Author's note: Thanks for the reviews, everyone, and I'm really sorry about this gap between chapter releases. I swear I'm doing my best! Thank you for sticking by me!

Disclaimer: Don't own it.


A sound appears to have two possible fates: to be heard or not.

This is not the case.

All sound has but one destiny: to fade away.

Chapter 11: Sound

"And then, and then, I used the Rasengan and it was awesome! Kabuto went flying!" Naruto exclaimed through a mouthful of noodles.

"Wow," said Hinata, appropriately impressed at the climax in Naruto's story. She had been quite surprised to hear that the same Kabuto who had healed her during the chuunin exam was the horrible Orochimaru's right-hand man, but at this point, she was willing to believe anything about Orochimaru. Equally shocking was Naruto's supposed mastery of an A-rank jutsu invented by the Fourth Hokage. "Can you show me the Rasengan?" she asked in her best "captivated audience member" voice.

Naruto grinned. He'd clearly been waiting for this. "Absolutely!" Hopping off his stool, he formed the cross seal and cried, "Kagebunshin no jutsu!" A clone manifested at his side and began to swirl chakra in his hand.

As she watched, Hinata activated her Byakugan, allowing her to see the exact flow of the chakra. He's agitating the sphere, causing chaotic spirals of chakra, which build and build on one another... If he released it, the cumulative impact would be deadly. "Amazing..." Hinata breathed, eyes wide as she analyzed the jutsu.

Suddenly, Naruto dispersed the ball and his clone disappeared. His grin was cockier than ever. "Right? Pervy Sage said it's even stronger than chidori!" He raised a triumphant fist. "I bet I could take Sasuke no problem now!"

Hinata maintained her smile, despite a small pang in her chest. She was unquestionably happy for Naruto, and yet... "You've gotten so strong, Naruto-kun," she muttered. Already, it feels like I've been left behind...

Naruto chuckled. "Yeah! Those missing-nin in the bingo book better watch out! Uzumaki Naruto is coming for them!"

This tickled something in Hinata's memory. "Naruto-kun," she said seriously, "Did you hear what happened to Kakashi-sensei?"

Naruto's expression sank. "Yeah... Granny Tsunade should be healing him right about now."

"Do you know what caused it?" she asked point-blank, looking into his eyes.

He looked away and gulped. "Well... I'm not a medic so..."

Naruto-kun, you terrible liar. "You know about Uchiha Itachi, don't you?"

Naruto's eyes went wide. "I don't- I mean-" he stammered, adjusting his collar nervously.

"Naruto-kun," Hinata said with as much confidence as she could muster, her heart pounding at finally having a lead on the situation. "What do you know about this?"

Naruto glanced at the ramen stand, then back at Hinata. "... Let's take a walk," he said quietly. Hinata nodded, still trying to conceal her rapid heartbeat, and followed Naruto as began to walk away from Ichiraku.

Miles and miles away, Kabuto watched as Orochimaru writhed in agony upon his makeshift hospital bed. "Curse that Tsunade," Orochimaru hissed, breathing heavily, his useless arms shuddering next to him. "Kabuto, we must act swiftly."

Kabuto nodded. "Yes, Orochimaru-sama. What would you have me do?"

Orochimaru grinned despite the strain. "Deploy the Sound Four to retrieve our dear Sasuke-kun."

"At once, Orochimaru-sama," said Kabuto with a bow.

"So Itachi came to Konoha for you," Hinata concluded from what Naruto had finished telling her.

"Well, for this," he corrected, motioning to his abdomen, "but yeah, basically."

"And Kakashi-sensei fell trying to fight him." Hinata thought for a moment. "Naruto-kun... should we tell Sasuke-kun?"

Naruto blinked, then shook his head in frustration. "Geez, I hadn't even thought of that." He sighed. "If it were me... I'd want to know."

"That's true," uttered Hinata quietly. "But... killing Itachi is Sasuke-kun's goal. If we tell him, Sasuke-kun might do something dangerous..."

Naruto groaned. "Ugh. I don't feel good about keeping things like that a secret, but I also don't feel good about Sasuke chasing after a guy who could put Kakashi-sensei in a coma."

A moment passed. "Maybe... we could tell him together," Hinata piped up. "If we handle it together, we might be able to stop him from doing something reckless."

"Hmm." Naruto nodded. "That sounds like a good idea. Let's do it."

"How about this? I'll set it up for tomorrow at noon. Sasuke-kun should be training with Neji-niisan right about now."

Naruto cocked his head. "Eh? Sasuke and Neji?"

"Oh, they've been sparring for a couple of weeks now," Hinata explained hurriedly.

"I don't like the sound of that..." he grumbled. "Alright. You set it up, we'll meet at the old training ground. Sound good?" Hinata nodded. "Great. I'll see you tomorrow, then."

With that, he rushed off and Hinata sighed, letting her frown come forth. This would not be easy.

Sasuke walked the halls of the Hyuuga complex, wiping sweat from his brow. The training session was intense, though not as rough as it could get. Sasuke had noticed that for whatever reason Neji fought more fiercely whenever Hinata was present. Probably the branch house trying to impress the main house, Sasuke concluded.

Coincidentally, Hinata happened to enter the hall he'd been walking down at just that moment. "Sasuke-kun!" she called and hopped over.

"Hey," he greeted plainly, then glanced at her ankle. "No cast? I thought it wasn't due to come off for another week."

"Huh?" she looked at her own feet. "Oh, right." Due to earlier conversation, Hinata had practically forgotten that she had left home that morning on a crutch. "No, Tsunade-sama fixed it up. Naruto-kun and Jiraiya-sama brought her back. They say she's going to be the new Hokage," she rambled.

Sasuke seemed nonplussed. "I see," he said. "Well, I was heading out. I'll see you later," he said.

"Wait, Sasuke-kun," Hinata said, trying not to let the urgency seep into her voice. "I talked to Naruto-kun and... we were thinking the three of us could get together at the training ground where we became genin, tomorrow?"

Sasuke waved her off "Not really interested, thanks."

Hinata had to resist a large sigh. "You know, Naruto-kun's learned a pretty amazing new jutsu. He said he wanted to show you that it could beat your chidori..."

Sasuke stopped in his tracks. "On second thought, let's meet up tomorrow after all." he suggested.

"Sure," said Hinata, smiling inwardly at her successful gambit. "I'll see you there at noon," she added, and the two parted ways.

That night, Sasuke sat atop his bed, restless as ever. In his hand was a framed picture of him with his parents, taken what seemed like an eternity ago. In the picture, his father held his usual stoic expression, but his mother had smiled her loving smile. She was embracing Sasuke tightly as he gleefully (when was the last time he'd applied that word to himself?) displayed his first academy report card to the camera, pointing to the perfect grades.

Sasuke could hardly recognize the child in the picture. He was different now – he had to be, if he was going to accomplish his goal. He wanted to believe that he kept this picture next to his bed so he could have a nice memory of his parents, but that was a lie. This picture was kindling for his rage, a renewable fuel for his ambition, a concentrated dose of what the rest of his house made him feel when he let his mind wander.

And yet…

Since the age of eight, whenever Sasuke closed his eyes, he would see his parents' corpses, fresh blood pouring from underneath them. This sight perpetually reignited his desire for revenge. But now, with that vision came a tinge of light, of laughter, of – dare he think it – happiness. It wasn't right. He was meant to be an avenger. Playing around with friends would only distract from that.

I need to take a walk, he decided and stepped out of the house.

It wasn't right. It couldn't be. But still he could not ignore that part of him that would look forward to just hanging out with Naruto and Hinata tomorrow.

"I'm sorry..." he muttered to the night sky.

"There's no need to apologize to us," said a voice behind Sasuke. He turned and saw four shinobi clad in gray clothes and large purple robe belts standing atop the building he had just exited. "That is, unless you do not wish to give us a moment of your time," the gray-haired one continued.

Sasuke immediately assumed a fighting stance. "Who the hell are you?" he asked.

The six-armed one began. "The Sound Four. Kidomaru of the East Gate."

"Likewise, Jiroubou of the South Gate."

"Likewise, Sakon of the West Gate."

"Likewise, Tayuya of the North Gate."

"We would like to have a discussion with you, at the request of Orochimaru-sama," said Sakon.

Sasuke's Sharingan flashed on. "There's no need for a discussion. I'm not interested," Sasuke answered.

"Listen, you little shit..." Tayuya began.

"Tayuya, you should not use that sort of language," said Jiroubou.

"You haven't even heard our offer," said Kidomaru. "Maybe it'll make you reconsider."

"I'm in a bad mood, so consider this your last chance: get off my property," said Sasuke. "or I'll make you."

Sakon raised his arms as if exasperated, but kept his smile. "No can do, I'm afraid."

Sasuke was on him before he could lower his arms, delivering a swift punch to Sakon's gut. First strike: Hawk Seeks the Rabbit, he thought, going over the traditional Uchiha kata. Next, an elbow to the face: Ignite the Canopy. Already, the other three were circling around him. Tayuya prepared for a blow. Reflection of the Water Wheel, thought Sasuke, springing onto his hands for a double-legged kick to Tayuya's chest, allowing him to dodge Kidomaru's attack – Sasuke couldn't see it, but it looked like webbing of some sort. Landing, he swept behind Jiroubou. Now, to loosen his footing: Fire Under the Mountain. Jiroubou toppled as Sasuke kicked out the back of his knees. Sasuke jumped away to the edge of the roof, grinning cockily. That sparring with Neji's been paying off. "Still want to make that offer?"

"Not bad," said Sakon. He didn't seem fazed by either of Sasuke's attacks. "You were certainly trained by the same village as Orochimaru-sama. But you are wasting your potential. You are much weaker than you could be."

"What does that make you guys, then?" Sasuke taunted.

"Maybe it doesn't bother you," Kidomaru said, brushing off Sasuke's comment. "But if I were so pathetically weak that my own brother didn't bother to see me when he came back to visit for the first time in years-"

"What?" Sasuke interrupted, scowling. "What are you talking about?"

"Did you ever find out what happened to your crapsack master?" Tayuya asked, grinning madly. "How many shinobi could sneak in the village, overcome four jounin, and put Hatake Kakashi in a coma? Besides Orochimaru-sama, that is."

Sasuke's eyes widened, but he remained silent.

"You seem to have figured it out," said Jiroubou. "The common enemy of you and Orochimaru-sama was in this village but a mere month ago... and you were not even the focus of his visit."

Sasuke could feel his heart pounding wildly. "You..." The rage in his veins prevented him from organizing his thoughts. "What... You..."

"I wonder why your friends didn't tell you," Sakon faux-mused aloud. "Perhaps they thought something terrible was to happen to you; they thought you were too weak?" Sasuke roared in rage, charging once more at Sakon, the cursed seal on his shoulder unleashed. This time, Sakon blocked Sasuke's strike. Sasuke stopped cold, shocked as he saw Sakon's own cursed seal. "As I said before, you are wasting your potential."

With his free arm, Sakon dealt Sasuke a blow that sent him flying. Sasuke barely managed to grab the edge of the roof. Where did that strength come from? he wondered, hoisting himself up.

"I see that I have your attention," Sakon said, letting the curse mark recede. "You could have power like this – even more, from what Orochimaru-sama tells us of the great Uchiha clan." Sasuke merely glared. "How about this? Think about it for now. We'll be back within the week for your answer."

The Sound Four disappeared. Sasuke grasped at the empty air, shouting, "Wait!" but to no avail. \He forced his cursed seal back, groaning from the strain the small use had cost him. Damn it... he looked to the sky, ruminating on what he'd heard. Itachi had returned. Naruto and Hinata knew. Could it be? Sasuke had no reason to believe Orochimaru's thugs, but what they said made sense. He'd ask his teammates – his supposed friends – tomorrow.

It couldn't come soon enough.

Meanwhile, as the Sound Four bounded through the trees to their hiding spot, Kidomaru asked, "Should we have just left like that? Maybe he would've gone with us if we'd leaned a little harder."

Sakon smiled, self-satisfied. "You should know that rage accelerates the body's acclimation to the cursed seal," he answered. "He reacted as Orochimaru-sama predicted when we told him about his brother. Taking him now, there might be some resistance. But now that we've planted that seed in his heart... soon enough, his bonds will be poisoned and he'll be ready."

Hinata awoke without reaching for her crutch for the first time. She enjoyed the feeling of pushing herself off the bed with two hands for the first time in a month. Today would start, she decided, not with boring civilian activities; no, today would start with training. After donning her outfit, she briskly jogged to one of the secondary training halls. They were usually empty this early in the morning, so she could whale on a wooden man in peace. It was the perfect chance to test what she'd gathered from watching Sasuke and Neji spar.

Her expression turned to a frown at the thought of Sasuke. Today she'd be telling him the truth about Itachi. Despite her resolve, it wasn't exactly something she was jumping to do. But she knew that with Naruto by her side, they'd get through this too.


After her routine with the wooden man, Hinata made her way towards the meeting spot. Her pace was quicker than usual; she couldn't help but revel in newly regained mobility and the promise of seeing Naruto always added a spring to her step despite their unfortunate business. She arrived at the training ground and headed towards the three posts near the war memorial, figuring that's where they'd meet. To her surprise, she saw only Sasuke there, even though it was five minutes to noon.

He's early... and looks terrible, she thought as she approached. Sasuke had bags under his non-Sharingan red eyes. "Hello, Sasuke-kun," she began. "How are you?"

"Hinata," he said in a voice that sounded like a growl. She expected him to continue, but instead he merely stood there, his breathing steady but becoming harder with each breath.

"Sasuke...kun?" Hinata was worried. He can't know, can he?

"I thought I'd wait until Naruto got here, but I don't think I can," he said quietly, as if holding himself back from something. "I'll ask you point-blank. Did you know?"

Hinata's heart beat rapidly. "D-did I know wh-what?"

"Itachi." The second he said it, Hinata's eyes widened by the smallest amount. It was enough for Sasuke to perceive. "I see. And how long have you known?"

Hinata gulped. "For a few weeks..." she muttered. "I heard a few weeks ago, accidentally." "Why?!"he roared, startling Hinata. "Why didn't you tell me?!"

"I... I..." Hinata struggled to speak. She'd never seen Sasuke like this.

"I trusted you! I told you about Itachi! I told you about what I wanted to do if I ever found him! And you didn't think it was worth it to tell me?" His Sharingan had activated, an angry red now staring at Hinata.

"I wanted to," Hinata said, her voice almost at a whisper. She felt her face getting hot. "I really did, Sasuke-kun, but I didn't know how to-"

"You didn't know how to what?"

"Whoa, what's all the ruckus?" came Naruto's voice as he landed next to them.

"Stay out of this, Naruto!" Sasuke barked.

"Geez, what's your problem?" Naruto retaliated, then caught himself. "Wait, Hinata did you tell him?"

Sasuke stared at Naruto, mouth agape. "You... knew too?" he asked quietly. "So it was just me?"

"Sasuke-kun, Naruto only knew because... because..." Hinata was so upset she almost couldn't finish her statement. She could feel the heat collecting near her eyes. "Naruto-kun met him..."

Silence. A gust of wind passed over them. "Where?" Sasuke asked Naruto.


"Where did you meet him?"

"The hotel town near Tanzaku," Naruto explained softly. "In the Kanryo Inn."

Sasuke turned to leave. Hinata reached after him. "But Sasuke-kun, he's probably long gone by now-"

"Shut up," Sasuke growled, looking back over his shoulder. "You two, who are supposed to be my comrades, didn't want to help me." He began to run. "So clearly I'll have to do it myself!"

"Sasuke!" Naruto called, but Sasuke did not answer, bolting away from them. "Damn, he's fast... well, that went well."

"Sasuke-kun..." Hinata worried.

"Don't worry. He'll come back," Naruto said, attempting to reassure her. "Right?"

Hinata remained silent.

Sasuke reached the inn in a relatively short paced. Yes, the manager had seen the man with dark hair, but it was a month ago; he couldn't recall much. No, he had no idea where he'd gone. Sure, he could inspect the wreckage from the recent damage to the building, but he didn't know why Sasuke would find it interesting. It was mostly repaired, anyway.

Damn it, thought Sasuke as he ran through the village. Damn it, damn it, damn it! Fresh rage pumped through his veins every second with no way to vent it. All he could think to do was run; run to every store in the village and ask if they knew anything about Itachi. But no one did and Sasuke grew even more enraged. For hours upon hours, Sasuke searched for just the slightest clue, the smallest hint. But Itachi seemed as thorough as ever. No one could recall anything about him.

He ran without tiring, eventually finding himself in the woods near Tanzaku. He'd gone there thinking he'd seen a suspicious crow flying in that direction – Itachi's trademark. To Sasuke, this was as good a lead as any.

Night had fallen through his search and rain was pouring. Sasuke knew he had to act fast or the trail would fade. "Itachi!" he called out into the woods. "Come out of your hiding place, you bastard! I know you're here!"

A rustling to his left. He dashed towards the sound and found nothing but a rabbit hopping out of a bush. He stared at it with his Sharingan, looking for strange chakra imprints. It could be a trap, set by Itachi to lure Sasuke into a false sense of security, but the rabbit didn't have anything except what looked like normal chakra flow. "Stop with the tricks! Come and face me! Face my vengeance!" Sasuke howled into the night.

Time passed and still no appearance from Itachi. Sasuke refused to give up. He was close; he could feel it. One wrong step and Itachi would get the jump on him, but Sasuke would not – could not let that happen.

Suddenly, Sasuke felt a hand on his shoulder. Finally! Heart rate jumping, he performed three seals in rapid succession and turned to strike. "Take this! Chidori!" he roared, thrusting his fist towards his attacker.

Just as quickly, Sasuke stopped his arm. Itachi had not in fact been behind him. Instead, a mere inch from his lightning-covered hand, Sasuke saw Hinata's face, Byakugan active. Her expression held neither shock, nor fear, despite the deadly jutsu a few hair's breadths in front of her. Instead, Sasuke recognized it as raw sorrow. The level of pain in her face touched something deep within him and he relaxed his muscles, deactivating both the Chidori and his Sharingan. "Hinata..." he muttered, stunned.

Hinata extended her arm, covering the drenched Sasuke with her umbrella. "Sasuke-kun... let's go home," she said quietly.

A part of Sasuke wanted to protest, to lash out and tell her off, but that part was shrinking the more he looked at her. Once it had subsided sufficiently, he nodded and the two began walking back.

When they arrived back in the hotel town, Hinata deactivated her Byakugan. She hadn't said a word the whole way back; she just held the umbrella above them and Sasuke felt an awful feeling welling up within him. It felt like shame and was getting worse the longer they stayed quiet. Sasuke needed to break the silence. As they walked through the streets, he asked, "How did you find me?"

After a moment to gather her thoughts, she answered, "When you didn't come back, Naruto-kun and I decided to search for you. We wanted to find you as soon as possible, so we came here. We've been looking for the last two days in shifts... Naruto-kun went back a couple of hours ago."

It's already been three days? Sasuke hadn't realized that much time had passed, so consumed with his mission had he been. His exhaustion was only starting to hit him now. "I see," he mumbled tonelessly.

After some time that to Sasuke seemed longer than the duration of his fruitless chase, they arrived at the main gates of the village. He did not protest when Hinata turned in the direction of the Uchiha lands, instead choosing to follow her. Compounded on top of the shame he felt earlier, Sasuke now felt guilt rising with every silent step.

Finally, they arrived at Sasuke's home, stopping in his kitchen. After Hinata put the umbrella away, she motioned for Sasuke to sit, then brought out her medicinal cream. "Let's get you cleaned up," she said quietly.

Sasuke didn't know what she was talking about, then realized he'd been running carelessly through thorny bramble and muddy forest. He glanced down at his arms and saw various cuts and scrapes, only now feeling the pain. Hinata gave him an expectant look and he extended his arms, allowing her to begin applying the cream.

"You didn't have to come find me," he said, feeling it needed to be.

"I know," she replied quietly. "But we were worried and thought you might be in trouble, so we went looking. That's what friends do, right?" Sasuke said nothing. After a second, Hinata continued, "I'm sorry I didn't tell you about Itachi."

Sasuke's eyes widened briefly. He hadn't expected that. "Well," he said, quietly steeling himself, "maybe you were right not to..."

"I did want to tell you, but I couldn't find the words or the time to do it," Hinata explained. "You seemed so different from before... I didn't want to change that."

Sasuke raised an eyebrow. "How so?"

"You were smiling," she answered quietly, applying bandages to the wounds on Sasuke's limbs. "Not all the time, of course – hold still – but you seemed happier than before, and I thought telling you about Itachi would ruin that."

"My..." My happiness is none of your business, he wanted to say, but the words would not come. Perhaps deep inside of him, better judgment was prevailing. "It's okay," he said instead. "Thanks... for worrying about me."

"That's what friends do, right?" Hinata repeated, standing up and capping her medicine. "I bet you're hungry... let me make you something."

You don't have to, he wanted to say, but the words would not come once more. Instead, he nodded and watched as Hinata set some rice to cook. He was hungry after all, quite starving, actually. "Could you... pour me a glass of water?" he asked quietly. He'd barely hydrated himself during his search and he was feeling the effects heavily now.

"Sure," she said and handed him the cup.

Sasuke sipped – he new better than to drink deep after such a long time without – and felt marginally better, though his hunger was even more potent now. He glanced at Hinata: she was wearing an old apron, one he had not seen since his mother had worn it five years ago. It stirred something inside Sasuke, a mix of emotions. Comfort and hurt swirled around each other in his heart, a yin and yang of feeling.

"How did you find out?" Hinata asked as she prepared the meal.

Sasuke thought for a moment. "... Some jounin let it slip when I went to visit Kakashi," Sasuke lied. He didn't want to tell her about the Sound Four's visit... not just yet.

"Ah," said Hinata, taking it at face value. Unbeknownst to Sasuke, that had been the precise means by which Hinata had found out as well. "Well, here you go. I hope it's good," she said, placing the meal in front of Sasuke.

It was onigiri served with katsuobushi and tomatoes. His favorite. Sasuke stared down at the meal, still frowning, as he felt his emotions reach their boiling point. "Itadakimasu," he mumbled and took the ball of rice into his mouth. The taste bounced around his tongue as the signal propagated through his taste buds and reached his mind, accessing memories of eating this very food with his family so many years ago.

Perhaps it was his exhaustion or perhaps Hinata was truly a talented chef, but to Sasuke, it tasted just like his mother used to make.

From the expression on his face, Hinata grew worried. "Is it bad?" she asked quietly. "I can make something else if you want."

"No," Sasuke said decisively. "It's fine. It's great, actually." He gulped, taking another bite. This awakened the hunger in him and he quickly consumed the entire meal.

"Well... for someone who ate so quickly, you don't look too pleased," Hinata said after a moment.

While he had eaten, Sasuke's heart had begun pounding ever harder. "I can't..." he muttered, not knowing where he could go with that sentence. "I..."


"I'm sorry," he choked out finally, staring at the floor. "I shouldn't... have done all this. I..."

He looked up to see Hinata grasping his hand, wearing a soft expression. "It's okay, Sasuke-kun. We all have bad times. I know that I can't make it better... but maybe I can help you be less lonely."

Sasuke blinked. "Thank you," he whispered.

Hinata nodded, standing. "It's nothing. Now, I'm going to get some rest and you should do the same, okay?"

"Okay," Sasuke murmured, getting to his feet. As he turned towards the hallway, he glanced back at her. "Goodnight, Hinata," he said and walked through the threshold.

Hinata smiled. "Goodnight."

As she left, Sasuke continued through the hallway to the Uchiha courtyard. Something had tripped the security switch earlier, letting Sasuke know that someone had entered his property. Sasuke found the source of the disturbance outside, where four figures stood waiting in the darkness.

"Do you have an answer for us?" asked Sakon.

She should have gone to bed, Hinata told herself. After the past few days, especially with this most recent night, she really should have just gone back to the Hyuuga complex and slept. But she didn't, and now her inner voice was lecturing her relentlessly on how she absolutely should not be outside Naruto's residence. It was that voice that was restraining her from knocking on the door.

Just do it, the more desirous part of her said. Knock on the door and see if he's there.

A minute passed. No knock.

He's probably asleep. I wouldn't want to wake him. I should just go.

Another minute. No movement.

Really now. If I knock, he's just going to be mad.

Suddenly, the door opened up. Naruto stood there, jacketless, but with his pajama hat upon his head. "Uh, hey," he said, half-smiling.

"H-hey," she replied, realizing that she had gone beet red.

"I couldn't sleep much, so I was gonna take a walk," he explained quickly. "But... I could use some company. Do you wanna come in?"

"Yes!" she said, then kicked herself for her excited tone. Real smooth! "I mean, yes, I would like that, if it's okay."

"C'mon in," he said, motioning for her to enter.

She followed, trying to get her pace to seem compliant but not overly eager. Naruto-kun's apartment... I'm in it for the first time... She could barely wrap her mind around that fact as she looked around, trying to take it all in at once. Empty ramen cups littered the place – they made her smile – but aside from that, the place was pretty drab. It makes sense... Naruto-kun isn't exactly rich.

"You want anything? Food? Tea?" Naruto offered, opening his pantry. "I've got... uh, beef ramen, chicken ramen, pork ramen, spicy chicken ramen..." He trailed off, then chuckled nervously. "Heheh, I guess Kakashi-sensei was right when he said I should eat more vegetables."

"I'm okay, thank you," she said, taking a seat and then immediately chastising herself for doing so when not invited. Trying to put it out of her mind, she said, "I found Sasuke-kun."

Naruto shut the pantry and grinned. "Really? Awesome!" He laughed cheekily. "We've always gotta take care of him, huh?"

"Seems so," Hinata uttered. After a moment, she continued, "He has a heavy stone in his heart. It weighs on him constantly."

Naruto frowned. "Yeah, huh."

"But I want to help him carry that weight," she said quietly, looking at Naruto. "And I think he wants us to help him too."

Naruto gazed into her moonlit eyes, the pale discs shining at him and his smile returned. "Of course. That's what teamwork is all about! Just you wait. We'll get our next mission soon and Team 7 will be kickin' ass and takin' names!" Hinata laughed a small but genuine laugh at this, which sparked a laugh from Naruto as well. He hadn't realized before, but her laughter was... Well, the only way he could think to put it was musical. It was light and bouncy and sweet all at the same time. Something in him wanted to make her laugh more later. "Y'know, Hinata," he said. "I'm glad we're on the same team. I dunno if I could have handled this without you."

Hinata blushed deeply, but smiled nonetheless. "I-I f-feel the same way, N-Naruto-kun," she replied, blushing even harder at the return of her stutter.

The conversation between them picked up, quickly turning away from dreary topics and soon the two were just plain talking. There were few lulls, all swiftly overcome, and it wasn't until the late hours of the night that Hinata realized she should probably head home. It was with a heavy heart that she departed Naruto's residence, but not before he gave her a gentle embrace. That gave her the peace of mind to walk home with a smile on her face and a spring in her step.

Sasuke sat up in his bed, staring at the wall. Truly exhausted though he was, sleep was not easily caught. His thoughts turned to his encounter with the Sound Four earlier that evening. Have I made the right choice? he wondered. What will I do if I'm wrong?

The night would not be an easy one for him.

Dun dun DUN. The plot thickens.

This chapter was hard to write, but necessary, I feel. I hope you guys like it, anyway. We'll be getting into some really heavy stuff in the next chapters, so hold on to your hats! As always, please review. Your reviews drive me forward to the next chapter and beyond!