Konoha Hair and Nail salon

--by Flightangel

-o-o-o-o-

5

-o-o-o-o-

Wednesday, six o' clock in the morning—two pairs of leather-clad feet stalked confidently up linoleum-tiled hallways. One owner of such feet was dressed in a suit and tie with a classy-looking briefcase clasped in his left hand, and the other was a woman in a blouse and dress pants and a folder tucked under her arm. The darkness of the morning air was evident through little cracks in the shades, though cast in further darkness by the brilliance of fluorescent lighting, and the hum of coffee in the worker's lounge gave off one message:

The office was beginning to come to life.

The two stopped in front of a wonderfully polished mahogany doorway. Anxiety sudden clutched the gut of the woman, who took a nervous step backwards. "A-are you sure?" she whispered under her breath. "You sure Father had asked for our presence? He—He'll be very angry if we came and bothered him if he didn't call us."

The man in the suit sighed, a hand riffling through his tinted-caramel hair. Of course, highlighted hair was strictly against protocol, but Hyuuga Neji could and will always get away with most anything, especially when his clients were eccentric fashion designers and models and other such "artistic" people who squealed and tried to touch his locks instead of reporting him to the upper manager.

"Yes, Hinata-sama, Hiashi-sama did call—and he said it was quite important. Here, I'll knock on the door, alright?" The woman took another tentative step backwards as the older of the two lifted up a confident fist and rapped the door sharply. After a moment's pause, a voice from within called out:

"Come in."

The two obliged, and found themselves standing in front of a large, wooden desk currently being occupied by none other than the executive manager of the Hyuuga Modeling Company (US Branch): Hyuuga Hiashi… sama. Systematically, the two Hyuuga cousins gave a quick bow, as governed by protocol.

"Hinata—Neji." he addressed them coolly, the deep grooves in his face suddenly becoming evident in the frown that soon graced his face. "Neji, what is with your hair?"

"Gomen-nasai, Hiashi-sama." The businessman swiftly apologized, voice just as composed and cool as his still pruning uncle—light-blondish highlights inevitably pooled down his shirt when he gave another quick, and stiff, bow. He straightened his back, suit ruffling as he did so. "What is it you called us here for?"

"What is it indeed?" the addressed man mused aloud, and signaled for his kin to seat themselves in the lounge chairs positioned before the desk. Hinata almost stumbled over her leather soles trying to get her posterior into the cushion without looking too relieved, and gave a sheepish cough when her father locked eyes on her feet. Neji sat completely still, right hand subconsciously reaching over and fiddling with a ring on his left.

"Neji, Hinata—I have assigned you two to be in charge of a new project my superiors have asked for me to employ here in the states—" the superiors being the members of the Hyuuga family running the main branch of the company back in Japan, "—in which we will try and get as many models out in the fashion industry as possible and recruit new ones. We will also be aiming to expand our communication network and raise or profit as much as possible."

Hinata pulled at her dress pants distractedly, wondering if they were too dirty. Kiba had accidentally spilled tomato juice on the hem this morning, but she hadn't any other pairs and—oh, what if her father noticed? He'd never quite liked Kiba anyway, but she didn't want to give him more incentive to dislike the brunette.

"And that is…?" Neji raised a slim brow, hands in his lap. The executive director reached into a pile of neatly composed paper and withdrew a single sheet. He handed it wordlessly to his more rapt nephew, who took it in one hand and skimmed it over, a light frown slowly etching itself onto his face.

"N-Neji-niisan…?" Hinata fought the urge to lean precariously out of her seat.

One, because she would probably fall over. Two, because her father would disapprove. And three, she would look silly, and there was nothing more her relatives hated then one of their kin being silly.

She instead occupied herself with fussing over her pant hem, eyes darting to and fro her father and cousin as she picked at it with a hand.

"…this is quite an odd idea, Uncle," The young businessman admitted slowly, eyes nearing the end of the page: "A fashion show in collaboration with—may I remind you—a rival modeling company and multiple fashion lines and salons—what do you mean to achieve with this?"

"I do not decide what I do," Hiashi replied coolly, "it is the superiors. As for what the goal is, I already mentioned it. It is this: already professional models need work in higher level lines; higher level lines need more capable models in order to perform. Aspiring models need to get jumpstarted; lines who also need more models can pick the best out of the lot. Fashion designers who need jobs may also display their work on some of the models—and so on and so forth. This, in general, Neji, is a show of networking. We need to strengthen our links with some of those fashion lines and need to make more connections with the new and young rising designers and models. It is that simple."

Hinata was still picking at her pant hem.

Neji sighed, helpless. He was an intelligent businessman—hard-working, set in his ways, and experienced—but he couldn't go on and disobey his superiors, especially with what his personal life was up at the moment. His place in the Hyuuga family hall was already in hot water as it was.

"So…?"

"I brought Hinata here as a representative for the advertising department—Hinata!" The woman flinched, brought out of her musing world of tomato-juice stains. "Hinata, your task is in the manila folder over here—in summary, try and get the word out as fast as you can. Neji, you're in charge of calling up and inviting the names in this folder here—" Neji couldn't help but let an irritated look cross his face.

He hated calling people.

"—and the rest is written in the summary. If you have no questions, than you two are dismissed." His uncle looked down and picked up a fountain pen in anticipation of finishing some paperwork, and then abruptly peered back up. "Oh, and congratulations."

Neji gave no response.

Two pairs of leather-clad soles quietly trudged down linoleum halls. One pair belonged to a man dressed in a suit with a briefcase and folder in one hand, stiff and with a considering expression on his face. The other figure, a woman, tripping over her pants and wondering who she should recruit to help sort her out, held two folders clasped to her chest and looked out at the now brightening sky.

What a month this would be.

-o-o-o-o-

Gaara was nonchalantly trekking up the marketplace sidewalk with his breakfast clenched in his left hand when he had a suddenly odd feeling. It wasn't a good feeling either, and it struck him with a sense of unease.

Turning around, he allowed the winds to gust his face as he stared out at the brightening sky.

It was malicious, if that was the right word. Not good. Scrutinizing the sky a bit closer—as if he was to find some specter or ghost or whatever spiritual thing he suspected was tickling him, however unlikely—he finally forced his legs to move and continued his way up to the salon, a new eeriness now prickling the hairs at the back of his neck.

Strange. Odd. Ghostly. Inhumane. Useless. Stranger to mankind—

—he needed to leave. He quickened his step and disappeared into a crowd of dull grays and browns, never more relieved than to escape from whatever had tried to haunt him.

It was creepy (even for him).

-o-o-o-o-

Sasuke was lying horizontal on the sofa, chewing rice crackers and blueberries and eyes boring holes in the television, when the phone rang.

Dammit. He didn't want to get off the couch. Maybe he'd just leave the damn thing screeching until whoever it was would give up… but no. He soon decided that the blasted ringing wasn't worth it.

The singer snatched the receiver up irritably.

"Uchiha Sasuke."

A low, carefully calculated voice responded: "I know your name, Sasuke."

The brunette instinctively stiffened at the familiar tone, hand frozen above a bowl of blueberries lying innocently in his lap.

"Congratulations, little brother. It seems like you found someone worthy enough of your bitchiness."

"Like you are one to talk," the younger of the two muttered under his breath and unfroze himself, swinging his legs down so that they gracefully landed with a sigh on the carpeting of the floor. "What the hell do you want, Itachi?"

The slightly-amused older sibling spent a good minute in silence (from years of dealing with one another through family therapy and counseling, amusement was an emotion that Sasuke had first come to recognize in his brother), unnerving the younger singer. The man switched ears. "Itachi?"

"Oh, nothing. But, on to business: have you contacted Kakashi yet?"

Sasuke raised a brow, scowling. "Why should I contact Kakashi? I don't have much planned today."

"Ah, foolish, foolish, little brother. Do you not realize the buzz going about town at the moment? Or has your arrogance gotten to your head?"

How about your arrogance getting to your head? Sasuke allowed a slightly unappealing frown to pucker his lips, popping a handful of blueberries into his mouth.

He hated it when his brother called him foolish. It was like he was still a little brat, scrawny and gangly and unappealing to look at. Nothing like the him of today, of course.

The aforementioned singer swallowed his blueberries: "And what exactly is this buzz that you are talking about?"

"Why, the fashion show, Sasuke!" Itachi's holier-than-thou voice was really grating on the young man's nerves. "The Hyuuga Fashion Show! Or have you not heard? Pity. You never did keep up with the news, did you?'

Sasuke squashed some blueberries onto a rice cake and looked at the atrocious mess scathingly. It took tremendous willpower to keep those pert lips closed and not to blabber out that he did keep track of the news and that he's never heard of a damn fashion show and what the hell this had anything to do with him—but he did.

Itachi continued: "I was just calling to see if you were interested in it. You see," the man paused, "I am going to be in the show, so I was just wondering." He gave another pause, this time sounding a little more than amused, "But I see you are not interested in such things after all. Pity. I was going to enjoy seeing your pitiful face on the catwalk, but I guess you are sparing me the chance." There were murmurs on the other end of the phone, and Itachi seemed to be turning around and hissing at someone (not arguing; hissing). He returned to the receiver, "Anyhow, little brother, you are just as amusing to talk to as ever. If talking to a stone wall was amusing. Good bye."

At the click of the phone, there was a brief moment of silence in the cottage. Eventually, this peaceful harmony was broken.

Sasuke threw the receiver down onto the tile floor—it landed with a loud sizzling noise and slid underneath the coffee table—and angrily chewed on rice crackers, too enraged to think straightly.

Damn Itachi! He knew his brother was challenging him, goading him on—and even though he knew, he was just as willing to take the damn bait. Fashion show? "Pitiful Face"? Ha! Pitiful face his butt! He'll show Itachi a "pitiful face"! And what was with that "stone wall" comment? Did Itachi realize exactly what he was talking about when he said that?

Stone wall!

Roughly tossing the bowl of blueberries and rice crackers onto a coffee table amassed with magazines and newspapers and other junk, he lifted himself off the couch and stalked to his room. Pausing in front of a full-length mirror, he stopped to examine himself.

Tousled, but still good-looking. That was great. Self-consciously, his fingers flew up to his injury, still sore and balding and altogether cringe-inducing. His jaw clenched.

When he'd returned from his modeling session, late at night, he'd discovered two things wrong with his house: one, that there was snow and mud staining his pretty white porch, and two, that there was a note jammed messily between the door and doorframe.

Not only had the blond kid crashed into him, put him out of commission for a day, and gave him an embarrassing injury, but he'd trespassed his house, purposely screwed up his porch (Sasuke could find no other explanation why his porch was so dirty, as feet could never in their life "accidentally" hold up that much dirt) and attempted entry through his door! That little punk—he'd—he'd—argh!

He glared at the "apology" note crumpled up on his desk, ebony-colored eyes frying the thing into oblivion. Some apology note. Damn him!

He turned from the mirror, scouring his room in search of his cellphone before finally finding the thing lying innocently on his bookcase. Squatting on his bed, he scrolled through his contact list.

It really, really, didn't help that the scrawl messily written on the note was chillingly familiar. So familiar, in fact, that Sasuke took one look at that note and had to fight the urge to run the other way. But no.

Uchihas do not run the other way just because some guy's handwriting strongly resembled the handwriting of their ex-boyfriend. It just wasn't done.

Besides, Sasuke was quite educated enough to know that completely different people can have the same handwriting, and that a type of handwriting wasn't isolated to a single person (he and his brother had very similar handwriting, for instance, and Sasuke would like to think that the two brothers were anything but similar).

But still. It was frightening.

And the criminal that had done all this to him was blond.

He pressed speed dial and waited for his lazy bastard-of-an-agent to rummage his phone out of whatever mess he'd inevitably tossed his cell into, hand tapping the back of the cold metal case.

"Hello?"

"Kakashi," Sasuke snarled, voice tight: "About this Fashion show thing… from the Hyuuga company. I need you to fill me on some things…"

-o-o-o-o-

The cold sidewalks cowered under the sun, icy surfaces clouding together. The winds played with the stray passerby's hair, tickled the trees, and danced about the creaking store signs—a constant annoyance to the everyday people of the Konoha Shopping District.

Wednesday, as if to contrast the dullness of Tuesday's empty shift, soon brought waves of insensitive, loud bustling patrons into the Konoha Hair and Nail Salon, who graciously poured themselves through the front door and immediately began filling the air up with pointless nonsense and complaints and whines and moans and other things that made even Naruto want to pull out his hair.

"No, no, no, shorter, shorter—no, stop, that's too short! Ugh! You stupid hairdresser, even I could do better—I said shorter, didn't I?"

Naruto danced around the irritable woman slouched inside the dressing chair, licking dry lips nervously as he attempted to interpret the wave of conflicting information being strewn out from the patron's lips: "I want it to be kinda flashy but sophisticated, short but not too short, rough but still smooth to the touch—and, oh, oh, I want highlights that are red but not too red or else I'll be mistaken for being too young—but make sure I still look youthful!"

Naruto threw a helpless look at Gaara, who just gave him a dismissing nod that said: just do whatever you want and suck it up. The blond took a long swig of his water bottle and tried not to break out in a sweat.

"Well, we have a free space tomorrow between nine and ten in the morning, two to three in the afternoon, and five to six in the evening—which of them fits your schedule best, sir?" Sakura, speaking incessantly on the phone, scribbled notes on a notepad with a pink frilly pen she'd rummaged from the drawers, "Yes, yes, our prices are wonderful—discount? Well, pardon me, but what age are you sir? We have special discounts for those over fifty… oh, pardon me—well, we also have discounts for businessmen, does that interest you—"

"—Sakura, Sakura have you heard—oh, sorry." A blonde woman, flouncing in the door with a faux fur jacket identical to Sakura's own, huddled on the seat closest to the secretary desk, eyes bright as if the gossip on her tongue was about to burst forth any moment.

Sakura switched the receiver to her other ear.

"Sorry, sir, I have someone else on the line. Please hold!"

She covered the receiver and turned towards the other woman, rapt and to attention. The taller woman—blonde and chic: Yamanaka Ino, a constant presence in the salon during lunch hours—leaned forward, waving blue-painted nails in the air.

"Oh my god, you know what we just heard?"

The secretary leaned back in her chair. "No, what?"

The blonde glanced left to right before leaning even closer. She lowered her voice to an excited whisper. "I heard a certain couple is getting married—!"

Sakura, delighted to be on the in to such an important piece of gossip, gasped and said, "Gods, Ino, stop being such a tease! Who? Who is it?" She paused. "Not you and Chouji?"

Ino reared back, a faint blush creeping onto her cheeks. "What—no! No, of course not, we've only been dating for a year, not quite enough for engagement." She calmed herself down and resumed her cheer. "But guess, guess! Oh, it's so exciting!"

The bustle of the two women caught the attention of Naruto, who was taking another alleged "break" from work. The blond was twirling in the chair closest to his fellow hairstylist, lolling his head on the headrest and playing with three rubber bands he'd strung across his fingers, looking up when the laughter of the women caught his ears.

The rambunctious man turned to the quiet, stone-like redhead, a cheery grin on his face. "Hey, Gaara, what do you think they're talking about over there? Men? Man, what if they're talking about me?" He gasped, putting a hand to his heart, "Such an honor!"

Gaara wisely chose to ignore him, but Naruto persisted.

"Or… maybe their talking about you! You and your hair and stuff… or maybe their talking about other guys? I don't know, girl's gossip is strange…"

Gaara leaned forward to snip a particularly difficult piece of hair that was insisting on lodging itself behind the client's ear, brows furrowed.

"…do you think Ino's going to get it going with Chouji anytime soon? I mean, she's, like, gossip girl number one, but the guy she's dating is kind of plump, wouldn't you say? Doesn't make much sense to me… Hm… hey, do you think Ino's pretty? 'Cause I think Ino's pretty, even though she's a jerk face—she's got nice boobs and—"

"Naruto." Gaara suddenly intervened, turning towards the blond with a rather terrifying look in his eyes. "Get back to work."

The blond took a step backwards, abashed.

Meanwhile, the gossip on the other side of the room continued.

"Is it… well, who else is it?" Sakura turned to peer discreetly at the two hairstylists calmly sitting in each other's presence in the back of the room, mouth an 'o', "Gaara and Naruto?"

"Sakura, are you insane? The two aren't even dating!" Ino hissed, before changing her voice into a more argumentative tone. "And besides, as we were discussing before, there is no evidence that either one likes the other! I just don't see it, Sakura."

"Well, you don't spend the majority of your day in an office watching them out of the corner of your eye," Sakura argued back, setting down her pink frilly pen. "They've got tons of chemistry! They just need a little… push."

Ino widened her eyes, pink lips pursing. "No, Sakura, no way! Remember the rules of the bet! You can't move the relationship along yourself, so don't even think about it!" She paused. "But guess!"

"I don't know!" Sakura frowned and leaned down onto her desk, "Just tell me for goodness' sake, I feel like I'm going to die."

Ino let a wicked grin creep upon her face, eyes glowing. "Well, I don't know… maybe you wouldn't like to know after all."

"Just tell me!"

The fight was quickly catching the curious attention of the patrons, who put down their years-old magazines and peered at the two with wide, interested eyes, mouths agape. Even the cringing of whoever was unfortunate enough to be Tsunade's victim was muted by interest.

Yet despite this attention, there was one woman who seemed to be blissfully unaffected by this little scene of death-inducing drama was unfolding in the front desk. Perhaps it was because she was used to such screeching (her sister and cousin could put up quite a match), or, more likely, she was too busy doing whatever she was doing near the entrance of the lobby.

A certain Hyuuga-company advertising agent was—very intently, mind—tacking leaflets onto the bulletin board, oblivious.

In truth, she actually had a little trouble reaching all the way up to the top and had to enlist the help of kind Haku, who was easily half a head taller than her, to be able to post the entire poster along the top of the cork.

"T-Thank you, Haku-san," she said graciously, giving the man a slight bow. The manicurist, in turn, graced Hyuuga Hinata with a kind smile and quietly slipped back to his station, once again picking up his English workbook.

The woman followed him with warm violet-colored eyes, feeling sentimental.

The quiet disposition of the man reminded her of her mother—that curved smile, delicate hands, soft hair. Though she couldn't say that aloud—how embarrassing would it be for a man to be compared to a woman!

Hinata huffed and brushed pieces of brown cork off of her dress pants, feeling jittery and nervous, though a bit satisfied at her own courage. She had—to her own surprise—been able to call up perfect strangers and not stutter a bit—a miracle. Neji would have said something sarcastically offensive if he'd been in the room when she did it, but he wasn't. Thank god.

Though she'd placed several calls to famous companies and the like and felt rather good about her advertising strategy and pitch, she still believed that true advertising lay in the traditional ways of tack-and-hope, in which she carried thousands of leaflets documenting the show and tried to fill multitudes of salons and production studios with them within two days. The goal was to drown people in them.

It was quite tiring, as one could immediately see.

"I don't know what you see in our salon, since we're pretty local, but go on ahead," Tsunade has said to her through mouthfuls of lunch-box breakfast, "we don't get many models or fashion designers here and only one of our stylists is professionally educated, but I'll try and put in some calls for you." Oh, sure, that was fine, Tsunade-sama. Every call counts, you know!

Hinata was shuffling leaflets back into her already overflowing book bag, eyebrows creasing in frustration, when she finally overheard the two college students bickering:

"I'll give you some hints… one of them you know quiet well."

"Ino, I know many people 'quite well'. If I didn't know one 'quite well' you wouldn't even be sparing me your presence!"

"Ooh, moving onto the tough words now, eh, Ms. Haruno? Just speak like a normal person!"

"I am!"

"Are not!"

"Am too!"

"Are not! And I don't think I'll tell you after all."

"Fine then!" The secretary did a swift turn in her seat, chin raised defiantly, "Go ahead, back to your little downtown café or wherever you stay when you're not in class. I don't care! I don't want to see your little snot-filled face until tomorrow!"

Ino was about to snap back, when she found herself stopped by a certain businesswoman.

"I-Ino-san, I think you've t-tortured Sakura-san enough…" Hinata intervened before Sakura could manage to pull her blonde friend's hair (and vice versa), adjusting her own business tie nervously.

She knew the two women from her days at high school, when she was that brainy and shy kid in the back and the two were the gossip girls of the day. It was a fragile friendship, mind, but the fact that she was both Asian and a member of the Japanese community automatically made her "one of them", an assumption she was grateful for at times. Like now. The incredulous look Ino was boring through her forehead was cold enough to even make hell freeze over.

She turned towards the other woman, voice hushed. "It's my cousin… Neji. He's getting married to Lee."

Sakura nearly fainted in shock, and Ino—who took a moment to realize that her awesome, dramatic piece of gossip had been stolen from right under her nose—let out a loud shriek of laughter, slapping the woman on the back. "You see! I told you it was good!"

"L-Lee!" The secretary blubbered for a moment, still trying to regain composure. "But weren't the two fighting just yesterday? And then Neji got his hair cut and left in a huff—engaged?"

"Yes, yes, it's all true! Just ask little Hinata here, she knows," Ino clasped the smaller woman's shoulders firmly, eyes bright with glee. Hinata glanced at the hand nervously, suddenly wishing that she wasn't in such close proximity with a woman she hardly knew. That hand was digging quite firmly into her muscle, however, allowing no chance of escape. "It was this huge bout of misunderstanding—and the end result is this! They haven't planned the wedding date yet, but we've got to badger Lee to inviting us to his wedding—well, this is just too good."

Sakura was about to reply excitedly when Tsunade strode over, heels making their classic click clack click clack on smooth tile, hands on her hips.

"Sakura, aren't you in the middle of calling a patient? You have no time for gossip! Get back to work!" She then turned slightly to narrow her honey-brown eyes at both the businesswoman and college student, lips pursed. "And Ino, time and time again I tell you to not distract Sakura while she is working! If you're going to stay around, at least wait until she's on break." She stalked back to her desk, apparently not going to grace Hinata with a littler reprimanding of her own.

The shy woman took this chance to wriggle out of Ino's claw-like grasp and quickly stepped backwards. Bending down to snatch a few stray leaflets that had flew onto the floor, the sound of her heart hammering wildly in her chest echoed in her ears.

Oh kami-sama!

She didn't like this at all. Not one bit. Tsunade hadn't said much of anything, but she was still embarrassed and frightened and—what if she told Father? But of course, Tsunade and Father weren't connected at all, but still. Maybe she should just go home and ask Kiba to put an ad in the newspaper. Take a break, then go scouting again.

Yes, that sounded good.

The pink-haired secretary pouted and threw a "call me later" signal with her hands at her leaving friend (Even such a good friend like Ino didn't want to sit in the presence of an angry and overbearing manager for too long) before once again pinking up the little pink frilly pen and moving back to the line of what must be a very exasperated customer: "Sorry, sir, the other customer was lonely and wanted to talk about his marriage plans—yes, yes, there is a discount…"

"Gaaaaaaaara."

The redhead continued to snip at the customer's hair, leaning down—again—to get a better look at the bottom of the hairdo. Blood red locks swept back with the motion, allowing the nape of his neck was exposed—his pale, white neck. It wasn't creamy or beautiful or even remotely abnormal looking, but the blond was captivated anyway.

Naruto sat swiveling in his chair, staring at the exposed skin for far longer than any normal man should, before crawling onto the arm rest so that he was mostly sitting up.

"Gaaaaaaaara—Gaara, look at meeee." He enthusiastically waved his arms up and down, up and down, and, finally, the redhead graced Naruto with a blank stare.

The blond man leaned forward onto his arms, a wicked grin on his face: "Hey, well, Iruka—my adoptive dad, you know, right?—anyway, we were going to go see the movies together this Saturday, but he says he can't come, 'cause he's busy, so…" He rubbed his nose, suddenly bashful. "So, uh… you want to go with me instead? I swear, it's good."

Gaara stared him incredulously, hands pausing in their cutting. Naruto fidgeted under his level stare, that cool set line for a mouth, furrowed brow. Maybe he should have stuck to staring at that nape. The redhead shook his head.

"I'm busy as well."

Naruto deflated a bit, disappointed. "Oh…"

"But I'm free on Sunday." He returned to his snipping, "Temari says that there is a nice restaurant open two doors down from one of the uptown salons, the kind that has all types of sushi and rice and noodles… and ramen." He paused. "You like ramen?"

Naruto, suddenly seeing his chance, nodded his head vigorously. "Yes, yes, I love ramen! When I was little, I was always fed ramen! I like it all my heart, yes!" The redhead graced him with another odd look, this time the kind that swept from the tip of his blonde head to the bottom of his black leather soles, before nodding to himself.

"I will take you there." He declared tonelessly, and returned to his cutting. "On Sunday."

And Naruto couldn't have been more thrilled.

-o-o-o-o-

While Hinata was hurrying home with her hood pulled up in the California cold, leaflets stuffed until her book bag looked like a bush, her cousin was experiencing much more unfortunate events at the moment.

Neji sat hunched over in his car, hands gripping the wheel of the damn thing until his knuckles were clammy and white. He was caught in freaking traffic. Other than child birth and alarm clocks, traffic was probably one of the most horrendous things the gods have ever bestowed upon the earth. Ever. Even if there probably wasn't traffic back in the good old sticks-and-stones age of cows and sheep, but still.

What was he doing here, sucking his breath in and enduring this torture, anyway? He could have been casually lounging around in his chair whilst speaking on a phone in his office, doing what he usually did, but no. Hinata-sama wanted to get all "technical" again and insisted that the managers were to get physically involved in the production.

"Physically involved" meaning that he went door-to-door recruiting old Hyuuga company friends instead of just calling them up like a normal, human being.

"Can't this lane go any faster?" he said to himself once, stonily. Hyuuga Neji didn't growl, or bark, or do any other barbaric thing like that. He said things. Even if what he really wanted to do at the moment was tear the driver's wheel out of the front of the car and hurl it at those stupid Californian teenagers taking up space in the middle of the freeway.

Ah, yes.

It had been a bad day. His trip to the Akatsuki studios had been a complete disaster, seeing as the manager didn't quite like being interrupted in the middle of a recording and that half the singers employed there deserved to be an in insane asylum. The man was thankful enough to at least still have his tie draped around his neck. The next stop at a modeling site was even less fruitful.

This was partly because the type of modeling the models were participating in was nude modeling. This was also partly because the photographer was French and didn't know who the hell Neji was.

"Hyuuga. Modeling. Company." the brunette had said slowly, sweeping back his hair. "I have come to formally ask you or your manager or whoever is in charge to participate in a fashion show we are hosting." The photographer, stubbly chin and sunglasses and pouty lips and all, gave him a large, face-creasing frown.

"Show?" he barked sharply, surprising the usually aloof Hyuuga and causing the businessman to take a brief step backwards: "What show? Imma not in a show! I quit the circus ten years ago, man, I quit! I am in no show! Pah! Show! Now go away, you are stealing the beautifying essence of sexiness being amplified by these wonderful models!" All with a French accent, of course, but Neji didn't specialize in imitation.

The traffic light finally decided to take pity on the poor man and flick green, a brilliant beacon of hope and happiness and good things all around. Neji enthusiastically stepped on the peddle, thrilled that he was moving, though thoughts of his next stop immediately quelled his newfound joy.

Konoha ANBU Fashion Corporation. Ugh. That line of clothing was only halfway good, in Neji's opinion, but he had to admit that there were some genius designers amongst that mix. Though most of them were as insane as the Akatsuki Sound Studio, with their snake-skin suits and peacock-feathered behinds.

"Hyuuga Neji," A woman walking inside the fashion house with a bagel and coffee in her hands called out, surprised, when she first caught sight of the man gracefully slipping himself out of her car. Lunch break was a short affair in the average American's daily life, and even the Japanese-infiltrated Konoha district was no exception; lunch consisted of a quick stop at a fast-food drive through and a traffic jam back to the office before any of the manages noticed they were gone. The woman's rush was evident in the frizzy ends of her hair. "What are you doing here?"

"Business." he replied shortly.

Adjusting his tie and giving the older woman a short nod of his head, he gave her one long-sweeping look and inwardly clucked (he would never be caught dead clucking outwardly, of course). Kurenai had been the representative of the Konoha ANBU Fashion Corporation to the Hyuuga Modeling Company more than once, gracing the Hyuuga family with her uncombed, brownish hair and frightening red eyes, sensible flat-heeled shoes and odd style of dress.

Even now she had pale linen bandages wrapped all around her arms and torso, all held up with zippers and buttons and God-knows-what-else.

Really. Fashion designers were always tricky when it came to their clothes.

Kurenai quickly discussed with him in low tones what exactly he was up against on their way into the building, taking small bites from her bagel in-between sentences:

"Well, if it's unexpected business, don't think Jiraiya would take kindly to it. We're putting some designer's work in a local show this Saturday and everyone's running around and trying to get the last stitches on their collections last minute—" Bite, swallow, "I mean, Shikamaru spent almost an hour trying to convince Temari to let him attach peacock feathers to the rear end of his piece—"

Neji winced. Peacock feathers. They do it every damn year.

"—and he just went out to get some lunch, give himself a break." Another bite. "Some of the models didn't show up for fitting so we're not sure if they fit, and Jiraiya's being sued for taking inappropriate photographs and—well, I'll let you figure it out yourself." The woman took a sip of her coffee and made it so that Neji knew she was about to turn the opposite direction. "Oh, and tell Hinata I said hi. I heard from Shino that she and Kiba moved to a new apartment several blocks down…?"

"It's a quieter neighborhood," Neji graced the woman with some short explanation, "and it's bigger, since Kiba was thinking of bringing in more—" Stinking, dirty, flea-ridden, "—pups."

Kurenai gave an understanding nod, and, at the intersection between the elevators and downstairs office cells, the two departed from one another.

The Hyuuga spent the next few moments in complete and utter silence—apart from the buzz of the office, but such things had been long tuned out of the businessman's hearing range. The elevator was relatively new, with clean, un-greasy buttons and a nice carpet that hadn't been vomited on… yet. Must be something Jiraiya had just recently ordered.

The doors opened up to reveal dim fluorescent light bathing a white hallway filled with little white doors. This in itself would have been fine if this wasn't the headquarters from an insane fashion corporation. And with insane fashion corporations, one would expect nothing less than the abnormal.

As to cover up for the unoriginality of the halls, the designers had messily covered almost every square inch of anything except the floor with posters and scrap pieces of cloth and other artistic junk that made Neji's eyes water. It was neon. Neon.

Damn artists. They drove him batty (forget the fact that his fiancé was an artist. Just forget it. He didn't quite feel like thinking of what had become of his condo these last two years).

Stepping out and attempting to both gracefully glide down the polished hallway and keep from wincing at the same time, Neji took four steps down the hall before overhearing a heated conversation raging on behind closed doors, two rooms from the elevator.

He paused, alert.

It wasn't like he liked overhearing people fight, but with the cheap paper-thin walls and the echoing-manner of the hall, it wasn't like he had much of a choice.

"—you can't, you can't, you know what'll he do—how can you do that to him? I mean—it's been a long time, but the memories are still—"

"It's been a good eighteen years, Temari, he's grown up; he can handle it—"

"Do you even know what you're saying?! The sleeping fits have been getting worse lately, worse and worse! How do you think he's going to feel when you mention that again?"

"He can handle it, I'm sure, don't worry—"

"I don't care a damn if he can handle it, the yakuza would have the rest of his fingers chopped off within a day if he goes back there! You can't."

"Temari, calm down, I know what I'm—"

"No, you don't know, because if you knew you wouldn't be doing this and—and—why now? The sleeping fits are getting worse, but life is finally looking up. Everything's stable. You want to disrupt that?"

"We can't put this off any longer—another couple of years and it'll hurt more than before."

"Right, and you don't think it's going to hurt him now? Look, they're already situated here, right in the damn United States, and it's like walking on eggshells as is—it's going to be like throwing him from the pan and into the fire, for God's sake! And besides—"

"Look, Temari, I don't have time to argue with you about this." A clunk, as if something heavy was being set down, "I have an appointment in thirty minutes; we'll discuss this at—"

"We aren't discussing anything at home, you hear me? Not in front of Kankuro and Gaara and—and—argh! Listen to yourself, Yashamaru-jiisan!" The woman's voice turned pleading, shrill: "Don't do this, please don't do this, I'm begging you, begging you, don't, don't—"

"I can't, I can't—I can't not do it, Temari." The man's voice was hushed and was much harder to hear, hidden behind plaster walls. "It's my duty. My job."

At that point, Neji realized that he needed to get out of there. Fast. Probably because the doorknob was jiggling and this Yashamaru man would most likely spot him eavesdropping on their conversation the minute he exited the room. It wasn't like he wanted to eavesdrop, as he said before, but it'd look… awkward. And a bit suspicious.

Jiraiya was peering giddily at a Playboy magazine under his desk when a sharp, urgent rap on the door called his attention away from his pornographic fantasies. Lips drawing together in a large, face-wrinkling frown, he yelled. "Come in, come in! Who is it?"

Hyuuga Neji quickly slid himself into the room, and immediately wished he hadn't. The walls here were worse then the hallway. They were not only neon and cloth-covered, but full of images of women. Half-dressed women, to be exact.

Straightening his tie, he attempted to turn a blind eye to the images and gave the executive a quick, formal bow. "Hyuuga Neji, Hyuuga Modeling Corporation," he introduced himself sternly.

Jiraiya casually tossed the Playboy into an open drawer and clasped his hands on his desk, leaning forward. He was an old man—or middle-aged, but to most people he was going on "old"—at fifty or sixty or so, dressed in casual traditional Japanese wear and sitting cross-legged on a swivel chair. Again, the weird dress. Fashion designers.

Blinking a moment, the older man eventually found whatever had gotten lost on the way to his tongue. "Ah, yes, the Hyuuga fashion show—I was at a pitch this morning about it, yes, I remember—ahem," He coughed into a fist, suddenly looking uneasy. "You are here to ask for our participation?"

"The Hyuuga Modeling Company and the Konoha ANBU Fashion Corporation have always worked closely together," Neji replied coolly, "and we would expect no less than your full support." Arrogant and a bit bold, especially for a young man like Neji, but he was being backed by a years-old company that had a rather nasty bite if one didn't obey it.

Jiraiya didn't quite like being bitten.

He sighed, suddenly wishing he'd never invited the man in and that he'd gone on reading his playboy. But no. He couldn't do that. "Of course, Konoha ANBU Fashion Corporation would love to participate," he finally said, "but I have to receive permission from the co-owner of this fashion house."

Neji blinked, surprised. Co-owner? Best to his—very clear, accurate, and up-to-date—knowledge, there was only one executive, owner, and manager of the corporation, and that was the man slumped before him, in all his glory. Was this a ruse to stall time? He hated being put off. It wasn't a kind feeling.

He began to finger his ring, eyes narrowed. "And that is…?"

Jiraiya sighed and scratched his head—either thoughtfully or out of exasperation, who knew?—leaning back in his chair and tugging at a sleeve. "My wife, Tsunade. And until I receive word from her, I cannot give you an official answer."

Neji inwardly groaned.

-o-o-o-o-

The lantern was lit.

Naruto stared at it incredulously, a sinking feeling beginning to inch into his stomach and arms and numbing him all over. In fact, the minute he caught sight of the damn thing up the steps, he'd almost fallen over. Fortunately for him, he was at least intelligent enough to realize that falling down three flights of stairs was fatal, and had righted himself instantly.

After reaching his doorstep, however, he couldn't help bit take a quick step backwards, eyes observing the horrifying clues: the lantern lit; the lights inside the apartment on; the sound of music playing. Oh god.

This only meant one thing.

"I-Iruka…" he chuckled nervously as he slunk in, hands clammy as they attempted to remove his coat and put it on the coat rack without attracting too much attention. The addressed man was sitting down at the rickety kitchen table, seemingly paying no attention to his adoptive son as he flipped through a hairstyling magazine.

"Naruto." the hairdresser replied coolly, flipping the page. "Sit down."

Naruto gulped. Oh no, oh no, oh no…

"Sitting down" was never a good thing.

It had been such a good day, too. Gaara and him planning to go on a date (it was a date, the blond firmly insisted to himself, though he did wonder whether or not the redhead realized that), him having enough money to spare to eat out (he'd gone home to drop off his bags and other belongings) and him, for once in his life, not being scolded by his buxom and terrifyingly powerful manager. He'd even planned to come home from dinner and watch a bit of television.

But no. Fate insisted on twisting his plans in a knot. A big, Iruka-sized knot.

He hesitantly crawled into a rickety chair, first wondering if it'd be best to just lose nerve and scramble out the door, then cursing himself for being idiotic enough to hide his spare key under the doormat.

Everyone hid the key under the damn doormat.

Even Gaara did sometimes—not that Naruto would know. He didn't. (It was hidden exactly under the center of his brown-and-red fuzzy doormat thing which was cute because it had a picture of a bunch of raccoons on it—Naruto had once been tempted to buy one that looked exactly the same at Wal-Mart, but had resisted as it would look extremely suspicious. And no, he didn't know any of this. Really.)

But that wasn't the point. Perhaps next time he'd try to hide the brass tool in that shriveled up plant situated next to the doorway, filling his front step with a sense of impending doom.

Not that the air currently floating about the room wasn't dooming enough, mind, but the hairdresser would willingly let his mind wander about rather then focus on the said aura being directed at him at the moment.

Iruka set down his magazine and closed it, face turning upwards so that Naruto could catch every set muscle, hard eyes, narrowed and furious glare—a glare that urged Naruto to slink farther down his chair.

He cringed, awaiting reprimanding.

"I just heard from Kakashi." said the older man, voice neutral. Naruto was still cringing.

"He says that Sasuke found a note on his door. A note that looked eerily like your handwriting."

The blond flinched. That idiotic, no-good, bastard-of-an-agent that—how dare he tell Iruka anything? Now, he was going to get him killed. Great going, Kakashi.

Naruto would have been biting his nails at this point, but biting his nails meant that he had to move, and moving under that hawk-like, death-inducing glare-of-doom was like throwing yourself over a ten-story tall cliff.

Iruka looked fixedly at his adoptive son. "Naruto, when I asked you to apologize, I asked you to apologize to him face-to-face, not through some—some—dumb, meaningless note! Naruto! How could you?" Suddenly, the hairdresser seemed less angry and more upset, wounded, depressed—crossing his arms, he leaned back in his chair. "Naruto, was this another ploy to get out facing Sasuke?"

The blond said nothing.

"I've already said it before! It's been ten years! Look at me—look at me. I may be lying through my teeth but there is a possibility that Sasuke doesn't even remember what you two were fighting about all these years ago—hell, maybe he's—oh, I don't know…" The brunette sighed, suddenly feeling a bit more old than young. "Maybe he's let it go, Naruto. Like you should."

There was, for a moment, a brief pause of silence between the two, in which the only noise being omitted was from a CD Iruka had popped into the stereo and was twirling about the hairdresser with its big, fake, ironic happiness. Finally, Naruto spoke:

"I don't think it's the kind of thing that's forgotten easily, Iruka."

He clenched his own jaws, muscles taunt as he leaned forward. "And I'm not going to forgive him so easily."

Iruka stared at him hard, hands clasped together and wide, brown eyes locking in on Naruto's own. Finally, he tore his eyes away from the younger man and leaned back, crossing his arms. "Well, I don't see you have a choice. Kakashi and I have decided to take matters into our own hands." He once again snatched up the magazine and began flipping through the pages, face nonchalant once again, "We've set up a meeting between the two of you."

Naruto's eyes widened, brows furrowing downwards in what became an incredulous expression of shock that encompassed the entirety of his face. "You can't do that!"

Forget about being killed by Iruka, I'm going to be snapped in half by Sasuke and his bitchy prissy self! His damn "I am holier than thou" attitude that he swore he didn't pick up from his brother WHICH HE DID and his creepy arrogant voice and cough and attitude and—

"Oh, yes I can," Iruka snapped, suddenly feeling irritable and tired. He scratched the back of his head, hand tugging at his ponytail before sweeping back stray hairs and coughing into his hand. "I'll drag you there myself, I will. You underestimate the amount of free time I have on my hands."

his anger—crap, that temper of his—with that temper and his fists he'd—oh, damn.

The sinking feeling was back and rising, and Naruto realized that it was time his life was going to end. Rooted on this trembling excuse-for-a-chair, he allowed a wave of tangled, cluttered and mismatched thoughts to flood through his already lolling brain, hands gripping the seat.

Never going to make up his mind about college, never going to jumpstart his career, never going to get a chance to maybe start a relationship with Gaara (Iruka would probably blush and stammer and hit Naruto about if he knew what he was thinking, but he couldn't so he didn't), never get to confess to Jiraiya that it was he who'd stolen those damn photographs and not Konohamaru, never going to—never going to

"When?" he managed to say softly, voice tight. Iruka flipped the page, pausing to admire the sleekness of a model's hair being featured in one of the columns.

"Tomorrow afternoon," the man replied, flipping the page again, "at twelve o' clock. I'm coming to the salon to pick you up. Directly. No escape, Naruto." He narrowed his eyes. "Don't even think about pretending to be sick."

Damn.

Naruto slunk further down into his seat, making up prayers as he went (though he wasn't at all religious). Give his apartment to Haku, who needed living space. Give his television and table to Sakura. Give the rest of his furniture to Iruka and Kakashi. And leave all his hairstyling materials, money, and personal items to Gaara, as well as his affection and admiration and perhaps, through some ghostly presence, his odd feelings. Maybe.

Dear god.

I'm going to die

-o-o-o-o-

AN: ... okay, so I know chapter 4 pretty much got on everyone's nerves (flips through reviews and winces). I'm in the process of (hopefully) fixing it, so please bear with it... meanwhile, here's another chapter. I feel that it's also pretty low-key, but at least it is in order and switches every other scene between a Naruto/Gaara POV and an Other POV. I know you asked for more Gaara/Naruto POVs (obviously, since this story is targeted to a Gaanaru audience) but I do feel like I need to include other characters to help bring the plot forward.

I also hope this chapter ties in how Shikamaru and Neji are related to the story plot and how their parts in previous chapters weren't exactly too random and annoying (this chapter actually introduces the basis of the story plot... kind of boring for those looking out just for the Gaanaru scenes, but this story does have to have some sort of plot to keep it moving... though I promise I'll work harder to put everything back to Gaara/Naruto's POV soon.)

Thanks to all my reviewers (whether or not you reviewed good or bad, each review does count towards something) and I hope you leave by a comment (even if you've already commented before, I still appreciate anything). Being a fanfiction writer, reading reviews are the signal to me that someone is actually reading this damn thing XD.