The White Rose

Chapter 17

Justify

"Is your world just a broken promise?

Is your love just a drop of rain?

Will we all just burn like fire?

Are you still there?!"

– 'Let It Burn' by Red

Yamato cursed as he sped across the rooftops towards the Hokage Tower. He shouldn't have gone for his senpai. He shouldn't have believed that tiny, niggling doubt that kept telling him Kakashi wouldn't show up to the meeting they'd both been summoned to. Battling that back for the last few hours had been so hard that he'd finally given in to it and gone to the other man's apartment to get him. But, whatever else the silver-haired man tended to slack off at, he always attended to his duty, and Yamato should have remembered that.

Especially with the terrible knowledge of a comrade's death weighing on all of their shoulders.

So, curse Kakashi and the doubts Yamato had allowed himself to feel. And curse the minutes he was going to be late to this vital meeting because he'd gone by the other man's apartment first! Doubling his speed, he pushed off of a water tower, feeling the minutes ticking by in the brush of air over his heated face. "A full day of worrying over what I should do and what has that got me?" He muttered out loud, his voice full of disdain for his own stupidity.

"Nothing."

Nothing but a visit to an empty apartment and the futility of knocking at a door where there was no one there to answer. No one, and nothing but a slightly drooping rose in a pot on the landing that had dropped its brown petals into the creases of his uniform pants.

"Damnit!" The curse exploded from him as he finally drew near the tower, the crumpled up water bottle in his hand being flung dead-eyed towards a street-level trash can as he descended. Of course he'd wanted to tell his senpai what he'd decided to do – what he'd felt he must do – something that he'd turned over and over in his mind since he'd figured out the existence of some kind of relationship between the other Jounin and Naruto yesterday.

It was his duty to tell the Hokage what he knew despite his desire to trust Kakashi. It was a necessity to protect Naruto in case…in case Kakashi was taking advantage of the boy.

Yamato didn't believe that.

He didn't.

But…

He still felt like he had to inform Tsunade and let her decide if what was going on was proper, and he knew that the honourable thing to do would be to tell Kakashi first. So, damn him!

Wasted moments knocking at a door – watering that dilapidated rose – and the growing fear of arriving late to a special meeting that he had, specifically, been summoned for, ate away at him. The fear of being noticed arriving late only fed his ire with his comrade until his fists were nearly clenched with the urge to just hit Kakashi for Yamato's own foolishness.

His feet hit the steps and he took them two at a time, only regaining his composure as he reached the right floor and saw the tail-end of the other summoned Shinobi filing into the Hokage's office. "Thank Kami!" Yamato breathed, slipping up behind them and sidling through their ranks. Anxious eyes scanned the room, easily spotting that head of askew silver hair, and he dodged through his assembled comrades until he was panting beside his senpai at last.

"Kakashi…" Yamato started, leaning in to share his decision with the other man. "Kakashi, I have…" …something to tell you. The heavy twin thumps of the Hokage's fists hitting her desk interrupted him, and as she launched into her speech, he pushed it aside, hoping desperately that he would have the time to tell him later as he concentrated on what their leader had to tell them all.

Much of it was as he'd been expecting…the announcement of the formation of special teams to pursue the Akatsuki that had killed their fellow Shinobi. Documents were handed out laden with as much data as they'd had before, and the added information that the Shinobi onsite had gathered during that fatal fight. The insight and speculations of Shikamaru Nara were noted, and starred, for special attention, and though neither Yamato nor his silent, unmoving companion received a folder, he was able to scan the one of the Shinobi standing in front of him as the man went over his, taking in what he could as he read along with him.

The news that the funeral would take place tomorrow, and that the teams would be moving out directly afterwards, made him ache though, and Yamato wished that he would be joining in on the hunt. Standing beside his still-silent comrade, he watched as Tsunade dismissed the others, telling them to study their dossier and ready their teams to move out, clearing the room until there were only four left, and Shikaku Nara gave them both a solemn wave before he, too, departed, shutting the door behind him.

Understanding exactly why they'd been singled out and kept behind didn't make the tinge of resentment Yamato was feeling go down any better. He knew that the training he and Kakashi had been putting Naruto through was essential, for the very reason that the Akatsuki had come trolling around Konoha and the Temple of Fire was because of their charge. All the more reason then to doubt that he'd be given back his ANBU team and sent out as well, but his eyes still went hopefully to the Hokage as she settled herself back behind her desk and let out a long sigh of exhaustion.

Leaning back in her chair, her fingers steepled before her, the red-painted nails clicking lightly as they tapped together, Tsunade regarded her two remaining Jounin. Patiently she waited. She knew that Naruto had returned to the village yesterday all on his own. She knew that Kakashi and Yamato had returned then as well – separately – but what she didn't know was why. Neither of the men in front her had seen fit to tell her their reason for coming back, or had filed a report on their activities as they should have. Now, with the two standing here before her, she was even more curious as to what had brought Naruto back to the village, the teen showing up even before the messenger that had taken the notice of Asuma's death out to the field would have had a chance to deliver it. Needless to say, that bothered her.

When the silence stretched out and the stiff piece of wood that was Kakashi grew ever more distant to her gaze, and Yamato glanced anxiously at his comrade one too many times, Tsunade finally lost that patience and leaned forwards, her intent, demanding, dark amber eyes flickering from one man to the other. "Well?" She asked, one slim, blonde brow arching skywards.

"I wish to lead a…"

"Hokage-sama I have…"

Irritatingly, both men spoke at once and Tsunade frowned at them, for they both sounded so unlike themselves that she could only imagine what they each had to say must be bad. "One at a time!" She barked, folding her arms upon her desk to glare at the men one after the other. "Hatake…speak!"

"I wish to lead a team out on the hunt for the Akatsuki, Tsunade-sama. I am not needed on the training field anymore…we have achieved what I was sent out to teach, and now Naruto needs only Yamato to restrain him as he finishes it."

The brown-haired Jounin gaped up at his friend, for he hadn't been expecting that request at all, and he wavered a moment in his dedication to his duty before deciding to go through with it anyways, taking the time that Kakashi had given him to organize his thoughts once more. When the Hokage didn't respond to Kakashi immediately, he turned to look at her and realized that she was waiting for him to speak up next, and Yamato had to swallow hard against the lump in his throat that wanted to choke him at what he was going to reveal. He didn't like feeling like a tattletale…but he still couldn't doubt that this was what he had to do.

"Hokage-sama…" Yamato started, trying to keep his voice composed. "I must report what I believe to be a relationship between my comrade here, Kakashi Hatake, and his student, Naruto Uzumaki. I have witnessed several instances of…"

A bark of laughter interrupted him in the most startling way, and he drew himself up to stare in confusion at the woman sitting behind the desk, a wide and slightly bemused smile curving up her lips. Beside him, Yamato could feel Kakashi stiffen, and though his senpai did not turn to look at him, he felt the way that the other man collected himself and the distance that seemed to appear between them even though the other Jounin did not move at all. Just from that emotional disconnect, Yamato knew from longtime association that all of Kakashi's senses were in a state of anticipatory, high alert, that could turn deadly in the blink of an eye.

"Aaa, is that what this is all about then?" Tsunade sighed, dropping her forehead to rest momentarily in her palm. "You finally figured it out, did you Tenzou?" She'd known since Jiraiya's funeral that something was going on between her Jounin and her little gaki, that it had progressed far enough that Yamato had discerned it meant that the Hatake-brat and her little brother were growing that much more open with each other. Switching her gaze to Kakashi she stared at him, seeing all the signs of distress and withdrawal that she'd missed before in her own preoccupation with the death of one of her Shinobi, and a tight clenching in her belly told her intuitively that Naruto had somehow been hurt.

"What did you do?!" Tsunade growled at the silver-haired man. "What did you do to my little gaki?!"

Kakashi barely withheld the twitch of pain that clutched at his body as those angry eyes were directed at him, and he wished that his leader would just follow through on her obviously rising fury and hit him, for at least then the pain that he felt wouldn't be so self-serving. Summoning a cool and detached tone as best as he could, he explained what had happened…that he'd gotten into the seal, and seen the Kyuubi…and that during that achievement the demon had revealed to Naruto just who his parents were.

His voice trailed off after that, for he didn't want to say the rest of it - the memories of the emotions were just that raw and scraping, but the impatient hmph that the woman gave him informed him that he had no choice but to finish, and Kakashi dug deep inside of himself to reproduce the calm, light voice that he was known for.

"I promised him, you see. To tell the truth and…"

The Third's law had been broken by a being that could never be arrested for it. That could never be executed for it, and now Naruto thinks that I didn't tell him the truth.

"He thinks you lied to him." Tsunade said, following the logic of his unfinished sentence. "That you knew and didn't tell him. Now he's hurt, and he's avoiding you, and that's why you want to lead a team out to look for Hidan and Kakuzu." She watched the Jounin nod at her words, the masked face drawn in and closed down to conceal the anguish she could just discern behind that single exposed eye.

Drawing in a deep breath, she made her decision. "Listen Hatake! This is not a suicide mission! Or a 'get as hurt as you can' mission…understand?!" The shocked reaction of the man reassured her that he hadn't been considering those as options, and she was reassured that he had no intention of punishing himself by taking this assignment. Tsunade knew now that it would be all right to send Kakashi where she thought he needed to be. "Team Ten thinks that they're stealthily concealing their plan to set out after those Akatsuki thugs alone." She informed Kakashi. "You'll be at the gate tomorrow after the funeral to show them just how wrong they are…right?"

The confirming nod that she got brought one from her in response, and when she flicked her fingers at Kakashi, he was not long in disappearing, leaving a gaping Yamato behind. "Y-you knew?" He stuttered, still hoping that he'd done the right thing after all, for if the Hokage had known about, and therefore silently condoned, this relationship, he had done all of that worrying for nothing.

Had probably alienated the other Jounin for nothing.

"I did." The woman confirmed, her features softening slightly. "And I thought that finding love was the best thing for both of them, though I should have foreseen that the question of Naruto's parentage would become an issue. Kakashi has always chafed under the law that kept him from telling Naruto about who he really is." The sigh that came from her spoke of too much to worry about and not enough time to deal with it all, and Yamato could only wonder what he was meant to do with any of this information now that he knew how the situation truly lay, and what he was supposed to say, for he had no idea who the blond's parents were, even now…neither Kakashi or the Hokage had done any more then talk their way around their identities.

Before he could ask though, the Fifth went on, clearly determined to leave that topic behind as she fixed her gaze unwaveringly on him once more.

"You did the right thing in telling me, Tenzou, don't worry about that but, you still have work to do with Naruto before you can be released to do anything else. "

"But, Hokage-sama, the teen is in no shape to train…I don't even know where he is." Yamato responded, his pulse beating a rapid tattoo in his ears as he protested.

"I do." Tsunade replied softly. "You just get ready to take him back to the training field and resume what you were doing." She stood from behind the desk, coming around it to stand in front of Yamato and offer him a reassuring smile. "You will resume training with Naruto after the funeral tomorrow, understood?"

Nodding, bowing, Yamato turned to take his leave - all of his unanswered questions coming with him - making it all of the way to the door before his leader's quietly amused voice brought him to a halt and made him half-turn to look at her. "Don't worry Tenzou, I'll work this out. And you…you be prepared to see a very focused Naruto when he gets back to the Training Field…I've just given him a very good reason to try harder than he's ever tried before." The knowing nod she gave towards the empty space that Kakashi had just occupied made Yamato's eyes widen with comprehension, and as he left the office, he groaned in anticipation of what the next few days might bring.

…KNKNKN…

The unusual mid-day heat had roused almost everyone in the village, bringing them out of open windows and doors to talk and mingle as only a bright, warm spring day can do. In their world the death of a Shinobi, even one that was the son of a former Hokage, was but a backdrop to the groceries that needed getting, or the seedlings wilting to be tucked into freshly turned earth. And, as the chatty, exuberant villagers went about the streets, shouting their 'Tadaima's' to each other, dodging the playing children and their unseasonable water hoses, they tread carefully around the rushing Shinobi, giving them their room as they sped grim-faced between them. If any one of them noticed the lack of a certain someone amongst them-those who thought well enough of him to look—they might have missed a certain blond whose sunshine hair and wide smile had been lacking in Konoha these past few weeks.

If anyone had noticed, that is.

Lying in his bed, the sounds outside of his window an unwelcome distraction, Naruto played with the glinting pendant of the necklace that meant so much to him. He'd loved it when Kakashi had given it to him, promising himself that he would never take it off, but now just the feeling of that sharp-edged crystal in his hand hurt so bad—hurt him right down in the very centre of his body where…

Where Kakashi had been and he'd found out about that lie.

Last night had been so hard for him. After he'd left the training ground, Naruto hadn't known what to do with himself. The feeling of betrayal and the pain that was in his heart wouldn't leave. He didn't even make it back to his apartment before the sense of desolation tried to overwhelm him again, and he'd sat down in an alley and just lost himself for a while, his forehead cradled on his knees. When he finally did make it home, Naruto had just collapsed over his dusty bed, wishing that tears would come to his dry, aching eyes, 'cause maybe then he'd feel better.

A night of restless tossing and turning hadn't improved anything, and lying here going over and over what had happened was just making the ache worse. He had to do something…anything… Sitting up cross-legged, still holding the necklace with his right hand, Naruto looked down at the blue pendant. Turning it this way and that, he watched it sparkle, wondering at how it had once hung around his own mother's neck. From her to Kakashi. He thought, some kind of weird journey that ended with it coming back to me. As much as Naruto wanted to be happy to make the connection that it had come from his Mom to him, the memory of the joy he'd felt when Kakashi had given it to him still just hurt too much. Clutching it tighter in his hand, he made the decision to get up and do something with himself.

Sliding from his bed, he tugged the pendant off over his head and placed it on his night stand, the tunk of that stone meeting wood a sound that somehow made him feel even lonelier. For a moment he stopped there, blue eyes staring down, and one hand reached out to touch before he stopped it willfully, reminding himself of just why he'd taken it off. "He lied to me." Naruto whispered hoarsely, turning away before he could change his mind again. He lied to me.

Moving as if his body knew what his mind wanted, he changed out of the orange and black training gear he was still wearing and into some civilian clothes. The moment he walked out of his door in his shorts and shirt, Naruto's eyes were drawn upwards, and from the verandah that extended outside of his apartment door, he looked up to see the face of the Fourth Hokage there on the mountain along with the others. "Dad." He said quietly, the word strange on his lips. Somehow he'd always thought that when he found out who his parents were, there'd be this moment where all of it made sense. That bright burst inside of him where he'd understand everything that had been done to him and see it all the way he was sure that it should be seen, and then he'd know why.

Why him? Why pick him and put the Kyuubi inside of him when he was just a baby? And why leave him all alone? And who his parents were and where did they go? So it was weird and painful now to see the face of the man he looked up to as a hero and know it to be his father, all of those questions roiling and tumbling in his head. Swiping his hand over gritty, dust-filled eyes, Naruto gazed up into his father's face his fingers twisting and knotting at his sides. "Did you even love me?" He whispered aloud. "Why did you leave me all alone?"

But there was no way that a man of stone could answer him back.

….KNKNKN…

Walking through the village, both hands shoved deep into his pockets, Naruto couldn't help the litany of questions that still yammered inside of his head. It was more than just Kakashi telling him lies…Who else had known? Surely more than just the Jounin had known who his parents were. How many though? "Why didn't anyone tell me?" He muttered aloud, deliberately skirting the busiest streets, his face drawing down into a very uncharacteristic frown as he thought about all of the people he'd considered precious that also might have lied to him. "Jiji had to have known." Naruto grunted, sorrow and anger clutching equally at his heart. "He was the Hokage…he should have known everything."

What hurt the most was that Iruka-sensei might have known. That Ero-sennin and Baa-chan probably knew and had never told him. All of those people he'd looked up to and trusted, all of those he'd listened to and…and loved. Dryness ached behind Naruto's eyes, and he felt as if his forehead might bust from the pressure inside of his skull, but the tears that itched behind his eyeballs wouldn't come, no matter how much he wished they would. Not even thinking about Kakashi seemed to be able to bring them out.

'Promise each other that we won't lie…that we'll tell each other everything. No holding anything back. You'll tell me the truth…and I'll tell you the truth, because that's the kind of relationship I want to have with you.' Those words…he'd meant them right from the bottom of his heart when he'd said them…and he'd thought that Kakashi had meant them, too. The ache in his eyes intensified, and his head felt as if it might pound open from the force of the heat inside of his skull. He really loved him.

He really loved Kakashi, and it hurt so bad to know that he'd been lied to and ignored. And treated as if he was a kid and wouldn't understand things…

Naruto kept walking, but his brain wouldn't stop working, and the thoughts battered at him as he strode through the streets of the village, not intent upon going anywhere, just using the movement as a distraction from the questions slicing so ruthlessly at his insides. There were so many he felt as if they might spill out from all of the pain, falling on the ground at his feet for everyone to see and, like the tears that wouldn't fall, he wished that they would, just so he could get rid of them.

How could his father seal the demon inside of him?

Didn't he love him? Did he hate him, was that why? And what about his mother?

Wouldn't they want their son to be happy? "Don't you know how much pain this has caused me?" Naruto muttered to himself, the slicing pain scoring at his nerves again. "I was happy, I…I was just...just falling in love."

The warm, salty scent of ramen teased at his nose, awakening a gurgling in a stomach that had never known what it was to be turned off by food, and Naruto looked up to find himself near 'Ichiraku's'. The stand looked to be mostly empty, for it was the middle of the afternoon, and the hangings were blowing about in the warm breeze. It made for such a normal picture in the desolation of his day that Naruto was drawn towards it, pushing under the hangings to stand uncertainly in front of the counter, unsure what he was going to do now that he was actually there. Balancing on the balls of his feet, teetering in either direction and ready to flee if that was the way his heart fell, his thoughts were interrupted by the entrance of Teuchi-san, and the heat that flooded his heart then had more to do with seeing someone that had always been kind to him, than pain that he was in.

"Naruto!" A warm smile curved the older man's lips, creasing that already wrinkled face in such a familiar and beloved way that the blond felt a crack inside of him, and he put a hand to his heart where he'd thought something had broken. "Sit down! Sit down!" A gnarled, miso-stained hand gestured to the stool where he normally sat, and the rightness of doing just that almost tugged Naruto down onto that polished wooden surface. "What are you doing here, Naruto-kun? I thought that you were out training with your sensei and your taichou?"

He didn't know what to say to respond to that question, so Naruto sat in silence, his head downcast, his eyes fixed on his hands lying in his lap. Around him the sounds of the afternoon village outside the stand went on, and he heard the older man shift uncomfortably, and then come closer. "Naruto?" From the telltale heat of breath on his face, he knew the man must be very close to him. "Naruto? What's wrong?"

The words just came from him then, a part of him hoping desperately that the answer would be 'no', but another, smaller, bit wishing that someone would just talk plainly to him—that someone would just tell him the truth. "Oji-san? Did you know my Dad?"

The hesitation and gasp that Naruto couldn't miss brought his head up in a snap, and he stared into that seamed face, glimpsing something in the older man's dark eyes that he couldn't quite understand. One wrinkled hand came up to flutter in mid-air, and a smile that matched Naruto's own forced one came onto Teuchi-san's face. That he was able to recognize it so easily, and to know the panic that creased the man's face struck at Naruto, and he knew that he was just going to get another lie if he didn't say something else.

"I know." Two words. Softly spoken, but directed right into the wavering cook's eyes stilled him in an instant, and Teuchi actually stopped and looked at him, actually looked to see the truth in his own gaze. "I know who my parents are."

Naruto broke the intense stare that they we sharing and looked up and to the side, picturing just where his father's face was, there amongst the others. "All of this…" His voice was still so soft it would have been lost on the breeze if not for the other man being so close. "All of this time and he's been right up there."

With his eyes still upon the imagined, distant, carved face of his father, Naruto heard the movement the older man made as he stepped backwards to the stool he kept at the corner of the counter, sinking onto it as he was wont to do when he needed to rest his legs from the rush of his customers. He had to make the choice of looking at Teuchi-san just then, or not, and he found that he couldn't bear to see just what would be in those weary old eyes, or see how the wrinkles on his face would shift with the emotions playing over them. Lies…so many lies…and so many people that he'd trusted to be truthful with him.

Slowly then, Teuchi-san began to talk, his voice gaining firmness and direction as his words picked up pace and flowed more easily to Naruto's ears. The other man actually chuckled as he reminisced, and it did touch his heart a little to hear how he so fondly remembered his father. With no conscious thought, his eyes were drawn to the older man, and he saw how he'd tipped his head back to lean it against the wall, a small smile curving up his lips as he spoke. Something fluttered in his stomach to see that, for though Naruto had always known that Minato Namikaze had been a well-liked and respected man, to see another react to their memories of his father only brought that lesson closer to home for him.

"You know, Naruto-kun, before you, your father was my Number One Ramen Fan…he'd have eaten it every day if Kushina-san had let him." A soft chuckle came from the man, his body shaking slightly. "Even when he became Hokage, he'd still get it delivered on the sly."

Those words struck at Naruto, sparking an irresistible curiosity inside of him that had formerly weary blues eyes suddenly sharpening. "Say, oji…when he got it delivered…were you the one that delivered it?"

…KNKNKN…

Naruto finally made it to where he was going just as twilight was falling over the village. It was a small house tucked away in the corner of the Jounin housing compound; the small flock of buildings where unwed, or homeless Jounin stayed while in the village. Somewhere, as Teuchi-san had said, that Minato and Kushina both would be able to come and go and not be noticed as anything special. The old man had given him careful instructions as to how to find the house, and no one on the compound grounds had even batted an eye at him as he'd wandered through the spaces between the buildings. Though, seeing as how they'd all been rushing about, carrying black clothing or juggling weapons, Naruto could vaguely see why he went unnoticed.

The house wasn't really much to speak of…just one more block building with a plain front door and two levels. The white paint was peeling from around the trim, and the tiles on the roof were beginning to crack. Naruto could see why no one would ever suspect their Hokage of living here. He circled the house, scanning the exterior, noting how it was pressed up against the back of the compound, the spaces behind tall with weeds and some very overgrown perennials. There used to be a garden here, and he could see that, but that hardly concerned him now, for what he wanted more than anything was to just get inside.

Using some of the skills he'd learned in the Academy, Naruto wormed his way inside of the home through a window in the back, almost immediately disappointed that it was empty inside. Dust floated in the quiet, dim interior, rolling across the wooden floors that cracked under his feet as he moved from room to room, peering into dark cupboards and behind doors. Something could still be here, he thought. Forgotten, left behind…overlooked in the hurry or the sadness of clearing out the home of a couple that had never officially lived here. He was inside his parents' home…and the feelings welling inside of him were a mixture of many things…so many things that he couldn't separate all of them, all mixing with the leftover chill from yesterday, the merest thought of Kakashi twinging the empty place in his gut.

Clutching at his stomach, he breached the entrance way to the last room on the very last floor of the house, finding paint the colour of robin's eggs and sunshine, and the faintest, faded imprint of small forest animals cavorting around the confines of the walls. I could I have lived here. He thought to himself, going all the way in. I think that I was supposed to live here. This…this was a room for a baby.

The ones that had cleaned up here hadn't as thorough, he saw. Three boxes sat in the corner, and Naruto's heart beat a little harder as he thought that he might have found something, but, even as he approached them, he could see that they were empty, and he batted at the boxes in a moment of exasperation, sending them flying. The clatter of an object falling from the skittering, tipping containers snapped his head around, and he scrambled for the picture as it slid away from him, sinking to the floor to sit with it on his knees.

Dust coated the thin, metal frame, covering the image within with the thickness of time and history, and as he cleaned the dirt and grime from the glass, some of those days past came into view—this small piece—a moment in time that Naruto saw with new and comprehending eyes. He saw that it was his parents sitting outside on a rock, leaning together with smiles on their faces. Ero-sennin grinned behind them, a hand on both of their shoulders, and under them lying against the rock was the impossibly young figure of his sensei, silver hair, reserved expression, and mask… That damned, stupid, infuriating mask…Naruto's eyes closed wearily as he folded forwards to rest his forehead over the picture of the man, his heart starting to ache again.

Just how many masks did Kakashi have to wear?

…KNKNKN…

Tsunade paced steadily between the buildings, her head bowed with the weight of her thoughts. Above her and around her, her ANBU guards flitted from rooftop to rooftop, keeping watch over her even within the extra secure compound. She had come seeking out her little gaki, and her heart was heavy with too many emotions including regret, that it had taken her so long to finally get this far.

Stopping outside of a doorway she'd heard only too much about from her recently-deceased teammate, golden eyes scanned the careworn house, seeing signs of the benign neglect that marked a memoriam that no one talked about or acknowledged. With scarlet-tipped nails, she peeled a strip of paint from the frame, holding it between her fingers as she considered how sad it was that this could be considered a memento of two very fine people before she let it float to the ground. Inside she knew that she would find Naruto. The very discreet ANBU guard she'd assigned to the boy yesterday had reported his location last night, and then had stood watch over the obviously bereft teen when he'd fallen asleep in the empty house.

There but for the interference of the Kyuubi… Tsunade thought, knowing that Naruto would have called this place 'home' if not for the events that stole his parents' lives. A simple surge of her chakra, and a release handsign opened the front door for her, and as the heel of her sandal clacked for the first time on the dirty wooden floor inside, she sniffled back a tear, anticipating what she would find.

Throughout the first floor she found the signs of Naruto's exploration, the dust upon the floors parted and imprinted with sandal soles and the breeze of the blond's passing. She followed the path he'd left behind as he'd wandered, giving herself the luxury of time to gather her thoughts and plan what she was going to say. Tsunade could only imagine just how betrayed her little otouto felt…Naruto would have surely realized by now that it wasn't only Kakashi that had known and kept the secret of his heritage from him. She was expecting a rightful outrage, and as she turned towards the stairs, still tracking those solitary footprints, she released a sigh to gird herself for what she might receive.

In the room upstairs, second door to the right, she found Naruto sleeping, curled up on the floor on a cardboard that looked to have been crushed down from a box. From the report of the ANBU, he's spent the whole night here, wandering aimlessly around the house repeatedly before settling up here just before the sun had come up. Calmly, quietly, Tsunade sat down beside him, crossing her legs and looking down at that unguarded and beautiful face as she let him sleep for a moment more. "Naruto." She said, sliding one hand over his head of riotous blond hair. "It's time to wake up."

Several minutes later she was just about to shake him until his teeth rattled, for nothing she'd done had hauled the teen from slumberland. Sitting back in a huff, Tsunade curled one hand into a fist and drew it back, hating to have to resort to this when the young man was already in such a delicate state. "For Kami's sake, Naruto." She ground out, about to bring that fist down when inspiration struck. Dropping her hand, she leaned in instead, and pursed her lips right beside the whorl of an ear. "The ramen's all steaming and hot, Naruto. Pork, and miso, and the noodles…oh, so good!"

If Tsunade hadn't dodged back so quickly a speeding forehead would have slammed her right in the nose. As it was, she swore heartily, leaning back and away as Naruto sat bolt upright, a stunned expression in those blue eyes, and a string of rather unsightly drool descending from his gaping mouth. "Huh? Whaaat?" He mumbled, finding her face as she continued to swear.

It took a moment but eventually those blue eyes cleared, and in the second before the teen remembered, she saw the happiness and excitement he felt upon recognizing her, and then a veil was drawn down over those expressive eyes, and a full bottom lip extended into a pout.

"What do you want, Baa-chan?" Naruto huffed, his gaze darting around the room that he was in, recalling just how dark it had been in here in the wee hours of the morning. He was still tired, his breath shallow and warm as he sat waiting for the woman to answer, his brain busily yelling 'she knew, she knew' at him until it was all that he could do to not tell it to just shut up.

"Well?"

Tsunade let out a very deep sigh, her hand coming up to cover her eyes for just a second of relief from the day that she'd been having. She'd left the after the funeral to come right here, happy in a way to know that Naruto hadn't heard about Asuma's death, otherwise the teen would have been there, ranked with the other mourning Shinobi. Leaving that unfortunate news for another time had seemed best to her, and in the brief moment she'd taken to talk with Yamato before she'd left, she'd passed the task to him to perform…one that he wasn't very glad to receive at all.

She had enough to do, thank you, including going back to send off the Shinobi teams that were going out to hunt down the Akatsuki. Yamato was just going to have to suck it up.

"Naruto. When you were born and your parents died, the Third had to come back to take up office again, and there were many things that he had to address. The first of which was that your father and mother made every effort to keep their relationship and your existence secret from almost everyone." Looking down, she could see that the teen's face hadn't cleared any, and that Naruto was looking away from her, his face still set with stubborn lines. Tsunade reached out and laid a hand on the young man's shoulder, seeking to soothe, but Naruto jerked away from her, turning fitfully to give her his back.

"I know that this is hard on you, baka." She said gently. "And I know that you feel betrayed, but there really is a reason for all of this." Letting her hand fall away, Tsunade placed it back on her knee, turning her attention away to glance up at the decoration in this little room. A nursery. She thought, sadness and regret twining through her. A nursery for this young man here.

The weight of knowledge and of the pains of years past sat on top of her already weary shoulders for a moment as Tsunade struggled to breathe. This was where her teammate would have excelled. Where Jiraiya and his blustery, warm personality would have been able to reach Naruto and coax him from his doldrums, she didn't have the character to do that. Charging in and confronting things head on was definitely more her style. Swallowing the impulse to do just that, Tsunade took another deep breath to control her temper, and picked up her history where she'd left off.

"Your father had so many enemies. All of Iwa, Kiri, and most of the other Elemental Countries hated him, and hunted him with an obsessive passion. If they'd have known that he had a child left unprotected…a child that was the Jinchuuriki for the Kyuubi they'd have never left you alone until you were in their hands, or dead."

"Sarutobi-san had to protect you, Naruto…he had to make sure that it never came out who you actually were. He gave you your mother's name. Raised you as an Uzumaki, and kept your paternity so secret that it was a crime to tell you who you were."

Blue eyes shot to her face, the haze of confusion and resentment clouding the clarity of them beginning to rescind as the teen made sense of what he'd just heard. "A crime?" Naruto repeated, "…a crime to tell me who my parents are?"

"Punishable by death, Naruto." Tsunade finished, letting the gravity of those words take them down into the space between her and the young man she considered her otouto, giving Naruto the room to think about how heavy they were.

"Then Kakashi…" The soft tenor of that hoarse voice failed as Naruto looked up into tender, caring honey-coloured eyes and saw the affirmation there.

"Wanted to tell you and couldn't, baka. She said softly. "On the pain of death."

The sharp pain that had muted to a dull ache returned to Naruto then, as the confusing emotions that were whirling around in his head began to surface again. Dry, sand-filled eyes that had refused to tear up began to do so now, and the flood of salt tears that poured forth embarrassed him as Baa-chan curled an arm around him and pulled him in against her big bosom to hold him as he sobbed. All of the disappointment and betrayal welled in him and he cried it all out against her shoulder, whimpering and gasping until there was nothing left inside of him to come out, and then Naruto shuddered and hiccoughed, centering himself only on the warmth of a hand resting in the small of his back.

It felt so good to have gotten all of that out. He thought as he peeled his face from the slimy front of his Baa-chan's robe, feeling just how sticky and wet his face was with snot and salt. Naruto looked to Tsunade, expecting just a little bit of anger over how gross he'd gotten her clothes, but the tender gleam In her eyes told him that she was more concerned about his feelings than the state of her robes. A bit of the anger and sadness still inside of him melted at that look, reminding him that this woman did care about him, even if she hadn't told him the truth in the past.

"Sorry." He whispered, motioning to her clothes anyways, wanting her to know that he cared, too.

"It's all right, brat." She returned, the affection in her slightly raspy voice the only hint as to the tears that she had wanted to shed, too. "Do you feel better?"

Naruto thought honestly about that question, still feeling the lightness that had come with releasing all of the tears that he hadn't been able to shed earlier, and he nodded reluctantly, still not ready to give his up sense of betrayal. The slight smile the woman gave him confused him, and he watched her dig into the pocket of her robes, pulling something from them that made his heart thump rather forcefully in his chest.

"Y-you…"

"Went by your place and got this, Naruto." Tsunade said softly, placing the necklace on the floor in front of her, the blue crystal flashing in the low, golden afternoon light that was slanting through the window. "I think it looks good on you…" She joked, her voice very gentle, knowing that the sight of it might be painful. "It brings out your eyes.

Hesitantly, she reached out with her hand, wanting to reassure her little otouto that it was okay for him to trust. "You know, he really hated not being able to tell you."

Naruto bit his lip at that, one hand frozen in the act of automatically reaching out for the necklace that laid just by his knee. When a calloused palm cupped his cheek, he didn't turned away from it, nor did he press into it, he just let it warm his salt-rimed skin as he looked at her with wary, weary, blue eyes. Was that enough? His heart wanted to go right to Kakashi and throw his arms around him…

Silently he shook his head, answering his own unspoken question, and Tsunade dropped her hand. There was still too much hurt inside of him to think all that through yet.

Heaving out a large breath of that made that big bosom of hers bounce, she levered herself to her feet and walked towards the open doorway. "Naruto…" Turning at the door, she looked back over her shoulder at him, her golden eyes very thoughtful. "I know what it's like to lose someone you love. I also know what it's like to love someone and never show them just how you feel… and when they're gone there is nothing you can ever do about the fact that you never told them." The weight of her gaze was heavy on Naruto and his own eyes widened as he realized just who she was talking about.

"You loved Jiraiya-sensei…didn't you." He said instinctively, feeling the hard-edged corners of the crystal as he clutched it tightly in his hand.

The woman didn't reply, but those golden eyes darkened as she looked past him, focusing on something—or someone—just beyond his shoulder. There was something so personal in that gaze that he felt compelled to look away, and so when Tsunade stepped outside the room he wasn't looking at her when she spoke to him again. "Go home."

"Go home, Naruto, and shower. Change your clothes and meet Yamato at the Training Field and finish what you've begun together. That's an order." The rasp in his Baa-chan's voice was more pronounced than usual, and he felt his stomach clench at the regret he could so obviously hear there. Naruto sat with his head bowed until he heard the last of her heels on the stairs. What did he want to do?

Naruto stood and placed the flattened cardboard back in the corner with the unbroken boxes. He looked around the little room one last time, thinking that this might have been his home in another world. He might have lived here with his Mom and Dad, and maybe a little sister, or brother.

Maybe…

Might…

Silently, Naruto left the room, going down the stairs treading softly, completely unaware that he'd slipped the necklace back over his head until he felt the crystal bounce against his breastbone. Raising his hand to his chest, he looked again at the picture he'd carried along with him, realizing that it truly represented the past now. That outside of the front door his Baa-chan had left open, there was a future that he had to live, and people that loved him…people that he called friends and family…and even someone that he loved. And just maybe, none of them had wanted to lie to him. Maybe they'd wanted to tell him who he was, and they couldn't.

Punishment of death. He thought, rolling his eyes at the extremity of it all. Wow.

Stepping out into the late afternoon sunlight, Naruto looked up to the sky that seemed to stretch away in every direction above him. How often had he laid on his back on a fine day, sharing a frozen treat with the Pervy Sage and dreaming of the possibilities that lay before him? Now Jiraiya-sensei was gone, and Baa-chan was lonely without him, and he—he was lonely, too.

Taking to the roofs, Naruto headed for his apartment, doing as he'd been ordered to do. In his ears, as he leapt, soaring through the spaces between the buildings, he could hear that tenor slide so soft and earnest in his head, and his heart clenched as he finally understood just exactly what Kakashi had been trying to tell him on that cold winter's night.

"You know that is impossible, Naru." That single grey eye had gazed at him so brightly, and so intently, and he could almost feel now how Kakashi had been willing him to understand. "We're Shinobi, you know that. There are going to be times when we're under orders and we can't tell each other 'everything'."

Yeah, uh huh, he understood that now.

…KNKNKN…

Yamato's fingers kept up a nervous rhythm as he waited for his teammate to arrive. He didn't know how he was supposed to explain to Naruto what had happened since he'd seen him last. It was completely unfair that the Hokage had left it up to him to tell the teen that Asuma had died. Not only that but he had to tell him that Kakashi had a new assignment - a new, dangerous assignment - and that Naruto wouldn't be allowed to go anywhere until he'd finished his training. There was no question in his mind just how well that was going to go over. "Kami! Why me?!" Yamato moaned, clutching at his head over his forehead protector. "What did I do to deserve a task like this?"

"A task like what, Yamato-taichou?"

The boy's high, unexpected voice scared the crap out of Yamato and he spun and leapt back, that hand dropping to his heart as it rattled behind his ribcage. "Naruto! Don't do that to me!" How the teen had managed to sneak up on him was a matter that the brown-haired Jounin wasn't prepared to think about right at that moment, and so he dropped back, giving them both space as he gathered up his shamefully scattered wits.

As if he hadn't even flinched in fear, those blue eyes were still fixed on him, measuring him, and Yamato suspected that the younger man was expecting an answer to his question. The small shiver that worked its way up his spine chilled him, and he had to remind himself that every time he'd thought he knew Naruto, the blond had a way of surprising him.

The blond was doing that now. And he had a very good idea that Naruto had learned some hard lessons the last few days, and was keeping them very close to his heart.

"What kind of a task did the Hokage give you?" Naruto repeated, his blue eyes narrowing. What had Yamato known about his parents? He wondered. There was something inside of him that doubted this man had ever known the truth about who he was, and as he took that as a truth, he also realized that his captain's current reticence was about something else entirely.

Naruto strode closer, a part of him narrowed in on whatever it was that the other man was holding back from him. In the last two days he'd confronted a lot of lies and the other kinds of lies, where people deliberately don't tell you the things that they know. It was that kind of lie that he was sensing now, and he stared up at Yamato, his face set into such a grimace that it was almost as if he was daring the Jounin to try and pull that scary face crap on him.

"Ehh? Tell me." He demanded.

Yamato couldn't remember the last time he'd seen such a determined look in those blue eyes. This was a kid far more focused on what he wanted than that teen in the woods when Orochimaru had stood before them. One far more set on discovering answers than the teen that usually acted first and listened to answers later. For some reason that made his mouth go dust dry, and he swallowed really hard, desperately trying to compose just the right explanation for the information that he had to give. "Asuma Sarutobi is dead, Naruto."

Straight on…right out with it…there was no other way for him to soft-shoe it, and he believed that Naruto did better if he heard it plainly. "The Akatsuki came to the Fire Temple, we believe that they were looking for Sora, and they killed the priest there, the one that had been Asuma's friend." Yamato could see the wetness gathering at the edges of those thick, golden lashes, and he had to swallow again for a very different reason entirely. "In the ensuing battle, he was killed."

Naruto had thought that he'd done enough crying today to last him a lifetime, but he was truly unsurprised to feel the track of a hot liquid down over his cheek as he remembered the laconic bearded man that had taught him how to use his nature element. Sniffling, he nodded his acknowledgement of his captain's words, and his thoughts went to Shika, Choji and Ino, and he wondered how well they were doing now that their sensei was dead. He could only imagine how…

How he and Sakura and Sai would feel if…

"Yamato-taichou, where is Kakashi-sensei?" Naruto almost didn't recognize his own voice as he asked the question because his heart was squeezing so tightly in his chest that he felt as if he was being strangled by his own blood. The long pause that came between them made the tension in his body rise, and he clenched his fists as the other man resisted answering him. That didn't make Naruto happy—he wasn't happy at all—and he was on the verge of using his fists when the Jounin finally responded to him. "Senpai is leading Asuma's team out into the field, Naruto. The Hokage wanted him to take that team personally so that they wouldn't do anything foolish."

The words were barely out of the other man's mouth before Naruto had turned on his heel to return to the village. If Baa-chan thought that she could put him out here when his…his…gah! When Kakashi was in danger, then she was damned wrong! He was going to go after Kakashi and he was going to make sure that nothing—nothing happened to him.

"Naruto!" The snap in his captain's voice stopped Naruto in his tracks and he twisted around in his steps, staring rudely at the other man. "Just what use do you think you'll be to Kakashi if you go out there without finishing your training?" Yamato demanded, his dark brown eyes on fire with challenge. "You'll just hold him back and add another burden to the battle if you go out there now and you know that."

"And that's the perfect way to get the man killed."

Blood ran from Naruto's face as he was slapped by the other man's words, and all of the self-righteous anger fled from him as he realized the terrible truth behind the very cruel things Yamato had said. The Akatsuki were after him. They wanted him, and they would go through anything to capture him…including one of the most famous Shinobi Konoha had ever produced. Just like they had gone through Asuma-sensei. For a moment he stood there shuddering with the urges that were sending him in two directions at once. Every fibre of his heart was screaming at him to go and help Kakashi, but the practical part that the man he loved and Yamato had been drilling into him all of these weeks was telling him that he had to finish the things that he'd started first. He had to learn how to kick ass in the coolest and most awesome way ever, and he had to do that now.

"All right." Naruto glared at the other man as he stomped past him towards the waterfall, a simple hand sign summoning enough clones to fill the long branch without the teen uttering a syllable of the focusing chant. As one, the group of blonds took to the tree, and the real Naruto's voice floated back to Yamato as he took up position in front of the cascade of water roaring past his nose. "Yamato-taichou, when I'm finished this, will you help me with something else I've been thinking about. I've got an idea that's going to make a really awesome jutsu, but I'm gonna need your help."

Yamato, who'd been scrambling to assemble his Mokuton towers, flopped himself into a cross-legged position and held out his hand, calling out as he looked up, the very prophetic words of the Hokage about how he should have prepared himself ringing in his ears. "Uh, sure, Naruto." He said. "Anything…"

When his jaw hit the ground in the next second, Yamato found himself at a loss for words, surprised by his unpredictable teammate once more. He thought that he actually whimpered in that moment, the noise low and disturbed in the back of his throat as he looked up at what Naruto was doing.

When…did he learn to do…that?

Above him the water was opening around the pass of many, coordinated hands, for he was seeing the clones and the teen work as one. Each pass of those hands cut more and more of the liquid flowing past them, and he wondered desperately just when this frustratingly amazing teen had figured out how to do this. "N-nar-u-uto?" He croaked, his hand falling back to his lap. "Wh-when?"

"Ehh…" A series of high-pitched metallic pops announced the departure of all of the clones, and as the gobsmacked Jounin looked on, the blond made one full swipe with his hands and completely cleaved the waterfall from side to side. "We figured it out a few days ago, but Kakashi had promised us some training time and so we held it back." With a sigh the younger man leapt from the tree branch and strode towards Yamato, shaking the water droplets from his thick, blond hair as he did so.

All of that, just because he wanted to spend more time with Kakashi?!

Gaping, gasping, aware that he looked more like a fish than the ones they'd caught to eat, Yamato snapped his mouth closed as two clones reappeared at Naruto's side, one of them instantly going to work on creating a Rasengan. "So…" The teen started, his brows drawing down in concentration. "Kakashi-sensei mentioned something about combining a Rasengan with my wind element, but he said it would be just like having to look left and right at the same time…you know anything about that?"

Oh, Kami…The brown-haired Jounin did whimper low in his throat that time, as the Hokage's devastating words came back to haunt him once more. This was…this was going to hurt.

…KNKNKN…

Blood dripped with every step, soaking into the green grass. Neji felt overwhelmed as he carried his bleeding friend through the forest. Although he knew Yami wouldn't be following anytime soon, he wanted to get as far away from that village as possible. With every step that he took, his body cried out for him to stop, for the weakness in his limbs was spreading, and making his muscles tremble. The extra weight of Tzu, riding so heavily on his back was sapping his remaining strength even faster.

"You know you didn't kill him." The soft, hoarse voice of the older man whispered in his ear, and Neji turned to look at Tzu, those warm, bleary eyes so close to his own.

"I know." He replied, staggering on a little further before he finally had to stop. Carefully, he lowered the injured man, bending down and arching backwards until Tzu's back made contact with the nearest tree and he could slide down to sit at its base. A deep sigh of relief left him then, and he fell into a cross-legged heap, leaning back on his arms as he tried to catch his breath.

Neji peered up at the sky as his heart finally began to slow. He was hoping to give his body a small rest before he continued on, but his brain wasn't willing to co-operate. He couldn't help but feel disappointed. There was no question that the Akatsuki bastard wouldn't be killed with that attack, no matter how much he wished that he would have. Neji had reworked that battle in his head as he'd run and knew that there was nothing that he could have done to achieve a different outcome. That didn't stop him from being frustrated though, and he sat and stewed a bit more, caught up by his own inadequacies.

A noise drew Neji's eyes open and he looked at his friend, his heart clenching as he saw just how much pain Tzu was in. Those unfocused eyes were ringed with darkness, and they seemed to have sunk into the older man's skull. Harsh, panting breaths hitched out of the injured chest, and Neji didn't have to be a med-nin to hear just how Tzu's lungs were laboring for every one of them. All of his instincts screamed out to him for help, so he rolled to his hands and knees and moved closer to the old man, placing his hands above the wound. Gathering up what chakra he had left, he brought it into his hands. The rudimentary medical knowledge he did have could only be helped by his very advanced chakra control, and his Hyuuga Clan training on the physiology of the human body.

The green chakra left his hands and poured over the wound. Neji was trying to stop the bleeding, but this was where his lack of medical training became a hindrance. More chakra did not seem to heal the wound any faster, but he kept trying until the dark spots signifying chakra exhaustion began to gather behind his eyes.

Head whirling, his stomach knotting both from hunger and from nausea, he tried to continue, loathing himself for weakening. He couldn't help Tzu any more if he passed out. And, the small advantage they'd gained through his attack would be wasted if he spent any time at all unconscious. When he had so little chakra left that he could barely feel it inside of him, he finally had to stop, and he drew up his legs and wrapped his arms around them, letting his head fall to his knees as he waited for the sick fatigue to ease. "Damn." He whispered, his voice smothered by his legs. 'How could this possibly get any worse?'

The soft tremble of a cold hand on his shoulder brought Neji's head up to look into the worn, white face so close to his own. Tzu was smiling weakly, the effort that it was taking the older man to do just that evident in his increasingly itinerant breathing. "Tzu…I…I'm sorry."

Tzu managed to shake his head negatively as his hand fell from the younger man's shoulder and he fell back against the tree once more. "No." He whispered hoarsely, struggling under the heaviness that was pressing down on his chest and stealing away his breath. "No..." All that mattered now was that his home was protected. That the villages of the Grass be saved from the evil of the Akatsuki, and that this brave young man survived to get back to his home and get that help. Drawing in a breath that rasped wetly, he looked his young friend in the eyes and gave him an another small smile, finding the last of his strength to hold those silvery eyes compellingly. "Neji… Neji…k-keep your pr-promise…"

A lightness was coming over Tzu, creeping up over his limbs and releasing the heaviness from his heart. He had no fear of what was coming, only the desire to finish what he'd started. "P-please…" Through the darkness rimming his vision, he saw Neji's eyes grow wide and he knew that the Shinobi had remembered the words he'd said to him.

'Tzu… I swear I will try to help you save your people.'

Neji sat back on his heels as that reminder burned a guilty hole in his stomach, and he shook his head in angry, sorrowful rejection. "You're not going die! I swear I am getting you out of here!"

The small smile that curved the other man's lips was faint, but there, though Neji could not say the same for those unfocused eyes. They were lost in the distance, and Tzu's gaze was far away as if he could see something Neji would never comprehend. "It's t-too late, m-my friend." The words were so low, and that voice so faint, Neji had to lean close to hear them, and he couldn't miss the scent of blood that came from between his friend's lips with every one of them. "T-too…"

Deep, racking coughs seized that old form, and Neji leaned over him, lending his strength as he waited for the fit to pass. The trickle of blood that emerged from the corner of Tzu's mouth brought tears to Neji's eyes, and he had to draw in a breath to admit to himself what was really happening here.

"It's not." The young teen murmured, his voice breaking agonizingly. Dark eyes came back to him once more, and Neji froze, knowing that this was the last time that he'd see this gaze fixed upon him. He wanted to focus on this moment. He wanted to burn it into his brain and keep it with him for the rest of his life as a memory of what it was like to lose a friend, and to fail at a mission he'd wanted to accomplish more than anything. Drawing in a deep, desperate breath, he held those eyes, seeing the question that Tzu had asked earlier, and he nodded, his head bobbing even as hot tears began to roll down his cheeks.

"I promise you, Tzu. I promise you I will not forget." The hot spatter of Neji's tears fell over that wrinkled, pale face as Tzu's head rolled away, the dark eyes going distant as a fresh trickle of blood pulsed out with the next breath.

"I promise." Neji heaved with sorrow, bowing his head down as he felt the final shudders grip the form beneath him. The wet gurgle was clear to his ears this close to Tzu and he wished desperately that he could block his senses and not know the sights and sounds and scents of this man's death. The coolness of a breeze blowing over his back and the rustle of the leaves above his head distracted him in that vital moment, and it was only the stillness and silence of Tzu's body under him that told him that his friend had passed.

"T-thank you, my friend." Neji exhaled a painful breath, trying to keep the sobs at bay. He'd never felt so raw, so useless as he did now. All of his training, and all of his confidence hadn't been enough to free him from captivity, and it hadn't been enough to save the life of a brave and generous man. Rocking back on his heels, he wiped the tears from his face with his sleeve, sighing out the pain in his heart. He rested a hand on that quiet chest for just a moment, sending a silent prayer to whatever Kami might be listening. There was one last thing Neji had to do before he set out on his journey again.

Getting to his feet, he cast one last look at Tzu, before he took the small orb from the pack at his thigh. This was the one thing that all ANBU carried…the means to destroy their bodies lest they be found by an enemy and used against the Village Hidden in the Leaves. How the Uchiha had managed to recover this, he'd never know, but he was grateful beyond words as he held it in his hand and bid the old man farewell. A simple flick of his wrist and the orb was deployed, and he leapt back as the flames roared up, devouring the form beneath.

'Farewell.'

Even if Yami did follow them now, there would be nothing left of Tzu for them to desecrate. No body to drag back to the village to display in morbid triumph. The brave old man would rest in peace, and that was the least that Neji could do for all that the elder had done for him.

Wiping what was left of the wetness from his eyes, Neji leapt for the nearest tree branch, heading towards Konoha, navigating by the position of the sun. As he leapt from tree to tree, he tried to force his troubled thoughts to behave. Over and over they returned to the one he'd left behind, tormenting him with his failure to protect and save. So lost was he in his self-pity that he didn't hear the first explosion that sounded in the distance—it was only the echo of the first vibrating into the birth of the second that snapped his head around to stare in the direction of a rocky wasteland.

For a moment he didn't believe what he was seeing, and his first thought was that he was being attacked from a different direction than he'd expected. Forcing a small bit of his chakra into his eyes he scanned the wasteland, and what he saw made him shudder with tremulous disbelief.

"Kakashi-sensei?"

And, after a long wait, a very difficult chapter. Putting Naruto and Kakashi into such a difficult place is really very hard, because it makes me just want to hug them and make it all better. Of course, then there wouldn't be any drama, or pain, and both of those will make their coming back together all the more sweet for the time they've spent apart.

And they will come back together…in a while…we promise…

Thanks for all of the wonderful reviews and the encouraging words. They really do mean a lot to both Deathwish and I. Reviews are the fuel that power our brains. Brains!

Thanks for the gas! –K.E.K

Well, I hope everyone is enjoyed this chapter! This chapter had a few problems, we felt that it was too much, we found plot-holes, and just both of our everyday lives as well…BUT! Its here and I do think it came out as one of our better chapters. Thank you all for the great reviews, it helped us both out a lot! Thanks to my great co-writer as well!

Have a great Halloween and make sure to share that candy with us! ….. really…give me you candy…. - Deathwish