Bwuahahaha. I hath returned. :) Fear, oh ye unsuspecting readers:)
Actually, considering I've gotten 4 hours of sleep, about to go on to a ten-hour shift, and all I want to do is crawl back on the couch, I feel pretty good. Anywhoo, the long awaited chapter (for me, at least!) where most of the plot really starts to come together. Yes, yes, I know--chapter 12 was pretty important, too, but the Second Arc is where most of the stuff'll really take place.
Now, before I say anything else: GO TO KHAZIA'S PAGE ON DEVIANTART RIGHT NOW. She's uploaded a FANTASTIC fanart of Violet-chan on her page. Seriously, it'll rock your sox off. :) And Ashen Rose has made some lovely fanart for Guardian, and I'll post the link (with permission) when I change my profile.
Without further ado, the next chapter of OUT. As always, read and review please. I need reviews like a girl needs chocolate.
Once Upon Tomorrow
Arc II—Of Blondes and Bombshells
Tiredly dropping to the ground, she kissed the stone steps lovingly.
Finally, they were back at the onsen!
Groaning pitifully, she dragged herself back into a teetering standing position and sighed. Taking a deep breath, she lifted her head up to look up at the beautiful blue sky overhead.
Shouting as loud as she could, birds took flight and the shinobi with her winced. Shingan, tending to some minor wounds, shook her head amusedly.
"ONEE-CHAN!" Sora cried.
Taking in her battered, beleaguered figure, he glared daggers at Sasuke, who ignored him. Deciding to save his revenge for later, he grinned a smile as brilliant as the sun itself and ran towards her, leaping over the low tables in joy—
Until, grabbing his nose, his eyes tearing up, he fell to the ground gasping.
He could blame all of his tears on the smell. Of course he wasn't crying to see his onee-chan...
Nah. It was just the smell.
Rolling her eyes, she staggered over and hauled him into a tight hug. Ruffling his hair, she grinned down at him, and a few workers tentatively came over. Ignoring them for a moment, she bent down to whisper into his hair.
"It's time for us to stop grieving. She's proud of you. Let her go."
Walking past him, his eyes wide and his clenched hands shaking, he simply stood there, trying to concentrate on breathing. Forgetting her... moving on...
Sasuke and Naruto eyed him curiously as they walked past, Gaara only giving him a cursory glance before ignoring him.
"Ano... Miss... perhaps you would like to bathe?" one of them asked nervously, twisting her hands. The young lord had given them strict orders to treat her with the highest respect, and Yukiko-san had taken them aside and politely told them that if they were rude, she'd maul them alive.
Only she had said so much more properly, of course.
Waving her hand, Violet let them drag her off to a private bathing area in profound relief.
Finally, she could bathe.
After getting the first decent meal since they'd left the daimyo, Naruto patted his stomach contentedly. Gaara, perky ever since fighting Deidara, was whistling as he stabbed a training dummy that Hojo had kindly provided them. Kankurou and Temari, used to expecting every form of insanity from their unstable little brother, had ceased their shocked staring of him and accepted it, the three joking around, almost like a normal family.
Sasuke, brooding, had eaten as much as Naruto and stared at the dirt mournfully. Ever since things had settled down during the relatively uneventful trip back to the onsen, the image of Naruto's face blending over hers just before she'd been kidnapped (for the first time, at least) had been nagging at him. He scowled, resting his chin on his hands, he glanced up disdainfully at Neji.
"Hinata-sama... needed me very little. She has grown... more acceptable, I suppose," Neji murmured quietly, mouth quirking into the ghost of a smile, distant white eyes tinged with pride so fragile and fleeting it was almost... painful to regard.
"You mean she's grown powerful enough that she could beat you in a fair fight and you know it."
Neji's mouth inched a little higher.
"I am a shinobi. I do not fight fair."
"Neither does she," a female voice interjected itself into the conversation, Temari jerking her head in the direction of the baths.
"Her personality, her heart, is totally open. She and Naruto-san are a good match for each other," Shingan agreed, inclining her head in greeting to the prodigies.
Naruto, wet hair hanging around his face in a visage hauntingly reminiscent of the Fourth, bounded over with his hands clasped behind his head, Kankurou following.
"By the way, Temari, what the hell was going on between you and the shark-boy?" Kankurou demanded, teasing. Temari tossed her hair proudly.
"I have no idea what you're talking about, I'm sure," she sneered good-naturedly.
"Temari has a boyfriend?" Gaara asked, red head cocked and grinning a soft smile.
It seemed like an eternity since dark clouds had hovered over them as they talked and joked. When Violet was done scrubbing herself a couple of hours later, she joined them. Everyone was so relaxed and content, the only one even half-trying to be depressed was Sasuke, and she managed to bring a tiny smile out of him when she kicked Neji's shin; she was convinced he was trying to "peek" at her. When Naruto tackled him, the two tussling on the ground, the rest laughing so hard they were crying, there was such a profound sense of peace that Sora, drifting off to himself for a moment, stared up at the sky.
"Hikaru-chan... You'd be proud of her. Onee-chan's... really grown up."
Giving a gentle smile only fringed with melancholy, bright eyes caught a glance of streaking light.
"You're laughing, aren't you? I... I'm happy, too."
Looking back at the others, he took a deep breathe and squared his shoulders.
Chatting happily, the group settled into their hotel rooms, the daimyo still undergoing repairs from the battle and the few skirmishes that had happened when Naruto and the others were gone. They were currently all piled in Yukiko's room, as she popped some popcorn.
"--yeah, and the strangest thing happened when I was fighting Itachi," Violet spoke around a mouthful of the treat, swallowing hastily.
Naruto and Sasuke, all ears now, watched her as she animatedly told her tale, greatly downplaying the danger she'd been in until they were all roaring in laughter, except the aforementioned two. Sora was laughing, but his eyes were concerned. He knew how his onee-chan tended relate dangerous situations involving herself while leaving out all real danger.
Naruto, hearing about the hand around her neck, started choking. Gaara pounded him hard on the back, until the piece he was choking on flew out and landed in Neji's hair. Disdainfully pulling it out, he popped it in a laughing Sasuke's mouth. His facing turning green, he swallowed it with difficulty, while glaring daggers at the fellow prodigy.
Naruto, stealing the chance, grabbed her hand and led herself out while everyone else was otherwise occupied. Standing out in the garden, watching the stars, he wrapped his arms around her shoulders. Resting his chin on the top of her head, his blue eyes were worried and hesitated.
Freezing from his tone, she prepared herself for the blow that was surely coming. What was it? Had he finally decided she was too much trouble? She had too many commitment issues? She wasn't strong enough to stand by the next Hokage's side? She felt herself trembling and hated herself for it. She'd been dumped enough before, dumped other guys often enough.
"Violet-chan," his voice rumbled, arms tightening around her and she willed herself to have the strength not to cry.
"Koishii... the battle against Itachi you described... was a mirror of my fight with Kisame," he said slowly, softly, as her eyes widened. Gasping in shallow breaths, she whirled around and buried herself into his chest, sobbing relievedly. She had thought for sure... she didn't have the strength to say goodbye...
A deep, imperious voice spoke. Sniffling, her face red and tear-streaked and nose running, she felt Naruto's arms tighten comfortingly around her back and bring her closer to him, blue eyes regarding Neji warily.
"I have made a decision."
Sasuke, slinking from the shadows, regarded the pair with fury, swallowing it long enough to listen to what his rival had to say.
"I... am going to stop wasting my time chasing after you when... it is clear... that your affections lie irrevocably in... another direction."
Giving her a small smile, his serious eyes locked onto Naruto's, he gave a slight nod.
"Don't hurt her, Uzumaki."
Walking away, head held high, proudly, Sasuke grabbed his arm.
"This is sudden. Why are you giving up?" he glared, suspicious.
Neji watched as Naruto watched her with eyes wide with the wonder that only those in love for the first time, the last time, have ever been capable of. His eyes widened for a fraction, taking in her shy smile back, their matching light blushes like sweethearts caught carving their names into a tree.
He realized something. There was a time when even a prodigy, when even stalker, had to let go.
He smiled, standing straight for what felt like the first time in ages, and joined back in. So what if he couldn't have her? It didn't matter. She was happy, and she was a friend. If she could never be more, he could understand that.
After all, he'd never really loved her in the first place. An alluring set of eyes flashed through his head, and he smiled to himself, a plan forming in his mind...
"I... learned to let go. Hinata-sama... taught me that."
Read as: Hinata, Shikamaru having told her everything he'd managed to glean and/or pick up on (the sneaky little genius), beat him senseless. Once she processed the fact that her Naruto-kun had found someone else, someone to be happy with forever, she had found the strength to smile through her tears.
Neji'd never realized just how much she'd grown since their fight in the chuunin exam. Maybe he was the blind one, after all...
Who knows? Maybe Kiba would have a chance with her after all. He hoped so. They both deserved some happiness in their lives.
Sasuke let go of his arm reluctantly, and turned to a recomposed Violet and grinning Naruto.
"Tell me exactly what you meant when you said that her fight was a mirror of yours."
A feeling like the weight of the dead settled itself around him and, not for the first time, he felt like he was drowning.
Frowning, Naruto's face twisted in concentration, the three struggled to put together what exactly had happened. Her face, white like a ghost, was blank, eyes distant as she thought furiously.
"It happened... right after... Kyuubi sent you chakra?" she desperately tried to reconcile the fact that Naruto had the Kyuubi sealed inside of him. He'd told her, reluctantly, for the first time in his life almost ashamed of the double-edged gift the Yondaime had bestowed for his birth.
She'd thrown her arms around him and laughed, giddily, because she had imagined so much worse things. Like he was secretly born a girl and changed back when he landed into hot springs. Or something.
Biting her lip, not daring to even think the half-formed theory spreading itself out before her, she waited for Naruto's slow nod, eyes brightening in understanding.
"Sasuke-teme... I think we're going to need your damn eyes for this," he said slowly.
Sasuke, who'd already been gnawed by his suspicions, took her hand and placed it on Naruto's seal, the Uchiha's hand resting on top of hers. All three closing their eyes, they slumped on the tatami...
"I WAS WONDERING WHEN YOU'D FINALLY REALIZE IT. TOOK YOU LONG ENOUGH," Kyuubi rumbled, sighing. His tails swishing agitatedly, he predicted a lot of shouting from a certain number-one hyperactive knucklehead ninja-slash-future Hokage. And jumping around.
'LIKE A BLONDE FLEA,' he though in amusement.
"OI! FOX! WHAT THE HELL DID YOU DO?" Naruto demanded angrily, pointing an accusing figure at the small mountain of a demon.
"DON'T BLAME ME, STUPID KIT. ASK YOURSELF WHAT ITACHI STARTED AND I FINISHED."
"Huh?" he scratched his head.
"You finished? What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Sasuke growled.
"KIT, WHAT ARE A PAIR OF FOXES?"
Blinking at the sudden change of conversation, he grinned sheepishly and shrugged.
"I dunno—mates, I guess?"
"INCREDIBLE. YOU'RE ACTUALLY RIGHT. NOW, WHAT PART OF ME IS SEALED INTO YOU?"
Naruto scowled, avoiding an array of unpleasant images at how the question was phrased.
"Your—soul?" he guessed tentatively.
"IT'S A MIRACLE, TWO GUESSES RIGHT IN A ROW. NOW, PUT THOSE TWO TOGETHER AND WHAT DO YOU HAVE?" Kyuubi sighed.
Naruto pondered it for a moment, while her and Sasuke's eyes were huge in shock.
"Mate-souls...? EW! KYUUBI NO HENTAI! BAKABAKABAKA!" Naruto screamed.
Kyuubi growled, nine tails twitching in aggravation.
"OBVIOUSLY THE INTELLIGENCE WAS SHORTLIVED. SOULMATES, YOU IDIOT KIT!"
"Well, how am I supposed to--!"
Naruto's mouth fell open in shock as she sank to the (floor? What did you call a surface that didn't really exist, anyways?) ground, knees given out in shock.
"Soul... mates?" she whispered.
"... AA. UCHIHA, I'M SURE YOUR EYES NOTICED IT, RIGHT BEFORE YOUR IDIOT BROTHER USED THAT DAMNED TSUKIYOMI ON HER, WHEN YOU WERE MOST ATTUNED TO HER. YOUR BARRIERS WERE DROPPED ENOUGH--"
"I saw his face over hers. I thought it was the aftereffect of a genjutsu..." he said quietly, cutting of the demon before it could speak anymore.
"Huh?" Naruto asked, confused.
"The... Itachi..." she looked up suddenly.
"GLAD TO SEE SOMEONE HERE CAN PUT TWO AND TWO TOGETHER. YES. ITACHI'S TSUKIYOMI WAS THE 'CATALYST' AND I WAS THE 'BRIDGE'. OR RATHER, MY CHAKRA WAS THE BRIDGE."
"Ok, now I'm really confused," Naruto scowled.
"We were... always soulmates. It was probably decided... before we were ever even born. Tsukiyomi... just sort of... 'awoke' that and... Kyuubi... sealed it?" she whispered.
Sasuke's hands were clenched into tight fists, his hands trembling violently in grief and rage.
'So... from the very beginning... there was no... I never had a chance...'
"ALL HUMANS HAVE SOULMATES. SOMETIMES THEY ARE LOST BEFORE THEY CAN MEET. SOMETIMES BY THE TIME THEY DO, THEY HAVE FORGED BONDS WITH OTHERS. SOMETIMES, THOUGH SOULMATES, THEY ARE SIMPLY NOT DESTINED TO BE. AND A VERY FEW MERELY HATE EACH OTHER."
"I..." she shook her head vigorously.
Naruto glanced over at her, wide-eyed, but a deep hope welling up within him.
"I DON'T CARE!"
Startled, the males stared at her as she jumped to her feet, wiping roughly at her eyes.
"I DON'T GIVE A SHIT ABOUT DESTINY, OK?" she screamed, eyes blazing and defiant.
Watching her, his bewildered heart sank. So she didn't love him after all...?
Holding his breath, Sasuke dared himself to hope.
"If I am with Naruto... if I stay with Naruto..."
She walked over and took his hand tightly in hers. He watched her, unable to decipher just what she was about to say: whether she'd break his heart or keep it forever.
"If... someday... I live my life with him..." she took a deep breath, "...it will be my decision, and mine alone."
Naruto let out the breath he'd been holding and crushed her tightly against him, grinning so widely it hurt. Sasuke turned away sharply, hand grasping his shirt where his heart was.
"MAYBE YOU TWO ARE MEANT FOR EACH OTHER AFTER ALL. LITTLE VIXEN, LOOK AFTER THIS IDIOT JINCHUURIKI OF MINE. HE HAS A HABIT OF NEARLY DYING."
Swallowing, she nodded. Eyes straying over to Sasuke, she felt a rare pity for him. Reaching out to touch his arm, he jerked it away from her and abruptly the three were ripped away.
"KIT... I HOPE YOU KNOW WHAT YOU'RE DOING. A SOULMATE IS A TRICKY THING."
"So do I, Kyuubi."
Snatching his hand off of hers, Sasuke stalked off into the shadows, hatred and fury boiling inside of him like a dark witch's brew, a portent of disaster. Sorrowfully, Naruto watched him go, feeling like the barely-closed chasm between the two had been forced open again. She noticed this, and glanced down.
"If you want... I'll leave," she said quietly.
Turning around to stare at her, he was about to protest—loudly—but she smiled sadly and put a finger to his lips, shaking her head.
"Just listen for a moment. Ok? You and Sasuke have been best friends since forever... right? Do you really want to risk that relationship—a relationship with one of your precious people—just for me? Please... think about it."
Slowly, reluctantly, she withdrew her hand and turned to walk away.
'Sasuke... oh, Sakura-chan, if only I could get your advice right now... we're—Team 7's falling apart again...'
Naruto's face grew determined, and he snapped his hand out, grabbing her wrist and roughly pulling her towards him. Giving a squeak of surprise that made her wince because, damn it, she'd wanted to play it so much cooler than that, he wrapped his arms around her prone body.
"If our friendship ends over this..."
Her heart pounding in her ears, she looked everywhere but his face, until, with hands so gentle in that moment it was impossible to believe he was a shinobi except for slim fingers rough with callouses, he forced her to look him in the eye, cradling her face.
"... maybe we were never really friends in the first place."
Taking his headstrong courage and holding onto it tightly, he resolved his next words to come out.
"I've made my decision. You... are the one... I want to be with."
Slowly, with a quiet confidence she'd never seen in him, he cupped her chin up to meet him as he descended down, giving her a kiss that was as sweet as before, but with a burning passion that was new to both.