"It's going to be weird to be back tomorrow."
"And to see everyone."
"Especially my father."
Naruto cracked a smile at that. "Is this the first time you've ever stood up to him about anything?"
Hinata hid her face in the pillow, slowly nodding against it. "Yeah," she squeaked quietly into the material.
"What a thing to stand up for though," he smiled to himself, almost admirable of Hinata's actions in the past week or so. He chuckled then, "I wouldn't worry too much. I don't think he'll be mad."
"And what makes you say that?" She turned her head slightly, peeking up at him with one eye.
Turning towards her, Naruto lifted an arm and rested his head against it, facing Hinata completely while he studied her with a quiet look. Furrowing his brow a bit, he started thinking to himself, chewing on his bottom lip while he did so.
They were both currently lying side by side on his bed, Naruto's large, soft comforter thrown over both of them. This is how they'd spent their last couple of nights. Lying down together, late at night, talking until the early hours of the morning, unwilling to spend too much time thinking about Hinata's pending departure back to her own home.
Things felt right like this, comforting even, as they remained in each other's company and spoke their insecurities and feelings out loud.
"I think…" he began, searching for the words, "that if your father was smart, he'd be proud of you. I mean, you're going to be the clan head someday, and you're going to have to deal with people who are far more difficult than your father."
"The council." Hinata spoke, nodding.
Naruto nodded back, a wry smile on his lips, "And if you want to get anywhere with them, you're going to definitely have to learn to raise your voice. So, y'know, you're going to have to act like that sometimes when it comes to the council. And if you raise your voice, and stand your ground, I don't think there's a limit as to what you can do when you finally take over."
"I suppose you're right," Hinata said, turning herself onto her side and finally looking at him with both eyes again. "It's just, so uncomfortable sometimes, to think about how I'm going to be leading my clan one day. I mean, I know I can do it, but the thought scares me. I'm not really assertive, and I'm not one for public speaking and all that stuff. I'm not a natural born leader. Like you."
Then Naruto shook his head, a stubborn look on his face and a twinge of annoyance on the corner of his smirk. "Nope. Not true at all."
"Do you not remember any of the amazing things you did back during the war?" He asked, as if shocked by her revelation. "You took the lead for a while they after I ran out of chakra! And I distinctly remember a certain little lady giving me one of the best speeches I've heard in my whole damn life!" He smirked, "Not to mention that slap really did sting."
Hinata blushed, "I really don't know why I hit you. I just—I didn't know how to get you to come back to reality!"
"Don't worry," he said with a smile, "you did exactly what needed to be done. And I'm glad you did it 'cause I don't know who else would've been able to knock my senses back to me. Thank you."
Hinata smiled sadly, tears in the corners of her eyes. "I'm sure Neji would've been the able to."
Naruto silenced for a long moment, his expression sad as he thought about his fallen friend.
"Why?" He asked, tears falling, "Why would you give your life?"
"Because," Neji said, smiling despite the blood pouring out of his mouth, "I was called a genius."
"I always thought Neji would be the one to change the Hyuuga." He spoke after a couple quiet minutes. He glanced at Hinata out of the corner of his eye and found her watching him quietly, patiently waiting for him to continue. "I mean, not that I didn't think you could, it's just… he changed so much y'know? He's changed more than any person I know—maybe besides Sasuke, I guess—and he was just on the path to do so many awesome things!"
When Hinata reached over, grabbed his hand-which he'd unknowingly balled into a fist—and began gently running her fingers over his knuckles, he then realized how tense he'd grown, thinking about their fallen friend.
"I know. And you're right. Father could see it too, I know it. We could all sense the change that was happening; it was so easy to see over the past few years. I think that's why the council have grown weary and stubborn recently; they know change was bound to happen and they don't like that."
Naruto nodded, clearly on the same track as her. "It's just, funny how things are working out now. Like, Neji gave up his life for you and me, and now it's up to us to do what he couldn't."
"Exactly," Hinata said, nodding the entire time he spoke. "That's exactly what it's like."
They both grew quiet once more, Hinata still gently running her fingers over his fist, eventually helping to calm him enough that all his tension dissipated. Smiling, he laced their fingers together, holding her hand firmly within his.
After a while, he closed his eyes, resting their interlocked hands on his chest where the steady feeling of his chest rising and falling helped a soothing feeling overcome her. She could feel herself begin to fall asleep, her conscious mind beginning to shut down, when he finally spoke again.
Despite the heavy tiredness in her eyes, she forced them open and squinted towards him, barely making out his face under the darkness of the blanket.
"For what?" She mumbled out, stretching her legs slightly as she repositioned herself onto her stomach to lay more comfortably.
"For always being there for me."
"I wasn't really—"
"No, you were, I just didn't start noticing until recently. I wish I'd known when we were kids."
"I wish I'd spoken up when we were kids."
He smiled softly at her, "I guess it's pointless to think about."
"I suppose," she yawned.
They fell into silence once more, this one a bit heavier than the previous. Instead of falling asleep Hinata remained awake, focusing on hers and Naruto's intertwined hands. Just the feeling of his skin against her own was soothing enough to make everything feel right, despite the turmoil they had both gone through recently.
"I'm gonna miss this," he said after several long minutes. Hinata merely nodded in agreement, too uncertain whether her voice would quiver or not if she were to verbally agree. Truthfully, she was a bit scared to return to her home the following morning. Granted, it would be to both mourn with her clan and be with her family, but she knew she'd miss this terribly.
"Me too," she eventually forced the words out, carrying hardly over a whisper.
"This isn't the end though, right?" Naruto asked, as if nervous and unsure about their future. "I mean, we can also do this again… if you ever want to come over that is. 'Cause I'm sure if I tried going over there and spending the night your dad might not like me so much."
Hinata couldn't help but giggle. "Are you scared of him?"
"As a ninja? I'm not scared of anybody!" He declared with a determined look and a slight pout on his face. "But as your father? Well, maybe scared isn't the word but like… I do love his daughter so I can imagine things would be… what's the word…?"
"Love?" Hinata squeaked the word out, her heart just about stopping.
He raised an eyebrow, "What? No not love, I think the word I'm looking for is awkward. Maybe nerve-racking—"
"No, no not that," she cut him off, eyes wide and heart suddenly pounding a thousand beats a minute—it was all she could hear in her head. "You said… you said something before that…"
He stared at her, as if confused for a quick moment, but as he thought to himself, clearly replaying his words in his mind, his eyes widened and his mouth opened, hanging there perhaps in shock, certainly in embarrassment.
It took him about a minute to meet her gaze but when he did, she could immediately see the truth there in his blue eyes.
"I—I didn't mean to say that but," he appeared to be mentally fighting with himself to find the right words, "that doesn't mean I don't mean it." He mumbled nervously, his face lighting up bright red. His admission made her feel like she was floating, her body separating from her mind as the realization set in. She felt as if she were suddenly immersed in a strange dreamland; her grip on his finger loosened and she wasn't sure she could even feel his hand anymore.
"Y-you still love me, right?"
And the way he looked at her made her breath catch in her throat. Was this what it was like to see someone try and confess their love? Was this expression-that was currently on his face-the way she'd looked when she'd first told him she'd loved him? She didn't think so cause she didn't recall facing him as she confessed, but she wondered if this was how it felt for all people, to see the one they love try and confess.
The accelerated heartbeat, the rapid breathing, the hypersensitivity to every feeling and sound around her; this was a moment she knew she was going to commit to memory and cement in the back of her mind, to go and replay over and over for the rest of her life.
In reply, she kissed him. Leaning forward and capturing his lips with her own. Letting go of his hand she placed her hands on his cheeks—she could feel stubble beginning to form—and when she pulled away she looked him in the eyes, her heart bursting when she saw his nervous tears threatening to spill forth.
"Yes, Naruto-kun," she breathed out. "I love you. I still do, and I don't think that will ever change."
He immediately began blinking back his tears as he let out a dry laugh, his breath hitting her square in the face. "I think I realized it when we kissed the other day but…" his next laugh was more nervous and less fearful. "But I think I know it for real now."
He placed a hand against her own cheek, making sure to hold eye contact with her as he smiled brightly.
"Hinata, I love you."
Despite knowing that the words were coming, they hit her hard, knocking the breath and the composure straight out of her chest. She didn't know why she started crying, but he'd hardly gotten the words out before he was pulling her against him, holding her tightly.
"Why are you crying?" He asked, a tinge of worry and panic in his voice as he held her close. She could feel his breath across the top of her head.
"I just," she inhaled deeply, trying hard to regain composure, "I'm just so happy because I never thought that would happen and I thought I'd have to get over it and move on because I thought it was pointless and hopeless and—and—"
Trying to keep her tears from turning into full-blown sobs she buried her face into his chest and tried breathing steady, in and out, and in and out. But with each breath she inhaled it merely escaped as a chocked, tired sob.
"Shh, I love you. I love you Hinata. I love you. I love you. I love you."
He began planting kisses all over her, pressing his lips against her forehead, her cheeks, her nose, and of course her lips, in between each display of affection he'd whisper another "I love you", not leaving her with any opportunity to further voice her old insecurities.
It was his way of silencing her unease, his way of telling her "its okay, don't worry, I'm here now, I have you, and I'm not going anywhere".
So when she began calming down, and replying to his words with her own repeated chorus of "I love you", he loosened his grip on her, allowing her to more easily reciprocate his kisses.
Eventually, both time and their emotions wore them down enough that they could feel the grip of sleep begin to pull them both into unconsciousness.
With a final peck on the lips, Hinata nuzzled into Naruto's chest as he wrapped his arms fully around her, keeping her close.
"Goodnight, Naruto-kun. I love you."
She could feel his smile against her head. "I love you, too."
And with Naruto's confession, their sleepless nights finally became worthwhile.
"I think this is the earliest I've woken up in like… three weeks maybe?"
Yawning loudly, Naruto stretched his arms over his head and cracked his neck in a few different directions, causing Hinata to cringe and then laugh.
"Probably," she agreed with a small laugh. "I don't think I've woken up this early since before the war actually." She frowned slightly at her train of thought. "Neji and I used to train so early sometimes. Around sunrise usually."
Naruto smirked, placing his hands behind his head as they walked down the street. "Was he a morning person?"
"It depends… on the way you mean it. He woke up early, but he was always very grumpy about it so I'm not too sure he enjoyed it." She laughed, thinking about a memory. "He was always well-put together when I saw him for training. But one time when TenTen and Lee came to get him—I guess he'd slept in accidentally—I saw him with the worst bed-head on any person I'd ever seen." She laughed again and Naruto couldn't help but laugh along with her. "I remember TenTen laughing as she pulled him outside that she promised to braid his hair for him once they got settled into their mission."
Naruto let out a loud, genuine laugh at that thought—Neji, grumpy from being woken up, sitting as TenTen happily braided his hair.
"I haven't seen her in a couple weeks," he commented, his voice growing quieter.
"She's doing alright. Much better."
"I heard she was staying with Lee?"
"She was," Hinata nodded, "but she's back at her own place now."
"Ah," he nodded as well, lowering his hands to put into the pockets of his black funeral clothes. "I should stop by and say hi."
"She'd like that, I'm sure," Hinata smiled, encouragingly. "We'll see her there today—Lee too—I'm sure of it."
"Not Kakashi-sensei," Naruto frowned. "He's off somewhere doing more political stuff for granny Tsunade."
"I don't know if Kurenai will be there, now that I think about it," Hinata frowned. "She's been so busy at home with the baby, I can't see her coming."
"It's okay. I mean, it doesn't really matter who shows up. The fact that there's a ceremony of this proportion is enough."
"That's true," Hinata nodded. She was still in shock and awe over the fact that her clan was doing something like this; something that had never happened before in the entire history of her clan. A funeral and memorial for clan members that weren't part of the main branch was never a possibility before.
Looking up at Naruto, she held back her smile.
At least… it had never been possible before Naruto…
"Sakura-chan should be there though," Naruto confirmed. "I saw her yesterday and talked to her about it."
"Talked to me about what?"
Turning to their left, Naruto smiled widely and waved. "Hey Sakura-chan! Where are you going?"
"I've got to drop these off at the Hokage tower real quick." She spoke, waving to Hinata as she approached, gesturing to the files and books she held in her arms. "It's just forms and logs from the South gate," she informed them, readjusting their hold on them.
"Naruto-kun was telling me you'll be at the ceremony today?"
She nodded, lifting a knee to help her readjust the hold on the heavier books. "Yep. I might be a couple minutes late, since I need to track Shizune down to give these to her. But I'll be there."
"Oh, okay then. See you soon!"
"Yeah, it's good to see you guys!" Her smile was wide and Hinata could tell her words were genuine, but she couldn't help but see the small tinge of sadness in Sakura's eyes as the girl noted their proximity with one another.
Waving goodbye as they parted ways, Hinata continued to walk the path to the Hyuuga compound with Naruto at her side. But before they turned down one final road, something stopped her—a sudden strange feeling overcame her.
Halting in her tracks she turned and looked over her shoulder, only to see Sakura—who was still struggling with carrying the mess of papers in her hands—stumble slightly, sending a couple of books flying to the ground.
Yet before they could make contact with the dirt below, sending papers flying in all sorts of directions, Hinata watched with a pleasant surprise as Sasuke seemed to appear out of nowhere, catching the log books. After a long moment, with Sakura gaping at him, he spoke—Hinata couldn't make out his words from where they were—presented them back to her before helping her readjust her hold on them and then turning and walking away.
"Come on," she heard Naruto speak softly to her, his arm suddenly wrapped around her shoulder as he steered her around the corner and further down the road.
Before Hinata could say anything to him about what she'd seen, she looked up at him only to find him smiling contently to himself. No doubt that he'd witnessed it as well.
As they walked and Naruto kept his arm around her, Hinata couldn't help but feel her cheeks redden slightly. Especially when she began to recognize people walking around the streets, noting how they watched the couple walk by.
As they approached the compound, Hinata felt herself freeze up. There was a small crowd also walking in that direction, many dressed in the same funeral clothes that Naruto and Hinata were currently donning.
"Hey," Naruto stopped, placing a hand on her shoulder and turning her to face him, "you're alright."
"I know," she confessed, "I'm just… I don't know if I'm ready to say goodbye."
Removing his hand, Naruto shoved his hands in his pockets and stood back slightly. Hinata watched as he turned down the road, in the direction of the compound, and simply stared in silence.
"Well," he began after a long minute of standing still while other ninja and villagers walked by. "I don't think this is saying 'goodbye' for good."
Hinata raised an eyebrow, her fingers beginning to fidget as she played with the black cloth of her sleeve. "How so?"
"Neji is dead, that's true." Hinata assumed that he was pretending not to notice her flinch, and instead he kept talking. "But that doesn't mean he's gone. Remember?" Hinata looked confused. "He's right here," he placed a hand over his heart and smiles softly at her, "and here."
Walking up to her he grabbed her wrist and lifted her arm, finally releasing her hand one it was placed firmly over her chest.
"See?" He asked, "He's not gone for good. You just gotta keep him right there. Got it?"
Hinata smiled, her eyes watery and her lip trembling. "Yeah," she nodded, her hand over her heart turning into a fist. "I got it."
"Now come on," holding out his hand for her, he turned back toward the direction of the Hyuuga compound and waited. "Let's go."
Closing her eyes, Hinata took a deep breath and held it, thinking long and hard about her cousin who gave his life for her and Naruto—for the sake of the future of the entire shinobi world. Despite her pain, she knew that if she could speak with him one last time and ask him if he had any regrets, he'd scoff and tell her to worry about something else.
He'd tell her not to waste her life. He'd tell her that he was thankful for her, for Naruto.
He'd be happy.
And with that, the image of Neji's smiling face in her mind, encouraging her to keep going, she opened her eyes only to see Naruto's smiling face standing before her, hand still waiting.
So as she grabbed his hand, relishing in the warmth and comfort the gesture gave her, she steeled herself. By Naruto's side and holding his hand she walked forward, toward her home, and toward her future.
She nodded. "Let's go."
A/N: Thank you for everyone who has stuck with, not just this story, but with me for the past several months. It's been a long time since the last chapter was posted, and this story is going on it's eighth month since I've published the first chapter, but so many of you have been nothing but loving and encouraging ever since this story began. Thank you. Thank you thank you thank you.
All that I ask if you leave a review, maybe recommend it to a friend. It's completed now, so no more fear for that.
I hope you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading.