So, this little story was written for a contest, but I decided to post it up here too, and spread the Christmas cheer. ::grins:: I hope you all enjoy!
The Light That Guides Us
"Naruto, be careful up there!" A pink haired young woman called to her husband, her foot tapping an anxious pattern on the hardwood floor. In her arms was a two-year-old child who was practically a carbon copy of his father, with the exception of his emerald eyes, inherited from his mother. Alex had insisted upon staying up to see the star placed on their Christmas tree, though, at this rate, he would be asleep before long. His head was buried against his mother's neck, and his thumb tucked securely in his mouth, but his eyes were open, even if just barely.
"Oh, I'm fine, babe," the Hokage replied absently from his perch atop a ladder. While he had only been a married man for four years, the tradition of putting the star up on Christmas Eve went back to the days when he and his fiery wife began dating. Sakura gave him the star on their first Christmas together, and even though it looked a bit worn around the edges, he insisted that they continue using it instead of getting a new one.
"It wouldn't feel the same," he said once, while they were window-shopping in town, and Sakura came upon a very lovely looking star full of little white twinkle lights.
"Are you sure? This one's gorgeous, isn't it?"
"Yeah, it is, I admit, but I like ours."
"Naruto, you barely even looked at it!"
He responded by grabbing her hand and towing her away from the shop. "Not everything has to change," he whispered in her ear before kissing her temple.
After that, she did not bother to try and make him see reason. What would be the point? That star held quite a bit of meaning in Naruto's eyes, and she had no place in taking it away from him.
However, she still disliked the fact that he usually had to climb a considerable distance to put the star where it belonged.
"You know, there's nothing wrong with small trees, Hokage-sama," she teased, using one of his formal titles to bring her point across. "We don't have to bring home the biggest one you set your eyes on every year."
"The house is huge, babe. A tiny tree would look silly in here." He teetered a bit on the ladder when he leaned in to adjust the star, and Sakura had to close her eyes to keep her composure. "Almost had a little slip!" He said jokingly, one hand going behind his head to rub the back of his neck.
"Would you just hurry up and get back down before I come up and kill you myself?" His wife responded between clenched teeth. Alex, coming out of his sleepy haze for a moment, giggled a bit at the silliness of his parents, but more specifically his mother. She tended to be very dramatic much of the time, especially when it came to his father's antics. It was not uncommon for her to go off into crying fits, or to wave sharp objects in Naruto's face, or even throw crockery at him, though that only happened once, when he left one of his books out on the table by accident. His mother did not approve of his father's books, but Alex did not understand why. He'd seen the cover of one of them before, and it had a nice, colorful picture on it, just like the picture books that his father read to him every night. Certainly there was nothing wrong with picture books! Mama had been very angry for a long time after that, but Papa did something to make her happy again. Exactly what he did, Alex would never know, though Mama walked around with an odd smile on her face and acted all lovey-dovey afterward.
Grownups were hopelessly confusing creatures.
"Is that a threat, Spike?" Naruto asked with a raised eyebrow, the nickname his wife earned among the spies in Onyx, the spy network he had formed with Gaara in the early days of his rule as Hokage, rolling off his tongue.
"Do you want to try me?" Instinctively, her hand went to her pocket, where her brass knuckles waited. Naruto understood what that action meant, and decided it might be beneficial to his health to do as she said.
"Keep those dratted things where they are," he muttered, descending one step at a time from his previous position. "I'd like to keep myself more or less intact, thanks."
She smiled sweetly at him, relieved when he touched ground without any further mishap, and kissed his cheek, where the whisker-like markings lie. "I only have your best interests at heart, fox. I don't think a Hokage can be of much use if his neck is broken because he fell putting a star on the tree."
"Fair point," Naruto conceded, grinning to himself as he wrapped an arm around her shoulders and tweaked Alex's nose. "So, how does it look, Champ?"
The boy lifted his head a quarter of an inch, said, "Pretty," and then drifted off, the smell of his mother's hair lulling him to sleep. Sakura hitched him up a bit higher in her arms and took the time to examine her husband's work. Despite the wear and tear, the star did look perfect.
"Beautiful," she said softly, lacing her fingers through Naruto's free hand and squeezing. He turned his head, eyes meeting with hers, and could not keep the smile from his face.
"What did I tell you?" He said, and placed a lingering kiss on her lips. "Looks like our little scamp's not going to make it for dinner," he added when he broke away.
"I didn't think he would," Sakura replied as Alex snuggled a bit closer. "I'll go put him to bed, while you check on the dining room, okay?"
"Oh, I see how it is," Naruto countered dramatically. "I get to do all the hard work, like taking those heavy plates out of the curio cabinet and listening to Tohru as she berates me for not setting everything out in the proper place, while you go upstairs and avoid all of it."
Tohru was their housekeeper, who came to them during their first year of marriage. She was a spunky woman of middle age, who never hesitated to tell her employer when he was doing something wrong, which happened quite often. Naruto had many bad habits that sent her through the roof, such as the complete and utter chaos that was his desk, and the way that he left his clothes strewn about in places where they did not belong. It was quite humorous to watch the two of them interact, when all was said and done, however, like a parent scolding her troublesome child. They really were quite fond of each other, and Naruto would never consider having her replaced. He just enjoyed making a fuss.
"But I have never done anything to frustrate her, now have I?" Sakura pointed out, eyes twinkling. "You're a big boy. I'm sure you can handle this, dear."
Without another word, she disappeared around the corner and headed to Alex's room, leaving her husband to his task.
He sighed. "Women are cruel."
"Hokage-sama!" Tohru's voice shot down the hall. "Get your behind in here and give me a hand with the silverware!"
"That proves my point," he grumbled to himself as his legs began moving of their own will.
"What did you say?"
"Nothing!" He answered quickly.
"That's what I thought."Women…
"Ino! Could you possibly move any slower? We're going to be late!"
Shikamaru leaned up against the wall nearest to the bathroom, his arms crossed over his chest and an annoyed expression on his face. In theory, they were supposed to have left fifteen minutes ago in order to arrive at the Hokage's residence on time, but Ino decided to spend her life primping before the mirror, as she usually did whenever they were in a hurry. Granted, Shikamaru was a very sedentary kind of person, and he hated to be rushed, though living with his blonde little wife for a couple years began to dent his tolerance levels. Ino seemed to have that effect on people.
"Oh, Shika," her exasperated voice filtered out of the open door. "Don't get your pants in a bunch. We'll get there when we get there. Besides, it's always better to be fashionably late, anyway."
The dark-eyed Jounin rolled his eyes. "Even when it's among close friends?" He said with a raised brow. "I thought that rule only applied to parties full of snobby strangers." More than a little irritated, he blew at a stray piece of hair that fell in his face. Not only had Ino forced him to wear aftershave, but she also insisted that he keep his hair down as well.
Most troublesome, indeed.
"Of course not," Ino said, finally emerging from the bathroom and giving him a sultry grin. "Well? How do I look?"
He examined her critically from head to toe while she posed for him. "All I have to say is, you're lucky you're so damn cute."
A silvery peal of laughter escaped her ruby red lips, and she linked her arm through his, kissing him right beneath his ear, which of course left a mark. "I know I am." She said impishly.
I will never understand females. Never. Shikamaru thought with a sigh.
At the front door, their sitter promised them that watching over the twins, born nine months ago, would be no problem at all, despite the fact that it was Christmas Eve.
"Go on and enjoy yourselves," she said, shooing them outside.
"Thank you so much for this," Ino told her gratefully.
"If they give you any problems, just call. The number should be on the fridge," Shikamaru added.
"We'll be fine," the woman replied with a knowing smile. "Eri and Eli have always been angels with me."
Ino and Shikamaru exchanged an amused glance, both thinking the exact same thing.
Our kids? Angels? She must not be talking about the same monsters that we spawned…
It was rather nice to be alone for at least a short while, and they walked hand-in-hand on the way there, reminiscing over the days of their teenage years, when both had been more than a little foolish. Ino stayed close to Shikamaru's side, claiming that it was to retain warmth, though both knew she was lying. This was a game they played often, and had been doing so for quite some time. She would say something catty to cover her true feelings, and he would respond with an absolutely straight face. Their friends were used to this behavior, and they learned to read between the lines quickly. Even though it would appear as if the two had a very rocky relationship, the reality was that neither could be happier. Their way of showing it was just a tad different from the norm.
"Dinner better not be cold by the time we get there," Shikamaru drawled, his arm around Ino's waist.
"I'm sure they'll wait, Shika. And twenty minutes is not late, I promise you. Knowing Naruto, dinner probably isn't even ready yet."
"True, true," Her husband admitted, "but they do have a housekeeper now, remember. She's a no-nonsense kind of person, from what I hear."
"And how many people are going to be there tonight?" Ino shot back, her brow raised. She giggled when he pulled a face, and burrowed a bit closer. "I believe I've beaten you in the battle of wits this time around. Shocking."
Though there were many things he could have said to counter her, Shikamaru decided to keep his mouth shut and allow her to believe that she'd won. There was no point in contradicting her now.
"I really don't like that you're walking in your condition," Neji said to his wife, concern laced in his voice. Before, he rarely allowed his emotions to show on the outside, but that had begun to change ever so slowly as the years went by. He found his personality softening, most likely due to his wife's influence. While their marriage had been strained in the beginning due to the circumstances of their union, things had smoothed over with time, to the point where Neji could claim that he was content. The division between the Main and Branch Houses no longer existed, which erased much of the tension that hovered over the family like a dark cloud. Neji did not feel humiliated any more whenever he entered what once was Main House property. He felt welcome for once, at peace with his situation.
"My, what a pleasant change," Hinata replied, a smile lighting her features. She had begun to lose her shyness gradually, and while she remained the same, gentle girl she always was at heart, she developed a wry sense of humor that often got those around her in stitches, simply because her delivery was flawless. "I would swoon if I wasn't already burdened by your son, but I'm afraid that would take too much effort right now," she rubbed her swollen belly, and felt a tiny kick beneath her hand, as if the baby knew he was being spoken of.
Neji could not help but smile back at her, his own hand going to her stomach. It was so hard to believe that a living being was growing inside of her, his child…their child. What kind of person would he be? What would he look like? Would Neji be a good father, or would he fail? Parenthood frightened him beyond anything else, because it was purely unknown territory, and even his Byakugan could not see into the future for answers.
As if she knew what he was thinking, Hinata said, "Whatever is ahead of us, we'll get through it together. I've never been a parent before, either, so this will be just as new to me as it is to you." She patted his cheek fondly, and held out her arms. "Now, if you'd really like to be a gentleman, you can carry me the rest of the way. I wouldn't mind."
Neji gaped at her, stunned at her forwardness. I suppose I should just stop pretending like I've got her down to a science and accept the fact that she surprises me every day, he thought before scooping her up. Despite the extra weight that she'd gained due to the baby, she still felt feather-light in his arms. "Touché," he murmured.
"You're such a good boy," Hinata told him, her pupil-less eyes twinkling.
"So I'm a dog now, I see." Neji bantered.
"Yes, and a trained one, at that."
He chuckled in spite of himself.
She's not that far off the mark…
"There's a tree, right?"
"And lots of bows and orn—orna—pretty things?"
"Ornaments, sweetie. And I'm sure the entire house is decorated. It was last year."
"And food! Like turkey, and cookies, and cake, and candy!"
"Well…maybe a bit more of the dinner foods, but yes, there will be desert, too."
"Santa won't forget to stop at our place, will he?"
"No. We'll be home before he comes, and you will be in bed, little miss, or he really will fly right over us."
The prospect of such a catastrophic thing occurring was enough to silence four-year-old Kira for the remainder of the trip. From that point on, she was determined to be on her best behavior and not do anything that would make Santa angry. She certainly did not want to wake up to find a lump of coal in her stocking, or worse yet, nothing at all! Granted, she did do some rather silly things every now and then that got her into trouble, like the time she drew a mustache on her little brother's face with a permanent marker, or when she cut up one of her father's green jumpsuits so that it would fit her properly with safety-scissors. To say that Daddy had not been happy with her was an understatement, and he made her run twenty laps around the training grounds behind the Taijutsu School that he and Ma owned and taught at. Kira hated doing laps with a passion, though she did them anyway to prove that she could. The daughter of Rock Lee and Tenten was not about to be seen as weak!
However, as of now, she was quite willing to subdue herself so as not to be snubbed by the man in red.
"Nice," Lee whispered out of the corner of his mouth to Tenten, who winked.
"She has a flair for drama, just like someone else I know. I figured that would do the trick."
Of course, he knew full well whom his wife was referring to, though he was not bothered by the joke. It was true that he did tend to go a bit overboard on certain—well, more than that, really—occasions, and it was only natural that he passed some of his habits along to his daughter. Their son, on the other hand, took after his mother, and was a bit more even-tempered. He had come down with a cold the night before, and was currently in the care of Tenten and Lee's former sensei, Gai.
"How do you think he's doing?"
"Who, Gai-sensei, or Akito?"
Tenten laughed. "Both, now that I think about it."
"Aki's usually calm no matter what's going on, so even if Gai-sensei does happen to muck up somehow, he'll hardly notice."
Many different scenarios began materializing in Tenten's mind about what could possibly go wrong while Konoha's original Green Beast supervised her child, though eventually she forced herself to discontinue that line of thinking.
"You're probably right," she concurred, and left it at that.
Lee, on the other hand, thanked his lucky stars that his wife did not press the matter further, because then all sorts of unpleasantness would most likely occur. Gai could be quite…exuberant, to say the very least, so who knew what strange methods he would come up with to 'cure' their son? Because he would try, of course, being the person that he was.
I'm going to be in trouble, considering it was my idea to leave Aki with him in the first place…
"So, how's life been treating you lately?" Kiba asked his normally silent companion as they weaved through the streets, a light coat of snow blanketing the ground on this chill December evening. He and Shino had started off alone, but ended up running into each other on the way. It had been a few months since they had seen one another last, so they had a bit of catching up to do.
"Oh, not too bad. My family's been badgering me about going out and finding myself a wife, but other than that I can't complain."
Kiba gave a low whistle. "A wife, eh? Not a girlfriend?"
Shino snorted. "They seem to feel that I should bypass that part of the process and 'move in for the kill,' as my brother says. That slacker's not married either, yet he still patronizes me on a daily basis. Makes a lot of sense, doesn't it?"
"That's rough, man," Kiba replied, shaking his head. "Though I do sort of know where you're coming from. My sister's been trying to set me up with all of her psychotic girlfriends," he shuddered involuntarily. "I tell her time and again that I'd rather pass, but it's like she tunes me out on purpose. There's this one girl on my squad that I've had my eye on for a while though. Now she is quite the looker…"
As Kiba prattled on like he normally did, Shino pretended to listen, voicing a comment every now and then when the flow of words died down a bit, but Kiba seemed to be doing just fine in carrying on the conversation by himself.
It never ceases to amaze me how much this guy can talk…
"Hey guys! Mind if I join you?" Another voice cut through Kiba's speech, and two heads turned. Akimichi Chouji strolled down the path, appearing a tad leaner these days than before. He started taking his training very seriously after his near death against one of Orochimaru's Sound-nins, and the effort showed. His appetite never diminished, however, though that came as no surprise. The Akimichi clan was full of hearty eaters, many of them resembling Santa Claus himself.
Shino and Kiba greeted him with a few playful slaps on the back, and they continued on, the air growing colder and colder as night continued to descend. There was a magical feeling in the atmosphere, one that only Christmas Eve could induce. Carolers sang nearby, and the trio exchanged looks before linking arms and adding their voices to the song. Kiba and Chouji provided most of the volume, however, since Shino was not really the singing type. This continued until they reached their destination, and Naruto came out onto his porch with raised brows.
"I heard you guys a mile away," he joked, grinning from ear to ear. "Come on in! Everyone's in the dining room."
Tenten had been correct in her assumption that the place would be decorated. In the Main Hall stood a tree that had to be at least 14 feet high, Naruto's star glittering on the very top. Fresh garland was weaved through all the banisters, wreaths were hung over the doors, and Sakura's collection of Nutcrackers was spaced throughout each room.
The dining room itself was a Christmas wonderland, a white silk tablecloth adorned with snowflakes covered the table, the porcelain dishes set out at each seat were engraved with holly-berry designs, and a miniature tree, fully ornamented, served as the centerpiece. Platters heaped with mouthwatering dishes were also set out, merely waiting to be dug into. And of course, the moment was made even better by the sight ofthe group of people who sat around the table, talking and laughing and enjoying each other's company. This was what Christmas was all about, right here, in this room.
They may not have been family by blood, but they came close enough. So many experiences had been shared among them; they were Genins together—well, with the exception of Kakashi and Anko, who had joined them—which, in itself, was a lifelong tie. They had ups, they had downs, they had laughter and tears, but in the end, they had each other.
All but one.
A place had been set for him, though all knew that he would not be coming. The boy who turned traitor of his own will had not been seen again in Konoha since he disappeared out of the blue some time after the conclusion of the Great War, the remains of the Curse Seal slowly driving him mad. No one knew of his whereabouts, but the common belief was that he committed suicide to be rid of the sickness that plagued him. The name Uchiha became a taboo, and none spoke it out in public, seldom in private. Naruto and Sakura in particular were deeply affected by his absence from their lives, and the betrayal that marred their friendship until he vanished, though they did not show it, even though the empty seat spoke volumes.
Much to everyone's surprise, however, someone completely unexpected would fill that seat.
Once Chouji, Kiba, and Shino had settled themselves and Naruto returned to his spot at the head of the table, there came a knock on the main door. The Hokage was about to get up again, but Tohru motioned for him to stay, bustled out, and reentered a few seconds later, being followed by a young man with brownish-copper hair and emerald eyes, eyes that were once surrounded by black from sleep-deprivation.
"Gaara?" Naruto said, shocked. "I thought you said you weren't coming!"
Sakura immediately left her place and went to Onyx's Spymaster, giving him a brief hug before smirking. "I had a feeling you'd change your mind, Red. You're so predictable sometimes, it's not even funny."
"So this is how you talk to your commanding officer, is it, Spike?" The Sand-nin countered in a dry tone, arms crossed over his chest. "I'm appalled, truly."
The pink-haired woman laughed, having served under him for long enough to understand when he was joking, and without a second thought, towed Gaara to the chair intended for Sasuke, near Naruto and herself.
After that, it seemed as if all unease evaporated, and the conversation picked up again, only pausing when Naruto said grace, and cut the turkey.
"I want that one, Ma!" Kira motioned to a rather large piece, not caring that she probably would not be able to eat all of it. Next to her sat Kakashi and Anko's seven-year-old daughter, Rin, named after her father's fallen teammate.
"You'll end up with a stomachache," she told the younger girl kindly, and cut off a piece of her own turkey to give to Kira. "That's what happened to me last time I tried eating too much." She wrinkled her nose, a few strands of silvery hair falling into her face. "It wasn't fun, and Dad teased me like crazy afterward."
"But you never did it again, did ya?" Kakashi cut in, and stole a forkful of stuffing off of Rin's plate, popping it in his mouth before she punched him on the arm.
"Da-ad!! That wasn't fair!"
"You're such a wonderful influence, moron," Anko said to her husband exasperatedly while Kira giggled.
"One does one's best," Kakashi replied with aplomb.
The Special Jounin sighed. "I'm married to a toddler."
"So how are the twins?" Chouji asked his former teammates in between bites of ham. "I'm going to have to stop over and see them again."
"Good, you can take them home with you, too." Shikamaru drawled, and received a glare from his blonde wife.
"They aren't that bad," She protested, though a rebellious part of her agreed with him.
"Ino, come on. From the time they get up at, oh, four in the morning, to the time they go to bed, it's chaos, especially now that they've discovered the secret to walking. They're into everything."
Chouji tried very hard to hold in his laughter, though he failed miserably. "I'm sorry, guys, really, but…just the thought of Shikamaru running after not one, but two kids under a year old cracks me up." That said, he promptly began snickering again, and was unable to stop until the meal concluded. Ino ended up joining him at one point, because she too began remembering all the times she'd watched her stoic husband rounding up their children, and it really was funny.
"First my best friend, and now my wife," Shikamaru sighed tragically. "What did I do to deserve this?"
He did not receive an answer, only more snickering.
"Where's the rug rat?" Gaara inquired, whether out of curiosity or obligation, he was not sure. Deep down though, he knew the truth. He was quite fond of the little boy who had come to regard him as 'Uncle Gaara,' and he had half-hoped to see him tonight.
"Sleeping," Naruto said, resting his chin on one hand. "He made it long enough to see the star go on the tree, but he zonked out after that." A sly grin made its way to the Hokage's face. "Why? Separation anxiety? You two were joined at the hip when you came around last."
The Sand-nin fixed Naruto with an icy stare, though the corners of his mouth quirked. "Trying to be a comedian, as always, I see."
"No, no, I was making an observation, is all."
Sakura had to muffle her laughter with her napkin.
"Cheeky," Gaara shot back, the rarely seen smile finally breaking through. "I got him a present, actually. It's nothing big," he added quickly when his companions gaped, "just a bear, like the one I had when I was—little." His brow creased for a moment, unwanted memories surging forth from the recesses of his mind, though he forced them back.
"Oh Gaara, that's so sweet!" Sakura said, and meant it. She, along with her husband, knew how hard he was trying to coexist normally with other human beings, and this action was a significant step forward. "I'm sure Alex will love it, especially if it's from you."
"Shut it, Spike," the Spymaster said, "and I don't want to hear a word from you, either, Blondie."
"Of course not," said Naruto with a straight face. "I am glad you came, though, Gaara."
The Sand-nin looked down. "So am I," he admitted quietly.
"You're still single?" Hinata said incredulously to Kiba, who rolled his eyes.
"See? I get this from everyone! You're definitely not alone, Shino."
Pale eyes fixed upon him.
Shino bowed his head. "Yeah, me too."
Hinata was at a loss for words. She stared at one of her former teammates to the other, and then back again, mouth slightly open. "But why?" She finally managed to get out. "You are two of the sweetest guys I've ever met!"
"I think that if they could change their status, they would, Hinata," Neji pointed out, amused.
"Exactly!" Kiba exclaimed, and began talking with his hands. "I mean, it's not like I've tried to stay single all this time, ya know. I just can't seem to stay in a relationship for more than a month before I'm bored. It's a curse, I tell you. But, there is this girl in ANBU with me who's a real hottie, and—"
"And they don't need to hear you yak about her for the next year," Shino cut him off. "Trust me."
Kiba managed to appear a trifle put out.
"How is the school coming along?" Neji asked Lee and Tenten, changing the subject.
At the mention of his school, Lee's eyes began to fill with a fire that usually appeared whenever he spoke of Gai-sensei. Tenten sighed. Here he goes…
"I train so many talented students, it's unbelievable! They are all so eager to learn, so full of life and spirit! The power of youth never fails!" He cried, fists in the air.
The room fell silent, and everyone turned to look at him. Lee flushed crimson.
"Thank you for that splendid observation, Thick Brows," Naruto broke the silence, grinning. It did not take long for the laughter to begin, and it took some time for it to taper off again. When it did, however, Naruto got to his feet and spoke once more. "I just wanted to thank you all for coming tonight. It means a lot to the missus and myself to have everyone together, and…well, you know. I don't give pretty speeches." He rubbed the back of his neck amidst the chuckles. "But, I would like to call for a toast." Raising his glass, he waited as the others followed suit, and then said, "to health and happiness, and a Merry Christmas."
"To health, happiness, and a Merry Christmas!" Came the reply of all.
As Naruto and Sakura stood on the porch to see their guests off, the pink-haired girl happened to glance up into the sky, where the stars burned bright, but one star in particular burned the brightest.
"Look," she breathed, pointing. "The North Star."
And so it was.
Tiny white flecks began to swirl down from the clouds, slowly at first, but coming faster as the time passed, adding to the whiteness that already covered the ground.
It truly was a beautiful sight.
Gaara tiptoed into the room quietly, so as not to startle Alex into wakefulness. When he reached the side of the bed, he noted with relief that the child had not stirred, and, not really knowing why, he reached out to stroke the soft, blonde hair away from Alex's eyes. His hand lingered for a moment, and only a moment, before he removed it, and tucked the bear underneath the covers, right next to the sleeping boy. As if he knew it was there, he turned wrapped his arms around the bear, burying his face in its fuzz.
"Merry Christmas," the Sand-nin whispered, and left, closing the door behind him.
Naruto knew without needing to ask what his Spymaster had been doing. "You're a softie at heart, you realize." He could not resist saying.
"And your mouth is bigger than it should be," Gaara replied without missing a beat. He turned to Sakura. "There's going to be a meeting two days after the holiday, so you'd better be there."
"Have I ever missed a meeting?"
"Well why did you need to tell me, then?"
"Habit." He nodded to the both of them. "Take care."
"Merry Christmas, Gaara."
Another nod, and he walked out the door. His brother and sister, he knew, wished for him to come home, and for whatever reason, he felt his legs carrying him in that direction.
Yes, he would go home.
Rin snuggled against her father's strong chest as the snow fell on them at the gravesite, the atmosphere somber. She understood how much this meant to him, to visit the two best friends whom he had been unable to save, and she only wished that she could do something to ease the pain, even if only a tiny bit. She had been accompanying her father to this spot every day for as far back as she could remember, and it had become a very personal thingfor the two of them, one that strengthened the already close bond that existed between father and daughter. Her mother came along every now and then, as she did tonight, though most often, she allowed them to have their time together without protest.
"Are you okay?" Rin asked when she felt Kakashi's arms tighten a bit around her.
"Mm-hmm," he murmured. "I miss them, though." He did not need to say any more.
"I love you, Daddy," she whispered in his ear, and kissed his cheek, which was wet from snow…and tears. "They'd be so proud of you."
Anko blinked rapidly to keep her own tears from spilling.
It took a while for Kakashi to find his voice around the lump that appeared in his throat.
"You really think so, Rin?"
His daughter nodded, her eyes meeting with his. "I know so."
"I told you we wouldn't be late," Ino said as she and Shikamaru walked in the front door.
"And you were right, okay? I admit it."
She could not keep the triumphant grin from her face, and it was still there when they paid the sitter and went to check on Eri and Eli, who were still sound asleep.
"They do look like angels when they're sleeping, don't they?" Ino whispered, her face softening.
As much as he hated to concur, he could not deny that the statement was true.
"I suppose," he said, trying to sound like he didn't care one way or the other.
"Merry Christmas, Scrooge," Ino teased, and kissed his pouting lips.
"Humbug," he replied when they broke apart.
Gai and Aki were passed out on the couch when Lee, Tenten, and Kira returned home.
"Isn't that adorable?" Tenten squealed, her hand over her mouth. At the sound, her former sensei's eyes shot open, though he remained where he was.
"How was he?" Lee asked, motioning to his son.
"Good as gold," Gai said, flashing his trademark smile. "He taught me how to play Connect Four."
"He did?" Lee and Tenten said at the same time.
"Oh yes! That's a fun game! I'll have to challenge Kakashi to it sometime. I'm positive I could beat him."
"Of course you could! You're much stronger than he is!" Lee said, crossing his arms.
Without a word, Tenten took Kira's hand and led her upstairs, allowing her husband and Gai to carry on as usual.
"Hopefully he remembers to put Aki to bed," she sighed.
Hinata was practically gone by the time Neji brought her home, having to carry her yet again, though he really didn't mind.
"I had a nice time," he told her as he entered their room and laid her gently on her side of the bed.
"Good," she mumbled sleepily. "I'm…glad…"
He did not have the heart to wake her so that she could change out of her nice clothes, so he did it for her, stopping to place a kiss on her belly, then her mouth.
"Sleep well." He whispered.
As before, Kiba, Shino, and Chouji walked together, starting up the singing almost as soon as they were on their way. This time, Shino actually made an effort, and he was quite pleased with the result.
"You know, maybe I'll try to be a little more bold on the dating front," he said after they finished a round of 'Jingle Bells.' "I'd rather not be single forever, and I'm sick of the nagging, so I may as well put myself out there."
"Good call, man, good call. And I think I'll get up the nerve and ask ANBU girl to have coffee with me, or something."
That left Chouji.
"Aw hell, I'll…" he puffed out his chest suddenly. "I'll sweep the ladies off their feet, that's what I'll do!"
"So, is it a pact then?" Kiba inquired. "If we're still single by, say, March, we have to…submit to the ways of the matchmakers in our lives?"
"Sounds good." Said Chouji.
"That's enough incentive for me," said Shino.
"Wonderful. Now, who is up for 'Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer?'"
Later on, after everyone had left, Sakura and Naruto went to the window and held a candle between them. She watched as her husband set a match to the wick and a flame appeared on the end of it, almostseeming as if it danced.
Like their star, this was the candle that they lit every year for Sasuke, wherever he was.
"I can hardly believe it's been six years," she said.
"I know. Strange, isn't it?" Making sure that the candle was secure in its holder, he and Sakura left it in the window, where it would burn until the flame died. "How are you doing, kiddo?"
She responded by moving into his arms, where he held her close, his heart beating against her own. "Okay, actually. It doesn't hurt as much now as it did before."
"That's exactly how I feel. It's still there, that…emptiness, but it's becoming easier to ignore."
Sakura nodded. "Though not forget."
"No." Naruto admitted. "Never forget."
After a time, Sakura lifted her face to him. "I love you, fox."
He smiled. "I love you too, Spike."
The snow continued to fall.
Somewhere, Sasuke felt them…felt that he had lost something that had once been so dear, something that rested just beyond his grasp.
The North Star shined upon his fevered skin, and as he beheld it, a tiny glimmer of memory sparked. He saw blonde hair and pink, blue eyes and emerald, a fox and a flower…
"Thank you," he whispered through bloodless lips. "Thank you for that light."
And there you have it. My longest one shot to date. PHEW!!