Chapter 10

A/N: Sorry for the delay. Between real-life events and general lack ofinspiration, this chapter has been a nightmare to write even though I’ve knownfor a long time exactly what it would be about. On the plus side, it’s comeout at twice what I consider normal chapter length. Please accept this by wayof apology.

The anime, my sole source for Naruto canon, has just reached the point wherethe super-powered Naruto clones reach the various battlefronts, and Madaraturns up and starts fighting. Please avoid storyline spoilers beyond thispoint. I guess I’d better make occasional mention of where the anime hasprogressed to in future authors’ notes from now on.

I’ve just come back from a week-long literary translation summer school,during which it was incidentally revealed to me just how incredibly far I haveto go in terms of writing style. (Fellow student: “And I had to translate thisincredibly awful text where the author actually does X and Y, I mean, can youbelieve it?” Me: “Wait, I do X and Y all the time in my writing!”). Whilemost of this chapter was written before that point, fairly warned be ye thatI’m going to try to experiment more in the future in order to improve.Obviously, constructive criticism would help a lot.

If you have any questions you wish answered, and I have failed to do so,please remind me. It’s been too long since the last chapter.

Since my creative whatchamacallit seems to be at a low point, I’m going toplay it safe and reduce update frequency to fortnightly and see how it goes.

-o-

Naruto was not the only one to sleep badly that night. When he got home,Kakashi had tried to go straight to sleep, but his troubled mind insisted ongetting in the way. Team Seven had barely survived their first seriousmission, and the responsibility lay squarely at his feet.

Yet again, he reviewed the course of events. First contact with the enemy hadgone smoothly - their first challenging battle, and their first kill, hadtaken place in a highly controlled environment, moreso than they would everknow. But then he’d made the decision to press on with the mission instead ofputting it on hold until reinforcements could arrive. He’d put the missionahead of the welfare of his subordinates, and the very next day, they nearlypaid for it with their lives.

Yes, they were the best Genin group he’d seen for years. They understoodteamwork. They understood loyalty. They were self-reliant yet respectful ofauthority (at least when it counted). And for all their lack of experience,they were both disciplined and creative in their approach to new challenges, acombination far too rare even among skilled shinobi. But he’d thrown them intodanger before they were ready, and simultaneously fallen for Zabuza’sstratagem hook, line and sinker. He should have known then to turn back, toaccept the loss of face from changing his mind and disrupting Tazuna’sschedule.

And then there was the training. He should have focused on drawing outSasuke’s combat potential, tried to awaken his Sharingan and taught him thebasic applications. He should have taught Sakura a simple technique or two tohelp her keep the client (and herself) out of harm’s way. Instead… treewalking. In what possible world was tree walking a good idea against thatopponent on that terrain?

No, in retrospect he knew why he’d done it. It had nothing to do with treewalking being vital preparation for more advanced training. First andforemost, tree walking enhanced mobility. On its own, what it boosted most wasevasion and escape. He’d been ready to put his team into deadly danger, butnot ready to trust them to fight. On some level, he’d hoped they would focuson staying alive, maybe even flee the battle, just so he wouldn’t have to burythem as he had buried other teams before them.

At least Naruto had learned water walking, though in the event he hadn’t hadto use it. Kakashi still wasn’t sure if his intervention where Naruto wasconcerned had been a good thing or not - it may or may not have ultimatelysaved the day, but it also nearly ended up unleashing the most powerfuldestructive force known to man. Was encouraging Naruto to draw on his fullpotential really a good thing, or had he just put the whole shinobi world indanger by trying to act on wisdom he didn’t really have?

Kakashi sighed to himself. There was still so much to do if he was to make upfor his failure and be the instructor these children deserved. The flameburning inside Sasuke threatened to consume him if fanned in the wrongdirection. Sakura was strolling blithely into a world that chewed up theunprepared like a meat grinder. And Naruto reminded him of his younger self,gifted, brilliant, and utterly unable to see beyond himself to the trueconsequences of his actions.

In the early morning, Kakashi finally drifted off to sleep.

He was awakened a couple of hours later by a quiet noise, so faint he mightalmost have thought he’d dreamed it.

Within a second, three shinobi lay unconscious on the floor, and a fourth wasstruggling with his right arm behind his back and a kunai at his throat.Kakashi fixed the remaining, fifth, intruder with a cool gaze.

“How can I help you, gentlemen?”

The other man was unfazed. He took in the state of his subordinates with aquick glance, reached slowly into a vest pocket, and presented a scroll withan official-looking seal at the bottom.

“Hatake Kakashi, you are hereby under arrest on suspicion of treason againstthe village of Hidden Leaf. Your trial begins in an hour.”

-o-

Naruto’s mood had not improved by the time he woke up. He could feel somethingending, some faint wisp of childhood he hadn’t even realised was there. In away, he should have known this would be the case. The ninja world wasn’t likethe civilian one, where some sort of mystical process magically rendered aperson ready for adult life overnight, based on their biological age. Here,the rights and responsibilities of adulthood were aligned with those of beinga ninja: as a Genin, he was expected to sacrifice his life for the village ata moment’s notice, and accordingly had the right to live that life as he sawfit. There were restrictions, of course, given the young age of most Genin.Some rights were reserved for their parents or guardians, and Naruto would notattain them until he reached Chūnin rank or the age of sixteen (whichever camefirst).

In his case, though, attaining Genin rank hadn’t been as big a step as formost people. With the Hokage’s hands-off approach to guardianship, Naruto hadalready been making his own decisions on most day-to-day matters, while otherprivileges of adulthood (such as marriage) felt too far off to even thinkabout. As such, he hadn’t felt the seismic shift of becoming a partial adult,and hadn’t realised that his life was changing forever. Now, at last, thatfeeling was catching up to him. In the space of one mission, he’d experiencedfirst love, fought to the death, and had to make major decisions about hisplace in the world. Then, in its aftermath, he’d discovered that he was caughtup in a web of secrets and dangers that most adults would never even have todeal with. Who would he become if he kept going like this? Was he expected togive up being playful, flippant and carefree (or at least as carefree asNaruto got)? What did it mean to grow up, to adapt, and which parts of it washe allowed to choose?

It was too much for Naruto to deal with all at once, and he found himselfcasting about for a suitable distraction. He finally found it in an unexpectedplace. At first, the big practical decisions that had to be made in light ofhis conversation with the Hokage had felt like towering monoliths ready totopple and crush him under their weight at any moment. But now, Naruto wastaking shelter in their shadow. There was a certain comfort in having to facepuzzles where he could bring all his intellectual might to bear, looking for asolution he knew he would eventually find, rather than nebulous philosophicalissues he had no idea how to grasp.

At the top of the list were the revelations about his parents. It wastempting, so tempting, to throw the truth in the villagers’ faces, to savourtheir shame as they discovered that they’d been tormenting the son of one oftheir greatest heroes. But his fantasies of revenge popped like soap bubbleswhen he tried to actually project the most likely scenario. Would they reallyadmit they’d been wrong all along, and face up to the consequences of theiractions? Or would they just spin the discovery to reinforce their existingbeliefs, and proclaim that he was an obvious disappointment to his parents,who would surely be ashamed if they could see how their son had grown up etcetera et cetera? Naruto had no illusions that the villagers had originallydecided to hate him based on some sort of rational evidence that could bechallenged and disproved.

Then there was the safety angle. Much though he hated to agree with hismysterious nemesis about anything, if Naruto could work out that he wasKyubey’s host, so could others, and every extra detail made him easier toidentify. If he was going to reveal the truth, and one day he certainly was,it would have to be after he became strong enough to fend off that sort ofattention. His experience with Zabuza and Haku had taught him the limits ofhis strength all too well, and the people coming after him would probablyinclude enemies of their calibre. Not to mention whoever had unleashed theNine-Brains in the first place. From the Hokage’s words, it seemed like nosuspicious bodies had been recovered, which suggested that someone powerfulenough to penetrate maximum village security, face off against the FourthHokage and break a state-of-the-art demon seal was still alive and out there -and likely interested in finishing the job.

There were too many pieces of the puzzle missing, that was the problem. Whatwas it they were all after? His nemesis had wanted to use him as a tool, butNaruto’s experience with the Nine-Brains had shown it to be far too dangerousto just unleash as some sort of weapon of mass destruction. It was anintelligent being, and clearly one with a taste for violence. That meant itwas fully capable of seeking revenge on its former captors, or indeed pursuingits own plans, which were unlikely to be for anyone’s good. It wasn’t worthkeeping something like that around if the only way to make use of it was tolet it loose and risk either of those things happening. It would be smarter tojust kill Naruto, or keep him in some kind of hidden underground vault hiswhole life until the time came to transfer the Nine-Brains to his successor.

That meant there had to be something else, some benefit to being the host ofwhich he was as yet unaware, and which might just tip the balance of power inhis favour. His parents had probably thought so too when they’d chosen theirown newborn child to receive the seal. And, knowing this, they’d entrusted himwith it; they’d assumed, without even knowing him, that he would do the rightthing when given great power. The very notion of that sort of trust, somethinghe had never seen in the real world, filled him with a strange mix ofemotions, from sorrow to happiness, from awe to disbelief. He wished againthat he could have known them. For now, questioning the Hokage about everylast detail of their lives would have to do.

Feeling a bit better, Naruto roused himself from his contemplative state.Things were changing, after all, and one of those changes was the fact thathis wallet was presently full of more money than he had ever even seen in oneplace before. In other words, it was time to go shopping.

-o-

The chief of the (civilian) Leaf police service stared gloomily at the reportsmounting into an ever taller pile on his desk as he waited for his latestintern to bring him a much-needed mug of coffee.

At 9.45 am, a hulking purple-skinned horned ogre, wearing a tiger-skinloincloth and waving a five-foot iron club, had barged into the foyer ofScroll Off, Leaf’s premier bookshop, and demanded directions to the mangasection from a terrified clerk. It returned to the counter ten minutes later,its body language much changed, and very quietly handed over the money for thetwo most recent volumes of Princess Maker Gaiden, five volumes of Thornsand Petals: Rosamund’s Heart-Pounding Adventure and the entire backlog of thecritically-acclaimed Magical Girl Glitter Honey.

At 11 am, the chief’s intern informed him of a new rumour spreading likewildfire: apparently, Tora, the Fire Daimyō‘s wife’s cat with a tendency totake refuge from its owner on Leaf territory, had been cursed to turn into adog when covered in water at precisely 4 degrees Celsius. To date, Tora hadbeen drenched with at least seven buckets of cold water by curious townsfolk,but to no effect. Trade in thermoses and thermometers was apparently booming.

At 11.30 am, a report came in of a mass nosebleed-induced fainting incidentamong the staff of LUSCO supermarket. Allegedly, a group of completely nakedyoung women, their modesty preserved only by mysterious clouds of mist, hadmarched in, completely unembarrassed, and purchased a variety of cookingimplements, as well as industrial quantities of ramen ingredients. Whenquestioned on their way out, they explained that they were preparing a darkritual to summon their master, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, from the voidbeyond time and space for purposes best left unspecified.

By that point, the chief had no choice but to accept that the worst had cometo pass. Uzumaki Naruto was back in town.

-o-

Naruto strolled cheerfully through the streets, catching up on his shoppingneeds while a separate corner of his mind gleefully noted the visibleconsequences of his opening salvo of pranks and made notes for futureimprovements. Naruto had yet to realise this, but his daily use of shadowclones was in fact making him a lot better at semi-conscious multi-tasking. Healso faintly registered the Hokage passing him by at one point, unusually outof his characteristic white robes and ridiculous hat, but the lattercompletely blanked him. Naruto wasn’t sure how he felt about that, but just ashe was beginning to consider the implications, he was distracted by the sightof Kiba and Shino walking down the street.

They were the first people he knew that he’d seen since he got back, theHokage and a bunch of scowling shopkeepers notwithstanding, and the sightshocked him out of his reverie. This was it, his chance to establish a newpattern of behaviour that didn’t completely conceal his intelligence, yet alsodidn’t freak people out and make them run away. He wished he’d spent more timeplanning, maybe running through the various paths such a conversation couldtake and considering appropriate responses, like he had with his confrontationwith the Hokage. Still, he had to start somewhere, and an ordinary casualencounter with a couple of fellow Genin seemed like just the thing.

“Hi, guys! I’m back!” Naruto waved.

The response was not what he expected.

Shino and Kiba’s heads turned to Naruto in eerie unison. They stared at himas, in one voice, they intoned “we are members of Team Kurenai. You hurt ourHinata. Prepare to die.”

Naruto froze as they started to advance towards him. He had not anticipatedhis fellow ninja being mysteriously replaced by some sort of evil zombieclones. While he reckoned he could take Kiba in combat without muchdifficulty, and Akamaru could be dealt with one way or another, he simplydidn’t know enough about Shino’s capabilities or fighting style to take therisk of fighting him in a three-on-one match-up. Naruto had read about theeffects of rare toxins, and did not need telling that there were few thingsmore terrifying than an opponent with a precise, long-range, potentiallysilent and invisible chemical delivery system.

As such, he didn’t waste any time. “I don’t know what you’re talking about! Inever did anything to her! I haven’t even been here!”

“Hinata’s been moping ever since the day you left,” Kiba told him in anaccusing tone of voice. “She’s barely said a word in the past two months, andwe know it’s your fault!”

“Why?” Shino elaborated. “Because her demeanour changed after she read thatnote you asked me to pass on to her.”

Naruto could feel a heavy sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. Whatcould he have done that was horrible enough to make Hinata upset for two solidmonths? His imagination, ever helpful, conjured images of a sad Hinata lyingcurled up on top of her bed, looking very small and helpless in the middle ofthe enormous four-poster monstrosity (which Naruto assumed every Hyūga had intheir bedroom); Hinata trying to write in her diary, only for the ink to beblurred by her falling tears; Hinata at dinner, unable to muster an appetite,and brushing away the concerned questions of her household (who woulddoubtless be swearing Blood Oaths of Vengeance against whatever transgressorhad so hurt her)…

Naruto flinched away from the visions, and forced himself to consider the muchmore tractable question of what he could possibly have done wrong. As far ashe could remember, his note to Hinata had been completely innocent. What hadhe written again?

-o-

Dear Hinata,

Sorry, but I won’t be able to have dinner with you after all. Don’t take itthe wrong way - it’s not you, it’s me. I’ve just received an urgent mission,and I have to take off straight away. I don’t know when I’ll be back. It’sprobably just as well - after seeing so much of each other over the lastcouple of months, maybe we need a break. You should take this time to seeother people, and pick up more conventional ninja tips, while I could use somespace so I can figure out where to go from here.

Naruto

-o-

Either way, there was only one thing for it.

“If she’s upset, I should talk to her,” Naruto told Kiba and Shino. “Where isshe?”

“Nuh-uh,” Kiba shook his head. “You’ve done enough damage. You’re going tostay here and take your punishment for not listening to our warning.”

He rolled up his sleeves demonstratively. Akamaru growled. Shino didn’t move,but the light happened to catch his sunglasses, making them glint in aparticularly sinister fashion. Was that a faint buzzing sound, just on theedge of hearing?

“Wait! I’m prepared to negotiate!” Naruto shouted.

Seeing that he’d at least momentarily put them off balance, he pressed on.“Kiba, I know a shop which is selling Pagoda of the Dead 3, the one theynearly banned for graphic content, without asking for ID. I’ll tell you whereit is if you let me go see Hinata.”

Some of the tension faded from Kiba’s body language, and he lowered his fistsjust a little. Akamaru looked up at him in puzzlement.

Shino gave his teammate a reproachful look. “Don’t give in, Kiba. This is atest of the loyalty of the pack, of the unity of the hive. You cannot abandonyour own for the sake of such trifles and still call yourself a shinobi.”

“Damn straight!” Kiba agreed, his resolve restored. “You know, every once in awhile, you actually say some good stuff. Now let’s get on with the beating.”

“You know that girl who helps out at the flower shop down the road from theAcademy?” Naruto quickly asked Shino before the group’s anger could regain itsmomentum. “I can tell you where and on which days she has lunch on her own,plus three of her favourite topics of conversation.”

“Hinata is at the Namikaze Memorial Library,” Shino immediately informed him.“If you hurry, you should be able to get there before it closes.”

Naruto created a shadow clone to hold up his end of the bargain, then grinnedand ran off. When he’d asked Iruka-sensei in his circumlocutory fashion whyinformation warfare wasn’t taught at the Academy, he’d been told that it wastoo difficult a concept for mere Genin-in-training. In reality, he suspected,it was because it was such a powerful tool, and one so easily turned upon eventhe mightiest Academy instructor.

-o-

The Namikaze Memorial Library was a tall, elegant building founded during thesecond wave of reconstruction after the Night of Tragedy, once housing andbasic infrastructure had been re-established and there was a need for Leaf toprove both to itself and to the outside world that it had not ceased to existas a major shinobi power. A lot of favours had been called in, and a lot ofuneven trades made, and the most obvious consequence was some very impressivecivic architecture for a settlement coming back from the edge of annihilation.

With his new information, the whole thing made much more sense to Naruto. He’dalready known that the village had extremely thorough evacuation plans (as aGenin, he was obliged to know levels 1 to 3 off by heart, while Chūnin weredrilled in the full set). If the Hokage and his most trusted staff had knownin advance that the Nine-Brains might break free that night, he could see howthey managed to save so many people from an event that had literally wiped thephysical structure of the village off the map. Leaf’s revival may have seemedlike a miracle to the outside world, but the whole thing was a product ofsound planning, between the evacuation that had left countless people alivebut temporarily without a trade, the First Hokage’s decision to found theoriginal village in a vast forest that provided endless constructionmaterials, and a highly sensible long-term investment policy (which wouldnever again be decried for forging unnecessary financial bonds with potentialfuture enemies).

The Namikaze (the very name made Naruto’s heart skip a beat) was a tribute tothe Fourth Hokage in more than just its name. Its specialisation was highereducation - the fact that ninja were forced to finish their formal educationat the age of twelve, and thereafter had to focus on mission-relatedspecialisations, had been an endless source of frustration for the Fourth, whoin another life would happily have been a scientific polymath. The Third hadthus decided that the library would stock titles suited to self-study in avariety of topics, both civilian and shinobi, from agriculture and BloodlineLimits to Yin/Yang elemental polarisation and zoology, with a tiered accessstructure preventing ordinary villagers from being exposed to things they werebetter off not knowing.

Naruto’s own attitude to self-study had always been decidedly mixed. On theone hand, he knew well what it was like to hunger for information, especiallywhen those around him were all too happy to deny it to him. There was pleasurein satisfying his curiosity, and in adding more pieces to the enormous jigsawpuzzle that was his understanding of the world around him. On the other hand,every new piece of knowledge just left him more isolated. What he knew couldnot become a topic of conversation, could never even be mentioned in front ofothers. The more he learned, the further away he moved from his peers, inintellectual advancement but also in isolation. There was a whole new kind ofloneliness in having a head filled with ideas that could never be shared.

That was due to change, though. He had an objective now, one which called forhim to take full advantage of his strengths. If learning was one of hisstrengths, which it most definitely was, then he would have to leverage it asmuch as he could, and find a way to bring his conflicting desires intobalance. He had no idea exactly how that could work right now, but heremembered his conversations with Haku, and however distant the prize, he nowknew it was worth fighting for.

Unfortunately, even if he could do that, in the case of the Namikaze MemorialLibrary one significant obstacle remained. Head Librarian Ishihara Kaori, aka“Old Stoneface”, was a woman who hero-worshipped the Fourth, perhaps moresothan anyone else in the village, and her hatred for the monster that hadkilled him was as intense as it got. Even after Naruto became a Genin andIshihara could no longer keep him banned from the premises as a “disruptiveelement” without consequences, she’d managed to keep the boy from using any ofthe institution’s resources with a variety of tricks refined over decades oflibrary management. At the moment, as far as Naruto could tell, the odds ofhis membership application form ever getting processed were roughly equal tothe odds of Sasuke suddenly growing wings and flying away.

At any rate, Shino had not led him astray. Hinata was indeed inside, leafingthrough a large black book with improbable speed, her expression ofconcentration at once fierce and oddly adorable. Naruto was put in mind of asmall, fluffy kitten trying to intimidate an intruder into leaving itsterritory.

“N-Naruto! You’re back!” She looked up and gave him a somewhat dazed stare ashe approached. Her Byakugan deactivated.

“Um… yeah. Got back last night. Hey, listen, I just talked to Kiba and-”

A heavy seal (of the book-stamping variety, not the space-time warpingvariety) suddenly zoomed right past Naruto’s ear.

“Silence in the library!” An enraged librarian admonished in a loud voice,likely disrupting far more people’s reading than Naruto and Hinata’sconversation had been.

“Sorry…” Hinata whispered, even though Naruto was technically the one beingrebuked.

“Let’s go outside,” Naruto suggested. Hinata nodded and put the book away.

Once out of range of the librarian’s vengeance, he spoke up again. “I’m reallysorry.”

Hinata looked at him blankly. “You… are?”

“Yes. I’m not exactly sure what it is I did,” Naruto told her, “but I’m sorryanyway.”

“Um.” Hinata’s heart started to beat faster. There was no protocol she wasaware of that would tell her how to handle this, no easy social guidelines tomake things smooth and straightforward. There was just a question she neededanswered, and there was absolutely no way for that to happen, much as shewanted one, except to ask it.

“Naruto… what exactly did you mean by your note?”

“What do you mean?” Naruto asked. “I meant exactly what it said. An urgentmission came up and I had to leave straight away, so I was putting off thatthank-you dinner. But I know you can take things a bit personally sometimes,so I also said you shouldn’t worry about it, since taking a break would justmean we had more energy to start training again once I got back.”

“Oh.” For a second, Hinata looked enormously relieved, as if some huge weighthad been lifted off her shoulders. Then she suddenly looked pained, as if saidweight had been put back down squarely on her foot. Naruto dimly recognisedthe body language of Hinata’s standard I-am-beating-myself-up-because-I-am-an-idiot mode, on this occasion with subtle extra flavours he couldn’t quiteidentify.

“Why, what did you think I meant?” Naruto asked with more than a littlebemusement. “I bumped into Kiba and Shino, and they said you’ve been upsetever since you read it.”

Hinata squirmed, as if suppressing an impulse to get away. “I thought itmeant… something else. Or I did at first, anyway.”

“Did you change your mind?” Naruto asked, noting the non-answer but alsoknowing that trying to pressure Hinata never led anywhere good, and in factwas pretty much the most counter-productive thing one could do with her. Ifpushed, she would retreat into herself and grow increasingly upset and non-responsive. If pushed further, she would flee. The one thing she did not do -and, in an odd way, Naruto respected her for this - was give in to thepressure and change her mind on the issue in question.

“Not… exactly,” Hinata answered. “But I started to think that maybe dealingwith things that way was… out of character for you. I know that soundsstrange, but I feel like if there was something wrong, seriously wrong, you’dbe more open and direct about it. Only… the more I thought about it, the lesssure I was what to think. I didn’t want to be one of those girls from thestories who jumps to the wrong conclusion about the boy, and then doessomething stupid, and they both end up committing suicide, or getting theirhearts broken, or she becomes the Demon King’s masked lieutenant and the herohas to kill her to save the world…”

Heavens above, just what did she think he’d written?

“I knew,” Hinata continued, “that I needed to figure out what you reallymeant, and I had to do it before you got back. But I simply didn’t know how toget from the things I knew to a conclusion I could be confident in. I tried tofigure it out on my own for a while, but I just kept going in circles andgetting frustrated, so eventually, I thought ‘what would Naruto do?’”

Wow. That was flattering on a level Naruto really wasn’t all that familiarwith. He’d been used as an example of good behaviour in the Academy before,but that tended to be in the format of “do the exact opposite of what Narutodoes, boys and girls, and you’re sure to grow up to become fine ninja”. (Ofcourse, it didn’t take him long to figure out how to game that particularsystem, and all use of Naruto as an example stopped immediately after theChewing Gum Incident). Upon hearing Hinata’s words, he could feel his facestarting to grow hot in spite of his best efforts.

“So I started with the reading list you’d given me, and I went through all ofthat, but there was nothing which really seemed to address the problem, so I-”

“Hold on,” Naruto interrupted. “The entire reading list? In two months?”

Hinata shook her head. “No, less than that. Oh, you wouldn’t know - there arespecial accelerated reading techniques for Byakugan users, since we can seethe full spread of a scroll, or a double-page spread of a book, all in one go.But anyway, when I didn’t find anything, I decided to go through the booksyou’d been reading to see if that would help.”

“How did you know what I’d been reading?” Naruto made a mental note to have aserious conversation with Hinata about privacy and personal boundariessometime soon. For a start, she needed to know that they were things thatexisted.

“I infiltrated the offices of the libraries I know you go to, and examinedtheir records,” Hinata told him in much the same tone of voice as she used todiscuss the weather. “There was this great book in the bibliography of one ofyour other books. It talked about evaluating evidence, and how to admit whenyou simply didn’t have enough information, instead of just going with the mostlikely option you have at the time. So that’s what I tried to do. And… um…”

The ground beneath Hinata’s feet suddenly seemed to be of deep and endlessinterest to the girl.

Naruto waited patiently for a few seconds, but finally couldn’t restrainhimself. “What happened?”

“It was… all so obvious. I realised that I honestly didn’t know whichinterpretation of your note was right, or even if they were both wrong. I’dbeen driving myself crazy based on all these things… that only really existedin my head. You must think it’s ridiculous. All I had to do was wait and ask.”There was a slight wry, self-mocking expression on Hinata’s face which Narutodidn’t remember ever seeing there before.

Naruto considered what he’d been told. Then he considered it some more. It didnot seem to fit anything in his understanding of how human behaviour worked.

“So let me get this straight,” he said, slowly and carefully. “You startedthinking bad things about me. Then you realised that your reasons for doing soweren’t good enough. So you conducted independent research to fix errors inyour thinking, and decided to give me the benefit of the doubt until you couldask me in person.”

Hinata nodded tentatively, not sure where this was going.

“Hinata, will you have dinner with me tomorrow night?” The words left Naruto’smouth before he knew it.

“Just so we don’t have any more misunderstandings… this is that dinner youpromised me for being a good friend during your time in hospital?” Hinataasked cautiously.

Naruto shook his head. “This is me asking you out on a date after hearing themost amazing thing I’ve ever heard a girl say in my life.”

Hinata was speechless.

“Meet you at seven tomorrow evening by the Nagasumi Fountain?”

Hinata nodded shakily. She wanted to pinch herself to make sure she wasn’tdreaming, but was suddenly acutely aware of how embarrassing this (as well asany other action she could possibly take) would look in front of Naruto.

“Great,” Naruto beamed. “And if they dare try to send me on another mission,I’m just going to have to fake Spontaneous Chakra Combustion Disease orsomething. I won’t let anything get in the way this time.”

With that, he said goodbye and quickly left. His completely unplanned diveinto the world of romance had, once again, not taken account of minor concernssuch as the fact that he owned no date-worthy clothes, and that he hadn’t thefaintest idea of where in this country one took somebody for a first date.

-o-

Naruto zoomed between clothes shops at full ninja speed. His quest was urgent,but also perilous, partly due to the outrageous price of fashionable clothing(especially since he’d never been to most of these shops before, and thus didnot know which ones would have a special Naruto-only markup) and partlybecause he was flat-out refused entry to a number of retailers for wearing ablasphemous crime against all that is holy in fashion (sic). Oh, and it alsodidn’t help that Naruto’s own fashion sense was deep in the negative, and hecould thus only rely on his memories of Tsunami’s attempts to make him lookpresentable.

As he looked through clothes, Naruto went back to pensive mode. Was he reallyabout to start dating Hinata? How had that happened? Sure, she wasridiculously cute, surprisingly bright, a quick and dedicated learner, earnestand compassionate, plus a few other things on top, but was this really OK?What if it got in the way of her training? What if her family found out anddecided to have him killed (which, given the impression he got of her father,they totally could)?

Then again, he had always intended to get closer to her, and to get to knowher better, as part of his efforts to help unlock her potential (although he’djust been hoping they’d end up as friends, however that mysterious and alienphenomenon was supposed to work). One could argue this was another pathtowards the same end. And as future Hokage, he couldn’t flinch away from aconfrontation just because his opponent was the village’s most powerful clan,with unique powers practically tailor-made to counter his own, capable ofcrushing him like a bug and only improving their public standing by doing so.

A more troubling issue was that Naruto simply had no idea how dating worked.Even the romances in his manga focused firmly on the trials and tribulationsof getting into a relationship with the right person, and paid relativelylittle attention to the actual mechanics of what one did once saidrelationship was established. He somehow had an inkling that Hinata would beno better informed, which meant they were in for a great deal ofimprovisation. And his improvisations had a way of producing what one mightterm “spectacular” results, for better or worse.

There was also Haku. Did he still have feelings for the missing-nin boy? If hedid, was this relevant to the present situation? Was he in some waydishonouring that connection by dating someone else straight away, or was thatnot how it worked at all? Not for the first time in his life, Naruto wished hehad someone he could trust with these kinds of complicated issues, but theHokage was apparently not on speaking terms with him right now, Iruka-senseihad been a bachelor as long as Naruto had known him, and he flat-out did notwant to know what kind of romantic advice he might receive from Kakashi-sensei, given the man’s taste in literature.

In the meantime, he was getting nowhere with his shopping. Nowhere. Fashionwas a completely alien world to Naruto, one which might as well have had noatmosphere and been full of hungry space monsters. The only thing he could donow was the one thing he’d been praying he could avoid.

-o-

“Sakura, would you mind helping me pick out clothes for a date?”

Sakura stared at him as he stood on her doorstep. “A date? You? Who wouldpossibly want to date you?”

Naruto suppressed the first couple of responses that came to mind, since hedid need Sakura’s help.

“Hinata.”

“Huh.” Sakura felt a momentary surge of frustration at the fact that Hinata,of all, people, had not only actually made her move, but was now further aheadin her love life than she was. There really was no justice in the world.

Once that initial impulse faded, however, Sakura began to appreciate thebenefits of no longer having Naruto ask her out every five seconds. Also,while she didn’t know the girl all that well, she did know Naruto, and therewas such a thing as general female solidarity.

“Congratulations. Now, I’ll say this only once. Hinata is a delicate,sensitive soul who’s far too good for the likes of you, and if you break herheart I swear I’ll kick your ass so hard that the first ninja to make it tothe moon will be wondering why it’s littered in human teeth.”

“I’ll add you to the list,” Naruto muttered.

“What?”

“Nothing. So will you help me?”

Sakura thought about it. Again, it seemed unfair to unleash something likeNaruto onto an unsuspecting girl like Hinata without at least trying to softenthe blow.

“Maybe. How long have you got to prepare?”

“The date’s tomorrow evening,” Naruto told her.

Sakura gave him a disbelieving look. “You’ve got to be kidding me. I guess Ican help you, but it’s going to be a lot of work, and I did have plans fortonight. You’re going to have to make it worth my while.”

“How do you mean?” Naruto asked warily.

Sakura hadn’t actually planned this far. What did she actually want fromNaruto in exchange for taking him clothes shopping? A vow of silence, maybe?Then an idea occurred to her, great and terrible at once.

“I think you’d better come in.”

-o-

Once tea was served (Sakura having been drilled in the fundamentals of being agood host whether she wanted to or not by her parents), she took a deepbreath. It was a crazy thought, but the more she looked at it from differentangles, the more it made a twisted, mind-boggling kind of sense.

“I want you to set me up on a date with Sasuke.”

“I’m sorry,” Naruto said, “I don’t think I caught that.”

Sakura gritted her teeth. “A date. With Sasuke. I want you to arrange one forme.”

Naruto could hear the individual words, and he was pretty sure he knew whatthey meant. But how did they fit together into a sentence? Was Sakura usingsome unfamiliar rhetorical device? She couldn’t really mean…

Sakura gave him a look which indicated that failure to respond would notimpact well on his lifespan.

“You want me to set you up on a date with Sasuke?”

“Yeah,” Sakura nodded, looking deeply into her cup so as not to meet Naruto’sgaze.

“Why me?” Naruto stressed the pronoun nearly to breaking point. “What makesyou think that Sasuke would listen to me for a second about something sopersonal?”

Sakura tried to compose her thoughts. The ideas themselves weren’t new, butshe never thought she’d have to express them to another person before, and itwasn’t easy.

“Look, Sasuke is different from most people. He’s special. He sees the worldin a way the likes of you or me couldn’t hope to grasp.”

Naruto frowned at this, but didn’t interrupt. There was a time when he’d havegiven his right hand to have Sakura confide in him. It was a time long gone,but looking at her, all serious and earnest, and sounding as if his opinion ofwhat she thought actually mattered, brought back faint echoes of feelings he’dthought dead and buried.

“He’s always got his eyes on the horizon. He sees great dreams and visionsinstead of getting bogged down in everyday things. But thanks to that… hedoesn’t really see other people. He doesn’t talk to us. He brushes us off whenwe talk to him. He barely even notices we’re there, like we’re just scenerypainted on the background of his life.”

Sakura took a sip of tea, watching Naruto carefully for his reaction. Narutoassumed a practiced neutral expression, trying to match the Sasuke in Sakura’smind to the real thing, and having little success.

“So what does this have to do with me?”

Sakura took a deep breath. “I know, I just know that if I could get Sasuke tosee me for who I am, even for a single night, then he’d realise we’re meant tobe together. But I’m getting nowhere. He doesn’t even register me trying toask him out. That’s why I need your help.”

“OK,” Naruto said. “I still don’t see where I come in. A few weeks ago youtold me I had the emotional sensitivity of a wild pig. Out of everyone whocould do it, why would you want me to play matchmaker for you?”

“Because,” Sakura told him, “I don’t know how or why, but it’s like you seemto irritate him to the point where he knows you’re there. He notices you wherehe doesn’t notice the rest of us. He responds to you. He talks to you like anormal person, while ignoring everyone else. He only has eyes for you.”

She stopped sharply. “Uh, that came out wrong. I didn’t mean it like that.It’s not like that.” Her voice rose as she suddenly remembered herspeculations from the Wave mission. “It’s not like that at all, you hear me!And if you try to _make _it like that, I swear I’ll-”

“Sakura,” Naruto cut her off. “I’m not after Sasuke. Ick. I’ll have to wash mymouth out with soap after just saying that. I’m here to ask for your helpdating Hinata, remember?”

Sakura relaxed a little, and quickly put away the leaking, freshly crackedteacup she’d been holding. It was lucky that her mother had the same temper asher, and as such bought the things in bulk.

“Sorry. Anyway, that’s why I think he might listen to you. I know it’s likeperforming delicate surgery with a sledgehammer, but you really are my onlychoice. So can you do this for me?”

Naruto considered. Messing with people’s love lives wasn’t exactly at the topof his priority list, especially given his absolute lack of experience, but onthe other hand it would do Team Seven a world of good to have all its romanticcomplications resolved once and for all. And it was just a date. What couldpossibly go wrong?

“All right. I’ll get you a date with Sasuke by the end of the year.”

“What? That’s, like, forever! Who knows what dirty tricks Ino might use tolure him away before then!”

Naruto shook his head. “If you wanted me to trick or blackmail him into goingon a date with you, that could take a few days or weeks. But is that reallyhow you want this to go?”

“I guess not,” Sakura said, her tone suggesting that she considered a year tobe little short of eternity.

“Trust me,” Naruto told her. “It’s going to take time to find a way of makingSasuke want to actually go on a date with you of his own accord, but I’llmanage it. It’ll be a challenge worth taking on. Anyway, now that’s sortedout, we should get going before the shops close.”

-o-

“Good, now try this on.”

-o-

“No good. Next!”

-o-

“Too big!”

-o-

“Too small!”

-o-

“Too light!”

-o-

“Too dark! Grimdark _is _in style this season, but a happy-go-lucky guy likeyou could never pull it off.”

-o-

“That pattern’s all wrong for you!”

-o-

“Orange and blue? No. Hell no. You die now.”

-o-

“How about those sunglasses? Hmm, we might actually be on to something here. Inever thought the megane look would work on you, but… Go on, say somethingclever-sounding.”

“The role of paratext in transformative fiction may be seen as-”

“Wait, no, what was I thinking? Just keep your mouth shut. In fact, that’s agood policy for the date in general. Now try this jacket on.”

-o-

By the end of the evening, Naruto was feeling more wrung out than a spongeafter a D-rank twelve-hour dishwashing mission (yes, those existed, thoughthey were generally reserved for those who really upset the Hokage), but hedid at least have some clothes that went well together, and did not make himlook insane or colour-blind - for the first time in his life, according toSakura.

Finally at the front of the interminable queue, Naruto reached into his pocketand prepared to part with the majority of his precious A-rank pay - but inaddition to his frog wallet, his hand encountered a folded-up piece of paper.A folded-up piece of paper he had not put there. After paying for his clothes,Naruto quickly made his excuses to Sakura and bolted for the nearest publictoilets to read.

Hatake Kakashi is currently facing a secret military tribunal. He is accusedof attempting to sabotage an A-rank mission, and of interfering with thepolitics of a sovereign state without Leaf authorisation. Should his guilt beproved, he will likely face capital punishment.

The end of the trial cannot be delayed beyond tomorrow morning, and thoseresponsible for proving Hatake Kakashi’s innocence cannot be trusted. If youare aware of any evidence which may exonerate him, by proving that he did notrefuse reinforcements for his recent mission to the Country of the Wave, andthat he did not order the assassination of one Gatō Amand, you must bring itto the tribunal, beneath the abandoned bookshop on the corner of KusaribeAlley and Yagyū Road, no later than 4am tomorrow.

4am tomorrow was in six hours.


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