Perhaps this time, Naruto had been away much longer than he'd thought.

The village had, upon each of his many departures and returns, always remained essentially the same. The changes, he had always noticed, happened deep within the village, and no matter how significant the change was, it was never obvious at first. Perhaps the greatest changes were always the subtle ones.

Naruto returned one day to the Hidden Leaf, dusty and weary with blood still drying on his vest, having only been gone for a year and a half, give or take a few months.

He may as well have been gone a lifetime.

- - -

"I'm sorry about your apartment, Naruto," Tsunade said, her smile flickering and sad. Her cheeks were flushed and she was well on her way to being very drunk. Naruto didn't mind, he was too tired to care about anything really. His head was buried in his arms, and he only sighed dejectedly in reply.

Bad news had that effect on him.

"It happened not too long ago; a raid from some Mist missing-nin. They managed to set a good part of the city on fire before we neutralized them." She paused, leaning forward onto the table. She ruffled his hair gently and coerced him to look up and meet her eyes. She offered him another quiet smile, but then pursed her lips thoughtfully. "Did you have anything really important there?"

Naruto was quiet for a long time. He caught her eyes, warm and kind as she watched him, and thought distantly of how much he had missed her. He wanted the day to be over, he wanted to go home and sleep---and he couldn't. He missed his bed and he missed Sakura and Sasuke and he had missed the Godaime and he wanted to be able to express it.

He didn't want to be tired, frustrated and homeless and stare at this woman as if she meant nothing to him when he hadn't seen her in a year.

Naruto was positive that if he could just go home and sleep, if the day would just end, tomorrow everything would be better. He could come back and call her an old bag and annoy her all through her hangover and then maybe tell her he was glad to see her again. It'd been too long.

"Not really," he answered, his voice muffled by the crook of his elbow. He wasn't sure, at any rate. Sakura had his plants, didn't she?

Tsunade sighed in relief, ruffling his hair once more before sitting back. She crossed her arms over her chest and gave him an appraising look.

"That's good," she said. "Tomorrow morning, I'll find you a new apartment. Or a house, if you'd like."

Naruto just wanted his bed. That was all. He didn't care where it was. "Sounds good," he muttered, shutting his eyes. "I want a nice one. Lots of space and big windows---you're paying for it."

She laughed, loudly, and he looked up at her briefly to grin. She smacked his head when he did so, which only made him laugh in reply. A shrill, almost giddy laughter that made him almost sick to his stomach. He needed to sleep.

He wanted to go home. He still hadn't fully grasped that he couldn't.

If Naruto walked to the street where his apartment building had stood for more years than he had been alive, it would not be there. A bookstore, or something like that, now stood in its place. Tsunade had told him so, at any rate. He hadn't seen it yet.

He didn't particularly care to, either.

"Do you have someone to stay with?"

Naruto blinked up at her with a start, his thoughts crumpling like paper and discarded just as easily. He smiled a little uncertainly, thinking briefly of Sakura. Also, briefly, of Sasuke but he knew from previous experience they didn't share quarters well for too long.

"I think so. What's Sakura-chan up to these days? I haven't stopped in to see her."

Tsunade said nothing for a long moment. She stopped using her sake dish and took a drink straight from the glossy bottle. When she dropped the bottle down onto the table, Naruto knew it was empty.

It was going to be a long fucking night.

- - -

"Of course you can stay here," Sakura whispered breathlessly, opening the door in a rush with sleep fading quickly from her eyes. She stared at him as if she hadn't seen him in years – as if she had not, in fact, ever expected to see him again.

It hurt. It also didn't make any sense.

His eyes slid quickly over her full figure. She'd gained weight. A lot of it, and he knew why. Her eyes narrowed sharply at him as she stood in her doorway, because he made no move to enter her house.

"Hello to you too, Naruto." She added coldly, after a moment. "You're finally home and those are your first words to me? Just 'Can I stay?'"

Naruto didn't answer, at first. He stared at her until she blushed and looked away, her hands falling over her belly. "She told you?" was her coarse whisper.

"Yeah," he croaked. "She told me. Glad she did, too. Otherwise, seeing you like this just might have given me a heart attack."

She narrowed her eyes again, fingers clenching in the fabric of her nightgown.

"I'm not­­­­---"

"You're pregnant." He cut her off. His eyes shut and he quietly waved her words, her explanation or her protest, away. He didn't care. "You're very pregnant."

Sakura said nothing. Naruto laughed behind his hand, and although he tried his hardest not to sound bitter, it was there. "So you and Sasuke, huh?"

"Naruto---" she began, running her hands over her face tiredly. "Can we talk about this inside? Later? Do we have to talk about it at all?"

He laughed again, and allowed her to lead him inside. The room was dark, but a single light from the stairway that---he imagined---led to their bedroom was on. A small house, with a compact living room filled with books and scrolls and a kitchen that looked cleaner than any he'd ever seen before.

On the opposite wall there was a glass door that led outside to a small porch. Through this door, he could see the houseplants he had asked Sakura to care for. They had gotten bigger and greener than they ever had in his care; for a moment, he was mildly jealous.

It inspired another odd laugh from him as Sakura watched uneasily. She sat down, and although she offered him a seat, he declined.

Instead, Naruto chose to pace her living room and decided it was far too crowded for it. He missed his apartment and the rather undistracting lack of furniture he had.

There were pictures on one of the shelves of their bookcase; of the thirteen he counted on first glance, one was of him, four contained him, and the rest seemed new. Wedding pictures. A part of his chest tightened sharply.

He hadn't been gone long enough for this shit.

"I'm gone a year---"

"You've been gone a lot longer than a year." She interrupted him icily, and he stared at her. He felt a little surprised, a little confused. It hadn't felt like a whole lot longer, a lot of it had slipped by him rather quickly. A haze of blood and battle, of days in the desert broken up by a few restless nights where he dreamed of home.

Sakura sighed, brushing her hair out of her eyes. It seemed longer than he remembered.

"I'm sorry," she said. "So much changed when you left. There were raids and people died and Sasuke asked me if I would help him start a family, rebuild his clan and I just…" her words slipped together, she seemed embarrassed. "It didn't seem like a bad idea. Creating something new. Rebuilding."

Naruto felt angry again, feeling a low burn of betrayal in his gut before forcing it to subside. He was tired. This would feel completely different in the morning. He could feel happy for them in the morning.

Or he could rip Sasuke's head off. Whichever.

"So where is he?" was all he said. He swallowed hard, looking up at the lit staircase even though Sakura was shaking her head.

"He's on a mission, somewhere in Mist Country…I don't know all the details," she replied softly. "He might be back later this week. Tomorrow. A year from now. All the usual guarantees, you know."

He'd never heard her sound so bitter. For just a second, he allowed himself the painful hope that she was referring to him.

Naruto was only supposed to have been in Wind Country for two months, at most.

All of the usual guarantees…

He paced the length of Sakura's living room once more before coming to a stop at her side. He reluctantly placed his hand on her shoulder and she glanced up at him silently. He could read nothing from her eyes.

"Are you happy?" he asked her, although it hurt to ask.

Sakura laughed. "I don't have any illusions, Naruto."

"If you'd married me, you never would have had to say that." He said with a faint smile, squeezing her shoulder as she laughed again. He'd not meant to say it. He didn't regret it.

"Do you still want to stay here tonight?" she asked him, quietly.

For a long time, Naruto was silent.

He slept on a couch in Shikamaru's house that night.

- - -

"Your couch sucks," Naruto informed Shikamaru the next morning.

They were slumped over a wobbly table in the other ninja's even more wobbly-appearing kitchen. Naruto was never quite so happy to be eating a bowl of cheap cereal in his life. It wasn't ramen, but Shikamaru didn't really have any, and it would have to do. He was hungry enough not to care.

Not quite hungry enough to not gripe about it, but old habits die hard.

Naruto glanced about the kitchen with the other young man did not reply, only took another bite of his toast with eyes still shut tiredly. He idly wondered if his friend could fall asleep just like that, and whether or not he would be able to tell.

The kitchen was old, the entire house was old, and even though Naruto half-expected there to be a sink full of dirty dishes or some other kind of mess, the kitchen was remarkably clean. Just old.

"Shouldn't you have enough money to buy a better apartment, Shikamaru?" he asked, puzzling over a rusty hinge on one of the dusty cabinet doors.

With a delayed jolt, Shikamaru looked up at him. "Huh?" was his first notable contribution to their conversation. Naruto snickered into his cereal as Shikamaru glanced about, looking a little puzzled. "Oh….eh," he shrugged, waking up. "I don't care. Saving up for my retirement."

Naruto grinned. He chewed noisily on another spoonful of cereal and let his thoughts travel where they may. He noticed that Shikamaru had not asked him what happened, or how his mission had gone or what had detained him as long as he'd been gone. He asked no questions and he seemed exactly the way Naruto remembered him.

Naruto leaned over the table suddenly, as if to share a secret.

"You didn't, uh. You didn't get married or have twelve kids or become Hokage while I was gone, did you?" he asked, his blue eyes wide and seemingly genuinely curious.

Shikamaru stared at him.

"I think," he answered finally, giving Naruto a deeply thoughtful glance, "you may have spent a day too many under the sun."

Naruto laughed. "Probably," he said, the words cracking around his laughter.

He was, for a moment, so genuinely happy to see that at least one person in Hidden Leaf had not changed that he wanted to cry.

Shikamaru didn't seem too surprised when he did.

- - -

The morning didn't make anything any easier.

In fact, the sight of the building that had risen up from the ashes of his only home filled him with a raw kind of anger he wasn't sure how to deal with. He had grown up there, on his own, with only the distantly watchful eyes of the Hokage to make sure he didn't fuck it up royally. The apartment was dirty, small, and his.

That was all that mattered. But now it was gone.

Naruto sat down in the dirt, barely mindful of the people who weaved around him, staring up at the new building with narrowed eyes. It didn't seem very new; dust was gathered in the corner of every shingle and crack of the wood, and as Naruto studied it, he slowly---however bitterly---came to accept that this place was not his home anymore.

He thought of Sakura. He thought of her words and he thought of his childhood. He had never been fully prepared for the pain of loss; considering he'd grown up thinking he'd had nothing from the start.

All that was left now was to rebuild. As Sakura had done, and as she continued to do every day of her new life. So much had changed.

For a moment, Naruto almost wished there had been nothing at all for him to rebuild.

- - -

Tsunade found Naruto around noon.

She had been planning, during her walk to meet up with him, on informing the young man of just how grateful he should be that she managed to get up with a throbbing headache to help his sorry ass find a new apartment. She wanted to tell him also that she had missed him, sometime in-between whatever they snapped at each other in the course of the day.

The sight of Naruto curled up and dozing in the grass of the genin training field caused whatever words she had planned to dry up in her chest.

"What are you doing out here, you idiot?" she laughed. She approached him almost warily, nudging his side with her foot. He groaned tiredly and turned away from her. "You didn't sleep out here, Naruto…did you?"

His reply was muttered and she didn't hear it at all. Her second nudge was a little harder to ignore.

"Ow!" he yelped, sitting up in the grass. He scowled at her, rubbing his face and snarling nothingness under his breath. "I said no. I slept at Shikamaru's. Damnit that hurt!"

"You're a big boy," the Hokage crooned, "I'm sure you can handle it."

Naruto hissed lowly in response and she sat down on the grass beside him. She smiled when he retrieved his forehead protector out of his pocket and tied it on, still grumbling quietly at her.

Her smile dimmed as she asked, "Did you see Sakura last night?"

Naruto fell silent. He glanced away, staring at the memorial stone that crested the hill a few yards from where they sat. She took his lack of an answer as the only answer she would get.

"Naruto---"

"Tsunade," he laughed, "I don't want to talk about it. I saw her. Let's leave it there."

She regarded him carefully. He quietly refused to meet her eyes, and she thought he may get up and leave her there.

"This isn't like you," she said softly. "Naruto, things are going to be difficult for you. You've been gone a long time…things have changed a lot---"

"Believe me," he laughed bitterly, "I noticed."

"No," Tsunade murmured. "Probably even more than you've noticed."

He turned his head to look at her, a dark skepticism filling his eyes. "What 'm I missing out on? Who died? Who else got married, other than my best friends?"

Her silence, much like his, spoke volumes.

- - -

The Hyuuga family, much like the Uchiha clan in its former glory, had an entire neighborhood of its own for privacy in which to cultivate their unique strengths. The neighborhood was a series of narrow lanes leading to elegant gardens and courtyards, small family homes surrounding the two largest manors of the clan.

The Branch House. The Main House.

There was a wide cobblestone road that led to both. Naruto knew that when he entered the Hyuuga neighborhood, he would find the Branch House on his immediate left. He knew that he would have to walk for just under ten minutes before the dark, sloping rooftop of the Main House would be visible behind the trees that lined the pathway.

It had been a long time since he'd last crossed these stones.

Everything looked the same. The stones still felt soft and worn under his sandals. The air smelled distantly of smoke and pine needles.

Everything still felt the same.

Naruto turned toward the pale stones of the Branch House and regarded it for a long time with empty eyes. It looked the same; he felt as though he could still step past the knobby fence, weave his way toward the main courtyard and find Hyuuga Neji there.

Naruto would find many of the Hyuuga there. Neji would not be among them.

I haven't been gone long enough for this.

He would have to walk to the Main House to find Neji now. Granted the last time Naruto had seen him, Neji had been staying more nights in a guest bedroom of the Main House than his own bed, but the circumstances had certainly changed.

Tsunade's words resounded sharply in his ears. He found himself thinking, helplessly, of the last time he had seen Neji. Naruto knew that it hadn't been all that long ago, but since his return home from Hidden Sand, he was beginning to seriously doubt his perception of time. It seemed as though for every moment that had passed for him, a day had passed for everyone still in Leaf.

Naruto really wouldn't have been surprised if that were the case.

- - -

Almost two years ago, there had been a small festival held there. Lanterns lined the pathway for miles, and the sound of drums had echoed through the night air like a lingering dream. Naruto had wandered through the narrow lanes, weaving around unfamiliar men and women with haunting pale eyes and dark hair.

They met by what felt like an accident, but Neji…he might describe it as fate. There were some things that never changed completely; Hyuuga Neji still mentioned destiny from time to time and occasionally Naruto had half a mind to believe in it.

Neji was dressed for the festival in a dark kimono that stood out starkly from the elegant prints and colors adorning his family members; it had been easy to find him. Naruto had never seen the other boy in a kimono before, and he didn't wait longer than an instant before making Neji very aware of that fact.

Neji was pale-skinned and had almost literal white eyes, and his dark hair was unbound and flowed rather unexpectedly around his shoulders. His Leaf forehead protector was curiously missing; there was only a strip of white cloth in its place to mask his curse seal. Naruto had noticed many other Hyuuga males doing the same, but more interestingly that some had not. On his way to Neji's side, Naruto had seen more of the Branch House seal than he ever had since learning of its existence.

When he did reach Neji, he could still remember how he had stopped. How he had had to stop himself from staring and had forced a laugh.

"You look like a girl," Naruto had said. Neji didn't dignify the words with a response; only a slight smirk and narrowing of pale eyes that told the blond young man he would likely pay for the words dearly, next time they sparred together.

Neji only asked, "What're you doing here?" after Naruto had finally stopped studying his formal clothes with that grin on his face. The expression dimmed almost immediately, and Naruto almost looked confused.

He didn't know. He honestly didn't.

Could be fate; but Naruto doubted it.

"It looked like fun." Naruto replied with a shrug. Neji seemed skeptical; and for good reason. The festival was very simple, upon closer inspection. It seemed more like a vast dinner party that had spilled out into the streets rather than an actual festival. It was a family affair. Naruto was out of place, especially dressed in his garish training best.

They walked together. They'd never done so before, but neither seemed to notice the newness of it. They didn't talk either, until drums faded in the distance and the chirping of cicadas seemed to swallow the night. It was warm and the air smelled not unpleasantly like smoke and something older and earthy.

Naruto never turned to him. He crossed his arms behind his head, rocking back on his heels. He stared out, watching the glow of distant lanterns like fireflies.

"I want us to be friends, Neji." Naruto found himself saying. It was strange---after all he had promised, after all the training and missions together, Naruto still felt the lack of something. Something he shared with Sakura and Sasuke, something he shared with Gaara.

Neji stared quietly at the back of Naruto's head and was vaguely grateful the other ninja wasn't a Hyuuga, and thusly couldn't see the expression that crossed his face.

"Naruto…" Neji exhaled, almost in exasperation. "You are the strangest person I have ever met."

Naruto said nothing. Neji imagined it was an invitation to continue.

"Is it not enough that I would give my life for you in battle?"

Whatever he was expecting, Naruto dashed it quickly to pieces. He turned quickly, cocking his head to the side and giving Neji a wry look. "Yeah, that's good and all. But is it so wrong that I wanna play drinking games with you or hang out just because?"

Neji looked as though he would have liked to say yes. Naruto knew that and shot him a deeply offended look---one that Neji declined to meet.

"We're comrades, Naruto." Neji shrugged. "Things are just less…complicated, this way."

Naruto had a vague feeling the other boy was referring to Sasuke. It wasn't any secret that Naruto had a tendency to trip over his own feet in an effort to assist the other young man in any way he could, and the only reason he hadn't himself killed on some mission over it yet was what the Godaime Hokage considered severe luck.

"It's not just about being comrades to me." Naruto said stubbornly. "It's just. More."

Neji didn't understand, but it was never necessary for him to. The festival passed them by, and it wasn't long after that when Tsunade handed a scroll to Naruto over her desk and told him that the Kazekage had asked for his help in settling border disputes. A way to further cement the alliance and relations between the Wind and Fire Countries.

Naruto wouldn't have said no if he wanted to. He would be gone a few months, and he would return home to one more friend in the village he would give far than his life for.

It was like a dream.

- - -

Realizing his feet had taken him to the front entryway of the Main House was something like waking from that dream. Naruto's eyes opened wide at the ornate rooftop and dark, heavy door at the end of a smooth, stone walkway. He'd seen the house before, many times before…but everything was so different now.

He wanted to creep up the pathway. He wanted to knock on the door and he wanted to be able to ask some nameless servant to inform Hyuuga Hinata…that he was back home in the village. That he wanted to see her. They'd never had a proper goodbye; he would have liked to have a proper greeting for the young woman. He wanted all of these things but he didn't move.

Naruto might have stood in the entryway to the front gardens for half the day if Neji hadn't shown up. The heavy doors slid open and the pale-eyed young man had exited---and Naruto wondered vaguely how Neji had known he was coming.

A smile greeted him, barely more than a twitch of lips even though there was genuine pleasure in Neji's usually unreadable eyes.

"Welcome home, Naruto," Neji greeted him demurely, and when he gestured the other shinobi closer, Naruto was surprised to find that his knees were shaking. Neji was tall and slender and his hair seemed sleeker and longer than it ever had before. The man before him was a distant, almost unfamiliar echo of the thirteen-year-old boy Naruto had promised the world to. Not quite, yet somehow more.

"Hey, thanks." Naruto answered, smiling widely before his eyes dropped down to the ground. He wasn't twelve anymore, he wasn't going to shuffle his feet like some bratty kid, yet it was suddenly awkward and he wasn't sure why. He had walked all the way out here to see Neji and Hinata and he was struck with the realization he had no idea what to say. "It's good to be back," he said, and stifled his frown at the lie.

Neji said nothing. Perhaps he knew there was more Naruto wanted to say, and the silence was what weighed on Naruto sharply enough to force him to speak.

"So. Um. When did he---"

Neji frowned slightly and turned away. Naruto cursed inwardly but---he wanted to know. So much had changed, and he felt like a stranger in an alien land.

"Not too long ago," came Neji's soft reply. "He died honorably, if you want to know. On an S-Class mission befitting the Head of Hyuuga."

Naruto was silent. Neji and his uncle had grown close in the years before his death. He wondered if it had been like losing his father all over again---but Naruto would never understand that particular loss. He didn't apologize or offer his condolences because Neji didn't need words.

"Hinata---"

"She's inside."

Naruto fidgeted uneasily, shoving his hands in his pocket. "How is she?"

He couldn't help but feel surprised when Neji smiled. His eyes were difficult to read but there was no mockery in this smile.

"You don't need me to tell you she is a strong woman. She is just fine. She mourns his loss but she survived it. I never would have thought it, but she was born for this role." Neji motioned him forward, turning and heading back toward the ornate door. He turned on the first step, and Naruto hurried forward. "Come inside and see her. It's been much too long."

It hadn't felt like it, but Naruto wasn't inclined to disagree.

- - -

Hinata's hair was much longer than he remembered.

Naruto noticed, rather distantly, that she was wearing possibly the most beautiful kimono he'd ever seen on a woman. Also, that he had never even seen her in a kimono ever and the sight made him shift uncomfortably on the soft tatami mats at his feet. Her hair trailed neatly down the curve of her spine, and it was elegant and lovely in its utter lack of ornamentation.

Hinata was beautiful in her utter simplicity, warm and delicate but---he knew---that coiled within her slender fingers and behind her near-white eyes was the power to see through, and destroy, every organ in his body, should she chose.

She was Hyuuga. Not a child of the grand Hyuuga family anymore---she was Hyuuga. She led the Main and Branch Houses alike; their eyes were her eyes, their actions were her actions. Suddenly the weight of her power and position was so heavy in her eyes that he almost buckled at the sight of it.

Hyuuga was not just a name, just a House.

It was her life.

His promise to her and Neji suddenly made him very frightened, very aware of how much it had meant to her and how very difficult it might be to accomplish it. The Hyuuga clan was older than Hidden Leaf itself, and he planned to change it just how?

Naruto swallowed hard. The thought of disappointing her made pain cramp in his chest, made his mouth run dry. He wanted to be for her what he had promised he was. Do for her what he swore he could.

He watched her sit up on the pale mats, watched a soft smile creep upon her face and decided he liked it. He knew that yes, he was afraid. He also knew that he could confront that fear some other time, when there wasn't quite so much admiration in her eyes, or as much hope in her smile.

- - -

Naruto wasn't entirely sure how it happened, but the day had flew past him in a pleasant whirl of conversation, through the most of which Naruto marveled at the changes that had overtaken the shy young woman.

Hinata was---would always be---soft-voiced and gentle. He realized almost immediately that she didn't fidget anymore, her hands were motionless and pale on the dark fabric of her kimono. It was startling and made it almost impossible to connect the hesitant child of twelve to the young woman before him.

He noticed, however, that when he remarked on how different she looked, her fingers would twitch just slightly and her gaze would drop for all of an instant. He liked that, and almost wanted to tell her how happy he was for her that she had done what she always wanted to. She had changed, she had grown less hesitant and…he had missed it. He had missed this growth, this change---he would never know that one day where her hands dropped to her sides and she stopped murmuring under her breath as though it would kill her to speak up for herself.

Naruto wasn't sure how it had happened, but the day was gone. The sky outside the windows had already slipped into blues and greens, and before he knew it he was eating dinner with the head of the Hyuuga clan and her---

"Husband." Naruto repeated, his expression knit into deep concentration. Tsunade had told him but she had mentioned it after informing him of Hyuuga Hiashi's death, and he half-thought she was joking.

"Yes." Hinata nodded, her voice low. He almost thought she was blushing. Neji, sitting to Hinata's side with his legs neatly folded and his spine straighter than a pole, seemed far less sheepish about the concept.

"But, but…" Naruto held his hands up, as though begging for help, "aren't you…uh…cousins?"

Hinata blushed deeper and seemed unable to reply, therefore it was Neji who nodded his head and answered in her place.

"Among clans such as the Hyuuga, it is not unheard of. Rare. Yet not completely uncommon." Neji informed him with ease. "The Byakugan would not have come to be at all if it were not for interbreeding."

Naruto blinked in surprise, but before Neji could start off into some grand explanation of how the Byakugan was born, he waved his hands and muttered, "Well come on then. Explain this to me. How'd…why'd you two…I mean…"

Neji smirked slightly. The expression was so familiar it was almost completely welcome. Naruto couldn't help but scowl at Neji for it anyway.

"I wanted---" Hinata surprised them both by murmuring, her pale eyes darting from him to the tatami mats beneath her knees, "I wanted to rejoin the Houses. I thought maybe---maybe I could change the Hyuuga just a little on my own."

Neji said nothing. Naruto stared at Hinata in a little bit of wonder and disbelief, and felt the weight of the words she didn't say more heavily than if she had.

You weren't here. We did what we could because you weren't here.

They had done that much on their own. The rest was up to him. What they had begun, Naruto would finish.

He had promised no less.

- - -

It was almost ten at night by the time Naruto finally glanced up at one of the fine clocks in Hinata's study.

Their pleasant catching up had dissolved into a lengthy retelling of Naruto's exploits on the Wind Country borders. His stories had started out bold and wild, interspersed with laughter and smiles. He told them about the agonizing desert weather and the sand he'd be shaking out of his sandals for weeks.

Eventually, however, his voice grew somber and distant. His stories turned away from sunburn and sand in his sleeping bag to blood and battles, a subject Hinata and Neji were both far more familiar with as equal Leaf ninja. They listened with a graceful patience and understanding until Naruto finally glanced away and noticed the time.

"Oh, shit." Naruto exclaimed quietly, before slapping his hand over his mouth and grinned apologetically at Hinata. Her pale eyes followed his gaze---or at least it seemed like it---and then she tilted her head.

"Do you have somewhere to stay, Naruto-kun?" Hinata inquired tentatively. He could remember mentioning what had happened to his apartment, yet his current residence hadn't come up yet. He found himself struck silent, wondering.

Naruto had a feeling Shikamaru would let him stay over again if he asked, although he kind of felt guilty about asking so much of the young man when they hadn't seen each other in so long. That and Shikamaru's couch was lumpy.

He missed his bed. It had been way too long since he'd had a decent bowl of ramen.

"I---uh. Well, Shikamaru's probably. Or with Sakura-chan." Naruto flinched very slightly, her name came out entirely by accident. He still wasn't quite ready to take a step into the rebuilt House of Uchiha just yet. "I'm not sure, I guess."

Hinata was silent. It was Neji who spoke up, leaning forward until his dark hair spilled over his shoulders.

"You are welcome to stay here."

Naruto half-expected the invitation (or, half-hoped for it) but he still felt the stirrings of surprise as he gazed back at his friends.

"You sure?" He hazarded, wondering if they knew just how much he appreciated the offer. Hinata smiled warmly, her pale cheeks almost flushed.

"Absolutely. You may stay as long as you like, Naruto-kun."

It dawned on him in a brief, brightly flickering way that she had been calling him that all night and he hadn't even noticed. So many of her mannerisms had grown and shifted that he had almost expected---something else. The familiarity of it rolled over him in deep relief; a drink of clean, cold water after a week of roaming under the desert sun.

Naruto opened his mouth, whispering a hoarse, "Thank you."

She smiled, but she would never know what he was truly thanking her for.

- - -

A night became two, and quickly three.

Time swept over him like a sandstorm.

Naruto didn't spend very much of that time in Neji or Hinata's company, but rather in an exhausted slumber in the rooms he had been given across the courtyard from Hinata's study.

He slept. Deeply and sweetly. He dreamed often of home, and when he woke from those dreams there was always a moment of startling confusion and pain because he had come to realize he didn't know where home was.

His apartment was gone. The village had changed. His best friends had started a life without him. He would be happy for them soon. Very soon, he promised himself.

Naruto slept for nearly five days before anyone came for him.

- - -

"You look like the walking dead." Tsunade informed Naruto politely when they met for tea. The table was low to the ground, and although the Godaime had a table manner that could be envied when she damn well felt like practicing, Naruto had no such grace.

With his knees crossed in front of him, he slouched over the glossy table, so tired his forehead was almost pressed against the wood. It was almost noon, but he had planned to sleep for at least another hour or two before getting up.

He lifted his head to give Tsunade a wry look. "That's real flattering coming from an old bag like yourself."

Naruto wasn't all too surprised when she broke her posture to smack him upside the head. That didn't stop him from yelping loudly and swearing at her before a wave of her hand reminded him that he truly was in the presence of his Hokage. He fell silent---for the most part.

"How long have you been here, Naruto?" Tsunade asked him seriously, once a small girl with Hyuuga eyes had brought them clay cups filled with steaming green tea. Naruto shrugged, swirling his tea and eyeing it disinterestedly.

"I've been sleeping, mostly. A few days."

Tsunade cocked an eyebrow. "Have you even bothered to look for a new apartment?"

Another shrug. Tsunade frowned.

"Has it occurred to you that you might be overstaying your welcome?"

At that, Naruto sat up with a quick grin. There was a flicker of something she recognized there, something she hadn't seen in his eyes since his return to the village.

"I saw Neji yesterday before he left for an assignment. I asked him if he wanted my ass out of his guestroom, but he said he was glad Hinata would have some company while he was away." He shrugged again, and finally took a sip of his tea. "So I know I'm welcome at least until he gets home."

Tsunade was silent for a moment or two, holding her clay cup in her hands, studying him far too closely for his comfort. He fidgeted under her eyes, finally exclaiming, "What?"

"You seem different. Are you sick?"

Naruto snorted. "You're the doctor. You tell me."

"Funny." Tsunade rolled her eyes and set her cup down, reaching forward to flick his forehead. He managed to dodge it with a grin, but he had a feeling she'd get him back for it later. She folded her hands on the table in front of her, her voice shifting into something more diplomatic. However slightly. "Then I expect you to report in for duty tomorrow morning and carry out a mission for your village."

Naruto said nothing. His gaze dropped to the table and remained there.

Tsunade only sighed.

- - -

He wondered, later, just what had happened to him. He'd never felt this way in all his life.

Tsunade said he looked like the walking dead---but it felt more like he was sleepwalking, drifting in and out of vivid dreams.

Naruto was growing far less sure he would ever wake from any of it.

- - -

It seemed that one more night of restless dreaming was all Naruto needed. He dreamt of the sand and storms that lasted for days and weeks, he dreamed of Sakura and Sasuke and Gaara.

He dreamed in vague impressions that faded long before he woke up. He woke to the fleeting memory of Hinata's pale fingers folded over the smooth darkness of her kimono, sweat gathering on the creases of his brow---and immediately banished the image before he could even begin to comprehend it.

Naruto realized, sometime later, that he had not seen Hinata in two days. Despite the fact that he had promised Neji he would keep the young woman company.

He shut his eyes at the thought, and wondered why the thought of being with Hinata without Neji there made him almost uneasy. He didn't know what to say to her.

It was only a moment later that he realized it didn't matter, and he got out of bed willingly for the first time in many days. He knew that Hinata would appreciate his company even if he never said a word.

It was a strange realization, but one that didn't plague him for very long.

- - -

Neji was still gone, three days later.

Not that this was so very surprising, but the amount of time Naruto spent with Hinata in his absence certainly was. He expected to have tea with her, and finally be given a tour of the Hyuuga household he'd only seen from the curving village streets for all of his life. He didn't expect…pretty much everything else.

Naruto didn't expect their walks to turn from the Inner Halls to the garden paths and then, at long last, towards the woods where they'd both trained as young Genin. He didn't expect her to smile as easily as she did, and speak as confidently as she did.

Once again, Naruto was reminded of how much she'd changed, and how very little of it he'd gotten the chance to witness. He was proud of her. He wanted to tell her so.

Instead, on one of their winding walks through the woods behind the Main House, Naruto eventually told her exactly what he had been dreading since the day of Tsunade's visit.

"I know I promised Neji I would stay until he got back," he said abruptly, surprising her. Surprising himself. "But when the old hag came by---"

"The Hokage?" Hinata supplied softly, and he laughed.

"Yeah. Her." Naruto snorted, shaking his head. He quieted after a moment, and glanced over his shoulder back towards the house. "She got me thinking. I really appreciate you and Neji letting me stay here so long, but I guess I should find an apartment soon. I really need to…well. Get back on track."

Staying with the Hyuuga had been a pleasant intermission to the confusing blur his life had become but he always knew it would end. He needed to find a new apartment, he needed to get back into the habit of missions and assignments, no matter how far away from Leaf Village they took him. No matter how long they lasted.

Still---he cringed at the thought.

Hinata was quiet for a long time. In the pit of his stomach, guilt churned unpleasantly. He wondered if he'd offended her.

"Naruto-kun…" Hinata began, finally. He reluctantly looked at her, meeting her pale Hyuuga eyes. "You don't like it here?"

Naruto sputtered. "No! Oh, no! I do---it's just. I shouldn't…uh. I don't want to overstay my welcome," he added, stealing Tsunade's words with a deep flush.

Hinata looked surprised. As much as he could tell, at any rate.

"You're not overstaying your welcome at all, Naruto-kun," Hinata said with a shy smile. "If anything…you're welcome to stay here. To live here, if you'd like."

Naruto was silent. He studied her for what felt like a lifetime, trying to figure out if she was joking or what because her offer seemed far too massive to contemplate.

"Live…here?" Naruto echoed skeptically.

Hinata blushed brightly and looked away. In all of a moment, it seemed that all of her confidence had shattered. He could see her index fingers twitching and, for no reason he could understand, Naruto burst out laughing.

"I'd…yeah." Naruto rubbed the back of his head, staring down at the ground. "That would be great…are you sure, though? What about Neji?"

She looked up, smiling. Her face was still pink and he could see the echoes of her former nervous habits in every move she made.

But she was smiling. She spoke evenly, without even a crack in her words.

"Naruto-kun, it was his idea." She said, and Naruto gaped at her as though she'd spoken gibberish. "He wanted me to ask you. You're welcome to stay here as long as you'd like. To live here if you want. Is…is that all right?"

Naruto wanted to thank her. He needed to thank her.

However, he nodded soundlessly.

Words felt a little useless in the face of what he truly felt.

- - -

Naruto learned quickly, in the House of Hyuuga.

He learned that occasionally during the time Neji was called away on extended missions, Hinata would shut herself into her private rooms for days and weeks until he returned, catching up on the more monotonous and delicate work for her family.

Naruto learned that she specifically held off on paperwork so that she may have it all to do when Neji was away, and he knew never to expect to be invited into her company when she did. For endless nights, the lanterns burned bright in Hinata's study. He could watch her inky silhouette working behind paper screens very clearly from his quarters across the courtyard, if he chose.

He often did.

In those days, Naruto was never sure what to do with himself. He had had his meals delivered by a pale girl with Hyuuga eyes who bowed with precise grace at his door until he shuffled her away one day. Her servitude disturbed him, although he knew better than to assume her as a slave, she was simply a maid. A civilian Hyuuga. He learned where the kitchen was, and which cooks were more likely to offer him something to eat in between meals. He also learned which ones were more likely to smack him on the back of the head with a ladle, should he come around a little too often. That would be one of his harder-learned lessons.

Naruto learned the names of ten of Hinata's cousins in the first week alone, and by the time he'd been a member of the Hyuuga household for more than a month he knew almost everyone that shared rooms along the courtyard. When he eventually began to train again, it was her family that trained at his side, and they were not strangers to him.

It was Hyuuga Hanabi who pinned him to the dirt while Hinata and Neji looked on in surprise; Hanabi who smirked down at his back and told him he'd gotten far too rusty.

He began picking up small local missions the very next day.

He had a feeling Tsunade was imagining she was doing him some kind of favor; no mission he went out on took him away for more than two days at most.

When Hinata returned from one of her many retreats into her study, she found him alone under a tree in the courtyard. His eyes followed two of her uncles sparring in the distance, and he seemed to be counting quietly under his breath.

"I'm keeping score," Naruto murmured, when he heard the rustle of her kimono over the soft grass. She inclined her head and he turned to grin at her. "Tatsumo has three hits on Yakimura," he informed her.

Hinata was silent. He could see nothing in her pale eyes. Eventually he opened his mouth to ask, What's wrong? but her smile interrupted him.

"You've…gotten so comfortable here, Naruto-kun," she said. She seemed surprised. He grinned again, rocking forward onto his knees. She thought for a moment he might be blushing.

Hinata stepped quietly to his side, sitting down in a sweep of dark silk and leaning until her back rested comfortably against the tree. She shut her eyes away from the sun, and when a strand of her hair fell untidily across her forehead, Naruto had the irrational desire to brush it away.

Naruto glanced away, and Hinata only whispered, "I'm glad."

- - -

They sparred until nightfall.

It was the first time Naruto had had a true fight in far too long, and even as Neji's fists crushed bruises into his skin that would take days to fade, he found himself laughing. It was fun. It was a game and a battle between ninja who were---almost---equals.

Neji won. Naruto consoled himself by insisting he'd let him.

It was after, with the moon a pale sliver in an otherwise black sky, and Neji standing over him with his chest heaving, that Naruto realized it was one of the first times since coming to live in the Main House that he and Neji had been alone together.

He'd never thanked Neji. They'd shared a dinner table and afternoon walks and even a mission or two for their village---but never had he found the moment to thank his friend for everything he'd done.

If there ever were one, it would be that one second when Neji breathed deepest and caught his eyes in the dark---and Naruto smiled.

"Hey, thanks," he said, between labored breaths. Neji glanced at him again, looking perplexed.

"For beating you?"

Naruto laughed again, his lungs burning with the effort. "Yeah, sure. Thank you for handing my ass to me."

Neji smiled, but the expression was mostly concealed by the dark.

"Anytime."

Naruto sighed, shutting his eyes toward the night sky. The grass of the sparring field felt pleasant and cool against his neck and arms.

He wondered why he hadn't noticed sooner.

- - -

Time was stealing away from him again.

Naruto could feel it happening. He could feel the days melt and blend into one colorful and enthralling blur, but this time…

This time, he no longer felt as though he were dreaming. He was very much awake. He was very much alive.

It felt as though sand were slipping through his fingers, falling to the ground and sealing up all of the cracks that could be found.

- - -

Iruka was exactly the way Naruto remembered him. A few more scars, maybe a gray hair or two---but Naruto was almost certain he'd put those there himself back his Academy days---but his smile was the same, and his words were something Naruto had ached to remember.

They met in the usual place and had the usual---Naruto's first bowl of ramen since his return to the Hidden Leaf was a little bit like a religious experience---and everything was…perfect. Exactly how he'd remembered.

It was only when Iruka asked Naruto what had taken him so long to finally come and see him that Naruto remembered everything that had occurred. That it had been years since he'd last seen Iruka, since they'd last shared even a simple bowl of ramen together, and how Iruka should have been the first person Naruto came to---but Iruka had never been the type to make Naruto feel guilty for any of it.

They talked for a long time about nothing. They talked about the Wind country, about the new Genin graduates, and of the weather, of all things. Naruto didn't mind. It was still Iruka.

Eventually, though, he knew where the conversation would head. He could feel it weighing in the air, growing heavier with every passing minute.

"Sakura…" Iruka began tentatively, "she was the one who told me you were back home."

Naruto stilled. He lowered his chopsticks to the rim of his second bowl of and for a long time, he said nothing.

Sakura flickered briefly to the front of his mind. His stomach clenched. He didn't want to think---

"You should really visit her, Naruto." Iruka added quietly. "She's beginning to think you hate her."

The chopsticks snapped in Naruto's hand as he whirled around to look Iruka in the eyes.

"Hate her? I could never hate her, Sakura-chan, she---" he stammered, and furiously shook his head. He couldn't hate her. He loved her. He'd loved her for what felt like all his life. "---I just---" he tried, but his voice failed him.

Iruka nodded understandingly.

"You don't have to explain."

Naruto swept his broken chopsticks to the side and absently snatched another pair from the counter. He cracked them apart but never lowered them to his bowl. He no longer felt hungry.

"Sakura-chan, she…her baby…" he hazarded. Sasuke's baby.

"The baby is due any day now."

Naruto expected himself to wince. He expected despair and renewed pain to swell helplessly within him and none of it came. He wasn't sure what he felt, but at the very least…it wasn't anger. It didn't hurt.

He swallowed hard and gave Iruka a sidelong glance.

"And Sasuke?"

Iruka paused for a moment, as though debating whether or not to speak at all.

"Still on his mission," he answered at long last.

"What's he doing?" Naruto found himself asking, even though what he meant was, What could possibly be more important than Sakura right now?

Sasuke needed to be back in the Hidden Leaf, he needed to be with Sakura when she bore the next generation of surly, dark-haired Uchiha brats that no one in the village ever expected to see.

Iruka's stern look was a strangely pleasant surprise. "You know I can't answer that! It's classified."

Naruto only laughed.

"Yeah, yeah. I know. Should he have been gone this long? How do we even know he's still alive?"

The words slipped out involuntarily. His blood felt icy even though he knew his face was flushing deeply red. He couldn't believe he'd said that. He couldn't even imagine---that.

Iruka's expression darkened but Naruto hoped the man understood he hadn't meant to say anything that insensitive.

"We know. He's been sending reports on his progress at regular intervals. He's alive, and he's coming home soon."

"Not soon enough," Naruto snorted, thinking of Sakura. The words surprised him. It seemed like just yesterday he could have strangled Uchiha Sasuke with his bare hands.

More surprising, in fact, was that Naruto…he was looking forward to seeing Sasuke again.

He shook his head abruptly, and the vision of Sasuke's return vanished as swiftly as it had come.

A long time passed before Iruka slid his empty bowl away from him on the countertop. He turned slowly and gave Naruto a curious look.

"Naruto…about Sakura and Sasuke. You aren't angry at them, are you?"

Naruto laughed softly.

"No. I'm not."

Iruka looked skeptical, so Naruto found himself adding, "But I was. When I first found out."

A brief nod from his former teacher.

"It makes sense."

Naruto shook his head and held up his hand. It wasn't as simple as Iruka may think.

"I'm not jealous," he said, his voice quivering slightly, even though he wasn't lying, "I love Sakura-chan but that's not what this is about. I'm not jealous."

Iruka waited for him to continue speaking, but he didn't. Naruto stared down at his bowl of half-eaten and lukewarm ramen, and slowly began to eat.

- - -

It wasn't jealousy. He loved them---both of them---and he didn't begrudge whatever life they had decided to build together.

Naruto just always thought…

He'd wanted to be a part of it. He wished he could have seen their wedding, could have been there when Sakura found out she was pregnant so that he could congratulate Sasuke on his imminent fatherhood. He had wanted to be a part of their life.

It wasn't their marriage that had hurt him.

It was just that they had gone on without him. It was like they had forgotten him, or…

They'd given up hope on him ever coming home.

- - -

It was on a mission with Neji, only days later, that Naruto finally found the nerve to visit Sakura.

The decision came upon him very suddenly, really. He and Neji were out on a fairly routine run out to the manor of one of the Fire Country feudal lords, accompanied only by a small number of inexperienced Chuunin. They were foolishly unprepared for the ambush that awaited them just on the border of the Hidden Leaf's forests. Although their team was spared any casualties in suppressing the small group of missing-nin, Neji managed to receive an injury on his left shoulder.

Naruto only noticed it after the short battle, when he looked over at his friend and watched blood swell on Neji's sleeve, and felt something like panic tightening in his chest. There wasn't a medic-nin in their team, and the realization sent his thoughts wildly whirling toward Sakura.

He hadn't seen her since the night he came back to the village. The weight of missing her hit him so suddenly and completely that he could have staggered from it. He wanted to see her again, he wanted to work by her side again. Naruto knew that motherhood would not cause Sakura to completely abandon her duties as a kunoichi to the Hidden Leaf, and he was looking forward to the day he could find her fighting alongside him and ensuring that her teammates made it back to the village in one piece.

"Sakura-chan could do a much better job at this than I could," Naruto warned Neji thoughtfully as the other young man shrugged off his sleeve. The other ninja with them had almost no medical expertise, and Naruto was the only one Neji would trust to inspect the damage caused by a stray kunai. "With me, you'll be lucky if you can ever use your arm again."

Neji snorted, loosing his sleeve and baring the injured shoulder in the poor evening light. The three other ninja in their team were some yards away, setting traps and making camp for the night. They were, for the most part, alone.

"Then I'll be grateful Hinata is quite skilled in the medical field. Hopefully she'll be able to undo whatever further damage you cause."

It sounded a bit like a joke to Naruto, so he laughed. As he glanced down at the cut on Neji's shoulder, he cocked his head curiously to the side.

"Is she trained as a medic-nin?" he asked, tentatively wiping dried blood off of his friends' shoulder. Neji shook his head in reply, seemingly unaffected at all by the injury, or the clumsy way Naruto was treating it.

"No. Family training. She---"

"Hey!" Naruto interrupted him abruptly, staring at Neji's shoulder and brushing the sleeve down further. Hidden by folds of pale cloth was almost paler skin and, to his astonishment, a swirl of dark ink that disappeared down Neji's back and his other shoulder. "What's that? Some kind of seal?"

Neji turned his head, glancing at Naruto over his shoulder, out of the corner of his eyes.

He smiled briefly. "Hardly," he answered casually, and made a move to pull his sleeve back up.

"Wait---not done with your wound," Naruto said, placing a hand on Neji's shoulder and halting the movement. It almost seemed as though Neji frowned, but the expression was gone before Naruto could have looked up at it properly.

Naruto didn't move, didn't bring his hand away. For almost a minute, he stared down at the strange tattoo as if he could discern its meaning from the pattern trailing over Neji's skin.

For just a second, Naruto's hand hovered over the edge of pushing Neji's sleeve further down to see just what the ink swirls formed---but he stopped. He swallowed hard and wiped away the rest of Neji's blood from the non-threatening cut.

"It's not as deep as it looked after all," Naruto informed him suddenly, as though he'd just remembered what he was doing. Neji smirked and pulled his sleeve back up over his shoulder, not bothering to wrap the cut in gauze.

"I told you it was fine."

Naruto scowled, "Well hey, it was bleeding a lot---" and then his expression changed. Dark, unreadable patterns rose up in the back of his mind. "When'd you get that? What's it mean?"

He could hear the murmuring conversation of the other ninja in their team in the distance. The crackling of fire, the snap of burning wood.

"It's just a tattoo, Naruto." Neji replied quietly, almost unheard above the distant noising. "It doesn't mean anything."

Naruto wanted to call him a liar. He didn't know why. Instead, he barked out a laugh and slapped Neji on the back, grinning sheepishly when his friend winced and shot him a dirty look.

"Well, I guess you'll survive long enough to get back home," Naruto said wryly, trying not to think of the strange, startling helplessness he'd felt upon seeing the white cloth on Neji's shoulder blossom deep red. The cut was barely significant at all. What was far more significant was what lay just below it, but in the midst of everything else that changed since his return to the Leaf, he imagined a new tattoo was hardly worth worrying over at all.

The only thing that struck Naruto as important at that moment was Sakura. He and Neji would return to the Hidden Leaf within one more day at most, and he would not put off seeing her for even a moment longer.

Having finally made his decision, Naruto nodded his head determinedly and focused on thoughts of Sakura and the baby---effectively keeping peculiar black patterns from twisting in and out of his mind.

- - -

Naruto wanted to tell Sakura what had happened.

There were a lot of things he wanted to tell her. He wanted to tell her that he loved her, but he loved her enough to be happy for her, no matter who she had chosen in the end. He wanted to tell her that he was sorry, that he didn't mean to be gone for so long and then avoid her upon his return, and that he was better. He wasn't angry or bitter and it was important to him that she know that.

He wanted her to know what happened in the desert, what he had told no one else, what he had been saving for her and Sasuke alone because he cared for them the most. He thought of it as he walked to her house; he went over the words a thousand times.

Naruto had been fighting on the borders of Wind Country for what felt like forever when the uprising of Sand missing-nin finally came to a final, brutal close. But he wasn't there for it. He hadn't been anywhere close.

He imagined that word had spread of his presence on the field. That the Jinchuuriki containing the Nine-Tail was there in the desert, fighting for the Kazekage as if he were a real ninja of the Hidden Sand. He imagined they learned that he couldn't be killed by normal means.

They found him and they surrounded him, alone on the massive sandy dunes, and somehow managed to beat him. His memory of the event was blurry and unclear, but he could easily remember waking up alone in a dry, deep cavern some time later.

His weapons were gone, his jacket torn, and he bore a faint, pale scar under his collarbone, just over his heart.

Naruto couldn't remember the last time he'd ever scarred. Eventually, with the steady buildup of what would become the worst headache he'd ever had, he forgot about the scar. He was alive and the Nine-Tail was still a rumbling heat and distant voice inside him, in a place he couldn't imagine anyone could reach even if they ripped him wide open.

He was also starving and so thirsty that he could barely swallow. He stumbled out of the cavern, out into the freezing desert night. He didn't recognize any of his surroundings, and the cave he'd woken in was part of a mountain he couldn't remember ever seeing in his life.

Despite the unnerving sensation of being truly lost and alone in unfamiliar territory, Naruto found himself walking. He followed the moon eastward, and when the sun rose, he followed that as well.

Naruto had been walking for more than a day when he finally rested in the shade of a few scraggly trees and---miraculously---he was found.

Neji might have described it as fate. Naruto would not have disagreed.

He opened his eyes to a familiar face and immediately dismissed it as a hallucination. It couldn't be anything but. He was exhausted and starved; it made perfect sense that he would start seeing things.

"…Naruto?"

He wasn't expecting a voice. He wasn't expecting the sudden, very real sight of Gaara's eyes when he finally looked back up, he wasn't expecting the veracity of his friend's presence. It was happening. He couldn't even believe it. Gaara had found him.

"Water," was Naruto's first word. He didn't recognize his own voice. "Water."

Gaara took a breath and nodded, pausing for a moment before he glanced back at a group of dusty, tired-looking Jounin behind him. They started, and one of them stepped forward slowly. He handed it to Naruto almost hesitantly before standing back, stepping behind his Kazekage dutifully.

Naruto could barely hold onto the damn thing. His fingers shook and his gut burned with thirst and hunger. His fingers slipped clumsily on the cap, and he ended up spilling at least a quarter of the contents all over his jacket before he finally got it to his mouth.

He drank, and deeply. It was like pouring water over a stone---he couldn't absorb a drop of it. He tipped the container up, emptying it down his throat before promptly vomiting it back up all over the sand.

Naruto swore bitterly, gagging through most of his words. He wiped his mouth with quivering fingers and tossed the flask to the side. "More?" he pleaded, his voice thick and rattling. The ninja behind Gaara exchanged a quick glance.

This time, Gaara was the one to hand it to him without any hesitance at all.

"That's the last of it," Gaara spoke softly. "Be careful."

"Yeah," Naruto croaked, drinking much more cautiously the second time. He coughed and gagged as the warm water slipped down his throat, but didn't throw up again. He was grateful for that, at least.

Ten minutes passed under the blistering sunlight without even another word between them. Naruto leaned tiredly against the trunk of a half-dead tree, also grateful for the sparse shade it granted him.

Gaara just watched at him. Naruto glanced up and grinned weakly.

"Been looking for me?" he asked, in that same unfamiliar rasp. Gaara didn't reply for a moment or two.

"Yes," came the reply, and Naruto sighed deeply in relief.

"Good to hear it. I've been walking around out here for days." He gestured over his shoulder, past the copse of trees toward the pale mountains in the distance. "I woke up in some cave. What the hell happened? How long have you been out here?"

Gaara paused for a long time. The silence drove Naruto insane, but somehow it was much better than the unnerving way the Jounin were looking at each other.

"They thought you were dead," Gaara said simply, his voice a gravelly murmur.

Naruto barked out a laugh. It hurt. He was hungry and he wanted to go home.

Gaara looked exhausted as usual, but there was a change in his gaze that Naruto couldn't quite pin down. It didn't make a whole lot of sense.

"Yeah, well I have a habit of bouncing back."

Gaara only watched him in silence. Naruto looked away, glancing out over the stretches of yellow sand that blurred into the sky.

"You…" Gaara's voice drifted over him as though from a great distance. "You've been gone for a while."

Naruto thought of home. He thought of his apartment and of Sakura and Sasuke. He'd been gone for a while, all right.

"Way too long of a while," he agreed softly.

He just wanted to go home. He wanted to find his friends, and tell them his stories.

Naruto wanted to tell Sakura what happened. He wanted her to know, so that she would…understand. So that she would know what kept him, and what made her lose faith in his return for even an instant.

When he made it to her front door and was met with her flushed, smiling face, Naruto knew that he didn't have to say a word.

- - -

The conversation was strained. For a little while, at least.

Naruto's eyes flickered repeatedly to the swell of her belly under her hands, and he could almost feel her blush every time he did so. He didn't know what to expect from the realization that any day Uchiha Sakura would be a mother, but the warmth that grew in his chest with every glance was still…surprising.

He was happy for her. He genuinely was. He knew she'd be a wonderful mother.

Naruto had a couple of doubts about Sasuke, but that's why he was there. He'd make sure that idiot didn't muck up the one good thing he'd done with his life.

For Naruto, it was quite simple. Either Sasuke would make Sakura happy, or he'd meet an unpleasant end in a dark alley at Naruto's leisure. He didn't find it necessary to inform Sakura of it, though. She'd be much better off not knowing.

He thought, briefly, of his words upon seeing her the night he came back. He had been bitter and angry and refused to understand why she'd made the choices she had. That wasn't like him. There wasn't any excuse at all for it.

All that was left was---an apology.

Naruto leaned over onto his knees, sitting across from Sakura in her cozy living room. The air was warm and he could still see his plants growing contentedly out on her porch. He decided he would leave them in her care. They were doing a hell of a lot better with her.

He glanced up at her, trying to catch her eyes.

"I'm sorry, Sakura-chan. For that night. For what I said. All of it," he murmured.

Sakura didn't meet his gaze. She looked down at the curve of her stomach, stroking gently.

"The baby is moving," she said quietly. "Come here and feel."

- - -

It was well into the evening by the time Naruto returned to his rooms in the Hyuuga household.

The lights were on in Hinata's study across the courtyard, and he imagined that Neji had probably left early for a mission he'd been saddled with almost immediately on their return to the Hidden Leaf. It didn't sound particularly complicated---Naruto was almost positive Neji would be home before the end of the week.

Naruto paused at the screen door that led to his bedroom, glancing out over the dark stretch of grass between their rooms. He momentarily contemplated walking over and visiting her, even though he knew better than to expect her to have the time to entertain him. She was a busy woman.

Neji had been right. Despite everything they would have thought to the contrary, Hyuuga Hinata was a brilliant and capable leader. He was proud of her. He had a feeling he might never tell her so, but he was almost positive at that point that she wouldn't need to hear it.

The lights dimmed abruptly from Hinata's study, leaving the courtyard dark and shapeless to his eyes.

- - -

In Neji's absence, on the nights where Naruto watched Hinata's silent silhouette working behind cloudy paper screens across from the courtyard, he began to notice the most unusual thing.

The longer Hyuuga Neji was gone from the Main House, the more a strange tension would coil tight in his chest until it seemed he couldn't even breathe. The nights grew infinitely longer and the days wore on him harder, and he realized, with painful abruptness, that he would find himself avoiding Hinata's company more and more the longer Neji was kept away from home.

Naruto found that confusing. Irritating. He liked Hinata's company. He had never avoided her before, not even when she was a pale shadow of a girl who couldn't seem to string a straight sentence together in his presence no matter what she wanted to say.

Hinata invited him to join her for dinner, while Neji was away. He would never have refused her. They conversed with ease and they ate, and for the life of him, Naruto couldn't understand why he had been trying to avoid it for days on end.

Nonetheless, Naruto was grateful on the evening when Neji returned.

- - -

He watched her welcome Neji home from the upper walkway above the courtyard.

They could see him easily enough if they were looking, but as ninja, he knew they could most likely feel his presence even if he tried to hide it. He didn't understand why it would have been necessary---he wasn't doing anything wrong.

Neji reached for her, but they didn't embrace. He touched her hand and the small of her back. Eventually, Neji reached up and touched a free lock of her dark hair as it trailed over her shoulder.

Intimate touches. It made sense; Hinata was his wife.

Why, then, did Neji touch her as though he were afraid? As though he had no right to touch her at all?

Naruto gritted his teeth and looked away.

He ran his fingers idly over the rail, his fingernails snagging painfully on all the splinters in the wood.

- - -

"So do you love her?" Naruto asked one night, leaning against one of the many pillars that supported the upper balconies of the Main House. The walkway they shared led outdoors to the courtyard and moonlight crept down the path, spilling white stripes over their sandaled feet.

Neji's laughter was soft and rich-sounding in the otherwise empty hall.

"Love her?" he repeated, his footsteps so quiet as he approached that if Naruto hadn't simply known the other ninja was there, he never would have heard him.

"Yeah." Naruto nodded, looking back at Neji with blank eyes. "Do you love her?"

Neji stepped closer, his footsteps ever as silent. As he reached Naruto's side the young man noticed the way Neji inclined his head and the thoughtful curiosity in his almost colorless eyes. "It's not a hard question," he snapped irritably at his friend. Neji seemed unperturbed by it anyway.

"Naruto, I am not just Hinata's husband. I am her bodyguard. It is my duty as part of the Branch House." The words were still bitter. Naruto wasn't sure if he should be surprised or not.

"But also my honor."

Those words were not bitter at all. Naruto could find nothing to say, he merely stared at Neji in a muted surprise.

"If I loved her, do you think I'd be able to protect her as well as I do?" Neji offered, staring out into the hall, his hands crossed neatly behind him. He stood straight and elegant, and his pale Hyuuga complexion standing out brightly against his dark robes. His voice was flat, expressionless. Naruto was suddenly, uneasily, aware of how tall and slender the other young man was. "Blinded by love, I'd be useless as her guardian. I respect her, I honor her."

"You're her husband."

Neji nodded with a gentle smile. "I am," he murmured.

"And you don't love her." Naruto said skeptically, staring hard at Neji's profile. He waited for a smile or a laugh, for Neji to do or say something to piss him off, and it never came. Neji always had the ability to surprise him; no amount of years changed that.

A brief vision of Neji's tattoo rose up in Naruto's mind, of dark ink swirls on fair skin.

He shook himself, and the image faded.

"I do not love her," Neji echoed, his eyes empty. He turned, after a moment, and walked back down the pathway that led to the Inner Halls of the Hyuuga household without another word. Naruto's gentle laughter followed his every step.

Because it was a lie.

Neji could not lie to Naruto; no amount of years changed that, either.

- - -

Hinata's hands never trembled as her brush swirled against the yellowed paper of the scroll.

The cool night air breezed in through the open screen door of her study, causing papers to flutter and hair to fall into her wide, pale eyes, but her hand never faltered once. The ink sank dark and smooth into the paper, forming words and messages that looked more like the constructions of a brilliant artist rather than simple calligraphy.

It didn't help that he could barely read it. He smiled as he watched her write, her back curved delicately over the low table in the center of the room.

Naruto was leaning over the table with his head pillowed in his arms, watching the strokes of the ink stain the paper, fascinated by the motion although he didn't understand why.

Neji was gone, yet again. Yet, Naruto had never been welcomed into her study in Neji's absence, and he couldn't help but notice the change.

"Neji gets called away a lot," he said noncommittally, his gaze curving to the corner of his eyes.

Hinata stilled, her brush briefly stuttering over the long scroll. For a moment, her expression was unreadable. By the time she looked up, he couldn't discern anything from her eyes or the small smile on her lips.

"Among our family, Neji's eyes are the strongest. It's understandable he should be called upon by the village to use his eyes as much as he is. " Hinata said softly. She sounded proud, but the words seemed forced. She'd said them many times before, perhaps more to herself than anyone else. "It's…understandable," she repeated, even more quietly.

Naruto glanced quickly back down to the scroll, frowning behind the juncture of his elbow. Something strange tugged in the center of his chest.

He changed the subject.

"What's that?" he indicated her calligraphy with a nod. She looked down, seemingly startled.

"Oh---" Hinata began, placing the brush down and pushing loose strands of hair behind her ear. "Just a letter. A recommendation."

Naruto blinked, and she blushed faintly.

"It's up to the head of the Main House to decide which of the children should attend the Academy," she continued, looking flustered. The sight was a relief that made him smile behind his arms. "I look at the children's reports from the Main House and the Branch House alike…then, I decide which of them might benefit from traditional teachings or…"

"Oh," Naruto grinned wide. "I get it. Your sister, she didn't go to the Academy, did she?"

Hyuuga Hanabi was only a year younger than Konohamaru, and certainly would still have started while the brat was still attending. He'd never seen here there, not even once.

Hinata looked curiously relieved. "No, she didn't---our father taught her."

No matter how well-composed Hinata had grown to be, a certain stillness grew in her eyes as soon as she'd spoken the words. Naruto swore inwardly, wishing he could choose topics a lot better than he seemed capable of.

"They---they're still classified as ninja for the Hidden Leaf---" she stammered suddenly, her fingers twirling in the dark fabric of her kimono, "but don't serve in the same capacity. Not the way you do, or Neji."

Naruto nodded, and ignored an abrupt tingling in his fingertips. Her hands looked pale, in the dim, paper-yellow glow from her lantern. The night air felt sudden and cold against his arms and the side of his face.

Another swift gust nearly knocked her scroll from the table, and Naruto abruptly stood.

"I'll---I'll shut it," he managed with a start, moving toward the open screen.

Hinata merely nodded. The screen slid effortlessly on its track, and just before he'd managed to shut it properly, a brief flurry of cool air swept through the room and guttered Hinata's lantern.

He heard her soft exhalation of surprise, and glanced over to her through the dark. His eyes adjusted very quickly to the dark, and he could make out the pale outline of her hands and curve of her face.

She looked almost afraid, and he couldn't understand why. He crept back toward her and settled back down at the tableside, closer than he had been sitting before.

He watched her sit upright quickly, and reach for her lantern. She fumbled with the latch on the glass for a moment, and Naruto felt his throat run dry as he reached out and touched the curve of her elbow, the softness of blue silk.

"Hinata---"

His voice. He didn't recognize it. He could feel himself leaning over the table.

"Naruto-kun?" Hinata whispered; her voice was a shiver in the dark.

He could feel the ghost of her warm breath along his chin and his throat, he could feel it catch in her chest.

Her eyes were wide. Her lips were soft.

Naruto listened as she inhaled sharply, a rush of her soft breath. She said nothing, but he felt the way she stilled, completely, and he jerked himself away. He couldn't breathe. It felt as though he were drowning in the darkness around them.

"I---" he stumbled blindly with his words, sitting up and standing. "I should go. I'm sorry."

Hinata said nothing in reply, and it was probably much better that way.

- - -

Naruto decided that night, as he rushed back to the silent solitude of his own rooms, abruptly, like falling off the edge of an unseen cliff, that he needed to leave. He needed to leave even though he wanted to stay.

He needed to get out of Hinata and Neji's house before he ruined---before he changed---

Before he changed everything.

- - -

Two days passed and Naruto couldn't bear to leave the comfort of his room. He barely ate and barely slept.

He spent most of the time lying back on his sleeping mat, his hands folded over his stomach, watching patterns of sunlight brighten and fade on his smooth ceiling as the days passed. He tried to think of nothing.

Several times, a quiet rapping could be heard on the doorframe just outside his room. When he twisted his head around to look, he would see the warm, familiar outline of Hinata through the paper screen.

She didn't speak, and neither did he.

Eventually, she would walk away, and Naruto might finally be able to breathe again.

He couldn't face her. He didn't know what he would say.

Goodbye. That would work. Thank you. I'm sorry.

All perfectly good things to say, and none of them could make it to his lips. He didn't want to think about Neji's return, which was quickly approaching. He couldn't imagine what Neji might say, or what he might do---if Hinata would tell him. If Naruto would be able to stop from confessing himself.

Naruto rolled over on his sleeping mat with a sharp, painful sigh.

He owed them so much. He couldn't keep anything from them. He couldn't stay in their home---not after…

Naruto's face burned hot and red as he thought of Hinata's lips against his, and the darkness and silence that could have kept the kiss a secret had it occurred in any other house but the Hyuuga.

No infraction, however slight, could be kept a secret in a house with walls no better than glass.

- - -

Neji was home. Naruto didn't have to be told.

Footsteps pounded near-silent on the walkway outside his door. A maid, the young girl with Hyuuga eyes but about as much ability to use the Byakugan as Naruto had. He could feel her shadow rush past his paper screen door, he could smell cooked rice and tea linger warmly in the air after she'd passed.

Hinata never ate alone.

Naruto sighed again as he unfurled from his mat, slid open the screen door and followed her to Hinata and Neji's rooms without a sound.

- - -

It was impossible to explain. He tried so hard.

He couldn't reach the words, or even a single laugh to offer them in the silence.

"I need to leave," he wanted to tell them. "I'm sorry. I just need to leave."

He should have known it would never be that simple.

- - -

"Will you stay here?" she whispered, when he hovered on the edge of confession and secrecy. Her dark hair was long and fine against the elegant curve of her neck, her Hyuuga eyes wide and waiting. "You don't have to say anything. We want you to stay."

Neji was silent. Neji was always silent. His hand rested on her lower back, stroking the blue silk of her kimono, tracing the pattern of vines that followed her spine. He, too, seemed to patiently wait for Naruto to reply. It seemed that no answer in the world would surprise him, be it yes or no.

Naruto thought briefly of Sakura. Of her beautiful eyes and her soft, "Do you still want to stay here tonight?"

He was welcome, in the House of the Uchiha. Invited. However, Sakura and Sasuke had their own life together, a life he could view from the sidelines and feel happy for, but one he could never truly be a part of.

Naruto was silent for an eternity. Neji knew. Naruto would have been a fool to believe otherwise for even an instant. He breathed, finally, his chest tight around his words.

They wanted him there. He wanted…

"I'll stay." He promised, grinning at them both. One, two steps and he kneeled to join them on the soft tatami mats of their bedroom floor. Hinata's smile was the warmest he'd ever known, and Neji surprised him by smiling as well.

He was welcome, also, in the House of the Hyuuga. Invited and accepted. He had never felt quite as much like kin to two people he barely knew as he did in that moment.

I will change the Hyuuga.

Naruto thought, for a moment, as Hinata sat upright from Neji's lap to greet him and her kimono slipped low from her shoulder, as she blushed and Neji kissed her white skin before his eyes, that the greatest of all changes were those that no one ever noticed at all.