The nest of memories crumbles from underneath my feet.

The shell that it was protecting is breaking into pieces.

The people on the other side of the narrow light

Are just like me, are just like you.

Halo Effect, Yanagi Nagi (bambooXZX translation)

At a point in time years before, a child was born into this world with a wish—a child who had a different name, once. But the second time around, the name she was given was Namikaze Namie.

Over time, others would come to know her differently.

The Ogre of the Battlefield.

The Sanbi's jinchūriki.

The Hokage's sister.

This was a child who had known death, and faced it down several times over the course of her new life.

She hadn't only known death; she knew the fate of the world at large. Of the people who had become her family. Of the people she'd grown to love and care for. The story of their lives, the near-complete information, was at her fingertips like an encyclopedia of the past, present, and future.

It was a future she could never allow to exist.

It was a future the world wanted to exist.

So, she fought to change the flow of time—and succeeded. Pierced her will deep into the ether and clawed through fate itself to dig trenches where the inevitable would split apart and forge new paths.

She created a new future.

But not alone. No, never alone. Without the friends and family at her side, none of this would have come to pass.

They created the new future. A second chance at life, for all.

The child's—Namikaze Namie's—wish had been granted.

All that remained was to pick up the pieces left behind, and to pave a clear way for the world they'd worked together to create.

Chapter One

The snow-covered hidden village of Konoha sat quiet and still, nestled at the base of four stone faces that watched over it in the midst of winter, with stars and moon shining above. Night had fallen long ago.

Most villagers were sound asleep, or preparing to burrow under warm blankets and the embrace of family or lovers until morning.

Two, maybe three, dogs yipped in the distance. Too far away from here, but the sound echoed and carried far.

No. There were no strays in this neighborhood—not in this immaculate clan compound.

No stray dogs, anyway.

Under the faint light of the moon, though, shapes and shadows shifted, shooting from cold, bare tree branches to snow-powdered rooftops. One—two—three. Four. All speeding through the night until they arrived at this particular compound, alighting on its high walls and leering into the candle-lit interiors beyond the closed shoji screens and doors.

This was the Hyūga Clan compound. And within it, a child had recently celebrated her third birthday. With her mother. Her father. Her uncle. Her cousin.

These strays were not present to bring her a belated gift, nor to impart their well wishes for many more years to come. Like sentinels, they watched. Waited. Until the final, rounded flame of candle light flickered into nothing and left the home dark. Until the final maid retired down the hallway and slid her bedroom door shut with the quiet, muffled sound of wood clacking against wood.

Until the night was silent.

Then, they moved.

One, taking off in another direction—down the street, to douse the nearest street lamps and provide even darker cover as well as provide incentive to avoid the area, should any wander by. And to keep watch, should any wanderers pass through regardless.

One, crouching down atop the wall surrounding the property.

Two, leaping down into the pure white courtyard, traveling across the snow as they crept toward the traditional silhouette of the clan's main house. Toward what slept within.

Toward what they would soon take as theirs.

There wasn't really an actual Christmas in Konoha.

But the holiday still stuck in mind, and Namie celebrated it anyway. Miho didn't care either way. Sai certainly didn't complain about random presents around the end of December. Neither did her brother's family—including the newest addition of a redheaded little girl with her father's eyes. Uzumaki Nako. Naruto's beloved baby sister by almost two years—already a firecracker, just like her brother, and a bit of a brat, to boot. Both kids, but Nako in particular, enjoyed being showered with gifts from their one and only aunt who pampered them without prompt.

No one objected to random presents at all, in fact, especially not Ueno Kasuga, or Inuzuka Toboe, or her almost-parents Harumi and Sei, whose graves never went without offerings and little trinkets that she thought they'd enjoy, so she just kept giving them as the years passed.

The day had already come and gone, but missions and meetings pushed her normal schedule back just a bit. It wasn't really a problem. All she had to do was make up for it with a quick visit to whatever shops were open past sundown.

She looked down at the paper bag held close to her chest, feeling the bumps of folded clothes and plastic chew toys within. The corner of a sketchbook poked out, too. All of that did little against the cold, though. Her breath fanned out in front of her, coiling around her in a cloud as she walked through it, and snow piled up against her closed-toe boots as she trudged forward.

The snow had stopped falling some few hours ago, and the hills that had collected along the roads would remain through the chill of the night. Probably would melt in the sunlight the next day, and sit in puddles until the dark of the evening cooled it to sleek ice.

The streetlight above flickered as she passed underneath. She stopped and watched as it burnt out completely with an abrupt and startling crackle. Looking ahead proved the others had also gone dark and cast the street in eerie shadows and muted silhouettes with long-stretching, tangled black hands and spindly fingers from property trees surrounding them. There were no apartments or businesses in this neighborhood—it was the traditional, scenic route—and no lit windows around. The only light guiding her way now was the moon above.

Half full.

She clicked her tongue and sighed quietly, pulling the crinkled shopping bag just a bit closer against the thick, cable-knit navy sweater hanging from her shoulders. It kept her warm, but not warm enough to bring on the flash of sweat that prickled all across her skin and trickled fast down her back, soaking into the shirt she wore beneath it.

No, not normal—not in this cold.

Something sharp lingered in the air, like the blade of a cleaver waiting to drop. Tense, taut. She hadn't faced combat in a while and she was probably rustier than she'd like to admit—but instincts never dulled.

The night was too quiet.

Moonlight glowed in narrowed sea-blue eyes as she scanned the area, checking the shadows for ambush. Nothing gave itself away. But, no, it wouldn't, would it? The soles of her boots crunched against the packed snow as she shifted, then took a cautious, measured step forward.

The blade dropped.

Sliced through the air where she'd been standing—would have landed a nasty wound if she hadn't jumped out of the way at the last second.

She hit the ground in a crouch and abandoned the paper bag, letting its contents scatter free across the snow. Raised her right hand as Aura's bright chakra surged across it like a wave.

Just in time to block the second sword strike.

"What the hell's this about?" she spat, sizing up her opponent as the katana pushed against her shielded hand in a back-and-forth struggle of equal force—and stopping short, breath catching in her chest. Her eyes, wide, now, darted between the grinning blue face notched with black, the bright, beady eyes shining in the moonlight, the Kirigakure plate gleaming at his forehead, and the blade in his hands. Young—he was younger than she'd ever seen him, around her age, now. And brimming with confidence. "Just a normal sword...? No—more importantly, why is someone like you in Konoha?"

"No hard feelings, but I'm on guard, here. If you wouldn't have stopped, I probably would have let you pass. But, you see, you did. Looked like you were gonna start some shit I could do without. So here we are." His voice was deep, and as rough as the sharp, serrated teeth set in his mouth. He wrenched the katana out of her grasp, briefly throwing her off-kilter, and she ducked as it slashed diagonally above her, whistling through the empty space.

A typical, traditional style—much like the one Kyouya used. Similar enough that she could predict his strikes partially, at least.

(Sometimes sparring matches paid off.)

That wasn't what worried her—it was the massive, bandage-wrapped bundle with a hilt sticking out of it that was strapped to the back of his dark flak jacket that did.

"Looks like this is an inconvenience for both of us. I have somewhere to be, so I'd really rather skip all of this," she coolly informed him before gritting her teeth and raising her chakra shield to clash with the oncoming katana once more, pushing it forward. It didn't faze him. He righted his grasp on its hilt and struck again, even as the steel blade refused to pierce through her guard. "But, shark man, if it's a fight you want, you're getting it." She bit out the last word as she shoved it back at him again, effectively disengaging the blade, and kicked up a mess of snow to conceal the heel that shot toward his knee.

It didn't connect. He moved back, and with that minute distance, she seized the opportunity to perform a series of concentrated, single-handed seals, reaching into Isobu's chakra store and spitting a clean jet of water that pierced through the air in thin, swift streams, each freezing into deadly icicle spears in the winter chill. His katana sliced through most of them, but couldn't stop the momentum. Shattered shrapnel hit the tender membranes of his eyes.

He flinched—she took the chance to run. Thought briefly about picking up the shopping bag as she passed it by, but put that aside in favor of biting into her thumb and smacking her hand against the nearest wall, leaving a short, horizontal smear of blood that spidered out into a summoning seal.

An old, grey-feathered hawk burst from a cloud of white smoke with a shrill cry, wings beating in the air alongside her as she ran. One eye stared at her, harsh, with the other covered by a black patch. His notched beak parted in a semblance of a grumpy sneer.

"Damn, sorry Takumi, I meant to summon Hisami. I need you to take a message to my brother—Kiri's here in Konoha, on attack. Don't know why. Just sound the alert! And send Kurumi, if you can. I'm not exactly equipped to handle this kind of fight right now."

Takumi scoffed, narrowing his beady eye as he took to the sky. "You're perfectly equipped for this, ya dumb kid."

She blinked, a wry grin rising to her face as she watched him go, straight and true toward the Hokage's office. "If you say so, old man. Guess it's about time to get back into the swing of things, huh?"

As soon as Takumi was out of sight, she dug her heels into the snow and turned to face her opponent, who ceased pursuit and stopped a few, measured paces away. For the first time, he seemed to take note of her short, bright blonde hair, the mole on her chin, and her missing arm. The golden chakra shield, too—he connected the dots.

But not before Isobu's chakra surged across her form, cloaking her in a blazing film of pure energy, sprouting three tails, with one where her left arm would be.

"Shit," he began oh-so-eloquently, sharp shark teeth bared into something resembling a grimace or a sardonic grin. "Of all the people to run into in Konoha. The Ogre of the Battlefield and a jinchūriki. Must be my lucky day!" That wasn't dread—that was amusement. Adrenaline thrill. He tossed the normal katana into one of the snowbanks that flanked them and reached for the hilt of the second sword on his person. Barely a blade at all, large and misshapen, like a beast, wrapped head to hilt in clean, white bandages.


"I probably should've mentioned one of the Seven Swordsmen of the Mist is present," Namie said to herself, eyeing the great sword with a glare, well aware of its dangers. Tailed beast chakra versus a chakra parasite—this couldn't be a close-combat kind of fight anymore. She spoke to him, next, never taking her attention from him and that damned beast of a weapon. "But—who hired you? I wasn't aware you were a mercenary group. What poor bastard is stupid enough to sneak into Konoha?"

"This isn't mercenary work," he refuted, returning the cautious observation and not yet making a move. Biding his time, maybe. Figuring out how to best use his sword's advantage against her. "I'm surprised you had to ask. Did you have no idea Kirigakure sent an alliance envoy to meet with your Hokage brother recently?"

"Doesn't look like much of an alliance to me."

"Looks like it won't be, either, since you had to go and blow the whistle, Ogre."

She huffed an annoyed breath at the unpleasant nickname. "People usually run when their plan fails. What's keeping you here, Hoshigaki Kisame?"

"I didn't think I was that well-known in other countries, yet. I'm a little flattered." His sharp teeth met in a grin. He readjusted the hilt of the sword in his grip and readied to lunge as he watched the Sanbi's three lashing tails still. "But things are still going according to plan. Just a little earlier than expected."

The snow at his feet exploded in a powdery burst as he shot forward, giving her no time to process his words. No, with that speed, she had to focus fully on evading, on diving away and landing in a crouch just as Samehada's wrapped scales slammed through the space she'd barely escaped, dragging away a fraction of Isobu's chakra easier than tearing cobwebs free from tree branches.

She felt it.

The sole of Kisame's sandal then struck out and caught her square in the side, but no sooner knocked her off-balance than one of her armored tails cut through the fabric of his black pants and dug into flesh with the clawed end, swiping out a good chunk of meat and blood.

Then, as that leg crumpled, no longer able to support him fully, Samehada came down with a roar, ready to devour. Namie had no time to move—raised her tail-arm and let the hit make contact, sacrificing that chakra to the leech as she pushed back and dashed away to put distance between them once again.

The sword pulsed—writhed. Grew. The bandages split apart, shredded into nothing as Samehada's sharpened scales cut through and it squirmed its way free, straining against its hilt and almost wailing as a drooling maw lined with fangs burst out. As a tongue moved between those fangs, still coated in drool, dripping with it, and tasted the air.

A shudder rippled through her. Whatever that thing was, it was an abomination. A true monster.

And it wanted to eat her alive.

Kisame laughed as he kept a firm grip on the hilt, teeth glaring in the moonlight as he spoke. "How unfortunate. Looks like Samehada's got a taste for turtle. It's too bad I have to keep you alive. But…she hasn't had a feast in a while, so let her have some fun, would you?"

Namie checked her left side, briefly. Noted that the tail was gone: completely sucked away. One direct hit siphoned a full third of Isobu's manifested chakra—two-thirds remained. A little less, considering the small bit it stole before. If it all drained out… Her chakra shield would be out of the question. Close combat was a definite no go. Earth Release could only get her so far, and he was a water nature affinity himself…

She patted her thigh with her right hand, quickly. No weapons. Not even a spare explosive tag.

Still no mallet, either.

Well, so much for being well equipped for a fight against a chakra vacuum monster.

The heel of her boot slid against the frozen ground just slightly as she shifted her weight back.

Kisame watched, beady eyes completely smug, anticipating retaliation which he'd only thwart with his beastly sword. "I have to say, Ogre, you're a little underwhelming. Back during the war, I always hoped we'd cross paths. Now, I'm glad we never did. I'd be bored to death."

Perhaps he thought provoking her would lure her into close proximity—it didn't.

The smirk dropped from his face as she turned on her heel and ran.

Returning to a tactical retreat was her best option, at this point. And he wouldn't make it easy—that much, she expected. Didn't realize how true it was until a thick, chasing mist wrapped around her like smoke and obscured her vision and made every blind, running step she took unreliable.

Something whistled through the air—split through the mist and sliced into her side as she tried to dodge it. Another nicked her shoulder, cutting through fabric to skin. Another sliced into her thigh.

The cuts stung—weren't any worse than papercuts, but they ached, like hooks digging into her skin and pulling. Pulling something…

She looked down at the blood smeared flesh of her thumb, where she'd bit into it for summoning her hawks, and her eyes shot open as she saw golden-orange wisps seeping away from the tiny, open wound.


Around her, the mist sapped at her chakra, funneling it straight into Samehada's maw like some kind of fucked up straw.

She clicked her tongue. Grit her teeth, and stuffed away Isobu's chakra before any more could be taken. Focused her own chakra into her right arm, performing a quick series of one-handed seals to summon up a colossal mound of earth—grabbing onto its edge as the craggy wall rose up and out of the mist, arcing high through the air and taking her to safety.

As the mist swirled, dissipated like clouds broken through and brought her back into the cleared night with the moon returning a light source to her, she released the edge of the wall. Free-fell through the air until her feet hit the roof of a tall apartment building—the beginning of the village's urban center. Well away from the historical compound neighborhood.

No pursuer in sight.

Namie clutched at the chain-link fence lining the rooftop eaves and sucked in a few shallow breaths as she scanned the horizon, from the twisting earthen wall out of place, to the buildings neighboring this one, and then dropped her gaze to the streets, where nothing stirred.

Not immediately—but, then, she could see shadows moving. Blurring through the night as they body-flickered from rooftop to rooftop, heading in the same direction she'd just escaped.

ANBU. A response unit. Right on time.

Then—a presence flared up at her side, and a heavy hand moved through the air.

She gnashed her teeth, like a beast cornered, and turned red, half-human eyes filled with intent to murder to the shinobi as their hand froze a scant distance away from her chakra-cloaked shoulder, halted by both it and her glare.

"Obito!" She breathed out the name in relief, pure delight. Isobu's chakra slowly faded back in again as she leaned fully against the fence, afraid her shaking legs would fail her at any second as the adrenaline still surged and chakra exhaustion set in. "Goddamn, you scared me for a sec."

"I didn't think anything could scare you, Namie-senpai," he said with a slight smile, exhaling away the brief, heart-stopping alarm from only moments ago and finally resting a warm hand on her shoulder. He spoke to her, but his Sharingan reflected red as he stared out across Konoha, toward where the other ANBU had gone. Maybe checking to see what had chased her so far. To see if it was still around. "But, uh, let's get you some help. Get you outta here. You're lucky I happened to be on duty tonight. And—I guess it's a good thing I was the one who saw you. Anyone else might've gotten pretty beaten up, with the way you looked…"

She stared at him with lips pressed into a thin line, searching for a different answer, as he scratched at his spiky black hair—grown out, again, to a normal length that suited him as a teenager—and then pulled the white ANBU cat mask squashing it down back over his scarred face.

He opened a link into Kamui that sucked them both in—and a moment later, deposited them at the administration building, in the well-lit hallway outside the Hokage's office. The door flung open wide, as soon as their feet hit the carpet—and out walked Minato, a little tired, but hiding the shadows under his eyes pretty well with a serious glower, fully-decked out in his scarlet-trimmed Hokage cloak and Konoha forehead protector. He'd kept the long hair from their outlaw days, and it hung in a low, loose ponytail at the base of his neck. The bangs, though, he kept the same, spiking out around his face as they always had.

"I was naïve. Kiri fooled me with an alliance treaty, but I wanted to believe this was a step in the right direction and it blinded me…" He sighed, running a weary hand across his face as he gestured them into the office with the other. "But you're alright, and that's more than I can ask for. I sent Kakashi to guard Kushina just in case, and Rin's studying late with Tsunade tonight. Everyone is in good hands."

"Everyone wants to believe peace is the end goal, here. They're in the wrong; not you." Namie shook her head as they followed him in. "But I don't think that's what they were here for. Not totally. I ran into a guy called Hoshigaki Kisame, one of the Seven Swordsmen of the Mist—he didn't even know who I was until I showed the tails."

"They were around the Hyūga compound," Obito added, pushing his mask up and away from his face once again so his voice rang clear.

"Hyūga?" Namie repeated, quiet. Put her hand to her head and tried to recall something, anything, about the name that wasn't just related to a certain, sweet and bashful little purple-haired girl and the Byakugan. But, then again, wasn't that the most important aspect, here? "Wait—how old is Hinata?"

"Hinata? The clan head's daughter? She's two—no, three—today. They celebrated her birthday. I sent a gift," the last sentence was a bit strained, and a pinch of exhaustion showed in his face at the mere mention of the clan. She didn't really blame him—they were a whole hot mess as far as the old ways went.

"Hyūga Clan…Hinata…three… No, but—wasn't that Kumo? Why is Kiri here? What kind of connection does Kirigakure have to the Hyūga? The Byakugan?"

Minato watched her carefully as he leaned against his desk, arms crossed. "One was stolen during the last war—a Byakugan. The shinobi who took it was never identified and fled back to their country. Hiashi has lobbied for reparations for years, but we're in no position to make demands… Did it bring back a memory?"

She nodded. "There's something about Hinata being kidnapped as a child. I think by Kumo. I don't remember why, but—" She paused and exhaled, closing her eyes in annoyance. "It's always a kidnapping, isn't it…? Shit. I wish I could've mentioned this sooner."

"It's not your fault. There was already so much you told us. But—we should go to the Hyūga Clan's main house and meet up with the ANBU unit I dispatched. Just to be safe. I can't let a child of Konoha, or one of its dōjutsu, fall into the wrong hands."

"If you'd have said that the other way around, I would've worried. But, let's go." She held her blood-smeared hand out, fully expecting him to take her along with the Flying Thunder God transport, but he only watched her with a slightly apologetic expression before vanishing in a flash. Obito, too, swirled away into Kamui with nothing but a sorry-but-you're-not-coming-along-looking-like-that glance her way.

"Yeah, okay, I know I look like crap, but couldn't you have at least dropped me off at Mom's or Kushina's or something…?"

As it was, she was left behind. Alone, tired, and lacking quite a few Christmas gifts that hadn't exactly been cheap.

Minato and Obito arrived at much the same time—through stacking space-time techniques, with Obito stamped with the Flying Thunder God Seal that allowed Minato an access point as soon as he stepped out of Kamui. Knowing kunai could get lost or taken, or thrown away and used and broken in the midst of battle, it was a backup plan he utilized only with those who volunteered—which happened to be most of his family. Obito, Kakashi, Rin, Namie, Kushina, Naruto and Nako. Just in case anyone got kidnapped.

Unfortunately, it didn't extend to village clan members.

The doors to the traditionally immaculate clan property were wide open to allow them through, and a hog-masked ANBU and three Hyūga stood nearby, some shivering in the snow, some warming themselves with chakra. Others poked their heads out from their rooms, watching from the porches, and closer to the main house, Hiashi and his twin brother—perfectly identical, and not only in looks, but temperament as well—stood among two other ANBU who discussed the issue, remaining calm even in the face of the distraught clan leader.

Dealing with the Hyūga clan was never easy. This, he knew well, not only from conversations with his old genin teammate Ayase, but also clan politics that he became familiarized with upon taking up the Hokage mantle. And now—now, with this infiltration and proposed kidnapping or almost-kidnapping riling them, it'd be even less pleasant.

As he and Obito approached, with the latter joining his fellow ANBU, all eyes turned to him.

"I'm pleased to see that you are taking this matter seriously, Hokage-sama," Hiashi said dryly, jaw set rigid in barely-concealed anger as he turned to face him, ice-pale eyes narrowed. Not a composed as he would usually be, but still speaking with thinly-veiled sarcasm. "My child has been taken right from her bed and these buffoons have nothing to say on the matter of pursuit."

Despite his words, he didn't seem largely concerned about the child herself—but the fact that she'd been stolen away from his home. The fact that criminals had infiltrated his home and taken something that was his. The fact that there were so many shinobi with Byakugan present, and yet…

"This is in no way a coincidence, with Kirigakure's current visit. You allowed those barbarians into this village—and the moment you look away, they do nothing but bring trouble." As he spoke, four Hyūga armed and dressed for combat arrived at his side, and upon closer inspection, Hizashi had donned his forehead protector—as if ready to pursue the captors themselves. "This is now a clan matter. We will take care of our own."

It took everything he had to keep his expression neutral. "Stand down, Hiashi. I came here so you wouldn't have to trouble yourself. We'll bring your daughter back, and whoever is responsible for this will be dealt with appropriately. We don't have to make a war of it."

"The Byakugan must not be taken again."

"Right… I understand. We'll bring the Byakugan back. Your daughter won't be harmed."

That said, he nodded to Obito, whose Mangekyō glinted behind the eyehole of his squinty-eyed, grinning cat mask. Already seeking out a familiar chakra signature, and a series that were fleeing. He took off immediately, and the two ANBU followed.

"I'll allow it. But be aware, Yondaime-sama, that if my clan's dōjutsu is taken once again, I will retaliate against the thieves with or without your sanction."

Minato cast one final glance at Hiashi before disappearing in a flash to join the search and return Hinata to her home.

Maybe her mother would be happy to see her, in any case.

He caught up to Obito and the others without delay—they already had a lead on the Kiri kidnappers, if the direction they were headed toward was anything to go by.

Out of the village.

"How many?" he asked the cat-masked Obito as he landed on the same branch at his side before they both leapt from it in perfect synch.

"Five, minus the kid. They're not too far ahead, but if they speed up any, I might lose 'em. But—there's something weird about one of their chakra signatures. It's just like Namie's. And it doesn't seem like it's exactly a person—it's not moving like the others. It's stationary, and shaped like…a sword?"

"She did say one of the Seven Swordsmen of the Mist was present. We'll have to exercise caution."

"Yeah, and—wait. Two stopped!"

No sooner than Obito sounded the alert did a volley of shuriken halt their advance.

The two ANBU accompanying them stepped in immediately to intercept the attack and engage the enemy so he and Obito could continue on. Masked men clashed with masked men in a flurry of tantō blades singing as they sliced through the air.

"They're close," Obito said, ducking down from the treetops and returning to the bare, dirt ground, already well beyond Konoha. Minato remained above, and nodded to him as they split up, one shadowing the other.

He continued running, and when he entered a clearing free of tangled branches overhead, the Kiri nin stood, waiting.

One, a blue-skinned man with a behemoth of a sword strapped to his back, and another, a man with a single eye and swept-up blue hair held up by his Kiri forehead protector. In the latter's arms was Hinata, fainted—or just put to sleep with genjutsu to keep her compliant. Bundled up in warm pajamas, at least, and held close to the man's flak jacket to prevent the cold from reaching her. At least they were somewhat considerate.

All chakra signatures were accounted for.

Obito stepped forward, red eye glinting from the only eyehole of the winking cat mask. "Give back the kid and you'll get out of here alive."

"Says one, single shinobi from Konoha," the blue-skinned man said, tone full of mocking as his shark-like teeth glinted in the moonlight.

"I'm more than enough," he said, and it was true. He didn't need a tantō, or a kunai, or shuriken. On his own, he was a one-man army. All he needed was that eye, and the skills brought on by that cell-infused body of his. He'd honed them well over the years.

"He's biding time. He wouldn't attack and endanger the child," the man with the eyepatch said, his other eye watching him shrewdly, narrowed and crinkling at the edges with stress lines. That, and the gauntness to his face revealed that he was the oldest present, and the coolheaded behavior revealed he was likely the leader of this operation.

Minato couldn't remember seeing either present during the alliance meeting—no, a young woman had been at the helm of the operation, along with four nondescript shinobi that could have included these two and the two previous masked nin, under careful disguise.

Worst case scenario, though, would involve backup. At least five others could be joining them, soon.

"Right, right. The kid—y'know, I didn't think this involved taking a kid, by the way. She's so little! This's probably gonna traumatize her for life."

"Not if our demands are met swiftly."

"Demands—yeah. Hey," the shark-toothed man called across the clearing to Obito, "you should know, this won't be a hostage situation for much longer if you agree to a trade. One of your jinchūriki for the Hyūga girl. Specifically, the blonde one. We have some unfinished business."

"Kisame," the man at his side chided, displeased by his handling of the matter, and also giving him a name. "Focus on the main objective."

"That's out of the question." Obito didn't even have to consider the offer—it was bullshit, and they knew it.

"Look, we're being generous, here. We could ask for the Kyūbi, but—well, that's just plain stupid, and we both know it. But—the Sanbi was held by Kirigakure before it mysteriously switched hands and ended up with your village. Getting a Byakugan user in return for that is payment enough. In fact, we could leave right here, right now, and be no worse off. So, alright. I'll take that back. We'll accept either of the Sanbi's jinchūriki in return for this child."

"Why just one? What'll keep you from coming back for the other?"

"Loss of the element of surprise, for one."

"And on the topic of surprise, we're aware the Yellow Flash is present, hiding in the trees." The blue-haired man smirked, eyes trained directly at Minato—almost meeting his, in fact. "Or should I say the Yondaime Hokage."

There was no point in setting up an ambush, now. Minato appeared at Obito's side in a flourish of his red and white cloak and narrowed his eyes, staring them down. "You must be the one who stole one of our shinobi's Byakugan. Funny that you're trying to make demands when you're the ones who owe this village." He smiled, without kindness. "Or, we could chalk this up to an even trade, and you'll return that child to us. A tailed beast for a dōjutsu is a decent trade. Looks like both sides of it have already been fulfilled."

"I find it hard to believe you'd be so generous. That, and, we have our orders."

"Of course. I didn't think it would be so easy. The damage has already been done, from kidnapping that child to attacking my sister."

In other words, this was no longer a trade, but a showdown.

Obito understood his cue.

A three-pronged kunai and Wood Release branches launched toward the two Kiri shinobi simultaneously, one in a straight line toward the man holding Hinata and the other chasing across the ground in jagged tendrils toward Kisame.

The Byakugan thief saw it coming—avoided the grab Minato made for the child.

But he couldn't avoid Obito appearing in his blind spot through Kamui, at his feet, no less, and starting up a whirling void to suck him straight into the dimension. He faltered—his hold loosened on the child. Minato made a second grab for her as the man fell victim to Kamui as a captive, and flashed away and out of the proximity of the technique before he and Hinata got caught up in it as well.

He reappeared in one of the trees he'd been hiding in before, hand set on a kunai that had been stuck into the thick trunk of one only moments before.

Now, only Kisame remained.

But he was smart enough to know when he was outclassed. He clicked his tongue, full of bitterness and with teeth gnashed, but turned and fled—and in his wake erupted a bursting cloud of mist to conceal his retreat.

It wouldn't protect him from the Mangekyō Sharingan.

Obito started after him—but paused mid-lunge, with one foot forward, when Minato hailed him down.

"Leave him," he said, jumping carefully from the treetops with Hinata held warmly in his arms and behind the safety of his cloak. Her small nose was beginning to look awfully red from the cold. "We have his partner. Whether one, or none, return to Kiri, we'll be hearing from them again regardless."

Obito straightened up and rolled one of his shoulders before running a weary hand through his spiky hair. A deep sigh sounded from behind his mask, puffing out into the frozen air through the nose holes. "So they're finally cashing in on our possession of the Sanbi, huh? I honestly thought they'd never get around to it, with as long as they took."

"I expect those Kirigakure envoys that were in on this hoax have made themselves scarce, too. I suppose the fact that we've agreed to an alliance was a preventative measure against immediate retaliation. In fact, I wouldn't put it past them to flat out ask for a jinchūriki as a show of goodwill. It's always about sharing the wealth, isn't it…?" He frowned as he looked away from the treeline, where Kisame had escaped, and sighed. "I'll get Hinata back to her family. You go alert the T&I division that you've captured an enemy."

At the very least, Hyūga Hiashi would be pleased to learn they'd finally found the infamous shinobi who'd thieved away his clan's Byakugan.

Namie didn't leave the administration building. She left her brother's office, certainly, because waiting there felt way too awkward when no one else was around, especially since that office had never been the stage of pleasant memories. Instead, she paced in the hallway outside the doors, half-considering summoning Kurumi to fly her back to that neighborhood so she could maybe pick up a rematch against that damned shark creep, this time appropriately prepared.

…Or, just to take her home. It had already been quite the night. Heading straight to sleep would be just great right about now, under normal circumstances.

But none of this was normal.

Minato returned soon enough. She saw him land in a crouch in the center of his office, through the doors that had remained open. When he spotted her, he all but rolled his eyes—she definitely caught that. Then, he put a hand to his head and massaged his left temple as an exasperation headache no doubt set in. Without a word, he waved her in, turning his back to head to the other side of his desk and collapse in his comfortable-looking not-quit throne.

"What? I was worried," she defended feebly, shrugging a shoulder as she shut the door behind her and approached his desk.

"You need rest. What did that Kiri Swordsman do to you?"

"Right—that guy was Hoshigaki Kisame. Future member of the Akatsuki—once upon a time. That ugly sword of his is a chakra-eating monster and it took a few mouthfuls of mine. Other than that, he didn't really do a number on me. Say anything else about it and I might get offended," she huffed, setting her right hand on her hip. Her voice softened. "Is Hinata okay…?"

"She's fine. They didn't harm a hair on her head. I would say her family is beyond overjoyed to have her returned, but you know how they are. Even her mother was a bit standoffish… I think I saw a maid carrying her back to her room while the adults conferred."

"Yeah, the Hyūga bigwigs are jerks. Nothing new there. Maybe I'll look into adopting the kid so she doesn't have to grow up with their icy bullshit."

"Namie, you can't adopt every kid facing hardship."

"Just watch me."

This type of conversation wasn't new—but he was right. No matter what she said, she didn't exactly have the means to care for a number of children, and with the jinchūriki unification project taking up her time and sending her away from Konoha soon, she didn't have much time to spend with Sai, either.

(Tried to make up for it with lots of presents and kindness, though.)

"…We were pretty lucky growing up, weren't we?" Minato asked as a small, fond smile worked its way to his face.

"Yeah…we're lucky Mom cares so much."

Namie watched him as he continued to idly knead at his forehead, staring down at the papers stacked neatly across his desk. Not many—he was fairly diligent, as far as paperwork went, and liked to keep it to a manageable level. Mainly because he, unlike the elderly Sandaime, was still a common fixture on the field, actively taking part in Konoha's dealings. Much like tonight's event.

"You need rest, too," she said lightly, knowing hearing things like that just stressed him out—but she could say the same. They'd had their share of rest during the past few years.

As much rest as raising children could provide, anyway. She only had the one to worry about (and, god, she never wanted to change another dirty diaper again ever), but he had two. And unlike his predecessor, he played an active role in his family's life, as well. Sometimes, he took care of Naruto and Nako in this very office, entertaining them in the midst of his duties.

Shit. He had so much to balance in his life that it was a wonder he managed to keep up with everything and not fall over exhausted or god forbid work himself to death. Adaptation was one hell of a talent.

"So—hear me out. I'll help you, full-time. Until this whole Kiri thing blows over."

"Namie…you know you can't do that. I appreciate it, I really do, but next month you're scheduled to meet with the Kazekage in Suna. It can't be pushed back again. I have others I can rely on—I do, I just…don't ask for help often enough."

"Well, better make a habit of it. You'll need it, since peace time is apparently over."

"Dammit… I know." At length, he looked up and met her stare before rolling his eyes at her smug expression. "By the way, you were wrong. Their objective was to trade Hinata for a jinchūriki." She shrugged, noncommittal, but his intent wasn't to rub it in her face in a told-you-so way. No, that wasn't his style. "It's a good thing you are leaving the country, soon. In fact—that Kisame might come after you again to make up for tonight's blunder. I'm assigning you a guard." Saying so, he shuffled through the documents on his desk, pulled a few files out and then reached to one of the drawers at his side.

Any other time, she'd reject that. But, even well-prepared, that chakra-chomper Samehada was the very bane of her existence. "Who?"

"Kakashi, of course." He jotted something down on the papers in front of him, and then unrolled a scroll. Considered it, scribbled something else down, then rolled it up. "Now, I have to figure out how to deal with this mess… Goodnight, Namie." His words held an inarguable finality.

This time, she left.

NOTES: Let's get this show on the road, then. Welcome to the continuation of Laterality! If you're new, you can probably read along without having read Laterality first, but if you'd like to catch up and have all the nitty gritty details, check my profile for the preceding fic. If you're a returner, it's good to have you back. Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed the start!

IMPORTANT: This fic has moved to Archive of Our Own and will only update there. My username is Peccolia there, too. Please go to AO3 to continue reading this fic.