Naruto breathed.

Something he always loved about Konoha was its air. Must've been the trees – fresh oxygen, coming in from thousands of leaves every day. Breezes rolled by every few moments, carrying the scent of food from a restaurant, or steam and soap from the bathhouses. And the people – Sakura had a habit of using fruity, cherry-smelling shampoo, Hinata a different, flowery, sweet-smelling one. The few times he'd been hugged by Jiraiya, he caught whiffs of a cologne that was subtle, but would probably smell appealing to any woman that got close. Kakashi smelled like dogs.

Konoha was quieting down after the alarm of that afternoon. Streetlights came on, restaurants opened their doors. He imagined the jounin sensei were meeting up for drinks to talk about the students they'd be assigned, or maybe it'd just be Kakashi, Asuma and Gai. The three were close, and Asuma and Kurenai's relationship status wouldn't necessarily mean she was part of the group. She'd always struck Naruto as a very womanly woman, anyway, and guy time probably wouldn't be something she'd try to join.

Iruka, on the other hand, was enjoying his evening at home, blissfully free of any injury and mulling over the oddity of his student, while Mizuki was cooling his heels in a cell somewhere in Konoha's T&I. Neither had been too pleased with Naruto's dramatic revelation, for different reasons.

"Of course I knew, you dumb traitor! We're not best friends, but the fox and I share a body – what kind of idiot doesn't know there are two people inside him?"

Well, him, for one. But all that was past, and now he could sit peacefully in one of the training fields, tease Kurama's chakra enough to get the fox ready to wake up from its self-induced hibernation (standard if your host didn't know about your existence; the silence would make anyone go mad otherwise) and enjoy the cool, fresh Konoha air. For now, everyone was still on his side, though he'd earned himself a lot of mistrust – he should've been approaching the Hokage to talk about this if he'd figured it out. He should not have been pretending to be a complete idiot if he actually knew what the hell it was he was doing, or at least he shouldn't have been pretending to his teachers and the Hokage. Thankfully, the Mizuki incident was enough to point to as proof that not everyone in Konoha had his best interests at heart.

The swishing leaves above the field did a good job to cover up the sound of quiet footsteps, but he'd been alert from the beginning, and turned to look for his primary reason for being here. Hinata was good at being unseen, a born tracker. But not quite at the level he was used to, which meant spotting the washed-out tan of her jacket was easy, even for him.

"Hinata?" He watched her tense, ready to run and pretend she hadn't been there, but then she gingerly stepped into the clearing.

The woman he knew hadn't been outgoing, but she'd certainly stood taller and fidgeted less. He hadn't actually realized how small she'd been when they were genin; he knew he'd been about Sakura's height at twelve, but Hinata was much slighter than either of them. Or maybe it was the jacket.

"Hey. How've ya been? Wanna sit with me? The stars are about ta come out." He plopped down where he'd been before, leaning back and watching the treetops, trying to take the pressure off her. She wasn't very good with it right now.

"O-okay," she tentatively sat down by him, taking turns looking at the ground and at his face, never actually looking for the lights. "Y-You passed the exam?" He saw her eyes linger on his forehead protector.

"Yeah," he let his voice stay low. It was very lucky she'd found him; he hadn't had any idea how to approach her otherwise.

"Are you alright, Naruto?" she asked, voice quiet.

"Can I tell you something?" he asked, keeping his eyes on her face even when she averted hers. "I've…kinda been lying to everyone." He watched her eyes widen and watched her hunch in on herself some more. No-one liked being told their hero wasn't sincere. He kept going, "See, when the Fourth defeated the Kyuubi, he didn't really kill it. He just sealed it. Into me." The stars really were coming out now, blinking hellos from behind the tree branches.

Hinata had gone still and was staring at him, pearly eyes wide. "H-How can that…?"

"Lots of countries do it," he explained, "It gives them weapons, makes one more strong ninja, or makes sure that Tailed Beast can't be used against them. The difference here is that the people of Konoha really hate the Kyuubi, so they don't like me too much, either."

"Oh." He could see her working out the way people ignored him.

"At first I was just really mad at the fox, y'know?" He said, turning to her, "But I'm guessing the fox didn't really want to be sealed into me, so that's kinda pointless. But then I started thinking – if people avoid me just as is, then if I actually seemed like I knew what I was doing, then…"

"…they might become afraid," she finished for him, white eyes boring into his. This was the girl he knew – Hinata was smart, careful and competent.


"You've been failing the exams on purpose?" she asked, sounding hurt.

"Most of them. But, y'know, I figure even if I do fail, I'll just get up and try again, right?" he grinned. And watched her give a small smile back. "I'm gonna be Hokage no matter what – a few stupid tests won't stop me!"

And there it was. Hinata didn't grin, but her smiles had a way of lighting up her whole face. Naruto loved giving in to impulse, especially when it involved things like this. He leaned in and kissed her – eliciting a surprised squeak. A few seconds later, a red-faced Hinata was on the ground in a faint.

Naruto turned back to the stars. He breathed.


Hinata blushed when Naruto scooted closer, finding her hand and grasping it. At her gentle squeeze, a grin split his face at the seams and she seemed to like it, ducking her face, but smiling.

Around them, students were engaging in excited chatter. The eight he focused on in particular were doing as expected: Sakura and Ino were arguing; Shikamaru and Chouji were sitting in silence, one munching chips, the other watching Ino; Kiba was preoccupied with Akamaru; Shino was observing the group; Sasuke was ignoring everyone. And Hinata was, of course, sitting beside him, exuding waves of happiness.

"I think you'll be with Kiba," Naruto said, keeping his voice down to avoid drawing attention from others.

She turned to him, "Why do you think so?"

"He's an Inuzuka, so he's probably going to be a tracker. Konoha doesn't have too many teams for that – with your Byakugan, you'd be able to help each other sufficiently. Another good candidate would be…" He made a show of looking around, "Shino. His bugs would also work for tracking."

"You think I'm a tracker?" He could tell she wasn't enthused. Tracking wasn't as glamorous as Neji's combat team, or what he knew Hanabi would be destined for – spying.

"You're really good at it. You've been following me around for a few months now, haven't you? Sometimes it's hard to tell if you're there," he said with a smile.

Her blush darkened in embarrassment, "S-Sorry; I don't mean – "

"Nah, it's fine," he said, "It's just like a training exercise, right?" He let her nod, relieved that she took the out. "I could only imagine what Sasuke would say if he found someone spying on him. Though…" his eyes wandered to the two girls squabbling over the chair beside the Uchiha, "I don't think he'd be too surprised at that…"

To his surprise, Hinata giggled, "I know that it's a bit weird, but I admire Sakura and Ino's courage to say things like that out loud."

Naruto shrugged, "Out loud's well and good, but we're ninja. We're supposed to be subtle, aren't we?"

She again surprised him, with a small laugh, "Not everyone can be as 'subtle' as you, Naruto-kun. If everyone took that route, we wouldn't get anywhere."

He gave her hand a squeeze, rewarding the brief courage, "I think I'm doing just fine."

Which got the blushing going again, leaving him to look around the room. Iruka walked in soon afterwards, tapping a clipboard with a pen and looking surprised that Naruto was holding the Hyuuga girl's hand. He pushed onwards, though, and gave out the team assignments. Hinata looked resigned to tracking, but seemed willing to give it a try. Naruto turned his attention to the pink-haired fangirl and the avenger; the latter was deliberately keeping his eyes on a bit of floorspace to Iruka's right, Sakura was looking for him to send him a glare and seemed surprised to see him with Hinata. He gave her a grin and a thumbs up, which she ignored.


Trying a team lunch with Sasuke and Sakura this early on was useless, but Hinata's teammates were ready to give Team Eight a go, so Naruto left them to it (Hinata received a peck on the cheek in front of both boys before he left, which, he was proud to say, only left her swaying on her feet and not actually passed out). The only thing there was to do now would be to find something to read while he waited for Kakashi. He had enough time for a leisurely stroll home to grab The Gutsy Ninja and then plopped down next to Hinata back in the classroom.

At her questioning glance, he grinned, "Our sensei's chronically late; this is to read while we wait for him. Have you read it?"

She shook her head, and he obligingly opened it to the first page, scooting until his entire left side was pressed up against her entire right. He pretended not to notice her raging blush, and read calmly, asking her if she was done with the page, then turning it, drumming his fingers against hers or stroking his thumb over her knuckles.

The task of turning the pages was left to Hinata after a while, though he did have to stop her once – "Geez, Hinata-chan, I can't read that fast," – to get a bit more communication into the act of reading together when it looked like she was getting more into the novel than into him. For all intents and purposes, this was a date. In front of their entire academy class. Hinata's meekness was something that needed to be worked around, and he knew that he was one of the best ways to do it. At this rate, by the time the Chuunin Exams rolled around, she ought to be staring Neji down just as well as he could.

Too soon, though, Kurenai was there to collect her genin, and he again wished her luck by giving her a kiss on the cheek. This time, though, it wasn't just a smirking Kiba and quiet Shino who could see. Ino and Sakura were both raising their brows, Shikamaru was watching out of the corner of his eye and Kurenai was fixing them with a calculating red stare. Should the jounin sensei bring it up, Hinata would have to explain herself – or would have to explain that she didn't have to explain herself. He again wished her luck, silently.

After some team with a kid in a bandana was collected, Team Seven was alone, and Sakura came over to ask him if he and Hinata were dating.

He gave her a smile, "I hope so," he said, "But I'm not sure. Girls are confusing." He pouted. His acting skills weren't as good as those of someone who had a Sharingan (Sasuke was the exception to this; he just…sucked.), but they were certainly enough to fool a schoolgirl.

Sakura seemed to take his confusion just fine. "I think you are. The important thing is to make a good impression. Ditch the jumpsuit," she advised.

He frowned, "Thanks, Sakura, but I'll ask if I need advice." Too unlike the dead-last, a little too tactful, but neither genin seemed to notice. Whatever – he was planning on Team Seven seeing the 'thoughtful' Naruto, anyway. He ought to let more of himself show, though the more extreme side could wait until duress.

He returned to his book and left the two of them to stew. When Kakashi entered, there was no eraser to fall on his head, but he was greeted with two vicious glares and an unimpressed glance over a book.

"My first impression is…I hate you. Meet me on the roof."

Sasuke gracefully jumped out the window and used handholds to follow their teacher and Sakura shakily followed him. Determined to set himself apart, Naruto speedily climbed the stairs, meeting three unamused gazes when he got up there.

"Gonna make your teammates wait?" Kakashi asked.

"I figured you wouldn't mind so much," he said, "Since you were so late. And, anyway, what do we have stairs for if all we're going to do is hop around outside?"

Kakashi turned his attention back to the team, "Well, then, my name's Kakashi Hatake. I have many likes and dislikes…my dreams and goals are none of your business…and I think that's about it. Next?"

"Well…I'm Sakura Haruno. I like…" she blushed, looking in Sasuke's direction, "My dreams for the future…" she blushed again, burying her face in her hands and giggling.

Naruto watched Kakashi sweatdrop, then coughed. "Uh, well, I'm Naruto Uzumaki. I like ramen, being a ninja and Hinata-chan. I don't like washing dishes or shopping, and my dream…" He paused. He was here mainly for Hinata, but saying anything like that would seem a bit obsessive. "I, uh, guess I wanna make Konoha the best it can be?" He shrugged, "I'm twelve, gimme a while to think about it." He turned to Sasuke, aware that Kakashi was filing away his laidback attitude for the future.

Sasuke didn't look at any of them, but kept glaring at the floor. "I don't have a lot of likes…in fact, I hate many things… My ambition, because it will be achieved, is to kill a certain man."

Naruto was aware of Kakashi watching their reactions and let a skeptical expression take up his face. This Naruto wasn't gonna take the vow of a twelve-year-old seriously.

They were all advised not to eat dinner and to show up bright and early the next morning at their designated training field. Which left Naruto with enough time to henge into a busty redhead and get a discount on a small box of cinnamon rolls. Depending on how Hinata's team introductions went, it could be time to initiate their first makeout session.


It was probably rather suspicious of Naruto to invite Hinata to his house last night, but in the end, it had all worked out rather well. The girl was sleeping contentedly in his bed (still a virgin), he was trying his hand at making pancakes, and the Hyuuga were likely none the wiser, given how little attention Konoha paid its children, and how little attention the Hyuuga paid Hinata, in particular.

Anything involving a skillet usually was usually easy for him to serve up – it seemed all the easy things were made in a frying pan: eggs, potatoes, boxed dinners. Pancakes, however, were not one of those things. The fourth almost-black one had him hissing oaths, but luckily, Hinata's appearance put an end to it. At his behest, she took up the spatula and soon a tower of perfect, fluffy flat cakes was forming at her left. Naruto's pouting and mumbling about beginner's luck only served to improve her already-spectacular mood.

Kurenai's orders were to meet at nine in the morning and Kakashi's were to do the same at six-thirty, though Naruto knew they would also be meeting with the Copy Nin at nine, so after breakfast only a few kisses were exchanged before Hinata went on her way home to change and Naruto headed for Training Field Seven to finish The Gutsy Ninja.

Sakura angrily asked him why he was late by an hour and a half, but he just shrugged, gesturing to the empty field, "You see sensei around anywhere?"

Kakashi did show up eventually, though, brandishing his bells and boxed lunches, and gleefully crushing any hopes the young genin might've had of pushing through as a team. Or so he hoped.


The grin that spread across Naruto's face wasn't something he really let people see. But it was useful in this case, since it usually gave them the impression that there was a lot to Naruto that they didn't know, and that was what he wanted. Both Sasuke and Sakura were intrigued by the sudden deviation from the norm, and the girl ate up his explanation about teamwork being the answer, while the avenger reluctantly swallowed it in short bursts.


"Just what do you think you are doing?" Kakashi said menacingly.

Naruto scoffed, "They're eating lunch. I didn't follow your bogus no-breakfast rule, but they were trusting enough to, so while I distracted you, they got their strength back. Now we're ready to kick your one-eyed butt as a team!"

Kakashi seemed to be having a hard time deciding whether they passed or not, but they did, and the surprised looks Naruto got from the other two genin were a good sign. Better they begin taking him seriously now than later, when it could be a danger, if Sasuke defected again.


The fox wasn't happy to be woken from his slumber. What could a gangly preteen possibly know that would interest him?

Lots. Lots and lots. Kurama was salivating at the prospect of revenge against Madara, or Obito, and Naruto was glad to give it to him. Both knew they had to be patient, had to bide their time and choose their steps cautiously, and neither particularly trusted the other at this stage, but there was excitement in the air. Good or bad, something would be happening soon, the Wave mission being the first upcoming event that the Nine Tails would play a part in, and that was enough for the chakra beast, for now.

With the promise of a fight in a month's time, Kurama settled down to sleep again.


At this stage, Hinata was a well-meaning but useless fighter. Which sucked.

As a tracker, she was well ahead of the game. Had the Hyuuga ever been interested in anything more than her ability as a fighter, they would've discovered that Hinata had a talent for remaining unseen, and seeing what people tried their hardest to hide. Granted, with Byakugan, that was a given, but it came to more than that: small scuffs left by ninja sandals, pupil dilation, the direction a woman's legs crossed at a table. Things that people could brush off as coincidence, but ninja knew to never take as such.

Naruto wasn't worried about Hinata's advancement with Team Eight. She'd do fine with them – better than fine, as tracking was what they were being specifically trained to do. But such specification left little time for combat; it was assumed each member was practicing outside lessons in addition to what they did with their jounin sensei, which meant that the occasional combat assessments instead of extensive training made sense. But Hinata's practice would've been with the Hyuuga clan, devoid of any encouragement and certainly devoid of any use of her natural talents.

Therefore, Naruto thought as he dodged a senbon, his intervention was needed here as well. Another senbon hit him near the collarbone, causing a stinging sensation somewhere in his left pectoral muscle. She was getting pretty good with those. It was probably time to move on.


During training, Naruto continued to play up his 'thoughtful' side, usually being the one to propose alternate (and occasionally gruesome) tactics to win on the rare occasion Kakashi had them working on something other than combat. Sakura was usually the one to come up with plans during D-ranks, but that didn't stop the Sasuke from glancing his way and expecting him to say something. He considered being more violent in his pursuit of Tora, whenever that one came up, but decided against it, guessing malevolence wasn't what the Hokage needed to be seeing from him with the whole Kyuubi thing being thrown up into the air.

Alongside the day-to-day problems, he had the dilemma of whether or not to tell his team about his jinchuuriki status. To strengthen the team? Or would it make things awkward? Maybe after Wave. After they'd seen what the Nine Tail's chakra could do.


Ordinarily, Hinata's blushes were a bit of an annoyance, a reminder that she was much shier than she would be, but considering where this blush was, he wasn't complaining too much. It turned out that she chose to wear a tank top under her jacket today, leaving a lot of skin for him to leave hickeys on, once the jacket came off. He could feel her get a bit panicky once his mouth got lower, but he kept his teeth mostly on her neck and collar area, only leaving a small red mark where her breasts began, and she took it well.

He was especially pleased when her mouth found his neck. She wasn't quite as forceful as he was, only giving gentle bites, but under the influence of encouraging sounds and sentences like "Woah, Hinata…" she did leave a rather impressive mark on his neck. What really got him excited was when her hands got under his shirt; despite their general aversion to his boxers, her nails grazing his hips were just as distracting as he remembered. So distracting, in fact, that he ended up finding a bruise on his back from picking her up and dropping into a more comfortable sitting position against a tree. He had a couch – why did he choose to do this in a park?

And he grudgingly admitted liking the cool-down bit, too, because cuddling with Hinata tended to be fun. He'd find out about ticklish spots he didn't know she had, thumb wrestle or play rock-paper-scissors, chat about the day... It was a pretty great way to get her to open up. He definitely had a girlfriend, and she was on her way to becoming the woman he knew. Wave would bring about another opportunity to keep her growing – it would give her some incentive to try harder in her training (not that she wasn't already. She was Hinata, after all). He decided to come back with some scars – better he be the first one to get them than her.

That being decided, he gave her a squeeze and brought his mouth down to blow in her ear. She giggled and he kissed her temple, and, finding that her mouth wasn't too much of a detour went there after. No, he thought reverently, mouth returning to the spot above her cleavage to leave a darker hickey, he didn't mind her blushes very much at all.