He answered after two rings, though his hand had been hovering over the mouthpiece for long minutes before the call came in. All interior lights were off and the city spread out below him, glittering in descending twilight, the rush of traffic echoing forty floors up. Beyond the sounds of the city there was only the blood in his ears, the pounding of his heart, and the ringing telephone.
He cleared his throat, forced a voice past the lump lodged there. "Tsunade."
"It's really him."
Three minutes and forty-one seconds later the suite was empty, nothing but the lazy sweep of security cameras moving across the opulent stillness as its previous occupant watched sky scrapers shrinking beneath him to the roar of helicopter rotors.
"I told him not to get his hopes up… if this is Kakashi telling me he's gone off the deep end again-" Kushina's assistant backed up a wary step or two as the too-often explosive woman grumbled angrily while rummaging through her pack for the mobile phone only a select few could reach her on. "AHA!" came the triumphant cry, though the scowl creasing the woman's forehead did not diminish in the least as the captured phone was snapped open and lifted to an ear.
A minute later, the cell slipped from nerveless fingers. White-faced and huge-eyed, Kushina looked slowly up at her anxious assistant. One hand still hovered near her ear, fingers still curled around the space where the phone recently rested.
"Obito…" she whispered, dazed, "…I'll regret this… but… how soon can you get us back to Konoha?"
Naruto was having a bad day. It started with Hinata crying—and he still had no idea why. There they were, eating breakfast together, which had become slightly less awkward lately, and then suddenly there was this hiccupping sound and the next thing he knew she was doubled over in her chair with her arms wrapped around her just slightly swollen belly, gasping and sobbing as tears and snot ran down her face and Naruto floundered frantically in helpless panic. But his desperate questions about what was wrong and what he needed to do were returned with her snapping at him to "l-l-leave me alone!"—snapping! Hinata never snapped! At anyone! And then she locked herself in their only bathroom until an even-grumpier-that-usual Sasuke came to drag him off to hockey practice (Hinata's fit having made him late), full of snark and snide insults that felt more sincere than usual.
Kakashi-sensei was barely thirty-five minutes shy of on-time that day, meaning he arrived just as Naruto lost it with Sasuke's nonstop taunts and forsook suiting up in favor of clocking the Uchiha with a goalie mask. The only thing keeping him from fretting nonstop about Hinata while running a ridiculous number of suicides as punishment was the smirk on Sasuke's face. Which all led up to him being more focused on causing the bastard as much grief as possible during their practice skirmishes than on tracking the puck, which took a deadly slapshot off Kiba's stick to sail on a smooth projectory right into Naruto's head.
Fortunately, he was wearing a helmet. With the straps correctly adjusted and buckled up and all. Which was why it was utterly ridiculous that he was currently locked up in a hospital, with strong hints he really hoped he had misinterpreted pointing to not getting out any time soon. No, they had to keep going on about keeping him overnight for "observation" and how there were still people who needed to be "consulted", blah blah blah.
So he had a concussion! He got those all the time. As much as he might bluster at Sasuke's uncalled-for commentaries on the inevitable deaths of his few remaining brain cells, Naruto privately wondered how any cells of his at all—not to mention those in his much-abused head—stayed alive. He'd certainly been in enough seriously life-threatening situations to have died half a dozen times before. Did he go to the hospital on any of those occasions? …Well, that one time. And maybe a couple times when he was really little, he couldn't quite remember. But for the most part he'd been left to patch himself up as best he could and crawl somewhere safe enough to recover on his own, which suited him just fine. If he'd known how painfully un-fun and horrifyingly restricting it was to have dozens of people hovering around him, worrying over his wellbeing and telling him what was best for him, he wouldn't have wished for it nearly as frequently as a small child. In fact, he was beginning to feel increasingly less along the lines that it was care he was receiving—no, he decided, as Kakashi foiled his third escape attempt with a too-cheerily delivered suggestion that he be strapped to his bed—this wasn't care, it was underneath-the-underneath torture.
Kakashi-sensei had been acting weird a lot lately. Naruto was purposefully unobservant of the way people looked at and acted toward him, but even he couldn't pretend that there wasn't something strange about the way his team mentor had taken to staring at him. And the questions. Naruto was far too annoying for anyone to intentionally encourage more talking through the asking of personal questions—certainly Kakashi had never tried. That is, he'd never tried until the hair dye incident. Damn Kiba, damn damn damn him—the minute he got out of this wretched place, he'd beat the jerk into the pavement until his dog couldn't recognize him. This wretched place that he was in BECAUSE of Kiba. And Kiba's stupid super-high-velocity-spinning slap shot. He wasn't trying to look like Sasuke, Kiba knew nothing. The dye was a matter of life and death. Heh. Dye or die…. yeah.
Now they wanted to draw more of his blood. Another blood test? Really? What was a blood test going to tell them about a concussion? Did he look suddenly diseased or something? Maybe he caught something from Hinata—she had certainly looked awful with all that crying that morning. Speaking of Hinata, he'd meant to check up on her hours ago—first thing after practice. He would force her to tell him what was wrong. Now what was he going to do? It was almost 7:00 p.m., the whole day had passed and he still had no idea what had happened to her, how seriously she might need help, heck, for all he knew she could still be locked in the bathroom…bathroom. If he didn't get a chance to pee in the next three minutes, there really would be something wrong with him. Another exasperated groan filled the room as Naruto banged his fists on the bed railing in frustration. Ooh, that sounded kinda cool… he could get a rhythm going…
He was still at it (and sounding awesome) a few minutes later when Kakashi-sensei decided to make an appearance again. The first time he said his name, Naruto rudely ignored the man, much more content to continue his percussional pursuits than to go to all the trouble of adding another dirty look to the collection of glares and whines he'd been throwing at the man all day. That is, until a word of undying beauty issued forth in Kakashi's bored voice.
"…I suppose if you don't want this ramen after all…"
Abrupt silence fell as a painfully bright and hopeful face whipped up to look at the masked man.
Hinata couldn't decide which was worse: that she'd started crying again, or that she actually had good reason to this time. It was nearing 7:30 and she'd heard nothing from Naruto. He kept a pay-per-minute cell on him for emergencies, but it went straight to voicemail, and though she'd finally forced the words for a recorded message past her anxious tongue, she had yet to hear anything back. And he hadn't answered any of the five texts she'd sent, hours earlier, apologizing for her horrifying behavior and wishing him a really good day. Twice now she'd started dialing Neji's number—something only true desperation could drive her to—but both times she'd made herself stop, breathe, remind herself of the probable consequences, and promise to wait another twenty minutes before panicking.
Any moment now… she would hear from him any minute… he'd gotten in trouble at practice again and had to stay late to clean up, he'd missed both his bus connections, Sakura or Sasuke needed his help with something and he'd just forgotten to call—
-but no. Naruto could be called tactless, mannerless, heedless—but never thoughtless. For all that he was dense and ill-spoken and frequently misunderstood simple things, he never forgot about the people around him, or gave any less than his absolute best to honoring his relationships with them. He had been the only thing holding her together for months now and in all that time he had never let her down. It was what had brought those awful tears gushing out over breakfast—it had been so wonderful, so cozy, that this amazing warmth and comfort welled up inside her, overwhelming her thoughts and filling her foolish mind with fantasies. It was all so new and rare. It was like they were married, like Naruto was hers, like he would always be there to take care of her and just be next to her—because he wanted it, not because he was the kindest of people and could never quite bring himself to walk by anyone who needed help. She'd almost lost herself in the fictional glow of it, and the harsh talking-back-to-reality she'd had to stage mentally (in her father's disdainful and disappointed voice, naturally) had hurt so bad that the grief and shame was spilling out of her before she could stop it. And then of course he had to jump to her side and try desperately to help her just like in her dreams and the only thing she could think of was to hide. What if that was the last time she saw him? What if her last memory of the most beautiful being she had ever encountered consisted of her yelling at him—something horrifying in and of itself—with endless streams of saltwater and mucus further staining her unattractive-at-the-best-of-times face? What if he was hurt? In pain? Suffering? Oh, it would be beyond terrible if Naruto was suffering! She couldn't bear it!
The sound of a key turning in the lock sent her flying to her feet and bolting for the door, heart hammering in her throat.
"Naruto-kun! You're home! Are you okay? What happened? I'm so so-" and then the flood of relief died under the blank stare of a very different pair of eyes from the one she had so gladly rushed to meet: Uchiha Sasuke was at the door.
He hadn't the chance to put more than one foot through the entranceway before he was rushed by a babbling girl—a crying, babbling girl. For a moment he seriously considered tactical retreat.
Naruto would never forgive him.
"Naruto is in the hospital," Sasuke said at last, looking uncomfortably away from Hinata's tear-streaked face. It was rare for the Hyuuga to lose her composure, or even make her presence known. Which was the main reason he didn't object to Naruto living with her. "Concussion," he added quickly, as Hinata appeared to be on the verge of a faint. "Not serious."
"Oh," she breathed in relief, and drew into herself, resuming her customary silence. Relieved that she seemed to be edging closer to her usual reserved and controlled presence, Sasuke stepped the rest of the way into the apartment and pushed the door shut behind him before heading silently back to Naruto's room. They were making the dobe stay the night at the hospital, and Sasuke had been sent to gather the things his teammate would need. A thread of irritation—not concern or worry, this was Naruto he was thinking about—tightened along his spine. It was another thing that just didn't add up about the entire strange day. First Kakashi assured them that Naruto was perfectly fine, just a minor concussion—the kind the dobe sustained nearly every other day, idiot that he was—and then Senju Tsunade, the freaking hospital director, was hovering around Naruto's room, snapping commands to a whole team of medical personnel before disappearing with a strained note in her voice and mysterious words about making certain phone calls—but no, no, Naruto was perfectly fine, Kakashi insisted—and no, they couldn't see him, no, he wouldn't be discharged soon, no, there wasn't something he was neglecting to tell them, and finally would Sasuke and Sakura just go find some other little friends to play with? He couldn't deal with them at the moment.
Kakashi knew well enough that Sasuke wasn't about to accept it. Any of it. But standing in a hospital corridor glaring at adults wasn't going to change anything, and Naruto would ask about Hinata, so he took the errand. He stuffed heavy shoes, duct tape, a couple knives, and a lock-picking set in the bottom of Naruto's old school backpack, covered them with clean jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, pajamas and underwear, and topped the lot with a plastic bag containing toothbrush, toothpaste, and deodorant. If the idiot needed anything else, he would come back for it. Satisfied with this conclusion, he turned to the door, only to be met at the doorway with a determined looking Hinata, dressed in coat and boots and clearly blocking his way.
"P-please take me with you, Sasuke-san," she murmured, and though he huffed in annoyance, Sasuke knew there was no arguing with her at this point. So he shrugged and let her lead the way out of the apartment. He would consider it her reward for not bothering him with pointless questions about what he was doing and where he was going and what he knew about Naruto—she'd obviously made her own accurate deductions. It was nice that she was so tolerable.
They wound their way down the dimly lit stairway of Naruto's run-down apartment building, stepping around garbage bags waiting to be taken out to the dumpsters and a bicycle with both wheels removed propped up outside a neighbor's door. A heavy metal door at the bottom led to the basement parking garage where Sasuke had stowed the beat-up moped he and Naruto shared.
"Ah, Sasuke…" he looked over to where Hinata was fastening the chin strap to her helmet. "…if you could refrain from mentioning to N-naruto that I took the moped rather than the b-bus…"
Her voice disappeared, but he understood and graced her with a slight nod. Naruto had become alarmingly overprotective of her; not allowing her on the two-wheeled vehicle was just one of many restrictions he tried to hold her to. Sasuke rolled his eyes under his own helmet. Dobe.
Their ride through town to Konoha Hospital was uneventful; Sasuke wove expertly through traffic, Hinata's hands loosely clutching the sides of his coat with Naruto's overnight bag safely tucked between them. She slid off the back of the seat the moment he brought the moped to a standstill in the parking tower, and followed noiselessly as he led the way through the double glass doors, ignored the reception desk, and set off briskly towards the room they'd been keeping Naruto in. Until he came to a sudden standstill and Hinata nearly walked into him.
A full detail of security officers held watch around Naruto's room, and standing just out of sight of the window in Naruto's door, with Kakashi on one side and the hospital director on the other—Tsunade had a comforting hand on the man's shoulder—was someone Sasuke had never imagined seeing in person, but whose image the entire world was familiar with. Konoha's Yellow Flash stood right outside the dobe's door.
Rin was beside herself with worry. A dozen conflicting emotions—fear, elation, disbelief, to identify a few—writhed ominously beneath the mental rug she'd shoved them under, and the lumps were threatening to peek through and compromise her professional presence. But she of all people needed to remain calm. No one else appeared to be keeping cool; even Kakashi was looking twitchy. If there had been even slightly less at stake, she would have found a quiet corner and laughed herself silly over the obnoxiously implacable man's uncharacteristic lapse in external control. She watched out of the corner of her eye as he shifted his weight to his other foot, tried leaning nonchalantly at the wall, then stuffed his hands into uneven pockets—one in his jacket, one in his jeans, all the while sending surreptitious glances at Minato, who was by far the worst of the anxious gathering.
Her cell phone beeped for the third time, letting her know that Obito had yet to pick up. If he let it ring through to voicemail, he would have the most scathing message she could come up with waiting for him—
"Things haven't fallen apart there already, have they?" came a cheerful voice, and Rin sighed into the phone in relief.
"They're falling," she said shortly. "Do we really have to hold this together for another three hours until you guys get here? And it's not just sensei I'm worried about—the kid's tried to escape three times already, and he doesn't even know what's going on! And that was before our whole entourage showed up outside his door…I heard Kakashi telling security they couldn't let the kid get so much as a glimpse of them or he'd scram before you could say 'boo'-"
There was a silence, then: "So this is really it, Rin? We found him? Everything's really coming true?"
Rin took a deep breath. "I looked over the DNA results myself. It's real, Obito."
"…Yeah. Can you please get here soon? Minato-sensei will have everyone in this building going beserk any minute now… he's already crossed that line himself…Obito…"
She imagined him wincing. "Sorry, babe, this plane doesn't fly any faster."
"Give me the phone," said a new voice, and Rin heard Kushina's strained tones coming through her earpiece next.
"How's he doing?"
"Minato-sensei? He's staring at the door Kakashi's Naruto is behind looking like he'll have a heart attack any moment, just like he's been doing for the past twenty-five minutes, and will continue to do for the next three hours. ...Pretty much "
"Naruto." Kushina whispered, so quietly the name hardly made it through the connection. When the woman spoke again, it was with a compassion that, though tinged with a certain hesitant resignation, had rarely softened her tone in recent years. "Don't make him wait for me, Rin. Let him see our…the boy. I'll get there soon enough."
"Kushina-san… are you sure? He was planning on waiting for you."
There was a chuckle that may have ended in a shuddering breath. "I'm sure." Rin waited for something else, but the line was silent for several seconds, until Obito's voice came back on.
"She's made up her mind, Rin," he stated reassuringly, and something in her chest loosened a bit, allowing her breathing to come a bit easier. "Just take care of sensei for us, keep things under control, we'll be there soon." The line went dead. Obito never made proper goodbyes.
During the course of the conversation, Rin had wandered around the corner and into an empty examination room, seeking privacy. Now she took advantage of being alone to take a few minutes to steady herself; deep breaths, a splash of cold water over her face from the sink in the corner, the soothing ritual of unraveling her hair form its bun, combing briefly through it, and resetting it in place. Kushina, Rin knew, was coming for Minato, not for the boy whose DNA identified him as the baby she had loved and lost so long ago. Where Minato-sensei had survived by keeping his hopes open and insisting on believing in the impossible—or at least highly improbable—chance that their little son was still alive, Kushina had done the opposite. For the first few years they searched together, Kushina's tireless optimism keeping them both afloat while those that loved them mourned in their behalf. Until Kushina broke.
Rin straightened her shoulders and stepped back around the corner, where Minato stood unmoving, gaze desperate and unwavering. To stay afloat, Kushina had to let their little boy go, had to stop looking, stop hoping—her heart didn't mend, but she accepted it as broken and, eventually, built a new, baby-less life. She could not let herself believe that her baby was here,couldn't picture the tiny child she had laid to rest in her heart as a grown and growing boy, would never survive another false hope. She had to stay strong while Minato searched and hoped and broke again and again and again.
"But we're sure this time—it's real this time!" Rin reassured herself, and looked up to face her sensei.
"Kushina-san will be here in a little under three hours, traffic pending," she said slowly and clearly, giving Minato time to pull himself together enough to fix his focus on her. The sharpness of his stare was almost painful when his attention flickered to her, and she felt Kakashi tense beside her. "Minato-sensei, she would like you to meet with the child now. She doesn't want you to wait all this time when you are so close."
Minato looked at her, clearly torn. Some sense of duty warred briefly with the desperation tightening the lines around his handsome features, until he said with almost childlike uncertainty,
Rin nodded, and he strode to the door his eyes had spend the past half-hour trying to see through. Tsunade reached out and grasped his arm just as he was about to turn the handle.
"Minato," the seasoned healer spoke gently, "Perhaps you should let someone introduce the situation to Naruto first. This will come as a huge shock to him. You've been waiting for this moment for all these years, but he's had nothing to prepare him for what's coming."
Behind them, Kakashi nodded. "Plus... he tends to overreact." Rin thought she caught a hint of a smile beneath the man's mask. "Though he should be in a good mood since I snuck him ramen…" now he was definitely smiling, eyes merrily squinting shut as Tsunade turned to glare at him.
Minato stood frozen, one hand on the door handle, and Rin felt her heart go out to him. Slowly, painfully, he took a step back, made his outstretched hand release the doorknob as his arm fell limply to his side. Without turning to look at her, he called her name.
"…would you, please?"
Rin nodded, and stepped into Naruto's room.
Naruto was feeling significantly more cheerful since consuming the three large servings of take-out ramen Kakashi-sensei had smuggled him. It was a suspicious thing for Kakashi to do—he never went out of his way if he could help it—but Naruto figured the man was feeling guilty for keeping him in the hospital and being so weird and secretive all afternoon and evening. If he weren't so worried about Hinata, and fighting his (very reasonable, he felt) fears of being confined in an unfamiliar place for unknown reasons, he'd be quite content to just enjoy the warm room and full stomach he currently possessed. Especially since he'd discovered that the handrails of the bed weren't too widely spaced to practice a handstand on.
Which is why he was upside down when the door opened again, and a pretty woman with dark hair and warm eyes stepped in.
"Hey, hey!" He greeted enthusiastically. "You're here to tell me I'm free to go, right? You don't need any more blood or anything? I need to keep some of it for myself, y'know…"
"Hello, Naruto," she answered, sounding amused and… something else. "No, I'm not here to take your blood. But I do have something very important to talk to you about."
Naruto studied her intently, forgetting for the moment that he was still upside down. "Something important? 'S not bad, right? 'Cause sometimes it's better just not to know the bad stuff…"
"It's not bad at all," she said quickly. "It's amazing. And will probably be very unexpected. Maybe you should sit?"
Oh yeah. He looked down at the mattress he was suspended over and let himself collapse on it, rolling head over heels to come popping up in a sitting position at the foot of the bed, looking expectantly into the stranger's face. She seemed to be unsure of where to start.
"My name is Rin," she said at last, slowly. "I work for your father. He has been looking for you for nearly twelve years."
Naruto felt a rush of cold shock run through him. His father? No…
"I don't have a father," he said blankly, shifting subconsciously into a position from which he could jump out of the way and make a run for it if necessary.
The woman looked sad. "I know you grew up without one, Naruto," she said softly. "But you have a father, one who loves you very much. You have a mother, too. You were separated from them just a few months before you turned three. We don't know what happened, exactly. You disappeared. But we've found you now, and-" she stopped, swallowed hard, and Naruto was alarmed to see tears in her large, dark eyes. The last thing he needed was another woman bursting into tears on him today. "—that's why the hospital staff has kept you here all these hours. They ran blood tests to confirm what Kakashi had already guessed. The results are positive. We had to make sure—"
Naruto was standing, though he couldn't remember when that happened. Her words were just starting to process in his mind.You have a father who loves you very much. He looked hard into the eyes of the person talking to him, searching for any hint of malice or deception. He saw many things there—none of them telling him that he was hearing anything but the truth. He's been looking for you… Naruto swallowed hard against the overwhelming fear, hope and disbelief welling up in him, vaguely aware that his mouth was moving in voiceless shock. Rin looked back, concern blossoming over her expressive face.
"Hey—Naruto—don't forget to breathe!"
Breathe. He gasped in air and flopped back to sit on the bed, reminding himself of a fish. His mind was whirling so fast he couldn't even tell what direction his thoughts were taking anymore. So he focused on the most pressing issue.
"I—I have—parents? Alive parents?"
"Yes, Naruto," she answered gently.
"And they're here?"
"You're dad's here. Your mother is on her way; she'll be here in a matter of hours."
They were silent for a few minutes; Naruto could feel his face twisting as he struggled with what to do, what to think. He had parents. They wanted him. They had been looking for him. His father was here. Maybe right outside that door. In response to that last thought, his eyes snapped to the window embedded in the door panel: he could see one of the hospital people there—Tsunade-sama, he thought she'd been introduced as—her head turned away, clearly talking to someone. Could it be true? Could all this be real? Everything seemed suddenly unstable, like the room was on rockers that kept tipping different directions….
"Naruto," Rin was speaking again. He looked at her reflexively, but his eyes turned back toward the door again immediately of their own accord. "This is all very sudden, and… there is no way for news like this to come as anything other than a huge shock. What would you like to do? Would you like some time alone? Would you like Kakashi to come talk to you? Or—if you think you're ready—would you like to meet your father now?"
"My…dad…is right there? Right on the other side of that door?"
"Yes," said Rin. "Do you want me to maybe tell you about him before you meet him?"
But Naruto was already up again, moving as if in a dream to the door, feeling the cold metal handle beneath his fingers, distantly seeing Rin reach uncertainly towards him—and then the door was open, and he was looking up into the bluest eyes he had ever seen. He could feel his blood rushing with the frantic pumping of his heart, setting his ears ringing.
A/N: Revised version posted 4/23/2014.