"Broken But Healing"

By lunar-kunoichi

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The girl started as something shot towards her.

With surprising swiftness her hands shot out and batted it away before realising that it was but a burnt ember. Fire nibbled away at the logs burning under the chimney; Hyuuga Hinata, eighteen and wide-eyed, looked away from the blaze to set her eyes on the woman sitting beside her on the mat.

"Are you sure?" she asked nervously, tugging at her sleeves. They were long and wide but simple, and yet too fancy for a normal fighter. But Hinata had never been very normal. "It hasn't been five years yet, and I am sure they can do without me."

Doe eyes stared back with startling intensity. The woman asked simply, "Why do you ask if you do not wish to heed my words?" and then, "I can only tell you what I know; this is not always very much. Some of the small but significant truths are hidden to me, but I have enough foresight to see there is nothing here for you any longer."

The Hyuuga did not answer. She looked away, although she could never shield her gaze from the other woman's glance, not even if she stared in another direction. Such were her pale eyes, encompassing in their own way, but certainly not the orbs of her father, or her cousin, or her sister. Her mouth turned up in a sad smile. "You are probably right. But there is you, and Yuki; you are not family, but I consider you as such, shishou."

It was true. While other roaming shinobi visited the mountains in isolation once every year, Hinata's feet always led her down the same path into a tiny village on the outskirts of the Land of Fire, where the land met the sky, where the women did housework and looked after their children. As much as Hinata knew she could never be one of them, her body ached to do something simple for once instead of fighting through life with a sword. Because it was what her father did, and her experiences were ones she would not wish onto any child.

Every time she came she would learn some more of the woman, the village healer who had some grasp over chakra and more knowledge of herbs and medicine than a normal person could hope to learn in a lifetime. Hinata knew the woman could not possibly be much older than thirty so it only startled her further the extent and power with which she gripped her lands despite being a woman in these parts. This village had no shinobi; life was such a huge contrast from that of Konoha Hinata had been thrown off balance the first time she visited.

"Well," said the woman thoughtfully, holding a slim hand out to the fire, "Suppose I come with you? No, I cannot, Hinata. The village needs me more than Konoha ever will with the great Tsunade-sama there. Yuki has not yet finished his education; moreover, I am not sure if he is meant to be a medicine man or something else. And when you return, they'll have you, so don't look at me that way. You can visit here as long as you do not bring others with you. It will bring nothing but havoc."

The Hyuuga sighed as she leaned back to glance up at the thatched roof. The simple structures of the sparsely populated lowlands where men left by the light of dawnand returned while tempests raged and the moon shone a spectre in the sky—and no other time, were surprisingly comfortable in their own ways.

Finally, she murmured, "I will regret nothing but leaving my extended family."

"You have a family at home, don't you?" the healer pointed out calmly, turning to look at her student. The tiny bells hanging off her many braids tinkled with ethereal music while rain batted at the walls and the roof, the wet weather doing nothing to absorb their glow. "Would you abandon your task for four years just for two people you have found in the wild? Your friends and family await you. Because one faces the future with one's past."

Hinata jerked, remembering something like an itch in the back of her mind. She wondered if she would ever look as alive as the healer did; and yet she looked so old as well, as if she had glimpsed bloody treasure too many times and tried to clean off the crimson liquid to no avail. Her eyes slid back towards the woman's dark ones. "That's right. But it's not only for my family now. For once I'm doing it for me."

The healer's laughter rang against the walls. "Of course. And yet I wager you'll be back soon enough, Hinata, trying to rest from the constant stress of being a kunoichi. Before one year is over. Because the cure for anything is salt water, and here you have tears and sweat aplenty while waves roll against the cliffs over yonder. I wonder why no one else lives closer to the sea while flecks of foam role up. Water is the life of the earth—"

"—which is why you named yourself after it. Mizu." The girl finished. "But some day I will find out your real name."

Mizu stared at her in surprise. "You were never this curious before. But does it matter? My name is mine alone to choose from, and in a name comes new memories. I would rather not face my old ones, and so I change my name so no one else can bring it up. I have not strayed from my path of life, merely changed where it leads."

"Maybe not." Hinata said thoughtfully.

The storm crackled, but when the pitter-patter of rain was no longer audible, four years after she left Konoha, Hinata returned home.

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2. Return to Neverland

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A fox slips out of her hands, and Hinata needs to fight not to gasp. Her pet has never behaved this way before, even around strangers which startle other animals. It is her firm belief that myths are always based on -(some tiny grain of)- fact at some point its creation, and kitsune have always been depicted as tricksters which stray on the boundaries of the impossible, crossing the line more times than she can count on her -(stick-like)- fingers.

It has taken her too long to come home. She scopes the -(only one-tailed, thank goodness)-kittling back up into her arms, her grasp tight enough to keep it from straying once more, and sighs. It is too mischievous and yet she never thinks of letting it into the wild where tempests strike on command. Hinata does not even remember how exactly she found the impish animal apart from a backdrop of trees and a roaring surf pounding in her ears that makes her think Mizu might take it in if she returns at once. But, as always, she dismisses the idea with a firm shake of the head before looking out with wide eyes.

It has been too long since she last glimpsed the gates, and she is all too eager to enter and try and weave into the fabric of society that she left behind years ago.

"State your business." One of the -(elite, of course)- Chuunin guards orders, command in every movement as to make sure all the visitors follow his commands. He works in a flashy way that Hinata does not approve of, but she knows it is more than useful in a public place; her life as a roaming wisp is nothing like his, and she knows this, so does not plant his curtness against him.

Still, she puffs on her fringe in annoyance. The fox is wriggling again, uncomfortable in her grasp, and she does not want it to take any longer than need be. Already, she has passed over all of her anger in a smooth, gentle reply that others expect. "I am a Konoha kunoichi, guard. Here is my hita-ate." She fishes it out of her pocket because it would be death to be seen with one in some of the places she has visited. "There is no need to escort me. I know this place well enough."

The guard peers at her with stern eyes, and nods. "Very well, Hyuuga."

She smiles at the way he recognises her eyes, if not her face, immediately, though this might be because she has been absent for so long. Her feet carry her towards the Hokage tower, where she sends in her scroll to assure a quick appointment. When she enters she makes sure to look calm and demure.

"Tsunade-sama." She says, even more unfamiliar with the Hokage now than before.

She sees the Godaime sweep over her face with a sharp eye, as if criticising silently like everyone did while she still resided within the Hyuuga Main House. Pearl eyes gaze expectantly until the blonde turns back, her face as neutral as always.

Tsunade says, "I suppose you have completed the missions. Your royalties you have been using, your commission the same since I told them to give you cash straight off. And now you have returned." Her gaze is contemplative, and Hinata decides to shift uncomfortably under the sharpness. "I hope you've found what you wanted, since you won't have another chance to do so. You're going straight to work in the hospital once I get done with you. As a Chuunin, of course."

"Of course, Godaime-sama." Hinata says, "It's what I wanted in the first place. I still do. To heal. And while the mission wasn't quite as successful as I wished to, it was informative enough."

"Good to hear it." The Godaime announces, a -(faint)- smile upon her mouth. "Normally, I would get you to go and get reacquainted yourself, but if you're to start working soon, you might as well learn quickly."

"No." Hinata responds, knowing that Tsunade will understand easily enough, refraining from fidgeting like her fox must wish to, "thank you. I need to see for myself."

Tsunade shrugs. "You still need the basics. Basically, Hyuuga Neji is ANBU captain, your sister is officially Chuunin, and your father is still the head. He must be, since no one else has bothered to send anyone after you. I'm not sure what he said, but he knows I claimed that you were on a special string of missions for me. The rest, what they hear, is up to you." She picks up a pen and scribbles something on a scroll. "This is my word. I expect you for a lesson at eight O'clock next week. You may leave."

"Thank you." The Hyuuga repeats, before bowing a leaving. A smile that mirrors Tsunade's is on her own mouth as the fox runs to catch up.

----

A girl dressed in pure white sits still under a tree, shadows splaying out and dotting her dark hair. She is thirteen and she is beautiful, but Hyuuga Hanabi cannot have what she wants the most; not yet. She cannot be heiress until she defeats her sister, and Hinata, watching from above, knows she will not let Hanabi take her place. The younger girl is an ANBU member already, but this is not surprising when she knows Hanabi is terribly, amazingly skilled. Hanabi is a prodigy, and much stronger than Neji had been at her age; or so the rumours fly.

The younger girl seems to shift a little. Her eyes are closed but after a moment it opens again, surveying the surroundings although it is difficult to tell. But Hinata has lived so long among those with such -all-encompassing)- eyes that she can sense the way her younger sister roams across. She is long-haired and white-eyed, with a hint of pearl but no lavender. Her face is longer and sharper than Hinata's, but hold an ethereal allure that goes beyond the classical beauty she possesses. Hinata does not know if it is from her power or from what Hinata can sense deep below her.

She waits until she is sure Hanabi has seen her before slinking down, her fox, named Kitsune, just as silent. She knows it is strange to name a fox 'fox' but she has never minded, and the fox has never protested. She also knows Hanabi will not have known it is her, and is rewarded with a -(quick)- flash of surprise from the younger girl. The kunai Hanabi is holding has slipped out of her hand and clatters to the ground.

"Hanabi." She acknowledges, not pretending she is unhurt when nothing but apathy is present in her sister. She loves Hanabi for all the girl is strange, and that her younger sister is so distant is a blow more powerful than a thousand kunai. Hanabi is all jade and diamond, and her eyes glisten like -(icy cold)- opals.

Hanabi replies tonelessly, apart from disgust so tiny Hinata is half-sure she has only imagined it, "Hinata . . . onee-san. Father wishes to see you. He has specifically done so for some time now."

Hinata does not move, "I need to speak to you."

"Talk." Says Hanabi immediately, raising an eyebrow. Now her beauty is somewhat cruel and elegant like all Hyuuga should be. Like Hinata should have been, without the roundness in her gaze. "And then leave. One does not seek advice in the arms of a competitor."

"Me?" asks Hinata just as quickly.

Hanabi looks at her, summing her up without a sign of emotion. "Maybe. Perhaps you are not worth it."

Hinata leaves immediately, hardly noticing the fox has long since disappeared, plotting a route which will take her out of sight from any other Hyuuga.

Even the best of plans fail, and along the way someone she needs a few moments to recognise registers on her senses. "Neji-oniisan." She says calmly, her eyes lighting up in the fashion it did when she addressed Hanabi for the first time in years. As much has her cousin has hurt her she still loves him in a close-bonding, family way.

She suspects it is the same for the girl of winds, though she cannot remember her name. Gusts, not breezes, slips through that girl's hair and pelt it full of sand although the strands are already that colour, her hands and eyes harsh from the elements. The girl has a demon as a brother, she knows, even though the demon is gone. Absentmindedly, she looks down. She has heard this from reliable sources, and her own personal experience with the girl is not to be discounted. The girl does not fight because she must, but because she loves it, but somehow underneath that violence is a caring soul who loves her family because they are.

Hinata does not think Neji sees her as such any longer. Things were improving before she left, after she became Chuunin after everyone else -(fourteen, while everyone seemed so strong and changed after just the first season; it was the first Chuunin exams where more than five people passed, while she was left behind in the dust)- but she does not know if time has dulled its edge. Her eyes skitter off his face. He is almost feminine but within him, just as within every other male member of the Hyuuga, lies something that distinguishes him from her sister. His eyes are the same as Hanabi's, white and unmoving, as he watches her.

"Hinata-sama." He finally says coolly, no surprise showing on his features. If Hanabi is an arctic breeze, Hinata thinks, he is ice. But he surprises her with a tiny, almost invisible smile, before it is wiped off. "You have returned."

"Yes, from my mission." She says in return, holding her chin up the best she can. Hinata does not wish to be seen as arrogant, merely with a spark of confidence she was lacking. Even now the Hyuuga heiress cannot say for sure if she is as coolly confident as her cousin, with the presence of her sister, or the authority of her father. All she knows, after four years, is that she is capable enough and that she needs to believe.

Neji merely inclines his head, silently hinting that there might have been something more than a string of missions, but Hinata neither confirms or denies this. It hardly surprises her that it is Neji, not Hanabi, who has delved deeper. Hanabi was—is, even now, Hinata thinks sadly—her competitor and would not shame herself looking into her sister's life. Neji, on the other hand, has never wished to hold the position as head.

The heiress asks, a formal, yet soft, tone to her voice, "Have you been well, Neji-oniisan?"

"As well as can be expected." He responds cryptically. "You should meet Hiashi-sama now, Hinata-sama. Uncle does not like being kept waiting. Hinata-sama knows this."

"I do." Hinata says. "Farewell . . ." she pauses. "And congratulations, Neji-oniisan on your promotion."

He does not look surprised as he walks away, and Hinata knows that Neji has not changed that much since she has left, and because of this she is grateful. Another smile tugs at her mouth.

----

It sniffs the ground with vigour, trying to pick up the scent again. Kitsune, who is, not incidentally, a kitsune, glances around with bright, inquisitive eyes. He—for it is a male—scampered away from his mistress a few minutes ago when he first whiffed that familiar smell, something dark and over-bearing, and yet covered with brightness. Kitsune tries to stand up before remembering that it takes too much energy.

Some of its relatives have mastered the art of shape-shifting, but the stories have been passed down generation to generation, for the last shape-shifter was the great Kyuubi which disappeared many years ago, when Kitsune was still unborn.

He glances down once more and immediately spots footsteps on the ground some feet ahead. To many animals, to many humans, they would look nothing but indentations by something, but Kitsune is a trickster and he knows well the mark of power. The marks are hollowed by darkness and yet ringed by light. The fox is not very old but even he can feel the power.

By now the fox race have been reduced to wild animals, but Kitsune old enough to remember the awe some of his 'people' felt whenever the Nine-tail's name was mentioned. Still feel when it is mentioned, but by now the emotions are dulled by time.

Kitsune scampers across the ground, following the tracks once more. They were made by a hunter, for only one of those humans, cloaked in shadows, have this type of stealth. He knows that there are people like the sword-wielders, with great blades of metal attached to a hip, but as good as some are, the samurai are nothing to the people who have been trained to move in darkness.

Some who have walked in the shadows so long they have become one.

The energy source is getting closer. He urges his lithe body forwards, straining his legs as he tries to stay silent while moving at top speed. His nature, like all of his creatures, is curious and he will not let it go without following whatever it is to the bottom!

Soon the road lies dusty and forgotten. It is autumn now, but the sun still blazes and clings onto the land while it can. Green leaves are only slightly touched by various, magnificent shades of orange-yellow as of yet, but Kitsune does not pause to look up. It has a feeling that, even if he does, the being is thoroughly camouflaged within the trees.

And then, unexpectedly, something barks. Kitsune pauses, this time really glancing up and getting his bearings. The sound is, unfortunately, painfully familiar, yet he resists running away like many of his kind would. His inquisitive nature has trumped his caution.

But when a hound appears before him, Kitsune cannot grip his bravery, and shoots off.

"A fox!" the pug says, looking ahead. There is something almost deep in its voice, trained to speak like a human, unlike the cute, small figure. But it does not give chase, merely stares in surprise.

The fox pauses in similar surprise. A dog speaking in human? He glances back, and notices that the dog is dressed like a human too, with a hita-ate about its figure and blue covering its back. There is something on that cloth, matching the rather delicate and slim limbs of the pug.

And then Kitsune springs away and disappears, running for its life towards his mistress.

----

"Hinata." Hiashi eyes Hinata with something stern and yet fatherly in his gaze that Hinata had never picked up on. Until now. He is settled behind a desk, white orbs serious. His every movement is of presence, while Hinata's instincts kick in and she tries to shrink into herself.

She says quietly, "Otou-sama?"

He continues to stare, and the stretch of silence is long enough for her to feel uncomfortable. It is up to her to speak once more, but she will not be forced into something like that until she is ready. Her mind whirls as she searches for something which can lighten the mood and yet keep it in touch with the formality that is part of every wall and every floorboard, smooth between sandaled feet, and silent -(as the grave)-. She tries to procrastinate and melt in with that silence, but it rejects her emotions until she must refrain from shifting uncomfortably.

"Father, this is the first place I entered." She finally says, not sure why she is mentioning such a fact. Then it hits her, and she continues with the thread, "Is there something amiss? The Main House is silent."

"It is dignified." Hiashi replies, a displeased look flitting across his face; and then it is back the blank neutral that is the foundation of his chiselled -(marble)- face. He is something to be awed, and not a father, even now to Hinata. Tiny lines of weariness extend from his eyes and his mouth, but apart from that little has changed about her father at all. His hair is raven but for a few, almost invisible, strands of grey. But underneath is change that stirs at her soul, making her wonder what she has missed. "Silence is dignified and something to be wanted now. Tell me, eldest daughter, is your mission complete?"

She almost stares at him the way he did her but when his eyes lock onto hers she cannot bring himself to do so. There is something of a -(deadly)- warning -(threat)- in his gaze that has always been present. "It is as successful as possible away from the gates."

"Then you must hurry, Hinata." Says her father, standing up from his desk. Her eyes trails across the dark grains, smooth and hard and resilient. Like Hanabi, or Neji, but largely like Hiashi, who has the same experience about him that is stained deep with every blob of ink and every knob or fingerprint is a memory of the past that her father has experienced in -(the bloodless wars of)- his childhood that threaten to sweep her away whenever she even touches one of those memoirs.

Her gaze is silent and questioning.

Her father sighs as he gazes through the stained glass windows, un-coloured pictures etched in lead black that feels as if burned in her brain after spending hours on end in this very room. There is no need for her father to look so intently at the glass, but perhaps he is trying to see something in a normal perspective; only his—her—clan has the Byakugan, and only he treats his children like clones of adults -(tools)-. "The elders have gathered, and in the last meeting a decision was finalised."

There is a long pause before Hinata whispers, an old, aching fear appearing within her eyes, "What is it?"

"There will be a battle between your sister and yourself," says her father, "When you turn nineteen years of age."

It could have been worse, Hinata speculates. She draws in a deep breath, calming her beating heart. Inside her is still something too much like anxiety for comfort, anxiety for the upcoming match, for her friends, for the family which will arise from the ashes of another era where two sisters feud for their very lives. For by now it is murder if one of them receives the brand, and none more than that. She knows, if Hanabi gets branded, the younger girl would bounce up immediately.

But the pain after the branding is infinitely more than any physical pain caused.

She looks up again to watch her father gazing at her sternly with knowledge in his eyes. "I will—" she begins, but he cuts her off impatiently.

"You will not waste the time you have spent away, Hinata. You will fight when you are nineteen." He pauses. "Unless something happens."

She stares at him with startled eyes, and he seems to shift somewhat until there is an unnamed emotion in his eyes. "How you feel when your sibling is thrown in the branch house . . . you will battle her. I refuse to allow you to abandon yourself for this." And he knows her maternal instinct all too well. He can see -(pierce through)- her soul without a flicker of regret and view her emotions.

But, in her heart, despite whatever she feels, she knows he is right. She saw her sister practising the seals required to activate the Juin Seal many years ago, and she can see even now in Hanabi's eyes that the flicker in her heart the younger girl feels for Neji is not enough. She is the only one who will do so. And she will because she must.

"Of course, father." She says softly. "I will not . . . I will win." She pauses. "But I have a question for you."

His warning look is enough to deter her. For now.

----

The first place she visits the morning after she arrives home is at the memorial stone with a bunch of zinnias in her hand. The stalks are smooth beneath her sensitive fingers and they sway within the wind, multi colours blending together into a bouquet of beautiful butterflies. Zinnias are her favourite flowers, and she knows -(had known, because the spirits wandering through the veil between worlds are no longer our own)- all too many people who have died, but it is not for her she is visiting.

Still, she says her prayers to the people she knew before moving on.

"I don't know who she knew," Hinata says softly, careful not to interrupt the perpetual silence that seems natural in this clearing despite being surrounded by a ring of trees and training stumps of wood jutting from the ground, "but you know, and whoever you are you know that she still thinks of you. And whoever she was referring to, she still misses you."

There is nothing but a breeze at the stone, ruffling through her hair. It isn't quite long enough to interrupt her but her fringe sweeps across her eyebrows and the longer blue strands of her hair swish like leaves against her shoulders. It leaves a dusty, dry taste in her mouth; she knows she must kill, and she has killed before -(without bloody stains on her hand but in her mind)-, but still it is something she tries to avoid at all costs.

"The flowers are from her, and I suppose I'm lucky that she hasn't requested anything more than the place at the memorial. But the zinnias . . . a zinnia means 'thinking of a friend', and whether you were a friend, or something more, the meaning is clear. It is a very friendship-orientated flower, these with petals. And however she knew you, she has not forgotten."

The uncut grass sweeps like tiny needles against her bare ankles, cool and stiff now that summer has waned into the fluttery and windy autumn, as she steps closer, her fingers brushing against rows and rows of kanji. The words are neat and tiny, and too many, even though there is still space left for more names to be added. She leans closer, the stone worn smooth by rain and wind and sunshine days. Pale fingers run past the names: Uchiha Obito . . . Tai Hikari . . . Yondaime . . . Rin . . . the list goes on and on.

"She might," Hinata says, "meet you, but don't expect her too soon. I won't let her. But all I know her as is Mizu, and I am sure, if you knew her while still alive, that her real name is not so. I can only say that she chose it for the healing properties of water. She's a healer, and if you know one, it might be her. She lives in the edges of a village in Hi no Kuni.

"And . . . she also says that your sacrifice was foolish, and that you shouldn't have done it just for someone like her. Or how you shouldn't have done it to people who do not appreciate your sacrifice and what you have left behind."

She stops to allow a period of respective silence to greet spirits -(that still walk the earth and in both her heart and another's with cheerful faces so different from the grey tint of death)-.

There is nothing else to say, but the wind picks up as she stares at the memorial one last time before leaving.

----

When the sun has climaxed in the sky Hinata pauses from her wanderings around the village. She did not see her friends, but suspects the reason more to do with the missions any of them might have undertaken than a choice upon their own. She does not delude herself into thinking that any of them might have waited before advancing until Jounin level. She knows all of her closer friends are capable of doing so all too easily.

Ichiraku is not her first choice but the ramen stand is the closest rest stop in her amble. Tentatively she takes a seat, eyes automatically scanning everyone in the small crowd which has gathered. In the four years she has been absent Ichiraku has changed enough to pass for a -(moderately)- classy restaurant, and although the rooms are hidden from view by thick walls they are not quite built well enough to block even her view. She settles soundly on one of the stools before the bar, which Old Man Ichiraku has not quite passed over yet, since it draws in quick customers.

"What can I get you, Hyuuga-san?" A woman asks cheerfully, a bright smile on her face. Hinata recognises Ayame, the Ramen Girl, now a woman with shiny brown hair and vibrant personality that more than makes up for the small flaws in her face that prevent her from being -(unnaturally)- beautiful. There is, she notes, a ring on the woman's finger that seems to be held in special value although it does not mark any binding vows. A simple, uniform white is sufficient for everyday wear.

Hinata has not seen Ayame for a long time, the last being when the woman noticed her gazing sadly at Naruto's retreating back. "Just a regular miso ramen please, Ayame-san."

The woman seems to examine her closely, eyes thoughtful. "Are you . . . Hinata-san?"

"Hai." Hinata says, nodding and returning with a -(barely visible)- smile. The woman is the first villager which has noted her since her return, though this might be because she is the first to see her face uncovered by shadows, and one of the villagers she knew—Hinata cannot say she still knows Ayame, but she can say she has made the woman's acquaintance. "It's nice to see you too, Ayame-san. Ramen isn't my favourite food but I've missed yours."

Ayame chuckles. "I don't make it, my father does; but you're right. You're the only one to have tasted the first batch I made, and can I say that I appreciate the comments." She winks. "It really boosts my confidence, but I don't know how to help you with your dilemma."

To her credit, Hinata realises her face is only faint pink rather than red. But before she can reply she detects something awfully familiar moving behind her, about ten metres away. Even so it is only the strange style of his chakra circulation which reveals the identity of the rapidly approaching person, hand stretched out as if to tap her on the shoulder. She realises, suddenly, that the white top she is wearing sports the Hyuuga Clan's symbol.

She steps back quickly from the counter, moving away from the strip of light that illuminated her face before—and the person almost trips over her.

"Hey, Hyuuga!" says Naruto, face angry and yet still cheekily -(mischievously)- happy for some unknown reason. He looms over her, and if they stand back to back Hinata knows she would only reach the tip of his ear, or range somewhere in the crook of his neck.

He is up to something. Trying hastily to calm the -(shameful)- scarlet rising into her cheeks, she turns around and replies quietly, "Yes, Naruto-kun?"

Again there is a distance between the two; they have never been close, no matter what Hinata wants, but after six years of being separated there is much more to be wanted for what they have to qualify even as friendship. Now they are acquaintances, two shinobi who attended the academy together as children, who happened to graduate at the same time, nothing more.

Naruto and his mop of bright blonde hair seems to sway, as if contemplating if he should lean in closer to view her face under a better light. Hinata knows all too well how her clan presses and pressures -(with a rigid, cold might that is too much like a killer; it is, since it killed her cousin's innocence, and her sister's love)- until one submits. Emotion battles across his face until his pupils visibly dilate to give him a better look at her head.

Almost instantly, a smile breaks out. "Hinata-san!"

She does not know why she feels disappointed. It is only logical that time has torn what relationship they did have, that she no longer merits 'Hinata-chan' in his mind any longer, but there is still something that feels sort of empty dismay when he does not even imply that they have some sort of friendship. He says her name as he would any other that he might meet out in the streets, and that, more than anything which took place while she wandered the village, is what saddens her the most.

"Why did you tap me on the shoulder, Naruto-kun?" she asks curiously, not allowing a blush to cover more of her face. She knows he thought her nice, but that was many years before, and she does not wish to push her luck lest it makes her seem strange. "I'm sure my family doesn't greet you very often."

There is a sad look in Naruto's eyes, for just a moment, but Hinata does not miss it even when the mask comes back into his place and he becomes a hyperactive, blonde, bundle of joy. "Of course, not. They're not as nice as you Hinata-chan, and not a lot of them eat at Ichiraku Ramen. Actually, I was going to ask if one of them could explain what exactly they did to me." Suddenly, he visibly brightens. "But you can do that!"

She pauses for a moment. "Um . . . I don't want to pry but . . . uh . . . what technique did my clan use?"

"That bastard—" Naruto glances at her with a little guilt and anxiety in his eyes as he abruptly cuts off. "He was nothing to me, of course, but it was something like—sixty four?"

Hinata does not need to think very hard to recall what it must have been; the time has not dulled her memory that far, although there are still wisps of memory concealed -( behind crimson, blood-spattered walls that hold a secret they will not divulge)- in her mind. "Was it . . . Hakke Rokujyuu Yonshou, Naruto-kun?" she asks quietly.

"Yeah! Whatever that is." he exclaims immediately. "Can you check it out on me?"

The Hyuuga heiress nods quickly and turns away, acting her eyes with a single seal. Even now she cannot open the connections with a burst of chakra, but one is better than many, and Hinata is proud enough. But she knows it is still not enough. "Of course. Byakugan!"

She scans in immediately, adding more and more power to zoom in. It almost surprises her that she can actually see the dots of tenketsu rather clearly, instead of mere lights where she suspects them to be.

"Do you see anything?" Naruto asks instantly, eagerly.

There is something not quite right. "Why—" she pauses, asking herself is she really wishes to know. She has heard rumours in her travels, terrible rumours of a bloodthirsty monster that is kept inside a container. It was true of Gaara of the Sand—and Naruto is the first to defeat him in combat. She stutters in an effort to hold back her question. "U-um . . . actually, you'll be fine really soon. But are you using a jutsu now?"

Naruto looks puzzled. "You can see that I'm using chakra right now?"

"I can see," Hinata replies carefully, "but not as well as my cousin. I can't really see past seals at the moment."

She does not miss his sigh of relief, or the hastiness in which he leaves.

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To be continued . . .

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A/N: Please review & give me your thoughts