Naruto:
Hyūga Pilgrimage
Chapter 9:
-Saigo no Hyūga Shrine:
Of Endings and Beginnings-


To anyone that was not a legendary ninja or kept pink elephants as pets, an olive toned toad the size of a small wagon was a very unusual sight. For Uzumaki Naruto however, it was old hat, still this was blissful. Especially with Hanabi being gagged and tied, it was the quietest she had ever been on this whole damn trip.

Naruto chuckled glancing at the disgruntled girl and then looked back at the forest that was whipping by at high speed.

"So, are you going to tell me why you had to summon me to this damn forest?" An odd female voice asked as they soared from the ground and into the sky.

"Oi, I was actually shooting for Gamabunta..." Naruto said, double checking that Hanabi was still beside him. He would have to untie the girl soon, but...a few more minutes of silence wouldn't be so bad.

"Oh, I see how it is!"

"Awww, Gamaaikou don't be like that! Besides you did wonderfully, best I've ever seen!"

"Oh Naruto-kun, you know just what to say to a girl." Gamaaikou said sweetly as they descended back to the earth for a split second. "So, are you ok?"

"Yea, just takin a break." Naruto answered, slowing his breathing. "Its been a busy day, what with fighting ANBU, a dozen missing-nins and summoning three high level toads."

"Three?"

"Yeh," Naruto said letting out a tired breath. "You, Gamatatsu, and Gamakichi-"

"G-gamakichi?" Gamaaikou stuttered as they landed heavily. "Y-you summoned him?"

Naruto grinned suddenly, unable to help but notice how she stuttered. It was so obvious that she had a crush on the other toad that it was frightening. "Maaaaaaaybe...you wouldn't want to see him would you?" Naruto's tone turned sly, happy that he could talk about someone else's relationship for once.

"Of course not!" Gamaaikou said heatedly, jumping upwards once more. "He's a stupid, rude, egotistical frog that thinks I'm impressed by his father!"

"Oi!" Naruto said, fending off the branches that had slapped at his face. "Watch where you're jumping!" Grumbling a little more the blond checked on Hanabi, pleased to see that despite the twigs in her hair from the latest jump that she was still in position.

"So, lets see what the little brat has to say..." Naruto muttered, reaching out to pull the gag from her mouth and let it hang limply around her neck. The girl took a moment to ease her jaw muscles before she fixed him with a death glare.

"I can't believe that they would send YOU to save me!" Hanabi said vehemently. "Are they utterly crazy? You could have killed me with that stunt!"

"I came out of the goodness of my heart you brat!" Naruto shouted back at her, his eye starting to twitch. He had forgotten just how grating this girls voice could be.

"Well if I had known that you would be the one to rescue me I would have chosen to stay and eventually be eviscerated alive." Hanabi retorted, lifting her nose slightly.

"If it were up to me I'd have let ya." Naruto grunted looking at his surroundings.

"I can no-umphhhfh!" Hanabi shook her head futilely as her gag was placed in her mouth once more, then settled for glaring at Naruto with something approaching hate in her eyes. The blond however just smiled, reaching out to pat her cheek.

"There we go. I wonder if they'll let me keep you gagged all the way back to Konoha..." Naruto chuckled leaning back on his hands staring at the trees as they descended once more. "Kami, I hope so...otherwise I'll have to bust my eardrums."


Naruto


Hinata had lead the group across the vast, flagged courtyard toward the forty-one independent buildings, amazed that her ancestors had managed to create such a perfect shrine. She had read in the scrolls about this shrine, had pictured what it would look like but actually seeing it was beyond anything she had created in her mind.

Coming to a stop, she swept her gaze over the vast shrine, then spotting the purification trough started toward it, escorted by Neji.

"This place, it is truly amazing." Neji said, watching as Hinata took the provided ladle and rinsed both of her hands.

"Yes. It is...anou, it is beyond anything I had imagined." Hinata whispered, looking around with wide eyes while Neji took his place at the purification trough. She paused staring at an idle looking Kakashi, her mind flashing back to her worries over Naruto. She knew that Naruto was strong, but it didn't stop her from worrying about him.

It struck her odd that even though her sister was in such danger, she was worried about Naruto. Then again Naruto would make sure Hanabi was safe, for Hinata if nobody else, and she couldn't shake her confidence in him. She was just worried...

Shaking her worry off she turned her attention toward the building that she could only consider the main hall. It was designed in a post-and-beam style and two stories tall, surrounded by a roofed cloister. Hinata felt her mind lulled by the sight and realized that no Hyūga could look upon this, to see the glory that was Hyūga, and not be moved. It had to be genetic, part of their blood.

"Hinata-sama..." Neji suddenly whispered and the girl turned her gaze away from the building to glance at her cousin and then followed his gaze to a bald, old man who seemed to have appeared from nowhere.

He was dressed in a long white robe trimmed in silver and leaned on a beautiful designed staff as he shuffled toward them. Most notably for Hinata were his eye's, despite his apparently advanced age, they were clear and the familiar pearl color of a true Hyūga. He seemed frighteningly familiar as well, as if he was from a long forgotten childhood memory.

He paused only once, when he was directly in front her so that he could bow as much as his body would allow before speaking. "Many greetings, I am Hyūga Naoki. Art thou pilgrim's that seeketh Saigo no Hyūga Shrine?

Hinata felt Neji move as if he was going to say something, but she beat him too it, knowing what would happen if he spoke. The scrolls had been very specific about that. "Humble greetings, though two of our number are not present we are indeed pilgrim's seeking Saigo no Hyūga Shrine."

Bowing she continued undaunted, reminding herself of who she was even if it offered no reassurance for her. "I am Hyūga Hinata, eldest daughter of Hyūga Hiashi, descendant of Hyūga Kazuki son of Hyūga Akio-sama, of the Hyūga Ichizoku Sōke."

"I am honored to meet thee, for one so young thou speaketh quiet well." Naoki responded, eyes darting to the male behind her. "May I enquireth who thou art traveling with?"

Hinata smiled polite and indicated Neji formally. "May I present Hyūga Neji, Jōnin of Konoha, son of Hyūga Hizashi brother of Hyūga Hiashi and chief of the Hyūga Ichizoku Bunke." Neji bowed formally and Hinata indicated Kakashi. "May I also introduce Hatake Kakashi, Tokubetsu Jōnin of Konoha, son of Jōnin Hatake Sakumo of Konoha, student of the Yondaime Hokage."

Naoki bowed lower, but still it was not as equal to equal. "I am honored to met so important of personages. Pray tell me Hinata-san, thou said two of thy number are not present...may I inquire as to which two and the nature of their absence?

"First, humbly I will answer thee as to their identity, so that thou may knowest them. The first of our missing part is Hyūga Hanabi, youngest daughter of Hyūga Hiashi, descendant of Hyūga Kazuki son of Hyūga Akio-sama, of the Hyūga Ichizoku Sōke." Here Hinata bowed slightly, matching his earlier bow.

"Second of our missing party is Uzumaki Naruto ninja of Konoha, student of both Hatake Kakashi, Tokubetsu Jōnin of Konoha and Jiraya of the Densetsu no Sannin, favored by the Godaime Hokage of Konohagakure no Sato and the future Rokudaime Hokage of Konohagakure no Sato.

Naoki seemed taken back and then he bowed, with the proper politeness this time and his tone was much more respectful. "I am humbly impressed to know of this, surely this pilgrimage is filled with honor."

Hinata bowed back, her tone polite as ever. "As to the nature of they're absence, we were set upon by many foul enemies and though we were protected from harm by Uzumaki Naruto, Hyūga Hanabi was captured. We were prepared to follow and retrieve her, yet Uzumaki Naruto requested that we leave her welfare in his hands and continue onwards to Saigo no Hyūga Shrine. In this he has honored us, by thinking upon the honor of this pilgrimage."

"Thou are quite correct." Naoki nodded gravely, his eyes sweeping them before he settled once more at staring at Hinata. "Now I must humbly inquire if thou have brought thy offering and have chosen thy worthy secret-keeper."

"I have." Hinata said, reaching into her robes to produce a thin silver chain where a plain gold band resided. Inside she felt a pang of regret that Naruto was not present, she had wanted to tell him her secret. "Hyūga Neji has formally agreed to be mine keeper."

Bowing the old man seemed to let out a deep breath. "Very well. Come Hyūga Hinata, Hyūga Neji and honor our ancestor with thy offering." Naoki said formally before turning to lead the way into the Main hall. Hinata took a moment to glance at Neji and then followed the old man, Neji instinctively five paces behind her on the right hand side.


Hinata


Neji allowed his eyes to roam everywhere, refusing to lower his guard yet again. He had committed one mistake, he would not make another, not when it involved Hinata. He didn't go so far as to activate his Byakugan, fearing that would be an insult, in all honesty he was actually following Hinata's lead. She knew what to do, what to say, he had no clue since it had never been discussed.

The shrine master was not very helpful either, he had barely given Hinata the proper amount of honor. At least in Neji's mind he had not but that was subjective really. As they passed through a set of sliding shojis he paused, realizing that they had entered the offering hall of the shrine. Neji's eyes darted left, then right, searching among the beams and relief carvings of previous Hyūgas for treachery.

Finding none he turned his eyes back to Hinata, watching in silence as she knelt and formally offered up a thin chain with a gold ring on the end. He felt a jolt run through him, an urge to dart forward and argue with her about offering that ring. He knew of course that it was the one thing, other than Naruto's feelings, she had treasured above all others.

Her mother's wedding ring, one of the few surviving relics from the Hyūga matron.

Neji caught himself however, forced down his urge, telling himself that obviously Hinata had brought it expressly for this offering. Part of him was saddened for her, knowing that for her, offering that ring would be like offering giving away the memories of his father. It would be like loosing his father all over again.

Darting his eyes away from the girl he noted Naoki's position, trying to read among the shadows that danced over the man's face, the look on his face. Pity? Understanding? Sadness? Pride? The Shrine Masters face was unreadable from this distance, with the shadows and not using his Byakugan so Neji gave it up. He turned his attention back to Hinata just as she rose from her quiet kneeling position and turned to walk toward him.

When she was close enough he met her gaze, then realizing that she was only barely keeping herself in control he bowed mumbling a respectful "Hyūga-sama," before moving out of her path. Once she and Naoki were past he fell into step behind them, sliding the shoji shut behind him. Passing the fluttering candle Neji eyed the main hall once more before they were taken to another room.

Here Naoki walked forward and slid the shoji open to reveal a room, that was filled with several candles hanging from braziers, with the rice paper shutters closed tight. Hinata entered the room quietly and Neji followed, careful to bow respectfully while taking in the low table and two cushions on either side. Noting that Hinata had set down properly, her clothes making only the slightest rustling noise, he did so as well.

The air hung heavy with the scent of incense and it was already making Neji slightly lightheaded, he had never liked it as much as his father or uncle. Lowering himself to a small cushion near the incense holder Neji found himself eye to eye with his cousins unwavering gaze. From the corner of his vision Neji saw Naoki bow deeply before backing out of the room and closing the two in behind the sliding shoji.

Silence reigned, allowing Neji study the young woman across from him. He could remember the first time he had seen her, on her third birthday, she had been cute then. So diminutive, fragile and shy the perfect picture of a Hyūga female. Staring at her now he saw a woman, her skin flawless and her eyes clear. She was still fragile but now he knew that only hid the truth, that she was unbreakable. Hinata was still shy, demure almost, but she could be assertive when she needed to be.

He had also noticed that her voice, though soft had lost much of it's uncertainty during this pilgrimage. Hinata was growing up, growing more confident. She had come a very long way in such a short amount of time and he honored her for it...and he could see why Naruto had begun to love her.

Neji allowed a faint smile to appear, speaking for the first time that they had entered the room. "You have grown."

Hinata blushed faintly then smiled back. "Thank you...anou, I am glad you decided to help me with this."

Neji nodded, his gaze turning serious. "I have tried my best, you never explained what exactly was going on. For example, why did he light the candle? What exactly is a secret-keeper? Yes, there are many things I do not understand Hinata-sama."

"Anou, the candle is to measure how long we have." Hinata answered fiddling with the zipper of her jacket. "I-it takes a year to prepare and when it is burned out the pilgrimage is over."

"If Hanabi-sama is not here, then she may not participate?" Neji asked, understanding at once what may have been weighing on his cousins mind.

"Yes." Hinata said, lowering eyes. "Anou...can I...may I ask why, in the offering hall you called me Hyūga-sama?"

Neji was silent for a moment then answered. "Because I understood and at that moment, you were wholly Hyūga. You gave of inner self for the Clan and that is worthy of great respect."

"Anou..." Hinata mumbled, blushing again.

Neji glanced around the room, spotting an ancient tea set and then looked at her. "Would you perhaps like some tea Hinata-sama? Or is it not permitted?"

"Oh...uhm...yes, thank you Neji-niisan." Hinata lowered her eyes once more and Neji rose moving as quietly as he could to gather the tea set and return, unsurprised to find it already filled with a minty liquid. Pouring her a cup he carefully offered it to her and then poured himself a cup, setting back once more to sip at his tea in silence with her.

Several minutes passed in silence and then Hinata sat her cup down, speaking softly once more. "I am afraid..."

"Of what?"

"Of...I am not special, or beautiful. I am plain..." Hinata stopped and stared at him. "How can Naruto-kun...anou...he has no reason to c-care for me..."

Neji frowned watching her, his eyes spotting the unshed tears in the corners of her eyes. He could guess everything that she had left unsaid, everything she couldn't say. She loved Naruto so much and yet her heart was hesitant to trust such things. "There is something else?"

"Anou...S-sakura-san...I know she is in his heart, that he truly desires her and not me..." Hinata mumbled, her cheeks growing damp from her tears.

That was the final straw, he would not listen to this in passive silence any longer. "This fear is for lesser women and even lesser ninja!" Seeing he had her attention he continued. "Naruto-san sees with his heart so maybe in your eyes, you are nothing but to him you are everything."

"But how can he...anou...how can he ever l-lov..." Hinata mumbled, lowering her gaze. "I...I can never be as beau-"

"Were you never told, Hinata-sama, that you don't love a woman because she is beautiful? That a woman is beautiful because you love her." Neji stated firmly. "Even if he has never said it, Naruto-san looks at you in a very special way. You have become his standard of beauty and Hinata-sama who else could be as beautiful to him?"

Hinata took a shuddering breath and the Hyūga male sat forward, pouring her more tea. Setting back Neji looked down at the cup allowing her the silence she apparently craved. Repressing his sigh Neji picked up his tea, wondering how such a woman as Hinata could be so childishly foolish.


Neji


Up. Down. Up. Down.

Hanabi could feel a queasiness in her stomach every time this damnable frog leaped skywards and then descended rapidly. She couldn't understand how anyone rode on such a beast, not that she was in a position to say such a thing. Naruto had yet to ungag her, instead preferring to talk with the frog they were ridding. Hanabi was still trying to wrap her mind around such a concept, a giant animal she could accept much easier than a giant frog that talked.

Snorting in annoyance the young girl turned her gaze to the earth as they soared upwards once more, that's when she realized they were already starting up the side of the mountain. She could see the white strip of the stairs beneath them and she ran her eyes as far as she could before spotting the speck that had to be the shrine. Hanabi couldn't help but feel the surprise racing through her, they had gotten here so fast.

That was when she realized they were descending once more, rapidly, and that they would land directly in the middle of the speck that was the shrine. She made a muffled noise, eyes wide, which seemed to get Naruto's attention. He gazed at her for a moment, eyes unreadable and then he smiled grabbing her as he stood and jumped off the toad, which disappeared in a puff of smoke.

Hanabi turned frantic realizing that they would land unaided on hard stone. They would be little more than a smear on the ground. Then Naruto did something utterly strange, he created several Kage Bunshins without a seal, so that he could rebounded off each one to lower his speed as they descended. They landed with barely a thump and blond set her down, laughing as he untied her.

Hanabi was livid, this blond imbecile was going to get her killed!

The instant her hands were free she ripped the gag from her mouth and rounded on the boy, trying to kill him with a look. "YOU EGOTICSCAL, SUICIDAL BASTARD!" Naruto however brushed her glare off, like most everything she did, and walked past her to speak with a bored looking Kakashi. How dare he just ignore her! HOW DARE HE! He wasn't even apologetic! "HOW DARE YOU JEPORDIZE MY LIFE AND THE FUTURE OF TH-!"

Suddenly Hanabi froze, sensing a presence behind her. Turning she found herself facing a wheezed old man that was standing in a pool of light, gazing at her with the familiar pearl colored eyes. Hanabi quickly mastered her outward emotions, presenting the cool facade of a Hyūga.

"Many greetings, yes many greetings." The old man rasped, bowing politely. "I am Hyūga Naoki. Art thou Hyūga Hanabi, youngest daughter of Hyūga Hiashi, descendant of Hyūga Kazuki son of Hyūga Akio-sama, of the Hyūga Ichizoku Sōke?"

"Yes." Hanabi managed calmly, bowing politely in return. Her mind was frantically trying to remember anything her sister had told her about this moment.

"Very good, I am pleased that thou art safe from the dangers that beset thine pilgrimage..." Naoki's eyes flashed over her shoulder and Hanabi tensed feeling Naruto approaching. "Thou must be Uzumaki Naruto ninja of Konoha, student of both Hatake Kakashi, Tokubetsu Jōnin of Konoha and Jiraiya of the Densetsu no Sannin, favored by the Godaime Hokage of Konohagakure no Sato and the future Rokudaime Hokage of Konohagakure no Sato."

"Er...yea." Naruto said, confused and the man shifted his gaze back to her.

"Might I enquire if thou hast chosen him as thy secret-keeper?"

Hanabi was caught utterly flat footed, her mind was too jumbled from her anger at the blond and her attempt at remembering the proper protocol for this event. "Yes..."

"Very well, we have only moments remaining, all that I now require is to see if thou haveth an offering." Naoki said it casually bowing slightly.

Hanabi's attention suddenly crystallized on this man, aware of the lack of respect that bow had presented. She mastered herself however, the honor of the clan would need seeing too first. Which meant she searched for her offering, the scroll in which she had written about her mother. After several minutes however, she couldn't find it and she struggling to remember the last time she had seen it.

She was falling into the canyon, scrolls and pens tumbling around her...Hanabi cursed softly, realizing that it was long gone.

"Art thou ill-prepared? Doest thou think that thy may complete the pilgrimage without an offering? The candle is nearly extinguished and thou may not enter without thy offering." Naoki said decisively, eyes narrowed. Hanabi futilely checked herself for anything that could serve as an offering but found nothing. This seemed to infuriate the man even more. "Stupid child. Thou most assuredly bring dishonor on thy self and worse yet, thy family!"

Something inside Hanabi bristled at that and her voice took on it's own hard edge. "I am Hyūga Hanabi, not a mannerless commoner. You would do well to remember that I am of the Main branch. Offering or not, you will show me the proper respect and allow me to complete this journey."

"You come here without an offering and seek to chastise me? You art the one that has failed to uphold our families untainted honor." Naoki said pulling himself up to his full height. "I know very well with whom I speak! An ignorant child, who has brought dishonor on her most noble of ancestors. Thee are no Hyūga-"

The man was cut off however as something glittered in the dark before hitting his chest. For a moment Hanabi had thought it was a kunai, then she stared at the object that had fallen almost noiselessly to the ground between them. The lantern light reflected dully off it's surface, but there was no mistaking the Konoha symbol. Quietly she bent, scooping the battered and used forehead protector up and then straightened.

"Oi, there's your damn offering. Now let her do whatever the hell she has too old man." Naruto said brashly from behind her and Hanabi glanced backward, noting that he was no longer wearing his forehead protector. Lost she turned back to stare at the man, sure that Naruto was only making things worse.

The old man however seemed to fold in on himself, eyes unreadable as he looked up from the forehead protector in her hand at the blond behind her and then back at her face. When he spoke his voice was respectful and he bowed low. "I beg thee to forgive my foolish arrogance Hanabi-hime. Please bring thy offering and follow me, you may still have time for thine honor to be saved."

Hanabi nodded, watching the old man turn to shuffle off and then followed, wondering what had just happened. She heard the heavy footsteps of Naruto behind her and wondered why he had stuck up for her, why he had bothered. Climbing the three stairs to enter the main building she removed her shoes, leaving them near Neji and Hinata's.

The old man led her toward a candle near the end of its life and then turned left, Hanabi followed wordlessly, refusing to even glance at the blond that she knew was following. Entering the offering hall she wondered what to do, but seeing how the man continued toward an alter she did the same. Kneeling correctly, she noted the glimmering gold ring and then looked at the forehead protector in her hands.

The cloth was frayed and tearing in spots, the metal plate was chipped and scratched beyond belief. Was it even worthy of being placed in such a location? She frowned slightly, her fingers feeling the coarseness of the material, it was old. The newer forehead protectors felt like silk, it must have held some secret history to Naruto.

Forcing her frown away Hanabi carefully fold the strip of cloth so that only the scratched and chipped metal plate remained, then bowing placed it on the alter beside the ring. The candles flickered and danced over the surface and Hanabi felt amusement twitching inside her. How fitting for a Hyūga shrine, here was a symbol of love and another for strength and courage.

Still, she didn't understand why. That could wait however, nodding she rose, smoothing out her clothes and turned, walking toward Naruto with the old man behind her. Hanabi kept her face impassive, gazing at the bored looking blond, but inside she was startled to realize that he seemed naked, incomplete without his forehead protector. Passing him she felt his eyes following her, even as he fell into step behind her and Naoki.

Hanabi glanced at the candle, alarmed that it was fluttering among its own wax. While she had not known how they would decide such matters as the amount of time left, it was obvious now that this candle was the deciding factor. Naoki however kept walking, lantern bobbing over his head as he lead them to shoji that he slid open wordlessly.

Hanabi strode past him with the arrogance that she had as a Hygua princess, entering the candle lit room as if she owned it. Silently Naruto followed her, flopping down casually on one of the cushions while she seated herself properly. In her peripheral vision she watched as Naoki bowed deeply and backed out of the room closing the shoji as he went.

Removing that man from her mind she focused on a disinterested Naruto and frowned.

"Why did you do that?"

"Huh?"

"Why did you give him your forehead protector?" Hanabi said, tone clipped.

Naruto stared at her for a moment then snorted. "Oi, he was being an ass. Even you don't deserve to be treated like that. 'You have dishonored your family', people like him need to be hit upside the head."

Hanabi raised an eyebrow then sighed, lowering her eyes. Now what was she suppose to do? Tell this boy her secret? No, he would never understand...besides he hated her.

"Oi, so you going to tell me this damn secret so we can get moving?" Naruto groused staring at her.

"It is difficult." Hanabi said slowly staring at him intently. "Do you promise to keep this between us?"

"Yea...I guess...I think that's why he asked if I was your secret keeper right?" Naruto said, scratching his cheek. "So tell me already."

"I am scared." Hanabi stopped staring at him, waiting for the laughter that would follow.

Instead Naruto's gaze became searching as he leaned forward, his voice growing soft. "Of disappointing your family?"

"That...is a part of it." Hanabi admitted, trying to unclench her heart and her hands. "There is so much pressure, that...sometimes I feel as if I will shatter."

"Hey, you're just ten. You can't be expected to-"

"Yes. Yes I can be expected. I must, for the sake of the Clan..." Hanabi overrode him, her eyes turning hard. "But that is not what I wish to tell you. My fear, it is about you. Of how you treat me, of how much you hate me. Do you not understand that you treat me like nobody else does?"

Naruto blinked staring at her and Hanabi continued, feeling her long treasured control starting to slip away.

"You do things and say things that...that make me doubt myself and my actions! That is what scares me, what frightens me."

Naruto stared at her for several long minutes, before talking in a voice that sounded almost hollow. "I grew up with nothing, seeing other people with nothing dying because nobody cared. I don't hate you Hanabi, I pity you."

"You pity me!"

"Yes." Naruto nodded, eyes darkening. "Because you don't know just how damn lucky you are. You have a family, even if it is screwed up. You have friends and food, and you don't have to steal garbage to survive. You don't have people that would rather kill you than help, or have to fight over where you will sleep."

Naruto fell silent, turning his gaze away. Hanabi suddenly felt cold wondering why his voice had sounded so, not bitter, but distant. Why would he have grown up like that?

"You don't know how lucky you are to have a sister that cares so much for you or a cousin that watches out for you. You treat them like dirt, like they are nothing." Naruto said suddenly, turning his attention back to her. "I pity you Hanabi, because you have a family, people that care and you don't see how wrong it is that you're trying to isolate yourself."

Hanabi opened her mouth to say something when the shoji slid open and Naoki reappeared bowing. "I am sorry to disturb thee, but the candle has died, this pilgrimage is now at an end."

Hanabi stared at Naruto for a minute longer, as if having never seen him before then nodded speaking to Naoki without looking away. "Thank you."


Hanabi


A yellow moon peeked down over treetops rustling in the warm breeze. Here and there the breeze kicked a fallen leaf across the carefully swept paving tones that surrounded the shrine. It was almost too silent for Kakashi's taste, then again he had grown used to Naruto's constant noise. Eye drooping lower than ever, Kakashi crossed his arms wondering what was going on.

He had seen the candle wink out about a ten minutes ago, but it wasn't that big a deal yet. Shrugging Kakashi closed his eye, knowing that he would find out soon enough what was going on. Kakashi chuckled, a mental image forming of a certain female Jōnin.

He could feel his cheeks heating up ever so slightly as he allowed the self-made Icha Icha story to unfold before his eyes. He started giggling, unable to help himself as the girl cast both vest and shirt aside before curling a finger for him to approach. Kakashi was just about to do just that when his ears alerted him to the sound of soft footsteps against the wooden floor of the main shrine.

Opening his eye in disappointment, he found a bobbing lantern leading the way in the hand of the old shrine master. Kakashi darted his eyes over the man's stooped shoulders to find Hinata, Neji, Hanabi and Naruto following behind. Interesting. It was going to take some time adjust to Naruto without his forehead protector.

Standing he waved casually, walking halfway across the courtyard to met them. "Yo."

"I pray that thou art well rest." Naoki said bowing slightly, which caused the light to sway slightly. "The pilgrimage is complete, all has been fulfilled that must be done. Now I ask that all of thee might rest here this night and then set out in the morn."

"Oi, Kakashi-sensei-"

"I'm sure they got us a nice place to sleep for the night..." Kakashi said humorously, lifting a hand to wave off the boys statement.

"Yes, it was designed for moments such as this." Naoki said, his tone clear, as he gestured politely toward a small building. "If thou will follow me, it will be my honor to provide thee with the proper lodgings."

Joining in beside Naruto, Kakashi kept a lopping pace with hands in his pockets as they crossed toward a small building made with the familiar vertical columns, horizontal beams, diagonal braces and deep eaves of the Hyūga. Here Naoki paused and slipped the shoji open for them, bowing low. "It is humble but all we can offer."

Kakashi nodded, ushering all four of the younger ninja inside followed by Naoki who shuffled inside to light the various lanterns that were to be found. The building was actually a single room, with tatmais all over the floor. On the far wall, near where Hanabi was hovering was an alcove, with a vertical scroll of calligraphy along with a set of ikebana flowers.

"I hope that this meets with thy needs." Naoki said, his tone growing tired. "I pray that you forgive me that we do not have food enough for you."

"That's fine." Kakashi said, watching as Naruto flopped on the floor to lean against a post. "I think were more tired than hungry..."

"Of course, then I shall leave thee for the night." Bowing the man turned and shuffled out of the room, sliding the Shoji shut behind him.

Kakashi chuckled then took stock of everyone in the room. Neji was sitting down near the center of the room, staring at the calligraphy scroll. Naruto wasn't moving, apparently having passed out already. Hinata however proved that false when, after much shuffling of feet, she sat down next to him. The blond smiled involuntarily, opening his eye to glance at her. Hinata blushed scooting in closer before closing her own eyes, followed by Naruto.

Hanabi however was not settling in, she was scowling at the couple against the wall then noticed his attention. She gazed at him steadily and Kakashi raised an eyebrow, watching as she turned and walked past him, then out into the night. Glancing at Neji once more, Kakashi sighed following the young girl only to find her sitting on the porch, staring at the sky.

Raising an eyebrow the Jōnin in question calmly joined her, leaning back on his hands as he spoke in a soft whisper. "Is something wrong?"

"I do not understand...why did he give me his forehead protector? Why did the shrine master accept it?" Hanabi mumbled just as softly. "I do not understand him...there are thing...yes I do not understand him at all."

Kakashi was silent for a moment then patted her shoulder. "Naruto's had a hard life and its given him a unique outlook. As for that forehead protector, I think this Naoki could tell just how much it meant to Naruto."

"But it's just a forehead protector, you have one, Hinata-neesan does too. Everyone has a forehead protector."

"...Naruto originally failed the academy test." Kakashi explained softly. "When he passed later that day, there were no forehead protector to give out. Except the one that Iruka-san was wearing, it was beaten and used, but Naruto's treasured it above everything else."

"I had guessed as much. Still it is only a forehead protector." Hanabi said, scowling slightly.

"It was a gift, from the first person to ever accept him unconditionally." Kakashi shrugged sitting forward. "For Naruto...that means more than his own life. It was as precious to him as being a Hyūga is to you. For him to give that up..." Kakashi chuckled glancing at her. "I think in his own way...you've been accepted."

Hanabi was quiet for several long minutes then she nodded, climbing back to her feet and returning to the building. Kakashi however remained in the silence of the night for several long minutes and then, with a barely suppress groan stood. He hoped he could take a small break when they returned, just so that his body could recover. Sliding the shoji open he paused, noting the darkened room where only one lantern remained lit near the center of the room.

Shaking his head he slid the shoji closed and approached the lone circle of light, joining Neji. After several more minutes of silence, to ensure that all three of those trying to sleep were indeed asleep, Kakashi spoke. "So..."

"...I am troubled, if ANBU are normally reserved for assassinations and protecting the village, then why are were they here? This could be considered an act of war."

"Ahh..." Kakashi nodded slightly. "I was thinking about that myself."

"Yes." Neji agreed quietly. "Cloud must be desperate to use ANBU."

"Then something has went horribly wrong within their country." Kakashi said quietly, his eye drooping. "Somehow I think we'll learn more when we return to Konoha."

"Yes." Neji closed his eyes, settling in for meditation.

"So which one are you marrying?"


Kakashi


Naruto stirred, squeezing his eyes shut even tighter against the faint sunlight that managed worm its way past the rice paper shutters. When it became apparent to the still sleeping blond that the sun was not about to be defeated so easily he turned his head, attempting to block his face for those few more precious minutes of sleep. It was then that he discovered a very peculiar fact, his pillows smelt like...jasmine.

Naturally of course, with Naruto being still asleep it took several long minutes before realized what he was smelling and then several even longer ones to start approaching consciousness. This in his estimation was a horrible fate since he had been having rather pleasant dreams about a certain dark haired girl. Yawning the blond opened his eyes to slits staring at the far wall, watching the dust mites dance in the shafts of sunlight.

Then the scent of jasmine drifted through his mind and he was once more reminded of why he had woken up in the first place. Lifting his head back Naruto discovered much to his surprise that instead of attempting to bury his face in pillows he had tried to bury his face in Hinata's hair. He stared at the top of her head for a moment, bemused that she liked jasmine, before the realization that she was actually curled up in his arms.

Oh sure they were still sitting against the wall, but Naruto had somehow shifted in the night, putting his shoulder against the wall and forcing Hinata to slump into his arms. This was distressing to say the least, especially since Naruto was still trying to figure out how he could like Hinata when not too long ago he had liked Sakura. As powerful as Naruto was becoming, the blond was still bewildered over certain matters of the heart.

Didn't change the fact that somehow, someway, Hinata had replaced Sakura in his world...and that frightened him. If he could so easily change his affection from one girl to another-He forcibly stopped his mind from going down that path. He would accept that it appeared Ero-sennin was right, maybe he hadn't really loved Sakura like he thought.

Naruto groaned, realizing that he truly hated having these sort of mature moments. Thank the dear kami that the Naruto-Tormenting-God was not around.

"Oi, Hinata-chan, get up..." Naruto said loudly, shaking her as best he could. Hinata however mumbled something and then, due to her position in his arms nuzzled her face into his shoulder. Naruto was silent, torn between waking the girl up and just letting her stay like that...he was really starting to like that nuzzling.

"Hinata, hey..." Naruto said after a few more minutes, keeping his voice gentle. "Time to get up..."

"mhmmmfewmoreminutes..." Hinata mumbled in her sleep.

Naruto chuckled at that then decided that no matter how much he might not mind, when everyone else woke up things would become awkward. Well, since she wasn't getting up on her on, Naruto suddenly bound to his feet pulling Hinata up with him. Sadly halfway to his feet Naruto discovered that his legs were asleep and went tumbling backwards as his legs spasmed in an attempt to wake themselves up.

Hinata was of course jolted awake at impact, dazed and confused as her world spun while Naruto kicked his legs and rolled around trying to stop the pain. Needless to say this caused quite the racket, ensuring further humiliation. Hinata had, at some point, managed to free herself from his rolling demolition crew and was now kneeling over him with a concerned look on her face.

"A-anou...Naruto-kun are you...umm...are you alright?"

Naruto sat up, blushing. "I'm fine!"

Hinata chewed her bottom lip in thought for a moment then blinked looking around in surprise. "Anou...where is everyone?"

Naruto blinked, then glanced around for the first time paying attention to the fact that room was empty. It didn't look as if they're had been a struggle or anything, just as if whoever they had been sharing the room with had left. "Huh, that's strange."

"Anou...where do you think they are?" Hinata mumbled, unconsciously rubbing her fingers together.

Naruto shrugged then hopped to his feet to get a better look around, they're packs were gone and the candles were out. Maybe the group had gotten an early start and where letting them catch up? Nah, that'd just be pointless...maybe they were outside just waiting on them to wake up.

That'd make more sense...then his blue eyes noticed a scroll that had managed to roll away from where he and Hinata had been sleeping. Stooping he snatched the scroll, staring curiously at the fancy wax seal denoting that it came directly from the Hokage's office. "Where'd this come from?" Naruto muttered, missing the fact that Hinata started checking her pouches, as he used his thumb to snap the seal and open the scroll.

Naruto had to squint, realizing for the first time that Tsunade's handwriting was so damn small. Even if his handwriting was little more than chicken scratch at least it was big enough that you could make out what the letters were suppose to be. Plus this was like reading some formal letter, like a few he had received while he and Jiraiya were out on the training mission...then suddenly it dawned on him what that old hag was saying.

"I...I-I'm a Chūnin ..." Naruto whispered in awe, eyes widening as he re-read the tiny words that were proclaiming that he was no longer just a Genin. "I'm a Chūnin ..."

"Anou...congratulations Naruto-kun..." Hinata said happily.

Somehow it was hearing her congratulate him on this promotion that made the whole situation real for him, up until Hinata had said that Naruto was stuck wondering if maybe this was some horrible prank but no he really was a Chūnin now.

"I'M A CHŪNIN!" Naruto suddenly shouted and without further warning started dancing, or more to the point, he was moving around spastically shouting at the top of his lungs that he was a chunin.

He couldn't believe it! He thought he'd have to take the test all over again or that he would be stuck as a genin forever! "I'm a chunin, I'm a chunin, I'm a chunin, I'm a chunin, I'm a chunin, I'm a chunin, I'm a chunin, I'm a chunin, I'm a chunin!" He continued his dance for several more minutes and then somewhere in the amidst of his celebration he swept Hinata up into a bear hug and spun her around, still shouting his promotion.

Then much like when he had tried to get her a birthday present, he unthinkingly kissed her. Only this time it was different, this kiss started where that first one had left off and it wasn't long before tongues were involved and eyes were closed to enjoy the feeling. It stretched out for several unbelievable minutes and then when the broke it Naruto opened his eyes to stare at Hinata.

The girl was so red in the fact that he was afraid she was doing to explode, then she began to wobble, followed by her toppling backwards with a thump. Naruto remained upright for a few minutes afterwards, staring at her unconscious form and then he wobbled before collapse flat on his butt in stunned silence.

After several long, catatonic moments Naruto could only think of one thing to say. "That was way better than Ramen."


Naruto


Dressed in an off-white kimono and seated comfortable at his desk, Hiashi was calmly and quietly pouring over the various items that as Head of the Clan he had to deal with. They were tedious, mind numbing and in all reality little more than a waste of time. Such matters included but were not limited to: Birth records, marriage records and disputes between Clan members.

Still Hiashi did his task without the slightest sign of annoyance or boredom. He was the very image of what he was, the best Hyūga, truly worthy of being the Head of the Clan. He worked tirelessly, always trying to raise the Hyūga further upon the ladder of power within Konoha. The Clan could not rest on its laurels, it had to be constantly working tirelessly, which explained why he considered the matters before him now as almost a waste of time.

Until they could solve the true problem besetting the family, there was no real point in worrying over these trivial matters.

"Hey,youareyouHaishi?CauseIgotamessageforhim!"

Hiashi paused, pen posed as he considered what he had just been asked. It had been an almost squeaking like voice, but in such a rapid-fire manner that it was utterly impossible to understand. But...this late at night and with Hanabi out on the pilgrimage, he should have been completely alone in his private office.

"Soareyouornot?Casuethisthingsreallyheavy." The odd voice said again and this time Hiashi looked away from his paperwork to look around the room. He could have activated the Byakugan, but that would have been excessive in his opinion. Finding the room apparently empty he turned back to his paperwork only to find his mysterious intruder.

Said intruder was a small bright yellow frog that was looking around as if wasn't used to staying still.

"What...are you?" Hiashi asked, an eyebrow arching upwards as he considered the odd creature.

"Ithoughtitwasobvious.I'matoad!AmessengertoadtobeexactnamesChisoku!" The toad said rapidly before offering one of its webbed feet as if it wanted a handshake.

Hiashi stared at it closely, then not wishing to be impolite reached out and carefully shook the creatures 'hand'.

The toad beamed and then bounced up and down as if it had to work off some of its energy. "SoareyouHiashi?"

Hiashi resisted the urge to blink, wondering what the creature has just asked him. Lacking other options he activated his Byakugan and focused on its mouth so that he could read its lips. "How did you get in here?"

"Ohthatwaseasy,Ijustcutaholeinthedoor."

Hiashi paused, then nodded politely while making a note to fix that hole. "You could have knocked, that would have been the polite thing to do."

"Well,see,thisreallyscaryguytoldmethatthismessageforsomeonenamedHyūgaHiashiwasexteremlyimportant.Icouldn'tbepoliteifthatwasthecase,besidesthebosshasn'tevercaredifIwaspoliteornot.SoareyouthisHiashiordoIneedtokeeplooking?"

"Yes, I am Hyūga Hiashi." Hiashi answered, his tone reserved. As curious as he had been about this toad when it first arrived it was quickly becoming annoying and having to read its lips were almost torture.

"Greatthenhereyago!" Chisoku said, handing over the scroll. "Gottagothatstupidpervertwantsme."
That said the toad made a rapid leap before disappearing with a pop.

Alone once more Hiashi turned his attention to the scroll, realizing almost immediately that the seal on the scroll was from his nephew. Setting aside his other work for the moment the Hyūga Patriarch opened the scroll and began reading, taking some pride in the boys handwriting. Minutes later he finished the scroll and set it aside, returning to the Clan paperwork before him.

Five pages later he selected Neji's scroll once more and re-read it, his eyes darting from word to word, from start to finish memorizing the words. Setting it aside once more he resumed his paperwork, where he continued to work until at last he had finished and he could feel the signs of fatigue catching up with him.

Shaking it off over, Hiashi read Neji's scroll once last time and then sure that he could recite it word per word, he gathered the needed chakra and applied it to the special paper erasing the letters, returning it to a blank scroll. Standing he organized his papers for a moment and then quietly left his office, making a mental note to have the door repaired first thing in the morning.

Walking along the veranda, heading for his room he considered the pieces of information that he had been given, all the while appearing as if he was thinking of nothing. It was an art he had perfected, that ability to show one thing on his face while at the same time thinking or feeling another. It was a feat that Hanabi was almost capable of now, but it would be many years before she had truly mastered such a feat.

Nodding politely in greeting to a minor member of the Main Family, he wasn't even sure how he was related to them, Hiashi put aside thoughts of Neji's scroll and slid the shoji to his room open. Pausing for a moment, Hiashi considered the darkened room before entering. It was a habit he had picked up shortly after his first wife had died, certain family elders had tried to arrange unwanted 'comfort' for him.

It had been Hizashi's widow and Hanabi's eventual mother, Rukia, that had stopped such attempts.

Putting both women in the back of his mind, he changed into a sleeping kimono and moved aside the mosquito netting before climbing into his simple bed. Settling in, Hiashi allowed his mind to roam to the final piece of information that Neji had placed in the report. It was perhaps the most important information the scroll contained.

Hiashi closed his eyes, considering what to make of the fact that Uzumaki Naruto had started a relationship with his daughter.

After several minutes Hiashi drifted off to sleep, an odd smirk on his lips.


Author's Notes:

1) Well, it was like pulling teeth...but I managed to offically hook up Hinata and Naruto by the last chapter. Seriously, Naruto just wasn't anxious...oh and for all of you who are exepecting everythin to be easy now, NOT GONNA HAPPEN! Seriously, Hinata has an inferiorty complex about keeping Naruto and Naruto is all confuzled about how his feelings can change so quickly...that is a not a reciepe for an immedate 'Happily Ever After'.

2) BIG SHOUT OUT TO MY BETA! Dude, we finally finished this damn thing...now take your bows and get out of my limelight! XD Seriously, without him I probably would have never bothered with this fic (or the fandom for that matter), so major thanks, he doesn't get enough props seriously! Right, so everyone email the boy, flood it with demands of him forcing me to update the sequel sooner! -That'll teach him to make fun of my grammar-.

3)Right, not sure how to ask this...but look, I have a friend who regularly gets pieces of fanart for his fics and I have yet to get any! I know that one of you, by all odds, has to be able to draw and color half-decently...so I wanna know where is my fanart? XD

4)The sequel is being sketched and hammered right now...so don't expect it for a while. Before you complain please note, in the sequel I have more than five characters to deal with...plus more than one plotline...plus were almost tripling the amount of chapters. Expect somewhere between 25-30 chapters...that's a lot of stress ya know?

5)Emails demanding to know when it will be released only increases that stress and may potentially make me stop working on it all together. Now emails telling me what you thought of this fic, with details, will more than likely fuel my desire to hurry and make all my wonderful fans happy.

6) The sequel will of course have to be AU from the 'offical' storyline...but there are a few things from there that will be included. I won't list them here, but keep in mind it will only be those things that are actually good ideas. I will say this, Naruto will recieve the same training from Kakashi that he does in the manga, though it will it happen off-screen between this story and the sequel.

7) Total Word Count (minus the ANs): 74,969
Total Page Count (minus the ANs): 129

8)I've also included a 'soundtrack'...which is really just the music I listened to while I worked on a few of the scenes.

Series created by / series creator
Masashi Kishimoto

Title music
Hymn of the Fayth from Final Fantasy X

Uzumaki Naruto Theme
The Touch by Stan Bush

Hyuga Hinata Theme
Eyes On Me by Faye Wong

Naruto Vs ANBU
Fury of the Storm by Dragonforce

Hyuga Neji
I'm Doing The Best That I Can by Godsmack

Romance Theme
Everything by Lifehouse

Fin