A/N:This story is pure fan-fiction. The characters and locations are the sole property of Shonen Jump and the series's creator,Masashi Kishimoto. At no time is this fiction an intent to infringe upon their rights nor properties.

((This story starts a few days after the Pain/Nagato story arc concludes with a few variations. Tsunade, though terribly weakened by using her chakra to try and save everyone during Pain's Almighty Push technique, has not fallen into a coma. The events surrounding Sasuke and Akatsuki tangent as well, which may come into play later on.))

It always began the same.

I want to be at your side always...

That's why I'm not afraid to die...

If it means I can protect you...

Because...

I love you, Naruto-kun.

Her soft voice drifting up in the darkness, the flash of light as she battles Pain in her attempt to rescue him. The rage inside building up as he sees her fall yet again, this time motionless, unable to avoid the spear in Pain's hand. The rage in him drowning out everyting but the sickening sound of metal piercing flesh. The hatred exploding inside him...consuming everything...

"Hinata!" Sitting up,grasping at air, and panting even as he sweated heavily, Naruto fought to keep the dangerous fox chakra from taking him over. Eyes focused at last, he muttered as he fell back onto his bedroll. "This is the fourth time." It was driving him nuts. She said she loves me. ME? I never even once looked at her like that. She's...a friend...comrade...a fellow Leaf Shinobi...he marveled silently and ever since that day, he had been wrestling with this and his own memories. Moving outside the village to a "safe" distance as the fox had nearly consumed him that first time. He knew he had to come to terms with events and quickly. Already he was on the receiving end of some very curious stares as he left the village for the woods every night. If he didn't resolve this matter soon, it would be more than just looks. He would have some very difficult questions coming. Laying there as he made the decision to get some answers of his own, he felt a sense of peace drift over him.

He woke up as the sun crested the Hokage Memorial face wall. He knew it as sure as he knew his own name. He rose and set things to rights before dressing in his black and orange jumpsuit over the steel fishnet shirt. He reached for his necklace and remembered. "Shit...I have to tell Granny its gone now." Not looking forward to that...he thought but added it to his growing list of thing to do. Setting his sandaled boots and securing his Leaf headband, he rose and went through his usual morning routine of stretching and working out the kinks. With that done, he headed into the village,nodding to the gate guards as they gave him a welcoming smile and wave. Things had surely changed. No longer was he "that fox kid" to be avoided or ridiculed. Now because of everything he had endured, never once giving up on seeking the acknowledgement he craved, nor once breaking his Ninja Way, he was a hero. "Hero of the Leaf Village" was being whispered around him now as villagers talked. Moving briskly through the rubbled area that was once the Village Hidden in the Leaves, he headed quickly to where he knew Shizune had set up the Hokage's tent. He paused outside the tent as two masked ANBU guards stepped out of the shadows.

"Uzumaki Naruto...you have business with the Hokage?" a voice behind a dog mask asked him calmly even as the pair's hands drifted to the blades on their backs. Hero or not, they took no chances with the Hokage's safety. Especially not now in her present condition.

"I need to speak to Granny Tsunade." he replied bluntly, not even for a moment acknowledging their actions. "Its a personal matter."

"She is...sequestered in business." the one wearing a blank mask retorted,the body and voice telling him it was a woman this time.

He almost snorted as he started forward. He never quaked before them and he wouldn't start now. "I'm going inside." his tone firm and his face set as they tensed momentarily before relaxing and back-stepping as Shizune stepped out calmly,"It's definitely you then Naruto-kun. Only you would prepare to take on two fully armed and prepared ANBU without regard. Follow me. Tsunade-sama told me to bring you to her if you showed up." a wry twist of her lips,"Though she bet you were going to be here by the second day's end." Now to set her plans into may well be the biggest gamble of her life...Which makes me even more nervous. Failure could be very bad, but could success wind up being worse? She thought privately as she turned and walked back into to the tent, one of the ANBU holding it open for her and gesturing for Naruto to follow.

They walked past the elderly Councilors who were on their own way out and Naruto ignored the cold eyes they had for him. It was no secret they had no love for him and considered him a dark secret weapon. He just kept his head up and shoulders squared as Shizune stopped in front of a partition and faced him. "She is still...tired from the other day so please make this quick. She needs her rest." Shizune cautioned him before parting the flaps so he could enter.

Once on the other side, he gulped and felt extremely guilty for disturbing the woman he called "Granny". But before he could speak the flap fell back into place behind him and he felt a flow of chakra outside. He would bet a meal at his favorite ramen shop it was so their conversation couldn't be overheard...He took a slow swallow as he walked over to the bed where Tsunade sat up reading a memo or something.

"Umm Granny..." stopping when a withered hand rose to interrupt him.

"Spit it out." she said in a low voice as the grey haired woman looked up at him with strong piercing eyes that showed more than they should of her had seriously overdone it. Just like at the battle with Orochimaru. Using up so much chakra that her transformation was negated. Revealing her aged appearance rather than the youthful vibrant one she prided herself on maintaining.

"The First Hokage's necklace is gone." he said quickly before he could stop. "When I became the Nine Tails this last time..."

"I know. Katsuyu told me." she replied briskly as the papers were set aside and her hands folded together under her chin in a pose Naruto knew very well and took an odd comfort in seeing. "It was when the sixth tail emerged. The fox was too strong for it by then and without Yamato in place to help restrain you..." the hands spread apart.

He bowed his head and shivered,"I am so sorry Granny..."

"Nonsense. Its not like you had a choice in the matter Naruto. The old fox took your anger and used it to try and take you over. Lucky you managed to subdue him before it was too late."

"About that...There's something I need you to know." he said as he lifted his head with serious eyes. "I know the truth now. Some of it,not all."

That piqued her curiosity. "And what might that be?" Are my plans for you about to be ruined before they even begin? she wondered almost fearfully til he spoke.

"I'm the son of the Fourth Hokage." he said so bluntly she blinked. "He sealed the Nine Tails inside his own son in order to save the village. He was there inside me when the fox almost won." he went on to tell her the entire discussion he had had with his father's shade.

"I see." she said after a sip of water,one she wished so very much was something quite stronger. Okay,this makes some things easier...Just have to keep my fingers crossed on the rest... her thoughts not showing in her expression as she answered, "Sarutobi-sensei clamped a lid down on everything about the incident-and thusly you. I can see why he did it, but at the same time I am sorry for what you experienced because of it."

Naruto waved that away. "Doesn't matter now. Past is the past." his tone simplistic as though he had told himself that many times over. And he probably had. "Doesn't change the facts. I'm the son of the Yondaime Hokage and its time I grew up." he added,showing yet another level of maturity many would be shocked to see. He rose to his feet,"I just wanted to get it out in the open." he started to leave when her next words brought him up short.

"Have the nightmares stopped? Or do they continue?"

He faced her with wide eyes and fell back into his chair."How?...What...?" Ah forget it...he thought to himself,"No. Yes." he said at last with a nod.

"Natural enough. That's why you moved out into the woods." she said gently,"The battle with the seven Pains was more than enough to give anyone nightmares,Naruto. Your mind has to come to terms with what you saw..." she paused and felt her lips turn up ever so slightly, "And things you heard that day."

"What do you mean by 'things you heard?' Pain talked alot..."

"Don't play dense Naruto. You know what I'm refering to..." her eyes hardened and narrowed dangerously. We don't have time for games...

He flushed,"How do you know?"

"Katsuyu. I am the only person outside of the two you who knows what was shared between you on that battlefield. And it will stay that way until you or she tell me otherwise." Tsunade promised quietly,"Though some may guess as they saw her charge in recklessly when you were pinned. Some may already think they know..." she cautioned him before she waved him out as he opened his mouth,"I won't tell you what to do on this matter,Naruto. This one,you have to figure out on your own. Now go. I need some rest." Make the right choice,Naruto...Don't make the same mistake Jiraiya and I made so long ago... she thought sadly as she watched him leave through the flap.

And just like that,Shizune was there, hustling him out of the tent.

Hinata rose from her pallet and stretched languidly as she collected her thoughts. Then she blushed heavily as she once again recalled her words to him. She still couldn't believe she had the courage to just...say it like that. But then again,she rationalized for the hundredth time, I thought I was going to die. Taking off her nightdress, she stared at her reflection in the mirror. Her hand drifted to the barely visible scar where Pain's metal spear had pierced her side. She had been extremely lucky that nothing vital had been nicked or actually struck. Even moreso that Sakura-chan had been able to reach her and used her skills as a Medical Ninja to heal her injury. She posed for a moment or two,mentally comparing herself to Sakura. Which of course brightened her mood considerably as she shied away from addressing the fact that everyone,including her, knew that Naruto was crazy over Sakura and always had been. And with that came the thought of maybe her confession would make him think of her instead.

She posed in what she thought was a seductive pose,"I don't know if I could be that bold ever again," she whispered to her reflection, "But if it meant a chance to have Naruto-kun for myself?" her skin darkened yet again and she felt a near faint approaching at the thought. So she shook her head to clear her mind and grabbed her clothes. Dressing quickly she had a light breakfast, prepared a repast as was her custom, and went outside to see her cousin Neiji already hard at work training with her father Hiashi Huuyga. Setting the tray down on a stool nearby she left quietly so as to not disturb them.

Once beyond the Hyuuga compound,more of a series of large tents than a compound, she felt saddened by the sheer amount of devastation that greeted her pale silvery eyes. Everything was gone. Pushed back so far as to be crushed against the very walls that protected the entire city. It wasn't the first time the Village had been attacked by a powerful enemy but never had one been so thorough in their efforts. As things stood it would take some time for the Village as a whole to recover. If it ever did. She nodded in passing to other members of the clan who were working hard to find people still buried under the rubble. Using their clan's Kekkai Genkai, the Byakugan, to find their life energies. It was one way they helped. Others carried loads of rubble to be crushed into gravel for streets or to make new mortar for construction. There's so much to do...

She saw the way people moved with determination...and hope...and found herself smiling. They may have destroyed the buildings,but our spirit is unbroken. And she knew just why that was...It was because a boy that everyone had hated and feared so much they refused to even acknowledge his existence had stood up and saved them all as a young man. A man they now all trusted so completely it was hard to believe. In the days since the attack, she saw for herself just how much their attitude towards him had changed into respect and admiration. She knew without a doubt that there wasn't a single person in the entire village that wouldn't give their life for him. Villagers and shinobi alike would do whatever it took to either help him or protect him. I doubt even he realizes just how much he as changed all of our hearts.

Without even thinking about where she was going, she found herself outside the supply tents and cabins. She sighed as she realized it was her turn to help Sakura with cataloguing and storing away medical supplies. She wasn't looking forward to this. Somehow the pink haired girl knew...not suspected, but knew... just how deep her feelings for Naruto ran. This is not the time for that. Soon though I'll have to see if she feels anything for him or not...Going inside she called out in her shy quiet voice, "Sakura-chan? Are you here?"

"Oh, Hinata.. you're early. But its good to see you. We really need to get these supplies into storage. It'll only be a matter of time before they are needed again." Sakura said as she checked her lists without looking at the other girl.

"O...okay." Hinata replied as she took off her lavender and silver jacket and braced for the work to begin.

Hours passed as the pair started in on the supplies and Sakura would look over at Hinata many times, trying to find a right moment to talk with her about what she had figured out. But instead of saying anything, she studied the dark haired girl and realized she was actually jealous! Hinata had changed in several ways over the years. Not only had she grown in confidence and skill but she had blossomed into quite the beauty. And of course she would just HAVE to develop a better figure! Sakura thought enviously as she watched Hinata stretch and the girl's clothes molded to her body. Its just not fair! her inner self whined. It didn't matter that she trained under Tsunade, one of the Legendary Sannin. It didn't matter that she was becoming a very skilled Medical Ninja in her own right. I want BOOBS, dang it! And then to top it off, when she had been left stunned by Pain's attack, screaming for Naruto to save them, and then watching helplessly as he fought Pain, Hinata had charged in to save HIM when he needed it the most. All she did was stare in shock and listen as Ko, the Hyuuga ninja next to her, told her what was happenning. To say she felt more than a bit...inadequate...was being nice. So when lunch time came around, she decide they needed to have a little "girl talk."

Taking a seat and opening up a wrapper to enjoy a rice ball, Hinata jumped when Sakura asked softly,"Mind if I sit and maybe we could talk?" She looked up in surprise but nodded,"o...o...okay."

It was a companionable silence for a bit as Sakura ate from a box lunch and Hinata enjoyed what she had made that morning. But soon enough Sakura decided to start it off.

"You were so brave that day. Charging in like that. I never knew you had it in you." Sakura said at first, then mentally smacked herself as Hinata's shoulders squared as if insulted.

"Why wouldn't I? Naruto-kun...he needed help." Hinata replied shortly without looking at her. "No one else was moving when it was obvious he needed someone... anyone ...to help." she added glancing at Sakura. "I wasn't really thinking,I just knew I needed to act fast." she said almost wonderingly. Inside however, she was trembling as she could almost "see" where this was headed...

"Still...it takes a lot of emotion to overcome shock and fear of that magnitude." Sakura said after a few bits of her lunch,"Something of greater power...like love?"

Hinata's head shot up and their eyes met and she knew that Sakura knew. Instead of quailing over it as she would have once, she smiled serenely and nodded ever so slightly,"Indeed. I won't deny that I feel strongly towards him. I...I have for some time now." she admitted in a near whisper even as she felt stronger inside for having said it.

Sakura nodded as if the admission was all she needed. Well duh...anyone with eyes could tell that...except maybe HIM... "Well, I just hope he figures it out, the idiot." She smiled almost conspiratorily at the other girl, "As it is, every village girl and Kunoichi alike are practically swooning over this whole 'Hero of the Leaf' thing going around." she shook her head,ate a few more bites and and added, "Knowing him, it's all going to his head, this hero stuff. He always did talk big." she paused and continued ruefully,"Weird thing is, no matter what it took,he always backed it up."

"Its his Ninja Way. He stands by what he says. No matter what it is or what it costs him." Hinata retorted, surprising Sakura at the frostiness. "He doesn't back down or break a promise." If you paid any attention like you claim,you'd know that already.

"And no matter how long it takes." Sakura added,thinking about Sasuke and Naruto's refusal to give up on bringing their teammate back. "No he doesn't." she looked at Hinata and said softly,"I wish you luck and hope things work for you two." Smiling gently as Hinata turned red before continuing "All we got to do is get him to notice you. I mean really notice you." Maybe you DO have a chance if you're willing to go the distance...and if you know what you're letting yourself in for.

About to reply, her head turned as she heard a voice calling her name. One that had her sweating anew for a whole different reason.


Naruto was sweaty and sore by the time he could get to doing what he really wanted to be doing. Shizune had given him a looong list of things that needed to be done. So he went about it as quickly as he could,using his Kage Bunshin no Jutsu or the Tajuu Kage Bunshin when it was a task that would require a medium to large group of bodies to perform. And with every task he completed, he was unaware of the fact it further cemented the village's loyalties to him. To them, he was using his special skills and power to help them regain themselves and it only heightened his status in their eyes.

Stretching he sighed as he began making his way towards the Hyuuga compound. Making sure to stop by his favorite ramen shop for lunch. After eating three bowls of hearty Pork Miso, he left to resume his search for a certain elusive Kunoichi. He nodded to others when they hailed him, pausing to talk with Kiba and Shino which was when he learned Hinata was at the medical center sorting supplies with Sakura. A different type of tension filled his gut when hearing that. Yet another thing he was going to have to deal with. The crazy whirlwind crush he had held onto for Sakura had muted substantially over the years. In part thanks to Jiraiya's taking him on missions and training him as well as the time he spent at Mt. Myouboku. But he had to deal with it still as it had changed into something different. Not a lover type thing and not a brother-sister thing either. He really needed to sort this all out in his mind. Especially after Hinata's calm confession. The real source of the insane emotional storm roiling inside him at the moment.

Altering his course he strode towards the medical center, practising the myriad things he wanted to say and ask. Rejecting them one after another as they sounded dumb or childish to his mind. Not noticing that the two girls were in the back, Sakura approaching Hinata. When he DID notice, he darted under the cover of some nearby shrubs to observe and quiet the butterflies spawning in his stomache. He had to get control over himself and quick. Otherwise he wouldn't be able to do this...

Well,they aren't fighting. Thats a good sign, I hope... he thought quietly as he edged back until they were out of his sight. Rising slowly he nearly jumped out of his skin when a lazily drawled "yo." sounded behind him and a gloved hand settled on his shoulder. He turned hand to his heart, "Jeeez Kakashi-sensei, you almost gave me a heart attack."

The white haired Jounin eye crinkled in amusement as he grabbed Naruto and led him quickly away. "You don't want to listen in,Naruto. Its not polite." he said once they were a safe distance away. "Besides whatever they are discussing is between them." the eye crinkled a bit more as he pulled out his favorite Icha icha novel,Make out Tactics. Reading silently as they walked Kakashi didn't notice the sadness that entered Naruto's eyes upon seeing that particular book. When the silence continued, he did look up and he quickly put it away. "I was wondering if you were giving any thought to writing yourself?" his head tilted quizzicaly. Besides if not you,then no one would continue the series...

Naruto froze,"Me? Writing? Uh...I hadn't really thought about it." He stammered as the idea blazed in his mind. "I mean, its not like I have any talent for it or anything." No way! Uh uh...I'm no where as pervy as he was...

"Well, you may want to consider it. These novels are another legacy of Jiraiya's. One left to the world. And though you passed on the Rasengan to Konohamaru you will want to leave something more lasting than a jutsu for the world. He may have never said it, these books are his lasting tribute and have made it so his name is never forgotten by those outside the Ninja World. That is a true Legacy."

Naruto nodded as he considered Kakashi's words. "Maybe,but that will be for another time. Right now I have to focus on..."he gestured around them.

Kakashi laughed softly, "Oh I didn't mean right away. But it IS something worth thinking about. Anyways, I also wanted to talk with you about your jutsu's. I think you need to increase the number of jutsu's you can perform when needed. You need to learn more of them. The ones you know are indeed powerful, but the wider the variety at your disposal..." he trailed off suggestively. Not to mention get more of the Leaf Ninja even more solidly behind you as Tsunade-sama wants.

"The more options you have in combat and outside it." Naruto finished for him. "But should I focus on the Wind-style jutsu's for now since that is my Element?"

"Very much so. Like I had said before, a lot of Jounin master their principal Element and then progress to developing the strength of their other Element Natures to further broaden their abilities."

"I remember. You said you have mastered three Natures. And with that, you can then make better choices as you have more to choose from on and off the battlefield."

Kakshi nodded, surprised and little impressed that Naruto remembered that discussion so well. "Your skill and power far exceed your current rank. Mastering Senjutsu like you have alone..." he shook his head. "Its impressive and more than a little frightening at the growth you have shown in such a short time." Like a giant rising up among men...

He thought about it and said,feeling a bit down as he did so,"You also said there weren't many Wind types here. And with Asuma-sensei dead...?" he looked to Kakashi for answers.

"I would suggest the Shinobi Library. But its still buried and we have no idea what,if anything inside it, has survived." he mused,"It may mean you go on a training mission on your own."

"I...I can't. Not now." Naruto argued bluntly,"Things here are not..." he trailed off not sure how to say it.

"I understand your frustration,Naruto." the Jounin said softly as he continued to think it over and then his eye brightened,"Listen,You still have to perfect your Chakra Shape control." at Naruto's confused expression he continued,"You still have to use Shadow Clones to pull off the Rasengan,right?"

Naruto brightened immediately and nodded,"Yeah. Same for the Rasen Shuriken. Which means I still need to perfect that before I can try learning other, new, techniques."

"Exactly. Perfect what you know now before you begin to expand your knowledge base. It will definitely make learning more later that much easier." And give you time here to settle your business...

"I'll start first thing tomorrow on my training!" the energetic Genin said enthusiasticaly, rejuvinated now by the discussion, "It will take some hard work to get it down pat but I will! Especially by using the Shadow Clone training technique."

"Might be a good idea if I and Yamato were around." he suggested, finding himself smiling under his mask at the thought of Yamato's reaction. Considering the hell Naruto put him through last time with the near non stop training. I can see his face now...

Naruto nodded happily and then sat down. With that out of the way, his mind went back to his original problem. "Ummmm Kakashi-sensei?"

Kakashi's head nearly rolled off his shoulders at the hesitant tone as he moved to sit down against a tree,hand freezing at his equipment pouch where the book was safely stashed. "What is it Naruto?"

"I need to talk with someone who has..."he flushed darkly, "well, some experience in these kind of things."

Kakashi closed his mouth with a snap and gestured for the boy to continue. This aught to be g-o-o-o-o-o-d

"Maybe it's because you've read those books so much or the fact you've been around longer than me, but I need...I need your advice. Personal advice."

Kakashi's eye went wide and he looked back to the direction they had come from. Well,well,well...he has done some growing up. It WAS only a matter of time... Hiding the smile under the mask yet again,which would only embarrass the boy more,he siad quietly,"Go on..."

Naruto took a slow breath then let it out. "There's someone I want to talk to. And I'm not sure how to do it. Usually I would just say what's on my mind. Only this time,I can't. I don't want to make a fool of myself. "All the way there," he gestured behind them, "I was going over what I was going to say over and over. And over. And over...and nothing sounded right,you know?" he ran his hands throug his hair in frustration.

"Its not Sakura,is it?" he asked gently,almost certain of the answer. At least I hope it isn't...

"You know I carried a torch for her for years. Only now,its different. Not the same way as before...Aww man,I'm not making any sense!"

"Wait, Naruto. You care for Sakura still right? Its not that same hard crush like you had when we first met. Its changed as you have. You're not so obsessed with her...no matter what, you want her to be happy?"

He nodded eagerly, shocked that Kakashi had figured him out so easily,"Thats it exactly!"

"Considering how much she loves Sasuke,it may be best to just tell let it go." Better for us all in the end... "You know she didn't feel that way about you."

"Knew that a while back," he answered sadly, "I mean I know that I'll never forget how I felt for her...but at the same time I've come to realize that..."

"That you've gotten over her?" he asked in that same soft tone. You never really forget your first love,Naruto..Nor do you simply get over them...I know that much from bitter experience.

"And there's someone else and it's just...driving me crazy! "

Kakashi held his hands up,palm outwards. "Okay,theres a girl that you want to talk to without messing things up or making things really awkward. Why not just ask her out on a date? See if these feelings your having are real."

"Hmmmm,maybe...I just dunno. She's said some things that tell me she is attracted to me. And I never knew it. Not once was there a clue...And now that she said those things...I can't them out of my head."

"Hard to say,Naruto...thats a rough one." he nodded sagely even as his thoughts were less charitable. This would work for your benefit,you lucky little bugger "Having been there yourself, you will understand how she is feeling now pretty well. Use that as a starting point. If your serious about this,make sure of your own feelings first. IF it doesn't work out, you can be gentler in letting the poor girl down."

Naruto's eyes were wide and his mouth hung open as he devoured that tidbit.

"Who knows,maybe this is the time for you to find a bit of romance yourself." he said teasingly and he laughed as Naruto turned three interesting shades of red. "So take her out on a date and talk with her. Listen to what she says and how she says it. You'll find the right words." he said before rising. "I better get going. See ya." and with a poof of smoke he was gone before Naruto could ask any other questions.

"Right..." he said ever so softly to himself. "I just have to get the nerve up to ask her out. No problem." he swallowed a chuckle as he got up and went back the way they had come. Thinking hard over everything Kakashi had said. He shaded his eyes as he stepped out of the woods and saw the two girls still chatting away. Following on his impulsive nature, he headed over.

"Hey Hinata! Can I talk with you for a moment?"

Ohmygodohmygodohmygod...its Naruto! What do I do? What do I do?

A flush began creeping up her neck as he got closer and closer still, his words finally sinking in. "Ummm okay..." she said overcome by her typical shyness where he was concerned.

Sakura could only stare in shock as her teammate approached as though his sanity depended on Hinata's answer. She got up and was about to say something when Naruto simply smiled to her and turned his attention to Hinata fully. Never in all of her memories had he been so abrupt with her. It was as though she was an afterthought. She saw red and her gloved fist went flying.

And then it stopped and her eyes widened. He's faster...I didn't see him move. She felt his strength as those fingers closed around her fist as he said softly, "Not now Sakura-chan." Without looking at her.

Hinata's eyes had dropped then shot up at the sound of leather meeting flesh. His eyes had never wavered from her as he spoke in a quiet voice. The skin around his eyes and irises had become like they had been when facing Pain. She found her hand moving of its own volition to rest upon his arm and she felt the tension. He's so strong. And...nervous? What in the world would make him nervous? I have to say something...

"Na...Naruto-kun, you wanted to talk to me?" she asked timidly though her eyes searched his. In the Sage Mode they were unreadable. She got to her feet and let her hand slide along his arm before tugging gently so he released Sakura's fist. "You are teammates. Don't fight." Her voice was shaking ever so slightly and she struggled inside to stop it.

Naruto looked down to see the slender hand atop his forearm and he flushed slightly. "Sorry." He let go of Sage mode and took a slow breath. His battle reflexes had improved so radically he hadn't seen it coming yet reacted to it on an instinctual level. Just like he was now...only it was to Hinata's presence. He let go of Sakura's fist and stepped towards Hinata slightly,"Will you have lunch with me tomorrow?" he blurted out in that same gentle voice. His arm moving slowly so as to not startle her until their fingers touched ever so slightly,"Please?"

It was that last word that had her nodding rapidly,"Yes!" she almost felt like flying. Heaskedmeout!Heaskedmeout! "I...I would like that,Naruto-kun."

His smile was almost blinding. "That's great!" His cheeks flushed as he looked down and he stepped back slowly, "Meet me at the lake outside the village." he said still smiling before he turned to face Sakura and braced himself,"Go ahead...do it."

Sakura's eyes were as wide as they could go watching it all. Watching Naruto act so un-Naruto-like. Like any ordinary boy asking a friend to lunch. When he stepped back and said what he did,she reached out and tapped him on the top of the head. "I shouldn't have tried to hit you. Hinata-san's right,we're teammates." She cocked her head and smiled. "But we better get back to work." she said as she moved back towards the center. "Hinata,join me when your ready." she added over her shoulder after turning and walking way. Besides,I have no right to be even remotely jealous.

She was still in a bit of shock,not really hearing Sakura yet nodding all the same. Her wide eyes were on Naruto. "Ummm Naruto-kun? About what I said..." her head tilted down she began fidgeting with her fingertips.

I don't know if I can do this...I'm not bold like Sakura-chan or Ino-chan...

His fingers curled gently around Hinata's though he had no memory of stepping back close to her. "I heard you and I think about that all the time. And you." he said quietly.

She gasped at the quasi declaration. "You think of me?" Flushing as she realized they were practically holding hands.

"Yeah. Since that day. Its made me think back for as long as I've known you. Changed how I saw things. I just wanted you to know." he said before he let go of her hand and backed away. "I'll see you tomorrow!" he turned and jumped into the trees and disappeared.

In a smiling, near tearful, daze Hinata went back to work and stayed that way all the way home. Dinner was a blur and her responses were automatic. Excusing herself, she had no idea of the baffled expressions worn by Neiji and her sister,Hanabi.

Jumping from tree branch to tree branch, Naruto felt more alive than ever before. She said yes! She said Yes! Upon reaching the village perimeter wall,he waved to the guards before going outside to where his tent was. He took a few deep breaths and relaxed in the tent,sitting down and folding his hands in his lap,gathering up Nature Energy. Feeling so atuned,he noticed the fluctuations in his own body and Chakra. Yet he didn't stop til he was well into Sage Mode. Rising he left the tent and went to a wide open field a fair distance away,maybe an hour as ninja fly, and he summoned a dozen Clones.

"Alright,let's get started! Just remember, this is to get used to working solo."

At the chorus of "Yeah! No sweat!" coming from the clones as they each went a distance apart and began Focusing Chakra into one hand. Hours would pass as all thirteen of them would do this exercise over and over again until dusk arrived. More than once he had to summon new clones as others disintergrated from a loss of concentration and a minor chakra explosion or two. By the time he laid down after washing up and wrapping up his right hand from chakra burns,he was exhausted. A cumulative effect of the training technique. Heh...that was easier than I Kakashi-sensei...

He didn't have a single nightmare the entire night.

((A/N: I hope you enjoyed this chapter! Like I said , it's my first so please read and review!))