Chapter 12

A/N: Once again, a long delay is followed by a chapter longer than anybefore. I hope not to make a habit of this. For those of you who havepatiently stuck with me through the intervening time, thank you for your faithin me.

Just to reiterate, this is intended to be a long fanfic, and if it cuts outanytime soon, this will not be because of authorial intent, but because I suckand/or some sort of horrible real-life issues come up to distract me.

If you’ve sent me PMs__ which I’ve overlooked, o_r asked questions inreviews, please poke me and I’ll get to them. Things are a bit busy right now,and honestly, I’ve been prioritising finally getting this chapter finishedover actual work in some cases._

The anime is currently in the middle of the Kakashi ANBU Chapter (presentlycovering his discovery of the second Wood Element user). Please post no mangaspoilers past this point.

-o-

Kakashi, heavily (but in truth, insufficiently) restrained, sat in thedefendant’s cage and pondered his options. Time was running out. The Hokage’sdefence had been spirited, unleashing a barrage of legal minutiae with thespeed and precision of his legendary Shadow Shuriken Technique. But in truth,all their efforts had been hobbled from the beginning. With the limitationsDanzō had been able to impose on what testimony and evidence they werepermitted to offer (read: virtually none), all they could do was try todemonstrate that the tribunal itself was illegal in the first place. Ofcourse, since Danzō had spent a great deal of time preparing for this, evenaltering records to make sure the Hokage missed outdated laws he’d intended torepeal, there were no easy openings to be found.

Kakashi toyed with the idea of escaping and becoming a missing-nin as analternative to execution, but he wasn’t exactly fond of the prospect. Thereweren’t many things left that he cared about in life, and he’d lose them allif he abandoned the village (except perhaps Jiraiya-sensei’s novels, whichcould be bought anywhere on the continent). Nor did he relish the idea ofsomeday being forced to face his former comrades in mortal combat. Kakashi sawhimself as falling right in between the two “safe” categories: the missing-ninwhose capture wasn’t a priority because they were of little threat to thevillage (like the rare traitorous Genin), and the missing-nin whose capturewasn’t a priority because of the number of lives it would cost (like UchihaItachi). In other words, in his case pursuit would come quickly. And even ifhe managed to survive, what was he to live for? Kakashi had never seen himselfas a hardcore village loyalist like Asuma, but when it came down to it, hefound it striking how little purpose he had in life that wasn’t in some waytied up with Leaf.

Death as a victim. Life as a traitor. There wasn’t much time left to make thedecision.

-o-

A dart flew through the corridor, passing just outside the blocking reflexarea of the first guard. The second had time to see it, and after quicklychecking it for exploding tags, moved to block. Before he could, however, itexploded in a puff of mist. The guard leapt back, his attention focused ondefending against a possible attack out of the smokescreen.

But his defensive reaction, appropriate in most normal circumstances, let himdown. The moment the mist began to fade, revealing a boy in an improbableorange and blue outfit, the latter was already throwing a second dart. Even asthe first guard struck him down, it was already too late. The dart was in theair, thrown not at the second guard but past him, and by the time he made themental adjustment necessary to intercept rather than evade it, it was alreadyspeeding towards the stairs to the tribunal room.

-o-

The judge cleared his throat. Although Kakashi had attended a number of trialsand military tribunals before (though not usually in this capacity), he hadnever seen the man before. Somehow, this did not surprise him.

“Having reviewed all pertinent evidence on the charges of mission sabotage andtreason against the Hidden Village of Leaf, this tribunal hereby finds thedefendant…”

Kakashi gritted his teeth against the inevitable.

“Objection!”

-o-

Naruto had never dreamt he’d get a chance to say that, and in a (sort of) realcourtroom, no less. First Ikazuchi Saga, and now this. Naruto stronglysuspected that normal people’s lives did not end up regularly mirroring themanga they were reading, but on reflection, this way was so much better.

Of course, in the manga the person shouting this was a qualified lawyer whosometimes knew what he was doing, and did not then promptly have his armstwisted behind his back by a pair of angry guards.

Naruto quickly assessed the situation. There was Kakashi-sensei in a chairthat was less furniture and more armoured container, similar to what he’d seenin the ANBU complex. Off to the right was a clerk writing down theproceedings. In the middle, on a raised dais, three people were seated behinda desk. The Hokage, giving no sign he recognised Naruto, was on the left. Inthe middle was the judge Naruto had interrupted, a balding man in a voluminousbrown robe, with oversized round glasses that gave him the look of a veryimportant mole. And to his right was an old man with a bandaged right arm andright eye, looking rather bored. Aside from a few other officials and guards,there was a conspicuous lack of an audience, or indeed a jury. Not that Narutowas an expert, but the whole tribunal seemed hastily thrown together, withonly the lightest nod to conventional legal procedure as he knew it.

The unfamiliar old man promptly turned to him. Without any particular emotionin his voice, he said “The Uzumaki child. I see. Guards, take him to anisolated cell, and prepare an interrogation chamber. We will determine anappropriate punishment once we know how he infiltrated this tribunal.”

“Wait!” Naruto shouted, aware that all eyes were still on him. “I have vitaltestimony that’s relevant to this trial!”

The old man shook his head slightly. “If we had need of your testimony at thistribunal, Uzumaki, we would have summoned you when it began. Guards…”

This was not going the way Naruto had hoped. The guards started to drag himtowards the door. A couple of metres more and he was going to lose his onechance to save Kakashi-sensei, just like that, dismissed with a few simplewords. What were his options? Violence? No. Blackmail? Maybe. If he…

Then he caught sight of a subtle movement, the Hokage’s hands folding beneaththe desk into two familiar hand signals, “need” and the first half of “explainlater” (Leaf hand signals having no separate sign for “explain”). Who needs toexplain what? Naruto tried to figure it out. Did he mean- oh!

“Hold it!” Naruto exclaimed, hoping like hell he was interpreting the messagecorrectly, and aware that he’d only get one shot at this. “If my testimony isbeing dismissed, I have the right to an explanation…” a number of fingersextended, “under article 6, clause 5,” a quick side-to-side eye movement, arepetition, “no, 15, of the…” more signs. Lair, miles? ”… Fair Trials Act!”

The Hokage smiled.

-o-

Danzō‘s habitual frown concealed the sense of satisfaction he felt on theinside. Finally, Hiruzen had dispensed with the tiresome legal fencing andbrought out his real weapon. Needless to say, Danzō had never had anyintention of making it easy for him - one of his first acts during the trialhad been to cite the obscure ancient law that permitted an accuser to forbid aDemon Beast host from testifying (on the grounds that any such testimony couldbe unconsciously manipulated by the Demon Beast, thereby giving it a way toinfluence the course of the trial). By locking Uzumaki out of the tribunalentirely, he’d completely disarmed Hiruzen in one of the trial’s two sections.

Hiruzen’s counter was effective, if late in coming. Now Danzō had to eitheradmit Uzumaki to the trial after all, or explain to the boy that he was thehost to the Demon Fox, doing which without permission from the office of theHokage would break the very law he’d helped write. It was entirely possiblethat the boy already knew, after the events at the so-called Bridge ofCourage, but the mission report did not spell it out, and so for legalpurposes Danzō had to assume ignorance.

Of course, as with any well-formed plan, his opponent’s best moves only playedinto Danzō‘s hands.

-o-

“Let it be put on record that I retract my earlier objection to UzumakiNaruto’s testimony.”

“Shimura Danzō, objection retracted…” the clerk muttered, conveniently givingNaruto the old man’s name.

Danzō looked at Naruto. “I commend your knowledge of the law, Uzumaki,” hetold him in a cool, measured voice. “Proceed with your testimony.”

What Naruto heard was “well done, boy. You’ve just removed one pebble from theavalanche that is about to bury you alive. By all means amuse me before yourun out of air.” Danzō‘s one-eyed gaze was filled not with hostility but withcuriosity, an entomologist watching a butterfly struggle beneath a pin.

Was this the man who’d sentenced him to a life as an outcast? He could believeit. To Danzō, it seemed Naruto barely qualified as a diversion, a feebleattempt at rebellion from a tool found outside its drawer. Or was he justprojecting his own feelings onto a stranger? He didn’t really know who thisman was, or what his motives were for trying to frame Kakashi-sensei. The onlything Naruto knew for certain, after hearing Danzō speak, was that he wasbeing severely underestimated.

“Kakashi-sensei didn’t order me to kill Gatō,” Naruto announced. “In fact, Ididn’t even kill him.”

All eyes in the room went wide, especially Kakashi-sensei’s.

“What do you mean?” the Hokage asked. “Are you saying that somebody elsekilled him? Or that, early reports from the Country of the Wavenotwithstanding, Gatō Amand is still alive?”

Naruto swallowed. He thought he’d made his peace with this, with the betrayalhe had to commit, but the wave of crippling guilt said otherwise. Even so,Naruto told himself, he had to do this. He had to use the most effective toolshe could think of. There was too much at stake.

“Gatō was killed by the Mist missing-nin Haku, acting independently.”

Another fragment of innocence sacrificed for the power to protect someone thatmattered. Another step towards being a true ninja.

Danzō raised an eyebrow. “You would have us believe that a missing-nin,” hespoke the word as if it referred to some particularly wretched species ofparasitic worm, “turned around and killed his employer, thereby losing hispayment and doing great harm to his professional reputation. By all means,Uzumaki, do tell us what motive you propose for this extraordinary act.”

“I seduced him.”

Mouths dropped open, including the Hokage’s. Kakashi, on the other hand,relaxed a little as Naruto’s line of attack began to make sense to him.

Danzō‘s expression finally changed, from dispassionate curiosity to frankdisgust. “You did what?”

Once Naruto had begun, it was easier to carry on. “I approached him while hewas in civilian guise, determined his identity and seduced him. I can callwitnesses, including our host Tsunami and the staff of the Silver Leaf Inn inthe Country of the Wave. If you want to, you can suspend the trial for a fewweeks while you send messengers.”

“This is ridiculous. Are you saying you, a twelve-year-”

“There is precedent,” the Hokage cut him off. “During the Warring Clansperiod, child spies were expected to go to any necessary lengths to fulfiltheir missions, no less than their seniors. Even in modern times, there havebeen incidents like Hidden Rock’s Yamane scandal, where-”

“Enough,” Danzō scowled. “You’ve made your point.”

He turned back to Naruto. “So, Uzumaki, you are confessing before this courtthat you… colluded… with a Mist missing-nin without your squad leader’sexplicit permission, or even his awareness, and further conspired with thismissing-nin to alter the course of your mission?”

From the way he saw Kakashi-sensei stiffen out of the corner of his eye,Naruto guessed that saying “yes” would be a very bad idea. The facts were thefacts, though. He had completely bypassed Kakashi-sensei in his efforts todeal with Haku, and probably broken a dozen laws in doing so. At the sametime, he sensed the trap in Danzō‘s words. Danzō probably wanted him to claimhe had Kakashi-sensei’s permission - at which point the trial wouldimmediately revert to Kakashi-sensei being accused of treason.

But he couldn’t just say nothing. Hesitation would be taken as a sign ofweakness, and Naruto’s instincts told him unambiguously that he did not wantto show weakness in front of Danzō. He opened his mouth-

“If I may clarify a certain detail…” The Hokage interrupted him before hecould speak. “I have consulted the latest missing-nin postings provided byHidden Mist, and this Haku is not listed. We must infer that he is a personalapprentice of Zabuza’s, recruited and trained without Mist’s involvement. Assuch, he must be legally classified as an unaligned shinobi rather than amissing-nin, and interactions with him do not break Leaf law.”

Danzō flicked his good hand in the air dismissively. “Mere sophistry. Hakuserves the missing-nin Zabuza. Zabuza’s interests are his interests. Inconspiring with Haku, Uzumaki may as well have been conspiring with Zabuzahimself.”

Naruto had not wasted the precious seconds he’d been given to think. “What Idid went directly counter to Zabuza’s interests. During the fight on thebridge, I told Zabuza I’d assassinated Gatō, which stopped him killing me whenhis side had the advantage. Then, when Haku went to investigate, he discoveredhe had a chance to save my life, as well as avoid putting Zabuza’s at risk, sohe killed their employer to do so. Afterwards, I took the credit for theassassination. Final result: Zabuza got lied to twice, abandoned a battle hewas about to win, and lost any chance of getting paid. You can’t tell me thatsounds like a conspiracy between him and me.

“You have to admit,” he added, “this is all much more plausible than the ideathat a mere Genin like me managed to infiltrate Gatō‘s fortress and take outhim and his huge army of bodyguards on my first ever C-rank mission.” Or areyou going to go on record as telling me why I’m no mere Genin?

Danzō considered this. “If this mission was such a triumph of manipulation onyour part, Uzumaki, then why did you lie in your report?”

“Because…” Naruto allowed himself to look awkward, a mask of discomfort over amask of confidence over feelings that were too complicated for either label.“Because I didn’t want to tell anyone I’d seduced an enemy ninja on my firstserious mission. I mean, what would people think of me?”

“So that’s how it is,” the Hokage said. “This story is odd, but it certainlyfits with all the information we have, including accounts from the othermembers of Team Seven about Haku’s strange behaviour throughout the battle.Submitting inaccurate mission reports is a disciplinary offence, for both ofyou,” he looked from Naruto to Kakashi, “but it is certainly not a tribunalmatter.

“As for Haku, given that he has no connection to Leaf, and that his victim wasan active enemy of Leaf at the time of the assassination, I don’t believe ourlaws have anything to say on the matter. If anything,” the Hokage gave aninnocent smile, “perhaps we should send him a gift basket if we ever find apostal address to use.”

Naruto suppressed an enormous sigh of relief. He’d hoped that this would bethe case. Either way, though, when it came down to it Haku was far from Leaf,location unknown, and more than able to defend himself with Zabuza’s help,while Kakashi-sensei was here and defenceless. Doing things this way wasalways going to be the right decision, even if it didn’t feel remotely likeit.

There was a pause as everyone waited for Danzō‘s counterattack.

-o-

The Uzumaki child was doing well, better than he had expected. Yes, he wouldindeed make a very valuable tool, even if he was a- no, no matter. Everyshinobi had his flaws, and as long as they did not interfere with the missionthey were easy enough to overlook. And if Hiruzen could make such effectiveuse of the boy, how much more value might he have in Danzō‘s own hands?

In a sense, that question had been the true objective of the exercise allalong, the third layer of Danzō‘s goals. He was already in the process ofaccomplishing it while poor, naive Hiruzen was still wrestling with the secondlayer, and the Uzumaki child, if he understood anything at all, was probablystill on the first. It was why, in the end, Danzō would win. His opponentswere always busy foiling the wrong plans.

But back to the tribunal. Uzumaki’s story was good enough to pass initialinspection, and challenging any of its weaknesses would ultimately come downto external evidence - all of which was in Wave. That would mean stretchingout the trial, which was the one thing Danzō could not permit.

The optimal scenario was to obtain the Uzumaki and the Uchiha in one swiftstroke, simultaneously remove Hiruzen’s strongest piece, and present the wholething to the rest of the world as a fait accompli. It would be a bold move,provoking the anger of many enemies and even of many allies. But there’d beprecious little anyone could do about it after the fact, and the gain would bemore than worth it. Fulfilling all three layers at once would make thesignificant expenditures it had taken to get this far seem trivial.

None of this was necessary, of course, for Danzō to achieve his _projected_scenario, and this was what Hiruzen lacked the subtlety to grasp. The onlything Danzō actually needed to do at this point was make sure the trialconcluded quickly.

Even a few days’ extension, and the balance of power would tip. That muchwould be obvious even to Hiruzen. Every day increased the risk of othersdiscovering the tribunal’s existence - had Hiruzen not already managed tobring in Uzumaki, despite a 24-hour watch by some of Root’s best shinobi? Andif the likes of Koharu and Homura grasped the full extent of what Danzō haddone - the bribes, the manipulations, the blatant distortion of the law - theywould come down on him like a ton of bricks. Danzō knew from long, bitterexperience that the deadliest shinobi in Leaf’s Bingo Book weren’t as much ofa threat to village security as the occasional “ethically-minded” citizens whodiscovered what Root did in order to keep them safe every day.

-o-

“Thank you for your contribution to this tribunal, Uzumaki,” Danzō stated, theemotion in his voice completely gone once again. “Guards, take him away.”

“I’m not finished!” Fortunately, Naruto had long since mastered the art of notbeing dragged away by hostile adults. “I have more evidence to offer!”

The Hokage spoke up. “Michizane, Kuroi, please let the young man go.”

Not to be ungrateful, but Naruto rather wished the Hokage had said that tobegin with. The two guards were apparently very single-minded people, and hadcontinued to hold him tightly throughout his entire earlier testimony.

“Right.” Naruto reached for a scroll tucked into his belt. “I have here thetestimony of the missing-nin Onigahara Tariki.” He threw the scroll to thestartled clerk (who, however, was still a ninja, and managed to catch it).

Naruto looked for a change of expression on Danzō‘s face, but apart from aslight deepening of the latter’s frown, detected nothing.

“Is this the best you have to offer, Uzumaki?” Danzō finally asked. “Themendacious ramblings of a missing-nin, as interrogated by a Genin fresh out ofthe Academy? Your already questionable credibility is plunging to striking newlows.”

“Actually,” Naruto responded in a casual tone which he knew from experience toinfuriate any authority figure attempting to chastise him, “if you examine thescroll, you’ll find the seals of two ranking ANBU interrogators, confirmingthat they attended the interrogation and can vouch for its adherence to ANBUprocedure.” Naruto didn’t know what miracles Nao had performed in order to geta pair of ANBU specialists out of bed to work on an assignment of dubiouslegality in the middle of the night on zero notice, but he was aware that henow owed her his very immortal soul, his firstborn child, and enough favoursto run a medium-sized informal economy.

The Hokage glanced at the clerk.

“Yes, sir, these all appear to be in order.”

“Then please read the testimony out in full.”

The clerk unrolled the scroll and turned red as he saw the contents. Hecoughed.

“Uh… Very well.

“It was way too fucking early in the morning for this shit…”

-o-

“Sir, while the prisoner is out of hearing range, do you mind if I ask aquestion?”

Out of hearing range? Have you even heard of Mist ninja, you snot-nosed brat?You think just because these two morons have taken me halfway across thevalley for a piss, I can’t hear what you’re saying? Well, I know who I’mgutting first when I make my escape.

“Why do I always get the greenhorns? All right, Ichijō, ask away.”

“Sir, if Captain Hatake needs urgent reinforcements, why can’t we just leavetwo of us with him for now? It’s not like it’s going to take more than twopeople to keep that missing-nin under guard.”

Just two people? Oh, please give me even a couple of hours with just twopeople. All I need is two seconds’ distraction, and I’ll teach you why theyused to call us the Bloody Mist.

“Ichijō, are you questioning Master Danzō‘s orders?”

“No, sir, I just-”

“Who picked you up out of the trash after your family got killed in the Nightof Tragedy and the rest of the world turned its back on you?”

“Master Danzō.”

“Who spared no expense in getting you food, and shelter, and training, askingnothing in return except your loyalty?”

“Master Danzō.”

“Who took your worthless carcass and fashioned it into a precision toolcapable of protecting the village?”

“Master Danzō.”

“And you would question Master Danzō‘s orders?”

“Never, sir. It’s just… with my low combat potential, I’ve mostly been doingsupport work in the main compound, so I’m not used to how these missionswork.”

“You and I aren’t privy to a millionth of the information Master Danzō hasrunning through his head at any given moment. Don’t try to second-guess him.In any case, I’ve been instructed not to pass on Team Seven’s request forreinforcements. And if Master Danzō doesn’t want them to get reinforcements,they don’t get reinforcements. Is that clear?”

“Crystal, sir.”

-o-

Danzō‘s expression hadn’t changed by the end of the reading, though all eyeswere now on him.

The Hokage was the first to speak. “This testimony all but explicitly statesthat the four ninja who conveyed the prisoner were Root members, and that theywithheld vital information at your orders. What do you have to say?”

Danzō seemed unconcerned. “Clearly, they are a rogue group. Their leaderlikely manipulated them into thinking they were carrying out my orders.”

“You heard their testimony in person earlier,” the Hokage observed. “How couldyou not have recognised members of your own organisation?”

“As I’m sure you know, Root members have no permanent names, and are assignednew ones periodically, typically when embarking on a new mission. The teamleader violated protocol by assigning the group new names without myknowledge, so I could not recognise them. As for their faces, do you expectthe head of a large organisation to know every one of his subordinates bysight?”

Naruto’s eyes narrowed. It was obvious, utterly obvious, that Danzō was lying.There was no possible way in which any of what he was saying could be true.And yet he didn’t have any evidence to prove it. All of this was an internalRoot matter. Any records would be Root records, which Danzō could falsify ordestroy. Any witnesses would be Root members, whom Danzō would be able toinfluence. Was he really going to get away with it, just like that?

“Have them thoroughly interrogated,” Danzō went on. “I feel confident thatthey will deny receiving any orders from me that would violate village law.”

The sheer casual confidence with which Danzō said it made something click inNaruto’s head. “You train all your ninja to give you plausible deniability,don’t you?”

“Nonsense, Uzumaki. I suggest you watch your tongue, and avoid making suchridiculous accusations unless you have the evidence to back them up,especially in a court of law.” But behind the insulted tone, was there aglimpse of approval, of all things, in Danzō‘s eye? Somehow that made Narutofeel uncomfortable, more than simple condemnation would have.

-o-

Danzō had got what he wanted. It was a shame to have to sacrifice those fourshinobi - manpower was one of Root’s chief weaknesses, for a variety ofreasons - but he’d selected them in full awareness of what to expect. Theywere four of Root’s weakest. Yes, they’d been inculcated with the absoluteloyalty that allowed them to sacrifice themselves on demand. But they hadotherwise failed to kill their emotions as a true shinobi must, and that madethem much more expendable than the other, properly hardened, tools.

Doubtless, Hiruzen would be celebrating a great victory tonight. Never oncewould it occur to him that he had been fighting on a battlefield set up toDanzō‘s exact specifications, demonstrating exactly what tools he would useunder given conditions, how he would use them, and what they were capable of.The knowledge Danzō had gained about Uzumaki alone was invaluable, once hefinally found the time to sit back and analyse it.

With every battle Hiruzen won, he came closer to losing the war. For whileHiruzen had learned from Hashirama, the great leader, Danzō had learned fromTobirama, the great strategist.

-o-

“Who the hell designs an alarm clock you can sleep through?” Naruto ran atbreakneck speed through the streets, various colourful swearwords picked upfrom Mizuki-sensei running through his head. After the tribunal, and theconfession by the Root ninja, and the deliberations, and the final verdict,and the celebratory ramen, and the “debriefing” from the Hokage and Kakashi-sensei, and the paperwork necessary to get him off the hook for everythinghe’d done, he thought he’d just have a quick nap to take the edge off hisexhaustion before the date with Hinata and now he was late.

“I’m sorry so sorry I didn’t mean to be late have you been waiting long I’mreally sorry whoa.” By the end of the sentence Naruto had mentally slowed downenough to actually see Hinata, rather than merely register her presence, andwas glad he did. She was wearing a pale lavender kimono which perfectlybrought out her eyes (something the Hyūga probably had a lot of experiencewith), decorated with a purple flower pattern. It wasn’t an ultra-formalkimono with the Hyūga house crest, which Naruto gathered was the kind of thingeveryone from a proper clan owned for important occasions. Did that mean itwas something she’d picked out herself? Given what he’d had to endure to finda decent outfit, it was hard to imagine shy, hesitant Hinata going through thepresumably much more demanding female version of the experience.

(Sakura’s recommendation for him, incidentally, clove surprisingly close toTsunami’s, being based around red and black, with a stylish and painfullyexpensive jacket and a comma-shaped magatama pendant).

“No, I- I just got here. Are you OK?”

“Sorry,” Naruto panted. “Out of… breath. You… look amazing.”

Hinata went somewhat pink. “Th-Thank you. Um, you too.”

At this point the conversation stalled somewhat, as it occurred to Naruto thatin all the chaos surrounding Kakashi-sensei’s tribunal he hadn’t actually hada chance to plan what to do on the date, and also that he didn’t know asingle proper restaurant, since until recently he couldn’t afford to eat atany. Unfortunately, while Sakura’s date tips had been sparse (and mostly alongthe lines of “whatever you do, don’t be yourself”), she’d been very clearabout the unacceptability of ramen or barbecue shops.

After a few seconds of awkward silence, he decided that the simplest solutionwas probably the best. “Um… do you happen to know any good places to eat?”

Hinata gave this some thought. “There’s a very nice restaurant I’ve been towith my family. It’s up on the hill two blocks down from the Aburameresidence. Oh, but it’s very expensive, so maybe-”

“Don’t worry, I’m paying.” Naruto said with a confidence that wasn’t mirroredin his wallet. He could probably afford a decent meal for two at this point,but his idea of restaurant prices was approximate at best. All he knew wasthat they were high enough for him never to have gone before.

“Actually, I think I should pay,” Hinata unexpectedly objected.

“What? But you’re-” Naruto stopped himself just in time. He only had anapproximate idea of what a social faux pas was, but he was pretty sure thatsaying “you’re poor” at this juncture would qualify.

Unfortunately, Hinata stood there waiting for him to finish his sentence.

“… really beautiful?”

Hinata blushed and looked down at her feet.

Naruto made a note in his mental database (which had been reset after his datewith Haku, because if he couldn’t even tell the other person’s gendercorrectly, who knows what else he might have got wrong?). Complimenting girlswhile on a date - good. Do more of this.

“So what were you really going to say?” Hinata finally asked just as Narutothought he’d got away with it.

“Uh… well, I just thought it wasn’t fair to make you pay given that… um…”

Once again, Hinata waited as he trailed off. When no elaboration wasforthcoming, she finished the sentence for him. “I don’t have much money? Butyou don’t either, Naruto. And I don’t have living expenses like you do.”

“But I have my A-rank mission pay,” Naruto announced triumphantly. And if it’snot enough, I’m going to have to get very creative, so let’s hope it is.

“I’ve been saving up money from missions too,” Hinata countered.

“I eat much more than you do, so I should pay.”

“I’m the one who picked an expensive restaurant, so I should pay.”

“I asked you out, so I should pay.”

“Um, that argument doesn’t make sense.”

“Huh. So it doesn’t. But yours doesn’t either.”

There was a pause.

“Let’s split it,” they said more or less simultaneously.

“Lead the way.”

-o-

The Dreaming Dragon was, in all likelihood, the fanciest place Naruto hadever set foot in. The waiters were dressed several orders of magnitudericher than he was. The floors were some kind of really rare lacquered wood(probably), the walls were lined with gas lamps and beautiful paintings, andNaruto felt very sharply that he did not belong. Usually he would not havecared, indeed would have relished the opportunity to defy expectations, buttonight for some reason it was important.

The staff clearly recognised Hinata, and the man at the front desk gave her anenormous smile. “Lady Hinata! Always a pleasure to see you in our humbleestablishment. Are you dining alone tonight?”

Then he noticed Naruto. An initial look of disbelief changed smoothly to oneof horror and disgust, as if he was seeing a tiger-sized cockroach crawlingtowards his kitchen. Then the smile reasserted itself, though now withsomething of a glued-on feel. “I’m terribly sorry if that ruffian is botheringyou, Lady Hinata. I don’t know how he got in here. I’ll have someone throw himout at once.”

Naruto tensed, but before he could react, the temperature dropped severalhundred degrees. Then an icy voice, a perfect crystal of cutting edges anddisdain, rang out across the suddenly silent room.

“And who are you to pass judgment on honoured guests of the Hyūga Clan,commoner?”

The man almost literally froze, not moving a muscle, his face white as asheet. Naruto glanced around wildly, feeling a wave of panic at the idea ofbeing discovered by an angry Hyūga elder so soon, but couldn’t tell where thevoice was coming from.

The unseen speaker continued, in tones of purest imperious contempt. “Now takeus to your finest private room at once, and I may consider not telling myfather of the insult you’ve dealt to our clan’s honour.”

Wait, what?

The waiter, his movements shaky and erratic, stammered somethingincomprehensible by way of apology, and half-led half-fled them to a second-floor private room. After muttering something about “menus”, he ran away,leaving Naruto and Hinata alone with a table and a great open-balcony view ofthe village.

For a while, no-one said anything. Naruto, for his part, simply did not knowwhat to say. While his manga did in fact cover contingencies for if one’s datebecame demonically possessed upon reaching the restaurant, he didn’t have anysealing tags and he wasn’t entirely sure how to wield the Power of Love.

Eventually, Hinata spoke first, her voice shaking so badly it was impossibleto even imagine her as the same person who had just excoriated a grown man.

“Oh, I’m- I’m so sorry! Please forgive me! I know this was supposed to be afun date, and now I’ve gone and ruined everything, and if you want to callit off right now I’ll understand, and you don’t have to-”

“What are you talking about?!” Naruto exclaimed. “That was awesome! Kind ofscary, but awesome. I’ve never had anyone stand up for me like that before. Sois that what you’re like when you’re angry?”

Hinata, somewhat bewildered, wiped her eyes with her kimono sleeve. “You… meanthat? You’re OK?”

“Sure!” Having got over the initial shock, Naruto was now mentally replayingthe image of the waiter’s smug face turning ashen, and enjoying every second.

“Oh.” Hinata seemed to relax a bit. “That’s… that’s good. I’m sorry. I’venever done that before. I mean, as the heir I was trained in how to use theVoice, but I’ve never been able to do it properly. Except then I saw how hewas treating you and… and I felt like I had to do something… and… are youreally sure that was OK?”

“It was awesome,” Naruto repeated firmly. “And you know, if you went aroundbeing that assertive more of the time, I think-”

Naruto was interrupted as the door swung open and what appeared to be theentire staff of the restaurant, several dozen people, all poured in. A veryrichly dressed man, likely the owner, stood at the front.

Before anyone could say anything, he fell to his knees and pressed hisforehead on the ground, shortly followed by the people behind him.

“Lady Hinata, on behalf of the Dreaming Dragon, I most humbly beg yourforgiveness for the unconscionable behaviour displayed towards you. Please, inyour infinite generosity, overlook this unworthy act and find it in your heartto forgive us. Needless to say, we will not be charging you for this room orfor your meal, and the lowly scum who dared insult your honour will be firedat once.”

At this last line, Hinata opened her mouth, then hesitated. She looked toNaruto, as if to say “you’re the victim, you decide.”

But Naruto didn’t know what to say. The right thing to do, the fair thing todo, would be to let him get fired. You shouldn’t be allowed to get away withtreating people like that, pure and simple. At the same time, the mercifulthing to do, and the kind of thing he imagined Hinata would do on her own, wasto forgive the man. He was just buying into the same sort of crap that madeeveryone else look down on Naruto, no better or worse than the others exceptthat he got a chance to act on it in the wrong time and place. And besides,what would Hinata think of him if he chose revenge rather than mercy?

Then again, they were dating (unless tonight went really badly). Whateverhis true self was, she’d find it out sooner or later. Did he want her to findout he’d been pretending to be “better” than he was, or did he want to bet onher accepting his flaws (if flaws they were)?

So the ball was back in his court. What did _he _want to do? Did he believe hecould change this man’s rotten ways with one decision or the other? Frankly,no. The only lesson to be learned from this experience was “hide yourprejudices if you risk offending someone powerful”, and that would be thewaiter’s conclusion whether he was fired or not. Even if Naruto decided tospare him, there was no guarantee that the man’s opinion would change, notwith Hinata available as a much easier target of gratitude that wouldn’trequire changing how he thought about people.

Damn it. How did you go about changing the world when it was so hard tobelieve it could be changed in the first place?

And then, before Naruto could decide, it was too late. The restaurant stafffiled out, shuffling backwards as if Hinata was an empress, and the pair werealone again.

-o-

One order of “one of everything, except two of this, this, this and this” andanother, more restrained order from Hinata later…

“So I have to ask, what was up with that? I mean, I know the Hyūga Clan’simportant, but really…”

“Well, Naruto, do you remember your history lessons?” Hinata asked.

“Which bit?”

“The founding of Leaf.”

Naruto thought for a second. “If you mean going back to the very beginning…Well, you had the Warring Clans period, when all the ninja clans spent theirtime constantly fighting each other, partly in the process of hiringthemselves out as mercenaries and spies, and partly because that’s what they’dalways done. Then one day Hashirama of the Senju got fed up with that. He saidhe wanted to prove that different clans could live peacefully alongside oneanother, and alongside common people (who basically thought ninja were likedemons - huge magic powers, know all the secrets of the world, be very veryrespectful if you see one, but generally stay the hell away if you want tolive). And since the Senju were the strongest clan in this part of the world,he thought he had a good shot at pulling it off. Although personally, I thinkhe was crazy to go to the Uchiha, and to Madara of all people, with his plan.I mean, his worst enemy? The leader of the other strongest clan, who’d had abitter rivalry with the Senju for generations? Really?”

Naruto glanced at Hinata as if to ask if that was what she’d meant, but sheappeared to be listening curiously to his take on Leaf history (and alsowrestling with a particularly recalcitrant grilled eel). So he continued.

“But by some miracle he did manage to bring Madara round to his way ofthinking, and they signed the First Waterfall Accords at the Valley of theEnd. Obviously, it wasn’t called that back then, but I can’t remember the oldname. Anyway, everyone knows the Accords - one village, one family. Nobattles, no spying, no theft. All that stuff. Then they brought in all theother clans, and went to the Daimyō of the Fire Country and they signed theSecond Waterfall Accords. It was a pretty sweet deal for both sides - theclans got a huge area of uninhabited forest to rule as a semi-autonomousregion, while the Daimyō got all the Fire Country clans that matteredofficially recognising his legitimacy, swearing never to take up arms againstthe Fire Country or interfere with its politics, and committing to defend itagainst all other ninja in times of war. And frankly, what else was the Daimyōgoing to do? Say no and alienate an alliance of all the most powerful ninja inhis territory? Who would then either take his territory anyway or offer thesame deal to one of his neighbours? I don’t think so.

“Anyway, then they all decided that the village would need a single leader,and somehow or other it ended up as a straightforward vote. Only pretty mucheveryone, including most of the Uchiha, voted for Hashirama. Whichunsurprisingly made Madara furious. He declared he’d been betrayed, made hisbig speech about the blind leading the blind, and left the village for good.So Hashirama became the world’s first Kage and Madara became the world’s firstmissing-nin. And, well, we all know how that played out in the end.”

Hinata nodded. “You know, Naruto, it took two days for Iruka-sensei to say allof that… although I guess he did have to deal with the Exploding ChalkIncident halfway through. But can you skip back a bit? How did they go aboutgathering the clans?”

Naruto couldn’t help thinking that Hinata was mirroring his own didacticapproach from many of their training sessions. He wondered how he should feelabout that. “Promises, concessions, and dark hints about what would happen ifthey were the only clan to be left outside this huge alliance, mainly. Theyspent ages getting the Hyūga in, promised them the moon, then sought out abunch of existing alliances, like the Ino-Shika-Chō guys, and I think theAburame Clan actually volunteered - they were big on unity, but not strongenough to lead an alliance themselves. I mean, I could list a bunch of others,but…”

“Do you know why they went for the Hyūga first?”

Naruto shook his head. “I’ve always wondered. I mean, I know you guys have theByakugan, but… well, no offense, but it doesn’t really seem like it’s in thesame league as the Wood Element or the Sharingan.”

“You know,” Hinata said, “you probably shouldn’t say that around any otherHyūga, particularly the older generation. Especially the Sharingan - it’s kindof a sore spot.”

She paused. “People don’t realise it because it’s not something you can seeeasily, but the Hyūga are amazing at intelligence gathering. It’s theByakugan’s greatest strength, and my clan was working to make the most of itlong before we developed the Gentle Fist. This is a huge generalisation, butif the Senju were the best warriors and the Uchiha were the best ninjutsuusers, then the Hyūga were the best spies. It’s how we survived even though wewere always a fairly small clan surrounded by combat heavyweights. It’s alsowhy Leaf’s founders went to such lengths to bring us in even though we’vealways been a bit… well, standoffish.

“Sorry,” she stopped. “I’m not boring you?”

“No way,” Naruto grinned. “This is good stuff.”

“I know this is a bit, well, arrogant coming from a Hyūga, but Leaf historymakes much more sense when you see it in terms of three founding clans ratherthan two. The Hyūga balanced what could have been a constant power strugglebetween the Senju and the Uchiha, who had generations of enmity to workthrough. That’s why in the history books, you sometimes see references toLeaf’s Three Noble Clans.”

“When you say Leaf history makes much more sense…” Naruto trailed offquestioningly.

“For example, think about what happened to the Senju.”

“Hashirama encouraged them all to intermarry with other clans to strengthenties. Except the Uchiha, obviously. The bloodline got so diluted they prettymuch don’t exist as a clan anymore. The First Hokage was the last Senju whocould even use the Wood Element.”

“Right. So why didn’t the Uchiha take over when that happened?”

“Huh,” Naruto frowned. “I never thought of it like that.”

“This isn’t all my own thinking,” Hinata admitted a little sheepishly. “I hadtutors once.”

Naruto shrugged. “Once you know something, it’s yours to keep.”

Hinata didn’t argue the point. “The Second could see the big conflict coming,so he chose someone who wasn’t from any important clan to be the Third. TheUchiha didn’t like the Third because they associated him with the Senju, andthe Hyūga didn’t like him because the clan seniors felt he wasn’t giving themenough respect (although they feel like that about everybody). But he hadlegitimacy from being the chosen heir of the Senju, and was, I mean is, agreat Hokage, so they accepted him eventually.”

“Right. And I guess you’re saying he chose the Fourth on the same principle?Because the last Namikaze,” Naruto’s voice trembled a little as he said that,“was a neutral party everybody could accept?”

“Yes. Obviously, at the time the Hyūga and the Uchiha were both puttingpressure on the Third to choose a successor from their clan, so I guess havingsomeone as amazing as the Fourth turn up was a godsend for him. The Fourth wastalented and _charismatic _and a war hero, so it wasn’t as hard to get himaccepted.”

“Only it didn’t work.” Because of you, Naruto added silently, thinking at theFox.

“No,” Hinata agreed. “And after the Fourth died and the old village gotdestroyed, the balance started to fall apart. For a while, people stoppedbelieving in the Hokage, so the Third couldn’t control the clans as well. Andat the same time, both the Hyūga and the Uchiha believed they deserved abigger share of power, so they tried to make that happen during thereconstruction. Apparently, things got really bad.”

“Hang on,” Naruto reached the inevitable conclusion. “So if the Hyūga and theUchiha were fighting for dominance all that time, what happened after theUchiha Massacre?”

“Um.” Hinata hesitated. “I don’t think I can really talk about that so much.All the other stuff is history, that’s fine, but there are things about Hyūgapolitics that I’ve only been taught because I’m the heir, and I’m not supposedto discuss them with outsiders.”

Naruto thought. “No, don’t worry, I think I can put the pieces together on myown. The Uchiha are gone. But the Hyūga aren’t in power. So someone’s holdingthem back. I guess the Hokage, though it could be a secret alliance of otherclans. Probably the Hokage, though, because you can’t fight a political battlewithout a public face, and there’s no-one else publically facing the Hyūga.That means when he retires, there’s going to be a lot more pressure thanbefore to choose a Hyūga successor, with nothing to counter it.

“Man, this doesn’t look good. If he picks a neutral successor, the Hyūga willgo on the warpath, because they’ve been waiting forever to get into power, andnow they’re supposed to be the only option. But if he picks a Hyūga, that’spractically a dictatorship, because for the first time there won’t be anyoneto balance their power. I can’t see any of the other clans being happy withthat. And he has _to pick a successor himself, because if he doesn’t,there’ll be a legitimacy crisis, like at the start of _War of the Tengu, andthen it’s civil war for sure. Hang on…” a horrific thought occurred to Naruto,“what about Sasuke? He’s an Uchiha, in fact, _the _Uchiha. How does he fitinto all this?”

“Well,” Hinata said after a moment’s thought, conspicuously not denyingNaruto’s chain of logic, “I think if the Third chose him as his successor,and he had the legitimacy of being an Uchiha, _and _he was as amazing as theFourth, _and _he had enough popular support, the Hyūga could accept him asHokage. But it’s a moot point. Sasuke is very talented, but he’s not going tobe Kage-level by the time the Third finally retires.”

“At which point,” Naruto concluded, “all hell is going to break loose.”

-o-

“I’m sorry,” Naruto broke the gloomy silence. “I know dates are supposed tobe, uh, romantic and stuff, and I realise talking about village politics isway on the other end of the spectrum.”

Hinata shook her head. “I don’t mind. I’ve… um… missed having someone to talkto. And… I think…”

Hinata trailed off and started fidgeting, her body language somehow suggestingthat she was trying to hide without moving in any way.

Naruto waited - part curiosity, part revenge for being forced to finish hisown sentence earlier.

“I think… this is romantic enough,” Hinata finally said very quietly, lookingat Naruto across the table.

For once, the silence Naruto found himself in wasn’t uncomfortable. He lookedinto Hinata’s eyes, returning her gaze.

Clichés from the girly romance manga he definitely never read ran through hismind, and suddenly he realised how none of them fit. Hinata’s eyes weren’twindows to her soul. He could not stare into their dark abyss to try andglimpse her true self, or watch her pupils widen to convey the depth of herinterest. In fact, he doubted she even had pupils behind the uniform almost-white surfaces that marked Byakugan-adapted eyes.

What was it like, he wondered, to look at the world from the other side ofthose barriers? What was it like to see without anyone else knowing what youwere looking at, to remain opaque even as everyone else became transparent?Was it the Byakugan itself that made Hinata fade into the background, alwayswatching, never seen?

Yet here and now he could feel it, Hinata’s completely focused attention, asif it were a ray of light shining directly at him. Why him? Why would someonewho could see the whole world just by spending a little chakra choose to forgoall that, and look only at someone like him?

And suddenly it clicked. He knew this, Naruto realised, this hunger forknowledge that shut everything else out. He’d felt it often enough, thoughnever directed at a person like this. And even if he couldn’t understand why,he couldn’t deny the purity and intensity of those feelings any more than hecould deny the light and warmth he felt standing in a sunbeam.

And then it clicked again. Naruto felt a desire he had never before puttogether out of the stray pieces of thought and emotion drifting around insidehim. He _wanted to know _her, to see past the impenetrable wall of her eyes,to reach through all the layers of fear and shyness and fragility and fullycomprehend the complex inner world he had only glimpsed up until now. To knowher, so fully and deeply and completely that the barriers between them brokedown and-

With a start, Naruto backed off, looking away from Hinata as he felt himselftouch depths of emotion that were somehow beyond his power to handle. Thiswasn’t… What had he just… Was this what…?

In his confusion, he felt almost grateful as the spell was broken by thearrival of a waiter.

-o-

“Lady Hinata, would you and… your companion… like to see the dessert menu?”

“Yes, please!” Hinata nodded vigorously, apparently also not entirely at easewith her side of the experience.

Naruto barely glanced at his menu. The “one of everything” policy had servedhim well so far, and he saw no need to abandon it.

Hinata was unsurprisingly more restrained. She did seem about to say somethingto the waiter when Naruto clarified that yes, he wanted the large rather thanmedium Tower of Trials ice cream, but ultimately went bright red and stayedsilent.

“So, um, Naruto, did you say earlier that you had A-rank mission pay? Ithought you were on a C-rank mission. Did something happen?”

“Well, I discovered that I’m possibly gay, in which case I guess you and medating doesn’t have a future, and I also now have unresolved feelings foranother boy. Plus it turns out that there’s a horrific monster living insideme which can take over my body and go on murderous rampages. But other thanthat, no, nothing special.”

Naruto emphatically did not say this, but it certainly ran through his head.What was he supposed to tell Hinata? On the one hand, any one of thoserevelations was a humongous bundle of explosive tags which you did not drop onsomeone on a first date, while the full set would probably be the Kyubey tothe Leaf Village of his romantic prospects.

On the other hand, Naruto had learned from his manga that dishonesty andmiscommunication accounted for 90% of relationship disasters (with theremainder mainly involving alien or supernatural intervention), and there wasno possible scenario in which lying to Hinata about stuff this important rightoff the bat was likely to end well. It was, after all, apparently a law ofnature that terrible secrets always came out at the worst possible time (see“finding out someone is your mortal enemy right after you and he fall inlove”).

Fortunately, in the specific case of Hinata, a pre-existing solution presenteditself.

“Uh, can we put that on the ‘for another time’ list? Sorry.”

Hinata looked surprised, but nodded.

“Instead,” Naruto sought a safer conversation topic, “how about you tell meabout all the village stuff I missed. Anything interesting happen?”

“Well,” Hinata smiled, “there was the thing where Kiba somehow got the ideathat when a girl beats you up, it means she, um, likes you. And then he metIno on a bad day…”

-o-

“… and now we know that trying to build a suspension bridge off the SecondHokage’s head carving is a very bad idea,” Hinata concluded as they headed outof the restaurant.

“Oh, man! I wish I could’ve seen his face!” Naruto laughed.

Hinata laughed too. Then she and Naruto looked at each other. It was time topart ways.

However, just having a restaurant meal for a first date was somehow… un-Naruto-like. And Hinata’s story had given him an idea…

“Hey, Hinata, come with me. There’s something I want to show you,” heannounced.

“Um… OK.”

“This way! Also, Multiple Shadow Clone Technique!”

The clones scattered into the darkness, their purpose a mystery to thesomewhat confused Hinata.

Naruto led Hinata to the edge of the village, the side opposite the HokageMonument. It was a fairly unremarkable place, with only a few fields fillingthe emptiness before the near-vertical crater wall. There was nothing apparentto commend it for dating purposes except perhaps the degree of privacy grantedby its remoteness.

“Here we are. Could you close your eyes? And keep your Byakugan off?”

Hinata hesitated, a look of discomfort on her face. At first Naruto wonderedif she wasn’t willing to trust him, but then a more charitable explanationoccurred to him. Hinata was a Hyūga, with the ability to see perfectly even inthe dark or through closed eyelids. Actual blindness would be much more aliento her than to most people.

Realising this, Naruto was grateful when she finally nodded and closed hereyes, though he wasn’t sure why she flinched as he took her hand and startedto lead her onwards.

-o-

“OK, you can open your eyes now.”

Hinata did. To her surprise, she could see the entire village in front of her,a sea of multicoloured lights, almost like a starlit sky seen from above. Butshe could also see the Hokage Monument, with its carved faces gazing at herfrom across the crater. Where were they? They weren’t on the edge of thecrater, an area of hostile terrain and countless booby-traps set to deterintruders. They were actually within the village boundaries, yet somewherevery high up - the only view like this she knew was from the tops of theHokage head carvings, a normally off-limits area where they’d been taken onceas Academy students.

She let herself take in the view. She was also keenly aware that Naruto wasstill holding her hand, in a warm, solid grip that made part of her melt. Herelaxed it after a few seconds, as if trying to let go. But although Hinatadoubted she’d have the courage to take his hand on her own initiative, she didat least manage to hold on to it when it was already there. After a second’shesitation his hand tightened around hers again.

“Where are we?” she finally asked.

“You can use your Byakugan now. Take a look.”

She did. But the first thing she focused on was his chakra. It was more faintthan normal, divided among all those shadow clones somewhere out in thedarkness, and unusually concentrated in the hand with which he was holdinghers. Chakra followed attention, so did that mean…? Hinata giggled on theinside. All that time holding her hand as he led her here, and he’d onlyjust realised that they were holding hands, like a couple? Naruto wasspecial, wonderful, unique, but in just a few ways he could be a little bitdense.

Even so, she envied his composure. Here they were, on their first date, alonein mysterious yet definitely romantic surroundings, and somehow he wasn’tfeeling pulled in every direction by a dozen different emotions. _He _didn’thave to keep stopping to remind himself that this wasn’t yet another of thosedreams that felt joyful to experience and agonising to wake up from. _He_didn’t have to keep asking himself whether he really deserved to be here,when his partner was worthy of so much more.

Finally, she turned her conscious attention to the terrain around them - andlaughed out loud in surprise. They were standing not on rock, but on a complexinterlocking assembly of transformed shadow clones. The exact shape was toocomplicated for her to grasp, but it was attached to the near-vertical craterwall, and it fit together into a giant faux-archaic carving of Naruto’s head,Hokage-style. It was just so… so Naruto to do something like that. Shewondered if he’d leave it there until he went to sleep and his clonesvanished, just to provoke outrage in anyone who happened to spot it in thedark.

“Glad you like it,” Naruto commented. “I wanted you to be the first to know -well, outside Team Seven and the entire Country of the Wave, anyway.”

“Know what?” Hinata asked.

“I’ve decided. I’m going to become Hokage. I will surpass all the Hokage whocame before me, and I will change the world.”

It should have sounded ridiculous, just another instance of Naruto pretendingto be a manga protagonist for his own amusement. But this time Hinata couldn’thear the traces of irony that normally accompanied Naruto’s granddeclarations. Nor was he striking one of his many dramatic poses. The onething she did see was the way his chakra burned just a little more brightly ashe spoke. We name it “resolve”, daughter. It is a light that shines throughthe endless human weakness that surrounds us, and reminds us that there is asun waiting somewhere beyond the clouds.

Hinata smiled. “I think you can do it, Naruto. I really do.”

Naruto beamed. “Thank you.”

Then he stepped forward a little, pulling her towards the edge of the“carving”.

“It’s not the main reason I brought you here, though. I had to kind of guessthe range of your Byakugan, but… well… try and pick out my clones down in thevillage. They’ll be flaring their chakra as much as they can to make iteasier.”

Hinata tried. It was harder than Naruto probably realised, with the sheernumber of people she could see when she extended her range, but between theflaring, the high vantage point that meant she didn’t have to filter out asmany obstacles, her intimate familiarity with Naruto’s chakra, and the factthat at this time of night people who weren’t Naruto tended to be inpredictable locations (mostly home and asleep), she finally managed it.

It stunned her how many there were, yet another reminder of Naruto’sincredible chakra control. Once she thought she’d found the last one, shebroadened her focus again, letting herself see them all at once. The resulttook her breath away.

The entire surface of the village, as far as she could see, was illuminated bytwo traditional characters written in shadow clone formation. They were thefirst ones she’d learned to read as a child: “The Sun Beyond”, read as “Hyūga”since time immemorial.

But they also had another, gentler, reading, one of which Naruto was doubtlessaware: “Hinata”, “Where the Sun Shines”, the reading once favoured by hermother. As much as anything else, it had been a wish, and Hinata had spentmost of her life afraid that she would never fulfil it. She remembered feelinga guilty sort of relief when she learned that everyone else in her age groupwas already writing their names in the simpler modern script, meaning that shecould too, that she could treat her name as just a set of syllables.

Now, those same two characters blazed before her eyes, written for Hinata andnot for Hyūga, written by someone who had promised to help her become theperson she wanted to be. Written by someone who thought nothing of writing hera message several miles in size on the spur of the moment, just to make herhappy. Honestly, the fact that the whole thing looked so beautiful was almostan afterthought.

After some time, Naruto stepped around in front of her, his image nowoverlapping the vista below, and took her other hand.

“It’s right there in front of everyone in the village, and you’re the only onewho can see it. Just like before.” He smiled. “Thank you, Hinata. Thank youfor being the one person to see me as I really am, and for accepting what yousee.”

He took a deep breath. “I know I don’t always get people as well as I think Ido, and I know sometimes I can barely see past the end of my own nose, but I’dlike to see you for who you are too. I want to learn to see and understand andaccept all of you, every last bit without exception. If… if that’s OK withyou, I mean.”

Hinata didn’t answer. In fact, she couldn’t. Instead, in a gesture ofunthinking boldness that would mortify her when she recalled it the next day,she stepped forward and threw her arms around Naruto’s neck, holding him in atight hug. This… this was even better than it was in her daydreams.

After a few seconds, Naruto tentatively put his arms around her waist.

They stood like that for a long time.


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