"What's going on here?"


'Dark. Dank. Silent.'

Her immediate thoughts echoed back to her in her own nervous and inquisitive voice, and it took her a long time to realise that the piercing pain in her head had finally subsided, and that she appeared to be in a greyish chamber of some sort. She gave a sharp intake of breath as a small movement from her caused the icy water to slosh noisily around her, echoing off the damp walls.


"Ka-Kakashi-sensei! Iruka-sensei!"



A sharp, stinging wind blasted past her, and she let out a small scream as the ice water soaked through her clothes, the temperature dropping lower. It grew so cold she could barely manage to shiver.

'How on earth did Sasuke manage to go through this?'


"Wha--wha? Sakura, Sasuke, Hinata and Naruto... no sign of any vigorous activity..."



Then she heard him.

Go away.

His voice was bruised, insistent, cold. She closed her eyes, fighting back the shivers, breaking through the icy layers in his frosty tone.

He's hurt.


"Iruka-sensei, you have no idea, Naruto-- Nine-Tails, the demon fox in him, it's--"



Straining every frozen and aching muscle in her body, Hinata lifted a numb leg out of the water and took a single step. A horrible chill ran through her spine.

Why are you coming closer?

Uncertainty, worry, confusion. She took another shuddering, painful step forward.


"Oh, God. Those aren't tails, are they?"



'Because you are hurt. I'm going to remedy you.'

The water swirled and crashed against her body, soaking her with a fierce cold, but as she shook the icy droplets out of her hair and her lashes, she saw a more worrying concern. Cracks were starting to splinter the walls, spreading spider-web lines across the greyness and crumbling pieces into the water.

"Well, if it isn't a bunch of jounins just a tad bit late. These are my tails, obviously. Seven of them, at the very least."


He's breaking apart...!

And Hinata ran. She ignored the icy stabs of knife-like pain in her legs, the prickle of pain creeping up her thighs. But she couldn't ignore his voice.

St-stop! Don't come near me!!

Urgency overflowed the befuddled anger. Her eyes skipped over a vast prison, a small paper seal flapping in the rippling wind from pulsating energy. Then she turned around, and saw him.

Shrouded in shadow with only grey light illuminating cold eyes, he sat against a wall, frozen and almost statue-like. But he was staring at her in shock, his eyes widening. Then she saw something else entirely.

Fear.


"...What happened?"

"Naruto-- he lost control-- we're performing the Mind Entrance Jutsu, trying to help him out--"

"What?? Kakashi, did you hear that?! They've performed a forbidden--"

"I heard, I heard. This is bad. He's going out of control."


"Naruto-kun."

She called softly, her voice miraculously calm despite the throbbing in her legs and the indescribable cold clutching at her arms. A piercing siren nearly split her skull open as it screamed into her ears, and it was all she could do to not double over in pain, to lose control. A roaring wind ripped past her, water droplets stinging pin-pricks on her skin.


"Kakashi, what do we do?"

"Stop the process of course. Look at the girl - she's bleeding."

"Hinata..."

"Step out of the way, Sasuke, Sakura. We're going to have to extract Hinata. This is much too dangerous-- I expected better judgement from you, Sasuke."


She never lost eye-contact with him, however. And she walked to towards his direction, into his dark corridor, a determined look settling on her face. The siren grew higher in pitch as she watched his pupils contract.

Go away!!

He backed against the wall like a scared animal, his eyes furtively searching for an exit around her. Hinata winced as a sharp pain shot up her left foot, but continued to resist the pain, go against the wind gradient.

"No."

She said through gritted teeth.


"...No."

"What?"

"I said, no. We're not moving out of the way. Sakura, you tell them."

"Sasuke-kun...!"

"This is no time for joking around!! This jutsu is forbidden for a reason! The fox took part, I presume?"



His eyes widened as her foot touched a space three feet before him. His feet skid against the water, his eyes darting to her side as he pressed himself tightly into the shadows.

I don't want to-- just go, just-- I'll chase you out-- go, GO--

"Naruto-kun, listen to yourself!"

Hinata burst out, her eyes welling with tears of anger,

"Why are you denying help?!"


"We're not moving. You're going to have to trust us on this one."

"Sasuke, we don't care if you've been commemorated as one of the best ninjas in the world, just get the hell away--"

"I SAID NO!!"



The siren shuddered to a halt, the howling wind silencing as the waters stilled. He refused to meet her eyes, and as she reached towards him, he let out an animal-like yowl as he curled away from her touch.

Go away.

Still resolute, still scared. Hinata retracted her hand, then closed her eyes, taking deep breaths to calm herself.


"Sasuke-kun... Naruto's strange..."

"What? Why--"

"His heat is fading suddenly... he's growing cold..."



Cracks were silently spreading on the walls and deepening.

"Naruto-kun."

She willed her voice be steady, to stop shaking from the cold, from her fear.

"I... I came here because..."

I don't want to know. Go away.

She looked at him, faltering at the coldness in his voice, in his hunched shoulders.

Shielding himself from me.


"The boy... the girl found the boy."

"...What's happening?"



She knelt down slowly, sinking her clothes into the water and shuddering as ice-cold prickles spread through her skin. He still refused to look at her despite her attempt to grow closer to his level, and on the contrary seemed to shrink further into himself. Hinata gathered up her courage and spoke from the depths of her mind, of her heart.

"I came, Naruto-kun, because I want you to wake up. Because I think you're worth everything... because I think you're worth risking my life for. Because I acknowledge you."


"Kakashi, what are you doing?! Let go of me! I can't stand to watch what's happening to Naruto--"

"I think this is one of those situations where the kids are right. Let's stay still for a moment."

"...."

"The girl... she has managed to reach him...."



Because I acknowledge you.

He looked at the water, not meeting her intense gaze.

"It's been a very long time since I have. You've acknowledged yourself to me - not just your strength or your skill, but you yourself. I..."

She swallowed as she felt a lump of pain build in her throat, but continued on earnestly,

"I... was hoping you might forgive me for ignoring what you've proven. I nearly... I nearly left you, Naruto-kun. I very nearly did. But while I was walking... I realised-- finally realised it - that I'm a fool to not believe in you."

She shut her lids tightly causing unshed tears to spill past warmly against her icy skin. She opened her mouth to tell him it wasn't his fault, but knowing already that sentence would do no good, something else tumbled out.

"It's not the fact that you..."

She had great difficulty trying to grapple past disturbing images, the turmoil of confusion and hurt on the brink of exploding in the pit of her stomach. She didn't know he could see it too.


"...Ouch."

"What is it? Is Hinata hurt?!"

"...No... it's nothing."



"It's... not the fact that you tried to rape me that matters."

Opening her eyes, she looked at him as she said,

"It's the fact that you DIDN'T. Please... forgive me, Naruto, for not believing you."

He didn't meet her gaze, his eyes rigidly fixated on his knee, but something seemed different in the atmosphere.

Less pressure.

But as she opened her mouth to speak, his voice rebounded against the walls sounding stiff and cool.

There is nothing to forgive.

"Naruto-kun,"

Hinata blurted out, her voice taking just the edge of frustration,

"Please try to understand! I acknowledge you because you have so much of what I don't have. You have confidence, belief - so much belief - in yourself, and I know... I know how it is to do that. But look at yourself now!"

She felt hot tears gather again, blurring her vision of the boy cowering away from her, obscuring the icy droplets dripping off straggly, pale-yellow strands of hair, skin drained and grey and warm blue eyes now frosty and hard.

"You-- you have never hated yourself before! Why...?"

Then he looked at her for just a split second before looking away. It was only a small moment, but Hinata realised what it was immediately. Because the moment his eyes had met hers, he projected an image to her. The turmoil of hurt and confusion plunged back into her and nearly made her lurch; the bruises on her arms burned quite suddenly, and Hinata let out a cry of pain that was both physical and mental.

"Is-- is that it?"

She asked shakily. He did not respond, and she noticed the cracks on the wall had reached the ceiling. Small bits of wall fell with tiny splashes into the water. Hinata felt fear claw at her heart as she felt urgency rise in her.

He's losing his mind.


"Sakura, what's wrong?!"

"A-a-another tail!"

"And his ears...! Kakashi, let go of me!!"

"Try to understand, Iruka, that grown-ups do tend to make things worse."

"Damn it, Hinata...! Hurry...!!"



"Naruto-kun-- you're-- you're not hiding because you were ashamed of not being able to control yourself...? You're hiding because of... because you... hurt me?"

The air grew colder, and Hinata had to blink suddenly because the walls seemed to distort out of her vision. She brought her eyes to Naruto, desperacy in her reaching her voice.


"She's bleeding again...!"



"I'm... I'm not worth that."

Naruto didn't reply.

"Listen to me, Naruto-kun. I'm not worth your life. No one is. I--"

But... you're someone precious to me.

Hinata flushed quite suddenly, heat rushing to her hands and her face at the words.

Someone precious to him...!

Her hands clamped together tightly, almost as if in prayer, and Hinata looked at him as she whispered,

"Precious people to protect are there to protect you, too. They don't become your downfall."

Cracks were spreading on the ceiling as easily as ink on paper, and Hinata found herself pleading, yearning.

"You are someone I admire greatly because... because you have such inner-strength. Because you can stand up once more, even if you have tripped, and still progress. Naruto-kun..."

Bits of ceilings fell onto the two and splashed into the water loudly. A droning hum seemed to vibrate beneath the water, rippling the once-still surface into current.

"Look at yourself. Your inner-strength is failing you. Yes; perhaps you have failed to keep in control, but I know... I know that even though if you fell into Nine-Tails' trap... Even though you nearly hurt someone precious to you... I know you will learn from it and pick yourself up again. Because I believe in you, Naruto-kun."

She took a deep breath, and looked squarely at Naruto's eyes, even though he didn't look back at her.

"You didn't hurt me. And I think... that may be what matters most."


"She's shaking so badly! What should we do?!"

"....."



Nervously trying her best to ignore the groans of the shuddering walls, the increasing ramrodding of icy current against her back and the strange dips of distortion the wall kept taking, Hinata said resolutely,

"I am waiting for you."

And he lifted his eyes to meet hers. She saw it again, just like she had when he tore out of his home after Sasuke and Sakura had entered.

Raw pain.

A pain accumulated after years and years of confusion and misunderstood hatred directed to himself. A pain that fed on his darkest fear of loneliness and betrayal. He took a deep, shuddering breath and did not project his thoughts to her but spoke out in a distinctly wavery voice.

"I d-don't deserve to be f-forgiven."

"I don't care."

Hinata said gently, and held a hand out, a small smile curving her lips.

"Let's go back."

He looked at her, scared, confusion glinting at her from the shadows. Then his face crumpled as he let out a howl of angered questioning, and facing away from her sweet smile he gripped himself tightly.


"She's grown colder..."

"...Let's share our chakra with her, Sakura."

"What?!"

"What?!"

"Iruka, shut up."

"The hell--?!!"

"You do know how to, right?"

"O-of course, Sasuke-kun."



"I'm sorry, Hinata,"

He said, his voice on the verge of breaking,

"I'm sorry for everything. I-I'm sorry. I'm so sorry..."


"It's too late. Don't bother, humans. It's far too late."

"As Naruto would say... it's never too late. Our hands on hers?"



The walls were crumbling, the ceiling dangerously looming back and forth in twisted perspective as the water swirled and crashed into the other in aimless tides. The air grew freezing, dropping lower, lower... darkness was starting to impend upon the scene, and Hinata's eyes rounded in fear and panic as the cold and darkness started to envelope her mind, her senses--


"That should do it... now, concentrate..."



Then she felt it. A warmth was starting to spread from her hands to the rest of her body, lukewarm at first but slowly increasing to an intense heat and strength. Hinata blinked, the water no longer capturing her muscles. She returned to her self fully, wondering what was going on, and cast her eyes to Naruto.

She let out a gasp of shock as she saw Naruto suddenly flicker out of sight and back again, his breathing highly irregular as he seemed to be gasping for air.


"It's over."



Strengthened by the unexplained heat, Hinata grabbed Naruto's crouched form with her hands, not knowing what else to do as she found herself begging,

"Don't do this!! Please-- Naruto-kun--"

She could feel hot tears streaming past her face as she pressed her cheek to Naruto's, embracing his cold and huddled form with all the warmth she had. His skin was colder than marble. She held him tightly, crying harder as she felt his body grow slack in her grip.


"You can't do anything about it."



The strength of this boy had disappeared because of her. Because his strength came from protecting others, and now he himself had hurt one he protected. She felt his pain, his hatred and his anger at himself. This was the boy who would brag about his existence, declaring himself to be the coolest and the strongest. Who would boast and rattle on about himself, his confidence in himself evident and strengthening.


"He's about to be swallowed by his own mind."



This was someone who had cared about her and for her, who understood who she was and acknowledged her inner-strength. Who came to her house on weekends to joke around and take walks with her, argue with her plants when they looked wilted and dragged her off to ramen stands. A boy who had an amazing grin and devotion to protecting others.


"Sakura, don't listen to him. No matter what, don't let go of Hinata's hand."

"....Sasuke-kun...!"



He was going to die because he had hurt her.

The realisation of this hit her as the floor began to rumble and break, water seeping out as the ceiling began to fall apart. She let out a cry of agony.

"You can't do this!! I can't let you do this!! You mean-- you mean too much-- Naruto-kun, I don't hate you, I don't--"

She felt a strong pulsation of heat resonate from Naruto himself. The stony-grey of his skin faded back into healthiness for a moment, and his rigid form just the slightest of moves.

"...You... don't...?"

Hinata felt his voice croak shakily against her ear, his breath cold. She hugged him tightly as she whispered,

"I don't. I really d-don't. I-I c-couldn't. Because Naruto-k-kun, I--"


"It's useless."



The ceiling finally burst at its seams and the room began to collapse, the noise of crashing and breaking drowning out the rest of Hinata's words. But he had heard all he had needed to hear. As the place began to fall apart, he finally understood and accepted it.

He reached out and grabbed onto Hinata tightly. Her eyes shot open as she felt his cold hands hold onto her jumper. As he held her, her heat spread from her skin and clothes to his, a comforting warmth filling him as he gripped onto her.


"No-- wait, Naruto's--!!"



He called out her name, gasping in surprise, and she felt her eyes fill with new tears.

Then, without warning, they blacked out.






When she came to, nothing seemed right. For one thing, she couldn't see anything. Then she realised her eyes were closed, and she wasn't able to open them because they were mushed against something else...

She unstuck herself from what was there, and realised she had been embedded into Naruto.

Naruto...?

Her jaw dropped open. What happened?! She looked around wildly, a thick screen of smoke and dust obscuring her vision, and coudl just make out the fallen forms of Sasuke and Sakura nearby, and two other adults somewhere farther.

...? Did he send a shockwave of some sort...?

Confused and scared, Hinata leaned over to take a look at the blonde. He didn't seem to be breathing.

"Naruto-kun...?"

She whispered, her voice trembling. He gave a sudden jolt before opening his eyes groggily.

"Huh? Whaa...?"

He sat up slowly, blinking and squinting at Hinata leaning on top of him.

"Hinata?"

He said in surprise. His bright eyes, look of innocence and confusion and just simply his good-natured aura told Hinata everything she wanted to know. With a grateful sob, she leaned over and kissed his lips lightly. He froze in shock as she then fell onto his chest, hugging him tightly and soaking his clothes with her tears. And as memories slowly filtered back to register in his mind, as the dust settled and the fallen forms slowly started to rise, Naruto slowly took his own arms to hold her himself.






"Oww!!! Yeah right this doesn't hurt a bit!!"

Naruto tried to twist out of Iruka's grip, but the jounin held him down firmly, snapping,

"Stay still you idiot!!"

Kakashi finally completed his seal, and Naruto's eyes widened as he felt all the loose threads in him tighten, the ends snipped off neatly. The silver-haired ninja clapped his hands together, nodding in approval at his own handiwork.

"Great. This seal will keep you fine."

"You suuuure?"

Naruto asked, looking at Kakashi with a suspicious glint in his eyes.

"It all depends on your will-power, Naruto."

Naruto pulled on his jacket looking rather thoughful, but he didn't say anything. Sasuke walked up, looking at Naruto with a weird look in his expression.

"Is the idiot okay now?"

He asked. Naruto felt his fist tighten and a vein bulge at the word 'idiot' as Kakashi nodded. Sasuke gave a satisfied sort of smile, nodding, before turning around and punching Naruto's across the jaw.

Reeling at the unexpected punch, Naruto found himself blinking stars out of his eyes as he glared angrily at the black-haired jounin.

"What was that for?!"

He snapped. Sasuke rolled his eyes, not saying anything, but gave him the weird look again before walking off towards the path. Understanding what Sasuke had meant to say, Naruto smiled a little.

Sakura, who had been treating Hinata's wounds, saw Sasuke heading towards the village. Hastily tying the ends of the bandage around Hinata's wrist, she quickly stood up. Naruto, who had been expecting Sakura to run off chasing his rival was surprised to see Sakura bound towards himself.

"Wha--?"

"You IDIOT!!"

Sakura yelled, her voice blaring over him and making him wince,

"I swear I've never met anyone stupider! Idiot idiot idiot!!"

Naruto thought that this was going just a bit over the line when he was surprised to feel the kunoichi hug him quickly around the waist. He blinked, and she gave him a final glare before going off to run after Sasuke.

Confused, Naruto scratched his head.

"Hey, Naruto,"

Iruka said, interrupting his very confused thoughts,

"Let's go for ramen, eh?"

Naruto's eyes sparkled as his stomach growled. The sky was dark and stars were beginning to twinkle overhead by now, and Naruto realised he was absolutely starving. He had had nothing to eat since that morning.

Then Kakashi stepped in and grabbed Iruka around the neck.

"Actually, we've got something else to do. See you,"

Kakashi said, waving, and amidst Iruka's yelp of surprise the two jounins disappeared with a puff of smoke. Naruto's shoulders sagged. So much for ramen with company...

... Wait a minute...

He turned around to see Hinata looking at him. She let out an 'eep' as his eyes met hers and she quickly looked away. Naruto didn't know what to think. Truth be told, his memory was very blurred as to what had happened throughout the duration in his mind. But he was certain about one thing that had happened...

"Hinata! Let's go eat ramen!"

He said cheerfully with a big grin. She looked surprised, but a pleasant shade of pink filled her cheeks as she smiled.

"Okay."

They set off towards the forest trail towards the village, following the shifts in the leaves made by Sasuke and Sakura previously. The only sound disturbing the peace and quiet as the two walked along the trail was the rustling of leaves and the humming of insects.

The blonde looked upwards, watching the stars appear in clusters in the darkening velvet sky, and sighed. He could sense her looking at him, but when he glanced at her she was looking at her sandals.

"Hey... Hinata."

"Uhm, yes? I mean-- yeah?"

"Why are you so nervous?"

She blinked, feeling herself grow pink.

"I'm not. I'm really not."

She started, then stopped herself before she could go blabbering on and embarrass herself. She was surprised out of her wits as Naruto laughed and admitted,

"I am."

"Eh? Why?"

"I don't know."

He turned and smiled at her in a helpless sense.

"Ever since I really got to know you, it's been this way."

"...Eep."

She squeaked. He looked at her, surprised, and burst out laughing at the tomato-like quality her face had taken to.

"What's wrong?"

"Uh, it's just... uhm... I guess I'm just really surprised."

She said in a highly unnatural voice, cursing it as it came. She was surprised to see Naruto grow very serious as he said,

"I was really surprised, too."

"Huh?"

"When you came into my head."

He looked at the ground, sifting through and collecting his thoughts as he spoke.

"I was really surprised. But, like before, you pulled me out of an uncharacteristically depressed mood! So I feel great!"

He stretched out his arms as they walked, and Hinata gave a shy smile.

"You're welcome."

She said quietly. Naruto smiled happily in return.

It was as he started to chatter about the next chuunin exams and what he was planning when he let his arms down, and his wrist brushed lightly against Hinata's.

He stopped talking as they blinked, both turning to look at their skin contact in surprise. Their eyes met, and both found themselves suddenly feeling shy. Naruto resumed talk once more, the two continuuing to walk. Naruto felt an entirely new and different sort of heat creep up his neck to flush his face as the skin where the Hinata's hand had touched his own tingled.

Their hands touched again. Without looking at one another, they let their fingers intwine with the other's to lock in a warm hold and gently swing back and forth as they continued down the trail.






OWARI... if you want it to be. ^_^