A/N: Chapter 24 has landed!

Nope, don't own Naruto.

Chapter XXIV: Blossoms of a Different Sort

The sun had sunk further into the west, sending splashes of yellow-orange along the horizon. No clouds dared show themselves today, and the air was crisp and fresh. Konoha and Kumo shared similar climates during the late afternoon, but Kumo was slightly colder. Konoha still had the better sunsets, on account of being able to watch the sun actually set.

Sasuke sat on a bench, his hands folded in his lap, his onyx gaze fixated on the grass in front of him. Dinner at Ichiraku's was nice, especially after delivering such a lengthy report to the Hokage. He'd been in good spirits the whole time, but he opted to take some time for himself after the meal. True to form, Naruto asked Sasuke if he needed him. While he appreciated the gesture, Sasuke was insistent that he just needed time to sort through his thoughts and that he'd meet him at home. So, there he sat: his mind abuzz, the river behind him lazily flowing while a few birds sang in nearby trees.

"Sasuke?" The voice was soft, ringing like a small bell. The Uchiha brought his head up and turned to its owner: Hinata Hyūga. Normally, he'd be on the verge of fainting, but not today.

"Oh, Hinata. What brings you here?" He tried to sound genuinely curious, but his mind was elsewhere.

"I should be asking you that," she joked as she glided towards the bench. "Do…you mind if I sit?"

Sasuke answered by scooting over, allowing her some room. She gave a small bow before taking her seat, resting her hands on her knees. "So, why are you here? I figured you would be with Naruto."

"I…had some things on my mind," Sasuke replied.

Hinata hummed, fidgeting slightly. "Do…you want to talk about it?" Her voice was gentle as always.

Normally he'd be hesitant to share, but he trusted Hinata to a degree. Judging by their last conversation, there was something to be said about the common ground they shared. "It's about the mission. And…my brother."

Hinata's jaw set, her voice even quieter than before. "Is he…"

A sigh escaped Sasuke. "The one who killed my clan? Yeah, he is. We captured him and brought him back so he could answer for his crimes." He let out a huff through his nose. "Itachi Uchiha will face justice."

She turned her lavender gaze to him. "You seem…troubled," she said with a hint of concern.

The Uchiha heir paused before speaking quietly. "You could say that."

Hinata fidgeted with her fingers. She was never one to pry, but she felt compelled to get him to open up. "Um…would you like to tell me how the trip home was?"

"Uneventful. Surprisingly, Itachi didn't bother trying to escape. His eyes are sealed and he's currently sitting in a cell, likely in chains. Everyone else went home after we had dinner together."

The Hyūga princess let out a hum, nodding. A moment of silence passed, interrupted only by the occasional chirping bird. "Is there something else, Sasuke?" Hinata asked, her voice soft but sincere.

Sasuke was still hesitant. He chewed the inside of his cheek as he considered letting loose the mélange of thoughts and emotions that swirled within him. After a moment, he took a deep breath. "There is something else, yes."

She immediately turned to face him. "You can talk to me about it…i-if you want to, of course," she stammered.

Sasuke turned to meet her lavender gaze, blushing slightly when he did. It was nigh on impossible to say no to her when she looked at him like that. "I'm just not sure how to feel."

"A-about what?"

"Itachi is in prison awaiting trial. I got…some of the answers I wanted. But for some reason I feel…"

"Like you don't have closure," Hinata whispered.

Sasuke sighed, dropping his gaze from her lavender pools. "Yeah. That's it. Closure." He collected his thoughts before continuing. "You know, when I was younger, I was hell-bent on killing him; hell-bent on getting revenge and avenging my parents and my clan. But as time passed, I realized I only thought I wanted revenge. What I really wanted were answers; answers as to why he did what he did, whether he cared that he was a murderer. He answered most of my questions, but I decided to wait until we got back to ask him the rest of them."

She went back to fidgeting with her fingers. "You said you got some answers, right?"

He gave a small nod. "The only thing is, well, they just—"

"They weren't what you were expecting, were they?" She prompted without missing a beat.

How she was able to finish that sentence, he didn't know. Was he that obvious? "I—w-well yeah. I…can't get into specifics, b-but that's basically it," he stammered, fighting to extinguish the fires that threatened to burn his cheeks and ears from within.

Hinata decided to press on, taking a leap of faith. "Um, Sasuke? If you don't mind me asking, how do you feel about him?"

He stiffened ever so slightly, his breath hitching. His mouth went dry as another pause settled over them. After a deep breath to compose himself, Sasuke finally found his voice. "I…I'm not sure, to be honest. I know he's still my brother, if only by technicality and birth, but…he hasn't been my brother since that night."

"You said you wanted to kill him when you were younger. Is…is that still the case?"

"No. That's what he wants. He wants an easy way out by my hand. I'm not letting him get that—I won't play his game," he said icily.

Hinata couldn't help but flinch at the intensity of his denial. "I-I'm sorry. I d-didn't mean to strike a n-nerve…"

"You didn't," Sasuke blurted, making her jump slightly. He awkwardly cleared his throat. "You didn't strike a nerve. It's just…"

"Y-you don't have to tell me if you don't want to. I understand if it's t-too personal," she said in a small voice.

Sasuke shook his head. She was too polite for her own good. "No, it's fine, really. It's just…it's complicated. I don't want to play into his hands any more than I have already. I rejected his idea of hating him. I rejected the path of solitude. I want him to face justice, to live with the knowledge that his blade was the one that cut down so many of our clansmen and our own parents."

A sigh escaped the Hyūga. "So you don't hate him? Even after everything?"

"Hating someone is an active thing. It takes effort to hate someone. Put simply: I don't care about him anymore. I have better things to worry about." He turned his onyx gaze back to her. "You know, you never answered my question. What brought you here?"

"Oh, my home is just down the road from here. I was going to go train before it got too dark," she explained.

Sasuke hummed. "Were you at the Jasmine Dragon?" He asked, changing the subject.

"I was. But I was bringing Kurenai-sensei some tea and sweets. Just some dango, nothing too sweet. She has to watch what she eats because of the baby," she answered.

"Is she doing alright?"

"She's fine, her pregnancy is going well, based on what the doctors say."

Sasuke decided to delve a little deeper. "What about your training?"

Hinata flinched slightly. "I, um…it's fine, I suppose. Father was actually willing to help me some. Neji said he'd help me, too, but he never said exactly when," she said as she fidgeted with her fingers.

He couldn't help but steal glances at her hands. They were porcelain-colored with slender fingers and unpainted nails. They weren't calloused and roughed up like his. Rather, they looked as though they had a gentle strength about them. Strength that she used to selflessly support her friends. His cheeks and ears warmed as his mind wandered to the thought of holding her hand in his.

He cleared his throat, regaining his composure. "That's good, though. At least he said he would help you."

She gave a small hum in acknowledgment. "I suppose so. I miss spending time with him."

"He's like a brother to you, isn't he?"

"He is. Even though we're cousins, we were practically raised together."

It was Sasuke's turn to hum. He wouldn't admit it out loud, but he envied the relationship that Hinata had with her cousin. Though it was rocky, their current dynamic was something he wished he could have had with Itachi. Of course, he didn't see Itachi that way anymore—Naruto had taken the place of brother in his life.

"Um, Sasuke?"

The Uchiha turned to her, his brows raised expectantly.

"I…I'm sorry you're faced with the situation you're in. That can't be easy for you." She fidgeted with her fingers again. "I-I know we haven't spoken a whole lot, b-but if you ever need to talk, I'm more than willing to listen. Y-you said that I wasn't alone—that I had my teammates and my friends. And…well, we're friends, so the same goes for you. You don't have to face this alone, either."

Sasuke's heart skipped a beat as his breath hitched. His mouth suddenly felt like it was stuffed with cotton. He swallowed hard, taking a breath to compose himself. "Th-thank you, Hinata. That…that m-means a lot."

A light dusting of pink appeared on her cheeks. "Um, is…is it alright if I…um…g-give you a hug?"

Sasuke went stiff as a board as his eyes widened, unable to stop his cheeks and ears from turning tomato red. He gave the tiniest nod, his eyes impossibly wide as he fought to stay conscious. Her arms wrapped around him, gently pulling him towards her. He awkwardly returned the embrace, struggling to keep from fainting.

His heartbeat thundered in his ears as he felt a warmth wash over him. He smelled lavender and plum blossom, only now realizing his nose was practically buried in her dark blue locks. His heart skipped a few more beats. He swore he could feel all the concern and care that she naturally radiated. Hugs from his mother were always warm and comforting, and Hinata's hug reminded him of them. What felt like an eternity passed before she let go, her cheeks still bearing a light blush.

"I, um, I should get going. Father is probably expecting me by now. Take care, Sasuke," she said as she rose from the bench and made her way towards the Hyūga compound, trying to get her blush under control before she made it home.

Sasuke dumbly watched after her, unable to speak. The only response to her goodbye that he could produce was more akin to a squeak. Once she disappeared from sight, he let out the breath he didn't realize he'd been holding. He raked his fingers through his hair, struggling to believe that what had just happened was real. He sat for a little longer, collecting himself and his thoughts before he set off for his apartment.

The delegation sent to Kumo was enjoying a morning free of any training or work when they were summoned to the Hokage Tower. Sakura was already up and enjoying coffee with Ino. Sasuke and Naruto were all but dragged out of bed from their hibernation, and Haku was having a cup of tea. Though he could move his arm just as well as before, he kept it bandaged to allow it to heal fully. Sakura did what she could to stop the bleeding and heal it in the field, but he received proper treatment at the hospital from Shizune and Tsunade. Per the latter's instructions, he kept it wrapped up for the time being.

The four friends met along the central road, making their way to the Hokage Tower at a rather leisurely pace. There wasn't much conversation to be had, aside from speculation as to why the Hokage could be summoning them. Maybe they were getting a bonus since it was an S-ranked mission that yielded Konoha's most notorious missing nin as a prisoner.

They wouldn't have to wonder for long as they ascended the steps and knocked on the heavy wooden door of Tsunade's office. The muffled voices silenced for a moment before Tsunade called them in. With a click, Naruto opened the door, revealing Tsunade, Shizune, Kakashi, Konan, and Yamato waiting for them.

The four chūnin stiffened slightly as they approached the Hokage's desk, all eyes in the room watching them closely. Naruto broke the silence that hung in the air. "You, uh…you called for us, Granny?"

He was met with more silence before Tsunade stood and walked to the front of her desk, facing the four chūnin with crossed arms. Her honey eyes glanced between them before she took a deep breath. The four friends braced themselves for the unexpected.

She spoke with an authoritative tone, turning her gaze to each chūnin as she named them. "Naruto Uzumaki: Ninja Registration Number 012607. Sakura Haruno: Ninja Registration Number 012601. Sasuke Uchiha: Ninja Registration Number 012606. Haku Yuki: Ninja Registration Number 012628. Based on the skills demonstrated during your most recent missions, and upon the recommendations of jōnin Kakashi Hatake and Yamato, I hereby grant all four of you the rank of tokubetsu jōnin, along with all the rights and privileges associated. Konohagakure thanks you for your service."

The four ninja's jaws hit the floor, each of their eyes widening. Tsunade's words echoed in their minds as they stared at her. Shizune stifled a giggle at the sight of their incredulous expressions. Even Kakashi and Yamato couldn't help but smirk.

Haku broke the silence first, immediately throwing himself into a deep bow. "Thank you very much, Lady Hokage."

Sasuke and Sakura followed suit, the latter pushing Naruto's head down to join them. The trio offered their thanks, though Naruto still affectionately referred to her as "Granny," earning a growl from the woman and a smack to the head from Sakura.

"I'm proud of all of you. You've grown a lot in a short amount of time. Taking on the Akatsuki is no small feat, especially while on a mission to a foreign village," Tsunade beamed. She turned to her two protégés. "Sakura, Haku, take some time off. Especially you, Haku. That arm of yours needs a little more time to heal. I'll call for you when you're needed. Just be ready. Part of being a jōnin, even a tokubetsu jōnin, is being ready for unexpected missions. But that's for later. Get some rest. You're all dismissed, except for Sasuke."

Said Uchiha's jaw set as he gave a single nod. Tsunade and Shizune waited for everyone to clear out before the Hokage turned her attention back to the Uchiha heir. A mix of anticipation and dread settled in the pit of his stomach as he pressed his lips into a thin line.

"Itachi Uchiha requested your presence," Tsunade stated.

A furrowed brow and deep frown darkened Sasuke's face. "With all due respect, Lady Tsunade, I have no interest in seeing him until his trial date."

"Be that as it may, he was insistent. Even going so far as to say he won't talk until he's had a conversation with you."

"Doesn't T&I have ways to get him to talk?"

"Normally, yes. But his health is in a bad way."

Sasuke tensed, swallowing hard; tells that Tsunade took notice of. "Is that so?" Sasuke asked, trying to maintain an aloof façade.

The Hokage cocked an eyebrow. "Were you aware that he's ill?"

Another flinch rattled the Uchiha heir. He took a deep breath to steady his rapid heart. "I noticed something odd about him, yes. When I fought him, he coughed quite a bit. At a couple points, he coughed up blood, and not an insignificant amount, either."

"I see," she said quietly, having her suspicions confirmed. "Well, I know you don't particularly want to speak to him, but perhaps you don't have to. I'll be there with you, of course. But he might have more answers for the both of us," she offered as she watched his face shift into a pensive expression.

Sasuke heaved a deep sigh. "Fine. I'll hear what he has to say."

Tsunade approached him and gently gripped his shoulder. "His eyes are still sealed, and he's got some pretty strong chakra suppression seals. He's not going anywhere."

Sasuke merely nodded as he set off with the Hokage to Itachi's holding cell, leaving Shizune to her duties.

"For a proud sensei, you don't show much of that pride outwardly, do you?" Konan remarked towards her silver-haired escort. She wouldn't admit it aloud, but she was glad Kakashi was her escort home today. The other ANBU never said a word. While the silence was appreciated, she'd come to miss the cyclops.

The jōnin in question merely shrugged. "Pride manifests itself in different ways, I suppose. You're sort of his sensei, too. Are you proud of him?"

"Without question. Kisame is not an opponent to be taken lightly. Neither was Itachi. Truth be told, it's immensely impressive that Itachi was captured alive," she answered without missing a beat.

"If I didn't know any better, I'd say you're getting quite attached to him," Kakashi said coolly.

Konan pursed her lips. "Is it not natural to form some amount of attachment to your students? You, as a sensei, should know a thing or two about that."

"Well, you're not entirely wrong. You know, the Chūnin Exams are coming up. Naruto will likely be assigned as a proctor to keep things in check. Especially considering that intel you gave us," he said with nonchalance.

"I know. But I think he's ready. Do you?"

"After what I saw in the Land of Lightning, I think so. He's come a long way since he first started training with his eyes. Even farther than when he first became a shinobi. He managed to use that lightning Rasengan. His proficiency with fire chakra is about on-par with other fire users in Konoha, as well."

Konan hummed as they neared her provided apartment. "Actually, that reminds me. How did Naruto do on the mission? I wasn't there when you gave your report to the Hokage."

"He did well," Kakashi began. "Though, something interesting did happen."

Konan raised an eyebrow. "What sort of something?"

"He used 'those' abilities," Kakashi said plainly.

The azure-haired woman cast her gaze to the ground as they approached her door. Without a word, she unlocked it, opening it slightly before turning to her escort. "Come in. I'd like to know more about what happened."

Kakashi gave a single nod, following Konan through and setting his sandals aside while she prepared a pot of tea. The apartment was decorated simply: a few pictures, some flowers, and some simple but nice-looking curtains. A faint, sweet scent of violet and lilac hung in the air. A framed piece of paper, bearing the kanji for "light" written with a traditional brush hung on the wall.

He took a seat at the table just as the water boiled and Konan poured it into the teapot, letting it steep for a moment before pouring him a cup. He took it with a nod of gratitude before she took her seat across from him.

After taking a sip of tea, she fixed her amber gaze on his half-lidded eye. "So. Tell me what happened with 'those' abilities."

Kakashi hummed. "Well, I told him to not use any of his Rinnegan abilities unless the situation was dire."

"And what constitutes 'dire' for you?"

"Depends on what you think," he replied coolly.

Konan raised another brow. "Teammates or oneself being in imminent, inescapable danger?"

"Of course. Yamato's team was trapped by Kisame's water prison, and Haku was injured. Naruto decided to use his abilities to help them out of that situation. After they were out of harm's way, he engaged Kisame one-on-one," Kakashi recounted, his tea sitting untouched.

The azure-haired woman took another sip. "How did he do?"

"From what I saw, he did well. He's a natural with those abilities. He wasn't fatigued at all. Certainly gave Kisame a run for his money."

Konan hummed before Kakashi continued. "There was one thing that happened that I wanted to ask you about."

She cocked an eyebrow, an expectant look in her amber eyes that was met with Kakashi's stoic, half-lidded gaze. "He did something that was near mythic in scale."

Konan froze, holding her teacup in midair as she stared at her masked guest. "Chibaku Tensei," she breathed in disbelief.

"So that's what it's called. Created quite a sizable ball of rock."

She set her teacup down, trying to steady her hands. Kakashi couldn't help but notice how delicately she held the porcelain vessel. She drew a breath to steady herself before speaking softly. "He's obviously in one piece after using that. But how large was the ball of rock?"

Kakashi merely shrugged. "Probably the size of the arena we use for the Chūnin Exams."

Konan pursed her lips. She inwardly breathed a sigh of relief. Too much chakra would have created a larger planetoid, which would have drawn attention to himself, which would mean his secret would be revealed. She ran her fingers along the teacup. "I told him that jutsu is a last resort. It's taxing, to say the least. I would have never guessed…"

"Is it so hard to believe? He released quite a bit of the Nine-Tails' chakra in his last major fight. He's emotional. No doubt, Haku getting hurt spurred his decision. When he wants to protect his friends, he makes sure he gets the job done. Personally, I think he did what he had to. Kisame was quite an opponent. Even I had trouble keeping up with him. Though, I did almost exhaust myself with my Sharingan," he admitted with a sheepish grin.

Konan gave a small nod, taking another sip of her tea. Kakashi decided to venture further. "Is there anything I should know about Itachi Uchiha?"

It was her turn to shrug. "He's quiet. Never really said much. He followed orders, so we left him well enough alone. He didn't get along with Kisame at first, but eventually they warmed up to each other. Enough to where their capture of the Four-Tails was successful, though Kisame did complain from time to time about him. He always did seem to have his mind somewhere else, though. Almost as though he was only half listening."

"I see. Anything else that was notable?"

Konan shook her head, her azure locks dancing as she did so. She took a moment and reconsidered, digging through her memories. "I do remember him coughing more than most. As though he were sick with something. Kisame mentioned it now and again."

Kakashi raised a brow at this. "Did Itachi ever mention anything?"

"Not a word. He was very tight-lipped and dismissive about it."

"Interesting. Anything else?"

"Nothing I can think of at the moment. Now that he's in custody, I'm sure he'll be put through the same paces I was—maybe worse. He was a rogue nin from here, after all," she remarked.

Kakashi hummed. She only just now noticed that some of his tea was gone. When had he taken a sip? Or multiple, for that matter? She pushed those thoughts aside, finding herself wanting to change topics, if only to keep talking to Kakashi.

"Has Naruto always been so steadfast and determined?"

"More than you know," he responded plainly. "His personality is practically contagious. He's even rubbed off on Sasuke and a bit onto Sakura. He and Sasuke's friendship served as a catalyst to bring Sakura closer to them when they were genin. I would have made them do more team exercises, but they'd already grown close enough that they were more than willing to work together."

"And Haku?"

"Ah, yes. He's an interesting one. We actually found him while we were on our first mission outside the village."

"And what's the story there, if you don't mind telling?" Konan pressed on.

"He was working with Zabuza Momochi to assassinate a target in Wave Country. True to form, Naruto changed his heart. He convinced him that shinobi aren't just tools to be used and discarded. They grew closer on our return home and have been friends ever since."

Konan hummed, marveling at Naruto's ability to change people for the better. He seemed to radiate warmth and positivity, so it was no wonder his friends were so devout. Especially when that same devotion was reciprocated.

"If you don't mind me asking, what do you plan to do once your probation period is over?" Kakashi asked.

Konan took a sip of tea, considering his question for a moment. "I think I'll stay here, if the Hokage will allow it."

"Oh? What made you decide that?"

"I like it here. It's so much sunnier than Ame, and the flowers are much more abundant," she said, a small smile adorning her face. "And, truth be told, Naruto has grown on me. Aside from that, like I said before, there's really not much left for me in Ame. Nagato and Yahiko are buried there, but those are just corpses. I…feel as though they'd want me to be happy. And I feel that if I returned to Ame and tried to take up the mantle of being its leader, I'd never be able to be what they want, much less what they need."

"I see. Do you think you'll go back at all?"

Konan let out a sigh. "Perhaps. If only to make sure they take care of themselves. It just doesn't feel like home." An idea crept its way into her mind. "Do you mind if I ask you something?"

"Depends on the question," he responded monotonously.

"Well, even though I knew Yahiko and Nagato beforehand, we were teammates when we became shinobi. That strengthened our bond even more. You mentioned that you wanted Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura to be able to work together as a team. What made you want to emphasize teamwork so much? Aside from the obvious benefits."

Kakashi froze; a reaction that didn't go unnoticed. She must have hit a sensitive spot, but also hoped that a line hadn't been crossed. She winced internally, but waited to see if he would answer.

He'd always been a very private person. Not even Team 7 knew much about him outside of his work ethic as a shinobi. They didn't even know his favorite foods: salt-broiled saury and miso soup with eggplant. He usually just tagged along to eat with them at Ichiraku's because that's what a good and proud sensei would do.

His thoughts immediately went to his late teammates. Not many could tell, but he bore the burden of their deaths on his shoulders. Even less knew that his teammates were among the most important people in his life that were now gone. Team 7 was important to him, but he feared Obito and Rin's cruel fate would befall them.

As silence settled over the apartment, Kakashi debated whether he wanted to be truthful in his answer. Konan hadn't been here terribly long, so he didn't have much of a reason to reveal his past to her. Still, he couldn't shake the feeling that he could trust her—something he hadn't felt with anyone besides Rin and Obito. As it bloomed in his chest, he decided to take the leap of faith.

"I lost my teammates in the Third Shinobi World War. The last thing I want is for them to experience that kind of loss, that kind of pain," he stated quietly.

Konan gave a tiny nod, her own voice quiet like a gentle breeze. "I understand. I lost one of my teammates and closest friends during the conflict against Hanzō the Salamander."

Ever perceptive, they both noticed the guilt in each other's tone. Amber met onyx as they spoke in unison. "You blame yourself, don't you?"

Both quickly averted their eyes, Kakashi clearing his throat while Konan tried to will the dusting of pink on her cheeks to disappear. She eyed his now empty cup, incredulous that he'd managed to finish it without moving his mask even once. After an awkward silence, Kakashi rose from his seat.

"I should probably get going. Thank you for the tea, Konan. And for the conversation," he said, ending on a sincere note.

Konan nodded as she collected their teacups and placed them in the sink. "Of course. Thank you for telling me about what happened. And…likewise, for the conversation," she answered. She saw him off as he left her apartment.

Neither knew why, but they both felt the desire to see the other again. Perhaps under different circumstances.

A/N: I know I've said this before, but I really do think fluff is a great palette cleanser after a lot of plot/action. I had a lot of fun writing the interactions between Sasuke, Hinata, Kakashi, and Konan. Writing Naruto and his friends getting promoted was also pretty satisfying. Thanks so much for reading! Chapter 25 is in the works!