It all started with a flower. A hibiscus blossom, to be specific, carefully cut from the leafy plant with great patience, kept floating in a glass of water so she could show it off to her friends and classmates. The shy girl in her group was admiring it, as they tended to do, and Sakura was trying to feign disinterest rather than jealousy in the perfect bloom. She'd grown this flower herself, after all, feeding the plant some of her chakra day after day in addition to its regular meals of water, sunlight and fertilizer. This bloom, she felt, was supposed to tell the future, her future as a ninja, as a Yamanaka, and Ino hoped that her grandmother saw a good future, that her father would be proud of her as she grew older, just as she was proud of the plant she'd cultivated.
Of course to tell someone their future was to shatter it, so she would be left wondering, but that was fine with her. It was more fun to guess, and be surprised by the outcome, than to know the outcome beforehand, because that was boring and didn't teach you anything. All throughout study period she made sure that the floating blossom got plenty of light, to keep it from withering too soon, and when time came for classes to end and everyone to go home to their respective families, she found herself standing with Hinata to wait for her cousin to get out of his class, trading gossip with Sakura (for they had not yet developed their rivalry over Sasuke), coaxing a few words out of the bashful Hyuuga, until finally a boy with similar white eyes and an all-too-sour expression came to her side with some measure of disdain evident on his face.
Before she'd thought about it, before she'd even considered the consequences, and while he was distracted by Naruto doing something which to this day she still wished she'd seen given the momentary quirk of Neji's lips out of the perpetual frown that he used to keep, Ino had unlatched the glass case, brought the flower out of its confines and tucked it into Neji's hair.
"There you go, Sunshine, now you look a lot happier!" At the time she argued that she was talking about the flower (Ino named all her plants the way some girls named their stuffed animals), though looking at how stunned Neji was by her action, she couldn't say she wasn't trying to brighten his day, as well. For a moment his fingers brushed against the petals curiously, his face unreadable, before he finally shrugged diffidently and placed his hand—gently—on Hinata's shoulder, guiding her away with a reminder that her father was waiting.
The next day Neji showed up at the Academy without the hibiscus and wearing his typical unreadable mask, though there was just a little softness around his eyes that hadn't been there before. And in his room (the presentation simply but artfully done by Hinata) was a flower pressed in a frame and displayed with reverence.
It became something of a ritual for Ino: at least once a week she would present Neji with a blossom, never the same flower twice and never the plant he thought it would be, defying all of his attempts to second-guess her. The words they traded were always few; at times he would ask her some details about the flower, or tease a horticultural tip from the Yamanaka princess. She would always reply with the information he sought, and a few questions of her own, mostly in an attempt to get to know him (her greatest triumph being his birthday, for which he received a rare red fern) and break the ice somewhat.
The nickname of Sunshine persisted, as girls her age could be stubborn with mystifying appellations that didn't actually fit the person they were given to, but he never grunted in annoyance, or told her to stop. Every so often his lips would quirk, and then Hinata would smile too, and once Ino heard him telling his cousin that they would stop for ice cream before meeting up with the Hyuuga clan leader. Such frivolities were usually frowned upon among the stoic Hyuuga, and a stickler for protocol like Neji breaking any routine to indulge the girl he was sworn to protect spoke volumes. Ino didn't know what exactly she was doing to cause him to soften his heart, but she vowed to keep doing it.
Their first real conversation came on the eve of Neji's graduation from the Academy, the same day as the physical portion of the examination was given. He was in something of a sore mood owing to his less-than-perfect score in the throwing test, and to make matters worse she didn't have a flower for him today, as she was searching for one she hadn't given him yet. Neji found he'd come to treasure the little gifts, and though only the hibiscus occupied a space on his dresser, the rest were kept in a book that he perused when he was feeling down, each one having little notes next to it—what day it was given, care instructions for the particular plant, where it grew, along with impressions of Ino's decisions in choosing the blossom.
While Naruto was playing (and losing at) Shogi with Shikamaru, and Chouji was sneaking off to the cafeteria with Kiba to "liberate some extra food"—their words—she was hanging on the fence separating the sparring grounds from the recess field, watching as the last group finished out their taijutsu exam. Neji had already completed his test, of course, being in the first group called, and he was leaning against the same fence Ino was hanging off of, watching as a boy with a gleaming bowl-cut demolished all challengers.
"That's Rock Lee, right?" Ino said, observing the skill and joy with which the boy engaged his opponents. "He's a real terror. I've never seen anyone fight like that." Neji's reply was an indignant snort.
"That's just because you haven't seen me battle, Ino-chan." The girl beamed hearing that; not even Hinata got that suffix to her name. "I doubt he'll beat my score, but he is a formidable combatant, I'll allow that much. A pity he can't use chakra very well, or he might actually be dangerous. Like that TenTen girl."
"You mean the one that beat your marks in the throwing exam? Well, they do say girls have sharper eyes for stuff like that."
"She was dead center every time. Hitting 100 for 100, even on the moving targets, with both kunai and shuriken, and just to show off she used senbon, too. That's better than some of the teachers."
"Don't tell me you saw it coming."
"No, but I was prepared for the possibility. Still, to be beaten out so handily, despite having the top marks in the class, it is a little…"
"Humbling?" Ino supplied.
"I was going to say aggravating."
"Well, you're still number one in my book, Sunshine. Besides, every flower has to weather a few storms before it can bloom, doesn't it?" At this, Neji nodded silently, watching as the last fight drew to a close. Rock Lee scored lower than him in the end, but only by four points, and that only because he let a fight drag on to get more of a challenge out of it.
"At least his physical skills are good. I'm probably going to be placed on a team with him, as well."
"Why's that? Do they have some kind of system that they don't tell us poor ignorant candidates about?"
"Generally they pair someone who scores high with someone who scores low to balance each other out, and the third member is usually somewhere in the middle," Neji explained patiently, knowing she'd have figured it out eventually anyway. "Except in the case of certain combinations; Konoha likes to use what works, like Hyuuga-Aburame-Inuzuka or the famed Ino-Shika-Cho groupings. If there were any Aburame or Inuzuka in my class year, I'd likely be on a team with them instead." He gestured to where Lee was standing, talking to a green-clad jounin with a similar bowl-cut. Ino suppressed a shudder at the garish color. Pea green was a color that did not belong on clothes…similar to the sherbet orange jacket that Naruto wore, but at least he bothered to make sure his ensemble matched and the dark blue was a nice redeeming feature.
"As it stands, though, Lee is likely to get an exemption on the practical ninjutsu portion tomorrow, owing to his inability to properly mold chakra. He can access it, but can't channel enough to use in henge or kawarimi, so of course bunshin is quite outside the realm of possibility."
"Maybe, but there's ways to be a great ninja without throwing around a bunch of high-powered jutsu. You just have to get a little creative." Ino smiled and brushed her fingertips against the spot which usually held a flower, the expression saddening just a little bit. "So they set the teams up so the stronger member helps the weaker one prosper and grow?"
"That's the idea, and the middle ground to make sure neither end grows too dispassionate or haughty as the case may be. It works better in some teams than in others."
"Of course: a garden cannot grow if the gardener is neglectful."
"Do you have a flower analogy for everything?" Neji huffed.
"Just about!" was Ino's cheeky reply. "When you're working in a florist's, Sunshine, it comes with the territory. It looks like they've finished tallying the scores…I guess tomorrow you'll finally be a ninja, huh? I hope I see you around the village, and feel free to stop by the shop any time you want." A little forlorn, Ino leaned over the fence far enough to brush her lips over his cheek. "Don't be a stranger, Neji-kun!" And then she was off…to pester Sasuke, but Neji wasn't worried. After all, she never gave him flowers.
It grew bolder with a kiss.
As the next year went by, Ino didn't see Neji as often as she'd have liked, owing to the fact that he was frequently engaged in all-day training sessions with his psychopath of a sensei (the same green-clad jounin that she'd seen that day) or on missions followed by supplemental training, personally given by Hiashi, and rarely did he have much in the way of free time anymore. Still, in between her own studies and instruction on the Yamanaka techniques and his duties around Konoha, she found chances to spend time with him, and keep up her habit of giving him a flower for his hair, especially now that she'd started creating special cross-breeds just to give him something he'd never seen before, given the difficulty of getting exotic flowers from other locales.
Then his team got its first C-Rank, six months to the day after he'd made genin. The mission was going to take him out of the village for three whole weeks, and it was short notice so there was no chance for the Hyuuga to do as tradition demanded and throw their usual reservation aside and hold a little celebration for the embarking genin. She had been dismayed when Neji told her this, saddened that he didn't get his party, but he'd only smiled and said that she could throw him a party when he got back.
Team Gai was a week late getting home, and when they returned it was with three injured genin. Neji had been admitted straight to the hospital, and Ino only received news of it when Hiashi interrupted class to collect Hinata, knowing she'd want to be by her cousin's side as he recovered. Tense moments passed, before he asked for Ino to be released as well, and she was profusely grateful to him for it. Hinata's fear had caused her to slip back into the shell she'd spent the last three years gaining distance from, and Ino's worry kept her from saying much, matching Hiashi's somber attitude. The elder Hyuuga carried them both across the rooftops with all the speed he felt safe, not appearing desperate but definitely urgent, belying his true thoughts.
Upon arriving at the hospital they were admitted to Neji's room in short order, not being made to wait any longer than was necessary. Upon seeing the bandaged neck and head, the arm in the sling and the taped-up wrist with the IV connected, Hinata fairly threw herself at Neji with a cry of 'nii-san!' leaving the genin unable to do much but pat her back awkwardly as she sobbed with relief. His yes, though, were on Ino's own pale azure eyes as they darkened to a sapphire color with the tears that threatened to fall.
"Neji…you…you complete idiot!" She crossed the distance to his bed in a few quick strides and after firmly but respectfully pushing Hinata aside, slapped Neji across the face, the tears now staining her cheeks to match the indignant scowl she was wearing. "That was for getting hurt, you stupid boy!" Hiashi was moving to stop Ino from acting further, but halted in his tracks when her lips met his nephew's own, kissing him passionately like she'd seen her parents doing whenever Inoichi got home from a particularly long or dangerous mission. "And that was for coming back alive. Keep doing that and I think I can forgive you." Her smile was marred a little by the worry still etched on her face and the tears spilling from her eyes, but as she turned and stormed out, Neji regained his composure enough to wipe the confused grin off. Hiashi, for his part, was rather stumped at the display, and he had two daughters!
"I thought she liked the Uchiha boy," he said, uncertainty evident in his tone.
"Silly father," Hinata giggled. "She doesn't give Sasuke flowers." From then on, though she continued to give Neji a different bloom as often as she could, whenever he was about to leave the village he did so with a hibiscus in his hair. Seeing the regular adornment of a flower blossom tucked into his hitai-ite, the villagers took to calling him Neji no Hana, and though he bristled at it in the beginning, he remembered the hibiscus and what it meant. Neji, as a result, started getting hurt far less often.
Time passed, and soon Ino was on a team of her own, the Ino-Shika-Cho trio as Neji had predicted she would be. Konoha liked to use what worked, after all, and seeing how strong her Sunshine had become she vowed that she would do her best to keep up with him, so that if they ever ended up on a mission together she could watch his back as much as he'd watch hers. By the time the Chuunin exams rolled around, though they still had far less time together than she would prefer, the two of them were "official", to use an industry term. Ino knew that he wasn't going to go easy on her if they ended up facing each other, given that the exams tested a ninja's bonds as much as their skills, but just for awhile, as they faced down the Sound genin in the Forest of Death, they were on the same side, not rivals contending for the same prize, but allies protecting something more important than a rank upgrade.
The change in Sasuke's demeanor was disconcerting, that power he'd shown alien and frightening. Though he claimed to be okay, Ino knew there was something off about him now, and to make matters worse Naruto had been attacked as well, and had not yet woken up. Sakura's shorter hair was a surprise, but Ino was glad to see her friend starting to take her role as a kunoichi seriously. Rock Lee had hurt himself fighting the bandaged Oto-nin, so team Gai had to make camp anyway, and Team Asuma volunteered to assist (in the form of Ino bullying Shikamaru to agreeing and Chouji not wanting to abandon one of his friends to unknown danger). They drew lots to see who had what watch, and luck her paired up with Neji for night watch, though she wouldn't have put it past Sakura to have rigged the drawing to see if they got up to any hanky-panky.
"It's kind of weird," she said quietly, perched on a branch so she could provide overlapping cover and allow Neji to relax his Byakugan. "After Naruto's little speech during the first stage, I was all fired up and ready to do this, but now I'm not so sure. Is this what it's like out in the field? This, I don't know, uncertainty?" Neji was silent for awhile, contemplating his words; he knew Ino's team hadn't been out on a C-rank before, even if they were prepared for it (unlike Naruto's team, he thought snidely, no respect for Kakashi at all in his thoughts currently).
"There's always uncertainty, Ino-chan. The client may miscalculate the job that needs doing, or outright lie as happened with Kakashi's team, or the intelligence on the area could be wrong—any of a hundred things and all you can really do is prepare yourself as best you can. It gets easier after a while; you aren't quite as afraid when you head out of the village, you're more confident in your skills or have picked up more tricks to use if things go south but you never forget that uncertainty, that dread that this could be your time to meet your end, and the only option is to keep moving despite that fear because we are Konoha ninja, therefore we do not give up and we do not give in."
Others might not have been reassured by it given the circumstances; Ino, however, let the words settle around her like a protective bubble, bolstering her own confidence and though she would not risk disaster by leaving her perch to offer a deep kiss, she let her mind brush against his own, touching the edge of his consciousness with her gratitude.
Watching his face slip into that cool, stonelike mask of vengeance as he headed down to the arena floor made Ino's heart quaver. She had dreaded being matched against Neji for just this reason, but the pairing as it was struck her as even worse. Hinata had never won against Neji in their spars, not even once.
"You should just give up now, Hinata-sama, and spare yourself the humiliation of yet another defeat." Naruto, of course, had to open his big mouth and shout some encouragement to Hinata…and amazingly it seemed to take hold, marking it the second time in as many days (that she'd been witness to, anyway) that he'd taken fear and turned it into determination. Not for the first time she wondered just what sort of power he possessed that could cause that to happen, but any thoughts along those lines ended as the proctor called the start of the match. She didn't want to watch and yet she couldn't look away, bearing it all as the two Hyuuga spilled their guts to the shinobi who had survived the Forest of Death, the hidden resentment that Neji apparently still carried bared for all to know, and Ino found herself in sympathy with the man despite the beat-down he was giving to Hinata.
A beating that despite which was not keeping the other Hyuuga on the floor and Ino stood gape-mouthed like everyone else as she kept getting up even after Neji inflicted blows she knew would have ended the fight for anyone else, even Lee, his self-proclaimed eternal rival. Just as the proctor called the match, Hinata barely able to stand and more severely injured than she'd ever seen any of her classmates in…well, ever, Neji moved to strike one final blow, and nobody was intervening to stop him from killing Hinata and then surprise as his hand instead laid gently on her head, on her cheek, no rage left on his face, only sorrow and regret…and a little pride.
"This is as far as you go this time, Hinata-sama, but take heart. Every flower must weather a few storms before it can bloom." His eyes briefly flicked up to Ino's, his lips quirked for the briefest of moments, and Ino wondered why she ever doubted him. Lifting his cousin into his arms, Neji laid her on the stretcher that had been brought out and accompanied her from the arena. Come to think of it, she needed to get fixed up herself, still pretty banged up from her fight with Sakura (which she was still annoyed came out a draw) and after conferring with Asuma managed to convince him it was serious enough to warrant a visit with the medics—once they were done with Hinata, that is.
She arrived in the aid suite just in time to see Hiashi slip through the curtain to where Hinata was situated, brushing her mind against Neji's as she had in the Forest, though this time inquisitively. He allowed her in, riding the edges of his thoughts while the medics tended to her injuries, and what she heard surprised her. Kumo ninja had tried to kidnap Hinata when she was a child, and Hiashi stopped them? Then the Kumo delegation demanded retribution, and Hizashi offered himself up in his twin's place. She echoed Neji's sentiment mentally, as he spoke after reading his father's letter.
"I am angry that my father had to die, angrier still that the Hokage did nothing to deny Kumo their blood price, and even more that you have kept this letter from me for so long…yet I am also glad that you have given it to me. More than he was my father, he was your brother, and I cannot blame you for holding on to whatever scraps of memory you have for as long as you can." She followed along as his eyes turned to Hinata, resting peacefully under the sedatives given her by the doctors. "I was almost like you, uncle, so caught up in the past that I forgot what was right in front of me. That…was changed, and I am glad for it. I remember Aunt as well, Hiashi-sama, and I know she would be unhappy with you right now." The medic looking after Ino tapped her on the shoulder, signifying that he was done wrapping her up and she was free to go. Nodding, she stood, and sent a little congratulatory message to her friend.
That's pretty great, Neji. I'm glad you and your uncle are on the road to recovery. Now come on, or do you want to miss the rest of Lee's fight?
I'll be there soon, Ino-chan. Go on ahead and keep tabs on that lunkead for me, will you?
Alright, Sunshine, I'm going. The line will stay open until you get back. She smiled as he gave a mental grunt in response. The extra training in her family's mind techniques was paying off so far, and though her chakra was a little strained keeping the connection open, she knew Neji would want to see how his teammate was doing. When she got up to the observation deck and turned her eyes to the arena, she was quite stunned to observer Lee taking something off of his legs and making two craters in the floor with them, then blazing off faster than she could follow. Her annoyance at not being able to keep pace with Lee's speed was not shared across the link; instead she got anxiety from Neji's end and for a moment she wondered what would cause him to worry so much. Even though she couldn't see it clearly she could tell when Lee connected, the sand that was trying to protect Gaara (she'd asked his name from Sakura, of course) could not match Lee's agility any more than she herself could.
Up until Lee used the Primary Lotus, revealing that there was a second layer of protection on Gaara's body, and then while the Green Beast was recovering he was nearly caught by the sand, leaping away at the very last second to avoid being crushed in the murderous grip of the mobile cloud. Neji's presence at her side insisted on her to shut down the link, and Ino did so, the strain dissipating as she let the partial jutsu end. And then Lee opened one of the Eight Gates, explaining to her just why Neji was so worried.
"He was saving that for me, huh? Gai-sensei, just what the hell were you doing teaching him this?" Rather than let Neji cut his hands on the stone railing, Ino laced her fingers into his own, not caring if anyone saw her so close to him, knowing that at the moment giving him her emotional support was more important. The fight between Lee and Gaara went on for another few minutes as the Konoha genin wore himself out more and more, until finally he was dead on his feet and in the grip of Gaara's sand. This time he didn't escape unscathed, the arm and leg that were trapped crushed by the swarming grains despite the fact that Hayate had called the match in Gaara's favor.
He looked ready to finish the job, too, but Gai appeared on the arena floor to protect his student…and then Naruto, radiating chakra visibly in two red wisps that spiraled around his body slowly, malevolently. His eyes, normally blue and cheerful, were now a deep violet that promised death to the Suna genin. Everyone could feel the oppressive energy and even Gaara's sand appeared hesitant to try and move past the barrier Naruto presented. Under the heavy weight of the evil presence, Ino could barely stand, and it was only thanks to Neji that she remained on her feet.
"You've won the fight, bastard," Naruto was saying, "now get the fuck off the floor before I make you part of it." It wasn't boasting, unlike his earlier words to Kiba. This was an honest to god threat, and she had every confidence that, right now, the orange-clad shinobi could back it up. Only when Gaara returned to the balcony where the other two Sand genin were, and only after Kakashi intervened to keep him from chasing, did Naruto finally calm down enough to follow his sensei up and away from the arena. Gai, meanwhile, followed the severely injured Lee into the infirmary, his concern for the safety and future of his student clear.
"I have a feeling that if I am matched up against Naruto in the finals I should forfeit." Ino looked up and saw Neji deactivating his Byakugan, wondering what he saw and why it had him so afraid. "Yet I will fight him anyway; I just hope he doesn't rough me up too badly. Getting slapped by you is more painful than a broken arm, Ino-chan." She chuckled weakly at this attempt to inject some levity into the situation.
"Why does Naruto have you scared, though?"
"I'll tell you later. Right here is not the best place; far too many ears listening in." Nodding her assent, Ino shivered as the anger—no, the hatred—on Naruto's face when he'd addressed Gaara was still fresh on her mind. That look was so utterly unlike him, and in her opinion even anathema to what she knew about her fellow shinobi.
Later, after all the final matches had been declared (Shino for some reason withdrawing causing an exam bylaw being used to get Ino back in the game, matching her up against Kankuro—following behind Sasuke vs. Gaara), Neji did as promised and took Ino to a place he knew would not be monitored by anyone. The secret grotto on Konoha's outskirts reflected the moonlight along its walls as evening gave way to night, and the warm summer air began to cool.
"I must have your word that you won't tell anyone about this, Ino," Neji said with as serious a tone as he could. Only after she gave him a blood promise did he continue. "I have reason to believe that Naruto, for some reason, has the Kyuubi no Kitsune contained inside his body. Over the years I have observed the presence of a seal, and whenever I look at him with my Byakugan I see chakra coils that are far larger and denser than someone his age should have. Then there is the matter of his birthday, October tenth, and his family name which as far as I'm aware isn't shared by anyone else in this village."
"I've studied my family tree a bit," Ino replied, curiosity and concern lacing her voice, "and I've seen a couple instances where an Uzumaki married into the clan or one of ours became one of theirs."
"Similar has shown up in the Hyuuga history, mostly in the last hundred years, after the formation of Konoha. I did a little digging and found that the Uzumaki were most closely allied with the Senju, given that the Shodaime's wife was one. I can only make guesses for now, though, and until I know more I'm not going to take it to anybody."
"But if he does have the Kyuubi locked inside him…wow. Damn, no wonder everyone treats him like he isn't there. How is he still sane? And what do we do about it?"
"I couldn't tell you how he's managed to get this far without going crazy, but as for the latter, right now we do nothing. We give him our support if he needs it, though, and make sure he knows he's not alone." Ino nodded and then got a smirk on her face, thinking of lighter, happier things to wash away the weight pressing in on her soul.
"Hey, while we're down here, wanna fool around a bit?"
In the fire of battle, it was forged even stronger.
That fight against Naruto had been brutal, and it showed a surprising amount of growth. Neji had said a few things intended to rile the boy up but instead he'd sympathized and revealed that he hadn't been at full strength during the preliminaries, and even after having all his major tenketsu closed had still managed to get back up and pull a victory out of his ass, though a tactical withdrawal would probably have earned him more points in the judges' eyes, there was no denying that people gained a little more respect and recognition for the village pariah. Ino, thankful that Naruto didn't go farther than he needed to in order to win, met him (the cheers of the crowd still at his back) at the entrance to the contestants' room to take over the burden of Neji, flashing him a brief smile for not being a smug bastard at winning.
"I can walk just fine, Ino-chan," the Hyuuga protested, even as his arm fell around her shoulders and her arm gripped him firmly about the waist. When did she get so strong? You must have been training non-stop for this day.
"Sure you can, Sunshine; I'm just escorting you where you need to go." Despite his mock indignation, Neji smiled at her antics, that quick little quirk that had become characteristic of his genuine happiness rather than the broad grins or soft curling that other people displayed. It didn't take long to reach the hospital wing, and once there, Ino lingered. "Do you want me to stay? I mean, if you want your privacy…"
"What are you talking about? Of course I want you to stay." He didn't miss the sigh of relief, subtle as it was, and he had to remind himself that girls could be clingy when their boyfriends were hurt or sick. A brief thought crossed his mind: if Ino was this worrisome when he was just a little banged up, how would she react once they had kids? Stunned by the idea and how casually it slipped into his mind, Neji wondered if this was really the path his life was taking, if this is how he wanted things to end. Would he, despite having lost his chance at glory (this time), still get the girl?
When the doctors left him to rest and recover and a heavy weight settled onto the bed next to him, wisps of straw-colored blond hair brushing against his cheek, Neji knew the answer to his question. There was no crying in relief, no indignant slaps, only Ino and her gentle, loving embrace and the kiss that promised that she'd try not to end up in the bed next to him. As much as he wanted to savor the moment, turn it into something more, his respect for the young woman keeping him company stayed his hand—he knew the small signs saying she wasn't ready better than she knew them herself, and before too long asked her to go watch the other fights, link open of course.
Reluctance filled her as she complied with his wishes, not wanting to leave his side, but of course he'd want to know how their friends fared in their own battles, and after touching her mind to his own (and how easy it was becoming now, how familiar the sensation of his thoughts) left for the observation box provided to the fighters, watching as Shikamaru maneuvered his opponent through some grand strategy. This Temari woman was good, no doubts about that, but she wasn't a match for Shikamaru, not if she was holding back. Why she'd be doing that, though, was a mystery to her. She could have ended the fight with a swing of her fan—sure, it wasn't very showy, but it was a simple and straightforward solution. So why allow him to control the battlefield like that?
There is something more going on here than a simple exam. Is your father in the crowd?
He should be. Let me see if I can get in touch with him. I'm gonna get quiet for a few minutes, is that alright?
Tell him that you have reason to suspect an ulterior motive at work here, and have him warn the Hokage to be on his guard. The Kazekage showed up in a veil, when every picture I've seen of him he shows his face, even when visiting a foreign country.
Alright, I've got your message. I'll get back soon, Sunshine. Breaking the link, Ino sought out her father's presence, finding him at the edge of her telepathy range, and stretched out to convey Neji's suspicions to him, and didn't leave until she had his assurances that he'd notify the Hokage immediately. She reestablished her link to Neji just as the match ended with Shikamaru forfeiting—he must have come to the same conclusions—and before she went back inside to wait for Sasuke's match to be either declared forfeit or delayed, thus pushing her own match forward in the battle order she noticed a few cloaked figures moving discreetly through the crowd and toward the VIP box.
Fortunately for her, Sakura's crush wasn't too terribly late, appearing in the middle of the ring alongside his teacher in an assisted Body Flicker, looking a lot more like a warrior than he had a month ago. Gone was the pain sitting just beneath the surface, the breathlessness that robbed him of strength. Here was a fighter, a killer.
He's got the same look as Gaara…it's almost as bad as Naruto's was. She caught a flash of regret from Neji as he apparently thought about Lee in that moment, though she couldn't reason out why he would have such an emotion in relation to his teammate. The proctor started the match and then got the hell out of the way, and Sasuke disappeared from view…this time, though, Ino could track the motions, and though he was certainly quicker than before she realized that Sasuke wasn't moving nearly half Lee's speed, even before he opened the Gates.
Gaara had apparently picked up a new skill or two, himself, and when faced with alacrity he couldn't match, withdrew his sand into a spherical shell that burst spikes out at Sasuke wherever he approached. Falling back, the genin clung to the wall and started gathering chakra. The chirping sound that emanated from his palm was distinctive, as was the glow of lightning bursting forth in sparkling rays. Charging down the wall and across the arena floor, Sharingan blazing, he dodged the spikes sent his way and plunged through the shell, piercing stone and flesh with the technique, and that's when the world went to hell.
The Suna shinobi was in the process of transforming into something, which Neji suggested was Shukaku the fucking Ichibi of all things, when someone started casting a mass genjutsu on the crowd and the Kage box was engulfed in the sounds of a battle commencing. Breaking the genjutsu before it could influence her she relayed the situation to Neji and felt him end the connection, most likely to spare her chakra for the fight ahead…
"Where the hell do they think they're going?" Landing on the arena floor in time to assist Naruto against an Oto shinobi with an absurdly large sword, not registering that she'd killed the man with her kunai even after Naruto's grim frown, she pointed in the direction of a hole in the arena wall that Sasuke and Gaara had just disappeared through, followed closely by Sakura, and then by Shikamaru who was probably just going along to intercept Temari before she could get involved in the fight as well. Naturally Naruto had to charge off as well, and before Ino could follow as well Neji was by her side and the pair of them were fending off attacks and felling enemy ninja, working their way to the stands where Hiashi and Hinata had set up a defense.
"It is a joint invasion," Hiashi informed them when they reached his position. "Orochimaru has been impersonating the Kazekage and is currently engaged with Sarutobi-sama. Thanks to your warning he has Genma and Raido with him, so they should be able to keep the Snake locked down. I need you two to find Asuma and coordinate with him. Hinata and I will stay here to keep a path open for the civilians to retreat. Go!" Not given the option to protest, Neji grabbed Ino's arm and they sped off, leaping up and away from the battles still going on, leaving Hiashi to engage the Suna jounin Baki by himself, and began speeding towards where they thought Asuma most likely to be.
As they traveled they had to stop and defend themselves against fanatical skirmishers wearing Oto headbands, delaying their progress and preventing them from getting in touch with anyone who could give them concrete orders. Neji directed her to spare the Suna fighters if she could, going on the assumption that they were working under false pretenses especially if it were true that the Kazekage was a fake; all fighting in their immediate vicinity stopped momentarily when a giant Tanuki rose out of the forest to the west, and then was met by an equally fearsome giant fox.
"That's the same direction Naruto went," Neji commented, as the fighting resumed. Ino caught a blade between crossed kunai and then kicked the woman holding it in the gut, sending her tumbling off the rooftop they were fighting on, before whipping the knife in her left hand over Neji's shoulder to catch a would-be stealth ninja in the neck with the weapon.
"So I guess that confirms your theory, huh?"
"Coincidence," he retorted, drilling his fingers into a kunoichi's ribcage, sending her spiraling away from him to fall prone. These Oto shinobi were numerous, but unskilled and some of them could barely mold chakra at all. "I did happen to see a giant toad, but I haven't seen the matching Sannin anywhere. Hurry up, Ino. These ninja are barely deserving of the word. I wouldn't be surprised if they haven't gotten any training at all."
"What, was the Snake hoping to overwhelm us with numbers?" she asked as she finished off the opponent she was fighting with a swipe to the leg, wiping the blood off her last kunai onto her skirt.
"Maybe he was hoping for the element of surprise. Destroying Konoha doesn't seem to be his primary goal, though." Taking a moment to catch their breath, the duo met up with Chouji and Kiba, then got separated again after awhile when a large three-headed snake crashed through the southern wall and was met with another toad called forth by a white haired man in red and tan clothing. They continued on as best they could, battling against enemy shinobi at seemingly every turn, but giant summons were not meant for urban combat, and soon enough the worst happened.
Though they were trying to stay clear of the summon duel, the pair chanced to land on a building mere moments before the three-headed serpent was knocked into it hard enough to dispel back to the summon realm. Unfortunately this left the structure with a distinct lack of support and before either could leap clear of the trembling construct it collapsed inward, folding in on itself like a house of cards. Fate, though, seemed to intervene, trapping the two genin in the remains of a bedroom, a small bit of light filtering through the rubble confining them, with no knowledge of when or if they might be rescued.
Ino had a couple soldier pills, some field rations and a flask but it wasn't really enough for two people and would have to be rationed carefully, meaning they'd have to keep the activity to a minimum so they didn't waste precious energy…and yet still… She'd helped Neji onto the bed so he could recuperate, the fighting having taken so much out of him that he could barely stand though she wasn't feeling quite so good herself, the tell-tale signs of chakra exhaustion, but there hadn't really been a choice in the matter, had there?
She was sitting by his side, dark thoughts worming their way through her mind despite her best efforts, and about to give in to despair when she felt fingers brushing over her temple, the same spot where she usually put the blooms she brought for Neji.
"Sorry I don't have a flower for you, Ino-chan, but I can't stand to see a lady cry. They're looking for us, I promise you; or do you think your father would simply forget about you?" Tears did come, as the day's events were brought full circle to wedge firmly into her memory, threatening to overwhelm her. The reassuring words did wonders for her soul, however, and she sank down next to Neji, wrapping herself up in his presence.
"It's just…so much has happened today, and there's been no time to deal with it all…I killed today, Neji, and I don't think I'll ever be able to wash that stain off my soul. We're all damned to Hell, aren't we?"
"Some of us, maybe, but no self-respecting being in this life or the next would send you to the depths of Yomi for what you did in defense of your home and your friends. It's the bloodthirsty men that we are sent to find and eliminate, the ones we are hired to provide a defense from, that should worry about their lives having no value in the eyes of God."
"I thought you were over the 'Fate' nonsense."
"Not entirely. I mean it led me to you, after all. If what Fate exists is benevolent enough for that, then I don't see a little faith in it being a bad thing." Ino pondered, lacing her fingers through his own, letting the words sink in and tell her a little more about him. So much had happened, so much blood spilled for one man's petty revenge…what was a little more?
"Neji-kun, I can think of one blossom I haven't given you yet."
Three days later and they were found as the search parties finally made their way to that section of the city. In the intervening time they'd talked, shared dreams and nightmares, hopes for the future, goals they wanted to meet—Neji surprised to learn that Ino wanted to be a teacher someday and she shocked to discover that Neji enjoyed painting, hoping to be featured in a gallery in the capital—filling each moment to stave off the dread of going undiscovered. The rescue team had the sense to call down the hole they'd been digging and ask the two if they were decent, knowing that sometimes two people of the opposite gender trapped in a confined space with nothing else to do often got creative in how to occupy themselves, and after four hours of work the two genin were finally extracted and loaded onto stretchers for a trip to the nearest hospital.
Hiashi was there waiting, relief breaking the usual stoic façade, and seeing the looks that Neji was casting toward the Yamanaka heiress, was more than a little curious. Comprehension dawned on his face in short order and his fatherly gaze grew stern.
"We are going to discuss this at length, young man, but it can wait until after you've healed." There have been few times in his career as a ninja where Neji truly feared for his chances of living to see tomorrow. The day he was pulled from the pit by the recovery squad was now one of them.
The discussion he had with his uncle was lengthy and punctuated with heat and a few unkind words between them, but in the end they came to an understanding. Neji would take things slow for awhile, and in exchange Hiashi would keep Inoichi from murdering him in his sleep. That was fine by him, as he was in no rush to be added to the list of the dozens of men that the Yamanaka leader had personally sent to meet the Shinigami—a thought which reminded him to ask about the Hokage and how the battle fared after they were taken out of it.
"Between you and Ino roughly thirty-seven enemy shinobi were accounted for either dead or incapacitated. I know you never managed to meet Asuma but that turned out to be a blessing, as your roving about disrupted a few enemy formations and stopped reinforcements from reaching areas where they would have been harmful to our efforts. The Hokage…did not survive the battle, but neither did Orochimaru. The Suna Council has offered their unconditional surrender, while Oto seems to be in retreat for now. It is not unlikely that they will try to regroup under the leadership of Orochimaru's lieutenant, Kabuto."
"When is the memorial service?"
"It is being held tomorrow at noon. I suppose you'll want to attend even if you should be resting. Dehydration, undernourishment, chakra exhaustion, and that's not counting the injuries you sustained in the fighting, but I'll make sure you're there. A provisional council has been called; they're sending Jiraiya and his apprentice out to find the Godaime."
"Sending Sasuke on a diplomatic mission? What, are they mad?"
"You haven't heard? Jiraiya's apprentice isn't Sasuke—he's not the one who defeated Gaara in the woods."
"Then who is his apprentice?"
"Naruto Uzumaki. I believe you know him, don't you?"
"Now I'm definitely worried. I'm told Jiraiya has a certain reputation…if it were to rub off on Naruto I might have to kill him. He'd have half the kunoichi in Konoha wrapped around his pinky without even trying. That technique of his is bad enough, giving him Jiraiya for a role model is just asking for disaster."
"Concerned he might take your 'Ino-chan' away, Nephew?" Neji's answering scowl, tinged with a light blush, was answer enough and prompted Hiashi to laugh quietly. "I was young and in love once myself, Neji. But are you certain that she has settled for you and you alone?"
"I'm willing to let her explore her feelings for others, if that's what you're asking. As for me, I have made my choice and I will stick with it. If the worst happens and she becomes another man's wife I will support her, but I do not think I will move on unless I am made to by the clan."
"I was hoping you'd say that. Ah, but Hizashi and I had such a tense rivalry over your mother…in the end he won out and I had to settle for the bride my own father selected for me. Do not misunderstand, I was content with her, but she could never bring me the same joy that your mother did. If you could not have Ino, would you be able to settle for your sister?"
"I am an only child, Uncle, remember?"
"True, but your father and I were twins, our blood the same. I hope to someday end the practice of cousin marrying cousin and brother marrying sister…but I must know."
"If it came down to it I suppose I could settle for Hinata…" neither seeing nor hearing Ino waiting outside the door, and now hurrying away quickly down the hall so as to miss his next words. "But she would never be able to replace Ino in my heart. That is how I feel on the matter, Uncle."
"Then it shall be so. I expect the negotiations with Inoichi to take several months before a reasonable agreement is reached." With that he left Neji to his thoughts, contemplating the turn things had taken. Negotiating a bride price, allowing me to leave the clan? Hiashi-sama, you have changed.
Things between Neji and Ino were awkward for the next couple of months. She allowed him to stand beside her at the Hokage's memorial, against Inoichi's wishes, but after that she did not speak to him as often, and the flowers stopped coming. For awhile she tried out other boys, and even gave Naruto a chance once he'd come back to the village with Tsunade in tow, but despite all of that, she couldn't shake the thought that something was missing.
"He's sweet and all," she found herself telling Sakura one day over ice cream, after a particularly disastrous second date with the apprentice Sage, "but he's just so…so simple, you know? It's not for lack of trying, either; I know he means well, it's just…"
"I thought you were with Neji anyway. What happened?" Sakura smelled blood and she was going straight for the jugular, a scandal like the one she sensed brewing was too good to pass on.
"Well, remember how we got admitted to the hospital at the same time, after the invasion? I was going down to his room to see how he was doing, when I overheard him talking to his uncle…saying he'd be willing to settle for Hinata!"
"What'd he say next? Did you hear?"
"No…I sort of ran away after that. But I was just so upset, Sakura! That he could have room in his heart for another, someone who's practically his sister at that, it just…I felt so used. I gave myself to him and he can still say something like that?"
"Oh dear…Ino, haven't you heard?"
"Heard what? That my boyfriend's a lying bastard?"
"Not even close! Your dad's been meeting Hiashi pretty much every day to negotiate terms!"
"Terms for…oh shit oh shit I'm such an idiot! God, he must hate me right now," Ino whimpered miserably. Sakura's comforting embrace did little to help and she muttered into her ice cream, asking the kami to strike her down so she didn't have to face Neji's disappointment over her seeing other boys. And look how well that had turned out! "So that…that…him saying that was only if he couldn't have me? This whole time I thought he didn't want me."
"There's still time, Ino, you can still change your dad's mind. He didn't tell you because he's been against it since you've been trying other men out…"
"Then how did you hear about it?"
"I'm sort of friends with Hinata through Naruto. She's so devoted to him it's scary. Too bad he hasn't realized it…" Sniffling, Ino nodded with a weak smile gracing her features, and she nodded at Sakura. They finished off their ice cream in a better mood than before, at least until Sakura said she felt something was wrong and she ran off to the hospital where both her teammates were still recovering from recent ordeals.
The next day Sasuke left the village. She heard about it from Shikamaru as he was getting ready to lead the capture team that would hopefully be bringing him back, and in a panic she ran back to her home, looking for the prize she always gave out. Frantically, she paced back and forth, racking the shelves, searching the greenhouse, desperation growing as she persistently failed to locate the plant she wanted. A loud coughing from the door to the hothouse caught her attention and she turned to see her father holding a glass case filled with water and a single bloom.
"Looking for this?" Inoichi said, face unreadable. "There's still time to catch him. North Gate 12, but I suggest you hurry before you miss your chance." Ino stared for just a moment, before throwing her arms around him, embracing her father more fervently than he'd been given in a good long time, and then taking the case from him as she dashed out the door with all the speed her legs could give. Ino watched her go, his heart heavy.
Running, pushing herself to her limits and then beyond them, the surroundings blurring into indistinct streaks of color, Ino kicked herself up and over clusters of shoppers, people going to appointments, running along walls and rooftops and flying over broad streets, swinging from clothes lines and bouncing off of light poles to reach her destination. Eyes stinging, lungs burning, she wasn't going to slow down for anyone or anything, until she saw the gate in view, a group already gathered to depart.
"Wait!" she cried out, the effort of speaking taking a toll on her already taxed breathing. "Wait, please!" Dropping down to street level, she hurried over, panting hard and cheeks flushed, stopping in front of Neji with a cloud of emotions in her eyes. "You can't leave yet, Neji. Not yet…" Opening the case, she tucked the hibiscus into the band of his hitai-ite, leaving room to kiss him hard as he made sure the stem was secured beneath the cloth. "You didn't think I was going to let you leave without it, did you?"
Shikamaru cleared his throat, informing them that they needed to leave now if they were ever going to catch Sasuke, but Neji still had time for three more words.
"Marry me, Ino," he said solemnly, and if she weren't already red from the mad dash to reach him, she would have blushed. Kissing him once more, she offered her reply.
"Come back to me, Neji, and then I'll say yes. Now go on, they're going to need your help." His hand touched her cheek and his lips quirked, before he left her standing there to follow his comrades into the breach. As they disappeared into the tall forests for which the countryside surrounding Konoha was known, Ino said a prayer for them. Shikamaru and Chouji of course, her brothers in spirit if not in blood, for Kiba and Naruto, simple but loyal and brave, and for Neji, the man she knew now in her heart would always have room for no one else but her. She hoped he noticed the little extra that was in the blossom, a gift from her father stating his acceptance of Neji as a son. Hoped it would help in the battles that were sure to come, prayed that it saw him safely home.
"What's with the flower? Hah, did the Hyuuga send a little princess along to fight me? I was told we would be fighting men!" Kidomaru's taunting did not bother Neji, did not weaken his spirit, and certainly did not make him think any better of the six-armed Onigumo, the peculiar bloodline clearly augmented and mutated by whatever experiments had been performed on him. This battle was a delaying action, there were no doubts about that, but there was now only one person guarding the cask which held Sasuke, and with luck Naruto and Shikamaru could break him out of it and interrupt the metamorphosis taking place…in the meantime Neji had the dubious pleasure of fighting this man of the Demon Spider clan of Kumo, the same clan that had demanded his uncle's head. Confidence filled him as he felt the petals of the hibiscus against his temple, set so it would not hinder his vision, and he vowed that today one of the accursed family which had attempted to steal his sister away would spill his blood on the earth and atone for the vile act. Amusement at a sudden thought caused his mouth to quirk as he slid into a Jyuuken stance, noticing as he did so that the flower was oddly heavy for its size.
"What's so funny, princess?" Kidomaru demanded.
"I was just thinking of how foolish Kumo is, attempting to steal a Hyuuga woman when they would get a lot more service out of a man—or are your women too delicate to handle the Will of Fire?"
"Feh, don't compare me to the likes of those idiots! I am a member of the elite Sound Four! Now quit running your mouth and die already!" The attacks came, swift and deadly, only to be battered aside by swift Jyuuken strikes, Neji moving in constant circles to keep from getting pinned down. The arrows were made of some kind of chakra-hardened webbing, regurgitated from Kidomaru's internal spinnerets, and merely touching them made Neji feel dirty. Still, he fought onward, landing a few blows on the Oto-nin that damaged him more than he let on, slowed him enough for Neji to pummel him even more, which in turn forced the clan traitor to engage his seal to its second stage in order to fight back.
A near miss from a spider-silk kunai clipped the petals off of Ino's hibiscus, and Neji frowned while seeking a way out of the trap he was now in. Spiders were raining down, summoned by the enemy, and the queen was lurking above, ready to spawn even more to rain durable strands onto his body to hold him in place. Kaiten was not an option, as it left him immobile and allowed Kidomaru to set more traps, ready more arrows and kunai…then he felt cool metal against his flesh, realizing that the flower held another gift inside it. A mere five senbon, but made of chakra-conductive metal that would enable him to pierce Kidomaru's armor, probably tipped with poison as well which could weaken or outright kill him. Five needles, five chances to send the demon back to hell.
Dodging yet more arrows, more webs, Neji grabbed up one of the golden shafts embedded into the ground and threw it upward at the mother summon, quick jabs from his fingertips destroying hatchlings from the endless brood, not even looking to see if the spider queen had been dispelled. More kunai came in and he spun around them, gripping the first senbon in his fingertips, charging it with chakra and letting loose as he ended his rotation, a hiss of pain from Kidomaru telling him that his aim was true.
"You little shit! You think that's going to be enough to beat me?" Neji grasped the second needle, and repeated the actions, the kunai that should have deflected it helpless to stop the metal from piercing through and sinking into Kidomaru's palm, locking the knife in place. The third lanced out, stabbing into the ex-Kumo ninja's shin, the fourth hitting him in the chest and the last in the stomach. He looked…confused that ordinary weapons could penetrate his armor, and his breathing was beginning to grow labored.
Building chakra to create more arrows, Kidomaru coughed violently and held his hand to his mouth, coming away with, not blood, but petals, the same color as the hibiscus that Ino always gave him…the same hibiscus, he now understood, that she always picked blooms from, that she was feeding chakra to, and he had no doubts in his mind that the senbon were coated in the pollen of that very same plant, which even now was consuming the chakra in Kidomaru's body to flourish and grow, absorbing the nutrients in his form and literally turning him into a flower from the inside out.
He had one last chance to strike, converting the armor on his fingers into knives, leaping at Neji, the claws reaching, pricking against flesh, piercing through but before he could cause a lethal blow his back arched and he cried out in agony, spine cracking and skin rupturing, roots exploding from his feet into the ground and though injured Neji leapt free, watching emotionlessly as Kidomaru erupted into a leafy plant with a single blood-red flower at the top of a thick stem. All that remained was a vague human shape to the arrangement of the fronds, and a few tatters of clothing still bearing the crest of the Onigumo clan.
Your gift came in quite handy, Ino-chan. Without it I fear I would have been much worse off. His battle done, Neji pressed onward, seeking his comrades to render aid.
"Don't be so nervous, Ino; you're a chuunin, act like it!"
"Easy for you to say, Sakura, you're not the one getting married for a birthday present. Do you think he'll like the dress?"
"I don't think he'll be looking at the dress, sweetheart." Ino turned in the middle of her fussing to see her father standing at the entrance to the bridal tent where his daughter was finalizing her preparations. He had been against it at first, against her marrying so young, but she was an adult in the eyes of her fellows, and now a woman as well now that she was fourteen, and the only thing he could really do was make sure that she was happy on the most precious day of her life (for now). "You look wonderful, dear, and I daresay that Neji will be quite impressed with his bride."
They had settled on a more modern style of wedding, though some of the old traditions would be observed, like the cups of sake exchanged as well as rings, the traditional vows instead of using their own. The Hokage was doing a favor and performing the marriage rather than a priest or shaman, and the bridesmaids—two of Ino's cousins, along with Hinata, Sakura and Hanabi—were decked out in matching ivy green dresses with subdued lavender trim, to complement the pure cosmos white of Ino's dress, the yellow satin trim complementing her fair skin quite well. Inoichi tried to ignore the fact that the gown was backless save for a thin webbing of silk mesh, low-cut to show off the shape of her bosom and strapless as well, but then again it was the same dress his own wife had worn at her marriage to him and tradition demanded that a daughter wear her mother's dress if she could.
Rather than a veil and elaborate coif, Ino's hair was done in the same style as Tsunade's, to show her respect for the woman, adorned with a silver band with Starfrost blossoms woven around it, platinum clips securing the twin ponytails at either end and abalone pins securing her forelocks to either side of her head. The yellow velvet of her gloves reached up to elbows, baring smooth skin that, when she moved the right way, hinted at the muscle beneath, and Ino fussed with the bouquet to make sure it said what she wanted it to. Soft pink gloss adorned her lips, a pale blush on her cheeks and delicate gold around her eyes making them stand out even more, the overall effect making Ino look like she'd stepped off a storybook page. Music lifted from outside and the murmured conversations that Ino had been hearing all morning trailed off. The bridesmaids all lined up, waiting for their cue, and each joined a groomsman after departing the tent until only Ino and her father were left.
She could see, through the tent flaps, Neji being escorted down the aisle by her mother (acting in absentia for his own, rest her soul), stunningly handsome in his pale blue tuxedo with ebony trim, and then finally attendants pulled the flaps aside, and the music swelled to a crescendo. Walking slowly, step by step, she felt all eyes on her, stunned and amazed at her appearance, none moreso than Neji as he waited at the altar before Tsunade. Friends and family all—Shikamaru, Chouji, Kiba cleaned up nicely with cute little Akamaru sitting with a pillow balanced on his head…Hiashi looking more pleased than she'd ever known the man to be, Konohamaru standing in for Naruto (who she sorely wished could have been here to serve as Neji's best man). The day was almost perfect, and yet it was missing something…
Ino did not miss that Neji's brow was free of any marking, only clear skin where before had been the seal which bound him as a Branch Hyuuga; it was a concession to Inoichi, who insisted that even though his daughter was taking the Hyuuga name it was Neji that was marrying into the Yamanaka and not the other way around, and Ino was glad for it, that he was free of the last vestiges of a troubled past. Standing before him, facing his desire, the adoration in his eyes, she realized what was missing. Protracting the start of ceremonies just a bit, Ino plucked the centerpiece of the bouquet from it, and tucked the colorful bloom behind Neji's left ear, as she had done on that day six years ago. The flower that had started it all, changed the course of destiny, and brought a family out of the hurts plaguing it.
"There you go, Sunshine, now you look a lot happier." And the thing of it is: he was.
Naruto sat on a branch overlooking their camp, eyes flicking over to Neji as he took the letter out of his vest now that he had a moment to read it.
"News from home?" he asked his fellow. They had been at war with Akatsuki for a little over a year now. The Moon's Eye plan foiled, Madara defeated at the hands of Sasuke of all people who continued to lead the remnant forces in his misguided vengeance against Konoha. Of course he'd stirred up some of the smaller hidden villages to bolster his troops, but these days it was mostly guerrilla actions and the Joint Shinobi Army was coming down hard on them. They'd locate Sasuke's main base any day now and Naruto predicted it would only take a month or two after that before he was finally beaten and the war could be declared to be over. Which was just fine with him; he wanted to go home and see a certain woman in something other than battle gear. Temari could be a real pain sometimes, but he was fine with that. The make-up sex was great.
"To Jounin Neji Hyuuga," the man to whom the letter was addressed began, reading aloud,
At 0218 on Saturday, July 8th, your wife Ino Hyuuga successfully delivered an 8 pound 12 ounce daughter, Hanako. You are hereby entitled to two months' paid furlough and are instructed to report to the nearest FOB to collect your discharge papers and an advance on your first leave payment. A motorcar will be supplied to take you to the rear lines where you may take the first available train back to Konoha.
We wish you the best of luck with your family.
-Tsunade Senju, Fifth Hokage
-Shikaku Nara, Chief Strategist, JSF
"That's great news, Neji! You're going home!"
"Yeah…home… I'm a dad, Naruto. Shit, I'm a father…I can scarcely believe it."
"Nervous?" He was trying to get some leave himself—more accurately he was trying to convince Temari to take leave but she said she wasn't quitting until she was too fat to fight and even with twins that was still several months away, though he'd at least coerced her to take up messenger duty so she wasn't on the front lines. A battlefield wedding was the last thing he wanted.
"I guess I am, at that. A daughter, Naruto! I can't wait to see her."
"Looks like I'm gonna have to write a note telling Shikamaru to get started on making you Uncle Neji," he laughed. "But seriously, congratulations. If she's anything like Ino, though, you're in trouble. You won't be able to say no to her."
"And you could? You're not still jealous, are you?"
"Bummed that I missed the wedding, maybe, but that's what camcorders are for, right? And at the time, well, I was young and stupid and didn't know what I wanted. Besides, she never gave me flowers." Neji nodded. He could accept that.