A/N: Welcome back. Things are proceeding as planned.

Oh, also? Stop leaving reviews on Ring-Maker telling me to update this. It's… extremely annoying. It trivializes the work I put into a work I'm honestly much more proud of than this one. If you want me to update Walking Backwards, you can leave reviews on Walking Backwards. I assure you, I do read them.

Chapter 47: Rearticulate

"Nice bracketing," Shikamaru drawled as he followed Naruto into the Hokage's office.

The Sandaime smiled slightly. "I thought so," he agreed lightly. "None of the powerhouses face each other in the first round or the second. It seemed… fitting."

Naruto chuckled. "Didn't know you had a flair for the dramatic, Oji-san."

The elderly Hokage chuckled. "In this business," he said, "it's nearly as essential as politics." Then the smile slid off his face. "Now. To business."

Naruto took his seat across from the Hokage. Shikamaru stood beside him and clasped his hands behind his back. "We know that Akatsuki is watching the tournament," he said crisply. "We know they want us to know that. Orochimaru hasn't shown his hand, but Kabuto is still in the village and Tsurugi Misumi is participating in the tournament. We know from Gaara that the invasion by Suna is still going forward."

He grimaced. "Our worst-case scenario," he said grimly, "is that all three of our enemy factions have been brought together by the Dishonored in preparation for a coordinated attack on our heavy hitters, possibly in conjunction with other threats with we don't know about."

"How likely is that?" Naruto asked.

Shikamaru shook his head. "Not very," he said. "The Akatsuki are global criminals, every one. Suna can work with Orochimaru to destroy Konoha without reprisal because he's only really criminal from our perspective. But the Akatsuki would make them the enemies of every other nation as soon as Konoha was defeated. It's not worth the risk to them.

"However," he added darkly, "what I think is possible is that the Dishonored has allied Akatsuki with Orochimaru, and thus Suna through him. That's not quite as bad, because Suna shinobi will be hostile to Akatsuki—especially Sasori—and possibly vice-versa, but it's still far from a good situation."

"Agreed," the Sandaime said grimly. "How can we improve security?"

"Make sure the evacuation procedures are dusted off and prepared," Shikamaru said promptly. "Start evacuating civilians discreetly the moment the tournament starts. Call back as many Shinobi as you can on the grounds of security for the exams, and try to get as many others as possible in nearby staging areas."

The Sandaime Hokage nodded. "Good ideas," he agreed. "I'll see to it."

"Shikamaru," Naruto cut in. "Sasuke's encounter with Akatsuki. Your analysis?"

"The Dishonored can't have told Itachi the full truth of the situation," Shikamaru said, "or Itachi would have already defected back to us. That means he can't have told Kisame, either, because there's no way he could keep any important secrets without Itachi finding out. Yet he sent them to engage Sasuke in the forest. We're missing the why, but he must know there's a risk of Itachi's defection regardless, just based on what Sasuke says. So either he wants Itachi to defect, or he gained something that outweighs that risk. Well, either he did or Madara did."

"Or wants us to believe that Itachi defected," Naruto said quietly.

Shikamaru's face slackened. "Juinjutsu," he said in dawning horror. "You think?"

"If Itachi shows up," Naruto said, "he needs to be contained. No matter how much we want to trust him, our enemies aren't above mind-control and sleeper agents. Clear?"

Shikamaru nodded. "Agreed."

"I'll pass that on to Danzō," the Sandaime said. "If anyone can keep Itachi's presence from his brother, it would be him. Let us hope it doesn't come to that."

Naruto nodded. "Right," he agreed. "Shkamaru, any idea when they plan to start the invasion?"

"I've spoken with Gaara," Shikamaru said. "They want him to kick it off during his fight with Sasuke."

Naruto nodded. "I figured it'd be then. Good. Do we want him to actually do that, or leave them guessing?"

"I think he's better equipped to decide that," Shikamaru said. "He knows Suna better than any of us."

"True," Naruto agreed. "Fine, we'll leave that to him. What else can we do?"

"Not much," Shikamaru confessed, "besides hope we get more intel before the tournament. Speaking of which," he glanced at Naruto, "I believe you and I have a spymaster to meet."

Naruto blinked. A smile spread across his face like the break of day. "Jiraiya," he said happily. "Oh, it'll be great to see him again."

"Be careful," Shikamaru warned.

"I will."

Sasuke stood ready, his knees bent, Kubikiribōchō held behind his back in a reverse grip. His eyes were covered by a blindfold, but his ears were perked to all sound.

A rustle, barely audible, emanated from the tree to his right. There she is.

He didn't betray his thoughts, but he mentally prepared to bring his blade around to deflect.

A rush of air crossed his ears as Sakura leapt. Sasuke triangulated the positions of her kunai and brought his sword around.

Ka-klang! His angled blade caught one and then the other in rapid succession. He spun, slashing across his partner with the dull edge of the sword, but she ducked and brought her leg around to sweep away his feet.

Sasuke jumped, landed with both feet on the top of her head and jumped over her before somersaulting in midair and bringing his sword down hard.

It came down on loam, kicking a cloud of dust up explosively. The clattering of clods of dirt hitting the ground muffled the sound of Sakura's movement, but he still heard her roll away and then leap back toward him.

He turned to the sound and brought the flat of his sword up to block the charged punch she launched at him. Sasuke skidded along against the ground, thrown backwards by the impact, but a liberal application of Chakra to his feet allowed him to stay upright.

Kubikiribōchō spun like a windmill before him, deflecting one, two, three thrown shuriken before he leapt out of the way of Sakura's second barrage, diving to his left. He rolled, came up kneeling, and brought the sword up to deflect another pair of tossed kunai. He dove forward then, arcing the sword around behind him and bringing it down towards where his opponent must be.

She blocked it with two crossed kunai, but he followed through, leveraging his arm downward to bring the base of the blade around the pivot of her blades, forcing her to dive out of the way. His ears pricked, picking out the direction of her motion, and he brought around his sword in a whirl and a leap, landing atop her just as she came out of the roll.

Sasuke landed lightly in a crouch, one foot on either side of Sakura's torso, his knees inward and forcing her body down under him, his sword at the back of her neck where she lay face-down, breathing heavily.

He found that he, too, was panting slightly with exertion.

"Good fight," he said.

"Mm," she said, intelligibly. "Get off?"

His lips twitched and he rose up, bringing Kubikiribōchō away from his teammate. His right hand came up and tore the blindfold away from his face.

He blinked in the sudden light just as Sakura rolled over. She was panting much more heavily than he, and the skin of her face and bare arms was slick and glossy with sweat. Her hair was plastered to her head, and her developing breasts rose and fell to a rapid rhythm as she gasped for breath.

"You're so fast," she mumbled ruefully. "I'm having to go all out just to keep up at all."

He smiled slightly. "I've got a few years' experience on you," he said, tossing the blindfold away and extending a hand for her to take. She did, and he pulled her up easily into a standing position. "How are you feeling?"

"Like I need a rest," Sakura said, stretching and visibly wincing at the strain before extending a hand and watching it shake with exhaustion. "And food."

"Lunch?" Sasuke asked.

She smiled at him. "Sure. Where?"

Sasuke shrugged. "Take your pick," he said, pulling up his armguard to prime the seal for Kubikiribōchō.

She sighed. "I'm too tired to make decisions," she whined. "All right, that BBQ place Team Ten likes?"

Sasuke nodded, sealing away his sword and locking the seal. "Sounds good to me," he said. "Shall we?"

She blinked at him. "Not going to find Naruto?" she asked him. "Surely he's not still busy with the Hokage."

Sasuke shook his head. "He's got other errands to run," he said, thinking of an old man with a summoning contract. "Besides, he can feed himself for a day. Unless you want him to come with?"

"No, no," she said quickly. "No, it's fine. Lead the way."

He did so. She followed at his right, half a pace behind.

"So, Sasuke," she said as they left the training ground. "What should I work on? I mean, everything, but any advice?"

Sasuke nodded, considering. "You need a more diverse Genjutsu kit," he said at length. "A more diverse kit in general, really. All you've got are touch-based Genjutsu, Ninjutsu, and Taijutsu, and then projectiles and visual Genjutsu. Projectiles are relatively easy to counter for most Ninja unless they're used by a specialist like Tenten, and it'll be years before you're competitive with the best at melee range. A kenjutsu or bukijutsu specialist, then, you basically have to fight with visual Genjutsu, and if they've got a way around that like I do then you're in trouble."

Sakura nodded. "But the tools I am using, I'm using well?" she asked.

Sasuke nodded. "You're not using them as imaginatively as you could, though," he cautioned. "If you manage to hide projectiles behind one another, you can really screw with anyone trying to deflect them. Of course, a good Ninja uses the redundancy of hearing and sight to figure out about those—something in the light-shadow of something else probably isn't in its sound-shadow."

"But if they're blindfolded," Sakura finished, "then I can use that. Thanks, Sasuke. I'll have to calculate the angles for sound-shadows."

"Even if they're not blindfolded, most Ninja have a dominant sense," Sasuke advised. "Mine's sight, obviously. Some people don't train their secondary senses nearly enough."

"Right," Sakura agreed. "And I can probably figure out what kind of fighter someone is by poking their defenses. What about Gaara?"

"Sound-based," Sasuke said immediately. "Decent vision, but nothing fantastic. He's also got a sort of tremor-sense through his sand—if you're displacing sand he can control, he can feel you."

"Does he do anything really effective with that?" Sakura asked. "Like, a weak detection field in the air around him to sense projectiles?"

Sasuke blinked at her. "I… have no idea," he confessed. "Chidori—my primary ninjutsu—and Sharingan abilities are fast enough that I don't usually have to worry about detection—only prediction. I'd bet on it, though. Gaara's smart."

"So I'd have to send two projectiles through exactly the same space to avoid him sensing the second one," she mused. "Good to know. Means kunai will be more effective than shuriken because of spin."

"That's the kind of thinking that'll get you the promotion," he told her, impressed. "I hadn't considered that."

"Promotion, yeah," she said absently. "But it's also a chance at winning."

He stopped. So did she, after a moment. "You want to beat him?" Sasuke asked evenly.

"I aim to try," she said firmly, almost defiantly.

He considered her for a moment. "You probably can't," he said eventually. "He's a Jinchūriki who made Kazekage at sixteen."

"Of course I probably can't," she said. "But what kind of Chūnin wouldn't try, if that was their mission?"

He snorted. "A live one."

"He wouldn't kill me," she said. "I thought he was a friend?"

"He's Naruto's friend," Sasuke corrected. "He… doesn't like me. For very good reasons. But, no, he wouldn't kill you."

"Then there's no harm in trying," Sakura said flatly. "Now, are you going to help, or just keep trying to stop me?"

He sighed. "I'll help," he said. "I'm sorry. I didn't— I'll help."

She smiled. "Thank you, Sasuke," she said. "Now, I'm hungry. Can we eat?"

"Oy," Naruto called. "Ero-sennin!"

Jiraya visibly jumped a full foot into the air and scrambled away from the small hole in the wall of the women's hot-spring. "Hey, hey, shshshshshshshhh," he hissed. "What, you want them to hear?"

Shikamaru considered that. "Would it make you stop?" he asked.

Jiraiya blinked. "No?"

"Probably for as long as it took to get to safety," Naruto corrected.

"Then yeah, kind of," Shikamaru said.

Naruto nodded. "So, Ero-sennin," he said conversationally. "Your information is out of date."

"How so, brat?" Jiraiya said, already turning away from them and moving back to the tight palisade. His attention, now that they were not in his face, was clearly not on them anymore.

Naruto sighed. "Where to start," he mused. "Well, I'm your godson."

Jiraiya froze. Then, after a moment, he turned back to them jerkily. "You…?"

Naruto nodded. "Got your attention yet?" he asked rhetorically. "Good. Also, the Kyūbi's a friend and I'm from the future."

"As am I," Shikamaru put in.

Naruto nodded. "And Akatsuki is led by Uchiha Madara who wants to functionally end the world," he said. "Was there anything else, Shakamaru?"

"All the Jinchūriki are on our side," Shikamaru said.

"Right," Naruto agreed, snapping his fingers. "That. And the Dishonored isn't. You might've heard of him," he glanced at Jiraiya. "Armor, seal-packs on his wrists, and a really bad case of nut…case."

Shikamaru rolled his eyes. "Short version," he said, "you need to go to the Sandaime for a debrief and reassignment."

"And then," Naruto added, "you need to meet me at Ichiraku's for dinner. We need to talk."

"Also, try not to up and die this time," Shikamaru suggested.

"Right," Naruto agreed, and rushed forward to embrace the man. "I'd much prefer that, thank you."

Jiraiya was blinking at, as Shikamaru observed, exactly 100 beats per minute and looking between them at exactly 50 beats per minute.

He looked at Naruto. Blinked twice.

Looked at Shikamaru. Blinked twice.

Looked at Naruto. Blinked twice.

Then he threw his hands up in the air and clapped Naruto, whose arms were wrapped around him, on the back. "All right, I give up." His voice was slightly high-pitched; a sign of the early stages of hysteria. "I'll go see the old man. I don't—whatever. Figure this out later."

Shkamaru nodded sagely. "Probably a good idea, yes," he agreed.

"Shino-kun, wait a moment!"

Shino stopped and turned slightly. Hinata caught up with him, her breathing ever so slightly heavy with the exertion of the run. "Thank you," she said. "I j-just wanted to talk. Where are you headed?"

"I was going to lunch with Chōji-san," Shino said. "He wished my advice for his match against Naruto-san."

Hinata blinked. "Why didn't he ask Shikamaru-kun?" she asked blankly. "You're both good friends with N-Naruto-kun."

Shino nodded. "I believe he did," he said. "Shikamaru-taichō likely referred him to me after giving advice. He is a strong believer in second opinions."

Hinata coughed. "Um, do mind if I…"

"Join us?" Shino finished. "Not at all. You will be facing Sasuke-san, and I am… familiar with him as well. I would be happy to provide any advice I can."

"Well, assuming he beats Neji-kun, yes," Hinata said. "But Neji-kun uses Jyūken, so I at least know how he'll fight, even if he's better than me."

Shino snorted. "I assure you," he said. "Neji-san has no more chance against Uchiha Sasuke-san than the students in next year's graduating class at the Academy. You will be facing Sasuke, and you will not win, but I can at least advise you with regards to making a good showing."

Hinata flushed and looked down. "B-but I'm too weak to have a chance to beat him?" she asked lowly.

"In your defense," Shino said evenly, "so am I. That will be… unlikely to be a barrier to your prospects for promotion. Sasuke-san is an… unusual case, for several reasons."

"Because he's a prodigy," Hinata murmured. "A genius."

Shino rolled his eyes. "No," he said. "Other reasons. All will become clear in time. For now, come. I will see how I can prepare you and Chōji-san over lunch."

"Is Naruto-kun stronger than Sasuke-san?" The question was blurted out just as Shino turned away. When he looked back, Hinata's face was downcast and shrouded in her bangs, but he could see the mortified flush creeping up her neck.

"Likely," Shino said. "I would like to believe so, at any rate. Why?"

Hinata was silent. Shino gently reached out and took her arm.

"You have good taste," he said quietly, "but strength is, in such a comparison, unimportant. Naruto-san is a better man, a better leader, and a better Shinobi than Sasuke ever could be. That is what should matter to you, not whether he is, in any concrete way, stronger."

Hinata glanced up, face flaming, and then looked away again quickly.

Shino sighed. "You should speak with him," he said.

Hinata seemed to shrink in on herself. "B-but he's so strong, and I'm—"

"Worthy of his attention," Shino finished firmly. "He himself seems to think so, and that is all that matters—although I would agree with him. You should speak with him."


Shino sighed. "But, first," he said, "let us go meet with Chōji-san. We can stick to safer topics, for a time."

Hinata followed him, looking grateful.

Naruto glanced over as the door of the Hokage's office opened. Out stepped the Toad Sage. "Yo, Ero-sennin," he called. "Ojiji-san caught you up?"

Jiraiya glanced over and seemed to flinch. "Naruto," he said roughly. "I—yeah."

"Great," Naruto said. "Sorry; I should've waited at Ichiraku, but it occurred to me you might try to bail."

This time Jiraiya did flinch. "I'm sorry," he said, and his voice was raw.

Naruto grinned at him. "I'm not bitter," he said honestly. "If I was gonna be bitter there are a hell of a lot of people I'd take it out on before you. I just wanna catch up. Come on, let's get ramen."

He pushed off of the wall he was leaning against, turned, and started down the corridor. The Sannin soon caught up with him.

"So…" Jiraiya said lowly. "You're from the future?"

Naruto nodded. "No need to keep it down," he said. "I got Sasuke to put up an interference Genjutsu around me, secured with a Fūinjutsu. Anyone listening will think we're just talking about something totally inane."

Jiraiya frowned. "If they see Konoha's spymaster talking to a snot-nosed brat about something totally inane, won't that raise red flags?" he asked.

Naruto grinned. "Sasuke's got that covered," he said. "Dunno how, mind, but he's got it. Apparently his Genjutsu makes it actually impossible for people to think anything I'm doing is suspicious unless they think about me really hard. They can still see you doing odd things, but they'll not notice that you're talking to me—or at least they won't think that's odd. It's only got about another hour of uptime, though."

Jiraiya considered that. "Useful Genjutsu," he said grudgingly.

"Sasuke's good with them," Naruto said easily. "Anyway, how have you been? Hove you already started investigating the Akatsuki, or is Itachi the only one on that at this point?"

"I've started," Jiraiya said. "Hadn't turned up much until Sensei caught me up. I always through it was weird that all those S-rank Missing-nin were working together."

"Well, you weren't wrong," Naruto agreed. "Whatever else you might say about the bastard, Madara's got charisma."

He pushed open the doors to the Hokage tower and held them open for Jiraiya to follow him out. "How is it, being back in Konoha?" he asked. "When was the last time you were even here?"

"A few months back," Jiraiya said. "I make it a point to visit at least a few times a year. It's… home."

"Yeah," Naruto agreed, a faint smile touching his lips. "It is that."

They walked down the road in silence for a time.

"So, you were Hokage?" Jiraiya asked at length.

Naruto nodded. "Rokudaime," he said. "I see why you didn't want the job, now."

Jiraiya chuckled. "Second thoughts?" he asked.

"And third," said Naruto with a laugh, "but it's… ah, it's worth it. There's still no job I'd rather have. Someone else might get it wrong."

Jiraiya considered him. "You think?" he asked seriously.

"There's a lot wrong with the world right now," Naruto said quietly. "It's easy to tell yourself that the easiest solution to a problem is the best, because there's so many problems. It's easy to think that one life, or one person's sanity, or your own morals don't matter all that much in the scheme of things." His lips twisted. "And then one day you wake up, look in the mirror, and you don't recognize the person looking back."

"Did that happen to you?" Jiraiya asked softly.

"No," Naruto said with a sigh. "I learned from other people's mistakes. It happened to enough of my friends that I still take it personally, though."

There was another silence for a time.

"Yeah," Jiraiya said slowly. "Someone else might get it wrong. When do you plan to take over?"

Naruto snorted. "I'm not about to drum up a coup d'état out of nowhere, if that's what you're asking," he said, amused. "I don't think the old man even wants the job anymore, anyway. I'll probably take over once we've dealt with Akatsuki and I can act without tripping every alarm bell in their boss' masked head."

"Fair," Jiraiya said. "I might spend more time in the village once it's under your control."

Naruto shrugged. "A village doesn't change overnight," he said with slight reproach. "But I'll do what I can. I hope you will too."

Jiraiya twitched. "Yeah," he said wryly. "I'll—try."

Naruto nudged him with his elbow. "That's all I ask."

They reached Ichiraku Ramen. Naruto leapt up onto a barstool and gave Ayame a wide smile. "Hey, Ayame-chan, Teuchi-san!"

"Naruto, you're back!" said the aging civilian jovially, coming across from the pot he'd been stirring. "You haven't been by as often; I was starting to worry you didn't like us!"

"I've gotta watch what I eat now," Naruto said lightly. "I'm a Ninja now; can't go shoveling crap like what you make down my throat all the time anymore. Gotta be healthy and ready for anything."

"Oh, crap, huh?" Teuchi asked, eyes twinkling. "I see how it is. Think you're better than our humble food?"

"Care to prove me wrong?" Naruto prodded, grinning widely.

"Ooh, you watch yourself," Teuchi said with a laugh. "I'll make you eat those words. And the ramen, too. What would you like?"

"Three large bowls of miso ramen," Naruto said merrily. "To start off light."

Ayame giggled. "Where does it all go?" she asked.

"Little known fact," Naruto said with a cheeky grin. "I have a ravenous demon in my belly."

Temari slipped into her team's hotel suite with a sigh of relief. Although she was still in Konoha, this little room had come to feel like something of a haven. This town made her itch in an unsettling way; like she was being watched.

She hoped it was just paranoia.

"Temari," came Gaara's voice from the common room. "Welcome back. Were you training?"

"Yeah," said Temari, sandals clacking on the wooden floor as she traveled down the hall and joined Gaara. He was kneeling on a pad, a teacup in his hands, staring out the window expressionlessly. "What have you been up to?"

"Training, in my way," said Gaara quietly. "Shukaku and I are nearing an accord. It is… slow going."

"Do you think you'll be ready in time for the invasion?"

Gaara shook his head. "I will not be able to call on the Bijū's energy as easily as I might, if that's what you're asking," he said. "For that, I would need to consult with a Fūinjutsu master, likely for a period of weeks. While there are Fūinjutsu masters here in Konoha—two of them, in fact—neither of them is really available to assist me for that span of time, at the moment."

"But you'll still be ready to fight?"

"As much as I have ever been, Onee-chan."

Temari sat down beside him and looked out the window too. They had a very fine view of the village from here, looking directly into the four faces carved into the mountain.

"I do love this village," Gaara said softly.

Temari blinked, looking back over at him. "Say again?"

"I do," he confirmed. "Konoha is my second favorite of the great villages. It treats its Shinobi corps better than most, and there is much to be learned from their Will of Fire."

"You do remember we're going to invade them in about three weeks, right?"

"Of course," Gaara said dryly.

"…This isn't going to—"

"My loyalty is unchanged, dear sister. Are you going to speak to Shikamaru?"

Temari frowned at him. "Why should I?"

"If nothing else, so that he gives you a chance to show your quality in the match before wiping the floor with you."

Temari laughed aloud. "That scrawny kid?"

"Do not underestimate Nara Shikamaru," said Gaara coolly. "Were I his first match, I would be worried, especially given he has a full month to prepare countermeasures."

"So, what, I should try to bribe him into going easy on me? Bribe him with what?"

Gaara shook his head. "Merely apologize," he said. "To him, and to Inuzuka-san. I know you want to."

"They're enemies."

"That doesn't change the fact that you nearly killed a puppy in cold blood."

"It was a combat situation!"


Temari gritted her teeth. Her hands worked fruitlessly for a moment. Then she sighed. "Tomorrow," she said."


"You really need to talk to her."

Naruto glanced back at his friend guiltily. "I don't know what you're talking about."

Sasuke's face was perfectly impassive as he took up another piece of sashimi with poised chopsticks. "Right," he said. "That's why you were fine with coming to eat here even though you hate raw seafood. I'm sure that," he nodded out the window at the Hyūga compound entrance, directly across the street, "has nothing to do with it."

"It doesnnnn't," Naruto whined, poking at his roll.

"Then why are we here?"

"You suggested it!"

Sasuke nodded. "Your point?"

Naruto stuck his tongue out at his teammate. Sasuke remained impassive.

"You need to talk to her," he said. "This isn't doing either of you any good."

"She's a kid."

"Oh, and you're such an adult, aren't you?"

Naruto stuck his tongue out again.

"Case in point," Sasuke sighed. "Look, I'm not telling you to go in there and bang her. I'm not even telling you to ask her out. But you're leading her on like this. She's not oblivious enough to miss that you're interested, and without an explanation you're torturing her."

"So, what?" Naruto said. "Just put it all on the table? Explain the whole story, no secrets? Aren't you supposed to be the one reigning in my stupid ideas?"

"You really think Hinata's a thread to operational security in any way?"

Naruto looked away.

"Stop hiding from it," Sasuke ordered. "It's not going to go away."

"The Hinata I knew is gone," Naruto said weakly.

"The Hinata you knew became who she was through suffering," Sasuke said. "Suffering you now have the opportunity to spare her." He took up another piece of sashimi. "Isn't that the whole point?" he asked, before slipping it into his mouth.

Naruto pushed a roll around his plate with his chopsticks.

"What are you afraid of?" Sasuke asked after swallowing. "Rejection?"

"No. I could handle that. She's not the Hinata I knew."

"Then what?"

"Myself." Naruto dropped one chopstick and turned the other over and over in his fingers. "She's so young. She's innocent. She's… mutable. I don't want to manipulate her, and every time I talk to her I am. I can't help it. There's no way to help it. Every conversation is manipulation, anyway, but I know so much more about her that…" he sighed. "I'm scared that I have that kind of power over her," he whispered. "I never wanted that. I just want—"


"But not taken. Not coerced or convinced. I want—I want what we had. A real, mutual relationship, where I encouraged her and she guided me."

"You'll never get that," Sasuke said, "without first being honest."

"But what if it's too soon? What if I—what if—"

"Naruto." Sasuke reached out and put a hand on his Hokage's shoulder. "The worst thing you could do right now," he said, "is to stay silent. It's only getting worse as you put it off."

"You think so?"

"I know so. Talk to her."

Naruto took up both chopsticks and put a roll in his mouth to buy time. Then he grimaced.

"Not a fan?" Sasuke asked with a chuckle.

"No, not really," Naruto grumbled, his voice muffled by the food in his mouth. He swallowed, then looked back out the window at the Hyūga compound.

"You're right," he said quietly.

"You knew that already," Sasuke said. "What are you going to do about it?"

Naruto swallowed. Glanced down at his food. "Do they have anything… cooked?" he asked. "I don't want to do this on an empty stomach."

Sasuke shook his head. "Not this place. Let's go—I've already paid." He stood up. "We can stop by Ichiraku, get some food in you, and then I'll drag you back here if I have to."

Naruto stood up as well. "All right," he said. "Sounds—good."

Sasuke nodded and led the way out of the restaurant.

As they made their way down the road, Naruto caught up to him so they were walking side by side.

"Sasuke?" he said.




A/N: Probably one more chapter before the tournament begins, and after that we're really in the endzone for the fic. I'm looking forward to it.

Oh, also. I now have a Pat reon. Let me explain really quickly what it means to this fic: Nothing. The number of donations I receive has exactly no bearing on anything I do in fanfiction, and chapters are not released early there. If I incentivize donation, it will be purely through original fiction. At this point, it is purely a donation to support me.

This is neither illegal, nor against this site's terms of service, because I am not monetizing fanfiction. I am simply expressing that I, as an aspiring writer, desire support for my original works. The space interjected into the word is a result of ffnet's bizarre ban on it.

If you would like to donate, my Pat reon can be found at /lithosmaitreya. Many thanks to those that have already donated.