brief stint as Hokage, to having different members of a team show up at different times, but she could understand how it happened in this case. At least, she thought she could. Kakashi had shown up first, followed a couple minutes later by an chuckling Sasuke, then quickly by an angry-looking Sakura, then a fearful Naruto several moments after. So, yeah, Tsuande could approximate what had happened on the way up to her office.

But she didn't exactly want to ask for specifics. No, it was her job to give out specifics, not ask for them, when dealing with Genin at least. Well, it was supposed to be, and yet she had asked Genin for lots and lots of details four times this week. And the one time she seemed to be giving out details was when she didn't want to be; when Rock Lee wrangled her into telling him straight what his chances as a ninja were. But, at least for now, none of that mattered, and everything was going exactly like she wanted. "Your mission is technically C-ranked," Tsunade briefed the group in front of her, "But it has the potential to go up in difficulty at any moment."

"Hmm? Why's that?" Naruto asked.

"I'm getting to that, Naruto" Tsunade said pointedly. -Do you have to keep up the act quite this well?- Tsunade exasperatedly questioned him within the safety of her mind. "Your mission is to deliver a package of some importance to a diplomat in the Land of Grasshoppers by the name of Oda Eiichiro. And before anyone asks: the contents of the package are on a need-to-know basis, and to put it bluntly, none of you need to know."

"Let me guess," Sasuke broke in, "The mission itself is just as need-to-know?"

"Exactly," said Tsuande. "The only information I gave Anko, who delivered the mission briefings to your sensei," And here she nodded at Kakashi, who smiled, "Was that you had a mission, and that it was ranked C. And that is all you are to tell anyone who asks you exactly what your mission is."

-That idiot,- Sakura thought, not paying attention to the briefing at all. No chance to relieve stress brought on by anger did that to her. -He's just so oblivious to danger all the time! He's gonna get himself killed one of these days if he keeps up stupid stunts like this!-

"If word should get out to certain people about the exact nature of your mission," Tsunade continued, bringing a cup of steaming tea about halfway to her lips, "The difficulty level of this little outing would skyrocket, due to the threat of attack by enemy ninja trying to intercept the package you're carrying." The Fifth Hokage somehow managed to look the entire group of people before her ominously in the eyes. "That is why you must remain vigilant."

"Don't worry, Grandma!" Naruto exclaimed, making the peace sign. "Vigilance is my middle name! Hee, hee."

"We're doomed," Sasuke faceplamed.

Kakashi reacted differently. "So where is this legendary package, anyway?"

Without a word, Tsuande reached under her desk and brought back out a very small box, small enough to fit in one hand. With an underhanded toss she gave it to Kakashi. "Here," she said as she turned the object into a projectile.

"Woah there," Kakashi almost exclaimed, catching the wrapped box handily. "Hmm. Tiny little thing," he said, examining the the cube from all sides.

"And not fragile, either," Tsuande smirked, finally raising the cup to her waiting mouth. "Perfect object for hiding away from the enemy." And with this bit of Sage advice, she actually took a sip of tea, smiling in enjoyment of her early morning drink.

Kakashi shook the box a little next to his ear. "Hmm. No sound, either. You're right, this is perfect for hiding." He turned his face back towards his Village Leader. "So where exactly are we to take this little prize to?"

"The Land of Grasshoppers is not very far from here," Tsunade said, setting her cup of tea off to the side and pulling out a map. Everyone got up close to look except Sakura, who was still angry and letting her mind wander all over. Tsunade pointed a polished fingernail down at the map, letting it hang above the drop-off point for just as long as the three ninja needed to memorize the location. "And neither is the diplomat you're supposed to meet. If you proceed cautiously, as I suggest you should, you should be back within two or three days. If, for some reason, you decide it's necessary to hurry, you should be back in town by nightfall."

-Always so obnoxious and rude and errgh!- Sakura's angry thoughts were becoming less and less related to Naruto actually going out with Hinata yesterday. -And he doesn't care about anything, he just...argh!- Less coherent as well. Usually she'd be able to control her anger better, but then usually she'd have gotten rid of it by now by, well, BAM. But she'd resolved to do that less from now on;. -And that hair, doesn't he at LEAST care about how he looks?-

"Now, there are two paths to the destination point," Tsuande continued. "Since they take about the same amount of time to cross, thanks to the terrain, I would ask that you avoid the mountainous area here," And she pointed to the map again, "And instead cross through the forest here." And she pointed to another section of map. "And not just for the obvious reasons, either."

"Ah, right," Kakashi understood. The other two near the map turned to him. "That mountainy place is full of bandits, correct?"

"That's right," Tsuande confirmed. "They'd be easy enough for you all to handle, certainly, but they'd also take time to take out." She smiled a little. "And I'm afraid I've been tasked with the paradox of asking you three to both go as fast as possible and to be as careful as possible."

"Yeah, that does sound kind of silly," Naruto admitted, "But don't worry, I'm sure we can handle it."

"Wait, us 'three'?" Sasuke caught on. "Is Kakashi not coming with us?"

"I thought I was," Kakashi blinked. "She did toss the package to me, after all." He became aware of a possibility: "Uh, you were tossing the package to me, right?"

"Oh, don't worry about all that," Tsundae explained. "I was just referring to the fact that Sakura seems to have made up her mind to stay behind during this mission," The Fire Shadow looked past the group, still smiling, good-natured to the wandering kunoichi with the pink hair.

"Huh, what?" Sakura finally broke out of her mental grumblings. She blinked. "Oh, no, I'm coming along! Of course!" And she laughed, relatively well-acted.

"Oh, really?" asked Tsunade facetiously, "Because I could have sworn you weren't paying any attention to me..."

"What? O-of course I was!" Sakura waved her hand in front of her face, smile becoming a little lopsided opposite the way her body was becoming a little lopsided. "But, uh, why don't you go over the mission again, Lady Tsunade? You know, just in case anyone missed anything?"

Tsuande laughed, and Naruto, Kakashi, and even Sasuke controlled the urge to chuckle. "Anyone who missed anything can just get the info from their teammates later." Now, she was all business again. "Alright, unless there are any questions, you all should meet up at the front gates in a half-"

"Uh..." Naruto broke in, raising his hand.

Tsuande blinked. That was honestly the first time anyone had ever asked a question when she'd asked if their were any questions. It had gotten to the point where she had just said the sentence out of habit, without waiting for an answer. "Yes, Naruto?" the only female among the Sannin asked.

"Why don't you just use the ninja couriers?" Naruto asked. Quite reasonably.

There was a short silence.

"Ninja..." began Sasuke, looking somewhat disturbed. After having served Orohimaru for three years.

"...couriers?" Finished Sakura, shoulders slumping and head tipping in confusion.

"Long story," Naruto sighed.

"Too long," Kakashi agreed. Apparently he'd had at least one run-in with the (in)famous group as well.

-What the heck did I miss when I left the Village?- Sasuke thought, frightened.

"Because the ninja couriers only visit here once every couple of weeks," Lady Tsunade shrugged. "We have regular postmen, after all."

"So is that your way of saying they visited yesterday and you forgot to give the package to them?" Naruto asked.

Tsuande growled, cheeks turning red. "Leave. Now."

"You're blushing!" pointed Naruto triumphantly as everyone else sweatdropped, for various reasons. "That means I'm right!"

Kakashi picked Naruto up and began carrying him out the door before he could even come close to continuing. "Alright, let's get going," the Copy Ninja said, just a little weary-sounding. His other two students followed wordlessly, slightly embarrassed.

"Hey, let me go! Put me down!" Naurto was not wordless or embarrassed at all, but was rather very protestful. "I said put me down! Aw, come on, Kakashi-sen-"

The soundproof door's closing thankfully cut Naruto off. Tsunade placed her head in her palm, reaching over for her cup of tea with the other. Then, she moved the first hand away from her face and under her desk, defeated expression never leaving her face. -Good thing Shizune is taking leave today,- the Fifth looked at her fifth of alcohol for a second before pouring a generous amount into the remainder of her tea. Not exactly a popular drink, but she needed the stuff it however she surreptitiously could get it at this point.

0-0-0-0

"And on top of that," Guy wrapped up his second big speech for the day (and it was only early morning), "If you took off your party hat, that would mean we'd have to take off ours, too!" He winked and smiled. "And believe me when I say that we're nowhere near done partying yet!"

Neji sat on a chair, slumping and defeated. "I see," he said evenly. -I hope that appointment with Lady Tsunade opens up quickly...I can feel my psyche threatening to snap under all this stress.- It was understandable he'd be upset; the whole speech was unnecessary. A simple 'No you may not' would have sufficed.

It would have sufficed plenty.

"Hey, Lee," Tenten said to her teammate as if nothing was out of the ordinary (And, sadly, nothing was), "I've noticed something."

"What is it, Tenten?" Lee asked.

"Today, and when we came in to see how you were yesterday," Tenten slowly said, "I noticed that the bed next to yours...it's unmade." She moved her lips over to the side a little. "Like someone was lying in it recently. So I figured you'd gotten yourself a roommate."

"Yes, I have," Lee nodded, smiling more genuinely than he had all day. Not that his other smiles weren't genuine but, once again, they sported a hint of uncertainty at their edges.

"Yeah, I figured," Tenten repeated. "But I just wasn't sure 'cause I haven't seen him all day."

"That's true," Guy said, turning and resting his chin in his hand. "A person unwell enough to be staying in the hospital shouldn't be out of their bed for such extended periods."

"Which likely means that this person is in surgery," Neji pointed out. "And Lee is probably worried about them."

"Oh my gosh," breathed Tenten, "Oh, Lee, I'm so sorry. I didn't even think of that!" She placed her hands up, fingers laced together, pleading forgiveness. "I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to-"

"No, it is alright," Lee said, smile breaking at the corners again. "I am sure Yoshe will be fine. She is a very strong person, after all."

"Well, that's a good outlook to have, Lee," Guy smiled. "After all, our believing in you is what has helped you get better so quickly. I am sure that your believing in your friend...wait." Something occurred to Guy, allowing his brain to catch up to the stunned silence of his two non-Lee pupils.

"Did you say 'she'?" asked Neji, a slight tone of disbelief in his voice.

"As in a girl?" Tenten continued the line of questioning rather obviously.

"Ah, yes, that confused me, too, at first." Lee agreed. He blushed slightly upon realization. "Er, that is not to say that I was confused about whether she was a girl at first...I mean..." he coughed. "Ahem. At any rate, the hospital is apparently very busy at this point in time. They ran out of room."

"Ah-ha! So they had to move this Yoshe to a vacancy somewhere in this hospital, and you didn't have a roommate!" Guy deduced. "Hmm. 'Yoshe'. A fine name! I wholeheartedly approve!" Thumbs up and wink and suddenly Guy was Nice Guy.

-Poor thing,- thought Tenten. -A gal needs her privacy sometimes. Hard to get it with a boy in your room.- She sighed. -At least it's Lee and not some pervert who's with her.-

"That is all absolutely correct, Guy-sensei," Lee enthused, thumbing-up as well. His face became serious again, hand opening , then dropping to normal position. "Oh, but there is one thing that I hope you all will take into consideration. Neji is correct: Yoshe is in surgery right now. But when she comes back, please refrain from making the same mistake that I made when I first met her." The Handsome Devil groaned, a sad groan, a soft groan, as he looked down at the ground. "She does not like to be stared at."

Lee's team took these words in silence, and continued the silence as they contemplated those words' meaning. The somberness of the moment was kind of ruined, though, by the party hats.

0-0-0-0

"Remind me again why we're out here, Hinata?" Kiba asked, drawing bored circles on the ground. He was also bored.

"Bark, bark." And his little dog, too.

Hinata had been continuously pacing back and forth just outside the gates of town, much to the two usual guards' amusement. At Kiba's words, she stopped and turned. "Um," she tried to dodge the question, "You two d-don't have to wait for me."

"We're supposed to be training you," Shino spoke up. "That is a little hard to do with you not there, is it not?"

"Well, you two need to train, too, right?" Hinata asked, blushing growing larger.

"Yeah," Kiba stretched his word as he similarly stretched, "But believe it or not, Hinata, we actually get a good amount of training in training you." He smiled. Not 'grinned', not smiled 'wolfishly', not 'smirked', just smiled. "I know you don't think so, but you're actually pretty darn strong!"

"Indeed," nodded Shino. "We usually have to expend all our energy just to keep up with you." He looked directly at Hinata. "The main thing that needs work isn't your technique. It's your confidence. If you work on that, you could be the strongest of any of us." His glasses shimmered as he shifted in his coat. "Even Kurenai-sensei."

Hinata was blushfully stunned for a couple of seconds. "R-really?" she whispered.

"Nah, not really," Kiba smirked. "You're pretty strong, alright, but I'll always be the strongest!"

"Grr..." Akamaru growled.

"Hmm? What is it, boy?" Kiba asked his pup, who in response bit him on the ankle. The sensitive part of Kiba's ankle. "YEOW! Alright, alright, Hianta's the strongest of us! Now let go, will ya?"

Hinata giggled, and Shino even smiled a little. "Amusing," he almost laughed.

Hinata revealed a radiant smile. "Thank you very much for saying so, Akamaru," she bowed to the doggie.

"Hey, what about me?" Kiba growled, stomping on the ground and balling his fists in front of his waist after raising them above his head. Before anyone could respond to him, though, Izumo (one of the guards) spoke up.

"Hey, Kakashi! You and your team on a mission?" he asked, causing Hinata's ears to almost literally perk.

"Oh, that's what we've been waiting on," Kiba crossed his arms, unsure whether to say what he was saying in a friendly mocking tone or an angry and annoyed one. "I probably should have seen that coming." Shino, meanwhile, simply raised his eyebrow, stepping forward a little to better see the team headed towards the gate.

Hinata, meanwhile, was turning, excited. "Naruto!" she exclaimed. "Huh?"

Kakashi...Sasuke...Sakura...nope, no Naruto. "Hey there, Izumo, Kotetsu," Kakashi nodded at the guards.

"What's up?" responded Kotetsu, though it was really more of a statement than a question.

"Yep, C-rank mission for all of us. It's actually been a while since we've had a good old-fashioned mission," Kakashi told the truth, technically.

"I hear that," Kotetsu replied, sitting back in his chair.

"Hey there, guys," Sakura, now sufficiently caught up with everything, waved to the Team directly across from her. "You got a mission too, huh?"

"Um...not really..." Hinata murmured, suddenly embarrassed, as she played with her fingers.

"Oh." Sakura started, slightly. "Well, then, why are you here?"

"Um...well..."Hinata felt like stuttering and was trying not to.

"We were supposed to be training Hinata today," Shino broke in suddenly, "But our trainee has apparently decided that she would rather wait here to see her boyfriend."

"Shino," Kiba turned to him, startled, as Hinata gasped, turning to him as well. Shino was not usually that blunt, to understate what was currently happening. "What's gotten into you?"

As everyone else looked on, confused and astonished: "Wh-what?" Hinata finally stuttered. "Sh-Shino, I-"

"I'm glad that Naruto reciprocates your feelings, Hinata," Shino glared, or at least appeared to. Sunglasses and all. "But this is the second day in a row that your feelings have interrupted our training." His eyebrows creased, and that was actually obvious. Even more obvious was the tone in his voice, barely there, barely even angry. But then, Shino usually didn't have much tone to his voice at all. Plenty of emotion at times, but almost never any tone. "Perhaps it is not apparent to you, but the world does not revolve around-"

"Hey guys!" interrupted an oblivious yellow-headed ninja, grabbing everyone's attention (as he was wont to do). "Sorry I'm late, but I had to change into my new outfit!" Everyone looked up to the top of the guard's stand somewhere around the middle of this sentence, and there sat Naruto Uzumaki, in some 'new' black and orange duds. A couple sizes smaller, but otherwise identical to the outfit he'd commonly wear in the future. The ninja youth grinned, then jumped down, landing gracefully on his feet, doing a little twirl, throwing out his arms, and laughing. "You like it?"

A short silence, brought on by the awkwardness of the situation, occurred at this point.

"Woah, lookin' sharp, Naruto!" Izumo praised, mostly out of a desire to change the subject to something more comfortable. Also because Naruto really did look good.

"So that's what you wanted the extra cash to buy," Kakashi smiled, trying to get the conversation moving away from the former awkwardness as fast as possible. "And here I thought you were just using the 'new clothes' excuse to get some extra ramen in."

"Wow..." breathed out Sakura. "Look at you!" -And here I was thinking he didn't care about how he looked!- She tilted her head to the side. "So why the sudden change?"

"Eh, this outfit's a little bit less conspicuous than my old one, you know?" Naruto looked down at it.

"I'll say," mumbled Sasuke, his first time speaking up in a while.

Naruto grinned. "Also, so I could look good for...Hinata?" he turned, proving he'd actually known she was there all along. "Hee, hee. Well, do I look good?"

"You look very d-dashing, Naruto," Hinata smiled, her heavy blush confirming her words. "I l-like it!" -Mmph. I hate that I still stutter like that.-

"Thanks, Hinata," Naruto smiled, clutching the straps of his backpack and walking over to her.

"I hate to admit it," Kiba smiled, shrugging, "But you look pretty darn good...for a goofball."

"Thanks, Kiba!" said Naruto in a sincere tone of voice. "You don't look too bad yourself for a mutt."

"Okay, that was crossing the line," Kiba said, slightly angry.

"Sorry," Naruto said, just as sincerely, and without the smile.

"Woof," complimented Akamaru, simultaneously urging Kiba to accept the apology. One would have to understand a dog's language to understand how Akamaru could say all that in a single syllable.

Kiba sighed. "Apology accepted," he smiled. Then, unconsciously, he looked towards Shino. As was everyone else. If Shino could compliment Naruto, everyone could stop half-acting and just be sincere about, well, about everything, and the subject of Hinata's waiting on Naruto would officially have been dropped. As it probably should be. And Shino knew this; knew he should probably say something nice about Naruto's outfit, or at the very least acknowledge Naruto in some way.

There was another silence, this one of indeterminate length.

"I'm going to the practice field," the Aburame finally said, lowering his head. He sounded...ashamed?...as he walked off, slightly more slowly than usual.

"Guh...gah," Kiba inarticualted as he watched Shino. "I gotta go," he apologized to everyone. "Hey, Shino!" he called after his friend, half angry and half concerned and one hundred percent confused as he rushed after the bug user, Akamaru following his master's heels.

"Oh," Hinata looked back and forth between Naruto and her teammates before making a decision. "I'm sorry, Naruto!" she cried. "Shino, Kiba, please, wait up!" she called after the two, running off. She looked back over her shoulder as she ran, calling back to Naruto: "Good luck on your mission!"

Team Kakashi looked after team Kurenai for several seconds. "Well," Sasuke finally said. "I didn't see that coming."

"Hmm. And, unfortunately," Kakashi Hatake shrugged, "I don't think there's anything we can do for them, and Kurenai's on a mission of her own, as far as I know." He thoguht for a moment, reconfirming his suspicions of what he guessed to be the reality of the situation. "I guess they'll just have to deal with this on their own."

"Yeah, I guess so," Sakura said sadly. She hiked up her backpack and began walking out of the village along with Kakashi.

"Time to go, then," Sasuke said quietly and not that sadly, though that didn't necessarily mean he didn't feel sorry for the Team that had just left. He left shortly after Sakura.

"Right," said Naruto after a few more seconds. Then, a couple more, and he turned as well, following after Sasuke.

Another couple of seconds.

"Naruto!" Hinata suddenly cried.

Sasuke groaned a little as everyone else turned. "Hinata?" Naruto confused himself, looking back to the girl running up to him.

She stopped in front of him, panting. "I'm sorry...but I changed my mind...I decided...to stay and say goodbye..." she gasped out. She swallowed, then stood, holding out her hand. "Here."

Naruto blinked down. In Hinata's hand was a pair of "Chopsticks?"

Hinata nodded. "Mm-hmm," she said of the rather-fancy-for-wooden-eating-utensils item. Orange 'handle', a couple of small hearts carved into the side of the wood. "It's to thank you." The heiress of the Byakugan blushed again. "For choosing me to be your girlfriend."

Naruto smiled."Thanks, Hinata," he softly whispered, picking up the sticks as if they were made of some fragile, precious gem. Which, to him, they were.

"Now whenever you're eating ramen, you can think of me!" Hinata smiled, blushing a little more and barely able to restrain her joy. Meanwhile, the guards watched the kids with a half-serious air of enchantment on their faces.

Naruto grinned at her. "Trying to make me think about you all the time, huh?" She laughed, covering her mouth with her hand. He laughed too. "Like you need to do that when I already do." And after this comment, they just kind of smiled at each other, blushing, of course.

"AWWWWWW!" shouted Sasuke in a tone that suggested pure, unadulterated annoyance. He shook his head, exasperated. "Can we go now?" Izumo and Kotetsu laughed heartily at this.

"Oh, Sasuke..." Sakura sighed, unsure whether to be angry at or feel sorry for her...friend...who was a boy...who liked her?

"Not just yet!" Naruto shouted back at him, just as annoyed, while Hinata turned sideways away from him and twiddled her fingers. She stopped the twiddling and went wide-eyed as Naruto bent down, just a tiny bit, and kissed her on the cheek. "See ya later, Hinata," Naruto grinned that grin, before he went running off. "Okay, you guys! Let's get on that mission!"

Hinata stared after him, wide-eyed, mouth slightly open. "Geez, where'd the sudden burst of energy come from?" Sakura incredulously asked.

Then the pale gray girl noticed the guards still watching, no longer mocking. They seemed genuinely 'aww'ed and unembarrassed by Naruto's display. Quite unlike how Hinata felt...but she also felt happy, and sad too. "Seriously," Sasuke mumbled, and yet somehow made that mumbling heard loud and clear. "What, do you inject yourself with pure caffeine each morning?"

"You're just jealous!" Naruto called back to his rival.

At the same time, Hinata (ability to think of good reasons to leave bolstered by her embarrassment) realized she should hurry up in order to catch up to Shino and Kiba and Akamaru again. -Confident,- she thought to herself as she ran off. -I was so confident yesterday...why couldn't I be confident again today?-

And at the same time, from a moderately nearby treetop, Kidōmaru (who had drawn the short straw) was on lookout duty. He smirked. "Hmph. How sweet." he mocked, even though he was the only person there who could possibly hear him. Drawing out a contact scroll and throwing it on the branch, he continued speaking to himself. "Heh. It's about time they left."

The contact scroll unrolled, and began pulsing with a glowing power. Eventually ,the power solidified, and for the second time in a week, Sakon appeared upon the other side. "So, they've finally decided to get going, then?" the two-headed beast asked the spidery child, as no introductions were really needed. Business calls only, this scroll.

"You bet," Kidōmaru's mouth grew in size. Some darkness-minded people might call the expression 'smiling', but most people would simply call it 'bloodthirsty'. "You know, I could just wait for them to get a little further from the Village, and then I could pick them off, one by one, without ever moving from this spot."

"So why won't you?" Sakon asked, not knowing the reason, but knowing there must be one, otherwise Kidōmaru would have just done it, not talked with him about it.

The ponytailed one sighed, reality coming down heavy on him. "Because we need to take Sasuke alive, and taking the rest out from too great a distance would only allow him to get back to the village and warn them," he grumbled. Then, with the mouth thing coming back: "So, how were the bandits?"

"Easy as pie," the basically-a-hologram chuckled, kicking an unseen figure whilst he was down. "One of them managed to scratch Jirōbō's arm, but that's the extent of the injuries here. The camp is ours, and the ambush is prepared."

"Heh, heh, heh," Kidōmaru chuckled as well. "Cool," he breathed as the figure from the scroll slowly faded. Then, rolling the paper up and placing it in his pocket, the young man leapt from the tree he was standing on and into the trees heading towards the mountains.


Yeah, that's right. I made reference to that filler episode. And that one, too!

As a side note, a hint for those of you have not yet figured out the One Piece reference: It's the manga's author's name, hidden somewhere in this chapter. I know ,that doesn't help much, so if you're still having trouble, check right after the Omake.

Ah, yeah! Omake!

OMAKE #7

I don't know what I was thinking when I said that last chapter's Omake was my longest yet...more like nowhere near. Anyway, yet ANOTHER deleted scene pops up here, and you can see a lot of the work in progress in this one. For instance, I always type out certain characters' names minus accent markings, because it's always too, heh, troublesome to add in the special symbols while I'm typing. Then, I just 'Find and Replace' their names however many times I need to, with one copy-pasted name. So, yeah, part of the work in progress is that the accented character's names haven't been swapped out yet.

Anyway, the plotline: Yesterday, storywise, the Sound Four meet to discuss their strategy for snatching up Sasuke for some of their dark master's darker experiments. Though this scene is deleted, it is partially canon in that the strategies discussed herein still apply to how they plan on going about their nefarious scheme. So ,yay, bonus insight on future chapters for those who bother to read the author's note and/or omakes!

Why did I end up deleting this scene? Becuase I have limits to how far I will stretch someone being OOC, and this is about it. I considered rewriting the whole thing more in character, but couldn't figure out how to do it. So, deleted scene, and rewrite without them.

0-0-0-0

"Are you sure about this, Sakon?" Tayuyua asked, eyebrow raised. "This all seems awfully convenient, you know."

Sakon grinned a little more. "Positive," he said, words almost sliding from his tongue they were so smooth. "Though, of course, if you truly believe this be a trap, feel free to stay behind and look after the Village." The grin turned wicked as a sandpapery texture leaked into his words. "I'll make sure to let Lord Orchimaru know that you refused to come along the mission."

Tayuya glared at him, whilst Jirobo looked up toward the sky. Kidomaru looked at no one in particular, instead choosing to sit in a nearby tree and simply listen, keeping an occasional eye out for enemies of the Sound. Which was basically everybody. Finally, the girl sighed. "Alright, fine, I'm in. Happy?"

"Ecstatic," responded Sakon. He turned. "Jirobo, Kidomaru, I assume you two shall be joining us tomorrow morning as well?"

"Eh, so long as we get to kill someone tomorrow, I'm good," Kidomaru said. He was usually bloodthirsty, but usually not this much so. Perhaps everyone was a bit on edge?

'Jirobo' not being counted among 'everyone'. "So who are we up against, exactly?" All business. But then, the rotund shinobi was never one to lose his cool, though occasionally he might let it go amuse itself for a little bit while he took care of some issue or another.. "What conditions?"

"I'll be performing a bit more intel on that last part," Sakon said, "But I do know the info on the first."

"You're acting awful smug for someone who only knows half of what our mission even is," pointed out Tayuya.

"Shut up," Sakon grumbled, the cracks in his proud veneer showing themselves under Tayuya's scrutiny. "At any rate, you probably know these people already, considering our briefing, but I'll repeat their descriptions..." And here he looked up into the trees. "..just in case SOMEONE wasn't listening!"

"I've heard every word ya said, four-eyes," Kidomaru responded, waving his hand in dismissal.

Sakon sighed, shaking his head. "I'm certain you have. Alright, our main target: Sasuke Uchiha. The only one we have to take alive," he smirked, "Though Lord Orchimaru didn't mention exactly how alive he should be." The other three there actually chuckled. A rarity, really. They didn't like each other much. "Very powerful, once under consideration for Orochimaru's new host body. The fact that this consideration has formed into a definite 'no' is everything our mission is about."

"Because Lord Orochimaru wants to know why he said no, right?" Jirobo asked.

"Exactly," Sakon nodded, then continued. "As for the other three who will be travelling with him...Sakura Haruno. Very girly girl, dresses in all pink. Basically no useful jutsu whatsoever. Can't imagine why they bother with her."

"Dibs," Tayuya said. Her eyes narrowed. "I hate girls like that."

"I notice you have pink hair, too," Kidomaru noted, pressing all the right buttons and knowing he was doing so.

"I'M GOING TO KILL YOU SOMEDAY, KIDOMARU!" Tayuya shouted up into the branches.

"ANYWAY," Sakon shouted over her. Yakon woke up for a second, but went back to sleep the instant he noticed that nothing important was going on. "The other two. Ahem." He rubbed his throat, for shouting was never good on his sensitive chords. "Naruto Uzumaki. Slightly more worrisome that the little miss Haruno, but not by much. The class clown and class failure by all standards of both those words. He does have the Shadow Clone Jutsu, though, so be careful you're not approaching a fake when you start sneaking up behind him." The self-appointed leader of the group frowned, creasing his eyebrows. "Our only real problem in the bunch is Kakashi Hatake."

"The copy ninja?" Kidomaru poked his head over the side of the branch, finally serious. Jirobo's eyes widened, and Tayuyua simply looked worried. Very worried.

"The one and only," Sakon grumbled. Then he brushed some hair from his eyes. Or, rather, the normally-uncovered one. -Hmm,- he thought. Not normally the strategist of the group, but Sakon could still come up with a good idea every now and then. "Kidomaru, I'm going to assign you to take out Kakashi. From a distance, if possible."

"WHAT?" Kidomaru reared back, somehow managing not to fall off the branch he was crouched on. Sweat began forming on his forehead. "Hey, if this is about all those times I made fun of you, man-"

"Oh, no, no, no," Sakon interrupted, "No matter what you might think, I'm not assigning you to assassinate Kakashi because I want you to die. No, quite the opposite. Though..." he put on the appearance of deep thought for a few moments, as if he needed to actually think about what he had already planned on saying. "...I would suggest attacking from a distance, to kill. And on the left side of him, as well. Make sure, no matter what else you do, that you attack him from the left. Unless you want to die after all?"

"No, I'm pretty sure I can take that advice," Kidomaru responded hastily. "Yep. No prob." He leaned back, half sulking and half scared out of his mind. "I'm sure I can take out Kakashi Hatake, no problem."

Sakon smiled. "Well, then, that just leaves the two boys to you and I, Jirobo." He thought some more. "So which one would you prefer to take care of?"

"I'm fine either way," Jirobo shrugged.

"All right, then," Sakon said. "Well, I suppose-"

"Jirobo should take Naruto," Kidomaru interrupted.

The other three looked up at him. "What? Why?" Tayuya asked. "I mean, what makes Jirobo so flippin' special?"
Before Jirobo could scold Tayuya, the spidery one responded: "Easy. This Naruto kid can make Shadow Clones, right?" He raised up his finger, grinning. "So all we've got to do is keep him trapped in that Earth Dome Prison of yours, Jirobo!"

Jirobo thought, then nodded. "Makes sense to me." He looked to Sakon then. "Though what doesn't make sense is why we're bothering splitting everyone up. My Prison would catch all of them quite handily."

"Because both Kakashi and Hatake are in possession in the Chidori, also called the Lightning Jab." Sakon's eyes narrowed. "Emphasis on the 'Lightning'. As in, that stuff your 'Earth' dome Prison is weak to?"

"Point taken," acknowledged Jirobo.

"Not to mention that we have to leave Sasuke alive," added on Kidomaru.

"I said, point taken," Jirobo growled a little. Now even he was starting to lose his cool. Everyone really was on edge.

"If you ladies are done talking," Tayuya, annoyed, interrupted, "Can we go now? I'm sick and tired of this stupid Village and I've only been here like, a day."

"Patience," Sakon intoned, slowly, as if to drive his point further home. "Nothing will happen until tomorrow morning."

"Seriously?" Tayuya grumbled, already knowing the answer, as evidenced by her sinking shoulders.

"Indeed," Sakon said. "So we have all night to eat, drink, think, and plan."

"And collect intel," Kidomaru spoke up. "We kind of need that, too."

"Will you shut up already?" Sakon shouted back at him. He began taking some deep breaths.

A short silence.

"So what kind of girls do you like, Tayuya?" Kidomaru finally brought what he had been wanting to say for a while.

It was lucky for the Sound four they were able to suppress Tayuya's swearing, because otherwise it could be heard for miles.

0-0-0-0

Yeah, it was mainly the Spider who was out of character here. Hello, author, he's the strategist, not the mocker of the group! Try harder next time.

Also: the author's name is the same as the Ambassador's name. I know that doesn't help much ,but maybe by some miracle it'll be what allows you to finally figure out where the author's name is located in this chapter.

So, be on the lookout for the next chapter, everybody, and let me know if you think something smells funny about my writing. Thanks muchly and God bless!