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

Special Thanks: goes out to rao hyuga 18, Metoochocolate, Seamew, Say-thelastword, misspandalily, and Animefangirl95 for all your reviews! Your continued support means so much to me, especially with my unplanned hiatuses between updates. Also thanks to everyone who has added this to their favorites and follows lists!

Author's Note: Again, a thousand pardons for the super-late update. Once more, details are at the bottom of the chapter so you can get right to the update. Thanks for reading!

*~Chapter XXI~*


The fallout from the disastrous ending of their picnic outing began almost immediately, when Sasuke flatly insisted the incident not only be downplayed, but the details of what actually happened be kept secret as much as possible - especially from parents, or anyone remotely resembling an "'adult' authority figure," as he derisively put it.

"But why?" Temari demanded once Kiba, after stressing one final time how critical it was to keep Sasuke's arm elevated so the puncture wounds wouldn't swell shut, departed to fetch Haruno Sakura, along with some of his own clothing for the brothers. She'd just returned from the lake where she and a revived but very subdued Hinata had helped Tenten in a rapid cleanup before the heiress and her bodyguard returned to the village. She snapped a scorching glare from Itachi to Sasuke and back. "The Uchiha are Konoha's police force. If that was one of my brothers lying there with his arm bitten to the bone, I'd be rallying every resource to track down whoever is behind this - this heinous attack!"

Sasuke, seated with his bare back to a tree trunk since his torn-up shirt now bandaged his deeper leg wounds, and his left elbow propped above shoulder level on a pile of the cushions they'd pilfered from the picnic, slitted his eyes open enough to shoot her a dark look through his thick lashes. Itachi, already struggling to keep his churning wrath and outrage as well as ongoing fear for his brother's life under control, felt hot little claws scrape down to the quick of every last one of his nerves. Too angry to blunt whatever scathing reply his brother chose to make, he felt considerably surprised when the younger man only murmured mildly, "If you don't mind, older brother, I'll leave it to you to explain the - mental vagaries - of our village's leader to your fiancée."

A look of guarded horror flashed across Temari's face, forcibly reminding Itachi of her own tragic family history. "You think Hinata's father-" she started to say in a choked whisper, but couldn't finish her question.

The additional anger sparked in Itachi by her words abruptly cooled. "Lord Hiashi's irrational hatred of all things Uchiha is well-known," he said briefly, "a hatred Lady Hinata fortunately does not share. To keep from having to accept an Uchiha as a son-in-law-" He shrugged, deeply uneasy about saying even that much. "I promise you, there will be an investigation. But for the sake of Konoha-"

"And Hinata herself," Sasuke interjected fiercely, his black eyes flying wide open.

"-And Hinata herself," Itachi agreed, "it will be handled very, very quietly."

Temari gazed at him, the sudden flicker of speculation in her eyes quickly smothered by the shadows of dark memories. "But surely Lord Fugaku- Lady Mikoto-" Her voice trailed off uncertainly as both brothers emphatically shook their heads. She huffed an exasperated breath. "Well, then, what are we supposed to tell them, if not the truth?"

Eyes once again closed, Sasuke promptly said, "That I was showing off for Lady Hinata and hurt myself. No need to go into any particulars, it's plausible enough to be accepted with minimal questioning from either parent. Dislocated shoulder, maybe, to explain why my arm will be in a sling; bruised hips and legs to account for the limp- I'm sure to take some heat for being so reckless this close to the wedding, but hey? What are brothers for, right, but to keep life interesting?"

Temari's eyes hooded as she pinched the bridge of her nose between the thumb and forefinger of her right hand. "I'm getting a really bad feeling about this," she muttered. Lowering her hand, she folded her arms and raised her eyes to target Itachi with a penetrating look. "So let me guess: You want me to break the news about Sasuke's 'accident' to Lady Mikoto."

Itachi gave her a wry smile as he extended the sole remaining unused pillow toward her, owning sense enough to keep silent despite how much he wanted to explain why it was so vital knowledge of the attack be restricted. She shifted her gaze to the apparently oblivious Sasuke for another long moment; then turned her head to stare after the absent Hinata and Tenten. Finally she sighed gustily, flung up her hands and snapped crossly, "Oh, all right: I'll do it. I suppose letting your mother think Sasuke was just being - stupid - will be better for her nerves than knowing what really happened." Snatching the cushion, she muttered under her breath, "You two are so going to owe me." Raising her voice again, she ordered tersely, "Itachi: Lean Sasuke forward so I can put this behind his back. He'll be more comfortable without the rough trunk against his bare skin."

"He," Sasuke agreed on a long sigh, "most certainly will be. Thank you."

Her lips twitched the least little bit as she turned away and leaned a shoulder against the tree. "You're welcome."

After that, there was nothing for Itachi to do but wait. . .

. . .as he watched his brother endure his pain in white-faced silence, all the time resisting his own guilty desire to succumb to the bursts of sick agony ricocheting inside his skull-

And wait. . .

. . . as his gaze periodically wandered to what little he could see of Temari's profile, the unpleasant certainty coiling ever more tightly in his gut that the very sharp mind inside her golden brown head was busily analyzing through an entirely different, darker lens the impact of arranged marriages on inter- and intravillage politics-

And wait. . .

. . . as he grimly battled back an almost overmastering urge to pace. To punch something. To charge into Konoha so he could sieze Hyuuga Hiashi by the throat and, village lord or no, violently shake the truth from him. Seriously, he thought, shifting position slightly for what felt like the hundredth time, how long does it take - the need for discretion aside - to grab two shirts, a pair of pants, and the healer?

When Kiba finally charged over the plateau's rim again, half helping, half hauling a woman along with him in a flat-out run, he nearly echoed Temari's low growl of "It's about time!" Akamaru loped along on the other side of his master, the pack harness he now wore making his massive white form look oddly misshapen and blotchy in the glare of the late afternoon sun. As they got close enough for him to see the sweat running down the healer's cherry-red face and dripping off her chin onto her heaving chest, Itachi thought she looked absurdly young: about as unlike Granny Chiyo and Noriyuki (or any other healer of his acquaintance) as he could imagine. He wondered in some alarm whether, Lady Tsunade's special protégée or not, he should allow her to tend to his brother now she'd finally arrived. From the corner of his eye he observed the barely discernable pucker between Temari's eyebrows, as well as the slight upward kink in one of them; evidence she harbored a similar if subdued skepticism. Itachi shifted his attention a subtle degree downward, and saw Sasuke also watching their approach, but with a faint grin on his pain-tautened lips.

Kiba and the healer skidded to a panting halt. Her apple-green gaze briefly brushed across Itachi's as she dipped her chin to him in a curt nod of acknowledgement, the barest token of a bow. Yet it was enough for him to see and recognize the focused, assessing intensity of the girl's - no, the young woman's, he quickly corrected himself - expression. Although Haruno Sakura might be the same age as Sasuke, Itachi no longer doubted her competency as a healer.

"Thanks for coming all the way up here, Sakura," Sasuke said, his eyelids drooping closed, the offhandedness of his tone falling just short of concealing how badly he hurt.

Sakura snorted as she took the large satchel Kiba had already unslung from Akamaru's harness and plunked it down next to the injured Uchiha. "Sasuke, you idiot!" she said ferociously. "I was just getting off seventy-two straight hours on duty when Kiba came for me. Do you think you could possibly have picked a more inconvenient time to be so stupid?"

"Hmmm. I like this woman," Temari murmured. "What can I do to help, Healer?"

Sakura flicked her a quick assessing look. "Lady Temari, right?" she said. Pulling two pairs of scissors from her bag, she handed one pair to Temari. "What's left of Sasuke's trousers - and what I guess was somebody's shirt - will have to come off. You can do that and start cleaning the wounds on his legs while I evaluate and treat his arm."

Without opening his eyes Sasuke instantly countered, "How about turning your back and giving a man some privacy? After all, I'm not your fiancé." He sucked in a sharp breath through clenched teeth and grimaced as Sakura began carefully snipping away the blood-stiffened fabric of the improvised bandage wrapping his arm. "Itachi - can take care of - my pants."

Kiba took a rolled-up bundle of clothing from a canvas bag he'd just removed from his dog's harness. Handing it to Itachi, he gave him a meaningful look accompanied with a tiny sideways jerk of his head. "Sorry, younger brother," he said, setting the clothes aside, "but I need to talk to Kiba. I assure you, though," he sent a glimmer of a smile towards his betrothed, "my lady is an excellent caregiver." Kneeling next to Sasuke's legs, Temari held the scissors up and made a couple of evil-sounding snicks with them. When she set about her task, however, Itachi noticed she did so with gentle hands.

The two men walked over to where the attack had occurred. "I've already talked to Hana," Kiba said in a low voice. Bending, he picked up the severed head of the dog that had mauled Sasuke and stuffed it into the bag that had held the clothes. "She's setting up her lab now so she can start the test as soon as she gets this."

"Thank you, Kiba," Itachi said fervently, "and please give my thanks to your sister, too. I can't begin to express how grateful I am for everything you - and Akamaru, of course," he scratched the huge dog behind one reddish-brown ear, "have done." Distastefully looking down at the headless corpse, then at the other scattered canine bodies, he went on, "In fact, I hesitate to impose on you further, but these all need to be disposed of somehow, and sooner rather than later. If you wouldn't mind helping me drag these away-"

Kiba clapped him on the shoulder. "No need for that, Itachi. You just worry about getting Sasuke - oh, and Sakura, too - home after she gets through with him," he said. "We've got the rest covered. Shikamaru and Naruto-"

The unexpected name hit Itachi like a fist to his solar plexus, making his whole body go rigid. Before he could react verbally, Kiba's grip tightened. Leaning in closer he said in an urgent undertone, "It's okay, Itachi. Naruto isn't here as a reporter. He's here as a member of the Council of Youngers. He totally agrees that responsibility supersedes any duty he has as a journalist."

The pain in his head ratcheted even higher. Itachi closed his eyes and took in a deep breath, forcing his reluctant muscles to relax on the exhale. "'Council of Youngers'?" he repeated, latching onto the unfamiliar phrase in an attempt to distract his mind from the shock still thrumming through it.

Shrugging slightly Kiba took his hand from Itachi's shoulder. "Yeah. Someone - once used it to describe our group, just being funny, you know. Shikamaru thinks it's lame; but the moniker has kinda stuck."

The "someone" probably being Uzumaki, Itachi thought wryly. Oh, well. However loud, abrasive, and pushy I might think him, he must have some good qualities for Sasuke and Kiba to defend him so readily. Aloud he said, "Please pardon my reaction. Uzumaki Naruto - seems to have a talent for getting on my nerves."

Kiba flashed a lopsided grin. "Don't sweat it. Naruto gets on everyone's nerves. Anyway he and Shikamaru are waiting below the plateau's rim. The plan is for Naruto to take the head to Hana. Meanwhile Shikamaru, Akamaru and I are going to do some backtracking, see if we can find out anything about where these poor brutes came from. We'll bury the bodies deep in the woods after you've all gone back to Konoha." His brown gaze wandered past Itachi; turned grim as it lingered for a moment; returned as he released a long breath. "We'll let you know what we find. In the meantime, keep believing that Sasuke is going to be okay."

"I will." The two men grasped forearms before parting. Itachi hurried back to where the two women continued their ministrations to Sasuke. When he knelt across from her, Temari paused long enough to give him a concerned look. Instead of asking any of the questions he saw teeming in her eyes, she silently handed him what he needed to help and returned to cleaning the dried blood and dirt from his brother's left leg. Thankful for her restraint he set to work as well.

Considering the steep first part of the ride facing them, the sun had dipped far too low in the sky for Itachi's liking by the time they were ready to return to Konoha: a ride he knew Sasuke was in no condition to make on his own. He braced for an argument from his brother over the need to ride double - at least to the bottom of the trail - only to feel equally astonished and relieved when Sasuke only looked at him dully before nodding a listless agreement.

"Although I hope you won't take this wrong, older brother," Sasuke joked weakly once Itachi mounted Taka behind him, "but you are so not who I planned on riding with."

Their shadows, so well-defined when they began the downward trek, had gradually faded and blurred into the soft blueness of twilight by the time they reached the bottom. Before rounding the base of the cliff into view of the village walls, they paused long enough for Itachi to transfer to Mayonaka; then slowly continued on to the western gate. The sentries, members of the Hyuuga Guard Corps contingent, gave them sharply curious looks as they passed into the village, where Sakura took her deliberately casual leave of them; but asked no questions and made no comments.

However, the older distant cousin in charge of the small rear portal closest to the part of the Uchiha estate housing the stables showed no such restraint. Rather than expressing surprise or dismay over Sasuke's injured arm, he shook his head and inquired darkly, "Aren't you past the age for climbing trees, Sasuke? Let alone falling out of them?"

Keeping Taka mincing steadily forward Sasuke lightly shot back, "Not when there are ladies to impress with my prowess."

Scowling, the man snorted and folded his arms. "Oh, and very impressed she looks, all right."

Itachi sensed Temari bristling just as his brother and cousin both burst out laughing. Fumiya reached up to give Sasuke a friendly clout on the side of the leg with the back of his hand. . .

Right on top of a gash that had taken eight stitches to close. Feeling his own leg jerk in sympathy, Itachi saw Sasuke sway in his saddle. Even as his muscles tensed to urge Mayonaka forward in case he needed to catch the younger man, Temari gasped and flinched. Her mount stamped her front legs, tossing her head in nervous response.

It was just the distraction his brother needed to collect himself. Fumiya instinctively turned toward Temari, right hand ready to catch Sanraizu's bridle if the mare showed signs of bolting. At the same time he said kindly, "Easy now, lass, no need to fire up over a bit of fun between cousins. Especially first cousins: Right, Sasuke?"

"First cousins about five hundred times removed." Sasuke's reply floated back over his shoulder to them as he continued to ride on, sounding more than a little breathless.

Quickly altering his original impulse, Itachi made his stallion sidle close enough to Temari to reach out and touch her elbow, subtly urging her forward in Sasuke's wake. ""Five hundred times removed' is a bit exaggerated," he said, smiling at her meaningfully. "But we are all family here. "

She blinked at him a couple of times. Then, "Of course, all - family," she said smoothly, picking up on his cue. She inclined her head to Fumiya with a charming smile as they passed through the gate as well. "All you Uchiha are just so much to get used to."

Fortunately not only were the grooms on duty when they rode into the stableyard all boys in their early teens, barely past their apprenticeships in their clan duties: The senior groom overseeing them was a contemporary of the old Lord Uchiha, their grandfather, whom even Fugaku had not managed to retire; a fierce elderly curmudgeon who deplored what he called the "scandalously free and easy ways" of the younger generation. So even though he ran a scathing eye over Sasuke to communicate his disapproval of a son of the main bloodline returning in such a disgraceful state, no one else dared anything beyond a concerned look as they dismounted and slowly started up the long series of switchbacked steps leading to the rear of the house.

"Whew!" Temari puffed out a soft exclamation once they were safely out of earshot of the stableyard. "Who was that old guy with the evil eye? Another distant cousin?"

"Who? Tatsuo?" Itachi replied absently, most of his attention on his brother's bowed shoulders. "Yes, though not quite as distant as Fumiya. I think he might be a second cousin four times removed. Or something like that." He'd followed Sasuke up several more steps before he realized Temari was no longer just behind him. Pausing he glanced over his shoulder and saw her staring up at him with a disturbed expression. "Temari? What is it?"

"I - was actually joking. I understand the gate Corps being Uchiha- But are you saying all the servants are Uchiha as well?"

Itachi stared back at her, her form going all blurry in the muted light falling from the electric lanterns strung overhead. He rubbed a hand over his eyes, refusing to yield to the intense pain trying to claw its way through their sockets. The only thought his mind seemed capable of producing was a muddled, Do I really have to deal with this now? But hearing Sasuke's sharp, shocked inhalation and despite his own initial respone of feeling offended, he knew this time he had to speak before his brother could.

"No, Temari," he said, unable to keep the tiredness from his voice. "I'm saying all the staff in the compound are Uchiha going about their various and appropriate clan duties. We aren't all suited to be police officers or guards. This is our home, and we all do our parts in maintaining it."

Temari blushed deeply and turned her head away from him, but not before he saw tears of embarrassment welling into her eyes. "I'm sorry, Itachi," she said, making an obvious effort to keep her voice from shaking, and just as obviously failing. "I didn't mean any insult to you or the Uchiha clan. It's just - the Sabaku have never been - numerous-"

He sighed, feeling like an unmitigated jerk. Despite sensing waves of affront still radiating from Sasuke, he turned and descended a couple of steps toward her. "I'm the one who should apologize, Temari," he said, as much to his brother as to his fiancée. "I reacted - badly. It was a misunderstanding, made worse by coming at the end of a very long and difficult day." Leaning forward he brushed a gentle finger along what he could see of her left cheek. While she didn't stiffen or pull away from that tiny caress, neither did she turn her head into it. A sudden sad yearning swelled up inside him. Would the day ever come when she not only welcomed but actively sought his touch?

"Is Comparative Estate Management 101 over now?" Sasuke's sarcastic voice broke in on his thoughts. "Or should I just try to get comfortable here until you've finished?"

Swallowing back a sigh Itachi lowered his hand. Temari leaned to one side to peek past him. "He is looking pretty wobbly, Itachi," she said. "He probably won't like it, but I think he's going to need some help getting the rest of the way up these steps."

In the end it took both of them to get a rapidly sagging Sasuke to his rooms. While Temari turned down the bed and gathered extra pillows, Itachi got his brother out of his borrowed clothes and into a yukata. Once they had younger man settled into bed, Temari caught Itachi's eyes with her own. She jerked her head slightly toward the door to the main room. When he followed her out of the bedroom, she halted, removed two parchment packets from her pocket, and held them out to Itachi.

"Pain medicine and an antibiotic," she said softly in response to Itachi's inquiring look as he accepted them. "Sakura said to make sure one of these," she tapped the smaller packet, "is put under his tongue every six hours for the next couple of days - regardless of whether or not he thinks he needs it. The antibiotic he'll take twice a day for the next two weeks starting tomorrow. She also said she'll drop by tomorrow with a cleansing solution to use on his wounds every day."

"Pain medicine every six hours, antibiotic twice a day starting tomorrow," he repeated dutifully, holding each packet up in turn. He raised his gaze to her face. "Temari-"

The dim light from the room behind them sparked deep golden glints from her spiky ponytails as she shook her head sharply, stopping him from saying anything else. "I promise I'll do my best to keep Lady Mikoto from coming to check on Sasuke," she said. She started to turn away; hesitated; turned back again to grab him in a hard, awkward hug. Her hair brushed his jawline, teasing his nose with a faint breath of jasmine. . .

. . .And then she was gone.

Itachi stared after her, every nerve ending where her body had pressed against his brought to blazing life by that brief contact. Drawing a shaken breath, he returned to his brother's bedside. Extracting a gummy, pea-sized ball of pain medicine he bent over Sasuke and touched it to his lips. "Open up, younger brother," he said. "This needs to go under your tongue." Sasuke's eyelids twitched and squeezed even more tightly shut; his lips briefly rolled inward before he signed and gave in with no other sign of protest.

To Itachi's relief whatever medicine the pellet contained was potent. Within a matter of minutes the tight lines of pain around his brother's eyes and mouth eased away as his whole body visibly relaxed. With Sasuke resting comfortably, and Temari apparently successful in deterring Mikoto from rushing in to hover over her injured younger son, Itachi took the opportunity to see to his own needs: a quick bath, a pot of tea, and a futon to spread on the floor next to Sasuke's bed.

Dimming the table lamp to its lowest level Itachi stretched out on the futon, muffling the groan that wanted to rumble up from the pit of his stomach. Unwilling to take anything for his own pain, and with the day's images and emotions cycling and recycling through his mind like a Moebius strip, he didn't anticipate getting any sleep. He must have drifted off at some point, however; a whispered, "'Tachi? 'Tachi, you there?" from somewhere above him brought him jerking back to wakefulness.

He pushed up into a sitting position, then rotated onto his knees. "I'm here, younger brother," he said reassuringly. A quick glance at the bedside timepiece showed roughly five hours had passed. "What do you need?"

"Necessary," Sasuke croaked. "But - can't get m'legs to move."

"No problem," Itachi said, suppressing his amusement over the half-surprised, half-aggrieved tone of Sasuke's voice. "I'll help you there and back."

With that issue resolved and Sasuke back in his supporting nest of pillows, Itachi sank down cross-legged onto the futon and rested his back against the edge of the bed. However long he'd slept, it'd been enough to take the edge off his exhaustion and mute his headache to a dull throb. With less than an hour until Sasuke's next dose of pain medicine, he couldn't see much point in trying to fall asleep again. Instead he opened himself to the familiar and beloved nighttime sounds of the sleeping estate and the village beyond: the tiny chirrings of insects, the soothing whisper of the breeze trailing its fingers past the open windows, the occasional haunting call of a nocturnal bird-

The bed shook slightly against his back as Sasuke shifted position. A moment later he spoke, his low voice barely stirring the night's stillness. "So, big brother, who do you think was behind the attack? Hinata's father? Or ours?"

"I'm sorry, but- That's it? That's the story? Lord Sasuke got hurt falling out of a tree?" Though she spoke in a low tone appropriate to the public surroundings of Akamichi's, where they'd met Ino at her request - ostensibly for tea - Tenten tried, and failed, to keep the disbelief from her voice. She looked dubiously from Ino to Chouji, who had joined them; then at Hinata, who simply took another sip of her tea, her expression merely one of polite interest. They might have been discussing the weather, rather than the horrific events of the previous day.

Chouji nodded reassuringly, his brown eyes crinkling above his round cheeks. "Implausible as it might sound, Tenten, no one who knows Sasuke will doubt it for a minute."

Ino giggled and nodded vigorously in agreement. "It would be just like him to want to demonstrate to Hina how to climb - or rather how not to climb - a tree. In fact, when we were kids, Sasuke and Naruto," the blonde looked slyly sideways at Hinata, "had quite the tree-climbing competition going on, until Naruto nearly killed himself by falling out of one at home. -Hinata!" With a toss of her long ponytail, Ino leaned over to peer closely at her friend's face. "That's twice now I've said Naruto's name, and you're not the slightest bit pink! What gives?"

Tenten, who'd also noticed the heiress's lack of reaction to Ino's tactless teasing, nearly held her breath as she waited for her mistress to respond; especially in front of the startled-looking Chouji.

Hinata lifted one shoulder in a miniscule shrug. "Oh, that," she said, her tone coolly indifferent. "I've c-come to realize my infatuation with N-Naruto was just that: A silly, childish infatuation with n-no chance of ever b-being anything more. It should n-never have t-taken me so long t-to admit it."

"Oh," Ino responded uncertainly. She flashed Tenten a completely nonplussed look from under her lashes. The nebulous sense of foreboding that had haunted Tenten since their return to the estate the day before deepened. She bit her lower lip at this evidence Ino also found cause for concern in Hinata's behavior.

Shock. It has to be shock, she told herself. After all, Hinata has lived most of her life in a very repressive atmosphere. It'd only be natural for her to keep everything bottled up inside her. This is just how she's dealing with the shock of what happened yesterday.

Seemingly oblivious to her friends' reactions, Hinata set down her teacup. Her pale gaze drifted around the semi-private alcove in which they sat. "You and your f-father have such a l-lovely place, Chouji," she murmured. "I am v-very glad I've at l-last gotten t-to experience it."

As Chouji beamed and thanked her, Ino drew a deep breath, the look on her face instantly making Tenten apprehensive about what she intended to say. Before the flighty blonde could speak, movement in the open seating part of the restaurant beyond caught Tenten's attention. She quickly held up a hand and said in an urgent undertone, "Kiba's coming."

Mouth and eyes rounding in a look of vivid dread, Ino burst into high-pitched, nervous giggles; choked; and began coughing uncontrollably. What a rotten conspirator she is! Tenten thought impatiently, even as Kiba halted at the entrance to their alcove and said cheerily, "Hi, guys! Got room for one more thirsty soul?" Slipping agilely past Chouji's bulk, he nudged Ino's shoulder, forcing her to make room for him. Folding onto his knees, he went on in a much lower, disgusted tone, "Geez, Ino, it's a good thing everybody in Konoha knows you're an airhead. Can you try to be a little less obvious?" He shifted his attention from a sputtering Ino to glance at the other three in turn. "I've just come back from letting Sasuke and Itachi know the results of the test Hana did on the brain. It was negative for rabies. Sasuke is going to be fine."

Ino sucked in a noisy gasp and almost started coughing again, her hands flying toward her face; but then, in an apparent effort to heed Kiba's blunt advice, she forced them back down. Clasping them in her lap, she focused her teary-eyed attention on the bonsai gracing the niche in the wall above the table. Hinata closed her eyes and went very, very still, seemingly not even breathing. Uttering a silent, heartfelt prayer of gratitude Tenten allowed her eyes to close briefly, her burden of guilty shame lightening a little.

Chouji moved his shoulders slightly up and down, so from the back he would seem to be chuckling over some joke Kiba had just made. "That is excellent news," he said huskily. "Thanks for coming so quickly to let us know, Kiba."

As the women added a soft chorus of agreement, Kiba picked up the cup Chouji pushed in his direction. Turning the fragile porcelain idly in his calloused fingers, he said, "Yeah." He stared soberly into the cup for a moment, then shook his head slightly. Looking around at them he asked, "So, has Ino told you anything about what Shikamaru and I found when Akamaru backtracked the dogs' scent into the woods?"

"I was just about to get to it when you showed up," Ino said defensively. "Chouji and I had just finished explaining to Tenten why Sasuke falling out of a tree makes such a good cover story. I suppose you want to tell them, though, now you're here."

Not for the first time, Tenten felt more than a little appalled at Ino's apparent shallowness. I just don't understand her, she thought. Doesn't she realize how serious it would have been if the test had come back positive instead of negative? Or how dangerous it was for Kiba and Shikamaru - who's supposed to be her boyfriend - to do something like that?

Hinata tapped the tabletop lightly with her fingernails, saying quietly but firmly, "I think a f-firsthand account would b-be more informative. What d-did you d-discover, Kiba?"

Kiba tipped his head respectfully to Hinata. "Akamaru led us to a shallow cave close to where the foothills begin," he answered promptly. "We found several holes in the floor where it looked like stakes been driven into the ground, along with, ah, a lot of evidence the dogs had been kept there for a while. Also - and this is the really creepy part - there were symbols scratched in the dirt at the cave's entrance, as well as drawn on the inner walls in what looked like," he dropped his voice even lower, "blood."

Tenten instantly went on the alert. "Symbols?" she asked sharply, keeping her voice just above a whisper. "What kind of symbols? Can you describe them?"

"I can do better than that. Shikamaru copied them." Reaching into an inner pocket of his jacket, he drew out a folded piece of paper. Smoothing it out on the tabletop, he added, "Though I guess to be strictly accurate, it was actually only one symbol drawn over and over. We especially wanted Tenten's input on it since she's traveled so widely."

Along with Hinata, Ino and Chouji, Tenten leaned forward to study what Shikamaru had sketched. Although not really sure what she'd expected to see, disappointment rippled through her as she studied the simple, singularly un-ominous design.

"A tri-triangle inside a c-circle," Hinata said musingly. "It looks like s-something from one of Iruka-sensei's g-geometry lessons. Have you ever s-seen anything like it, Tenten?"

"I don't think so." Tenten unconsciously sighed as she straightened. "I wish I could take it with me and ask Kakashi about it. He went to a lot of really strange, barbaric places before he adopted me."

Kiba refolded the paper and put it back in his pocket. "It was worth a try. Shikamaru has already started doing research on it. Some others on the Council of Youngers will be looking into it, too."

Hinata froze in the act of reaching for her teacup, her nearly colorless eyes locking onto Kiba. "C-Council of wh-what?"

Ino quickly put a hand to her mouth to stifle another of her irritating giggles, earning frowns from both Kiba and Chouji. "'Council of Youngers,'" she repeated before he could reply. "It's Naruto's name for all of us. You know, like how our fathers or mother all belong to the Council of Elders, which serves your father? Only as Konoha's next generation, we serve the future leader of our village - you."

For the first time since she'd come out of her faint after the picnic's chaotic end, Tenten saw a deeply disturbed expression flicker through her mistress's emotional detachment. "How - creative," she said. If none of the others seemed to notice the faintness of that comment, Tenten definitely did. The heiress's lavender-touched eyes flicked up to meet hers ever so briefly, only to shutter again so swiftly, Tenten felt as though a door had been slammed in her face. Hinata looked away, ultimately leaving the rest of her tea untouched.

Having fulfilled his purpose in stopping by Akamichi's, Kiba soon took his leave of them. Chouji very shortly returned to his duties as well. The women lingered a brief while longer, but even Ino seemed unable to maintain any sort of a conversation. Within fifteen minutes they parted outside the restaurant: Ino to return to her family's florist shop, Tenten and Hinata turning their steps toward the Hyuuga estate.

Seeming inclined to dally Hinata set a leisurely pace, the soft clicks of her geta keeping time with the gentle swishing of her fan in front of her face. Tenten followed a couple of paces behind: purposefully immersing herself in being the watchful guardian Kakashi had trained her to be; sternly repressing any thought or emotion that might interfere with that job. Once they finally passed through the gates into the Hyuuga compound, however, Hinata paused so Tenten could walk alongside her along the spotless white paving stones.

"T-tomorrow is the last Friday of the m-month," she said, the sunlight giving her hair a lustrous, blue-black sheen when she turned her head for a glance up at the Tower as they passed it. "T-time for the household accounts again."

"Somehow it seems as though it should be a whole lot longer than it's really been," Tenten murmured on a long sigh. "So much has happened in the last month."

"Yes." Beyond that quiet exchange, neither spoke again until they arrived in Hinata's suite. As Tenten removed the narrow leather baldric supporting her sheathed katana and laid it aside, Hinata stopped in the center of the sitting room. Gazing outward into the garden, she asked very softly, "Tenten: D-do you have any - regrets - about b-becoming my friend as well as my b-bodyguard?"

Shocked by the unexpected question, Tenten straightened and turned so quickly she nearly lost her balance and stumbled sideways. Hurt ripped from her heart upward into her throat, nearly choking her. Her eyes stung. "Do I regret-? No, Hinata! No!"

Hinata gave her a faintly reproving glance from the corners of her eyes. "I'm not asking b-because of yesterday, Tenten. I meant what I t-told you last night - d-despite how blasphemous you think it is. I d-do not now, nor shall I ever, believe even the legendary Hatake Kakashi c-could have stopped all four of those b-beasts. I am s-simply saying I would t-totally understand if you d-did." She bowed her head, adding in a barely audible voice, "Your bond with your brother, the trust between you, has been d-damaged, b-because of your association with m-me. Now you have to g-guard your every word around him. By acting as the g-go-between for me and Neji, you are f-forced to d-disobey him by sneaking out at night. You even have t-to lie t-to him. Inadequate as it m-may s-sound, I am s-so s-sorry, Tenten."

Swallowing back her first, automatic response as insultingly glib, Tenten ducked her chin toward her chest. For several moments she searched beyond the surfaces of her heart and mind, probing down into their deepest, most secret places, before saying slowly, "I - regret having to lie to Kakashi. Partly because he's my big brother, partly because lying is just, well, basically wrong. But as for the rest. . ."

Her voice trailed off, a strong certitude unexpectedly burgeoning within her, rooted in both heart and brain; a literal "moment of truth" such as Kakashi had included in his teaching stories, piercing her with equal parts of blazing joy and burning pain. A series of images flashed through her mind: memories of the years spent with the man who truly was her dearly loved elder brother in everything but blood. Other images swiftly supplanted them: Newer memories of Neji that, though fewer in number, sparked in her an unfamiliar, bittersweet longing.

I'm a woman now, she thought, sad on one level, yet strangely excited on another. I've grown beyond needing the comfort of a brother. I crave the comfort of a different kind of man. A man who will be my life partner in every way.

With this new self-awareness thrumming through her she stepped closer to Hinata, who lifted her head to lock eyes with hers. "As for the rest," Tenten went on earnestly, "I will always love and respect Kakashi as my brother. I will always be grateful to him for everything he's done for me. And yet. . . At some point I have to stop being 'just' his little sister, walking in his footsteps and living under his guidance. As an adult I have to be my own person. I have to make my own decisions and accept the consequences of them, good and bad. And that means it's possible he and I might eventually, even with the best possible motives on each side, find ourselves taking opposite stands on an - issue. Professionally as well as personally."

Hinata's eyes appeared uncannily like her father's as they seemed to probe Tenten's soul for the truth her words. "I b-believe you," she whispered, inclining her raven head in the tiniest of nods. A gentle scratching at the outer door interrupted them before the fleeting glimpse of what? sadness? fright? Tenten thought she saw flit across the Hyuuga woman's face truly registered.

She quickly went to open the door. A bowing housemaid extended a small message scroll, sealed with red wax and a white ribbon. "For our lady," the girl said, keeping her eyes downcast. Tenten dismissed her with a word of thanks and closed the door again. As she carried it over to Hinata, she turned it over in her fingers, her sharp eyes and trained fingers examining it for any sign of tampering or intended mischief. Pointing to a barely perceptible smudge on the white ribbon that might - or might not - have been the result of the red dye from the hot wax seeping beyond its boundary, she handed to the other woman.

Nodding to show she understood, Hinata made a prolonged production of breaking the seal, sliding off the confining ribbon, and unrolling the eggshell white sheet. She silently read it once; twice; a third time, inspiring Tenten with the urge to bounce in frustrated curiosity. Sternly reminding herself of the enormous difference, despite the friendship between them, in their statuses, she restrained herself. Instead, she observed how the heavy parchment trembled in Hinata's hands and wondered what message the scroll contained. They already knew from Kiba that Sasuke was not at risk for rabies. Yet even without that dread diagnosis hanging over him, she abruptly remembered with a thrill of alarm Kakashi teaching her how dog bites could lead to still other, perhaps equally life-threatening, infections. Surely in the short time since leaving Akamichi's the younger Uchiha brother hadn't taken a drastic turn for the worse! Tenten's fingers itched with the urge to snatch the scroll away from the heiress and read it.

Unobtrusively she drew in a deep breath through her nose and released it through barely parted lips, forcing the evil image from her mind. A more welcome thought occurred to her as Hinata finally let the parchment curl in on itself again even as she continued to stare sightlessly at it. Perhaps the message within conveyed a personal reassurance sufficiently strong enough to break through the unnatural emotional shutdown holding Hinata in thrall. Initially relieved when, after the shattering experience of the attack and its aftermath, her mistress made the trek back to Konoha on some kind of numb auto-pilot, Tenten had expected some kind of reaction from the heiress once within the safety and privacy of her suite: quiet hysterics, uncontrollable tears, nightmares, something. But instead she'd remained in this state of almost eerie calm and detachment. She knew this without doubt, having lain awake the majority of night wrestling with her own punishing demons of inadequacy and self-recrimination. Maybe now at last, she thought hopefully, some of that abnormally repressed emotion was about to escape-

-Or not. Coming out of her reverie Hinata calmly said, "We will need a s-social secretary before long to k-keep track of our engagements. Lady Mikoto not only invites us t-to have tea with her and S-Sarutobi Kurenai n-next week to share m-memories of m-my m-mother, but also t-to attend the official unveiling of Lord Itachi and Lady Temari's formal wedding p-portrait in ten days' t-time." Tightening the scroll so it would fit back into its confining white ribbon, she added dryly, "She also profoundly apologizes for what she calls Sasuke's 'exasperating proclivity' for falling out of trees."

Tenten shrugged and spread her hands wide. "I guess I'm like Lady Temari and picnics - only I would never have thought of climbing trees for the fun of it."

Hinata tipped her slightly to one side, her gaze wandering out to the garden again. "Neji and I used t-to climb trees when we were l-little, b-before everything - changed. That's how we f-found the gazebo."

"Seriously?" Tenten got a vivid mental image of the barely more than toddler-sized Hyuuga cousins scrambling upward through the branches of an improbably tall tree, laughing and exchanging dares as they left the ground far below them. "Then along with throwing shuriken, that gives you something else in common with Lord Sasuke."

As she'd done earlier, both in Akamichi's and after reading Lady Mikoto's letter, Hinata froze into absolute stillness for the space of several heartbeats. Then, lifting one shoulder in a delicate half-shrug, she said, "Yes, I suppose it d-does," before she headed toward her study. "I should send a reply to Lady Mikoto right away. Would you p-please send for a servant, Tenten?"

"Of course," Tenten responded automatically, feeling a ripple of unease go through her at the offhandedness of that response. As she moved to fulfill Hinata's request, she thought, Now what kind of answer was that?

A faint, underlying sense of alarm plagued Tenten as the remainder of the day passed uneventfully. It threaded sinuously, continuously through the back of her mind and unsettled her dreams. She'd expected to waken with happy anticipation on September's final Friday, knowing as she did she and Neji had already agreed to rendezvous in the gazebo later in the day. Instead she woke with a feeling almost of trepidation. Going about her normal morning routine as Hinata with seemingly unruffled serenity did the same, she felt a sudden sharp pinch of resentment nip her heart. Standing in front of the mirror in the dressing room between the necessary and the bathing room, she jabbed a final pin into her left hair bun. Maybe the heiress had learned at her father's ice-cold knee the trick of sealing away inconvenient emotions, but she on the other hand-

. . .You must constantly remember you are here to be Lady Hinata's bodyguard, Tenten: Not her friend. Her brother's admonition whispered from her memory into the forefront of her consciousness.

Shame flooded hotly from the crown of her head to the pit of her stomach. Had she not been taught the same lesson by a far kinder teacher? And had she not passed on a portion of that teaching as well while teaching Hinata how to handle shuriken and knives? To blame the other woman for her own emotional predicament was selfishly unfair. She, Tenten, had made the choice to befriend her mistress rather than keeping her at the proper professionally dictated distance: A choice aided, she now acknowledged painfully, by her own hidden desire for a female friend. She, Tenten, had let her personal dislike of Lord Hiashi fuel her curiosity and imagination, enabling them to run rampant over Neji's situation - which, however tragic she might privately consider it, was ultimately none of her business. No, she had no one but herself to blame; and if she still possessed even a shred of honor or integrity he had tried so hard to instill in her, she would go to Kakashi and confess her failings, even if that meant losing some of his regard and her position as Hinata's bodyguard.

But as she stared into her reflected eyes, Tenten knew with irrevocable certainty she did not have the inner strength to make that choice. The bitter truth of the words she'd spoken earlier in claiming her adulthood rose up and wrapped her in its barbed chains. She'd made her decisions and chosen her path. Even if, as looked increasingly likely, Hinata married Sasuke, she could not abandon the heiress in the interim. And as for Neji- A smoldering wave of longing went through her on an intense tremor that left her dizzy. Not just for his sake, but now also for her own, she could not turn her back on him and send him back into his lonely exile, no matter the outcome or consequences.

A hesitant tapping on the wall next to the closed door brought Tenten back to awareness of her external surroundings. "Tenten?" Hinata's concerned voice drifted in to her. "Are you all right? It's nearly t-time t-to go."

Quickly drawing and releasing a deep breath as she gave herself a vigorous shake, Tenten grabbed the loose strands of hair on the right side of her head, twisting them up into their habitual bun. She used her elbow to slide the door open, at the same time thrusting in the confining pins. "Sorry, Hina," she said, "bad hair day. It just doesn't seem to want to stay put for some reason. And the last thing I need is for it to come loose during a sparring match."

Tucking a fan into her obi Hinata replied, "Isn't it aggravating how th-that happens sometimes? Stick-straight as m-my hair is, there are d-days when all it wants to do is frizz and p-poke out every which way."

No choreographed ambush - or observant Kakashi - awaited Tenten when she made her way to the barracks after parting from Hinata at the Tower steps. Instead she received a deep bow from the sentry on gate duty along with a message from Captain Genma requesting her to report to his office on her arrival. With more curiosity than concern she promptly obeyed. Slightly surprised to find no aide in the outer office - in fact, there was no outer office - she knocked on the door's frame to announce her presence.

Looking up from his review of the reports stacked on his desk he waved her inside. Speaking around the ever-present toothpick in his mouth, the captain proceeded to give her two wildly unexpected surprises: She now possessed status equal to a squad leader within the Elite Corps; and a mini-suite of changing room, bathing room, and toilet room had been added to the end of the Corps's bath house for her private use.

All, he explained, by direct order of Lord Hiashi after he'd received Genma's report on her "exam" the previous month.

I still think the guy is a first-class jerk, she thought as she sank into the steamy comfort of the deep tub after her workout. Although she'd very properly expressed her thanks and appreciation earlier, she'd also mentally uttered a couple of (relatively) mild swear words. Although - it will be nice meeting Neji without smelling like I haven't had a bath since the last time we saw each other. She let her gaze wander around the small but perfectly appointed space. I need to get a spare set of clothes to bring down with me next month. A village the size of Konoha is bound to have two or three good secondhand stores. This time I'll just have to put my sweaty clothes back on, she suddenly remembered the set of shelves built into one corner of the changing room, with its neatly stacked towels and pearl grey yukata, unless I layer a couple of those yukata over my undies. . .

Half an hour later, holding the loose sleeves of the yukata and the bundle of her regular clothing tucked closely to her body to prevent their tangling in the verdant walls of the passageway to the gazebo, Tenten traveled the narrow path through the towering bushes. She knew she was running ahead of the time they had set, but she couldn't help herself from arriving early. Maybe, maybe, maybe, the happy thought sang in rhythm with the excited thumping of her heart, Neji will be early, too?

Even when the deliciously fragrant interior of the gazebo proved empty of anything but sunlight and shadow, along with the occasional errant bee, Tenten's ebullient mood didn't dip. After all, he wasn't late; she was early. Laying aside her katana along with her folded together tunic and pants she settled to the sun-warmed wooden floor, instinctively choosing a spot where she could see the approach to the entrance without being seen herself, content to wait. Anticipation built pleasurably inside her, the memory of Neji's hands on her waist nearly as tangible as his living touch.

This is where Neji sits. Tenten lightly brushed her fingertips over the boards on either side of her. One small, practical fragment of her mind rolled its eyes and told her just to Get a grip! But she ignored it, choosing to savor the unaccustomed but very pleasant emotions churning within her as her lips turned upward in a tiny smile.

Time passed. In the garden outside birds trilled musical conversations, while inside the gazebo the scent of roses intensified.

But when the agreed-upon time arrived, Neji did not.

At first Tenten, though disappointed at his tardiness, remained calm. Just because it was her day off, she knew he did not have such a luxury. He could be called upon for extra duties at any moment; such as when he'd been pressed into conveying Tenten's meager belongings to Hinata's suite the day of her hiring as the heiress's bodyguard. Plus he had to be even more cautious about his movements than she did. Badly as she regretted the lost time they could have had together, her anxiety level only began to ratchet upward once the tally of passing minutes approached fifteen: a third of their self-allotted span. Without initially realizing it, she rocked back and forth as though keeping tempo with an invisible metronome. She made herself stop as soon as she became aware of the motion, unaware of how her hands immediately balled into fists, all the while sternly squelching the several grim scenarios trying to crowd their way in front of her mind's eye. Getting to her feet, she paced as far as the side of the doorway and stood there with eyes and ears straining for any hint of his approach.

Neji, where are you?

Ten more minutes crept past, each one feeling like it dragged a year of her life along with it. When he finally appeared, seemingly materializing from the greenery of the passage into the clearing, Tenten hurtled without thinking out the door and down the steps. Before he'd taken more than a couple of steps into the sunlight, she'd all but bounced off his chest again as she impulsively seized him in a fierce embrace. "You're here, you're here, you're okay!" she exclaimed, her senses filled with his solidness under her hands and in her arms, his slightly earthy masculine smell, the sound of his suddenly rapid heartbeat under her left ear.

Before he could react, however, she skittered a few steps backward, feeling as though all the heat of the sun pouring down around them was suddenly concentrated in her face. "Um, Lord Neji," she mumbled, looking down at the ground between them. Her palms actually tingled with the desire to touch him again, so she resolutely clasped them behind her back. Tenten, she silently castigated herself, you're an idiot.

Was it her imagination, or did the calloused pads of his fingers brush along her jawline? "My Lady Tenacity," he said gravely. "I apologize for alarming you with my lateness. I assure you, it was unavoidable. Shall we go into the gazebo?"

Not trusting her voice at the moment, Tenten nodded and preceded him. She folded down onto her heels in the dappled shadow on one side of the patch of sunlight. Neji knelt across from her. He rested his long hands on his thighs as he simply gazed at her for a long moment, his expression unusually solemn even for him.

Tenten fought back an urge to fidget under that steady silvery regard. "I'm sorry I barreled into you like that - again," she blurted out. "Really, I know it isn't easy for you to slip away like this during the daytime. I guess my imagination just kinda got carried away-"

"Tenten." Just her name spoken softly, but with such a wealth of underlying pain it was like the featherlight touch of fingers on her lips, silencing her. "Tenten. If you hadn't backed away so quickly, I would have hugged you back." He paused before adding in a nearly inaudible voice, "Which would have been very wrong of me."

"Oh." Tenten wrestled with conflicting feelings of hurt and confusion. Looking straight into his eyes, she asked, "Why?"

Neji swallowed hard, but didn't flinch from her gaze. "Partly because of what I must tell you. The last night we met here, I wasn't - ready - for our time together to be over. So - I followed you."

A jolt of astonishment went straight through the heart of Tenten's already damaged professional pride. Neji had followed her through the estate's gardens? And this was the first she knew of it? Another question suddenly occurred to her; one she dreaded to ask, but to which she had to know the answer. "How - far?"

"Far enough." His knuckles whitened as he dug his fingers into his quads. "I saw your meeting with your brother. And I heard what he told you."

The blood rushed from Tenten's head, collecting in her belly as a throbbing mass of sick terror. She swayed unsteadily, her eyesight going dark around the edges. Kakashi: Did he know Neji was there listening? Was he speaking to him as much as to me? Because if so- Was he warning Neji as much as he was warning me?

Neji's hands gripping her shoulders and holding her upright brought Tenten out of the swirling black vortex choking off her consciousness. "He didn't know I was there either," he said firmly once her full focus returned to him. A bitter note crept into his tone. "Given his feelings about my father, about me, do you think he could have kept from confronting me if he'd known?"

Tenten pressed icy palms to her forehead as he released her and withdrew to his former position. "I - don't know," she admitted shakenly. "Kakashi has always been very - subtle, I guess you could say. I'm just starting to realize how subtle, how many layers there are to the man. Thin as it might seem, he might have been giving you a one-time-only benefit of a doubt and warning us away from each other at the same time. I - just - don't - know." Putting her hands flat on the floorboards on either side of her knees, she leaned slightly toward him, her eyes locking on his. "Neji- Lord Neji- Surely you don't think that I-"

Neji cut her off, his expression stern and distant. In that moment he looked very much like his uncle. "Ultimately, does it matter what I - or you, or Hinata - think? In the eyes of your brother and her father and everyone else I am the son of a traitor and a murderer, a potential traitor and murderer myself." He raised his hands to the bandages covering his forehead and began unwinding them. "It is time you saw this, Tenten. If not for this one small act of disobedience on the servants' part, you would have seen it already and known why I am not 'Lord' Neji. . . Why I can never be 'Lord Neji' to you or to anyone else. . ."

The last layer of cloth fell away. Tenten gasped in horror, going dizzy again but this time with denial. She'd seen that symbol before, in far less civilized parts of the world, branded into the foreheads of unfortunates. She'd never expected to see it employed in eminently civilized Konoha, even in the gentler form of a tattoo: the symbol of a caged bird, the symbol used to denote a-

"I am not even the lowest servant of the House." Neji's voice pierced the roaring in her ears. "I am a slave of the House. This was done to me the day after my Aunt Hiromi's death. It is the reason why even though I love-" the flat calm of his tone briefly cracked, "I love you, Tenten, we can never be together in any significant or permanent way. You have taught me to remember who I truly am, and I thank you for that. But after this meeting, after today, I must let you go free of me. You should not - you must not - be bound to one such as I."

Pain, bittersweet and sharp and freezingly hot, pierced Tenten's heart like one of Captain Genma's senbon. Rising to her knees, she lifted trembling hands to brush her fingertips over the ugly tattoo. Sensing more than feeling his quickly suppressed flinch, she gently trailed them down over his temples to the outer corners of his high cheekbones; bent to press her lips to the center of his forehead, directly over the midpoint of the caged bird symbol, in a lingering kiss.

"I love you too," she whispered, drawing back just enough to gaze into his wide, shocked white eyes. "You are now and will always be my dearest Lord Neji. And that's why I will never, never accept this as your ultimate fate or destiny."

Coming up onto his knees as well, Neji gathered her into his arms, the look in his eyes going all soft and wondering. As Tenten yielded herself to the ecstasy of their first kiss, her heart ached nearly to breaking under the weight of her newfound maturity, and all that came with it. I love you, I love you, I love you, every racing beat of her heart carried that burning truth into every part of her body. I can't help but love you-

-No matter the outcome or consequences.

*~To Be Continued~*

Author's Ending Notes: ...A lot has gone in since my last update for Labyrinth, and I feel the need to explain to you all why it's taken me so long to get this up. First, my father's cancer flared up again and he had to have major surgery (which, thankfully, worked), so during that time I could not concentrate on anything past him. Then my beta started having heart problems (she's been checked out, and thankfully she's okay, too). Plus my grandmother's health - and, I'm sorry to say, sanity - aren't very stable, so... Yeah. This hasn't really left a whole lot of time for my beta and me to sit down and work through our planned rewrites for this chapter - let alone actually getting the rewrites done - so this is why we're only now getting this updated. Hopefully it won't take us nearly so long to update again, but regardless, I appreciate your patience and well wishes so much. You all are some of the most amazing readers on the planet, and I appreciate every single one of you so, so much. Thank you again, I hope you enjoyed this chapter, and I hope to see you again next update!