Naruto was feeling awfully good as he emptied his bowl of ramen. He had left the flabbergasted Ebisu and the unusually quiet Konohamaru several minutes ago. The young Uzumaki was thrilled that Ichiraku was so close by. A triumph and a new goal in life deserved a celebration.
"Would you like a third serving, Naruto-san?" Ayame, the server, asked with a smile. Naruto returned the young woman's smile.
"No, thanks. I've got to take care of a few things. It was great as always," Naruto said warmly. He paid his bill and left a tip before walking off.
'Now what to do?' He could go to the library to research or he could head home and visit with Kō-nii-san. The second was infinitely more preferable. Naruto was just too naturally energetic to sit still for long. The jinchūriki was lost in a near complete daze as he thought about all he had to line up.
"Man, that was a drag of a mission," Naruto heard Shikamaru complain.
Ino loudly scoffed at Shikamaru's attitude. "Everyone has to do D-ranks and there weren't any C-ranks available!"
"Besides, it was cool to see part of Konoha's history. Did you two know about the Uzumaki Shrine before we had to clean it?" Chouji added.
"THE HELL?" Naruto shouted. Ino jumped at the sudden outburst and glowered at Naruto as he ran up to Team Ten.
"Geez Naruto, glad to see you are still loud," Shikamaru said with a hint of a smile.
"Hey Naruto," Chouji greeted his old classmate between a mouthful of chips.
"Sup guys. Hey Ino," Naruto returned the greeting. "What's this about the Uzumaki Shrine though?"
"We had to clean it today for a D-rank. Man, it was so dusty," Shikamaru grumbled.
Ino nodded. "Yeah, it was like no one had set foot in the place in years."
"Of course no one had set foot in it in years! If I hadn't overheard you guys I wouldn't have known about my clan's shrine!" Naruto shouted.
"Wait, no one told you about your clan's shrine? Seriously, that's where your clansmen's remains are stored," Chouji responded.
"I'm just now getting permission to learn about my clan," Naruto fumed.
Ino blinked. "Why do you need permission to learn about your clan?"
"Well, I'm not sure if it's needing permission, but everyone has been real reluctant to tell me much," Naruto explained.
"I think we should take you there," Chouji said resolutely.
Ino nodded. "That is a really good idea Chouji! Come on, Shikamaru! You are coming with us, too!"
"I don't have a choice, do I?" Shikamaru asked.
"We're helping a friend learn about his heritage! Wouldn't you want to learn about your clan's history if you were in Naruto's place?" Ino interrogated Shikamaru.
Shikamaru sighed. "I guess you're right. Let's go. It's a lot easier to just agree with you."
"Thanks guys," Naruto said with unmistakable gratitude. "I really owe you one."
Hinata had taken a seat across from her father's desk. Hiashi and Hinata were both recovering from their emotional outpouring and needed a moment to finish collecting themselves.
"I cannot express how happy I am to have you home safe, my daughter," Hiashi said warmly. "Your sister will be thrilled. It would not surprise me if she is trying to sneak out of the Academy so that she can see you at this very moment."
"I…I can picture Hanabi-chan doing that," Hinata giggled. "Thank you, Father."
"You're welcome, but I'm not sure what you are thankful for," Hiashi responded.
"Just…I'm just thankful for you, Father. I know the clan demands that we completely 'master' our emotions…it's just nice to know how much you care," Hinata explained.
"Hinata, you are my daughter. Damn the clan and their demands," Hiashi announced resolutely. Hinata's eyes went wide and for the second time she was on the verge of tears.
"T-Thank you, Father," Hinata repeated herself.
Hiashi smiled. "I am your father." He quickly crossed the room and hugged his daughter again. "Now, tell me about your mission…and why you have an enormous scroll on your back."
"Well, Team Four was given credit for three missions…" Hinata began. Hiashi knew a few of the details, but he also knew Hinata needed to talk about the mission. Hinata started with the C-rank and was grateful for the comforting presence of her father. The memories of her first kills were especially difficult.
"Our C-rank was successful, but the return to Konoha was nothing we could have prepared for," Hinata began. "We were caught in a storm and took refuge in a nearby castle."
The Hyūga patriarch nodded. The Hokage had explained the basics of the mission earlier, but Hiashi knew how important this conversation was to his daughter's mental wellbeing. Hinata recounted seeing the 'ghost' of Kubisaki Goza. Hiashi was disturbed that the 'ghost' only appeared with normal eyesight.
'How could something be invisible to the Byakugan? There is no record of anything remotely similar to what Hinata is describing,' Hiashi thought somewhat nervously. Hiashi's nervousness became outright fear when Hinata revealed Goza's spirit had 'guided' her through the hand seals and influenced her actions. The Hyūga Clan leader's heart nearly felt into his stomach when he learned Hinata had fallen unconscious due to Chakra exhaustion.
"Hinata," Hiashi said in a tightly controlled voice. He was still terrified by how close Hinata had come to death. The details of her condition made him realize how completely helpless Hinata had been when Shimizu Den had struck. "I am proud of you. You fought will skill in the C-rank and saved your teammates from a powerful summoned creature."
Hinata smiled and whispered a thank-you to her father. She still wanted to be mad at her clan, and by extension her father, for failing Naruto so completely in their status as his warden. Unfortunately, her father was praising her profusely by his standards. Hinata had always sought her father's approval, and combined with his patient ear while Hinata recounted her traumatizing first missions, had almost made her consider dropping her concerns for the day.
"I-I cannot recall any of the encounter with Shimizu Den due to my condition," Hinata concluded.
"I am just thankful to heaven that you returned safely to us," Hiashi repeated his sentiments from earlier. "I must extend my eternal gratitude to Naruto for his actions as well."
'This is it,' Hinata declared to herself. "Then perhaps we can begin by correcting some failings in our wardenship towards the Uzumaki clan."
Hiashi frowned. He was aware this moment would rear its ugly head, but it was earlier than he planned. Hizashi and Hiashi had hoped to reveal information about Naruto's connection to the Uzumaki after Naruto was promoted to Chūnin. The Hokage had followed up the meeting where the twin Hyūgas had convinced the Hokage to inform Naruto of the Kyūbi with a strongly worded scroll. It said in no uncertain terms that the Hyūga were not allowed tell Naruto about his heritage until he became a Chūnin, nor were they allowed to enlist any outside aid in revealing Naruto's heritage. Beyond that, Hiashi and Hizashi had originally planned to hone Naruto into a tool to break the power of the Hyūga Council forever. It was still happening, but not in the way they had planned. Truthfully, Hiashi preferred the way everything was developing. His family was thriving and happy. He felt…complete in a way he didn't believe possible after Hiromi had died.
'You would be so proud of our daughters,' Hiashi thought. He caught a glimpse of the determined fire in Hinata's eyes and actually smiled. 'So very proud.'
Naruto was quiet as he wandered the grounds out in front of the Uzumaki Shrine. It was fairly large, but it was obvious that it hadn't been cared for in a long time.
"I gotta admit, I am pretty pissed." Naruto's stance revealed his anger. "No offense, but if anyone should have gotten a D-rank to care for this shrine it should have been me."
Ino nodded her head. "I was glad for the mission, but you're right Naruto. This is connected to your clan. You should be in charge of maintaining this place."
"We only took care of the entry area," Chouji added. "The D-rank gave us permission to enter the main areas of the shrine, but we refused."
"Violating another clan's sacred ground isn't something we were going to do," Shikamaru agreed.
"Thanks you guys," Naruto said genuinely. "I'm glad you all showed this place to me. Something's telling me not to go in yet, though."
"We're happy to help," Ino said warmly. "Just remember to come in to the flower shop and buy the single most expensive bouquet we have for your next date with Hinata."
"Sure thing, Ino," Naruto laughed. "Thanks you guys."
"Don't mention it," Shikamaru said with a shrug. Chouji waved and Naruto returned it before Team Ten wandered off. Naruto took a deep breath before turning towards a nearby fence. "You know, that disguise only works if you match the lines up with the boards of the fence."
Konohamaru dropped his disguise. "You saw that?"
"I did. Gotta say, Konohamaru, you did a pretty good job following me," Naruto admitted. The younger boy grinned broadly.
"Do you have any tips?" Konohamaru asked excitedly.
Naruto chuckled. "Now, why would I give my rival tips?" He crossed his arms and tried not to burst out laughing at Konohamaru's shocked expression. Naruto really didn't have anything against Konohamaru. It was Ebisu who had really angered Naruto. If anything, Naruto was actually Ebisu's rival.
"You've probably done more missions lately than Ebisu-sensei! You're more of a ninja than he is!" Konohamaru shouted and bowed.
Naruto saw what Konohamaru was doing. It was a play to Naruto's ego. Now, Naruto didn't really nurture his ego, but he still had one. 'Clever kid, clever.'
"He's still a ninja. Our biggest difference is philosophy. I have to admit, he has the right idea about starting you out with chakra control." Naruto watched as the gears turned in Konohamaru's head.
"Y-You actually agreed with Ebisu-sensei?" Konohamaru gasped once it hit him.
"Of course, chakra control is very important. Chances are that good chakra control will save your life one day. My issue is that he called it a short-cut to being a leader." Naruto ran a hand through his hair as he explained.
Konohamaru nodded. "I remember you talking about that."
"Do you still want a tip?" Naruto asked. He was hopeful that Konohamaru would talk to his grandfather about the Will of Fire soon.
Konohamaru nodded like Naruto had asked him if he wanted The Hat instead of just a tip. "You bet, boss!"
'Boss?' Naruto thought with a goofy grin. "Alright, here is one of the key things about being a ninja. Heck, you can't get a hitai-ate at all without mastering this crucial technique!"
The Hokage's grandson leaned in expectantly. "What is it?"
"Teamwork! If you don't have good teamwork, it's impossible to be a successful shinobi. Sometimes, that means working with people you don't really like. There were these two people in my class at the Academy that Hinata-chan really didn't get along with. We all realized after we graduated that we were now shinobi of Konoha. If the Hokage ordered it, we would have to work together," Naruto explained.
"I'm going to have to be the Rokudaime, aren't I?" Konohamaru asked. He looked a bit crestfallen.
"I'm not so sure," Naruto said gently. The Gennin tried to use a tone he remembered Iruka-sensei using after the Uchiha Massacre, Kō-nii-san using after Naruto had some nightmares as a little kid, and Yuji-sensei had used while talking to him about the Kyūbi. "Your grandfather will probably be Hokage until we're thirty."
Konohamaru laughed. "Yeah, Grandad will probably be Hokage forever. Got any more hints on teamwork?"
"I think I have a few…" Naruto said with a smile. The two boys didn't know it, but they were being watched. Ebisu sighed to himself and adjusted his glasses. It seemed that he had misjudged Uzumaki Naruto. The boy was surprisingly well spoken and in possession of a strong moral center. The Hyūga clearly trusted Naruto since the relationship between Naruto and Hinata, the heiress, was widely known. Ebisu was very surprised by the maturity of Naruto's positions.
The elite tutor slipped from his position and made his away across Konoha. He arrived at a small and pleasant house he had visited a few times. Ebisu walked to the door and knocked twice. A young girl answered the door, partially.
"May I help you?"
Ebisu noted that the girl didn't open the door all the way. She probably was holding a kunai in the hand Ebisu couldn't see. "Yes, miss. I need to speak with Wantanabe Yuji."
"Who are you?" She asked while shifting her weight.
"I am Tokubetsu Jonin Ebisu. I can provide my ninja identification number if necessary," Ebisu said evenly. If he sounded too eager, it would set off all sorts of alarm bells. If he was reluctant, it would also set off alarm bells. Paranoia wasn't a disorder for ninja. It was a survival tactic.
"That won't be necessary, Ebisu-san," an older man spoke up. The door opened and Wantanabe Yuji stepped out. "How may I help you?"
"I wish to discuss one of your pupils; Uzumaki Naruto," Ebisu said plainly.
Yuji crossed his arms. Ebisu recognized the action as a warning. Yuji wasn't hostile, but he would not tolerate any insults against his students. Ebisu held up his hands in a placating gesture.
"My purpose here isn't to lodge a complaint. I merely wish, one teacher to another, to compliment your exceptional work with Naruto. He has surprised me with the depth of his knowledge."
"I am pleased to hear that Naruto-kun is carrying himself with pride and dignity. Unfortunately, I can't take sole credit for his nature. A great deal is simply Naruto but the Hyūga, specifically Kō, have helped shape Naruto," Yuji explained as he uncrossed his arms.
"I feel that I should apologize to Naruto for my misconceptions, but we had a rather heated argument on the nature of shinobi and leadership earlier. However, he shows exceptional potential and deserves the chance to demonstrate that potential."
'The Chuunin Exams,' Yuji thought with resignation. "As you know, I am in command of a Gennin team. I must weigh each of my charge's abilities. All three are exceptional, but they are very young. I do not want to risk them."
Ebisu nodded. "I can understand that sentiment, Wantanabe-san. I have a single question that, perhaps, can help answer your own questions."
"I'm listening," Yuji said. He had to admit that he was curious about the question.
"Does the team rely solely on Naruto for its success and survival?"
Yuji instantly knew the answer to that question was no. Yes, Naruto's abilities and unique nature gave Team Four a substantial edge, but they were not the only reason for Team Four's miraculous survival in their string of missions. Kiba's scouting abilities and combat skills were instrumental in protecting the merchant convoy. Hinata had singlehandedly saved everyone from the enormous summon.
"No," Yuji admitted.
"Naruto and his teammates are your first students." Ebisu's words were not a question. They were a definitive statement.
"They are," Yuji confessed. "I have known Team Four for years, though."
Ebisu pushed his sunglasses up his nose. "Perhaps you are looking at the team from too personal a perspective."
"Perhaps," Yuji agreed.
Ebisu bowed politely. "I thank you for your time and do not wish to take any more of it. I'm sure you would much rather spend it with your family."
Wantanabe returned the bow. "Thank you Ebisu-san. You have given me a good deal to think about."
The tutor said his goodbye and left. Yuji headed back inside and smiled at his daughter. "Your stance was very good, Asami. You positioned so that you were protected from any attack and could easily respond if Ebisu had tried to force his way in."
"Thank you, Daddy," Asami beamed.
"It almost makes me forget that you dyed your hair," Yuji joked. His daughter had recently died her natural black hair so that it had several red streaks in it.
"Ah, Daddy, it's only temporary, and it makes me stand out!"
Wantanabe shook his head before creating a single kage bunshin. The kage bunshin walked out the front door quietly. "Do you still need help with your academics or have you gotten it down?"
"I think I got it. Why did you create a bunshin, and how is it acting on its own?" Asami asked.
"That's a kage bunshin. It's a very advanced Jonin-level technique. A kage bunshin can act on its own," Yuji explained.
Asami tilted her head to the side in confusion. "Then how come Uncle Naruto can use it?"
"Naruto-kun has a great deal of chakra," Yuji told as a partial truth. "Come on, that assignment won't finish itself."
Kō slowly approached the Uzumaki Shrine. He had actually found Naruto shortly after having the Hyūga apothecaries confirm Hana's diagnosis. This was going to be a difficult conversation. Kō watched as Naruto directed a number of kage bunshin in cleaning and preparing to fix a few areas of damage for the shrine.
"Hello, Naruto," Kō said with every ounce of brotherly affection he could muster.
"Kō-niisan!" Naruto shouted. It warmed the Hyūga's heart to see that even Naruto's clones were excited to see him.
"I see you found this place on your own," Kō said with a weak smile. Naruto's smile weakened as well.
"Team Ten helped me find it. Ino, Shikamaru, and Chouji got a mission to clean my clan's temple. I ran into them at Ichiraku and they brought me here," Naruto explained.
Kō closed his eyes for a moment. "You can ask."
The silence was oppressive. Naruto tried to speak several times. He finally managed to find his voice. The question came out strained. "Why didn't you all tell me?"
"We wanted to," Kō answered in a small voice. "If you've never believed anything I've ever said, believe that we wanted to tell you. The Hokage declared it an S-rank secret. Your parents…they had many enemies in Kumo and Iwa. I'm skirting with a capital offense by telling you that much. I-I want to tell you everything. I've nearly broken down and told you so many times. I know Hiashi-sama has nearly told you before."
Naruto looked down. "Hiashi-sama mentioned it when he told us his plan for the Hyūga Clan."
Kō had become privy to Hiashi-sama and Hizashi-sama's plans to radically reform the clan. He had seen the benefits of Hiashi-sama's plot. The dire rifts in the Hyūga clan were beginning to heal. It was almost as if Naruto's actions the night of Hinata-sama's third birthday had given the entire clan a new batch of courage.
"I've failed you," Kō confessed. Naruto looked up at Kō in naked disbelief. "I should have taught you more about your heritage. I should have had courage."
"D-Don't talk like that, Onii-san. You…you've done so much for me. I'm happy. I'm upset about this right now, but I'm happy because of you," Naruto pleaded.
Kō didn't say word and wrapped his little brother up in a hug. Naruto was overwhelmed and cried as he hugged Kō back. "I don't think you've cried like this since that first microwave dinner years ago."
"I-I haven't," Naruto admitted. "You're not going to tell anybody?"
"You're secret is safe with me," Kō assured Naruto while blinking back a few tears of his own. "Now, let's go home and trade stories about all the manly and badass things we did on our missions."
Kiba decided that he might as well get started on his mission report. His report would be much shorter than Naruto or Hinata's, so he might as well. Akamaru was resting in the corner of the room. Hana had given him a proper look over. Mashiro had actually done a pretty good job looking over Kiba's partner. The old Chūnin just wasn't an Inuzuka. Hana just knew Akamaru's nature better than anyone other than Kiba. There had been a time where Kiba had pestered his big sister to teach him medical ninjutsu. He had wanted to be able to really take care of his partner. Sadly, Kiba didn't have the chakra control necessary to master medical ninjutsu. The young Inuzuka was grateful for what he had learned, though. Kiba knew that the knowledge made him a more complete ninja.
A knock at his door drew Kiba from his thoughts. "Yo?"
"Kiba, Mom's asking for you," Hana said through the door. Kiba put down his pen and realized he only had barely filled out the identification form.
"Be there in a second," Kiba said. He walked over to Akamaru's spot in the corner and scratched his ears. "Come on, partner."
Akamaru yawned as he stretched out. The ninken looked up as his human partner.
"I don't know yet," Kiba revealed. The two partners exited Kiba's room and headed to the common's area. "Wantanabe-sensei?"
It was a huge surprise to Kiba to see his Jonin sensei visiting with his mother. He knew that his mom had been Wantanabe-sensei's Jonin instructor. Still, Kiba was surprised to see his sensei in his home.
"Hello Kiba," Yuji said warmly. "How is your recovery progressing?"
"We're doing better. I've tried to start my report," Kiba reported.
"That's good to hear," Wantanabe responded. "I came to get some advice from Tsume-sensei and I learned something interesting. Did you really attempt to learn medical ninjutsu as a kid?"
Tsume and Yuji chuckled as Kiba flushed a bit. "Yeah, I wanted to be able to really take care of Akamaru."
"Kiba, have you continued to study anything related to medicine?" Wantanabe asked. Kiba looked to his mother and she nodded.
"A bit," Kiba admitted. "I've only recently picked it back up. After our mission and everything that happened, I've really tried to make it something I can use in the field."
Yuji nodded. "Excellent."
"You've been good today, Kiba," Tsume jumped into the conversation. "Why don't you go hang out in the village for a while?"
Kiba quickly understood that his mom and his sensei had something to discuss in private. He wasn't too worried about the conversation. Kiba had noticed a few of Yuji-sensei's cues. The fact Kiba could even get a read on his teacher's mood was a huge relief. That meant Yuji was comfortable and in a good mood. Akamaru had given off subtle signals about the mood in room. Kiba and Akamaru decided to take Tsume's advice.
"Sounds like a good idea," Kiba answered. "Wantanabe-sensei, when will Team Four meet for training again?"
"You have a final check up tomorrow, correct?"
"Yes sir. The docs say I'll probably be medically cleared," Kiba conformed for his Jonin instructor.
Wantanbe leaned back in the chair. "We'll meet the day after tomorrow at 7 a.m."
"Yes sir. I'll let Naruto and Hinata know," Kiba spoke quickly. The small group exchanged goodbyes and Kiba exited his clan's compound. He held off on finding his teammates. Hinata was probably giving her reports to her clan. Naruto was somewhere off to east.
"Want to grab a bite to eat before catching up with Naruto?" Kiba asked Akamaru. The ninken barked an affirmative. The partners found a quiet bistro that was known for allowing Inuzuka ninken inside. Kiba ordered a bit more than he normally did. He wasn't worried about money at the moment. The payment from the B-rank alone was more money than Kiba had ever seen.
After paying, Kiba wandered into the parks of Konoha. He played catch with Akamaru, but was distracted.
"What are you planning, Yuji-sensei?" Kiba wondered out loud. There was no doubt in the young man's mind that his sensei was planning something huge. 'Naruto is pretty close to Wantanabe-sensei.' Kiba remembered. As Kiba looked for Naruto, he was glad to be doing something familiar. His mind was racing, and as such Kiba took comfort in the familiar sensation of tracking.
Eventually, Akamaru and Kiba managed to follow the clues to a nice apartment complex a decent distance from the traditional Clan districts. The pair climbed the stairs and knocked on the door where Naruto's scent was strongest.
"Hello?" Naruto asked without opening the door.
"It's me, Naruto," Kiba answered. "We need to talk. I think something's up."
"Come on in," Naruto said quickly. "After the craziness of our missions, we need to be prepared for anything. What's going on?"
"I don't think it's anything bad, but after what we went through…" Kiba trailed off as he and Akamaru entered the common room. He waved at Kō and the Hyūga Jonin motioned to a seat.
"If you two need to talk about this in private, I can head to the kitchen," Kō offered.
Kiba shook his head. "It is up to you. I'm really not sure what's going on. Like I said, I don't think it's anything bad."
"So, what exactly went down?" Naruto asked and motioned to a nearby chair.
Kiba smiled in thanks as he sat down. "Wantanabe-sensei was visiting with my mom earlier. He asked about some of my other skills. When I told him I was starting to study first aid again, he answered 'excellent'."
"That's odd. I haven't run into Yuji-sensei since I got back, but I had a weird run in earlier," Naruto responded.
"What happened?" Kiba asked.
Naruto rested his hands behind his head. "Ran into some guy named Ebisu. We, uh, debated each other over leadership. I've…kinda…declared that I want to be Hokage."
"Good to see that your keeping the goals small," Kiba snarked.
The two boys laughed a bit. Naruto shook his head and grinned widely. "I wonder what's going on with Hinata-chan? Maybe she had a crazy moment."
"I think we should find out," Kō suddenly spoke up. "I have a feeling I know why Yuji visited with Tsume-sama."
Akamaru yipped a few times and Kiba translated. "Akamaru says he can tell that it is a bit more than a feeling."
"He's a clever one," Kō laughed. "I think it is something I should mention to all of Team Four."
The Hyūga Jonin noticed the looks Naruto, Akamaru, and Kiba exchanged. "Don't worry, it's not anything bad. Kiba-san's instincts were spot on. There isn't anything to be too worried about."
The two young men of Team Four visibily relaxed. "Let's go, then. All this curiosity is driving me crazy," Kiba said. Naruto and Kō were the first to head to the door. Akamaru gave Kiba an odd look. Kiba simply smiled back. The partners headed out the door with the Hyūga and the Hyūga ward.
'Somehow, Naruto as Hokage just fits,' Kiba thought. 'At least I know I'll get my pick of my future Gennin teams.'
Hiashi sat quietly and sipped on a cup of green tea. He didn't really need anything to drink, but the cup provided an excellent camouflage for his amused smirk. The Hyūga elders had absolutely no idea why they had been summoned.
"Hiashi-sama, may I ask why the council has been summoned?" Yoshinori asked. Hiashi took a moment to compose himself. Yoshinori was becoming increasingly belligerent. Recently, even Takeshi had begun to distance himself from Yoshinori on several issues.
"My daughter has returned from her missions and wishes to inform the clan of several triumphs," Hiashi responded proudly. Yoshinori ground his teeth, but did not respond. Minoru, mercifully in Hiashi's opinion, spoke before the antagonistic elder could respond.
"Hiashi-sama, Hinata-sama was only assigned a single C-Rank mission."
"You are correct," Hiashi acknowledged Minoru with a polite nod. "Hinata was only assigned a C-rank mission. The situation became…more complex than her team and Jonin-sensei expected. She will explain."
Hiashi nodded to the two cadet guards at the back of the chamber. They opened the doors and Hinata entered. There were several confused murmurs at the sight of the scroll Hinata carried. Hiashi watched as Hinata continued to keep the elders, even her allies, off balance. Her tone was measured and graceful as she waltzed through the traditional forms of announcing her desire to speak in front of the clan elders.
"Your petition to speak before the assembled, and honorable, elders of the Hyūga clan has been received. I, Hyūga Hiashi, acting in my capacity as head of the Hyūga clan accept your petition to speak." Hiashi's words sounded mechanical in his ears. Hinata's words seemed to be far more graceful and befitting the status of the Hyūga assembled in the room. Though, Hiashi admitted to himself, he was probably allowing paternal pride to cloud his judgement.
"Thank you, Hiashi-sama," Hinata bowed low as she responded. "As the clan is no doubt aware, my team and I were assigned a C-rank mission. Team Four successfully completed the mission. The client left a letter of commendation for all members of the team."
Hinata paused as she allowed the first details to sink in. She noticed that Takeshi had motioned to Hiashi for permission to speak. Hiashi granted Takeshi permission as it would be poor form and an overt insult to deny him permission after Hinata paused.
"Hinata-sama, I am sure that the C-rank is not how you procured your scroll, but what were the details of your official mission?"
"Takeshi-sama," Hinata began politely. "Our C-rank was to escort a merchant convoy owned and operated by Yoshida Takumi to the Land of Honey. We were beset by bandits, but dispatched them quickly. I do not believe they even managed to land a solid blow on any member of Team Four."
The Hyūga Council nodded approvingly. Hinata felt pride swell in her chest.
"Please continue with your report, Hinata-sama. We of the clan council are eager to hear about the further honor you brought to the Hyūga Clan," Akihito said respectfully.
"Team Four was eager to return home," Hinata revealed. She told the council of the attempt to seek shelter in a castle that was just across the border from The Land of Honey in The Land of Necks. "The castle threatened us. I activated my Byakugan and realized that the castle was actually a living creature. Team Four was unaware of the nature of the castle. Our clients, our maps, and our knowledge of local history had confirmed that the castle was a fixture of the area since before the Second Great Shinobi World War. The 'castle' quickly attacked us. Naruto-kun fell victim to a mouth that materialized directly beneath his feet. I…I cannot recall many details after that. My anger, a redoubled attack by the creature, and the shock of seeing Wantanable-sensei hurt by an acid spray continues to cloud my memory. The next memory I possess is being tossed through an…orifice into a table. The next event is strange, even by the standards of the shinobi world, and I can offer no explanation. I am…troubled by the implications."
Minoru was granted permission to speak by Hiashi. "Hinata-sama, why did the next development trouble you so?"
"I saw Kubisaki Goza. He was completely invisible to my Byakugan, but I could easily see him with my normal sight," Hinata revealed.
As Hinata anticipated, the Hyūga council was visibly disturbed by the revelation. Takeshi asked if Hinata was concussed and that, perhaps, there was a simple medical explanation for the vision. Hinata informed the council that she was not concussed.
"The clan will look into this matter. There have been similar rumors and reports in the past, and the council feels this matter could be a potential threat to the Hyūga," Hiashi declared. The entire council, Yoshinori included, nodded in agreement. "Please continue, Hinata-sama."
"Kubisaki Goza's…spirit, perhaps...guided me through the castle. I didn't come under any further attack until I reached the chamber holding the summoning contract. Naruto-kun helped protect me as I secured the contract. I believe the castle resumed attacking me because Goza's spirit was no longer masking my presence from the summoned creature. I managed to secure the summoning contract with Naruto-kun's assistance and release the creature. The releasing of such a powerful summon left me with severe chakra exhaustion. I do not recall much of the return journey."
"Then, you have no recollection of Shimizu Den's attack?" Yoshinori asked after receiving permission to speak.
"My unconscious state prevented me from having any knowledge of the battle," Hinata said with consummate politeness.
Yoshinori bristled, but did not press the issue. The rest of the meeting was fairly standard questions. Hinata informed the council that she had not attempted a summoning because Yuji-sensei had ordered Team Four not to undertake any intensive training for at least a week after their return to Konoha. The elders, surprisingly, agreed with Wantanabe.
"The clan council wishes to extend a formal commendation to you, Hinata-sama. The honor you have brought the clan is to be celebrated," Hiashi said in what he thought would be the closing statement of the meeting.
"Honored elders, there is another who has brought honor to the Hyūga, despite his status as a clan ward," Hinata challenged. Many of the elders looked concerned, but Yoshinori looked livid.
Hiashi had known Hinata would bring this point to the attention of the Council. He decided to forestall any lengthy debate. "You speak of Uzumaki Naruto."
"I do, Hiashi-sama," Hinata responded. She didn't like calling her father 'Hiashi-sama', but protocol demanded the formal address. "I have studied Konoha's laws on the relationship between the warden and the ward. I do not believe the Hyūga clan has fully honored the requirements of our arrangement. Naruto-kun has almost no knowledge of his own clan. The Hyūga have records that date back to the very founding of the shinobi world. We, no doubt, have numerous records regarding the Uzumaki clan."
Hinata's use of the very familiar form of address was a completely unsubtle declaration of her opinion on the matter. Minoru received permission to speak from Hiashi. The clan head was nervous about the position the Council would take, but he had to acknowledge at least one of the elders.
"You are correct that Uzumaki-san has brought great honor to the Hyūga. He protected our bloodline from falling into the hands of one of the clan's greatest enemies. Additionally, Uzumaki-san ensured that final justice was delivered to the hated Shimizu Den. I request that the Clan Head allow Akihito-sama to attend to the Clan Records and begin tutoring Uzumaki-san in the history of Hyūga-Uzumaki relations."
Hiashi and Hinata were stunned. Minoru's motion was a greater victory than they could have ever hoped for. Hiashi brought Minoru's motion to a vote. It passed with only one negative vote from Yoshinori.
Hiashi and Hinata lingered in the Council Chambers for a while after the meeting had been adjourned.
"I-I had not expected that of Minoru-sama," Hinata admitted. "I know Naruto-kun will be thrilled to find out."
"What will I be thrilled to find out?" Hinata and Hiashi looked up at the sound of Naruto's voice. Hinata broke out in a relieved smile the second she noticed Naruto. Naruto's eyes no longer held any of the doubt or confusion that had plagued him outside of the Hokage's office. He was smiling again.
Hiashi politely nodded to Kō, Kiba, and Naruto. "It is good to see you again, Kiba-san. Welcome home, Naruto and Kō," Hiashi greeted formally. The three young men bowed. "I can see that this conversation likely revolves around Team Four. There is a meeting room down the hall; I will ensure no one interferes."
"Thank you, Hiashi-sama," Naruto said with a bow. Hinata lead them to the meeting room.
The group sat down around the table and Hinata immediately noticed the triumphant grins adorning her boyfriend and her teammate's faces. Naruto and Kiba only smiled like that when they had pulled a prank, won a fight, or gotten praise from Wantanabe-sensei or the Hokage.
"What is going on, Naruto-kun, Kiba-kun?" Hinata asked. "I haven't seen you two grin like that since we were first put on Team Four."
Kiba grinned. "Wantanabe-sensei is planning something. Naruto and I aren't exactly sure what it is, but sensei is going big!"
"Kiba's right," Naruto backed up his friend. "Kō-niisan says he knows what Yuji-sensei is planning."
"You do, Kō-san?" Hinata asked.
Kō inclined his head respectfully. "I do, Hinata-sama. As you know, I assisted Team Seven on their mission to the Land of Waves. It was a successful, but hard fought, mission. Upon our return, Kakashi-sempai asked for my opinion on his team. I gave him my assessment on Team Seven and Kakashi-sempai seemed to agree. He told me that he will be nominating Team Seven for the next Chūnin Exams."
"Chūnin Exams?" Kiba and Hinata asked at the same time. Naruto was oddly quiet as he contemplated the idea.
"How long before the next exams?" Naruto asked before Kō could confirm Kiba and Hinata's suspicions.
"The Chūnin Exams will take place in four months," Kō answered.
Team Four was stunned. The three Genin sat quietly for a moment, before Hinata looked up fiercely. The look in Hinata's eyes caught everyone by surprise. Kiba and Kō were shocked by the extreme confidence and viewed Hinata with an even higher amount of respect. Naruto had always respected Hinata greatly, and took in Hinata's confidence with a blush.
To Naruto, Hinata looked insanely hot right now.
"We are ready for the Chūnin Exams now," Hinata declared. "We just need to show Wantanabe-sensei that we're ready."
"Hinata-chan's right," Naruto agreed. He was speaking to the entire group, but he couldn't take his eyes off Hinata. "Chūnin are expected to be leaders. We've got to show Yuji-sensei that we can do that."
"Sounds like we should get on those mission reports," Kiba added. Naruto and Hinata nodded in agreement. The Inuzuka informed his teammates of the time Yuji had set up for their next training session. Kō left the team after a few polite words of encouragement.
Naruto started quizzing his teammates on what they had been up to since Team Four had gone their separate ways at the Hokage Tower. Kiba simply let his teammates know a bit more about what had tipped him off the Wantanabe-sensei's plans. Hinata shyly told about her report to the clan council, but left out a few details that she wanted to share with Naruto alone. Naruto told his teammates about his run-ins with Ebisu and Konohamaru with his usual exuberance. His tone shifted to a more somber, and almost reverent, tone when he talked about Team Ten taking him to the Uzumaki Shrine.
"Seems like you're figuring a few things out," Kiba said warmly. Naruto nodded at his friend. Team Four's meeting ended on a positive note. Kiba and Akamaru headed home and left Naruto and Hinata alone in the office.
"Naruto-kun, I'm glad you are discovering information about your clan," Hinata said softly. "On behalf of the Hyūga Clan, I apologize that we did not do more to help you discover your heritage."
Naruto shook his head and chuckled. "Hinata-chan, the only time I like seeing you that formal is when you're in a dress." The Hyūga heiress went bright red and Naruto continued. "You've always been one of my biggest supporters. I don't hold anything against you."
"Thank you, Naruto-kun," Hinata said in response to both compliments. "The Hyūga council voted to allow you to have access to our clan's records to research the ties between our clans."
Naruto's face lit up. "That's awesome!"
"I'm glad I could help you," Hinata said softly.
The young man grinned. "I don't know what I'd do without you. Oh, and Hinata-chan…you were really hot when you declared we were ready for the Chūnin Exams."
Hinata's blush certainly wasn't unexpected, but the look in her eyes caught Naruto completely off guard. "Byakugan," Hinata whispered.
"Ne, Hinata-chan, why are you…" Naruto never got a chance to finish his sentence as Hinata practically shunshinned out of her seat and pressed her lips against his.
Naruto's last coherent thought was roughly, 'best day ever'.
Team Four resumed training with gusto. They threw themselves at basic training and their teamwork became almost flawless. In fact, they had taken to using the Transformation Technique in their spars and mimicking their teammates. Yuji had to admit that it was a novel approach to learning each others fighting styles and mastering chakra control.
The Jonin had a sneaking suspicion that his team had an idea about the Chūnin Exams. A few days after training resumed, Yuji had seen Hinata talking with Sakura and Ino outside of a clothing store about the intense training Asuma and Kakashi had been putting Team Seven and Team Ten through.
There was a part of Yuji that was worried his team was about to hit a wall in training. So, he decided to change tracks. Naruto and Kiba complained about the string of D-ranks, but they certainly didn't complain about the money they were making. Thanks to Naruto's kage bunshin, Hinata's management abilities, and Kiba's dogged determination Team Four completed eight D-ranks in a single week.
"Hokage-sama, I believe Team Four has sufficiently recovered and is ready for a C-rank mission," Yuji announced. Hinata, Kiba, and Naruto all looked absolutely thrilled. Kiba and Akamaru appeared as if someone had given them a perfectly cooked steak wrapped in bacon. Naruto and Hinata looked as if they had just received word that their next date would be completely unsupervised.
"I believe your charges support your assessment," Hiruzen replied with a chuckle. "We do not have a C-rank for today, but a member of the Ueda Clan will need an escort to her family's villa to the east tomorrow."
"You do us a great honor, Hokage-sama," Hinata said respectfully. Kiba, Naruto, and Akamaru exchanged confused glances.
Wantanabe was as aware as Hinata that this mission was a sign of the Hokage's favor. "Team Four graciously accepts the mission, Hokage-sama."
The Hokage smiled. "Excellent. I will inform Naho-sama personally. Naho-sama will be leaving by the south gate at nine A.M. Dismissed, Team Four."
Team Four bowed and exited as instructed. As soon as they were clear of the Hokage's office, Akamaru barked and whined in such a way that it was clear he was asking a question.
"I'm with Akamaru," Naruto agreed. "Just what's so special about Ueda Naho?"
Kiba did a double-take when he heard Naruto's words. "I-I'm impressed, dude. You almost got that spot-on."
"Well, Akamaru and I have been working together for a while now. I'd like to think I can understand a teammate a bit," Naruto bragged.
'Yeah, he's definitely gonna be Hokage,' Kiba thought. "But I'm curious too, Hinata. Who is this Ueda Naho chick?"
"Ueda Naho is the grand-niece of the Fire Daimyo," Yuji stated. He had to admit, it was amusing to see Naruto and Kiba's jaw drop. "According to reports, she's one of our Daimyo's favorite relatives."
"Oh," Kiba managed to speak first. "That's…kind of a big deal."
"This might just be the most important mission of our careers so far," Naruto announced. "Naho-sama will talk about us with her family and the Daimyo will find out."
"I-I think this should be an A-rank…You make it all sound so important, Naruto-kun," Hinata said breathlessly.
Naruto grinned broadly. "It is important and that's why we go it!"
"So, no pressure, eh?" Kiba asked. Wantanabe-sensei simply sat back and watched the amusing antics of his charges.
"Nope! We've got Hinata-chan and Akamaru! They'll pick up our slack!" Naruto joked. Team Four laughed a bit at Naruto's joke. Yuji dismissed the team and everyone started to go their separate ways. "Hey, Hinata-chan, can you wait a second?"
Hinata stopped and waited for Naruto to jog over to her. "What is it Naruto-kun?"
"I know we're about to go on another C-rank, but I think things have gotten back to 'normal' after the last one. I just wanted to let you know, I haven't forgotten that I owe you a real date," Naruto said with a wistful smile.
"I am going to hold you to that," Hinata admitted to a smile.
Naruto moved closer and wrapped his arms around Hinata. "Mind if I hold you for a bit?"
"N-No," Hinata answered with a brilliant crimson decorating her cheeks. Naruto smirked and inched closer. Hinata enjoyed the attention Naruto lavished upon her.
A man cleared his throat off to the couple's left. The pair jumped a bit, and instinctively entered their taijutsu stances.
Shimura Danzo stared at the two young Genin for a moment. "I know that such affection is common for young people, but it is unwise to do so in public. What would Hiashi-sama say if he saw you two like that?"
Naruto and Hinata cast a quick glance at each other. Naruto shrugged his shoulders. "Probably something about waiting 'till we got home?"
Danzo's lone visible settled on the Hyūga heiress. He had expected a reaction of shock and embarrassment from the young woman. Hyūga-sama's blush certainly fit with Danzo's expectations, but the momentary upward twitch of her lips hadn't been expected.
"I-I don't think Father would put it like that, Naruto-kun," Hinata admitted shyly. Danzo silently ground his teeth. He controlled his emotions well, but his annoyance still flared. These were two of the most promising tools Konoha possessed and had been given the sensitive political assignment of ensuring the safety of the Fire Daimyo's favored 'grandchild'. Instead of preparing for the mission, they were acting like two love-struck teenagers.
"Still, I believe his sentiment would be most…prudent." Danzo seemed to relax.
"You are right, sir," Naruto agreed politely. "We should also get ready our mission in the morning. Have a good day…"
"Shimura Danzo," Danzo provided. Naruto bowed.
"Goodbye Danzo-san," Naruto completed the bow. "May I escort you home, Hinata-chan?"
"You may, Naruto-kun," Hinata answered playfully. "Have a pleasant day, Shimura-sama."
"You as well," Danzo replied flatly. The two Genin walked off in the direction of the Hyūga compound. The village elder stood quietly at the base of the Hokage's tower for a moment as he pondered the container and the heiress. They were both very talented. Danzo had actually been pleased by their reactions to his surprise arrival. Though, he had been disappointed that he had been able to approach them at all. However, they recovered quickly and entered into defensive taijutsu stances instinctively. There stances were very telling as well. Hinata and Naruto did not move to shield each other, but to support each other. That spoke well of their teamwork and respect for each other. Danzo was…concerned…by his agents' failures to secure the container before the Hyūga had, but at least the boy was becoming a powerful tool for the village.
It, sadly, was almost treasonous that the Hyūga were monopolizing Konoha's greatest weapon. Hiashi was likely using the relationship as a means of control and/or a way to stabilize the Hyūga genetically.
'I will need a way to…secure…the container for the entire village rather than a single clan,' Danzo decided. Perhaps there were elements within the Hyūga Clan that could aid him? Another option was that the Foundation could reach out to their associates during the event in four months.
'I do not have much time and plans must be laid.'
Kiba and Akamaru decided to take the long way back to the Inuzuka Clan compound. He really had to think about the significance of the mission. The young Inuzuka had always been brimming with self-confidence. However, the implications of his next C-rank were actually staggering. The Daimyo would know about Kiba's performance. The Hokage had chosen Team Four for this mission.
The Third hadn't held out for Team Seven and Sasuke. He hadn't saved it for Team Ten and the second generation Ino-Shika-Cho.
Hokage-sama had chosen Team Four.
He had chosen Kiba and Akamaru. Simply put, this might be one of the greatest moments of Kiba's life. Kiba needed to get his emotions under control before he reached home or his mom and Hana would try their best to tease Kiba and bring him back down to Earth. Still, it was a great honor to be selected.
Akamaru paused and whined to get Kiba's attention. The human paused and quirked an eyebrow at his partner. It was then that the singing reached his ears. It was an old hunter's song. Kiba judged the direction, volume, and the smell carried on the wind and determined it was a girl at the old Union Shrine. The Union Shrine was built shortly after the founding of Konoha and the Fire Daimyo's official recognition of the power of the First Hokage.
Kiba approached the Shrine and saw a brightly colored ball rise and fall in the air. The ball disappeared and so did the singing. Kiba shrugged his shoulders and Akamaru barked that he had lost interest as well.
"So, how do you think Mom and Kuromaru will try to bring us back down to earth?" Kiba asked Akamaru.
The ninken's tail wagged and he let a howl out. Kiba laughed at his partner's answer.
"I don't think avoiding them until we leave in the morning will work, partner," Kiba laughed heartily at Akamaru's joke.
A scream shattered the atmosphere of camaraderie. Kiba and Akamaru did not exchange a glance as they exploded to the source of the scream. The pair relied on their enhanced sense of smell and hearing to pinpoint the location of the person in danger. Kiba vaulted over and Akamaru slid through the gaps of the fence that separated the Union Shrine and the seemingly-bottomless ravine. A young noblewoman was hanging on to an exposed root with one hand and had an ornate ball in the other. Kiba quickly snatched the arm clinging desperately to the root.
"Grab onto Akumaru's collar!" Kiba ordered. The distressed young woman grabbed Akumaru's collar and Kiba and Akumaru pulled her to safety.
"You alright?" Kiba asked. The girl quivered a bit, but nodded. "What the heck happened?"
"I slipped trying to get my brother's ball," the girl answered.
Kiba crossed his arms and shot her an annoyed look. She risked her life for a ball? There wasn't anyone else around. Akamaru would have pointed that out if there had been anyone. A ball was just a thing; an item. Her brother could replace a ball, but not a sister.
"A ball isn't worth your life," Kiba channeled his mom's most stern tone and chastised the girl. "How would your stunt have affected your brother if you'd died?"
The girl looked down and said something so softly that even Akamaru had trouble hearing it. The ninken whined a bit and Kiba looked at the girl. She looked over at the dog and the young man who had saved her life.
"I said that ball is all I have left! My twin is gone," the girl nearly wailed.
"I'm sorry," Kiba said dumbly. "I didn't realize it was so recent."
"It wasn't," the girl admitted. "Nori died when we were six."
Kiba didn't respond or even sigh. He knew that he'd be torn up if Akamaru ever died. Inuzuka and their ninken were closer than almost any human bond. Kiba had heard about how close twins were and had even seen the bond in action. Hizashi and Hiashi were both incredibly close and it was actually kinda creepy how they have an entire conversation based entirely by the movements of their eyes.
"I didn't know your brother, but I know he wants you to live a full and happy life before you two are reunited." Kiba used his most reassuring tone of voice and a gentle smile.
"T-Thank you." Kiba desperately fought the urge to raise an eyebrow. He had seen a blush like that a few times…from Sakura whenever Sasuke was around…or from Hinata when Naruto did something incredibly sappy and romantic.
"I…may I know your name? I-I need to properly thank my rescuer."
Kiba smirked. "Inuzuka Kiba."
"Thank you, Inuzuka Kiba-san. I am Ueda Naho," Naho finished with a bow.
Kiba and Akamaru exchanged a quick look. The young man shook his head. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Naho-sama."
Naho smiled as she accepted Kiba's assistance of standing up. "S-so polite. Again, I must thank you, Kiba-san."
"You're, uh, welcome," Kiba said nervously. It wasn't that he disliked having attention from girls. There were two potential issues. First, Naho was his upcoming client. That could get awkward. Second, she was just a kid. Unfortunately for Kiba, Naho turned out to be very adept at reading people. In fact, Kiba thought she was almost as good as Hinata.
"I know I'm short," Naho grumbled. Kiba was about to reassure her that kids kept growing, but was cut off. "And I'm your age, I'll have you know! Unless Konoha and the Land of Fire are in a State of War or the student is a genius, graduation from Konoha's Academy happens at age twelve or thirteen depending on birthdates!"
"You…really know your stuff. Sorry for the mistake," Kiba said apologetically.
Naho beamed. "Apology accepted, Kiba-san."
"So, Naho-sama…where are you staying tonight before you depart in the morning?" Kiba asked.
"H-How did you know that?" Naho asked cautiously. Akamaru barked and Kiba translated that Team Four had been selected as Naho's escorts. The noblewoman beamed. "You'll be my escort?"
"Akamaru and I wouldn't lie about something like that," Kiba assured the noble.
"Well, Kiba-kun, may I request an escort back to my hotel room? I am aware you aren't under contract until tomorrow morning, but I would be very appreciative…" Naho said with a bit of faux-innocence and a good bit of hopefulness.
Kiba smirked and motioned for Naho to take the lead. "Take the lead, Naho-sama."
Naruto and Hinata met each other at Sayuri's for a light breakfast. They did not speak of their mission or the constant reminders from both their guardians and the Hyūga Clan Council about the unimaginable importance of their mission. Instead, they simply enjoyed each others company.
"I can't believe I'm less worried about a bandit attack than offending Ueda-sama," Hinata sighed as she finished her tea.
"Hinata-chan, you're the last person who should be worried about offending anyone." Naruto shook his head at the absurdity of the idea.
"R-Right, thank you, Naruto-kun," Hinata said with a small grin. "We should probably start heading to the gate. I want to make a good impression with the Daimyo's family."
Naruto returned the smile. "I wonder how Kiba is going to handle this mission."
"I can't believe you would even think that!" Naruto and Hinata heard a young woman shout. The couple exchanged a nervous glance. The shouting was very close to the gates and carried an aristocratic coloring.
"What? You know that I'm right," Kiba's voice carried clearly around the corner. Akamaru barked twice in agreement.
"Is it too late to request a new escort?"
Naruto and Hinata rounded the corner and felt a sense of panic rising in their gut. Kiba was arguing with the client! Naho-sama was a favored relative of the Daimyo! The couple had been brought up in the halls of the very politically-minded Hyūga Clan. Hinata took the lead and started to head over to the bickering teens.
"Don't worry," Yuji's voice snapped Naruto and Hinata out of their mission. The two Genin looked at their sensei and commanding officer in shock. Wantanabe-sensei chuckled softly. "They've been at it for the last five minutes."
"Yuji-sensei…if they've been at it so long, why haven't you stepped in?" Naruto asked as delicately as his nervousness allowed. The Jonin simply nodded in the direction of Naho and Kiba.
"I'm sorry, but you're stuck with us, Naho-sama. This trip will go so much easier if you'll just admit the third Princess Fūn movie was better than the second one."
Hinata and Naruto blinked at the bizarre exchange. After a moment, Naruto snorted. "Shame Naho-sama and Kiba are both wrong. The second and third are tied and the fourth is the second best after the first one."
Yuji started to laugh in amusement and relief. 'It is good to see that despite everything, this world has not completely robbed Team Four of their childhoods.'
Team Four was on edge. There were no overt threats that Konoha's intelligence had discovered against their client, but as one of the Fire Daimyo's favored relatives there were always threats against Ueda Naho. Hinata was constantly surveying the surrounding area with her Byakugan and directing Naruto's kage bunshin to investigate anything remotely suspicious. Kiba and Akamaru were doing their part by detecting any and all smells on the wind. The Gennin were following the same plan that had served them well on their first C-rank mission. They were very relieved that the perimeter needed to defend the client was much smaller than the massive merchant caravan.
"Naho-sama," Hinata said politely as she approached the young woman's carriage. "We have completed our most recent sweep of the surrounding areas."
"Thank you for your vigilance and professionalism," Naho answered formally. She flicked her eyes around the carriage. Once she was confident her attendants were absorbed in either their books or official reports, she leaned closer to the window. "Hinata-san…I am curious about a particular aspect of shinobi deployments."
Hinata noted the amused gleam in the client's eyes before speaking. "Obviously, I cannot discuss anything that would jeopardize the security of Konoha or my fellow shinobi."
"Of course, I've been tutored on civilian-shinobi interaction since before I could talk," Naho pointed out. "I'm just curious…are all cells two guys and one girl?"
"That is the traditional ratio," Hinata answered.
"I'm stuck with old tutors…" Naho pouted a bit. "Are the shinobi of the cell always as hot as those two or did you just have the best luck ever?"
Hinata blushed. "I-I…"
Naho laughed. "I apologize for putting you on the spot like this. I'm just curious and this is the first time I have met with a kunoichi my age. The only other times I've dealt with shinobi have been the Twelve Guardian Ninja that protect my great uncle and a pair of Chūnin who escorted my father home from a meeting in the Capital."
"They were likely very focused on their duties," Hinata surmised.
"I'm sure you can picture just how focused they were," Naho grumbled. "But, I'm glad to meet a kunoichi my age. Is being in a battle frightening?"
"Yes," Hinata answered without a moment's hesitation. "Konoha has trained us to control our fear so that we may complete our missions and protect our teammates and clients."
"I never thought I'd hear a ninja admit to being afraid of anything. The stories and books make you out to be fearless warriors."
Hinata smiled. "We are warriors, but we're still human. I've experienced fear and I know that Naruto-kun and Kiba-kun have also been afraid."
"That…makes me feel better actually. Knowing that you experience emotions like the rest of us makes you feel real." Naho let a breath out. "Speaking of what the stories and books say…is there any tension on the team?"
Hinata blushed as she realized the type of tension Naho was referring to. "No, there's no tension. Naruto-kun and I have been…seeing each officially for some time now. Kiba-kun has always been a very dear friend."
"Friend-zoned?" Naho asked with a giggle that Hinata noted was masking some other emotion.
"Just a friend. There was never any…interest that would put Kiba in the friend-zone from the beginning."
Naho brightened a bit. "Oh. Is there any truth to those stories then?"
"There's truth to it," Hinata revealed. "I have not heard of any…tension from my graduating class, but it has happened. I had one of my cousins complain about falling into that kind of situation before."
"I bet the drama was incredible! Your clan is one of the Four Noble Shinobi Clans, after all."
Hinata activated her Byakugan again before lowering her voice. "Tsukiko's situation put movies to shame. I was a bit too young to understand at the time, but it was almost legendary!"
Several feet away, Naruto was walking along the trail with Kiba. "They're whispering."
"That probably won't end well," Kiba said in a conspiratorial tone. "I've seen Hana and a few of my girl clanmates chat like that. Generally, it is some crazy gossip about who's seeing who, who's wanting who, and stuff like that."
"I'm not even going to pretend to understand," Naruto grumbled.
Akamaru barked and Naruto shrugged. Kiba started to laugh. "Akamaru nailed that one. I don't think we'll ever understand women."
"I've got a list of things I call 'Weird Hyūga Girl Stuff' that I've seen over the years. It all still confuses me." Naruto looked around. Yuji-sensei was leaping between branches and Naruto noticed that the former ANBU was not using a set pattern. "Like, Hinata-chan and I were on a date before our first C-rank. We were just walking around when suddenly Hinata-chan latches onto my arm like someone was going to try steal me away or something."
Kiba chuckled. "I've been around my sis enough to say she might have thought someone would try." The Inuzuka grinned at his best friend's confusion. "Hinata probably saw another girl or group of girls scoping you. She was staking her claim."
"I'm not going to complain about Hinata hugging me like that, but I mean, can you see me even looking at another girl?"
"Think of it this way, would you want some random dude scoping Hinata out?"
"Hell no," Naruto snorted. Kiba spread his arms wide and quirked an eyebrow. "Point taken, Kiba."
Naruto had to admit that this C-rank was going incredibly smoothly. In fact, Naruto was worried that everything was going too smoothly. The jinchūriki was expecting the ax to drop at any moment.
'I have several patrolling squads of kage nunshin, Hinata-chan has the Byakugan, and Kiba and Akamaru can smell just about anything,' Naruto thought to reassure himself. Now, Naruto admitted, was as good a time as any to approach Yuji-sensei.
"Yuji-sensei, can I speak with you a moment?" Naruto asked. The Jonin nodded and dropped down from his perch.
"Always, Naruto," Yuji assured his student. "What may I help you with?"
"I've been thinking recently…" Naruto began. "I got into a…debate with a shinobi named Ebisu a while back. We disagreed on what made a good shinobi. He argued that jutsu alone made a good ninja. I still disagree with him, but…"
"You weren't the only one he had a conversation with recently," Yuji revealed. Naruto's eyes went wide in an instant. "He was impressed with you. You've made an impact on his student, I believe."
Naruto grinned. "Cool, but I kinda agree that a ninja needs a wide variety of jutsu. I only really know Kage Bunshin, Substitution, and the Henge. My taijutsu and shurikenjutsu aren't bad, but that's all still really basic stuff."
"I can understand your position. Kiba-kun and Hinata-chan have a variety of jutsu they have learned from their clans," Wantanbe observed. Naruto nodded sheepishly. "I think I can point out a few useful jutsu that can take advantage of your massive chakra reserves.
"Thanks, Yuji-sensei. That detail gives me at least one advantage. I should make use of it," Naruto stated quietly. "I've also got a few ideas about using Kage Bunshin, but there hasn't been a whole lot of time to work on it…"
Yuji smiled. "It is good that you are trying to innovate with what you have. Inventiveness is a valuable skill that is always appreciated by superiors and clients."
Naruto beamed. "Thank you, Yuji-sensei."
"You're welcome, Naruto-kun. Please report to Kiba-kun, Hinata-chan, and Naho-sama along with her attendants that we should be approaching a suitable location for camp."
"Yes sir," Naruto answered with a slight bow of the head. He jogged off to where Hinata was scanning the area with her Byakugan. Naruto chuckled as he once again met up with Hinata with her Byakugan active.
"Naruto-kun, there's a good place to camp less than two miles from our current location," Hinata announced professionally.
The Jinchūriki nodded. "Yuji-sensei spotted it earlier. He wanted me to spread the word."
"Kiba-kun is keeping an eye on the path," Hinata explained. Naruto nodded and sent a kage bunshin to collect the third Gennin of Team Four. It only took a moment for Hinata and Naruto to reach the noblewoman and her attendants.
"Naho-sama," Naruto greeted the client politely. "Yuji-sensei and Hinata-chan have discovered a location for the camp. We will be able to easily defend the location and the camp will be comfortable."
Naho smiled warmly. "How soon will we arrive? I am eager to stretch my legs."
"It should not be much longer. Our pace has been excellent," Hinata stepped into the conversation smoothly.
"Thank you all for your professionalism," Naho said deliberately. She knew that her attendants reported on her status, moods, and political training to her great uncle.
Kiba joined the group. "Everything is clear for miles. The only scents I've detected have belonged to wild deer."
"When we establish camp, I would be honored if Team Four would join me for dinner. Eiji-san is a very established chef. I am confident you will find the quality of the meal far more palatable than field rations," Naho continued her overly formal tone. Hinata noticed that Naho was carrying out a role. She was acting. Hinata had danced the practiced political waltz enough times to recognize the steps.
The Hyūga Heiress could also tell just how deeply Naho was chafing under the pressure.
"Naho-sama, we accept your generous invitation and will be honored to share a meal with you," Hinata responded with such formality that Naho's handlers were taken aback. 'They aren't tutors or assistants. These men truly are handlers. Are there fractures in the Daimyo's House?' Hinata thought darkly. She quickly filed the information away. Now wasn't the time to speculate. That potential investigative lead would have to wait until Team Four's debriefing.
Naho's face lit up with excitement and relief. 'Accepting her invitation may have protected her from a greater danger than any bandit we might face on this mission,' Hinata thought nervously.
Naruto woke up before almost everyone. Of course, Yuji-sensei had already been up for some time. It was almost impossible for Naruto to comprehend waking up earlier than Yuji-sensei on a mission. The young jinchūriki didn't mind. He enjoyed the quiet though. It was a rare time to think.
This mission was going very smoothly. Naruto was grateful that there wasn't any rogue summons, rogue bastard Kumo nins, or anything out of the ordinary. It was the closest Naruto thought he would ever get to a normal mission.
As a security measure, Naruto sent out a few clones to scout the surrounding area. The kage bunshin quickly set out on their task and Naruto returned to camp.
"Ah, Uzumaki-san," a man Naruto wasn't very familiar with called out. The young Shinobi looked over and took in the appearance of one of Naho's attendants. Naruto put on his best 'Be nice even when you are extremely suspicious smile' that Kō-niisan taught him years ago.
"May I help you, sir?"
The man smiled at the 'deference' Naruto was showing and bowed slightly. "Yes, Uzumaki-san. I was curious about your opinion on politics."
'Danger! Danger! The civilian used the P word! The civilian used the P word!' Naruto thought in almost naked panic. Fortunately, the years of training allowed the young shinobi to disguise his emotions well.
"My political opinions are those of the Leaf," Naruto replied automatically. The man looked disappointed.
"I see," the garishly dressed gentlemen grumbled. "So, you are unaware of the Leaf's position on succession?"
"If there is an official policy in place, the Hokage has not informed shinobi of my rank at this time," Naruto answered in his most 'official' tone of voice.
"I…see," the official repeated. "Thank you for your time, Uzumaki-san." Naruto bowed to the man and went off to find Yuji-sensei. The Jonin must have known Naruto was looking for him, because Naruto found his Uncle near Team Four's tents.
"I saw the conversation," Wantanabe said without preamble. "You handled the situation very well."
"Thank you, Yuji-sensei," Naruto responded warmly. "I think the Hokage should know about this conversation when we return to Konoha."
Yuji smiled at his Genin. "Your instincts are very good. Kiba and Hinata are up and ready to go. Help them disassemble the camp. We'll move out as soon as Naho-sama and her attendants are ready."
It only took a few minutes to clear the camp. Naruto didn't even need a single kage bunshin. Team Four had become very efficient through their rigorous training and drills. The caravan departed in silence. Naruto and Hinata observed that Naho and her attendants were oddly silent.
"It looks like Naho-sama had an argument with her retainers," Hinata whispered to Naruto.
Naruto nodded once. "One of the retainers asked me politics this morning."
"Civilians using the P-word, that never ends well," Kiba stealthily joined the conversation.
"This could be dangerous," Hinata agreed. "We shouldn't do anything to antagonize either group."
The jinchūriki scanned the road as the traveling party progressed. "Agreed. We should focus on gathering information to report to Hokage-sama when we get home."
"So, who wants to check in with Naho-sama?" Kiba stuffed his hands into his jacket pockets as he asked the question.
"Well, I don't think her 'attendants' like me much," Naruto admitted with a sardonic grin. "I vote one of you head that way."
Hinata hummed in thought. "I would likely attract less attention. After all, two noble girls don't get the chance to talk very often outside of official functions. Our conversation would arouse less suspicion."
"They'd be suspicious of me?" Kiba asked with genuine curiosity.
"Yes, they would be suspicious of your motives, Kiba-kun," Hinata confirmed. "Naho-sama is at the age where her family will begin to entertain betrothal offers. If you are seen taking too active an interest in Naho-sama, her retainers may believe you are acting on orders from your clan."
Akamaru barked and yipped. "Akamaru asked if they would really believe that," Kiba translated.
Hinata nodded in confirmation. The Inuzuka boy and pup just groaned. "Politics suck."
As far as ambushes went, the mercenaries were professional and well trained. They advanced stealthily and quickly. Their gear was selected to achieve the best possible balance between maneuverability and protection. The attacking soldiers of fortune were equipped with naginata and other polearms to maximize their reach and striking power.
They would have been a true threat to a standard Gennin Cell, Naruto admitted with a mote of respect.
Unfortunately, Team Four was anything but a standard Gennin Cell. Hinata, Kiba, and Naruto were all blooded shinobi. They had battled against terrors, hordes of looters and thieves, and even enemy shinobi. Team Four also had a few unfair advantages that the Genin were viciously exploiting. Hinata's Byakugan, along with Kiba and Akamaru's sense of smell, had given the Konoha ninja sufficient warning. Naruto's mastery of the Kage Bunshin almost completely eliminated the risk of Team Four falling foul of an ambush.
Naruto leapt out of the way of a perfectly drilled naginata strike and punched his kunai through the man's armor. He tore the artery in the mercenary's throat and moved on before his enemy hit the ground. Hinata was proving once again that Jūken was rightfully feared. Armor was no protection against concentrated chakra pulses. The lacquered plates and steel chain mail may interfere with the transfer of chakra, but it couldn't stop it.
And even a fraction of the foreign chakra would do incredible damage to a man's internal organs.
Hinata was a whirling dervish as she danced among the mercenaries. She barely paid attention to the four fallen soldiers behind her. Only two had been killed outright, but the others would soon join their comrades thanks to the internal bleeding caused by the Jūken strikes.
Kiba was enjoying himself, Naruto noticed. He had 'liberated' one of the mercenary's naginatas and was tearing into a small squad. The Inuzuka had disoriented his foes with a smoke bomb before charging in to combat. The vision-obscuring cloud was not as detrimental to Kiba as his enemies. The shinobi and Akamaru had a heightened sense of smell and used the sense to great effect.
All in all, the ambush was launched and defeated in the space of six minutes.
"I don't know who these guys were," Kiba said as he flourished 'his' new weapon. "but they were a cut above the average mercenary."
Hinata stood over the corpse of an enemy. "I agree, Kiba-kun. Mercenaries are rarely this organized or disciplined."
"We should see if we can find a live one," Naruto sighed. "Does anyone remember the interrogation methods from back in the Academy?"
Kiba and Hinata revealed that they remembered the basics. "You all had a good plan," Yuji entered the conversation. "Unfortunately, that won't be possible. The three survivors all had false teeth."
"Okay, seriously, who the hell are these guys?" Kiba and Akamaru barked at the same time.
Hinata took a deep breath. "I'm more worried about who hired them."
Team Four gave the Hyūga Heiress an inquisitive look. Hinata shrank a bit under the sudden attention. "These mercenaries could not have been cheap. If we had not had warning about the ambush, I believe they could have overwhelmed us."
"There aren't many regular forces that can do that," Naruto pointed out. "We can use that fact to possibly narrow the upcoming investigation."
"Very well thought out," Yuji complimented his team. "I will check with our clients. I want you all to secure the immediate area before we continue to our destination."
"Yes sir!" Team Four responded in unison.
Wantanabe's thoughts were exploring dozens of possibilities and leads as he approached the concerned nobles. He automatically said all the 'correct' platitudes and answers to allay the fears of the clients. However, the Jonin's primary focus was on the conversations he had with Kakashi and Ebisu. Chūnin were expected to be more than very powerful fighters. They also had to be level-headed in unknown scenarios and take the long view required for command. Yuji could not deny that his team had the makings of fantastic Chūnin. They were young, but could Yuji really say anything about youth? He had been younger when Tsume-sensei had nominated his Genin Cell for the Exams.
Yuji had made his decision. Team Four was ready.
Author's Note: This is actually an illusion, please accept the Red Pill from your computer's Optical Drive or your tablet's headphone jack to read the real chapter.
In all seriousness, I'm really sorry it has taken me so long to update. I'm working hard on a number of fics and trying to get them ready to update. Dichotomy of the Souls, A Matter of Destiny, and even Twelve Shattered Mirrors have been worked on recently. I greatly appreciate reviews. Reviews help my muse more than any number of favs and alerts (though they are very welcome).