At just over fifty, Hinata was still an attractive woman. Her face was carefully worn and soft around her eyes and mouth, like well handled paper. When she smiled, the skin creased into generous smile lines. Her hair was still short, and still mostly dark, though grey had lightened it at the temples. She looked mature. Sagging and thin with age, but she carried herself with more confidence than she'd had in her youth. She had a good face for a mother and a new grandmother. She had a surprising face for the head of the Hyuuga clan, but oddly appropriate.
The girl standing next to Hinata was her youngest daughter, Hideko. Sakura had delivered Hideko herself, though she couldn't recall having seen the girl since. It had been a difficult labor, and Hinata had been past the age for it.
She looked, Sakura decided, more like Hanabi or Neji than Hinata. It was the hair--lank brown-black--and the shape of her forehead. It was in her build, skinnier than Hinata had been at that age. Her carriage, however, was painfully that of her mother at the same stage. Her hands were folded in front of her, but never still. Her toes turned in. Her head was bowed, which neither Neji nor Hanabi would ever have done in Sakura's presence.
"Hello, Hideko," Sakura greeted the girl, offering her a soothing smile. "I haven't seen you since you were a baby. Time goes so quickly these days."
Hinata didn't say anything to that, because she was Hinata, and because remarking would have sounded either bitter or familiar. Hinata was rarely either.
The girl looked at Sakura through the veil of her hair. Her eyes were, of course, pristine Hyuuga white. The corner of her mouth twitched up shyly.
"Your mother tells me she thinks you'd have a knack for healing. What do you think?"
Hideko glanced at Hinata, then back at Sakura. Her hands fluttered against one another nervously. She opened her mouth, closed it, and opened it again, stuttering silently before she finally answered. "I think that if Mother believes I'd be good at it, she's probably right. I'm not that good at fighting though..."
The girl trailed off. Sakura's eyes cut to Hinata, who sighed almost imperceptibly. "I think she'd be quiet suited for it. She has excellent chakra control, even for a Hyuuga. She's bright. Besides, at the moment there's not a single med-nin from our clan."
Blushing, Hideko shifted toward her mother. It looked as though given the chance, she'd have hidden behind her.
"I would be grateful if you would test her, Sakura. I don't ask more than that."
Sakura looked down at her hands, folded neatly on her desk. Those hands were as smooth and firm as her mentor's had been, but for a very different reason. "I think that testing her wouldn't be unreasonable, but what does her team think of this?"
"I've talked with her jounin instructor," Hinata told Sakura evenly, "Hyuuga Sanae."
"Ah," Sakura noised. "And Sanae approved?"
Hinata's lip twitched. "Sanae bowed to my judgment on the matter."
Hideko's blush deepened. Was she embarrassed because she thought her mother had bullied her teacher into agreeing to this? Sakura had to chuckle at the image of Hinata as a bully. Clan head or not, Hinata had probably been the pinnacle of courtesy.
And she had probably never once doubted that Sanae would comply with her request.
Time truly had agreed with Hinata.
Sakura smiled, climbing out from behind her desk to approach the pair of Hyuuga. "Shall we go outside? I think this will be easier there."
Hinata beamed gratefully. "Thank you, Sakura."
Sakura nodded. "Don't mention it. Let's see how she does before thanking me, alright?"
Leading the way outside, Sakura observed Hideko. There was no way to tell just by looking, but her gut reaction wasn't favorable. A med-nin couldn't be hesitant, not when life and death were in her hands. Still, the girl might surprise her, and it had been nearly a decade since Sakura had last taken an apprentice.
"Have you learned the tree climbing exercise?" she asked, picking her way through the tower halls.
"Yes," the girl replied quickly.
"Good, good," Sakura encouraged. "How did you do at it? Can you run up a tree?"
Hideko fidgeted. "Yes, ma'am, I can."
"That's a good start. How long did it take for you to learn? Can you walk up a tree? Or cling to it?"
The girl's gaze was fixed on her feet. "Yes, ma'am, I can. It took a few tries, I guess?"
"Are you asking me?" Sakura said, amused. "Did it take you a few times or not?"
"It took a few tries."
"Well, that's not bad." Sakura pushed open a door and led them through an open yard. The summer sun was bright, the air humid with Fire Country's summer. "What I'm going to have you do works on the same principle. You're going to have to show me that you can gather and mold chakra precisely."
"You don't have to be so polite," Sakura said, waving absently. "Let's see how you do, alright?"
Hideko nodded, bowing her head. Sakura held back a sigh and pulled a scroll out of her sleeve. She thumbed it open and spread it out on the ground. "This," she explained, "is a respiration technique. It's used to force air in and out of the lungs of a patient who can't breathe on their own. It won't necessarily keep them alive--it could force a corpse to keep breathing--but if they die, it won't be because they weren't getting fresh air. Do you understand so far?"
"Yes," the girl answered, quick and quiet.
"It requires exact chakra control to maintain breathing. Too weak and the patient won't get enough oxygen. Too strong and you can burst their lungs. Now, since we don't have a body--" Sakura picked a leaf up off the ground and placed it on the scroll "--we'll improvise.
"I want you to lift the leaf up to here, then drop it back to here." She indicated the levels with her hand. "Don't let the leaf blow away, and don't let it fall back to the scroll. Understand?"
This time, she just nodded. Her brow was furrowed with concentration.
"Good. Now I'm only going to show you the hand seals once. Pay attention."
The girl held her breath while Sakura demonstrated.
"What do you think?" Hinata asked mildly as she and Sakura watched Hideko from the other side of the yard.
"I'm not sure yet," Sakura admitted. Hideko had dropped the leaf twice and let it blow away once. However since then, she had steadily become more and more adept at controlling it. The last few repetitions had been nearly flawless. Sakura hadn't told the girl not to use her Byukagan, but she seemed to have assumed that it wasn't allowed. "I could teach her, but I don't see why you'd ask. Hyuuga rarely opt to become med-nin."
Hinata sighed, crossing her arms under her breasts and watching her daughter. Her white eyes revealed little of what went on behind them, but her expressive face was transparent. The contrast was distinct. "Her Byukagan is nearly as powerful as Neji's was at this age," she confided finally. "She can see tenketsu, and her chakra control is notable. But taijutsu doesn't come easily to her, and she's indecisive. She's smart, but she doesn't trust herself, and she's fumbles to read moves that should be obvious."
Sakura considered for a moment. "Taijutsu aside, those problems would still apply to a med-nin. If she hesitates assessing a situation, it could cost lives."
"Sakura..." Hinata's voice faded to a breath. "I think she compares herself too much to her brother and sisters. I try to encourage her. She's my baby, the one I really wanted." Another pointed, soft pause crept into her speech. It wasn't tentative as it once would have been. Now it sounded dramatic, as though she were letting what she said sink in to her audience. Sakura almost envied her that gentle, potent maturity. "She seems to find my encouragement only more stressful, though. I think--I hope--that if she were to do something without her siblings to compare herself to, she'd become more confident.
"I think she would truly be successful as a med-nin."
The leaf rose at a controlled rate, paused, then sank again. Hideko had discovered that she couldn't just drop it and catch it as it fell; she had to lower it gradually.
"I'm not sure."
Hinata nodded. Her chest moved in a sigh Sakura didn't hear. "I understand. Thank you anyway, Sakura."
Snorting, Sakura shot the other woman a sharp look. Hinata didn't shy away from the glare. Mostly only younger shinobi did that, but some of Sakura's old peers fell into the pattern. It was nice to see Hinata hadn't. "I didn't say no. I said I wasn't sure. I'd like to speak with her."
Sakura heard her smile and pulled a face. "Don't worry about it. I still haven't said yes. Hideko! You can stop now."
"Yes, ma'am," the girl answered promptly. The leaf blew away as soon as she released it, carried by a breeze.
"Hideko," Hinata said, stepping forward to speak with her daughter. "I'm going to leave you with Sakura, alright sweetie? I'll see you back at the house later."
Freezing for a brief moment, the girl stared at her mother; white eyes wide behind her hair. Sakura couldn't decide if the expression was frightened or hopeful. Maybe it was a little of both.
Then she nodded, that precise, diffident nod. "Yes, ma'am."
Hinata patted Hideko's shoulder as she walked by, and kept on walking. Even from the back, she radiated poise. Sakura smiled a little. Hinata had never been her friend, but it was nice to see how she had grown. She kept the smile as she turned toward Hideko, stepping up to the girl and planting her hands on her hips.
"Well," she said matter-of-factly, "you passed that test. What do you think? Was it hard?"
The girl looked at the scroll thoughtfully before she answered. "Not really. Should it have been?"
Sakura laughed. There wasn't any boasting in that question, just curiosity. As though the girl wasn't sure if that was the right answer. "For some people it would be. For others, no. It depends on your strengths as a ninja." She added in a conspiratorial tone, "Neither of my old teammates would have been able to do it at your age."
Hideko's expression became baldly suspicious, frowning, one eyebrow cocked. Sakura laughed again. No doubt she'd heard stories about Sakura's famous counterparts. "What? You don't believe me?"
The girl looked away quickly, her face smoothing and her cheeks brightening to a vivid pink. "I'm sorry..."
"It's alright!" Sakura interrupted, shaking her head. "Honestly, neither Naruto or Sasuke could do that when we were young. Naruto still can't. It takes too little chakra. If he tried to use that jutsu today, I promise you, the patient would die because his lungs exploded."
"You're teasing me..."
Sakura offered a reassuring smile. "I am not. I'm teasing Naruto, and he's not here, so there's nothing he can do about it."
Hideko's blush deepened.
Sakura waved her hands dismissively. "Don't be embarrassed about it. Naruto's not. And you can do something better than the Sixth Hokage. That has to make you a little proud, right?"
The girl didn't answer, scuffing her toe surreptitiously. She looked more uncomfortable than anything else. Sakura sighed.
"Don't worry about it. It doesn't matter. You did well at the test, that's what matters." Sakura almost added that she respected Hideko's mother's opinion, but she got the impression that wouldn't help. "I think that if you want to, you could become a med-nin. The question is: Do you really want to?"
"What?" she asked softly. Sakura sighed. She was afraid this was going to happen.
"Becoming a med-nin is hard work," she explained, pushing her hair behind her ear and kneeling down to be on the girl's level. "If it's not what you really want to do, then training you would be a waste of my time and yours. You won't get out of your normal missions and training. You'd train with me on your free time. You'd have to practice when everyone else has time off. So, really," Sakura paused, meeting the girl's eyes seriously, "do you want to heal people? It's a great responsibility and a great challenge. If you want to do it, I think you could. If not, it will burn you out. Do you want to?"
Hideko tried to turn away, but Sakura reached out and stopped her. She didn't even touch the girl's face, but held her hand near her cheek. She couldn't turn her head that way without bumping Sakura's hand.
Biting her lip, the girl nodded. "I'm not afraid of work."
Sakura smiled a smile she learned from her master. "You had better not be."
Sakura knew when Naruto got back. There was no warning--there never was--and this time, no fanfare. He swept back into Konoha in the night, the errant Sixth Hokage, standing on Sakura's front step and no longer quite able to look human. He grinned at her, wide and white, when she opened the door.
"Did you miss me?" he asked.
She sighed, shaking her head, and invited him in.
He hadn't changed much from the last time she saw him, or from the time before that, or the time before that. Not that she had, either. Their nature, whatever it had become since they sealed the Akatsuki's cave, didn't lend itself to natural aging. They weren't the same as they had been, but the evolution was different. They didn't get older; they only became more potent. And in Naruto's case, that made him very potent indeed.
His chakra filled the room, too big for the space, making the air thick and oppressive. It licked at her, almost like a greeting. After so long, she was good at pretending to be comfortable with it.
"Would you like some tea?" she offered, following him into her home.
Humming a response, she waved him toward the kitchen. "You know which cupboard it's in," Sakura told him. "I'm not going to wait on you."
If anything, Naruto grinned wider. The expression split his face in two, and narrowed his eyes to thin crescents. "You didn't say if you missed me."
"You know I did." She looked him up and down. In the evening, he seemed to glow faintly gold, rather than the red of his tenant. "What brings you back?"
She knew better than to ask how long he planned to stay in Konoha this time. He never lingered as long as he said he would. She didn't like making him lie.
He didn't answer her directly. Instead, he asked, "Mind if I sleep here tonight?"
Which really said everything she needed to know, for the moment.
To be continued.