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Icha Icha Physics

Action

posted Oct 10, 2011, 6:51 AM by Pichi Herp   [ updated Oct 10, 2011, 7:21 AM ]

Disclaimer: Not only do I not own it, I haven't read any of it since chapter 500, and since this is a diversion anyway, that should be such a problem.

AN: Happy birthday Naruto! And since I'm such a generous wench, I've given him - and you pervy lot, too, don't think I don't see you there - what he's been waiting for. *grin* Ooooh, yes, look at the warnings below. Of course, it comes at a price...

WARNINGS:

This story contains:       LEMON - yes, you read that right. Jiraiya has finally cornered me.

Physics bending; blood can't actually turn to rain, but the image was too powerful to pass up.

Kyuubi - who also deserves the bold. Those who have been

picking up on my little hints along the way can start worrying now. .
        
Without further ado, welcome, to the eighth installment of …

Icha Icha Physics

Action

There was a sense of urgency that twisted her gut as she ran through the dungeon tunnels. Her stealth was shot and her feet plashing loudly into the water that covered the ground – everywhere was a watery, shimmery sloshing of tunnels. For some reason, she couldn't walk on it; her chakra was repelled, simply disappeared like smoke in the wind the moment her sole touched the liquid. It was as if it was being cancelled out – but she wasn't doing it herself.

The air around her was charged, vibrating with the same sort of dread feeling that was eating at her insides. And it was so dark somehow, but at once, there was more than enough light to see.

A quick check told her that no, her kekkai genkai wasn't active. This didn't stir any surprise within her; it wouldn't be, not here. She had no idea how she knew that, but she felt almost as if she had blanked out of her life for a few minutes – hours, days even – and then returned in when she was here. All her previous memories were there, locked somewhere, but she knew them anyway.

There was no time to dwell on it. There was somewhere she was needed. She was supposed to be somewhere, right now! Something dangerous, something, was happening, and she needed to hurry to it. Someone was in danger, someone…

A 'him'. A most important 'him', and if she was late, if she was even a second late, she wouldn't make it, he wouldn't make it, and then there would be nothing left.

She had to hurry. She had to hurry

Her footsteps splashed loudly, the water dashing upwards with her hurried pace and wetting her all over. Parts of her hair where sodden and dripping. Her clothing clung to her uncomfortably in patches.

She skidded to a halt, her throat in her mouth as the tunnel suddenly opened into a cavernous open space. The water here seems almost alive, shimmering and flowing outwards. An underwater river had probably cracked into this abandoned dungeon, a distant part of her mind thought, and flooded it. This was probably where the crack had occurred.

The sense of trepidation that gripped rose to clog her throat so she almost suffocated with it. She took a few cautious steps forward. The large, echoing chamber was echoing in her steps and drip drop noises; dark, but a strange glow was coming from a section of the wall.

That was where she had to go, she knew. A part of her desperately wanted to rush there – to get there and save him – another wanted to run. Run, out, the way she'd come. There was something here, something…

She sat up with a jolt, breathing hard. Her room was almost blindingly bright in the morning sunlight as the last vestiges of the dream clung to her. For one moment, she was still in that chamber, still surrounded by darkness that almost swallowed her. Then she shook it off, pinching the bridge of her nose to stave off a dull ache, blinked, and she was in her tatami again.

Hinata sighed. This dream was recurring, and her father had suggested she consult Ino about it. Lasting effects of genjutsu, even second hand ones, were nothing to joke around with. It would probably be a good idea to bring it up during the upcoming girl's night, she realised.

.o0o.

The sun had just barely begun to rise, and the birds were twittering restlessly with the coming morning. The air was peaceful, fresh and damp, and breathing it in was a pleasure many early risers swore by.

In a meticulously raked rock garden, in between the sand and strategically placed stones that promoted zen and feng shui, one old man was going through his forms slowly and deliberately, perfection in motion. Not one finger was out of place, not one step unbalanced.

The harmony he created with the garden would have made anyone watching think of symmetry, serenity and inner peace, he thought. They couldn't have been more mistaken.

Hyuuga Hanzou, father of the current clan head and clan elder, was utterly furious. He hadn't felt this enraged since the time when the Sandaime had refused his request to go to war with Kumo over his granddaughter's attempted kidnapping. And even then, his anger had been tampered with respect towards Sarutobi, and the knowledge that, admittedly, Konoha could not afford another all-out war.

But this time was different. There was no one to respect, no reason to differ to any betters. And what was more, his fury stemmed from a righteous place, an attack on him personally, his honour and his pride.

Made fun of. Him. He'd been passed for a fool, all the while thinking he had been on top of the game, when in reality, that chit of a girl had been pulling his strings like a puppeteer from Suna.

A small part of him admitted, he was proud of the brat. She had definitely grown into a Hyuuga worth the name, and he wished now more than ever that when she had been a child, shunned and derided by all – especially the father she obviously adored – he'd taken her under his wing. What a weapon she would have made against Hiashi! His son would never have realised he'd had a wakazushi in his sleeve at all.

But there was no use dwelling on that now. He himself was to be blamed for not realising that the delicate looking fan had sharpened edges.

Hanzou's eyes opened slightly, his forms never wavering, his expression betraying none of his thoughts. He could admit with himself that he'd been foolish. He should have realised that he was not up against a mere child when she had produced that folder from her sleeve. His first thought had been that she'd brought it in case her father returned on time for the festivities. He'd been utterly taken in by her. She behaved as she normally did; Shy, embarrassed, stuttering.

Now he realised that he had been the one reeled in, and not her. Neiji, that boy, had obviously not been there by chance. And the file in her sleeve had not been there to show her father. She, Hiashi, or possibly both had to have known his plans already. Obviously, in hindsight, they would expect him to act while he wielded the baton of power again.

But never mind that, he told himself, breathing deeply and letting out his feelings of rage and murderous intent with his breath. There would be time to make… amends, later. Right now, he had to make sure that his second avenue, his … 'back up plan', so to speak, would swim to port.

This was not what he had wanted or planned. That girl, she was incredibly talented, and he wanted to keep her in the clan. Yet now he had no choice; not if he wanted to fulfil his destiny. He had always known, even as a youngster, that his ending spot, his goal and resting place, would not have been a mere shinobi village, let alone a single clan.

No, there was a better life, one he knew he was more suited for. And he would strive to reach for it.

He lowered both his hands in front of him, breathing out as he ended his kata and felt his chakra harmoniously blend within and without him. Yes, he thought, there was no reason to dwell on what had gone wrong. Better to look forward, plan more carefully, be more covert and private.

And in either case, the thought occurred to him, this would be adequate repercussion for that girl's actions. He would glory in watching her cry.

Two birds swooped down and landed near the koi pond to bathe, and he sat down on a stone bench to enjoy the harmony of nature. Yes, he thought as he smiled serenely, watching as the birds startled away when the curious fish came to see if they were food. He would relish the expression on her face when she found out.

.o0o.

"One full bowl, nee-chan, with the works!"

The small eatery suddenly stopped cold, with utter chilling silence descending to replace the jovial restaurant noises that had filled it before.

Naruto blinked at his audience.

"Er… do I have something on my face?"

"KORRA!"

Naruto got his answer when, one second later, he had something in his face – more specifically, Ayame's favourite frying pan, launched from the kitchen with precision that would have made Tenten proud.

"You had us all worried to death! And they wouldn't even let us into the room with flowers! You have any idea how many times I came there? And all the rumours flying around! I don't know how many times in the last month someone burst in here in a panic telling us you had died!"

Ayame breathed hard for a few seconds while Naruto sank into a stool with a moan, his face red and his nose bloody. Then she was off again.

"And it was all a ruse!" she said, coming around the counter and snatching the frying pan from his rather limp hold. Her voice had begun getting brittle. "You had us all crying and worrying for nothing!"

"Hey, Ayame-neechan, wait a minute," Naruto said with a wince when she started to sniffle. "Hey, look, can you sit with me for a while? That Ok, Teuchi-jii? Not many people, no? I want to speak to nee-chan…"

The old man gave him a trite nod that made him grimace. He was in the major doghouse, apparently. Ayame-neechan nodded also, wiping her hands in her apron, and sat sharply on the one of the stools. He quickly pulled his closer and began talking; fast.

"Nee-chan … to be honest? This is first time I'm hearing about all this." She raised her head so hard she had to have given herself whiplash, but her glare said he would be the one in (more) pain soon, so he hurried on. "Not from you I mean, but, since I got back, everyone's either giving me the evil eye, or looking like they've seen a ghost. Not nice, I can tell you." He sheepishly scratched his ear, trying to peek at her glowering face.

"You expect me to believe that you don't know what was going on in the last four weeks?" Ayame-neechan yelled incredulously, and Naruto flinched when he saw tears in her eyes again.

"Honest, nee-chan. I had no idea what Baa-chan was cooking up behind my back. I wasn't even here for most of it…"

Ayame-neechan sniffed, and Naruto sat patiently with bated breath until she gave a nod and wiped her eyes.

"Let's theorize that I believe you," she said tritely. "You've still got some grovelling to do regardless. You left without saying goodbye – and if you didn't know that we thought you were in the hospital, you should have popped in to say bye! You always do!"

Naruto thought fast. "Um… it was short notice?" A mighty glare said she wasn't convinced. "No, really! I got the info in the morning and had to be by the gates within the hour! I was even late!" Not a lie – though not completely the truth… "And I was undercover anyway, you know… you have no idea how many times they told me I couldn't be myself. Sakura-chan even reminded me about the Dattebayo, can you believe it? I haven't said Dattebayo in, like, ages!"

"…except for right now." Ayame-neechan burst out laughing at his pout, but he didn't mind – at least she wasn't wielding a frying pan at him anymore. Or crying. "So, Mr Hero, what do you say to some ramen?"

"You're kidding, right? Didn't you hear me coming in? I've got withdrawals! I've not come here for almost a month!"

Ayame-neechan hiccuped as she wiped her eyes and laughed as she got back behind the counter, Naruto almost salivating as she started on his first bowl right away. Then she raised her brow when he blinked, and his grin widened further.

"What?"

"I almost forgot, with all your scolding!" His grin got cheekier as she gave him a testy look. "I have good news! No, scratch that, GREAT news!" His chest puffed out. "Guess who made jounin!"

"Oh Naruto!" she dropped her utensils and reached over the counter to ruffle his hair. "Finally! It's about time your rank on paper moved up! Why aren't you wearing your vest!"

"Hey hey!" he said quickly, holding his hands up, "I didn't mean me! That probably wasn't the best way to phrase it, huh…" He scratched his face in embarrassment.

"You ass, really…" she huffed, shucking a rag at him. "Making such leading statements. Who were you talking about then?"

"Who do you think!" he beamed happily, pulling the rag out of his hair. "My Hinata-chan! I'm officially dating jounin hotstuff!" The cheeky grin Naruto turned on them could have illuminated all of Konoha.

"Ah, Hiashi Hyuuga-dono, it's good to see you!" Teuchi quipped. Naruto gave an undignified 'GUA!' and collapsed backwards, looking wildly over his shoulders at the empty entryway. Laughter filled the stall as Naruto blushed and looked thunderously up at the owner, who was grinning back for all he was worth. "Consider that payment, gaki," Teuchi snickered.

"Oi! What fault of mine is that Baa-chan decided to put some doll in my place and tell anyone I was about to die every other day!" he protested with a whine, getting off the floor and dusting himself before he plunked down on a stool. "Geez, really…"

"Aww, we deserve a little pick me up after being sad and worried for so long, neh?" Ayame-neechan said with a laugh. She put a bowl down in front of him. "There, to start you off."

"I've lost my appetite," he said sulkily even as he was splitting the chopsticks.

"Sure you have!" the ramen girl laughed.

.o0o.

"I declare this lady's night out open!" Ino said enthusiastically, standing on the mattress and hoisting a mug of clear beer into the air.

A chorus of whoops and cheers met the yell, and Ino, though a trained kunoichi, wobbled slightly as bouncing jostled the bed. She was also, admittedly, more than a little sloshed, Sakura thought with a chuckle.

The medic sighed as she relaxed back into the recliner, toes sticking up so her multi-coloured nail polish (courtesy of Ino and Temari) could dry. The drink in her glass clinked as the ice melted, and she took another sip of the citrus wine. Ino had really blown the hatch of her father's liquor cabinet this time. The other girls tittered around her, glasses with alcohol of various colours in all of their hands.

Temari was comfortably lounged on the large couch, reading a scroll distractedly while sipping a cocktail and ignoring Ino-chan's barbs about being a workaholic. Tenten was letting Yuugao and Shizune-sempai take a go at combing her impossibly long hair, which she usually kept well hidden in her buns. Tenten's sister Cho was passed out on the floor at her feet, already snoring, while Karui poked her and chuckled. The star of the party, by contrast, was curled up on a floor cushion.

Sakura snorted and took a swing from her mug; whatever they looked like at the moment, (which was frightful, in most cases), every single one of them had a huge smile on her face. Ino-chan had had a brilliant idea: she had missed the girls way too much. Not to mention, this made Sakura's job a lot easier.

"It's open, I tell you! Get that scroll away!"

"It's been open for hours, Ino-chan!" the medic laughed as she watched her friend fall to her butt, splashing some beer onto the floor. Laughter piped up from all around the bedroom as Ino frowned at her wet hand.

"Waste of good booze!" she muttered, reaching for a wet-wipe.

"It's more of a lady's night in, too," Shizune-sempai commented, obligingly pouring Tenten some apple juice and then generously tipping the gin bottle's contents into her glass.

"Pah! Details, details! Don't piss on the mood!"

"Mah, Ino-chan," Hinata said with a chuckle, "I think that would be difficult to do. We have so much to celebrate!"

"Yeah!" Tenten laughed, holding her glass up. "Naruto-kun's ok, Hinata-chan got promoted and we made Ma-fucking-dara our bitch, ladies! I'm guessing all of the village is celebrating right now!"

"Hear fucking hear!" Karui hollered, holding her own mug up, which they all followed. "Here's to that son of a bitch! May he rot from the inside out, have his eyes melt away and his balls fall off!"

"Word!" Yuugao said, clanging wooden mugs with Temari who echoed her.

"And here's to Hinata!" Tenten said cheerfully, raising her own glass. "For being the first in ten years to make it to jounin with a field promotion and a unanimous council vote!" With another round of clamour, the girls toasted to that too. Ino wiggled closer until she could throw an arm around the shyer girl.

"Hinata-chan, you still haven't told us what you did to earn that! Go on, spill." Ino gave her a wicked grin. "Who did you have to sleep with?"

"Naruto, I hope!" Hinata just chuckled; Sakura noticed she winced slightly.

"But really, tell us, Hinata," the pink haired medic insisted lightly. "You had to have pulled something really impressive. Shishou's been talking about your promotion for days, but she won't say any details. It's quite maddening."

"It was nothing, really…"

"Gah! You've been like that all night, tell us already!" Karui moaned, pouting. "I haven't been able to get it out of Kiba-kun either, and I was giving him his 'welcome back present'!"

"Ewww, Karui-san, too much information on a team-mate," Hinata said with a sigh and a blush. Ino snorted.

"Alcohol sure makes you a lot less shy!" Sakura watched the dark-haired girl blush, hiding her face in her sake dish.

"Since Hinata-chan won't say, I will!" Shizune-sempai piped up, turning to look at them all better. "I was the one who took care of getting the mission reports to the council members, and I was taking minutes all through the session." An evil, shit-eating grin spread all over her face. "Apparently, our little Hinata-chan beat the crap out of a whole village of samurai, ronin and mercenaries all on her own while managing to create a diversion that allowed the others to regroup with a town-wide genjutsu, and she didn't even break their cover."

"Fuck yeah!"

"That's fantastic!"

"Oi, if I were a man," Karui paused to take a swig. "I'd definitely want to have your babies."

"You'd want HER to have your babies! And Naruto's got that covered," Sakura quipped, glad to see some colour rising on the Hyuuga girl's cheeks while she laughed.

"N-Not quite yet," she chuckled, and everyone turned to look at her incredulously.

Tenten managed to find her tongue first. "You mean to say, that even after that scare you had, you two haven't yet…" Hinata shook her head, redder than ever.

"What scare?" Yuugao asked suspiciously.

"Neiji-kun told me what went on from his end." Tenten ran a hand through her hair. "Sick old man was tono of the village, and decided that Hinata was the toy of the week. She sure showed him."

"Argh, you lot!" Ino put her mug down and flailed dramatically. "That's a summary! Details! I said I want details!"

"W-Well… ok…" Hinata chuckled again. "You know the legend of the Yuki-onna?"

"Snow woman?" Karui asked. "We have it in the mountainous parts of Kumo among the farmers. Usually she's a rogue nin from some lost clan, or other such romantic nonsense."

"Hmm." Sakura leaned in, waiting for her to continue. "I … well, I turned into one with a genjutsu. Steel has seen very few shinobi you see… I wasn't sure it would fool everyone, but the town believed it and I'm glad it worked."

"A town-wide genjutsu, Hinata-chan," Temari whistled. "Not just anybody can do that. Don't be modest!"

"So you get away from old noble pervert by making him think he'd turned into a pervy-popsickle?" Karui asked.

"Not exactly," Shizune-sempai quipped. "Go on, Hinata-chan, tell them what you can do!"

"I…um…"

"Stop with the modesty and feed the gossip demon," Ino ordered. Hinata looked slightly alarmed.

"Hokage-sama said it's to remain confidential," she whispered. Ino waved her off.

"It won't get out of this room, but by the gods, you'll tell me or you won't like what I do to your hair!"

"Um, well … you see, I was training with Kakashi-sensei to hone my elemental techniques," she muttered, putting her dish down and fiddling with her hair. "Practically all of my family are earth-type, and I'm the only one who is water. Kurenai-sensei was helping me learn a new genjutsu technique almost at the same time when it happened…"

"It happened? This sounds important," Sakura oohed and blinked. Hinata just ducked her head, and Tenten gave her a fiercely proud grin.

"Um, I, uh, you see … well, I had my byakugan active to try to help pick up the genjutsu, and I noticed that when Kakashi-sensei molded lightning chakra, it moved in a different direction across the tenketsu and chakra coils than it did when he worked with water-type techniques."

"Waaaaait a minute!" Yuugao's eyes bugged out. "Are you telling me…"

"I … I learned ho-how to work my chakra around my coils in the way I saw it moving in others," she muttered, clearly getting slightly uncomfortable as everyone went on staring at her. "F-Father said it had been done before in the clan, but it was rare and … well, I learned ho-how to combine elemental chakra too when I watched Yamato-sensei …"

"Holy shit!" Karui toppled off the bed backwards, empty mug skittering across the floor.

"So you're saying that you can copy elemental kekkei genkai?" Hinata shrugged.

"Not really… only that I can use some different elemental jutsu. It takes a lot of training, and I have to increase my stamina a great deal before I can use it for longer than an hour, too…"

"You're being modest again," Temari laughed. "So, what did you do to the old pervert? Or did the blond brat take it out of your hands?"

"Uh oh," Sakura said when Hinata ducked her head and her face turned crimson. "What did he do?"

There was a murmur. They all leaned forward to hear better and asked her to repeat.

"He… he used a genjutsu to turn into bandages that I was going to take with me," she said. Hinata then took a large gulp of sake, coughing slightly at the burning taste, and looked around at them. She cleared her throat nervously. "He wanted to protect me …. He didn't know what I usually do with the bandages."

"Oooh, no way!" Karui piped up with a howl of mirth after a beat of silence.

"Yes way," Hinata chuckled timidly. "I- um- I bound Naruto-bandages around my breasts." Unable to hold it in, they screamed with laughter. "But … in the end, Naruto-kun stopped him from touching me. I'm grateful."

"I'm betting those were the happiest moments of his life," Ino gasped, wiping off tears and squeezing Hinata till she eeped. "That's something to drink to! Temari-chan, drag the other box out from under that bed, yeah? There's cherry wine in there that dad pilfered from some awesome cellar he won't say where. Naturally, I stole it."

"Mou, Ino-chan!"

"Um, ano…"

Everyone looked at Hinata. She blinked at them over her sake dish.

"Oi, hey, I'm the one who spoke…" They turned their heads to a rather disgruntled Sakura who was holding her hand up sheepishly. "There was something I wanted to say. See … I, um, I mean, I asked Ino-chan to gather us all here tonight not to celebrate. I mean, there's a lot to celebrate, and I don't want to rain on everyone's campaign, but, this is something a bit touchy, and…"

"Kami-sama, Sakura-chan!" Ino-chan said in exasperation. "This obviously means you're not drunk enough! Here!" A tumbler was tossed at the medic, who caught it on instinct. She was less ready for the liquor bottle flying her way and almost dropped it. Karui then snuck it out of her hand and poured generously.

"Drink up, then spit it out!" was the order from the dark-skinned girl.

"Aw man, don't tell me you're getting sent to the East front? You're a medic! That would be tactical suicide!" Temari-san grumbled darkly. "If Shikamaru came up with this one, I'll have his balls, I swear."

"No no, that's not it!" Sakura said quickly. Looking down at her glass, she took a deep breath then threw her head back, knocking the strong liquid down in one gulp. A rush of hot … something immediately climbed up her head and baked her ears, and she felt slightly whoozie while a rather embarrassing burp escaped her mouth. The cheers all around weren't helping much…

"What on earth was THAT!" Sakura said, holding her head and trying to fix what she could with some precise chakra application.

"Cactus Juice," Ino-chan said cheekily. She hopped across the room and threw an arm around Temari, who only paused from combing her hair with her fingers to grin just as badly. "According to my sister-in-crime here, it's guaranteed to turn your spy work into a piece of cake!"

"Operation get it out of Sakura- begin!" Shizune-sempai said with a flourish, even as the Kumo-nin and Ino pounced on her to keep her down, ruffling her hair and generally manhandling her. Sakura yelped, looking at her sempai with a betrayed face, but she wasn't getting any pity.

"So, enemy nin, do you surrender your information?"

"Gah, you guys, get off me! It's Hinata-chan I want to speak to!" Whatever the hell that drink was, Sakura thought absently as she was finally let go, her hair in complete disarray, at least it seemed to be working on loosening her tongue. One look at the Hyuuga's curious and gentle eyes, however, almost tied it up again, but she ploughed on. Standing up with a wobble – she didn't quite know what she was doing now, through the fog in her head, but it felt like the right thing to do – and turned to look at the other girl squarely.

"Hinata-chan!" she said. Then she bowed low. "I want to apologize. I'm so very, very sorry!"

The volume of noise in the room dwindled as they all turned to look at her straightening up. Hinata was looking at her in a slightly confused manner that even her drink-addled mind could understand. Some of the haze from the liquor's sudden rush began to ebb, and Sakura slowly sat down on the floor opposite the dark-haired girl.

"I know you and Naruto had a big quarrel. And I know it was my fault."

"Sakura-san…"

"Please let me finish!" she pleaded, looking up. Hinata tilted her head slightly, but nodded. "I … I know I ruined your date, that time. And I did it for a stupid reason." Sakura gulped. This is where she could screw up really, really badly… but here she went. "I did it because I was jealous."

The expression on Hinata's face morphed to something slightly glacial. Colour first flooded her cheeks and then drained immediately, while her hands slowly put down the sake cup.

"It's not like that!" Sakura added in a hurried panic. On second thoughts, the 'say it all honestly as it comes' strategy may not have been a great idea. "I mean, yes, I was jealous, but not in that way… I mean…" Bite the kunai, Sakura-chan! Like an ADULT! "That guy, he's my brother!"

You could hear a pin drop.

"He's an idiot ball, and I could happily sacrifice him to the gods instead of a live goat sometimes, but he's still practically my brother. He's always come through when things were really hard, and tried his hardest to do everything that needed to be done, and … I can't explain it in words." Words, right now, had emigrated to Steel and were buried three feet in the snow out of spite. "But the thing is … you were taking my little brother away from me. I hated you on principle for a while there…"

The silence in the room continued to stretch, and Sakura felt like a dimwit. She'd gone and killed all the good vibes of the room! And she couldn't get herself to look up at Hinata! Ung, this was a terrible idea!

"If I can throw in my two cents…" Everyone looked around at Temari, who was leaning comfortably against Ino-chan. "Same thing happened to us. Me and dimwit here, I mean." Ino-chan's indignant response was answered with a playful elbow to the waist. "It's normal to be protective of the team, I think. And Sakura-san, in your case, you guys proved more than enough that'd you'll die for the team, no big surprise there. So Hinata-san, don't take it to personally, ok? This is just me, but if she's apologizing, she's valuing you too…" Temari scowled then, and twisted to let Ino-chan fall in her lap, where she trapped her in a headlock. "That's more than I got from you, Ms Sunshine. Take the good example!"

"You're the one who locked me up in a room full of scorpions!"

"You're a kunoichi; that was just training."

Sakura bit her lip, turning away from the scene that was thankfully distracting everyone to the quiet girl sitting opposite her. Hinata immediately nailed her with a very strong look, one that she wasn't used to seeing from the shy ninja at all.

"Sakura-san," she said, her voice quiet, but with a definite vein of steel in it. It almost made the medic want to straighten her back and stand at attention. "I am not giving Naruto-kun up."

"Eh? No no, don't do that!" Sakura squeaked. "You're the best thing that's happened to him since he discovered hot water makes ramen!"

Hinata kept looking at her in the eye for a moment longer… then she chuckled, breaking down into quiet giggles. Sakura felt like someone had lifted Choji off her shoulders.

"Oh, Sakura-san, he must have had such a cute expression," Hinata chuckled helplessly, a blush rising to her cheeks and a slightly guilty look on her face. But then she caught Sakura's eyes again, and both girls burst out laughing once more. It would have been a sight to see, admittedly; the first time Naruto had opened a pot of instant ramen after the 'magical' three minutes.

"I'll bet he was running around that place of his, noodles coming out of his mouth, yelling about how good it was!" Sakura joined in the ribbing.

"He may have possibly tripped. He has the habit of leaving things… slightly in the way. And he can be a little uncoordinated at times…" Hinata said, biting her lips after she finished, trying to hold a snort in. Again, they looked at each other, and once again they broke down into peals of laughter.

"Oh, you're so cute, putting it sweetly like that, clearly hopelessly in love!" Sakura cackled, crossing the small space to sit next to Hinata and give her a little nudge. "What you mean is; he's a slob and a clutz. Now repeat it with me!"

"Mou…!"

Both girls fell silent. No one was paying their little exchange any mind; all the girls were cheering Temari and Ino-chan, who had somehow ended up getting involved in a wrestling match. And Temari was winning.

"I wouldn't ask you to give him up, never thought of it…" Sakura went on quietly. "It's more something like that that I want…"

"Oh dear," Hinata said with a blink, watching as Ino-chan threw Temari off and then jump tackled her. "I don't know if I'm ok with the hair-pulling, Sakura-san."

"No, no!" Sakura felt utterly stupid; but it was a good, funny kind of stupid. She scratched her forehead in embarrassment, but she was laughing. "I meant more the … closeness, you know. The friendship?" Hinata's eyes widened in understanding then she smiled warmly at Sakura. "Ino-chan says… if Naruto's my brother, it would be like gaining a new sister, maybe?"

"I already have one sister," Hinata answered. Then her smile grew wider. "I don't see why I would have a problem with another one."

"Hinata-chan!" Sakura happily grabbed onto the dark-haired girl and squeezed. Hinata gave an 'eep', then laughed, hugging her back. "I really apologise, Hinata-chan. I'll make it up to you two, you'll see!"

"It's ok, Sakura-schan," Hinata replied, a little more quietly, but just as hopefully. "I've… I've always wanted to be your friend, too."

"Even though the idiot had a crush on me?" Sakura replied before she could stop herself. Slapping her hand on her (stupid, blabby!) lips, however, only seemed to make Hinata-chan laugh.

"Yes, of course. If he cared for you, it just meant that you were an extraordinary person, didn't it?"

Sakura blinked at her for a few seconds, a rather odd feeling rising up her chest. She wasn't one who didn't have friends; Ino-chan had always been a close one after their reconciliation, and all the other girls in this room she had bonded with on one level or another. But apart from Ino-chan, she didn't really have any really close friends. And she was discovering; she really, really liked Hinata-chan.

"That's set, then!" the medic chirped happily. "Operation 'make Naruto's life hell', confirmed!"

"Sakura-chan!"

"And Hinata-chan is not the only one you have to apologise to, candy-floss!" Ino half choked from underneath Temari's head-grip. "What was the deal, letting us all believe that blondy was dying, when in reality he was bouncing around as a fake Hyuuga? We were all worried, you know!

"Ano, I knew too, and I'm sorry," Hinata-chan said with a wince. "But we were under strict orders from Hokage-sama not to breathe a word. We still don't know why the order was lifted…"

"Probably because it did what it set out to do," Shizune-sempai said leadingly, giving them all a smile. "That worm Madara has a lot more to worry about now, thanks to that little subterfuge. It was unpleasant to lie to allies, but sometimes, it's necessary."

"Sure! And since Madara, that scum of the earth, has a new significant hole in him, I'm all for forgiving and forgetting! Gua!" Temari said before Ino finally managed to throw her off.

"That's it! It's celebration time! I declare this a free-for-all drinking contest!" Ino-chan suddenly yelled. Both Sakura and Hinata-chan laughed. She was standing triumphantly on the bed again. "And the chug-a-chug competition begins now! You too, Tenten! Don't be the wet blanket!"

"I told you that I can't," the older girl said calmly, still nursing her juice. Ino's most stubborn frown slammed down on her face, much to Sakura's amusement. It was usually directed at the pink-haired medic.

"You're doing it right now, the wet blanket thing! You're going to get my coverlet damp!" Tenten only chuckled, taking another sip of juice. "You're usually the first one chugging down pints with me! What's different today!" Ino wailed.

"Expecting girls have to be careful," Tenten replied. The room went quiet, and Sakura felt her eyes widen all the way. Hinata spluttered.

"W-What? You and Neiji-niisan, you're finally…"

Tenten nodded, a small but very happy smile spreading on her face as she pat her belly fondly.

"Hinata-chan and Cho-imoutochan are going to be aunties!"

Squeals took over the room a second later, and Sakura was sure that Yamanaka-san and her friends downstairs were probably wincing at it. The pink haired medic watched as all the women in the room gathered around the weapons user, cooing and patting at the laughing girl's flat belly.

"Oi, oi! Hey! Gerroff! Ah! I spilt the juice!"

"Oh Tenten! Congratulations!"

"There's a little bump! There's already a little bump!"

"That's my belly button you idiot! Ack!"

"Hey, everyone, be careful!" Sakura said, the medic in her kicking in as watched Tenten practically get mauled by all the girls in the room save her, Hinata and Shizune-sempai. Even Yuugao had joined the puppy-pile.

"Can it, forehead! We're Hyuuga Groping!"

"Oooh, I'll bet he'll be a hottie just like his dad if he's a boy!" Karui hooted.

"Should I worry about you?" Tenten asked with a chuckle while still batting hands away. Karui gave her a rather evil smirk.

"Nah, I don't sniff around other girls' men. And my man sniffs around me often enough, I tell you." A chorus of chuckled 'eew' and a flurry of thrown pillows met that statement. "But I can tell you," Karui went on as if nothing happened. "Wuff wuff, if he hadn't been taken, I'd have banged your guy five ways to the next river."

"Right! Banging!" Temari turned a very cat-like grin on Hinata. "That's what we were talking about before. Specifically; the lack-there-of between a certain jounin and a certain 'Second Flash'."

"Ack!" Hinata choked on her drink, flushing as everyone turned identical grins on her. Then she turned to look at Sakura-chan, who was wiggling her eyebrows at her, and burst out laughing. "Well… I don't think I'm drunk enough for this conversation." And she held her sake dish up to Ino-chan. "One more please!"

"Just what the medic nin ordered! And by medic nin, I mean me!"

Every girl in the room held up a cup and chortled again. The noise, laughter and light could be heard coming from the room till the late hours of the night.

.o0o.

"Kazekage-sama, thank you for making the effort."

Gaara simply nodded, allowing Kankurou to wheel him farther into the privacy of the conference room. With more effort than he wanted to admit he sat up straight, allowing no more weakness to show through than he had to. The other Kage around the table didn't make any expression that indicated disdain or any other emotion – it was definitely a step up. When they had started these meetings, they had all been at each other's throats, ready to rip power away at the first show of faltering.

The lure of power was still there, but it was dampened now. They didn't have time, energy, nor will, to fight against one another. Madara needed dealing with.

And they also all knew exactly what had happened to him. While the atmosphere was still sombre, there was a barely control sense of electrified anticipation.

"And you are sure of this?"

Gaara shook himself out of his thoughts, tuning his ears back to the talks.

"Yes. The blood retrieved by the ANBU unit on the cloth matches the samples we had previously stolen. No matter how many tricks Madara may employ, blood does not lie."

Aah, the irony of that, Gaara thought to himself with a smirk. How keenly the bastard had to be feeling it – to be betrayed, once again, by what ran in his veins, when that was exactly what he was fighting for.

"The attack of the samurai factions, and all the Daimyo's assigned troops has given the East front a significant boost." Gaara said and leaned back casually in his wheelchair, ignoring the twinge of pain the movement caused.

"That is very good news," the Mizukage said with a smile. "I also congratulate you on the matter of your Daimyo. He had showed considerable reluctance, but has since joined this fight without any more complaint or protest."

This time, Gaara almost did flinch. "Certain arrangements were made that benefitted all."

"Good, good!" the most boisterous one in the room said. The Raikage's huge fist slammed down on the table. "And right on time! Back to Madara! My Brother's had to be leashed. That one, he wanted to go after the bastard right away!"

"He was not the only one," the Tsuchikage said, his voice almost a purr. The man, though old, obviously hadn't lost his dangerous edge, despite random winging on creaks and pains. The bloodlust in his beady eyes spoke for itself.

"Understandable," Tsunade said, a grin of her own on painted lips. "But sticking our head out too far? None of us are amateurs enough to do it. He may still have tricks up his sleeve, even if we've taken his trump card."

"I don't think he does, actually!" Mei Terumi said with a thrilled laugh. "My spies in Black Rain reported back that when they heard the rumour we spread so gladly, they went into a panic. They are more fanatics than anything else, and still dangerous, but now that they've lost two 'divine' leaders, a lot of them are backing away. They're fighting among themselves!"

"Arguably the best outcome for us." Onoki's smirk under his red nose got wider.

"What of your Jiraiya?" Mei went on jovially to Tsunade. Obviously the news of their blow to Madara had stuck the flighty woman's mood firmly in the 'happy' slot. "Didn't he have eyes and ears in Black Rain too?"

"They're focussed elsewhere right now," Tsunade replied; Gaara noticed her twitch oddly as she riffled through her papers. "We have to keep track of our main quarry – and he's an elusive one."

"Keep track?" the Raikage bellowed excitedly. "You have news of his location!"

"Not to a precise pinpoint, but we have a region and a very narrowed down area." A Kunai flew from her hand, nailing a very specific area on the map that was spread before them.

"Don't tell me…"

"Aah, just underneath our noses. Now, ladies and gentlemen. What say you to a good plan of attack?"

Gaara leaned forward, the smile on his face matching the ones on all the trained killers around him. The room temperature felt like it had descended at least by five degrees; the killer intent, on the other hand, was bubbling.

.o0o.

The East front was a changed place.

This new ninja war had once again altered the geography so that it was unrecognisable from what it had previously been. New hillocks, dried beds of molten lava that still smoked in places, wind-swept tracts of grass and trees that had been near torn apart by the air currents, and even a new lake. The desert had receded by a good number of miles thanks to the lava user, but it would be sometime before something grew on it; frost had been layered over some of the new ground in sheets, thanks to the combined water and air attacks of two mizu twins who had learned to pair their chakra externally.

A very great number of secrets and age-old rivalries had been broken on this front. Nin from various countries, all whom had, until a few scant months ago, jealously guarded their secrets against one another, had exchanged techniques in combat, first aid, and even a few health bar recipes over blood stained ground as they tended to their wounded, dragged away their dead or guarded their captives, together. Most of them had done it out of a sense of camaraderie in failure; if the East front fell, Suna would become one with the desert. If Suna fell … it was unacceptable. The shinobi nations were united for the first time in history, and if even one of them fell – against a single enemy – there was almost no telling how fast the war would be lost. A sense of hopelessness had settled onto the camps and front lines, but it had brought the fighters closer; they were brothers now. Who cares what your forehead plate says. If you're not Madara's puppet, you're my sibling. After all, the best death came dying with family.

But unlike a few weeks ago, the spirits now were high.

The camaraderie had not faded; quite the contrary. Where the desperation and stench of death had kindled its creation, the first whiff of good news had welded it into something living. When the Kazekage had been taken away – dead, to hear most – the troops had all but given up. But now a week later, not only was he alive, well and unmaimed (several toasts had been made to Konoha's doctors with what little alcohol they could rustle up), but he was alive, too. The other rumours had all been scaremongering from the enemy, and they'd fallen for it!

And then, the most recent bout of news arrived on official, stamped scrolls, and the troops could scarcely believe it.

"Did you hear, did you hear?" Gai bellowed, standing up straight off the top of a trench in kill-me-green and just begging to become a kunai practice post. Not that they'd get him. "They got him! Madara's been critically wounded after he attempted to attack Konoha! Your leader is slowly losing his flame of youth somewhere far away, leaving you to fight a losing battle and die in vain! So give up!"

A heave silence answered from the other side of the hill – the hill itself (what was left of it) the designed no-mans-land at the moment. Contrastingly, a literal roar rose from their side.

"Ma, ma," Kakashi said, squeezing a pinky into his ringing ear. "Do you need to rile them up so much? Some of the elements on the other side are still plenty dangerous, and too much enthusiasm can be as easily a killer of nin as too little." The disinterested glance contrasted heavily with the generously blood-splattered clothing. He looked almost at home, as if he'd just walked out of a ramen store back in Fire with one of his smutty books in hand. Gai, ironically, also looked the same as ever.

"THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS TOO MUCH ENTHUSIASM!" he enthused, punching the air almost fast enough to make a sonic boom. His student – now almost as tall as the teacher – followed with a hearty cry of his own. Kakashi sighed in resignation as the crowd of fighters willingly let itself be dragged into the madness.

"And our news is real – unlike your attempt at misinformation!" Lee said with a thunderous glare at the enemy front lines. "MY FRIEND is ALIVE! NARUTO-SAN will NEVER be brought DOWN by your puny lack of YOUTH! His FLAME BURNS STRONG! DATTEBAYOOO!"

The call was echoed by all the surrounding fighters – and, silly as it was, it turned into a rattling war cry that roared down the mangled pathway that had been carved out of the hill, echoing until it was unintelligible. Only the anger behind it remained clear.

A number of warriors broke from the front lines and rushed forward like loosened arrows. Suna's midday sun beat down on them as group after group rushed in for another bloody bout.

"Yare, yare," Kakashi muttered. "He'd better not hear about it turning into a battle cry, or we'll never hear the end of it."

"Maybe he'll be embarrassed?" Yamato said beside him. They two ex-ANBU looked at one another for a moment, snorted with suppressed laughter, and then gave in.

"DATTEBAYO!" they screamed before leaping into the fight.

.o0o.

Naruto had never been as uncomfortable as he was now in his whole life.

It wasn't even a physical discomfort; the clothing he was wearing was possibly the softest stuff he'd ever warn, and the silk-and-cotton combination was just perfect for the early spring's unpredictable weather; warm enough, cool enough.

The problem was, he was used to physical discomfort to the point of ignoring it completely. And … well, he could get away with himself in most situations so that social discomfort had become just as familiar – and ignorable.

But one did not ignore Hyuuga Hiashi. Not unless one had a death wish. Especially not in his house, in his largest tatami room overlooking the lovely garden, when he had invited you to dinner.

Naruto was sitting right opposite the man. The food trays had been set in a rough rectangular pattern, so that Hiashi's back was to the garden. The shoji were open, and the stern man was framed by the beautiful scenery outside. A tiny artificial rivulet trickled into the pond, making a bamboo pipe tap the rocks rhythmically, with willows planted over it a fiery red with its flowers. Lavanders and a multitude of other flowers in various shades of plum and purple complemented the tree reflected in the wavering water, and lush green married everything else.

In all this, Hiashi sat on a raised cushion. He almost looked like a painting instead of a real person, and that just made the blond nin feel worse.

Hinata sat to his right – that was a little comfort at least. But he didn't dare reach out to her or even look her way. Hiashi was eating his meal calmly and never once glancing at Naruto, but he wasn't fooled; he knew every single move he made was being mapped out. He shifted slightly, picking up one rice grain at a time for fear of spilling any and sweating so many kunai he could have replenished the Konoha arsenal for the next three wars. He really wanted to do something – anything! – that would break the ice, but Hinata-chan had warned him, so many times it stuck: Hiashi was head of household. He was to be the one to break the silence, and if he didn't, the guest was being rude.

Narrowing his eyes so that they were almost shut, concentrating instead on simply not spilling any damn rice, damnit! – Naruto passed a look in the other direction. Hanabi-chan was seated on his other side. He remembered the little girl somewhat from seeing her around Konoha sometimes, but – she'd sure grown! She was tall, and cute, in a skinny sort of way. You could see how she resembled Hinata-chan and how she didn't. He sneaked a peek at his girlfriend again, trying to mentally transfer Hanabi-chan's hairstyle with hers. Made her cheeks stand out more, especially when they—

"I heard you met Daimyou-dono in your last mission with my daughter, Uzumaki-san."

A yelp escaped his mouth before he could stop it, but that was the least of his problems. Without consulting his brain at all, his right hand flicked out and his (expensive! Lacquered!) chopsticks became whizzing projectiles cutting to their target.

With nary a flinch, Hiashi's arm dashed out and snapped them both out of the air. Naruto felt his back turn into a block of ice as the man's eyes nailed him squarely.

"I see you are still rather alert from your time serving." Hiashi turned to give the chopsticks to Hinata-chan, who accepted without a word and quietly presented them back to him. "That is good. I do not really approve of the relaxation that seems to have taken a-hold of everyone. We have dealt a blow; now we need to follow it up."

"But would you take an owl out without your glove and pad?" Hanabi asked calmly, eating small bites between sentences as if nothing had just happened.

"I am quite sure that adequate padding had been put into place way before this occurred; proof is the manoeuvre that hid Uzumaki-san in plain sight and then removed him from harm's way." Hiashi turned to Hinata-chan. "I know you agree with me, musume." Hinata-chan nodded.

"I do. The iron is hot, and striking it now could end the war, waste of life and bloodshed," she said, picking up her soup bowl. "However, we are all aware of how good he is at hiding." And then finally, Hinata-chan turned to him – Naruto'd begun to feel almost dizzy with all the people in the room ignoring him and speaking around him in circles. "Did you hear anything of what, exactly, was done to him? I know Tsunade-sama spoke to you privately after my … nomination."

"Not on this," he said with a grin, momentarily forgetting who was sitting in front of him in favour of admiring her as she blushed. "And you- um, I mean…" He coughed. He was not going to remind Hyuuga Hiashi that his daughter was technically dating a genin by saying she had more clearance than he did! "You would have heard by now if Baa-chan told me something I didn't have to keep mum about. But it was just to tell me she'd need to talk to me about … family stuff, eventually." He gave an uncomfortable shrug. Baa-chan had looked at him all odd while she said it too – man, was he about to find out his dad had had a cross-dressing phase or something?

"Ah yes, Hinata-chan has informed me"-

The shoji they had been ushering into the room through opened. Naruto's back immediately stiffened; as did the rest of the room. Dressed in clothing that looked almost regal – it clashed with the rest of their clothing, and made Naruto in particular feel as underdressed as he always was despite wearing his best kimono – the man he recognised as Hyuuga Hanzou stepped in without a word. 'That old geezer', as he privately called him, stepped around their group and then sat on a section of the raised cushion that Hiashi had previously occupied by himself. It was large enough to carry two – but Naruto doubted, judging by the look on Haishi's face, that Hanzou was welcome to it.

For some reason, that made him feel slightly better; at least, he knew that Hiashi wasn't as dead-set against him seeing Hinata-chan as this old geezer seemed to be. And he'd invited Naruto to dinner and hadn't killed him yet. That had to count for something, didn't it? Hinata-chan wouldn't have told him about the whole accidental-breast-groping thing, would she?

Unless she had been forced to by some weird family jutsu, in which case this was a trap and he was doomed, doomed, totally, completely-

This one – kill it. Get rid of it, kill it…

Naruto stiffened. Hiashi was rigidly speaking to Hanzou, and the two girls on either side of him were both finding their food extremely interesting, and while he would have dearly liked to follow their lead, the Kyuubi's hissed growling in his mind kept his eyes trained on the old man, almost as if the damned fox had momentarily wrested control from him and was keeping a stalking watch on prey.

Wrong, brat, HE's not the prey, he's in the way. My prey is elsewhere – pay attention.

"We were just discussing your meeting with the Daimyo-dono, Uzumaki-san. Hinata-chan has spoken to me briefly about it. Tell me, how is our Daimyo-dono?"

"Um… he looked fine last we saw him," Naruto replied uncomfortably. Shaking off Hanzou's piercing stare, he squared his shoulders; old geezer from hell could go back to hell. He wanted to make a good impression on Hinata-chan's dad, damnit! "We broke off from his party at the border with Earth. Cut straight through, stopped at Iwa to recoup. By the time we had crossed over to Taki, word had reached us that the other Daimyo's troops had already rallied around Sound." He gave a rakish grin. "By the time we arrived back at Konoha, Oto had lost a quarter of its territory from the Valley of the End until the first bases."

"I had heard some reports, but not in detail," Hiashi said with interest, leaning forwards. "Do you have any word from the front?"

"Father," Hinata-chan said mildly, with a smile, "You've just returned."

"Yes, indeed, but Shibi-san and I were casing the Land of Rivers, rather than the borders themselves. Some of your close friends are still there, I presume, Uzumaki-san?"

"Yes; Kakashi-sensei and Yamato-taicho are on the East Front. Last I heard, Lee was too, but I'm not sure if Gai -sensei is still there. Bee's team is in Hotspring, and a good number of our ANBU are scattered all over. Situation seems to have stabilised, and in some ports and borders even turning to our favour. It's looking good right now."

"You ARE well informed," Hiashi said with a pleased smirk, and Naruto had to stop himself from puffing out his chest. Awesome! Hinata-chan's dad was liking him! "I will come to you if I want to keep myself up to date, then."

"Um, thank you, sir," he said, hand rising to rub his head before he noticed and sat on it. Hinata-chan had spent hours combing his hair. He wasn't about to mess it up for her after all the time she'd spent trying to get him presentable. Not that he minded her playing with his hair at all…

"And Daimyo-sama," Hanzou asked, "Did you give our regards and servitude, granddaughter?" Naruto bristled; the bastard - he had no right to speak to her! At all! Especially not in front of him!

"He was in good health, asked after the clan and wished us well," Hinata-chan replied, still smiling. Then he almost jumped when he felt her hand slip blatantly into his. His eyes snapped to Hiashi's, expecting to find promises if death and pain, but instead he found amusement. "He also gave his approval for us, since he is Naruto-kun's highest ranking relative."

"That is good news!" Hanzou said jovially, and Naruto blinked at him. Yo, geezer, what the heck are you playing at… one minute he was trying to marry Hinata-chan to some random stranger, and now he seemed a-ok with their relationship because the Daimyo said so. Man, this guy… he's power hunting, isn't he? What an ass, ready to sell Hinata-chan off like that…

Naruto watched as the older man drew out a hand fan from his clothing and snapping it open, conversing amiably with his son. Had Naruto not been privy to the situation, he would have thought the bloody geezer was an ok-guy. Tche.

"Ah, by the way, Uzumaki-san," Hiashi said, turning towards him once again. Naruto felt his back snap straight – man, not even Baa-chan could make him do this. She'd be so damn jealous… "I heard that was not the only thing Daimyo-sama approved. Hinata-chan mentioned there was some talk of your father. And his post."

"Um…" Shit! What had the Daimyo actually said? He didn't remember any of it! "We didn't have much time to discuss private things. It was more of a war meeting than anything." Please buy it, please buy it, please buy it…

"Daimyo-sama was not very specific," Hinata-chan chimed in, giving his hand a small squeeze. "Most likely, because the war is still undecided. It does not do well to stretch one's neck out too far. In that regards, our Daimyo-sama has always been very cautious."

"I find I agree. It is most likely why they accepted him to lead the strategy with their Guard." Naruto breathed a sigh of relief. What was it about Hinata-chan's dad that made his mind go white, anyway?

"In any case, son," Hanzou said pleasantly to Hiashi. "While I enjoy the present company, there is something I urgently need to speak to you about. Without being overly rude to our guest, would you be able to make time for me presently?"

Hiashi's eyes narrowed, and Naruto felt the atmosphere in the room thicken considerably. Even he knew that the old geezer was being rude, and he wasn't as rule-freaky as the Hyuuga were. Either way, Naruto couldn't say he minded being given an excuse to escape the interroga- conversation.

"Hinata-chan mentioned her mother's garden earlier," Naruto volunteered, trying to look as innocent as possible, and ignoring the Kyuubi's sudden erupting growling the back of his mind. What was up with the Fuzz Ball anyway? "Maybe she could show them it me for a while?"

"Yes," Hiashi said – and why on earth was he looking almost grateful? Poor man was the one stuck with the old scheming geezer in a room. "Hanabi may accompany you too."

"Oh, there is no need for Hanabi-chan to leave," Hanzou said, snapping his fan shut with a smile. Hiashi blinked for an instant, then nodded towards the couple. Naruto couldn't get out fast enough.

In fact, he felt better the moment the shoji was closed behind them. Feeling bold, and seeing that Hinata-chan's dad had at least seemed to approve of him, he took her hand when she began leading him around towards the garden. While he'd seen it once, and heard about it often enough, taking a stroll in it with her was a different story, wasn't it?

"Too bad for your sister," he said in a low voice. "We couldn't rescue her from Evil Grandpa boring her to tears." Hinata-chan chuckled.

"I'm afraid there is no way around that, you know." She gently tugged onto his hand so that they could descend to the stone path, donning two pairs of geta out of the present selection. "She's the clan heir; it is tradition that she sit in to all the important meetings."

"Phew, dodged that one, didn't you?" he teased. Shaking her head at him with a prim smile, she bumped her hip into him as they walked.

"Ara, I thought I knew someone who wanted to become Hokage… boring meetings are part of it, you know," she teased right back. He gave her a pout.

"I'm afraid she's right, Uzumaki Naruto."

Both of them snapped around, and were rather surprised for find what looked like a banged-up Gaara coming up the path from the front gates.

"Holy crap, what chewed you up and spit you out?" Naruto asked with a blink. Gaara blinked and snorted.

"I find it amusing that you would put it in that manner, as a number of Madara's drones turned one of our summoners on us, and I was blasted into the jaws of a sand mite. I can assure you that I do not care to repeat the experience."

"Sand mite?" Naruto cocked his head. That did not sound too threatening.

"A creature native to Suna," Gaara went on, looking towards a Hyuuga escort who had come to greet him. Gaara nodded to him in acknowledgement. "Fifty feet long, twenty around, stalks underneath the sands until it feels prey – then opens its mouth and sucks you in. One of our clans has found a way to summon them and control them to do their bidding."

"….Of course," Naruto said nervously. Fuck diplomacy – unless he found a way to fly to friggin' Suna, Gaara could come over every time they had a meeting.

"In either case … I have business with the head of clan. Uzumaki Naruto, Hyuuga-san." He gave a short bow.

"Ah – Oi, Gaara, wait a second!" The Kazekage paused and turned back. Naruto grinned at him. "She's not just 'Hyuuga-san', you know." He threw an arm around her, feeling slightly embarrassed; then he puffed his chest out. "This is Hinata-chan. She's my girlfriend. Hinata-chan, you know who that is, eh?"

"I'm pleased to meet you officially, Kazekage-sama," she said with a low bow – her face, though, was glowing. Naruto spotted Gaara give a twitch, and then a small smile of his own appeared on his face. Heck yeah! Hinata-chan could make even Gaara loosen up!

"Gaara will be sufficient," he said. "In future, I hope you will treat me as favourably as you do today." He gave her a low bow of his own. Hinata-chan rose, giving an uncertain smile, but she still nodded readily. Gaara gave a final nod to the both of them before turning back to his escort to disappear into the house.

"Darn, I'd forgotten to tell him you'd made jounin," Naruto muttered to himself as they resumed their stroll. Hinata-chan laughed.

"Naruto-kun, he's the Kazekage! Skill at that level or your own, and surrounded by jounin and Suna's ANBU! I'm sure a newly minted jounin will make little impression!"

His chest puffed out further – on level with the Kazekage! His Hinata-chan sure knew how to spoil him! Beaming at her cheekily, he stole another kiss.

"Well, are we going to see these gardens?" She smiled and gave a happy nod. "I sure as heck hope they're private…"

"Naruto-kun!"

.o0o.

Aburame Shibi silently walked in hospital corridors, letting his insects' eyes tell him where he needed to go. A flare of chakra to the left – his clan were a lot more hypersensitive to those – and he knew exactly where he needed to be.

Through a door, down two flights of slightly winding stairs, and he was at a concealed entrance to T and I. All sound from the hospital up two stories stopped the moment the door closed behind him, and he was greeted by a number of his and his son's colleagues.

"A new batch, Aburame-san?" one of the researchers asked eagerly, walking up to greet him.

"Not on our primary subject, not yet," he replied, placing his hand on an insect glass farm and ordering a few of his hive to enter it. "I have recently returned from the East, and bring with me various samples taken from the drones."

"Excellent!" the young man said with a smirk. Shibi did not know him, but judging by his passion and the look of intense interest he was giving part of his swarm, there was a good reason he was here. "We may be able to crack this puzzle too. Now that Yamanaka-san's taken the main prize, we're all trying for second."

Shibi smirked – albeit hidden by his coat's high collar – and withdrew his hand when all his sampling insects had been safely deposited in the glass case. "Any progress is good progress in this field. The dead should no longer be so unjustly disturbed."

"Right you are," came the sharp reply. Shibi simply nodded and allowed himself to be pulled further in so that his health and that of his colony could be given their first daily monitor in a while.

.o0o.

Viper looked surreptitiously around as the noise level in the pub rose and fell. The arm-wrestling in that corner was getting rowdy; possible bar-fight in twenty; and the gaggle of celebrating nin and locals by the bar bench had decided singing while plastered was a good idea.

Where she to be honest, she'd admit that it was more the fact that she couldn't drink herself; couldn't take the damn mask off in public after all, and ANBU were paranoid enough while in uniform (and sometimes out of it) that they only drank from their own straw equipped force-issued water bottles.

And yet here she was, able to drink all of these wusses into the ground, and having to hold back. Oh well, her man could reward her for her good behaviour later…

"He show?"

She shook her head minutely. Raidou – who had, for some reason, remained her partner when they'd been re-deployed again – slipped into a vacant seat behind her, facing the opposite direction.

"Hm. Therefore that hole's either been stoppered, or he got cold feet. So… you hear anything on the stuff a while back? You know, the stuff from the first time we worked together."

Again Viper simply shook her head minutely. Fucking bastard of a contact! He could have sent word if he died! Taking a breath, she eyed Raidou's tankard with calculating eyes. They weren't as large in Hotspring as they were in Konoha, but the ale packed a harder punch, and smelled so nice

"I wonder what happened to those scrolls. And those weapons," he went on muttering. Viper finally gave up and let herself be drawn into the conversation.

"Probably being kept safe. If we were sent to get them, they were important. Or valuable; they may have been meant for a good sale; war's expensive."

"Not always…" She shot him a glare that he felt through the mask, if his flinch meant anything, and he hurried to clarify. "Last I heard, we've gained a good chunk of Sound. And its lead deposits. And its forges. We can melt all those useless musical contraptions and turn them into kunai! And swords! We've even been selling them."

"Smart," Viper replied. She was not going to be looking forward to the land disputes once this was over… all the villages where being buddy-buddy right now, but once it died down…

"Shall we clear out?"

One last sweep of the room, one last look, and she nodded. The moment they moved, however, something caught her eyes from the corner of the room. A teen – young, barely that – had shot up and taken off. Boys like that were usually used as runners, pillons. Someone had been keeping an eye out for their movements.

"How do you feel like walking into a trap?" she hissed to Raidou. He shrugged.

"All in a day's work." He loosened his sword in its scabbard.

With a gleeful grin which was thankfully hidden behind white porcelain, she flitted through the crowd like a black ghost, knowing he'd keep up.

Show time.

.o0o.

"Samehada forgives nada!"

"Gods, Bee, that's so lame…"

"Can it, Bro! Let's get on with the show! Your little missy will think you're a sissy."

"Like hell she will!"

Hinata tried very hard to suppress a chuckle. She had used a standard-3 genjutsu to blend in with the forest, but had begun to close in on the two men. They – Naruto-kun, Bee-san, and herself – were in their training ground with the crooked tree, after the couple had accidentally come across the Kumo jinchuuriki during their stroll. Complements and rhymes were given to her new flak jacket, then what it hid underneath (the man was shameless!), which prompted Naruto-kun to start up a bunter that had led to the training field.

Konohamaru and his team were keeping score and a loud commentary/cheer rally. All three of them had been injured during a messenger C mission, and had been ordered to strict rest, so being the chorus was the only thing they could do. Therefore, they were doing their utmost to be as loud and rowdy as possible - with as many bunshin as they could make - while sitting at the far end of the clearing.

Naruto gave a sudden crow of victory and her attention shot back to him. His chakra cloak had been activated – with her bloodline active, she could barely look at him directly – and Bee's sword Samehada was looking slightly … green?

"Got indigestion, toothpick?" the blond said cheekily. The sword flopped listlessly, almost as if to try to attack him by not manage it. Bee cooed over it, and Naruto-kun said a number of things she wasn't sure she was ok with Konohamaru-kun and his friends hearing. Nevertheless, it got the children laughing and Bee moving again.

Which was just as they had planned in the scant few seconds Naruto and her had had as they took shelter behind one of the ditches together. Still wrapped firmly in her genjutsu, Hinata dropped down from the relative shelter the tree provided, making sure to cancel out her presence just enough without creating a void. She circled the children to test her presence masking, and none of them even flinched. With a tiny smile, she moved into position.

Naruto-kun was running around widdershins, Bee following him with his erratic sword style. A few gashes appeared on Naruto-kun's clothing, and some blood was flung out as the younger jinchuuriki dodged and evaded, but Hinata waited patiently until the bulky men was in the place they had agreed upon.

At which point Hinata turned on herself to get the rotation speed she required and then lashed out with a (visible, for training purposes) chakra whip. It wrapped around Bee's ankles, dropping him, and Naruto-kun moved in to disarm him. Three swords out of seven were taken and flung deeply into the tree bark, but the remaining four were repositioned on time to avoid further loss. Twitching his joints as his style required, Bee evaded further attacks by her whip simply by moving too unpredictably.

The kunoichi smiled and faded back into the background again in response, enjoying herself more than she cared to admit when Bee cursed a few rhymes and sprouted a few tails. Holding the illusion tightly this time, she allowed a regular clone to take her place – not a shadow clone yet – and calmly snuck to her target's back.

Unfortunately for them, Hachi was a lot more perceptive when he teamed up with his master more smoothly, and she was discovered almost immediately as she charged her chakra for a whip. Still smiling, she let the genjutsu fail and produced two whips, one in each hand, then went ahead and made them invisible.

Kankurou-san had been nice enough to share a small trick with her – to keep track of the strings herself, all she had to do was imagine they were extensions of her arms. With her byakugan she could still vaguely see the masked strings, but during battle, it was surprisingly easy to simply allow her movements to follow through after his hint and some practice; her mind immediately mapped the trajectory of her whips even as she completed a stance.

She crossed eyes with Naruto-kun beside her and nodded as Bee began to power himself up for his 'eighth sword' as he called it. They had discovered earlier that his chakra cloak did not burn her; they were all set to test it out. Bee charged and Naruto-kun immediately picked her up and launched her to land behind Bee. The momentum carried him forward, and he was agile enough to be veering already; but Hinata had swiftly brought one arm down. With a crack, three major tenketsu on his back were closed, and Bee lost a number of tentacle projections Hachi's chakra created.

"Tag-team couple training, eh? Good'nuff for two fiancés."

Wolf whistles ensued from their 'audience' and Naruto-kun's cheeks took an interesting colour (she was not going to think about what colour hers were). Bee had been there as his brother's bodyguard during the meeting where their last mission was briefed to the Kage council. He was therefore in the know of certain details, including their 'marital status' while it lasted.

Bee immediately took advantage of Naruto-kun's imbalance, but Hinata was already moving to compensate. She couldn't save Naruto-kun's front from a diagonal slash – not deep, but he would be mourning that jacket soon – yet this was exactly what she needed. A sweeping step to the side with her outer leg, fixing her stance to be balanced and fluid, engaging her bloodline and …

With a crack, Bee's left arm was useless from the elbow down. Fat drops of rain began a loud patter, chasing the three children away, but Bee took one incredulous look at his arm and then at the two of them.

"I really do not see how you expect this to stop me."

The dark-skinned man launched himself in her direction without warning, and she barely had time to fall into the ready-stance of hand-to-hand combat she'd been taught since childhood. Infusing chakra into her palms as though attempting to close tenketsu helped her slap away Bee's swords, even though after barely a few moments of combat she was sporting shallow cuts up and down her forearms, and would have been unable to defend properly had Bee decided to use raiton with his blades.

Naruto-kun appearing at shoulder-height in a head-kick stance broke her exchange with the man, and Bee quickly dodged before Naruto-kun could finish the movement and send the man crashing into the ground. Veering quickly in mid-air and landing heavily with the missed momentum, Naruto-kun became a blur even to her eyes as he now engaged the jinchuuriki again. Spreading both whips out around her, Hinata widened her stance to compensate the distance and the rapid movements, and began a kata she had only recently incorporated the whips to. Moving as quickly and as liquidly as she could, the whips played the part her chakra needles used to and made a weaving, sewing-like movement as they attacked and retreated repeatedly from her safe distance, caring to avoid her ally.

The rain began to fall more heavily until all three of them were utterly soaked. Notwithstanding, Naruto-kun was wearing too wide a grin for her to interrupt the spar, and Bee had forgone rhymes for actual song. Even with his arm, left thigh, right flank and half his back numb with her attacks, he was keeping the both of them on their toes. And … Hinata had to admit. She was loving this!

Two of the four remaining swords were suddenly whizzing through the air in her direction. Naruto gave a sharp cry of her name and Bee lost no time in decking him straight to the face. Both projectiles slicked into her clothing before she could deflect, and pinned her arms neatly to the tree behind her – Bee had the special awareness of a Hyuuga! – so that she was effectively trapped in place unless she wanted to lose her sleeves. Amazingly enough, neither one of her arms had been injured.

Meanwhile, Bee had neatly sat his bulky self down on Naruto's chest, a sword to his throat, and another – held in his armpit- pointed directly to his- oh dear, no wonder Naruto-kun was so still. Hinata couldn't help but blush even as she bit her lip to hide a smile as the blond was grumbling at his fellow host to 'gerrof, already! What the hell was he eating, to be so heavy? Dieting was his friend!'

Hinata's hair plastered against her face, and as her body cooled down from the exercise, she found herself shivering as freezing rain ran down her back while she stood patiently waiting for the two men to remove the swords. While she could have done it, both the sharpened blades were turned inwards towards her skin as a warning, and she really liked this jacket either way.

"Good spar, spring onion; but you need to get your mojo on," Bee commented as they walked up and he retrieved his weapons. "And you, little lady, those whips are good and shady. Pack a punch; not even a hunch that my arm'd get numb and floppy. I was sloppy and gave you my back; darn never again do that."

"Oi, I'm the one who put a good amount of the bruises on you, darnit…" Naruto-kun growled, and she giggled even as Bee cuffed him round the ear. "Ow!"

"Not classy, taking the glory from your lassy – who was coverin' your ass real good, even from where she stood!"

"I didn't mean anything like that! Hinata-chan, don't listen to him! I thought you were awesome and I never had my back open, not even once! He only decked me 'cos I let him – you know I did, Bee, don't give me that!"

Hinata shook her head, a smile blooming wider on her face as she saw the two men chase each other under the driving rain as she hugged herself. Where on earth did they get all that energy… even demonic-residents taken into account, a spar as hard as that should have left them at least winded! She was ready to drop!

"Oi, brat, let's get out of this, and go take care of your li'll miss! With as strong as she's a'tremblin' I'll be reconin' she be freezin'."

"Aw CRAP! Hinata-chan, here, take my jacket, but it's soaked too… ah darn, look, let's go to my place, it's closer, and we can at least get dry and wait it out – and your dad won't cut all my fingers off for leaving you out in this, and I don't even want to think what Hanabi-chan'd do to me… You coming, Bee?"

"Sorry kid, not a chance; Teacher of yours's promised to teach that little dance – the one he does? I'm all set to learn that buzz."

"Aw man," Naruto-kun muttered as they set off at a breakneck run for his place, only managing to get wetter as the rain hit them harder. "That's just great. I swear, if Ero-sensei and Bee start dancing together, I'm calling Gamakuni, telling him to swallow them and 'forgetting' to get them back out…"

Hinata couldn't help it anymore; she began laughing, holding onto Naruto-kun's hand to keep up as her strength flagged from the spar and from her breathless mirth. To think that according to Kakashi-sensei, Naruto-kun had at one-point considered Gai-grade spandex, if Jiraiya-sama was to be believed! And yet, a dancing pair of adult, bulky men seemed to be his limit.

Admittedly, the image was not sobering, and Naruto-kun's pout wasn't helping. She laughed heartily all the way to his home, even though by the time they got there, her fingers were numb from the cold.

.o0o.

"I'm, really, really sorry, Hinata-chan," he said again contritely. She just chuckled from the couch.

"Mah, Naruto-kun, you don't need to apologise so much." He looked at her helplessly for another moment then ducked into the kitchen to escape her smothered chuckles.

His apartment was a mess, and he had sort of forgotten all about it when he'd invited her to come here. Between his unwillingness to do much of anything when they'd been at odds and his immediate deployment for that long term mission right after, the place was almost unliveable. The little laundry he had done was either unusable – why on earth had he left most of it in the drier or washroom? It was all musty and stinky! – or unsuitable. He was not going to give her boxer shorts to change into!

And that was why he was currently escaping into the kitchen, with Hinata-chan on his couch dressed in her underwear and a blanket . With a groan, he rubbed a hand through his hair and started opening cupboards. The tea was gone, he hadn't bothered to buy any, and he never had any coffee around the house. He wasn't about to give her hot water was he? The other cupboards where thoroughly searched – nothing. Not even ramen! But she'd said she'd used the last packet that one morning, hadn't she, when they made up? And he'd eaten out the past two days they were back; at the BBQ place the first night, celebrating with the guys, and yesterday at the Hyuuga clan stead. So he hadn't bothered with shopping.

In the den, Hinata-chan gave a small sneeze and he cursed. Listlessly he opened the fridge. Nothing. Two more cupboards – zilch. Drawer, drawer, nope, no luck there. Pantry, na-quh – hang on.

There was a ceramic bottle, a rather nice, expensive looking one too, that he knew he had never bought. Had Hinata-chan put it there? Taking it down, the answer came in the form of a paper taped to the side.

'Build some tolerance, brat.'

There was only one person who would say that; Naruto shook his head with a smirk and uncorked it, taking a whiff – yup, sake`, and on the mild side too, though not harmless. Well…. Hinata-chan gave another sneeze, and he shrugged. He was actually cold himself; he had changed his boxer shorts, but there was precious little else he could wear in the house. Even the socks smelled of musty drier-inside. So, at least Ero-sensei and his weird ways were going to prove semi-useful. Odds are, what was left of this bottle would be used as disinfectant later.

Grabbing two clean mugs from the counter he headed back to the front room. Hinata-chan looked lovely even with her hair still half-damp, and the boiler to the shower was roiling happily. If they were lucky, the old thing wouldn't have a conniption, and they'd just have to wait the usual half-hour for a nice, hot shower. The sake` could tide them over till then.

She looked away from the window when he set a mug down before her. Her mild smile – she was damn adorable, smiling at the rain too – got wider when she looked up at him.

"'Fraid this is the only thing in the place that can help us," he muttered bashfully, sloshing the bottle. She raised a brow, but then smiled again and nodded, lifting the blanket. Naruto gave her a blank stare. "But … um, that's for you to cover up, and…"

"You're cold, Naruto-kun," she said quietly, nudging the end of the blanket towards him. Well, sure, he was, but she wasn't wearing much of anything under that, and … well, they'd slept in the same bed for quite a while, too, but…

"So, what's that?" she asked

"Oh, it's sake`Ero-sensei left me some, for whatever reason. Possibly in case I had guests over, or something," he lied. He wasn't admitting to his dad's tolerance. Na-quh!

"Then we'll be using it properly," she laughed cheerfully. "Won't you sit?" Naruto gladly settled on her left, getting his feet off the freezing floor as fast as he could manage it, and poured the clear, water-like liquid into his own mug. No sooner did they both have them in their hands, Hinata-chan sneakily flung the blanket across him.

Naruto's head snapped forward. Well, well… damn! Hinata-chan moved a little bit closer – the ratty throw wasn't about to reach that far – and he swallowed. Then he remembered the mug in his hand and took a large gulp.

The stuff wasn't as mild as he'd thought it would be. His eyes didn't quite water, but it did burn all the way down. In a way, it was a good thing, because he definitely felt warmer. He just had to pay attention to how much he took. While it wasn't as lethal as Gamanima's brew, there was no joking around with it.

Both of them finished their first mug silently. The rain hadn't let up at all, and the pitter-patter noise against the window panes and on the tin and metal stairs outside had a musical quality to it. There was something to be said about sitting on a comfy couch, half dressed, trying to get warm under a throw with a person you loved while a storm raged outside. The room glowed with a dulled sort of grey light as the downpour came down in sheets, and Naruto reached for the bottle again to top their mugs.

"Thank you," Hinata-chan said, breaking the silence. He gave her a crooked smile.

"Welcome. That was some spar, huh?" She nodded happily. "I'll have a couple of bruises from where that whip of yours nipped me, you know? Packs one hell of a bite!"

"Are you hurt anywhere?" she asked, mildly concerned. One of her hands reached up to rest on his shoulder, and he couldn't stop his grin, or his blush.

"Nothing Kyuubs can't heal by morning. But damn, Bee had us good. Two on one, and he still managed to squeeze out of it. Like an octopus."

His body was gradually beginning to feel warmer as they both chuckled, some heat infusing his limbs while he drank. Stealing a glance sideways, he paused to look. It wasn't just the sake` either. This closeness that they shared reminded him of how much he'd missed it when it was gone, and he remembered the ache well. Then those weeks spent acting like a promised couple had cemented the idea further into his mind. Her eyes, the curve of her lashes … Hinata-chan looked so beautiful in the faint light, that he just …

"Naruto-kun…" she said, looking down bashfully.

"What," he asked somewhat cheekily to cover a slight wave of embarrassment, eyes still scrutinizing her face intently, "I'm not looking below the chin, so that's ok, isn't it?" The shit eating grin that spread across his face made her giggle slightly.

"You keep staring at my face without even blinking, Naruto-kun," she said while hiding half her face behind her sake-filled mug. "That's a good way to ensure that I blush very much, apart from the alcohol."

"Can't help it if you're pretty to look at!" he quipped back, revelling in the fact that her face lit up and she squeaked, hiding further behind the mug. The alcohol in his system seemed to be taking over as he watched her, taking in the changing hues in her damp hair, the different shades of red on different parts of her face. Her eyes, slightly shinier – or it was a trick of the dull and rainy light – seemed to have a sheen over them, something that made them even more special than the doujutsu they sported so obviously. He desperately wanted to be the object of their glance all of a sudden, and giving in to the urge, he raised his hand from under the blanket and gently placed his finger under her chin. She seemed slightly startled, and she did finally look up, but something inside him had gone grave and serious. Those eyes, that face… he wanted to remember them.

"Naruto-kun, you're doing it again," she said slightly playfully, and it was maybe a testament to how much she'd drunk that she could give what could pass for a coy smile on another girl's face. When he didn't immediately respond, however, her expression melted into something a little more concerned. "Naruto-kun?"

"I want to remember it," he whispered, his eyes still glued to her face. "I want… I want to burn it into my head, the way you look at me. I want to remember it when I'm out on the front, or here at home, or after you leave. If you… if you don't come back to me, again, I want to remember it, that someone like you could look at me like this."

He watched as her eyes grew incredibly wide, and then a rustling later, her palm had landed on his cheek. He closed his eyes momentarily, savouring her caress and her warm, almost smooth palm. For those of a kunoichi, Hinata had such soft hands…

"I won't leave. I promised Naruto-kun, remember? And I never go back on my promises," she said in a quiet voice that filled the entirety of the small and otherwise empty apartment. A small part of his heart kicked up at that, feeling almost like a jolt to his gut.

"You don't have to stay because you promised," he said, and before she could speak when she frowned, he spoke on, "I know that's not why you're staying right now… but if that ever changes, if you want to go… I want you to be happy, Hinata-chan."

"I love you, Naruto-kun," she said in a quiet voice, and like always, her statement never failed to make him feel a major heave of his insides. She smiled quietly and mellowly at him, the sheen in her eyes seeming to shine more. "I don't think that will ever chance. The more I know you, the closer I become with you, the more I love you. Neiji-niisan once told me that first love sometimes is based on an ideal, and that when that ideal is broken or proved wrong, when the person turns out to be a mere shadow of that ideal, the feelings behind that ideal fade away… but with you…"

She smiled more softly at him, her thumb caressing his cheekbone. "Naruto-kun, you are so much more than who I thought you were. You are more than strong, dependable and determined. You are so sweet when you try your best to be romantic, and you are so warm hearted sometimes it hurts to be by you, and see you suffer for what you think is unjust. I am … I am so lucky, to have you that I can hardly believe it myself, sometimes. Every day that I know you, you surprise me with something new about you that I can love and strive to nurture and protect. I would… I would never leave. Not unless you wanted me to. Even before my clan … I love you."

Naruto felt like he was almost trembling when she lapsed into silence, her thumb still stroking his face. He swallowed thickly, trying to get past the ball sitting on his gullet, and forced himself to break eye contact with her before he did something stupid, like start crying. Grabbing her hand with the one not occupied on her chin, he closed his eyes and buried his face against her palm, kissing it several times until he could gain enough control of himself to speak again.

He felt as though his insides had risen off their hinges and were throwing themselves about, as if Rock Lee had gotten his hands on his pretty little organs and was putting them through their paces. Between the sake muddling his mind and her words, he didn't know which side was up anymore, and his heart was beating so fast that he could almost not hear the rain slamming itself against his windows. She loved him; she'd said it so many times now that he should be used to it, but he wasn't. She loved him more than the clan, she said – she'd said it, she had! – so maybe, maybe, she would, if he asked…

"My first family was Iruka-sensei, Teuchi and Ayame-neechan, really," he said, somewhat croakily. He had no idea where he was going with this, but somewhere between rough, raw emotion, sake, and his heart, he knew he was going somewhere, and he decided to truck with it. "Iruka-sensei would take me there at first, and when they didn't throw me out, or glare at me until I was uncomfortable and left, I was so happy I got myself addicted to ramen. We both know how that ended." He gave her a small glance, and she smiled at him, listening intently. He looked back towards the window.

"Then when I made it and got the headband… my team became my everything. We fought together, trained together, fought some more, trained some more… slept, bickered, waiting on that damned bridge… I remember thinking that this was what a family was really like. We didn't necessarily like each other all the time, but we tolerated each other, and me and dobe just sort of clicked, even though we'd never have told anyone if our life depended on it back then. Sakura-chan was like the annoying know-it-all neighbour, and Sasuke… Sasuke was my brother."

He paused and smirked briefly.

"And Kakashi-sensei was like the perverted uncle who was supposed to be baby-sitting us, but always went off to do his thing instead."

Hinata giggled and he laughed briefly too before he sobered again. "When Sasuke-dobe left … it was like someone had nailed a kunai into my chest. It was my family, and it was falling apart. Even though I promised Sakura-chan that I'd bring him back, I was still leaving, and Sasuke was still gone, and I was hurting so much I didn't know what to do with myself. Ero-sensei really knew what he was doing, taking me out of here back then. Training and moving all the time kept me from thinking on how much it hurt like a bitch."

She didn't say anything, but he knew the look she was giving him, and her hand became even more gentle in its caress. Running his fingers across her knuckles, he brought her hand to the front of his face and kissed the palm again, closing his eyes briefly to savour the softness of it against his lips. The taste of the alcohol on his tongue still left him feeling a little heady, but the thing was loose now, and it was talking his heart out. He just hoped that she wouldn't back away from him when he was done…

"When I met you though, that time in the hospital," he went on in a whisper, turning his face just enough for his lips to be half out of her palm, "I'd just brought the idiot back and, nothing had changed; not in the team, not inside me. Not with Sakura-chan and the stupid crush I'd had on her back then." He rubbed his nose apologetically against her palm, knowing that mentions of his romantic feelings towards his team mate made her uncomfortable.

"When we quarrelled, me and you … when you left me … I really felt lost. And not in the way I had when Sasuke left either. It was like someone had put a hand in my chest and cut up the inside." She shifted beside him , and before she could speak, or interrupt him – because he still didn't know where this was going, but if she interrupted him, he'd lose his steam – he ploughed on, "Hinata-chan, don't … don't resent me for this but, lately, I've started to look at you, and see family." He did look at her then, eager, almost thirsty to see her reaction, together with deathly afraid. She only looked at him with wide eyes, but ones that hadn't darkened with anything negative, so he went on.

"You've … filled my life with so many things that I never had before, that I really wanted. Trips to the market, walks, silly little pranks that I played on you, and you didn't get too mad." The hand that had been pressing hers to his cheek rose to scratch his hair sheepishly. "And most of all… house noises. You in the kitchen, cooking something that smelled wicked good, tinkering or sitting on the couch and humming to something coming out of that radio of yours, and …" He stopped before he could ramble himself stupid. "When you left, I just couldn't go in the kitchen. It hurt too much to see it empty. Made me all knotted up inside like I couldn't take it anymore. I hadn't realised but… for a long time now, I've looked at you, and seen family. I look at you, and, Hinata-chan, and I- …I see home."

He swallowed hard when he'd finally said it, blood beating in his ears so hard that he couldn't even hear the rain at last. He closed his eyes, almost deathly afraid to turn around and see what his words had done. If she left now, if he'd said too much, he knew he'd just break something. Almost …. Almost, yes; Screw Hokage, even Konoha. If she left now, there'd be nothing left to him worth saving. He'd invested all of that into her. He'd STILL make it, but it'd be so much damn harder...

The hand on his cheek slowly moved down, and for a terrifying second, he almost feared that she'd drop it and turn away from him. Instead, he was startled into opening his eyes when a strong hand got hold of his wrist and deceptively petite fingers curled around his chin, turning his face around.

For some reason, the half-lidded look she was giving him made him shiver. Her cheeks were high with a brilliant blush, and her mouth was slightly ajar, her lips looking more inviting than he'd ever seen them.

But her eyes … they nailed straight into his, and he couldn't look away. He felt like prey crossing sight with its – no… more like a creature looking into the eyes of its owner. And there was no one else he'd rather belong to.

"Naruto-kun," she whispered, and another shiver ran down his spine, heart beat increasing from only watching her lips form his name. His chest tightened to a point where it was almost painful. "Come home, Naruto-kun," she continued in a mere whisper, and he stopped breathing.

The hands on his chin and wrists tugged, and he found himself falling forward on top of her. A warm leg encircled his waist and turned him until his body was aligned with hers, and before he could get his thoughts together, she was kissing him in way that made him forget everything else, even that he was alive and what his name was. His entire body became intensely aware of her warm, soft curves underneath him, something that was impossible not to notice when the hand on his chin dove into his hair and pressed him down, and she began to push herself upwards against his chest. The leg around his waist now encircled his hip, and her foot was running up and down the back of his calf, occasionally pausing to pull at the little hairs on his skin.

He was panting within moments, blood pounding through every part of his body as he grew more and more aroused. Hinata-chan wiggled her other hand around, and then her palm was sliding up and down his back as she hummed happily, pressing him down against her as she pushed up. The feel of her breasts smashed against his chest made him groan as he momentarily lost all sense of his surroundings and being, blood isolating him in his head and ears as his arousal rushed through his senses, leaving him only aware of the shape, warmth and softness of the breasts he'd been coveting and desiring to touch for months now. Her tongue against his own rubbed enticingly, almost seductively, sucking on the sensitive underside so that he was almost wrecked with shivers every moment.

When she purposefully bumped her hips against his erect member, he tore himself away with a loud moan, panting hard and erratically as the cold air of the apartment met his feverish skin. He blinked, trying to focus his eyes when the feelings and sensations had made his sight foggy, and holding himself up off her torso as best he could on very shaky arms.

"Hinata-chan," he hissed hoarsely, but then paused as he looked down at her again. Her eyes were half lidded in a look that couldn't be called anything but seductive. Her cheeks were flooded with colour to the point of being crimson, and her lips were parted, red and moist, the sight of them sending a zinging sensation down his belly and straight to his groin. But her expression made him remember something else.

"Hinata-chan, this is… I want … we can't, Hinata-chan," he gasped, sure that this was, bar none, the most difficult sentence he'd ever uttered. Her arms and leg tightened around him before he could even begin to think of moving off her, and her face told him that she was definitely both hurt and upset. He quickly drove on, "Hinata-chan, you're drunk, it's the sake, I don't want…"

Her expression then reverted back to the half-lidded, seductive smile, and it brought his stuttering words to a halt. There was a certain confidence there, a certain sense of feminine pride that he'd never seen in her before.

"I'm used to drinking sake, Naruto-kun," she whispered back, and a shiver ran down him again at how she said his name. Her voice was so much deeper, somehow, and when he watched her lips form his name … he didn't know why, but it was hot. "My family often has ceremonies where it is required to have sake, as well as official meals where it is served. I have a good tolerance." Then her expression shifted to something slightly concerned, and one of her hands came around to caress his cheek again. "But your pupils are very dilated … are you ok, Naruto-kun?"

Again his name, again the shiver. He was almost permanently looking at her swollen red lips now, and he nervously licked his own. Sure, he had two cups of sake in his head, and that was known to knock him out. And Hinata-chan too, but she said she was fine, and …

"That's not the sake, Hinata-chan," he said in a gravely voice that he barely recognised as his own. Somehow though, it seemed to work on her like her voice worked on him, because he felt her shudder underneath him and she swallowed, her breath becoming laboured again as she looked at him. When she licked her lips, he couldn't resist any longer.

He plunged down, and she hummed happily, receiving him back more than willingly. Her body against his banished all other thoughts, and he wasn't sure, but the sake probably banished any nervousness that might have been. Before he knew what he was doing, all his weight had transferred onto his left arm, and his right hand was finally, finally cupping one of her soft, warm breasts.

Her reaction almost startled him. Her eyes rolled up into her head, she threw her head back and moaned loudly, pressing her chest into his hand. He was mesmerised by the sight of her tense neck, and the noise of her groans and cries of his name as he moved his hand slowly and carefully, afraid of hurting her in any way. The feeling of her breast against his palm was making him almost painfully aroused, but watching her take pleasure from his touch made his breath come so short that he was on the verge of choking.

The cloth if her bindings separated him from her warm skin, and it was infuriating. Without thinking, he hooked his fingers into the wide bandaging and tugged down until they loosened, and once they had passed the crest of her breasts, it was easy play to push them down onto her belly.

He exclaimed shakily when he got his first sight of them. When they'd been on the kabuki mission, he'd thought the experience of being literally wrapped against them was the most arousing thing he'd ever feel. Now though … her nipples were erect and darkly coloured, and an aureole of similar dark skin surrounded both nubs. Her otherwise normally pale skin was flushed all the way down her chest, and when his trembling hand cupped her breast again, she gasped breathily and panted, pushing her breasts up and down with each heave.

When he experimentally ran a finger lightly over her nipple, she choked and threw her head back again, his name coming out in a voice that was almost a plea and went straight to his groin. The tendons on her neck stood out strongly with the tension, and giving in to the impulse, he leaned down and sucked on in, and then her arms rose up around him and held him to her like a vice, her breath coming even more strongly.

His hand on her never stopped moving, exploring the soft, almost silken skin, skin like he'd never felt before. It felt like the finest, softest thing his palm had ever experienced, and then the hard nipple would brush against a part of his hand, and the contrast drove him insane. She kept moaning his name almost like a supplication, and his ears were fairly ringing with it. Even the blood rushing through wasn't enough to drown her soft sighs and moans out.

When his hand gently squeezed her breast experimentally, Hinata-chan seemed to finally reach a breaking point beneath him. Her arms locked him against him, and her face came around to kiss his cheek, his neck, and finally his ear.

The broken gasp that escaped him as soon as her lips touched the sensitive shell caught him off guard, but not as much as how his body seemed to completely take over and cut his mind out of command. He felt himself go completely rigid as the level of his excitement sky-rocketed, and every nerve ending in his ear became the only and sole focus of all his mind and body. Hinata -chan's lips, teeth, and finally her tongue tore moans and groans from his throat that he had no control over, and when she delicately took it between her lips and sucked, running her tongue that left wet and electrified trails on his skin, he couldn't stop the way his body jerked, his hips thrusting forward against her without warningl. Her warm body shuddered against his, and her moan in a shivering voice made him lose it.

Before he knew what he was doing, he was kissing her roughly, and his hands were touching her everywhere he could reach. Her breast he never left for long, but his other palm still remembered how soft and firm her behind had been, and her reaction when he touched her there almost topped the one she'd had before. Fisting her hand in his hair and humming a throaty moan, her hips rose and began to nudge his groin gently until he let more of his weight onto her, and then she began to jerkily press against him, aided by the leg that still encircled his hip.

His already almost painful arousal began throbbing with new vigour, blood rushing below his waist so fast that he was left with ringing ears due to more than the noises she made. When she wriggled against him provocatively, or maybe he was feeling it that way, but all the same – when she wriggled against him and freed her other leg from his weight, latching her other foot to the back of his thighs as well, his groin instantly settled against the natural cradle of her hips, and the warm moisture he felt there through both of their underwear made him pause with the incredible and almost explosive feeling of need that swept through him.

Trembling even more, he gave an experimental thrust, and her legs around him locked him in place as she moaned his name. She opened her swollen eyes half way and looked at him, and he was proved wrong when he thought he couldn't get any more aroused; there was a look there that told him beyond doubt or denseness that she was enjoying his touch, his body against hers, and that she wanted more. She wanted him.

His hips jerked forward again, and her eyes disappeared once more, her lips replacing them in his focus as they grew round, redder, but made no sound. They'd never looked plumper, more inviting, so he kissed her again, and she responded with passion as he kept pushing his hips against hers, and she kept pushing back until the mere pressure wasn't enough anymore. No matter how hard he pressed, how fast, the ache only kept building until it reached a point where nothing alleviated it, only egged it on.

"Hinata-chan," he said desperately, not sure what he was to do next. Sure, his body knew, and he vaguely knew too; he hadn't read the old sage's books without learning the basics after all. This was Hinata-chan though, this was real, his whole world here, on his couch in his tiny home, and he was half lost in a sea of emotions, sensations and sake. His arousal throbbed painfully, robbing him of more than half his thoughts, and the other half was only occupied with how her skin smelled, how warm and soft it was, and how her face was contorted into bliss and pleasure every time he thrust against her.

Two snapping noises partially startled him out of his pleasure-induced stupour, and the next minute, one of Hinata-chan's hands jerkily exited the blanket around them to drop a torn and mangled panty onto the floor. He gasped at the sight, and then even more when he felt her fingers pawing at the band of his boxers. He almost jerked away, but for the fact that her other hand was running down his back with her nails cocked against his skin, sending new feelings of utter bliss through his system. Before he could speak, before he could say anything around the sudden ball clogging his throat, her fingers slipped underneath the elastic band and cupped his rear. He gave a rough groan and his hips thrust against her again before he could even think of it; if his hand against her butt had felt this good, it was no wonder that she loved it.

A quick thought ran through his brain then; her underwear was off, and if he removed his own, as her tugging fingers were trying to do, there would be nothing between them. Skin to skin, arousal to arousal, he had no doubt what would happen next.

This was too fast, a part of him hissed urgently. They had barely managed to touch each other with their clothes on before, and now, they were about to be together. This was the sake, it wasn't fair on her, he had to stop this before they moved any farther!

"Naruto-kun," she whispered against his cheek then, which she proceeded to keep raining with kisses as she'd been doing. "Naruto-kun, I love you. I love you, please, Naruto-kun."

He took a shuddering breath and pulled himself up slightly. Her lips followed him up until her head fell back onto the couch's armrest and she opened her heavy eyes to look up at him. Trembling, feeling almost terribly weak with all the pleasure coursing through him, he brought his hands around and cupped her face, looking into her eyes. He needed to know, needed to be sure, if she …

Hinata-chan turned her head and kissed one of his palms, then she gave him the soft smile he loved so much; this time mixed with something truly hot and molten.

"Come home, Naruto-kun," she whispered heavily, gently pressing herself against him, and just like that, all his thoughts and reservation flew out of the window. Home. Come home.

The blood in his body rushed everywhere at once and stopped in his groin. His back curved with the sudden intense desire that flooded him, and now he was sure that he couldn't really stop himself anymore, not even if he wanted to.

Wiggling slightly, uncoordinatedly, he slipped his boxers off, eagerly aiding by her small, delicate hands. Before he could think again, before he could even breath, his head was at her entrance, and he thrust forward.

She gave a cry and her legs went rigid against him, but nothing registered in his head as mind blowing soft, warm, wetness was suddenly surrounding his member, inch by inch with each shallow thrust of his hips. He didn't know what he was doing, didn't really have any idea what to do next, but his body seemed to know just fine as his back went rigid and his hips pressed forward every few seconds. Hinata-chan was so incredibly tight that she took his breath away, and the moment his hip bone bumped against her under-thigh, and he was sheathed inside her fully, he thought he was going to die. His heart was going to explode, because it just couldn't beat that fast and still remain physically functional, and his member was throbbing so intensely, and the soft, hot wetness that was Hinata-chan surrounding him so thoroughly that he couldn't breathe.

The moment he began moving again however, a moan from her dimly registered in his mind that sounded an alarm bell. This was not like the other moans, not like the ones that where breathy or throaty and full of his name. His eyes snapped open in alarm as his disconnected mind suddenly brought together that the moan she'd just made and pain were closely related.

Sure enough, when he looked down at her, her face was scrunched up in a frowning expression. He suddenly realised that her nails were digging into his shoulder and middle back, and her legs were trembling around his hips. Gasping desperately to try to regain control of himself, he almost couldn't reign himself in enough to speak; the effort to stop his hips from snapping forward as they wanted to was enough to leave him exhausted.

"Are you … alright?" he asked between heaves at last, slightly losing control as his groin pressed just slightly forward. The look on her face intensified and she bit her lip. Pleasure and confusion mixed with worry and panic at her action, and he tried to get her to open her eyes by bumping his nose against hers. If this wasn't feeling good for her, if all she was feeling was pain while he thought they were sharing in all these feelings and bliss, he didn't know what he'd do. "Hinata-chan, please, talk to me, please."

"It's ok, Na-Naruto-kun," she whispered back, opening her eyes with some effort. What she saw on his face must have worried her, because she quickly looked at him with more attention and rained a few kissed on his face. "Don't worry. I'm, I'm just new to this, so I'm not used to … being touched and…stretched there." She blushed more – how was that possible? – and looked down with a chuckle before looking back up at him with those eyes that drove him insane. "If you move a little more slowly, it will help me get used to … get used to you, and I will be able to enjoy being with you again," she continued, her voice just as gravely as his own.

Apprehension slightly rising through the mist of lust that had blanketed his mind, he bit his lip and consciously halted his hips from slamming forward, instead easing himself further inside her with as much gentleness as he possessed. Her brows still winced slightly, but the creased cleared a little, and she hummed her approval, rising again to kiss him. Her tongue stroked his gently as soon as he allowed her entry into his mouth, and she slowly guided him by raising her own hips to his, setting the pace now that he was almost too afraid to push forward himself.

The urge to push harder was almost overpowering. It almost felt like the times he'd been taken over by the fox; overwhelming, and so incredibly powerful. He was dimly aware of the growling Youma at the back of his head, but he was too far gone with his body's stimuli to give it any heed. Right now, all his world was Hinata-chan.

Slowly, her somewhat jerky and uncertain trusts had morphed into something more rhythmic, and the pleasure centring around his arousal began to change as well. Instead of simply increasing, the sensations and bliss began to almost concentrate, increasing by leaps and bounds in only one area in a way that made him forget everything else but where he and Hinata-chan were connected. Every time he backed out of her a little, she met his next thrust with her own hips, her womanhood welcoming his invasion more and more as he could feel her movements around him become more natural, and her moans and sighs return to the ones she'd made before, rather than ones of discomfort. Like everything in his life, he was completely winging it, but as long as he kept feeling like this, and as long as his Hinata-chan felt it too, then he was going to keep going down this road to see where it would take them. Thrusting against her again and again, he almost got lost in the mounting pleasure accompanied by the soundtrack of her groans and breathy calls of his name.

Her fingernails suddenly dug into his shoulders again, and he froze mid-thrust, fearful of having caused her pain again. She moaned loudly in dismay instead, her toes curling against his shins almost vindictively as they pulled small hairs.

"Don't stop!" she said urgently into his ear, and then she was attacking his ear again with tongue and lips and teeth, and there was no way he could stop his hips from snapping forward a lot more strongly than they had before. The moan she made, though, made his head start ringing again, and before he knew it, his hips were thrusting forward strongly, aided by her own as her legs became more and more rigid around him. He was completely lost in her, thoughts and emotions flying through him too fast to nail down, and all he knew was Hinata-chan, his Hinata-chan, and how her body felt against his.

"Touch me," she whispered in a near sob at his ear again. "Please."

"Wh-where?" he choked out, his back almost completely rigid now as the pleasure kept building, and his body moved strongly and mechanically in order to reach a peak he knew was close. "Show me, I-I …"

Hinata-chan took one of his hands, pulling it shakily until he put his weight on the opposite elbow, and quickly guided it to the nest of curls that mashed against his every time he pushed into her. Letting her guide his larger fingers with her own, he felt a wet and rigid nub, almost like her nipple, and he suddenly knew what to do. His fingers began circling it automatically, and as he'd guessed, that was just what she wanted. Her hands flew to his back, pulling him to her more strongly with every thrust, and as he increased his finger's movement's with their tempo, she suddenly snapped taut and cried out hoarsely.

Her insides clamped down on his arousal like a vice, and the only thing he could do was gasp at the sudden increase of pressure and pleasure. His eyes squeezed shut and his hips took on a will of their own as he pushed into her shallowly, almost in tandem with rippling pressure of her walls. Before he could even choke out her name, he came rather violently, going completely rigid at the peak of pleasure that coursed through him and left him incapable of feeling anything else.

As soon as the wave of bliss finished washing over him, his arms gave out, and his body suddenly felt incredibly weak. Gasping desperately, he came back to reality to find himself with his face smooshed between Hinata-chan's soft, sweaty breast. He realised he was covered in sweat himself as well and that wherever they weren't covered by the blanket, which they'd more than half kicked off during their activities, he was beginning to feel chilled and cold.

His arms flopped around lazily until he caught an edge, and then he pulled it up around him, and around his Hinata-chan. Her fingers where still going up and down his back and into his hair, and her heartbeat was against his ear, her breath making the pillow that was her breasts rise and fall in a hypnotic rhythm. His body's fatigue and all his muscle's sudden laxitude took over him and he was struggling to keep his eyes open.

"Sleep, Naruto-kun," she whispered into his hair, leaving a kiss on his nape as her arms rose to hold his head.

And with her permission to succumb to his body's nagging request, Naruto smiled and allowed his eyes to fall shut, feeling sated, mellow and completely safe; for the first time in many years since he'd begun his shinobi training, Naruto fell deeply asleep, completely unaware of his surroundings.

.o0o.

Iruka dragged himself in, dripping all over the floor. His body ached in places he didn't even know he had, and his joints were protesting every time they had to move in their sockets. Arriving in the kitchen, his threw his porcelain mask onto the table almost carelessly. The puckered eyes of his ANBU animal looked up at him dismally, but he ignored it. Before anything else, he had to make some tea.

Shrugging out of the black robe was a lot more difficult, as the water tension made sure it was stuck fast to his body. Numb hands pinched the gloves off only with his muscle memory, and he shuddered involuntarily when the warmer air of the apartment hit his chilled naked chest.

He half-limped to the main room, peeling off his trousers and finally falling onto the couch with his steaming mug. Anko was still stationed outside of Konoha – her mission had run longer than expected, and he was only not freaking out because he sporadically woke up with a boa constrictor for a bed-mate, which both told him that she was ok and that her sense of 'humour' hadn't suffered any.

In many ways, the chill and rain were a relief; in others, they rung true to his mood. After his long stint in the Wind Country, there was little more that could be asked for than a bout of fresh rain – that did not contain blood. In certain areas of that country, dead bodies could not be dealt with fast enough, even with storage scrolls, and the blood was carried up by the sun to mix with the rains. In that way, the war had reached even the most protected regions of the capital, and many a country legend was born on how Suna was bleeding even from the skies.

He had arrived with one such rain, dressed to match in armour, bloodied bandages and a Suna hitai-ate, and had begun and completed his task before anyone had noticed. The news he brought back home was grim.

Iruka sipped his tea, only holding in a muttered curse through force of habit; kids had amazing memories for such things, as opposed to schoolwork. His whole body hurt on a level that went beyond his usual tolerance, a consequence of holding his family's special henge for so long. That was why, no matter how completely knackered he was, he just couldn't fall asleep. Anko's sleeping blend may help, but that would take at least half an hour to take effect.

Within which time, Iruka's mind kept going around in circles. How on earth could this have possibly happened! It was a breach of all that was clan law and all that was village law, and at the same time, completely legal. Iruka had never been more keenly aware of the difference between the spirit and the letter of the law in all his life.

He rubbed his face; this was the last thing this war needed. Things had begun to look up, with their partial defeat of Madara, but this had the potential of bringing a lot of things tumbling down.

Taking another sip, Iruka admitted with himself, it also had the potential to seal the ultimate deal. He knew that, Hokage-sama knew that. That snake in the henhouse knew that. He'd effectively tied their hands – there was nothing they could do. And Kazekage-sama had already proved that he was ready to do the necessary sacrifices if the continued allegiance of his Daimyo could be kept without further bloodshed.

He just wished a child of Konoha didn't have to be sacrificed for it in such a way. But then again; how many sons and daughters of all the villages had already paid the ultimate price? How many more would have died if other means had made themselves necessary to use the Wind Lord's armies? Admittedly, the old shrew had taken a very bad situation and fixed it easily and effectively, and entirely in his favour. At everyone else's expense.

The tea was gone, and his body had turned into a lead construct that he could barely move. His mind wasn't done turning his thoughts around in circles, but his fatigue had other ideas. Setting the mug down by sofa, he pulled the blanket around him and let his body gratefully sink backwards with a sigh.

The storm would break, soon. He'd need to be rested.

.o0o.

"Naruto. Hey, hey, Naruto?" Fingers snapped in front of his face. "Teme!"

He almost jumped. But he wouldn't do that; he was a ninja. Ninja didn't do stupid things like jump. Sasuke, for his part, was looking amused over the cards, one delicate, raised black brow showing clear laughter in his eyes. Damn him.

Then it occurred to the blond – no, actually. He could preen here.

"What's crawled up your ears and eaten the last bit of brain left?" the other man demanded, dropping down two matching cards on the (hospital, eating) table. Naruto begrudgingly added some of his snacks to Sasuke's pile, but did not relinquish the smile.

"My lover did."

Sasuke had been taking a sip of water. Naruto quickly found himself wearing it. Blinking, he flicked his cards and wiped his eyes with his sleeves … but Sasuke's face? Totally worth it. Pulling up the hand of cards under his chin again, he went on to give the Uchiha a broad grin and wiggled brows. Sasuke blinked incredulously, then put down another card.

"You did not."

Naruto's grin just got broader. He put down two aces. Sasuke grumbled and pushed some salted peanuts back at the blond.

"And when, pray tell, would it have happened?" Sasuke asked, tone dripping with sarcasm.

Another two soggy cards found their way on the surface with a crow of victory before he answered. "Last night. Aaaand this morning." Sasuke spluttered. "What? We've always known I've got stamina."

"Twice?" Sasuke gawped – it looked decidedly awkward on the Uchiha's face – before he snorted. "No way. I call bullshit. Not a chance that shy Hyuuga of yours would sleep with you already."

"Yeah, who'd have thought, ah? My Hinata-chan. She actually started us off, you know." A card snapped down. Sasuke snorted and flipped him off. "No, really! We were talking, and then she just … well." He had to be careful not to go into la-la land again. He was sure Sasuke had stolen a good handful of his peanuts already. "I think the sake` helped loosen things up a little bit, but"-

"Ah, you got her drunk. That explains everything," the Uchiha crowed. Naruto threw a foot pillow at him.

"It's not like that, you prat!"

"Aha…"

"Hoy, I'd never do that to her, for starters." The next card got slightly bent for being banged rather strongly on the eating table. "And secondly, I made sure, and tried to stop several times, and she was the one…" Naruto stopped, realising from Sasuke's amused expression that he'd been wheedled into giving details – which he hadn't wanted to do. Another foot pillow hit the Uchiha square in the face. "Prat."

"So…" Sasuke started again. Naruto pretended not to hear; Sasuke cared none at all and went on with a half grin. "You're a man now." A card trumped down on a set before Naruto could – the blond swore, if the idiot said anything about reflex training, he was going to – "Does her dad know?"

Naruto stilled, hand half poised to pick a card from the pile. It moved to scratch his head instead. Sasuke's grin got larger.

"I take that as a no? Well… you kind of just told him, you know."

"What are you on about? It's just me and you in here."

"And the ANBU." Naruto could feel the blood draining from his face. "How much do you want to bet at least one of them behind that mirror is a Hyuuga?"

"…I'm dead. Bury my ashes on the Hokage Monument."

"Yeah, I'd start running if I were you."

Naruto turned away from the one-way mirror to glower at his friend. Snatching up another set – and taking loot of two tomatoes as revenge – he decided he wasn't going to die alone. "Well, at least I didn't sort-of propose in a half-assed way to my team-mate."

This time, Naruto dodged the water missile from Sasuke's mouth. The Uchiha glared at the blond at a white-hot level, and the jinchuuriki could almost see the absent red-eyes spinning. "What, did you think my sister didn't speak to me?"

"Sister? Where did that come from?"

"Was her idea," Naruto replied with a shrug. Sasuke made another odd expression – though admittedly, all expressions looked foreign on his face. "What?"

"You've called me your older brother before," Sasuke started. "And now she's calling you her brother. That feels vaguely…"

"Incestuous?" Naruto shrugged and went on before Sasuke could throw in a barb on him knowing a 'long word'. "Yeah, it would be a problem if that sort of thing bothered you and all. But I suppose seeing as you came from a clan, and you all loved your cousins there"-

A foot pillow was returned to sender. Naruto let out a laugh and dodged the second, which rocketed across the room and bounced off the far wall.

"I'll have you know, we had plenty of outside blood," Sasuke said haughtily, dropping down a card and picking another instead.

"Bet there wasn't in Madara's time, with how batty that one is."

"You're … possibly correct, actually."

They shared a moment of quiet, before…

"So tell me, 'Haruno of the Sharingan'? Really? Was that some sort of pick up line?"

"Naruto, I swear…"

"You really need some help. Trust me, you do, and since the score is already two-zero, and you have that … you call that a hairstyle? Your head looks like a chicken's butt."

"That's it."

Naruto laughed happily as cards went flying everywhere and the Uchiha tried to grab him into a headlock, missed, and ended up caught in one himself.

"This is what I'm talking about!" Naruto said with a grin, messing his friend's hair beyond repair. "Hey, why don't I see what I can do with a kunai for you, shall I?"

"Ack, you bloody moron!"

The ANBU didn't bother to break into the room anymore. Naruto knew that they had taken to calling his visits 'Physiotherapy Hour' for the Uchiha. That just made his grin get wider.

.o0o.

The two Nara men sat across from one another, working on the same set of documents. One had a string of smoke rising up from the cigarette between his lips, while the other was absently biting at a fingernail.

"This set of caves needs to be taken into account," Shikamaru muttered around the butt.

"Hmm," his father replied. They stared at the spread maps a little longer.

"Damn, Jiraiya-sama knows his stuff, huh? If he hadn't mapped these areas out a while ago, none of the villages would have had any idea where to start," the younger man said, tracing lines drawn in ink on transparent paper. Several layers of the same paper were lined neatly and clipped securely on one side. Jiraiya-sama had mapped the area thoroughly, including all the layers of substratal caves and rocks.

"Not the only one, too. This was one of the places he took the brat, from what I heard. This is his work."

Shikamaru looked up to find his father holding up about set of transparent papers, also lined up correctly and glued together. However, the maps on them were … embellished. There was what looked like a crocodile on one corner, with a tag saying 'mean-ass thing. Big mouth, lots of teeth; sweet soup, though'. Some palm trees popped up here and there, and there was a squirrel taking a … crap? Well.

"I am not surprised in the slightest," Shikamaru said in monotone, almost dropping his cigarette in incredulity. Taking a last huff, he killed it in the ashtray and blew the smoke out of his nose.

"We received word from the scouts too," he went on, handing a scroll to his father. "The location has almost nearly been confirmed.

"Damn the bastard. He's one daring son of a bitch," Shikaku hissed, reading quickly. Then he smiled. Placing three maps side by side, he and his son had an almost complete view of the abandoned country, both the surface and the caves beneath. "Well son, I'd bet against Tsunade-sama that he's here. Now, all me and you have to decide is approximately where, and come up with as many appropriate plans of attack as we can both in case we're right – and wrong."

"Easy as pie, huh?" sighed Shikamaru, shaking the cigarette packet to let another one up. Mouthing it, he flicked a lighter on and puffed until it took. "Damn troublesome woman, recommending us for this …"

"We should be getting others from the allied villages soon." Shikaku replied, nonplussed scratching a scarred cheek and yawning. "Damn better hurry, too. I'd rather be asleep while I recover than wasting snooze-time doing this."

.o0o.

"So your dad said it was ok for you to stay here? Really?" Naruto said incredulous as he opened the apartment door for them.

"Oh, yes, he was happy to allow it," Hinata-chan said following him in hugging her overnight bag. Naruto gave her a relieved smile. Finally, fate had cut him some slack! If any of the ANBU behind the one-way mirror were Hyuuga, they had to be fans of his, because they hadn't told on his ass. Had to be, otherwise Hiashi would probably have come after him with some very sharp family heirloom or other, and Hinata-chan would definitely not be happily spending the night.

"D-did he say anything else?" he asked again, more out of incredulity and morbid fear than anything.

"Not really. For some reason, the Kage are meeting at the Hyuuga house tonight – or maybe only Kazekage-sama and Hokage-sama. It could be the latter, really… they may have a strategy they want to keep as under-wraps as possible. Thanks to you, our two villages now are close allies." She put her bag down, sat on the sofa and smiled at him. He grinned back – and damn it if his cheeks weren't getting hot. "Almost all the household is sleeping away because of that tonight. Most of us are out of the village anyway; The guards were replaced by the ANBU, and only the core family stayed behind."

"But you're part of the core family," he said to her with a pout. He sank onto the couch, and she snuggled into his side. There went his cheeks again. And his ears. Hinata-chan was blushing too, but in a more … comfortable sort of way? Aw, he didn't know. Here he was, a nervous jittery mess, and she seemed to be at ease and comfortable. Naruto scratched his face, brain going all over the place as he tried to think of something to talk about.

That was, ever since they had … er … yeah, that, his head got jammed into that gear when they were alone. But he had no idea how to bring it up without sounding like a total pig, and since he couldn't think of anything else, he just didn't know what to say. So he just sat there like an idiot for a good ten minutes, arms thrown back on the couch and looking at the ceiling while he thought furiously – maybe he should just kiss her, and see if things moved along? But that was just callous, and maybe Hinata-chan didn't feel like, and it would just be embarrassing then. And if she didn't, and he asked, it would be more than embarrassing though, so …

He peered down at her, nervously … and then sighed, not sure whether to be relieved or disappointed. Hinata-chan had fallen asleep with a cheek on his shoulder, and she looked too damn cute and comfortable to wake up. With another resigned sigh, he let his head fall back onto the soft pillows. He'd get a crick-neck for sure in the morning, be he wasn't moving an inch.

.o0o.

There was a sense of urgency that twisted her gut as she ran through the dungeon tunnels. Her stealth was shot but her foot splashing loudly into the water that covered the ground – everywhere was a watery, shimmery sloshing of tunnels. For some reason, she couldn't walk on it; her chakra was repelled, simply disappeared like smoke in the wind the moment her sole touched the liquid. It was as if it was being cancelled out – but she wasn't doing it herself.

The air around her was charged, vibrating with the same sort of dread feeling that was eating at her insides. And it was so dark somehow, but at once, there was more than enough light to see.

There was no time to dwell on it. There was somewhere she was needed. She was supposed to be somewhere, right now! Something dangerous, something was happening, and she needed to hurry to it. Someone was in danger, someone…

A 'him'. A most important 'him', and if she was late, if she was even a second late, she wouldn't make it, he wouldn't make it, and then there would be nothing left.

She had to hurry. She had to hurry

The sense of trepidation that gripped rose to clog her throat so she almost suffocated with it. She took a few cautious steps forward. The large, echoing chamber was echoing in her steps and drip drop noises; dark, but a strange glow was coming from a section of the wall.

That was where she had to go, she knew. A part of her desperately wanted to rush there – to get there and save him – another wanted to run. Run, out, the way she'd come. There was something here, something…

"Hi-Hinata… help…"

She froze in her tracks, her body halting completely and her eyes and ears becoming her mind's entire focus. That voice … that voice had been so weak, but so important. Something, someone was here, she needed to walk in.

Her knees felt like they had been welded together and bent with fatigue, and her legs were leaden, but she still forced her body forward. Her slower steps splashed more loudly as she barely lifted heavy feet off the sodden ground, and the large room opened around her like a cave as she entered it.

"Hinata…"

She stopped again, her heart beating so fast it almost hurt against her ribcage. Breathing strongly with a fear that suddenly gripped her lungs,she looked around. The room was almost as large as her eyes could see. The dripping water made a dissonant, constant music around, and the sound of very heavy breathing rumbled around like deaf percussions.

"Where, where are you?" she called out. Her voice echoed hollowly. She turned around, losing sight of the entrance for a moment as her peripheral vision caught a dull reflection of light. Stepping towards it, a very large, imposing set of bars came into view, as though the stones had previously been hiding it. Hear heart leapt; this was where she needed to go.

A sudden jolt of adrenaline rushed through her, her skin feeling almost hot with it as she rushed towards the gate bars. Slamming against them and clinging to the iron, she could barely breathe as she saw what was on the other side.

"Naruto!"

He looked severely beaten and bloody, wounds bleeding until the colour of the simple yukata he was wearing was indistinguishable. Parts of his face were swollen, others sunken in, his nose appeared broken, and he couldn't seem to open one of his eyes. Blood was still dripping from his nose and mouth – some of his teeth were missing. Pain gripped her – what on earth – who had done this to him!

"Naruto, Naruto, talk to me," she asked, slipping an arm through the metal bars. It was just wide enough to allow her entry till the shoulder, but she was still too far away!

He looked up, seeming able to raise his head only with great fatigue. She moaned in dismay as more light landed on his face and showed more scars and blood; someone had carved along the birthmarks on his cheeks, leaving deep, weeping trenches.

"Hina-ta…"

"Hang in there, please," she hissed, straining to touch him with all her might. She didn't know what that would accomplish, but maybe the chains weren't strong. Maybe they were rusted, she could pull him to her if she reached him.

Pushing farther against the bars, she let her chakra develop into a whip, flicking her wrist to wrap around one of the chains that kept Naruto-kun's arms suspended. She tugged once, twice – her chakra somehow didn't have the strength it should have. Then she tugged again, and the chain dropped with a clang. Naruto-kun's body half slumped to the ground with a splash, still suspended by one chain on his wrist.

He groaned weakly as she called his name, trying to push farther and farther between the bars until she bruised. She watched helplessly as he laboriously pushed to his knees, then rose unsteadily. Tugging on his remaining chain and looking uncharacteristically weak and drained, he straightened and began walking towards her before the chain yanked him partially back. He turned to it with narrowed eyes, gave it a few more yanks, then squared his shoulders and pushed forward again.

She almost cried out in pain as she pushed herself further against the bars, straining her arm until it was almost numb to try to touch him. Naruto-kun was stretching is own arm, gritting his teeth and trying to touch her fingers with all his might, stretching his body to its limit as the chain on the opposite wrist tried to hold him in place.

"A little- more…. Just a little more!" she mumbled, not sure to whom. Naruto-kun's blue eye shone slightly as he made eye contact with her – the same courage and strength of always twinkled there, and it gave her so much more strength! Clinging to the bars until her fingers were numb, she pressed her right flank harder, straining her neck till she could hardly bear it. He did the same, groaning with effort and obvious pain. But their fingertips brushed – once, twice! – and then his palm clapped around her wrist.

"Naruto-kun!" she cried in relief – the pain disappeared, and she was hugging him to her. He was holding her back just as strongly. "Are you alright?"

"Mine," he hissed back.

"What?" She blinked and pushed back, only to have his arms clamp around her harder. She rolled her shoulders and turned her head.

And came face to face with a smirking mouth full of fangs, and two red, slitted eyes looking out of Naruto-kun's usual blue ones.

"Mine," it hissed again. She tried to move in his embrace, but his arms would not yield. Pushing slightly against him, he simply laughed, letting himself fall back to sit on the ground with a splash. Hinata was startled when she realised that the water inside the cage was hot.

Then she jumped again – she was inside? She craned her neck around to look; yes, she hadn't brought Naruto-kun outside, but he had somehow brought her inside.

"Oh no," she mumbled, still trying to cove the inside of their entrapment space. If she could find a defect, spy a weakness, then maybe…

The breath froze in her lungs and her eyes widened when she spotted something completely different instead. She quickly looked down at herself; her hands, her legs, her body – she was right there, sitting in warm water and being held by an injured and slightly deranged Naruto-kun… but she was also outside the bars, crumpled to the ground, eyes open staring sightlessly and her hair weaving around in the water's strange current.

"What … is going on…?" she whispered to no one in particular.

"I've already told you." Her head whipped around, and again she found herself looking at Naruto-kun, and yet, not him at all. The wounds had vanished, the birthmarks were intact – but his eyes were red, his teeth were fangs, and his hair had an odd sheen of red. Dread suddenly gripped her insides and turned her stomach to stone.

"Kyuubi," she said, barely audible with terror.

"You're mine now," it continued with a delighted hiss. "Behind this seal, you're mine!"

.o0o.

Naruto woke up with a sharp cry, sucking in air in large lung-fulls like he'd just been attacked. His neck ached, there was little to no light in the room, and his skin was covered in a cold sweat. His heart was beating so fast it hurt.

There was lightning, then thunder, and the room was illuminated for a second. There was a weight on his shoulder, and he looked during the instant the room was clear white – Hinata. But something was wrong. Deeply, deeply wrong. Her eyes were open, low and unseeing, and she was deathly cold against his shoulder.

"Hinata-chan," he whispered – his voice was hoarse. He reached for her opposite shoulder and shook her, but he got no response. And her shoulder, too; it was icy. Trepidation he seemed to have woken up with – something was wrong. Something was really, really wrong – drove him to call her name and shake her harder, but her eyes remained unfocussed and she still didn't respond. Remembering the basics he'd learned on the field, he checked her pulse out of instinct. His own heart stopped when her heartbeat didn't jump out at him immediately, and when it did, it was so weak he nearly didn't feel it.

"Shit; shit, shit, shit!" he hissed, gathering her into his arms in a panic. What was happening? She had been fine when they'd fallen asleep. He brushed his fingers along her face, holding her to him, and felt a sharp pain suddenly lance up his stomach.

His brain began whirring a mile an hour – they'd been attacked, it had to be, the attacker was still in the room. He tried to extend his chakra and use his eyes and ear to spot the enemy in the darkness – he had to get her out of here! To a medic – to Baa-chan! – but he had to get past him – her, them, – first.

Nothing turned up. Another lightning flash with his eyes peeled revealed nobody, and he decided to risk it and make a dash for the window.

He didn't make one step in that direction. His legs gave out under him, and he turned with a gasp at the last minute, clutching Hinata-chan to him so that he wouldn't fall on her. Tumbling until he hit the coffee table, he kept gasping breathlessly at the intense pain in his gut. Rolling over to deposit Hinata-chan onto the floor, holding tightly onto her with one hand – he couldn't let her go, he just knew he couldn't – he roughly lifted his clothes.

His seal was visible, and glowing an angry red. The skin around it was puckered, as though it had been burned. When he looked at it, and took in what condition it was in, the pain intensified almost to a choking point; then he growled, squeezing his eyes shut as he rolled sitting up and stood. He didn't let go of Hinata-chan. It was imperative that he didn't let go of Hinata-chan.

There was no one with them in the apartment. Nothing was broken, so no one had forced their way in. Hinata-chan was in that condition, and the seal … Half-snatched memories flitted through his mind, like muddy photos or half remembered images. The Seal, this had something to do with the seal. And the Kyuubi.

"Bastard, what did you do?" he hissed, but got no growled answer from the back of his mind. The level of his panic began to rise to clouding levels as Hinata-chan's skin seemed to get colder every second, and her pulse weaker.

Gritting his teeth against the white-hot pain on his abdomen, he held her to him with all his strength and shot out the door. The freezing rain that had driven them indoors earlier had intensified, but it was almost a relief when it touched his seal. It increased the pain, but for a single instant, it cooled down the angry red welts that had developed around the usually innocuous black ink marks.

He arrived at the Hyuuga household gasping helplessly, one knee almost ready to give out as his head grew lighter and lighter. But he had to get her help – now. He didn't know how he knew, nor did he care, but Hinata-chan was fading fast.

The guard at the door made to stop him, but Naruto didn't give him a chance. "Call Baa-chan, call her now. And ero-sensei, and Bee, and Gaara. I don't care who, but hurry! Hinata-chan's dying! Hurry!"

The guard he'd been talking to held him up when he collapsed, the only part of his body still strong, not feeling like it was turning into jelly, were his arms clutching Hinata-chan to him. His head was light, and there was an insistent buzzing in his ears that was drowning almost any other sound. His vision faded in and out – he could vaguely hear the rain, and hear the person holding him up barking at another. He heard some noises of movement, felt himself being jostled. He clutched her tighter, but let himself be led – half stumbling, half being carried, into the house he'd visited as a guest only yesterday.

He dropped to the ground when his guide let him go, and then he felt hands holding him up abruptly.

"Brat, hey brat, what on earth happened? Where you attacked? ANBU! Sound the-!"

"No," he gasped in response. He looked up, and tried to focus on Baa-chan's face, but he could only see a blurred construct of it. "Not attack. Not shinobi … Kyuubi, Kyuubi did something. The seal is…"

Hinata-chan was pulled from his hands roughly, and he kept hold of her only by a hair.

"No!" he screamed. "Don't! She'll die!"

"What?" That sounded almost like Hiashi.

"I don't … if I don't touch her, she'll go. Please…"

"Leave it. Cut the shirt off." There was a tearing noise. "Oh holy gods… what on earth is going on here…"

"I don't know," Naruto gasped back, the pain intensifying as the room's air hit it. "We fell asleep on the couch, and we were ok, then I woke up and we were like this. Kyuubi, it did something. Ero-sensei… the seal! He will know! And Bee…"

"He's right, call Jiraiya and Bee-san. Try not to let this leak!" There was movement, two calls from farther away. "Shizune! Get in here now! We have to put her in a stasis yesterday!"

The noise and voices faded almost completely for a while, and when he opened his eyes again, he could see a lot more clearly, and focus. The pain, however, had intensified and he gasped and fell back to the ground the moment he tried to sit up.

"Stay put, brat." He looked to the side, spotting Baa-chan. Her hands were glowing as they swept over his seal. Somehow, her touch wasn't soothing as usual; this time, the pain seemed to be rebelling. It didn't want to be healed.

"Hi-nata-chan?" he choked, only then realising how sore and dry his throat was. Baa-chan shushed him again.

"Shizune is keeping her stable." He looked to the other side, Hinata-chan was laid out beside him, and his left hand was wrapped around her right wrist. He squeezed it gently, but she gave no response. He gasped again when he noticed her lips were blue. Naruto looked up at Shizune-neesan who had her hand on Hinata-chan's head, then at Baa-chan again. "She'll be fine."

The noise of a door sliding in its tracks made him look. Jiraiya-sensei walked in, his face grim, and Bee was behind him. They walked up to them with a quick pace, sensei crouching close to his exposed seal while Bee knelt by Hinata-chan. With sensei in the way, he could no longer see her.

"What the heck's happened here, gaki," Jiraiya-sensei hissed. He looked up at Baa-chan, who returned a nervous fleeting glance back before she quickly looked away. Her healing hand retreated, and he experienced a moment of intense relief as the strong pain retreated with it, before a new wave of even stronger agony hit him like white hot metal. Jiraiya-sensei seemed to know this would happen, because strong, large hands clamped down on his legs and shoulder and kept him from curling up on himself. "Holy fuck, this is bad. The seal is weaker than I've ever seen it… there's something foreign in there but, … the bloody fox isn't trying to get out. He isn't even trying to fight the seal's power as usual… he's just sitting there… and this foreign energy…. I have no idea. Bee, my friend; can you make heads or tails of it?"

"Hachi's being vague," came the deep voice's rough reply. "He mentions something like the plague of all jinchuuriki … I don't know, I don't recognise the houriki, but …we have to try. We can't let them die."

"That's a definite."

"Isn't there anyone who can control the damn thing? It's the root of it all, isn't it? I mean … wait…" Hiashi's voice, unusually impatient, lit a bulb in Naruto's head.

"Get Sasuke," he gasped.

"What?" that was Baa-chan.

"Get nii-san!" he yelled again, gritting his teeth as a new wave of pain hit him and only Jiraya-sensei's hands held him from curling into a ball. "He'll know- he can, the sharingan…"

"We'd have to unseal his chakra! That's too dangerous! What if he-!"

"He won't!" Naruto gasped. "I trust him with my life! I know he'll help! But hurry, hurry, or Hinata-chan will…"

"We have her in a stasis, we can keep her steady for hours, still. We can find another solution-"

"There ISN'T another solution!" Naruto yelled, the pain making him impatient. "The Kyuubi's done something to Hinata-chan! I don't even know what! Bee can't help, and Sasuke's the only one who can get in there and ask it! Get nii-san!"

"We can't risk it!" Baa-chan barked. "What if his chakra hasn't been sufficiently purified? What if contact with the Kyuubi undoes all the good that's been done in the last months? That boy is still too unstable to risk it!"

"Fuck it, then just kill me!" he screamed back, his free hand rising to clutch his belly as he felt like it was about to burst apart. "The Kyuubi bastard should go with me, and that would save Hinata-chan! Just fucking DO it!"

"It wouldn't," Jiraiya-sensei said, and Naruto focussed on him through the pain. His face looked terribly grim. "Hinata-chan would die with you."

"You know what's going on?" Baa-chan asked. One of her hands fisted in the front of his clothing beseechingly. "Just tell me, please! What hell is going on!"

"I'm not sure." Jiraiya-sensei removed her hand from him and looked down at Naruto. "I'm not … completely sure. But if I'm right, then Hinata-chan will go too. I think the gaki's right. We have to get the Uchiha here. Right away."

There was a moment of silence in the room, broken only by Naruto's gasps, and he looked around at all the people gathered around them. Baa-chan and Jiraiya-sensei were the closest to him, and both of their faces looked terrible.

"Ok, then. ANBU! Go, release the seal. Do it in the facility, so that if anything happens, we can keep him contained. Get him here as soon as possible!"

Naruto gave Baa-chan an attempt at a smile, lying back as another wave on intense pain subsided. "Don't worry, Baa-chan, ero-sensei's an idiot, but he's almost always right."

A hand settled on his forehead even as his vision blurred again, and then fingers threaded his hair.

"I know."

.o0o.

Being woken up in the middle of the night is never pleasant. Being literally dropped out of bed, grabbed by three or four ANBU and carted like livestock to the ANBU headquarters without explanation, in the middle of the night and the driving rain is only one degree short of psychological torture.

Sasuke had thought he was doing well, and that he was even on the way to being given a room with windows, rather than that rather depressing set-up he was spending all his waking hours in right now. This seemed to belie it – they seemed to be headed towards Ibiki's room, and that had never been a fun trip for cakes and tea.

They turned left instead of right down the northeast corridor, however, and went down a set of stairs that seemed never ending. He didn't bother asking any questions; these were ANBU, it would be an exercise in futility.

They stopped in the middle of a room. "Kneel," one of them ordered, and then all the ANBU jumped back to the border of a circle. He looked around, realising it was a sealing circuit engraved into the ground. "Kneel!"

Now seemed to be the last chance for words. "What's happening?"

"You are needed to serve your village. We hope you are ready. Your sharingan is necessary."

"The sharingan? Is it safe?" he called back. He didn't like to admit it, but a fear gripped him; he didn't want to return to being what he'd been before.

"We'll have to find out. The Kyuubi needs controlling."

"The Kyuubi? Something happened to Naruto?" he called over his shoulder.

"We'll see."

They began to make rapid hand seals, and then light engulfed the room.

When he came back to himself, his cheek was against the cold stone, he was breathing in dust, and the world was a lot sharper. Shaking his head and pushing himself off the ground, the ANBU didn't give him a chance to orient himself properly. Hands grabbed his armpits and hauled him unceremoniously to his feet, and then he was pushed and prodded out of the room and along corridors and passageways.

His eyes throbbed even as he looked this way and that, corridors seeming a lot easier to navigate despite the lack of change in light source. Worry thrummed in his veins. What had happened to Naruto? Something major had to be going down right now,this sudden change in pace where his chakra was concerned just didn't say anything else.

Something a lot more worrying was also running through his veins, leaving him in a state of agitated hypertension. Power; his chakra system had been suppressed for months, allowing the bare minimum out required for survival. Now it was alive, vibrant with power and energy, and that worried him too.

In the months since he'd been captured and sealed, the cloud of hatred and blind ire that had taken over him and made him a mad man had receded, like a thinning fog in the morning. He'd laughed and smiled again, felt something other than burning hate and twisted agony, and even had moments were he felt at peace. He didn't want the bent, broken emotions to return and take hold of him.

But the taint had been washed out of him, he reminded himself; the damage accidentally done by Itachi-niisan in the small town just off Konoha all those years ago repaired. And these were Itachi's eyes. He wouldn't disgrace them any longer.

As soon as they were out in the open, the party halted, a black-gloved hand descending heavily on his shoulder to root him to the spot. Sasuke looked back questioningly but received no answer until he looked front again. The ANBU formation parted as the large, older nin walked forward, and Sasuke almost started when Jiraiya grabbed him by the chin and moved his face this way and that. Squaring his shoulders and narrowing his eyes, he looked the other nin straight in the face.

"How are you feeling?" Jiraiya asked nonchalantly.

"What happened to Naruto?" he bit back. Much to Sasuke's annoyance, Jiraiya looked amused.

"Good answer, that. And you're about to find out. Too many ears here. Come on." Grabbing one of his arms in a deceptively loose grip, Sasuke found himself walked at a pace he could barely keep up with through streets of Konoha. He hadn't been let out much since his return; at all, in fact, apart from the hospital courtyard under heavy supervision. Some of these streets were entirely unfamiliar, so he was almost completely blindsided when they arrived in front of a large wooden door. It took a few moments for his mind to equate the location with that of the Hyuuga estate.

They were let in immediately and Sasuke took in all he could as he was frog-marched through corridors and gardens, ignoring the glares, distrustful glances and worried whispering. When a rice door was finally opened into a spacious tatami room, his eyes zeroed immediately onto the two figures in the middle. The Hyuuga eldest, looking pale, and covered in a sheen of fine sweat, and Naruto beside her, his face scrunched up in pain and holding tightly onto her wrist. Tsunade was bent over his friend, glowing hands on his lower abdomen, and Shizune was sweating buckets as she kept her hands on Hinata's head.

Breaking away from Jiraiya, Sasuke walked as fast as he could across the room without running. Some of the Hyuuga gave a threatening step forward, but he ignored them completely.

"Oi, little brother," he hissed, kneeling next to Naruto. "What's wrong?"

"Finally got your ass here," his friend gasped. His body seemed to give a spasm and he almost curled up on himself. Jiraiya knelt down on Naruto's opposite side and kept him down on the futon, forcing him flat with both hands.

"How's he doing?" the older nin asked the Hokage. She didn't look up from her hands, but shook her head briefly, forehead wrinkling. "Holding up; just barely. How's the seal?"

"The same," he replied.

"Ero-sensei, move your fat ass, I can't see…" Sasuke watched as the Sannin moved without question, only muttering an apology, and then realised that Naruto – the idiot! What had he gotten himself into this time! – kept glancing at the unresponsive Hyuuga.

"Kid. Kid!" Sasuke looked up to find Jiraiya glaring at him impatiently. "I told you, we need you to go in there and see what this stupid youma's done. Naruto's said you've done it before, and even pushed it back."

"Not before someone tells me what's going on," he replied, eyes flitting from one person to the next. "If I go in there blind, I may do more damage than good."

"We don't know, Sasuke-kun." He snapped around, realising for the first time that Sakura was in the room too. She was looking at him through worried red eyes; she'd been crying. "That's why we need the sharingan … we need to find out, and quickly. Jiraiya-sama doesn't know how long the seal will hold, and what's happened to Hinata-chan. So please…"

Sasuke squared his jaw, looking intently at her face, then turned to look at Naruto's. His friend couldn't even say anything as he grit his teeth and writhed in pain, red in the face and eyes clenched shut.

Well, that wouldn't do. If this was going to work…

"Naruto," he called, getting little response. His eyes began burning, a sure sign that the pinwheels were spinning madly. "Naruto! Naruto! You fucking dobe!"

That got the desired response.

"Don't call me dobe, you fucking…"

The moment Naruto's eyes opened to glare at him, Sasuke and the blond found themselves inside the latter's mental chamber.

"…bastard…!" Naruto completed with a gasp, falling to one knee as he suddenly found himself standing. Sasuke offered him a hand up as he looked around; the place looked terrible. There were cracks in the stone structures, most of the pipes were leaking, and those that stopped started up again within a few minutes. Rumbling noises were echoing down the halls, the water level was knee high and murky, dull brown. The pressure on his eyes increased the more he looked towards the large door on their right.

"Let's go," he hissed as soon as Naruto was standing, and they both tried to climb onto the water's surface, finding that their foot sank in no matter how much chakra they tried to use. Looking towards one another, they proceeded by wading through by unspoken agreement.

They had arrived half way into the hall when the sight struck them. Some of the bars on the gate were cracked, and a lot more red chakra than was usual was leaking through, but the Kyuubi wasn't attempting to leave the seal at all. Instead, the emaciated fox was curled up at the very back of the enclosure, holding what seemed to be a very white form that looked only vaguely humanoid.

"Kyuubi, you fucking…" Naruto started before Sasuke interrupted him with an arm. Almost as if sensing the Youma's presence, his eyes began to burn as they flickered between the sharingan to the mangekyou of their own volition. Breathing hard as he tried to control them, rusty after so much time with his chakra locked, and still trying to fight the worry that the use of his eyes would eat his mind with blackness again, Sasuke stepped forward.

"What are you doing, Nine Tails," he asked in a hard voice. Chakra began spinning harder in his eyes and he felt it exit his pupils. The fox growled, rebelled, tried to resist, but then the sharingan shifted to mangekyou again, and it complied with a howl.

"Taking what I want!" it snarled. Sasuke pressed on.

"What do you want?"

"This mortal," it hissed back. The furry, bony body curled tighter around the shape it held. Something that looked like an arm fell out limply.

"I sort of remember it," Naruto said hoarsely beside him; he'd obviously grown some brain and some self-control since their last fight – or this Hinata girl apparently really meant this much to him that he was rooted to the spot with worry. "Like a nightmare. Hinata-chan reached through the bars, and then she fell over, and that fucking thing was holding a copy of her."

"This mortal is mine now. I take what I want, and I want her." Snapping its jaws at them, the Youma stood, still holding the form on one hand-like paw, and moved towards the front of the cage as Sasuke willed it to. His eyes slipped completely into the mangekyou, and the fox struggled, but complied when he willed it all the way to the iron bars.

"Why do you want her, and what have you done?" the Uchiha asked. Growling enough to make the room shake, the fox nonetheless answered.

"Because I do."

"That is not an answer," Sasuke insisted, swear trickling down his temple. "Reply. Now."

The creatures uncaring laughter rumbled, making the bars vibrate almost musically. "I want her because I do. Because she is interesting, because she speaks to me and acknowledges me and my power. She has power of her own over my host, and I don't understand it, but I want it. So," it snarled again, "I take it."

"She'll DIE, you bloody monster!" Naruto hissed beside him. Sasuke felt the Kyuubi try to break eye contact to look at his friend, but he didn't allow it to.

"No, she won't," the Youma hissed back anyway, eyes still locked with Sasuke's. The creature's enormous pupils contracted, however; the words had effected it in some way. "The seal does not let me out; it will not let anything out that is in here. So I will keep the essence here with me. As long as I please."

Naruto gave a yell of rage that was almost a scream, and Sasuke had to grab the back of his vest to keep him from running towards the bars, never letting the fox's eyes go. Unable to move backwards or forwards while it was ensnared in his gaze, the Nine Tails nonetheless gave the Uchiha and its host a nasty, tooth-filled grin. Sasuke only smirked back unkindly.

"Put her down," he ordered. The Kyuubi growled powerfully, making the surface of the water rise in small humps of vibration, but it did not affect the control Sasuke had on the fox at all. Inch by inch, the Kyuubi's paw dropped towards the ground, until finally the white human-like shape was lying in the water, unresponsive. "Move back."

Here it snarled, and resisted. Sasuke put more pressure on his eyes, using all the chakra he could as the massive creature tried to break free of his hold. Pain began to accumulate at the back of his eyes, and the urge to cut the connection off rose; he held firm. Instead he let go of Naruto's shirt.

"When it moves back, reach in there and drag her out."

"What? … what if it kills her…?" Naruto asked in a hushed voice. Sasuke clenched his jaw.

"We have to get her out regardless. It's the only way." Willing the Youma backwards even harder, he felt sweat trickle down his temple. "Either way, fox. Move. Back."

"I will not!" it hissed, voice rising into a rattle by the end. "I am locked in here to die with this human brat, but this mortal interests me! The brat showed me, let me feel what she can do. I want it, and I will take it!"

"You fucking idiot fox!" Naruto exploded beside him. There were splashing noises but Sasuke couldn't look away from the Youma and cursed; the fox hadn't moved back yet! Naruto couldn't just walk up the cage and –

There was a loud dull thunk, like someone punching iron, and a muted curse. Naruto was … still an idiot, wasn't he? Sasuke almost smiled.

"You fucking dick weed! This is about that time! Stupid Bee and his stupid ideas, I knew it wasn't a good one to share my emotions with you! Let Hinata-chan go!"

"NO! The mortal is mine no-!"

"I told you, you fucking moron, let her go, or she will die and this is the only thing I will make you feel for the rest of my life!"

Sasuke suddenly felt the Youma's resistance yielding as its eyes went wide, the growling ceased in a sudden sharp yelp and it backed away from the bars almost quickly. There was a groan, and then very rapid splashes towards him.

"I've got her!" a hand grabbed onto his shoulder. As quickly as possible – the pain behind his eyes was becoming almost unbearable – he grasped Naruto's hand tightly into his own, and pulled them out of the genjutsu hoping Hinata would make it with them

He collapsed back onto the tatami mat with a groan, his hands flying to his eyes to try to contain some of the pain. The last time he'd confronted the beast, shutting it in the cage had almost been effortless; this time it had taken all of him, and some more he'd rustled from somewhere. A pair of hands pried his own away, and he was about to slap them off when cooling, slightly invasive healing chakra bathed his eyes. He almost sighed in relief.

"Thank you," he said, while patting the tatami next to him with his hand. He'd been sitting next to Naruto when this started, so he should be nearby. Had they-

"Onee-chan!" a different voice said tearfully. Some coughing and murmuring was cut off by a curse from the Hokage. Sasuke tried to get up, but very firm hands on his eyes held him down.

"Sasuke-kun, please stay still." It was Sakura. He instantly latched onto her wrist.

"Naruto? How is he? And Hinata?"

"Hinata-chan's woken up…. Shizune-sempai, is she…? She's ok. Naruto-kun is …" There was a long pause, and Sasuke unconsciously squeezed her wrist. Jiraiya gave a grumble, then a sigh; there was a thud of something hitting tatami and Tsunade quickly started barking orders. "Naruto's going to be ok." Sakura's voice was rather shaky. "Jiraiya-sama's exhausted himself but… it looks like Naruto's going to be ok…"

"Hm…." Only then did Sasuke let his eyes close and gave in to the fatigue.

.o0o.

The pitter-patter that had accompanied the first hour of rain had turned into an almost deafening roar now, joined occasionally by the deep growl of thunder. Her thick kimono covered in brocade and gold thread would have made her feel almost too warm, despite the dropping temperatures, but she had too much on her mind. Her hair, usually let down, was heavily made up, with glass and bead ornaments tinkling from it as she moved. She looked up at the clouds quietly for a long time.

"How could he have found out?" she finally whispered in a hushed, trembling voice. Neiji shook his head.

"I- I don't know, Hanabi-sama, I don't know." Both of them stood silently on the porch, watching the rain come down. The girl suddenly stepped out into it, removing her tabi and by-passing the zori to let her toes squelch in the mud. "Hanabi-sama…"

"Let me, please." She closed her eyes and turned her face upwards. "You know how I love the rain."

Neiji said nothing, looking at the girl quietly as she got progressively soaked. Her eyes were closed, her face blank, and water ran down her face and neck. She gave a ghost of a smile and raised her arms, almost as if to embrace the falling water.

He lowered his head and touched his forehead. This was not the way he had expected or wanted things to be. This was not why he had tried to be rid of the mark, and lay down a better future for his child.

The noise of the rain was loud, thunder occasionally breaking the chain-linked noise of pitter-patter as the drops slapped against already wet surfaces. He and Hanabi-sama stood, unmoving and cold, watching it come down for a very long time.

.o0o.

To be continued...

.o0o.

And there you have it, guys! There was definitely a price to pay, though the two major events in this chapter are actually not directly related at all. Kyuubi has been trying to reel Hinata in since she thanked it for saving Naruto back in Conservation (1). Some of my sharper readers have been expressing their worries about all the hints I've dropped, and yes; a cupcake to you each for catching them!

The next chapter is in the works... and once again my sharper readers will already know the significance of that last scene. Let us just say, 'Politics' with a capital P is going to be one of the warnings next chapter.

Thank you once again goes to Kat for betaing this chapter! Some of her comments in certain parts had me in laughing fits, and I almost wish I could have left them for the readers too.

Now, without farther ado, I leave you to the usual free-bee!

.o0o.

Omake

Hinata had been rather surprised, to say the least, when one of Naruto-kun's messanger frogs had left her a scroll on her desk with a dopey smile, and would not leave before she petted it. Luckily, having grown up in a shinobi village, squeamish had been rubbed out of her pretty fast, so the goop left on her palm only made her frown unhappily.

So here she was, at the appointed place at the right time, wearing what her boyfriend had asked her to. Hinata found it rather odd that they were meeting on team 7's old training grounds on the red bridge, rather than their own usual favourite with the crooked tree, but perhaps, this meant something special to Naruto-kun. After all, his request for her clothing had been something he'd never done before. She fingered the collar of the tshirt, trying not to get jittery at the absence of her habitual jacket.

A pop and a splash were her only warnings. Suddenly, she was nearly knocked off her feet by a wall-sized wave of water, which left her spluttering like a drowned rat. There was a hoot, a yell, wolf whistles, and then another pop and a panicked call of "Shit, it's bro! Gamatatsu, what the fuck were you doing!", and; "Sorry brother! He's too fast!"

Hinata finally managed to get her hair and fringe out of her eyes. She was soaked through, coughing up what little water had gotten into her airways. Naruto-kun could be seen running around the clearing in what looked like half his usual attire - the bottom half, thankfully - and a piece of rope still attached to one wrist, trying to get his hands on two rather large toads, one orange, one daisy yellow. Blinking uncertainly, not sure what to do with herself, she watched on rather numbly until she also spotted, at a safety distance sitting on a branch, Jiraiya-sama cackling and scribbling furiously onto a notepad.

Naruto-kun suddenly landed in front of her, Kyuubi aura blazing at full blast. "Hinata-chan, are you o- ack!" She blinked again, still feeling rather befuddled at the surreal situation, and watched him turn crimson before he turned around sharply and went back to kicking the two amphibian's butts. Following his eyes down, Hinata felt her mind finally snapping into place for the first time in the last few minutes.

She had come, as the little missive had requested, wearing a tshirt. A white tshirt. Her battle-reinforced bindings underneath were also white, and the water had been cold

Letting go of her hair to hug herself with a squeak of mortification, Hinata almost did a twelve-year-old and thudded down dead to the world on the bridge. After getting her blood pressure under control, she took a deep breath, and glared at the proceedings in front of her. The two toads were getting their comeuppance as Naruto-kun batted them around, but Jiraiya-sama was still chuckling in his tree, and in this case, she wasn't happy with Naruto-kun doing all the … punishing, as it were.

"Kuchiyose no jutsu!"

The two toads, who Naruto-kun had just herded on the farther side of the grass patch, froze in their tracks. Beside her, Sasayaki ruffled her enourmous feathers and looked around.

"Little chickling, who put you in that state!" the two-story high queen Owl Summons said with a screech as soon as she was spotted. Hinata smiled sweetly at her.

"Don't hurt them too much," she whispered. Then she pointed across to the toads, kept smiling and loudly said, "Sasayaki-sama, dinner!"

Clacking her beak in amusement at the twin shrieks of terror the two toad boys let out, Hinata sat down on the bridge, watching as her summons gave chase and chuckling slightly.

"Don't forget the idiot in the tree, Owl-san!" Naruto called as he came to sit beside her, grin nearly splitting his face. A yelp and a thump later, both of them were laughing at the various swear words that were uttered and the running that happened, with Naruto-kun re-summoning the toads as many times as they tried to puff away.

"Sorry I can't even give you my jacket," Naruto-kun said beside her. Looking up at him, she found him looking pointedly away with a very fetching blush on his face. Blushing herself when she realised his eye had wondered, she chuckled and couldn't get herself to mind too much.

"It's more than worth the show," she muttered back, snuggling into his side for warmth as the toads, man, and their pursuing owl rushed hither and thither in front of them, topping trees and wailing.

Naruto-kun beside her gave a choking noise, a strangled 'yeah' and put simply moved to sit behind her. His chest against her back and his chin on her head kept her warm for the rest of the afternoon.

.o0o.

Review Chapter.

Next Chapter: Coming soon!

Return to List of Chapters.

Condensation

posted Jun 28, 2011, 11:23 AM by Pichi Herp   [ updated Oct 10, 2011, 6:59 AM ]

Disclaimer: Yes, yes, I don't own it. Thank heaven. I can write fanfiction at my own pace and not worry about the issue each week and the publishers breathing down my neck.

AN: I will admit it at the get-go: I am quite fond of this chapter. Despite making itself very difficult to write and behaving like a spoilt brat most of the time, this chapter was actually older in the making than the entirety of IIP. Kat and I were talking about 'the Kabuki fic' long before I saw Shawny's reference to the Dattebayo Challenge. I admit I had to beat it with a stick to make it obey and come out onto my word processor, but in the end, it was worth the effort. Or so I hope.

WARNINGS:

This story contains: Battle scenes that will make you hide under your pillow.

Awesome Hinata Overdose. She shines with Kickass.

MOARSexy teasing (you poor citrus deprived people… *evil

laugh*).

Oh, and dirty old men, I'm afraid. Sorry, sorry...

Without further ado, welcome, to the seventh instalment of …

Icha Icha Physics


Condensation

Two children laughed their high, contagious squeals. They ran around the cart, stopping to look at them and then shooting off again when the troupe caught up with them, always making sure to stay ahead of the jangling cart.

Hinata-chan smiled at them while she trudged a little more laboriously through the snow. Unfortunately she no longer could demonstrate that level of agility under this cover, and the deep snow was very difficult to navigate for them, especially with the cart.

"Come on, push!" Jiraiya-sama called from the front, where he had the mule's bit and harness firmly in hand and was pulling on it relentlessly. Naruto-kun, Neiji-niisan and Kiba-kun were struggling with the large wooden contraption, trying to push one of the wheels that had, once again, fallen into a hole. Hinata and Tsunade-sama had rather heavy packs on their back, containing things that could make the cart easier to dislodge.

"Ok guys, we can do this!" Naruto-kun yelled into the frozen environment, his breath misting out in one big puff. "One, two, three – let's GO!"

With a clonking, hollow jangle, the wagon came free as the mule brayed, the three males at the back whooping happily before they bent over to pant.

"Come on, lazy butts," Tsunade-sama called, making her way ahead with Shino-kun on her arm. Her friend and team mate had surprisingly beautiful eyes, but unfortunately, was almost completely blind without the dark spectacles. He had explained it, and Hinata was sure she had understood. His clan relied often on their familiar's eyes, but unfortunately, that symbiotic signal interfered with their own eyes'. So as to make it easier, the children of the clan were trained from childhood to rely on their natural eyesight minimally. It was a handicap in a way; adults who lost the spectacles that nearly negated the light reaching their eyes were rendered blinded when their natural sight mixed with that of their insects' and hopelessly confused their minds.

"Granma," Naruto-kun whined, pushing his hands off his knees and trudging up to them ahead of the other two, "don't get on our case. None of us can see where the ditches are with all this snow, and we're getting there anyway, aren't we?"

"Correction; we ARE there," Jiraiya-sama called from the front. Hinata looked up to find that the two children who had been hovering playfully around their cart for some time were standing at the edge of the road alongside a bald old man. The man was slightly bent forward and leaning heavily on a shovel, giving them a gummy smile.

"Heading to the town?" he asked, wobbling closer to the road with the two children in tow. Both of them half hid behind the man's weave coat, looking around it shyly now that the strangers were so close to them.

"Yes, ojii-san," Tsunade-sama said jovially, pulling her coat closer. "Are we far?"

"Oh, only three and a half miles, just about," the man replied. He waved at a rise in the terrain, a hillock covered in a few snow sprinkled trees. Leaving the cart with Shino-kun for a few minutes, the rest of the troupe trampled up to its peak, finding themselves before a sharp drop. The view was breath-taking, coloured in the hues of the sunset which reflected on the lake. Nestled in the valley below, hugging the shores of the very lake that was dotted with docks and small fishing boats, was a sleepy, quiet town, lights in the many small houses flickering to life as the light waned.

"Pretty," Tsunade-sama said with faint sarcasm. Jiraiya-sama simply smiled at her complacently.

"Not for you, perhaps, but it's the sort of thing that's liked, so I found this sort of thing," Jiraiya-sama replied cryptically, still in his jocular tone.

"So, this is where we do the main act, huh?" Kiba-kun said, resting both arms on a raised knee as he looked down the rise at the seemingly innocuous village.

"You here for the winter festival?" the old man they'd just met asked, coming up behind them. They turned to look at him quietly as he reached the peak less laboriously than his years and bent back would indicate; mountain farming folk was always tougher than it looked.

"Of course," Jiraiya-sama answered. "We hope to make an impression on the local lord and get employment that's steadier. And stationary; with this war of the damn ninja again…"

"Yeah, I heard," the man said, resting on his rake again, which he had been using like a staff. "Been lucky, us. Didn't touch us; we're tucked away up here, and I've never been so grateful for this great rocky beast. Hard headed as they come, this mountain; those who don't know it die on it."

They looked at each other grimly, and then back towards the town.

"Good thing we know the area, then!" Naruto-kun replied jovially, walking rather clumsily towards the man and offering an arm to help him down the hillock. This earned him another gummy smile.

"Have you been here before? I don't remember a kabuki troupe, and that's unusual enough not to forget… though my daughter tells me that goes for most things with me, these days."

Hinata gave a chuckle, offering her arm to Tsunade-sama as they descended.

"We haven't, ourselves," Tsunade-sama said with a wrinkled smile. "But we met a family a while back, they told us all about this area… said they used to live in one of the farms, before it was attacked."

"No, you don't mean…Mitsu-san, of the west valley?" the man asked, clutching Naruto's arm with his free hand to arrest their walk.

"Yes, just them," Jiraiya-sama said. The old man's face lit like a shock tag.

"Oh, you must stay with us tonight, then! It is still a days' travel to the valley, and the festival is a week away! You will indulge an old man and bring us news of the Mitsu, won't you? They were the closest farm to us, though they lived three days' travel all the way down the side you came from, and we have been so worried about them! So, how have they been doing, tell me, tell me…"

The small group headed back down the snow-covered slope at a sedate pace towards the farm house. Both of the young boys had raced in shrieking when they saw their grandfather pulling the strange new people towards them, and now all the other members of the household where curiously looking through door and window. Jiraiya-sama gave Hinata and Tsunade-sama a smug look as he passed them.

"We're never going to hear the end of it," Tsunade-sama said conspiratorially with a resigned sigh in Hinata's ears. At her questioning look, her Hokage in disguise gave a chuckle. "I chewed him a new one when he brought that family home … but they saved us dozens of nights out in the cold."

"Oh dear," Hinata said, her tone just as jovially worried. "He's preening, isn't he?"

"Like a peacock in full season," Tsunade-sama replied, and both women burst out laughing.

"What was that?" Hinata heard Shino-kun ask as they reached the base of the hill.

"I don't know," she heard Kiba-kun reply as she and Tsunade-sama passed them while the dog-nin helped his team mate follow their group. "And judging by that tone… I really don't want to know."

Hinata smiled, walking a little bit straighter; her Hokage looked at her with a sharp smile and quirked brow. Hinata lowered her gaze, but replied to the silent query before they entered the cottage's glow and inviting fire .

"Let's just say… very stupid dares are off. Indefinitely." Tsunade gave an appreciative guffaw.

"I like you more and more, granddaughter-in-law!"

.o0o.

"Never challenge an Akimichi to a food fight."

Choji sat back with a laugh on his rotund face, his grin splitting his face neatly in two as he pat his belly.

"I do believe that I win," he said cheekily. Many around the table laughed. There was Iruka-sensei, who was chuckling as he sipped a warmed cup of sake, Kurenai-sensei, her little toddler held very firmly in hand to make sure he didn't reach for the hot surface in the middle of the table, and a few other members of Konoha. With them, there were Bee, who was sporting a scowl at the moment, his team mate Omoi, as well as two kunoichi from Kiri, Ame and Karoko.

"We told you at the get-go, Bee," Genma continued with resignation. "No one's ever managed to win in one."

"No one's ever had me beat when there was enough to eat," Bee muttered rebelliously, straightening back up from his pouncing position. Choji had just beaten him to the last piece of beef on the grill even though his right arm was bandaged and confined to a sling. The medics had at first thought it was damaged beyond repair, and the Hokage was just too busy to see every single patient that came in. Ino hadn't taken any of that, of course. She'd dragged Sakura and a few of the other medics with her, and they had given the Akimichi's arm an intensive once-over. By the time they'd finished three hours later, most of them had been ready to drop, but at least, now he could recover with a good three-week rest.

Choji just continued to grin at the other man cheekily. "Is that a challenge for round two?" He wasn't one to look a gift horse in the mouth.

"In this one, I'll beat you sound! You bet I want another round!" the darker skinned nin said, slapping the table in front of him. All those present tittered.

"You heard the man; more meat!" Riku, a friend of Iruka-sensei from the academy called to a passing waitress, who nodded and trotted off to fill in their order.

"Well, it's your funeral," Genma said again with a shrug.

"Bee-taicho'll win this round, you'll see." Omoi grinned around his lollipop stick.

"Suicide's to challenge an Akimichi to an eating contest," Hana stated again while Ame laughed, Karoko shaking her head helplessly. The Inuzuka had also been injured rather badly in battle, but was almost about to return to the active-nin list, "or at least, severe indigestion. Not even Naruto manages to beat Choji-kun."

"He gives me a run for my money when it's ramen," Choji said. Their group fell gradually quiet at the mention of their downed friend.

"Hey uh… does anyone have any news on Uzumaki-san?" Omoi asked. He and Bee exchanged a worried glance.

"I was with the Bro when he took that awful blow. Haven't heard a thing since they put him in the sling; any news is welcome, I grew fond of that rascal."

"You and everyone, Bee," Riku said with a sigh. "Iruka here practically brought that boy up from a weed. The rest of us weren't so nice to him as a kid but… you can't help but like him, you know. He grows on you."

"Like a fungus," Genma quipped, and most of the table threw their used wooden chopsticks at him for his horrible joke. The mood lifted slightly, but Hana noticed that Iruka had paled considerably, and hadn't said a word.

"Iruka-sensei?" Everyone around the table grew quiet again. The teacher took a deep breath, squeezing his eyes shut and holding his hands in front of his nose, his chin supported by both thumbs.

"I … I heard a rumour," he said in a very strained voice. The table waited with bated breath. "I don't know if it's true and… none of the hospital staff I asked are saying anything. But … they say Naruto is … critical."

A large crash behind them made them all jump, and several of the people at the table took out various kunai, swords and other weapons, hopping onto the booth seats in a ready stance. The only thing they found, however, was the waitress they'd flagged earlier, who was bent down to gather the tray she'd just dropped.

"I'm so sorry, very sorry. I'll replace this immediately, but…" she looked up at their table. "Sir, about Uzumaki-sama … is it true?" The entire table, some still in ready stances, turned to Iruka once again, who couldn't seem to meet anyone's eyes. He simply nodded, looking pained and forlorn.

"No one seems to want to confirm or deny it but… some said that he may not make it." Iruka's voice had gone down to a barely audible whisper. Everyone around the table looked at each other grimly.

"Damn. I'd heard that too, but gave it no stock…" Genma said absently, looking at a spot on the opposite wall. "I thought it was just scaremongering. That kid always seemed so…"

"Invincible is the word you're looking for," Choji supplied with a bitter sweet smile on his face. "Forget my meat tank technique. He's a living tank."

"Yeah, and I won't believe it till it's official," Hana said with a rebellious frown. Bee nodded.

"Ain't no clown that can keep my Bro down. He'll get back into the fight; all we got to do's sit tight!" the Kumo jinchuuriki stated with little to no room for argument. Genma snickered and nodded, and Riku gave Iruka a pat on the back, the other Academy teacher smiling weakly. The waitress sighed sadly, picking up the tray of spilled wares and heading back to the kitchen.

"Hey, when did you say Anko was returning from the front again?" Kurenai asked worriedly. Iruka gave her an ironic smirk.

"Don't worry about me, Kurenai-san, I'll cope. What I'd really like to know though is where she left her other sock. I've been looking for it for three days straight."

"Aren't you a regular housewife, sensei," Hana quipped, causing the table to erupt into chuckles again, much to a blushing Iruka's dismay. The waitress brought a fresh platter of uncooked meat a few moments later.

"Ok, who's putting his money where his mouth is?" Omoi challenged, and the bets were on.

.o0o.

Naruto straightened and stretched, groaning as sore muscles protested the movement. He'd been bent over the damn fire, trying to get it going for quite a while, but all their kindle supplies had finished, and the wood in this area was understandably damp.

He shivered under his coat, frowning at the ankle-deep layer of snow that he'd had to clear away before he even put their kindling together for burning. According to Baa-chan, this was their last night out in the cold (literally, it seemed), because they would be reaching their destination the following day.

Smiling down with satisfaction at the flames that were beginning to climb higher, he paused to look around before he moved to the next chore. They were deep in the north, and very far into the land of Steel. Trees around them were a lot thinner than they were used to, and white ice flakes blanketed everything. This place brought back memories; like the first time he'd met Bee's brother (and been told off), Madara (and been told off), and then Sasuke (and been told to fuck off).

"Shin!"

Naruto looked up, finding Jiraiya gesturing a vague come-hither at him, and he frowned. He was running late with his evening chores, and he really didn't have the time for anything pervy.

"What is it, jii-jii," he sighed in resignation. Admittedly, he got a thrill at getting away with calling the man an old fart, but it also felt vaguely wrong. He'd never called anyone but the old Sandaime that.

"Listen up, grandson," Jiraiya said in an even and serious tone when Naruto had walked up. Naruto just folded his arms and listened, nonplussed. This could very well be a serious conversation, or a pervy one. Hell, it could start out as one, and spiral helplessly into the other.

"Now I know that you don't put much stock in my romantic advice because of your misguided opinion in my knowledge," he continued. Type number two then, Naruto thought resignedly. "But let me tell you this; I can't definitely say we may survive tomorrow."

Naruto blinked at him. He didn't seem to be joking around any, and that made him frown. What did the first sentence have to do with the second?

"I wanted to have a serious talk with you, before we head in for the night," the older nin went on. Naruto narrowed his eyes, but allowed himself to be pulled down to sit on the fallen log beside his teacher. "I know you and Yuki-chan have become much closer recently. Don't deny it."

Naruto shifted uncomfortably, looking down at the snow between his boots. He hadn't been about to deny it; however, talking to Jiraiya made him feel cautious. He hadn't told anyone save Iruka-sensei about the quarrel he and Hinata-chan had had, and you never really knew where Jiraiya was taking things until he sprang something unexpected and embarrassing at you. Still…

"We are… the, um, setting for this…situation, it's brought us closer," he admitted with a bit of a blush. When they had arrived on the border of the land of fire, they had stopped at an outpost that had served as a transit into their new personas. The awaiting kabuki cart had only been one of the surprising things in the itinerary of his new character; that it came with a 'fiancée' made him very glad that they had made up. As it was, every single night in the last three weeks – bar a few – had been spent in the same bed, futon or bunk as Hinata-chan. He knew Neiji would probably kill him when they got back to home base, but as he saw it now, it was more than worth the pain.

"You're doing it again," Jiraiya's amused voice said from beside him, almost making him jump. Jiraiya only chuckled. "That is what I mean. You're looking like your father again; more and more as time passes. I won't have you walk in his footsteps."

"What?" Naruto asked, feeling completely blindsided by that last comment. Jiraiya only looked steadily into his eyes, arms folded, for a few more moments. The last time sensei had looked at him like this was… oh, right. When he woke up in the field tent after the three heart failures.

"Your father died for his … family, and he is loved and lauded as a hero for it. But tell me, would you have rather had a hero father, or a living father?"

Naruto looked at him blankly for a moment, feeling his mouth sag open. What… what kind of bullshit question was that?

"He did what he had to do!" Naruto said. Jiraiya only narrowed his eyes at him.

"He could have found a better solution, we all know that. While he saved more from dying, he let the mantel fall back onto sensei, and we both know the third was already quite old." The older nin sighed and looked down. "I loved your father, you know that. And perhaps, he saw no other solution at the time. But I don't want you thinking in that way. The 'family' needs you to live right now."

Naruto bit his lip, but nodded.

"There's also something else I want to tell you." Naruto looked back up, finding Jiraiya giving him an even more piercing look. "If you're about to go in there and be a hero, remember her," Jiraiya continued just as sternly. "That girl would take it hard if you were to die."

A vague feeling of horrific certainty rose through him as Naruto swallowed. While he knew Hinata-chan was strong… a series of memories rose to the forefront of his mind, and he knew that Jiraiya was saying the truth. How Hinata-chan had reacted in the hospital room, when she'd found out how banged up he'd been that time, and even his own emotions, when he'd thought that they had fought irreparably. If she felt a fraction of what he had, then she'd be in pain, and he didn't want that. Hadn't he said so himself, after all? If he wanted to keep the comfort and happiness, he had to come back to it alive.

"I won't," Naruto said with certainty. Jiraiya gave him a raised brow, his stance backing down not in the least. "I won't be an idiot and do something stupid. Someone's going to have to give her the talk too though," he went on with a half smile, arm rising to rub his head. "She jumped out in front of me."

"What do you think your grandmother's doing right now, out at that hot spring?" Jiraiya said, finally cracking a smile. One of his hands came up and slapped Naruto hard on the shoulder, almost toppling him off his wooden perch. "Now go talk to her yourself, and make sure you tell her not to die too. You stupid young ones…"

Jiraiya rose, dusting his kimono and walking towards Baa-chan, who had come into the clearing not a moment ago with her washing bowl in hand. Naruto looked behind her to see Hinata-chan glancing at him from behind a tree trunk, and he was jolted by the memory of her looking at him exactly like that before his final in the chuunin exams.

Rising, he walked to her quickly, stopping a few steps short. Her face was flushed from the cold, as he knew his was, and he could guess that Baa-chan had probably given her an almost identical speech.

"So, you got the talk too, huh?" he asked sheepishly, rubbing the back of his head and moving to lean on the tree facing her. She nodded meekly, pressing one of her fingers to her lips. "Um… so, what did Baa-chan tell you exactly?" he asked, more out of awkwardness than curiosity.

"She said I should give you a check up and…" Hinata-chan went impossibly red, stood silently for a moment, and then burst out laughing. Naruto looked at her disconcertedly for a minute before he began chuckling too, and then he circled her in his arms when she leaned into him.

When their laughter died down, Hinata-chan moved deeper into his embrace as a comfortable silence settled over them. He watched their breaths as they came out in misted puffs, and then kissed her forehead.

"This is a very different mission from the usual ones, isn't it Naruto-kun?" she asked quietly, her voice barely above a whisper. He hummed his response, pressing her closer so she was wedged between him and the tree when she shivered. New snow began falling languidly around them, shimmering flakes settling in her black hair, melting slightly and then freezing again to form a glistening, natural decoration. He could see her face against his chest if he tilted his head slightly, and her pensive expression, colour high because of the cold, only made him hug her tighter.

"Naruto-kun, did Jiraiya-sama speak to you about … death, too?" she asked, her voice barely audible this time, if not for the stillness the snow had created around them. He swallowed hard.

"Yeah…. Ero-sensei seems to seriously think that someone may not make it out of this one." Hinata's arms moved and circled his waist, and she buried her face in his clothes. "That's a load of crock, of course." Giggling slightly, she looked up at him, and his tongue instantly became knotted. She was giving him that soft smile again, and with her face so flushed, his mind couldn't form words enough choke on them. "I mean … I, um…"

"We'll make it through," she finished for him.

"Right. And complete the mission," he replied almost too rapidly. Her smile only grew wider.

"And then we'll go home. Together," she whispered again. He only nodded this time, and with his head half-way down already, there was no reason to stop from going the rest of the way. Her lips were warm and slightly chapped, but the tip of her nose was icy as it rubbed against his cheek. The inside of her mouth though was piping hot, and within moments, he regretted having his hands trapped against the three he was pressing her against. Her fingers rose to his shoulders, and she didn't seem to mind him putting his weight against her, so he let himself lean into her a bit more when she hummed happily into the kiss.

She shifted slightly so that she could thread her hand into his hair, and one of his hands came free. He quickly let it move down to her hip, where he rubbed circles underneath the edge of the fur around her. Slowly, he began to move it in wider circles, never stopping their kiss although half his mind was completely absorbed in the feel of her warm clothing against his palm. Gathering more and more courage as her own fingers massaged his shoulders and scalp, pressing him closer to her in a way that made his heart beat faster, he let a rather wobbly hand rise up under the coat to the never-before touched territory of her under-arm. So close…

She let out a giggle, and he broke the kiss to look down at her. She bit her lip and watched him both timidly and warily, and he nervously wondered whether his hand so close to her breast was making her uncomfortable. Moving it away, he couldn't resist pressing into her warmth again, and this time she squirmed as well as let out a shot of laughter. His eyebrows rose in surprise; then he grinned. Wiggling his fingers had the desired effect as she began to laugh uncontrollably, wrangling against him to try to escape his version of torture. Her quick fingers tried to retaliate immediately, but with a crowed 'ah-ha!' he trapped one of her hands under his arms and then proceeded to attack her ticklish spots further.

"Surrender, missing-nin-chan," he said in a whisper, making her gasping laughter increase, "Don't make me bring out the big guns!"

"Oh no, whatever shall I do?" she said in a whisper, her eyes dancing. He gave her a satisfied grin, right before he yelped and jumped away from her with a start. The back of his robes was wet from the inside, and something cold and granular and cold was slushing down his spine in semi-melted globs. "There is that, now," Hinata-chan continued almost cheekily. Where was the girl who could barely look him in the eyes without passing out? He was definitely bad influence on her!

While he was distractedly gawping, Hinata-chan had bent down and retrieved a ball of snow, which he began to eye warily. Whatever she'd thrown down the neck of his robe was probably some of that from a nearby low-hanging branch, he realised. "Yuki-chan…" he said, backing away, and not at all proud at the note of worry in his voice. Hinata-chan only smiled more happily.

"I haven't even brought out the big guns yet!" she laughed, lobbing the freezing lump of wet in his direction. Barely ducking, it only took a few minutes for their encounter to degenerate into laughter and squeaks of protest when one of their flying projectiles actually hit.

You're pathetic. You keeping putting it back… another occasion to stake your claim lost, and to what? Childish mucking around in the crystallised water.

Shut up, you ass. It's called fun; you should try it sometime!

You're so hopeless, I'm not even bothering to bring up the various 'fun' comments I could make…

Staunchly ignoring the Youma's disgruntled comments, Naruto instead focussed on how flushed Hinata-chan's cheeks were, or how bright her eyes sparkled when she nailed him in the side of the head with a hefty amount of snow and laughed. Yes, so the mood was ruined and he'd started it. But… Hinata-chan was here with him laughing; after the reminder of looming loneliness from their fight, and his teacher's sobering warning, there was no other way he wanted things to be. There would be time for the rest, he would make sure of it.

.o0o.

The ANBU stationed at the door turned to look at her sharply but silently as she exited the room. It was unnerving, how the eyeholes were completely black, betraying none of the face beneath, and the impassive masked head turned to follow her track evenly, like a dragon locked on its prey.

Hanabi rolled her shoulders and walked a little bit straighter, refusing to be intimidated. While she knew that her skill level currently ranked mid to upper chuunin, she had never been sent to the academy, nor put in a team and sent out on missions. Unlike her sister, who was out on the battlefield right now, lobbing heads and taking names (there was no doubt about that), Hanabi had been brought up to be the next head of clan; perfect in everything Hyuuga. She was a registered Konoha nin and was regularly tested by a level board in the village; however, that was as far as it went.

That didn't mean that she couldn't handle some KI, or some scrutiny. And scrutiny was what everyone got when they went to see … him. She should be used to it by now, having visited every day for the past weeks.

Hanabi frowned down at her hands as she walked the hospital corridors slowly. She still had some grass stains on them, as she wasn't quite as good as her sister when it came to gardening. Well, actually, she didn't know a first thing about plants and how to take care of them, she admitted it. That was her sister's hobby. But her sister had asked and she wasn't about to refuse a simple favour; their clan still needed to keep up appearances. And if the flowers hadn't had an even cut at the bottom, no one was any wiser, as they were hidden by the vase back in that gloomy room.

Hanabi spotted a vending machine and paused beside it, taking out a drink and sipping pensively. She'd left the flowers beside the bed just like her sister had asked, but she couldn't help being irked by the memory of the body on the bed. All those wires, pipes, machines… it was horrible to see the normally irrepressible boy (who she still didn't like right now) like that. But at the same time, she knew it wasn't the case.

Hanabi shook her head, taking a long swig from her drink and resting her back against the wall. Her sister had only informed her of the basics, but that technique, whatever it was, which had created… whatever that was, it disturbed her. She knew for a fact that a certain Hagane had come to snitch her sister's pack the morning she had left.

Well, she snorted; she didn't pretend to understand the machinations of her superiors. She would follow her orders and protect her clan. Other than that, she didn't want to meddle further into these hair brained higher up's plans than she had to.

Her stomach gave a gurgle, and she pushed off the wall, headed for the canteen. She'd made a few friends among the nurses since Neiji-niisan and Hinata-nee had started spending so much time here. Maybe she could find someone to chat with while she ate.

.o0o.

The light of day was waning when they were finally pulling the large cart along the main street of the small mountain town. The winter town was not as sleepy as it had seemed to be from their higher vantage point three days earlier. Many people were still busily going about their business despite the late hour.

That was easily explained as they walked further up the straight, wide road. Decorations in silk and paper lights were beginning to appear across the entire town, whose monotonous hues of snow white and blackened wood colours were being interrupted by a riot of coloured banners and candle-lit lanterns.

People looked at them curiously as they passed, most even stopping to ask a few questions. A kabuki group was an expected and welcome addition to the winter festival, and they were given quite a bit of information in exchange; the barter system on certain objects, the people they needed to speak to in order to rent a part of the town to set up their stage, the rates they had to pay to the tono out of their earnings, and even price of Unshu-mikan this late in the season. The twilight shadows faded as the sky darkened completely, the coloured lanterns scattered throughout the village shining brighter against the hardwood buildings.

Ten minutes later found them very grateful to be in an inn, sheltered from the falling temperatures that dropped with the sun. Naruto leaned tiredly against a door jamb, automatically taking in his surroundings, all the exits, and all the possible points of attack. He was unsurprised to find that there were only three he could find, and all were fairly easy to defend. He listened with half an ear as Jiraiya-sensei negotiated their stay and secured two rooms for tonight while he took in their position

Neiji was leaning on the wall right beside him. The man had earlier offered to help him when they'd had to move the cart into the inn's holding stables, and the large thing had to be dragged and pulled to the back of the establishment and backed in slowly to fit. Once they secured a place in the town, it would be even more complicated, as it would require wheeling it there and back again every day. He and Neiji were both totally exhausted as a result, and had made a resolution never again to accept a mission with a temperamental mule involved, no matter how high-profile.

Once ero-sensei was done negotiating the deal for their first night, their group picked its way up the stairs to a higher floor laboriously. They were ninja, yes, trained to kill and fight in the most trying circumstances; but damnit, they were also people, and people got tired after tracking through plain and forest and mountain and war-torn landscape for several weeks.

"Can our evening meal be brought to our chamber at once? We've had a hard day," Jiraiya-sensei asked as they reached the room the he and Hinata-chan would be sharing with the two elders of their team. The maid who had led them to the room gave a short bow and scuffled away, and Jiraiya-sensei motioned the whole group to sit down after adjusting the cushions in a set formation that seemed comfortable to the casual observer, but was extremely defendable. Baa-chan took her seat first, and then the rest of them took up the positions indicated to them by the old toad sage.

They made small talk until the food came, Jiraiya mainly talking loudly about his hopes for this festival. Baa-chan brought out ink and writing supplies, and had been quietly rubbing her ink stone in front of a blank open parchment when the maids walked in, trays stacked high with their food.

The moment the door closed behind them, the old sage sprang into action. The ink-laden brush was put into his hands by Baa-chan, and in instances, the whole of the rice paper and wood that surrounded the room had been decorated in ink. After a rapid series of hand seals, Jiraiya-sensei touched what looked like the heart of the black lines, and chakra rushed forth in a short burst. As quickly as their eyes could blink, the ink began to be consumed by the chakra like flames eating a gunpowder line, and soon the paper and wood were clear of any marks. Baa-chan, meanwhile ran through a serious of hand seals.

"Genjutsu; ghost murmur."

"Now we can speak freely," Jiraiya said, straightening out of the slouch he always walked in as 'Gin'. "Eat while we talk. We all need it, and it didn't come cheap."

As they broke their chopsticks, Naruto could practically see the tension and attention level in the room shooting upwards. They all sat with their backs rigid, watching as the taller sannin made his languid way back to the cushion and sank down next to Baa-chan facing the rest of them.

"You have all been given your assigned role, both for your cover and for eventual action, when we left the border," Tsunade began. "We gave you no more information, operating on the idea that the less you knew, the less could be lost if you are captured. The journey here was just as dangerous as our objective, but now that it is over, you will need all the details, so listen up."

"As some of you may know," Jiraiya-sensei continued, "moves have been made both military and political in this war to undermine whatever power Madara may have. One of these moves has been to involve, for the first time in our history, the Daimyo of the various countries, and their personal armies."

Hinata-chan beside him gave a stunted gasp, and Shino's lips, now visible, thinned considerably. Naruto realised that both of them were clan heirs; the rest of them in the room had no idea how to react.

"Yes, this goes against the treaty that was signed when our own village was created," Tsunade pointed out flatly, "But the move was agreed upon by the Kage council, and the treaty was superseded." She looked down and frowned, which made the wrinkles on her face look more pronounced. "We know that Madara covets all power, be it physical, jutsu or political. He wants to eliminate all of it, and substitute it with his own. For this reason, the Daimyo have consented join the fight; they will essentially be bait, and they have accepted the role."

"Unfortunately," Jiraiya-sensei added sternly, "Madara made a move faster than we expected, and attacked the Fire Daimyo some time ago. He had taken the role of leader for the other Daimyo's movements, but had to be moved to a safe location following the attack."

"He is here, isn't he?" Neiji said astutely. Jiraiya gave a short smirk in reply.

"Yes. This location was deemed secure, but we couldn't very well start sending messenger hawks and summons here regularly. They would be seen, and the security would be compromised. So we had to come ourselves. Hokage-sama had to speak with him personally to maintain protocol, and all the necessary information on positioning and military had to be brought to him so he may organise the strategy the other Daimyo and their armies will employ in conjunction with the shinobi forces."

Tsunade shifted on her cushion. "This is an unclassified mission." The mood in the room became even more sombre. If any of them died in it, their name would be tacitly written on the memorial stone, and no one would be told weight or reason of their end. "I myself will not be noted as missing from the village at all if possible."

"Things just got more complicated, too," Jiraiya went on with a thunderous scowl. "On the way here, one of our scouts made contact with us. He reported that he heard very troubling rumours."

"Hinata-chan," Tsunade called, making the girl sit up straighter. "The samurai who made contact with you and me some miles from here, do you remember him?" Naruto saw her face light up with understanding and she nodded. "If anything should happen, break cover and run to that outpost. They are our backup. However, we are only to do that if a majority of us die." The feeling left in the room after her words was chilling.

"There is a danger of that?" Shino asked quietly.

"There may be," Jiraiya answered. "As I have said, our scouts reported news of rumours that may cause complications. There have been some movement towards the area of a large number of ronin, and the general reason our forces have been able to glean is that their gathering is related to a commissioned death."

"A mole," Kiba growled, and Jiraiya sighed.

"We suspect so, yes. Therefore, your roles will be changing slightly. Naruto."

He blinked and nodded in response. Jiraiya-sensei nailed him with a look.

"Me and you are still the tanks in this outfit. I will go on being Tsunade's personal guard. But we have to scout this intel, and we're going to use all the recon we have. Tomorrow, go to town with Hinata. Ingratiate yourselves with the market people, and canvas all the area and opinions. Couples usually invite conversation and lower people's guard; be as relaxed as you can appear. While you roam the markets, I want you to plant clones with a henge wherever you can get away with it."

"Got it," he replied, a half formed plan already taking shape in his mind. He and the clones had been talking about a strategy of this sort for a while…

"Good. Report back if any of the clones gleans anything. Hinata," Jiraiya continued, "I have a list of supplies we need, and your trip to the market will be covered by it. Keep cover and do not activate your bloodline, but your sight is still sharper than any of ours save Neiji's. Keep them peeled; you are the eyes of one of our best recon teams. Bring anything you see back to us."

"Yes," she answered with a firm nod.

"Shino, Kiba," Tsunade's sharp voice picked up the conversation. "You will be doing the same thing, but in the rest of town. Roam around the streets, pretend to be trying to find a location for our troop to set up. The same concept will ride for you; Shino being blind will work in our favour, give people reason to ask questions. Answer them all according to cover, be friendly, and Shino; leave as many reference marks behind as you can. I want the entire town covered between you two by tomorrow night."

"Roger," Kiba replied, while Shino bowed his head slightly to his orders. His hive gave a buzz, the first they had heard since the start of the mission.

"Jiraiya will be visiting the local tono's secretary, to notify our presence and beg a space to perform for the festival." Tsunade turned to Neiji. "Neiji, scout and find any communication outpost. Send word home to your 'mother'." Both of them gave an ironic smirk. Usually, Tsunade herself was the one referred to as 'mother' by undercover nin and ANBU. "Be short, concise and circumspect. Be sure to inform her of all the kabuki troupe members." Neiji nodded. "I myself will be 'accidentally' meeting the Daimyo, who is posing as a rich merchant staying in this same inn. Papers will be given to him today; me and Jiraiya will handle that."

"Be careful, and keep cover at all costs unless some of our numbers start dwindling. Should the rumours prove true, make for the inn, protect Tsunade-sama and the Daimyo with your lives, if necessary," Jiraiya ground out. Then he smirked. "Eat, and get some sleep. Or not," he gave Naruto and Hinata-chan a glance that spoke volumes. Naruto could feel Neiji beside him stiffen on one side, and he didn't have to look to know what colour Hinata-chan's face was. Not to mention, the KI coming from Kiba and the buzzing from Shino were no joke either. Sweating slightly, Naruto did his best not to squirm.

"Now finish your food," Baa-chan said, and damn her, but her smirk was just as pronounced as ero-sensei's.

.o0o.

A sense of serene satisfaction coursed through her as she sighed down onto her cushion. The maid left the requested pot of tea and bowed herself out, and 'Muto Akane' smiled as she poured herself a cup.

The meeting with the Damyo had gone just as planned. She had earlier descended into the garden for a quick stroll before bed. The Daimyo's room was one of the most luxurious, opening directly into the greenery, and having spied her he called her in for some drink and company. The shoji had never once been shut, nonetheless, all her goals had been reached. Anyone passing heard the man's enthusiastic request for a private performance of her troupe, while anyone looking never saw the papers being slipped from her sleeve to his lap while she poured his sake.

Sipping her tea while holding the cup in her old wrinkled hands, she took a moment to enjoy the warmth of the blanket around her shoulders, the freshness of the garden outside the balcony that was still partially frozen from the winter, and the bitter taste of the jasmine that contrasted the scent emanating from the cup.

An old grandmother, with her husband and grandson, travelling nomadically with their family across the elemental countries. It was an image she had never thought about; something that had never crossed her mind even when she was travelling the elemental countries herself with Shizune.

It made her feel displaced; she felt as if she was living a life that was hers and wasn't, one possibility that could have really occurred in her life had she made a different decision somewhere along the way. Had she not begun dating Dan; had she accepted her current 'husband' earlier; had she stayed, that night…

The first time she'd seen the shock of blonde spiky hair sitting beside Jiraiya, she'd almost had a heart attack. The short little guy had been occupied munching at an okonomiyaki, while Jiraiya looked on with a proud sort of amusement that had made her heart squeeze. They had only been in the same district by chance, she'd left Konoha years before, even prior to Orochimaru's defection. In fact, in that particular time she was recalling, Orochimaru had probably not even left yet. She'd heard that both her former team mates had been given a genin squad, but she'd had little to no belief in it. Jiraiya – stupid, irresponsible Jiraiya! – leading a squad of genin! Ha!

She felt a pang as she recalled her memories. Out of all three of them, Jiraiya had been the least one to call irresponsible. He had been the one who stayed most loyal to Konoha, still being there as a spy even when he appeared gone, and he had been the one to stay back, and try to repair a small portion of what the war had done to the smaller nations. Orochimaru had wanted to kill those children; she herself had been indifferent. Jiraiya, on the other hand, had done something about it. He'd stayed, sacrificed his own time, and money – for a ninja who didn't work was a ninja who went hungry – to take care of Yahiko, Konan and Nagato.

A part of her argued; look were it got him! His own beloved students almost did him in.

But that was an empty sentiment, and she knew it. A failsafe that wasn't one at all, that leaked water all over, rickety and old. For every student he had who went down the wrong path, Jiraiya had loved and nurtured a student who had been a hero of Konoha.

That day, in the district of Maruyama, she had been stopped short, frozen in place as her blood had suddenly run cold in her veins. She'd looked at the tall, white, spiky-haired man as he put a large hand on the blonde shock of equally spiky hair, rubbing gently and laughing as his student looked up to reveal a sauce-stained face. He'd passed a comment that made the boy pout, and then another that made him blush and hurriedly dive for the napkins that had come with the food, looking around as if to see that someone particular hadn't spotted him in such a mess.

Two other boys had run up, then, each carrying their own selected food from the market stalls. They good naturedly ribbed the blonde child, who simply blushed but smiled along with the others, even laughing at jokes made at his own expense and then dishing out a few of his own.

Even as she was trying to will herself away, to disappear – now, quickly! Before she was spotted! – another three children had run up, followed at a more sedate pace by Sakumo. The loud, brazen redheaded girl had immediately walked over everyone and wiggled herself a seat beside the blonde boy, beginning a series of prodding, poking and blushing that made the part of her that wasn't numb want to laugh. Jiraiya had laughed loudly and happily at some of the things that were being said, and even more when his blonde student blushed scarlet, followed shortly after by the crimson haired girl.

Tsunade had forced herself to turn away, then. Her legs had felt like lead, her head pounding like she'd just had a binge with low-grade sake. She'd focussed on the thought that a nine year old Shizune was waiting for her at the inn, and hadn't allowed herself to think further. Nonetheless, she'd been in a haze of alcohol for the following weeks, forcing more of the liquid down her throat than she'd ever, or had ever since, in order to quiet the ripping pain and nagging voices and guilt.

She'd known that Jiraiya had loved her for years. But as a young girl, she'd overlooked him, seen him as some sort of annoyance and just an ego-boost. He'd been the worse of their team, position cemented at the beginning when he'd ended up tied to a post. She'd even had a small crush on Orochimaru at one point, almost as if to spite the white-haired boy. Look, it was as if she were saying, I'll like anyone but you.

Strong willed, headstrong, stubborn, impossible to manage and tame; there was a slew of things that had been tagged onto her name at that age. She'd grown up privileged, knowing full well that she was practically as royal as their village would get in terms of history and heritage. She'd thought herself special, and worth more than others.

How stupid she'd been.

The first blow had come with Nawaki-kun. Her guilt after that, for having given him that necklace, and filled his head with dreams that had made him reckless, had been all-consuming. She'd found shelter in Sarutobi-sensei, in Jiraiya, and in Dan. Shizune had looked up to Nawaki as her sempai, Tsunade's brother a few years older than the girl, and had come to seek her out when he'd died. That had brought Dan to her.

Again she'd given her heart out, and again she'd had it ripped apart. The night she'd been brought back, covered in Dan's blood, a trembling, muttering mess, it had been Jiraiya who had screamed across Konoha to come beside her. He'd spent hours, gently coaxing her to let go of the blood-encrusted vest and necklace, then just as gently and respectfully helping her to wash off the blood, and stay upright in the shower. She'd been almost catatonic for two weeks; with a war happening, Jiraiya of the Sannin had probably been one of the most requested, most needed on the field. But she didn't remember a moment in those blurry two weeks when he wasn't there, and he hadn't ever touched her inappropriately once. She'd dismissed it with herself later; it was because of the beating she'd recently given him, for peeping in the baths. But now… she was older, wiser, and less blinded by her own wilful stupidity. Jiraiya had truly loved her for years, and disregarding what pain he must have felt, had pulled her back together as she grieved for another man.

She didn't remember how it had started, but she did remember how it finished. With her panting on top of him while he looked at her with an unreadable expression, spent, contented; but with something in his eyes that told her he quite knew what she was doing, but he was letting her anyway. For two months after Dan's death, she'd sought him out every time it got too much, once even hunting him down to a camp some miles from Konoha, and he had looked at her the same way every time, but never said a word and always submitted to her hands. He'd allowed himself to be her rebound, even though it had probably broken his heart, just because he knew she needed it.

When she'd discovered the consequence of her little liaison, she'd panicked, badly. She hadn't wanted to admit to herself that a large part of her had been praying for this; retire, be something other than a ninja and a medic, who both saw blood and death every single day. See smiles, kisses and hugs, have a home to return to; to keep.

She'd taken Shizune and gone. The girl had been her only other constant since Nawaki's death, and in another selfish act, she'd dragged the girl away from all she'd known and loved in order to keep a small memory of her two beloveds with her. She hadn't even sent word to Sarutobi until she was some ways out of Fire Country. Thankfully, Sarutobi-sensei had been understanding, even encouraging. Go, his returning letter had said, go find yourself, and if you ever do, please remember your friends and family here. We will always wait for you with open arms, and leave a light on at night.

Eleven months later, she had returned. She'd snuck in through a side entrance that only the members of her family and the Hokage knew about, in the dead of the night, with a bundle in her arms. She had barely stayed an hour; just the time to deposit the boy on the steps of the Hokage tower and then out again. Something had twanged inside her when she had seen that the Hokage's residence really had a light left on in front of the gate; she'd reasoned it away at the time. It was for security reasons, of course.

That sunny morning years later, she'd literally fled Maruyama. Shizune hadn't complained other than a few cursory questions on their hasty departure that Tsunade didn't answer. But the image of what she had seen; a tall, happy white-haired man, lovingly taunting and feeding a spiky blonde haired boy whose face was sweet, round, and had eyes in the exact shape of her great-uncle. Did he know? Had he been told? Had she been seen? Had he been told?

She'd returned to the old routine; drink herself stupid, drink herself forgetful. Little Shizune had fretted, worried, even gotten angry at her, and she'd pulled herself together in a week for her sake. But that image had haunted her for many, many months afterwards.

Tsunade was no master spy; not like him. But she had her own network of sorts, and could very well do a little bit of scouting. The boy was called Namikaze, and was on Jiraiya's genin team. His parents – adoptive, he'd been found abandoned – were so exceedingly proud of him. He was a rising genius, the best of his class, placed under the Sannin Jiraiya's care for that purpose. Jiraiya was exceptionally fond of him, called him his favourite student unabashedly, to the irritation of the boy's team mates, probably on purpose.

The girl she'd seen was none other than an Uzumaki, just like the slug sannin's grandmother; the last surviving of the royal line, if her informants weren't inflating it too much. The boy had turned around and found his own heritage by himself.

It was some more years before she learned his proper name. Instead, as another war broke out before the previous one could even settle its fires, she began hearing of other things. Konoha's Yellow Flash, listed on the bingo books as 'flee on sight', Konoha's hero, unmatched on the field, in fuin, tactics, skill and charisma. He could talk a platoon back to life. People just saw him arriving, and their side immediately knew they had won. That monster, that unnatural creature, who could kill an entire platoon in the blink of an eye, and who could reduce survivors from Iwa to a stuttering mess at the only mention of him.

She'd gotten her hands on a bingo book, then, and on the third page, just after Jiraiya and Orochimaru, there he was. Blonde, handsome, with a look that was almost gentle – and eyes that were still shaped like the Nidaime's – looked back up at her. S-ranked enemy, the book read (she was in Kumo right now, after all), flee on sight. Do not engage; I repeat; do not engage.

The list of jutsu this man had created and mastered seemed alien. S-ranked fuin capabilities, S-ranked ninjutsu, S-ranked taijutsu. He was like the living portrait of the perfect shinobi. His side loved him – for more than his power. His enemies heard his name and trembled. And yet he knew mercy, compassion. He could interrogate you without you even knowing, slip into your room and wake you up, give you the option to fight back or talk, without poisoning you first. When you faced him, you knew you were going to die; but with dignity.

The rumours had kept inflating, more and more, as the war proceeded and his reputation became stuff of legends. Her next news of him, he'd been made Hokage. She hadn't been able to resist, then; she'd returned, keeping low-key and out of sight. When the boy – he was a boy! Not even twenty! – had stepped forth for the people to see, wearing the hat and flaming white cloak, the crowd had exploded, jostling Tsunade around uncaringly. But she'd seen what she'd come for; his face, alight with happiness and a deep love for every single one of the people he saw around him, the same face her grandfather and his brother had looked upon the people of Konoha with. Around him on the Hokage tower, Sarutobi-sensei was smoking his pipe with a contented smile on his face. The red-haired girl – her hair giving away her position from miles away – looked at him proudly and adoringly. Beside her, standing as tall as they could, were three children, who she couldn't make out from her location.

Then there was him, so tall you couldn't really miss him, standing so much taller today, it seemed, proud and with a look on his face that she'd never seen before. A quick jutsu to sharpen her eyesight had confirmed it; Jiraiya had been crying with happiness. Discreetly, but the tears were there, married perfectly to a look so very close to paternal that she hadn't been able to handle it.

She'd stopped following the boy's rising legend for some time, then. Some of his exploits where impossible to escape; not when his fame reached the four corners of the elemental countries. But she'd stopped actively seeking out news, information, data. She threw out the bingo book with his photo on it not only for security reasons, and didn't allow Shizune to tell her more than a few sentences about Konoha when her apprentice heard something. Dan and Nawaki haunted her dreams, but her waking hours were spent escaping from the thought of a blonde crop of hair so much like hers, but also like Jiraiya's, eyes of the Nidaime and smile like her grandfather's. Dream like her beloved Dan and Nawaki, to become Hokage. Only, he had managed it, he had reached his goal. On some days, Tsunade consoled herself by thinking, she was thankful she hadn't stayed. She was thankful she hadn't heard him speak of his dream. The necklace might have changed hands, and then she might have had more blood on her palms again.

The next she heard, Namikaze Minato, great hero of Konoha and most beloved of all Hokage, had died in the line of duty. The information was jumbled, horrifying, but all the sources confirmed; he'd taken down a bijuu, and not just any tailed beast. His wife – Uzumaki Kushina, the same girl that Tsunade had seen him by whenever she peeked into his life – had also been killed. Their son had been a stillborn.

She'd locked herself up in the bath for three hours, unable to stop crying. Then she'd come out, informed a very worried Shizune that they were leaving, and headed for Konoha's gates again.

She'd come from the side entrance again. She'd made a beeline for his apartment, but she had found it empty, with plenty of evidence that it didn't even belong to him anymore, if the girl's dolls hanging on the clothes line were any indication. She'd aimlessly roamed the village, itching to find him, feeling almost like time had reversed, and she was back to the lost, horrified girl she'd been after Dan's death.

When she had found him, she wished she hadn't. He was at a ramen stand, the rice-paper door left open. Sarutobi-sensei had had an arm around him. Occupying the two seats on his other side where a Hyuuga and an Aburame. The stall owner and his son weren't cooking, or working in the back. They were hunched forward, sadness and distraught etched in every line of his face.

Jiraiya had been sobbing openly, his eyes hidden by his right hand as his left one gripped a cup. He was leaning heavily into Sarutobi-sensei, and his large, wide shoulders were shaking as he gasped and sobbed, uncaring of who saw; so painfully, with all his body and breath, that the figure of their teacher shook with him.

Tsunade took another sip of her cooling tea as a very cold breeze from the garden brought her back to the present. That had been another turning point in her life. She'd had two very clear options. Walk in there, take him away from his team and sensei, console him, postpone leaving, return the favour that he had so quietly done for her years before by staying by his side in his moment of need.

She'd taken the other option instead; once again. She'd turned and left, unable to stand the feelings inside her at the scene in front of her. Her friend, heart broken at the loss of his student, student he'd perhaps loved like a son.

The thought had made her physically ill, and some way from the gates, she'd stopped to vomit in a ditch. Shizune had been told she'd eaten something bad. She'd been physically ill for weeks, unable to take what she had done and what she had seen. But like everything else, sake and gambling had tided her over until the pain had dulled, and she could put it in another drawer to hide.

Then Jiraiya had shown up with another shock of blonde hair in tow, one that looked and spoke like Nawaki, and she'd known there was no escaping this sin. When he'd taken to calling her Baa-chan, she'd only protested mildly, for her.

She was sure, as she was sure that Shizune was the sweetest, most patient girl in the world, that Sarutobi-sensei had known. He'd seen her, maybe – he'd always kept a tight vigil on the village with his seeing-ball jutsu, and she was a fool to think that she had managed to enter the village – a shinobi village – undetected. Somehow he'd known, and for that reason he'd made sure that Jiraiya and that little blonde boy she'd left behind had been put together as often as possible. Shizune probably also knew; she'd been young at the time, but there was little doubt as to what the bundle you carried was when you'd helped birth the child. And when she'd gone into Konoha with the bundle and come out without it, there was little imagination to spend in order to fill in the gaps. She'd been discreet about her tabs on the blonde boy, so she wasn't sure if Shizune had picked up on just who her son had become, but they had both tacitly acknowledged that a child had been left in Konoha, and he was Tsunade's son.

And yet, today she was here; a wrinkled old woman drinking tea in a small inn, looking on a garden as she saw her grandson stroll by with his promised among the winter blossoms, with her husband and the inn-keeper negotiating their stay.

This is what it could have been, a small part of her whispered. This is what could have been if you had stayed that night, if you had walked into that food stall and taken the man home and comforted him, kept him company and allowed yourself to return the feelings that you knew were there. She almost felt like an impostor; in the skin of another woman who had made better decisions than herself. This position she was in now, it was bringing all of her ghosts to the surface, all of her sins and misdeeds as far as Jiraiya was concerned in sharp relief.

Tears escaped her eyes, which she wiped away quickly as the shoji slipped open to let him in.

"Your husband has done it again!" he said triumphantly, and she could hear in his voice just how much he loved using that name for himself. He was doing it partially to irritate her, she knew, but she could admit to herself that he relished it above and beyond what a mere irritant would have been. "We're staying here with half the price it would cost, just for the exchange of one performance for the guests tomorrow!"

He stopped for a moment, and she knew at once that her efforts to hide her tears in her cup hadn't succeeded. He sidled up to her calmly and gently, putting an arm around her and turning her so she curled into his chest while he kissed her hairline.

"What is it, Hime-sama," he asked in a whisper. She swallowed before she replied.

"I'm worried about Shin," she said, more than half a lie at the moment. He hummed against her cheek, and rested his head on hers.

"I am too. But we'll get through this, I swear. That brat is more resilient that we think. More resilient than his father, even."

Tsunade just buried her face in his chest and breathed him in.

"You know them better than I do, in that respect," she whispered, and then allowed him to go on boisterously about how right she was, still hiding her face against his yukata.

.o0o.

"Right, so let's see what we have today!"

He looked on dispassionately as a veritable picnic began coming out of the bag she'd brought with her.

"There's tomato and cheese salad, some more tomato soup, oh, and tofu! I know you don't like dessert much, so I went with the traditional."

His eyebrows kept rising as the small food tray that wheeled onto the bed began to look pretty cluttered. He couldn't help also noticing that apart from the tomato soup, all the other food was either cold or required very little cooking.

"Sakura." He grabbed onto her wrist as another container – pickles? – was about to come out of the bag, and her face snapped up to his in surprise.

"Your… your restraints," she said, amazement colouring her voice as her eyes went wide. She looked from her wrist and back to him, but her eyes never once showed fear. "They took them off! Sasuke-kun… I'm so glad."

Sasuke winced slightly as he let her go, looking away. A jumble of emotions raced each other inside him; a strange mixture of elation and dread. He was free to hurt her, and yet, she was happy instead of being on guard? Why did she trust him?

"Why do you come here?" he said before he could stop himself. Sasuke hated many things, but confusion, worry, uncertainty, those he hated the most. Always, finding a goal and focussing on it had been his way since childhood, and she was … confounding him and making his insides tremble. Despite himself, he'd been longing to ask that for a very long time.

"Sasuke-kun…"

"You and Naruto… I've stabbed you, hurt you, betrayed you, chosen someone or something over you again and again, and yet you keep coming back." He looked up at her again, trying to take in all her face at once. There was only surprise there, and Sakura was many things, but a good actress she was not. "I can understand Naruto on a certain level. It's just the way he is … we are. But you… you have no reason to do this."

"I have enough reason, Sasuke-kun," she said, and her tone was quiet, but not mild. She was looking down at one of the bowls in her hands pensively. "We are still team Kakashi, for one. That doesn't only go for Naruto you know; the team never stopped existing for us, and you're part of it whether you like it or not." Her lips thinned and her nose scrunched up. The pit of his stomach somehow fell through the bed to the floor while his heart hiked up. "There's also … for me, well; there's the fact that I-"

"Don't say it!" he growled in an agitation he tried to hide very poorly. The very weak lid on his heart loosened alarmingly, and he slammed down on it angrily. "What kind of weak kunoichi are you, still pining after a traitor! You could be with anyone you wish. Why won't you leave me alone!"

He couldn't look at her for a long moment, and her silence made his rapidly beating heart all that much louder. When he had decided to confront her on the reason for her constant visits earlier that morning, he had a list of rational and logical reasons for her to stop, neatly stacked up in argumentative order. It wasn't good for her; her health, her reputation. He'd been a missing nin for years. She was one of the most prominent medic nin, apprenticed to the Godaime herself. On and off the battlefield all the time and with barely time to eat and sleep. She shouldn't be here, wasting time. She shouldn't have to be.

"I don't think you understand, Sasuke." She jolted him out of his thoughts, but he still refused to look up, despite her surprisingly… annoyed voice? He had expected sadness, maybe emotional pain. His stomach dropped further; perhaps, all this talk wasn't necessary, and she had already… "Sasuke, see, Naruto and I hang on because, to us, you're the guy who took the senbon for his best friend in Wave, or the guy who helped us try to see what was under sensei's mask or smuggle an alarm clock into his apartment. You kept saying that those bonds died but… to us, they never did."

She sighed in what sounded like frustration, and he dared to glance up finally, finding her combing her fingers through the ends of her hair, brows drawn in distress. Her eyes snapped to his and he couldn't look away; she was still an open book after all these years. There really was frustration there, and nervousness, and yes, she was definitely annoyed with him. A sensation he was all too familiar with and hated ran down his spine though when he spied something else.

He'd detested to admit it later, so had buried it, how tempting her offer had been by the gate. The bonds between him and Naruto were of a sort that would endure in time. He knew that now, but Sasuke would admit that perhaps, he'd always known that. The bond with Sakura however… it had been new and fragile, and when she's started leaving her annoying behaviour behind…

"I know it may mean nothing but, see, we still saw that in you all along, Sasuke-kun. We never stopped seeing the good there was." A crooked smile (that looked a lot like his smirk, now that he thought of it) appeared on her lips. "We knew there was still some of you in there somewhere. We just needed to dig you up again. And we were right, ne?"

He lowered his eyes in thought. The way she spoke, what he thought he saw in her eyes, what she would have said if he hadn't stopped her; he needed to silence the nagging emotion inside him. Ever since his chakra had been staunched and all his feelings had rushed back in, he had been left floored, not quite able to assimilate them all. He was glad for the many lonely hours since he'd awoken, as he would have had no way of reigning them in otherwise.

Naruto's visit however had cemented his need to re-establish what he'd once thought he'd been rid of. Sasuke swallowed thickly; his friendship and brotherhood with the blond idiot had been almost easy to confirm compared to this. There was something he needed to say to her, something she needed to understand. Depending on how she would react to this, he would know beyond doubt.

"Sakura… the Uchiha of the sharingan will die with me," he finally said, voice carefully firm. "There will be no more Uchiha after me. The name carries too much pain and … I've let go of that goal a long time ago."

"Sasuke!" she yelled, and he looked up, startled that she was mad at him now. He smiled at the image she made, red-cheeked and furious, and that seemed to make her madder. "When are you going to stop being such a prick! First it was your revenge, and you decided you wanted to do it alone and that was that, no matter how all of us would have helped out willingly. Then there was this idea that you had to be the best of the best, ug!"

She seemed ready to pull her hair out (or his hair out), and he couldn't help his smile getting wider as he saw her eyebrow tick in response. "I can understand competition, I really can! Ino and I are at it all the time, but we don't kill each other over it! Now this? You've decided that the punishment you're getting isn't enough and you need more, so you're going to go brood alone in a corner until you die?" Her voice had reached very high levels, making him blink at her as she got redder and redder, her green eyes spitting sparks. He found that he honestly couldn't complain when she got into his face in her anger.

"Stupid! I – We care for you! When is it going to get through your skull that you don't have to be alone anymore!"

That clinched it for him. Her little slip was all the encouragement he needed to peel off the lid on his heart.

"Sakura." She started somewhat when he cupped her cheek and almost drew back. The redness on her face from her temper increased, and her features melted into startled disbelief as he kept smiling at her. "You misunderstood me. The Uchiha of the sharingan will die with me. That is a fact that no one can change." Her brows creased again, but his thumb flew to her lips to stop her from interrupting. "But perhaps, if you still want it and will allow it, there can be the Haruno of the sharingan."

Her eyes went impossibly wide, and several moments of silence lapsed between them. Taking his hand away and looking down into his lap, another bout of agitation took over him. His heart began beating irritatingly fast, and he clenched his fists while fighting to keep his face straight. All these emotions, he hated feeling them, but at the same time, they had been suppressed for so long that he almost welcomed them. He just wished this feeling of … vulnerability hadn't reared its head again. Especially where she was concerned.

A calloused hand (definitely not the soft one from her younger days) cupped his cheek in turn and nudged him till he faced her. He found two steady jade eyes looking back, their look reminding him of one of his hawk summons.

"If this is part of your idea for self-imposed punishment, I'll kill you," she said flatly.

"What- No!" he spluttered, torn between horror and outrage. Idiot girl! Hadn't she been the one chasing him all her life? So she'd warn him down (when they were twelve – he would never admit that), wasn't she bloody happy about it? Where on earth did she get such stupid wild ideas-

A peck on his uncovered cheek froze his brain. And the rest of his body with it. He barely had the mobility to woodenly blink at her. She caught him in her gaze again, scrutinizing him until he felt rubbed raw worse than Itachi's sharingan ever had.

"You keep that thought, then," she finally said, her voice trembling slightly. She moved away and shot standing, and he couldn't help noticing that her hands were shaking. "I'll … I'll be right back."

Sakura rapidly left the room, leaving him feeling slightly floundered and lost. She'd never given him an answer, but … still. He'd made the first step, as he'd promised his little brother he would. Now it was up to her.

He just wished his palms weren't sweating so badly.

.o0o.

Jiraiya puffed contentedly at his pipe as he milled with the crowd. His bent form was still tall, and people allowed him to shoulder between them without much protest. He nodded complacently to a number of them who tilted a straw hat at him, and stopped a few times in order to ask for directions.

"It's such a strange dream," he heard the young Hinata saying. "I know I must be running along a buried river, or the dungeon of a fortress. There are pipes and water everywhere…"

"Maybe you haven't been eating enough?" Naruto asked her worriedly. Jiraiya gave a half smile around his pipe stem. The young rascal was learning; he didn't treat the Hyuuga girl with kid gloves anymore, or even like he had no idea what to do with himself if she got too close. And ha! He was doing his old mentor proud, stealing a peek at her cleavage like that!

"I'm sure that's not the problem, Shin-kun. Akane-san cooks … um… very well, you know, and I think I've dreamed of this dungeon even before we left to come here. Oh look! Iyokan, Shin-kun! Akane-san asked us to bring some. Would you like anything?"

"You choose for me."

Jiraiya nearly snorted at that. If he didn't know the boy was completely guileless, he'd think Naruto was angling to get laid tonight judging by the beaming smile she gave him. Moving closer in the crowd while being careful not to alert them of his presence, he made sure to keep an eye on the strange man he'd caught tailing the young couple a few stalls back. He had only intended to pass through here, but suspect behaviour going unattended to in such a delicate situation was a hazard too great to risk.

The crowd was large, and the sannin was willing to believe that more than half of the people here were not locals. This made him frown; with this many lodging here for the festival, the veracity of the rumour they had heard had a much higher chance of being confirmed. Mercenaries could very easily mingle with crowds attending a Matsuri.

But then, so could ninja; Jiraiya puffed at his pipe proudly as he watched Naruto casually strolling around the market, leaving shadow clone after shadow clone behind in one shape or other. Had Jiraiya not been watching, he wouldn't even have noticed, either. That said something about the loud idiot, as 'subtle' had definitely not been a word he had ever been described as.

Sparing one last glance as he watched his student give a bunshin-kite to a child, he followed the reason he'd been shadowing the young couple. Tracking the man with the tail of his eye as he broke off from Naruto and Hinata's course, and moving forward without hurrying, he made sure to keep the man always in sight.

He was slightly disconcerted – and more than a little worried – when he saw the man entering the tono's house. Jiraiya had been headed there himself this morning, as part of his mission required he, as head of troupe, beg a space for the kabuki act in the market during the festival. Seeing a man his instincts had immediately tagged as 'spy' entering the house of the leading authoritative figure in this small town, not to mention tailing two of their team...

Trying his hardest to remain as innocuous and unnoticeable as possible, Jiraiya entered the property in a way neither guard noticed, keeping track of his target. Narrowing his eyes, the old ninja saw his quarry turn to look over his shoulder a few times; truly suspicious behaviour. Jiraiya was masking his presence as only years of experience could guarantee, so the man either had shinobi training, or something to hide. Neither was good news.

The moment his target disappeared behind a shogi, another servant – younger, a lot less subtle, shot out of an alcove and dashed across the garden towards another set of rooms. What it all meant Jiraiya was unable to decipher, as crossing the garden without breaking cover was impossible even for him.

Deciding that a bit of 'official' snooping was in order, he backtracked, exiting the property and then demanding entrance at the main gate. Just as he'd suspected, he was led towards the same part of the house; not through the garden this time, but through the house itself. According to his calculations, the guard stopped in front of the second room, where the younger looking servant had run in to report on the first.

There he found, sitting on several cushions before a writing table, a middle-aged man, possibly the age Minato would have been if he'd lived, dressed in a regal and expensive fur-lined kimono and wrapped in an air of authority. A large number of scribes were seated along side him, and yes; the servant boy was still now deep in conversation with who was obviously his master.

"Sir, this man to see you," the servant who'd brought him there said with a deep bow.

"I see," the man said, looking up with a frown on his face. Turning to Jiraiya, he narrowed his eyes and looked him up and down. While his persona as Gin kept smiling around his pipe, Jiraiya felt a distinct tinge of worry; why the suspicion in his gaze? "I am Kiromaza Araku, tono Hiraishimo's brother-in-law. You have a request for the matsuri, I presume?"

"It is an honour and a privilege to meet you," Jiraiya said, descending to his knees and then touching his forehead to the mats. "I have come here to beg a space for our kabuki troupe to perform during your illustrious and much known Festival to the Snow."

"Your turn of words is good," the lord commented, and Jiraiya rose with a smile firmly held in check; suspicion was in his tone, too. More and more, this man put him on edge.

"It is a necessity in our line of work."

"Aaah, it would be, of course." Araku flicked his wrist almost imperceptibly, and his servant boy bowed and dashed away. "And tell me, do you have any women on your troupe?"

"Two," Jiraiya replied, then sat up straighter. "but none of ill-repute."

"I see…" Araku paused to select a citrus fruit from a tray set before him. "It is a family venture, then."

"Of course, my lord." Jiraiya bowed again, this time only in order to hide the tick of agitation that pulsed in his cheek.

"Tell me, do you have any daughters?"

The tick redoubled. "No, my lord. We, my wife and I, were only blessed with a son, but he and his wife died years ago." Pausing for a minute, he decided that in such a small town, hiding only made you more conspicuous. "We do seem well on the way of gaining a granddaughter-in-law, however."

"Hmm," was the lord's only answer. "Very well. The spot you have asked for is yours for that night. Move to the next room, my servants will give you the vacant slots to choose from. You may go."

Jiraiya bowed deeply and stood, following the guard out without a word. His face and bent back remained that of a jovial old man, but it was all he could do to keep from frowning. His sense of agitation had doubled.

.o0o.

"Code-1 red, code-1 red!"

"He needs immediate surgery!"

"Room five is free! Room five! This way!"

"Where is Tsunade-sama!"

The hospital corridor suddenly looked like a bomb had exploded right in the middle of it. Hanabi plastered herself against a wall as a gaggle of nurses and doctors shot by, wheeling a gurney almost like a go-kart.

"Dear Qwannon be thanked, a Hyuuga!"

An arm shot out of the medical crowd and took a firm fistful of her clothing. With a somewhat undignified yelp she was jacked off her feet, dropping the bunch of flowers she'd intended to put in his room and left stumbling to catch up. The back of two doctors who were running backward bumped against swivel doors, and then they were in a large, circular, well-lit room.

"You! Dab the paper and find his blood group, then put all you can find on IV! You, sterilise the room, now! You two, scissors; clothes, chop it! You!" Hanabi was pulled unceremoniously off her feet again, manhandled to the front next to the prone man's – for man he was – head. "Activate your bloodline! There's shrapnel lodged in there and we have to find it before we can start the proper healing! We have little time, and if he dies, we're in shit!"

"Uwiza, I'm going to try to find Tsunade-sama," one of the nurses said.

"Sterilise!" another cried after having rapidly gone through an incredibly complex sequence of hand-signs. A wave rippled outwards from her towards the ends of the room, and Hanabi could suddenly feel her skin tingling.

"Do it, but quickly! And only come back in through the sterility room!" the doctor, Uwiza, yelled as the woman was already leaving at a dead run. A ripping sound made her snap her head around, and she saw two more doctors savagely cutting at the man's clothing until he was practically naked. Hanabi would have usually felt extremely uncomfortable, if not for the fact that barely any of his skin was visible through a layer of dried and fresh blood. Deep wounds adorned his full front, showing her more of the man's inside than she cared to see, and her stomach turned.

"Hyuuga! Stay with us!" Uwiza said, giving her a shake. "The byakugan! We need to find that shrapnel, but none of us are able to make a scan as rapidly as Hokage-sama or her students, and we don't have the time to wait. Byakugan, please! Now!"

Steeling herself, and not really understanding what was happening so suddenly around her, Hanabi quickly activated her bloodline and began to search the man's body. Caught up in the frenzy of the medics around her, her eyes flitted frantically from one wound to the other, not really sure what she was looking for.

"Look for solids," one of the other medics prompted as her green palms glowed on top of the man's heart. "Look at the bones, and try to find things that look like them, or maybe denser, but small chips inside the wounds."

Nodding, and trying not to think that her hands were trembling slightly, Hanabi focussed her enhanced sight. Frowning in concentration, she exclaimed seconds later.

"One right here, under the skin here!" she called, putting her finger on top of the spot. A man who had not yet intervened as well as Uwiza ran through a set of seals and then stood still, placing their hands on his body and gritting their teeth. Much to her amazement, the object began to move minutely, until the tip was visible even to normal eyes.

"Yumi!"

"Got it!"

Fast as a flash, the medic called Yumi had the splinter out with a pair of pincers. Uncaring of the shocked girl being jostled around, the team quickly rearranged itself.

"Kaoru, stay on heart support. Misa, Kouga, heal that one fast as you can. Kaede! More blood! Don't let that IV run out! Girl, the wounds, the splinters! Look!"

"Yes!" Hanabi called, turning back to the man intently. Splinter after splinter were forced out of him, some large as a coin, some small as a broken nail. Yumi's steady hands pulled them out without breaking them almost every time, and Hanabi made sure that all the foreign substance was out before moving to dig through his body with her eyes for the next one.

"It's out!" Yumi crowed, sweat beading her forehead after the medic's hand and Hanabi's sight had manoeuvred around the delicate skin very close to his eye.

"What's the situation!"

A dull thumph was heard as someone hit a door running, and Shizune-san walked in pushing a side-door open with her back, hands still wet.

"Just finished taking out shrapnel seen by this girl; one more left for clearance. We've healed 45% of the wounds and given replacement blood, two pints. Kaoru has been keeping his heart stable, but the blood loss almost pushed him into shock."

"He's almost critical," Uwiza went on, his hand still trained on the man's body as Hanabi listened with half an ear. The shard was moving! Just a little more… "We need Tsunade-sama down here as soon as possible, Shizune-san."

"Not happening, war council," Shizune grunted, putting her own hands onto the man. "The healing is almost up to 50%, well done tea"-

"Bullshit," Uwiza growled, cutting her off, and Hanabi looked up at him startled. Did this man have no idea of protocol at all? He did realise he was speaking to the Hokage's assistant, right? Hanabi blinked again as her eyes throbbed slightly from the constant, concentrated use. Then again, as she watched the shrapnel move again towards the surface at a slug's pace almost as if fighting the medics' hold, and the frantic efforts of the doctors, protocol didn't seem a priority at the moment.

"Keshin-san," Shizune started, but he cut her off again.

"There can't be a bloody war meeting, because the Kazekage's fucking here dying!" Uwiza snarled unceremoniously, and Hanabi only held in a gasp through sheer training. Her eyes rapidly snapped to the man's face; she'd never met him, but Naruto had once showed her a photo. The man on the gurney was almost unrecognisable for the matted hair and thick layer of dried blood splattered on his face, but his closed eyes had the unmistakable markings in kohl that distinguished the Suna Kage from any other man.

"Fuck!" was all Shizune-san had to say, as she rapidly began applying herself to the healing along with two other medics.

"Out!" yelled Yumi, holding the last of the splinters up between the medical pincers.

"Great! Kaede! Cut and wash some hair, now, now! Uwiza-san, team stats!"

"Three hours running, low on chakra, we're still good for thirty minutes, but then we will need replacement," the medic answered Shizune-san. "The byakugan may still be needed, but we may want to call a proper medic. She was recruited on emergency."

Shizune-san looked at her then, and seemed to see her for the first time. "Heavens, Hanabi-chan! What on earth… never mind. Give me your endurance stats; how soon do I have to replace you?"

"I can go on for another fifteen minutes," she admitted bluntly.

"Good. Kaoru, I'm taking over heart stab; go prep the seal room and then run on front desk to page a Hyuuga medic with four fresh medics and nurses. You have fifteen: go!"

"Yes!"

"Hanabi, are you sure there are no more shards?"

"Not that I can see," she replied, running her eyes over him again.

"Which are the deeper wounds?" Uwiza asked. His voice was definitely strained, and his hair was wet with perspiration now.

"Chest, top right, nicked the lung. Kouga-san covered that but it's still bleeding slightly on the inside," Hanabi rattled promptly.

"On it," the man said.

Hanabi was about to move away when a groan froze her in place. Looking down, she found herself caught in the gaze of two teal irises, hazy with pain.

"Ka- Kan-kurou," he gasped out, grabbing Hanabi's elbow.

"Your brother is safe, Kazekage-sama," Yumi replied quickly. "You're in Konoha. You're safe."

Hanabi couldn't look away from the man's eyes as they sharpened slightly, looking over her face as if he were memorizing it. Her mouth went dry and her spine rigid as she watched him battle the immense amount of pain he had to be in.

"F-Front- East Front- assault uni- unit three…"

"They made it," Hanabi found herself saying. She had no idea what he was talking about, but she couldn't look away from his eyes, and her gut knotted as she watched him almost smile.

"…sugoi,"

"Shit, he's destabilizing! Prepare to tube him and put him back under, quick! Hanabi-chan, grab his hand and squeeze! When he flags squeeze again! We have to keep him conscious till he's stable or the opium jutsu might kill him!"

Hanabi slipped her elbow out of his grip and grasped his hand with both of hers. It was much larger than her own, and heavy. His eyes began lowering, sometimes rolling back into his head before she pressed her palms around his, snapping them back to her again.

"Come on, Kazekage-sama," she muttered. "Naruto will never forgive you if you die."

Another ghost of a smile appeared on his blood-stained lips, and then his eyes closed.

"Stable!" called a gasping Uwiza.

"Tube, under!" Shizune almost screamed. Yumi quickly brought the equipment, and Hanabi looked away as a tube was forced between his lips and, her byakugan told her, down his throat just as Kouga finished another set of seals and applied purple hands to the Kazekage's head.

"The Seal Room is ready!" Kaoru said suddenly, bursting into the room with the pulse of the sterilization jutsu still around her. "The fresh medics are waiting there."

"Under!" Kouga called, taking his hands away from the patient's head.

"Take him to the Seal Room then, quickly! Kaede, don't forget the hair!"

The gurney was jerked forward, and once again the team of medics was racing through the corridors, this time two of them holding his breathing instruments and blood IV. Hanabi ran along with them through sheer involvement, feeling somehow unable to let the man's hand go.

"Alright team, well done," Shizune-san said as they reached two new swinging doors. "We'll take it from here. Kenshin-san, well done. We'll talk later ok?"

Uwiza nodded, and without further ado, Shizune-san disappeared behind the doors with only the medics holding equipment following. Hanabi, somehow, let his hand fall, and then watched as the doors swallowed him.

"Hey."

Blinking, Hanabi turned around. A hand came up to clasp her under arm, and she suddenly realised she was swaying.

"You did good in there, kid," Uwiza said, and Hanabi found herself half smiling. "Come on." The other two medics, looking suddenly exhausted and ten years older, pushed out of what had to be the Seal Room. "Guys, canteen. Let's take our little helper to have some tea before she passes out on us."

"Ma, Uwiza-kun," Yumi said with a half laugh, "She did better than I did on my first day. Let's go celebrate!"

Feeling extremely tired and worn all of a sudden, Hanabi realised that her bloodline was still active and sighed in relief when she released it. Resting more than she was comfortable to admit onto Uwiza's hand, she let herself be gung-hod towards the canteen.

"Will he be alright?" she asked, unable to stop herself from looking back.

"Only the gods know," Kouga replied faintly.

.o0o.

Naruto breathed deeply, his body pleasantly relaxed and the futon soft against his back. One of his arms was thrown upwards, while the other was comfortably tucked around the sleeping girl resting on his chest.

It was the early hours of the morning, and the sun would soon be rising. They had an immense amount of things to do today; they had the festival to perform for, a Daimyo to meet and relocate, and eyes to keep peeled for any possibly problems, but he just couldn't get himself to rise. Jiraiya's news yesterday had been slightly disconcerting. Could the local tono's relatives be involved in whatever was going on?

Hinata moved against him, mumbling something unintelligible, and Naruto couldn't stop the flush that went up his cheeks. He looked down at her slightly forlornly, bringing down his other arm to hold her closer. If the mission went as it should, tonight would be the last time they shared a bed like this. Unable to stop himself last night, he'd done something he hadn't done since the rather disastrous bet with Neiji, though only his chest was bare.

Her face had gone up in flames, and she'd stuttered a little when she'd rolled over and come cheek to chest with him. His heart had started beating frantically at her closeness, and he'd wanted … he didn't really have a name for what he wanted, but he'd wanted it to last. They'd talked about various inane things in their embarrassment, and then … then he'd kissed her. It hadn't been an explosive kiss, like the one on the Hokage monument, but when she'd run her hands shyly across his back suppressing the instinct to roll over onto her had been almost too much.

His thoughts suddenly erupted in snarls, and he had to screw his eyes shut in concentration before he could hear himself think again.

Damnit, Kyuubi! You've been like this all night, you son of a bitch! If my concentration gets screwed and we both die because of sleep deprivation, I'm warning you; in the afterlife, I'm haunting you.

Tall words for a little human. If you'd given me what I wanted, you would have slept very well.

Naruto bit his lip, and resisted the urge to descend into his mind chamber to beat the tar out of one annoying Youma. Hinata, perhaps sensing his agitation, stirred against him again, and the Kyuubi went into another set of snarls.

Do it, do it now!

I am not touching her with your foul chakra! Why do you even want me to! She's just an insignificant human!

Breathing deeply to calm himself, Naruto gathered her tightly against him, burying his face into her hair. It always smelt so nice…

"Mmm, Naruto …?"

Looking down, he found her blinking awake, eyes still heavy and hazy with sleep.

"Sorry I woke you," he whispered, bending down to kiss her nose, which made her blink. "It's still early, go back to sleep, inazuke." He enjoyed the deep flush that spread across her face, and as he hoped, she rewarded him with a soft kiss. Her tongue gently licked his lower lip, making him shiver slightly until he allowed her entrance, and it was some minutes before they resurfaced from an intense kiss.

"Hinata-chan," he mumbled, and she shushed him slightly for not using her cover name, but he didn't care, kissing the fingertips that had come up on his lips instead.

"Na … Naruto-kun," she hesitantly whispered back, and he felt her shudder against him. A bubble of male pride bloomed in his chest. "Oh … I missed using your name."

"I did too," He muttered back, trying to make her expression out within the very dim light.

"I … I think I'll miss these waking moments more, when we return home, though," she went on, holding him closer to her. Naruto swallowed thickly, allowing one of his hands to caress her side.

"'S good to know I'm not the only one who'll miss it." His heart picked up rate again, and before he knew it, he was kissing her jaw, then her neck, then the shell of her ear. Hinata's arms around him pressed more firmly, fingers massaging his skin between his shoulder blades. His lips kept tracking a route downwards, kissing and nibbling a trail down the column of her neck until he reached the collar of her sleeping yukata. He nosed the material further away with each kiss until her entire shoulder was uncovered. Running his nose in a caress back across her shoulder, he stopped to admire how her pale skin seemed to shine with a glow of its own in the waning moonlight.

His eyes followed the turn of her shoulder, and down to the line her bedraggled yukata made, and a groan tore from his throat when he saw the upper curve of her breast, peeking half out of the sleeping garment, and the soft line it made where it touched her other breast. Kami forgive him, but he suddenly realised that he would have gladly let the Kyuubi loose if she allowed him to touch her. Ever since they had made up, and every night they had shared a bed, feeling her chest pressed against him drove him insane. He'd give anything to be able to cup her gently, feel if they were as soft and warm as they promised to be … His heartbeat picked up speed at his thoughts and he dived for her neck, tasting her salty skin to try to assuage the temptation. Hinata-chan was still so shy, even as they had begun to hesitate a little less when sharing these moments; who knew how she would react if he dared to touch her like that. Maybe she wouldn't mind…? On the monument, with his hand on her butt, well, he was still alive, and aah, pressed against his chest, so soft!

A groan, a mumble and a shuffle from the other side of the screen froze them both. Their breathing was still coming in gasps and their bodies still entwined sensually, but both of them were suddenly stiff as stones, ice running through their veins as they listened into the silent room with bated breath.

Stupid! Naruto cursed to himself. How on earth could he have forgotten that Jiraiya and the gods damned Hokage where in the room with them? The Kyuubi roared at the back of his head, making the blood in his ears rush faster.

After a few more moments of mortified (and slightly petrified) silence, the couple slowly extricated themselves from one another, the mood truly ruined. Much to his further embarrassment, Naruto noticed that not only had he become rather aroused, but that he'd been pressed against her in a way that she couldn't have missed. Furthermore, one of his legs had somehow slipped between hers rather … provocatively (he could swear he had no idea how that happened).

"W- we should rest some more, while we still can," he whispered hoarsely, trying to save some face and reduce the sudden awkwardness. And by the gods, the shudder that went through her just turned him on more.

"Yes, it's going to be a long day…"

Naruto closed his eyes, trying to force himself to follow his own advice, despite the raging (and embarrassing) tent that had laid claim to his lap.

It was some hours later when he blinked awake from penetrating sunbeams in his eyes, and he realised that he had, in fact, somehow gone to sleep, the Kyuubi blessedly quiet.

That is until he realised that the bed beside him was empty. Then the hissing started up again with a vengeance.

"Oh give it a rest," he mumbled, sitting up and rubbing his face lethargically.

"Good, you're awake."

Spinning around, horrified at being caught off guard, he found himself facing Tsunade. She didn't seem concerned with his lapse, however, as she simply shuffled in, shutting the door behind her and sitting on the bedding.

"Shin, have any of your talents come in useful during the night?" she asked. His face suddenly felt like Sasuke'd used it for katon practice.

"Wha-? I – We didn't do anything, I swear!" he squeaked. Dear gods, they had been heard then, this morning when-

Tsunade looked at him in confusion for a moment before she snorted.

"Idiot. I meant after your stroll in the market yesterday."

It was his time to blink in confusion before his sleep-fogged mind suddenly cleared. The shadow clones, of course! Running through his memories, he was disappointed when he came up short.

"No, nothing new on that front."

Baa-chan frowned pensively. "People sometimes say that no news is good news. Your grandfather on the other hand thinks that no news is a disaster. I am inclined to agree."

"You want me to try busting a couple of them, to see what they know?" he offered. Tsunade was shaking her head before he had even finished.

"No use risking the danger just for a check. Someone might see, and then they would be more alert." She sat back, still frowning, but she seemed to reign her mind back into the room. "I let you rest it off, because I know yesterday was a strain, even for you. But now, we need you to get ready." She looked at him meaningfully. "We have that private performance for that rich merchant in half an hour. Eat, then see to the props, grandson."

"No problem," he muttered, rubbing his eye. Then he grinned a bit cheekily at her and added, "granma!"

As expected, her eye twitched, but she snorted, stood and left with little more than a token glare.

Half an hour later found him almost out of breath and wiping sweat despite the snowy climate as he dropped the last piece of heavy wood into the garden. The cart couldn't enter the closed garden unless he wheeled straight through a room, so he'd have to pull the stage apart and reassemble it among the night jasmine.

Straightening with his arms akimbo, he surveyed his work critically, making sure he hadn't forgotten anything, just on time to hear his name called behind him.

"Shin-kun!"

Only one person called him that, and he turned around with a grin to greet his Hinata-chan. She was even more welcome than usual, as she came bearing a large tray with tea and dumplings, and had apparently recruited Kiba to drag the marionette trunk to the set.

"Here," she said gently, putting the tray down and offering the food, which he started wolfing down immediately.

"Not as good as yours," he said with a frown and a shrug. She only smiled and shook her head with a slight blush. "Say, Ken, how are you and Jigo? Haven't seen you since yesterday."

"No different than we were the day before," Kiba replied with a laugh, and Naruto hid a frown by taking a bite. Apparently, neither the dog-nin nor their friend's vast reserves of insect spies had garnered anything yet either.

A few minutes into the start of the play brought a small measure of luck with it, however. Naruto had expected to be quite harassed during this performance; the first night of their stay, the inn staff had cleared one of the larger rooms reserved for the tono's stay and the troupe had staged a performance there as part of their lodging payment. Moving the props and backgrounds had been near impossible without the proper equipment, but the worst offenders had been the maids and younger children on employ in the inn. They had tried to touch and get into everything as he moved them (dressed in a ridiculous black get-up that was supposed to make him 'invisible' to the audience. He was sure they could see him perfectly; how damn stupid). It had made keeping the instinct to burst into kage bunshin a real pain to hold in check.

This afternoon, however, their 'rich merchant' had apparently paid off the innkeeper to keep anyone from accessing a performance he had especially paid for. None of the inn's staff where anywhere to be seen, and he was glad for it. As he worked the lever to change the background as ero-sensei, impersonating the god Suzanoo as bombastically as he could in full makeup, came on stage to meet the princess for the first time, his eyes kept straying to Hinata-chan, remembering last night.

Her hair was gathered in an elaborate but staid hairdo along the right side of her head, small streams of black hair loose just behind her ear. Her eyes were half closed, and that helped him imagine her missing byakugan back in its rightful place. Fingers flashed up and down as the flute played the tune that went with the scene. Her kimono was simple, dark blue decorated in silver stitches held closed with a grey obi, but it did nothing to hide her proportions. Baa-chan beside her wore the exact same things as she played the koto, but she certainly didn't look half as good, nor had Naruto any problems looking away from her.

Only staring will get you nowhere, useless human child!

A bellow from ero-sensei on stage almost made him jump and he tore his eyes off Hinata-chan. Turning furiously at another winch-lever to change the background and roll the dragon marionette onto the stage, he turned to face the performers, giving the musicians his back. He really didn't care to know what Baa-chan would do to him if he got distracted in front of the Daimyo, and even though it appeared as though they had no witnesses, they had decided to stage the play in its entirety while using the occasion as a dress rehearsal.

It wasn't much of a surprise that he was only half-aware of the play finishing around him. The Daimyo made a show of congratulating them loudly, and then just as loudly invited them to a meal in his room. For the sake of haste and efficiency, Kiba and Neiji rushed in to help Naruto hastily put all the props to a safe place for the festival that night, while Shino was taken by Baa-chan and Hinata-chan to an empty room so that he and ero-sensei could remove their expensive, heavy costumes and makeup.

It was more than half an hour, therefore, before they were gathered in the Daimyo's room, and even more than that before they could speak freely as the servants closed the door behind them, the promised meal for the 'troupe' sitting on steaming trays before them.

"Ah, I become so chilled here at night," the old man said amiably at Hinata-chan. She just smiled back. "Would you mind terribly if we closed the door into the garden?"

"Allow me, good sir," Jiraiya said, and soon, all the rice paper doors were not only shut, but sealed, and screens had been drawn before the glass. "Done. We can begin our meeting, Daimyo-sama."

"Hmm." The old man smiled complacently, opening a paper fan and gently fanning himself as he looked down at the tatami contemplatively. "I read all the papers you left me, Hokage-sama, and I've come to many of your same conclusions. We need to move urgently. I know you are taking a great risk in being here, all of you." Naruto blinked as the old man's eyes stopped on him for a moment. "But I'm afraid it was necessary, as many unpleasant things are. I have found those reports particularly concerning Suna very … worrying."

"Yes, your absence was ripe ground for their Daimyo to try to turn the others to his opinion," Tsunade replied with a sigh. Naruto looked on, feeling both a vague tenseness and a vague sense of bewilderment as the gravity of the situation mixed with the complete blank of their conversation. The Daimyo put his fan down, slipping his hand into the opposite sleeve and taking out tobacco and a startingly familiar pipe.

"Not to matter, in the end." Stuffing it with long, bony fingers, he lit it, and took a breath, letting out the smoke with a sigh. "It is too late for us to leave before the festival without arousing suspicion. Even if I were to offer to become your patron, you would still not leave just before a festival. No reasonable troupe who lives off the trade would. And I have 'come for the festival' myself." Another pause, another cloud of fragrant smoke. "Having received no post today, I can hardly use the excuse of urgent business and drag you along with me. So I am very much afraid that we cannot avoid any danger set for us here tonight."

"We will guard you with our life," Jiraiya said, which made Naruto twitch, and turn to give him a warning glare. The Daimyo's poorly suppressed chuckle snatched his attention right back to the stately man; finding the old man looking at him didn't make Naruto feel any less tense.

"I feel you don't approve of Jiraiya's last statement at all, Naruto-kun," the old man said. Naruto blinked at him incredulously. Wha…? And … Naruto-kun? What the…

"Don't be so surprised, Naruto-kun. I do know quite a great deal about you." The Daimyo's smile turned conspiratorial. "It is rather hard not to."

"Um … thank … you?" he said, not sure whether it was a complement or not. The Daimyo chuckled merrily again.

"No need for all this politeness, boy. I'm sure we'll be seeing enough of each other in the future that we'll be on first name bases soon enough, like your old master and I. So tell me," he paused to take another drag of tobacco. "Still have that dream of yours, I hope?"

"I…" He blinked. Could he actually just say it in front of the guy who actually made the decision on who the next Hokage would be…? Aw, why the hell not? "I will be Hokage someday." A smirk spread across his cheeks even as he felt just a tiny bit of colour rise to them. But he didn't care; Baa-chan had hinted it, and now this old guy too, and he pulled the shots as much as she did. His heart began thundering when the Daimyo looked approving rather than reproachful.

"Dattebayo." He blinked and turned to Neiji abruptly. The older boy was smirking at him with a side-long glance, and … was that pride? Fuck, Hyuuga were weird. Well, except for Hinata-chan of course-

"Aah, yes." The Daimyo was openly laughing now, but there was nothing nasty or uneasy about it. Naruto found himself liking the man more and more, as images of the Third immediately rose to mind with his laid back persona hiding a spine of steel. "That phrase does give courage, I hear. Some of the front lines use it as a battle cry."

"Um, yeah, well, that started as a joke, actually," he said with a wince, rubbing the back of his head. The tenseness in the room dissolved slightly as they all sniggered.

"So, if I recall, had the nickname 'yellow-flash'?" the Daimyo pointed out. Naruto's eyes rose to his sharply. "And really, it's no surprise, with a lineage like yours… but still. It is such a pity certain circumstances hold us back, you see. We have had a young Hokage before, after all." He tapped the stem of his pipe to his teeth leadingly, and it dawned on Naruto why memories of the Third had suddenly become so keen. "And we have even appointed a new one in the middle of a war, twice, between Sarutobi and your father. But … ah well." He paused to breathe in the perfumed tobacco, contemplatively blowing it out. "This nasty … Madara situation does need to be sorted out first, since he has made you a target specifically. Such a pity."

Holy shit, was he really saying that …

"We will take him down, sir," Hinata-chan said quietly, and Naruto turned to give her a smirking nod. She didn't look at him, however, as she was bowing rather low.

"Ah! Hinata-chan. How have you been, you look well. Your clan is eating rice?"

"Yes, Daimyo-sama," she replied, sitting back up with a smile. "We humbly thank you for your interest, and hope you are eating rice too."

"Yes. Good, good. Naruto-kun, tell me." Naruto blinked at being addressed again so abruptly. Absently, the Daimyo tapped his pipe against a tray, and then began slowly refilling it. "How do you feel about my family being in power?"

"Huh?" Naruto eloquently replied. The Daimyo snorted with just as much dignity.

"Ah, Jiraiya, you were right. His sincerity is his best asset." Ero-sensei just rolled his eyes with a snort of his own, ignoring Naruto's pointed glower. "What I meant is, Naruto-kun, would you have any objection if my son took power after me?"

Naruto blinked. Was it a trick question? Did he even have any real say in that? He scrunched his eyes shut and tried to remember any lesson from Iruka-sensei about the Daimyo system and drew up a blank (or rather, an afternoon fishing with Kiba). Heck he needed Sakura- or Hinata-chan!

Turning to try looking at her surreptitiously, he found her looking back at him with a steady expression that nonetheless told him nothing at all. His eyes ran over all the other people in the room in turn; Neiji looked ahead, Kiba and Shino were no help at all, and he swore if ero-sensei sniggered one more time, he'd swallow that zori. Well… it was time to wing it.

"If your son's the type to go around killing people and starting wars, then we have a problem. If he doesn't … then we don't," he finished lamely. The Daimyo stared at him unblinking for a second, pipe half way to his mouth. Then he burst into a full on laugh.

"Ah! So this is what it is going to be like! How I long to see you slap down those slippery counsellors… to think! I will have this to look forward to once I retire!" He composed himself enough to chuckle. "No, no, Kazuo is anything but a killer. In fact, that is really why it would quiet put my mind at ease, Naruto-kun, to know that he has you on his side. He's quite young, you see. About your age … wanted to be a monk, the poor boy, before his brothers left him their heavy future." Smiling, the old man puffed some smoke, wrinkles around his eyes cementing the image of Sarutobi that complemented the pipe. "So, what do you say, boy?"

"I have no problem making a new friend," he replied with a smile of his own. The Daimyo laughed again, and Naruto felt Hinata-chan's warm hands slipping into his and squeezing affectionately for a moment.

Don't let go, the Kyuubi hissed suddenly, almost startling him even as Hinata-chan's hand flitted out of his. He shifted uneasily. The Youma had been exceptionally viscous of late, and it had only grown worse since their stroll in the market yesterday. A resounding growl echoed in his skull.

"All is settled, then," Tsunade's voice interrupted the noise in his head. "When will you be leaving?"

"Oh, tomorrow. Quite naturally, as the Matsuri will be over. And I will offer you all patronage. I admit that I will not mind having your extra protection with me for the starting part of the journey. That is, of course, if all goes well tonight."

"It will," Tsunade replied firmly.

"We will meet again tomorrow then." The Daimyo held up his tea. "To the Will of Fire."

Naruto snorted and smirked. That did it; the old man was definitely on his 'like' list.

"To the Will of Fire," he answered before anyone could, holding up his own cup and downing it in tandem with the Daimyo.

.o0o.

The noise of the matsuri was a lot louder than she had anticipated, and the number of people crowding the market, turned into rows of stalls selling food, games and entertainment, astonished her most of all.

The light had just begun waning. Multi-coloured silk and paper lanterns winked and flickered everywhere the eye could see. The stage for their kabuki performance was set and ready behind her, taking up a considerable space of the market's thoroughfare, but no one seemed to resent it. Excited children streaked between legs and booths, shrieking with laughter and donning festival masks. Even the animals seemed to have been taken in by the general exultance in the air; horses whinnied, sometimes being lucky enough to be given sweet rice pastries. Dogs and puppies barked excitedly, mostly following the children around to lap up anything they dropped. Even their surely mule, which was tethered to the back of the stage, sometimes gave a bray that didn't sound too annoyed.

Hinata spared a sidelong glance at Tsunade-sama, who as always was seated next to her, tuning her koto in preparation for the first play they would act out in the Suzanoo Monogatari that the team had selected before they left Konoha. All the men on stage wore masks except for Jiraiya, whose make up designed him as Suzanoo, and Shino's role as the princess placed him in the optimal condition of having several layers of voluminous robes to hide his arsenal of insects.

Hinata winced in slight sympathy as a bevy of laughter from behind the stage – Kiba and Naruto – told her that Shino had not yet lived the 'princess in distress' role down. Exchanging a look with Tsunade-sama, she was suddenly sure that he never really would.

The first two performances went off without a hitch. The benches that had been lined in rows before their stage were never empty, and the children and adults got involved in the stories in equal measures, clapping, jeering or being astonished by the small firecrackers Naruto let off in the right places.

It was during the third performance that the atmosphere around their stage began to change. First two soldiers, dressed in armour and livery of the tono, and then another five swaggered up, hoisting people from their seats and sitting down. Food and beverage stalls nearby had been doing very good business thanks to their plays, but now most of them sent their wares on the hands of fearful young children, who scampered away without waiting to be paid. More samurai joined the crowd, and Hinata began to feel her muscles tense when their jeers and taunt, which had previously been answers to the on-going performance, began to turn to her and Tsunade-sama in voices loud enough to drown the play.

"Oh yes, we all know what's going to happen tonight!" one of them laughed in a voice hoarse from smoking. He openly leered at Hinata and she felt a shudder run through her as many of the other followed suit. The dragon marionette snapping into place a little too violently told her she wasn't the only one who had noticed.

The moment the performance finished, Tsunade quickly stood, moving the table that held the koto in such a way that would act as a barrier. One of the samurai, however, with stale sake fouling his breath, reached forward and roughly grabbed Hinata's forearm.

"Pretty little chit. Sure knows how to choose 'em…" he turned to his companions. "D'you think he'll mind if I taste her first?"

Hinata held herself very still, eyes trained on the man while her naturally wider peripheral vision kept rapt track of both Tsunade-sama and the other men in the crowd. Neither one of the women knew what he was talking about, though it may be the raving of a drunkard, however it was of the utmost importance that their cover be kept. A shudder of fear ran down her spine; that meant that unless she was sure she wasn't seen, she couldn't defend herself.

"Oi!"

For a moment of terror, Hinata thought the outcry had come from Naruto or Kiba. She loved them with all her heart, but she knew they were impulsive, and sometimes acted before they thought. With the Daimyo on the balance in the way they had been suspecting, they just couldn't risk starting a brawl.

Luckily, it was another samurai who had snarled the warning note. Still jeering and snarling, the drunken men backed away from the troupe cautiously. Hinata's keen eyes immediately took in the slightly different colours the man wore; still the same, but subtly lighter, and the kanji on his helmet also seemed different.

"You're drunk already," the newcomer said in obvious disgust. "You're supposed to be on patrol, you disgraces! Return to the tono's house at once!"

"Yes, sir," the one who'd grabbed her growled mutinously, giving a bow that was too shallow for respect. The man narrowed his eyes as he watched them go, and Hinata, trembling slightly from the adrenaline, stood rooted to the spot when he turned towards them.

"Carry on," he muttered gruffly with one look at her that seemed almost pitying. The crowd around the stage had cleared very quickly when the samurai had begun to make a scene, and it was a lot easier for the team to regroup behind the stage.

"You ok?" Naruto asked frantically as soon as they were out of sight. He grabbed her shoulders, looking her up and down before he took her by the elbow and began examining her upper arm. "Did he hurt you?"

"I swear, if he did…" Kiba growled where he stood not three steps away.

"It would be quiet irrelevant," Shino said, looking blankly ahead. His colony, however, was giving short bursts of noise, as though he couldn't quite control it enough to keep it completely silent. "We must carry on. Am I correct?"

"We have to," Tsunade-sama said, exchanging a glance with Jiraiya-sama.

"Hmmm. However, people are going to get more and more drunk as the night wear on." Jiraiya-sama gave the entire troupe a calculating glance. "We only have two more scripts to go through. Perhaps we could do it without the instruments."

"That would attract less attention in general," Tsunade-sama agreed, however she was frowning. "But without the instruments in the front, it will be substandard. We may offend the tono who gave us the performance space… we can handle it, but we may get detained, and I do not want to be stuck here after tonight. I could carry on with the koto."

"And have you on your own at the front?" Jiraiya-sama said with a scowl. "No, not an option. If they return, and decide to take issue with you because she is missing…"

"I don't see how that's a problem, I can"-

"No, you can't," Jiraiya-sama said with a hard face. "That's the point. None of us can. Remember who you are, Hime-sama."

Tsunade-sama let out a growl that wouldn't have been out of a place on a tailed beast. Hinata heaved a deep breath, gently removing Naruto's hands.

"I think we should carry on as we are," she said quietly. Naruto-kun and Kiba-kun both turned on her with a remarkable snarl on their face, but she shook her head. "Please, whatever I am right now … I can still defend myself without leaving a mark. It would be best if I stayed further back in the stage's shadows, to avoid attention, but … we must go on, and Akane-sama cannot be left alone at the front."

"I agree." Jiraiya received a look that she'd never seen on Naruto-kun's face, but the older man ignored it. Tsunade frowned, but nodded.

"It is the only solution. We may be wrapping our heads before we break it, but … we need to carry on. Ken, Jigo, come."

Hinata sighed, letting some of the tension flow out of her as the group broke off, Neiji-niisan being dragged reluctantly away by Jiraiya-sama. Her upper arm throbbed; it would be a nasty bruise tomorrow, but nothing she hadn't received in a good training session.

"Are you sure you're ok?"

Naruto-kun on the other hand didn't sound any less tense at all. When she looked back at him, she found blue eyes looking at her from under threads of black hair, focussed and extremely worried.

"Yes, I promise," she whispered back, and stole a kiss in the hopes of calming him down. As she anticipated, his shoulders eased when he hugged her, but how he leaned on her sounded alarm bells in her mind.

"I swear, if I weren't so tired…"

"How are you holding up?" she whispered quietly in his ear.

"I'm fine… just a bit washed out." He moved away from her slightly, rubbing one eye with the heel of a grubby hand. "Glad I'm not out there in a princess get up, I tell you, but the grunt work back here is no joke. Not to mention, you know…"

Hinata knew well enough. The way he'd been asleep this morning had frightened her. She'd tried to wake him up several times before Tsunade-sama had risked a quick check up. Finding that his chakra was divided into over 375 units, and that he'd been able to sustain the jutsu for so long hadn't been a surprise in and of itself, but it had explained how fatigued he seemed. As it was, his blood pressure hadn't been stellar, and his chakra levels were getting regularly leeched off.

"It'll soon be over," she murmured back to him, stealing another kiss. He smirked down at her, and they moved back to their places after a brief hug.

It almost seemed as if her words would come true, too. She was playing through the last sheet of music for the final play wrapping the night up. The benches in front of their stage were only half full now, and though people were still milling around the stalls, the crowd had thinned considerably. She hit a sharp note and then lowered the flute to move the sheet closer to Tsunade-sama for the next part when she noticed the presence of samurai again. Tensing slightly, she exchanged a glance with her Hokage, who plainly told her with a glance to be on guard.

The men had, at least, the manners to wait for the performance to finish before they moved forward. Judging by the livery, they were not of the same branch as the man who had stopped the previous gaggle of roughards, and Hinata could feel her back snap taut with nerves.

"Girl," one of them said, clearly addressing her. "You have been given the honour of an invitation from the tono tonight. Follow us."

The clearing went almost completely silent, save for the milling crowd. People who had been sitting on the benches vanished.

Cold, hard dread settled in her stomach. She knew these things happened; a kunoichi undercover had to keep her cover first and foremost, and she was still, above other things, a woman. If she attracted the wrong attention …

"There must be a mistake," Tsunade-sama said from beside her, making her voice as humble and as old as she could. "My daughter-in-law is not an available woman, you see, and we are not women of ill-repute."

"Silence, hag," the soldier interrupted. His eyes flashed back towards Hinata impatiently. "You are to come now. Follow us, or we will take you."

"I…" she choked, but stood and nodded, keeping her head down. "May I pl- please get my night clothing? Please."

She couldn't lift her eyes from the ground beneath her feet as the blood rushed in her ears. This had never happened to her before. She was a Hyuuga… though she had been a kunoichi for years and the danger of one such a mission as this were real, Tsunade-sama had been careful to keep it out of her way through consideration of her clan's sensibilities.

But this mission was of utmost importance. There wasn't an alternative or a way out, and it was the tono himself who was asking… asking…

Her stomach gave a lurch and she felt as though she was about to be ill as her thoughts turned to Naruto-kun and his tender touches. She had never thought, her first time …

"Hurry it on then, girl. Don't keep your betters waiting," the samurai snarled. Tsunade-sama's hand grasped her elbow in a vice grip and she was almost hauled to the back of the stage, stumbling on slightly nerveless feet.

"What the shit did he want?" Naruto-kun hissed as soon as they were around the back, and his hands on her back made her nausea increase.

"Apparently the tono of this town is the sort that collects girls," Tsunade-sama snarled. Jiraiya-sama paled under his makeup. "Why the hell didn't your informer tell you this?"

"I'll wring his neck," the older man hissed.

"What do you mean? What do we do?" Naruto asked, holding her to him more tightly.

"We have to play along. There's no time," Tsunade-sama snarled. "We don't have everything ready to leave now, and the safety of our charge is still our first priority!"

"What the fuck do you mean," Naruto-kun hissed, and much to everyone's alarm, his eyes flickered red. "We are not sending Hinata-chan in there on her own with some sleazy bastard scum."

"We don't have time to argue!" Tsunade-sama hissed again. "Ken, fetch a spare yukata quickly. Hinata-chan, listen to me." The Hokage looked her squarely in the eyes. "Don't panic. Are you a virgin?"

Hinata gasped, and she could hear Naruto-kun choking beside her. Nonetheless, she managed a stunted nod, which made her Hokage snarl.

"Kami, grandson, couldn't you even… nevermind. Listen to me, Hinata-chan. You're going to be alone in a room with this man. Even if guards escort you there, the odds will be that they will close the room on you. Keep your cover as long as possible, but if you have the chance to knock him out silently before he goes too far, do it. We will make ourselves ready to leave as soon as possible. If you cannot get out of it … if you cannot, just remember; think of getting away with your spirit intact, you hear?"

No mention of my body, Hinata noticed dispassionately. Her thoughts were interrupted by Naruto-kun's arms around her snapping like a vice.

"No way. No Fucking way. You're all going to have to kill me first," he hissed.

"Na"-

"I'll do it instead," he went on. "One more kage bunshin won't kill me. I'll put a henge on it, and"-

"Vetoed," Tsunade-sama snarled, even as a holler from the front warned them that the samurai were becoming impatient. "You're already low on reserves as you are, and we still have a first priority on this mission, so I need you fit. Now stand aside. That's an order, Naruto."

"Do you have everything?" Shino asked in his quiet way, gently pointing towards the bundle he had just slipped into trembling arms. Hinata swept her eyes over them, almost not seeing them in the panic and dread that were taking over her mind.

"Bandages, I usually wear them…" she floundered, not really knowing what to say.

"I'll get them," Naruto-kun spat, making her flinch and look after him helplessly. Dear kami, what would he think of her, after … if she didn't manage to get away, and …. It was her duty, she knew, but …

"Hinata-chan," Tsunade-sama whispered to her, stepping close to her. "This … this sometimes happens in the life of a kunoichi. But if you can avoid it, if you can get away without raising an alarm, then do. But … I'm sorry to ask this of you, granddaughter-in-law." Hinata looked at her earnest eyes, absently startled by how honestly pained she looked. "But you have to think that our Daimyo is here, and that he may still be in danger. Do not do anything that may risk his life, or this war may be lost. I do not need to tell you what will become of us and Naruto if that happens."

Everything snapped into perspective, then. If their Daimyo died here, tonight, because of a mistake she made, the plans Tsunade-sama had been working on for months may well fall apart. Even though they weren't showing it, the shinobi forces were strained, especially along the borders with Grass, Sand and Waterfall.

And if Madara won, Naruto would be …

"I will do what I have to," she whispered back.

"Here," Naruto-kun snarled from behind her, dropping a roll of bandages into the bundle. Then he took her by the shoulders and kissed her savagely. "Please, be ok," he whispered hoarsely in her ear.

"I will."

"Girl!"

With a backwards glance over her shoulders into his eyes, she stumbled forward around the stage, clutching the yukata and bandages to her. She was a kunoichi first and foremost, but …. For him; even if he hated her afterwards, even if he no longer wanted her, she would do anything.

.o0o.

Hinata was not sure what to do with herself when the servant girl led her to a room with scented water and told her to wash herself. Numbly, she towelled the day's sweat off her, wrapping her breasts in the bandages Naruto-kun had brought for her and then dressed in the white silk long-sleeved kimono that had obviously been prepared for her. When the servant girl came in to tie her obi, Hinata was scarcely breathing with dread, fear, disgust, raw terror and a calm sort of determination that made her stomach lurch even more.

The obi, she realised in horrified fascination, was tied in such a way that it unfastened at the front. The man, whoever, whatever he was, either expected her to disrobe for him herself, or would, most probably, not even bother removing the garment from her. Her mind went on to detail in a sick sort of attention, though she begged herself to stop, that the folds of silk around her were arranged like those of a courtesan; easy access and practicality.

Pulling the upper part of the kimono shut more tightly to cover the bandages she always wore to contain her breast, as she was sure she was not supposed to be wearing them, she followed the servant with leaden feet, swallowing thickly as bile kept rising to her throat. Every step, she remembered the Daimyo, Naruto-kun and how he was at a stone's throw away from reaching his dream if the hints dropped that afternoon had been honest. She wouldn't let this war take them away from him, she wouldn't allow her fear to stand in his way. If the Daimyo died, and the alliance between the Kage and the other Daimyo were to collapse…

"Wait here," the servant said, looking upon her with a blank face. Gulping, and knowing she was as white as a sheet, Hinata nodded numbly and entered the room.

There, sitting down on a silk cushion, it was all she could do to keep the tears in check. If she didn't get away, if she didn't manage… last night and the nights before that came to her mind, where gentle kissing had given way to passionate but still loving caresses from Naruto's hands. Her insides clenched painfully at the thought of another man's hands on her.

A door opened, and a small, old man walked in, opulent robes indicating who he was without a word. He waved her over loftily, his eyes moving over her ravenously as she moved. Hinata kept her own eyes down, even though her enhanced peripheral vision still tortured her with his leer.

Almost immediately, his hand was in her hair. She stood stiffly straight, her eyes still on her knees, as his hands brushed her ears while he tugged and pulled at the arrangement Tsunade-sama had set her hair into. Turmoil mixed with rising aversion inside her, and she was glad when her hair finally came loose, cascading around her, and his hands came away.

"Have some tea." It was more of an order than a politeness, and Hinata knew the purpose for it perfectly as she was obliged to pour tea for him first, and he hungrily ate the sight of her exposed forearms when her sleeve retreated as she served him.

His hand snapped out and he grabbed her wrist before she could even put the pot down. A shudder of disgust ran through her as she restrained the instinct to splash the scalding water in his face. Beady, black, greedy eyes raked over her, unheeding of any danger he might be in. To her dismay, she realised that the doors leading towards the garden had been left open, and guards seemed to be patrolling the perimeter. She couldn't knock him out right away! Gods, oh no… oh no …

She flinched and looked away when his other hand reached for the neck of her kimono and pulled the silk down harshly, bile, terror and sickness warring within her as his fingers touched her skin. He hissed in open displeasure at the sight of the bandages, and seemed about to reach around to strike her with one hand while the other made to grab her breast roughly. She closed her eyes in preparation for the blow, tears of revulsion welling in her eyes.

A high, girlish scream rent the air. Outside, the samurai didn't look in, but some shifted uncomfortably while others actually sniggered. Hinata opened her eyes again, trembling, and not sure whether she had been the one who had screamed. She hadn't felt him touch her, what…

The tono was crumpled in front of her, white and ill-looking with sudden pain as he clawed at the hand holding his wrist in a bend that was extremely painful. There was a muted snap, almost like a slap, and he screamed again to more tittering from some of the men outside. Without looking in, two of them slid the door leading to the garden shut.

Hinata looked down in astonishment, her mind drawing a blank. The hand that had just broken the tono's wrist was … was emerging from her own chest. Breathing deeply registered no pain, so she hadn't been impaled, but she couldn't understand how a whole arm starting at the shoulder had suddenly appeared from the bandaging that-

Her eyes went impossibly wide as her brain snapped to the solution even as the tono began gasping and bubbling in pain. Dropping his wrist, the hand snapped around to grip the man's face until he was almost choking, fingers digging into sallow cheeks. The shoulder emerged from the bandaging completely, and then Naruto-kun was there and her chest was bare as her kimono fell around her obi even as she clutched at it. A henge into bandages, a bunshin to bring them to her, Naruto-kun had been…

"How do you like it now, you bastard," Naruto-kun hissed, holding the man down against the tatami with such force that his nails were drawing blood from the noble's cheek. "How many girls have you held down like this, eh? Each and every one of them crying and begging and beating at your hands as you're doing now … and you didn't give a fuck, didn't you? Karma's a bitch though, with long, long arms. She got you good when you decided to touch my Hinata-chan." Hinata looked on in a semi-horrified stupor as Naruto-kun's eyes suddenly flared red. "Want me to show you what it really feels like, you sick fuck?" A kunai bloomed in his hand, and Hinata watched, eyes widening as he switched it to a stabbing hold.

Just as she dived for his arm, all hell broke loose in the garden outside. Yells, screams and calls announced a sudden ambush and battle, and then even the guards holding the other door leading inside the house were under attack. They stood frozen for a millisecond, unsure whether the attack was actually a plan Tsunade-sama had simply not informed them of.

Then a samurai flew through the rice door with a spear and three arrows through his gut, and a band of three rough men who were obviously the ronin they had been fearing would attack their Daimyo followed the dying man in.

Before the assailants could lay eyes on them, Hinata was already moving. A kage bunshin sprang into life, and they quickly dragged Naruto with them towards a shadowy corner, casting a genjutsu to conceal their presence. The ronin fell upon the tono will ill-hidden pleasure, hoisting him standing by his hair.

"Brother-in-law," came a staid voice from the door. A tall figure, also dressed in silk entered the room calmly, completely disregarding the chaos and violence. Stilling from their battering, the ronin pulled the tono higher, who let out a pained howl as some of his hair was ripped from his skull.

"Ki-Kiromaza! What- What are you doing?"

The older man gasped, visibly shaking and strangling both sobs and heaves of pain as he attempted to cradle his swelling wrist and get into his feet at once. One of the ronin kicked his legs out from underneath him, making the man whimper as more hair came loose. "Kiromaza! What-"

"Do not be repetitive, brother-in-law," the other man said. He walked right up to the man, looking down on him silently for a moment.

"Traitor! Honourless demon!" The hissing was interrupted by a sharp slap, even as the garden quieted, and screams began to rise from the village.

"I am honourless?" There was emotion now in Kiromaza's tone. Hinata almost shuddered at the amount of hatred that dripped from every word. "Tell me, tono-sama, where is the honour in taking a newlywed woman into your bed by threatening the life of her husband? Where is the honour in stealing a young girl from her family, so that could ruin her between your sheets? How many girls have you sullied?"

"It is not your"-

Another sharp slap rattled the older man's teeth, and he flew clear out of the ronin's grip. He tried to scramble away, but a vicious kick to the stomach stopped him in his tracks. He retched violently onto the pristine tatami, and then was hauled upright with a hand on his ruff as he gasped wetly. Holding her breath, Hinata's mind tried to find a way in which they could leave, leave now, and she knew Naruto was doing the same beside her; her clone was holding up, and keeping the illusion for them both, but it couldn't last forever. Casting her eyes about, however, she could see of no way out that didn't include smashing through the rice doors. They were momentarily trapped.

"Do not speak," Kiromaza stated, "to your betters. You lost all honour when you attempted to unrobe my daughter, your niece, last month." Kiromaza looked around, then nodded towards one of the men. A rough-chinned youth in red armour bowed, then flung the rice-doors open.

Men outside where dragging bodies away, leaving trails of blood. The screams from the village became louder, and were now accompanied by the acrid smell of burning wood, textile and human flesh as plumes of smoke rose against the night sky.

"I told your men to stay their hands from the villagers," Kiromaza said sternly. One of the ronin stirred uncomfortably under his penetrating glare.

"You said guests and outsiders were fair game," was the defiant reply. Hinata's back snapped ramrod straight at the news; their Daimyo was still in danger, and so was Hokage-sama. Though both the Sannin were on this mission, arguably the most powerful member of their team was here … trapped with her, instead of where he was needed most. If the Daimyo died… the flashes of the horrifying scenarios that had carried her into this room and let the now sobbing old man touch her returned in vivid and lurid colours.

"Hmm. So I did." Kiromaza turned his gaze around the room almost absently. "The girl from the kabuki troupe. I know he brought her here tonight. Where is she?" Hinata tensed further as the screams from outside mixed with the cold dread that gripped her throat and stomach. Holding her breath, she spared Naruto-kun a glance.

His hands were flying up to form hand-seals.

She grabbed his hands in the same instant as her eyes met her bunshin, who nodded and instantly brought out its own copy of her silver flute, which she had slipped into her sleeve at the last moment as a possible legitimate weapon to use. With a nod, the clone closed its eyes and began to play a tune that filled the room with tremulous, high notes.

Naruto looked at her with a panicked, confused expression and she kissed him soundly before releasing his hands.

"Wait until I've lured them away, then go to find Tsunade-sama," she whispered in his ear even while her fingers formed seals that Kakashi-sensei had only taught her as a stepping stone towards learning ice jutsu. She had never thought …

"Kirigakure no jutsu," she whispered, watching keenly as Naruto's eyes tripled in size. She allowed more and more chakra to leave her as she reached for the lake, bringing as much mist and fog from its surface as she could muster.

"What the fuck is going on!" one of the ronin in the garden yelled. The men in the room growled and drew their weapons and samurai in different livery ran inside to surround Kiromaza. But they all looked wildly around as the genjutsu in the tune distorted the sound itself, making it impossible for them to locate its provenance.

Taking a deep breathe, Hinata closed her eyes and emptied her mind. She was not Hinata anymore; no, she was mist, dew, ice, water…

Hand-seals formed themselves when her hands came together at dizzying speed even as some of the archers began to let off arrows at random. One of them thudded not a foot away from them, and Naruto-kun beside her hissed.

"I'm not letting you-!"

"There!"

White, wet clouds of mist roiled lazily into the room, swirling into sudden maelstroms as the men snapped around towards their hidden position. Hinata opened her eyes and almost saw things happening slowly as the jutsu took hold of her. She blinked, and her lids fell on approaching, gleaming arrow heads.

When she opened them again, the arrows were not there, and the room was coated in a fine layer of white, freezing, glimmering powder.

Hinata stood out of their cover and stepped, barefooted as she was, onto the covered tatami. Arrows littered the perimeter of their hiding place, and when she looked up at the men in the room, they stepped back in alarm. Her clone began playing longer, sharper notes on the flute, and the sound suddenly began to amplify and carry, bouncing against the walls of the garden outside and beyond.

"What the fuck are you? Where did you come from?" one of the older men snarled, hefting a halberd towards her. Instead of answering, Hinata simply raised her arms, still clad as she was in the white kimono that she'd been given, long sleeves trailing on the floor behind her. Her byakugan flared, though the jutsu masked the veins around her eyes, and then her first two fingers touched her thumb, and her wrist whipped forward.

All the men gasped, the youngest of the ronin screaming in pain, mirroring the screams and shouts from the rest of the village. The tono joined in the screaming moments later as the snow began gathering up their legs rapidly, solidifying before their eyes in a piercingly painful hold.

Two of the samurai at Kiromaza's command launched themselves forward at her, but were frozen in place, in half leap, not three seconds later with a crackling sound of forming crystals, spears hefted at the ready. Their terrified expression could just be made out from within the misty ice as they suffocated by degrees.

Hinata lowered her hands and the crumpled kimono front opened slightly above the obi, almost as a reminder of the man's foul, rough touch. She didn't dare rearrange it as it slid all the way over her collar bone, only to be luckily stopped by her ample breasts' weight, free of their usual bindings, before it slipped over the shoulder.

She moved cautiously forward, already feeling the strain of the multiple jutsu she was maintaining as she allowed her eyes to roam the people in the room. As quickly as she could muster, she began to spread her second jutsu across the house, as more and more snowy powder began coating the wood in a layer of frost. The flute behind her continued, sharp notes alternating with mellow, muting tunes that began to spread an unnatural silence inside the house. Samurai that had been on their way towards the room froze in place outside the garden and corridor, and ice rose higher on the tono's body as he whimpered and shrieked, all the other men either beating at it furiously, or watching her with unmasked horror in their eyes.

"You are the girl from the kabuki troupe," Kiromaza hissed, face as white as the snow that was slowly encasing him. His features, however, remained expressionless, eyes flinty.

Turning to look at him, some of his samurai tried to move to intercept her gaze, but none of them could budge the ice.

"Yuki was the name that Shin gave me," she whispered, tilting her head, reciting a passage from her family's legend scrolls from memory. "I became human for him, would have loved him and borne him children, and died a human death. But to save him and my dignity, I have had to give up that form." She stepped forwards again, her hair, now brilliant white, swinging around her. "You have cost me my Shin, and now you will die."

Some of the men struggled vainly to get free. Hinata walked slowly forward, both the weight of the kimono and the amount of chakra bleeding out of her making her limbs feel like lead. Once she was in front of Kiromaza, she turned her face until she was looking into the tono's eyes.

Raising her arm, her wrist flicked again. The invisible chakra whip slashed his face open, and then his screaming was cut off by the ice encasing his face. Turning back towards Kiromaza, she was satisfied to see a flicker of terror pass behind his impassive eyes before he could control himself. For a long moment, she looked steadily into his eyes, allowing the genjutsu to take hold completely. He collapsed onto himself, the ice that clung to him up to the waist holding him upright.

Her back muscles suddenly seized in a torturously painful way, and she held her breath as tears sprung to her eyes unbidden from the agony. Searing cramps took her breath away as her body began to suffer from chakra deficiency. However, she did not… could NOT stop.

Turning around and pointedly avoiding the corner where her Naruto-kun was hidden, she walked calmly out into the garden with measured steps. Run, she taught frantically at him, you can't break cover, you have to get to the Daimyo, wait until they faint, then go!

Her mind seemed to have been invaded by her own genjutsu as an unnatural calm, probably born of the beginning stages of exhaustion, kept her thoughts clear. Her heart, however, beat frantically as her body fought to keep producing the amount of chakra required to keep both the mist, the genjutsu and the clone active.

The wall around the garden was low, cobbles at the top presenting a slippery but steady footing when she leapt onto them. The streets underneath her were in chaos; men in livery that did not belong to the tono were locked in battle with others that did, and wild men in cobbled-together armour were running rampant, laughing in brutal glee or roaring war-cries as they felled anyone who got in their way indiscriminately. A chakra signature warned her that some nin were also among the crowd, and attempting to battle the effects of her technique.

Her hands flew together into the dog seal and she redoubled her concentration. Sweat slid down her cheek, freezing in place as she measured her will against theirs, one of them almost breaking free before she had blocked them completely.

Someone spotted her on the wall top, and yelled. People looked up at her, stopped running and screaming, and stared in horror. She leapt down, and then people looked around at the cold, wet mist that had encased the village, the ice that had begun to form around the samurai and the frost on the windows. Someone shrieked, and then they all began to scream and scramble away from her figure as she walked forward slowly, conserving energy.

A gaggle of ronin attacked her the moment she entered the market. The bright colours and laughter of the festival had been replaced by upturned stalls strewing broken wares, terrified, shrieking children and dead bodies littering the ground, blood seeping from their wounds.

Almost trembling with the effort now, Hinata raised both her arms, and this time she allowed the chakra whip to be visible, as she couldn't spare the chakra to mask it. Quickly turning into a half-kaiten, she allowed the whips to snap outwards at whistling speed, and the thin lines of chakra scored and burned the men who had surrounded her, closing their tenketsu while flaying their skin open, then freezing wherever they touched.

When the men around her fell, it was all she could do to remain upright and not collapse into a gasping heap. Her every muscles was screaming from strain as though she'd run from Konoha to Suna after a month without food… but the genjutsu seemed to have taken hold of her as well. Kurenai-sensei had warned her of this … genjutsu this powerful sometimes sunk into their users until they sucked them dry, and then …

But Naruto still needed to reach Tsunade-sama and the Daimyo. She needed to keep up the diversion as long as she could.

Hinata knew that she was frantic, frightened – terrified even. But she knew this on a detached, mental level that was not touched by her real emotions in the least. Her body was beginning to give out as her trembling legs were ample proof of, but she knew she needed to carry on.

"Yuki-onna," someone whispered. She snapped around, coming face to face with a wounded woman holding a small, dead child. Her eyes widened as she saw the empty gaze and mouth open wide in a terrified scream that had remained on the little child's face. Three, perhaps four years old, she thought, and suddenly the horror, the pain and grief and terror were real around her. The noises of clashing weapons came into sharper relief, and the surging sounds of the flute, amplified more and more as the genjutsu prolonged itself and bounced around the village almost unbearably.

Hinata was screaming almost before she knew what she was doing, tears streaming down her eyes. The jutsu amplified her cries until every street was full of them, and then the whole village shuddered to an unnatural, petrified silence as her voice mixed with the flute's music, echoing hollowly in the swirling mist.

She ran forward then, her byakugan telling her exactly where each and every target was. Her wrists snapped savagely as chakra whips whirred into existence, and before another arrow could fly or another sword could swing down, three throats had been slashed open, an arm had been ripped at the elbow and a leg at the knee. A child's scream joined her own as it still echoed on the walls, and then another woman was screeching.

"Yuki-onna! Yuki-onna-sama! By Qwannon! By Qwannon, save us!"

Her bare soles felt as though they were running on cut diamonds as the snow and ice crystals on the ground stabbed into them, but she pushed on, ignoring her feet, her back, all her body as the dead eyes of that child haunted her. Chakra whips split the air at a deafening speed and nine more enemies fell even as they turned to attack her. A young girl, probably only a few years younger than Hinata herself, chocked on a sob as she was suddenly dropped to the ground and blood rushed out onto her from her attacker's split torso before it froze over into glimmering red icicles.

She was not on time to save a boy the age of Horyuki-chan from being stabbed in the shoulder, and she screamed in rage again as she whirled her arm behind her and then brought it forward, rending the ronin responsible in half. The boy pushed away with his legs, clutching his wound as he sobbed hysterically, looking utterly terrified at both the remains of the man and her until a limping woman, blood running down her legs and her side, skidded to him as fast as she could and dragged him away.

Cries for help, screams for Yuki-onna began to rise all around the market square. Ronin and samurai who had not yet been frozen to place or incapacitated began to hesitate at the sight of her, back away, and then one of them threw his weapon to the ground and ran with a hysterical wail.

Frantic yells, yelps and calls to retreat suddenly filled the village as a stampede of men fell over each other to get away from her, nearly blinded by fear and the mist that clung to them like wet fingers. She pursued in a blind rage, pain, horror and pity swelling inside her as she saw more and more carnage of innocents: mothers crying over children, men clutching dead lovers or wives, young women trying to staunch blood from a husband's, a brother's, a father's gaping wound.

Thirteen more men died before they could escape the parameters of the village. She pursued them all the way to the lake, raising the final jutsu taught to her by Kakashi-sensei as soon as her bleeding feet touched the water. A water dragon rose windingly out of the surface, maw agape and howling as the mist around them both stirred like a ghost. With one swoop of its long thick body, it dragged as many men as it could reach into the water, their armour pulling them to the bottom more easily than the jutsu itself.

"Hin- ….Yuki-chan!"

Hinata swayed. The throbbing blood in her ears and her blinding race receded by degrees, and she felt as though she were waking up from a long, hard meditative exercise that had taken hours and hours. Her body suddenly flagged, and her feet descended into the water up to her ankles before she could reign in the chakra to keep afloat. She blinked, black spots dancing in front of her eyes as she turned her still byakugan-enhanced eyes to the shore.

She was farther out than she thought, but she could still make the crowd out clearly. The villagers and matsuri guests who had been caught in the civil war had followed her wake of destruction and were gathered along the lake's banks. Some were kneeling, some were standing, staring, clamouring, sobbing and praying.

Among all the desperate, terrified, bloodstained people, there was Naruto-kun standing on the front, looking at her with an expression she dearly wished she could make out; but she was too far away, too tired, too frightened to see. Her feet began sinking into the water again as her chakra began to flicker, the music suddenly stopped, and with a last, titanic effort, she raised her arms a final time, soaked-through sleeves in heavy silk weighing her down.

The mist all around her rose in a swirl, and then she performed a kawarimi and was gone. Moments later, her body gave out, and she fell heavily, unconscious, in the woods surrounding the lake's west bank.

.o0o.

Naruto's knees gave out the moment he felt her chakra signature disappear, choking out her name in an unintelligible strangle.

"Your promised," a course voice said beside him. His head snapped around to find an old man, blood streaming down one side of his face and holding onto a younger man, hobbling up to him. "Your promised. She was a Yuki-onna. She was a Yuki-onna."

The call was taken up and echoed by all the people in the crowd as the murmur rippled from mouth to mouth, more people descending to their knees through fear or exhaustion.

"Thank you, oh thank you! I'm so sorry!" a woman sobbed suddenly, throwing her arms around him and kneeling beside him, and then the people crowded around him, trying to touch him, hug him, comfort him, as everyone told him how they thanked him, how they were sorry, how he would never see her again because of them, but thank you, thank you, thank you so much.

Naruto was jostled mindlessly as he looked out onto the lake, which had already cleared of the mist almost completely. Why had he opened his fucking mouth? They had been in a room surrounded by enemies, hidden in plain sight by her genjutsu, but he'd had to open his fucking mouth, and get them spotted by the enemy.

When Hinata-chan had stepped out of cover in front of those arrows, his heart had stopped and lodged in his throat. Pein flashed in front of his eyes, Hinata-chan's unresponsive body and blank eyes, and the fox had almost taken over again. Then the arrows changed course almost on their own as Hinata's clone played furiously at the flute, and he couldn't move even if he'd wanted to.

Hinata-chan had taken another step, and turned into the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. Her hair turned white, her skin became spun silk, her eyes glowed with the light of her bloodline without the veins marring her face.

She had disabled all the men in the room in a matter of a minute. The disgusting piece of shit he'd been intent on murdering before they had been attacked she froze over in a mere instant. He blinked after her, not really understanding what she'd said, but he began wrestling with his own stunned body the moment he saw her leaving the room.

"Naruto-kun," the kage bunshin beside him gasped in between shrill long notes. "My

Real Self will create a distraction for as long as possible. Please, return to the inn!"

"Not without you!" he hissed back, freeing his leg, which, he realized, had also become encased in the ice that had coated the room. How was Hinata-chan making ice-jutsu? Hadn't Haku said that only people with kekkai genkai could create ice?

A movement in the room made him snap taut and pull out his hidden kunai. The man, Kiromaza, was stirring and straightening again with a groan of pain or fear. Naruto lurched to his feet almost involuntarily, kunai at the ready, and the samurai who were still conscious cried out in dismay and shock as they saw him appear seemingly out of nowhere.

Kiromaza looked at him with narrowed dizzy eyes until they focused on his kunai.

"Shinobi!" he hissed. "Of course!" He struggled futilely with the ice encasing him, a whimper escaping him as the movement caused him an obvious amount of anguish. "Q-Quickly, stop her! Sh-She must have been, been on his employ, she…!" he trailed off, his face pinching into a grimace.

I am the future Hokage of Konoha, he wanted to say. You bastard, he wanted to scream, You will be an enemy of my village, you and your family, for as long as you exist. Who the fuck do you think you are? Look what you've done, to us, to Hinata-chan and your own fucking village!

He could still hear the screams outside, though they had grown farther away, and he suddenly felt a surge of memories as some of his clones, which had joined the fray as the fighting broke out, tumbled into his head.

The clone had died trying to protect the little kid he'd given the kite to, because a big-ass brute had come after the kid's father with a fucking horse-cleaving knife and a look of utter glee. Naruto's eyes widened and swallowed thickly as another clone died, and more memories of what was happening flooded into him. Hinata-chan was ploughing through the attackers like the wrath of the gods, there were so many of them, but somehow none of them even managed to touch her. The look in her eyes, though … had he not known otherwise, he would have thought a bijuu had taken over her.

"You're a piece of work," he hissed, ignoring the few samurai who were still conscious and frantically clanging at the ice encasing them with their weapons. The music was still ringing in the room, and it sent shudders up his spine as he remembered Hinata's anguished, furious eyes.

He dashed out of the room with as much speed as he could gather into his legs.

The chakra! Use my chakra!

The Youma kept repeating that over and over again like a mantra as he raced across the mangled, body-strewn streets in a frantic search for her. Wherever he turned, there were terrified people huddled together, blood, violence and destruction. The mist was almost blinding, wetting his black hair and stupid black clothes. The fox became increasingly insistent with every passing second, but he could not, would not break his cover, not after Hinata-chan had resorted to such desperate measure to keep their true aim and identities hidden.

He arrived at the market, and the moon peeked from between the clouds, almost full, for a few moments. The mist bloomed alight in many, shimmering droplets, but visibility increased, and he could suddenly see Hinata-chan pull a glowing string of chakra out of a man with a squelch, and then watch as he fell apart in two pieces, a small huddled form hiccupping and pushing away from the falling body.

Hinata-chan had begged him to reach the inn and the Diamyo. She probably knew as well as he did that he had disobey an order directly from the Hokage on an unclassified mission with the life of the very leader of their country on the line. Even though Baa-chan loved him, and the Daimyo seemed to like him, that was enough to get anyone sentenced to a life term. And she was risking everything for him; she was out there, furiously taking life after life, in order to provide him with enough cover to move around unnoticed; had created a town-wide genjutsu to save the identities of their troupe while still being able to help the villagers and give him a window of escape.

He had to go to the inn. He had to go now, dash up that road, around that lane and over the wall, into the garden outside the Daimyo's room. He had to honour the sacrifice Hinata-chan was making for him, and –

Blood rushed to his head at the thought, and he saw her lying on the ground with blank eyes and blood coming out of her mouth again. The Kyuubi went fucking insane, screams, yells, blasphemes and curses that sounded vaguely like archaic jutsu spitting from its snarling muzzle in his head, almost drowning out his own frantic heartbeat.

He shot after her like one of Tenten's kunai, dropping his own weapon when he stumbled on an unseen body and nearly fell ass over tea kettle across the blood-slick street.

He was not the only one running, either. Steps were echoing all around him, and he hissed at himself – and at the fucking Kyuubi! Why the fuck couldn't the Youma do something useful like enhancing his eyes instead of howling!

Almost immediately, he could see where he was going. It took him a few moments to realize that this was not because the Kyuubi had obliged him, but because the mist had suddenly thinned. The music was wavering frantically, rising and falling in sharp and flat notes that echoed in a tune that was both chilling and nonsensical. A water dragon, technique he had not seen since Kakashi-sensei's battle with Zabuza, burst out of the lake and swept the banks, dragging only armed men with it and ignoring the civilians who had gathered along the bank like moths to a flame.

He elbowed the people in front of him until he had the water lapping against his toes. The music suddenly stopped in mid note, and a complete hush descending onto the crowd along the shores as every pair of eyes looked out at the ethereal and beautiful woman still standing on the water, glowing almost of a light of her own under the moon's rays, shimmering on the lake's choppy surface.

His chest swelled to the point of pain. She looked so incredibly beautiful and untouchable, but he suddenly realized with a horrified certainty that Hinata-chan was exhausted. He saw her step out of the water and realized she'd been sinking.

"Hin-" he choked her name off even as it shot out of him before he could control his tongue. "Yuki-chan!"

She looked at him, then, and her eyes seemed to dim and turn dull before his eyes. His insides went cold as he saw flashes of her prone form during the fight with Nagato and he was about to leap forward when she raised her arms. The mist that had been left swept towards like a cloud of dust being vacuumed, wrapping her in a bud of cottony white moisture before dissipating completely; and she wasn't there anymore.

A hand roughly took hold of his collar and jerked him out of his reverie. He was jacked to his feet and shaken violently, and when he blinked and finally focused his eyes, he came face to face with an angry Jiraiya.

"Why the fuck," he hissed, "did you break formation and dash off?"

Somewhere in the crowd, the clone who had been with the rest of the Team instead of him dissipated. It had made a break for it the minute it had heard Hinata-chan's scream from the market. He himself had been too far to hear that it was hers… Hinata-chan had screamed like that...

"Thank you, thank you," an old woman said to Jiraiya then, who looked back grimly "She saved us, their sacrifice saved us, thank you…"

Jiraiya turned stone white and snapped back towards him.

"She …" Naruto choked off. He had to go look for her; only kami knew what state she was in right now. He remember how using so many jutsu together had knocked her out when they had trained together so many months ago… their first kiss…. They had trained her stamina since then, but this had not been training, and this had been on a much larger scale. He had to find her, he had to-

"Bless us, Yuki-onna!" a woman yelled frantically as she waded knee-deep into the water and began chanting a prayer, which began to be followed by several other people. Jiraiya looked at him in startled, worried confusions and began dragging him away, and then the older shinobi was utterly taken aback as the crowd began to part for them before he could push them away.

"What the fuck is going on, kid?" Jiraiya hissed when they were far enough away from prying, attentive ears. All the people of the small town had begun crowding the lake banks, wading into the frigid water, crying and praying. "What happened? Where's Hinata-chan?"

"I …" He swallowed on his parched throat but the lump wouldn't go away. "We have to find her, Jiraiya! Please! She used almost all her chakra, if not all of it! We have to find her and take her to Baa-chan, please!"

"What the fuck did she do, kid!" Jiraiya said again, giving him another shake. Naruto's head rattled, but cleared slightly of the panicked haze that had descended onto it.

"She used a massive genjutsu, I think," he said hoarsely. "Turned into some sort of goddess… or, I don't know, a Yuki-onna they were calling her… Jiraiya-sensei, please!"

This seemed to sober the older man, who went even whiter.

"Ok gaki, I'll take this side, you go along that bank. If she was as low as you say, she can't have gone far from the banks. If you don't find her in three hours, go to the fucking inn, you understand? That's an order. And no bunshin this time."

Naruto felt all the blood leave his head and his stomach turn into a brick.

"I'm the only one who noticed, because I was looking." Jiraiya's eyes were flinty. "But I swear kid, as much as I love you, if you try to pull this again, I'm locking you up myself. In three hours, you go back to the inn. I'll stay until I find her for you." He gave Naruto a shake. "I swear, I'll find her for you. We're wasting time; now go, and report in three hours."

.o0o.

Her grandson had spent a sleepless night. When the toad had appeared in front of them and told them to veer slightly south to meet the elder sage and his quarry, Tsunade had been so happy she had almost wept to see that look disappear from the boy's eyes.

When Hinata-chan, looking almost on the verge of collapsing and leaning heavily on Jiraiya walked out of the underbush, kimono stained and hair full of leaves, Naruto descended upon her before she'd even spoken.

"Hinata-chan, Hinata-chan," he whispered, holding her to him so tightly Tsunade was sure she wasn't breathing. "Don't you ever-!" He choked, pulled her away from him rather roughly and making her pale further, but he didn't seem to notice as his eyes frantically went over her face. "You were incredible, and you kicked so much ass we all have to whip ourselves to catch up, but please, please." Tsunade's chest ached. "Please, try not to do that again."

Hinata-chan smiled and whispered something in his ear. He snorted weakly, then clamped his arms around her and lifted her off her feet, continuing down the road for all intents and purposes as though he meant to carry her like that all the way back to Konoha. The Daimyo beside Tsunade gave her a satisfied smile and nod and nudged his horse forward.

They would be reaching the outpost with their reinforcements in a few hours; Kotetsu and Izumo would be quite disappointed to know they had missed seeing something as spectacular as what Hinata-chan had put forward, she thought idly. Their numbers, and their protection, would increase, however, and at that moment, both Naruto and Hinata-chan were in no condition to fight. It would be a relief to have the extra guard.

Tsunade watched them as they walked, Naruto speaking to the Daimyo with all the ease and confidence of one speaking to a close friend, as he refused to let the girl go and let her ride on the horse with the older man. The other three young men of their team joined the conversation as they fanned around the couple protectively. The Daimyo looked back at her again with a knowing smile.

An arm around her warned her of her partner's presence, and the place in her chest that had begun to ache more and more in the recent weeks throbbed keenly.

"Jiraiya," she said with a sigh. His fingers on her shoulder tightened comfortingly. Her chest's ache redoubled. "…when we get back home, there is something I need to tell you."

.o0o.

to be continued…

That … was not how it was supposed to go, I will openly admit it. Not the story plot itself; that went exactly according to plan. But while Hinata's final scene was supposed to be her defeating her enemies with a town-wide genjutsu as a Yuki-onna as DID happen, she was supposed to be majestic, awe-inspiring and ethereal while she did. Unfortunately, it seems that the events in Libya had affected me a lot more than I thought, and the happenings turned a great deal more bloody and brutal. Somehow, I can now see it in no other way; I hope this has not disturbed anyone (special word goes out to JollyGreen here, who lived some of this. I hope I haven't given you flashbacks, my good man). As it is, I hope you liked it, in the end. I find I like it a lot better this way, and have been looking forward to writing Hinata as the Yuki-onna since the start of IIP.

I think some cultural points are in order, seeing as this chapter closes the Kabuki-arc, as it were. There are some terms, names and references that I used that are culture specific and may have confused some people.

Qwannon, mentioned several times in recent chapters, is a Japanese goddess of mercy. It is unclear whether she belongs more to Shinto or to Japanese Buddhism, but I have found her mentioned in almost all of my Japanese legends and books of lore. I am no expert (not in the slightest), so I will no venture a guess on the matter. As it is, I felt that invoking a goddess of goodness and mercy in a time of need makes sense, and I hope Qwannon doesn't mind too much.

A Yuki-onna is literally a snow woman. Legend holds that these women-spirits live in snow storms, and either lurk there eating lost people, or purposefully lure them into a storm in order to eat them. A specific legend, however, tells the story of how one such spirit / goddess fell in love with a human man who had fallen victim to her, changed herself into a human, put herself in his path and actually married him and gave him children; this until he broke the promise he had made to her in her spirit form, where he'd sworn never to speak of how she had spared him. The Yuki-onna was then forced to leave her home, but still looked after her husband and children from a distance. It is one of my favourite Japanese legends, and though the name for the girl is always 'Yuki' in its many versions (which means snow), the name 'Shin' I got from the Ranma fanfic 'Hearts of Ice', the first fanfic I have ever read. Anyone who likes Ranma ½ and has not read it yet is missing out.

The names of the Kabuki troupe are something I'm rather fond of, and put some thought into. Apart from Yuki and Shin, which I chose for obvious reference to the legend, Hiko Seijuro is a reference to Rurouni Kenshin, for those who had spotted it. The surname Muto is actually a real surname in Japan, and the family name is reputed to have once belonged to a very real and very powerful shinobi family of the Sengoku period. Gin means silver, and is a nod to Jiraiya's hair, and Akane infers red, which points to Tsunade's temper. I also enjoyed marrying them, as Tsunade IS Jiraiya's wife in the original legend. Ken means dog, and no one can quite wear the name as well as Kiba, while Jigo means 'thereafter', and Shino has always struck me as a very calm, forward thinking kind of person. I am told it can also mean foresight; considering his current blindness, it tickled my British funny bone.

Kohl, which I'm sure I mentioned in this chapter, and not quite sure I did in some others, is a black / dark blue substance that is used both as make-up and as protection by desert dwellers. Now I know that fandom usually consigns Gaara's eye markings either to the Shukaku or to lack of sleep, but frankly, the markings look remarkably like Kohl to me. Kohl is usually used to combat the desert glare, where the sun bounces off the dunes with such intensity that it can blind and scorch. And considering Gaara has little to no facial hair to help combat the desert glare, and that Suna is rather Arabian in its concept, I immediately thought of Kohl when I saw his eyes. Having seen dessert dwellers in Tunisia and even warn it, I have to say that it makes the eyes look a lot like a racoon's, indeed.

Mikan, mentioned twice in this chapter, are citrus fruits typical of Japan in the winter. In the story's chronology, winter's almost over, but I took some liberty since this is a mountain region, so the winter fruit is bound to last longer.

In IIP Logic, Steel is a lot more superstitious than the rest of the elemental countries. While legends exist in the shinobi populated countries, it's a lot easier for people who don't regularly see ninja flying around to believe someone who suddenly turned into a snow woman IS a snow woman. Though Hinata would never have managed to fool anyone in Grass, or Fire, she had a better chance of it in Steel. As it is, people who had dealing with nin before, such as Kiromaza, can see through it, but the rest of the populance has never seen anything like it, and since this is a mountain region with frequent snow storms, the Yuki-onna legend is going to be prominent.

I wonder how all of you went in the guessing game that involved Ken and Jigo. I'm quite sure you all got it; I was fairly obvious in my hints. However, I am quite curious to know whether any of you have spotted the identity of various ANBU running around. Three are newly appointed, and fairly familiar characters. I had quite a lot of fun giving them their mask.

Yes, I have gone there, and made Tsunade and Jiraiya Minato's parents. I have always been slightly intrigued by how Minato's hair looks exactly like Jiraiya's in the team photo while it has Tsunade's colour, and then I saw Nidaime's eyes, and that clinched it for me. You can all consider it a crazy fantheory as you like!

I do believe I covered all of it, and now leave you to the Omake. A word of warning: if you usually skip it, I don't quite suggest it this time. Omake are usually fun and slightly redundant appendixes to a story… but I'm not a usual author, and I don't see why some of my Omake can't be plot relevant.

Also, this one is very, very evil, and will make you all want to throttle your PC monitors at the end. Please don't do it; think of the poor monitors.

.o0o.

Omake

The bleeping of the heart monitor was like the ticking of a very slow second hand, marking the passage of time in the otherwise quiet room. The light was low, curtain drawn on a moonless night. The figure on the bed was lying motionless on its back, head resting on the pillow looking towards the wall. Its shining shock of blond hair gleamed in the muted lamp's glow.

A circle of blackness opened up and a cloaked man jumped out, landing without even a whisper of his clothing. He strode across the room calmly, confidently and stealthily. Empty black holes on a porcelain mask looked down at the boy on the bed.

The man leapt up without warning, landing in a crouch on the boy's chest. A bloodthirsty grin spread unseen behind the mask and a black gloved hand reached for the patient's neck.

Two hands snapped up, the man's elbows were suddenly in a death grip, and even more suddenly, blinding pain shot into his upper arms as if fire was being injected directly into his veins. The man gasped, looking down at the body of the boy he'd come to steal below him.

His blue eyes had snapped open and his head came around to face him. The man struggled, but to his panic, not only could he not unphase his body into another dimension and get away, but he was growing weaker with every instant, as if his muscles had fallen victim to an atrophying drug.

"Hello, Madara," the figure said below him, and it was not the voice that should have come out of that mouth. Madara's eyes widened as he saw faint lines running parallel down towards the chin from each corner of the mouth.

Hands on his elbows – that creaked, like a clockwork puppet – tightened to the point where his bones cracked. "The Sand Kite, the Buzzard, the Falcon, Cuckoo and Sparrow send their greetings."

And then Madara recognized the voice; or voices. This boy – creature, puppet – was speaking with the voice of all the Kage.

A clacking sound was the only warning Madara got. Shinobi on patrol later told the others that the explosion was like a plume of red and orange that lit the village, intermixed with thick black smoke clouds, rising towards the sky.

The Hospital shook, some people being showered by glass shards as windows shattered, but no one was grievously injured. The ANBU on duty at the room's door barely lost his footing. The door was still intact and he flung it open to find that the room had been blown outwards on one side, the outer wall now sporting a sizable hole. All the equipment was missing, smashed or melted. The bed was reduced to shrapnel, and there was no sign of life. A large swatch of cloak flapped weakly, stuck to one of the pipes.

Chameleon ran into the room, unheeding of collapse dangers as his need to ascertain the situation took over. His gloved hands picked up the cloth and came away stained in copious amounts of blood. The cloth was fairly dripping in it.

Smiling savagely behind his mask, Chameleon told the medical staff who ran up to stand clear of the room and allow no one in, and then leapt through the new blackened hole while letting out a specific code whistle.

Instantly, half a dozen ANBU appeared about him. Bloodthirsty joy mixed with pride at the part he had played in the success of this plan, but it wasn't over yet. He showed the others the still-dripping cloth, and he instantly felt their chakra change: his family technique allowed him to read them even with their faces covered. The excitement levels rose through the roof as killer intent mingled with wild determination and bloodlust. One of his colleagues' dogs raised its head and howled with it.

They nodded to him, and in the blink of an eye, they had all scattered. The other captains would gather their teams, non-ANBU shinobi would join the chase; they would have him, by tonight, they would have him.

The hunt was on.

.o0o.

(PS: Yes, the last part is in omniscient narrator. While I usually hate that narrative form, I hate Madara more for being a plot-device character. He has therefore been narrative-blocked, as Jolly was very happy to point out.)

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Relativity

posted Apr 1, 2011, 10:02 AM by Pichi Herp   [ updated Jun 28, 2011, 12:07 PM ]

Disclaimer: Why don't you look at that. I still don't own Naruto since last time I typed this, who'd have thunk. Oh, and Dr Insano belongs to Spooney.

AN: Welcome to the Mind Fuck! *wears Dr Insano glasses*. A fair warning to you all; this chapter needs to be read at least twice. At least. Seriously, you won't get it if you only read it once. Also, Mr Plot wrested the keyboard away from me and took over this completely. It wasn't even supposed to be called Relativity, but that's a story for another day. Big Al's theory made it into IIP, so there was much rejoicing.

WARNINGS:

This story contains: a-chronological scenes; think Pulp Fiction, only worse.

Mind fuck, Mind fuck and more Mind Fuck.

Sexy teasing (though nothing above R. Yet).

Without further ado, welcome, to the sixth instalment of …

Icha Icha Physics


Relativity

The cart tinkled and jangled, pots and pans clashing against props and costume cases. The single rather large mule that pulled the cart at the front gave a bray of protest as one of the wheels once again stuck on a rock in the uneven terrain, and the poor animal had to pull twice as hard to bring the cart along.

They all walked along side the wooden construct; there was no real seat for passengers while they were moving it, even though it opened into very basic but comfortable bunks when they stopped at night, or a stage when they performed. So, all of them were in the formation that had been selected for them, according to their role assigned.

In front were Muto Gin-san and his wife Muto Akane-san. Kibuka Ken was helping along another one of his fellow actors, Anano Jigo, who was blind, and was followed up by her brother, Hiko Seijuro.

Beside her, Muto Shin, grandson and heir to the two elderly leaders of their troupe, yawned slightly, then looked at her sheepishly. She just smiled back, blinking her own grey eyes tiredly. His arm was instantly around her, and he brought his face close to ask after her health.

"Yuki-chan," he whispered, his voice intimately low. It made her blush; even though they were promised to marry; when he was this close in front of the rest of their troupe and acted this way, she couldn't help but feel bashful. "You're getting tired, aren't you? Do you want me to carry you? Or maybe we should call a break."

"No, not on my account," she replied with a shake of her head, and even though she really was fatigued, resting her temple against his shoulder was enough for her.

"You're so pale," he murmured, "Are you sure you're alright?"

"Of course," she replied with a half chuckle. "I'm always pale."

.o0o.

Dripping water, draining pipes, iron bars…

When she'd woken up that morning, the pre-dawn hours had been silent, still, dark, and the most comfortable she'd ever had. She had opened her eyes only as a matter of course, because her internal alarm had gone off. Her body, however, upon the first natural assessment that was ingrained into all shinobi, and that would take over them until every bought of unconsciousness was irreversibly followed by one, had reported back to her with the succinct account of 'not moving, nuh-qaa!'

Remembering why she was so comfortable had been just a matter of twisting her head to the side a little bit, and that caused the two arms around her (which her body's stock-taking had not previously informed her of) – one wrapped around her just beneath the breast, the other burrowed under her back – to tighten, and the whole left side of her body to wiggle.

Or rather, it was the warm, lumpy thing on the left side of her body that wiggled. Moving her neck a bit farther back, she peered to the side to come nose first into a mop of blonde hair, closed eyes and flushed cheeks. Her breath caught in her throat when she remembered exactly where she was.

In his apartment, on his bed, with him in it.

Hinata could only stare at him for a few moments, savouring the feeling that it was really him there, and he was this close to her again. His breath on her neck tickled, as did his spiky strands poking her forehead and eyes, but it was more pleasant than annoying.

They had spent a long number of hours on top of the Hokage monument after the sun had set, reconnecting through words and touch. Kissing him had never felt so good as it had yesterday; even their first kisses hadn't been this heart wrenching, and even that one kiss in his hospital room, before their quarrel had even happened, hadn't been quite as … involved as some of the ones they had shared last night.

The two weeks they had spent away from one another had only made her love him more, and she had felt his absence that much more keenly. Now, his every touch, every movement and kiss, every noise and murmur of her name, went straight to her chest and settled there, to nestle close to her heart and be remembered. However, every touch, movement and kiss, noise and moan, also went – she blushed just to think it – down south.

Squirming, Hinata tried to come to terms with herself on this slightly recent turn of events, and with her own emotions about it. The sensation of being aroused by Naruto-kun wasn't completely new. However, being left feeling hot and needy, and quite over sensitive in certain specific areas, just because they were kissing, and more importantly, while he was right there left her with a grand total of zero words in her vocabulary, and a world of blushing.

Last night, too, she had felt that these sensations had been so much more intense than the last time in the hospital room. Not to mention, she'd never been as excited, hot and, well, felt as beautiful, as when Naruto-kun's hand had gently grasped onto her bottom. It had sent emotions running through her that she didn't have the words to describe, and her skin had instantly grown ten times hotter so that the clothes she had been comfortable in minutes before became stifling. When she'd felt how affected he was by their kiss, she had almost choked as the thought had run through her head; what better setting for their first time? In the sunset, in his special spot?

For all of half a second, she'd seriously contemplated it, with his hand on her bottom, her heart beating wildly in her throat and ears and his manhood pressed against her. All she had to do was lie back, pull him over her right then and there, and …

That's where her courage had ended even within her mind. But here she was right now, pressed up against him in his own bed and … she was truly and mortally embarrassed by her own mind and body, yet at the same time oddly content and liberated. Her body ran hot and cold even now, and she couldn't help remembering how badly all of her skin had wanted to be touched last night. A part of her – the part that wasn't drowning in a sea of tactile sensations, his smell, his tiny groans and whispers of her name – had been blindly frightened to feel her body take over her so suddenly. When the initial disappointment of him stopping their kiss had ridden over, and her skin stopped tingling like all the blood in her body was rushing through it, she had felt almost grateful. Almost; she still couldn't decide which side of the line the opinion-rock had fallen about it.

They had stayed on the Monument until it had become too cold, and neither of them wanted to part ways so soon. So Hinata had disregarded everything from propriety to worried relatives, and she had spent the night.

And not like last time, either. He hadn't taken the couch and politely given her the bed. She just hadn't wanted to be separated from him for too long if she could help it, and she'd been really happy to see that he was of the same idea. They'd showered (separately! … for now, at least... oh what was she thinking!), she'd made him something light with the sparse supplies he had – and she'd have to ask about that; he'd stared at her so much all the while, why had he done that? – then they'd awkwardly crawled into bed.

She chuckled, letting herself get tugged closer again by the still sleeping Naruto-kun when the movement caused him to stir slightly. They had both been so stiff at first when they'd climbed in, even Naruto-kun! It was so strange, but so … elating, to see him so nervous, shaky and red! He'd eventually moved closer to her, and she'd done the same, then he'd rolled over, and she had also, until finally they had ended up hugging one another, and quite a few kisses had been stolen before either of them fell asleep.

Hinata disregarded her blush and allowed herself to melt in his arms; his hands had moved so smoothly against her last night, she remembered, and she closed her eyes to try to relive the sensations, even as his heartbeat calmed her. But he hadn't really touched her anywhere inappropriate while they had been lying on his bed, and Hinata was ashamed to say, she was a little disappointed in that fact. Had he tried… oh, she couldn't quite bring herself to admit it, but it was true! Had he tried, Hinata would not have stopped him. More than that; her face was glowing red, she knew, even as she was smiling, but Hinata admitted to herself, at least; had he tried, she would probably have encouraged it.

She didn't know where this new boldness came from, or why – or if she'd be able to be this bold outside her thoughts – but she thought; she didn't want to miss a moment, not anymore.

Their quarrel had left her in so much pain, and feeling so lonely and vulnerable. Her insides had been tender and bleeding, and Hanzou-sama's constant attacks had only ripped new welts in her heart. When he'd spoken to her yesterday, she had seen it in his eyes too; she had hurt him. For that alone, she would never, could never want to part from him again on those terms. She was slightly ashamed to admit to herself, yes, that a very, very tiny part of her was almost happy that he'd been as torn up and worried by their quarrel; but that was buried pretty quickly by the concern, the fear and the pain that she had cause him pain.

The words he'd said to her, though … he hadn't said that he loved her. Naruto-kun hadn't even pretended to say that. And yet… she had felt so, so, cherished, when he had finished speaking. She felt almost like something precious, beloved, if maybe not loved. Her heart beat strongly even with the remembrance of it.

There were also other things that needed to be addressed; Naruto-kun had brushed her off yesterday, but the notion of the frame had come up, and the possible dangers of the Hyuuga clan had to be faced, brought to light and dealt with before anything farther could happen. She'd made a promise last night after all.

She sighed, then, letting her mind fall back to much more pleasant memories, like his reactions and smiles, kisses and expressions, and how he'd said so many things that left her feeling so happy; state of being felt more sharply after the long period of tears and misery.

"Last time you sighed like that, it was because I had dropped ice-cream all over my front while I tried to get it away from one of Kakashi-sensei's dogs," his deep voice said from right beside her ear, making her jump. Warm breath and surprise made her eep, and then she turned around to him to find half-lidded tired eyes looking at her brightly, and a soft smile that she had dearly missed. Not seeing why she should resist the urge, she leaned forward and kissed him gently.

He followed her when she tried to move away and she didn't resist. One of his hands rose up to turn her hair into a complete bird's nest, but she just turned around into him, shivering slightly when his warmth made her realise some of her skin was chilled from the morning air. The place in her heart that had taken to the skies last night grew even lighter at waking up like this. She snuggled into him while he held her close, relishing in their contact and warmth when he hummed happily. They exchanged short, mellow kisses, only occasionally stopping to nudge each other's nose, until Naruto's stomach began to actively protest being empty.

"Mood killer," he grumbled down at it, and she chuckled while petting his belly, an all around bubble of light feelings in her chest now.

"Let's see what I can do for it, shall I?" she asked affectionately. He brightened immediately, letting her go as she began to rise, only to sit up himself and stretch.

Hinata couldn't quite help herself staring when she realised that some time during the night, Naruto-kun had taken his pyjama top off, and was right now stretching his arms over his head, every muscle in outlined tension, in only a threadbare fishnet shirt.

When she realised that her eyes had followed a thin line of blonde hairs down his navel that disappeared into his half concealed trousers, she escaped into the kitchen, her face feeling like it was going to burst into flames, and her mind already on fire with the various jumbled thoughts that were running through it;

One was; oh dear gods, he's so beautiful, while another sounded distinctly like her father, and made the former eep and quickly excuse itself. Arriving in the small kitchen space, she shuddered, closing the window they had entered through last night and then pulling on the apron that she'd left there ('Ah! I had forgotten, I would have had that instead…' Naruto had said last night, but then declined to explain with a rather fetching blush on his face when she'd asked. She had to remember to wiggle it out of him today), she began diligently riffling through the cupboards. What she came up with was … one cup of instant ramen, and a packet of sugar.

"So, Hinata-chan, you want to shower first, or shall I?" he said raspily, coming up behind her while yawning and rubbing his eye, and then wrapped his arms around her waist and buried his face in her hair without so much as a by your leave. Losing her balance slightly until he pressed her to him tight, she blinked for a moment, slightly disconcerted with him manhandling her until he mumbled childishly into her neck, making her giggle and relax.

"I may as well make you the ramen, Naruto-kun," she said with a chuckle. "There's nothing else, and it will only take a moment to make."

"Nothing else?" he mumbled curiously, emerging with a few of her hair intermixed with his own – she missed his blonde mop quite acutely, all of a sudden – "Oh right, I forgot to go shopping."

"I used up most of what was left last night," she said half-apologetically. Then she frowned. "Naruto-kun, some of that I remember buying myself almost a month ago…"

"Wasn't hungry," he mumbled, and burrowed his nose back into her neck, making her laugh and squirm as he blew a raspberry against her skin. "So, are you washing first?"

"Let me get this done for you, shall I?" she replied, gently nudging him with her elbows until he let go (honestly, he was holding her so tightly she was almost on her tiptoes), "Maybe we should go to buy some supplies instead?"

"What, right now?" he asked, looking around at her a little baffled. Then he smiled and shrugged. "Sure, if that's what you want! I'll go get dressed."

.o0o.

The driving rain came down in spades and buckets, and there was little they could do but watch it come down, huddled as they were under the over hang with their backs pressed against a temple's wall. They had made good time, and their guide had left them with such good and detailed indications that their life had been made much easier. This temple, for instance, was not on any official maps. Only those who knew this area would have been told of it or would have come this way at all. It was on no navigated path, well out of the way of the commonplace travellers.

That was why, when the elderly monk opened the heavy wooden door to find the dripping kabuki troupe looking back at him dolefully, he only hesitated for an instant before waving them in.

They had soon been given warm soup and company to set their spirits right again, and the monks had been eager to hear of tales coming from the different parts of the world. Travelling had become very dangerous, and even those like them, a troupe of actors who did it for a living, had been slowly disappearing as the risk got higher.

"So there we were," Gen-Jiijii was saying, gesturing grandiosely with his hands as he tried to illustrate the scene. "Three man dressed in nothing but fondushi, carrying a suspicious looking carrot, and nothing to show for our night's work."

All the monks burst out laughing while he shook his head. That old idiot sure knew how to weave a lie and tell a tale. No one would be able to tell that none of it was real; no one, that is, save their troupe, who knew very well that the old leader was making it all up as he went.

"And what happened next?" asked one of the older monks, taking a sip of warm ginger tea with a sparkle in his eyes. Obviously the man had missed news from the outside world. "Did you get away with it, or did your lady punish you?"

"Ah, you can ask her that," Gen-Jiijii replied, nodding towards the white-haired woman sitting beside him, who just glared at him in return.

"What was I supposed to think?" she replied in a put-out voice. "I had only asked you to buy me some miso for the evening meal, and all I found was all the men of my troupe looking like they'd been gambling and got the bad end of the deal." She smiled over the table at another member of the group. "I'm so glad Seijuro-san and his sister joined. It's been so much less crazy since then. You almost managed to corrupt poor Jigo-kun!"

"You should just let it go, baa-chan," he piped up finally, deciding he may as well join the fun. "Jiijii's never going to change. And you should cut the whole 'san' nonsense now. We're almost family, ne?" He watched with some smugness as Seijuro twitched, and he purposefully turned towards Yuki-chan with adoring eyes, taking her hand lovingly. She was onto him, of course; she knew how much he liked to annoy her brother with open displays of affection, but she went along with it sporting only some token protest and a blush. Both made her look extremely attractive in his eyes.

"Ah yes, congratulations to you," another of the older monks said, turning to the two youngsters merrily. "You are to be married, I heard?"

"Yes!" he replied, obviously quite happy with the fact himself. His Yuki-chan just gave a small nod, a very happy smile, and another blush for good measures. Shin looked at her; her colour seemed to have risen slightly in the past hour, at least.

"We are sorry we cannot provide you with your usual sleeping arrangements," another monk said, slightly younger, but still on the decrepit side. Most of the monks here were old, almost as though no new blood had reached this monastery in a while.

"Eh, it won't be the end of the world," Shin said sheepishly, scratching his cheek in slight embarrassment at the topic.

"It won't," Seijuro said, levelling him with a look. "You'll just go back to sleeping with us, and Yuki-chan will sleep with Gin and Akane-sama, as was the order before-"

"Before I proposed, yes," he said back in a rather sing-song voice. Yuki -chan bumped him with her hips a bit, but he couldn't resist a final jab. "And you'd better get used to it, brother, cos I'm not going away."

"Hm, more's the pity," Seijuro replied, sipping at his tea calmly. The room tittered as Shin spluttered an angry response, and Yuki-chan tried to pat him calm while trying to hide her own smile.

"Well, I will miss you," Yuki-chan said quietly, and that was enough to soothe any of his ruffled feathers.

"Yeah, me too," he whispered back, bringing his face closer to hers but not quite daring to touch his nose to hers in front of all the others. "Always, you know that."

She gave a small chuckle, but he knew she wasn't laughing at the notion. He couldn't help smiling himself at her shyness.

"I will head in for the night, please," Jigo said finally. Brilliant and rather beautiful emerald eyes looked blankly ahead, and Ken quickly rose to assist their blind colleague.

"I think we all should," Baa-chan said with a tired expression. Her haunched shoulders were indication enough of her fatigue. The monks soon began moving around them, some to lead them to their rooms, some to go to their own, and some to stop and thank them once more for their news on the outside world.

In one of the corridors, they parted ways, but not before he kissed her soundly, making her hide her face sheepishly while her brother growled.

"Can't wait till I marry you," he said cheekily, "So Seijuro-chan can stop butting in,"

"Goodnight, Shin-kun," she whispered happily, slipping her hand through his fingers and darting away. His black hair was immediately snagged by the irate brother and taken the direction the others had gone towards their sleeping room, his protests going unheard.

"Come on, darling," Seijuro intoned pleasantly. "Seijuro-chan wants to show you some lovin'."

Shin's yelps and protests echoed down the corridor.

.o0o.

"Oi, what's this?"

Preparing to go out by combing her hair with her fingers, especially when she had a spectacular bed head from a combination of night dew, soft pillows and calloused hands, was not a child's feat. Naruto didn't have much of a mirror either; the one in his bathroom was slightly dingy, and much to her amusement was stuck with a number of photos as a cheap alternative to frames that left barely any mirror to speak of. So she chuckled at him cursing at something or other in the front room, and let her eyes roam the images more than the reflection.

Choji and Naruto were having an eating contest in the top right corner, Ino and Sakura were decorating someone's cake, looking very messy and like they were wearing half the ingredients themselves, just underneath. Lee and Gai were in the 'Nice Guy' pose, with Tenten and Neiji sitting off to the side, looking resigned but still smiling. Kakashi was reading his book in a hospital bed, all trussed up in bandages, and with a cake – ah, Ino and Sakura had made it for him, then – held under his nose by the girls, who he was summarily ignoring. Just next to the washing basin was a rather spotty photo of Pakkun, holding up a paw. Further up, a much better kept photo of Naruto and Konohamaru-kun grinning cheekily at the camera, Konohamaru-kun's arm leading out as if he were holding the device. At the top left, the best maintained photo sported Naruto-kun with Bee-san, Jiraiya-sama, Kakashi-sensei and Iruka-sensei, all in front of a group of tents. The tendril of smoke that traversed the shot on one side betrayed the fact that it had been taken by Shikamaru-kun.

This one had been taken just before Naruto and his team had gone scouting last month, Hinata suddenly realised, raising her hand to finger it. This had to be just before they had left the outpost headed towards North of Iwa; the mission within which Naruto-kun had almost died to save Jiraiya-sama. Shikamaru-kun had probably made sure to give him this photo during his convalescence … or during those weeks in which they were estranged.

Sighing, hair forgotten, she felt more than a little selfish at how she'd behaved – yet at once, she knew that the question had needed to be asked. Now at least, on the subject of the pink haired medic, no tiny snaking thrills of doubt, or even fear, caught her unaware anymore. After last night … after what she'd seen last night, it would have been a fault on her part, if she didn't trust him. Shaking herself, and deciding that what was done was done, she let her eyes roam the rest of the photos – which was much easier than trying to spy a spot of mirror, as it was almost completely hidden. She really had to wonder how Naruto-kun managed to shave at all, as the presence of the razor on the sink showed that he had at least tried to do so.

She was surprised but warmed to see that some of the photos that seemed newer, and that were even stuck partially covering others, all had her in them. In one, she was bending over a stall, inspecting some fruit – she had no idea when it had been taken, but she'd been completely unaware. In another, there was her, Neiji and Tenten in one of their family's training grounds – how on earth had he gotten this one? In yet another, there was a stolen snapshot of them holding hands, walking along the streets of Konoha, oblivious to the fact that they were being stalked. Curiously flipping the loose end of the photo, she found a cheeky note by Konohamaru-kun about distractions and rivalries that made her smile. The last photo cleared the mystery of two-photos-ago. There was her, decked up in her New Year clothing, performing the sets with the children. She blushed slightly at the pose they were in, all holding their glowing palms to their chests; in her case, that only served to make her bust look larger than it already was. Her sister, obviously, before deciding that Naruto-kun was evil and needed to stay away from Hinata, had previously thought he was the greatest thing since toasted butter, and had even risked a security breach of a Hyuuga Technique to get this photo to him. At least, she thought it was her sister. She couldn't quite see Neiji-niisan do something like this.

"Shit Hinata-chan, you're not going to believe this," Naruto-kun said coming up beside her, a wad of papers and an envelope in his hands as he furiously read at its content; from the type font, that was obviously mission data.

A thrill of horrified panic suddenly ran down her spine as her chest tightened frantically.

"Oh no, Naruto-kun! What day is it today?"

.o0o.

"And how is their little one? The elder. We miss her so much in this area! She used to come to visit her aunt, you know."

"Oh, she was doing well, last we saw of her," Gin-san was saying with a soft smile. "Poor little girl, scared like that. And her parents, too."

"Oh, don't remind me," the old woman replied, steering her mule expertly along the muddy, uneven road. "These damned shinobi, why cannot they kill each other elsewhere while leaving us in peace! We never asked for their wars or their stupid protection. If they disappeared, we wouldn't need protection from anything at all!"

"Oh, if only that were true," Akane-san said from beside her husband. "These are troubled times, but even when the shinobi are at peace between them, there are always the bandits or the raiders to keep you awake at night; especially us, always on the road."

"Aah, that is true too," the other old woman agreed with a tired sigh. The crest of the hill began to get closer, and over its horizon they began to see the smoke of chimneys, then the painted walls of houses, and then finally the mud splattered streets, with people walking, wheeling or riding their way to their businesses.

"It is very noisy," Jigo said. "I am supposing that we are here, and that it is a busy town."

"That's just right," Ken replied from beside him with a jovial tone, in his habitual role of guiding their friend while they were on the road. "You nail it, like always."

"Do you want me to take you to Samako's house? It is on my way," the old woman offered. Akane-san immediately smiled and took the offer politely, proceeding down the hill with her fellow old lady as they exchanged recipes on healing herbs and other concoctions. The rest of the troupe followed, somewhat subdued compared to their usual good spirits. Fatigue from the long trudge on foot, hungry, wet and cold, they had however heard too many stories of horror, death and destruction among the common people and non-fighters to be able to sustain a smile for long that day.

Seijuro stopped as he reached the hill's summit, breathing in deeply as his grey eyes took in the city beneath him. As it was standing here today, spared by war or attack, it could easily be demolished tomorrow, erased from the map as if it had never been, if one great shinobi battle spilled here by chance or design. All the children that were now running among the streets, laughing and kicking mud at each other, would be lost, crying, orphaned or dead. He could almost see the town going up in flames, as they had seen not five miles south of here, where a group of Oto-nin had decided to raid. Death, perhaps, would even be a generous gift for these children. The rumours their group heard of the culling that was occurring had terrified them, and Yuki-imoutochan had been almost inconsolable now, most nights, as she thought of all those lost children.

"Nii-chan?" He turned around to find Yuki herself coming up to him, her promised, Shin, bringing up the rear as he almost always did. Making eye-contact with the other black haired boy, he immediately knew that they understood one another. The scenes of war and disaster had deeply effected them all, but none more than the idealistic and peace-loving Shin. He had been sombre for days, and seeing Yuki's reactions to the rumours had only further hardened the other boy's opinion of this war.

"It is a quiet, peaceful village," was all he said. Yuki tilted her head at him, and Seijuro knew that he wasn't fooling her. But she didn't press the issue, stopping beside him to look down on the huddle of house from the vantage of the higher ground. Shin stopped beside her too, shielding her slightly from the wind that began to get sharp in the sunset. Mothers began calling their children in, and more chimneys began to let out puffs of smoke.

"Yes, it is," Shin agreed, putting an arm around Yuki's shoulder. "And we have good news to give, so let's not hold the others back, ne?"

"No, lets go," Seijuro said with a nod. Yuki-imoutochan grabbed his hand, and Shin kept his arm around their shoulder as they descended the steep hill together, headed after their troupe masters.

.o0o.

Sakura took her surgical gloves off and frowned tiredly. This was the third time that their wounded had been so bad that they couldn't even risk using the fuinjutsu and instead, had to move the medics, and all their equipment, across time and space, and into the battlefield shelters the seals connected to.

Today Sakura had been in Suna in the morning, back in Konoha at two-o-clock, then up in Iwa, to spend another two gruelling hours trying to save the nephew of their Kage. She knew she looked terrible, had her hair standing every which way, and that the left side of her was completely splattered in blood, but that was something she didn't quite want to think about.

She'd seen a drone for the second time today, and engaged one for the first time. And it had been the shock of her young life to punch what seemed like a live human in the face with only half of her full strength, and have said face open like a melon, flesh flying everywhere and stinking like nothing she'd ever smelled. He… it had twitched and even seemed to attempt to rise before the jutsu had dissipated, leaving a festering corpse before her that should have been weeks old, but was moving and fighting not a mere second ago.

Her shift was over, so her feet took her to the front desk, and she signed out, and then her legs moved her to the front of the hospital.

On the steps, however, she stopped, and sank down with a sigh, stretching her legs in front of her and feeling them tingle as her leg muscles almost gasped in relief. There was much to say for sitting, she decided, when all you did all day was run, stand, run, stand, stand and stand some more. Even a trained kunoichi got tired if she strained her legs by just standing still all day, performing one healing technique or the other.

There was another thing weighing on her mind, too. Monday, Tuesday, even Wednesday had passed her by, but she still hadn't had the courage to go find Hinata. She'd been unlucky enough that the moment she decided to speak to her, their shifts in the hospital had never coincided, and where the week before she had seemed to see the other girl constantly, this week she'd seemed to almost evaporate. Sakura didn't quite have the courage to take herself to the Hyuuga compound and do the job there; that damn clan of hers was too intimidating. And admittedly; this week had started out bad (Monday had been a nightmare. Ino, the little bitch, told her proudly that her aunt made sure to make the nastiest hang-over she could for the truth serum, as it would help to incapacitate any one of those they interrogated who proved themselves 'lock-em-up' material).

It had continued in much the same fashion; death counts were rising, Suna was on one knee, and Sakura allowed herself to be transported to hot points more often than anyone else; she was Tsunade-sama's second apprentice, and while her Shishou prepared to leave secretly for her mission, Shizune-sempai was tied up in the Hokage tower running interference and paper work as if nothing was going to change. More often than not. Sakura was only in Konoha for a handful of hours of the day.

It still amazed her, the versatility of the fuinjutsu that Jiraiya-sama had brought into play during this war. And the foresight: in his years of travel, after he had finally unscrambled the fuin that had made his student famous, he'd begun to lay down area-wide marks and then hide them. As soon as they had drawn the anchors in Konoha, they had suddenly been directly connected with all the continents and all the countries in very safe and out of the way access points that gave them a clear edge over their enemies. To date, they had lost only five of these points; and through the very nature of jutsu, it was impossible to activate it if one did not already know it; their only dangers to date had been the drones, as well as enemies who entered the circle of the jutsu as it activated and travelled with the medics. Sakura herself had found herself looking at the face of a fellow medic who had been turned moving corpse, and who had used his knowledge of the transporting jutsu against them. Jiraiya-sama had added a few strokes, almost as if he was finishing a painting, and then it was suddenly drone-proof. Sakura had tried to sneak a peek into the art of fuin, and hadn't even begun to wrap her brain around it; she had no idea how Jiraiya-sama not only learned and created them, but also managed interpret and recreate a fuin done by someone else.

And while the man was a sannin himself, and was no slouch, it amazed her even more that these fuin, so intricate, elaborate and incredibly impossible to copy, had been created by Naruto's parents.

Yes, she could very well imagine the Fourth making these, but it hadn't been him. He'd been a renowned genius, yes, and a seal master in his own right, but his teacher, the one who'd guided his hands, hadn't been Jiraiya-sama. On the contrary; Jiraiya-sama had had the same teacher. One known as Uzumaki Kushina, loud, random, seat-of-her-pants fighter, who had been brought to Konoha for safety and ended up adopting the ways, tradition, and finally the men of the place.

Sakura looked up at the sky, only then realising that it was evening, and not much, much later, as she'd automatically assumed. Uzumaki Kushina had been the real seal master behind countless feats that her husband had managed. Tsunade-shishou had even told her that without Kushina, the famous hiraishin would never have existed. Then her teacher had laughed, saying that her son, Naruto, was just like her. His hair was Minato's, but nothing else.

It had taken some … a lot of getting used to, to believe that Naruto – her Naruto, mind you, who was loud and obnoxious and an idiot – was the son of the Fourth, one of the most illustrious shinobi to ever live. She had seen it in his eyes; the pride, the shine, when people compared them, when they called him the Second Yellow Flash. While his ability to move that quickly didn't stem from the famous hiraishin technique – his seals training was going waaaay too slowly for that according to Kakashi-sensei– but rather from sheer strength, speed and chakra, the effect was still the same. If you blinked, you missed it. One moment he was there, the next he was a thousand metres away, and then again, and again. The training session on the hilltop, with the Hyuuga heir apparent keeping the famous Second Flash on his toes had gone down in the annals of bar-bench records, as she had suspected, and soon, there would be just as many rumours about Hinata circulating as there were about Naruto.

Her brother. Not by blood, but not by choice or by design, either. Rather, circumstance and fate – and Sarutobi-sama – had thrown them together, and then they'd just … happened, that way. Just like normal siblings.

It still felt strange, though; Naruto the drop out, Naruto the idiot boy who was too loud for his own good, son of the Fourth, son of a woman who had been fantastic at what she did. Sakura had momentarily taken refuge in the belief that Naruto's goofy character was his mum's fault, that he resembled her through and through, and wasn't that what everyone who knew them was saying, now that the truth had come out?

But Shishou had soon dislodged that idea completely with no mercy at all. A drop out, Uzumaki Kushina, HA! She'd beaten half the boys in her class bloody the first day of her arriving at the academy, and that was before even having any formal training under her belt.

Sakura looked down, feeling slightly guilty for her thoughts even now. She had come to admit to herself that she had grown used to- no, that wasn't even the right term. She had grown smug in her knowledge that she was better than Naruto. That she knew more, studied more and therefore was more intelligent. She had grown very fond of the tag of 'the smart one' that had been tacked onto her with the birth of her team. But if she were honest with herself, she knew that wasn't the case anymore. Hadn't Naruto defeated Pein? Hadn't he beaten down Sasuke, even Itachi at one point? None of these were stupid opponents, none of them where someone you could just beat up and leave in a heap on the floor simply through the sheer force of getting back up and beating them some more. These opponents had been beaten and outsmarted, using his great chakra reserves, but also ingenuity and skill. Luck had little to do with situations like that.

Darn, how many sour pills she was swallowing lately. Those concerning her 'brother' weren't even the only ones; she had reached a tableaux in her training, and it was some time before she allowed herself to believe Shizune-sempai's words that yes, she had expanded her chakra to its limit, and could no longer expand her reserve from this point on, only maintain it. It was a humbling experience, to be on a team with two bottom-less pits, and have a pea-sized chakra reserve in comparison. Then there was the whole thing of the muck-up she'd done with Hinata…

Thanks to the seals in place, very few medics were being deployed outside of Konoha. They could be simultaneously on the battlefield and in the home base, almost at the same time considering the speed of the transfer, and they could therefore be used to the maximum of their ability and need. If the medics were not brought to the patients, the patients were brought to the medics, and the Konoha hospital had never seen such a high number of foreign nin as it had in this war.

That had meant that she, Ino, Hinata, and all the others who had studied under Tsunade-shishou or Shizune-sempai in the years between her appointment as Hokage and the war were now being almost exclusively used in the hospital. This had almost lulled her into a sense of security; she'd procrastinated as much as she could, and put off the talk and apology that she knew she should give the Hyuuga girl off every day, and even if she felt guilty every time, she kept doing it. The thought was almost intimidating; Sakura knew she was dead wrong, and had acted inconsiderately, even cruelly. And she was going to have to admit it, and admit it to the girl that had now a major influence over Naruto… and who she knew, deep down, that she liked quite a lot. Sakura had never had any problems with the shy girl before this, and could even grudgingly admit to herself that Naruto could have done a lot worse. Could have fallen for that slut Ino's advances, for example. She would definitely have taken out her big guns and big-girl-gloves if Ino had tried that.

But Hinata was sweet, caring, loving – and had never looked at another guy. Sakura knew Naruto had her whole heart, which was a lot more than she could have said for the blonde on a good day. Sure, he'd been a great boyfriend since they'd hooked up, from what she'd heard and seen, but there were years where her idiot 'brother' hadn't even realised the girl was there. And instead of helping him make up for it like a good friend and sister, what did Sakura do? Mess him up and make them fight. She had some major making up to do for herself now.

There was also the fact that Hinata was from a clan. Sakura wasn't stupid enough not to know what that meant for Naruto's dream. Sure, him being son of the Fourth added major points, but having the backup of one of Konoha's most reputable, doujutsu-enabled clans, which even had a seat in the village council, couldn't hurt much.

Sakura owed both her friends a dept, and she was being a damn coward about it. Not to mention, she found that the more she thought about it, the more she liked Ino's hints and stories on how she and Temari had united to make Shikamaru's life even more 'troublesome' as he liked to call it. Imagining the same roles and situations between her and Hinata, she had realised that she liked the idea of having a partner in crime. While back in the hospital, when Iruka-sensei had come to give Naruto a cover, all she could think about was irritation when Hinata had stolen part of her thunder and whacked the idiot on the head too, now… well, with this new perspective, now that scene seemed to be the birth of a thousand new possibilities, and all of them fun. For her and Hinata, at least; for Naruto, not so much.

"Sakura-sempai, are you alright?"

Sakura looked up to see a worried nurse looking down at her.

"Yeah, Kori-chan, give me a hands up?"

The younger nurse complied with a smile, still looking worriedly at Sakura's blood-splattered outfit. Sakura quickly waved her off with a smirk.

"It's the 'other guy's, not mine," she said, earning a smile for the inside joke that all medics knew. The 'other guy' could be anyone from a patient to a threat, and it had become somewhat of a staple and point of pride that anyone who looked like they'd bathed in hymoglobin had been to a visit with the 'other guy', and he'd come out the loser. "Say, I forgot to see my shifts on the way out. Walk me there?"

"Of course!" Kori-chan said, almost too gladly. Sakura still had to get used to the starry-eyed looks some of the younger nurses threw her way sometimes when she pulled off a medical feat worthy of her station as Tsunade's apprentice. It didn't help her swelled forehead, that was sure.

"So, how has Daisuke been?" Sakura asked, having heard that the nurse's brother had just been graduated from the Academy. Kori-chan immediately launched into a proud series of descriptions of her brother's missions, which during war-time were admittedly more risky than 'fetch that cat'.

As they made it to the front desk again, Sakura endured some ribbing on the lines of 'What are you doing here again?', and 'What, didn't have enough sleepless nights yet?' with good cheer, and just poked her tongue out at her colleagues while going around to the room behind the desk. Under the guise of looking for her own shift, Sakura ran her finger along the roster, looking for a very specific name instead. Coming up blank, she blinked, and turned to the others.

"Hey, did we forget to roster Hinata this week?" she asked.

"Hinata-san's on a mission," one of the more out-spoken nurses replied, a frown on her face. "To be honest, I can't decide whether that's good for her, or if they sent her to her death. That girl, ever since Uzumaki-sama's been in that room, I don't think she's slept or eaten enough to keep a bird alive."

Sakura ignored the response from the other nurses, all tooting and disapproving, and did you hear about that shameless one, from the Capital? Harassing a poor broken hearted girl like that, what a horrid man! Giving her next shift a cursory glance, the pink haired medic nin mutely waved to the others and exited the building for the second time within the hour.

It was all she could do to prevent herself from cursing. Sakura knew exactly what mission Hinata had been sent on – in fact, she should have remembered that Hinata was rostered to leave, but her complacency had gotten the better of her, and she's conveniently forgotten.

Now Hinata and Naruto were both forced on potentially lethal missions, while at odds and distracted.

Even as her legs took her home, Sakura knew that there wasn't going to be any sleep for her tonight. Or any following night; these missions were off the books, and the groups who had left wouldn't be sending any reports back to base unless there was an emergency.

Stopping at the park beside the Hokage tower, Sakura found a bench and sat down, burying her face in her hands.

If both of them didn't come back, if something happened… she'd never forgive herself.

.o0o.

Shin stared up at the ceiling disconsolately, shifting around uneasily against the sheets and bedding of the futon. It wasn't that the bed was uncomfortable; quite the opposite, it was probably the cosiest thing he'd slept in for quite a while. The only problem was his attire; or lack there of.

He was stupid, and he knew it. It was just that he was a sucker for people pushing his buttons sometimes, and when Ken had come up with that stupid notion, he just couldn't let it be. He didn't even know why Seijuro hadn't murdered him right there and then, but somehow the other guy had almost seemed eager to see if Shin would go through with it too. Just his luck that one of the only nights in which he and Yuki-chan could have an actual restful sleep together would also be the one where the other guys ganged up on him.

His brain froze and then slipped into full panic mode when the rice door to their room opened, the runner almost silent against its track. Yuki-chan was just so special that way; he never knew how she always remained so quiet, calm and sweet, even when he did something stupid. Tonight though, he had the feeling this may be taking it a tad too far.

The room went completely silent for a few moments, and he could nervously hear his own breathing. His old grandpa and ma where already asleep on the other side of the screen that split the large three-tatami room they had been given to share, and he could just imagine Yuki-chan wondering what on earth he was doing there already; he managed all the props, and therefore practically all of the cart and their belongings. As the heir of the company, it was only what was right that he'd have this responsibility; but that usually meant that he was up last and longest, and that Yuki-chan would either wait up for him, or doze off waiting. Hopefully, when they were married…

He cut off the idle, silly thought right there, especially when he felt Yuki-chan start to shuffle towards him. He knew that this wasn't going to fly well, and as far as practical jokes went, this was possibly going to hurt, especially if baa-chan got wind of it.

His nerves mounted to an all-time high as he felt his pretty fiancée slide in between the sheets with him. She was shy about moving beside him, but she slowly let herself curl around his side. Stiff as a board, and more than a little aware that somewhere in the rice paper to the adjacent room someone had drilled a finger-hole to see, as part of the deal, he let her settle down without moving a muscle.

He even thought he might survive through the experience for a few moments. Yuki-chan said goodnight and kissed his jaw as she had taken to do since their new sleeping arrangements as promised-to-wed had been made official, and he just answered in kind. It was all well; until the arm she had curled around his chest drifted lower, and she realised that he wasn't simply sleeping more comfortably without a shirt. When her fingers met no waistline to his usual sleeping trousers, she knew she was sleeping with a guy in the buff.

He heard her squeak and move away a little. Judging by how hot his ears were, he knew he was about the colour of radish right now. Stupid guys, stupid bets, stupid him for being a bloody sucker for them!

"I can explain…" he started lamely in a squeaky voice that he was sure was making the others laugh. Years of reputation-building, being flushed down the convenience… "You see, um, we were, I mean I was … and…"

"This is Ken's idea of a joke, isn't it?" Yuki-chan interrupted with a sigh. Shin choked.

"How'd you know?" he hissed. The deal had included not telling her anything – but they'd never said anything about her guessing.

"I've known Ken-kun for years, and I know the sort of thing he would do," she said with another sigh. Then she shyly reached out and let her arm circle his quite naked chest again. "And I know you never can quite back down, once you say you'll do something."

Yuki-chan buried her face against his shoulder at that point, and she didn't seem to have anymore courage, except for a last quip.

"Whoever's watching had better be ready to get it tomorrow," she hissed loudly, and Shin suddenly realised that though she seemed to have completely hidden her eyes against him, she probably knew exactly what was going on in the next room. A grin spread onto his face when he heard an abrupt series of thumps and scuffles from the other side of the rice-door separating their tatami room from the next. Yuki-chan knew all the members of their little family like the back of her hand; Ken was really in for it.

Still with a rather satisfied grin on his face, Shin began to curl upwards, ready to sit up. "I'll get-"

"I-it's, it's ok," she said, her voice a lot less determined and strong now. In fact, it was a downright squeak. Her face never left the crook of his shoulder, but her arm tightened around him. "I-I'm very tired. I would – I would really like to sleep."

Shin gulped, feeling his cheeks turn into radishes again, but there wasn't quite anything his brain could come up with to answer that. Instead, he raised one knee to make sure Yuki-chan didn't accidentally look down and get the wrong – or right – idea, and squawked a croaky 'ok'.

Ten minutes later, all the lights out in the corridor had been extinguished, and even the next tatami room was as silent as their own.

Out of all of them, only Shin was still awake; which was just as well, as he had first watch. Still… he wished his first watch didn't have to be so … uncomfortable. Yuki-chan shifted against him and he bit back a curse as a certain part of him became even more uncomfortable.

"…'te," he hissed into the room.

.o0o.

"Um … Wednesday, I think… why?"

Naruto couldn't help but stare when Hinata-chan next let out a series of yelped expletives that were fit on a rouge-nin's mouth. She stumbled out of the bathroom quickly, nearly bowling him over in her haste to get to the main room. Some of his papers went flying and he cursed as he snatched papers back from mid-air, sending one skirting right into the damn shower stall when he hit it with the tips of his fingers instead.

Agitation and panic settled over the little apartment like a haze, almost as though an explosive note had blown up in the middle or Mr Face had dropped in saying he wanted a good cup of the old Go-Go. Naruto himself wasn't quite sure why he was scrambling around so frantically, but he'd rarely seen Hinata-chan lose her composure like this, and whatever it was therefore had to be important.

When he'd gathered the papers about him again and haphazardly rammed them back into the envelope, he ran into the front room, looking around as Hinata-chan seemed to flit from one side of the room to the other without really doing anything, riffling through drawers and pulling up the couch cushions. Biting his lip at her frantic behaviour, he suddenly saw an opening and pounced, grabbing her by both shoulders in order to stop her from snapping off in another direction again.

"Hinata-chan, what is it?" he asked worriedly. Hinata's eyes stayed just as frantic.

"The time! What's the time! I can't find my watch – I flung it off somewhere yesterday, and one of my sandals is gone! I can't see it anywhere! What's the time!"

Looking wildly around, he swung back to peer into the kitchen, still holding onto her shoulders and making her stumble into him when he turned himself. The toad clock, ticking happily and obliviously, was just visible and smiled cheekily back at him with a face reading 6:30am.

"Half past six, damn!" he hissed, but was startled by Hinata-chan's cry of dismay.

"Oh no, I'm half an hour late!" she said, her head looking around wildly and gripping onto his shirt.

"Late?" he asked. His voice seemed to focus her, and she turned to look at him with a slightly less frantic, but still nevertheless worried expression.

"I have a mission today, I was scheduled to be at the gates at 6!" she replied almost breathless with anxiety. "I don't know how I'm ever going to explain this!"

"It's ok, we'll manage!" Naruto reassured her with a smile. Stepping back, his hands came up in his trademark jutsu. More than twenty clones puffed into life. "Ok guys, we've got us an emergency on our hands! You – start packing for us, you, to the market for some supplies, quick! Money's in the top drawers as usual! Hinata-chan," he turned to her, "you had your bags packed?"

"Ye-yes," she stuttered, blinking at the gaggle of clones rushing around the house, seemingly pulling the place apart. "W-what…"

"They're looking for your watch. And your sandal. Oh, and my toothbrush," he replied sheepishly, moving away from her to help the other copies of himself. "I can never quite remember where I leave that…"

"Your toothbrush?" she asked in confusion, her face lighting up in a blush. Naruto looked at her in askance for a moment before he turned to another one of clones who was rushing by with an arm-load of laundry. "Hey, dump that on another guy and get the Hyuuga place, will ya? We have to get Hinata's pack ASAP. Is it in your room?"

"No, I always ready them at the ganken when I'm about to leave and … I had things ready two days ago."

"Wow, you're going to have to teach me how you do that. I readied the bags, but the last minute things always hide somewhere," Naruto said with a sheepish smile, wincing as one of the clones dropped something in the kitchen that made a large smashing noise. "Darn, I, uh, I better go see what's broken in there. Meanwhile, help the others find your sandal! And you, go get her pack from the ganken in the Hyuuga place!"

Naruto escaped back into the kitchen before Hinata-chan could say anything, hoping that the clone's Hyuuga appearance would be enough to get him in and out without too much fuss. Next to the refrigerator, he found two of the clones picking up glass pieces.

"Man, you guys, this was supposed to be cleaning up, not messing up," he groaned.

"Sorry boss," they both answered in unison. Naruto shook his head.

"Forget it. Look, me and you there on the right. We'll pick this up and help the others in my room pack. You on the left, I have something for your to do."

"Shoot, boss!" his own voice chirped back.

"Take this," he reached behind a cookie jar and fished out a wad of money he'd been saving up for some time. Both clones' eyes bugged out. "Go to that shop, and get it. You know what I mean, right?" He glanced back nervously towards the front room.

"Roger, boss. What do I do with it then?" the clone replied, taking the money and putting it in his pocket.

"Come back here with it and hide it in my closet. Make sure we've – me and Hinata-chan – have cleared out first, ok?"

"Got it!" With a salute, another copy of himself exited via window. Sighing – and hoping that not many people spied copies of 'Hyuuga Hagane' running around at this hour, he bent down to help the other clone gather the glass shards.

"Should'a told him to use a henge," the clone muttered. Naruto nodded.

"Maybe he'll figure it out," he replied, earning a smirk.

"Hey boss … you think she'll like it?" the clones asked quietly. Naruto was about to answer when Hinata-chan's voice from the front room told him that her sandal had finally been found. "Shit we'd better hurry."

"True … but why are we packing your bags too?" the clone asked. Naruto frowned in distaste.

"Aren't you supposed to know what I know?" he asked in annoyance before sighing. "That stupid envelope. I have a mission too; and I'm late as well. They're going to start thinking that I'm taking after Kakashi-sensei."

"The pervy thoughts are there," the clone said cheekily, only to get a salt shaker to the head.

"Get done with that! I'm going to help the others pack," Naruto said in mild irritation. Clones! When on earth had they started running their mouth?

.o0o.

Ino was careful to let exactly three drops leave the tip of the pipette and fall into the muddy liquid inside the test tube. She then gave it a cursory shake and put it in the labelled wood-hole. Grabbing the lab-specific gel pen, she noted the time and substance she had added, as well as the amount and the specific order in which she had mixed this reagent.

Sighing, she rolled her shoulders, reaching around to rub her neck. She wasn't cut out for this lab-ratting – she was made for interrogation chambers and field medicine. But desperate times called for desperate measures, and they were short of manpower in the laboratories. Or woman-power; all the best medics of the last generation were all women; except for Neiji… but he was just whipped, if Ino's theory on who wore the pants in his relationship with Tenten was correct.

Still, Ino detested lab stints. Looking at the clock again, she sighed and looked at the rack of glass tubes, pouting. It was five in the afternoon, and she knew no thanks to any light from outside since the room didn't have any windows. Not that any light would be left out; the days were still short, and winter was still very much reigning supreme. Sakura – Ino hoped at least – should have left for home by now, as she was scheduled to get off her shift at four. Ino herself still had till ten that night; she wasn't looking forward to the lab shift, but she had to admit, some of Sakura and Shizune-sempai's enthusiasm for this research had leached off on her.

Ino narrowed her eyes as she watched the blood swirl inside the glass test tubes. The thing never congealed, never went rotten, never even died. It was like an effing disease, and Ino hated every cubic litre of it.

Taking the next tube, Ino picked up another container and opened a tiny flap. Another Aburame insect crawled out just as calmly as its clan member hosts were known to be, sat on the lip of the long glass phial and began to eject all the blood it had collected. Ino looked at the obsidian liquid with no small amount of hatred; so many of their ninja had died to obtain this.

Setting the test tube in the next wood hole available on the stand, Ino picked up another mutogen and the prescribed selection of other additives, and once again began the long process of adding them via pipette and noting down order, substance, amount, time and date.

Three hours later, Ino was ready to scream in frustration and pull out her pretty hair as even her eyelashes were ready to fall off with boredom. She still had two more hours to go, and she wasn't looking forward to them.

"Yamanaka-san," one of the other researchers said suddenly, startling Ino momentarily. Unfortunately, that resulted in six drops of the mutogen falling into the phial instead of the prescribed amount.

"Shit," Ino cursed with an irritated hiss, shaking the test tube crossly as she prepared to throw the content down the safety sink. She froze, however, when something caught her eye.

Ignoring the researcher who'd spoken to her, the time, her frustration and everything else, Ino rushed to the nearest powerful light source and held the phial up against it.

There, right there in the middle, was a tiny flake floating. And as Ino watched and kept holding the glass test tube up under the light's heat, more and more of them began to form before her eyes.

The blood had begun to congeal and deteriorate.

"Fucking YES!" she screeched, startling an entire laboratory and not caring a whit. Get Shizune-sempai! Get her now! And someone toss Sakura out of bed! We hit the jackpot!"

.o0o.

The ground exploded around them as a long distance technique went off, taking large chunks of earth with it. Luckily for their side, no shinobi or kunoichi was left a victim of the attack, thanks largely to a set of shimmering chakra strings and high domes of packed earth that had surrounded the groups of the vanguard.

"Kazekage-sama!" the team Captain called with not little relief apparent in his voice. Gaara stood from his kneeling position, hands coming down from his single hand seal as he narrowed his eyes at the field, taking in the situation. He felt his brother landing beside him from his perch among the dense trees. All the ninja who had been suspended by Kankurou's chakra strings were let down slowly, and Gaara quickly erected another barrier as more exploding projectiles were hurtled at them. The young village leader narrowed his eyes further in anger as he watched the very slimmed vanguard flinch reflexively at the explosion, a clear indication that this type of attack was what had cut their numbers so drastically.

"Stay behind me," he ordered simply. Sand particles began to rise, dotting the war torn scenery around them. The eastern valley was on the border of Wind country, and had been under direct and dire attack since the beginning of the war. Unlike the harsh desert in which the shinobi village had decided to settle down, it was a valley between two mountains, and the only greenery for miles around until one reached the Wind capital. That was the primary reason the Sound and Black Rain had travelled so far around Wind Country; this ground was fertile, and though far from the village, it was still a major source of natural resources. Suna could not afford to lose it.

Gaara knew this was not the idea condition for him to fight in; however, since the extraction of Shukaku, he had refined his own techniques, and finding himself free of the constraints that being a demon host had put on him, he'd finally been able to learn a variety of new jutsu, as well as broaden how ability of earth control.

A noise behind him, like silk against silk, told him that his brother had sensed what he had.

"Kankurou," he said in a low voice, tension stiffening his back as his earth particles – dust and soil, small and unobtrusive – navigated the terrain for him. Gaara held his hands out in front of him and closed his eyes in concentration, feeling every tree and every grain of earth and soil through his chakra. He felt the wind rustling the leaves, the birds, sitting motionless on the branches in tension, and the corpses hanging-

"Brother?" Kankurou asked, seeing Gaara suddenly snap his eyes open.

"Get ready," was all he replied. The explosive attacks had suddenly stopped, and that meant only one thing. Looking towards the team Captain, he made a hand signal to tell him to stay back then dashed into the branches, confident that his brother would follow.

When they stopped, and Gaara's eyes confirmed what his chakra had told him, it was all he could do to keep his composure. More than fifty bodies hung from the tree by very short ropes, looking like macabre fruits. The wind swayed them back and forth, making the leather lashing holding them up creak. This was the main troupe that had been following the vanguard; some bastard had ambushed them and left them here for the scouts to find. Gaara even had a sneaking suspicion which bastard to blame; to take on fifty of their best, it took a very powerful and exceptional shinobi.

"Baki…"

Gaara turned around to his brother sharply to find him pale and wide eyed, mouth twisted in horror as he looked at one point fixedly. Looking back at the tree with an emotion akin to panic, he let his eyes roam the victims frantically, until he too found, amongst them, the fluttering cloth of his teacher's semi-hajib.

"No!" he hissed, taking a few steps forward. Baki was one of his best generals, one of his most trusted advisers, and his first teacher. One of the first people who wasn't afraid of him, and even stood up to him when he was still a genin with an unhealthy obsession for blood. Baki had looked at him in the eye back then and told him to quit it when he went overboard, to continue when he was doing well, and praised him when he accomplished something. It had all gone over Gaara's head at first, but then after the failed Konoha invasion, Baki's support and loyalty had been unfailing and invaluable. The people of Suna had been without a Kazekage, Kankurou who was old enough back then had refused the job, and Temari had already been assigned a different role, which luckily for her she had managed well. It had taken three years of constant work, training, political manoeuvring and everything in between to give Gaara the seat, and he wouldn't have managed it without Baki.

Bile rose up to his throat as he saw the man's swollen tongue lolling out from between his lips. Those same lips had imparted wisdom, jokes, council and harsh words in equal amounts. Baki had never shied from anything; he'd done anything from dropping a cane on Gaara's head when he was doing something stupid, to bringing him hot tea and a tray of flat tarts when he was working into the wee hours of the morning. Gaara had learned to look up to the man more than he had ever done with anyone save Uzumaki Naruto; Baki, to Gaara, was what his father should have been.

His stomach revolted and he almost threw up when he remembered; his wife. Baki's wife was due next month. He'd even revised the plan with the bait and given the assigned task to another shinobi because of that, though Baki had been adamant and enraged about it. Now the child would never know his father.

Gaara scrunched his eyes shut, clenching his fists and grinding his teeth until it hurt. He knew tears were leaking out of his eyes because he could feel the wet on his cheeks, but he didn't care. Pain and utter, blinding rage rose through him, the kind he hadn't felt since he had been a demon host. Everything around him began to rise off the ground, from soil clumps to earth ground to sand particles to small rocks of varying dimensions.

He shrugged off his brother's hand when he felt it on his shoulder.

"Prepare yourself, Kankurou, and remember; these are all our enemies now," he growled, snapping his eyes open on time to watch all the corpses do the same. He held his old teacher's eyes for a mere instant, and then all of them raised their arms and cut through the cords holding them up by the neck.

"SHIT!" he heard his brother exclaim beside him, but Gaara wasn't worried. Kankurou by himself evened out the odds in number. His brother, under Ebizou-jiisama's guidance, had advanced so much in his puppeteer arts that he had done what no other had managed to do, even Chiyo-baasama. Puppet-guided puppets.

Gaara could hear the puff of his brother's weapons as they appeared, but only over the whistling in his own ears. His now dry eyes were trained on the shinobi and kunoichi getting to their feet after the seven metre fall, and none of them looked dead anymore. Their lips where no longer swollen, their eyes no longer popping out of their face. They looked perfectly healthy; if not for the fact that they were dead.

Before they could even right themselves, his sand was already upon them. Five where squashed like ripe grapefruit, another seven had their legs and arms sawed off. Three tried to throw shuriken and found their head smashed open by rocks flying towards them at whistling speed before their hand reached their pouches.

"Sand clone," he intoned, and several mounds of sand rose vertically from the ground, taking his shape and then rushing towards the various drones that began to attack them. The force was brought down to half the original number within minutes.

Three puppets, meanwhile, had joined he frey; Crow, Sasori and a new puppet of his brother's own invention; Spider. Spider looked just like his name suggested, but could do so much more. With a chakra string on each leg, a two tiny, deadly spider puppets on each string, Kankurou had increased his own manpower in battle nineteen puppets.

Three sound ninja suddenly joined the battle, and one of them seemed to be some sort of archer, who's arrows whistled through the air to create illusions and genjutsu. That made Gaara's blood boil; there was no illusion that could hold, no genjutsu that would make the horrible fate of his beloved master alter. Baki had stood up for him on the council, taught him, laughed with him, had the courage to be enraged at him, even before he had met Uzumaki Naruto. Baki had been his tough-as-nails teacher who didn't take no for an answer. There was no coddling with Baki, certainly no nights out eating ramen as Naruto had described, but he had been Gaara's reference, Gaara's guide and almost a replacement for his father even before the misguided bastard had been murdered.

His sand rose as a mountain under his feet and began moving forward with an incredibly loud hissing sound. Gaara gave out a roar as his chakra supplies seemed to increase from sheer rage alone; he no longer contained Shukaku, but his coils were now used to containing biju levels of chakra capacity, and his body had adapted to that.

Gaara raised his arms, and the copies of himself melted into shapeless sand that enveloped the six sand shinobi drones they had been fighting against, bursting inwards in a shower of old blood a moment later. Glass shards then erupted forward from Gaara's gourd and embedded themselves in several trees.

A scream echoed through the forest as one sound shinobi found himself face to face with Crow's insides. Blades soon entered the awaiting cavities, skewering the man until the mass of flesh that topped out when Crow's cavity opened was unrecognisable. Spider meanwhile was making short work of the less powerful of the drones, some of which had a great number of wounds that had been administered pre-mortem, and had obviously been a cause of death in battle. These brave men and woman had not gone down quietly, and their efforts had been repaid by their corpses turning around and being used as weapons against their own Kazekage.

Gaara closed his eyes, and in the next moment, he was metres away from the battle, in a quiet copse just out of sight. He used his sand and a large amount of soil to rise up to the higher branches of the trees. Silently, without making a single noise, he had substituted himself with another sand clone and left that to keep fighting the remaining Sound ninja; he wanted to take care of the archer personally.

Coming up behind her in a deathly quiet, Gaara watched the kunoichi for a moment as she strung another arrow and readied herself to strike, aiming for the head of his stationary sand clone, which was battling three droned and the rather weak sound ninja merely with the sand defence and sand shuriken. When she was about to release her fingers, Gaara roughly grabbed her hand, crushing it in his grip. She cried out in pain and alarm, turning to look into his furious eyes with her terrified ones.

He allowed sand to rise and encase her slowly as she screamed and attempted to get away, holder onto one of her hands so she could not perform hand seals and blocking her other by summoning a number of his glass shards and nailing her wrist to the bark before she could go for a weapon's pouch. Gaara looked her in the eyes as she struggled in vein, letting the sand stop as it reached her neck.

"How did my teacher die," he hissed. The girl whimpered, and Gaara's eyes flashed in hatred and impatience. "He was the commander of this attack force, and he has three of your arrows through his liver. How did he die?" he roared, squashing the already broken bones in the girl's hand until she screamed incoherently.

"He- He wouldn't go down, we had to- to, I had to hit him directly even though the genjutsu doesn't work that way. We had to use some of the drones, he wouldn't fight against them, he- he, he…"

"You know the jutsu to activate the drones," Gaara hissed as he was filled with an unholy sensation of loathing. The girl screamed again as her legs were crushed in the encasing sand, which then fell away to reveal twin bleeding stumps. Faced with the horror of that reality, she fainted dead away and would have fallen to her death if not for her wrist still being nailed to the tree bark. Performing a quick fire technique, Gaara cauterized the injuries dispassionately, retrieving all his sand and allowing the fainted girl to lie more securely against the tree.

Alighting on the branch beneath his new prisoner, he knelt down to observe the clash occurring in the undergrowth. Kankurou was having little to no problem dealing with the drones at the moment, while his sand clone was practically playing with the remaining sand shinobi who was fading fast without aid from his ally's arrows.

Gaara suddenly felt control of some of his sand being wrested from him, and he turned sharply to the left. There, perched on a branch at eye-level with him, was Baki.

His face made no expression whatsoever as he launched his attack towards his pupil and Kazekage, and Gaara felt his eyes stinging at the blank stare on the face of a man who he'd been so close to. Finding him there, hanging and dead, had been a knife to the heart, but having to fight and destroy his dead body was so painful it took Gaara's breath away. He was no stranger to emotional pain, but as Baki's body made familiar hand signs that he'd seen a thousand times, Gaara wanted nothing more than to scream and tear everything around him apart, an instinct that remained as an echo of the one tail.

The tree beside the one Baki was perched on dried up and shrivelled at the level of his hands, and suddenly lignin and shards of bark were mixing with some of the sand Baki's body had stolen from his pupil and hurtling towards Gaara's head with deathly precision. Before the top-most part of the tree had collapsed from its sudden lack of support, Baki was already changing location to further his attack. Ducking some of the first assault and using his own sand to deflect the rest, Gaara heard the shards drilling mercilessly into his barrier and the tree bark behind where his head had been, digging deep indentations. They didn't remain there long as they jerked themselves free and followed Gaara wherever he moved. His sand shield was meagre protection; any sand that came in contact with Baki's was taken from him, so Gaara had to be very careful in his use of his most natural defence. While he took back as much sand as Baki filched from him, it required a huge amount of chakra that he did not want to dispense to pull it back. Baki had been his teacher, the expert on element manipulation after his own father, and Gaara had learned how to control his sand, taking away the manipulation of the element from Shukaku, and then Baki had even helped him relearn the mastery of his own element after the bijuu had been wrenched from him. Gaara was fighting a master of the art, and he knew it.

"Desert Shards," Gaara whispered, and he watched as several of the remaining glass shards dislodged themselves from the locations in which Gaara had previously embedded them and all quickly whizzed towards Baki, who didn't have time to move or dodge, and was cut several times, many of the compressed sand shards even remaining embedded in his body. Gaara bit his lip in rage and sorrow as at that moment he truly realised; Baki was dead, a drone. His body had to be utterly destroyed before it would stop attacking, and that meant that his wife and children would not even have a body to mourn.

Baki's body was even now trying to keep itself on the branch while forming hand seals with a large glass shard through its head. Gaara launched himself towards his dead teacher, but was too late to stop the jutsu. Another tree was de-sapped, and the water this time mixed with the sand to form mud and hit the young Kazekage head on.

Gaara fell like a stone, and only managed to arrest his fall by grabbing onto a tree branch. It groaned and sagged downwards under the combined weight of him and the mud that kept pulling him down, but held, and Gaara managed to drag himself onto it. Two kunai buried themselves into his sand shield, which still came up semi-automatically to protect him. If the poison dripping from them was any indication, he was very lucky for that fact. Once Gaara was standing on the branch more solidly, he used a technique he had created by watching the Hyuuga girl train with his older brother and expelled chakra in one rapid gust, splattering the mud covering him against the surrounding trees.

Sand rose around him like a curtain, and several projectiles thudded against the protective wall. Inside Gaara momentarily closed his eye and allowed himself to feel the pain of what he was about to do. However, when he let his wall down, Gaara fixed his eyes on his target and attacked.

"Sabaku shigure," he muttered, and a fine rain of sand began falling on his teacher even as claw-like tendrils rose to ensnare his legs against the tree trunk. Deciding to take no chances, Gaara brought fresh sand from his gourd and chained Baki's hands to the bark in it as far apart as they could go. Sand from his gourd, mixed with soil particles and unlike anything Baki had ever manipulated, the drone was unable to control it and free itself.

The body of his master, teacher and friend neither moaned nor groaned, merely struggled to try to get free. Gaara looked him in the eyes, but all that looked back was the blank stare of a dead man.

A tear escaped his eyes before he could swipe it off in rage. His other hand rose and quickly, before he could think of exactly what he was doing, and he willed his sand to rise. Slowly, painfully slowly for Gaara he allowed it to creep up Baki's body until it reached his neck, in the hope that what his future brother in law had told him about the drones would appear; if they were still alive, if they were not truly dead, fear of death would still flash in their eyes in the last moment; they would still express that one emotion without fail.

But nothing crossed Baki's eyes, and that last hope that he'd still clung to despite himself died as well. Sand climbed up Baki's face until his eyes were no longer in view, and then Gaara allowed himself to sag. Baki was gone, and he was going to have to tell his son and pregnant wife that their father and husband was not coming back from his campaign this time.

Gaara held his hand out in front of him, and for a single moment, hesitated. How different, a small whisper in his head told him, almost like Shukaku of old. How different from his younger self, who would relish the occasion of destroying human life, especially if they were ones he knew, ones he'd had spent time with and he knew had family waiting who would miss them. He'd be filled with glee, knowing the pain he would cause, the greater validation to his existence he would receive when he showed that his life had been stronger than one of a person who was loved.

"Sabaku…" he paused, his hand shaking. Not from excitement, anticipation or the voice of his 'mother' in his head, but from pain, regret and reluctance. Nevertheless, he knew very well what he had to do; even now, he could feel the drone struggling inside the sand coffin, attempting to get free to attack him and his troops once again; troops that he had been commanding just yesterday. "Sabako Soso."

Sand exploded inwards then spread, and Gaara allowed himself to feel the pain of what he had just done for a single moment before he turned to the mass of sand that was slowly crumbling. Reigning in his chakra, he blasted the remaining sand before too much more fell, and going through quick hand seals he performed a Fire Technique; Fire Eater jutsu, turning the outer layer of the sand into glass.

His brain was on autopilot as he used his sand to descend from the top of the trees. A part of him almost wished he still was a jinchuuriki; right here, right now, he wished more than anything else that he could conjure enough remaining chakra to summon a sand puppet in the form of Shukaku's transformed state and smash everything and anything that was doing this to his country and people. Good men and women fighting for their families and pushing back the assault on their borders, being not only killed, but turned into monsters, spitting in the face of their sacrifice by turning them against their own.

"Gaara?" his brother asked as soon as he landed beside Kankurou. All the other drones had been neutralised, and the only one left alive was the rather weak sound nin who Kankurou had captured in a chakra web that Spider had woven after Gaara's sand clone had made short work of him. Handing the glass ball to his brother, who looked at it in askance, he extended a hand towards the sound nin.

"Sand Bullets," he said dispassionately, and watched with little satisfaction as sand drilled itself into the man until he collapsed in a pool of his own blood.

"I thought he could have information," Kankurou said carefully, and Gaara heard and edge of trepidation in his brother's voice that he hadn't heard since the days of Shukaku. Gaara sighed, acknowledging within himself that yes, at the moment he knew that he was unstable and dangerous, because he felt unstable and dangerous. While he no longer lashed out and killed anything that moved when he was feeling like this, he had long since accepted that when he felt like this; hurt, angry, cornered; he was dangerous.

"The archer is captured, neutralised, and knows the jutsu that activates the drones," Gaara replied, trying to calm himself and his brother's nerves. With a flick of his wrist, the sand clone melted into its primary material, and all the sand in the clearing that had been spread began to return to his gourd. "Do you have any blank space on your sealing scrolls?"

"Yes," Kankurou asked. "Is it for this?" he raised his hands, which still contained the sphere of glass.

"That is … that is Baki-sensei," Gaara replied, and his brother was instantly grim and quiet, unfurling his scroll without another word. "Are any of the others' bodies salvable?"

"No. You know they wouldn't be."

Gaara simply closed his eyes and nodded. The only way to stop the drones when the body was truly dead was to destroy their brains. Neither he nor Kankurou had techniques that could do that without smashing the skull open like a melon, and a body in those conditions would be cruel to show to the relatives of the dead.

"Then prepare the seals, brother," he said in a tired voice as he folded his arms and closed his eyes, bringing the captured Sound kunoichi to ground level none too gently. "We will have more sand urns to take to the families of this platoon."

Kankurou simply nodded, recalling all his puppets except Spider, who he left to his left hand as a sentinel, while he brought out his brush and ink with his other hand. Gaara knew he was pretending not to see, but he didn't care; Uzumaki Naruto had taught him that it was alright to let your brother see you cry. Without another word, both of them began the duty of gathering their dead – one turned them into clumps of sand while the other sealed them in a scroll that had suddenly become a lot more precious to many people back at home.

Both his and Kakurou's faces were wet as they performed their task, but neither said a word.

.o0o.

"Shizune-san, we're not sure you understand," Kaoru was saying with narrowed eyes (although the bags old age had left under her eyes didn't allow for much of a difference to be seen), "we need to see Tsunade-sama at once."

Shizune angled herself so that the papers behind her, the ones that Izumo had dropped on Raidou's behalf that morning, were not visible to the two sudden uninvited guests. Hinata and Neiji were counting on them, and these papers seeing the light before the time would be disastrous.

"And I am telling you that Tsunade-sama is unavailable at the moment, Kaoru-sama," the young assistant replied, trying to curb her mounting frustration. She was beginning to understand why Shishou used liberal amounts of sake in her free time, something she'd always cursed Jiraiya-sama for providing ever since the start of their altered relationship. Shizune had to admit that she was rather craving the taste of a cup herself at the moment.

Tsunade's order had been clear; no one in the village was to know that she was gone for forty-eight hours, by which time she would be out of Fire Country. This was as much a security measure at it was a means to get out of there without annoyances; annoyances like the two old farts (oh dear, Naruto-kun's vocabulary was contagious!) that were standing before her.

"Why is that, Shizune?" Homura-sama asked, sounding a lot more patient than his fellow elder. "Was there an emergency in the Hospital?"

Shizune rubber her forehead. If she lied and said yes, they would no doubt head down to the Hospital and ask, and that would only create more trouble, and possibly spread the word that their Hokage-sama was missing among the populace - which couldn't happen. Even when word was allowed to spread, she and all the ANBU in the know had been ordered to keep it strictly to personnel who were supposed to be informed, and to tell no one else. Not only was it a golden opportunity for their enemy to attack while all its most powerful shinobi were out, but it could also create panic among the people in the village to know that their leader and best medic had left secretly and without a scheduled Kage meeting to attend.

"Alright," she said quietly, pinching her nose bridge. With a sigh, she brought her other hand up and instantly flew through a predisposed set of hand seals. Fuin flashed briefly across all the room's walls and apertures, and both elders gaped at her.

"You can activate the silence jutsu in the office, so that means…" Kaoru said in a flabbergasted voice.

"Yes. Tsunade-sama isn't in the village," she sighed in resignation. Kaoru was about to explode in an angry retort, but Homura-sama partially raised his hand in front of her, cutting her off before she went into what was undoubtedly a heated tirade. Shizune gulped, however, when Homura-sama turned a rather piercing gaze towards her.

"What has Tsunade done now? And don't lie to us, Shizune-chan. We know that you have orders, but I'm also sure that she told you to inform us of what's going on eventually. Just make that eventually now, hmm?"

Shizune knew when she was cornered; while she could have probably outmanoeuvred Kaoru through her temper, Homura-sama was a much calmer individual, and the more patient of the two elders. She knew he wasn't going to leave this room without the information he wanted, and; he was absolutely correct. Tsunade-shishou had told her to inform the elders the moment forty eight hours were up: they weren't, but there was little she could do about it now. Thirty-two hours were going to have to do.

"Sit down, honoured elders, please," she began. This is going to take a while. While Kaoru narrowed her eyes at her again in what she probably thought was a warning look, Homura-sama simply smiled at her and nodded, as he surely knew that he'd won this battle of wits.

Shizune rested against the front of Tsunade-shishou's empty desk while the two elders found chairs to settled down in, dragging them in front of her before they sat down as the young assistant tried to organise her thoughts. Where to start? What to say first? There was so much going on, and Shizune felt so tired… dear gods, how much had Tsunade-sama wanted her to tell them? Everything, or just the details of this mission? Or just the objective?

A very loud knock rattled her out of her thoughts with a jump. Whoever was on the other side of the door jangled the knob strongly and rather hurriedly, as though there was an emergency. Shizune narrowed her eyes at the large white door and looked at both elders, catching their trepident glance with her own. Homura-sama stood up, as did Kaoru, and Shizune could see them readying hidden weapons.

Flashing through seals, Shizune released the jutsu that insulated the room from any noise, and instantly recognise the voice of one of the nurses calling for her. All three of them relaxed moderately; while not an attack, a frantic nurse never boded well.

Opening the door quickly, Shizune had to right the young girl, who had almost been fallen into her as she'd been leaning up against the wood in her frantic haste. As soon as she realised who she was facing, the nurse clamped onto her shoulders, making Shizune wince when her nails dun into her flesh.

"Shizune-sempai," the girl gasped, obviously having run from the hospital. This couldn't be good. "Ino- Ino-san said it was very, very important, and that you had to come down to the hospital now."

Ino? Which patients was Ino taking care of? Shizune could tell of a dozen off the top of her head, and none of them had needed any immediate attention. Complications could happen, but she could have been paged with a code if it was something so life threatening that-

"She said," the nurse gasped, swallowing and still trying to catch her second wind. "She said to tell you 'It's finally clotted'. I don't know what it means, but-"

A massive light bulb went on in Shizune's head, and she exclaimed in alarm and excitement as the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. Ino hadn't been doing the rounds tonight, she'd been scheduled for the laboratories because Hinata and Tsunade were gone. And she had been working on that project.

"You mean… she said exactly that? Those words?" Shizune asked excitedly, gripping the girls shoulders in return. The nurse nodded.

"She was adamant I tell you as soon as possible, and exactly that, sempai, I don't know what … I mean…"

"Finally!" she hissed in savage satisfaction, halting the nurse's nervous babble.

"What on earth is going on?" Kaoru's sharp voice came from behind her. Shizune clenched her teeth in annoyance, some of the raging thoughts and rabid excitement within her fading as she remembered the two elders behind her. Well, this screwed the pooch; now she was going to have to tell them everything.

Shizune let go of the nurse, who quickly stepped away, rather shy of the two prominent leading figures in the village. Shizune had no such qualms. Straightening, she turned to face them fully, her face a mixture of grave seriousness and sparkling determination. They had done it. Now they were going to get that fucking bastard.

"Honoured elders, I will explain everything. But first, I need to be somewhere very urgently." She looked directly into Homura-sama's eyes. "You can either wait a few moments and follow me, or wait until tomorrow and meet me first thing in the morning, but even then… I might not guarantee that I would keep the appointment. This … this takes priority."

"I see," he murmured, looking at his fellow elder, who twisted her mouth but nodded.

"We will follow you, then," Kaoru said with a voice that brooked no argument.

"Good," Shizune said, beginning to move towards the entrance of the tower with as much speed as she could without breaking into a flat out run. "I cannot tell you anything on the way because this is a matter of… I will tell you there."

"Understood," Homura-sama said. Shizune turned to look at him; as his tone suggested, he was grinning widely, and Shizune wondered with a jolt how much the old man knew already. If nothing else, he'd at least realised that something big had just happened. Even Kaoru was catching on, if the intense expression on her face meant anything.

"Let's hurry, then" Shizune said, turning front again just as she exited the ANBU guarded tower and headed headlong towards the hospital. Elation coursed through her; finally, finally they had managed to crack the puzzle. Now the little worm was really going to squirm.

.o0o.

Tendrils of steam rose flightily from the ceramic cup, forming shapes like dragons and snakes as they crept upwards before they disappeared. He smiled at them, twirling a finger in the middle to create new patterns and shapes before sighing, disrupting the cloud with his breath and picking it up for a sip.

He had always been fascinated, as a boy, by his father's ninja, and their wondrous abilities that had always looked like the most mysterious magic to him. He'd even envied his second cousin from Uzu, who had moved to Konoha to become one of them at one point.

But then he'd grown up, been given the official mantel, and work and responsibility had wiped the silly notions from his head. A small part of him, however, he had no problem admitting had always remained fascinated by their world of jutsu and roof-hopping, of heroic tales and travelling at the speed of light. A world where men barely out of boyhood could perform feats that normal people could only gawp at, and where an individual like the Yondaime could be made leader of a village of such men at the age of 23.

He smiled wistfully at the tea in his hands, watching his own reflection shift and waver in the black liquid. He'd been particularly fond of the fourth; as had been everyone. He'd had reasons of his own, however. When little Kushina had informed him that she was having that remarkable man's child, and that they would marry as soon as the war was over, he'd been overjoyed. Kushina had almost become like a ward to him after her family in Uzu had been wiped out. He had been her last remaining relative after the first's wife had passed away, and the Senju summoner, current Hokage, hadn't stayed in the village long enough to be anything but a distant name to the red haired girl.

But he, newly appointed Daimyo of Fire Country, had been her reference point apart from the friends she had made in the Leaf village. They were only related by marriage, but he had instantly taken a liking to her, and had been more than satisfied with the match she'd chosen for herself. Jiraiya was one of the few he trusted blindly; and though he was not foolish enough to think that the man would ever chose him over the Leaf if circumstance pushed the situation that way, he also knew that Jiraiya was a man of his word, and had a lot more sense of honour and fidelity than many of those who were ninja had nowadays. Gone were the days of Sarutobi, and he knew that; however, he also knew that those of his line, those of his ilk who had followed down in his lineage of teaching, were as close to following in the older man's footsteps as any.

Orochimaru was an exception, of course. The old Daimyo sighed in disappointment at the memory. Yes, and the young Uchiha, too. Though from Jiraiya's recent reports, the poor boy's mind had been scrambled and manipulated beyond recognition. Both of them had been brilliant, and both of them had been given the chance to do great things with their talent in favour of the Fire Country. Instead, they had decided to think only of themselves; and the older Uchiha child, how unfortunate. The Daimyo had only been informed recently of the events that had actually taken place; Itachi had truly been a young hero. At only 13, he'd taken on the role of sacrifice for his village and country's sake. He'd been reviled and hated when in reality, very few others would have had the strength and courage to do what he'd done. He'd killed everyone he held dear, even his future wife, in order to bring the eyes of this dangerous man, Madara, exclusively to himself, and to save his dear brother's life.

A sip of hot tea scalded his tongue slightly, but he admitted to enjoy the sensation, as well as the strong after-taste of liquorice. There was something to say for a tang, a slight jolt, and a bit of pain. The Daimyo smiled to himself mokingly; perhaps he would really have made a good shinobi had the circumstances dictated it.

The poor boy had gone mad when he'd found out the truth about his brother, Jiraiya had reported to him. And Asuma's young apprentice, the Nara boy, had also confirmed it, though much more reluctantly. He'd tasted the thirst for revenge, he'd admitted. He had burned inside with focussed hatred until the life of the one who'd killed Asuma had been forfeit; he didn't know, he'd grudgingly said, what he'd have done if one of his clan had killed the rest and left only him. And a beloved brother, who would then turn out to be a willing sacrifice. No, the Nara boy had said, he couldn't judge the situation and say what he would have done. There were too many odds to analyse.

Ah, youth. Though the boy had admitted it, it had been begrudging and resentful. And the Daimyo did not ride under the illusion that there wasn't an ulterior motive for Asuma's boy to have said what he did.

Jiraiya had cleared that one up for him, in his own round about way. Over the years, the Daimyo had learned to read into the old member of the sannin's jokes, hints and little seemingly stupid statements that passed him for an oaf with many people. It was easy to forget that he was one of the deadliest men alive if you weren't careful, and the Daimyo was everything but careless.

Most of the younger generation had grown very fond of Naruto, the young jinchuuriki. And this young jinchuuriki had been on the Uchiha's team, and wanted to save him no matter what the cost.

The Daimyo took a silk case out of his sleeve and pulled out a sleek, oak pipe. He and Sarutobi had had a matching one, a gift they had given each other as a sign of long lasting alliance and friendship. Bringing the aromatic tobacco out of the tin box inside the pocket, he stuffed the head and lighted it, taking a calming puff.

He'd been shaken, very shaken, if he were to be honest, when he'd discovered that the young hero he'd been hearing about and keeping an eye on – yes, a jinchuuriki, but Jiraiya had taken him under his wing, and trusted Jiraiya as he had trusted Sarutobi… Yes, he could admit with himself that he'd startled into sitting down when he'd been told who the young boy truly was. Son of Minato, but also son of little Kushina. He'd quickly ordered intel to be gathered on the boy, at once, and asked for as many images and photos as could be found. Jiraiya, who had sent the missive containing the shocking information, had been sent for immediately.

The man had obviously expected the summons, as he had appeared not a day later. His answers to the irate noble had been straightforward and forthcoming, just as he had come to expect from the white haired nin. He'd known for a few years, yes; but, also, yes; Sarutobi had lied to him as well. He'd also been told that Kushina's child had been a still-born, and that any resemblances this Naruto had were a leak from the fuin Minato had used for the fox.

He and Jiraiya had thrown propriety to the wind that night, banished any and all servants but the one most trusted, and gotten themselves savagely drunk while they talked. They had ended up in an undignified heap, and the Daimyo had laughed with some gusto at discovering that Jiriaya, upon returning the village at Sarutobi's summons after Sasuke's marking, had literally smashed his old teacher's office to bits. He'd known much more of the Shiki fuin by then, and knew that the story he'd been fed was bogus. He'd already met the young Naruto – baby, he'd been told, only named in honour of the real Naruto – and had unmistakably seen both his father and mother in him. He'd known then that Kushina and Minato's child had been no still-born.

Not even the ANBU had stopped Jiraiya from giving his old teacher a black eye, the drunk nin had proudly informed his Daimyo, who had laughed it up heartily at the image. He knew Sarutobi had his reasons; the near kidnap of the young Hyuuga heiress came to mind, and if that could occur, what were walls to stop enemies of the Yellow Flash from murdering his infant son?

But the Daimyo had also been admittedly furious. Little Kushina had been someone he adored; she had been sunny, loud, and a joy to have around on the brief stint she'd stopped in the Capital before going on to Konoha. She'd indefinitely stolen a piece of his heart in those three months, and any son of hers – and Minato's – would have instantly become a ward of his court.

Both he and Jiraiya had drowned their anger and sorrow in sake that night. Sarutobi was long gone, and Tsunade herself had been pushing for the boy to be made her official successor on paper since he'd returned to the village after his rescue of the Kazekage. The elders had blocked her at every turn, and admittedly he himself had been reluctant; a jinchuuriki, and at such a young age! Especially when there were others, like the Hatake, who were so much more ideal to the task.

The Daimyo looked at his pipe ironically. Sarutobi, the old, conniving genius, had told nothing to nobody, and gone and placed the son of the fourth on the fourth's student's team. Kakashi himself hadn't known the true identity of his blonde student until he'd confronted Jiraiya about it; and that only after he'd seen Naruto summon toads (or tadpoles) during one of his quick runs back to the village to see how the rest of his team was doing.

The Copy nin had had his own private doubts on the theory of the fuin leak for a while, but seeing the boy being taught his teacher's legacy had clinched it. Both the Daimyo and Jiraiya had laughed when the member of the sannin had recounted Kakaki's response. His reaction had been much more sedate – and much more creative – than Jiriaya's. While Sarutobi had only had to order new furniture and go down for a short visit to the medic nin for his black eye with Jiraiya, Minato's – and subsequently Kushina's – student hadn't been so kind. Sarutobi's favourite pipe weed had disappeared from every stash and store in Konoha, and every single crate of it that was brought into the village for the next month had mysteriously vanished. Kakashi had officially been away to teach Sasuke, so no one, to that day, knew how he had managed it. No one had been surprised that he had, however; ex-ANBU captain aside, no one had excelled quite so well at pranks since the other Uzumaki had terrorized the boys of the village.

The Daimyo sighed again, looking at the bottom of his cup. The now cooling tea allowed him to see himself clearly. Old tired eyes, sagging deeper into his face with each new care and worry. Hanging cheeks to accompany the bags under his eyes, and the hat on his head to deline his status missing for this single occasion, revealing black hair liberally peppered with white streaks.

He had problems of his own as regards to succession. His young son, barely 16, was next in line for his seat, as his two older boys had insisted on going to fight for this war that had broken out, and not come back. Daichi and Sesshou… he would miss and mourn them both. But that had left his youngest, who had never even thought of reigning and had been angling to become a monk, as his sole male heir. Young Kazuo was terrified of the sudden mantel of power and intrigue that had fallen over his shoulders unexpectedly. More than anything, the boy needed guidance, help and support.

And Naruto was just as young as his son. He had been yearning to meet Jiraiya's new student and ward ever since he'd learned the truth of his lineage, but now; now the Daimyo had his own agenda. He wanted Kazuo to meet Naruto. He wanted to have the young blonde talk to his son. If he was anything like his father and his mother, the shinobi would be a new friend and ally to his son, who was suddenly beset on all sides by enemies and false friends. He would also light the fire of determination in Kazuo's eyes, of that, the Daimyo was sure. Minato had had a way with words, and if the rumours of Nagato's defeat were real, Naruto had inherited that.

So when the young Nara had come to him looking for support for this very shinobi, and indeed, the support asked by the boy's lover who was the Hyuuga heiress herself from what he could understand, he'd jumped on the occasion. Of course he supported Naruto; of course he had no objection for his plans and appointment as successor, if Tsunade still had that idea in mind. Being able to finally see more images and official paperwork regarding the boy had been an added bonus.

Jiraiya, the shrewd old toad, had immediately been aware that something was afoot on his end; and the Daimyo'd informed the man, later, when he was sure no ears could hear that shouldn't. Jiraiya hadn't even been affronted at his request; Naruto, the block head, would have supported his son in any case, he told him. Other young Daimyo and leaders around the elemental countries owed the boy a lot. He couldn't rest when he saw something that didn't sit well with him, the toad sage had said. He'd left allies and friends all over the world in their travels. There was no way Kazuo would be left to his own devices, if Naruto was Hokage.

He took another long drag from his pipe, watching the embers come alive in veinatures of red colours like lava cracking a volcano's surface. Like so many lines of fate; one led to the other, almost like a written path. Naruto didn't believe in fate, that he'd seen. He'd been there for the battle between him and the Hyuuga after all. But being an old man sometimes made him fatalistic; he could look back, and almost see the same hand tracing the path of so many different individuals, until this single, almost perfect solution was created. He would support Naruto, and Naruto in turn would support his son.

He blew the pipe smoke out, and the cloud mixed with his condensed breath in the frigid air of the room. The Daimyo pulled the quilted haori about him more tightly as he looked out onto the frozen garden beyond the patio. Shogi doors had been fitted in glass panes, so that the winter scenery could be enjoyed without freezing the room, but the Daimyo had always found that he preferred fresh air, even when it threatened to freeze his whiskers off.

He took up his tea, now cold, and poured some fresher liquid from the still-warm pot. Sipping the liquid, now pleasantly-temperatured for a quick drink, he let his thoughts drift; he really loved winter, and snow had been a rare treat for him as a child. Jiraiya had really found an ideal, beautiful location, proving his worth, knowledge and connections once again.

A blue breasted bird alighted in the pristine snow, ruffling its feathers and puffing out until it was nothing but a round ball with a beak and two eyes. The Daimyo smiled at it. Blue breasted wrens were good omens. Perhaps he could contradict Naruto for this once, and believe a bit in fate and signs. Holding up the cup to the tiny bird, he drank to its health, and the fortune he hoped it would bring

.o0o.

Yuki walked carefully, holding the heavy bucket with both hands and trying to avoid sloshing the freezing water, even as it got in the way of her legs. Arriving at a spot she judged to be far enough from their camp, she upended the wooden thing, watching the sudsy liquid full of washing residue fall into the cold ground. The wet part almost seemed to melt as the warmer liquid fell on it, and the darker colour started receding almost before her eyes.

They were moving a lot farther north up the country's east border, and the military presence had increased. While it simultaneously made the members of the troupe feel both more anxious and safer, it couldn't be helped; with a war going on, and even usually neutral countries pitching in, there was little to be surprised for the number of patrols. They had already been stopped and searched five times, their warrants and travelling documents checked and double-checked until they thought that they would be arrested every time.

Yuki shuddered a little, pulling her fur mantel about her more tightly. It was usually used as a prop, but under the circumstance, no one had protested when Shin-kun had draped it over her and forced her to keep it on. Her breath steamed as she breathed a long sigh, and she looked up into the steel grey sky.

She smiled mellowly at it; the colour was appropriate. Fresh snow flakes began to cascade down noiselessly even as she looked, and she blinked as a few stray flakes landed on her eyelashes. Even as she looked up at the lazily floating specks of white, they seemed to encircle her as they fell.

Yuki had always loved the winter. While flowers bloomed in spring, and earth became too hard to plant and cultivate, there was just something beautiful about the crisp coldness and snow.

Two samurai stopped just off to her left, and turned to look directly at her. Slightly startled at being stared at so obviously, Yuki ducked her head and hugged the bucket to herself, hurrying away. The cart was only a few yards away, tucked comfortably behind a copse; not too hard to drag onto the road tomorrow, but with some privacy. She'd almost made it to the opposite bushes, too, when a rough arm gripped her elbow, bruising her and making her drop the bucket.

"Documents, woman," said a rough voice. Yuki looked up at him, feeling slightly displaced, and the guard shook her. "Documents!"

"The sparrow startles for every sound after it hears the eagle's cry," Akane-san said quietly, as she walked slowly from behind the copse. The samurai holding her stiffened. With a quick jerk, her arm was free, and she ran to Akane-san's side. The old woman, slightly bent and very wrinkled, was looking steadily at the man who had held her with eyes that looked nothing like those of an absent, tired crone. "Tell me, young man," she continued once Yuki was beside her, once again holding her bucket tight. "What does the eagle do?"

The man hesitated. Akane-san's eyes narrowed marginally and he stepped back, then he stuttered, "It sings like a sparrow, and hides in the snow."

"Very well," Akane-san nodded in approval, an indulgent smile spreading her wrinkled cheeks. "But since the sparrow is cautious, it will not be fooled. Remember that, young man! Eagles and sparrows often change place."

She turned around, and Yuki almost fell over herself to follow, unable to stop herself from looking back towards the two men. One looked grim, while the one who had stopped her looked almost ready to flee, cry or soil himself. Or all three.

"What…" she began, but Akane-san did not allow her to finish.

"Aaah, Yuki-chan, it was an error on our part to send you out of camp on your own. A pretty girl like you, kami knows what might happen next time… well. It's very good that Shin-kun didn't see that, yes?"

"Yes…" Yuki whispered, looking at Akane-san in mild trepidation. She was fairly sure she'd felt a chill run up her spine when the frail old woman had spoken to the two soldiers, and she knew very well what that meant. However…

What was that all about…?

.o0o.

Viper hissed enough to make her porcelain mask proud as she rushed headlong towards their destination. Her feet barely made a splash on the water as they crossed the wide body of water their mission requested them to, but if she could, she knew she'd be sending up jets out of sheer frustration.

"Keep up, Damnit!" she said in a voice that was as muted as a holler would allow.

"Viper, we're on the border of enemy territory," Raidou replied, slightly worried. "And this mission is unclassified! Could you please be quiet?"

"Like fuck," she hissed back. "I could be with my man right now, but no, I have to be with Mr Puny Ass who can't even run to save his arse from dolphins."

Raidou sighed behind her.

"The dolphins only dropped me in because one deciding that keeping up and nosing my foot was the game of the day. Now can you drop it?"

Viper let out a frustrated growl and pushed harder, her foot leaving ripples on the water's surface. To her right, she could see the great Naruto bridge disappearing off into a slight enveloping of mist.

Mist was good – for the fish people of Kiri. She was not a fish person from Kiri. Biting her lip to stave off a multitude of words that would probably make her man back home blush and run for the soap, she paused, dropping her chakra output to a minimum that allowed her both to stay afloat and not to leave a rather obvious void in the surroundings. Many rookies made the same mistake and died for it; everything released chakra, even stones. Therefore, if they cancelled all chakra leaving the body completely, it would be the same as setting up a neon light over their heads leading to a bull's eye on their chest.

Her partner landed silently beside her, guarding her side and watching her back by staying slight lower. The mist seemed natural, but there was no reason to take chances. They'd all encountered drones in battle by now – and if she were honest, she'd know Raidou wasn't keeping up that well because he'd almost lost an ankle to one last week. Nin, even kids, had been taken from Kiri too.

"Rai, is the sword saying anything?" she whispered. Her partner brought his black blade forward to glance at the special fuin that had been inscribed into it by Kakashi-taicho.

"All clear," he replied steadily, and Viper didn't fail to hear the relief in his tone. Viper just nodded, teeth barred behind her porcelain mask, and shot forward again.

She hadn't been happy when the Hokage had given them last minute instructions. Sure, it could be worse; she could have been sent to the front for a two-month stint, like others were being deployed. Having all the major hidden villages (and minor ones too eventually, who banded in to avoid being swallowed whole) at least gave that advantage. Forces could be refreshed and redeployed regularly with the larger pool; unfortunately, that didn't stop that jelly-assed, mask-faced bastard from stealing his own re-reinforcements right from their troupes.

They didn't seem to have any of the fun-variety enemies tonight though, so perhaps this mission could go by smoothly. In good conscience, Viper knew there wasn't a reason why it shouldn't. It was a relatively easy fetch and retrieval mission from what could be called a ghost town, out of the way from the main battles. It was probably why Raidou had been placed on it, being still half-injured. To be honest, though, she had noticed another file together with the one like hers for the briefing, but it was neither her place nor her interest to ask. As long as it didn't delay the return back, she couldn't care two rice balls.

Quite a while passed until either of them broke the silence again, both of them psyched to cross the body of water in as little time as possible. They knew they were sitting ducks, and chakra expanded to cross an ocean wasn't a joke. Finally arriving on the edge of the target territory, Viper paused.

"Careful," she cautioned, surveying their increasingly unsteady foot-ground. "The worse ones are on the other side, but these ones here are no joke. Leg ok?"

"Holding up," Raidou answered, slipping his sword out again to give it a paranoid glance, and then slipping it back in. Viper nodded, both at the answer and the gesture, and moved forward cautiously. The noise of rushing water was almost deafening, and the amount of chakra they began using to cross the field of vortexes that gushed sea spray to cause a hazy, wavering visual that was even worse than fog in many ways. Dusk light shimmered on the water, creating disrupting and distracting patterns that could have sucked down anyone on half a wrong step.

Viper went through the safe path between the maelstroms that both she and Raidou had memorised from their reports with her breath held and her tongue between her teeth. Just as they were beginning to see land, natural light began to fade to dangerous levels.

"We have to pick it up, taicho," Raidou said before she could even finish the thought. Nodding, they took up a steadier clip, careful to keep to the assigned path while on the lookout for ambush.

They needn't have worried. The moment they touched ground and followed the instructions to their destination, they found exactly what Viper knew they would; a ghost town. Or in this case, a ghost village.

"Welcome to Whirlpool," she said smartly to the empty, dark streets.

"You think there really still is a chance that it's here?" Raidou asked, once again taking out his sword and giving it a once-over. He kept it out this time.

"Not really, but I'm not the boss. Come on, we have a three day limit, and if we do find it, we get the hell out of here sooner. Don't know you, but with all these bloody dead men walking, I'll be glad when we're gone."

Raidou simply lifted a brow and waved his unsheathed sword at her. She snorted, cracking up all the way down what used to be the main street into one of the great Hidden Villages.

.o0o.

"We're all gathered then, good."

Tsunade looked around at the shinobi assembled around her, grim expression and set shoulder speaking more than words could on the gravity of the moment.

None of them really knew what was happening, either. Their debriefing had been short, succinct, and they had come out of it knowing precisely three things; it was undercover, it was S-rank, it was very possibly a one-way ticket.

None the less, none of them had backed out. They did not know the mission objective itself; only their captain knew that, and their captain was the big lady herself. This left them with the deceptively simple twin tasks of protecting her, and staying alive.

"You know that you're still on time to back out," she said, her arms still akimbo, her eyes still scanning them all. They all knew that, yes. Shinobi did not technically have the right to back out – they were soldiers. Their commander ordered, and they obeyed. But Konoha was different; Konoha had always been different. None of her children were weapons, none of her children were dispensable. Some where more important than others, and sometimes, yes; sometimes she forgot her philosophy, like the time Sakumo had been forced into a corner, or the time a small boy had looked around to cold faces for years, or even the time when a thirteen-year-old had been forced to slaughter his whole family in the name of peace. But somehow, Konoha always managed to return to the path that led to her inhabitants living for her, not despite her.

So none of them moved. Tsunade, without doubt, knew that this would be the case.

"I don't have to remind you that the death risk for this mission is 70%. We may even encounter undesirably number one. Remember that in that case, the orders are strictly to get the heck out of there. No heroics, no sacrifices. Retreat and regroup; and no signature moves, either."

Her eyes swept over them, and then her lips twisted when she met those of the brunette standing immediately in front of her. He merely looked back with a somewhat blank face, eyes blinking calmly, even though he had to know that she was speaking of him especially.

"Very well, then. Start preparing. And no comment or word will come out of any of you on what you will see in the next few minutes." Again she looked at the boy in front of her. Again he just looked back stoically. She wished she could punch his face in for a moment.

The line in front of her broke up, each one of them going to their assigned gear and role, each receiving last minute instructions from her second on this mission. It was very rare for a Hokage to leave a village in a time of war, at least except for the meetings they had been having, but it was not unheard of. However, no one was going to know about her absence till the opportune moment in any case. Not to mention; this was a mission that no one else, no matter how trusted, no matter how powerful, could do. She was not here only for herself and her village, either. All the other Kage were counting on this.

Which was why a ball had lodged firmly in her throat when she saw the ones assembled. They all looked so young to her … (except her second, crazy old coot), and they all had so much to lose…

But it had to be done, and it had to be this way for it to work. No other way could be acceptable, or safe.

"Chameleon," she said, and instantly, a figure in a black robe and signature mask appeared by her. She scanned him, of course knowing who the one behind the mask was. This was her way of being nice, one may say; he could see them off. However, it came with a price. "Keep the others ready; the medics must be on high alert at all times without being overt. During the fifth day, lax the security to one. Do it for two to three subsequent days."

She looked him square in the eyes. She could barely see them through the eyeholes, but they were there, and she knew this would pain him. But again; it had to be done.

"On the seventh day," she said in a low voice, "spread the rumour."

Chameleon swallowed thickly, eyes closing momentarily before they returned to hers determinately. He only gave a nod, and it was enough.

Turning away, she walked to the group. Stopping next to her second she let out a long sigh, and with an effort of will that had nothing to do with chakra, and everything to do with a part of her she didn't let to the surface often (make that never), she let go of a certain jutsu.

"Right, now our cover is complete," she said. "We can go."

"Wait a moment," her second said from beside her. His large hands were instantly in her hair, undoing the two bunches and combing his fingers through them, before retying the lot much lower in a style much more reminiscent of a miko's.

"I'm no priestess, old fool," she muttered at him, giving a half-hearted glare. He just smiled back.

"It was too distinctive, the way it was, hime-sama," he replied jovially, then stopped, smiled more widely and went on, "oh no, I forget; aisai."

She frowned at him more deeply, even though she couldn't find it in herself to begrudge him the obvious pleasure he felt in calling her that. The tight part in her chest relaxed completely, and she was almost ashamed to admit to herself that she'd been quite afraid of his reaction. Instead, he was still preening at his role, and still looking puff-chested when he took her withered hand and threaded it through his arm. She almost wanted to kiss him

"Come on, my old wife. Let's not lag behind, or the young'uns will leave us here!"

Then he said something like that, and she wanted to bang his head against a tree instead. She compromised instead by shooting him a hairy eyeball, and then reach out to touch the young man on her other side.

"You can lose the old cover persona now," she told him, and she wasn't too proud to admit – to herself, at least – that she was beyond relieved to see him smile widely at her at that. She had grown increasingly fond of him; when she had then discovered who he was son of, and who he was son of in turn, that had only increased tenfold. "Just don't overdo it. And none of that datte-whatever bullshit, we clear?"

"Dattebayo," came a quiet voice from beside him as the girl leaned forward enough to look at her, and smile mildly. Tsunade blinked at her for a second, then shook her head with a chuckle. The way her second was sniggering, he too had seen the change between the two young people; something had happened, and both of them had begun thinking that perhaps, he had taken the advice she'd given in her office only half jokingly. Now the younger couple were both looking at each other fondly, like the rest of the world didn't exist; not good for a shinobi, but luckily for them, it was good for this mission's cover. And whatever they looked like, Tsunade was sure that they weren't as distracted as they seemed. "Ma ma, you're giving her all your bad habits."

"Don't worry baa-chan!" he replied happily, grin getting wider and turning to her with it in full force. "She's too nice for that! She'll whip me into shape someday, you'll see!"

Tsunade snorted and didn't bother correcting him, not on his statement, and not on her title either. For all intents and purposes, on this mission, and in real life as well, that was exactly what she was.

"Alright, you all," she said, only lightly raising her voice so they could all hear her. "Move out!"

Seven figures disappeared into the morning mist.

.o0o.

Seijuro trudged through the knee-deep snow, raising his legs as high as they would go and cursing the frigid climate of Steel bleeding Country. While it was better than visiting arid, desert Suna, this was almost as bad.

Suppressing a shiver, he scanned the tree line carefully for their props director, and it wasn't very long before he spotted a moving dot of black that rose and fell as Shin gathered firewood.

"Shin!" he called out. The other man straightened and pivoted towards his voice, spotting him and coming towards him immediately.

"What? Did something happen?" he asked tightly, searching his face and their surroundings with his eyes, taking it all in within an instant. Both of them had felt the tension within their group rising higher and higher the deeper the marched into the land of Steel, and neither one was fooled; this wasn't going to be a piece of cake by any stretch of the imagination.

"Nothing did, but Yuki-chan was worried when you took too long," he answered, scanning the surroundings himself.

"Yeah, I forgot how long it takes when you have to do this alone," Shin muttered, going back to ducking to the ground to gather kindling he spotted. Seijuro looked away, observing the silver pine forest they had camped in tonight. Their guide had left them detailed maps of many areas, and this had been one of them; the hot spring outlined had been a designated spot for their rest since they had left their border.

"Seijuro."

Neiji's eyes snapped back towards Naruto, who was just straightening up with a considerable armload of wood.

"I think I'm just about done, no use trying to bleed stones," he muttered, rearranging the wood in his hold. "We should go back, before Yuki gets any more worried."

Neiji nodded, moving forward to take some of his team mate's load.

"After you, Shin," he said jovially, and then more quietly; "Take point. I'll watch our backs."

"Thanks, Seijuro-chan," was the other man's teasing response as they headed back to camp in silence.

.o0o.

*Sips tea while still wearing Dr Insano's Glasses* Well, that went well, don't you think? Oh, confused? *grin* well, good. That means I did my job right. Now go re-read it!

*Kat swipes a Microphone*

Kat: This is going to hell to follow…

Midi: … Oh, alright, here's some non-evil-genius reader-friendly pointers on the chronology for your re-read:

There are three plains of chronology in the chapter;

1) The scenes that follow the kabuki group's journey, which is over several weeks as they move from Konoha's border all the way to Steel in 'common mortal' pace.

2) The ones that follow Hinata and Naruto just waking up from their making-up night, going through their morning rituals, and then suddenly realising that they both have a mission to report to.

3) And then the village and battle scenes, which pretty much follow their linier chronology, parallel to the journey of the kabuki group.

Did I write them in those orders? Eeh, no, I wrote it pretty much the way you see it up there. Time loops are enjoyable to write (for me), and I have a steno pad filled with notes on who is where and doing what, apart from scene sequences and things yet to come. Planning is a major part of the fun, but free writing also has its perks. And you guys; I don't write easy chapters, sorry. Bear with me, ok? I preferred sweeping you off your feet in a whirlwind of activity and doubt rather than boring you to tears with the plot-intensive chapter that was scheduled after fluff-muff-angst chapters past.

Kat: Just had to point it out

Midi: Which is why you're an awesome beta.

And yes, the Kabuki actors are the Konoha team, for those who are still a bit shaky. I left clues through all the chapter, some big some small, and you will discover who Ken and Jigo are soon enough. Yuki, Muto Akane and Gin, meanwhile, are obviously Hinata, Tsunade and Jiraiya. While you wait for the next chapter, you can all have fun guessing the other two. It's been hinted at, and I'm sure you'll get it. For geographical reference, this (http:/lordrahl8.deviantart.com/art/Extended-Naruto-map-156286050#/d2l1r36) is the map I've been using for this fic.

For all of you pulling a face at the lack of lovin', there's a special threat below. However, after the relationship-focussed chapters we've just left behind, some plot focus was needed. (So is Mr Plot's excuse, and he reports that he will stick to it).

Without further ado, please enjoy:

Omake

Hinata silently walked into the sleeping room, sitting down to close the screen door behind her. The light inside the room was already low, and screen that shielded the other futon in it was already raised.

The futon on their side of the room was also spread out, and Hinata was surprised to see a lump in it already. Naruto-kun usually was one of the last in bed; he had no make up to remove, differently from the actors, but as sole responsible for the props and sceneries in their cart, he didn't usually make it to bed until much later, and she always had to fight her fatigue to stay awake and wait for him. Tonight, instead, he was already under the blanket.

Hinata blushed, a hand rising to run through her hair as she suddenly felt quite conscious about her appearance. Unless he was ill – which happened very, very rarely (and usually involved his culinary habits) – there was only one reason Naruto-kun would be in bed so early, and had trusted the props to his fellow actors.

Moving over to the bedding, she quickly slid in, somewhat nervously, and she relished the ability of being able to do it. Her father would have most decidedly had a fit if he knew, but he didn't. Her cousin hadn't been happy with the arrangement at all, but once it had been made official, he could only glare.

Sighing contentedly, she moved until she was sidled up against him. In the middle of last week, she'd plucked up enough courage to put an arm around him, and since he hadn't seemed to mind, she'd went on doing it. Tonight, she was slightly startled to find smooth skin under her cheek instead of cotton – especially when the weather had been getting increasingly colder as their route took them farther North. She could feel colour rising to her cheeks, but it also gave her a slight thrill. Maybe Naruto-kun really had come early for some… quiet time, with her? She knew she should be more attentive to the mission and their objective, but her current persona, not to mention their interaction exactly before they left the village, had left her with a head full of dreams, fantasies and possibilities that were almost impossible to get rid of.

They had, after all, sometimes, um, taken advantage of their current setting. Kissing was the only thing they'd managed (with your Hokage and your teacher on the other side of a screen, discretion won over valour), but perhaps, tonight…

Deciding to test the waters a little, she pressed a kiss to his jaw as she normally did, lingering more than usual before she said goodnight in what she hoped was a sultry voice. Apparently, however, she had failed at rendering the tone she'd desired as Naruto-kun's response was merely the usual kiss on her crown. Thumping down on her disappointment, she reminded herself that she couldn't look to see if he was blushing without making it obvious, so perhaps, she could try testing the waters a little more.

She let her hand run down his front – her face was positively going to burst from the blush, but she wasn't backing down! – admitting with herself that the feel of soft skin, body hair and tight muscle underneath was a very pleasant sensation against her calloused palm. She'd intended to stop at his pant elastic and curl her fingers around his waist but … her hand encountered no such barrier. When her fingers brushed his hip bone and girdle, it was all she could do not to squeak loudly.

As it was, it was all she could do to suppress her first impulse, choking back any loud noises and snapping away from him like he'd burned her. Oh dear kami¸ she'd overstepped her bounds so badly right now! But, what on earth was he thinking, why was he… oh dear, he wasn't thinking of – oh no, that wasn't quite possible was it? Not with Tsunade-sama and Jiraiya-sama in the same room and the others in the next! And… and they were on a mission, technically, according to the rule book they shouldn't unless it was for professional reasons. But if he asked her, would… would it make any difference? Would it be so bad if they were quiet, and – what on earth was she thinking!

"I can explain…" he said, cutting her jumbled train of thoughts in a very panicked voice. It gave her pause; if he'd been thinking of asking her, why would he sound that way? "You see, um, we were, I mean I was … and…"

There was a shuffle in the next room, and her trained senses caught it instantly. Her eyes narrowed immediately; if they were tending to the props instead of Naruto-kun, none of the others could have made it this early. With only a smidgen of chakra, her eyes could suddenly see more clearly. She could see what was going on more clearly now, too. "This is Ken's idea of a joke, isn't it?" She interrupted with a sigh. Naruto-kun made a choking sound that almost made her want to giggle, but out of respect for him, and conscious of their listeners, she didn't.

"How'd you know?" he hissed. Aaah, there it was. Answering 'basic common sense, feminine intuition, and growing up surrounded by boys', somehow didn't sound diplomatic, however.

"I've known Ken-kun for years, and I know the sort of thing he would do," she said with another sigh. Yes, she admitted to herself, that was definitely disappointment welling up inside her. She ducked back down to hide her face into his bare shoulder (which didn't necessarily help her cheek capillaries), but there was no hiding from herself. A part of her had been really hoping that Naruto-kun had decided to pull some moves on her tonight. Bath time alone with Tsunade-sama, who felt that 'teaching the new generation about men' was an obligation of hers, had possibly left her head more full of nonsense than she'd thought.

Well… it would be a shame to ignore her teachings, wouldn't it? Hinata reminded herself firmly that her father had warned to learn anything the Hokage saw fit to impart, and with a deep breath, she thought she might as well try at her 'sultry' voice again. Then she shyly reached out and let her arm circle his quite naked chest again. "And I know you never can quite back down, once you say you'll do something."

A beat passed, and Naruto-kun gave no response. Frowning to herself (ok, she would admit it; she was definitely pouting), another subtle shift in the two figures she could see on the other side of the paper door to the next room caught her attention. She could feel herself getting slightly angry; what had they been thinking, making a joke like this? Had they thought she'd yell at Naruto-kun and send him out? If she'd had the courage and audacity, she would have shown them how wrong they were but, as it was…

"Whoever's watching had better be ready to get it tomorrow," she hissed loudly, and it was with some satisfaction that she heard an abrupt series of thumps and scuffles from the other side of the door as she watched her cousin and team mates run for cover. She hadn't decided what she'd do to them yet, but foisting her early morning water duties in the frigid weather to one of them sounded very appealing.

Thoughts of revenge flew her mind when she felt Naruto-kun start to sit up. "I'll get-"

"I-it's, it's ok," she interrupted him abruptly, wanting to kick herself for sounding almost like a scared twelve-year-old. There was another beat of silence, and she was sure Naruto-kun was looking at her with his mouth hanging open, but she couldn't quite get herself to look at him. Letting him get up and get dressed, however, was also very unappealing, so she merely tightened her arm around him. "I-I'm very tired. I would – I would really like to sleep."

It was a moment before she heard a very shaky 'ok' from her sleeping partner, and she let out a breath she hadn't known she was holding in. A smile crept across her face, and she made sure he wouldn't see it; yes, she knew very well that she was the colour of radish. But tonight, she was going to sleep better than she ever had, she was sure of it.

Letting her eyes drift shut, lulled by the scent and feel of his skin and his heartbeat in her ear, she was hard pressed not to giggle a few minutes later, when he shifted against her and swore quietly into the now-still room. Tsunade-sama had been right. She'd never thought she would be able to do it but … teasing, especially with him… was fun.

Now all she had to do was build up the courage to follow Tsunade-sama's other advice. She'd already won their first bet; he'd come to her naked first. Now she just needed to add the 'begging' part, and she was all set.

.o0o.

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Conservation: Part II

posted Feb 14, 2011, 5:06 AM by Pichi Herp   [ updated Apr 1, 2011, 10:29 AM ]

Disclaimer: Abandon Canon all ye who enter here; yes I mean that for good, guys. The playground may be Kishit’s but I don’t save balls when I swing on the monkey bars. Oh, and again, I’m proud to say that no, I do NOT own Naruto canon. My women here still do something other than look pretty and cry. They’re Ninja, not Jane Austen little pretty things (and Lizzy Bennet could probably talk Sakura into a crying puddle any day of the week, too).

AN: The OTHER part of the mammoth. Aren’t you grateful I split it in two? *dodges vegetables of dubious origins* Oh, right, the cliffhanger... what can I ever say to make up for that one …

*points and laughs the Evil Laugh* Mwahahaaaaa! Sucks to be you all!

Well, not really no, since your wait is finally over, and you can rest your weary soul from the angst that … no, wait, this chapter’s full of angst too. :3 What can I say, gotta get worse before it gets better!

As a blanket disclaimer, I’m going to say the following: I have lifted - with permission, but also impunity and British cheek - WhyMustIWrite’s Iruka from his/her ‘Paperwork’ series. This Iruka model comes complete with the Master Henge, a technique I wholly credit Why’ for - and I am told it was inspired by GoldenKisamu’s stories, so I’m playing telephone. In either case, I prefer Why’s writing, and strongly recommend it.

WARNINGS:

This story may cause: Drooling - either from length or angst. Please consult your medic nin

Rash due to old-people sex mental images. Jiraiya’s my main muse, and he must have his due.

MOAR rage towards stupid blondes, stupid brunettes and stupid pinkettes

If you feel your body can take that, then welcome, to the fourth (or fifth, rather) installment of …

Icha Icha Physics


Conservation ...cont.

Tenzou, hidden in a tree, swore mentally as yet another of his traps was set off. Even though his ultimate defense was impenetrable for anyone who didn’t have the moukuton, the protection around his comrades wasn’t as perfect, nor as secure. What was worse, the chakra detection saplings that he’d left behind to sprout, grow, and strangle the moment they felt an enemy nin were only half as effective on these drones. Most of their bodies had run out, and the shinobi they had once been had died, leaving husks of their former selves that retained their jutsu, mobility and abilities, but only functioned on what was half of a normal, living person’s chakra. Even their chakra sensors in the groups had had to strain to the maximum of their abilities to be able to locate their enemies and prepare evasive maneuvers.

Several more tense moments passed, within which he filtered every noise, every vibration through his roots and leaves. He was unencumbered by the usual bodily functions of breathing and heartbeat when he was in this state, having become one with the tree. The silence stretched for several more agonizing seconds, within which he felt the tension of his comrades, and deceptive quiet of the forest.

Then someone knocked on his bark, almost making him dizzy.

“Oi, Tenzou, you can come out now,” came a lazy, drawling voice. Startled beyond belief, he nonetheless tested the air thoroughly, making sure that it was, in fact, his taichou that had just given him a quasi-concussion, before he let his human face surface against the wood, still leaving the jutsu in place just in case.

He came face to face with Kakashi’s smiley eye, bloody kunai still in one hand, the body of one of their pursuers in the other. Behind him, he spied Gai and Lee, both brilliantly decked in their ‘kill-me-spendex’, and both with a pile of bodies each next to them.

“We’re your re-enforcements, shining brilliantly within the saplings of youth!” Gai said, causing Kakashi to sigh.

“Ok, Tenzou,” the copy-nin said, regaining a serious demenour in an eye blink. “Bring the others up.”

“Hai, taichou,” Tenzou replied, letting himself fade out of the tree and hopping onto the undergrowth. With a fast series of hand seals the ground to their right erupted, a circular tangle of roots emerging from the soil and then unraveling, revealing a battle-ready Kiba, Shino and Akamaru, together with Sarutobi Musashi , Asuma’s brother.

“Good news, Kiba, Shino. You’ve been recalled to central base. Leave now and report to Hokage-sama as soon as you arrive. Don’t die.”

“We brought you some extra rations for the journey!” Lee said enthusiastically, his chuunin vest pockets emptying within instants as he stuffed all the rations he could find within them into the other two shinobi’s hands. Gai beamed approvingly, while Kakashi only sighed in resignation.

“Ma, ma, Lee-kun,” he said, “Don’t give them our rations too, ok? Our flower of youth will wilt.”

“Yosh! Our flower of youth is unstoppable!” the younger Gai-copy yelled, punching the air.

“Flower of youth?” Tenzou asked incredulously in a low voice as Shino stoically told Lee that yelling that loud only gave away their position, which was unyouthful, and cracked Kiba up. Kakashi just shook his head.

“After so many years, you learn to speak the lingo that makes them tick,” the copy-nin sighed. Then turning a smile on his subordinate, he put a hand onto his shoulder. “We’ll camp the night, and tomorrow, we head for the west border. Then,” the smile turned into something nasty, “orders are to plough through them to the last man.”

“Yes, sir,” Tenzou replied, donning a smile of his own. “Just like the old days.”

.o0o.

Temari cursed as she stood in the hospital room, for all intents and purposes ‘visiting the patient’ with her younger brother. Gaara sat on the visitor’s chair, fingers threaded and sticking up into the air tensely, his lips pressed against them as he looked at the man hooked up to the machines.

He’d taken a turn for the worse, the hospital staff had been told. Only authorized personnel and very few select visitors were allowed in. Two ANBU were stationed at the door, and nobody could so much as peek in without authorization.

“What will we do if he doesn’t take the bait?” she finally asked, walking until she was right next to the bed and pressing a finger down onto the patient’s neck. A pulse jumped out at her finger, and she grinned.

“Oh, he will,” her stoic brother replied in a voice quieter than usual. She looked back to find him staring at one of the monitors, thinking feverishly. “It is other variables that worry me.”

“You mean bone-head over here?” she said, waving a thumb towards the sleeping man in the bed. “I wouldn’t worry too much. He seems to be straightening out, actually.”

“I am also concerned about our bait,” he intoned. “With the news that Jiraiya-sama has sent, we may have complications from our front. If the bait doesn’t co-operate, we may have to take it out.”

Temari turned to look at her brother abruptly, eyes wide as she felt her mouth sag.

“You can’t be serious,” she said in a hiss. Gaara didn’t so much as twitch in response to her agitation, merely nodded seriously, eyes never leaving the monitor he was staring at. Temari swallowed thickly, cursing Madara with every fiber of her body. If such a mission failed, it could very well mean the end of Suna, or else the end of whoever it was that had been sent. A mission like that would either be a suicide mission, or one that would never be recorded in the official logs. And then she paled; no matter how close they had become, or that they were siblings, there were certain things a Kazekage didn’t reveal to someone without a purpose.

“You mean, if it comes to that …” she asked in a whisper. Gaara finally looked at her in the eye.

“You were my first choice. Baki agreed to take your place.”

“No…” she whispered, biting her lip.

“Your future marriage to one of Konoha’s finest families is too important to jeapordize, even though your abilities are beyond par in Suna,” Gaara told her, and an edge of fatigue crept into his voice.

“But if, if that happens, who would we leave behind? Who would we trust enough?” she insisted, cupping her mouth and frowning in thought.

“You, Matsuri or Kakurou, depending on the destination of the Kage council.” Gaara sat up, back finally resting against the chair. “We shall have to hope that it does not come to that.”

“Hadn’t Hokage-sama said that the baits had all been hooked?” Temari said, frowning more deeply.

“Yes, but the attack on the primary bait may have corroborated our bait’s opinion. Tsunade-sama said that he was the last to agree, and only because the others did.”

“Then putting pressure on our side may simply be enough, don’t you think?” Temari said. “If you point this out to the others on the council, then they may put the same pressure. Then we would have one less thing to worry about.”

“Perhaps. It might also expose a weakness in the Konoha-Suna alliance that they would jump on. We are at war against a common enemy, but we have also been enemies amongst ourselves for decades. Even a situation like this doesn’t always smooth over old animosities.”

Temari leaned back to rest against the edge of the hospital bed, frown in place. Damn this war, and damn Madara to the deepest torture the shinigami could assign to the oni in hell. Outside, lightning illuminated the sky, and rain started coming down in spades, beating against the window pane. Both she and her brother remained silent, listening to bleeping and wheezing.

.o0o.

“Momoko-chan, come away from the window, sweetheart,” Subara gently admonished her daughter. Another flash of lightning deterred the elder child none at all, but sent her poor baby into fits of terror. Cradling the child, the woman sighed when she saw her four-year-old look back at her with sad eyes.

“But mum, with the lightning, I can see the stone men and lady again!” the little girl piped up, turning back to mist the window pane up with her breath, nose nearly flattened against it in her wide-eyed interest.

What the man who had helped them had called the Hokage Monument had immediately fascinated her daughter, and the little girl was always at that window in their new living room, tiny fingers gripping the sill and kneeling on the wooden chair beneath whenever she could get away with it, staring out to see the large cliff-face where the past and present most powerful shinobi of this village had been immortalized. They looked over the village and protected it, little Momoko-chan had been told, and her eyes had grown wide and shining, turning to the stone faces of those who had died to protect others - and people like them.

Subara shushed her child, really still unable to believe just how lucky they had been. When their home had been over-run, and she’d found herself underneath a stinking man, she’d thought her world would end. Their small farm had been set aflame, everything they owned destroyed, and her body had been desecrated. When she’d discovered to be pregnant, only the timely intervention of her husband had stopped her from hanging herself.

But now they were here, with a roof on their head, a warm meal pattering on the stove, a duty for Murata to do, and safety. She hadn’t felt safe for the past ten months, yet somehow it felt longer. The horror and pain had lasted so long that now that it seemed to be over, it almost seemed alien have a home again, and walls around them to keep away the wind, and other things.

Momoko-chan had been hidden in the kitchen cupboard the whole time, away from the screams and noises her mother had made, or the yells and squelching of an axe meeting a head when Murata had somehow – somehow¬ – overcome the shinobi who had attacked him and then come to save her. Both ninja had appeared to be from Kiri, but the slashed forehead protector had spoken for itself. They had barely been able to take Momoko-chan out of the flames before their tiny home – seat of all their hopes and dreams – collapsed in a flare of flames and black smoke.

Subara had no idea why their tiny farm had been attacked. They had little money, food only in limited quantities for their small family’s needs. Murata was of the opinion that there had been no reason at all, other than that the two missing nin had been passing by and had seen the house.

Her child’s mewling brought her attention back to her tiny girl. Subara hadn’t been able to look at the child when she’d birthed her, only to find herself looking into the unnatural eyes that had snarled down at her during that terrible night. But Murata had taken the newborn girl, bathed her with the help of Momoko-chan, who had immediately begun cooing at her baby sister. Subara had burst out crying, finally letting go of the horror and shadow of that night when she saw that her family – the most important thing; not the house, not the kimono her mother had left her – had weathered the storm, and were trying to trudge along.

So Subara took the baby girl back into her arms and fed her, just as she was doing now, watching liquid purple eyes disappear behind long, curly blue lashes, and feeling the tiny hand seek comfort against her breast.

“Thank you, beloved,” Murata said from the table, smiling at the scene. Her husband, bless him, had decided that his second daughter was just that – his second daughter. Subara walked to him gently, sitting down as slowly as possible so as not to upset her little one’s meal.

“How is it coming?” she asked her husband, who pressed a kiss to her forehead.

“As well as it can, beloved,” Murata sighed. Subara peered at his scattered papers and scraps, seeing all the familiar notes and annotations, names, markings and scribbles on the maps and scrolls.

“Looks great to me,” she said gently.

“It’s still not enough,” Murata said tiredly, leaning into her touch when she caressed his hair. “After everything they have given us, I want to make this as complete as I can. It has to be perfect.”

“It will be,” she reassured him. Another crack of thunder rumbled outside, and the little child curled closer to her in fear, blank purple eyes looking up at her. Subara and Murata both turned to the child, Murata caressing downy ice-blue hair until she quieted down. “Shh, little Yuuyake, everything is fine now.”

“Is Yu-chan scared?” Momoko-chan asked, finally being pulled away from the window pane only by her elder-sister duties, which she took really seriously. Subara opened her arm and her eldest crawled underneath it. Murata chucked her little nose, making her go cross eyed.

“She’s all better now that her big sister is here to take care of her,” he said gently, reaching around to lift the girl onto his lap. “Why don’t you help daddy a little before going to bed, hm?”

“Ok!” Momoko-chan said excitedly, eagerly taking the clean sheet of paper and pencil and beginning to write the words Murata shaped by guiding her little hand. Her baby moaned slightly, mouth leaving her nipple and nuzzling her breast instead, before going still. Subara smiled down at her, pulling the fold in her yukata closed as the baby girl instantly fell asleep in the fashion of all infants.

Another flash of lightning heralded both the rumble of thunder and a hard knock on their door, making the little family jump, and the child begin to sniffle and cry again. Putting Momoko-chan down, Murata exchanged a glance with Subara before walking to answer. Even though they knew they were in a village full of shinobi who bore them no ill, and had even given them instant lodging in the apartment of one of their recently deceased who had no family, their experience still haunted them.

Murata let in a drenched shinobi wearing dark spectacles and a large coat. Subara put an arm out to prevent Momoko-chan from running up to him and begin firing questions. The ninja who had brought them to the village had answered with care and patience, but she was sure not all of them would be like him, though this village seemed to be tolerant.

“How can I help you, shinobi-san?” Murata asked humbly. The ninja nodded tacitly, acknowledging the respect.

“I would like to apologise for the late hour, Mitsu-san,” he said in an even tone. “I have been sent to inform you that unfortunately, due to events outside our control, your very valid information will be required sooner than expected. Any addition data you provide us with will be appreciated, and our Hokage and the whole village is indebted to you for this aid you are providing.”

“It is us who are in debt, shinobi-san,” Subara said quietly, standing gently and coming to the door with a now quiet infant. “You are drenched, can we offer you some tea? Or anything warm, perhaps?”

The stoic man smiled. “It will not be necessary,” he said, a hand rising to push the black spectacles up his nose-bridge. He then unbuttoned part of his coat, taking a large yellow envelope out and handing it to Murata. “You have mentioned that you have experience in both carpentry and the forge. We are in dire need of both, so Hokage-sama has asked you whether it would be possible for you to begin two simultaneous apprenticeships. The Ten family runs a forge under the West wall of the village; you will find a map inside that indicates the road, and you may ask instructions on the way. The Souta family are in need of an assistant with their carpentry shop, and you will also find instructions for that destination. By the end of the month, should you show more aptitude for one than the other, then you will be asked to select that profession for the good of the village, should you decide to stay.

“We will do everything that is necessary, shinobi-san,” Subara said quietly, not quite believing her own ears. They were strangers, little more than stragglers and four more mouths to feed in a time of war and dire need, yet these people had taken them in, offered shelter, work, propose, food and safety. She was farm-folk, and did not really understand how the life of a ninja must be, but she did understand one thing: her children would grow up to love and serve Konoha, because her shinobi were different.

Subara was startled to see Momoko-chan tugging at the ninja’s drenched coat, her other hand half-crammed in her mouth. Murata looked at her helplessly, turning to see his little girl looking up at the much taller man.

Shinobi-san, why is your coat buzzing” Momoko-chan asked in her high voice. Subara winced when she saw the man’s eyebrows rise behind his dark spectacles.

“Very observant,” he told her, still in a quiet tone. One of his hands moved to rest on her little head, while the other rose to show a number of insects crawling up his palm. Subara looked on in horrified fascination as a few left his hand in flight, circled Momoko-chan in a very pretty pattern that had the little girl gasping in awe, and then returned to the man’s hand, once again disappearing into his sleeve. “I belong to the clan Aburame. We have tamed and bred these insects to be our companions and weapons. Like us, there are other clans who have adopted to share their active shinobi lives with non-human companions, such as the Inuzuka clan, who work with dogs, and the Nii clan of Kumo who partner with cats.”

“I’d get to have a kitty?” Momoko-chan asked, causing the older man to chuckle as her eyes got very large.

“I am afraid the … ‘kitty’ clan does not reside in Konoha,” the ninja said with a smile, though his voice did not vary from the calm intonation. Straightening, he gave her head another pat. “The Inuzuka clan, who work with dogs, on the other hand do reside here.”

The ninja turned towards Subara and Murata, giving them each a nod.

Hokage-sama has asked me to inform you that the data will probably be needed by the end of the month. If you find that you are able to complete your compilation of knowledge before, please bring it to the Hokage Tower, where Jiraiya-sama first brought you upon your arrival. You will be expected, so do not worry about details unnecessarily.” He nodded again. “Konoha thanks you for your help, and owes you a debt. We will hope to repay it with our protection.”

“We are grateful for it, and will give anything we can in return,” Murata said, nodding back at the man, who quickly walked back into the rain and then almost seemed to disappear from their front step. A flash of lightning showed his silhouette leaping across a rooftop some distance away. Murata closed the door dumbfounded.

The small living room was quiet for a time, except for the rain beating against the windows. Then Momoko-chan looked up at her mother with an expression of surety only a four-year-old could wear.

“Mummy, when I grow up, I want to be an Inzuzuka,” she said very seriously. Subara couldn’t help it; she laughed, even though that startled her little child awake.

.o0o.

The rain hadn’t stopped at all during the night, though as the sun peaked over the horizon, it had lightened to a drizzle, and the dawn’s light filtered through the clouds enough to tell Konoha it was a new day.

The market didn’t set up that day, those who could or had the means putting up their stalls right up against the wall of their shop, protected by overhangs or balconies. Even before some of the stalls had even begun to set up, and before the sun had risen properly, one young man was out and about. One stop at a shop was all he needed before he dove towards the walls of the village, careful of his new fragile bundle.

Anyone who – for some odd reason which might include boredom – looked towards one of the hilled training grounds that day could spot a Hyuuga boy, diligently waiting in the same spot under a tree, near a patch of semi-gutted ground, holding a handful of white lilies.

The sun rose, arching in the sky behind the clouds with the passing hours. The rain kept pouring down, sometimes becoming lighter, sometimes turning into fat, freezing droplets, but the young man never moved.

Finally, when the sun had once again begun its descent, the drenched and shivering boy left the field, wilted flowers in his hand and a horrified expression on his face.

He walked to the village gates, saluting the guards who let him past after the special blood test. Dragging heavy feet, chest writhing unpleasantly with the beginning stirrings of something that felt distinctly painful, he made his way to some of the places he knew she might be. But the market still hadn’t set up, and the shopkeeper’s little kids hadn’t seen her. She wasn’t in any of the other training fields when he went to look, and she wasn’t in his apartment, nor at Ichiraku’s, and not even at the small restaurant they’d gone to yesterday. When he stopped by the hospital to enquire, they told him she had not been scheduled - as he well knew - and no, she hadn’t been called in on an emergency.

Finally, he decided to bite the bullet, and headed towards the Hyuuga home. Swallowing nervously, an unknown member of the branch family answered his knock, looking first at his state and then at the state of the now-weeds in his hand with a blank expression.

“Hagane-san, ” he said in a very deep voice. “Hinata-sama is not in at the moment, if you are here to report anything regarding the guarding duty she has assigned to you. You are please asked to return to your post.”

“Wait!” he asked, thrusting half of his body between the doors as they began to close. “I need to talk to her! Where is she? Do you know when she will be back?”

“I am afraid I do not know the answer to either question,” he replied, and before he could move, the other man found himself with a handful of slightly bent, bruised flowers.

“Please give her these? Tell her I’m sorry, and I’ll wait for her again tomorrow; same place, same time, ok?”

The guard accepted with a nod, before finally slamming the doors closed.

.o0o.

Naruto found himself looking at the same set of heavy, imposing wooden doors for the second time. And like the last time, his insides felt like he’d taken a jutsu to the gut, his breath short and tight, anxiety and worry spiraling out of control.

He’d messed up, he’d known he had– he wasn’t an expert on dating, but leaving the girl you had come out with sitting on her own way past closing time, and making her end up going hungry was such a terrible social blunder even he recognized it. But Hinata-chan had never begrudged him his ineptness before, had never scolded him, rebuked him, or even looked at him with disappointment. She’d smile, point out what he’d done wrong, accept his apologies and an invitation to the ramen stall or the tea shop (since he knew she loved their cinnamon rolls), and that would be that. The next instant, she would be walking close to him, sometimes holding his hand, other times not quite resting her head on his shoulder. Just like that, she would forgive and forget.

It had taken him a while to realize that she wasn’t like Sakura-chan, who made sure each mistake was paid for in blood and contusion (well, not every mistake, or he’d be dead, but often enough). But he wasn’t used to this; none of the precious people in his life had actively withdrawn from him … except for Sasuke.

Thinking of the two made a fresh wave of pain go through him. He dislodged his eyes from the door, turned around and walked down the street aimlessly. He had nowhere to go or be, and even though he was wet to the bone and his body was shivering, he couldn’t feel it. Sasuke had been the one in whom he’d found a kindred spirit, someone to connect with on a level beyond mere exchange of care. Sasuke was someone to strive to be like, someone to admire and be jealous of at once, to challenge, but care for and fight for. They had grown and improved together, keeping each other up, mudslinging and arm wrestling every step of the way. He was the first person Naruto had really connected with, and who, beyond Iruka-sensei, wished to be viewed as an equal by; as a brother. From some of the things he’d heard about Sasuke and Itachi, he’d come to realize that, pretty much, he’d seen Sasuke as his older brother.

Yet the other boy had tried to kill him several times, each time with little to no remorse. He had left him in the mud – not killed him on a whim, he’d said years later – and walked away uncaring of pain or sacrifice. He’d sheared away everything precious that Naruto had nurtured and loved about their partnership, mocking the very fact that the blonde had cared in the first place and spitting on his every effort.

Hinata-chan was the second person that had come that close to his heart. Sakura-chan had her own place, as did baa-chan, and especially Iruka-sensei, his parents and ero-sannin. Yet none of them had really had spent enough time with him, save his two teachers to really leave a mark on his heart. Hinata-chan on the contrary had gloried under his attention and sought out his company, both things new, that lighted a fire beneath his lungs he’d never felt before.

She too, now, seemed to be taking a path leading away from him. The way that guard had behaved had been clear; he was ‘persona non grata’ there. The thought that Hinata-chan had specifically instructed people to have him stay away from her made him ill.

Was it possible to dump someone like this? Was it normal for this to happen when a person left from a date? He didn’t really know, and had no idea who to ask. It was something so … private, somehow. Yet he was at a complete loss; was Hinata-chan right? Had his offence been a lot greater than he thought at first? Sakura-chan had seemed to hint that it wouldn’t matter in the big picture, and that Hinata-chan would understand, but she seemed to be wrong.

Going to Sakura-chan to ask about this made alarm bells ring in his mind; he didn’t know how he knew, but it would be a bad idea. Hinata-chan’s last question had blown a hole in his belly. How was he supposed to answer that? He didn’t even know what the question really meant, actually. He had been able to sense that there was more than one layer to it – years with ero-sannin hadn’t gone by without the old pervert drilling observation instincts and body language into him so he could someday take over the spy network. And that night, that question had been so loaded, he probably wouldn’t have known where to start even if he’d understood what she’d really asked.

So he tracked mud and water across his ganken until he removed the sandals, then dripped on everything, heading to the bathroom for a shower. Under the hot water, he began to feel better, and then looked at the variety of soaps that Hinata-chan had bought for him with her own money, as a gift, she said. She loved washing his hair, and she knew he loved strong scents too, so she found some soaps with spicy fragrances and splurged. He’d been really blind-sided, and gotten her her first real gift in return: a carved wooden bracelet from a town in the newly resurgent Wave, where they had stopped to rest.

Hinata-chan cared about him. She loved him; it made him feel on top of the world when he remembered that. And she had cried for him; no one, not even his mother had done that much – of the little he’d seen anyway. She had been worried, sad and anxious about him to the point of tears. While Iruka-sensei had cried for him out of compassion and understanding, this was completely different.

From her reaction yesterday, he’d screwed the pooch, but he’d make it up to her! He’d show her that he could be better, make double the effort to be there for her, and mission or no mission, he’d make her understand how important she was to him!

But first, ramen.

.o0o.

“Koh, has he gone?”

The branch member turned to look at the younger Hyuuga daughter. Deactivating his blood limit, the branch member nodded before he aired his concerns.

“Is this wise, Hanabi-sama?” he said, walking to the younger girl and allowing her to lead the way towards the dojo. When he had been told, in deep confidence, the true identity of Hyuuga Hagane as opposed to what had been told to the rest of the clan, he’d been stumped. This order from the younger sister of the main branch family surprised him a lot more that it did the others.

Hanabi-sama turned to give him a mild glare, but then she sighed, and Koh could definitely see her sister’s influence in her melting demeanor.

“You weren’t there to see it, Koh-san,” Hanabi-sama whispered. “Hinata-neechan cried all night. It broke my heart.”

“It would,” Koh said with a nod, “but Hanabi-sama, all couples have their divergences and quarrels. He seems to have repented, and seems to have been out in the rain all morning; waiting for her, if I understood correctly.” Koh shook his head. “Perhaps we should not interfere.”

“Hinata-neechan has always protected me,” Hanabi-sama said with a stubborn frown on her face that so reminded Koh of his cousin Hizashi-san. “Even when they were treating her badly, and when they passed her over, I had to find things out on my own, because neechan wouldn’t tell me to protect me. Now it’s my turn to protect her, and I won’t let her down.”

Koh nodded silently, still holding his doubts and reserves on the matter, but not quite wanting to upset Hanabi-sama. He knew the young girl’s intentions were good, but as he hadn’t been there last night to see Hinata-sama’s heartbreak, Hanabi-sama hadn’t been there a year and a half ago, when the elder main family daughter had thought nothing of putting herself between the man he had just turned away at the gates and certain death.

“What shall I do with these?” he asked instead, holding up the somewhat bruised lilies. Hanabi-sama looked at them in disdain.

“There’s a special place in the garden furnace for those,” she hissed. “Go dump them there, then come back to the dojo, will you? I need to work out some kinks before dinner.”

Koh nodded, letting the young girl pass by him before he stepped into the light drizzle towards the furnace. He stopped to looked up towards the illuminated window of the writing room, wondering if he should circumvent the order … yet a part of him also wanted that young man to suffer, if he had made Hinata-sama cry.

Shaking his head, still unsure, but not really knowing what to do, he headed towards the back gardens, white flowers dripping innocently in his hands.

.o0o.

“No, Hiei-chan, you have to flick your wrist a little bit more strongly on that curve,” she said gently, taking his tiny hand in hers and showing him. The boy frowned in concentration, following the ink-arc their joined hands made on the parchment, and small smile lit her face.

Every day for the past week, Hinata had hoped with a tiny part of her that Naruto-kun would come looking for her. She hoped that his regard for her was enough that when she didn’t go to him, he’d come to her; but it was in vain. She had not asked about him, because the cover story the rest of the clan had been told would put her in a dangerous position if she did, but her hopes died every day a little more.

So she had buried herself in work, mostly concerning the internal workings of the clan. When she was not there, she was in the hospital, and when she was not in the hospital, she was in the garden, tending to her plants during the rainiest part of the year. Her father’s mission had been further delayed as the Hokage had re-deployed him to another location before he had even returned to base, so she had plenty on her plate. The household had to move on without her father there to approve and mark his sigil for things, but that was something she could handle well. Her grandfather, however, was another story. She had some of her loyal branch-members watching him at all times, making sure he didn’t behave in a manner that put her position, her sister’s, or even Naruto-kun’s in danger. She had been informed that all mail exiting the Hyuuga compound would be intercepted for the duration of this under-cover mission, but she also knew her grandfather was an old rat at this game, and knew all the ins and outs needed to go behind others’ backs.

“Hinata-sama!” Hanoko-chan called from across the room, and the elder girl hurried over to the child, weaving through the others where they sat in a neat formation of equidistance, patting a few heads as she passed. Haku-chan and Haru-chan both gave her a toothy grin, only to be cuffed by their elder brother when it seemed they would blot their work.

“What is it, Hanoko-chan,” Hinata asked quietly when she knelt by the child, and immediately saw the problem. Her parchment was irrevocably blotted, even though the rest of the calligraphy work had been performed impeccably. “Ah, I see it now. Do you know what you did wrong, little one?” A very sad head shake was her answer, and Hinata smiled tolerantly at the seven-year-old. Moving towards the front of the writing room, she sat on the dais and cleared her throat until all the children stopped to look at her. Horyuki-chan cuffed his little brothers again when they almost blotted on the tatami instead of putting their brushes back onto the ink plate.

“Everyone,” she said quietly when she made sure she had their attentions. “I want to show you something that you may have forgotten. Do you remember what I taught you, when we were learning to mix ink with our chakra?” A chorus of high-voiced ‘yes’s answered her. “Very well, then do you remember what we learned before?”

Some heads nodded, and some hands shot up into the air to tell her. Hinata nodded towards Horyuki-chan.

“How to mix the water with the ink-stick, Hinata-himesama,” he said firmly. Hinata nodded and smiled at him, making the boy blush with pride.

“Very good, Horyuki-chan,” she said. “And does any one of you remember how we learned to make the water and ink mixture?”

“Twenty drops is a flood, ten drops thick like blood. Middle ground to hone, ground against black stone,” the room of children recited together. Hinata nodded again.

“Good, so how many drops? Yes, Haku-chan.”

“Fifteen, Hime-sama!” he said enthusiastically. Hinata took her own ink plate, scooping up some water from a shallow basin in a long and thin bamboo cup. Holding onto the handle, she let exactly fifteen drops fall into the plate while the children counted, then took her ink stone up, held her kimono sleeve away with her other hand and began rubbing it against the flat part of the ink plate. When the consistency of the water was to her liking, she dipped the brush, pressed it against the side and pulled a fresh parchment. With practiced, quick strokes, she wrote the kanji for ‘strength’ into the yellow paper’s surface, looking up to find sixteen sets of eyes looking greedily at her hand’s movement.

“It is important to remember, children, that while you practice your strokes and your brush hold, you must never forget your basic skills.” Putting her brush down, she let her eyes sweep the room until she had seen every face. “Even in your juuken you must not forget your footwork while you learn your tenketsu strikes, and you must not forget to hit tenketsu precisely while you learn to keep your eyes on target and not on your hands. Your training is like a ladder, one step leading to the next, and once you have cleared the bottom rungs, only then-”

The door to the writing room slid open, and Hinata looked up to find Hanzou-sama looking at her. The children all moved slightly or jittered, knowing in their innocence that his unannounced entrance was rude and having no idea how to react to it when an adult was doing it. They quickly fell silent as the man walked into the room.

“Hinata-chan, a word,” Hanzou-sama said without preamble, and uncaring of all the tiny eyes and ears present he knelt down beside her and went on. “I have heard of your young man’s stay in the hospital, and I have come to offer my support in such a sad time.” Hinata nodded in thanks, anxiety beginning to settle on her shoulders and in her gut. “However, the onerous duty must fall on me to tell you that he has taken a turn for the worse according to the latest reports, and he doesn’t seem on the way to recovering.”

Hinata could feel her cheeks tingle in a way that meant she had paled, but not for the reasons her grandfather thought; she knew very well that Naruto-kun was not in that hospital room, and well on the way to being healthy again. What was Tsunade-sama thinking?

“I know it must be terrible news to you, granddaughter, but you must keep your strength, and above all else, remember that you are a Hyuuga.” He put a hand on her shoulder then, coming closer to her ear. “I must also remind you, granddaughter; another son of the noble branch who serves the Daimyo is here in the village. Though it may come at a time where your heart is grieving, you must think of your future and that of our clan, and not let the opportunity slip by.”

Without another word, her grandfather rose, nodded at the children with a smile and left, shutting the door behind him as though he’d never entered.

Hinata looked after him blankly, trying to stop her lip from trembling. Another member from the house who guarded the Daimyo… She knew exactly who that was. But what made her heart clench most was that all the hopes, all the presumption she’d had in the last meeting with that man, putting forward Naruto-kun as a shield against the future her grandfather was trying to hammer her into. And then, what she had done thanks to Iruka-sensei and Raido-san

Tears welled in her eyes and over-flowed before she could stop them. They shot down her face faster than she could wipe them, and before she could control herself, most of the children were around her, calling her name and patting her with tiny hands.

She gathered a few of them to her chest, taking a deep breath, but she still felt completely lost. More than anything, she wished she could sum up the courage to go to his apartment, hug him the moment he opened the door and forget she had ever asked that stupid question. She wanted to go back to seeing him every day, holding his hand and watching him eat the food she’d cooked for him like it was the best-tasting thing in the world. Sitting in his apartment mending his socks while he worked on patching up a shirt or trousers.

Yet, during their time of separation he hadn’t come to visit, not once. She sometimes lingered out in the garden in the evening, hoping to see if perhaps one of the guards was holding him out for her sake. The story the clan had been told about Hyuuga Hagane’s origin made most of them want to avoid contact with him, especially where she was concerned. So she had perhaps thought - and hoped - that they were keeping him away, but if they were, she didn’t catch them at it. At the hospital, she sometimes asked if there had been messages for her, but there never were.

Several more of the younger children puppy-piled her when she seemed unable to stop crying, and she hated herself for worrying them. She couldn’t stop thinking, though; she had lost him, or he had never been hers, but either way, her fairytale was over and she was left with the very bitter task of facing a possible marriage she did not want, if she wanted to remove her grandfather from Konoha, and a life away from the village she loved.

In the last few months, she had made plans, had dreams, and they had all centered around him. Thinking about those plans now, it hurt more than the actual thought of the relationship’s end. Not to mention… how was she ever going to tell him, when he found out what she and Neiji had done to the records and genealogies?

So Hinata cried, cuddling her sweet clan children to her and taking comfort in the fact that if she was going to be forced into sacrificing all she held dear, they, at least, would be much happier for it. She failed to see the look that crossed the face of Horyuki-chan.

.o0o.

Sakura swilled the drink around, watching a bit dazedly as it caught the light and reflected its own orange hues. She had no idea what it was, but it was alcoholic and it was strong, and that was all she cared about at the moment.

“Ok candy-floss, you’ve downed half my bottle, and still not spilled what worm you’ve swallowed,” Ino suddenly huffed impatiently. Sakura looked towards her friend, who was wearing a two-piece night dress with fluffy shorts and a long-sleeved shirt, hugging a pillow to herself and busy painting her toe-nails purple to match her hands. Sakura snorted, rubbing her temple; why she did that when they were in the middle of a damn war, Sakura would never understand.

She poured herself another shot and knocked it back, ignoring her friend’s huff of annoyance. Sakura’s world had begun spinning quite a few shots ago, and she didn’t care either. She was in the Yamanaka clan holding, on her best friend’s spare bed, just coming off a grueling shift and not having one tomorrow. With a good bottle of liquor and feeling like a dish wad. So she was going to get smashed, Damnit!

Another three shots later, she was not feeling too good. Groaning herself when her head banged sharply in response to her rather loud thoughts (she had not realized that was possible, how incredible!) she let herself fall backwards, and her stomach jolted and attempted to rise through her nose with the bouncing. Forcing it down, she looked at the ceiling until the world stopped changing colours and her breathing returned to normal (she had been gasping? Since when?)

“Ok, that’s enough,” Ino said suddenly appearing in her field of vision and taking the bottle from her clawing fingers.

“No!” she moaned, “I need that!”

“Not gonna help you kill yourself,” Ino shot back, putting the bottle in her room’s cabinet and locking it. “Now, I just probably ruined my toe-nail job, and I want to have a valid reason for the smudges on my carpet!”

“Stop yelling,” Sakura whined, pulling a pillow onto her head, only to have it snatched away and replaced with a monumental glare from the blonde.

“I’ll stop yelling when you’ll stop behaving like the world is over! And don’t tell me this has to do with Sasuke, because I’ll whup you till you’re blue.”

“I don’t know,” Sakura said with a sigh, the drink in her head coalescing into a bucket of misery and teary feelings. Promptly, she sniffed, turned to the side and curled up onto herself, starting to wail. She knew Ino behind her was probably rolling her eyes heavenwards, but she didn’t care.

“He thinks” – hitched breath, and many heavy emotions that she could not really name – “that I’m an annoyance!”

“Um, excuse me? I thought until a few days ago, you said that was a good thing?” Ino grumped, impatience tingeing her voice and seeming none the more effected by her friend’s weeping. Logically, Sakura knew that she was a weepy drunk, and Ino was used to it. Logic, however, had gone to hell in a hand basket while skipping on paved roads of good intentions and orange alcoholic liquid at that moment. “Sasuke’s always been shooting around phrases like that, you’re not twelve any more. If he’s being an ass, clock him. Or put some laxative in his IV. He sure didn’t call me stupid again after the last time…”

“Not Sasuke!” Sakura burst out, somehow knowing that something Ino had just said should have scandalized her, but her brain really couldn’t focus on more than one thing. “Naruto!” And then Sakura started hitching sobs again, because she was feeling like utter crap, miserable and like a big, big monster, all rolled into one very drunk girl.

“I’m lost now.” Ino was blinking at her, something a part of Sakura found inexplicably funny, before Ino continued, “since when do you want to bang Naruto?”

“Ewwwwww,” Sakura said in reply, putting a hand on her lips to try to keep her heaving stomach in again. “That would be like … wanting to snog my … I dunno , but ick, no thanks, no.” Looking at Ino throw her hands up into the air, Sakura really couldn’t understand why Ino was behaving like that at all. Wasn’t it obvious?

“Then what on earth is the problem? I thought you’d be up in the stars, with that blonde brat not bothering you for dates anymore, and ‘your’ Sasuke back here.” Ino folded her arms and frowned at her. Some moments passed. Sakura realized that Ino was expecting an answer to that.

“Duh,” Sakura answered seriously, and Ino slapped her forehead. Walking to her dresser, Sakura peered curiously after her blonde friend, only to dart off the bed the moment she saw what she had in her hand. Or she tried to; all the fuzziness in her head didn’t allow her to access any of her usual kunoichi abilities, and she tumbled to the floor in an undignified heap, thus not managing to avoid Ino’s freezing cold water squirts.

“There,” the Yamanaka said, voice dripping in satisfaction, “you sober any, now?”

“No,” Sakura growled in annoyance, head pounding, and she only glared harder when Ino cocked her water gun again, tilting her head in question. Knowing she really had no other way around it (and she was really in no condition to fight a cold-water-toting-Ino), Sakura sighed and nodded as much as she dared. Getting back up on wobbly knees, she was at least slightly relieved to start feeling a little bit more in control, and she allowed Ino to pass her glowing hand on her head a few times, swiping away at the alcohol in her blood. Not that she wanted her to; the whole purpose of her coming here was because she wanted to get smashed, darnit, but nooo, her beloved friend was hell-bent on making her sober again.

“Well, tough,” Ino went on, uncaring, sitting back and crossing her legs, evidently not going anywhere. Sakura looked back at her, and Ino quirked a brow.

“It’s … that … I …” Sakura smacked her dry lips trying to find purchase in her muddled mind.

“Naruto,” Ino prompted, and Sakura immediately flinched, “Aha! So it does have something to do with bonehead!”

Seeing no other way around it, Sakura nodded sadly, ducking her head. To her surprise, Ino did not seem ready to press the issue immediately, and when she peeked to the side, she found her blonde friend looking at her smudged toes sadly.

“I heard that he’d taken a turn for the worse too,” Ino said in a low voice, and Sakura had to blink a few times before she realized what Ino was talking about. Of course! The poor girl was not in the know of Tsunade’s scheming, and she was just as worried as anyone else… Sakura felt horrible guilty, but at once, she knew she was unable to reassure Ino. That Naruto was currently gallivanting around Konoha wearing a Hyuuga’s face was top secret – in fact, she had the suspicion that even Naruto hadn’t been informed of all that was going on.

Well, not exactly gallivanting, her conscience reminded her bitterly, and she winced at herself. She had spied him a couple of times this last week, wandering around Konoha, and he always seemed to be asking if someone had seen Hinata, or if they would please take a message for him, to give to her? And somehow, no one seemed willing to help him, even though technically, the civilians should not have been suspicious of a Hyuuga leaving a message for another.

She had worried; not only for Naruto, but also for his cover. Had it leaked? Had he busted it? If that was the case, everything Shishou, Jiraiya, and countless other people had been working on for the past months would have gone up in smoke. And then, she swore on the one hundred and eight, she’d kill him. Dead!

But she’d asked around discretely, posing as a friend of Hinata who was worried about a possible threat to the girl. She had managed to garner that no, apparently it was Hanabi Hyuuga who was telling people they should limit the contact between ‘that boy’ and her sister. Because he was going after her, they told the pink-haired medic, and shouldn’t he be ashamed of himself, to try to take advantage of a poor girl’s heart while the boy she cared for was in the hospital?

She hadn’t understood that; Hanabi was supposed to have known who ‘Hagane’ was. So it became summon time, and what a few of the smaller slugs brought back to her pushed her to come here tonight to steal some of Ino’s best and most hoarded poison.

Hinata spent most of her time in the hospital, at home, and especially in the garden, even when it rained. She cried a lot, the slugs said, but only when it was raining. No, she never met with a boy called ‘Hagane’, or mentioned going to meet him. Oh, no, she had never left the house wearing a dress or anything similar. In fact, the slugs were quite sure that she had worn the same two jackets for the entire week.

Between Naruto’s behaviour and Hinata’s retreat into her house, Sakura was hit by the broad side of the fact that possibly – scratch that, probably – she had caused a fight between the two. And from the looks of it, it was a big one. Hinata was crying a lot, and Naruto was walking around like a lost puppy, eyes darting everywhere at once with a mixture of hopeful disappointment.

“Come on,” Ino was saying beside her. “He’s pulled through worse. Remember that time after the fight with Sasuke? He’d been skewered by his own ribs and his leg looked like a thousand piece jigsaw, but now he’s good as new. Don’t worry too much, you know better than I do that he seems to be made of rubber.”

Sakura nodded mutely. She felt horrible all over again, and selfish; here she was, about to unload on her friend (it was somehow easy to make up something on the fly when she was drunk), while she couldn’t even put Ino’s worries to rest. Still, she sighed to herself, at least this probably qualified as gossip; it would certainly distract her.

“It’s not just that…” she said, rubbing her eye tiredly. She took a few moments to collect her thoughts, and Ino thankfully let her. “Some time ago, before this whole … hospital mess, and even before that … truth is, I’ve been feeling really weird about Naruto, Ino.”

Some more silence; and then: “I told you, you want to bang him.”

“EW, Ino, no!” Sakura exclaimed, cringing away from the other girl who just rolled her eyes.

“What on earth is with you?” Ino asked, “Sure, he was dumb when we were kids, but I can sure look at him now and not go ‘ew’, thanks. What are you, twelve? I’d tap that myself if I had the”-

“One more word, Ino,” Sakura hissed, alcohol induced headache making her less than patient as her friend’s words just made her emotions skyrocket out of control.

“And you’ll what?” the blonde went one, uncaring. “You don’t want to admit it to yourself that you’ve fallen for him, that’s fine. Just don’t come here to drink my stuff every time you paint yourself into another corner with that train of thought, clear?”

“But it’s NOT that!” Sakura said, burying her face in her hands.

“Prove it,” Ino said.

“I don’t have to prove anything to you!” Sakura snapped back.

“Are you jealous of Hinata?”

“Yes!” Sakura yelled angrily before she could stop herself

“Do you want to take her place when they’re talking, laughing together”- “Yes!” –“kissing, getting hot and heav-”

“No, no definitely not!” Sakura yelled again, the images in her head making her feel even more queasy. Ino looked at her oddly for a moment, then shook her head.

“You’re half drunk, and there was truth serum in that almond wine.” Sakura gaped at her. “Don’t look at me like that. It was the special ones for guest interrogation. You just went in there and took it without asking, so you got this onto yourself. The options here are two.” Ino looked her nonplussed while she pulled her hair down and began fluffing her tresses. “Either you have the most colossal case of denial I’ve ever seen – and that is one of the most powerful ones my aunt brews, there, so you’d have to be a trained mentalist. Or you’re jealous of ‘little Miss Sunshine’ for reasons other than wanting to get in the guy’s pants…”

Ino tilted her head. “You love Naruto?”

“Yes,” Sakura answered immediately without any hesitation, slapping a hand onto her mouth and glaring at Ino now that she knew what her friend was doing. Honestly! Which friend turned a heart-to-heart into an interrogation?

“But you don’t want to bed him.”

“NO!”

“So, you love him, how? Like a friend?”

“No,” Sakura replied, and then jumped, a sinking feeling entering her stomach. Just as she was going to open her mouth to beg Ino to stop – she didn’t like where this was going, and something inside her told her that there were some things she didn’t want to know - her friend asked the next question.

“How do you love Naruto?”

“Like a real brother.”

No sooner were the words out of her mouth, Sakura stilled. A chill ran down her spine, and she knew her eyes had gotten incredibly wide, but that was the least of her problems. Like a brother – no, like a real brother, she’d said. Sakura had never had siblings growing up, being an only child, and the closest thing she had were a few cousins. She’d seen how they behaved between siblings, how they fought and argued and then forgot all about it the next moment, or how they always had each other’s backs, no matter how annoyed they were at one another. (Or how they stole each other’s sweets, or blamed the other sibling for something she knew they had done).

“But it makes no sense…” she muttered to herself. If she saw Naruto as her brother – a brother … it was such a nice feeling. A brother who made her laugh by being stupid, who she wanted to strangle more often than not but who always, always looked out for her – then why did she feel this crippling … yes, she could admit it. It was jealousy; green, angry and ravenous, and it appeared every single time she saw Naruto with that girl.

“Makes all the sense in the world, if you ask me,” Ino shrugged carelessly, “You have big-brother issues.”

“I have what?” Sakura said, anger, confusions and indignation mixing together, “That’s stupid! I’m even older than Naruto! By four months!”

“And you’re not even really blood-related to him, genius, so the point is moot,” Ino deadpanned, reaching for a nail file and beginning to work on her right pinky uncaringly. “I’m talking about how you’re behaving. I saw it happen to my cousin Mei – when her big brother got a girlfriend, she started to do all sorts of horrid things to them, all underhanded and all ninja. It’s all about attention, hun.”

Sakura blinked at her. Ino paused long enough to flick her ear.

“You were Naruto’s little princess for a looong time, candy floss,” Ino said with a long-suffering sigh. “Face it, you knocked him around, but you liked it.”

“Yes,” Sakura answered before she could stop herself, hand slapping onto her mouth and blushing. Stupid truth serum from hell!

“So now, suddenly this guy who’s been doting on you all his life has another girl, and she’s stolen your spotlight. And you’re jealous as hell and want to string her up by the toes, but not because you want to bang the guy yourself, but because you want his attention back.” Sakura pressed down harder on her mouth as her lips shaped another ‘yes’. “That, my dear, is called having big-brother issues. You don’t want your brother to have a girlfriend because you want to keep being his little princess.”

Sakura just stared at her. Ino looked up from her nail file and huffed.

“You genius types are stupid,” she said with a growl, “First Shikamaru and his stupid worry about getting a ring or a fan, and now you with this. Face it, girl! You’re jealous as all hell frozen over!

Sakura looked down, this time only feeling sad when her lips once again tried to form the word ‘yes’ against her palms. Naruto, her big brother … who on earth had hypnotized her in her sleep? But the idea was appealing, she had to admit. He was someone she could rely on, someone who would always come to her aid, and who to turn to in a time of need.

She understood, suddenly; the unease, the anger towards Hinata. It had always come at a time when she saw the other girl taking Naruto’s attention away when Sakura needed it the most. And it had spiraled from there until she just couldn’t stand seeing them together at all. A small part of her, which had always acknowledged what Ino had just wrenched out of her, had been furious and terrified at the idea that Naruto would move on, and, with a new girl in his life, forget about her completely.

She had been somewhat scared, she admitted to herself, that she was about to discover different feelings for him, today. But perhaps she should have known that something was wrong with that path if only the thought of romantic feelings towards Naruto made her nauseous. Yet at the same time, she’d always questioned herself; was she in denial? Was it because she was holding a torch for Sasuke – as she knew she was. There was no denying with herself that she loved the last Uchiha – and so she was keeping any other feelings bottled up? After all, falling in love with the other team mate too would complicate life unbearably.

Instead, here she was: a stupid, pathetic girl, who for fear of facing her own emotions, had hurt two people, one of whom was to her a dear … brother. It didn’t feel as odd to think that as she imagined it would.

Sakura bit her lip. There was no blood relation between them, no. Just as Ino had helpfully pointed out, that made their specific sibling role moot; who was the eldest really varied on the mood and situation, and if they shared a ‘parent’, well, the closest thing to that they had was Kakashi-sensei. No wonder they were such a dysfunctional family … which dad read porn in front of his 12-year-old kids?

She snorted sadly. Right, now that she had established what her problem was … how was she going to fix the one she had created?

“I made a mess,” she sighed to herself.

“Meaning?” Ino asked, still engrossed in her nail file, and Sakura jumped because she had almost forgotten she was there.

“You know your cousin Mei? I made them quarrel, too,” Sakura said, and shame swamped her the moment she admitted it out loud. Naruto had looked so sad…

“What’d you do?” Ino asked with a frown.

“They were out on a date, and I butted in, dragged him out and kept him with me as long as I could,” she admitted quietly.

“How long is ‘as I could’,” Ino asked again with narrowed eyes.

“Um … around two hours?”

“Sakura!”

“I know!” she yelled back, her head still feeling rather sensitive. “I know, ok? I’m stupid. And from what I’ve seen recently, they fought, and they haven’t made up…”

“What do you mean?” Ino asked, frowning in confusion. “Naruto’s being kept unconscious…” Sakura looked down, almost cursing herself before she hurried to cover her blunder.

“Exactly,” she sighed. “They’re keeping him under, and you can’t talk and make up when you’re a vegetable in a hospital bed. And Hinata’s not taking it well.”

“Ah, that,” Ino said, her voice going pensively low, and Sakura was slightly relieved to have been able to deviate her attention. “Well then, your solution is obvious isn’t it?”

“It is?” Sakura asked. Ino only rolled her eyes and went back to filing her nail.

“You swallow the food pill – one of Kioko’s, mind,” both of them pulled a face, as the mentioned nurse made the worst tasting food pills in all the five countries, “and go talk to Hinata. You say sorry, admit that you’re a jealous twat who deserves spanking and multiple training sessions with Rock Lee, and try to help her forgive the idiot and you.”

Sakura looked down, her emotions in a jumble at the proposition. Anxiety spiked through her at the only thought of going up to the Hyuuga girl and simply talking to her. Talking about Naruto bordered on a flight of fight reaction.

“Easier said,” she muttered, and Ino threw her nail file at her impatiently.

“Of course it is! But you spread your bed-roll, girl, now woman up and sleep in it!” Ino huffed some more, running her hands through her hair. “Let me repeat it again for your slow brain; You’re the one who messed up. What, you thought it was going to be easy to fix it?”

“No, I know!” Sakura answered just as huffily. Ino didn’t need to rub it in! <= see?

“Then just get it over with. You’ll feel better once this thing is settled. Like that when he wakes up, Mr Oblivious won’t have something else to worry about.”

Sakura blinked, then smiled when she realized that Ino was right. Naruto didn’t need something else to worry about, not with all the things that were going on around him at the moment, and not with Tsunade’s plan about to hatch.

“You’re right. I’ll talk to her next time I see her…”

“Great! If you think about it properly, you’ll also be kinda, sorta gaining a sister in the deal, here,” Ino supplied.

“Huh?” Sakura asked intelligently.

“Think about it. If that knucklehead is your brother, his girl is going to become like your sister, isn’t she?” Ino smirked. “Trust me, you’re going to be ganging up on him soon enough, and you’re going to forget ever being jealous of each other very, very quickly.”

“Sounds like the voice of experience, there?” Sakura said, catching on with a raised brow. Ino swatted her.

“Hand me that nail file, woman. All this talk of wussy sentimentality is making my nails break.”

.o0o.

Horyuki’s tiny chest puffed out every time someone compared him to Neiji-oniisama. Because Neiji-oniisama was the best of the best; not even the clan head himself, honourable Hiashi-dono could beat him, and not because the elder Hyuuga was getting old. Everyone knew that Hiashi-dono was still very much on top of his game, and that during this war his status had been raised to ‘do not engage if possible’ by their enemies.

So Horyuki was determined not to have people stop saying those things. In his eyes, being compared to someone like Neiji-oniisama was a dream come true, as it was for most little boys whenever they were rarely compared to their idols. Growing up, he had always seen the elder cousin, out in the training fields or in the dojo, glistening with sweat and practicing, practicing, for hours on end and until his hands bled. He had seen how his cousin had been lauded as a genius, a great warrior of their ilk who would bring great honour to Konoha and their clan. Therefore, he flushing in pride, not tears, when his hands came away from the training post covered in blood.

But Horyuki knew, in order to keep being compared to his oniisama, he had to keep up his work, his training, and strive always harder in order to keep up with the standards he knew his oniisama would expect from himself. So it was that right now Horyuki was practicing his stealth in the most difficult, most dangerous place he could find: his father’s room.

Horyuki had always been fascinated by this room, though he hadn’t allowed himself to show it. His father had always been strict about the rule that his room in their wing of the Hyuuga house was out of bounds to the children. They had to knock, wait, and only when told that they could come in were they to pull the shoji open. But there were swords on the wall, of various width and size, shields, daggers, and even weapons none of the children knew the name for. There were elaborate scrolls and paintings, which admittedly were present in the rest of the house too, but some of them had been made by their mother, and Horyuki had often heard others say, ‘Umeko-san paints so beautifully, having one of her works is an honour and pleasure’. So of course, these were special.

Therefore, there was no more obvious a choice in place to be practicing his stealth. Karumu-sensei was going to be so proud of him tomorrow when he told him he’d managed to top his own class record from the day before, staying in a hidden location and gathering ‘intelligence’ for two hours this time, and not one and a half. Then Iruka-sensei would probably give him a few hints about how to improve, and Hibiki-sensei would be taking over next term on the shadowing and tailing portions of their curriculum. Horyuki wanted to do Hinata-himesama just as much justice as he did his oniisama, and become a tracking expert, too. And stealth was important for everything, really.

Horyuki held his breath when the doors to the room suddenly opened. Hidden as he was in the futon closet, his chakra suppressed to perfect to appear neither to evident, nor a void in the feng shui of the room, he was certain that he wouldn’t be caught. He could not, however, activate his byakugan without risking detection, and therefore sharpened his ears. He quickly realised that it was his father who had entered the room, which made him hold his breath a little more sharply; but he was not alone. Dad’s brother, uncle Koh was also with him.

They were whispering, for some reason, and that made Horyuki narrow his eyes and listen more closely in the dark confines of the closet.

“…you wanted to tell me? Why all this secrecy?” his father asked, voice hushed and slightly worried.

“I was told in confidence. Although I know I can trust you blindly, brother, I also know that there are many ears. The wrong pair hearing this could spell disaster for our Hinata-sama,” uncle Koh replied. Horyuki froze suddenly, excitement at his mission and fear of his capture all vanishing up in smoke. The room outside the closet also stilled, as though the sentence had a life of its own.

“Is our Hinata-sama in danger?” his father hissed, his voice almost not carrying to Horyuki’s ears. His heart beating frantically, the eight-year-old moved as slowly and silently as possible to place himself in the position where, through a sliver he had left open, he could just spy the two men through the sliding doors. He could see his father’s left shoulder, and uncle Koh was sitting very close to him. Only his uncle’s right shoulder, some hair and his chin were visible, but it was enough to make the boy feel like he’d swallowed an ice-cube when he saw the man nod.

“Hanabi-sama,” uncle Koh began, “Informed me of a plan that is currently underway. It is a mission from the Hokage-sama herself, and although I was not given the details, I have been let into one of the crucial aspects.”

His uncle paused, moving uneasily in his seiza; Horyuki had always envied uncle Koh’s composure and proper posture, and this unease and restlessness made him tense with worry and fear. When uncle Koh began speaking again, Horyuki couldn’t even hold his breath, because he was already holding it in.

“You will recall the one who has arrived from the Capital Branch,” he said, voice again lower. Horyuki didn’t dare move closer, for fear of giving himself away.

“Yes,” his father replied, and there was a measure of distaste in his voice that startled his son. “He has been here for some weeks, now.”

“Two,” uncle Koh confirmed. “And that is the same time, if you’ll notice, that our Hinata-sama’s young man has been in the hospital.”

“You can’t be implying that the Capital Branch is related to the attack…” his father said, aghast. “Jiraiya-sama was with him, and several others. The attack was reported to have been by that vile Uchiha himself, not…”

“It is related, but not in that way, brother,” Koh said, and Horyuki saw him moving, but could not make out what gesture his uncle had made. “The Capital Branch member is Hinata-sama’s young man.”

Nii-san… has she bent to his requests?” Horyuki dared to bend slightly forward, ignoring his loudly beating heart and his breath, but ever mindful of the precariously placed bedding around him.

“No.” Uncle Koh sighed and paused, and Horyuki saw him look down, a corner of his brow that was visible moving. He was frowning, the boy realised, and thinking. Uncle Koh only did that when he was thinking.

“There is no subtle way to tell you this, brother. This must remain between us and these tatami must not repeat it. I was not informed how, but Uzumaki-sama is not in the hospital. He has been made to look like a Hyuuga in a manner that defies the usual henge-detection techniques, and he has been given the cover identity of a Capital Branch at present.”

Horyuki blinked, his head spinning slightly. He pulled back in surprise, but his head almost smacked against the back of the cupboard, and he stopped himself just on time. He missed what his father said next while he tried to right himself, but the flicker of his uncle’s movement nailed his attention to the conversation again.

“Yes, I’m afraid that is the case,” uncle Koh replied sadly, and Horyuki almost wished he was allowed to say some of the words grandma muttered when she had accidentally dropped something on her foot or forgotten her reading glasses in the bedroom again. Though forbidden, the words felt more than appropriate.

“But then why would Hanabi-sama be doing such a thing?” his father asked again.

“She believes she is protecting her sister, and I do see her reasoning behind it… however, brother; I have come to you for advice precisely on this matter. You know better than me, how it is to love someone outside the clan. Hinata-sama is in such a situation right now, and her sister is wise, but also very young. Brother … I am uncomfortable with the interferences Hanabi-sama has been running between Hinata-sama and her young man since their quarrel. I have been an active participant in it, but I don’t deny that I find it distasteful.”

“Hanabi-sama thinks she must protect her sister from this boy,” his father pointed out pensively.

“I also know that it is due to the dispute driving Hinata-sama to tears… but let us admit, brother. I have made my wife cry, on occasion.”

“Umeko-chan has cried because of me, too,” his father admitted tiredly, which made Horyuki blink. His parents had always seemed so united and solid to him that this admittance just made the rest of the news sound graver.

“Yes… however, if someone had prevented me from apologising to my wife every time I have erred in her regard, I would no longer have a wife. Uzumaki-sama has come almost every day, asking to see our Hinata-sama, often bringing gifts he left behind. It has been easy for Hanabi-sama to convince the guards never to let him in … everyone was told he is from the Capital Branch.”

“Of course, they would think it’s all part of his designs,” his father murmured. Then he said something else that Horyuki was just too far away to understand, to which his uncle just nodded, and they were silent for some moments.

“I do not know, nii-san,” his father finally sighed. “I had assumed that Hinata-sama’s current sadness was due to Uzumaki-sama’s condition, but if it is a cover, then her quarrel with him must be bad indeed. Still, to circumvent orders …”

“‘We are not servants and masters, we are family; we do not receive orders as lesser members of the Hyuuga, but as sons and daughters of the Hyuuga and of Konoha, equal in every way; we are free in our servitude and servile in our freedom,’” his uncle said in a voice that reminded Horyuki of himself when he was reciting from a book.

“The words of our Hinata-sama herself,” his father said.

“Yes,” uncle Koh sighed, “And I wonder how much they apply in this case.”

“We shall have to see, brother… whichever road you chose to take, I shall follow you. For myself, if I find occasion to help without disobeying orders, I shall,” his father replied.

“That would be a relief. You do not have direct orders to disallow any communication between them, so you could, perhaps, take his gifts to Hinata-sama if you are ever on guard duty.”

“I would, but my shifts are mostly nocturnal,” his father sighed. “Haku and Haru take a lot out of Umeko¬-chan. I try to be around to help her as much as I can”

“I’ll bet,” his uncle laughed, and with a short nod that passed for a bow between the brothers, his father and uncle both rose, quietly shuffling out of the room.

Horyuki remained in his closet. His mind was buzzing with what he had learned, and he was only vaguely aware of the disappointment he felt when he realised that he was not going to be able to speak of this in class tomorrow.

His mind flashed to yesterday’s writing class; how he had seen Hinata-sama dissolve in tears after Hanzou-sama left the room, and how at that moment, he’d wished he could have done something to help. But he’d heard the story everyone else had been told, and he’d heard Hanzou-sama. Though eight, Horyuki knew very well that there was little he could do that the medic-nin hadn’t already done when someone was in the hospital.

This was completely different, however. This, he could help with. A cold kind of excitement began to course through him as he thought about it, realising that this was almost like a stealth and espionage mission he had learned about at the academy. He had learned valuable information that he had to utilise without being detected by both his enemies and his allies.

Horyuki quickly began going over the protocols that Iruka-sensei had taught them only the week prior; task one, scan the terrain, and make sure to have secured the objective or target very well. He knew who is target was; Uzumaki-sama was his target, but right now he didn’t look like himself. Horyuki know that the first step would be to acquire the new looks another one of his heroes had been given in order to properly bring the mission home.

Task two, think of possible allies that may aid you if you think you cannot do the mission alone, but be immensely careful who you give the information to. Off his head, Horyuki knew instantly that he could count on both his brothers… but he also knew that he couldn’t tell them the whole truth. Haku was wily, but trustworthy. Haru on the other hand tended to be a bit naive and his tongue was a lot loser than his twin’s, but he was also more thoughtful. Still; telling Haku was telling Haru, so he would have to be circumspect about what he told his baby brothers. There was also the fact that he had to protect them. Iruka-sensei had never stopped repeating that information was important, vital, and very, very, very dangerous. By what he’d heard, this information was of the extra dangerous kind. The less his brothers knew, the better.

Task three, act, but not before making at the least a basic plan of attack, approach or abduction. In this case, it probably needed to be approach … maybe. Uzumaki-sama had made Hinata-himesama cry! …and yet, the way his father and uncle had spoken, it was as though it had happened to them, too, and he knew his father and uncle were good men. So maybe, Uzumaki-sama had made an error, and he was sorry for it.

A plan for approach, then. Perhaps he would try not to involve his brothers if he could… best to pay attention, and first gather information that was vital, like his target’s new face, his habits, his past attempts at approaching the secondary target. Not to mention, he needed to approach the target in a safe location, but outdoors from the Hyuuga compound, which was risky but doable.

Sliding down to a sitting position, safely hidden by the bedding inside the futon cupboard, Hyuuga Horyuki thought.

.o0o.

“Look out!”

A column of flames rose out of the earth, baking it to a desert crisp. Two of his comrades were caught in one of these hell’s geysers, and he watched as both of them barely screamed as they were turned into a black shadow first, black ash still alight with a corner of crisping flames second. The two friends he’d fought and grown up with were gone – just like that.

Choking on the rank air and his dry throat from the fire eating all the moisture in it, Akaishi simply stood there staring at the cracking, steaming hole that had suddenly come into existence not five seconds ago. He kept watching even as black dots from the light danced in his vision, and more flames violently broke out of the earth upwards, hungrily consuming anything they touched. A line shot up, one, another, another, at random intervals and distances between one and the other, in a curving line across their ranks and one rising up before the other had finished dissipating the ashes of their comrades.

“Break formations!” someone screamed, and Akaishi watched as fellow nin from all the different villages scattered everywhere as another volley of fire gutted the ground to leave perfectly round craters. Then the ice attacked, spiking out of the air like many arrows falling out of the sky. As soon as they reached the peak in their arc, they whistled down towards them, and Akaishi found he just couldn’t move. He could see one of the points, shining ice-blue and red as it reflected flames around them, heading straight towards his left eye.

Several thunks and thuds drilled the air as a netting of trees, leaves and branches rose up like a sudden canopy, stopping the spears in their tracks. Something grabbed him and pulled him back the next instant, and time once again started to move naturally; when it had slowed down, Akaishi wasn’t sure, but he was only realizing the difference now.

Harsh and hollow breath as well as a bit of a meaty smell made him look up to what was dragging him by the collar, and he realized it was a rather massive dog. Shrugging out of his outer layer of clothing, he turned towards it, kunai at the ready, only to see the Konoha symbol marking it a summon with friendly allegiance.

“Ma, ma, so ungrateful for being saved.” The rock nin looked to the side to come face to face with someone who was marked on their bingo books as ‘we will hope to find enough of your remains to put in a white box for your family’.

Taishou!” Again, the rock-nin was manhandled by the giant dog as his legs responded too slowly, and their location became the charred remains of a caldera. Lava appeared out of nowhere, sending their attack formations into lateral retreats again.

“He has someone with a kekkei genkai again,” a newcomer said. Akaishi looked towards him, seeing blood from a superficial head wound dried along the side of his face and head-protector, dark eyes intent, and hands planted deep into the ground. “My own is weakest against this.”

“And mine is mostly too complementary to be of much use,” Kakashi said, hissing a few curses from behind a grimy mask. His hair was scattered in sooth and ash, and his jounin vest had a missing chunk at the back.

“You Konoha men are all wusses!”

They were knocked off their feet by biting and howling gusts of destructive wind. The lava cooled and hardened within instants, and any of the following ice-spears were blown off course. The allied shinobi forces quickly rallied their troops and streamed into the gap that the attack had just made in the enemy’s defenses, swarming the bottle-neck and then fanning out behind the lines, slaughtering anything that gave even a hint of opposition.

Before the enemy could recuperate their wits, several of the teams swarmed in from both flanks, crawling across the hill towards the cliff-face that hung over the area-turned-battlefield. Hawk summons were circling the top, diving, screeching and dropping elephant sized rocks on the enemies dotting the top of the cliff, eliminating their enemy’s advantage of higher terrain by taking a higher attack point still.

New pools of lava continued to appear in the area, forever changing the geography of this small mountain-side. With a huff, the blonde woman turned towards the three men she had just saved-ass for.

“So, wise guys, you going to help out, or do the girls have to do all the work around here?”

“Temari-san,” Kakashi said pleasantly, tilting his head to the side when a poison dart whizzed by, the famous smiley-eye Akaishi had heard about in full effect. “Glad to see you were redeployed.”

“With as lazy as you Konoha men get,” she replied with a smirk, opening her fan to knock away three stray stones and sending them at blinding speed towards an enemy summon, “you need a woman to keep you in line!”

“Stay still.” Akaishi jumped and almost stuck a weapon into the other Konoha nin, the one with the black hair and eyes and head-gear, when he began putting some bandages on his right hand. With a start, he realized that the last joint of his smallest finger had been burned off, wound cauterized but the flames themselves that had taken the end of his finger <… and his team.

“Kaisho, Yuki,” he said, and his voice choked over, forcing him to bury his eyes into the crook of his elbow to roughly wipe a few stray tears. “That bastard, that bastard took my team!” Pain shot through his hand, making him look at his bandaged hand which was now throbbing since he knew of it.

“Well, then we have a bone to help you pick, boy,” Temari said in a harsh voice. Swiping some blood off a wound on her left arm, she smeared it across her fan, then brought it down hard against the ground. “STAND CLEAR!”

What looked like a tornado born of nothing took place in front of her. Akaishi spied a summon creature he could not quite make out, squeaking in apparent delight as it ploughed through rank after rank with a huge scythe in its paws. Two hands suddenly grabbed him under the arms, pulling him to his feet, and he was flanked by Kakashi and the unknown Konoha nin.

“How old are you,” the copy-nin asked.

“Se-seventeen,” he replied.

“Hm, about as old as Naruto, give or take a year or so,” the other shinobi said. Araishi turned to look at him, and found the man on one knee, hands locked in an unknown seal and eyes closed. Whipping back to Kakashi, the Iwa-nin gulped. They spoke of The Uzumaki in such familiar terms… oh right! Hadn’t the copy-nin been one of his teachers?

“Let’s see if you’re up to scratch then. After all, you have comrades to help… and team mates to answer to.” Kakashi looked towards the other man. “Yamato?”

“Found her – three hundred meters at three o’clock, buried in the soil five feet deep. Cannot tell if nin or drone.”

“Wait, her?” Akaishi said, stopping in his tracks before he could even make a step after the other shinobi, who had moved forward. They turned to look at him as he felt his stomach bottom fall away.

“What is it?”

“We had a girl in our platoon who had this kekkei genkai,” he replied. “But I saw her get killed a few weeks ago.”

“Drone, then,” Kakashi said in a hiss, narrowing his eye into something that looked like an angry tiger. “All the more reason for you to come along, kid. She needs to be taken out of that piece of shit’s hands.”

“He must be close, if there are fresh ones,” the other nin – Yamato – said. Then he pushed them both out of the way and leaped, another column of fire and molten earth rising where they had been. “We have to be careful, and send report back.”

“Are you old ladies done?!” Temari yelled a few feet away, “Me and Kamatari would like to kill some bastards that just don’t know when to stay dead!”

“You heard the lady,” Kakashi said. Akaishi nodded. It was time to retrieve his cousin. Or what was left of her.

.o0o.

“Really, niichan? You mean that?”

Horyuki almost felt guilty when he saw Haku and Haru’s eyes shining with excitement. His mother always told him repeatedly that his little brothers looked up to him and he had to take care of them, and he did it as best he could. As an older brother should, he sometimes acted when his mother wasn’t there, and more often than not was the first to find out the messes they had done, (often either covering up or taking the blame for them). He didn’t begrudge it, though. Hinata-himesama had taught them that there was nothing more important than family, and Horyuki had heard the same from his father and mother. Seeing how jealously Hinata-himesama guarded them all, and how Neiji-oniisama behaved, it was enough to make Horyuki feel proud every time he helped his brothers grow.

This time though, he couldn’t help but think that he was shortchanging them. He knew beyond any doubt that his brothers would do anything he asked them, but he in return could only give so much.

The truth was, he was deathly afraid that what he had in mind might hurt someone he loved, including all those he was trying to help. He felt small, and stupid, and he just knew that he should tell someone older about this.

But the adults who knew weren’t doing anything, and you didn’t speak to outsiders about clan secrets.

So he really did need his brothers’ help, and yet he couldn’t tell them the whole truth. What he had overheard, he decided later, when he had exited the room as carefully as he could, was going to stay with him alone; it was too risky to repeat. His father and uncle had spoken in confidence and in a safe place, and yet he had overheard. What were the odds that he wouldn’t be overheard too by some servant or family member? No, he had just settled on the idea of keeping this to himself, and telling his brothers strictly what they needed to know to help.

That was before they started looking at him like that, with the wide shining eyes. He already went to the academy, while they had another three years before they could enter, so of course, he was responsible and more trained compared to them, however, they didn’t have to look at him like he was Neiji-oniisama who had offered to train with them!

“I- um, I do,” he said uncomfortably, clearing his voice. “I want to practice stealth and tailing, and I thought you could learn too, if you wanted.”

“We want!” Haku yelled immediately, Haru nodding enthusiastically beside him as the two boys stepped into their elder brother’s personal space. Taking a step back, Horyuki put a hand on each of their heads, black hair cropped short around their chin sticking out under his fingers.

“Ok…” he started, pushing them slightly back and then folding his arms, trying to let them know that he meant business. Both of them seemed to understand at once, which made him proud – they were Hyuuga, after all – and stopped fidgeting excitedly on the balls of their feet. “I want … to practice an exercise one of our sensei taught us in class. It’s a basic of tracking, so maybe you guys can do it.”

“We’ll wow you, niichan, you’ll see!” Haku said with a big grin. Horyuki just grinned back in challenge.

“We’ll see! How about a small wager?” he couldn’t help saying. Out of the twins, Haku was the most boisterous and foolhardy, and often found himself in capers that he could have avoided if he’d thought the situation through a little longer. That was a trait that needed to be hammered out of him. “If I win, you two will have to take over my dusting duties for a week.”

“Deal!” Haku said without even having heard what his brother wanted from him. Haru, always the quieter one, looked at his twin with some disconcert.

“Ok then! I bet you won’t be able to keep up with me while I track my target,” Horyuki said, smirking, “And you mustn’t get discovered, either, or you lose immediately.”

“What do we have to do, exactly, Horyu-niichan?” Haru asked uncertainly.

“I want to get to know the interests and habits of this person, I want to see where he goes, at what time and why, and I want to be able to know when it will be right to approach him safely,” Horyuki said, biting his lip.

“Why?” Haru asked, curiously.

“Like I said, it’s an exercise we learned in the academy,” he said again, sticking to the excuse he’d decided upon before he’d proposed the idea to the twins. When the plan had finally hatched in his mind, this was the best excuse he could make, as it was partly true that they had been learning tracking at school, and his brothers would be none the wiser as they didn’t attend yet. After he’d managed to get a glimpse of his quarry on another failed visit to the compound, but hadn’t been able to approach him, Horyuki had decided; there wasn’t much more time to lose. “I want to be the top of my class, so I need to practice. Also, I want you two to be ahead when you go to the academy.” Also true; they were his brothers. “You can’t do that if you don’t train.”

“Alright, niichan!” Haku said happily. “Who are we going to be tailing!”

“Shhh!” Horyuki said in alarm, making both boys freeze at once. “This is a stealth mission, you can’t yell!” And no one could hear what they were planning! This was too important, and too dangerous! His heartbeat took a while to settle as he waited with baited breath to make sure that his brother’s yell hadn’t attracted attention.

“But the mission didn’t start yet,” Haku said in confusion.

“Missions start at the debriefing desk,” he said, repeating something he heard in class. Both twins nodded then, becoming exaggeratedly serious, but that suited the purpose just fine. “So this mission officially starts now. I heard that there is a cousin of ours that we don’t know, and who’s never lived in this house. I want to see if I can find him and track him while he’s here in Konoha. But Konoha’s big and three byakugan are better than one.”

“A cousin we don’t know? Really?” Haku asked, curiosity peaked.

“I think they said he was from the Capital Branch… do you remember who they are?”

“Oh yes!” Haru said excitedly, answering quickly before his brother could interrupt, “the ones who live near the Daimyo!”

“Shhh!” Horyuki said again, this time even more urgently. Both brothers flinched and looked chastised, so he quickly went on, in order to minimize risk. “Let’s go, I want to see if we can find him and tail him for a while. I’ve outlined the search areas. He has the byakugan, black hair cut short with sideburns. Usually wears navy clothes. Come on, I want to know what he’s like.”

“Me too!” Haku said in an exaggerated whisper. Holding in a snicker, Horyuki led his brothers through the house and out the Hyuuga gates, excitement beginning to course through him. Step one; accomplished.

.o0o.

Hiashi clenched his jaw as he read over the parchment once again. The owl summons perched on his arm preened its feathers unhurriedly before moving sideways up to sit on his armoured shoulder, digging its talons enough for balance but not enough to draw blood.

“Suru, this comes from source?” he asked the owl.

“Is it bad news?” it replied, turning its head around to look at him closely. Hiashi narrowed his eyes at the parchment, trying to make sure he had translated the encrypted message correctly. When he had done it for the fifth time without change, he nodded grimly. “Hmm. Can your chicks handle it?”

“They can; of that I have no doubt,” he said. Looking up at the surrounding terrain of mountainous forest, Hiashi made sure to keep a portion of his mind alert even as he wished with all his might that he could be back home. This report that his daughter sent was very disturbing, and came at the worst of times. She said herself that due to a Hokage’s order, all communication in and out of Konoha was being thoroughly checked; thus, she had used their family’s summons in order to make the message arrive directly into his hands.

Suru’s light and feathery body suddenly stiffened against him, talons digging a little more deeply into his shoulder armour and head turning almost 180 degrees to look over its back.

“Someone’s coming,” the summons trilled, its golden eyes staring fixedly into the forest. Hiashi instantly activated his byakugan with the minimum amount of chakra needed without moving a muscle, only to relax an instant later.

“Shibi,” he said, turning around to face the man the moment he walked through the undergrowth. “Have we received new orders from base?”

“To proceed westwards,” the quiet man replied. “You?” Hiashi frowned in response, shaking his head.

“Mission prospective?”

“Another two weeks.”

Hiashi almost scowled, the owl on his shoulder tensing in response to his mood.

“I see,” he replied simply. The ball of worry in his chest tightened, but he closed the scroll, stood straight and slipped the parchment back into the holding cylinder on the bird’s leg. “I will be calling your mother Sasayaki soon,” he told the summons. Suru nodded. “Tell her to ready her noble self; we may meet a hard battle.”

With one last look at the both of them, the summons puffed out in silent smoke. Hiashi joined his mission companion in their two man cell and they began tracking through branches of the tall, thin white trees.

“I have heard that my son has been redeployed to central base,” Shibi said in his quiet voice. “Inuzuka with him. They are Hinata-chan’s original team mates, correct?”

Hiashi could only nod. He and Shibi had a very good relationship; one could almost describe them as friends. After Teuchi’s son had been injured in battle and had left his original team for a civilian life, Shibi had been transferred with them. After Minato had died, the last two members of team Jiraiya had drifted apart. Between the grief and their own duties as two clan heads, the glue that kept them together – the joviality and irresistible charisma that were Jiraiya-sensei and Minato – had simply dissolved. It had not been until their children had been put on the same team that they had rekindled their old friendship.

Now, a gesture was all that was needed. Both men knew what the other was thinking even as it passed behind the other’s eyes, which was priceless in battle… but also when one did not quite feel like talking. Which happened often between them.

“Thank you,” he replied simply. With the news Hanabi-chan had sent him, he was sure that Hinata-chan could do with a little bit of friendly comfort. Hanzou’s stupid and dangerous notions needed to be stopped, but the other matters that were occurring in and around his household, no thanks to the Hokage, were of equal worry. Though the data was incomplete, as even an encrypted message was a dangerous leak hazard, he was in tune to Tsunade’s thinking methods enough to surmise the rest.

It was a bold move. Bold, and possibly suicidal.

But there was nothing Hiashi could do at the moment but take silent comfort from his friend’s presence and proceed to mission objective A. Hopefully, in two weeks, if he was still alive, he could return to comfort his daughters.

.o0o.

“This sucks,” Haru moaned, holding the dusting cloth in his hand a little bit too haphazardly. It kept slipping, and he kept dropping things, like that large frame to the right. If he wasn’t a big boy already, he would have said that the thing was jumping out at him… but of course, he was five years old now, and he knew frames didn’t move, so he didn’t say it.

“It’s all your fault,” Haku grumbled back from the other side of the room, half buried under the futon he was trying to put away in its closet. He moved his head slightly to the side and almost tumbled backwards under the weight, at which he frowned at his brother a little more. “I had that whole tracking thing nailed, and I ask you to give me hand, but what do you do? Throw me at the guy’s feet!”

“You told me to give you a push!” Haru protested, hitting a few things while turning around to face his brother angrily. “What did you expect? If you wanted me to lift you up, you should have at least pointed. I don’t magically understand what’s in your head, Haku!”

Haku went quiet after that, focusing instead on bundling the futon properly so that their niichan wouldn’t get scolded for it later. The adults wouldn’t be told about the wager and loss, after all, since it would make mamma angry to know that niichan had given them one of his chores, and the boys were none too keen to fess up about them both losing ingloriously. The mother of all punishments would ensue, so all three boys simply followed the secret code of all siblings, and the two went about their bet’s penance as their brother took the opportunity to train some more with their elder cousins.

“But we’re twins,” Haru heard his brother mutter after some minutes of silence (and picking up what he’d knocked down). Haru pouted.

“We are, Haku, but remember what Neiji-niichan said. We may have better teamwork than most, but we still have to work for it! And you’ve been off working with the older classes on the more advanced sets, so me and you nearly never train together anymore.”

Haru didn’t say that he’d been training till he dropped to try to reach the levels his twin seemed to be able to obtain naturally. Or that he often went to one of the outer training grounds so that neither Haku nor Horyuki could see him fail at his juuken again and again and again. And so that when he ultimately stopped because his hands were trembling too badly from the exertion, he could usually curl up in a ball and cry. He was a big boy now, five years old, but out of all his brothers, he was the only one who couldn’t master the fighting style to the level required to be at least able to keep up.

Haru just knew, though, that he could do it if he kept moving and training hard. Once, last month, he’d been on the way home after a good cry when someone had fallen out of the trees beside him, and he’d been ashamed and mortified to find it was Neiji-niisan. Expecting to be admonished - or in the very least told that the least thing he could do was return to that training ground until he finally managed to finish the kata without falling over, - all Neiji-niisan had done was pet his head, then sit down on the grassy slope and tell him something he’d never forget.

“I hated Hinata-sama when I was a child,” he’d said, and Haru couldn’t help staring. Everyone knew that to reach Hinata-himesama, one had to go through her cousin Neiji first and foremost. Of all the protection his older cousin could boast of, Haru knew that Neiji-niisan was the most powerful, and the most dangerous. Neiji-niisan did it with dedication, pride, and a single-minded gentleness that he showed only with Hinata-himesama that they saw. His big brother Horyuki thought that he was even better than Hiashi-sama, and big brother knew things.

“I was stupid back then,” Neiji-niisan had continued, acknowledging his expression with a smile. “My father willingly died to protect his brother, Hiashi-sama, out of love. But since the nin who had caused the incident had tried to kidnap Hinata-sama, I blamed losing my father on her. It hurt more and more to see how utterly hopeless she was at the juuken every time she tried, while I was stamped with the seal and so much better than her.”

Neiji-niisan had put a hand on his head, ruffling his black hair until Haru ducked.

“Hinata-himesama is good with the juuken! She even knows the Jouho Soushiken!” he protested bravely. He didn’t care that this was his big brother’s idol – no one spoke badly of himesama!

“She is good now, yes. In some aspects, better than me,” Neiji-niisan replied, which made Haru stare again. “While I am able to produce the juuken with relative ease, the difficulty with which Hinata-sama acquired the technique ensured that she would have a much better understanding of it than I do. This has allowed her to create new kata within the original sets, and even incorporate innovative jutsu without sullying our forms.”

Looking out over the hill, Neiji-niisan had been silent for some time, looking over the forest underneath them before he continued.

“What changed my opinion was getting my ass handed to me during my first chuunin exam. And the one to do it was someone everyone expected to lose. But he never gave up, and literally punched me into the ground until I couldn’t move anymore, all because I had treated Hinata-sama badly during the preliminaries in front of him.” Haru watched in amazement as the great Neiji-niisan snorted like a normal person, a smile on his usually stony face. “I should have known back then that he’d be the one to steal our Hinata-sama from us, actually.”

“Steal her away?” Haru had asked in alarm, and then been stumped when Neiji-niisan laughed.

“Not in the way you’re thinking, no,” Neiji-niisan said with a chuckle. “But she loves him, and I’m blind if he doesn’t love her. They will be married before the war is out.”

“Married like my mum and dad?” Haru had wondered at that. It made sense in a way. Mamma wasn’t from the Hyuuga clan either, and papa had married her. So of course, if two people loved each other very much, they would get married. That was what his mother always said. Neiji-niisan merely nodded.

“That day, when I was lying on my back and looking at him standing over me like that, he didn’t gloat or laugh at me, even though I would have deserved it. He just told me that technique he beat me with was the one that had caused him to fail the academy test three times in a row.”

Haru gaped at that; one had to be a dunce to fail the academy test! His papa said that all the time!

“Think of that when you feel about to throw in the towel,” Nieji-niisan finished then, rising to his feet. “He’s the best example to follow that I can think of. He and Hinata-sama … lesser people would have given up, but not them. They kept moving forward and working twice as much as everyone else, until they finally managed to reach their goals.”

Haru had hurried to follow him, mulling it over in his head. He’d redoubled his training after that day, and done some small searching of his own to find out that, yes, the ‘Naruto’ that Neiji-niisan had spoken of was also the Uzumaki¬-sama that Horyuki-niichan spoke of on the same level as Neiji-niisan.

He’d intensified his efforts, decided to train three times as hard, but somehow, Haku always remained ahead. Still, giving up was for lesser people. He would keep on doing it, and if Hinata-himesama and Uzumaki-sama could do it, so could he. One day, he’d reach his brother, and then they’d continue to do the team-training they had started at age two. They would be a formidable team, and no one would be able to stop the dragon brothers.

A pillow hitting the back of his head made him drop the frame (always that big one!) that he had been cleaning, and pause in his fantasizing of grand poses and long, flowing outfits in heroic scenes of fighting with Haku. Picking the frame up, he turned around in annoyance.

“Haku! You’re supposed to be putting the bedding away, not flinging it around!” he moaned. Turning, he found his brother wearing a large grin that usually meant he was up to no good. Three seconds later, another pillow hit him square in the face, and he blinked for a minute before he put the frame and duster down, grabbed one of the pillows and threw it back. Snatching up the other, he charged Haku, and for next minutes, the only thing they could do was laugh breathlessly, trying to contain their squealing and squeaking as they walloped each other with all their might. Very soon, Haku whipped out the one kunai his father had given him for completing the eighteenth set (Haru was now learning the seventeenth; he would soon get one too!) and began to pretend to throw it, while Haru dove to the side and landed on the pillow every time he did, practicing the dodge Horyuki-niichan had showed them.

“Ha, you Kumo-nin! I’ve got you!” Haku said, brandishing the kunai wildly. It was a split second, but one moment the weapon was in his brother’s hand, the next it was flying through the room, narrowly missing Haru’s left ear, and then there was a tinkle and tiny crash behind him.

“Eeep!” they both said together, running around the chest of drawers that the kunai had landed behind.

“Uh-oh…” Haku said in a breathy voice. The weapon had gone cleanly through a photo frame and then stuck a few millimeters from the hilt. Glass was strewn everywhere, and by the looks of it, this had been the big frame that seemed important.

“Ack! Let’s get out of here!” Haku said hurriedly, grabbing hold of Haru’s sleeve and beginning to drag him out.

“Wait,” he hissed to his brother, “If we leave the mess, niichan will get the blame for it! We have to clean it up!” Haku stopped, looked frantically about for a minute, and then dashed to the two pillows, throwing them into the closet and slamming it shut before running back to his brother, pulling the curtain to cover the frame and then continuing to manhandle him out the door. “The glass! We have to pick up the glass!”

“No!” Haku said, “Nobody’s going to see it back there, and we just gotta get out of here before someone sees us!”

Haru couldn’t say any more. Haku had dragged him out of Hinata-himesama’s room, and if he yelled then, they would get caught.


.o0o.

Naruto found himself staring at the dress again, ignoring the darkening skies that were making his reflection appear more stark on the shop window. It had a fairly high collar, not like that pretty white one that had driven him nuts, but he remembered she’d warn a scarf later, so she had probably been cold in it.

This one had long sleeves, and the top was made of woven wool, which stopped under the breast line to give way to tweed. It was plain and didn’t have any design except for a small belt of the same tweed running across the seam between the two different materials, decorated in the centre with a small, stylish white buckle.

The best thing about it was that it was a dark red, some shades darker than what he remembered of the Uchiha symbol had been. It came complete with a fluffy faux fur scarf, matching hat, boots and gloves in pristine white.

He could totally imagine her in it; she’d look gorgeous, and red was always a colour she liked to add to things; a flower here and there, a tomato in the centre of the rice in the bento or even a small pair of stud earrings. And any lipstick she wore had always been a staid shade of red. She loved white too, he’d noticed, and he looked down at the reflection of yet another wasted bunch of flowers in his hand. He hadn’t even managed to give them to the guard this time; the door had not even been opened.

So he was here again, looking at this stupid fucking dress in a woman’s clothing shop window, just standing there like a moron to avoid going home for as long as he could. With a bunch of wilted weeds in his hand and a very, very painful feeling in his chest.

As the days had gone by and he hadn’t seen hide or hair of Hinata-chan, the agitation in his gut had increased until he couldn’t sleep at night, feeling restless and discontented. He’d gone for days and weeks without seeing her before, when one of them had been out on missions or recon and recovery, but this felt so abysmally different.

This felt final, like he would never see her again, and it was ridiculous. He knew she hadn’t been given a mission, because she was still rostered at the hospital, but somehow every time he managed to find out one of her shifts and went to look for her, she had changed it, or someone had made a mistake, or she had done another person a favour and bartered her shift.

As time went by, it became even more of a nightmare. All sorts of thoughts began to pass through his head; he worried about her constantly, missed her terribly, and itched to hear her speak. During the day, he had absolutely nothing to do; none of his usual training partners were in the village, and those who were either spent their days sedated in the hospital, or spent their days curing the people sedated in the hospital.

He had gone to the hill – their hill, where they trained together when they could manage it, and kissed the first time – created as many shadow clones as he could without dying and proceeded to beat the shit out of himself till the night came. He didn’t care who saw, and didn’t care that some of them were blonde. He didn’t care that it was like looking into the face of his father sometimes, and punching it in, or getting a kunai stuck into his side and having to get patched up. He didn’t care about … much of anything, at that moment.

The lights in the shop switched off as it closed, and most of the employees exited through the half pulled shutter. One of the girls stopped for an instant to look at him, clearly not expecting him there at what must have been a bit of a tardy hour. He turned to glance her way, she seemed to blush at having been caught staring and turn away.

A sudden wrenching pain pulled at his chest, and he quickly pivoted and marched away as fast as he could without straight out running. His Hinata-chan did that all the time: blush, half smile and look down, only to look back up a bit bashfully through her fringe. It had been one of her mannerisms that had slowly grown on him as the months passed and he got to know her better, and in the weeks before his last mission, it never failed to make him want to kiss her soundly.

The idea of kissing her, usually so pleasant and stirring, made the shooting pain lance through him again, and he bit his lip. He missed her. He missed her like he missed air underwater, and yet, she didn’t seem to want him anymore. Every time he’d tried to seek her out, everywhere he’d tried to look for her, she never was. He’d always just miss her, or be in the wrong place, or simply not be allowed in.

It was ironic, he realized. He was seeing flashes of indigo everywhere, but this time, there was no flutter of the heart or lilt of the step when he followed it. Usually, the feeling that accompanied one of his mirages was a choking desperation, rushing step and another jolt of pain in his chest that was gradually rising to unbearable proportions.

The Kyuubi in his head snarled viciously, and he could feel its chakra roiling and snapping, circling like a caged tiger in response to his unstable emotions. It just made him more anxious, and still more unable to sleep at night. His reflection in the shop’s glass pane had shown puffy, bruised bags under his eyes. Eyes that reminded him eerily of her.

Damnit, everything reminded him of her. If he saw two people walking down the street, he thought of their walks and chats. If he saw a couple, he remembered how her hand felt around his elbow or else in his. If he passed by the market, all he could remember were the trips there with her, which wasn’t hard, since he’d never had any other memory of the market. He should and could avoid it, but somehow, he ended up there every single day, in the hopes of maybe catching a glimpse of her.

And then, there was his apartment. Pausing before his door, in front of which he’d just arrived, his hand half raised with the key readily held, all he could think of was that he didn’t want to go in. He wanted to bolt, go to the training ground again and beat himself up until he collapsed; but he’d done that yesterday, and the ANBU who found him, Owl, he remembered, had threatened to inform Tsunade of his behaviour if he did it again. Obviously, the ANBU was in the know and tasked to protect him just in case… but Naruto was on the border of not giving a shit anyway.

He almost turned and left. What was the worst thing baa-chan could do to him? Yell at him till she was blue, whop him a few good ones… be worried sick, as Shizune-nee had said she’d been for him since he’d come back all banged up.

Wilting, and seeing his only real prospective escape vanished, he inserted the key, but didn’t turn it. Was there nowhere else he could be? Maybe he could pull a Gaara, and just sit on a bloody rooftop like his friend liked to do sometimes (he could sleep now, so why the heck didn’t he…)? But no, he was much too restless for that. He would be pulling up ceiling tiles, netting and sealer before ten minutes were out.

Maybe he could go to Ichiraku? But no, not that either – he didn’t even have a taste for ramen recently. As the days had rolled by, his appetite had almost dried up, and just a few drinks and two cups of instant were enough. Yet he was filled with nervous energy, felt ill almost all the time, and his chest often felt like he’d been skewered on a huge fang of one of Orochimaru’s giant snakes.

Even though he cast his mind frantically around one last time, he still couldn’t come up with anything to do or anywhere to go. If he went to places where there were people, he’d have to talk, and he had nothing to say at the moment. If he stayed here, he was just going to freeze – or kill his stupid, nosey, insufferable neighbour – so he had no option, really, but to go inside.

Turning the key with a stiff hand, the door gave and swung forward into the ganken. The mud and grime from the previous week was still there, joined by new layers as the rain had come down on and off during the last fortnight and he’d been mostly out in it before being forced to return here out of necessity.

What greeted him was an empty apartment. All the rooms were dark, only illuminated by the moonlight filtering through the glass panes. The silence was deafening: no water heater busily grumbling and hissing, no music coming out of the little radio on the coffee table - a little addition she’d brought with her one time, and constantly forgot to take back home. No humming, laughing or talking; only a black, rather dingy apartment. Most tellingly, there were no sweet smells, and most of all, no clinking or movement in the kitchen.

There was no one to welcome him home anymore.

Shutting the door behind him, he mechanically kicked off his shoes. He went to the washroom, putting his clothing in the pile of dirty linen and stopping to look at the impressive mount of clothes; he hadn’t done his laundry, he remembered. And since it was something to do, now was a good time to do it.

Toiling thoughtlessly from one automatic movement to the next, he stuffed dirty linen in and out, put wet clothing in and pulled dry ones out, never really feeling anything but a numb sort of suspension that usually took over him while he trained. Maybe the lack of sleep was finally getting to him, he thought. If he was tired enough, maybe tonight he could get some rest.

But no; she’d slept in that bed one time. The sheets had been changed so many times from that once she’d stayed that it was a ridiculous notion, but he was constantly trying to find traces of her scent in the bed, on the sheets and quilt. Every day he didn’t see her, the gaping hole in his chest got larger, and the pain just got sharper and sharper.

So he’d stay on the couch, like last night. Tonight he’d take the quilt; the cold had kept him awake where he might have slept a few hours otherwise, but he’d stubbornly tried to do without it. The Kyuubi didn’t help; it growled and snarled and spat and jeered, but its agitation corroborated his own, making it impossible to live within his skin.

When the laundry was done, the quiet outside of his apartment told him it had gotten quite late. He looked around aimlessly, feeling slightly lost and dazed. His chest felt leaden, his head swollen and stuffy. Walking out of the room, he decided that he would just take the quilt, lay down on the couch and wait for dawn.

He tried to duck his head when he passed by, but he just couldn’t. His step slowed of its own accord, his hand rose to rest against the frame, and he looked in.

Not four weeks ago, she’d been humming a tune while stirring some soup, dressed for the first time he’d ever seen her in a skirt. She’d been off duty, and had come to his place in the morning. The thing had been long and woolen, and she had black tights underneath, but it had fascinated him to see the back of her shapely calves, and she looked so… comfortable and domestic, standing there in a homey and slightly warn skirt and pull over, humming tonelessly and adding a little of this and that to the bubbling breakfast pot in front of her.

He remembered thinking; he was really, really happy.

His eyes itched and his vision blurred. He blinked, and before he knew it, hot liquid was pouring down his face. First one tear and then another raced down his cheeks, till they became a steady stream. His breath hitched and caught before he could stop it, and he tried to force it out normally, but his chest was too cramped and clogged. He bit down on his lower lip hard, but it didn’t make any difference. The pain he was feeling was too intense to fight, and pushed at the confines of his chest from the inside towards his ribs, as though trying to bust his ribcage open and escape. He almost wished it would

The clock kept ticking in his dark, empty kitchen. His catching breath, however, filled the space and echoed on the walls. It just made the room seem more desolate, the memory of bright light and house-noises and lovely smells seem so much more precious, and the pain more sharp. He was bent half-over before he could stop himself, and his chest felt more and more constricted. The time he’d had that lung failure had been a walk in the park compared to this; numbing agony radiated from it like a physical wound. He’d never felt this before, didn’t know what to do, didn’t know how to make it leave. He could feel the Kyuubi’s thoughts roiling in agitation, and that made it somehow worse.

His mind was not being kind to him either. He kept remembering her smile, the way she smelled, how incredible it felt when he was close to her; what kissing her felt like. And each memory was a fresh stab of pain, like so many little kunai piercing him in tender spots.

A sense of panic took over him; he needed help. All this pain just couldn’t be normal. But who could he go to? This wasn’t something he wanted to talk to anyone about – but he had to, otherwise this pain wouldn’t go away, and it had to, because it almost felt like he was about to die.

Jiraiya-sensei came to his mind – but where to find the man? He didn’t have a home in the village, and Konoha didn’t have brothels. He could be staying with Baa-chan, but Baa-chan was also the Hokage, and there was no way he wanted her to see him like this. He knew, he just felt it; he didn’t want her to know, didn’t want her to see. Something inside him shrunk at the thought of anymore than one, perhaps two people knowing he was in this kind of pain.

Kakashi-sensei? No…no. His breath caught harder as he tried to stem the flow of tears, and clear the intense pain in his chest enough to think straight. Somehow he knew the silver-haired jounin wouldn’t be able to help him. He didn’t know why, and didn’t care; he was too desperate to try to see reason in his twisted logic, he just wanted to think of someone, now, anyone who would help make it stop.

Iruka-sensei. Yes! Iruka-sensei! If he couldn’t go to Jiraiya, he could go to Iruka. The more he thought about it, the more right it felt, and the more obvious it seemed. Of course Iruka-sensei would help; of course he would know what to do. He always knew what to do and what to say. He would fix this, he would help him.

Wiping his face in his sleeve, he looked around frantically, then gave up, not even knowing what he was looking for. Rushing to the front room, he didn’t even bother going through the door, hopping out the open window instead. His feet rushed across rooftops until they burned, his lungs ached – but at least, at least – the pain lessened as he ran with all his strength towards the one person he knew, he just knew, could make this horrible feeling go away.

He skidded to a halt on the landing to an outdoor staircase much like his own. It was a testimony to how panicked and out of sorts he felt that he stumbled, and almost fell. He managed to catch himself against the very door he intended to knock on and rested there for a moment, blazing cheek against cool wood, breathing hard and with his eyes closed. Somehow, he was already feeling better, being within a few feet of someone who would help.

The door gave underneath his face before he could right himself or compose himself, and he stumbled forward, landing nose-first in a black shirt and warm chest.

“Na-! Heavens, are you injured? Are you ok?!”

An arm closed around his shoulders, and the warm heartbeat against his cheek just clinched it. Closing his eyes tightly shut until they hurt made no difference, neither did twisting his lips into a bloodless grimace. The emotions within him climbed to blinding peak, and then, just like that, they burst. By the same twisted logic that had driven him to Iruka’s doorstep, he knew that it was ok, now. He could cry now, and it would be ok.

He vaguely heard the door closing behind him, his feet dragged and stumbled as Iruka-sensei pulled him into his house, the older man’s arm still around his shoulders as Naruto’s face remained buried in his chest, sobbing without being able to stop. Then something hit the back of his shins and he collapsed. Iruka-sensei still held him, a hand ran up and down his back, and the older man was murmuring something, but Naruto only knew the fact that it was ok right now, he was going to be ok, and Iruka-sensei would take care of this. He would know what to do.

.o0o.

Iruka’s worry kept mounting as his beloved student clutched at his shirt, shuddering with every progressive sob, faux-black crop of hair against his shoulder as he didn’t seem about to stop anytime soon. Naruto had seemed barely conscious when he’d caught a glimpse of his face while opening the door, and now the boy seemed even more lost and tired as he kept sobbing. Iruka clutched the young man to his chest, something that caused Naruto to shudder slightly, and let out a noise that was a faint mewl of pain.

He asked Naruto what the matter was in hushed tones multiple times, but the answers Iruka received were garbled, his young charge’s voice hoarse and choked. The only things that Iruka had managed to make out were a few repeated words; ‘I lost her’, ‘I’m so stupid, so stupid’. It squeezed the teacher’s heart to hear so much pain coming from his young boy, who he still, on some level, loved like a son. The last time he’d seen him, he’d been bursting with happiness, sharing a meal with friends – and almost, Iruka could have sworn – family. Blinking when Naruto once again let out a choked murmur on ‘her’, Iruka had the sinking feeling that he knew what might have happened. He remembered that stop at the ramen stand, and how the blonde’s arm had been around a certain girl’s waist. He remember a clear shine in his boy’s blue eyes, and a light and warmth that came into them only when he was looking at Hyuuga pupil-less ones. A heavy anxiety took hold of the academy teacher as he suddenly thought; was Hinata-chan alright?

Just before he asked about her welfare, a noise to his right made him look up over the couch’s back without stopping the rubbing motions on Naruto’s shoulders. He spied Anko, bed robe tied around her, hair mussed, and not even trying to hide the worried look on her face. She jerked her head towards the cupboards of his open-plan kitchen, and he nodded gratefully. Tea was very much appreciated, and he could feel that Naruto need all the comfort he could get, be it physical, emotional, or a warm mug to hold between his hands.

Running his fingers through his own hair, Iruka couldn’t help but bite his lip. Naruto had grown so much recently. No only was there a new light in his eyes every time he met the boy, marking something else learned or achieved – especially compared to how dim he had seemed to be as a child. Now he also towered over almost everyone else, though, and his shoulders had grown much wider. His frame had become that of a man, exiting boyhood with that definite growth spurt that boys went through as opposed to girls’ more progressive development. Yet now, curled up and sobbing, Naruto looked tiny enough to fit in his lap again, as he’d sometimes done when he was in the academy, and Iruka had carried him home when he fallen asleep on a random training ground. It broke the teacher’s heart, and made him tighten his hold on the boy.

“Here,” Anko whispered, putting down two mugs on the glass table and handing one to Iruka directly. He smiled at her, and the thought entered his mind as it always did, how beautiful she looked with her hair down, but he pushed idle thinking aside. Nudging Naruto with his chin very gently, he rubbed his back in circular motions and brought the steaming mug closer to his face. Naruto’s breathing hitched, but the weeping stopped, insistent sniffing matching his clenching shoulders as he turned his face enough to look at the hot, milk-less, herbal tea, a special blend Anko had created for her darkest moments. Iruka was glad that, by the smell, she’d gone easy on the sake.

Iruka winced in sympathy at Naruto’s hoarse voice as he thanked his teacher and took the mug, as well as his raw, very red eyes. The boy’s shoulders were still haunched, curled up around himself. The academy teacher frowned, allowing him to move away and sit down properly, but didn’t remove his arm from Naruto’s back. He watched as the boy mechanically took a sip of the tea, which would probably have been hot enough to burn his tongue, but Naruto didn’t seem to notice, or care. Iruka exchanged a worried look with Anko, and the woman decided that this had been running for long enough and gave him a determined nod.

“Naruto… do you want to talk about it?” he asked quietly, gripping his pupil’s opposite shoulder. Naruto’s response was immediate; tears sprung to his eyes again, his hands trembled, and one of them came up to hide his face. Iruka’s heart leapt to block his throat; Hinata-chan just couldn’t be...

“I messed up, Iruka-sensei, I messed up so bad. I don’t know what to do.” The sentence tapered off into a whisper that was barely audible, and Iruka bit his lip again.

Anko, meanwhile, had decided it was about time to announce her presence. As quietly as her station of jounin expected of her, she walked around the couch, and sat down on Naruto’s other side.

Naruto jumped then, (Iruka having to dive for the mug and press it to the boy’s hands before it spilt), and turned to look at the snake jounin with something akin to panic in his altered eyes. Iruka felt his body stiffen, and it was only because of the arm around his shoulders that he prevented the young boy from rising and, he suspected, bolting.

“I- I’m sorry! I didn’t- didn’t know…I’ll go,” Naruto choked out, looking between them with frantic eyes. Iruka held his shoulder a bit tighter, a stern well-practice expression on his face.

“None of that. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I let you leave while you’re like this. Just trust us, Naruto … Anko and I want to help with whatever it is. It’s what you came here for, neh?” He smiled at the boy, who was still stealing looks at Anko in a vaguely frightened manner.

“Where did you mess up, gaki?” Anko said, and Naruto would not have been the only one in the village to look surprised when they heard the gentleness in her voice. He looked even more startled when she smiled at him, her eyes still bright from sleep.

“I…I…” Naruto gulped, and Iruka could feel his muscles tensing underneath the arm that still circled the jinchuuriki’s shoulder. He could tell the woman’s unexpected presence had thrown Naruto for a loop, and it was making him feel uncomfortable. Yet Iruka was reluctant to ask Anko to retire; not only because she might skin him later. If he was right on the nature of Naruto’s problem, Anko might be of even more help than he was.

She proved him right by reaching out to stroke the unruly black hair that still looked so out of place, making the boy jump and turn to look at her circumspectly.

“You didn’t answer the question, gaki,” she muttered, then gently swatted him. Iruka became even more worried when Naruto didn’t react normally; he just looked down at his knees, his eyes dull.

“Me and Hinata-chan…” Naruto’s coarse voice trailed off, fresh tears in his eyes. He brought the mug to his mouth and took a gulp, composing himself before he continued. “We were out a while ago, on a date. It was our first proper one in a while and … Hinata really dressed up for it.” He stopped, a wry smile appearing on his face as one hand came up to scratch a cheek. “She was really great, Iruka-sensei. You should have seen her. She even ditched the jacket and wore a dress.” The smile slid off his face like water on an otter’s coat. “But … but then when we got to the restaurant, Sakura-chan showed up, and … and I just … I ended up leaving Hinata waiting for so long, the kitchen closed, and we couldn’t eat. I was so stupid, but I couldn’t just ditch Sakura-chan like that. She needed to tell me something about Sasuke, and she just … she wouldn’t stop talking, and I just couldn’t send her away.” Iruka’s arm tightened around the boy as the hidden blonde squeezed his eyes shut. The academy teacher was partly glad for this, as the young man didn’t see him sag in relief at knowing that what he’d feared had been incorrect.

“That can’t be all,” Anko said, her voice somewhat miffed. Naruto sniffled and took another gulp of tea before he continued.

“No, I messed up big later,” he replied, shoulders curling further. “I …I walked her home, and we didn’t really speak because I knew she was upset but, but, when we got there she asked me if she was a replacement for Sakura-chan and … I just couldn’t answer her.”

Both he and Anko, he could tell, suppressed a groan. The woman sighed and rubbed her nose bridge.

“So then, did you have a fight?”

“A fight?” Naruto looked up at her sadly. “No… Hinata-chan just … sort of nodded and went in. I know I’m stupid, I know, but I…” he choked off. “But I just couldn’t lie to her…”

“Wait, you mean she is just a replacement?” Anko asked, trying not to sound too upset and failing. He could see that she was tired and slightly disgruntled.

“Hinata-chan isn’t ‘just’ anything! Why do people keep saying that!” Naruto hissed back at her, his anger rising easily as an outlet for his pain presented itself. Iruka quickly pressed his hand more firmly on the young man’s shoulder.

“What do you mean, Naruto, that you couldn’t lie to her?” he asked gently instead. Naruto flinched at the slight admonition in his voice and curled into himself again.

“I … she has taken Sakura-chan’s place. I don’t … I don’t think of Sakura-chan like that anymore, just Hinata-chan. All the things I used to think before, that I wanted to do with Sakura-chan, I only want to do them with Hinata-chan now. And I’m happy when I’m with her, and I get the same feelings I used to with Sakura-chan, and …” He paused again, dragging in a hitching breath before he bit his lip. “But I knew I couldn’t say it. I felt it in my gut, that if I told her the truth, it would be the wrong answer. The way she asked the question … it was so obvious, that she didn’t want me to say yes. But it was the truth, and I … I just couldn’t lie to her.”

Iruka exchanged a glance with Anko, who was shaking her head with a frown. While it wasn’t as disparate as Naruto’s reaction had made him think at first … this was a mess.

“So, you haven’t met to make up?” Iruka asked gently. Naruto sagged even more, much to his dismay.

“It’s been a week, and she’s not come anywhere near me,” he said miserably, his voice turning harsh again as new tears lined his eyes. “I tried looking for her, I even went to the Hyuuga estate so many times, but they… they told me she wasn’t there every time. Tomorrow, my medical leave finishes, and …”

“From what I can tell, your little Hyuuga has issues,” Anko said, rather irately. Naruto turned to glare at her, ready to jump to his girlfriend’s defence, but she cut him off. “You’re right, she didn’t want to hear you say ‘yes’ that time, that’s because she doesn’t think you care for her. Just that she’s a hole-stopper till Sakura looks your way.” Naruto paled, a look of mild horror settling on his face. “Seeing how torn up you are about not seeing her before you might get re-deployed, I’d say she’s being stupid.”

“Hinata’s always been very shy,” Iruka said mildly to the both of them. “It probably cost her quite a lot, if she dressed up for you the way you said. I’m sure it must not have been easy for her, watching you leave with someone you had liked before, and returning so late, when she had pushed herself out of her comfort zone for you. It must have left her feeling vulnerable.” Iruka saw Naruto frowning, looking both slightly worried and uncertain.

“What he’s trying to say is; she ended up feeling like an ugly second-hand shoe,” Anko said bluntly. Iruka frowned at her, but she shook her head. “She went all out trying to look all pretty, and you ditched her for another girl. Which is why I said, the girl has issues. She should have clocked you on the head so hard for that your children will be feeling it.”

Naruto flinched and looked down at his feet. Iruka rubbed his back, glaring at Anko over his bent form. Anko simply shook her head at him angrily again.

“After she’d clocked you good, she should have grabbed you by the ear and dragged you home, and told you loud and clear that she was going to be the only chicken in the hen-house if this was going to fly. Asking stupid trick questions like that only got you both miserable.”

“But … now what do I do?” Naruto asked, and it hurt to hear how lost he sounded.

“If it were me, I’d ditch the little princess and good riddance,” she replied, earning a half-angered, half-panicked look from the younger man. “But you care for her ass a lot, from what I can tell, so… you gotta talk to her, and make it crystal that you’ve cleared the table of the previous hand, and you’re only playing with one deck now.”

Naruto blinked at her helplessly. Iruka smiled. “What Anko means is … talk to her. Tell her how important she and your relationship are to you. If you are honest, she’ll understand.”

“And if the words won’t come right, drop her a really, really long wet one, then get on your knees and beg. That usually works,” Anko grinned. Naruto blushed and looked down, but the lost and desolate look had left his face somewhat.


“But … she won’t speak to me… how am I going to tell her that if she won’t even see me?” he asked sadly.

“Are you a ninja or your haven’t your balls dropped yet?” Anko said in disapproval. “You’re friends with some of her friends, no? Ask them for some help! Or just sneak into her room. I heard all about your pranks, gaki, so don’t pretend you can’t do something that simple.”

“But… it’s the Hyuuga house,” Naruto choked. “There’s…there’s her dad in there!”

Iruka smothered a laugh as Anko threw her hands in the air and muttered about ‘dropping’ and ‘lack of’, but he quickly squeezed the boy’s shoulder in comfort. “Don’t worry, Naruto,” he said gently when blue eyes looked up at him. “You’ll do fine. This is important to you, so I know that you will succeed.”

Naruto looked at him for some moments longer, then he nodded. Putting his mug down on the glass table, he made to stand before Iruka stopped him. “Where are you going?”

“I have to do this,” he replied. “I have to report to Baa-chan first thing tomorrow, and if she sends me back on the field, I won’t see her, maybe for weeks, and …”

“Just be careful,” he said, patting his shoulder one last time before letting his arm slip off the boy. Naruto stood up and looked back at both his old teacher and Anko. “And remember Naruto, whichever way it goes tonight…come back here if you want, ok? There’s a spare bedroom you can crash in. You don’t have to be alone.”

Naruto’s eyes darted between them, but he swallowed thickly three times, and then nodded. Without another word, he gave both of them a wobbly smile, and then let himself out.

“Damnit Iruka, you protect him too much,” Anko growled. “He’s got it so bad he’s bent out of shape all the way to next Tuesday on something as stupid as an argument.”

“It’s his first one, give him some time,” he replied with a sigh as she sidled up to him, mug in hand.

“Where we that bad at their age?” Anko asked tiredly. Iruka shook his head, throwing an arm around her.

“I don’t know. I didn’t know you back then. I bet you were the same hellion you are now.” He chuckled as she punched his ribs gently, then sighed. “I hope they sort it out.”

“Me too,” Anko said. “He’s almost more broken up than that time the old pervert nearly kicked it.”

Iruka could only nod worriedly, and send prayers up to every deity he knew to take care of his wayward young boy.

.o0o.

Hanzu smiled dimly as looked up into the light drizzle that was characterising this entire week. He was so proud of his sons; he’d spied Haru again, going through the seventeenth set on his own in the farthest most part of the compound. While the older twin brother was a natural at the style, it was Haru’s accomplishments and determination that made Hanzu feel that he was slightly entitled to having a lighter step.

It made these uncomfortable and chilled hours worthwhile, if only to watch his boys grow. None of the other clan members really favoured night guard duties at the gates, but he had opted for it as often as he could. While some of the morning was stolen by rest, it left him with the rest of the day to dedicate to his family.

Tonight, though, he definitely needed the memories of his sons’ capers to keep him company. Koh’s confidence yesterday had troubled him.

Koh’s words stuck with him: several times, he and Umeko-chan had quarrelled to the point of tears; sometimes hers, sometimes his. No one had run a cart and horse between them, however, and they had spoken and made up as soon as they had calmed down. Uzumaki-kun, apparently, had been trying to meet Hinata-sama and entreaty such a make up since their quarrel, but had been prevented. Hinata-sama’s lack of movement from the clan compound was worrying, but not more so than her progressive wilting as the days went by.

A slight noise and movement on the right side of the wall surrounding the compound caught his attention, and he was immediately alert. His byakugan flared, and the darkness of the night gave way to sharp and focused grey-tinged vision. There, upon the wall’s tiling, was the crouched figure of a boy; black hair, slender figure, unknown features, but Hyuuga eyes, and Hanzu knew who it was at once. They had all been informed that their ‘guest from the Capital Branch’ resembled the Fourth vaguely, but even without that, by the fire in the boy’s eyes alone, he would have recognised Uzumaki Naruto. Or he hoped he would have. As it was, Hanzu made no move. Uzumaki-kun paused and looked him in the eyes, and Hanzu gave a brief nod towards Hinata-sama’s room. The boy’s eyes widened slightly, but a small determined smile appeared on his lips. He hugged a small parcel to him before leaping away.

Hanzu shook his head, and hoped that he wasn’t making a mistake. The boy had seemed on edge, nervous; sleepless also if the marks under his eyes spoke of anything. He had come with a gift again, as he had every day, but this time they didn’t seem to be flowers.

It was a pity, Hanzu couldn’t help but think. Hinata-sama adored white lilies.

.o0o.

A light rain picked up again as Naruto dashed across Konoha’s sleeping rooftops, but he gave it no mind even as it plastered his hair to his face. There was only one thought in his head, and that was to get to Hinata-chan as soon as possible. He’d get in this time; he didn’t care if he had to go through the entire Hyuuga clan to do it, he’d see her.

The only thought of setting eyes on her made a bittersweet feeling go through him. He wanted to see her so badly, maybe hug her and bury his nose in her hair if he could. He hadn’t realised how much he had enjoyed doing those things until the last two weeks. But the doubt about the reception of his advances, a doubt that had never really been there before, and it made him almost as nervous as he was determined.

Still, he was Uzumaki Naruto, future Hokage of Konoha. If he had to face Hiashi himself to see her for five minutes, then he would. He needed to see her; he had to explain, had to make her understand that … he needed her. He wanted her beside him as often as possible, wanted to spend every moment of the day with her. He would open his eyes, and she’d be by his side. And he didn’t want anyone else for the job, either; he didn’t know when it had happened, but his stubborn head (and the fox, for some utterly obscure reason) had decided that it was her, or no one else.

He didn’t have time to dwell on his feelings, they were such a jumble anyway that he didn’t know whether he could have made heads or tails of them if he tried. Driving through the rain at a blinding speed, the tried not to slip on the wet roofing when he suddenly veered left, remembering something in his apartment that really had to be picked up.

He couldn’t present himself empty handed, he just couldn’t. So as he landed in front of his door, he fished out the keys from his sopping pants and ran into his house without even bothering to remove his sandals. There was no time for that, and he could always clean up tomorrow. Running into his bedroom, he quickly located the many borrowed outfits hanging in the closet and zeroed in on them.

He riffled through the pockets with clumsy and impatient fingers, turning out pockets and shaking shirts of every single outfit he’d been given as property of Hyuuga Hagane. Every single get up looked the same to him: bland, boring and austere (these were Neiji’s cast-offs, he just knew it). He was becoming frustrated by the time he ended up with only two trousers and one vest to inspect. Finally, his hand came out of a pocket holding the flower seeds he’d brought for her from Ma. With a last quick stop in the kitchen, he was out the door before he could even think about anything else than getting to the Hyuuga house.

Trepidation got a hold of him the moment he landed on the surrounding wall. Idiot! He’d meant to be stealthy and quiet, to try to sneak in and escape notice, but he’d landed on the compound wall right on a loose toggle, and it had made enough noise to alert the guard.

Much to his surprise, the only thing the gate guard did was nod him towards the compound, and if he wasn’t much mistaken, towards the direction in which he remembered Hinata-chan’s room had been. He’d only been here once, and had been brought to her room only due to the fact that he had been with two other people – both female and both well-known to the Hyuuga family enough to be able to garner a good enough chaperon duty. However, he remembered exactly where her room was, and what view she’d had from the shoji she’d had opened into the garden, or the window on the left side of the room. She always kept that window open, she’d said, and he’d entertained a short fantasy for some weeks that it had been a quiet invitation on her part before forgetting about it completely. Now he remembered very well, and was about to take her up on the offer.

He moved around the grounds surreptitiously. He was Hyuuga, at least at the moment, and if he was spotted while he was here, a behaviour that was not furtive might be able to let him pass, and not start an alarm if he was fast enough to avoid the second glance.

Even in the dim light, he could clearly see the lilac bush he’d spotted outside her room the day he’d visited. His eyes were nothing to the all-seeing byakugan, but he could see well enough for himself, with all the night-time training they had done in the academy to get a good night vision. Even if he had the illusion of Hyuuga eyes at the moment, he didn’t have the actual doujutsu and was doubly indebted to his Iruka-sensei. It would have been horrible to get in, and then not find her room.

His heart gave a leap when he saw that the window was indeed open. He sidled up to the building, seeing that the light was off inside, and for a moment wondered: what if she was on a night shift? What if he’d come here for nothing? But no - if she wasn’t in her room, it was too late for her to be anywhere but in the hospital on a shift, and if that was the case, he’d just know where to head next. No amount of nurses or doctors would stop him. He’d talk to Hinata-chan tonight and get her back, even if he had mow down everyone in his way to do that.

Making as little noise as possible (he was a ninja), he scrambled up through the open window, landing on the tatami with barely a ‘crunch’. He felt slightly guilty for being in her room with shoes on and slipped them off, leaving them underneath the open space. His naked feet were even more silent against the reed mats, and he tiptoed towards the bedding he saw spread.

He hadn’t made three paces before cold steel pressed against his throat.

“Who are you,” hissed a voice, “and what are you doing in my room.”

A huge ball formed in his throat the moment he heard her voice, and he wasn’t able to answer immediately. He hadn’t been able to hear her speak in two weeks, and he hadn’t realized how much he missed her voice. Swallowing it down when the steel against his neck pressed harder, he croaked out, “Check with your byakugan, it’s me, Hinata-c-chan.”

She moved away from him instantly, and he cursed himself for hesitating. In that one moment, he’d been struck by the thought; did he have the right to call her that anymore?

The lights in the room came on, and he blinked in the sudden glamour that illuminated the room he remembered visiting. The futon was unmade, meaning that she’d been in it, and he felt slightly guilty. But, it did not make him regret his coming here when his eyes landed on her.

She was wearing a normal pajama set with trousers and a shirt, both in a light lilac colour that almost matched her habitual coat. Her hair was slightly ruffled, and the kunai gleamed coldly in her hands. Her eyes were looking at him with an unreadable expression, and she was stiff and alert. But damn, she was so beautiful.

Feeling his cheeks flame at the thought, he looked away, suddenly at a loss for what to say. In his mad dash to get here, he’d imagined a thousand scenarios and in all of them he’d had to fight his way in, and prove on the way just how desperately he needed her. He’d never expected to get in so scot-free, nor so easily. He raised his hand to scratch his cheek, still feeling so odd at the lack of indentions, and realized… perhaps, he should remove a layer of the special henge? He didn’t want her to look into false eyes when they spoke. He wanted her too look at him.

With a quick ‘kai’, the illusion of all-seeing eyes was dispelled, and he looked up to see her looking at him with a riveted expression. She hadn’t said anything yet, though neither had he, but looking at her now, he just wished he could walk across the room and hug her. The urge was almost overpowering, so he looked down at his hands instead.

“I … I brought you this,” he said awkwardly, holding out the bento box she had left him, so long ago, in front of his door. Her eyes got wide and he smiled lightly at her, something that she returned with an unsure quirk of her lips. “I’ve had it for some time, and I kept forgetting to give it back … it reminded me of you.”

She didn’t step forward to take the box.

“How did you know it was me?” she asked quietly. He remained with his hand held out as he spoke.

“Who else would care enough to leave me a warm meal on my doorstep instead of just yelling at me to eat better?” he asked quietly. He cocked his head to the side to try to see her face better when she looked down. Outside, the rain picked up more, larger droplets making a cacophony of tapping noises against the stone, grass and wood of the house. She still didn’t answer him, nor did she step forward, and his heart began to beat even more heavily in his chest.

Unable to bear the silence any longer, Naruto choked out, “I missed you.”

She looked up at him then, seeming almost startled as some thunder grumbled outside. She bit her lip, her eyes seeming to search his face, and he tried with all his might to make his foreign features communicate just what he was feeling. He needed her, she had to understand that.

Opening her mouth to answer him, both of them jumped when there was a knock on her door, and a male voice called out her name. Looking at each other rather frantically, Naruto quickly retreated towards the window, hopping over his discarded sandals and hiding behind the curtain.

He didn’t hear who it was or what they’d asked beyond the first sentence, because the moment he stepped between the window and chest of drawers, something sharp and altogether unpleasant dug into his sole, and he had to bite his tongue to avoid hissing loudly. Looking down and bringing his foot up, he found a glass sliver in his skin, and several more in the tight space he inhibited.

Puzzled, he followed the trail of shards until his eyes fell on half a frame that was peeping between the inside and outside of the curtain. The glass was obviously originally protecting the photo, but when he peered a little better, he froze.

He immediately recognized Hinata-chan, looking beautiful in her lovely red kimono. Then there was a sleeve of his blue outfit, and right through his face was a kunai buried through to the hilt.

The pain in his foot was forgotten as a ball lodged in his throat again and his chest sunk inwards. Whether Hinata-chan had done this during a moment of rage he didn’t know, but the image hurt and disturbed him in a way that he didn’t think possible. That someone who loved him would do this…

Before another second passed by, he was rushing blindly out the window and into the rain again.

.o0o.

Hinata shut the door on Neiji-niisan with a resolute snap. He had the worse timing possible! She just couldn’t believe it – Naruto-kun had been there, right there! She could have reached a hand out and touched him, and what did Neiji-niisan do? See her light on in her room and come to knock. Yes, he cared and wanted to know if she was ok, and if she’d had another terrible nightmare like the night before, but that was not the point. Naruto had been there, and had said he missed her!

She hurried across the room, flinging the curtain away form the wall with so many words on her lips. She wanted to apologise, say she’d missed him too, say she didn’t mean anything and that he should forget her question; she could be second best, she could and would take the scraps. Her heart had been so empty these past weeks she couldn’t bear it any more.

She blinked at the empty space, and her excitement drained out of her as though she’d been pricked by a pin. The curtain fluttered in her hand, and she felt desolately sure for a moment that she’d dreamed it all up.

Then she caught sight of a pair of dirty sandals standing right there beside her foot. They were much too big to belong to her, not to mention the wrong style, and Naruto was the one who wore black sandals. He’d been barefoot, she remembered.

Bending down to pick them up, she noticed something gleaming on the tatami beside them. Following the glass shards, she was slightly startled to see blood stains on the mat, and quickly looked out the window. He’d been hurt with the glass; no wonder he’d left so quickly! Feeling horridly guilty, she bent down to start picking up the shards when she realized; what on earth where they doing there, and where had they come from?

Her first thought was the window, but shutting it to check proved that all the panes were intact. Looking about the floor, then, she saw the exact same thing Naruto had, and her insides went cold.

She’d looked for that frame frantically all day. She’d spent so much time looking at it that she’d immediately noticed that it was missing the moment she’d returned from the hospital that afternoon. When asking Horyuki, who had been on duty to clean her room, he’d said he knew nothing of it. So she’d gone through the room a thousand times, and then another hundred, but it was not in the drawers, not among her bedding, not with her clothing. Not in the boxes where she kept her most precious things, not on the ground around the chest of drawers, nor around her desk. She’d never remembered to look back here; she came here so seldom, and rarely ever closed that window, so she’d forgotten about this little space completely.

She picked the frame up gingerly, her hand almost trembling as she saw what had been done to it. The steel kunai gleamed in her room’s light, buried to the hilt into the photo. It was a bit off-centre of Naruto’s face, but still obscured most of it. Only one lovely blue eye remained of the two, and the rest of most of his face had been utterly destroyed.

Hinata looked helplessly at the window, agitation taking hold of her as she looked into the rain beating on the panes. Had he seen this? And if he had … oh, what must he be thinking?

She stepped back, and her foot hit something and sent it skittering across the mats. Pushing the cumbersome, billowing curtain away, she found the blue bento box Naruto had presented her with. Kneeling down, she picked it up and was surprised by its weight. Prying it open, she blinked down at a small bag made out of a strange cloth she’d never seen before.

Taking the bag out, she opened the string at the top and nudged some of its content into her hand to see what looked like tiny white and grey flower seeds. A small note shook out with them, and she let everything fall into the bento’s bottom in order to reach for it.

‘Ma’s toad wart flowers from Mt Myouboku; they make pretty flowers I know you’ll like! Managed to wrangle some from her for you, because I know you love gardening. Love, Naruto,’ it said.

Putting the note down, Hinata stared blankly at the seeds. She closed her eyes tiredly, and let her body slump forward to rest her eyes against the heel of her hands. Her heart was beating quickly in her confusion and agitation, but all she could feel were worry, frustration, and a bone-deep weariness that was not allowing her to think.

Putting everything back in the box, she could not help but look longingly at the window, but the horrid image of the kunai buried into the frame haunted her thoughts a lot more steadily. Was it a message left by Hanzou-sama for her to eventually find? Was this his way of telling her that he was going to disregard her warning of the Daimyo’s favour and protection of Konoha’s jinchuuriki, and make an open attack if she insisted on being with him in the future?

Was that even a possibility anymore, she couldn’t help but ask herself. A part of her felt slightly giddy, and though she tried to stop it, hope bubbled up in her again. He had come here, sought her out after so long, and told her he’d missed her. His voice … he’d sounded so sad that her chest felt tight at the memory. If Neiji-niisan hadn’t come, perhaps…

She shook her head. The worry and fear that rose in her on the matter of the vandalized photo almost drowned out her other feelings. She would need to speak with her sister and cousin about this tomorrow. If Hanzou-sama could possibly be behind it, then the situation was a lot more serious than they thought. And though, perhaps, tonight had proven that Naruto-kun had at least some affection left for her, he had seen that frame and left. She feared to imagine what he would have thought upon seeing it in her room.

So Hinata closed the bento box, brought both it and the damaged frame to her bedding and let her weary body lie down. Between the new fears and pains that were now plaguing her, she knew that she was facing another sleepless night. Yet, her body was so exhausted from lack of sleep and food that half an hour of anxiety and worry later, she had fallen into a dreamless sleep.

.o0o.

He noticed by Baa-chan’s startled expression that he must look frightful; there was no way she could look that startled because he’d come through the window. Nearly all shinobi who were worth their salt did that when she had summoned them in a covert manner. And, while it was fairly obvious that he had to visit her office because his medical leave had expired, it was also obvious that no one knew his medical leave had expired. So it made sense that she’d written a small ‘come quietly, gaki,’ at the bottom of the note she’d sent two days ago.

She wasn’t to know that he’d spent the night out, sitting on the stone head of his father in the rain, and had then watched the sun come up over the village. There was really no reason for her to know that he now felt even more listless and despondent than before, and that he didn’t really care where she sent him: out to the front lines again, wearing his face or not; or maybe undercover somewhere, possibly on a mission that lasted months, he’d prefer it.

The image of that kunai through his photo had haunted him all night. So much hate and rage in that gesture, so much animosity. To think that Hinata-c… Hinata’s hands may have done that made him feel lonely in a way that had been missing from his life since Iruka-sensei had taken him under his wing at the academy.

So he stood there staring stonily at his Hokage, the perfect picture of a Hyuuga, and waited for her to get on with what she’d told him to come here for.

“You’re dripping all over my carpet,” were the first words out of her mouth, “and I don’t appreciate it. That will only make it stink, and I have to live in here, brat.”

His temper frayed, but he held his tongue and simply crossed his arms to glare at her eloquently. She glared right back, but put down her brush and sigil to lean back into the chair.

“What the heck are you doing here?” she asked, and Naruto almost gave in to the urge of banging his head.

“My medical leave, you senile old hag!” he said, slapping his forehead instead. He was nailed by her sigil five milliseconds later. “OW!”

“Moderate the language, gaki! Remember who you’re speaking to!”

“A senile old hag,” he reiterated savagely, and she stopped short in response. He realized that he wasn’t phrasing it jokingly or petulantly, but in a furious voice that was born of his frustration and pain with other things. Evidently, even though he felt numb on the inside now, as opposed to the maddening emotions of last night, they weren’t too far from the surface.

“Sorry,” he apologized.

“What’s crawled up your ass, kid,” the Hokage asked, and though her language was casual, Naruto knew that she was expecting a speedy and truthful answer. Bending down to pick up her sigil (and hoping that he didn’t have her mark on his forehead, at least), he fiddled around with the cylindrical wooden device before he muttered.

“I just hate sitting still,” he lied. While it wasn’t a complete falsehood, there wasn’t much to idleness that he could attribute his fluctuating emotions. However, he preferred not thinking about it. If he thought, he’d have to think about tomorrow, and if he did, he’d have to think about her not being in it, which was…

Ok, he was getting pathetic now, and needed to get a grip. And shut up, you stupid fox; you weren’t any better, so get off your soap box. It was an expression, you stupid, furry, corrupted chakra-

“Pull the other one,” Tsunade said with a growl. Then she massaged her nose bridge and sighed, seeming to diminish. For a moment, even through the genjutsu, Naruto saw all her years bearing down on her shoulders heavily, and he felt horrible for needlessly snapping at her.

Forgetting everything else – rather too willingly – he walked around her desk and rested against its ledge beside her, reaching out to clasp her shoulder.

Baa-chan?” he asked quietly.

“I’m sorry too,” she said in a tired sigh. “I guess we’re just two stubborn mules, taking it out on each other. So, business.” She looked up at him then, with the steely eyes he was used to. He smirked back. “Alright, gaki, I’m going to be short and sweet about this; I have a mission for you, and I need you to be in tip-top shape for it. None of this running around in the rain anymore for the rest of the week, you get me?”

“Roger,” he replied, then paused. “Week?”

“Yes, this is …” she paused, leaning back into the chair and threading her fingers against her lips. “I will be honest with you, gaki. This isn’t going to be a twelve sen mission. There are several things on the line and … months of work.”

Naruto stood immediately straighter. This must be what Sakura-chan had been speaking of that one time. She’d let it slip, indicating that there was something major in the works that he did not know of. This must be it, and this mission he was going to be sent on would probably the culmination of those plans.

“Ok, granny, just shoot it at me. You know I can take anything.” Her face remained sober, even though his bluster had never failed to bring out a smirk from her before. This sobered him up too; it was that bad, huh? Well, if he was going to die out there someday, he could think of no better way to go than for Konoha, on an important assignment.

I beg to differ, brat

I’m the one in control of the body, so your argument is invalid.

Ignoring the subsequent growls and threats, Naruto looked his Hokage straight in the eyes.

“Tell me,” he told her. To his surprise, she shook his head.

“Not here, not now. Walls have ears, even the ones in this office are not to be trusted. You will receive a debriefing of an extremely covert nature and the least thing any shinobi would expect. All you will have to know for now is that you must be ready to go by the end of the week. Leave nothing to chance, pack anything you think you will need, but nothing shinobi must be in your appearance when you present yourself at the gates. This will be a covert mission of ANBU level, and all who will go may not come back.”

He nodded solemnly, staring at the wall.

“Who will I go with?”

“Still classified. You will receive everything in one parcel. It will be something only you will be able to read, as will be all the info sent out to the others.” He smirked at her, looking down at his thumbs. A little vampiric paper was going to be involved, wasn’t it? That nickname to Tsunade’s new security measures had sprouted as a drunken joke in a bar one night, but it had stuck. He owed the fox the minor favour of not having a perennially scarred thumb; besides summoning, getting around the village at all had grown to require an insane amount of blood. The testing papers recognized DNA, blood freshness, sample tissue remnants and even the weapon – or tooth – with which the wound had been made.

“This is do or die, huh?” he muttered, still staring out behind her desk sightlessly.

“Might still be do and die, brat. But in all honesty… we need you there. And though the risk is high, it is not the highest.” She turned her chair until she was facing a window, staring out at it. “Some of the missions you decided to dive into when I threw you at the front lines might have been of an even higher rank than this when it came to the danger of losing your head on the way.”

“Then why the hype around this one, baa-chan?” he asked quietly, and turned to look her in the eye. She blinked, and he realized it was because he was staring at her with his own eyes in another person’s face. After last night, he couldn’t bring himself to put the Hyuuga eyes back on; just seeing their reflection made his stomach lurch.

“Because there are certain details about this one that are going to be pivotal to the war, gaki,” she replied in just as quiet a voice. Her hand rose then, and he stiffened in surprise when she ran her hand up his cheek and into his hair to caress it softly. “After that, I think you’ll be able to drop this horrid disguise. I won’t ever repeat this, but I’ve missed your stupid face these last weeks.”

As startled as he was, as cold, numb and hurt as he was at that moment, he couldn’t help the wide smile that spread on his face. Tsunade’s touch became a tad more rough – and therefore more normal – when she ruffled his wet mop hard.

“Now orders are: get rested, get showered, and get packing. I want you in full order and ready to hit things hard by the end of the week. You will receive your information as outlined, and you are to memorize the information and then destroy it as per usual modus operandi. That clear?”

“Clear,” he said crisply. Before he could move away, one of her hands clasped his arm, and she splatted the other one on his chest with excessive strength, making him oof. She smirked at him when he threw a scowl her way, but then turned her attention to her glowing hand.

It was always a very strange and yet relaxing experience when baa-chan gave him a medical once-over. Unlike Sakura-chan’s energy, which sometimes felt forcefully intrusive, or Shizune-nee’s techniques that were mostly neutral and placid, there was something in Tsunade’s chakra that he sometimes felt almost complemented his own, and even when he could feel her push and probe at his insides like he would poke a steak, he never did quite feel uncomfortable. Rather the opposite; he always just closed his eyes and allowed himself to relax, because his body would unvaryingly decide that her chakra flowing through him meant that it was nap time. He didn’t know whether it was because she was the medical genius that everyone knew her to be, or whether it was that she made sure her didn’t ruffle a body’s feathers while she inspected it, but in his experience, she was the only one who could do it.

“Hmm, still have the all-clear to train a bit, but you need to rest.” She looked up at him with a rather confused scowl. “Have you been sleeping?”

“I’ve been restless,” he replied evasively, turning to look out the same window she’d peeked through earlier.

“Well then, now you know you’re going to be deployed soon, so none of that,” she admonished lightly. “And if you’ve been keeping your little Hyuuga girl up at night because her father’s away, keep that to a limit this week too, eh? I don’t want one of my operative kunoichi out of commission due to pregnancy, got it?”

She’d been joking, of course, and it showed more than anything else that she wasn’t in the know of what had occurred in the past week with Hinata. He didn’t really have time to be surprised, or suspicious of the Owl ANBU operative for not telling her, because all his energy had to be redirected towards keeping a straight face, and keeping the sudden stab of pain off his features. As it was, he knew something must have shown, and from the tingling in his cheeks, it must have been the colour on his face that had vanished down into his shoes, because Tsunade’s sharp eyes caught the shift immediately.

“She didn’t forget her shot, did she? Because if she did, Hiashi will have to get in line to kill you.” He pulled a smirk, and gave her a grin that didn’t leave her too convinced from what he saw, but he allowed himself to rub the back of his head.

“We … it’s not like that between us, baa-chan,” he told her. It’s nothing at all, he couldn’t help but think.

And who’s fault is that? Came a fierce growl. So many times that I told you: stake your claim, do what needed to be done. She grew tired of waiting, and now she is lost. Moron.

He had to resist the urge to snarl in return, and yet a spark flew in his head at that moment… the Kyuubi was a moron (fuck you, human!) but somehow, his gut leapt up in response to its statement, as though it hit a truth he was not consciously seeing, and that dig had unearthed. Could it possibly be that…

“Ok kid, I’ll take your word for it. We both know that this is going to be one of those missions. You may not see her again. And even though you haven’t been the responsibility of the Hokage’s office since you took your headband, as far as I’m concerned, you’re still under my thumb, and what I say goes.” Her expressions dissolved into a smirk. “So unless she’s got any objections, nail her, eh?”

He didn’t have to pretend to blush at her statement, looking at her with his mouth agape… what? Tsunade just burst out laughing and clapped him on the shoulder.

“Shoo, kid. These are the papers for Shizune, go to the hospital for the all clear. Now vanish,” she told him, pushing him off her desk and almost making him topple over, a bound sheaf unceremoniously thrown his way. The surprise at her statement began to ebb, and fresh pain began to rise in its place. Obviously, she really didn’t know what had been happening these last weeks. Maybe his ANBU babysitter had considered it a minor and private affair that her busy schedule could do without. In a way, he was grateful; it was one thing less for her to worry about. In another, he really wished she knew; her little jokes and digs were hitting very tender flesh. “Remember: rest, pack, be on the look out for the info. Spend time with her but be careful not to blow the cover. And put the eyes back on.”

Reluctantly, he obeyed.

“Try not to die, eh? I’ll see you before you leave.”

“I can’t die before I reach my goal,” he said jokingly, conscious of her earlier statement of walls having ears. She seemed to have understood anyway. She smirked back at him.

“You do that. After this war, this village is going to need something like that attitude, and I’m going to be too old to take on that challenge too. So be ready kid.” She gave him a positively wicked smile. “Mountains of never-ending paper work await you on the horizon.”

With a groan, he let himself out of the window and back into the drizzling rain. Jumping from roof to roof, he let his various emotions wash over him. Pain and loss: he had lost something immensely precious last night that he hadn’t realized he’d been building everything around. Rage and impatience: those were just there, and possibly products of frustration, and of the pain itself. He didn’t know, and didn’t care to look too hard. Joy and elation: baa-chan had all but said that he’d be her next successor. They had joked about it before, but it had never been said like that. Maybe, if he survived this mission, he’d be one step closer.

Without Hinata-chan, there was really nothing left around him, he’d discovered that morning, but his beloved village in general. Maybe this was a dark spot in a long line of blots, he decided, stopping to look at the sun, which was still fairly low in the sky. But he had to look forward, and try to move on.

Fresh pain hit him full force when he thought of the lost intimacy and dashed hopes he’d seriously begun entertaining when thinking of his future. He tried to suppress it without success. It left him breathless, but he still stood straight, on someone’s toggled rooftop looking at the sun rise progressively higher over Konoha.

He’d been through a lot of shit in his life, not least of which was the Kyuubi (shit is what was given to you by your fellow humans, do no blame me for what is their fault), and he’d come through. He’d do it again.

More than anything (and not helped by the stupid fox’s jeers), he needed to convince himself of that.

.o0o.

Hanzou walked down the corridors of his ancestral home without looking left or right; he didn’t need to, and they all knew it. All the servants and lesser branch members moved as he passed, and he paid them no mind. His thoughts were elsewhere.

He had just finished paying another successful visit to the young Hinata. She was crumbling under his very eyes, he could see it clearly every time he spoke to her. Her eyes were blood-shot, with bags beneath that belied sleepless nights and troubled days. She seldom left the compound, and was perennially with the children about her. When she was not in the house, she was in the hospital.

He had sent some of his own there to make sure. And yes, she did visit that room. They, of course, could not enter; the security around that one room in the Konoha Hospital was enough to make him raise a brow. He knew, of course, that the boy was one of their enemy’s main targets, and that, as powerful as he was, there was no measure that could be excessive to obtain his preferred scenario.

And yet, he knew that the move was also due to the special regard the boy had on their Hokage’s behalf. It made him want to frown and swear, but he knew the reaction was fruitless.

He had even less reason to now. He had finally managed to locate the living quarters of a very important member of the clan, and, he had to congratulate the young Hinata on her intelligence and ingenuity. He was in the last possible place he would have thought of. Thus he had lost precious time searching thanks to her, the uncooperative dogs of the branch house and the trice -damned Hokage’s constant summons.

But now he knew, and nothing would stand in his way. With his only real worry lying in the hospital on his deathbed, he could now act. And if this did not go to port … no matter. His trap would snap when she least expected it; and then there would be nothing anyone could do.

.o0o.

The volley of kunai aimed straight for her face, and Hinata swore floridly in an uncharacteristically loud voice. She tumbled backwards, her specialized chakra hold letting go of her prey. She rolled to her feet an instant later, but it was already too late. Her quarry took the occasion to let loose another set of traps, and she spent the next quarter hour dodging all manner of steel and blade.

But she was not to be out done; she had been the partner of an Inuzuka for years, and she had taken on some of their traits unconsciously. No prey escaped, and once a target was in sight, fangs would sink in and not relent until all movement stopped.

Flinging her hands forward again, her fingers pressed tightly together on each hand and her latest discovery in the art of her modified gentle fist sprang to life. A long, thin line of chakra, shimmering blue only for today, whipped forward with deadly precision and speed that could scarce be followed, and anything it touched was seared instantly. No tenketsu was left open, no skin unscored, and if the unfortunate tree was in the way, its bark would either get crunched away, or a hole would appear right through it.

Going through her basic footwork while she launched her deadly projectiles, she had no mercy and took no prisoners in her quest to capture her quarry. Even as she dodged new weapons and made her checkered path between the trees of the forest in which the fight was occurring, her eyes were blazing with her precision-famous eyes.

Finally, she had her cornered again. Letting one of her new weapons snake across the forest ground, she triggered what she had hidden in the leaves and under bush. She had expected the retaliation from her enemy, and even the counter trap, but she had been prepared for it, so by the the next half-second, her prey was hanging in what looked like an uncomfortable position in a blade-resistant net.

Gasping, with sweat plastering her hair to her face, she stood up straight and let her stance fall. Smiling up at her temporary rival, she chuckled when she was on the receiving end of a poked tongue.

“Point!” Hinata said sweetly. Tenten-neechan just laughed.

“You’re feeling better!” the elder girl said. “Ok, how do I get down?”

“Just cut the cord between the two leaves on the right,” Hinata answered, and Tenten promptly complied, vaulting while still in the netting in order to land safely. She untangled herself from it once she was on the ground and gave it back to Hinata. Equipment used in training was always repaired and used again in battle.

“That was a great work-out, thanks,” the other girl said, stretching and then pulling her foreign-styled clothing back down over her belly. Hinata couldn’t help but let her eyes fall there enviously. Tenten hadn’t told anyone save those who needed to know, but she and Neiji-niisan would soon begin to try for a child. Despite the war, they had decided that their time was too short, and while Tenten-neechan had been almost kept at home constantly with the desperate need the village had for her skills in the forge, Neiji-niisan had no such obligations tying him to base He was even now missing from the household with little to no word on his part save that he had been called for a mission.

“So, feeling any better?” Tenten-neechan asked again, throwing an arm around the shorter girl’s shoulder. Hinata only nodded absently. The thrill of the chase and the fight was over now, and her victory gave her little happiness that wasn’t completely transitory. She nodded and smiled, of course, but her cousin’s fiancée was not fooled.

“That was a lie again, right there,” the markswoman pointed out without mercy, and Hinata only sighed. Tenten-neechan rarely had any mercy when speaking to just about anyone.

In all honestly, Hinata just didn’t know what to say. Naruto’s sudden visit last nights had been such a bolt in blue skies that it had given her new hope. He’d sought her out, hadn’t he? And the way he’d looked at her when they had been together for that short while still plagued her mind. He’d looked almost like a starving man, and his eyes had been all over her at once, gauging her reactions and drinking her mannerisms like drought waited for rain.

But the matter of the frame in her room plagued her with equal amounts of fear. She had only showed it to four people, one of whom was here with her today. All had conquered; it was a message, left for her to eventually find in an out of the way place that would escape her notice initially, and would not excite the worry of her Branch Members. But it was one that she would find, and would understand.

So even as her heart urged her to go after him, go now, she was cautious in her thoughts, and even afraid. Hanzou-sama had not relented a moment in his torment of her. He found her when she taught the children, when she rested, when she trained. At least, she had had the satisfaction or tearing his robe the other day when he had been incautious and approached her while training without giving her due notice of his presence. More than anything, Hinata found herself wishing she’d lobbed his head off.

“I think you should go for it, old bone bag be damned,” Tenten said suddenly by her side, pulling her out of her reverie. Hinata looked at her worriedly, biting her lip. The markswoman probably knew that Hinata was getting desperate and, darn it, she only needed one tiny nudge to fly in the direction she thought he would be. Tenten-neechan didn’t need to instigate the part of her that was going slowly crazy with the absence of her beloved Naruto-kun in her life.

There was also to consider, her mind reminded her, what he had last seen in her room, what he must have thought was proof of her hatred for him. The longer she waited, the voice hissed, the more he’d be certain that that was exactly what he thought it was.

What if she waited too long? Was that what she wanted, to lose him because she had been a coward? Wasn’t she Hyuuga Hinata? Hadn’t she changed, become different, more bold, and less afraid?

She blinked when she realized that Tenten-neechan had been the one yelling at her, and that her thoughts hadn’t been only product of her conscious, which was still attacking her with sharp and pointy things as the hours went by.

Hinata looked down at her sandaled feet in thought, a thunderous frown on her face. It wasn’t only her indecision that was holding her! She was frightened, yes, scared sick that if she was seen approaching ‘Hyuuga Hagane’ it would set her grandfather off onto the path within which she would then be unable to stop him. She didn’t want him to start plans that would make everything she had ever loved explode in her face. Her grandfather had absolutely no idea who ‘Hagane’ was in reality.

Not to mention, he was under cover. His position was even more delicate and precarious as he was their enemy’s target. She couldn’t be selfish and bring a spotlight onto him of any kind. No one had to pay him special regard, and no unwanted attention had to surround him, even if it was simply him being at the centre of the gossipmongers of the village speculating on his relation with her. Because then he would be invariably connected to the other man in her life, the one who was ‘lying in the hospital bed’. And then, once there was a connection, it could not be erased.

More than anything, Hinata wished that Tsunade-sama had consulted her before assigning Naruto’s lineage and alias to him. There may have been something else they could do, someone else they could make him into, that wouldn’t complicate things so damn much.

Her mental tirade was interrupted by a nudge. Hinata started and looked up at Tenten-neechan, who nodded forward. Hinata looked front and came face to face with the porcelain mask of an ANBU operative.

Without a word, he extended a hand and presented her with a closed envelope. Taking it, Hinata watched as the figure disappeared with a rustle of the leaves on the undergrowth. Tenten-neechan moved away to allow her the privacy needed for her to view the possibly delicate information within the parcel.

As her eyes went over the information, she could feel the blood draining from her face. Her conscience began to scream as her heart rate picked up. She had just run out of time.

.o0o.

Naruto looked at the door to avoid looking at the dingy brown couch and the vending machine. So many memories in this corner… well, only one, really, but it carried all the weight in the world. A warm smile, a soft hand, hot ramen, and a sweet cinnamon roll, all wrapped together to form something precious.

His things for the mission had been ready yesterday. He’d gotten used to living out of the sack from his life with Jiraiya, so even when he was taking it slow in order to prolong the task, it had only taken him half a morning to put his bag together. He’d straggled for much of the rest of the day, taking himself to the training grounds farthest from Konoha – and the one with the tree – to get himself back in shape and destroy a little bit of nature. He’d been lucky enough to have Gamakichi teach him a few of the moves that the young toad himself had just learned, thus making him so thoroughly exhausted that when he dragged himself home, all he could think of was sleep.

This morning had dawned bright and cheery, however. This ticked him off directly; right off the bat first thing in the morning, he was flinging shoes and bed-socks at stupid, loud, morning-people birds that really didn’t know when the friggin’ heck to shut up. Then he’d gone down into the apartment yard, picked it all up and did it all again.

Having woken up early, he had ample time to think about what had been happening lately, to look at his undone bed and plod down the corridor (barefoot, because he’d nailed a stupid sparrow with his bed slippers) and shudder despondently at his cold shower. He’d forgotten to put the water heater on last night, and no one had come around to flick it on this morning.

No one had come to make him breakfast, either. He didn’t think about that, though, because otherwise he’d have to look into the kitchen, and that would mean seeing it empty, and that would be bad. After the first day of him realizing that it was ‘over’, as he’d heard other people say, he’d settled into a sort of numb routine where he avoided anything and everything that reminded him of her. Unfortunately for him, that included Ichiraku’s. Their relationship had essentially started at the ramen stand, and every time his feet had automatically taken the rest of him that way when his stomach sent them a memo, he’d found that his hand was too heavy to open the wood and paper doors.

For now, he told himself. Just a little while; after all, a man couldn’t live off instant ramen alone. Restaurant ramen had to be a good supplement sometimes.

He had grumbled his way into the hospital, the nurses staring at him funny when he’d arrived an hour early for his physical and check up which gave him the official all clear, where usually he might had loitered or been slightly late. Though he hadn’t caught the Kakashi, he liked being poked and prodded as much as your next bloke. Then he remembered that he didn’t look like himself or have his own name on the file at all, and so he grumbled some more at the stupid nurses who had to look at him funny even when he wasn’t ‘the Kyuubi kid’.

At least with himself, he’d acknowledged the fact that he needed to distract himself and be outdoors as much as possible – and that he was an idiot for not having kept the bento. Sure, it may have turned him into a blubbering idiot again later tonight, but at least, he would have had a keepsake. Sure, he had the radio... but it wasn’t the same. He’d eaten all the food she’d left behind, and the bottles of soaps and shampoos would eventually finish. Feeling rather foolish and silly for having such conflicting thoughts, a part of him wanting to hoard the memories, and another wanting to push them back, curl up and groan, he’d decided - what better time to go see that son of a bitch? He needed distraction from his current predicament, and Mr Personality was the perfect company he felt like right now.

So here he was, looking at the stupid normal-acting door, breathing in and out and cursing. Why the hell had he forgotten what had happened here?! That couch right there had been his wake-up call, a place he’d remembered fondly for months and months. Now, he was back here with less than pleasant feelings, so even this one sweet memory was ruined.

That made him happy too, of course. Like popping bones back in place and having a tooth filled made him happy.

Deciding that enough was enough, (and having decided that, honestly, he would already never live down the trip he’d taken once to cry all over his old teacher’s shoulder. His ego would never survive another), he just put a hand on the door and turned the knob. The vampire knob they’d just installed – why couldn’t Tsunade’s thrice-damned devices test for chakra instead of blood? - took a bite from his palm and then let him through.

The room was still dark, green and bleepy. The main difference now was that the primary resident was there to enjoy it, instead of forcing his worried visitors to stare at him taking his sweet time to awaken. Thus it was that Naruto found himself staring at black beady eyes that followed his movements steadily. Huffing and closing the door behind him, he looked down and tracked his way towards the space by the bed.

Now that Sasuke was awake, there was at least a lampshade lit on the bedside table, leaving the area bathed in a pool of yellowish light. This did not necessary spell an improvement to the over-all nightmarish habitat of the room. The mirror on one side reflected the light in a glare, making the rest of the room look comparatively darker and greener, with the many devices seeming that much more sinister.

Sakura had told him that now, at least, Sasuke could read a book. That just made Naruto want to bang his head more; a book! Why did Sasuke always have to be the intellectually snobby guy who knew-it-all even when he was stuck in a hospital bed peeing in a pipe!

“You would be ‘Hyuuga Hagane’, I presume,” the hitherto silent man finally said, his voice bouncing around the room. It wasn’t that it was bare, because the machinery littering the place made it a labyrinth to navigate - and it wasn’t that it was silent - the damned bleepy-bleep made sure of that. It was just that it was probably built that way, like Hinata-c … Hinata had once told him that a cinema was built. To keep sounds in. Possibly to unnerve and annoy the heck out of its resident too, but that was a plus. At least the snob, smug bastard could have an eyebrow tick while he read his book.

“Yeah, what of it?” he grumbled. The only response he got was a raised brow, which did wonders to improve his mood. Tucking his hands into his pockets and hunching his shoulders, he made his way across the narrow spaces and passages that the machinery forced any visitors to navigate. Had he known better, he would have thought it was designed that way. Wait... it probably was.

With out another word, he plopped himself down on the chair close to the bed – the one Sakura-chan used every time she came here, he was sure – and looked at his lap with a frown.

Several minutes ticked by without either of them moving an inch.

“Sakura forced you to be here,” was the statement that followed after a few moments. Naruto almost jumped; since when was bastard-san talky? He’d hoped for a stretch of silence, a ‘so long’ and that’s that. Well, no, not really. That had been the idea that had formed in his head only a moment ago. He had no idea what he’d hoped to do by coming here.

So he answered. “More or less,” with a shrug, still looking away from the first person who had betrayed him completely, after he’d trusted him completely. There hadn’t even been another since this guy.

“I will inform Sakura that you came. There is no need for you to remain.”

Naruto’s brow twitched. “You see chains and shackles around my wrist? Or Sakura-chan anywhere? No; that’s because I’m here ‘cos I want to be, got it?” He finally turned to look at the guy who somewhere deep down, he still considered a friend. “And no offence to Sakura-chan, she may be strong as an ox, but she couldn’t drag me if she tried her hardest, if I didn’t want to go.”

The black haired boy looked at his companion with a nonplussed expression before he turned his head away. Naruto clenched his fists, looking down at his knees to hide his snarl. Sasuke always looked at him with that blank face, flat eyes and straight mouth.

What was Sakura-chan talking about, that the bastard had changed, and was getting better now? She was seeing the bloody sparkles in her own eyes, that’s what!

“Anyway, she said you wanted to see me, so here I am. Anything in particular you wanted to say?” Naruto said, reining his frustration in. He’d come here to see Sasuke, he realized, to blow off steam, and instead was irking himself more. What the heck was he doing here? Why did he bother? Why the hell had he let himself get hopefully and excited together with Sakura-chan? There wasn’t any progress in the man he saw in front of him. The same cold glare, the same hateful eyes. Sakura-chan was just lying to herself because she loved this idiot still, and that hurt Naruto so much.

It wasn’t even jealousy anymore, but some sort of feeling of camaraderie, of knowing where she was coming from. His recent problems with Hinata … maybe he too had blinded himself and seen what was not there. Yet it was different; she’d said she loved him, had really given him care and regard. Sakura-chan had never had a whit of that, and instead of letting go and moving on, Sasuke had just sunk the poison claws deeper into her heart.

And his anger grew further and further as these thoughts ran through his head. He remembered Hinata’s last question, and suddenly, it made a ton of sense. Here he was, thinking of how Sakura-chan was wasting her heart on this idiot, and what must have Hinata thought when he went off with another girl in an alley for hours, pretty much standing her up? He railed in his head for Sakura-chan’s sake, but what about Hinata? She’d seen herself, probably while sitting there looking all pretty (he winced when he remembered Anko’s description of what her feelings must have been), and decided he was a douchebag jerk who needed to hit the curb.

The thought made the blood pound harder in his head. Here was Sasuke, cool, arrogant asshole, spitting on Sakura-chan’s heart while she kept giving it, and he, Naruto, the idiot had damned done much the same thing! Only, in his case, there was no second shuffle, no round two. He’d made a mistake, yeah sure, but his Hinata was smart, his Hinata had taken one look at his douchebaggery and dumped his ass like he deserved!

So why! Why did this asshole keep getting chance after chance! Why did Sasuke get people like him, and Sakura-chan, who just couldn’t seem to let go, and yet he spit on it?!

“You really should leave if you do not want to be here. The room is going to smell of your angry sweat for hours, and in case you hadn’t realized, I live here, dobe.”

Naruto just exploded.

Faster than the eye could follow, his fist had made contact with Sasuke’s face, which snapped to the side and then slammed back against the bed when the momentum was halted by the several straps around his limbs.

“Don’t you DARE!” he roared, not even realizing that he was yelling, standing up and heaving huge breaths. “Don’t you fucking dare, you piece of goddamn shit, to call ME a last place idiot when you’ve fucked your life up so bad you couldn’t tell it from melted kunai!”

Blood was running down Sasuke’s lip, but Naruto didn’t care. Never before in his life had he hated anyone more. He hadn’t even felt that way when he’d come face to face with Nagato, who he knew had just murdered two of his teachers and most of his beloved village. But this guy – this… this dobe – had the nerve to call HIM an idiot when he’d gone about systematically wasting every little bit of happiness and care life gave him, and then, seeming just to spite other people like Naruto, life just went and continued giving him more.

“You fucking bastard,” he hissed hoarsely, looking at him with a trembling body. Suddenly, he couldn’t take it anymore and turned around, taking large breaths through his nose to try to control himself. The ball in his throat wouldn’t go away though, and neither would the tears in his eyes.

“Attacking me while I’m tied is low even for you, Naruto,” he said in the same fucking flat tone from behind him. Blind anger took over him once again, and his fist found the same cheek. Neck snapped in the same direction, but this time before it had turned around again, Naruto had released all the buckles on the strapping.

“Want to kill me, you flaming faggot?! Go ahead, do your worse, bitch!” Naruto hissed before turning to give the Uchiha his back again. The trembling in his body didn’t abate, and all his jumbled emotions rose up to choke him, anger mixing with hurt, regret, affection and hate. “You’re such an idiot, aniki…

.o0o.

To say that Sasuke was stunned was like saying that jumping in a lake of lava would make some burn blisters. Like a cruel joke, he looked at Naruto’s back – Naruto being definitely and recognizably himself to Sasuke – stiff, trembling with anger and rage, and he could have given anything to be someone else at that moment.

Since he’d gotten his chakra sealed, a lot of the things that he’d pushed back, repressed, or simply forgotten and ignored had begun to resurface. Anger, regret, pain, loss, love. For the first time in many, many years, he mourned. He mourned the loss of his family, his clan – his beloved brother, caught in the middle of a typhoon that he’d willingly allowed to sweep him away in exchanged for Itachi’s life.

He mourned properly; not through anger and hate, not through determination to stain his hands with everything and anything that got in his way. He mourned that they were gone, and so prematurely, and he hoped they looked upon him, and where not too ashamed.

He hoped, also, that they were ashamed: of themselves, of what they had brought down on themselves, and on him and his brother, who could have and would have lived their lives in Konoha as brothers and members of a prestigious clan. Their family hadn’t been perfect, but it had been home, and he had loved them as they loved him.

For years, he’d thought only of one thing; killing the man who had taken everything. Now, knowing the truth and in his right mind again, he could see that Itachi had done it himself years ago… when he’d wiped his blade in the coat of their father’s body.

And yet, he’d lived for decades under the shadow of that one older brother who he’d loved and adored, and who had turned to stab him in the back. The worse thing was… he’d had no real reason to hate Itachi. Naruto, on the other hand, had them all. He’d really betrayed Naruto and Konoha, he’d really refused to acknowledge him as a friend and equal when Naruto yearned for nothing more.

He’d really stabbed his hand right through his torso, once, twice. Tried to kill him in various and different ways, all while Naruto kept calling him a friend.

To hear himself being called ‘aniki’ … he understood, now. For years, he’d lived in Itachi’s shadow. For years, Naruto had chased after his.

He’d been tied to the bed for months. However, Tsunade was nothing if not thorough. He hadn’t been allowed to vegetate and atrophy. He’d had physicals under watchful ANBU eyes, stamina exercised under the Hokage’s own thumb.

So it was with all the grace and swiftness of his usual speed that his arms grabbed roughly onto Naruto’s neck and shoulders, wresting him back against his chest.

“You think you’re so much better than me?” he said, voice a growl. “We’ll see about that, stupid bastard!”

“Sasu-ck! Ack! Let go - ck-aachk!”

The hidden door on the left burst open and four ANBU poured in. Evidently, the observation glass that was on the room’s side had been in use.

What they saw stopped them short.

Naruto blinked up at them, eyes tired, puffy, and blue instead of Hyuuga. At least two of the ANBU, Sasuke idly noted, were not in the know of the jinchuuriki’s current disguise.

The Uchiha, meanwhile, did not pause in his activity for even an instant. After a frozen moment of surprise, this did not escape the other’s attention.

“Stop it, you fucking bastard!” Naruto hissed as he tried to duck away from the manhandling and rough treatment. Sasuke continued to rub his knuckles into the knob head’s skull undeterred.

“It’s a big brother’s right. So suck it up. Teme.” Itachi wasn’t there for Sasuke to make amends to him. Naruto was.

Dobe,” Naruto hissed back.

And then, together, they smiled.

.o0o.

“Ok, you know what to do.”

They split up, just as they had all week. And the week before. It was beginning to get late, but today, they had decided to do one last patrol. After all, he had had that good feeling all day. Today was the day. Today, they’d complete this mission!

Performing the necessary hand seals, he activated his blood limit, instantly becoming able to visualize his surroundings almost perfectly. The world lost most of its colour, but in exchange, everything became much sharper, so much more focused, that he could see ants on the top of a watchtower.

But ants and watchtowers where the last thing on his mind. Running balanced on the top of a white washed wall, he scoured the portion of the city he and his brothers had agreed upon exploring today. He had never realized how big Konoha was until the first time they had tried this exercise and had decided to cut the city up between three. None of them managed to finish searching their sector.

Bouncing on three spots rapidly, Horyuki came to a halt on a branch, and under the cover of thick leaves felt the first trickle of excitement he had for days. They’d been searching for ages, and had come up short. It didn’t help that they knew nothing about their target, or that they hadn’t been able to come up with any information from him. Even asking Iruka-sensei hadn’t borne any fruit; the man had been more than a little haggard in class lately, and the Hyuuga boy could understand it was his worry on his widely-known favourite, Uzumaki-sama, and his ‘hospitalization’. More than ever, Iruka-sensei had been reluctant to speak of Naruto-sama, changing the subject and returning to the lesson with more alacrity than usual. When Horyuki had approached him privately for directions to his house, quoting a favour to Hinata-himesama, Iruka-sensei had been almost angry in a way that had seemed so strange to the boy.

But now, maybe, he wouldn’t need his teacher’s help. He had often regretted not being able to be honest in the past week, (one did not speak of Hyuuga affairs to non-Hyuuga), but now it seemed that the breach of behaviour that telling his teacher the truth would have forced him into hadn’t been necessary.

Finally, after so many useless searches and wasted time, he had caught sight of their target. He was walking around aimlessly, hands tucked in pockets of clothing that made him look the part. Horyuki’s heart began to beat wildly as he followed the older boy as surreptitiously as his excitement allowed him. Tailing him wasn’t even difficult. For all his famed prowess, Uzumaki-sama wasn’t paying attention at all. It made the young Hyuuga hesitate for a moment; had he found the right person? Was he perhaps mistaking one of his lesser-known cousins for the supposed ‘Hyuuga Hagane’ he’d seen at the gate?

He stopped when the older boy stopped, frozen in place for fear of having been caught. Instead of being located, however, Horyuki realized that Uzumaki-sama had stopped to stare at two older children who were running up the street hand in hand. The young Hyuuga remembered seeing them in school among his upperclassmen, but couldn’t immediately make out why his quarry had stopped, then he realized; when the girl stepped up to give the older boy a peck on the cheek, Horyuki blushed, but Uzumaki-sama looked away and started walking in the opposite direction.

Oh, the boy understood, he was distracted because he was thinking of Hinata-himesama. Understandable enough, he supposed. Jumping down from his perch on the tree, he made to follow the rapidly retreating back of the fake Hyuuga when a small scream cut off his pursuit, making him jump and flip to the side.

He found a small girl, probably no older than his brothers, with pigtails and big tears running down her face, looking at him in a way that told him he’d frightened her when he’d landed out of the tree.

“Hey, what’s wrong?” he asked, not quite able to leave her there. Hinata-himesama and his mother wouldn’t be too happy with him if he did.

“I was going to the big building with daddy, but then I saw a butterfly here, and I stopped to see it, and then I got lost,” she said in a voice interrupted by hiccups. Horyuki bit his lip, looking between her and his quarry, who had almost moved out of his natural sight, but was still within byakugan range.

“What big building?” he asked quickly.

“I dunno,” she replied, putting her thumb into her mouth. Horyuki felt worry climbing as his quarry moved further away.

“Um, look, I’m sure your dad will find you,” he said, turning around. He hadn’t even made a step before a wet fist grabbed onto his jacket.

“Don’t leave me here!”

Twisting his face into a grimace when he saw that she had started crying harder, he pried her hand off his clothing, but then pulled her onto his back in one quick motion, ignoring her startled squeak.

“I’m on a really important mission right now,” he said, beginning to run down the street as fast as he could, following Uzumaki-sama who had progressed an impressive amount during his short interruption of the chase. The little girl perched onto his back quietly, her tiny fists clutching at the shoulders of his jacket as he felt her head moving around.

“What’s your name?” she asked curiously, some of her fear seeming to have abated since she was now no longer alone.

“Hyuuga Horyuki,” he said between breaths, his eyes going temporarily wider when he saw another person within range of his byakugan that made him double his running time. He didn’t seem to have his blood line activated, so there was no danger yet, but should he do it at any moment, they would all be in a bucket of kimchi.

“I’m Momoko,” the little girl said, to which he answered only with a distracted grunt. She was silent for another few moments before she asked again; “What is your mission about?”

“To make Hinata-himesama happy again,” he replied quickly, slowing down as he came within sight of the Hokage’s Tower. He jogged on until he rounded the corner and found his target stopping in front of the building, staring up at it with an odd expression on his face, and then heading towards a small nearby park and sitting on a bench. Letting the little girl down, he made a silencing motion towards her, though it had very little effect.

“You’re saving a princess?” she asked in awe. Horyuki shrugged.

“Sort of,” he said dismissively. He started to turn the corner cautious before her tugging at his jacket sleeve again.

“Can I help?” she asked excitedly, and Horyuki almost frowned at her before he got an idea.

“As a matter of fact, you can,” he said with a smile. “You see my eyes?” She nodded enthusiastically. “If you see an old man wearing a kimono coming down the street from there” – he pointed in the direction he knew Hanzou-sama to be in – “come straight to me and warn me he’s coming, ok? He’s a bad man, and I have to warn someone himesama loves so they don’t get hurt. You think you can help me?”

“Yes!” she chirped, her earlier fear and sadness all but forgotten. Horyuki nodded.

“Ok, Momoko-chan,” he said in a lowered voice. Stay here and look out for that man, alright? Don’t let him see you, and come straight to me. I’m going to talk to … um, himesama’s …um… friend, right over there, alright? Come right to us if you see that man, remember! We’ll be right across the street.”

At her nod, he quickly crossed the busy street, headed straight towards the bench where at long last he was about to engage the target. Uzumaki-sama was staring emptily at the park, where some children where playing and adults were walking around with dogs and strollers.

Cautiously, he approached the bench, waiting for a few moments on one side for the older boy to notice him. Unfortunately, Uzumaki-kun seemed to be thinking about Hinata-himesamareally hard, because it wasn’t until Horyuki shook his knee that the older boy started and turned to look at him.

“My name is Horyuki,” he said, climbing up onto the bench beside Uzumaki-sama and grabbed onto his hand urgently. “And there are a few things you really have to know about Hinata-himesama.”

“Hinata…?” he asked, his eyes going wide as he suddenly snatched onto Horyuki’s hand with a grip that almost hurt. “She … she said something?”

“Well, well no,” Horyuki said a little hesitantly at the spark he saw in the older boy’s eyes. Spark which promptly went out with an almost silent ‘oh’ when he answered, so he was quick to continue, “but there IS a reason why she’s not talking to you! It’s not her fault, it’s Hanabi-sama’s fault!”

“Huh?”

“Um, you see,” he said, taking a deep breath and swallowing, “Hanabi-sama was very angry with you for making Hinata-himesama cry.” Uzumaki-sama flinched and looked away. “So she didn’t let any of the others let you in, and I … this is a secret, I shouldn’t know,” he whispered, coming closer to the older boy, “but I heard from dad and uncle that Hanabi-sama hasn’t been giving your gifts to Hinata-himesama. She doesn’t even know you’ve been visiting.”

“Ung,” Uzumaki-sama muttered, burying his face in his free hand. “No wonder she used our photo like a training post. She thought I’d just skipped off on her! But, then yesterday…”

Horyuki waited, but Uzumaki-sama didn’t seem about to finish the sentence any time soon, so he continued urgently.

“Hinata-himesama has been really sad without you,” he said. Fake Hyuuga eyes looked back at him seriously before finding the grass under the bench very interesting. This worried Horyuki a little; he was sad that Hinata-himesama was sad of course, but shouldn’t Uzumaki-sama be a little glad that she missed him? “She’s cried a lot, and… something else.

“Uzumaki-sama…” he bit his lip and looked down, lowering his voice. “There’s this man, Hanzou-sama of the main house. He’s Hiashi-sama’s father and … he keeps following Hinata-himesama around and trying to make her marry someone else.”

“What?” was the sharp hiss beside him, and hand around his fingers became a steel vice. Horyuki was proud he didn’t flinch, though it hurt a great deal. Uzumaki-sama, for his part, didn’t seem to realize what he was doing. “And Hinata? What did she say?”

“Nothing, of course!” Horyuki said with a frown. “She can’t contradict our elder in front of others, but we all know she loves you very much!”

Fake Hyuuga eyes became rather large and some colour crept up the older boy’s cheeks as his mouth sagged slightly open before he remembered himself. Swallowing, Uzumaki-sama looked away, wondering out loud. “You sure about that, kid? Because after our little brawl, I don’t think that’s still true…”

“No, it’s true,” Horyuki said with certainty, this time squeezing Uzumaki-sama’s hand himself with all his might. That he was a little disappointed not to see the older boy flinch was something he didn’t let get to him. “My dad and uncle were talking and they both said that Hinata-himesama was really sad because Hanabi-sama wasn’t telling her you were visiting. So she must want you to visit!”

“Oh man, that means I blew it even worse yesterday,” Uzumaki-sama muttered, leaving Horyuki to wonder what he was talking about for a few seconds. He didn’t have long to ponder the dilemma, however, because Momoko came zipping up to them, eyes wide with fear, and she squeaked, grabbing onto Horyuki’s jacket.

“He’s coming: the bad man!” she said breathlessly, almost pulled the Hyuuga boy off the bench with her insistent tugging. “He’s coming here!”

“Horyuki-kun,” came a cool voice from their right. Momoko-chan flinched and hurriedly climbed onto the bench herself to hide behind Horyuki. For his part, Horyuki felt as though he’d swallowed an ice-pack. “What are you doing here in the company of Hagane-san?”

Even as young as he was, Horyuki realized what a dangerous situation he was in at the moment. One false step, one wrong move, and he knew that Hanzou-sama would make sure to ruin his father, his uncle, and any future he and his brothers might have. Anyone directly connected to their family would be cast into shame, and the position of the branch family as a whole would become even more precarious.

“Hanzou-sama, good morning,” he said, giving a half-bow from his seated position and trying to gain time as his mind raced frantically.

“Hanzou-sama,” he heard Uzumaki-sama whisper next to him. Looking up at the older boy, he saw a steely expression settle over his features that almost frightened Horyuki with its intensity. In that moment, he could believe the bedtime stories uncle Koh had often told him and his brothers, of how this shinobi before him had single-handedly defeated the one who had killed off half of Konoha’s best without any trouble at all. “Ah, Hanzou-sama,” Uzumaki-sama continued. “I found the brat and his friend here a few hours ago, and I’ve been watching them. I’d recon , it’s not proper for Hyuuga kids to roam around on their own, even in the village.” His eyes, even with their disguise, sharpened farther. “After all, we’re at war.”

Horyuki felt a sort of flush go through him – this really was the hero everyone spoke about. Then, the blood rushed down towards his toes when he realized; Uzumaki¬-sama had been very informal with Hanzou-sama, not at all what a proper Hyuuga should be behaving like. And he hadn’t even been surprised when he had called him ‘Uzumaki-sama’ before, he realized! Horyuki gulped, feeling suddenly in a dreadful situation indeed.

Could Uzumaki-sama not know that not all the Hyuuga had been informed of his disguise? If Hanabi-sama and Hinata-himesama had hidden the fact from all the clan save very few, there had to be a good reason, and that only meant one thing.

If Uzumaki-sama revealed his position by mistake, he would probably place both himself and Hinata-himesama in danger. And Uzumaki-sama had no idea he was in that position at the moment. Which meant, quite simply, that eight-year-old Horyuki was going to have to play a very subtle, and dangerous, game. He swallowed, and grabbed more firmly onto the older boy’s hand.

If Uzumaki-sama could defeat Pein, then he could do this.

.o0o.

Sitting by the koi pond in the rock garden wasn’t Hinata’s ideal place for relaxation and happiness. No, that was in the flower garden outside her room, where she could plunge her naked hands into the fragrant soil and feel like a child again while planting seeds and nurturing saplings.

This garden was supposed to promote zen though, her relatives tried to say, so she was giving it a try today. Unfortunately for her, it wasn’t working very well. She fidgeted on the stone bench again, the cold radiating off the shaded spot not helping in the least.

More than anything at that moment, she wanted to jump into the raked sand, kick it around, tip the carefully placed stones, dig the moss off the stones and fling it, break the margins of the spring and turn it all to mud, then shriek as she jumped around legging at everything.

She blushed at the thought, but the urge was there and it was strong. Therefore, the zen garden was not only missing the point completely but just making her want to rant and rave and scream, and let out the pent up frustration that was boiling just below the surface of her skin.

Normally, she would have shrunk in on herself, and cried. But she’d been doing it so much lately that … it just didn’t cut it anymore! She had wrung her brain till it hurt and every direction she looked seemed to bring more questions and worries than solutions. Naruto-kun had come to seek her out, and her chest ached when she remembered the tone he’d used when he confessed missing her. It had been so heartfelt, so honest.

But that frame! It was such a clear threat! And yet; Naruto-kun had survived a lot more than a mere irritated Hyuuga elder. Wasn’t she selling him short by not trusting his abilities?

Thenagain, should she put him in danger in the first place? Not to mention, her father hadn’t returned yet, so the House’s situation right now was precarious and dangerous. That man – that horrible, hateful man! – was still technically her clan head right now, and there was no telling what he would do if she tipped the scale too much while he was still in control of the power struggle within the clan. Naruto-kun would possibly not be in danger, but she herself could be put in a situation where she would be completely unable to extricate herself without political and honourable injury both to her and the clan. Or even worse, to Naruto-kun’s dream.

But she didn’t want to lose Naruto-kun! The longer she waited, the more the chance of that became a reality! She felt as though she was being pulled in all directions but was able to choose none! Her clan was important, her family was important, but she was important too! And no one, no one was more important than Naruto-kun.

The urge to run into the perfectly raked sand and wreck the place rose again to the surface and became almost irresistible. Her heart was hurting, someone had to pay for that.

“Haku! Haru! Are you here? Boys!”

Hinata almost jumped at the shrill voice that broke through the silence of the enclosed area. Umeko-san quickly followed her call, looking harried and not a little worried. She looked about the garden, at first not even seeing the young kunoichi sitting there and even jumping when she did notice her.

“Oh, Hinata-sama, have you by any chance seen my sons?” she asked worriedly. At Hinata’s headshake, the older woman only got more agitated, which made the kunoichi rise and walk up to her quickly.

“What is it?” she asked the older woman quietly.

“They went to train in the early afternoon, but they haven’t returned yet. They don’t usually stay out this long!” Hinata put a hand on her shoulder as Umeko-san began to rub her temple with her fingers. “Even Horyuki-chan is missing! It’s so unusual of the boys to be this late, or for my eldest to leave his brothers out so long, that I can’t help but think…”

“Umeko-san,” Hinata muttered in a soft voice, trying to sooth the distressed mother. “I’m sure they’re ok. If it’s any help, I will go out to look for them right now.”

“Oh no, Hinata-sama, please! Don’t inconvenience yourself for us!” the woman said with a gasp.

“It’s no inconvenience,” Hinata replied with a smile, stopping herself short from saying that she was as restless as a five week colt. “You know that I love your sons particularly.”

“I …well, then, thank you so much, Hinata-sama,” the woman said, turning to engulf her into a hug. Hinata initially froze, so unused to physical contact was she within the walls of the Hyuuga house, but she soon returned the embrace before Umeko-san broke it. “How will I be able to contact you should those scoundrels return?”

“Koh-san can summon,” Hinata said with a smile. “Our summon can find us anywhere. Ask him to send a summons to me, and it will not be a problem.” With another smile, she turned and began making towards the front of the grounds.

“Thank you! So much!” the woman called behind her. With a chuckle and wave, she began running, her impatience and restlessness finally taking over. Vaulting over the wall without bothering to reach the gates, she smiled.

She paused only momentarily to activate her bloodline without hand seals, observe that the sun was close to start descending and then she was off. She wouldn’t think about her problems for the moment. Haku-chan and Haru-chan were off doing what they did best: being the best distraction from her troubles that she had yet to meet.

.o0o.

Naruto couldn’t be accused of being the sharpest tool in Tenten’s arsenal any day of the week. Oh, sure, nearly everyone and all his teachers acknowledged that he was a seat-of-my-pants no jutsu genius, a prodigy in his own right when it came to making things work for him on the battlefield. Anyone who had seen him turn the tide of a battle single-handedly through ingenious methods, a rubber band, and a blunt kunai could own that he well deserved his title of The Unpredictable, The Uzumaki, as well as that of the Second Yellow Flash.

He couldn’t be Neiji either, or not as good as him anyway, in guessing the angle to a shoulder shrug, or the meaning to the shifting of a foot.

However, there was something Uzumaki Naruto could do well that few others could. And that was reading eyes.

It didn’t matter if they had a doujutsu, if they were pitch black, yellow, brown, or fiery red and slitted. He could usually take one look, and his gut would tell him whether to trust them or not.

He was still an awkward idiot sometimes, especially when a girl winked at him, or one of the guys passed a comment that he hadn’t heard before, and left him blinking. But it was ironic how the boy who could have most things pass over his head – like, for instance, that one of the kindest girls in Konoha had been in love with him for years – could have the ability to talk prisoners into a blind faith of the new alliance of villages or detect a rotten apple in a squadron just by spending a few minutes exchanging ration bars.

He hadn’t always had these skills, either. The spy-spotter one had grown on him, for instance, on the front. You just did not allow things like that tiny detail in the person’s eye and expression pass you over the second time, not when the first time, your comrade had to have that arm amputated to stay alive. Just like his father, some people said, but though it made him proud, it did not mean much to him. Minato had once saved an envoy from a deceitful peace party just in the same way, Jiraiya had once told him then, but it still didn’t quite matter. What mattered was that no more of his friends had wood jammed into their mouths as five medic nin worked to hold him down and lop the arm off at once.

That was why Naruto realized several things while the birds twittered noisily in the trees and the evening light waned. One was that the boy who had come to him trying to, he had tentatively guessed, help him make up with Hinata-chan (yes, chan, darnit), was beginning to panic. The other was that the man who was approaching him with a smile, a soft manner and an easy gait was very, very dangerous. He didn’t know how, or why, but the old dingbat was making the little guy beside him behave like he wanted to run for the hills, and that was a bad sign.

That didn’t count the fact that this ‘Hanzou’ bastard was trying to marry off his Hinata-chan to another man. Knowing clan bullshit, it was possibly some pimply rich bastard who wouldn’t love her or appreciate her, and would probably never let her cook; that was usually the way it worked in Jiraiya’s books, anyway.

He’d willingly walk over to Madara and hand him Gerotora with a promise to stay still before he’d let this bastard have his way with Hinata-chan.

He opened his mouth to tell him just that, fuck the formal Hyuuga crap right now, when the little guy – Horyu something, his name was? – squeezed his fingers like an orange.

“It is very good of you, Hagane-san, to worry yourself with our children. Are you particularly fond of them?” the old bat asked, walking up to him and sitting on the bench to the other side of the Hyuuga boy without question or invitation.

“They are the future of Konoha,” he said shortly, inexplicably remembering old man Hokage as he said that, and feeling even more distaste for the old fart before him when he made comparisons. An old fart who smiled jovially and even chuckled.

“Ah, I have heard that so many times before…” He looked away from Naruto, eyes seeming to shine with mirth. He looked just like any old man right then, reminiscing on something amusing and fond from his past. Naruto found his expression distasteful; he could have so easily been taken in by it, had he not had the little Hyuuga kid here, who’d dropped just enough hints to make him wary. What a creep. “I recall that upbringing standards are very strict in the Capital Branch, aren’t they?”

Naruto stilled for a moment, not sure where the question was leading. There was a squeeze on his hand. Did the old timer want to play games, or was he being cautious because they were outdoors? If that was the case, he was being half-assed, because he had no idea how to answer to that properly! Again, the little guy squeezed his hand urgently, and sparing him one glance, he found him nodding as frantically as he could while barely moving his head.

So he replied, “Of course,” in a noncommittal manner.

“And yet, you seem to value these little ones so much,” the ding bat said with the same fond smile. If one of the kids had been on his side, he would probably have started stroking their hair or something.

For some reason, that reminded him of Orochimaru. And that made him want to shudder even more.

“I am very pleased for you, however,” Hanzou went on, turning to look at Naruto with an expression that may have been conspiratorially. “You will find many of the same traits in Hinata-sama. My granddaughter values the clan children greatly. Above all else, love for children is a trait I find invaluable in a good wife.”

Something in Naruto swelled, and even before the little brat could squeeze the life out of his fingers, he was hissing, “Are you mocking me?” How dare this bastard, dangling Hinata-chan like this in front of him while knowing that they were at odds with one another! While trying to marry her off to someone else!

Hanzou, for his part, looked honestly startled for a moment before he collected himself and began to make placating expressions.

“No, of course not, Hagane-san. I cannot quite understand what you … ah, but perhaps I do. There was something slimy in the smile that crept over the old man’s face then, something that made his gut flip noxiously even before the brat gave his fingers a tug. “I can see that her beauty and kindness have worked their magic on you too. I can tell you that many of the Main Clan here will be very sad indeed to lose her to you of the Capital Branch.”

Naruto had simply no idea how to answer to that. He narrowed his eyes at the man, trying to appear as though he was sizing him up when in reality, he was frantically trying to make sense of what was being said to him. The way he was speaking, the old dingbat was almost…

“What about this other person I keep hearing of?” Naruto asked nonchalantly. Time to test the waters. If this old fart was playing weird games, they’d come out now. If not, someone had left this guy out of the loop, and that made his hackles rise just a little more. “This one who Hinata-sama was supposed to be seeing?”

“Oh, you shouldn’t worry, Hagane-san,” came the amiable response, even with an actual hand wave of dismissal. “Hinata-sama knows her duty to her clan, and … we shall say that a lucky windfall has befallen our situation. The boy was a good match for her and our clan, one must admit, but perhaps it was based more on premature speculations than truth. As it is now, however, the boy is in the hospital in a very bad condition by the last reports, and with little chance to recover. Your presence beside Hinata-sama in these troubled times for her will endear you to her, and perhaps make the transition for her easier.”

Bile rose to Naruto’s throat, and it took all that was in him, and the fact that he had a little extra appendage in the form of a Hyuuga brat, not to lunge at Hanzou and tear out his throat. The conceited, mother-fucking bastard! Here he was, speaking with someone who he obviously thought was a total stranger, planning and conniving and artfully twisting words, all the while playing with the strings that were Hinata-chan’s life. He knew clans could be manipulative and cruel – especially this one, he remembered, recalling Neiji’s story – but no one, no one fucked with his Hinata-chan and got out of it with an intact jaw.

“We must beat the iron while it is hot, however,” the bastard was continuing. “There is a strong chance that her father may return within the coming weeks. And if Hiashi were to be killed in action, it would be even more of a problem. Hinata-sama would then be tied to our clan here as being eldest would automatically oblige her to the duty of immediate command if my son has not left anything written to nominate Hanabi-chan… which knowing that bastard, he has not. It may complicate things for us.”

I tell you what would complicate things for you, Naruto thought in rage. How about a tree shuved all the way up your tight little elite-clan ass? Or what about being thrown in a pit of rabid, starved rats No! No, better yet – being thrown on the front lines, you sleazy bastard, to have a little unlucky windfall. Then he could be the one in hospital. OR, perhaps even more fitting! A nice capture and torture by enemy nin, to be returned home eye-less and in a tiny white box. That the enemy would be two Hyuuga eyes richer seemed a fair price to pay at the moment.

Kill him. I want to taste his blood. Let me taste his blood!

The raging voice of the Kyuubi invading his mind suddenly sobered him, making him recall that he was in public, under cover, and – apparently more so at the moment – not Uzumaki Naruto, but someone else who didn’t behave like he did. The bijuu’s agitate hissing and roiling thoughts unsettled him, as there was no direct reason that Naruto could think of for this reaction, save a sudden and unforeseen link to his own emotions. Naruto, though, knew that wasn’t the case.

“If we are already so tight on the clock,” he said carefully, “and Hinata-sama’s guy is already at death’s door, can’t he be given a nudge to get … better?” Carefully, he watched the man’s face, waiting for a hint, a little twitch that might give away anything. What he did was smile.

“She has captured you thoroughly. That is good,” the man turned to look Naruto straight in the eyes, then seemed to pause for a second. Naruto blinked, making sure to wipe away anything that may give him away from his face. The Kyuubi’s voice at the back of his mind stilled in its hissing, focusing in its entirety on the man in front of them. He felt a strange emotion then, almost as if they were thinking along the same lines. It was an entirely new – and disturbing – experience. His mind and the Kyuubi’s were completely set on the same path. This bastard had to go down.

Hanzou also seemed to come back to himself and the old man looked away again. “It is good for a man to desire his wife. However, a word of advice, perhaps.” He turned to look at the children, and the little Hyuuga boy all but hid himself behind Naruto’s shoulder. “It may not be wise to speak before outsiders of the clan of such matters. He is, after all, considered a hero of sorts, by some.”

But not by me, Naruto heard very clearly. And yet, the sentence had spelt a lot more like a warning than a barb. Narrowing his eyes, Naruto finally allowed himself to believe that this guy had no effing idea who he was talking to, and that therefore, he thought he was ironically speaking to just the person who he was trying to marry Hinata-chan to.

But wasn’t Hyuuga Hagane an invented guy? This didn’t make any sense.

Not to mention, he had to watch out for these kids. The little Hyuuga boy had taken the time and risk to come speak to him and try to patch up the mess he’d made with Hinata-chan. The little girl who was with him didn’t seem to be Hyuuga at all, only a friend, and he wouldn’t let them get any flack on his account. Moving slightly to shield them from the old fart’s view, he nodded at the man, trying to seem as though he was taking his advice or something. Conversely, Hanzou-bastard seemed to preen at this, and began speaking again, rattling off some internal clan things that Naruto simply nodded to, and had no idea how to follow. The fingers still in the kid’s death-grip were beginning to lose their feeling, but Naruto could still follow the twerp’s little hints through a squeeze ore two. His emotions - and the Kyuubi’s - got more and more agitated as the man prattled on and he was beginning to think that he’d never get rid of him.

Still, the problem at hand resolved itself moments later. There was a short call, and all four of them turned together towards the street. His throat went suddenly dry, and his breath caught when he saw her standing there, the day’s waning light shining on her hair and making her look so much prettier than usual. Or maybe it was because it had been so long since he’d seen her outdoors, and walking towards him like this, like it was ok and she was about to take his hand and give him a peck on the cheek.

The glancing pain that had taken up residence in his chest recently gave another zinger of notice, just to remind him that it was still there. He really longed to reach out for her and take her hand and pull her into a hug…

But her eyes barely looked at him. She bowed to the old fart in acknowledgement, nodded at ‘Hagane’ without looking him in the eyes, then walked straight to the little Hyuuga squirt.

“Horyuki¬chan, I’m a bit disappointed in you,” she said quietly in a voice that may have been mild from someone else, but was scolding when coming from her. “Your mother was very worried. And where are your brothers? Umeko-san said they were training with you, but I do not see them.”

She folded her arms then, and Naruto marveled at what a picture she cut, just standing there with this minute scowl on her face, and yet she made him want to hide under the bench and apologise. The little Hyuuga seemed to have much of the same idea.

“We were doing some surveillance training today, Hinata-himesama,” he said quietly, his head a little bowed but still holding onto Naruto’s fingers. “We split up a while back … then I met Momoko-chan and Hagane-san…”

“We were just speaking about the matter, Hinata-chan,” Hanzou suddenly said from beside him, intruding on the rather touching scene that was unfolding (honest, it was like watching a mom and kid interact…), “Hagane-san found Horyuki and has been looking out for him and his friend. It would seem as though our guest from the Capital Branch loves children as much as you do, granddaughter.”

He gave out a tiny laugh, which Hinata-chan returned only with a small smile, and her eyes flitted to Naruto’s momentarily. He saw worry and tension there, and obviously realized that Hinata-chan knew as much as he did that this old man was up to no good. How long had she put up with him? How long had he given her shit every time she stepped foot inside her own home?

“I should take them home, then,” Naruto offered suddenly, standing up. The atmosphere felt too stifling, and Hinata-chan was standing right there, but she didn’t even seem to want to look his way at all. In any case, he already had a grip of Horyuki’s hand and it was only a matter of waiting for him to scramble off the bench together with his friend with the pigtails, and they’d be off.

“Oh no, that will not be necessary!” Hanzou said, also rising quickly. “I will take care of this matter. Hinata-chan, why do you not spend some time with Hagane-san? He has not been to our compound often, and you have therefore not interacted. It would be a horrible offence on our side if our heir apparent didn’t show a guest from the Capital Branch the right proper regard.”

Naruto felt a ball of apprehension stick to his throat. Hinata-chan looked suddenly stiff and uncomfortable, and that didn’t help him much; only made him feel slightly nauseous that the prospect of being left alone with him was so horrible to her.

Still… he had to hand it to Hanzou. The bastard had unknowingly given him an opportunity to spend some time with Hinata-chan and at least apologise, if nothing else. Sure, she didn’t seem to want to be around him, but if he said sorry, he knew that maybe, eventually, they might at least become friends again. And the Hyuuga kid had said that she didn’t know about his gifts and stops, either, so he could test that out, and see where that road took him.

Hanzou, meanwhile, was attempting to herd the children away, but the little girl was having none of it.

“Horyuki-chan promised he’d help me find daddy!” she said, seeming on the verge of tears all of a sudden.

“Are you lost?” Hinata-chan asked, seeming all too relived to change subject.

“Yes,” the girl sniffled, her pigtails bobbing as she nodded.

“Did you know where your daddy was going?” Hinata-chan asked her, crouching down beside her. Wiping her face with her arm’s sleeve, the girl sniffed and pointed towards the Hokage Tower behind them.

“That big building there,” she told them.

“Well then, Horyuki-chan, why don’t you take your friend to the Hokage Tower to look for her dad. Do you know his name, sweety?”

“Mamma calls him dear, and I call him daddy… but sometimes other people call him Mitsu-san,” she said, looking confused. Naruto had to resist the urge to snicker. Hinata-chan, for her part, simply smiled more tolerantly.

“Mitsu-san will be a very good name to use when you get inside, then,” she said gently, and putting her hand on the girl’s back, she pushed her softly towards the Hyuuga boy. “Horyuki-chan, I’m leaving her with you. Then I expect to hear that you found your brothers and went straight home.”

“Yes, Hinata-himesama!” he said stiffly, as if he was answering his chuunin teacher. This time, Naruto did snicker, earning himself a stern glare from Hinata-chan which made him wince. But at least she was looking at him…

“Very well, then,” Hanzou said, breaking the silent communication that was happening between Hinata-chan and himself, “I will trust that Horyuki-kun is capable enough to find his brothers and return to the compound after his errand is run. Hinata-chan, I leave Hagane-san in your capable hands. Don’t worry about returning to the compound late. I will inform your sister that you are out escorting our esteemed guest.”

With that, he left, firmly gripping the Hyuuga boy’s shoulder and walking him and the girl a ways to the Hokage Tower.

Turning back, Naruto found himself face to face with Hinata-chan, and another ball of nerves settled in his throat and on his shoulders. He could see her gripping her elbow behind her back, her eyes looking at the ground under a small frown that spoke of nerves and discomfort.

This wasn’t the Hinata-chan he wanted to see, nor the one he’d grown used to. That Hinata-chan was always smiling, be it a small or large one on her face at all time, and above all else, she had always seemed happy to be with him.

Trying to swallow around the brick in his throat, he looked down at the gravel too, feeling terribly helpless, and hating it. Still, he wasn’t going to roll over and let her slip away, not now that he had the chance to talk to her. Steeling himself, he gestured vaguely to the road that led away from the Tower.

“Shall we walk?” he asked. When she didn’t seem to move, another touch of pain ran across his chest, and he added ‘please’ in a slightly more hoarse voice. She did look up at him then, and then she nodded with a bite to her lip.

“Naruto-kun,” she said in a very small voice, and he could have melted there and then, to finally hear her saying his name again after so long, so he simply nodded for her to continue, since his throat wasn’t working very well. But she seemed to be at a loss on what to say next and began to look about her in a slightly lost manner again.

Naruto’s heart twinged when he saw her looking so completely out of it. Searching his mind, he cringed away from most of the subjects that came up, but ultimately, he settled on something that he felt he needed to warn her about.

“So …” he began hesitantly, “that guy Hanzou said a few very interesting things.” He started, and then he stopped, feeling utterly awkward. The Hyuuga kid said that the old fart had been persecuting her when she was in the house every chance he could, so odds where Hinata-chan knew everything of importance about the old fart. He floundered around for another few moments as they walked aimlessly around in an uncomfortable silence. “The kid said a few things too… like that Hanzou was bothering you.”

“I … I’m used to it,” Hinata-chan said, quietly. “There are so many things to do at the Hyuuga house and … I keep busy.”

“So busy that you never left?” Naruto asked mildly, watching her from the tail of his eye. “I looked for you, you know. I came to the hospital too, but your shifts kept changing. I wanted to explain …”

Unconsciously, he had reached out his hand for hers. She flinched away, leaving him feeling rather numb and stupid. She wasn’t even looking at him; she seemed to be agitatedly looking about, eyes trying to look everywhere at once. Just as he was debating whether to turn away, and just leave her alone as she seemed to want so desperately (he was dim, but not stupid, and all the signs were there, no matter what anyone said), a jolt went through him when she grabbed his hand and quickly pulled him into a quiet walkway between two houses.

“Not h-here,” she said quietly, activating her blood limit and slowly moving her head around. When she seemed satisfied that no one was following them, or whatever she was checking for, she leapt into the air, forcing him to follow when she didn’t let his hand go.

Not that he minded, of course. They traveled rapidly across the village via roof tops, and he couldn’t take his eyes off her; her hair swinging as she bounced from one landing spot to the next, her shoulders bunched with nervousness, her hand, so soft and small in his. He hadn’t seen her in so long … He’d seen her last night, yes, but for such a short time. Now he could indulge in looking at her, even if she had her back to him, and even if it was to keep his head off what she could possibly say.

Remember what the little human told you, the voice of his tenant whispered at him, he said she pined for you, that she wept for you.

Cried for him … Hinata-chan had been one of the first who had cried for him. That time in the hospital, just before Iruka-sensei had banged his face up, she’d cried so hard because she was afraid for him. Sakura-chan used to do it for Sasuke-dobe, and he remembered thinking at the time: would someone ever do that for him?

They stopped, but they didn’t move immediately away from one another. Naruto for his part was content to stay like that for a moment longer; he didn’t know what she wanted to tell him, and he didn’t know whether it was what the little guy might have hinted at, or that she was going to break things up for good between them. But right then, he could look at her while she was holding his hand, bathed in the colours of the sunset, and pretend that everything was ok. Through instinct, he took in his surroundings, and for the first time, he realized that they were on the Hokage monument. Or more specifically, on his father’s head, with the sun setting and giving everything vivid colours, where he’d spent almost all of last night.

Hinata-chan made to move away then, but Naruto held tightly onto her hand. She turned to look at him, her expression a bit unsure, but … not disgusted, or angry, or anything else that he’d found himself dreading he’d see there. There weren’t even tears; only nervousness. In a way, he realized, Hinata-chan had sort of regressed to how she used to behave with him before, when he thought she was a dark, weird girl because she couldn’t string a sentence together in front of him.

Moron

Shut up! He didn’t need the stupid fox butting in right now.

Not when you are plaguing me with your whining and moaning and bitching, but don’t see the tip of your nose! It hissed back. She is unsure of you. Now stop subjecting me to all these ridiculous and useless emotions!

It clicked, suddenly. The question she’d asked, and his feelings after his outburst in Tsunade’s office, and what Iruka-sensei and Anko and most of everyone else had said.

When did you become a love counsellor, Kyuubs?

FUCK YOU!

Don’t swing that way...

DIE, LITTLE BITCH!

Happily ignoring the raging Youma, Naruto couldn’t help his heart as it began to beat very quickly, and very, very gently, he tugged Hinata-chan against him until he was finally close enough to drape an arm around her. He didn’t hold her close, nor did he bury his nose in her hair – what he really wanted to do was squeeze her to him till she squeaked and stuff his nose against her neck, and then never move. But he knew that wouldn’t go down very well even if he was right and Iruka and Anko and the Kyuubi had all nailed it on the head. She was stiff as a board as it was.

“I’ve missed you, Hinata-chan,” he told her again. It seemed sort of right to start where they’d left off yesterday. Hopefully this time, he wouldn’t flunk it so bad.

When she didn’t answer, nor move, his heart slowed down, and the slight excitement of possibility ebbed – that was until he caught sight of her face. She was blushing hard, but there were tears in her eyes, and she was biting her lip bloody. When he moved to push away, her arms came around him quickly, and then she was the one holding him close, and burying her face in his chest.

Trembling slightly on the inside with both happiness, pain, and some of the confusion that still remained from the whole ordeal, he finally let himself sink into her. He held her cautiously at first. But when she didn’t push him away or let him go, he held her harder, savouring in the feel of every single warm curve and softness that he could feel against him. His nose dove against her neck and, his heart beating deafeningly in his ears, he breathed in deeply. Some of the pain ebbed, and the missing spot in his chest that had gone hollow and had hurt so badly all the time since that night filled up again.

He had no idea how long they stayed like that. He would have been content to stay there like that forever. But as soon as his insides settled down, as soon as his mind reconciled with the fact that – yes, he was holding Hinata-chan again! Suck on that, Fuzz! – the thoughts in his head, the why and the how and various different things he’d been thinking about intruded on his blissful moment. The Kyuubi didn’t help, hissing and spitting in the background, reminding him of things he did not want to think of at the moment.

So, reluctantly, he didn’t stop Hinata-chan when she pushed herself away and districated herself from his grip, nor did he pull her back when she walked some steps away, and sat down on the monument. Standing for a few more seconds and just watching her, he finally sighed and sat down beside her when she spent some moments looking out at setting sun.

As much as he wished it, as much as - as far as he was concerned - the matter could be closed and forgotten the moment she’d hugged him back, he knew that they needed to talk about this. He too didn’t want it to come back to haunt them and … as it stood, there was still the possibility that he and everyone else he’d spoken to might be wrong. There was the chance that she didn’t want him back.

He ignored the squeeze in his heart at the thought as much as possible, and simply hesitantly put his hand on top of hers. She didn’t snatch her hand away, but did not turn it to thread through his fingers, either.

“Naruto-kun,” she said quietly. “I … w-we…” She bit her lip hard. Hearing her stutter again, he wrapped is hand around her fingers a little more firmly.

Well, she didn’t seem able to talk. And he wasn’t known for thinking things through. So what the heck was holding him back? Picking one of the many things he wanted to say, he started.

“I’m so sorry, Hinata-chan,” he interrupted. He didn’t look at her, but faced front and pretended to look at the sunset instead. “I know that I was a horrid jerk to just leave you like that … I stood you up. And… I know… I mean, the photo in your room. I shouldn’t have left while Neiji was there, should have stuck it out and let you fill me with kunai if you thought it would make you feel better. I deserve it.”

“That wasn’t me!” she said quickly, and he turned to look at her in confusion, but she was looking at her lap. “The photo! I would never do something like that to something so precious! That wasn’t me!”

“Not you, huh?” he said in a low voice after searching her down-turned face for a few moments. All kind of thoughts and feelings clashed in his brain, but he just couldn’t get one to sit still and form enough to make sense in his head. Then his thoughts all froze and went to hell in a hand basket when first one tear, then another cheated Hinata-chan’s eyelashes and raced down her cheeks.

“In a way, Naruto-kun,” she started, quickly wiping the wetness off her face. “In a way … I’m sorry, Naruto-kun. So sorry. In a way, it would be better if you didn’t mix with the Hyuuga clan at all…”

Her voice had grown softer and softer as she said that sentence, till at the end it was just a whisper. Had it been a windy day, the words would have been snatched right out of her mouth and lost. This was the result of that bastard’s schemes, he just knew it. Anxiety, worry, happiness and anger all compounded into one big ball inside him then, and he just let it out.

“Fuck with that idea,” he said, and she blinked and looked up at him, almost flinching when she saw his expression. He probably looked like an oni or something. He ignored the Kyuubi’s admonitions regarding lesser demonic comparisons and forged on. “This is about that Hanzou bastard that you found me talking to, I know. He’s been giving you shit, and guess what he was trying to do back there?” He gave her a smirk. “He was trying to get ‘Hagane’ to marry you.”

Instead of starting, or blushing, she simply went pale and looked down. That was not a heartening response. Scratching his head with his free hand, he went ahead and asked, remembering Anko’s words about ‘issues’… and maybe something about ‘dropping them’, too.

“The idea looks that bad to you, huh?” he said quietly. This time, she did start, and he felt her turn to look at him, but he’d looked away, and he didn’t quite have the guts to look back. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know how she was looking at him right now.

“Naruto-kun,” she whispered, and then his heart leapt when her head and shoulders came to rest against his side, and her thumb pressed his fingers where he gripped her hand. “I … I love you, Naruto-kun, that hasn’t changed.”

And he had to close his eyes and remember to breathe, because his chest felt like it had just somehow exploded without meaty parts flying around. A flush of relief went through him first, and he almost felt a little jelly-limbed from it. Then happiness, and something rather large and powerful in response to that … and then a crap load of confusion took over.

“Then … why…” he asked, feeling lost. He had never been in this situation before, didn’t have anything to go on except a few snatches of conversation from guys on the front – and Jiraiya’s books, but those didn’t really count. She still loved him; that on it’s own made him want to whoop and start hollering across all of Konoha’s rooftops. But at the same time, what he’d learned of behaviour and stuff… the voice she’d said it in, and her body language right now, it all seemed completely wrong.

“I know you apologized…” she said quietly. She stopped for some moments before she continued. “That question … Naruto-kun, I’m so sorry if I put you in a bad position, but I needed to ask it.”

He swallowed thickly, anxiety beginning to replace the feelings of happiness in him once again. She was right, her saying ‘I love you’ really wasn’t going to cover it this time. He needed to say something this time to fix this … but what? He didn’t know if he loved her yet, had no idea whatsoever what the heck it was supposed to feel like. He’d been winging it till now with her; responding to her smiles and feelings, and doing what felt right at that moment. It had all been going well, but of course, sheer dumb luck couldn’t last forever.

Well, he’d wanted to explain, hadn’t he? Here was his chance! So he should talk, already!

“Look, Hinata-chan, I … when you asked me that question, the way you said it, I … I had no idea what to tell you. I got that it was a loaded question, but I couldn’t for the life of me make out what you wanted me to tell you.” Taking a deep breath and steeling himself, he turned to look at her. When he found her looking down, he took the occasion to release the stupid Hyuuga eye-effect, and then tilted her chin up. For a moment, all he could think of was that even looking this worried and rather haggard, Hinata-chan still looked pretty enough to get lost in. “And I wanted to tell you the right thing real bad, Hinata-chan,” he went on stubbornly, resisting the urge to bend a little and steal a kiss. He hadn’t kissed her in two weeks… “because … Hinata-chan… can I still hope, or have I messed up too bad?”

He looked at her steadily, swallowing hard. She looked back with wide eyes for a moment before she replied in a very quiet voice.

“You still want to try? With me?” she asked, sounding slightly bewildered and confused at the same time. “But …” She bit her lip, resting her cheek against his arm and closing her eyes. For as long as it took her to open then again and answer him, he was content to watch her like that, even though he was anxiously waiting for her answer all the while.

“I may sound selfish,” she started, her eyes open but not looking at him, “and cruel. But Naruto-kun, I still need to know…?” She did look up at him then, and there was something in her eyes that sounded a note in his chest. She looked just as anxious, just as worriedly eager as he felt. She wanted this to work out as much as he did, so he godsdamn well better not mess this up. “You never answered my question, Naruto-kun,” she finally finished. “And I… need to know.”

“I’m … I’m going be honest with you and tell you the whole deal, Hinata-chan,” he said, and saw her eyes clouding over, so he hurried to continue. “What was going on, with us all at odds like this … it hurt like a bitch, and I just; I mean, I hope you don’t mind, but I went to Iruka-sensei with it. I just needed to talk to someone, and …” He shut his mouth before he rambled his way into a corner and swallowed again. Hinata-chan’s free hand came up to pat his arm, and then remained there. He found he had enough strength to continue, then. “He told me that I needed to say it all clear and honest, so here I go, ok ?”

“Ok,” she whispered quietly, looking up at him expectantly. Her eyes were wider than usual, and even though he was no stranger to having all her attention to himself, he felt both strangely greedy and self-conscious of it at the moment.

“Well, truth is… Hinata-chan, truth is … you did replace Sakura-chan,” he said, “In everything. I … don’t think of her anymore when I think of things like dates, or even just, you know, training, or a walk. I don’t think of her like that anymore, but, you, I …” he shook his head as his thoughts began to race, almost in a frenzy as he tried to say it right, in a way that wouldn’t leave her looking at him with that slight doubt in her eyes anymore.

“So … so that time, I just didn’t know what to tell you. It felt like it would be the wrong answer, but… I just couldn’t make something up,” he finished. He tried to smirk. “I suck at the ‘thinking on my feet’ thing, we know that.”

She didn’t smile in return; on the contrary, her expression became even more worried.

“It’s … it’s the wrong answer, isn’t it?” he asked dejectedly, heart sinking.

“Naruto-kun, I’ve really hurt you, haven’t I?” she asked quietly instead of answering. He blinked down at her, not sure what to say… then he remembered the last time he had said nothing to a tricky question, and ploughed ahead. Maybe with Hinata-chan he should just come out and say it, even if he thought she wouldn’t like it.

“It- it wasn’t easy, no,” he replied, clearing his throat uncomfortably when she seemed to droop. He hurriedly continued; “but if I can still hope that, you want to … I mean, if you want me back, I…”

He blushed hard and turned to look at the sunset again. Man, he sounded like a complete idiot. And he probably put her in a bad position. If she didn’t want, she’d have to refuse, and …

“You still want to?” she asked instead.

“With all my heart,” he answered, and he felt his face get hotter again when he felt like a moron. But his heart was beating frantically, and his mouth was dry, and he really, really wanted to know what she’d answer.

“I … I was selfish, and I avoided you for so long,” she said in a small voice. “I thought … I thought I needed to put distance between us, that I had been dreaming something that wasn’t there, but if I’d given you chance to explain, I, um,” she stopped, and Naruto frowned when he saw her wipe two more tears off her face. “If I hadn’t been stupid, we wouldn’t both have hurt so badly. I’m so sorry, Naruto-kun, so sorry. Why, why would you…”

She stopped again, and this time she wiped her face directly against his shoulder. For some reason, this just made something twang in his heart region, and with a fond smile, he pulled his arm out of her grip and put it around her, pulling her against his side.

“Hinata-chan, that’s a stupid question,” he said. She sniffed in surprise, blinked and looked up at him, and he chuckled, ducking to touch his nose with hers. Some of the anxiety was leaving, and the relief he’d first felt at her admission, when she’d first said that she still loved him, was returning to warm his belly from the inside out. He rested his forehead against hers, making her go somewhat cross eyed. He thought it was the cutest damn thing in the world. “You make me really, really happy, Hinata-chan. So why the heck shouldn’t I want to snatch you back up, huh?”

She jerked back, but it was only so she could look at him better. Her eyes scanned his face, but he didn’t mind; he wanted her to look as much as she wanted, to search for anything she liked in his stupid borrowed face – he had no idea how she was going to find stuff when he didn’t even look like himself, but screw it! He wanted her to see it, what he was talking about. He didn’t have the foggiest idea how to say it better. He knew there was probably a better way to say this, something more mushy, or more romantic. But heck if he knew what it was! So he let her look, at all his face, at his eyes, for as long as she needed.

Meanwhile, he could indulge in looking at her. Her skin was a bit paler than usual, and blotchy, almost like she’d recently been through a work out. The sunset around them gave her cheeks a sort of glow anyway though; and what the heck did he care? It was Hinata-chan, and she was close enough to kiss.

The same thoughts had to have been going through her mind, because a moment later, her hand was caressing his cheek and running through his hair, and then she moved up and kissed him hard, harder than the time when he’d found her in his hospital room. His arms lost no time in circling her, then pulling her more comfortably into his lap when his back began to process the odd angle. Her lips pressed against his insistently, her nails running against his scalp until he moaned into her mouth and shuddered, leaving himself open to her deepening the kiss.

He responded with just as much enthusiasm, massaging her tongue with his own as his skin began to feel unbearably hot, his heart beat like taiko in his chest, and his ears sorta whistled with the beat’s echo. Everything in him told him to pull her closer, and hold her tighter, and just plain press her against him till there wasn’t any air between them at all. The feel of her breast against his chest drove him crazy, and he had begun to curl forward before he had even realized what he was doing.

When she pushed away for air, gasping pretty badly, the only thing he could do was groan, and try to capture her mouth again. On the second attempt, she didn’t evade his lips again, and this time, he took the initiative and suckled her bottom lip like he remembered her doing before… it had felt absolutely fucking fantastic for him, and he hoped that if the noises she was making meant anything…

She let out a small moan, and he almost lost control there and then when he realized it was because his hand had somehow – by error, he swore! – ended up cupping her rear and squeezing. Blood rushed to his head as he pulled away suddenly, feeling unexpectedly light headed and a mix of adrenaline, lust and guilt at his hand being right there. Hinata-chan just blinked back at him, appearing just as out of it as he felt, blush high on her cheeks and breathing hard. Her hands came out of his hair and down on his shoulders as she tried to steady herself, and then her eyes went three times as wide as she froze.

He, on the other hand, wasn’t able to suppress a mortified shudder, as well as a choked groan. Hinata-chan gave a tiny squeak but didn’t otherwise move to get herself off him, which wasn’t helping his situation much.

Down below, meanwhile, the ‘spare kunai’ had become enterprising, and was enthusiastically poking Hinata-chan in the thigh. If she’d missed it last time in the hospital room, she was definitely not missing how turned on he was now.

Now just nail her, you fucking moron, the Kyuubi hissed, making him choke again and almost scramble backwards. Hinata-chan, for her part, just kept getting redder and redder, but finally, she ducked her head, hugged him, buried her face in her chest, and stayed right there.

Naruto blinked at the sunset, which was almost over at this point, not sure what he was supposed to be feeling. He’d made up with Hinata-chan, of that he was sure. He’d kissed her for the first time in weeks and … and like last time, I couldn’t help it; all the feelings, sensations, of being this close to her just weren’t enough. His body was still incredibly hot, and he could still feel his heartbeat everywhere, even in his toes. He was happy, embarrassed, a little shy, and so damned horny he had no idea what to do with himself.

And Hinata-chan was sitting in his lap, knew he was turned on, and she didn’t seem to mind …

He didn’t think he’d ever been this happy before.

Deciding, fuck it, if she wasn’t making an issue about it, he wouldn’t either, he gladly buried his burning face into her curtain of hair, instantly relishing the feel of the cool silky strands against his hot cheek. She smelt so incredibly good, and when he breathed on her neck she cringed and chuckled, making him feel even lighter until he was chuckling too. The chuckles evolved into quiet laughter, until both of them where giggling happily like two total morons.

And he didn’t give a damn. Heck, if Jiraiya saw see him right now, he’d never live it down, but he still wouldn’t give a damn. Hinata-chan was right there with him again, happy to be with him again, and holding him close. She was kissing him and laughing with him, face flushed and eyes shining, and he’d trade it with nothing.

He dove down and kissed her again, simply unable to get enough of her anymore, and left her breathless.

“Naruto-kun,” she said, her voice slightly deeper than usual and making him shudder for some inexplicit reason.

“Yes, Hinata-chan?” he asked back. The colour on her face rose a little more, and she smiled widely and happily at him.

“I missed you too,” she said, still in her low, quiet voice. “So much. All the time.” She chucked his nose with hers, escaping his questing lips long enough to ask, “can we … can we promise not to do this again?”

“Hmm?” he asked, too distracted by her mouth to really pay attention. She solved that problem by grabbing his chin and giving it a little shake. Blinking, he allowed her to look him in the eye and capture his attention.

“Let’s not do this again,” she repeated, her voice serious. “Let’s always, always talk about things, please? Not let them worry us, or not speak to each other like these weeks?”

“I like that,” he said, stealing a kiss despite her best efforts. Then he continued, sounding slightly petulant. “And don’t look at me like that! I looked for you all over and brought you flowers to that damn house of yours every day. According to that little brat you saw me with, your sister was out for my head and didn’t let any of it get to you.”

“What!” Hinata-chan asked, eyes going wide. He felt inexplicably smug in ratting her sister out.

“That’s right,” he went on. “I think I bought more lilies this week than any guy’s bought flowers in his life,” he said, pouting at her. “I had to go around! With flowers! In my hand! And your sister didn’t even give them to you!”

Hinata-chan just laughed then, the noise ringing clear and happy in the air around them, and he laughed with her. Pulling her closer and letting his cheek rest against the curve of her neck, he dropped a few kisses on any part of her he could reach before he calmed down and closed his eyes.

“I agree…” he said. “Yes, let’s … Let’s make a promise, Hinata-chan. We never, ever go to sleep without having solved a quarrel again. I promise. And I don’t go back on my word.”

“It is my nin-do too, Naruto-kun,” she whispered back. “You inspired me, and so I adopted your nin-do… I promise, Naruto-kun. We’ll never part ways or go to bed without solving a problem again.” Taking a deep breath, she completely buried her face in his shoulder and mumbled something.

“What?” he asked, squeezing her to him and moving away to nudge her with his nose until she’d turned her head enough for her to speak properly.

“I-I said,” she repeated with a stutter, making him immediately note how red she’d become. “You … you sound like you want to stay for a long time.”

He grinned like an idiot.

“As long as you’ll have me,” he whispered back, sinking down to kiss her again. She muttered his name against his lips, and didn’t answer him, but the look in her eyes was enough. After all, there was only so many times a woman could say that she loved you before it really took root.

The sun sank around them, and night blue took over the sky together with twinkling stars, but neither noticed, nor cared. Naruto sure didn’t; Hinata-chan was back with him, right there, and there was nothing in the world that could have fucked this day up.

.o0o.

“This is some really good work,” Tsunade said, reviewing the thick file that the man in front of her had just handed over to her and finished explaining in minute detail. His daughter, brought in some time ago by a young boy from one of the clans, was curled up in his lap and asleep. “I really can’t thank you enough. This is going to be invaluable when things start rolling seriously fast.”

“No, please,” the man said, shaking his head. “Hokage-sama, you have already done so much for us. I only wish I could do more.” Tsunade simply smiled.

“You are happy to be here, and I can already see that you are going to bring up your children in the traditions of the Will of Fire,” she said proudly, watching the man smile and nod. With an answering gesture, she continued, “Then you are doing everything that this village needs, Mitsu-san.” She chuckled, waving towards the little ball of dress and pigtails. “I’ve kept you long enough, Mitsu-san. Go; you both need rest.”

The man rose, giving her a deep bow even as his arms were full of his sleepy, slightly disgruntled daughter, who appreciated being jostled awake none at all. Tsunade laughed and asked him to send her regards to his wife as he exited, attempting to placate the tiny girl as she started moaning something about a prince and a princess. A grin the size of a dinner plate took over her face; kids! They were always so cute (as long as they weren’t her own, and she was well past the danger of that). She couldn’t wait until Naruto gave her a few to spoil rotten! Then they’d see how much he’d enjoy being driven nuts by hyperactive balls of energy – possibly wearing orange, too.

“Is it done, then?”

Her reverie was interrupted by the timely entry of one of her most loyal - via window. She was honestly contemplating inserting a doggy-flap on all the windows of her office, in the hopes that the humiliation would keep them away.

Then again, the major offenders would only find it amusing; or appropriate – Kakashi would, the brat – or disregard it completely. Naruto had possibly had enough humiliation to last him a lifetime too.

And then Jiraiya, who was now hopping off the windowsill and coming towards her, would find a way to be dramatic about it – possibly in the bedroom. Shaking her head, she just smirked when he came around her desk to sift through the papers.

“This is some good work,” he muttered, eyes scanning page upon page of information which she knew he was memorising. She had already absorbed half of it just through the first cursory view-through. She was, after all, the Hokage of Konoha.

“It is,” she replied simply, leaning back into her chair as she watched the stars beginning to come out over Jiraiya’s bowed back. “This makes it easier. And faster.”

“Yes. In that case, with all this … yes, we can leave sooner, can’t we?” he whispered. She simply nodded without turning to look at him, knowing he’d catch the movement.

“I’ll send the goods, then.” Jiraiya’s white mane ruffled in response, and she half-smiled.

Well, she just hoped Naruto had followed her advice. The ball had just been set to roll.

.o0o.

The birds were just beginning to make a niusance of themselves, the sun peeking over the buildings and filling a curtainless apartment with blinding light. A parcel, tagged to be from Suna, from a shinobi called Matsuri, was slipped in through the letter box and flopped thickly onto the floor beneath the door.

Outside, the village woke up to just another day. Inside, Hinata and Naruto cuddled close to ward off the early morning chill, finally sleeping peacefully after many resless nights.

.o0o.

Omake

Hobbling on a crutch made out of twigs and lily-leaves, Naruto traversed the unsteady and often very exotic-looking world of his summons. Mt Myouboku was a lush, beautiful place, with thick leaves, multi-coloured flowers, and multi-coloured toads to go with it. Though Naruto was still in quite a lot of pain, and had to stop to catch his breath after every few minutes between his unusual gait due to the crutch and his general feeling of weakness, he could still appreciate the vegetation that spanned the whole horizon and spread from rock to trees to plain to marshland.

Right now though, Naruto wished it would be a lot less ‘marsh’ and a lot more ‘dry land’, because if his foot sank into the mud one more time, he was going to start flinging any stone he could find at anything that moved until someone came and got him out.

Right on cue, a large orange head emerged from the water right next to him, horizontally barred eyes blinking at him curiously.

“Yo, comrade, what you doing out of bed?” Gamakichi asked, rising so that all of his head and some of his torso was out of the water.

“Pa said I could,” Naruto said - well, he hadn’t said exactly that, but he’d also said he had to talk to Jiraiya, and that meant leaving the medical …er…lily pad, so he wasn’t technically lying. Maybe. “I’m trying to find my perverted old sensei, have you seen him anywhere?”

“He’s over at ‘Nima, where else?” the young toad said with what could pass for a smirk on a human face. Naruto groaned loudly, smacking his free hand against his forehead. He’d been hoping that Pa had been joking when he’d said Naruto would have to rescue his teacher from the bottle, since Gamanima ran the best well-stocked bar on the mountain, there was little chance of that being a metaphor anymore.

“Trying to drink my pa into the ground,” the toad went on, followed by a snort. “Like that’s about to happen. If he had a pipe that went straight down from his mouth to his piss-hole, he’s still be on his back with only one of my pa’s cups.”

“Ah, e-he-he-he…” Naruto answered lamely, trying to follow his cue and laugh at the joke while the pain and worry kept distracting him. Gamakichi seemed not to mind or notice. “Um, hey – think you can point me there?”

“I’ll do you one better, bro,” Gamakichi replied, hopping out of the water completely and landing in front of the Konoha nin, sending mud spluttering everywhere. Naruto wasn’t one to complain about splattered trousers though, only idly wondering what the heck the coats they wore were made of to make them so water-proof.

“Get on, bro,” Gamakichi said, nodding towards back. Bunching up his muscles to leap, his body answered the abuse very loudly and very unpleasantly. Naruto groaned and nearly sank into the slush of earth and water beneath him, only to be saved by a large webbed hand. “Take it easy, yeah? Ma will kill me if you bleed again.”

“Yeah, I know,” Naruto chuckled, letting the large toad help him onto his back and then settling down into a folded-leg position, balancing the crutch on his knees as they entered the pond again.

“So… who’s this Hinata-girl Pa talked about?”

Naruto tried not to slip off his friend’s back and into the murky waters when he turned to look at him. He snickered instead, picking at a protruding leaf in the vine that wrapped the crutch together.

“Oh, well, you see…” he said with a wide grin, scratching his cheek.

“She your new, ya know.” Gamakichi raised a hand above water level, pinky finger sticking up. Naruto burst out laughing, only to clutch his chest moment later, cursing under his breath.

“Shit, shit!” he hissed, while the swimming frog beneath him tooted. “Don’t give me that! And anyway, yeah, I’m … seeing her.”

“It serious?” the toad asked in interest. Naruto looked at the loping ripples that Gamakichi had left behind him, catching his own reflection for bare instances in some of the facets of the water slopes.

“I’m beginning to hope so, yes,” he whispered in admission, scratching his cheek again.

“Cool,” Gamakichi croaked in excitement. Naruto looked at him in askance. “Next time you’re in the village, make sure you summon me and Gamatatsu, ok?”

“How come?” Naruto asked, beginning to feel slightly uncomfortable with the direction this seemed to be taking.

“Because it’s our turn to play ‘chase the girl’. Uncles Gamaken and Gamahiro got to do it last time… though now that I think about it…” The toad’s voice turned nervous “Your girl isn’t anything like your mum, is she?”

“What?!”

“Well, last I heard of it from Ma, your mum almost handed uncle’s head to him, and I pretty much like mine where it is… and tell your girl to wear white, eh? No fun to get her wet otherwise.”

Passing toads would later mutter about impatient youth when they saw Naruto try to head-choke Gamakichi in the middle of the pond. Couldn’t they have waited till the biped was on dry land before they started play-wrestling?

.o0o.

to be continued...


Phew, dear Lord, that is done.

Huge, and I mean HUGE, props go to Kat, my best friend and beta, who was faced with the double torture of my wordiness and her allergy to too-much-angst. You can all imagine how much guts this girl has to tackle this particular sea-monster of a chapter, and how much she suffered. So, a round of applause please! I mean it, go on, clap. Or the next chapter will be a sentence involving rocks falling and everyone dying.

Happy Valentine’s Day! I hope you like your angst-riddled, all-is-well-that-ends-well chapter. Love and peace out.

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Conservation: Part I

posted Feb 14, 2011, 5:04 AM by Pichi Herp   [ updated Feb 14, 2011, 5:16 AM ]

Disclaimer: Abandon Canon all ye who enter here. This officially splits off from the source material for good (mainly the manga, but the anime also for some scenes, since I don’t care what Kishit says, women kick ass too). And due to his chauvinistic tendencies, I’m proud to say that no, I do NOT own Naruto canon, thanks.

AN: Another mammoth, I know ... this chapter is actually longer, and I had to split it up in two, to avoid turning people into drooling puddles. Which is still a danger, as you can see below :p

As a blanket disclaimer, I’m going to say the following: I have lifted - with permission, but also impunity and British cheek - WhyMustIWrite’s Iruka from his/her ‘Paperwork’ series. This Iruka model comes complete with the Master Henge, a technique I wholly credit Why’ for - and I am told it was inspired by GoldenKisamu’s stories, so I’m playing telephone. In either case, I prefer Why’s writing, and strongly recommend it.

WARNINGS:

This story may cause:

Drooling - either from length or fluff. Please consult your midic nin

Rash due to old-people sex mental images. Blame Kankurou

Fits of rage towards stupid blondes, stupid brunettes and stupid pinkettes

If you feel your body can take that, then welcome, to the fourth instalment of …

Icha Icha Physics



Her back was against the tree trunk, her knees tucked beneath her to one side while her toes curled in the grass below her. Long black hair was caught on the wind, lifted in one corner like a sheer curtain, catching the sunlight in an irregular pattern of indigo highlights.

Her fingers danced in time with the breeze, up and down the wooden instrument as they opened and closed the holes to weave a tune. The brass fittings on the flute flashed as she twisted at the waist along with the tune, nodding and twitching as the music became more lively.

The scene around her began to waver, like a ripple on the flat surface of a lake, or heat waves rising off cobbles in summer. The tune became slightly less intelligible and the air around became muffled.

Then, like a sharp glimmer of a blade catching the light, the picture shuddered, her image flickered out all together, and then the rest of the scene vanished from the outside in, becoming blackness like a piece of oiled paper being eaten by flames.

He opened his eyes to look at a pipe-filled and dingy ceiling, the noise of water droplets opaque and hollow. He raised his head laboriously, and noticed that he was lying splay-angled in ankle-deep water. With a groan, he let his head fall back with a splash and frowned at the tunnel walls.

“Why the heck am I here again?” he grumped, stamping the urge to fling his limbs around in utter frustration. Last thing he remembered… heck, he had no idea what was the last thing he remembered.

“What a well mannered host,” came the growl from behind him.

“Gah!”

He floundered upright, then twisted at the waist to find himself a few feet away from the always tall and imposing cage bars that meant he was in his mindscape with his guest. With a sound groan, he pushed to his feet and walked up to the metal doors, pointedly ignoring the fiery eyes and storey-high teeth as he sank down in a huff, his back resting against a cool metal bar.

“Why the heck am I here again? And why here? I usually end in one of the other corridors,” he grumbled under his breath. The Fox, of course, heard well enough.

“Maybe the little human got lonely,” it hissed, coming close enough to the bars that its hot breath ruffled his captor’s blonde hair.

“Ew, breath mint, much?” Naruto said snidely, not liking the Fox’s tone. Ever since they had started the tandem training, the Youma had been able to get into his thoughts and dreams more often. The shinobi didn’t like it one bit. The Fox’s comment was obviously geared towards his previous dream about Hinata.

“Insolent human!” it roared, slamming itself against its cage. Naruto pointedly ignored the claws that had scraped the metal just a few metres away from his shoulder and sighed.

“Could you get any older? You’ve called me ‘insolent human’, what? A thousand times now?” He scratched his ear and yawned. “Say something else! Make something up! I mean geez, Fuzz, even Hachi’s better than you at the name calling!”

“Don’t call me that!” it yelled, almost slamming itself against the seal again. Naruto didn’t turn around, but he knew from the noises and the position of the Kyuubi’s voice that it was prowling around its cage. Maybe making it angry was not the best idea, but he was feeling frustrated, annoyed, and all around bummed. The Kyuubi was the only one around to enjoy that, so by the gods, he would eat it.

Damnit, you troublesome idiot, wake up!

Naruto blinked, but the Fox’s growl behind him caught his attention. Finally looking around, he was just in time to duck before a set of fiery, fuzzy tails swished by where his head had been, half coming out the bars in tufts of flaming fur.

“Aw man, come on Fuzz, it’s only a nickname. You’ve called me lots of worst things,” he said. The Kyuubi ignored him, resolutely settling down with its back to its host, two of its tails flicking in annoyance. “Man you’re such a drama queen.”

“I’m a male you fool,” was the furious answer. Naruto chuckled.

“You mean there’s more than fuzz at your rear end? Because I swear, with all those fluffy tails, I-”

The resounding growl almost rocked the mental chamber, echoing down the corridors and making the water around the floor vibrate.

“Ok, ok, I got it, no ball digs.” Naruto looked back at his reluctant partner, who was still giving him its back. Tapping one of the bars with a knuckle, he went on in a voice that was almost concerned. “Yo, Kyuubs, what’s crawled up your butt? Got indigestion or something?”

There was another growl, but it was a much more mollified one. The bloody fox was an evil bastard who he wouldn’t trust with a ten foot pole and ninja gloves, but for as long as he was alive and kicking, he was going to have to live with it. Bee had drilled that into his head long enough.

The Fox, too, had seemed somewhat more … tolerant after the eight tails had spoken to it directly once, with the aid of a Yamanaka. Naruto had no idea what had been said between the two biiju, but Bee, who had been conscious for all the exchange, had been in a grumpy huff for days after that.

As of right now, though, Naruto had offered a truce with the lack of the hated nickname, and judging by that subdued growl, the Kyuubi was taking it.

“I am sick, as a matter of fact,” the Youma declared, turning its head barely enough to nail him with one red eye. “Sick of your stupid human courting, and your insistence on plaguing me with images of this new female. Take her, if you want her! She seems responsive enough, unlike the other one, so stop being a weak male and finish what you start.”

Naruto looked at the large, evil and powerful creature that his forefathers had feared, that his father had died to seal and that he himself had suffered for at the hands of his own village, and for the first time, did not know what to say.

The Fox’s eye narrowed at his slack-jawed expression, the growling pitch rising somewhat. Remembering himself, the blonde ninja just frowned and faced front again.

“Dunno how you dealt with your girls, Kyuubs, but human females don’t work that way,” he replied, scratching his cheek. “Heck, human males don’t work that way, either.”

The Kyuubi snorted. Naruto turned a rather fetching shade of red.

“Yeah, ok, so she’s hot,” he grumpily admitted. Bee had warned him of this when they had started the training; the biiju would know his thoughts, and even have access to his dreams. While the seal remained untouched, his greater collaboration with the Kyuubi gave it more insight into his dreams and mind. It didn’t help that he had the actual seal scroll himself, so he could wind and unwind the lock as tightly as he wanted.

And his recent dreams about Hinata hadn’t all been that innocent.

Admittedly, they hadn’t done more than train together and go out for a few dates. Holding hands in public and a few stolen kisses had been the most they’d managed before they had been called out to different missions. He’d spent the last few weeks in the company of three smelly men, all of which had, to one degree or another, tried to give him love advice of their own, thinking he would need it pretty badly since he was … well, himself.

Yo, Naruto-bro! Don’t dare leave us in the middle of the Datteba-YO!

“You’re doing it again,” the Kyuubi hissed.

For a moment, Naruto felt disoriented, as if he had two different ear pieces, each one connected to a different team. Then he shook his head and it was gone.

“Doing what again, damn fox?” Naruto asked tiredly. Why did he feel so sleepy all of a sudden?

“Thinking about that female,” spat the Youma, finally turning enough to half-face Naruto. The ninja replied with a half-hearted groan.

“Look, it’s my head, and I’ll think about her if I like, ok? Besides, it’s a lot more fun than talking to you.” A long growl. “Well, it is! If you made an effort to be more … more… less you, maybe I’ll change my mind. Yeesh.” He let his head fall back against the bars, idly letting his eyes roam the pipe-riddled ceiling. “What’s your problem with her anyway? It’s only been four, maybe five months that I started dating her? That’s not really long enough to get bored of a girl where you come from, is it?”

“It usually lasted a night. If she survived. Two, if she was enough fun or the seed didn’t catch.”

Naruto winced, scratching his cheek as he felt colour rising. “Gees, thanks for the info. Remind me never to set you up or anything.”

“I still do not understand why you do not push her to the grass and be done with it,” the Kyuubi replied, sounding almost interested. “Your regard for this female seems more pronounced than the other you pursued. She responds to you positively. And your desire for her is there.”

“Can we … can it, on the whole ‘have your way with the girl’ thing?” answered a very flustered Naruto. What the heck had gotten into the fur ball, all of a sudden? It almost sounded like it was interested in viewing the situation as a problem, a query to be solved and answered.

“Why?”

“Argh!” Naruto threw his hands in the air and let them splash down around him. “Look, like I said, humans work different, ok? I don’t just want to bang her or anything-”

“You do.”

“Ok, ok!” he finally admitted. He was so sure he was red enough to rival Hinata herself right now. Damned the bloody fox, why the heck was he bringing Hinata up at all! “So she’s hot, and gorgeous, and she’s got those great hooters that drive me nuts when we spar! There, you happy now?”

“No,” came the fox’s reply, and Naruto was ready to scream for more than one reason. For starters, reaching through the bars and strangling the nine tails was sounding like a good idea. For another, the said nine tails had come a lot closer to the bars than it had previously been, judging by the voice. He had to bite his cheek to keep from yelling in surprise.

“I want to know why, since you find her so appealing, you haven’t moved on to what should happen next,” the fox went on, face almost smashed against the bars of the seal.

“Because for one thing, her dad would kill me.” The fox snorted – and it was close enough to remind Naruto that it needed breath mints again – though he wasn’t sure whether it was in relation to Hiashi’s power to overtake Naruto, or whether it disbelieved that a mere human could kill it. “And for another … look, you think, you’re intelligent. You get pissed off and you get annoyed. Don’t you guys, I dunno … love?”

“Love is a human concept,” the Kyuubi replied disdainfully. “Is that the only reason you are holding back? Some petty emotion?”

“Hey, don’t diss it if you haven’t tried it!” Naruto replied furiously, turning around to glare at the creature. He didn’t back down even when he found himself eye-to-eye with the massive red snout and smouldering gaze of his tenant. “I don’t expect you to understand, but Hinata-chanloves me, ok? It took me a while to get my head around that one, but she does, so don’t you go throwing it cheap because of your stupid ‘human’ this-and-that nonsense!”

The nine tails’ growl rose in pitch, but its glance never wavered from his.

“What about you?”

“I said-- … What?” Naruto blinked up at the nine tails, not having expected a question at all.

“I asked, stupid one,” it said in a voice that would have been fit for a three year old with cognitive problems, and ignoring its host’s “Heeey!” of indignation. “Do you ‘love’ this female.”

“Ack, well, I … not yet, no, I don’t think. What do you care anyway?!”

“You insist on plaguing me with her. I intend to find a solution to this problem.”

“Hinata is not a problem!” Naruto returned, his anger rising. “Stop talking about her like that!” The Youma simply kept looking at him steadily. Naruto refused to drop his eyes, but there was something there, something in the look that the Kyuubi was giving him that …

Finally, with a huff, the boy just turned facing forward, intent on ignoring the creature behind him. Unfortunately for him, there was no way the Kyuubi was going to accept that arrangement.

“So you do not love her. And yet you are filled with thoughts of her. You remember her scent. You worry about her health. You lust after her and you long for her.” Naruto did not deign the Kyuubi with a reply. After a few seconds, it went on. “If this ‘love’ can cure you of this idiotic behaviour, then get it.”

“Again, it doesn’t work that way, gyaa,” was the human’s reply as he buried his face in his hands. The Kyuubi growled, then, obviously losing its patience.

“Then explain, foolish human! Is your tiny mind incapable of speaking in small sentences?”

“Flattery will get you nowhere, Fuzzy,” Naruto hissed back. The growl increased again to the point of echoing, but this time, Naruto simply ignored it until the Kyuubi gave in. “Look, this whole love thing… you can’t say it in words. Even in ‘tiny sentences’, douche bag. You either feel it, or you don’t. And you know what else? These thoughts about Hinata? They’re not going away, so you’d better deal with them. Actually, I’ll be thinking about her more and more now, just because I know it pisses you off, and because it’s great to think about her! It’s a win-win for me!”

“Ah. So you enjoy your thoughts of her?”

Had Naruto not been sitting down, he would have toppled over. What was with the fox and the questions from left field today?!

“Of course I do! What sort of dumb question is that?”

“Why?”

… Did the fox want to die or something? Because he was sure its pelt would make a sweet mat in the Hokage office once he took over that joint.

“Because, dumbass! It’s the whole ‘no good in small sentences’ thing, again! Look, just…” A thought struck the young shinobi then and he shut his mouth with a clack. Bee had been teaching him something the other day… something that would really break through to the Youma if he managed it, but …

“Huma-”

“Shh, give me a sec,” he hissed quietly, letting his eyes close and his head fall back against the bars. Concentrating, he brought up images of the young kunoichi, her hair, her smile, her smell, all the things about her that had been keeping him up just listening to his heart beating wildly even when it wasn’t his turn on the watch. A smile spread on his face without him knowing, and he took a deep breath.

“Look,” he whispered, “I can’t tell you, but … here. This is why I can’t get her out of my head.”

He didn’t know if it was working, but from the silence behind him, he somehow knew it was. He let the emotions wash over him before he pushed them towards the creature behind him, trying to make it understand what affection, care and whisperings of human emotions were.

He almost got lost in the feeling. He and Hinata hadn’t really been seeing so much of each other, but … it was so exhilarating, to have someone whose face lit up when she saw him, who didn’t mind that he was a messy eater and actually enjoyed wiping his face down with paper towels. She wasn’t ashamed of his apartment, even if she was used to living in sprawling grounds, and her room was probably bigger than his small place as a whole. He felt like puffing his chest out to bursting point when he moved around the street with her hand in his, and when she looked up at him with those eyes? Usually there was a small crinkle to them because she was smiling, at him. Sometimes, when he made her laugh hard enough, she would lean against him briefly, and a sharp thrill would zing through his chest. Making fun of himself and acting like a total fool was worth it if he managed, just for that one second, to make her forget that she was a Hyuuga, and have her head against his shoulder for a moment.

They were new feelings for him. He wasn’t a total stranger to physical closeness. Iruka, Ero-sannin, and even Sakura-chan had hugged him before. He’d gotten slaps on the back and arms around shoulders from comrades. But the touch of a girl? One that wanted to touch him and blushed because he got close? It was just awesome.

He opened his eyes sleepily, smiling like a goof ball, and not caring a whit. He sighed, letting his feet slide forward and resting his wrists on his knees.

“You get it now?”

A few seconds passed before Naruto shook himself out of his daze and realised that the room around him was completely silent. Blinking, Naruto turned around, only to have his eyebrows disappear into his hairline.

The Kyuubi, mightiest of all tailed beasts, was lying with its snout flat against the cage’s ground, one massive paw on each side. One side of its mouth was lifted in what looked like a snarl, large canine gleaming, but its eyes belied it.

It had a look that was most likely similar to the one he’d sported a few seconds ago. Naruto had no idea what to make of that.

So instead, he smirked. Bee was going to insist on a night out hitting the beer joints for this, he was sure, but that didn’t bother him as much as it should have. Somehow, he knew that this was a major breakthrough, one that would help him in the future more than he knew right now. This felt almost like the time when he’d mastered the Sage Arts with Fukusaku.

Resisting the childish urge to punch the air, he gave the cage his back and stretched, yawning. He really was feeling incredibly sleepy. Oh, and why was he here again? He’d never really figured it out.

Scratching his hair, he decided he might as well exit the chamber, which woke him up sometimes. He started walking towards the doorway to the pipe-y corridor when his steps made him falter.

He hadn’t realised before. He’d thought they were reflections of the Youma’s aura on the water covered ground. However, now that he moved, the water rippled and splashed under his feet, but the slithering waves of red did not.

He spun back towards the cage in a panic, realising that, yes, a massive amount of energy was leaving the fox, snaking through the bars in tendrils of red chakra that was entering the walls and pipes, and snaking on the water towards a deeper point of his body.

“Fox, what the fuck are you doing!”

The fox, still seeming half drugged and subdued, came to in a snap, eyes blinking then zeroing on him.

“More,” it hissed.

“What?!”

“Give me more!”

That was the moment Kakashi decided to empty a bucket of water on his head.

He came around, spluttering and choking, coughing for all he was worth. His chest hurt, his sides hurt, his feet and legs and arms and head hurt. Shit, his hair hurt.

“Wha- … where? Huh?”

The relieved face of his teacher appeared, one visible eye closing and shoulders sagging as a sigh let all the tension out of him.

“Ma, Naruto, don’t ever do that to us again, neh?” Kakashi said in a rather faint voice.

“Bro, I’ll have yo balls if you scare the shades off me like this, read me?” Bee yelled, stomping out of the tent (he was in a tent?!) a few seconds later. Shikamaru just haunched his shoulders, gave him a dirty look, and muttered something about needing a fag.

“Err…. What’d I do?”

Kakashi just massaged his nose bridge.

“Ah, if you weren’t one of my cute genin…” he muttered. Naruto would have clobbered him, but for some reason, his arm wouldn’t rise. He raised his head (that hurt too, damnit!) and looked down, only to find himself covered in bandages, gauze and red-tinted cloth. He tried to force his mind back, but he kept coming up blank. “If Jiraiya-sama­ hadn’t been there…”

Ero-sannin?” Naruto croaked, realising that his throat was extremely dry. It was also important that the Toad Sage was here. He couldn’t remember why.

“Yes, thanks to him, we were finally able to disengage from Madara and find refuge, and he managed to summon a medic-toad. Though not as adapt to the medic arts as the Slug clan, this summon saved your life, Naruto. Well, with a little help from … your guest.”

Naruto let his head fall back. It was all muddled up, everywhere hurt, and he was tired.

“Look, promise not to bucket me again?” he muttered weakly.

“I promise.”

“Ok, great. Because I’m taking a nap now. See … ya … in a while.”

.o0o.

He took a deep breath, then laboriously peeled his eyelids open. He was in a tent again, but this time the canvas ceiling was a lot closer than it had been before. That told him that this, at least, was a real tent, and not the one Ero-sannin made appear in his first aid jutsu. Now that he thought about it, he really needed to wheedle that technique out of the old toad.

The air inside the tent was somewhat stale, too, and it was pretty dark save for a bright spot of orange that was flickering on one side. That told him two things; they were lying low, but were safe enough to light a fire, and he had recovered enough that Jiraiya had probably dismissed the medic toad so that he could rest undisturbed.

Well, he was awake now, he decided, and his stomach was too. Heck, it felt like someone had dug a hole in his middle, he was so hungry! However, when he tried to sit up, he had to stifle a cry as pain almost overwhelmed him. His ribs suddenly remembered that they were broken here, here and here, oh, and probably here too. One of his arms was in a sling, and the other was bandaged tight, and there was a splint from his shoulder to his elbow. With a groan, he fell back, realising that he was lying on at least four sleeping bags, judging by the softness and comfort of the swishy material underneath him, and that under that was packed earth, so he wasn’t on a raised bed like last time. This meant that the tent was smaller than he’d thought, and therefore so was the fire; they weren’t that out of danger yet.

His thoughts were interrupted by the flap of the tent zipping open. Four heads tried to compete with each other to access the limited space, Bee trying to come in head and shoulders and elbowing Shikamaru in the eye. Jiraiya solved the situation by practically sitting on the other three.

“Er…” perhaps spending time with Hinata-chan had truly affected his vocabulary, but there was no escaping the awkward and stupid of this situation; he was almost glad he had a new stock of ‘um’s to use.

“Bro, you awake! Don’t frighten yo brothers so bad again, or bones won’t be the only thing you break!”

That was a truly terrible rhyme; Bee must have been really upset.

“As much as I hate agreeing with freak-show here,” Shikamaru added in a flat tone, “I’ll hold you while he punches. So don’t do it again.”

Kakashi, meanwhile, was giving him a strange version of the smiley eye, one where he also had a twitching eyebrow that could have either been due to the toad sage sitting squarely on his small back, or from some residual anger he also had towards his pupil.

Jiraiya, on the other hand, was looking him straight in the eye without any of his dramatics, without blinking, and without saying anything. It didn’t take more than three seconds for Naruto to start freaking out under the constant stare.

“Guys, it’s me, remember? No way am I going down so easy. So no need to get all worked up, ok?”

“Your heart stopped three times.” This was said with a straight face again, no hint of a joke on the toad sage’s part. With a look that was almost an accusing glare, he backed out of the tent flap, leaving the other three a little more breathing room, and Naruto with an almost sick feeling that replaced his hunger.

Hunger. Right, that was an easy topic to talk about, and everyone would expect him to complain about it loudly.

“Hey, would anybody get his ass here and help me up? I’m freakin’ starving!”

As he’d expected, (and hoped), that broke the ice, and all three remaining men scrambled to try to stand upright in the waist-high tent, bumping and hitting each other. Between the three of them they half-lifted, half-dragged his pallet to the small, interred fire they had lit. They’d dug up quite the impressive pit, Naruto realised, and it had only shown up from the tent because it had been so close.

“It’s only a precaution,” Kakashi told him before he could think about it too much. “We’re in Fire Country. We skipped the patrolled border three days ago. You’ve been out for five. Gamatasuo-san helped carry you until we were safe enough.” Turning to the fire, Kakashi took a long, green-centred branch and skewered a fish on it. Shikamaru and Bee had settled on a log opposite, while Ero-sannin was nowhere to be seen. Affixing the fish above the fire, Kakashi turned towards the blonde, lifting the back of the pallet and sticking a backpack behind it so that the injured ninja could, at least, sit up. “You had us all very worried for a while.”

“Oi, stop speaking in understatements, man,” Bee protested indignantly. Eyes covered in shades even this deeply into the night turned towards Naruto disapprovingly. “You almost croaked, and not in the good way your toad friends do, either. If you do that again, on kami I swear, I’ll be the one knocking you out of the game!”

Ok, that rhyme was a bit better. Which meant that Bee wasn’t kidding around on this one.

“What he said,” Shikamaru muttered. And Shikamaru was agreeing with him again. Considering that the man had about as much patience for Bee as Gaara …

“Okay, okay, yeesh!” he yelled, only to wince and curl half off the raised back of his pallet an instant later, his arm coming up to hold his belly even though the part in a splint screamed in response and went up in flames. The sensations left him breathless, and when the wave of blinding pain subsided, he realised he had three pairs of hands holding him up. “Yelling’s bad,” he gasped, “got it.”

“Take it easy, damnit, you troublesome idiot.” Naruto felt himself get laid back down, and it wasn’t before his breathing steadied that all six hands left him. “Madara tried to play doctor and see what the inside of a moron looked like.”

“Gutted you like a fish ready for relish,” was the growled graphic description some steps away. The pain hadn’t subsided enough for him to open his eyes yet.

“Well, I gotta say… I have no idea what you guys are talking about,” he finally said when he could talk again without feeling like his chest would sag open. Hazarding a look down, he realised that patches of his dressing had bled red, and that he wasn’t bound only around the chest area. The bandages went down all the way to his waist, and one of his thighs was bound tightly and splinted too. “Whoa…. He really got me good, didn’t he?”

“You really don’t remember?” Shikamaru muttered disbelievingly

“Hmm. This doesn’t look good. Excuse me,” Kakashi said, rising to his feet and walking into the trees.

“No, I –er – don’t. Where’s Kakashi-sensei going..?”


“Probably to get the Toad summoner,” Bee grumbled. “You need that medic toad again. And the old guy didn’t take you pulling that stunt well at all.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m in the dog-house and you all hate me,” Naruto grunted in return, some of his hunger returning as the smell of fish began to permeate the area. But his fatigue was returning too, and somehow he began to have problems breathing steadily and keeping his eyes open. “I’ve pulled stupid things before, why the heck are you guys all surprised. And … what did I do that pissed you all off so bad?”

His head was pounding and all his limbs felt like he’d added a ton of training weights to them. His breath was coming in shorter, and it hurt every time. His mouth was dry and tasted awful, and his hearing was muffled. It was feeling extremely difficult to keep his head upright and his eyelids from siding down. Someone had stuffed his brain with cotton, and the fire was dimming.

And Bee was whispering. It had to be the end of the world.

The next time he awoke, he was in the large tent again, on a raised bed, and still feeling truly terrible. This time around, he didn’t even try to raise his head off the pillow behind him, and had to convince himself several times in order to open his eyes.

“Pa! He’s awake!”

Blinking, he realized that someone was sponging his forehead. The light coming from above him (this tent had halogen?!) was cut short, and he had to blink five times before his eyes could focus on who was looking down at him.

He found himself looking at the lined eyes of Ma, Pa, Gamatatsuo and … a …cocker spaniel?

“Damn, I did hit my head too hard this time, and Kyuubs is never going to let me live it down…”

“The stupid fox is the least of your problems, tadpole!” Ma yelled, shaking her fist at him and sending water droplets everywhere. “How dare you worry us all like this! I swear, if I weren’t a lady, I’d…”

At which point, she burst into tears and buried her face in the wet cloth she’d been dabbing his forehead with. As disoriented and dizzy as he was, he knew that this reaction was not a good thing. Ma hadn’t cried like this since Pa had been killed during the fight against Pein.

“Oi, Ma, s’ok,” he muttered, trying to raise his arm to pat her back. Fukusaku’s deceptively tiny hand stopped him from moving.

“I wouldn’t do that, Naruto-boy. Try not to move too much, you’re not looking pretty right now.” It was a testament to how out of sorts he was feeling that he didn’t protest too much. For some reason, he was feeling a great deal worse than he had the last time he’d woken up. He saw the dog shake itself and leave from the corner of his eye and spied a Konoha hitai-ate tied to its tail, at least telling him that he hadn’t lost his mind completely.

“Man, will someone tell me what happened?” he finally muttered, blinking around at the three toads. Ma stopped sobbing long enough to sniff and glare down at him again, Gamatatsuo patting her shoulder. Fukusaku folded his arms and gave him a level look.

“What’s the last thing you remember from the battle?” the old toad asked.

“Er … being in the brain sewer with Fuzzy … and that’s it,” the blonde replied, looking up at his teacher expectantly. Fukusaku sighed, rubbed his face and let out a groan.

“Well, meanwhile, you almost died four times, lad,” he answered serenely. At Naruto’s incredulous expression that bordered on rebellious, the toad twacked him on the head, albeit a lot more lightly than usual. “How about three heart failures, and one lung failure in front of the Nara boy and the strange one with the shades?”

“…oh,” Naruto replied. Before he could say anything else, Fukusaku went on.

“We had to bring you here to Myouboku to save your stupid ass. I know you did it to save Jiraiya-boy and … we thank you for that,” Fukusaku’s frown deepened and he stopped for a few seconds before he went on, “But Naruto-boy, next time you plan on saving a comrade, use your brain and don’t just take a direct hit. Jiraiya-boy is not taking it well at all.”

Naruto blinked, his head throbbing and aching, and now he could remember snatches of the fight, and a moment of sheer panic and mind numbing fear when he’d seen whatever Madara had shot on a dead course towards his master.

He remembered the pain he’d felt when he’d been told Jiraiya had been seriously injured, how he’d taken it out on Baa-chan, even though she had been doing her level best to save him. He remembered the fight with Pein, the anger and hatred eating at his soul because even while he fought, he knew that now Konoha was gone, the hospital where Jiraiya had been was destroyed and his master and mentor was dead; and not only him, but Kakashi too, and so many others …

Naruto blinked, as he vaguely remembered throwing himself between Jiraiya and the jutsu that Madara had flung his way. Then he remembered Fuzzy, vaguely he knew they’d talked about Hinata-chan … but nothing more.

“We’re on mount Myouboku?” he said instead, trying to cling onto something with a half-asleep brain.

“Yes, we brought Jiriaya-boy too. The other Konoha-nin and the strange one with the shades said they would go ahead and warn the village; and that dog summon was here to keep them informed. We will be sending you to your Hokage as soon as we’re sure you won’t try to die again the moment we move you.”

Ero-sannin is here, huh,” Naruto said. “And he’s ok? Upset, but ok?”

“Upset! Upset! He’s upset? Not like Jiraiya-boy can talk!” Ma suddenly yelled. “We almost didn’t manage to save him when he took it in his head to fight his first student! If we hadn’t reversed summoned him here and then rushed him to Konoha, he would have died!” And then she was sobbing again. Naruto looked at Fukusaku worriedly, who nodded and wordlessly told the other toad to get her out of there.

“It hasn’t been easy for Ma. She saw Jiraiya-boy grow, and your dad. When Minato-boy died, she was inconsolable, and then Jiraiya-boy almost eats it, and now you … Ma isn’t made of stuff that takes her tadpoles dying so easily.”

“Look… I … I’m sorry. But I’m really not,” Naruto said with a sigh. “I’m sorry Ma’s upset, but there’s no way I’m sorry I saved Ero-sannin’s ass, so where does that leave me?”

“That leaves you in the position most good students end in, one time or another,” Fukusaku said sagely. “The one where they are in the right, but they are also the ones that have to grovel for forgiveness and go get their teacher away from the bar before they drink their livers into mush.”

Naruto winced as much as his body allowed him to. “Ero-sannin’s drowning in the mug again?”

“Like I said, Jiraiya-boy didn’t take it really well,” Fukusaku replied sadly. “He’s already had to survive your father. The fact that he almost outlived you, and in those circumstances … well. You’re going to need to talk to him as soon as you can move without dying two minutes later.”

“Ok, cut it out about the dying,” Naruto almost growled. Seriously, sometimes he thought Fukusaku did it on purpose to piss him off. He was dim, yes, but even he didn’t need this much emphasis.

He got another light twack on the head for his troubles. His ‘owww!’ of protest went completely ignored.

“Rest, for now, tadpole. You have a lot of work to be done once you feel better, and are not about to die again.”

The only thing Naruto could do was glare. Judging by Fukusaku’s nonplussed expression, that didn’t amount to much at all.

“Oh, yes, and another thing, tadpole. Happy New Year.”

The blonde blinked at the toad like he’d grown a second head, then the implications of what he’d just said registered in his tired and addled mind. His eyes got huge, and he would have slapped himself if his body had allowed him.

“Fuck! Hinata-chan is going to kill me!”

.o0o.

Hinata felt a sense of serenity as she walked the Hyuuga gardens with Hanabi-chan after the traditional New Year dinner. Coloured lanterns decked the grounds, illuminating the path enough to see without killing the starlight above. The children of the clan raced across the lanes, screeching with laughter as they waved their sparklers at one another. Three of them came around Hinata and Hanabi-chan, making her chuckle as the elder brother tried to catch the two younger twins, making noises as low as his squeaky child voice could allow while wearing a dragon mask.

“Haku-chan, Haru-chan!” Hinata called as they both grabbed onto her kimono and the fur tucked around her shoulder. Hanabi-chan by her side snickered as the older boy let out what may have wanted to be a roar, causing the younger boys to scream. Hinata was laughing happily along with them, playing their game and pretending to be afraid of their older brother. “Aah! Save me from the dragon!”

“Hinata-himesama! We’ll protect you!” Haku-chan cried, plucking up courage and moving to the front of the girls, holding a blunted kunai out like a sword. Haru-chan, not to be outdone by his brother, also stepped from behind Hinata’s kimono, though slightly more hesitantly. Horyuki-chan, who was subtly trying to get the dragon mask’s hair out of the eye holes, gave a cry of alarm and dismay as the two five year olds launched themselves at him with a war cry. They ended up on the grass with an ‘oomph’, tumbling around in a tangle.

“Haku-chan, give me that kunai, sweetheart,” Hinata said gently while Hanabi-chan laughed her heart out, and was immediately obeyed by the child, who scrambled to his feet to give it to her, bowed and called her ‘princess’, then gave another reedy war cry and jumped back onto his brothers.

Hinata couldn’t help the chuckle that escaped her mouth at the sight, even as she scanned the area to find Umeko-san among the other adults in the garden.

“Hinata-sama,” the elder woman greeted with a bow, accepting the kunai. “I wanted to thank you, for your gifts. Though I dare say, their new kimono will be slightly grass stained tomorrow.” Umeko turned to look at her sons fondly, the twins having both climbed onto their elder brother’s back as he was pretending to try bucking them off like a horse while firmly holding onto their legs.

“Oh, Umeko-san, it is my pleasure,” Hinata said happily, “I’m glad I got their sizes right. I was a bit worried that the bolts of silk wouldn’t be enough for the kimono with enough left for their growth. They grow out of clothing so fast at this age!”

“Oh yes!” Umeko-san laughed, her brown eyes dancing as she followed her sons across the garden. “Horyu-chan! Don’t go next to the pond!” All three women laughed as one of the twins tumbled down and took a second to look around, slightly disoriented, before scrambling onto his tiny feet and pattering behind the other two. “You are so good to us, Hinata-sama, Honzu and I … we would like to thank you…” Umeko seemed to hesitate when she caught Hanabi-chan’s eyes, but then she straightened her shoulders and bowed to Hinata, who couldn’t help but blush.

Ano, Umeko-san, it really is my pleasure. Your sons, and all the young ones of the clan… they are the future of the Hyuuga. They deserve to have as many happy memories as they can make, so that in the future, they will return the love for the clan and give the newer generation happy memories as well.”

They were interrupted by another loud squeak, and they all turned to see all the female cousins and two younger baby boys on their sisters’ hands entering the gardens, garlands in their hair. As one, all of them shrieked as the twins and their brother decided to gang together and run after the girls with grass or insects. Hinata, Hanabi-chan and Umeko­-san all laughed heartily as nearly all the girls scattered, the younger baby boys, barely two and three years of age, running to their mothers. A few of the younger girls tried to find refuge among the older women.

“Hinata-neechan!” one of the youngest, barely three, wailed as she ran to her and curled into her legs, small pudgy hands fisting into her kimono and looking warily at the three boys that were prowling and chasing her other cousins. “Hami-chan scared!”

“Ah, Hami-chan, don’t be!” Hinata said patiently, patting the tiny girl’s head. “We are all here to protect you. And you will protect yourself, too, when you’re older!” Two large, pearly eyes peered up at her, drinking up every word she said. “Have you started your juuken sets yet?” A tacit nod was her answer, her eyes never leaving Hinata’s. “I’m very glad, Hami-chan. Did you know that the first sets are my favourite?” Looking around, she saw that most of the other girls had stopped running to come up to her and were following their conversation, even Haru-chan and Horyuki-chan were there, though Haku-chan was still chasing Himeko-chan with a beetle. “Oh, I have a great idea! Why don’t you show us the first sets, all of you! I would like to see you all doing them together so much!”

“Yes, Hinata-himesama!” Horyuki-chan said instantly, and scrambled to get the young bunch organized. As the eldest present, and the one acknowledged as the most talented of his generation much like Neiji-niisan had been, he was immediately obeyed even by the girls, and soon he had them in three lines, with the younger ones in front. With the help of Harue-chan, the eldest of the girls, he authoritatively herded the adults back, so that they were all seated or standing on the patio or garden fringes, and with his voice as strong as he could make it, he ordered all the children first to stand straight, and then to bow.
“Hinata-himesama!” Haku-chan interrupted before his brother could call the beginning of the exercise. “Can you sing the song of the sets for us! You’re so good at it!”

“Yes!” Haru-chan joined in, “Sing for us! Ah! Maybe you can do it with us, Hinata-himesama!”

“Please!” one of the girls called, and she was soon echoed by most of the children, who turned their gases to her pleadingly.

Ano…” Hinata said hesitantly, blushing and covering her lips with her fingertips.

“Come on, neechan, don’t disappoint your adoring public,” Hanabi-chan said with a mischievous grin, pushing Hinata towards the children. The younger Hyuuga members immediately shifted to accommodate her within their ranks, fanning out to form a diamond around her under Horyuki-chan’s quick directions. Finding herself facing practically all the clan before her, as the noise had gathered a majoring of them on the patio and on the outer parts of the garden, Hinata forced herself not to panic, and instead looked down at all the young children who were watching her with excited, shining eyes.

“Very well,” she said, squaring her shoulders and making sure that her voice was steady. “I want you all to remember; These is the first juuken sets, and so the most important.” She swept a glance across the children and was met with nodded heads and rapt attention. “They are the heart of the juuken, and so the heart of the Hyuuga. I want you all to remember that these sets are about discipline and hard work, but also about meditation, and dance.” She smiled at them all, her heart light with all the young, eager faces in front of her. “When we all move through the sets together, we will be celebrating the music that our forefathers sang when they founded the clan, and we will remember the most important thing.” She straightened, taking a deep breath, then brought her hands up to clap twice before falling into a stance and beginning the song her mother had taught her.

hitotsume no kotoba wa yume
nemuri no naka kara
mune no oku no kurayami wo sotto
tsuredasu no

As she sang, she slowly moved through the stances of the first juuken set any Hyuuga child is taught. The song, together with the sets, represented the philosophy and basis of all the clan’s teachings and beliefs. The first word is dream. Their arms all rose together to guard, but also to point to the sky in a symbolic reminder of the ideal that the first two Hyuuga forefathers had set themselves in the legends. From my sleep, the darkness within my heart is gently lifted. Even with the kimono, Hinata was easily able weave her arms and legs into the stances that corresponded to the notes she sang. She opened her eyes, and a smile creased her face, her heart lifting, as she saw all the children following her as they gently swiped invisible darkness, or opponents, to the side with gentle strokes, coming back to face the patio after a full turn. Her mother had always told her how the first was her favourite stanza; by believing in their dream, their forefathers had created their clan. Hinata couldn’t help but feel a pull in her chest when that also reminded her of another person altogether.

“futatsume no kotoba wa kaze
yukute wo oshiete
kamisama no ude no naka e
tsubasa wo aoru no”

This was when the sets switched to an aggressive stance, even though their pace remained slow, their arms pin wheeling and striking a graceful succession of moves that looked more like a dance than an attack to the untrained eye. The second word was wind. And like the wind, all juuken users were expected to be swift, fleeting and deceptively soft. Hinata made sure to pace herself with the children, being neither too fast, nor too leniently slow. The first sets were the most important, after all. Taking a deep breath, she allowed the middle note of her song to linger as she squared her stance, and together with all the children, performed the hand-seal to activate the byakugan in time for the next line. Telling me my destination, into the arms of a god I flap my wings. A violent attack followed, looking like a set of pyrotechnics to the viewers as juuken strikes attacked imaginary foe, flashes of chakra leaving fingertips at the peak of each arc, in the shape of a basic human’s tenketsu grid. Making sure to lengthen her notes at the end so all the children would still be evenly paced despite their different reach, she side-stepped into the last set.

“mittsume no kotoba wa hum ...”

The third word is hum... Bringing their hands together, all the children and Hinata let a modicum of chakra coat their palms, illuminating their chests. Pushing inwards, the hum of the energy accompanied Hinata’s voice as they stepped through the third set, which was a unification of footwork and chakra control. While their feet performed the correct and complicated steps, their hands let out more and more chakra, increasing the volume of the hum and straining their arms and control. As Hinata finished the first verse, she looked around at the children, noticing how the youngest especially found this part difficult, and were darting glances at her to sing the next verses as quickly as she could. Smiling, she complied, though she made sure to sing at only a slightly faster pace than before.

“mimi wo sumashitara
anata no furueru ude wo
sotto tokihanatsu”

When it will ring in your ears, your trembling arms I will gently release. As she sang, their steps slowed along with the rhythm, and slowly, slowly, she and the children allowed the chakra between their palms to dissipate. Many of the tinier children let out a sigh of relief, while the elder ones whooped and danced around happily. Complying applause came from all the viewers as most of the children gathered excitedly around Hinata and the other adults, eagerly looking up at them and hoping to have impressed enough for praise, hugs and perhaps the promise of a treat. Hinata chuckled as Haku-chan came up beside her and hugged her legs.

“Hinata-himesama sings it best, even better than father,” he said resolutely, as if he were stating the most important thing in the world. She bent down and planted a kiss on his forehead, to which he blushed and beamed, darting away to boast his prise to his brother. No doubt soon, Haru-chan would be running up to claim a similar reward.

By the looks of it, however, Haru-chan was going to have to wait. Hanabi-chan was urgently motioning her towards a rather isolated corner of the garden, and knowing what was at stake, Hinata quickly complied.

“Damn them and their timing,” her younger sister hissed. “I sent Hanaoka-san to run interference, but your little dancing number almost messed the plan up.”

“Hanabi-chan, don’t speak like that,” Hinata admonished lightly, trying to peer around the bushes her sister had dragged her behind. It wouldn’t be much of a hiding place if the elders got determined to find her, but she didn’t have to delay them for long. While the byakugan use was frowned upon within the village or houses unless it was an official mission or emergency, nothing would stop a determined old goat – oh dear, Hanabi-chan had finally influenced her – on a war path.

“Do you have them all?” Hinata hissed urgently when she spotted the three older members of the council approaching Umeko-san. She knew that the woman would stall them as long as possible, and being an outsider of the clan came as an advantage here as she did not have a Curse Seal. However, her husband standing next to her did.

Hinata frowned in distaste at the thought. The activation of the seal would cause unrest and animosity, especially during a festivity like today. However, her grandfather and his cousins weren’t beyond caring less, and Hinata had known for some time now, thanks to her father, that she was running on a short rope.

“Yes, it’s all here!” Hanabi-chan replied, handing her an off-white folder that Hinata flipped through with a nod, then stuffed hurriedly into her sleeve when she saw that Hanzou-sama had begun to stand taller and taller as he spoke with Umeko-san, something he did to intimidate other when things weren’t going his way. “I still don’t get why you just don’t denounce this whole idea publicly, Hinata-neechan,” Hanabi said in an angry undertone. “Everyone knows that you’re not the heir anymore, even if nothing was made official! And I know you don’t believe it when I tell you, but the clan loves you. They’d be up in arms if they saw someone hurt you, unless you did something really, really bad. If father abstains from giving judgment, the other members of the clan will protect you.”

“Some see this that way, Hanabi-chan,” she replied resignedly, nodding towards the folder. “Tradition is tradition, and it has helped to keep the clan alive, so some revere it. Are you sure it’s all in here? Did you manage to acquire what we talked about yesterday with Neiji-niisan?” Panic had begun to grip her heart as stormy clouds were gathering on Hanzou-sama’s forehead, but she pushed it down. She had to do this.

“They might, but neechan,” Hanabi-chan straightened. Then grinned wickedly. “You have it all in there. Even that photo… and an extra copy, if you want to tape it to your ceiling.” Hinata gasped, turning berry red and matching her kimono, while her younger sister snickered at her expense. Then Hanabi-chan’s chuckles pattered out, and she held her elder, taller sister by the shoulders. “You show them, you get me?”

“I will, and you can tell Konohamaru-kun, too,” Hinata smiled. Taking a deep breath, (and pointedly allowing her sister to re-compose herself), she remembered a smiling face and laughing blue eyes, and then she remembered many large, excited Hyuuga eyes looking at her expectantly, waiting for her to begin singing. Large, excited eyes below unmarked foreheads.

Her father’s strict policies on leaving children unmarked until they showed potential, using Neiji-niisan as the perfect example of a prodigy that could have ‘gone to waste’, had allowed all the newer generations of children to remain unmarked if and until they proved themselves capable users of the juuken and Hyuuga bloodline. This was what she had decided to fight for. Her father had left her this one task before leaving the village, and she knew she had to see it to the end.

“I’m going, Hanabi-chan,” she finally whispered, straightening her shoulders and turning to walk around the bush. Her younger sister quickly moved to walk beside her, giving all the people present the impression that they were merely appearing during the natural course of a continued evening stroll. Immediately, and to no one’s surprise, Hanzou-sama fell upon her like a bird of prey.

“Hinata-sama, Hanabi-sama, good evening,” he called, not even waiting until she was at the distance required for courtesy and privacy. Hinata suppressed a frown, following a script she had already decided upon when her father had warned her of this possibility. She would play the meek kitten, frightened, meow pathetically and struggle feebly, just as they expected her to – until they reached a private room. Then her claws would show. After years of running a house, with all its internal struggles and political squabbles, as well as managing all of Hyuuga’s finances and most of their public relations with the rest of the village, she was a well honed spear. Deceptively cumbersome; with an extremely long reach.

The kunoichi bowed complacently, followed by her sister. The bow was answered with a slightly less deep inclination from the older man, and Hinata almost smiled as the members of the clan around them bristling. Most present were of the branch clan, however Hinata made no difference of the support; she saw her family as one, and would mow down anyone who stood in the path of that dream.

Her father, her sister, her cousin; Hinata watched as Hanzou-sama made small talk with her sister, who answered politely if a little stiffly. They had all worked tirelessly in the years since Neiji-niisan’s defeat during the chuunin exams to repair the bridges that had been burned within their family. Policies had been amended, provisions and apologies had been made, and so much more. She knew that Neiji-niisan had gone down on his knees before Naruto-kun, asking for an intercession with his master, Jiraiya-sama, on the beginnings of a new sealing project that couldn’t see the light of day yet. That Naruto-kun had immediately agreed, yelled at Neiji-niisan never to do that again until he was Hokage and then dragged him off for Ramen as compensation was a point of pride for Hinata. She had won a hefty bet with her sister on the outcome of that meeting.

But these three … these three men… they were the stumbling block, the brick wall against which her father had to bump his head almost daily. As a former Head of Clan, Hanzou-sama possessed a number of privileges, and more dangerous yet, a number of supporters within the clan. Anyone who was afraid of change, or simply felt that tradition was never to be touched, found in him an example to follow, and a voice to get behind that spoke where it mattered.

They were an obstacle. And Hinata, in all her meek and loving nature, had decided that if she could do nothing else for the clan, she would do this.

The opportunity had presented itself one night, when her father had warned her to his office, expecting to give her some news that would shake her and frighten her. It had, immensely, and for one moment, she had seen all the happiness and serenity they had fought tooth and nail for devoured by these three men.

Then she remembered that she was Hyuuga Hinata, that she had changed, and that she wasn’t afraid anymore.

She had been out on the battle field. Had killed, once even bare-handed, in order to save her comrades and bring some vital information home. She was no child anymore; one did not remain so in the shinobi world. When one had seen the face of a man turning blue, his tongue curing outwards as his eyes popped, while her fingers never relented in sending wave after wave of deadly chakra into a choking man, one did not remain a child. However, she also knew that she wanted the future children of the clan to be taught what only Naruto-kun had shown her. You are never as strong alone as you are fighting for those precious to you.

Hinata subtly listened to what the men were saying, smiling and nodding in the appropriate places, and wordlessly obeyed when Hanzou-sama invited her for a stroll with him around the grounds. She knew they were going to be doing no such thing.

Following the elder, she felt a twinge of regret that her secondary plans hadn’t come into play. In an ideal situation, he would have been here, kept tightly hidden by Nieji-niisan until the right opportunity came to spring him like a secret weapon. He would therefore have had to be told, coming in to speak with her father and herself regarding the matter, and been given every detail of every move she intended to make if the subject was tackled, in her name … and in his. She knew for a fact that she had uncovered some things about his background that he himself didn’t know, but her father had been adamant when she’d expressed the desire to tell Naruto-kun everything.

Hanzou­-sama had as many ears and arms as an octopus, and could slither out of a net if it had the tiniest hole. It w