Hinata hurried through the crowded Konoha streets, avoiding hitting random people and apologizing in mid step to those she failed to miss.

Late again! Training like this has made me too tired. Wake up, Hinata! You will miss him if you do not hurry.

For the last two months things had begun changing dramatically for the young Hyuuga and her team. Previous team. Kiba had been promoted to jounin. That was the start of their changes. Shino had been the first to achieve jounin, but even then they were still a team, still did mission together, only there would be times Shino would be in complete command and it was just the three of them. Kurenai was not a sensei as much as a guide now, and many times she would be called away to other missions. But they were still happy like that. The three of them, to Hinata, was enough.

Then Kiba became a jounin. All of them, Kurenai included, went out and celebrated. Even though that meant only Hinata was still chuunin she didn't mind. She loved to watch them grow. Because she knew, even if it wasn't there yet, with them she would grow too

No more than a week after Kiba became jounin Shino left them. At times she had to scold herself. The false, selfish thoughts that went through her mind the first few days after Shino was selected for ANBU. Shino deserted us! He deserted me! We were supposed to stay together.

She never understood why she had thought that. She knew it didn't happen. Kurenai had become their sensei, but at one point she had been in a team as they had. There was no reason to believe they would always work together. But Hinata had wanted to believe it. She had wanted to remain with them.

The greatest change came only a month prior. They were separated, but still saw one another, and she and Kiba had missions together at times. But the day the words she had longed to hear finally passed her father's lips and reached her ears she felt joy mixed with an unexplainable, unnatural, all-consuming despair.

Hiashi looked up at his daughter with a scrutinizing gaze. The large desk placed between his seated form and her standing figure served as silent warning to her. Warning of his power over her. "You have been training with Neji," he said as both question and comment. She nodded her reply. "You have shown improvement."

She kept the smile from forming, but couldn't hide the joy from her eyes. He, her father, had been watching her, seeing her, and he approved. "Thank you, Father."

Hiashi stood, a grace in his body that seems like wind in motion, strong yet flowing. She watched his gaze soften, not weaken, but his eyes looked on her as a daughter, as his daughter. Hinata wasn't aware of the simple matter of standing and approaching her meant. That was, not until he spoke again.

"You still must improve. In order to lead our clan you must become stronger. Beginning tomorrow you will train with me."

Equals. He had moved to make them equals. He accepted her. Finally, he believed in her.

Her joy was shaken by a new thought, though. "Father, I am scheduled for a mission tomorrow. I do not—"

Hiashi silenced her simply by lifting his head, raising himself above her again, stripping them of the equality he had just a moment before given. "You are no longer a shinobi of Konoha. Starting tomorrow you are Hyuuga and only Hyuuga."

And with that, her team was truly no more. She had done her best to keep in contact with Kiba and Shino, but her father's training was grueling. Some days she would wake at dawn and not rest until dusk. Jyuuken was to be completely mastered. Kaiten must be learned. The Sixty-four points had to be taught. There was so much she had missed out on that now was being forced upon her tired and abused body.

This time, though, Shino had come to see her. She had wished to speak with him then, but it was the middle of her training, and Hiashi only allowed her a few minutes to rest and talk. He had something to tell her. Something important enough to cause faint signs of worry to mar his normally controlled face.

"Tomorrow, then? Shall we meet for lunch?" He looked away to calculate his day out. She had seen him do it many times before and it always made her smile. She was never sure why, though. "Yes, it would need to be lunch. Noon. I will have to leave no later than one."

Hinata berated herself for falling asleep after her morning workout, but the week had been hard on her and she seemed to be able to fall asleep anywhere these days. She checked she watch and cringed.

1:08 He will not have waited this long. He had to leave by one. And he wanted to talk about something. Still she ran on as quickly as her legs would take her. She didn't really expect him to be there . . . did she?

Finally she caught sight of the small bento restaurant they were supposed to meet at. She hurried in and made an outwardly calm, but inwardly frantic, search of the small building. He is not here. I knew he would not—

"You made it."

Hinata spun on her heels to come face to chest with Shino's ANBU vest. The sleeveless shirt and formed vest only served to show off what his previous jacket had always hidden. The firm, and now tanned, skin contoured over his muscles that showed the strength acquired over years of shinobi work. He was not overly muscled, it was a calm strength, powerful but not overwhelming.

Her eyes lifted to meet his gaze, still shadowed by the same circular glasses he had always worn. How he had managed to allow him that she would never know. Perhaps he only wore them when not on mission. She smirked when her imagination turned to what animal his mask would portray.

He must be going to a mission. That was why he needed to leave by one. One!

"Forgive me, Shino-kun. I fell asleep, not meaning to. You must be late now." A fine crimson hue touched her pale cheeks as she spoke.

"I hoped you would still come, but," he paused and looked to the north, "I need to meet them."

He does have a mission, she thought sadly. "I truly am sorry, Shino-kun."

"Please come with me." Shino took her hand unexpectedly. "I need to tell you something."

There it was again, that worry she had seen the day before. Faint, subtle, yet ever present. Like a wisp of hair floating passed his face. Her fingers unconsciously curled against his. "Of course."

He had to be late, she knew it, yet he walked slowly, guiding her through the woods as if he was reluctant to let the walk end and leave her. He had kept the hold on her hand since leaving the restaurant, his grip slowly increasing though never to the point it hurt her. His attention was unfocused, nothing like his normal demeanor. Finally, she could stand the silence no more and pulled him to stop.

"Shino-kun, what is wrong? Has something happened?" There was genuine concern in her eyes that she didn't bother to hide. She never hid anything from him.

He turned but didn't look directly at her. "Nothing has happened. Not yet. I wanted . . ." He looked to the north again, toward the village gate, then to their joined hands. Never before had she seen him so, indecisive. "I wanted to say good-bye."

"Good-bye?" Hinata didn't notice the sharp increase in her breathing or the fear that filled her face. "What do you mean good-bye?"

Shino looked away, shame filling his expression. Shame at worrying her, perhaps; she couldn't be sure. If she could calm down and read him the way her father was teaching her then she might have seen the pain he was in. The guilt he felt for being to selfish as to worry her. But she didn't, because she couldn't. The only think she could think to do was wait for him explain.

"My mission. I can't explain, but it is far more serious than anything I have done before. I just wanted to say good-bye, before I left." He released her hand and began walking away. "I'm sorry for worrying you. I shouldn't have asked you to come."

He thinks he is going to die, Hinata realized with a fear she didn't understand. He is expecting to die!

She had grabbed his arm without noticing her own actions. She just had to feel him again. She had to know this all wasn't just a nightmare. "Do you think you can say that and just leave? Shino-kun, you cannot be thinking you will die. You are strong and intelligent. You would not be in ANBU if you were not!" Her voice cracked as she screamed the last sentence.

His hand felt cool as it gently wiped away the few tears escaping down her face. "I shouldn't have worried you like this."

She couldn't read him. Years spent learning his mannerisms and subtle cues, but at that moment nothing seemed to connect. She had never seen that expression on him before. Hinata needed to understand; she needed to know what he was thinking.

Without hesitation her slender fingers rose to the rim of his glasses. They were smooth beneath her touch and easily slid from his face, catching only momentarily on his ears. Shino didn't try to stop her, nor did he remove the hand cradling the side of her wet cheek. For the first time the two teammates looked into the other's eyes.

His dark eyes seemed to change beneath her gaze, an unending torrent of conflicting emotion forever raging behind a black curtain of control and restraint. Death. He does expect to die. her hand shook so fiercely his glasses bounced off her wrist in an unsteady rhythm.

"You cannot die," she whispered finally. "You cannot."

The only response he gave was the slow tilt of his head, lowering, closing in to her own. Her pale eyes closed knowing, wanting, what was about to happen. But his lips never touched hers. Only the soft warmth of his breath billowing across her face told her he still was near. She looked at him, their noses just so close that should she turn her head they would brush against one another.

"Shino?" she asked confused.

He pulled back suddenly, separating from her entirely. "When I return."

"I do not understand."

He folded his glasses into her hand and pressed them to her chest. "I won't die before I kiss you. So when I return we will finish this. Besides," from his back pouch he removed a white mask, black and purple paint ornately placed to mimic a raven's beak, "I will need those back."