A/N: Sorry for the long wait folks. I'll try not to let it happen. I need to get more used to scheduling time to write. I got broken from my writing so many times. Anyway, I'll work hard on doing better. No excuses from me! :)

I still don't own Naruto, Masashi Kishimoto does. Ha! Take that lawyers.

Do check out "Naruto Uzumaki and the Deus Ex Machina no Jutsu," when you have time.

I have to thank hinatasgreatestfan for all his help with this chapter. Especially the R.A.M.E.N. :D You'll see what I mean!

Chapter 2: Naruto's new friends

Naruto had left for the ninja academy right from the Hokage's office, his heart full of fire now that he had undeniable proof that he had a mother and father who loved him. No longer would the villagers' taunts and his classmates' teasing get to him, now that he had the precious proof of his mother's love to shield him. He knew he'd have to be very careful not to slip up and tell anyone, but he was confident he could do it; he just had to. No matter how hard it was going to be, it would be worth it.

Knowing that his mother loved him made Naruto feel lighter than he had ever before. It was as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. His posture was more relaxed and his smile more real. He was so very glad that the Old Man had cared for him enough to reveal the secret early. It made him feel...loved and...content for what felt like the very first time.

Almost before he realized it, he was in front of his classroom. He knocked on the door and waited, grinning, as a small plan to aggravate his teacher formed in his mind. Naruto paused for a minute and wondered if the Old Man and his mother would approve. Naruto knew that the Old Man secretly enjoyed his pranks and had always encouraged him to be himself. Some instinct told him that his mother would also have approved of his pranks on some level, even though she'd probably scold him and tell him to behave. His mind made up, he strode into the classroom confidently just as Iruka called for him to enter.

Iruka started scolding him almost at once, "Ah! Welcome back, Prankster King. I hope you've learned your lesson about vandalizing public property?"

Naruto couldn't believe it. This was the first time Iruka had actually acknowledged his presence. Usually, Iruka would turn, look like he was about to say something, then get this strange look in his eyes before turning away and ignoring him, leaving him to find his seat. And was that amusement that Naruto heard in Iruka's voice? Iruka couldn't possibly have found his prank funny, could he? Suddenly, light dawned on Naruto. Iruka was making fun of him. Naruto's course of action was now set. He felt perfectly justified in aggravating Iruka. No one made fun of Naruto Uzumaki and got away with it. Believe it! Naruto just smirked annoyingly and rolled his eyes. "I'm glad you recognized my greatness. I am the Prankster King of Konoha, after all," said Naruto proudly.

Just as Naruto expected, Iruka was annoyed by his response. "You are the dead-last of the class from last year, you've failed twice, and yet you waste your time playing pranks instead of paying attention to class and training hard. You said your dream was to be Hokage, yet you act like the Academy is a joke. How will you ever get to be a shinobi?" said Iruka heatedly.

The class started laughing. Naruto got annoyed himself but forcibly clamped down his emotions. His 'prank' hinged on his ability to stay calm. He couldn't let Iruka's statements go unchecked, however. "Whoever said that I don't train?" asked Naruto quietly. "And I will be Hokage."

"You need to pass the academy graduation exam first, future Hokage-sama. How do you intend to pass when you can't even make a simple clone or perform the transformation jutsu?" asked Iruka. "I sure don't see the results of your 'training'!"

Naruto stared at the Chunin for a moment before a truly wicked idea popped into his head! Naruto quickly gathered chakra and made some hand seals. He transformed in a puff of smoke, and then there was pure chaos.

Iruka was knocked off his feet by a geyser of blood that spurted from his nose. The girls were in various states of shock, and some of them shouted their outrage. There was a squeak from the back of the class before a head ducked below a desk.

Most of the boys, on the other hand, stared with undisguised interest at Naruto's transformation. Sakura quickly covered Sasuke's eyes with a hand while shouting at Naruto. Shino Aburame, from a clan of bug-using ninja, blushed darkly behind his sunglasses and ducked a bit into the collar of his coat but didn't look away. Kiba Inuzuka, of the Inuzuka clan, stared openly with a perverted smile and got decked by one of his female classmates. Akamaru, Kiba's little dog, covered his eyes with crossed paws, afraid that the girl would deck him too if he didn't. Shikamaru Nara, who could bend shadows to his will with chakra, slept on peacefully. Ino Yamanaka, on his right, was standing up and yelling at the blond while shaking her fist. Choji Akimichi, a chubby boy from Konoha's big-boned Akimichi clan, was not looking at Naruto at all. He was staring at Ino with a look of longing while blushing slightly.

Iruka got back up, managed to staunch his nosebleed with plugs of cotton, which he seemed to produce from nowhere, and turned to Naruto. Naruto, who, at the moment, was wearing the skin of a nubile young girl and clad only in strategically placed clouds of smoke, tossed 'his' pigtails over 'his' shoulder, winked saucily at Iruka, and grinned. Iruka blushed before coming to his senses and shouting at Naruto to dispel the transformation.

Naruto complied, flashed a victory sign, and said, "Shudder, you pervert, before my mighty original technique, the sexy jutsu!"

Perverts all around the elemental nations felt an inexplicable sense of fear. Sarutobi, too, felt a great disturbance in the perv. He hadn't felt anything of this magnitude since the time Jiraiya had completed the first volume of Icha Icha. Whatever this was, however, made him feel an unholy sense of dread. He hoped to the heavens that his instincts were wrong and that Naruto had not unleashed a Kage-killing perverted technique upon the world...

"I am not a pervert!" yelled Iruka, even as the prankster snickered loudly, pointing at the hapless Chunin. "Go to the back of the class and perform fifty sit-ups. Let that be a lesson not to invent any useless perverted jutsu," yelled Iruka.

Naruto protested loudly, but gave in when he noticed the murderous glares of the females in the class. He started on his punishment.

"And don't forget to pay attention either. A shinobi must always be observant and aware of his surroundings. Don't even think about protesting. If you can't remember important details while doing other tasks, you can't do it while fighting. If you cannot master this ability, you will fail your missions as a shinobi," said Iruka seriously. He then spoke of one of the fourth Hokage's greatest victories in the third great shinobi war and how it had hinged on such skills. With that, Iruka smoothly transitioned back to his planned lesson and regained control of the class in one fell swoop. Even the worst troublemakers in the class listened carefully to that lecture.

"Release," Iruka yelled, holding his hands in the correct seal and trying his best to dispel what he assumed had to be a genjutsu. "Release," Iruka yelled again, frowning. He tried again and again, contorting his face in concentration and trying harder each time to break free. Nothing happened, since, of course, there was no genjutsu to break. It just couldn't be...

Iruka looked over to Naruto, who was staring strangely at him along with most of the class. He checked carefully to be sure, but there was no mistake. Naruto's pen was still poised over his notebook, which was covered in actual notes taken from the lesson! Iruka pinched himself hard, to check that he wasn't dreaming, yelped in pain, and jumped slightly.

The class went off into gales of laughter at their teacher's strange behaviour. The behaviour was funny, even if their teacher had seemingly lost his marbles completely.

Although Iruka had stopped ignoring the blond that very day, he had observed him since the day he had started teaching and knew that Naruto never took notes. He had never seemed to care about his studies. Iruka was thankful for whatever miracle had changed Naruto and hoped that his improved behaviour continued. Whatever else Iruka was, he was a good teacher and cared about his students. Much to his shame, it had taken over two full weeks to be able to bring himself to treat Naruto as every student deserved. He was determined to make up for it and help Naruto.

Iruka resumed his lecture, much to his students' simultaneous relief and disappointment, and noted happily that Naruto continued taking notes, even raising his hand to ask an intelligent question or two. Most of the class was shocked silent by his behaviour. Iruka, however, looked at him proudly each time before answering.

Iruka sighed as the classes at the academy wound to a close. He had been informed by a messenger from the Hokage that he needed to supervise Naruto and ensure that he cleaned up the monument. Iruka would normally dread dragging Naruto kicking and screaming to clean up the mess he had created, but he welcomed the opportunity to observe Naruto today. He had grown slightly concerned due to Naruto's unusual behaviour; he was glad to see him seemingly taking things more seriously, but it was still a concern as it was so out of the ordinary.

Naruto had sat patiently through classes when he normally slept or fidgeted in his chair, waiting to break from the shackles that bound him to the academy. He had paid attention where he normally didn't care. He'd seemed to slip into introspection more than once, only to break from his thoughts and force himself to listen to the lectures that day. Something had definitely changed; Iruka just didn't know what it was.

Iruka walked outside and picked up the boy as the bell rang, and Mizuki, the taijutsu instructor, dismissed the class. When informed of his punishment, Naruto did not protest, further surprising Iruka and making him worry more for the boy. At least the changes had come at a time when he had someone immediately available to notice and help, if necessary. Iruka shuddered to think of what would've happened if the same event had occurred even a day ago or any other time before he had taken the Hokage's advice and given the boy a chance. No one would have helped him, even if something was seriously wrong.

Iruka was so busy in his contemplation of Naruto that he did not even notice when they arrived at the monument until Naruto prodded him for details on where the cleaning supplies were kept. Iruka walked up the side of the mountain and perched on the top of the Fourth Hokage's head. He didn't have to wait long before Naruto arrived to the top, set up the harness and started scrubbing off the whisker marks.

Naruto scrubbed hard at the Fourth Hokage's face. He adored the Fourth Hokage, who was his hero. When Naruto had learned that the village loved its Hokage, and the Fourth most of all, he had decided to surpass every single one of them as the next leader of his village. Now, he had another reason to be the best Hokage: to make the Old Man and his mother proud. Lost in his thoughts, he didn't notice Iruka's scrutiny. As such, he was startled when the man spoke.

"Why are you cleaning the Fourth Hokage's face first?" asked Iruka, both to pass the time more pleasantly and to get a better insight into Naruto. Perhaps he'd even find out what had brought on the recent changes in the boy.

"Don't do that! You nearly made me fall off," said Naruto, looking up at Iruka from where he was dangling in front of the Fourth Hokage's face with annoyance glinting in his blue eyes.

Iruka seemed amused. "A ninja needs to be aware of his surroundings and should not be so easily surprised. A Hokage would never jump out of his skin like that!" Naruto glared. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you so," said Iruka. Naruto's glare seemed to soften slightly, but he was still clearly annoyed. "It's good to see you making good use of your time by thinking, instead of grumbling about your task," added Iruka as a peace-offering.

Naruto blushed happily at the praise. He didn't know what had caused the change in Iruka, but the eleven-year-old was thankful for it. "He is my hero, the greatest Hokage of Konoha," Naruto said in answer.

Iruka nodded, silently noting Naruto's blush and wondering idly what caused it. Setting his thought aside, he asked, "That he was. Is that why you want to become the Hokage, to be just like your idol?"

Naruto thought about it for a moment and replied, "If you had asked me that a few days ago, I would have said that I wanted to be Hokage to make the whole village stop disrespecting me, to make them acknowledge me...but now, I want to do it so that I can make Old Man Sarutobi and my mother proud. I don't just want to be the Hokage, I want to be the best Hokage ever." The last part was said with a look of fierce determination that looked out-of-place to Iruka on the goofy blond's face.

Iruka was surprised at the mention of his mother. Iruka knew that Naruto was an orphan, just like Iruka himself, so he decided that a delicate approach was needed. "I'm glad you're doing this for the people you care about. What made you change your mind about things?"

"The Old Man told me about my mother just this morning. She loved me so much, and the Old Man has always cared about me. I'm going to make them proud," said Naruto quietly.

So that was the crux of the matter! That's why Naruto had changed today and paid attention in class. "If you continue to pay attention in class like you did today, I'm sure you will do them proud," said Iruka, mostly hoping to support the attention-starved boy but also, at least in part, to encourage him to continue his improved behaviour. "I'm sure you can become the Hokage, if you work hard."

Naruto's eyes gleamed at that proclamation. "Thank you for believing in me, Iruka-sensei. Now I have four people who acknowledge me." He looked up hopefully and asked, "Will you be my friend?"

Iruka was stunned at the raw emotion in the boy's voice, the hope in his eyes, and the boy's obvious desperation to be recognized and accepted. For a moment, he could almost see himself in Naruto, yearning for attention, for someone to care for him. It was the first time Iruka really saw the blond. There could be only one answer. "Yes. Do you like ramen–"

"Do I like ramen? It's only the Best. Food. Ever. You'll really treat me? Can we go to Ichiraku's?" said Naruto, all in one breath, his eyes glowing with happiness.

Iruka saw the happiness practically radiate off the boy as he babbled excitedly about ramen. Iruka shook his head and chuckled, "Well then, you had better hop to it! You don't want Ichiraku's to close before we get done, do you?"

Naruto stopped, gasped in horror at the thought, and became a blur of activity, subconsciously channelling chakra to speed up his work.

Iruka was surprised to see Naruto use chakra to enhance his speed. Maybe he wasn't a bad student at all. His Jonin instructor had always told him that there were no bad students, only bad teachers. Iruka sighed mentally and silently promised himself to do better for Naruto's sake; he had to do something to make up for the village's years of collective blindness. They'd all ignored a little boy, calling him a demon, when they were the real demons. It was their actions, after all, that had created his loneliness by starving the little boy of the care and affection he deserved just as much as every other child.

It took Naruto just over ninety minutes to have the monument scrubbed completely free of paint. The two new friends walked to the ramen stand, chatting amiably and laughing together. The banter continued over their ramen. Iruka was even kind enough to buy him a second bowl!

As Iruka scraped the last of his ramen from the bottom of his bowl, things finally clicked in his head. The prank on the monument was a desperate plea from Naruto. He'd painted a great big attention sign on it, in the hopes that people would remember him. At the very least, someone would scold him. Either way, he would get some attention.

Iruka was impressed by the ingenuity of the prank. The prankster had done the next best thing to carving his face on the monument! No one had caught him while pulling it off – he was only recognized as the culprit because he was the only prankster who would have the guts to do it – he'd evaded the Chunin chasing after him with impressive speed and skill, and he would've gotten away scot-free if not for Iruka's timely appearance.

Iruka decided to answer Naruto's call. He did deserve the praise, but he couldn't very well praise him for vandalising the monument. Then, he remembered what Naruto had done that morning in class. "Congratulations on learning the transformation jutsu," praised Iruka. Naruto glowed under the simple praise. "Just don't do that particular transformation again, OK?"

"Admit it Iruka-sensei, you're just a pervert!" teased the boy. Iruka blushed.

"I am not!" protested poor Iruka. "It's demeaning to women when you do that," he scolded, thankful that Ayame, the pretty waitress, wasn't around to hear Naruto's accusation. A man had to protect his reputation, after all.

"What does 'demeaning' mean?" asked Naruto.

"It means that it makes them feel hurt and insulted. It's like saying that they are beneath you," explained Iruka. "You may not understand it yet, but don't do it again, okay?"

Naruto nodded, albeit reluctantly. He still didn't understand why women would be insulted by a totally awesome, funny prank. He didn't really understand women, though, so maybe Iruka was right, and he didn't want to insult women. He also remembered the shouting of the girls in class, and how one of them had decked Kiba, and shuddered. He decided that he wouldn't use it in front of women again, if nothing else, and nodded to Iruka.

After Iruka paid for their ramen, they exited the stand and turned to go their separate ways. Naruto turned back and called to Iruka, "Hey, Sensei!" Iruka paused and turned, giving Naruto a quizzical look. "Thanks!" Iruka knew somehow that Naruto was thanking him for so much more than just buying him ramen. He smiled at Naruto and waved before each of them went his own way.

Naruto couldn't believe how much his life had changed in one day. He'd learned of his mother, been reminded that the Old Man cared for him deeply, and made a friend and shared a bowl of ramen with him. It was a day for firsts and the best day of his life...at least, so far.

Naruto was walking around the soccer field, scuffing his shoes and kicking a pebble around as usual. He'd long since learned that most children wouldn't play with him, and plenty of those who were willing would be stopped by their parents. As such, he was content to be left in peace at the moment. He approached the stairway leading up from the road and lost the pebble as it clattered down.

Naruto perked up as he spotted Sakura coming up the stairs just then and watched in abject horror as the pebble bounced off her calf. Naruto might have had a crush on Sakura, but he had no delusions about her violent side and rather volatile temper, not after experiencing it so many times. He began to stammer an apology, but he was cut off as Sakura approached him, smiling sweetly. Oddly enough, the smile sent a chill up Naruto's spine and made him more apprehensive.

"Hi Naruto! You wouldn't happen to know anything about why Sasuke decided to do that ridiculous dance in class, would you?" enquired Sakura sweetly.

"Uh...Um...Ah! You see Sakura, I, uh...that is...I...wasn't at school. Yes, that's it! I was late, as usual, remember?" stammered Naruto nervously.

"Oh! Really? I remember you got to the academy rather early, I saw you up in the tree," said Sakura, her eyes taking on a distinctly demonic glint that promised pain, no matter which way he answered. Naruto whimpered.

"I fell asleep in the tree," he tried.

"Wrong ANSWER," yelled Sakura, smashing his head into the dirt, leaving Naruto seeing stars. As he prepared to get stomped on, and a bruising beat-down from her, he heard ringing. "Wait! Are my ears ringing from that hit? No, that isn't how this ringing sounds..." Naruto's eyes sprang open as he awoke suddenly from his dream, reached over, and silenced his alarm clock. He got out of his bed with a yawn, sparing his clock a glance and noting that he had awoken much earlier than was usual for him.

Naruto smiled at his mirror, brushing his teeth, as he thought of all the things that had happened yesterday. He looked forward to going to the Academy for once. He recalled Iruka telling him that he'd behave like his teacher, not his friend, while class was in session. Maybe it wouldn't hurt to try to pay more attention in class like Iruka had suggested...? So long as it didn't make him boring or stuck-up, anyway, maybe it was worth a try. Iruka had told him that was a good way to make his precious people proud, after all. It also helped that Iruka's praise had made him feel all warm inside. He wanted to feel that again...often, if possible.

He walked into his kitchen, picked out some cup ramen, added flavouring and water and set it in the microwave. Then began the annoying three-minute wait for the water to heat and the ramen to be done.

As he waited, he thought of Iruka's advice about the sexy jutsu and remembered the painful beating that he had received from Sakura in the dream. He decided he needed some way to protect himself; crush or not, he did not want to get hurt. His wandering eyes spotted an old iron pot lying on the kitchen counter. The proverbial light bulb came on over his head.

He pulled out some rope and tied it to the handles of the pot, making a strap. Wearing it on his head, he adjusted the makeshift strap till it fit comfortably. Naruto took it off and cut away the excess rope. He'd decided to christen it R.A.M.E.N.: Reinforced Armour Made Especially for Naruto. He put the remaining rope on a shelf and the R.A.M.E.N. in his backpack. The microwave beeped, signalling that his ramen was ready, just as he entered the kitchen. Pleased, Naruto pulled out the cup and a carton of milk and placed them on his table.

Breaking his chopsticks apart, he clapped his hands in a hearty, "Itadakimasu!" and began eating. He ate quickly, as he always had, because he had neither anyone to share his meal and chat with nor anyone to teach him any better. Thinking of this, he felt a little lonely and paused in his eating, but then he remembered that his inheritance would help him do something about that at least. Spurred on by that thought, he finished up his ramen quickly, took a few big gulps from the carton of milk, and cleared everything away.

He had been too busy yesterday, but, with an hour left before he needed to be at the academy, he could really begin to make sense of the situation. Naruto was still unsure that anyone in Konoha would be friends with him, much less love him, but, with his mother's wishes and the old man's reassurance, Naruto was determined to give it a chance and work to find love. He didn't want to be alone anymore. Bolstered by that thought, he pulled out the box and inspected its contents.

He paused briefly at the photograph, smiling at his mother for a moment, before getting down to business. He pulled out the necklace and looked at it carefully. It was unremarkable to the naked eye, no different from any other necklace as far as Naruto could tell. The hexagonal pendant was transparent and contained a single strand of his mother's red hair, arranged in a spiral. Naruto had a feeling that the pendant was not made of glass and touched it to confirm his suspicions.

The moment his bare skin made contact with the clear material, a mild jolt went through his body. Naruto pulled away his fingers in shock. He looked at the pendant warily. If anyone but the Old Man had given the things to him, he might have suspected that he was the subject of a cruel joke again and that the necklace was intended to harm him. He trusted the Hokage implicitly, however; the Hokage had cared for him since before he could remember and had even saved his life once. The Old Man hadn't explained exactly how the gift was to be used and how it was to help him. Could it be even the Hokage himself didn't know? Even if that was the case, this must be part of how it was supposed to function!

Naruto touched the pendant again and noted absently that it might have been made of clear quartz. As he felt a mild drain of chakra into the pendant, he noticed that the strand of hair stood out more clearly, almost like it might have been glowing slightly. Considering that the necklace was made especially for him, it wasn't surprising that it reacted to his chakra. Maybe it would react to other people's chakra, too? If he gave it to a girl, for instance, would its reaction indicate whether she was right for him? Naruto thought about it for a minute and nodded to himself. That made sense.

Naruto proceeded to test the pendant further, touching it against his shirt. The chakra drain vanished. Apparently, the object needed to be in contact with bare skin for it to work. None of the girls he knew wore gloves, so it wouldn't be a problem getting them to touch it. Satisfied with this answer, Naruto decided he would try it out that day in class, and, if it didn't react, he would keep trying with different people and with different methods until he found the right person.

Naruto then proceeded to go through the rest of his daily routine. He took a bath, added pens and paper to his backpack, ensured he had the shuriken holster filled and ready for target practice class that day and prepared to leave the house. He wore the necklace over his shirt, but under his jacket, careful not to let it touch bare skin. Naruto then left for the academy, smiling happily.

Sasuke Uchiha readied himself for the academy, his face set in a grim line. Not that his face wasn't usually set in a grim line, but, as any Uchiha connoisseur could tell, he was showing rather more emotion that was usual. He slung his backpack over his shoulder and walked out of his room with the look of a condemned man.

He had agreed to be Sakura Haruno's boyfriend. No, that wasn't right! Sakura Haruno had made him agree to be her boyfriend. Threatened him with the Pan. Was such unholy torture even legal? Did Sakura get that...thing from the Torture and Interrogation Department? Sasuke calmed himself for a moment. Such thoughts would not save him from Sakura's righteous fury.

As Sasuke walked through the hallway, deep in thought, he unwittingly activated the traps that Naruto had left behind. He activated a tripwire and stumbled, dropping a piece of paper. He bent to pick it up, never noticing a net fly overhead harmlessly, even as the broken wire was reeled away.

He continued walking, deeply pondering a problem other than getting strong enough to kill his brother for once. He would have driven himself insane, if he hadn't thought of it as training to get stronger as well. If he couldn't face the unholy Pan, then he wouldn't be able to face Itachi. The next trap activated, as he opened the door, raining kunai at him. Only the fact that he'd stepped to the window to use the brighter light from outside to read the piece of paper saved his life. Once again, the Uchiha didn't notice Naruto's trap.

The piece of paper was titled, "Sakura Haruno's rules for her cute boyfriend". Sasuke calmed his thumping heart. There was a cartoon drawing of a chibi Sakura beside each rule. "Rule one, always smile and look into my eyes while talking to me," he read. Beside the rule was a drawing of Sakura holding up two fingers in a victory sign. "Rule two, you must answer Sakura intelligently and intelligibly when she asks you a question. You may give a short reply." Sasuke saw that the drawing next to the rule had a speech bubble saying that they'd work on making him actually answer questions and give detailed responses next month. Sasuke repressed the shudder at being forced to make actual conversation. That girl was evil.

"Rule three, you must inform anyone who asks you, or asks you for a date, that Sakura Haruno is your girlfriend." Sasuke noticed that this rule had a drawing of chibi Sakura blowing an equally chibi Sasuke a kiss. "Rule four, you must eat lunch with your girlfriend every day." That didn't sound so bad. The Harunos had fed him some of his favourite foods, including juicy tomatoes fresh from their garden. None of them had looked at him with pity and even made polite conversation about his training. Sasuke was a bit worried now, was he beginning to actually like this? He noticed that Sakura had drawn herself blushing and looking down while holding out a bento box and a tomato.

He realized that he had stopped while he was reading and ran out the door. The pressure pad that had activated the kunai rain before had now flipped over, revealing a sticky underside. Sasuke simply stepped over it as if it weren't there. "Rule six, when in the presence of other girls (or even if you just feel like it), hold Sakura's hand." Sasuke saw a blushing Sakura next to the rule and blushed a bit himself. However, he'd do anything to stave off the fan-girls. He actually rather liked the thought of not having to deal with them until he remembered, with a groan, that Sakura had been his biggest fan-girl. Mitigating that, however, was the fact that she hadn't been annoying to deal with the other day. Terrifying, yes. Annoying, no. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad. Dealing with one terrifying fan-girl was better than dealing with a horde of annoying ones in any case.

It was at this point that Sasuke fell into the hole that Naruto had expertly dug and covered. He cursed as he fell in and dropped the paper. He looked around for a way to climb up but found that he was blocked by a net of ninja wire. It looked like he was stuck for the time being. He realized that there had been odd noises as he was walking. Maybe someone had set up an elaborate prank. Naruto! Only he would go so far for a prank. No one else in the village would bother or dare. Fuming, Sasuke picked up the note. He blushed as he noticed that it had a pair of lips, outlined in lipstick, on the back, and put it in his pocket. Sasuke was too distracted thinking about the note and being annoyed at Naruto to remember his practice kunai...too bad he didn't think of them, since he could have easily cut the net with them had he done so.

Sasuke decided it was most unseemly for an Uchiha to shout for help and decided to wait until he heard someone passing outside instead. He just hoped that his fan-girls didn't get wind of his predicament...even as he thought this, he knew it was an irrational fear; how would they hear about this, after all? Still, that was all the more reason not to shout out and reveal his location. Sasuke didn't have to wait too long. Sakura, who had come to the Uchiha compound so that she could walk to school with her new boyfriend, noticed the big hole in front of the gate. She cut away the wire with one of her own kunai and helped her brand-new boyfriend out of the hole.

Sasuke was about to look away from Sakura and then thank her when he noticed a familiar handle sticking out of her backpack. Sasuke wisely followed rule one while thanking her. Sakura gave him a satisfied smile and waved him off, trying not to show how pleased she was, both with Sasuke and with herself. They walked in companionable silence all the way to the academy.

Ino Yamanaka headed up the horde of girls waiting to greet "their" Sasuke-kun and try to win his affections yet again. Ino was rather determined that today would be the day that Sasuke-kun noticed her. She looked around for her pink-haired rival, noticed that she wasn't there, and spared a thought to be concerned for her. Oh, well. So be it! If Sakura couldn't bother showing up, then she didn't truly love Sasuke-kun and didn't deserve him. Ino checked that her hair was just right, for the tenth time in the last hour, in a little compact mirror she carried. Satisfied that everything was OK, she waited for Sasuke to arrive.

Ino's jaw dropped as she looked up from her mirror and saw Sasuke and Sakura walking toward the Academy together. Sasuke even seemed to be smiling a bit. Sasuke-kun never smiled! Ino and the horde moved forward to tell the pink-haired bitch off for trying to take their Sasuke-kun.

Sasuke saw the horde approaching and paled. He prepared to bolt when Sakura's hand brushed up against his. Remembering rule six, he grabbed it tight and hoped that he wouldn't have to spend time evading them. Sakura smiled softly at Sasuke for a moment, before reaching over her shoulder, grasping the handle, and drawing the Pan out like a sword. She stretched her arm forth and pointed the Pan at the horde, sweeping it slowly from left to right.

Seeing Sasuke grasping Sakura's hand like a lifeline, the horde got the message. They hung their heads and moved off dejectedly. Ino, in particular, ran off, crying into her hands. Sakura felt sorry for her first friend and long-time rival. She'd have to find a way to help Ino feel better. She owed the girl that much, and, besides, Ino was a good friend, even if they liked to pretend that they weren't friends anymore.

Sasuke smiled as he looked at Sakura. Maybe this having a girlfriend thing had its benefits, after all. He did need a girlfriend to revive the clan, and Sakura didn't seem so bad suddenly, now that she had driven off the other girls. Speaking of which, was that whole thing with the Pan some kind of girl code for "hands off my man"?

It was recess, and Naruto was finally free from Iruka's less-than-involving lectures. Iruka and most of the class had left, leaving only Naruto, Sasuke, and a handful of girls in the classroom. That meant that it was time to ask some girls to hold the necklace and see how it reacted. Naruto looked around for girls to ask. As he looked around, he noticed that most of the girls still in the room were staring at Sasuke and Sakura. Much to Naruto's surprise, Sakura was telling Sasuke something, and the Uchiha was looking at her and listening. Naruto felt like Ichiraku's had just started serving Tsukemen.

He put it out of his mind and continued to look around the room. He noticed a single girl who wasn't looking at Sasuke at all. He observed her for a moment, taking in her indigo blue hair, which she had in a princess cut with two bangs framing her face, her white pupil-less eyes that had a lavender tint just then, and her small hands clasped together on the desk. She blushed deeply, looked down, and started poking her index fingers together cutely as soon as she noticed him looking.

"Is Naruto-kun finally noticing me?" wondered Hinata Hyuga, even as she ducked her head to hide her blush from him. Part of her desperately wanted him to notice her and maybe just say hi, while another part of her was busy panicking about how she would respond just in case she did. Yet another part of her kept saying it would be better if he didn't notice her because if he did he would just see her as weak and, therefore, not worth noticing.

Naruto thought about it for a minute. Naruto always thought that Hinata was a bit weird. She was shy and quiet and went as red as a tomato whenever he was around. He realized that she wasn't angry with him and had long since come to the conclusion that either she had some kind of fever that acted up whenever he was around or that she was allergic to him. She stuttered when she talked to him, which made it hard to understand her. On the positive side, she had never ridiculed or laughed at him, and she was always polite. The fact that the Hyuga wasn't obsessed with Sasuke also gave her some major points in Naruto's book; being able to see that Sasuke was just a duck-butted emo was not something to be overlooked or underestimated. Naruto frowned thoughtfully as he debated asking her. He decided he would ask someone else first.

As Naruto looked away from her, Hinata's heart sank a little. Self-doubt reared its ugly head and she felt down. "Why is he turning away? Does he think I'm weak?" she asked herself. Then her mind flashed to what Naruto would do when people pushed him down. He'd get up and try again. "I will never give up. I'll become strong, so I am worthy to walk by your side." It was too bad Naruto had already looked on by the time Hinata's face gained a determined air, or he might have changed his mind about not asking her immediately.

Ino wasn't around to ask, so that left only one other person the blond wanted to ask that day: Sakura.

Sakura had noticed Ino run off in tears that morning. She sighed as she realized that their rivalry was destroying their friendship. There was no way she was leaving Ino to be depressed, not when she owed so much to her old friend and long-time rival. "I'm going to track her down after class," determined Sakura, realizing Ino probably wouldn't want to see anyone, especially her, just then. Looking around the classroom, she saw Naruto seemingly looking for something. Remembering her resolution to herself, she decided to go talk to the boy and maybe see what was up.

Sakura turned to look at Sasuke, who was trying to sneak off, and said, "Why don't you wait on the bench by the old oak tree out on the grounds?" as sweetly as she could. Sasuke jumped, turned, and nodded resignedly. "I have to talk to Naruto for a moment, I'll be right with you." Although Sasuke was surprised, he decided not to question his luck and looked forward to doing a little brooding alone. Unfortunately for him, though, when he left the room, so did the rest of his horde of fan-girls, leaving only Naruto, Sakura, and Hinata in the room.

"Hey, Naruto!" said Sakura, smiling happily. "I just..." she began, then stopped when she noticed Naruto holding his arm out, palm facing her in a "stop" signal. She had a sudden urge to punch Naruto for interrupting, but, seeing that she was going to try to be nicer to him, she refrained.

Satisfied that she had stopped, Naruto bent down and pulled R.A.M.E.N. out from his bag. He strapped it on firmly, steeled himself, and gestured to her to continue.

Sakura stood there and stared blankly at Naruto. She stared hard for a long moment before she realized that Naruto fully expected her to hit him. "I don't hit him that much, do I?" thought Sakura, frowning a bit. "He deserved it all those times for being so annoying," she began in her head before remembering that he had tried to get Sasuke to give her a chance...in a blunt, stupid, no-hope-of-succeeding way. "Cha! Let's prank the prankster," said inner Sakura.

Still frowning a bit, Sakura raised her fist, brought it quickly to the hideous pot he was wearing, and stopped. She then gently rapped it, making it ring loudly. Sakura giggled a bit when Naruto went cross-eyed from the loud sound. "What did you expect me to hit you for? Bad fashion sense? I mean, granted, the pot-hat doesn't exactly work, but did you really think I'd hit you for that?" said Sakura, sticking out her tongue.

Naruto shuffled a bit guiltily, looking for an escape route. He was worried that Sakura really would beat him up for bad fashion sense, and R.A.M.E.N. wasn't exactly full-body armour.

"You haven't done something that deserves a beating, have you?" said Sakura, narrowing her eyes and staring hard at Naruto.

"No, no, no, I haven't! I swear," Naruto said in a nervous rush, his voice shrill from panic.

"Good! You better not have," said Sakura going from angry to sunny in the blink of an eye. Naruto idly wondered if she might have multiple personalities. He chuckled at the thought.

"What are you laughing at?" asked Sakura, instantly suspicious. Naruto was a prankster, after all.

"Nothing, nothing at all," said Naruto quickly. Sakura thought it was a bit too quick to be a coincidence and decided that she had to be on the lookout for a while. She didn't want to end up with her hair dyed neon green or some such thing. She still remembered what had happened to Suzume-sensei that one time.

"I just wanted to thank you for trying to get Sasuke to give me a chance," said Sakura, "Even if it was completely stupid and wouldn't have worked in a million years, it was sweet of you to give up on me so that I'd be happy."

Naruto blushed and relaxed a little. If the blond had been expecting anything, it was most definitely not to get thanked. "You're welcome, Sakura-chan, but you really don't have to thank me!"

Sakura smiled at him pleasantly and the two stood in awkward silence for a moment, until Naruto interrupted. "Um...Sakura-chan, I have a favour to ask," said Naruto, as he pulled his mother's necklace over his head. "I know this is really odd, but can you hold the pendant for a second?"

Sakura stared at him suspiciously for a moment. "This isn't another one of your pranks is it?"

Naruto supposed that it was a wise question, and a part of him was proud of his skill as a prankster. Deciding not to test his luck with Sakura, however, Naruto hastened to reassure her. "Not at all, Sakura-chan," he said seriously. "This is my mother's necklace. It's a gift she left me that I just recently received. It drains a bit of chakra from whoever touches it; it's supposed to help me find someone to help me not be lonely."

Sakura saw the unusually serious look on Naruto's face and decided that he was telling the truth. Deciding that he deserved an honest reply, she looked a bit uncomfortable. "Naruto...I was just going to tell you. I'm Sasuke-kun's girlfriend now. I'm sure that the necklace won't pick me."

Naruto's face fell for a moment. That explained why Sasuke was actually listening to her earlier. Despite having decided to give up on his crush a few days back, admiring her determination to get Sasuke, he still felt hurt. It reminded him in a none-too-gentle way that a crush couldn't simply be forgotten just by saying that he'd give it up. It seemed particularly unfair to him that Sasuke, who was so mean and had insulted Sakura's skills a few days back, should win her heart so easily, when he, despite everything, could not. A part of him, however, was indeed happy that she'd succeeded, that her never-say-die attitude towards winning Sasuke had worked. It was reassuring, in a way. He decided that he wouldn't give up hope, either, that someone would love him. Even if Sakura wasn't the one for him, his mother's necklace would tell him for sure. It was this part that won out, as he congratulated her. "That's great Sakura-chan. I'm glad that he finally saw how great you are!"

Sakura saw that Naruto was hurt, despite everything, and that made her appreciate what he had done, and what he was saying now, even more. It was then that she realised just how right her decision to be kind to Naruto was. Hinata's crush on Naruto was no secret to Sakura; one only had to look at how the girl acted around Naruto for it to become obvious, after all. In light of her realisations, she decided to do both of them a favour. "Naruto, you shouldn't give up. You should get to know other girls, like–"

Naruto interrupted, "Sakura-chan, please, even if the necklace doesn't pick you, maybe especially if it doesn't pick you, I need to know. Please, hold it once, as a favour to me. I won't bother you or get in your way, I promise."

Sakura saw Naruto's earnest expression and thought about it. "If the necklace doesn't pick me, he'll give up on me. It better not be a prank! But, he can move on to Hinata if he realizes that I'm meant for Sasuke-kun! Cha! I'm a genius! I'll do the idiot a favour this one time," thought Sakura. "Okay. Give me the necklace. If this is a prank, so help me God, I'll beat you so hard you won't be able to eat ramen for a month!"

Naruto nodded nervously, as he dropped the necklace into her hands. Sakura noticed the chakra drain almost immediately, but didn't see any visible change in the necklace. Naruto noticed, with some disappointment, that the necklace showed nothing but the same faint glow it did when he touched it. "See, no reaction, just like I told you. Sasuke-kun and I are meant to be," said Sakura, not unkindly, as she held the necklace out to Naruto.

The moment Naruto touched the necklace, there was an explosion of colour in the pendant. Pink and blue light whirled and swirled fluidly, almost as if the pendant was filled with liquid. The two children watched in awe as the colours clashed against each other, immiscible as oil and water. It was at that moment that Naruto just knew, somehow, that Sakura was right. As the necklace began to become clear once again, Naruto realized that he had been feeling a friendly warmth. "Sakura-chan, let's just be friends," said Naruto, hoping that she wouldn't refuse that.

Sakura nodded. "Fine, friends, but you have to stop asking me out now. Don't think that I won't beat you up if you embarrass me or prank me, just because we're friends now!" As she spoke, Naruto could tell that she understood as well as he did what the necklace's reaction meant.

"Jeez! Chill, will ya? I won't ask you out anymore! I'm not embarrassing, I'm awesome! In fact–" began Naruto, but was quickly cut off.

"You might be paying attention in class now, but you're still an idiot!" Sakura started yelling, then stopped and checked herself. It wouldn't do to get angry at him. It would take a lot of effort to help Naruto, and now was not the time for anger. She needed allies, and that brought her back to the matter at hand: getting him together with Hinata. "You should really ask Hinata to touch the necklace. You never know, you might be surprised."

Naruto frowned and said uncertainly, "I was going to ask her anyway, Sakura-chan, but she's so weird. She's so quiet and turns red all the time. I think she might have fevers a lot!"

Sakura sighed. "Trust me, you should ask her anyway. Like I said, she might just surprise you. Why don't you sit next to her in class and get to know her a bit. She's a really nice girl."

Naruto nodded. "I'll try that. Thank you for telling me about her Sakura-chan." With that, the two parted. Naruto decided that he'd run to Ichiraku's to grab a quick lunch before time ran out, and Sakura left the practically empty classroom and went to the grounds to sit with Sasuke.

Sasuke sat on the bench under the oak tree, his mouth set in a grim line, his eyes glaring at an unseen enemy, and his lunch box on his lap. Sakura sighed dreamily at how handsome he looked, sitting like that. However, she now understood better just how deeply the massacre had scarred him and knew that it wasn't good for him to avoid company. She sat down next to him and greeted him breezily, "Sasuke-kun, don't just sit there. Aren't you hungry? You need to eat your lunch!"

Sakura didn't seem to be carrying the Pan now, but he decided to err on the side of caution. He did not want to trifle with that power! He looked at Sakura, barely hiding his annoyance, and grunted, "Okay."

They ate lunch in silence, with Sakura stealing glances at Sasuke every once in a while. She wasn't confident enough to attempt stealing something from his lunch box, even if she was, technically, his girlfriend. Her thoughts were occupied with making friends with him, really getting to know him, and helping him make attachments to other people again. As she ate lunch, she scoured her brain for what she knew of Sasuke. She was saddened to realize how little she actually knew of the boy, how little all the girls claiming to love him actually knew. There was no helping it, she had to get to know him better before she could do anything to help. Sasuke wasn't an open person, as such, so she thought hard about how she would get him to open up to her. Then, she remembered Sasuke's words on the day Naruto had confronted him, "Why would I let such things distract me from my task, take me away from my training, prevent me from gaining power to avenge my clan?"

That was it! If she planned to stand beside him, she'd have to get stronger...and he'd have to train to get stronger to avenge his clan, too! "Cha! I'm going to train with him. Maybe he'll open up if he sees me as an equal, someone who can help him get stronger. I'll have to convince him somehow..."

"Sasuke-kun, I have some fresh tomatoes from my garden, the juicy ones you liked the other day," she said, offering him some. "I'll bring you some everyday, if you'll let me train with you," she teased, before getting serious, "No, really, I want to get stronger, and I'll try hard to help you become stronger, too. Please, Sasuke-kun, give me a chance," she pleaded.

Sasuke was surprised. He had honestly expected any request from Sakura to come with threats of knocking him silly with the Pan. He hadn't expected to be offered tomatoes as payment. Sasuke nearly agreed then and there, thinking of the delectable treats. He mentally scolded himself for letting the thought of tomatoes sway him so easily, remembering the nightmare where Itachi killed him with a poisoned tomato. The concept itself was so wrong...he shuddered. Sasuke shook himself out of that line of thought. Tomatoes or no, she had made a serious request for training. A part of him admired that. He knew she could use it. At the same time, he knew just how weak she was, she would be of no use to him; if anything, she'd hold him back. Given that, he was certain that he should outright deny the request. "No, Sakura. You're too weak, and you'll only hold me back. Find someone closer to your level to train with, or ask Iruka for help."

"Sasuke-kun, please, give me one chance. I promise not to hold you back. It'll be like I'm not even there at first, until I'm stronger! Just help me a little and then train on your own. We could spar once every time we train together until I get stronger," she said, clearly desperate for a chance. Sasuke looked at Sakura seriously as she argued her case. Seeing Sasuke look thoughtful, Sakura continued, "If you teach me, you'll improve your own understanding. So you won't lose out, anyway, and the spars will help you practice for defeating weaker enemies. You'll need to do that sometimes and even weak enemies can surprise you..."

Sasuke gave her a long hard stare and then said, "You know the lake near the old Uchiha complex?" He saw her nod, then told her, "Be there a half-hour after classes end."

"Thank you Sasuke-kun! I won't let you down," said Sakura, giving him a quick hug. Sakura then remembered that she planned to go cheer Ino up and frowned a bit. She knew that Sasuke wouldn't appreciate being told that she planned to cheer a friend up rather than train that day and improvised quickly, "Sasuke-kun, there's another thing. I planned to train with Ino after classes, so can she come too, just this once?"

Sasuke knew that Ino was a good kunoichi and that her grades even exceeded his own. He didn't care about grades, all he wanted was to be powerful. Ino would certainly be a better sparring partner than Sakura, but it remained to be seen if she was strong. "Just make sure the two of you get there on time."

Sakura gave Sasuke a wide grin and pecked Sasuke on the cheek. Then she blushed and fled into the classroom. Sasuke, in the meantime, sat there stunned, a faint blush staining his cheeks, and he felt a warmth flood his body, starting at his cheek where she'd kissed him all the way down to his toes. He hadn't been shown this much affection in a day since the death of his mother. Sasuke frowned at the direction his thoughts were taking and decided that he would have to be careful not to let having bonds weaken him.

Naruto had eaten his ramen faster than ever before to get back in time to ask Hinata to touch the necklace. He didn't want to show the necklace around too much, someone might take it away or make fun of him – or just plain ask about its properties, and he really wasn't ready to share. Seeing that students were filing back into the classroom, he decided that it would have to wait until later. Naruto walked up to where Hinata was sitting and smiled. "Hinata-chan, can I sit next to you?" asked the boy cheerfully.

Hinata panicked and turned red, trying desperately to hide her blush from the object of her affections. She kept trying to gather the courage to say "yes", but she just couldn't seem to form the words. Her lips moved soundlessly even as she stared at Naruto from the corner of her eye. First, he had looked at her, really looked at her, and now this! She was having a really lucky day, and her mind just couldn't process all of it.

Naruto stared, somewhat disappointed by the lack of response from the girl. Naruto sensed her discomfort and, being the kind person he was, decided that making her uncomfortable wasn't worth it. If she was that uncomfortable around him, maybe she wasn't the one, anyway. "It's okay. If you don't want me to sit with you, I'll sit somewhere else. I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable." He turned to leave.

Hinata, still unable to speak, panicked at the declaration, and, seeing him turn to leave, did the only thing that made sense at the time: she leaned forward and grabbed his jacket in a desperate attempt to stop him from leaving and make him understand that she wanted him there and that having him there would make her happy. Now that she had given in to her impulse, she held on tight and decided not to let go even as her timid side panicked at her bold actions.

Naruto, for his part, found his movement arrested, lost his balance, and fell into the seat beside Hinata with a thump. Somewhat rattled after the fall, he turned over his shoulder and noticed two tiny hands fisted in the back of his jacket and the girl attached to them blushing furiously, with her eyes scrunched shut. Naruto asked wryly, "Guess you really wanted me to sit here, huh?"

Hinata timidly opened one eye, noticed what she had done, and quickly scrunched the eye back shut with a small "eep". Naruto turned, gently took hold of her hands and tried to disengage them from his jacket. Hinata's eyes flew wide open at the contact. The embarrassed girl pulled her hands back as if burned, turned, ducked down and busied herself pulling books from her bag so she didn't have to face him. Having delayed the inevitable as long as she could, she finally straightened up and set her book and pen on the table while sneaking a glance at Naruto out of the corner of her eye. She found, much to her delight, that Naruto wasn't offended by her actions and seemed quite content to be sitting where he was; indeed, the boy was smiling.

Naruto, for his part, still found the girl weird and didn't understand why the girl was blushing at all. Even he knew that his theory of frequent fevers didn't make sense. She wasn't red all the time, after all. He supposed he would find out; that would be part and parcel of getting to know her, really. He smiled, content that Hinata hadn't rejected him and had told him, in her own weird way, that he was welcome to sit beside her. No one had wanted him to do that before. The boy remembered children slapping their hands over the seat next to them and warning him off with a glare. He even remembered being shoved out of seats before. Never before this, however, could he remember being invited to sit next to someone, let alone being forcefully pulled into a chair!

Naruto realized that Hinata might have been weird, but she was also very kind. She might even be kinder than Sakura-chan; Sakura never ignored him, that was true, but, as often as not, she introduced his skull to her fist. Naruto had an epiphany at that moment: he shouldn't have to worry about being beaten up by his Sakura, who was very vocal about her opinions, Hinata didn't say much around him, and, when she did, she often stuttered. He'd always thought she'd not spoken much to him because, just like the others, she didn't like him. Recent events, however, had shown him that he was wrong. Given all of this, Naruto had no choice but to come to one very simple conclusion: there was no way he would ever understand the race of beings which claimed to belong to his species and called themselves females. In light of this conclusion, he decided he'd just have to take the time to get to know Hinata.

Hinata thanked her extreme good fortune and used the chance to sneak in several glances at Naruto while he wasn't looking. She'd noticed him change over the last two days. He'd become more calm and content for some reason and was paying attention to his studies, and he'd been smiling sincerely...Hinata remembered the first time she saw his real smile...it had made her heart melt. She glanced over at his notebook and noted that he had several questions written down and realized that they were all things he should have learned in the previous years at the academy. She idly fantasized about offering Naruto some help as she drew strength from the blond next to her, but, as usual, her insecurities reared their ugly heads. "I may not have the courage to offer to help him, but I swear, if he ever asks me for help, I'll be right there for him!" she thought to herself, doing her best to suppress her nervousness at the declaration.

The bell chose that moment to ring, interrupting her thoughts. "Hinata-chan, I have a favour to ask you," Naruto said. Hinata couldn't believe what she was hearing; given her thoughts from a moment ago, this was almost too much of a coincidence. "I'll tell you about it after class. Can you please stay back?" asked Naruto, having been too preoccupied keeping up with the lecture to talk much during class.

"S-sure Naruto-k-k-kun," stuttered the surprised girl. Hinata wondered what he might want to ask of her. Her heart fluttered a bit as she imagined Naruto asking her to be his girlfriend. She dismissed the idle fantasy and decided that she'd work hard to gain his acknowledgement, to become confident enough to tell him her feelings...and of course she'd do whatever it was he wanted her to do. How could she not after swearing to herself she would just moments ago?

"Thank you! You're so kind, even kinder than Sakura-chan I think," said the boy, thoroughly embarrassing poor Hinata, who blushed to the roots of her hair. "You know, I used to think you had fevers often, because you're red all the time. But I know that can't be right...Do you know why you're red all the time Hinata-chan? Can you tell me?" asked Naruto. Seeing Hinata "eep" and look extremely uncomfortable, he said, "It's okay if you don't want to tell me now. You can tell me someday, if you want."

That was when he began a whispered conversation with Hinata about her favourite foods and the Virtue of Ramen. As the conversation continued, Hinata grew more and more comfortable, until she had almost entirely stopped stuttering. Alas, all good things must come to an end, and this one was brought to an end by a well-aimed piece of chalk and a talking-to by Iruka-sensei.

After classes ended for the day, Naruto and Hinata left together, waiting till most of the class had dispersed. "Hinata-chan, lets go to the forest behind the academy. I have something special to share with you," said Naruto.

Hinata panicked, her heart fluttering in nervous anticipation. She dared hope that her dreams were coming true, that he'd given up on Sakura, and was asking her to be his girlfriend. Was that what the conversation with Sakura had been about? Would he perhaps give her her first kiss? As her line of thought reached its inevitable conclusion in a mental image of Naruto kissing Hinata, the poor girl became overwhelmed and promptly fainted.

Naruto heard a thud behind him and turned to find that his newest friend laid out on the ground, unmoving. "Hinata-chan! Hinata! Are you okay?" asked the panicked boy, rushing to her. Worried by the lack of response, he shook her gently. "Hinata-chan, wake up! You're scaring me..." said the boy, continuing his attempts to rouse her. "Oh God! I just made friends with her and this had to happen! I hope she'll be okay. I don't even know what happened. Do I need to take her to the doctor? Was I right about the fevers? Nah...it can't be! There's no water to splash her with nearby," ran the confused train of thought of the panicked blond. He finally decided to carry her to the forest, lay her down, and raise her feet like he'd been taught in the first-aid class that day. Who knew he'd find such good use for the lesson! Moving to the forest would certainly be for the best; he didn't want anyone blaming him for her condition, after all. The villagers were never known for being rational or fair when it came to him.

Hinata awoke to the sensation of water splashing on her face. Her eyes opened to a canopy of trees, partially obscured by Naruto's face, his hands still wet from the water he'd splashed on her. Hinata sat up with a gasp. Blushing, she asked the boy, "N-N-N-Naruto-kun, how d-did I get here? The l-last th-thing I remember, I w-was..." Remembering her recent fantasy of Naruto kissing her under the trees, her cheeks burned hotly. "S-Sorry! I f-f-fainted, didn't I? You m-must have c-c-carried me all the way here. S-S-S-Sorry about b-being so m-much t-trouble for you, Naruto-kun," she said sadly. "He must hate me now! What was I thinking, making him carry me," began a small insecure part of her. The look of worry on Naruto's face, however, bolstered her confidence, and she did away with her negative thoughts in favour of dealing with the here and now.

"It's fine Hinata-chan. You're light as a feather! It was no problem at all. Are you sure you're OK? I can bring some water from the stream for you to drink, if you want," said the boy, pointing behind him.

Hinata followed his hand to the stream, but a few feet from where she sat against a tree. "It's f-fine N-Naruto-kun, I'm O-OK," said the girl, warmed by his concern for her.

"I can take you home now, if you want or to see a doctor–" began Naruto.

"I-I'm really O-OK N-Naruto-kun. Sorry for making you worry," said Hinata with a blush, "Please j-just trust me. I don't have a fever. I'm OK," stammered the girl, hoping that he wouldn't ask her about why she fainted. She wasn't ready yet, her poor heart couldn't take it!

"OK, Hinata-chan, if you say so–" began the boy doubtfully.

"I'm f-fine Naruto-kun. P-P-Please trust me," said Hinata, unconsciously pouting a bit.

The combination of the earnest request and the cute pout on her face quickly convinced the blond. "All right, Hinata-chan, I trust you. You're my friend, after all."

"Th-Thank y-you. N-Now, you said that y-you wanted t-t-to share s-something s-s-s-special, right?" asked Hinata curiously. She ruthlessly suppressed her fantasies in favour of actually discovering what it was that Naruto wanted to share that would call for such secrecy.

"You know that I'm an orphan, right?" began the boy. Hinata nodded. "I've never known my parents. The Old Man would never tell me about them before. All I knew was that they were fine shinobi of the hidden leaf who died in the nine-tailed fox's attack. He said that they had many enemies and that he couldn't tell me about them until I was strong enough to protect myself, until I was a Chunin." Hinata gasped at the declaration, feeling for the boy. "The Old Man finally told me my mother's name and gave me everything she left for me yesterday. I still can't tell anyone her name without his permission, not until I'm a Chunin, anyway. Still, I know I had parents who loved me now..."

Seeing the boy's sadness, Hinata stood up and slipped her arms around the boy in a gentle hug. She blushed at her bold action, but she didn't let go. She rested her head gently on his chest. Her need to comfort him had completely overridden her fears! "It's O-OK N-Naruto-k-kun. I'm g-g-glad that you found out about your mother. I-I-I can't imagine how hard it must have been, not knowing..." Hinata paused, feeling Naruto's arms come around her. Something compelled her to share her own past with him, now that he'd told her something so personal. Steeling herself, she continued, "M-my m-m-mother is in h-h-h-heaven, t-too. Her name w-w-was Hikari Hyuga," said Hinata, a sob in her voice.

The blond held her tighter, silent tears streaming down his cheeks. His emotions were in a mess ever since he had found out about his mother, and now, for the first time, someone other than the old man was hugging him, was sad that he'd been alone, was sharing their pain with him. He brushed off his tears, pulled away a bit and swept Hinata's tears away with the pad of his thumb. "H-Hinata-chan, thank you for telling me. You must have been sad too...I wish I knew before, I'd have been your friend," he said, hugging the girl close again.

"I-It's OK," said Hinata, drawing comfort from his hug. That was when Naruto began to realize that his fears about never finding love and friendship in Konoha were unfounded. The warmth filling him from this girl's hug left no room for them. He didn't need the necklace to see that Hinata cared.

"I'll get the old man's permission to tell you her name and show you more. Maybe our mothers were friends, too," said Naruto, almost wistfully. "But there's more, Hinata-chan. My mother...she left me her photo, a necklace, and a letter in a box, protected by a blood seal. The necklace...it can help me find someone who will love me." He pulled back from Hinata and drew the necklace over his head. "All we have to do is touch the pendant together, and it will tell me if we're a perfect match."

So that was why Naruto had been looking around the classroom at lunch! Her heart sank as she remembered the conversation with Sakura. He had asked his crush first. Her more sensible side, however, realized that he must have at least thought about asking her first. He'd looked at her for quite some time during lunch break. He must have planned to ask several people till he found someone who cared. He must have been so lonely. Her heart fluttered nervously as she considered the implications of touching the necklace. It could make all her dreams come true, or it could shatter them irreparably.

Seeing the fear and uncertainty in her eyes, Naruto paused. "You don't have to do it if you don't want to, Hinata-chan. It's OK, we can just be friends," said Naruto. Though he was a bit disappointed, the necklace was only a tool. Hinata had become incredibly precious to him in the span of just a few hours, and he didn't want to scare her or push her away. A small part of him knew, even then, that he didn't need the necklace to know that they might be together someday.

It was that statement of Naruto's, however, that made up Hinata's mind. "N-N-Naruto-kun, it's OK. I want to," said the girl with unusual determination in her voice, "I-I a-a-a-admire y-you and want to walk b-b-beside you. E-even if the necklace d-doesn't p-p-pick m-me, I w-won't g-g-give up that d-d-dream."

Naruto was touched by the statement. Someone had admired him even when he thought no one had cared. How could he have missed that? How could he have never noticed? "Hinata-chan, even if the necklace doesn't pick you, I'll give you that chance. I promise."

With that, he held out the pendant and Hinata touched it. The clear hexagon filled with what seemed to be two luminescent liquids, one a pale glittering lavender, the other a light sparkling blue. They mixed and swirled together, complementing each other even as the differences between them vanished. Naruto and Hinata felt an intense emotion build up in their chest as they watched the two liquids mix completely. They stared at the rich deep purple of the mixture, as it began to glow brighter and brighter. Their hearts beat together as the emotion built up to its peak. They both felt a jolt as the necklace finally glowed a bright white for a brief moment, like the flash of a camera, before it returned to its usual transparent state.

The necklace dropped to the ground as two hands parted. Two bodies fell to the ground in opposite directions and landed with a thud. The birds chirped as the sun set. Darkness fell like a heavy blanket over the two slumbering children.