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

Special Thanks: goes out to Angelic16, The Golden Lilys Secret, rao hyuga 18, and aisha89 for all your lovely reviews! Also thanks to everyone who has added this story to their favorites and follows lists - I get so excited every time I see a new alert in my e-box!

Author's Note: I am so happy I was able to get this update out to you much earlier than the last one! I've really been looking forward to this chapter, which has so many exciting things to share, so I won't delay you any further - please read on, and I hope you enjoy!

*~Chapter XXII~*


"Itachi! Hey, older brother, we need to be getting over to the main house! Don't you think you're pretty enough by now?"

Itachi took his hands from his laptop's keyboard long enough to slip the small packet with Sasuke's surplus pain pills swiftly from the top of the table into the shallow drawer beneath before his brother came through the doorway from the verandah. There were only three still folded within the parchment. He'd told himself that, ethically, he should have already discarded since Sasuke didn't need them and he had no intention of taking them, despite the persistent dull, nagging headache still plaguing him. Yet he couldn't seem to pitch them.

Sakura would probably snatch me bald if she knew, he thought ruefully, returning his hands and attention to his computer just in time.

"You're working?"

The astonishment in his younger brother's tone made Itachi grin up at him. He swept a hand from his head downward in an exaggeratedly graceful gesture. "What?" Itachi mischievously mirrored Sasuke's astonishment right back at him. "You don't think I'm pretty enough the way I already am? -No, seriously, all I have to do is slip on my vest and I'm ready to go." He looked down again at his laptop and unconsciously sighed. "Time is going to be at such a premium this coming week. I really need to get these spreadsheets and reports pulled together before things go completely crazy with the wedding. If I can plug in one more set of figures-"

Sasuke shook his head and scooped up the vest from where it lay across the end of the table. Holding the heavy, glossy silk garment by the shoulders he waggled it at Itachi. "Oh no, you don't," he said firmly. "The 'one more set of numbers' - plus the two or three more that would lead to - can wait. You are not going to be late to your own party on my watch, older brother."

Itachi absently shook his head. "Better late to this party than to my wedding- All right, all right, I'm coming!" He made a warding off gesture with one hand when Sasuke shook the vest even more vigorously. Reluctantly shutting down the laptop, he stood and allowed his brother to help him into the garment, adding with only partially feigned crankiness, "You'd almost think this portrait unveiling was some kind of major social event or something."

Sasuke huffed a breath that might have been a laugh. "From the way Mother has been fluttering from one end of the house to the other all day, you'd almost get that impression." He stepped around from behind Itachi and swept him with a critical glance. "Given what we have to work with, I guess you'll do. . ."

". . .And I suppose you will, too." Itachi nodded to indicate his approval of Sasuke's semi-formal outfit, nearly identical to his own. With the sling and limp already things of the past, and the still-livid scars on his arm and legs covered by his clothing, the younger man exhibited no outward sign of his recent ordeal. "You look rather pretty yourself, younger brother. Lady Hinata should definitely be impressed. So-" He indicated the door. "Shall we go?"

But just before they stepped out onto the verandah Sasuke hesitated and put a hand on Itachi's shoulder to hold him back. When he looked around in surprise, his brother looked at him searchingly, then asked abruptly, "Itachi, are you having nightmares about the dog attack?"

Even as apprehension stabbed icily through his gut Itachi quirked his lips into a crooked, self-deprecating grin. "Maybe a few," he admitted, deliberately withholding the fact they still occurred on a nightly basis, with Temari frequently sharing the role of victim with Sasuke. "Why, what makes you ask? Do I have dark circles under my eyes or something?"

Sasuke's black eyes continued to probe his face. "No, no circles," he said slowly, "but the skin around them looks, I don't know, kinda tight."

Itachi nodded sagely. "Ah. That would be the result of eyestrain from slaving over the quarterly reports and spreadsheets all day. And not eating anything at lunchtime probably isn't helping me look my best. Think we could dodge through the kitchen and grab a quick snack? Masayo oba-chan," all the younger generation called the head of the kitchen staff "Auntie," no matter the actual degree of their relationship, "won't be able to resist if both of us come begging."

The seriousness faded from Sasuke's expression, replaced by a sparkling look of mischief. "She never has before," he agreed readily. "Let's go."

A few minutes later, they stood before Masayo in the delicious-smelling, focused tumult of the main house's enormous kitchen. The little white-haired woman, still standing as straight as a soldier despite her age, ran a quick coffee-brown glance over Itachi. "So you had no lunch," she repeated, adding shrewdly, "and knowing you, not much in the way of breakfast beyond a pot of tea. Ye gods and ancestors above, Itachi, if ever a man needed a wife to look after him and keep the breath in his body, it's you."

"You're right about that." The lie rolled easily off Itachi's tongue, but left a bitter taste in his mouth with its passing. "Thank you, Auntie. Where-?"

She pointed to a smallish cooler next to several larger ones occupying one corner of the kitchen. "The odds and ends are stored in there. Help yourselves. But on your way," as they both bowed to her and started to turn away, "mind you keep that young scamp of a brother of yours out of the tomatoes!"

Sasuke laughed and made a great show of holding his hands up as blinders, which made Masayo grin and shake her head. The brothers wound carefully across to the indicated cooler, passing a work table where three kitchen staff members busily assembled platters of appetizers utilizing the forbidden treats. He muttered out of the corner of his mouth, "I bet Hinata will be agreeable to ordering extra tomatoes served at every meal."

Itachi arched an eyebrow at him as he opened the cooler's door to peruse the neatly labeled plastic wrapped packets on its shelves. Snagging one containing several short end pieces of cucumber roll, he said with dry humor, "You think so? I'll have to remember to ask her about that during the course of the evening."

At the same time he squelched and sternly sequestered a sudden sharp jab of envy. Sasuke's courtship seemed to be progressing so much more smoothly than his own. Had it really been all that long ago, he wondered as they left the steamy clatter of the kitchen behind them, when his younger brother had asked so wistfully about whether willing oneself to fall in love were possible? If not into actual love yet, Sasuke evidently had fallen very much in like with Hinata - who while proving to be only a little less shy than promised had at least given every indication she possessed a determination the equal of Sasuke's to make a match between them work.

As they'd been doing increasingly of late Itachi's thoughts turned to Temari, his soon-to-be bride. With their wedding now only a week away, the memory of the way she'd hugged him, brief though it'd been, wafted through his mind for about the ten thousandth time, tempting him towards daydreams. Maybe, just maybe, hope existed for them as well, and their wedding night would truly be a wedding night-

An elbow impacted his ribs sharply, jarring him back to his surroundings. "For heaven's sake, Itachi," Sasuke hissed next to his ear, sounding torn between amusement and exasperation, "eat that last bite and get your mind off those reports! You've got to at least pretend to be mentally present for this social gathering. Otherwise, if Mother doesn't kill you, Temari probably will."

Disconcerted, Itachi blinked at the other man. All of a sudden he felt deeply, devoutly thankful telepathy didn't exist and his brother had no inkling of the true direction his thoughts had been taking. "Uh, yeah, right," he mumbled, quickly obeying Sasuke's admonishment and disposing of the final bit of cucumber roll he held poised in front of his lips. To abet the misconception further, he gave Sasuke a mildly reproachful look and said, "You really should have let me put in that last set of figures, you know."

"Heaven's sake" indeed, he chastised himself inwardly. I shouldn't be having thoughts like that about Temari - we aren't married yet! Even as a kid I always prided myself on my self-control. He surreptitiously drew a deep breath. I really need every shred of it now!

They passed the door leading from the service area of the great house to the public area. As they approached a side chamber attached to the largest reception hall where the unveiling party would take place, hurrying footsteps and a breathless hail from a side corridor stopped them. A midteens Guardsman trainee, redfaced and panting, beckoned them to wait for him as he closed the intervening distance.

"There you guys are!" he gasped out, leaning over to rest his fists on his knees. "I feel like I've run over half the estate looking for you! Your mother wants you at the front courtyard immediately."

Sensing more than seeing Sasuke's quick frown, Itachi lifted a cool, rebuking eyebrow at the youngster. Cousins they might all be: But while on duty for or within the clan, whose main business after all was law enforcement and security, certain standards of conduct had to obtain - especially for the juniormost members of the staff. Realizing his error, the teenager flushed with embarrassment and snapped into a deep, formal bow. "My apologies, Lord Itachi, Lord Sasuke," he said, his voice tightly controlled, probably to keep from stammering. "Lady Mikoto urgently requests your presence in the front courtyard. Lord Sabaku's party has passed Konoha's main gates and will be arriving here shortly."

"Please return as quickly as possible to Lady Mikoto and assure her we are on our way," Itachi said, not unkindly. "Thank you, Shig." The youngster hastened off on his errand.

Sasuke glanced sideways at Itachi as they swiftly headed for the main entrance. "Temari will be relieved. Do you think a sandstorm delayed them?"

"It's very possible," Itachi replied. "Spring and autumn are the two worst seasons for storms to occur. Hopefully they were able to ride it out in one of the waystations along the road, instead of having to endure it in the wild." He unconsciously rolled his shoulders, his skin briefly itching and crawling at the memory of his one relatively mild encounter with a sandstorm.

They paused at the ornate front doors to exchange their indoors footwear for outdoors. As they exited onto the porch Itachi's eyes sought towards the winding causeway leading up from the village and focused on the small cavalcade wending at a steady canter along it. Squinting against the pain the slanting rays of the early evening sun sent jabbing through his eyes and up into his forehead, he easily picked out the lead rider's vividly spotlighted red hair: Gaara. Kankuro rode about half a length behind him; and even at this distance Itachi could see how he craned his head upwards and from side to side as he took in his surroundings. I wonder if this experience will end up in one of his puppet shows for Suna's children, he thought in affectionate amusement. He shortened his focus to nearer at hand. The sight of Temari, waiting at the bottom of the steps with his mother, quickly caught and held his full attention as he and Sasuke descended toward the two women.

Instead of her usual dark purple, Temari wore a softly clinging gown in a warm brown hue only a few shades darker than honey. Gossamer threads of embroidery glinted like red gold in the sunlight a handspan deep around the neckline as well as the edges of the sleeves and swirling hem, delicately picking out a pattern of twining leaves. The rich but subdued gleam of her amber jewelry subtly enhanced the golden tone of the tanned skin left bare by thin straps spanning her shoulders from front to back. Her arms from shoulder to elbow were uncovered as well, although gauzy fabric formed wide, fluttery sleeves from the elbows down.

Itachi suddenly felt very lightheaded and drymouthed, his palms and fingers aching to know how it would feel to smooth caresses along her satiny skin. Digging deep within himself he scrabbled together every scrap of etiquette and charm he possessed to bridge the moment. Once he'd greeted his mother and kissed her lightly on the cheek, he turned to his betrothed. Greatly daring, he lifted one of her hands to his lips as he bowed over it.

"Konoha fashion becomes you very well, milady," he said admiringly as he straightened and smiled down into her lovely eyes. "You are - exceptionally beautiful."

Temari's cheeks took on a dusky rose color. Her eyes actually sparkled at his compliment, although she passed it off with a nonchalant little laugh. "I went shopping with Hinata. We decided if we're going to be sisters-in-law, we both should really stop wearing the same color so much. She and Tenten insisted I get this. And speaking of Hinata," she leaned a degree closer to Itachi and lowered her voice, sending his blood pressure to dangerous heights as her breath lightly stirred the hair hanging in front of his ear and touched his cheek, "I can't wait to see the look on Sasuke's face when he sees her in the outfit she bought."

Before many more minutes passed the Sunese party clattered into the courtyard. Grooms instantly hurried out to take charge of the horses as their riders dismounted. Household staff appeared to take charge of luggage and guests. Gaara, flanked by Kankuro and Baki, rode nearly up to the foot of the steps before swinging down out of their saddles.

After the initial flurry of formal introductions and greetings, the combined parties started climbing the stairway. Lord Gaara, pausing at the top of the first flight, complimented Lady Mikoto on the courtyard garden's beauty. He then turned back in the direction from which they'd come and swept the village spread out below with his light green gaze. "Your location on this ridge gives you quite a commanding perspective of Konoha, Lord Itachi," he commented in his low, hoarse voice.

"Yes, it does," Itachi agreed. "At the village's founding, this was planned as a highly defensible fall-back position for the general populace in case of an attack, at least until the great outer wall could be completed. Fortunately, even in those wildly unsettled times, it didn't have to fulfill that purpose for more than a few occasions."

"Excellent planning." The Sunese leader's attention lingered for a moment on the Tower rising proudly from the Hyuuga compound on the other side of Konoha, but ultimately turned away without further comment. Not the least perturbed by Gaara's disinclination to engage in polite smalltalk as they crossed to the second flight of stairs, Itachi instead idly listened to Kankuro teasing Temari about her un-Suna-like dress and her biting responses, interspersed with Baki telling Sasuke and Mikoto about the sandstorm that had, indeed, caused the delay in their arrival.

Once inside the entryway the majordomo for the household escorted the three high-ranking guests to their quarters. Mikoto turned to Temari and, smiling warmly, gave her hand a quick squeeze.

"Your brothers do you great credit, my dear," she said. She reached out for one of Itachi's hands and joined it with Temari's. "You two need to go ahead and be ready to take your places in the receiving line. I have some last minute details to see to before our other guests begin arriving. Sasuke, I could use your help, so please come with me."

Itachi half-expected Temari to withdraw her hand from his as soon as possible after his mother bustled away, Sasuke in tow. She seemed content to let it rest passively in his light grip, though, as they strolled along the main corridor toward the reception hall. Neither spoke until they actually stood just inside the spacious room where, at either end, workers from the kitchen were putting the finishing touches on tables laden with food and drink. On the dais in the middle of the wall just opposite, the artist Sai stood adjusting the heavy white cloth embroidered with the Uchiha crest that draped the portrait on its easel. From somewhere overhead, soft trills and runs of notes from koto, samisen, and flute proved the musicians had already taken their places and were engaged in tuning up for the evening.

Without taking her gaze from the artist, Temari leaned toward Itachi again. In a voice barely above a whisper she asked, "Just how worried should I be about people's reaction to our portrait?"

Glancing down he saw a well-defined pucker between her brows. "You mean people in general, or my father in particular?" he responded equally softly. He shrugged and squeezed her hand reassuringly. "The, ah, nontraditional style will probably keep people talking at least until the wedding. And as for Father, I'm sure Mother has already sweet-talked him out of any disapproval he might have had over it being different from every other Uchiha wedding portrait. In fact," he tilted his head and went on in an affected, mock pretentious tone, "I think we're going to start a fashion. The engaged couples of Konoha - not to mention all future generations of Uchiha - will thank us for our bold break with tradition. So," he reverted to his normal manner, "my turn to ask: Just how worried should I be about your brothers' reaction to this unveiling?"

Temari breathed an appreciative chuckle. "Do you mean my brothers in general, or Gaara in particular?" Her quickness on the uptake make him grin as she continued, "Traditional or nontraditional, it won't matter to Kankuro. He'll treat it all as a big joke and will probably wind up sticking at least one foot into his mouth. Gaara, on the other hand-" She hesitated for a long moment before shaking her head ever so slightly. "It's always hard to say with him. But odds are he'll simply be - indifferent," she made a small yet all-encompassing motion with one hand, "to all this."

Sasuke slipped through the door. "Almost showtime, people," he said. "Our parents are on their way down the Little Staircase, and just so you know-" he took several backwards steps and grinned mischievously, "-Naruto is already in the house."

Barely suppressing a sigh, Itachi thought, Of course he'd be here to cover the unveiling for the Daily. But in all fairness he has kept the dog attack to himself and out of the paper, which can't have been easy. I've forgiven Sasuke for his part in the engagement story fiasco. I need to forgive Naruto as well.

Itachi and Naruto were just finalizing arrangements for a brief interview after the portrait had been unveiled when Temari suddenly bumped his elbow with hers. When he looked at her in surprise, she nodded her head once sharply to where Sasuke had been loitering on the side of the door opposite them. He quickly looked that way just in time to see his brother come on the alert like a hawk keying onto a lure as he stepped eagerly forward to greet Hinata before she and the ever-present Tenten could even pass through the doorway.

Although she came nowhere near equaling his sand princess's beauty, Itachi thought the princess of the Leaf looked attractive and surprisingly sophisticated in a deep forest green dress which bared her arms while smoothly hugging her curves, its hem stopping just short of her knees. Her hair, black enough to qualify as an Uchiha's, was massed at the nape of her neck in a weighty knot discreetly threaded with pearls that echoed the color of her eyes. Dainty pearl and diamond drops dangled from her earlobes, matching the delicate pendant resting just beneath the hollow of her throat. From the gleam of appreciative possessiveness in Sasuke's black eyes as he bowed low over the heiress's hand before tucking it into the crook of his arm, he evidently more than agreed with that assessment.

"Told you," Temari commented smugly in Itachi's ear. At the same time Naruto, grinning hugely, gestured to his undersized photographer to get a picture of the other couple.

"Guess I know what my next big story will be after you two tie the knot," he said gleefully. He sketched a bow and took off to interview an unsuspecting Sai.

Fugaku and Mikoto entered just after Hinata and Tenten. Fugaku must have heard the reporter; he certainly looked sour enough to have done so. Fortunately Mikoto more than made up for the curtness of his greeting by pulling Hinata in for a quick, light hug as though she were already a member of the family. As they stood chatting for a moment Itachi noticed his father covertly shoot several searching, speculative glances at Tenten, who quietly stood a short distance away. For this occasion, he noticed the bodyguard also wore her hair in a single large bun at the back of her head, apparently secured there by two long gold-colored pins. Senbon, I wonder? the thought trailed across the back of his mind. Even though she isn't wearing her katana, I bet she's still armed to the teeth. Father is probably thinking the same thing; that must be why he keeps looking at her like that.

A low buzz of voices filtered down the hallway, signaling the arrival of more guests. Sasuke escorted Hinata deeper into the reception hall. For the next hour Itachi stood with his parents and fiancée, smiling and bowing until it felt like his facial muscles, not to mention those in the small of his back, were on the verge of cramping. And the whole time, carefully hidden behind his polite facade, his nerves wound more and more tightly as the time for the portrait to be unveiled approached. Granted his mother had given her approval to the project. But still: Everyone would be expecting to see one thing - how would they react to the unprecendented reality?

Well, he'd find out before much longer. A subtle glance to one side showed the line of arriving guests was quickly dwindling. It was nearly time for the portrait - for good or ill - to be revealed.

Once the final guest had been greeted, Sasuke, Hinata, and Tenten, as well as Temari's brothers, made their way through the crowd to join them on their way to the dais. Over the course of the evening, he'd seen so many faces - old and young, familiar and unfamiliar - and they all looked expectantly at him now. He felt the weight of every single one of those gazes upon him, despite knowing others shared the burden along with him. In that moment, everything seemed to come together in his mind - all his hopes and fears, his excitement and his terror - and combine with the pounding in his head, a drumbeat to match the one set by his heart.

Calm, Itachi cautioned himself. Stay calm. Don't let anyone see how uncertain you really feel. He cut his gaze sideways briefly, to Temari's carefully smiling expression. Despite her bland mask, he could sense her underlying tension as well. A sudden, totally irrational feeling swept over him; that somehow the portrait's unveiling - how the image painted on that canvas was received - would act the part of an omen and forecast the tone for his marriage.

If the painting bombs... If it is received with ridicule... He couldn't bear to finish the thought. That wouldn't - couldn't - happen. The room rippled around him in a sickening haze. He willed it to steady again.

He took hold of Temari's icy hand as the family mounted the few steps to the dais, where Sai waited for them next to the draped portrait, concentrating on not squeezing it as tightly as he wanted to do while Fugaku spoke briefly. Then his father stepped back and he knew it was his turn to speak. He drew a breath, forcing himself to find and access that familiar still center deep in his core.

"Thank you, everyone, for coming tonight," Itachi said, his fingers still twined around his fiancée's. "Temari and I both appreciate your support for our families, our growing alliance with Suna, and our relationship. We count every single one of you as friends, and are thankful for your presence in our lives." He looked a subtle question down at Temari, who smiled and nodded.

"Although I was born and raised in Suna," she said, her turqoise eyes turning from her brothers to sweep over the numerous guests, "Konoha has definitely become a home to me. The people here are so kind, accepting me with such warmth and friendliness. I admit to being a little nervous about moving here, about uprooting my familiar life with my brothers and joining the Uchiha clan. But you've all been so welcoming, and made the transition so easy for me. Thank you all." Glancing up at Itachi, she nodded to indicate she'd finished.

Hands still clasped they turned slightly to look over at the covered painting. "Now then," Itachi said, "I'm sure you're all just as anxious as we are to see the painting that Sai created for us," he said. "Sai, if you please?"

The artist inclined his head with one of his stiff smiles. Grasping the drapery, he expertly flicked his wrists, pulling the covering away with a flourish. Itachi resisted an urge to close his eyes as gasps immediately rippled through the room and just as quickly swelled into whispering murmurs. He made himself look at the painting - and exhaled a sharp breath of his own.

It was almost like an out-of-body experience, as though he stood looking through a window in time back to when he and Temari were posing for this very portrait. The foliage depicted at the edges of the canvas was softly blurred, directing the beholder's eye inward to the images in the very center as the garden came into clearer focus around them: Temari sitting on Itachi's lap within the circle of his arm, her bare feet dangling off the ground. The deep gold of her hair found an echo in the roses blooming on either side of them. The painted couple wore small smiles, their foreheads touching, eyes turned ever-so-slightly to look at each other instead of toward the artist; their entire attention so wrapped up in each other they were oblivious to everything else around them, even the beautiful backdrop of the garden. Overall, the portrait projected an aura of casual intimacy unlike anything Itachi had ever seen before. He sneaked a quick sideways peek at Temari and found her looking as pleasantly stunned as he felt.

As his family and guests broke into spontaneous applause Itachi and Temari bowed deeply to Sai, thanking him for honoring them with his incredible talent. Naruto, his photographer tagging along a couple of steps behind, moved in at the same time as their families. After an ensuing period of mild chaos with photos being taken and questions asked, just when he thought the two of them might be able to draw a free breath, a hand clapped his shoulder from behind. A familiar voice exclaimed, "Itachi, you sure are one lucky guy!"

Grinning broadly, Itachi turned. "Shisui!" Extending his forearm to the dark-haired, dark-eyed man, he drew him in for a brief embrace. "This is great, you made it back to Konoha for the wedding! Temari," he drew his betrothed forward, "may I present to you my first cousin and best friend Uchiha Shisui? -My real first cousin," he added with a chuckle when Temari flicked him a skeptical glance. "Our mothers are sisters."

"My Lady Temari." Shisui bowed low. "It is an honor and a pleasure to meet you." He straightened and gave Temari a winsome smile. "Are you finding our convoluted Uchiha relationships overwhelming?"

"Perhaps a bit," Temari responded with a polite smile. "It will be interesting to be part of such a large clan. You have been away from Konoha, I take it?"

"Yes, milady. For the past year I've been overseeing internal security for a large company based in the Three Rivers country. Fortunately I was able to arrange some time off to come home for the wedding."

Temari divided a mildly inquiring glance between Itachi and Shisui. "In addition to providing most of the police force for Konoha, along with other security services within the village," Itachi explained, "the clan also has a consulting division that takes on contracts outside Konoha. Shisui works as one such consultant."

As they stood conversing further, Kankuro bounced up to them, for all the world like a big, brown, overgrown puppy. "Only one week left! You guys nervous yet?" he said with a broad grin, his eyes wide and sparkling with excitement.

Temari gave him a withering look. "Kankuro! Where are you manners?" she scolded as Gaara, Sasuke, Hinata and Tenten halted a polite distance away. "Didn't you notice we were talking with Itachi's cousin, whom he hasn't seen for a year?"

Kankuro blinked but seemed otherwise unfazed by his sister's rebuke. "Oh, sorry," he said breezily. "You want we should come back later?" He hooked a thumb over his shoulder at his brother, and Itachi's.

Shisui laughed. "No need to go on my account, Kankuro is it? I'm Uchiha Shisui, by the way."

During the ensuing flurry of introductions, Itachi noticed Gaara hanging slightly back: No big surprise considering his discomfort around people, especially strangers. But as the circle of conversation broadened to include the newcomers he also began to notice how the redhead's light green eyes seemed to stray frequently to Hinata - and linger, even if only for mere seconds at a time. He tried at first to dismiss it as a passing fascination with someone who must appear somewhat exotic to Suna-born Gaara; tried also to dismiss his growing sense of unease. But Sasuke evidently was aware of those repeated glances, too. It wasn't long before he casually maneuvered himself between the two, blocking Gaara's view of Hinata while at the same time emitting a distinctly proprietary vibe.

"Itachi, I'm at my parents' house, of course. Maybe we can get together before the wedding and catch up some more," Shisui eventually said as he prepared to take his leave. "Lady Temari, it has been a pleasure." He bowed himself off.

Before much longer Sasuke very neatly detached Hinata from the group, his black gaze touching briefly across his brother's. Its very blandness spoke volumes to Itachi. Tenten paused long enough to murmur a compliment to him and Temari about the portrait. Her brown eyes met his as she turned away, a faint shadow of worry in their depths heightening his concern. He pushed back a desire to rub a hand over his face and grimace. It would be inexpressibly beyond awkward if he had to warn one brother away from the other's intended.

"I didn't expect to make Lady Hinata's acquaintance until tomorrow, during my meeting with Lord Hiashi," Gaara commented in his raspy voice.

"She was kinda pretty," Kankuro chimed in unexpectedly, "but awfully quiet. Hey, Itachi." His focus suddenly became fixed past Itachi's left shoulder. "There's a guy in a mask standing in the corner over there. Who is he?"

Thankful for the diversion, Itachi responded without looking around, "That would be Uchiha Tobi, a very, very distant cousin. His branch of the family left Konoha generations ago, but he generally shows up for major family functions."

Her fingers clenching tightly on his in sudden tension, "Kankuro, please don't-" Temari began to say at the same instant her brother asked, "So why's he wearing a mask?"

"He was disfigured in some horrific childhood accident," Itachi replied, adding firmly, "I don't know the details of what happened. He doesn't like to talk about it, for obvious reasons."

Gaara's eyes flickered from side to side. "My apologies, Itachi, big sister," he said. "We've kept you too long from your other guests." He inclined his upper body slightly before herding Kankuro away.

Temari made a three-quarters turn toward him. "Itachi," she whispered hastily, "I am so sorry-"

Itachi brought their hands up so he could brush her knuckles with his lips. "It's all right," he said in a reassuring undertone, "I'm not offended in the least. While in Suna I learned it's easier to bridle the wind than to deter Kankuro." She smiled at the Sunese proverb and he very lightly squeezed her fingers. "Now that our sibs are, as Sasuke would say, out of the way, what do you say we enjoy our party?"

This, Naruto thought glumly as stared blankly down on the notepad in front of him, is a lot tougher than I expected it to be. I feel like I'm gonna bust. I'm sitting on a huge story - seriously huge, the future leader of Konoha could've been killed! - and I've got to keep it a secret.

Leaning back in the kitchen chair, he drove both hands into his already messy hair for a vigorous scalp rub and bit off a yelp when the pencil he still held nearly drew blood. He tossed it down with a scowl; picked it up and bent over the table again. I undertand why it's important, but still- He gave a dramatic sigh even though there was no one around to hear it. I gotta at least get the rough draft of this article done before I go to bed.

Half an hour later he tossed his pencil aside a second time when he realized he'd written all of three sentences, while completely filling the margins of the page with doodles. Shoving away from the table in disgust, he went to stare into the refrigerator for several moments before deciding nothing appealed; wandered out of the kitchen into the family room, dark except for the wide rectangle of light spilling through the doorway between. He made no effort to resist when his feet carried him to a window well outside the fall of light. As sightlessly as at his notebook, he stared at the dark mass of the cliff towering over Konoha, his thoughts and emotions in a turmoil of self-doubt. He knew - well, he was pretty sure he knew - he was doing the right thing. So why, then, did he feel so lousy about it? Placing one arm along the windowframe, he rested his forehead against it.

"What the-! Cursed mark . . . filthy . . . Jashin . . . in my house . . .! Monster!"

The nearly incoherent roar of rage from the kitchen brought Naruto running for the connecting doorway, his heart pounding twin drumbeats in his throat and his head. He stumbled to halt at the sight of his grandfather brandishing his abandoned notebook in the air, white hair bristling stiffly around his purple face, teeth bared in a ferocious snarl. The old man's eyes, distended with fury, fastened on Naruto's face. In the next instant he was looming over Naruto, still clutching the notebook like a club.

"Foul-! Filthy-! Monstrous-! Where did you come across this sign?" Jiraiya's breath blasted hotly on Naruto's skin as his rumbling bass voice all but deafened him.

"Grandpa! Gramps! Calm down!" Scared his grandfather was having some sort of attack, Naruto tentatively reached for him as he heard his grandmother upstairs calling out in alarm as her feet thudded onto the floor. "Why're you waving my notebook around like that? Maybe you should just give it back to me and I'll put it away, okay?"

"Jiraiya! Naruto! What's going on down here?" Tsunade came running down the stairs, hanging on to the balustrade with one hand.

Naruto turned panicked eyes toward her. "I don't know, Grandma! I was looking out the front window trying to get my thoughts straight when all of a sudden Grandpa-" He broke off as Tsunade stepped up to her husband and took hold of his arm.

"Jiraiya! Honey, what's wro-" She went as white as he was red and emitted a keening sound. "No! No!" She would have collapsed to the floor had Jiraiya not dropped the notebook to catch her. She huddled against his chest, now weeping uncontrollably.

"I can't believe you," he ground out between clenched teeth, "our own grandson, would flaunt such an obscenity-"

"Obscenity?" Naruto's voice cracked as he looked from one grandparent to the other, then down to his notebook. Bewilderment sloshed from one side of his brain to the other. "It's three sentences and a lot of doodling. . ." His voice trailed away. He took a deep breath, his reporter's mind starting to work its way through his shock and distress. "Grandpa, what exactly on that page made you and Grandma react the way you did?"

The older man seemed to deflate slightly. "Nothing. It was nothing," he mumbled dully. "Must not've been fully awake. Just forget about it, Naruto. Sorry-" Soothing his sobbing wife, he gently turned her toward the staircase and guided her upstairs.

Still feeling shaken to his core, Naruto bent and retrieved his fallen notebook. Carrying it back to the kitchen table he smoothed out the top several pages, which were crumpled and torn. His eyes probed for any hint of what might have prompted Jiraiya's over-the-top rage and Tsunade's rending grief. He looked over the opening sentences he'd written for his article about the unveiling, lips moving silently as he read them over: No, nothing there. As for the doodles themselves, they were just random geometric shapes: cubes and cylinders, stars and spirals, and stars inside of circles and spirals-

His breath left him in one great whoosh.

-And, repeated over and over among the other shapes, a triangle enclosed in a circle.

Naruto sat down weakly, a multitude of thoughts colliding inside his mind. It can't just be a coincidence, this symbol showing up where those dogs were tortured crazy and Grandpa and Grandma reacting the way they did. They've both seen it before. And it means something terrible to them. Something terrible-

-That's somehow connected to my parents' death.

*~To Be Continued~*

Author's Ending Notes: Apologies for any errors you might have found above. My beta and I have both read this over several times, but she's medicated and I'm sleep deprived, so we might have missed something. But I'm so excited to be able to post this chapter at long last, since it has one of my favorite scenes in the whole story - the unveiling! I've been so excited for this, I don't even have words to describe it. Thank you again for your patience and encouragement for me and this story, and for reading - I hope you enjoyed this chapter, and I also hope to see you for the next one!