The breeze is gentle on his face, bringing with it the crisp scent of dried leaves from the garden beyond. He is trying his hardest to keep his eyes open, but the late autumn sunshine is warm on his face and it feels like an eternity since he last took a nap. Slowly, yet surely, he can feel the book slipping from his hands to land on the wooden planks beside him. From the corner of his eye, he sees slender hands stoop to retrieve the bound volume. The scent of her reaches him and he smiles past the sleep haze, gazing up at her through heavy-lidded eyes. She smiles back down at him, straightening. For a heartbeat, she is gone. Then, she is back with something warm and soft she lays over him, tucked cozily around his neck, and the sunlight is warm and her hands feel so soft and-
"Is Tsunade-sama as difficult to wake up?"
"You have no idea. Sometimes, I think the only thing that will get her out of bed is a good slap to the face."
"Have you ever gone that far?"
"Only in my dreams, Shikamaru. Only in my dreams."
There was something in his teammates' banter that should have set alarm bells ringing, yet Minato found himself enjoying the peace of slumber a few moments longer. Gradually, sleep-filled eyes blinked up at a canopy of trees before a yawn split his features, and the Fourth Hokage sat up with the worst case of bed-hair Shikamaru had yet seen.
"Good morning, you two," the Hokage greeted them blearily, stretching cramped muscles out before looking around, more alert than the Nara had previously thought possible for a man freshly awoken. "Should I be alarmed that this location means nothing to me?"
"I'm not surprised," Shizune remarked as evenly as possible, though Shikamaru could still detect the terseness lurking beneath. "You were so exhausted yesterday I doubt you remember the last several jumps you made." At Minato's politely puzzled look, the med-nin simply sighed in resignation, shaking her head. "How are you feeling?"
"My chakra reserves aren't yet fully restored, though I am rested enough to continue," Minato answered, pushing himself to his feet. Cerulean eyes gazed around them with a calculating look, brows furrowed in consideration. "Judging by the landscape, we must be nearing the valley."
"Do you really know the Land of Fire's geographic layout that well, or are you sensing your Hiraishin tags?" Shikamaru found himself asking, one brow raised questioningly. At Minato's small, answering grin, the Nara rolled his eyes.
"A little bit of both, Shikamaru. Now, if we have breakfast before setting out, we should be in Konoha within the hour," the Fourth announced cheerfully, pulling out his rations. While Shikamaru followed suite readily enough, Shizune hesitated, as if caught between saying something or holding her peace. Finally, she let out a slow breath and reached for her pack.
"Yes, Minato-sama. Just… pace yourself," the med-nin sighed, resigning herself to the eternal fate of a Hokage's assistant. Somehow, the look Minato shot her was all too aware of her frustrations, the grin he shot her far too cheeky to be entirely innocent.
"Shizune, I always pace myself."
The sunlight filtering in through the fabric of the tent was enough to wake him eventually despite his most fervent prayers to sleep a little longer. Lying still, the teen tried to trick his body into returning to sleep but, after a few minutes, he had to give up. Exhaling softly in resignation, azure eyes opened to stare up at the uninspiring canvas above him. Naruto couldn't quite suppress a wince as he rose awkwardly on one arm, gazing down at his injured forearm still wreathed in bandages. He flexed his fingers experimentally and, when that didn't give another stab of pain, he sighed with some measure of relief. Looking around his tent for his stray pair of trousers, he was satisfied to note that everything was as he had left it the previous night apart from one small detail.
There was another person next to him.
Had it been anybody other than Sakura, Naruto might have even yelled in surprise. As it was, he had grown used to finding her at his sickbed the past few months, a development he held admittedly mixed feelings about. Frowning, eyebrows furrowed, the teen looked his teammate up and down. It appeared as if she had been kneeling next to him and had then presumed to fall asleep like that, leaned sideways against the central tent pole. He watched her for a little longer, then was finally unable to help the slight, fond smile that broke across his face and, gently, he reached up to poke her in the cheek.
Green eyes opened slowly and, in that moment, hazy from sleep as she was, Naruto couldn't help the soft chuckle.
"When I said you should get some rest, too, this isn't what I meant, Sakura-chan," he said softly. Blinking once, Sakura suddenly seemed to place her surroundings and leaned backwards, raising her hands quickly in a placating or defensive gesture.
"I, uh… I was only…!" Seeing his smirk, she sighed in defeat and rubbed the sleep from her eyes. Looking at her hands, she bit her lip; after yesterday, she couldn't help but feel awkward in his presence. Awkward, or ashamed? came the shrewd inner voice. Casting the thought from her mind, the med-nin exhaled measuredly and forced herself to meet his eyes.
She wasn't quite sure what she was expecting, yet she was still caught by surprise.
In place of his usual wide grin, Naruto was regarding her with a small, knowing smile. While he was leaning forwards, his posture was relaxed and his eyes kind. And, in that moment of dawning comprehension, Sakura understood she was forgiven.
"I was worried about your arm and wanted to check up on you," she said softly, unable to help the awed, grateful little smile she shot back at her teammate. "May I see?" she added, reaching forward hesitantly. To her relief, he didn't pull back.
"Sure," he conceded easily. "And after you're done, let's go have some breakfast."
Sometimes, the size of your heart, Naruto… "Sure." Taking his arm gingerly in hers, the med-nin carefully inspected it. Although there was lingering damage she suspected would never heal fully, the tissue was recovering well. "With the Kyuubi's healing powers taken into account, this shouldn't bother you for much longer," she surmised evenly, methodically removing the bandages and replacing the sling. Meeting his eyes with concerned green ones, she bit into her lip uncertainly. "But you really have to be careful with the Rasenshuriken, Naruto. I don't know how many more your arm will be able to take…" She sounded hesitant, as if unsure of her tone or approach.
"I'll be careful, Sakura-chan," Naruto replied with a lax smile at her. Slowly, he pushed himself up and gained his feet, albeit a little unsteadily. Despite his reassurances, Sakura could only look on glumly; knowing her teammate, there would be a third time and a fourth time. She could only hope it wouldn't cripple him. As he reached for his trousers, she kept her gaze lowered, listening on in silence to the occasional grunt of pain as he fiddled with the buttons and zipper.
"Naruto, about yesterday…" she ventured after a few moments, looking at her folded hands in her lap. "I'm sorry."
"Don't worry about it," he interrupted her cheerfully. Trousers on successfully, he looked down at her, again with that small knowing smile that just tore at her heart with its benevolence. "Nothing to apologize for." Although she wanted to protest, Naruto's smile was firm and unyielding. Stooping slightly, he offered her his good arm in assisting her to her feet and, cramped as her legs were, the med-nin accepted, albeit grudgingly.
"Now, about that breakfast. It's a beautiful day," he added softly, pulling back the tent flap and letting the sun pour in. There, standing behind him, Sakura could only gaze at his sun-bathed form and reflect on how she didn't deserve him.
He really didn't like working with Morino Ibiki, Yamato decided. The man was sarcastic, disturbing and downright unpleasant for the Anbu's tastes. Yet, here he was again, standing next to the psychopathic interrogator. Life, Yamato concluded, wasn't always fair.
"How are the preparations for the mass burial going?" Although the Fifth still seemed in need of food and rest, she appeared decidedly better than she had the previous evening. Despite the slight tremble in her hands due to fatigue, amber eyes were clear and focused on her two subordinates, eyebrows furrowed.
"The deceased have been gathered in an undisclosed location and await interment, Tsunade-sama," the mokuton-user replied evenly, posture rigid and tone formal. "The mass grave has also been dug. The most efficient option seems to be to await nightfall and proceed with little ceremony. I doubt those on patrol will question the proceedings."
"Good. The less fuss is raised about this, the better," the Hokage sighed to herself, slowly swirling about the contents of a glass Yamato was relieved to identify as water. "Ibiki, status report on the confinement cells."
"Damage shouldn't take too long to repair. Though that was one heck of an explosion, they focused its blast pretty well," the interrogator replied, back leaned against the wall in a posture that defied every rule of etiquette.
"Are the cells of the remaining Root operatives unstable?"
"Wouldn't think so," he replied with a single-shouldered shrug. "In any case, even if some do manage to escape, the first thing they're going to see is going to be my ugly mug. And they're going to regret interrupting my beauty sleep." Quietly, Yamato was seething at the lapse in formality, though their Hokage seemed to disregard it as per habit. Again as per habit, she simply changed the topic.
"Has the prisoner spoken yet?" The temperature in the room suddenly seemed to drop a few degrees as both she and Yamato tensed for an answer. Not Ibiki, though. The man calmly shrugged again, twirling something Yamato was alarmed to recognize as a scalpel between his fingers.
"Not nearly enough for my liking. We have her name and the fact that she was part of Sasuke's team, but little more than that. It might be that she was kept in the dark, but I can smell loyalty on her; this one isn't going to talk of her own free will."
"Then you're going to have to persuade her," Tsunade replied quietly. A shiver ran down Yamato's spine; despite his training, he couldn't help but feel slightly unnerved at the ease with which torture was endorsed. But it was a necessary measure. "I need her alive."
"Dead men tell no tales, Hokage-sama," Ibiki replied deadpan, scars stretching slightly in one of his gruesome grins.
"Now you're just making it difficult on purpose."
"If someone can get that information, I know it's you, Ibiki."
"Would've been a hell of a lot easier with Inoichi-san," he pointed out curtly, grimacing. Both of them jumped when Tsunade suddenly slammed her clenched fist onto the tabletop, upsetting her glass with a furious glare.
"I am well aware, Ibiki!" she barked, eyes narrowed and dangerous. "But Inoichi is dead, and no amount of your moaning will bring him back! It's more difficult without him, I know, damn it! Just do it." Ibiki's eyes narrowed slightly, then he shrugged indifferently and turned away with deceptive calmness.
"As you wish," he replied detachedly and stalked out the room, closing the door with surprising quiet. Yamato stared after him for a moment before turning back to his Hokage's vexed and tired visage.
"How is Naruto?" the Fifth asked after a short pause, righting her glass and pouring herself some water. The Anbu sighed softly, grimacing.
"Sai says he took care of the matter, but I have yet to see Naruto for myself. But he will be alright. He has to. He's Naruto."
"He's Naruto, huh?" Tsunade repeated softly, leaning back in her chair and gazing up at the ceiling with a distracted frown. "Keep an eye on things for the next few days and we'll see how things develop."
"Understood, Hokage-sama." Yamato watched as his Hokage drank slowly, hesitating. Finally, he let out a slow breath, looking to the side. "I don't see how you tolerate him sometimes."
"Ibiki…?" Tsunade asked absent-mindedly. When the Anbu nodded, she sighed and looked back at him, a strange edge to her gaze. "Because he does his job, Tenzo. And he does it damned well."
There were few things Aburame Shino could honestly say he liked, and few things he could honestly say he hated. Most things were simply tolerated with an impassive, decidedly uncomfortable expression. More often than not, his teammates' interactions fell into the third category.
"Are you sure you're well enough to be up, Hinata?"
"Mm. The healers said it would be fine if I walked around and started doing some gentle exercise. Neji-niisan volunteered to do warm-ups with me this afternoon."
"If he pushes you too hard, I'm gonna kick his pale, Hyuuga ass all the way to Suna."
The Aburame, the brains of the team, as he liked to think of himself, sighed slowly in resignation; here, he would intervene in order to avoid unnecessary altercations with Team Gai. Kiba could easily follow up with that threat if left unchecked.
"I doubt you would ever challenge him to his face. That is because you would regret the repercussions of such a challenge." There: taunt issued, attention diverted to his own person. Bracing himself, the Aburame hardly flinched as Kiba turned on him, canines bared and eyes narrowed. Body leaned backwards at just the right angle to avoid the spittle that sprayed from the Inuzuka's mouth.
"Are you calling me a coward, Shino?! Because I can totally floor him!" Kiba snarled, Akamaru barking a resounding agreement.
"Kiba-kun! Shino-kun! Please don't talk about Neji-niisan like that! He's a really good person." Tone wavering, arms held together in front of her chest; Hinata was worried and distressed.
Drastic measures had to be taken in order to correct this slight and bring back that gentle, content smile to her face. Just as the Aburame was pondering the best course of action, Hinata's frown faded away seemingly of its own accord and a shy, yet obviously pleased smile graced her features. Lavender eyes widened slightly and lips parted, body straight and shoulders curled inwards. There was only one cause for such a change in the demure Hyuuga: Naruto.
"Oi, Naruto! You an' me, we can kick Neji's ass, right?" the Inuzuka yelled at the two approaching figures, grin feral and infantile. Turning to regard the two newcomers, it became quickly apparent that both Naruto and Sakura were troubled. This was most obvious in Naruto's case: the blond wasn't grinning like usual and seemed much more subdued. Cause of said demeanor most likely lay in the events of yesterday.
"What are you talking about? I could win by myself. You would just be in the way," the blond answered with a slight smirk that, never the less, didn't seem as provocative as usual. As things seemed to be going, a modicum of peace was still far off.
"Whatchoo say?!" Kiba growled, shoulders rising as if they were hackles. He received another smirk as reward.
"Why would you need to attack Neji-san, anyway?" Sakura saw fit to intervene, earning Shino's fleeting shadow of gratitude. Although Kina seemed eager to explain his violent intentions, Hinata just smiled and shook her head.
"Mmh." Interestingly enough, the Hyuuga addressed Sakura, yet smiled at Naruto. "Kiba-kun was just teasing." Like hell he was. "It's good to see you feeling better, Naruto-kun." Slight blush, fingers tapping together; Shino decided once more he preferred embarrassed Hinata to worried Hinata.
"Thanks, Hinata-chan," Naruto replied with a smile that seemed genuine enough. "That bento really saved me." Cue deeper blush. "We were actually thinking of heading to grab some breakfast. D'you guys want to come with us?"
"Nah, we already ate," Kiba shrugged, shoulders lowering as the excitement of the scene faded. "Unlike some people, we actually have to get up early in the morning. But we're heading in that direction, anyways. Might as well try to get some free food while we're at it."
Situation officially under control; spirits appeased and voices at regular volume and intensity. Today might not be all that bad, after all.
"Hey, what's with the commotion over there?"
Quietly, Shino sighed to himself and cursed his luck.
"I looked as closely as I could; not a damn leaf was shaking. Seems like nobody's coming after us, Sasuke."
Although his approach was less-than-subtle, the Uchiha hardly seemed to register his remaining teammate's arrival. Heavy-lidded eyes remained closed, pale lips slightly agape in a bloodless face. Bandages were wound around various injuries, but Suigetsu was no Karin and Sasuke was no Naruto; he wouldn't be up and running for a while. Noting the complete lack of response from the teen, Suigetsu gritted his teeth in silent frustration, setting his sword down next to the supine teen and leaning his weight on it. Moodily, he glared at the teen's supine figure, magenta eyes tired.
"Stuck in Fire territory with an unconscious, injured Uchiha wanted by every elemental nation, with Konoha forces probably on the way to turn us into fertilizer and no sign of back-up. Brilliant. Just brilliant. Now what am I supposed to do?" he huffed to himself, kicking at the dusty ground. "This is all your fault."
"Now, would you really dare say that to his face?"
At the sound of the smooth, yet decidedly terrifying voice, Suigetsu spun around, hand already grasping for his sword's hilt. Narrow eyes widened in terror and most unpleasant surprise as he regarded their unexpected guest's smiling visage. Limbs were paralyzed in terror, his arm falling limply to his side.
I'd like to address a huge, long-overdue thank-you to Lagadatte. If it hadn't been for her encouragement, nagging and support, the past two chapters would have been much later than they were. She helps me stick to my deadline and is an absolutely awesome friend. If you guys haven't read her stories yet, you totally should.
Also, a second very-important thank you goes to Falcon777. Dude, you're awesome and one of my favorite readers of all time. Your comments are always brilliant and helpful, and I'm really grateful to you for helping me with my edits.
For those of you I didn't mention, I'm still really grateful. I read every single review and am really thankful for the support a lot of you have shown me from the start. Without you guys, I'd be about ten chapters behind.
Next chapter will be with us on the tenth of February! ^_^