Naruto was out of the door like a shot, running as fast as he could after Hinata.
“Hina-chan, hey, wait!” he yelled, but she didn’t slow down. If anything she seemed to run faster. “Damn it!” he muttered and tried to run faster.
All Hinata could think about was that she wanted to get away. Away from him, away from Sora, away from being not enough. Her tears sparkled down her cheeks. She felt as stupid and useless as her days back in Leaf.
He didn’t trust her. He didn’t really think she was worthy of being his partner.
She had to get away, somewhere far away. Somewhere where she could sit down and cry until everything was washed out of her. Then she would be able accept the fact that she was so...useless.
And then, of all the things that could have occurred to her, her worst nightmare happened. Hinata tripped. Her feet went flying out from under her and she tumbled back and to the side to land with a loud splat on her butt in one of the rice patties. She was stuck almost to her elbows in mud.
Naruto breathed a secret sigh of relief as he watched Hinata tumble into the water. He wasn’t happy to see her fall, but if it meant that he was going to get to talk to her, he was more than willing to take the tradeoff.
However he wasn’t so sure when he realized that the price of getting to talk to her included him in the water as well. The moment he hit the spot where Hinata had tripped he went careening face first into the rice patty right next to Hinata. His legs waved frantically in the air as he tried to pull his face out of the mud. When he finally managed to do so, he looked up at Hinata sitting next to him in the water. Her cheeks were still streaked with tears and she was breathing hard although he didn’t know if it was from the crying or the running.
Shit. He had really messed this one up.
“SORA!” Yasu yelled.
Sora continued to peer out the window from her seat on the kitchen counter. “Yeah Yasu?”
“Sora what are you doing?”
She waved a vague hand towards the window. “I’m watching Naruto and Hinata. Kid’s dug himself into one hell of a deep hole.”
Yasu walked over to stand next to Sora. “I saw your eyes go purple. What are you doing to those poor kids?” She looked out the window and groaned. “Sora did you trip them?”
She never took her eyes off of the kids in the window, but she giggled a little. “Maybe.”
“I’m just making sure they talk. Now are you going to watch or not?”
Yasu glared at Sora and made a little humph-ing sound. Then she gracefully lifted herself up onto the counter next to Sora in order to get a better view.
Naruto tried to wipe the mud off of his face with his hands, but he was mostly only successful at smearing it. He managed to get most of it away from his eyes, enough that he could look at her at least.
She was sitting on her bottom in the water, knees bent, and leaning back on her arms. She was looking down at the mess that had been made of the kimono Yasu had loaned her. It was soaked and probably covered with mud on the bottom from where she was sitting in the rice patty.
Where things had started to go wrong again, she wondered, as large silent tears began to roll down her cheeks. She wanted so badly to be the best partner she could to him, but she must have been deluding herself from the beginning. From the very first day when they had set out together and Naruto had gotten her to climb the tree. When he had asked her help with the floor cleaning jutsu. When he had carried her back to the library to study while Sora was gone. She had been deluding herself that they had been getting closer, becoming better friends. She had been deluding herself that maybe she could be a good partner for him that she could leave behind parts of the old Hinata and change into something better.
He had been nice to her, kind to her, good to her. But he didn’t trust her. He was willing to lie to her, to tell her things just to keep her in the dark. He didn’t want her to know his secrets.
Her teeth were chattering in the cold October air. The sun had just come up an hour before and had yet to warm up the sky. She was miserably cold but couldn’t seem to get herself to move. She sat in the water, shivering, teeth chattering, tears streaming down her face. Dear god she was a mess.
Naruto kept opening his mouth to say something but was finding that nothing was coming out. He reached out a hand to her but then let it drop as she sobbed again. He didn’t know what to do. “Hina-chan...”
She sniffed loudly and then pushed herself up to her feet before wading over to the raised pathway and stepped out of the water. Her bare feet curled in the grass; she had run out of the house so quickly she hadn’t bothered to put shoes on. She reached down and started to squeeze some of the water out of the hem of her kimono in quick, panicky motions, careful not to lift it over her calves. She made small dismayed noises; she was sure Yasu would be furious at her for ruining it.
Naruto pushed himself to his feet behind her. “Hina-chan...” he repeated.
She turned to look at him over her shoulder. “N-Naruto-kun, I, I’m...” She paused, pressing her lips together and tried to squeeze some of the water out of her hair. “Go.... gomen, I, I just...please just...I need...to be, to be alone.”
Something was squeezing at his heart. She hadn’t stuttered or repeated herself like this in months. “Hina-chan, I...”
She shook her head violently. “You don’t need to tell me!” she said, louder than she intended. “It’s, it’s okay, whatever... s, secret you have with Sora... it’s okay.” She bit back another flood of tears. Her voice became very soft. “I understand.”
Hope flooded Naruto’s eyes. “Really Hina-chan?”
Her heart dropped further. Was he going to be that happy to be rid of her? “Ha, hai.”
He was elated. She wasn’t going to make him tell her! She could live with him keeping his secret. It was the best thing that could have possibly happen for him!
She swallowed as she watched his happy face. His joy was obvious and it was breaking her heart. Having to be her partner, having to work with someone who was obviously below his level, someone who was useless must have been a constant worry for him.
She wiped tears off her cheeks with the back of her hand. She had to get away from him; she had to get somewhere she could calm down. “Ano, umm...I’m, I’m going to take a walk-“
“Huh? But you’re soaking wet.” She swallowed. “I know but...I need to...I’m going to take a walk and then...then we can go tell Sora.”
He looked at her, puzzled. “Go tell Sora what?”
Hinata fought to keep her face expressionless. “That we’re not going to do the partner training anymore,” she said quickly and quietly.
“NANI?!” Naruto yelled. What did she mean they weren’t going to do partner training anymore? Where the hell had that come from?
She winced at the sound of his voice and backed away a step. This was what he wanted, so why was he yelling at her? “Please, I understand why you want to...I just, I just need ... need to be alone...” She had to get away. She had to get away from him to somewhere she could get herself pulled back together. She started to back away and then turned and ran.
She made it three steps before Naruto grabbed her wrist, effectively stopping her progress. Her skin seemed to burn where he touched her. She lowered her head and refused to look at him.
Things weren’t normally still for Naruto. His mind was generally rapidly moving between thinking about different subjects, darting quickly back and forth, from topic to topic. But at that moment an unnatural calm had settled over him and all he could think about was the girl whose wrist he was holding onto and what she had said.
No. She couldn’t have meant it. She couldn’t be leaving him like everyone else.
“Hina-chan, what do you mean tell her we’re not going to do the partner training anymore?” He craned his neck and tried to look around to see her, but she just turned her head away.
She was determined not to cry. She could at least be strong enough not to cry. “I...I know I’m useless and-“
“Nani?! What makes you say that?” He pulled her gently towards him with her wrist and then reached for her opposite elbow, turning her around so that she was facing him. She kept her head bowed.
“Hina-chan, what’s going on?” He didn’t sound angry, like he was mad at her for crying. Or frustrated because she kept doing this. Or disappointed in her because she didn’t live up to expectations. He just sounded confused, like he couldn’t figure out what was going on.
“You said you didn’t want to partner with me and then I started crying and you felt sorry for me and then you said yes. I know that I’m stupid and, and useless and that you didn’t want to be my partner in the first place, but I...”
“NANI? What do you mean I didn’t want to be your partner in the first place? I said yes and then you said no and then I said no and then you said yes and then I said yes. I said yes first. And I said it twice!”
She looked up at him with eyes filled to the brim. “You don’t trust me,” she whispered. “I thought you did, but now...why would you want a partner you couldn’t...”
Naruto’s heart sank as the things she had been saying started to line up. He tightened his grip on her elbows.
“Hinata that’s not right!” She winced at the tone in his voice and looked down at the ground again.
“You don’t have to, to...lie to me. I understand...” She broke into fresh tears, berating herself mentally for her weakness.
Naruto stared at her. This was something he hadn’t considered; this was something he didn’t understand. He sighed. He hated to admit it (really, really hated to admit it) but Sora had been right: Hinata had known something was up and he should have told her sooner.
He tried again. “Hinata it’s not you I don’t trust. I just don’t want anything to happen to you.”
She was too weak to bare his secret. “I’m sorry I’m so pathetic...”
He could feel her arms tremble as she sobbed. He could hear her cries. Every sobbing sound coming from her pulled strings in his heart. She was soaked and dirty, probably freezing in the morning air. The sun was still sitting low over the hill, casting a strange glow over the rice patties. He had to get her inside, warm and calm. Then he would be able to talk to her.
He let go of her arms so he could take off his jacket, but the moment he let go she crumpled to the ground, face in her hands, sobbing. He stared at her for a moment and suddenly felt like crying himself. Instead he quickly stripped off his jacket, a hand me down from Nori, plain black with a zipper up the front. Thankfully, it hadn’t gotten too wet.
He wrapped it around her and then, as it was obvious that she wasn’t going to be going anywhere on her own, he picked her up. His arm went around her waist and he lifted her, before catching her behind her knees with the opposite arm.
Her eyes widened in shock as she felt herself be nestled against his chest. “Na, Naruto-kun?”
He didn’t look down at her. “It’s cold out here and we’re both wet. Let’s go in.”
She stared at him for a few seconds, and then let her cheek fall against her shoulder.
“Did he just wrap her in his jacket and start carrying her towards the house?” Yasu asked, mouth hanging open.
Sora’s was open even farther. “Wow. Smooth. Where’s my camera?”
“I don’t know. But he doesn’t like her?”
“I think he’s just too dense to realize he does.”
Yasu ripped her eyes away from the scene in front of her and walked towards the kitchen door. “Nori!” she yelled. “Would you get Miki-chan bundled up please? We’re going into town.”
“What are you going to town for?” Sora asked, still watching her charges from the window.
“You wanted to bake a cake for his birthday? We need cake flour. Come on, you’re coming too.” She grabbed Sora by the arm and started dragged her out of the kitchen.
“Huh? What do you mean I’m coming too? Like I’m going to miss him trying to explain this to her!”
Yasu just took her coat off the hook by the door and handed the oversized black garment to her old partner. “Sora, if whatever he needs to tell her is so important that you won’t tell me, it is obviously deserving of some privacy. He’s going to have a hard enough time telling her without you eavesdropping.”
Naruto pushed the door open with his shoulder, still clutching Hinata close to his chest. He blinks. “Where are you going?”
“Into town for a few things. There are blankets and towels in the closet in the hall. Also tea is in the top shelf of the cabinet next to the sink,” Yasu explained as she pulled a thick white wool shawl around her shoulders. Nori came down the stairs, a slightly sleepy Miki in his arms.
“All of you are going?” Naruto asked as Yasu took Miki and placed her on the front steps outside.
“No, not all of us. I’m staying here,” Sora said.
“No you’re not. Nori, sweetie, would you get her shoulders for me?”
“What the... Hey! Put me down!” Sora protested as Nori grabbed her underneath her arms and Yasu grabbed her feet and stared to haul her out of the house.
“Stop protesting. We can get you one of those custard thingies you like so much.”
Sora stopped wiggling and stared at Yasu. “Chocolate Espresso Crème Brule? Really?”
Yasu rolled her eyes and shut the door behind her.
Naruto stared at the closed door. She was supposed to be an adult? He was startled out of his thoughts when he realized Hinata was still shivering in his arms. He quickly turned and walked down the hall, pausing to shift Hinata in his arms so he could grab a blanket and a towel out of the closet, then on into the living room.
He put her down on the rug next to fireplace and replaced his jacket with the blanket before pushing the town into her hands. “Here I’ll be right back.”
Heading back down the hall, he grabbed another towel and started to dry his hair. In the kitchen, he put water on to boil and started searching through all of Yasu’s tea. He pulled out one container and looked at the label. Dragonwell. Was this one Hinata liked? Or was this the one that smelled like bacon? He started to go ask her and then thought better of it. He found a teapot and put the leaves in.
He dragged out a cup of ramen for himself and waited impatiently for the water to boil. He stuck in head of the door in order to look down the hall at her. She was still sitting quietly in the living room in front of the fireplace.
The kettle whistled and he quickly poured the water into the pot and his ramen cup. Holding his ramen, fork and her empty cup in one hand he grabbed the teapot in the other and carefully made his way down the hall, trying not to spill anything. He placed the food in front of her and sat down on the opposite side.
There was a long silence.
“You warm enough?” he asked.
“You sure? Cause there’s more blankets in there.”
“I’m fine,” she said quietly.
There was another long silence.
Naruto was at a loss: a loss for what to say, a loss for what to do, a loss for what to think. So he did what he always did when he didn’t know what to do. He pushed ahead.
“It’s not that I didn’t want to tell you the secret. I couldn’t.”
She didn’t look at him. “I know. I’m stupid and useless and-“
“NO!” he cut her off. “No you’re not. But when we get back to Leaf, you’re going to face enough trouble for being my partner as it is. As long as you don’t know this, it’s not your fault. No one will blame you.”
She looked up at him, confused. “What do you mean?”
He looked away. He still didn’t want to tell her. “You know how everyone in the village hates me? Well there’s a reason,” he said quietly.
“And this secret is the reason?”
He turned back to her, willing her to understand. “Yes. Look, as long as you don’t know, no one will hold you responsible for becoming my partner.”
Sudden realization hit her. “You’re trying to take the fall for me. You’re saying that as long as I don’t know this secret, when we go back home all of the consequences for becoming partners will land on you. Everyone will assume that you tricked me into becoming your partner.”
“It has nothing to do with whether or not I want you as a partner. It has nothing to do with how good a ninja you are. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“So you’re taking the decision out of my hands.”
“I’m protecting you.”
She was stunned. He couldn’t do that. He couldn’t take the choice out of her hands. They were partners and that, she thought, had meant that they were going to make choices together. Yes, she trusted his judgment more than her own, but that didn’t mean that she wanted to be left completely in the dark.
“Protecting me from what?”
He sighed and squished his eyes shut. The time had come; he wasn’t going to be able to avoid it any longer. He had to tell her.
He grabbed the hem of his t-shirt and pulled it off over his head. Hinata blushed and looked away, biting her lower lip.
“Hina-chan,” he said softly. She turned back to look at him shyly. He swallowed again, and she realized that he was nervous. It was an emotion she was used to seeing in herself, not in him. “Hinata, I need you to watch.” Slowly he placed his hands together and began to raise his chakra.
Hinata watched in awe and fascination as the spiral began to appear around his navel, followed by small squiggly lines. It was a pattern she recognized, but not one she had expected to see.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “Why do you have a seal?”
He reached for his t-shirt and began to put it back on. She suddenly realized that it was the old Leaf t-shirt that he used to sleep in, black with the Leaf symbol emblazoned in bright green on the front. It had been far too big for him when they had left Leaf with Sora. Now it fit him perfectly.
He stood up, restless, and went to lean against the fireplace mantle. “This is Kyubi,” he said simply. He couldn’t get anymore out.
Kyubi? What on earth could he...Then very slowly, puzzle pieces she had been collecting about him for years started falling into place. Why no one had adopted him. Why everyone disliked him so intently. The fact that he had been born on the same day the Kyubi had attacked. It had the potential to explain so much: the way he had changed when he had gotten so angry at Sora. The truly amazing, almost inhuman, amount of chakra he had.
The Kyubi must have been sealed inside him.
But it was tearing him apart, she realized. Growing up in a village where everyone thought that you were a demon, having no family, would have driven most people over the edge. But she knew better than anyone that he was no demon.
The details weren’t as important as making sure he was okay. Oh, she wanted them and she planned to get them, but right now she needed to make sure that he was all right.
She dropped the blanket and stood up to move behind him. He was facing the fireplace, leaning against it with his weight supported on his crossed arms. His whole body was stiff. Quietly she stepped behind him and wrapped her arms, still covered in muddy kimono sleeves, around him. She pressed her face into his back.
He couldn’t believe it. He thought that she would be scared, demanding to know what the hell he meant and yet...here she was, silently telling him that everything was going to be okay. Putting her arms around him and accepting.
The world had never been brighter.
He pushed away from the wall and twisted around in her arms so that he could embrace her back. He pulled her close and bent his head to burry his face in the strands of hair that had come free from her ponytail. He started crying, but he figured it was okay. After all you were allowed to cry when you were happy and he had never been happier in his life.
“The Fourth sealed him in me when I was a baby,” he said, choking on some of the words. “They couldn’t kill it, but hopefully his soul will bind with mine and leave this world when I die. All the adults know, but no one our age does. I didn’t even find out until I graduated from the academy. That’s why everyone in the village hates me. I’m a demon. One who nearly destroyed the entire village.”
“But you didn’t do that. Kyubi did.”
He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. They still look at me like I’m the demon. And in some ways I guess I am. After all, if our chakra is mingling and our souls are binding-“
“No,” she said. It was quiet but it was firm. “You’re Naruto, not the Kyubi.”
“There is nothing demonic about you except how much chakra you have. You’ve never lost control and destroyed the village, even when they were treating you terribly.”
“I think I lost control in my first mission, in Wave Country. When my team was fighting a very strong ninja, Haku, Sasuke almost lost his life, and Kyubi came...nothing happened, but still...”
“When your friends needed help. You just used the Kyubi chakra to break out. You didn’t go on a random killing spree. And when you confronted Sora about the pictures, you regained control before you even fought anyone. You had the Kyubi chakra and you pushed it back down. Naruto,” she pulled back and took his face in her hands. “You’re stronger than the Kyubi.”
He looked at the faith in her eyes and his own started to fill with water. “But the people in Leaf, they hate me for it.”
“Because they don’t know you. No one who knows you hates you.”
She shook her head. “I don’t know Sasuke, but I can’t imagine he hates you.”
“But when they find out? When they all find out what I am they’re not going want to have anything to do with me.” The tears started to fall again. “Everyone is going to go away again.”
She leaned forwards and wrapped her arms around him, pulling his head down to rest on her shoulder. “You have me. You’ll always have me. No matter what happens, no matter what everyone else in the village thinks of you, no matter how bad things get, I will always be here for you.”
He turned his face into her and cried. She simply held him, her cheek pressed to the top of his head, her fingers running through his hair.
“When we became partners,” she whispered. “You told me that before you became a gennin it was dark. There wasn’t anyone who cared for you. But I had cared about you for years.” She shook her head, rubbing her cheek against his hair. “I don’t care who sealed what inside of you. I’m never going to let you go back into the dark again.”
He pulled back to look into her eyes. “You mean it? You don’t care about the Kyubi?”
She shook her head. “No,” she said simply.
“And you still want to be partners?”
“Of course I do.”
“And your family?”
She sighed and looked away. “That’s a problem I have to face anyway. The more I read about politics, the less I like the way our clan is ran.” She smiled, but it was tainted with irony. “There are going to be a lot more things for my father and me to battle about than you.”
He placed his palm on her cheek and turned her face back towards him. “You don’t want to do it, do you?”
She shrugged. “Someone has to change the clan for all our sakes. And as the heir to my clan, it sort of falls to me.”
“But you hate arguing. You always end up refereeing between Sora and I, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen you actually fight with anyone.”
“I think that there might be some things that are worth fighting for. Besides, you did say to Neji that you would change the clan.” She looked across at him shyly.
He stared at her for a moment.
Then he burst into grins and hauled her against him. “Of course we’re going to change the clan! I’m Uzumaki Naruto and I’m destined to be Hokage! Not only that, but I’m going to be the best Hokage ever, so good that everyone will acknowledge how great I am and no one will care what is sealed inside me! And I can do anything, because I’m the best and I’ve got the best family and the best the best teacher and the best partner.”
He drew back just enough that he could look into her eyes. “We’ll just have to make it into the best village ever, right Hina-chan?”
She smiled at him. Not the shy, closed mouth smile she normally gave him. That one had always been contaminated by self doubt and nervousness. This smile was a grin of pure joy and warmth, a smile so large it wrinkled her nose and shut her eyes. “Hai, Naruto-kun.”
She was just like her name implied: a patch of sunlight. More than anyone else, more than Iruka-sensei, Kakashi-sensei, Sakura-chan, Sasuke, Ero- Sennin, Obaa-chan or even Nee-chan, she pushed the darkness back.
He smiled back and held her close.
“Wait until you hear who my parents are.”
“Where’s my camera?” Sora whispered.
“I think you left it in your coat pocket,” Yasu whispered back. The four of them had gotten home a few hours later to discover Naruto and Hinata sitting on the floor, propped up against the couch, fast asleep. Her head was tucked in the crook of his shoulder while his arm was wrapped around her waist. His head leaned down to touch hers. They were surrounded by cups of ramen and used tea things.
Yasu smiled at the pair as Sora came back with the camera. “Whatever this revelation and emotional sorting out was, it must have worn them out. Still, sleeping this deeply when there’s no one around to watch your back can be dangerous.”
“Eh, it’ll be okay,” Sora said as she started to snap pictures. “If they were awake, there would be no way I could take these pictures.”
Yasu watched the couple sleep. Hinata turned onto her side to snuggle in closer to Naruto; He tightened his grasp on her waist.
One delicate white eyebrow went up. “Are you sure they’re not together behind your back?”
“At the moment, no.” Sora grinned. “But by the way things are looking; I don’t think it’s going to stay that way too much longer.” .
Some people woke up from nightmares screaming, sweating, gasping for breath, but Sora never had. Even when she had been a little girl, she’d always woken up from her nightmares by simply opening her eyes. She wouldn’t move, she wouldn’t make a sound. She would just lay on her bed, eyes open and quietly breathe.
Even after almost 18 years, over two thirds of her life, she wasn’t able to block it out.
She finally got tired of just lying there trying to go back to sleep. She slowly got out of her futon and crept towards the door, trying not to disturb Hinata who was sleeping a few feet away. Yasu and Nori only had one spare room, so she and Hinata were bunking together while Naruto crashed on the living room floor.
She crept into the bathroom where she splashed water onto her face. She stared at her eyes in the mirror. There were bags under them, making them seem even lighter than normal. She used to try to convince herself that they were really light blue, but she had to confess that they were violet. She wished they were any other color.
Thank god she was the last.
She played with the braids around her face, still all black from when Naruto had put the dye into her shampoo. She decided that her hair was making it worse. The darkness of her hair was playing up the lightness of her eyes.
Looking under the sink, she started rummaging through the bottles of dye and permanent that she had left here over the years.
It was time for a change.
Miki reached up to pull one of Sora’s curls and then giggled when it bounced back into place. Her hair was freshly permed into large looping ringlets and bleached out blond with selected ringlets dyed red.
“Well you made it over a year with the braids. I think that’s a record,” Yasu said, setting breakfast on the table.
Sora lifted Miki above her head to set the little girl on her shoulders. Miki happily dug her fingers into Sora’s hair, continuing to play with the springs. “What can I say? I got bored.”
“As you always do. I just wish you didn’t leave such a mess inside the bathroom.”
Sora rolled her eyes. “You know I’ll clean it up.”
“Eh? What did you do to your hair?” Naruto asked from the doorway.
She reached up to fluff it but found she couldn’t with a child on her shoulders. “I dyed it.”
“Hmm,” said Nori from behind Naruto. “Looks kinda like the hair you have in the picture with the dress.”
“It does not! I had sausage curls then, these are spiral curls.”
Yasu continued to put dishes on the table. “Plus then her hair was red and black, now it’s red and blond. She looks sort of like a stained candy cane.”
Miki giggled and started yelling “Candy cane!” at the top of her lungs.
Hinata peaked her head inside the door. Her eyes widened in surprise when she saw Sora. “You changed your hair.”
Sora gritted her teeth. Why did people insist on stating the obvious? “Yes.”
Hinata smiled. “I like it.”
“There, now you see, this is why I like Hinata as opposed to ex-partners, annoying in-laws and bratty little brothers.”
Miki leaned over Sora’s head to look her in the face. “You like me, don’t you Aun’ Sowa?”
She smiled. “Of course I do, Miki-chan. And are we going to have so much fun today! We’re going to bake cookies and we’re going to sing and then we’ll watch movies.”
Miki pointed to the corgi jumping around Yasu’s feet trying to get to the food. “Can Dango play with us?”
“Well, I would hesitate to include him in the cookie making, but he can definitely sing and watch movies with us.”
Naruto grinned as he watched the scene in front of him. He hadn’t had a family his whole life. And then all of a sudden he had acquired a big sister and now he had a something like an extended family. His grin widened as he watched Nori duck a wad of rice that Miki had thrown. Sora and Yasu were trying to figure out why Hinata was having strange results when she tries to use the Pattern Scan no jutsu.
He thought back over everything that had happened during the past four months. He couldn’t remember being so happy. Everyone knew, even Miki- chan, and nobody cared. And it had been far simpler than he ever would have thought possible.
“So, in order to keep the Kyubi from destroying the village, the Fourth and Nanashi sealed it inside your bellybutton,” Nori said, leaning back in his chair.
“Hai.” They had just gone through the whole explanation: who he was, who his parents had been. He had told them about the times the Kyubi had flared and what had happened to him.
“And you are able to pull his chakra.”
“But it’s not like he takes control of you.”
Sora interrupted. “It would appear that when Naruto gets very angry and starts pulling chakra, the seal weakens and Kyubi comes closer to the surface. He has tremendous amounts of chakra coursing through him.”
“And his state of mind.”
“The first time it happened, he thought-”
“Oi, oi I can speak for myself. When I thought that Sasuke was dead, I think I sort of lost control and broke out of Haku’s jutsu. I don’t remember much about it. The second time was when some guy named Orochimaru attacked us during the chuunin exam. After that, Ero-sennin taught me how to pull the chakra intentionally by demanding it from the fox. I used it once in my test with Neji and once fighting Gaara when he was attacking Sasuke and Sakura.”
Sora forced herself to stop rubbing the back of her neck. “But he didn’t go all funky foxy with either of those. Plus when he realized that I had been keeping his parentage a secret, he started to go all foxy but calmed himself down enough to sit and talk.”
Nori and Yasu looked at each other and then back at Naruto. “So what this really means to you is that you have lots of chakra and might have problems if you get too angry.”
“But all the times you’ve gotten too mad, with the exception of the photo thing, have been you defending your friends.”
“And because of this your village has decided to hate you?”
Yasu’s blue eyes went icy cold, sending shivers down Naruto and Hinata’s spines. She sat up in her chair perfectly strait and her face completely wiped free of all emotion. Suddenly they realized how she had gotten the nickname Ice Queen.
“Idiotic assholes,” she bit out.
Nori reached up to rub Yasu’s shoulder. “Come on, sweetheart, calm down.”
She glared at her husband. A lesser man would have cringed and scurried away, but Nori just looked slightly amused. “Do you realized what could have happened?” she asked. “Do you know how many of the people Sora and I fought had stories just like that?”
“Yasu, we sort of specialized in taking out maniacs,” Sora pointed out.
“Exactly,” she said, turning back to Sora. “How many of those people wouldn’t have ended up maniacs if they had only had a better upbringing?”
“Huh? What are you talking about?” Naruto asked.
Sora shrugged. “I told you Yasu and me were mercenaries, right? Well, our so called specialty was getting rid of ‘unstable elements.’ Basically we would go into places where the target was unpredictable, where his values were so skewed that he was hard to manipulate. A lot of them were literally madmen.”
“The klesha” Nori said, scowling.
Nori looked at Naruto with a somber face. “Klesha. It’s a poison of the mind, although in the west it became synonymous with people who have gone dangerously mad. It happens more often than you might think. The west is a world ruled by violence. Sometimes the things you see or the way you are treated can overwhelm you.”
“And they go mad?” Hinata whispered, horrified.
“Not the way you might think of it. But they aren’t really human anymore. From what you described to us, Gaara is probably a klesha.”
Natuto swallowed. “Haku?”
Nori shook his head. “Probably more of a potential klesha. Had he felt betrayed by his master, that he had nothing else to believe in or if Zabuza had been killed and he was left alive, it would have been easy for him to slip into kelsha.”
“Naruto,” Sora said. Her voice was very quiet and very serious. “Remember this for when you become Hokage. We live in times with extraordinary people. Times where people are born with the ability to do things that almost seem inhuman. But no matter what they are able to do, they are still human. And you cannot turn a human into nothing but a weapon.”
“Most of the klesha we fought were people who had these extra abilities, but they were either shunned for them or trained to be nothing more than living weapons. They’re dangerous and unpredictable.”
“And this is what you’re worried I will become?”
Yasu shook her head. “No. Sora and I were the dGra Klesha, those who took care of those who had gone mad. I know what klesha are and you aren’t one of them. But the fact that you’re not, despite what you have been through, is almost more extraordinary to me than the demon inside you.”
Sora grinned. “Boy’s got good genes.”
Naruto stared at Yasu and Nori. “So you’re cool with me staying here? Despite the Kyubi?”
Yasu looked at Nori. “I don’t see a problem.”
Nori shook his head. “I don’t see a problem either.” He looked at Naruto. “Do you foresee a problem with you staying here?”
Naruto continued to stare at them. Then he felt Hinata reach over and squeeze his hand. He looked over at her and she gave him a small smile. He grinned and turned back to his hosts. “No problem at all.”
And that had been that.
It felt strange, but wonderful to have everything out in the open for the first time. Everyone in the house knew and no one seemed to care. It wasn’t that they didn’t talk about it. Yasu had immediately started looking at the form of the seal, trying to figure out exactly what Nanashi and the Forth had done, while Nori went through all the techniques he would be able to teach someone with so much chakra and Sora teased him about how all the girls were going to LOVE such a foxy man (grrrrowl!).
And Hina-chan was simply Hina-chan. Once everything was out in the open, he had realized that he had more things he needed to get off his chest. The floodgate had been opened and everything came spilling out of him. How he had found out about the Kyubi, the whispers he used to hear from adults when he would walk by. Things that he had never told anyone, things that he had tried to dismiss as unimportant, suddenly seemed crucial thing that he needed to tell her.
They ended up spending hours, side by side, sitting on the fence looking over the rice patties or inside by the fire. She had slowly started to open up more to him as well, telling him about the day Kurenai had come to explain what it meant for her to be on a gennin team and her father had said she was worthless as a Hyuuga. She had started crying again and he held her until the tears stopped.
He had wanted to keep on holding her. There were times he felt like he never wanted to let her go.
And he wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.
Yasu frowned. “I don’t get it. You’re doing everything right. Your bloodlimit should make this easier than normal. Where is the problem?”
Hinata looked at the ground. They had been trying to teach her Pattern Scan no Jutsu for weeks now. She was supposed to be able to see the patterns of chakra within jutsu’s themselves. Her bloodlimit already allowed her to see the flow of chakra within a human, so being able to see the structure of a jutsu should be no problem. But instead all she was able to see was a startling and confusing garble of images.
There had to be something going on the Yasu didn’t realize. Logically, everything should be working. Hinata had the seals right, she was manipulating the chakra in the correct way. There had to be another element. And the only thing that she didn’t completely understand were Hinata’s eyes.
“Hinata, let me scan your eyes again.”
Hinata scooted over on the front steps to sit closed to Yasu, who was running through the seals to start the jutsu again. Eyes lined with silver, Yasu studied Hinata’s face. “I just can’t figure out what’s going on. Your bloodlimit should make this easier, not impossible.” Yasu sighed and ended the jutsu. “Explain to me again what you see.”
Hinata ran through the seals and turned on the jutsu. Instantly, her eyes were his with a multitude of color and light. “It’s almost like pen scribbles, there’s so many lines. They’re all over the house, the yard, you.”
“What about Nori and Naruto?”
Hinata turned to look at where the two men were practicing. They were practicing sweeps, each spinning around and trying to knock the others feet out from under him. To make matters harder, Nori was making Naruto keep a Rasengan spinning in one palm the whole time. He had just mastered doing it one handed a few weeks before.
“They’re both covered in small lines although the Rasengan in Naruto’s hand in like a solid ball of light.”
Yasu shook her head. Hinata should be able to see the individual swirls of chakra as they rotated in Naruto’s hand. It was almost like the lines were blurring.
“I think it leaves a trail too,” Hinata said.
Yasu looked up sharply. “What?”
“Everywhere that Naruto’s Rasengan goes, it leaves a trail. It’s confusing because he’s moving so much, but I think I can see where he’s been.”
Yasu’s breath caught in her throat. “Hinata look at me. Are there more lines around my eyes then the rest of my body?”
Hinata nodded. “There’s also a lot around your hands.” She looked up with questions in her eyes. “Why? What does it mean?”
Naruto swung his leg out over the ground trying to knock Nori over. Unfortunately the man seemed to ripple over the foot. He had broken down the motion to Naruto, but he had yet to master the smooth motion of the jump. Soon.
“Good, not try to switch hands on the Rasengan,” Nori said, sending his foot flying towards Naruto’s head. Naruto ducked and seamlessly transferred the ball of spiraling chakra from one hand to another. Nori had been drilling him endlessly on what he called the three Fs. Be fast, be fluid and follow through.
Nori swept his leg under Naruto one last time and then grinned as the boy smoothly avoided it. “All right, that’s enough.” Naruto collapsed on the ground panting. Turning his head he could see his water sitting fifteen or so feet away. He wondered if it was worth the effort to get up and grab it.
However, Hinata and Sora were also in his line of vision and he quickly became distracted watching them. Hinata was leaning back slightly as Yasu seemed to bombard her with questions.
“Oi, Nori!” he yelled. He jerked his chin towards the women. “What do you think is going on?”
Nori shrugged, sitting a few feet away. “Probably some new jutsu she’s just figured out. That always sends her through the roof and she hasn’t had much reason to make new ones since we stopped being mercs.”
“Wait, you were a mercenary too?”
“Yeah, all three of us. Course, I didn’t come in until the very end. We did exactly one job together before Yasu and I got married. After that, we never pulled another one.”
“Really? You left it all behind, just like that?”
“Well, we had just pulled one hell of a spectacular job. Triple assassination on one of the most powerful clans in the East, practically a whole army between the three of us and the leaders. Plus they had this weird conducive technique they were using that allowed all of them to know instinctively where all other members of their team were. Made them practically invincible.” He laughed and shook his head. “I’ll never forget the look on Yasu’s face when she figured out how to break it. We were all excited, but she was bouncing off the roof and babbling on in technical jargen that no one but her understood. I love her, but I never figure out the kick she gets out creating new jutsu.”
“In any case, once that jutsu had been broken, the guards all fought like kids. We got in, killed the leader and his two cronies. The leader had this huge signature ring with a huge opal in it. I grabbed it and asked Yasu to marry me. I walked out of there with a fiancée and enough money in jewels to buy the farm.”
Naruto’s jaw dropped and he gaped at Nori. “You’re joking!”
“It’s one hundred percent true.”
“But she doesn’t wear a ring like that!”
“Kinda conspicuous for a farmer’s wife. It’s on a chain under her kimono. Sorta like a reminder of where we came from. “
Narto continued to stare at him. “You just walked out of there and became farmers?”
He shrugged. “This is what I wanted. I have my wife, I have my daughter. If I was trying to be a merc too, I couldn’t have either of those.”
“But people in the Leaf are shinobi and have families all the time!”
“Bet they’re not taking nearly as dangerous missions as they used to in the past.”
Naruto clenched his teeth. “The shinobi of the Leaf protect their families. They fight because they love those who are in the village. We don’t grieve when someone falls because we know they were protecting those they loved.”
Nori raised an eyebrow. “Do you really not grieve, Naruto?”
Naruto looked away.
Nori gave a sad smile. “It’s not the same out here as it is where you come from. Back in Leaf, something happens to you and you know that you’re family will be taken care of. There’ll be others who know what they’re going through. Out here, on your own as a merc, you don’t have any of that. Besides, I was ready to stop. I was over thirty when I met Yasu and I had been fighting since I was old enough to walk. I was more than ready to give it up.”
“I’m never going to give it up.”
“Well, there are parts of it you can’t. I’ll never really forget what I’m able to do, even if I don’t actually do it. Besides, once you’re a warrior, you are always a warrior. Doesn’t matter if what you’re doing, part of you stays the same.” He elbowed Naruto in the ribs. “And don’t think that just because I’m not a merc anymore I can’t protect my family. No one is ever going to hurt Yasu or Miki, no matter how much time I spend in the rice patties.”
Naruto looked out over the horizon. He didn’t understand how anyone who was a good as Nori could give up being a ninja to become a farmer. “You don’t regret it?”
“Well there are a few things I wish I had done. I wish I’d had the change to fight alongside Yasu more. We both lived the same life, but we lived it seperatly. She can only tell me about some things, but Sora always just knows them already. I simply wasn’t there. They can’t explain to me what it was like the first time they went after a Klesha. I wasn’t there to see what it was like for Yasu to build up an enormous arsenal of new jutsu. And I’ll never quite understand what it was like when Sora started using her bloodlimit again. They can explain it to me, but I just wasn’t there.”
“It makes that much of a difference?”
“Just you wait. You and Hinata will probably be friends forever, no matter what happens to each of you after this.”
Naruto looked over at the girl sitting on the front steps. He liked the sound of that.
Nori stood up and grinned. “Remember the electricity jutsus I was showing you last week?” Naruto nodded. “Well we’re going to do a quick run-through and see how much you remember.” He poked Naruto with his shoe. “Come on get up.”
“Nori!” came a high pitched squeal, as Yasu bolted across the yard. She grabbed the front of his shirt with both hands and looked up at him with eyes full of childlike excitement. He staggered back a bit before finding his footing and dropping his hands to her hips.
“She can see the echoes!” she yelled, obviously intending it to stun everyone.
“Nani, nani?” said Naruto, sitting up.
“The echoes, she can see the echoes! Do you understand what this means?”
Nori shook his head. “No.”
She pulled down on his shirt to bring his face close to hers. “Nori, people have been hypothesizing about the existence of chakra echoes for years and have even gone so far as to find enough data to support the theory that it is a generally accepted phenomenon. However no one has ever been able to successfully see them. Until now.”
Naruto scratched his head. “I still don’t get the echo part.”
Yasu released Nori in order to grab Narutos arms. “Echoes are the remains of a chakra pattern that exists after used chakra passes through and area. For example, when you use the Rasengan, you constantly have to keep adding more chakra as some bits of it fly off. These bits stay where they are in the air until they gradually fade away. Understand?”
Naruto wrinkled his brow. “I think so.” He turned to Hinata as Yasu went back to celebrating and jumping on her husband. “What does it look like?”
She shrugged weakly. “Like nothing makes sense. There’s all sorts of crazy colors and lines. It’s kinda...overwhelming.”
He casually slung his arm over her shoulder. “Eh, don’t worry Hinata, you’ll get the hang of it.”
“Sure she will!” Yasu cried out with glee. “Now that I know what’s going on, we’re going to fine tune it and put filters on it and try to figure out how much we can do with this thing.”
She froze. “I’m going to need to head up to Sora’s. I’m going to need more references.” Turning, she started to run towards the house. “Sora! I need to get into your library...”
Nori shook his head. “There are some things I will never get about her.” .
Naruto walked into the kitchen to find Sora and Miki cleaning up after dinner and singing to the radio. Electric guitar rose and fell as Sora whipped her curls around belted out the song at the top of her lungs. Miki sat on the counter giggling and clapping her hands.
Her mother was at the long rectangular kitchen table. She was muttering to herself and drawing diagrams into a notebook. She was surrounded by an odd assortment of books and scrolls, many dog eared or unrolled across the table. At the other end of the table was a stack of maps of the West.
“What are these for?” Naruto asked, headed towards the ramen cabinet.
“The maps? Well, none of the training is going to be much good if I don’t give ya’ll any opportunity to practice.”
He looked up from filling the kettle with water. “You’re thinking of taking us into the West?”
“Well, we can’t really hand out in the east: we’d be too easily spotted. Itachi is probably out there looking for you all over the east. However, the problem we run into in the west is people recognizing me.”
She shrugged. “The dGra Klesha weren’t exactly an inconspicuous pair. If we get in too close to some of the bigger cities, we’ll end up trouble on our hand because people will spot me.”
“Can’t you just use an illusion genjutsu?”
Walking over to shut off the radio, she nodded. “We’ll probably use an illusion a lot of the time. However, the chances that we’ll never run into anyone who’ll be able to strip it away or that we’ll never run into a situation where I need to use reputation is slim. If that’s the case, I would rather be somewhere where the probability is low that I will run into someone whose toes I’ve stepped on.”
“You just don’t want to run into any of your ex-boyfriends,” Yasu said, not looking up from her reading.
Sora nodded. “True, true. But in any case, I’m trying to figure out where we can go that won’t run us into too many old acquaintances.”
Naruto started stuffing ramen into his mouth as Sora lifted Miki off the counter. The little girl yawned and blinked her eyes. Sora smiled. “I think someone’s sleepy.”
Miki pouted and shook her head. “Uh uh. I’m not sleepy. Wanna stay up with Mama.”
“Allright, baby,” Yasu said reaching out to take Miki form Sora and pull her into her lap. “You just sit here with me, okay?”
Miki nodded and slumped against her mother. Yasu smiled and kept reading, one arm wrapped around her daughter.
Sora stretched and then shook her new curls. “I’m headed for bed. Miki is the best workout I’ve ever met.”
“Night, Naruto. Tell Hinata to stop reading and go to bed for me, will ya? The girl’s going to run herself into the ground.”
He waved his hand and stuffed his empty ramen cup into the garbage. “All right, see you tomorrow.”
He left Yasu and her books in the kitchen and headed towards Hinata and her books in the living room.
Naruto looked at Hinata and smiled. They had gone into the living room to study hours ago, bringing large stacks of books and scrolls to read. He had been sitting on the floor but she had decided to sit in the large overstuffed chair. Apparently it hadn’t been a good choice; she was fast asleep.
He succumbed to the urge to kneel down in front of her chair and look at her. To his secret relief, she hadn’t decided to cut her hair once she had come down from the mountain. After fourteen months away from Leaf, eight on the mountain, four at the farm, Hinata’s hair had grown to just below her shoulder blades. She had taken to pulling it back into a low ponytail, except when she was training; then she twisted it up into a bun at the nape of her neck.
He smirked softly as he thought about Sakura who had always kept her hair long for Sasuke. He wondered what had made her cut it off in the middle of the chunnin exam. While at the time her explanation made sense, looking back he was fairly sure that it was more then simply time for a change. Sasuke had acted strange afterwards as well, disappearing for the full month after the first round of fights. And then there had been the thing with Itachi...
Naruto shook his head. If Itachi hadn’t come after him... He didn’t want to think about that now.
Instead, he continued to stare at Hinata’s face. She always made him feel calmer. There was something about her that made him feel at home and accepted. Of course, that could have to do with the fact that she had simply accepted him and the Kyubi. As for home, it had long stopped being the little bachelors flat he had back in Leaf and had instead turned into Sora and Yasu’s house.
He heard laughter coming from down the hall and he turned and saw Yasu and Nori standing at the foot of the steps, across from the kitchen. Nori was talking quietly to his wife while she laughed softly and shook her head, holding a sleeping Miki in her arms. He smiled and wrapped the two of them up in his arms, turning his head so that he could kiss Yasu on the temple, rocking them gently back and forth. She closed her eyes and smiled. Then he grinned and swept her off her feet as she shrieked softly and clutched Miki to her chest. She reached around to slap him on the back of the head, but he just laughed and stared to carry her up the stairs.
Naruto turned back to Hinata and as he stared at her, things started to align themselves in his brain. He always wanted to talk to her, he wanted to be near her, he never wanted to let her go. He wanted to do just what Nori always seemed to do to Yasu: make her smile, make her laugh, make her cling to him.
He didn’t feel the same way about her that he felt about Sakura or even Sora. He wanted both of them to be happy, but he wanted to be the one to make Hinata happy. He wanted to personally destroy anything that made her sad and then prod her into laughter.
He didn’t just want her to be his best friend or his fighting partner. He knew what that meant now and he knew that he wanted more. He wanted her to be his partner in everything. He wanted...
He brushed a bang back from her face and his breath caught in his throat. She was gorgeous. If you asked him earlier about what he thought of her looks, he would have just sort of stared blankly and then said she was pretty. He never really thought much about her looks.
But now, lying curled up in the chair, firelight playing across her face, he realized that she was one of the most beautiful things he had ever seen. Her dark eyelashes brushed against her pale cheek and her black hair fell in a ponytail over her shoulder. There was actually very little color in her face, yet somehow, even in still sleeping, she projected warmth.
Suddenly he had the urge to do exactly what Nori had done: to kiss her temple, look at her smile, swing her up into his arms and carry her upstairs.
And that was when the full weight of his line of thoughts hit him. His eyes widened and he pulled back slightly.
He was in love with her. .
“Itachi how do you explain that it has been well over a year since the boy left Hidden Leaf and yet you do not know where he is?”
“Other than the first original report of their appearance, no one has seen or heard of them. She probably has them hidden away from civilization somewhere. Rumors have it that she has some sort of hideaway somewhere.”
“She’s better known than we originally anticipated. She’s Nanashi’s apprentice and when you combine it with a few more odd facts about her; she makes an mysterious and intriguing figure.”
“Interesting facts such as?”
“As I said she was Nanashi’s apprentice, although her life before that is unknown. She appeared on the doorstop of the Kaze Clan one day and announced that Nanashi was dead and that she was sent there to train. The current head of the clan was a friend of Nanashi’s and agreed to take her in, despite the face that the clan never trains outsiders. When the head family lost power, she disappeared. She reappears three years later at age 16 along with a women named Yasu.”
“Yes, her partner. We were already told all of this.”
Itachi shook his head. “Our... dear college understated what exactly she was. They are the dGra Klesha.”
“DGra Klesha. It’s from an old religious language used in the west. The dGra are avenging spirits. They serve higher powers to stomp out negative karma. Klesha is mental poison, generally listed as grasping, aggression, delusion, arrogance and envy. They are what must be stomped out in order for suffering to end.”
One of the men snorted. “Sounds more like clergy than warriors to me.”
Itachi cast him a disapproving glare. “In the past few decades klesha has come to mean people who have been completely taken over by the five poisons. The dGra Klesha were experts at killing those who were powerful but insane. Furthermore, their chosen path made them controversial figures: they seemed to only kill people who deserved it, but there was always the possibility that they would turn into something ugly. The plain fact is that these two have a legendary quality in the West. They fascinate and are feared by more people than any other women. Period.”
“What do you mean, fascinate?”
“During the years they were most active, everyone knew about them. The women seem to rely highly on contrasting images. Sora was loud and prone to emotional outbursts where as her partner was referred to as the Ice Queen. One was constantly pushing the envelope the other was always the perfect lady. Sora was famous for wearing costumes that were on the fringes of acceptability while Yasu was never seen in anything but a kimono or lehenga.”
“Kimono? So Yasu is from the East.”
Itatchi again, shook his head. He wished these fools would quit guessing. “She is from a gang that got wiped out when she was in her early teens. She killed all the rival gang members one by one and then set out to become a mercenary. She meets Sora somehow and they become partners. Again, rumors say that Sora converted Yasu to their particular calling and after that, everything takes off for both of them. They develop a reputation despite their relative youth and become the dGra Klesha.”
“How old were they?” one man asked.
“Sora was sixteen and Yasu was twenty. Now they are twenty five and twenty nine.”
Another man gave him a cold glare. “As interesting as this is, I fail to see what it has to do with finding the boy.”
“One of the key characteristics that made people fear them was their uncanny ability to completely disappear for months at a time. They could simply vanish, practically into thin air. In fact, while Sora occasionally has popped up on her own, she has not worked nor been seen in over four years. Rumor’s have it that, as Nanashi’s old apprentice, Sora knows the location of her house.”
The man from the west’s eyes narrowed. “The experimental house? I thought that was just a legend.”
“What are you talking about?” one of the other’s inquired.
“The house that Nanashi was supposed to have built was an experiment in a new type of village, one that didn’t depend on aggressive violence for survival.” He sneered. “She was an idealist. Thought she could build a big fancy house and put all sorts of people in it that would help her show the world what life could be like without permanent warriors. But the house was never found and eventually it was presumed to be just a rumor.”
“And that is still where we are at: nothing but rumors!” another man yelled, slamming his fist into the table.
Itachi fixed him with a red glare. “What I am explaining is that there is a distinct possibility that she has him locked away somewhere. We have good enough intelligence in the East to be sure that she isn’t here and it would be difficult for her to travel in the West without being recognized. When you add in the idea that she has access to somewhere suitable to keep him, it becomes one of the few logical options presented to us.”
“So we have three rabbits who might be hiding in a rabbit hole somewhere, but we have no idea where this rabbit whole is, or even if they are there. They have every advantage.”
“Ah but we do have one.”
“We have no need for the boy, at least for a while yet, since we are still preparing the rest of the plan. So we can wait.”
“Wait for what?”
“Wait for the rabbits to come out of the hole.”