Itachi was the last of the group to arrive, and as soon as he did, Sakura grabbed him and hid behind the punch table with
Ino, Kiba and Shikamaru.
"Troublesome," muttered the younger male, but he nodded in greeting to the Uchiha.
"Yo!" Kakashi said, sneaking up behind Itachi. "How're you, Itachi-kun?"
Itachi blinked at the other sharringan user, then shrugged. "I am fine."
"I hear someone coming!" Tenten hissed. "Sssshhhh!" She grinned at Neji beside her.
Yamato, hiding near the back, crouched further down behind the wooden table he'd made. Silence descended, but the door
"Hey, you told him to come here, right?" hissed Anko beside him.
Yamato, frowning, nodded. "Yes. He should be here soon..."
"Who're we waiting for?" a voice whispered directly behind the wood-user.
"Naruto," Anko said distractedly. "This is for him, idiot."
"NARUTO!" the woman shrieked, reflexively trying to hit him, but he ducked.
Naruto beamed at the group that suddenly jerked around to look at him. Yamato realized what had happened and pulled the
kunai out of his holster. "Naruto, that's cheating," he hissed.
"How the hell'd you do that?" Anko demanded, getting up to scowl at him. "We were gonna yell 'surprise', you nimrod!"
Naruto sheepishly rubbed the back of his head as Ino and Sakura stalked toward him. "I'm sorry! I was curious, and I felt
the seal nearby, and wondered whyit was here, so I followed it..."
"Na-ru-to," growled Sakura, advancing.
"Waaah! Sakura-chan, noooo!"
Ten minutes later, after Sakura and Ino were done beating the snot out of the birthday boy, and everyone had gotten over
the shock of Naruto just randomly appearing in the back of the room (where there were no windows or doors), he was besieged
by questions. Most of them were asking the same thing; "How'd you do that?"
Laughing sheepishly, and surrounded by his friends, the blond looked happier than Itachi had ever seen him. "It's a technique
I've been practicing," Naruto explained once Sakura demanded explanation. "Um, it's the Yondaime's Hiraishin. I haven't perfected
it yet, and I'm not as fast reflexively as he was, but I've got the mechanics down pretty well."
"Hiraishin?" Anko asked, blinking. She vaguely remembered seeing that technique in use. It would figure that Naruto would
be able to use it almost as well as the Yondaime.
Sakura shook her head and smacked him one more time upside the head. "You idiot. You scared the crap out of poor Anko."
"Did not!" Anko protested, but was ignored.
"Aah, sorry, Sakura-chan," he said sheepishly. He looked around, smiling. "So this is all for me?"
Ino nodded. "Yup! And we've got presents, a cake... Oh, and a very special present just for you!"
"A special present?" the blond asked, blinking.
Sakura and Ino giggled their combined fangirl giggle. "Yup!" they chorused. Every male within five feet backed up rapidly.
Except Itachi and Neji, since they were apparently unaffected.
"So what do you want to do first, Naruto?" Ino asked, smirking.
"Do you wanna open presents? Dance? Eat cake?" Sakura asked.
"We've also got regular food, of course, courtesy of Ichiraku-san," inserted Tenten, and they all beamed at the blond.
"Lucky ass," Neji muttered, and Kiba nodded in agreement.
Naruto thought about that for a moment, sitting on the floor, and then noticed someone was missing. "Hey, where's Hinata?"
he asked, frowning. She hadn't come?
All three girls exchanged knowing looks before Tenten dragged the boy to his feet. "This way," she said.
"It's time for your special present," Ino decided.
"You'll have to thank Ino, of course," Sakura added. "It was all her idea."
Confused, the blond nonetheless let the women tug him to a big box on the other side of the room, where they shoved him
forward. He blinked at the 'special present', somewhat suspicious of it's contents. The box, while big, was innocuous enough.
Big blue bow, plain brown paper, and a tag that said 'to Naruto-kun, love (scratched out) FROM (underlined three times) Hinata'
in Hinata's handwriting.
Maybe she couldn't be here? he thought to himself, and took out a kunai to cut the ribbon off. Once the silk had
slithered to the floor, he unwrapped the box and pulled it open. He gaped at the contents.
"Hinata-chan!" he gasped, and reached in to help her out.
She was bright red with embarrassment. "N-Naruto-kun! I'm sorry! They ambushed me!" she mumbled quickly, stumbling and
falling against his chest.
His arms automatically wrapped around her waist to steady her. "You're okay, though, right?" he asked worriedly, glancing
over her for injuries.
She nodded, the action sending her tied up hair waving. "Y-yes," she stammered.
Cautiously, he touched the orange bow tying up her hair. She was dressed in a tiny, bright orange halter dress that went
to about mid-thigh with a white ribbon tied around her neck like a choker. Her shoes were a strappy sort of heel, in a metallic
white, and her nails - toe and finger - had been painted a lighter orange than her dress.
"You're pretty, Hinata-chan," he said softly.
She flushed darker red, and the only thing that kept her from fainting was the fact that if she did, she just knewhe'd
lose interest, or get worried. She fought off the dizziness and managed a nod.
Sakura grinned and helped Ino and Tenten usher the others away for snacks while Naruto and Hinata had a quiet moment. "They're
so cute!" Ino hissed to her when they were far enough away.
Sakura nodded, glancing back at the couple. "Definitely. And hopefully now, he'll focus on her and not me."
"So thatis your motivation," a voice whispered in her ear.
She jumped and spun, hand over her heart. "Gods, Itachi! Don't sneak up on people like that!" she scolded.
He smirked faintly. "I apologize. I was merely curious. What else do you ladies have in store? Would it be safer for me
to go home right now?"
Sakura laughed. "Nah, it's fine. I mean, we thought about games, but really, it'd just get dangerous."
"And troublesome," Shikamaru inserted from beside Ino.
"Yeah, and that," Ino said, nudging her friend with a smile.
He rolled his eyes and grumbled. "I'm going to go make sure Choji doesn't eat everything," he said, and went toward the
snack tables in one corner of the room.
Neji had played his part and turned on some music somewhere, so Sakura smiled at Itachi. He suddenly held out a hand, cutting
off her question before she'd opened her mouth to ask it. "Would you join me for a dance?" he asked softly.
Her heart skipped a few beats, but she managed to smile and nod, taking his hand. Dancing with Itachi, huh? Well, he wascute,
she thought vaguely, then shook her head. It was just a dance. No need to bother with Ino's hinting at their supposed relationship.
They didn't have a relationship.
The noise picked up, and Kiba suddenly snagged Ino, dragging her out onto the unofficial dance floor, much to her surprise.
"Let's dance, huh?" he said, grinning at her.
She beamed back at him. "Sure, sure, baa-ka," she teased, and laughed at his scowl. She glanced toward Naruto, just in
time to see him and Hinata vanish from sight with barely a wisp of smoke. Her eyes widened, then narrowed. What was that pervert
One stomach-dropping moment later, and Hinata realized they were no longer at the party. They were alone, standing on an
unfamiliar training field. A spike of nervousness shot up her spine when she looked up at the smiling Naruto.
"Aah, sorry, Hinata-chan. It was loud there. Is it okay if we just talk here?" he asked softly.
And she realized. This was Naruto, turning her down. Her shoulders drooped. "H-hai..."
He smiled and walked her over to a tree, sitting down with her. "You're reallypretty tonight, Hinata-chan," he said
again, and smiled at her when she flushed and ducked her head.
"F-for you," she mumbled.
Blue eyes widened. "For me? Why? And why'd they put you in a box, anyway?" he asked, sounding completely puzzled by it.
She almost fell over. He didn't get it? And she'd thought he was turning her down! "A p-p-present, N-Naruto-kun,"
she stammered, turning redder. "M-me..."
"Huh?" He placed a warm hand on her forehead, checking for a fever. "You okay, Hinata-chan? You don't have a fever, but
you're all red. Maybe you should cut back on the red meat, yeah?" He smiled good-naturedly at her.
Her heart sank and she sighed. "No... I l-l-l-like..."
His hand over her mouth stopped her, and she looked up at him in shock. He sighed and leaned forward, kissing her forehead.
"Not now, Hinata-chan," he whispered. "Let's keep it like this, for now. Friends."
He is turning me down, she thought, feeling sick to her stomach. Naruto-kun didn't like her.
He'd never liked her. "W-why?" she asked, swallowing. She may as well, if he didn't like her anyway.
"I have to finish," he said, leaning back against the tree and pulling her against his side in an unexpected move. "I've
got to get strong, and bring Sasuke back, Hinata-chan. I can't... I don't have time to focus on girls." Despite his words,
he turned his head and buried it in her hair. "Not even one as pretty as you..."
She didn't know what she should think. His words were letting her down gently. His actions spoke of a desire to hold onto
her. Finally, she gulped and reached the hand closest to him up, threading her fingers gently through his hair. "I-I unders-stand,"
He smiled, and she could feel it. "I'm glad you do, Hinata-chan." He sighed and relaxed against her fully. "And maybe,
after I've got Sasuke back... then we could talk? Would you wait for me, Hinata-chan?"
Her heart was drumming in her chest, but she managed to nod. "Yes, I will, Naruto-kun," she breathed happily.
He grinned and sat up, looking genuinely happy. "Great!" He got to his feet and held out a hand. "Let's go back, huh? Before
Sakura-chan thinks I'm being a pervert or something."
She flushed and took his hand, letting him help her up and pull her close. "O-" A moment's dizziness, followed by an explosion
of sound, "-kay." She blinked, glancing around, and found that they were standing by the box again. She watched him pick up
a kunai from the floor.
"May I have this dance?" he asked, holding out his hand again.
Sakura dragged herself out of bed at ten in the morning and zombie-walked into the kitchen, eyes closed. She feltlike
a zombie, too. Gods, she wasn't staying up that late when she had sparring in the morning ever again. When had she gone to
bed? Hell, maybe like six am?
"Good morning, Sakura-san," Itachi said, pulling a chair out of her path and watching her walk up to the coffee pot. "Opening
your eyes helps, you know."
She gave him the bird and grabbed a mug out of the cupboard. Her fingers quested for the coffee pot, then clasped the handle
and she finally cracked an eye open.
Itachi snorted and continued eating his fish and rice, eying her as she poured the coffee and finally sat down. He noted
that she'd finally opened her eyes. "See? Much more helpful, ne?"
"Shut. Up," she growled and downed the coffee in one go.
He winced faintly. Ouch. "Didn't that hurt?"
She gave him a murderous look and lifted one glowing hand to her throat. After a beat, she sighed and went to make some
toast. Uhg, was he always so chipper in the morning? Well, chipper for Itachi. And when the hell had he even got up? Then
again, he'd left for home around midnight, after a verydrunk Ino had tried to seduce him.
After that, Ino had tried to seduce Shikamaru, who had made a disgusted noise before shoving her at Choji, who'd yelped
and shoved her at Kakashi. Who had tried to take her up on her offer, only for Kiba to snatch her away and make off with her.
Sakura hadn't seen her best friend since. She thought about going to find Ino, but then decided against it. Ino needed
to get laid, and anyway, she could take care of herself. It wasn't like Kiba would hurt her, so Sakura didn't worry.
Sitting down with her freshly buttered and jellied toast, she was a little surprised to find a new cup of coffee where
she'd left her empty mug. She looked up at Itachi to find him reading the newspaper. He apparently didn't notice her scrutiny.
"Man, I feel like shit," she said, and dropped her head onto the table.
The crinkling of the newspaper preceded his reply. "That's what happens when you get three and a half hours sleep." He
flicked the newspaper to straighten it.
"Smartass," she retorted, and turned her head to take a bite of toast without lifting it.
"Mm. I heard Hokage-sama joined after I left?" Another flick of the paper.
She shrugged. "Eh. If you could call it that. Actually, drunk Kakashi showed up in her bedroom asking for kisses, so she
came and broke up the party and complaining. We weren't able to find Kakashi-sensei, though."
"I don't imagine so. She probably buried him somewhere. Check his favorite training grounds later."
She nodded and finally sat up, popping the last bite of toast into her mouth before taking a hesitant sip of her coffee.
Just like she liked it. "How'd you know how to make this?" she asked, eying him suspiciously.
"I am quite observant," he replied, shrugging, and finally folded up the newspaper.
She made a face and snagged it, getting out the funnies before tossing the rest back at him. "Stalker."
He smirked at her and changed the subject. "I have held up my end of the deal. You must honor your's."
She blinked at him, brow furrowing. "What?"
"The bed," he clarified. "I had a new one made."
Green eyes widened briefly. "Really? Where is it?" she asked, grinning excitedly.
He scooted his chair back and gestured for her to follow him. Outside, sitting at the bottom of the stairs leading down
from the porch, was a bed that wasn't at all like she'd expected. It was Western styled, like Itachi's bed, and four-postered,
but that was where the similarities ended. Itachi's bed was black, this one was a soft cozy-looking brown.
The head board was one whole panel reaching from the floor up to the end of the posts, whereas Itachi's merely consisted
of the posts themselves. Carved into the board was her family crest, painted in the correct colors. She could still smell
the drying paint. The foot-board went from the floor and up about two feet above the bed, and also had her crest though unpainted.
Each of the posts were carved and smoothed into spirals from the top edge of the foot board up, and the floor up for the
ones in the back. The matress he'd apparently had made was leaning up against the porch floor from the ground, and the bed
was naked of any dressing.
She blinked at him and trotted down the steps, touching the carved unpainted crests at the foot. Two of them side-by-side.
"You had this made?" she asked, surprised.
He nodded. "Yes. Do you like it?"
"Like it?" she echoed, and turned around to jump back up the stairs. She hugged him and grinned. "I love it!"
He hesitantly returned the hug and then released her, hoping she hadn't noticed how his pulse had picked up. Was it unnaturally
loud? Or perhaps that was just him. He swallowed a sigh. He was so doomed. "I'm glad," he said. "Go ahead to your sparring
match. I'll have it swapped out for my bed."
She snorted and swatted his arm lightly. "You just want your bed back."
"Aa. Am I that obvious?" he replied, and smirked.
Sakura rolled her eyes and shook her head. "Not at all. I'm still trying to figure you out." Sighing, she stepped around
him. "Anyway, I've gotta get ready and meet Genma at the training grounds. He wanted to make sure he's in working order since
his release from the hospital yesterday."
Itachi nodded, watching her walk back inside. He sighed and went to sit on the bench on the porch. It was good to be back
The redhead stepped into the half-open door of her master's room, staring at his form on the bed. He had his back to her,
to the door, apparently unconcerned that someone might come in and bother him. She swallowed. "Sasuke-sama?"
He didn't so much as twitch. "What."
She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. "... I made some food. You should eat."
Abruptly, he threw his pillow across the room at her. "GET OUT!" he roared, glaring at her furiously. He didn't activate
the Sharringan. In fact, she hadn't seen it since he'd returned.
"Sorry!" she yelped, running from the room. She got halfway down the hall before she leaned back against a wall and closed
her eyes. He hadn't lost! He'd told them that much! So... why was he so angry?
Sasuke got up to retrieve his pillow, slamming the door shut in the process. Then he leaned his back against it and slid
to the floor, holding the pillow against his chest. His eyes burned. His Sharringan burned, and he couldn't use it. What the
hell did Itachi poison him with? That bastard.
"Any word on Sasuke?" Tsunade asked, resting her chin on her clasped hands.
Shikamaru before her shook his head. "No. The team you sent out to keep an eye on his known locations have reported back.
There's been nothing from him since Itachi gave him the dose of chakra poison. He's probably sitting in a cave somewhere licking
The Hokage sighed. "And Naruto? Yamato says he's working on the Hiraishin, of all things."
Shikamaru nodded. "He's nearly perfected it. He used it to pop in last night at the party. Apparently, Yamato had picked
up a marked kunai, and Naruto sensed it and got curious. After that, Naruto told Yamato to keep it." He shrugged.
"I see..." Tsunade sat back in her seat and crossed her arms, looking thoughtful. "He seems to have redoubled his efforts
to capture Sasuke recently."
Shikamaru looked away, shrugging again. "I guess..."
Honey eyes narrowed. "Shikamaru. What do you know?"
"Troublesome," he muttered, then looked her right in the eye. "All I know is that he seems scared. Ever since Itachi "died",
it's like Naruto's been chased by some demon. Maybe he thinks that the same thing could happen to Sasuke. I don't know, really.
I just know what I've seen."
Tsunade didn't comment on his ironic choice of words. "See if you can't find out why he's scared," she murmured.
"For sure, I mean. Because I really don't care to find out what Naruto would do when scared, especially after that display
the night Itachi-san was executed. I cannotafford to have him doing things that will mess up what we're trying to achieve."
Shikamaru nodded. "Yeah, you're right." He sighed again. "How troublesome..."
"Alive?" Pein frowned at Zetsu. "I thought Konoha executed him."
"Apparently not," the plant man replied softly, and then growled out, "He's good at escaping by the skin of his goddamn
teeth." And he fell sheepishly silent.
Pein sighed and leaned back against the tree he sat under. "I see." He looked up at the woman sitting in the boughs, then
back at Zetsu. "Please tell Tobi-san and Deidara-san this news. They are to go get as much intel on the situation as possible."
After Zetsu sank into the ground without comment, Konan dropped lightly from her tree branch. "Deidara? Are you sure?"
"Hewill want to know." Pein frowned. "And anyway, Deidara's contacts are numerous. He has at least one in Konoha,
and no one else has managed that in our group. They're perfect for this. For now, anyway. They're a lot less likely to get
into trouble than Kakuzu and Hidan, at any rate."
She nodded reluctantly, though she would have personally liked to go. At any rate, what was done was done. "Very well."
Naruto completed the jutsu and flickered from Yamato's view, appearing somewhere in an unknown forest. Frowning, he glanced
around for a minute before realizing he was near a hot spring just outside of the Konoha property lines. He looked down at
his feet, not entirely surprised to find a pile of clothing - including a tagged orange hair ribbon - folded neatly on top
of a stump.
Cautiously, he tiptoed toward the hot spring and peeked around a tree. Sure enough, there she was, relaxing in the water.
It covered everything vital (unfortunately for Naruto). Naruto grinned and pulled back, turned away. He'd perfected it! The
Hiraishin was now his!
Take that, Yondaime! he thought victoriously.
Behind him, he heard Hinata yelp suddenly. "Wh-who's there?" she cried, ducking as far into the water as she could. She'd
heard a noise, and just to be safe, had checked the area with her Byakugan. Imagine her shock when she realizing someone was
Naruto tensed and panicked for a beat, then remembered. Hiraishin. Duh. He mentally apologized to Hinata and flickered
Hinata blinked when the person from behind the tree just vanished. Oh no! Who had been peeking on her? Oh, she just
might die of embarrassment! This was almost as bad as the time Naruto-kun had accidentally caught her near the stream.
Not quiteas bad, though. If that had been Naruto, she actually might have just fainted and then drown in the hot spring.
Thankfully it hadn't been. Naruto-kun would have said something, after all.
Shaking her head, she quickly got out and went to get her clothing, afraid whoever it was would come back.
Yamato was eating out of a bento when Naruto returned, and quirked a brow at the blond's flushed face. "Caught her naked?"
he guessed, not really serious.
"NO! Why would she be naked! And who are you talking about. What her!" the blond panicked, flailing his arms about.
Yamato paused, brow furrowing. He stared at Naruto for a moment. "Naruto-kun... were you spying on Hinata-san in the bath?"
he asked slowly.
"No! Hot spring! I mean, NO!" Naruto shook his head frantically.
Yamato's eyes widened and he leaned forward, gaze unblinking as he stared at the blond. "Tell me, Naruto-kun," he said
Naruto scrambled away. "Oi! Qu-quit it with the c-c-creepy eyes!" he yelped, wanting to escape Yamato's intense gaze.
"Tell me," the wood-user insisted, still not blinking.
Naruto shuddered and slumped. "It's nothing! Really!" he lied. "It was an accident, okay? I swear it was! I was just testing
it, and I saw her in the spring. I didn't expect her to be in the spring!"
Yamato, satisfied, leaned back and eyed the younger male. "That's not very gentlemanly," he pointed out. "It's actually
pretty indecent. Have you learned nothing from getting your head bashed in by Sakura-chan?"
"No," Naruto replied smartly, sticking his tongue out. He jerked away when Yamato nearly caught it. "OI!"
Yamato frowned at him. "Good things come to those who wait," he said mysteriously. "Rather than peeking on women, have
you tried courting one instead?"
Naruto turned slightly red. Courting one? Just how old wasthis guy? Who 'courted' anyway? "No," he answered honestly.
"I didn't ask you, old man," Naruto retorted, frowning. He didn't have time for that stuff!
Yamato snagged the blond around the head, giving him a noogie. "I'm not that old, idiot! I'm only twenty eight!"
"Waaah! No way! I thought you were older than that!" Naruto protested, flailing.