Chapter Nineteen: Ten Days

Twenty days until the Final Chunin Exam

Jiraiya looked on in mild irritation as the blond brat woke him up at some obscene hour of the morning, (he refused to look at the battery-powered clock, for if he did, he would probably be forced to kill the boy,) and proceeded to channel chakra into the rubber ball held in his hand until it exploded. When Jiraiya lowered his hands at the unexpected detonation, his ire was only slightly soothed by his protege's bloodshot eyes and dark bags under his eyes. Clearly, he had been up all night practicing the second step to the Rasengan, and just as clearly, it could have waited until after breakfast.

"Brat, you are an ass for multiple reasons. One, you woke me up at," he dared to look at the clock, "six a.m. Two, you woke me by exploding a rubber ball in my ear. And three, there is no way you should be able to do that for another six months. At least."

Naruto, feeling as haggard as he looked, took a second to assimilate what Jiraiya had said. A slow smirk curling his lips, he asked, "hey Ero-sennin, did you just compliment me?"

"Surely not. You need to get your ears checked."

"No, I am pretty sure you did. You said I did in a little over a week what should have taken me six months." Instead of the expected witticism in reply, Naruto saw that Jiraiya had laid back on his bedroll and gone back to sleep. Scowling at the elderly ninja, Naruto dug another rubber ball out and exploded it in Jiraiya's ear again.

Scowling impressively, Jiraiya stuck a pinkie in his ear and wiggled it about. "I guess you aren't going to let me go back to sleep any time soon."

"Not until you show me the third stage to the Rasengan at least." Grumbling inaudibly Jiraiya leaned over and pulled his pack into his lap. Inflating one of the balloons used in the first stage with air, he held it in one hand. "This," he said, gesturing to the balloon, "is the third stage." Naruto looked thoroughly unimpressed. "It does not look like much, but this is what I am really doing." Holding out his left hand, what appeared to be a full-sized typhoon compressed into a palm-sized ball formed.

"The final stage of Rasengan training uses both the chaotic flow of the chakra mastered in the first step and the power of the second, maxing both out. But you also have to contain it all into the proper shape. The difference is between this," he pressed a stage-two Rasengan into the ground, carving several spiraling trenches an inch deep, "and this," pressing a fully formed Rasengan, creating a hole the exact diameter of his Rasengan.

Having explained the final step in Rasengan training, Jiraiya went back to sleep. Having gotten what he wanted from him, Naruto let him rather than explode another ball in his ear, although he considered it. Instead, he walked away from the camp, out of earshot and tried it. He shook his hand when the balloon popped almost immediately, palm stinging.

Concentrating, he blew up another balloon and channeled the chakra to it. Jiraiya had made it stupidly easy, barely even having to glance at either hand. He could keep it under control while just spinning the air inside the ball, but before he even got to apply ten percent of the power required to pop the rubber ball, the balloon popped. A third balloon popped as the first two did, as did the fourth. Seeing that doing the same thing over was not getting the results he wanted, he sat down and closed his eyes. Bringing up the sight of Jiraiya's explanation with the eidetic memory that every ninja was trained to have, he replayed the scene. He examined the sight of the left-handed Rasengan. The raging vortex cupped in his palm was spinning so wildly and with such power that it looked like there was a wall of chakra around the whole thing. "Wait a minute..." Playing the scene over and over in his mind, he became certain that was the secret to the third step.

Holding the balloon carefully in both hands, he formed a thin wall of chakra before creating the vortex in the center of the balloon. He wholly expected it to work on the first try so that is why when the balloon exploded with a rushing gust of wind and a stinging in his palms he was more than a little annoyed. Setting his mouth in a thin line he ignored the pain in his arms and hands and soldiered on. He would master this technique before the tournament no matter what.

OoOoO

"Again!" the man calmly ordered.

The girl, no more than fourteen, pressed her sweaty palms to her head, slicking stray hairs back. Sliding into a starter stance, ready to leap to attack or shift to defend, the black haired girl ducked slightly and then leaped forward, low to the floor of the dojo, the first strike of the older man's retaliatory attack passing close enough to her scalp to part her hair. The second jab missed also, coming not quite contacting the girl's shoulder as she leaned to her left, putting most of her weight on her left foot, the right hand that hand been curled in close to her side leaping forward, two fingers stiffening to strike a solid jab under the man's floating ribs.

Holding her two fingers there for a few tense seconds, Hinata exhaled a sigh of relief when her father stepped back and gave a slight nod. Hinata barely managed to get a knee under her before she faceplanted. Wrapping an arm around her chest, she leaned back on her haunches, breathing heavily. Seeing Hinata's face tighten into a pained grimace, Hiashi stepped back. Taking several deep breaths, Hinata focused on the pain, accepting it as the way of her body telling her it was damaged. Exhaling, she let her awareness of the pain fade until it was just a buzz at the back of her head.

Rising to her feet, she raised her hands into a defensive position, Hinata nodded at Hiashi, telling him she was ready to begin again. To her surprise, her father instead shook his head. Years before, when he had held the hope that she could be the Hyuuga heiress she was meant to be, he would demand they continue to spar until Hinata finally gave into her weakness and could continue no more. But when she had recovered enough to resume training, Hiashi had told her that he would be supervising her training once again.

However, a strange hesitance seemed to hold him back during their spars. He was not the implacable taskmaster that he had once been, more subdued, not as aggressive. He always seemed to be on guard in her presence, almost as if he expected an attack from her at any moment. The only emotion that Hinata imagine causing this change in him was fear, fear of her. But that was patently ridiculous. There was no way that her father could fear her. He openly admitted that the only person he had ever truly feared was the Yondaime Hokage, Namikaze Minato. Sarutobi Hiruzen was a badass among a village well known for their badasses, ultimately attaining the nickname God of Shinobi, but did not possess the utter ruthlessness that the his successor and predecessor had been legendary for. One did not argue with Namikaze Minato, not and leave with steady knees and a full bowel. The Yondaime had such a force of presence that he was fully capable of sending most full jounin scurrying with merely a look.

While the vast majority of the population adored the legendary man, he was respected, but never liked by the Clans. Coming from a totally unremarkable ninja family, both in size and ability, Namikaze had held a slightly contemptuous view of the privileged Clans, and a number of decrees he had issued made this clear. For one, he had abolished a number of statutes giving Clan members, heirs especially, preferential treatment in the Academy.

At a glance, Konoha's shinobi corps seemed to be a single cohesive unit, but in fact was divided into three groups. Foremost among them were the Clans, families of ninja with either a bloodline or secret techniques. Next were the ninja families, families of ninja with no special abilities or techniques, constituting the majority of the corp. Third were the orphans, either true orphans or ninja coming from civilian families.

Even the Clans were not a singular entity, but divided between the Bloodline and Secret Technique Clans with the Bloodline Clans elevated slightly over the Secret Technique Clans.

A Clan heir was virtually invincible, only most heinous criminal wrongdoings able to be prosecuted in court. The members of a family were still protected from a good deal of culpability, but less likely to be vigorously defended from an indictment. The orphans however, were viewed as second class citizens almost. Virtually all Clansmen who entered the Academy graduated in the top half of their class and topped out as chunin at least. About two thirds of family members who entered the Academy graduated and were promoted to chunin at most, and less than a quarter of the orphans who entered the Academy even graduated at all.

Hinata schooled her face to impassivity, carefully hiding her shock as her father waved her off. In all the time that she had trained with him, she couldn't once remember him ending a spar while she could still stand. Nodding to her, Hiashi walked over to the wall, where there were benches for spectators to sit and competitors to rest and recover. Tossing her a bottle of cold water in an almost disturbing display of amicability, he also passed her a towel and motioned for her to sit next to him. Hinata did so slowly, wary of a trap or trick of some sort.

The pair sat in silence for several minutes, Hinata wondering what the hell was going on with her father, who, up until very recently, had washed his hands of her. Sipping her water and mopping her brow with the terrycloth towel, she nearly started when Hiashi spoke.

"Daughter, I know we have not always gotten along." Hinata interrupted him with a snort. "Alright, rarely gotten along. But you must know that I have always done what I have done because it is what is best for the Clan."

"Father, cut the bullshit. We haven't gotten along since Mother died. It took me a few years, but I have long since realized that she was the only thing that kept you from taking me and throwing me in the dojo as soon as I could walk. What do you want?"

Hiashi was arguably the second most powerful man in the village, after the Hokage, and one did not get to such a position by wearing one's emotions on one's sleeves. Even so, Hiashi was hard pressed not to decry the young woman sitting next to him as an impostor. Hiashi nodded in acquiescence. "All right. I will speak plainly then." He shifted on the wooden bench to face Hinata's profile. "I am going to resume supervision of your training."

Hinata took a sip of her water and eyed him carefully. "And why is that Father? I lost my match against Neji. Isn't he the one who should be receiving your tutelage?"

"No. Neji is not and never will be Clan heir. You are, and given your recent changes in temperament, I think you have finally begun to become worthy of the title."

Hinata was silent for a long time before she chose to answer. "Father, for once, I think we are in agreement, but not for the reason you might think."

"And what is your reason?"

Hinata shook her head. "What do you wish me to learn Father? I assume it is to be Jyuuken, because you have never had any complaint in how I run the household."

"You are correct in that assumption. Given your newfound desire to better yourself, I think it is time for you to learn the Eight Trigams Style."

Hinata glanced over to her father and nodded. Setting her water down, she wiped her forehead again before walking to the center of the dojo. Hiashi followed her onto the floor and stood opposite her.

"Activate your Byakugan." Complying, Hinata formed the chain of hand seals, feeling the blood vessels leading to her eyes swell in response.

Hiashi stood behind her and moved her into the initial stance. "With hands and feet spread, envision yourself at the center of the ba gua. There is only you and your target, nothing else. There are six sets of strikes: first set, two; second set, two; third set, four; fourth set, eight; fifth set, sixteen; sixth set, thirty-two. Start with the fifth and sixth aortal tenketsu and continue in the fourth center attack sequence until you reach the eighth abdominal tenketsu, then shift to the second wide attack sequence, finishing with the third bicep tenketsu."

Approaching the Jyuuken training dummy, he performed the attack at one-third speed, making sure that Hinata was paying attention. The dummy was a style manufactured with chakra-sensitive wire woven into it in the pattern of the chakra circulatory system, knotted where the three hundred sixty-one tenketsu were. There was a palm-sized plate placed in the center of the crown where it was charged by channeling a little chakra into via touch. Hinata watched as the wires woven through the dummy glowed a dull blue to her eyes, the "tenketsu" glowing brighter where her father touched.

As usual, there was not a single wasted movement, every motion focused on the attack. Just a few short months ago, her father's grace would have intimidated her into failure. Now, she knew she could not afford such a debilitating emotion. She told herself that she could not afford inadequacy, that this was something she would do, no matter how long it took her to master it. She could no longer depend on Naruto to defend her. If he had to split his attention between focusing on his own fight and hers, the time would come that it would cost him, possibly his life, and that was patently unacceptable.

Approaching the dummy, she slid into the low initial stance for the Eight Trigrams Sixty-Four Palms. Taking a deep breath to settle her nerves, she looked back on her training and brought the appropriate attack routines to mind. Exhaling, Hinata leaned forward into the first two strikes of the attack. Fifty seconds later, she tapped the final two tenketsu on the dummy's upper arms and stood up. She winced as she saw several of the target tenketsu still wide open. Counting them, she had missed four tenketsu, a full one-sixteenth of the total strikes. And to make things worse, they were all in the center of the chest, where there were close to a dozen tenketsu close together.

In some ways, she had the most developed Byakugan in the Clan, and somewhat mediocre in others. Nobody could see farther than she could, but her extreme range came at the cost of precision, as she sometimes had trouble pinpointing the correct tenketsu in that mass. Flaring her chakra briefly, she flushed the dummy out and tried again. And again, and again. By the time that the sun would be highest in the sky, Hinata's fingers were throbbing and starting to sting from overexertion. The training dummy had been charged with her chakra so many times that it practically glowed. A light sheen of sweat glistened on her skin, her ninja mesh clinging to her torso. Her bulky coat lay to one side, discarded an hour into training.

Hinata nearly jumped when the clatter of a tray of food broke her concentration. Looking to where the food was being set out by a young Branch member, symbolized by the black scarf she wore over her forehead, she shook her hands and walked over. Seating herself on the bench and taking a bite of food, she peered at the girl. The onigiri fell from senseless fingers when the girl finally stood up, her long hair falling back to reveal her face. Hinata froze for the few seconds it took for her to accept that she was seeing who she thought she was seeing.

"Hanabi-chan?"

Hanabi bent down to pick up the dropped onigiri and set it to one side. "Yes Hinata-sama?"

Hinata just looked at her little sister for a few seconds, making sure it actually was her sister. "What happened Hanabi-chan?"

Hanabi straightened, eyes lowered, hands folded, picture-perfect posture of a Branch member addressing the a member of the Main House. "You were named Hiashi-sama's heir, Hinata-sama. I was relegated to the Branch House, as there can only be one heir to the Main House."

"Father?"

"What? You knew this was coming when you were named heiress. Your sister knew it as well, and has come to terms with it. Correct Hanabi-chan?"

"Correct Hiashi-sama. I now see that you are the one best suited to lead the Clan, Hinata-sama? Is there anything else I can do for your right now?"

Hinata shook her head. Hanabi bowed and excused herself. She spent the rest of the brief meal in sullen silence. When the pair returned to training, Hiashi noted the redoubled effort that Hinata exerted. He knew what fueled her, he was not blind. He did not particularly care either. At the moment, he would use her determination. He could correct her emotions later.

Hinata, on the other hand, channeled all her anger into the dummy. She had seen Hanabi at several meals immediately after her confirmation unsealed, but had spent the last several months either out of the village or training from sunup to sundown, so she had not seen her little sister in quite some time. She had thought that her father would have told her if Hanabi had been moved to the Branch House. Unlike Hanabi, Hinata loved her sister dearly, partly as she was the last piece of her mother. Hanabi had been too young when she had died, so had no memories of her. Hinata, however, had adored her mother, and been devastated when she had died.

By the time Hinata went to bed, she was exhausted and rolled into bed almost before she was undressed. She really wasn't mad at her father, she knew that she shouldn't have expected anything else from him. She knew that he always looked out for the Clan first and would do anything he saw as necessary, no matter who it hurt even if that person was his own daughter. Despite the fact that Hanabi was a member of the Clan, he saw nothing wrong with placing a seal that had only one purpose: enslavement. She knew the origins of the Caged Bird Seal. It was a well known fact that the Sharingan evolved from the Byakugan. What was not so well known was that the Caged Bird Seal was only created after the Main House lost control of the Sharingan. The First Clansman back then had ordered the Clan's foremost seal masters craft a seal that would prevent anyone bearing the seal from breaking away from the Clan again.

Of course, that same seal was immediately applied to everyone who had a working knowledge of it, to prevent it from falling outside of the Clan's control. The only reason why the Main House had absolute control over the Branch House was because they were the only ones who could activate the seal. If another group were to gain the ability to activate the seal, they could give conflicting orders and let the Branch member choose which to follow. If the Branch members were to gain to ability to choose which orders to follow and which to ignore, that would be the beginning of the end of the Clan. Not to mention how a single person would be able to kill any Branch member with a single seal.

One aspect of the seal was that it was permanent. Once applied, one was forever subject to the whims of someone able to activate the master seal. Naruto had promised her to try to develop a counterseal to negate the effects of the Caged Bird Seal. She had smuggled a blueprint of the seal out to Jiraiya trying to enlist his assistance in the crafting but had been refused. The Caged Bird Seal was an internal Hyuuga matter and that he had no standing to try to create a counterseal without Hiashi's consent. If he were to create a counterseal, and not even the Hokage would be able to help him when Hiashi eventually found out (and he almost certainly would) and had him charged with interfering with administration of his Clan. Jiraiya's refusal had not deterred Naruto in the least though.

As Hinata lay in her bed in the dark, she couldn't help but think of Naruto's visit the previous week.

Flashback no Jutsu

Twenty-eight days until the Chunin Final Exam

Hinata was in her and Naruto's sitting room, kneeling at the work desk on the wall. Next to the desk was a beige filing cabinet and a safe built into the floor. The desk only had one drawer, for writing utensils and paper, but was tilted and had a writing lamp attached to make a comfortable work station. A thick tome was cracked open, marked with columns of numbers and letters, a calculator to one side and an ink well for her old-fashioned fountain pen. Her mother had favored that particular pen for balancing the books and so did she.

So absorbed was she in the numbers that she nearly blotched the paper when Naruto hugged her from behind. Laying the pen down carefully, she turned around and gave him a welcome-home kiss. Marking her place, Hinata carefully blotted the wet ink and turned to give Naruto her full attention.

"Good morning, love," Naruto murmured.

"Good morning to you too," Hinata replied.

"Whatchya doing?"

"Balancing the coffers." Naruto shuddered.

"Numbers. Ick." Hinata just grinned. However loudly Naruto might proclaim his aversion to any type of paperwork, he was extraordinarily good at it. Hinata had been looking after the books for several years now, yet she usually had Naruto take a quick look over the ledger as well. While she never fudged the numbers, he occasionally found ways to save money, like knowing where to buy in bulk from the manufacturers themselves or managers specials on food that was nearing the expiration date and such.

"Was there something you wanted Naruto-kun?"

"Do I need a reason to come home and kiss my wife now?" he asked in mock affront.

"No, but you should be with Jiraiya-sama training."

"Not anywhere near a problem. The real me is still with the pervert."

"I see. If that is true, then I don't need to worry about getting you back any time soon then?"

"Nope. I am all yours all day."

"Good. Because that means you can come with me when I go to see Senna-sama."

Naruto paled. Hyuuga Senna was quite possibly the oldest person in Konoha. No one knew exactly how she was a Hyuuga, and no one really had the balls to ask. Even Hiashi walked small and minded his manners. Well, he didn't walk small precisely, but he sure as hell watched what he said around her. Hinata thought she was her great grandmother at least, as she was unsealed, and mentioned Senjuu Hashirama as if she knew him personally.

To Naruto, it seemed that the old witch enjoyed playing the crotchety old lady far too much for his liking. The crone was more than prone to pinch his cheeks and ruffle his hair and call him Minato, although a glint in her eyes when she called him by his father's name made his suspect that she was just screwing with him. Naruto, nigh-legendary for his brashness didn't dare call her Old Lady, at least to her face. She was, without a doubt, the only person he truly feared. He knew how to handle his mother well enough most of the time, the Hokage was the closest thing he had to a grandfather and he had never really seen Hiashi in action.

Had he not known better, he would have sworn that she had closer to eight arms rather than two, given how easily she was able to tuck him into a smelly overstuffed armchair and read his palms, hemming and hawing at how his pupils were to small, forcing him to eat tooth-chipping rock cakes and all the while fluttering over how he would grow up into a fine young man. As if he wasn't already. A man that was. He loathed the day that anyone would be able to call him "fine" in that tone.

"Ah, well..."

"No, no last-minute appointments Naruto-kun. You said you were mine all day, and all day it will be."

Clone-Naruto briefly considered dispelling to avoid the crazy lady. But there was a reason why he had come to see Hinata, and it was important. Pulling her to her feet, clone-Naruto led Hinata over to the red futon and sat next to her, an arm around her shoulder. He let his face fall into a neutral expression and looked Hinata directly in the eyes.

"Actually, there was a reason why I came to visit you today." Hinata nodded, and remained silent, letting him come to it in his own time. She would reserve judgment when she had all the facts, and not before.

"I don't have to remind you that I love you absolutely Hinata-chan, as I love Tenten-chan absolutely. Things have not always been smooth between us, and we will have problems in the future. But I know that we will be able to work them out in the end. I will admit that I sometimes give Tenten a little more attention than I do you, but it is not because of anything you or she have ever done. I won't say that Tenten has more problems than you do, because that is not true, but ever since I married you, she has had to face new difficulties that she didn't have to before. I worry about her sometimes, about how she gets along with her parents, how she doesn't have anyone to really relate to in out age group, how she seems to work herself to exhaustion too often."

Hinata nodded in solemn agreement as Naruto talked. She had noticed that Naruto did sometimes seem to almost fawn over Tenten at times and while he had never neglected her, Naruto occasionally didn't really give her his full attention when they were together. And while she understood Tenten's predicament and agreed with Naruto's assessment, it was reassuring to hear him say that it wasn't because of anything on her part.

While she and Tenten were friends, it was not the same kind of friendship they would otherwise have had. Hinata could tell that Tenten did not always tell her everything that she and Naruto did together, because Hinata did the same thing herself. Their reticence wasn't a reluctance to discuss Naruto, quite the opposite; every once in a while, the pair would have a girls-day-out, at times joined by Anko and discuss Naruto at length. They would theorize as to his quirks and idiosyncrasies (such as his unwavering dislike of tempura,) and various tics, how he liked to rub noses, and hated for anyone to pat his head or try to smooth his hair. But their sharing of experiences only went so far, by unstated but mutually understood agreement.

For example, Tenten had never told Hinata how Naruto had slept in her room on more than one occasion, nor had Hinata told Tenten that Naruto swapped pillows with her, because he said he liked smelling her as he fell asleep, as it gave him good dreams. The last thing either woman wanted was to find out that Naruto, despite all evidence to the contrary, did favor one over the other. It was not entirely dissimilar to two women discussing a mutual ex-husband, neither woman telling the other everything that the man in question had done to or for them, lest they find out that they were not as special as he had told them they were.

"She tries to hide it, and does fairly well, but I have seen her look at your ring, and mine. She hasn't said anything, but I can tell that she doesn't feel equal to you. That is why I went and proposed to her yesterday."

"Naruto-kun, you didn't!" Naruto barely suppressed a wince, while Hinata didn't precisely recoil from him, there was more disapproving shock than he would have liked to hear. "That is illegal, you could get imprisoned for that! Naruto-kun. I know that you love her, but I know that she wouldn't want you to anything that would land you in jail. If our situation was reversed, I know that I would feel that way."

Naruto kept quiet while Hinata protested his plan. "I went to talk to the Hokage about it too." Hinata paled slightly and clutched his shirt. She knew that her husband and the Hokage were close, but she didn't know if that would preclude him from having Naruto arrested. "I told him that I wanted to marry Tenten, and he eventually told me how to. He was the one who told me that Konoha doesn't let a man have more than one wife, but he did say that Konoha respects the legality of a marriage performed in another country."

"Well, that sounds alright, but do you know of a country that will marry a pair of foreigners? A justice of the peace in any land I can think of would require proof of citizenship."

"Well, I was thinking that Tazuna, from Wave, could probably help us out. And if Wave doesn't work out, I could contact Sora and see what she could do."

"Sora, the Jinchuuriki from Mist?" Hinata clarified.

"Yeah. I mean, she is pretty close to the Mizukage, from what she has told me, and I am pretty sure that a marriage performed by the head of Kirigakure would be pretty binding."

"What about my father?"

"What about him?" Naruto seemed to be honestly puzzled by her turn-of-topic.

"I know that he would raise hell with anyone he could if you tried anything like this."

Naruto cocked his head, almost smirking as he answered. "This whole affair was his idea. If he doesn't like it, then tough luck. Your father will have to get over it."

Hinata sighed. "He is your father now, too Naruto-kun." Hinata mumbled as she leaned into him. Naruto in turn wrapped his arm around her, hugging her tightly. Whatever she may say, his basically asking permission to marry Tenten had to shake her confidence, even a little.

Lowering his voice, Naruto whispered into her ear, "I love you Hinata-chan, now and forever. There is nothing you can do to make me think otherwise. If you doubt everything else about me, never doubt that. You are mine, Hinata-chan. Mine and only mine." Hinata shivered slightly, liking the possessiveness in his growl, the promise that she had a place that no one else, not even Tenten could usurp, in his heart.

Flashback no jutsu KAI!

Smiling softly she closed her eyes, blanked her mind and allowed her exhaustion to overtake her and she slipped into dreamless sleep.

OoOoO

Tenten woke up a week and a half after the end of the Preliminary fights in her own bed. She glanced out at the grey predawn light as she rose and made her morning toilet. Putting on a blue sleeveless shirt, buttoning it up the side over a pair of black pants, she opened the warchest at the foot of her bed. She sorted through the assorted implements of death before tucking half a dozen kunai and shuriken scrolls in her shirt pockets and taped a pouch of kunai and shuriken to her legs. Grabbing a couple of loose kunai out of the bottom of the chest, she tucked one up each sleeve through the gun holster straps, one down the nape of her neck, one behind her belt by her two large pistols, finishing with one down the straps of each of her sandals. Shrugging to better settle the ninja mesh on her shoulders, she double checked everything and slipped out of the house without waking her parents.

The streets were fairly empty at this hour, as only the market was open this early of the morning. As one of Naruto's teammates, she was the focus of far more scrutiny than many other ninja of her age or rank. Since Sasuke Uchiha's court martial late last year, she had become even more famous, or perhaps infamous would be a better adjective. While she did not get the same treatment as Naruto or his mother, she did get the evil eye or cold shoulders on the street and bad service at restaurants, among other relatively minor inconveniences. For the most part, she just ignored the rude treatment and avoided the places where she couldn't. Ever since she had begun wearing the engagement ring that Naruto had given her relationship with her parents had cooled even more. When they had found out during Sasuke's court martial, they had been gently disapproving. But the longer she continued to date Naruto, the less veiled their opposition became. When she came downstairs the morning after Naruto's marriage proposal, she and her mother had their worst fight yet while her father wisely hid the dishes. She had crashed at Anko's for two days after that.

It had gotten to the point where she simply avoided them whenever she could. She understood their reasoning, they just wanted what they thought was best for her and they sincerely believed that Naruto was not who was best for her. She knew that she was reaching the end of her tolerance though. Tenten was starting to seriously consider moving out of her parents home and into one of her own. There were several blocks of the Shinobi District devoted to low rent housing for genin and new chunin, jokingly nicknamed the schoolyard. It was not entirely unheard of for an orphan genin to move out of their parents home and into the schoolyard in the first year of becoming genin.

Thinking about the training that she had received over the last three weeks, she was astounded at the progress she had made. Even given the minimal knowledge she had of elemental manipulation, her facility with earth-element techniques had increased by a factor of at least three. Aligning her chakra to earth was almost subconscious now, and her techniques barely needed a thought to direct them. Her Earth Release: Earth Serpent and its stronger version Earth Dragon almost seemed to have minds of their own, acting on her direction almost before she could think.

As was usual, Anko was already at the training grounds when she arrived, with the sun just peeking over the trees. Anko launched herself at Tenten from where she was perched on a tree branch. Tenten barely batted an eyelash as she whipped out a kunai, deflecting three slashes in under a second.

OoOoO

Half an hour later Anko called for an end. Tenten was covered in a light sheen of perspiration and took several deep breaths to calm down.

"Pretty good for a warm-up spar Panda-chan. You have gotten quite a bit faster. I liked how you jumped and caught that kunai that I deflected up and threw it back at me again. Anyways, on to the real training." Anko seated herself on the patch of dirt in the middle of the clearing and motioned for Tenten to sit down. "The technique I am going to teach you is a technique called Sound of Earth. It is not ninjutsu, genjutsu or taijutsu in the strictest sense. The simplest explanation is that the Sound of Earth Technique allows an earth-attuned person to see through the ground by sensing the vibrations caused by a person coming into contact with the ground.

"Take off your sandals and stand with your eyes closed. Focus on the earth, but do not let it draw you into it. Instead of looking at the earth as a whole, which is what you have been doing before, try to detect the different parts of the earth. Feel each grain of dirt under your feet, each pebble between your toes. Feel the shockwaves created by every living thing on the ground. Feel the grains of earth shifting against one another as they are moved." Anko started at normal volume but gradually faded out until her voice was naught but a murmur. Slowly, taking careful steps, Anko walked behind Tenten and raised a kunai to strike, only to quite unexpectedly have Tenten drop to her hands and toes in a leg sweep. Anko dodged it effortlessly of course, but she grinned ruefully, chuckling as Tenten faced her.

"Well, I should have seen that coming. Giving how easily you have been learning elemental manipulation, it would only make sense that you would grasp the Sound of Earth on your first attempt. Goddamn, but you are nothing but one surprise after another."

"So, I have a question Anko."

"Fire away."

"If you know the Sound of Earth Technique, how come I have never seen you use it?"

"What, you think that I have shown you every trick I have ever learned?" She paused a second before continuing. "To answer your question though, it is because I have never been able to do the technique. I have never been able to fine-tune my earth-sense enough to feel the shockwaves of people walking."

"So the student has already surpassed the master then?"

"Not by a long shot runt. But feel free to see who is the master anytime." Anko's glare might have intimidated someone less familiar with her personality, but Tenten knew she was just joking. Mostly. "Anyways, put this blindfold on. From now on, whenever we spar, half the time you will be doing it blindfolded."

Tenten accepted the cloth and bound her eyes. As soon as she did, she felt the rush of chakra as Anko did something. Sliding into a defensive stance, Tenten concentrated on the infinitesimal vibrations of the dirt beneath her feet. There was a dissonant vibration coming from ten o'clock, coming as fast as Anko could jog and not make any sound. When the shockwaves came so close together that Tenten knew that Anko was almost on top of her, she lashed out with a wild swing abruptly, which Anko blocked easily. The breath was knocked out of Tenten as Anko buried her fist in Tenten's gut. Stumbling back, she was surprised when a pair of arms seized her and pinned her.

Caught completely unawares as she was, she was still able to snap a kick into the side of her opponents knee. However she nearly lost her footing as her captor dissolved into cold and sticky mud. The sensation of cold mud dripping down the back of her shirt elicited an involuntary gasp from her but Anko did not continue the fight. When the shock wore off a few seconds later, Tenten raised the blindfold to peer at Anko.

"What the hell was that? How did that clone sneak up on me?"

"The mud clone that you destroyed is one of the few weaknesses in the Sound of Earth technique. As mud clones are made of earth element, they do not disturb the natural motions of the earth and as a result do not create shockwaves strong enough to be sensed."

"So, against anything but an earth technique, the Sound of Earth technique can tell me where someone or something is."

"Not exactly. Even certain kinds on earth techniques can be sensed, those that are particularly violent or disruptive, like the Heavenly Rising Spires, or Swamp of the Underworld, or the Earth Style Wall. There are few things more jarring than ripping a slab of stone out of the ground. Anyways, I have made the point I wanted to make. From now on, I won't be teaching you any more techniques. We will be sparring against each other every day, from now on."

"And how is that different from before?"

"The difference is that you will be using everything in your arsenal to try to beat me. The only way you can win a spar is if you use every technique you know at least once, and then completely disable me."

"Anko, Naruto-kun, Hinata-chan and I combined have never managed to beat you decisively, and I am supposed to do it on my own?"

"You are right in that respect. You have a snowball's chance in hell of beating me alone. But that is not the point of the exercise. The point is to make you learn your techniques so well that you don't have to even think before you use them. I want to drive your knowledge so deep that they are engraved on your bones. I am going to push you to the limits of what you are capable of so you know exactly how far you can go, and then keep going. If you think training has been hard up until now, then you won't know what hit you next."

Tenten grinned. "I was wondering when you were going to stop playing with kiddie gloves." Tenten successfully managed to hide her growing anxiety when Anko's smile turned downright predatory.

"Kiddie gloves don't begin to cover it, little girl. Now get ready, 'cuz it would suck if I killed you right off the bat."

Tenten almost blinked as Anko dematerialized. Conscious thought took a back seat to trained instinct for the next few seconds as the two women exchanged a fierce barrage of punches and kicks. Three seconds and a dozen blocked punches, Tenten's forearms were aching. She ducked to the right and down, avoiding a straight punch that would have broken her nose otherwise. Latching onto Anko's extended arm, she pulled on it, driving her knee into Anko's sternum. The strike was textbook-perfect, but Anko hardly missed a beat as Tenten followed up with another knee strike to her face. Taking a single step back, Anko lashed out with a foot sweep while Tenten was still on one foot. Tenten caught herself in a reverse handspring and nearly caught Anko under the chin with a foot. Anko avoided her attack by leaping into a handspring herself, and both women ended up blocking the other's strikes with their shins.

Hands blurring, Tenten quickly exhaled, using a Wind Release: Windstream to keep Anko off balance while she drew Shrieking Fang and released it into it's secondary form. Holding the two tessen, she spun one end in a defensive figure eight. Wiping a trickle of blood from the corner of her mouth, Anko kept her grin firmly in place. Leaping forward to close the ten-meter gap between them, Anko barely blinked when Tenten quite predictably fired the one tessen directly at her. Deflecting the missile with both palms pushed her slightly off course, but Anko quickly corrected. As Anko came within striking distance, her eyes widened momentarily as she dove to one side. And she dodged barely in time too. She felt flecks to dirt patter against her cheek as the end of Shrieking Fang now occupied the space where her feet had been a split second before.

Anko gave a minuscule nod to Tenten, acknowledging her improved control over her zanpakuto. Wrapping the chain near each end of her zanpakuto around her hands to free them for hand seals, Tenten executed the Earth Release: Earth Style Wall not once, but four times, boxing herself in. Quirking her eyebrow at the odd maneuver, Anko nevertheless, jumped up to the top of the box, fully expecting Tenten to have some sort of trap set up. Alighting on the top of the wall, she applied chakra to the soles of her feet as Tenten appeared in front of her, lashing out with Shrieking Fang. Blocking the attack with a hastily drawn kunai, she pushed Tenten farther up into the air with a fist tot he point of her chin. Anko knew that she had fallen for Tenten's trap when the Tenten in from of her reverted to mud. Before Anko had a chance to swear mentally, she felt a hand on her ankle, and abruptly she was drawn down into the wall.

The real Tenten crouched on top of the wall and laid the edge of Shrieking Fang along her throat. "You know, Anko, I think I win."

"Not so fast young grasshoppa'." And as she said that, the wall she was encased in exploded. Tenten was tossed headfirst into the ground. Anko crouched over Tenten and waited for her to wake up. A few minutes later, Tenten started stirring and groaning. Grinning broadly at the egg growing on the back of her head, Anko uncharacteristically remained silent as Tenten sat up and gingerly felt the lump, wincing as it throbbed painfully. Picking Shrieking Fang up from where it had fallen, Tenten shakily sheathed the sword and collapsed in the shade.

Anko sat down next to her young pupil in silence, letting Tenten begin the conversation. "How?"

"Your wall was nowhere near thick enough to hold a mouse, let alone me. But points for creativity. This is just the kind of thing that I want you to try. That probably would have worked on any genin and most chunin short of a Hyuuga. Anyways, you have a concussion, so let's get you to the hospital.

Warding Anko off with one arm, she pushed herself to her feet while disagreeing. "No, I'm fine. Let's keep going." Tenten made it three steps before she stumbled and went to one knee, waited two heartbeats and threw up. Anko stood over her with her fists on her hips, an expression that said 'are you done being foolish now?' on her face. Looking up, Tenten grimaced. "Okay, okay, to the hospital it is then."

"Good. I was starting to wonder if my son was rubbing his thick skull off on you."

"Haha. Real funny. Now stop running your mouth and help me up." Anko knelt down and cupped her hands behind her, motioning for Tenten to climb on. She did, and hung her head over Anko's shoulder. Closing her eyes seemed to help alleviate the nausea and disorientation somewhat. Tenten thought she might have passed out briefly because the trip to the hospital didn't seem to take as long as it should have. Her arrival was met with the usual flurry of activity any such entrance might arouse. She was strapped down on a gurney in short order and closely inspected to make sure that a concussion was the worst of her worries. An IV was inserted in her arm to keep her hydrated and electrodes attached to her temples to monitor brain activity. Eventually the nurses and doctors concluded that she was in no immediate danger and after administering a small amount of healing chakra, was left with Anko.

Neither woman spoke for a few minutes, Tenten lost in her own thoughts, Anko considering how to best lead into the question she wanted to ask Tenten. After a minute, she decided just to ask. "Tenten, did Naruto propose to you?"

Tenten looked at Anko in surprise, quirking an eyebrow. "I am surprised that it took you so long to ask me that. But, yes he did. And before you say anything, we know about the anti-polygyny laws. Naruto said that he would find away around them, and I trust him."

"Actually, that wasn't what I was going to ask. You should know by now that the last thing on my mind is what is and isn't legal. Why do you think that I dress they way I do?"

"Okay then. Well, if you weren't going to ask about the laws, then what were you going to ask about?"

"Well, one, when is the wedding, and two, what is your married name going to be?"

"Ah, well, I haven't actually thought about that. It is an important decision though."

"Well, I don't suppose you will be taking Naruto's married name as yours."

"No, the last thing I want is to be a Hyuuga."

"Uzumaki Tenten. That doesn't have a bad sound."

Tenten repeated the name a few times aloud before smiling. "You are right. I think I like the sound of it."

"Well, I would hope you do. You have to use it for the rest of your life after all. Anyways, do have any idea where you would get married?"

"We really aren't sure yet. Naruto wants to wait until the Chunin Exams are done before we do any serious planning. But he did suggest maybe going back to Wave, or possibly to Mist. He thinks that if Tazuna can't help us, Sora could."

"Sora?" Anko asked.

"The Kiri-nin from the Chunin Exam the Prelims, remember? We met up the first day of the Exams for lunch and teamed up in the Forest of Death. She and Naruto seem to know each other pretty well. He said they had been exchanging letters for a while now. He figures that if he asked, she could see if the Mizukage would marry us."

"Heh. I would like to see the Council invalidate a marriage performed by the leader of Kiri herself."

"That was what Naruto figured. I doubt that they would be willing to offend the Mizukage over something relatively minor."

"What about Hinata? Have you spoken to her at all?

"Ah, not really. I have barely seen her at all since the end of the preliminaries. I have gone to the compound a couple of times but the guard won't even take a message for her, let alone let me in. My name might as well be mud as far as anyone other than Hinata is concerned. Not that I really care in any case."

"Well I was going to go check on her in the next couple of days. She hasn't been admitted to the hospital so far, but I have not seen here in a while either and I do want to make sure that Hiashi is letting her recover."

"With him, one is as likely as another."

"I suppose. Anyways, do tell her that I want to talk to her if you do see her at all."

"Sure thing. The doc said that you would be able to leave tomorrow, so we can go then."

OoOoO

Anko arrived the next morning to find Tenten tucking the last of her scrolls into their pockets. "Ready to go?"

"Just about."

The doctor had a brown clipboard on which he was making a few notations. "Please come back immediately should you suffer from dizziness, vomiting, trouble with your vision and disorientation or difficulty concentrating. The diagnostic technique doesn't show anything more than a bump on the head, but the brain is a delicate organ, and injuries are sometimes difficult to spot. If there is nothing else, I will leave you now."

"No, that is just about everything I can think of now." Giving both women a brief smile and a nod of the head, the white-coated doctor left. Shrugging her black leather trench coat on, Tenten hooked Shriekin Fang onto her belt, glanced around the room to make sure that she did not miss anything she strode out the door. Signing herself out at the front desk, the pair headed to the Hyuuga complex in silence. It took the pair almost fifteen minutes to navigate the streets and civilian crowds from the hospital all the way to their destination.

The two women waited in what could best be described as a lobby, were it in some sort of commercial building. There was a Branch Hyuuga blocking the only door in the room, following ever movement the pair made. After about fifteen minutes of waiting a single knock sounded and the Hyuuga stepped aside and opened the door. Hinata was escorted by a second Branch Hyuuga who held the door open for her to enter. Hinata hesitated for a split second before she dismissed the two Branch Hyuuga with a wave of her hand.

After the three exchanged slightly awkward greetings, Anko said, "Well, I am going to step outside for a few minutes now, I think."

Hinata quirked an eyebrow at that odd comment and turned back to Tenten. The brunette took a breath to steady her nerves, but before the brunette could say anything, Hinata spoke. "If you have come to tell me that Naruto has proposed to you, I already know." That took the wind out of Tenten's sails and left her blinking. "Naruto told me about how he proposed to you the day after he did it."

"Ah, well, I am not really sure what to say. You seem to already know everything."

"Naruto and I discussed it a bit, but I would not say that. But do let me say that I am glad for you and Naruto."

"Ah... I... That..." Realizing that she was stuttering, Tenten closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "Thank you. I cannot say what it means to me to have your blessing."

"Well, I know that you haven't felt the same since Naruto and I married, and Naruto hated that you had any reason to feel that he loved you less than me."

"Really? I never meant to-"

"Tenten-chan, you don't have to explain yourself to me. If our situation had been reversed, I am sure that I would feel much the same. I just hope that everything can stay the way that it has been."

Leaning forward, Tenten and Hinata embraced. Releasing each other a moment later they exchanged beatific smiles, before linking arms passing a smirking Anko, went to celebrate.