Please see the first chapter for disclaimer, rating, warnings, pairings, etc.

Special Thanks: goes out to rao hyuga 18, DarkAnonymous324, Tenten's Panda, PolkadottedAngels, and Seamew for all your wonderful, supportive reviews! You all are some of the most amazing people I've ever gotten feedback from, bar none, thank you. Also thanks to all those who add this story to their favorite and alert lists.

Author's Note: Many apologies for the two-plus month wait for this chapter! Details at the end of the chapter. For now, I'll just let you get on with reading it. I hope you enjoy!

*~Chapter XX~*


Junior partner. I am a junior partner. Naruto sat down at his desk and gazed with proprietary pride around the Konoha Daily's office. He deeply inhaled the unique blend of odors - stale smoke from Asuma's cigarettes lurking beneath the scent of the aroma sticks Kurenai used to combat it; the acrid tang of ink seeping past the door to the print room; the subtler smells of old wood and new paper - as he savored those two important, life-changing words. Junior partner. Of course he realized his bigger role carried the weight of increased responsibility that rested squarely on his shoulders. But Naruto possessed an extra-large portion of youthful confidence and suffered no qualms over whether he could handle it. Now that his dearest dream turned out also to be his legacy, no way would he ever let Asuma and Kurenai, or his grandparents - let alone his parents! - down.

He reached for the power button on his computer; paused when he caught sight of the cheesy, teeth-baring, eye-scrunching grin reflected back at him by his dark computer screen. Yep! He looked just as giddy as he felt. Then he suddenly frowned down at his image. Maybe he looked too giddy for a junior partner. For the next few minutes he practiced different (relatively) calm, businesslike expressions until he realized how much time he was wasting. Booting up his laptop, he started to work. Junior partnership (nope, he would never get tired of those words, even if everyone else did!) came with a lot of extra work, after all. He didn't want to fall behind and disappoint the people trusting in him.

Almost half an hour later Naruto heard heavy footsteps coming down the staircase that led to the the building's upper floors and the Sarutobi living quarters. The door in one of the corners at the back of the room opened. Asuma shuffled in, bleary eyed and yawning, carrying a big mug of coffee in his left hand. He stopped dead on the threshold, blinked, and stared at Naruto for a long moment before saying, "What are you doing here?"

"Since I'm a junior partner now, I've decided I should start coming in earlier," Naruto said. "You and Kurenai aren't going to have any reason to regret putting your trust behind me. Believe it!" He turned back to his laptop and started typing again with fresh intensity.

Asuma blinked again. "Uh - okay." From the corner of his eye Naruto saw him grin slightly as he sat down at his desk and turned on his own computer. A feeling of pride warmed the young Uzumaki down to his toes.

Another few minutes passed before Konohamaru wandered into the office through the same door Asuma had used, signature scarf around his neck and his camera bag in one hand. In a repeat of his uncle's reaction he stopped and stared at Naruto. "Hey! Naruto!" he shouted. "What are you doing here so early? Did I miss something exciting?"

As Naruto glared at his sidekick, Asuma muttered into his coffee cup, "Naruto's decided since he's gotten a promotion, of sorts, it's his duty to start coming in earlier every day."

Konohamaru stomped over to study Naruto through narrowed eyes, as if to find any untruth in his uncle's assessment of the situation. Naruto sat there enduring the scrutiny, trying very hard to look stern as well as professional; but he could feel the betraying grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. At last the younger boy let out a snort and dropped down into the chair on his side of the desk. Switching on his laptop, he pulled the memory card out of his camera and inserted it into the computer, muttering something about showoffs as he scrolled through the downloaded pictures.

Eventually Asuma set his mug aside with a thump. "I've got an appointment with Inuzuka Tsume and Inuzuka Hana this morning," he announced. "There's a growing situation in Konoha with dogs being allowed to run loose and breed indiscriminately. A lot of the resulting puppies are either winding up at the shelter Hana runs in conjunction with her veterinary practice, being abandoned and adding to the problem, or being destroyed when they become public nuisances. They've asked the Daily to run an article in order to increase awareness in Konoha on how to be responsible dog owners - which includes spaying and neutering, as well as basic obedience training - and boost the adoption rate at the shelter."

Keeping his mouth resolutely shut, Naruto thought, Better you than me, Boss! His sister is okay, but Kiba's mom scares me! As Asuma stood and automatically patted his pockets, Konohamaru bounced to his feet as well. "I can help out by adopting a puppy! Oh, Uncle Asuma, please can I get a puppy? Please, please can I get a puppy?"

"We'll see," Asuma said dryly. "I need you to come along, anyway, to get a few pictures. You can look at some of the dogs they have available for adoption, and then your aunt and I will talk about it." He looked over at Naruto. "Kurenai's feeling a bit under the weather. Morning sickness. I doubt if she'll be down until after Konohamaru and I get back. Think you can run the office by yourself for a while?"

Once again, Naruto's trademark grin burst free from his efforts to restrain it and plastered itself over his face. "Yessir!" he said, throwing in a salute for good measure. "You can believe it!"

After Asuma and Konohamaru left, Naruto took a moment to lean back in his chair. Linking his hands behind his head, he studied the room at large, feeling like he could burst from happiness. From almost the precise moment he found out his parents had been reporters, he'd started hanging around the Konoha Daily office, pestering Asuma and Kurenai to hire him. It'd taken several years, of course, and a lot of hard work. But his blood ran thickly with ink, even more strongly now.

His cobalt blue gaze came to rest on the pictures hanging on the wall across from his desk, on what they called the "memorial wall." His eyes skipped over several photographs of people he didn't recognize to the one hanging right beneath Old Man Sarutobi's picture: a group photo of his parents, Asuma, and Kurenai, taken not long after Minato and Kushina had started work at the Daily. All four held notepads, pens tucked behind their ears and silly grins on their faces, none of them looking that much older than Naruto. Asuma had said they would be full partners in the paper now if they hadn't died, which meant Naruto wouldn't be a junior partner. But he would happily give up his new position in a heartbeat if only he could have his parents back.

And then a thought occurred to him, freezing him under its impact. Why didn't I think of that before?

Shoving away from his desk, Naruto snatched up a notebook and pen. He headed for the staircase leading down into the basement morgue - the archives where they kept copies of every Konoha Daily ever printed - as well as all the research on which those articles were based. He flipped on the light, leaving the door open behind him so he'd hear if someone came into the office, and descended the steps as quietly as possible. If Kurenai heard him banging around in the basement, she would want to know what he was doing. He couldn't lie to her; but he didn't necessarily want her to know the truth, either.

Now that he was junior partner, he could use his position to do some research: look into what his parents had been working on around the time of their deaths and see if he could find some clues. Maybe he could piece together some kind of a pattern to help him make sense of the tragedy he couldn't remember or understand, but felt so deeply and painfully all the way down into his bones.

Naturally, Naruto knew the authorities, not to mention Asuma, Kurenai, and even the Old Man himself had looked into his parents' murders with no success. But he was their son; their legacy; their future. Minato and Kushina lived on in him. If anyone could figure out what happened to them, he would be that person.

He wouldn't be a disappointment to the memory of his parents. He would not fail.

I promise, Mom and Dad, I will find out what happened to you guys. And I'll make sure they pay.

Heels down, back straight, grip with the knees. Heels down, back straight, grip with the knees- Tenten's instructions, repeated so frequently over the past several days, cycled through Hinata's mind like a mantra. Heels down, back straight, grip with the knees-

A light bump against her right knee startled her out of her absorption. She nearly pulled back on the reins, but caught herself just in time. Turning her head very cautiously in that direction, she saw Tenten grinning at her.

"Are you going to chant like that all the way to the Uchiha estate?" her friend asked.

Hinata's cheeks warmed. Had she actually been speaking the words outloud? "I was n-not chanting," she said with as much dignity as she muster in the face of her friend's teasing. "One c-cannot chant in a whisper."

"Are you sure you were whispering?" When Hinata stared in consternation at Tenten, the other laughed. "For someone who's been riding less than a week, you're doing fine, Hinata."

"It still d-doesn't feel fine," Hinata confessed with a small grimace. She wanted to shift her position in the saddle, but feared what would happen if she did. Even though they were riding at a very sedate pace, the ground still seemed so very far away.

"The soreness will go away - eventually," Tenten said reassuringly. "If it helps, I'm even feeling it myself."

Startled by that admission, Hinata turned her upper body slightly without thinking so she could study her bodyguard's face. "You are? B-but you're so - so f-fit!"

Tenten shrugged. "I may be fit, but most of my traveling has been accomplished on my own two feet. As with Konoha, in all the places I've been with Kakashi horseback riding is reserved for the nobility and their guards, or in special circumstances, the peacekeepers. Yes, I know how to ride, but it's been a while and I'm a little out of shape for it. So I literally am feeling your pain."

She giggled, but then turned serious again as she mulled over what Tenten had said. "I d-don't think that's f-fair, though. Why shouldn't everyone b-be allowed t-to ride?"

"Um-" Tenten looked taken aback, almost comic in her surprise.

The more she thought about it, the more indignant Hinata felt, to the point where she unconsciously leaned slightly sideways in her saddle toward the other woman. "I'm serious. Why should it b-be that way? Why should you only g-get to ride a horse when you're with someone like m-me?"

"They always say it's the quiet ones who will surprise you," Tenten murmured with a small shake of her head. "You're quite the rebel, milady. Okay, I'll grant the practice probably started as a way to maintain class distinctions. But I think nowadays it's more a matter of practicality, and not just because horses are so expensive in their upkeep. Equine and pedestrian traffic really doesn't mix all that well. Plus there's the, ah, mess that just naturally gets left behind with horseback travel. Personally, I'd rather have clean streets to walk than have to watch where I'm stepping all the time."

"Oh," Hinata's nose automatically twitched at the memory of their first trip to the Hyuuga stables, "I d-didn't think of it like that."

"So," Tenten said cheerfully, "while I thank you for the thought, I assure you I don't feel the least bit downtrodden. And," she added with a grin, "it's time for me to drop back now. We're there."

"Wh-what?" Hinata, facing forward again in shock, saw they were steadily approaching a pair of wide open gates only a little less imposing than those giving onto the Hyuuga compound. Catching sight of the tall masculine figure descending the final steps into the courtyard beyond, she swallowed her dismay and, as Anko-sensei had taught her, schooled her features into a display of gentle pleasure. The gate guards bowed deeply as she passed between them and reined to a halt, Tenten a discreet and proper half-length behind her.

"Lady Hinata." Lord Sasuke came to a stop by her left stirrup and smiled up at her. His dark glance flicked past her as he courteously added, "Tenten," then returned to her face. "Be welcome to my home. Might I assist you to dismount so you may refresh yourself before our outing begins?" He reached up for her.

"Thank you, Lord Sasuke." Bringing her right leg around behind her, she balanced on the left stirrup, bent her knee and slid into his waiting hands, allowing him to take hold of her waist and lift her the rest of the way down. "You're m-most k-kind." As grooms appeared to take charge of their mounts, Tenten silently fell into position behind the couple.

Sasuke tucked Hinata's gloved hand into the crook of his arm as he escorted her up the steps, which turned out to be the only the first of two sweeping flights. At the top lay a wide, walled expanse almost like another courtyard, but green with grass and bright with flowers around a central fountain; beyond that the second set of shallow stone stairs led up to the house. "How l-lovely," she commented as he guided her along the flagged pathway.

"It used to be paved like the lower courtyard, too - until Mother got hold of it," Sasuke told her as they mounted to the entryway. "By the way, Mother said she knew you as a baby since your mother was one of her dearest friends. She's very much looking forward to meeting you again."

"I will b-be delighted t-to renew m-my acquaintance with her," Hinata replied, smiling demurely. But inwardly, as servants replaced their footwear with house slippers, she felt her anxiety level ratchet up another notch or two at this unexpected revelation.

All too quickly Sasuke ushered her into a spacious and sunny room where two women and a man sat quietly conversing. As soon as she and Sasuke entered they stood, the man and the younger lady immediately bowing; but the other lady, as dark-haired and dark-eyed as both her sons, swiftly advanced with outstretched hands. Catching both of Hinata's in her own as she blinked back the tears sheening her beautiful eyes, Lady Mikoto murmured, "Oh my dear child! You've grown into the very image of our sweet Hiromi," she laid one hand along Hinata's cheek, "just as Kurenai said."

Dual surges of opposing emotions - joy that at least two other people remembered her mother with such evident love, as well as renewed sorrow over her death - twined through Hinata's heart, inducing a sudden urge to yield to tears. Fortunately Lord Itachi and Lady Temari came up at that moment to be introduced, which at least gave her something else to focus on until the impulse faded.

They didn't linger long once Hinata and Tenten had refreshed themselves in the downstairs guest facilities. As the group of young people took their leave of Lady Mikoto, her sons caught her between them in a hug that lifted her clear of the floor, each kissing her unabashedly on the cheek in spite of her laughing protests. On the way back to the courtyard, Hinata longed to be able to confirm that her friend shared her impression of Sasuke's mother; that surely someone so kind, so obviously adored by her children couldn't possibly be complicit in her husband's plotting.

When Hinata saw the horses - two black and one golden chestnut - being led up to the bottom of the steps along with her own and Tenten's, her breath caught in her throat with admiration. "Oh, how b-beautiful!" she exclaimed, then blushed to the tips of her ears as she realized she'd interrupted what Sasuke had been saying to her. "P-please excuse m-me, m-my lord. It's j-just they're s-so graceful, s-so elegant. And the b-black horses m-make the other m-more bright, while the b-bright one makes the d-dark two l-look even blacker."

His eyes, satiny black as the horse she just knew belonged to him, gleamed down at her. "No need to apologize for expressing such admirable appreciation of good horseflesh! See the one with the white mark like a feather on his forehead? That's my Taka. The chestnut is Lady Temari's Sanraizu. The solid black one is my brother's, and has the very original name of Mayonaka since he's as black as, well, midnight."

"I heard that, Sasuke," Lord Itachi said as he and Lady Temari caught up with them at the last step. Hinata saw the brothers exchange grins so full of obvious affection, she had to look down as a bittersweet ache pierced her heart.

I'm glad Sasuke and his brother are so close, she thought wistfully. I only wish I could say the same was true for Hanabi and me.

Hinata, unsuspecting of how one look at her placid brown gelding told the others exactly how inexperienced a rider she was, felt only relief when no one suggested they let their mounts gallop once they left Konoha through its smaller western gate for the open country beyond. Conversing idly they ambled along four abreast, Hinata and Temari in the center, Tenten trailing behind. Even when the way ahead of them lifted in a series of switchbacks ascending to the top of the plateau behind the village and they had to go single file, she kept her eyes resolutely fixed on the back of the rider in front of her while refusing to think of how much more frightening the trip down would be.

When the trail finally debouched above the cliff, she reined to a halt and looked around in amazement. Off to the left scattered copses of trees merged into a forest lifting into thickly wooded foothills that led the eye to distant mountains. Straight ahead and to the right a nearly flat expanse of meadow rolled gently to an abrupt terminus of open sky. Almost perfectly centered on the plateau a small lake glimmered placidly at the sky while feeding a narrow stream which meandered along to lose itself in the forest. "It's s-so m-much b-bigger than I expected!" she murmured, almost feeling dizzied by the unaccustomed spaciousness, and the rippling of the grasses under the light breeze which seemed to mimic green water flowing up to and over the cliff's edge.

Lady Temari pulled up on her right and gave her a quizzical look. "You've never been up here before, Lady Hinata?" she asked. "Or on one of these 'picnic' things?"

The familiar, despised warmth of a blush crept into Hinata's cheeks. "N-no," she admitted softly, looking down at her hands clenched on the reins. "N-never."

"Then it'll be a new experience for both of us." When Hinata glanced at her in surprise, the blonde woman shrugged, her unexpected smile making her seem another, much more approachable, person. "Trust me, no one from Suna would ever think of eating a meal outside just for the fun of it." She lifted her tanned face into the breeze and added, "Is it just my imagination, or is it actually less humid up here?"

Hesitantly Hinata returned her smile. "Yes, it f-feels that way t-to me, t-too."

The group rode to a canopied pavilion in the Uchiha colors of red and white which had been erected under the spreading branches of a massive tree. When Sasuke dismounted she saw him remove a scabbarded short sword from Taka's saddle, nonchalantly securing it at the small of his back as he came around to her left stirrup. A quick peek in Lord Itachi's direction showed him doing the same thing on his way to Lady Temari's side.

Her escort grinned at her as he lifted her down. "Don't worry, they're mostly for show," he said. "You won't find many places safer than Konoha and the lands around it. But it just wouldn't do for the future head of the village's police force - and his older brother - to appear unprepared for any contingency, however unlikely it might be."

Uncertain whether he would react with mirth or offended pride, Hinata decided not to mention the pair of shuriken tucked into her small leather belt pouch. Instead she smiled shyly at him and said, "It appears you and L-Lord Itachi have g-gone t-to a great d-deal of effort t-to ensure our c-comfort, L-Lord Sasuke. Thank you."

He chuckled while escorting her to the pavilion and tipped his head toward the bowing row of waiting servants, their beaming expressions so different from the sober demeanor of their Hyuuga counterparts. "Our household staff has gone to a great deal of effort," he said lightly, "so we can enjoy the pleasure of your company."

Within the pavilion a lacquered table had been placed on top of a thick carpet and surrounded with a profusion of cushions patterned in red and white. As soon as the couples had taken their places a servant offered them a bamboo tray holding rolled up, hot moist towels, subtly scented, so they could wipe their hands and faces before being served an amazing array of dishes: onigiri and inari-zushi; a pleasantly cooling cucumber salad with chopped wakame, finely shredded carrots and white sesame seeds; a variety of delicate croquettes with dipping sauces; moyashi and yaki-niku; and, finally, plates of steaming yakisoba tossed with mixed vegetables and tender slivers of pork. But even more remarkable to Hinata than the food was how comfortable she felt.

"Good idea you had, younger brother," Itachi said, lazily saluting Sasuke with his teacup at the end of the excellent meal.

"Yes, this has been a lovely, restful interlude during the preparations for our wedding," Temari said, sounding uncharacteristically diffident as she looked at Itachi. Turning her eyes, more teal than turquoise in the light filtering through the pavilion's silken canopy, from Hinata to Sasuke she added, "Thank you for including us, Sasuke."

Sasuke very briefly looked surprised before he dipped his head and grinned. "You're very welcome, Temari. I'm glad you and Itachi were able to come. And speaking of the wedding," he turned to Hinata, his grin softening into a smile, "would you do me the honor of being my guest for the occasion, Hinata?"

The old familiar panic stirred in the pit of Hinata's stomach, only to be overwhelmed by an unanticipated rush of self-confidence. She smiled back at him, all the while feeling amazed at herself. "Thank you, Sasuke," she said. "I will b-be honored and delighted."

A quarter of an hour or so later they left the pavilion (at the same time appropriating several of the cushions) to give the staff opportunity to begin their cleanup. They relocated to an open yet still shady grove somewhat closer to the edge of the forest, no one seeming to want to be the first to suggest they end their outing and return to the village. Certainly Hinata had no desire for the day to be over, she acknowledged inwardly. Tenten, who remained smilingly if adamantly on duty despite all their urgings for her to relax and join them, also seemed equally content to let the day extend.

Deep into Itachi's description of the workshop where Kankuro, one of Temari's brothers, crafted his incredibly detailed puppets Tenten, sitting quietly at a slight remove from them, came suddenly and swiftly to her feet. Eyes focused on the eastern rim of the plateau, she put herself between them and it, unsheathing her katana with a hissing whine that sent a shiver along Hinata's nerves.

Breaking off his narrative Itachi instantly rose in a single lithe movement, Sasuke mirroring him, each drawing the tantō he wore at the small of his back. As Hinata exchanged a startled glance with Temari, she saw the other woman slip the fingers of her right hand into the sash around her waist. Did she also carry shuriken within its folds, or perhaps a knife? Trying hard to still the trembling in her fingers, Hinata crossed her arms over her midriff, bringing her hand close to her belt pouch.

"Please remain behind me, my lords," Tenten said without looking around.

"We will follow your lead, Tenten," Itachi said calmly as he and his brother took up flanking positions a few paces behind her. Sasuke dipped his chin once in a curt nod of agreement.

Just like that, between one blink and the next, a man surged around a clump of rocks and brush onto the plateau, running with a smooth, loping gait. A white dog larger than Hinata had ever imagined could exist pursued him so closely her breath caught in her chest, and she feared to see at any moment the leap that would bring the young man down. But even as what seemed a veritable flood of furred bodies flowed into view closely on their heels, all three defenders relaxed, lowering and resheathing their weapons.

Hinata exhaled sharply in relief a scant second later as she belatedly recognized the youth. "I-it's all right," she told Temari, who still looked tense, as Sasuke waved and the whole human-led pack veered towards them. "Th-that's Inuzuka K-Kiba. The Inuzuka are one of Konoha's l-lesser noble clans. They b-breed and train the b-best d-dogs anywhere."

"Oh." Temari seemed unable to take her eyes off the huge white dog keeping pace with Kiba. "We - don't really have dogs in Suna."

Itachi must have heard that low-voiced admission, for he came to stand next to his fiancée. "Beautiful, aren't they?" he said. "Now I think about it, I don't remember seeing any dogs while I was in Suna. But then again, something else held my attention captive." He smiled warmly down at Temari and after a moment she hesitantly smiled back. Hinata felt her heart give a forlorn little jerk.

Kiba's call of "Hiya, guys!" distracted her from the melancholy trend of her thoughts. He jogged to a halt, grinning broadly. To Hinata's amazement, all the dogs – only ten of them after all - instantly dropped into sitting positions, tongues lolling as they panted, their eyes remaining fixed on Kiba. "Sorry we startled you," he continued somewhat breathlessly. "I didn't expect anybody to be up here today." Turning to look over his shoulder, he clapped his hands once and said, "Okay, break!" Most of the canines stood and wandered slightly apart before flopping down at their ease, though a few - including the large white one - stretched out where they were.

The Inuzuka seemed on the point of emulating their example when Sasuke said pointedly, "Inuzuka Kiba, I'm sure you remember meeting Lady Hinata and her bodyguard Tenten at Akimichi's. But I don't think you've been introduced to my brother's betrothed, Lady Temari of the Sabaku."

"What? Oh! Of course!" As the young man offered a belated bow to Temari and herself, Hinata suppressed an urge to giggle as his face, already flushed from his exertions, turned almost as deep a red as the tattooed stylized fangs on his cheeks. He added with disarming candor, "Please forgive my seeming incivility. I'm not used to doing the pretty, and besides, my brain is running short on oxygen just now."

Temari's throaty chuckle joined Hinata's giggle. "Don't worry about it, Kiba. I don't know how my brother Gaara will react to it, but I'm starting to like the lack of formality in Konoha society," the blonde said. "Won't you join us? I've never seen a larger dog than yours. What is his name?"

"Akamaru," Kiba responded proudly. Settling cross-legged on the ground as the picnic party resumed their places, he reached over to scratch behind one of the massive animal's brown ears, then scooted closer so he could lean back against the dog's side. "He is splendid, isn't he? I've raised and trained him since he was just the size of both my hands put together. Best partner any trainer could ever have."

As Hinata listened to Temari's queries to Kiba about the uses and benefits of dogs and his knowledgeable replies, a sudden strange feeling crept over her: a feeling as though she were being closely observed. She looked around as inconspicuously as she could, trying to identify the cause of the sensation. Just as she chided herself for imagining things, her eyes passed over the resting forms of Kiba's pack; paused on one smallish brown dog sitting with ears perked-

-And watching her steadily from dark-ringed eyes.

Holding her gaze with its own, the dog stood, trotted briskly over to her, and sat down immediately in front of her. Letting its pink tongue hang from the side of its mouth, it wiggled all over, tail vigorously swishing across the grass. Entranced Hinata leaned slightly forward, saying softly as she extended one hand towards it, "Sasuke, l-look: Doesn't he remind you of the t-toy d-dog you won for me at the f-festival?"

"You're right," he agreed. "He's a goodlooking pup, isn't he?"

"He's adorable." Responding to her coaxing the dog stretched out as close to her as he could and rested his chin on her knee. Hinata, tentatively at first but with increasing confidence, stroked the top of his head. Marveling at how silky it felt, she asked, "How old is he, K-Kiba? Will he g-get as b-big as Akamaru?"

Kiba replied, "He's five months old, milady, and his breed is much smaller than Akamaru's. He'll be about this tall at the shoulders," he demonstrated with one hand held about a foot and a half off the ground, "when he finishes growing."

Sasuke leaned a little closer, his shoulder nearly brushing Hinata's as he gently massaged the loose skin at the back of the pup's neck. "Itachi and I always wanted a dog when we were kids," he said, "but Mother can't be around them - she's allergic." He sat up straight again, his dark gaze fixing on the Inuzuka. "What've you named him, Kiba?"

"We always let the owners name the dogs they get from us, so he doesn't have one yet. But perhaps Lady Hinata would do us the honor of naming him?"

Hinata, her fingers now smoothing circles behind one of the puppy's ears, glanced up with a smile. "Thank you, Kiba!" Tilting her head to one side, she said, "I think – Bisuke, since his front p-paws look as though they've b-been d-dipped in chocolate." Bisuke briefly lifted his head long enough to utter one bark, as if giving his approval to his naming, and everyone laughed.

Soon afterward Akamaru shifted position and nudged Kiba's shoulder with his nose, hard enough to rock him sideways. The young man grinned and said, "Okay, big fella, I hadn't forgotten," before adding in explanation, "I always let the pack go for a swim in the lake after a training run, and Akamaru thinks they've waited long enough. So if you folks will excuse us," he stood in one smooth movement. Instantly every dog's head raised, eyes locking intently on their human pack leader - except for Bisuke, who whimpered softly as his attention wavered from Kiba to Hinata and back again.

A pang went through Hinata's gentle heart. Unwilling to interfere between trainer and dog, she remained silent but raised pleading eyes to Kiba's face. He chuckled.

"Looks like Bisuke wants to stay with you more than he wants to swim, milady," he said. "He'll have to come back with us to finish his training, but for now hold your hand like this," he demonstrated a "halt" sign with his own, "and firmly tell him 'Stay.'"

Hinata followed his directions and, to her gratification, the puppy immediately settled against her again with a deep sigh of contentment. Looking shyly back up at the trainer, she said, "When I'm w-with friends, Kiba, I l-like to be c-called 'Hinata.'"

Temari looked sideways at Itachi. "I had no idea dogs could be as fascinating – and useful! - as horses," she said. "I think I'm going to walk down to the lake and watch them some more."

Itachi stood and held a hand down to assist her to her feet. "I'll come with you. I need to walk some off some of that dinner, or Mayonaka won't let me ride home." He looked at his younger brother. "We'll bring the horses back with us."

Sasuke raised a lazy hand in acknowledgement. "Okay, older brother. Good to see you, Kiba. I'll get with you later."

The tattoo-faced young man nodded as he adjusted the kerchief he wore tied around his forehead as a sweatband. "Sure thing. Nice to have seen you again, Hinata, Tenten." With a casual wave and a sharp whistle to summon his pack, he set off for the lake, Itachi and Temari matching pace with him, the dogs cavorting happily after them.

Hinata had halfway managed to forget the ride back to Konoha, until Itachi's comment brought it sharply to the front of her mind. She suppressed a shiver, only to have Bisuke abruptly stand, place both front paws on her knee, and stare intently into her face. Startled, she asked uncertainly, "What d-did I d-do?"

Sasuke cleared his throat as he reached over to stroke his hand in a repetitive, soothing motion down the puppy's spine. "One thing Kiba has always said about dogs: You can't hide your true feelings from them, ever. You did great riding here, and I don't want you to think I'm saying you wouldn't do equally well going back. It's just downhill feels a lot more - precarious." When he glanced at her from the corner of his eye, their gazes caught and held. Turning to face her, he added earnestly, "You don't have to prove anything, Hinata. Not to me; not to Itachi or Temari. Please, Hinata, will you ride with me, at least to the bottom of the plateau?"

So accustomed was Hinata to biting sarcasm and icy criticism from her father and sister no matter what she did, it took a moment for her to realize two things: First, how she detected only sincere concern and even admiration for her in Sasuke's voice and eyes, rather than derision and mockery; and second, how the merest hint of a blush staining his cheeks betrayed an unexpected vulnerability.

Somewhere deep within Hinata's heart and soul, a part of her long clenched in on itself to shield against the double wounds of loss and rejection cautiously relaxed ever so slightly. "Yes, Sasuke," she said simply. "Thank you, I will."

For a long moment more moon pale and night dark eyes continued in thrall before simultaneously breaking away from each other. Hinata's and Sasuke's blushes deepened. Bisuke, sensing the easing of tension, returned to his former place curled up against the side of her leg. Hinata felt a nervous urge to tap her fingers together; instead she pulled her hair, braided for this outdoor excursion, over her shoulder as a puff of wind fluttered her bangs. Making a pretense of examining the silver clasp at its end she said, "Tr-truly, Sasuke, this has b-been such a lovely d-day. I c-can't begin t-to t-tell you how much I've enjoyed getting t-to know Itachi and Temari - and you."

"And I can't begin to tell you how happy-" Sasuke started to reply softly, only to be interrupted by Bisuke coming abruptly to his feet again. This time, though, he took a couple of steps away from them, planted his paws firmly, and stared towards the forest. Nose working furiously, he uttered a sound somewhere between a growl and a whine as his hackles rose.

It was all the warning they had. In a silence more terrifying than howls or snarls, four large, wild, wolfish-looking dogs burst from the not-so-distant eaves of the forest in a flatout run, foam dripping from their fanged muzzles, crazed eyes intent on the small group.

Hinata froze in shock and horror as the peaceful day exploded into unimaginable violence around her. With a harsh shout of, "Run!" Tenten hurtled past, drawn katana already in her hands. Meeting the attacking canines head-on, she swung her sword in a flashing arc to take the head of the lead animal. She allowed the momentum to pull her into a controlled pivot to avoid the collapsing carcass, if not the bright crimson spray of the creature's blood, and bring her around to face the remaining three beasts. At the exact same moment Sasuke sprang to his feet, right hand reaching for the tantō at his back; two of the wild dogs split to attack Tenten from opposing directions, engaging her in a deadly dance of lunge and retreat, parry and regroup; while the last one launched itself at them in a tremendous leap. Throwing himself into its path, Sasuke only had time to call out a desperate, "Hinata - run!" as he went down, his right hand - and short sword - pinned beneath his twisted body as he fell. Only his left arm, flung up at the last instant to protect his throat, kept the wicked fangs from ripping away his life.

Bisuke, his body quivering frantically, let out a series of high-pitched barks. Her terrified paralysis shattering, Hinata screamed, "No!" - but whether to the puppy or to the mad beast savaging Sasuke's arm she could never afterwards say. Lunging forward from where she knelt, she snatched the puppy up into her arms and clasped him close, feeling his heart pound crazily out of synch with her own. Evidently distracted by her sudden movement, the wild dog released Sasuke's arm and raised its head, its insane gaze fixing on her from a scant few feet away. Hinata froze again, transfixed by the sight of the bloody foam smearing its muzzle, watching as its hindquarters sank in preparation for another leap-

Sasuke's left hand flew up to grasp the animal's throat just below its jaw, trying to wrap his legs around its body as he attempted to lever himself around enough to free his right hand and his tantō. "Hina!" he gasped. "Get - 'way - from here!"

"No!" she screamed again, the word clawing its way from her throat, tearing her vocal cords as viciously as the snapping fangs of the dog Sasuke fought to hold at bay. Through the thrumming of her racing pulse in her ears, she thought she heard Tenten yelling something, but she couldn't make herself look that way; couldn't take her eyes from the horror happening right in front of her, a horror she was too weak, too useless to prevent-

A roaring thunderbolt of white fur charged in from the left and with a flying leap seized the back of the wild dog's neck, tearing it off Sasuke in its passing. Landing several yards beyond, Kiba's immense dog ferociously shook his big head once, twice. A sharp crack! made Hinata flinch; the next instant Akamaru tossed the limp body from his jaws with a fastidious flick and trotted toward them. After gently nudging Hinata's shoulder with his nose, he dipped his head toward the puppy in her arms and uttered a commanding bark, then swiftly loped back in the direction from which he'd come. When Bisuke squirmed in response she numbly released him, allowing the pup to run after the bigger dog.

For a second, maybe two, silence fell. As Sasuke tried to sit up, Hinata scrambled forward on hands and knees across the yard or so separating them. She barely managed to catch him as he slumped back with a stifled groan, his wounded arm cradled across his chest. She wobbled momentarily, trying to balance his weight, arms wrapped around his shoulders. The ragged up-and-down motion of his shoulder blades against her breasts as he breathed in rapid, shallow pants was painful, but she only dimly noticed. His head sagged backwards onto her shoulder, eyes tightly closed and lips folded in a hard line, a sheen of sweat shining on his pale skin. The sight of blood streaking freely down his arm from several deep punctures, the sluggish bleeding from deep gashes and scratches on his legs, visible through clawed rents in his black trousers, made her lock her jaws against nausea and incipient hysteria.

What do I do? What should I do? Is he going to die, right here in my arms?

A grim-faced Tenten, liberally splattered with blood, suddenly thumped to her knees to Hinata's right. Less than a rapid heartbeat later Kiba, his expression extremely grave, rushed up from the left, Itachi on his heels. The elder Uchiha sibling dropped down on their left, looking stricken and, if possible, even whiter than Hinata felt.

Sasuke! Itachi's lips soundlessly formed his brother's name just before he ruthlessly stripped off the fine black cotton shirt he wore. Quickly rolling it up into a pad, he pressed it over the wounds on Sasuke's forearm and clamped his hands around it, his knuckles whitening from the force he applied.

Temari stumbled to a halt behind Itachi, catching herself with a hand to his bare shoulder. "What-?" she started to ask, but was cut off by Kiba abruptly thrusting an arm toward Tenten, his fingers stiffly splayed.

"Tenten," his voice sounded unnaturally gruff and harsh to Hinata, "can I borrow your katana? I need the head so Hana can test-" He broke off with a flicker of a glance at Sasuke. Without a word Tenten bleakly handed the stained blade to him. He strode away toward where the dog who'd savaged Sasuke lay dead. A moment later a whistling swish and sharp thud made them all flinch.

Temari spoke again, her tone thin and frightened. "Itachi? 'Test' for what?"

"Rabies." The low answer surprisingly came not from Itachi, but from Sasuke. As Hinata's arms tightened convulsively at the dreaded word, he added quite conversationlly despite the pain in his voice, "You might know of it as 'hydrophobia.'"

Evidently Temari did because Hinata heard her sharp, horrified gasp. No, no, no, Sasuke, no! She must have said the words aloud unawares, because the young man cracked his eyes open long enough to give her a glimmer of a glance from their corners.

"'S'okay, Hina," he murmured weakly, "there's a treatment for it. At least I'm pretty sure there's a treatment for it. Might miss the wedding, though-"

Hysterical tears threatened to break out of her control. To distract herself, Hinata turned her head away. Her glance fell on Kiba, nearly shivered away again at the sight of the severed dog's head dangling from his left hand. His unusual pose, though, caught her attention. Why was he bending over the carcass's hindquarters? As she watched he laid aside the head, grabbed and lifted one hind leg, bent even closer- Leapt to his feet and ran to do the same with the other three dead animals: Seize a hind leg, raise it, then lean over for, in her opinion, a gruesomely close look at - what?

Springing erect after the final inspection, Kiba sprinted back to them. "Guys!" he called ahead. "Don't bury him yet!" He skidded to a halt, a blazing expression of mingled hope and fury on his face. "They may not have been rabid, just wild mad from pain! They all had pieces of wire twisted around their ba-" He abruptly choked off the rest of what he'd been about to say, going fiery red as his wide eyes flicked from Hinata to Temari to Tenten and around the circuit again. "I mean around their - privates." The last word came out as a hoarse whisper. "Hana will still check to make absolutely sure, but I really think Sasuke is going to be okay!"

Hinata saw Itachi's black eyes fill with tears. He raised a shaking hand to cup the back of his younger brother's neck, at the same time leaning forward to touch foreheads with him. "Little brother," she heard him murmur, his voice shaking, "Sasuke-"

"I-t-t-tachi, h-h-here," she whispered, relinquishing her hold on the younger Uchiha so the older could pull him into an embrace. And with it, apparently, her totally unexpected self-control, for everything suddenly rose up and assaulted her mind, her senses, her emotions, overwhelming her: The metallic reek of blood clogging her nostrils; the sight of blood congealing on the blade of Tenten's katana and on her bodyguard's clothing; a streak of Sasuke's blood drying on the side of her own arm where it must have brushed his; the heartstopping terror of the attack itself and what could have been - might still be - its tragic aftermath. . .

The ringing in Hinata's ears rapidly became a deafening buzz blocking out all other sounds. Everything around her went abnormally bright yet very small and distant, as though the world was floating away from her. A grey haze built at the edges of her vision, swiftly darkening towards a blackness that swooped down on her, threatening to devour all sensation and blot out her consciousness. No, she thought at it. But her denial was too weak, too lacking in fortitude to stave it off: Useless. One bitter, final thought drifted through her mind as the darkness claimed her for its own, sucked her down-

Just like me.

*~To Be Continued~*

Author's Ending Notes: Again, I'm sorry for the two-plus month wait! My beta is still dealing with a lot of health issues. And the motherboard on her (practically brand new) computer completely fried, and she didn't have a backup, so she had to wait for all of the files on her computer to be pulled off and saved, then to get her computer back so she could continue her work. Plus she and I are still going through reworking portions of the story, and we had to do extensive research and choreography for the last scene in this chapter. We wanted it to be as realistic as possible, and I hope we got it right. Thank you all so much for your patience, and I hope you enjoyed this chapter! Hope to see you again soon for the next!