The Chase

Third Wheel

At the back of his mind, Sasuke knew it was against his best interest to strangle the shopkeeper in front of him. But Sakura's words replayed in his head and there was a need to respond. He knew all the methods to gain information. All of which were prohibited, but it didn't stop him from imagining it.

As if sensing it, he shrunk back. "May I help you?"

The first to go was his tongue, Sasuke decided. It was the one that denied Hinata's request. But he couldn't – mainly because he was the only one authorized to give him what Hinata wanted. Legally, that is. He could be forceful.


A powerful presence suppressed his killing intent. "Not this time," Naruto said cheerfully and shot him a warning glance.

It occurred to him the conditions of his surrender explicitly stated no violence and theft. Sasuke committed many crimes but theft? He never stole anything. Life, yes, which was described as killing and murder, not that he would if he wanted to stay in Konoha. He could coerce the man, but threatening was also in the contract. Of course, he could convince the man to keep quiet. After a thought, Sasuke decided against it. He didn't have enough information. He needed to know what she wanted first before giving into the urge. Sasuke brooded. But if her protector was particularly impatient, it gave him a chance to present something to her. Then he remembered her gift when he was blind and vulnerable.

Sasuke passed a glance over the merchandise. "I'll take all you have." Ignoring the shopkeeper's sputter, he strode along the aisles.

"Send it to the Uchiha compound," Naruto added.

All of the Uchiha's wealth was seized after the massacre, but it was rightfully returned. It could last him for the next few decades, but Sasuke always thought ahead. Despite anyone's misgivings, he could provide for his eventual family and once his rights were reinstated, the income would remain steady.

"Everything?" the shopkeeper repeated.

Sasuke stopped mid-step and his voice was hard. "Everything."

"Including all that you're withholding from others." Naruto grinned. "He'll pay double for it."

It made Sasuke's jaw clench, but if the possibility of whatever she wanted was meant for others, then he'd be the one to take it first.

A few days later, it was promptly delivered. Sasuke left it all by the living room. It was not as if he expected visitors anytime soon.

The days passed relatively slow and Sasuke spent his time repairing the compound. It was slow progress especially when the roofs leaked, the floorboards needed to be replaced and a bird built its home nearby, testing Sasuke's tolerance. As if he wasn't already plagued by nightmares or aching dreams starring Hinata, another disturbance lived just outside. Sakura insisted for him to leave it alone, but Sasuke heard the unspoken say in her words, that it was the only sign of life there so he let it be.

At her recommendation, Sasuke planned to visit at least three stores for his redecorating needs. "Why?" he asked, genuinely confused.

"They sell it separately," Sakura told him. "One exclusively sells bedroom furniture. Others will have blankets, towels, and pillows."

"It's easier for customers to buy it all in one place," he said sharply.

Sakura shrugged. "It's business."

None of which were convenient. If he had a say, he would have lumped them together. Not that Sasuke was going into business; his only skill worth a wage was his ninjutsu.

His irritation was only eased by the thought of seeing Hinata soon. Naruto had vaguely mentioned her time of return. One week could mean any day and it was an utter coincidence that Sasuke was tasked to patrol the gates.

The usual rush of figures that entered Konoha didn't escape him. Young genin and their teachers were a common sight while the sun was out. When the night came, the uniforms varied where an occasional masked nin looked his way or a tired jounin using a last burst of energy to head towards the tower. Very few walked and Sasuke saw most of them travel in the trees and rooftops.

He didn't need to look there. As far as he knew, Hinata walked. And because he knew she'd be tired, and her protector was not with her and he was determined to reach her first, Sasuke had a water bottle in handy and to his disgust, knew the shortest way back to the Hyuuga compound. But an impulse overrode all those – he just wanted to see her, standing and breathing.

The midnight hour passed.

"She'll be back soon," Naruto said. "Come on, you can try again tomorrow."

He went back.

It spared him the heartache to see her return with Neji who rushed straight to the hospital with Hinata unconscious in his arms.

When he woke up the next day, Naruto was the first to tell him.

Sasuke never claimed to be rid of his vengeful tendencies.

It occasionally fluctuated in small urges when the villagers whispered his clan's disgrace or the reminder of his failures but Sasuke always kept it in check. If not, Naruto was there to step in. Which was why when Sakura offhandedly mentioned Hinata's condition, Naruto had to grip his shoulder to keep him from moving. "She's recovering," Sakura went on. "Although Neji is in a worse state, he still managed to return with her." The admiration in her voice made Naruto stiffen and his hand dropped. "They're in the same room." Sasuke twitched. "But they're fine."

He only concentrated on one thing.

She's alive.

Naruto left him to follow Sakura and Sasuke didn't give it another thought. She was hurt and he didn't know what he'd do if he saw her.

It was no surprise that he was barred from visiting her. "Only family," the medic-nin told him.

Hours later, he sat outside, waiting for her light to come on. He could make the jump, but the hospital observed strict regulation. And she wasn't alone. It was time he paid a visit to Sakura's work station.

When he walked down the corridor, Neji was being wheeled out of the room. "What's the meaning of this?" he demanded. "Sakura isn't my assigned doctor." He looked haggard, paler than Sasuke's whitest sheets. For all their unspoken animosity, Sasuke silently thanked him because Hinata lay recovering beyond the door. Sakura appeared, smoothly directing his view away from Sasuke. "I don't want you treating me," he growled.

"I'm one of the best," she said briskly, flipping through a chart. "We need to run some tests. Your body is not generating enough chakra and I see faint stab wounds in your abdomen. I won't leave scars, but whoever your medic was needs to be evaluated again." Something like admiration made him pause for it was the first time he saw her in charge.

Neji was apparently unimpressed. "Thanks for telling me what I don't know." He heard Sakura hiss in response then silence. A quick look confirmed she had somehow knocked him out and Sasuke made his way to the door.

He raised a knuckle and knocked in perfect precision. "Come in," her soft voice said and ignoring how his pulse quickened, Sasuke walked in.

Amid the dull white of the room, he easily found her. He stared. At the bandages wrapping around her arms and neck, a cut healing on her cheek. A blanket covered her legs and he suspected there were more injuries. "Sasuke-san," she said in surprise. She looked nervously behind him. "Neji-niisan will return soon."

"Not likely." At her confused look, he successfully held back a smirk. "Sakura is looking over him."

She sighed in relief. "That's good." How she managed to gain a distorted view of Sakura's care, he didn't know. He just nodded.

There was a tray near her and she raised one slice of apple to her mouth. Even when he took a knife, she didn't look alarmed unlike other villagers who ran away as soon as he held a potential weapon. He methodically split the skin away from the fruit. "How are you?" she asked to fill the silence.

"I should be asking you that."

She cleared her throat. "It was not bad." Her brows creased. "Sasuke-san, how did you know about it?"

He was proud that his motions never stopped even when it caught him off-guard. "Naruto mentioned it." And before she could ask more, he placed the newly cut slices near her. "Sakura was called early and didn't show up for a meeting."

"Oh." It seemed to deflate her mood. She ate again, chewing slowing this time, almost forcing him to speak.

"And I wanted to make sure you were okay." She stopped and looked at him. She smiled and somehow, the world seemed to stop. "I didn't imagine it would be difficult," he said.

She shot him a wide stare. "It was."

"Was it as Ino expected?" He tried hard to keep the bite out of his words and it came out flatly.

"What?" she asked faintly.

Doubt crept in. "How did it go?"

"Standard mission," she said, still confused. "To subdue a rogue nin –" she gasped and covered her mouth, but Sasuke paid no mind. Relief overwhelmed him. "I…I mean-"

"I won't tell anyone." She gave him a nervous smile. There was a question in her eyes and there was still an answer Sasuke wanted to hear. "Ino suggested," he began and didn't know how to continue.

"Oh," she said. "No, I'm not – I don't plan to, that is, um…"


She looked away but not before Sasuke saw her face redden. "You… shouldn't be here."

"I know." He set the knife down and pretended his heart wasn't beating rapidly. "I'll leave if you want me to."

The next seconds made Sasuke question the very universe. Her fingers fiddled with the sheets. Then finally, her voice quiet, "You don't have to."

On his next visit, Neji had moved to another room.

"I thought he had another mission."

She glanced up nervously. "Our target happened to be working with his and –"

"I see." At the corner of his eye, he saw her eyes closed. "I won't ask."

"It's not that," she mumbled then yawned. "But thank you." She was about to drift into sleep and Sasuke took his leave, but not before propping the pillows.

"It helps your neck," he said. At least that's what the salesperson explained. He was going to die a slow death by Sasuke's hands if it was wrong.

She smiled. "You know about that, Sasuke-san?"

So the man lives another day. "Just some stuff."

He kept away for sometime, knowing that her teammates visited just as often. When he finally did come back, after being tipped off by Naruto, he learned she was getting released soon. He frowned in dismay. "You need more rest."

"I'm fine," she insisted, trying to stretch with a weak smile that didn't fool him. "I need to train."

"Your cousin is still indisposed." Thanks to Sakura, he silently added.

"I can still do it," she said almost defensively and his lips twitched. She struggled to rise. He didn't aid her and at one point, he pushed her back down after her pitiful attempts made her grunt in discomfort. "Sasuke-san!"

"You can't even get up."

"I – I was about to," she huffed. "Can you, um, help me?"

"I won't." She looked visibly struck. He steeled himself. "You shouldn't be working just yet."

"It's not work," she mumbled. He crossed his arms. "For the Jounin exam," she said quietly. "I've already failed the first time." She looked down. "Neji-niisan is still helping me."

With his busy schedule, Sasuke could only imagine what she lacked. That and he recalled her growth was hampered by her clan's interference to handle more political duties. Her fists clenched the sheets as if knowing his judgment. He held back a sigh and didn't look at her at his next words. "I'm still considered a genin." And very carefully, he said, "After all that's happened."

For a moment, she said nothing. "Did you ever regret it?"

"No." She bit her lip. And somehow, Sasuke knew his next words could decide her faith in him. "If I hadn't, I wouldn't have been able to face my brother." No one except Naruto knew about the fateful encounter.

She considered it. "Naruto-kun… he always considered you as family."

A heavy weight settled on his chest. "Itachi was my brother. He taught me everything. When," he had to pause, "when he disappeared, I didn't expect –" He looked away. The fog of his memory brought up his brother's tired smile, one that echoed from childhood. "He was thinking of me."

"I'm sorry," she said quietly.

He turned his head. The room was closing in on him and it was hard to concentrate. He stood and missed the look she gave him, how her body shifted to move but winced instead. His thoughts still jumbled, he went to the door.

"Sasuke-san." A pause in his step. "Thank you."

To his annoyance, she was released without him and when he tried to find her, she was surrounded.

A tall man with shades was near her. The name still escaped him. Dismissing it, Sasuke took note of the others. Kiba, standing in the center, was especially aggressive towards him. Beside her stood Neji, unfathomable as usual despite the bandages on him. He had asked Naruto, "When did they get so close?"

He followed his stare. "Right after you left Konoha." Naruto absently looked towards where Sakura was. "And they were practically inseparable during the war." Sasuke scowled. "Of course, she still loved me then so she was also around me –" He reached for a sword that wasn't there. Finding none, a fist clenched and he threw a crushing blow that Naruto caught. "You asked!"

Ignoring him, Sasuke fixed his gaze back.

He wasn't acquainted with any of them and his absence left a yawning existence that he couldn't fit into. They survived the war together and he had abandoned Konoha. And after multiple attempts to kill Naruto, he was certain it cemented his isolation. It was a miracle no one killed him on sight and it was going to be even harder to earn their trust. Not that he needed it. It was only Hinata's that mattered.

"Hey," Naruto began in a strange voice. "What's her favorite color?" At the silence, Naruto continued to ask. "What's her favorite food? What are her goals?"

"She's training to be a jounin."

"Is that it?" His incredulity made Sasuke stiffen.

It was not as if he made his efforts known. If it went his way, no one would know until after their marriage. And after each discovery he's learned of her, such trivial questions gave him no pause.

Romancing her was unfamiliar to him. All his actions until now was to secure a place in her heart so she would accept his proposal. To rebuild the Uchiha clan. Her smile made his chest ache sometimes and occasionally the mere sight of her had the world fading, but Sasuke didn't associate any of it as something romantic. It was a natural response, just like how he needed to breathe and how he needed to see her at least once a day.

He purchased her favorite…something; he still hadn't figured it out yet. He blazed down the garden and he took care of that pesky vendor. She just didn't know it yet. He had a feeling she wouldn't appreciate the latter, but it wouldn't matter in the end.

He had something else to offer her no one else could.

Despite his communal work, Sasuke had more time than his peers. And it didn't hurt that he personally knew the Hokage, who favored Naruto, who in turn considered him as his best friend. Sasuke looked up. At this time of day, he knew where she'd be. After all, she wouldn't be assigned to missions for quite some time.

She was by the training field, making her way to a wooden post. "It's too soon, Hinata." She jumped, her eyes wide. Her senses seemed to have dulled from the medication and it showed when she favored her right leg.

"I didn't do anything," she mumbled.

"Yet." She glanced longingly at the training dummy. He assumed paperwork would keep her busy but he should have known Hinata couldn't keep still for too long. He casually swept his arm, knocking her back and he caught her with the other. "Pay attention, Hinata."

"But you said," she stammered. Her waist fitted nicely under his arm, Sasuke thought.

"If you can't predict what I'm about to do next, what makes you think you should train?" Her white eyes looked dazed and Sasuke frowned, wondering if the medicine made her unsteady. Damn it, he thought. Now he needed to find out who her medic was and strangle the information out of the nin. His grip tightened. "Hinata, are you well?"

She swallowed. "I – I'm fine. It's just..." Her eyes cast down demurely and a flush spread to her cheeks.

He brought her closer, wondering if the heat of her body meant she was getting a fever soon but as soon as he did, Hinata gasped. "You need to go home."

"No!" Startled, Sasuke almost pulled back. "No," she repeated more softly. "Um, Sasuke-san, can you...let me go?"

For a moment, he didn't understand. When he did, he was quick to let go but thought twice and secured her back in his hold. "No."

She blinked several times. "No?"

"Try to break out of it. If you can, I won't trouble you about your health." Then after a thought, he added, "This time."

As soon as the words left him, her good leg kicked out and he felt chakra surge to her palms. Admiration for her grew then, distracting him from her well aimed attack to his solar plexus. He grunted, held on despite the shock to his system and almost retaliated until she stunned him in the next move. He was forced to let go. She gave him a focused look, so fiery and careful, that it shot down to his bones. Adrenaline coursed through him and the Sharingan flickered instinctively.

Shockingly, her Byakugan activated in response and it aroused him beyond words. Her chin lifted. "As you can see, Sasuke-san," she said. "I can do it."

His lips twitched. "You did."

Without another word, he lunged, careful to not twist her arm too much when he grabbed her. But she fought back, stunning him again in the shoulder and he couldn't summon enough chakra to counter her with his hands. His knee came up instead and she jumped away, wincing when she landed on the wrong leg.

A thought crossed him. She was training to be a jounin. Neji oversaw her training but given his duties, she trained alone. Maybe it was why she was eager for any chance to spar with him.

"I can train you." Unease came over him when she looked so startled that the Byakugan faded. "If you want."

"Yes," she said quickly.

At that, Sasuke blanked. He actually didn't expect her to accept it and a torrent of emotions raced through him, all unfamiliar and annoying by the way it made his heart beat faster. She was still looking at him expectantly and he tried to find the words, anything, to combat the silence. "Meet me in my house tomorrow morning. To arrange it." A headache flared up.

But Hinata didn't notice his stilted speech. She beamed. "Thank you, Sasuke-san."

He didn't think it through. Not used to impulses, Sasuke could only react and in a quick step, appeared in front of her. The need to kiss her increased in frequency and sometimes she faced away, as if knowing. But she looked at him so trustingly. He shoved down the urge. The mere thought of her kept him up late, aching and unfulfilled, but Sasuke could patiently wait. "How are your reflexes?" he asked an excuse for his closeness.

To his surprise, she didn't move back. "It's good."

And she proved it when she countered as he tackled her down, rolling them over and whatever that damned Hyuuga move was, he was paralyzed from the chest down. A small laugh took his attention and it was Hinata, joy radiating from her smile. "Good work," he managed to strangle out.

Her hands still glowed with blue chakra. "I know some stuff," she said and it tugged at him until he realized it was the same words he used in the hospital.

But all too soon, he was distracted by the weight of her body. She went on saying something about her training regime with Neji and he should have paid attention, but he couldn't. Desire ruled him then and he was thankful she wasn't sitting on his hips. But it was where he wanted her to be, to just move her down a little lower and show her the pleasures they could achieve. Then again, he didn't mind if she was moving above him in a way that would make his body surrender to climax. "Got it," he gritted to make sure Hinata knew he was responding. She didn't need to know how else he responded and with sheer will, his hands flexed to grip her hips to move her off him.

"Oh, I'm sorry," she said hurriedly and moved away, forcing him to let go sooner than he would have liked.

He grunted. Just as well. It was getting harder to resist the urge to linger, to trace down the feminine lines of her body. "Tomorrow," he repeated.

She nodded. "Thank you again, Sasuke-san." She hesitated and her next words made him cold. "You've... done this before, right? Not with the children, I mean. Sakura," she added, "mentioned you had a team before."

He focused on a distant tower. "I had comrades but I never cared for them." He left their faith unknown; the less she knew about his old team, the better she'd look at him without knowing his sins.

Yet Hinata was curious, a trait he once found irritating. But he couldn't summon those dark feelings. It was the way she brought her hand to her mouth, drawing his attention to it, how soft she looked in thought. "What happened to them?"

"I don't know."

And that was all he would ever say.

She came to the compound at exactly nine in the morning.

He was prepared, already awake before the sun rose and spent most of the time staring emptily at the front door. At the first knock, he debated with himself. If he answered it straight away, it meant he valued her time but it also meant he was too eager. He waited a few seconds and unlocked it.

"Good morning." Her smile almost made his knees buckle. He leaned heavily on one leg and nodded instead. She held up a bag. "I brought tea. For thanks," she added.

He led her to the kitchen, feeling prideful as Hinata took in the improvements, her mouth parted. She set it down and took out tea bags, her eyes darting around. He glimpsed the brand before it was hidden by her figure as she moved. Her very enticing figure. Her clothes were modest but his imagination ran wild anyway and it burned, the fact she was in his home again. His mind wandered until a loud clash of utensils broke him out of it. "I'm sorry," she said and hurried to arrange it back. "It's different – I'm not used to how you…arrange everything."

He mulled it over. "Where do you put it?"

"Usually in a drawer," she mumbled, looking at the knives placed out.

He took it all in one swipe. "Knives?"

"In a wooden block," she trailed as he began to stash it. He wordlessly held up the unused pans and after taking a small pot, she gestured at the upper cabinet. "Sasuke-san, you don't have to –"

"It's fine."

On his way to close the door, he snatched a bag of tea and pocketed it. Then thought twice about it and eventually removed it to place it back. The name was already seared into his memory. A small part of him just wanted something of hers and Sasuke discarded the ridiculous thought. "I'll just heat up the water," she was saying, expertly twisting the handles to adjust the heat. It made him pause. "Sasuke-san, where are your teacups?" He pointed. A strange feeling filled him, one that made his chest twinge at the sight of Hinata navigating his kitchen like she always belonged. "Would you like some?"

He was feeling out of place. "Yes."

He watched as she examined the identical cups and she eventually chose one with a small smile. It didn't look any different than the rest, but if she liked it than Sasuke decided to use it regularly. "Here you go," she said brightly and poured him a drink. "What time should we begin?" She could say midnight and Sasuke would abandon sleep. He gestured to her instead. She frowned. "I – I thought you'd tell me when you were busy."

He wasn't, but it hurt his pride to say it. "Come to me whenever you can."

She brushed her bangs nervously. "Well… we still have work today." Sasuke almost shook his head; he forgot his mandatory duties. "Um, is it alright if I come straight after?"

"I'll be here."

She gave him a shy smile.

"Sasuke." He watched in dismay as her cheeks reddened when Naruto came forward. "Hinata?" His eyes darted to him next. "What're you drinking?"

His hands protectively circled the cup. "Nothing."

"Sakura is on her way to the hospital to assess Neji." He didn't like how those blue eyes watched him. A flash of red in his eyes and Naruto looked to Hinata. "You want to go with her?"

There was something dark in his tone and Sasuke didn't like it. "Of course," she stuttered.

He pinned a warning glance to Naruto, but she was already leaving. Naruto raised a brow. "Did I interrupt anything?"

"No." His voice came out flatter than intended.

"Good. I need your help."

The irritation faded slightly. "Sakura."

Naruto looked annoyed. "You want Neji around her all the time?" It kept him away from Hinata so Sasuke nodded. "And if I said Hinata?" The pause was rhetorical. "Look, there's this conference going on and Kakashi-sensei wants me to demonstrate this genjutsu, but I need a volunteer."

"I'm not doing it."

"A Hyuuga nin is preferable to prove it can bypass even the Byakugan," he continued.

"She's not doing it."

"And I'm thinking of Neji."

There was a short silence and the reply came reluctantly. "...He's still recovering."

"Not with what he's saying to Sakura." It was an excuse, Sasuke knew. "It's a way out for him," Naruto said defensively.

"What does this have to do with me?"

"Keep Hinata away from him."

"You just sent her to him," he growled.

"I said it's this afternoon. Plenty of time to get her back."

This afternoon. Something clicked. "I'll do it."

With the excuse of doing basic stretches near the Hokage monuments, she arrived. "You didn't have to hurt him," Hinata was chiding him later.

He'd spotted a man trying to climb over the restricted fence and took action. "It was suspicious," he said flatly.

"He was working in the building nearby," she said firmly.

Sasuke frowned. "I don't think so."

"I saw it. With the Byakugan," she added.

"That's a crime," he said wryly.

She giggled and the sound made Sasuke stand straighter. "I've never been accused of that before," she mused then immediately looked mortified.

It didn't bother him in the least. "No one would believe me either way." He raised a brow. "I'll keep your secret."

"Don't say that– " She was completely flustered, close to panic and Sasuke moved to reassure her somehow even if it did entertain him.

A burst of birds escaped the forest's canopy and the trees rustled violently. From this far, Sasuke recognized a familiar shout and a flash of blond, followed by the unmistakable flare of chakra. She blinked at the commotion and touched his forearm in concern. "What's happening?" she asked worriedly.

"Naruto's being an idiot," he said absently because he was thinking if he could flex that arm, she could feel the hard muscle. He didn't even need to, he thought irritably. That tactic signaled desperation, a concept Sasuke never associated himself with. Even if she didn't notice it was one of his finest physiques.

He moved his arm anyway to run over his hair, because of the heat and not so she could glimpse both his eyes, and accidentally collided with her chest. Her soft gasp made him freeze and Sasuke drew back as Hinata reddened. She avoided looking at him and that was fine because he couldn't face her either. "I'm sorry," he said stiffly. "It won't happen again," he wanted to add but that would be a lie. In the future, a mere brush meant nothing once they were intimate.

She folded her arms and said nothing. One of the lessons ingrained from childhood came from his mother; to respect a woman's personal boundaries. Sasuke stepped away, then another until he walked the other way.

Maybe he can find a tree strong enough to knock him out.

Their first official sparring match went well.

After a terse message sent to her, because he needed to recover from the humiliation first, he waited in an open field of his compound, close to the corridor halls. She arrived a bit later and he vaguely heard Neji's name strung along in the rush of apologies. He shrugged it off. "We'll work on your weaknesses first."

She was tying her hair and he pointedly looked away to keep from being mesmerized. "I'd like to work on my taijutsu."

It was already her specialty but Sasuke nodded anyway.

She was aggressive, accurate in her charges, and her speed increased after each block. His chakra rose defensively and she never wavered against his attacks. He wiped away a bead of sweat. "Not bad. But you need to disable me quickly if I wanted to kill you." He regretted the words, but she didn't look alarmed and his movements only slowed from the Byakugan. A heavy whoosh of air left him when the hit connected, but he persevered. His shirt was left in tatters, the blue flames still licking at his skin and it made him flinch. His chakra raced over to cancel it and without preamble, Sasuke removed the remains of the fabric. Red marks lined his hard abdomen, his scars standing out from the strain of his body. His legs wouldn't move. His eyes narrowed. "Who taught you that?"

"Neji-niisan." She stepped forward, concern making her forget. He tensed, waiting for another strike, but there was something slow in her steps, how she looked at his body. She glanced up once and her hand reached out. "This is from... the war?"

"Yes." She was touching him, could feel his heartbeat if she moved any higher but a prominent scar held her interest. He didn't think this far. He assumed his body would distract her too much from questioning him. Or rather his intent was that she'd react to him, never mind her attack. He never expected her to be so brave. If it was anyone else, their life would have ended. She looked thoughtful and far away as she traced the skin of his chest. He realized she was outlining the exact area where Neji was impaled by those spikes his ancestor launched. He grabbed her hand. "I had nothing to do with him."

The clouds cleared and Hinata blinked. "What –"

"When Obito nearly killed him."

She stepped back and a sinking feeling filled him. Something ghosted over her eyes, her breath hitching, as if remembering the memory. "I know," she said quietly. "I never blamed you, Sasuke-san."

Then as suddenly as the tension ruled, it ebbed as Hinata reddened and it struck Sasuke that this was the most intimate they've connected. Her hand snatched back and she backed away, rubbing it and avoided looking at him. He had no problem staring at her even when she mumbled his name. He felt something between them shift. Feeling returned to his legs and he moved to grab an extra shirt off the ground, shrugging it on. He stepped up to the wooden floors, intent on quenching her thirst from the fight. He looked over his shoulder when she didn't move. "Are you staying?"

Hinata took a small step back. He countered the next by standing near the exit. She could jump over the walls, but Sasuke learned she was too polite to do so. She cleared her throat. "Neji-niisan is –" and she jumped when his hand slammed against the wall.

He regretted it when she turned pale. He roughly ran a hand through his hair, giving her a rare view of both his eyes. "I'm asking what you want, Hinata. Not what you need to do."

She fiddled with the edge of her shirt. "I'd like to –" she began.

"Good." He walked away without hearing the rest and heard the rush of her footsteps coming after him. He took a short turn to cut through the living room and made the mistake of forgetting his recent purchases, all of which laid on the floor before them. He heard her gasp. He cursed and resolutely held his silence.

"Why…why are there so many –" Sasuke turned, focused on her wandering eyes and when it locked onto a certain item, he scooped it up and presented it to her. He planned to give it, after investigating what it was she wanted, on her birthday but it was too far off and he was impatient. All the mortification fled after she gripped the figurine from him and stared in wonder.

It was an odd design, almost mimicking a caged bird. "You can have it."

"Thank you," she said and he tensed at the pinch of her voice. "How –"

"I was told you were looking for something." He ignored the way her eyes darted to the stacking piles behind him. "I supposed you wanted it."

Her mouth parted. "That's kind of you."

"It's the least I could do." At her questioning look, he looked away. "You're here," was all he said.

Whatever she assumed, a smile lifted her lips and Sasuke felt deep in his soul that she was the one he could entrust his wounded heart to.


Lengthy chapter to make up for the wait! I absolutely adore Neji despite his misfortunes here and I normally avoid any hint of side pairings but whatever. I finally made Sasuke talk more as well so yay an achievement for me!