Disclaimer: Dude. No. Just, no.

Title: "Strands" (Oneshot).

Rating: K

Genre: Ah...Angst and...Family?

Pairings: NaruHina (Main)... (slight) implied SasuSaku and NejiTen.

Conditions: Written for a contest, held by the Naruto X Hinata FC on NarutoForums (A Patient Love). Time limit: A couple weeks, but I procrastinated and wrote it in two afternoons. Subject matter (Prompt): Naruto, Hinata, and family.

Review if you would like (but I don't like things I write in less than a week).


"Strands"

--

"Ninety-seven-"

Says a voice, young, eager, ecstatic. Dragging out, as a child will, the syllables of words to prolong the tension and in this particular case, her "turn".

"Ninety-eight-"

The young girl continues. Mildly scarred hands from basic weapons training (the youngest daughter, already handling instruments of death) still possess the gentle, tender fascination of one so innocent.

"Ninety-nine-"

And pompously, dramatically, with an air of undisputed triumph, she places the bristles of the brush at the back of her mother's head and lets them weave amid the dark blue locks, smiling in prudent satisfaction as she combs it through, to the evened tips: "One hundred strokes."

A moment of silence reverberates throughout the room, completing the serene ambience. A girl and her mother, enjoying the existence of nothing and everything in harmony; awaiting, with an almost surreal bout of patience, for her father to cross the threshold. It is about that time of the day again, you see, and it has become somewhat of a habitual thing that they enjoy, together.

When he swings open the door like a child coming home and drops his things upon the floor (because he's never been one to be organized) and his daughter runs to him with eager, open arms. Prudently, he will lift her little feet (she's growing so fast now; there are scars on those too) from the cold wooden floor and swing her in circles because he's just so happy to see her.

In almost unnerving mimicry, he can see his wife's traits in his first child.

"Mother."

The daughter's voice punctuates the peaceful silence, but it is not awkward as one might think; with a welcoming smile and tone, Hinata turns her head slowly to meet her child's gaze. Her daughter does not have much of her father's unique looks, truth be told; her eyes are round and white, her skin, ivory, and of course, the long, straight blue locks that frame her face, so terribly picturesque. She is her mother in all senses...all those, at face value.

The cerulean twinkle so prevalent in her father's eyes is also in hers.

Hinata smiles slightly as her daughter takes a lock of hair in her delicate fingers, turns it over as if it warrants precise and special attention. "Yes, Hitomi?"

Hitomi blinks and blushes, her train of thought wandering away. The little girl takes up the brush again.

"Mother," she repeats, "Your hair..."

Hinata waits as Hitomi gathers her thoughts.

"Has your hair always been so long? And beautiful?" she inquires almost absentmindedly, but the question is wholly important. Regarding the world as a careful, fragile thing, Hitomi treats it as one does the resources it gives. Part of her innocence, a necessary in her charm.

"Not when I was your age," Hinata replies in a warm tone. "At your age, I kept it short."

While Hitomi seems suspect of the answer received, she presses. "Why, though? Did you not like long hair, or prefer it short?"

Hinata turns her head to face the window, the tiniest crease appearing, an almost unnoticeable indent in her forehead, partially obscured by even, dark bangs. Almost as if she's expecting something. "Having short hair just seemed more...practical," she answers, a faint trace of discontent in her voice. She disagrees. "Though now that I have it...I wouldn't cut it." Turning away from the window once more, she half-smiles. "It's definitely grown on me."

"Literally!" Hitomi exclaims, collapsing into giggles at her own clever pun, noticing her mother glance at the window again.

"...I have a mission today."

Albeit quiet, but nevertheless heard, the statement startles Hitomi immensely, and she whispers, "What do you mean?"

Pause.

"Naruto is late."

Imperceptibly, the aura changes. She stares at her mother with fearful eyes, unconsciously weaving her little, inexperienced fingers through dark locks. Clinging. "Mother, don't be so-"

Without warning, the door swings open. A simple glance at her father's face tells Hitomi all she needs to know, understand: It's one of those days.

When she will not be picked up and swung around, held high in her father's strong arms. When her parents will not be as happy around each other, and the tension almost hurts, and he will speak in that low voice that she cannot stand listening to. It's meant to be soothing, but all it means to Hitomi is days without her mother, and days with a sullen man that does not remind her of her father. In looks, yes, but in demeanor, he worries.

Naruto crosses the threshold, footsteps heavy, faltering, hesitant. Walks to his wife and does not address the slight fear in her eyes because it is simply useless. This is normality; welcome to it.

"Hinata," he murmurs, and his embrace he bestows upon her, usually so full of warmth, is needy. Clinging.

She's leaving.

"Tsunade-baa-ch-"

"I know, Naruto."

She touches his face gently, wishing for his obnoxious, wide grin. His boyish smile. It's not there.

"How many days?" Hinata whispers, glancing at Hitomi, who stands stock-still upon the floor, feet turning in ever-so-slightly, hairbrush in hand, but mentally abandoned.

"Two," he mumbles, unusually hesitant. "Two weeks."

Pauses lengthen painfully; something has to break.

"ONE-SAN!" Hitomi cries, clutching the brush close to her chest and sprinting to them, lip trembling. "Please, I don't want–you can't-"

Hinata hushes her child gently, lifting her from the floor and cradling her as if she were fragile, letting her little fingers clutch at her hair.

Safe coming home-

Little angel that cries-

In the blanketed dawn I

See you, you're trudging...

Hesitance.

"It's urgent, Hinata," Naruto presses. Immediately, his young face breaks into a grin, the most he can muster. "Don't worry, though. Baa-chan said it would take less time than that, probably. And it's not a solo mission; you'll all be back safe."

"With whom?" Hinata replies, still hushing her youngest, cheered and uplifted by her husband's boundless hope.

"Tenten and Sakura. They need a medic for this one. It sounded-" Naruto breaks off abruptly, grimacing at the apparent thought. "-It sounds gruesome."

Despite his words, Hinata smiles and gently pries her daughter off, handing her to him. "Stay with your father," she whispers. "I need to dress."

Her gentle footsteps echo across the floor, and as the door shuts, Hitomi whimpers. "I hate this. I hate when she leaves. You hate it, too."

Naruto looks down at his daughter with a sad smile, looking at the hairbrush, still in her hand. "Yeah. But it's got to be done. Someone has to. I wish," he pauses, trailing off almost wistfully. An impossible dream.

"None of them should have to go."


Seconds.

Are fast.

Too fast.

It seems like mere seconds, a whirlwind, in which they reach the front gates and there are shinobi standing there and there is hugging, goodbyes and painful, painful silences.

It happens so often, it seems normal.

Marching to a possible death is never comforting.

She's holding her mother again, arms around her neck and her fingers, her little fingers are woven like braids through her long locks. Clutching. Clinging. Stay. Stay.

Naruto hangs back, observing the goodbyes around him that are almost too calm to be realistic, in his eyes. He never remembers it being so calm. The brunette is already waving away her teammate, though he glances back silently as he walks into town, leaving her at the gates. She insists, every time, that he not watch her leave.

To Naruto's other side, it is different. He watches a childhood friend now grown say goodbye to another of similar status, but it seems to be a bit more painful. Perhaps it is because it took them too long to be together, and the blonde smiles bitterly as he remembers that for them, the world had a tendency of tearing them apart. So many times. They whisper so quietly, and her hands never leave his face; despite all his pride, he has not let her go yet. He finds it so difficult.

In Hinata's gloved he notices a kunai, and carefully, she raises it to her hair-

Hitomi gasps quietly as the strands fall into her gloved palm in a swift flash of metal, and when her mother places them in her little hand and closes her fingers around it, tears seem wholly futile.

Remember me prudent, lest you forget

Remember me dear, and close to your heart.

"I never leave, Hitomi," she whispers, brushing tendrils of blue locks out of her daughter's face. "I always return home, to you and to your father."

Straightening, she glances at the medic that is lowering her intricately painted mask, bespeckled red and white. The dark-haired shinobi has left, at last, though it was no easy task. The brunette patiently waits.

"Be safe," Naruto says, hopeful and bright. The same brightness that keeps those around him, his family, looking to the sun.

She lowers her mask.

And in a flurry of leaves, they are gone with the new day.

Hitomi runs back to her father. He lifts her upon his broad shoulders, and she gazes into the bloody dawn. White eyes are dazzled by the coming of day, and, closing them, she holds the long, dark-blue strands in her palm.

Pressing her lips to them she tosses them to the wind; they tumble and dance, following the path of leaves left by the shinobi's departure...a silent, trailing guardian.

Safe coming, safe trip

Little angel that cries

And my makeshift wishes

Will be leading you home...