Chapter 1

Tsunade was frustrated. No, scratch that. She was FURIOUS! ENRAGED! PISSED OFF BEYOND BELIEF! Yeah, that about summed it up. She was going over all the files of the so-called Rookie Nine and looking at how their teams had been set up, and, to say the least, it was leaving a rancid taste in her mouth. The Ino-Shika-Cho trio had been forced together even though they weren't a balanced team really, Sasuke and Hinata were on separate teams for no better reason than because they both held Kekkei Genkai, even though the two of them had very different specialties and could have been part of a functional team, and Team 8 was nothing but trackers. DAMN IT! Yes, Tsunade was getting more and more pissed off the more she looked at this. Team 8 was too heavily specialized in tracking, Team 10 was just a shadow of a previous team, and Team 7 was, for lack of a better term, leftovers.

It didn't help that two weeks ago, Sasuke had left, making Team 7, already a team made of leftovers, one short. Of course, his two teammates, Naruto and Sakura, were both determined to get him back, but that wasn't happening. Tsunade chuckled at that, in spite of her irritation. Yes, it was time. She had a lot of things to do, and now was the time to do it. Those teams had to go. Thinking about that, she tossed aside the team files and set out the files containing information on the remaining Genin of the Rookie Nine. Sasuke was gone, and Shikamaru was a Chunin now, and there was one other thing. Tsunade took one file out and set it aside, having decided she was going to promote another one of the Genin to Chunin. She chuckled, thinking how the others would react to that one, then got back to what she was doing.

So, that meant every team was missing someone, and there were six Genin left. Two teams worth, in other words. Perfect. Naruto, Hinata, Kiba, Sakura, Ino, and Choji were the six left. Tsunade grinned, thinking of how things were about to change. She was still a bit annoyed about the teams being so messed up by her old sensei, but now that she had a solution, she was feeling a good bit better.

An Hour Later

Naruto was traveling through the village on his way to his favorite ramen stand for lunch. He had developed an odd sneezing fit about an hour ago, but now he was fine, simply concentrating on getting food. He was smiling, as always, but today especially it was fake. He had been thinking of Sasuke today almost non-stop. To say that wasn't conducive to a true smile would be the understatement of the millennium. Even now, the betrayal of his brother ate away at him. He doubted that he would ever truly get over it, really. Naruto wasn't the introspective type, to say the least, but even he realized that this betrayal was one that would hurt him till the day he died. He sat down at the ramen stand and ordered lunch, making the conscious decision to forget his brother for the time being.

Meanwhile, Hinata was sparring with her younger sister, Hanabi. She was holding back, as she always did. Like Naruto, she had developed a violent sneezing fit an hour before; though in Hinata's case it left her red-faced and winded. Now she found herself facing the angry eyes of her sister. Hanabi's anger baffled Hinata, as always. She found herself unable to truly attack her sister, however. She just couldn't; Hinata was too kind for her own good in a lot of ways. As a result, this day, like so many others, she lost her spar within moments as Hanabi shut down several of her chakra points. Hinata had only one thought on her mind. "If only Naruto would see me, acknowledge me, I wouldn't have to go through this. If only he would just acknowledge my existence, I would have the confidence to do anything," she thought. She laughed silently at herself, knowing that her dream would never come to be. That depressing thought in her mind, she laid down on her stomach and lost consciousness.

As Hinata was losing to her sister for the umpteenth time, Kiba was out in the woods with Akamaru, training. The boy-dog team had done this training hundreds of times, and yet every time they did it, the two got more efficient, more accurate, faster, stronger, better. They were to the point now that they could bore through a tree in less than ten seconds. They had done this several times today, in fact. Like the others, Kiba had had a sneezing fit that morning, about an hour ago. Kiba hadn't thought anything of it, though, unlike the others; he had been out in the woods by the time it happened and assumed it was just his allergies.

Sakura found herself in the hospital. As she had decided by now that medical jutsu was likely her best bet to be able to help Naruto and/or Sasuke, she had been spending time there, asking the medical ninja questions and things like that. Today, she had been visiting her friends that were there as well. Lee, in particular. She had been in his room when her version of the sneezing fit occurred. Hers in particular had led to a very awkward result. As she was sneezing, she had been leaning over Lee, using a jutsu she had been shown. He had volunteered to let her try it on him, and she had been doing so to see if she could diagnose him. It helped that she knew what was wrong with him already, but she thought she could tell somewhat as well. She had been leaning down when she started sneezing, which caused her to fly forward and, in a moment of either fate or coincidence, Lee had been trying to sit up just then as she had stopped her jutsu. The result of this? They kissed. Sakura, though shocked, was surprised when she found it wasn't unpleasant at all. Lee, naturally, was ecstatic, though he didn't show it. Naturally, that event put the sneezing fit right out of Sakura's mind.

Ino and Choji were eating lunch together. Like Naruto, Choji was focusing on that to put other things out of his mind (like Jirobo, the thought of that fatso brought horrid memories to Choji, and Ino, whose proximity was extremely distracting to the heavy-set youth); unlike his blond friend, however, he was concentrating on barbecue. Choji and Ino, like the others, had gone through a violent sneezing fit an hour ago. Choji had been going into the flower shop, hoping to see Ino, when theirs started. As luck would have it, she had been there, minding the shop. Choji went up to the counter, once the two of them finally stopped sneezing, and greeted Ino cheerfully. She said hi back, then the two made small-talk for a while. Finally, Choji decided it was time to bring up why he was there.

"You know, Ino, almost dying really puts things in perspective. It makes you see what really matters," he said, trying to act casual.

"I'm sure it would, Choji," Ino said, intrigued by the sudden turn in the conversation. She looked at her big-boned teammate and gave him an encouraging smile.

Choji returned her smile, unable to help himself. Then he said, "I remember when I was sitting out there, feeling my life drain from me. I was only thinking of two people, Ino." She nodded that she understood and for him to go on. "Shikamaru, of course, was on my mind. I was thinking of all the times he believed in me when no one else did and when he was there for me when everyone else abandoned me," he said, giving a small smile at the thought of his best friend.

"I know you two are really close, Choji, and I for one am glad. I know how much a best friend can mean," Ino said, thinking of Sakura and how close the two girls had been before their rivalry started. She frowned; even that could be laid at Sasuke's feet, in an indirect way. "But, who was the other person on your mind, Choji?" Ino asked.

Choji blushed a little. "You, Ino," he said. She gasped and looked at him, surprised. "I know this is going to sound ridiculous, but while I was sitting there, knowing I was done for, knowing I was going to die there, I just kept thinking of you and all the times I'd wanted to ask you out, and all the times I'd been too much of a coward to actually do it," he told her, blushing a little more. Ino was in shock. She had never really thought Choji liked her, yet here he was, saying he did. He reached over and took her hand gently. "Ino, I've wanted to ask you this for a long time. Will you consent to go on a date with me?" Choji asked her.

Ino gasped. She had been asked on a date? For all her talk of how beautiful she was and all that, she had never once been asked out. And now she had, by her own teammate no less. "I...I'd love to, Choji," she said, blushing a little herself.

Choji looked up, shocked. Wait a minute, she said yes? He couldn't believe it. On impulse, he pulled her into a hug. Ino was surprised, but hugged him back. She realized at that moment just how strong and yet gentle Choji was. She smiled to herself. She knew Choji, of course, and she knew he wouldn't hurt her. She nodded silently, thinking to herself, "I've got myself a winner here."

And so it was that the two of them found themselves eating lunch together. Ino was wondering why Choji kept looking away from her, and Choji kept wondering why Ino was staring at him. The two had no idea that their own actions were the cause of the actions of the other that had them so baffled.

Shino was spending his day at home, tending to his bugs. Like all the others, he had experienced a sneezing fit. In his case, it went more or less unnoticed, except that it bothered his bugs.

Tsunade gave an order; she had spent the last hour talking to the three Jonin sensei of the Rookie Nine. As she spoke, seven ANBU scattered through the village to find the Genin of said group. Moments later, the ANBU found them and summoned them all to the Hokage's office. The one who found Naruto was none-too-gentle with his message, but the rest found it relatively commonplace.

So it was that Tsunade gathered the seven remaining Genin of the Rookie Nine before her to make her announcement. She groaned, knowing none of them would like this, Naruto and Sakura in particular. "All right, first off, Shino Aburame, step forward," she said. Shino stepped forward. Tsunade pulled out a vest and handed it to him. "You are hereby promoted to the rank of Chunin. Congratulations, Shino," she told the stoic boy. The other six applauded him. "Shikamaru, come in here please," Tsunade called out. Said lazy Chunin came in from the hallway. "Shikamaru, you and Shino will be a Chunin squad from this day on, is that understood?"

"Yes, Lady Tsunade," both boys answered. Shikamaru mumbled something about it being a drag, but neither one objected.

"All right, you two may sit down," she said. The two did, and she turned to the other six. "As for you six, I'm sure you all realize by now that your teams no longer make sense. Naruto and Sakura, Ino and Choji, and Kiba and Hinata, as your teams stand, you're each missing a member now, since these two got promoted and Sasuke left," Tsunade said, gesturing at the two Chunin as she said this. "Now, Naruto, you agreed to stop trying for Sasuke after the Bikochu incident. You failed at that, so your chances are up, young man. From this day forth, Sasuke Uchiha is a traitor, and is to be killed on sight, got me?" This was the one that she knew was going to cause at least two Genin to be very pissed off. The reactions were predictable: Sakura cried silently, Kiba smirked, Hinata watched Naruto, Ino looked surprised, and Choji didn't look to care at all. Of course, the two Chunin didn't even flinch, being who they were. As for Naruto?

Fists clenched at his side, Naruto yelled, "HOW DARE YOU! Sasuke is a member of Team 7 now and forever, Granny Tsunade! How dare you label him a traitor? And how dare you say he is to be killed on sight?"

Tsunade rose and pounded her desk. "HE IS A TRAITOR YOU FOOL! He abandoned not only this village, but YOU! HE TRIED TO KILL YOU, NARUTO!" she screamed. Naruto looked up at her in shock. She took a deep breath and sat down. "Oh, and as I was saying, as for your old teams, Teams 7, 8, and 10 are hereby disbanded, effective immediately."

This caused all eight members of the Rookie Nine currently in the room to look surprised. Even Shino gasped slightly at that. Tsunade had accomplished what she wanted, however; she had shut Naruto up. Shikamaru, thinking a moment, finally nodded, realizing what Tsunade was up to. "Lady Hokage, if I may?" the lazy boy spoke up. Tsunade nodded. "Guys, seriously, our teams have been unbalanced from the start. I didn't think about it before, but now that I do, I realized Tsunade here is going to fix that. Shino, Kiba, and Hinata all specialize in tracking and finding hidden enemies. A great specialty for a team member, but not for a whole team. I could say the same of all our teams. While our teams have functioned, we could do so much better."

"I agree, Shikamaru," Tsunade said. "And yes, I do intend to fix that. I've spent the last hour and a bit thinking about who to put on teams with whom. Now, I'm going to give you your new teams, of which there are two, by the way. I will brook no argument, no complaints, got me?" Everyone in the room nodded. "All right, good. Naruto, Hinata, Kiba, you three are Team Kurenai. Ino, Choji, Sakura, you three are Team Asuma. Obviously, your teams are named for your sensei. I kept the majority of each team with their old sensei. So, Hinata, Kiba, you two need to tell Naruto where to meet with Kurenai tomorrow. Ino, Choji, same for you with Sakura. Oh, and if Asuma tries to slack off on training you guys to play Shogi with Shikamaru here, let me know," she said, a grin on her face at the last part. Ino nodded. "Okay, all of you, get out of here. Naruto, you stay behind a moment, I need to talk to you."

Moments later, all of the Genin and Chunin were gone, except Naruto, who still stood before Tsunade, and Hinata, who couldn't resist trying to listen in. She was out in the hallway, having said she was going to wait and let Naruto know where they met as a team. Tsunade chuckled, knowing Hinata was out there. Naruto approached the Hokage's desk and asked, "Okay, Granny Tsunade, what do you need with me?"

Tsunade held up a hand to silence Naruto. She turned to the door and said, "Hinata, come in here."

Hinata gasped, realizing she'd been found out. She slowly opened the door and re-entered the Hokage's office. She bowed low and said softly, "I'm sorry, Lady Tsunade, I didn't mean to intrude." She looked up at the two, blushing furiously.

Tsunade smiled at the shy kunoichi. "That's all right, Hinata. I wanted to talk to you both, I just didn't want the others to know that. I'm glad you stayed," she said, smiling a true smile for once. Hinata looked confused and Naruto watched, waiting. "You two are going to be on a team from now on. Obviously, I know you two aren't best friends or anything, but there is a reason I put you two on a team together. I wanted to talk to you both about it," Tsunade explained.

Naruto couldn't take it anymore. "All right, then, what gives? Why am I being separated from Sakura and being given a new team?" he asked.

Hinata stammered out, "I'm sorry, N-N-Naruto. I d-d-didn't mean to be a b-burden to you."

Naruto turned to Hinata in surprise. Where had she come up with that idea? "I didn't mean that, Hinata. You're not a burden to me. In fact, I'm more than willing to get to know you as teammates and all that. All I meant is that with Sasuke leaving and now this, it's like my old team has been intentionally taken apart piece by piece. Hell, I'm not even going to have the same sensei anymore. It's not that I'm upset, and I'm certainly not upset at you, I just want to know why," he told her. Hinata, realizing what he was saying and how much of his attention was focused on her, blushed deep red.

Tsunade chuckled. These two would be such a good couple. She knew from watching Hinata that she had a huge crush on Naruto, and she now saw that Naruto, if he tried, could be very considerate. She smiled; she had already taken the first step toward making them a couple, she realized. "Well, to answer your question, Naruto, it's nothing against you. Think about it, Sakura's had her team taken apart, too. The reason I'm putting you two together is simple. Hinata here will be able to teach you the finer points of how to act in society, which, by the way, you'll need to know if you want to be Hokage. Hinata, I hope that having Naruto on your team will help you as well. I hope he can help you gain confidence and break out of your shell. Also, from what I've seen of your mission reports, you two work very well together, even if a lot of your missions have failed. I believe, with proper supervision, you two could make a hell of a pair. If I'm right, and if you prove my faith in you is well-founded, when you two become Chunin, I can even set you two up as a Chunin squad, like I did today with Shino and Shikamaru. So, Naruto, you wanted to know why. That's why," Tsunade said, smiling softly.

Naruto thought about that a moment, letting it sink in. A Chunin squad? With Hinata? Finer points of how to act in society? Well, if that would help him in his progression toward being Hokage, so be it, he'd do it. "All right, I'll do it. Oh, and Hinata?"

Hinata had been listening, but wasn't expecting him to address her. She jumped slightly, then stammered, "Y-Y-Yes, N-Naruto?"

"If I'm holding you back, don't hesitate to tell me, all right? If I start to slow us down, I'll train harder than ever to keep up," the blond said.

Hinata blushed at that. "I doubt you could ever hold me back, Naruto. I just hope I don't slow you down," she said. "And I promise, Naruto, I'll do the best I can to help you learn what you need to. In fact, it will be a pleasure and an honor to help you attain your dream." Hinata hesitated a moment, then continued, "I know how much your dream of becoming Hokage means to you, Naruto, and it is my dream to help you attain your dream."

Naruto looked at the shy girl before him, wondering what in the world she meant. He finally smiled, one of his true smiles, and Hinata's heart melted. "Thank you, Hinata. It really means a lot to me to know you care so much," he said. Hinata blushed, and Naruto continued, "It really does mean everything to me to attain my dream. No one has ever offered to help me before. Thank you." He bowed to her, a very deep bow, which surprised both Tsunade (to whom Naruto had never once bowed) and Hinata, who had never had anyone bow to her like that before.

Tsunade saw Hinata's blush rising and knew what would happen in a moment if she didn't stop it. "Hinata, get out of here before you faint. Thank you. Now I do need to talk to Naruto in private a while," she said, giving Hinata a conspiratorial grin.

Hinata bowed to Tsunade. "Yes, Lady Tsunade," she said, then turned to Naruto. "Oh, Naruto, tomorrow at 9:00, meet up at Training Ground 30. That's where we always meet in the mornings, so Kiba, Kurenai-sensei, and I will be there. I'll see you there, all right?" Naruto nodded, and Hinata bowed again and left, blushing furiously. This time, the shy kunoichi actually left the building, her mind swirling with thoughts of being on a team with her long-time crush. She spent the next half hour walking around the village at random, simultaneously wanting to be alone and hoping to run into Naruto once he got done talking to the Hokage.

Naruto stood before Tsunade, waiting to see what she wanted. When she didn't say anything for a few moments, he started to get frustrated. "Okay, what do you want, Granny Tsunade?" he asked.

Tsunade's facial tic activated a moment, then subsided. "All right, Naruto, I'm going to make something very clear to you," she said. Naruto gave her a curious look. She continued, "Hinata likes you, Naruto. She has for a long time. She's a sweet, kind girl, and honestly I don't know what she sees in you." Naruto looked like he was going to attack her at that. She held up a hand to stall him and continued, "That's not the point, Naruto. The point is, quite simply, if you hurt that girl, I will personally hunt you down and see to it you die the most painful death imaginable, got me?"

Naruto gasped, then swallowed. "All right, Granny Tsunade, you made your point. I won't hurt her. I don't know how you think I could hurt her anyway, but I won't, you have my word."

"Good, Naruto, good. But seriously, do yourself a favor and get to know Hinata. Give her a chance. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised," Tsunade said, grinning.

Naruto flashed her a true smile, at which Tsunade felt her heart flutter. She thought, "I guess this is what Hinata sees in him. Good for you, Hinata." as Naruto told her, "All right, I'll get to know her. I already know how kind she is, and I hope you're right about the rest. Well, I have training to get to, so I'll see you later, Granny Tsunade!" Having said that, Naruto laughed and ran out of her office, leaving Tsunade with rage flashing in her eyes, even as she was smiling in spite of herself. Tsunade chuckled to herself, thinking, "Naruto, you deserve a girl like Hinata. And Hinata deserves you, as I think you'll see. Be good to her, make her happy."

Naruto left Tsunade's office, thinking about what he had been told. His thoughts kept coming back to Hinata, and he decided to see if he could find her.

As Hinata was walking through the village, more or less at random, she suddenly thought she heard someone call out to her. She stopped and turned to look, but didn't see anyone. She had just turned a corner, and she guessed she was hearing things. Moments later, she heard "HINATA!" and this time she knew she wasn't imagining it. She turned and there, about ten feet from her, was Naruto, hurrying toward her. It was his voice she had heard. She waited until he came up to her, smiling one of his true smiles.

"Yes, N-Naruto?" she said when he was in front of her.

"Hinata, I was hoping I'd find you," he said, smiling one of his true smiles that made the girl's heart melt every time she saw it. She blushed, smiling back. "Granny Tsunade was telling me that I should try to get to know you, what with us being teammates and all now," Naruto said, rubbing the back of his head, a nervous gesture. "So, would you like to do something with me today, so we can talk a while and get to know one another?"

Hinata blushed furiously. He was asking her on a date? Well, not quite, but close enough. She blushed and said, stammering and barely audible, "I-I-I-I'd l-l-l-l-love to, N-N-N-Naruto."

Naruto, with his good hearing, knew what she had said. He smiled and held an arm out to her. Hinata blushed, then took it, linking her arm with his. "All right then. Where would you like to go, Hinata?" Naruto asked her.

"It doesn't matter to me, N-Naruto. Anywhere you want to go is fine," Hinata said, surprised she hadn't stammered more with that. Naruto smiled at her and the two headed off together.

Naruto thought about what he was doing, then remembered his special place. The place he always went to when he wanted to be alone, that is. He nodded; that would be perfect for this. Then he got an idea and gave Hinata a playful grin. "Hey, Hinata, there's a clearing, up on top of the Hokage Mountain, just behind the Fourth's image," he told her. She nodded and felt his arm slip out of hers, much to her disappointment. Naruto continued, "Race you there." Hinata blushed, realizing he was essentially playing with her. She thought about it, then nodded. "Ready, set... GO!" Naruto said. The two shot forward. Naruto held back some; since he knew the quickest way there, he didn't want to get too far ahead of her. In fact, he stayed behind her. When they got to a certain crossroad, Naruto veered off one way and Hinata went another. Naruto kept an eye on the girl, deciding to let her win.

Naruto made it all the way to a spot where he could see the clearing but was well-hidden; he waited a few moments, then Hinata appeared in the clearing. He dropped down and walked into the clearing. He grinned at Hinata. "You win, Hinata," he said, smiling. "I told you you wouldn't hold me back."

Hinata blushed and stammered out, "I-I-I'm s-s-sorry, N-N-Naruto. I didn't mean to-" she started but was cut off.

"No, Hinata, don't be sorry. You didn't do anything wrong. We were racing, and you won, there's nothing wrong with that. This way, I know you weren't holding back. I wouldn't have it any other way," he told her, giving her another of his true smiles. Hinata felt her heart melting all over again.

It took a few minutes for the two of them to catch their breath. Hinata needed it from running all the way there, Naruto didn't really need it, but he acted like he did, so Hinata wouldn't know he had been holding back on her. Once the two of them had calmed down a little from their excitement, Naruto turned to Hinata. "So, Hinata, what do you think of this place?"

She smiled. The clearing was so peaceful and it really was a beautiful spot, idyllic almost. "It's beautiful, Naruto. It's so peaceful and quiet up here," she said, smiling.

"Yeah, I know. I always come up here when I want to be alone and think things through. It's my special place," Naruto told her.

She blushed, realizing he was sharing something very private and secret with her. The two eventually sat down together and just talked, asking one another questions. Naruto told Hinata about growing up alone, hated, ignored, all that. Hinata told Naruto about growing up in the Hyuga clan and how they all despised her, her father calling her weak, and so on. They both talked about the loneliness they shared, both feeling guilty for not being there for the other sooner. After a while, Hinata threw herself at Naruto and hugged him.

"I'm so sorry, Naruto. I never knew how badly you were suffering from being alone. I could have been there for you, but I wasn't brave enough. I failed you, and I'm so sorry," she said, hugging Naruto around his neck. Naruto hugged her back after a moment.

"It's all right, Hinata, I wasn't there for you either. I failed you, too, and I'm sorry, too," he answered. Then he pulled back and looked at her. "Hinata, let's just put the past behind us. We should have been there for one another sooner, but now we are. Let's just promise one another to be there for one another from now on, all right?"

Hinata smiled at him. "Yes, you're right, Naruto. I promise, from now on, you'll never be alone again. I'll always be here for you from now on, I promise you," she said, blushing.

Naruto smiled back, a true, heart-felt smile. "Thank you, Hinata. I promise I'll always be here for you from now on, too. You'll never be lonely again, I promise. And I never take back my words, that is my nindo, my ninja way," he said, grinning. Hinata felt her heart melt and threw herself onto him again, hugging him tight. Naruto just hugged her back and let her cry on his chest; he knew they were tears of joy, for he felt the same ones in his own eyes. So it was that two very lonely young ninja found, in one another, acceptance, friendship, acknowledgment, and the end of their loneliness.

Neither of them knew it, but Tsunade was watching them through the crystal ball she had inherited from the Third Hokage. She saw as the two hugged and cried together and smiled. As the two sat together, she cut off the jutsu and left the two in privacy. She was truly happy for Hinata, who had finally gotten the acknowledgment of her crush, and for Naruto, who had finally found acceptance. She smiled, thinking that, while the two of them had suffered very dark pasts, they now had a very bright future ahead of them.