-loud fanfare plays-

Here it is folks! The moment many of you have been waiting for! THE SEQUEL!

Many thanks to all my loyal -coughcough-rabid-cough- fans who have been sending me emails and pm's

And now the requisite warning and disclaimers

This story is PART 2 of my "Into the World" series. If you've found this story, and haven't read "Into the Woods" yet, STOP! Go and read "Woods" first. Trust me, you'll enjoy this one much better that way. :)

I do not own Naruto, but thanks to Gothic Luffy, i have been owned by Gaara -squee!-

And hoooray for Shinigami-chan! I hope this story gets you through your sleepless nights. Yay for October babies!

Polls are closed folks! Thanks for your votes! 1256 of em! Ya'll rock my world

Enough of that now, you've waited long enough. Time to start our next journey...

Now before we go, does anyone have to go to the bathroom? No? Good!


The day broke cold but brilliant in Haitsuchi, and the sleepy but prosperous mountain village was buzzing with activity quite early today. Women were packing up heavy bags of goods which the men were loading up onto the wagons lined up near the entrance gates. The caravan, their lifeline to the outside world, was leaving today for Iwagakure. Vendors had opened their shops early, and children bounced around in excitement, watching the pack animals be harnessed and lead to their respective carts. The whole place was filled with the air or anticipation, as if it were a festival day.

To an outsider, you would never recognize how rich these people really were. Their homes sat above one of the wealthiest mines in the entire Earth Country, the extinct volcano providing them with a veritable treasure trove of diamond and precious minerals. And while it was true these families were wealthy in ways most people never knew, they were simple and kindhearted. Life was hard on the mountainside, and with the terrain to rocky and barren for farmland, they depended heavily on other villages for their survival. The chill in the air made them nervous, and the smell of the coming snows meant this caravan would be the last to leave for a while, and would hopefully return in time to beat the looming winter.

Final preparations were underway, as packing lists were checked and last minute orders for special goods and supplies were taken. Those who were finished and waiting on the other travelers were taking a last stroll through the market, looking for gifts and tokens for family members waiting at home. A young man hurried through the crowd, pulling a laughing beauty by the arm.

"Tomo! Slow down! You're going to rip my arm off!" she whined with a grin. This only made the boy pull her ahead of him and start pushing her from behind.

"But Suki-chan! We don't have much time! And we can't leave until you help me pick out something! It's important!" Sapphire eyes sparkled as he pretended to pout, causing her to giggle and walk a little faster.

He took her to a table that was covered in various baubles and trinkets, the kind of which young women wished a charming young man would buy for them, but young men were totally clueless over. Pushing her to the center of the table, Tomo threw up his hands in helplessness.

"Now, if you were her, what would you like?" he said, waiting hopefully for her to pick something, anything off the table of pretty things. A small, fragile looking old women stepped forward and smiled warmly on the pair.

"Let me guess..." she said teasingly, her keen eyes darting back and forth between the two. "You're brother has a girl back home that he's upset, and wants you to help pick out something to win her heart over again?"

"Ah, you've seen this one before!" Suki laughed, causing her brother to sulk some more.

"I didn't mean to upset her..." he sighed pathetically. "I wouldn't have if I didn't have to come here, and her birthday is coming and we might not make it in time..." The old woman waved her hands at him and chuckled.

"Not to worry, I've got some special items that are perfect for mending broken hearts. What does your sweetie look like?" He blushed slightly, pulling a worn photo out of his pocket and handing it over. She beamed, looking back and forth between the boy in picture and the older version before her. "Been together a long time it seems." he nodded, causing his sister to laugh and put an arm around him.

"And he hasn't seen her for a long time because of all this traveling, and now he thinks she doesn't love him anymore." Suki added.

"Well, in that case, I better bring out the really special stuff." the vendor replied, handing back the photo. "You wait right here, I'll be right back." She ducked into the doorway for a moment, before coming back out with a flat, black box. She set it down on the table and opened it carefully. The siblings leaned in close, eyes wide at the glittering items before them. "Go ahead now." she giggled at the pair. "Pick something, anything."

The items in the case were certainly special. You could tell they were made by the same hand as the others on the table, but there was a quality to them that made them more brilliant. The care and the detail was exquisite, and the stones used were practically flawless. These pieces weren't just made, they were loved and cherished. The pair stood there for a moment in awe, until carefully the young girl reached forward, plucking a necklace gingerly from the box.

"Niisan, hand me that picture." He passed it to her, a curious look on his face as he watched her hold the pendant in front of it, smiling broadly as it settled across the neckline of the sweet girl in the photo. "It's perfect," she sighed, motioning with her head from him to look over. He slid over, resting his chin on her shoulder, his heart racing at the image before him.

"It matches her eyes..." he whispered back, amazed at the thought of her wearing it. They were broken from their trance at a soft chuckle, realizing how silly they must have looked. The old woman was grinning mischievously as she took the item, wrapped it carefully in paper, and placed it into a tiny box. She handed it to the bewildered young man, then started packing up the case again.

"You two had better get going, the caravan will be leaving soon." She winked at them, turning to head back into the building.

"Wait! Obaasan! What do I owe you for this?" but she waved off his question.

"It's a birthday present!" she giggled, sounding more like a school girl then an old woman. "Just make sure your love gets it in time!" and with that she ducked back inside before another word of protest could be uttered.

They stood there, shocked for a moment before a voice broke their trance.

"Tomoichi! Sukiko! Where the hell are you two?" Matching shades of blue met at that sound.

"Ojiisan!" she whispered.

"We're late!" he replied, shoving the box in his utility pocket and zipping it shut for safe keeping.

"Arigatou!" The two yelled at the doorway with a bow, and then tore off towards the gates.

A soft laugh echoed from inside. "Ah, to be young and in love again." she muttered, peeking out to watch them run off. She turned with a smile to a picture on the family alter of a warm and wrinkled face. She picked it up for a moment, running a worn hand over the surface, and gazing lovingly. "Reminds me of the days when you used to run with the caravan, and I was the girl home with the broken heart." She hugged it to her chest. "I hope your necklace mends her heart just as your gifts always did for mine."

The first wagons were starting off past the village walls to the cheers and well wishes of the gathered people. Each wagon paused just inside the gate for the Shinto priest to be blessed with swift journey and a safe return. An old man waited at the rear, his mount pawing the ground nervously. It wanted to join the others and was anxious to be kept back. His other two animals, a pack horse and another missing it's rider, were also wanting to join the rest of the travelers. The mountains were full of wolves and other creatures, and it wasn't safe to be out of the walls without the caravan. Even if they weren't traveling the entire way with them, they needed the protection in their numbers to get out of these cursed mountains and down to where they could safely cross the borders. The man was getting more irritated by the moment. He did not need this kind of hassle.

"Where are those two..." he grumbled before calling to them again. "TOMOICHI! SUKIKO! I SWEAR I'M GONNA LEAVE YOU TWO HERE IF YOU DON'T..."

"Don't what, Ojiisan?" He heard a laugh behind him. Turning from his seat, he saw the boy grinning back at him sheepishly, already situated on his own mount, pulling the strawberry haired girl up to her place behind him. He shook his head.

"I swear if my hair wasn't already white..." he muttered to himself. "I'm surprised it hasn't started falling out yet because of you two." He tossed the reigns back to them and moved to join the rest of the caravan. "Oh...and Tomo..." he whispered as he passed close again, keeping his eyes forward "you're whiskers are showing."

Tomo blinked for a moment, before turning to look over his shoulder. Suki giggled. "He's right you know" she whispered into his ear. "I don't know why you won't let me put a little make up over it."

He smiled, hiding his hands under his jacket while he made the requisite seals. Then he stretched nonchalantly and ran his palms over his cheeks, causing the marks to fade under the effect of the genjitsu. "Cause this way is more fun." he said with a smirk before moving their horse to follow the others out of village and on their way.

There was a light dusting of snow falling on the quiet village of Konoha. Hyuga Neji was making his way back through the gate to the family home after a very long and difficult mission when he heard the familiar flapping sound of a messenger falcon landing behind him. He let out a weary sigh. All he wanted to do was get inside, get out of his gear and have a long, hot bath. He reluctantly turned around to look at the bird who was chittering expectantly behind him.

"Please don't tell me you have another mission for me from the Hokage."

It cocked it's head curiously at him before making another soft noise, shifting it's wings with a flutter, wanting to get rid of the message in his harness. Neji sighed and motioned for it to follow him to the house. Once there it flew over to the perch near the door and turned to let him relieve it of it's burden. As the young man pulled out the bulky envelope, a smaller one dropped out unexpectedly. Feeling remarkably lighter, the falcon let out a grateful squeak and took off for the aviary. Neji watched it fly off before checking the items in his hand, amused to see a familiar spiral mark placed along the seal.

'So, you're still out there Uzumaki? I was beginning to wonder...' he mused to himself, placing the smaller envelope with his name into his own pocket for later, wondering where he could find his younger cousin.

In the center part of the main house of the Hyuga clan was the family library. This large room contained many written treasures, including the entire clan genealogy (or at least, as far back as to where people cared to start keeping track of such things.), various property deeds and titles, marriage declarations and business contracts, alliances and family treaties, scrolls containing special jutsus and combat techniques, and the best collection of historical documents on the village as well as a good portion of the Land of Fire itself. Buried here amongst the scrolls and texts and ancient dust, was the pretty young heiress.

Pretty was an understatement. Even in her current state, laying on the floor, her lower body tucked under the large mahogany writing desk and surrounded by a magnitude of documents, it was hard to not notice her startling beauty. Hinata was wearing a simple house kimono of silver and blue, colors that accentuated not only her flawless ivory complexion, but her large opaline eyes and long dark locks. She had begun to grow her hair long starting with her 16th birthday, as was tradition for the women of her family. The indigo tresses were currently twisted and knotted back from her gentle face, held in place by a calligraphy brush and writing pen, a few errant strands having snuck out. Her chin was resting on a delicate looking hand, pinky finger thoughtfully being chewed as she immersed herself in her studies. In fact, she was so intent on the one scroll before her that she was not prepared for the sudden harried interruption.

"Hinata! Are you hiding in here again!"

The girl startled, kicking the desk and knocking a large pile of bound texts crashing to the floor. As she jumped to her feet, she spun to face the intruder. Hinata's face flushed a light pink seeing it was only Hanabi, her younger sister.

"Of course I'm in here...where else would I be if I'm not training?" she said with a sigh, bending to pick up the mess off the floor.

"Maybe in fathers audience chambers... where you were supposed to meet him 15 minutes ago." the thirteen year old replied with a mischievous grin, watching the dawning realization spread across her sisters face. Hinata turned to the clock, eyes wide and cheeks turning dark with claret. Hanabi found herself pushed gently, yet firmly aside as the other tore out of the room and ran down the hallway. With a laugh, she turned to follow.

With a hand clutched across her chest to try and hold her clothing in place, Hinata ran as fast as you possibly could in a kimono, which wasn't terribly fast if you didn't want it flapping open in the breeze. She shouted a quick "Gomen Nasai!" as she spun to avoid a confused Neji and ducked out a screen door to the inner courtyard. His eyebrow quirked up in amusement, he simply pointed out the open door as Hanabi came racing behind with a smirk on her face. She mouthed the word FATHER at him and he nodded in acknowledgment, deciding he had time to bathe and change before he surprised Hinata. Besides, now he was curious at what Hiashi could be up to that had both his daughters in a mad dash across the house. With a shake of his head, he continued to his room to wait on the whirling dervishes.

Hinata moved quickly around the covered walkway, taking the corners easily till she suddenly planted her feet and slid on the polished surface, pulling open another screen with her and leaping nimbly inside. She ran down the larger corridor, making a quick right before sliding to a stop just outside of an ornate entranceway. After another moment she felt a set of hands on her as Hanabi had caught up and was now working to straighten her robes and tighten her belt. The older girl pulled a handkerchief from her sleeve pocket and wiped the sweat from her brow, trying to calm herself and even her breathing. With one last tug, the smaller girl stepped back to look her over.

"Alright, your kimono is straight... now..." but she was cut off as Hinata turned quickly.

"Thank you... wish me luck with whatever this is about..." and she ducked through the doorway.

"But Hinata!" Hanabi called at a loud whisper, "You forgot about your hair!" She giggled to herself. 'Ah well...' she thought, 'It doesn't actually look that bad... and besides, I know father will have a good laugh over it later. I just hope there's not someone important in there with him." With her search and rescue mission a success, the teenager turned and headed off to find her teammates and get some real training done.

The branch member waiting by the door smiled quizzically as she approached him, but he maintained his courteous voice as he announced Hinata and received permission for her entrance. She was startled to see the form of the Gondaime kneeling patiently on the tatami mats before her father, and groaned inwardly. 'Why didn't he tell me we were meeting with her... and what on earth could this be about?' She bowed her head as she entered, making the perfunctory greetings and excuses for keeping them waiting. She was surprised when, instead of allowing her to take the place next to Tsunade, he motioned for her to join him at his side. As she kneeled in her place, she noticed the way the corners of his mouth twitched, as if trying to hide something.

"Hinata, were you in the library again?" he asked cooly, managing to maintain his serious look.

"Yes, Otousan. I was studying those documents you suggested, and just lost track of the time." Hinata heard a muffled sound come from their guest, and turning saw Tsunade trying to hide behind her tea cup, her eyes sparkling merrily.

"Yes... I suppose you did." He replied, trying to keep his voice even. While his face may have managed to hold up, inside the family head was fighting to keep it together. 'Here it comes... 5... 4... 3... 2...'

Hinata had obviously missed something. 'What on earth could have their attention?' she wondered, looking back and forth between the two. 'Did Hanabi leave something on me? I'm gonna...' at that moment she had dared to actually look down at herself, a strand of hair falling down to her eyes as she did. Suddenly, the realization dawned on her, her eyes widening in shock and her face begining to burn. 'Oh no! I forgot to take down my hair!' Tsunade exploded in giggles, and even Hiashi allowed a polite chuckle to escape as he reached over and pulled the writing implements from his daughters hair, allowing it to cascade down her back to rest at the bottom of her shoulder blades. She snatched them back quickly from him and tucked them underneath her, eliciting more laughter from her elders. As she began to apologize, the Hokage cut in.

"Well Hiashi, I see some things never change.This is exactly why I want her for this." The blonde grinned, watching the expression on the girls face. 'She may have grown up a lot, but she's still the same Hinata, and that's just who we need for this.'

"Anou...Otousan, what exactly did you want from me?" the quiet young woman asked, fighting to keep her hands folded demurely in her lap. These two were planning something, and she was beginning to wonder if she should be worried.

"Don't worry, Hinata. The Hokage has just taken notice of a certain skill you have, and wants to put it to good use. She has a request for you, an opportunity that will bring much honor to not only this family, but the village as well." he replied, a touch of pride in his voice.

Hinata looked back at him, surprised at his words. 'What could she possibly want me for?' As if reading her mind, Tsunade smiled and turned herself towards the young women and smiled.

"It's my understanding," she began, "that as you approach your 18th birthday, your father has begun testing you on your abilities to handle the role as the head of your clan, giving you small tasks and problems to solve and assigning minor responsibilities to you." She watched the response to this info, amused to see her simply nod, but the look in her eyes told her that Hinata was running all this trough her brain, trying to figure out where she was going with this. "It seems you have a knack for dispute resolution and arbitration, or at least, that's what I've been told." 'Leave it to the pacifist in the family to be able to get people to stop fighting.' she mused quietly to herself.

"Hokage-sama is most kind for such thoughts," Hinata nodded politely with a small embarrassed smile. "But I could hardly consider such a thing. All I've done is helped Otusan with a few tasks... I've really done nothing at all."

"Nonsense!" her father cut in. "You've done more then a few, and certainly did more then help! You took care of that whole mess with uncle Touya's will. I've never seen a more ambiguous piece of drivel. And his sons weren't any better... all that whining and bickering..." Hiashi shook his head, feeling a headache coming on just thinking about it. "I spent 5 months trying to settle that matter, you took it over and came up with a solution in just under a week, and I haven't heard a peep out of either one of them since!" He watched her reaction, a small, delicate smile curling her lips as her eyes turned down towards her hands folded primly in her lap, fingers twitching as they fight to keep still. It's been almost 2 years since she got over her stuttering habit, now only doing it on rare occasions in front of him. And the blushing has been toned down a lot as well, although she still seemed to flush over silly things. And while her self-confidence has grown by leaps and bounds from it's previous levels, she still didn't know how to accept a compliment, especially from him and the rest of the family. After a moment in reserved silence, she spoke up again.

"I still don't understand what you wish of me." It was stated softly, but pointedly. She raised her eyes to look back at him before turning to face their blonde guest.

"It's simple." the Hokage replied with a smirk. "I need a representative for some negotiations coming up in Suna. I want you to be that representative."

"So now... they're sending you into the desert... for what again?" Neji asked, with a bemused look on his face. He was sitting in one of the armchairs in Hinata's new quarters, watching the anxious girl pacing back and forth while her fingers fidgeted like mad. The genius branch boy and the timid heiress, both at one time viewed as the black sheep of the family, had deepened their relationship through the years. As they had grown and matured, so had their bonds, to the point that they were more brother and sister then mere cousins. While he was proud of the strong woman she had become, it still amused him to no end when she would fall apart behind closed doors where only he could see her. After all, what would the rest of the family say if they ever saw her like this... frantically wearing a hole in the floor with her constant back and forth while wearing her "comfort clothes": a pair of ramen boxers and a white t-shirt with a red spiral on it that, despite her valiant attempts at growing into, was still too big for her.

Hinata stopped and glared at him for a moment. "You think this is funny, don't you? That I'm being silly aren't I?" When he tried to look innocent she collapsed onto the floor, burying her head in her hands with a groan. "It's not funny, Neji! This is serious!"

Her handsome young cousin got up from his seat and moved to sit next to her on the floor, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder. "The actual mission isn't until when?" he asked gently.

"Five months." she said with a sigh.

"And you have how long to accept this?"

"Two weeks..." she stated. "But... niisan... I couldn't possibly accept this! I mean... what on earth makes her think I could do this?"

He smiled at her softly, pulling her in to rest her head on his shoulder, placing his chin lightly on top and rubbing her back soothingly. "Because you understand something that many shinobi don't... that fighting doesn't always solve everything. It has it's place, but there are other ways to solve conflict then with fists and shuriken. Besides, the Hyuga have often been asked to act as ambassadors. This would be excellent practice for you."

She didn't respond, only squeezed his arm gently. He chuckled to himself. It would probably take all of the two weeks to convince her she should accept, and the entire five months that she could do this. He had watched her over the past several months as she was brought more and more into the family politics. While it was true that she was only an average ninja, she was the genius when it came to running the house. She had surprised everyone, including the elders, with her honesty and fairness. The first few matters she was given to handle, the parties involved had assumed she'd be a pushover and tried to bully her into a favorable agreement. Neji had wished he'd been there to see the looks on everyone's faces, especially Hiashis, when after several of her highly reasonable offers had been rejected she told them she was going to give the property in dispute to the village orphans fund because they could at least benefit from it instead of squabbling over it like a group of spoiled brats before walking out of the talks. Those involved had to beg her for three days to reconsider while she ignored them completely, till they had gotten together on their own and agreed to terms she had recommended on the first day. After that, people in the house suddenly had a new found respect for Hinata, wondering where it was she had suddenly found the brass balls to stand up to people. That reminded him...

"Cheer up, Hinata-san. After all, tomorrow is your birthday, and it does no good to be upset on your birthday." He was surprised when she sighed and buried her face in his chest.

"I don't care about that. What good is my birthday if the only thing I want I know I could never have." She reached up and pulled a long chain out from under her shirt, fingering the old key on it. She was 18 tomorrow, the third birthday she'll have had since he left. It only served as another reminder of how long he's been gone from her life, another moment that he missed, that would have been sweeter with him by her side. And now it had been over three months since she had last received word from him. She knew in her heart he was alright, but she couldn't help but worry. It was times like these it seemed he was never coming back to her... never coming home.

In the end she was glad Neji knew about her brief but intense relationship with Naruto. He had somewhat frowned upon it at first, trying to find a gentle way to help her with her broken heart while at the same time not give up on the boy. As the notes and messages started coming, her cousin became more encouraging, that maybe this could last till he came back. Hinata had felt sorry for him when he and Tenten broke up after he passed his Jonin exam. Their mission schedules had become to complicated to work through, and she had found Lee was there more to comfort and support her. Neji was happy for his old teammates, and he was sincere about it. He knew Lee would take care of her, and Tenten was really the only one other then Gai-sensei, who could stand his abundance of "youthful exuberance." Hinata knew he was lonely though, so she tried hard not to cry over Naruto's absence too much. He may be far away, but it was obvious he still cared.

"Don't worry Hinata," he chuckled as he reached behind his back for something. "I have an early gift for you. It arrived as you and Hanabi were tearing through the house earlier." He watched in amusement as her face went from confusion to sheer joy at the site of the large, bulky envelop he pulled out from the back of his shirt. Hinata pressed an excited kiss on his cheek before taking it from him, turning it carefully over in her hands, looking for any sign of where it came from or what it might hold. As always, the only markings on it were her name, and a red spiral on the seal. She ran her finger lovingly over the spiral before breaking the seal and pulling out the contents.

Inside the envelop were 21 pages of writing, front and back, three rolls of film, and a small, dirty box of the kind the jewelry came in. Her hand trembled slightly as it held the battered cube in her hand. It had obviously been through much to get to her. There was a slight water stain on the one corner, and it looked like it may have been crushed on more then one occasion judging from the lines and cracks on it. Naruto had sent her many small gifts over his journey, mostly silly, souvenir type items. The nicest thing so far was a silver obi pin of a fox. She looked to her cousin, who's amused look had been replaced by quiet shock at the box in her hand. He was apparently wondering the same thing she was. Hinata held it out for him, the shaking in her hand matching her voice.

"H-here... h-hold this... please n-niisan?"

He nodded and took it carefully from her, turning it over in his fingers before looking back to her. "What does he say in the letter?"

Hinata looked back at the pile of papers in her lap. She leafed through them fondly, smiling as she saw the dates written at the beginning of each section. "Apparently he's been working on this one since his last letter. It looks like he wrote a little each night." The stutter left her again as she forgot about the box for a moment, instead scanning the pages quickly, happy to see his childish scrawl once again. She would read it all later, when she was alone. She didn't mind sharing parts of his letters, but sometimes Naruto tended to get a bit... personal. Her cheeks warmed remembering some of the words he'd written, about how much he missed her, the dreams he would have of her, the memories of the two of them out in the woods...

A quiet chuckle interrupted her thoughts. "Another one of 'those' letters?" Neji teased, causing her to blush deeper.

"Not at all..." she replied, clearing her throat. "It's just a bit warm in here... that's all." She giggled as he laughed at her again, then turned her attention to the note that was set on the top of the stack.

To my light

I'm sorry it's been so long since I've last sent you any word. We just finally crossed the borders again to a place where it's safe for me to contact you, which explains the small book you're getting today. I'm also sending you more pictures to add to your collection. Knowing you, Hinata-chan, you probably have a box hidden somewhere with all this stuff, so here's some more to add to your collection! And don't forget to share!

She giggled at that. She not only had one box, she had three! One of the photo's he kept sending back, one of his letters, and one of notes and reply letters she had written for him, but was unable to send, and would probably never even show him.

I know your birthday is coming up-she was touched he had remembered-and I wish there was someway I could get back there to you for it. I suppose this package will have to do. I'm sending you your gift though, here's hoping you like it... I'm not good with this kind of stuff after all. It reminded me of your eyes...

I miss you terribly Hinata. I promise it won't be much longer. I'll be home soon, you'll see.

Happy Birthday

She set the paper down with a sigh and a sniff, deciding it was enough procrastinating. "Time to see what's in the box." she said, reaching timidly for it. She turned it again in her hands, taking in every mark, ever crease, and wondering what it could possibly be that it had to go through so much to make sure she received it.Finally, she took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and removed the top. She heard Neji chuckle again.

"It's another piece of paper." he stated with a smile.

She looked down, sure enough, to see a small folded square of paper sitting inside."What is this? Some kind of treasure hunt?" she asked as she picked it up. "No wait... there's something inside..." She held it for a moment before carefully unfolding it. She stopped when she caught a glint of silver chain. 'Naruto? What on earth...' but her thoughts were cut off with a gasp as she lifted the final fold

Hinata's eyes lit up as she lifted the necklace out of the paper. It dangled delicately from her fingers, turning gently on it's chain. Neji moved closer to see, but her gaze was glued on the pendant and the way the light danced off it. It was a dragon, looped and twisted back on itself, carved out of a walnut sized opal. It's milky body flashed fire as it swayed, iridescent blues and reds glinting off it's finely etched scales."It's beautiful" she murmured, not even realizing the words escaped her mouth.

"It's perfect." Neji replied, breaking her trance as he gently took it from her and proceeded to place it around her neck. He admired her for a second. "He's right... it does match your eyes."

She blushed and reached for it, surprised to find the chain was even the right length, allowing it to rest just a few inches below her clavicle. "But a dragon?" she asked him quietly as she fingered the trinket, wondering where or how her silly blonde could have ever gotten such a thing for her. He smiled back at her question.

"To give you strength... of course."

Sakura was finishing up at the apartment. She had stopped by that evening to do some light cleaning and air out the place for him, but was finding it hard to leave.She shut the last window, pleased at finally getting the musty smell out, but now the place was cold from the chill December winds.

'It's getting late, and it's been snowing since noontime, maybe I ought to just stay here tonight... not like you haven't done it before.'

She realized that was the real problem, what was taking her so long. Not the cobwebs or the dusty counters, she just didn't want to go home tonight. She was worried about him again.

It had been months since anyone had heard anything from Naruto or Jiraya. Even though she had been released from her medical training, Sakura still spent a lot of time with her mentor, Tsunade. They would often pass word back and forth when they heard something, knowing the other worried about them as well. Granted, being Hokage meant that Tsunade heard more then she did, but even she hasn't seen anything for a long time. All she would tell the young kunoichi is that they "crossed the border so we won't hear anything... just remember... no news is good news." In shinobi terms that meant they weren't anywhere safe, and as long as we didn't get any angry word from outlying countries, it was assumed they were still alive and well.

Sakura felt bad for Hinata, she didn't seem to know exactly how risky this "mission" had become. While Naruto was all hearts and kisses to the Hyuga, he'd confided briefly in his messages to his teammate. While never giving locations or names, he would often times seem to break down in his writing, saying stuff like "you wouldn't believe the horrors we found once we raided the compound" or "I've washed my hands five times tonight... but I can't seem to get rid of the blood." The last letter she had gotten from him was one of the scary ones, the ones where he kept going on about how much he cared about everyone, begging her to look after Hinata, and hoping they wouldn't hate him if he didn't return like he promised. After such a letter, and then three months with no word, it was hard not to worry.

Feeling somewhat sick over the thoughts of such words, she wandered back to the bedroom and collapsed on the bed.She pulled the pillow down and hugged it, breathing deep the smell of her old friend, amazed the fabric had retained it at all after all this time. 'Over three years...' she thought, snuggling into the bed clothes. 'You better come back soon... you promised us...' but soon she drifted off to sleep, dreaming of the warm sun, blonde hair, and laughter.

She was jolted from her fantasies by a loud thud. It was very late, the apartment dark, the winter wind howling outside the window. Sakura grabbed the kunai from between the wall, knowing from experience Naruto always kept one nearby when sleeping, and rolled quietly out of bed. She crept over to the doorway on the tips of her hands and toes, keeping low and silent. She knew it was probably the wind, but they had needed to chase a few vagrants out of the place once or twice. An intruder wouldn't expect her to be down here, waiting to trip them in the dark and catch them off gaurd. She heard another thud and a groan, followed by the door slamming shut. Her heart beat faster in her chest. 'There really is someone in here...I hope I don't have to kill someone... how would I explain that to him?"

Heavy footsteps started down the hallway, coming toward her hiding spot. She moved quickly to the other side of the door jamb. She waited, watching as a large shadowy figure started to enter the room. Sakura reached out quickly, grabbing the closest ankle and pulling out from under them. The subject tried to react, putting it's hands out to flip him back onto his feet, but she was too fast and kicked them aside causing the intruder to collapse with a groan onto his back. Before he could move she had leapt onto his chest, pinning his arms down with her knees and pressing the blade to his throat.

"Who are you and what are you doing in my friends house?" she hissed, her voice dripping with venom at the thought that someone would break into Naruto's apartment after all this time. She was startled when the deep voice responded.


Mwwwhhahaha! Another cliffy! Aww comeon..you know you like when I tease ;-)