Chapter 25 – Believe

It was unseasonably warm for early November, although the weather had been fairly erratic ever since the battle between the bijū. The sky was a clear blue, allowing the sun to bear down on the jagged rocks and boulders at the base of the great cliff. The forest wasn't far off, less than fifty meters from the cliff face, and it resonated with the cacophony of innumerable cicadas. The call of a sparrow hawk mixed in at irregular intervals, along with the frightened chirps of its prey. All in all, the scene was something more fitting for the middle of summer, but it was becoming all too familiar for two genin in particular.

Sasuke slumped down at the base of a tree, grateful for its shade. He wiped at the sweat coating his brow, grimacing a second later when he realized that he had just trailed dirt and dust across his face. It matched the rest of him, at least. His black attire was thoroughly coated in a layer of the same filth, but it didn't really bother him anymore. It was something that he and Hinata had gotten used to.

"We've covered this area with a fine-toothed comb for kilometers in every direction," Sasuke sighed, shaking his head tiredly. "Twice. I think we should move further out."

"In a minute," Hinata called back. She stood atop a huge boulder, her features set in concentration. Her clothes were similarly grimy, especially noticeable on the crème-colored skirt where dirt had been smudged and ground into the fabric. She pivoted in place after a few seconds' stillness, her back knee hitting the ground as her palm thrust towards the stone underfoot. The movement ended in a lunge as the heel of her hand struck the rock, and for a moment it seemed as if nothing had happened. A few seconds later, however, there was a tremendous groan beneath her feet, followed by a thunderous crack that could have passed for a nearby storm. Cracks streaked out from her hand, creating a chaotic network of razor-thin fissures that spread at least a half-dozen meters in every direction. No violent explosion followed; the massive stone simply crumbled and fell into thousands of tiny chunks. Hinata kept her balance on a small piece, riding it down into the crevasse left behind from the strike.

"You good?" called Sasuke, squinting into the haze of unsettled debris.

"Fine," she replied, her voice tight and thick with exhaustion. "I don't even know what I'm looking for at this point." The young Hyūga's form became visible a moment later, at first just a blur beyond the dust. Sasuke could see the fatigue expressed in her body language, from her downtrodden features to her lethargic movements around the fragments of rock. He frowned.

"You could've just used your Byakugan on that one," he started as she approached. "I know you've already used it a lot today, but . . ." He trailed off, shrugging. "You already look pretty tired."

"I just felt like breaking that one," she replied dully, sinking down next to him and leaning her head back against the tree trunk. Her eyes closed, and she took a deep breath of the silt-free air. "It's just . . ."

"I know." Sasuke averted his gaze for a moment when she swallowed and nodded. The situation was beyond words at that point, and they had suffered the conversation too many times now. "We'll find him, no matter how long it takes." Hinata nodded again, and he pretended not to see her swiping the tears from the corners of her eyes.

"I know. It's just . . . hard, to look every day and not find a trace of him anywhere." She nodded towards the cliff, wincing once and touching the back of her head. "As far as we know, he transported me using the Hiraishin practice jutsu, and then never came back." Her eyes scanned around, bleakly examining their surroundings as the dust cleared away. "He would have landed around here, too. Even . . . Even if he were dead, we'd at least have–"

"Have what?" Sasuke interjected, his tone hard and somewhat impatient. "Closure? Come on, Hinata. Neither you nor I would get anything out of finding him dead except a lot of pain and anger. If he used the Hiraishin like we think he did, then he might still be alive." Hinata recoiled slightly, and he immediately regretted being so harsh. It had been difficult for both of them, but she had taken it harder than anybody, and he couldn't blame her for that. He put a hand over hers and squeezed, trying for a soft smile. "I'd rather spend my life hoping that he's still alive and searching rather than sinking into despair and believing him dead. Tsunade-sama gave us indefinite leave in order to find him, and I intend to use it. What about you?" Several minutes passed in silence, and only after several more did Hinata finally squeeze his hand back, albeit weakly.

"Me too," she said quietly, her eyes becoming unfocused as she stared off towards the cliff. "It doesn't make it hurt less, though. I just wonder how long it will take for me to stop hoping that I'll see him around the next corner." Sasuke couldn't really respond to that with anything that might help. Eventually their searches might become mechanical, the hope that they would find their friend alive long since gone. But that wasn't a reason to give up. As long as there was a chance, they would stubbornly forge ahead. "I'm just glad . . ." She stopped and shook her head, and for the first time in weeks a small smile seemed to be tugging at her lips. It was a sad, almost invisible thing, but it was there nonetheless. I'm glad I got to tell him.

Sasuke understood without her having to finish. It was a much different situation from when last she thought Naruto dead, and he found himself wondering what that said about her. Was that just a part of living as a shinobi – getting used to friends dying? Would it eventually become just a brief ache, one that passed almost as quickly as it came? He had to suppress a shiver at the thought.

"Let's go meet up with Neji and Tenten, and maybe get something to eat. I'm willing to bet that you didn't eat breakfast again." Hinata pursed her lips and seemed like she wanted to protest, but after a few seconds she only shrugged and pushed herself to her feet. She took off before he could stand, and he was left staring after her retreating silhouette as she vanished into the trees. He ran his fingers back through his hair, tugging in frustration at a few knots created by the morning's fruitless search. Sasuke kicked off the ground, bounding after his friend and doing his best to ignore the pang in his chest that never seemed to go away.


/*\


Pain blossomed across Naruto's face as it struck hard stone, and for the briefest instant he wondered if the Hiraishin had failed. But then, if it had, he wouldn't have been able to think at all. He yelped as he felt the heat beneath his cheek, jumping up to gain his feet. He reached up to touch the left side of his face and found it warm to the touch, the skin there a bit tender. And that was when he began to notice his surroundings, a knot forming in the pit of his stomach as he took everything in.

He stood staring down into the smoking crater of a volcano, mere centimeters from the edge of the rim. The far sides of the chasm were lost to sight; it must have been several kilometers in diameter at least. A slow turn revealed that it was dark in all directions, as far as the eye could see. Black ash hung in the sky like thick clouds, blocking out any sunlight that might have been trying to penetrate it. Most of the ambient illumination came from lava flows that dotted the landscape all around. The air smelled of earth and sulfur, and taking regular breaths was difficult in the stifling heat.

So uh . . . We're alive. It took several minutes of wide-eyed observation to get that out, and then several long seconds to receive a response.

Due only to luck, Kurama grunted, observing their surroundings through Naruto's eyes. You've landed us atop Mount Hiuchi – almost in it.

You've been here before? Naruto coughed and went to cover his mouth and nose with his coat's high collar, only to find that it wasn't there. Oh, right – left it at the training ground. Crap. He supposed that was a good thing, considering the heat. He felt weak, almost completely drained of chakra after transporting Hinata away and using the Hiraishin. He reached up to untie and unfold his scarlet headband, pulling it over his nose and mouth like a makeshift mask against the acrid air.

Aye. I was not free to roam the land for long, but I had travelled most of the Fire Country before I was sealed. This is a venerable volcano, one that predates your species altogether, and its tenant is even older still.

Tenant? You mean somebody lives in there? And how do you know this stuff anyway? You're not that old.

Because I met The Ancient Fire once, and he is one of the few beings that I hold in high regard. This is his domain, and you have stumbled into it like a blind kit. I suggest you depart quickly, lest you wish to flirt with death another time this day.

Can you at least tell me who this Ancient Fire guy is, and why he lives in a volcano? Naruto huffed, turning from the crater to start making his way down the steep slope. Before he could make it more than a few steps, and before Kurama could reply, the ground began to tremble. The rock all around the mountaintop seemed to expand outward, as if under a great pressure from within, and foul-smelling steam burst from the many cracks between the bulging stones. The temperature began to rise rapidly, and the oppressive heat made him feel feverish. It was all he could do to keep his feet as he turned to find the plume of smoke rising from the caldera that crackled with innumerable sparks, illuminated by the bright reds and oranges of the lava writhing far below.

I guess it's too late, the Kyūbi sighed. Try to die quickly, if you don't mind.

Wait, what's going on?! I'm not about to die just after using my dad's jutsu! It all seemed pretty unfair. When did he get a break? Orochimaru attacked in the Forest of Death, Suna and the Ichibi assaulted Konoha at the tail end of the Chūnin Exam, almost immediately after recovering he had been chased down by Akatsuki, then Gaara came back for round two, Orochimaru's henchmen kidnapped them straight after that, and now in the same day he had accidentally transported himself to a volcano that was home to something very old and very dangerous. Something may have snapped within Naruto then. His anxious expression hardened and his jaw set, his features twisting into a snarl. He took a step towards the roiling volcano's crest, stomping his foot down on the rock and bellowing his half-crazed defiance. If he was about to die – again – then he might as well get a word in this time.

"Bring it on then! I didn't come here on purpose, but if you wanna fight then you'd better be ready to throw down! I'm not scared of you and your stupid volcano, old man!" Strangely enough, the ground stopped shaking then, and the sparks shooting from rising smoke died away. Naruto blinked. Uh . . . Did I scare him away?

Fire, lava, and molten rock exploded out of the crater and into the sky, and it was only the shock of the explosion that saved Naruto from getting burnt to a crisp. He fell back with cry of surprise, tumbling down the slope several meters until he managed to slide to a panicked stop. He was on his feet in an instant, eyes darting around and trying to keep track of every piece of deadly debris coming his way. Several tense seconds passed as he dashed from side to side and up and down the mountainside, desperately trying to avoid being struck. A stream of lava whipped past his head, missing by less than a meter and nearly setting his hair ablaze. A boulder nearly as tall as he was came bouncing wildly down, forcing him to leap over it and twist midair to avoid being hit by two glowing shards of rock. It wasn't until he had landed from that maneuver that he realized that there was a rumbling noise nearby – very nearby. It was coming from inside his own head.

Are you laughing?! he asked incredulously, ducking another rock the size of his fist. Kurama's deep chuckling continued, heedless of Naruto's indignation. He probably would have verbally ripped the Fox a new one if his eyes hadn't fallen on the mouth of the caldera again. Instead, his jaw dropped open.

Something was rising out of the magma, which had already reached the rim and now threatened to cascade down the side of the volcano. Whatever was emerging, it was huge – bijū sized, even. At first it was just an amorphous shape drenched in lava, but when Naruto realized how it was carrying itself upward he was able to start picking out bits of familiar anatomy. There was a head there definitely, though it was still completely covered in liquid fire. Out to either side and spanning nearly the entirety of the crater was a pair of colossal wings, beating slowly and sending more molten rubble flying with every downstroke. The last things to rise were the creature's talons, the claws of which longer than Naruto was tall, every deadly point dripping slag.

I . . . changed my mind . . . Naruto thought weakly. He was still staring at the thing, now clearly identifiable as a giant bird – a giant bird that was mostly composed of fire. The lava had finished flowing away from it now, revealing plumage that flickered and burned in a near blinding display of color ranging from the deepest greens to the brightest reds. The bends of its wings were nearly black, but each new layer of feather transitioned gradually through the heat spectrum. From the dark blue of its scapulars, the plumage flowed smoothly to amethyst, the purest white, brilliant yellow, rich orange, and finally ending at the primary feathers with a vibrant crimson. Its body was a sunburst of organic flame, spreading from an alabaster breast into warm hues of burnt sienna. Its tail was longer than what would be found on a normal bird, like that of a peacock, the colors of which reflecting those in its wings. A pair of luminous golden eyes stared down at Naruto over a dangerously hooked beak, although they seemed to be intrigued rather than angry as expected.

"Kurama, dide thou placest the youngling unto this?" The Ancient Fire alighted on the crater's edge as it 'spoke,' its voice coming into being from everywhere and nowhere. The mountain trembled again as he landed, although it seemed to be in response to his voice rather more than anything else. In fact, not so much as a pebble was misplaced by the gargantuan bird. His voice was deep and resonant like the Kyūbi's, but it was much calmer, more dignified, and held none of the ire that Kurama's did.

The phrase you're looking for is 'put him up to this,' and I did not, old friend, the Fox said in a bark of booming amusement.

"Then why doth he looketh frightened so?"

I may have led him to think that you were going to kill him. You would have to know him to understand why; this little cretin never ceases to annoy me.

"Thou hast not changed, hast thee little one?" Kurama glowered within his mindscape prison, but surprisingly offered no retort.

While the two were talking – inside of his mind, apparently – Naruto simply stood gawking. The lava had receded after The Ancient Fire had fully emerged, and everything seemed to be settling down again. Now he was just standing a few meters away, staring wide-eyed up at a firebird whose full height could nearly have reached Kurama's back if they were to stand together. He supposed that he probably did look pale and unnerved, and who wouldn't? It took him a few seconds to shake himself out of the stupor and interrupt the conversation.

I ah . . . Yeah, Kurama's always been an ass. But so, you're not going to kill me? It was hard to tell, but Naruto could have sworn that he saw a flicker of amusement on the bird's features. He felt it more than saw it, at any rate.

"Nay, child. Thou hast defied death once; who would I be to tempte fate's hand a second time?"

"You know about that?" Naruto asked aloud, deciding that it was getting a little crowded inside his head. He was having a hard time figuring out what was being said, too, but he did his best to listen and try to understand. "What . . . Who are you?" he corrected, not wanting to offend the being so soon after being granted clemency. He silently thanked Iruka for teaching him manners.

"The answer to both who and also what I am are one and the same, and yet they are as different as the sun and the moon," he responded cryptically, eyes glimmering in the light put off by his feathers. "My names are many, although most refereth only to what I am, but some hinteth at more. Through thine epochs, The Ancient Fire was most widely used. Eternal Flame, Guardian of Time, Keeper of Secrets, The Ageless One; many were the titles bestowed upon me, all of which holdeth truth, yet none of which ringeth true."

You lost him, Kurama sighed. All of his names mean different things, he continued by way of explanation, And they describe different parts of who he is, but none of them really tell his real name or what kind of being he is. Right? The Eternal Flame slowly cocked his head to one side, considering the explanation for a moment before nodding approvingly.

"The kitsune speaketh truth."

"Okay, so . . ." Naruto started, rubbing irritably at the back of his neck. His head was starting to hurt, both from the multiple conversations going on and from trying to understand what was being said. "You have a lot of names you go by, but what is your real name? And if none of those tell me what you are, then . . . What are you exactly?" The Ancient Fire straightened his head, then tilted it to the other side. And then he smiled. It was an impossible gesture to perceive just by looking at the bird, seeing as its beak was fairly inexpressive, but Naruto could suddenly feel a profound and genuine warmth spreading through him that was unmistakable for anything other than joy.

"I am known as a phoenix in thy tongue, and my true name is Feng. I have been waiting for thee, Uzumaki Naruto."


/*\


"That takes care of these areas," Tenten murmured, reaching over to mark off locations on the large map spread across the table. To either side of her sat Lee and Neji, and across from them Hinata, Sasuke, and Haku watched as she took a compass and drew a wide circle around a dot labeled as 'Konohagakure.' On the inside of that circle were other smaller ones, shrinking in size until they reached the village marker. "So we've covered almost eighty kilometers around the village in every direction, give or take a few hundred meters. We're making pretty good progress!" She looked up with her smile only to find the gesture lost on her friends. Sasuke had his arms crossed and was staring out the window; Hinata's gaze was distant and somewhat vacant, unfocused somewhere past Neji's left shoulder; Haku merely chewed on his lip and watched his companions with no small amount of worry written plainly on his features.

"Yosh!" Lee agreed, pumping his fist into the air. "We'll find Naruto-kun in no time!" Hinata blinked out of her reverie at the mention of his name, but only to offer a weak smile before glancing down at the map.

"That means it's taken us nearly three weeks to search a radius of eighty kilometers, which means . . . about twenty thousand kilometers?" she asked, and Tenten nodded reluctantly after a moment to confirm the math. "Fire Country is estimated to be near eight hundred thousand square kilometers, so if we maintain our pace then we'll have searched the whole country in . . . two years and three months, give or take." Lee frowned at that, as did Tenten, though Neji's features betrayed nothing as he joined Sasuke in his task of examining the window. "If you add in the surrounding countries, let alone the rest of the world, it means–"

"It means what?" Haku asked before Sasuke's mouth could get halfway open to reply. The older boy seemed apprehensive to speak, but as he continued his voice grew stronger and more confident. "It means that it'll take ten years? Twenty? Fifty?" Hinata only shrugged, continuing to look down at the barely-traversed map of the ninja world. "Our whole lives? Are you implying that it's not worth it to find a person that's precious to you?"

"Haku," Sasuke started, wincing at his friend's fervor. Haku's teeth clacked shut immediately; he knew that cautionary tone. But it was too late to take it back now. This had come up several times before already, and they all knew how Hinata felt.

"It's not a matter of worth," Hinata said quietly, not looking up. "It's just about accepting reality. I know you all want to keep searching, that you think it'll help us have hope or come to terms with what's happened. B-but I . . ." She stopped, closing her eyes for a moment to will away the stutter threatening to invade her speech. "I knew going in what could happen, and I knew it from experience. I knew that . . . every time we got a new mission, one of us might not come back. I knew that, and so did Naruto. We don't need to keep doing this," she continued in the same muted tone. "If he is alive – and I will always hope that he is – then nothing will stop him from coming home to us. Nothing."

It was a painful mixture of resignation, despair, and insincere optimism, and no one could say a word in response. Hinata stood in the silence, offered a little bow and a mumbled apology, then turned and walked out. The five remaining watched after her, their sorrowful expressions feeling all too familiar as of late. It hurt to see her like that, but there was almost nothing they could do for her now.

"I'm going to walk her home," Sasuke sighed after a few seconds, sliding his chair back and nodding to his friends. "See if you all can come up with a better strategy in the meantime. Jiraiya-sensei said that improperly used space-time ninjutsu can transport the user somewhere relevant to them, so see if you can find places like that. Whirlpool Country might be a good place to start that list, but just use what Hinata and I compiled about Naruto to see if you can think of others." Tenten gave him a dubious look, but nodded and pulled a stack of papers from a bag hanging on her chair. Sasuke nodded again, thanked the others, and departed after Hinata.


"I don't need you to console me," Hinata said as Sasuke approached. "I'm fine."

"You're not fine, so don't pretend like you are," he muttered, falling into step beside her.

The setting sun had done a fair job at clearing the streets, although it was only a matter of time before the night crowd started to take over. The restaurant they had been in – Shushuya – had become a place of meeting for their group ever since Naruto's disappearance. It was the kind of establishment that drew older crowds that enjoyed their sake, but subsequently was pretty quiet until the evening hours when the heavy drinkers came around. Tsunade went there to 'check up on them' every once and a while, apparently able to run off for a drink here and there despite her new duties as the Hokage.

"I am fine," Hinata gently insisted, keeping her eyes down. "I'm not doing well, Sasuke, but I'm okay. We . . . Naruto and I didn't leave anything unsaid this time, and I've been preparing myself for this ever since the Chūnin Exam. It's part of who we are and the path we chose to walk, the same as it is for you."

"They just want to help," Sasuke put in after a minute, scrounging around for something to say. "They're all just worried about us – about you especially. I've sort of . . . been around the block with this kind of thing. No amount of preparing is going to make it stop hurting, Hinata." It was her turn to wince, and he did his best to soften his tone as they stopped outside of the apartment complex. He turned to her and put a hand on her shoulder, waiting for a few seconds until she reluctantly met his eyes. "It's not going to go away – you wouldn't be human if it did. But we're here for you, just like you and Naruto were there for me back then."

A very long thirty seconds passed with hardly a twitch from either of them, and Sasuke had expected little else. Outside of simply being withdrawn, Hinata hadn't shown a shred of anything that one might expect from a tragic loss. She hadn't been angry, not at herself, Naruto, her friends – anybody. It was obvious that she was carrying a weight around, but she hadn't even shown real sorrow; Tenten had a good cry or two, and Lee had shed a few tears during a passionate speech, but not Hinata. She hadn't been anything in the last few weeks. She walked around with hardly a sign of vitality within her, and any expression she offered seemed forced. It was like she was in shock – only it wasn't that at all. She had simply chosen not to feel.

Very slowly, in a movement that seemed almost dreamlike, Hinata took a step forward to close the distance between them. Her features betrayed nothing, but Sasuke could feel her shaking the moment her arms circled his waist. He blinked in awkward surprise at first, not sure how to react. He'd hugged her once or twice over the years, so it wasn't as if the action was new. But he had never been the one to comfort her, to give her a shoulder to cry on when she was hurting, and he had never embraced her like this while trying to soothe the pain away. But he had also meant it when he said that he was there for her. Sasuke moved his arms to wrap around her, holding on in a fierce yet gentle gesture – perhaps more the former than the latter.

"Thank you," Hinata said in a small, fragile voice. "I'll . . ." She bit her lip and closed her eyes, then took in a steadying breath. "It'll take a while, but . . . I'll really be okay eventually. I promise." I will be. No matter how many times she told herself that, it never seemed to get any truer.


Hinata closed the door to the apartment behind her, listening to the sounds coming from the kitchen where Iruka was cooking dinner. It had only been a week since they had moved into the new place, and everything was already put in its place. The kitchen was just off of the entry hall on the left, complete with a small dining area and an adjoining den that served as a living room. There was a small bathroom straight ahead as she entered, though its use was largely reserved for guests. Down the hall on her right were their bedrooms, with Iruka's master suite at the end on the left. A linen closet occupied the left wall of the hallway as well, and opposite it were two more bedrooms and a full bathroom between. It was their new apartment, and it was larger than the previous one, but it hadn't felt like home yet. She wasn't sure if it ever would.

"Hey Hinata," Iruka greeted her warmly as she entered. He tossed a colander filled with steaming noodles a few times before emptying it into a sizzling wok, wafting the scent of various spices through the kitchen. "You're just in time; the yakisoba is almost ready!" Hinata tried her hand at a smile in response, and Iruka took it in stride. He continued where he had left off in humming nothing in particular, and in no time Hinata had cleaned up and gotten the table set for them to sit down to eat.

"Itadakimasu," they said in unison, Iruka's jovial tone a fair bit louder than Hinata's subdued voice. The meal was simple and finished quickly enough, only occasionally disturbed by his occasional mentions about how the day at the academy had gone. He didn't push her to speak; he never did.

"Iruka-sensei," Hinata started, placing the last dish on a rack to dry before continuing. "How do you do it?"

"Do what?" He blinked a few times, giving the impression that he was genuinely oblivious towards the purpose of her inquiry – even if that wasn't the case. She chewed absently at her lower lip, trying to find the right words. Iruka waited patiently; he knew what question was coming. It had only been a matter of time.

"How can you be so lighthearted when Naruto's not here?" she asked, almost tripping over a few words in her rush to get them out. "He's not . . . It's not . . .!"

"It doesn't seem right, does it?" he queried, the corners of his lips tugging up into a minute, somber smirk. He was quiet for a few seconds before rising from the table and setting a clay kettle on the stove. "Would you join me for some tea in the living room?" Hinata blinked, and he shrugged. "We haven't really had a good talk in a while, and tea always goes well with conversation." She nodded then, and with a little coaxing Iruka got her to go sit down while he waited on the water to boil.

In short order Iruka joined her on their old sofa, the same one that had served as Naruto's bed for so many months. He offered her one of the two steaming mugs of green tea – each with a spoonful of honey, of course. They sat for a short while in silence, sipping at their drinks before they had a chance to cool too much.

"I don't really have a good answer for you," Iruka replied at last, unable to keep himself from chuckling at that. "I've been asking myself that question for weeks now, and I've come up with a few ideas, but no real definitive answers.

"The thing is . . . It just doesn't feel like Naruto's . . . dead." He stopped for a moment, like he was digesting his own words before going on. "I've known him since he was young, and I've taken responsibility for him since he was six years old. I'm the closest thing he's ever had to a real, living parent, and well . . . I can't really explain why, but I just don't feel like he's really gone."

"I don't understand," Hinata said quietly, staring down into her half-empty cup.

"Neither do I," Iruka admitted with a laugh, rubbing at the back of his neck with his free hand. Hinata looked up, and couldn't help but notice how similar he and Naruto looked when they did that. "I guess as his surrogate father, I feel like I would simply know if he had died, like I would feel it somehow." He shrugged again and took another sip of his drink, looking pensive. "Maybe that's unreasonable, but it's what I have. Deep down, I feel that he's still alive, and that he'll come back to us. It's why I can wake up every day and smile, and why I can still laugh and try to enjoy life as best I can while he's away. At the end of the day, I'd rather always believe that he's alive, and in the meantime remember the years of joy and hardships with him.

"There are other reasons, of course," he sighed, swirling the tea in his cup. "Ones that are more practical, I suppose. I'm sure you've noticed that Sasuke seems mostly normal. He may be profoundly upset and hurting, but outwardly he's the same friend you've known for years, isn't he?" Hinata nodded, wondering what he was getting at. "It sounds cold to say, but it gets easier as time goes on. Losing people you love, I mean. You'll always feel the same amount of pain, but you'll learn how to manage it better, and you learn how to keep being yourself. You have to, or the pain will end up driving you mad." She looked away at that, going back to biting her lower lip and willing herself not to give in to the tears.

"These always help me," Iruka went on, setting his mug down on the low wooden table by the couch. He reached for a drawer set in the table's side, and he pulled it open to reveal a stack of photographs. "I started taking pictures as a hobby maybe a year after Naruto came to live with me. These are the memories I have to go back to whenever I get sad, because they help me remember what kind of person Naruto is, and how terribly he might scold me if he finds out I was getting down about something silly."

Hinata took the photos tentatively, beginning to go through them with fingers that she pretended were not shaking. Before long, however, she found herself smiling and giggling for the first time since Naruto's disappearance. Unsurprisingly, every picture was either of Naruto or one with him in it, and he was wearing his familiar broad grin in most of them. They didn't seem to be in any particular order; she flipped from one of seven-year-old Naruto enjoying a bowl of homemade ramen to the next with him sparring shirtless with Sasuke. There was a picture for everything he loved, from ramen to training to watering plants to . . . her.

"This is . . ." she breathed, coming to the last photograph in the stack. Tears welled up without warning, but she found herself smiling despite them. The final picture was of the two of them, lying fast asleep on the very couch she was currently seated on. Hinata's back was up against Naruto's chest, one of his arms hanging off the side of the sofa and serving as a pillow for her head. A soft green blanket covered them both just below the shoulders, but she could see where his arm circled her waist beneath it. His face was nuzzled into the nape of her neck as he slept, and she could clearly see his soft, sleepy smile through a few stray locks of her hair. Iruka must have woken during the night or very early in the morning to have sneaked that shot, and she was glad that he had.

"You can keep that one if you'd like," Iruka said gently. "Despite that talk we had a few months back, I have to admit that you two always look cute when you fall asleep together." He felt a little guilty chuckling again, seeing as Hinata was doing her best not break down. She wiped at her eyes with the bandages on her arm, though a few tears managed to escape and patter down atop the glossy image in her hand. "I know it's hard, Hinata; it has been for me, too. But never forget that you have people around you that love you, and that it's okay to rely on them from time to time. Above all else, never lose hope, and always choose to call upon those happy memories. I like to think it's what he'd like us to do while he's away."

Hinata didn't say anything, and she couldn't have if she had the desire to. Iruka understood, and with a last little smile he retrieved her mug and left her to her own thoughts. He had said his piece, and it was up to her to decide what to do with it. She sat there for a long time, holding that picture to her chest with her eyes closed, just thinking.

She knew that the way she had been handling everything wasn't healthy. After Naruto had definitively died during the Chūnin Exam, Hinata had sworn to herself that she would steel herself against that trauma. She had vowed not to be in denial if it ever happened again, to go through life with no regrets so that she could handle it. But no matter how fervently she told herself that, and no matter to what degree she was convinced that it was the 'right' thing to do, she just couldn't do it. Even the thought of it hurt too much, and maybe that was why Iruka was so confident in the idea that Naruto was alive and well. Maybe he had to be. She had thought herself strong, that she had been handling Naruto's presumed death in a reasonable manner with poise and dignity. In reality, all she had done was bury it deep inside, bottled up while every day the throes built upon one another. Maybe it was time she let herself feel that pain of loss, and replace all of the hurt with the hope everybody was trying to give her.

Some time later Hinata finally rose from her seat. She had briefly considered sleeping there, but it just didn't feel right without Naruto. Instead she tugged the green blanket from where it hung over the back of the couch, pulling it around herself and stepping slowly from the room and out of the den and kitchen areas. She moved silently down the hall, passing the first two doors on her right to arrive at the last. Iruka's bedroom was across the hall on the left side, and hers was the first on the right. She took a deep, trembling breath before turning the doorknob and slipping inside.

The bedroom looked almost identical to Naruto's old one, at least before she had started living there. It was substantially cleaner and more organized than it might have been if he were there, however. His full bed was nestled in the corner opposite the doorway, right up against a wide curtained window. A bedside table with a lamp, a dresser filled with his clothes, and a large wardrobe filled to bursting with his equipment completed the room's furnishings, discounting the set of weights at the foot of the bed. A few knickknacks topped dresser; they were mostly just things from his youth, such as the shuriken he had scored his first bull's-eye with. The nightstand held a fair number of pictures, the closest to the bed being a picture of Hinata in the dark kimono she had worn to Haku's trial. There was another with Naruto and Sasuke fist-bumping, another of their team with Kakashi, and another with Iruka and Naruto. Those photographs made her smile as well; it was the first time she had seen them since moving in.

Hinata slid up onto the familiar bed and curled atop the comforter, pulling the green blanket around her. She closed her eyes, pressed the picture to her chest, and began to cry. At first the tears were silent, but before long they turned into full sobs that wracked her diminutive form with every bit of sorrow she had been holding in. She wept for what felt like hours, allowing the tears to flow until there were none left to fall. Ever so slowly, and without even realizing it herself, Hinata drifted off into a deep slumber. It was the beginning of her first peaceful sleep in over a fortnight.

Across the hall, unseen and unheard, Iruka stared at his ceiling with distant eyes. This evening's tears had long since come and gone, leaving long stains trailing down each side of his face.

Naruto . . . Please, come back to us.


/*\


"So let me get this straight," Naruto muttered, massaging his temples. "You're a phoenix, and have been alive for . . . ever? You don't remember how old you are?"

"I have lived and perished many a time, and mine existence dates to before mine own recollection. It is possible that I have always been."

"Right, got it . . . I think." He didn't really understand; how could something have just always existed? Everything had to be born or created somehow. Maybe the old bird just had a bad memory. "But why were you waiting for me, and what's so important that I need to stay here for it? I need to get back to my village!"Feng titled his head to one side again, studying Naruto with his intense avian eyes. The blond wanted to squirm under the scrutiny, but forced himself to remain still and seated.

"Precious few mortals may claime to have returned from the brink of death, and fewer still have crossed over and cometh to live once again. Thou art one that hath entered my domain, blurring a line that ought never to have been frayed but by me and mine. It was thy doing, Kurama, was it not?"

Partly, the Fox shrugged. If he died, I would have gone with him, which would have been inconvenient. Not all of us get to rise from our own ashes so soon after dying. His allies played a part in his revival as well, however.

"What does me dying and being brought back have to do with you? It's not like I can do it every time I die; it was just dumb luck that I ever woke up, wasn't it?"

"Be that so, mortal?" Again Naruto had a feeling that the phoenix was smirking at him. It didn't help that he sounded like Kurama when he said 'mortal,' either. "Consider again what I am, and mayhap it will become clear."

"You're a phoenix," Naruto repeated, staring up at the massive creature with an expression that was a mixture of perplexity and impatience. "I get that me coming back from dying is sort of like what you can do, but I'm not immortal or anything. And that still doesn't answer why you were waiting for me or what you want me to do." Feng blinked twice, as if he had been expecting the answer to those questions to be obvious.

"Youngling, a contract needs must be adhered to. Me and mine may have but one living contractor, and the last hast been deceased many centuries."

He's saying, Kurama offered, That, as you have died and been resurrected after a fashion, you have met the requirements to enter into a summoning contract. The Kyūbi's tone was one of genuine surprise, something that sounded rather disconcerting coming from him. It wasn't often that one could catch an immortal off guard.

For his part, Naruto could only stare, his jaw hanging open unashamedly. He hadn't given the idea of summoning very much thought since his training with Jiraiya, mostly because it had seemed like Kurama wasn't a fan of toads. Now that he was privy to what had happened on the day of his birth, he couldn't exactly blame the Fox either. Still, the thought had been far from his mind, and now it came crashing back with resounding effect.

"You want . . ." he started, feeling lightheaded again. "You want . . . me . . . to sign your contract?" It made some amount of sense given Feng's explanation, but . . . him? He was just a kid – a genin. It wasn't something he had ever looked up, but he was pretty sure that genin weren't normally trusted with things like that. Jiraiya might have some pull with the toads that could have made it happen, and Naruto also had jōnin-level chakra capacity to make it feasible, but he was likely an exception to the rule. He understood that Feng had a pretty limited pool of people to select from, but . . . him?

"Aye, thou. It taketh considerable spirit and strength of will for a mortal to defye fate's designs, and I see that thou hast more valuable qualities than even those. Thy companions meane much to thee." Naruto blinked out of his daze and nodded, still muddling in disbelief from the whole situation. One second he had been plummeting from a cliff, and the next he was talking to a phoenix and being offered a contract because he'd died once a few months before. Was this how these things normally worked?

What do you think, Kurama?

He can hear you, you know.

Shut up – I don't care. What do you think?

I think you would be insane to turn him down. He is one of a handful of true immortals that I know of, and he's powerful. That's not to mention the knowledge that he possesses from the beginnings of what you mortals call time. I mean the real beginning, if there even was one.

Okay, okay; I got it. I just want to get this over with and start heading back to Konoha. You know where we are, so can you get us back?

Aye. Mount Hiuchi is at the northwest corner of Fire Country. Feng-sama's realm spans beyond these borders, even so far as the Land of Earth. Naruto raised an eyebrow at that, and not just at Kurama referring to somebody so respectfully. He thought back on the world maps he had seen at the academy, and realized that the phoenix's territory must stretch well over a hundred kilometers in every direction, into and through two other countries on the way to the Land of Earth.

"Alright . . . I'll do it." Feng nodded, and his beak lifted into what was undoubtedly a birdlike smile.

"Huang, come forth." A light emerged from the feathers of his right wing, appearing as a tiny red dot to Naruto. As it descended, however, it proved to be another phoenix almost identical to Feng, although without the full spectrum of color in its plumage. This one was all the shades of a natural fire, in various reds throughout and points of white at the shoulders and breast. Once the little phoenix got closer, it was clear that it wasn't quite as small as Naruto had thought. It was the size of a large hawk, though its wingspan and tail were more impressive. In its talons hung a small scroll that looked as if it might crumble to dust at any moment, its edges singed black and cracking. "This is my daughter, Huang, borne of my ashes at the time of my last awakening. The scroll she carries is the original, wrought by the first human ever to enter into a contract with me and mine. Sign, Uzumaki Naruto, so that we might become bound as ones who would spurn death itself."

Huang alighted just in front of Naruto, bending to pluck the binding string of the scroll loose with her beak and allowing it to unravel. The ink contained within was faded and peeling, and there were only spaces for five names in total. Three were taken already, the first of which covered in little more than a faint burgundy smear. The second space was taken up by a set of symbols that looked to be tiny images of various things; Naruto recognized a depiction of a valley in one, and of an owl in another. The final occupied area contained a definite signature of some kind, written using symbols that were close to modern day script but still illegible. Under each supposed name was a set of fingerprints, presumably of the individual that had signed above them.

Naruto took a deep breath, remembering what Jiraiya had told him about summoning contracts. He reached up and bit down on his right thumb, his sharp canines doing better than any knife could have in slicing through the skin. With deft strokes – and having to pause every second or third to make a new incision due to the wound closing – he spelled out his full name as precisely as he could manage under the circumstances. He had Iruka to thank for the end result being fairly neat, all things considered. He bit down on his thumb one last time before touching the tip of each finger to it, finally pressing them all down on the parchment just below his name. The blood-ink shimmered the instant his hand withdrew, crimson flames bursting from every line and curve for only an instant before they vanished. His dried blood was left behind, looking all too fresh next to the ancient signatories beside it.

"It is done. Take thy leave from this place, and callest upon me shouldest thou desire mine assistance. There is yet much to discuss, but thy haste is knowne to me. Begone, and may we meete anon."

"Thank you, Feng-sama," Naruto said graciously, affording the phoenix lord a deep bow. "I'll come back to talk after I make sure that my friends are okay, I promise."

Why not just summon him? Kurama smirked.

Shut up, Naruto grumbled, adding after a moment, . . . Good point.

"Huang will serve as thy companion for as long as thou wishest it. Fair thee well, Uzumaki Naruto. And thee, Kurama."

Until we meet again, old friend, Kurama intoned reverently. With that Naruto turned to face southeast, gathered himself, and took off down the side of the volcano. Huang took to a soundless flight, coming to glide easily by his side as he made towards the bottom of the slope.

That seemed really strange, Naruto thought after a moment, sparing a glance for his new companion before continuing. I though contracts like that would be more serious, or at least more formal.

Severity and formality are relative terms, Kurama shrugged. He was probably just glad to have somebody to hold his contract after so long. Naruto blinked.

Why do you say that?

Think about it, kid. If he's been alive for so long, yet has only had three people form a contract with him . . . Well, do the math. That's untold eons without being called for a purpose other than that which he creates for himself. Even immortals can get lonely, I expect.

Is that so? Naruto grinned, and the implication had the Kyūbi scowling at him.

Shut up and run faster. You can probably make it to Konoha by dawn if I help out a little, and don't think I'll lend a hand if you're being a brat.

You'll never stop being an ass, and I'll never stop trying to get on your nerves. So you'd better get used to it and just help out, or I'll start singing and not stop until we get there. Kurama groaned in response, and the chakra cloak whipped up around Naruto a second later. The blond laughed, and Huang tilted her head to one side and trilled a few melodious notes by way of serenading their party. Naruto winked at her, and the Fox snorted in amusement. I think we'll get along just fine, Huang-sama. No words came to his mind like when Feng was speaking, but there was a definite ring of disagreement around the title he had used, and he somehow understood what she was 'saying.' Okay then – Huang-san it is.

Naruto sped through the night, a reddish blur alongside a similarly colored young phoenix. He raced across the desolate landscape of The Ancient Fire's domain, choosing to believe that everyone was still okay. Hinata . . . He grit his teeth and pushed himself to go faster, hoping against all hope that he had gotten her back safely.

Where did I leave off the last time? Kurama asked after a while, keeping his tone purposefully ambivalent. Ah, yes – Kushina had just been kidnapped by shinobi from Kumogakure. It was in the dead of night, and although she was bound she managed to leave a trail of her own hair behind in hope that someone might follow . . . Naruto smiled. The Kyūbi was a pain in the ass a lot of the time, but every once and a while he could do something considerate. There was a long night of traveling ahead of them, but listening to stories about his parents' would make the time fly by.

I'm on my way. Wait for me.


/*\


Naruto stood atop the Hokage monument looking out over the village of Konoha, exhausted but glad to be back home. He had been confronted by an ANBU agent upon entering village territory, but despite her surprised reaction she had let him pass, at least after he had used some of Kurama's chakra to prove that it was him. It had taken most of the night and early morning to get back, and it had be somewhere near three or four in the morning by now. But I'm home, at least. His relief was short lived, however.

Something's not right, Kurama murmured.

What do you mean? I haven't felt anything.

It's not a feeling, kid. Just use your eyes and look closer at what you're standing on. Naruto blinked, and then peered down as the Kyūbi had suggested. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled and stood on end, and he suddenly felt very cold.

I didn't think they could carve one of those in just a few days, he managed to say after a few seconds. Down to his left, set in the cliff next to the visage of Minato, was the unmistakable face of Lady Tsunade. There was no scaffolding to indicate that the project was ongoing; as far as he could tell, it had already been completed.

They can't, unless they've gotten exponentially better at it in the last thirteen years. It takes the craftsmen weeks to carve these likenesses. That kunoichi earlier seemed far too perplexed, also.

Maybe they did just get better at it, Naruto reasoned, shrugging it off as best he could. The village looked the same besides that, and maybe Tsunade had something to do with it. He didn't know much about her, at any rate. I'm going to stop by the tower since we're here, just to report in with Tsunade-sama.

He quickly descended from his perch to the building just below, alighting on the roof just outside of the window to the Hokage's office. I guess she's taking her new job seriously. Tsunade was at her desk poring over an array of scrolls, apparently very intent on her work from what Naruto could tell. Her back was to him, however, so she may very well have been scowling.

Deciding it was best to take the safe route – he didn't want to end up like Jiraiya, after all – he leapt down to the doors and entered, taking the stairs three at a time until he reached the proper floor. Another ANBU operative stood by the door to Tsunade's office, and as Naruto approached he drew his short sword and squared himself facing the blond.

"State your identity, as well as your business with the Godaime." Naruto stopped, then blinked at the masked man.

"Ano . . . Uzumaki Naruto, and I just wanted to report to Tsunade-sama about what happened yesterday, and why it took so long for me to get back." It was the ANBU's turn to blink – or at least Naruto assumed he did. It was more of a balk than anything else, but it was clear that the man was confounded.

"Yesterday?" His tone implied suspicion, and Naruto could only raise an inquisitive eyebrow. "Uzumaki Naruto has been missing for some time, and is believed dead. Prove that you are the genuine article."

"Some time? I've been gone for less than twelve hours!" Naruto huffed, but nevertheless he called the Kyūbi's cloak again as proof. The shroud sprang to life, and he pulled out enough to form the third tail before the guard straightened and nodded.

"That's proof enough. You may enter." He stood aside, and Naruto eyed him for a moment before allowing Kurama's chakra to fade. The blond shrugged, stepped forward, and opened the door.

"It took you long enough to get back," Tsunade said wryly as soon as the door had closed behind Naruto. She hadn't looked up from her work, but Naruto figured that she would have felt his or Kurama's chakra already.

"Why does everybody keep saying that?" Naruto began irritably, scowling at nothing in particular. "I've only been gone for a few hours. Oh, and how'd you get your face put on the monument so fast; was it some kind of jutsu?"

Tsunade froze in the middle of a pen stroke, and it was only then that Naruto believed something really was wrong. Her gaze lifted to see him standing there, looking tired but very much alive, with a large fiery bird perched contentedly on his shoulder. Her lips parted in a wordless question, closed again, then opened after a deep breath and a quick composing of herself. "Naruto, you've been gone for three weeks. Sasuke, Hinata, and Team Gai returned to the village and relayed what happened back in mid-October. It's now the first week of November."

Naruto could only stare, his mouth working for a response – any response. It just wouldn't come. Jiraiya had warned them about the risks associated with the Hiraishin; had he truly been transported into the future on accident? It hadn't been among the possibilities that the Sannin had listed, but he had also noted that it was unpredictable. It was messing with the space-time continuum, after all, and that meant that time would obviously be included in possible mishaps – or applications. He had managed to not only to miss his target by hundreds of kilometers, but he had also missed his target timeby several weeks. A chill ran up his spine at that realization. He truly understood what Jiraiya had meant by the jutsu being dangerous, and Kurama had been right: he had gotten lucky.

"But you're alive," Tsunade continued, watching Naruto closely, "And you seem unharmed, although I expect your chakra reserves are depleted – again." She smiled then, and her eyes twinkled a little in the faint lamplight. He idly wondered if that was a trait inherited by every Hokage. "I know a few people who will be more than pleased to see you, and I suggest you get going to greet them."

"I will," Naruto said slowly, his head still spinning at the new revelation. But Tsunade was right; he was back now, and that's what really mattered. "Thank you, Tsunade-sama. Is Hinata . . . Is she . . .?"

"Hinata's fine," she replied, smirking a little before stifling a yawn. "It was wise of you to utilize the jutsu you did to save her, rather than risk both of your lives with the Hiraishin. She sustained a concussion and some minor internal damage, but she was able to leave the hospital after only a few days." Naruto breathed a sigh of relief at that, and Tsunade tilted her head to one side and peered curiously at Huang. "By the way . . . When did you get a pet?"

"Oh, sorry. This is Huang-san, the daughter of Feng-sama, who's The Ancient Fire or something. I landed on his volcano last night, and he wanted me to sign a contract since I've died once, I guess. So I guess I'm kinda friends with the phoenixes now, although I feel like there are only two of them." He glanced at Huang, who tilted her head at him before nodding once. "Yep, two. Huang-san is supposed to follow me around, or at least Feng-sama said so. She made it easier to see on my way back." Huang crooned and looked generally pleased with herself, at least as much as a bird could. Tsunade, though, looked stunned enough that one might think she had just won a game of dice. Her eyes were a little wide and glued to the phoenix, and her mouth was hanging slightly open.

"I ah . . . I see . . ." she coughed after a time, once again having to compose herself. This boy never ceases to surprise me. Of all the contracts he could have found, for it to be phoenixes . . . Tsunade shook her head, the amused smile returning to her features. "Well, we can discuss this more later. Right now, I think it's more important that you get home and let everyone know that you're okay. Report back here this evening so that I can get your full report of your part in the kidnapping, as well as what happened after you disappeared."

"Will do, Tsunade-sama. Thanks again!" he called back, already halfway to the door.

"Oh, Iruka has since moved . . ." She trailed off and rolled her eyes. Naruto was already gone. "You'll figure it out," she sighed, going back to her work with another shake of her head. Still, she couldn't keep the smirk from tugging at the corners of her lips. He is something else.


As much as he wanted to head straight home, Sasuke's apartment was close to the academy, and it was only right to stop by and explain what had happened. He landed at the building's entrance and tugged at the door, only to find it locked tight. He made a face and leapt upwards, jumping between balconies until he arrived at the right one. Without preamble he rapped on the sliding glass door a few times, waiting until a light came on inside. A very sleepy-looking Haku appeared at the door, blinking blearily through the glass before his eyes snapped open wide.

"Naruto-kun!" he cried, tearing open the door and flinging himself at the blond. Naruto had work to keep his balance as the older boy hit him with a rib-cracking hug.

"Hey, Haku," Naruto sputtered, trying to pry him off and laughing a little while doing so. "It's good to see you, too, but I guess it's a little different from your end." Haku stepped back and raised a curious eyebrow, though he was still beaming.

"I'm not sure what you mean, but – oh, Sasuke! Sasuke, Naruto-kun's back!" Haku yelled through the door. Sasuke was at the door in under two seconds, although he still managed to make it look casual. His hair was a little disheveled, and he was just wearing a black t-shirt and shorts, but he looked wide awake.

"It's about time, you damned idiot," he growled, stalking the last few steps to his friend and landing a solid punch on Naruto's shoulder. The blond grinned fiercely and returned the blow, then was surprised when Sasuke pulled him into a quick one-armed hug. "If you keep doing reckless shit like that, I swear I'll kill you myself one day."

"It really has been three weeks, hasn't it?" Naruto sighed, scratching behind one ear as his friend withdrew. Sasuke raised an eyebrow in a very similar manner to Haku, and so Naruto told them. He kept it brief, not wanting to wait too dawdle there too long. The explanation of what had gone wrong with the Hiraishin was simple enough to relay, but the meeting with Feng took a bit of embellishing. It took nearly twenty minutes to finish, and by the end of it both older boys were seated and shaking their heads.

"You're lucky to have landed so close, in both space and time," Sasuke muttered.

"That's what Kurama said," Naruto agreed, though he shrugged and glanced at Huang, who was now perched contentedly on the balcony's railing. "But I guess it wasn't all bad, considering the contract. Who would have thought that dying would help me out one day?" Despite everything that had happened, Sasuke found himself smirking, and Haku let out a little giggle. Naruto was back, after all; why shouldn't they be happy? "Anyway, you guys can come with me when I report to Tsunade-sama tomorrow and hear all about it. Right now, though, I need to get home."

"Oh, Iruka-sensei and Hinata moved into a new apartment while you were gone," Sasuke said as they stood, nodding towards the south. "It's the building right behind Ichiraku, funny enough. Top floor, Unit Eleven. Here, one sec." He disappeared into the apartment then, leaving Naruto confused in his wake. They had talked about moving a few weeks before – in the time period Naruto knew, anyway – but he hadn't expected it to happen so soon. Iruka probably had a good reason for it, though. Sasuke returned a moment later and flicked a small key at him. "Hinata gave me a key for emergencies, and I think this counts as one. Just get it back to me whenever."

"Thanks, Sasuke." Naruto extended his fist, and Sasuke rapped his knuckles in response. "I'll see you both tomorrow – lunch is at Ichiraku, on me!" He grinned at the pair before jumping onto the railing and diving off, heading towards his new home in the pale light of an approaching dawn.


Naruto wasn't surprised to find Iruka gone when he slipped into the apartment. It was the middle of the week, and the instructor always woke extremely early to arrive at the academy with enough time to prepare his lessons. He scanned around briefly, finding a note addressed to Hinata on the counter.

I know you'll be out all day again, so be safe and do your best for Naruto. I was thinking about inviting everyone out for barbeque tonight, so make sure you work up an appetite!

- Iruka

That got Naruto smiling a little; he was glad that things seemed to be okay, at least. He moved silently down the hall, Huang gliding by his side like a bright, weightless spectre. The first door he opened to find an empty bedroom, although it very clearly wasn't his. The crème-colored bed sheets looked new, as did the plush violet comforter atop them. He closed the door after spying a bra and pair of panties lying atop the dresser – definitely not his room. The next door opened into a bathroom, complete with sinks and a bathing area, and had doors on either side that presumably led into the adjoining bedrooms.

Naruto opened the last door on the right very slowly, and immediately recognized many of the things that had been in his old room. His heart skipped a beat when his eyes fell upon the bed, where a familiar green blanket was wrapped around a small, trembling form. He slipped inside without making a sound, tentatively approaching the bed with his breath caught in his throat. Naruto leaned down very slowly, easing the blanket back enough to glimpse Hinata's face. The sight made him ache to the core of his being.

She seemed peaceful enough in sleep, but the sheets under her head were stained dark from the aftermath of far too many tears. Her nose was a little red, covered like her cheeks with salty streaks leftover from hours of mourning. Her brow knitted slightly when the blanket was pulled back, but she only shivered and tried to tug it back up.

It struck Naruto then just how hard it must have been for everybody. What had been less than a day for him had been a nightmarish three weeks for those that knew him, and Hinata most of all. He had been in such a hurry to get back that, even after being told about the time lapse, he hadn't considered the impact that his vanishing would have on those close to him. He tried to imagine how he might feel if Hinata had just . . . disappeared. It was hard to even think about, and she had lived through it for weeks.

He crawled onto the bed beside Hinata, careful not to disturb her. He didn't try to get under the blanket, instead just moving close and putting his arms around her. She murmured something unintelligible in her fitful slumber, reacting to his warmth and pressing in against his chest. Naruto smiled, settling down and placing a light kiss on her forehead. Hinata let out contented sigh, and her quivering gradually ceased. She wouldn't know the reason until she woke, but that night's sleep would be the best in recent memory.

Huang watched the young couple for a few minutes, her head turning this way and that as if intrigued. She hovered a meter off the ground, her wings unfurled but not beating to keep her aloft. After a time the phoenix glided over to the unused pillow at the end of the bed, settling down with her beautiful plumage spread behind her. The fire didn't so much as singe the linens, and the pillow barely even compressed under her bodyweight.

The morning sunlight spilled out across Konoha as they slept, bathing the village in warm splendor that fought away the night's chill. There were no enemies lurking nearby ready to steal away their peace, no dark forces ready to pounce the moment they allowed themselves to rest. Their world was quiet for now, and they could sleep without fear of another tragic tomorrow. They had earned that much, at least.


Author's Note:

Heya folks – it's been a minute!

There's no real definitive end to one arc and the next in this story, but the current storyline is coming to a close between this and the next chapter. From here we slow down a little to recoup from the craziness that was the last ~30k words and get ready for the rescheduled Chūnin Exam, which hopefully won't be interrupted by giant snakes!

Note for Ye Olde English snobs here: Feng's dialect is based off of Middle English, and when I say it's based off of it, it's based off of it. I am not an authority on the subject, but I did my best to use it as a literary tool to convey his age and the idea that immortals can be more naturally stubborn to change. So if there are errors in my Middle English verb conjugations or there's a 'thy' where there should be a 'thine,' please forgive my slight. =P

Many thanks to you all for reading, following, favoriting, and reviewing as always. My drive to continue writing this story comes from those that have a desire to read and share it, so it is as much your creation as it is mine. Speaking of which: shout-out to the guy/gal that shared CFKD on the Naruto fanfiction subreddit. You know who you are, and you're awesome. A special thanks to Rhi for editing this chapter for me, and for doing a wonderful job as always.

See you next time!

Wes