Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto

CHAPTER 11

The sweat beading across Naruto's forehead was whipped from his face before it even had a chance to cool his heated skin. His eyes flicked to the west, blinking away the stinging drops of perspiration while gauging the amount of daylight left. The sunset was doing its best to distract him from his pace with its vibrant colors, although the bank of clouds that always hovered over the Land of Rain could be seen in the distance.

"It's headed south again!" Hinata's voice was breathy from her own efforts to keep up with the chakra charged kekkei genkai paper as it soared over the thinning tree tops. In unison the pair changed direction to mirror the unpredictable path being laid out at a breakneck pace which few Shinobi could maintain. His legs burned as he pushed to keep up. He bit back a grimace, not wanting to seem like he was complaining when Hinata was the one having to use her dojutsu to keep them close to Konan's paper beacon. They had been chasing it for at least two hours already.

The day had started off light-hearted enough, but as soon as they had left the comfortable confines of the inn's rooms, reality had been waiting for them. After bidding Hisa-san goodbye and making a quick stop at the market, they had spent the rest of the day running from town to town. Delicately navigating several intense communications with various contacts from The Network. With some informants they kept up the ruse of being Jiraiya and Naruto, with others they assumed completely different faces, pretending to be just another nameless contact. It wasn't that the informants didn't trust him, but Fukasaku had warned that some of them might feel the need to test the new spider at the center of the infamous web of spies. It was tricky. Words had to be chosen carefully. Body language spoke volumes. Seeing underneath the underneath had never been more important.

Naruto's nerves were fried. His self control was thin. Hinata had sensed it, and offered to take point on this final task of tracking Konan's paper to a meeting location. Neither shinobi had anticipated being led this far out into the empty countryside. The closer they got to Konan the more Naruto's anxiety started to build. He wasn't exactly scared of her, at least that's what his pride claimed. But after the deeds she had done in the name of pain...even if they were not fighting today he still carried a healthy respect for the things she was capable of doing.

Over the miles the thick forests had begun to slowly give way to open farmland, and finally the two shinobi had been forced to drop down to the earth and give chase at a full sprint across dirt roads and over cattle fences. Marshy rice patties flew by, eventually absorbed by a wild wetland that closed them in on all sides with claustrophobic reeds that were taller than a full grown man. Even the clouds pressed down from overhead in a heavy, moisture filled firmament. The smell of rain permeated everything, the air felt soupy with the threat of precipitation. Just when Naruto was about to stab the flying paper with a kunai in frustration, it turned sharply once more and they saw the weathered thatched roof of a small building which had seen better days.

Coming to a stop a safe distance from the lonely structure, they panted as they each scanned their surroundings. Hinata with her Byakugan and he with his Sage Mode. There were plenty of things to fill his enhanced senses, the area may have been void of people but was still teeming with life. The nature here was different from the breezy forests of the Land of Fire, but no less alive. Naruto's gaze landed on the humble building, and he couldn't help tilting his head in curiosity at its similarity to his own hut back on Mt. Myoboku.

"This place is clear," Naruto said, dropping his henge with a grunt of relief. Hinata nodded silently and released her transformation as well, bringing a hand up to rub her temple and she squinted and focused her dōjutsu out beyond the hills.

"I think I see her," she stated, looking off to the east where the clouds were already darkening with the purples of oncoming twilight. "At least I think it's her. You said she can disperse her body into sheets of paper?"

Naruto hummed in agreement, closing his eyes and concentrating on his Sage Mode, casting out his sensory net as wide as he could and struggling to filter through all the non-relevant stimuli. Chakra control had been the bane of his existence today, leaving him tired in a mental way that zapped his patience instead of physically burning his muscles like when he pushed himself during training. His mouth contorted, ears practically twitching as every part of him strained.

There. A flock of tiny dots, like minuscule blue birds tumbling through the vast sky, was careening towards them. The closer they came the clearer the chakra glowed in his mind, its signature morphing from vague familiarity to sharp clarity. He sucked in a breath and abruptly cut off his Sage Mode. Nausea roiled in his gut but he fought to keep the panic which that particular chakra now triggered at bay. This wasn't Konoha. He wasn't fighting the Akatsuki anymore. She wasn't his enemy. Hinata wasn't going to die this time. It was fine. He was fine.

Grabbing her hand for physical reassurance, Naruto swallowed the saliva pooling uncomfortably in his mouth. Hinata closed her fingers around his, her head jerking in his direction. There was no masking the clamminess of his palm, the tremble in his fingers.

"Naruto-kun—"

"I'm fine," he bit out, just as the sheets of paper crested the hill and swooped onto the doorstep of the building. He released her hand and counted his breaths as he watched them swirl into a small tornado that collapsed into itself, forming the humanoid figure of the woman who had murdered his sensei, helped destroy his village, and dedicated her life to causing pain.

"Konan," he said stiffly, hoping that it sounded more authoritatively stern and less fearfully strained. The unwanted emotion made him scowl, but he didn't hide his hardened expression as he glared at her black and red cloak. After dealing with one barely trusting informant after another, after faking laughter and smiles all day, after the grueling sprint across half the kami-damned map, Naruto could feel the edges of his temper starting to wear through his carefully donned persona.

The woman seemed equally inclined to address him with cold aloofness. There was nothing friendly in her warm brown eyes. No hostility, but no joyous reunion either.

Fair. The feeling was mutual.

Her gaze flicked to Hinata, and Naruto stiffened in automatic defensiveness. But he forced himself to stand tall and not slide over to hide her behind him. In this interaction they were equals, a unified front of strength, not a henged master and student. Extending a hand toward his partner Naruto said, "This is Hinata. She is also a toad summoner. You can trust her."

Hinata bowed perfectly, her expression a balance of polite openness and cautious poise. "Naruto-kun has told me much about you, Konan-san. I hope we can continue to build upon the foundations you have already laid."

Something lifted from his shoulders as Naruto let her calm voice smooth over his harsh tone. He had no idea how she did that. How she could shift into that character who was so different from herself. When she had done it earlier in the day while they were trying to exchange information with a particularly difficult contact, Naruto had nearly dropped his henge in shock. She still looked like Hinata, sounded like Hinata, but it was as if her whole personality had been encased in ceramic and painted with flat colors. She became a carefully displayed image that reflected only what she wanted you to see.

Whatever conclusions Konan drew from Hinata's introduction remained unrevealed in her stoic expression. After a long moment of scrutiny she simply turned and opened the door. "Come inside, please."

Sharing a look they followed, Naruto going in first. Trying not to crane his neck in an obvious way, his eyes darted around the room. It was even more similar to his hut on the inside. The irori, the bookshelves, the desk. But it had obviously not been used in years. Vines climbed in through the back window, crawling along a shelf where four wooden squares sat neatly in a row, some with faded images of frogs and one that looked red.

The door slid shut with an unseen force, jarring Naruto's taut nerves and nearly causing him to flinch. Immediately Konan's hands were flying through seals and within seconds he could sense the heavy mantle of a powerful cloaking chakra surrounding them, concealing them. His shoulders lifted slightly as he tensed.

"It is a necessary precaution," Konan stated flatly as if reading his mind. "With Zetsu's spying and Tobi's unpredictable movements I cannot be too careful. They must not learn of our meeting."

"Your partners?" Naruto couldn't quite hide the hint of disdain in his voice. These were the Akatsuki who had hunted and captured the jinchuriki. Murdered unknown numbers of innocent people. Manipulated the pure intentions of a heartbroken orphan with eyes from Kami into a brainwashed psychopath bent on destruction.

Konan's eyes narrowed. "Not anymore."

Naruto's nostrils flared and he nodded stiffly. He had to keep reminding himself that she was not one of them anymore. She was done fighting. She had extended a token of truce in the form of those paper flowers, the ones he had left balanced atop the makeshift shrine he had created for Ero-sennin. His brain continued to try and rationalize her change of loyalty, but his heart still recoiled at the sight of her. Chewing the inside of his cheek, Naruto shut his mouth and let his partner take over.

"We appreciate the risk and precautions you have taken," Hinata smoothly offered. She stepped slightly closer to Naruto, her hand pressing gently upon his arm. I am here, she seemed to say. We will do this together. "What you have to say must be of great importance, and we hope the efforts we have made to meet with you have proven our willingness to listen."

Konan's eyes were fixated on the point where their bodies touched. If she had heard Hinata's statement, her face revealed nothing. For an instant Naruto swore her eyes went glassy, but a heartbeat later she was blinking away any emotion and was once more assessing them with cool indifference.

"Time is precious, I won't waste words," she said quickly, still in the same factual tone. "I do not trust Tobi. Since Nagato's d-death, he has changed. Become more manic. One moment he is brooding, the next he is tearing out of the hideout like the devil himself is chasing him. He hides something more than just scars behind that orange mask."

"Orange mask," Naruto murmured, his mind tripping over the small detail that had been buried under the pile of craziness he had dealt with over the last few days. His father's warning flashed through his mind. "Did he have connections to Konoha before he joined the Akatsuki?"

Konan blinked, the only outward sign of her brief confusion. "I know nothing about his previous life. He showed up with Black Zetsu out of nowhere, offering promises of peace if we listened to him. Promises of a better future. After Yahiko's death, we were willing to listen to anything. We just wanted justice."

She walked slowly to the shelf with the four squares of wood, pale fingers reaching up to brush away the thick layer of dust that coated one of them with a faded frog on it. "Nagato changed the most. I was blinded by my grief and my anger, I did not see it. I failed to see what was happening right before me because I was so focused on the past. And when I did have the courage to look to the future, it was so far ahead, so unattainable, that I just tunneled my vision and refused to acknowledge what was happening around me."

"And now?" Hinata asked, her brows creasing in sympathy. "What do you see, Konan-san?"

Konan turned, her eyes taking in the pair of shinobi, their contrasting expressions. One wary and one open. She noted the way Hinata slightly leaned into Naruto, and he hovered more protectively than was probably needed. The former Akatsuki let her shoulders stoop slightly. "Now, I see…nothing but ghosts."

This time Naruto did flinch. Even if it was just a metaphor, the regret in her tone was plain as day, and he could practically feel the melancholy hovering around her like a haunting spirit. He shifted uncomfortably, for once at a loss for words.

"That is why I need to make a plan," Konan's tone snapped sharply as she straightened, like she was scolding herself for losing focus. "I will not allow injustice to win. I will finish what we started. I will right the wrongs."

Naruto stood still as a statue, absorbing her stiff posture, her determination, and the hint of venom that dripped from her voice. He forced himself to set aside his own anger at what Konan had once represented, his fear of the traumatic memories her presence triggered. He shut off the voices in his head and opened his heart, listening for that inner whisper that never seemed to lead him wrong. That perspective which allowed him to see someone the way no one else could. He looked harder, dug deeper.

Konan never dropped his stare, her amber eyes flashing despite her calm outward veneer. "I am the last one left," she declared. "The only one who can still atone for our sins. My purpose was pain, but now I live only for recompense."

"Some things cannot be fixed," Naruto said softly, crossing his arms. Hinata tugged on his sage cloak but he ignored her unspoken warning and plunged ahead. "Nagato may have raised the dead, but the wounds still bleed on the inside. I may have made a truce with you, but that doesn't bring our sensei back. I can look to the future. I can move on. One day I might even be able to forgive you. But I would be a fool to forget everything. You may not be Akatsuki anymore, but that group's hatred still continues without you."

For an instant Konan's eyes flashed, her mouth thinning at his bluntness. But each word rang with honesty. He wasn't trying to hurt her feelings, they were beyond the point of petty insults. There was no trickery, no bluffing, no resentment. Naruto wanted her to understand his intentions, let her see exactly what was on his mind.

Konan's mouth twitched, her stance easing slightly. "It has been a long time since someone spoke so plainly to me. It was one of the things about you that impressed Nagato, made him want to hear you out that day and bare himself to you in return. In opening up to you he let his humanity free once more. Let himself remember who he was, what we were supposed to be, and what we had actually become. I do not expect to erase all the mistakes that were made. To do so would erase a part of them, my teammates, and I could never endure such a thing. The good, the bad, all of it. It was what made us what we are. Now, I just want to balance the scales. Add some 'good' back into the world. If I succeed, perhaps when I am gone, they will not say our names with hatred anymore."

It was not said proudly. There was no arrogance, no desire for glory in her words. Naruto's arms relaxed, the stern pinch of his brows finally smoothing away. "Understood. And for what it's worth, Konoha would already be singing Nagato's praises if I had anything to say about it. Anything we can do to help you…sharing information, supplies, even fighting those bastards when it comes time…consider us allies."

Konan dipped her head. "Then we have an agreement. You have my support as well, and I will share all of my information with you. In return I only want your loyalty, though I hardly deserve to ask for it."

Grinning for the first time since they took to the trees in pursuit of that damned piece of chakra paper, Naruto extended his hand in peace. "Welcome to The Network, Konan."


The muggy night greeted them as Naruto and Hinata set foot back upon their little meadow with the anticipation of two weary travelers who felt like they had been away from home for ages. The gurgling sound of Gamamoto returning into the depths of the river let them know that their less than comfortable mode of transportation was gone and they were finally alone. No more disguises, no more pretending. Just each other and the new reality they shared.

Naruto sighed dramatically, and beside him Hinata could not suppress a little whimper of relief as the thatched roof of their hut peeked into view over the grassy rise that sloped up from the water's sandy banks. He was already peeling out of his pack and cloak before they reached the doorstep. As he approached the front door with the welcoming hiragana of his name, Naruto paused and looked out over the meadow towards the valley. A soft breeze blew at his back like a gentle nudge, beckoning him to go to the edge and greet the stars that twinkled brighter with every second of the burgeoning night. He glanced down at Hinata, seeing that her gaze was also drawn that way, and when he laced his fingers through her own, she didn't need to question where they were headed.

The moon was regally perched between the peaks of two distant mountains, gracefully ascending to her heavenly throne as the entire valley glistened in the light of her gentle rays like an adoring congregation. The two shinobi quietly slipped into their usual place beneath the large plant, content to worship the beauty of the scene from afar while offering up their own silent thanks for their safe return home.

Naruto leaned back against the sturdy stem, letting his overtaxed brain melt into goo as he opened his arms for Hinata to settle within his embrace. The weight of her back upon his chest, her head plopping upon his collarbone as she hummed contentedly helped his soul slow from the frantic intensity of the last two days to a soothing hum. A peace that he had never known growing up, but was slowly becoming more familiar with and addicted to, spread through his body as he pressed his cheek into her hair with a tired smile.

However, the burden of the unpleasant information that Konan had given them dragged at him like a ball and chain, hindering him from coasting into complete relaxation. The three of them had talked late into the evening, hurriedly swapping sharp questions and terse answers, the trust between them still fragile and the danger of discovery increasing with every moment they lingered together. According to Konan the Zetsu creature and its clones could travel through any kind of tree, which was why she had chosen to meet in the abandoned hut that lay far beyond the marshy fields in the Land of Rain. From there, she was planning to drop off the map entirely, abandoning her spot in the ruined Akatsuki group to seek a place to bury her best friend and plot revenge on Tobi for what she saw as a betrayal of everything they had stood for.

Her revelation that Sasuke and his new teammates were indeed working with Tobi as part of the Akatsuki had nearly boiled Naruto's blood. The fact that the bastard had been ultimately unsuccessful in his attempt to capture the Eight Tails did little to assuage the fury of the Kyubi Jinchuriki. The fact remained, he had dared to try. And for what? Power? Revenge? Itachi was dead. Konoha was practically leveled. So he wanted Danzo dead, fine. Naruto could understand that. Hell, with what The Network's spies were telling him the Old Mummy was plotting within the village after shoving his way into the Hokage position, Naruto would probably help Sasuke take the asshole out. What pissed him off more than anything, is that instead of coming to his teammate for help, Sasuke had again chosen to turn to someone else. Someone who was indeed very powerful, but also very dangerous. It was like Orochimaru all over again. As long as Sasuke got what he wanted, he could care less about the rest.

The bottom line was hard to deny. Sasuke still didn't trust him. Still didn't respect him. Still wanted nothing to do with him. Naruto was rejected, on all counts, all over again.

The feeling of Hinata's fingers dragging across his scalp snapped Naruto out of his downward spiral. He blinked, not having noticed that his grip around her middle had become vice-like and the pleasant purring in his chest had morphed into more of a low growl.

"I will help you find Sasuke if you want," she said softly, having accurately guessed the cause of the waves of anger rolling off of Naruto's shoulders. Those shoulders sagged as he exhaled harshly, dropping his head so that her nails scraped along the back of his neck. It was a tempting offer. With her Byakugan and his Sage Mode plus the info from Konan on the Akatsuki's next moves, their chances of intercepting the rogue nin were higher than ever. But the risk was enormous. Tobi and whatever his true skills were would be a wildcard in a battle, Sasuke had three teammates who had all been brutally trained by the insane Orochimaru. The Toad Summoners were simply outnumbered. Getting Konoha involved was out of the question at the moment. And that didn't even account for wherever the hell Kabuto had crawled off to…

"No," he groaned, the part of him that always frantically demanded that he herd his precious people together stabbing him with regret. "I—I can't deal with him right now. I'm not strong enough. You need more time to train. The Network is unstable. We need to focus on our priorities. At least we know that the Eight Tales is free and safe. And Kakashi and Shikamaru are dealing with Konoha for now."

Hinata nodded in agreement, her fingers prodding the muscles along the base of his skull, finding a knot and kneading it firmly. "I think that's wise Naruto-kun. Konan-san said she would keep in touch, her kekkei genkai is very useful for espionage. The intel on the others in the Akatsuki is going to take some time to dissect."

The nocturnal melody of the frogs echoed distantly down in the valley, the rhythm of their croaks and calls fading in and out over the rushing sound of the wind through the tropical forest. Hinata frowned in contemplation as her silver eyes reflected the moonlight glow from the sky. "That man in the mask, Tobi, do you think he is the one your father was talking about when he mentioned the shinobi who was able to control the Kyūbi?"

"I don't know. I wish I could ask The Fox, but he isn't very helpful." Naruto scowled briefly, but the tension faded within seconds under the ministrations of her amazing fingers. He gave himself over to enjoying the gentle tugging of her hand in his hair, until a thought popped into his head.

"Y'know, Ero-senin mentioned that the Jinchuriki of the Eight Tales had somehow gained complete control over his beast. I wonder if I could find him and get him to teach me? Maybe then I could learn more about my parents and that masked bastard who is taking over the Akatsuki."

Hinata hummed thoughtfully. "I guess it couldn't hurt to ask. If you were able to win over Gaara-san you could probably convince any jinchuriki to be your friend." Naruto snorted and poked her in the ribs. She giggled but kept thinking out loud. "Tobi does seem to be linked to many different aspects of this shinobi conflict, past and present. He has ties to both Uchiha brothers, Orochimaru, Kabuto, Konoha, the odd Zetsu creatures, and now control of the Akatsuki. But no one can predict his actions because we don't understand his motives. Not even Konan could explain him."

Naruto tiredly scrubbed a hand over his face. "I need to update Fukasaku, get his opinion on all this new info," he mused, his words trailing off in a jaw cracking yawn. Damn, all this thinking was exhausting. He had done nothing with his chakra today but hold a henge and run like hell after a stupid piece of paper, but his whole body felt sluggish with fatigue.

The yawn proved contagious as Hinata lifted a hand to cover her own mouth, the little sigh that escaped causing Naruto's mouth to twitch in amusement. "C'mon sleepyhead," he chuckled, grasping her by the hips and pushing her up. "It's time for bed. My new favorite part of the day."

Hinata squeaked as he rose to his feet behind her, planting a firm kiss upon her cheek before spinning her around and marching her by the shoulders back toward the hut. As they closed in on their humble abode Naruto's stomach suddenly growled loudly.

"Is there any food left in the pack from the bento Hisa-san gave us?" he wondered aloud as he picked it up off the stone steps where he had left it.

Hinata turned and raised a brow at him as she opened the door and stepped inside. "Naruto-kun, you're not going to eat in bed are you?"

He barely bit off the comment that it would depend on what she wanted him to eat, but he somehow managed to keep his filthy mind in check despite his tiredness. Damn Ero-senin and his damn books must have polluted his mind. But the need to sass her just a little bit was too irresistible.

"I just need a snack, Hinata," he whined, following her indoors. "Or else I can't be held accountable for what might happen in the night." His eyebrows waggled deviously as he kicked off his shoes next to hers and tried to nip at her ear. She danced away from his playful bites with a small dramatic gasp, but the blush on her cheeks as she lit the lantern testified to her pleasure with his flirting.

She was getting more used to him, to his affections, his blurted comments. And he loved it. Each time she reciprocated a little bit more, opening up to him with an honesty of emotions that was a gift he still couldn't wrap his head around. No one had ever been so sincere, so truthful with him. With her, he didn't feel confused. One look and he could practically read her heart, and in return he held nothing back either.

Unpacking the modest bag that contained all their storage scrolls, he quickly located the rice balls Hisa-san had given them before they had checked out of the inn in Kitakawa. The woman had bid them a quick farewell, pointing them in the direction of the best stalls of the market where they could get a few supplies before meeting their next contact. She had also surreptitiously handed Naruto another box, locked with a chakra seal that he hadn't had a chance to study.

Now he pulled out the box, bringing it back to the chabudai along with the food and setting it all down. Hinata kneeled next to him, accepting a rice ball and studying the simple container with as much curiosity as himself. "It looks like a blood seal," she said with some awe. "I've seen those on some items in my father's office. It's used only for the highest security items."

Naruto swallowed hard, the rice in his mouth seeming to get stickier as he lifted the box and eyed the markings with unease. It looked like Ero-senin's work. The Old Toad had only just started to teach him the most rudimentary elements of Sealing Jutsu before the world had gone to hell, but he could still recognize his mentor's work.

Sharing a look with Hinata, Naruto did not hide his trepidation as he hesitantly set it back down. She scooted closer to his side, placing a hand on his forearm and giving it a little squeeze. Naruto licked his lips, taking a deep breath as he bit his thumb and swiped blood over the complex seal work. Bracing for anything.

Instantly the array began to glow, a quick flash illuminating each symbol and rapidly fading away, leaving the plain box even less impressive looking than ever. It was wooden, carved so that the lid slid off once it had been unlocked. Inside was an assortment of papers. Worn leather journals. Loose legal documents of some kind. Some cash. Pages of scribbled outlines that at first glance made Naruto groan thinking it was more stupid erotica, but on closer inspection was carefully coded notes on The Network.

Realizing this, Naruto did groan. Loudly. It would take ages for him to decipher this crap. Even Shikamaru had barely been able to make out the meaning of the numbers Ero-senin had carved on Fukasaku's back before he died. This material was at least written out and readable, but still cryptic and confusing. He would need boatloads of clones to get through it all…

"Oh my god," Hinata murmured, flipping through a few of the pages that Naruto had spread out on the table. "He had notes on everyone. Lightning, Sand, Stone, Grass. These are the names of all the Daimyo and their families, their connections, their finances. And those," she pointed at the legal documents that he had disregarded instantly, "look like bank statements. Naruto-kun, this is enough information to infiltrate any government in the five shinobi villages."

Naruto gaped down at her, but she seemed completely unaware of his shocked stare. "Wait, you understand all this crap?"

Her brows lifted in surprise. "It's not plain as day, but I recognize the names. I was tutored in all the aspects of government as part of my, um, training within the Hyuga." Her voice softened as she spoke, her shoulders rising like she wanted to pull her head into her shell in shame. A light bulb went off in Naruto's head.

"Clan Head training," he whispered, more of a statement than a question. "That was what you did earlier too, when we were talking to the informants today."

Hinata tilted her head slightly, "what did I do?"

"You just, kinda, shifted personalities for a minute," Naruto waved a hand in the air trying to explain it. "One moment you were Hinata and the next you were like, this fake character. As if you'd put on a mask. It was weird, but it worked really well. I meant to tell you thanks. There were a few times when I couldn't think of what to do next and you really saved my ass."

She shrugged off the compliment, her eyes drifting over the papers again. "Father refused to accept anything but perfection. He wanted his heir to be seen as strong in battle and in the council room. Sometimes the only way I could survive that scrutiny was to imagine I was someone else. I could never become what he wanted me to be, but for a little bit I could pretend."

He held her hand, squeezing it tightly and tugging gently until she met his stern gaze. "Hinata you are absolutely strong, don't ever doubt it. If you could help me figure this stuff out I would be eternally grateful. I'm sorry, I got so wrapped up in Sasuke again that I forgot that you have unresolved problems too. If there is anything in here that can help us figure out how to protect you from Hiashi I'll do it. I made a promise that I would never let him cage you, and I meant it."

Her eyes shimmered as she bit her bottom lip before it could tremble. "Don't worry about me, Naruto-kun. I just want to earn my place here. I want to help. I want to make a bigger difference in the world than just guarding the Hyuga traditions as Clan Head."

Naruto huffed gently. "You don't need to earn anything, you deserve everything just for being you. We are a team now right? We don't work together because we are keeping score of who owes whom a favor. We are partners. Soulmates. I'd do anything for you."

"Soulmates," she whispered, her eyes widening a fraction. "I still can't believe it."

"Believe it," he grinned, forgetting all about the box and whatever else might be inside. Threading his fingers through her hair he pulled her closer, stamping the proof of his love onto her cheek with his lips. "Believe it, believe it, believe it," he repeated more and more slowly, touching his lips to her forehead, her other cheek, and her nose, each press getting more gentle with every word. By the time his mouth hovered over her lips Hinata was barely breathing and she was leaning into his lap far enough that one twitch would send her tumbling into him.

"Say it," he demanded, his voice low and husky. "Say it out loud."

She licked her dry lips, so close to his that the tip of her tongue grazed his mouth and made his breath hitch. "We're soulmates," she breathed.

He brushed his lips across hers, her face cradled in his hands. "Again."

"We're soulmates." Her eyes closed as his heat touched her skin, and he hummed deeply before pulling away the slightest bit.

"You're mine," he agreed, his voice no more than a murmur, but the tone of possession which sharpened it made Hinata's whole body go taught, "and I am yours. Nothing will ever change that." Naruto smirked, kissing her more forcefully, like a man trying to brand her with his mark.

His hands slid down her back and pulled her into his lap. She gave up without a fight, her body drawn to him like a magnet. Heat flared up from her belly as he dipped his head and opened his mouth, letting his lips wander along her jaw and down her neck. The edges of his teeth dragged along her sensitive skin causing her hands to claw into his shirt. "N-Naruto-kun," she choked out between breaths.

His head pulled back and she gasped when their gazes locked. His eyes were slitted with an intensity of emotion that bordered on ferocity. It melted her insides, made her palms sweaty. It was alarming and hypnotizing at the same time. She gulped, unsure of what to do, her instincts warring between the urge to pounce on him and run away at the same time.

He blinked, seeing her stunned face and took a ragged breath, like he was trying to imprint her smell and clear his head in one inhalation. "Sorry Hime," he rasped softly, tapping his forehead to her own as the feral aura leaking from him seemed to bleed away, leaving just a blushing lopsided smile in place of the hungry expression. "Let's get some sleep, huh? I can't think straight anymore."

As they untangled and prepared for bed, Hinata was honest enough with herself to admit that the slightly animalistic gleam in Naruto's blue eyes had been as delicious as it was dangerous. The idea of chasing that beast down and taming it was a thought that left her face flaming. But her legs were still trembling with nerves, and her mind had been reduced to nothing more than bubbles by his kisses. So when Naruto pulled her firmly against his chest and curled protectively around her, she decided that sleep would have to do for now.

But someday, she would be brave enough to go hunting.


A/N: I'm not even going to bother making excuses for the long drought between my postings. As a reader it drives me nuts, as a writer, *sigh* I'm doing my best.

If you noticed the hints at the akatsuki orphan hideout looking familiar to Naruto, I did a little manipulating of canon there. I thought it would be more interesting to have it be a prototype of Jiraiya's plans for his hut in Mt. Myoboku. The "family" version of what he planned to build for himself before he lost his chance.

Also I'd like to take this moment to point out that I have very carefully not pinned down an exact number for Naruto and Hinata's ages. The beauty of fanfiction is that you can twist, stretch, or chop up canon to make whatever crazy piece of art you want. I want them not to be 15. Not to be ridiculously powerful tweens. I want thoughtful characters who are not perfect, slightly broken, and looking to heal themselves. Characters who have been through a lot and are still processing. I see them as being older. I've tried to write them as being older. But maturity rarely follows a strict age assignment. Pick whatever number you want in your head that makes sense. Unless something changes drastically, I'm keeping my timeline very loose.

As always, thank you so much for your unending patience, and I hope you enjoyed the chapter!