A/N: I do realize I've not updated this story for a long time and am really sorry for my lack of performance. I was down with dengue fever at first but that was no excuse since I've long recovered. Nevertheless, I sort of lost the motivation to write for a while etc. etc. All the same, I'm sure no one's interested with my excuses, so…
I do not own Naruto…
With a quick wrist-snap, Hinata effortlessly directed three surikens right into a wooden pillar, accurately avoiding a hanging lamp by just an inch. All along the wooden wall of the workplace, shurikens of different designs stuck out in a surprisingly straight row from being impaled into the wall.
"I think that's the best," Hinata decided as Muro Kazuo casually picked up a double-pointed shuriken and threw it forward.
The metal didn't impale the wall, nor did it touch a pillar. It simply hit an overhead lamp and fell with a dull thunk onto the wooden floor.
"Well, that was harder than I thought," the curly-haired male said while the few other occupants in the room struggled to stifle their laughter.
"Practice, Kazuo-san. You'll need to practice with them," Hinata said before picking up a couple of flat, wheel-shaped shurikens and turning to a young, burly man beside her. "We'll order these ones from Hanaka and…" she trailed off when she noticed a little bug landing on her left hand.
It took less than five seconds before she broke into an exceptionally radiant smile as the bug took off again – it was a kikaichu.
Hinata dropped a few feet from where the Aburame was kneeling over a patch of black sand. Shino was rubbing and feeling the oily sand between his fingers before he heedlessly stood up and turned around. If he wasn't so heavily clothed and his mouth not obstructed from view, Hinata would have been able to see the smile on his face.
"Shino!" she called in joy before a kikaichu bug landed on the hood of her friend and disappeared under his collar.
"Looks like you've really improved, Hinata. You were actually faster than my bug this time," the bespectacled male commended.
Hinata beamed with pleasure as she walked forward. "That was because I've missed you so much," she admitted before fishing out a piece of absorbent paper from one of her pants' pockets and offering it to her teammate.
"Oil…" Shino commented as he took the paper and started wiping his fingers with it. "…real thick."
The dark-haired lady nodded, "They've started coming for it actually."
Hinata shook her head, "Not yet… Just the average plunderers. But I do suppose we'll be seeing some real shinobi soon."
"Not surprising. Oil's fetching a good price now."
"Reason enough to start a shinobi school here. So… are you here for the oil too?" the dark-haired lady teasingly asked.
"We were in Garasu… some ecological convention."
"Garasu's half a day from here... Where are the others?" Hinata asked as she looked around, expecting to see some of her teammate's clan members with him.
"A few miles away. We're taking a break… I thought I'd drop by… Take a look at what you're working on."
Hinata couldn't help smiling as she turned to lead Shino towards the school which was less than half a mile away. "Have you eaten?" she asked as they started walking.
The Aburame nodded before asking, "How have you been?"
The smile on her face broadened as the dark-haired lady answered, "Fine."
For a few seconds, Shino studied the expression on his teammate's face like he always did, before they continued walking. "Really?"
Hinata sighed, "Well, I guess it was a little difficult in the beginning… Took me a while to adjust to life here. There were just so many things that needed to be done… regulations to be implemented. The people here are just different. They're just so laid-back… unconcerned. I actually thought I couldn't make it plus…" her voice petered out when she thought of the real reason for her unsettled frame of mind in the beginning.
"Plus… plus I miss all of you so much."
As he heedlessly trained his eyes on the village before him, Shino candidly asked, "What actually happened?"
The question didn't really surprise her. Yet reflexively, she came to a halt.
Her teammate stopped walking too as he slowly turned towards her, "You didn't really come to make a name for yourself here, did you?"
Hinata found herself consciously looking away as she resumed walking, not really knowing what to say. Shino was too observant, too perceptive. It would be difficult for her to try to keep her feelings and thoughts to herself when he's around.
"I don't know… I was upset. I just… just…" she sighed heavily as her teammate kept up with her pace. "I suppose I was being foolish. I acted like a child and… just left."
"For a long time…"
"I know… but at that point, it was like the best option."
"So you took that chance? Came all the way here?"
Hinata nodded slowly, essentially feeling ashamed of her actions.
"You should go home."
The dark-haired lady stopped walking again. "I… I can't. I've not completed what I've come here for and…"
"The Hokage needs you," Shino said as he turned around to meet her eyes.
"He…" Hinata sighed. "He still has a lot of people to help him back home… including you."
The Aburame casually turned back and started walking again. Many paces later, he curiously asked, "You said you were upset… Was it with Naruto?"
She couldn't find it in her to respond to the question. Was it even right to be upset with her husband? Well, maybe it was… but wasn't she also in the wrong for not giving him a chance to sort things out in the first place? She had left in such a hurry and in such unforgiving disposition. Now that Shino had brought out the question, she was, once again, forced to see how selfish she had been. She had known that her leaving Konoha would somehow cause an impact on Naruto's life. Yet, she had only thought of how brokenhearted she had been and had only prayed that he would slowly come to love her for real. She had forgotten how Sakura and Sasuke's marriage had totally saddened her husband - how he had to throw himself into work and how he had to hide behind miserably, forged smiles for a long time just to conceal his desolation…. and how inadvertently, it had thoroughly upset her to see him so sad… and she had probably added more weight to his already tender heart.
It wasn't long before they came to a sturdy, three-storey wooden building that made up the academy. From a corner, Shino stopped to watch a few young boys practice their chakra-control beside a big pond. One boy, who looked about eleven or twelve, steadied himself and took a step forward. But as soon as his foot touched the surface of the water, he fell right through. This was followed by some jeering before a lady quieted them as she channeled some chakra onto her feet and started walking on the surface of the water to show the children the right way to control their chakra.
"That's Ayuki," Hinata informed. "She's quite good with chakra-control."
"You've come this far in less than six months?"
Hinata smiled, "Crash course... There are a few others who have excelled. They're probably in class."
The Aburame smiled and nodded at the same time before a few shurikens flew sloppily past him and fell onto the ground, a few feet away.
"Whoops!" Muro Kazuo emitted as he walked towards the two. "Did I hurt any of you?"
Hinata sighed, "Well, luckily not. Looks like you still need to practice with those, Kazuo-san."
The curly-haired male gave a shrug but when he came face to face with Shino, he faltered a little. The tall Aburame, with his dark glasses and jacket, completed with a hood, seemed to present a very mysterious, almost frightening impression. Suddenly, Kazuo found himself feeling a little disconcerted, even threatened.
"This…," he stammered. "This must be your… um husband?"
The dark-haired lady smiled, "No, this is Shino… Aburame Shino." And turning towards her teammate, she quietly introduced, "And this is Muro Kazuo, son of Muro Kazuhiro, the leader of this village."
"An Aburame! He's an insect user!"
"That's correct, Kazuo-san."
"Oh? Then why can't I see any insect around him? Where are his so-called weapons?"
He couldn't see the small smile on Shino's face but seconds later, the pale, young man started twitching and feeling about when he felt some objects crawling in his shirt. "Hey… What… what's happening?"
"That would be his weapons, Kazuo-san," Hinata replied with a knowing grin.
"What?" the young Muro shouted before he started hopping about. "Ahh… Get them off! Get them off!"
They were harmless – Hinata was sure of that when she left the curly-haired young man behind and led Shino around the academy.
"Why didn't you tell him?" the bespectacled male quietly inquired later when they were ascending a flight of stairs.
"Tell him what?"
"That Naruto's your husband."
Hinata exhaled, "I don't know how to say it… I just… I just don't know how to say… um… look, my husband's the Hokage, the most powerful man in the shinobi world…, the hero of Konoha…, and he's the one who saved all of us in the last war, the one and only Uzu… Uzumaki Naruto." His name was said in a whisper when the reality of how much she really missed him, kicked in and suddenly, she found herself taking a deep breath when she felt a familiar sting in her eyes.
She had not cried for over a month. In some ways, as time passed, she realized that she was slowly adapting to life in Oiru, to the responsibility she had so hastily asked for and to the post she now held. And when more and more people started signing up to be trained as shinobi, her confidence grew while her anguish slowly took a back seat. She had started on a leisurely pace but was now moving as assertively as she could ever imagined and she was starting to see the fruits of her labor. When in the beginning, only a handful of people had enrolled to be shinobi, she now had forty and, more are coming in. She was starting to make connections and starting to get used to the people around her. But above all the issues she had overcome, all the friends she had made and all the people she had managed to draw into the academy, there was something that she was consciously aware of - she was slowly getting used to life without Naruto.
"It was nice to see that you're doing well," Shino quietly said when they finally came to the border of the village.
Hinata could only force a smile. It was starting to hurt now that she knew it was time to say goodbye to her teammate. It had been more than five months since she had seen anyone from Konoha and Shino's appearance had been like a burst of warm sunlight on an icy winter morning. She had been thrilled to see him hardly an hour ago, standing at the exact same spot. But now, her teammate was going to take that warm sunlight with him and she knew she would be left feeling bitter, awfully bitter. One way or another, even though she had gotten used to life in Oiru, she couldn't stop the intense loneliness that was slowly creeping within her, threatening to overpower her being. And loneliness had been a dreadful enemy she thought she had overcome…
Shino however, chose to turn his attention to a certain curly-haired young man who had come along, despite having diligently kept a few paces away from them all the time. Muro Kazuo paled when the tall, bespectacled male decided to walk toward him. Nevertheless, in an attempt to secure his pride, he drew his hands into fists and straightened his posture.
"It was nice meeting you, Kazuo-san," the Aburame casually stated before lowering his tone a little so that Hinata couldn't hear him. "I'd keep my feelings towards Hinata to myself if I were you…" Somehow, Kazuo's affection towards his teammate had been a little too obvious; something that Shino didn't even need his observant eyes to catch. "I'm not trying to frighten you… but if you're intimidated by me, then you'd better be wary of who you're be up against in truth."
Satisfied with the shocked reaction he drew from the young man, Shino then turned back towards Hinata. "Take care, Hinata… I'll see you soon, I hope."
The dark-haired lady inhaled deeply to control the intense emotion she was feeling and the tears she was holding back. Then, very slowly, she gave a deep bow which her teammate quickly returned, albeit with a sigh. But when Shino looked up again, Hinata was able to force a heartening smile. Her teammate could only give a little nod before he turned, leapt and disappeared.
"I need you to draw out a plan for me," Naruto demanded.
"You do know that this is clan matter, right?" the Nara mused.
"That's not a problem…"
"No, that is the problem," Shikamaru drawled. "I'm not meddling with clan issues…"
"We're not meddling with other clans. Just the Hyuga…"
"That's exactly the problem…"
"I'm part of the family! …See? It's not other clan. It's my clan… or something like that."
"And I thought you're Uzumaki… or is it Namikaze?"
"Alright… But I'm the Hokage and I'm telling you… you have to solve this problem for me."
"I can choose not to do this."
"You have no choice," Naruto finally stated with a winning smile.
The Nara sighed aloud, "Troublesome."
"Come on Shikamaru, I know you can do this. I'll give you certain pointers and you can help me draw out the plan…" Naruto stated enthusiastically before a knock at the door interrupted them.
When the door opened, Kiba, along with his canine friend, Akamaru, sauntered into Hokage's office.
"Ah, Kiba! I have a mission for you," the Hokage said as he searched his table for the mission file.
"Where to?" the Inuzuka asked offhandedly.
Kiba scowled before asking, "Why Kiri?"
"What why Kiri?" Naruto heedlessly asked as he continued searching. "Where else do you want to be assigned to?"
"I don't know… Garasu… Hanaka… Oiru,maybe?
At the name of the village, Naruto stopped searching and slowly looked up from his desk, inquiring eyes seeking the Inuzuka's. "There are no missions to Oiru right now."
"Why not?" Hinata's teammate boldly questioned.
With that, the Hokage slowly stood up. "What is this about, Kiba?"
"Well, you sent her away…"
"I… I did not send her away."
"Yes, you did… and for three years."
"I didn't send her away. She chose to take on the mission herself."
"And you didn't stop her!"
"You think I didn't try to stop her?"
"Then why is she still there? Why didn't you bring her back already?"
"Kiba…" Shikamaru interrupted. Even though the shadow wielder wasn't eager to get involved in the quarrel, he really didn't want to see his two friends in such heated argument. Besides, Kiba seemed to be questioning something that was of personal concern to Naruto. And although he had concluded since long ago that the Inuzuka had feelings towards his teammate, Kiba really had no right to get involved in how Naruto was dealing with the whole situation. Not when Hinata and the Hokage were already married.
Naruto inhaled deeply, trying to compose himself before continuing, "I'm bringing her back."
With a huff, the Inuzuka ran a hand through his hair before turning around to leave with Akamaru. Then, he quietly emitted, "Good..."
Finding his cue to leave, Shikamaru quickly picked up a file that had been sitting at the far end of the Hokage's table. He had spotted the file earlier but had thought it entertaining to actually see Naruto searching for it instead of pointing it out to him. "I'll pass this to him," he casually stated, lifting the folder up before turning around to go after Kiba.
"We're not done here," the blue-eyed Hokage quietly uttered.
"Will work on that and get back to you later."
The Hokage could only nod as he watched the shadow wielder walked out and closed the door. Then, he fell back onto his chair and gave a frustrated sigh. Admittedly, Kiba could be insensitive sometimes and his stubborn, determined temperament can so often offend. But for a moment, Naruto felt like there was something more to the Inuzuka's outburst today. Was he overreacting or was he reading the signs wrongly? Why had he never thought of the possibility before? Somehow, even though Hinata's teammate could be pretty impossible in certain situations, his sudden flare-up seemed to have brought out something that Naruto had never contemplated on before… was Kiba actually hiding some feelings towards his wife?
"They won't consent to it," Sasuke said as the two friends walked out of Ichiraku Ramen.
"You'd be surprise," Naruto stated simply. "We just had to be more resolute about the whole thing… I'll seal the deal."
"They've been very strict about the whole main and branch division all these times. What makes you think you can change their minds?"
"Hey, I am Hiashi's son-in-law…"
"And I am the Hokage…"
"You think they give a damn about it?"
"Well, maybe not in the beginning… but they're starting to yield now."
"And what's your justification?"
Naruto gave a cheeky grin, "A little bit of this and a little bit of that."
"Yeah, like what?"
"Total degeneration of the clan."
"Degeneration?" That's your ground?"
"Well, he told Hiashi that if he keeps segregating the people, the clan will start to reduce in size because logically, who would want to marry into a branch family if they know their children will have to be sealed no matter what. As for the main branch… the numbers are already falling. They've lost many members during the last war. Will be hard to increase them to how it used to be… Plus, I'm not going to contribute to the family. My children are not going to be called Hyugas.
Sasuke snorted, "And Hiashi's buying that?"
"Off course not…" Naruto chuckled.
"Then we played the emotional card…" the Hokage said before giving a sigh. "Have to bring up Neji and Hizashi… their sacrifices."
The Uchiha kept quiet as he contemplated the facts. If Hinata's father is the main decision-maker in the whole arrangement, then maybe, it would be possible to change the mindset of the Hyugas. After all, Hizashi was his twin brother who had sacrificed his life to save his Hiashi's. Surely, the Hyuga head would hold some form of remorse towards his brother. Plus, in truth, they've lost too many people during the last war. It wasn't surprising to learn that the number of Hyuga had considerably declined. In that case, Shikamaru's theory of total degeneration really wasn't too far-fetched.
"You're on the winning side?" Sasuke finally asked, now a little convinced that his old friend could actually break the Hyugas' severely strict system. The Uchiha had to remind himself that he was actually talking to Naruto, the one who had changed the direction of the last war with just his strength and determination; the one who had also never given up on him when he had severed all ties with the village and become a missing nin, even a member of the Akatsuki; the one who never gave up no matter how difficult things had been…
The blue-eyed Hokage inhaled deeply before smiling, "I guess so."
"It's going to be a big thing, right?"
"Unavoidable formalities, for sure."
Sasuke grunted before turning to leave. Then, a few paces later, he curiously asked, "You're going to bring her back for that, right?"
Naruto could only smile before putting his hand over the rings on his chest, "Wouldn't want her to miss that."
He took one last look around the house before slowly closing the door, quietly hoping that he wouldn't be walking in alone the next time he came through. Then, turning around, he inhaled deeply, taking his time to actually feel the pleasant coolness of the night and leisurely drawing in the familiar earthy smell in the air. Automatically, the Hokage placed his hand over the rings on his chest as he quietly entertained the anticipation that was slowly growing within him. He had been planning for this night for a whole month already and now that he was actually going to be carrying out what he had planned, he couldn't hold back the rising anxiety within. He was undoubtedly nervous yet exceptionally eager.
In truth, he could have gone after his wife long ago but somehow, he realized that he wouldn't be as excited as he was at that very moment if he had. He was harboring a totally different sentiment this time, something that he had never been so sure of before and he really wanted Hinata to know exactly how he felt. He was in love… madly in love. In fact, he didn't even know he was capable of such strong feelings.
Ever since his days in the academy, he had only ever thought that he loved Sakura. But when the miserable feelings within him began to slowly ebb away, he came to see that he actually loved his teammate in a different way. Without a doubt, he loved being in the same team with her and loved going on missions together. All the same, he had also loved annoying her whenever he had the chance yet wouldn't mind being her punching bag on many occasions. Somehow, he was more like a close friend, a confidante. When Sasuke left the village to join Orochimaru, he had eagerly promised Sakura that he would bring him back. He hated to see her heartbroken and had fought hard not to let his own anguish over Sasuke's leaving surface. Naturally, she had, in some ways, occupied a noteworthy part of his heart so, when she finally got married, he thought he had lost the part of him that was capable of loving.
However, now that he looked back, he realized that he really didn't lose anything significant. Sakura, Sasuke and him were still close friends, a fact that he hoped would never ever change. He still saw them, still spend time with them and was glad that he could actually feel happy for them. He had outgrown his petty feelings towards his pink-haired teammate and could only conclude that he had been a foolish person for a long while. He thought he knew what love was all about. No doubt he had loved his friends and his village. He was even willing to lay down his life for them if the situation called for. Love was all-encompassing, filling his heart with an urgency to protect, to preserve.
But there was more to love... It had made him a curious being. He realized that he had never really wanted to know a person as much as he wanted to know Hinata. He had never been as interested, never been as persistent especially when it came to her background. But that wasn't all. He had become insatiable, wanting to know much more. He wanted to learn more about her preferred fighting technique and couldn't wait to find out which fight was her most triumphant. He wanted to know about his wife's favorite food and badly needed to find out who her favorite people were. He was aware that there was a lot more he needed to know about his wife and was sure that he would keep a curious mind for as long as he could.
Love transforms a person, oftentimes, incorporating pride, selfishness and jealousy. So many times, when he had looked at Hinata in their wedding photo, he couldn't help swelling with pride, occasionally even smiling with a kind of smug satisfaction. He had married a most beautiful woman and would agree that he had every right to be proud. He also realized that he wouldn't tolerate another person holding his wife's hands again or touching her in any other way - he would no longer act the gentleman. He would be more wary of the people that Hinata were close to, Kiba especially. If he had to admit, he had been dense for a long time, not really aware of other people's feelings towards his wife. But now, he would react differently... Love had somehow, made him a cautious person.
He had grown up without a family yet was in one way or another, finding it more and more difficult to live alone. And although the village and all its happenings had always been very important to him, he realized that his priorities have shifted. If he had to, he would place Hinata first and her happiness would be his main concern. Somehow, he didn't just find it in him to come to love her… he was totally in love with his wife.
As he placed a hand over his abdomen, Naruto inwardly communicated with the nine-tailed beast within him. "Got to borrow some chakra from you, Kurama," he said, smiling.
Then, as soon as he finished speaking, an apparent transformation took place – the color of his eyes changed from blue to orange while he gained a chakra shroud that released chakra in the form of flickering flames. He had not been in this form since a long time ago but when he felt the surge of power growing within him, he could only smile at the familiar sensation. It was nice knowing how much energy he was capable of generating. Yet the biggest pleasure came from knowing that he was actually drawing so much power for the sake of one person whom he had come to love with all his heart. Drawing in a breath of air, he smiled again.
"See you real soon, Hinata," he said, as he leapt and disappeared in lightning speed…
A/N : Chapter 6 brought in more than 50 reviews! I've never had that many reviews on any one chapter of any of my other stories before. I sort of floated in cloud nine for a long time before feeling the pressure to deliver further. And boy, was I stressed out. It took me a long time to get back to writing but I actually started by re-reading all the reviews, both encouraging and daunting. Encouragingly, you people made me want to do better. Dauntingly, I became more adamant with what I have in mind. Anyway, I really want all of you to know that your comments have really helped get me back to writing. Thank you so much for actually taking time to review my story.
To Nafsi-chan, Jimbo (seemed like you're a favorite target of a few other reviewers. Don't worry, it only meant that your reviews were overwhelming enough), Johnny (thanks for sticking with me until chapter 6), kavya, mikoto lee (thank you for that very meticulous review. Loved it a lot. Fall for You – Secondhand Serenade, great song!) Hells no, you are awesome (with this slow update, it's probably 'not so awesome' anymore, right? Lol!), SheenaBOden and kyekeyo (Naruto being OOC to the max? Will have to look into that. Nevertheless, thanks for complimenting me on my other story characters).
I also want to thank Serious Sam for giving me a shout-out in his story. Seriously Sam, it had been great to hear from you!
I do understand that I do not deserve any review at all since I've let so many of you down with my late update. Still, I believe that all of you are forgiving people… right? Happy 2014!
- softwinds -