Chapter 26 – A Kindling Alliance

Naruto coughed as he stumbled around within the cloud of debris, rubbing at his eyes to clear away both the dust and sleepiness. Something ceramic crunched beneath his foot – a piece of shower tile, maybe? A bruise would doubtless form on his lower back from where it had broken the sink into a hundred pieces, but that was one of his lesser concerns for the time being. A melodious avian cry rang through the apartment after a moment, followed by a gust of wind that cleared the haze away in an instant. He was left blinking rapidly through a vaguely Naruto-shaped hole in the wall; Huang hovered on the other side, her head tilted in a silent question.

"Thanks Huang-san," he breathed, adding after a second of 'listening' to her, "Yeah, I'm fine, and no – I don't think she meant to do that." The phoenix cocked her head to the other side before gliding over to him, settling down to perch on his shoulder.

"Naruto . . .?" Hinata appeared where Huang had been, her eyes wide and filled with tears. But wariness and fear had found their way in as well, and she made no further move towards him. Instead she merely stared for several long seconds, taking in Naruto's disheveled appearance and that of his new companion. "Is it really . . . A-are you really here?"

"It's me, Hinata," he said with a broad grin, spreading his arms. "Can'tcha tell?" She shook her head, not willing to be tricked. If it was an enemy looking to prey on her distress, it wasn't going to happen.

"What's your least favorite food?" she asked suddenly. Naruto raised an eyebrow, then made a face at her.

"Uncooked vegetables – and most even if they are cooked."

"What's the name of your prisoner?"

"Kurama, and he's my partner."

"How did we first meet?"

"You, me, and Sasuke teamed up in that group sparring match back in our first year at the academy."

"What sometimes happens when we kiss?"

"I ah . . . accidentally bite your lip with my fangs."

"What . . . What do you always say to me before we go on a mission?"

"Be safe."

Hinata was struggling to maintain her composure now, and had already stepped most of the way through the gap in the wall. She reached out towards his face as she approached, but hesitated a few centimeters away. She bit her lower lip and closed her eyes before asking the last question. "W-what did you tell me . . . when you woke up in the h-hospital after Suna attacked?" There was no doubt in her mind that it was really Naruto when he grinned, but she waited for the answer regardless.

"That I love you, silly." Naruto – and it really was Naruto – reached up and put a hand on her shoulder, looking her directly in the eyes and smiling that brilliant, goofy smile that he always did. "It's me, Hinata. I promise."

Words weren't at all sufficient to express the overflow of emotions that took hold of Hinata at that moment. She choked on a sob and flung herself forward with enough force to knock Naruto back into the remains of the sink and to the ground, wrapping her arms around his waist so tightly that it seemed she would never let go.

"W-where have you b-been?" Hinata cried, burying her face into his shirt. "I-it's been three weeks, and – and I . . . W-we searched for you, b-but I–" There were too many questions to voice, and she wanted to ask them all at once. Naruto wrapped his arms around her, not sure what else he could do. To him it had been only a day, but after talking to Tsunade, Sasuke, and Haku, he knew that it had actually been much longer than that. "And what . . . W-what is that?" She sniffed a few times before lifting her head to stare up at his shoulder, Huang's flickering plumage reflecting in her teary eyes.

"Well, it's kind of a crazy story . . ." Naruto began.

It took a little while to explain what had happened, from when he had leapt off of the cliff to save her until he had returned the night before. It had all flown past so quickly on his end that he was able to finish the explanation in half an hour – though that was longer than it had taken to tell Sasuke and Haku. Hinata needed all of the details, he felt. Her tears were dry by the time he finished, although she hadn't moved to get up. After three long weeks of searching and despairing, any distance between them was too much.

"Only a day . . ." Hinata sighed, snuggled a little closer, and then took a deep, steadying breath. She smelled a lot of dust, ash, and a bit of sulfur, but underneath it all was Naruto. For the first time in weeks she felt relief and contentment, as if simply by being close again he had lifted some invisible weight from her mind. "We have a lot to catch up on, but . . . you're back. That's what matters right now." She slowly pushed herself back up, lifting her face towards his and unashamedly pressing into a fierce kiss, one that she'd been subconsciously saving for when he returned. After a moment of surprise he returned it, only to wince a few seconds in.

"Sorry . . ." he murmured. Hinata only laughed softly before licking the blood from her lower lip.

"Don't be," she cooed, resting her head against his chest again. "I missed that about you, too." They lay there together for a time, neither speaking nor moving, instead simply catching up on time lost. After a few minutes, Hinata blinked and lifted her head abruptly. "Have you told Iruka-sensei or Kakashi-sensei that you're back yet?" Naruto blinked gave her a sheepish grin.

"Ah . . . Not yet. I sort of wanted to get back to see you first." That caused a light blush to spring to her cheeks, but she still clicked her tongue and pushed herself up, taking Naruto's hand and dragging him with her.

"Well come on!" Her mood had transitioned rapidly from extreme apprehension, to relief, and finally to overjoyed. The young Hyūga was glowing.

"Shouldn't we clean up around here?" he asked, glancing around at the wreckage. Hinata blinked, then appeared to take in their surroundings for the first time. Her blush grew gradually into a bright flush as her lips started to move wordlessly. It took a few seconds to get anything out, but she seemed pretty flustered when it finally did.

"We . . . We probably should," she said faintly. She turned back to her boyfriend with a piteous, exhortingly apologetic look in her eyes. "I'm so sorry, Naruto. I didn't mean to push you like that, I promise! I was just so shocked and I panicked and just moved automatically and – oh, what is Iruka-sensei going to think? We only just moved in and now I've–"

"Hinata," Naruto laughed, putting his hands on her shoulders and pulling her into a hug. "It's okay. I know it was an accident, and Iruka-sensei isn't going to hold it against you. It was my fault for surprising you, anyway." Huang clucked her agreement from his shoulder. Hinata took another deep breath and nodded, trying to settle the myriad of thoughts and emotions flying around in her head.

"Okay . . . Thank you, Naruto." Hinata looked up and met his gaze, giving him an excited smile made all the more dazzling by her beautiful, shimmering eyes. "And welcome home."


/*\


Stopping by the academy to see Iruka caused a lot more commotion than Naruto had expected. As he and Hinata passed people in the streets, most startled expressions rapidly turned sour; it seemed that there were many who weren't glad to see him back. There were a handful of individuals that smiled at the pair, though, enough that Naruto was genuinely surprised. According to Hinata, a good number of people had expressed concern to either her or one of their friends while he had been gone. The attitudes of some were changing, although it was a slow process.

Iruka nearly broke down in front of his class when the couple arrived at his door unannounced. He managed to muster the grace to step out before pulling Naruto into a suffocating bear hug. They could both tell that the chūnin was doing his best not to cry, but Hinata especially could see the unshed tears threatening to overflow. She had seen him holding back for far too long. It took some convincing, but Naruto managed to assure Iruka that they would both be back for dinner.

"Welcome back, Naruto," a familiar voice called from a nearby. Hinata and Naruto stopped as they exited the academy, standing together in the shade of a lone tree that hosted a single swing. She laced her fingers between his and squeezed, and he grinned.

"Hey Kakashi-sensei, and . . . Sasuke, Haku?" Naruto asked, turning his gaze up towards the tree branches. Sure enough, their teacher sat lounging against the trunk on a high bough, only just lowering his book to look down at his students. He vanished and reappeared in front of them, with Haku and Sasuke landing on either side of him a second later.

"These two briefed me on what happened. It's a good thing you didn't get sent too far into the future, or else you might have missed the rescheduled Chūnin Exams." His smirk couldn't be hidden completely by the mask. Naruto grinned, although the expression dwindled quickly. Something had been bothering him all morning.

"Sensei, I don't really understand what happened. Jiraiya-sensei said that things like this could happen if the jutsu isn't done right, but . . . I don't feel like any time passed." He wrinkled his nose, still trying to wrap his head around the idea that he had traveled through time, if only for a brief period. "My hair didn't grow any, and I fell on Feng-sama's volcano right after I teleported. How could three weeks have passed for everybody else if only a day did for me? And does that mean that–"

"Naruto," Kakashi interjected, holding up a hand and shaking his head. "I could answer your questions with only observational assumptions and guesses, but I don't have any real answers for you. Jiraiya would be able to give you better explanations than I could. For now, I would avoid using that technique until he says you're ready." Naruto blinked, but nodded. It felt a little strange that Kakashi hadn't told him not to use it, but rather suggested that he don't. "Good. Let's head to the Hokage's office now; Tsunade-sama is expecting us."


/*\


Detailing the events – again – took about as long as it had that morning, but it would hopefully be the second-to-last time he would need to. Iruka deserved a full story as well. Naruto and his team all stood together in front of Tsunade's desk, listening intently while he spoke about the mountain, his meeting with Feng, and the journey back to Konoha. Following his tale, Tsunade took a moment to fill him in on the fallout in regards to the Sound Five, and she also handed him a paper voucher.

"A hundred and fifty thousand ryō?!" Naruto balked, eyes widening when he saw the amount. "What for?!"

"Kimimaro Kaguya was listed in the Hidden Mist's Bingo Book, with a bounty of just over a million ryō. Each of your teammates – and Haku – received the same amount, as did each member of Team Gai. Technically, the bounty should have been split between just the six of them, but they insisted it be given equally to all seven." She shrugged and leaned back in her chair, a little smirk tugging at the corner of her lips. "You've got some loyal friends, Naruto."

"Yeah, they're pretty much the best," he confirmed, squeezing Hinata's hand and winking sideways at Sasuke and Haku.

"Well, since you're all here," Tsunade continued, rummaging through a few stacks of papers on her desk, "I'm sure that Kakashi has informed you, but the Chūnin Exam is a little less than a month away now, and he has recommended that all three of you retake it." Naruto quirked an eyebrow and glanced up at his instructor.

"You recommended me?" he asked curiously. Kakashi shrugged.

"I figured you'd want to take the exam if you got back in time for it. Was I wrong?"

"No! But . . . You really believed I would be back?" The jōnin smiled knowingly, the expression seen only in his visible eye, and his other students did as well.

"We all knew you'd come back, Naruto." The blond beamed up at him, rubbing behind his head with one hand in a sheepish manner. He didn't really know what to say to that, but he felt warm appreciation for his friends blossoming inside of him.

"Warm fuzzies will need to wait for later," Tsunade cut in, although she was smirking as well. "Naruto and Sasuke, you are both allowed to bypass the first exam based on your ranking in the previous one. The village leaders have unanimously agreed that all contestants that made it to the third stage are eligible for this." The boys in question felt positively about it for all of an instant before they realized the omitted detail: Hinata was part of their team and hadn't made it to the third stage.

"Hinata," she continued, glancing down at a piece of paper. "You were among those that were selected from the preliminaries to be given the same option, based on your performance against Neji."

"But Tsunade-sama," Hinata began, clearly confused at the turn of events, "I lost the match against my cousin."

"That's true," Tsunade conceded, "But chūnin are not selected based on winning and losing. You came close to defeating an opponent that was stronger than you, through sheer determination and intellectual aptitude. As a matter of fact, if I recall correctly you only lost because you refused to deal a fatal blow to your opponent. Is that correct?" Hinata hesitated, but gave a reluctant nod after a moment.

"I can't say for certain, but . . . I think that if I had risked killing Neji-nīsan, I might have won the match, yes."

"As we suspected," the Hokage nodded. "That was the main reason that we granted you an exception. Do not forget, Hinata: being a shinobi isn't about succeeding at all costs. It's about finding the best solution in any given circumstance, and I would argue that your decision in this instance was for the best, even if it did cost you entrance to the final exam." Hinata wasn't sure what to say at first. After some fidgeting and flushing, she bowed low and spoke graciously.

"Thank you, Tsunade-sama."

"That's all the business I have for you. Now, if you'll–"

"Ano, Tsunade-sama?" Naruto started, causing the woman to blink herself into silence. "What happened with Gaara?" Her expression darkened, and she sat back with her arms folded.

"Nothing," she said flatly. "He hasn't said a word in the last three weeks – not to anybody. Attempts to get information out of him have been fruitless. For now he is still our prisoner, and his siblings are our guests. They are allowed to visit him once a day, but Gaara hasn't spoken to them either." Naruto frowned, adding to his increasingly troubled look.

"Do you think I could go see him?" he asked hopefully. He expected Tsunade to deny him flat out, but she surprised him.

"If you'd like," she responded evenly, rifling through some more papers until she found one she was looking for. She scribbled a quick signature on it and held it out. "I had a feeling you'd want to, and had this prepared just in case. It'll get you into the lower levels of this tower and into the high security cell block – with an escort, of course."

"Thanks." Naruto took the paper and folded it into his pocket. "Where are Temari and Kankurō staying? I think I want to talk to them first."

"They have a suite in the Maple Leaf Inn just down the street. I hear that they don't leave much, so you might be able to see them now."

"Thank you, Tsunade-sama," Kakashi intoned, bowing with his students. She nodded and dismissed them, swiveling in her chair to look out the window after they had departed.

"Shizune," she sighed. Her summoned attendant phased into the room through one of the bookcases, carrying her pet pig Tonton. "Did you get all of that?"

"Yes, Tsunade-sama. What do you make of it?"

"It certainly seems like Naruto, especially if Hinata is convinced; she and Iruka know him best, after all. But . . . just to make sure, have an ANBU agent watch him until I can speak to Iruka. There's no reason to throw caution to the wind, especially with all that's happened to them recently."

"Yes, Tsunade-sama." Shizune turned to leave, but Tsunade caught her with a last query, one with a pointedly sly tone to it.

"Oh, and speaking of Iruka . . ."

"I don't think now is the appropriate time for that!" Shizune replied, clearly flustered by her superior's suggestion. "Naruto's only just gotten back, and – and there's no need to rush things!" Tsunade chuckled and waved her hand.

"Maybe later, then."


/*\


"Oh, you're alive," Kankurō muttered through the cracked door. He opened it fully and stepped aside for Team Seven to enter, though he didn't seem too happy to see them. "Temari," he called. "That kid's here finally."

"Naruto-kun, right?" Temari stepped out from a door just down the hall, and Naruto and Sasuke both felt heat rise in their cheeks. The older girl stood at the center of the hallway, one hand holding up her damp hair while the other retrieved hair pins held between her lips to fix into the blonde locks. She wore absolutely nothing outside of a plain white towel, fastened tightly just above her bosom and barely reaching down to her upper thigh. Her tanned skin glistened with droplets of water, still clinging from a presumed bath.

"Er . . . Yeah . . ." Naruto mumbled dopily. Hinata was flushed a bright red as well, but it wasn't nearly for the same reasons that the boys were. She kept flicking her eyes back and forth between Naruto and the other girl, as if unable to decide what to do while feeling the need to do something. The poor Hyūga had no idea why her chest had suddenly gone hot, and she didn't particularly like the feelings she was experiencing.

"We came to talk to you about Gaara," Sasuke put in finally, managing to take his eyes off of the luscious sixteen-year-old to spare a glance at his friend. He knew immediately what was going through Hinata's mind. He dug an elbow into Naruto's ribs with little in the way of remorse, snapping the blond out of his daze. "And yeah, this oaf is back. Put some clothes on, and we can talk." Temari quirked an eyebrow at the Uchiha, but only pretended to simper before turning to saunter back into the bathroom, swaying her hips a bit more than was likely necessary.

"Conceited bitch," Kankurō muttered as the trio came in, almost sounding as if he was apologizing. "Going on a month cooped up in here with her, and it gets worse every day."

"A-aren't you two siblings?" Hinata asked, still trying to shake the odd emotions away. Naruto gave her a sidelong look, undoubtedly a result of her stutter. She scolded herself inwardly, visibly calming after a few seconds. A few weeks of her boyfriend missing was no excuse to have emotional swings.

"Yeah . . . and?" He sighed and slumped down to sit on one of the two beds occupying their standard hotel room. "By the way, weren't you dead?" he asked bluntly, turning a quizzical eye on Naruto.

"It's a long story," he responded shortly, taking a seat opposite the older boy.

"You can drop the friendly act," Sasuke commented dryly. "We haven't forgotten that you and your village tried to kill us, or that you succeeded in murdering a good number of people." Kankurō grimaced, but before he could reply Temari stepped out from the washroom again, this time fully clothed.

"All of that was done on the Kazekage's orders. Or rather, on what we thought were the Kazekage's orders. You should know the story by now." She sat down beside her brother and crossed her legs, folding her hands in her lap before winking at Naruto. "Well, perhaps not you, cutie." Naruto blinked and raised an eyebrow, more curious about what she was talking about than her lattermost statement. Hinata felt that odd heat building in the pit of her stomach again, but she ignored it. "Orochimaru took advantage of Suna's poor economic status and manipulated us into invading Konoha. Before we arrived here, he killed our father – the Yondaime Kazakage – and took his place. Most of us didn't want to take part in the plan in the first place."

"You seemed pretty willing during the exam," Naruto countered, stuck between feeling sorry for them and being angry with her nonchalance. Her dad had been killed, and she didn't even seem fazed.

"Never let your enemies read your thoughts," Temari shrugged. "I wasn't about to hesitate with the rest of our forces putting their lives on the line. I wanted to leave, but . . ."

"Gaara," Kankurō finished for her. She nodded, and let him continue. "It was our father's plan to use him as the centerpiece of the assault. He was . . . He was an alright kid growing up. He didn't have any friends, really, but he had us. But one day our uncle Yashamaru, under orders from the Kazekage, tried to kill him. We're not really sure of the details, but . . . He changed that day. He carved the symbol for 'love' into his forehead with the sand, and ever since he's been darker, more withdrawn, and . . ."

"Scarier by the minute," Temari breathed in closing. She shook her head and folded her arms. "Shukaku's influence has been growing, and we all know it. We think it was our father's plan all along, to turn our younger brother into a sociopathic killing machine." Naruto opened his mouth to speak, but Hinata beat him to it; she had seen the confused look on his face.

"Why would his own father want him to be isolated and devoid of a moral conscience?" Naruto flashed an appreciative smile at her for the explanation of the word, but already his hands were balling into fists.

"He would have done it to one of us if he could have," Temari nearly spat. "We weren't compatible with the Ichibi, and so he had it sealed into Gaara while he was still in the womb. He didn't want a child; all he wanted was a weapon."

They understood now why the two siblings spoke so dismissively about the Kazekage. Naruto felt over a decade of resentment boiling up inside of him, but he wouldn't let it out here. Hinata put her hand over his, and Sasuke nudged his arm on the other side. Those two simple actions washed away the anger, and he found himself smiling faintly. Huang – still perched on his shoulder – let out a soft crooning sound, as if she was also trying to contribute.

Yes, you could consider yourself lucky, Kurama put in. There aren't many humans like your guardian in the world, nor others like your friends that accept you despite my presence. Even so, I doubt any of that would have made a difference for Gaara.

What do you mean? Why not?

Shukaku is arrogant, and he delights in killing. Even before becoming captured by the Hidden Sand, he sought out and slaughtered humans for sport. I described him as mad before, and although it is a fitting description, it is not wholly accurate. He is cunning, and though the weakest of the nine bijū, he is still strong.

I get all of that, Naruto responded impatiently, ignoring the odd looks he was getting from the two opposite him. Hinata and Sasuke frequently told him that he always got a vacant expression on his face when speaking to Kurama. But why wouldn't real friends have helped Gaara?

Because of Shukaku's personality, the Fox sighed, as if it were obvious. And I suspect partially due to his seal. Minato designed your seal as a means to cut me off from you, but to also allow you limited access to my chakra. Whoever sealed Shukaku was either not as skilled as your father, or purposefully allowed the tanuki access to Gaara's mind. You've met the Ichibi; imagine having that in your head all the time growing up. Naruto thought about it, and shivered.

"Kur—ah, the Kyūbi thinks it's probably Gaara's seal that's the problem. It might have been designed to let Shukaku influence him." Sasuke and Hinata nodded thoughtfully, but Temari and Kankurō only stared at him for a few seconds before blurting out a scandalized question.

"You talk to that thing?!" they demanded in unison. Naruto shrugged.

"Yeah, we get along okay. We worked things out about four months ago." He stopped, thought about it for a second, and then amended his statement. "Er, actually five months ago now."

Did I mention that you're also lucky that I'm so reasonable?

Shut up.

"Well . . ." Kankurō started, eyeing Naruto with a bit of uncertainty. "We've talked about it a few times now, but even if that is the case, it doesn't help us. Gaara's locked up, doesn't want to see anybody, and I doubt there's anyone skilled enough with fūinjutsu to fix his seal."

"Sure there is. I bet Jiraiya-sensei would do it." Again the siblings blinked at him, their eyes going a bit wide.

"Jiraiya? As in one of the legendary Sannin? He is your sensei?" Temari shook her head and slumped back. "No wonder you kids are so strong."

"We're strong because we trained ourselves to be strong," Sasuke said tersely. "We've had great teachers, but in the end it's up to the student to excel."

"And we've always had each other," Hinata offered, receiving nods from her teammates. "I know I wouldn't be where I am today without Sasuke and Naruto." In more ways than one, she thought absently.

"Why don't we go see Gaara now?" Naruto stood up and glanced to his shoulder. "Huang-san, can you go find Jiraiya-sensei for me? I'd start looking near the hot springs and bathhouses. If he's not there, try any place that serves alcohol." Huang dipped her head by way of acknowledgement before promptly vanishing in a flash of flame.

"Jinchūriki to a friendly bijū, studies under a Sannin, has a freaking phoenix pet . . ." Kankurō shook his head, unable to stop himself from smirking. "Really, Temari; who is this kid?"

"I told you not to forget my name," Naruto replied, though he was grinning back at the older boy. "Uzumaki Naruto, future Hokage!"


/*\


"Pesky bird . . ." Jiraiya muttered, rubbing at a tender, hand-shaped area on his cheek. "Could have waited until I was finished writing." Huang hissed at the old man from Naruto's shoulder, but made no further 'comment.'

"I asked her to get you, sensei," the blond remarked, standing from the bench just outside of the hotel. "Sorry she interrupted your . . . stuff . . . but this is important."

"Good to see you too, kid. Now what do you want?"

Naruto explained the situation as succinctly as he could, with Sasuke and Hinata pitching in here and there. By the end of it, Jiraiya had his arms folded and brow furrowed. He glanced around for a few seconds before offering a reply.

"Where are the emissaries?"

"Temari and Kankurō? They went on ahead to let Gaara know we're coming."

"That we're coming, huh?" Jiraiya clicked his tongue and rubbed at his stubbled chin, thinking. "Well, I can do it – probably, but I'd need to get the kid's permission, as well as Tsunade's. There's also the possibility that Shukaku could force his way out as a defensive mechanism if we're not careful, and even if we are it's still a risk." He tilted his head to one side, studying the three genin for a few moments. "What makes you want to fix him so bad?"

"It's not fixing him," Naruto said before the other two could even think to respond. "It's helping. He's just like me, only he had to go through more crap than I did growing up."

"He isn't just like you," Jiraiya snapped, his tone frosty enough to take them aback. "Naruto, I know you feel like you share an odd kinship with Gaara, but your similarities end with the circumstances of your births. He may be a jinchūriki as well, but that doesn't mean that sealing the Ichibi away is going to make him a different person. If he is beyond recovery, he'll likely be executed, and the bijū will be sealed inside of a different host. All three of you will need to come to terms with that."

"And if he isn't?" Hinata asked after several seconds of tense silence. "What happens if he's okay?"

"That decision will rest with Tsunade, although I don't foresee her executing Suna's impotent jinchūriki. He'll probably be used as a substantial bargaining chip in negotiations for a peace treaty, if I had to guess."

The boy will be far from impotent even with the most advanced sealing technique, Kurama growled. He sounded more annoyed than usual. We bijū value our continued existence as fiercely as any other. Shukaku would not allow his container to be left defenseless, one way or another.He would find a way.

You're creepy sometimes. Aloud, Naruto directed his attention back to Jiraiya. "Alright, I understand. Will you do it, then?"

"I need to discuss it with Tsunade first, but . . . I'll do what I can." It was a noncommittal answer, but it was all the Sage was willing to give for the time being. "Before we go, however, I need to make something clear to you three." Naruto, Sasuke, and Hinata stopped mid-stride, blinking up at him curiously. Jiraiya extended a hand towards Naruto's forehead and struck his hitai-ate with a sharp flick. The minor blow caused the youth to stagger back and fall onto the bench, although he was back on his feet in an instant.

"What was that for?!" Naruto demanded, rubbing at his brow just below the headband. Before he was allowed to get genuinely angry, Jiraiya pulled him into a quick one-armed hug.

"For almost dying, you stupid kid. I'm your godfather, remember?" He released Naruto and shook his head. "I realize that you thought it was necessary to use the Hiraishin – and maybe it was. From what I heard, you wouldn't have had much time to think of an alternative. Regardless . . ." The Sage narrowed his eyes and allowed his chakra to surge for only a second, the force of it enough to push the trio backwards and down onto their seats again. "I want all three of you to give me your word that you will not use the Hiraishin until I say you can."

"But–" Sasuke began, but Jiraiya cut in before he could get another word out.

"No. There will be no excuses, and there will be no exceptions. I've told you how dangerous that jutsu is. Naruto could easily have ended up dead in innumerable ways. He could have ended up in the deepest part of the ocean, instantly crushed by the pressure. He could have ended up on the moon, only to have to wait for the lack of oxygen to kill him while he slowly lost consciousness. He could have ended up inside of that volcano instead of on top of it. There are many more ways that one can die using the Hiraishin than to live." He let the sharp words sink in for a few seconds before turning his tone more docile again. "So until I say that you may try it – which will be under my strict supervision only – none of you will attempt the technique again. Understood?"

"Not to be um – Not to be impudent, Jiraiya-sensei, but . . . How would you know if we used it or not?" Hinata asked tentatively.

"Yeah, and what could you really do if we decided to keep using it?" Naruto put in. Jiraiya hit him with a stare that could have turned milk sour. The blond paled, and added quickly, "N-n-not that we would, of course!"

"You each have a simple tracing jutsu on you, and I'll be able to tell if you move from one place to another – or outside of the area that I can sense – faster than you ought to." Three pairs of eyes widened, then immediately began scanning every bit of exposed skin looking for jutsu-shiki.

"When did you . . .?" Naruto ventured, wondering if the old man was just lying to them. Sasuke sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose in agitation, and Hinata only looked dismayed.

"When he knocked us back with his chakra," the Uchiha grumbled, folding his arms.

"That's right, and if I find out that any of you have used the Hiraishin without my permission, I'll apply a seal that won't allow you to use it or any other space-time ninjutsu. Ever." Their expressions ranged from distressed to indignant, but nobody put up any further arguments. They had a feeling that the Sage wasn't messing around.

"We hadn't planned to use it anyway," Naruto mumbled, finally standing with his friends. "Can we go now?" Jiraiya only nodded once before turning towards the Hokage's tower, and the young trio followed a few steps behind. "What a jerk . . ."

"Seriously," Sasuke muttered. "Could've just told us not to use it."

"He's worried about us," Hinata whispered. "I think it's just his way of making sure we're safe." Her friends shrugged, although they both nodded begrudgingly after a moment. Hinata was seldom wrong when it came to interpreting others' intentions.

"Well, I don't know about you guys, but I want to be able to use my dad's jutsu as soon as I can." Naruto's eyes travelled up over the rooftops until they settled upon the fourth great rock face – upon the visage of Namikaze Minato. I'll make you proud, dad.


/*\


The torch-lit halls below the tower were familiar to Team Seven; it hadn't been all that long since they had defended Haku there. Their escort led them off of the main corridor and down more stairs, leading to a level with cold stone walls and foreboding shadows. Heavy metal doors lined the long hallway, all completely solid with no way to see inside. Sounds from within the cells were muffled, but angry, far-away shouts could be heard as they passed by.

Temari and Kankurō were waiting at the end of the hall, in front of the cell that occupied the back wall. Its door was larger than the others – it bore multiple sigils, intricate sealing tags that dangled from several horizontally hanging threads, and lines of jutsu-shiki were scrawled across its surface.

"Where's the old man?" Kankurō asked after the escort had retreated back down the hall to stand vigil by the entrance.

"He had to talk to the Hokage first," Naruto answered easily, approaching the door. "Can we go in?" Temari grimaced, then motioned to the guard. She and her brother seemed to tense up, as if preparing for something. Naruto and company only had time to wonder why they were acting strange before a flash of light blinded them. Each of them became suddenly nauseous and dizzy, and for a moment could hear nothing but the rush of wind. As quickly as it had started, each sensation vanished, allowing them to blink open their eyes and look around wildly.

"What the hell was that?" Sasuke asked, his Sharingan subconsciously activated and scanning around.

"Security measures," Kankurō groaned, wringing his little finger inside of his ear in annoyance. "They do that every time they're about to open the door." Sure enough, the sigils and jutsu-shiki had faded, the tags had been cleared of their script, and the door was ajar. "Always that same guy, too. I never even see him move, but he apparently does some kind of fancy ninjutsu to make sure we can't see or hear what he's doing to unseal it. They–" He quieted immediately upon hearing the sound of rattling chains from within the room.

"Let's go." Temari stepped past her brother and cautiously pushed the entryway inward, revealing the large cell within.

An odd sense of déjà vu took hold of Naruto, Sasuke, and Hinata as they stepped over the threshold of the prison. They couldn't tell how expansive the area was given the lack of illumination, but it was at least twenty meters to where the only light hung from a ceiling lost in the darkness above. Naruto shivered, but not from the cold. It was the kind of feeling that he had gotten when stepping into the arena during the Chūnin Exam's final matches, or when he had been standing before Feng on the top of the phoenix's volcano.

"This place is . . . enormous . . ." Hinata breathed. Everybody looked at her then, but she didn't get self-conscious from the attention like she might have otherwise. Her Byakugan was active, and she only stared around in wonder. "I think we're underneath the mountain . . . Every wall and bit of floor space is covered in sealing techniques, and they all seem to combine and flow together to one central point." Her eyes moved to the presumed center of the room, and it all made sense.

"Gaara," Naruto nodded. Shukaku's jinchūriki sat calmly in the middle of the small circle of light, his eyes closed and breathing even. A heavy metal collar circled his neck, attached to which were six iron chains that led off into the dimness, presumably fastened to the far off stone walls. Just enough slack had been left so he could move ever-so slightly, but not nearly enough to let him lie down. His arms and wrists were bound behind his back by thick lengths of rope that circled his torso, into which were burned more lines of seals. Outside of his predicament, the boy was unharmed, and his plain white clothes looked to have been recently changed. At the very least, Tsunade had been making sure he was as comfortable as he could be given the circumstances.

"Yo, Gaara." Without any concern for caution or etiquette, Naruto walked through the darkness and into the small lit area occupied by the captive shinobi. He lowered himself down just in front of the other boy, crossing his legs and waiting a few seconds before continuing with, "How've you been?"

"A foolish question, Uzumaki Naruto." Temari and Kankurō both gasped upon hearing their younger brother speak for the first time in weeks. They said nothing, either due to the shock or simply not wanting to interrupt. Gaara opened his eyes slowly, and all parties present were relieved to see his irises back to their normal pale green. Shukaku seemed to be fully suppressed – for now.

"I guess so," Naruto sighed, his eyes traveling along the lengths of chain. "Still, it could be worse. At least you're alive, right?"

"I was told that you were likely dead." Gaara tilted his head, the action causing the links to tighten on the other side. "It is good that you are not." Naruto blinked at that before grinning.

"Yeah, I tried that once. I wasn't really interested in trying it again." To their collective bafflement, the corner of Gaara's mouth turned up in the barest representation of a smirk.

"I have been considering what you told me," he started, speaking very deliberately. "I was wrong in saying that you do not understand me. I have had time to think, and . . . sleep." Gaara looked around the room slowly, and there was no bitterness in his gaze as it fell over the many seals and safety precautions binding him. In fact, there was a definite note of appreciation somewhere in his expression. "These seals are well crafted. They keep the Ichibi from invading my mind, most notably while I slumber."

"That's good to hear. Honestly, I'd probably go a bit nuts if I had some annoying voice in my head all the time." Naruto smiled mischievously, and Gaara blinked at him once before that shadow of a smirk returned.

Very funny, idiot.

You know you love me, Naruto teased.

"Uzumaki Naruto," Gaara continued, settling his eyes on the blond. "I wish to apologize for my actions up until this point, and those of my village. We were deceived – all of us, in one way or another – and while what has been done is inexcusable, I can offer nothing but my gratitude towards you and your village for the way in which I have been treated, even as a prisoner of war. Konoha is . . . an interesting village."

"Gaara you're . . ." Temari began, taking a step towards her brother as tears gathered in her eyes. "You're . . . yourself again." He turned his head up towards her and nodded very slightly.

"With some help from these three, and with my mind as my own again – for the time being. Thank you both for coming to see me every day. I would have liked to speak to you sooner, but I needed to speak to the jinchūriki first."

"Don't worry about it," Kankurō said gruffly. "We're just glad you're alright."

"You can call me Naruto," the blond remarked. "And in case you forgot their names already, this is Sasuke and Hinata." Gaara nodded to each of them in turn, and then met Naruto's eyes again.

"Why are you here, Naruto?"

"To see if we can keep you from getting executed," Naruto responded bluntly. Gaara seemed unfazed by the admission, but Temari and Kankurō were taken aback.

"You didn't tell us he was going to be killed!" Temari accused. Naruto shrugged, but Sasuke thought it appropriate to at least qualify the statement.

"We didn't know until Jiraiya told us, but do you really think that it hasn't been considered?" The Sand kunoichi bristled and looked as if she was about to retort, but a simple flick of Gaara's eyes stopped her in her tracks. Even if more docile and level-headed, the boy could still chill a person's blood with a glance.

"The Leaf has every right to take my life, but I am not yet ready to die. What must I do to facilitate my survival?"

"You talk a lot like Shino," Naruto said with a shake of his head. "You two would probably get along pretty well." Gaara managed to don a subdued quizzical expression – quite a feat for somebody without eyebrows. "But anyway . . . We talked to Jiraiya-sensei, and he says he might be able to help."

It took a few minutes of explanation – aided largely by Hinata – for Naruto to lay out the tentative plan, and by the end of it Gaara's eyes were closed and he seemed to be deep in thought. They waited for a time, until finally he nodded and regarded them once again.

"I would welcome a stronger, modified seal for the Ichibi. I feel that if I could stay like this . . ." He looked around at the multitude of seals confining him, seeing them as a respite within his tumultuous life rather than something to curse for imprisoning him. "Then I might be able to come to understand you, Uzumaki Naruto. You . . . and your friends."

"I guess that settles it, then." Jiraiya's voice echoed through the stone chamber as he approached on silent feet, and all heads turned to watch as he entered the pool of light. He appeared more serious than usual, and he carried a few small scrolls in one hand and a satchel in the other. Temari and Kankurō bowed respectfully when he came into view, and even Gaara managed a courteous nod. "I see that the heirs of Sunagakure have not forgotten their manners. Are you prepared, boy?"

"I am," Gaara intoned without hesitating.

"Good," the Sage grunted. "Tsunade has decided to release you once the seal is in place, pending an agreement with your village. Obviously restitutions and a forced alliance will be in order, but the visiting diplomat seemed very willing to negotiate if your freedom was on the table."

"Sounds like your village wants you back," Naruto commented with a grin. Gaara managed a shrug.

"They want their weapon back."

"For now, maybe. I'm working on changing how my village sees me, and I expect you to do the same." Gaara considered that for a moment before offering a final nod, as well as that same small smirk that managed to make him look a little more human.

"Alright kids, visiting hours are over. This is going to take a while, and he's almost certainly going to be unconscious afterward. You can come back tomorrow when he's no longer at risk of becoming a rampaging bijū conduit." Jiraiya stood by and watched as the quintet turned to leave, a few final glances being spared for Gaara on the way out.

"See you on the other side, Gaara," Naruto intoned, waving just before departing from the light. The other boy again quirked his nonexistent eyebrow, and before he could respond Jiraiya had stepped between them to begin his work.

"That's what Kurama said to you when you died, isn't it?" Hinata whispered on the way out. Naruto winked at her, the action barely visible in the darkness. She smiled and gave his hand a tight squeeze. You really have grown, Naruto – in more ways than one. Hinata hadn't noticed until that moment, but Naruto was now noticeably taller than her, and she liked that just fine.


/*\


Nobody was in the correct mindset to train after the morning's events. Naruto, Sasuke, and Hinata spent the rest of the day roaming Konoha, with no purpose in mind outside of sharing in one another's company. Sasuke suggested testing out Naruto's phoenix summon, but the blond declined largely due to not wanting to bother Feng – an immortal being – with something like 'testing his abilities.' In the end, they sat together at Ichiraku, eating ramen and catching Naruto up on the past few weeks of activity and rebuilding efforts around Konoha.

"It's good to have my best customer back," Teuchi beamed as they stood to leave. Naruto grinned back at him and offered a thumbs-up.

"It's good to be back, Teuchi-san. Even though I think I had a bowl of your ramen yesterday. My yesterday, anyway." They shared a laugh and a wave before departing, strolling down Konoha's main road to burn the remaining time before dinner with Iruka.

"Naruto," Hinata started after a time, taking her boyfriend in with a glance. "You haven't had a chance to change out of your clothes yet." She plucked a stray piece of charred something from near his waistband, and he made a face upon realizing for the first time that he was, in fact, filthy.

"Yeah, I know. It's been kind of a crazy day for us."

"We should get some new clothes," Sasuke offered, shrugging when they both blinked over at him as if surprised. "What?"

"All you ever wear is plain black shorts and shirts, and those weird rubber things when we're training or on missions," Naruto pointed out. "Did you plan to get more?"

"To be fair, I don't think any of our wardrobes are terribly diverse. It's not very practical for a shinobi to have to think about what he or she is going to have to wear every day during the course of duty. It's easier to just pick an outfit and stick with it, day in and day out." Hinata had a point, but that all seemed pretty boring to Naruto, and he said as much.

"That kinda makes sense, but I want a change of style, and some different stuff to wear around the apartment or when we have days off. I mean, at least you have those flowy dress things, and those shorts that you asked me about the other day. They really aren't too tight, by the way; I prom–" Hinata's hand flew to Naruto's mouth before he could get another embarrassing word out. She was already red enough without him going into any more stories about her 'at home' clothes.

"Well, as much as I'd love to hear about Hinata wearing tight clothes for you . . ." Sasuke began, earning a scandalized look from Hinata, "Let's just grab some casual stuff. Haku says I need to 'discover the rainbow of possibilities' or something, in terms of clothing." Naruto let out a snort, and even the chagrined Hinata managed a giggle. Sasuke rolled his eyes and took a turn towards a nearby shop, not interested in their teasing today.

The sun was well into its descent by the time they emerged from their last stop, where Naruto had managed to procure something to change into. The blond sported a long-sleeved, loose-fitting burgundy shirt and black pants, which were held tight to his shins with plain bandages just above his jika-tabi. He had been going for something like what his father used to wear, only mixed with colors his mother had favored. Hinata had seemed to like it, and Kurama had even hinted that Minato would have appreciated the outfit.

Sasuke's definition of 'rainbow of possibilities' likely fell out of line with Haku's. The Uchiha had retained his high-collared shirt style, and though his new one was open in the front, it was still black. His undershirt was midnight blue, and fit well to his torso. Dark pants covered his legs, although it was difficult to tell if they were merely grey, or some very faded shade of cobalt.

Hinata hadn't changed anything about her own outfit, as she liked what she had picked for herself during the Chūnin Exams. A great deal of thought had gone into choosing her attire, but that didn't mean she couldn't pick up a few things for casual wear. She hadn't let either of the boys see what she had bought, mostly to avoid a another round of teasing from Sasuke. Unfortunately for her, teasing came as a second nature to the Uchiha.

"You must've picked up some really questionable garments if you want to hide them that badly," he yawned. "Or was it just because I was there?"

"Shut up, Sasuke," she muttered without any real conviction. In truth, she had picked one or two things that would probably get returned on account of their . . . revealing . . . natures, but they didn't need to know that. They were for her, and she would definitely be returning them. Almost certainly.

"I'm just kidding," he sighed, rolling his eyes and giving her a playful shove. "You and Naruto can go play dress-up now. I'll see you guys tomorrow for training. I'm sure Kakashi has some ideas for a new regimen now that you're back, not to mention that the next exams are soon."

"I think I'm more than ready to get back to training," Hinata said, glad for the change of topic. Naruto only nodded, bidding Sasuke farewell as they parted ways for their respective homes. After Sasuke had gone, she gave Naruto another once-over before nodding thoughtfully. "I think that'll go well with your coat. I have it in my room, whenever you want it back."

"Thanks." He seemed distracted by something, but Hinata knew that she wouldn't have to wait long to find out. Naruto usually confided in her without much prompting on her end. "Hinata, I'm kind of . . . scared, I guess." She blinked at him as they continued to walk, surprised to hear that from the boy she had known to be perpetually fearless and confident. "Of a lot of things. A lot's been happening to us lately – a lot of dangerous things. Akatsuki is probably looking for me, and Itachi is with them. Orochimaru wants Sasuke, but we don't even know what for yet; that cursed seal isn't just gonna go away. He even sent those guys after us yester – er, a few weeks ago. We keep surviving these things, but only just. I'm scared that the next time, or the time after that, we won't be so lucky.

"On top of all that . . . I'm worried about using Kurama's chakra, I guess. I've already shortened my lifespan, though by how long I won't ever really know. He did say that Uzumakis have longer lives than most people, though. But . . ." He tried to focus his thoughts; he was really just rambling now, but it felt good to be able to talk about his concerns. "Even if we are working together, the Fox's chakra always feels like it's threatening to take control. It's so . . . angry, like it has a mind of its own."

It does, in a way, Kurama grunted. Though I've already explained that at length. Even if I'm not seeking to take over your body, if you bite off more of my power than you can chew, it can alter your entire chakra circulatory system and brain chemistry.

Right, right . . . I know. Even if we are on decent terms – at least, I think we are – you're still the Kyūbi.

And you would be wise not to forget it.

"Naruto," Hinata began, reaching down to take his hand. "I'm afraid, too." She surprised herself by letting out a light laugh. "I've already lost you twice, and although I'm starting to think you can come back from anything, I still get scared knowing what's out there. But . . ." She chewed on her lower lip for a few seconds, until Naruto gave her hand a squeeze and spurred her into speech again. "But if we don't train ourselves, if we don't defend the village and friends that we love, then we won't be ready when we have to face those dangers in the future. None of us are ready to take on Akatsuki – even one of them might be able to take all three of us together, and I'm sure Orochimaru could as well. That's my drive to get stronger, though, because I want to be able to protect my friends when the time comes. I want to be able to protect you, because . . . because I don't think I could handle losing you again."

"Hey," Naruto said softly, reaching over to place his other hand atop their joined pair. "It's going to take more power than every rogue ninja has combined to take me away again. I promise." Hinata smiled despite herself. It would be naïve of her to believe too much in such an impossible guarantee, but a small part of her allowed that hope to blossom nonetheless.

"I believe in you, Naruto. I know that it's a struggle, but if anybody can handle Kurama's chakra, it's you. No matter how strong its influence, I know that you're stronger. You won't let it beat you; I know it."

"Thanks," he said again, this time with real sincerity as he turned mid-stride to catch her in a hug. "You're the best, Hinata." She flushed at the sudden gesture, but returned the embrace nonetheless. She had missed how warm he felt, and the way that his arms seemed to fit perfectly around her every time they came together.

They strolled the rest of the way home in a comfortable quiet, hands clasped firmly together. Many dangers lurked in the world beyond their village's walls – and some perhaps even within them. But they had one thing that their enemies didn't: each other.


Author's Note:

Heya folks!

First and foremost: I'm reeeeeaaally sorry that it took me so long to get this chapter out (and also that it was kind of a filler/bringing some details together sort of thing). I've recently changed jobs going from one side of the work spectrum to the other, and its thrown me for a life loop for sure. I've also been busy writing, finishing, and now editing my first original novel, which I have admittedly been prioritizing over CFKD. Again, I'm super sorry, but I promise that I'm still writing and excited about the story!

Few things of note/reminders: I make a lot of stuff up, especially now that I've broken cleanly from canon. I've tried to make this alternate universe as close to what I'd like to have seen the show evolve into as possible, and as such have taken several create liberties along the way. I'm totes alright with constructive comments/reviews; you'll notice that I even leave the negative ones up. xP But just remember that this is a story of my own creation, based on a world with an incomplete framework that I'm just trying to build upon and add to. Sometimes I make mistakes, but more often than not it's just me adding (or subtracting) my own spin on things.

Other than that stuff, no real notes! I know that Kurama's description of how the chakra takes over isn't canonically accurate, so don't get your panties in a knot correcting me. With their current relationship, there needed to be a real risk to overusing the Kyūbi's powers without properly becoming partners/friends, and so I added one to make sure things stay "balanced." Also, I hope Gaara didn't come off as too OOC; I was trying to imagine him freed from Shukaku's influence, and just hope I didn't go too overboard with it.

Thank you as always for the favorites and follows over these last few months, and especially the many reviews. I get e-mail alerts on all of them (follows and favorites, too), and it always gives me warm fuzzies to know that people are reading and enjoying the story still. And of course, a big ol' thank you to Rhi for the dedicated editing, and especially for putting up with my months of tardiness on getting this chapter out. She really did try to spur me on, but I am difficult to work with.

Thanks again, and here's hoping I can get back to a semi-normal update schedule!

See you next time!

- Wes