Two words: writer's block.

Absolutely infuriating when I know what I want to write but I can't express it properly and then I start agonizing over whether or not I'm moving too fast or too slow and have I introduced this idea yet or is it too early? And then there's school — Australia is under a six-week Stage 4 lock down, but outcomes and SACs are still pouring in and of course I just had to take the hardest subjects ever... trying to be productive but not work so hard I burn out (mostly succeeding) but still a worst time ever to get into an anime binge, huh?

Also, to address a very repeated question among readers: Will we be seeing the jinchuuriki family's reaction to the Sasuke kiss? Well honestly, I don't really see why Naruko would bring that up in front of her family, especially since at this stage she's not exactly observant or aware when it comes to romance. I know I definitely wasn't when I was thirteen. We will be seeing the reactions of the jinchuuriki on the possibility of a budding SasuNaru relationship, but it isn't my main focus right now. I'm more of a best-friend-turned-lover and slow burn type of girl, so sorry for any readers out there who wanted instant puppy-love.

Anyways... sorry for being gone for so long... here's some more jinchuuriki family fluff :)

"It's time."

"Are sure they are ready?"

"They have to be."

"I know... but still, I can't help but worry. What of the youngest?"

"She is well on her way to where the others are. No harm will come to her."

"And the second-youngest?"

"I can personally verify she is ready, as well."

"So we are all in agreement, then?"

"One more round!"

Naruko bit back a retort as she launched into a sprint, racing to catch up with Sasuke. Due to her "inhuman" stamina and endurance levels coupled with all the speed-centered training she had gone through in preparation for using the Hiraishin, Sasuke had found her to be the ideal trainer, since he was starting to focus more on speed as well. Naruko had more than a slight inkling as to what was spurring her teammate into pushing himself so hard these days — back then, it was his belief that, had he been faster, he might've been able to stop Itachi. But now, it was different... a new factor had come into play, and Naruko wasn't sure what it was and thus didn't know how to deal with it properly. Her best chance right now was to support Sasuke, and beat him back to his senses if he went too far... which he was starting to do more and more often.

Currently the two were racing around the training ground in a rather prolonged game of Tag. It was a fun way of training suggested by Naruko a week ago. Sasuke had initially scoffed at it until the Uchiha discovered the amount of times he was "it" was far more numerous than Naruko. He also discovered that, while Naruko's speed was impressive to begin with, her ability to continue running at top speed for long periods of time was what usually gave her the upper hand. And not to mention the absolutely ridiculous way she kept slipping out of his grasp like some sort of eel. But it had been fun, the Uchiha had to admit.

Seeing a flash of yellow at the corner of his eye, Sasuke swerved sharply and forced his legs to move faster. Dimly, he was aware of his environment darkening similarly to as if he were in the middle of a storm, despite a blindingly-white light surrounding him. He was slowly catching up to the blur of yellow and orange in front of him, and with an extra burst of speed, he launched forward and tackled her to the ground.


Sasuke blinked and scrambled off his teammate, who looked a little... burnt? He blinked again in confusion, looking around him. His eyes widened when he saw his arm was covered in light blue chakra, translucent when above his appendages but materializing into miniature lightning bolts, the sparks of electricity racing across his skin and reaching out to touch, to burn, to destroy.

"Well colour me impressed," Naruko remarked as she sat up.

"What... did I do?" Sasuke blinked, flexing is fingers.

"Looks like A's Lightning Armour Mode... or whatever he calls it," Naruko observed.

Sasuke suddenly remembered her injuries, and realized he had unconsciously activated his Sharingan. Deactivating his dojutsu and pulling back the chakra wrapped around him, the dark-haired boy hurried over and knelt down beside her. Her kimono and socks had been burnt away in a few places, revealing scorched skin. He grimaced, "Sorry, Naruko. I didn't mean to do that."

Naruko shot him a dry look, "You wrapped yourself in lightning and full-on tackled me, and you expect me to get away unscathed?"

Sasuke smirked, "Well, with your superior speed and protective fire... yes, I did." He grinned to himself when Naruko suddenly let out a soft squawk of surprise when he abruptly lifted her into his arms and started walking over to Sakura, who was sprawled in the grass and making a daisy chain with Hinata, who presumably arrived sometime during their spar.

"W-What are you doing?" Naruko exclaimed, her cheeks reddening in embarrassment.

Sasuke smirked down at her, "You're not walking when your body resembles a used match... genius." His smirk only widened when Naruko grumbled but conceded. The pain wasn't bad and had somewhat lessened to a dull throb, but then again neither of them knew the consequences of having someone tackled by a lightning-covered shinobi.

Sakura had jumped up when she saw Sasuke heading their way, and amusement mixed with the kind of irritated annoyance that had Sasuke ducking his head for fear of her wrath. "Who was the genius this time?" she demanded, hurrying over. "And I don't mean it literally, so wipe that catty smirk off your face this instant, Uchiha."

"I'm fine," Naruko dragged out exaggeratedly, despite knowing it would do nothing to soothe her medic-friend's mother-hen-like fussing. "Kurama will take care of it soon enough... I hope," she muttered under her breath. Her tenant had been surprisingly quiet for the last few days, and while it wasn't unusual due to the amount of sleep Kurama just had to have, she was admittedly getting slightly worried as the days dragged on without her hearing a snarky comeback or insult.

"Itai!" Naruko yelped as she was slapped over the head; she turned to see Sakura pouting and Hinata giggling into her hand. "What's the big idea?"

"That damn Bijuu of yours won't let me heal you!" she complained, pointing at a previously-burnt calf that now looked as marred as a newborn baby's skin. "What's the point in being the team medic if you don't even need me?" she continued, a pout on her face.

Naruko sweatdropped, "But isn't that a good thing...?"

Sasuke snorted, moving over to land a hand on Sakura's head. "Hey in case you've forgotten, our team has more than one reckless shinobi on it. Kakashi-sensei and I do exist as well, so... uh, you know..." Sasuke looked away with a light dusting to his pale cheeks, "...we need you."

Sakura beamed happily as Hinata and Naruko exchanged amused looks. "Awwww, Naruko look at that, our little emo recluse has grown so much!" she cooed, tackling the Uchiha to the ground in a hug. "My little baby~ you grew up when my back was turned, didn't you?"

"Sakura, stop that!" Sasuke whined, wriggling in her vice-like grip even though he made no real attempt to get her off. "Just because you're four months older than me—!"

Naruko and Hinata laughed at the poor Uchiha's predicament as Sakura continued to "blubber" over him like a proud mother. "Okay, Sakura I think that's enough teasing," Naruko said at last as she pulled herself together. "Let's go get Ichiraku's, ne?"

"Finally," Sasuke shuddered as he slipped out of Sakura's loosened grasp and ran to hide behind Hinata, glaring suspiciously at his female teammates as they giggled over something together. "I may have to transfer to your team, Hinata," he whispered to the heiress, "their combined antics are driving me nuts."

"Aww, but you'd miss Naruko, wouldn't you?" Hinata said lightly.

Sasuke stared at her for a long minute, and then narrowed his eyes slightly. "I don't have time for that sort of thing."

"Why not?" Hinata asked with the same innocence, tugging his arm warmer so they fell a little behind Sakura and Naruko, who were bouncing around and giggling as they made their way to the favoured ramen stall. "You're not chasing after Itachi anymore, right?"

Sasuke frowned slightly. "Not for the same reasons," he admitted, "but I still want to see and talk to him. Find out everything that led to him making that decision, and why. So in a way... I guess I am still chasing after him." He added under his breath, "Just like I've done my whole life."

If Hinata heard, she didn't say anything. "There's more to it, isn't there?"

Sasuke hesitated, eyeing Hinata. Besides Naruko, the Hyuuga heiress was his best friend. Their meeting and time as friends in the Academy had been brief, but they continued their friendship beyond the Academy, even when they were sorted into different Genin teams. Hinata had been one of the girls he had never bothered to look twice at, deeming her to be unfit shinobi material from the very start. Of course, that had changed when he actually got to know the girl, and with his and Naruko's regular presence and influence, Hinata had slowly become more confident and sure of herself as she grew, both as a person and a kunoichi. She was one of the very few people Sasuke felt comfortable around, which meant she could be trusted... right? Besides, it wasn't as if he could talk to Naruko about this; it did concern her, after all.

"I can't protect her."

Hinata hummed, not outwardly showing any extreme reaction. That was one of the things Sasuke liked the most about her: she was thoughtful, logical, and took everything with a neutral perspective so her own emotions and opinions didn't affect her judgement. "For the sake of not sounding like your therapist... can I guess why you think that?" At the hesitant nod, Hinata began to unravel Sasuke's simple statement. "You and Naruko have been friends for quite a while now, so you could be afraid of losing the relationship you already have. But given your statement, you seem to think you are... unworthy of her? You always strove to be better than anyone else, and it showed when you were the Rookie of the Year. You aced every written exam, trumped every spar and taijutsu and shurikenjutsu test. But when it really mattered..." Hinata's voice softened, "you couldn't protect what you cared about the most. In the Forest of Death, and with Naruko's recent kidnapping."

Sasuke didn't even look surprised; Hinata was more observant than she let on. "It brought back memories of that night," he confessed in quieter tone than Hinata had ever heard from the dark-haired avenger. "If I can't protect what matters to me, then what kind of shinobi am I?"

"You are a shinobi, yes, but a Genin," Hinata answered simply. "Not an ANBU or Jonin, or even a Chuunin. How heavy the weight you carry depends on you." Hinata turned her eyes forward to where Naruko was laughing as Sakura tripped over a patch of weeds in a fit of excitement about something they had been talking about. "Look at your teammates. See how they laugh? They're the same as you. They've seen the darkness the world has to offer, all of the ugliness and misery, and still do not let it taint their lives. You should do the same."

Sasuke shook his head. "They are different," he insisted. "You said they have seen the darkness the world has to offer. I am darker than that. Forgive the poetic words, but someone as dark as I am does not belong with people as bright as they are."

"That is only what you tell yourself," Hinata said quietly. "From what I've seen, you fit in perfectly to the point where Team 7 would not be Team 7 without you. Or Sakura, or Naruko." Hinata lifted her arms above her head, stretching them to the sky. "All this talk of darkness and unworthiness is so depressing. Let's finish it off on a happier note: you like Naruko more than a friend, and you know it so don't even think about lying to my face, Uchiha. Whatever feelings you have, it's up to you whether or not you choose to let it grow or leave it as is. Besides," Hinata gave a sigh of long-suffering, "Naruko is as oblivious as they come..."

Sasuke snorted. "Understatement. Of. The. Year." He paused, "I don't like her that way. And—"

Hinata interrupted gently, "You don't, or you won't?"

Sasuke paused, eyeing the dark-haired heiress before shaking his head, refusing to answer. Instead he continued, "I still stand by what I said: I don't have time for that sort of thing. Even if I did..." A muscle feathered in Sasuke's jaw as an unidentifiable emotion flashed in his eyes. "I still have to get stronger, so nothing like that ever happens again."

Hinata bit her lip as she watched the Uchiha's pace quicken until he was right behind his female teammates. She watched as Sasuke's hands shot out to poke Naruko's sides, eliciting a startled squeal from the blonde as she whirled around to glare indignantly at Sasuke, who was smirking as if he hadn't just had a rather dark talk with the Hyuuga heiress. Hinata continued to watch as she followed behind at a slower pace; she didn't like the tone Sasuke had adopted when he said he needed to get stronger. For a moment, he had sounded much too like the boy focused on the single path of revenge. The boy he had been before meeting Naruko. He seemed so set on being stronger than he already was, and Hinata didn't even need the Byakugan to see that Sasuke had his sight set on a single path. Hinata hated to think Sasuke was somehow reverting back to that kind of thinking... and hated it even more when she realized the root of it was not Itachi or some crooked rogue, but his fear of losing the ones he held close to him. He had opened up to her, yes, but he had been subtly guarded the whole time, as if to ensure that nothing slipped through that wasn't meant to be heard. Sasuke had gone through the kind of loss no one his age should, and it had scarred him forever. The mere thought of losing all he had managed to gain after that loss had the potential to drive him to doing something drastic to ensure he would never go through that kind of hurt again...

Hinata could only hope Naruko would be there to knock some sense into him, if that event ever did occur.

"Hinata~ what are you being so slow for? Come on, I'm hungry!" The heiress jumped as an arm looped through hers; Naruko had seen her friend's leisurely pace and doubled back to catch her up to speed. The wide grin on her whiskered face had Hinata smiling instinctively back. Her pale eyes flickered momentarily to Sasuke and Sakura, who were waiting patiently for them to catch up. Sasuke's perpetually bored expression was in place, as per usual.

Hinata turned her eyes back to Naruko. "Right, sorry... I was just lost in thought." Her smile grew as Naruko left her side once the Hyuuga came to stand beside Sakura, only to jump on Sasuke's back, effectively startling him out of his daydreaming. Sasuke half-heartedly complained to his teammate that she had interrupted his "thinking time", to which Naruko cheekily replied that he must have been trespassing in unfamiliar territory, then.

No... Hinata hoped with everything that she had and was that there never would be such a time.

"Kit. Wake up."

At the soft, rumbling voice that called her, Naruko opened her eyes to find herself sitting in her mindscape. She let out a quiet sigh; she had turned in early and hoped to get a full night's rest for once in her life, but apparently Kurama had other ideas. Seeing as she would get nowhere if she were to stay, Naruko got up and silently made her way towards the cave that housed the fox.

"So now you choose to contact me," was the first thing Naruko said when she finally saw Kurama for the first time in a week, leaning against the cave wall. "What's new with you?"

Kurama sighed, rolling over onto his front. "The Bijuu were convening to see if it was time." He padded over to his jinchuuriki, and seeing as they were in her mindscape he towered above her at his full height.

Naruko's brow furrowed, straightening. "Time? Time for what?"

Kurama did not answer her, instead choosing to place his head to the ground. Naruko frowned at the lack of response, but obediently climbed up so she was sitting on his broad head, patting the orange fur to let him know she was well-situated. Heaving himself up and onto his paws, Kurama ambled out of the cave and headed towards a deeper part of the mindscape that Naruko had no memory of ever seeing before.

There was an orange door standing seemingly in the middle of nowhere. It was simple enough: wooden with a golden doorknob on the left. But what caught Naruko's attention was the empty golden plaque on the door.

Sliding down Kurama's leg, Naruko raised a skeptical eyebrow, tilting her head back to look at her Bijuu. "Why is there a door in the middle of nowhere? There's not even a wall or anything around. It's just... there."

Kurama rolled his eyes, "Why don't you just open it and find out?"

"Figures you wouldn't give me a straight answer," Naruko grumbled under her breath, reaching out to jiggle the doorknob. She turned around with a deadpan look, "It's locked."

Kurama slammed a paw over his face. "Right, sorry. Bite your thumb and write the kanji for "nine" on that plaque. The door should open then."

Naruko obeyed, drawing a "九" on the golden plaque. There was an audible click, and the girl's eyebrow twitched slightly as she grabbed it to open the door. "You're kidding," she deadpanned once she saw the winding path that laid behind it. "Please tell me I don't have to walk that."

"Normally, yes, you would have to walk that," Kurama answered with a toothy grin, "but as it is, we're a little behind schedule so I'll just take you with me. Hold on!"

"Wait—" The blonde's cry was cut off when she was suddenly tossed up into the air, landing on the Bijuu's head once more. She was barely given time to sit down or even steady herself before he was bounding through the door — it had miraculously grown to accommodate his size — and down the pathway, eating up the miles with his massive strides. Naruko ended up clinging onto his fur for dear life, but being the adrenaline-junkie that she was, didn't care.

"Here we are," Kurama almost sang joyously as he leapt into an empty, beige-coloured space. It was hard to describe since there was nothing to describe. The Kyuubi smiled, "Naruko Uzumaki... welcome to the Bijuu Psyche Plane."

"Bijuu Psyche Plane," Naruko repeated. "Is that where we are?"

"Yes," Kurama rumbled almost proudly. "It is an innate skill possessed by all the Bijuu, and allows us to communicate on this deeper plane of the subconscious mind. It differs from the one used by jinchuuriki and their respective Bijuu since here there are no restrictions or seals. Despite that, it is impossible for outside influences to reach this plane, even if a Bijuu were to be controlled. For a jinchuuriki to access this plane, they must be fully linked to their Bijuu."

"Fully linked?" Naruko blinked in surprise. "We're fully linked, Kurama?"

"Not... exactly," Kurama admitted. "But we are close. Close enough that you could be granted passage without harm."

"...cool." Naruko's head was spinning with the information Kurama had just unloaded on her. It took a while for the information to fully sink in, and when it did, she whirled around on him. "The other jinchuuriki can access this plane?" she asked eagerly. A wide, toothy grin was her only answer, but it was enough. As was the voice screaming out her name.


"Fuu!" the blonde girl squealed just before she was bowled over by the hyperactive green-haired Taki kunoichi. "I missed you!"

"I missed you too," Fuu cried happily. "Chomei brought me here just a while ago, and you know I was going to yell at him but then I remembered that I saw you at the Chuunin Exams so I figured it was okay since I saw you, Gaa-chan, Yagu-nii, Uta-nii and Bee-nii recently. Oh, and speaking of Gaa-chan..." She turned and waved over someone who was walking towards them at a leisurely pace. "Hurry up, Panda-chan! Or else I'll start calling you Sloth-chan," she teased.

"Don't you dare," Gaara no Sabaku growled playfully once he was near enough. "Naru," he sent a smile the blonde's way; she returned it. "So, Bijuu Psyche Plane..." The redhead looked around at their surroundings thoughtfully. "Shukaku, is there something we can do while we wait for the other jinchuuriki to show up?"

"Oh, you don't have to wait long," the raccoon responded, swishing his tail as he fell over onto his side, stretching out lazily. Kurama padded over to flop down beside his brother.

"I guess laziness is a Bijuu thing..." Fuu sweatdropped as Chomei buzzed over his siblings before lying down between them. "Or maybe it's just contagious. Chomei's usually never this lazy."

"Shukaku/Kurama is always lazy," Naruko and Gaara said at the same time in identical deadpan tones. Fuu was about to respond when they heard a door banged open somewhere in the far-off distance. "Who wants to bet that was either Yagu-nii, Jiji or Bee-nii?"

There wasn't time for either of the triplets to answer before a very familiar and very loud voice sang out, "Honey, I'm home~!"

Naruko turned a wide grin on her siblings. "I put my money on Yagu-nii."

Fuu rolled her eyes, "That defeats the whole point!" she complained, but stood up to greet their brother anyway as he rode in on the Sanbi, a wide grin on his stitch-bearing face.

"Hey midgets!" Yagura greeted as he slid down Isobu's shell, jogging over to sweep all three of his beloved little siblings up in a hug.

"Excuse you, but I believe I am taller than both of those so-called "midgets"." Gaara paused, "Nii-chan, am I the same height as you?" he questioned in disbelief, pulling back and using his hand to measure his head against Yagura's.

The Yondaime Mizukage glanced up and then at Gaara, a light scowl marring his face. "Alright that's enough," he said firmly when he saw the smugness creeping across Gaara's face. "Stop that!" he whined when Gaara started to ruffle Yagura's hair, a cheeky grin on his face. "I'm still like, a decade older than you, you know!"

"Oh my, how superior," Naruko fake-swooned against Fuu. "An entire decade! We must bow at the feet of this wonderful octogenarian!"

"Hey now, "octogenarian" is going a little far, don't you think?" a new, amused voice joined the excitement. Four jinchuuriki turned to see Utakata coming towards them with Han by his side.

"Oi, why are you two together?" Yagura pointed between them.

Utakata and Han shared a side-glance. "That... sounded wrong on about fifty different levels," Han stated bluntly.

Yagura's nose wrinkled. "Yeah, I just heard that myself..."

"Apparently, my mission coincided with his, location-wise," Utakata shrugged. "Found that out when he tried to scare me off his campsite," he glared playfully at the Iwa shinobi, who shrugged his shoulders unrepentantly.

"HAAAAAANNNNNN-NIIIIIIIIIIIIII!" a drawn-out squeal caught the red-clad man's attention before he suddenly found himself with an armful of white and green. "I MISSED YOU SOOOOOOOOOOO MUUUUUUUCCCCCCCHHHHHHHH!"

Han chuckled, hugging his little sister tightly. "I missed you a lot too, Fuu."

"Why didn't I get that kind of welcome?" Yagura sulked. Utakata joined him shortly, the both of them crying over the fact that Fuu hadn't greeted them with such excitement or joy during the unexpected reunion at the latest Chuunin Exams. Naruko and Gaara simply shook their heads at the two Kiri boys, not even bothering to comfort them.

"Gaara," Han smiled at the younger redhead, dropping a hand and ruffling his hair. Fuu was still clinging to his neck, her legs gripping around his midsection to support herself in a sort of side-piggyback. "How are you?"

"I'm well, nii-chan," Gaara smiled up at the brother he hadn't seen in nearly three years. "I really missed you..." An uncharacteristic squeak left his lips when slim arms slid around his midsection and lifted him up, dragging him backwards into a tight hug as soft lips pressed themselves to his right cheek. Gaara felt his face flush hotly at the close proximity, even as a wide smile stretched his lips. "Okaa-san," he greeted happily.

"Hello Gaara," Yugito Nii smiled, letting his feet touch the ground. "I think you've gotten taller, haven't you?" she said mildly, keeping an arm wrapped around his thin shoulders. She noticed Yagura and Utakata, and started to laugh. "What had them sulking?"

"Just Fuu bowling over Han in her excitement and neglecting them," Gaara answered, leaning in to her warmth. He hesitated a moment before wrapping his arms around her waist and hugging her properly. He had thankfully gotten past that awkward stage where he would've been face-to-face with her... um... chest, and was now tall enough to face her collarbone.

"Oh... that is so sweet."

"No— geez," Yugito hissed under her breath when Roshi's arms gently wrapped around the duo of mother and son, the Iwa shinobi resting his chin on Yugito's head, a tell-tale twinkle in his eye.

Gaara smiled to himself, basking in the warmth he had craved for three years. Voice muffled by the embrace, he greeted his grandfather with a simple, "Hi."

Yugito chuckled, her ire disappearing at her adorable son. Roshi leaned over Yugito's shoulder to drop a kiss on Gaara's head. "Hey Gaa-chan," he cooed.

When Gaara looked up again, Killer Bee was throwing a giggling Naruko up and down in the air, laughing at Yagura and Utakata's sulking corner.

"Well, as wonderful as it is to see you all again," Yugito began lightly, "I can't help but wonder... why didn't this happen sooner?" A dangerous edge lined her faux-light tone, and the nine Bijuu tensed from where they were sprawled around on top of each other, feeling more than just one piercing glare burning holes into them.

"W-Well, you see..." Isobu started, inching behind Saiken. "It's... a long story?"

"I have never been more ashamed of my Bijuu than I am now," Yagura muttered under his breath but one look at Yugito's face had him retracting that statement. "I mean... I have never pitied him more than in this moment." From beside him, Utakata snorted in amusement.

"Either way~" Naruko called, "let's have some fun before the sun comes up, ne okaa-san?" She didn't miss the grateful look Kurama shot her; Naruko simply raised an eyebrow and the Kyuubi shrank back, knowing that his punishment had only been postponed.

Yugito turned a genuine smile to her daughter, "Sounds good to me." She made her way towards the rest of her makeshift family, Gaara close beside her. "What did you have in mind?"

At this, Naruko turned puppy eyes to Yagura, who blinked uncomprehendingly at her before it finally dawned on him. The Mizukage heaved a sigh and slammed his hand on the floor, allowing pale pink coral to grow and twist itself into something resembling a maze. Naruko bound over to press a thank-you kiss to his cheek before turning back to her family, "No flying, teleporting, use of third eyes... just make it: no use of chakra to get to the center. But you are allowed to use traps to delay people. Now... last one to the middle is a toilet full of broccoli~!"

"Hey, that's going way too far!" Fuu immediately jumped down from Han's shoulders and ran after her sister. "Also, no fair, you got a head start!"

"No she didn't, I did!" Roshi cackled, catapulting himself over the walls and landing somewhere within the maze. The other jinchuuriki darted in as well, their pride not allowing them to think of themselves coming anything but second place — there was a silent, mutual agreement that first place was always reserved for the current fastest jinchuuriki.

"Hey Yagura," said fastest jinchuuriki called with a teasing smile pulling on her lips, "can't say hi to nobody?"

"Hi, Yugito," Yagura mumbled under his breath, purposefully walking past her to the entrance of his makeshift maze.

"What was that?" she called purposefully loud, hand on a cocked hip as she watched him walk away from her.

"Hi, Yugito!" Yagura practically shouted over his shoulder, disappearing around the corner he'd created just to escape. Without even having to look, Yagura knew that there was a cat-got-cream smile on his big sister's face; it seemed that the side of her that came along with her title — how long had it been since he last called her "Yugi-onee-chan"? — had begun to surface again, and in Yagura's completely impartial opinion, Yugito was enjoying it far too much.

"Thank you!" Yugito laughed, darting past him and messing up his hair before flipping over the wall on his left to plant herself somewhere in the maze.

"Yugito!" Killer Bee exclaimed, charging in after her. "Couldn't have waited for me?"

"Of course not, you big oaf," Yugito called back with a laugh, already running through the paths. "You would've slowed me down," she teased, laughing again when she heard his huff of irritation that she knew to be fake. Hearing cries from the rest of her family as well as blind, good-natured banter, Yugito smiled to herself as she swerved to the side to avoid getting clipped in the side by a coral wall. One of the best things about Yagura's coral-mazes was that it never stayed the same as it continuously shifted and blocked you as you neared the center. You could have the clearing in your sights, and then a wall of coral would slide in front and your surroundings would change, forcing you to quickly adapt to the new circumstances and find a different path. Not even Yagura could predict what his coral would do; it was almost sentient that way.

"Ow, crap!" a voice exclaimed to the left, and Yugito barely held back a snort at the flash of red in her vision. Roshi had stubbed his toe against an incoming coral wall, and was hopping around in a show of pain, though it didn't look as exaggerated when you took into account the screwed-up tightness on his face. The coral really was incredibly hard, and blasting through them didn't help much.

Roshi couldn't help grinning when he heard light footsteps — Fuu's — race back in the direction they had come from. The triplets, who had been much too stubborn for their own good in their childhood and honestly probably still were, had been shoved into one of Yagura's mazes until it was finally pounded into their obstinate minds that sometimes you had to backtrack in order to actually make progress. Despite that, though, this was still one of their favourite activities, and as of yet there was no jinchuuriki who could clearly be said to be better at getting through to the middle of the maze. It required not only quick thinking and memory, but also speed. Something a certain Uzumaki had in spades; Roshi had to wonder if it was from her biological father or from her surrogate mother's influence. He idly wondered if it was going to be Fuu or Naruko who would take the title of "fastest jinchuuriki" from said surrogate mother.

"Oi, what the hell? Naruko!" Yagura's annoyed voice shouted, and giggles floated up from a few paces to Roshi's right.

"Have fun~!" Naruko sang, her voice fading as she skipped away.

Roshi cocked his eyebrow and was about to holler over at Yagura when he took a step forward and was suddenly trapped as fūinjutsu suddenly spread around him in a small box as a barrier lit up around him. Roshi's eye twitched when a riddle appeared before him: How much dirt is in a hole that measures two feet by three feet by four feet?

This time it was the Gobi's jinchuuriki's turn to yell; "NARUKO!"

Said Uzumaki simply cackled to herself as she planted more and more fūinjutsu traps with every step she took. She passed by Gaara, who was writing in the answer of his riddle; Your password hint is: "You force heaven to be empty". What is your password if it is seven characters long and comprises of just letters and numbers?

Gaara turned to smirk at his sister, "You have to try harder than that, imouto." He stepped out of the deactivated trap and continued on his merry way, leaving his answer glimmering in the air: U472BMT. Naruko rolled her eyes good-naturedly; due to his bookwormish nature, Gaara was a certified expert in the field of wordplay. Naruko herself preferred actual puzzles, which was most likely due to her affinity for fūinjutsu which she associated with puzzles.

Sidestepping one of her own traps, Naruko grinned when she saw Yagura kicking at the barrier that had him trapped for the past few minutes. "What the hell do you mean, "what disappears as soon as you say it's name"?" the Mizukage grouched. "How about luck, or fortune? Once you say it can't get any worse, it definitely does!"

Utakata was rolling his eyes, having been trapped directly opposite the Mizukage. "Oh shut up, I need to think if I want any chance of beating you." He ran his finger underneath the riddle lines as he read it again under his breath, "You know 2 + 2 is the same as 2 x 2. Now find a set of three different whole numbers whose sum is equal to their total when multiplied."

"Beating me? Ha, that'll be a cold day in hell!"

"Then hell is based in Antarctica," Utakata answered, not even bothering to hide his smugness as he wrote the answer, successfully deactivating the riddle and stepping away.

Yagura growled under his breath, scribbling something on the blank piece of paper provided. It was evidently wrong as he was subjected to a minor lightning zap; Yagura dropped the supplied pen, cursing under his breath.

Naruko sweatdropped and left her brother to his scowling. "Oh come on!" she half-whined half-hissed when a wall slid in front of her. Naruko sighed — guess it was karma — and backtracked, choosing to take two consecutive rights and then a left before unexpectedly coming to face Han, who was staring blankly at the riddle he was faced with: You stand before two doors, one leads to Heaven and one leads to Hell. There are two angels: one always lies and one always tells the truth. You don't know which door leads to where, or which angel is the liar or the truth-teller. You have one question to find out which door leads to where. What do you ask?

'Oh you have got to be kidding me,' Naruko's sweatdrops increased. 'That has to be easiest one.' But then again, riddles was never exactly Han's strong suit... Naruko shook her head and quickly continued on, dropping seals here and there until she took a wrong step and was instantly trapped in a net of webs. Her eye twitched, "FUU!"

The green-haired girl stepped out from behind a wall, grinning cheekily. "Blue Joro Spider. Have fun getting out of that one." With another cheeky wave, Fuu started running to the left, almost as fast as she was when flying.

Naruko sighed, summoning the Nietono no Shana to her hand as she started working on cutting through the harder-than-usual threads. A smile tugged on her lips as she did so; Fuu had been getting stronger, if she was having this much trouble with cutting through webs. Ah well, mazes with the jinchuuriki family had never been an easy activity since they all loved testing each other at every opportunity they had.

Gaara narrowed his eyes and took a few steps back. Did he just spot an unlit campfire? Was that what was waiting in the center? Ignoring the memories of family camp-outs flashing to mind, in the days where they had nothing like the Akatsuki or their respective Hidden Villages to worry about, Gaara made his way as fast as he could to the center. A flash of green and yellow in his eye alerted him to closing-in jinchuuriki. He wasn't sure if the yellow was his mother or his sister, but the distinct green was definitely Fuu, and she was as much of a speed-demon as the other two female jinchuuriki. Now that Gaara thought about it, there were only three female jinchuuriki and all of them were speed demons or adrenaline junkies. Geez...

The redhead skidded around a corner, a coral wall moving in at the corner of his eye. He moved faster, the campfire setting directly in his sights. There was no way he was going to lose now, not when he was so close. "Shirt!" he hissed, the coral wall crashing in his side as he barely slid past. There wasn't any time for him to breathe when he saw even more structures closing in on him; Gaara didn't look. He dove forward.

"Ow!" three voices shouted in unison.

"Why is it whenever we are split up, you three always find each other and manage to hurt each other or get into some sort of trouble?" Yugito wondered aloud. She had been the first one at the center — she didn't hold the title of the fastest jinchuuriki for nothing — and had been counting down the minutes while sparring lightly with Yagura until the third person arrived.

Chuckling, the Nibi's jinchuuriki walked over and lifted the top child off the other two, allowing them to breathe and sit up. "That was two minutes faster than last time, Naruko," she informed the blonde who let out an exaggerated sigh of dismay, draping herself over Gaara's lap. "Two minutes forty-five seconds faster than last time for you," Yugito answered the silent question in her redheaded boy's eyes.

"And me?" Fuu asked eagerly, rocking back and forth on the balls of her feet.

"One minute twenty-seven seconds," Yugito answered with a smile, absently brushing back the green fringe from the girl's bright, earnest amber eyes.

"But she's always the second person to the center, so unless she beats you..." Naruko trailed off with a pout. Fuu grinned, prancing over before dropping in a boneless heap on Gaara's back. He grimaced at the unexpected, heavy weight, reaching up to grab her shirt and flip her over so Fuu was lying on his lap on top of Naruko. Said blonde protested, but ultimately deemed herself too lazy to shove Fuu off. So the greenette resigned herself to being sprawled half on Gaara and half on Naruko; their mother smiled softly at them.

"How did you get here second?" Gaara tilted his head at Yagura, who was balancing on his staff.

The offended Kiri shinobi glared at his cheeky younger brother. "I am the Yondaime Mizukage, you know. If I can't beat three measly Genin in a maze, and one that I created no less, then I'm not fit to govern one of the Five Great Nations." He paused. "And... I avoided every trap Naruko and Fuu laid out by sending clones ahead of me." He shrugged, grinning at Naruko's pout, "You only said not to use ninjutsu to get to the center, and I was just testing out the waters."

"Sure, do what you see fit, why don't you," Naruko grumbled, rolling off Gaara's lap and all the way to Yugito's, as the woman had sat down opposite Gaara.

They didn't have to wait long until Utakata appeared, Roshi captured in a floating bubble, sitting cross-legged and grumbling under his breath all the while. The Kiri bodyguard was half-listening to the Iwa shinobi grumble with amused indulgence, and raised an eyebrow when he saw Yagura had arrived before him. Last Utakata had seen him, the esteemed Mizukage had been slamming his staff against a fūinjutsu barrier. Han and Killer Bee came shortly afterwards, the former going instantly to Yugito's side.

"How did you put up with that horrendous rapping for three years?" Han grunted. "My respect for you just rose off the charts."

Yugito chuckled, patting his shoulder sympathetically. "I assume he thought it fun to try it out on you?"

"Fun for him, not for me," Han huffed, crossing his arms. "Half of them didn't even make sense. And he pulls out that book and writes in it at the most inopportune moments."

"Welcome to my world," Yugito answered wryly. "Hey, oaf!" she called over, and Bee looked up from where he had been talking to Yagura. "What'd you rap at poor Han for?"

Killer Bee grinned, "Do you really want to know?"

"On second thought... no," Yugito shook her head with a mock-despairing sigh. "Alright children," she clapped once, "what should we do now?"

"Not a child," Yagura, Utakata and Han muttered petulantly at the same time.

"Can we conjure up a campfire?" Gaara wondered aloud. At the inquiring looks, his pale cheeks automatically flushed. "It's just... Suna isn't exactly the best place for a campfire, since there is nothing to burn and the wind would put it out instantly. The only kind of fire you could build in the desert would be one of those small, intimate fires, not those large warm ones that burn your eyeballs if you look at them too long."

Roshi smiled warmly, reaching over to ruffle his fellow redhead's hair. "Sure kiddo, anything you want. Tonight's your night."

Due to this being a shared mindscape, it was pretty easy for them to conjure up some logs and then have Matatabi spit some fire to start it up.

"I feel like I've travelled back in time," Han sighed out, leaning back on his hands while his legs were outstretched and crossed in front of him, a head of mint-green lying comfortably on his lap.

"Now we just need some s'mores," Naruko joked, nudging Gaara's ribs.

"No," all of the "adults" instantly shot down. "Last time we had s'mores and all of that sugary junk, you three socially deviant munchkins wouldn't stop bouncing around for the entire night," Yagura added with his arms folded across his chest. "You got onto that sugar high way too fast, even for nine-year-olds."

Gaara pulled a face. "I had a major headache after that... remember, jiji? You thought that I had some alcohol by accident and was hungover," he snickered a the Iwa shinobi's mild irritation at that particular memory. "And you went crazy trying to figure out where I had gotten it from and what I had drunk, all while trying to hide me from okaa-san."

Yugito eyed the pair of redheads. "You should be thanking your lucky stars it was just from the sugar and not from any kind of alcohol," was all she said. Gaara and Roshi turned wide eyes on each other in mock-horror. Naruko had to cover her mouth to hide her snicker at their identical appearances, from the untameable red hair and wide eyes to the little shudders wracking their shoulders.

"Alrighty then," Killer Bee suddenly sat up from where he had been sprawled on the ground. "As per jinchuuriki camp-out tradition, time to start One Word At A Time."

"Finally," Utakata smirked, "I haven't done this in years. And now, we don't have to keep it PG." He cast a pointed look at the three Genin sitting with them, who all stuck out their tongues very maturely in response. "Ahem," he cleared his throat. "I assume we're going in the order of our Bijuu tails—"

"When do we not?" Han grumbled under his breath.

"—so Gaara, if you would please do the honors?"

"Sure," the younger redhead nodded. "At risk of being yelled at for being boring... "you"."

Yugito raised an eyebrow in amusement, pausing her humming as she continued with, "Don't..."

"Have..." Yagura continued with a wicked grin, no doubt thinking of something perverted before Bee reached over to slap his head upside down.

Roshi sighed through his nose. "To..."

Han, who was consenting to letting Fuu play with his fingers, added, "Fake..."

Utakata's eyebrow twitched, his face twisting into a mix between a grimace and constipation. He gave in after two seconds, muttering half-heartedly, "O-Orgasm..."

"What—" Fuu was cut off when Yugito slammed her hands on the ground, lip curling into a snarl and looking more than murderous.

"Utakata. What. The. F-k," she hissed. The poor Kiri shinobi swore he saw her canines elongate, and instantly pointed at Yagura.

"He paid me!"

"Yagura Karatachi!"

The Mizukage paled as Matatabi's chakra seeped into the young mother's voice, and got ready to run when Naruko placed a gentle hand on Yugito's cheek.

"It's fine," she said softly. "I mean, I don't really understand what he's talking about and I doubt Gaara and Fuu do, either..." One look at said siblings confirmed that they were just as clueless as she was. "So as long as we prohibit that particular semantic field, then we'll be fine... right?" she ended a little uncertainly.

Yugito sighed, sitting back down. "Fine. Nothing sexual," she growled, glaring particularly at her two most troublesome boys, who nodded meekly at her. "Gaara, proceed."

Gaara heaved a sigh. "I..."

"Threw..." Yugito continued.

Yagura swallowed, feeling eyes boring into him. "A-A..."

Roshi bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing at the almost-constipated expression on his poor fellow jinchuuriki's face. "Cat," he said decisively after a nanosecond of silence.

Han raised an eyebrow at his uncle but chose not to comment on the strange choice. "At..."

Utakata smirked lightly to himself, "Yagura."

Yagura grimaced but knew it was coming; after all, he was the butt of most of their jokes. He couldn't even yell a Utakata, because he knew he was on thin ice with Yugito right now, and one simply did not anger a mother cat.

Fuu looked amused and took it one step further, "But..."

"When..." Killer Bee said slowly, trying to figure out where his green-haired little sister was going with it.

Naruko smirked, already imagining a particular scenario in her devious little mind. "He..."

"Tried..." Gaara tacked on.

"To..." Yugito joined to Smirk Club, despite not looking very threatening as she absently played with Naruko's hair.

"...catch," Yagura continued begrudgingly, not knowing how else to veer it in his favour except to watch it play out. Besides, what else was he to do when someone threw a cat at him?

"It..." Roshi snickered.

"His..." Han continued calmly.

"Thumb," Utakata was biting his lip to keep from laughing, having already guessed the meaning behind Naruko's smirk.

"Went..." Fuu said with a bit too much excitement that had Yagura internally crying.

"Up..." Bee snickered.

Naruko was giggling so hard she could hardly speak correctly. "His..."

"Butthole," Gaara finished with a wide grin.

A few snickers burst out that slowly ascended into full-on laughter, while Yugito just sighed and dropped her head in her hands. "One clean story. Just one damned story where you don't swear or have obvious innuendos or... whatever else. That is all I ask." She sighed, propping her chin up in her palm and watching fondly as Yagura and Gaara started yelling at each other while her little blonde fox chipped in with her trademark savage comments here and there, and the rest had fun at Yagura's expense. But then again, Yugito supposed that was just what them... them. It was the strangest group of people she had ever been with, certainly, but then again, she wouldn't have it any other way.

"Alright, alright, let's skip up to Three Words At A Time because frankly this is taking too long and in case you kids have forgotten, we unfortunately only have one night. Yugito, this time you'll be the starter, okay?" Roshi pointed at the blonde woman, who sighed but complied nevertheless.

"When I was..."

"A young boy," Yagura nodded to himself.

"My father," Roshi continued.

"Ate an entire f-ing lemon," Han growled out. "He didn't squeeze it out onto anything. He didn't cut it into pieces. He didn't even skin it! He just stuffed the entire lemon into his mouth and swallowed. I have never seen anything so horrible in my life!"

"...Han got triggered," Naruko whispered to Yagura, who fought to keep from laughing out loud.

"To see fairies," Utakata finished, undeterred. He turned to face his brother, "Now, Han, I think I need to explain the rules of this game to you again. The name should be rather self-explanatory: "Three Words At A Time". Not "Forty-Four Words At A Time"." And so it continued — Utakata attempted to both explain the rules of the game and placate his triggered brother while Han continued his tirade about his apparent lemon-swallowing father.

"Great, so while Utakata's dealing with the traumatized lad, let's share some stories," Fuu piped up. "I'll start." And so began the story of how Fuu of Takigakure had her first mission, only to be trolled by a goat called Brenda, who apparently liked to get pretend she was stuck in a fence just for the attention. She was like a milder, but no less annoying, version of Konoha's Tora. That was followed by the story of Roshi and his legendary prank on Ōnoki — apparently, the Sandaime Tsuchikage drooled in his sleep, so Roshi took it upon himself to hide some pop rocks around his pillow. In the middle of the night, the entire of Iwagakure was woken up by their Kage's screams when the pop rocks simultaneously exploded in his face, waking him from his slumber. Roshi left for a month-long mission on that same night, escaping before Ōnoki could enact his revenge.

"Idiot says what?" Naruko said a faster-than-usual pace, her lip curled in a grin and voice rising in pitch at the last word.

"What?" Kurama lifted his head from his paws abruptly, his bunny-ears flopping back and forth as he looked at the jinchuuriki family that had instantly burst out laughing at his interjection, his features coated with genuine confusion that was almost adorable on his overly-large, furry face. He pouted at Naruko once the implications sunk in, "You're so mean to me, Naruko."

"It's not my fault you're not bright enough to see it coming," Naruko snickered, though her eyes were on the ribbons of flames that fluttered and twisted through the air at her will, drawn from the fire Matatabi had graciously started.

Yagura suddenly leaned back and called to Isobu, "Hey... do you know how much time's passed? We can't stay here forever, right?"

The Sanbi sighed, stretching out. Kokuo glared at him when his foot continuously prodded her in the neck. Isobu sheepishly apologized to his sister before turning to his jinchuuriki, "It's 3:45 in the morning, I believe. You should probably start waking up in a few hours," he advised, though his tone that suggested that he didn't particularly want to leave, either. After all, the Bijuu were just as much family to each other as the jinchuuriki were themselves.

The jinchuuriki were silent for a moment as they traced every feature of their family with their eyes, as if attempting to burn their faces into their memories.

"Do not worry," Kokuo spoke up softly, "you can come back any time. This is not a single-use jutsu."

Yugito nodded slightly, reaching over to wrap her arm around Gaara. "You ready to go back to the real world?" she murmured, having not noticed that Gaara specifically avoided talking about his new home.

The redhead sighed, slumping against her side. "No," he mumbled dejectedly. "I don't like Suna. It's a desert. And the people are so mean."

Yugito hummed, "You know what would cheer you up?"

"Hmm?" Gaara responded distractedly, entranced by the flames that Naruko was manipulating into a dance only they and their master knew. It had spread above their heads like a blanket of flames, the orange and reds complimenting each other perfectly even as the flames were never still, shimmering in the air while a few tendrils came down to circle around the jinchuuriki, close enough to cast an ethereal glow but not close enough to burn.

The redhead let out a startled yelp when he was suddenly pulled onto someone's lap and he felt soft lips press themselves all over his face in quick succession. "Okaa-saaaannn~" Gaara whined, struggling half-heartedly in the woman's hold. "I'm too old for the Pepper Attack..."

"You will never be too old for the Pepper Attack," Yugito declared vehemently before diving back in to, as the name implied, pepper Gaara's face with more kisses.

"She's right," Roshi nodded sagely before abruptly spinning around to wrap his arms around the closest child to him — Naruko — and lifted her right off her feet, pulling her close. "And with that said..." He ducked his head and commenced the Pepper Attack on the familiar whiskered cheeks, laughing softly as Naruko whined and wriggled, complaining about the scratchiness of his beard as she tried — not all that hard, mind you — to push his face away.

Fuu had instantly flown up as far as she could to avoid Bee's attempts to subject her to the same treatment, however Chomei had taken Bee's side and so pulled back his chakra just enough that Fuu couldn't utilize her wings; she fell right into Killer Bee's waiting arms.

Lost in the familiar rhythm of their family dynamics, the jinchuuriki found themselves drowning in the shrieks of laughter, the wide childish beams, and the feeling that they had travelled back in time to when they were young and carefree, without the weight of the world — or at least the roles in their respective Hidden Villages — on their shoulders.

It didn't feel quite real, Roshi mused, having his family here together like this again. It was... too good to be true. But it was real, because he could feel that unexplainable warmth bursting from his chest and spreading throughout his body, right down to his toes. He unconsciously tightened his grip around Naruko's waist — she was simply sitting in his lap, now — and rested his chin on her head.

It was too sweet to be real. But it was real... and all real things ended at some point or another. He didn't want it to. He didn't want to do it again, to say g—

"You'll come back."

Roshi jerked his head around so fast he nearly got whiplash. He found himself staring into the fiery amber orbs of the companion he'd had since a very young age.

"There's no need to say goodbye. You'll come back," Son Goku repeated, "when they call you."

"Wakey wakey, eggs and bakey..."

"Meesa want eggs and bakey," Naruko mumbled automatically, rolling over onto her back. A soft chuckle had her opening her eyes, and for a second she felt her heart plummet when soft orange tones — Kakashi compromised on painting her room a soft orange instead of fluorescent orange, and Naruko appreciated it now that she was older — instead of the warm browns and reds of her ranch-themed childhood room.

"Hey." A finger poked at her whiskered cheek twice. "Come on, you're late."

"Late?" Naruko rolled over and propped herself up on her right elbow, her left hand rubbing at her eyes. "Late for what?"

Kakashi inclined his head at her window, and Naruko looked over to see Sasuke perched on her window sill, an unimpressed eyebrow already cocked and a teasing smirk curling the corner of his lip. Dazedly, Naruko turned her eyes towards the sliding glass doors that led to her bedroom balcony, and noticed Sakura leaning on the rail with an amused expression.

Naruko stared dumbly at them, down at herself — Kakashi's shirt was worn and oversized, so it was a very comfortable... nightgown? — and then back at her teammates before her brain finally woke up. Eyes widening a little, Naruko leapt out of bed — unintentionally throwing her covers all over Kakashi — and all but fled into the bathroom, throwing "Give me two minutes!" over her shoulder.

Sakura giggled, sliding the door and stepping into the room. "Did I see a blush on her face?"

Sasuke hopped into the room, and then skipped another step so he fell right onto Naruko's bed. "It's 11:30 in the afternoon, how the heck was she still asleep?" he mumbled.

Kakashi laughed, reaching out to ruffle his student's hair. "And why are you trying to fall asleep at 11:30 in the afternoon?" he mimicked, laughing again when Sasuke batted his hand away. The kid was really touchy about his hair for some reason...

"Sorry, sorry sorry sorry!" Naruko's voice shouted as she ran out of the bathroom, hands fiddling with her forehead protector and socks at different lengths. Sakura sweatdropped a little and knelt down to fix said socks while Kakashi held back his clumsy imouto's hair so she could properly fix her forehead protector. Sasuke had disappeared at some point.

"What did we have planned for today, agai— mmmffph!" Naruko glared at a certain Uchiha who had reappeared and jammed a slice of toast into her mouth as she had been speaking. Pulling it out, Naruko repeated, "What did we have planned for today, again?" She absently noted that the slice of toast had a thin layer of lemon curd spread over it — one of her favourite snacks.

"Hmm," Sakura hummed as she raised her hand to tick off, "We're meeting everyone for lunch at the Akimichi BBQ, and then Hinata's invited us over to the Compound for training. After that, Ino has her place set up for a movie night — no, you pissy duckbutt, there will not be any chick flicks, I've made sure of that so you're welcome — and then Sasuke and I are crashing here for dinner... and a sleepover if we're lucky," she smiled sweetly at Kakashi.

Said Jonin shrugged, his eye curling into his signature U. "Fine by me. You know you're welcome here anytime. Just let me know what you want for dinner."

"Tomatoes," Sasuke said instantly.

Kakashi smirked behind his mask. "I need a little more context, Sasuke. Or else I might serve raw tomatoes straight from the garden for dinner."

Sasuke shrugged, "I'm cool with that."

"We're not cool with that!" Naruko and Sakura cried at the same time. Sasuke couldn't help but smirk at the identical looks of alarm and horror on their faces.

Sakura shook her head with a smile, "It's fine, sensei, Naruko and I can cook. You relax and make sure Sasuke doesn't go off buying more tomatoes than he can afford— don't look at me like that when you know you would've bought out the entire stall if I hadn't been there to stop you."

Raising her eyebrows as Sasuke and Sakura started to bicker — it was really a strange sight, since it was usually herself and Sasuke — Naruko exchanged an amused look with Kakashi. Reaching up to kiss his masked cheek, she whispered a quick "See ya" before lunging forward to grab both her teammates by the hand, dragging them out the balcony and jumping off the rail to land on a nearby rooftop.

"Naruko, we're not that late!"

"Slow down, you adrenaline junkie."

"Like you're any better," Naruko shot back with a laugh. A flash of blonde paired with navy blue in her peripheral vision had her stumbling, and Sasuke and Sakura jerked on her hands to keep her on the roof with them.

"This is why you don't go so fast after you just woke up," Sakura scolded, as she had many times prior to this afternoon.

Naruko shook her head with a smile, noting that the person that had caught her attention had just been a blonde civilian girl riding atop her father's shoulders, who happened to be wearing a blue shirt. "I'm fine," she reassured with a grin, squeezing their hands. "Now come on, let's race."

"What did I just say?" Sakura called after her, sighing in exasperation before acquiescing to being dragged along by Sasuke, whose pride refused to let him lose to Naruko.

Naruko's eyes were trained solely on her target: the Akimichi BBQ. Already, she could see her six friends gathering outside the restaurant and waiting for Team 7. Although, it seemed Team 8 had just arrived, and Naruko bet it was due to Kiba's tardy nature.

Spying Sasuke coming up close behind her, Naruko concentrated and Hiraishin'd to the mark etched on Hinata's inner wrist. The Hyuuga heiress jumped when an unexpected weight was on her back, Naruko wrapped around her like a koala.

"Naruko, you're becoming like your brother," Hinata chided gently, smiling as her friend hopped off. "I suppose I can be thankful that you're here right on the dot instead of later..."

"I know, I know, I already got the lecture," Naruko waved her off, squinting against the sun to see Sasuke flipping off the roof with Sakura close behind.

"That was cheating," Sasuke accused the moment his feet hit the ground, though the twinkle in his eyes assured Naruko he wasn't serious. "When we spar later today, I'm going to get you back for that."

"I'd like to see you try," Naruko taunted back, nudging his ribs with her elbow.

"Seriously, old married couple, much?" Ino chuckled under her breath. "Come on, let's go in. I'm starving, to say nothing of Choji."

"Je meurs de faim!" said Akimichi declared theatrically, pushing open the doors to his family's restaurant and making a beeline towards his usual booth. (1)

"What? You don't even speak French," Ino laughed.

"He probably picked it up in a cooking show or something," Kiba cackled.

"No, he would have to risk drooling over the screen," Shikamaru drawled. Choji took no offense; he knew it was all true, anyway.

Naruko watched with a slight smile as her friends settled into the booth, talking over each other and laughing at the weirdest happenings. Honestly, how did one even translate "I wish to devour the unborn" to "I would like eggs"? Better question: why would one call eggs "the unborn" in the first place?

Resting her chin in her palm, Naruko continued to observe her friends, some more... eccentric than others, but her friends nonetheless.

'Ne... okaa-san, what would you say if you met my friends? Would you think they're weird? Good for me? Quirky but interesting all the same? I think you'd like Sakura and Hina-chan. You've seen them before, but you've never really met any of them. I'd really like for you to meet them... when it's not a time of crisis.' Naruko reached over to wordlessly tap the menu Sakura was poring over, indicating what she wanted. Sakura shot her a smile and dutifully jotted it down.

'I'd like all of you to meet the family I made for myself, someday...'

(1): Je meurs de faim = I'm starving!

A/N: I apologize for the current lack of plot and completely self-indulgent family fluff. There will probably be another 2 or 3 filler chapters before the plot picks up again. Can't say for certain when the next update will be, but I will try my hardest. Requests for coming chapters are welcome, and is constructive criticism (but no flames please!).