Please see first chapter for disclaimer, rating, warnings, pairings, etc.

Special Thanks: goes out to rao hyuga 18, McKazekage, lidianm, xforeverherex, TheGirlWithNoIQ, DanielleFullbuster, Jigokun, phoenix fyer, Melodi Moon, QueenP19, sailorangelmoon1, and AnnaUmulie97 for all your awesome reviews! You all continue to amaze me with your support for me and my story, and your kind words never fail to bring a smile to my face. Also thanks to those of you who continue to add this story to your favorites and follows lists, your support means so much to me as well!

Author's Note: There's a time skip of two weeks between the end of the last chapter and the beginning of this one, but I promise lots of interesting and exciting things ahead in this installment. Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy!

*~Chapter XXVIII~*


Hinata stared at her giddy face in the mirror, attempting to order her reflection to assume a more demure expression. Her excitement had been building exponentially over the past week or so, and now it was finally paying off.

Matsuri flitted about the room like a little brown fairy, rushing from her mistress's wardrobe, to her dressing table, and back, assembling everything Hinata needed for the coming festivities. She, too, was smiling, and occasionally she would break into a trilling song, punctuated by humming and whistles. The tune, although unfamiliar to Hinata, quickly got stuck in her head.

The excitement level in Suna had been slowly building since sunrise. And now, even though the sun hadn't even fully set yet, what seemed to be every resident in Suna from the youngest to the oldest filled the streets, celebrating and singing and releasing lanterns into the dusky sky.

Inside Suna Tower, the servants had been rushing about all day. Though efficient as always, their passing - and work - included wide smiles and enthusiastic greetings lacking the rest of the days in the year.

For the umpteenth time, Hinata's eyes drifted to the calender. January nineteenth. Though she hadn't physically marked the little white square, in her mind's eye she saw a big gold star on the date. Oh, how much she'd been looking forward to this day...

Matsuri helped Hinata into the outfit she planned to wear for the evening. The loose, flowing black pants and lavender tunic had been chosen to mimic Temari's similar clothes, simply so the other woman wouldn't stand out too much. Even though excitement had ruled the day, Hinata still kept her sister-in-law's plight toward the forefront of her mind. Since all the members of the Council would be present at tonight's meal, she also wanted to make sure everything went smoothly and without suspicion.

Looping the opal necklace Gaara had gotten Hinata for her birthday around her mistress's neck, Matsuri cleared her throat softly and murmured, "Milady?"

Pausing with an earring halfway to her ear, Hinata looked up to meet Matsuri's eyes in the mirror. "Yes, Matsuri? What's wrong?"

Dropping her hands, Matsuri moved around to sit on her knees in front of Hinata, her head bowed so her short hair hid her face. "Thank you," she whispered. Her voice shook slightly as she spoke the words, and she continued to refuse to look up.

Keeping a hand fisted on her lap, Hinata reached forward to touch her maid on one hunched shoulder. "For what?"

When Matsuri finally raised her head, her dark brown eyes were filled with tears. "Thank you for caring so much for Lord Gaara," she said, lowering her head again. The vulnerability in her face and eyes made Hinata's heart twist slightly as realization washed over her.

She's in love with him, too. Hinata leaned back slowly as she clasped her hands in her lap. "I'm sorry," she said softly. "I'm so sorry, Matsuri."

Matsuri's head snapped up, revealing her shocked, tear-streaked face. "Wh-What?" She blinked her watery dark eyes rapidly, her mouth still open though no further words or sounds escaped.

Hinata kept her gaze steady on her maid's face, though she longed to look away. "You're in love with Gaara, aren't you?" She made sure the words were not accusatory, but instead understanding.

"I-I'm not-" Matsuri sighed, loud and long, before nodding once. "Yes." She hesitated, then tilted her head. "Well, perhaps not really in love, but I have admired him for a long time. I was the first student he took on after his father died - I was the student no one wanted to teach, and he was the sensei no student wanted to have. We worked well together, and I think at some point my admiration turned into a crush." She smiled sadly. "Logically, I knew there could never be anything between us. But still..."

Thinking back to her own crush on Naruto, Hinata nodded in understanding. Of course, Naruto was nothing more than a good friend now, but she could still clearly remember her many days of pining over the hyperactive blond. "I understand," she replied. "I felt that way about someone once, not too long ago."

Matsuri fidgeted slightly. "And now?" she whispered.

"I love Gaara," Hinata said honestly. "And only Gaara."

Her maid nodded, swiping her hand under her eyes to try to get rid of her tears. "I know," she said. "When you first came here, I admit I was jealous of you. You got everything I wanted, even though I knew I would never get it. But now that I've seen how much Lord Gaara loves you, and you love him..." She managed a tremulous smile. "I'm glad you were able to find love and happiness together, though. As long as I know Lord Gaara is happy..."

Hinata lightly bit her lower lip. She was glad of it, too, but seeing the loneliness behind Matsuri's attempt to look brave and unbothered saddened Hinata.

For a few moments the two women who loved Sabaku Gaara sat and stared at each other in mutual agreement, further understanding growing between them. Now the truth was in the open, and the fragile friendship which had been steadily growing between mistress and maid further strengthened.

A few minutes later, Hinata descended the stairs on Gaara's arm. She had thought about trying to arrange a surprise party for Gaara, as he had for her, but when she approached Temari, the blonde had immediately vetoed the idea. Her brother, she explained, was extremely hard to surprise. Besides, everyone got together on January nineteenth every year (at least, every year since Gaara became leader of the village) to celebrate his birthday. Trying to do something different would only confuse things.

As previously planned, Gaara and Hinata were the last two to arrive. As soon as they appeared in the doorway, all conversation in the ballroom paused so everyone could turn and bow to Suna's leader, then chorus in one voice, "Happy birthday!"

The tension in Gaara's arm tightened as he offered a slight smile and slanted his head with a soft, "Thank you." Hinata watched him out of the corner of her eye as they advanced into the room, pausing every few steps to converse with groups of people clustered in the spaces between the tables set up throughout the room, already set for the meal to be served shortly.

Hinata met a number of people she'd never seen before, and many others for whom she remembered faces but had never known names. Included in the latter were the members of the Council, all of whom watched her - most particularly her hand tucked comfortably in the crook of Gaara's arm - with beady, calculating eyes which left a chill in Hinata's stomach long after she and her husband moved on. She could practically hear gears grinding inside their grey (and, in two instances, bald and age-spotted) heads as they tried to read her every thought. She hoped they had not picked up on her hand tightening around Gaara's arm in nervousness, but had a feeling they saw far more than their advanced ages and cloudy eyes would suggest.

As she watched Baki approach from their left, Hinata wondered if Gaara missed his brother. She knew Kankuro would have been here, but since he was still in Konoha helping guard the village against an attack by the Akatsuki, it was impossible. Perhaps a messenger bird would arrive sometime later in the evening, or tomorrow, with birthday wishes from the absent Sabaku sibling.

"Happy birthday, Lord Gaara." Baki executed a neat bow, then tilted his head in Hinata's direction. "You look lovely, milady."

"Thank you." As the war council's leader turned back to Gaara, Hinata allowed her attention to drift. She finally spotted Temari across the room, talking to one of the men on the council. Though her posture and expression were relaxed, the younger woman saw the way the blonde's knuckles tightened around the handle of the fan in her hand.

Sudden movement behind the councilman brought Hinata's attention in that direction, and she drew in a sharp breath of surprise. Gaara, hearing her inhale, glanced at her, then followed her gaze; he, too, made a soft sound of surprise.

A pair of dusky blue eyes stared shyly up at Temari from beneath a fringe of frothy blond hair. The child, with a face as round and sweet as an angel's, showed the gaps in his teeth when he smiled up at the suddenly quite pale Temari.

Quickly excusing himself and Hinata from their conversation with Baki, Gaara grasped her hand on his arm with his own and brought her with him to approach the scene.

Itachi reached his wife only a moment before Gaara and Hinata. "Councilman Ryotaro," he greeted, voice deceptively smooth. "To what do we owe the pleasure of your guest's presence?" As he spoke, Hinata saw him slide his arm around Temari's waist and squeeze slightly. The blonde stiffened for a moment, then relaxed and jerked her gaze away from the child still gazing shyly up at her.

"My great-grandson's parents were called out of Suna on urgent business," came the response. Ryotaro placed a wrinkled, arthritic hand on the blond boy's head as he turned slightly to bow at Gaara and Hinata. "Happy birthday once again, Lord Gaara. Greetings, Lady Hinata."

Gaara tilted his head in acknowledgement, then looked down at the young boy who had transferred his attention to the much taller redhead towering over him. "Hello, young man."

Hinata felt a smile tilt up the corners of her lips - even despite the tension still lingering over the small group - at the sudden softness in Gaara's voice. Though many in the village still found his presence intimidating at the least, frightening at worst, it was obvious her husband had something of a soft spot for children.

The boy seemed to gain some confidence at the address. Taking a step around his great-grandfather, his little chest swelled as he smiled toothily once again. "H'llo, Lord Gaara." He bobbed a quick, charming bow. "Happy birthday."

"Thank you." Gaara tilted his head slightly, a hint of a smile playing along his lips. Hinata, however, could feel the tension in his arm she still held, and knew he was keeping the mood light for the benefit of the boy. "Your great-grandfather did not tell me he'd be bringing you along, Keiichi. You've grown quite a bit since the last time I saw you."

Before Keiichi could reply, his great-grandfather spoke. "I hardly get any time with the boy, so I offered to let him stay with me when my grandson and his wife left on business," he said. Smiling down at his great-grandson, he continued, "Keiichi begged me to let him come, Lord Gaara, and how can you say no to such a face?"

Perhaps it was Hinata's imagination, but there seemed to be some sort of hidden meaning in the councilman's words. Gaara, however, must have sensed it, too, because his arm further tensed beneath her hand, though he made no visible reaction. "I do not believe you've had a chance to meet my wife. Hinata, this is Keiichi. Keiichi, this is Lady Hinata."

The boy's devestatingly adorable smile turned in her direction. "H'llo, Lady 'Nata." He once again bobbed at the waist, then leaned against his great-grandfather's leg and peeped at her from behind the man's arm, once again shy. "Nice to meet'cha - ah, meet you." His eyes darted up to meet Ryotaro's, apologetic.

"Good boy." Patting the boy's head, Ryotaro lifted his gaze to look from Gaara, to Hinata, then back again, completely ignoring Itachi and Temari - neither of whom had spoken a word since the former couple had joined the group. "Such exciting times in Suna," the old man sighed. "Lord Gaara finally taking a wife, and surely there will soon be the patter of little feet to brighten up this gloomy tower."

He suspects. The knowledge's appearance in her mind was instantaneous, and Hinata fought not to let her shock and anxiety show on her face. She glanced uneasily at Gaara, unsurprised to see his smile turn slightly wooden. But does he suspect I have not yet conceived - or does he suspect Temari has? Hinata's first thought upon seeing the angelic Keiichi was how easily he could pass for Itachi and Temari's child - especially the latter's, with his shiny golden hair and oddly shaded blue eyes. It was a natural progression for her to think Ryotaro had brought the boy along to try to coax some sort of reaction out of any or all of them.

And while Temari was doing an admirable job maintaining her composure, her pale face and the pain in her eyes made it clear she found Keiichi's presence nearly intolerable. To look into those eyes, see those blond curls and that sweet smile... What torture Temari and Itachi must be going through right now!

She felt absolutely certain Ryotaro had brought Keiichi along to put some sort of plot into motion. But what, exactly, did he suspect - and what evidence had led him to such a conclusion? Hinata thought they'd been doing such a good job covering up the truth...

Hinata cut her gaze sideways. I need to get Temari out of here. The mere thought helped calm the maddening whirl of thoughts and concerns in her mind, and she squeezed Gaara's arm before leaning past him and addressing her sister-in-law. "Temari? Since this is my first time b-being hostess of a party here, I need to ask you a few things about protocol." Turning back to Ryotaro and Keiichi, she smiled and said, "If you'll please excuse us?"

Gaara released her hand, but not before placing a quick kiss on the back of it. After offering him a sweet smile, Hinata fell into step next to Temari as the two women made their way to a quiet corner of the room so they could converse without having to raise their voices enough to be overheard.

"He suspects, doesn't he?" Hinata spoke first, pulling her sister-in-law's attention away from where she still stared in horrified wonder at Keiichi across the room.

"I don't know." Temari clasped her fan in both hands, so tightly her knuckles went white. Her expression, however, quickly rearranged itself to one of calm unconcern, as if she were only instructing her sister-in-law on the "do"s and "don't"s of a Suna hostess's behavior. "But I have no doubt Councilman Ryotaro brought Keiichi as a warning. It might be nothing more than coincidence that he looks a little like me, but the message couldn't be clearer or more deliberate: they took away my child once, and they won't hesitate to do it again."

"I thought so," Hinata said with a nod. "What an evil man, using an innocent young child to do his dirty work."

Temari smiled thinly. "They're ruthless, every single one of them. They'll do anything to keep things the way they are - or manipulate the situation to fit the scenario they want."

Hinata glanced back towards the group. Gaara and Itachi were still talking with Ryotaro, each looking unconcerned about the tense situation just past. Both men had quite obviously made themselves experts in hiding their true feelings, because she could see no hints of anger or concern in either of their postures.

Glancing at the clock mounted on the wall across the room, Temari calmly slipped her decorative fan into a cleverly hidden pocket in her full pants before saying, "Enough time's passed now that we can announce it's time for the meal. It will give Itachi and Gaara a chance to get away from Ryotaro before they have any more murderous thoughts."

"Would you please handle the announcement?" Hinata requested anxiously. Even though her earlier "problem" had been a fabrication to get Temari away from Ryotaro and Keiichi, she still didn't feel comfortable raising her voice to speak to all these people. If every eye on the room fell on her, she'd probably faint. Besides, Temari had played hostess for her brother's birthday bashes in the past, and everyone was probably expecting her to do the announcements, anyway.

Stepping away from the wall, Temari raised her hands and clapped them twice, loudly. All the conversations in the room eased into silence within moments as everyone's attention reverted to the blonde waiting to address them.

"Thank you all for coming this evening to celebrate my brother's birthday with us," Temari said. The natural smile on her face brightened her eyes and features, making her look like she didn't have a care in the world beyond making sure her younger brother's birthday was the happiest it could possibly be. "If you would all please make your way to your assigned seats, it is now time for the meal to begin."

The buzz of conversation picked up, joined by the sound of chairs scraping the floor as the occupants of the room found their chairs - marked with small white placards - and took their seats. Hinata followed Temari through the controlled chaos, nodding or smiling a greeting here and there until the two women reached the head table, lined with five chairs.

Once Hinata, Gaara, Temari, and Itachi took their seats, only one chair at the table remained empty. Despite Kankuro's absence, a place at the table was still set for him because of his kinship to Gaara.

As servants flooded into the room to begin serving the guests, Hinata felt some of the tension in her shoulders ease. At least as long as the meal lasted, none of them would have to converse with people beyond their own group. After they ate, Gaara would have to open the pile of presents stacked on the table behind the one at which he sat, which would also help buffer the conversation.

The food, as always, was nothing short of excellent. But Hinata found it difficult to enjoy, since she kept sensing the eyes of various council members on the head table throughout the entirety of the meal. When she could identify the culprit, she returned the stare coolly, willing to take advantage of her position of mistress of the house - and the village - if it meant she could intimidate any (or all) of the council members. As the wife of Suna's leader, she held just as much power - if not more - than any of them, whether they wanted to admit it or not. She didn't want to come across as a person who married Gaara only to gain a position of power, but she also wanted to make it clear she would use the benefits of her station if required. You will not spoil my husband's birthday party by trying to intimidate any of us.

None of the councilmen held her gaze for longer than a few seconds, and Hinata had a feeling the message had been received loudly and clearly. Satisfied, she returned her attention to her food and the conversation among Gaara, Temari, and Itachi.

After the meal had been fully consumed and the servants returned to clear away the empty dishes, Gaara finally turned to the stack of presents behind him. Hinata bit her lower lip anxiously, tangling her fingers together as she watched him open box after box. She had looked long and hard for the perfect gift for her husband, putting a great deal of thought into the effort. She knew from personal experience men in general were hard to shop for; Gaara in particular added an entirely new level of complication to the matter. Not only did she have to try to find something to match the beautiful necklace he'd given her for her birthday, she had to find something which he would like.

Most of the people attending the party seemed to have just as much difficulty, since the majority of Gaara's presents were items such as pens - although personalized and in an array of colors - and other various and sundry useful office items. Gaara did not collect anything in particular, nor did he really have any hobbies, the impossible, infuriating man.

Hinata had made sure her own gift to him was close to the bottom of the pile, hidden among other brightly wrapped packages. She had planned from the beginning for hers to be the final one he opened, and she noticed the exact moment Gaara caught his first sight of it. His eyes brightened and slid in her direction, and he smiled slightly at her to let her know he'd noticed it and was greatly looking forward to opening it. Still clenching her hands together nervously, she returned his smile and nod, feeling her own excitement beginning to build as the number of presents surrounding hers dwindled.

At last, hers was the only gift left. Gaara settled the box on his lap and carefully removed the ribbon and paper before lifting the lid and peering inside the container.

She couldn't watch. She couldn't look away. She could only hold her breath and hope it even came close to equaling the gift he'd given her, which even then hung around her neck.

Gaara's breath rushed out in an audible sigh. Reaching into the box, he pushed away the soft, protective fabric tucked around it and held his gift aloft so everyone could see it.

Murmurs of surprise and admiration flew about the room, and Hinata saw several heads bob in approval - including Itachi's and Temari's, who both offered her approving smiles from Gaara's other side. She allowed her gaze to trail back to the gift itself and once again marveled at its beauty.

Veins of light green - the same shade as Gaara's eyes - rippled through the ice white jade from which a lithe panther caught mid-hunt had been carved. As the light played across the veins of green, it gave the panther the illusion of movement, of powerful muscles rippling beneath its pale skin. The cat's jeweled eyes winked and sparkled as if alive, watchfully observing everyone staring at it.

Hinata had known the moment she laid eyes on the statue it was meant to be Gaara's. The combination of colors - the same shades as her husband's eyes and her own - had been what had first caught her eye, and when she looked closer to see the subject of the statue, her decision was instantly made. She had noted before on many occasions that Gaara moved like a hunting cat, every step he made and motion of his hands equal to the graceful stalk of a panther. The man who sold the statue to Hinata - a cart owner who had remained in Suna for a couple of weeks after the Founders' Festival - told the mistress of Suna the statue was very old, crafted in a country far removed from Suna, and Konoha, and all other places familiar to Hinata. And indeed, there appeared to be something incredibly old and wise about the hunting cat - yet another thing to recommend it.

Finally tearing his gaze away from his gift, Gaara looked up at Hinata with obviously awed eyes. "I've never seen anything like this," he said. Though he spoke quietly, his voice easily carried throughout the otherwise quiet room, since all their guests were just as bewitched by the statue as Hinata had been the first time she saw it. "Hinata, it's perfect. Thank you so much."

Before Hinata could craft a reply, Gaara leaned forward and pressed a kiss to her cheek. She blushed, the color brightening further as amused titters flowed about the room, joined a moment later by hearty applause. Resisting the urge to hide her crimson face behind her hands, she smiled shyly as Gaara returned to admiring his gift. He didn't have to say a word to make it clear hers was favored above all the others he'd received over the course of the evening. To Hinata's relief, no one seemed offended by his preference at all.

As conversation once again started up around the room, a servant quickly moved through the shadows along the wall and sidled up behind Gaara. When his leader acknowledged his presence, the man leaned down and whispered something as he handed a scroll to Gaara.

Hinata caught the words "Konoha" and "urgent" even as she noticed the bright red color of the scroll. She felt something cold and insidious wind and knot itself around her heart as Gaara's formerly relaxed - almost cheerful - expression instantly vanished, replaced by the businesslike mask he usually wore as leader of the village. He accepted the red parchment, dismissed the servant, and shared a worried look with her before breaking the seal and unrolling the scroll.

She instantly knew her bad feeling was not, in fact, a figment of her imagination when she saw the color drain out of Gaara's face. His eyes once again shot up to hers, filled with shock and horror and fear - things she'd never seen in his confident gaze before.

"Gaara?" Hinata leaned forward, instinctively dropping her voice. Only Itachi and Temari had noticed anything amiss thus far, and she wanted to keep it that way. Konoha's been attacked. She knew with sick certainty her thought was true, and had to swallow back her meal's attempted reappearance. Neji - Hanabi - Tenten - Kankuro - all my friends... Oh, please no.

Hinata jumped as Gaara let go of the bottom of the scroll, allowing it to roll back up with a snap! "Gaara...?"

But his attention was not on her. Turning to Temari, he said something she didn't catch to his sister and handed her the scroll before motioning for one of the servants standing along the back wall to approach and whispering something to him, too. As the servant hurried off, his own face suddenly very pale, Gaara stood, his earlier levity gone in favor of grim control. Everyone's attention immediately went to him as he stood, and one by one the others realized something was wrong and fell silent.

"Those of you belonging to Suna's military must report to me immediately," he said. "As for everyone else, you need to evacuate this building and take cover in your assigned bunkers. We are currently in an emergency situation, though I advise you not to panic. Others are already working to spread the news to those outside in the streets."

A moment of complete silence reigned after Gaara finished his speech. Then, in surprisingly orderly fashion, everyone stood and began to follow the orders they had just been given. The soft buzz of confused conversation accompanied the exodus, though even it seemed surprisingly calm in the face of their leader's sudden announcement.

Hinata jumped to her feet. "Gaara, what's g-going on?" She could barely force the words out past the hot, thick lump of dread in her throat.

Grasping her hand, Gaara guided her forward and handed her over to Temari, who immediately placed an arm around the younger woman. The Sabaku siblings shared a knowing look, and the younger nodded grimly. "You know what to do, Temari. Be careful."

Looking even paler than usual, Temari returned her brother's nod. "Yes. You too, Gaara." She turned to Itachi, sharing one long, meaningful glance with him before tearing her eyes away from her husband and pulling Hinata along with her away from the two men.

"Temari-!" Hinata started to protest, but when she looked back at Gaara and saw the expression on his face, she realized the best thing she could do at the moment was go with her sister-in-law. Her husband offered her a thin smile before he turned to the men and women of Suna's military gathering around the head table and opening his mouth to speak.

The two women exited the room's double doors and turned left, and Hinata lost sight of her husband.

"What's going on?" Ordered chaos reigned in the halls as servants ran around, shouting things to each other in what sounded to Hinata's unpracticed ears like code.

Temari pulled her sister-in-law up the steps, her gaze focused straight ahead with glaring intensity. "The Akatsuki never intended to attack Konoha," she reported as the two women raced through familiar halls. Before Hinata could ask where they were going, the blonde continued. "Stealing those papers from Gaara's office was nothing more than a diversion." She swore. "And we fell for it!"

Hinata stumbled, shocked. "B-But - if that's true..." Cold terror gripped her, nearly sending her spiraling downward into sheer panic.

Only Temari's still-firm grip around her wrist kept her from doing so. "Yes. Over half of our own military and ninja forces are in Konoha. They're on the way back, with help from Konoha, but by the time they get here..." The two women burst into Hinata's quarters. "Matsuri!" Temari called out, her voice stiff with carefully controlled urgency.

The brown-haired woman appeared in the doorway of her bedroom, across the spacious sitting room from her mistress's. "Milady Temari? Milady Hinata?" Matsuri looked surprised to see the two of them so early in the evening. "What's going on?"

"Imminent Akatsuki attack," Temari reported. "We've got to go now."

Shaking off her panic, Hinata pulled free from her sister-in-law and raced toward her room. "Wait!" she called. With violently trembling hands, she yanked open her bedside table's top drawer and pulled free the laquered box holding the weapons Tenten had made for her. After securing the holster holding her kunai around her waist, she slid her wristbands on and then allowed herself to be towed back toward the door by Temari. "Where are we g-going n-"

She broke off in shock at the sight which met her eyes in the sitting room. The wall across the room now sported a large, gaping dark hole in what she'd always assumed was solid stone. Matsuri stood framed in the new doorway, a katana Hinata had never seen before in her hand, her head turned to stare down the steps. "Clear!" she called.

Temari pulled Hinata after her. "Thank you, Matsuri." The three women hurried down the steps after the maid closed the hidden door behind them, their way lit by small yellow lights inset on the walls.

When they reached the bottom of the staircase, Temari led the way down a long passageway, one of her bladed fans in hand. Hinata had no idea why the other woman had brought weapons with her to her brother's birthday party, but then instantly decided she was grateful for their presence. "What are Gaara and Itachi doing?" she dared ask.

Matsuri spoke from behind Hinata. "Lord Gaara is undoubtedly busy organizing what remains of our military and ninja forces to defend the village," she said. "Master Itachi will be assisting him. It is Lady Temari's and my duty to get you to safety, milady."

Nodding in agreement, Temari pressed her back against the wall and peered around the corner before motioning them to follow her. "This passage comes out directly beneath the stables," she said. "We'll pick up some more weapons and supplies there and take another secret passage which ends on the other side of the wall, opposite the only visible entrance into the village and the most likely point of entry by any attacking enemy. Once out of Suna, we'll proceed to a series of hidden caves not too far away, using the wall to cover our escape."

"B-But won't it b-be more dangerous out in the open?" Hinata ventured.

Temari hesitated for a telling moment before replying. "Perhaps for a few moments," she conceded. "But it has been the plan for many years to use these passages to escort the leading lady of Suna to that hiding place, built specifically to hide her safely outside the village - particularly if she is not a ninja, or if she is carrying the heir and thus cannot join the fight."

Yet another result of Suna's bloody beginnings, no doubt. Hinata halted right before ramming into Temari's back, her hand instinctively going to her kunai holster as her sister-in-law pressed a finger to her lips to motion for silence before quietly rapping a pattern of knocks against the door blocking their path.

The response from the other side was instantaneous, and Temari yanked open the door. "Come on, you two."

To Hinata's surprise, Soichiro stood waiting for them, the reins of three horses held in his left hand. "Lord Gaara sent me ahead to make sure the way is clear and gather your things," he explained, handing a heavy bundle to Temari. "I also took the liberty of saddling horses for you ladies. It will be safer to go on horseback - you can move faster that way."

"Good thinking, Soichiro. Thank you." Temari took the proffered bundle and sorted through it quickly, brow wrinkled in concentration.

Hinata blinked in surprise as Temari extricated and then handed a heavy cloak to her. "It will help you blend in better," Temari said, pulling her own on and flipping its hood up to hide her golden hair. Looking past Hinata, she addressed Matsuri. "Switch mounts with Hinata."

Still reeling from how fast everything had changed, Hinata didn't think to protest when Soichiro helped her up onto Matsuri's usual mount, a chestnut mare with intelligent dark eyes and a single white stocking. Temari, already seated on Sanraizu, reined in her own nervously prancing mare and glanced at Matsuri, who was busy mounting Kiri. "We'll take flanking positions," she said. "You take the right, I'll take the left."

Matsuri nodded as she picked up her reins. "Yes, milady." She glanced down at Soichiro and shared a nod with him. "Thank you, Soichiro. We'll take it from here."

The sandy-haired servant quickly tilted his head in Hinata's direction before running down the long passageway extending behind the three mounted women.

"Let's go," Temari said, her voice taut with apprehension. Spurring Sanraizu on, she led the way down the narrow passage, sloping gently upwards, to yet another doorway, which was guarded on the inside by two more servants armed with katana. A quick nod from Temari prompted the two men open the doors, allowing the night air from outside to filter into the otherwise stale space.

Keeping a firm grasp on the reins of her unfamiliar mount, Hinata fell in between Temari and Matsuri as they galloped away from the towering rock wall growing rapidly smaller behind them. As far as Hinata could tell, only open desert stretched before them, dark except for the light from the stars dotting the sky above them.

There was no moon to help light their way, but Hinata decided that might be a good thing after all. Though they would benefit from it, so would the enemy. At least this way, both sides were equally blind.

The trio of women had been riding for what felt like an eternity and only a few seconds at the same time when Matsuri let out a warning shout. Upon gaining the attention of the other two, she flung out an arm to point off to their right. Hinata saw nothing at first, only more dark, dry desert...

...And then she saw them. A group of dark figures riding hard, quickly closing the distance between themselves and the women.

Temari swore loudly, letting go of her reins with one hand so she could pull some shuriken out of the pouch on Sanraizu's saddle and nestle them between her knuckles in preparation to throw. "They're closing fast, riding hard," she called. "We'll just have to ride harder."

Matsuri produced two kunai from her own saddle pouch. "I can distract them, milady," she offered. "Lead them away so you and Lady Hinata can make it to safety."

"No!" Hinata cried instantly. No one will sacrifice themselves for me!

"Hinata's right," Temari agreed. "We'll stay together - safety in numbers."

The words had no sooner escaped the blonde's lips when the night exploded, brought to sudden blazing life in a blinding flash of orangey-red. With it came a concussive, thunderous blast which threatened to unseat Hinata and send her tumbling to her death beneath her mount's pounding hooves.

Sick certainty pounded in her mind as her ears rang from the loud blast so close by. None of us will live to see the sunrise...

*~To Be Continued~*

Author's Ending Notes: I know, I'm mean and evil through and through ... and I really am sorry about leaving you with such an evil cliffhanger! But (once again) I promise I do have a plan, one I look forward to putting into play in the next few chapters. In the meanwhile, I hope you enjoyed this chapter, thanks for reading, please don't kill me, and I hope to see you again for the next update!