Again, sorry for the delay to everyone who was waiting for this. Notes are at the bottom.
A big thanks to Celia for beta-ing.
"I can't protect you without holding a sword. I can't embrace you while holding a sword."
A Mirror for the Sun
Five hundred kilometers to the east, the sun was just rising. Despite this early time, the citizens of Suna were bustling about, setting up shops and hurrying to get to their respective destinations.
"Wake up, Shikamaru."
"Don't make me repeat myself, lazy-ass. Your audience with the Kazekage is in a half hour."
Only one woman in the world had a voice that deep and that abrasive.
"I could've been naked, for all you know, Temari," he grumbled, turning over.
"You should be glad you weren't, for both of our sakes…"
He blearily opened an eye. "What time is it?"
"Quarter to what?"
"Six, obviously! You Konoha shinobi get up so goddamn late, waste the whole day away. Anyway, get up, he's expecting you soon."
"What? Why so early? It's never been like this before," he groaned, alluding to his past trips to Suna.
"Hmm." He could almost hear her cross her arms. "So, let me stand here and explain to you how the village has changed since you were last here. Once upon a time, there was a politician who was the slimiest and most manipulative of all politicians. He threatened—
"Ok, ok," Shikamaru said, waking up. He rolled over and placed his feet on the warm marble. "Damn, it's hot."
She shrugged. "You'll get used to it."
"I never do."
"Whatever, just be at Gaara's office in thirty minutes, got it?"
Temari quickly retreated, leaving the bedroom door wide open. Shikamaru groaned once more. "I'm assuming you're up," he called to Sai, whose quarters were in the adjacent room of the suite.
His partner entered the room, fully dressed. "Yes."
"Why are people always coming in without knocking? I could have been naked," he repeated.
Sai shrugged. "I'm an artist so I see nudes frequently. Your body is above average, I can assure you. It's actually very nice."
Shikamaru looked at him oddly.
A smile plastered itself on Sai's pale face. "I realize I have made you feel sufficiently awkward. I believe the courtesy would be for me to exit the room." He paused. "Am I right?"
Sai's eyes crinkled. "Then I will see you at the Kazekage's dinner this evening."
Sai left the room slowly, adding to the bleak awkwardness of the situation. Shikamaru watched as one foot followed the other, the seconds trailing like minutes before the paler shinobi suddenly stopped.
"Do you know where I can get breakfast?"
"Just get out of here!"
With a laugh that almost seemed genuine, Sai finally left the suite.
Grumpily getting up, Shikamaru opened a bag of clothes and slipped them on, not bothering to shower—what, he wondered, was the point when it was already nearly eighty degrees at six in the morning? By the time he would arrive at the Kazekage's office the temperature would rise further…
He bent down, touching his palms to the ground. The bones in his spine cracked softly in protest—a night of riding on a giant, inked bird would do that—and then he shot up, pushing his muscles out of their restful stagnancy.
As he bent down once more, he considered the events that had occurred the night before; it was highly suspicious that Sai had delivered information to Neji and Hinata. Whether Sai had doubted the scroll's containing information was something that Shikamaru was unconcerned with; the more pressing matter had been that someone had enough authority over Sai to not only interfere with a top ranked mission, but to infiltrate Tsunade's ANBU and obtain Sai's trust.
What a mess.
With a sigh, Shikamaru slipped on his sandals and headed out the door. He opened his window and stepped onto the warm balcony. Easily back flipping onto the roof, the genius then made his way over to the Kazekage's office.
"I'm here to see Gaara-sama," he told the guard outside the large doors.
"He's in a meeting right now. What's your name?"
"Oh, he's been expecting you," the guard said, recognizing the name. "But you're just going to have to wait 'til Ebizō-jiisama comes out."
Shikamaru nodded and sat on the stone bench attached to the wall directly ahead of him. Glancing at the clock on the wall—which read six-twenty—he shut his eyes, leaned his head back, and folded his arms, fully intent on dozing until the Kazekage came out of the meeting.
Unfortunately, his rest lasted little more than five minutes before he felt a shadow shield him from the outside morning light.
"You're on time," came a deep feminine voice above him.
"Why is that surprising?" he asked, eyes opening to look up at her.
Temari shrugged, pushing back an unruly strand of sandy blonde hair. "Just seems like you get lazier every time you come here."
"And it seems like you're trying to be more womanly every time," he retorted, watching her painted nails flitter about her face.
Temari froze. "You better shut the fuck up."
"Nothing wrong with that," he said defensively, smirking slightly at her anger. "It's an improvement over the last time I saw you, for sure…thank the Lord you gave up on perfume, last time I was here I smelled it before I saw Suna…"
The kunoichi flushed, fingers itching for her fan.
"At first I thought it was body odor, I have to admit."
"I told you to shut it," she snarled. "Girls do stupid things sometimes, alright?"
"Indeed," Shikamaru agreed wholeheartedly, thinking of Ino and her ever changing fads. He felt a pang of nostalgia hit him before shaking it forcibly.
Temari sighed and threw herself onto the hard bench. "Well, good to see you anyway, idiot," she said, punching his arm.
Shikamaru turned his head to look at her. "It's been a while. Haven't seen you since the war…"
"Things have been busy here," she explained. "We had to rebuild, too, you know. No time for friendly visits. Plus now, we have to deal with all this nonsense created by Tanaka Ichiro. Things have been rough."
Shikamaru straightened out of his slouch and looked at her seriously. "I can't tell you if things will get worse or better, but I can tell you that Konoha is one-hundred percent on Suna's side."
Temari stared at him, taken aback by the man's sincerity. She opened her mouth but the guard who'd been standing at the door interrupted.
"Excuse me, Nara-san. Temari-sama. The Kazekage is waiting for you."
Temari immediately stood up.
The sharp odor of cheap alcohol wafted through Hinata's sensitive nose, and, despite subconsciously recognizing the chakra belonging to the invader, she immediately awoke in a state of panic. In one dexterous movement she grabbed the kunai from underneath her pillow and sat up, retaining a defensive pose.
Seeing the familiar chakra smoothly flow from node to node, Hinata released the byakugan she hadn't realized activated in her fright.
"Neji," she breathed, relieved.
"Your reflexes are quicker than I thought," he responded stoically.
Hinata felt her face warm slowly as she watched Neji shrug off his shirt. The hard muscles in his back flex with movement and she averted her eyes.
"I smelled you," she explained, staring the bleak white wall.
As the words left her mouth, the air in the room seemed to still.
"What do you mean?" asked Neji, body tense.
"Nothing," quietly said Hinata. "You…you just have a distinct smell."
What she said was true; when Neji didn't reek of blood or vodka, he mildly smelled like the Konoha forests. It was quite nice, though she would never dare to admit it aloud. However, when he did consume alcohol, not only did his scent change, but his chakra and entire demeanor changed as well. Had Neji returned without drinking, Hinata would have slept through his re-entrance like a newborn.
He turned around to look at her. "And this…smell…of mine made you panic enough to wake you up," he stated flatly, clearly not believing a word she said.
"Kiba-kun helped me hone my olfactory senses," Hinata said defensively. "I sensed another presence and immediately reacted to it."
Hinata was quickly mastering half-truths.
Neji shrugged and gracefully made his way underneath his own covers silently. Hinata maintained her own tense position in her bed until the birds outside her window began to chirp. Slowly, as the minutes passed, she began to ease into the warm bed once more, allowing sleep to take over.
One crisis averted.
"Congratulations, Hinata-sama," Neji said quietly. "You've finally learned how to lie."
Soft lips caress his ear. "My love."
"Hmm?" the young man asks distantly, engrossed in the thick book in his hands.
"Danzou!" she tuts, snatching the musty-smelling book out of his reach. She walks around the couch and stands in front of him, hands placed on her hips.
"What is it, Tsuki!"
His wife pouts. "Don't you want to talk to your pretty wife anymore? I've been trying to talk to you for a half hour now!"
"Not really," Danzou sighs. At the anger quickly building in her black eyes, he laughs and reaches for her. She willingly falls against him and comfortably nestles herself in his muscular arms.
"You're a jerk."
"And somehow you married me." He strokes her pale hands. "So tell me—what do you want to talk about?"
"I don't know, a little bit of this, a little bit of that…"
He looks at her in disbelief. "I was reading something important, you know."
"Fine, be like that," she frowns, making a move to leave the security of his arms.
"Come on, Tsuki," he groans. "Obviously you wanted to talk about something…"
His wife—his fiery, fearless wife—stills in his arms and hesitates. Immediately Danzou becomes alarmed.
"What is it?" he demands.
And when she puts their joined hands on her stomach and smiles softly, Danzou's heart falters.
"Wake up, old man."
"I've been awake since your snake-breath entered this room."
"You sound unhappy."
"I've been reduced to a mere soldier," the ANBU said lightly. "You can hardly blame me."
"Reduced, huh? Seems like you remember more than you let on."
The masked man ran a hand through his dirty hair. "Considering you're the man who personally snuck me out, and considering the Hokage herself thought I was a threat, I can deduce that this is a reduction from the happy freedom I know I had before."
"If you're unhappy, I can escort you back to your solitary cage…"
"What a horridly unpleasant man you are. Once my memories are recovered, I will love to rip you apart, piece by piece."
Danzou's pale yellow teeth gleamed in the dim light. "If you can."
"If I can," he agreed mildly.
"So what do you have to tell me?"
"The information folder has been given to Hyuuga Hinata. Sai delivered it without question."
"He was always a good soldier," Danzou remarked with something akin to fondness. "You put all the correct information in there, no?"
"Of course. I have to admit that I am surprised that you are feeding the Hyuuga kids with accurate information."
"My little Hyuuga princess is the best assassin I have. I want him back in the same shape he left. If Tanaka dies along the way—which I'm assuming is the reason they're going to pay him a visit—it's nothing I haven't expected, and nothing I wouldn't have done myself once I become Hokage. Neji-chan is actually following orders before they've been given, bless his little heart."
The masked man scoffed. "You must think I'm an idiot. Saving one assassin is hardly a reason for you to help stop the man who will help your rise to power."
He was right, of course, but there was very little else that Danzou was willing to share with him—especially considering which Hyuuga he was truly interested in. He wasn't lying about protecting his precious assassin, nor was he lying about minding getting rid of Tanaka—the wheels had already been set in motion.
Danzou would become Hokage regardless of what happened to Tanaka; he'd made sure of it.
The ROOT commander shrugged. "Believe what you will. Whatever I do is in the interest of the village."
"Interesting how you think assassinating the Hokage is in your village's best interest…"
"Moron. Just go back to Tsunade. I have work to do."
With a few hand signals, the man transformed. He became taller, tanner, and bulkier.
"Report back in twelve hours."
"As you like," shrugged the ANBU. He concealed his chakra and, making the signs for rooster, pig, ox, and dragon, disappeared.
It wasn't the first time she'd seen him asleep, but it felt just like it.
Hinata gladly took the opportunity to take a good look at her cousin—something she hadn't been able to do since he'd gotten a fever all those years ago, and since she'd been the only person with any sort of medical training in the house, she had automatically been volunteered to take care of him.
Hyuuga Neji, the clan genius and her father's favorite…
Neji's face was bereft of its usual hardness. Hinata would hardly say it was peaceful, but she wouldn't say it was troubled either; there was simply a lack of expression on his face. His chiseled jaw was hard, his lips pulled down. Her wide eyes scrolled down his well-defined chest before resting on his pale hands, which loosely held a kunai, marked with the same strange symbols as the kunai he'd given her the night before.
She sighed softly as she glanced at the clock. Hinata hated to have to wake him, after he'd only come in a few hours ago—but their plans were definite and it would be risky to abandon them.
Her feet landed on the ground with a soft 'thud'. Still, Neji did not stir.
"Neji-san," she whispered.
His deep breathing remained unchanged.
"Neji-san," she called, voice slightly louder.
His response was to grab the kunai more tightly. Hinata frowned—if Neji had not been intoxicated hours before, he would have woken up the minute she'd called his name. The matter was certainly troubling; when they were at his apartment, she could overlook his addiction and address it when appropriate. However, on the uncertainty of missions, she had no way of confronting him—gently—without severely angering him.
Considering the danger of their mission, inciting Neji's explosive anger was a risk Hinata was wholly unwilling to take.
With a deep exhale, she adjusted the thin nightwear the Inn had lent her and pulled the paper-like yukata down. Shivering as she left her warm bed, Hinata knelt on the ground next to him and quickly put a hand out to his bare shoulder. The shock of her cold fingers against his hot skin instantly awoke him. His red-rimmed eyes flew open and she gasped in surprise.
Though Hinata had been prepared for a somewhat jerky response—a typical response of shinobi who could identify friend from foe, even while unconscious—nothing could have prepared her for Neji's reaction.
Before she knew it, she was thrown roughly against the hard ground, hands and legs pinned to the floor by his. White stars swirled in front of her eyes as she attempted to grasp the situation. With a desperate, shuddering breath, she looked at the man hovering above her.
Even without Neji glaring down at her, holding a kunai dangerously close to her carotid artery, she would have stayed still under the menacing command in his eyes.
He blinked. "Hinata-sama," he said, voice hoarse with sleep and confusion.
"I'm sorry," she wheezed. "I should—have—known—better."
Clarity replaced the confusion in his white eyes. "What were you doing?" he demanded, withdrawing the kunai from her throat and stabbing it viciously into the floor.
"I tried waking you up," she explained, dizziness now fading, "at least three times. But you wouldn't, so I shook your shoulder."
Cold air replaced his body as he quickly got to his feet.
Hinata sat up slowly, gingerly feeling the throbbing area at the back of her head. She winced slightly as her fingers found a particularly tender spot.
"Is there blood?" Neji asked, roughly rubbing his face.
He emitted a harsh bark of laughter. "What luck."
Hinata bit her lip, heart pounding furiously as she watched her cousin from across the small room. "I'm sorry," she said in a small voice, hoping it would soothe Neji's anger.
Instead, the two words seemed to fuel his rage. "You're sorry?" he repeated incredulously. "I told you that you use those words too much, didn't I?" he snarled.
Terrified, she whispered an affirmative.
"Great," he muttered, watching his cousin shake with every word he uttered. "Just fucking great." Without another word, he left the small room with three fast steps and slammed the door shut.
Hinata's mind reeled.
The walk out of the small village had been tense and uncomfortable.
After Neji had left the room, Hinata had stumbled back to the bed and sat on it in a dazed state until the sun had risen high. Abruptly realizing how much time had passed—and how much time they'd wasted—she then quickly packed both of their bags and headed downstairs, to the lobby, where she assumed Neji would be. Seconds passed and quickly turned into minutes—still, Hinata did not move from her spot on the old sofa in the lobby despite her desire to leave the old inn.
Two hours later, her cousin had found a restless Hinata on the patched, mildewed couch. With awkward, jerky eye contact as their only interaction, they silently left the tavern.
Hinata stepped quietly into the forest, trying to make the least possible amount of sound as she trod on broken tree branches and crunchy leaves, while simultaneously trying to juggle their luggage.
She looked up to the sky, wiping sweat off her forehead. By the position of the sun, it was about three in the afternoon.
Though they'd been walking for little less than six hours, it felt like they'd been walking for twice as long—Hinata chalked it up to the incredible temperature, which had risen to double the temperature of the morning. She could nearly feel her chakra evaporate out of her body with the heat of the sun.
Ahead of her, Neji walked perfectly straight. Though she could see sweat bead along the nape of his neck, he seemed otherwise unaffected by the heat.
Hinata nearly glared at his unfair composure.
Sweat dripped in gallons down her jaw, down her throat.
"I can take that from you now."
Hinata nearly jumped at the sound of his voice—he hadn't spoken a word to her since the incident. "I-It's alright. They aren't that heavy."
"Just give me the bags, Hinata-sama," Neji said, irritated.
The kunoichi bristled at his tone but complied with the Mission Captain's instructions. She unattached the latch keeping both bags on her shoulders and let his larger bag fall into her hands. Swiftly, she threw the bag containing his belonging to her cousin.
He caught it with little effort.
"Give me the other."
"Our family is not here, Neji-san. I can carry this one," she protested sharply.
She wasn't weak—Hinata was proud to be a kunoichi, and the thought that Neji considered her strength to be so minimal that she couldn't carry a ten kilo bag was insulting. If the situation had been different, and he, as a Branch Member had asked the Hyuuga Heiress to carry her bags, she would gladly give them to him—to do otherwise would shame him in front of their elders. Though Hinata cringed at the thought of Neji lowering himself to her, she knew he would never forgive her if she dishonored him in such a way, no matter how he treated her.
Neji finally nodded to her and proceeded to continue in the same direction.
Hinata stared after him, distraught at his continual anger.
It truly was an odd feeling she was experiencing; a mix of regret for invading his personal space while he was at his weakest; anger at Neji for getting in his predicament; subsequent self-loathing for her anger at her troubled cousin—and for her inability to be there when he needed someone most—not to mention the feeling of anxiety for what was to come...
On her missions with Team 8, the three friends rarely fought with each other. Even when they'd had differences of opinion, it never affected their teamwork, and never brought Hinata the aching need for tranquility. With Neji everything was different—his mood changed with every breath, and Hinata had a tiny suspicion that much of his irritability would be attributed to her.
Before she knew it, she opened her mouth. "I'm sorry."
Nearly thirty feet ahead of her, Neji stopped walking and turned to face her. His eyes narrowed.
"I've told you several times you use those words too liberally."
"But this morning..."
Neji's mouth straightened into a thin line. "What occurred this morning," he interrupted, lifting a palm to stop her, "was my fault." He sighed tightly and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Hinata-sama, I have behaved appallingly and you have been nothing but gracious."
The kunoichi was silent.
"My behavior this morning was unacceptable," he said stiffly. "It will not happen again. That is my word."
Shell shocked, Hinata stared at her cousin. "Neji-san…"
"We need to get going if we're going to catch the ferry in time."
"What?" she asked, distracted.
"By my calculations, it would save us about a day and a half of walking. If we can get to the port by tonight, we'll be there in three days."
"Neji-san," she said quickly. Her cousin turned, expression expectant.
"I…I want you to know…I trust you."
An odd expression appeared on Neji's face before he wiped it clean. With a nod, he began walking, Hinata in tow.
"Welcome back to Suna, Nara Shikamaru."
"Thank you, Kazekage-sama."
"You'll have to excuse our temporary appearance. We're still rebuilding."
"I didn't even notice."
Gaara smiled wryly, one corner of his mouth tilting up. "You're either lying or incredibly oblivious. Since rumor has it that your IQ is around two-ten, I'm sure it's the former."
Shikamaru scratched the back of his head. "You have me there," he admitted sheepishly.
"Can we just get down to business?" Temari interrupted. "We've been waiting for this meeting for a while, let's just get to talking!"
Gaara shot her a look. "Yes, I suppose we should start the meeting, though I wish we could have done it with more tact."
"Please forgive my sister, Nara," Gaara said, playing the diplomat well. "We have been under much stress lately, as I'm sure you know."
"I often have to deal with Naruto," he said simply, shrugging.
"It's a shame he could not be here."
"Sure. You aren't the one who ends up paying for his mistakes, though."
"Anyway," Shikamaru continued. "Shall we?"
Gaara nodded and motioned for Shikamaru to sit on the cushion to his left.
"Our main problem right now is that we're still weakened from the war," the Kazekage explained, getting straight to the heart of the matter. "The rate of rebuilding is not an issue—we could have hired Konoha years ago if we were really bothered by the rate at which we're rebuilding. We have very little amount of active shinobi—so many died in the war—even those who are on the roster are either getting old or are incompetent. We've been trying to train the younger ones because, despite the genin ineptitude, some have talent, but now on top of everything we have to focus on our friend Tanaka Ichiro."
"I have been sent by Godaime Hokage-sama to inform you that we are currently investigating Tanaka Ichiro, and we hope to have the matter taken care of by the end of the season."
Gaara's eyes widened as he easily deciphered the meaning behind Shikamaru's guarded words. "Is that so?" he asked, crossing him arms. "May I ask why?"
"We believe he is involved in illegal trading and in a plot to overthrow Konoha once his attempt here is done."
"And what do you want of Suna? I can spare very little manpower right now…"
"Not much—I'd like your permission to investigate your own citizens, to see how the people feel and make sure they are uninterested in Tanaka. Sound citizens went to him willingly…I need to make sure there is little chance that they are influenced in the same way. We also ask that you host him here in six months' time."
"What?" hissed the kage. "Why would we ever—
"You would look like the sensible ones, the ones looking for a peaceful alternative! If we can contain him here for a little amount of time, and bring him away from his supporters, we're hoping that they will eventually understand the person he really is. We can also protect our shinobi and they can complete their mission here."
"If you kill him on Suna soil, there is no way his supporters will ever rest in their crusade against us. I will not allow it."
"Kill?" Shikamaru asked, smirking. "Who said anything about killing him?"
"I don't think Hana-obaa-san would have let you leave the house with giving you food first."
Neji smirked. "Hana-san let me do whatever I wanted, including eating cookies before mealtimes."
"Had I known fifteen years earlier, I would have been jealous."
"There is still time to be jealous—Hana-san still sends me food every so often."
The Hyuuga duo walked eastward, talking more amiably with each other in the last few hours than they'd spoken with each other in their entire lifetimes—until a small fleet of anchored ships caught their attention.
"We're here," Hinata said, surprise coloring her voice. "I didn't realize we were so close."
"Yes," Neji said distractedly, looking curiously at a fairly large crowd gathered around the leftmost ship. "That's our ship, I believe," he frowned. "I wonder what's happening."
Together, the two walked toward the wooden stand in the middle of the port. Cheers burst from the crowd and Hinata smiled.
"Looks like they're having fun."
"Can I help you?" the man at the booth asked.
"I'd like two tickets for Ship 486."
As Neji paid the man, Hinata looked closely at the crowd. They all seemed to be middle-aged sailors, listening intently to the tall figure in the center, who was shouting about unfair taxes and nonsensical rules.
"What's going on over there?" Hinata asked the ticket vendor.
"Some big-named politician came to visit this weekend. That's his send-off."
"Who is it?"
"Don't know, don't care."
"Come on, Shinji, don't be ignorant," chastised his friend sitting in the chair next to the booth.
"I'm not ignorant. I just don't care—there's a big difference. Politicians fuck things up. That's just the nature of politics. You know the Land of Chocolate hasn't had a government in over three years, and they've managed just fine."
"I've heard this argument about seventy times over the last week," the old man explained to the shinobi with a roll of his eyes.
"So who is that, then?" Hinata asked curiously.
"Why, Tanaka Ichiro, of course."
Hinata choked on the air.
"Excuse me?" Neji said sharply.
"Tanaka Ichiro, you know, the politician? He's such an inspirational guy…he totally turned the Land of Sound around."
"Ah," Neji agreed, immediately infusing a certain amount of admiration in his voice. "I have heard of him. Is he going to River County by any chance?"
Neji smiled warmly. "I have some business to take care of with him."
Hinata shuddered slightly.
And so it begins.
End Chapter 8.
Hope you guys liked it. I meant to have this up by January buuut life got in the way. You know how it is.
I've also been trying to spend less time with my computer. I hate how dependent I am on it, and I hate how I check my facebook and email multiple times a day. This is a huge reason for the delay as well. I'm trying to spend more time doing other things I enjoy, like photography...if you want the link to where I post my pictures, just message me or let me know in a review. I'm not 100% comfortable putting it in the chapter itself right now, but that's an explanation for another time.
Another reason for the delay is that-honestly-I'm losing interest in Naruto! I know, terrible T_T. I've been really really into Bleach lately...my interest in the plot itself comes and goes, but there is just something that really touches me about the relationship between Ichigo and Rukia. I love their dynamic so I've totally been lurking in online Bleach communities.
Anyway, that's all I have to say this time. Thanks for taking the time to read, and if you have some time to spare please leave me a review! I absolutely love reading them.
Till next time!