Five years later…
The Rokudaime Hokage looked down at the babe in his arms, smiling tenderly as she turned to focus luminous blue eyes on her father.
"Kaeru-hime," he whispered in a serious voice. "You're too beautiful. When all the boys are chasing you, your Daddy's going to beat them all to a pulp. If they still keep coming back, I'll use my awesome Hokage powers and have ANBU assassinate them." His soft threats faded with a pale glare from his wife.
"But don't worry," Naruto continued cooing. "If there is a guy out there even close to being worthy of you, Mommy'll seal him and make sure he's all yours."
She glared again.
"But not before you're sixteen."
"Eighteen," the blonde amended with a nervous smile. As much as he loved her, having the new head of the reformed Hyuuga clan as his wife made even Uzumaki Naruto shiver in his Hokage boots.
Yet another glare.
"You're missing the point."
"You're right. Twenty is a bit early. I like thirty."
"Naruto. She's six-months old," Hanabi said with a sigh. She removed her reading glasses and massaged the bridge of her nose.
"Can never prepare too soon," he replied resolutely. She just shook her head. The idiot was famous for being stubborn. Hanabi returned to the letter she'd been reading.
"Kisame sent another scroll. He and Sakura are doing well - they found another lead - though apparently Sasuke keeps bothering them with raven messengers every few hours."
Naruto chuckled as he carried Kaeru over to Hanabi's desk. She gently twirled the babe's downy black hair in between the fingers of her free hand.
"They are searching for Itachi, after all. I wonder when Sasuke'll figure out that I never actually forbade him from the mission when I allowed him to 'monitor the progress'," he mused.
"You'll know when our house is on fire."
"Maybe I should tell him."
"Don't," Hanabi said with a grin. "The damage is worth the show."
Her amusement faded as she returned her eyes to Kisame's letter.
"Should we tell her?" she asked, already knowing the answer. Her sister wouldn't want any news. Hinata had long accepted Itachi's passing, and her anger had died with him. Anything indicating otherwise would only give rise to bad memories.
"No," Hanabi answered for herself. Naruto transferred the gurgling Kaeru to her and she hugged her close. "She's gone through enough."
"Who knew you turned out to be such a big softie," Naruto said softly as he pressed a kiss to her cheek. Hanabi smiled indulgently as she traced a finger along his face.
"Do you want another broken jaw, darling?"
"No," Naruto muttered.
"Good, I'm glad we agree. Now go get Kaeru ready while I finish up my paperwork without the help of your dumb clones."
Naruto dared to press one more, big wet kiss on his wife before running out the door.
Every time, Hinata could only wonder how she made the trip the first time. It was hard journey to Rock, even with far superior chakra reserves and frequent breaks. She couldn't help but feel a small pride for her younger self, even if she had been fueled solely by a fearful hysteria.
She slid to a stop when the roofs of Sir's village crested the horizon and walked the rest of the way in a more sedate pace. Sir's house hadn't changed, except for a new wash of paint on the door. Hinata knocked. The sharp, hollow taps hung in the air for a moment before Sir jerked open the door. Much like his residence, little had changed with Sir, save for a few new lines radiating from his eyes. If he were a little grayer, or sicklier, Hinata couldn't tell with all the dust covering him. His enormous eyes scanned her coolly, and then he stepped back to allow her in.
"How long are you staying this time?" Sir asked brusquely as he put the water to boil. He didn't offer a seat, but Hinata took the familiar liberty of her old futon in the corner. She just as quickly jumped back up with a small frown. Another person's clothes were neatly folded there.
"I had planned a week, but I see that you already have company, Sir"
"A new helper – though to call him that would be too generous," Sir grumbled. He laid out a clumsily-cut tea set and Hinata sighed.
"Sir!" she remonstrated. The old man snarled slightly at her tone.
"I am being truthful, you fluttery little chit!" Hinata chuckled, unperturbed by what was practically a term of endearment from Sir. He changed her name from "Child" to "chit" some years back, though Hinata could still not decide if that was a good thing.
"I was talking about the tea set!" she explained. "That was the first passable thing I made – I've asked you to throw it away years ago."
Sir smirked, and his face contorted into an expression that would make lesser ninja cry. "Why? It is a good reminder that there is ever a need for improvement." The young woman shook her head in defeat and retreated to a different subject. She busied herself with seeping the tea.
"Besides, you used to say the same thing of my help. Coming from you, it's a compliment."
"Arrogance is unbecoming," he snapped.
There was a pause as they sipped from the crude cups. This moment was quickly broken when Sir looked through the window at the angle of the sun and slammed down his cup.
"That idiot! He's been out to the quarry for over two hours now! What is he doing over there – digging out the rock with his teeth?"
The mental image of a man gnawing at the ore was an amusing one, and Hinata bit back a laugh.
"I'll go find him. You keep working," she offered. Temporarily soothed by the suggestion, Sir waved her away as he returned, muttering, back to his project.
"He responds to Halfwit," he tossed to her before Hinata slipped out the door. She just sighed.
Hinata's feet lead her down to the quarry with remembered ease. She admired the wide span of red-rust rock that made up only a small portion of the rich deposit. The sun was setting, and the pink light cast a dream-like glow to the place. This was where...
Hinata ruthlessly squashed any thought of Him. This was where her whole life had shifted to revolve from around Uchiha Itachi. And just as quickly, he had expelled her from his world. Hinata forced away the still dull hurt. Now her world revolved around the new Hyuuga clan and Sir. It was a calm and restful existence – a welcome respite after the events shadowing the earlier half of her life.
A shuffling movement caught her attention.
"Halfwit?" she called, feeling utterly ridiculous. She jumped down to the bottom of the pit. "Are you Halfwit?"
The huddled form was a mess of hair and rags. He grunted, but crouched away from her in fear, clutching something to his chest. One of his arms was missing, and the stub hung awkwardly from his shoulder.
"Do you have the ore?" she asked gently. Sir always did seem to have a soft spot for the broken and lost. Had she looked so pitiful? He grunted and pointed at a basket at his feet.
"Oh, good job. Sir's waiting, so we should go." She reached out and grabbed the basket. "Whew! You've got a big load here. Looks like you've picked some good one too." She started up the steep, rough hewn staircase. Halfwit followed.
"So how did a stray like you come to Sir?" she said conversationally as they walked back. "What is your story?" Hinata turned to look at him and stopped. He looked at her. The basket spilled to the ground, creating a cloud of disturbed dust.
Hinata sat across from him, at the foot of his hospital bed, and stared.
It really was Itachi. He'd been half-starved, but the past three months on a special diet helped fill in the pits in his cheeks. The same dark eyes, sleek features and noble profile. After she took him back to Konoha and they're hacked away the tangled mass of his hair, it could be no one but him.
But this was a shell. His dark eyes didn't have the knowing intelligence, and his face was slack, bereft of the steely control that characterized him.
If Pein was still there, he'd be trying to kill her. If her seals had worked, he'd be Itachi. Not this hollow doll that mimicked the emptiness in her chest. She reached out slowly, and stroked his cheek. He blinked, but didn't look up to meet her eyes.
This hurt more than when Pein controlled him. At least there had been someone in there.
"You must have been lonely," she said softly.
This was the first time Hinata had gathered the courage to sneak in and visit him. There was still one thing, and one thing only, she could think of to try.
"I really am a coward," she muttered. She collected herself with a few breaths and leaned in to embrace him. He just sat there stiffly.
"Itachi." She licked her lips, heart beating nervously. She pressed a quick kiss to his cheek like a prayer and put her mouth up to his ear. "Fly home."
Hinata held his unresponsive form for several moments, letting tears well up in her eyes and trickle down to soak into his hospital gown. The wet spot quickly cooled against her cheek.
"I missed you," she finally let herself whisper too late.
Hinata jumped. She leaned back to look at him with wide eyes. Itachi gave her a faintly disapproving look.
"You took longer than anticipated," he said evenly. "I did not enjoy my time as 'Halfwit'. And I do not appreciate the loss of my dominant arm."
"You...you..." Hinata trembled, caught between a confusing mix of anger and joy. Itachi reached up and pressed her head to his chest with his left hand.
"I have been uncertain of very few things in my life," he finally admitted. "I've always found people easy to read...I'm holding you and yet find myself still unsure." His thumb stroked her hair slowly.
"It's not like you to stall," Hinata finally said softly into his shoulder.
"Indeed it isn't. It is your fault that I seem to behave so erratically. Consider it my first payment."
"Payment?" He sighed.
"Are you going to hide from me again?" Hinata struggled out of his embrace, glaring at him.
"I did not hide from you."
"I wandered all the places we've traveled. All the places that had significance. You should have found me within months, Hinata. Months." He sounded bored, but Hinata knew he was angry and disappointed. She curled up on herself.
"I did not hide from you," she reiterated softly. "I hid from myself. I hid from the hurt and the doubt and the loss. I'm sorry." Itachi made slightly noise of annoyance.
"Stop. You do not need to hide when I've found you." He reached out, almost hesitantly, to take her hand. "Forgive me." She knew even the hidden request was difficult for him. Hinata looked him and realized that the hard casing of her heart was cracking, finally.
She smiled radiantly at him and he kissed her.
It's still just sinking in.
Thank you so much for those who stuck it out with me. It's been a bumpy road, but here it is. The last chapter. I wouldn't have made it so far without the support of you all!