A/N: Okay, I know I should be working on the next chapter of 'Project', but... What can I say? Shinkirou was my baby, and this is an extension of that. There is actually a one-shot called "Homecoming" that bridges these two stories - you don't have to read it, but it sets up a bit of this one. Hope you enjoy.
Rating/Warning/Disclaimer: Rated T for language, violence and *shudders* the horrors of politics! And I own nothing but the butchering of the world and characters.
Notes: According to my dictionary, "Zanzou" means "Afterimage".
As the early morning light struggled to rise above the horizon, the first soft chorus of birdsong was unnoticed by the vast majority of the Village. But it was not these normal sounds that woke the sleeper. Hazy blue eyes drifted open, blinking sleepily. And then snapped open wide, a lifetime of training throwing the boy away from the last borders of dreamland.
'This... is not my room!' Naruto thought. The fourteen year old Genin remained still, allowing his senses to stretch beyond the walls of the small, sparcely furnished room. As his senses brushed against the presence of another beyond the room, the boy finally relaxed. An embarassed grin flitted across his lips as he remembered exactly where he was and how he had gotten there.
Rolling his eyes at himself, the blond yawned and stretched before stumbling out of the door. He dragged himself into the kitchen of the little two-bedroom apartment, whining as he plopped himself down at the table. "Sensei... what are you doing? Why are you up? Don't you know what time it is?"
Iruka chuckled, his voice low and rich. He didn't even bother to face the teen, instead focusing on stirring the breakfast cooking on the stove. "Yeah, about oh-dark-thirty. But we're assessing candidates for Academy teachers today, and I've been asked to be there."
Naruto mock-glared at his teacher and guardian, taking in the familiar line of the man's back. Brown hair, not yet pulled up for the day and brushing the bottom of the older shinobi's shoulder blades. Shoulders pulled back and spine straight - only after many months of little children pointing out years ago that Sensei didn't stand straight, so why should they? Weight forward, barely on the balls of his feet and ready to move in any direction at need.
But most importantly... Naruto's play glare softened into a true smile when the teacher turned, sliding a plate onto the table and giving the blond a fond hair ruffle. Iruka fixed his own plate, choosing to lean against the window instead of sitting, and the two quietly watched as the sun rose over the Village that the had spent their lives fighting for. And they had finally won, although the cost was high. Even a month after the last battle, there were still people without homes and still others struggling to find their place.
The Shinobi Academy was a very good example of that - all of the teachers had been, if not loyal to Danzo directly, then at least made to follow a set curriculum. And according to Iruka, that curriculum emphasized all of the wrong things, and excluded so much that should have been taught. The Hokage was actually planning on making all young Genin and quite a few Chunin go through an assessment and, if needed, attend periodic classes in order to fill in the gaps in their education.
Finishing his meal while Naruto worked on his second serving, Iruka washed his dishes and pulled his hair up out of his face. He said his goodbye, picked up his tote bag and, on the way out of the door, turned back to Naruto with an amused little smirk. Naruto hesitated, spoon halfway up to his mouth as he waited warily. That expression on his teacher's face always meant trouble for someone. Sometimes he hated being right.
"Oh, and Naruto... aren't you supposed to be working with the Hokage today?"
Blue eyes widened and his mouth dropped open for a heartbeat. And then the spoon went flying as Naruto yelped, falling out of his chair and scrambling for the shower. The teen faintly heard Iruka chuckling as he cursed frantically under his breath.
In a house halfway across town, another adult was in the process of watching over a pot of early-morning tea. Mikoto hid her slight discomfort as she turned back to her guest. 'It's odd,' she thought. 'Just over a month ago there was no love between our families - in fact, barely disguised hatred is probably more accurate. And yet he has been at my house all night, quite a few times, and is drinking tea in my sitting room. How much life has changed... but I would take oddity over hatred any day.'
She smiled politely as she set the tea tray on the low table, and her guest inclined his head slightly in a gesture of thanks. After another moment of silence, Hyuuga Hiashi attempted to restart a conversation with his enemy's ex-wife. "Again, my apologies. I did not plan on being here so long when I came here last night."
Hiding a smile at the rare - but slowly becoming more frequent, according to rumor - apology, Mikoto waved his words away. "It's nothing, don't worry about it. I wouldn't have slept much anyway." Another pause, and the two fell silent again, still a little unsure of exactly how they were supposed to interact. Then Hiashi turned slightly, chakra spiking briefly as the veins around his blue eyes bulged. The man relaxed again, the veins fading back as a small smile tugged at his lips. "They're back?" Mikoto asked, already standing up before he nodded.
Two minutes later, the click of the front door opening heralded the entry of three shinobi, two of whom were clearly exhausted, their steps dragging slightly as they leaned on one another. Itachi hesitated, black eyes glancing between his mother and her guest before bowing respectfully. "My apologies, the lesson took longer than I expected - we did not want to stop while they were making progress."
The two younger teens behind him, eyes shining despite the way their shoulders drooped with fatigue, smiled their agreement. Well, actually Sasuke smirked, but still... Both parents couldn't help but soften at the children's obvious happiness. Sasuke, she knew, was just happy to be able to work closely with his brother. Hinata, on the other hand, was thrilled with the lessons themselves. The girl had gotten permission to work with Itachi on stealth and infiltration, and the young man had been teaching the teens a number of the skills he had learned while undercover against ROOT. Though, only when they all had the next day off, of course.
Judging by the grass stains on the girl's pants and the leaf in Sasuke's hair, Mikoto guessed that the three had been working on shadowing a target that night. They were frequently left exhausted mentally or physically, but neither teen complained.
And every time the trio stayed out late into the night - or early in the morning, as the case may be - Hinata's father would leave the younger daughter with his brother and wait for the elder girl to return. The two parents had spent more than one night waiting up for their children to come back from their lessons. And, as always, the man held out his arm, allowing his daughter to lean on his greater strength.
Hinata bowed, exhaustion making the gesture clumsier than it would normally have been. "Thank you for working with me, Itachi-san. Thank you as well, Uchiha-san. Good night, Sasuke-kun."
And as the blue-eyed pair made their exit, Mikoto smiled at her sons. "Breakfast, boys?"
Itachi nodded silently, but Sasuke shook his head slowly. "Nng, bed. Night."
Hiding a chuckle as her younger son stumbled his way to his room, she made her way to the kitchen, the ANBU captain following silently behind her. As she sat down across from her grown son, she said the one thing almost certain to make the bland young man communicate. "So they're doing well?"
It was only the smallest change, the slightest warming of his eyes, but to Mikoto, it spoke of great pride and joy. "Very well. I forbid them to use their bloodline abilities, but even without the Sharingan Sasuke shows an aptitude for analyzing his target and finding patterns in behavior. Hinata-kun is very observant, and while she lacks the speed and physical strength of Sasuke, she is much quieter and lighter on her feet. With a little training, she could become an incredibly efficient stealth operative."
Mikoto smiled. Sasuke was one of the few topics that she and Itachi could talk freely about - she loved talking to and learning about both of her sons, and Itachi could not be more proud of his little brother. "So do they work well together?"
To her surprise, a small smile tugged at Itachi's lips. "All of Iruka's children work well together. They have to - he practically forced it on them."
As Hiashi took his eldest daughter home, they took a shortcut and passed by the edges of one of the more damaged areas of Konoha. Here, the buildings were still dangerous, crumbling walls and overhanging beams that created a hazard for anyone walking among them. Which is why it surprised Hiashi to hear the voices rising strongly in the early morning air. "Again, Lee! Let your power EXPLODE!"
"Yes, Gai-Sensei! Primary Lotus!" Hinata giggled as the sounds of something shattering reached the pair. Father and daughter shared a glance, and detoured into the mess of ruin and debris. Carefully picking their way through the rubble, they drew up at the sight that met them at the sounds' source. Two shinobi, one adult Jounin and one teenage Genin, stood in the center of a circle of shattered wood and plaster.
Maito Gai knelt, carefully scrutinizing some of the fragments on the ground, his green bodysuit and orange leg warmers far too bright for such an early hour. But it was the teen who held Hinata's attention. The girl bit her lip, struggling not to laugh at her friend. Stone grey cargo pants topped by a forest green turtleneck shirt, he wore orange wristbands above the fighting bandages on his hands. A dark orange, but still... orange? The boy was panting lightly, his head tipped back to open his airway as he caught his breath.
Hinata caught her fathers' eye, a small grin on her lips as she mock-whispered. "Lee-kun can get a little carried away, and he's come to idolize Gai-sensei for being able to teach him to match the rest of us in spite of not being able to use Gen or Nin jutsu. At least it isn't the bright colors - or the spandex."
Twitching slightly at the idea of two loud, brightly colored and spandex-clad shinobi running around his Village, Hiashi nodded tersely. "True."
And then Gai stood, catching sight of the Hyuugas. The man gave a blinding smile and a thumbs-up, bringing his student's attention to the pair. "Hyuuga-san, Hinata-san, it is WONDERFUL to see you both! And... Hinata-san, you look EXHAUSTED! What HAPPENED? No, WAIT! Do not tell me - you were up VERY EARLY, and have already completed your training HAVE YOU NOT? Lee, LOOK at this INSPIRING example of hard work and DEDICATION! We must strive to match this INCREDIBLE display of YOUTH! Now, try it AGAIN!"
"YES, Gai-Sensei!" As the teenager threw a high kick, breaking a piece of ruined wall and jumping high into the air after it, Hiashi and Hinata slowly began to inch away from the overly-loud taijutsu specialists. It was too early, and they had been up too late to deal with that kind of energy. Just as they turned away, they saw the boy twist his wrists to unwind the bandages around his hands, wrapping the cloth around his airborne target.
A heartbeat, a determined shout of "Primary Lotus!" and a shattering sound later, and the last thing that Hinata heard before exhaustion overwhelmed her and she collapsed into her father's arms was Gai's triumphant words.
"THAT'S IT, LEE! YOU DID IT!"