The Sequel to "For Them... And for Us: The Strength of Twelve". Over a year later and the group has slowly been healing, exciting times giving them cause to find happiness once again. Yet just wh...
Chapter One: The Unspeakable
They couldn't help but to watch, wide eyed and in awe.
It was not because the match was rapid and fierce - though it was; not because the combatants were in love - though they were; and certainly not because she had improved so greatly in such a short period of time - though she really had.
As Naruto and Hinata sparred the feel of the air around them was nearly hypnotic, bringing Sakura and Ino's practice to a standstill. It was the chemistry between the two that drew the women in. They were focused on one another; completely enraptured, or at least that was Sakura's opinion. In that moment nothing in their world existed except Hinata and Naruto.
It certainly made Sakura uncomfortable; thinking of Naruto in any sort of intamate scene.
Hinata's Juken held nothing back and though Naruto was holding back it was clear that he was not having as easy a time as he could. Neither one betrayed any trace of their relationship outwardly; fierce eyes, harsh blows and well-timed jutsus testified that this was a sparring match between two deadly shinobi.
So why does it feel like they're sharing a private moment? Sakura blushed. Ino joined her, scrapes on her face fresh from their own bout.
"Naruto, sure, but I never pegged Hinata as an exhibitionist." She said slyly. Sakura almost chastised her friend for such a rude remark but stopped herself, thinking. It was true that the pink-haired woman had calmed greatly over recent months, but she was still Sakura after all...
"You're also getting the impression that this is more than practice?" She asked. Her friend chuckled.
"Next thing you know they'll be rolling in the grass together."
"Ino!" The blonde cackled wickedly and raised cupped hands to her mouth.
"You! Lovebirds! Get a room, already! You're making me hot!" Hinata's concentration broke and she turned wide eyes on her antagonist.
"What?!" Naruto's fist went unblocked and crashed soundly into the side of Hinata's head, sending the young woman flying a good distance before she finally hit the practice pole behind her. Naruto's eyes practically rolled from their sockets and he ran to her.
"Hinata, I'm so sorry!" He bent low, helping her to her feet. "What the hell, Ino! What the shit was that about?" Hinata chuckled, though she blushed hotly.
"I'm fine, it's okay." She said, using her hand to pull at the crick in her neck and opened her jaw, a slight pop sounding. And then the ebony-haired woman was smiling. "I saw it coming, but I just didn't react in time. Next time I'll keep my guard up." Ino shrugged self-consciously.
"Sorry 'bout that." She returned and Sakura shoved her crass friend a little. But no serious harm had been done and Hinata shook the grass from her hair.
"Hinata, you're looking great out there." The cherry blossom said truthfully.
"Really? Hey, do you want to see what Naruto taught me?" She grabbed her friends' hands and tugged them a short distance from the pole.
Ino sniggered. "Oiroke no Jutsu?" Hinata scowled.
"No! Watch." Her hands raised before her. "Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!" Another Hinata appeared beside her. Ino clapped drolly.
"Impressive. You can make a Bunshin." Hinata cocked an eyebrow, but said nothing, her hands once more before her. Naruto smiled cockily and moved to the side.
"I'd step back if I were you," he said to their friends.
"Odama Rasengan!" The two Hinatas cried, and the whirling ball of energy the girls had watched Naruto wield in battle just over a year ago launched from Hinata's palms, blasting the practice pole into slivers. The clone vanished, leaving a very satisfied looking kunoichi.
"That's great, Hinata!" Sakura cheered, shaking excited fists.
"Thanks! It still needs work, but I'm getting a lot better at it." Hinata had never before bragged about anything, but now that she and Naruto were together she was gaining a self confidence that Sakura thought the girl rightly deserved.
"Oh, and Ino?" Hinata's smile was coy, her eyes flicking over to Naruto briefly. The blonde woman looked at her expectantly. "I don't need Oiroke no Jutsu." Naruto roared with laugher and hugged her close.
"That's right! You tell her!" Ino smirked and shook her head, the point obviously taken.
"So you'll be there around seven tonight, right?" Sakura asked her old teammate. Naruto grinned eagerly.
"I'd be there already if you guys would let me!" Ino rolled her eyes.
"I don't see why we had to tell him," she said, "birthday parties are suppose to be a surprise!"
"Yeah, but he'd snoop and find out anyway," Hinata shoved an elbow into her boyfriend's ribs, "at least this way we're prepared!"
"Alright then," Sakura walked away with Ino, casting a goodbye wave over her shoulder in a way similar to Naruto, "my place; seven o'clock!"
"Count on it!" Naruto replied and felt arms encircle his waist tightly. He turned his face down and saw the beautiful white eyes of his love gazing up at him.
"That's right, I nearly forget," she said and reached up with one hand, bringing his head down to hers; drawing him into a slow, deep kiss. He closed his eyes and sighed, her scent and the feel of her like a drug he couldn't resist. His arms wrapped around her and he pulled her close; the fingers behind his head tangled into his long hair. He never got tired of this. She finally pulled her lips away, earning a remorseful moan from him, and smiled.
"Happy birthday, Naruto."
Towards half passed six Naruto started to get anxious, Hinata doing her best to keep him from rushing off too early. She tried everything decent she could think of to keep him occupied but just twenty minutes later she was forced to submit to his pestering and the two left his apartment for Sakura's, Naruto humming all the way. Hinata laughed.
"You're acting like a kid!" She teased. Naruto turned her favorite smile on her and she was certain her knees would give out.
"This is going to the best birthday ever!" He said. "I know it!" Hinata scowled playfully.
"Did you go looking for your gifts again?" She asked in a mock-scold. Last year, in a rascal's effort to shake the veil of hurt from the group, Naruto had taken it upon himself to break into Lee's apartment, knowing that his birthday gifts were being hidden there. It wasn't that he wanted to know what he was getting; he just wanted to make his friends feel something other than loss. The tai jutsu master had almost taken off his head before realizing who the intruder was. Once seeing it was Naruto in his home, he had tried even harder.
It was the first time Naruto had seen Lee with any sort of spirit since Gai's death, and though the beating he'd taken had hurt like hell, Naruto would have done it again without thinking twice.
They finally arrived at their friend's first floor apartment. Sakura's door was decorated with handwritten signs like 'This Way to the Booze' and 'Old Fart Walking' taped to the door along with brightly colored streamers and crepe paper decorations. Naruto snorted a laugh at the second sign, recognizing Jiraiya's handwriting right away.
"He's one to talk!"
He opened the door, letting Hinata enter first - as Kakashi had taught him was the gentlemanly thing to do - and entered Sakura's living room; music and voices reverberating in the cozy apartment.
"And there his is!" Ino held two glasses high above her head and made her way to the new arrivals, passing each a drink. "The old fart himself!" A chorus of happy birthday shouts and whooping sounds rose up and Naruto plastered his biggest grin onto his face, soaking up the attention.
He spent the first half hour mingling, as Ino had called it. Tsunade had managed to stop by for a few minutes, but had been forced to leave due to a punishing schedule. Yet she had been able to play a few drinking games before leaving, winning a fair amount of money from Lee despite the man's reputation as the drunken master.
"Boys shouldn't play grown-up games," the older woman had told him haughtily and Shikamaru had almost choked on his drink when he saw Lee's face.
"Nineteen years old." Iruka came up after a while and clapped the blonde man on his back. "Was it really so long ago that you were my student?"
"Don't let it get you down, sensei," Naruto emphasized the title and Iruka groaned.
"I remember when an adult called me sensei for the first time." Jiraiya came up with another drink for the 'birthday-boy', making certain he drank it down completely. "It was your father and he, too, did it just for spite, although I remember hitting him for it."
Naruto laughed. It had taken him a while, but thinking of his father no longer hurt. In fact, Naruto was now getting to the point where he liked to hear about his father; what kind of man he had been and what sort of antics he had pulled. It helped Naruto feel connected to his father, and Jiraiya was the best place to go for information.
"Naruto, are you going to dive into that food or what?" Shikamaru taunted from the other side of the room and there were a few laughs and one groan that now no one else would get any. The groan sounded oddly like Neji, though Naruto could not imagine the man being so jovial.
"In a minute." The blonde man said. "First I gotta say something. That means everyone's gotta /shut up/!" He shouted loudly over the voices. The room quieted and someone turned the music down.
Well this is a little scarier than I thought. Naruto hooked an arm behind his neck, knowing that he'd better not screw this up. Damn, why is saying the right thing so hard?
"Okay, so we're all here, right?"
"We are, but I don't know about you!" That was definitely Neji. There was more laughter and then it stopped, the group allowing Naruto to speak.
"Okay, so first the toast, right? And since it's my birthday I claim the right to give it." Naruto raised his glass and the others followed. "This is to the missing pieces of our set. Even though they've left our sides, they'll never leave our hearts. Here's to the hope that they're here with us today, even if we can't see them."
Toasting to their lost comrades had become a tradition at any planned gathering, though in the entire fourteen months this was the first time Naruto had ever given it. Hinata smiled. It was simple, but he had insisted on finding the words himself and had agonized for weeks on it after deciding it was his turn to do the honors.
"Now, one more thing," Naruto grinned, setting his glass aside, "and then it's ramen time!"
"Get on with it already! It smells really good!" Chouji shouted.
"Shut it and I will!"
More laughter. It was great to see the kids happy again, Kakashi thought with a satisfied smile under his mask. Yeah, they were adults now, and every one of them a jounin, but that would never stop him from remembering them as that group of twelve and thirteen year old academy grads he had first known them as.
"Okay," Naruto nodded, "so, it's my birthday and I get a wish, right?"
"We can't make you any smarter, sorry!"
"And we can't take back that beating you got with the ugly stick!" Ino and Tenten were practically rolling with laughter and the blonde man sulked.
"Come on guys, keep it up and Chouji and I are gonna starve to death!" The teasing stopped and the two offenders smothered their laughter.
"So, it's time for my wish." Naruto scratched the back of his head out of old habit. "I've been thinking about this for a good long while, and I've decided that this wish is all I want for my birthday. Take back all the presents, all the food, everything. I don't care. All I want is for this one wish to come true."
Are you watching, guys? Naruto asked his departed friends silently.
"Come on already!" Shikamaru moaned from his perch against the window. Naruto ignored him.
"I want Hyuga Hinata to accept my offer and become my wife." Hinata could only stare as her lover watched her with those bright blue eyes. Her heart fluttered in her chest and she repeated the words in her head. Her eyes began to fill as the reality if his wish hit home. There was silence, then a few gasps when people began to realized that Naruto had just proposed marriage.
Naruto dropped to both knees before his love, taking one pale hand in his.
"I want to wake up to your face every day." He said. "I want to see you across the breakfast table every morning. I want to buy groceries together and furniture and all that other stuff married couples do. I want to have babies with you, Hinata."
Hinata pressed fingers flat against her mouth, and though he wasn't really paying attention he thought he heard someone whimper in the back of the room.
"I may not be the most upstanding guy in the village, or even the smartest, but I know that I love you. I love you and I swear that I'll make you happy. If it kills me, I'll see you happy and healthy and taken care for the rest of your life. Marry me, Hinata?" She took a shuddering breath wondering if her voice would work.
"That was, the most beautiful thing I've ever heard." Naruto's face split into a wide smile.
"So you will?" She nodded that demure little nod of hers and he lowered his head, peering at her from under heavy lashes, waiting for more. He wanted to hear that one word, she knew. The room was practically buzzing with anticipation, and she could have sworn it was all his. She squealed out a laugh.
"Yes!" And she threw herself at him, sending them both to the floor. Cheers and whistles erupted. Iruka was close to weeping, Jiraiya smiling quietly beside him. Ino smiled broadly, shaking Lee's arm in excitment while he laughed. Tenten was looking at her lover; a wistful smile on his face, and she took up his hand. And no one noticed when the white haired jounin closed his black eye to hide emotions he obviously didn't want to share.
Naruto lifted himself and Hinata off the floor, pressing her against his side tightly.
Who'd have thought Naruto would be the first of us? Sakura thought. They had all thought Neji and Tenten would be first, but that was obviously not the case.
Her fingers grazed the hitai-ate on her arm; a gesture that did not go unnoticed by Lee though he didn't let on that he had seen. And after a moment of quiet reflection her face lit up brightly and she couldn't help herself.
"Shannaro!" She yelled loudly, pumping a fist high into the air and causing a few people to jump. "Datta boy, Naruto!"
Her friend - her best friend in the entire world - flashed his signature grin and then graced his friends with the honor of watching him kiss his new fiancÃ©e for the first time.
There was a knock at the door and Hinata uncurled herself from the couch where she had been reading, stretching lazily. It had been a quiet evening and she had been relaxing, listening to the sounds of the rain before it had stopped. She set aside her book and answered the knock; Izumo blinked when she opened the door.
"Oh! Hinata!" The shinobi smiled pleasantly, though a bit confused, "I didn't know you were here." The Hyuga smiled.
"Yeah, actually, I live here now." She revealed. Izumo's face must have been directly linked to his brain because Hinata giggled.
"Naruto and I agreed it was time," she said, "and I never wanted to be the Hyuga heir, anyway. Father still has Hanabi and she's always wanted to take over. Father is still a bit upset with me, but Naruto had a talk with him and he hasn't pushed the issue since."
A bit upset in Hyuga terms means the man was probably breathing fire when Hinata moved out! Izumo tried not to shudder. Naruto's got some cast iron balls to stand up to that guy!
"Well, I suppose the important thing is that you're both happy, right?" Hinata nodded, and then Izumo remembered himself. "Is Naruto at home?" He asked.
"He's out picking up dinner. Finally, a night without ramen!" Izumo didn't smile at the joke and Hinata sobered. "Is this important? Would you like to come in and wait?"
"I have a message from the hokage that he's to report to her right away." Izumo said.
A mission? Hinata wasn't surprised. Most of Naruto's missions came directly from the hokage now. Her intentions were getting more and more obvious, and Hinata wondered why she just didn't name Naruto her successor already.
"I understand. You don't have to wait here. If he returns before you find him I'll pass along the message." Hinata agreed. Izumo thanked her and left.
It wasn't more than fifteen minutes later when Naruto walked through the door, the smell of pork coming from the small white boxes in his hands and he kicked out of his shoes.
"Ayame saw me walk by with the take-out bag and yelled at me for being unfaithful to her establishment." He chuckled. Hinata smiled, but didn't join his laughter.
"Did Izumo find you?" Naruto shook his head.
"Nope." He didn't bother to ask why. There was only one reason Izumo would be looking for him.
"I'll try to keep this warm for you," she said, taking the bag from him so he could slip back into his shoes, "you've been summoned to Godaime's office."
This was familiar territory for them. Even before their engagement there had been many times when the hokage's messengers had sought Naruto out and interuppted a pleasent evening. But that was the life of a shinobi and the couple never once complained.
"If I'm not back in an hour go ahead and eat that without me. And don't wait up."
"I know." Sometimes Naruto left straight from the hokage's office for the mission. Hinata hated it when that happened, but she also understood. Some things just couldn't wait. "I love you."
"Love you back." He smiled for her, kissed her and left. Hinata didn't worry, though. Not really, at least. She didn't want him to get hurt and the thought of him injured or in pain gnawed at her. But his death was not a fear of hers anymore. Naruto had proven already that he was not a jounin to be trifled with. He would come back to her.
She had no doubt about that.
"Naruto, come in." Tsunade didn't even need to wait for the knock at the door. She could feel that chakra as soon as he came in front of the building and knew how long it would take him before he reached her door. Naruto entered and seated himself before her desk without hesitation. Not many had the guts to make themselves comfortable in the hokage's office without invitation, but then Naruto was an exception to many rules.
"Is this to inform me that I'm up for hokage?" He chirped. He always started their meetings off that way. The two had grown closer over the years, mutual respect providing roots for the growth of their friendship. Yet Naruto only treated her so casually in private; conferring to her the respect her title demanded when others were around.
One of these days I'm going to say yes and he's not going to know how to handle it. She had often told herself. But she couldn't bring herself to such levity today.
"This is shit timing, Naruto, I know." She said seriously and the blonde man listened intently. "But I made you a promise and I'm going to keep it."
"We've found him, Naruto." She said, not one for beating around the bush. "Itachi. More to the point, he's found /you/."
"What?" Naruto cocked his head, not understanding what she meant. It was no mystery where Naruto was. Everyone who knew of the kyubi knew that its host lived in Konoha. It was not a piece of information that was guarded, after all. At least not well guarded.
"It's been years, and we thought he'd given up." She sighed. "But I think last year's... events... rekindled that old desire."
"Yeah," Naruto shrugged, "and?" He was perfectly aware that Itachi had coveted the kyubi for himself. He'd actually been waiting for the man to make a move. Then Sasuke would get his revenge, he had told himself. "So where is he?" Tsunade looked grim.
"Two nights ago Kusanagi was stolen from Sunagakure, Naruto." She said. "The attack was Akatsuki, or so the Kazekage believes." Naruto took a deep breath.
Orochimaru's abandoned sword had been sent to Sunagakure soon after the battle; Tsunade's effort to keep it and Naruto far apart and ensure his safety. The new Kazekage, Gaara, was their most trusted ally outside of the Land of Fire and had agreed to guard the sword, feeling a certain kinship to the blonde who was so like him. They were both vessels; guardians of a power that should never know freedom again.
"What makes you think it was Itachi, and that he's coming after me with it?" The man asked, his relaxed posture gone. He wasn't afraid, she knew, but he was also not stupid enough to believe that he had no cause for concern. Blue eyes flashed intellegently and she knew he was already planning ahead for a possible encounter.
"One of the Kusanagi's guards lived long enough to tell what he had witnessed." She reported. "He identified one of the two men as shark-like," /Hoshigaki Kisame/, Naruto guessed, "and said that as the invaders were leaving he heard two words from them though he couldn't make out the rest: 'kyubi' and 'finally'."
Naruto was quiet. There had been a survivor, huh?
"Sounds like Itachi wants us to know what's going on." He said after a moment. Gondaime nodded. "I gotta ask why? What's this mean? I mean, other than the fact that I've gotta keep my eyes peeled? Because it sounds to me like it's time I got my team together and beat him to the punch."
That was precisely not what she wanted to hear.
"No you won't." She ordered sternly and Naruto bristled. She knew of the team's plans. She knew they wanted to be the ones to bring in Sasuke's brother. They both knew his team was capable enough to be trusted with the mission. But Naruto knew Tsunade well enough to know that if she said no she had a damned good reason, so he kept his mouth shut.
"You need to listen right now." She went on. "What has me worried is that there is only one reason I can think of that would cause Itachi to bother with the Kusanagi." The jounin shrugged as though to say 'of course'.
"Yeah, he's out for the kyubi and he can't get through to the demon without it. I'd never let him."
Naruto had that much right, she thought, but he was missing the most frightening part. She had expected this. Naruto just didn't think that way. It wasn't in his nature.
He can be so niave.
"Naruto," she said, not knowing a gentler way of saying it, "I believe there is a traitor in your team. I think someone you care about has sold you out to Akatsuki."
He was in a daze, his legs taking him home by reflex, not thought.
It can't be possible, he thought, she's gotta be wrong.
Their faces passed over his mind's eyes. Neji, who pretended not to care, though everyone knew he did. Ino, whose foul mouth disguised the kind heart beneath. Sakura, the one person other than Hinata who understood him; understood what it was like to love someone and hate them at the same time. They were each so different, but they were all so precious to him. He trusted them all. He'd put his life in each of their hands without a second thought. He'd die to keep them safe! There was no way any of them would betray him like that! They felt the same way, he just knew it.
There has to be another explanation!
But Tsunade did not worry without reason. Other than the hokage and the kazekage, who he also trusted without question or hesitation, the only people who knew of what the sword could do to the kyubi's defenses were his best friends; the closest thing he'd ever had to a family. His brothers and sisters. His whole life.
They had all sworn their silence to the hokage, promising never to speak of the Kusanagi's advantage; not even amoung each other.
But now Itachi knew of what the sword could do.
So that meant someone he trusted had betrayed him.
No, I don't believe it.
He couldn't think straight; thinking straight meant being logical, and logically what Tsunade had said would make sense if he considered it. But Naruto couldn't face the idea that someone he loved had betrayed him.
He was here, he realized.
The lights were on in their apartment, looking up to the third floor window. Hinata was still awake. She had said she wouldn't wait up, but it seemed she had. She never did like going to bed without him. She liked to use his shoulder as a pillow. She was probably hoping he'd be back soon.
But he couldn't go in. Not now, as he was. He was certain she'd take one look at him and tear up with worry. And he couldn't deal with that right now.
Though he could tell Hinata anything, right now he needed someone who wouldn't try to comfort him. He needed to see someone who would talk straight to him; who would help him wrap his mind around this. Maybe even find another answer.
'I know it's hard, but you can't trust anyone right now, Naruto.' The woman's voice played in his thoughts.
But he didn't know how not to trust them!
What the hell does she expect me to do?!
Naruto turned from his apartment building and walked away. His legs knew where to take him, even if his mind didn't.
Kakashi snapped his little orange book shut and pulled on his mask, not caring that he was still in his pajamas. He was more concerned with who would come by at this hour. A mission, probably. Though it had slowed down since Orochimaru's death, the victory hadn't stopped the need for emergency S-ranked missions and late night call-ups.
He almost took a step back when he opened the door and saw Naruto standing there, pale as a ghost, his eyes wide and unnerving. The former student regarded his mentor; disoriented.
"Sensei..." he whispered and Kakashi jerked him inside, slamming the door behind him. He did a quick check for injuries, noting that Naruto looked like he had lost a lot of blood. His long blonde hair and feathery whiskers were dark against his bloodless face; his lips just as pale.
Was he on a mission? Did it go wrong? Why did he not go to the hospital, or home?
But as Kakashi turned the man before him around, pulling at his limbs and checking his vital signs he saw that there were no wounds, no dark stains on his clothes, and no signs of a struggle.
"What is it?" He asked, making the boy face him, disturbed by Naruto's current state. "Is it Hinata? Is that it?" Naruto's eyes drifted off to the side aimlessly and Kakashi gave his face a none-too-gentle slap, bringing his friend back to reality. "Naruto, I have to say that you're scaring the shit out of me right now." Naruto blinked at the strike, giving his head a little shake to clear it. He was finally able to form a complete thought.
"Gondaime..." the blonde said softly, his brows puckering slightly, "she thinks... she said... one of my friends is trying to kill me."
Kakashi's single black eye widened. He wanted to believe he hadn't heard that right, but his ears never lied to him. The elder pulled Naruto to the couch, forcing him to sit down. Kakashi said nothing, but went into the kitchen and came back with a paper cup and the first bottle of liquor he could find in the cabinets. He had to calm Naruto down before he'd be able to get a clear answer from the young shinobi and this was the fastest way he could think of.
"Drink it," he thrust the cup into Naruto's hands and the jounin obeyed, though Kakashi had to reach out and steady his hands as he lifted the cup to his lips.
He could tell that Naruto wasn't scared. He wasn't even really upset. It was like his mind had shut down; like he couldn't handle what he had been thinking. He looked to be suffering from shock. Kakashi had never seen him in such a state before. Not even last year in that clearing, after he had sent his father and then his friend to their graves.
Not even when Sasuke had defected to Orochimaru; though in truth they had suspected the Uchiha would do it anyway. His thirst for vengeance had been too great to resist the madman's offer. But Sasuke had not had any desire to hurt his friends; only to kill his treacherous brother.
Kakashi couldn't fathom why any of the others would have a reason to want Naruto dead. He couldn't even pick one of them out that would be the most likely candidate.
It was all entirely too surreal.
Kami, what did you hear, Naruto? What did she find out?
He thought of sending word to Hinata to tell her where her fiance was, but then pushed the idea away. Naruto had come here. He'd not gone home. That probably meant he wasn't ready to see her, for whatever reason.
The whirling in the blonde's eyes died down after a little while and Kakashi took a seat on the coffee table before him. He took the paper cup from his friend and set it aside, noting that the man's hands had stopped shaking.
"Now," Kakashi said quietly, crystal blue eyes rising to meet his, "tell me everything."
And so the sequel to "The Strength of Twelve" has officially begun. I really had started work on a new story, but lying in bed one night the idea hit me - thwap! - and I just knew I had to come back to this one. So I guess I wasn't as finished as I thought!
I'm trying to incorporate all the good advice I got during my last story, (length, pace, etc.) so we'll see if I can't make this one better than the last. Be sure to tell me if I'm rushing through it though, because sometimes I really can't tell. Guess that comes with practice, huh? And I don't know if these chapters will come as quickly as the first story's because I made a promise to have a SasxSaku story out and I intend on keeping it (Appologies to those who are waiting for that story. This one is monopolizing most of my thoughts at the moment, but the S&S story has been started!).
Please let me know what you think! I practically obsess over reviews! (Come on, don't make me beg. It's really not a pretty sight...) XD Thanks everyone!