In which Hinata reappears, preparations are made, and journeys begin.
"It's falling down, you know," he says. "I probably should have done more to keep it up, huh? I tried, though. You can't say I didn't try!" He sounds more angry than defensive.
I know you tried, she starts to say, but she is mute, which is funny because it's usually his presence that gives her the strength to speak up loud and clear. You never stop trying, she tries to say, but he's getting distant.
Then, like he said, it falls down. She wakes up.
This is the third night in a row she's had a dream like this--they're always this short, all too short, they make his absence all the more painful when she wakes--but it's the first time she's gotten up in her sleep.
She reorients herself to her new surroundings, then studies the wall before her, and what hangs upon it.
The chakra sword's design was one of the least practical Sonmei had ever seen. He'd seen a few strange weapons in his short life, too. His sensei, for all her cool efficiency in battle, had a taste for pretty absurdities sometimes. Her walls were decorated with weapons: most of them elegant and workable, but others, like the shuriken shaped like flowers, quite unfeasible for battle.
He'd asked her about that once, after sparring with her. She'd wiped the sweat from her forehead and said, "Weapons are made for killing. But they're also art. No good artist can pour her soul into her work and, when it's done, see only an implement of destruction. Otherwise, she's not a craftsman anymore--only a killer."
He'd waited politely for a moment to be sure that she was done speaking, then said, "But sensei, really. Shaped like /flowers/?"
At that, she'd laughed. "They are funny, aren't they?"
But she'd never called her chakra sword, or any others, /funny/. The one time he'd asked her about its ungainly design, she'd changed the subject. He'd never actually seen one in use until he and Kakashi (mostly Kakashi, he reminded himself) took down the Sound encampment.
Sonmei sat on the floor and studied his mother's chakra sword. It was the same length as a katana, and it had a similar hilt, but that was where the similarities ended. The blade was split down the middle, making a gap about half an inch wide, and the edges were not only sharp, but jagged, toothy. There were characters carved into each prong of the blade: one set read /tamashii no ken/, the name of the jutsu that activated the sword, and the other /Haruno Sakura/. He'd glimpsed similar markings on his sensei's sword, with her name there in place of his mother's. Kakashi's was an older model and therefore different--a little less refined, a little plainer--but the basic design was the same. It always was.
When the wielder performed /tamashii no ken/, a strange glow shot out from the hilt and enveloped the entire blade, forming a more normal sword-shape around the weird prongs. It hummed and crackled faintly.
Sonmei left his house early in the morning, before anyone else was awake, and went to his sensei's forge. He was not surprised to see her there--she'd always been an early riser.
"You're up early," she said, drawing a kunai across the grindstone. "Good, because you've been missing lessons."
He sat down on a bench and watched her fo a moment, trying to figure out if she really didn't know where he'd been the past couple days. Finally, he said, "Sensei, make me a chakra sword."
Tenten paused and started to set the kunai down. Instead of doing that, though, she twisted about and flung it in Sonmei's direction. He dodged back easily, snapping one hand up to grab the knife by the handle, then straightened up to wait for a more informative response.
"Did you enjoy your adventure, Sonmei?" she asked.
"It was enlightening, sensei," he said.
"I began work on your chakra sword," she said calmly, "as soon as I heard that Kakashi had come back to train you."
He blinked and tried to think of what to say.
"It'll be done by tomorrow."
He tried again. "Sensei?"
She looked at him in that quiet way she had, gentle and well-mannered on the outside but severe below the surface. There was some sort of rebuke in her gaze, but he couldn't figure out the details.
"When will you be teaching me the jutsu for it?" he asked.
Tenten turned so that he could barely see her face, picked up another kunai, and put this one to the grindstone as well. "Your mother invented /tamashii no ken/. Ask her."
"--she did?" An instant too late, Sonmei realized that he was being shunted into a topic change. He frowned, but it was too late. She was already talking.
"You should be able to catch her getting up if you go now, Sonmei," she said. And then she turned her back to him completely.
He considered saying that he was sorry, but he wasn't sure what he'd be apologizing for. Besides, she didn't seem angry. Sad, maybe? But then, beneath her calm patience, Tenten-sensei was always sad.
He turned and walked out, forcing himself to look straight ahead.
Sonmei was not far from his home when he realized that someone else was heading in the same direction.
She was not far ahead of him; by all rights she should have noticed he was there. He wasn't trying to be any more stealthy than usual. But then, maybe she wasn't a ninja at all. She wore no uniform, only a kimono--and he wasn't even sure if it was meant for wearing outside the house. The only problem was that a hitai-ate was knotted around her neck, and a sword was sheathed at her waist.
She was utterly out of place in these streets and eerily compelling. He fell into the shadows as he followed her. She walked without looking behind her, so all he could see was her long black hair against the white of her robe.
The woman stopped at the walkway to Sonmei's house. Inside, figures were already moving; he recognized Kakashi's silhouette. It was hard not to. Sonmei wasn't sure whether he'd been there all night or had arrived while he was gone.
The stranger hesitated, then took a step forward. Beneath the folds of her kimono, her foot trembled visibly for an instant. Then it was obscured once more.
So that was why she hadn't noticed him. It was taking all her strength just to keep walking. But her hand did not tremble as she raised it and knocked on the door. Sonmei slid behind a tree and willed himself to fade in with it as he watched and waited.
After a moment, Kakashi opened the door. His gaze traveled to the woman's face, and he gave her a bemused look. "I'm pretty sure the Hyuuga from ANBU isn't expected until tomorrow..."
"Ah-ah," the woman said, swallowing hard. "...Kakashi-san, I--am not the ANBU bodyguard. I need to talk to Sakura-san, please..."
"She's been busy lately," Kakashi said, his blank expression unchanging.
"It's important," she said. "I..." She stopped, her chin sinking close to her chest as her words ran out. Then she lifted her head once more and said firmly, "I'll show you something." She hesitated for just a moment, then lifted the sword from her sheath.
It was a chakra sword, and an older model of one. She turned it so that the inscriptions faced Kakashi, and before Sonmei could properly understand what either of them were doing, Kakashi had a brutal grip on her wrist.
"Where did you get my student's chakra sword?" he hissed. The amount of emotion in his voice astonished Sonmei.
"I--I--" The woman trembled in his grip.
"Let go of her, Kakashi-san." Sonmei hadn't quite realized that he'd stepped out of hiding and onto the walkway, but it was a little too late to be thinking about that.
Kakashi regarded him levelly, distant amusement in his gaze. "Not until she answers my question."
The woman lifted her chin very slightly. "Sakura-san gave it to me."
After a moment's silence, Kakashi released her wrist. She drew her arm up to her chest, still shaking slightly, and then swiftly resheathed the sword. Sonmei suppressed a twitch of irritation; he'd been hoping to get a look at the name inscribed on the blade. But the thought fell out of his mind in the next instant, when she turned around.
She was distantly familiar, as if he'd seen her once before, but that wasn't what transfixed him. What did it was that she was /beautiful/. There was an old, aching fear in the tiny lines forming around her silvered eyes and a flush of determination on her cheeks. "Thank you," she said.
"You're--don't--it's nothing, really," Sonmei said. "...Hinata-sama?"
She nodded, then turned and walked past Kakashi into the house. Sonmei ran after her, only to find himself stopped by a hand on his shoulder.
"Let them talk alone," Kakashi said.
Sonmei stood there and glared down at the floor. "What was the name on the sword, Kakashi-san?"
There was no response. After a while, something occurred to Sonmei that made him even more annoyed. "You can hear them talking, can't you?"
"What makes you say that?" Kakashi's tone gave away nothing.
"I think you've got better senses than most people."
"You're quick," Kakashi said quietly.
"I am my mother's son, after all. If not my father's." Without skipping a beat, Sonmei added, "What are they saying?"
There was a swift burst of soft laughter from beneath the mask. "You're not going to catch me off guard."
"Sakura-san...you cut your hair. I'd heard you were keeping it long."
"Last night. And you grew yours out."
"Please let me come with you to Sand, Sakura-san."
"Does this have anything to do with the sword?"
"...I think so."
Sakura walked into the front hall several minutes later, Hinata hovering behind her. "Shut the door," Sakura said, still not looking at Kakashi.
He pushed Sonmei further inside and pulled the front door shut, then regarded Sakura expressionlessly.
"The Hyuuga have decided that their clan head will come with us," she said, "to make sure that Sand understands the importance of these talks."
"That's a stupid excuse," Sonmei said.
Sakura sighed. "Don't contradict your mother, Sonmei."
"It is, though," he said. "Sand knows these talks are important to us, and sending another Hyuuga when the ANBU bodyguard already is one makes no sense. Especially the clan head."
Hinata looked down at the ground.
"I'm sure she has a good reason to go," Sonmei added quickly. "That's just a bad excuse."
Sakura stared at him. "Care to come up with a better one?"
"Not really," he said. "It's not my job."
Kakashi stirred before Sakura could respond again. "Sonmei," he said, "let's go see about having a chakra sword forged for you."
"I saw Tenten-sensei about that earlier this morning," he said.
Kakashi blinked. "Then let's start teaching you basic swordsmanship."
"You think Tenten-sensei hasn't already?"
For a moment, there was silence. Then Kakashi said, very quietly, "Let me teach you more about your eyes."
"...all right," Sonmei said.
It was like laying a finger on a part of his brain, pressing down, and finding a button there beneath the grey matter. Then the world went red.
It was more than just seeing movement in greater detail. It was seeing things stroked around the edges in blood. It was a sharp and deadly world.
Sonmei was not entirely displeased with it.
When Kakashi dropped him off at home and then vanished--literally vanished in a puff of smoke--Sonmei found that Sakura and Hinata were gone. His father, sprawled out on the couch and staring up at the ceiling, was the only one left.
"Any new cracks?" Sonmei asked.
His father grunted.
"Hinata-sama was here earlier," Sonmei said. When there was no response, he continued, "I thought she didn't leave her estate."
"She didn't," Shikamaru said.
"Apparently she does now."
Sonmei sat down in an armchair and thought about this. Finally, he said, "She's very beautiful."
Shikamaru's gaze slid slowly away from the ceiling and settled on Sonmei. After a while, he said, "Has anyone explained sex to you?"
"Tenten-sensei told me when I was nine," Sonmei said.
His father made a noise like choking.
"She used a stick," Sonmei said, "and the hole in the center of a shuriken."
"You're making that up," Shikamaru said.
Sonmei looked back at him evenly.
"Anyway," he said, "it's not like that."
Shikamaru made a face of disbelief.
"She's just very beautiful," Sonmei said.
His father considered this for a moment. "Ino is a very pretty woman," he said eventually. "And she's always taken great care with her looks. She used to be--maybe the prettiest girl in the village."
"Not like that, either," Sonmei said. He paused. "Did you think about her that way when you went on missions with her?"
Shikamaru shook his head slightly. "I grew up with her. It's...she was like a sister."
Shikamaru said nothing.
"It's different now, isn't it?" Sonmei asked.
There was no reply for a moment. Then Shikamaru said, "Your mother is a good-looking woman, if that's what you mean. She has...character."
"I suppose," Sonmei said slowly. "I suppose that's it. Did you ever find someone beautiful?"
His father made a noncommittal noise. Then he said, very softly, "You never saw the last Kazekage."
Sonmei stared down at his lap and said nothing. He had never heard his father use that tone before, and he had a feeling the former Kazekage's beauty, or how his father saw it, was nothing like Hinata's.
Shikamaru stretched, but did not get up. "Love warps people's vision, anyway."
"I'm not in love with her," Sonmei said. "That's silly."
"Of course not," his father agreed. "You have a crush on her."
Sonmei felt his face getting hot. "I do not." A beat. "What's the difference, anyway?"
Shikamaru shrugged. "Ask your mother."
"Not a chance," Sonmei said. Then, "What makes you think she'd know?"
His father was quiet for a while. Then he said, "Years ago, before everything went bad, Ino came to training one day after visiting your mother. And she said, 'I can't believe what an idiot I've been.' Then she said--" He paused, then admitted, "Well, then I said, 'I can,' and she hit me. But then she said, 'Sakura doesn't have a crush on that jerk. She's really in love with him.' I never asked her how she figured it out, or what Sakura told her. I assumed it was something you just knew."
"...my mother was in love with my father?" Sonmei asked. He wasn't sure why it surprised him. He had trouble picturing his mother being in love; she was just too hard and cold.
But sometimes she'd smile at him, or tuck him in at night, and on rare occasions she'd even sing a lullaby--
"More in love than I've ever seen anyone be, before or since," Shikamaru said.
"I didn't know that," Sonmei said.
Shikamaru's gaze drifted back to the ceiling. "That night was the first time Ino asked Chouji out," he mused.
"You've never told me about Chouji," Sonmei said.
And just like that, his father's strange openness was gone. "What makes you think that'll change today? Go make sure you haven't forgotten to pack anything."
Sonmei didn't try to push for any more information. The window was closed now.
Sonmei had plans for staying up that night and spying on the adults' preparations; he was even considering sneaking over to Tenten-sensei's and watching her finish his chakra sword. But he had trained with Kakashi for longer than he'd realized, and it had tired him. Before he could even finish deciding on his plans for the night, he was asleep.
When he woke up in the morning, his chakra sword was already at the side of his bed. He refused to look at it full on until he was finished with his morning routine, and he spent as much time as ever putting all his hidden weapons into place.
When he finally did stare down at the chakra sword, he noticed something else. There was a Leaf forehead protector draped across the middle of the blade.
Sonmei picked the sword up, sheathed it at his side, then, holding the hitai-ate out in his hand, stalked out of his room. His parents and Ino were near the entrance, talking with each other; only Kakashi immediately glanced over at him when he emerged. Sonmei walked up to him, thrust out the forehead protector, and waited for an explanation.
None came. "Well?" Kakashi gave him a faintly amused look. "Put it on."
"There's supposed to be some kind of test," Sonmei said.
"Ah, yeah, there's that," Kakashi said. "But you're special. Official records say you've always lagged behind your classmates."
"I haven't had classmates in years," Sonmei said.
"However," Kakashi continued blithely, "the Hokage, your former sensei, and I have studied your progress and agreed that despite your lack of intellect, you do scrape by with the skills necessary to be a genin." He smiled sweetly beneath the mask. "Put it on."
Sonmei glowered, but he knotted the headband around his neck.
There was a pause, and then Kakashi said quietly, "It looks like the hiding will be over soon, anyway."
Instead of answering, Kakashi turned and headed over to join the other adults in conversation.
They left before noon, and quietly, to avoid any fuss.
Hanabi and Hinata met the group together. Hanabi didn't seem to be meeting her sister's gaze, but Sonmei was quickly discovering that it was hard to tell with the Hyuuga.
Sonmei didn't get a chance to say goodbye to his father, much less his sensei.
Tsunade unrolled the map on the desk in front of her. She weighted down one edge with a bowl of sake and the other with the bottle.
"Is this all the scout sent back?" Ino asked skeptically, leaning over the map.
"...how did Rain set up camp in so many places already without us noticing?" Shikamaru said softly.
"Grass, too," Ino said, pointing.
"They must have had help from someone else," Tsunade said. "Either Sand directly, or the Akatsuki taking advantage of our preoccupation with Sand."
"Or the Akatsuki are working with Sand," Shikamaru said.
Tsunade slumped. "Don't say that."
Shikamaru shrugged slightly.
Ino stepped back from the desk and paced the length of the room. "When do you think they'll attack?"
"They must have found the scout," Shikamaru said, "or he would have sent back more. They'll attack as soon as possible." He tilted back in his chair, staring at the ceiling. "Tomorrow morning," he said after a moment.
Tsunade lifted the bowl of sake from the desk to drink from it. The map curled back up on itself.
"Do you think they'll try to ambush the delegation?" Ino asked suddenly.
Tsunade tensed. But Shikamaru merely said, "No, that'd be a waste of time and manpower at best and, at worst, it'd alert us of their capabilities."
Ino scowled at the wall. "I--"
At that point a dog broke down the door.
"It needed to be replaced anyway," Tsunade began, but at that point the larger dog loped back outside to make way for a white blur, which nearly flew across the room to land on the desk, panting.
Kiba crouched outside the door, talking to the larger dog. After a moment, he straightened up. "Okay, you can go home now." The dog trotted away, and Kiba strode into the room. Behind him, Shino detached himself from the shadows crawling across the wall and followed.
Kiba lifted a hand and pointed at Tsunade. "You! You let Hinata go!"
"What?" Tsunade said.
There was silence for a moment. Then it was broken by an uncertain yip from Akamaru on the desk. Shino said, "You could at least have told us that she was going, Hokage-sama. We are her teammates."
Tsunade looked at Ino and Shikamaru. "Do either of you two want to tell me what's going on? Because as far as I was told, the only tagalongs on this mission were going to be Kakashi and Sonmei."
Shikamaru stared at the ceiling.
Ino glared at Shikamaru. "You didn't tell her?"
He shrugged. "Not my problem."
Kiba clenched his hands into fists, and on the desk, Akamaru scratched nervously at an ear.
Shino said, "We went to Hyuuga estate this afternoon to see Hinata, and we were told that she'd left with the delegation to Sand."
Tsunade opened her mouth, then shut it. Then she picked up the bowl of sake, drained the rest of it, and refilled it from the bottle. When she was done with that, she said, "/Why/?"
"She explained herself to Sakura," Ino said, "but Sakura didn't explain to anyone else."
"Call the delegation back /now/," Kiba said. "Bring her back."
"Excuse me?" Tsunade said.
Shino sighed quietly. "We think it would be in everyone's best interests if you sent a messenger to tell the delegation to turn around and bring Hinata back."
"I doubt she'd listen," Ino said.
"Just because you wouldn't listen to anything anyone told you to do, you little brat--" Kiba began.
"Like you're any better," she snapped back. "At least I wash regularly."
"There's no way all that shampoo can be good for you," Kiba insisted.
"It's all herbal and floral," she said. "Entirely natural. The good kind of natural, not the kind that involves sleeping in a pile of flea-ridden mutts."
"About Hinata...?" Shino prompted before Kiba could start defending Akamaru's virtue.
Ino took a breath. "She wouldn't listen," she said, "because this means something to her."
There was silence for a moment. Then Kiba said, "And we don't?"
Ino rolled her eyes.
"I don't care," Tsunade said. "I'm not calling the delegation back. Sakura is in charge of it; if she wants to allow Hinata to come, that's her decision."
Kiba glared at her for one long moment. Then he turned around and stalked out. Akamaru made a small yip of surprise, then leapt off the desk and followed. Shino cast an apologetic look at the room in general, then walked out.
"What did you expect?" Shino asked once they were outside.
"Well...that she'd at least know what's going on," Kiba said.
"Don't lie," Shino said. "You were expecting her to wave her hand, bring Hinata back, and make everything just fine again."
"You make it sound like she's dead!" Kiba said.
Uncomfortable silence settled in between them. Kiba looked away.
Shino sighed. "We could go after her. Not to bring her back," he added quickly, "but to make sure that there are more people there watching out for her."
"I don't know why she left," Kiba said.
"Neither do I," Shino said, "but whatever she's doing, I'd rather she not do it alone."
Akamaru barked in affirmation from the ground, and Kiba squatted next to him. "Huh," he said. "In that case we should leave as soon as possible."
"Alone?" Shino said.
"There's three of us," Kiba said. "That should be more than enough to take on whatever we run into."
"I have a better idea," Shino said. "The Hokage said something about that boy of Sakura's going too..."
"He's not my student anymore," Tenten said, and she moved to shut her door on them.
"What?" Kiba said, while Akamaru wiggled his way between the door and the frame, preventing Tenten from shutting it.
"Kakashi is teaching him now," she said. "You hadn't heard? Apparently he's come back from the dead to--"
"That makes no sense," Shino said quietly. "Not that he's come back from the dead. Good shinobi do that all the time."
"Not as often as they stay dead," Tenten said.
"But that he's teaching the bastard Uchiha? The most useless kid in Konoha?" Shino shook his head. "Maybe it's a favor to the parents?"
Tenten hesitated. Akamaru sat down at her feet and wagged his tail.
"You know something you're not telling us," Kiba accused her.
She gathered herself back together and stared calmly back at them. "I've always known that eventually, someone else would take over his training. I was prepared for this. Go away."
"This isn't about someone else teaching him," Shino said. "It's about that someone--who, I should add, doesn't exactly have a good track record when it comes to the survival, health, and sanity of his students--taking his new charge on a dangerous mission for no apparent reason--"
"He could just want to see that Sonmei is well-traveled," Tenten said. "It's just a diplomatic mission. It's not that dangerous."
"Oh, come on," Kiba said. "Even we know that this is about more than diplomacy. And in the long run, we're about as useful to this village as the Uchiha bastard."
A very uncomfortable silence fell. None of them met each other's gaze.
"When it comes down to it," Tenten finally said, "we're a lot less useful than he is."
"What?" Shino said.
She shook her head. "Never mind."
"Look, if we're going to stand around discussing this," Kiba said, "can we at least do it inside? I swear Akamaru doesn't have fleas." There was a pause. "Many fleas." Another pause. "As many fleas as you think he does."
"The boy isn't my responsibility any more," Tenten said, ignoring Kiba.
"You taught him for five years," Shino said. "In some ways you're probably closer to him than Sakura and Shikamaru are, aren't you?"
She lifted an eyebrow.
"I'm glad to see that they've found each other, after all they've been through," Shino said, "but sometimes it doesn't seem like they make the best parents."
"No kidding," Kiba said. "Not that I entirely blame them, given everything that kid stands for."
Tenten gave him a sharp look.
"Sorry," he said. "I've got nothing against the kid, but..."
"You two can go find your teammate alone," she said. "I have a forge to tend to."
After a moment of nervous silence, Akamaru slunk out from the doorframe. "Well," Kiba said slowly, "if the forge is more important than the kid..."
She glared at him.
"Tenten," Shino said, "he may not be your responsibility any longer, but he's still your family."
"What--" She cut herself off after one word, and the look she gave him was far more startled and vulnerable than he'd been expecting. She blinked a few times.
"Are you coming?" Shino asked.
"Maybe we should just give up," Kiba said. "We can do this by ourselves--"
"Give me a few minutes," Tenten said, "to make sure I have everything in order." She turned and vanished into her house, shutting the door behind her.
There was a moment's pause. Then Kiba said, "How the hell did you do that?"
"I don't actually know," Shino admitted.
They did not dwell on the mechanics of their success for long.