Title: Above Reproach
Pairing(s): Itachi/Hinata, Hinata/?, Hidan/?
Disclaimer: Naruto is the property of Kishimoto Masashi.
Summary: A treatise in the nature of coincidence, or a heartbreaking work of staggering pretentiousness.
Note: Diverts somewhat drastically from recent manga chapters. Unless, that is, you're one of those people who believe hope springs eternal. Holiday wishlist gift for tsubaki-hana.
january the 1st
Setting: A Konoha winter.
Wide-angle shot of luminous snowflakes sweeping the festooned village. We are afforded with a panoramic view of the young Rokudaime Hokage presiding over the New Year Festival in his traditional garb, a gold-lined cloak added for festivity. His bright hair twinkles like aluminum foil in the cold blinding sunlight.
The villagers smile and cheer uproariously, shouting amongst themselves and praising his outstanding leadership, his extraordinary good looks, his gregarious charms…
The Hokage's wife is, as usual, nowhere to be seen.
"Between you and me," whispers one slant-eyed housewife to another, "I think she's a bit of a scared mouse. How undignified."
"Doesn't deign to appear in public, does she? Wouldn't have thought it for one of those dainty Hyuuga. A noble, wouldn't you know? They're born and bred for these sorts of functions."
Catty laughter. "Maybe she was the runt in that particular litter. You know how those old families are with their--" cue portentous pause "--inbreeding."
"What a disgrace to our Hokage-sama. And he so young and personable…"
The snatches of words die away, and the speakers fade out of frame. The parade moves on, leaving the streets slick with slush and dirtied with fallen confetti.
The viewers move on as well, as the scene dissolves and solidifies into an austere office, where the air is tense as lead…
the hokage's wife
the day our house collapsed I went downstream
I followed the swans like I follow my dreams
I was living on borrowed time
in a borrowed house
for a borrowed crime
"Come, Hinata-san. I rather think this has gone on long enough. For months now we have complied with your wishes and tolerated your silence, but the Council has a right to know."
Hinata stares at the pale flakes fluttering against the windowpane, twisting the loose fabric of the oversized robes with her fingers, staining them with violet ink.
Behind her, one of the elders makes a small, irritated noise.
"The village has the right to know the whereabouts of their Hokage," the old man says impatiently. "And as you were the only other person present when…"
"He will return."
The elders look at each other, ten wizened minds resonating a single thought. "Be that as it may, it is our duty to see to the welfare of the village, and if that means…"
"I, too, am only doing what is best for the village," she says, a little more loudly. "And doing what is best now entails preventing a plague of panic from breaking out, should news of the Hokage's absence spread. In solidarity, we are strong, but fear can easily tear us apart. That is what our enemies want."
She stands up tall, screening the tiny voice in the back of her head whispering of respecting your elders, of cowering, down, down, little girl, you are weak, weak. She ignores it. It is easier than she once imagined, to speak authoratively, to keep the stutter out of one's voice, to fight the rising queasiness at the back of one's throat and maintain steady eye-contact. A natural consequence of need-must.
"Or perhaps you are suggesting that Rokudaime-sama is no longer fit for office, that a changeover is what the village truly needs. You think this absenteeism is a sign of weakness, and you question his ability to lead. Am I mistaken, my venerable Council?"
A familiar look of shock flits quickly among the Council members, which falters into cold disapproval. "Hinata-san." There is mild chastise there, and underneath that, layers of guilt. Another power is at work here – that of negative cohesion, for fear, too, can bring people together. "You should know better than to speak so carelessly. It is unwise to make such stipulations. These are troubled times."
There is another insinuation, another question that lingers on the edge of their tongues, yet none of them will ask. They will not question her version of the truth. She was, and is still...
"Forgive me," she shrugs, as if it is that simple. Nothing is ever that simple. "I am not myself these days." Such irony. "I am simply… so tired." For effect, she places one hand on the back of her chair, leans against it as if she were about to collapse, unable to support the negligible weight of her own frame. The weight of the world comes down like an avalanche.
Weakness is strength. One by one, the lined faces of the elders smoothen and arrange themselves into expressions of faint concern. Quiet chattering. One woman says kindly, "Of course. The stress you must be under. I've known you from a child, and you were never a strong girl."
They all agree that there's no harm done. Politely, she dismisses herself, and sweeps to the door, pausing only for an instant to allow the illusion to flicker back into place. She steps into the swirling snow, thinking: not much longer. Just a little more time, that's all she asks for. Just a little more.
She is only doing what is best.
He will come.
dance dance dance
one moment is all you can expect from perfection
He comes on a freezing night in February.
"I have never in my life made a mistake," he announces, clipped and sure. "So when I heard, of course I had to see it for myself."
She turns, stops, and takes it in: the open window, the cold wind raking its fingers across articles of furniture, the dark man standing in her parlor. He is here, at last.
Now the window closes behind him, and she pauses, removing the conical hat from her crown. She stands five foot one before a stranger in cotton underwear and her husband's unbuttoned robes, and she is not afraid. She is shedding further and further layers of herself with these last passing seconds, until the excess baggage is gone and her steps are light. This, too, is necessary.
"I wonder why you would," she says, and there's a chill on her skin she knows has nothing to do with the recent drop in temperature. "The Hokage's residence is one of the most heavily guarded areas in the village."
"Second only to the ANBU headquarters," he nods calmly. He stands while she paces; his stillness inspires fear, her movement mimics that of a butterfly, defiant to be caught and pinned.
"So why take the risk?"
"Some things are worth it."
She gives a smile, making certain it is as slim and precise as her voice. "My husband is quite a remarkable man, I suppose."
He barely quirks a fine brow. "Is?"
"That is what you came to find out, is it not?"
"Hinata-san, please," he brushes impatiently, and she is unsurprised by the implicit disapproval. He is a proud man, innocent of self-doubt. Hinata has known many of those in her lifetime. "Do not insult my intelligence."
"Have I?" she asks, still smiling.
He makes a brisk, dismissive hand gesture, a whirl of long elegant fingers that nevertheless shifts the stagnant air. Larger worlds have been changed for less. "Let us review what happened that day on the mountainside. There were the three of us…"
"Please," she says, raising a silencing hand. "It's not necessary. I recall the details quite clearly."
His eyes narrow, and within the slits it is like a minor conflagration is coming into being, the first hint of flame bursting through inky darkness at a long-awaited dawn. She has waited for this, for him, long enough. She makes to move toward him, and instantly those proud eyes are onto her, suspicious. Well. Well. That is what they are made for, after all, to track, to find…
Hers are prouder still, and what is more, they see through.
"You agree then that you and I both know the truth of the events that came to pass," he is saying, but now there is the taint of uncertainty in his words, and on him it glares out like a vicious boil, giving off the alien stench of palpable disgust.
"I do," she says evenly, still approaching him. Three more steps and they will collide – will he stop her? "And you have an idea that you would like to think is the truth. But you will never know for sure."
The thin eyebrow climbs, delicately and ever-so-slightly. "I was hoping, perhaps, that you would enlighten me."
She laughs a little at that. Two steps. "Will you force it out of me?"
One step, but. She stops. Pauses and tosses her head, and in that proud gesture is an issued challenge. One that he answers, readily, and he comes to her without thinking, closing the distance even as his hand closes around her wrist with force enough to kiss the edge of pain.
She does not grimace. Instead, she raises herself onto her toetips and leans into his face, close enough for her lips to graze his skin, for him for feel her hot breath when she says, "Will you? I will scream, and I do not think that the ANBU are so incompetent that they will fail to hear it. Will you escape this place as easily as you came, I wonder."
He does not speak, nor react in any perceivable sense. His eyes do not falter; they rove over her face searchingly, almost with a hungry light. She feels as though she were being flayed alive, but what does it matter, you cannot see me, you cannot see me unless I allow you to, and if you kill me you will never know, that is my pitch, what shall you do, Uchiha Itachi, what shall you do?
He lets go of her wrist, and she stumbles and nearly loses her footing from the sudden loss of contact. Almost instinctively, he reaches out to steady her, his hand landing on her shoulder blade where the red-and-white robes, now three sizes too big, have slipped. His palm is cold on her bare skin, pressing a little against the angular bones. She shivers, lightly.
A moment only, and then it is gone. He steps back, his expression a veritable slate of granite.
"Perhaps not. But you should never be too careless, Hinata-san. Even ANBU make mistakes. Take it from one who knows."
She closes her eyes, smiles distantly. When she opens them, he will be gone. Absorbing his absence is effortless. Even the room looks undisturbed, not even a fluttering curtain to denote that another has been treading these floors.
He said never. Never is a promise.
The hot rush of victory surging up her throat tastes of bile. With three faltering steps, she lunges for the door handle, misses it, and vomits on the carpet.
there's rue for you, and here's some for me
the water is wide, I cannot get o'er
neither have I wings to fly
In a Shakespearian sense, if all the men of the world could be caught in little jars and categorized by the manner in which they love women, there would only be two kinds in all. The Hamlets among us are, of course, known and well-documented like the psychological predators they are. We concern ourselves today with the second of the species, a man who loves Ophelia as though he were Laertes, wanting to protect her, keep her from harm, protect her innocence.
Inuzuka Kiba, one may suppose, belongs to this second category.
We meet him for the first time, all strapping and gruff, as he shuffles nervously in the powdery half-thawed snow on the front steps of the Hokage's residence. There is a degree of adorable awkwardness as he greets the lady of the house – who is also Kiba's former teammate and, we may surmise, significant princess – and is let into the parlor.
"Thank you so much for coming, Kiba-kun," Hinata says, pouring tea with the kind of delicacy Kiba fondly remembers as formerly associated with her rare but lovely smiles. "I hate to trouble you so, but I honestly don't know if there was anyone else I could have asked."
He frowns, feeling the weight in his heart settle, but like all manly men, has to resort to brushing it aside casually. "Don't mention it."
Well, almost casually. "Of course, it'd be a lot easier on the mind if I knew why I'm doin' all this. You know what I'm sayin', Hinata?"
She smiles then, and he doesn't realize this, but smiles like that are made to disarm. They are particularly effective against overgrown puppies like Kiba. "I'm sure everything will become clear in due time. Someday, when I have the liberty, I should like to tell Kiba-kun all about it over another pot of tea."
As if on cue, Kiba grabs at his cup, nearly crumbling the delicate thing in his manly paw, and gulps the searing liquid down (Inuzuka Kiba! Drinking tea!) like his life depended on it.
"But in the mean time," Hinata continues, pulling out a long envelope, sealed and decorated with the Hokage's signet, "I need to burden you with this favor. This letter must go to the Council, but for certain reasons – you understand – I should probably not be the one to deliver it. I expect certain… difficulties on their part."
Kiba accepts the letter, and true to the nature of this particular treatise, the slip of a thing seems to take every ounce of his considerable strength to support.
"So. This is it, huh? You're really leaving." That last one's not a question. As the wavery quality of his voice indicates, Kiba is rather crap at hiding his emotions.
Hinata nods. "Not immediately, perhaps, but I suppose it must happen very soon. I will not have time to explain when the moment comes, which is why it is critical that you do not deliver my letter until after I have departed."
"But. This is. I mean, I don't know what's going on – and yeah, I've been in the dark all this time anyway, and I do trust you, but. What is it that you're doing?
Hinata doesn't speak, but the line of her lips does thin, and Kiba flinches and wonders to himself exactly when his sweet, gentle friend has learned to look that imperious.
(Probably at some point in between getting married and standing by her husband through the bitterest of wars and subsequently standing in for said husband during a dubious peace, supplies his mind, but men have no trouble suppressing finicky details like those.)
Instead, he asks the question no one in their right mind – and people in unrequited love are rarely in their right mind – would, "It's. It's him, isn't it? You're finally gonna to go him, aren't you?"
Did you know stagnant silences breed lies and deceits?
"Yes," Hinata says measuredly, after a moment.
And that should be that, right? Well. Not exactly.
Unbeknownst to the casual observer, young Kiba is undergoing to a grueling sort of inner conflict, native to goodhearted but ultimately bumbling fictional heroes. Will he allow his deepest, darkest feelings to be vocalized, thereby staying true to his stalwart, ever-honest nature but at the same time revealing his want as the ugly, sniveling creature it is? Or will he salt his wound, wave a casual bye-bye girl and let the woman he loves free to be with the man she loves?
Longtime viewers of the show may recall the infamous sequence in the Chuunin Exam arc where a bowed and disgraced Kiba, as he is being carted out of the battledome, pauses to warn pale, shaking Hinata that, should the random draw pitches her against hatred-blinded Neji, she should withdraw immediately and under no circumstances attempt to stand up for herself in any way.
Following the aforementioned strain of reasoning, the more fanciful among us may trace the connexion between this hopelessly well-meaning advice with the events transpired by Act I, Scene 3 of Hamlet, where an equally well-meaning Laertes warns Ophelia to stay away from the titular hero. In both cases, the chivalrous men are of the opinion that the respective heroines are in danger because they are weak, and thus fear is their best defense.
This is a lot like that, except different.
Behold! The grand tragedy unfolds when our hapless young man bitterly swallows his earnest yearning and settles for a strained but still heartbreakingly well-meaning, "Yeah, well, I really hope you know what you're doin'."
With these clumsy words, he has unwittingly allowed the floodwaves to one day drown them both, and wittingly let his last chance at happiness float by like so much driftwood. Not that Kiba is particularly aware of this; at the moment, he is busy being narcotized by Hinata's grateful smile.
Such that when she produces another sealed envelope with the vague request, "How forgetful of me. Would you mind also delivering this to Haruno-san after I depart? Do apologize to her for me. This letter is quite late in coming, but I fear it shall slip my mind with everything else I must do," it is all he can do to nod and affirm, "As you like it," before taking her leave.
He lets her go, as nobly as a man who loves her should. Isn't unconditional trust cute?
Ophelia must have her Hamlet. Or, failing that, a cold, mossy riverbed.
cold be heart and hand and bone
On the first of March, before the last frost has entirely melted from the iron-hard ground, Itachi returns for her. It is a black-out night in Konoha, and it's like this: she is reading in her bedroom under the flickering light of a kerosene lamp, her foggy breath developing like black and white photographs, when the door opens with a conspicuous absence of sound and a long shadow slashes across the whiteness of the unread page before her.
"I will scream," she warns, turning a page.
"Will you?" he asks, voice free of mockery, and snuffs out the lamp.
In the ensuing darkness, she smiles.
the only engine of survival
those firebirds are coming down on our homes
The scene is set for our next act, and as the backdrop grows into sharp focus, we choke back a surprised gasp.
The Nation was born the Land of Rivers, but as minimal strokes sketch out the scenery, we are immediately aware that such a name is ten years outdated. Instead of rivers, winding streams of toxic black smoke curl across the land, issued from the tall spikes of industrial towers, fearsome giants etched out against the empty spring sky – which, at the time of our visit, is steeped in a brazen shade of chemical orange. Instead of green, rolling hills, we are treated to the sight of barbed wire fences and scary machineries, strange fruits that no tree in nature would bear.
I could go on, but you get the idea.
Within the high, foreboding walls, there are residential complexes, and these alone escape the curse of glass and steel. There are traditional wooden houses, and sprawling courtyards filled with hedges of impressive trees, which nevertheless, in spite of the landscapers' best effort, retain something of the artificial in their gawky, awkward stances.
Standing on the walkway of one of these houses is a tall man, and judging from the dour look etched across his fierce features, he too seems mightily offended by the trees' atrocious lacking. The air is warm and humid, imbued with droplets of moisture that in a gentler land might condense into a cool soothing downpour – in any case, we have no reason to believe the bluish tint of the man's skin to be the fault of the coldness of the weather.
As we zoom in vertiginally, dragged by the force of gravity into the as-yet-unknown troubles of this sour-faced man, three more approach him. Two are of normal statute, but the last towers above the rest, and as if this isn't noticeable enough, he also sports some peculiar headgear. All four men are dressed in flowy, occult black clothes, decorated with strange symbols the likes of which are seldom seen on normal, fashion-conscious people. A fifth man lingers behind a pillar, a little way off, as if lamenting his unfortunate exclusion from the others' conversation.
A familiar sense of thrill begins to flare in the pit of our stomachs. A lifetime education in popular cinema and sensational literature has taught us that a secret(?) gathering of darkly-dressed men can only mean one thing: this is a Fraternity of Mystery, with Strange, Ominous Business, and is likely Up To No Good.
"So, it's true then?" one of the men begins, breaking the stagnant silence. We note that he has nervous, jittery fingers of quite refined shapes, and his frizzy mane is an alarmingly cheerful shade of Blond. "He's really brought back…" A pause, in which the Blond seems to be choking back explosive laughter. "…a woman? A real live woman, with breasts and all the rest?"
Whatever that Strange, Ominous Business is, it evidently involves a woman. The plot thickens.
"Yes," the first man snaps, seeming to grow more irritable by the minute. "I don't see why you lot keep asking me about this, when you all seem know as much about it as I do."
"Well, yeah, but you're his partner, you should know…" begins the Blond, but he is blithely interrupted by another of the group, a man whose short fair hair is slicked back into a dandified fashion reminiscent of beloved, colorful fops. "No good can come of this," Slick-haired Man croaks darkly, fingering a silver necklace from which an obscure and no doubt symbolic pendant hangs. "Something bad is going to happen, you all mark my word. This sort of sinful, degenerate behavior will weaken our ranks…"
"No one is indulging in any sinful, degenerate behavior around here," says the irascible man. "Sure, it's unexpected – and him, of all people – but once the initial shock wears off and we get used to the novelty of the idea, I'm sure that we as a culture can all move on." He pauses, and adds fatalistically, "Or I might be sapped of all will to live, whatever comes first."
The fourth of the group, who so far hasn't made any verbal contribution to this scintillating dialogue (thank goodness, or we might get whiplashes from all the excitement), looks away meaningfully, as though time were money and he just can't understand why this conversation has the gall to take up so much of his.
(You, my audience, may incidentally be wondering the same thing, but I beseech you to have patience and not give in to the frustration incurred by these hopeless theatrics.)
"Maybe it's love!" pipes up the fifth man, who has managed in the span of the conversation to edge closer to the gathered four while we weren't looking. "Maybe Itachi-san's finally succumbed to the bleak prospect presented by our grueling profession, and has chosen to seek out, um, compassionate therapy!"
Ah. Great minds against themselves conspire.
The Blond is again the first to break the uncomfortable silence, but his cheerful expression has somehow lapsed into faintly murderous. "Tobi. Do you remember that conversation we had where I expressly stated that I was going to kill you a lot for stripping the marrow of my soul with your stupid mouth?"
"Not… really, Deidara-sempai," squeaks Tobi, whom we ruefully note is actually quite an endearing fellow, thus elevating his imminent demise to the status of high tragedy.
"Great idea," says the Blo—I mean Deidara. "Let's have it."
"No good will come of this, I said," hisses Slick-haired Man, but the scene is already fading to monochrome and his angry words fall away on a nonexistent wind. We linger just long enough to witness Odd Headgear Man shuffle off without a further word, and the line of Initial Blue Man's shoulders (we also note ruefully that, really, there's got to be a better way to say that) slump a well-accustomed defeat as his expression falters from annoyed to hopeless.
My worthy gentlemen, get ready for the future. It is murder.
interlude: the stranger's tale
I saw the future once, I was drunk
or, handsome religious extremist on the wrath of god
It will be years before we meet one of these characters again. You walk into a dingy roadhouse just like any other on a wet, lonely night, trying not to step in that puddle you aren't really sure isn't piss in the middle of the floor, and slide into the last empty seat at the bar, which just happens to be right next to that pale, slovenly man hunched over in his stool. Out of politeness, you try not to stare, but this is a challenge – what should you instead focus on: the lineup of empty bottles, the disregard with which greasy hair falls over haggard face, or just the way he's trying to either distill himself into pure grain alcohol or disintegrate into drifts of ash?
The way he smells doesn't help much either, does it?
But there's a sliver of a second when the singer on stage chokes back his second drink and the light glances and you catch a glimpse of a once-handsome, aristocratic profile, long, unkempt fingers fumbling around a familiar, now-tarnished silver string, and really, you meet all sorts in roadhouses, but now the recognition is hitting like a bullet train. Your stool makes a loud scraping noise on the dirty floor when you scoot away too quickly; your bar-mate looks up.
It's alright, he doesn't know you.
You do wonder, though, what a man like that is doing in an establishment like this on a blustery night in late December. Surely, he is not in search of entertainment or company of any sort.
Surely, this is desperation.
Perhaps he will tell if you offer to buy his next drink, and in an inspired moment of boldness, you think maybe, just maybe, you can wing this. After all, you've been ranted and pamphleted at on enough street corners to know when to accept the love of various deities into your heart. What's one more fanatic with a bottle?
So you ask him where he came from, and he tells you about the country with the rivers, the rolling farmlands that never were, the industrial spikes that overtook them, the glowing dark, the orange skies. Harmless, harmless words, apropos of nothing. He's quite a conversationalist – a dandy, if you ever saw one, he even slurs culturedly – but you already know all about this.
How is the place doing now, you wonder aloud.
The man turns to you then, his lips arranged in a hint of a smile, or perhaps just what's left of one he's already changed his mind about. It might be, say, something you see before you die.
"Crushed," he says, giggling slightly. "Leveled. Brought tumbling to the ground. Remember the great typhoon in the Year of the Rabbit? Remember the flood? That was it."
You don't say, you remark lightly. The alcohol loosens your tongue, but you can afford to push this. You think.
Your companion tosses back some more of the brainswiller, says, "Ever heard that tatami mats float?"
You shake your head. Never noticed, you suppose.
He shrugs. "Well. Well, they do. Seven of the greatest bastards you'd ever met, caught in their sleep, all died within minutes because of those damned mats. The water rose so fast they were crushed against their own ceilings and drowned. Hell, they probably never even knew what was happening."
He giggles some more. You're beginning to rethink this venture, but seriously, who're you kidding? There is some hypnotic power in that scratchy, ruined voice, and you are all too mortal.
"Some Leader. The most advanced technology in five nations, and he couldn't be bothered to check if the foundation was above sea level," the man continues testily, glaring at the invisible dregs at the bottom of his cup. "I wasn't there, of course. Was out on some flukey business. Not that it would've made any difference. Wouldn't make any difference in the end."
Why is that, you ask, earnestly curious.
The man looks your scrunched-up face up and down, and says, like it's the most natural thing in the world, "Because of the woman."
The woman, you echo experimentally. A second passes. The word doesn't parse.
"Yeah, the woman. The moment she arrived, I knew there was going to be trouble, but did any of those assholes ever listen? Anyway, you'd think they'd have listened afterward – towards the end, I mean. After…"
Tell me more about this woman, you press. For emphasis, you nudge the fresh sake bottle in his direction. Go on.
"What's there to tell?" your new friend mutters vaguely. "The woman… We did everything we could have done to her, and I'm telling you, everything. Everything you could imagine, and maybe a few you wouldn't even dream of imagining. But she never talked."
You nod, like this makes sense, and in some ways, it does. You're becoming used to the way his story skips abruptly, meandering from one lost strain to another like a badly scratched record choking out its famous last words. There's something… charming about it, even. Very modernist. Almost stream-of-consciousness.
"Not that we wanted her to talk," the man goes on hollowly. "She didn't have anything to say that we would have been interested in hearing, you see. No, what we wanted from that woman – it was something else. Looking back now, I'd say we might have gone a little overboard, even for us, but it didn't matter either way because she never opened her mouth, never made a sound, not even a little whimper. This lasted for five days and five nights. And then one day…"
The man pauses, lifts his cup and takes a long swallow, and you wonder what it is that might require that kind of Dutch courage. In a moment, you find out.
"She'd managed to smuggle in a little knife – tiny thing, no more than small a pen-blade – and she'd had it hidden somewhere all that time. I don't know how she did it – you can bet we checked thoroughly." A laugh. "Well, it was the fifth night, and we figured all the beating had taken most of the fire out of her – not that anyone thought there was much to begin with – and well, we were undermanned as it was due to… recent developments. So we thought we'd take a night and leave just one guard at the post, we figured she wasn't going anywhere."
Here, the man stops again, gives an exceedingly nasty smile. It comes naturally, like an old mechanism clicking into place, working his regular features into a grotesque farce of themselves.
"She gutted him through and through, that guard, and he wasn't some incompetent sop either, we didn't have any of those running around the place. When we came back in the morning and found him, he looked like he'd sprouted a second mouth on his neck, three times as wide as his original. By then the woman was gone – had cut the ropes and slipped out somehow. We gave chase, of course, and we figured she couldn't have gone far. She might have had strength enough to kill a man, but she wasn't in any shape to run no marathon, if you know what I mean."
You nod, but the action feels removed somehow, like it's not really you. You're a make-believe bird floating in a make-believe sky, surveying the scene from above as a you-shaped person gapes captivatedly at a stranger in a bar, and what a stranger, too.
"We followed the trail – there was one, to be sure – and we didn't think she could have made it off the grounds, since the compound was all walled in and our security was no slouch. But then we found this little frost-sink hole in the wall that nobody had any idea was there, and it just so happened that the crack was big enough to maybe let through a not so big person, and it just so happened that we had a not so big person on our hands.
"Even then we weren't alarmed, because, hello? We continued to follow the trail, and it was leading to this rocky path. We knew the woman wasn't moving very fast – she was crawling, for one, since the first thing we'd made sure of was to break both her kneecaps. One at a time. She was on her hands and knees – heh – and it showed too, the bits of stone that lined the path were slick with blood. This was winter and the sky was always gloomy and dark then, and the early morning light, it looked like – well, it looked like how human brains might look all mushed up and smeared out on the pavement, like the path was made of all this grayish tissue, laced with blood. You have any idea what that looks like?"
You shake your head fervently, feeling slightly ill. You don't know, and you don't ever want to.
"Well," the man shrugs. "Well, that was what it looked like. This road we were taking – this path – it led down to the river. There were all sorts of rivers running around the place when we first established our domain, but when construction set in they all got dammed up, all but one. It was small, barely more than a stream, and it was all straggly and choked but in the rainy season I guess you could get a pretty fair flow. But this was winter, remember, so there wasn't much water, and what there was of it was frozen solid to the bottom, a thin sheet of black ice thick with pebbles and rotten branches and things like that.
"We came across the woman then. She was standing – she'd managed to pull herself upright somehow – just standing at the edge of the river and looking down at the dead bottom. She had her back to us and we couldn't see the expression on her face, but even from a distance we knew right off the bat something was hideously wrong with this. Just the image of that woman at the edge of the frozen river, her slip of a silhouette stenciled against that pale sky – well, I'd seen a lot of fucked-up shit by then, but it still didn't look right by any stretch.
"We didn't approach her right away, just formed half a circle and waited for her to turn around, and by and by, she did. She turned to face us, slowly at first, then at the last minute something must have shifted in her mind and she just snapped her head around, tossed it back so the matted hair was cleared from her face. Every inch of her body must've been covered with bruises in all shapes and colors, but her face was clear – we'd been saving it, you see, saving the best for last. Her eyes were blank, and I'm telling you, not blank like how you'd normally say someone's eyes are blank, but just that. Empty. No pupils, no irises, like a blindman's eyes. But in that moment, they were smoldering faintly, like there was this pale fire in their depths.
"She didn't say anything, just stared at all of us standing in a semi-circle around her. I didn't realize it immediately, but I was holding my breath, and so were all the others, and I only noticed it when it became clear to me that the air didn't have those white puffy breath-clouds you see on cold days. Isn't that funny? Anyway, we just waited, breath bated, for something to happen, but we didn't know what. Then I saw it. I was the first to see it."
See what, you ask urgently. You haven't yet noticed, but you too are holding your breath, as though all the air has been sucked out of your chest by the carnivorous little vacuum created by the tension.
The man doesn't look at you; his eyes are faraway and glazed over in a strange feverlight. His words, when spoken, are hushed and heavy in the bitter air. "A trickle of blood began to run down from the corner of the woman's lips. It crept downward slowly, halting now and then, and I was staring at it so closely, I couldn't fucking tear my eyes away. Then, when it'd curved over the edge of her chin, the woman opened her mouth and spat something out. It was small and leathery and shapeless; I was standing closest to her and it landed at my feet, splattering blood all over my shoes. I looked down and saw – I'm never going to forget this, not for as long as I live – I saw that the thing was, had been her tongue. She'd bitten her tongue out, so she could be silent to the end.
"When I realized that, I sort of instinctively jumped back, and that made all the others recoil as well. Now blood was streaming generously down the woman's chin – I'd never seen such red blood in my life – and she sort of keeled over sideways and dropped into the deep ravine of the river. But before she fell, there was a second when I'd looked up and caught her eyes briefly – God help me – the look on her face, it stayed with me. It's right here, carved into the back of my eyelids, I see it every time I close my eyes, I can't escape it, can't eat, can't sleep…"
Indeed, his wild eyes are so deeply shadowed the pale irises look like bright shards of glass peeping out from a heap of burnt wreckage. The gaze they serve up pierces just as painfully. You realize that your throat is dry, your mouth a literal desert, and try to swallow. The click is so loud and hollow you think the entire bar must have heard it, but no one turns around. Indeed, not one person in the entire place seems to be paying attention to the two of you. Even the bartender is all the way at the end of the bar, resolutely not looking in your direction. There seems to be a huge berth separating you and your companion from all the other people. You wonder suddenly if the air out there – out beyond this invisible bubble – might have this same thick, heady consistency, like sweet pollen on your tongue. Somehow, you don't think that's the case.
The man digs his tight fists into his cavernous sockets as if to physically force away the terrible image. Then he looks up tiredly, and continues in a trancelike voice, "The sun was coming up over the treetops at that moment, just as she began to waver on her ruined feet. As we locked gaze, this flood of white light washed over the woman from behind and blurred her features; nothing was visible of her face anymore except for the red gaping hole of her empty mouth. I didn't see her fall, because the light was so bright I had to close my eyes against it, and I couldn't be more grateful for it, but it was too late. The moment I'd seen that woman's face, I knew."
As he says this, the man moves slowly towards you. You are peripherally aware of the closing distance, and before you know it, one of his hand has slipped around you, coming to rest on the bare skin at the back of your neck. His skin is neither cold nor warm, soft nor dry; his hand lays on your neck, palming the bone. He has slim, delicate fingers, but they are in no way fragile. Instead, they have the strange, assertive presence native to fingers of veteran Go players, used to pressing around smooth, nimble stones.
What did you know, you ask, but though your lips mime the words perfectly no sound seems to be issuing from your mouth, as though your tongue too has been removed.
"That God had grown tired of us all," the man says softly. His face is so close to yours that his breath shimmers across your skin; it smells of sake, and is neither warm nor cold. "I looked around at the faces of all the others standing next to me, and I could tell by their expressions that they felt it too, deep in their bones, though they lacked the training necessary to articulate that visceral fear into words. God had forsaken this place long ago, and it wouldn't be long until everything else followed. As it turned out, I was right."
His other hand, the left, rises now to level with your face. The silver necklace still hangs from its crook. The pendant wavers in the air for a moment like a pendulum, an incomprehensible metaphor, and as you glance at it, sidelong, the palm moves in to cover your cheek. You want to move, want to jerk away, as though somewhere deep inside you also realize how wrong this is, but something keeps you in your seat.
"May I ask what your name is?" the man says, in a voice barely above a whisper. His face hovers inches before yours, and the vicinity seems to smooth over his features, until all the harshness washes away like a flood of light. A strange peace settles over you like a cool blanket. You begin to feel the sniveling coil of fear within your guts subside; you wonder how it even got there in the first place. Really, there is no need to fear anything, as long as you keep looking at this man's face. It is one of the most beautiful faces you've ever laid eyes on.
In a patient voice, the man again asks for your name. You tell him.
"Well, --, thank you very much for listening to me," he says, and as you open your mouth to reply, he touches his lips to your forehead—his lips small and thin and well-shaped—closes them around your skin in a blessing gesture. As he does so, you seem to feel the waves of your consciousness pulsing through your skin and being sucked into his mouth, with a delicate resonance, like letting go. A dark film comes over your eyes; you are hurtling through space in a slow-motion but headlong, irreversible fall. Vaguely, you're aware of his hand, the one still resting on your neck, exerting pressure on your bones…
But, my dear audience, we are getting ahead of ourselves.
la belle et le bad boy
my young bride
why are your fingers like that
of the hedge in winter
Itachi kisses the nape of her neck, makes love to it like it's the only part of Hinata he can tolerate, like it's the only part that matters.
He's bitten and sucked at that one spot for a long time, and now her skin's raw. Sensitized.
"You bruise easily," he whispers against her neck, and she shivers. He likens his lips to the shape of her little bones like an extremely well-made imitation, which does them no justice because his lips are beautiful, delicate and unsimple and demanding her to keep up.
It is better when he is underneath her, when she can see his face, watch his eyes flicker from ineffable black to equally ineffable red and back again as she grounds down on him with moan-deep, bone-creak movements. Sliding, slipping, hard, slow, their long hair getting in the way. The frail, supple arch of her back, the slick-slide of her tongue on his jaws, these are things she takes notes of, the things he likes, what he doesn't.
True to his breed, she thinks later as the sweat is drying off their skin in the thick, unrelenting dark of an early summer night, he tastes of fire. The kind that consumes. He originally took her here so that he could ply out her secrets, learn the knowledge that his perfectionistic nature dictates he must, but over time that object has fallen away to reveal another, one so unexpected that it is perplexing to the both of them.
For Itachi is obsessed with her, obsessed with her heart, the iron of its blood, its former lightness, the resonating loss that lives inside it now. Mostly, he is obsessed with figuring her out, as though she were a puzzle he has stolen, whose aching wounds betray the places where missing pieces have fallen away, whose jagged edges were formed for someone else's hands and sullenly resist his advances. He is obsessed with capturing her essence, the key to true understanding, and for lack of time he will make up with effort, with his beautiful, demanding mouth.
It wears at her courage to linger on these thoughts, so for the sake of self-preservation, she keeps her mind on other things.
For example, she thinks of her husband, who once told her, laughingly, "Before you, I'd never met a woman who loved me."
She thinks on this often. For most people, it cannot possibly be true. Even Hinata, who was only six years old when her mother passed away, remembers the Lady Hyuuga clearly, in snatches of achingly concise details, her long dark hair, her repertoire of sweet smoky lullabies, the way her hands always smelled of water and herbs, how, on Hanabi's second birthday, she methodically and inexplicably threw herself into the river behind their house.
(And a riverbed is a good place to lie, cool blue sunlight coming down on your face in refracted warmth, water in silky tendrils. Hinata is quietly collecting stones, but you can't build a castle out of pebbles, and the day this house collapses they will lead her way down to the river.)
But her husband is not most people. Her husband is a million things, bright things, beautiful things, but never mundane things, and the memories of them are all burnt into the tips of her fingers. Her husband is a man who grew up untempered by love but somehow wound up with a heart large enough to contain them all. What wouldn't she do if he asked it of her?
Itachi is rather beautiful as well, however, or at least his mouth is, and also, his fingers. They are so long, and so nimble and well-shaped, they have such an innocence to their movement that it bewilders her, makes her turn twice before she sees him for who he is. Left-handed, but wields his weapons with his right. She wonders how he ever first picked up a kunai.
She thinks on this, a whole sequence of thoughts, all smeared out like ink. It sounds like something a sinking ship might say.
"Why don't you speak?" Itachi asks, ghosting his palm along the long warm curve of her body. "Why don't you say anything at all?"
"Because I have nothing to say," she says, eyes still strained straight ahead, gazing at nothing, such a deep, thorough, complete nothing that it hollows her, like the coring of a sea cave, day by day.
Everyone has a mother; the fact that her husband never met his is no fault of hers. Even Uchiha Itachi once had a mother, and she must have loved him. So someone loved him, at some point. Someone sung him to sleep and kissed his scraped knees and told him pretty, pretty lies about the world. But the question is, did his mother still love him toward the end, when things must have become quite clear to her, when her maternal instincts finally could no longer allow her to unsee the truth about her son?
Hinata has no answer to that. How terrible it is, though, to not be loved by one's mother, and she is all too aware of the baffling double standards currently at work but these insidious thoughts find themselves worming into the barricaded territory of her mind anyway. And because of them, she begins to look at the man beside her in a new, somewhat unsettling light.
"Why do you look at me like that?" he asks, half-wondering, half-sleepy. He is not intimidating like this, idle and boneless, cool to the touch and almost soft. His easy body bleaches away the lurking shadow of his hard mind. Unthinkable thoughts.
Hinata turns away, sharply.
She will sleep with this knife in her stomach. Because pity, as pitiless an emotion as it is, is also dangerous, as it can open the floodgates to crueler things.
love in a graceless time
my life is bitter with thy love
Do you believe in the principles of tabula rasa?
This idea postulates in a nutshell that all human beings are born without any innate mental content, and that, like literal blank slates, we are progressively "filled up" by the knowledge and perceived experience we staunchly accumulate through life.
In a cursive quantum leap of logic, it can thus be argued that the core force that governs the threads of our lives, our proactive raison d'etre, is simply: coincidence.
After all, the Rokudaime Hokage was not always the love of Hinata's life.
Outrageous, isn't it?
Imagine this, instead:
It is a day in June.
In the apple-green light behind a large house, a young girl idles beside a well. She looks to be six or seven years old, though the clothing she wears, a long, arduous affair of hot, heavy silk-things, would beg to differ. Inside the house, some sort of commotion is in the process, but the girl pays it no mind, occupied as she is in the act of plopping pebbles down the well. Each hits the bottom with a hollow, brittle sound, like crackling wood.
"It's bone dry," says an impassive-looking boy, who just happens to be passing by on his way home, metal lunchbox in one hand and the other stuffed into the pocket of his oversized flak jacket.
The girl looks up quickly, and down again, as though embarrassed. "I know. I-it used to have water, but then some years ago the flow changed and it just dried up. A-anyway, we don't use w-well water anymore in our house…"
"Do you always stutter when you're nervous?" the boy asks. He sounds almost bored. He sounds like the type of boys who're always almost bored.
The girl blushes. She is rather pretty, and even the colors spread across her pale skin prettily. The boy, who is eleven, tall, dark, and handsome, may or may not be unaffected. What a pretty, pretty pair they make.
The sound of loud chanting drifts across the yard from inside the house, and the boy turns towards it, arching his brows questioningly. "What is going on in there?"
"It's an exorcism ceremony," the girl supplies quietly, her mild eyes growing distant, as though the vacuum of the dry well is sucking in every detail of her bright young energy, pushing her towards premature adulthood with every passing minute. "A Shinto priest is performing it to rid our house of evil spirits."
The boy looks puzzled, and because of it, uncomfortable. "Why?"
"My mother died a few months ago," says the girl matter-of-factly. "And Father said that violent deaths can cause demons to linger at the sites where the deaths took place."
"And a priest can get rid of these demons?" says the boy skeptically.
"That's what Father said."
The boy seems suddenly troubled. "When you said violent deaths, what did you mean, exactly? Like, when people get killed?"
The girl stares at him, wide-eyed, and thrums her fingers thoughtfully on the mossy ledge of the well. "I'm not sure. Why do you ask?"
The boy doesn't answer, just looks away, a dark thought rippling across the smooth skin of his young forehead, where years later, the wrinkles will be formed. The girl observes him closely, and because her family is known for the gift of sight, she is able to see him, see his essence. For this boy is not like any ordinary boy; he is like a well, with a hole in his heart so deep and ravenous that it would wrestle and devour hungrily anything that lies in its path.
But instead of fear, the only thing the girl feels for him is pity.
"It's just, you see," the boy begins stiltedly, looking at his feet. "I killed somebody yesterday."
"You killed somebody?" the girl echoes, her mouth forming a heartbreaking 'o'.
"What of it?" the boy snaps, almost defensively. His dark eyes flare with a sudden childlike fire that, within just a few years, will have been drilled out of him. "I'm a Chuunin, can't you see?"
"I'm sorry," says the girl sincerely. "I… I was just surprised. I shouldn't have said that."
The boy huffs loudly, as if unconvinced. A proud one, this boy.
"Do you think the demons might come to trouble you?" the girl ventures tentatively, careful not to invoke his puerile wrath. She thinks she likes him, in spite of his quick temper, and would rather not make him mad at her again.
The boy, to her surprise, seems to consider this seriously for a moment. Then he shrugs delicately and says, "No. It probably doesn't work anyway. If there are real demons around, what can a priest possibly do to get rid of them? What a bunch of bogus."
Now it's the girl's turn to be alarmed. "Do you… do you mean our house might still be haunted?"
The boy frowns lightly, and contemplates this for a moment. His eyes seem to her like an ocean of thoughts. Then he smiles, just a quirk of the lips, and says with conviction, "Don't worry. Your mother's spirit will protect you, won't she?"
"I… I suppose you're right," says the girl, and for the first time in months, she breaks a true smile. It is a rare beautiful thing, bright and disarming, and will continue to be so for years to come. "You're so smart."
"Thanks," the boy mutters, in the same bored voice that means he's quite used to hearing this. With considerably greater interest, he asks, "What's your name, by the way?"
And just like that, the red threads of Fate cross, and proceed to tangle hopelessly.
"Hinata," the boy repeats, rolling his tongue as if testing the shapes of the syllables against it. "Well, Hinata-chan, it was nice talking to you. I'm very sorry about your mother. I have to go."
"Wait, I don't know…" the girl calls out after him, but he is already gone, faded from view behind the endlessly green wall of trees.
Signals cross. Love gets lost.
The next day, the girl will learn from her Father the identity of her new acquaintance, and the weighty name attached to it. One day, both of them will change from children into people, and all chances at redemption will be lost. The chance meeting will be no more than a memory.
But there are those who insist that there is no coincidence at all, that everything in life happens for a reason, courtesy of either Powers That Be or man's inherent knack for royally fucking things up. That silly Ophelia would have wound up drowning herself anyway even if Hamlet had loved her, or else she would have died in her bridal bed, grey and wasted and sorrowful.
The Rokudaime Hokage did become the love of Hinata's life, and that is that.
In any case, the capacity allowed for by current human sensory perception is at present much too limited to enable objectivity of any sort, and to quote some clever fellow, what does science know of the demons within men and their conquest anyway?
And back in the narrative, all too soon, frost again begins to creep up the windowsill.
january the 1st
The sky is a hazy shade of winter, and there is, she thinks, patient hope in this patient snow. Slowly, she wipes down the long blade before dipping it in rosewater and taking it against her scalp. The light glancing off its slick edge imprints itself onto her eyes, painful as pinpricks.
Two years ago, on a cold mountainside, the sky had the same sorrowful tint, and snow was swirling across its canvas in much of the same waltzing manner, equally blinding and sad. There was snow, too, on the ground, but that snow was tinted a different hue. It was stained with blood.
The man who told her that he had never met a woman who loved him before her, he died that day on the snowswept mountainside.
And for nine months now, she has been sleeping next to his killer.
Funny, how life works out that way.
Placing the lid back on the pot of rouge, Hinata pauses to survey her reflection in the bronze mirror critically. Her hair is swept up in a new, severe style that leaves the soft oval of her face open and vulnerable to inspection. Her skin is still too pale, but the powder will help to hide that, and anyway its pallor makes her painted lips stand out like a red, venomous flower. She knows he will like that. After nine months, she knows altogether too many things.
In a corner of the room, the tea things still lie scattered across the surface of the small table where they have been left, forgotten. She barely spares them a glance.
The necessary supplies were hard to come by in this place, but there is a trader who is allowed into the compound once every week. He doesn't have much to offer in the way of trading, but for a pretty hairpin here, a fragrant pot of powder there, he gave her leaves. They have accumulated, in increments of small doses, month after month. Quite harmless by themselves, and even when prepared properly their mixtures – tasteless and colorless – are nowhere nearly as powerful as the most basic of artificial toxins, but for her purpose, they will suffice.
Through the thin shogi doors, she hears him calling her name. Sliding to her feet, she slips on the new, open-toed slippers. The trimmed lines of grey fur seem somewhat cruel, but cruelty is necessary. Before leaving, however, she sneaks one last look at the mirror, and nods her satisfaction. She is not vain by nature, but this, this is everything. She needs to be beautiful for this.
The door opens to a dazzling winter landscape.
Hinata steps into the courtyard, and immediately her slippers sink into a good two inches of pristine snow. A flurry of pale flakes waltzes around her, eddying in the harrowing wind. She sees Itachi in the middle of the yard, a dark shape silvered against the stark white backdrop. She walks towards him, but stops at a three-step distance.
"Itachi-san," she says quietly, willing him to turn around.
He does. "Hinata-chan, it's you."
She nearly chokes on the sudden lump in her throat, in her chest, because even though she has expected this, has hoped for this, those eyes…
They are the dark, considering eyes of that young, handsome boy, so proud and gentle, who once spoke to her of demons in an apple-green yard with a bone-dry well, once upon a very long time ago. Even his voice is the same.
Take all this, the dark ocean of thoughts, the kind smile, the brave assurance at the edge of a mossy well, the mutual ache of a vague, ineffable longing. Add them to the frail, supple arch of her back, the slick-slide of her tongue on his jaws, the delicate red mouth, the beautiful, childlike fingers, the obsession with capturing each other's essence, the possibility that, when it all comes down to it, there is no coincidence at all.
Now hold the mixture up against the weight of bereavement, the emptiness of loss, the ? number of lost years and ? number of lost chances, the image of a loving couple growing old and handsome and scatty together, the wife smoothing her aged fingers over the years around her husband's twinkling eyes and smiling as a new one kisses the corners of his mouth.
Hold it up, compare it. It should come up inadequate, shouldn't it?
Hinata doesn't know. Not anymore.
"Yes, Itachi-san," she forces herself to speak at last, swallowing the faint tremor that threatens to palsy her. "It's me."
She glances at the ground again as she walks, and what's this, her vision is suddenly blurred. For a moment, she thinks it might be snow-blindness, but no. Her eyes are heavy and hot, bitter with the weight of tears. How did that happen, she wonders. She doesn't stop.
"Yes, Itachi-san," she says softly, and fingers the edge of the knife.
polonaise in winter
snowshoes and hunters
carry the goods in for you
darkness and forest
grant you the longest
face made for porridge and stew