CHAPTER 18 - Cafe Conversations

'You can't force these things brat', his nine-tailed fox tenant-confidante lazily commented as it let out a bored yawn while resting its head on top of its huge paws. Its surroundings, previously filled with brightness, intermittently fanned by autumn-ish wind, has slowly succumbed to the grey and gloom that is its landlord's disposition as of late.

The whiskered blonde continued his silent perusal of the view outside the quaint windowsill from his corner of the cafe. His cerulean blues pensive as his bandaged prosthetic fingers stirred the honey in his tea, while his other arm rested on the table in front of him with fingers gently caressing its surface . 'I know Kurama, and I don't know if what I'm doing will somehow bring things back into its normal course...the way it used to be', his inner voice filled with emotion betrayed his calm facade, 'I'll take friendship than whatever this is she's giving me', his thick blonde eyebrows furrowed with the tightening sensation in his chest. His thoughts then wandered to his recent conversation with Gaara during their quite lengthy spar.

"What's eating you lately Naruto?", the Suna Leader came at him from behind by swiping him clean off the ground with an outer crescent kick. "Get your head in the game", the redhead smirked as his blonde opponent sprung back up a tad slower than he expected, which allowed his front kick to connect smack in the middle of the Jinchuriki's abdomen.

"I'm good, everything's peachy", the Jinchuriki responded after catching his breath while regaining his stance, "if only things weren't so complicated", his exasperation apparent in his raspy voice as he immediately kept up, and parried the redhead's barrage of sidekicks with his forearms, and a counter sidekick of his own, "if only I hadn't been such a dense baka", his frustration both in his voice, in his piercing blue eyes, and in the potent accuracy of his fists, "if only I could take it back", the timbre of his voice rose with his exasperation as he let go of one powerful front kick, which fortunately Gaara was able to parry at the last second, sending him a good thirty meters away, his feet digging a few inches into the ground as he tried to maintain inertia with it.

Seafoam green and cerulean blues locked in on each other, both assessing the opponent's next move. The Suna Leader slowly spoke as he took slow, deliberate steps towards his friend, eyes not breaking contact with the Jinchuriki, "Take back what, Naruto?", he asked while fixing his stance to prepare his attack, fists curling in anticipation of the right moment. The redhead was multitasking inside his head; eyes sharp for any passing of emotion in the blonde's visage, and for any telltale signs of his opponent's next attack.

"Huh...", the whiskers in his cheeks twitched as he snickered in response to Gaara, "...time", he exhaled as both his right foot and arm outstretched to the wary redhead, "...bad decisions", his pensive blue eyes held his friend's impassive green in a trance as both got caught in their inner thoughts, "...missed opportunities", the Jinchuriki's footwork exploring his opponents territory as he started dodging and blocking the Suna Leader's barrage of punches - open hand, eagle hand, closed punch, back fist strike. Gaara's abrupt offensive moves caught Naruto unawares, and only his brute strength saved him by blocking direct hits being thrown by the redhead in succession. Even to an experienced shinobi, the exchange of blows was too fast and complex that everything is almost a blur. Both outmaneuvering and outdoing the other immediately after one scores a blow. The whiskered Jinchuriki may not be a Kage yet but he is definitely of equal if not more, strength and skills as one.

"What are you going to do about it?", asked the redhead as he was again thrown a few meters despite being able to double block with his forearms the successive roundhouse kicks the blonde threw at him. Gaara is a simple man, and a sensible one at that. But like his Jinchuriki friend, his emotions run deep, and his loyalty to his first ever friendship runs the same. The redhead took a moment to straighten from his fighting stance, then gave his blonde friend a serious side-eye, "You can't turn back the hands of time no matter how powerful you have become Naruto", he added when only silence was his whiskered friend's reply, "...you can only move forward like you always do...like you've always done", his fisted hands went up in front of him as he simultaneously roundhoused towards the blonde, "...you've always flourished in adversity", he parried the barrage of open palmed chops and punches from the Jinchuriki, "...you've always had a single mind chasing after your dreams", the redhead threw a fake low kick while his other leg made an outside crescent kick aiming for the blonde's head.

Naruto saw the technique coming from a mile away. Gaara is a strong fighter but Naruto has more brute force and can definitely hold his own in taijutsu, with or without using chakra. He used the force to block the kick to propel himself by flipping towards the side, and letting go of a roundhouse kick, which Gaara was able to avoid at the last second, but only to be caught by a follow through back kick from his other side which knocked him breathless, a few meters from the blonde. He was caught in a feint double roundhouse kick.

"I welcome the challenge Gaara", the whiskers on his handsome face seemed more visible in the quietness of his voice, and the clarity of his blue eyes. "I wouldn't have it any other way", he continued while walking towards his friend, "all is fair in love and war...and all that shit", he proffered strong tanned hands towards the Suna Leader to pull him up, when the familiar voice of his demon tenant yanked him to the present.

'Fair princess incoming at your three o'clock brat', the fox cautioned his landlord-friend, 'she's alone', its nine tails were swinging lazily while it continued to rest its powerful jaws on huge paws, 'now is your chance brat'', the fox's crimson eyes then looked at the Jinchuriki with a flicker of emotion, 'take it slow this time, would you brat?', the fox's unsolicited advice echoed through its "prison". The fox snickered, but deep inside it wished the grey and gloom would depart soon.

"I'll help you with that Hinata", the blonde was immediately in front of the gawking Hyuga hime as he offered assistance. "My table has room, and I'm just about to finish my tea anyway", he already had the blue haired Hyuga's coffee on the table, his wide and muscular back facing the princess, when she finally got a few words out.

"Th...thank you", the heiress snapped out of her astonishment of seeing her team Captain. She probably got too comfortable with Shikamaru unobtrusively protecting her outside of the Kazekage's mansion. "I'm not being a bother, am I", she politely asked, inwardly conscious of her weary appearance. 'It's just Naruto, you stupid girl', she berated herself. Her worn out nerves must be getting to her. She raised her huge lavender eyes, and half-smiled to her team Captain despite her inner turmoil. Her breeding would not allow her to do otherwise, despite the tumultuous circumstance between her and the solicitous blonde in front of her.

"You can never be a bother to me Hinata", Naruto smiled back; his visage apparently elated now that he finally has a moment with the heiress. 'She looks like she's about to drop on her feet any moment', he observed with worry, and commented carefully, "...hmmm...you could just drop the coffee, and try warm milk instead?", he fisted his bandaged hand when he felt the urge to tuck the Hyuga's hair after a few strands from her brushed up bangs escaped her clips. He instead turned to his tea then hesitantly lifted the delicate cup to his lips, while secretly gazing at the heiress as she busied herself dropping sugar cubes on her coffee. "You look like you could use an hour or two of sleep before dinner", he added in a voice laced with concern.

The heiress slowly tucked a whisp of blue hair behind her ear as she raised her slightly surprised pale eyes towards Naruto's face while the latter sported his signature grin. For a fleeting second, she felt a certain warmth touched her core, which bewildered her tired mind and heart. "I'm trying to keep myself steady on my feet because the Kazekage has called for me at...," she raised her wrist to glance at her watch, "...about forty five minutes from now", she glanced back at Naruto briefly with a tired smile before she took a sip of her coffee.

The whiskered Jinchuriki became conscious of his accelerated heartbeat at the mention of his friend. He turned his pensive gaze outside as he tried to calm his temper.

'So it begins brat', his demon fox-friend chimed it, seeming to rub salt on his wound. 'Are you my friend or what?', the Jinchuriki asked irritably. For an onlooker, the only telltale sign of his annoyance is the slight narrowing of his eyes.

The heiress's Hyuga eyes did not miss the various fleeting emotions mirrored in the whiskered blonde's visage. She discreetly turned her gaze outside where Naruto was looking, and saw an attractive pink haired woman on the street, throwing demure glances at their direction as she was chatting with a girl-friend. The heiress drew a sharp inhale which caught Naruto's attention.

"How are you settling in...I mean with everything you need to accomplish in a month's time...", the blonde's raspy voice was tentative but curious, "...I can imagine the workload...especially as you would need to squeeze everything in a month", he added thoughtfully as he sipped the remaining few drops of his tea, his cerulean blues holding the lavender gaze of the Hyuga hime.

"It's as taxing as any full time job", replied the princess humbly before she took another sip of her coffee. Her face now slowly animating, the coffee doing its job quite splendidly.

"I know how dedicated you are when you set your mind on something", cerulean blues caught her in mid-blush which she tried to hide behind her coffee cup.

"I try my best not to make Hokage-sama regret her decision of sending me in the absence of Sakura-san", she responded quietly, with a tinge of poignance that the mention of Sakura's name would sometimes bring her.

There was a brief moment of silence as Naruto carefully weighed his next words. "You are excellent in your own healing techniques Hinata", he ascertained the heiress's silence as she continued sipping her coffee while her beautiful pale eyes pensively looked past him, "...Baachan admires how you devoted significant time and effort leveraging your talents as a Hyuga in the medical field all these years", he straightened his back as he slightly lowered his head towards the heiress, "...don't second guess your abilities as a doctor, and as a Hyuga", he voiced his admiration. Though he has always admired Hinata's skills as a medic and kunoichi in the years of their friendship, he felt the need to openly make her see her real worth this time. He knows how much is on the heiress's plate presently, with this mission, and her coronation upon her return to Konoha. With both her current and future responsibilities - her work is definitely cut out for her. "You're strong Hinata...and wise for your age", he added emphatically, "I'm sure you'll get through everything with flying colors", he beamed in his positivity. Classic Uzumaki Naruto.

The Uzumaki's kindness and child-like optimism brought nostalgia that caused sudden pain in Hinata's throat. She almost choked with the surge of previous forgotten emotions she had long held for the whiskered blonde in front of her. It was sudden and fleeting. But it was there, and she felt it from her core. And now it is gone. And she was bewildered. She tried to grasp the moment but it slipped through her fingers. Like the sand that surrounds her. Her thoughts wandered to Gaara, and she slowly calmed down at least for a brief moment.

"You have always been kind to me Naruto until...", she faltered as she again choked on the bitterness, this time brought by the intimate memories with the blonde. Sometimes, to her it seemed to have happened a lifetime ago, whenever her mind would conquer the pains and doubts in her heart. Now in front of Naruto's kindness, and appreciation, all the regret of what might have been, unexpectedly squeezed her quiet heart, bringing pain and resentment. Her pale lavender eyes held Naruto's blues in varying degrees of tumultuous emotions.

"If you'll excuse me Hinata", the blonde, sensing the heiress's abrupt mood change, slowly stood up as he addressed and reminded her thoughtfully, "Please remember to take quality breaks in between your busy schedule. I'll leave you now to enjoy your coffee", then he made haste to depart the cafe without a backward glance.

Hyuga Hinata gasped in surprise as a fat tear escaped an eye, and caused ripples in her coffee.