A cry escaped Hitomi’s lips without giving her any chance to stop it, attracting Gaara’s attention to her. His big turquoise eyes went wide when he saw her. They met in the middle ground between their teams, quickly hugging as intensely and naturally as they had once. The Yūhi girl was now quite a bit shorter than the Son of the Sand, the top of her head only reaching his chin. He took advantage of each of his supplementary centimetres to close up around her like a protective cocoon, his smell of sand and sun invading her nose. There, in the secret of his arms, she couldn’t help but burst into tears, clinging to his clothes like a child to a parent.
She hadn’t understood how much she’d missed him until then. Being in his arms brought it all back, giving her a piece of her she hadn’t known was missing. She cried and cried against his shoulder, soothed by the deep hum playing in his throat, quiet enough that only she could hear. Once her tears dried up, she closed her eyes and listened to the melody of his breathing and beating heart.
“Aah, Hitomi-chan,” Kakashi said after a while, “wanna introduce your friend?”
She reluctantly stepped back, staring at Gaara. He had changed, obviously, but not in the way she had feared, the way the canon had condemned him to. “Kakashi-sensei, Naruto, Sasuke,” she said in a voice that was choking with a tenderness beyond words, “let me introduce you to Sabaku no Gaara. He’s a very dear friend of mine, and I want you to treat him as such.”
Gaara smiled, an expression as hesitant as it was brief, like he was surprised by the affection she was showing shamelessly. He gestured for his brother and sister, who had decided to wait a few steps away, to come closer. “Kankurō, Temari, come. I told you a lot about Hitomi-nee, and here she is. She’s family.” His last word was full of unsaid implications, too intense for the girl to be able to fully grasp them.
Her eyes met Temari’s, which were the same colour as Gaara’s. She nodded in greeting, beaming so enthusiastically she could have rivalled Naruto’s smiles. “You didn’t say you were coming to Konoha. Had I known, I would have waited for you at the gate.”
“Well, I meant for it to be a surprise. It’s only once we got there that I realised I didn’t have the foggiest idea of where you live.”
“You’ll know soon, all three of you. My mother loves having guests.”
“Hm,” Kankurō intervened, “I think Baki-sensei has gone to fetch the key to our hotel room. He won’t like it if we stay in another part of town.”
Gaara’s eyes hesitated for merely a second before he turned his back, resolve in his stance, to the entrance of the Tower, following Hitomi instead. Not once had he stopped touching her since their hug; it satisfied her more than she could possibly tell. “D’you know if Ensui-sensei is in the village, Hitomi-nee? I’d like to catch up with him, if he has time.”
“Oh, yeah, he’s there. He’s been hella busy these past few days with Shikaku-sama, but he’ll be happy to see you three. If he hadn’t spent so much time bitching about the sand he can still find in his stuff, I’d swear he misses the Desert.” With those words, she started walking towards the Nara land hanging on Gaara’s arm, Kankurō and Temari following them without asking any question. As for Sasuke and Naruto, they seemed a bit dazzled. Kakashi was walking behind them, exposing his usual laid-back demeanour at first glance. However, his only eye gleamed with unspecified threats towards anyone looking at their group of one Genin team and one foreign team. He knew, more than anyone, how fragile the relationship between Konoha and Sunagakure was. He wanted to see a real peace appear between the two Hidden Villages, and a friendship between the Kazekage’s son and a young heiress from a Konohajin clan seemed like an excellent start for such peace.
“You’re here for the exam, aren’t you?” Hitomi asked once they were all piled up in her living room.
The room went dead silent as soon as the question escaped her lips. Traditionally, the ninjas of the hosting village for the Chūnin exam were the last to know it was happening. A Chūnin had to be able to handle situations they weren’t prepared for, and keep their wits about them no matter the adversity.
“You… do know you’re not supposed to know that, right, Hitomi-chan?”
“Kakashi-sensei, the day the village will want to keep a secret, it’ll have to try harder. I live with one of the sensei who will have to decide something soon. Or did you forget that?”
The man had at least the decency to blush and look away. She grinned as Gaara answered her question, his voice serene and as deep as an adult’s already. “Yeah, we’ve been selected for the exam. You don’t know yet if your team will be part of it, do you?”
“It’s Kakashi-sensei’s decision to make. I entirely trust his judgment.”
Her eyes met her teacher’s. He nodded slightly, as if he approved. She smiled in return, then her attention returned to her guests. She had served them refreshments and little snacks, typical of Konoha. Temari seemed to enjoy them a lot. They were all sitting where they could find room around the coffee table, except for the adult of their group, who stood alert next to the patio door. He looked thoughtful, even though his hands never went very far from the pockets where he kept his weapons.
“I’m really happy to have you here, all three of you. I missed Gaara and, after talking with you through my notebook, I couldn’t wait to meet you.”
“Do you think you could take me to see the plants you had told me about?” Kankurō asked with a grin. “I’d like to see if I can enhance my poisons, but I already tried everything in the greenhouses in Suna – in the ones Genin have access to anyway.”
“I’m not sure you can see much of them, but sure, we can do that. Oh, and I have to take you out to eat gyoza!”
“And ramen!” Naruto intervened.
“And ramen, yeah. So many things to do!”
She was hopping up and down on the couch with impatience, a big smile on her lips. Gaara put a hand on her arm and they exchanged a meaningful look, which made her relax. Then Temari spoke, and her heart started racing again. “What I ’d like is to spar with you. Just a spar, mind you, not a real fight. Would you like that, Hitomi-chan?”
“Are you kidding? Of course I’d like that! Gaara told me you were awesome with your fan!”
“In that case, should we say tomorrow at ten in the morning? Do you have a training ground in mind?”
“You can use the training ground number three,” Kakashi drawled. “In fact, I insist you use that training ground. I’ll be there to referee, with a medic ready to step in, in case of emergency. Don’t forget the exam starts soon. Trust me, you want to be in top condition when it starts.”
The sensei’s word was law, especially when he spoke with that tranquil authority that seemed able to bend steel. Hitomi answered him with a beaming smile then her eyes met Temari’s, who looked as impatient as she was. She hadn’t had a true challenge since her fight against Zabuza, and would welcome the adrenaline rush that an unknown opponent would bring her, especially since it would be a low stakes fight. She knew Gaara’s sister was intelligent, too intelligent to feel overwhelmed by Hitomi’s little tricks like Naruto and Sasuke often were.
Dinner was a particularly joyful affair that evening: the guests were so numerous that Kurenai had taken Ensui along and ordered him to bring his dining table. Shikamaru’s family had done the same as well, Hitomi overwhelming her cousin with her own excitement. She remembered acutely the time when Shikamaru and Gaara had been her only close friends; to have them meet, finally, was very precious to her. Even the adults looked relaxed as they celebrated the reunion of two teams, from two different countries yet so much alike.
The next morning, Hitomi was serene and ready to fight as she stepped on training ground number three. She had decided not to use Ishi to Senrigan and had given it to Sasuke: close range weapons were no use against Temari, she already knew that. However, she had chakra and seals in abundance, as well as help from her summons and little inventions. A vicious grin floated on her lips when she thought about the last bombs she had created. They may not be of use during this duel, but she couldn’t wait to make an opponent’s life a living nightmare with them.
Kakashi stood in the centre of the main clearing, his back straight, with a martial air about him. Temari arrived a few minutes later, her giant fan already between her hands rather than strapped on her back. Behind her, the male members of her team, as well as Ensui and Baki, settled at a safe distance to watch the show. Hitomi and Temari positioned themselves ten steps away from Kakashi, one to his left and one to his right, after forming the Seal of Confrontation, and waited for the signal while facing each other, the same impatient grin on their lips.
“Hajime!” Kakashi commanded as he jumped out of the way.
Immediately Hitomi jumped out of the way of the wind blade that slammed towards her. This spar would continue until one of them conceded defeat or was seriously injured, which meant it could last long. She sliced her thumb open on the edge of a kunai and ran through the hand seals, brushing her hand against the ground. “Ninpō: The Iron Claw Brigade!”
Her three attack cats appeared in a puff of smoke and immediately had to disperse to dodge yet another wind blade. Hitomi had decided against using her shadows so she wouldn’t compromise Shikamaru’s possible future duel against the Sand Princess, but she had many other resources, even if she couldn’t access an entire part of her skills. In a burst of chakra, she created three Water Clones from nothingness and hid amongst them. Against any other opponent, she would have spat out a big patch of mist, but she knew Temari could dissipate it with a wave of her fan.
As her clones and cats charged, she frequently used the substitutions with her copies and, wherever she landed, slammed flash bomb seals on trees, on the ground, everywhere she possibly could. Those seals were heavily compressed and would be lost between two blades of grass, forgotten until she activated them. More than once, a wind blade came near enough to tear her kimono, and even scratch her once or twice, but that didn’t stop her. “Water Style: Water Whip!”
As soon as the whip appeared in her hand, she swapped places with a clone, appearing just next to Hoshihi. Her whip wrapped around Temari’s ankle; she pulled the limb brutally, but the kunoichi, her lips in a thin line, slammed her fan in the ground through the whip, effectively destroying it. Hitomi swore and had to back away, hiding behind a tree to avoid ending up as minced meat.
Temari was powerful and clever, but she relied far too much on her fan. With a smile, Hitomi left the protection of her tree and closed her eyes, activating all the seals she had placed everywhere in a chain reaction. The flash of light was so violent that even their public let out yelps of pain. Hitomi navigated blind without any problem: locating Temari’s chakra was all she needed to know where to hit, an exalted, wild laugh escaping her as she did so.
When the light drizzled down and everyone could see once more, they found Hitomi sitting astride Temari’s torso, her left hand open on her fan. Under her fingers, five explosive seals had deployed, easy to recognise even for foreign ninjas. The young Sunajin looked quite shocked, her eyes wide and her mouth parted open, her body still as tense as a bow. She let her head rest against the grass, suddenly beaming. After a moment, she burst out laughing, Hitomi soon joining her, rolling over her to lie by her side, the sleeves of her kimono badly torn and her arms covered in little scraps and cuts that had started bleeding.
“Ah, fuck, we’ll need to do that again.”
“I agree. You’re an awesome sparring partner, Hitomi-chan!”
“Well, so are you, Temari-chan!”
On those words, they stood back up, supporting each other. They were breathless, their hair was a mess, but the same exalted expression lightened up their features despite Hitomi’s wounds and Temari’s defeat. Kakashi approached and inspected his student’s arms, frowning with worry. “Ensui! Come heal your apprentice before she bleeds half to death on my training ground!”
Soon enough, Ensui and Baki were standing next to their respective students, and Hitomi felt her master’s chakra, fresh, clean, comforting, wash over her skin. “You held back, didn’t you?” he asked in a whisper against her ear.
“Of course I did. But so did she. Her attacks can be deadly, but she didn’t want to kill me, only to stop me from running around.”
“It’s fortunate your cats could serve as a diversion.”
“Yeah. Hoshihi, d’you want me to take you to Inuzuka-san for that cut?”
“That’d be great. If Aotsuki-sensei sees me bleed when I come home, she won’t be happy with me.”
With a smile, the girl lost her hand in her familiar’s ginger fur. He was tall enough that his shoulder brushed against hers now, tall enough to be mounted. However, they had decided together that they wanted to wait for him to build a bit more muscle in his back and shoulders so he wouldn’t get injured. He was becoming quite the terrifying beast and didn’t seem to stop growing up, unlike Haīro and Kurokumo, who had reached their adult size and were just a few centimetres smaller than their ginger friend. The three cats gathered around their summoner. They were always happy to go to the Inuzuka lands, since they had overcome their fear of dogs: Tsume made the best treats for their hunter palate.
“Before you go, Hitomi, I need to talk to you and your brothers.”
“It will only take a moment.”
Without adding a word, the teenage girl followed her teacher to the treeline and waited, her red eyes still gleaming with adrenalin. Naruto looked over-excited by the fight he had just seen and would have probably challenged Temari to a spar if Sasuke hadn’t severely gagged him, a smirk on his lips. Once his three students were gathered around him, he spoke again. “As you know, the Chūnin exam is starting very soon. In fact, the first stage is scheduled for tomorrow, four in the afternoon. I put your names forward to the Hokage, which means you can register, but don’t have to if you want to wait. However, I think you three are ready.”
They all nodded without hesitation. Hitomi was still high on her victory and her brothers couldn’t wait to prove themselves. The girl too, of course, but her motives weren’t as pure as theirs. She wanted to taste her potential opponents’ strength, to find herself at the heart of the events as they unfolded, to have a chance to act . She couldn’t guess if the invasion would happen. Gaara wouldn’t be part of it, not without warning Hitomi first to give her a chance to protect and defend herself. And even with that… He was a pacifist, like Uchiha Itachi had once been. However, he had only been a diversion in Orochimaru’s plan. The damned snake could very well find another one.
“Very well, I expected that much from you. Here is the paperwork you have to fill. Take it there before four, tomorrow. Don’t be late or the exam will start without you.” Before Hitomi could taunt him about telling others to be on time, he disappeared in a swirl of dead leaves, several of which got stuck in her hair.
“… Bitch. Boys, I’d like you to take care of our guest until I’m done with my cats, if it’s alright with you? I’ll meet you at home in two hours, and then we can talk strategy and prepare.”
“No prob!” Naruto beamed. “We’re gonna take them to eat ramen and then show them places, don’t worry about it!”.
With a nod and a smile, Hitomi walked away, her three cats in tow. She had thought she’d be agonizing in terror when the time came, but it simply wasn’t the case. She felt at peace, focused, the opposite of defenceless or vulnerable. She didn’t know if it was because her mission in the Land of Waves had been hard enough to prepare her, or because she was still riding the wave of her spar with Temari. What she did know, however, was that it probably wouldn’t last. She had to appreciate the little blessings when they were granted to her.
When she came home two hours later, alone, she was welcomed by a booming laugh that could only be Kankurō’s, followed by Naruto’s yelp. Curious as to what was happening, she swapped her boots for slippers and went to the kitchen, entering in the middle of a… catastrophe. It was really the best way to put it. She didn’t know what her brothers and guests had attempted to cook, but she was fairly certain it didn’t imply making a bag of flour explode . Even the ceiling was covered in the damned stuff, and Naruto was chalk-white from hair to toe. “I… What, and I can’t emphasise that enough, the actual fuck happened here?”
“Kankurō bet he could lift anything with just one string of chakra,” Sasuke said, “and Naruto threw a bag of flour to his face. This is the result.”
The shadow of a nervous tic agitated her left eye. Her hands curled to fists then relaxed. She breathed in and out, trying not to cough as flour happily coated her lungs, then offered them her sweetest smile. “I’ll start making dinner in an hour. I don’t need to explain the consequences if the kitchen isn’t squeaky clean by then, do I?” Just to make sure they got the idea, she projected a bit of killing intent in the air, then turned away and walked to her room, grabbing Gaara by the arm as she left. He was the tacit leader of his team, just as she was the tacit leader of hers; they had many things to discuss before the exam started. Fortunately, a pair of glasses and a bottle of lemonade had been spared, being in the living room instead of the kitchen, so she took them and went to sit at her desk once they were in her room, as he settled on her bed.
“Would you agree to an alliance between our teams during the first two stages of the exam?” she asked while pouring him a glass of lemonade.
“Why only those?”
“Because the third is traditionally a tournament organised in front of the leaders of the different countries that could send us new mission orders. An alliance is impossible in that kind of setting. The two first stages, in the village’s archives I examined, are often centred around collecting or spreading intelligence for the first, and survival for the second one. In those cases, we can help each other.”
“I understand. I don’t have any reason to refuse that alliance. We’d exchange intel and go to each other’s help whenever possible. Do you want to include other teams in that system?”
“Hinata’s and Shikamaru’s teams. They could handle it on their own, just like we could, but I think they’re gonna want it. In Konoha, we learn that strength is in numbers.”
“I’m okay with that. I have to discuss the precise terms with my siblings and I think you’ll want to reach out to the two other teams to discuss it with them as well.”
“You’re right, but I can do that without stepping out of this room.” She sliced her thumb open on a kunai she kept on her desk and slammed her hand against the wood. “Ninpō: Echoes in the Field!”
Where she had put her bloody hand appeared Sunaarashi and Hokori. Apparently, she had summoned them midway through their toilet; the female licked her brother’s ear one last time then straightened up and stretched. “What can we do for you, Lady Summoner?”
“I’d like you to go bring messages to Shikamaru and Hinata. Hokori will stay with me and transmit their answers through you. Just wait, I have to write the letters.”
She grabbed two sheets of paper and a pen Gaara was throwing at her and started writing. During that time, the boy looked around the room, his eyes stopping on the notebooks she kept on one of her shelves. “So you still had some of those damned notebooks, uh?”
She looked up from her letter to see what he was speaking about and smiled. “Yeah. And many more. The ones on the shelves are the ones I filled.”
“What do you use them for?”
“Some of them are communicating notebooks I plan on giving away. If that alliance thing happens, I’ll hand one to Hinata so her team can keep in touch with me. I should have done so long ago but, after our break-up, it seemed… well. Apart from that, I have others that I use to get ideas on paper for seals and such, and the ones that are with my books are novels I wrote.”
“It’s funny, each time you tell me you’re a writer I kinda forget. It’s so obvious when you say it like that, and yet…” He shrugged, but she understood what he meant. Writers were usually peaceful people, civilians, with the notable exception of Jiraiya of the Sannin.
The girl smiled as she handed the two little scrolls of paper she had just sealed shut to Sunaarashi, allowing her to stick them to her fur with chakra so they wouldn’t bother her as she ran through the village. Thoughtful, the two teenagers watched her jump through the window then over the roofs until she was just a ginger spot on the horizon.
“Would you let me read one of your novels, Hitomi-nee?” Gaara then asked.
Hitomi’s eyes went back to the boy. At first glance, he was as expressionless as usual, but the girl knew him better than that: she had learned to decipher the almost invisible tensing of muscles on his face like they were clear, obvious facial expressions. He looked sincerely curious, and a bit impressed as well. “Let me see if I have something you’d enjoy,” she said with a gentle nod. Slowly, she stood up and stretched, Hokori purring as she scratched him behind the ear, and went to her shelves. All three were overflowing with books, far less impressive than the Library in her mind, but she loved them just as much. Her fingers brushed against the spines of the books tenderly while she weighed her choices. She ended up picking a blue notebook with a white silver pattern on its cover and handed it to Gaara.
“The Cat’s Return. What is it about?”
“It’s the story of a teenage girl, Haru, who saves a cat that is able to speak. The cat’s father is the king of all cats and, as a reward, decides she is to marry his son, so she has to seek help from the Cat Ministry. It’s more of a story for children, but it’s very sweet and I think you’ll like that. You can then tell the story to Sunajin children if you do.” Hitomi had put that movie into writing exactly for that reason: being able to tell it to young minds who craved beautiful stories. She remembered each image of the first time she had watched the movie, remembered how amazed and enthralled she’d been. She wanted other people to experience the same thing.
“Thank you,” Gaara smiled. “I’ll take great care of it and give it back before we leave Konohagakure.”
They then oriented the conversation to lighter subjects. Hitomi asked her friend if he liked her village, what he had already seen, if he’d enjoyed the ramen Naruto loved so much. She wasn’t surprised to hear that he was getting along well with her brothers, especially the sunny blonde. It was hard not to love Naruto once he started to show how sweet he was. Despite the villagers’ wariness of him, each and every member of the Fellowship loved him to bits. One day, he would become the Hokage, and his awesome personality would help him make his dream a reality. And Gaara could understand such a dream, even if he didn’t know yet that he and Naruto had it in common.
“Hitomi!” Hokori called from where he was, curled up next to the boy.
“I’m listening. Do you have an answer yet?”
“From Team Eight. Hinata accepts the alliance without any conditions. I’m on my way to go find Team Ten, I think they’re at Yakiniku again.”
“Thank you, Sunaarashi. Keep me posted.”
Finally, just like she had anticipated, Shikamaru joined the alliance as well. They all decided to meet fifteen minutes before the exam, in the exam room, to work on a strategy around what they could guess of the first stage. Only Hitomi knew exactly what that part would be about, but she had no way of explaining how she obtained such knowledge and thus couldn’t share it in any way. It didn’t mean she didn’t have a plan, just that she would have to put it in place without revealing her hand.
After dinner, the teenage girl went back to her brothers and Team Baki in the living room. Kurenai was home but had decided to leave them the space so they could work in – relative – peace. As a Jōnin-sensei with a team in the exam, she knew what the two first stages were but couldn’t say a word. She would probably watch them as well when possible, through cameras or something similar, amongst her peers, if she wasn’t part of the first stage as a monitor altogether, under a solid illusion.
Hitomi remembered that, in the canon, there wasn’t any break between the two first stages, so she wanted to plan for both. Under the pretence of wanting to be ready for anything and everything, she finished filling her brothers’ stocks of seals and weapons, then offered her guests some of her creations. Without any surprise, Kankurō was the one most interested in them, especially her smoke bombs, since they would allow him the cover to switch places with one of his puppets. When she was done, Hitomi had sore hands, but at least that part of her preparations was done.
Then, she went back to her room and coerced her brothers into helping her find anything useful and sealing them in one of her scrolls. It went from weapons to changes of clothes, including rations and even books – she never went anywhere without a few books. To Gaara’s team, she offered her resources as well: her clothes would be too small for Temari, but it was better than no clothes at all if she dirtied them. They looked surprised that she made sure they were as ready as possible, except maybe for Gaara. Finally, she picked the communicating notebook she wanted to give to Hinata the next day and felt ready, as ready as she possibly could.
Around her, the lights went off one by one. Temari was sleeping on a futon next to her bed, since she had categorically refused to take it from her host, an open book face down on her belly. She had wanted to continue reading, her hand illuminated with chakra so she could still see, but sleep had won the fight. In the next room, Hitomi heard the snoring contest going on between Naruto and Kankurō, who could both obviously sleep despite the noise they made. A surge of affection for them warmed up her chest and she smiled as she climbed on her windowsill and slipped outside.
Gaara was sitting on the roof, his eyes searching the sky. He welcomed her with a small nod upon seeing her approach; without a word, she sat by his side, looking above too. The stars were pretty that night, intimidating in all their quiet beauty.
“I think the Desert has the prettiest sky.”
“Konohagakure’s sky is pretty, too. Peaceful.”
“I-I may be nervous about tomorrow. So many things could happen, bad things… I’m happy I don’t have to face it alone. I’m happy you’ll be there with me.”
“I’m happy too. Thanks to you, I have many things that give me a reason to live today. I wouldn’t dare imagine the person I would be if you hadn’t come to talk to me, that day in Suna.”
A peaceful silence settled between them and stretched into eternity. Their shoulders were touching, their bodies relishing in the other’s warmth. The nights were a lot milder in Konoha than in the Desert, but nothing could imitate the warmth of a friend’s presence. They had confided in each other on so many subjects through their letters; it made speaking in person almost hard. How could they find the correct words, the ones they needed, when they didn’t have time to think about them and weigh them before using them?
“You were right, you know? I loved your gyozas.”
“I told you so. And wait until you can taste the Akimichi’s. I never ate anything better than that in my life.”
They continued discussing trivialities until dawn painted the sky orange and pink. Only then did they stand up, Hitomi going one way and Gaara the other, to go back to their own room. Temari had moved during the night, her book now lost next to her legs. Hitomi used her meridians to spot the page she had read last and put a bookmark there, so her friend could pick up her reading without any difficulty. In silence, she stepped over her and threw a dressing gown over her pyjama and left the room, closing the door behind her.
She went downstairs, mingling seamlessly in the shadows and silence of the morning, and found her mother sitting at the kitchen table, a cup of tea in front of her. A smile on her lips, Hitomi greeted her with a kiss on the cheek and started working on breakfast, her hands going through the routine without engaging her mind. That way she could allow it to wander, to dwell on her plans, to make sure she hadn’t left anything out.
“Are you ready?” Kurenai asked, as if reading her thoughts.
The answer came to Hitomi, so instinctive, natural and devoid of any doubt she almost laughed in relief. “Yes, Mom, I am.”