A.N.: Still no beta, I'm afraid. That said, this chapter includes a number of my favorite scenes in the story so far...

Also, please leave reviews. I hate to beg for them, but people tend to visit stories based on the absolute number of reviews they have. The more people visit my story, the more likely I am to get real C&C... and I'm about ready to chew my arm off for some.

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Appreciation,

A Naruto Fanfiction,

By Aleh

Chapter Six: Of Gentile Sunlight and the Sahara, Part Two

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Disclaimer:

I do not own any of the series used or referenced in this story. Said series are the properties of their creators and/or publishers.

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After leaving the hospital, I spent a while tracking Naruto and Sakura down. Upon finding them at Ichiraku with Hinata and not wanting to disturb them, I decided to abandon my lunch plans and wait for them to finish. Unsealing a small meal from one of my scrolls, I settled down on a nearby rooftop and spent a while eating and waiting. I couldn't hear anything from my position, unfortunately, and the angle was such that I couldn't see their faces, but I could make out the broader strokes of their body language. As said language was friendly -- and more than a little affectionate in Hinata's case -- I felt that things were progressing nicely.

My lunch wasn't really anything special. A few onigiri and some takuan did not a spectacular meal make, but good food was always enjoyable and it wasn't like I had anything better to do while waiting for my surrogate family. I even had a cup of tea to wash it down with. Sometimes the simple pleasures in life really were the best -- the smell of good tea, the taste of good food, the sound of a good enemy realizing that the "you" he'd attacked was made entirely out of explosives...

I paused at that thought. After all, an enemy wasn't really a good one until after he'd made that sound, but that fact did nothing to reduce its status as one of life's little pleasures and "the sound of a soon to be good enemy" just didn't have the same ring to it.

In any case, my waiting eventually came to an end as Hinata practically skipped away from Ichiraku. Shortly after that Naruto and Sakura also made their exit. Seeing that, I used shunshin to appear in front of them.

"So," I began, hoping to break the metaphorical ice, "did you have fun?"

Sakura cocked her head. "Sensei? Where did you get the idea that Hinata-san was shy, of all things?"

I shrugged by shoulders. "From what I'd observed of her behavior with others and in public. I'll admit that she acts differently around me but, like I said earlier, we're rather close. I take it by your question that she acted in a manner other than what I expected?"

Sakura briefly nodded her head as what I interpreted as a thoughtful look crossed her face.

"I see. Would you care to debrief me?"

Sakura and Naruto both blinked.

Taking Naruto's look as one of confusion, I decided to explain. "A debriefing is essentially a report of what happened during a mission. I was basically asking you just what happened while I was gone."

In unison, Sakura and Naruto looked towards each other. Something must have passed between them because a moment later they turned back to me and Sakura started dictating the day's events.

As Sakura told the story, I quickly grew more and more impressed... and more than a little shocked. Sure, I had expected Hinata to have been more confident than she had been in the manga or the anime, but not only doing what she had, but doing it without prompting? It begged the question of why she hadn't approached him in the Academy, really.... I'd have to ask her when I got the chance.

Still, though, Hinata's behavior was completely outside my expectations. Being glad to see Naruto when he approached her was expected. Greeting Sakura in a friendly manner... was not. Her decision to remove her jacket when she saw him was interesting, although not so much as the fact that she promptly pretended to drop it and picked it up in a manner that, from Sakura's description, I could only conclude was calculated to give Naruto a good view of her... err... assets. Naruto being completely oblivious to that aspect of the matter was expected, as was both his own blush and his ignorance of the meaning of Hinata's behavior, but the fact that Hinata's response to his greeting was to counter with one of her own, to apologize for not approaching him while they were still at the academy, and to beg his forgiveness was considerably less so.

I really wished that Naruto hadn't granted it as quickly as he had; I really wondered just why Hinata hadn't done so if it wasn't a matter of shyness and/or fear of either embarrassment or rejection. Hinata's refusal of his offer was certainly not something that I would have expected... until I realized just why she'd done so. Perhaps giving Hinata unlimited access to my library wasn't that good of an idea in retrospect, especially considering that it contained what was probably the country's largest collection of porn (admittedly, all of that was on a shelf clearly labeled "material to bribe Jiraiya with," but still...).

I was brought out of my ruminations by Naruto frowning. "We didn't find out who she likes, though," he groused.

Sakura and I both blinked and gave Naruto something of an incredulous stare. I hadn't expected him to be that clueless.

"Naruto-kun, as a general rule, a girl pressing her chest into your arm and telling you that they'll do anything you want is a pretty strong hint that they're romantically interested in you," I explained after a moment.

"But that was just to make up for letting me be lonely in the Academy!" he objected.

I shook my head. "No, I seriously doubt that was the only reason," I corrected. "And besides, when a girl makes an offer like that, it's a something of a faux pas to ask her to buy you ramen."

Naruto frowned. "But she seemed fine with it..."

I shrugged my shoulders. "In other words, she took your mistake quite gracefully and didn't hold it against you."

Naruto nodded his head in an exaggeratedly thoughtful fashion. "I see."

At that, Sakura decided to chime in. "And what did she say to you on the way to Ichiraku, anyway? Her voice was too soft for me to make out her words."

My best friend's son's face turned to a confused expression. "Well, she asked me if I'd like to use her as a ramen bowl," he answered, not noticing that both Sakura and I had done a spit-take at that, "but how could I do that? I mean, where would you put the ramen?"

I sighed. "Remember what we talked about last night?"

Naruto promptly blushed and, a minute later, did his own spit-take.

"Right," I started, facing Sakura as Naruto's face had turned a nice tomato-like shade, "so was there anything else?"

"No, Sensei, that was about how she acted..."

"So you met up with her, helped her team with a D-ranked mission, and got lunch at Ichiraku," I summarized, "with Hinata trying to seduce Naruto in an extremely blatant manner the whole time?"

"Well," Sakura reluctantly answered, "she was a lot more subtle during the mission..."

"And how did she act towards you?"

"Me, sensei?"

"Yes," I confirmed. "I have a pretty good idea of how she acted towards Naruto-kun, but you were there as well, weren't you?"

Sakura's eyes twitched in a pattern that was... somewhat difficult to read. Confusion followed by dawning realization, maybe?

"Ah," she answered. "She was friendly, I guess..."

I shook my head curtly. "A bit more specifically, if you would. Remember, this was supposed to be a training exercise. Was she simply tolerating your presence or did she actively try to ensure that you were included? Did she seem glad that you were there? This sort of information can be critical on missions, so it's important that you make note of it."

Sakura nodded, gathering her thoughts. "She seemed to welcome my presence," she stated after a moment of thought, "but she was much happier to see Naruto-kun. I think... she wanted me to feel like she wanted me to be there, but was far more focused on something else."

I chuckled. "Getting Naruto-kun to see her as desirable, you mean?"

"That's one way to put it..."

I shook my head. "Despite how outrageous her flirting was, it's quite obvious that it didn't register with Naruto-kun-"

"Oi!" Naruto shouted. "I'm here, you know!"

"Of course, Naruto-kun. I'm simply stating the facts of the matter. You didn't recognize what Hinata-sama was doing for what it was. While I'm not trying to insult you, it's an important fact to take into consideration. One possible interpretation of her actions is that she realized that her initial, more subtle, attempts at letting you know that she was interested in you were failing and escalated her actions accordingly."

Naruto blinked. "Huh?"

"I said that she might have seen that you didn't understand what she was suggesting and tried the rest of it because she wanted to make the point clear."

"The point?"

"The point, Naruto-kun, was that she found you desirable, romantically speaking, and would like to... get to know you, so to speak."

Blushing somewhat, Sakura decided to ask her own question. "Umm, Recca-sensei? Why did you just call her Hinata-sama? Didn't you use -chan earlier?"

"Our relationship is... complicated," I explained, shaking my head slightly. "While it's true that she's the closest thing I have to a daughter, she's also one of the people who I most respect... and that's on top of a rather spectacular mess of honor and obligation."

Sakura blinked, obviously confused.

"The short version," I continued, "is that it comes down to the fact that I'm not from Konoha and my home's culture is very different. By my people's standards, I owe Hyuuga Hinata-sama a rather substantial debt of gratitude, one which I am honor-bound to repay. The problem is that the debt doesn't exist by the Hyuuga clan's standards and one of my efforts to repay her led to the Hyuuga clan as a whole acquiring a similar debt to me... which created a bit of a paradox."

"What do you mean, sensei?"

"What I mean is that each of us is honor-bound to repay a debt to the other. The problem is that any effort that Hinata-sama makes to repay her family's debt to me only deepens my debt to her. At the same time, any effort that I make only deepens her family's debt. To balance the situation, we'd each need to find a way to repay our debts that would both be acceptable to the other and satisfy the other's honor code. Frankly, I haven't figured one out yet."

Sakura frowned. "I see... and what about the rest of her family trying to repay you?"

"That only results in me owing the people who tried that."

"That really is a mess, isn't it?"

I nodded in confirmation. "So... that creates something of a duality in our relationship, at least on my end. On one hand, she's a young girl who's the closest thing I have to a daughter. On the other, she's one of the people who I most respect and someone who I owe a substantial debt of honor to." I shrugged my shoulders, not really knowing what to do about the situation. "I suppose that my choice of honorifics for her really depends on which side of the relationship I'm thinking about."

While Sakura nodded in understanding, Naruto was giving me a blank stare. I frowned and lowered my hands to my pockets, idly noting the weight of the book I'd pocketed back at my apartment.... I paused for a moment at that, realizing that I'd forgotten something important during my talk with Sasuke. "Damnit," I cursed.

Sakura started at my sudden semi-profanity. "What is it, Sensei?"

"I forgot to give something to Sasuke. I suppose I got distracted with the whole headache mess and some of the questions he asked, but I really should get this book to him.... I know from experience that being stuck in the hospital tends to bore you to tears."

Sakura nodded at that.

"Anyway, I'll meet you two where we were training yesterday. Sakura-kun, could you explain what I just said to Naruto-kun on your way there? He seems to be a bit confused."

"Yes, sensei."

"Good. When you get there, practice the tree-climbing exercise for a while. I know you've already mastered it, Sakura-kun, but it never hurts to train and I'd like you to spot for Naruto-kun."

"Of course, sensei," Sakura agreed as Naruto pitched in his own cheerful agreement.

"See you in a bit then," I finished and waved before again disappearing in a swirl of leaves. Sure, the jutsu wasn't necessary, but it was good training... not to mention really cool.

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A few minutes later I once again entered Sasuke's hospital room. Unlike the last time, Sasuke was already awake to greet me so I didn't have to wait for him.

"Hello, Recca-sensei," Sasuke flatly remarked. "What brings you back here?"

So... emotional shock? I could handle that. "I realized that I'd forgotten something," I responded, approaching his bed and removing the book I'd intended to give him from my pocket.

"What was that?"

"I'd brought this book from my apartment; I know how boring being stuck in here can be and I figured that you could use some reading material. Besides, I think that this might help you get stronger."

"Oh?"

"Yeah. It's a biography of someone who later historians regarded as the greatest martial artist of the late Interregnum."

"Martial artist? Late Interregnum?"

I shook my head. "Think of a martial artist as a taijutsu specialist, only they didn't have modern ninja back then so there was no ninjutsu or genjutsu as we know them to specialize in. As for the late Interregnum, the Interregnum was a period consisting of around ten thousand years between the First Age of Magic and the Second Age of Magic."

"There were two?"

"Yeah, but the First Age has largely been forgotten about."

Sasuke briefly nodded at that.

"Anyway, I've put in some notes in the margins to help explain things or terms that you might not understand. It was a long time ago, after all, and a lot of things that were common knowledge when this book was written are pretty obscure nowadays. It's fairly entertaining reading, too, so it should keep you from getting too bored."

"Thank you."

I shrugged and handed him the book. "It's not a problem. You can keep the book, by the way -- I have several copies."

"Hn."

"Anyway, I need to get back to Naruto-kun and Sakura-kun, so I'll see you later?"

Sasuke nodded, staring at the tome in his hands as I walked out the door, firmly confident that if there was any book that convince Sasuke to take a long look at the price-tags associated with cheap power-ups, The Complete Biography of Saotome Ranma was it.

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After leaving Sasuke, I quickly made my way to Training Ground Five. Finding Naruto and Sakura wasn't a problem and I spent a few moments just watching their interaction. Naruto's training was progressing nicely and Sakura was actually being... nice to him, for lack of a better way to put it. This, however, left me with a dilemma. Without Sakura, Naruto would have no one to spot him. I could leave a kage bunshin, but the chakra cost could be dangerous in my condition and would definitely leave me unable to do other things that I would need to. On the other hand, Sakura's shopping trip was needed for several reasons.

After a moment of thought, however, a solution came to me. Hinata would almost certainly be more than willing to help Naruto, and even if she couldn't for some reason the two of them spending time together was always a plus. With that thought, I used shunshin no jutsu to appear in a swirl of leaves. At my appearance both Naruto and Sakura started. It wasn't much of a problem for Sakura, but Naruto went careening off the tree, forcing me to catch him and confirming that he wasn't yet ready for practicing this exercise solo.

"I see that you still need to work on your control," I commented as I landed on the side of a nearby tree.

"Yeah," Naruto grumbled.

"Don't worry," I reassured him. "You seemed to be progressing rather well before I startled you. Besides, even normal ninja have trouble with chakra control when they're startled... and don't forget what high emotions do to your chakra reserves."

"I understand."

"Good," I answered before jumping down from the tree and putting Naruto down.

"Umm," Sakura said, approaching me, "how is Sasuke-kun doing?"

I paused. Judging by her eyes, she hadn't been expressing personal interest, but I was hardly the best judge of that. At times I envied people who could just "read" others without conscious effort. "He's fine as far as I can tell," I answered. "It doesn't look like there were any permanent side-effects, but they want to keep him for observation. Other than that, he's suffering from a bit of emotional shock."

Sakura blinked. "Emotional shock?"

I shrugged. "He just discovered something about his mother."

"Huh?"

"Don't worry about it. It was just rather shocking to him."

Sakura nodded, obviously still not getting it.

"Anyway, we have other things to do now, so I'll have to stop this training for the time being."

Naruto looked up, visibly upset. I interrupted him before he could protest.

"You seem to be coming along nicely but you're not at the point where I think you can do this without someone to catch you. If nothing else, I think that what just happened is rather spectacular proof of that."

Naruto nodded once before his face briefly scrunched up in concentration. "But couldn't I use kage bunshin to do that?"

I shook my head. "Aside from how fragile kage bunshin are, there's another issue with that. Remember, one of the reasons you're having so much trouble with this exercise is that you have extremely large chakra reserves. Creating a kage bunshin, however, divides your chakra in two, giving half of your chakra to the clone. That wouldn't be too much of a problem in and of itself, but... the point is to teach you to control your full supply of chakra."

I'd considered using kage bunshin to speed up the training, actually. Sure, a single kage bunshin would effectively give him twice the training time, but it would also halve the training's effectiveness. In fact, given the chakra invested in the clone's structure, it would be even less effective than just straight-up training. To have that clone just spotting Naruto and not training itself? That would defeat the point entirely.

"Anyway," I continued, "Sasuke's being in the hospital puts me in something of a difficult position. I had planned for the two of you to spot each other, but..."

Naruto nodded in what I supposed he intended to be a sagely manner. Unfortunately, it came off as ridiculously overblown. "He can't."

"Yeah," I agreed. "Normally I'd leave a kage bunshin to watch you like I did yesterday, but since I won't be recovering much for the next few days I can't really spare the chakra."

Naruto frowned. "I see."

"At the same time, it's extremely important that Sakura-kun completes the training exercise I had planned for today, even if only to ensure that Sasuke-kun is sighted in the village."

Naruto blinked. "What do you mean?"

"The exercise involves walking through the village while disguised as Sasuke-kun, Naruto-kun," Sakura explained. "It's to help me expand my chakra reserves and learn to maintain a jutsu with less concentration."

"It's also to teach her some basic infiltration skills," I added. "A henge is useless if your body language or habits give you away."

"Oh," Naruto replied before pausing. "Wait. Why disguised as Sasuke?"

"Well, it doesn't need to be as Sasuke-kun, but we also want to make sure that people see him around the village today, remember? Strictly speaking, the exercise is just shopping for dinner while maintaining a henge."

"That's why she made that... yosenabe stuff yesterday?"

I shrugged. "That's why she made dinner for the team," I confirmed, "but as for yosenabe, I'm not quite sure why she chose it specifically, although it was a rather sensible choice."

Sakura decided to speak up at that. "Yosenabe doesn't require much more than the ingredients to make, Naruto-kun."

"Yeah," I agreed. "If you use dashi-no-moto instead of making the stock for the broth normally and use pre-prepared ingredients, you pretty much just need a pot and a source of heat. Sakura-kun didn't do that, but preparing the ingredients is really just a matter of chopping them in an appropriate manner and she did use dashi-no-moto."

Naruto gave me a confused expression. "Dashi-no-moto? How would..."

"Dashi-no-moto is pre-prepared instant dashi. Since dashi can take hours to prepare normally, it cuts down quite a bit on the preparation time."

"Dashi?"

I gave Sakura a quick glance, noticing that she seemed more than a bit taken aback at Naruto's ignorance. I supposed that I shouldn't have been surprised; dashi was such a fundamental ingredient for Japanese cooking that someone not knowing what it was would be quite a shock.

"Certain types of stock bases for sauces and broths are collectively called 'dashi'. In the case of the yosenabe Sakura-kun made yesterday, the broth was a combination of dashi, shoyu, and mirin with a bit of sugar."

"I see."

Going by his expression, he really didn't, but we were getting off track and I could always teach him to make nabemono later. "Anyway, the main issue is that I need to be present for the exercise. It requires someone who knows Sasuke's mannerisms well enough to correct her on them and who can communicate with her without alerting others. Unfortunately, that means me since I don't know anyone else who fits that description."

"So what do you want me to do?"

"Well, I'll have to forbid you from training on your own for now, but... I think you already know someone who'd be more than happy to help."

"But isn't Iruka-sensei really busy?"

"Not him," I corrected. "I was thinking of Hinata-sama."

"Hinata-chan? You think she'd..."

I chuckled at the humor of the situation. "I think she'd want to spend time with you and be grateful for the excuse."

Naruto blinked at that.

"You have to understand, Naruto-kun," I pressed on, "that there are people who want to help you. It's just that most of us have been prevented from doing so for various reasons."

I hoped that Sakura had registered that comment even if she hadn't fully internalized it. I could always... err... assist her in doing so later.

"You really think she'd..."

I gave Naruto a firm nod of affirmation. "Just ask her, okay? If she can't help for some reason, just take the time off or train on your own. Just be sure to train here or at one of your usual training grounds so that I know where to find you."

Naruto smiled. "Yes, Recca-sensei!"

"Well, what are you waiting for?"

With that Naruto headed off, literally bouncing in his eagerness to resume his training.

I chuckled at that. Naruto's antics never ceased to entertain me. When I turned to Sakura, however, I noticed her staring in a daze at where Naruto had been standing, her hair notably unsettled as her face wore an expression of shock.

"Right, then," I began... only to note a complete lack of reaction from my sole female student.

Wondering how to bring her out of her bedazzlement, I approached her and waved my hand in front of her face several times. When that and a couple of "Earth to Sakura-kuns" didn't get a response, I decided that desperate measures were needed and pulled out a scroll and unsealed a traditional English black pudding. After rolling up the scroll and replacing it in my pack, I used the sausage to strike a nearby tree hard enough to shake the leaves, resulting in an impromptu deluge of dewdrops.

Finding herself soaked, Sakura started.

"Welcome back to reality," I teased, waving my free hand.

Sakura looked up at me before glancing down at her clothes and back up. "Was that really necessary?"

I made a show of thinking for a moment before replying. "Yep," I cheerfully answered.

Sakura blinked at that.

"You were really out of it."

Sakura shook her head sharply, in what I interpreted as a gesture to force herself back to reality... or an attempt to dry off.

I smiled and held out my hand, using my chakra to dry her off by gathering the water that was soaking her clothes. "In any case, I needed to shock you, but figured that you'd rather have me drench you and dry you off than to slap you."

Sakura nodded in confirmation as the water flowed into a sphere in front of my hand. "Thank you, sensei."

"So," I asked, "throwing" the ball of water away, "what had you so distracted, anyway?"

Sakura's expression quickly turned to horror. "Sensei... how is that possible?"

"What do you mean?"

"Naruto... Naruto-kun lives on his own, doesn't he?"

"Yeah."

"That means he cooks for himself, right?"

"Of course. He can't always eat at Ichiraku, after all."

"... But then how could he not know what dashi is?" Sakura quietly asked before picking up some steam. "Or dashi-no-moto? They're used in... well, everything!"

I shook my head. "How would he have found out?" I countered. "Naruto-kun's skills in cooking are pretty much limited to making instant ramen, and I'm fairly sure that he learned to make that by reading the directions on the packages. No one's ever taught him how to cook, after all."

Sakura blinked.

"And it's not like he could ask someone," I continued before trailing off. "Oh, screw it. You'll understand later. If you really want to know now, just watch the way most people look at Naruto-kun when he walks down the street."

Sakura blinked again before shaking her head and pressing on. "What do you mean he couldn't ask someone?"

I shrugged my shoulders. "I'm not really sure how to explain it... there's probably a word in this language, but I don't know it."

"What do you mean?"

"This isn't my native language. When I was summoned here, I got a... 'download,' I guess you could say, of a lot of words, and I already spoke some Japanese... but a quite a few words in both languages don't have direct translations and I didn't get any labels for concepts that I didn't already have."

Sakura frowned. "I... see," she replied, plainly indicating that she really didn't.

"Think of it like this," I answered. "I don't always know the words for things that don't exist where I come from. The way Naruto-kun's been treated... it's something that my people would never do, especially to a child. Because of that, we don't really have a simple way to explain it. Here, on the other hand, I've seen people being treated similarly and I suspect that there's a an expression -probably even a single word -- for it."

"Oh."

"Yeah."

"So... how does..."

I sighed. "Naruto-kun not know? It all comes down to the simple question of who would tell him. Me? I was forbidden from contacting him. The Hokage? He looked out for Naruto-kun when he could, but he didn't have much time to do so. Teuchi-san and Ayame-san? He's their best customer... but they've both been threatened about becoming overly involved with him. They've stood up for him as far as serving him when he comes in, of course, but... well, they can't really defend themselves if worst comes to worst. In the end, despite being friendly with Naruto-kun, they're not really all that close to him."

"But... what about whoever's been looking after him? Other children? Even overheard conversations?"

I gave a brief, mirthless chuckle at that. "Looking after him? He's been living on his own since he was two years old. The Hokage's checked in on him, but that's hardly the same. Other children? He's never really had a friend his own age... and I told you what happened with the closest thing he ever had to one. Overheard conversations? That's the problem, isn't it? Everyone knows what dashi and dashi-no-moto are, so it's not like they'd talk about it."

"Then what about Iruka-sensei? He and Naruto-kun seem pretty close..."

"That's actually a pretty recent development. As much as I hate to admit it, Iruka-kun is probably the closest thing in Konoha to a person with a legitimate reason to dislike Naruto-kun."

Sakura suddenly froze. "What do you mean, sensei?"

"It's... a long story," I admitted. "Iruka-kun's parents were close friends of mine. After they died in the Kyuubi's attack, I invited him to live with me, but... well, events progressed and when I decided to take Naruto-kun in as well, we had a rather large... dispute... that ended with me kicking him out."

"Wait... why would..."

"I told you that a lot of Konoha believes a rather blatant lie about Naruto-kun, didn't I? Iruka-kun had heard it and came to believe it. That's... a rather large part of why we had that argument. The last straw on my part was when he demanded that I choose between them. I had viewed Iruka-kun as a nephew of sorts, but Naruto-kun was my closest friend's son and I had promised Minato-kun that I would look after him... plus Iruka-kun was the one making me choose. I tried to convince Iruka-kun of the truth, but..."

"I see."

"Anyway, Iruka-kun eventually realized that he was wrong, but... well, that's fairly recent, like I said. Besides, Iruka-kun's pretty busy and Naruto-kun's only one of... well, quite a few students of his."

"Oh... wait. You were the Fourth Hokage's best friend?"

"No," I corrected. "He was mine. There's a difference. There were other people who were closer to him than I was, but there was no one closer to me than he was."

"Oh. I see."

"Good... but we're getting off-topic."

Sakura nodded, her tone taking on an element of frantic desperation. "Well... what about just asking someone? He has to have seen it advertised as an ingredient, at least."

"Of course he has. Did you note that he didn't seem to be surprised that dashi-no-moto was an ingredient in your yosenabe? That's a pretty good indication that he's heard of it. As for asking someone... the majority of the people of Konoha simply ignore him at best and treat him with thinly-veiled contempt or hatred when they're forced to deal with him."

Sakura's eyes widened as she stared at me in utter shock. "You mean that Naruto-kun has been overlooked his entire life?" she asked, placing an odd sort of emphasis on the word "overlooked".

"Well... I suppose that's one way to put it..." And I'd have to take note of that word. Hmm... the root form would be "kikisuteru"... but I didn't think that a dictionary would necessarily list a secondary meaning in this context. Oh well.

Sakura collapsed onto her knees and started muttering about shame, gratitude, and Minato.

I just blinked, sure that I had missed something.

After a few minutes of standing there I decided that enough was enough and again gave Sakura an impromptu shower by striking a tree with my pudding. As she again started, much to my amusement, I repeated my earlier action and gathered the water that had fallen on her.

"Are you done yet?" I asked, idly twirling the pudding around my fingers. "We have things that we really need to do."

Sakura blinked and shook herself out of her thoughts. Standing and looking up at me, she decided to ask a somewhat less... traumatizing... question. She really should have known better.

"Sensei?"

"Yes, Sakura-kun?"

"About that sausage... what is it?"

I smirked. "It's a traditional English black pudding."

"'English'?"

"England was one of the countries that perished in the Great Cataclysm. In case you're wondering, I made the pudding myself."

"... I see. And why..."

"Was I using it to strike the trees? Because I needed a weapon to get enough force to shake the branches; I'm not strong enough to do it bare-handed."

"... A sausage counts as a weapon?"

"There's actually a pretty funny story there."

Sakura blinked. "What do you mean?"

"Well, to become a jounin you need to demonstrate mastery of all of the shinobi arts. When I was on the verge of becoming a jounin, however, someone objected to my use of weapons from the late Interregnum, saying that they were hardly traditional, and demanded that I master at least one traditional form of weaponry. I, needless to say, was rather annoyed, so I went through a bit of effort to master the ancient Lancastrian martial art of Ecky Thump."

"And the sausage?"

"The black pudding is the traditional weapon of a master of Ecky Thump. You have no idea just how much fun it was to watch people's expressions as I demonstrated my weapons mastery by clubbing someone over the head with a black pudding..."

Sakura was literally stunned speechless at that.

"Anyway, they eventually relented and listed me as a master of improvisational weaponry. I think it bruised their egos a bit less than the... other option... especially when most people know my real preferences in weapons."

"You mean... you're a master of sausages as weapons?!"

"Well... yes."

"And... there's a traditional martial art centered around them?"

"Ecky Thump is over ten thousand years old... and probably closer to eleven."

Sakura paused. "Sensei," she flatly stated, "you do realize that you're not exactly... normal, right?"

I chuckled. "You know, the customary response to a complement where I come from is to thank the person giving it."

"What?"

"Thanks."

Sakura looked confused for a moment before realization dawned. "That wasn't supposed to be a compliment."

"And yet it was anyway. The term 'normal' simply means 'typical' -- that is, like the majority of the population. In this case, it would mean 'like everyone else'. Since you've never been outside Konoha, you lack a frame of reference to compare me to people from other places, which makes it 'like everyone else in Konoha'... and, as you may have gathered, I don't exactly have a high opinion of the vast majority of the people here. Accordingly, the meaning of your statement was that I was not like a group of people who I despise. By most standards, that is a complement."

"You... really don't like Konoha much, do you?"

"I didn't think I'd made a secret of that fact... and I'd like to think that I have pretty good reasons for feeling the way I do."

Sakura's eyes widened marginally at that before she replied. "You mean Naruto-kun's treatment?"

"That is the largest reason, yes, although it isn't the only one."

"You mean there's more?"

I sighed. "Yes," I admitted, "but you know most of what you need to for now and it would be... overly difficult... to explain the rest without betraying a certain state secret. To get back to my response to your question, yes, I know what you really meant. The simple truth of the matter is that almost all jounin are... somewhat eccentric. I told you that a while ago, didn't I?"

Sakura mutely nodded.

"As eccentricities among jounin go, the ability to use a sausage as a weapon hardly registers. At least I don't have Gai-san's... obsession... with green spandex, Jiraiya-san's habit of peeping on the women's baths, or the pedo-snake's thing for young boys."

Sakura gave a half-nod before my sentence fully registered. "Wait a moment," she protested. "this 'Jiraiya' has been peeping on me in the bath?"

"I take it that your family uses the public baths?"

"Yeah!"

"Oh. Well, you're a bit young for his tastes and he hasn't been in Konoha for quite a while, anyway. For the most part, he wanders from city to city and calls his peeping 'research' for his book series."

"Book series?!?"

"Yeah. He writes spectacularly bad smut."

"Oh... wait. You've read it?"

"Morbid curiosity," I explained. "Besides, you can learn a lot about a person by reading what they've written and I needed his help."

Sakura blinked. "And what did you learn?"

"Jiraiya is a virgin," I deadpanned.

"I see," Sakura responded, showing a distinct lack of emotional reaction to my comment, much to my disappointment.

"Anyway, I think that the fact that he's the most normal of his genin team says something about the pressures that we face as ninja. Very few of us reach jounin rank without picking up a few... quirks... along the way."

Sakura just nodded.

"On another note, you also brought up the issue of my loyalties. I think that it needs to be addressed."

"Sensei?"

"To be frank, I don't like Konoha. I believe that the vast majority of the populace consists of scum whose gullibility is surpassed only by their ingratitude. That said, I would willingly die to protect Konoha for reasons that have nothing to do with the vast majority of Konoha's citizens and everything to do with a small minority."

Sakura seemed confused at that.

"I don't like most of the people in Konoha, but there are exceptions. There are several people who I would gladly die to protect who live in Konoha. Because of that, I need to protect Konoha in order to protect the people precious to me. When you consider that several of them would gladly die in order to protect this village, that need becomes even stronger."

"Ah."

"In any case, I'm not going to try to convince you to hate Konoha or to sever your loyalty to the village. If nothing else, I recognize the possibility that my distaste for this place has compromised the objectivity of my analyses. Part of the reason why I've been telling you as much as I have is to give you the information you need to make an informed decision about certain matters. One of the classical solutions to compromised objectivity is to attempt to compensate for a single person's bias by using multiple perspectives as an offset, after all."

Of course, I had no intention of using her as such. That approach presumed that the two perspectives used weren't biased in the same direction, after all, and while I might tend to choose the interpretation of the available data that placed Naruto in a more favorable light, I was willing to adjust my perceptions as new information became available. That didn't, however, mean that I didn't want input from her; it was quite possible that she'd notice something that I wouldn't.

"I see. Your objectivity means that much to you?"

"As shinobi, we'll be putting our lives on the line in the vast majority of our missions... and if anything bad happens, it'll be my responsibility as the team's leader. No one's truly objective -- we each have things we overlook due to our point of view -- and I was taught that one of the qualities of a good leader is the ability to accept input from his or her subordinates. In the end, I suppose that it comes down to my desire not to fail my students because my anger blinded me to something important."

"Oh."

"The catch is that you need to understand my feelings and the reasons for them in order to help me compensate. It's another reason why I want you to know the full story."

If she also came to share them... that was even better.

"Sensei?"

"Yes, Sakura-kun?"

"Those... feelings... are you planning on acting on them?"

"That... depends on what you mean. Are you trying to ask me if I intend to go on a bloody rampage with a package of bratwurst?"

Sakura paused at that. "I... suppose so, but I was more wondering if you were planning on revenge...."

"Good; bratwurst is completely unsuitable for use as a weapon anyway; it tends to fall apart when you try to club someone with it."

Seeing Sakura's incredulous expression, I decided to answer her actual question.

"Of course I'm planning on revenge, but my plans aren't something that you'd consider terribly bad. In fact, I haven't exactly kept my plans secret; quite a few people know what I plan to do... including the Hokage."

Sakura looked confused. "What do you mean?"

"My plan is really pretty simple. I'm going to help Naruto-kun to show the village who he really is."

"How is that revenge?"

I shook my head at Sakura's naïveté. "Were you to ask Naruto-kun, he'd probably tell you that loneliness is the worst sort of suffering. I'd disagree. Loneliness is bad... but guilt is worse."

"Guilt?"

"Yes," I agreed. "By ninja standards, it's not much, but... it's all I have, all I can really do without hurting people I care for. Besides, it's probably even more cruel than the more traditional approach. I told you that Naruto has been mistreated because of a lie, didn't I? Can you imagine how the people doing so will feel when they learn the truth? How do you think the villagers will feel when they learn the true reason for the Fourth Hokage's dying wish?"

Sakura shuddered at that. "I see what you mean."

"Besides, I'd help Naruto-kun anyway. I care for him and, for some reason, his dream is to become Hokage, something that is not possible without earning the respect of this village." I couldn't help but sigh at that. "I can't help but wonder, however, how he'll take the full truth. He idolizes his father, even without knowing that's the case, and given how utterly the man was betrayed..." I trailed off at that, not really knowing how to finish.

"What do you mean?"

I sighed. "I suppose that I just don't want Naruto-kun to lose his innocence. I know that it's inevitable in our line of work, but... Naruto-kun is... special. I really don't know how to explain it, but he's managed to keep his cheer, his enthusiasm, his innocence, his hope, his spirit, his faith in humanity -- whatever you want to call it -- through everything he's been through so far. I... after everything he's lost I suppose I just don't want to see him lose that as well."

For a moment Sakura seemed like she didn't know how to respond to that. After a few seconds, however, she appeared to firm her resolve. "Perhaps, Recca-sensei, you should have more faith in Naruto-kun."

I blinked.

"Naruto-kun... is strong. You shouldn't worry about that."

My face turned into a bittersweet grin. "Maybe you're right," I replied. "There's more to the story than you know, but maybe I am worrying about nothing. I hope so, anyway."

We just stood there for a few moments in silence before I decided to speak up again. "Right," I announced. "We have a shopping trip to take care of, don't we?"

-----------

A while later we found ourselves on the roof of a fairly indescript building near the Uchiha estate. I leaned back against the side wall of the covering for the building's roof-access stairwell while I briefed Sakura on her mission.

"Remember, Sakura-chan," I reminded her, "your goal isn't to buy specific ingredients this time. Just go to different stores and pretend that you're stocking up on groceries. Be sure to go to a wide variety of them and interact with various people so that Sasuke-kun will have as firm an alibi as possible."

"Yes, Recca-sensei," Sakura agreed, her demeanor distinctly failing to match her appearance.

"And be careful to mimic Sasuke-kun's body language and speech patterns," I mildly chastised. "If too many people notice that you're not really Sasuke-kun, it will defeat the whole purpose of doing this."

"Hn," Sakura grunted, settling herself into Sasuke's normal posture.

"Well, then," I concluded, "you might as well get started."

Sakura gave a Sasuke-eque half-nod and jumped down into a nearby alleyway, bouncing between the walls to slow her momentum.

I'd long since decided on the stores I wanted Sakura to visit, carefully selecting an assortment of those stores whose proprietors fawned over Sasuke and those which were run by people who were genuinely friendly to him and who were particularly nasty to Naruto. Had, however, I simply told Sakura which stores to go to, there was a chance she'd realize what I was doing. Instead I used a lighter hand and gave her instructions that she would interpret as being to choose stores randomly. Of course "random" didn't exist in the human mind, so she'd wind up simply entering whatever stores caught her attention... and focusing her attention on particular stores was ridiculously easy to accomplish with subtle genjutsu. With a little nudge here and there I had her visit nearly every store on my "list" while steering her away from the stores I didn't want her to visit.

It was amazing what a little genjutsu-induced cognitive dissonance could accomplish at times... especially when dealing with people who had been trained from a young age to trust and rely on their instincts. As sad as it was, about half of my arsenal of genjutsu was specifically designed to take advantage of that reliance.

After a while I noticed that she had started to become sick of the sheer over-the-top fawning that Sasuke received from certain vendors. With that I implemented the final stage of my plan to break her of her fangirl habits and pulled out a radio transmitter.

"Hello," I spoke into it, allowing the device to carry my words to the receiver I had planted in the Uchiha Sasuke Fan Club's regular meeting place. "This is Hakaishin Recca, a jounin of Konoha and Sasuke-kun's teacher in the arts of the ninja. I rather suspect you'll find something of interest if you visit the shopping area near Takahashi Street."

The fangirl horde arrived surprisingly quickly, only taking five minutes to traverse what was normally a fifteen minute walk for a civilian. Despite the speed involved, however, the delay was long enough for me to have to warn Sakura away from some natto. I found myself disappointed by that; I'd thought that Sasuke's fangirls had at least managed to gather accurate information on duck-boy's more superficial characteristics... and his dislike of natto certainly qualified. If Sakura, who had been one of Sasuke's more... ardent... fangirls, hadn't known that he hated the stuff....

I was brought out of my thoughts by the arrival of the horde. While many people may have called forth imagery based on a stampede or something similar, the truth was much more mundane. Sasuke's "horde" of fangirls wasn't large enough to create that sort of phenomenon, and while they were both competing with each other to arrive first and going at their full speed, they were hardly rude enough to bowl over pedestrians in their rush to find Sasuke.

In other words, they dodged passers-by and were competitive enough to avoid crowding together overmuch. That did nothing to prevent Sakura's spit-take at their approach, of course, but it was enough to keep it from becoming something out of a Warner Brothers cartoon about the Pamplona encierro.

Given Sakura's reaction, however, it was quite easy to draw parallels. Sasuke usually avoided his fangirls and Sakura was hardly ignorant of that fact. As such, she promptly ran. An amusing game of cat and mouse ensued as Sakura tried to continue her shopping while avoiding Sasuke's overenthusiastic followers.

I grinned as I noticed Sakura's attempt to buy some udon being interrupted by a glomp attempt on the part of Outa Makoto. Sakura's look of panic at her cousin's arrival was not only perfectly Sasuke-ish, but also, as far as I could tell, completely genuine.

Then again, given some of the things I'd seen members of Outa-ke try over the years, I wasn't surprised. Their tendency to latch onto and obsess over a single person was truly worthy of one of the Kunou bunke.

After fleeing the noodle shop my student tried to dodge the fangirl swarm by ducking into an alley, quickly flashing the right half of the tiger seal. I just shook my head and followed her before using shunshin to take her to the rooftops.

I gave Sakura a gentile smile as she dropped the henge, reverting to her true appearance. She just collapsed into a kneeling position before catching her torso with her hands as she breathed deeply.

It took her a few moments to catch her breath, but I didn't begrudge them. I waited until her breathing started falling into its normal patterns before offering her my hand and helping her to stand up. Since she was still a bit shaky I gestured to the raised barrier at the edge of the roof.

Sakura wordlessly nodded and sat down at the base of it, slumping somewhat as she rested her back against the miniature wall. After a moment, she spoke up. "Did we really come across like such..." With that Sakura trailed off, apparently searching for words.

I decided to help her. "Creepy, obsessive stalkers? Clingy groupies with obscene levels of fixation?"

Sakura just nodded.

"Well," I admitted, "to be fair, that was a lot worse than usual and your cousin is... pretty extreme... in her pursuit of Sasuke. Did you know that she has a shrine in her room dedicated to a lock of Sasuke-kun's hair?"

Judging by Sakura's expression, she did.

"She got it by finding out where Sasuke went to get his hair cut and using henge to impersonate his barber."

After she'd taken the lock in question, she'd dropped her henge and run out of the shop screaming about how she'd treasure the clump of hair for the rest of her life. Sasuke was... considerably more paranoid... after that.

Sakura blinked.

"Oh," I continued, waving my hand in a dismissive gesture, "I'm not saying that she doesn't have her good points, but that girl's obsession with Sasuke-kun is... more than a bit disturbing, to be frank."

Sakura gave a short, bitter chuckle. "We... I never really did stand a chance with him, did I?"

"Not with the approach you were taking, no," I honestly answered. "There were ways that you could have gone about winning his heart, but even then... I'm not sure you could have succeeded. Sasuke-kun has... issues."

"His brother?"

"Among other things," I agreed. "I'm working on helping him to get over some of them, but it's tricky at the best of times."

Specifically, I was working on getting him past the issues that were keeping him from going after his brother in an effective manner. I didn't really care all that much about what happened to him after he got his vengeance, after all.

Well... unless he took out even more members of Akatsuki. One could always hope.

Sakura nodded her head in affirmation.

"Still tired?" I asked.

"Yeah."

I pulled out the scroll I used to store most of my rations, kneeled on the ground, and unsealed a few onigiri and a cup of tea. "Here," I said, handing the onigiri to her. "Eating these should help."

Sakura gave me a weak smile before starting to dig in with a good bit of enthusiasm, although her manners didn't slip at all. I found it odd how she could do that, but it wasn't like I hadn't seen the combination before. Yuri had done the same on a number of occasions.

"You know," I commented as she discovered the umeboshi I'd used as a filling, "I've always found the way that rice helps with chakra exhaustion to be rather odd. Any sort of food helps, of course, but rice seems to do so far more than its caloric and nutritional content should account for." I grinned. "Personally, I think of it as yet another of the world's little oddities."

Sakura blinked at my statement, staring at me as she stopped eating. "You really think of that as strange?"

I shrugged. "Not overly so, no, but I do find it interesting."

"I see," Sakura remarked before she resumed eating her food, occasionally taking a break to wash it down with a bit of tea.

After she finished I resealed the now-empty tea cup. "Feeling better?" I asked.

"Yes," my student confirmed. "Should we go check on Naruto-kun?"

I nodded. "That would be a good idea," I agreed. "You feeling up to it?"

"Yes."

"Well... what are we waiting for, then?"

Sakura just smiled and started roof-hopping towards our team's training ground. I promptly joined her.

-----------

A rather unusual, if not wholly unexpected, sight greeted us as we arrived at the training area. I'd known that Hinata would be more than happy to help Naruto, but... wearing that?

Didn't she usually wear that top under her shirt?

I paused for a moment at that thought. Sure enough, both her jacket and the shirt she usually wore under it were folded off to the side, lying on the roots of one of the trees... right underneath her usual pants and aside her shoes and socks.

I'd never known that Hinata wore skintight, black spandex shorts and an equally skintight and black spandex shirt beneath her usual clothes. Considering that Hinata was the closest thing I had to a daughter, I'd never wanted to.

I was broken out of my observations by Hinata timing a stretch that provided rather effective evidence that she wasn't wearing anything under her shirt to coincide with Naruto looking in her direction.

Sakura gave me a stare before commenting. "You thought she was shy?"

I shook my head, not knowing what to say as I was torn between the knowledge that Hinata had already rendered my matchmaking efforts obsolete and the desire to find some mind-bleach. There were some things that fathers, even unofficial surrogate ones, really shouldn't see when their daughters were involved.

Just after that I noticed Hinata discreetly moving through a set of handseals that I recognized as one of my communications genjutsu. I didn't know what she said, but Naruto's reaction was readily apparent -he suffered a massive nosebleed and went careening off the tree. Hinata started to move to catch him, but I got there first.

"Having fun?" I asked as I set Naruto down.

Naruto blushed before hastily -- and obviously -- trying to change the topic. "How did things go with Sakura-chan?"

"Quite well, I think," I answered. "She's pretty tired, but otherwise fine."

"I'd be better if I hadn't been chased so much, Recca-sensei," Sakura remarked, approaching our position, "but I think that I learned from the experience."

Naruto blinked. "Chased?"

"Fangirls," I clarified.

Naruto blanched.

"Umm... Recca-sama?" Hinata asked from where she was standing, poking her fingers together.

"Yes, Hinata-chan?"

"Should I leave? I don't want to interfere with your team..."

I gave her a smile at that. "Don't worry; you're not interfering. You might want to get dressed, though."

Noting my pointed glance at that last bit, Hinata smiled, nodded, and moved to pick up her clothes. I inwardly sighed as I noticed that she calculated her posture while retrieving her clothes so that her posterior was facing Naruto as she bent over. I had to hand my blond-haired student a napkin to staunch the nosebleed that developed when she wiggled her bottom slightly, but I didn't begrudge the loss.

Napkins were cheap, after all. Seeing the expression on Naruto's face was well worth it.

"You really thought that she was shy?" Sakura inquired.

"This is... very different from how she acted in the Academy," I answered.

Hinata paused in putting on her shirt as she laughed at that. "Of course it is, Recca-sama," she confessed. "Tell me... what would have happened if I'd approached Naruto-kun back then?"

I blinked.

"Wait," Sakura interjected, "what are you talking about?"

Hinata gently shook her head after she'd tucked her shirt into her pants. "After Naruto-kun was taken from Recca-sama's care Recca-sama was forbidden from contacting him. Given my relationship with Recca-sama..."

Sakura's eyes widened slightly. "You were afraid that people would have thought that sensei was using you as an intermediary, weren't you?"

At Hinata's sad nod, my eyes widened. "But..."

"No, Recca-sama," Hinata mildly corrected me. "You know what they've done in the past. I would never have been able to forgive myself if my actions had lead to either your death or Naruto-kun's..."

Sakura's face had lost a lot of blood. "You really think they would have..."

Hinata again gently shook her head. "We are speaking of the same people who willingly and deliberately disregarded the Fourth Hokage's dying wish, are we not?"

Both Naruto and Sakura started at that. "You know..." they both began before stopping and glancing at each other.

"I know enough," my pale-eyed surrogate daughter stated in a soft but firm tone. "I suspect more, but that's another matter."

Sakura and Naruto blinked in unison.

Hinata suddenly giggled. "The two of you really should see the expressions on your faces," she told my students. "But yes, Sakura-chan, I did think that they would have. They've done worse before... and with far less reason."

"But... why would they..."

"Sakura-chan," Hinata explained, suddenly serious, "shortly after Recca-sama came here, the Fourth Hokage made him promise to obey Konoha's laws while he lived here."

I decided to chime in on that one. "Don't forget the caveat," I reminded her.

"To the best of his ability, anyway," Hinata acknowledged. "Yondaime-sama didn't try to make him promise to obey laws that he wasn't aware of, especially since Recca-sama's home has a legal code that's very different from what we're used to."

I frowned, seeing where Hinata was going with this and not liking it one bit. "I don't lie," I explained, dawning realization and horror mixing in my voice as I followed her train of thought, "and I don't break my promises. If they thought I'd broken that one..."

Hinata nodded her head. "They would have called your others into question... and the bargain that made you a shinobi of Konoha, among others, was sealed by such a promise. Had you demonstrated a willingness to break your word..."

"They wouldn't have let things stand. I would have represented a threat... or a greater one than I do now in any case. They'd have moved to eliminate the threat."

"Yes," she agreed. "Either they would have attempted to control you somehow or they would tried something more... direct."

"And the latter would be the more likely to succeed."

"Yes."

While I noted that both of my students' faces had drained of blood as the conversation progressed, that was largely unimportant as I walked to Hinata and kneeled in front of her, placing my hands on her shoulders. "You shouldn't have worried about it... or you should have told me, at least. I could have worked something..."

I stopped as Hinata interrupted me by placing two fingers in front of my lips. "Do you think that I could have taken that risk?"

There wasn't really anything I could say to that.

-----------

After I told Sakura and Naruto that I needed to talk to Hinata privately, my mind awhirl with the implications of our conversation, and asked Sakura to help Naruto continue his training for a bit I used shunshin no jutsu to take Hinata and myself to another clearing.

As wrapped up in my thoughts as I was, I almost didn't notice Hinata's posture. When it did come to my attention, however, it set off all sorts of warning bells in my head. The young girl I loved as a daughter was staring at the ground, her back hunched in a way that I hadn't seen for years as she fidgeted with her hands.

"What is it, Hinata-chan?" I inquired. "I haven't seen you like this for years."

Hinata started to fidget even more. "Umm... Recca-sama... what you saw... umm... you don't... umm... do you think less of me..."

I blinked before chiming in. "Think less of you?" I forcefully and rhetorically asked. "You thought that I wanted to talk to you because I was disappointed? Was I not the one who told you to make your own path in life? Was I not the one who advised you to pursue your own happiness, your own dreams? Of course I'm not disappointed. Surprised, yes, and I now know some things that I never wanted to... but there's nothing wrong with pursuing the boy that you like."

"Umm... I'm not trying to pursue him..."

That caught me rather flatfooted. "What are you trying to do, then?"

"I'm trying to get him to pursue me!"

I didn't really get the distinction. "Isn't that a matter of semantics?"

Hinata shook her head. "No."

"You're planning on leading him on a chase?"

Hinata giggled. "Maybe a little one," she answered, her previous hesitance gone from her posture, "but no, not really."

I blinked again, somewhat confused.

"I don't want him to be mine," she explained, "I just want to be his."

I shook my head, still not getting it.

"Well, that's alright," Hinata continued, giggling again. "You don't really have to understand just yet... and I don't want you to waste your entire supply of mind-bleach."

I chuckled. "Yes, well... your little stunt earlier is certainly going to make a dent in it."

My surrogate daughter nodded her head. "I suppose it will at that," she acknowledged, looking somewhat thoughtful. "So... what did you want to talk to me about?"

Forcibly reminded of what I'd originally wanted to ask her, I suddenly felt a lot more nervous. I did have to ask her a question that I really, really didn't want to know the answer to. "Err... is that what you usually wear under your shirt?"

Hinata blinked. "I thought you didn't want to know..."

"I don't. Please... just answer the question anyway."

"Well... yes, it is. Why..."

I briefly closed my eyes at that. "I was afraid of that. I really should be giving you a lecture on the need for support right now, but I'm really not in the right frame of mind... I can't seem to decide whether I really need to get plastered or to blow something up at the moment."

"Why not do both?" she suggested.

I gave her a pointed gaze.

"Oh, right," she replied. "I forgot. Have you figured out how to dispel that jutsu yet?"

I just shook my head. "After a fashion," I admitted. "I've managed to keep the thing from getting any more power and the energy in the construct is being used up, but I'm afraid that it had already acquired a good amount of force by then."

Hinata frowned. "So it should exhaust itself?"

I just nodded.

"How long?"

"It should stop raining nitroglycerin any year now."

I had to keep myself from laughing as Hinata put on an exaggerated pout. "Poor, poor Amegakure... what did that training field ever do to you?"

I shook my head, quite amused at the display. "You're not going to distract me, you know. That outfit really can't be good for your chest -- you need something that provides more support."

"But that's what the seals are for," she answered, smiling.

"Seals?"

"Yeah," she confirmed. "I used a four-point pathway seal with a set of earth- and water- based filtration and aspect seals to-"

I raised my hands, cutting her off. "On your undershirt?"

Hinata nodded.

"Good. I don't really to know anything else... but you might want to consider marketing the design if it's comfortable enough."

"A woman has to keep some secrets," she responded, smirking slightly.

"Right," I said, trying to forget what I'd just learned and failing miserably. "Should we get back?"

Hinata laughed at that. "Yes... I suppose we should."

-----------

Omake by Kenko

"Well, Sasuke, that's true... the text does detail as much as is known about his life... but nothing about his death. We don't know when, or how-- or, technically, I suppose, even if DID die." I sighed. "Considering him-- or her, depending-- well, there are some taijutsu masters who hold to a superstition that he never actually did."

"Never-- You mean that he' still alive?"

"Of course not. That would be inane, and I DID call it a superstition. Besides, if he HAD survived this long he'd out kage all the kage combined by this point. It's ludicrous."

-----

In the Land of Snow, a rather attractive redhead sneezed.

"Catching a cold, Miss?" asked the bartender.

"Maybe... been a thousand years since my last one, so I'm due."

The bartender decided that the customer merely had a strange sense of humor and shrugged.

-----------

Omake by Akun

One Reason Why Recca's Taijutsu Stinks

Recca woke up one fine... afternoon (he'd worked late into the morning on a new seal), and decided that it would be a good day to work on building up his taijutsu. So, after eating and dressing fairly casually, stocking up on only the minimal supplies (enough C4 for thirty to forty C4 Bunshin), Recca headed to find a good sparring partner amongst his fellow jonin.

With luck, he found the premier taijutsu specialist, Maito Gai, first.

"Gai-san, would you be able to spare some time to help me with my taijutsu?" Recca inquired.

"Ah, Recca-san, I'm afraid I have found true love in a woman I'm quite sure doesn't exist anywhere and I must write her a needlessly long poem that says almost nothing related to her because I'm trying to make an extremely obvious falsehood to get away from someone who terrifies me a great deal." Maito Gai answered.

Recca blinked, "Good luck with that."

Recca continued on. Gai seemed busy. Surely, he'd find someone else who would spar with him.

"Oy, Hatake-san, would you like to practice taijutsu?" Recca inquired.

"Oh, ah, sure, but first, I think I hear Gai calling me for a challenge. You know how serious Gai can be." Kakashi answered, shunshining away.

Recca frowned, then saw another possible candidate, "Yuuhi-san, would you care to work up some of your taijutsu skills with me?"

Kurenai's face only paled five shades, and she only trembled violently while staring into space for about thirty seconds before answering, "Oh, would you look at the time? I promised Kakashi I'd go feed his dogs."

With that Kurenai shunshin'd away.

Not the least bit concerned, he continued on and found Asuma, "Hey, Sarutobi-san, can you give me some pointers on my techniques?"

Asuma fell to the ground and convulsed violently for about a minute before he sprang to his feet, dusted himself off, and answered, "I promised Kurenai I'd arrange her Icha Icha collection."

Asuma shunshin'd away.

Recca looked confused. He'd done enough spying on the various jonin (for blackmail-gathering purposes only) to know that Kurenai Yuuhi didn't own a single copy of Icha Icha.

Recca sighed. How was he supposed to work up his taijutsu if no one sparred with him? Not one to let himself feel down about it, he continued on and found a recently promoted jonin.

"Hey, Munesanzun-san, wanna spar?" Recca asked.

Kaido Munesanzun stared at Recca for a few seconds, then let out a long and hearty howl of laughter. It took him three minutes to recover fully, and he was still rubbing his eyes clear of tears as he answered, "Hell no."

Kaido then threw water on himself and ran away screaming, "I'M MELTING! OH, WHAT A WORLD! WHAT A WORLD!"

Recca arched an eyebrow, "Weirdo."